by M.E. Logan
After a nearly apocalyptic earthquake engendered a societal breakdown, visionary Deborah Steele returned to her isolated family farm and turned it into a safe haven for women to escape from the increasingly misogynistic and dystopian world around them. Her fair and open system of contracting labor for food, shelter and security has bound them together and ensured their survival. So far…
Outside the farm, however, others are using a contract system as a form of human trafficking. And Deborah’s attempts to protect her estranged love, Joanna Davis, will soon bring the women’s community unwanted visibility, putting them all in danger and forcing Deborah to choose between the sanctuary she has built and the woman she still loves.
Tempered Steele: Hard Edges is the electrifying follow-up to Tempered Steele: Stoking the Fire. Bella’s M. E. Logan is also the author of the romantic thriller Revenge and the romance Lexington Connection, which was awarded the Alice B. Readers Lavender Certificate for Debut Fiction.
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Deborah Steele leaned back in her office chair behind the massive oak desk and absently examined the ceiling. The house of twelve women was finally quiet in these small hours of the morning, the last murmurings of conversation gone. Everyone had gone to bed, no one finishing up some task or trying to avoid the squeaky boards of the old house’s floors.
She had been ensconced in her office all evening, her door closed, discouraging anyone who might have the temerity to visit. Deborah didn’t want to see anyone. She couldn’t. So much of what she had accomplished had been because she had always projected a confidence to the women of her house, a belief that they were going to get through this, whatever happened. Lots had happened since the Great Earthquake and the resulting crash of society. That projection had carried them through when she worried there weren’t enough food supplies to last a long Indiana winter, whether there would be seed enough to make another planting, when she woke up at two in the morning wondering what calamity could possibly happen next, even when everyone brought their concerns to her. Now that belief had been shaken, and she had spent the evening second-guessing herself.
Had it been a mistake to take Joanna’s contract? Had she let her heart overrule her logic, her cold-blooded drive for survival?
She looked around the office at the heavy wooden desk, her grandfather’s barrister bookcases, the credenza, the four chairs in a semicircle before the desk. She idly wondered if she had a bottle of whiskey still stashed in here somewhere. She couldn’t remember. Not that she was a drinking woman. She seldom indulged, but liquor was always good for barter and so she usually had a bottle or two stashed. Tonight though, tonight just seemed like the proper occasion to have a drink.
Don’t you think so? she mused as she searched the cabinets. I mean, when your house of Steele turns into a house of cards and threatens to come tumbling down with the slightest breeze, isn’t that a good occasion to have a drink? You go to town thinking you’ve made it through another god-awful winter only to get caught in a winter storm on the way home. You get into a friendly poker game with neighbors and other train passengers to pass the time only to have some con artist toss in a contract on a woman. And so you acquire Joanna’s contract. You think you’re rescuing an ex-lover, the love of your life, and instead you find she’s become an enemy. Not only is she violently and actively personally opposed to how you’ve survived, but also was the founder of a national organization opposed to your means of survival.
The bottles were all the way in the back, hidden and secure. Deborah broke the seal on the pint and poured some into her empty water glass. She swirled the amber liquid as she contemplated her present situation.
Contracts were tricky enough when there was no other way to survive except by pledging labor, time and energy on one side to someone on the other side who promised to provide food, shelter and support for a given length of time. Once that piece of paper was signed, so much could change, and the contractee had pretty much given up their freedom. No wonder Deborah saw so few black people on contract. They must avoid contracts like the plague. She couldn’t blame them.
Deborah had the lands and the building, but she needed the labor. She managed to persuade enough people to contract with her by operating with openness and in good faith. She promised hard work, a roof over their heads and food on the table—as much security as they could build together. Survival. That was the promise that bound them all together, and so far it had worked.
Survival had meant picking the proper people and avoiding troublemakers, like those unwilling contracts. The number of unwilling contracts increased as they became a solution to a lot of society’s problems. Can’t pay your debt? Sell yourself to someone who would pay it off. Petty crime? Why have the county support you when someone would surely buy the contract and do the supporting?
Deborah sat down and sipped her drink as she reflected how society had changed. Some areas were getting rid of their homeless by simply shanghaiing them and selling their contract. Kill two birds with one stone—money in the treasury and no freeloaders in the community. That was what had happened to Joanna: she had been shanghaied.
Joanna was everything Deborah said she would never deal with. She was an unwilling contract both for herself and on general principle. More than that, she had fought it. She had lost in the courts, so she’d run. Unsuccessfully, but that hadn’t stopped her. And in that way, she was her own worst enemy. Those who couldn’t control her sold her contract, generally to more controlling and abusive holders. She had run twice, and she was registered with the state. If she ran again, she’d serve her remaining contract time in jail.
