Batman #3—Team Player
This installment of the Bruce Wayne/Kendra Carmichael saga takes place after the previous short story, Misdirection. I had waaaay too much fun playing around with British slang and “casting” the other characters.
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“What would you like?” Kendra Carmichael opened the refrigerator in her uncle’s kitchen and looked in. “Two o’clock in the afternoon is an odd time—are we eating breakfast or lunch?”
“Breakfast.” Bruce Wayne bent over with her, peering into the chilly depths.
She kissed his cheek. “Aren’t you adorable, looking in the ‘fridge like you know what it’s for.”
“Hey!” he protested.
“If you want to help, make the coffee—can you do that?”
“I think I can manage.” He grinned at her, his hair still wet from their shower, and went to the coffee maker. “Alfred does take a day off now and then.”
Kendra found her uncle’s apron. “He taught me to love the kitchen. Every time he came to see us, he’d show me some new magic.”
The bean grinder clattered and whined. Bruce unplugged it. “I got jealous when he went to England. He would never take me out of school to go with him. Why didn’t he visit in the summer when we were all on vacation?”
“The boys and I begged him to bring you,” she said, whisking eggs and sweet cream. “Uncle said you needed stability, not summers cavorting with us wild donkeys. He worried about you so.” Kendra’s smile faded. “The last time he came over was after you’d gone missing. He was sick with worry. Mum came back with him for awhile. We didn’t want him rattling around in the mansion all alone.”
Bruce watched her chop onions. “He never told me that.”
“He doesn’t worry now, not like he used to, even though there’s so much more to worry about.” Kendra looked at him and saw Batman for the first time. “Uncle goes to the Facility when you’re out at night. He helps you. Can I do that?”
Bruce added water to the coffee maker. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Why? I can certainly stitch you up better than he can.”
“I’m a different person in the suit.”
She poured her mixture into a hot skillet. “It’s a part of you. I know where that part comes from.”
“Knowing something isn’t the same as seeing it up close.”
“But, I want to help. It’s one of the reasons I stayed instead of going to Metropolis.”
Bruce took a breath. “I don’t want you there, Kendra. You’re part of this world, not that one. That one’s dangerous and ugly. I want to protect you from it, not throw you into it.”
“I’m stronger than you think I am.”
He shook his head. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Would Batman ever hurt me?”
“Would my presence distract him?”
“I don’t know.” He looked at her. “I doubt it.”
“Does he trust me?”
“Depends on the situation. Trust like that takes time.”
She puzzled over that for a moment. “Can we at least talk to Uncle Alfred about it?”
Bruce set his jaw. “It won’t change my mind.”
“Just a chat,” Kendra said, scooping eggs onto plates. “A conversation.”
Bruce caught the toast as it popped out of the toaster. “All right. A conversation.”
Kendra smiled to herself as she bustled around him. A crack in the bat-armor, that was all she needed. She wasn’t about to let him shut her out of half his life.
They sat at the little kitchen table, Bruce pensive, Kendra triumphant, and ate their breakfast in silence.
A few evenings later, snow threatened, and the forecast said Gotham would be buried by morning. In the Facility, fluorescents burned like an operating room. Alfred and Kendra sat at a long bank of console screens displaying GPS, telephone lines, Gotham police records, private files, and several search engines. Another screen showed the location and status of the tank-car.
“We’re simply back up,” Alfred explained. “If he needs information, we have the resources. If he’s in trouble, we know where to find him.”
“Does he wear a tracking device?”
He pointed to a smaller telltale next to the tank-car position.
Alfred handed Kendra a headset. “Most nights are fairly quiet. That’s why I bring my crossword puzzle.” He tapped the morning Gazette. “I suppose it’s like an emergency room, really—lots of boring between the exciting bits. Let me show you how these screens work.”
Kendra put on the headset and followed Alfred’s thorough orientation. She practiced with the touch screens and spent time looking through the police records.
Then a raspy voice said in her ear, “Robbery on Fifty-second and Euclid. Call it in.”
“Roger,” Alfred replied crisply. He touched 911 and gave the location. Before the operator could ask any questions, he hung up. “Best let me do all the talking. He’s none too pleased about your being here.”
“Thank you for supporting me,” Kendra said. “At least one of you is sensible.”
“Remember, sis, he lost his parents and Miss Dawes to the criminal element. His mentor betrayed him. He has more than enough justification to want you safely away from this.”
“If I get in the way or cause a problem, I’ll keep well away.”
“Bull.” Alfred shook a finger at her. “You’ve got your mind set, I can see it. I’m not afraid of giving you the toss if things are off tonight.”
