~ Debts ~
by Alecto

Disclaimers: Copyright © 1999 by Alecto. All Rights Reserved.

Welp, this is my very first attempt at writing something and allowing anyone to see it (aside from the folks in my head). I gather from observation I'm supposed to put in a few disclaimers here, so here goes.

One, these folks may bear a slight resemblance to some well-known archetypes owned by MCA/Universal/Renpic. But for the most part, they're mine, and they were conceived years before a certain duo started wandering the Greek countryside and firing the imaginations of folks around the world...

Two, it's uber folks.

Three, this is definitely alt fic. That means that there are a couple of ladies in the story who find each other pretty damn fascinating, and the relationship ain't sisterly. In the words of the great Spider Robinson "If you find anything weird about that, I condemn you to live in that skull for the rest of your life." If you're too young to be reading this stuff, go outside and hike. You'll learn a lot more out in the woods than you will from me, and it's far healthier for you. My maunderings'll be here if you're still interested when you come of age. And, of course, if it's illegal where you live, you have my profound sympathies. But you too, will need to move on. I'd refer you to some good genfic, but I don't read the stuff. Good luck.

Four should be a disclaimer for the level of graphic sexual depictions, but frankly, there aren't any yet. Knowing my own tendencies, it's not gonna get too steamy out here, but you never know. If that bugs you, then might I suggest Penumbra's Kink series? It's very well done and as steamy as you could wish.

Five, violence. Yep, there will be some. I'm not too big into describing the exact shape of the intestines though, so I doubt anyone's at risk of tossing their cookies.

Six...There is no six.

Seven. It is my first. You have three choices: bear with me, come up with useful suggestions on where my bardistry is failing, or skip it. Up to you. ;)


The voice on the phone was insistent. "If they're going to back your project Pete, the principals are going to have to meet this wunderkind of yours."

Pete's frown pulled his bristly gray brows together. "David, there's no problem with your folks meeting the girl. I just can't see why they're so set on this posh dinner thing. For pity's sake! My staff's not made up of debutantes. Drag the investors up to the site, let Jack show 'em around, put some critters through their paces. I guarantee we'll sell your people on the idea."

David's tone was exasperated. "Vida Bentner's over eighty, Pete. Doc Vester has severe hay fever. Blake Jr. has a heart attack if a spot of dust gets on his Italian shoes. Get the picture? Stop being so bull headed. It's just a party."

"Alright, maybe a visit to the stables is out, but..."

"Look, Pete. These folks are not going to come to you. You've got the opportunity to do them a favor while getting your project reviewed. I'll be honest with you; there are some questions about your proposed director. Meeting Jack firsthand is the only thing that'll get them off the fence. There's a lot of money on the table; all you have to do is let these folks make a mess of your hall and get Jack to show up and rub a few elbows. Don't blow it by pushing your luck."

Pushing my luck? Pete thought as he dialed another number. You have no idea who we're playing with, do you David?.


"Put out that stinking stogie old man, the fumes are going to your brain!"

Pete looked at his cigar, then stared at the speakerphone with reproach. "There's no call for pickin' on my cigars Jack."

"The answer's no."

Pete tried wheedling. "C'mon, Jack. It's just a party."

"No." The voice got firmer.

"They just want to meet you."

"They're welcome up here any time."

"Jack, these ain't the type of folks who're gonna just head on out to soak up some country air."


Pete grimaced. Certainly, the thesaurus must have 'Jack' listed as an alternate word for stubborn. He gave up on wheedling. "Look, Jack. The project's hanging in the balance. You know I can't shake enough loose to fund it on my own. These folks can; they just want to get a sense that you can handle the job. For some inexplicable reason, they think it's a good idea to grill you while they party."

"Send 'em a list of references." Desperation was beginning to lace the responses.

"No choice kiddo."

"Dammit Pete, I told you to put someone else in the director's slot. You and I both know that I can't do the diplomatic fru-fru thing. I won't know what to say to these people. I'll end up picking up the wrong fork or eating the frigging table setting or something. Insult Madame Manybuck's favorite Pomeranian."

"If we want the project to fly, you gotta show." Pete doggedly replied.

"Pete, it's not too late. This job is just gonna require more and more of this stuff, and you certainly haven't got me on the payroll because of my administrative skills. You've got thousands of people who work for you, for chrissake! There's gotta be one who can handle this garbage. Get someone else in there old man, someone who can do the job."

Pete's jaw firmed. "No one else Jack. You're the only one who's got a feel for how I want this to fly. You're the only one who knows something about goddamn everything we want to do there. Interception can turn out to be a nightmare or a dream, and you're the key to keeping the bogie man away. Now, you've got a month to get your juices up, put together a pretty little presentation and get your ass down here."

"I'm going on vacation Pete. You know that." Outright panic was evident in the response.

"No excuses Jack. That pansy stuff doesn't become you."

Jack muttered something rude and hung up.

Pete sat back. That wasn't so bad. However, she did have a point, this wasn't her usual crowd. He'd better see about getting some help up there. Hmm, there was that kid he'd hired. Ty's daughter, the one that refused to go to work for her old man. What was her name? He chuckled. Little did she know she'd ended up working for the old man's buddy. Poor kid. The old fool couldn't resist trying to meddle in the kid's life. From the looks of her resume, she didn't need Daddy's help. Pete turned to his computer and tossed off an email with a mischievous smile. Insult my cigars will ya?

Taylor Williams swore as her coffee bounced out of its cup holder, scorching her leg and staining the map she was trying to make sense of. Doesn't anyone fill potholes in Vermont? She grimaced. Can't be too hard on them Taylor, it's unlikely that the state knows that the road exists. It's certainly not on the map. The locals weren't much help either.

When Taylor had stopped at a gas station for coffee and directions she had received sludge and a long monologue involving obscure landmarks, 'the old Jones place' and 'the barn that burned down three years ago' prominent among them.

Taylor snorted. If she didn't find the Dulcet Estates soon she'd just head back to the main highway. There was a cute little bed and breakfast down there. She could get a room, wake up to croissants and orange juice, and find out if the owner gave directions in English. Or could at least translate Yankee. Of course, if the owner was that good, maybe he could explain to her what just what it was she was supposed to be doing here. Her mind reviewed the cryptic e-mail she had gotten yesterday. Those three lines weren't too informative. She'd tried to find out more from the rather pompous sounding woman that had made her travel arrangements, but the only information she'd been able to extract had to do with plane tickets and rental cars. Taylor had the entire e-mail memorized. She'd reread it two or three times, hoping to find some clues buried in the terse directive.


Report to Dulcet Estates in Roddenbury, VT. Assist J McDermott with Interception presentation. Call my secretary for travel arrangements.

Pete Drechter

No explanations, no sign off, just three short lines. Of course, the CEO doesn't need to stand on ceremony, but it would have been nice if he'd indicated whether she'd need a computer, a screen projector, or a bikini.

"Damn!" Taylor exclaimed in frustration as she zipped by a driveway. She braked hard and backed up rapidly through the cloud of dust she'd raised. The lettering on the wrought iron archway read "Dulcet Estates."

"We have a winner!" Taylor thought as she turned carefully down the drive.

Taylor finally pulled up in front of an old farmhouse. This place was huge. The distance from the house to the road would be measured in miles, not feet. Wouldn't want to be the one who pays to have this drive plowed. She flipped down the visor, frowning at the reflection she faced. You certainly look like you've been travelling all afternoon, Taylor dear. She grinned as her mind produced her mother's saccharine voice. Quickly, she took her hair down and rebraided it smoothly. Light lip-gloss added a little more color. Well, it isn't much, but it'll have to do. She made a face at herself and flipped the visor back up.

Getting out, she noted that there was work being done on the roof. She paused and observed for a moment. The group worked together with a smooth efficiency that was soothing to watch. She saw a new bundle of shingles arrive at the right hand of one of the roofers just as he hammered in the last in his stack. She watched as two young men shouldered a heavy roll of black paper between them, climbing up parallel ladders to deliver it on the other side of the roof with practiced ease. The way the workers comfortably moved around each other on the narrow and precarious confines of the roof had the coordinated synchronicity of a dance.

Taylor shook her head. You're a little punch drunk from the hectic day, girl. What's it called, highway hypnosis? Get it together. A bunch of roofers is not a trip to the Met. A young man with dark hair looked up when she closed the car door. He ambled over with a smile on his face.

"Can I help you?" He loomed over her, friendly inquiry in his brown eyes making him look like a giant puppy.

"Are you Mr. McDermott?"

He grinned. "Depends. Which one you looking for?"

Taylor looked down at the e-mail she'd printed out. "Um, J McDermott?"

The young man's grin widened, crinkling the sun kissed skin around his brown eyes in an appealing manner. "'Fraid you're gonna have to be more specific than that, Miss..."

"Just Taylor." She reached out her hand. "Taylor Williams. How many of them do you have?"

He laughed as he grasped it in a warm palm. "Six. Which one's lucky enough to be your target?"

She smiled at the gentle flirtation she saw in his eyes, then looked at the e-mail again. "Are you all working on a project called Interception?"

He grumbled, "That's McDermott number seven." He raised his head and voice to the roof. "Hey Jack! C'mere!"

One of the roofers waved briefly and headed for the ladder. Taylor turned back to the young man. "So," she asked with a grin, "what's your J stand for?"

"Jeffrey Jarlath McDermott. Pleased to meet you ma'am." He tipped an imaginary hat brim.

Taylor groaned. "Don't tell me...middle names too?"

"Yep. All of us."

"Your parents have a problem with remembering initials, right? Decided to make it easy on themselves?" Taylor tried to peek around the mountain of a man, having lost sight of Jack McDermott's form.

A low voice spoke just over her shoulder, scaring the wits out of her. "Nope, just a wicked strange sense of humor, and some bizarre family traditions."

Taylor jumped out of her skin and spun around quickly. She looked up, and up and up to find a pair of piercingly blue eyes looking straight down at her from beneath rich black brows. I've never seen quite that shade of blue before, she mused. The uncomfortably close range made it possible for her to see that there were rings of deep indigo surrounding pools of blue bubbles, each one of which seemed to be it's own unique shade. When a dark eyebrow quirked over one of those irises, she realized that she'd waited just a bit too long to respond. Flushing slightly, she stepped back and cleared her throat in confusion, trying to remember just what it was that she was supposed to respond to. Jeffrey came to her rescue.

"Ms. Williams, let me introduce you to my sister, Jack. Jack, this is Taylor Williams."

The imposingly tall woman offered her hand, a look of mild inquiry on her face. "What can I do for you Ms. Williams?"