Joanna was everything Deborah’s logic and survival instincts had told her to avoid. But from the time she’d walked up to the poker table where Joanna’s former holder had tossed her contract into the pot, Deborah knew she was going to get Joanna’s contract. No matter what it cost her. She just hadn’t realized how much it might cost her.
She had made mistakes with Joanna. Perhaps the first one was thinking their past history would be some basis of trust for Joanna. Instead, it had only given her a heightened sense of betrayal.
Joanna had been the love of Deborah’s life, but she had big ambitions, big dreams of being a national reporter. She had been surprised when Deborah had chosen not to follow her when the golden opportunity presented itself. In fact, Deborah had given her the ultimatum of choosing between them. A misjudgment on Deborah’s part, compounded when she chose not to join Joanna later, or even to let bygones be bygones when they ran into each other years after that. But the Great Earthquake had shown Deborah just how quickly life could change and how security could be swept away. She learned how people she loved and valued could be lost forever. When she had crossed paths with Joanna again, Deborah realized fate had given her another chance.
Her second mistake was accepting Joanna at face value. Joanna’s assumed name of Davis on the contract hadn’t bothered Deborah. A lot of people went under false names when they signed a contract. Shame, protecting family members, hiding something—there were so many reasons. Deborah knew who Joanna was, or at least she thought she did. She never pressed for an explanation. To her way of thinking, her acquiring Joanna’s contract was a stroke of good luck for Joanna. Unfortunately, Joanna didn’t see it that way.
While Joanna made no bones about hating being on contract, she neglected to mention that after her news reporting days were over she had become an activist against contracts, and she had founded a national organization, ACTS, or Against Contracted Temporary Services. There was a price on her head from contract holders, from militia units who saw her as upsetting the natural order of things to certain right-wing Christian terrorists who considered her a terrorist against God’s law. Joanna reasoned that if the woman she had loved had changed so much as to hold people under contract, what other ways had she changed? She never dared to take the risk of finding out.
When Joanna came into the house, she had brought changes. Deborah followed all the rules and regulations: the constant supervision and locking Joanna in at night—even if that meant sharing a room with her because Deborah’s bedroom, as the master bedroom, was the only room in the house with a lock on the door. Deborah would make accommodations, but she refused to turn her family home into a prison. Deborah gave Joanna as much freedom as she could. She gave her the time and space to heal, to make friends, take a lover—to perhaps realize that yes, contracts could be abused but it wasn’t a given—in order to get her cooperation. Deborah had thought they had been making headway, that Joanna was mellowing and maybe beginning to see that Deborah could be trusted. That Deborah wasn’t necessarily the wicked contract holder just waiting for the opportunity to abuse her.
For three or four months, Deborah had been patient. She had seen some healing take place. She had thought there had been glimmers of trust. Joanna’s nightmares weren’t as frequent and she didn’t have meltdowns as often. She was calmer.
There might have been more, save for Bobbi’s needling. Maybe Bobbi was the one she should have skipped contracting with. But Deborah had decided at the beginning that if anyone had a claim on her—past friendship, past working relationship, anything—she would do what she could to aid them. And Bobbi was also a past lover. True, it had been in her college years and hadn’t ended well, but the claim was there.
In college, Deborah had been impressed with the potential she had seen in Bobbi. That was before she’d realized how self-serving and egotistical the woman was. The breakup had been ugly. Bobbi had let it slip that Deborah was her latest ‘project,’ a country hick she was mentoring. After that, Deborah hadn’t cared what became of her. Except for occasional reminders she had gotten from social media suggesting they be friends, she managed to forget Bobbi’s existence. Still, when their paths crossed again and Bobbi had begged for assistance, Deborah had been aware of the irony. So she contracted, not because of any fond memories but out of some obligation to help other lesbian family members survive. She had come through the Great Earthquake with so much when so many had come through with little more than their lives.
Deborah’s assumption had been that everyone understood their old lives were over and they needed to make new ones, ones that they might not have planned or been prepared for. For the most part, everyone she had taken in understood and accepted that. Then there was Bobbi, who took the Great Earthquake as a personal insult. Her life plan had involved technology, working in a bureaucracy, using her brain; certainly it had not involved working in the dirt and working with animals, even if that did put food on the table. She had not adapted well to the changed circumstances, and even less to having someone she had considered rather inferior be her protector.