“Fine. I’ll sit in the corner, shall I?”
Alfred smirked. “Not bloody likely.”
The night progressed slowly. Alfred worked his crossword puzzle. Kendra inspected the Facility, taking a mental inventory of the supplies, pouring over design plans, and asking questions until Alfred kicked out the chair next to him and pointed at it meaningfully. Kendra shelved the miniature rocket launcher she’d been studying and sat down.
“He’ll know every piece of equipment you’ve touched,” Alfred scolded, “every paper you’ve moved.”
“How am I supposed to learn?”
“Slowly, luv. Don’t crowd him.”
In the early morning, another message came through.
“The police are after me,” he said. “I’m going underground.”
“Roger that, sir,” Alfred replied.
“What does that mean?” Kendra asked.
“He’ll abandon the car, when he’s able, and return here on foot.”
Kendra checked the tank-car’s status. It was on the other side of town and moving farther away. “Will he destroy it?”
“He’ll have to.”
Alfred turned up the police communications and found the pursuing car’s radio. They waited. Soon the icon on the tank-car’s screen blinked and went flat. On the radio, the policemen yelled and called for a fire truck. Batman’s telltale moved slowly back across the city.
After a long wait, he came down the hydraulic lift. He smelled of smoke, and soot smeared his lower face. Alfred helped him out of the damp suit. Kendra observed from a safe distance.
“Any injuries?” Alfred asked.
“No,” he answered, pulling off his boots.
“What tipped them off tonight, sir?”
“The car. It’s too high profile.” He thought a moment. “Maybe Lucius will have some ideas.”
“What about the motorcycle?” Kendra asked, then bit her tongue.
“That might work.” He squinted at her, scowled, then got up and walked away.
Alfred made a see-saw motion with his hand and followed. Kendra went back to her corner.
A long, low whistle came from Steven Booth, a former think-tank specialist for the Pentagon. He stood apart from the group, walking the perimeter. “When you said we were starting from scratch, you weren’t kidding.”
“I’d like your wish lists by Monday,” Kendra told them. “Architects will take our requests and work them into the blueprints.”
Dr. Emily Chantel blinked at Kendra with striking blue eyes. “And it’s the same deal with our equipment requests?”
“We have to sort through storage first, but yes.”
The bio-medical researcher laughed. “Hello, Santa Claus.”
“Cool.” Fran Mitchell pulled a Tootsie Pop out of her mouth. A brilliant wunderkind, she looked more like a high school cheerleader than an engineer. “Have you seen any of the stuff yet, Boss?”
“No, I wanted to share the joy,” Kendra answered. She considered Dr. Mitchell her recruiting stroke of genius. The girl’s work in eco-tech was eclectic and bizarre, exactly the kind of creative thinking Kendra wanted for her team.
Nelson Glover turned slowly in a full circle, assessing, professorial in his old tweed suit. Long hair, trimmed beard, and a craggy face added to the image of a don from MIT. But he was one of the top three defense researchers in the world.
“Dr. Carmichael,” he said, his voice cultured and grave, “we could do almost anything here. You have given us an enormous gift.”
“Thank Lucius Fox and Wayne Enterprises,” Kendra said.
Glover’s sober face transformed into a dazzling smile. “At my first opportunity.”
“It’s going to take months to outfit this place,” Booth said, walking back to them. He was a big man, a Marine injured in the first Gulf War conflict, but his limp was hardly noticeable. “What do we do until then?”
“Applied Sciences is making room for us,” Kendra told him. “We have to share offices, I’m afraid, but I thought it better to start now in cramped quarters than wait months for our own space.”
“I agree,” Dr. Chantel said. “We’ve got Fox’s priority list and a warehouse full of half-finished projects. There’s plenty of work.”
“And Dr. Mason is a hottie,” Fran added. “Can I room with him?”
Kendra grinned and led them back to the elevators. “Of course, you all have recruiting and hiring of your own to do. Human Resources will take care of assistants and the like, but you know best how to fill your teams.”
“What about security,” Booth asked. “I mean, Wayne Enterprises, sure, their security’s good, but it needs to be tight here.”
“I’ll introduce you to the head of security. Make an assessment. If you think we need more expertise, we’ll get it.”
“Just like that,” Booth smiled. “Welcome to the private sector.”
Kendra felt deliciously smug as they filled the elevator. She had picked her team wisely. And she liked them—all of them. She knew that liking her PMs wasn’t a requirement, but she had tried hiring only the most qualified people in the past to disastrous results. There was always a prima dona, or a maverick, or a monumental prick who kept a team atmosphere from forming. And without a cohesive team, Kendra could never accomplish what she wanted for Wayne Enterprises.