"Taylor. I'm your new assistant for the Intercept presentation." Taylor's hand was swallowed up in the strong, warm clasp.

Two black brows shot up. "You're what?"

"Um, I'm here to help you with your presentation?" She got no response other than a puzzled stare. She added helpfully, "Pete Drechter sent me out."

It startled Taylor to discover that Jack's expression was no longer mild, and certainly not friendly. The dark woman turned to her brother. "Go give Jer a hand." Her voice was curt, and anger seethed under the surface. Jeffrey winked at Taylor and left.

Jack's high voltage stare turned back to Taylor. "Now, what is it that Pete told you that you would be doing here?"

The abrupt change from disinterest to intense anger rattled Taylor. She felt pinned by that stare, and the contained power that just oozed off the tall woman. She firmed her backbone, forcing herself to respond lightly. "That's all I know really, I got this e-mail yesterday morning." She handed it over. "I assumed you'd flesh out the details."

"I'll flesh them out alright," she growled.

My god, the woman could make a bear cower just by growling at him. Calm yourself girl. She can't be angry with you, right?

Jack stared at her for a moment more, then sighed. "C'mon." Her head jerked towards the house. "Lets get this mess straightened out." Her eyes shot down to Taylor's stained pants leg. "You probably want to freshen up, and I need to chew Pete's rear end for a while."

Taylor blushed. Why didn't she think about stopping somewhere and changing after she spilled that coffee? Way to make a first impression.

Taylor stepped out of the bathroom she'd used to change into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, trying to ignore the stream of invective coming down the hall from behind a closed door. She wandered into the main room, pausing to soak in her surroundings. The room reminded her of something, but she couldn't place what. Large, tough furniture seemed to be the motif. Worn leather and dark wood was everywhere. Aha, she thought, as she touched a mental finger to the familiarity. It reminded her of her father's sacrosanct 'smoking room,' the last bastion of masculinity. Now that tree forts are out of fashion in Manhattan that is. The furniture here looked like it underwent a lot more abuse, but the room had that same sense of disdain for extra frills. Comfortable, solid, and functional. Nothing more.

Well, it certainly looks like the kind of place that would be lived in by the six brothers McDermott and a girl named Jack. She grinned, mentally concocting a Grimm fairy tale in her mind. That tall woman with the intense aura would make a perfect hero. Vague images of intense blue eyes and incredibly broad shoulders battling evil ran through her brain. She was tempted to nose around and see if she couldn't find some hint of a more frivolous hand in decorating, but she firmly turned her mind to other things. It strayed back to her new supervisor. At least I think she's supposed to be my supervisor. The unusual woman obviously wasn't expecting to see her, and just as clearly wasn't happy with the surprise. Taylor thought back to how intimidated she had been when the woman turned anger filled eyes down at her. Not just intimidated...disappointed.

She thought about that. She really wanted to do well in this job. No. She needed to do well at this job. If they didn't start giving her some work that exercised her intellect soon, she was going to go postal. Not that working in the PR department was boring. The political infighting alone could keep a war veteran up at night sweating bullets.

Taylor sighed, thinking back to her first day at work a few months ago. It had taken Karen Benedict less than an hour to make it clear that she thought Taylor was hideously underqualified. Though she didn't say it in so many words, Taylor got the impression that her new supervisor knew who Daddy was, and wasn't happy about it. Well, his shadow was a specter she was used to fighting. She was hoping that being tapped by the CEO for such an odd assignment might mean that she had earned an opportunity to demonstrate her abilities. The sound of glass breaking down the hall was followed by a loud thump that rattled the closed door and a final, definitive expletive made that her jump nervously. Then again, it might just be that the low woman on the totem pole lost the coin toss.

A few moments later, a very irritated Jack was back in the room. Her eyes flicked impassively over the new clothing, then raised to look at Taylor inscrutably. Taylor consciously squared her shoulders, and forced herself to return the stare. Jack finally spoke, her low tone sounding resigned.

"Well, it looks like I'm stuck with you."

Taylor tried a small smile. "You sound so pleased."

The woman just looked at her.

"Honestly, I'm not so bad to have around. I don't take up too much space, I don't play loud music in the office. I rarely leave my coffee cup lying around until it turns brown, and I promise not to hog the stapler. Though you might have to fight me for post-its."

Jack almost looked like she was going to smile, but the expression passed quickly. "I need to get back up there while we still have daylight. I'll set you up with a room, but I'm afraid you're gonna have to entertain yourself until Anna gets back."

"Well, if you tell me what we're working on, I could get started."

The woman walked past Taylor into the hall, scooping up the overnight bag that was resting on the floor. "No time, it'll have to wait until after dinner."

"Wait! You mean I'm staying here?" Surprise laced her voice.

"Of course. Where else?"

The curt tone made her even more nervous. "Um, a hotel?"

"The closest one is about an hour away. You're welcome to the B&B in town, but you're gonna be here for about a month, that could get mighty uncomfortable."

A month? Oh geez. She reached a hand out to Jack's upper arm, stopping her progress down the hall. Taylor removed the hand self-consciously when Jack looked down at it thoughtfully, as if she'd never seen one before. "I'm really sorry. No wonder you flipped out, having an uninvited guest thrown into your house suddenly. Don't worry about it, I'll go down to the bed and breakfast. I'm certain it'll be fine."

Jack paused for a long moment, then spoke with a little more warmth. "Anything having to do with this presentation ticks me off. It's got nothing to do with you. 'Sides, " a sudden grin lit her face, "Pete was trying to get under my skin with his games. Wouldn't do to disappoint him by not reacting. Don't let our squabbling force you into a corner. Anna's food's better than the stuff you'll get at the B&B."

Taylor smiled tentatively back at the woman. "Um...OK. I guess I'll let you get back on the roof then. Can I help in any way?"

"Nope." Jack put her bag down inside a door and left abruptly.

Taylor wandered into the room and sat down with a thump. The woman scares the wits out of me, charms me into hypnosis with her eyes, intimidates me, casually insults one of the richest men in the country, smiles for no reason and walks away? One thing you can say about my new supervisor. She isn't boring. Now if I just knew what my job was.

She looked around the room. The walls looked like they had been freshly painted white. The bed had a natural pine frame and a dark green comforter. A Maxfield Parrish scene of a waterfall hung over the bed. Green drapes hung at the windows, and a natural pine dresser protected a wall from severe blankness. The contrast from the Spartan style of the main room tipped her off that at least one person in the house had a glimmer of an idea that color could be a good thing. The exceedingly simple decorations looked downright opulent.

Well, since it looks like I have the best digs in the house, what do I do with myself? She mentally teetered between being good and checking her e-mail, or taking advantage of her unexpected reprieve to do a little reading. With a guilty smile, she dug her book out and went in search of a comfortable chair. Mercedes Lackey's fantasy versus Karen Benedict's sly complaints? No contest.

Jack slammed the nail home with one stroke, then reached for two more with one hand while she grabbed another shingle with the other. Lining it up carefully along the chalk line, she slammed two more nails down. She fell into a thoughtless rhythm. Damn Pete. The sun felt good on her back, the physical exertion providing a welcome focus for her frustration, loosening the taut muscles along her upper back. The boys knew the signs that she was in a mood, and kept quiet, and out of her way. Good thing too. She was just itching to take her frustration out on someone. A roof wasn't the best place to get into a scuffle.

Face it Jack. This isn't about Pete getting cute. Oh, she knew that Pete was just getting back at her for chewing his tail the other day. Old man never could take it when I commented on his cigars. Normally, she would have just laughed it off, or sent him a pickled cuban or something. This presentation really had her spooked.

I HATE standing up and talking in front of folks. Especially rich, Manhattan folks. Christ. A flipping party. And deep down she was worried that this time Pete had handed her something she couldn't deliver on. Not just the presentation, but the job. He had high hopes for this hare-brained project. She owed him too much to fail on something this important to him. She pounded the nails in harder and faster. Sometimes, I just get so damn tired of my debts. One of these days Jack, she promised herself, you're gonna make a decision in your life that doesn't have to do with what you owe. She grimaced. Wonder what that would be? Do I even know how?

She felt bad for the kid, though. That was lousy of Pete, putting her in the middle of his crap. She frowned. And that J McDermott thing was just too evil. Wonder if she got on his bad side, or just was unfortunate enough to be caught in the cross-fire? Then, of course, she got to deal with Jack in full tantrum mode. Jack upped her pace again, feeling the muscles stretch and burn, the impact of the hammer sending shock waves through her wrists and up the bones of her arm. She's probably wishing she never heard of Interception. I certainly didn't give her a warm welcome. Jack was surprised that it was so easy to talk her out of the B&B after the way she'd treated the kid.

Jack wondered about that. Normally, she'd have just agreed that the B&B was the place for the woman. After all, who was Pete to decide that she was gonna have a guest during her vacation? Bad enough that he forced her to make it a working one. The house was crowded to the rafters now that the boys were on break. But for some reason, the offer had just slipped out. She grinned. Well, nothing so eloquent as an offer, but it did the job. Poor Anna was gonna be digging out the big pots again with Jack and the boys home, and a guest to boot.

She must be, what? Twenty-two, twenty-three? Sure charmed Jeff quickly. Jack made a mental note to pull her youngest brother aside for the 'talk' again. Not that she could blame him for his interest. Hmmm, might end up talking to all the lads. The girl had an appealing manner, almost soothing. Nice hair and body too. Her green eyes were incredibly expressive. Jack flushed. They sure expressed how she felt about Jack; there had been fear in her eyes when she'd stared Jack down. She felt like a heel, letting her anger with Pete wash over the girl. But damn if she didn't notice that the kid bucked up her grits and tried to jolly Jack out of the mood. Funny, her touching me like that. No one but the boys and Anna dared. Ever. She must be one of those touchy-feely types who hugs someone they met five minutes ago like a long lost lover.

"Hey JACK!"

Jack broke off to look into the bewildered brown eyes of Jacob, standing two feet from her.

"Whatchya shouting for Jake?" She asked in a mild tone.

He carefully kept himself from snorting. His sister looked like she'd worked off most of her ire, but he'd rather not give her an excuse to go off again. She'd been jumpier than a horny toad all week. "You were off in your head Sis. I tried to get your attention three times."

"Just mentally ripping Pete some new orifices," she responded casually. "What's up?"

"We're outta shingles."

Jack looked around; one side of the roof was almost completed. "We made great time. I didn't figure we'd get this far until tomorrow night."