Deborah had learned too late how Bobbi had homed in on all of Joanna’s vulnerabilities. Whether she had recognized her as the activist Joanna Braaford or not, she had recognized her as Joanna Braaford, the news reporter. Either way, Bobbi had known she wasn’t Joanna Davis, and she had thought Deborah didn’t know. And for what reason? To have some sense of power? Because Joanna garnered a lot of Deborah’s attention? Jealousy because Joanna had the personality and charisma to draw people to her when they avoided Bobbi? Deborah had no idea.
And Joanna, after a year and a half of hiding who she was and being under contract to people who took advantage of her, hadn’t dared to challenge Bobbi.
Bobbi couldn’t have known exactly why Deborah was visiting other contract holders, but she had figured out somehow that Deborah was. Like Deborah had once told Joanna, there was no way to keep a secret in the house. And with the sense of a manipulator, Bobbi had let Joanna know that when Deborah had her safely stashed away, she was visiting other contract holders. While Bobbi hadn’t known Deborah’s purpose, she had known that information scared Joanna.
In Joanna’s mind, it was a worst-case scenario. Deborah already knew of ACTS the organization, which meant she knew who Joanna really was and how opposed she was to contracts. Joanna had concluded that Deborah had figured everything out and was colluding with other contract holders. She had taken the risk of running again.
Deborah took another sip, not tasting it now. She had no idea whether or not the events that had followed could have been prevented. If Joanna had told her about her past. If Joanna had said there had been death threats. If Joanna had even said how Bobbi was needling her. If anyone else in the house had mentioned how Bobbi was ragging Joanna. If, if, if.
Then there would have been no need for Deborah to accept the request from ACTS to go in search of their missing founder among contract holders. Not that they had even approached her directly. No, they had used Carolyn as an intermediary and had been stingy with information besides. If they had shared more, there would have been no need to stash Joanna in safe places while Deborah visited places she couldn’t take Joanna, and no need to drag her around and expose her contractee status to so many other people.
So Joanna had run again, putting the whole house in danger with her escape attempt. Bobbi, coward that she was, ran with her rather than staying to face Deborah when her manipulation came to light.
And now what did Deborah have left to deal with? She had made a bargain with Joanna to stay until the satisfaction of a class-action lawsuit against shanghaied contracts went through. If that didn’t get Joanna out of the contract, Deborah would find a way, one way or another. At least that gave her some months of peace with Joanna.
But Bobbi? Oh, how she wanted to cut that woman loose, but farming took all hands, and Bobbi had begged for another chance. She kept her but warned she was on very thin ice and wouldn’t get another chance. Would it keep her from doing damage? Deborah had no idea.
And her house? Deborah had hoped for unification, that the women would see themselves as a unit, as part of the house rather than individuals, and that unification had begun. Joanna’s arrival and her attitude had made them question their decision to contract, and her running had made them realize their personal risk in being on contract. Now Deborah feared the basic premise of their contract: survival for each of them, all of them, would be lost.
The discouraged woman leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, her head in her hands. Deborah had never been an optimist, but she did have a vision. Her goal was a safe harbor for women in a world that had become increasingly misogynistic. She had thought she had succeeded, but now? She wasn’t sure. She was realizing she might be able to save Joanna, or she might be able to save her house, but not both. Her greatest fear was that she might not be able to save either.
There had to be a solution, a way for all of them to survive, and she had to find it.
“Good morning,” Deborah greeted Peg Rock and Joanna Davis/Braaford as they came down the wide curved stairway to the foyer. Until she’d heard the bedroom door directly above her close, she’d remained in her office. She had hoped by giving the lovers a night of peace and quiet and most of all privacy, they would be able to work out any differences.
And there were differences. Joanna had kept Peg in the dark about her past, and Peg had told Deborah she had known nothing of Joanna’s escape plans. Deborah believed her. She wished she could believe everything Joanna said so easily. But she had sent Peg to the room Deborah normally shared with Joanna to give them time as well as to take some for herself to think things over.
Joanna nodded curtly, and Peg’s soft-spoken “Good morning” indicated they had not any better a night than Deborah. “Ready to face everyone?”
“As if I have a choice,” Joanna said tartly.
Deborah’s gaze flickered to Peg, looking for some explanation. Joanna had been calm if resigned during their conversation before last night’s dinner, but this morning, Deborah wasn’t so sure. Peg met her gaze and quickly looked away before she composed herself into her usual deliberately stoic expression.
Not good, Deborah thought as she recognized Peg’s now divided loyalties. “No,” Deborah answered Joanna’s rhetorical question. “You don’t.”
