by KG MacGregor
An underground pipeline has ruptured, spilling oily sludge into Minnesota’s pristine Lake Bunyan. Taking the media’s heat for Nations Oil is Corporate Communications Director Cathryn Mack, an old pro when it comes to spinning the facts in her company’s favor.
Stuck in Duluth to handle the press during eight weeks of cleanup, she finds a silver lining when Stacie Pilardi pops up on SappHere, a mobile app that seeks out nearby lesbians. Stacie is smart, funny, sexy as hell, and wants a longterm relationship as much as Cathryn—which is to say, not at all.
A perfect arrangement, until they realize they’re rivals—Stacie is head of the Clean Energy Action Network, in town to protest the greed and recklessness of oil companies and the havoc they wreak on the environment.
It’s best for everyone involved if they end this, and that’s exactly what they intend to do. Eventually…
GCLS Goldie Awards
Anyone But You — Finalist, Ann Bannon Popular Choice Award, GCLS Goldie Finalist, Lesbian Romantic Suspense/Intrigue/Adventure.
More than a sizzling romance, a well researched and well-written eco-thriller... I loved the way the story was written: fast-paced, with great punch lines, a tidy, well thought-out and thought-provoking plot, at times witty, at times dramatic. Dating the archenemy added zest to the romance and both heroines were very believable and easy to like.
The Lesbian Reading Room
Well written as always... A good romance and a thought provoking story. The two women have obvious chemistry and the attraction grows rather than being destroyed by their opposing positions. KG shows that an intellectual divide can be overcome and that intelligent debate can be healthy when there is respect.
Further Praise for KG MacGregor
"Readers have come to expect great reading material from a KG MacGregor novel..." - Frivolous Views
"Well-written, solid stories..." -- Just About Write
"Winner, Romance! Winner, Romantic Intrigue!" -- Lambda Literary Awards, Golden Crown Literary Society
So far it was only a few dead fish.
The Gulfstream 280, its tail emblazoned with a blue and green corporate logo intended to convey environmental consciousness, always stirred a sense of awe and self-importance in Cathryn Mack. Travel on the corporate jet was usually reserved for the company brass—vice presidents and chief officers for this and that—but this trip was different. Today she was perhaps the most important person on board.
She’d packed enough business suits and dresses for two weeks in front of the cameras. Plus a few casual outfits for lounging around. Then some yoga wear and assorted lingerie. Cosmetics and vitamins. Four pairs of shoes. And one small, battery-operated tension reliever for the base of her skull. That sometimes doubled as a sex toy. All crammed into two rolling suitcases weighing every bit of forty pounds each.
Juan Merced bounded down the miniature staircase to greet her. He was copilot, cabin steward and baggage handler rolled into one, and she was glad when he relieved her of her load.
“Am I the last one?” she asked. She lived farthest from Houston’s executive airport.
“No, we’re still waiting for Mr. Bower.”
Of course they were. Harold “Hoss” Bower was the CEO of Nations Oil and the rest of the company moved on his schedule.
Cathryn ducked through the doorway and acknowledged her colleagues as she made her way to the back of the ten-passenger executive cabin. All were men. White men. White men with big hats. The oil business in all its clichéd glory.
These men were not really colleagues. As corporate officers, they were superiors in one way or another, including general counsel Gregg O’Connor, the only person on board whose presence rivaled the importance of hers. Over the next two weeks, their combined skills might be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
While the other executives scrolled through their company-issued smartphones and tablets, Cathryn fired up her laptop. As the company’s official spokesperson, she had to read and write press releases without error, and she couldn’t do that on a tiny screen, especially one that auto-corrected her thoughts. Her mailbox was brimming already with the pipeline specifications and site information she’d need for the late afternoon press conference already scheduled in Duluth, Minnesota. Her technical assistant, Woody McPherson, was forwarding the available data from George Bush Intercontinental Airport as he awaited a commercial flight. Until he caught up with her tonight, she was on her own.
Hoss’s booming voice sounded from the tarmac outside. “Let’s get this show on the road!”
