A/N: Spoilers through season 5, with implied Connor/Abby and Matt/Becker (with brief, one-sided Becker/Jess). Originally posted in LJ in three parts, but I was too lazy to split the document into three for this site so I've just left it, the sections are marked where it was meant to be split.
No one at the ARC knew that Lester had been the one to suggest to Jess that she apply for the field coordinator position. She had been working at the Home Office when the old ARC was shut down and Lester returned there, followed by whispers and ungenerous murmurings that no one dared say to his face. Jess had felt sorry for him and had done her best to stifle any gossip in her presence. She always made sure to say hello whenever she saw him, even though most times all she got back was a vague nod. When Lester (and Prospero, of course) had begun staffing the new ARC, it came as a surprise to discover that he actually knew her name. Not only that, he had apparently been watching her work enough to think she might be a good fit at the ARC.
The whole thing had been extremely secretive. She hadn't known what she was going to be involved in until the second round of interviews, when they'd shown her the video of the stegosaurus. Honestly, Jess had never expected to get the job. She didn't have the kind of experience and full CVs that the other applicants no doubt did. So while she was confident in her abilities and she knew she'd done well in the interviews, it was still a shock to hear that she had been hired. It would be a lie if she said it had never crossed her mind that the reason she had been chosen was due to Lester's influence.
That was why she'd never told any of her colleagues. She was afraid of what they would think.
But if any part of Jess had worried that Lester would show her special treatment, she was quickly shown otherwise. Her first day at the ARC, Lester met her at the lift, professional and distant from the start. "Miss Parker," he said, eyes flickering down at her short pink skirt and matching heels. Jess tried hard not to blush. "Welcome to the ARC."
"Thank you, sir, I'm-"
"If you don't mind," he said, turning away, "it's important that you get started straight away. You will of course be responsible for getting Connor Temple's technology up and running again."
"Um, yes, of course," Jess replied, biting her lip. She hurried after him, wondering if she had managed to displease him already.
And that heralded the start of Jess' tenure at the ARC. Lester remained sequestered in his office for the majority of each day, occasionally making brief appearances to check on Jess' progress or to steal most of the coffee. Jess buried herself in the computer system, learning it backwards and forwards and making some small tweaks. It was really impressive tech that made Jess yearn to meet the mysterious Connor Temple who had designed it.
She had help from a handful of engineers and technicians, a mix of employees from the old ARC and Prospero. Because Jess was going to be the person operating the new system, they deferred to her, which was a nice feeling. It was nice to have the opportunity to show what she could do and she was looking forward to proving herself to everyone. Lester might have spoken for her but that didn't mean she didn't deserve this position.
A few days into her new employment, Jess met Philip Burton for the first time. She had to admit to a certain amount of awed nervousness - Burton was brilliant, and while Jess was no scientist, she had a good deal of respect for anyone with that amount of success in their chosen field.
"Such a pleasure to meet you, Miss Parker," he said, gripping her hand firmly. "James has spoken so highly of you."
Jess glanced in surprise at Lester, but he made no sign of even having heard Burton's statement. "The pleasure is all mine, believe me, Mr Burton. Dr Burton?" Jess blushed.
"Philip will be fine." He smiled at her and gestured at the computers. "I've heard you've had no trouble getting all the tech working."
"Oh, no, everything's going wonderfully. I've had a lot of help."
"Good, good. I'm glad to hear it."
"Philip," Lester interjected. "We should let Miss Parker get back to work."
"Yes, of course you're right, James," Philip said and graced Jess with another smile. "I'm sure I'll be seeing you soon, Miss Parker."
"I hope so," Jess said and then wanted to kick herself. Way to make a fool of yourself.
The two men walked away and Jess thought she wasn't imagining the look of long suffering that flashed on Lester's face as he turned, staring at Philip's back. It seemed someone was less than impressed with his new business partner. He probably just didn't like having another person to answer to, Jess supposed.
She filed the tidbit of information away with all the other facts and details she was amassing as she figured out exactly what kind of man she was working for.
The ARC became a lot lonelier after they completed the initial tech set-up. Jess was left mostly on her own - just her, the creatures in the menagerie, and Lester. And honestly, Lester hardly counted. Jess saw him on the CCTV they'd just got running more often than she saw him in person.
It was a bit rude. Lester had wanted her at the ARC and now he couldn't be bothered to say hello? Jess was almost offended.
And, given that she was social by nature, she was incredibly bored.
Jess threw herself into her work. She read all the old mission reports and she read every piece of information on the previous members of the field team she could find until she nearly felt like she knew them. She learned the ADD so well that she doubted anyone but Connor Temple would be able to work it better. And, possibly, taking into consideration the new adjustments, she doubted it was a stretch to claim she knew it better than him. Not that she was boasting or anything.
Then finally, finally, Becker arrived. Becker arrived, heralding the trickling in of her new colleagues.
Becker, Jess was happy to note, looked even better in person than he did in the ID photo in his file. He spoke little but that was all right. Jess could speak enough for the both of them.
Becker also immediately made Lester more interesting. On Becker's first day, Lester made a rare trip into the hub, presumably only to greet him. "Captain Becker, so glad you could finally grace us with your presence."
"My pleasure, sir," Becker said, the way he said 'sir' hovering just on the edge of being disrespectful. "I imagine you must have been terribly bored without me."
"On the contrary, I was actually able to discover a rare thing called free time. It's amazing what one can do when not faced with the aftermath of your hazardous trips into the field."
Jess, fascinated by the way they spoke to each other, found herself speaking without fully realising what she was saying. "That's a lie. You haven't left the ARC before I have one single day since I started."
Becker snorted and Lester slowly transferred his gaze to Jess, quietly assessing. "Perhaps I was playing games on my laptop," he said mildly.
Jess couldn't help but laugh, her mind creating the image of Lester spending hours playing Solitaire.
It was probably that conversation that changed things. To that point, Jess had been… not afraid, exactly, of Lester, but she had been unsure of him. She didn't know how to act, if she should be deferential because he was her boss, if she should somehow try to make up for the fact that she likely owed him her job. But seeing Becker subtly poke fun at Lester, seeing the way the tension melted right off him when they spoke, and then seeing how he reacted to Jess' accidental and not entirely appropriate comment made her realise that she didn't need to be so anxious.
She could be herself and both she and Lester would be glad of it.
"Is he married?"
"What do you think?" Lorraine asked, eyeing Jess over the top of her fruit smoothie.
No family photos, no ring, terrible hours, infrequent personal calls that always put him in a bad mood… "Divorced?" She hesitated and then added, slightly unsurely, "With kids?"
"Correct. Nice deduction."
"Thanks," Jess said, beaming. She had always thought herself good at noticing things and putting two and two together, but it was nice to have it confirmed.