Jer sighed from his spot past Jake. 'They' hadn't made great time. His sister had. She'd come out of the house and laid down a quarter of the roof in two hours. He was sore just from trying to keep up, and he noticed that Jake was unobtrusively rotating his wrist. Probably jarred it trying to do that one-stroke thing that Jack used to drive nails. Jake would never learn.

Jimmy popped his head up the ladder. "That mean we can quit early?"

Jack smiled at his hopeful tone. "Yeah, just put a little extra time into cleaning up."

A muted cheer rang amongst the crew, and they enthusiastically set to getting the tools put away and the debris into the dumpster. Jack stood up and stretched thoroughly, feeling her back pop as she reached for the sky. Julian climbed up, several tool belts slung over his shoulder.

"Gimme yours Jack, I'm taking them all in."

She thankfully unbuckled the belt and handed it over. "Thanks Jules. You're a good kid." He stuck his tongue out at her and disappeared down the ladder.

Jack chuckled and sat down on the roof, enjoying the view and the quiet as the boys finished cleaning and headed into the house to wash up. She took a deep breath of the air, loving the smell of twilight in the summer. Her muscles relaxed further, responding to the change in her mental state. She stayed out until the first tentative peepers had turned into a full chorus, then headed downstairs to find out what terrors the boys were inflicting on her new assistant.

Taylor had read through a couple of chapters when the door opened and a woman of indeterminate age walked in, juggling three bags of groceries. She jumped up. "Here, let me help."

The woman smiled and handed one over. "Oh, bless you. I always convince myself that I can manage three, and I never succeed."

Taylor took the proffered bag and reached for another. The woman pulled out of her range. "No, no. I can handle two just fine."

Taylor smiled and followed the lady into the kitchen. "Are you Anna?"

"Right in one. Who might you be?" The woman looked at Taylor with open curiosity.

"Taylor Williams. I'm going to be working with Jack on a presentation she has to put together."

"Oh, that's nice. We don't meet folks from Jack's work too often." The woman tilted her head as they set the bags down on the counters in the large, airy kitchen. "Can I talk you into giving me a hand lugging in the rest of the groceries?"

"My god. What are you feeding, an army?" Taylor peered over the edge of the truck bed, her eyes wide in disbelief to find it overflowing with brown bags.

Anna laughed. "Well, with seven youngsters in the house, working up an appetite all day, it seems like it. They've only been gone for a couple of months, but I've already gotten out of the habit of measuring in gallons instead of cups."

Taylor mentally added then figured that Jack must be one of the youngsters. She was tickled at the thought of someone tagging the imposing woman with such an irreverent appellation. "They don't live here all the time?" Taylor asked as they headed back to the kitchen with a load.

"Goodness, no. Jeff and Julian, the two youngest, do. They're both going to the community college. Jeremy, Jake, John, and Jimmy are all back on their summer break right now."

"All six of them are in college? You must be mortgaged to the ears paying tuition!" How do you get six kids in college at the same time? Taylor wondered.

A sad look crossed Anna's face. "Not me, hon. Jack. Proud as I am to call them my boys, they're not really mine."

One of the roofers came in at that moment. "Oh pshaw Anna. We're yours. Heart, soul, and..." He peeked into one of the bags mischievously, "stomach!"

Anna blushed and slapped him on the arm. "Get your silver tongue out of here and go get the rest of those groceries."

The young man feigned a swoon on the way out the door. "My heart! She rejects my most ardent proclamations of love! I'm off to throw myself from the scaffolding in despair."

"Wait, I'll give you a hand." Taylor followed him.

"With the groceries? Or are you going to throw me off the roof?" He grinned raffishly at her as he held the door.

She looked up as she passed him. "Whichever you find the most pressing."

"I think I'll let you help me with the bags. I'm finding my despair is waning pretty quickly."

"Which one are you?"



"I know," he smiled. "Saw you getting the evil eye from Jack, asked Jeff about you."

Taylor learned that Jimmy was a pre-Vet major at Cornell. They chatted about the frustrations of exams, papers on obscure topics, and mercurial instructors with unreasonable expectations, until they were interrupted by a flock of McDermotts who swooped down to carry in the rest of the groceries in one load.

The kitchen was chaos as the half dozen young men noisily helped to put the food away and get dinner started. They bantered with each other, Taylor, and Anna with cheerful malice. She was more than a little overwhelmed-but she had to admit it was kind of fun, reminding her of summer camp and childhood. I always wondered what it would feel like to have a big family. She winced as Jeff yowled his outrage at being bopped on the head with a can of olives. John had lost his grip on the can when he was gesticulating a little too vehemently to describe a painting he'd seen. Loud. That's what it's like.

She'd finally met them all. She sat back for a moment trying to get them sorted out, having been firmly tucked into the corner when she tried to help. Jeremy was the oldest. She guessed that he was pretty close to her own age of twenty-four. She mentally ran down the list, hoping she had them in correct order: Jeremy, Jake, the twins John and Jimmy, Julian, and ending with Jeff. She guessed that Jeff couldn't more than a year or two out of high school. Not unless there was more than one woman involved in the birthing.

It would be easy for a stranger to recognize them as a horde of brothers. With their size, they looked like a defensive line out of uniform. Most had hair in shades of medium brown. Their eyes were variations on a tint of light brown that was reminiscent of sherry, though Julian's seemed to be hazel.

She noted that Jeff was the only one whose hair was dark enough to be compared to Jack's, and none of them had her eyes. Adopted? She looked again. No. There was something about the cheekbones, and the planar lines of their faces that showed common ancestry with Jack. Huh. Maybe she just came out of the womb resolved to be an individual. Wouldn't put it past that determined personality. She certainly looks like she was born to be a maverick.

The debate between Jake and John suddenly bounced her way.

"Whaddaya say Taylor?"

She looked up. "What Jake? I wasn't listening."

Julian chuckled. "He just asked you to sit with him at dinner. Seems to think it will prove that good looking girls prefer his company to Johnny-boy's endless prattle about the art show."

Taylor hesitated, unsure how to answer.

Jimmy caroled out, "what color is the sky in your world boys?" He walked over and offered his arm to Taylor with dramatic gallantry. "She obviously prefers my charm to your egos."

Taylor laughed out loud. "Aren't we all going to be sitting at the same table?"

"Sure, but as your dinner date, I get to sit next to you and shamelessly monopolize your attention."

He was cut off as three of his brothers protested his assumptions. Loudly. Taylor didn't know whether to laugh hysterically or blush furiously. She was certain that they weren't serious, but their ardent competition tickled her funny bone. They reminded her of a pack of puppies fighting over a new red ball. They started shouting their qualifications to Taylor, coming up with some interesting references and achievements.

"That's quite enough." The room was instantly quiet.

Taylor looked up to see a pair of blue eyes impassively sweep the room, leaving tense young men in it's wake. When the eyes latched onto Taylor, she thought she saw the barest hint of a quiver on the woman's lips.

Jack spoke quietly. "I thought we might have that meeting now."

Taylor hopped off the kitchen counter, and walked through the door that Jack held open.

Jack paused and looked around the room. "You've got chores...Gentlemen."

Jack led her to an office. Taylor couldn't help herself. She started laughing hysterically once the door was closed, as Jack lowered herself into the chair that sat before her desk with a bemused expression.

"Oh....Oh...god." Taylor gasped out between chuckles. "That was just priceless! Are they always like that?"

The corner of Jack's mouth quirked. "Well...they're always challenging each other, shameless, and incredibly high energy if that's what you're asking. But I hope they don't always treat guests that way. I tried to raise them to at least pretend to civility."

Taylor remembered the string of profanity that had emitted from behind this door a few hours ago and broke into hysterics again. She obviously doesn't practice what she preaches.

Jack had a look of mild puzzlement on her face. She was inclined to let the girl laugh herself out, finding the sight of Taylor completely succumbing to her hilarity oddly intriguing.

Taylor sternly got herself under control. She wiped her eyes. "Oh, I'm sorry. I think I'm just tired."

"Not a problem. Glad they didn't embarrass you."

"They're just a pack of harmless puppies," Taylor smiled.

An eyebrow quirked. "Do me a favor, and don't say that in front of them. They'll spend the next month trying to show you how fearsome they are, and upping my count of gray hairs in the process."

Taylor eyed the sleek black hair appreciatively; "I don't see any gray in there." She mentally shook herself by the scruff of the neck. "I mean...you said you raised them? You must be older than you look."

Jack smiled. "Maybe." Her tone became brusque. "You must have a few questions about what you're doing here."

Taylor mentally changed gears. "One or two. Maybe you could start with telling me just what Interception is?"

Taylor turned out the lights and slipped under the covers. It had been quite a day. Dinner wasn't quite as chaotic as she had expected. Jack had neatly solved her seating dilemma by guiding Taylor into a spot between herself and Jeff after they emerged from the office. Jeff had been shyly friendly throughout the meal, solicitously making sure that the dishes made it to her before healthy appetites emptied them.

The information she had gleaned in the office was interesting. It turned out that Interception was a project that Pete had cooked up as a form of philanthropy. He wanted to convert the back 3, 000 acres of Dulcet estates into a nonprofit center for kids in the foster care and juvenile detention systems-what society calls the 'hard cases.' The idea was a bit complex, and Taylor had to admit it sounded a little too fancy. He wanted the kids to live and work on a ranch that trained horses to be ridden by the severely handicapped. The contention was that hard work, a lot of education, and being separated from the street environment could keep them out of trouble and change their lives for the better.

"Sounds risky to me." Taylor had hesitantly mused.

Jack had quirked an eyebrow. "It is. There're a couple of tricky bits to it. We don't want to make a system to replace the system. Pete thinks that the secret is going to be in hiring good people, and letting them design their own ways for interacting with the kids. The idea is to surround the kids with people who have the freedom to be responsive to their needs, not create a pre-planned process to shove them through."

Taylor processed the words, trying to get a mental picture for how the project would function. "Sounds like a high staffing level."

Jack snorted. "Very. It's not going to be cheap."

"What's the second tricky part?"

"Selling the idea and making it work. Pete's betting a lot of money, and at some point, the kids' futures, on his half-cooked theories. They're not something that's been 'proven,' just the whims of an old goat. He thinks having them do something that can help others will motivate them more than being told that they need to do it for their own sake. If his logic isn't sound, there's going to be a lot of negative fallout when we don't get the results he's predicting."

"It's an interesting idea...getting them to focus on someone else, to help themselves. How'd he come up with it?" Taylor mentally reviewed the theories she'd heard in the child psychology class that she'd taken to fulfill a general education requirement.

"Modeled it on a kid he knew. Said it was the 'ultimate turn-around story."

