Disclaimers: None really necessary. This is the latest story to be extracted from my brain.

Love/Sex/Language Warning: All of the above plus a bag of chips. :)

Violence: Not this time.

A Saving Solace (Part 1)

By DS Bauden


Preface

As I sat at my desk, the paperwork threatened to attack me at any given moment. Grabbing handfuls of my auburn hair, I internally screamed my frustrations. This was my least favorite part of the fourth quarter business. Everything had to be submitted yesterday. Supply orders, expense reports, labor disputes... the list went on and on. The thought of truly celebrating any holiday was strictly out of the question. Listening to my own thoughts, I wondered what it was that kept me in the retail world. Much to my dismay, the answer was simple. I enjoyed the interaction with people. As fucked up as some of them were, I really enjoyed it.

There were only a few weeks left until Christmas arrived, bringing forth a whole new dimension of people. People that hadn't left their homes since last Christmas, came out of the woodwork and demanded all sorts if things from retailers. And gave it to them. No questions asked.

So they kept coming back.

Who was I to argue? I got my best stories from this time of year.

Nice life, Kelly. The truly annoying little voice inside of me said.

Hey, who asked you, anyway? I challenged back.

Don't you want something more from your life?

I want a lot of things. But one thing my momma taught me was, 'get used to disappointment.'

And I have.

I've also had a lot to be thankful for. I was given a nameplate on my desk, which read: Kelly Cavanaugh, Regional Director. I worked damn hard for that title. I own a nice home and a wonderful dog, but yet... the loneliness that greeted me, I'd never get used to.

Walking over to the window of my office, I stared out onto the cold streets of Northshire. My eyes were glued towards the direction of the old Salvation Army building. A new company had taken that spot, but did basically the same thing for people. Helped the needy, fed the hungry, all in the name of caring. How can you not admire that sort of work?

Shamelessly, I had to admit to my approbation of a young woman I'd seen almost everyday on the corner. She sat ringing a bell, silently asking people around her for a few bucks to help. Her beautiful brown eyes had suckered me into dropping a few bills on more than one occasion. I hope she didn't think I was becoming some sort of stalker. Her heart called out to me, and well... I was unable to stop answering. I just wished that I had the courage to say more than hello. Her smile made me speechless and I was forced to simply make my donation and walk away.

Women have more power than they give themselves credit for.


*~*~*~*

Six weeks, Susan... it's only six weeks. I have to remember that. As cold as I am in the suburbs of Chicago, it's only going to be for six weeks. I hope ForOthers, Inc. realizes how lucky they are, that I'm a nice person. I don't know how many other people they asked before me, but I'm sure they all said no to this particular job. Still, I'm sure I'll see some interesting people during the holidays up here.

The people in this area are pretty stuck up. I usually dealt with people in the city. I know how to deal with suburbanites, I used to be one, but I just don't necessarily want to do it again. It's a whole new world out here. At least the company pays for my commute. I know I couldn't afford to live out here. I'm sure my parents would love to see me now. They could probably see me from their window if they looked hard enough. A gust of wind swept my blonde hair away from my face. Pulling my arms across my chest, I was reminded to wear more underclothes in the future. My eyes watered from the wind leaving me to blink wildly to restore my vision.

Looking down the street, I noticed a familiar patron coming my way. Nice suit. Nice body in the suit.

Nice everything, said my irritating inner voice.

You aren't kidding. Maybe this won't be so bad after all.

Won't mummy and daddy love that?

Like I care, I spat back.

You don't?

Do I?



Chapter One

As the cold winds blew against my face, I was loath to face the realization that my shift still had six hours left. The bell in my hand almost froze to my mitten as the snow continued to fall.

I really hope that next year finds me in a better place. God, if you are out there, please send me to the sun. It's cold out here.

Clink

"Thank you, ma'am, happy holidays," I shivered to the nice patron that dropped some change into my bucket.

God, I remember Christmas mornings in my parents' house. We started the day with a huge warm breakfast. Everything you could imagine was put on our plates, from eggs to pancakes; I never wanted for anything. My parents watched over me and took care of every need I ever had. Who knew my life would end up like this.

It seems like it was yesterday, when in actuality, it's been over five years since I have seen or talked to my parents. I never would've guessed that they were so cold hearted. We've all had our wake-up calls; unfortunately, that was a call I was unprepared to get. I came out to my parents when I was 20 years old. The look in their eyes when I came clean about who I was, was a look I will never forget. If I'd had a knife and had driven it through their hearts, I would have seen the same expression.

I never meant to hurt them; I just couldn't lie anymore. While trying to be honest and truthful with my parents, I never suspected this would happen. Jonathan and Elise McGovern were the two people that meant the world to me. I was their only child in a marriage of 35 years, and still they chose to forget me.

So, here I sit in the cold winter air, earning my living by asking other people for money. It's not that I mind the job; I like helping others. I'll just never get used to it. Every season, it's something else; but I think winter is my least favorite season. I'm sure you can imagine why that is.

Raising my jacket sleeve, I looked at my watch. I knew she would be coming soon; she always did and was always generous. She was by far the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen. She had milky white skin, a mane of auburn hair and eyes as blue as the sea.

I see her so often; I figure she must work around here. I wonder what she does for a living? I'd bet she's never had to ask for money in her whole life. Even if she had, I'm sure it was given to her. Who could deny someone like her?

I know I never could.

Looking past the two taxis lined up on the street, I saw my mystery woman walking towards me. I wonder if she'll speak today. I can see in her eyes that she wants to say more than hello. I wonder if she's as afraid as I am. Our worlds are so different. She's wearing Armani; I'm wearing the blue light special. Who knows? Stranger things have happened. I wouldn't mind getting to know her, either.

Among other things, my inner voice chirped again.

Don't you ever go away?

Nope.

She started walking towards me. Oh, God, I can't breathe. Oh wait, someone called her name. I heard her name; it's Kelly. What a beautiful name, so fitting for her. She turned around to face the person calling out with a large smile. Even without a smile on her face, I thought she was beautiful, but with one she is breathtaking. You could tell by her walk that she was a confident woman in control of her life.

With my job, you get to do to a lot of people watching. I have learned to pick up on things; someone's expression can tell you so much about their day. The lady on the corner who works in the boutique, for example... to the unobservant eye, you would think she never had a bad day. But, I saw her after those phone calls and after he came in to see her; she hurts inside. I wonder if she knew that I could see through the façade she put on every day. I wonder if she'd even care.

Oh, God, here comes Kelly. She looks like she's gonna throw money into my bucket again. God, I hope that's not all I am to her.

Jesus, Susan, get a grip on yourself.


*~*~*~*

There she is, just like every other day. I don't know where she gets her motivation. She is out here braving the cold weather without batting an eye. God, I don't think I could do what she does and still feel the way I do. She sees so much on a daily basis. I see a whole different world. She sees the outside world up close and personal. I see the people that come in from the cold. Working retail is no prize, but working outside ringing a bell to make money for the less fortunate... well that takes some balls, I think. I mean, I work for Saks, I have to dress to the nines, I'm sure she has to wear long johns. I hope she's not intimidated. I wonder if she'd like to have coffee and swap stories sometime.

Among other things, my annoying voice chimed in.

God, don't you ever go away?

You know the answer to that question.

I can see her looking my way. I wonder if she noticed the fact that I walked past her every day after work. Jesus, I feel like a predator. This is absolutely ridiculous. Maybe I'll ask her out for coffee. God, do I need another headache? Shit, Kel, get a grip, it's just coffee for Chrissakes. I needed another lover like I need a hole in the head.

You need something.

Shut up, already. The last thing I need is to have my conscience telling me what I need.

"Kelly? Kelly!" a voice shouted at me.

I turned around to find a co-worker of mine from a few years ago smiling at me.

"Sheila, how've you been? You liking your position?" I asked smiling back at her.

"I'm loving it, thanks to you and your new promotion," she smiled.

"Yeah, well, what can I say?" I smiled back, pointing towards the store. "Are you going in?"

"Yeah. I thought I'd check out my old haunts for a bit and pick up some tips from the master," she teased.

"Well, don't go recruiting from under my nose. It took a lot of work getting the right people into that store!" I kidded.

"Oh, don't worry, Kel. I promise that I'm here to look, not touch," she said.

"Good. Well, I won't keep you. Thanks for stopping me. I hope you have a happy holiday!" I said cheerily.

"You too, Kelly. Take care. It was good to see you," she replied.

I waved at her departing figure. "You too, Sheila. Bye!"

Well, that was a nice surprise. I hadn't seen Sheila since I took the position of Regional Director. She's a great employee; I wasn't happy to find out that she wasn't going to be a part of my team. She seemed happy, though.

That was a nice distraction. I have to pass the bell girl now. God, I feel like I'm gonna puke. My stomach's in knots. I can't believe I'm feeling like this. I don't even know her.

Before you even chime in, yes, I know I want to.

Oh, God, she made eye contact with me. God, she has beautiful brown eyes. I wonder if anyone's ever told her that. I need to say more than hi... today. I've got to build up the courage and give her the business card that I've had in my pocket for weeks now. I'll give it to her today. What she does with it is her choice. Yeah, I'll leave it up to her. Okay, take a deep breath, Kel. You can do this.


*~*~*~*

Oh, God, she's so close! I have to something.

Susan, talk to her! Be a big girl.

Shut up! I have to do it my way.

Okay, deep breaths here she comes.


*~*~*~*

"Hi," they said simultaneously.

They both laughed and looked shyly at each other.

Kelly got the courage to speak first. "I've seen you here every day ringing that bell. You've got to be cold," she smiled.

"Yeah, but I've got a warm coat, so I'm okay. You come by here almost daily, do you work nearby?" Susan asked.

"Yeah, my office is in the Saks building on the corner." Kelly pointed it out.

"Oh, I see," Susan nodded.

Silence struck the two women, and they stood there and stared at each other for what seemed several minutes.

"Were you gonna give another donation?" Susan chimed in, directing her stare at Kelly's hand in her pocket.

"Um... not exactly. I was going to give you my card. If you weren't busy after your shift, I was gonna ask you if you wanted to grab a cup of coffee or something to eat. You know, to warm up after being out here all day," Kelly explained with a slight blush to her wind chapped cheeks.