“One thing I would like you to think about,” she said. “I know you all left important work behind at your former situations. Some of those projects you nurtured for years.”
She looked at Dr. Glover, who gave her a wan smile.
“For proprietary reasons, we can’t approach those project specs in any way. But think on this. You all have pearls in the back of your minds—ideas, plans, inventions that you thought were impossible—too expensive, too radical, or too theoretical to even suggest. Those are the kinds of proposals I want to see.”
They looked at her as the elevator doors opened, all eyes and cautious smiles. They don’t believe me yet, Kendra thought. It’s too good to be true. I understand completely.
“This way, my thunderstruck friends,” she said cheerfully.
A limousine waited for them outside the front door. They piled in like kids going to prom.
“I thought lunch was in order,” Kendra said, settling between Emily and Nelson, “then we can explore the storage facility.”
“Sweet!” Frannie said. “Like a really good flea market.”
“Has anyone met Wayne?” Emily asked in a hushed voice.
“I doubt he has any reason to slum around in the basement,” said Steven. “Especially since Fox and the checkbook are upstairs.”
“I’ve read he has little to do with the business at all,” Nelson added.
Frannie adjusted her bling headband. “I think he sounds like fun. I want to see his jet.”
Before anything seriously embarrassing could be said, Kendra cleared her throat. “This is a recent development, so you’ve obviously not heard…” She held up her hand, showing the five karat diamond on her finger. “…I’m engaged to Bruce Wayne.”
The car went silent.
“Engaged,” Steven stated, “to be married.”
“Cool rock,” Frannie said, her whole body nodding.
Emily sat back in the seat, her face working through shock, concern and self-preservation.
Nelson wiped a hand over his beard. “You are aware of his reputation,” he posed gently.
“Please don’t feel awkward—I’ve heard it all,” Kendra told them. “You’re right, Nelson, he rarely comes to the Tower, and even if something should…” She took a breath, timing her hesitation the way she had practiced in the mirror. “I promise you. My personal life will never threaten our work.”
Everyone smiled and offered polite congratulations, but glances shot back and forth across the car. Just as Kendra had intended.
Day and night blended together at the Facility. Bruce never knew exactly what time it was down there. He looked up at the row of clocks across the wall. Gotham time, London time, Peking time… His eyes fell on the room’s one dim corner. The fluorescent lights had been disconnected there. Instead an old lamp lit the desktop. Bruce frowned.
“You gave her a desk,” he accused, bending over the electronic components on his work table. He flicked on the soldering tool.
“Someplace out of the way, sir,” Alfred replied, unpacking a shipment of microchips. “I thought that’s what you preferred.”
“I prefer she not be here at all.”
Alfred looked over at Kendra’s corner. She appeared seriously engaged on her phone, blueprint proposals laid out on the desk and on the floor.
“She doesn’t interfere, sir. What’s the harm?”
“What’s the harm?” Bruce pushed up his protective goggles. “You, of all people, should know.”
“I’m a bit confused, Master Bruce.” Alfred peered through his half glasses at the shipment’s invoice. “You are the one who insisted on telling her about this aspect of your life. You’re the one who invited her here. If you’ll remember, I was against it.”
Bruce glowered at his worktable.
“Perhaps you didn’t quite think things through. Understandable. Heat of the moment.” Alfred set the invoice aside and sorted the chips. “In retrospect, sir, I believe you made the right choice, considering how things have progressed.”
Bruce’s jaw clenched. “I didn’t want to keep secrets from her, that’s all. I never wanted… this.”
“Pardon my saying so, sir, but then you don’t know women very well.” He got up to store the chips in bins on the wall. “I’m no expert, mind you, but I do know that if you tell a woman you engage in dangerous work, she will fight to the death to keep you safe, even if she does believe in the cause.”
Alfred returned to his stool and cut open the next box. “Did you really think our Dr. Carmichael would sit quietly in the penthouse, tending hearth and home, ready to greet you with a peck on the cheek and a cocktail when you finished your nightly activities?”
Bruce said nothing.
Alfred dumped more components onto the table. “It’s all well and good for you to protect her—I’d expect nothing less. But, you can’t just consider what’s best for her or for you anymore. Now, you must consider what’s best for the both of you. If you forbid her to come here, you may feel more at ease, she may be more sheltered, but the two of you will suffer.”
