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Wine, Women, and Ayla (Part 1)

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A Whateley Academy Adventure

Wine, Women, and Ayla

by ElrodW



Friday, April 20, 2007 - Late Evening
Near Poe Cottage, Whateley Academy

"Wait up, Vox!" Destry called after the curvy black freshman girl as she ran after her. "I didn't mean anything by it!" With Destry were Sharisha, Vox's roommate, and Diamanta.

Vanessa Jackson, Vox, slowed and then sank down onto a bench next to the pathway to Hawthorne Cottage, burying her face in her hands as she continued to sob. Sharisha, her roommate, slid onto the bench and put her arm around Vox's shoulders. "You're better off without that whitebread trash," she snarled, her hatred undisguised, which it usually was. Unlike her roommate's curvy, developing hourglass figure, Sharisha was tall and chubby, and in a campus full of exemplar girls, calling her plain would have been giving her credit.

Destry eased herself onto the bench on the other side of the emotionally stricken girl. "I'm sorry, Vox," she said. "I ... I didn't mean to upset you."

"We were just teasing," Diamanta added, feeling guilty.

"I can't go kiss and make up to Ayla!" Vanessa sobbed. "I ... have to stay away from him. I have to just leave him alone."

"Girl," Diamanta said soothingly, "it's just another little spat. Couples have them all the time. You'll see."

"If you ask me," Sharisha growled, "it's a good riddance. You deserve better than that rich, arrogant asshole."

"I love him!" the stricken girl cried between sobs, "but ... but I'll never be good enough for him! There's nothing I can do that'll ever make him really love me!"

"That white bitch-boy is just too cold and uncaring. All he gives a damn about is business and makin' money," Sharisha interjected. "You're better off finding someone who really does care for you."

"I ... don't want to talk about it," Vanessa sobbed. "Please leave me alone."

Destry and Diamanta glanced at Sharisha uneasily. They really hadn't meant to upset Vox so much; they were just jokingly asking her if she was faking the breakup to guilt Ayla into taking her on another trip, like he had on the term break, and if she was going to have some crazy-hot wild-monkey-make-up sex with Ayla.

"You guys go back. I'll take care of my roomie," Sharisha directed the other two.

After a moment of indecision based on how upset Vanessa was, the two girls turned to walk back to Poe. "That girl's got some real self-confidence issues," Destry whispered softly to Diamanta even though they were far enough away that Sharisha and Vanessa wouldn't overhear.

"I think Ayla's just too cold and business-like to have time to really love anyone," Diamanta replied.

"Maybe," Destry agreed hesitantly. "But from what I heard, she has some commitment issues based on her mom and dad.

"That might be, but I'm still convinced it was Ayla's fault."


Part 1

Saturday, April 21, 2007 - Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Charge sighed with disgust when Reach and Jenny put their trays on the Beret Mafia's table, sitting beside each other and moving as one with their hands intertwined and a look of happiness on their faces. "Would you two knock it off?" she grumbled, shaking her head at what to her was an annoying public display of affection. Her shoulder-length dark hair danced about her face at the motion, punctuating her distaste. But even complaining and frowning, her pert little nose, eminently kissable lips, and big soft eyes made her look adorably cute.

"I can tell someone did not sleep well last night," Jenny grinned at Charge. At any other school, this would have been the table of the 'beautiful girls', because all of them rated at least a ten. At Whateley, though, beautiful exemplars were common, and so the group didn't stand out nearly so much.

"No," Charge - Adalie Vitesse - snapped. "I was training with Kayda and Alicia yesterday afternoon, and it got a bit ... rough. My shoulder is still very sore, despite Kayda's 'ealing, and the pain kept me awake most of the night."

"My, my," Vera 'Charmer' Villabianca, seated between Charge and their friend Chat Bleu, chuckled with a twinkle in her exotic purple eyes, "aren't you becoming quite the combat expert? Maybe you _did_ learn something from your combat final last fall!"

"Vill it be necessary zat ve have Chief Delarose get you a UV armband?" Greta 'Wunderkind' added to the teasing. "You haf become quite obsessed with violent combat, ja? You are becoming eine Kriegsgvttin, ja? A war goddess?"

"Oui," Chat Bleu laughed aloud. "All we 'ave 'eard for the last week is 'ow you fought those Americain elfes de bois!"

"And let us not forget all the tales of 'ow you single-'andedly defeated several Americain ruffians in Kayda's 'ometown!" Korrende 'Kismet' Mitterand chimed in.

"The way you tell those stories, you were like Bruce Lee," Chat Bleu laughed "And every time you tell it - which we've all 'eard a dozen times or more - there are more and more boys you fought and defeated!"

"A few more tellings," Charmer chuckled, "and you will 'ave defeated 'alf the American army!"

"Just for that, you don't get any of my jelly!" Addy made a point of moving a jar from the center of the table onto her tray. She saw the curious glances. "It is a gift from Kayda's mother."

"Oh, now I see you are getting into la cocina americana!" Donza laughed. "First, it was Scandinavian gourmet food. Next thing, you'll be raving over their greasy diner fare and things like grits!"

"Und ze awful country music!" Wundy added with a wicked grin.

Adalie turned up her nose. "As if!" she sniffed. "It so 'appens that Madame Franks is a very skilled cook, and while I was visiting with them over spring break, she and I cooked some gourmet French dishes for some meals. 'Er cooking is every bit as good as Daphne made at 'ome!"

Though Harley 'Reach' Sawyer and Charge didn't get along at all - in fact it was Charge's unfounded accusation that had caused his transformation - he _did_ know that the teasing was crossing a line, and out of courtesy to his girlfriend, who _was_ friends with Charge and the other Berets, he attempted to distract them before things got too heated. "Would you like anything else, Jenny, hon?" he asked in a thick southern drawl, interrupting the bickering and food-rivalry as he stood. Even though he was in the form he wore most commonly - a stunningly curvaceous, dark-haired, beautiful girl, he still thought of himself as _he_, because he did spend part of his life as a boy - all thanks to the incident with Charge and one of Jenny's projects and a _huge_ misunderstanding - much of which was Charge's fault. However, the benefits outweighed the negatives, so he was inclined to be forgiving.

"Merci, non," Jenny started, but she stopped herself. "Well, per'aps one more croissant," she said, conspicuously eyeing Addy's jelly. Smiling, Reach walked back to the serving line to get what his sweetie desired. "Assuming someone will share 'er jelly."

"Oui," Charmer and Chat Bleu cooed. "That sounds like a very good finis for breakfast."

"But it is only simple Americain fare," Adalie said mockingly. "Or will you two admit that les Americains aren't the cultural barbarians you make them out to be." As soon as she realized what she was saying, her eyes popped open and she clasped her hand over her mouth.

"Imagine," Charmer purred, "Charge, the pacifist, American-'ating, snobbish French girl, now fighting alongside 'er American friends and defending their peasant cuisine!" Jenny giggled at the irony, while Adalie blushed furiously.

"Per'aps," Chat Bleu speculated, "our belle has found a reason to admire les Americains? Per'aps an American boy has caught her eye?" Chuckling, Korrende, Charmer, and Chat Bleu left to get themselves croissants - and then they would plead with Addy to let her have some jelly. And they _knew_ Addy would give in and share. The trio didn't see Addy flushing crimson at the comments, but Jenny did.

"Is there something to what they said?" Jenny asked after the trio of girls had departed.

"Of course not," Adalie snapped angrily - and quickly. "I was treated to very generous 'ospitality from Kayda's family over spring break, and ... and I thought that maybe I 'ad been too 'asty in judging all les Americains as bad."

"I think that you are jealous that I 'ave a boy ... er, girl ... er special friend," Jenny retorted, stumbling a bit to accurately describe _what_ her relationship was with Reach and his shape changes. As she finished speaking, Reach sat down beside her and placed a flaky, buttery croissant roll on her plate. "Merci, mon cher," she said, pausing to kiss Reach.

"Is it your intention to nauseate me with your cute little display of affection with your gender-confused Americain boy," Addy scoffed, "and then you will ask for some of my jelly, non?"

"Adalie, _dear_," Reach said in a syrupy voice as he reached for her precious jar of chokecherry jelly, "to quote Shakespeare, 'methinks the lady doth protest too much."

"Oh? An Americain redneck quoting a European author? 'Ow typical! You 'ave no great authors of your own to quote!" Addy scoffed, but there was a tiny hint of playfulness in her voice, a mirth that only a few weeks before would have been completely absent. Although Addy's commentary remained mostly the same, in place of bitter condescension was a tiny touch of wry humor. Reach, Jenny, and the other Berets had noticed her change of attitude, but they didn't know what had caused it. Nobody knew except Alicia - and out of consideration for her friend and roommate, Alicia wasn't talking.

"Uh, Addy," Reach interjected, eyes narrowed. "You do realize the name of the building you're in, don't you?"

"I see your, 'ow do Americans say it? Your yeux de chien battu ...." Jenny started.

"We call them puppy-dog eyes," Reach chuckled.

"Ah. So. Your eyes of the puppy dog - every time Ayla comes around to talk or to eat with us." Jenny saw Addy flinch in horror from that description. "You look upon Ayla like ... like ..."

"Like Jenny looks at me sometimes," Reach finished in a droll, bored tone.

"Bah!" Addy reacted instantly and quite vehemently. "You are imagining things, non? Que c'est ridicule!"

Jenny glanced around to ensure nobody was listening in. "Addy, you cannot fool me. I know the look in your eyes when you talk of your friend Colette," she said, noting the sharp pain that flitted across Adalie's features. "It is the look of someone who lost a lover, not just a friend."

"And the way you used to talk about Jean-Michel back home in Chaniers, we both suspected that you're bi," Reach continued quickly and softly so as not to be overheard by the curious at tables around them, his voice a cautious study in staying neutral and non-judgmental with more than a hint of understanding.

"But ...." Addy stammered, unable to get her brain and mouth synched. "Absurde!"

"Ma amie," Jenny said calmly, putting her hand atop Addy's in a gesture of support and friendship, "if you are attracted to Ayla, then what is the 'arm? There is nothing for which you should feel shame."

"Especially if you _are_ bi," Harley said with a naughty grin. "For you, Ayla would have the best of both worlds - a delightful, curvy female shape, and the important thing between her legs! And Ayla is smart and sophisticated and worldly - all the things you want." Harley looked at Jenny with a naughty smile. "Although, after all the crap she's given us, it'd be ironic and extremely funny if _she_ ended up attracted to a gender-confused Americain boy!" he said, mocking Addy's French accent.

Chat Bleu chose that moment to sit down with a fresh, hot croissant. She carefully avoided mentioning what she'd heard, but as it was juicy gossip, it was inevitable that she'd share it with someone. She stared longingly at Addy's jar of jelly as she spoke as Charmer, Kismet, and Wunderkind soon rejoined the group.

"You are quite wrong," Addy said in a huff to Jenny. "I ... I 'ope Ayla ... will be able to 'elp me ... find ... find an importer for my father's cognac!" she said defensively, her lie transparent as she stammered her way through a flimsy excuse. "I 'ave to ... 'elp pay for my sister Amelie's tuition for next year. I've explained that before." She realized that the others were staring at her jar of the precious jelly. "Bah!" Addy snorted. "'Ave some. All of you. Maybe if you're busy with food in your mouths, it'll keep you from 'arassing me!" She crossed her arms on her chest and pouted, which for her only made her look cuter, as her appearance made it almost impossible for her to appear petulant or fierce, or for that matter, anything _but_ adorable.

"Merci beaucoup!" Chat Bleu oozed in an overly dramatic tone and began in dipping into Addy's precious jelly.

"Addy," Jenny said suddenly as the girl recapped her jelly jar, "I need a ... break." She stood, and the hint was not lost on Addy.

Reach sighed, shaking his head. "Girls," he muttered.

"You should know," Chat Bleu shot back at him. "You spend most of your time as one!" That elicited an almost neon-orange blush from Reach.

In the restroom, Jenny looked around quickly, to see if there were other ears present. Satisfied, she squared herself to Addy. "Ma amie," she began, her voice soft and earnest, "if you are interested in Ayla romantically, then now is a perfect time to pursue 'er." She saw Addy's puzzled look. "I 'ave 'eard that she broke up with the girl she was dating. Or rather, that _she_ broke up with Ayla." She smiled. "She 'as no steady girlfriend now. It is a perfect opportunity for you, n'est-ce pas?"

Addy blushed while fidgeting nervously. "I don't know," she said. "She is so ...." She looked at Jenny, her eyes pleading. "What if she rejects me?"

Jenny grinned. "You won't know unless you try, ma amie. 'Arley and I, we would never 'ave ... you know," she said, blushing furiously, "if 'Arley 'ad not stubbornly insisted on pursuing me despite my reticence. And we would not 'ave become so close if I 'and't taken the initiative to show 'how interested I was." She recomposed herself. "Ayla really likes that jelly, n'est-ce pas? Then give Ayla a jar, if you 'ave an extra one. From what you said, Madame Franks would be more than 'appy to send you more, oui?"