Caught completely off guard by the invitation, Susan replied, "Oh, that would be nice. When would you like to do that?"

"Well, tonight, if you'd like, but if you have other plans then we can make it for another time," Kelly said tentatively.

"Thank you, I'd love to," Susan accepted eagerly.

"When would you like me to pick you up?" Kelly asked.

"I'll be off at 7:00 p.m. I'll be out front of the old Salvation Army building. Does that work for you?" Susan asked.

"Yes, that'll be fine. I'll meet you then," the taller woman replied.

"Great, I can't wait. See you tonight!" Susan exclaimed.

"Can I get your name?"

The bell ringer smiled. "It's Susan."

"It is nice to meet you, Susan, " Kelly said.

"You too, Kelly."

"How did you know?" Kelly asked with a puzzled expression.

"Let's just say I do a lot of people watching here," she returned.

"I bet you do," she smirked. "I'll pick you up around 7:00 then?"

"I'll be there," the smaller woman answered.

"I hope so," Kelly said as she walked away.


*~*~*~*

YES! I did it!

God, I've never done that before in my life. I cannot believe that I accepted an invitation to have coffee with a complete stranger. My brain must be frozen.

At least she's a good-looking stranger. Mama always said I had good taste. She just never knew I'd have good taste in women; never banked on having a gay daughter. Who plans for that, anyway? Obviously, she didn't.

What am I going to say to Kelly? We have absolutely nothing in common. What? The weather? Oh, God, tell me we'll talk about more than that.

Clink

"Thanks, mister. Happy holidays!" I said to the man walking away from my bucket.

Oh, Christ.


*~*~*~*

I did it! Way to go, Kel! I'm proud of you. What's great is that she said yes! Woohoo! Now what are you gonna do for the next few hours? You've gotta go home and take a sedative or something. She's not gonna want to see you again if she thinks you're neurotic.

Good idea, no more coffee today.

I'll catch a cab home and try to calm down a bit before our date. Date? Jesus, I haven't had a date in forever. Do I even want a date? I've got some baggage that she doesn't need to deal with. I'm sure she's got plenty of her own shit to deal with. We all do.

"Hey, cabby!" I shouted at the slowing taxi.

Whoa, next time, don't stand too close to the curb, genius. That cab almost took out your shins.

Just get in, shut up, and calm down.

"Pine and Churchill, please." I stated to the driver.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied as he cranked the arm of the meter.

I sat back and tried to relax as I thought of topics of conversation that Susan and I could talk about.

Susan.

What a beautiful name. She has such a beautiful face. I could look into those eyes forever. I can't wait to get to know her better. Well, you need to come up with something more to say, rather than talking about her eyes all night.

But it's such a nice topic.

Well, I'm sure we'll think of something. With the holidays coming, we'll have plenty to talk about.

I hope.



Chapter Two

Lifting the sleeve of my coat, I glanced down at my watch again, hoping that it has sped up since the last time that I looked down.

6:20 p.m.

God! I can't believe how nervous I am. I just don't want to seem like an idiot. I mean, you look at the two of us and it is quite apparent that we are from completely different sides of the world. At one time, that wasn't the case. I had the clothes, I had money, but my mistake was thinking that it was mine. It was my father's. He was the wealthy one, not me. I'm reminded of that every day.

Enough of that "feeling sorry for yourself shit," Susan. You've got a date with an incredible woman in forty minutes. Just think about what you're gonna say to her when she comes to pick your ass up.

Thanks a lot. When I lose my nerve and can't think of a damn thing to talk to Kelly about, I better have some suggestions coming from you, Bigmouth.

Clink

"Thanks, ma'am. Happy holidays," I chimed.

Just ten more minutes and I can turn in this damn bucket. It was a good day today, actually. People have been very generous this season. I wonder what crawled up their asses to change their minds so drastically. Usually I just get stares, or people walk around me and pretend they don't see me. It's really ridiculous. It just makes me laugh. Some actually mime having blinders on their eyes, it's just priceless.

Beep Beep

Oh, my God! There she is. Look at that car! I know that cost more than what I'll make in five years.

"Hey, Kelly! I'll be done in about five minutes or so." I smiled as I waved.

"Sure thing! I'll go park by the Salvation Army Office. See you soon!" Kelly shouted back through the car window.

God, she's beautiful. Why would she want to take me out? I'm so out of my league here.


*~*~*~*

God, she looks so damn cute out there. What I wouldn't give to get her out of the cold. I could get her a job at Saks. She wouldn't have to worry about the cold ever again.

Yeah, but is that what she wants? You made that mistake once already.

Thanks for bringing up such a happy subject. It was only a suggestion. I wasn't gonna offer until I was sure anyway. Get off my back, dammit.

I gotta find a spot to park. She'll be finished soon. I hope she likes where we're going. I have the biggest desire to wine and dine her.

What is it about her? I don't know what's come over me. I don't think I even care what it is. I just hope whatever it is, doesn't go anywhere soon.

Knock Knock

I looked up to find a smiling face staring at me through the window. I didn't think I could move. Her eyes were just so incredible; they left me breathless.

"Can I get in?" Susan shouted through the closed glass.

Oh, damn!

I opened my door and walked Susan around the car. She sat down and I closed the passenger door and ran around to the driver's side. I got in and smiled at my new passenger.

"All done for the night?" I asked quickly.

"Yep, thank God. It was starting to get really cold out there," Susan replied.

"Are you up for some dinner?" I asked hopefully.

"So, you don't want to get coffee?" the petite woman asked nervously.

"Well, we can get coffee, but I just thought you'd like to grab some dinner as well. Maybe get some pie for dessert and wash it down with a good cup of coffee. What do you think?" I suggested.

"That sounds really great, but I'm kind of on a budget and I don't really have the money to eat out," she answered, sounding a little embarrassed.

I tried to calm Susan's nervousness. "Hey, I asked you, remember? That means that I'm paying. Don't worry about it. Okay?"

"Can I ask you something?" Susan questioned.

"Sure," I answered.

"Why me?" she practically whispered.

I wasn't sure what she meant. "What?"

"Why ask me out?" she clarified.

"Why not you?" I asked back.

"Don't answer my question with a question," Susan said, sounding a little unsure of herself. "I really hope that it's not a charity thing, because..."

"Okay." I placed my gloved finger on her lips to stop whatever was coming next. "What I meant to say was... why shouldn't I ask you out? I saw you, and you interested me. I just thought it would be nice to have dinner together. Don't you want to have dinner with me?" I asked, as I put on my best puppy dog eyes look.

I watched Susan's eyes roll as she caught on to my ploy. "You know, you could probably get away with robbing a bank with that look," she kidded. After thinking for a bit to herself, she looked up. "I would love to have dinner with you," she finally answered.

"Great. There's a wonderful crab house a few miles from here. Do you like seafood?"

She smiled. "I love seafood."

"I figured you for a shrimp lover."

"Hey, that's not a height joke, is it?" Susan asked, mocking anger.

"Not at all," I joked back.

"Good, I wouldn't want our first date to start out on a bad note," she smiled.

Ok, she said date... need to calm down.

"Kelly?" Susan brought me back to reality.

"I'm sorry, what did you say?" I recovered.

"I asked, if the restaurant had a dress code. I'm not really dressed for an elegant meal." She gestured to her clothes.

"You look great. Don't worry about it. Okay?" I smiled and winked at my dinner guest.

"Okay. Thanks, Kelly," she said to me.

"You're welcome. Now, let's go eat!" I said excitedly as I pulled out of the parking space.

"Sounds good," she agreed.


*~*~*~*

Kelly pulled the car up to the crab house, and I was extremely nervous. I know she'd said not to worry about paying for the meal, but I couldn't help it. I could never afford to eat in a place like this. I just hope I'm not just a charity case to her. I couldn't take that. I won't take that shit from anyone.

Not even her.

The engine was turned off, and she smiled as she got out of the car. Kelly walked around to my side and opened the door for me. I guess chivalry wasn't dead yet.

I smiled. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." She smiled back. "Are you hungry?" Kelly inquired.

"Very."

"Good, then let's get in there, because I'm starving!" she exclaimed.

We walked into the restaurant and the maitre d' smiled at Kelly.

"Ah, Ms. Cavanaugh, how nice to see you again," he said with a welcoming smile.

"Nice to see you, too. My regular table available?" Kelly gestured towards a table.

"Absolutely! As soon as you called, we made sure it was ready for you," he sucked up a bit more.

She must tip really well.

"Lead the way, Leonardo." Kelly motioned with her arm.

We walked past several tables, and I watched as heads turned as Kelly walked by. I didn't blame them one bit. She's a knockout.

What the hell was I doing here again?

"Susan?" Uh oh, I definitely missed something. The host sat me in my seat and I looked blankly at Kelly.

"Yes?" I said softly.

"Would you like something from the bar?" Kelly smiled.

"I'm not a really big drinker..." I was stopped by Kelly's smile.

God, how did she do that?

"Come on, it's the holidays. You sure you don't want some eggnog or something?" Kelly teased.

I capitulated. "Well, alright. I'll have a glass of Chardonnay."

"Two, please," she smiled at the waiter.

"Yes, right away, Ms. Cavanaugh," the jittery waiter said as he practically ran to get our drinks.

She really must tip very well.



Chapter Three

Dinner found me transfixed by Susan. I hung on every word she spoke. She talked of many different cities and places she'd gone for her job. She's done everything from feeding the hungry to staffing shelters for the homeless. She's more amazing to me now than ever. I watched as she happily ate every morsel of food in front of her. She had quite an appetite, and a playfulness in her eyes shadowed by a longing, perhaps for a time long gone. I wondered why the sadness plagued her so. Who would cause this woman such sorrow?

"Kelly?" Susan broke my reverie.

"Yes?" I replied with a smile.

"I've had a wonderful evening. I don't think I've enjoyed someone's company as fully as I have tonight with you," she admitted.

"I feel the same way. I wasn't sure if you'd feel comfortable eating with a stranger, but I took that chance. I'm glad that I did," I confessed.

"You weren't a stranger to me, I've seen you almost every day for weeks," the blonde woman challenged.

"Well, I guess that's true in a sense, but we really didn't speak until today," I retorted.