Taylor's interest perked up. "Really? Tell me the story."

Jack looked away. "Not that interesting really. Just a wild girl who got her act together when her father died and she suddenly found herself responsible for six siblings."


Jack stood up and headed for the door. "Dinner must be about ready."

Taylor restlessly shaped her pillow. That had ended the conversation, and she had yet to find out what her role was with Interception. She had discovered some fascinating things about her host though. The woman obviously took complete responsibility for her brothers. And, Taylor thought impishly, it's possible for her to be discomfited. Jack's aura of contained power had led Taylor to conclude that she was impervious to the little things that threw most people off their stride. Not that she had shown much discomfort, just a little drop of the eyes and an abrupt end to the conversation. However, it had pleased Taylor to see it. It made Jack seem more...approachable.

Taylor sighed and mentally chastised herself. Admit it girl, you just like knowing that one of the most fascinatingly beautiful women you've ever met is human. Lets get this out of the way, shall we?

Ok, her new boss was gorgeous.

And had searing blue eyes.

And an intense presence that was mesmerizing.

And a body that...

Ok! We got the pros. She's attractive.

Check. That's an understatement.

She's your boss.

Only for a month.

You're not co-operating Taylor.

Ok, ok, she's my boss.

You really, really need to do well on this project.


You'll end up dying of boredom, and listening to your father say "I told you so" if this job doesn't fly..

I know all this.

You don't know if she'd be interested.

She winced.

When you start making goofy eyes at her, and she sends you packing, where are you going to be?

Ummm...listening to my father say "I told you so."

Right. Is it worth the risk? We're deep in farm country girl; she's probably never heard the word 'lesbian' outside of a dirty joke.

A long silence followed.



Good girl. You can go to sleep now.

And with a regretful sigh, she did.

Jack took advantage of Taylor's early departure for bed to call a family chat. Jeff and Julian were the last to trail in to the family room, Julian having had to fetch Jeff from the stables.

"What's up Sis?" Jules asked as he flopped down in front of the couch.

"I want to talk to you boys about Taylor."

Jake spoke up. "Aw Jack, don't have a conniption on us, we were only joking around."

"This isn't specifically about the fact that y'all acted like a bunch of teenagers with a guest in our home. We can clear that up tomorrow."

Everyone groaned. Angering Jack meant working your tail off. Jeff broke in. "Hey! I am a teenager."

"So, what's this about Jack?" Jer asked quietly.

Jack stated definitively, "I don't want you boys acting like a bunch of horny teenagers either."

There was silence for a moment before John spoke up. "You're telling us she's off limits?"

Jack looked at him steadily. "Yep."

Jake spoke so quickly, he practically rolled over her response. "You can't tell us who we're gonna date Jack."

"I am."

"That's taking bossiness to a new level, even for you."

Jer slapped the back of his brother's head. "Watch your mouth idiot."

Jack looked unperturbed. "She's not just a guest, Jake. She's a co-worker of mine who's here to get a job done, not develop a case for harassing environment against me. You get it Sherlock?"

Jake looked mildly embarrassed. "Oh."

Jimmy piped up. "What if she asks us out?"

John looked disgusted. "You and your ego."

Jack smiled evilly. "Then, as long as you can repeat my lectures on gentlemanly behavior and safe sex verbatim while hanging from the rafters by your ankles, you're welcome to accept."

The entire room burst out in laughter. They had all heard the lectures so many times, they could probably recite them with a fifth of tequila in their gullets.

Taylor woke up to a light knock on her door. She groped around until her hand found her watch on the bed stand, then focussed on it blearily. Six in the morning. No one invades my apartment at six in the morning, and who's tromping on the roof? This had better be good.


A dark head poked in, jarring Taylor into an awareness of where she was. She sat up and rubbed the sleep out of her eyes.

"Sorry about the hour, but the boys are gonna start ripping up the roof soon, and it'll sound like the world's ending. Didn't want you to freak out when you woke up."

Taylor impatiently pushed her hair back. "C'mon in."

Jack came through the door and handed Taylor a cup of coffee. She looked fantastic in a black t-shirt, faded jeans and work boots. The shirt contrasted nicely with the bronzed skin on the muscles of her arms while accenting the shine of her hair. Hey! I thought we had an agreement! Taylor mentally slapped herself and took a sip from the coffee.

Oooh, good coffee. She took a deep breath of the steam with her eyes closed. "Oh, you're definitely forgiven for anything when you're bearing good coffee. Even waking me up at oh-dark-hundred."

The corner of Jack's mouth quirked. "It's light out."

"Hey! Don't ruin my generous forgiveness speech."

"Ah. Sorry. You need anything from town?"

Taylor thought for a moment. If she was going to be here for a month, she'd better get some clothes. "I don't suppose there's a clothing store down there?"

Jack looked at her thoughtfully. "Nope. Why?"

Taylor looked down. "It's just that I didn't know I was going to be here for a month, and most of what I packed was suits anyway."

"We'll head up to Rutland then."

Taylor looked up quickly. "Oh no! I can find a clothing store on my own."

"Not a problem. Think you can be ready in half an hour?"

Taylor ducked her shoulders as the first pounding made it sound like the roof was indeed caving in. "Sooner. Wow. It wasn't this loud yesterday." She watched the windows vibrate in fascination.

"We're directly above you today. Only one story."

Jack left Taylor to get herself up, and went in search of Jer. She found him in the barn, getting the tool belts. "I'm taking Taylor up to Rutland. Make sure they've got that side cleared and papered early this afternoon."

Jer groaned mentally. They were going to have to really work to get that much done, especially without Jack. He'd let them behave poorly while she wasn't there; he could get them to work their tails off while she isn't there. He sighed. Sometimes he wished he were the baby in the family.

"No problem Jack."

She let the corner of her mouth turn up in approval. "See you later."


Taylor, apparently, was a battle-seasoned shopper. Not only did she rip through the stores that Jack took her to, leaving terrified sales staff in her wake, she'd discovered shops that Jack hadn't even known existed. As a rule, Jack's shopping style was along the lines of 'get the goods and get out while you still can.' She usually ran in, found something that fit, bought six if the price was reasonable, and considered her shopping done for a year or two.

Taylor seemed to find the unending torture of crowds and synthetic covers of soft rock hits an adventure to be savored. Jack had finally pled errands at the hardware store, and had made her escape after arranging to meet Taylor at the coffee shop for lunch. Hopefully, she'll have conquered the rest of Rutland by then and we can go home. God help me if I ever take her to Weston. Jack walked to the park after a quick trip to the bookstore, and settled down under a tree to while away a couple of hours. Have to remember to pick up some brads or something on the way to lunch.

An hour later, Jack set the book down and just leaned back against the tree, watching the kids who were too small for school run around the playground. She couldn't really get into the book. Pete's insistence on sending Taylor up here was nibbling at her brain. If he really thought she needed help, he could have had someone in development put something together for her. She picked up a piece of grass and started shredding it. Most likely, this was just another power play. Pete liked flexing his muscles, and reminding her of the limits her life had was one of his rarely indulged in games. But what if it's more?

Last night, in a fit of paranoia, she'd called the woman's supervisor, just to feel things out. What she got for her troubles was a mealy mouthed twenty-minute session of poorly veiled petulant complaint. Seems Karen Benedict didn't appreciate the CEO snaking one of her employees out from under her. Resume had checked out, no gaps in life history, and no time spent in any other department at Drechter enterprises. She'd turned up nothing that gave her pause about the young woman. She easily pictured the young woman's face in her mind. Guileless green eyes, open enthusiastic expression, golden brows arched as she laughed her gut out over the boys' tomfoolery. She balled up the grass shreds and threw them. Nothing to worry about. I hope.

Jack took an amazing array of unnamed, unmarked dirt roads to travel from Rutland to Roddenbury. Taylor was enjoying the view of lush, quiet surroundings that passed by her window. "So, I'm basically supposed to put together a sales pitch for you?"

Jack glanced across the cab at Taylor. "Yep. I'd call David Connor in development first. He can give you the lowdown on what exactly is supposed to happen at this thing. I can answer specific questions about the program for you, and if you need any other resources, just let me know."

Taylor looked at Jack thoughtfully. "You know, I could have handled this from the office."

Jack nodded. "I know."

"So, what am I doing here?"

The tall woman sighed. "Pete's an odd fellow."

"Forgive me for saying this, but you don't seem to be too enthusiastic about the whole project."

"I'm not." Jack's eyes glinted.

"What's not to like?"

The tall woman paused for a long moment before answering. "I guess I've got two reasons. One, I don't think I should have been put into the job."

"So why'd you take it?"

There was an odd note in Jack's voice when she answered. "I work for Pete. What I do for Drechter enterprises is his decision."

Taylor briefly thought about challenging Jack's answer. The response was ridiculous. She eyed the woman speculatively. There was a subtle tension about her shoulders, and the tone of voice was slightly distant. There's something else going on here, something she doesn't want to go in to.

"Ok, what's the second problem?"

"I think Pete's jerking around with people's lives for his own reasons. Not an unusual situation, as you should know by now." Blue eyes glinted at her. "But this time he's messing around with kids who really do need some form of help."

"It's not the project, but his motivations that are disturbing you?"

Jack expelled a breath. "Yeah."

"So, make it work."


"Make it work despite the reasons." Taylor grinned. "Most major philanthropists have underlying motivations when they give money for a cause. Social status, heavenly salvation, putting their name on a building that'll live for years beyond their death, absolution of guilt, methods of manipulating business associates...it's an ugly business really. But who cares? If the money is getting where it needs to go, and is managed by people with integrity, then there's some good coming out of mixed intentions. Sometimes it's not the thought that counts."

Jack looked over at her in surprise.

"I'm not as innocent as I look you know." Taylor tried to waggle her eyebrows in a lecherous fashion.

Jack chuckled.

Taylor paused to enjoy the low, rolling sound that seemed to take over the very air of the truck's cab.

"Seriously though. No matter how you got the job, you owe it to these kids to see to it that it's done well."

Taylor watched in fascination as the muscles at the base of Jack's jaw worked, showing prominent definition. How can someone's jaw look buff? "Yeah," Jack replied in a subdued tone.

Whoops. Now that she'd gotten the basics of where to start doing something, she decided to try and find one topic that wouldn't highlight the negative swings of Jack's mercurial personality.

Taylor discovered that Jack was an attentive listener, but not much of a chatter. She tended toward single sentence answers to questions that most folks would have responded to with books. But something about the way the woman paid attention drew stories out of Taylor. Seeking more of those delicious chuckles, she found herself relating the most outrageous stories she could remember from her own years as an undergrad. Taylor stopped in surprise when the truck pulled through a gap in the chain link fence of a lumberyard. She'd been talking nonstop for quite a while.

