Smack Dab in the Middle of Things

By Marilyn Puett (AKA Supermom) <mpuett@knology.net>

Rated PG-13

Submitted: December 2004

Summary: In the midst of an embezzlement investigation, Lois's reputation — and professional integrity — are compromised with the appearance of a revealing photo. Sequel to the author's "Mister December."

***

"Kent! Did that mutual funds lead pan out or what?"

Perry White's voice yanked Clark from a decidedly sensual daydream — his hands framing Lois's waist, her arms twined around his neck, her soft body pressed against his harder one, their lips almost touching — and back into the reality of the morning staff meeting. Grateful that the conference table covered his lap, he cleared his throat and glanced at Lois, who sat beside him with a puzzled look on her face.

"Uh… yeah, Chief. I think we've got something promising here." He shifted in his seat, hoping to ease his discomfort.

"And? You wanna share some details with your boss?"

Clark definitely wanted to share the details with his boss. Thus far in his tenure at the Daily Planet, his relationship with Perry was good, his career was on track and Lois had finally begun to pay serious attention to him.

Their relationship was still in the early stages — coffee at work, shared lunches, the occasional movie and dinner — but he knew Lois cared for him. He cared for her, too. If he were honest with himself, he'd admit that he was madly in love with her and ready to move things along to the next level. She dominated his dreams at night and he'd found himself daydreaming about her more than once lately. But her emotional baggage combined with the recent revelation of his "special skills" had them both tiptoeing around their emotions.

They were the hottest team in town professionally and he dreamed that they could one day be the hottest team in an emotional sense, too.

"Are you all right?" Lois whispered as she gave his hand a light squeeze under the table.

"Sorry, Chief. The whole situation's kind of convoluted and I'm trying to make sure I have it straight in my mind." He pulled a sheet of paper from a file folder and began to recite.

"We reported last week that Metro Fidelity Funds had filed for bankruptcy. Once the news hit, our phone lines were jammed with calls from people worrying about their retirement funds. All we could do was refer them back to Metro Fidelity. But since their insolvency came out of left field, Lois and I decided to check into things and see if we could find anything unusual."

At this point Lois joined in. "We dug through some records at City Hall and found what may be a link to the old Metros organization."

"You mean the bunch that ran that club where you and Kent went undercover a while back?"

Someone snickered and Lois's eyes burned with a fury that could singe asbestos.

"One and the same, Chief," Clark continued. "Toni Taylor is currently serving time in the women's prison and her brother Johnny was found floating in Hobbs Bay right before she went on trial. The word on the street is that he'd hinted he might cut a deal with the state and testify against her."

"So what's the link to Metro Fidelity?"

"This is where things get a little hazy, Perry," Lois interjected.

"Hazy doesn't sell newspapers, Lois."

"And that's why we have a meeting set up day after tomorrow with someone who might be able to lift the fog a little," she said.

"Just keep me posted on your progress. This sounds like it could be a Pulitzer in the making. Ah… Cat? Anything you need to report on?"

Cat Grant pulled her attention away from her bright red fingernails and smiled at Perry.

"Just the same, old same old, Chief. Sex, scandals and gossip."

Perry grimaced and swung his gaze back to Clark and Lois. "As I said, keep me posted. And be careful. Sometimes these milquetoast types can be more dangerous than you think."

Perry made his way to the door and then turned to glare at the staffers still sitting around the conference table.

"Go get those stories, people!"

Chairs scraped and staffers scurried from the room. Clark pushed his chair away from the table and then helped Lois with hers. She gave him a shy smile and gathered her belongings, but hung back as the others left the room.

"Are you sure you're okay?" she asked again once they were alone

"Yeah, I'm fine. I was just thinking about the people who've lost their money," he lied. Though it wasn't really a lie. He'd thought about them last week when the story broke.

"We'll solve this, Clark. I know we will." She looked around to make sure no one was looking before she took his hand and gave it another squeeze. "Come on. Let's get to work."

Together they exited the conference area and made their way to their respective desks.

"Hello, gorgeous!"

Lois watched as Cat kissed her index finger and then pressed it against the calendar photo that hung beside her desk.

"I'll find out who you are if it kills me. I'm not the best snoop in Metropolis for nothing." Cat dropped into her desk chair and her gaze never left the photograph of the man wearing a Santa hat and little else.

"Give it up, Cat," Lois called from her desk. "If Mister December wanted to be found he'd have had his name put on the calendar in the first place."

"You're just jealous because you didn't find this hottie for yourself, Lois. I can't believe that Clark knows a guy like this and hasn't introduced me to him."

"Oh, I can," Lois mumbled.

"Speak up, Lois."

"Uh… I'm going to the coffee machine. Can I get you a cup?"

"That would be very nice. Thank you, Lois. Lots of cream and four sugars please."

Cat tapped out the keystrokes to log into her email account and then looked up to see Lois standing by her desk, coffee cup in hand.

"Is there a problem, Lois?"

"How do you do it, Cat?"

"Do what?"

"Drink coffee loaded with fat and empty calories and stay thin as a rail? You and Clark both amaze me."

"Clark amazes me too," Cat said. "I guess we both just exercise a lot."

"You've never been to a gym a day in your life, Cat Grant." Lois placed a mug of steaming coffee on Cat's desk followed by a handful of sugar packets and several individual containers of half-and-half.

"There ARE other ways to exercise, Lois," Cat taunted. "But I doubt you'd know about those. Clark, on the other hand…"

"Did I hear my name?" Clark called from the top of the ramp leading to the bullpen.

"You couldn't have heard us from…"

Of course he could have heard. He could have heard from his apartment. He could have heard from Smallville. He was… he was… Lois still couldn't say it because it was completely unbelievable. Her partner, the rookie from nowhere, was Superman.

Cat stood and sauntered over to meet Clark as he neared his desk.

"I was just telling Lois about exercises you can do in the privacy of your bedroom and suggested that you might be familiar with those too." She picked an imaginary thread from his lapel and adjusted the knot in his tie. "What exercises do YOU do in YOUR bedroom, Clark?"

Clark swallowed.

"Don't be shy, Clark." Cat ran a scarlet-tipped finger along his cheekbone and tilted her head.

"Uh… pushups?"

"Mmmm-hmmm." Cat nodded with a wicked gleam in her eye. "And?"

Cat was in rare form and unless someone stopped her, the train wreck was imminent with Clark Kent standing in the middle of the tracks.

"Lying thrusts?" Clark continued.

"Oh yes, " she purred. Cat was in her element and was obviously enjoying herself.

"We're not being paid to play little games of cat and mouse." Lois exhaled on an exaggerated sigh and rolled her eyes. Her lips thinned in irritation.

"I know you didn't intend to make that little pun, Lois—"

"You're right, Cat." Lois leaned in til she and Cat were nose to nose. "But since I did, let me tell you right now that this little mouse is off limits. Understand?" Lois spun and took a stunned Clark by the arm. "Come on, Clark. We have real work to do."

***

The workday had been long and the elevator ride from the news floor to the lobby seemed to take forever. Clark kept running the words over and over in his mind. *This little mouse is off limits.*

Had Lois actually staked a public claim to him? Had she told not only Cat but also everyone else within earshot that he was hers? Sure, they'd been dating since she'd figured out he was Superman. Their relationship had been strained at best for a while, but then Lois had come to grips with his dual persona. She'd been a little mad. Okay, she'd been a lot mad at first, but when he explained his reasoning for the disguise and for keeping it a secret from her, she agreed that he'd been right.