"Well, I've spoken enough for the both of us." She smiled. "Why don't you tell me a bit about you?" the brown-eyed girl asked.

God, what do I tell her about myself that I actually want to talk about?

Well, that ends this conversation.

Oh, shut up!

"Well, I work for Saks, down from where you work. I've been there a long time," I began.

"That must be why you dress so well." Susan almost blushed.

"Yeah, I have to look the part, I guess," I smirked.

"What do you do for them?" Susan asked.

I shrugged. "I'm a Regional Director."

"Wow, you are in charge of a lot of people then?" she questioned.

"Yes. I have about fifty stores that I'm responsible for. As you know, quite a few employees work in each store, too. It's been quite a challenge." I puffed out my chest with pride. I really loved my job.

"I bet it has. That's great that you seem to really like your job. I can't say that I always feel that way," said Susan honestly.

"After listening to you speak earlier, I would've thought that you were really happy," I said, confused.

"It's not that I don't like the job, per se; sometimes it just gets to be too much. There's so much sadness in people, especially the ones that I see. The ones that have the courage to keep going are the ones that I hope to model myself after. I really look up to them, if that makes any sense whatsoever." She paused and then started up again. "There was a time when I would have scoffed at people like the ones I work with," she said softly.

That genuinely interested me. "What happened?"

"My life did a one eighty," she said a little bitterly.

"I'm sorry, I don't mean to be nosy. We can talk about something else," I said as I looked at my watch and realized we had been sitting at this table for almost four hours. "Susan, it's getting kind of late, and as much as I really want our night to keep going, I have an early meeting tomorrow morning," I said regretfully.

"Sure, it's okay. I have to work in the morning, as well. You can just drop me off by my work. I can catch a train from there," she suggested.

I looked at her in disbelief. "Susan, it's after eleven. I wouldn't feel right sending you home on the train at this hour. Let me take you home," I said with concern.

"Well, I live right outside of the city. It'd take you about 30 minutes or so to get there. Are you sure you don't mind?" Susan asked shyly.

"No problem at all," I beamed.

I'd drive all night for you.

Do I hear warm fuzzy tones coming from you?

Oh, fuck off! I'm enjoying her company. A lot.

She could be good for you, Kelly.

No one should be that good.

We left the restaurant and headed back to the car. She walked slowly in front of me, and the wind was blowing her scent into my nose. She smelled so good. I didn't want our night to end. I wanted to get to know Susan more than I've ever wanted to know anyone.

What is it about you?


*~*~*~*

What's wrong with me? I can't stop wanting her to stay up all night with me. I can't believe she offered to take me home. Watching her all through dinner was making me rather twitchy. I can't tell how she feels. Is she looking for a friend? Or a friieennnddd? I am hoping for the latter.

She's incredible.

She seemed so interested while listening to my tale of woe. I don't know if I want to dredge up those feelings again. My parents abandoning me, is just not the kind of talk to precede foreplay.

Did I just say that?

Yes, ma'am you did. Ho.

Am not. She's just causing me to have feelings I haven't had in a very long time. I could use some casual sex in my life.

Yeah, because that's what you're all about. That damn casual sex girl.

Shut up! I know I'm not like that, but I'm feeling things for her that usually take a few weeks to feel.

Just admit that you really like her.

Yes, I do. Very much. I could get lost in those baby blues.

The car was so comfortable to sit in. The seats in the BMW were heated and hugged me. I forgot how much I liked those cars. Dad had a couple that I remember really liking. Too bad he loved his cars more than his own kid. I'm pretty sure he made my mom's decision for her. I really thought that we had a better relationship than that. She always said she wanted me to be happy. No one said that being gay wasn't in the equation.

"Where should I turn?" Kelly asked as we hit the split in the highway.

"Take a left and get on Touhy," I directed.

"Okay, just keep telling me when to turn." She smiled that beautiful smile at me.

Oh ,God, I'm so whipped.

"So do you have any plans for Christmas?" the blue-eyed woman asked.

I had no one I wanted to spend the holidays with. "No, not really. You?"

"I usually go to the movies," she admitted.

"Alone?" I couldn't believe she didn't have someone to share the holidays with.

"Yes, alone," she said rather sadly.

"Don't you have any family?" From the expression on her face, I could tell that I hit a nerve with that question. "I'm sorry, you don't need to answer that. I don't mean to pry," I apologized.

"No, don't worry about it." She continued to drive in silence. Finally, she spoke again. "My dad left when I was a little girl, I don't really remember him."

"I'm so sorry, Kelly."

Nice going, Susan. Why don't you rub some more salt in that wound?

"Thanks," she said quietly. "My mom died when I was seventeen. I've been on my own since then. I've actually worked for Saks since then," she revealed.

"Oh, God, I'm sorry, Kelly. Remind me to remove my foot from my mouth sometime later, okay?" I mentally kicked myself.

"Hey, you didn't know. Besides, I figured if I told you something about myself, you'd open up a little about what makes you so sad," she said softly.

"Oh..." I didn't know what to say. No one other than Carol really gave a shit about me and my life. "If you turn into the next drive, we'll be at my place. If you'll come up for a drink or something, we can talk more. Okay? I mean, if it's not too late for you?" I added, while pointing towards the parking lot.

"Sounds good to me," she beamed.

I swallowed. "Alright then."

She's coming up... oh, God.



Chapter Four

We walked from Kelly's car towards my building. I never expected to have her here. I hoped she knew what she was getting into. My studio apartment was barely big enough for me. Carol from work found this place for me when I was at my worst. I'll never forget how she found me. It seemed like so long ago.


*~*~*~*

"Hey, you okay?" the large woman asked.

"Who are you?" the shivering mouth chattered.

Carol smiled. "A friend. Can I get you something to eat?"

"Why? What do you want in exchange? I won't do nothing for it. I'd rather starve," the smaller woman spat. "I don't have any friends."

"Sure you do. I'm here, aren't I?" Carol attempted again.

"So you've said. I also told you, I'm not interested," Susan said rigidly.

"Well, there's a group of us willing to give you, and any of your friends around here, some food. We have a van around the corner. It's good and warm too, if you are interested," the larger woman finished.

The smaller woman just continued to stare at the older one. "Why are you doing this? You some sort of good deed doer? I'm not a charity case." She eyed the floor of her cardboard home.

"I'd never say that. I'm just offering a little Christmas spirit around here. If you're interested, we're right over on Lincoln Avenue." Carol pointed.

"Yeah, whatever. Give my best to St. Nick," Susan said bitterly.

Carol smiled down at the frail woman in front of her. "See you later, honey."

"I'm not your honey," she mumbled back.


*~*~*~*

"God, I was so mean to her. Hell, I was mean to everyone. I just didn't want anything from anyone. It's how I was learning to live," I said as I finished the beginning of my heart to heart with Kelly on my couch.

"I'm so sorry, Susan. It must've been so lonely and scary out there," Kelly whispered while staring around the small apartment. "Can I ask you a really personal question?"

"You can ask... but we'll see if I can or want to answer it." I was unsure what she wanted to know.

Like it matters. You'd tell her anything.

"What put you out there? The streets, I mean. You're so young. I guess I'm just really naïve to the idea of young people living in boxes in the city. You read about this stuff all the time, but... I don't know... I guess I don't know how it all happens."

"Hmmm..." I paused. Did I really want to talk about this? As much as it hurt to bring up, maybe it would make me feel better. "Well, I don't know if this is going to bother you at all, but I'm gay. I've known I was gay since... well, shit, I can't remember a time when I wasn't." I smiled at a grinning, nodding face.

"I can relate. Please, go on," she urged.

"Well, my mom and I had always had a great relationship. Or so I thought. I was nineteen when I kissed my first girl. I was a slow learner compared to some, I'm sure. I had finally found out what all the hype was about," I paused to take a sip of tea that I had made before we sat down. "I mean, I had kissed lots of guys, but there was never any kind of hoopla or fireworks, like people say happen all the time. Nothing. I thought I was defective or something." I chuckled with Kelly.

"Believe me, Susan, I thought the same things. I thought that I just wasn't doing enough of the kissing and touching thing. Well, before I knew it, I'd slept with some guy and I still had no idea of what pleasure was all about. Coming to terms with your sexuality is a really hard process. I wouldn't go through that hell again if you paid me to," Kelly said matter of factly.

"Yeah, well, neither would I. It amounted to more than that in my case, though. I started seeing this girl named Cindy. She was really wonderful. I thought I'd found the person I would grow old with. We were really good friends first, which made me happy. I'm not the kind of girl to jump in the sack with just anyone," I noted my own disappointment in that last statement. Maybe things wouldn't have been so bad had I just slept around for a bit.

"I can't say that I haven't had one night stands, unfortunately. They don't leave you feeling much of anything, though. I always felt so empty after them," Kelly admitted quietly.

"Do you still do that?" I asked, my interest peaked.

I noticed our bodies were touching slightly as we continued to speak like we'd known each other our whole lives.

"No... um... I uh... let's just say, it's been a while," she blushed.

"It's alright, Kelly," I said as I touched her leg. "Don't be embarrassed with me, I won't tell anyone." I smiled.

"Why shouldn't I be embarrassed with you? We barely know each other and here we are talking as if we've been friends since birth!" Kelly joked.

"I know, it's very odd to me as well," I agreed.

"Hey, I'm sorry. I get off on tangents. Please tell me about Cindy," she urged.

"Oh yeah. Well, we dated for about three months or so. We had it made, for the most part. Her parents didn't care if I slept over there, and mine loved Cindy coming over. That is, until they found out we were lovers." I paused.

Blue eyes widened. "Oh no."

"Oh yes," I finished.

"What happened?" Kelly asked.

"I told my mother and father that I was gay. I knew that I couldn't lie to them anymore. Like good loving parents, they said it was a phase and that I would get over it. Well, I didn't get over it. I told them that it was who I was, and I wasn't going to change. They told me that it was nonsense, and that women of the McGovern family got married, raised their kids, and lived like they did. I told them I wanted all of that. Just not with a man. They weren't very happy at all." I paused and took a deep breath. The feelings running through me were ones I had kept shut away for so long, I had forgotten how much they hurt.