Curious expressions greeted them as they entered the dining room. There were some puzzled glances at Peg, but the ones directed at Joanna were resentful. The tension from Rae was almost palpable as Peg and Joanna split to take their seats on opposite sides of the long table.
“Morning, ladies.” Deborah took her place at the head of the table. “I trust everyone had a good night.” She glanced around at the nine women.
Uncertain nods, shrugs and quiet murmurs answered her. Deborah gave an inward sigh. Joanna’s escape attempt had changed everything—not just the relationship between the two of them, but the entire atmosphere of the house.
“Before we start, I have two announcements.” There was no sense in putting this off even though she wanted to. “Karen, if you’ll take Joanna and me out of the labor roster schedule for today, I would appreciate it.”
Karen LaMont, her manager, frowned even as she nodded. Deborah knew she hated rescheduling, and while Deborah had no clear idea of what was on the schedule, certainly the past two days of dealing with the runaways had disrupted everything. Now she was going to disrupt it even more. Well, scheduling was Karen’s responsibility.
“House meeting tonight,” she continued. “After dinner, so let’s not have a late meal if we can avoid it.” She glanced at Sue who was in charge of the kitchen, and the flaky blonde nodded. “Nothing to celebrate,” she continued, “but you might want to pull out the drinks.”
Deborah looked around the table, seeing guardedly curious faces. Bobbi still looked pretty shaken, as well she should be. If she hadn’t egged Joanna on, all of this could have been avoided. Sara looked speculative. Linda looked expectant. And Peg…Not for the first time, Deborah realized the value of Peg as a personal friend, but she wondered now if this situation might cost her a friendship. She hoped not.
Breakfast was thereafter uncomfortably silent. As soon as they could, everyone scattered. Deborah pushed her chair back, seeing both Peg and Joanna hesitate.
“Joanna, I need to see you in my office.”
“Of course.” Joanna gave Peg an I-told-you-so look as she stalked past Deborah to the front of the house.
Deborah was conscious of her going by, but she was more aware of Peg watching her lover leave the room.
“You all right?” she asked Peg.
At first, Deborah didn’t think Peg had heard her—or if she had, she wasn’t going to answer her. Then the sun-bleached blonde turned her gaze to Deborah, and Deborah realized how bad this situation could be for her. Peg Rock had always been like her name: rock-steady, solid, and Deborah had been able to depend upon that. Now she looked conflicted, her loyalties in conflict. Deborah took it as an indication that their friendship still existed just because Peg had let her see that.
“She still thinks you might kill her.”
Deborah narrowed her eyes to hide her surprise. She had asked Peg about herself; she wouldn’t have asked about the two of them, and certainly nothing about Joanna. She started to say something, but Peg went on before she could.
“Or set her up to be killed.” Peg reached out to take hold of the back of the chair as if she needed support. “She feels blackmailed by your bargain, that you’re holding the freedom of everyone in the house over her head.”
Deborah leaned on the back of her chair, trying to portray casual reassurance. “Well, that’s probably an accurate feeling, but it’s not me doing the holding.” Deborah had never seen Peg so shaken and uncertain. She kept glancing at the door Joanna had gone through then around the room, not meeting Deborah’s gaze. Deborah wondered just what had transpired last night. “But I asked about you. Are you all right?”
Peg nodded, but it looked automatic. Deborah wanted something more concrete. Then Peg looked around behind her to the kitchen to see where everyone went. “I need to…I need to see where Karen went. See where she wants me today.”
Deborah could see Karen through the window behind Peg. “She’s at the picnic table packing up to do the daily delivery to the diner. Why don’t you go with her?”
Peg gave a faint smile with something of her old humor. “Getting me out of the way, Deborah?”
Deborah shook her head. “No. Giving you some distance, time to process.”
Peg’s almost smile disappeared. “Process.” She nodded again. “Yeah.” She looked over her shoulder out the window and then back at Deborah. “She’s very black and white, you know, very passionate.” She didn’t have to explain she wasn’t talking about Karen.
Deborah could smile at that. “She always was.”
Peg nodded. “Yes, you would know.” She started to say something and then stopped. “I guess I need to go catch Karen.” She looked around as if to place herself and then turned to leave.
Deborah said her name in what she hoped was a quiet, reassuring voice. “It’ll all work out. And it’ll be all right.”
Peg turned back, and for the first time Deborah could ever recall, she looked defiant. “Will it? And for who?” After searching Deborah’s face, she abruptly left the room.