"Shingles." Jack spoke in response to Taylor's surprised look.

"Umm, I've been chatting your ear off, haven't I?"

"Helped pass the time." Jack responded negligently and got out of the truck.

Taylor followed. She tried to help when Jack started hurling bound piles of shingles into the bed, but Jack shooed her to the side.

"Not enough room for two of us to be hurling these things around."

Taylor wasn't sure if she was miffed or secretly pleased. She was proud of her own condition, and didn't like to be hustled off to the side like a child. But...Jack made it look easier than it was. Those bundles were awkward, as well as heavy. Besides, she thought impishly, the view is much better from here.

The black t-shirt fit Jack's back lovingly, alternately hiding and then highlighting the play of muscles as she heaved the bundles into the bed. She worked steadily; the thump of the bundles sounded as even as the ticking of a clock as they magically flew through the air and stacked themselves in a precise pile. Taylor watched the way denim clung to the woman as she bent her knees and picked up another bundle, then the shift of her shoulders as she launched it up to join its fellows. The sun did nice things to midnight black hair swinging back and forth with each throw.

Dammit Taylor! She brought herself up short once again. My god, I think I need to get out more. My lasciviousness isn't usually this rampant.

She forced her mind to something else. Lunch had been fun. The coffee shop had served the oddest combination of rather exotic vegetarian dishes combined with a full selection of hamburgers and deli sandwiches. Jack had responded to her comment by succinctly explaining the demographics of the area, which she claimed to be made up of three groups. "Natives, New York vacationers, and crunchy-granolas." After the acerbic comment, Taylor was surprised when Jack ordered a falafel. She'd gotten a raised eyebrow over the number of bags she gathered from behind her chair as they left. Taylor had made a point of laughingly comparing her load of bags to Jack's small brown parcel, until the woman had swept half her load away from her. Suddenly, a thought jumped into her brain. "Umm...Jack?"

"Yeah." Jack grunted as she lifted a bundle.

"Don't they sell brads here?" She was shocked when the bundle went right over the truck, denting the hood with a crash.

"Damn." Jack swore.

Taylor didn't get an answer to her question. The rest of the week fell into a comfortable pattern. Taylor found that she was forced to get up at an ungodly hour every morning by the work going on overhead. After her morning ablutions, she'd drag herself to the kitchen where the sympathetic Anna provided her with a cup of her wonder coffee and politely left the grumpy woman to wake up on her own. Taylor spent most of her day in Jack's office, at the impromptu desk the woman had set up for her with a table and a newly installed phone jack for her modem. One of the first things she'd done was to call David in development; he gave her the first real data she'd gotten on why she'd made this trip to the wilds of Vermont.

He was, in fact, ecstatic that she'd been sent up. "Jack's not much of a talker, and frankly, I was worried that she'd show up, say three sentences and leave. If you can convince her to sit down and talk to these folks, as well as get a reasonable pitch thrown together for her, we might just have a shot at making this thing fly." Taylor wasn't sure where David got the idea that she'd have any sway over the enigmatic woman's actions, but it was nice to talk to someone who actually sounded enthusiastic and could give her some reasonable details.

It was a ridiculously easy thing to sell, despite Jack's reservations. She probably could have done it in a matter of days. But, she decided, if she was going to be given a month for week's worth of work, might as well make it spectacular. She went into deep research mode. Her starting point was taking a look at where the Harisson foundation had spent its money in the past, looking for a hook to capture their attention.

She usually sat down to lunch with Anna after the older woman had brought sandwiches outside for the roofers, though they sometimes wandered out to join the workers as they quickly got outside of their meal.

When they came in from roofing, domestic chores happened in a whirlwind of noise and energy. Taylor quickly learned that a house full of bachelors doing domestic chores is a hazardous area. Once she had accidentally meandered into the path of a bucket brigade of laundry from the second floor down to the cellar, and had ended up ignominiously buried under a pile of flying jeans. An abashed Julian had called apologies down the stairs, but Taylor had decided that she'd probably do better to work an extra hour or so in the office at the end of the day.

Dinner was always a dynamic experience, with three or four conversations interfering and overlapping with each other. After the meal, she usually found herself in the living room with at least two or three of the McDermotts, chatting, watching movies or playing wickedly cutthroat poker. To her disappointment, Jack rarely joined in on the evening's entertainment. The dark woman usually disappeared into her office until well after Taylor went to bed. Despite her lack of time with Jack, Taylor was having a grand time. She enjoyed the rambunctious energy that permeated the house-it felt like a vacation, really.

That Friday, she found herself in a small bar with a decidedly western feel, surrounded by the four eldest of the McDermott brothers. They'd laughingly invited her while they made plans over dinner, and Taylor had found herself accepting. Why not? It was Friday, and her new friends were fun to be with. The place was packed with exuberant young people, who had all raised their voices in welcome when the McDermott's walked in.

Taylor took the bottle Jer handed her when he returned from buying the first round.

Taylor lifted her eyebrow. "Long Trail? Must be a local thing."

John challenged her. "Try it."

Taylor took a sip and smiled in pleasure as the smooth taste eased down her throat. "Wow." She tried to peer through the bottle. "Dark beer?"

Jimmy grinned. "Yep. Jack says she hasn't found a better beer outside of Guiness." He shuddered. "Personally, I find Guiness just a little too intense for my tastes."

Jake snorted. "Wuss."

Jer clouted his shoulder. "You just pretend to like it 'cause you don't want to admit that Jack drinks stronger beer than you."

Jimmy jumped in. "Go easy on him. He can't help it if she's his only masculine role model."

The whole table burst out laughing, while Jake's expression turned murderous.

Hoping to defuse the situation, Taylor subtly redirected the conversation. "She raised you guys?"

John spoke up. "Yeah, since we were kids. How old were you when Dad died Jer?"


"How old was she?" Taylor asked.


Taylor's brow furrowed. "What? Sixteen year-olds can't adopt."

"Don't put anything past Jack." Jimmy took a long draught off his beer.

"I don't understand."

Jake spoke deprecatingly. "Dunno how she did it either. The one time I asked she about chewed my head off. She's been our lord and master ever since then though."

Jer spoke angrily. "If it wasn't for her, we'd have all grown up in foster care asshole. You'd get along with her better if you stayed out of trouble." He looked at Taylor. "Got in more fights than the other five of us put together."

Jake snorted. "'Cept Jack."

"But I don't understand. How'd she do it?"

Jimmy spoke up. "If you're talking about her keeping the state from flinging us into foster homes, we don't know either." He picked at the label on his beer bottle. "I remember that day that the lady from state services came over though," he looked up at his twin. "Remember?"

John nodded. "Yeah. Jack cussed the woman up one side and down the other. Said she'd made a promise to Dad and she was gonna keep it."

"Chased the old witch right out of the house," Jake added in an admiring tone.

Jimmy sighed. "She drove down to New York City and back the next day. After she came back she just said that it was all taken care of."

"You know what she did down there?"

Jer spoke with distaste. "I figure she sold her soul to old man Drechter, personally. After that she was on the payroll, and we never heard from the state again."

"I still don't get it, even if Drechter got involved, how'd she convince the state to leave six boys with a teenager? It doesn't make much sense."

Jimmy grinned. "Jack can do anything."

Taylor was finding this endlessly fascinating, but a girl with flaming red hair came up to the table and interrupted the conversation. "You gonna dance tonight Jimmy?"

He stood up swept her into a ballroom dance pose, dipping her dramatically. "With you darlin'? The night couldn't get any better."

John took that as his cue to shyly ask Taylor to dance. She spent a good portion of the next couple of hours learning the finer arts of line dancing with the gregarious brothers. She was having a laughingly good time, finding most of the clientele of the local bar to be in a high spirited good mood. The boys seemed determined to keep an eye on her, and she found a new beer in her hands every time she ran dry, a dancing partner every time her feet started twitching, and a conversational partner every time she felt the need to sit down.

Towards the end of the evening, she and Jake were heading toward the bar after a particularly athletic dance when a blond man stepped in front of her. Everything from his haircut to his muscle shirt screamed 'frat boy.'

"You want to dance darlin'?"

Taylor smiled at the man. "Sorry. I'm just about done in. Maybe next time."

The fellow leaned close and ran a finger down the shoulder that was exposed by her light grey top. "How about a drink then?"

Taylor got a whiff of whiskey combined with stiflingly strong cologne. Jake tugged lightly on her arm, neatly moving her to his other side.

"Not now Brad. We're just about to head home."

Brad's eyes glittered. "Stay outta this Jake."

The rest of the brothers emerged from the dance floor, and clumped behind Taylor. Jer rested his hand on Taylor's shoulder and whispered in her ear. "Brad's trying to get a rise out of Jake. Same thing every time they run in to each other. Why don't you head out to the truck, and we'll see if we can't get Jake out of here. 'K?"

Taylor nodded, and started to slip though the towering forms of the brothers. Brad was already falling into the depressingly trite barroom insults. She could see the red on the back of Jake's neck.

"What you gonna do Jakie? Run home to your sister? She's the only one of ya that doesn't fight like a girl. Tell me, what else does she do like a man?"

Uh, oh. Insult the sister time. Gawd, just once I'd like to see some drunken idiot come up with a real insult. Taylor kept backing until her back hit the bar. She wasn't close enough to hear the next words out of the man's mouth, but apparently, they were enough for Jake. That portion of the room erupted in violence. Taylor watched in bemusement as the rest of the bar seemed to join in just for fun. It was instant anarchy. She ducked as a young man with long brown hair thew a wild punch at the side of her head. She pivoted and kicked the boy's legs out from under him. For goodness sake! This is absurd! She edged around a stool, then saw a guy lift a chair over Jer's back. She reached out and pinched the guy's buns.

He stopped in mid swing, pivoting around quickly, and knocking Taylor over with the chair quite by accident. Strong arms caught her before she hit the ground, lifting her up off the floor. She looked up to see a pair of devilish blue eyes twinkling at her.

Oh my. Taylor could feel every cell in her body wake up with sudden interest. Those eyes quickly became a world, all by themselves. The strong arms surrounding her made a wall that blocked out the Pandemonium of the bar. She couldn't hear anything but the blood rushing past her ears, couldn't feel anything but the warm strong presence of the body enclosing her new world. "Um...hi."

"Nice pinch." Jack grinned down at her.