"It was finalised not long before the old ARC was shut down, but it was bad for as long as I've known him."
Jess nodded sympathetically. "I can't imagine the weird hours and the secrecy would be good for a marriage. It's hard enough keeping it from my family."
"I'd say it gets easier, but…"
Lorraine's eyes were sad and Jess wondered if she'd lost a partner on account of the ARC as well. Perhaps Jess was doomed to being single because of her job - or, she thought wryly, she simply needed to start dating a colleague. "I was right about the kids, too?"
"Yes. He's got three of them. He… Um, never mind." Lorraine looked down at the tabletop, her expression guarded.
While Jess was unquestionably curious, she didn't pry. Lorraine seemed to genuinely care about Lester so anything she was reluctant to say was probably something Jess had no business knowing. Admittedly, Jess loved gossip, but she could understand when it was going too far.
She took a sip of her smoothie and wondered, not for the first time, why Lester hadn't given Lorraine Jess' job. Lorraine had been Lester's PA for as long as the ARC had been in existence and she was incredibly competent and probably perfectly capable of doing everything Jess had been hired to do. She had even helped Jess a number of times, likely saving her from Lester's displeasure. She also clearly had Lester's respect and trust.
But Lorraine seemed truly pleased to have Jess around, not bitter at all. Maybe she simply hadn't wanted the job.
And Jess wasn't going to complain. She liked her job. Her first real anomaly last week had been a bit scary but she felt like she was settling in well. This was something she could be good at, really good at, and it was important. It was nice not only to feel needed but to know that she was making a difference. It was a lot of pressure, of course, but it was worth it.
"They've been in there a long time," Jess remarked to Becker the day Connor and Abby came back, as she glanced again at the four shapes gathered in Lester's office.
"They've got a lot to talk about." Becker had hardly looked away from them, like he was determined to never let Connor and Abby out of his sight again.
"I suppose. You know, Lester tried to steal my comm. He wanted to talk to them himself."
"Did he?" Becker sounded unsurprised.
"I've never seen him so… genuine. He always seems sort of, I don't know, fake?" Jess shook her head. "No, that's the wrong word. Closed-off, maybe. Like nothing in the world could possibly bother him, like there isn't a person alive who could make him feel something."
Becker's eyes slid over to Jess. "You don't believe that, do you?"
Jess shrugged. "I thought I did, a little. He never seemed like he cared, but when I saw him today, so… open, I realised maybe he does care."
"He cares a hell of a lot. It's simply that he doesn't want anyone to know."
"I'm getting that." She wondered if he would ever feel that way about her. If something, God forbid, ever went wrong and Jess was in danger (mishaps with the Dracorex aside, what a stupid mistake that had been), she wondered if Lester would be as affected as he had been when he found out Danny Quinn was still missing. She wondered if Lester would ever let Jess hug him, as Abby had done.
Not that she wanted to hug him. It was only hypothetical.
Becker was still watching her, a lightness in his expression that he hadn't had before. "He likes you, too."
Jess' eyes widened. "I doubt that." Respected the good work she had been doing for him, probably, but like her personally? He certainly hid it well if it was true.
"He'd never let you get away with teasing him the way you do if he didn't like you."
"But... I thought..."
"No, it's good. He needs people like us to keep him on his toes. I'm just saying that if he didn't like you as much as he does, well… believe me, you'd know it."
Jess felt her gaze pulled inexorably to the glass walls of Lester's office, where she saw him standing there having what looked like a disagreement with Philip. She felt suddenly warm, warm and pleased. "I like him, too," she said and realised that that had been true for a while.
Lorraine was in the kitchen, pulling a loaf of bread out of the cabinet, when Jess took a break for lunch.
"I thought you were meeting your mother for lunch?" Jess asked her.
"I am, but Lester's in a state. I know if I don't get him to eat before I go, he won't."
"I wasn't aware sandwich-making for Lester was part of your job description."
"It really isn't," Lorraine said ruefully, "but I do a lot of things for Lester that aren't, strictly speaking, part of my job description."
"I know the feeling," Jess said and the two women shared a commiserating look. "Look, why don't you let me take care of this?"
"Are you sure? I don't want to add to your workload."
"It's no trouble at all." It would be a pleasure, actually, Jess thought with growing amusement as she pictured the look on Lester's face. "Go on, go and meet your mum."
"Thanks," Lorraine said, her gratitude evident, brushing her hand against Jess' arm as she left.
So that was how Jess found herself bringing Lester his lunch. She placed the plate on his desk in front of him and then sat down in a chair, crossing her legs and leaning her chin against her hand.
Lester looked from Jess to the sandwich and back to Jess. "What is this?"
"Yes, I can see that, but why on earth are you bringing me my lunch?"
"Because it's come to my attention that you do a poor job of remembering things like this and frankly, Lorraine could use the break."
"I've told Miss Wickes time and again that there is no need for all of her fussing, but she persists in ignoring me. I don't need mothering, not from her and not from you," Lester said, his eyes narrowing.
"And I don't plan on mothering you. I do, however, care enough to want to ensure you don't starve. Now, eat."
Lester attempted to stare her down but Jess simply stared right back, unmoved. Finally he took a begrudging bite of the sandwich, still staring at her as he chewed and then swallowed.
Jess smiled and stood up. "Good boy. I think this is going to work splendidly. After all, I'm naturally bossy and clearly you need a firm hand. I also possess another advantage that Lorraine doesn't."
"What would that be?"
"I have access to every single camera feed in the entire ARC so I can check up on you whenever I like. There's no escaping it, really."
"I hope you realise how disturbing that sounds."
"Oh, I do," Jess said and gave him a little wave as she left.
Nope, no trouble at all. Jess was going to enjoy adding this small duty to the list of things she did for Lester.
Jess couldn't pinpoint exactly when her feelings started to change, but she could remember exactly when she realised they had. Waiting in the empty ARC with Lester probably dying in her lap, waiting either for the predators to finish the job or for Becker to come and save her.
She felt like she was frozen in place, one hand clutching Lester as if she could tether him to his life and one hand stretched out in front of her, gripping the EMD so hard her knuckles ached. She hated, hated the idea of sitting there and waiting for a rescue, but she wasn't trained for this. She was terrified and she had been too slow, it was her fault Lester was bleeding out, and she just wanted it to be over. She wanted Becker to come and make everything okay because he had never let her down. She wanted Becker but she didn't want Becker.
A short laugh caught in her throat. If a future predator found her before Becker did she would most likely end up dead, but she was thinking about her love life. She was going crazy. Did that happen when you were about to die?
Lester mumbled something and Jess risked a glance downward. "Oh, Lester," she murmured, knowing that she should stay silent but unable to stop the words escaping her lips. "I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry."