If Lex had tested him to simply drive him away from Metropolis, what would he have done if he'd known Superman had a family? A family who was dear to him. And if it became known that Superman had a girlfriend, who knows what sort of lunatic might pull what sort of stunt to use that information against him?

Clark had wanted to push their relationship to the next level. To move beyond an evening of pizza and beer. To venture further than a simple kiss on the cheek and a friendly hug. To embark on a new and wonderful life with Lois beside him, sharing the ups and downs of life and maybe even one day going as far as-

"Are you all right?"

Lois's question pulled him from his thoughts.

"Don't let Cat bother you. She likes to see just how far she can push men. She flirts and she teases and when she's got a guy just where she wants him, she moves on to the next one," she explained. "She's played the game with Jimmy and, believe it or not, she even did it with Claude."

A pink stain colored her cheeks when she realized what she'd said.

"I didn't mean she did it with Claude. I don't know what she did with him. It wasn't any of my business. I think they went out a few times but I think he moved on because there was nothing he could get from her to further his career. Unlike me, who practically laid the story in front of him on a silver platter. Why am I babbling like this?"

Her voice faded away to nothing and Clark didn't know whether to try and answer what was most likely a rhetorical question or to ask about her comment to Cat.

In two steps he was across the elevator car and took her hands in his.

"Cat has a strange effect on people. She makes me get all tongue-tied. I'm always so afraid I'll say the wrong thing and lead her on."

Lois laughed. "She did have you going on about those exercises. If you could have seen the look on your face."

"Gee, thanks for reminding me."

Lois placed a hand on his chest and patted the front of his shirt. "No problem, partner. Any time."

*It's now or never. Ask her.*

"Lois—"

The elevator shuddered to a stop and the doors opened to the lobby. Harry, the newsstand operator, had left for the day. Cletus, who ran the stand where Clark got his weekly shoeshine, had closed up shop for the day. A janitor pushed a broom across the floor, sweeping up remnants of the day's traffic in and out of the building.

"Yes, Clark?"

He placed one hand against the small of her back and guided her through the lobby and out the front doors.

"You hungry?"

*Chicken.*

"Sure. You want to go to Alphonso's for pizza? Tonight's free anchovy night."

Clark hesitated, torn by conflicting emotions.

*Go for it.*

"I have a better idea," he said, turning her in the direction of his apartment. "How does poached salmon with cucumber dill sauce sound? And a baby spinach and arugula salad with oil and vinegar?"

The beginning of a smile turned up the corners of Lois's mouth.

"A nice Kendall-Jackson chardonnay would go well with that, don't you think?"

Lois nodded in agreement as they continued along the sidewalk.

"And perhaps just a light sorbet for dessert?"

"Where's this served, Clark? My mouth is watering already."

Clark gave an anxious cough. "My apartment," he answered softly.

"Your apartment?" Her voice held a faint tremor. "I don't want to put you to any trouble. Alphonso's will be fine, Clark."

"It's no trouble. Really. We can pick up the salmon from the corner market on the way to my apartment. The cucumber dill sauce is already made and the salad comes in a bag. I have a bottle of wine chilling already and there's sorbet in my freezer." He ticked off each course on his fingers. "Please say yes."

His voice was husky. Sexy. Needy. Just like she felt inside. She'd learned today that the old adage about never missing the water til the well ran dry was true. When she'd seen Cat eyeing Clark and making sexual overtures to him, something in her had snapped and she'd wanted to bare her claws and get into… A Cat fight?

The irony wasn't lost on her. Neither was the fact that she'd all but publicly declared her intentions for Clark. And now he was asking her to come to his apartment for dinner, a situation far more intimate than any of their dates so far.

She wanted to say yes to his invitation, but she was honestly afraid to. Clark had invaded her dreams of late and more than once she'd awakened with her body drenched in perspiration. Why, just looking at him sent her blood racing and made her heart pound.

She was intensely aware of his appeal. He was tall, dark and handsome personified and women's heads turned wherever he went. He could have any woman he wanted, yet he wanted… her?

*Say yes. Take a chance. For once in your life, Lois Lane, take a chance.*

"Clark, I'm sorry," she began.

Clark's shoulders slumped and a defeated look crossed his face.

"I'm allergic to cucumbers, but I'd love to join you for the rest." She broke into an open smile.

"You won't be sorry, Lois. I promise."

Dark brown eyes stared back at her and she had an immediate feeling that not only was he making a promise about dinner, but about a whole lot more too.

***

Lois sighed with satisfaction, settled back on the sofa and closed her eyes. She'd just finished the best dinner she'd had in a long time. The best dinner she'd had in Metropolis. Heck, the best dinner she'd ever had, period.

Clark was a terrific chef. She'd enjoyed watching him select the salmon at the market, joking with the woman behind the counter who seemed to know him. Then they'd stopped at the florist where he'd picked up a bright bouquet of cut flowers for the table. He'd inquired about the shop owner's daughter who had apparently just had a baby.

He really did care about people. His concern was genuine and not just a ploy to make himself look good. Every day he showed his caring in big and small ways — big when he went out as Superman and small when he helped his neighbors as Clark.

The more she was around him, the more Lois learned about this multi-faceted man who was beginning to touch her heart.

She was jolted from her thoughts by the aroma of fresh, strong coffee.

"Would you like your coffee doctored up a bit?" Clark held two mugs in one hand and a bottle of cognac in the other.

"No, thanks. I'm so full now I'm afraid that with any encouragement at all, you'll have me stretched out asleep on your couch."

She turned a vivid scarlet and then stirred uneasily on the couch.

"I didn't mean… I mean, I don't think… I'm not planning to stretch out…" She quickly hid her face with her hands and shook her head.

Clark placed the coffee and cognac on the coffee table and slid beside her on the sofa.

"I know what you mean, Lois," he assured her. "Why don't we get started on these papers you dug up at City Hall?"

Grateful for the distraction, Lois sat up and flipped open the folder she'd placed on the coffee table earlier.

"Okay. It seems that the head of the accounting department at Metro Fidelity used to work for Toni Taylor. His name was…" Lois searched through the pages of a legal pad. "Ah, here it is. It's Walter Langford. I'm betting he cooked the books at Metro Fidelity and diverted most of their liquid assets to accounts somewhere like the Cayman Islands. So who's this guy we're meeting day after tomorrow?"

"Martin Collins. He's a junior accountant at Metro Fidelity. He had an innocent part in this but his wife is pregnant and he's scared to death he's going to be sent to prison."

"So he's willing to sing like a bird so he can stay out of jail?"

"Something like that." Clark took a sip from his mug. "Lois, I think Collins really is innocent. Maybe he was too afraid to walk away before, but now that he's had a chance to think it over, he wants to make things right."

Lois picked up her coffee and inhaled the aroma of the rich brew. "Mmmm. This is so much better than that sludge at work." She wrapped her hands around the decorative mug and took several sips.

"It's a special Indonesian blend."

"Indonesia?" she asked, fumbling and nearly spilling hot coffee on herself. "Please tell me it isn't that stuff that's made from monkey dung."

Clark threw back his head and roared with laughter.

"It isn't funny, Clark."

Clark bit his lip in an effort to quell his laughter. "I'm sorry. It's just that the look on your face was priceless."

"I'm glad I could be such a source of amusement to you," she said, her posture stiff.

Clark picked up the mug and held it toward her. "It's not Kopi Luwak, so drink up."

