“Your 11 o’clock patient is on her way up.” Andy stuck her head in and gave Miranda the information.
“It is two minutes past. Why isn’t she here now?” Miranda swiveled her chair back facing Andy. Dressed in an off-white silk shirt hanging loosely in just the right way over soft grey gabardine slacks, she was the epitome of casual elegance. A rose gold statement necklace hung enticingly where the button-down shirt hinted at her cleavage, something Andy tried hard to disregard, but often failed. Miranda kept her hair in a short, well-coiffed hairdo with voluminous s-shaped bangs. Andy could easily get lost in the way Miranda sometimes brushed the bangs out of her face only to have it bounce back right away.
“Because we’re on the tenth floor and she doesn’t do elevators.” Andy spoke calmly, knowing how impatient her boss could be between patients. For being a psychotherapist, Miranda Priestly was not the most understanding unless she wasn’t sitting face to face with someone during a therapy session.
“She’s taking the stairs?” Raising an eyebrow, Miranda nailed Andy to the floor with her firm glance.
“Oh, for God’s sakes…” Shaking her head, Miranda noted something on her legal pad before turning back to her computer. True to form, she seemed to notice that Andy hadn’t left. “Yes? What else?”
“I’m supposed to remind you of two things. The Met is hosting an Advent party and you are attending in two days. I will collect your dress at Balenciaga on Mercer Street.”
“Okay. Fine,” Miranda said absentmindedly.
“And one more thing,” Andy forged on, tugging at her fingers, a sure tell that she was dreading what she was about to say. Good thing Miranda wasn’t looking directly at her.
“Yes?” Miranda still focused on her computer screen.”
“I’m also supposed to remind you to confirm with your date for the evening.” Blushing profusely now, Andy cursed at her fair skin that gave her emotions away so readily.
“My date.” Blinking, Miranda sat up straight. “What date?”
“You were going to ask either Christian Thompson or James Holt to escort you to the Met Advent ball. You told me this the last week in October.” The last words calm out sounding pained and reluctant. Who in their right mind tried to meddle in Miranda Priestly’s private affairs?
“Oh, God. I have totally blocked that out. I haven’t asked any of them if they’re even available. Well…” Miranda pinched the bridge of her nose and took off her reading glasses. Tapping the frame against her lower lip, she tilted her head and examined Andy. This was not the first time she had done that, but this time, there was something calculating about it. “Call them both and see if either of them can make it.”
Andy gaped. Perhaps just for a fraction of a second, but she felt her jaw sag and she couldn’t believe her ears. “Miranda? You want me to set you up with a date?” This was a nightmare. How the hell would she pull that off?
Miranda gazed at the closed door, feeling puzzled at Andrea’s consternation. What could be so difficult with making a few calls? That was her job. Granted, before Andrea, a lot of silly young girls had gone out of their ways to make Miranda feel she needed a therapist of her own, by displaying such utter ridiculousness and stupidity, it was sheer insanity. At first, Miranda didn’t think Andrea would work out either, but took a chance since the young woman’s grades and education was stellar. It had turned out well. Andrea had been with her for almost ten months and they normally worked very well together. Miranda could count on Andrea to keep the outer office afloat and that made it possible for Miranda to take care of her patients.
“Annika Hansen is here, Miranda,” Andrea said over the intercom, breaking her train of thoughts.
“On my way.” Miranda stood and gave her office a glance, making sure it was the cozy, undisturbed room she wanted for her patients. She found that soothing colors worked well for most, but also that having items of interest and beauty for her patients to focus on while telling her things they found hard to reveal, also helped. She knew some of her methods differed greatly from some of her colleagues’, but it worked for her methods, which was all she cared about. The room was like a reflection of herself. Classy and expensive. The walls were painted a light, dove grey with a special paint that felt like velvet to the touch. The sitting area consisted of a caramel colored sofa group and a set of three little Moroccan tray tables made of brass and dark wood. Bookshelves lined one wall of her office and it held everything from novels to textbooks. She hated binders with a passion and every such document were hosted in a closet in the outer office. Mainly, Miranda preferred to keep digital copies of everything if possible.
Paintings, all originals with abstract motifs only, adorned two walls and the fourth wall mainly consisted of windows. Whisper thin linen curtains covered them, but let the light through. If necessary, Miranda could press a button and darken the room. Some patients found it easier to talk if it wasn’t so light.
Now she opened the door to the outer office and smiled toward a tall blond woman standing next to Andrea’s desk, holding on to her umbrella with white-knuckled hands.
“Annika? I’m Miranda. Welcome.” She extended her hand and wasn’t surprised as Annika Hansen’s grip was as strong as it was cold.
“Hello.” Annika’s voice was sonorous and low. To Miranda’s trained ear when it came to tone and inflictions, this woman had a strong grip of herself. More of a clasp than a mere grip, in fact.
“I’m amazed you aren’t winded at all after climbing ten flights of stairs.” Miranda motioned for Annika to walk into her office and then nodded briefly at Andrea who was busy typing at her computer. “After this session, I’m going out to lunch. I want you to join me.” It was rather entertaining to watch Andrea’s hands slip off the keyboard as if it was doused with oil.
“Join you? Oh. Okay. Sure.” Andrea looked like Miranda had suggested they’d witness a beheading. Curious.
“It wasn’t exactly a question.” Miranda closed the door and returned her focus to Annika.
“Please. Take a seat anywhere you want.” Miranda motioned toward the sofa group.
Annika glanced at the set, but then opted for one of the visitor’s chairs behind Miranda’s desk. So, not a creature of comfort. Well now.
“Do you mind if I record our sessions, Annika?” Miranda held up a small tape recorder. “I assure you only I will ever listen to these. If you at one point want to have them erased, I will do so, no questions asked.”
“Sure. Why not?” Annika looked uncomfortable where she sat in her black jeans, tall boots, and knitted sweater, which she kept cinched in at the waist by a broad leather belt. She slowly put her rustic and chunky over-the-shoulder bag on the floor next to her.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Miranda sat down in her chair on the opposite side as Annika. “Tea, coffee, water, juice?”
“No, thank you. I’m fine.” Sitting straight without her back touching the backrest of the chair, Annika shook her head.
“Very well. Let me know if you change your mind.”
“I will. Now, how does this work, exactly?”
“This first session, I want just for us to get to know each other a little. There really are no rules to abide by, except of course patient-therapist confidentiality. Nothing of what you tell me, or what we discuss, will ever go beyond these walls.”
“Your assistant—Andy? Doesn’t she type out your notes?” Annika frowned.
“Andrea does not have access to any of my tapes or occasional notes. She handles the business side of my office.” Miranda was curious now. What had happened to make this, clearly very private, woman seek her out?
“I see.” Annika relaxed marginally and leaned against the backrest. She was very tall, almost six feet, with long blond hair in an austere, low ponytail. Ice-blue eyes framed by dark-blond eyebrows and black lashes, scrutinized Miranda, and her office, but gave nothing personal away.
“Why don’t you start with the reason you’re here? The symptoms, if you like.”
“I can’t carry out my job anymore. Or, I can force myself sometimes, but a new project is starting in ten days and I need to be able to join the crew with confidence.”
“What do you do for a living?” Miranda wondered if Annika knew how hollow she sounded, and how pained, when she talked about her job.
“I’m the dive leader for a team employed by Janeway Enterprise.”
Miranda nodded. She knew of the famous underwater explorer that had provided the TV audience spectacular films from the bottom of most oceans and big lakes. As far as she knew, Kathryn Janeway lived aboard her research vessel, anchored wherever the wealthy scientist worked at any given moment. Annika’s title was impressive. Not just any diver would be allowed to lead Janeway’s teams into the depth.
“I see,” Miranda said, then waited.
“I’m having great difficulty during underwater training. I can force myself to go through the exercises I’ve developed for pool safety training. When it comes to diving out to sea, I—just can’t. We were out two days ago, just to try out some new gear, but I couldn’t make myself do it. I have also developed severe claustrophobia, hence me walking ten flights of stairs just now.” Speaking matter-of-factly, Annika would have managed to look almost in control, if it hadn’t been for her still tightly locked hands.
“How long has this been going on?” Miranda kept her level glance on Annika, observing every micro expression the rigid-looking woman gave off.
“And do you have any idea what caused these sudden bouts of fear?” Her voice gentle now, careful not to push Annika too much with all the questions, Miranda tilted her head as she regarded her client.
“No. Nothing has happened recently that I deem could be the cause.” Annika stood and began to pace, arms folded over her full breasts. “Janeway is planning a new assignment. Cave diving in New Zealand. Voyager is already there.”
“Excuse me. Voyager?” Miranda thought it sounded familiar.
“Janeway’s science vessel. She’s anchored in Deepwater Cove, expecting the team and me in eight days. We will prep and then the diving and filming commences two days after that.” Stopping in the center of the floor, Annika looked at Miranda with a pained expression. “I have worked for Janeway for three years and never failed her.” Balling her fists, she raised her chin. “You have to help me get over this…this thing!”
Miranda nodded slowly. “If you are prepared to do some hard work with me, I’ll do my best. As you can imagine, I can’t guarantee anything, but I do believe I’m your best shot considering the time constraint.”
Annika seemed to deflate some. Gripping the backrest of the visitor’s chair, she regarded Miranda with obvious torment. This was more than claustrophobia and sudden fear of water, Miranda thought. Such agony suggested something personal.
Annika walked out into the reception area, feeling drained and much more tired after this first session with Miranda than after climbing the ten flights of stairs earlier. This had not been a true session, according to Miranda, but an initial exchange of information. Now she stood in front of the assistant’s desk, gripping her messenger bag with nervous fingers. How she hated feeling this jittery.
The assistant rounded the corner and smiled in a friendly and professional manner when she saw Annika standing there.
“Hello again, Ms. Hansen. I never got a chance to introduce myself earlier. I’m Andy.” She extended her hand and Annika shook it.
“Please. Call me Annika.”
“Of course. Now, let’s see what Miranda has planned.” Andy tapped in a few commands on her computer. “Four sessions, every other day. No problem. Any particular time during the day that suits you better?”
“No. Any time will be fine.” Finding it hard to get the words out since she really didn’t want this, or rather didn’t want to need therapy, Annika watched as Andy took a paper from the printer under the counter.
“Here you go. They’re all just after lunch.”
“Thank you.” Annika didn’t even glance at the paper, but shoved it into her bag before donning her coat.
“If you can’t make it, there’s a number on there you can either call or text any time.” Andy rounded the desk. “Please don’t think me too forward, but I have to ask you something.”
Going rigid, Annika steeled herself for what might come. “Yes?”
“That messenger bag. It’s amazing. Any chance you remember where you bought it? I’m looking for a present for my friend Lily who loves that style.”
Relaxing so quickly, it almost made her dizzy, Annika had to smile. There was something disarming about the warm friendliness radiating from her broad smile and soft, brown eyes. “I bought it at Gear Patrol®. I think it was about 65 dollars.”
“Oh, great. I was worried you’d bout it at one of those shops that nearly take admission at the door, their stuff’s so expensive.” Andy returned Annika’s smile. “Well, take care until two days from now, Annika.”
“You too.” Feeling more settled after the brief small talk, which baffled Annika since that was normally not her thing, she nodded and headed for the door. As she walked down the ten flights of stairs, she sighed inwardly. She was going to get some intense workout going up and down them four times in eight days. Five, counting today, she corrected herself.
As she stepped out on the sidewalk, her cellphone chimed from inside her bag. Checking the display, she saw it was her boss. Instantly, Annika’s abdominal muscles contracted and for a moment, she thought about ignoring the call. But, of course she wouldn’t. “Hello, Kathryn,” she said after accepting the call. “Isn’t it in the middle of the night in New Zealand?”
“Annika! Yes. Around 4.30 am. I’ve been going over charts and trying to reach you for an hour. Was your phone on mute?” Kathryn Janeway, captain of the science vessel Voyager and renowned scientist and explorer spoke in her usual dynamic, albeit friendly, way. “Anyway. I was wondering if you can make it to New Zealand four days earlier? Harry checked the flights and it looks like—”
“No. I can’t.” Annika’s mouth was now so dry, she could hear herself sounding almost slurry. She could barely make to Deep Water Cove in the stipulated eight days. Even if she did, there was a risk she may not be able to dive. Tears stung behind her eyelids and Annika blinked rapidly. “I’m sorry.”
“Wait. Is everything all right? Has something happened?” Kathryn was clearly concerned now and it surprised Annika at how stressed her boss sounded. “You okay, Nikki?”
Blinking at how the unsuspected nickname rolled off Kathryn’s lips with such ease, Annika stepped aside and stood still by a window to a shoe store. “I’m okay. I promise. It’s just that I have things I’ve got to do before I join you. If you need to start making dives to prep for the cave-diving, Icheb knows that procedure as well as I do.”
“All right.” Kathryn sounded unconvinced and not thrilled at all about Annika’s suggestion. “I know Icheb is your protégé when it comes to all things diving, but I won’t let him go down with the team on his own. He’s very young still.”
The idea of Kathryn diving without Annika there to supervise, made her stomach churn. Icheb was skilled enough. And yes, Kathryn was a good diver with a lot of experience. Annika shouldn’t be all stressed out about her boss doing her job. But she was. Praying she wouldn’t have another panic attack, Annika pinched the skin between her thumb and forefinger on her left hand. Slowly, her breathing began to calm down.
“Please, let Icheb take the lead. The experience will be valuable for him.” Annika hoped she sounded professional.
“I will.” Kathryn paused and Annika waited as the seconds ticked by. “It will be nice when you do get here,” Kathryn said in a low voice. “I miss…I mean, Voyager isn’t the same without you here.” She cleared her throat, perhaps embarrassed at the personal words.
“I miss being aboard also.” It was true. Working from Voyager was her dream job. Being around Kathryn daily was equal parts wonderful and bittersweet. “I will call you before I leave New York.” Biting her lower lip at her inadvertent slip, Annika cursed inwardly.
“New York? You’re in New York? I thought you were at your aunt’s hour in Minneapolis.”
“I’ll tell you all about my New York adventure when I get to Deep Water Cove.”
“All right. I’ll hold you to it.” Kathryn seemed reluctant to hang up. “Be safe until you get here. That’s an order.”
“Aye, Captain.” Annika pressed the red symbol and disconnected the call. She would have to tell Kathryn at one point or other what was happening to her. She hated the idea of it with a passion.
Kathryn Janeway kept her gaze on the smartphone screen long after the call to the US was disconnected. Something was up with Annika. She had felt it before she took her ship to Deep Water Cove. The journey took seventeen days starting out from Oakland, California and the weather had been on their side the entire time.
Placing her phone in its holder on her hip, Kathryn walked toward the bridge where her next in command, Chander, was going through their log. She wasn’t in the mood to talk about Annika with the tall, handsome man, as she knew he had once had a crush on the tall, blond beauty. When Annika bluntly told Chander she wasn’t looking for a relationship with anyone, Kathryn’s heart had been torn between feeling relieved and sad. From day one, Kathryn had been puzzled regarding her own feelings for Annika. Her dive leader was aloof, introvert, and professional to a fault. Still, despite this stand-offish approach to people around her, Annika also radiated a raw sexuality and her stark beauty left no one indifferent. For believing she was straight her entire life, Kathryn had questioned this after only knowing Annika a few days.
“Kathryn? You look like someone stole your favorite harpoon.” Chander looked up from the log. Born in India, he and his parents moved to the US when he was only two years old. “Or worse, your thermos of Gevalia coffee.”