He was losing so much blood and it physically hurt her to see him like this, helpless and without the tiniest thread of control. There was an ache in Jess' chest and she kept thinking, I don't want to lose you, I can't lose you, and she knew, then, that Lester wasn't only her boss and he wasn't even only her friend. She cared for him more deeply than that and she didn't care if it was silly or wrong. It just was.
When Becker arrived, she thought it was a dream. It was what she had been dreaming of, Becker saving her like a knight in a fairy tale, but he was really, really there. It was going to be okay.
She watched them take Lester away and she just knew. It was going to be okay.
After they cleared the ARC of all the future predators, Jess left the rest of the team to their preparations (to save the world, how was this her life?) and she went to find Lester in the medical bay. He was unconscious and she thought that probably wasn't a good sign but somehow, in spite of everything, she still just knew in her gut that he would make it. He was James Lester. He had faced a future predator all on his own and lived, and he was going to live now.
She pulled a chair over next to the bed and held his hand. "You're going to be okay," she told him. "Everything's going to be fine."
Jess raised her eyes to the doorway, where Becker was standing with an EMD against his shoulder.
"Unit five is two minutes away, they've got a medic with them," he said, his gaze sliding over to Lester's still form.
She nodded gratefully. "Thanks, Becker. Are you…"
"Leaving, yeah. It's going to be all right, Jess, I promise."
Jess looked at Becker's concerned face, at the anxiety in his eyes but also at the steady, determined way he carried himself. Becker still made her feel safe, even if he wasn't what she wanted. "I know."
"Okay," he said, eyes flickering to Lester once more. "I'll… see you soon."
Everything was a blur after that. The medic arrived and immediately started tending to Lester, asking questions Jess did her best to answer. She remembered with a strange sense of detachment that blood used to bother her.
More people began to trickle into the medical bay, medics with soldiers who needed to be tended to along with some who seemed merely grateful for a chance to finally rest. Jess knew she should probably go to her station, the field teams would be checking in, but it seemed wrong to leave Lester and she was so disoriented that she was afraid she was completely unable to do her job.
"Miss Parker," someone finally said, touching her arm.
She blinked up into the face of a young medic she was fairly certain was called Harry. "Yes?"
"Lester's going to be fine. He's stable now and while we can't say for certain when he'll wake up, it should be soon. We've put him under sedation so he may be a bit woozy for a while."
Jess closed her eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. It was one thing to have faith but entirely another to have that faith confirmed. "Thank you."
"You don't have to stay here, if you have other things to do," Harry said but as Jess hesitated he smiled kindly. "But you're also welcome to sit with him. I'm sure he'd rather wake up to your face than mine."
Jess offered him a weak smile, though she was far less certain Lester would want to see her (your fault he got hurt), and gladly sat down next to Lester. She was only just able to prevent herself from holding his hand again, as she knew he definitely wouldn't appreciate that.
When her phone buzzed in her pocket, she nearly fell out of her seat. The text from Becker read, Anomaly closed, everyone safe, on our way back now.
Her eyes crossed and lost focus and she had to reread the message. "They did it," she said to herself, and then louder, "They did it! They closed the anomaly!"
The medical bay filled with cheers and Jess squeezed Lester's hand. "Oh, thank God," she said. They were all safe.
At that moment, it was entirely beyond Jess to process anything other than the fact that somehow they had made it through, all of them. Relief made her bold and she lifted her hand to Lester's face, stroking his cheek, and pressed a kiss to his forehead. She very well might never have the chance to ever be so intimate with him again so she was going to take advantage of the opportunity, even if a small part of her was saying, Creepy, Jess, that's creepy, don't molest him while he's unconscious.
She took her hand back, settling it in her lap, and that was when she noticed the slight change in Lester's breathing pattern. Her eyes darted to his hand, where the tips of his fingers twitched slightly. "Um, Harry?" she called. "Harry!"
The medic hurried over. "What? What's wrong?"
"Is he waking up?"
Harry bent to look Lester over, checking his vitals. "Yes, you're right. And his blood pressure and pulse are back to normal, everything looks good."
He waited there next to the bed while Lester slowly roused, his eyes flickering over the ceiling, then to Jess, and then to Harry.
"Take deep breaths, sir," Harry told him. "You need to clear your lungs." He continued to take note of the monitors.
Jess spoke softly. "Hi. Do you feel okay?"
The disparaging look he gave her was all Lester. "Clearly I am not okay, as I'm in the medical bay," he said, his voice scratchy and halting.
Harry grinned at Jess and said to Lester, "We treated you for shock and blood loss, sir, and stitched you up, but you're doing fine. Keep breathing. Are you nauseous at all?"
"No," Lester said and closed his eyes again.
"He may be in and out as the sedation wears off, that's completely normal," Harry said as he noticed the worry on Jess' face.
Jess nodded. The next half hour or so passed much the same, with Lester gradually returning to full consciousness. Harry stayed right with them to monitor Lester and his presence was somehow reassuring.
As Lester fully regained awareness, Harry said, "I'll leave you two be but I'll be close. I'll check on you again soon but call if you need anything. I want to know about any changes or pain, I mean it."
Lester's hand seemed to involuntarily move to the bandage covering his abdomen but he didn't say anything.
"Do you remember what happened?" Jess asked.
"Of course I remember; there's nothing wrong with my head. Bloody predator tried to rip a chunk out of me and you…" He frowned. "Are you all right, Jess? They didn't hurt you?"
"No," Jess said, swallowing past the tightness in her throat. "They didn't hurt me."
Lester raised a hand to her face and then let it drop before touching. "There's blood."
"What?" Jess hadn't actually looked in a mirror since she'd arrived at the ARC so many hours ago, but she could imagine. "It must be yours."
"Terribly sorry," Lester murmured. "I'm sorry you got caught up in all this."
"You're sorry? You're sorry?" Jess spluttered. "Lester, you could have died. You could have died and it would have been my fault, I-"
"No," he interrupted her, glaring fiercely. "Don't say that; don't even think it. I won't listen to another word."
"Stop! As you said, I could have died so I believe I should be given what I want. And what I want is for you to stop talking nonsense. Agreed?"
Jess held his eyes for a moment before nodding sullenly. "Agreed."
"Good. Where are the others? The anomaly, is it still open?"
That thought could make Jess smile, at least. "They've closed it. They're all safe, Lester, they're coming back to the ARC now."
Lester breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank heavens for that. Now then, get me out of this bed."
"I don't think that's a good idea."
Lester ignored her and started to lift himself up, wincing, and then Harry ran over. "Sir! I'm afraid I must insist you be careful. Your stitches-"
"Never mind that," Lester said, still struggling to sit up.
Harry rolled his eyes at Jess and then grasped Lester's shoulders. "I'd like it stated for the record that I do not approve of this, but let me help you at least."
