HTG: Changing Rules
by Delilah Winston

Part 4

“So when's your next vacation, sweetheart?” Donna's father asked her as they talked on Skype.

“I haven't decided for sure, Dad,” Donna said. “I know I'll have one vacation period to use before then, but for next year I'm thinking about July 4th. Maybe take a trip up to New York, and watch one of the big fireworks shows.”

Donna heard her father whistle low into the phone. “Pretty crowded during that holiday, over there,” he said. “Probably second only to New Year's Eve. Sure you want to be part of the traffic hassle and the security headaches?”

“No,” Donna laughed. “No way am I sure. That's why I haven't decided yet. I know a co-worker or two who have friends in New York, and I asked them to speak with those friends to see if they have any advice to offer.”

“Well, if you change your mind, we'd certainly love to see you again, maybe for Thanksgiving?” Donna's father suggested. “Might be the last chance for all four of us to be together in the same house for a long time. Deena's making plans to move to Newark soon.”

It was Donna's turn to whistle, before she smiled. “Newark! Good for her. Does Deena have any job possibilities lined up there?”

“A couple,” came the answer. “She's due back from a trip up there at the end of the week. If any of the job interviews result in an offer, she'll move up there to work.”

“That's fantastic,” Donna smiled.

“So if you decide the fireworks aren't worth the traffic and the heavy crowds, and overbearing security guards and cops, it would be great to see you again,” Donna's father said. “Maybe you can bring that young man you've been seeing. Let him meet who his new in-laws would be if he ever thinks you're the one he should settle down with.”

Donna stifled a chuckle at the last remark before falling silent. Her mother had also dropped a hint about bringing Ethan home with her a few months ago, but she was reluctant. Donna knew Ethan would do it if she asked him, but they'd have to come up with some cover stories, and Donna was worried her parents would see through them. She'd spent two years, by now, working as hard as she could to hide and mask the look in her eyes that always sang out when she was dishonest.

Donna got up and adjusted her computer desk chair. “We're not that close, Dad,” she said. She felt her face heat up and knew she must have been blushing. If she'd stayed seated with her face in view of her webcam, she'd already be on the receiving end of a stern, but well-deserved lecture, about lying to her parents, old as she was now.

'So much for two years of work on that. I can hide it from acquaintances and some of my co-workers a little better, but when it comes to my family, I might as well be Pinocchio.'

“How long have you been dating him, and you still aren't that close?”

“Close enough to have kissed him. Not close enough for the thought of marrying him to enter my mind.” Although this was merely exaggerated rather than untrue-- the thought had entered her mind but she hadn't entertained it-- Donna didn't dare sit back down again until after saying it.

Donna's phone rang and she glanced at the Caller ID. “Speak of the devil,” she smiled.

Donna's father laughed. “Well, I'll give him the floor then, so maybe he can work on that,” he teased.

“Dad!” Donna raised her eyebrows high enough that she thought they'd merge into her hairline.

“A father can dream, right?” her father protested, although he smiled when he did.

“Dream all you want, Dad,” Donna giggled. “I'll let you know where I'll be going, soon as I decide.”

Donna sighed with relief after she and her father ended the call. If he asked her to explain just why she and Ethan hadn't yet discussed getting married, there would have been no way she could hide the whole truth from him.

Donna picked up her phone and answered Ethan's call. “Just the man I was thinking about,” she said with a smile in her voice.

* * *

“MMMMMMmmmmm!” Donna cried loudly into her gag until a rough tickling sensation in the back of her throat stopped her. She coughed a bit before the irritated spot was soothed.

Not all of the women were so loudly vocal during Down Time, the way Donna was. Bea and Karen made less noise, and were relatively quiet in volume; hence Bea calling it, 'Quiet Time,' a name that had rubbed off on Karen of late. Mary, Lara and Claire were all around the middle of the spectrum, while Suzanne was always near silent. Sharon? Donna knew better than to ask her. The subject was awkward enough to broach among women who discussed Down Time freely.

Donna had started keeping a small water bottle in a drawer of her desk. This way she could take a sip after she was untied. She'd gotten the idea from Rosa, who had suggested it at a support group meeting, as a tip for dealing with hoarseness. Down Time aside, women in receptionist and secretary positions did a fair amount of phone work, and had to speak a lot.

As Donna shook her head from side to side, she thought about bondage scenes in film and television, where the subject often dislodged her gag relatively easily by wiggling her head around, rubbing her face against the front of her shoulder, and pushing her gag through her lips with her tongue. Hollywood screenwriters had never met any of the HTG aides, Donna knew; smirking as much as she could, through her gag, as she thought of it. The blonde had been doing all of these things for forty-five minutes each work day, more than three years now, and her gag never budged. Donna's gag always stayed as tight as when the knot was first secured, and never rolled nor slipped up or down by a millimeter. And even though Donna had reconciled herself to being tied up, within less than a year of starting work at HTG, she never truly reconciled herself to being gagged.