Addy sighed, her expression crestfallen. "I wanted to," she admitted, "but Ayla 'ad already arranged to buy some from Kayda, so she doesn't need any."

"You'll think of something, ma amie," Jenny assured her, giving her a supportive hug.

Ayla, the subject of the conversation in the bathroom, smiled at Chat Bleu, who was in the breakfast line getting yet another croissant. "Bonjour!" she said lightly. "Comment allez-vous aujourd'hui?" Despite looking outwardly like a very curvy, attractive girl, Ayla thought of himself - and referred to himself - as 'he', because he still had his male equipment hidden away in his pants, tucked carefully so that there was no discernable bulge. Most students, though, referred to Ayla as 'she' because of obvious outward appearances.

"I see someone is in a good mood today," Chat Bleu replied with a smile. "Unlike some people," she added, glancing over at the Beret table.


Chat Bleu shrugged. "Charge apparently slept poorly because she was rather bruised in 'er training yesterday. You know she is training with Kayda often. So because she's tired and sore, she's not in a very good mood."

"I heard that she's been spending time with Kayda. I've wanted to look in on Kayda's training myself," Ayla said. "It would be interesting to see if her tutor is using anthropologically-correct weapons and training methods." She glanced around. "I hope you don't think it rude, but I need to pick up food for Fey. Chef Marcel agreed to try something - crepes with cream-cheese marbled with Kayda's chokecherry jelly, topped with a chokecherry sauce and fresh whipped cream. Hopefully, a nice breakfast treat will help her feel better."

"You were the subject of a conversation this morning," Chat Bleu blurted out, unable to contain her 'secret' any longer.

"Oh? And what would that have been?" Ayla's eyebrows arched with curiosity.

"I over'eard Charge telling Jenny and Reach that she might be interested in you - in a ... personal way," Chat Bleu explained, glancing around like she was a super-spy revealing vital state secrets. "She claimed that 'er interest was about 'er father's cognacs and wines so 'er sister can attend next autumn, but she was a little too transparent with that excuse," she chuckled.

"That's ... interesting," Ayla observed, keeping her face schooled and expressionless, the only giveaway her arched eyebrow. "Charge? Interested in me?"

Charge waited nervously, trying hard to time her departure from the Beret's table. Around her, the conversation continued, but she wanted no part in it. She carefully watched the figures coming down the stairs, and ... now! Moving purposefully while trying to appear nonchalant, she carried her tray to the conveyer belt full of trays, plates, and bowls.

"Bonjour, Adalie," Ayla sang out from behind her.

Addy almost leaped with joy that the plan had mostly worked; she'd originally planned to turn and bump into Ayla as if by accident, and then greet her, but anything that initiated a conversation was a win to Addy. "Oh, bonjour, Ayla," she replied, trying to steady her nerves and calm her racing heart while also acting surprised.

"I heard that you had a rough day training with Kayda and her tutor yesterday," Ayla said casually as she placed her tray on the conveyor belt.

"Oui," Adalie admitted. "It was tiring, and I 'urt from over-exertion." She looked hopefully at Ayla. "Are you going back to your cottage now?"

"Yes, since I don't have a Saturday morning class this term. I've got some business I need to take care of."

"Per'aps I can walk with you then, and tell you about it," Addy suggested, feeling pressure of anticipation and hope in her chest.

"Certainly." Ayla fell in step beside Addy. "What is Kayda's special class like? Is her tutor as demanding as Ito?" she asked as they walked out into the warm, spring sunlight.

"Monsieur Two Knives is just as demanding as Sensei Ito," Addy admitted, "but 'is methods are less ... 'arsh, and 'e is much more personable." She smiled. "Although, that isn't saying much, is it?"

"Lancer was quite impressed with her demonstration in class. Moreover, given your ... dislike of combat and fighting, we were _all_ surprised that you wanted to spar with him, including with Kayda's ... toys."

Addy blushed. "After the fights I was in during spring break, I thought it appropriate."

"Speaking of which ... while you were on spring break," Ayla continued easily, changing the subject, "did you observe anything ... unusual ... with Kayda?"

Addy frowned almost imperceptibly. "No. Why?" She'd sworn to keep Kayda's secrets, and she was curious what rumors were spreading about the Native American girl.

"I have ... access ... to a video clip which shows someone that looks like Kayda in Custer State Park talking to a wild buffalo, and then manifesting a white buffalo. And to a piece of badly-damaged, grainy video which shows some girls - presumably your group - fighting what appears to be a group of naked women who seemed to appear and disappear at will, and then one of the clothed girls manifested a golden glow. It can't be coincidence that your group was in the area fighting Native American elves on the same day."

Addy winced inwardly, hoping she wasn't betraying anything through her posture or expressions. Their time conversing was being rapidly consumed by Ayla' questions. "Kayda would probably 'ave more answers than I would. As I said, I was rather distracted."

"I've asked her," Ayla replied, "but she's being quite circumspect with information about the events." The duo halted at the doors to Melville Cottage, where Addy's room lay.

"There is more to discuss than battles and training," Addy said, trying to sound suggestive and alluring. "It would be nice if we could ... talk some more." She felt awkward with her English, particularly with idioms, so she hoped her message was being conveyed. "Apart from occasional visits in the cafeteria, we 'ardly see each other. Per'aps we could talk more - over a movie? There is a film in the cafeteria tonight..." she suggested hopefully, not sure if she was being a little _too_ forward.

"I appreciate the invitation, but I have some things lined up tonight, so I regretfully have to decline." Ayla noted the shocked expression on Addy's face, which slowly became crestfallen. "After what happened with ... Vox," she continued, "I'm not really interested in a rebound." Ayla smiled at Adalie. "I'm sure some of your friends would like to see the movie, and you can make a party of it," she added quickly, attempting to mollify Addy.

Addy stood in shock, completely surprised at the very formal, curt, emotionless way Ayla had turned her down. Her lip trembled for a moment, and then, her heart broken, emotionally devastated, Addy dashed into Melville without even managing to mumble goodbye, tears pouring from her eyes. Eschewing the elevators, she ran at full speed up the stairs to her room where she flopped on her bed, her sobs and tears becoming a torrent as she bawled her eyes out at Ayla's callous rejection.

April 21, 2007 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"I know you 'ave not been successful talking to Ayla on business terms," Kismet said, watching Vera poke at her food. "But why must you talk with Ayla? Surely there are other ..."

"Ayla is important to my family's business since Goodkind Imports 'as decided to no longer carry our line due to conflict of interest. They recently purchased a couple of wineries in France and Germany," Vera replied, annoyed. "Our family business has capacity to improve exports to America, but only with the right distributors, and without Goodkind Imports, we 'ave no such distributor. Ayla showed no interest when I approached him a while ago." She shook her head. "It is as if she is totally uninterested in talking about business."

Donza - Automa-Tech - gasped aloud and overly dramatically, causing many students at surrounding tables to look at them. "Say it isn't so!" she pled mockingly. "Ayla not interested in business? Dios mio, los angeles vienen! El mundo se acaba!" She grinned at Vera.

"It is not funny," Vera complained with a frown. "The deal with Goodkind Imports expires in less than a year, and there 'as been no progress on finding a new importer and distributor. I _need_ Ayla's 'elp!"

"Well, Ayla is just coming into the cafeteria, so you 'ave a chance to go talk," Kismet said.

Vera looked around, and upon spying Ayla, rose quickly and strode toward the young tycoon. "Ayla!" she called loudly to get Ayla's attention. "Bon apres-midi."

Ayla glanced around quickly; to an untrained observer, it looked completely casual, but a trained eye would have noted that she was doing a thorough threat assessment - as if it was automatic. "Ah, Charmer!" he said when she saw Vera. "Comment allez-vous?"

"Tres bien. Will you have lunch with us? I have something that I would like to discuss with you," she said in French, since Ayla spoke the language impeccably.

"Mais oui," Ayla answered, detouring slightly to meet the girl who was very obviously walking determinedly toward her. "But I have a class this afternoon, so it may be an abbreviated lunch." Ayla saw that Vera wasn't picking up a tray. "Are you not dining?"

"I've already eaten," she replied easily.

"Ah, I see." Ayla replied. "I am a little behind schedule this morning, as we had some ... difficulties ... with a team member. I hope you won't think it rude if I eat while we talk."

"Of course not, and I understand about your teammate," Vera acknowledged. She didn't want to press further on the 'team member', both because rumors were rampant that something had happened to Fey, and because she couldn't afford to have Ayla get suspicious or defensive out of loyalty to that team member. Besides, despite being a high-school girl, she _was_ able to rein in her curiosity - sometimes. She fell in beside Ayla, walking toward the serving line.

Moments later, because the serving lines were short, Ayla and Vera sat down at the Beret Mafia table. "Good afternoon," Ayla said in a friendly voice to Chat Bleu, Wunderkind, Kismet, and Dynamaxx. She glanced around. "Are Charge and Spark not dining with you today?" She would have spoken French, but for Wunderkind's presence.

"We 'ave not seen Adalie since breakfast," Chat Bleu reported with a shrug. "And Spark is with Reach in her lab - as usual."

"Yes," Kismet chuckled. "She was muttering something about a self-assembling dome something."

Wundy grunted in disgust. "She vas talking about a rigid carbon-nanotube space frame with properties of a bi-stable shaped-memory metal, but collapsible in an electric field into a pocket-sized, very lightweight transport matrix."

"Interesting," Ayla noted, eyebrows lifting. "And this would be useful as a rapidly-deployable structure?"

"Of course," Wundy said with a nod. "She thinks they would be useful in tents for camping." She smiled and shook her head. "Reach has suggested to her that camping could be fun, and of course, that spurred another 'Big Idea'."

"I'll have to stop by the labs after class to talk to her, then," Ayla replied. "She has probably seriously underestimated the potential market for such a structure."

"Bah!" Vera said in disgust. "All you seem to talk about is your business dealings with the gadgeteers!"

Ayla turned to look at her apologetically. "I'm sorry I was distracted talking about business, Vera," he acknowledged. "You said you wanted to talk to me about something."

Charmer nodded sheepishly. "I wanted to talk to you about a ... personal business matter," she said with a wince.

"What sort of personal business?" Ayla asked, seemingly unaware of the suggestive nature that the comment could be taken - as it apparently was by the other occupants of the table.

"Oooohhhh," Chat Bleu and Kismet purred, trying unsuccessfully to not giggle at the same time.

Vera shot an evil glare at Chat Bleu and Kismet, but her expression had returned to cherubic when she looked back at Ayla. "The Goodkind family is a good client of my family's business," she continued, "so you are familiar with the _quality_ of our wines and spirits."

"Yes, of course."

"Goodkind Imports is dropping many of its European wines because of recent ... acquisitions, so Father is starting to search for a new American distributor," she explained quickly. "The current contract expires in seven months, and frankly ...."

"Let me guess," Ayla interrupted. "Your father hasn't been able to find a new importer?"

"Oui," Vera acknowledged. "Several importers have proposed deals, but Papa fears that they would treat our wines like any other vintage, instead of marketing them as a premium beverage. After you dealt with 'im before, Father was 'oping that ...."

Ayla nodded, knowing exactly where the conversation was going. "He was hoping that I would be able to help with distributorship and marketing to maintain or improve his brand reputation?"

Charmer nodded. "Oui," she said with a charming a smile as she could muster - which was very charming and pretty. "I told Father that I would make an inquiry." She pulled two folded sheets of paper from her purse, where she'd kept it ready for such a moment. "'Ere are the figures from Goodkind Imports, and the second page has projections based on assumed sales and margins if the products are up-marketed."

Ayla nodded, her brain churning on the numbers, obviously pleased to see some data as opposed to those who'd approached her with a mere idea and the promise of millions of profits. "The margins don't look too bad, and if these number are accurate ...."

"Father commissioned a market survey as a basis for those projections."

"I see," Ayla said, a speculative look on her face. She worried her lower lip for several seconds as her brain digested the data. "This looks very promising," she continued with the barest hint of a wince on her features, "but at present I have a large number of ventures and products that I'm bringing to market. With the deals I am working for various ... clients here, I don't see how I could manage it properly, given the considerable paperwork involved in licensing the import and distribution of alcoholic beverages. And it would possibly be very ... awkward ... to take over a contract that ... my family business currently has."

"Ah," Charmer said, trying but failing to hide the disappointment in her voice, "I understand. You can only 'andle so many products at a time. Well, I will tell father that I asked." She accepted the papers back from Ayla. "Merci beaucoup for listening."

"My pleasure," Ayla replied smoothly. "My focus right now is on helping emerging products and markets, especially from our gadgeteer lab. Villabianca Imports already has a sizeable market share, so I feel I could be more helpful with our gadgeteers. I will be happy to get some suggestions or referrals, though."

Vera eased the conversation graciously to a less business-oriented topic, and with Wundy and Ayla providing details, they relished tales of Spark's latest creations in the labs, as well as many of the misbegotten experiments of other students who seemed to be jinxed and unable to successfully create a product. The antics in the labs were frequent topics of amusement at _all_ the tables in Crystal Hall.