“Very funny. I guess I’ve studied the maps and sea charts a little too long each night since we left Oakland. I need to catch up on my sleep.” Taking the captain’s chair, Kathryn shoved her fingers through her unruly, short auburn hair. “What about you?”
“What about me?” Chander raised his eyebrows.
“You took on double shifts quite a few times on this journey. If Tom doesn’t shape up, this will be his last assignment with us.” Kathryn scowled at nobody in particular at the thought of the brilliant third in command. Tom Paris had engaged in poker games with some of his ship mates and broken the no-alcohol rule twice. She was going to have to talk to him before the divers’ training began. Diving was dangerous enough, let alone cave diving, without having unreliable backup aboard Voyager.
“I know. I couldn’t let Harry or Neely work themselves to a pulp. Or you.” Chander winked at Kathryn. “It’ll be great when Annika gets back. You’re always more relaxed when she’s in charge of the divers. Is she coming in a few days or…?” To Kathryn’s relief, Chander merely seemed interested in a friendly sort of way.
“No. She’ll fly out of New York in eight days. I had hoped four days would be enough, but she has something personal she has to deal with in New York, so...” Kathryn shrugged. “She’ll get here when she’s done.”
“New York, huh? Might have something to do with what Icheb said?” Chander rubbed his chin. “He said she was acting a bit strange during their last training sessions just before we left Oakland. Icheb worried she might be sick as he found her hyperventilating at one point. I told him she could have something so benign as the common cold, but he didn’t look convinced.”
Startled, Kathryn stared at Chander. “Why is this the first time I hear of it?”
“Because Icheb told me only last night.” He had mulled it over, second-guessing himself as Annika is the big hero in his life, all categories.”
“God. I’ll have to talk to her too, then. Damn it.” Kathryn rubbed her face.
“You look bushed. Get some more sleep. Nothing happens until nine am anyway.”
“I’m all right. Just…” She yawned discreetly behind her hand. She really was tired. “Perhaps that’s a good idea.”
“Sounds like a great idea to me.” Chander pulled out his walkie-talkie. “Chander to Wildman. All well at the aft section?”
“All is well, sir,” Samantha Wildman, the security guard that had been with Kathryn for five years said calmly. “Not even a seagull in sight.”
“Sound good. Chander out.” Turning to Kathryn, he smiled. “See? All is well. That makes my idea of you getting some shut-eye even better.”
“All right, your smugness. See you at breakfast then.”
“Sleep well.” Chander returned his focus toward the log again as Kathryn walked back through the ship to her quarters. She doubted it would be easy to go to sleep with Annika on her mind.
Andy placed the napkin on her lap and gazed around the luxurious setting of Smith & Wollensky. This was how the other half lived and something she only got to experience via Miranda who had a standing table here and at Pastis.
Miranda sat across from her at the corner table, deeply engrossed the menu, which was rather ridiculous as she always ordered a medium rare stake with a salad on the side. They already had Pellegrino’s in their glasses, which the waitress had poured as soon as they sat down, no questions asked.
“Are you ready to order, ladies?” The waitress, Beatrice, smiled at Andy and gave Miranda a polite nod. As an experienced New York waitress, Beatrice didn’t cower to anyone, but she had served Miranda enough times to keep her distance. Andy thought it was prudent. Her boss could be vicious when she found the other person something of a fool. She didn’t suffer them in silence, that was for sure.
“I’ll have Chicken Alfredo, please.” Andy returned the smile. “Salad on the side. please.”
“And you, ma’am?” Beatrice kept the polite smile going as she turned to Miranda. Andy wondered if the staff had a pool going how long it would take Miranda to switch up her order.
“The New York Cut Sirloin. Salad on the side. And bring us two glasses of that lovely Chateau Giscours I had when I was here with the board of directors two weeks ago.”
Andy watched Beatrice’s eyes glaze over for a second, but then she squared her shoulders. “But of course, Ms. Priestly.” She hurried toward the kitchen. Andy guessed the staff had learned to keep notes of Miranda’s and other demanding guests’ previous orders, likes, and dislikes. Just like Andy had learned the hard way.
“So.” Miranda laced her fingers and leaned her chin on top of them. “Ten months and two weeks. You’re nearing you’re the end of your first year.”
Andy felt her facial capillaries contract and knew she grew pale. “Yes.” And how was it Miranda knew down to the day how long Andy had been her assistant?”
“Since we both know you didn’t escape that small town environment you were brought up in to remain an assistant, I need to know what plans you’re making.” Miranda shifted in her chair, looking oddly ill at ease as she plucked with the silver wear before her.
Oh, shit. Was Miranda all set to bring in a new assistant? Maybe she had already promised someone Andy’s job. “To be honest,” Andy said, trying to sound businesslike even if the back of her throat was closing around her pent-up emotions, “I haven’t actively looked for a position at a newspaper. Not yet. I guess—working for you has made me question if—”
“If you want to remain in New York at all? I’m that bad of an employer?” Miranda raised her right eyebrow as she pushed back her s-shaped bangs with a practiced maneuver. “How dreadful.” The last part was tinged with acidity.
“No. Not like that. At all.” Andy almost stood up. “What I’ve been thinking about is if I want to be a reporter. I might be drawn toward writing fiction instead, but that is not something I can do without carrying on with my day job at the same time.” Andy lowered her gaze to her hands as she tugged at her fingers. “Are you saying I need to find something else when my year is up?” Praying to any deity that would listen, Andy hoped this wasn’t the case.
“What? No! No.” Haven actually raised her voice for a second, something Miranda never did, normally, she quickly returned to her usual low register. “Whatever gave you that idea?” Miranda shook her head. “Of course, I would rather you stayed on as you’ve turned out to be the most capable of my assistants to date. That doesn’t necessarily say all that much since some of the ones parading through my office were atrocious.”
“Hey, that’s almost a compliment,” Andy dared to joke. “I’m above atrocious. Not too shabby.”
Now Miranda rolled her eyes. “Please. Enough with the humor attempts. Naturally, you are not even near atrocious. After your first couple of weeks, you quickly caught on to how I like things done and what I want. If you would consider remaining, I will of course give you an appropriate raise.” She actually smiled. A real smile and not the barracuda-on-the-prowl variety.
Andy was so relieved, she had to feign some coughing to clear her throat. How was it this woman was so mesmerizing? And to a degree that the prospect of not seeing Miranda every day made her tear up? It was insanity. Miranda could never be interested in Andy in the same manner. Sure, Andy had always thought she was straight and even lived with a guy the last year at college and the first three months of her stay in New York. Now, all she could think of was Miranda Priestly and how this amazing woman looked, smelled, sounded, and—oh, God—how she moved. Miranda, who was straight as far as Andy knew, having been married twice, had eleven-year-old twin daughters, and had never looked at Andy in any special way. Andy paused her thoughts and thought back on their conversation. Miranda had looked kind of special at Andy just earlier. First when she thought that Andy was ready to give notice, and then there had been that real smile.
“All right.” Andy wanted to make sure she hadn’t misunderstood. “So, I stay on and get a raise?”
“Pay attention, Andrea. No need repeating every syllable I utter.” Miranda gazed up at Beatrice who arrived with their wine. Miranda tasted it and closed her eyes as she sipped the wine. Opening her eyes, she gazed straight at Andy. “Quite sufficient, actually.” Her blue eyes glittered and her lips were damp from the wine she just sampled.
Beatrice poured of the whine into their glasses and left the table. Andy simply stared at Miranda and the way she looked. ‘Quite sufficient’, huh? What if Miranda wasn’t only talking about the wine.
Now that kind of hoping was setting Andy up for a world of hurt.
Miranda strode back into her office, her mind jumbled with a multitude of thoughts. She disliked feeling this scattered with a passion. Her private life had been calmer than usual since her divorce went through three months ago. Her daughters, Caroline and Cassidy, spent every other week at her townhouse and every other week at their father’s penthouse. James was Miranda’s first husband and she had married late. Thus, she had become a first-time mother at thirty-nine, which was of course quite common in the cutthroat world of making it in New York—and Manhattan.
Now, Miranda felt as if she jumped a hurdle and landed safely on the other side. Andrea was staying on—for now. This was a relief, but it didn’t sit well with Miranda just how relieved she was to not loose Andrea. She was used to go through assistants like a child goes through a bag of candy after Halloween. Now, when Andrea had sat there across the table from Miranda, looking stunning in the muted light of Smith & Wollensky, she had noticed how her heart had pounded when Andrea’s cognac brown eyes looked at her so imploringly. That combined with the shiny, waterfall-like chocolate brown hair made Andrea into the most beautiful woman Miranda had ever seen. Normally more interested in a person’s thoughts and internal struggles, Miranda had long debated why she noticed Andrea’s looks and outfit of the day from the first day and onward. And it wasn’t just Andrea’s looks. It was the way she smelled, a blend of vanilla, citrus, and musk…and sandalwood? Of course, Andrea had other qualities. Some were more annoying than others. That cackling laughter she gave once in a while when talking to people in the outer office. Usually, the person before her would laugh along, no matter how depressed or worried they were. Perhaps it was that fact, rather than the cackle, that bothered her? Miranda stopped before she started psychoanalyzing herself.
The intercom buzzed. “Miranda? Your two o’clock has cancelled, but Annika Hansen is back,” Andrea sound, back to being entirely professional.
Miranda checked the time. It was ten minutes to two. Concerned, she walked to the door. Pushing it open, she saw the tall blond standing by the window, her hands shoved into her coat pockets. “Annika? Come, please.”
Annika turned and the pain her eyes were now so evident, it didn’t take a psychologist to interpret it. “Thank you for seeing me again like this. I—I should’ve called ahead. I suppose I took a chance.”
“And we just had a cancellation. See? It all worked out. Come on.” Miranda turned to Andrea. “Bring us some lemon tea and biscuits.”
Andrea nodded and headed for the kitchenette.
This time, Annika didn’t mind sitting on the couch. She took one of the pillows and held it against her abdomen as she clearly tried to keep her breathing even. Miranda sat down in the armchair angled slightly toward Annika. It was a non-threatening position and she placed the Dictaphone between them to make the fact she was recording their impromptu session obvious.
“I suppose you’re wondering why I’m back here only hours after…” Annika’s voice trailed off. “I mean. I know I have an appointment in two days. It’s just…it won’t work. I’m no fool. I realize therapy is something you commit to for the long haul. I can’t expect miracles to happen in eight days and—I’m in such a need for a miracle right now.”
Miranda nodded slowly. She had expected to be the one who had to break this to Annika and it was a nice change that a patient realized what was doable—or not—when it came to therapy. Miranda knew her reputation for being somewhat of a miracle worker often lead to too high expectations. “Then how can I help you, do you think?”
“I understand that this will sound crazy, but it’s all I can think of. I need you to join me in going to New Zealand. To Deep Water Cove and the Voyager.”
“What?” Miranda never gaped at anything, but this had gotten to be the closest she’d been to look entirely slack-jawed. “Go with you to New Zealand? That’s im—”
“Not impossible. Money is not an issue. I’m quite well of and able to pay you handsomely. Andy as well, if you need to bring your assistant. It’s matter of a three-week assignment.”
“Three weeks.” Miranda’s thoughts whirled through her mind. She had other patients, other engagements. She couldn’t possibly go away for three months. Then there were the girls… Realizing she was contemplating the insane idea, she mentally shook herself. “What could possibly be gained from that?” Tilting her head, she studied Annika closely. This was the first time she had seen any type of animation in the beautiful blond. Her cheeks were flushed and she used her hands to emphasize her words.
“I have done my homework on you, Miranda. Your method of using hypnosis in the field is groundbreaking in many ways, even if hypnosis is an old method in itself. I will need your supervision and I should be able to perform my duty and find out the true reason behind my panic attacks if you come with me. I read on your web site that you and your daughters are avid scuba divers. You can be in the water with me and—”
“Stop. Just stop. I have obligations and other patients.” This was true, but also a bit untrue. Her current patients were people that she had seen for years. Being gone three weeks would not impact their therapy as most of them only saw her every two week, most of them once a month.
“Please. I wouldn’t ask if this wasn’t important. Not only to me, but to my boss, Kathryn Janeway. She’s about to do her first major cave dive, and she will be down there with us. She’s experience, to some degree, but I know she’s counting on me and my assistant, Icheb, to keep all the other divers safe via training and so on. If I can go into one of my panic attacks at any given time, and something happens to Kathryn in the meantime…” Annika’s eyes showed there would not be any coming back from such a catastrophe for her.
“Then why not simply postpone this dive,” Miranda asked, lacing her fingers softly.
Flinging her hands up in air in clear frustration, Annika sighed. “This particular dive has been postponed eight times. Not only that, it’s going to draw in a lot of money, which Kathryn needs to keep her research going. If I fail her now, she’s going to have to start laying off personnel and we are down to a skeleton crew as it is. I’ve…I’ve donated money, as much as I dare for Kathryn not to become suspicious. She would never take money from me directly. I know that. By donating, I can at least help some. I’ve also used the contacts my family has to help, but it only gets us so far.”
Miranda was stunned. There was no other word for how she felt when she regarded the passionate woman as she explained at what lengths she was prepared to go at to keep Kathryn Janeway the captain of the science ship Voyager.
“As you can imagine, this is highly unorthodox and even if I were to accompany you, there are no guarantees that I could help you. First of all, we don’t know how well you respond to hypnosis—or if you will at all.”
“I still have those eight days. We can establish a baseline of sorts at least.” Annika sat calm and collected now, looking much more the professional individual she was. “That way, we at least know that part.”
“Yes. Perhaps.” Miranda tilted her head and studied Annika. She was one of the most stunning women she had ever seen. Only the woman in her outer office were more beautiful in Miranda’s eyes. Was Kathryn Janeway aware of what Annika was prepared to do, and was doing, for her? Was Annika in love with Janeway? Or someone else on the ship whose job might be in jeopardy? “Well. I need to consider your suggestions and talk to my assistant. I’m not making any promises, but I will contact you tomorrow and let you know.”
Annika slumped back against the couch. “Thank you. That’s all I ask. I don’t mean to put any pressure on your, but you are my last chance, as I see it.”
“I’m good at what I do, but I’m hardly the only one in all of the US you can turn to.” Miranda stood when Annika got up from the couch.
“I’m aware of this, but if this should have any chance of working without jeopardizing lives, it needs to be you.”
Standing in the doorway, arms crossed, after saying farewell to Annika, Miranda was so lost in thought, she didn’t notice Andrea until she was well within Miranda’s personal space.
“Miranda? Everything all right?”
“Sure.” Miranda turned her head and couldn’t avoid flinching as she looked into Andrea’s warm eyes. “We have things to discuss that has to do with a potential field trip.” She tilted her head and tapped her lower lip with her index finger. For some unfathomable reason, this often made Andrea blush and now at this proximity, Miranda could actually see how her assistant trembled as she locked her gazed on Miranda’s lips. Interesting.
Smiling her barracuda smile, Miranda nodded. “Hypothetically speaking, Andrea, how would you like to come with me on a three-week paid trip to New Zealand?”
Andy was sure she had begun hallucinating. “Uhm. Wait…what? New Zealand. As in the New Zealand?” She probably looked as stupid as she felt.
Miranda snorted softly, a totally cute sound in Andy’s opinion. “The New Zealand. Yes.” She explained what Annika Hansen wanted them to do. “I have yet to decide as it is very short notice and I’m not at all sure it will work. Nor am I keen on going behind anyone’s back and have other lives dangle in the balance. It’s about diving in caves after all.”
“I have a diver’s certificate, by the way,” Andy said casually. “I used to dive all the time in the great lakes with my brother and his friends. That and waterski.”