As he took his seat in the center of the small cabin, the others swiveled in their leather executive chairs to face him, knowing full well they were in for a wrenching, three-hour business meeting. Cathryn was glad for her position in the last row since she was facing forward. Her stomach had never mastered the art of flying sideways.
Six-foot-five and barrel-shaped, Hoss intimidated most people, even some of the men on the plane, but Cathryn had always found him strangely charming. He’d been up front about why she was promoted from public relations staff to Corporate Communications Director. He liked her long blond hair and youthful looks, and said the press vultures would be more polite to a pretty lady.
Of course, that was eleven years ago when she was thirty-three, and though she still wore her hair long—and kept it blond with a little help—Hoss’s prediction that the press would be polite had proven way off the mark. Sure, the financial reporters were fine when she announced robust quarterly earnings, acquisitions and new drilling permits, but crisis communications like today’s were different, especially since “the press” no longer meant only newspaper, magazine and TV reporters. Now it included a growing horde of adversarial activists who wrote blogs and newsletters for people who cared a great deal about a few dead fish.
“What’s our situation?” he demanded.
Predictably, the executives deferred to Bryce Tucker, Chief Operations Officer and therefore the boss of everyone who should know the answer to Hoss’s question. “All we’ve got so far is a marsh slick covering a little more than an acre. Best guess is that puts us at about ninety thousand gallons.”
Nations Oil piped its crude down from Alberta to Hartford, Illinois, where it was loaded onto a barge for transport down the Mississippi River to their refineries in Houston. Today’s emergency was a pipeline rupture outside Duluth that had spilled into a lake. Though ninety thousand gallons was a relatively minor event, environmental activist groups would make it out to be a disaster on the scale of Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf or Talmadge Creek in Michigan. Cathryn’s job was to mute their efforts with the facts, which weren’t nearly so alarming.
“Ninety thousand gallons!” Hoss chortled and slapped the arms of his chair. “Hell, we can mop that up with a few paper towels and be home in time for the ten o’clock news.”
“I’m afraid this spill might be bigger than ninety thousand,” Cathryn said hesitantly, looking up from her screen to see all eyes turned in her direction. Her mantra for getting ahead in the company was Don’t Make Waves, but it was clear Bryce Tucker was relying on a rosy report from their local contractor, whose ass was on the line because he was supposed to maintain the pipeline. If these figures from Woody were correct, they could be dealing with a major spill, bordering on catastrophic. “Based on the differential between the two pumping stations, it could be as much as four hundred thousand.”
“That’s crazy as hell!” Bryce yelled, his face reddening with anger. “Dilbit’s so thick it hardly moves when we want it to. It sure as hell ain’t going anywhere with the pump shut off.”
“Heavy crude,” Hoss corrected firmly, scanning the cabin to make certain everyone heard. “Heavy crude, not dilbit.”
Dilbit was short for diluted bitumen. Bitumen was tar sands, a thick mixture of sand, clay and water that held dense petroleum deposits, whereas heavy crude had a lower viscosity and flowed more easily. Nations Oil had suffered a rupture two years ago in northern Wyoming, and paid a major fine for transporting dilbit in a pipeline approved only for heavy crude. This pipeline in Minnesota was in the same class, twenty-four inches in diameter and a quarter-inch thick. The company was petitioning the US government for a permit to build the Caliber Pipeline, a stronger conduit for dilbit from Alberta all the way to Houston, but environmental zealots had so far blocked their efforts.
“I certainly hope I’m wrong, Bryce,” she said. Crossing Bryce Tucker was never pleasant, but her job was dealing with facts, not temper tantrums. The unfortunate truth was over four hundred thousand gallons of oil were unaccounted for.
Some of that, perhaps even half, could still be sitting safely in the broken pipeline. The sad fact, however, was that the controllers who monitored their pipeline network assumed the alarm had sounded because of a gas bubble. Instead of shutting down the flow, they increased the pressure to push the bubble through, inadvertently spilling even more. There was no telling how much had gone missing, but Woody’s latest estimate probably was much closer than Bryce’s.
“At least it’s a lake and not a river,” one of the vice presidents said.