As she'd indicated, Ayla excused herself from the table and dashed off to her afternoon class, and with her, most of the Berets disbanded as well, off to enjoy a pleasant spring, Saturday afternoon. Kismet was left sitting with a somewhat disappointed Charmer.

"At least I can tell Papa that I tried," Vera said dejectedly. "It's not fair!" she suddenly spat out. "She helps everyone else! Why can't she help my family, too? I know there is much profit she can make on this venture. Probably more-so than many of the gadgets she is backing!"

Kismet smiled enigmatically. "Ah, ma amie," she began, "perhaps you are approaching this the wrong way."

Vera frowned. "I don't understand what you're implying."

"What is the one thing Ayla has plenty of?" she asked. Seeing Vera's puzzled frown, she answered her own question. "Business ventures. Every gadgeteer is a potential client, after all, non? They ... how les Americains say ... beat a path to 'er door, non?" A smile crept over her face. "But what is the one thing that Ayla has _none_ of?"

"I'm not sure I follow," Charmer replied hesitantly.

"Have you not heard? Ayla and Vox had a large argument and broke up." She saw Vera trying to process the data. "Ayla has no affair of the heart," Kismet continued. "Ayla has no romance."

Vera's face wrinkled. "But ... Ayla looks is a girl! Or at least she _looks like_ a girl!"

"Oui, ma amie," Kismet answered, grinning. "A very pretty girl, at that. But underneath, the important parts are still boy, and that means she has the desires of a boy."

"But ... to get romantic ... with someone who looks like a very beautiful girl!" Charmer winced at the thought.

Kismet chuckled. "Oh, come now, cherie. Don't tell me you've never thought about kissing a girl, or of being ... close to a voluptuously curved woman!" She watched Vera's skin flush practically crimson. "Most girls _do_ wonder at some time about the caress of a gentle hand that knows just how such a caress feels, a knowing touch on the breasts ..." She grinned at her friend's reaction, guessing - quite correctly - that she _had_ entertained such thoughts at some point. "Unlike most Americains, who are so hung up on sexual stereotypes, we are sophisticated enough to admit our curiosity, non?"

Vera processed the suggestion, weighing the pros and cons, both business and personal aspects, thinking of that naughty, secret, forbidden curiosity that had flitted through her mind on more than one occasion. Finally, her brain locked onto the idea. "So you think that if I approach Ayla from a romantic angle, now that Vox is out of the picture, then I might be able to woo her first, and then convince her to helping with my father's business?" She scowled slightly. "That is so devious!" But a grin slowly crept over her face. "It is a perfect idea! Merci beaucoup, Korrende!"

April 21, 2007 -Afternoon
Melville Cottage, Room 407, Whateley Academy

"Addy," Alicia complained to her roommate, who was still prostrate, face-down, on the bed, "you have t' eat somethin'!"

"She rejected me!" Addy wailed again, not even trying to stop the tears. "And she was so cold, so businesslike about it!"

Before Addy could answer, a knock sounded at their door. "Come in," Alicia called.

Kayda strode lightly and easily through the door, her happy expression turning into a frown when she saw Addy lying on her stomach sobbing. "Are you okay, Addy?" she asked, concerned about her friend.

"Oui," Addy replied, but her voice crackled with intense sadness.

"No, she's not," Alicia corrected her.

"What's wrong?" Kayda sat on the edge of Adalie's bed and put her hand on her friend's shoulder.

Adalie just shook her head, face down and clutching her pillow like a life-preserver.

"From what Ah gather," Alicia explained, "she tried t' talk t' Ayla this morning, ..."

"She told me she wasn't interested!" Addy cried, a fresh batch of tears trickling from her eyes.

Alicia nodded when Kayda glanced her way. "From what Addy said," the Cajun girl continued, "Ayla was pretty callous about the whole thing. She hurt Addy's feelin's pretty bad, and didn't even seem to care."

"She said she was aware of my interest, but it didn't match 'er interests! Like it was some kind of business deal!"

Kayda's jaw dropped open, and her eyes lit up, figuratively. She stared at Alicia, who seemed to be having the same revelation. "That's it!" Kayda cried triumphantly.

"What's it?" Addy asked, looking up at her two friends for the first time.

"Business!" Alicia grinned. "We all know that Ayla is interested in business first, right?" Addy nodded slowly. "So go after her business interest!"

"But ... I'm not interested in business!" Addy protested.

"No," Kayda grinned, "but if you approach Ayla with a business idea, then she _will_ be interested in you - and then you can turn a business relationship into a romantic relationship!"

"I 'ave 'ad no business classes! Not even basic accounting! And what would I talk business with 'er about?"

"Wait a second," Alicia said, thinking. "Didn't you say that your papa's distillery has no American distributors?"

"Oui," Addy replied, confused.

"Well, that's perfect then!" Kayda caught on to where Alicia was hinting. "You can talk about your father's cognac business and getting it imported to the US."

Addy let her mind churn on the thought for almost a minute. "That sounds so ... fous ... crazy ... that it just might work!" She sat up, wiping at her tear-stained cheeks. "But ... Ayla would want a business proposal, and I know nothing of writing one!"

"Don't worry about that," Alicia replied with a grin. "Mah pa has done all of that before. He even got a MBA from LSU," she added proudly.

"And my parents have a lot of business experience, too," Kayda agreed. "Between our families, we can get you access to what you need. Marketing research firms, importation laws, alcohol laws."

"It might work!" Addy finally smiled. "Can we start immediatement?" She sat back on her bed, grabbed her cell phone, and punched in some numbers. It was only mid-afternoon, but she had to make a call immediately because of the time difference in France. "Papa? It's me, Addy," she said enthusiastically. "Non, there are no problems. I called because, well for two reasons. I miss you, Tess, and Amelie, and second, because I have a friend who might be able to help getting our cognac imported to America." She was talking far too fast for her father to respond. "I know you've never wanted to do that, but the cognac here is terrible, and there is a market for our label because it is already well-known among the wealthy families in America, and besides, it'll help earn money so Amelie can join me in school here next fall!"

She had to take a breath, during which time her father said something to her.

"No, Papa," she started rambling again, "my friend is a Goodkind!" She paused momentarily. "Oui, Papa, one of _those_ Goodkinds! She knows business very well, and I want to get her help to see how we might market Vitesse Cognacs and aperitif wines here."

"No, Papa, not a commoner's label, but for those with discriminating taste!"

"Of course, not, Papa! I'm not foolish enough to commit you to something without your permission!"

Addy waited until her father had stopped speaking. "Oui, Papa," she answered. "If you still have the studies you did last year, could you please e-mail them to me?"

"No, Papa, I just want to see what my friend thinks of the data. I promise that I will not show it to anyone else." Addy sighed. "Oui, Papa, I promise not to do anything foolish."

April 21, 2007 - Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

With a bright smile warming her face, Vera slipped in the checkout line behind Ayla, somewhat rudely cutting off one of the geeky-looking, labcoat-clad, gadgeteer types. She was playing this quite coyly; she waited until Ayla was at the cashier. "Oh, Ayla!" she said, her voice oozing charm, "I didn't see you there! 'Ow was your class this afternoon?"

Ayla shrugged. "It was private magic tutoring," she replied, her voice not betraying his occasional sense of exasperation at the way magic worked. "I am frequently reminded by Circe that my 'analytical business mind' is an impediment to my understanding of the not-always-logical magic arts."

Vera laughed lightly, a warm, sweet sound. "I understand completely," she said with a smile. "When I first began learning magic, I found it difficult to dismiss the logical thinking my papa had insisted on my learning, but understanding came quickly once I'd passed that hurdle."

"How did you accomplish that?" A tiny hint of curiosity crept into Ayla's voice. "All my life, I've trained to be a logical, clear-thinking, rational businessman. Those habits don't vanish overnight - much to my and Circe's exasperation."

Vera didn't lose her smile. "It wasn't easy, but my fitness instructor taught me some relaxation exercises, both physical and mental, that help clear my mind so I could accept that magic has its own ... unique logic and rationale."

Ayla waited for Vera to finish checking out, and then carried her tray as they walked toward the Beret Mafia's table. "I'd be interested in learning about any exercises that can help," she said, putting her tray down and sitting.

Vera winced ever so slightly as she sat next to Ayla; at times like this, it was difficult, given Ayla's shapely, graceful body, to remember that there was really a boy underneath all that feminine curviness. "I would be happy to show them to you," she practically purred, while across the table, Adalie fumed.

Ayla either missed or ignored her hint, turning to Jenny, where she asked about a collapsible space frame she'd been working on. She knew that Kayda was interested in one to use for a sweat lodge, and Ayla, of course, realized that there might be great potential in the invention for portable shelters and greenhouses, and even FEMA disaster shelters - if the structure could be made light enough and small enough in the collapsed, stowed form. It was, she was sure, something that Jenny hadn't considered as a potential market. The idea of a sauna naturally got Jenny thinking about a durable, multi-layered, insulated, lightweight fabric covering, and her eyes glazed over as she got a 'Big Idea'. As Jenny's brain chewed on the ideas, she silently left the table, not even bothering to bus her tray, but with the unique expression of someone whose head was filled with ideas, equations, and formulas, leaving Addy with Reach. Reach groaned at that, knowing that he was losing another date night with his girlfriend. With a sigh, he began to stack her dishes with his to simplify bussing her tray.

The discussion of Jenny's space frame led to Wundy and Automa-Tech chatting enthusiastically about various happenings in the gadgeteer labs, and Ayla immediately became enmeshed in that conversation, hoping to glean some information about a gadgeteer with an invention who might need a good business manager - her, naturally.

Seeing that change in focus, Reach nudged a disappointed Adalie under the table, and after initially glaring at him, she noticed his knowing smile. "He's letting _you_ take charge of the finding a distributor for the import business?" Reach asked curiously. "He must have confidence in you," he continued a little more loudly than necessary. When Addy's eyes widened, Reach winked at her. Reach had been lured into the plot - against his better judgment - because Addy had turned to Jenny for help and advice, and Jenny naturally roped Reach - reluctantly - into the scheme. And now that Jenny was off in devisor-land, Reach had to fill in.

It took a second, but Addy finally got the hint and she mouthed a big 'Ohhhhh'. "Papa told me I would 'ave to learn the family business sooner or later," she replied, trying to sound calm and matter-of-fact. "'E thought finding potential importers for our cognac would be a good test of my business ability without 'urting our current business."

From the corner of his eye, Reach saw Ayla's head turn ever so slightly toward them, his ears perked up and an eyebrow raised with curiosity. He smiled to himself; they _had_ gotten Ayla's attention; she was sniffing at the bait. Now to see if they couldn't get her to _take_ it. While the other girls chatted, Reach continued to ask Addy the company goals, including her father's expectation that _she_ would be able to help make contact with a US-based distributor to bring the Vitesse cognacs to the American market.

Although Addy couldn't see Ayla directly because Kismet sat between her and Ayla, Reach paid diligent attention to Ayla's posture and focus of attention, and every time Ayla's attention seemed to shift toward their scripted business discussion, Reach prompted Addy for more details about the Vitesse family business, and Addy seemed only too happy to explain - the volume of cognac produced, the surplus available immediately, the projected market, the projected price-point, the established brand acceptance among wealthier customers like the Mathersons, Walcutts, and Carringtons, and even the expansion capacity the distillery had for market growth - IF Addy was able to find a suitable US distributor.

After a somewhat involved conversation, Reach asked Addy, "Would you like some dessert?" It wasn't by chance; with Kayda's, Alicia's, and Jenny's help, every bit of the conversation had been carefully planned and scripted.

Addy nodded. "Mais oui," she replied. As they walked away, they continued to chat. "Papa suggested that I should contact a company called Simpson Brothers Distributors for marketing and distribution ....." Their voices faded away from those at the table as they strode out of earshot.

"Imagine that - Reach and Charge getting along," Chat Bleu said with more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice. "Some would say it's a sign of the end of the world."

Ayla was distracted. "What?" she asked reflexively before her brain could catch up to the conversation remaining at the table. "Oh. Both of them are friends with Genevieve, so she probably gave them an ultimatum to cease and desist with their feud."

"Reach is going to be upset with you for giving Genevieve another 'big idea'," Chat Bleu said to Ayla.

Vera smiled warmly at Ayla. "If you are finished with your meal and you 'ave a little free time," she said invitingly, "I could 'elp you with some mental relaxation techniques."

"Oh, yes, that would be interesting to try," Ayla replied with a smile, "and I do have some free time now." Following Vera's lead, Ayla bused her tray and the two walked out of the cafeteria, with Vera holding Ayla's elbow in a slightly-more-than-friendly fashion.

Approaching the table, Addy's face fell as her heart broke - again. "She's leaving with Vera!" she muttered to Reach, her lip quivering. "And look at 'ow she's 'olding 'er arm!" Fighting tears, she all but dropped her dessert bowl on her tray that was still sitting on the table, and fled the cafeteria through a different set of doors than Charmer and Ayla had left.