“You do.” Miranda looked stunned for a fraction of a second. “With tanks?”
“Sure. I was kind of obsessed as a teenager to outdo my perfect brother. I was fifteen when I got my certificate and I was so proud of it. I made a point of keeping it current as we still dive in the summer whenever I have a chance to go camping with them by the lakes. Not as often now as—oh sorry, I’m rambling.” Andy felt her cheeks grow warm. What was it about Miranda that made it impossible for her to keep her mouth shut and not bore the woman to tears. But now when she studied Miranda’s expression, she saw avid interest and it warmed her. Perhaps Miranda didn’t think she was a complete nitwit. And why would Miranda even consider bringing Andy along on such a long trip if she easily bored her? That type of reasoning strengthened Andy’s self-confidence.
“This is useful information,” Miranda said. “I’m going to call Annika Hansen this evening, because I have quite a few ultimatums and rules that I need to make clear if we go forward with this. If she understands, you will need to clear my schedule for the next couple of weeks. I’ll let you know later.”
“Okay. Thanks.” Andy groaned inwardly. To call all of Miranda’s upcoming patients and reschedule them…not something she looked forward to. Some of Miranda’s long term patients were not easy to deal with under the best of terms. She knew they would feel slighted at being moved to a later date—and blame her about it.
“Now, onto another matter. I haven’t performed hypnosis in a while. Would you be interested in a session? Have you ever been hypnotized?” She eyed Andy with a calculating expression.
“No. Never.” Andy wasn’t so sure she was keen on letting Miranda into her subconscious mind.
“When the last of my afternoon appointments are take care of, would you do me the favor of attempting a session? It would be very quick. A few questions about mundane things, that’s all.” Tilting her head, Miranda looked at Andy in that way she found so irresistible.
“Do you promise not to ask me anything embarrassing?” Andy made it sound like a joke, but she was serious. “I don’t want to rattle on and on about something I’d rather forget.” She looked at Miranda through her eyelashes. “You know?”
“A common fear, feeling awkward about revealing something deep within. I won’t pry into your personal life, Andrea. You have my word.” Extending her hand, Miranda nodded at Andy to shake it.
Carefully, Andy took Miranda’s elegant hand in hers. She had shaken hand with Miranda only once before—when she was hired ten months ago—and now she reveled in the soft skin and firm grip. “All right, Miranda. I’ll be your Guinea pig.”
Miranda made a wry face at the term. “Thank you.”
Gaping now, Andy registered the appreciative words, so rarely coming from Miranda’s lips, and the fact that Miranda still was holding her hand. A moment later, Miranda let go and returned to her office.
Andy staggered off to her desk and tried to understand what she had agreed to. Also, she needed to prepare the list of patients to call just in case they were going with Annika Hansen to New Zealand in a week. Working on autopilot, Andy could only think of the fact that she would be under Miranda’s control later in the day. Why…why had she agreed to that?
It was bound to backfire.
Kathryn felt, more than heard, her cell phone ring. Glancing at the screen, her heart fluttered painfully for a moment before resuming its normal steady beat. Annika.
“Hey. Calling me again so soon?” Feeling ridiculous for the forced lightness in her tone, but Voyager was truly not the same without Annika. When had she become so all-important not only as a dive leader, but by her mere presence. She was aloof and rarely smiled, probably because she was an introvert and found small talk awkward. Whenever they had attended social events, Annika tended to avoid anyone she didn’t know previously, and more than once, Kathryn had had to save her from persistent men who seemed intent on not taking no for an answer. No doubt, Annika could have broken them in two if they had been too hands-on, but as she was also set on not embarrassing her boss by creating a scene.
The first time that happened, Kathryn had spotted Annika backing away from a young man who had, clearly inebriated, tried to kiss her neck. Having observed Annika take down a man at a local restaurant in Greek archipelago only a month before, it astounded Kathryn that Annika showed such restraint at the banquette. However, angered and slightly tipsy herself, Kathryn had yanked the man back from Annika and growled something so foul and menacing in his ear, he slithered away very fast.
“Kathryn?” Annika’s voice broke through Kathryn’s reverie. “Did I lose you?”
“No. Not at all. I’m here.” But you’re not and it’s horrible.
“I…I’m bringing two, well, guests when I arrive to New Zealand. I require them to stay aboard Voyager. Are any of the guest quarters available?” Annika sounded tense.
“Guests?” Clenching her fist, Kathryn blinked. “Family?”
“No. Someone I need to be there with me. I promise I’ll explain everything when we get there. I just can’t over the phone.” Annika gave a trembling sigh. “Please, Kathryn? It’s terribly important.”
Kathryn’s thoughts were so jumbled, she had to count to three before she tried to sort them. Who was this person she needed so badly? A man? A woman? A…lover? “One of our guest quarters are available. I hope these two friends of yours don’t mind sharing.” Fully aware her answer was curt, Kathryn tried to mellow her tone. “If you need them to be here, for whatever reason, that’s good enough for me.”
An even deeper sigh proved how important this was to Annika. Kathryn yearned to be in the same room as the beautiful woman. Hear her voice in person, see her features, the blue eyes, the full, luscious lips…and then there were the ill-advised ideas of what Kathryn would like to do with those lips and everything below them. Annika had the most beautiful, sexy body. Tall and lanky, wiry and curvaceous. It was little wonder men hit on her as soon as she showed herself. Kathryn had gone through life thinking she was straight and actually been engaged to a man at one point. Now, her mouth dried up when she thought of kissing Annika, and watered at the idea of her stunning body.
“Thank you, Kathryn,” Annika said quietly. “I do need them and I think when I explain, you’ll realize this unusual request is all for your benefit. I promise.”
What? Kathryn frowned and rose from her chair on the bridge. “For my benefit?” That didn’t make sense. Or, at least, it was a huge mystery. “You are okay, aren’t you?”
A pause so brief, it was easy to miss, then Annika replied in her fake casual tone. “Of course.”
“Oh, Annika. Just get here. Bring a football team if you like, as long as you get here soon.” Kathryn didn’t care one bit if she sounded needy. So what? She needed Annika like she needed oxygen. One day Kathryn hoped she may become brave enough to share with Annika how important she was to her.
“I will, Kathryn,” Annika whispered and Kathryn could have sworn there was tears in her voice. “I—I miss you also.”
Jesus. Kathryn trembled and almost drop the phone. “We’ll talk every day until you get here, okay?”
As they disconnected, Kathryn covered her eyes with her free hand, clutching the cell with the other. What the hell was going on? What had Annika gotten herself into?
Miranda stood next to the chair opposite the recliner where Andrea had just sat down. Her assistant looked nervous, which brought back memories of how the young woman had seemed when she was new as Miranda’s assistant. Somehow this irked Miranda and she was just about to tell Andrea she didn’t have to do this. It was hardly in her contract to succumb to any type of procedure after all, when Andrea suddenly smiled broadly.
“Now, don’t hold it against me if I offer up any embarrassing family secrets,” Andrea said.
Relaxing enough to sit down, Miranda returned the smile. “Oh, but I will of course take copious notes for future reference. Who knows when that might come in handy?” She winked at Andrea, whose eyes grew wide. “I’m joking, dear.”
Andrea gasped. Perhaps it was the term of slight endearment? Miranda inwardly kicked herself. She had to be more careful than this.
“All right.” Miranda rolled her chair forward, still facing Andrea, but now sitting so their armrests were parallel. “Now. I want to make this clear. This is not a true session. Regard this as hypnosis exercises.”
Andrea blinked and then smile. “I see. We’re greasing the old cogs and wheels, huh?”
Fighting to not roll her eyes, or to smile to indulgently, Miranda merely nodded. “Per se.” She demonstrated what she wanted Andrea to do by lacing her fingers together. Then she raised her index fingers and pointed them straight up. “Do like this and focus on your hands and my voice. That’s it. Look at your index fingers and the gap between them Watch how they’re eager to draw together. The gap grows smaller and smaller the more you fight them. Study the gap and try with all of your strength to widen the gap. Still, the harder you try to pull them apart, the smaller the gap appears. Eventually you will almost fuse the fingertips together and it will be impossible to separate them.” Miranda’s kept her voice low but not monotonous. She kept an eye on Andrea’s face and her hands. At first, there was no visible decrease of the gap between Andrea’s fingers. She clearly wasn’t going to please Miranda just because she was her boss. Still, the fingertips slowly pressed together and Miranda had to admit she wasn’t very surprised that Andrea was quite susceptible to hypnosis.
“All right,” Miranda continued. “I’m very pleased with you, Andrea. When I count backward and reach zero, you will find you have total control of your hands again. Six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.” Miranda watched Andrea snap her eyes up to meet her own.
“That was insane,” Andrea gushed. “I was not going to pretend it worked if it didn’t, but—it did. I truly tried to part my fingers. What are you? A sorceress?”
Miranda had to chuckle. “No. I suppose we’re a good match, that’s all.”
“Wait…what?” Andrea’s mouth described a perfect ‘o’.”
“I mean, from a hypnotizing point of view.” Hating she felt she had to explain, Miranda’s cheeks warmed.
“Ah. Yes. Of course.” Andrea blushed as well. “So, is that your way of telling me I’m easy in a very polite way?”
Guffawing, Miranda leaned back into the backrest. “Oh, my. Yes, I suppose so.”
“Okay. Any other exercises while we’re at it?” Andrea was still flustered, but looked calm and interested. Miranda was charmed by Andrea’s interest as she had not anticipated it at all.
“We can do the ‘bucket and balloon’ exercise.” Miranda took Andrea’s hands and placed the left palm up and the right palm down. “Close your eyes. That’s it.Imagine the left hand having the handle of a bucket hanging across your wrist. The bucket is full of water, wanting to drag your arm and hand down. The more you struggle to keep it level to your right hand, the heavier it becomes. You hold on for dear life, but your hand and arm goes lower and lower with the bucket. At the same time, your right hand is covering a helium balloon that is rising to the ceiling no matter how you try to push it down. You push at the forceful balloon, really try to hold it level with your left hand, but it still soars toward the ceiling, pushing your right hand and arm upward.” Miranda kept saying the words with her mellow, yet insistent voice and took the chance to study Andrea as the young woman’s hands slowly parted, the left lowering and the right rising.
Andrea’s cheeks weren’t flushed anymore. She was focused, that much was obvious, but she also looked relaxed and comfortable, which was amazing as this was her first time experiencing such a level of susceptibility.
“I’m going to count backward from six to zero again and when I reach zero, I’ll snap my fingers and you will open your eyes and speak the first words that come to mind.” Miranda wasn’t entirely certain why she added the suggestions that Andrea share what was on her mind. “Six, five, four, three, two, one, zero.” She snapped her fingers next to Andrea’s right ear.
Andrea’s cognac colored eyes opened and she looked right at Miranda. “A kiss. Just one kiss, so I’d know.”
Andy watched Miranda’s eyes grew wide. It took her mind a little while to scramble and catch up with what she just said to her boss. Something…something about a…kiss? “Oh, my God.” Gripping the armrests of the recliner, Andy pressed her legs down to fold in the leg rest. She sat up, looking around the room as she couldn’t quite remember where the escape route was…e.g. the door.
“Andrea?” Miranda placed a hand on top of Andy’s. “Calm down. Just—calm down.”
“But—why…why would I say that? Just like that? I was holding down the fucking balloon and then…then…”
“And then I brought you back from the feeling of holding a bucket and a balloon.” Miranda spoke with her usual measured tone and she seemed unfazed about Andy’s embarrassing, not to mention inappropriate, words.
“But why would I blurt something like that out? I thought you couldn’t make someone do something they didn’t want to with hypnosis.” Angry now, Andy glared at Miranda.
“You generally can’t. I have to say you are one of the most susceptible people I’ve ever done these exercises with. Makes me wonder what would happen if I sent you deep into—a”
“No. Not a chance. Uh-uh.” Andy wanted to get up, but her legs felt funny. Were they still hypnotized? Could you even hypnotize individual body parts?
“Of course not. As for what you said while on the border between the exercise and normal focus, it’s quite possible you have entertained some fantasies that surfaced just in time to—”
“Embarrass me. And you! Oh, God. I’m sorry for even agreeing to this.” Clasping her forehead, Andy slid forward on the chair, determined to make her legs cooperate. “It’s getting late—”
“And you are a bit unsteady. Let me assist you.” Standing up, Miranda extended both hands. “After all, we cannot have you fall and break your neck.”
Reluctant, Andy allowed Miranda to pull her out of the recliner. It went better than she thought and she knew she should let go of Miranda’s hand, but she wanted to feel the silky-smooth skin under hers for just a moment longer. “Thank you.”
“No. Thank you.” Miranda placed her other hand at the small of Andy’s back. “Did you find your bearings now?”
“Yes.” Andy let go of Miranda’s hand, but was acutely aware of the one on her back. It literally should scorch a hold in her shirt where it pressed against her.
Miranda opened her mouth to say something, hesitated, which was totally out of character, and then closed it again. She raised her free hand and pushed a lock of unruly hair from Andy’s face.
Andy gasped softly. What was going on? Had Miranda hypnotized both of them? No, that could hardly be done. How silly. Still, for Miranda to look at her with such—well, if she didn’t know better, she would read that as hunger.
“You’re a peculiar woman,” Miranda murmured. “Every time I think I have you figured out, you do, or say, something to throw me off.”
“I wasn’t aware I spoke aloud.” Andy cringed. Was Miranda going to fire her now?
“I know. Though, hypnosis brings you to clarity of mind well with some, and I would say, removes the filter which most of us use.”
“Oh, God.” Andy whimpered and knew there was no way out of this. Miranda was brilliant and, but brilliance wasn’t required to figure out that Andy had daydreamed of kissing Miranda Priestly…and on several occasions. Sometimes, nightly dreams had gone much further, leaving Andy a hot mess on the verge of a mind-blowing orgasm.
“Don’t panic.” Miranda patted Andy’s shoulder. “I’m not going to hold anything you said against you. I realize that tapping into a person’s subconscious, however brief, can stir things. Had I known how sensitive you truly are, how responsive…I should’ve been more cautious.”
Andy knew this was Miranda’s way of dismissing Andy’s words when coming out of the ‘balloon and bucket’ thing. She still kept her chin up, not about to let on how deeply the dismissal cut. “Hey. No big deal, right?” Andy felt her smile wobble, but remained casual.
“Everything about you is a ‘big deal’,” Miranda said. Her voice was low, just above a whisper; perhaps she tried to put less emphasis on what she said that way. “Don’t sell yourself, or your words, short.”
Andy blinked repeatedly and then pinched her thigh, thinking she may be even deeper hypnosis than she thought. The pinch cleared that up, the pain made her wince. “What do you mean, exactly?” Andy knew she was bordering on certifiable right now. Miranda strongly disliked questions. That was what her previous assistant had told Andy when she showed her the ropes. “If there is something you don’t understand or don’t know—do not ask Miranda. Google it. Ask a friend. Even call me, if you really need to, but don’t bother her with questions. She’ll take your head off.” Well, tough. There was no way for Andy to google this, or call Emily and ask her. This was the ultimate exception to the ‘do-not-bother-Miranda-with-questions’ rule.
Miranda frowned, but not in an annoyed way. More in a ‘damn it, I’m caught and I don’t know what to say’ way. “Very well. What I mean is, don’t panic about what you said after the exercise. I wasn’t offended, far from it.” With that, she yanked her hand away from the small of Andy’s back and rounded her desk. “You’re off the clock. By the way, who is escorting me tomorrow night?”