It took some manoeuvring but eventually they got Lester into an upright position. He stared at the bandaging around his middle, grimacing. "I must admit to not feeling entirely pleasant."
Harry left for a short while and returned with a small bottle of pills. "Your painkillers, sir. They're to be taken-"
"Yes, yes, I can read, thank you," Lester said, startling Harry into silence.
The medic looked at Jess, helplessly, and she giggled but took pity on him. "We'll get it sorted, don't worry," she said, meaning that she would be sure to get all the details from him when Lester wasn't paying attention. "He's being insufferable because he can, helps him feel like he's still in control."
Lester gazed at her with something akin to betrayal. "I resent that."
"Doesn't make it any less true," Jess said brightly.
"Absolutely no respect. You might think that having a predator tear into me would earn me just the tiniest smidge of consideration, but no. Too much to hope for, I suppose."
Jess' eyes flickered to Lester's mouth and she thought about kissing him, curious if she could stun him into silence. She thought about kissing him because she wanted to.
Crap. She really did like him. This was going to be a problem.
It was hard having a crush on your boss. Jess lived in constant dread that Lester would somehow know, that she would look at him too long or with too much feeling and he would know. She suspected he would laugh. It was ridiculous, wasn't it? It was ridiculous that she fancied him and it was even more ridiculous to think he could ever fancy her.
Jess prided herself on having a good head on her shoulders, but she was still a girl barely out of her teens. She didn't know what about her a man like Lester could possibly be interested in. Aside from in a pervy way, at least.
Was it bad that she wanted Lester to be interested in a pervy way? Oh God, it was, she had a problem. She wanted her boss, who was barely younger than her father, to lust after her. She probably needed to go to therapy or something.
It wasn't like she had daddy issues or anything. Though her parents were divorced and she'd lived with her mum, she had a normal, healthy relationship with her dad. He had always pushed her, but she was grateful for it rather than resentful. She'd also had her rebellious phase (if her dad knew about this particular development, doubtless he would think she was still in it) but didn't everyone?
There was simply something about Lester that drew her towards him. He was clever and witty and despite the fact that he seemed to want everyone to think he loathed them, he was actually quite nice. He cared about the people who worked for him and he inspired a sense of loyalty in them that had surprised Jess, at first, before she'd really known him. He made Jess feel safe, even if she couldn't exactly put a finger on why.
He wasn't the sort of man she ever would have thought she'd be attracted to and she quite frequently wished she wasn't. It would have been so much easier to go back to flirting with Becker (although she had her suspicions that there was a reason he had never shown any interest in her), but…
Screw easy. Jess had accepted a job at the ARC - if she could handle that, she could certainly live with fancying James Lester.
Following the disastrous (as far as Lester was concerned) knighthood vetting, Jess and Lester had developed what she supposed could be referred to as a ritual. Whenever he left the ARC for important meetings, he stopped at Jess' station first to let her check him over. More often than not it was completely superfluous because Lester looked as perfectly tidy and kempt as always. She thought perhaps Lester liked the reassurance of the ritual. As for Jess, she liked to be a help to him.
And deep down she knew she liked the opportunity to touch him. She knew that she did so more than was strictly necessary - she ran her hands across the line of his collarbones and over his shoulders, she smoothed his tie and the lapels of his jacket down against his chest, and sometimes, if she was feeling particularly daring, she let her fingertips brush against the skin of his neck.
Lester would always stand there calmly, letting her touch him without a glimmer of suspicion or even of impatience. Usually they didn't even speak - there was no need for it. He smiled at her when he left and it always made a sensation of warmth spread through Jess' chest.
He was meeting the Prime Minister for lunch today; he'd been complaining about it all morning. Jess was especially careful as she tightened his tie (he'd changed it since that morning, which for some reason struck her as incredibly endearing), ensuring the knot was perfect. She needlessly fixed his collar and couldn't help the soft touch of her fingers on his neck.
When Jess looked up it was to see that Lester was watching her, ever so slightly amused. She blushed and forced herself to draw her hands back. "All set," she said, smiling in a way that she hoped was simply reassuring and not screaming, Sometimes I think about taking off your clothes instead of making sure they're on properly.
She swallowed and smiled even brighter against the sudden image that filled her head, her fingers unbuttoning Lester's shirt, one by one, slowly revealing the skin beneath. If she closed her eyes she could still picture vividly how Lester had looked in the medical bay, before he'd put his shirt back on. Likely it made her an awful person to retain the memory with such fondness when the only reason he hadn't been wearing a shirt was because he'd needed stitches to make sure his guts didn't spill out.
Focus. "Try not to kill him."
"You always ruin my fun, Miss Parker," Lester said with a mildly sulky air, sweeping off towards the lift.
Jess got a whiff of Lester's doubtless very expensive cologne, fresh and clean and with an undercurrent of something that might have been cedar. She breathed in and then sat back down at her station.
"I brought some forms for you to look at," Jess said, standing in front of Lester's desk. She would never, ever admit to it, but it was possible that Jess might sometimes sit by her monitors and devise excuses to go and see Lester. It was sad and pathetic but she was okay with that.
He waved vaguely at the desk, barely glancing at her. "Put it down, thank you."
Jess set the stack of papers on Lester's desk, which was more cluttered than usual. She imagined it had something to do with the fact that Lorraine had been out sick for the past two days. Perhaps she could ask if Lester wanted his desk tidied?
A small piece of paper fluttered onto the floor and Jess bent to pick it up, realising that it was a photograph. Three kids smiling for the camera. "Are these your children?"
Lester finally looked at her, and at the picture in her hand. "Yes."
"They're lovely." This probably should have been something that made Jess take a step back, that made her reassess her crush. She was looking at a photo of Lester's children. She was closer in age to them than she was to Lester but somehow it didn't matter. It really didn't bother her that Lester had this whole other life, that he'd been married and had children and got divorced. Instead she was finding Lester in them, Lester's beautiful eyes and the angle of his nose and the shape of his mouth.
She was so screwed.
"I'm glad you think so," Lester said and reclaimed the photo, placing it out of sight into a drawer. His expression had become perfectly blank.
Jess feared she had strayed into touchy territory and she wasn't sure what possessed her to push further. She remembered Lorraine's hesitance, all those months ago. "I'm sorry if I upset you. Are you… are you not close to them?"
"If I'm not it isn't through lack of trying," Lester said, his voice full of a harshness and a bitterness that was fairly disturbing. "It wasn't an amicable divorce."
"I'm sorry," Jess repeated, grasping Lester's hand and hoping he could understand how much she meant it.
He held her eyes for a long while before squeezing her hand. "It's no use crying over."
Jess was pretty sure that had been a moment. She'd actually made an emotional connection with Lester. Let's face it - she was brilliant.