Heads bobbed in agreement. No one wanted to chase crude down a river. By the time the EPA finished with Enbridge, that company’s cleanup cost for the dilbit spill in Michigan’s Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River would top a billion dollars.
Cathryn sent around an information sheet. “Here’s what we know about Lake Bunyan. Three hundred twelve acres, stocked with bluegill, trout and largemouth bass. Several dozen species of native birds. Property tax records show ninety-three residential structures fronting the lake—most are probably weekend cabins—one public park with a boat launch and one bait shop. The bait shop owner is the one who reported the spill.”
As the jet roared down the runway, Hoss swiveled forward to address Gregg. “I want you to start buying up all that property. Every last one. The sooner we get the locals off our back, the better off we’ll be.”
Larry Kratke, Bryce’s assistant vice president, was already monitoring cleanup operations on his tablet. “We’ve put three booms in place—two on the lake and one on Van Winkle Creek, which runs out of the southeast corner toward Lake Superior. Two suction dredgers are en route from Grand Forks, ETA about four o’clock this afternoon.”
The simplest method for cleaning oil out of standing water was to suction it into a centrifuge and separate it. Once it was spun, the oil was pure, and they could then siphon it into a waiting tanker and return the clean water to the lake. Time was of the essence in cleaning up heavy oil because the diluents would evaporate in a matter of days and the oil would sink to the bottom and mix with the sediment on the lakebed.
“Get two more suction crews and tell them to send in a grab dredger too,” Bryce said gruffly. “No, make that two. How many on the repair crew?”
“Double it. I want them stringing lights and working three shifts. Whatever it takes to get that oil running again.”
From Bryce’s tone, which was even surlier than usual, he was worried about this spill. So was Hoss, who was staring grimly out the window. If Woody’s assessment was correct, they were all in for a long ordeal, much longer than the two weeks she’d planned.
And yet it was hard to complain about anything that took her out of Houston in July.
* * *
“Make a legal U-turn…Make a legal U-turn.”
“Knock it off, Marlene. Didn’t you see that Detour sign?”
Stacie drummed her fingers on the steering wheel as her smartphone recalculated the route. She’d named the device for her father’s second wife, a know-it-all who, unlike her phone, lacked a silent mode.
“In a quarter of a mile, turn right.”
“See, I told you.”
Only eight miles to Duluth, then another ten to Lake Bunyan, where Israel Kaufmann was already holed up in a vacation cabin waiting for her. It was too early to know what they were sitting on but two things were certain—whichever oil company was responsible for this spill would downplay the damage and then do as little as possible to fix it. That’s what BP had done in the Gulf, what Enbridge had done at Talmadge Creek, what Exxon had done in Arkansas and what Nations Oil had done in Wyoming. Why on earth anyone would trust them to build more pipelines was beyond her.
It was a stroke of luck she’d been in Chicago at a green builders conference, since the drive from her home in Pittsburgh would have taken twice as long. Not that she minded her time with Marlene, her only traveling companion ever since an oil company thug snapped the radio antenna off her first-generation Prius. The solitude gave her time to brainstorm strategies for the Clean Energy Action Network, a nationwide organization of activists whose primary mission was to agitate against fossil fuels. They were dedicated and energetic, and she needed to find ways to tap that energy year-round, not just when there was an incident like this one.
To do that, she’d have to take CLEAN to the next level, but something short of corporate. It wouldn’t do to have their precious funds eaten up with administrative costs. They’d garnered several friends in high places—congressional representatives and state-level legislators, a few Hollywood types and several technology billionaires, all of whom liked their grassroots approach. What they needed now were more grants, a full-time executive director and professional support staff, and a team of lobbyists to get their message through. She wanted CLEAN to be efficient and effective but without losing its hands-on appeal.
Marlene got her as far as Hermantown before declaring, “Unknown route,” and Stacie was forced to scroll through Izzy’s directions, which she’d tapped into her notes app. Though she detested Marlene at times, it was undeniable the electronic wench had saved a tree or two.