"Is that the monkey stuff?"

"Technically, it's not a monkey. It's more like a cat. But you don't really want to hear about that, do you?"

"As long as it didn't have anything to do with my cup of coffee, no." Lois settled back with her coffee and then giggled. "But wouldn't it be funny to get some for Cat? Cat coffee for the Cat woman?"

"It's three hundred dollars a pound," Clark offered.

"She can drink Folgers," Lois declared. "Speaking of Cat, do you think she'll figure out that you're the guy on the calendar?"

Clark blew out a long breath. "I sure hope not. She'll make my life miserable if she does."

"More miserable than she did this morning?" Lois asked.

"Lois, I have an idea that this morning was a drop in the bucket compared to what she could do it she set her mind to it."

"She was pretty rabid this morning."

"Yeah. And I can't believe that I played right into her little game. By the way, thanks for rescuing me." He lifted his coffee mug in salute.

"What are partners for?" Lois lifted her mug as well.

"To partners," Clark decreed, tapping their mugs together in a toast.

*Ask her. She's relaxed and in a good mood. Go ahead and ask her.*

Clark emptied the coffee mug with one gulp and summoned every ounce of courage he had. Funny that he could face down criminals and defeat natural disasters every day, yet this one woman had the power to bring him to his knees figuratively speaking. Heck, if it would help, he'd literally get on his knees.

He'd never felt about a woman like he felt about Lois. And unless he made the next move, he was afraid things would stall right where they were.

He took a deep breath. And another.

"Relaxation breathing?" Lois asked.

He started to go for the snappy comeback but thought better of it.

"No. I'm trying to get up my nerve to ask you something."

"Uh-oh. I'm not going to like this, am I?" Lois's brow furrowed and she had her coffee mug in a death grip.

Clark pulled the mug from her grasp and set it on the coffee table. The less ammunition she had, the better.

"Lois, what you said this morning to Cat. Did you mean it?"

"About the calendar photo? Sure, she should stop searching."

"Not that."

Lois wrinkled her nose as she thought back to the morning's conversations.

"About you and her putting all that stuff in your coffee?" she asked.

"About the mouse."

"The mouse?"

"The mouse."

"What mouse? I don't remember a mouse. Oh, god! Do we have mice in the office?"

Clark took another deep breath, then reached for her hands and threaded his fingers with hers and looked her square in the eyes.

"This mouse. Me."

When she responded with a puzzled look, Clark continued, "This morning you told Cat, 'let me tell you right now that this little mouse is off limits.' Am I reading too much into that?"

Now it was Lois's turn to breathe deeply.

"If you're thinking I'm ready to buy a white gown and veil and march to the altar, then yes, you're reading too much into it," she quipped.

"That wasn't what I was thinking at all. What were you thinking?"

Lois squirmed and stared at their joined hands. "I was thinking that Cat should keep her paws off of you. No pun intended, of course."

"Of course." A hint of a grin appeared.

"I was also thinking—"

"I think we should be doing less thinking." Clark's voice simmered with emotion. "And we should be doing more of this."

He leaned in and pressed his lips against hers, then gently covered her mouth. She smelled like flowers and the scent had a drugging effect. Clark almost surrendered to it before allowing reason to reclaim control. Tonight was not the night to make demands. Tonight was simply for laying out the beginnings of a relationship.

He nibbled gently, slowly on her bottom lip and waited for her to respond and set the pace. When she nibbled back, he released the breath he'd been holding and deepened the kiss. Framing her face with his hands, he flicked his tongue along the seam of her lips and requested entry. And when she parted her lips and let her tongue dart out to meet his, a low groan escaped from him.

As his tongue met hers, he caressed her cheek, marveling in the softness of her skin. After a moment, his hand skimmed down the column of her neck and found her flickering pulse.

*Heaven.*

Clark broke the kiss and pulled back watching Lois's eyelids flutter and then open. Her tongue darted out and gingerly licked her swollen lips.

She sighed. "I like the way you think, Clark Kent."

***

Lois woke the following morning with the memories of Clark's kiss still fresh in her mind — and on her lips. She gently touched one finger to her mouth and remembered how soft Clark's lips had felt against hers. In her mind, she'd been wishing for him to do more than kiss her, but she'd been afraid to voice those wishes.

Her head told her that Clark was different from other men. Oh, not just because he was from another planet. But different in that he took a woman's feelings into consideration and didn't try to run roughshod over her. Heck, he'd even cooked dinner for her. Lois had never had a man cook for her before, and given her abysmal cooking skills, this was a welcome thing.

No, Clark Kent was definitely a breed all to himself, in more than one sense. And she definitely liked the way he made her feel. His respect was what Lois liked more than anything else. She'd clawed her way to the top of a male-dominated profession and worked hard to earn prestigious awards. Yet time and again, she was denied the respect she so desperately wanted.

Maybe the tide had changed. Maybe Clark's attitude would rub off on the others at the office.

With that thought in mind, Lois crawled from bed, showered and dressed for work. She took a little extra care with her hair and make-up, spritzed a little perfume behind each ear and selected a black knit dress with a straight skirt and V-neck that complimented both her coloring and her figure.

Why not go all out and let Clark know that she was pleased with his attention and wanted more?

Her walk to work was humdrum, the ride up the elevator was uneventful and when the elevator doors opened to reveal the Daily Planet newsroom, Lois fully expected a day like any other.

She glanced toward Clark's desk and saw that he hadn't arrived at work yet. Perhaps he was on a "call."

It was when Lois started down the ramp into the pit area that her ordinary day took a turn.

"Babe alert!" Ralph Schmertz stood by the coffee maker and his voice carried clearly across the room. "Hey Lois! Why didn't you tell us?"

Lois lasered a look in his direction — a look that would have melted asphalt. She'd simply report him to Perry. Arguing with Ralph was like arguing with discarded gum.

"Oh Lois! You got any other skills we don't now about?" Billy Toner yelled from an opposite end of the room.

She had reached her desk, removed her coat and hung it on a hook when a loud wolf whistle pierced the air.

"You doing the bedtime boom-boom with Kent, Lois?" Ralph asked, sniggering.

"Yeah, Lois. You and Kent doin' the wild thing?" Billy joined in.

Lois fell into her desk chair, her mouth dropped open. She couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"How about mattress dancing? Or the bareskin bonk?" Ralph elbowed Billy who had joined him in the break area.

"Tell me a bedtime story, Lois," Billy begged. "I'll make it worth your while." A wink crinkled the corner of his eye.

Lois rose, her lips drawn into a thin line. "That's enough," she said through clenched teeth. "I've put up with your stupidity, Ralph. And your incompetence. I've gone out of my way to ignore you. But this has gone way beyond the bounds of common courtesy and decency. I'm going to the Human Resources office right now and file a complaint for harassment."

She turned toward the ramp and in three strides Ralph blocked her path and grabbed her by the elbow.

"Do you really think they're gonna believe you? After what you did?" he countered. "You're probably in violation of some company policy too."

"I haven't done anything. Except maybe my job, which is something you should be doing, too, instead of annoying me. Let me go!"

Ralph stood his ground and motioned to his cohort. "Bring that over here, would ya?"

"If you'll excuse me, I have a complaint to file." Lois tried to push past Ralph.

"Don't get your panties in a wad, lady," Ralph said as he took a magazine from Billy, opened it and laid it open across Lois's desk. "And by the way, those are mighty cute ones you're wearing in that picture even if there isn't much to them."