“Uhm. Christian Thompson will get back to me tonight or tomorrow morning. James Holt is going with someone named Jaqueline Follet.” Andy was relieved to resume her assistant role and finally able to breathe. Still part of her was mulling over the ‘I wasn’t offended, far from it’ comment from Miranda.
“That’s cutting it close.” Miranda held up her hand. “I know, I know. I procrastinated.” She tapped her lower lip. “What are you doing tomorrow evening?” She eyed Andy with narrowing eyes, her head tilted to the left.
“What? Me? Er…nothing. Laundry, I suppose.”
“Do your laundry tonight. Go to my friend Nigel Kipling at Vogue and have him find a dress for you. You’re a size four, right?”
“Size four? Uh. Yes.” The room span. “Are you saying…I…eh do you mean…”
“Oh, do keep up, Andrea.” Miranda gave her barracuda smile, but her eyes glittered with what looked like mischief. “You’re going to the Met Advent Ball as my plus-one.”
Annika paced back and forth through her hotel room. Being quite wealthy, she still rarely stayed at luxurious hotel. She found three-star hotel completely adequate when she was forced to leave either her house in Oakland, or her quarters aboard Voyager. She had quickly found she loved living aboard the impressive science ship, surrounded by colleagues and scientists. For her it was the perfect world and now she feared she may lose it. What was even worse, by far, was the risk of never working with Kathryn Janeway…of not being in her vicinity on a daily basis. Being here in New York—literally on the other side of the world from the woman she cared so deeply for and admired so much—was painful.
The well-known Skype tone made her jump. She saw it was Kathryn pinging her and as much as she did miss her, Annika was worried about a video conference. Of course, she would never willingly ignore Kathryn. She tapped answer on the touch screen of her 17” laptop and sat down in front of it.
Kathryn came into view, smiling broadly. “Annika, there you are—wait…you look pale. Or is it the lighting?”
“Probably the lighting. I’m in my hotel room.”
“I see.” Kathryn frowned slightly. “Is there any way you can please share with me why you’re there?” Supporting her chin in her hand, Kathryn sat in a very familiar position. Behind her, Annika recognized the wall above Kathryn’s bed in her quarters. As captain and chief marine geologist, Kathryn held the biggest quarters, consisting also of a small kitchenette and an en-suite bathroom. All the other quarters were nice, but they shared the ten common bathrooms with each other.
“I’m seeing a…a specialist.” Not sure how to tell Kathryn the truth without upsetting or worrying her, Annika scrutinized Kathryn’s face as she felt her way forward.
“What kind of specialist?” Kathryn drew a deep breath and Annika realized being too obtuse was actually worse.
“A psychotherapist.” Annika cleared her voice. “I’m going through some things and you know I hate to let anything fester. I’d rather just face it head on.”
“What’s happened? Oh, God.” Kathryn paled enough for it to show up on Skype. “Has something happened to you? Have you been, you know, attacked?”
Appalled at how badly she was explaining herself to Kathryn, Annika hurried to reassure her. She had hoped to wait and explain until she reached New Zealand, but that was not possible. It never was, she realized. The mere idea was unprofessional—not to mention, dangerous. “No, not at all. Nothing like that. I’ve had issues during training, Kathryn. I get claustrophobic and panic attacks in the water. I don’t feel safe as your dive leader. I had hoped to discover the root of the problem before I fly to New Zealand, but that’s not very likely.” Dragging her hand through her hair, for once loose around her shoulders, Annika sighed. “I’m going to try hypnosis as part of the therapy. My therapist is considering my request she accompany me, along with her assistant. They are the ones I need the guest quarters for. If it is still all right now that you know?” Annika lowered her gaze and brushed away a few specs of dust from her keyboard.
“Is this why you’ve been so—unusually aloof?” Kathryn asked noncommittally.
“I suppose so, yes. I really wanted to fix the problem without worrying you. I know how much your company relies on this particular exploration, not to mention the film we’re supposed to shoot. I hate to be the one jeopardizing everything.” Schooling her features, Annika still couldn’t avoid a trembling breath from betraying her emotional state.
“You’re doing nothing of the sort. Yes, I depend on you for our divers, but when something happens that is beyond your control, you’re not to blame. Whether it is a broken leg, or…something else.” Kathryn leaned in closer. “And just to be clear. I will not have you endanger yourself. If you cannot dive, you will assist me in instructing Icheb and the others.”
Annika tried to fathom that her fears of letting Kathryn down didn’t seem to faze her boss at all. “But, this is such an important exploration. The film is going to pay for years of research and equipment we’ve needed for years and—”
“And that will still happen.” Sounding stern now, Kathryn pressed her lips to a fine line. “You are not expendable by any means, but there are more than one way to go about this mission. And you know my motto. Safety first. There are no films or explorations that are more important than any of my crew. When it comes to you, that’s an understatement. I can’t have anything bad happen to you. It—it would break my heart.” Pushing back from the table, Kathryn was now away from the web camera, but Annika could still hear her move inside her quarters.
“Kathryn?” Annika’s heart fluttered at what Kathryn had just uttered with such emphasis.
“I’m here. Just getting another coffee.” Kathryn returned to her chair, looking slightly flustered. Her blue-grey eyes were bluer than usual. “So, where were we?”
Annika swallowed. “You said if anything happened to me…” She couldn’t go on, couldn’t say the impossible words.
“Yes. That’s not even thinkable.” There was hardened steel in Kathryn’s voice.
“All right.” Clearly, Kathryn wasn’t going to repeat the part about how her heart would be affected. “Just to be clear. If Miranda Priestly and her assistant, Andy, decide they can come with me, is that still all right?”
“Absolutely. And did you say Miranda Priestly?” Kathryn looked stunned. “I’ve actually read a couple of her books. She’s your therapist?”
“Yes. I wanted the best because of the time constraint.” Annika shrugged self-consciously.
“Miranda Priestly doesn’t come cheap,” Kathryn said slowly. “And to have her undivided attention for two-three weeks…that must cost a fortune.” She shook her head slowly. “Annika, I’m not trying to pry into your private finances. Truly. I know I pay you well, but not that well.”
“I can afford it. Miranda’s fees will come out of my pocket. I don’t expect you to—”
“That’s not what I mean.” Rubbing her left temple, Kathryn sighed. “I’m not even sure what I mean.”
“Kathryn, I’ll be joining you in a week. We can talk more when we’re on the same continent.” By then, Annika may have come up with a good explanation for where her money did come from.
“I’ll make sure I’m very busy in the meantime,” Kathryn said, a half-smile gracing her lips. “A week can seem terribly long when one is waiting…I think your absence is getting to me. The rest of the crew are making up excuses not to work where I am. I might be just a tad cranky.”
“My absence affects your mood?” Annika knew she sounded just as incredulous as she felt.
“Well. What can I say? You’re irreplaceable. And I worry about you.”
Annika thought fast, but found herself incapable of drawing conclusions from Kathryn’s words. “I worry about you too,” she managed, tucking her hair behind her ears. “You can be quite reckless at times.”
“Reckless? Me? I never knew you thought of me that way?
Annika gasped softly. If Kathryn had any idea of how she sometimes thought of her, imagining them together in very different settings than as boss and employee, she’d no doubt find it appalling. Those daydreams were sometimes so vivid, Annika blushed as her mind barely nudged as it passed the forbidden scenes that could start replaying at the most inappropriate of times. “I do. And in many other ways.” God. Was it because Kathryn had spoken far too candidly earlier that Annika’s own filter was malfunctioning?
“I…I wish to know about those other ways,” Kathryn said, not making eye contact, her voice a throaty rumble.
No. Not now. Not yet. “I’m sorry. I need to go now. I’ll text you…or Skype you…tomorrow.” Trembling, Annika pulled her lower lip in between her teeth.
Kathryn covered her mouth with her three middle finger tips of her left hand, her eyes wide. “Oh. Yes. Of course. All right. Tomorrow.” She raised her free hand in a short wave and the screen went back to displaying her short contact list.
“Oh, my…” Annika closed her eyes and leaned back in the chair. “What the hell am I doing?”
And, to be blunt, what was Kathryn up to, acting so up front all of a sudden?
Miranda stood before the full-length mirror in her bedroom, adjusting the lace shawl she wore around her shoulders. The dress, a Balenciaga with black and silver lace flowers against black satin, billowed out just beneath her hips. Black Prada heels perfected the ensemble along with a black pearl decorated clutch. The lace shawl was see-through enough to make her skin barely show, which she knew was sexier than if she had gone without.
Wondering what Andrea was wearing. Nigel had promised to make her assistant look appropriate for a Met event. Normally, Andrea wore shirts and slacks at the office, but it wasn’t hard for Miranda to envision Andrea as a jeans and t-shirt girl when off the clock.
Her doorbell chimed and, glancing at her cell, Miranda realized it was her driver for the night. She donned a faux fur coat and made sure she had her clutch containing keys, a miniature makeup kit, two credit cards, a small pack of Kleenex, and five twenty dollar bills.
A Mercedes town car awaited her at the curb and it pleased her to see Roy holding the door to the backseat open for her.
“Good evening, Miranda,” Roy said amicably. “A nice night for a party.”
“It sure is.” Miranda slid into the car with practiced ease.
“Traffic is not too bad. We’ll collect Ms. Sachs with time to spare,” Roy said when he pulled out into the street.
“Good.” Miranda found herself clenching her fists and marveled at how nervous she suddenly felt. This might turn out to be a mistake, but her impulsive decision to ask—or order, perhaps—Andrea to accompany her to the Met Advent ball had felt right at the time. The idea of having Christian Thompson or James Holt at her side had turned her stomach. They had escorted her before, and she knew very well about the whispers and had read the comments in the gossip columns. “Snow Queen and her Toy boy,” and similar things. God only knew what they might make of her choice tonight. The less acerbic might just think Andrea was there as Miranda’s assistant. No more no less. But the ones out to snag a scoop and a headline could very well come up with speculations that Andrea was Miranda’s secret lesbian lover.
Her thoughts made Miranda tremble. If she had just stuck to working as a psychotherapist, becoming famous would not have been an issue at all. But after writing five self-help books that had all been number one on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list, Miranda was a celebrity.
Roy stopped at an unassuming looking building and left the car to press the button to Andrea’s apartment. He remained by the front door until it opened and Andrea walked outside.
Miranda stared. This was not the same girl that worked long hours in Miranda’s office. This woman looked every bit the part of a Manhattan socialite. Her dark plum dress, a Valentino, Miranda thought, followed Andrea’s every curve. Sleeveless, it seemed to be kept up around Andrea’s full breasts by sheer willpower. The cape keeping Andrea warm was made from what looked like crushed, golden velvet. She held a small rose gold colored clutch and walked cautiously on four-inch heel gold pumps to the car. As she slid into the back seat next to Miranda, Andrea then busied herself with straightening her skirt and making sure her hair was still in it’s simple, but oh, so stunning, chignon at the nape of her neck. Glancing over at Miranda, she colored faintly.
“Good evening, Miranda,” Andrea said and swallowed. “Do I look okay? Nigel, who is a sweetheart, said this was just the thing.” She patted the dress. “And he also lent me this cape. I feel like a princess—which is truly a first for me.”
Miranda opened her mouth and was about to say her usual understated “not too shabby,” when, “You look lovely, Andrea. Beautiful,” came out instead.
Andrea’s mouth fell open, and unlike just about anyone else, this made her look vulnerable in the most adorable way. “Yes? Really?”
Andrea scanned Miranda where she sat with her faux fur coat open in front. “You, though, you look amazing…and if I feel like a princess…you are undoubtedly the queen.”
“Why thank you.” Miranda’s heart picked up even more speed at Andrea’s heartfelt words. “Now, a few words of warning before we get to the Met ball. There will be press. Paparazzi and others, all wanting pictures, a quote or several, and the only way to deal with them is to pretend they don’t exist. Just keep your eyes forward and keep a polite smile going. That’ll make it easier.”
“Paparazzi?” Andrea swallowed. “Oh, God.” She plucked at her clutch.
“You’ll be fine. If anyone with a film camera stops us to chat, let me do the talking if you don’t know what to say.”
“Why would they want to talk to me in the first place?” Andrea looked puzzled.
“Oh, Andrea…don’t you realize?” Miranda took Andrea’s right hand in hers. It trembled, but returned the light squeeze as if Miranda’s was a lifeline.
“What?” Andrea shook her head as if trying to clear it.
“When we arrive together like this, some, not all, but some, will presume that you’re my date.” Miranda saw this wasn’t enough of an explanation as Andrea merely nodded with a slight frown between her eyes. “And by that, I mean date date. In a romantic sense.”
Andrea’s lips took on the shape of a perfect ‘o’ and Miranda was certain, this was yet another of Andreas exquisite expressions. How the hell was she going to be able to regard Andrea as nothing more than her mere assistant again?
Andy stood among the large crowd, all dressed to kill, in her plum dress. It fit her as if it had been tailored to her measurements, but she still sent a stealthy glance toward her décolleté every now and then to make it wasn’t slipping. She held on to her clutch with one hand and her, by now, tepid glass of champagne in the other. After tasting it, she realized this couldn’t be the real stuff. She had only had champagne a few times and one of those times, at her college graduation, her parents had sprung for the real deal. It had been light and bubbly—and had gone straight to her knees. This excuse for the classic beverage reminded her of carbonated vinegar. No wonder Miranda hadn’t even bothered to accept a glass. She had more experience with balls and cocktail parties than Andy ever would.
“Miranda! I was crushed when you didn’t ask for my services,” a man slurred to Andy’s left. “I mean, it’s almost like we’re a thing after all the times we’ve blazed through these events.” Christian Thompson appeared, looking dashing, but also very inebriated.
“Christian. No need to drown your sorrows.” Miranda regarded Christian along her patrician nose. “After all, we’re nothing more than acquaintances within the same social circles. Nothing more.”
“Tell me about it. A guy can’t even get to first b-base.” Christian looked at Andy and frowned. “And how come you’re here with this beauty and stay for, what is it, more than an hour? You’re usually in and out in fifteen minutes.” He raked his eyes up and down Andy’s body. “But of course. She is exquisite.”
“Go home, Christian, before you embarrass yourself as well as us.” Miranda pressed her lips together as she murmured the suggestion that sounded more like an order.
“I will. I will. Let me just…” Christian took an unsteady step toward Andy who had to force herself for not moving close to Miranda. “You should at least get something of a good time out of this. Why don’t I wait for you outside? Miranda will be done soon and you and I—”
“No. I don’t know you, Mr. Thompson. I wouldn’t go anywhere with you no matter if I did.” Andy took her cue from Miranda and spoke quietly, forcing Christian to lean in to hear her. “Just go home. That’s good advice.”
“Huh. You pick the old bat instead of me?” This was clearly puzzling to Christian.
“I choose Miranda over anyone.” Angry now, Andy did take a step toward Miranda, hooking her arm around the other woman’s. Miranda flinched, but Andy was sure the movement was so subtle, nobody else noticed.
“Oh, my God. You are an item?” Christian gaped. “Fuck. That makes sense.”
“Come on, Andrea. Let’s go to the cash bar and make sure we get something worth drinking before this person bores us to tears.” Miranda pulled gently at Andy’s arm. “Just walk away. He’s going to be ushered out within a few minutes. I’d rather not be caught on cell phone camera in his presence—especially not with you.” Miranda freed her arm.
Andy’s heart sank. Of course. Miranda didn’t want the press or anyone to see them this close together. Then Miranda shocked her by instead sliding her arm around the small of her back, placing her hand lightly on Andy’s hip.
“What are you in the mood for?” Miranda asked quietly.
“Eh, what? Mood?” Andy’s felt as if her brain lost its moorings and her scattered thoughts had nowhere to go except bounce like in a pinball machine.