He looked up at the clock. “Ah. Time for tea. I’ll just brew us a pot, shall I?”
“No, Frank,” Kendra said into her cell phone. “We need gas collectors and recirculating units throughout the facility, not just in the labs.” She toed one of the blueprints on the floor. “Yes, I’m looking at it… Yes, I know how much more it will cost.”
She glanced up as Bruce came closer. Her eyes took in the two teacups in his hands.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow at the meeting,” she said, smiling tentatively at him. “No, Steven is in Washington this week, but I have his notes. Chin up, Frank, it’s not that bad.” She clicked off her cell.
“Sorry,” she said, turning her full attention to Bruce.
He saw her cautious hope and let his face relax. “Don’t forget about the photographer tomorrow,” he said, handing her a cup and saucer.
“Of course not.” She took a sip. “Armani for you, Dior for me—very top drawer.”
“Let’s have some fun with it,” he suggested. “Bring jeans, too.”
“Really?” Her face lit up.
Bruce smiled. It tickled him every time her face popped like a little kid’s. It hadn’t happened lately.
“Darling, I doubt the Gazette will publish our engagement picture if we’re not dripping billions.”
“Maybe. I’ll pick you up at the architect’s.”
Her cheerfulness mellowed to a soft, relieved smile as she gazed up at him. He nodded and turned back to the workbench. Alfred watched from the kitchenette. Bruce took a deep breath and bent to his work.
Sam clucked as he pulled up to the apartment building. “This is not a safe part of town, Doc. Are you sure it’s the right address?”
“We go around to the back.”
He looked sideways at her. “You’re kidding, right?”
But he found the alley, and Kendra saw lights in the first floor apartment.
“You sure you don’t want me to stick around?”
“Have you skulking out here in the dark with the engine running?” She grumbled as she pulled on her gloves. “I should have driven myself. I have before, you know.”
“No, Mr. Wayne called it this time. You need a driver in this neighborhood at night.”
“I’ll be perfectly safe, Sam. I’ll call you when I’m ready to go home.”
She got out, followed a path through the snow and up two steps. She rapped on the door.
She stepped across the threshold and found herself in a version of her childhood home—old furniture, kids’ schoolwork on the fridge, the smell of onions and meat loaf. Jim took her coat. Barbara bustled in the kitchen. Kendra sighed, drinking in the familiarity.
She offered Jim a narrow box tied with a bow. “For all the dinners you’ve fed me.”
Gotham’s Police Commissioner looked askance, but took the box. His face changed when he pulled out the bottle. “Eighteen-year-old Macallan.”
“A spot to keep away the chill,” Kendra said.
“Thank you,” Gordon said. “I’ll get some glasses.”
“Come help me with the salad,” Barbara called.
As they washed and chopped, Barbara said, “Are you sure you don’t want a bachelorette party? I talked your wedding planner, and she had some wonderful ideas.”
“I don’t think there’s time,” Kendra said, scraping carrots. “The wedding is in three weeks. There’s the engagement party, and dress fittings, and caterers to choose… Plus construction at the lab begins next week, and we’re still hiring… Then, Mum and boys come…”
“It’s too much,” Barbara said quietly. “A new job, a new husband, a new country.”
Kendra laughed. “It’s a wonder I’m not barking.”
“Here.” Jim came into the kitchen with shot glasses. “This will help.”
She raised her glass to theirs. “Cheers.”
The single malt burned nicely on the way down. Barbara squeaked.
“Smooth,” Gordon said, rolling up his sleeves. “What’s left to do?”
“Get the kids, will you, honey?” Barbara said. “We’re almost ready.”
When he left, Barbara continued quietly, “Couldn’t you postpone the wedding? At least until you’re more settled at work?”
“It’s fine, really, Barbara.” Kendra tossed the vegetables together and dried her hands. “It’s what Bruce wanted, and I do see his logic. We get the wedding taken care of, then get on with our new life.”
“Hmm.” She stooped to pull the meat loaf out of the oven. “Seems like Bruce Wayne always gets what he wants.”
“Usually,” Kendra admitted, pulling plates out of the cupboard. “But, he’s beginning to understand the word ‘no’. I am capable of putting my foot down.”
“Are you?” Barbara stopped and looked at her. “Are you really?”
Kendra didn’t answer. Part of her wanted to tell her friend not to worry, that Bruce was far too responsible to ever hurt her. Part of her knew she needed to keep his irresponsible reputation in tact. And part of her was simply too tired to chose between the two.
Jimmy and Sarah ran in ahead of their dad, and supper began.