Lois looked at the photo displayed on her desk and her legs began to buckle. She grabbed the edge of her desk and steadied herself as her face paled several shades.

For there, displayed in living color, smack dab in the middle of "Hot Chick dot Com" magazine, was Lois Lane, posed, bared and with a staple in her navel.

"Great shades of Elvis!" Perry stormed into the bullpen and stood by Lois's desk, waving a copy of the magazine in his hand.

"Perry—"

"In my office now!" He turned on his heel and stomped back to his domain.

Lois shoved her way past Ralph and followed Perry, feeling like a prisoner going before the firing squad.

Lois knew that photo wasn't her and she had to prove it. But she was quickly beginning to understand the meaning of the old axiom about being 'up the creek in a wire boat without a paddle.'

Perry was staring out the window when she tapped on his door and stepped into his office. He told her to close the door and have a seat. Lois lowered herself into the familiar plaid chair where she'd sat countless times before and waited. And waited. And waited.

Finally Perry gave a heavy sigh, shoved his hands deep in his pockets and turned to face Lois.

"Perry, I can explain—"

"You can? How on earth can you explain something that doesn't exist?"

"Huh?" Lois was completely confused.

"Aw, honey, I know this isn't you. You've pulled some damned fool stunts in your time but I know you'd never do anything this crazy. Elvis only knows what anyone could hope to prove with this." He gestured toward the open magazine. "Three copies of that rag were delivered to the corporate offices late last night and I don't need to tell you that the suits upstairs are spitting mad. I got rousted out of bed at five o'clock this morning and have been in meetings with the board of directors since sunrise."

Lois sat quietly, her hands folded in her lap.

"They gave me orders to fire you on the spot for unprofessional behavior."

"But Perry—"

"Hear me out, Lois. I bought you twenty-four hours."

"But that's not much time—"

"Honey, that's all I could get, so you'd better skedaddle and start proving your innocence."

Lois rose from the chair and began to shake as the gravity of the situation hit her. Then an even more terrifying realization washed over her. This time tomorrow she could be unemployed. Fired. Discredited. She'd lose all the respect she'd worked so diligently to earn.

"Who would do this to me, Perry?" Her voice was shakier than she'd have liked.

"I don't need to tell you that you've made plenty of enemies in Metropolis."

"Well, apparently I've ticked off somebody pretty badly," she said. "Or something I'm working on has somebody mighty scared."

"Twenty-four hours, Lois. You need to have an explanation on my desk by eight tomorrow morning."

"Thanks, Perry. I'll work it out and I think I know just where to start."

In fact, Lois had no idea where to start but simply wanted to escape. She hurried from Perry's office and ran into a solid wall of sports coat, starched shirt and gaudy necktie.

"Is everything okay, Lois?" Clark asked. Concern was evident on his face.

"Fine," she replied, her voice clipped and her manner curt. "Everything's fine and if you'll excuse me, I have some research that can't wait." Lois sidestepped and moved toward her desk.

Clark laid a hand on her shoulder and leaned his head toward hers. "I know," he whispered.

Lois gave him a puzzled look and tried to feign innocence. Clark gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze.

"Ralph and company made a point of showing me the magazine as soon as I walked in," he explained.

With that statement, Lois's resolve began to crumble and her breath hitched in her chest. Clark quickly ushered her into the conference room and locked the door behind him.

Lois took a seat at the massive wooden table and laid her head on her hands. For a moment only the sound of her sniffles filled the room. Then she composed herself and stood.

"I know that looks like me, Clark, but you have to believe that it isn't. Perry's given me twenty-four hours to prove it's not me. I'd never do anything like that, not that I don't think a woman shouldn't be able to do it, if she wants to degrade herself that way. I wouldn't blame you one little bit if you thought it was me, especially after you posed for that men's calendar, not that I think you degraded yourself or anything, but really, you have to believe me when I say—"

"I believe you, Lois, and you can trust me. I trust you with my biggest secret and I swear we'll find out who did this."

Lois launched herself at him and wrapped her arms around him. Clark pulled her head against his shoulder and dropped a soft kiss into her hair.

"Ready to go face the giants?" he asked.

"I suppose hiding in here all day isn't an option, huh?"

Clark suppressed a grin and shook his head.

"Let's get this over with, then." She squared her shoulders, twisted open the lock on the conference room door and marched to her desk with her head held high.

"I have to give it to you, Lois, I didn't think you had it in you to pose for something like this." Cat had a gleam in her eye and a smug look on her face. "I do believe I've underestimated you." She perched on the corner of Lois's desk with the magazine held out in front of her.

"Don't give yourself too much credit, Cat. It's obvious that the woman in that photo is not me."

"Yeah, right," snorted Ralph from his vantage point behind Cat.

"There's nothing wrong with posing for artistic photos, Lois. Lots of famous and successful women have done it," Cat continued. "Take Lucinda Barton, for instance. She's the anchor for WMET-TV and she did that stunning swimsuit layout in METROPOLITAN magazine last month. I heard her ratings tripled after that."

"I can think of better ways to triple my ratings, Cat. Writing good stories comes to mind," Lois said as she shoved her off the desk.

"Yeah, right," Ralph commented again. "Like a story on the mayor's press conference is gonna get you the same publicity as posin' nekkid for 'Hot Chick dot Com'." Ralph snatched the magazine from Cat's hands and rifled through the pages until he reached the centerfold.

"For heaven's sake, Ralph, stop drooling." Clark stepped into the scene and confiscated the magazine. When Ralph lunged for it, Clark rolled it up and slipped it into his inside jacket pocket. Ralph responded with a grunt of disappointment.

"I'll repeat," Lois said, "slowly, so that you can understand, Ralph, that the photo in that magazine is not me. And you're still not off the hook for your earlier comments either. I'm heading for the HR department later."

"Prove it," Ralph countered, his bravado barely keeping his voice under control. "Prove it's not you."

"Well, there's…" Lois glanced at Ralph. "Actually, it's… you see, that woman in the photo is uh…" Her gaze shifted to Cat.

"Don't look at me for help, Lois. If I had to put money on this, I'd say it was you." Cat's lips curled in an evil grin. "Of course, there is one way to prove once and for all."

Clark coughed. Ralph pumped his fist in the air and hissed, "Yes!" Lois felt all eyes upon her.

"Oh all right," she groaned, turned on her heel and headed for the restrooms. After a few steps, she turned back to the group. "Well, aren't you coming with me?"

Clark coughed again. Ralph lunged forward and found his way blocked by Clark's muscular forearm. "This is a girls only party, Ralph."

"Just don't embarrass me, Lois," Cat said as she disappeared into the ladies' room, giving one last wink to the crowd.

Five minutes later both women emerged. Cat had a somber look on her face while Lois's expression was more self-satisfied. When they reached the bullpen, no one spoke. Then Ralph broke the silence.

"Are those Lois's t-?"

"Ralph," Clark growled.

Lois glared.

With a somewhat contrite tone, Cat announced, "It's not her. I mean, the face is hers, but the body definitely isn't because—"

"That's quite enough explanation, Cat," Lois said. "Now can we all just go back to work?"

"Well, I'm not convinced," Ralph argued. "I think you two broads made some kind of deal and are just stickin' together. As far as I'm concerned, that's Lois Lane in that centerfold."

Lois sputtered, bristling with indignation. "I swear on my Kerth awards that the woman in that photo isn't me."