“Oh, shit,” Deborah said quietly to herself as she stared at Peg’s retreating back. She had never seen Peg this way before. “She’s really smitten.” She had a sudden burst of sympathy for anyone who would love Joanna.
Deborah shook her head as she left the dining room, crossed the foyer to her office where Joanna had better be waiting for her, all the time wondering just how difficult this was going to be. Joanna had been difficult from the beginning, but Deborah had expected that. She had been treated badly, and that would take time to recover from. During the four months under Deborah’s roof, she had put weight back on. Her physical bruises had healed. The emotional and mental ones would take longer. Sometimes the healing process was slow, but at least Joanna’s healing hadn’t stopped. Her spirit hadn’t been broken. At least, Deborah tried to read that into Joanna’s escape attempt.
When Deborah entered her office, she found Joanna was standing at the window, her hands in her hip pockets, feet spread, elbows out, taking up space. Deborah remembered that stance—determined, controlled, resolute, preparing for battle. In another time, another place, Deborah might have walked up behind her, slid her arms around her, shown moral support as well as physical support. Only now, Joanna’s battle was with her, and it was one Deborah couldn’t afford to lose.
“So.” Deborah closed the door behind her, gearing up for this discussion. “Seems like we’ve been here before. Maybe this time we can do better.”
“If you think so.” Joanna turned to face Deborah defiantly. “Do you mind telling me something?” She sat on the edge of the windowsill as Deborah took her seat behind her desk.
“If I can.”
“Who sold me out?”
Deborah frowned in puzzlement, but before she could speak, Joanna went on, her tone caustic. “I see Bobbi’s still here. Did she use the information about my founding ACTS to entice you to keep her? I know there’s no love lost between the two of you, so I can’t imagine you’d keep her for any other reason.”
Deborah raised an eyebrow. Bobbi knew? That was interesting. And she didn’t say anything. Well, one point for integrity. Or maybe she just forgot to mention it in her fear.
“Nobody sold you out,” she said. “If, as you say, Bobbi knew about it, I wasn’t aware of it. She never mentioned it.” She disappeared behind the desk to pull the laptop out of credenza storage. “But since you brought it up,” she said as she set the battered equipment up on the desk, “why didn’t you tell me? It would have saved us all a whole lot of grief.”
Joanna’s silence dragged on. At least she had the grace to look uncomfortable and stare at the floor.
“Did you really think I’d hurt you, Jo?” Deborah asked in a disbelieving voice. “That I’d turn you over to anyone who might hurt you?” She hated to think that she had changed so much that anyone would think that of her.
Joanna raised her head. When she spoke, the defiance was gone. “I didn’t know where you stood, not really,” she said simply. “You’ve changed so much.” She looked puzzled and curious, uncertain. “Even now, I look at you and think of how you were at the radio station.” She frowned as if trying to understand. “Two different people. I don’t know you at all. I get glimpses now and then and think I’ve got it, and then you do something or I hear some story.” She shook her head. “I didn’t dare trust anyone, not even you, maybe especially you.”
So much grief, yet she could hardly blame Joanna. Deborah knew she had changed. Sometimes she didn’t recognize herself, and the librarian hiding in a radio station seemed someone else entirely.
“I couldn’t hurt you,” she said quietly. “Or betray you.” Even if she had initially promised she would forget that she’d ever known Joanna before, that she would treat her as a stranger, that had been her anger talking because Joanna wouldn’t confide in her. There was no way she could ever have hurt her.
“I don’t know that.” Joanna’s antagonism seemed to evaporate, and she moved from the window to the chair in front of the desk.
“You knew so much about me, who I really was. You knew about ACTS—at least its existence even if you didn’t know my involvement.” Joanna laid her hand on the desk and tapped her fingers on its polished wood. “All I had to go on was our past dealings, and you were still pretty angry the last time we saw each other.”
“Oh, yeah.” Deborah went back to setting up the computer. “Angry wasn’t the word for it,” she said matter-of-factly. “I was royally pissed. I wanted so much to see you fail and come crawling back, wanting me, begging me to take you back. And it wasn’t happening.” She sat back and watched the computer applications load. “But that was my pride and my ego.” Once the loading was complete, she popped in a CD. “A lot of things have changed since then,” she reflected. “A lot worse things have happened than having a lover leave me.”
Deborah turned the laptop so Joanna could see the screen. “And I knew nothing of your involvement with ACTS until someone sent me this.”
Joanna leaned forward, glancing curiously at Deborah and then back at the screen. Deborah turned her head. She had no desire to watch again, although she knew she would need to view it, study it, at least one more time before she returned it. If this was the basis of ACTS’ campaign, Joanna’s campaign, she needed to understand it. She doubted she’d get any ready answers from Joanna herself.