"Well, it worked. Kind of. Umm..." Taylor gestured hesitantly, "you can put me down, now." Before I embarrass myself, please?

Jack went her one better and swung her completely over the bar. The sudden sensation of practically flying, combined with the loss of contact jarred Taylor back into reality.

"Stay there."

Hoping that Taylor would obey the injunction, Jack turned and strode into the morass of bodies trying to batter each other. She reached John first. Hmmm, that boxing class looks like it might be paying off. Sorry to spoil your fun, son. She stretched a long arm over his shoulder and backhanded his opponent to the floor. Wrapping a hand around John's neck, she swung her brother around and booted him in the rear, sending him stumbling out the door. I bet Jake's in that pile on the floor, he always did just charge in hoping something would happen. Sure enough, she spotted his brown hair in the mess. She kicked a few bodies off of him, then reached down and unwrapped the arm a young blonde woman had locked around his neck. Hope none of the boys saw that. She decided to forgo getting him to his feet, and simply plucked him up by his collar and groin. She tossed him underhand through the door.

Jack lifted her head and looked around, absently stopping a big bear of a man who was charging her with a check kick to his gut. Idiot. Why do the big ones think they can just run over opponents like a goddamn freight train? She spotted Jer across the room, dodging a broken beer bottle swiping back and forth near his midsection. Jack waded through the melee until she was at Jer's side. Her hand shot out and grabbed the wrist of his opponent, stepping back and turning it inward. The man fell to his knees as his wrist bones ground together, and his arm rotated in his shoulder in ways that god never intended. Jack grabbed Jer by the collar, and snapped another hand out to simply haul Jimmy away from his battle with a brawny young farmer. Jimmy's erstwhile opponent briefly looked tempted to take advantage of his sudden incapacitation, until Jack looked directly into his eyes, cocking a brow in challenge. His eyes widened and he slowly backed away. Smart boy. Deliberately raising their collars up high enough to ensure that their feet had tenuous contact with the floor, Jack frog-marched both of her remaining brothers to the door, letting go of Jimmy so that she could kick Jer through it. Jimmy grinned unrepentantly when she reached for him and threw himself out the door without her help. Scamp.

Jack turned and strolled up to the bar, noting Taylor's wide-eyed look. Casually, Jack crooked a finger at the bartender.

"My boys start this mess?"

The man played with the rag in his hands. "Jake threw the first swing, but that snot Brad was in his face. Dunno what the kid said, but even Jer looked ready to kill by the time Jake broke."

Jack just reached into her back pocket, and dug out her wallet. She removed a bill folded in three from one of the inner compartments, and handed it to the bartender. Ignoring the look that Taylor gave the denomination, Jack reached a hand over to guide her to the swinging half door at the end of the bar. "C'mon. Let's get the miscreants home."

Taylor leaned back against her seat with a grateful sigh. Jack's diatribe in the parking lot had been something to see. The abrupt change from a coolly powerful woman that could simply knock grown men out of her way, to a ragingly hot force of nature had been a bit startling. Jack was magnificent in her fury; she looked larger than life with her feet planted firmly and her face taking on a chiselled perfection Michaelangelo would have wept to see. Taylor'd felt like a kid caught out after curfew for a moment, though none of Jack's ire was aimed in her direction. The brothers had all stared at their shuffling feet and waited for the storm to pass, but Taylor found herself reacting to the trip back to childhood with anger. When Jack started in on them for failing to keep an eye on her, she'd had it.

"That's enough Jack." Four pairs of incredulous eyes had popped up when she'd intervened.

"I'm not a child to be looked after," she'd impatiently pushed her hair out of her eyes. "Yell at them for fighting, if you think it's warranted. Though personally I think between the humiliation of being dragged out of there like children, and the way their bodies are going to feel tomorrow are enough to teach any adult to hold his temper." She moved a couple of steps closer. "However, I am perfectly capable of taking care of myself, and I'd really appreciate it if you stopped intimating that I need four men to look after me." She'd stopped then, because the look in Jack's eyes had quickly changed from anger to chagrin. Briefly she could see doubt and...fear in the dark woman's eyes.

In that one moment, Taylor had regretted her outburst, as Jack seemed to shrink in size. With one short diatribe, she'd turned an immortal into something more human, and she couldn't quite decide if that was a frightening thing or not.

Jack looked over in concern, breaking in to Taylor's musings. "Are you sure you weren't hurt?"

And now she's a gently concerned woman. "Yeah. I'm fine. You know, Jake was really pushed into that fight."

Jack played with the keys dangling from the ignition. "He always is. Kid's gotta learn to control his temper though."

Taylor giggled.

Jack lifted an eyebrow at her.

"It's weird, hearing you refer to them as kids. Jake's only a couple of years younger than me."

Jack quirked the corner of her mouth. "You're a kid too."

"You're not THAT old Jack!"

Jack turned her attention back to the road and spoke seriously. "Sometimes, I feel older than dirt."

Taylor reached over and touched her forearm. The skin under her hand twitched. "Well, you look pretty good for someone who's been around a few thousand years." Her hesitant, gentle tone belied the lightness of her words.

She was rewarded by the slight quirk of the corner of Jack's mouth.

After a moment, Taylor decided to change the subject. "Do you think you'd have time to take me up to the proposed building site? I'd like to get some pictures, if I could, and maybe get a sense of what the physical facilities are going to look like."

"Sure. How's tomorrow?"

"Jack, are you really planning on working during your weekend?"

Jack grimaced. "Sorry. I should have thought..."

Taylor broke in. "No, I don't mind going up tomorrow. It's just hard to believe that you're spending your vacation putting a roof on the house, your evenings locked in the office working on who knows what, and your weekend getting your assistant up to speed, when you're not pulling your family and said assistant out of trouble, that is."

Jack looked over. "You're not my assistant."

I think I just apologized. No I think we just apologized. Way to learn to speak taciturn Taylor. "Well, I'm something. That's a good enough word to characterize the relationship for me. C'mon. There's gotta be something relaxing to do around here that doesn't involve bar fights."

Jack's voice rose in mild query. "Cabin fever?"

Seeing an opening, Taylor decided on dirty tactics. If the woman worked this hard on her vacation, no wonder she felt older than dirt. Ooh, project. Her mind crowed. Careful to put just the right amounts of reluctance and nonchalance into her voice, she replied. "Well, I haven't really been anywhere but the house...except tonight. While that was exciting, it wasn't entirely relaxing."

"I'm sorry. I should have thought..."

Taylor cut her off. "It's ok, really. I'm pretty sure seeing to my personal life isn't part of your job description."

"But still..."

"Tell you what. I'll forgive you for your gross failure to think of absolutely everything if you take a day off."

"You'll forgive me for trapping you in the house all week if I take a day off?" Jack asked incredulously.

"Oh, alright. I'll take one too." Taylor infused her voice with the dramatic reluctance of a small child. Uh, oh. Did you just talk yourself into spending a day playing with tall, dark and gorgeous? Your brain has scary pathways Taylor. "So," she asked brightly. "What are we gonna do?"

Jack helplessly shrugged her shoulders.

Taylor tossed her a teasing look. "You telling me that Vermont has no attractions? What do you do with your free time?"

Jack shifted in her seat. She was feeling a bit self-conscious. Fact of the matter was, she rarely had time to spare. With six boys to take care of, a house to maintain, a full time job and the extra little...projects she did for Pete, her plate was pretty full. She knew her response was going to seem hopelessly boring to the young woman. "I, uh, read sometimes. Sit on the porch and listen. Train the horses."

Taylor's voice sounded impatient. "No, Jack. What do you do with your friends?"

Jack could feel herself blushing as she tried to come up with an answer that didn't sound too...Silence filled the car.

A hand reached out toward her, stopping short of her shoulder.

"Jack?" The voice was so tentatively kind that Jack had to clear her throat before answering. Her flush deepened.


"I'm gonna plan a day out for you that you'll never forget." The ringing determination in the girl's tone surprised her. She wasn't sure what she was expecting, but she knew that wasn't it.

She looked over at the younger woman. "You're gonna what?"

Taylor sat back and folded her arms. "Leave it to me. Hmmm, a good day off takes some planning. How's a week from Sunday sound?"

"Uh. Yeah. Fine." She pulled the car into the driveway with an oddly painful sense of relief. "Let's go see how many bones the boys broke."

Taylor was absolutely furious. With herself, with the six god-damned brothers McGruff, with Pete Drechter, and with the world. She chucked her shoes off her feet with violent intent, sending them spinning across the floor. She'd gotten a clearer picture of the enigmatic woman's life tonight, and she didn't like what she'd found. Jack seemed to be so hemmed in by responsibilities she hardly had a chance to be a person outside of them. She thought about the way Jack had taken on responsibility for a family, at the age that most girls were finding their first boy friends and forming giggly trusting friendships. Jer seemed to have a strong appreciation for what Jack had done, but the rest of them thoughtlessly accepted it as a given, and Jake actually seemed hostile. She thought about the way Pete Drechter had just dumped the woman into a job she didn't want, and gave her a houseguest without asking. Pete, too, seemed to take Jack for granted, and actually seemed to enjoy twisting the woman about.

And where the hell were the people in this community? Not one of them saw a young girl taking on adult responsibilities? None of them thought she might need a kind shoulder to lean on, or a distraction from the crushing weight of raising six boys by herself? What is wrong with people? There isn't one person in her life who thought it might be worth the effort to get past the touch-me-not exterior and quickfire temperament to discover a person underneath?

Taylor angrily yanked her clothes off and grabbed a robe. And you, Taylor dear, have been treating her like a nice piece of eye candy to keep you entertained while you're in the boonies. She thought back to the carefully guarded expression on Jack's face when Taylor asked about friends. Well, Jack McDermott. Your life is about to change. I don't care if you're cool as a cucumber and capable as Superman. You need a friend and you're about to get one.

Jack sat on her porch and looked up at the sky. The boys had gotten off relatively easy. With the exception of a couple of stitches to John's forehead, they hadn't needed anything more complicated than ice-packs and Tylenol. She took a sip of her drink, enjoying the sensation of the smooth bite in her throat. Her brain relentlessly brought her back to the conversation in the car. She'd felt so...inadequate. She figured the girl must have a wonderfully pitiful picture of her at this point.

She thought back to the tone in the girl's voice when she'd said she'd take care of it. It hadn't sounded like pity. I hope not. She didn't want Taylor to pity her. Not that it mattered that much. If the girl was only what she seemed, she'd be heading back to New York in a few weeks, and Jack would never see her again. Jack tried to picture what life must be like for Taylor in the city. She drew an image of the girl surrounded by laughing admirers, enjoying all the gifts that the day brought her. Bet she wouldn't feel intimidated talking in front of the donation-of-the-month club.