“Oy,” Kendra called, her head in Hugh Mason’s office. “Who is it I talk to about conference rooms?”
Mason looked up from his computer screen. “Did you lose your list again?”
“Sorry,” she sighed. “My office is a black hole.”
“Hang on.” Mason clicked with his mouse, keyed a few strokes, then clicked again. He got up and came around his desk. “C’mon.”
“I set coffee down on my desk this morning, and who knows where it went,” Kendra griped as they wove through the cubicles. “I’ve always considered myself an organized person. Tidy. A chronic list-maker. But, I think the floor’s even gone missing in there.”
Hugh slid a sheet off the nearest printer and stuck a piece of tape to it. “Put this on your wall.”
She took the sheet and immediately got tangled in the tape. “Hopeless,” she sighed.
Hugh shook his head. “You need a break.”
“Oh, fat chance of that happening anytime soon! I’ve got to find someplace to have these interviews, or Nelson will be propositioning world class engineers in the loo! And I’m supposed to have an opinion about reinforced concrete.” Her voice started to gather mass and speed. “Why must I worry about reinforced concrete when I’m faced with vital decisions like choosing between bisque and blanched almond as the color of my wedding cake?”
Hugh glanced around at the heads poking up from the cube dividers. He took Kendra’s elbow and propelled her ahead of him.
“And who knew there were twenty-seven brands of digital microscopes? I only knew of five!”
They got back to Mason’s office. He shut the door behind them.
“I’ve gone balmy.” Kendra collapsed onto his thrift-store couch. “Mad as a bag of ferrets. Six pence short of a shilling.”
“Completely yampy,” she went on. “Off my chump.”
“A brick short of a load,” Mason offered.
Kendra giggled. “Totally hatstand.”
They both burst out laughing, Kendra somewhat more hysterically. She started to recover, then peeled off in another direction. She fell over sideways. Smiling, Mason left her there and went out to the “pit.” His assistant blinked at him, wide-eyed, from her desk.
“Ashley,” he said quietly, “book a conference room for Dr. Carmichael for next week, will you?”
“Sure,” the young woman said. “Does she need…” Kendra’s cackle drifted through the crack in the door. “…anything else?”
“Uhh, get Dr. Chantel in here.”
Kendra was winding down when he shut the door again, wiping tears and hiccuping bursts of giggles between sighs.
“Give me your phone,” he said, holding out his hand.
“Hoo,” she chuckled, handing it over. “Phffft.”
He swiped at the screen. “You’ve got a… wedding person, right?”
“Delilah,” she sighed happily. “Ahhhhh…”
Perching on the edge of the couch, Mason thumbed the keypad, then held the phone to his ear. “No, this is her friend, Hugh… Right.” He listened, watching Kendra. “No, Dr. Carmichael’s gone bye-bye.”
“Oh, stop,” she giggled, reaching for her smartphone.
“Yep.” Mason leaned out of her way. “No, you’ll have to do that, too. Just a second.” He turned to her. “You’ve got a check list or something?”
“Three of them. No, wait, four.”
“Are they on here?” He showed her the phone.
“Why? What are you doing?”
“Just show me.”
She swiped and fiddled, but Mason kept hold of the device. When the lists appeared, he made a few more keystrokes. “Got ‘em?” he said into the phone. He waited.
“Is that Delilah? Let me talk to her.”
Mason blocked her with his elbow. “No, you’d better do it all,” he said. “Eleven-thirty? Okay. I’m sure you have… Right… Thanks.” He clicked off the phone.
“What did you do?” she asked, taking it back and staring at it. “Did you just send Delilah my lists?”
A knock sounded at the door, then Emily came in. “Oh. Ashley wasn’t kidding.”
“You guys meeting with the contractors today?” Mason asked her.
“Kendra was…” Emily checked her watch. “…is.” She looked at him, then at Kendra. “I’ll take care of it. You had suppliers coming in for bids today, too, right?”
“We’ll handle it.”
“No, you’ve got that interview…”
“Nelson and I will tag-team it. Frannie’s back from Berkeley—she can keep the meeting with Lucius for us.”
“Get out of here,” Emily said, slipping through the door. “We’ll see you tonight.”
“Delegation is not a dirty word,” Mason said. “You’re just bad at it.”
“C’mon.” He got up and grabbed his coat. “You’re supposed to be at your dress-maker’s.”
“Bollix,” she breathed. “I meant to cancel that.”
“C’mon,” he smiled. “I’ll take you.”
“Thanks, mate.” She got up and pocketed her phone. “I went all wobbly there for a bit.”