As she drove closer to the lake, the unmistakable smell of petroleum permeated the air. That was typical in the aftermath of a significant spill, but the worst of it usually dissipated within twenty-four hours once the hydrocarbons began to evaporate. This was fresh, as though the oil was still flowing, and that struck her as odd.
When she reached the perimeter road, a Bunyan County Sheriff’s patrol car with flashing blue lights was parked in front of a barricade, and a deputy directed all traffic to the left. That told her which part of the lake had been compromised, but it was unthinkable the authorities wouldn’t evacuate the entire area soon.
“Second driveway on the right after the One Lane Bridge sign,” she mumbled to herself from the directions. Shielding her eyes from the late afternoon sun, she crept along until she reached the turnoff. At the end of a dirt drive sat a small rustic cabin, its clapboard siding painted burnt orange and its tin roof dark green. Izzy’s car, a white SUV with rusted fenders, was parked next to a small sedan sporting an array of liberal-leaning bumper stickers, and an emblem from the University of Minnesota at Duluth.
No sooner had she climbed out of her car than she was lifted off her feet and twirled around.
“Stacie! I thought you’d never get here.”
Izzy was both gentle and burly, like a human teddy bear. For the last eight years they’d been a thorn in the side of energy companies, rallying local communities to demand thorough cleanup and fair compensation in the wake of spills and other disasters. Even more important were their protests against new corporate land leases of public property, drilling or fracking permits, and pipelines. When he wasn’t responding to disasters or participating in protests, he loaded produce trucks at his uncle’s distribution center north of Minneapolis. This spill was practically in his backyard.
“Who’s here? How many are coming? Tell me everything,” she said as he grabbed her canvas duffel and sleeping bag from the backseat.
“Jenn’s driving overnight from Denver. Ought to be here by lunchtime tomorrow. She put out the call last night and by this morning had gotten ten solid commitments, all from the upper Midwest. And I picked up three more already from the local university this afternoon. They’re inside.”
“Great, we’ll put them through the training seminar tomorrow night and send them out to recruit their friends.”
“Faye should be good at that and Ethan can help with messaging. I’m going to try to hide out here at the lake and I want Ricky with me. You’ll see why.”
The cozy cabin had a kitchen, living space and bathroom on the ground floor with a ladder leading to the sleeping loft. To Stacie’s delight, Faye and Ethan were neatly dressed and rather ordinary looking, just the type of people CLEAN needed to interact with the general public and convey seriousness and maturity. She didn’t personally care how people looked or what they wore, but it was a fact that the average citizen was turned off by protestors who wore ragged jeans and T-shirts. Clean-cut kids did well going door-to-door or standing outside public buildings with petitions. The third guy, Ricky, was a slightly built young man of Indian descent whose hobby was electronics—remote controlled flying electronics in particular. That could definitely come in handy so close to the spill site.
“Whose place is this?” Stacie asked.
“Belongs to Matt Stevenson—his father, actually. Matt’s an attorney here in Duluth. Jenn found him on the donor list and I met with him this morning. He’s also agreed to represent us if we get into trouble.”
“You mean when we get into trouble.” She looked at the newcomers. “They always find something to hassle us about, so I hope you’re ready for it.”
Izzy went on, “Turns out Matt’s a Democratic Party honcho in St. Louis County and his dad is letting us use this place so we can keep an eye on the cleanup. He also hooked us up with a farmhouse rental where everybody can stay.”
Their national network included professionals in every state who could spring into action at a moment’s notice. They needed only a handful of dedicated activists to launch a movement, and when this episode finally ended, they’d be even stronger for the next one.
Ricky showed off the pantry’s provisions. “We stocked up this afternoon. Izzy figures they’ll evacuate this end of the lake soon but we’ll lay low till they’re gone.”
Because oil spills were flammable and their vapors highly toxic, it was legitimately necessary to block public access to an incident, and the energy company usually got the FAA to restrict the airspace overhead, arguing that helicopter blades would scatter the surface oil. Conveniently, that also allowed them to manipulate the news narrative since no one was around to dispute it. They typically made each incident sound minor and always professed to have the cleanup well in hand. If Izzy and Ricky were hiding inside the barriers, they could monitor the veracity of those claims. CLEAN’s very own bullshit detector.