Sighing, Reach sat down to have his dessert, aware that all eyes were on him. "What?" he asked, looking around at the stares and glares directed his way. "I didn't do anything!" The looks didn't decrease in the slightest, and he was increasingly more uncomfortable. Sighing heavily, he swallowed a forkful of his post-dinner treat. "Okay, okay," he said in an exasperated voice. "Since she's Jenny's friend, and since I live in Melville, I'll go see what the heck is going on." Grumbling to himself, he stacked Adalie's tray with his, and gazing longingly at his dessert he wasn't going to get to finish, he carried the trays to the conveyer.

April 21, 2007 - Evening
Room 407, Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

"I should just give up!" Addy wailed into her pillow. "'She'll never notice me! Not with Charmer pursuing 'er!"

Alicia sat on the edge of Addy's bed, rubbing her shoulders. "You ain't gonna find out if ya give up," she admonished her roommate.

Addy looked up at Reach. "You saw 'ow she was flirting with Ayla!" she griped. "'Ow am I supposed to compete with 'er?" A fresh flow of tears moistened her cheeks.

"You _do_ know that Ayla overheard our table conversation," Reach changed the subject before Addy could begin personal comparisons between herself and Charmer.

"How did she react to that bit about the disreputable distributors?" Alicia asked eagerly. Though she'd helped script the conversation, she hadn't seen the performance. "Did she act like a chevalier en armure etincelante ready to ride and save you?" Despite her sadness, Addy couldn't help but eventually snicker at Alicia's Cajun-accented French.

"I don't know about that," Reach said with a shrug, "but I know she _was_ listening to at least part of the conversation. And given Ayla's penchant for playing the part of the shining knight, if she heard, she _will_ be interested."

"'Ow can you be sure?" Addy asked, worried.

"From hanging out in the labs with Jenny, I've seen how Ayla operates," Reach replied. "She pays _very_ close attention to everything going on around her. She'll snoop out the slightest _hint_ of a business discussion within twenty yards!"

Addy was barely listening. "But ... 'e let Charmer 'ang all over 'er like they were lovers!" she wailed. "After she rejected _my_ advances!"

Alicia sat down and grasped Addy's shoulders firmly. "Listen up, Addy," she said sternly, "y'all gotta _fight_ for what you want!"

Reach nodded solemnly. "If you want Ayla, you're gonna have to fight for Ayla."

"But Charmer ...." Addy complained.

"But _nothing_!" Alicia countered immediately.

"Now that Ayla's overheard _some_ of the conversation," Reach continued, ignoring Addy's woe-is-me feelings, "you want to _ask_ Ayla for a bit of business advice."

"But ... 'ow do you know?"

Reach smiled. "Ayla is a businessperson, right?" He saw the girls nod. "Business operates best when things are predictable and stable, and businesspersons try to keep things that way." His smile broadened. "The key to being a good detective is to look for and find patterns to understand a subject. So I looked for Ayla's pattern."

"But ... what makes you think that Ayla is predictable?" Addy asked, confused.

Reach chuckled. "Because I _observe_ and pay attention. Just like Ayla observes and pays attention to gadgeteers in the labs, I pay attention to people's behavior." He grinned. "And Ayla has a very distinctive pattern. Even in martial arts and the simulators, she has very distinct behavioral patterns."

"So what is it?" Alicia asked. "Ah presume you're gonna tell us so we can work this into the scheme."

"First, Ayla over-analyzes things. Always. Ayla collects data the way most people breathe. Everything going on around her, she's making mental notes. She _doesn't_ like surprises, so she almost never makes a decision on 'gut instinct'. She _needs_ data. And once she starts getting a hint of an opportunity, she gets extremely - insatiably - curious for more and more information."

"But ... she speculates on inventions ...."

Reach laughed aloud. "No, she doesn't. She analyzes potential inventions against her experience and knowledge looking for patterns. She's turned down several potential products in the labs because the data she's amassed doesn't support a favorable business conclusion."

"So ... what does that mean for Addy?" Alicia asked quietly.

"It means that you have to present enough data for Ayla to make her believe that there's potential profit, and that it's to her benefit to get more data from you."

"But ... this is much work, and the whole idea might not work!" Addy complained.

Alicia shook her head. "Addy, Ah'm gonna have to slap some sense into you if y'all don't start listenin'!" she threatened. Addy started in surprise at her roommate's stern warning, and then nodded slowly. "If Reach says she was listenin', then you've already baited the hook. So now you dangle more information for her. That means the next step is to directly ask Ayla for some business advice," Alicia continued.

"You walk up and ask Ayla, 'Can I get your advice on something?'" Reach stated. "Don't let yourself get _off_ the business topic. You want Ayla's advice about finding a distributor. Play the 'damsel in distress' angle - someone inexperienced in business asking the expert for advice."

Alicia nodded. "Tell Ayla that y'all are nervous because your papa has entrusted ya to contact distributors, and it's real important because your family needs the funds for your little sister."

"But ... what if she says no?"

Reach snorted derisively. "This is _Ayla_ we're talking about," he reminded Addy. "Ayla _never refuses to give someone business advice as long as you're not asking for her to invest." After a momentary pause, he thought of another detail. "And she'll probably ask you for some data," Reach added, "so you're going to _have_ to do your homework. You can't bullshit Ayla. She'll smell it a mile away. If you're going to talk business with her, you have to know what you're talking about, inside and out."

Addy nodded slowly, not quite sure she believed Reach.

"The thing is, you don't want to spill _all_ the data at once." He thought a moment. "You ever go fishing?"

Addy frowned. "Non. What does fishing have to do with ...?"

"You use a small bit of bait. You don't throw everything at once. You're trying to keep her interested, not feed her so she loses interest."

Addy looked over at Alicia, who nodded in confirmation. "You're making this sound very 'ard!" she griped.

"Anythin' worth havin' is worth workin' for," Alicia countered with a smile.

April 21, 2007 - Evening
Dickinson Cottage, Whateley Academy

Charmer sighed heavily. "I don't know, Korende," she said, leaning back on her bed. "She didn't act interested."

Kismet grimaced. "What did you do? Try to kiss 'er?"

Charmer shook her head. "Non," she replied sharply. "We ... talked about the concentration techniques. And nothing else!"

"Did you 'int that you might be interested?"

Charmer nodded glumly. "If I 'ad 'inted any more blatantly, I'd 'ave thrown myself naked at 'er feet!"

"You 'ave to be careful, cheri," Kismet cautioned her friend. "Ayla is an Americain, not a Frenchman. If you are too aggressive, you might scare 'er off!"

"So what, I 'ave to take my time?"

"Precisement! Korende said. "You 'ave to slowly build to romance. You don't want to act like a two-franc street whore, or she'll lose interest!" She thought a moment. "Ayla likes desserts, n'est-ce pas?"

"Oui," Charmer said, frowning. "But ...."

"C'est facile! 'Ave the chefs make a special treat for Ayla, and make sure they tell 'er that it's from you!"

"Qui est une idee merveilleuse!" Charmer squealed with delight, sitting up to hug her friend. "I will do that tomorrow! Merci, Korende! Merci!"

Sunday, April 22, 2007 - Before Breakfast
Room 407, Melville Cottage, Whateley Academy

It was difficult to sit in on the balcony and wait, but Charge was fortunate that her room overlooked the walkway between Poe and Schuster, and since it wasn't a rainy or drizzly day, odds were very high that Ayla would walk with her friends to breakfast. Or brunch. But in case Ayla and company decided to take the tunnel from Poe to Schuster, Addy had asked a favor of her friend Kayda. Her stomach growled, and Addy winced in discomfort; being an energizer type of speedster, she needed more food, and she was famished, or at least felt so.

After what seemed an eternity, Addy spied a group coming out of Poe. While Ayla wasn't so easily seen, there was no mistaking the flaming red hair of Fey, and wherever Fey was, Ayla wasn't far behind. She was _extremely_ loyal to her friends and team-mates.

Addy dashed down the stairs and waited nervously in the lobby of Melville, glancing out the door and trying hard to time her exit.

"Boo!" Reach said from behind as he tapped her shoulder, startling her.

After nearly jumping out of her skin, she turned angrily to Reach. "Don't do that!" she hissed.

"Since Jenny is down in the labs - again - I came to offer to walk with you to the caf," Reach said. He saw Addy's puzzled frown. "It won't look _quite_ so obvious if I walk with you, will it?" he added with a broad grin.

"Very well," Addy begrudgingly acknowledged.

"Let's go, then," Reach said, lightly tugging her elbow.

"But ... we'll be ahead of 'er!" Addy protested as Reach pulled her to the door.

"Perfectly placed to have a conversation without it being so obvious," Reach answered, still grinning. "And close enough that his business-radar ears will hear everything we say." Reach saw the puzzled look on Addy's face. "We're fishin'," he added. "Remember?"

Addy's eyes widened as they stepped out into the morning sunlight. "You aren't nearly as stupide as I 'ad thought," she acknowledged cynically.

Reach grinned at the backhanded compliment. "Have you been talking with your father about distributors?" He winked at Addy, in case she hadn't caught the clue. She had, and the two began a discussion of Addy's woes with trying to narrow down the list of potential distributors, and what criteria she should use. They stayed a couple of steps ahead of Ayla and the Kimbas, just far enough to be a separate conversation, but close enough that Ayla heard tantalizing bits of business discussion.

In the cafeteria, Addy finished dishing up her tray, and from the corner of her eye, she saw Chef Marcel bringing a bowl especially for Ayla. No doubt another of the special 'treats' that the staff provided for her.

Watching, waiting carefully, she turned toward the serving line at just the right time so she nearly bumped into Ayla. "Oh, excusez-moi!" Addy apologized quickly and profusely, trying to sound heartfelt as she fought butterflies in her stomach. "I didn't see you there!"

Ayla smiled at Addy. "That's okay," he said dismissively. "No harm."

"It is fortunate, per'aps," Addy continued, "that I 'ave bumped into you. If you 'ave time, per'aps you could sit with us and I could ask you some questions? I 'ave need of some business advice."

"Would this be related to your father's business?" Ayla asked knowingly.

"Oui," Addy said, playing coy. "I am rather confused about a few things, and my papa is counting on me to not mess this up." She shrugged, smiling sweetly. "'E 'opes I will take over parts of the business someday."

Ayla raised an eyebrow. "Oh? I thought you were interested in a career in interior design and architecture, like your mentor Madame Rousseaux."

Addy's heart skipped several beats. She had _not_ expected that Ayla would know _those_ details of her future dreams and goals. "Oui, I am," she answered nervously. "But papa can be quite insistent. 'E says I should 'ave a backup plan for a career."

"A very practical man," Ayla nodded as they walked to the Beret's table. Chat Bleu, Kismet, and Wundy were already seated. Addy sat across from Ayla. "Now, how can I help you?" Ayla asked directly. It was business, and she didn't waste time when dealing with business.

"I don't know 'ow I should weight the factors in what distributors I recommend to Papa," Adalie began. Ayla's interest was piqued immediately, and the two began a detailed, very involved conversation.

Charmer sat at the table fuming. That little upstart Charge was moving in on Ayla's business interest, which was Charmer's goal. Kismet noticed Charmer's growing unhappiness. "I think I'll have one more croissant," she said to Charmer. "Come with me," she invited Charmer in none-to-subtle tones as she stood.

As soon as they were out of earshot, Charmer growled, "She is trying to get Ayla's 'elp with business!"

Kismet chuckled. "And 'ow far did _you_ get with Ayla? She 'as no chance to make a deal; Ayla 'as already made that clear to you! Right now, she 'as merely asked Ayla's business advice. Ayla gives such advice freely to anyone who asks, n'est ce pas? You 'ave nothing to worry about ma cherie. So she will waste 'er time with business while you get the 'inside track' to a deal through romance, true?"

"But ... what if she succeeds in getting a business deal with Ayla?" Charmer fussed. "I absolutely _'ave_ to get a deal with Ayla!"

"You found out 'ow that approach worked! So you romance 'er a little faster," Kismet advised. "And once she is your lover, as they say, who can say non to 'er lover?"

"Per'aps," Charmer said as she considered her friend's advice, but after a moment, her face clouded. "She is walking out with _'er_!"

Kismet patted Charmer's arm to reassure her. "So now you 'ave the perfect opportunity to talk with the chefs about a special treat for Ayla for lunch, n'est-ce pas?"

April 22, 2007 - Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"Look at 'er!" Addy snarled under her breath to Chat Bleu and Reach. "Giving 'er a 'ug like they're lovers or something!" She sat with the two at the Beret's table, and she was glaring at Charmer, who had just met Ayla in the serving line. They were obviously having some discussion, and from the smiles on both faces and the giggles from Charmer, it was obvious that they were talking about something fun. The longer she glared at them, the more foul Addy's mood became.

Reach noticed Charge's mood and leaned closer to her. "Calm down, Addy," he whispered to her so Chat Bleu couldn't hear.

"But ... look at 'ow she is flirting with Ayla!" Addy replied, her voice cracking like her heart.

"And Ayla is nothing if not polite," Reach countered. "Remember how long you talked about business with her yesterday."

Addy nodded glumly, acknowledging that Reach had a point. "Oui," she replied. "But ... it was so 'ard to focus on what she was saying! I ... I wanted to just kiss 'er!"