Joanna watched the screen long enough to identify the recording as one of the early organization rallies before she focused back on Deborah. “You really didn’t know?”
Deborah shook her head.
“Then how?” Joanna indicated the screen. “Where’d this come from?”
“ACTS didn’t come to me directly. Someone else asked a favor. They thought I had the ability to go places they couldn’t, get answers to questions they couldn’t ask. Even though this missing person was an ACTS VIP, they thought I’d be sympathetic because it was a woman, was family, maybe in danger. Unfortunately, ACTS wasn’t letting go of a lot of information, so I didn’t know a whole lot until I got this.”
“So you were going around talking to other contract holders like Bobbi said?”
“Oh yeah.” Deborah clasped her hands together, amused. She loved irony. “Funny as hell, isn’t it? I’m going all around the countryside looking for information about a missing ACTS VIP thinking she might have fallen into some holder’s hands, and they’ve got her tied up in some perverted twisted act of revenge. And the whole time, I’ve got you stashed away here safe and sound.”
Joanna wore a puzzled expression.
“Never crossed my mind that it might be you.” Deborah sighed. “ACTS.” She shook her head ruefully. Of all organizations Joanna had to start, why did it have to be ACTS? But she had, and that was something Deborah had to deal with. She pulled herself together.
“You built a hell of an organization, Joanna, I’ll give you credit for that. On that basis alone, I can honestly congratulate you.” She managed not to laugh at Joanna’s disbelieving look, but she was being sincere. “I’m not even being sarcastic. I always knew that you could do great things. I didn’t know what or how or when, but you just had that charisma. I knew you had that potential.” She shrugged and rubbed her face. Just why couldn’t it have been over some other issue besides contracts? “I can’t say I am always happy with your organization. I certainly don’t like some of their tactics. Unfortunately, I can’t say it’s not necessary either.”
Joanna sat back, still looking puzzled, like she thought Deborah was trying to trick her. “So let me get this straight. You don’t like ACTS, but you still went looking for someone strongly connected with them? Even if you didn’t know it was me? Just because you thought they might be in danger?”
“I’m not so callous to wish anyone harm. Reality is bad enough. And I sure didn’t like to think that someone was being treated badly just because of who they were. As far as I see it, contracts are business dealings, not punishments.”
“You never were sympathetic or had a lot of empathy for others when we were together,” Joanna pointed out. “Didn’t want to get involved, as I recall.”
“I still don’t. There’s a whole lot of advantages in keeping a low profile, but some things are just harder to ignore.”
“No other reason?” Joanna pressed.
“Well, of course there was. The world today is run just as much on favors and contacts as anything else. Doing someone a favor is like currency in the bank, even if I didn’t find the missing person. I looked. Bonus points if I found her. Never know when you might need it.”
“So it wasn’t just some woman in danger. It was what someone might be able to do for you in the future.”
Deborah paused a moment. She was accustomed to having her motives questioned, but she had expected better from Joanna. Then again, she and Joanna would always have a different point of view on how to do things. Their roles now would only accentuate their opposition. “I guess you could look at it that way if you wanted to,” she said finally. “Once upon a time, you would have called it networking.”
Joanna ignored that point and pressed on. “And do you think that finding me is going to stop ACTS from calling you out because you hold contracts?”
“Probably not.” Deborah decided it wasn’t worth the argument and began to pack up the laptop. “But they’ll still have to deal with the fact that I did do it. And it was something they couldn’t do. I could have just as easily not been bothered with it. After all, it wasn’t my problem. No skin off my nose. And why should I go looking for someone from an organization that was probably going to give me a whole lot of shit? But I did. And the lost has been found. So yeah, I figure they owe me something.”
“And me. What do you think I owe you?”
Deborah looked at her in surprise. “What do you mean?”
“If you always have an ulterior motive, what was your motive in getting my contract? I can’t believe you did it out of the goodness of your heart. You must expect something back.”
Sometimes, Deborah thought she did too good a job of building a protective shell. And other times, she was glad that she did. “I bought your contract because it was you,” she said in a voice as emotionless as she could make it. “And I’ve been paid back. In distrust, deceit and betrayal.”
Joanna pulled back as if Deborah had slapped her.
“Because I saw someone I once loved in a position of abuse and humiliation, and I thought I could at least give her a place where she would be safe. Once again, I give you something, and it sure doesn’t do me any good.” She shook her head, putting any feelings for Joanna aside. “First time, shame on you. Second time, shame on me. Be warned, Joanna—there will not be a third time.”