“Any more news about the spill?”
“About what you’d expect. The pipeline belongs to Nations Oil. They had a press conference at five o’clock and announced the unintended discharge was now under control, the environmental impact minimal and the cleanup already underway.”
Stacie rolled her eyes and addressed the newcomers. “Unintended discharge…no shit. As usual, we’ve got the foxes guarding the henhouse. They like to make it sound like it’s all robins and butterflies so everybody will just go on about their business and act like it’s no big deal, and then two years later all the fish have three eyes.”
Ethan spoke up. “They’re calling it a crude spill. Heavy oil.”
Izzy explained, “Ethan writes for The Statesman. That’s the student newspaper at UM-D, so he went to the press conference.”
“Outstanding! Jenn has press credentials too. You guys should coordinate your coverage when she gets here tomorrow. Anyone show up from the community to find out what was happening?”
“Just the guy from the bait shop and a couple of his buddies. They’re the ones who discovered the spill,” Faye replied. “They got interviewed on TV but didn’t seem too upset about how this was going to shut down their business for months.”
“The lawyers probably got to them already with their usual song and dance about how too much controversy tends to slow down compensation. We’ll need to find some angry locals and get them on the record. Jenn’s good at that.”
Izzy served up bowls of split pea soup cooked over a portable camp stove. “We’ll be cooking all our meals this way now that the power’s been cut. One little spark in the wrong place and boom!”
After dinner they exchanged contact information and Faye asked Izzy, “How are you guys going to charge your phones and laptops without electricity?”
He smiled wryly. “Ricky rigged up a solar panel on the roof that ought to be enough to charge all of our gadgets as long as it doesn’t rain. I doubt they’ll shut down the cell towers since they need them as much as we do.”
“Plus we have these,” Ricky said, opening a cooler to reveal a stash of Sterno canisters and batteries in all shapes and sizes.
Stacie was impressed. “I hear the mosquitoes are pretty bad up here in the summertime.”
Faye chuckled. “Like birds, only bigger.”
“You forget we’re all from Minnesota,” Izzy said. “Hardy Midwestern stock. We’ve got plenty of supplies to hold out for a couple of weeks. That ought to give us enough time to find a drop zone where we can sneak things in and out. These woods are pretty good cover, but I won’t be surprised if they hire security to patrol them.”
Security likely meant Karl Depew, a ruthless son of a bitch who did everything he could to make their lives miserable. His contacts in the oil industry and willingness to break the rules pretty much guaranteed his presence at every incident. Oil companies preferred to work in secret and they weren’t shy about making friends who would help them out. Local law enforcement agencies were happy to “partner” with any company willing to pay for overtime and special equipment. And there was always the possibility Depew would involve the Department of Homeland Security, who considered pipeline threats matters of national concern.
This cabin, Stacie thought, could turn out to be CLEAN’s best perch ever to monitor excavation of a ruptured pipeline and cleanup. Now it was up to her to find ears for their information, like someone in Washington or in the mainstream media. There was no guarantee the local regulators or law enforcement would listen, not if Nations Oil managed to buy them off.
After sunset, Faye and Ethan took their leave, the latter driving off in Izzy’s rust bucket so the cabin would appear vacant once Stacie left in the morning. According to Izzy, the farmhouse Matt Stevenson arranged for them had four bedrooms and two baths. She always pulled rank and claimed a bedroom for herself and Jenn. Sharing a house with others—some of whom were first-timers on the road and had no idea what to expect—was her least favorite part of every campaign. Privacy was at a premium, and after a few days their time at the house would be rife with petty squabbles over bathroom habits or whose turn it was to do what. It was worth it though. They took pride in knowing they were fighting the good fight, and nothing beat the adrenaline rush from the protests and confrontations.
Still, it was getting harder every year to cope with the nomadic lifestyle of an activist. It wasn’t just the no-frills accommodations, or even the lack of privacy. What bothered her more after each campaign was returning home and facing the fact that her activism was the only substantive thing in her life. No one wanted a future with someone who ran off at the drop of a hat and poured her whole heart into a quixotic fight against corporate behemoths.