Reach sighed heavily. "You're going to have to fight that temptation," he warned Adalie. "If you do, you'll blow the whole deal." He glanced to see that Charmer was headed toward the table with Kismet, while Ayla headed up the stairs to the Team Kimba upper level.

Addy had noticed. Her eyes were shooting daggers at Charmer, and when the other girl saw her, she replied in kind. Wunderkind, having just sat down, noticed the hostile looks as she glanced back and forth between Addy at the table and Charmer approaching. "Scheisse," she muttered to herself, shaking her head. "What kind of battle do we have here?"

"Bonjour, Adalie," Charmer said as she sat, polite even though her glare was pure malice and her voice icy.

"Bonjour, Vera," Addy replied, her voice equally as frosty.

Civilities out of the way, Charmer turned her attention to Kismet. "Ayla certainly appreciated some help with magic," she said, her eyes glancing at Charge occasionally to gauge the other's response.

"Oh?" Korrende asked, a little puzzled but also trying to encourage Vera's in her scheme.

"After dinner last evening," Vera explained to her friends, "I showed Ayla some techniques I learned to open oneself to essence. Some special ... exercises ... I learned to achieve a state of total relaxation."

Charge's jaw clenched tightly, and her eyes burned with fury at Vera's smug look and choice of words that left plenty open to the imagination. Reach's hand on hers startled her, and she spun angrily toward him - in time to see him very slightly shaking his head, giving her a disapproving look.

"Did Ayla give you any help with your father's business plan?" Reach asked instead.

It took a second for the intent to penetrate through Addy's hyper-charged emotions, but she nodded. "Oui," she replied, stealing a quick glance at Charmer, whose eyes were riveted on her - and whose expression wasn't exactly pleasant. "She 'elped me understand the factors I should consider in choosing an importer and distributor," she said, her voice gaining confidence with every word. "I was not aware of all the laws concerning importation of alcoholic beverages, and the different state laws regulating distribution." She chuckled - a forced effort. "She was right - I 'ave a lot of 'omework to do."

"Oh, would that be related to your father's cognac business?" Korrende interjected. She snorted derisively. "To les Americains, that's just brandy with a fancy name!"

Vera nodded. "I'm certain my papa could make a superior brandy - if he wanted to get into that business."

"Even les Americains know that Cognac is not just brandy with a fancy name," Addy replied testily. "It is far superior to an average brandy from average vintages!"

Vera tilted her nose upward. "Per'aps," she said arrogantly, "but Villabianca Wines are 'ardly average vintages, and they would 'ardly make an average," she wrinkled her nose at the word average, emphasizing it heavily, "brandy!"

"Per'aps," Addy retorted snootily, "but it can never be a true cognac, now, can it?"

"Of course not. Any idiot knows that! But it wouldn't matter because most Americains would never know the difference!"

Reach had his hand on Addy's arm to try to calm her, while Korrende was doing the same to Vera. ""I 'eard you have set up another meeting with Ayla to 'elp 'er with relaxation for 'er magic class," she prompted Vera.

Before Charge could reply, which she was winding up to do, Ayla wandered by the table, noticing but choosing to ignore the obvious tension. "I wanted to thank you for the dessert," she said to Vera. "Chef Pierre told me you requested it just for me, and I really appreciate it."

"It wasn't too much, was it?" Vera asked, suddenly sounding like a shy schoolgirl. "I was 'oping that the strawberries would be fresh, and I very specifically asked for fresh-made panettone instead of some stale, previously-frozen," she wrinkled her nose in distaste, "substitute."

"No," Ayla smiled. "It was perfect. The wine in the compote couldn't have been a better choice. Chef Pierre told me it was from your family line of wines, which doesn't surprise me."

Charge sat, jaw clenched tightly, fists clenched under the table, fuming but trying not to show her anger. "Ayla," she said, forcing herself to sound sweet and not furious, "Merci for the 'elp with the business information. If you would 'ave some free time, I 'ave a few more questions."

Ayla smiled at Charge, and her heart melted instantly. "How about tomorrow afternoon, before dinner?" she asked Addy. "That will give you time to make some calls and gather data on various distributors."

"I look forward to it," Charge said admiringly, careful not to sound fawning, but like a respectful student talking to a master. "About four?"

Ayla winkled her nose. "I have a tutoring session with Kayda for calculus," she reported, "and I expect that she'll spring a quiz on me. Perhaps five?"

"Five it is," Addy said, quelling her enthusiasm at what, to her, was another date.

"Ayla," Vera interrupted, "if you 'ave nothing to do right now, I could 'elp you with more ... relaxation techniques," she purred smoothly. "And per'aps we can talk about our favorite desserts as we walk?"

Ayla nodded. "I appreciate the help. But not for too long - my team has a simulation later this afternoon."

"But of course," Vera said, standing and picking up her tray in a graceful motion. With Ayla at her side, she bused her tray and then the two of them walked out of the cafeteria, leaving a smoldering Charge still sitting at the Beret table, with Reach desperately trying to get her to control her emotions so she didn't have a public outburst.

After carrying both his and Addy's trays to the conveyor belt, Reach walked with Addy back toward Melville, the opposite direction Ayla had gone with Charmer. Addy's mood alternated between fury at Charmer and despair, certain that Charmer was stealing away the one person she was most interested in.

April 22, 2007 - Dinnertime
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Chef Marcel leaned a little closer to Ayla, glancing conspiratorially around the students making their way through the dinner line. In his hand was a chicken dish with a delectable sauce over a bed of pasta. "Someone thought you might appreciate this dish," he said in French.

Ayla looked at the dish and smiled. "I would guess that's prosciutto minced in the mirepoix sauce?"

Marcel grinned. "But of course! Prosciutto de San Daniele, to be precise. Surely you don't think we'd present you a dish with substandard ingredients, do you?"

Ayla smiled. "The work of you and your colleagues is superb, of the highest quality. But ... this is not on the menu in the staff cafeteria. Is there some special occasion?"

Marcel winked at him. "I was asked to make you a special entree tonight," he said with a smile. From behind his back, where he'd kept one arm, he produced another dish, this one a luscious-appearing strawberries and cream trifle. "And of course, a fine entree deserves a fine dessert."

"Who am I to thank for such a treat?"

"I think you have an admirer among the young ladies," Marcel continued with a sly grin. "Primavera Villabianca."

Ayla's eyes widened at that bit of information. "Vera?" she asked, astounded.

"Oui. She made sure to let you know that it was made with her father's finest dessert wine - a Grenache-based Vin Doux Natural."

"Naturally," Ayla commented. "Merci beaucoup," she said gratefully, taking the entree and dessert and putting them onto her tray. After checking out, she went to the Beret's table.

Charge saw the smug smile on Charmer's face, and when she saw the dishes on Ayla's tray as she sat beside Charmer - a convenient seating arrangement that left the only open seat beside her -- Charge fumed.

"Good evening," Ayla said politely before she turned her attention to Charmer. "I understand that I have you to thank for this special meal tonight."

Vera blushed like a shy schoolgirl, even though she was anything but. She was, however, accomplished at being able to present the appearance she wanted to convey. "I thought you'd appreciate a couple of my family's favorite dishes," she said as she stared lovingly into Ayla's eyes. "I 'ope it meets with your approval."

"It was not necessary," Ayla objected - weakly and politely.

"Oh, but it was," Vera countered. "I like to do nice things for my friends."

"Since ...." Addy's objection was interrupted by a kick from under the table. She had no idea whether it was from Reach or Kismet. Looking around, she saw Reach giving her a stern admonition against talking out.

It got worse for Charge - when Ayla finished the main course, over which she oohed and aahed and commented about the quality of the ingredients and the subtle blending of flavors, she had a taste of the dessert, and then, seeing the look of desire on Charmer, she shared the very generous portion of the dessert with Vera; obviously, Vera had arranged a sufficiently large portion and two spoons with the dessert so they could share in what couldn't be interpreted as anything other than a romantic gesture.

The blatant come-on from Vera was so disconcerting to Addy that she nearly forgot parts of the evening's 'script' she'd rehearsed with Kayda, Alicia, and Reach. She couldn't even look in the direction of the two dessert-sharers as she went numbly through the dialog. Only Reach's supposed enthusiasm for the discussion kept Addy going.

Her only consolation from dining was that Ayla saved a bit of the trifle for her teammate Fey, excusing herself from the table to go to the Team Kimba table so the Sidhe girl could have a bit of the rich, extravagant dessert. Ayla's loyalty to her teammates and friends prevented Vera from a total victory of escorting Ayla back to the cottage - whether Vera walked with Ayla to Poe or Ayla escorted Vera to Dickinson.

Reach glanced at Charmer and Kismet, their attention directed to a minor squabble across the dining hall, and leaned closer to Adalie. "You need to get your head in the game," he admonished her softly. "If I was Ayla, I wouldn't have listened to a thing you said tonight because you were so unenthusiastic."

Charge sighed heavily. "After that ... display," she asked, depression thoroughly tinting her every word, "'ow would you feel? Ayla was focused on Charmer and the food she 'ad the chefs prepare."

"She was paying attention," Reach tried to assure her. He sighed, shaking his head. "Look, we have a plan. You need to stick to the game plan and sound like you care." He paused when Charmer and Kismet sauntered off toward the restroom. "You have to give it time."

"It is a plan tres stupide!" Addy grumbled,

Reach scowled at the obstinate French girl. "You didn't think so when we started!"

"When we started," Addy countered angrily, glaring at Charmer, "she wasn't fawning all over Ayla like a lovesick ecoliere!"

Reach started to reply, but his eyes widened. "Quick," he urged Addy, "Charmer and Kismet are distracted, and Ayla is coming down the stairs with her teammates. Hurry so you can walk with them back toward your cottages."

Addy spun to where Reach was looking, and after goggling at the sight for all of fifty milliseconds, she was up and carrying her tray toward the conveyor belt, timed so that she couldn't help but bump into Ayla and Team Kimba. Looking at the reflections in the glass behind the conveyor, Adalie timed and directed her turn away from the conveyor so she almost ran over Ayla.

She was genuinely a bit startled by how close she was to Ayla; she'd meant to be in the way, not to run Ayla over. "Oh, excusez moi! I did not realize you were behind me!"

"It's alright," Ayla said pleasantly, accepting her apology gracefully. "Is everything okay?" she asked, her brow wrinkling a bit. "You seem ... distracted."

Inwardly, Addy squealed with glee - Ayla had noticed her. Outwardly, though, she struggled to maintain the appearance she knew she needed - and which Reach and Alicia had drilled into her. "Oh?" she asked. "Does it show?" She lowered her gaze a bit, shaking her head slowly, most of it an act she'd rehearsed with her roommate. "I guess I am a little," Addy admitted. "My pere - I am a bit overwhelmed at what 'e 'as asked me to do." She looked up, trying to look shy and uncertain, a damsel-in-distress for Ayla to rescue. "I'm not certain that I can do a good job."

"Are you heading back to your cottage?" Ayla asked, taking the bait. "If so, we can talk while we're walking."

"That would be merveilleux!" Adalie squealed with delight, although Ayla didn't know that it was more because of spending time with Ayla than getting business help.

As soon as they walked out of the cafeteria, the group formed two uneven lines - Addy on the front left, with Ayla, Fey, and Toni in a line beside her, and Jade and Billie following closely behind. After finally taking her martial arts and combat training seriously, Addy couldn't help but notice how that formation was mutually supportive, protecting each other and playing to the team's strengths. But that thought intruded only momentarily on the thoughts of being with Ayla.

"How does your father want to market the cognac here?" Ayla asked.

"What?" Addy asked, having been distracted into thinking of romance with Ayla. To the amusement of the rest of Team Kimba, Ayla began to tutor Addy in the fine art of marketing as they walked side-by-side toward Melville, and Poe beyond. If Billie or Fey or Toni noticed how closely Addy was walking to Ayla, they didn't say a word.

Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

Back in the cafeteria, Charmer's blood boiled as she stewed. But for Fey and then a distraction, she would have been the one walking with Ayla, further her goals and plans. "I should put a spell on that little tramp to stay away from Ayla!" she growled angrily.

"And you'd be expelled if you got caught," Kismet cautioned Vera. "You can't do that."

"I can't let 'er win a business deal with Ayla!" Charmer retorted. "My family needs that deal!"

"She is just talking business with Ayla, and you know that Ayla isn't interested." Kismet saw that Charmer wasn't convinced. "Ma cherie," she decided to change her approach, "if she isn't interested in your family's extensive line of award-winning wines, then why on earth would she be interested in a small cognac distillery?"

Charmer started as Kismet's words sank in. "But ..." she stammered as she chewed on Kismet's unassailable logic. "I suppose you might be right."

Kismet nodded. "Of course I'm right. You know Ayla isn't interested in business! She told you 'erself! This is nothing more than being 'elpful and polite while educating people about business. That's all that's 'appening 'ere!" She smiled. "What you need to do is to step up your pace of romancing Ayla, and try not to worry about Charge."

Charmer considered her friend's advice. "Oui," she replied. "But I'd still like to put a spell on 'er."