"Nice try, Lane, but I know what my eyes see and my eyes see you all bare-a—"

Discarded gum, she thought.

Lois looked at Clark and could see a muscle working in his jaw. His anger was apparent in his facial expressions and body language. But since they'd shared nothing more than a few chaste kisses, he couldn't argue one way or the other.

And he certainly wouldn't lie about it. Deceit went against what he stood for, both as a man and as a superhero.

*I believe you, Lois, and you can trust me.*

Those words filled her with warmth and, as bad as things looked now, Lois knew that she and her partner would solve this.

She was pulled back to the reality of the situation by Ralph's voice. "So, Lois. Will you autograph my copy of the centerfold? You can just sign it, 'To Ralph, with all my love'."

"Over my dead body!"

"And it will be one hell of a sexy dead body," Ralph laughed. He twisted a ball-point pen in his hand and then began to tap on the edge of the desk. "And by the way, Kent, that's my personal property you have in your coat and I'll kindly ask you to return it."

Clark made no move to retrieve the magazine from his pocket and Lois watched the two men stare at each other as Ralph's pen continued it's rhythmic tattoo against the wood.

"That's it!" Lois shouted. "Quick, Clark, give me the magazine."

Lois opened to the photo and held up the page showing the feet and legs. "See! A tattoo!"

She shoved the magazine back in Clark's hands, propped her foot on a nearby chair and pointed to her nylon-encased ankle.

"The woman in that photo has a tattoo on her ankle. I don't. It's not me."

Ralph leaned over and carefully studied Lois's ankle. "Hell, that don't prove anything. They airbrush stuff out of photos all the time. So if they can airbrush stuff out, they can airbrush it in. They just decided to add a little decoration, Lois. Kinda fancied up the merchandise a little."

"Oh my…" Cat rushed to her desk and returned with a large magnifying glass.

"Tool of the trade," she commented as everyone stared at the object. "Give it to me," she ordered and extended her empty hand toward Clark.

When he hesitated, she gave an exasperated sigh. "I think I can solve this mystery if you'll let me look."

Cat held the magazine underneath Lois's desk lamp and aimed the light at the photo. She twisted the glossy paper back and forth, peering through the large circular glass.

"Watch out, Cat! You're wrinkling the page."

Cat quirked one eyebrow and sent Ralph a warning look.

"Ladies and gentlemen," she announced in a theatrical manner, "I can not only assure you that the woman in this photograph is not Lois Lane, I can tell you who it is." A confident smirk spread across her face as she surveyed her waiting audience.

"Damn," Ralph muttered and kicked a trashcan.

"I could kiss you, Cat!" Lois squealed, rushing toward her colleague.

"Contain yourself, Lois," Cat warned. "On the other hand, if Clark would like to kiss me…" Her smile sparkled.

"For heaven's sake, Cat, stop with the flirting and tell me who it is."

Cat crooked a finger at Lois and walked toward the conference room. "I think this should be between you and me."

"And Clark too. I think there's a story here and he's my partner." Lois gave him a reassuring look. "Right?"

Cat hesitated before agreeing and led the way into the room. The door closed with a click and Cat leaned one hip against the large table, her already short skirt riding even higher on her leg. "I have one condition. If I help you and there's a big story, I want a shared by-line."

"What?" Lois shrieked. "We'll be the ones writing the story. We never share a by-line with an informant."

"Aha! I'm not an informant. I'm going to help you get to the bottom of this."

"We don't need help, Cat. If you'll just give me the name, Clark and I can figure this out and my life can get back to normal."

"But I pointed you in the direction of the story."

"So you say. You haven't pointed anything yet except for sticking out your chest."

Clark might not be the most experienced man when it came to dealing with females, but it didn't take a genius to see a fight brewing.

"Lois, I think Cat's making a reasonable request."

Cat shot Lois an I-told-you-so look.

"But Cat," he continued, "you haven't told us anything yet to base a story on. If your information leads to a story, we'll be willing to share the by-line with you."

Lois's jaw dropped and she glared at her partner.

"Won't we, Lois?" Clark glared back. "You want to get to the bottom of this before your twenty-four hours runs out, don't you?"

"I'm not asking for your first-born child, Lois. Believe it or not, I really sympathize with you," Cat explained. "And don't roll your eyes at me. I'm being straight with you. I'm feeling this strange, sudden sense of sisterhood with you now."

"Yeah sure, Cat. Next, you'll be wanting us to get matching outfits."

"And they say I'm catty," Cat mumbled.

Clark watched the exchange in awe, furious at himself for having let the situation deteriorate to this point. Lois was behaving like a petulant child who needed a time-out in the corner of her bedroom. And Cat was milking the circumstances for all she could.

"I'd just like a chance to do something besides eat stale hors d'oeuvres at some boring cocktail party or snoop through a city councilman's garbage hoping to find out who he's dating. I want to work on something real and important."

"You were ready to hang me out to dry a minute ago when you thought that photo was really me." Lois wasn't budging.

"And you wouldn't have done the same thing if it was me in that situation?" Cat volleyed the next round back to Lois.

"Okay, girls—"

Cat and Lois glowered at him.

"Well… then… okay, you broads-" A hint of mischief was apparent in his demeanor.

Cat cracked first, laughter bubbling up from deep inside until it infected Lois and they were both holding their sides and gasping for breath.

"Okay, Cat. I'll agree to the shared by-line."

"Thanks, Lois. You won't regret it," Cat said.

"But no matching clothes," Lois added.

"Shucks. I was so looking forward to seeing Clark in black silk and lace." Cat winked at him and a blush crept up his neck and face.

"Now that we have the formalities out of the way, who's the woman in the photo?" asked Lois. "And what proof do you have? We need courtroom evidence, Cat. Not just speculation."

"Her name is Francesca Dellatorre. She's a model, originally from Rome but now based in Metropolis. We used to room together," Cat explained. "I recognized the tattoo because she had it done while we were roommates and it's a one-of-a-kind design by some guy in the arts district of town who specialized in unique body art."

"I remember her. She did a lot of work for Neiman's lingerie department, didn't she?"

"Yes, and because that tattoo was so distinctive, the photographers often made sure it was visible in the shots. It should be easy to prove that the body in that photo is hers."

"Mystery number one solved." Clark held up his index finger. "Now how did Lois's head get put on a photograph of your friend's body? And how did it get into that magazine?"

"Let me call Francesca and see what I can find out. She's still in Metropolis. We had lunch last month. I'm sure she'll be willing to help out any way she can." Cat rose and headed for the door. "Give me an hour, okay? I should be able to track her down and have something for you." She slipped out of the room and Clark found himself alone with a still-worried Lois.

"It's really going to be okay, Lois." His voice was reassuring and steady. "By this time tomorrow, it will all be just a bad memory."

Lois let her shoulders slump and her eyes took on a defeated look.

"I hope you're right, Clark. I don't want to have to look for another job. And who'd hire me anyway with 'centerfold model' prominently displayed on my résumé?"

Clark watched as two fat tears escaped and slithered down her face. Lois in the throes of full fury was a staggering sight. Lois in the middle of a meltdown tugged at his heart. Moving quickly to her side, he wrapped one arm around her waist and pulled her close, cupping the back of her head in his hand. When she relaxed and laid her head on his shoulder, he placed a soft kiss on her hair.

"You're not going anywhere. You're going to have a long, long career at the Planet."

"Do you really think so?" she whispered. "What if we can't figure this out?" Fresh tears trickled down her face and she brushed at them with the back of one hand.