"They told me that something was wrong with me and they would get me some help. My father was just so awful about it. He was so mean to me. He called me a mistake, and said that I shouldn't have been born. All the things that I never expected to hear out of my father's mouth."

"I'm so sorry, Susan. That must have been so hard for you," Kelly comforted as she put her hand on mine.

"Yeah, well, I found out the true colors of my father that day. I think my mom really wanted to understand. My father wouldn't let that happen. She either agreed with him, or she was no better than I was. It's obvious which choice she made," I took a deep breath, knowing the part of the story that was coming next. "They told me that if I was going to be a McGovern, I would get help, medical help, to heal the homosexual inside of me."

"Oh, Christ!" Kelly blurted out.

"I know. I couldn't believe it either. I was just about twenty years old, I had one year of college under my belt, and I had never had to work a day in my life. I knew I had no options at the time, so I agreed to go away on retreat with a group of other 'people like me' to get the help that I supposedly needed.

"Later that evening, I told Cindy what was happening. I knew she wasn't going to do anything about it; she was scared to death to tell her parents about her, too. We cried and cried, knowing that we would be apart for about six weeks or so. I guess my parents paid for the 'extra cleansing' package." I laughed bitterly. "Then I told my folks that Cindy was gonna sleep over before I went away, and they didn't think twice about it," I shrugged. "Why would they, right? Cindy and I had been friends a long time.

"Cindy came over that night. I had two beds in my room, in case of sleepovers and stuff. Well, we wanted to sleep together in my bed. My parents were supposedly asleep, and I really wanted to hold her. I knew that I wouldn't get to do that for a long time. Well, Cindy climbed into my bed and we started kissing. It got really hot and stuff, and our hands were all over each other. We stripped off our clothes and started to make love. Cindy tended to get a bit vocal when she reached, well, you know." I blushed in spite of myself.

"Mmhmm." Kelly giggled and sipped her tea, almost snorting the liquid out of her nose.

"So anyway, my mom was up watching TV in her room, she heard Cindy moaning and thought something was wrong. She burst into my room and found me on top of Cindy, naked and sweaty and still inside of her!" I exclaimed.

"Oh, Jesus! What a visual!" Kelly nearly shouted.

"Yeah, unfortunately, it was the beginning of the end for both of us." I slumped back on the couch.

Kelly leaned back with me. She turned to face me and placed her hand on my knee. "So, what happened to you?"

"After my mom screamed, my father burst into the room. I told my mom to close the door so we could get dressed, but she didn't, so my dad saw us both naked, too. It was really humiliating," I continued. "She finally closed the door, and Cindy and I were crying because we didn't know what would come next. It was all happening so fast."

"God, I can't even imagine dealing with that." Kelly said sadly.

"Cindy's parents were called by mine. They came to get her, and I wasn't allowed to see her again. I was the one who'd changed her. It was all my fault, I was the perverted one. So my parents kicked me out without any more than the clothes on my back. I had no job, I had no money, I had nothing," I said as the tears threatened to spill. "I went to anyone's house that I could think of, to see if I could stay with them for a while until I got a place of my own. I thought, 'No problem, I'll just get a job and get my own apartment.' It wasn't that simple. Every house I went to, my friends were either away at school, or their parents called mine to find out what had happened, and then they wouldn't let me stay there either. I was fucked with no kiss. Up shit creek with no paddles. You get the idea."

"Unfortunately, I do," she started. "I'm so sorry. I wish I could say more. I just..."

"Hey, don't worry about it. I'm still alive, I'm breathing, and feeling pretty good about myself now."

"How? How can you go through that and be alright?" Kelly was genuinely concerned.

How indeed?

"Well, after my resources ran out, I started getting into a bad scene: drugs, sex, the usual. I never thought that I'd let someone fuck me for money," I said with disgust. "I didn't have any choices. I couldn't get a real job. I had no clothes other than the ones I'd left with, and I hadn't had a shower in forever. It was hell. Luckily for me, it was summer going into autumn and it wasn't that cold out. I found a group of people that pretty much brought me down to the 'Heights'. It was a place they called home. I never knew why they called it that until I found out what kind of heights their drugs took me to. It was outside of the city and it was pretty safe. We hung out together and tried to take care of each other as much as possible. You'd be amazed how fast all your morals go down the toilet when you are scrounging for food. I stole when I could, from whomever I could."

Kelly sat with her head leaning against the cushions of the couch with unshed tears in her eyes. I heard her sniffle once or twice, but it was very hard for me to look at her as I recounted what had happened. This was the first time I had told this story in over two years. She continued to silently listen as her fingers brushed softly against the fabric on my pants.

"I continued to get high, a lot. It took some of the pain away. Not enough, unfortunately. I started to need more and more to keep the highs going. I'd lied to too many of the people that I was considering my friends, and they sent me away. They told me to get lost and to stay away from them if I knew what was good for me. Needless to say, I didn't know better. I went back begging for a hit... for anything. They beat the shit out of me. I was left to die, bleeding in an alley. Death would've been better than what the next years had in store for me.

"I lived in a cardboard box. I ate only if I could find something. I stood outside in the back of some restaurants and just waited for them to take out the trash. I never thought that I would be eating someone else's leftovers. I grew up in the North Shore for Chrissakes!" I shouted and waved my hands around. "I was a savage, for lack of a better term. I did what I had to do to survive. As much as I prayed the sun wouldn't come up on some days, it always did, much to my chagrin.

"One day, a woman came into view around Christmas time about two years ago. She was from ForOthers, Inc. They had a food van and were driving around giving food to those of us that needed it or just wanted to eat real food for a change. I was very reluctant to take their offered help, to say the least. The last time I hooked up with anyone, I got the shit kicked out of me. There was no way I was trusting anyone else." I paused to drink my almost cold tea.

"What changed your mind about... um, Carol? Was that her name?" Kelly asked, her eyes pinning me to my seat.

"Yeah, Carol. There was just something in her eyes that told me that she wasn't going to hurt me. She really was there to help. I finally gave in to her kindness. It only took about four weeks. Every day she came up to me and asked how I was and if I wanted anything to eat. She was relentless. I swear she was an angel in disguise. She came to me at a very critical time in my life. Sometime after I met her, I got really sick. I was hit with pneumonia. I thought for sure my number was up. Carol was right there for me. She got me into the clinic right off Randolph Lane, and they let me in, no problem. Normally, they wouldn't look twice at someone like me. Carol said that I worked for her, and they took me in. I was there for two weeks. I couldn't breathe without feeling like I had a brick for a lung. I lost more weight, if that was possible. They were afraid that I was gonna die just from malnutrition. Carol would have none of that. I didn't know why, but she took me in. She cared so much. She took care of me as if I was her own."

Kelly smiled. "She sounds like a wonderful woman."

"Yes, she was. She died last year from a heart attack." I could no longer hold back the tears that had been seeking release all night. "She was overweight and never even saw it coming. Before we could get her some help, she was gone." I started to cry. Kelly reached around me and held me to her. I had my head on her shoulder as she rubbed my head. God, she felt wonderful. I hadn't been held like this for as long as I could remember.

"Shhh... it's okay, Susan. It's okay... I'm right here," she soothed.

"I'm sorry, Kelly." I sniffled back more tears. "I can't remember the last time I felt the need to cry."

"It's all right. You go ahead, I don't mind," she said softly.

I heard her humming as she rocked me gently. I felt myself begin to calm down. I pulled back and wiped my face in embarrassment.

Kelly took my chin in her hands and smiled. You're a very beautiful woman, Susan, inside and out. Carol saw that, I'm sure of it. That's why she took care of you. She saw what I see," she continued.

"And what is it that you see, Kelly?" I questioned.

"I see a very strong and caring woman who has fought to be the person she is today. You sacrificed your comfortable life to be the person that you knew you were, even though that meant that you were put in death's alley. You fought to stay alive, and you won! She saw the fire in your eyes that I see. That fire keeps you going, Susan. It's the reason you weren't beaten. It's the reason that you help the people that you do on a daily basis. You are truly incredible," she smiled.

"I can only help the ones that will accept my help. There are so many people out there that are stubborn like I was, and won't take any handouts. Those are the ones I feel for. They are the ones that might not make it. I hate knowing that, and I'll do what I can to change their minds. I want to be for them what Carol was for me. After I was well, she gave me a job with ForOthers, Inc. She worked for them after she had been on the streets, as well. It's amazing how life comes full circle, you know? Knowing that there might be someone out there like I was, that I can help, I can't stop doing what I do," I said as the tears rolled down my cheeks.

"What about your parents? Have you heard from them at all?" Kelly asked, wiping my cheeks with her fingers.

I couldn't keep the anger from my voice. "Fuck them!" I spat. "They kicked me out. They didn't want me. She chose to stay with him instead of helping her own child, just because I was gay! What the hell kind of mom was she?"

"Shh... I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that," she said as she pulled me close to her again.

God, she smelled so good. Her arms around me felt as natural to me as my own skin.

She could be the one that Cindy wasn't.

I felt her kiss the top of my head and rest her cheek there. I knew that I might have said too much. She was so easy to talk to I couldn't help it. Once I started, I just couldn't stop. I hoped I wouldn't become just a sad story line character to her. I couldn't take that.

She isn't like that and you know it.

How do I know? We just met!

Ask your heart. She knows too.

My heart?

Yeah, you know, that thing that's beating incredibly fast because you're in Kelly's arms.

Oh, shut up.

"Susan?" Kelly said softly.

"I'm sorry, what?" I husked.

"It's almost 3 a.m. I hate to do this, but I really have to get going," she said as she continued to rub circles on my back.

"Oh, my God. I didn't mean to ramble on the way that I did. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make this out to be the 'Poor Susan Show'."

"Hey, I wanted to know about you. Remember? I asked."

I felt her voice vibrate into my body. I pulled back to look into her eyes, seeing only sincerity and compassion.

"Thank you for sharing your story with me. What are you doing tomorrow night?" Kelly asked.

"Nothing. It's Friday. I'm off all weekend. I usually just do laundry and some errands."

"Not tomorrow. I want very much for you to come out with me again. This time, I'd like for you to come to my home. I'd love to cook for you." She smiled that beautiful smile at me.

I grinned back at her. "You cook, do you?"

"Yes. I make homemade pasta and a killer Alfredo sauce. You game?" She arched her eyebrows and hope filled her eyes.