* * *
Cathryn offered the last slice of a pepperoni pizza to her administrative assistant, Amy Hornbeck, and then crushed the box so it would fit in the garbage can under the sink. Since she was a company director, her per diem was twice as much as both her assistants, but the higher-ups on the corporate jet had a blank check for luxury expenses. While the executives had gone out for steak at a fine dining restaurant and were staying at the North Shore Resort fronting Lake Superior, she and her team were relegated to a residential hotel in Hermantown not far from the spill site. Her envy of their extra perks was mitigated by having a whole apartment, not just a hotel room. Since this was shaping up to be an extended road trip, she was sure to appreciate the extra space and homey feel.
Woody gobbled up his slice and washed it down with his second beer. An entry-level petroleum engineer and only three years out of Texas A&M, he hadn’t been her first choice for a technical assistant, or even her second or third. He’d made the cut because his father sat on the university’s board of trustees with Hoss, leading Cathryn to think he’d rise quickly in the company—but probably not until he started wearing a big hat like the other men.
Amy lounged on the sofa with her bare feet on the coffee table, clearly tired from their long day. Originally from Shreveport, she’d joined Nations Oil six years ago right out of LSU, where she’d majored in business administration. Unlike Woody, she was Cathryn’s first choice as assistant communications director, and focused her efforts on the job at hand instead of always plotting her next advancement. White men in big hats notwithstanding, Cathryn expected to make Vice President of Investor Relations when Clifford Blake retired, and Amy would slide easily into the job of spokesperson, especially given that Hoss found her freckles and curly, reddish-brown hair “perky.”
Suddenly Amy shuddered and groaned. “I just had a mental image of Bryce Tucker trying to stick a twenty-dollar bill in some poor girl’s underwear. That’s going to keep me up all night.”
Following their press conference, Cathryn had overheard the men making plans to visit a strip club after dinner. “I probably shouldn’t have told you guys about that.”
“What do you want to bet they write it off on their expense account?” Woody groused.
“Entertainment expenses are perfectly legal,” she said. And it helped explain why there were so few women at the top levels of Nations Oil. It was a boys’ club through and through, but she was confident she’d break into their circle one of these days.
Amy shuddered again and smacked Woody on the arm. “But it’s creepy. Why do you guys do that?”
“What do you mean, ‘you guys’? I’m not at the strip club, in case you didn’t notice.”
“By the way, Woody—and this goes for you too, Amy—Gregg O’Connor reminded everyone today that we need to be extremely careful about communicating sensitive details concerning the spill, including that email you sent this morning about the pumping station differentials. Bryce’s engineers were low-balling the estimate at ninety thousand and your numbers blew them away.”
“What’s so sensitive about that? I only told them how many gallons went missing. Math is math.”
“Yes, but you put it in a document. Now it’s part of the paper trail and subject to subpoena. If we clean up ninety thousand gallons and it looks like it’s all gone, the EPA could make us keep digging.” The fact that he might be correct was not part of the corporate equation. “Gregg wants you to write a corrective memo tomorrow, something about how the alarm failure could have been the result of calibration errors, which would also account for the volume discrepancy. That’s possible, isn’t it?”
He threw up his hands in resignation. “It’s possible aliens came down and scooped it up in their flying saucers.”
She crossed her arms and eyed him sternly. “Just get the memo out, preferably by eight o’clock in the morning.”
Though Cathryn occasionally joined Woody and Amy after work for a beer, she did not otherwise socialize much with any of her co-workers. A modicum of camaraderie was good for teamwork as long as no one lost sight of who was boss, like Woody had just now. The way to remind him was to snap him back like a rubber band.
The rest of her social life was under the radar at work, thanks to a sexual harassment lawsuit against one of the VPs a couple of years ago, after which conversations of a sexual nature were strictly prohibited for everyone. She’d made no secret of being a lesbian and it was common knowledge around the company, but she welcomed the firewall and never talked with her team about personal matters.