Not that she, nor any woman, ever grew comfortable with being tied up-- Christina and Karen were thorough in explaining that when they took Donna to dinner after the blonde's first day. Reconciliation and adjustment was never the same as comfort. Donna's bondage was always tight, restrictive, and started to produce uncomfortable cramps and aches by the time she was untied (hence the doling out of Epsom salt, paid for by the company convenience budget). Further, even though the ropes used were treated with resin to make them softer, hemp rope was still rough and slightly abrasive, hence the distribution of lotion. A few women used this lotion on their ankles instead of their wrists, and word through the grapevine was that Mr. Talbot was considering the provision of slightly larger bottles so that all the women could use it on both their wrists and ankles.

All the various conveniences provided, the generous job perks, and the extremely gentlemanly treatment given all the women, by the company men, including even the aides, formed the oddest juxtaposition against the HTG women spending almost an hour each work day bound and gagged; very much so if you asked Donna or Mary. Something that often brought a smirk to Donna's lips as she struggled and squirmed in her bondage. Although Donna tried to keep her head clear and her mind quiet, sometimes these trains of thought did find their way to her-- She did have plenty of time for it while she was tied up.

For now, though, as Donna glanced up at her door, Down Time was coming to an end; the aides came into her office to untie her. The blonde gave a slight release of her breath, in relief.

Donna stretched her arms and legs as the aides closed the door behind them. She took her water bottle out of the desk drawer and took a sip to wet her throat. After getting the last of her work done for the day, she went to Sharon's office to pick up the last forms from Sharon's outbox.

Sharon nodded to Donna as she entered. “The last papers are printing up now,” she said, motioning to her printer as it hummed away, completing the last piece of work.

Donna smiled politely and opened a binder to put the forms into. “Excellent,” she said, putting the pack of chewing gum on Sharon's desk. The new hire still refused the lotion, and her apartment had a shower stall instead of a tub, which meant she couldn't sit and soak in it, so the Epsom salt would be useless. She accepted the chewing gum, however, because it was something she liked to do at home or with friends.

Sharon's speakerphone buzzed. “Hello, Sharon. Hello, Donna,” Mr. Stone's voice said through the phone.

Donna's eyebrows raised a bit. She had thought Mr. Stone would have had the aides skip this little 'rite' as unnecessary, given Sharon's feelings on 'Life at HTG.'

“Good afternoon, Mr. Stone,” she said.

A brief beat, before Mr. Stone answered. “Negative.”

Sharon leaned back in her wheelchair and rolled her eyes, although her face showed she wasn't as angry as Donna feared she might be.

“I take it this means I passed?” she inquired.

Donna put the binder down and put her hands on her hips, shaking her head to show she was impressed. “You. Are. Good,” she said, a little envious of how observant Sharon was.

Sharon frowned, but kept her tone even and spoke without anger. “I know better than that, Donna. With all the deceptions you, and Bea, and even you, Mr. Stone, fed me since I started, I'm not going to repay it by sinking to the same level.”

“Which is exactly why, however you feel about it, Mr. Halwell and I hold you in such high regard,” Mr. Stone said. “Higher than two analysts working under me, who wouldn't have hesitated to take any short cuts they thought would help, if they were women, and part of this.”

Sharon tilted her head in a way that showed she understood. “So, this little arrangement the women all have, it's not all Candy Land?”

“Nope, not all of it,” Donna smiled. “We haven't even begun scratching the surface in showing you how we keep the community going without tearing each other apart.”

“Sounds like you have quite a back story on how you got started measuring integrity among new hires,” Sharon said, putting an elbow on her armrest, and her chin against her fingertips.

Donna hesitated for a moment. “We've gotten burned enough times,” she said. “Badly enough that we won't abide it anymore.”

Sharon nodded after a moment. “Fair enough,” she said. “I'd love to call it hypocritical, but three wrongs make no more of a right, than two.”

Donna smiled again. “Thank you, that means a lot.”

“To more than just your peers,” Mr. Stone added.

Donna hesitated again before deciding to take a chance. “A few of us would like to take you to Jackson's for coffee and muffins,” she said to Sharon. “I promise, we won't discuss one moment of 'nine to five' there. We can compare our favorite TV shows, or whatever sports teams you like to watch.”