Clark fished a handkerchief from his pocket and pressed it into her palm.

"Thanks," she sniffled. She swiped at her cheeks with the square of cloth.

"Wait a minute. You missed a spot." Clark reclaimed it from her, held her chin steady with one hand and dabbed at a smudge of mascara under one eye. "Can't have you looking like a raccoon, can we?"

Lois stared up at him and blinked, the remnants of a few tears still shimmering on her long eyelashes.

"I can't believe this," Cat exclaimed in a shrill voice as she swung the door open and it banged the wall behind it. "Franny is out of town on a photo shoot."

Clark sighed. The spell was broken.

"Can't you just call her? This is my career at stake, Cat."

"Her cell phone is either off or out of range. I've left messages all over in case she checks in with her usual entourage," Cat said.

Lois threw up her hands. "That's it. I'm a goner. I might as well pack up my desk and practice saying 'Welcome to Burger World. Would you like fries with that?'"

"But you know what really frosts me? Her agent knows where she is and he won't tell me. And to think I spent a week with that man halfway around the world in the French Alps and gave him more than French lessons, if you get my drift."

"Even better, maybe they'll hire me at CostMart. I can wear one of those cute vests and be the buggy-getter at the front entrance." A note of hysteria crept into her voice.

"You should get her out of here, Clark. Take her to lunch, then take her home and have her take a nice, long, hot bubble bath. Give her a glass or two of wine. Something to take her mind off of this."

"My life is going down the toilet and the woman wants me to have a Calgon moment," Lois said to no one in particular. She gave a nervous laugh and continued. "What did I ever do to deserve this? Sure, I put a few guys behind bars, but they deserved it. If they'd stayed on the right side of the law, they'd still be free men today. But nooooo, they break the law, I write about it, a jury convicts them, they go to prison and I get my face plastered all over the centerfold of some girly magazine and have Ralph making goo-goo eyes at me while Billy Toner is imagining heaven only knows what—"

Cat sent a knowing look toward Clark and he nodded.

"Lois, why don't we grab some sandwiches from the deli and go to my place? We can start making a list of everyone who might have a grudge against you?"

"I don't think you have enough paper, Clark."

"Sure I do." He chuckled and took her by the arm. "But if I don't, we'll go to CostMart for more."

"And I can get a job application while we're there. Thanks, anyway, Cat. I appreciate your help with—"

"You think I've given up, Lois," Cat declared, her mouth dropping open in astonishment. "Well, think again, honey, because tenacity is my middle name. Simon Bridgewater assumes that he's dealing with an ordinary woman. But we all know that I'm definitely not ordinary."

A self-satisfied smile crossed Cat's face. "You go on home with Clark and let me kick the grapevine into high gear. The minute I locate Francesca I'll let you know."

Lois put forth no fight as Clark led her from the conference room to the elevators. As the elevator door shut, Cat's voice could be heard clearly, bellowing orders over the telephone to someone named Digger.

The atmosphere in the elevator was somewhat akin to that of a funeral parlor. Lois's whole demeanor screamed defeat and Clark was truly becoming concerned for his partner. He'd never seen her so down. So dejected.

"Lois, you know I'll move heaven and earth to help you, don't you?"

Silence filled the elevator car.

"And you-know-who will get involved too." He used his finger to scrawl an imaginary "S" on his chest.

More silence.

He reached for her hand and threaded his fingers with hers. Her hand was as cold as the look in her eyes. When the elevator doors opened, he led her outside and whistled for a taxi. Clark knew better than to try and engage Lois in conversation. If she wouldn't open up in an empty elevator, she surely wouldn't talk with a taxi driver within earshot.

Clark abandoned the idea of deli sandwiches and directed the driver to his address. Right now Lois needed comfort and encouragement more than pastrami and cream soda.

She moved zombie-like from the taxi to his apartment, offering no resistance when he helped her with her coat and led her down the stairs to the sofa.

"Would you like some tea, Lois?"

Her calm broke abruptly and forcefully. Before Clark could stop her, she'd flung her purse across the room. It thudded against the wall, scattering pens and lipstick and loose change.

A sob escaped and Lois hugged her arms around herself.

"What if Cat can't find her?" Lois's voice was a raw whisper. "What then? She's the only person who can prove that I didn't pose for that photo."

"She'll find her," Clark said as he pulled her into his arms. "Cat won't let you down, honey."

Lois pulled back and looked up at him, tears glistening in her eyes. "Nobody calls me 'honey'," she said, her voice strangely calm.

Clark looked predictably shocked and opened his mouth to attempt an explanation, but before he could utter the first word, Lois silenced him with a kiss more intense than any they'd shared before. As she pressed herself closer to him, he could feel her heart pounding next to his.

"I kinda liked it. It made me feel… I don't know… special. Different," she said. "Wanted."

"Oh, you're definitely special, Lois."

"Even if I'm high maintenance?"

"I wouldn't have you any other way."

"Will you still think I'm special when I'm unemployed, my reputation in ruins, my integrity shot to pieces, my—"

Clark lowered his mouth to hers and quieted her with another kiss. He ran his tongue along the seam of her lips. When she opened to him, he swept his tongue past her teeth and then along the roof of her mouth once, then again.

Clark pulled back to assess her reaction. Her eyes were closed and she ran her tongue across her top lip. Lowering his hands to her waist, he brushed his lips around her face, causing Lois to shiver before he moved to her neck and gave it a little nibble that wordlessly repeated his feelings for her. He placed his lips an inch from her ear and released the breath he'd been holding, then tugged her earlobe between his lips.

He felt the tension drain from her body and she melted into his arms.

"You're not going to be unemployed, Lois. And your reputation and integrity will be intact," he reassured her. "But regardless, I'll always want you. I've wanted you from that first moment I saw you in Perry's office. Nothing's changed."

"I can't believe how mean I was to you. I used to be pretty mouthy, huh?"

"Used to be?" He raised an eyebrow. "You're still pretty mouthy."

Lois opened her mouth to protest, but Clark hushed her by pressing a finger to her lips.

"I wouldn't want you to be any other way. It's part of your personality and what makes you Lois Lane." He hesitated for a beat. "It's part of the package that I'm falling in love with."

Distress crossed her face like lightning across a stormy sky.

"Don't panic, Lois. I don't expect you to feel the same way. I just hope you'll give me a chance to prove that I'm an all right guy. Somebody you can depend on and trust."

"I do trust you, Clark. And I depend on you more than you know. But why would you fall in love with me when you could have any woman in the world?" She shifted her gaze away from his face and closed her eyes.

*Because of all the women in the world, you're the first one I've met who matters.*

Clark could see that the conversation was becoming entirely too emotional for Lois. She was pulling away. Shutting down. It was time for diversion.

"Why don't you relax on the couch and I'll fix you that cup of tea."

Lois sank into the comfort of Clark's sofa, kicked off her shoes and curled up with her feet tucked under her. His words echoed through her brain.

*It's part of the package that I'm falling in love with.*

Her lips still tingled from his kiss, and combined with his confession, her mind reeled. Too many feelings were tumbling through her, fighting for recognition and control. And one in particular stunned her. One that repeated. One that she was scared to say out loud.

*I think I'm falling in love with you too.*

She sank into the cushions and closed her eyes against her battling emotions. Minutes later she was vaguely aware of Clark pulling a light afghan over her as he brushed a light kiss across her forehead.