"Would you like me to tidy your desk?" she asked.
Lester's mouth twitched and a fleeting expression of gratitude crossed his face. "If you're that desperate for work, by all means."
Brilliant, Jess told herself, and picked up a stack of papers to go through.
It was only a matter of time before the rest of the team figured out that Jess' feelings towards Lester weren't strictly platonic. She was actually proud of the way she had kept it to herself for so long, but it was hard to keep secrets in the ARC. Impossible, basically. They spent too much time together and knew each other far too well for that.
With that in mind, it really shouldn't have been a surprise when Jess learned her crush was no longer a secret.
"Can we talk to you?"
Jess turned away from her monitors to see Abby and Emily standing beside her. "Of course! What about?"
The two women shared a glance that made Jess begin to feel worried. "About Lester, actually."
"Um. Oh, really? What do you mean?"
"Jess… Is there something going on between the two of you?"
Jess laughed nervously and then inwardly winced. What an appalling sound that had been. "What? Don't be ridiculous! I… I don't even know what you mean, why would you say that?" She closed her mouth before she could incriminate herself further.
Emily briefly pressed her fingertips to Jess' shoulder. "We're only asking because we're concerned about you."
"Well, don't be. Everything's perfect, I'm perfect, Lester's… perfect…" Jess darted her eyes over to Abby and Emily's expressions and then deflated, dropping her head down onto her folded arms. "Oh, dear."
"Do you…" Abby sounded sort of strangled. "Do you have a crush on Lester?"
"Just let me lie here, okay?" Jess mumbled into her arm. "The mortification will kill me shortly, I'm sure."
"Oh, sweetie," Abby said and Jess saw her lean against the station.
Emily patted her back. "He's… nicer than he seems," she said cautiously.
"Whatever," Jess said and sat back upright, jarring Emily's hand. "You both think I've gone mad, don't you? Poor little Jess, all the pressure finally got to her, she's so desperate not to be alone even Lester has started to look good! Well, that isn't how it is, so go on and take your condescension elsewhere."
"We didn't mean-"
Jess sighed and felt most of her anger dwindle away. "I know. I know you only want to help. I shouldn't have shouted."
"Perhaps we went about it the wrong way," Abby said. "You must understand why we're… concerned. Lester is…"
"Old enough to be my father, yes, I know. My boss. My polar opposite in personality. Completely inappropriate in every way."
"Those are certainly some points of concern," Emily agreed. Her tone was reserved and carefully free of judgment.
Abby followed with, "Has Lester…" She raised her hand slightly and then dropped it back down.
Jess snorted. "I doubt I'm even on his radar. Not sweet, bubbly little Jess."
She was so caught up in her thoughts that she nearly jumped out of her seat when Becker said, "Hello, ladies. Is this the sort of conversation I'd rather not be a part of?"
"Jess has a crush on Lester," Emily informed him in the type of tone people used when explaining about an illness.
"Thank you so much for telling him," Jess said with as much sarcasm as she could muster. "Why don't you go round the ARC shouting it, may as well let everyone know! 'Oh, hey, did you hear the news? Jess is in love with Lester!'" Oh, bugger. Had she actually used the word 'love'? She completely hadn't meant that.
"I didn't know it was a secret," Emily said defensively. "Maybe he can help."
Becker's skin had turned oddly pale. "Am I hallucinating? Because I think I just heard that Jess has a crush on Lester and I'm sure that can't be what you said."
"No, it was," Jess said, with another sigh.
"But I thought you..." Becker trailed off, his ears going a bit pink.
"Yes, Becker, I quite fancied you for a while but I don't any more. Surely you can't be upset; I know you weren't interested."
"Well, no, but, um, you moved on from me to Lester?"
"You're an arse," Abby said in disgust.
Becker gave her a startled glance and then turned to Emily, who shrugged. Finally he looked into the distance, where they could see Lester seated behind his desk. "Lester? Really?"
Jess punched his arm and Abby shook her head. "Arse," she said again before leaving with Emily.
"What did I say?" Becker asked, and his look of utter confusion would have been adorable if Jess hadn't been irked at him. He was mumbling as he walked away and Jess was fairly sure that what he said was, "Women are impossible. Give me a man any day."
"So gay," Jess muttered under her breath. "Dodged a bullet with that one."
Lester was watching her. Jess could feel him staring at the back of her neck and it was incredibly disconcerting, but she tried to ignore it. He'd been watching her a lot the past few days and she was beginning to wonder if she'd made some sort of error. Perhaps he was waiting for the most opportune moment to chastise her for it. Or he might have wanted her to stew in her own guilt for a while.
That would have been more effective if Jess had known what it was she'd done wrong, though the wondering certainly was ramping up her apprehension.
He was standing just behind her chair now and Jess couldn't take it any longer. She turned to the side so she could see him. "Would you like me to do something for you?"
"In a way, yes," he said cryptically. "I couldn't help but notice that you seem to be staying later and later all the time."
But still not as late as you, Jess thought but didn't say. "Just trying to do my job."
"Jess, there's… there's dedication and then there's overkill."
Was Lester actually trying to express concern for her well-being? He looked awkward enough that it might just be true. Jess, however, wasn't really in the mood for a lecture, good intentions or not. "Would you rather I left things half-finished? Would you rather I only do my job half as well as I'm able?" The system improvements she was working on would benefit all of them, really.
"Of course not. But you're a young woman, surely you have better ways to spend your evenings?"
"Work comes first."
"Yes, but…" Lester sighed, his frustration evident. "I want my employees to be the best but I don't expect you to live here."
"Perhaps you should follow your own advice."
Lester looked stricken and Jess realised she'd put her foot in it completely unintentionally, somehow hitting a soft spot in what normally was the imperturbable façade of James Lester. "Unfortunately," he said, swallowing, "this is all I have."
Oh, Jesus. He'd taken a call early that afternoon that had put him in a terrible mood. Jess should have realised it was his ex. Are you not close to them? Jess remembered asking, gazing at the faces of Lester's three children. "I didn't mean-"
"I am the last person you should want to be like," Lester interrupted. "You're a smart, kind, beautiful woman and you shouldn't let yourself be wasted in this tomb of a place."
Jess stared at him and the only thing that resonated was, Lester thinks I'm beautiful. Lester told me I'm beautiful.
So not the point, she reminded herself. As she tried to arrive at an appropriate response, Lester ran a hand through his hair and abruptly turned around, walking quickly back to his own office. Apparently that amount of emotional honesty had proved too much for the poor man.
The following evening, Jess was at her station (late again) when she heard the sound of approaching footsteps (light steps, evenly measured, casual pace, dress shoes - thus, easily identifiable as Lester) accompanied by the smell of Chinese takeaway. She turned in surprise, staring at Lester and the bag in his hand. "I was under the impression that it was my job to bring you food, not the other way around."