April 22, 2007 - After Dinner
Room 407, Melville Cottage, Whately Academy

Alicia laid on her bed on her stomach, her arms propping her up so she could see those with whom she was conversing. "So, y'all haven't told us what you and Ayla were talkin' about."

Addy sighed. "Not what I wanted to be talking about," she said morosely. Seeing the slight frown from her roommate, she sighed again. "We talked about the tradeoff between mass marketing and low profit versus premium branding, 'igher profit margins, and much less volume."

Alicia chuckled. "When your family gets money from oil and gas on your land, ya don't worry 'bout those kinds of things."

"Fortunately," Addy replied, "your and Kayda's papas knew about that, or I would 'ave been lost!" The French girl shook her head. "I feel like I am, 'ow do you say, drinking from a 'ose of firefighers."

Alicia laughed aloud at the mangled metaphor. "Drinkin' from a fire hose," she corrected her roommate.

"Ah, oui. Drinking from a fire 'ose." She rolled her eyes. "If this continues, I shall learn all about business even though I want to be an interior architect!"

"Your papa would be happy if y'all knew enough to help in the business!"

"I don't want to 'elp in Papa's business!" Addy complained. "I want to ... 'ave a ... special friend. I want to date and be with Ayla."

The Cajun girl was still curious. "What else did Ayla say about marketing?" She didn't want Alicia to dwell on the romance angle. That was the end game, and Addy had to focus on the short-term plan.

"She said that even if we 'ad the volume to mass-market the cognac in America, it will 'urt our brand image in France, so we really can't do that, even though one distributor was trying to convince me otherwise. Ayla said that I 'ave to watch out for our European market while we develop the American one. She said that once our brand loses its reputation as a premium brand, it'd be nearly impossible to regain it." She flopped down on her back, staring at the ceiling. "I never knew 'ow 'ard all of this business stuff could be."

"Ah bet if you ask your friend Madam Rousseaux, she'd say the same about her business as an interior architect," Alicia observed. A knock on the door interrupted her train of thought. "Come in," she called.

"Hey," Harley said as he and Jenny entered the room. "How's it ..." He read the expression on Addy's face. "What's wrong?"

Alicia beat Addy to the punch. "Addy seems to be making progress on business talk. But even though she walked back from the cafeteria with Ayla, I think she's feeling a bit overwhelemed. Ayla only wanted to talk about business, and that's discouraging."

"Oui," Adalie complained, pouting, "And I don't want to talk about business!"

Jenny sat on the bed beside Addy, taking her hand. "I know, ma cherie," she soothed her friend, "but we 'ave to stick to the plan."

"I know," Addy said, wiping a tear from her eye. "But Charmer - she is 'aving the chefs make fancy dishes for Ayla! And she and Ayla were sharing a trifle like ... like ... lovers!"

"Then the answer is simple," Reach casually moved around Addy's desk chair and sat down. His movement was unusually graceful and fluid because of way he used his stretching power, and it would have been nearly impossible to see that he'd been a clumsy, awkward, uncoordinated boy only months before. Jenny and her friends had done a remarkable job of teaching feminine grace to the sometimes-boy. Reach saw the puzzled expressions around him. "Two can play at that game. Have the chefs make some dishes for Ayla featuring your papa's cognac. Like the apricots in cognac glaze. It'd be a perfect marketing ploy to get Ayla's interest!"

The others realized the genius of Reach's suggestion and started to nod, but Addy cut short the celebration. "Impossible," she muttered angrily. "Madame Carson - she found out about the cognac in our clubhouse and confiscated it. She said we were all too young to 'ave access to alcoholic beverages. She cited some school rule tres stupid that spirits is interdit!"

"But for cooking?" Jenny protested. "Surely she would allow ...."

Addy shook her head firmly. "She said absolument pas! If we are caught again, we will 'ave detention until we graduate!"

Reach frowned at her. "Well, then you're surrendering. I guess you're only recourse is to go to Charmer and tell her that she won."

"She 'as not won!" Adalie cried in fury, sitting up and glaring at Reach.

"Okay, then," Harley said with a smile. "You aren't goin' t' give up. Good. Now let's figure a plan."

"But ... 'ow?" Adalie asked, caught in an emotional tangle of anger at Reach's suggestion that she surrender, despair over Charmer's seeming progess, and hope that they could find a way for her to impress Ayla.

"What if you talk to Chef Marcel?" Jenny asked. "Per'aps 'e could keep the cognac with 'is cooking wines so you wouldn't get in trouble?"

April 22, 2007 - Evening
Crystal Hall Kitchens, Whately Academy

Leading a small delegation of her roommate and friends, Adalie stormed into the kitchen area, pushing her way past one of the student assistants. "I must speak to Chef Marcel," she insisted.

Hearing the disturbance in his already-noisy, huge kitchen, a man in a chef's jacket looked up from a desk where he was planning the next day's menu. "I'm afraid that Chef Marcel 'as gone 'ome for the evening," he said as he rose to meet the kids. "Can I 'elp you?"

"Per'aps, Chef Andre," she said, relieved that it wasn't Chef Pierre to whom she spoke. Pierre had been the one who'd made the dishes at Vera's request. "I was 'oping to impress a friend with some special ..."

Andre chuckled with amusement. "I wonder 'ow many pretty girls will decide to attract someone's attention through food? First was Vera Villabianca, and now ...." He halted when he saw the flash of anger flit across Adalie's face. "Oh, I see! You are interested in Ayla Goodkind, too?"

Adalie drew a breath to reply, but Jenny interrupted her before she said something stupid. "Adalie's papa would like to see if it might be possible to arrange for importing 'is cognac, so she is getting business advice from Ayla."

Addy realized that Jenny had saved her from what might have been an embarrassing outburst. "And I wanted to show 'er appreciation for all the 'elp she 'as given me," she lied. There was no reason for the chefs to know of her real interest; that could actually be a bad thing because word could - probably would - spread.

"And since her papa makes cognac," Reach added, continuing the narrative, "she was thinking that maybe you could make something suitable."

"Oui," Addy agreed.

"She's talked about all the great dishes she ate at 'ome using cognac," Jenny interrupted again. "So per'aps one of 'er family recipes ..."

"Ah, mais oui," Andre said approvingly. "I think I can manage something special." Then his nose turned up. "It's too bad we don't 'ave some of your papa's fine cognac," he said, his voice tinged with regret. "All we 'ave 'ere is ... average and uninteresting to the palate." He looked knowingly at Addy. "But if you could get a bottle of your papa's cognac ...." He left the obvious hint hang. "And of course, if I were to do a favor for you, then per'aps you could return the favor?"

"In what way?" Addy asked, suddenly a little nervous. She'd heard of Ayla paying for plane fares for the chefs - Air France, first-class - and she knew she could afford that.

"I am rather fond of good cognac myself," Andre said with a pleasant smile. "So per'aps you could arrange to get me a bottle of your papa's cognac?"

Addy winced at his words. "I'll 'ave to think about what I can do," she answered, grimacing. "We 'ad some in the European League club'ouse for cooking, but ...."

Harley took Addy's arm, pulling her back a step toward the kitchen doors. "We'll be in touch," he said quickly, already turning Addy and tugging her out of the kitchen over her protests.

"What did you do that for?" she hissed as they passed through the swinging doors into the mostly-empty vast dining space. Of course, there were some students eating; it seemed that some energizers ate practically non-stop.

"Because I didn't want you to say something stupid!" Harley said, turning the girl to face him. "And you probably would have."

"But ... I was just going to explain to Chef Andre ...."

"That Mrs. Carson threatened to punish you. So if you brought him some cognac, he'd be obligated, as a staff member, to report it to her!" Harley said in an urgent but low-tone voice. With Alicia and Jenny close at heel, he hustled the girl out of the dining hall. "So you can't tell him."

"So the task - it is impossible!" Addy cried. "Chef Andre was right; the best way to 'ighlight my papa's cognac would be to cook with it, but Madam Carson won't let me do that!"

"You need to think a little outside the box, Addy," Reach said with a wry grin.

Addy wrinkled her nose. "What does thinking about the outside of a box 'ave to do with my problem?"

"Thinkin' outside the box means that you think of unconventional, unusual ways to solve a problem," Alicia explained to Addy.

"Exactly," Reach nodded in agreement. "Right now, you have a problem that also happens to be an opportunity."

"What?" Addy sputtered. "What opportunity? I can understand the problem, which is getting cognac to Chef Andre, but what is the opportunity in that?"

"Ayla is a business-person, right?" Harley got an affirmative nod from Charge. "And what impresses a business-person?" He didn't wait for an answer. "Someone who can solve a business problem - in this case, the logistics of getting cognac for Chef Andre to cook and also for his personal enjoyment."

The light dawned on Addy at the same time as Jenny and Alicia realized what Harley was saying. "Ah, so if I can 'andle getting cognac past Mrs. Carson to Chef Andre ...."

"Ayla will appreciate your business savvy," Reach finished with a grin.

Addy nodded her agreement of Reach's assessment. She extracted her cell phone from her purse and pressed a few buttons, holding it up to her ear. "'Allo, Aunt Teri?" she said when someone answered. "It's me, Addy."

"No, I'm doing fine." She winced. "Well, mostly fine. I 'ave a small problem, and I need some 'elp."

There was a pause. "No, it's nothing serious. I want to impress a ... friend," she said, wincing at how she was explaining things. No doubt Aunt Teri would think it was a boy. "My friend 'as refined taste," she continued, "and I want to 'ave the chefs make a very special dish for 'er. But I need a premium cognac for the dessert."

"No, Aunt Teri, it is not about romance! I'm working with papa to see if it we can find a distributor who will 'elp import and market papa's cognac. And my ... amie ... knows business very well."

"Oui," Addy continued. "If my friend can 'elp find a distributor, papa can pay for Amelie to attend here next fall! So it is very important to impress my friend."

"Precisement! I would like you to send two bottles of papa's finest cognac if you can arrange that," Addy continued. "One for cooking, and one to ... thank the chef for cooking."

"Really? You can't sent it via post? What about that packages services, UPS?"

"Can you sent it directly to the chef, then?" Addy pleaded, starting to sound desperate. "I can arrange for 'im to take delivery, I suppose?"

"Barbarians! 'Ow stupide - a license to receive alcohol by UPS? Que ridicule!"

"Can you send it to the train station at Dunwich?" she practically begged..

"Tomorrow? C'est magnifique! I will arrange to pick it up! Thank you Aunt Teri!"

"Oh, but of course I'll come to visit you soon. Per'aps on our next long weekend?"

"Oui. I will talk to you soon. Bye." Addy hung up her phone, smiling smugly.

"Now you just need to figure out how to get to the train station tomorrow and then sneak two bottles of cognac back onto campus," Reach said, throwing a bucket of cold water on Addy's sense of accomplishment as he noted her next big challenge.

Monday, April 23, 2007 - Breakfast
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

One might have expected a minor traffic jam in the doorway into Crystal Hall when the extended Team Kimba - Ayla, Fey, Toni, Jade, Billie, Hank and Bugs - entered the cafeteria, but months of practice had created an informal, undocumented process, and they flowed in with a grace that was totally unexpected.

"So, Ayles," Toni asked in her usual blunt manner as the group stood in line to get their morning repast, "what's up with the extra treats yesterday?"

"Yeah," Fey chimed in. "Who's decided you deserve a little extra?" She grinned slightly. "Not that I'm complaining. That strawberry trifle was heavenly!'

Ayla shrugged. "It was courtesy of Charmer," she said plainly.

"Why's Vera getting special food for you?" Jade asked, a puzzled expression on her face. "Does she want something from you?"

"I'm not sure," the young mogul replied, shaking her head. "Vera was talking to me about her family's business, but that was several days ago and she hasn't brought it up since. And it wouldn't make sense for her to have the chefs prepare special dishes just because she'd spent time tutoring me in relaxation techniques."

If Toni had been drinking, she'd have spewed the beverage. "Just how ... relaxing ... were those techniques, Ayles?" she asked, eliciting giggles from Billie and Fey but a confused look from Jade.

Ayla frowned at her teammates. "Sometimes you can be so ... ridiculous. It wasn't anything like that."

"Like what?" Jade asked, doe-eyed in her innocence, looking around the giggling girls and blushing Ayla for a clue.

"Is she interested in you ... that way?" Toni asked, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

"No," Ayla shook her head, her frown deepening. "She's a friend, like a lot of the Berets."

"What was in that trifle?" Fey changed the subject. "It was one of the best desserts I've ever tasted."

"And someone didn't bring enough for all his homies," Toni feigned a complaint.

"Like we're going to let you have something with sugar in it!" Fey chuckled. Everyone in Team Kimba - and most of their friends - knew that if Toni had any sugar whatsoever, she would become so hyper that just watching her would be tiring. Fey turned back to Ayla. "What's in it?"