“Certifiable.” Mason opened the door.
She led him out. “Nutters…”
Bruce found Delilah in the penthouse ballroom with the caterers.
“Mr. Wayne,” she said brightly. A compact force of nature, Kendra’s wedding planner always spoke brightly, whatever the disaster.
“Where is she?” he asked.
“I sent her to the pool for an hour, then the masseuse. Now… ” She checked her watch. “…she should be at Antoine’s for hair and make-up.” She considered him. “I’ve seen brides in much worse shape, believe me.”
Bruce glanced around at the platoons of staff stringing lights, setting up the stage, stocking the bar. A huge spray of flowers marched by on legs. “Everything under control here?”
“Everything,” she smiled. “Guests will start arriving in two hours.”
He found Alfred supervising the service elevator. “Did you see her when she got home?” Bruce asked him.
“Mind the floor,” Alfred cautioned the movers as a grand piano wheeled past. “Yes, I saw her. Face like a wet weekend, I’m afraid.”
Bruce sighed and studied his shoes.
“She’ll come ‘round, sir. Just a bit nervy and overworked, I expect.”
“Do you think we should still go through with tonight?”
“Not to worry. Our girl’s a trooper—always has been.”
Troubled, Bruce wandered back through the brushed-metal hallway to the living quarters. Their schedules had been off—Kendra working long hours, then dead asleep when he came in from patrol. She hadn’t come again to the Facility, and he was so relieved he never thought to wonder why. She had been hurting, and he missed it. Worse yet, he wasn’t the one she turned to when she needed help. He wasn’t sure how to fix what he’d broken.
As he entered the living room, he heard a guitar playing—faint and muffled. He followed the sound back to Kendra’s old rooms. Not at Antoine’s after all.
Through the glass door, he could see her sitting with her back to him, cross-legged on the floor. A path of light from the bathroom anchored her in the dark room—her red bathrobe, her wet hair. The piece she played was complicated, fast and loud. She banged at the guitar when she wasn’t picking, her whole body jerking with the force of it. Her hand flew up and down over the frets; her body rocked back and forth.
Then, she started to sing, and Bruce closed his eyes. Her voice cut hard and quick into the melody. Strong, confident. Maybe it’s not so bad, he hoped. He wrapped his hand around the door handle and stood that way, listening to her through one song and into the next.
Kendra paused. Something moved in the window—a shadow or reflection. She looked over her shoulder, feeling the good ache in her fingers. Nothing. She checked the clock and set her old friend aside. Showtime, she thought.
The blues band created a lazy, sexy undertone in the ballroom. People slowed down as soon as they arrived. Their hips loosened. Voices turned husky. Kendra wound through the guests, pleased with the effect. Delilah had turned up her nose at the idea of a blues band, but Kendra didn’t care. She had wanted one thing of her own tonight, one little piece of truth.
“There she is,” Steven Booth said, waving her over to the bar. He put a glass in her hand. “I understand two-fisted drinking might be needed.”
“My, how embarrassing news travels,” she laughed, raising the glass and taking a sip of something smokey and strong. “I’m so glad you got back in time.”
Booth turned to his wife. “Rukia gave me strict orders.”
The darkly beautiful woman rolled her eyes. “He was just as curious as I was about this penthouse,” she said, her Middle Eastern accent turning her words into music. “It is spectacular.”
“It does make a statement,” Kendra admitted. “So, what happened in D.C.?”
“I got him,” Booth grinned. “Number two man in explosives. Next month, he’ll be a part of our Basement Brigade.”
“Excellent,” Kendra told him. “Do me a favor—don’t hide here all night. Mingle. I’d introduce you around, but I don’t know most of these people either.”
“I see Emily and her husband, Sidney,” Rukia said, heading in that direction.
“Have you met Sid?” Booth asked, following along. “Special Forces. Smart guy.”
“Yes?” Kendra craned to see around the crowd. “Emily introduced us at the door. He seemed like such a jolly sort.”
“Hey, not all law enforcement are hard-asses, you know.”
“Sorry, of course not. Can’t go by my own experience.”
Booth frowned at her. Then his eyes jumped over her shoulder, and his face evened out. “Mr. Wayne.”
“Sure, Bruce,” Steven said, his eyebrow rising. “We’ll call you Snow White as long as you keep our funding coming.”
“Deal.” Bruce took Kendra’s drink and helped himself.
“Come on, darling,” she said, gripping the hand around her waist. “Let’s see what new delights the caterers are serving.” She gave Steven a flicker of a smile and steered her fiancé through the crowd. Booth watched them carefully.