"As you appear to be getting lax in your duties, it was left to me. If you won't leave at an appropriate time," he said, setting down the bag, "then I must insist you at least eat. I won't have you fading away to nothing on my watch."
"That's… um…" Jess grinned. "That is so sweet! How perfectly lovely of you."
Lester shifted, appearing slightly uncomfortable. "Well, I'm going to eat as well, so I don't want you to think I'm being completely altruistic."
"Of course not." It always seemed so very important to Lester that no one realise that he was actually quite sweet underneath all the snark. "Come on, let's move over here. More room for us to spread out." She hopped down off her chair and led Lester to a table, pulling two chairs around next to each other.
"I never actually said I wanted to eat with you," Lester muttered, but Jess knew it was for effect only. If he didn't want to have dinner with her then he certainly wouldn't be having dinner with her.
"I love Chinese," Jess said and started taking the cartons out of the bag.
"I'm aware." Lester must have registered Jess' startled reaction because he added, "You're not the only one who can notice things, you know."
"Clearly." She reached into the bottom of the bag and nearly dropped what she found. "You bought me chocolate!"
"Thought you might like dessert, too," Lester said, like it was no big deal, but he was very obviously not looking at her.
"Thank you," Jess said, hoping Lester could hear her sincerity but not the part of her that was trying to make the gesture into more than it was.
He nodded at her, eyes soft, and passed her the rice.
They went on to have what was probably the most enjoyable meal Jess had had in ages, marked by easy conversation and good humour. Too many times Jess had to stop herself from staring at the deft way Lester used his chopsticks, imagining the other uses those long, clever fingers could be put to. Was it warm? Jess was starting to feel uncomfortably flushed. She struggled to force her hormones into check.
It would have been better if Lester wasn't so pleasant, Jess thought. If he wasn't so well-versed in so many things or if he couldn't actually string two sentences together on something that wasn't ARC-related.
It would have been better if Jess could find a reason to stop wanting him.
Breathe, Jess told herself, breathe. She held her back straight like she was in a vice because all she wanted to do was collapse - collapse and curl into a ball and possibly cry.
The incursion today had been the worst one in recent memory, a complete and utter disaster. Essentially everything that could go wrong had gone wrong and Jess had been off her game and a civilian had died and Matt and Becker had been hurt and…
Breathe. Just breathe.
The team returned from the anomaly battered and subdued. There was no joking or laughing as they trooped into the ARC. When Matt and Becker crossed through the hub, side by side, shoulders brushing, both dirty and sporting hastily dressed wounds, they barely spared a glance for Jess. She was distantly glad of it as she wasn't sure she would have been able to look either of them in the face.
Emily, who was closely following behind them, did spare a moment to stop and tell Jess, "I'm making sure they both end up in the medical bay where they belong."
"Good idea," Jess said. If anyone could be trusted to get those two to do what they should, it was Emily.
Emily gave the men's backs an exasperated look. "Dealing with them is a full-time job, it's exhausting."
"I know what you mean," Jess said and watched Emily quicken her pace to catch up with them.
Connor practically fell against the corner of Jess' station, Abby beside him. "Well, that happened. Pretty much a textbook case of Murphy's Law."
Jess took in the weariness in Connor's face and blurted, "It was my fault. I should have known about the faulty wiring and I should have-"
"How could you possibly have known?"
"It's my job to see things so you don't have to worry about them, so all you have to focus on are the creatures trying to rip your throats out!"
"And I suppose you think you should have sensed the creatures were in the ducts as well? Before we did, even though they were above our sodding heads and you were fifty miles away?"
Jess wasn't a violent person but she wanted to shake Connor, to make him see. She had messed up and she deserved their anger, not their sympathy.
"The incursion was a disaster," Abby said, "no one's denying that, but it wasn't anyone's fault and certainly not yours. When I think about the way things were before we had you... Honestly I don't know how we didn't all end up dead without you watching our backs." She swept Jess into a tight hug. "Have some tea or something, okay? It's been a long day."
When Abby pulled away, Connor stepped in for a quick hug as well. "It could have been worse, you know."
"How could it possibly have been worse?"
He nodded in the direction of Lester's office. "Lester could be in there making more than one condolence call to someone's family."
Jess was struck silent and Connor smiled faintly at her. "I think I'm off to my lab, I'd like to collapse in there and sleep for an entire day."
As Jess watched them walk off together, she was filled with a petty sense of jealousy. Jealousy that they had each other, that they had someone to love them and to comfort them.
Spinning in her chair to face towards Lester's office, Jess thought about going over there and apologising because she knew at some point he was going to find her and yell. Maybe she should get it over with. But the thought of having to face Lester's disappointment was too much and instead she slipped off her chair and went to hide in the kitchen. Maybe she'd have that tea after all.
But when she arrived, it was to find two containers of tea bags both sitting on the counter, open and empty. Jess stared at them and thought that was fitting. Just... perfect.
"Empty?" came a sudden and familiar voice. "Well, that's all right. I really wanted something stronger anyway and this gives me an excuse."
Jess turned around. She saw Lester standing there and suddenly everything was simply overwhelming and before she knew what was happening, she was crying. Big, wracking sobs and tears flowing down her face, right in front of Lester. Through the veil of tears and her crushing embarrassment, Jess registered how absolutely terrified Lester looked before she covered her face with her hands.
Then Lester's arms were around her and he was saying, "Jess, hush, it's okay."
Jess clung to him and buried her face against his chest, sobbing into his suit. She wasn't sure she had ever felt this humiliated in her life but Lester made her feel safe, his solid presence and the familiar smell of him. He was murmuring soothing reassurances in his steady voice as he held her.
Finally her tears slowed and then stopped. Jess sniffled a few times and lifted her head, almost afraid to meet Lester's eyes.
He wiped his thumbs across her cheeks. "Better?"
"Yes, I'm... I'm sorry, I know the last thing you wanted to do today was comfort a crying woman." She scrubbed at her eyes. Her make-up was probably ruined, she must look a fright. "You're pretty good at it though."
"When my daughter… well, never mind." Lester smiled gently at her and then peered down at himself. "If you didn't like this suit, I imagine it would have been easier just to tell me."
Jess blushed. "I'm so sorry about that, I got tears all over you. I'll pay for it to be cleaned."
"That won't be necessary. I've had worse."
Jess smiled a little in spite of herself, still vaguely surprised by Lester's kindness. It was perhaps less than kind of her to think so, especially after everything they had been through, but Lester wasn't exactly an easy man.
"Jessica," he said, startling her with the use of her full name. Jess thought she liked the sound of it. "You know you did nothing wrong."