***

Lois had no idea how long she'd slept when the shrill ring of Clark's telephone woke her. He jerked the receiver from its cradle, spoke briefly and hung up.

"Was that Cat?"

Clark shook his head. Lois threw off the afghan, sat up and looked at the wall clock.

"She's not going to find her." Lois's throat squeezed shut and her stomach began to churn from dread. "I feel so helpless just sitting here, but I don't know what else to do."

Clark slid onto the couch next to her and banded one arm around her shoulder. "Cat's going to come through on this. I've seen that woman in action and she's got sources the CIA would love to have."

He grasped her chin, tilted her face upward and placed a gentle kiss on her lips. Lois parted her lips in invitation and whimpered when his slick tongue invaded her mouth. A spark ran through her veins and ignited a fire deep inside her. One hand wrapped around Clark's nape and fingered the hair curling around his collar. The other pressed against his chest and felt his heart pounding as if he'd just run a four-minute mile. He leaned her back against the bank of cushions and stretched out beside her, their lips never parting.

The telephone shrilled again, forcing a groan of dissatisfaction from Clark. He broke the connection between them and in three strides was by the phone.

"Yeah?" he spoke into the receiver. Lois held her breath as he carried on a one-syllable conversation with the person on the other end. "Uh-huh. Yeah. Right. Sure thing."

Lois quickly moved to his side. "Is it Cat?" she asked in a loud whisper.

Clark gave her the thumbs-up sign. "All right. I'll tell her."

"She's found Francesca?" Lois's voice was filled with optimism.

Clark nodded. "Come on. We're meeting Cat in front of the Planet."

Lois let out a whoop that could be heard across town. Clark pulled her into his arms and effortlessly twirled her round and round. She could stay in Clark's arms like this forever, but business came first. Maybe after the photo situation was resolved…? She could only hope.

Lois shrugged into her coat and pulled her keys from her purse.

*Here's your chance to show that you trust him.*

"Would you like to drive, Clark?"

She saw the brief expression of surprise that flitted across his face. She'd be surprised too if the biggest control freak in town had suddenly let loose of the reins.

"Sure," he answered and caught the keys when she lobbed them in his direction.

Traffic seemed to conspire against them and by the time Clark angled the vehicle into a parking spot beside the Planet, Lois's nerves were jangling. She yanked the door open and exited the car as Cat rounded the corner, walking as fast as her four-inch stilettos would allow.

"I just spoke with Francesca," Cat said. "When I described the photo she knew just what it was. She had some boudoir photos taken for her boyfriend a few years back and it sounds like one of those with a little PhotoShop work added."

"Great! Now all we have to do is find out who took the—"

Cat waved a slip of paper. "I'm way ahead of you, Lois. When I told her what had happened, she gave me the name of the photographer along with the name of her lawyer. She said she plans to sue the, and I quote, rat bastard and said if you want to join her, you're more than welcome."

"Oh no. I get first dibs on him for libel and if there's anything left after the courts get through with him, she can have at it. Come on. We have a case to solve." Lois plucked the paper from Cat's hand. "Just how did you find Francesca anyway?"

Cat held both hands up, palms outward. "I have to protect my sources."

Lois opened her mouth to argue that gossipmongers hardly qualified as sources to be protected under the First Amendment, but thought better of it since this tattletale might very well save her career.

"Thanks, Cat." Lois held out her hand toward her colleague, who took it and delivered a firm handshake. "Oh, what the heck," Lois said and pulled Cat into a hug.

"I'm glad to help, Lois. There are depths to which even I won't sink. We gals have to look out for each other, you know."

"We do, don't we?"

"You guys better get going before the shop closes. Be careful and let me know what happens." Cat turned to walk back to the building.

"Aren't you coming with us, Cat?" Clark asked. "You're part of the team."

Cat was stunned by Clark's invitation. Her gaze shifted to Lois and when she nodded her agreement, Cat broke into a wide grin. "Let's go get that slimeball."

Cat turned the map one way and then another before throwing up her hands in defeat.

"Okay, I admit it. I failed map reading in geography class. The address that Francesca gave me is around here somewhere but I can't figure it out on this map." She shoved the paper toward Clark, who sat in the passenger seat.

"Where did you get this map?" Clark asked, examining the item carefully.

"I found it in the storage room at the Planet. Why?"

Clark chuckled. "The reason you can't find Rivers Street is that it's in a relatively new area of town and this map was printed in 1963." He shook his head. "Perry really needs to clean out that storage room."

"We should be close, though. Francesca said it was just a block or two from Five Points Plaza and we just passed that."

The jeep swerved suddenly and veered left. Clark was thrown against his seat belt and Cat slid across the back seat and hit the door with a thud.

"Watch it, Lois! I'm going to have a bruise the size of Iceland on my hip."

"Sorry. But I saw it. Rivers Street. We're here. Now what's the street number?"

Moments later the car pulled up in front of a nondescript brick building with faded shutters. An even more faded sign that read "Creative Photography" hung over the entrance.

"That's it," Cat said. "And the name is certainly apropos."

"Let's just get this over with," Lois said, sliding out of the car and hitching her purse over one shoulder. "Whoever he is, he's gonna regret the day he crossed Lois Lane."

Lois marched toward the building with Clark and Cat behind her. Her stride was purposeful and steady. *I'm going to make mincemeat out of this guy.*

She placed both palms on the door and shoved it open, startling the balding man who sat behind the counter making entries into a ledger.

"Can I help you?"

"We're looking for Nelson Gallimore," Lois replied.

"That would be me," the man said, standing and offering his hand. "What can I do for ya?"

Lois reached into her purse, retrieved the magazine that was folded back to the photo in question and slammed it onto the counter.

"This is what you did for me, Mr. Gallimore. You took a picture of my head, put it on a photograph you took of someone else and sold it to this sleazy magazine. Now I'm the laughingstock of Metropolis and I may lose my job." She pointed her finger toward the man in accusation. "All I want to know is who paid you to do it and why."

Gallimore snickered. "Don't ya wanna know how? And what? And where? Ain't that what you reporters always ask?"

"I think we know how you did it," Clark said. "What and where don't really matter at this point."

"Don't none of it matter really because I don't know nothing about that picture."

"Don't play games with me, Mr. Gallimore, because I'm not in the mood for games. I'm much more in the mood for a good lynching," she threatened. "I'll ask you again. Who and why?"

"And I'm tellin' ya lady, I don't know what yer talkin' about."

"Then why did you say that we were reporters?" Cat asked. "We never mentioned anything about that."

The man sputtered and turned pale, struggling for an explanation.

Lois leaned across the counter and fisted her hand in the fabric of his shirt. "I think you do know what I'm talking about. Do you see that tattoo?" Lois pointed to the distinctive marking on the photograph.

"That tattoo belongs to a friend of mine," Cat said. "And she's more than willing to testify in court that you took this picture of her."

Gallimore swallowed and turned a shade whiter. Then he twisted and bolted toward a back room. He was quick, but Clark was quicker and he forcibly sat the photographer in a folding chair, holding him in place. Lois bent forward and put herself at eye level with Clark's captive.

"Do you still want to plead innocent, Mr. Gallimore? Or can I call you Nelson?"

Lois sensed the moment when Nelson realized he'd been caught. His shoulders drooped but his eyes still held the last hint of overconfidence. "What's in it for me? If I give ya information, what do I get out of it?"

Lois locked her dark brown eyes on his, her death-ray stare set at full-stun level. She laughed at his audacity and then her mood shifted. But before she could speak, Clark interrupted.