“To drink? I think I need a bourbon after that distasteful display.” Miranda squeezed Andy gently, apparently not caring that some people stared at them with bulging eyes. “You can have anything you want. I’m buying.”
Of course. To drink. That. “Eh. If they have some really good sparkling wine, that’d be awesome.”
“Absolutely. I think you can hand over that poison you’ve been pretend drinking to that nice young man over there with an empty tray.” Miranda smiled one of her genuine smiles at Andy and suddenly her world was wonderful. She didn’t delude herself. This wasn’t going to last. On Monday morning, she was going to be Andy Assistant again and they’d be back to real life, but for now, she was Miranda’s date. And if Andy wanted to pretend they were on a date date, that was up to her.
They stood by the bar for a while, drinking each other’s good health and speaking in low voices. Every now and then, Miranda’s acquaintances and friends stopped by to say hello. They were polite and friendly to Andy—perhaps because they feared the amazing woman before them.
“Have you had your fill of this adventure?” Miranda asked and placed her glass among other used ones to the left of the bar area.
“I have. Thank you. It was spectacular. I mean—a ball!”
Miranda tilted her head, her eyes softening to a mellow kind of blue. “As it is a ball, there has been dancing. I’m sorry you didn’t get to experience that.”
“That’s all right. It was fun anyway.” Andy smiled broadly, and it looked like Miranda had to draw an extra deep breath.
“Well. As this was our first ball, I thought, better not push the envelope. I promise though, next time, I’ll ask you to dance.”
Miranda sat next to Andrea in the town car, riding back to Andrea’s street. The silence between them were thick with unspoken words, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The car pulled up to the curb and stopped. Roy sent a questioning glance into the rear-view mirror and Miranda merely shook her head and raised the privacy screen.
“Miranda?” Andrea jumped at the slight buzz from the screen and then looked over at Miranda, her eyes wide and darker than usual.
“I just wanted to tell you that I’ve decided to accompany Annika Hansen to New Zealand. I want you to come along, but I cannot force you, of course. You may have prior engagements and we’ll barely be back for Christmas.”
“Count me in. I have nothing that can’t be postponed.” Andrea smiled cautiously. “I was meant to go home to Cincinnati for the holidays this year, but my parents won an all-expenses paid trip to spend the holidays in Italy.”
“Where will you spend the holidays then?” Miranda asked, concerned at the desolate tone in Andrea’s voice.
“I may join my friend Doug when he goes to his aunt’s in Brooklyn. Or I might just catch up on my ‘me-time’.” Chuckling, Andrea felt for the door handle. “Thank you so much for a lovely evening, Miranda. See you on Mond—”
Miranda interrupted Andrea by taking her by the hand. “Wait. I’m the one who should thank you.” Tugging Andrea toward her, Miranda leaned in and intended for the type of air-kiss that she had been engaging in all evening, but somehow that wasn’t enough when it came to Andrea. Miranda pressed her lips to Andy’s velvety cheek, at the same time inhaling the sweet, vanilla based perfume that had enticed her the entire evening.
“Oh.” Andrea shifted and then her hand was against Miranda’s cheek. “God…”
Miranda cupped the outside of Andrea’s trembling hand and turned her head toward it. Pressing her lips into Andrea’s palm, Miranda knew it was foolish, but she couldn’t stop herself. She let her lips slide along Andrea’s pulse point which provided the evidence that their hearts beat at the same furious pace. Stopping before she reached the crease of Andrea’s arm, Miranda pulled back a few inches to scrutinize Andrea’s expression.
Looking dreamily at Miranda, Andrea was clearly not upset or filled with regret. Instead, she studied Miranda through her eyelashes as if there was some strange, bewildering secret hiding there. Her cape had become unclasped and from her angel, Miranda was now privy to the delicious view of Andrea’s full breasts pressing against the bodice of her plum dress. Miranda had never been this tempted in her entire life, but knew it would be a great mistake to take things further now…the mere fact they were in the town car with Roy in the driver’s seat, patiently waiting to walk Andrea to her door.
“So beautiful,” Andrea murmured and ran whisper light fingertips along Miranda’s jawline. Then she blinked and looked like she suddenly woke up. “I need to get inside. Thanks again…Miranda.” The miniscule pause before Andrea said her name with such a sultry tone to her voice, settled something within Miranda. She nodded and said goodnight before she lowered the privacy screen….
As Roy, escorted Andrea, Miranda thought of the chaste kisses, and the not-so-chaste way she had drawn a line with the tip of her tongue long Andrea’s wriest. Going to New Zealand with Andrea might become her best decision ever, or her biggest mistake.
Either way, Miranda wasn’t going to back down now.
The vision that was Kathryn Janeway, casually leaning against a Range Rover. Her short, wavy, auburn hair moving in the slight breeze, was something Annika had dreamt of each night since they saw each other last.
“Welcome to Manapouri,” Kathryn said and pushed off the vehicle. “Annika.” Her voice sank half an octave as she approached Annika, he steps sauntering as was her style unless there was an emergency. Then her strides became short and energetic, and her arms would keep the same pace and slice through the air.
“Thank you, Kathryn,” Annika said and then found herself wrapped up in a warm embrace. It was strange on so many levels. She and Kathryn had never actually hugged. Yes, Kathryn was the touchy-feely sort, and she would pat people’s shoulders, upper arms, and even put an arm around them briefly, but full-body hugs like this…no. And she was trembling, which boggled Annika’s mind. She had definitely never witnessed that.
“So good to see you, darling,” Kathryn murmured in Annika’s ear, her cheek at the level with Annika’s shoulder, she stood on toe as she whispered. “I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you too,” Annika said truthfully. “More than I can say.”
“But you’re here now. That’s all I care about. Truly.” Kathryn tilted her head back and studied Annika’s face. “So.”
“So?” Annika blinked, confused.
“So, you have to introduce me to your friends over there.” Kathryn donned a broad smile and motioned toward Miranda and Andy who stood by the small charter plane that had taken them from Wellington to Christchurch and then onto the miniscule airport in Manapouri.
“Of course.” Annika walked back to her companions and watched the interaction between them as she introduced Kathryn.
“Ms. Janeway, I’m delighted that it was possible for us to tag along with Annika,” Miranda said amicably, but at the same time scrutinizing Kathryn, quite obviously.
“Please, call me Kathryn. Everyone aboard the Voyager are on a first name basis.”
“Then please, call me, Miranda.” Miranda tilted her head. “Still, that surprises me. I thought it was important to stick to the ranks aboard a large vessel.”
“Trust me,” Kathryn beamed, showing her fangs, “there is never a misconception who is in command on my ship.”
“I’ll say,” Andy muttered, then jumped as the other three turned attention onto her. “Whoops. I mean, I’m sure. I’ve seen all your documentaries and just bought your book, Kathryn. It’s riveting.”
“Why, thank you, Andy. Or do you prefer Andrea?” Kathryn’s smile turned gentle. Clearly, she found Andy harmless, Annika thought.
“Andy is fine.”
“Then I suggest we load your bags into the car and get down to the harbor. I came in with the Delta Flyer.” Kathryn grabbed one of Miranda’s bags as they made their way to the Range Rover.
“The Delta Flyer?” Miranda glanced at Annika.
“A motorboat we use to get to shore, or out on a dive, when the Voyager is moored or has dropped anchor somewhere.” Annika tried to remain casual and polite, but it was hard when all she wanted was to finally be alone with Kathryn and find out what all the convoluted hints the other woman had dropped the last week was all about.
The last five days had been filled with preparations for the trip back to Voyager and to determine if hypnosis was something that would work for her. So far, she seemed reasonably susceptible, according to Miranda, but they had yet to reach deep enough.
Andy had turned out to be a fantastic assistant not only to Miranda, but also to Annika, and had managed to be completely helpful without prying into the treatments and sessions. It was Annika’s experience that most people were curious to a fault, but Andy seemed more interested in Miranda as a person than what she did for a living. There were similar vibes between them as there were between Annika and Kathryn. This was odd, to say the least, but Annika was determined to explore what these vibes stemmed from—and so was Andy, it seemed.
As they drove through the small town called Manapouri and finally reached the equally small harbor, Annika grew increasingly nervous. What if nothing would work? What if all of Miranda’s best efforts to reach her and the core to what bothered her? Annika’s stomach ached and when they were safely aboard the Delta Flyer, a fantastic motorboat that she had dived from so many times, she’d long lost count, she was nauseas.
“Are you all right?” Kathryn murmured to Annika and circled an arm around her waist and kept her other hand on the rudder. “You’re very pale.”
“Just a case of nerves,” Annika confessed. “I’m afraid all of this will be to no avail and will end up failing you.” She might as well be frank. Kathryn deserved nothing else.
“Haven’t I said that you failing me can never happen, no matter what you can or cannot do.” Kathryn shook her mildly. “Do you trust me?”
“With my life.”
“Then trust in that too. I have no reason to lie.” Kathryn skillfully maneuvered the large motorboat out of the harbor. “We’ll be aboard Voyager in less than half an hour. Keep the faith that things will work out, one way or the other. Please.”
“Very well. I will.” Annika cast a glance over her shoulder at the other two women. Miranda sat on one of the leather seats at the aft section, while Andy was busy taking pictures with a rather impressive looking camera of their surroundings.
Standing silently next to Kathryn, kept in place by Kathryn’s arm, Annika willed her heart to calm down and her breathing to deepen. She was on her way home, after all.
Kathryn had climbed the rope ladder up to the railing and was now assisting Annika’s guests in maneuvering onto the deck. Chander and Icheb was there to greet them, hoisting the luggage after the women were aboard. Annika was the last to climb aboard the Voyager and there was something so right with the vision of the tall blond standing on the aft deck, her long hair fluttering in the faint breeze. What if something was so wrong that Annika decided to quit altogether? Kathryn’s heart nearly mashed itself against her rib cage at the thought.
“Now, let me show you to your quarters.” Kathryn pulled herself together and gave her professional on-camera smile. “We have several guest scientists aboard, so you must share. Annika assured me it was all right.”
“It will be fine. Thank you, Kathryn,” Miranda said, but Andy’s round eyes showed that she somehow missed this piece of information. Interesting how the young woman looked like the proverbial dear caught in headlines at the idea. Kathryn rarely bothered with observing other people’s interaction as her interest had always been about the ocean and the science around it. The obvious currents between Andy and Miranda was tangible enough for her to stop and take stock of it. Perhaps it was because the age gap, which had to be even more than the one between her and Annika?
“Here we go.” Opening the narrow door, Kathryn showed Miranda and Andy into their quarters. To the left was two bunkbeds attached to the bulkhead. In the middle of the small space was a table with two chairs and to the right a desk with a comm system. A small bathroom with shower since this was one of the guest quarters, was located next to the desk.
“Sufficient,” Miranda said and nodded briskly. “However, I am going to need a somewhat comfortable area for Annika’s sessions.”
Kathryn blinked. She hadn’t counted on the reason for Miranda’s visit aboard to be put this bluntly, this quick. That was of course ridiculous. Why try to sugar coat anything?
“Of course. Any time you need some privacy in that regard, you can use my quarters. I’m rarely there during the days.”
“Or nights,” Annika added, looking like she wanted to change the topic quickly. “Kathryn is renowned for working around the clock.”
“I am.” Kathryn smiled unapologetically. “I’m sure you would like to freshen up. Your quarters are the way you left them, Annika. All right if I walk you there. We have a few things to talk about and I thought this would save time.”
“Naturally.” Annika looked apprehensive, but nodded at her new acquaintances as they stepped out of the guest quarters.
They made their way through the corridor to the stairs leading down to the deck where most of the divers resided while aboard. Annika’s quarters were the second one after the staircase. Kathryn was one step ahead and opened the door, then stopping on the threshold, swaying. She knew one of the golden unwritten rules at sea, and especially aboard Voyager, one’s space was sacred. You had so little room to call your own and for her to just barge into Annika’s private space…that was wrong on so many levels.
“Kathryn, please.” Motioning for Kathryn to step inside, Annika place her backpack on the lower bunkbed. Kathryn knew Annika used that bed for storage and slept on the top bed. Annika turned slowly and clasped her hands behind her back, a gesture Kathryn recognized from when Annika was new aboard her vessel. To see it now, Annika virtually standing at attention, pierced Kathryn’s heart.
“It’s truly so good to have you back aboard.” Kathryn wasn’t sure how many times she’d told Annika this already. “You look…well. Perhaps a bit pale?” Oh great. Now she had to go and criticize Annika’s look.
“Probably. I’ve been indoors most of the time. You on the other side look tanned and perhaps a bit tired. Many all-nighters?” Annika tilted her head. “Don’t answer that. I can tell.”
“You always can.” Kathryn wanted to wrap Annika up in another hug, but hesitated since they now were alone behind a closed door. A hug earlier had been natural even if it was the first one ever between them. A hug now would seem crossing yet another line.
Annika startled Kathryn when she took a step forward, well within her personal space. “I’m not sure how this will work, Kathryn. My being back, not feeling like myself and having all this…problems, issues, what have you. What also confuses me, is this.” She motioned back and forth between them with her right hand.
“Yes. Confusing. But it’s not very new, or, is it?” Kathryn looked up into the icy-blue eyes she found to be the most beautiful vision imaginable. “Perhaps it was our month apart that emphasized it?”
Annika nodded slowly. “Perhaps. It’s a lot to figure out. I’m hesitant to put you through this when you should focus on the diving and the documentary. Don’t think I’m not aware of the fact that this project can make or break our future, your future when it comes to running this ship. Owning it.”
“I’m not going to ask how you know so many details about my company. Being the brilliant woman that you are, I’d say it’s inevitable that you put two and two together.” Kathryn rubbed the back of her neck. “And you’re right. The documentary need to happen, but your health is even more important. So, don’t put words in my mouth where my priorities should be or not be. Okay?”
Kathryn disregarded the cautioning voice that always seemed to try to override her innermost desire and cupped Annika’s alabaster white cheek. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Annika’s skin was as warm as it was to the touch. Confirming that this was a woman of flesh and blood, not a creature to be put on a pedestal and worshipped from afar, the warmth from Annika’s skin permeated Kathryn’s hand and traveled up her neural pathways.
“Sweetheart…” Kathryn whispered. Leaning in, she knew this moment had been a long time coming. Annika’s eyes began to close as she wrapped both arms around Kathryn’s shoulders, pulling her in. As their lips met, Kathryn whimpered against the luscious fullness of Annika’s mouth. She didn’t even think about deepening the kiss at this stage. All she wanted was to press her lips to Annika’s, feel the amazing woman in her arms respond in kind, and inhale her breath.
“Mm.” Annika hummed against Kathryn’s mouth, brushing her lips back and forth as if she needed to taste every part of her. “So soft and sweet.” The words, murmured by Annika with such wonder in her voice, made Kathryn tremble. She had arm around Annika’s waist and the hand of the other still around her cheek. Clinging to Annika, she had no idea how to pull back. As it turned out, Annika did it for her. Slowly, she took a step back and let go of Kathryn’s shoulders, but kept a loose grip of her upper arms.
“Annika?” Kathryn scanned Annika’s features, hoping she wouldn’t find any trace of regret.
“Don’t ask if I’m all right again. I dislike it as much as you do, when people do that.”
“I’m reduced to ‘people’ now?” Kathryn tried to turn the question into something half factious.
“No, and you know very well that’s not what I meant. Don’t play games, Kathryn.” Annika was serious and now Kathryn noticed for the first time how dark the skin was beneath Annika’s eyes. Combined with the forlorn look on her face, not easy to spot for anyone who didn’t know Annika Hansen, but easy enough for Kathryn now that she took the time.