"No. You are not at fault and I've already got Becker blaming himself for every damned thing that goes wrong, so I would appreciate you not following his example."
"He is a terrible martyr, isn't he?"
"The worst," Lester said, sighing. "He comes into my office with that look on his face- you know the one? That look of noble suffering?"
Jess giggled and then felt bad about it. "I know what you mean."
"Sometimes I wish I could just force him to go on holiday. Or at least to have an amazing shag."
"Well, you could…"
"Yes, I could force him to take leave but I couldn't stop him spending it moping about his flat and calling every five minutes. And I won't even touch the second part," he said with a stern look. "I am not a matchmaker."
"Of course not," Jess said innocently. "I didn't intend to imply that you were. Actually I was thinking of something more hands-on. You'd make a lovely couple, don't you think?"
Lester stared at her, wordless, and Jess gave herself a mental high-five for stumping Lester. "No, I do not," he said finally. "Dear God, I'll never be able to get that ghastly image out of my head."
"You know, that's almost enough to make me change my mind about what I was about to suggest to you."
"What's that? Come on, don't be childish, Lester."
He raised an eyebrow but it was probably a measure of Lester's concern that he skipped the comeback and said only, "Go home for the day."
"I couldn't possibly-"
"I'm not asking. Go home. Do whatever you need to and be ready to work again in the morning."
Reluctantly, Jess said, "Okay."Arguing would get her nowhere, she knew, and it helped that Lester had phrased it in such a way as to imply he wasn't merely taking pity on her. He needed her to be at her best and she was most definitely not at her best.
Lester pressed cool lips to her forehead as he kissed her and Jess closed her eyes. He drew back after a long moment, looking stricken. "I'm sorry, that was completely inappropriate. Forgive my presumption." If Lester had been any other man, Jess would have said he fled, but the word and Lester just didn't mesh.
She stood in the middle of the room staring after him, dumbstruck. It seemed an overreaction for something as innocuous as a kiss on the forehead, particularly when she had just been crying in his arms and Lester never seemed to be bothered by anyone's reactions to what he did.
And then it hit her.
Lester is attracted to me.
That… all the… Oh, God. She was right, wasn't she? She had to be. Everything made more sense if she considered that Lester liked her. Liked her.
But he was never going to do anything about it, Jess knew that for certain. He probably thought he was being noble. Did he even know that Jess reciprocated his feelings? She had tried not to be obvious, but… Possibly the touching had been a bit much.
Jess knew one thing. She had a lot of thinking to do when she got home.
The problem was that by the time Jess returned to the ARC the following morning, she was no closer to knowing what to do than she had been when she'd left.
"What's the matter?" Becker asked, sitting across from her in the break room, his handsome face lined with concern. There was a row of stitches up against his hairline to serve as an unpleasant reminder of the day before. He probably looked worse beneath his clothes. To a certain degree of 'worse', anyway.
"Nothing," Jess said, tracing her fingers in random patterns on the table. "Why would you think something's wrong?"
"Please, Jess. You've been quiet all day and I haven't seen you smile once. It's frankly rather disturbing. Are you sure you're the real Jess Parker? You haven't been abducted by aliens or something?"
Jess did smile faintly at that. "Positive."
"That's a relief." Becker feigned wiping sweat off his forehead. "It isn't about yesterday, is it?"
"No. I mean, not that yesterday wasn't awful, I don't want you to think-"
"Hey, I'm not trying to force you into feeling guilty. I'm relieved it's something else, honestly. Will you talk to me about it?"
"It's not important. Nothing you want to hear about, anyway."
Becker sounded hurt. "Why would you say that? We're friends, aren't we? I care about what's bothering you."
That was incredibly touching. Becker had always been more of the rugged, action hero type, showing he cared by shooting at the things that threatened them, but this was different. For Becker to come out and say that, he had to really mean it. "I know."
"Okay, can I try guessing? I'm going to guess. Family problems?"
Jess shook her head.
Becker furrowed his brow as he thought, clearly putting some real effort into it. "Um, all right. Is it boy troubles? Is this about… about Lester? Is that why you didn't want to tell me?"
The answer must have been all over Jess' face because Becker sighed. "Oh, Jess. I was an idiot about that, wasn't I? I hope I didn't hurt your feelings. You shouldn't pay attention to any of the stupid things I say or do."
"No, it's okay. I know you were only surprised. It's… I want to laugh at myself about it, really."
"My offer to talk is still open, you know. I'm not an expert in relationships or anything but I am a guy, and Lester's a guy. Maybe I can help."
How embarrassing. The man she'd had a crush on was offering to listen to her talk about the man she currently had a crush on. And somehow Jess was desperate enough that it didn't seem like such a bad idea. "It's crazy, isn't it? Having a crush on Lester?"
Becker shrugged. "I suppose it isn't much crazier than most crushes. Hormones and hearts are funny things." Then he smirked, mischief in his eyes. "You're pretty much his wife already."
"You feed him, you dress him, you boss him around... Really all you're missing is the sex. And from what I know of marriage, you probably wouldn't be having that anyway."
Jess smacked him on the arm. "That's terrible, Becker. But do you... Damn it. I sort of am like his wife at work, aren't I?"
"I'd say so."
Jess didn't even know what to think about that so she ignored it for the moment. "I really like him. I mean, I really like him."
"So what's the problem? Do something about it."
"Are you mad? How can I possibly…"
"If you care about him, and if you want to be with him, then the mad thing would be to not do something about it, don't you think?"
Jess sat there, stunned in the face of Becker's surprisingly sound logic.
He smiled and squeezed her hand. "Come on, be the brave girl I know you are. Lester would be an idiot to turn you down. I know I give the man a lot of grief, but even I have to admit he's not stupid."
She looked at Becker's hand on hers and chewed at her lip, hardly wanting to even dare to hope that Becker was right. "Do you really think that? Do you think he would? With me?" Ugh. Now she could barely even put two intelligent words together.
"You won't know unless you try," Becker said, so simply, and maybe it was that simple.
And if it blew up in her face, well… Lester would probably still write her a good reference.
Jess waited until that evening in order to avoid having an audience. She stood in front of Lester's desk, nervously clutching her hands together behind her back. "Hi, Lester. Can I ask you something?"
He set his pen down and offered her his full attention. "What's on your mind?"
"Would you… I was wondering if… Would you have dinner with me? I mean, like at a restaurant or something?"
After a slow blink of his eyes, Lester said, "Please pardon me if I'm completely misinterpreting, but are you asking me on a date, Miss Parker?"
Jess could feel the blush furiously rising in her cheeks. "I think so, yes."
"I do try to hold to a strict non-fraternisation policy where my employees are concerned."
"Is that a no, then?"