Ayla didn't need to think to talk about the ingredients. "It's a base of pannetone - a sweet-cake native to Milan - layered with vanilla custard and strawberry compote, and then topped with whipped cream and fresh strawberries. Trifle is usually made with a mild sweet wine - probably a vine vintage Villabianca wine - that won't overpower the strawberries and fresh whipped." Ayla smiled at the memory of the entree and the trifle for dessert. "I don't know why Vera would do something special like that; but I'm not going to complain." Her voice was nearly purring at the memory of the fabulous after-dinner treat. "And she promised to help me learn some more of her techniques this afternoon."

Chat Bleu was approaching the Kimbas in the serving line, and she listened intently when she heard Charmer's name. She puzzled a bit, wondering, but the line moved and Ayla focused her attention on food - and the breakfast treat Chef Andre was 'casually' slipping to her, with a pause to chat with the chef as she usually did. After pausing indecisively, not sure if she should wait a moment to try to fish more information from Ayla, Chat Bleu gave up and carried her tray to the checkout line, and from there to the Beret Mafia's table where Charge already sat. As she sat down, she noticed that Ayla was heading upstairs with her teammates. Charge noticed as well.

"Why do you look so worried, cherie?" Adalie asked, noticing the worry lines on Chat Bleu's brow.

Chat Bleu winced, glancing around the mostly-empty table. "I over'eard Ayla talking in the serving line," she said softly so that - hopefully - only Addy would hear.

"Oh? What was she talking about?"

"I didn't 'ear all of it," she grimaced, "but she was talking about Vera."

"What did she say?" Addy's curiosity was piqued, but she also saw the expression on her friend's face and that worried her.

"I didn't 'ear all of it," Chat Bleu protested, letting Addy know indirectly that it wasn't good news.

"What did she say?" Adalie asked again, getting nervous at her friend's evasion. "Tell me."

Chat Bleu winced; she really didn't want to tell Addy, but she also felt she had a duty to her friend. "She said that Vera did something very special, and she was ... quite 'appy," she misreported, not on purpose. Her friend's face fall at what to her was horrible news. "And ... she was looking forward to learning new ... techniques ... from Vera this afternoon.'

That news would have been bad enough for the smitten French girl, but at that moment, she saw Charmer, who had a very smug grin on her face, a grin which only broadened when she recognized the distraught look on her rival's face. "Bon jour, Adalie," she fairly purred. "'Ow are you doing today?"

"Just fine," Addy said stiffly, barely controlling her growing rage at what she was sure was a triumphant grin from Vera. "I need to use the rest room," she said sullenly after an awkward pause. Without waiting for any of her friends, she hastily rose from the table and darted toward the ladies' room. She didn't go in, however, opting to leave the cafeteria through one of the side exits and ending up on the fixer's patio, which was mostly empty this early in the morning. Despondent, she slumped down in a chair, fighting tears at her apparent defeat.

"Excuse me," a feminine voice interrupted her self-pity session, "but this is my spot."

Addy looked up, startled. "Pardon?" she asked, not sure she'd heard the girl.

The tall, mostly plain girl looked down at Addy with an expression and stance that indicated she wasn't quite sure if she should be impatient with the squatter or not. She had a rather plain figure, but strikingly white hair, styled mostly plainly but with twin locks of hair in front that curved onto her forehead like short horns, and she carried a bookbag over one shoulder and a tray of breakfast in her hands. "This table - it's kind of mine."

Addy did start to cry at that request. "I can't even sit down without losing!" she wailed, rising and to the astonishment of the Melville fixer, stumbling off toward another table. "I should just leave this awful place and never come back."

Jadis Diabolik sighed heavily and sat down on the opposite side of the table from Addy. "Since you're a Melvillain ...," she began, putting her book-bag atop the small table. "Whatever is bothering you, is it something that you need fixer help with?"

Addy shook her head, sobbing. "Non, I don't think there is anything you can do to 'elp. You can't make 'er stay away!"

Jadis cocked an eyebrow. "Is someone bothering you, or does this have to do with you and Charmer?" Addy start at the question, which put a smile on Jadis' face. "Adalie, there is very little that happens on this campus that remains hidden from the fixers and bookies."

"I ... need to get someone's attention," Addy began hesitantly, wiping at one cheek. "But ... Charmer is ... " She looked up when Jadis didn't reply. "I ... need to make a business deal ..."

"Okay, if that's your story," Jadis said with a wry smile. "So is there something I can help you with?"

"I ... I need to get something on campus that my aunt is 'aving delivered to the train station in town," Addy said hesitantly.

Jadis arched an eyebrow again. "And would I be correct in assuming that this unnamed article is perhaps something to which our administration might object?"

"Um, per'aps," Addy sputtered, amazed at how quickly Jadis was putting the pieces together. "I ... brought some back ... when I went to Boston earlier, but ..."

"But Mrs. Carson confiscated the alcohol from the Beret's clubhouse, correct?"

"We were only using it for cooking!" Addy protested, defending her actions. "You can't cook proper French food without wine or brandy or such!"

"Whoa!" Jadis halted her, putting her hand on Addy's. "I wasn't being judgmental." She thought a second, then pulled out a small notebook and wrote a number. "Do you know Loophole?"

"Not really."

"She has a car and might be able to help. Give her a call. Tell her I referred you to her."

"Merci beaucoup," Addy said, feeling for the first time that morning that things might be looking up. "I owe you a favor, non?"

Jadis laughed aloud, a soft, melodious chuckle. "Let me give you a bit of advice on how this works," she said with a twinkle in her eye. "Don't ever offer a favor as payment to someone, especially a fixer. Some people will take advantage of you. If a fixer wants you to pay for a favor, they'll ask up-front. If they don't, a simple 'thank you' is enough."

April 23, 2007 - Before Lunch
Outside Kirby Hall, Whateley Academy

"Bonjour Ayla!" The young tycoon spun at the sound of her name, eyes darting around warily but unnoticeably. It was habit born of months of being harassed on campus. Beside him, Fey was equally observant and prepared - just in case.

"Bonjour, Adalie," Ayla replied as the French speedster darted to Ayla's side, in the middle of the group which included Kayda, Palantir, and Fey, all on their way with Ayla from magic class to the cafeteria for lunch.

"I was in the area," Addy said, not out of breath in the slightest bit though she'd been running; speedsters were lucky that way. "And I wanted to talk with you about some ideas I 'ave."

Fey gave the French girl a once over with a skeptical eye, knowing as most did that Addy's pre-lunch class was nowhere near Kirby Hall, and that the speedster had detoured toward Kirby Hall for the express purpose of talking to Ayla. She noticed something unusual about Kayda's expression and emotional aura, too.

"Fey and I were talking about ...." Ayla began, but Fey cut him off.

"Don't mind me," she said with a smirk which indicated that she strongly suspected what Addy was up to. "We can talk later. After all, business is of paramount importance, isn't it Ayla?" Ayla nodded, shooting a quick questioning look at Fey. "Come on, girls," Fey said to Pally and Kayda. "Let's get out of here before we get an overdose of business advice." She grinned at her team-mate.

"I'll catch up with you," Ayla called after the departing trio of wizards, before turning back to Addy. "What's on your mind?"

Addy fell in step beside Ayla. "I did a selection criteria chart, as you suggested," Addy began, "and with my papa's 'elp, I assigned out some tentative weight factors, but I'd like it if you could review them to see if I 'ave missed anything obvious."

"Certainly." Ayla smiled; the French girl was being quite diligent in applying her advice. Not all who sought Ayla's advice were.

"And I got data from papa about 'ow 'is cognac compares to the competition in the European market, by market share and price-point."

Ayla nodded. "Don't forget to include your advertising costs compared to your competitors."

"Papa's cognac has won many awards, and that, 'e feels, is part of the appeal. Europeans are generally much more sophisticated about such things compared to most Americans," Addy said, pausing to glance at Ayla.

"I know," Ayla replied with a smile that made Addy's heart race for joy. "That is a major part of the appeal, at least to those who appreciate the finer, more sophisticated and worldly things in life."

"I'm 'oping to get something in town this afternoon, and then I can get you a very special treat," Addy purred, unable to help the sultry purr in her voice even though she knew she was supposed to focus on business and not sound like a horny tramp trying to seduce her target.

Two steps behind them, Kismet's goggled at the last snippet of conversation that she'd overheard as the throng of hungry teens converged on the cafeteria. She had to let Charmer know what she'd heard.

April 23, 2007 - Lunch>
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

The girl goggled at her friend. "Are you sure?" Charmer asked

"I was only a couple of steps be'ind them," Kismet said, her voice hushed and insistent. "Adalie was pretty blatantly coming on to Ayla."

"But what did she do in response?" Charmer asked, astonished at what Kismet had reported as a flagrant attempt by Charge at seducing Ayla.

"Ayla said that she appreciated the finer, more sophisticated things in life," Kismet replied.

"Damn! I told you I should have put a 'ex on 'er!'

Kismet winced at how her friend was taking the news, and she hesitated a moment.

"What else?" Charmer had noticed Kismet's uncomfortable flinch and pause.

"She ... is going to get something in town this afternoon - some kind of special treat for Ayla," Kismet reported awkwardly.

The frown on Charmer's face deepened as she angrily considered her rival. "What is that little tramp up to?" she posed rhetorically. Before Kismet could even think of answering, she continued thinking out loud. "I know she's getting business advice from Ayla ...."

"You know that won't do 'er any good," Kismet snorted derisively. "Look at 'er now - pretending to 'ang on every word Ayla says!"

"Oui," Charmer agreed, still frowning, "but what is she up to? I 'ave to find out, and I 'ave to stop it - whatever it is that she's trying to do!"

Jenny and Reach hadn't paid attention to Charmer's conversation - they were instead discussing Jenny's work in the labs, while Chat Bleu was on her way to the table after playing hard-to-get with RPG. But Kismet's insistent exclamation got their attention, and as a result, they all heard Charmer's angry soliloquy which sounded, to Reach, like a villain's frustrated monologue, trying to come up with a scheme to outwit the heroes and rule the world.

April 23, 2007 - After Lunch
Crystal Hall, Whateley Academy

"Merde!" Addy grumbled to herself. Truthfully, she wanted to scream aloud to vent her frustration. "Salope stupide!"

Once again, Charmer beat Addy to meet Ayla at the dirty-dishes conveyor, and now Charmer was walking with Ayla toward Laird Hall, to Ayla's next class. Not only that, they were walking earlier than they needed, which would mean that Charmer would have time to talk with Ayla before the next class period.

"Ma amie, are you over-reacting a little?" Jenny asked, coming up behind Charge and putting her arm around the frustrated girl.

"Non!" Adalie snapped back. "That ... 'ussy is trying to take Ayla away from me!"

Jenny sighed, shaking her head slowly. "Ayla isn't yours."

"Yet!" Addy countered. "And that ... that ... that slut ... is trying to keep 'er from me!"

"Vera doesn't own Ayla, either," Jenny continued, trying to calm her friend.

Nanette, Chat Bleu, strolled to join the little mini-Beret meeting. "Trying to calm 'er down about Ayla again?" she asked sardonically. In response, Addy glared at her former roommate.

"Maybe you can talk some sense into 'er," Jenny said, shaking her head sadly. "I've got to get to lab." She gave Addy a quick hug and then turned toward Kane Hall to access the maze of tunnels beneath.

Charge thought a moment, and then called after Jenny. "Can you wait for me? I 'ave to find someone, and I was told she's usually in the labs in the afternoon." She said a quick goodbye to Chat Bleu and then darted to Jenny's side.

"Who do you need to find?" Jenny asked as she resumed her walk, now with Addy by her side.

"Loop'ole," Addy replied.

"Loop'ole?" Jenny asked, astonished. "Pourquoi?"

"Jadis told me that she might be able to 'elp me."

"Loop'ole? 'Elp you? 'Ow?"

"Ahem," someone cleared their throat behind the two French girls. "Might Ah ask who is lookin' for me?" a very feminine voice thick with a Georgia accent queried. "And why?"

Addy and Jenny spun as one, surprised by the tall, curvaceous redhead standing behind them, smiling pleasantly with more than a hint of curiosity in her expression. "Ah, Loop'ole," Addy began.

"Lanie," the redhead interrupted her.


"Call me Lanie," she repeated. "Ah'm not too fond of the codename Mrs. Carson gave me."

"Ah. Okay."

Lanie turned to Jenny. "How are you doin' today, Jenny? Ah heard you were workin' on a carbon-fiber structure with memory-material properties. How is that goin'?"

Jenny shrugged. "I 'ave designed the matrix to 'ave a bistable shape that can be switched with a low-power electric field. I 'ave to wait for the matrix to re-cure in its second form before I can test the full-scale model," she replied. "But Ayla assures me that if it works as well as the prototype, it will be tres marketable."

The redhead chuckled. "If Ayla says it's marketable, you can take that to the bank." She turned back to Adalie. "Ah heard that you're finally takin' martial arts."

"Oui," Addy replied with more than a hint of a frown. "Ms. 'Artford is making me."

Lanie nodded. "If Ah was you, Ah'd be a little more enthused about takin' it after that combat final of yours last fall."

Addy's frown turned into a full-fledged scowl. "I would appreciate it if you wouldn't mention that ... 'orrible incident again!"

"Fair enough. Now, may Ah ask, why are you lookin' for me?"