"I'd love to. But next time it's all about you. Deal?" I asked, hoping she knew what I meant. We untangled and stretched our cramped muscles as we stood for the first time in hours.

"Deal. It's my turn to share a little bit of me with you. I feel very honored that you shared your story with me, Susan. I'll take this with me to the grave. I won't ever break the confidence that you've placed in me. Thank you for inviting me up. I really had a wonderful time tonight."

"Me too. Thank you for coming here. I hope it didn't feel too cramped for you. There's barely enough room in here for me," I joked, and gestured around the one-roomed space.

She smiled. "It is very homey. There's a lot of you in this little place. I like that. You do a lot with what you are given. That's a rare gift. It's really nice to see."

I walked into the kitchen and rinsed our two mugs out in the sink, then walked Kelly to the door. "You want me to walk you to your car?" I asked.

"Nah, I'm a big girl. Besides, it's cold out there and you're nice and warm in here." She leaned closer and I felt my breathing hitch a bit. She reached out to me and I fell into her arms as if it were out of habit. We fit so well together. It was if we were two halves of a whole. Well, an uneven whole, being that our heights were a bit different. I didn't care, this felt more right than anything I had ever experienced.

We pulled apart and she gave me a lopsided smile. "I'm gonna pay for this tomorrow morning, that's for sure. I think my meeting is gonna be in the Guinness book for 'world's shortest board meeting,'" she laughed.

"Yeah, well there's no way I'm gonna fall asleep on the job tomorrow. I'm sure the wind will keep me wide awake!" I laughed back.

"Oh, God. How do you stand the weather?" she asked.

I reached up and pulled up my sweater so she could see my underclothes. "Long john's save my life." I grinned with her.

"I bet they do." We paused and just stared at each other for a little longer. "Well, I guess I should get going."

"Yeah, it's late. Tomorrow night, then?" I asked, trying to hide my excitement.

"Count on it." She winked. "Good night, Susan. Thank you for a wonderful evening."

"I don't know how you could say it was wonderful. I talked your ear off," I quipped back.

"And you have a beautiful voice." She leaned down and placed a gentle kiss on my cheek. "See you tomorrow."

A bit taken aback, I stuttered, "Y..yeah... I'll see you tomorrow. Goodnight, Kelly. Please drive safely."

"You got it. Bye," she waved.

With that, my mystery woman walked down the hall and out of the building. I closed the door and rested my body against it as it shut, drawing a deep breath and sighing contentedly. For the first time in my life I thought I'd found someone to fill the hole in my heart that'd been there since Cindy and I were last together.

I told you so.

Arghh!

Walking into my bathroom, I started getting ready for bed. I brushed my teeth and washed my face, and smiled at my own reflection. I walked over to the couch, pulled out my bed from underneath the cushions, and threw the blankets on the wrinkled sheets. I grabbed my pillows from behind the couch and flopped my body into bed. As much as I wanted sleep to claim me, I knew it wouldn't come anytime soon. I closed my eyes and said a small prayer of thanks to Carol. She was truly my angel, and she was definitely still working hard at her job.



Chapter Five

"So, after looking at the operational performance for 2000, everyone can see the need for the budgets for 2001 to be increased by 13%." The room groaned. "Is there something wrong, Baxter?" I leaned my tired frame against the wall of the boardroom.

"No. I can see our performance was on an upswing, and we should be able to achieve that goal this year," he conceded.

"Thank you. I had a feeling you would see it that way. We need to make drastic cuts with our labor, as well. We need more productivity from our managers. God knows we pay them better than most retailers; we should at least get our money's worth here. Our turnover was under 30% in 2000, which isn't bad actually, but we should try and get more retention from our floor people, as well. Does anyone have any ideas on how we can obtain a better retention percentage?"

I looked over the table of district managers on my team and saw many faces that I had hired off the street. It's nice to know these guys don't want to work for anyone else. A small, redheaded woman raised her hand.

"Yes, Marta?" I called out.

"I think if we made our bonus program an annual one versus a quarterly one, our managers may want to work longer for a better pay out."

"Very good, Marta. In fact, here is that plan. I'm glad you and I both recognized this. It was something I brought up with my bosses as well, and they liked the idea. So, here you go: annual bonus incentive for 2001 for our store managers," I repeated, passing out the new plans to everyone.

"Please look these over and keep a copy for yourselves. The stores will receive these in their next mail packs. Any questions about this?" Looking around, I saw no hands being raised. "All right, then, this meeting is adjourned," I said, looking up at the clock and noticing it was nearly two o'clock. Nearly famished from not eating, I rubbed my stomach in sympathy.

I hoped that I would wake up for tonight. I was really beat. I remembered when I could pull all nighters one after the other.

It's your age catching up with you.

Thanks, I needed that boost.

Any time, babe. I'm here for you.

Whatever.

Gathering my things from the boardroom, I went back into my office. I didn't see Susan this morning. I hoped she wasn't late on account of last night.

I'm sure she's just as tired as I am. We can make it an early night tonight. I'm finished for today as far as I'm concerned. I need to go the grocery for some last minute items for tonight, and maybe, just maybe, I can catch a nap before I pick her up.

Looking around one last time, I locked my office, walked through the store, and went outside to catch a cab.

I walked outside to see a shivering, familiar face. Crossing the street into the coffeehouse, I got some warm liquid for the chilly woman. Paying for the hot cocoa, I couldn't wait to give warm wishes to my new friend.

"Hey, I didn't see you this morning. I hope you weren't late because of me," I greeted.

"Hey, how are you?" Susan beamed. Her eyes were a bit dark from lack of sleep, but still had lots of sparkle to them as she spoke to me. "I missed my train by like two minutes. Then it took me forever to get a cab. It's my own fault. I thought my snooze button was a house fly, and I kept swatting it over and over." She smiled.

Smiling back, I replied, "You still up for tonight? We can make it another night if you are too tired. I'd certainly understand if you chose to do that," I said, giving Susan a way out if she wanted it.

"Absolutely not! And miss the story of Kelly Cavanaugh? Not on your life! I wouldn't miss this for anything in the world." Susan stopped for a second. "Unless you are too tired, and you want to postpone dinner. That's fine if you're beat. I'd also understand," Susan smiled.

"Listen to us... jeez! No, I want you to come to my house for dinner tonight. If you'd still like to come, I'll pick you up after work. What time do you get off?"

Susan's face took on one of mischief and I hoped I remembered to ask her what she was thinking. "I'll get out of here at around six o'clock tonight. Does that work for you?" Susan asked.

"Six is great for me. I'm gonna head out to the grocery and pick up some last minute ingredients and then head on home. I may even get some time in for a quick siesta," I said with a guilty smile.

"You big cheater! God, I'd give my left eye tooth for a nap right about now," Susan whined playfully.

"I'm sorry, how about some nice hot cocoa for you instead? It'll keep you warm and give you a sugar boost all in one." Handing her the warm cup of cocoa, I had to laugh at Susan's response.

"Oooh!" Susan squeaked. "Thank you so much! God, it's really cold today, this is just perfect. Thank you, Kelly. That was very sweet of you."

"Yeah, well, don't let that get around." I smirked.

"Don't worry." Susan smiled as she sipped her cocoa. "Boy, this hits the spot."

"I'm glad. Listen, I don't mean to run like this, but I've got some cooking to do for a very special friend of mine. I've got to get going," I teased.

"Oooh, a special friend eh? What's she like?" Susan teased back.

"You'd hate her-she's hairy, she drools, and she chews with her mouth open," I explained with a straight face.

"What?" I could tell she was a bit confused. "I don't do that!"

"I know, but my dog, Mattie, does!" I couldn't help but laugh at her incredulous expression. "You do like dogs, I hope," I continued.

"I love dogs. I had a few when I was living in the great outdoors. Many strays kept me warm at night. I welcome most four legged animals... well, except rats." Susan grimaced.

"Ew, I'm not big on them either. Don't worry. She's a yellow lab that looks nothing like a rat." I beamed. "All right, I'm gonna get going. I'm really looking forward to this evening, Susan."

"Good, so am I," the brown-eyed woman replied.

Until I was able to flag a cab, Susan and I continued with our small talk. Waving as I got in the taxi, Susan winked her response.

Kelly smiled a giddy smile. "Tonight is definitely going to be fun."



Chapter Six

"Pine and Churchill, please," I said to the cabby.

"Yes, ma'am. I know the way. I take you many times before," the foreign man explained.

"Thank you."

I was really nervous inside. I hoped that my house wasn't going to be too much for Susan. She's had such a hard life and my house isn't exactly small. I could fit six of her places into my house. She came from money, though, so hopefully she wouldn't think I was trying to show off. That certainly wasn't my intention.

The cab pulled into my driveway and I got out and paid my dues with a healthy tip for the driver.

"You live so close, miss, why you don't drive to work?" the kind driver asked me.

"You've seen the cars on the street right?" I asked.

"Yes."

"So you've seen the condition of them, then."

"Yes."

"There isn't a parking garage near my office."

"I see," he agreed.

"Well, you don't need to ask me why I don't drive to work then," I smiled.

He smiled back at me and just nodded as I opened my garage with the remote on my key chain and my BMW came into view. "I see your point. I would take a cab, too."

"Good man. Thanks for the ride," I said as I paid him.

"Have a good day, miss." He waved with a wink.

"Thanks," I replied and walked through my garage and into my house.


*~*~*~*

"Woof!"

"Hey, girl! How are you?" I said, rubbing Mattie's head. "You have to go out?" I asked, knowing full well what the answer would be.

"Woof!"

"Come on, let's get out back," I said, leading my pup to the kitchen's back door.

Looking around my kitchen I noticed, probably for the first time in a long while, how large my home was. I guess after seeing Susan's home the night before, it made me realize how fortunate I really was. Even after Mom died, I didn't have to worry about money. She'd left me some, but I was employed and it just wasn't a problem. I worked my way up the corporate ladder and made a bit more in salary with each rung that I reached. So many people never even make it to the ladder itself.

I watched Mattie run around without a care in the world; she was beautiful when she ran. I wish I had a dog's life. What could there possibly be to worry about? When I was going to take my nap? I think I could handle that.