Lester sighed. "Jess, I won't deny that you are a lovely young woman but I'm afraid that you may not have thought enough about what you're asking."
Jess almost laughed. As if she had thought of anything else for the past few months. "Oh, I've thought about it enough, believe me. I don't care that you're my boss."
"I'm afraid most others won't share your opinion."
"I don't care what everyone else thinks! And you shouldn't either."
"Miss Parker, I didn't reach the position I have by ignoring the truths of life. You're still young, I don't expect you to understand-"
"Don't talk to me like I'm a child!" Jess exclaimed and then could have kicked herself. Having a tantrum wasn't going to stop Lester thinking of her as a child.
But Lester merely looked chagrined. "Forgive me. I didn't mean to belittle you."
"Is that the only reason you're refusing? Because you're my boss and it would look bad?"
"That's simplifying the situation quite a bit, you know. There's the power imbalance and…" Lester stopped and quirked his mouth. "But I'm sure you'd rather I answer your question. No, that isn't the only reason. I'm… I'm trying to understand because…" He stopped again and Jess could hardly contain her surprise. She had never seen Lester so off-balance, so completely unsure of himself and what he was doing.
He finally continued, "It isn't false modesty when I say I know I'm not in, for example, Captain Becker's league. I wasn't even when I was his age."
"What does that matter?"
"Because it must matter to you. Looks are important to girls your age, aren't they?"
"That is a terrible generalisation and I'm offended you would think me so shallow." And I've thought so many filthy things about you, God, if you only knew. Not that Jess actually wanted him to know that. It was embarrassing.
"Christ," Lester muttered to himself. "I'm really going about this the wrong way, aren't I? I'm not trying to insult you. But Jess, I'm so much older than you. Maybe it feels like it doesn't matter but believe me, it does."
"Because I'm a little girl. That's how I seem to you, isn't it? This was stupid, I should never… I can't believe I thought… How could you ever want to be with someone so young and immature? I am a child to you. I have no experience and I care about silly things and I'm too emotional and your children would hate me and I-"
"Oh God, I'm rambling, aren't I? I'm so sorry, I talk too much when I'm nervous. Actually, you probably think I talk too much all the time, don't you? Don't answer that." Jess brought her hands to her face and rubbed her eyes, wishing an anomaly would appear right there in Lester's office so she could run through it. She was never going to be able to look Lester in the face again. She should probably just resign right now.
A hand grasped her shoulder and Jess jumped back. "Oh! Oh my God, you scared me."
"I do apologise," Lester said and for some unfathomable reason he was actually smiling at her. "I didn't bring up the age difference because I don't like you. I brought it up because I can't imagine what possible romantic appeal you could find in a man old enough to be your father. Wouldn't you be happier with someone like Becker?"
"I thought so, at first. I thought I wanted Becker, but I just… don't any more. Besides, if he and Matt aren't shagging I would be very surprised."
"So that wasn't a horrific hallucination brought on by lack of sleep and bad Indian food," Lester said, half to himself.
A voice in Jess' head was saying enthusiastically, What did you see? Tell me! But Jess ignored it because she didn't want to frighten Lester off - or for him to think she was a pervert. Honestly she was only interested for the gossip.
"Lester," Jess said and touched him, wrapping her hand around his arm in what seemed an incredibly daring move. She wondered if it would be all right if she used his first name and then decided she might as well go all in. "James, I have thought about this. I've thought about it for so long and I know why you think it's a bad idea. It probably is a bad idea, a terrible, terrible idea. But I don't care. If you… If you feel anything for me, if you think you could want this, please, just tell me. I don't want you to be noble or whatever else you think you should be, I just want you to be honest."
"You mean it," Lester said, slowly and wonderingly. "All of it, you actually… you want…" He swallowed and looked at her small hand on his arm and then at her face. "Bloody hell, Jess. I wish you weren't so damned persistent."
"Okay, I'm sorry but I need you to be very clear. Is that a yes? You do fancy me?"
"Must I spell it out for you? Yes, Jessica Parker, I do fancy you and I have for an improperly long period of time and you would be well within your rights to charge me with sexual harassment."
Jess smiled so widely it almost hurt her face. "I think you could have charged me first. You know, they never talk about all the times it's a woman making inappropriate advances on a man."
"Yes, that is a real problem. Probably should be investigated further."
"If I move my hand," Jess said and lifted her other hand to place it on Lester's hip, "like this, that would make this really inappropriate."
"Oh, do stop, Miss Parker," Lester said in feigned distress. "Must I grab for my rape whistle?"
"Here." Jess took hold of Lester's hands and wrapped them around her waist. "Now we're even. They'd never be able to tell who started it."
"No, and they'd surely blame me."
"Then it's a good thing that your advances aren't unwelcome, isn't it?" Jess smiled sweetly up at him. "You can kiss me, you know."
"Can I? I thought we'd just shake hands."
"Well, if that's how you want to play it…" Jess shrugged and moved back, sticking her hand out.
Lester raised an eyebrow and lowered his gaze to her hand. While he apparently tried to come up with the proper reaction, Jess took advantage of his distraction and threw her arms around his neck, kissing him before he could even react. Lester was clearly surprised and Jess congratulated herself. It was nice to be able to get the upper hand on Lester now and again.
Well played, Jess Parker, she thought smugly.
He put his hands gingerly at her waist before his grasp became firmer and Jess realised that Lester was a very, very good kisser. There really was something to be said for experience.
"This is still a truly awful idea," Lester murmured against her mouth.
"Thank God I don't care," Jess said and pressed her lips to his once, twice, three more times. She brushed his hair away from his face in the way she had thought about doing so many times, glad to discover it was as soft as she'd thought it must be.
"I hope you aren't expecting to get a raise out of this."
"Absolutely not. I'm not even expecting you to be nicer to me."
Lester chuckled. "That's the spirit. Keep your expectations low and this might just work." He drew away from her with some reluctance and gathered his briefcase and keys. "I believe I owe you dinner."
Jess passed him the jacket that had been lying over the back of his chair. "Just so you're aware, my low expectations don't extend to paying for my meal myself." Not the first time, at least. And she suspected Lester might prove to be old-fashioned about the whole thing.
"Heaven forbid. What sort of man would I be if I made my date pay for her own meal?" Lester held the door open so Jess could pass through.
"What a perfect gentleman you are," Jess said, linking her arm in his. She let herself lean her weight against Lester slightly, relishing the closeness, and thought about what Becker had said.
Lester nudged her shoulder. "What are you smiling about?"
"Oh, no reason," Jess answered, not feeling any need to attempt to contain her amusement but guessing that Lester might not find the joke quite as funny. "I suppose I'm just in a good mood."
Jess would have to tell Becker tomorrow that he had been right - Lester wasn't an idiot. In fact, he had impeccable taste.