"My cottage fixer - she told me that you might be able to 'elp me solve a little problem," Adalie said. She didn't wait for Lanie to ask. "I 'ave a special shipment coming to the train station this afternoon, and I 'ave to pick it up."

Lanie gave her a rather quizzical look. "Ah would hazard a guess that your 'special shipment' is somethin' that Mrs. Carson might not exactly approve of," she speculated.

Addy's face fell. "Oui," she admitted softly. "She found and confiscated our cooking cognac and wine from our club'ouse."

"So it is true that you're tryin' to impress Ayla." Addy's expression gave away her secret. "Ah see. How about a trade, then? Ah help you, and you give me a little information."

"What would I 'ave that you would be interested in?" Addy asked, more than slightly perplexed.

"Ah understand that you went on Spring Break with the new girl," Lanie posed.


"Then Ah'll help you pick up your special package ... if ...." Her grin was almost predatory.

"If ... what?" Adalie was suddenly nervous by the expression on the redhead's face.

"If you can tell me a little bit about her."

"Kayda?" Addy's eyes widened.

"Yes, that's her."

April 23, 2007 - Late Afternoon
Administrative Suite, Schuster Hall, Whateley Academy

"Ms. Hartford?" Elaine Claire spoke to the assistant headmistress, "the stationmaster from Dunwich is on line two. He's insistent that he speaks to someone about something."


Ms. Claire shook her head. "He wouldn't tell me. Said it was something for high-level administration. He asked for Dean Shugendo, but she's out of the office right now."

Ms. Hartford pondered the situation a moment. If the stationmaster was concerned about something, it was probably serious .... "I'll take the call." She put the phone handpiece to her ear and pressed a button on the desk set. "Assistant Headmistress Hartford."

"Dr. Hartford? Hal Beckwith at the Dunwich train station."

"Yes, Mr. Beckwith. What can I do for you?" While she spoke, her fingers were dancing on her keyboard as she multi-tasked.

"I've got a package here addressed to Whateley, but it's marked for pickup only, and a signature is required," the stationmaster reported.

"That's not so unusual," Ms. Hartford replied, a bit annoyed at the interruption.

"The package is marked with import and duty stamps as containing alcoholic beverages."

Ms. Hartford perked up. "Oh? Who is it addressed to?"

"Madmoiselle Adalie ...."

"... Vitesse," Hartford finished with a heavy sigh. She rolled her eyes. "Damn her!" she muttered to herself.


"Oh, nothing," Ms. Hartford said quickly, excusing her soft verbal outburst. "I was talking to myself."

"What do you want me to do with it?" the stationmaster asked.

"I suppose you can ..." Her computer beeped insistently at her. "Just a moment, please. I have an urgent business matter. It won't take but a few seconds." She moved her mouse and clicked on a flashing icon, which produced a message box. As she read, the gears in her mind turned. "Interesting," she muttered to herself again. "So, you want to play games?" Her mind raced, and as she thought, a devious scheme formed in her mind.

"Ms. Hartford, what would you like me to do with the shipment?" the stationmaster repeated.

"Deliver it to the recipient when she shows up to pick it up," Hartford said, grinning to herself. She hung up the phone, practically beaming at the plot that was still coalescing.

"Ms. Claire, I approve the request for leaving campus for Dashboard, Loophole, and Charge, but I want you to delay the approval by five minutes."

"Ms. Hartford?" Elaine Claire was a little confused by the order.

"Delay the passes for five minutes," Ms. Hartford repeated, picking up her purse and stood, habitually smoothing her skirt. "I have a ... personal ... errand to run. I'll be back in forty to forty-five minutes." With that, she strode imperiously out of the admin offices, her expression showing that she was on a mission of some type. It was an expression that raised dread in all who saw it, a look that meant that someone was in serious trouble.

April 23, 2007 - Late Afternoon
On the road to Dunwich

"Mon dieu!" Addy exclaimed from the back seat of Lanie's Mustang GT500, the wind whipping through the open windows and thoroughly mussing her hair, as well as that of Loophole and Dashboard in the front seats. "Must you drive so fast?"

"Ah thought you were a speedster and were used to moving fast," Lanie chuckled.

"When I am in control," Adalie replied, frowning. "I am not convinced that you have the reflexes to be driving so rapidly!"

"For Elaine, this isn't really driving fast," Dashboard, in the passenger seat, laughed.

"Ah ain't even cut in the afterburners or blower or the nitrous injection yet!" Lanie practically giggled.

Adalie started to protest, but ended up suppressing a scream, hanging on for dear life as Lanie drifted around a sharp corner, her tires squealing a bit in protest. She was convinced that she was going to die in a spectacular fashion, where it would take weeks to pry the corpses out of the torn, bent ball of sheet metal and steel that the car would become if Lanie missed a high-speed turn.

She realized with a start that the car was slowing greatly in a straight line, and that she had her eyes screwed tightly shut, as if not seeing impending death in a fiery crash might somehow prevent said fate.

"Ya know," Lanie said reflectively as she down-shifted and turned off the main street toward the tiny whistle-stop railroad station, "mah great-granddaddy would be awful proud of me right now."

Addy was thoroughly confused, and Dashboard enough so that she couldn't resist asking. "Why's that?"

"Ah'm about t' take up the fine art of bootleggin', just like he did," Lanie replied with a broad grin.

"What?" Dashboard was nearly apoplectic. "What are you talking about, Elaine? You're not talking about smuggling something contraband, like alcohol, onto campus, are you?"

"Two words, Bridgit," Lanie said, grinning.

"And those words are ...?"

"Plausible deniability," the redhead positively chortled. "If ya don't know what Addy and Ah are doin', ya can't be blamed for it."

"I'm sure that'll go over well in my expulsion hearing!" Dashboard replied sarcastically. She shook her head slowly. "I suppose it's too late now, isn't it?"

Lanie brought the car to a reasonably gentle halt and shut off the engine. "As long as we're here ...."

"And just how do you expect to get a package of booze onto campus? If we get stopped by security ...."

Lanie's grin broadened. "Oh ye of little faith." She opened the door and clambered out. "You might want to just wait, Bridgit," she said. "Plausible deniability, you know."

Rolling her eyes, Brigit climbed out and released the seat back so Addy could climb out of the back seat. "With the way mah luck is running lately, Ah know security is going do a check when we get back." She pointed to the station office. "Addy, you go pick up your package. Ah've got somethin' to do here."

Puzzled by what Lanie could possibly be doing, Adalie walked up a few steps to the station platform and around to a small office. "Excuse me?" she said meekly as she peeked into the office.

Three nerve-wracking minutes later, Adalie strode back down the steps with a parcel in hand, carrying it like it was full of nitroglycerine. She hadn't liked the station-master; he seemed a little creepy and overly suspicious, but he had given her the package after she showed her ID and signed for it.

Lanie had the trunk open and the trunk mat pulled to one side. Under that, the spare-tire bin was empty, and as Adalie approached, she did something to the drivers' side taillight before reaching back into the trunk.

"What the 'eck is that?" Addy asked as Lanie took the parcel from her.

"It's called a bootlegger's box," Lanie replied. "It's handy for ...."

"For smuggling contraband," a stern voice called from behind the girls, approaching rapidly from the far end of the station.

Lanie almost dropped the box as she wheeled in surprise, while Addy's heart felt like it had stopped. "Er, Ms. 'Artford..." Addy stammered.

"I take it you girls weren't expecting me?" Ms. Hartford asked with a frown. She stopped beside the trunk. "May I see the parcel?"

Wincing at Adalie, Lanie handed the package to Ms. Hartford.

"Ah, now this is interesting," Hartford said as she examined the markings. "Tell me, girls, is there a reason why you would be attempting to smuggle a package marked with alcohol duty and tax stamps?"

"Um," Addy stammered, "it's ... it's not ..."

"Quiet!' Hartford snapped. "Miss Nalley, sit down on the steps. Miss Johnson, please remain where you are inside the car." She pointed to a BMW a few parking spots away. "Miss Vitesse, I'll talk privately with you first."

Shaken by the unexpected encounter with the assistant headmistress, Addy slunk over to the car, not sure what to expect. At Ms. Hartford's gesture, she crawled into the passenger seat and sat nervously. After placing the parcel in the back seat, Ms. Hartford climbed behind the wheel and shut the door.

"Now, Miss Vitesse, if I open this package, what will I find?"

Adalie gulped again. "Er, two bottles ... of my papa's cognac," she admitted.

"And can you tell me why you felt it necessary to attempt to smuggle it on campus in blatant violation of school policy and rules?"

Adalie wanted to crawl under the seat to hide. "Er, we, that is, the European Promotional League, like to use spirits in our cooking, and, well, with the backward laws and rules ..."

"Your file already notes that Mrs. Carson confiscated a bottle of Vitesse cognac and admonished you to not repeat that violation, true?" Hartford saw the girl nod meekly. "And you were explicitly told that alcohol, even for cooking, was forbidden to students, true?" Again, Addy nodded. "And why did your aunt feel it was necessary to violate state and federal laws concerning distribution of alcohol to a minor

"In France, it wouldn't ..."

"But this isn't France," Amelia Hartford snapped in a very snarky tone, "is it?"

"Non, madame," Adalie replied nervously.

"Now would you mind explaining to me what you were really going to do with the spirits?"

"I ... am working on a business deal," Addy stammered her confession, "about importing my papa's cognac, and I needed to show its quality ... to ... someone. In cooking," she added. "By the chefs!"

"I see." Hartford thought a moment. "Ms. Vitesse, do you realize that with your previous incidents, we could expel you?"

Adalie paled. She clearly hadn't considered that angle. "No, madame."

"Go wait by the steps and send Miss Nalley here, please." Addy obediently walked to Lanie, who nodded and strode confidently, almost defiantly, to Ms. Hartford's BMW while Addy sat in her former spot.

"Miss Nalley," Ms. Hartford said sternly, "I'm curious as to just why you felt it necessary to equip your car with a bootlegger's box."

"Ah am a mutant," Lanie said, unfazed by Hartford's attempt at intimidating her. "At times, Ah may have to carry items which the MCO, Humanity First!, or the law might find ... objectionable."

"The rules-lawyer looking for ways to dodge the rules?" Hartford asked, arching an eyebrow in surprise, but somehow not convincingly shocked at the revelation.

"Sometimes, the situation requires bending the rules a bit," Lanie countered.

"So you, Adalie, and Dashboard decided ..."

"Dashboard didn't know what the package was. She was just a chaperone," Lanie interrupted.

"Defending your co-conspirator?"

"A conspirator knows the plot. An innocent bystander doesn't. Brigit is the latter."

"So you did know a priori that the package was contraband?"

"Yes, Ah did," Lanie admitted almost proudly. "And knowing the reasons, Ah'd do it again."

"And those reasons are ...?"

"Not mine to say," Lanie cut in, her voice firm.

"It seems there may be honor among thieves after all," Hartford said wryly, still not smiling.

"Smugglers, not thieves," Lanie corrected. "Ah ain't never stolen anything in mah life. And mah great grand-daddy was a damned honorable man even if he was a bootlegger."

"I see." Hartford thought a moment, her brain working in overdrive to digest the facts as they were revealing themselves. "Send Dashboard over here so I can get her story."

A mere three minutes later, Ms. Hartford had the three girls lined at the side of Lanie's car, pacing back and forth like an impatient drill instructor, stroking her chin thoughtfully while she let the girls sweat a bit. "Dashboard," she began, "it's clear you were brought along on this trip without knowing the details. Still, you should have objected more strenuously when the smuggling was revealed to you, and I'm not convinced you would have reported the infraction upon returning to campus."

"Ma'am," Brigit started, but a glower from Ms. Hartford cut off her words.

"Miss Vitesse," Hartford continued, "While I sympathize with your motives, your actions are a flagrant violation of the rules. I believe, however, that additional disciplinary action will have little impact on your rather stubborn nature. Confiscating your cognac, however, might make you think." Addy's jaw dropped, and then her lips moved to protest, but Hartford's angry glare cut off the objection before it could even start to be voiced.

"Ms. Nalley, somehow I believe that the same applies to you as to Ms. Vitesse." She scowled at the girls. "I want to see you in my office tomorrow morning after I've had a chance to consider a proper punishment for your little ... misadventure."

"My ... cognac ..."

"Ah, yes," Ms. Hartford looked at Addy with an evil twinkle in her eye. "I was wondering what to get my father for his upcoming birthday. I believe you have solved my problem, as I know he really enjoys a fine brandy or cognac."

"But ..."

"That will be all, girls," she barked at them. "Remember, Miss Nalley and Miss Vitesse - my office, tomorrow morning. Got it?" Seeing nods, she continued. "Now I would strongly suggest that you get in that car and get your rear ends back on campus before I change my mind." She watched the girls slowly, dejectedly get in to the car, especially Addy, and with a roar, Lanie brought it to life and drove off, back toward Whateley.

"So you aren't a by-the-book white-hat rules lawyer, Miss Nalley," Ms. Hartford said softly to herself, a curious - and intrigued - expression on her face.

Read 4679 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 18:16

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