“There’s all kinds of wrong about that,” a voice said beside him.
Booth glanced at Hugh Mason and nodded.
“I have a surprise for you,” Bruce whispered in her ear.
Kendra turned in his arms. “Do you? In the middle of the dance floor?”
His eyes smiled. “This way.”
They wound through well-wishers and congratulations to the stage. A man, who looked more like an unmade bed, squatted over an open guitar case. He glanced up when they approached, and Kendra froze.
The guitarist unfolded and held out his hand to her. He had no chin to speak of, and what he had was whiskered haphazardly. White hair hung over his eyes.
“You must be Kendra,” he said, his Surrey intonation sounding very much like her own.
“Yes,” she said stupidly, taking his hand.”
Eyes smiled behind his glasses. “Congratulations on your forthcoming nuptials.”
“Yes,” she said again.
The guitarist, amused, glanced at Bruce, then back at Kendra. “Your beau here tells me you pick a little yourself.”
“Yes… a little.”
He lifted a vintage Stratocaster and ducked the strap over his head. “Shall I play a bit, then?”
“That would be lovely,” Kendra breathed.
The guitarist jumped onto the stage and greeted the band. The players exclaimed and crowed around him. When the tall picker turned around to the party, a collective shout rose up. The band scurried to their instruments. They had covered this man’s music for years, so backing him up would come naturally. He smiled at Kendra, then launched into the same blues progression she had been practicing.
“Ohh,” she whispered, clutching Bruce. “How?”
“He’s on tour,” Bruce said, his arms circling her again. “I convinced him to stop by for awhile.”
“I can’t sleep at night,” the guitarist sang into the microphone, his Stratocaster wailing. “I can’t get through the day. I can’t go on much longer. Livin’ this way. Crazy ‘bout you, babe…”
He sang two songs, and was coaxed into a third by the partiers and by Kendra’s stunned, happy face. As he packed up, she stood by respectfully.
“I don’t know how to thank you for coming,” she said. “It’s been a dream of mine to meet you.”
“Walk me out?” he asked, shrugging on a jacket. “What happened to your chap?”
“People to see, billions to spend.”
He chuckled. “Fancy company for a girl from Brighton, ay?”
“Fancy, indeed,” she said.
At the elevator, he considered her. “I don’t do these private gigs much anymore. Glad I did tonight. Best of luck.”
“And to you.” She waved like a schoolgirl as the doors slid shut.
“Blimey,” she whispered, turning back to the ballroom. “I must find Bruce and thank him properly.”
She wandered through the big room, still dazed, grinning at Gotham’s elite. She recognized the DuPont’s and giggled at the irony. She spotted her uncle, standing board straight against the wall in his best suit. When he saw her, he nodded his head once. Kendra stopped, her delight dropping. She took a bracing breath and turned toward the hallway to the living quarters.
Light shone through the cracked door of an unused office. She heard rustling and murmured voices, a woman’s tittering laugh. She pushed the door open. Bruce had his hands up a leggy blond’s skirt. He stumbled, drunk, banging them both into the desk. The girl squealed with delight.
“So,” Kendra said, her voice hard and hot, “this is how you celebrate our engagement.”
The girl untangled and pushed him away. Bruce tripped over himself and fell against the desk again. “Wha… “ He squinted at her. “Keni?”
Kendra snapped around with military precision, tears blinding her. She lurched back into the party, sobbing, trying to find her uncle. Guests nearest her grew quiet, then alert as she blundered farther into the room. Bruce lurched after her, his shirttails untucked, his hair in his eyes.
“Keni, wait!” he yelled.
She saw her friends moving toward her—Nelson, Frannie, Emily—and hurried to them. A safe shelter in the madness.
“Keni… wait… I can explain…”
Kendra spun around to face him. So intoxicated, he could hardly stand, her slap sent him reeling. A collective gasp moved through the party. Then, she was moving again.
“Get me out of here,” she said to her friends. “Please.”
Emily put her arms around Kendra and hurried her through the speculating guests. Nelson served as point, and Frannie brought up the rear.
“Kendra!” Bruce bellowed.
“Don’t let him,” Kendra sobbed.
Emily looked back. “Don’t worry. Steven and Hugh won’t let him near you.”
Alfred hurried to her. “Sis, are you all right? What happened?”
Kendra wanted her uncle. She wanted his big hands keeping her safe and his dry wit making it all insignificant.
“I’ll call you later,” she managed as her team hustled her into the elevator.