"Mattie! Stop digging!" I shouted through the screen door.

She looked up at me like, 'oops, busted' and started running back towards the house. "Come on in here, girl." I laughed at her expression. People say that dogs don't have expressions, but Mattie sure does. She smiles, she frowns, and she can even say 'fuck you' with her eyes, if she feels the need. That's usually around the time when I wake her from one of her naps to go out for the last time of the night. That's always amusing for me.

"Good girl, Mattie. Are we gonna have company tonight? I'm gonna introduce you to a wonderful woman named Susan. I think you're really going to like her, Mattie," I continued as I pet my baby. "She's blonde, just like you, and come to think of it, she has dark brown eyes like you, as well. No wonder I'm attracted to her." I laughed as Mattie looked at me, and I would swear she rolled her eyes at me.

"Let's see what we need for dinner, okay?" I asked my tail-wagging friend, and began to inspect my cabinets for the correct ingredients for my Alfredo sauce.

I opened my refrigerator and saw that I needed whipping cream and more butter. Opening and closing three or four more cabinets, I found the pasta maker that my cleaning lady must have hidden on me. I love her to death, but she likes things her way, and sometimes it makes me crazy when I can't find anything.

I wrote down the rest of the things that I needed from the grocery, and grabbed my coat and keys. Mattie's tail stopped wagging when she realized I was leaving again.

I rubbed her head as I spoke. "It's okay, girl, I'll be back in less than half an hour, I promise." I walked into the garage, got into my car, and left for the grocery.



Chapter Seven

Preparing the last of the pasta, I danced around the kitchen. Only thing left was the sauce and that needed to wait until we were ready to eat. I looked up at the clock and saw it was almost five thirty.

"Holy shit! I have to get ready and pick up Susan. Damn, time got away from me," I cursed as I ran from the kitchen upstairs to my bedroom and right to my closet. I pulled a pair of loose fitting jeans and a burgundy V-neck sweater, threw on some socks and my Doc Martins, and ran into the bathroom. I brushed my hair and teeth and applied a small amount of make up. I looked at my flushed reflection and realized that I was actually nervous about tonight.

What if she doesn't like me like that?

You mean, what if she does?

I don't know what I mean, I just know that I want her to spend time with me. I'm comfortable around her. I...

You like her.

Yes. I like her. So what?

So nothing. Just let things go at their own pace. You may find that you want her around for longer than a couple of nights.

No more matchmaker talk. I gotta go, I'm gonna be late.

I sprayed the tiniest mist of Picasso on my neck and ran back downstairs. I clicked off the stereo, grabbed my leather jacket and ran out the door to pick up my date.

Your date?

Yeah, my date. That's enough out of you. I mean it.

Oh, yes, ma'am.

I groaned, knowing that wouldn't be the end of this conversation. I just wish I knew when these talks would end. I got in my car and made my way down the driveway to pick up Susan.


*~*~*~*

Driving towards town, my stomach was completely in knots. I was really nervous about Susan hearing my life story. I wasn't really sure how much she'd want to hear. I guessed I'd find out soon enough.

Parking the car out in front of Susan's employer, I saw her shining smile the minute I looked up from the street. Getting out of the car, I walked around to her side.

"Hey," I greeted with a smile.

"Hi there," Susan replied with a large grin.

"I hope I didn't keep you waiting long. I got caught up with dinner preparations. How are you feeling?" I asked.

"I'm feeling much better, now that I have the next couple days off," she beamed.

"I'm with ya there. Are you ready?" I asked, hinting towards the car with my head movement.

"Absolutely! I'm really hungry. I can't wait to eat your masterpiece," she teased.

"Trust me, you'll eat like you've never eaten before." I stopped, hoping that my last statement wasn't completely true. Although it probably was.

"Well, what are we waiting for?" Susan said excitedly as she got in my car.

"Me, I guess." I laughed as I ran around the car to the driver's side.

We drove out of the uptown area and back towards my house. Out of the corner of my eye, I quietly watched Susan eyeing the streets we passed. I wondered what she was thinking.

"Penny for your thoughts," I softly said.

"My uh... my parents, used to live around here. I was just wondering if they were still in my old house. I don't know why. I could really give two shits," she said with a bite in her voice.

I think she cares more than she wants to admit. There's plenty of time to explore that. No need to ruin our night. "Oh, really?" I responded lamely.

"Yeah. If you take a right at this next road you'd be on my old street," she remarked sadly.

"Do you want me to drive down that road? We don't have to stop, we can just drive by," I suggested.

Susan was stunned at my suggestion and looked at me with childlike eyes. After we had almost passed the street, I heard her squeak out, "Could we?"

Without screeching too badly, I managed to slow the car enough to make the turn. We drove down a lovely street and I was very impressed with the houses we passed.

"Which one is it?" I asked unsure that she would respond.

"It's 220. The mailbox is the little log cabin on the left."

I heard her breathing hitch as I slowed down a bit more for her to see her childhood home. It was a beautiful house, a borderline mansion. Her folks must have had a lot of money.

"It's a beautiful house, Susan." I turned to find her with tears in her eyes. "Oh, Susan, I'm sorry. If I'd known this would make you cry, I never would've suggested we drive by. I'm so sorry," I said as I took her hand.

I felt her squeeze mine back. "I didn't think I would." She paused. "I honestly didn't know how I was going to react. It's been so long since I've thought about this house being my own, that I don't really know how I'm feeling at all," she admitted.

"I can understand that," I said as we paused a bit longer to take another look.

"Thank you," she said.

"You're welcome, Susan. Let's go home." The words were out of my mouth before I could stop them.

She didn't seem to hear me.

Lucky you.

Go away!

Bitch.

Bite me.

"Kelly?" Susan's tiny voice invaded my sparring match.

"Yes, sweetheart?" I said before I could stop.

I gotta stop doing that.

"I really appreciate you taking me there. I've wanted to see the house for a while. I just didn't have nerve to go back. I guess I was just afraid I'd see one of my parents and go off the deep end again," she admitted.

"Hey, don't worry about it. If I can help you work through that at all, please know that I'm here for you," I said earnestly.

"Thank you... thank you for being my friend." She smiled, her eyes bright with unshed tears.

"You're very welcome. Now let's go eat!" I said excitedly.

"I'm all for that. Drive on!" Susan gestured with her hands.

We drove the next couple of miles hand in hand and in comfortable silence. I knew the rest of the night would be much easier for us after we got out of this car. Food was always something I could make people smile with. I couldn't wait to see her expression when she took her first bite.

Bite of what?

Oh, for the love of Mary...



Chapter Eight

We pulled up slowly into my driveway and I could feel the tension in Susan had subsided some. I was grateful that our little trip down memory lane wasn't too upsetting for her. I would've felt like total shit for upsetting her like that. Turning off the engine, I faced my guest. "You ready to meet the other woman in my life?" I smiled.

She looked at me for a second with uncertainty and then smiled back. "Yes, I forgot for a second who you were speaking of. I can't wait to meet... Mattie was it?" Susan hazarded.

God, I love a woman with a good memory.

You just love a woman with big...

Don't say another word.

"Yes," I smiled back. "Her name's Mattie. You've a good memory."

"Yeah, well, I do my damndest." She fluttered her dark brown lashes at me and I almost sighed out loud.

"Let's go in, shall we?" I suggested.

She smiled at me. "Lead the way."

Stepping out of the car, I walked around to her side. She started to get out and I reached for the door handle. "Hey, I got it." I smiled sweetly at her surprised expression.

"Thank you, kind lady." She bowed as she stood from the car.

We giggled and headed towards the door leading into the house. I opened the door and the wonderful smells from my kitchen filled her nostrils.

"Oh, that smells heavenly."

"I'm glad you think so. I can't wait for you to taste it," I said excitedly.

I heard the 'clickity clack' of Mattie's nails on the wood floor as she approached happily. She saw that I'd brought company and her tail started flailing around.

"Hey, girl! I told you I had someone I wanted you to meet!" I said in my mommy voice as I pet my pup behind her ears. "Susan, this is Mattie. Mattie, say hi to Susan," I introduced.

"Hey there, girl. Your momma's told me all about you. I'm so glad to meet ya," Susan said as she let Mattie sniff her out. As soon as Mattie felt that Susan was all right, she rubbed against her as if she were a cat. Susan smiled and crouched lower to pet Mattie. This was not a smart move on her part. Mattie thought that anything on the floor was fair game, so Susan went down and was assaulted by a wet, slimy tongue that unfortunately wasn't mine.

I can't believe I just thought that.

You know you meant it, too.

Go away!

"She's beautiful, Kelly." My guest smiled at me. She was clearly enjoying the attention. I think they both were.

"Thank you. You hear that, you big lug? She likes you. I guess your kisses helped," I smiled at the two girls, hoping against hope that I too would get the opportunity to also kiss that beautiful face.

Oh yeah, you're in trouble.

Stop!

I cleared my head and remembered the sauce that needed to be made. "Would you like a tour of the kitchen? There's some wine in the refrigerator," I offered.

"That'd be lovely, thank you. Come on, girl, let's go see what your momma has conjured up in that kitchen of hers." Susan smiled as Mattie stayed at her side.

Traitor.

Yeah, but look who she gave you up for.

True. Now go away. Please?

Fine...

We walked into the family room and I watched as Susan looked around with appreciation in her eyes. The sunken room was my favorite part of the house. I had my entertainment center in there and a large leather pit group that allowed me many nights of utter bliss in its comfort.

She smiled. "This room is beautiful, Kelly. I bet you spend most of your time in here. God knows I would."

"Yeah, it's my favorite room in the whole house. I've spent many nights on this couch. It swallows you up before you even have time to put up a fight." I laughed.

Susan smiled brightly at me in return. "So what can I help with? Is dinner nearly ready? It smells just wonderful," she commented.

"Well, I just have to finish my sauce, and the pasta is in its warmer, so I guess if you'd like to toss the salad, we'll be all set."

"I can do that. But first, how's about that wine you told me about." She waggled her eyebrows, and I was unable to resist the laugh that came out of my throat.

"You looked absolutely adorable when you did that," I said, hoping she wouldn't be offended or embarrassed.

Shyly she replied, "Thanks."