"Mr. Gallimore, my friend here takes this whole matter quite personally. And I have no doubt whatsoever that unless you give her the information she wants, she'll make you wish that you'd been attacked by a grizzly bear instead of her."

Nelson sat motionless, looking first at Clark and next at Lois who drummed her fingers impatiently on the counter. He gave Cat a look that could best be described as a mental undressing in an apparent attempt to win points with her. But he'd misjudged the curvaceous woman.

"I'd spill my guts if I were you, buster. I've seen her in action and it isn't pretty." Cat gave an exaggerated shudder before placing her index fingers in the sign of a cross and backing away from Lois.

Lois wrote herself a mental memo to treat Cat to a manicure for that performance. What the heck. If they solved this within the twenty-four hour window, she'd treat Cat to a day at the spa.

"What'll it be, Nelson?" Lois's eyes narrowed. "Cooperate or…" She left the consequences to his imagination.

Clark tightened his grip on the man's shoulder, exerting just enough pressure to hurt yet not enough to leave a mark.

"Huh, Nelson? I can't hear you," she prodded.

Sweat trickled down the side of the man's face and his eyelid twitched nervously.

"Clark, do you think we should call the big guy in on this one?" Lois was grasping at straws. Anything to get the man to crack.

"If you think it would help, maybe—"

"Please, you gotta protect me. If Langford finds out I squealed on him—"

"Walter Langford? Of Metro Fidelity?" That wasn't the "big guy" she'd been thinking of, but suddenly the situation had taken an interesting turn.

"Yeah. That's the guy. He called me last week and said he needed a favor. Said he wanted to get even with some broad and could I do some PhotoShop work for him," Nelson explained. "When he told me what he needed I pulled some stuff from my files and fixed him up."

"How much did he pay you?" Lois asked, still wincing from the broad comment.

"He didn't pay me nothing. He owns this building and he kinda let it be known that if I wanted to keep my lease I'd better do what he wanted."

"Wait a minute." Cat stepped closer to Gallimore. "I know where you got the body for that fake centerfold. But where did the head come from?"

"Simple," he explained. "I used to work at the Metro Club as a photographer. I did souvenir photos for folks. And I took publicity photos of the entertainers. See that gal there? In the picture over the cash register? That's my sister, Edwina. She got me that gig."

Lois inspected the photo in question and nodded. Case solved.

"Toots is your sister?"

***

"Cheers." Perry lifted a champagne flute and four other glasses joined his in a toast. "To good reporting and teamwork." He lifted the glass to his mouth and sipped the bubbly liquid. "When I explained everything to the board of directors and explained the Metro Fidelity connection, they were so happy that we were going to scoop the other papers on the story that they never questioned Lois's innocence. Good job, kids."

"Thanks, Perry. Not everyone would go to bat for an employee like you did for me."

"You're the best damned investigative reporter I've got. I wasn't about to lose you." Perry tipped his champagne glass up and emptied it. "And congratulations on your first by-line, Cat. I understand you played a key role in cracking this case."

"Thank you, Perry. I was happy to help. Journalism is a team sport." Cat took another sip and continued. "Besides, we women need to stick together."

Lois and Francesca affirmed Cat's statement in unison with a nod.

"I'm just sorry you had to be dragged into this, Miss Dellatorre," Perry apologized. "But on behalf of the Daily Planet, please accept my sincerest appreciation for your assistance. Without your help in finding Gallimore, he'd have never testified against Walter Langford."

"And thousands of folks would have had a very bleak retirement outlook," Clark continued. "Between his testimony and the information we got from Martin Collins, every dime of the Metro Fidelity funds was recovered and returned to its rightful owners and Walter Langford is going to have a long stay at the state prison." Clark lifted his glass in Francesca's direction.

"I was very happy to help an old friend," she said, smiling in Cat's direction. "I'm afraid that I must leave your celebration and get back to my work. And if you've a back entrance, I'd certainly like to use it. One of your employees approached me earlier and asked if I'd like to… what did he say? Get jiggy with it?"

"Ralph." Four voices uttered his name simultaneously.

"I'll show you out, Miss Dellatorre," Perry offered and led her from the room.

"And I have a follow-up piece to write about the grateful customers of Metro Fidelity Funds." Cat drained her glass and then scurried from Perry's office.

Clark set his nearly-full glass on Perry's desk. "Relieved?" He'd made note earlier of the dark circles under her eyes.

"You have no idea. I know that this job brings its share of personal attacks, but this one was just… just…"

"Too private?" he suggested.

"Precisely. Just thinking about Ralph doing heaven knows what with that picture…" The look of disgust on her face told Clark everything he needed to know.

"For what it's worth, Ralph told me to thank you for ruining his social life."

"Should I ask?"

"He and Billy have been signed up for special sensitivity training classes. According to Ralph, they'll interfere with his dating schedule."

"The man dates?" Lois's eyes widened in horror. "Who? Or maybe I should ask what? Don't answer that. I simply want to put the whole thing behind me and get back to some real work."

"Sounds good to me," Clark said, taking her delicate hands in his. "But since all work and no play makes Lois a dull girl, how about dinner at my place tonight to celebrate another Lane and Kent success? Lamb chops with mint jelly, new potatoes—"

"Stop! You've convinced me. What time do we eat?"

"How does seven o'clock sound?"

Lois glanced over her shoulder before giving Clark a gentle kiss. "It sounds delicious. I can't wait," she murmured against his lips and then stepped back.

Their relationship was still too tenuous for any overt public displays and after the humiliation Lois had suffered at the hands of Ralph and company the previous day, Clark sure didn't want to indicate anything less than the utmost respect for her. He could wait, *oh geez*, ten hours.

***

"More wine Lois?" Clark turned from the sink where he'd dried and put away the last of their dinner dishes. "Lois?" he asked again. "Lois?"

He heard the rattle of paper from the living room followed by a muffled gasp.

*You're busted, pal.*

"I can explain, Lois." He looked as sheepish as a boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

"You'd better," she said, her face strangely void of emotion. "If I didn't know better, I'd swear you were as bad as Ralph and Billy."

"When we found out the whole story last night, Superman rounded up all the copies of the magazine and destroyed them, along with the computer files from Nelson's shop."

"Apparently one was missed in the round-up." She held out a copy of "Hot Chick dot Com", opened to the center. "What do you have to say for yourself, cowboy?"

"I… you… it's like this…" He sighed heavily, resigned to his fate. "Guilty as charged, ma'am."

The grin Lois had been holding back suddenly broke loose and a wave of relief flooded through him. If she was smiling, she couldn't be too mad. Could she? Of course this was Lois. With her, anything was possible.

"Stop worrying, Clark. In a strange sort of way I'm a little flattered that you'd want to keep this," she admitted. "I'm not quite as self-confident as most people think."

"No!" Clark feigned shock. "Seriously, anyone would be hard- pressed to deal with something like that photo. I still get the creeps over that calendar I posed for."

"Ah, yes. Mister December." A fearful look filled her eyes. "What if Cat recruits me in her search for the mystery man? We're practically blood sisters now."

Clark took her hand and tugged her closer. "Tell her you're busy."

"Busy with what?"

"This," he said, lowering his mouth to hers as he pulled her flush against him.

The magazine slipped from Lois's hand and dropped to the floor. "I could enjoy being this busy."

"Me too, Lois. Me too."

THE END

(c) Marilyn L. Puett

November 2004