“I’m sorry, darling. You’re exhausted from the journey and…other things, and the first thing I do is…this.”
Something of what Kathryn said made Annika smile one of her rare, blinding smiles. “Kathryn. Being on the receiving end of a kiss made every grueling minute of this journey worth enduring. I have wanted to kiss you for quite some time.” She colored faintly. “I hope to get a new opportunity when I’m not dead on my feet.”
Stunned at Annika’s brave words, Kathryn merely nodded. “Have a shower and then join us in the mess hall for something light to eat. Then you can sleep some of the jetlag off.”´
“All right. I’ll call up to the guest quarters and let Miranda and Andy know as well.”
Kathryn stole a peck on Annika’s cheek and was about to walk out the door when Annika was on her. She pressed Kathryn’s back gently against the door as she devoured her neck for a few, bewilderingly amazing moments. “See you soon, Kathryn,” she murmured and then gently guided Kathryn out into the corridor before closing the door again.
Andy put the last of her clothes into one of the narrow cabinets to the left of the desk. She tried to not bump into Miranda in their somewhat cramped quarters, but it was impossible as Miranda seemed to be in her way no matter where she turned. Eventually, Andy gave up and sat down on the lower bed. “Which bed do you prefer?” she asked quietly.
“The one you’re sitting on.”
Andy stood so fast, she nearly toppled over. Holding on to the ladder leading up to the top bed, she managed to remain on her feet.
“Hey. Are you all right? You’re not seasick, are you?” Miranda put down the last of her sweaters on the top shelf of the other cabinet and turned around. Hands on her hips, she tilted her head to the side. “You look pale. For goodness sake, sit down before you fall. I have no problem with you sitting or lying down on my bed.”
Andy could feel herself going from chalk white to crimson. “I’m not seasick. I just didn’t expect us to share quarters. Be this close.”
Miranda half sat down on the table, folding her hands on her lap. “Do you mind us sharing?” Non-committal, Miranda spoke very quietly. Never a good sign.
“I don’t mind at all.” Andy in turn raised her voice marginally. “I just wasn’t prepared. I mean, come on. After the ball, the—the kissing, and now I’m supposed to dial that down and just be Assistant Andy while sharing these quarters.” Andy sat down on Miranda’s preferred bed. “I’m sorry. I’m not handling this very well.”
Miranda regarded her unwaveringly for a few moments and Andy began to feel freaked out.
“I should have been more forthcoming, but honestly, I just thought you knew. In my mind, you can do anything and you certainly know everything…or so it seems to me.” Shrugging, Miranda sat down next to Andy. “I’m sure Kathryn can make other arrangements if—”
“No. No, it’s fine. Don’t mind me and my insecurities. They come with the territory. With me.” Andy slapped a hand over her own mouth to keep her from babbling anymore.
Miranda’s eyes began to sparkle. “Perhaps you need to see someone about it?”
Andy snorted behind her hand, finally relaxing. “I thought I was. I mean, I have access to someone who knows her shit. So I’m told.”
Miranda pursed her lips, something that normally didn’t bode well, but her eyes shone as she studied Andy. “Well, if you want my expert opinion, you’re the sanest person I’ve met in a long time. Myself included.”
“Whoa. I think that says more about you than it does about me.” Andy prayed Miranda would know she was kidding right back. Andy’s family always used to tease her about what they called her warped sense of humor.
“I’m sure it does.” Miranda reached up and adjusted Andy’s bangs, combing through them with gentle fingers. “Why are you so irresistible, Andrea?” Sliding her finger downs along Andy’s temple, cheekbone, jawline, she then brushed her thumb against Andy’s lower lip. “You came across as so harmless in the beginning. Generically dressed. Good, but not great, at your job, initially. Nervous and fidgety. And then, a few months in, I’m depending on you more than I’ve ever allowed myself to depend on another person before.”
Andy held her breath as Miranda spoke. She wanted her to keep talking. The way Miranda spoke, slowly, sounding almost confused, as if she was trying to figure things out then and there.
“I know about crushes and infatuations at the workplace. Of course, I do. But when your eyes started following me, every move I made, it was more than that. Or I was delusional enough to read more into it. I kept my distance, my professional stance. And then, the lunch, the ball, and of course, the kiss. And now we share quarters on the other side of the world.” Miranda blinked and seemed to realize she was still caressing Andy’s lips with her fingers. She lowered her hand slowly. “Where do you stand in all this, darling?” The term of endearment hung between them.
“I suppose I’m torn between accepting what I can get and wanting it all.” Andy bit into her lower lip.
“Oh, no,” Miranda said, crushing Andy’s impossible hopes and dreams until she continued, “don’t bit into your lips. You have exquisite lips that needs to be handled with much more care.” She leaned in and kissed Andy softly. “Like so.”
Andy knew that this type of emotional rollercoaster was not good for her heart. It thundered so hard now, it was bound to leap out of her chest. Before she lost her nerve, she pulled Miranda toward her, up on her lap.
Miranda wrapped her arms around Andrea’s neck, barely able to breathe as she clung to the woman who never ceased to surprise her. She pressed her lips against Andrea’s again, still taking care not to deepen the kiss, since she feared this might made her self-combust. Things were moving so fast between them and if it was one thing Miranda didn’t want, it was hurting the beautiful creature in her arms.
“Mm.” Andrea hummed against Miranda’s mouth, nibbling along her lower lip. “So amazing.”
Miranda shoved her fingers into Andrea’s hair and gently angled her head so she could reach the long, leonine neck. She pressed her lips against the warm skin, drawing a line with the tip of her tongue.
“Miranda…” Andrea shivered and pushed her hands in under Miranda’s sleeveless shirt. “Oh, God.”
An unexpected, buzzing tone made them both flinch and Miranda slipped off Andrea’s lap, but she didn’t let go of her completely. The tone rang again and now Miranda realized it came from the phone on the small desk. She sighed and rose to answer. “This is Miranda.”
“Hi. Annika here. Kathryn says we are welcome to have a bite to eat after we have had a chance to freshen up. You can meet the rest of the crew and then catch up on some sleep.” Annika paused. “This will help with jetlag.”
“All right. We’ll shower and then join you.” Miranda hung up and began unbuttoning her shirt. “That was Annika suggesting a quick shower and something to eat. You up for that?”
Andrea still sat on the bed, looking slightly shell shocked. “Yes. Yes, of course.” She looked around their quarters, coloring faintly. “Do, uhm, do you want to hit the shower first?”
“Doesn’t matter, but sure.” Miranda grabbed her toiletry bag and walked inside the small bathroom. In there, she stood motionless for a few moments, regarding her reflection while trying to fathom what was happening between her and Andrea. It was insane. Crazy. Unwise. In the mirror, her clear blue eyes looked dazed and she tried to convince herself it was because of the long journey where she had found it difficult to rest. She never cared much for flying even if she often went on trips with her girls and former husbands. Now she had volunteered to help Annika out by joining her in this godforsaken corner of the world and she had to share the smallest quarters she’d ever stayed in, with the woman she couldn’t stop fantasizing about.
Shaking her head at herself, Miranda ran the shower as she undressed. Stepping under the spray or water, she closed her eyes and let it massage her tense muscles. There was no way she could rinse Andrea off her mind…or out of her heart, nor would she want to. Efficiently, she went through her routine in the shower and then wrapped a towel around her body. As it was summer in this part of the world, she looked forward to wearing what her girls called her ‘summer uniform’, tan shorts, a short-sleeved button down shirt, and sandals.
As she stepped back into their quarters, she tried to act casual being dressed in only a towel while carrying her laundry. Andrea blushed again and hurried into the bathroom so quickly, Miranda feared she may slip and fall in there. Immediately, the sound of the water began again.
Miranda got dressed and blow dried her hair. Applying her makeup with practiced movements took four minutes. Good skincare, even better genes, and products that lasted all day, kept this from being a ridiculously agonizing chore.
Andrea rejoined her and Miranda busied herself by putting her dirty clothes into her travel laundry bag. Without turning, she asked, “Do you want to put your clothes in here or do you have one of these?” She held out the bag for Andrea to see.
“I have one, but thank you.” Andrea rummaged around and Miranda sent a curious glance at the mirror just in time to watch Andrea close the front clasp of a white lace bra. Immediately lowering her gaze and chastising herself for ogling Andrea, Miranda opened her briefcase and set her cell phone and power-banks to charge.
“I’ll just let my hair airdry,” Andrea said from behind, making Miranda jump. “That’s what I normally do unless I’m working.”
“Very well. Let’s go then. I don’t know about you, but I’m starving.” Miranda moved to open the door, but Andrea had the same idea and their hands ended up on the handle at the same time. The current moving between them were enough to make the blond hairs on Miranda’s arms stand up. She let go and let Andrea open the door for her.
“After you, Miranda,” Andrea said, sounding amused.
“Brains before beauty, I suppose,” Miranda said and gave Andrea a mock haughty glare.
Andrea snorted and before Miranda realized her intentions, she put her arm around Miranda’s shoulders and squeezed her gently. “Don’t sell yourself short. You have brains and beauty.”
“Oh, please.” Miranda wasn’t sure if she was being teased, or if Andrea meant it literally.
Andrea’s fingertips tickled the skin on the back of Miranda’s neck. “And you smell divine.”
Miranda swallowed hard, feeling skinless suddenly, but then a smile forced its way through. Andrea was guileless. It may well become the young woman’s undoing as the world was anything but. Still, it was a charming quality and one that Miranda found was one of the reasons she could let Andrea close in the first place. She slipped her arm around Andrea’s waist. She would have to let go once they reached the mess hall, but until then, there was nothing she would rather do than stay connected to Andrea.
Miranda watched Annika where she semi-reclined on the bed in Kathryn’s quarters. For the first time, Miranda had succeeded in hypnotizing Annika down to a level where she was fully relaxed and at ease. It was only now when she saw Annika in this state that she realized how tense the tall blond was at any given time.
“Annika. Try to think back at your earliest memory of water as a child.” Miranda kept the Dictaphone going.
“I think I’m four. Maybe five. It’s my Aunt Irene’s pool. I’m not allowed there by myself.” Annika’s voice is not sounding childlike per se, but is tinged with innocence when she replies.
“Who goes in the water with you at your aunt’s?”
Annika frowns. “Mostly Aunt Irene. Sometimes my cousins Belle and Derek. They’re her children. Derek says they’re her real children.” Annika has her eyes closed per Miranda’s instructions. “He says my parents prefer to explore rather than to be with me and that’s why Aunt Irene has to put up with me.” Sadness and confusion lingers on Annika’s face and in her voice.
“Are your cousins older than you?”
“Oh, yes. They’re ten years older than me.”
Miranda leans forward to study Annika’s expression closer. “Did they ever do something hurtful to you?”
Annika stops breathing for a second, but then relaxes again. “Sometimes they would leave me alone.”
“At the pool?” Miranda feels herself frown and deliberately relaxes her face.
“No. In the house. Or the garage. They tell Aunt Irene that I always hide from them. It’s not true.” Annika shakes her head sorrowfully.
“What does your aunt think about it all?”
“She believes them at first, but after a few times, she gets angry at them. That makes Derek hate me even more.”
Annika smiles faintly. “Belle says she’s sorry and she stops running away from me and leaving me behind.”
“Anything else regarding your aunt’s pool that makes you uncomfortable, Annika?” Miranda speaks in her professional, soft voice.
Annika is silent for a moment, but then she nods slowly. “Belle got stuck.”
“I was eight. Belle was twenty-two and home from college. We were playing in the pool when she spotted something on the bottom. She dived and…and…she got stuck in some of the grids down there. I tried to help her. I dived too and tugged and tugged at her arm. Her fingers were stuck and…and I couldn’t free her. Then Derek jumped in and got her out. He did CPR. Aunt Irene came home right then and called the paramedics. She went in the ambulance with Belle.”
“I was cold. I had dived so many times, trying to free her.”
“Why were you cold?” Miranda asks gently.
“I was there, in my swimsuit, on one of the deck chairs, until Aunt Irene came home from the hospital. She thought Derek had taken care of me. He had left to be with friends. The front door was locked.”
“What happened when she found you alone?”
Annika swallows convulsively. “She was angry. I thought she was mad at me and knew I would have to move into the orphanage that Derek thought I belong in even if I wasn’t an orphan.” She shrugs. “Or at least, not yet.”
“Aunt Irene didn’t send me away, but she made Derek move out. She was furious with him and he ended up blaming me for everything.”
Miranda could see signs of fatigue on Annika’s face and thought it was best to take a break. “Annika. I’m going to count backward from six. When I reach one, you will wake up, remember everything, and feel very good and relaxed. All right?”
Miranda counted backward and with each digit, she saw and felt Annika go limp and smile faintly. “…two, one. Open your eyes, Annika.”
Annika looked up and then stretched her arms above her head. “That was…nice? Well, no the topic, but the sensation of feeling fully rested for once.”
“Was this something you remembered before the hypnosis?” Miranda asked.
“Yes. But not in this detail when it came to my emotional response. I think it may perhaps been overshadowed by what happened later.” Annika sighed and sat up fully.
“How did Belle do, eventually?” Cautiously, Miranda took Annika’s hand. She rarely used physical contact during her sessions with a patient, but sometimes it was what it took to ground the person before her.
“Belle recovered fully, physically speaking. As for the pool, she never went back into it, nor did I.” Annika shuddered and busied herself with putting up her hair.
“So, what overshadowed this incident for you?” Miranda pushed the Dictaphone closer.
Annika stood and walked over to the small circular window above the table by the bulkhead. “About six months later, the week before my ninth birthday, Aunt Irene told me my parents were both killed in a work-related accident.” Annika turned around. Her eyes opaque. “Mom and dad were meant to come home for my birthday. As things were, we skipped my ninth birthday and I vowed to never celebrate it again.”
“Do you think this has something to do with your current stress reactions?”
Annika shook her head. “No. I mean, I have known and remembered this my entire life. Why this would haunt me now—it doesn’t make sense.”
“Hm. I think I need to go in the water with you. We have been doing this for three days now, ever since we arrive in New Zealand. Time to push the envelope a little. I was thinking, if it is all right with you, we can ask Kathryn who knows you well, to join us?”
Annika blinked. “Uhm. Sure. All right.”
Kathryn was dressed in her favorite wetsuit and had dont of her diver’s equipment set as she stood by the railing leading to the swim platform. Next to her, Andy stood in her wetsuit, holding her fins, cyclops and snorkel, as Annika had allowed for Miranda’s assistant to join them as well. Miranda and Annika was still not there as they were going through some esoteric breathing exercises and other techniques to stave off panic attacks.
Annika had told Kathryn in very brief details about how he experienced the panic attacks and how she feared they might endanger others on the team. She hadn’t gone into any great detail and Kathryn felt in her bones that Annika hadn’t told her everything—let alone the most important part.
“Such freedom,” Andy said next to Kathryn, who turned to face her. Andy was a stunning brunette and her kindness and positive disposition made it impossible not to fall for this young woman. Kathryn found herself smiling a lot around Andy and perhaps it was because Andy reminded Kathryn of her younger sister, Phoebe. Phoebe was an artist and very much a free spirit. Even though Andy was Miranda’s assistant, there was an ambiance around the young woman that suggested she had an artistic vein that would manifest itself very soon.
“What do you mean?” Kathryn asked now.