I could see her face flush and her smile broadened. My heart lurched with emotion at this display, and I hoped that I could make it through dinner without choking or being busted for staring too long at my guest.

Susan tossed the salad with ease and I finished with the rest of the preparations. I strolled into the dining room to put the finishing touches on the ambiance for the night, then poked my head back into the kitchen. "Shall we eat?"

"Please. It has been torture for me to wait with all of this food around me." She giggled and I couldn't help but giggle with her.

I watched her go towards the kitchen table, but I stopped her and motioned towards the dining room right behind me.

"I thought it would be nicer to eat in here." I paused. "I hope you like it," I said as I bit my lower lip in anticipation.

I watched her face as she slowly walked towards the dining room doorway. A small gasp escaped her lips as she saw the candles burning on the table, set intimately for two.

"Wow... Kelly, this is beautiful. You didn't have to go to so much trouble... just for me," she said meekly.

I walked up behind her and whispered in her ear, "But I wanted to do this... just for you." I gestured at the table. "Please, take a seat." I felt a tremor run through her body as I placed my hands on her shoulders to show her to her seat. Whether it was voluntary or not, I was glad to know I wasn't the only one with that feeling racing through my veins.

We sat down and she immediately dug into the pasta. I watched her face as she seemed to savor her first bite with much passion. It was thoroughly arousing to watch her eat like that. She closed her eyes and groaned with pleasure.

"Oh... my... God... I have never tasted anything like this before. Oh... Kelly..."

My heart was racing as I heard her moaning my name like that. "So... you like it?" I joked, knowing full well what the response was gonna be.

"Like? Oh, nononononono... it's way beyond that point. This is just obscene! This is the best pasta I've ever eaten. God, it just melts in your mouth. Do you make this sauce from scratch? This is no sauce mix... I could tell that in a heartbeat..." Her body and voice were getting extremely animated as she described the food I'd made for her while she continued to eat with gusto. Seeing her this comfortable and open was something I could really get used to.



Chapter Nine

Dinner filled us completely and we sat with our empty plates in front of us for several minutes, waiting for it to start digesting.

"Oh, I can't move! I can't remember ever enjoying a meal so thoroughly before. I have to say your gift for narration is exquisite," I joked.

"I'm sorry, Kelly. I've always had the gift of gab, especially when something affects me deeply. That food was incredible. Thank you again for going to so much trouble," she said, looking deeply into my eyes.

I grinned. "You're welcome, Susan. I'm just glad you liked it so much. I would've been afraid to ask you out again if you thought I would poison you with my culinary skills."

"No way, that was terrific. Would you mind if we went into the next room to sit for a bit? I'm feeling a little overstuffed," she asked with a grin.

"Sure, I'll turn on the stereo and we can just relax with some music or whatever," I suggested.

Susan smiled as she stood. "That sounds great. Should I worry about your music choices?"

"No, I think you'll be all right. I have a large variety, so if you'd feel better, you can pick the selection," I offered.

"Oh, no, I trust you. You go ahead. I think I need to visit the restroom, though. Could you give me directions?" Susan teased.

"Of course. Go down the hallway, and it's the second door on your left. I'll be in the family room," I replied, as I started removing the dishes from the table.

"Oh, please, Kelly, let me help you clean up," Susan asked.

"Absolutely not! I'm not cleaning; I'm putting dishes into the sink. That's all, I promise. I'm too full to do anything else," I laughed.

"All right, I'll see you in a bit."

I smiled. "Okay."

Watching Susan walked down the hallway, I just continued to smile. I was really enjoying myself. It'd been a while since I spent an evening with someone when I was thinking about more than just sex. Allowing myself to feel anything was more like it.

After taking the last of the dishes and depositing them into the sink, I walked into the family room and crossed down to the stereo to decide what to listen to. I was a fool for the classics and old jazz. I hoped she liked them as well.

I turned on the stereo and then stretched out on the leather sofa. I threw my feet up on the coffee table, feeling the food work its way through my body. I was full and very sated. Susan returned from the bathroom and found me with my eyes closed and resting, with Louie Armstrong coming from the stereo. He sang of green trees and red roses. What a wonderful world indeed.

"I haven't heard this song in so long. My parents loved old jazz," she said with a small smile.

"It doesn't bother you, does it? I can change it if you'd prefer," I offered.

"No... it's fine. It just took me by surprise to hear it," she said as she sat next to me on the sofa.

Her knees parted briefly and her leg touched my own. I didn't move and neither did she. I felt more comfortable with her than I had in many years. How does one person, who was no more than a stranger to me before yesterday, control my emotions on such a deep level? I hadn't felt this open and content with people I've known for years!

"So, how long have you lived here, Kelly?" Susan asked as she turned her head to look at my face.

"I've lived here almost two years. I moved here after I got my promotion to Regional Director," I explained.

"How exciting for you. You must really love what you do to take it to the level that you're at," she stated.

"Yes, I do. I've always loved working with people. Retail gives you more than one opportunity to do that," I chuckled. "I like the interaction. The perks in this position are pretty good too." I waggled my eyebrows. I hoped that didn't sound like bragging. I didn't invite her here to do that at all.

"I can see that. This house is beautiful. I could bathe in the sink in your powder room," she laughed. It seemed as though she was okay with that comment. I needed to make a mental note to watch what I said about money.

"I think I'd pay to see that," I said out loud before I could stop myself. I had no idea what to expect as her reaction.

"Would you?" Susan asked in a deep tone with her eyes focused on mine.

I found it very sensual. "Indeed I would," I said, not looking away at all. I matched the sensuality, and saw her face redden as she turned away.

"So, how about telling me a bit more about you?" Susan requested, no longer meeting my gaze. The coloring of her face had gone back to normal.

"Ah yes, this was the Kelly show tonight, right?" I laughed quietly.

"Yes, that was the plan. I think I shared enough with you last night to warrant some insight into your life. What do you think?" She gazed timidly into my eyes.

I nodded slowly and thought about where to start. Leaning over to grab my wineglass off of the coffee table, I took a sip to moisten my suddenly dry mouth.

"Well, what part would you like to know about? My mom's death? My dad's departure? My love life or lack thereof? Well, actually, I used to have a string of love lives, perhaps you'd like to hear about that one? Pick a topic, any topic," I said a little too playfully.

She looked up into my eyes and took my hand in hers. "It hurts you a lot to talk about those things doesn't it?" Susan's eyes were burning into me. I couldn't look away.

"Yes..." I whispered. "How did...?" I knew she was perceptive, but come on.

"Anyone that makes light of things that serious tends to have a lot of pain behind the smile they show," she spoke softly.

God, she's amazing. It's no wonder I'm drawn to her.

She's got your number all right.

"Well, I guess I can give you a bit of all of that. It all pretty much makes me who I am today." I rubbed her fingers softly. I threw some perception back at her. "You are very strong willed, Susan. Not many would call my bluff like that. You didn't even flinch."

"I'm used to people with sadness in their lives. I see it every day, Kelly. And just like them, I'd like to do whatever I can to help you, if you want me to, that is." She offered services I wasn't exactly sure I needed.

"What makes you think...?" I started.

"That you need help? I'm not saying that you do. I'm just offering an ear and perhaps a shoulder. I bet you haven't entrusted your heart to many, especially not about subjects like these," she guessed.

"There was one..." I began. I couldn't believe I was talking about this. I swore I would never breathe her name again.

Susan's grip tightened around my fingers and I was helpless to fight off her gentle gaze.

"We met at a work conference about seven years ago. Her name was Julie Adams. We both worked for Saks and were both climbing the same ladder of success. We clicked immediately. We spent so many hours just talking after meetings and such. We even stayed a few extra days in the hotel just to hang out and talk. I thought that I had truly met the other half of my soul. I know now that I was severely mistaken." I paused to drink another gulp of wine. "I opened up to her more than I had with anyone in my life. I told her things that no one else knew. I told her about my mom, my dad... she even held me as I cried when retelling these stories. God, what a fool I was," I said bitterly.

Susan's eyes never left mine. "What happened?"

"She fucked me, literally and figuratively... and yes, in that order," I said bitterly.

Susan flinched. "I'm sorry, Kelly. How um... did she..?" Susan began.

"The figurative part?" She nodded. "Well, after we'd become lovers, which was only four days after meeting, we knew our relationship was going to be hard, because I lived here and she did as well. There were work ethics that were being compromised since we were heading towards the same ultimate goal. I told her that I didn't want to sever what we'd started, so I'd keep my mouth to myself, so to speak, and she agreed to do the same. Hell, I was in love with her! There wasn't much I wouldn't have done for her. Well, the company wasn't very open about the 'gay element' working for them at the time, so we were discreet and pretty much kept our relationship a secret. I'd have her over to my house every once in a while, but she said she had a roommate that was against the whole thing, so we never hung out at her place. She would just come over when her coast was clear, and we'd make the most of our time together.

"We were together almost a year when our next conference came up. I'd asked to be roommates again. People used to do that all the time with people they knew within the company. Nothing's worse than spending four days with a complete stranger in a hotel room. But she was unsure of whether we should or not." Susan managed a tiny grin. "So, when I arrived in Seattle and walked into my hotel room, I was surprised when I found someone else there and not Julie. I looked at this woman and asked where Julie was or was there a mistake, blah blah blah, and she said this was her room assignment and we were in fact roommates.

"I went down to the concierge of the hotel and asked which room Julie was staying in and if she'd arrived yet. She hadn't, so I waited in the lobby for her to arrive. About an hour or so passed and I was getting very hungry and antsy, so I decided to get something to eat in the restaurant of the hotel until she arrived.

"I walked into the bar area and I saw her on a bar stool. I started to approach her until I saw a man walk up to her and kiss her quite passionately." I paused as I felt the same lurching in my gut as I did back then. Susan's fingers caressed my hand as I tried to compose myself. "I looked at her with disbelief in my eyes. I thought I was gonna throw up. I didn't quite know what to do. I watched their exchange a little bit longer and left the bar area altogether."

"Did she see you?" Susan asked softly.

"No, she was a little distracted at the time," I answered. "I didn't say a word to her until later that night. There was an awards ceremony that evening. She showed up dressed to the nines walking on the arm of the same guy from the bar. She was beaming until she saw me staring at her. She just took one look at me and winked," I said, feeling the emotions begin to build.