Jack tossed the rest of the drink back. Fact was, no matter how she felt about the talk, or for that matter, her life, she was stuck with it. No choices. Jack's whole body tensed suddenly as she felt a vibration in her pocket. She slowly drew out the pager, activating the light on the small screen. After she looked at it, her body relaxed. The battery was just low. She stood up and went inside to find another battery...and another drink.

Saturday morning found Jack pacing the hallway: seven strides, each direction. She'd spent the early parts of the morning working, but once Taylor had gotten up, she'd been unceremoniously evicted from her own office.

"C'mon Jack. How can I plan a surprise if you're not going to cooperate?" Taylor had responded to Jack's protests.

"But I need to..."

Taylor had looked up at her with open green eyes and said "Please?"

Well. For some reason, it worked. Jack snorted. Good thing I didn't have to raise any girls. Now she needed to figure out what to do with herself. It was raining. One of those powerful summer storms that sweeps in and conquers the entire landscape. She loved these storms, so typical to her home. They were strong and forceful, and once they'd spent their fury...they just disappeared, leaving a bright, sunny landscape that smelled clean and rich, and had colors that were so vivid, they hurt your eyes.

Much as she enjoyed them though, she didn't really feel virtuous enough to be riding or working out in the mess. The pugilists were busy cleaning the stable; she couldn't really help them with their own punishment. Jeff and Jules had blissfully gone off to some gathering or another with friends from school. She'd thought about tracking down the source of the leaky faucet in the kitchen, but Anna had been in vocal opposition to her timing. She threatened to put cooked carrots in every dish she made for a month, to be precise.

Jack shuddered. She'd hated cooked carrots since she was a child. Jack turned at the end of the hallway and paced back toward the living room. Wonder what Taylor's cooking up in there? When was the last time someone had put together a surprise, just for her? Huh. Don't think it's ever happened, really. At least with benign intentions. Fact was, she had plenty to do. She could fix the broken sash in John's room, or read the briefs that one of Pete's stable managers had sent her, or...She turned and continued to measure the length of the hallway.

I'm just too...restless. It was weird, really. The girl deciding to plan a day for Jack. Why would she do that? Was Taylor just bored? Maybe she thought it was a tidy way to ensure a benevolent boss. But Jack wasn't really her boss. She was, however, on a first name basis with the CEO. Maybe Taylor thought she had found a way to get into the spotlight at Drechter Enterprises. Turn towards the living room again. Yeah. That's it.

Unbidden, those green eyes floated in front of her mind's eye again. They were so open, so honest. Jack was surprised to discover that the thought hurt. She wanted to think that the gentle acceptance that she saw there was real. In the bar, she'd have sworn it was. Glad I stopped in.

She'd made it a practice to stop by the bar near closing time whenever the boys went out. Jake's first night on the town to celebrate his 21st had convinced her of the necessity. He'd driven home drunk as a lord, and ran the truck through three fences in the neighbor's pasture as a lark. Near closing time was about when the fights got started too. Jack ran an impatient hand through her hair. Jer was so level-headed, Jack really hadn't been prepared when Jake started frequenting the bars.

When she'd walked in, even thought the place had been chaos, she'd immediately spotted the red-gold head of her co-worker. Pinching that guy had shown some quick thinking, and a gutsy spirit. Jack grinned. It was quite a sight. She'd shoved her way towards the young woman, hoping she could get there before the big guy reacted. Jack really didn't know how she'd ended up holding Taylor like a baby. She'd just automatically swept her up when she'd started to fall. The look Taylor had given her was one she'd never seen before. Trust. Just open, honest trust. It was a little like the way the younger boys used to look at her, but... They weren't the eyes of a grade-school kid who had nothing in the world but Jack to rely on. The eyes hadn't asked anything of her, they simply gave.

Whoa. Jack forced herself to stop pacing. She shoved her fists into the pockets of her jeans. No one. No one fails to have a private agenda Jack. Even Jeb eventually asked a price. The weird sense of loss that the thought engendered sent her moving again, this time heading through her bedroom door. She quickly changed and headed out the door. To hell with the rain; it's time for a workout.

Taylor leaned back from her desk, stretching her back. Proudly, she mentally reviewed the plans she'd made for the day. She'd found a wealth of information on the net, and was looking forward to seeing how Jack reacted to the choices she'd made. Her head cocked to an angle as she heard sounds that indicated that the male contingent of the household had returned. They sounded like a herd of baby elephants.

Mother would pitch a fit. And Daddy...well, who knows if he'd notice? Of course, neither of her parents would ever be found so far from their native environment. Hanging out in the country was only quaint if a summerhouse was involved. It was odd, watching the way they were so involved with each other. Not like home at all. Memory filled Taylor's mind, as she recalled a time when she began to realize how her family was different.

It's hard to contain excitement at eight. Spring break always heralded a yearly expedition 'to indulge in a little culture.' Last year, Mother had taken her and Elizabeth to a boring piano recital. She'd gotten in trouble for falling asleep. Mother still brought it up now and then. She hadn't meant to be an embarrassment, but the music had been so slow and drifty, and there wasn't anything real interesting to look at, Taylor had just drifted off as she tried to make pictures in her head to match the sounds of the music. But that wasn't going to happen this year. Through a long and subtle (or at least they thought it was subtle) campaign she and Elizabeth had managed to convince their mother to take them to Cats. All their friends at school were talking about the new Broadway show. She traded an anticipatory smile with Elizabeth as they entered the restaurant; as soon as lunch was over, they'd get to go see the show.

The restaurant had lots of interesting people in it too. Taylor liked to try and figure out what different people were thinking, just by looking at the way they acted. That man over there, in the gray suit, he was really bored with what the older man he was eating lunch with was saying, but he didn't dare say so. He had a desperate look of interest plastered on his face. The lady over there, the one in the pretty lavender dress, she was waiting for someone she liked a lot. She kept checking her watch and looking out the window at the sidewalk with a happy little smile.

Right when the woman looked toward the front of the restaurant, Elizabeth had exclaimed happily. "Oh look, Daddy's here."

Taylor watched her father stride across the floor, and greet the woman with a resounding embrace. Horrified, she'd turned to her mother, who had casually caught her father's eyes, then returned to her perusal of the menu. Taylor's head had pulsed with confusion as her father quickly ushered the woman out of the restaurant. Doesn't Mother care? This wasn't the way it worked.. Lots of girls at school had talked about what happens when Daddy kisses someone else. Mother was supposed to yell or cry and throw things. That would lead to lots of fighting and eventually the girls would find that they had to live with Mother and spend their summer vacations with Daddy, and there'd be big fights about where to spend Christmas. She's probably waiting until we get home. She's always telling us not to fight in front of other people.

Taylor winced in sympathy for the young girl that she had been. The expected argument had never occurred. She and Elizabeth had never talked about the incident, or about the lack of love and emotion in the house. Closing the cover of her laptop, Taylor dragged herself out of the depressing memory. Geez. Haven't thought about that day in a while. .

An amiable lunch with Anna helped erased the vestiges of melancholy that Taylor's musings had raised. The woman had a delightful collection of stories about the boys when they were young. She was in the middle of a humorous rendition of Julian's disastrous first dance when a very dirty, very wet Jack came in through the back door, shaking her head rapidly. Droplets of water showered the kitchen. Anna jumped out of her chair, mildly scolding Jack while handing her a towel.

"Jack! You're going to make me have to clean every counter before dinner."

The towel was a blessing, covering wet skin and cotton as Jack vigorously dried herself off. "Sorry Anna. Are the boys in from the stable yet?"

"They tracked their mud through here a little while ago. What did the boys do, to make you work them on a Saturday?"

"Little trouble at the bar last night. " The brevity of the response didn't seem to surprise Anna.

"Jimmy was by earlier, said he needed to talk to you. It sounded important."

"Hm, I'll go find him then." She raised an eyebrow at Taylor. "Is my office available?"

Taylor grinned unrepentantly. "Yep, I'm all done. Don't think we're going to get over to the site today, are we?" She looked significantly at the rain outside the window.

"It should blow over soon, but it depends on how you feel about playing in the mud, City."

Is she teasing me? She deliberately put on a superior air. "Depends on how good looking my playmate is Farmgirl. I'm discerning about my dirt."

"Think we'd better delay the trip till later in the week then." She tossed the towel over her shoulder, strolling toward the door. "I'm gonna change, then find out what's got Jimmy all riled up."

A thought occurred to Taylor, and she reached out a hand, stopping Jack. "Wait...While I'm thinking about it, I need to ask you about something."

Jack leaned against the counter. "What's up?"

"I totally forgot about this until I checked my mail this morning, but I've got an engagement back home on Friday. I'd originally scheduled the day off with my department, but I didn't know I was going to be here."

She really did feel bad. This week had been so crazy, she'd forgotten about Deb's birthday. She'd normally have just skipped it, but Deb had just gone through a messy breakup; Deb and Heidi had always spent birthdays in a romantic evening at home. A day out, followed by a gathering of friends was Taylor's idea, backing out this late would be a terrible thing to do to Deb.

"If you had the day scheduled off, Taylor, then it's off. Make sure you bill the tickets to the company."

It was impossible to keep the startlement out of her tone. "Oh no! It's a personal thing, not..."

Jack cut her off. "In truth, Pete should be sending you home every weekend anyhow. Company policy when they've got folks working out of town. You've already got a ticket coming to you...Tell you what. Leave Thursday night and come back Sunday or Monday."

A mischievous grin filled her face. "Can't do that, I've got a date up here Sunday."

Jack ran a hand through her hair. "It can wait. Whatever you want Taylor, go ahead and make the arrangements."

"Really?" Taylor cocked her head. "I'm gonna like having you for a boss, I can tell."

Jack just sent her a reproving look and headed out the door. As Taylor watched the retreating back with a smirk, Anna asked in an interested voice. "A date on Sunday?"

A half hour later found Jack, much more comfortable after taking a shower and donning dry jeans and flannel, facing a nervously fidgeting Jimmy. "Well? What's on your mind?"

Jimmy got up and went to her cabinet. Jack's eyebrow went up a peg as he poured them both some whiskey. He handed her one and tossed his back. Her concern rose when he poured himself another. Jimmy was so rarely at a loss for words, his nervous procrastination was making her edgy.

"Siddown will ya?" Jack barked.

Jimmy sat and stared at his hands.

"What the hell is this about?"

He looked up. "Um."

She sat back a little and waited.