“The air. The view. The fact that you can order this ship to raise its anchor and go anywhere in the world.” Dreamily, Andy leaned against the railing. “It seems rather magical to me at least who live in a studio apartment in New York. I’m not complaining, don’t get me wrong,” Andy said, smiling broadly. “It’s just that sometimes, I’d give anything to be on a ship on the ocean. Like this. I can understand why Annika would resort to this unusual measure to regain this freedom—and to be with you.” She tilted her head. “I have had the chance to talk to Annika quite a bit on the trip here and during downtime. She’s amazing, isn’t she. So brilliant. And very humble. When I complimented her on being so knowledgeable, she said it was all because of your inspiration.”
Kathryn tried to look casual, but her heart beat painfully fast. “Because of me?”
“That’s what she said. I don’t think I’m betraying any confidence as she told me this while we were in the mess hall. Annika thinks the world of you in every respect—at least that’s the impression I got. She wants to be as accomplished as you. And who wouldn’t. I find myself in a similar situation. I too work for an amazing, charismatic, and highly successful woman. Miranda has helped so many people by her very special variety of therapy.”
“I’ve read all of her books,” Kathryn said, relieved that the focus was off her and Annika’s thoughts of her, even if she was curious about it. “I especially found useful methods in her book about relaxation and mindfulness. I used to always nod off when I tried to relax in a controlled way. The CD that came with Miranda’s book kept me alert, but also managed to rejuvenate me. That’s a first for me, at least.” Smiling lopsidedly, Kathryn regarded Andy with interest. “You must learn a lot from her.”
For some reason, this made Andy blush profusely. “I have. Mostly, I’ve learned how difficult it is to be a truly good assistant. It took me a while to know what she needed before she even knew herself, but I think I’m really getting it.”
“If you did, you would have my cyclops and snorkel gear here,” Miranda’s voice interrupted them.
Andy merely smiled and held up Miranda’s equipment and yet another set that turned out to be Annika’s.
“Thank you, Andy,” Annika said and smiled faintly.
“Very good.” Miranda nodded approvingly toward Andy. “You look all set.” She scanned the other. “Annika and I talked this over. Why don’t you and Kathryn go into the water first. That way we’ll have assistance already in place if—if we need it.”
Kathryn glanced up at the upper decks. She had given Icheb orders to train the other divers further into the Deep Water Cove, out of sight of Voyager. She knew this was hard enough on Annika without having her subordinates watching her struggle.
“All right,” Kathryn said and put on her cyclops with the attached snorkel on her head as a hair band before she climbed down the ladder to the swim platform. There she dived into the water with practiced ease. The water was about twenty degrees Celsius and with the wetsuit on it was very comfortable.
After a few more preparations where Kathryn could see Miranda take Annika by her arms and gently shake her. Annika didn’t smile, exactly, but the eye roll showed humor in a typical Annika way.
Annika was third in the water and swam back and forth with perfect, efficient strokes. She rolled over on her back and let herself float for a minute. Andy and Kathryn kept close, but tried not to crowd her.
Miranda dived in and she too was clearly used to water. Swimming over to Annika, she nudged her to focus on what she was doing. “Do you feel ready to do some diving exercises? We can start snorkeling and just get used to how the water feels.”
“Very well.” Annika put on her cyclops and placed the mouth piece of the snorkel in her mouth. The other three women did the same and soon they were swimming a few feet below the surface.
Kathryn didn’t take her eyes off Annika as she swam a few feet behind her. Soon they were closer to the shore and the steep bedrock. The water was very clear and if Kathryn’s mission hadn’t been about Annika, she would have taken mental notes regarding what places to shoot when they started their exploration. They weren’t far from the opening leading in to the caves, which made her scientific mind race.
The sun had to have reappear, Kathryn thought a moment later when the water became much lighter and created some lovely sparkles around them where the light hit the bedrock. Kathryn’s wasn’t sure what made them sparkle, but as soon as she noticed the phenomenon, she also saw a difference in how Annika moved. She swam with jerky, erratic movements and appeared to cough against her snorkel. Then, to Kathryn’s shock and fear, Annika stopped moving and simply sank further below the surface.
Kathryn stared in disbelief. Annika didn’t even struggle. She sank, her eyes wide open behind the cyclops, as if frozen beneath the surface.
Kathryn swam after her as fast as she could. The other two seemed to respond simultaneously. Kicking their feet, their fins pushed them downward rapidly. Kathryn knew they all had the same all-overshadowing thought. They had to get to Annika.
Annika turned her head to the side, the bright sun blinding her as she coughed against the stinging sensation in her throat.
“For heaven’s sake, breathe, Annika,” she heard Kathryn growl. “Come on.”
Annika coughed again and someone else, perhaps Andy, kept her on her side as she tried to take deep breaths. “What—what happened?” Annika asked huskily. She had vague memories of hands tugging at her.
“You sank like a rock,” Miranda said from above her head. “What do you remember?”
“Can we wait with the twenty questions until she’s able to breathe, perhaps?” Kathryn hissed.
“No,” Miranda said firmly. “This is our window of opportunity to find out what Annika remembers. We saw her reaction and now we need to figure out why.”
“Kathryn,” Andy said. “Annika is going to be all right. She was under for fifteen seconds, max.”
“I’m okay, Kathryn. I just swallowed some of the ocean, apparently.” Annika sat up, only to notice that someone had unzipped her wetsuit to make it easier for her to breathe. She kept it together with one hand and took Kathryn’s hand with her other. “See. I’m fine.”
“Fine?” Kathryn was pale and her lips a thin, pale line her stark face. “We swam with you unconscious, or at least unresponsive, between us all the way back to Voyager. We hauled you up on deck where you began retching. And you tell me you ‘fine’?” Flinging her hands in the air, Kathryn whimpered and then covered her mouth with a trembling hand.
“I’m sorry, Kathryn,” Annika said quietly. She felt awful for putting Kathryn through this. “It was a mistake to try and deal with this aboard Voyager. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Do you wish for us to go back to New York?”
“I’m not letting you out of my sight!” Kathryn took Annika by the shoulders in a firm, but not painful, grip. “You may think what you want, but you need me.”
“I never said I didn’t.” Annika placed a hand on top of one of Kathryn’s. “I was just thinking you didn’t sign up for…this.”
“Oh, yes I did. The moment you walked aboard my ship I knew no matter what, you were the one. I thought you may possibly break my heart, but I didn’t care. I just knew.” Kathryn trembled now. “And then you go and do this…and you think I dare turn my back for a second? You’re stuck with me, Annika. I’ll be with you until you find out what’s going on.”
“Which will take longer than these three weeks,” Miranda said calmly. “Annika will need longer treatment than that, to find the root of the problem. Something below the surface set her off, and if we can figure that out, we will have an access point to start with.”
Annika nodded slowly. “Was…was there lights? Below? I remember flashes of light.”
“There was,” Kathryn said.
“It hurt my eyes. I felt as if I was falling.” Shaking her head, Annika began to shiver.
“That’s it. Now I have something to work with during out next session. What I want you to do is return to your quarters and have a hot shower and then rest, Annika. I for one will do the exact same.” Turning to Andy, Miranda frowned. “And you too. Your lips are blue.”
“Annika, please come with me. I don’t feel it’s safe for you to be alone in your quarters after this incident.” Kathryn helped Annika stand up.
Still feeling like a burden, Annika said, “I’m sure—”
“Humor me?” Kathryn drew a trembling breath.
“Good,” Miranda said and placed a hand at the small of Andy’s back. “I suggest we rest a few hours as we’ve gone through this scare. Neither of us expected something to happen quite this dramatically.”
“I’ll say,” Kathryn muttered as she wrapped her arm around Annika’s waist. “Come on, darling. Let’s get you inside.”
Annika was grateful for the support as her legs felt wobbly and awkward. She was used to being extremely well trained and able to work for hours on end in and out of the water. Her mind kept trying to figure out about what the flashing lights could have meant. Was it a suppressed memory, or something entirely random?
“Here we are.” Kathryn opened the door to her quarters and helped Annika inside. “You have a shower first, and then crawl into bed. I’ll have cook bring us some hot tea.”
“All right.” Holding on to the wall, Annika realized she was reluctant to leave Kathryn. “Could…would it be completely inappropriate if I asked for your assistance?” She felt her cheeks warm. “I’m still shaking.”
Kathryn took two long strides toward her. “Not inappropriate at all. I’ll help you. Good thing I had them install a bigger than average shower.” She smiled lopsidedly. “Let me help you out of your wetsuit.”
Grateful, Annika stood holding on to the wall as Kathryn pulled the tight wetsuit off her. Standing there in only her swimsuit, she could tell Kathryn’s hand began to tremble again as she guided Annika into the bathroom. There, she eased the swimsuit off Annika’s shoulders and pulled it down her legs. Kathryn ran the water and then helped Annika inside the shower before getting rid of her own wetsuit and swimsuit.
Annika couldn’t take her eyes off Kathryn’s naked body. She had seen Kathryn in nothing but a swimsuit many times, but this…this was what she had dreamed of, but never imagined ever happening. Perhaps it was because of the incident that just took place, or it could be because she had wanted this woman for so long that Annika pulled Kathryn close.
Kathryn gasped and then, somehow, their lips pressed together in a desperate, hungry kiss.
Miranda sat down on one of the chairs by the table in their quarters, her movements slow and looking almost painful. She closed her eyes briefly as she began to pull down the zipper of her wetsuit. She dragged it down her arms, but got stuck with her left hand as her end of the sleeve turned itself inside out. Tugging at it, she eventually gave what sounded eerily like a sob.
Andy threw herself forward, kneeling by Miranda’s side. “Let me help you,” she said quietly.
“Oh, God.” Miranda covered her eyes with her free hand. “I could have killed her. What was I thinking?”
“What?” Andy froze, her hands still on the stubborn wetsuit. Then she understood. “No, oh, no, Miranda. This wasn’t your fault. And it all ended well.”
“You’re loyal to a fault.” Miranda lowered her hand and stared at Andy with burning eyes. “That does not change facts, however. I thought I could handle a panic attack in the water and…no pun intended…I was in over my head. Annika’s fears are deeply rooted. So deeply, even her most basic survival instincts are suspended.” Anger radiated from Miranda, but Andy knew enough to realize it wasn’t directed at her.
“You had one professional diver and two divers with certificates there. And you made this decision together with Annika and Kathryn. Yes, what bothers Annika goes deep—even I can understand that after today—but it was worth a shot and she was never in any real danger, not with the three of us there.”
Miranda stood so quickly, Andy had to grab hold of her upper arms to not fall over. Ironically enough, this also freed Miranda from her wetsuit and she raised both her hands as if to push Andy away.
Eyes narrowing, Miranda instead took Andy by the shoulders and tugged her close. She literally shook Andy, though not very hard, and then pulled her close, burying her face against Andy’s neck. It quickly became clear to Andy how badly Miranda trembled. She wrapped her arms around Miranda and held her close.
“I have you. Don’t blame yourself. Annika is fine. She’s with Kathryn and don’t ask me how I know this, but I have a very strong feeling they’re discovering just how close they are.”
“How can you possibly know this?”
“Because Annika and I kind of compared notes the other day and found more similarities in the way we relate to our employers than we could count. So, if she feels anything remotely for Kathryn, the way I do for you, then—I know.” Andy knew she placed her heart in the palm of her hand and held it out to Miranda, risking it to be slice and diced.
“And, do tell, how do you feel?” Miranda spat the words, but in her eyes, the brilliant blue shone relentlessly.
“I’m not sure it’s in my best interest to tell you when you’re in this frame of mind. You look like you’re ready to throttle me.” Andy smiled carefully, hoping such talk didn’t get her fired instantly.
“Throttle you?” Miranda shook her head. “I—I can think of many things I want to do to you, but strangling you isn’t one of them.”
“You do? Like how? I mean, what?” Andy caressed Miranda’s cheekbone with unsteady fingertips.
“Are you sure you’re ready to know exactly what’s going through my head now?” Miranda’s eyes became narrow slits as they raked over Andy’s body.
Pressing her lips hard against Andy’s, Miranda held her so close, Andy could feel the outline of her breasts against her body. Her hands worked between them and then she tugged Andy’s wetsuit down her body. “I want you. I can’t remember ever wanting anyone like I want you. It’s like you’ve taken over every part of me and since we kissed after the Met Advent ball, I—I have thought of little else.” Sliding her tongue along Andy’s lower lip, Miranda moaned faintly.
Andy knew she was toast. She loved Miranda Priestly with all her heart. Nobody had ever reached so far into her soul, her mind…or any part of her that harbored love. She parted her lips and met Miranda’s tongue with her own, taking over the initiative. Pushing Miranda’s wetsuit down her hips, she revealed her toned, youthful body, little by little. Dressed only in a simple, black swimsuit—yes, you could tell Miranda was older—she was stunning.
Now heavy and aching between her legs, Andy couldn’t stand to wear her own wetsuit any longer. She yanked and shoved at it with desperate movements. Only when Miranda decided to assist, did the offending piece of equipment end up at her feet.
“I want to see you. All of you.” Miranda looked questioningly at Andy.
“Then undress me further.”
Miranda pushed the shoulder straps off Andy’s shoulders and soon the dark-blue swimsuit lay around her feet on top of the wetsuit. Andy didn’t ask. She wanted Miranda naked. As she began to remove Miranda’s swimsuit, Miranda’s tremors escalated.
“You okay?” Andy whispered, but didn’t stop, merely slowed down.
“Hurry. I’m burning up.” Miranda placed her hands on Andy’s full breasts. “I want you. Now. I have to have you, Andrea.”
Gone were the black swimsuit and then Miranda was on her back on the lower bunkbed. It was narrow, but it didn’t matter as they moved as one. Slipping in between Miranda’s legs, it was as if Andy’s hands knew what to do. She had never made love with a woman before, but she figured if she started with the caresses she usually liked, then Miranda could tell her more specifically later.
“Tell me if I do something you don’t like, or like extra much,” Andy whispered in Miranda’s ear as she pushed her left breast up to reach its nipple better. She pulled it in between her teeth, lavishing it with her tongue.
Miranda groaned loudly, wrapping her legs around Andy. “I’m too far gone. It hurts. I have to…you must…oh God, Andrea…I need to come. I promise to reciprocate, I will, for as much as you want, as long as you like, but if I don’t c-come right this instant, I’m going to…Yes!”
Andy simply entered through Miranda’s wetness, into her core with two fingers, then three, when she learned just how drenched Miranda was. “I can’t wait either. Can you reach me, Miranda? Just rub my clit.”
Miranda wormed her hand in between them. She managed to squeeze two fingers in along the aching ridge of nerves at the apex of Andy’s thighs. Running them back and forth, gently squeezing the hood of Andy’s clit, she hummed.
“Yes, like that…like that…” Andy in turn curled her fingers upward slightly as she began thrusting, in and out, over and over. Turning her hand only a few degrees, she could press the pad of her thumb against Miranda’s clit. Immediately, Miranda arched and began rolling her hips steadily against Andy’s hand.
Miranda’s hand was almost still now, as her climax, probably because her climax was closing in. That was all right. Andy moved her hips just enough to keep the friction against her silky, wet tissues, going.
“Yes…yes…” Miranda closed her eyes hard. Andy took a chance and bent down to bite gently at a dusty pink nipple that seemed rock hard. Miranda bucked at Andy’s hand, flooded it as she came. Over and over, her inner muscles squeezed Andy’s hand. Andy kept up the intense caresses against Miranda’s g-spot. Short, hard strokes and Miranda came a second time, or perhaps it was the same orgasm, merely prolonged.