Joanna’s face was blank. Deborah knew she was probably well schooled in hiding her thoughts, first in dealing with the public and then in dealing with a contract holder. And on the heels of that thought came the unwelcome and long-denied truth: Joanna saw Deborah only as her contract holder.
Deborah might have wanted to be Joanna’s friend, if nothing else, and the sudden realization of its impossibility was painful.
“So what now?” Joanna asked eventually. “I’m sure you have a plan. You seem to have a plan for everything else. And I don’t have any choice about it.”
“I’ve given you about as many choices as I can. And probably more freedom than you’ve had for a while. I told you at the beginning your papers said you were a troublemaker, but I’d give you the benefit of a doubt, a clean slate. If you wanted to cause trouble, I’d deal with it. Well, that you have, and now I have to deal with it.”
Her tone of voice had changed to become harder, colder. Joanna sat up, looking alarmed. “We made an agreement,” she protested.
“That we did,” Deborah retorted. “You aren’t going to give me any trouble until the suit is settled, and once it’s settled, depending how it’s settled, we will go our separate ways. I made no promises on what I was going to do in the meantime.”
“I gave you my word.”
Deborah chuckled bitterly. “Yeah, well, you’ve done that before too. Several times, as a matter of fact. You’ll forgive me if my trust doesn’t come so easily this time.” I’m not happily in love this time, wanting to believe, she wanted to say. You’re not my center anymore. I’ve other obligations, others to protect.
“You don’t believe me.”
“Should I? You didn’t trust me. You didn’t tell me about ACTS. You didn’t tell me why you were under another name. You didn’t tell me that there were people out after you. You said you were shanghaied, but you never explained why you were alone, why you couldn’t contact someone to come rescue you. Hell, you even went through the court system under Joanna Davis.”
“I told you why I didn’t tell you anything,” Joanna said stiffly. “I was afraid. You’re a contract holder.”
“And in four months, you saw nothing that might give you reason to think you might be safe here?”
“I didn’t dare take the risk.”
Deborah sat there with her hands clasped across her stomach, watching Joanna, measuring her, weighing her words. Joanna’s position would have been understandable four months ago. It would be understandable if they were strangers. But Deborah thought four months of relative safety would have eased some of those fears—that there would even be some measure of trust. Time wouldn’t erase everything. Joanna would probably have some of those fears for the rest of her life, but Deborah had hoped there would have been some meeting ground, some mutual respect established.
“Well, now I don’t dare take the risk.” She saw the immediate fear in Joanna’s eyes, quickly hidden, and she ground her teeth in frustration. “No, I’m not going to lock you in a cage,” she clarified, “but not because of any trust you’ve earned. It’s because I have too much respect for this house and what I’ve created here to make it a prison. I have too much respect for all the women I’ve brought into this house, promising them safety. I’ve worked too damn hard trying to build a unified house to sit here and let you destroy it.
“So, some things are going to change. First of all, you’re going before the house at the meeting tonight to tell them everything.”
Joanna sat up in sudden protest, even opened her mouth to speak, but Deborah raised a pointed finger. “You’re going to tell them who you really are,” she continued. “You’re going to tell them about ACTS. You’re even going to tell them why you used an alias. You’re going to come clean.”
“That’s like signing my death warrant!”
“Oh, I don’t know about that. You’ve been pretty neutralized for the past two years. I don’t mean to downplay your importance, but that’s how it is. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s made you less of a target. Besides, are you saying the women in my house can’t be trusted?”
Joanna ignored that question. “And if I refuse?”
“I’ll take that as breaking the agreement you and I made. You promised no problems, no headaches. I will not have a divided house. You telling them may not regain their trust, but I think it will go a long way in helping them understand why you did it. Even if they don’t trust you, I think they may give you the benefit of the doubt.” All of them, Deborah knew, had something to fear. Joanna’s fears were just a bit more life threatening.
“And then what?”
“I’ll tell them, which won’t reflect well on you, but that’s a different problem. They’re going to know, because if everything you say is still true, it’s a risk to the house. And they’re part of this house, so they need to know. It’ll be a whole lot better coming from you, but that’s your choice.”
“And what if they can’t deal with it? What then?”
Deborah winced at the thought. She could imagine any number of things happening, from people leaving, as they had that option, to them staying and making Joanna’s life so miserable Deborah would have to get rid of them. At the same time, she thought—really believed—the women trusted Deborah. There were always risks in every decision. This one just had more variables because of more individuals. She didn’t like that, but she’d rather have it out in the open than wondering what was going on behind her back. They might not trust Joanna, might make life difficult on her, but they would know. “They have two choices. They can deal with it, or they can leave.”