“I usually don't watch sports, unless I visit my family during the Grand Slam,” Sharon said. “I'm a bit of a black sheep in not being as much of a fan of tennis, as they all are. The Learning Channel, on the other hand? I can talk you to death about its programs.”

Donna smiled. “I'll call my family's mortician,” she joked. “Let me bring some papers to Mr. Stone and I'll swing by on the way out, in case you feel like coming along.”

Donna brought the papers into Mr. Stone's office. He nodded in thanks and looked her up and down.

“Interesting explanation you gave her, on how the 'loyalty test' got started,” he said.

'Uh-oh,' Donna thought to herself.

Mr. Stone tilted his head. “Donna?”

Donna looked down at the floor.

“I'm sorry,” Mr. Stone apologized. “Not my place to pry.”

Donna looked at Mr. Stone after a moment. “I've already given away enough, that if Christina catches a whisper of it, I can expect a thorough talking-to by all of women's human resources,” she said, looking nervous. “But hasn't it been twenty years now, since the incident with Annie Wooten and that Tracy woman? Haven't we singled her out as the root of it, and punished her name for it, enough by now?”

As long as Donna had known Mr. Stone, his answer took her so far off guard that she would have stumbled if she wasn't standing close enough to his desk for it to brace her.

“If you're asking me how I feel personally, then hell yeah,” he said, looking right into her eyes. “But you know how all this operates well enough by now. I don't get a voice on any issues among the HTG women. I don't know enough about the women's 'sisterhood' to have earned one.”

Donna gave a slight sigh. “I wish I wasn't the only one who DOES get a say, who feels the way I do.”

“You probably aren't,” Mr. Stone said, with a slight shrug. “You're just the only one who's voiced her opinion to anyone else, even one of the company men.”

Donna thought about that, and gave a very soft, brief sigh of relief. “Thanks for not turning me over to Christina.”

Mr. Stone laughed. “Again, I don't have a say, and I don't know enough about your community to deserve one,” he said. “But I think they'll forgive you for explaining the 'loyalty test' without mentioning Annie Wooten by name. Just don't entertain the notion of challenging the little rite's validity. I'm pretty sure that if you did, you'd find yourself sharing the burning stake with Annie by day's end.”

Donna nodded. “I know,” she said simply. “Thank you, Mr. Stone. See you tomorrow.”

“Good night, Donna.”

* * *


Donna fought hard to keep from changing expression, merely raising her eyebrows.

“You're getting better,” Ethan smiled, stepping aside to let Donna in. “But I can tell something is on your mind. I'm not sure if it's good or bad. But you need to talk.”

Donna smiled back and shook her head slightly, turning her cap's visor a little to one side. “Yes, I do,” she said. “If it's good or bad? Maybe we should both be the judge.”

Ethan brought Donna into the living room. A bowl of raisins and two bottles of cold water sat on the small coffee table before the couch.

“My folks asked 'the question,'” Donna said.

Ethan paused very briefly while reaching for one of the water bottles. “I guess I lose,” he said.

“Wait, what?” Donna raised her eyebrows again. “We didn't have a bet?”

“I bet myself,” Ethan smiled slightly.

“Oh,” Donna laughed. “Yeah, I guess I'd have lost that kind of bet, too.”

“So, I suppose you'll go to New York next year for July 4th after all?” Ethan said, partly joking.

But Donna gave a serious answer. “We can't duck them forever, Ethan,” she said. “They want a son-in-law. They want grandchildren. Of course they'll forgive me if I don't come through, just like they would with my sister, but as long as they have hope of you being the one? We're going to have to find a way to break it to them.”

Ethan nodded and put an arm around Donna's shoulders, as she settled against him and rested her head against the front of his shoulder. “You're right, Donna,” he acknowledged. “We've put it off long enough. I'll talk to my boss and arrange for a week away so I can go with you for Thanksgiving. You said your sister will probably be home then too, right? I guess she'll want to see what I look like, too?”

“She'll be more patient about it than Mom and Dad will, if it came to that,” Donna smiled. “But yeah, might as well get it all done. If we start working now, on how to explain all this to them, we'll have enough time to get it down pat in time for the visit.”

“What about the rest of your family?”

“They can wait until we decide how far we want to take this,” Donna smiled again.

“None of them know?” Ethan hesitated and then simply gave Donna an inquisitive look. He knew she'd understand.

“Absolutely not,” Donna said, giving a firm shake of her head. “Our relationship is complicated enough without mentioning THAT.”

“And how,” Ethan chuckled.

Donna kicked off her sneakers and lay her legs across Ethan's lap, and he gave her feet a quick rub. Her toes flexed inside navy blue socks; her usual midcalf length.

“I could get in so much trouble just for this,” she said to herself, although Ethan could hear.