"She winked at you? What the hell was that about?" Susan asked, a bit annoyed with that revelation.

"At first I wasn't sure what it meant. Later in the evening, I found out full well. For that last year I'd been coaching her on her job skills, and did everything I could for her. I was so over my head in love, I couldn't see the daylight in front of me. She really wanted to move up in the company, and I was gonna do everything in my power to help her achieve that. These award ceremonies were to show new talent or up and coming promotion opportunities, and so forth. I'd been up for the regional position and I knew it. They announced their candidates for the position, and I wasn't on the list, but Julie was,"

"No fucking way! I can't believe that!" Susan almost yelled.

"It's true. Not only did she use me for my knowledge to move up in the company, but also she'd been lying to me for the entire year about her marital status. The guy on her arm was her husband. He had come to escort his lovely, successful wife to this dinner. It was the only event when the company allowed spouses to come along. It all became clear to me why we could never hang out at her place, or God forbid, pick her up from her home! I never once stepped foot into her home!" I spat.

"Jesus! I can't believe her!" Susan yelled with me.

"I'm not finished, though. The worst thing about all of this was, she lied to our vice president and said I'd been hitting on her to get where I was. It wouldn't do to have a gay Regional Director, you know." I silenced Susan's outrage with a finger on her lips. "They believed her on top of all of that. I'd been their slave for almost five years, and yet they believed this woman who'd been with us for only two years, because she had what I didn't; she had an acceptable social lifestyle.

"I couldn't believe she had done this to me after everything we'd been through. I never thought I'd want to hear the words I love you ever again. She hurt me so badly on so many levels with those words, I just didn't know what to do next." I sighed and collected myself while wiping the now falling tears from my face.

"Here..." Susan handed me a Kleenex from the box on the end table.

"Thanks." I blew my nose and took a deep breath.

"How could you work for a company that showed you no support whatsoever? You knew that's not what happened," she said.

"Yes, but I wanted to have them hear me out before I made my final judgment. Luckily for me, Julie fucked up big time before I had that talk with my supervisors. I was gonna go under the lamp with Human Resources, too, because hitting on co-workers is not allowed, especially if it's an unwelcome advance. You know, the old sexual harassment?" Susan nodded. "Well, luckily for me, Julie let everyone know that she was a liar, so I never had to take a stand on that," I continued.

"What happened?" Susan asked, truly involved with my tale.

"Well, the next week we were supposed to submit our figures and plans for the upcoming year. I had implemented a plan in my area that was going to be considered for the company's use. It's a huge deal if corporate chooses one of your ideas to roll out within the entire company. I knew that my plan had a great chance of becoming that next "new idea." Well, when it came time to send in my plan, I had; and the next day, my boss called me across town to talk about it. I was really excited, so I sped right over there to see if my labor plan was gonna be considered. I sat in his office and he sat at his desk with an indifferent expression on his face.


*~*~*~*

"Jack? Is there something wrong?" Kelly asked.

"Yes, Kelly, unfortunately something is very wrong," he finished.

"Well, what is it? We don't pull punches with each other, what's going on?" Kelly asked bluntly, as she always had with him.

"Someone has told me something very unnerving about your labor plan," he said, steepling his fingers together.

"What do you mean?" she asked, getting a bit upset at what was sounding like an accusation.

"My sources tell me that you stole this idea from another leader in our division," he stated clearly.

"What?! You cannot be serious, Jack!" Kelly's temper was rising quickly. "You've known me for five years! I've done nothing but help this company out whenever possible. It's bad enough I got passed up because of some lies, but now I'm being accused of stealing my own idea? I just want to get this straight," Kelly spat back at him. "Whose idea is this, supposedly?"

"That's precisely what I'm talking about. You're angry with Julie since we decided to go with her instead of you. Now you've stolen one of her ideas to make yourself look better!"

Who's dick is she impaling herself on now? Kelly thought to herself. I think I'm looking at her latest victim.

"Jack, can I ask you a question?" she asked.

"Of course." He smiled fakely.

"Where are the plans we sent you? Are they still on e-mail, or have you printed them out?"

"I haven't printed anything. I wanted to get down to the bottom of this before I gave anyone a hard copy of the proposal," he explained.

"Where is Ms. Adams now? Is she close?" Asking smugly, Kelly knew she was going to have fun with this one.

"Actually, she's in the building. I brought you both here to question you about this whole thing," he answered.

"Good. Bring her in here. Now," she demanded.

His eyes went wide with question. "What?"

"I said bring her in here now. I think I'll have your answer in a few minutes if you'll do me the courtesy," Kelly responded sweetly.

"Fine." He reached to his intercom and asked his secretary to ask Ms. Adams in.

Shortly thereafter, Julie strode cockily into his office and sat next to Kelly without even looking in her direction.

"Hi, Jack, you wanted to see me?" Julie smiled innocently.

"Yes. I wanted you both here to get to the bottom of this," he stated flatly, though his eyes said otherwise.

Bastard, Kelly thought.

"Fine. What would you like to know?" Julie smiled.

"Well, first off, I want to know how you know that Kelly stole this idea from you and not the other way around," Jack said with a smile.

"Well, I just figured my numbers would speak for themselves here. My costs have gone down considerably with this plan of mine. How else could this have happened?" she innocently responded.

"How about my coaching you for the last year? How about that Julie! You'd never be where you're at right now if I hadn't helped you over the last year!" Kelly continued to plead her case. "My numbers are better than yours are anyway!" she finished, knowing she was going to get nothing for her troubles.

"Oh, Kelly, come on. A few helpful tips don't change things the way my labor development plan affected things. It's bad enough I had to deal with all of your advances during..."

Kelly had had quite enough. It was time to pull her trump card. "Jack? Let me ask you one question. What is my signature on any document that I send you via e-mail?" she watched Julie shift uncomfortably in her chair.

His eyes got wide like saucers once it sank in what she was saying to him.

"Print them," she snarled.

Jack turned to his computer and brought up my file and then brought up Julie's. He printed out both documents and instantly Kelly knew she had won.

"What do you see, Jack?"

Come on, I need to see her God damned face! Kelly thought truiumphantly.

"Yes, Jack, what do you see?" Julie said, very nervously.

"Kelly's watermark," he said, defeated.

"Her what?" Julie shouted.

"My watermark, you lying piece of..." Kelly stopped her words before she couldn't contain all she wanted to say to Julie. She threw the document in Julie's face and watched her stare at the page, knowing she was soon going to be out of a job. "I put a watermark on every document I send so that there's no mistake of who it belongs to. When you so lovingly stole that file from my computer, you took it in all its glory," Kelly gritted through bared teeth. "I hope you had your fun at the top, or should I say 'on top'?" she whispered the last part in Julie's ear with as much controlled anger as she could conjure up.

Redirecting herself to Jack, Kelly said,"I demand that a full investigation take place. I'll be calling Human Resources immediately to start the hearings," she turned her head to look at the forlorn face of Julie. Nothing made her happier than to see justice happen at her own hand.

"Bitch," Kelly whispered.

"I will call a meeting first thing in the morning. As for you, Ms. Adams, you are suspended until further notice. You may leave," he said as she stood without saying a word and quietly left the room.

"Yes!" Kelly muttered, mentally pumping her fist.


*~*~*~*

"I can't believe she did that to you. She really wasn't a nice person," Susan added as I finished my walk down memory lane.

"Yeah, she was a peach all right. Best thing was that the company didn't approve of Jack's involvement with Julie, so he was let go as well. His position came open, so there was a Regional Director's chair up for the taking. I didn't get it, though," I explained.

"What? After all of that crap you'd gone through, they didn't even have the decency to promote you?" Susan asked excitedly.

"No, but I got a full apology from the vice president, the president, and all of my colleagues that had known that I would never behave in that fashion. And, this time I knew the person they did hire for the job, and she was more than qualified for the spot. I worked very closely with her and I learned a whole lot more than I thought I'd needed to. They were right in not promoting me at the time; I really wasn't ready. I stayed in the field for another few years, and doing this job now, I know it was wise of them to wait. All in all, it was a very good learning experience for me. I learned a whole lot about my peers and how not to give away my heart. It hurt too badly when it was broken," I whispered.

Susan took both of my hands in hers and raised them to her lips and gently kissed my knuckles. "I'm so sorry that happened to you. There's been no one since Julie?" Susan asked gently.

"Well... that leads into a different tale. I've had plenty of companionship, let's just leave it at that. We talked about one night stands last night, right?" I gazed into her eyes.

"Yes, I remember. Is that what your life turned into? Nights filled with faceless, nameless bed mates?" Susan asked with a sad grin.

It sounded better the way she said it. Most everything did.

"Yeah, it's been that way for several years now. I just can't give my heart away again... I can't..." I stuttered, knowing if we talked about this anymore I would start crying wholeheartedly.

"I know it's hard, believe me. My own parents turned their backs on me. My heart hasn't quite healed from that experience, either. I really am so thankful we've become friends, Kelly. I feel so safe when I'm with you. I haven't felt safe in a very long time," she said gently as she squeezed my hands, keeping them in her lap.

The speakers started filtering in one of my all time favorite songs. The violins began, and I instantly knew I wanted to hold this woman in my arms.

"Would you dance with me, Susan?" I asked as I raised myself off the couch, lifting her gently towards me.

She smiled uncertainly and nodded as I led her into the open area of the family room. I held one hand and placed her other one on my shoulder, while mine went instinctively around her waist. I looked into her dark brown eyes and felt myself falling.

At last...

We swayed to the music and slowly began a tiny circle around the room. She felt so nice in my arms. After a bit, I pulled her closer and she immediately embraced me fully.

I felt her hands gently rubbing my back as I did the same. Her scent was intoxicating. I wasn't sure if it was the clouds I was walking on or what, but I knew something had changed between us.

Susan and I were gliding across the floor as if we'd danced a thousand times before. Etta James was singing my emotions, causing my breathing to hitch. I knew the person in my arms would never hurt me the way I'd been hurt before. I knew with all of my heart that I'd finally found what I was looking for.

At last...


*~*~*~*

To Be Continued in Part 2.

Feedback is the ruler of all bards.

dsbauden@dsbauden.com

Join my mailing list for Updates!


Back to story index.