“What? You would throw them out?”
“No.” Deborah gave Joanna an exasperated look. “Haven’t you learned anything while you’ve been here? If they can’t deal with the information, they have to decide what to do. One of those options might be their leaving, but that’s their choice. You don’t have a choice. You’re staying.”
“And if they decide to leave, you’re just going to let them go?”
“Yes.” Her tone was so firm that, even though Joanna clearly didn’t believe her, she said nothing. If anyone left, Deborah wouldn’t be happy about it, and it would take an effort on her part not to blame Joanna, but she would let them go. Not blaming Joanna might be more than she was capable of, but she would deal with that when the time came.
“After that, we’re going to take a jaunt over to the commune to see Carolyn. I believe you’ve been wanting to see the commune anyway, haven’t you?”
Joanna drew back in surprise, but there was subtle interest there. “Over at Lincoln? Why? I can’t believe you’re actually going over there.”
“Neither can I, but it seems the thing to do.”
“I thought they—she wasn’t a member of your fan club.”
“They’re not, and she’s not exactly, but she asked a favor and I owe her an answer. I figured if she managed to come over here and ask, I can go over there when I have the answer.”
“She came here?”
Deborah nodded. “She came out early one morning before you were up.”
“Why, if you don’t mind my asking? After seeing your interaction with her at the diner, I’m surprised she came to you to ask for anything.”
Deborah harrumphed. “I don’t think it was easy for her to ask, but I was the best available option.” She paused before she went on, not sure this was the best time to tell Joanna. But would there ever be a good time? “And since it concerns you, I don’t mind you asking. She’s the one who asked me to find you.” Before Joanna could say anything, Deborah answered the obvious question. “ACTS was at the organizational meeting.”
Joanna bolted upright. “They were?”
“Of course, their primary purpose was to oppose the proposed contract processing center, but while they were here, they were cautiously feeling people out. Evidently Carolyn passed. They were trying to get information from any of the contract holders, not that Carolyn could help there. She thought I might do it since the missing person was a dyke and some nasty folks had made threats. I guess I passed muster. But they wouldn’t give out any names, and Carolyn couldn’t get any info until later.”
“So they knew where I was?”
“I doubt it, except maybe in terms of region. I don’t know how wide their search was, where they had searched before. They didn’t give me much information.” She looked at Joanna with even more exasperation. “You could have called them. I gave you the opportunity.”
To her surprise, Joanna lowered her gaze. She didn’t look as pleased as Deborah had thought she would be at being found.
“What’s the deal?” Deborah demanded roughly. “Or do I have to guess? You don’t want them to see you, their mighty leader, on contract herself?”
Joanna squirmed uncomfortably on the chair. “No, that’s not it. Not exactly.”
Joanna shook her head and kept looking away.
“Out with it, Joanna. Because it’s going to come out sooner or later.”
“They’ve always seen me as a strong person. There was nothing I couldn’t handle. I don’t know that person anymore. I don’t know that I can be that person anymore.”
Deborah sat back in the chair, struck by Joanna’s candor. And since then, you’ve been shanghaied. You’ve been abused and beaten, and what system was left failed you and there was nothing you could do about it. She had some sympathy for her. What had happened hadn’t just been physical—it had been a blow to the ego, to the psyche. Once upon a time, she had considered Joanna the stronger of the two of them. Time and experience had taught her that she was just as strong but in a different way. She wasn’t as high-strung and her endurance was better, yet she wasn’t sure if she would have survived what had happened to Joanna any better than Joanna had.
“You’re human, Joanna, and everyone has a breaking point,” she said quietly. “No matter what the circumstances, at some point, we just can’t take any more.”
“And then we die.”
“Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes we break. Sometimes we just give up. Sometimes we find other ways to survive. Sometimes we come back. But we’re never the same.”
“I’m not the same woman they knew.”
“No probably not. That doesn’t mean you’re not still a strong woman. You survived. That says something.”
“Have I? Maybe so, but maybe I’m not any good to them anymore.”
“You won’t know until you try it.”
Joanna gave a sudden bitter laugh. “What are you doing, Deborah? Talking me into going back to ACTS?”
“I said I didn’t like some of their methods. I also said I thought they were unfortunately necessary. And now, if you go back, you’ve been on the inside. I hope that you’ve seen some good as well as the ugly.”
Joanna shook her head. “I don’t understand you.”
Deborah shrugged. “So what else is new?”
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