She doubted there would be any opportunities for “personal matters” in Duluth. An Internet search for lesbian dance clubs or bars in the area had come up empty. The lesbian community probably consisted of college students and homesteading couples who got together once a month for potluck. Neither of those segments piqued her interest.
Woody slapped his knees and stood, stretching as though he’d just gotten out of bed. “Guess I’ll hit the hay. Long day tomorrow.”
“Long month is more like it,” Amy replied, yawning for exaggerated effect as she followed him to the door.
They were sleeping together, Cathryn suddenly realized. On the one hand, that pleased her immensely since it meant she’d see less of them after work hours. On the other hand, if they were discovered by any of the higher-ups one of them would be fired—likely Amy, since her father didn’t serve on a board with Hoss. As their immediate supervisor it was Cathryn’s responsibility to remind them of company policy, but that could wait until they got back to Houston. It might run its course by then anyway.
After dead-bolting the door behind them, she leaned against it and folded her arms, wondering how she’d fill her nights in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. She might as well be at the end of the world.
The moment she left New Mexico for the University of Texas, she discovered she was always meant for a cosmopolitan life. Austin wasn’t exactly Manhattan, but it was teeming with women who liked women, and also women who liked politics, business and the arts. Her freshman year proved almost too stimulating, and it took the next three years of straight A’s to graduate cum laude. That was enough to get her an internship at Nations Oil, after which the dominoes fell perfectly. Just one more rung on the corporate ladder and she’d have it all—professionally, that is.
Personally, not so much. She’d been single for four years, ever since Janice left for Maryland after meeting her soulmate in a cooking forum online. Nine years down the drain. There was no good reason to believe long-term relationships would last, so she’d learned to entertain herself with a series of short-term flings.
Janice had left not long after Cathryn’s fortieth birthday, and one of those two events caused her hormones to explode. She’d gone through half a dozen such flings in the last three years, thinking herself modern rather than promiscuous. Most of them she’d met on SappHere, a mobile app for her phone that located lesbians nearby. It was simple to use. She could log in and check out the profiles of lesbians within whatever geographic range she set. If anyone looked interesting, she could send a private message inviting that woman to meet for a drink.
Ten years ago, the prospect of online dating was scary but now it was the status quo. SappHere had built-in safeguards, like allowing her to fix her location to a public place instead of her home so strangers wouldn’t know where she lived. She used the name Cate and listed her hometown as Artesia, New Mexico, where she had grown up. Her profile photo showed only part of her face. Rarely did she stay logged in for more than a minute or two, usually just long enough to check out who was around.
Though she’d dated a handful of locals in Houston, her preference was women from out of town, especially those who visited regularly on business. They were usually looking for fun, not marriage, and tended to be career women like her. Best of all, they had hotel rooms, which reinforced her sense of anonymity.
Not that any of that mattered here. SappHere was sophisticated and Duluth was not. To prove her theory, she absently tapped her smartphone and was stunned to actually get a hit, a woman who also used the airport as her default location. And not too shabby if the profile pic was less than ten years old. Short black hair, brown eyes, nice smile, and with a slender neck that suggested an athletic frame. If she’d been any cuter, Cathryn would have written her off immediately. The really gorgeous women on SappHere usually turned out to be men trolling for a threesome.
This cutie was Marlene from Pittsburgh. In the time it took Cathryn to scan the sketchy profile, Marlene was gone. Too bad.
Not that it mattered much—tomorrow would be another busy day. She’d scheduled a press update for eleven o’clock with no intention of showing up before a quarter after. It was vital she set the proper tone and establish early that reporters were at her mercy for information.
After straightening her kitchen, she cleared space in her sitting area for her yoga mat and retreated to the bedroom to change into leggings and a tank top. Yoga was her most important ritual of the day, even if only for fifteen minutes right before bed. It calmed her body and cleared her head for sleep.
Fifteen minutes became thirty as she visualized herself at the front of the pressroom. Ninety percent of her job was poise under pressure, and in a situation such as this one, the pressure grew exponentially with every gallon spilled. Confidence, knowledge, poise.
“Namaste.” She exhaled slowly to end her session, ready for rest.