“Oh. Oh! Andrea…oh, Andrea, Andrea, Andrea…” Miranda clung to her with her free arm. “You are…you are amazing. Utterly amazing. Oh, fuck…”
The profanity from Miranda’s usually so correct and eloquent mouth was all it took. Andy came in one convulsion after another and drenched Miranda’s fingers, coated her own thighs, pressing her face against Miranda’s neck.
As their breathing began to resemble normal, Andy raised her head and tried to move onto her side next to Miranda on the narrow bed. Miranda would have none of that.
“Is this situation better?” Miranda asked.
“What?” Confused, Andy wracked her brain. What was Miranda on about? What situation…oh. Yes. That. “Right. You want me to tell you how I feel. All right. I think the cat’s out of the bag anyway.” She paused. “I love you, Miranda.”
Miranda grew rigid for a few seconds and then pushed one hand into Andy’s hair, pulling her down for yet another kiss. Her other hand was still firmly in place between Andy’s legs. “I love you, Andrea. I love you so very much.” Flustered and pale at the same time, which should’ve been impossible, Miranda gazed up at Andy. “You brave girl. I’m not easy to love…I have court documents to prove that.”
“Screw those fools. I’m not saying I’m better—”
“I am. You’re better. You’re better for me than anyone else has ever been.”
“Okay.” Andy just looked and looked at Miranda. This woman, impossible as it may seem, had confessed to loving Andy.
“I want you again,” Miranda whispered. “I can’t resist you.”
Andy smiled, broadly this time. “Don’t be ridiculous, Miranda. Why would we ever resist each other?” She gently rolled them on their sides. “Tell me what to do.” She giggled softly. “You know I’m good at taking order.”
“Oh, you—” Miranda chuckled. “Be careful, Andrea. There’s so much I want when I’m with you.”
“Oh, goodie.” Andy kissed Miranda and then set to explore every part of the woman she loved.
Annika placed Kathryn’s hands on the wall in the shower. Standing behind her, she pressed her entire length against Kathryn’s back.
“Annika?” Kathryn trembled and parted her legs. “I don’t think I can do this again, so soon…”
They had already come once, each. Kathryn had never doubted there was a lot of passion in Annika, despite her icy, austere exterior. Now, here in the steaming hot showers stall, a tigress had come unleashed and Annika seemed determined to explore every square centimeter of Kathryn.
“I’m sure you can. You’re trembling and there is new wetness right here.” Annika cupped Kathryn’s folds from behind. She dragged it slowly toward her, parting Kathryn’s buttocks, which made her feel frantically for something to hold onto as her knees were buckling.
“I think I found yet another erogenous zone, Kathryn,” Annika whispered huskily. “I think I will make it my mission to map your body and soul so I can love you the way you deserve.”
“L-love me?” Kathryn shook, rather than trembled, now.
“Yes. You should’ve guessed by now that only the fact that I love you made me return to you and lower my guard like this.” Annika moved her hand forward again, dipped into the wetness, dragged it back again and rubbed it against Kathryn’s other puckered orifice.
Moaning, Kathryn couldn’t believe how willingly she parted her legs further. Annika’s free arm circled around her and held on to her left breast, plucking at her nipple.
“Annika! Oh, God!” Kathryn had to rely on the woman behind her to keep her upright. It was fortunate that Annika was so strong.
“May I?” Annika asked and circled Kathryn’s anus. “I will only proceed if you tell me to.” She nuzzled Kathryn’s neck. “All I want is for you to feel good. It means everything to me.”
“Annika, darling…you can do anything you want to me. Anything at all.” Kathryn had to level with Annika. “I love you. I have for quite some time, but I’ve tried to…not pressure you…”
“I know you love me. I’ve felt it ever since I came back.” Now Annika massage Kathryn’s anus with two firm fingers. The slickness coming from Kathryn’s own moisture, and perhaps some from the soap, made it so soft, so easy.
“Take me. I need you to take me again.”
“Mine.” Annika pushed on finger into Kathryn, who could easily feel two knuckles going in. There, Annika moved her fingers in a slow, twisting motion, over and over. Lowering her left hand from Kathryn’s breast to her extended, engorged clit, she pinched it lightly between two fingers.
Kathryn groaned, a guttural, deep sound, and pushed back against Annika’s hand. “Ha-harder…”
Annika pushed her finger firmly in and out now, keeping a steady rhythm. Kathryn could feel the soft patch of Annika’s pubic hair press against her buttocks, adding in the thrusting motion.
“So hot, so sexy, Kathryn. I can’t believe I’m allowed to touch you like this…you’re going to make me come.” Annika trembled behind her now and her movements became jerky and erratic. Oddly enough it was this sign of Annika’s pleasure that sent Kathryn over the edge again.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes…” Everything inside her, her entire pelvic area, contracted and ached for long moments before the release made Kathryn scream and slap a hand over her mouth. “Oh…”
Behind her, Annika followed. She moaned as she pushed so hard against Kathryn, she was afraid they’d both fall.
Slowly, they caught their respective breaths, moving in under the hot spray of water again. “You are nothing short of a miracle,” Kathryn murmured as she rinsed off together with Annika. “Please, don’t leave again. Whatever happened today—we’ll figure it out.”
“I’ll stay, but you need to let me contribute.” Annika kissed Kathryn, small kisses all over her face. “Don’t let your pride stand between us—let me help.”
“What?” Kathryn blinked against the droplets of water. “What do you mean? I wouldn’t do that?”
“Listen.” Holding Kathryn close, Annika continued. “I have money. Quite a lot after my parents. I come from old money, actually, and I have invested in things I believe in these last two years.”
Kathryn wasn’t stupid. “You have invested in Janeway Enterprise,” she said noncommittally, but held on tight to Annika. She wasn’t sure what to think, how to feel, except the all-overshadowing love and adoration for the woman in her arms. Had Annika sponsored her research and filming without telling her? Why? And why was she so adamant now? She gazed up at Annika and turned off the water. Grabbing two large bath towels she wrapped one around Annika and allowed Annika to do the same to her. She could tell Annika was nervous now, but didn’t want her to feel like that. Not at all.
“Tell me what you have in mind, darling,” Kathryn said as she stepped out of the shower stall, gently pulling Annika with her.
“I cannot dive yet. I may never be able to, even if I of course hope to. That’s why you hired me. I cannot fully complete my duties aboard Voyager this way. I can still take part in the training and oversee things, but I need to contribute more than that. Make myself useful in other ways. Please allow me to sponsor future projects. That way I can justify being aboard—with you. I so very much want to be with you every day from now on.” Annika whispered the last sentence and the heartfelt plea nearly shattered Kathryn’s heart.
“I can’t say I don’t wish you’d told me before. Every sponsor should have their name on the list of benefactors. I don’t like that you deprived yourself of that by being anonymous.”
“I won’t be anonymous from now on,” Annika said, wiping at her damp eyelashes.
“Oh, no. Don’t cry. Please, don’t,” Kathryn said urgently. “Everything will be all right. I will gladly accept you as an official sponsor. I’m totally fine with that.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you.” Kathryn stepped closer to Annika and wrapped them both in her bath towel. “I love you. Always have, it feels. Always will. Every day you choose to share with me is a gift. Please stay aboard Voyager. We’ll be sailing back to the States when we’re done here and we can spend some time in New York so you can keep working with Miranda. I just know you two will find a way for you to do what you love again.”
“I’m already doing that. I’m here with you. But I understand what you mean. Diving is my second love.”
Kathryn’s cheeks warmed and she buried her face into Annika’s shoulder. “I’m getting a bit cold again. How about we make good use of my slightly bigger captain’s bed, darling?”
“Excellent idea.” Annika followed Kathryn back into her quarters. Tossing their towels on the table, Kathryn pulled back the covers and motioned for Annika to get into bed. As she followed the stunningly beautiful woman, Kathryn slid right back into her strong arms.
Home. Yes. As much as Voyager was Kathryn’s preferred dwelling, Annika’s arms were home.
From: Belle Walters
To: Annika Hansen
Subject: So good to reconnect
It’s been too long since we got together. I know the experiences we went through when you were a mere child had to have scarred you. I still have problems with water and I was an adult when I lived through that ordeal at the bottom of the pool. You were just a kid when things happened to you and it’s understandable that you may have blocked out some of it. It may be a good idea to read this email in the presence of a loved one or your therapist.
You talk about those times Derek and I left you alone at the time, and the time I got stuck and Derek bailed on you. It’s puzzling that you don’t mention the time Derek lured you in under the pool cover.
My brother and are no longer socializing. We still send each other Christmas cards, but that is the extent of our contact. He pulled one stunt too many to get his own way and I had to choose between him and my husband and children. (I have four!)
I found out about his dangerous behavior regarding the pool cover when my kids were in grammar school. He wanted me to drop everything and come visit him. He is still a bachelor, and I can understand that much more now. When it dawned on him that I couldn’t just drop everything and come spend time with my brother, he became downright nasty. He accused me of preferring you over him when we were little, and then triumphed at hos he made you pay the price for his skewed perception.
When you were ten, he had lured you in by playing nice and decided you two should go play in the pool even if you didn’t want to. It was late in the evening and he managed to persuade you it would be fun to bring flashlights. This apparently caught your attention and tipped the scale for you. You swam back and forth and played with waterproof flashlights for a while, but then Derek got out of the pool and pushed the button that dragged the pool cover across the pool to the other side.
I’m feeling physically sick just writing this. I can’t imagine how confused and afraid you were, trapped under the heavy cover. Derek stood at the edge of the pool, directing his flashlight toward you where you pushed against the cover. What’s even harder to believe is how he simply just left you there. He walked into the house, got ready to go out, and left you in the pool, under the cover. You managed to crawl out from under it. How long you were in the pool is anybody’s guess. You made it back to the house and never told anyone as far as I know? I don’t think Mother ever knew. If she had, she would’ve finally disowned Derek. There is something seriously wrong with him. He loved Mother and he loves me—but that mere fact makes it impossible for him to be anywhere near my kids.
I’m so sorry, Annika, for not being there for you when you were little, and for not making sure we stayed in contact. If it isn’t too late, I would love to hear from you and have my children get to know you. Perhaps that can make up for my brother’s atrocities.
Take care, Annika and feel better soon so you can go back to work. I could read between the line how much you love your job.
Annika closed the screen and leaned back in her chair. Her heart pounded with such ferocity in her chest, she thought it might get bruised when slamming into her breastbone. “Kathryn?” she whispered, then cleared her throat. “Kathryn?” She tried again, this time a little louder.
“Yes, darling?” Sitting in the recliner, Kathryn raised her head from where she’d been reading one of her infamous bodice rippers, a choice of literature that rendered her much teasing from her crew, but that didn’t stop her from reading them.
“I heard from Belle.”
Immediately, Kathryn put her thick book down and came over to the desk. “Could she contribute anything of importance?” She scanned Annika’s face. “She did, didn’t she?”
“Yes.” Annika gave her the shorter version of what Derek had done.
“Fuck.” Furious enough for her eyes to become a dark and stormy kind of grey, Kathryn pulled Annika out of her chair and held her close. “You can report him. That’s attempted murder. If I get my hands on him…” Kathryn pulled back enough to look at Annika again. “Whatever you decide to do, I’ll back you up, and I can vouch for Miranda and Andy as well. We’ll be behind you—all of us.”
“I won’t waist a single moment on Derek.” Annika knew this for a fact. “He’s not worth it. According to Belle, she has not allowed him the closeness he so craved from when they were little. That’s his punishment. Worse than any prison sentence.”
“How do you know?” Kathryn tilted her head, her eyes slowly returning to their normal blue-grey hue.
“If I had done something so bad that you had to shun me—it would break my heart. I would never be whole again.” Annika smiled gently. “And now that I know of a repressed memory, which happens to entail flashes of light, then Miranda and I can work through it. I’m very lucky.”
“So am I.” Kathryn stood on her toes and kissed Annika gently. “I can’t imagine you doing anything that would make me shun you. Ever. It would break my heart too.”
Annika walked over to the large recliner, pulling Kathryn with her. Sitting down, she tugged gently at Kathryn’s hand. Smiling softly, Kathryn willingly sat down, straddling Annika’s thighs. Leaning in, she kissed Annika, over and over as they slowly undressed each other. Their confidence in each other and their love grew with each passing moment. Annika knew she had never been happier.
“You make me so very happy,” Kathryn said, echoing Annika’s thoughts.
“And so hot.”
“I want you, Annika.”
“Want…you…” Annika could hardly speak.
Kathryn chuckled against Annika’s lips as she continued to touch Annika in all those ways she loved to be touched.
“Anything I can help you with before we go home?” Andy poked her head into Miranda’s office where the woman she adored sat by her laptop, deeply engrossed in some text.
“Come here.” Miranda waved Andy over. “Annika sent me an email. She especially mentioned that I needed to show you this.” She pointed at the screen.
Andy read over Miranda’s shoulder. “That’s—that’s…and she’s not going to report him? How…what…?” Sputtering, Andy knelt next to Miranda’s chair. “But doesn’t the tone in her email kind of feel, I don’t know, empowered? Strong?”
“It does.” Miranda smiled down at Andy and laced her fingers through the long, brown tresses. “I’m impressed that you picked up on that. I think I need to utilize your powers for as long as you work for me.”
“Utilize? Wait…what? For as long as I work for you?” Blinking hard, Andy tried to grasp what Miranda was saying. “You—you’re firing me?”
“Not at all. Don’t be ridiculous, darling. I’m simply considering the fact that working as my assistant isn’t your dream job. You have a great academic background and you came to New York to write. I’m not sure you still feel that way, but I want you to pursue what you really burn for. I’m going to hate not working with you. But coming home to you every day will be a wonderful motivator. Now since the girls have mellowed a bit and realized that you have a good influence on me, I foresee a smoother sailing, family-wise.”
“So, you’re saying…”
“Please, stay until I’ve found someone half decent to take over your duties. Please, stay with me—and the girls.” Miranda brushed the last strands of hair from Andy’s face. “I can’t imagine my life without you in it and even if I’m a selfish old bitch for not being the bigger person…and allowing you to find happiness with someone your own age.” Miranda kissed her gently, holding Andy’s face between gentle hands.
“Don’t you dare, Miranda Priestly. I can’t imagine my life without you either. This, what we have, is extraordinary. I may be younger, but I still know that feeling like I do for you, and to see how you feel about me in everything you say or do, is rare.”
“I’m hopeless to live with. I’m demanding. A workaholic. And, let’s not forget the monikers that some people attach to me. Snow Queen, Devil in Heels…”
“I’ve got some things that I’m sure will drive you nuts. But we’ll sort it out—I know we can.”
“Yes.” Miranda cupped the back of Andy’s neck under her hair. “I’ve learned to trust you with everything—far would it be for me to object when you are so certain. And I’m selfish. You’re mine…”
Andy angled her head and deepened the kiss, humming her pleasure into it. “Why don’t we go home and call Annika and Kathryn on their satellite phone. They’re halfway back to Oakland if I remember correctly. We need to tell them we’re backing Annika no matter what she decides to do.”
Miranda looked vulnerable suddenly. “I worry for your caring heart. Everyone else benefits from it, but I fear it might shatter one day.”
“With you to help safeguard it? I don’t think so.” Kissing Miranda again, slowly, Andy continued, “I promise to keep you heart just as safe, all right?”
Sighing deeply, Miranda nodded. “All right.” She stood, pulling Andy to her feet. “Let’s go home to the girls. After dinner we’ll call our friends.”
Andy stood and hugged Miranda. Her heart was so full of warm, no, blisteringly hot feelings, she nearly twirled with Miranda in her arms. That day might come, when doing silly things would come naturally, but for now, Andy was content in knowing she was meant to be with this woman—and that she was loved.