The diner around the corner from Wayne Tower stayed open all night. One old man sat at the counter slouched over his coffee. The rest of the diner was empty except for one booth jammed with people in fancy dress. During the fast get-away, Emily’s husband had retrieved their coats from the check, so most of them were still buttoned up against the bitter cold outside. It seemed better to be prepared.
The bell on the door tinkled. Hugh, Steven and Rukia walked in.
“Okay,” Steven said. “I just chest-bumped my meal ticket. Will someone tell me why?”
“Boss caught him making out with another woman,” Frannie said.
Hugh dropped his chin to his chest, but said nothing.
“At your engagement party?” Rukia demanded, outraged. “Swine!”
“He was wasted,” Steven started.
“Don’t!” Emily snapped. “That’s not an excuse. Not for this.”
“What will you do?” Nelson asked.
“We’re supposed to be married in two weeks,” Kendra said miserably. She looked at Nelson’s concerned face, looked at them all. “I’ll go to a hotel. I have to sort this out.”
Hugh stepped closer. “You’re not going back there tonight are you?”
“No. I’ll call my uncle. He’ll bring me some things.” She tried to smile at them. “My good friends,” she whispered.
“Where do you want to stay?” Steven asked, pulling out his phone. “I’ll make a reservation.”
“I don’t know. Someplace close.”
“The MacNamarra,” Rukia said. “It’s just around the corner.”
Steven stepped away to talk to the concierge.
“Everyone warned me,” Kendra said, wiping at her smeared make-up with a napkin.
“Nobody listens to warnings when they’re in love,” Emily sighed. She looked up at her husband standing beside them. “Otherwise no one would ever get married.” Sidney looked at her fondly.
“I can’t think anymore, I’m so tired.” Kendra rested her head against the plastic partition between booths. “What a wretched day.”
“We’re set,” Steven said, coming back to them.
“Let’s get you settled over there,” Nelson said, sliding off the cracked seat.
Emily held Kendra’s hand as they left the diner. “Do you want me to stay with you? I can.”
“Thank you, but no. Uncle Alfred will come. He’ll stay if I need him to.”
At the MacNamara, Hugh got out with her. “If Wayne shows up tonight, call me. Otherwise, I’ll be back in the morning.”
“No, I don’t trust him. And I don’t think you should be alone with him.”
The doorman held the door for them. The warm lobby was a relief. “You’ve done so much for me today, mate. I’m grateful. But, I’m all right. Really.”
Hugh scowled at her, unconvinced. Kendra realized his friendship had slipped into dangerous waters—the over-protectiveness, the generosity, the way he stood so close. Aside from Barbara Gordon, Hugh Mason was her best friend. And she was destroying that friendship. She stuffed down her grief and pulled her face together.
“Don’t spoil your whole weekend by fussing about me,” she told him. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
“But, you’ll call if you need me.”
She pushed him toward the door, watched him lope back to the car. Frannie’s face appeared in the smokey glass of the car window. She smiled and pumped her fist. Be Strong. Kendra raised her hand as the car left, her heart breaking.
Exhausted, she checked at the desk for her key and the bag Alfred had left for her earlier. The MacNamarra had been chosen for her long before the conclave at the diner. The beautiful chandeliers and rich tapestries made no impression as she shuffled to the elevator. She slid the keycard into her suite’s lock and opened the door on a room full of flowers. Bruce took her into his arms where she sobbed for real this time.
“We shouldn’t have done it tonight,” he said into her hair. “We should have waited.”
“I was afraid you wouldn’t be here,” she wept. “When I walked into that room, and saw the girl, I almost believed it.”
“I know,” he breathed. “The look on your face—I wanted to stop. I’m sorry I hurt you.”
“No, you didn’t. I knew exactly what to expect. It was the day. It was everything.” She pressed her face against his, the rightness of his body an anchor she could hold on to. “I hate lying to everyone. They care about me. I feel like I’m betraying them.”
“I’m making your life harder instead of easier. That’s not what I want.”
Kendra pulled back and looked at him. “I think this is our life. It’s difficult and painful. But, we’ve chosen it, haven’t we? We choose it every day.”
“Promise me,” she said, tears coming again. “Promise me we’ll always help each other. Because it can’t all be like today. It mustn’t.”
“I promise,” Bruce said, holding her close.
“It’s not going to be easy for you.”
“We’re a team, now,” he said. “In the suit or out. At the Facility, or the penthouse, or anywhere. I won’t shut you out again.”
He kissed her then, sealing his vow, drawing a circle around them that he prayed he could keep intact.
◊ ◊ ◊