His breath blew out audibly. "I uh, I've met somebody, Jack."

"You've met somebody." A brow popped up in disbelief.

He took a sip of his drink. "Uh, yeah. At school. We're going to get an apartment together next year."

Jack's voice was probing, questioning. He's not this nervous about telling me he's got a girl. Hmm, pregnancy? I'll kill him if he tells me he's gonna be a Daddy... "I guess congratulations are in order. This is serious?"

He looked directly at her for the first time. "Very."

Enough of this crap. "So, what's the problem?"

Jimmy swallowed the rest of his drink. "His name's Alec."

Jimmy held his breath as he waited for Jack to react. He felt the tension rise within him as a long moment passed without any response. His mind went blank when she exploded out of her chair, and pulled him up by his collar. He wasn't ready for it. He felt his heels rise off the floor, as his shirt pulled painfully at the back of his neck.

"That's it? You need four fingers of whiskey to get that out? By the gods boy! You had me thinking you'd knocked up a twelve-year-old!" She shook him violently, punctuating every other word.

Jimmy raised his hands to her wrist, unable to think how to reply.

"Ungh. Jack..."

She dropped him back in his chair in a relieved heap and ran a hand through her hair. "Sorry. You had me scared half to death." She shook her head ruefully. "Huh. Bet you weren't predicting that reaction."

He rubbed his throat wryly. "Nope and I thought I had thought of them all."

"I'm not really sure how I'm supposed to respond. They didn't cover this in big sister 101." She sat back down and picked her drink back up. "Let's start here. Is he a good person?"

He could feel his eyes widen in amazement. "Yeah. One of the best."

"You love each other?"

His voice deepened throatily, as the one conviction that had propelled him to this difficult conversation filled him. "Yeah."

"He treat you well?"

"He's wonderful."

"You going to drop out of school?"

He looked surprised. "No."

"Then get his rear end up here so I can meet him."

"That's it?" He knew that he was staring, but he couldn't believe that it was so simple.

She took another sip of her drink. "You've got a good head, Jimmy. So long as you make good choices, I don't particularly give a shit about the plumbing." She stretched her legs, crossed her ankles on the desk, and smiled at him laconically. "So, I guess I'm going to have to modify my lecture on how to treat the ladies, huh?"

Giddy hope welled up inside him. This might not be so hard. Daringly, he replied, "What makes you think that I'm not a lady?"

A startled brow shot up. "Damn. I'm gonna have to buy a shotgun, aren't I?"

He could feel his chest muscles relax in relief. The light joke reassured him that not only was she willing to accept Alec, but that their roles hadn't changed. She was still his big sister, and the knowledge made the part of him that was still a scared little kid feel safe.

"You going to tell the rest of the boys?"

"Yeah. Soon. John already knows, haven't quite figured out how to tell the rest of them yet."

"It's a good idea not to scare the pants off them first."

He rubbed the soreness in his neck. "Good point."

"Just a suggestion."

Taylor looked around the table. Four faces looked battered, tired and miserable. Whatever Jack had them doing all day, combined with the misery of the various bruises on their bodies had obviously dampened their spirits. Jeff and Julian were remaining quiet, trying not to draw attention to themselves among their short-tempered and uncomfortable brothers. Jack certainly wasn't adding to the conversation, but then again, Taylor had yet to see the woman start a session of small talk. Taylor looked over at Jimmy. He usually provided an endless stream of entertaining chatter, but tonight he was contemplatively moving his food from one part of his plate to another. She sighed.

"Jer. You just graduated, right?"

He looked up. "Yeah." He looked miserable. His eye was nearly swollen shut, and his lip was cut and puffed out painfully.

"What's next?"

"Law school. I just sent my acceptance letter to SUNY Buffalo."

Jack glared at him. "Dammit Jer! I told you to accept Duke."

Taylor was startled, and a little irate. She knew that Jack was strict with her brothers, but controlling? Despite the contrasts between Jack's rough tenor and her mother's patronizing soprano, Taylor was incapable of avoiding a comparison. She felt herself shrinking away from Jack minutely.

"I sent Duke a rejection letter."

Jack ran a hand through her hair. She spoke quietly. "You should've taken Duke's offer Jer. It's a damn good school."

Jer's jaw firmed. "So's SUNY Jack."

Somehow, the look of resignation that filled Jack's face surprised Taylor. She didn't seem like the type to give up easily. "It was the wrong choice Jer, but..."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. You'll beat me up for it later." Jer's voice was filled with teasing fondness.

A new topic was definitely in order. "You planning on grad school too Jake?"

He looked up from cutting his steak into small pieces. Taylor realized that the meat must be tough on his severely bruised jaw. "Old man Drechter made me a job offer for when I graduate."

"Turn him down." Jack's low, chill tone conveyed a frightening implicit threat.

Jake looked up and spoke defiantly. "Like hell I will."

Taylor felt herself freeze when she looked at Jack. The cold fury in her eyes was frightening. The muscles of her neck and jaw stood out in sharp delineation. Taylor swore she could actually hear the friction as those muscles worked against the skin in the profound silence that seemed to grip the occupants of the table. Jack was glaring at Jake, the young man barely managing to meet her eyes. Taylor wasn't surprised to see sweat form on his brow.

She didn't know that she had been holding her breath until the loud screech of Jack's chair ended the deadlock, allowing her to exhale. No one moved as they listened to the startlingly quiet shutting of the front door, followed by the roar of a big engine which rapidly faded away.

Jimmy, pure mischief in his voice, broke the tension by commenting, "Nice happy family dinner. So, my boyfriend is coming to visit next weekend. Pass the salt would ya, Jules?"

Taylor was sitting on the porch, listening. Jack's right. This is worth doing. Sitting out here listening to peepers was definitely better than surviving the strained atmosphere in the house. Next time Taylor, talk about the weather, 'k? She looked over her shoulder when she heard the screech and slam of the screen door. Jimmy came out and leaned against the railing.

"Nice out here."

Taylor looked at him. "You ok?" Once they'd gotten over the shock, the boys' reactions had been mixed.

He smiled. "Yeah. They'll be fine, just need a little time to adapt to the idea."

"You picked an interesting time to come out."

"Well, I figured it'd seem like no big deal after the rest of the crap flying around the table. You going to be here next weekend?"

She smiled gently. "Looking for someone to run interference?"

He laughed. "That obvious, huh? I'm not sure if I'm more worried about Jake telling gay jokes or Jack pulling Alec aside to ask him about his intentions."

Taylor giggled. She couldn't help it, she had no problem picturing Jack doing just that. Then she sobered. "Does she really think she can decide what Jer and Jake do with their lives?"

He looked startled. "No Taylor...it's not like that..." He gently explained "Duke's his first choice, but SUNY offered him a full scholarship. Jack was gonna pay his tuition."

Suddenly, she saw the subtleties of the conversation in a new light. Slightly ashamed of her conclusions, she ventured a soft reply, "Oh... What about Jake?"

He ran his hand through his hair in a mannerism that was obviously picked up from Jack. "That's a bit more complicated... I can't tell you for sure why she doesn't want him to work for Pete."

"But you have a guess."

He looked out at the stars. "Not a guess, really, as much as a feeling."

"A feeling?" Taylor asked gently.


He was quiet for so long that Taylor would have thought that he wasn't going to answer if she hadn't already seen his sister do the same thing.

"I saw a picture once, of a little kid standing in a street. One of those photojournalist things documenting the aftermath of some car bomb in the Middle East. This kid, she couldn't have been more'n ten years old. She was holding a stuffed animal in one hand, and the hand of a toddler in her other one. They were both surrounded by all these mangled bodies, laying on this dirty street. Men in uniform carrying some pretty serious looking artillery in the background. She had a look in her eyes, like she'd seen everything, had some horrible knowledge that made me think that I didn't know what reality was. It was so eerie, it was painful to look at."

He reached down and plucked a leaf off of a bush. Twirling it in his fingers, he said quietly. "Sometimes, I see that look in Jack's eyes."

Taylor just looked at him, not sure how to respond. Jimmy lightened the tone.

"So, you're going to be here, right?"

She smiled at his hopeful tone. "I'll try." She sat back and deliberately picked up the topic change. "What's he like?"

Jimmy's face lit up. "Let's see. Um, he's a biology major. Grew up in Alaska."

Taylor cocked her head. "Forget the life history. Is he sexy?"

Jimmy blushed bright red. "Ummm...yeah."

"Fun to be with?"

He laughed. "Yeah. And really sweet. He's so nice, I sometimes feel like a real jerk by comparison." He looked down at her. "You're...ah..."

She laughed. "One of the family?"


"That obvious, huh?" She lightly threw his words back at him.

He smiled devilishly. "Only when you look at my sister."

It was Taylor's turn to blush. "Oh god."

"Hey! Relax. Lord knows she's worth looking at. I think you'd have to be a rock not to notice her."

Julian walked out. "Um, hey Jimmy." He looked a little nervous.

Taylor shared a conspiratorial look with Jimmy. "I'm going to go get some reading done." She got up and left Julian to make his attempt at getting comfortable with his brother.

The path was one of her favorite runs. It connected two old landings-among the many relics from a time when the entire region had been clear cut. The dewy scent of the air and the early morning calls of the birds usually allowed her mind to relax, putting her firmly into a state where past and future disappeared-where the only sensations entering her consciousness were the workings of her body and the living presence of the woods.

Today, however, even the soothing exercise failed to calm the tense energy she felt pulsing through her body--her constant companion. She could feel it, living anxiety travelling just under the skin, urging her to move and go, to run, not stopping until she came to a place where she was a different person. Who that person would be, now that was a question...

The path turned steeply uphill, she felt her body reach out to meet the challenge. She could feel the ready power. A mixed blessing. Would Jake ever understand? The boy valued strength and power over so much. Anger speaking. Jack felt a clench in her gut as she leapt over a spring crossing the trail.

How, by god, do I explain? An image flashed through her brain, herself, much younger, grit digging into hands and knees as the smell of her own vomit filled her nostrils, rising off the damp scum of an inner city alley. Working for Pete. Jake would be such easy fodder. He had the anger, and impulsive nature to be the perfect mark. And once Pete has him...A touch of wry respect. The old man's thinking ahead. Jake's too volatile to be too useful, but as a tool against me...he'd be invaluable. A brief flicker of fear came to life, but long practice squelched it down back into neutral, edgy energy.

Focus. Her speed increased. Pete wasn't going to get a hold of Jake. She'd handed him the rights to her life long ago, but she'd keep Jeb's boys safe.

Continued In Part 2

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