“You'll get to meet my mom one day, not too far from now,” Ethan said. “She can tell you more about why us being in a relationship can work.”

Donna smiled and flipped her cap's visor to the back of her head, so she and Ethan could kiss and make out.

* * *

The memo Ms. Wilkins had talked about came in by fax shortly after Donna logged into her workstation. Down Time was going to be changing. A hogtie was no longer the sole method in which it would go down each day. Chair ties were going to be the first alternative option. A plain, wooden armless chair would be brought in; its legs specially weighted with detachable weight extensions so that it wouldn't tip over. A sketch was included to show a rough diagram of the chair, and how each woman would be seated while tied to it. A seat cushion would be optional if desired. A third option for Down Time, outside of the hogtie and the new chair tie, would be announced later. Other options were under consideration, but not final yet. The power to choose one option over another was not going to be implemented for 'some time,' but had the chance of being an eventual possibility in the far future.

A footnote also mentioned that the chair tie would now be used exclusively on newly pregnant women whose first trimester was still going; they would continue to be excused for safety reasons as soon as the first trimester was complete.

Ms. Wilkins closed the memo by encouraging the women to discuss the upcoming changes at support group meetings, and with their department Human Resources representative, including Christina. The memo was initialed, not only by Ms. Wilkins, but also a set of initials Donna had seen once before: JMG.

Donna paged Christina on her speakerphone. As the brunette picked up, Donna's door opened, and Bea came in with some preliminary letters that needed to be organized and printed up on letterhead. She offered a small smile as she put the papers on Donna's desk.

“It's happening,” Bea said.

“I see,” Donna answered. “How do you think it will change community dynamics?”

“I'm not sure,” Bea admitted, “but I think it will be the 'new toy' that will receive some extra attention for a while, and then we all get accustomed to it.”

“Most likely,” Christina said through Donna's speakerphone. “I doubt the honeymoon will last too long before it's just another part of the day.”

Donna's speakerphone buzzed; it was Nancy. Donna connected her into a conference call so both Christina and Nancy were on the line.

“Did you-- I mean, of course you saw it,” Nancy's voice sounded very excited. “Do you have any idea why this might be happening now?”

Donna looked at Bea, who grinned a little.

“Hi, Nancy,” Bea prefaced, letting Nancy know that she was in Donna's office at the moment. “Yes, we both know.”

“I do as well,” Christina said. “Ms. Wilkins told us about it beforehand.”

A brief silence. “You mean it's your new girl, Donna?” Nancy asked.

“Apparently so,” Donna replied. “Sharon can't handle a hogtie, even though she's in excellent shape, so they decided to give all the rest of us a concession.”

“Pretty big concession to give on behalf of just one new woman,” Nancy said thoughtfully. “You think it's really just that?”

“You mean, could they have been sitting on this for a year or two, and decided a new hire with special needs like Sharon's was the final nudge they needed to make it happen?” Christina offered. “Sure, I guess it's possible. They're not going to discuss plans revolving around this, with us, beforehand.”

“Makes me wonder what would happen if Sharon wasn't in good shape, and had to be medically excused,” Nancy pondered.

Bea clicked her teeth. “We all expect that a new hire who will have to be excused for medical reasons, will start work for us one day. I'm a little surprised it hasn't happened yet.”

“Ms. Wilkins says that Mr. Hill and Mr. Talbot are surprised about that, too,” Christina said. “Once it does happen, I'm sure Ms. Wilkins will be calling me into meeting with the other HR reps to discuss how to handle it with the rest of the community.”

“There's bound to be a few of us who will be a little jealous,” Nancy conceded. “I just might be one of them. Good thing the support group is as tight as it is. Will there be a full meeting soon?”

“I was going to ask that, as well,” Donna said.

“I can call for one, if enough people would like,” Christina said. “How do the three of you feel?”

“I say yes,” Donna answered. “No time like the present.”

“I agree,” Nancy said.

“Thirded,” Bea added.

“Okay, I'll meet with Oksana during lunch and we'll schedule it,” Christina promised.

“Donna, will you be discussing this with Sharon beforehand, since she's the catalyst?” Nancy asked.

Donna pursed her lips briefly. “No,” she said. “It'll probably just annoy her. Remember that EVERYTHING about Down Time still annoys her. She'll be able to talk to Christina during, or right after, the support group meeting.”

“Yes, I agree,” Christina said. “Best to let me handle that.”

“It should prove to be a rather interesting meeting, any way we slice it,” Bea gave a small smile at the thought of it.

Christina chuckled. “Oh, I'm sure it will. We'll all have plenty to talk about, that's for sure.”

End of part 4

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