Disclaimer: See part one.

A Saving Solace (Part 2)

By DS Bauden


Chapter Ten

At last, indeed. God, I hadn't felt this way in... well, I can't remember it'd been so long. Kelly crawled into my heart so quickly I didn't even have time to tack up that 'Keep Out' sign. Not that I would've.

Nor would I have let you. Kelly's the one for you, Susan.

You may be right. I don't think I've ever felt this safe and right with any other person.

Looking into the bluest eyes in the world, I most definitely had missed a question.

"I'm sorry, Kelly. What did you say?" I stuttered.

"I asked if you would like to sleep here tonight. I have a guest room that you are more than welcome to sleep in, unless you'd be more comfy at home," she shyly asked.

She is absolutely beautiful. I can't feel my tongue.

"I... I would... um..." I couldn't believe I couldn't form an answer.

"Hey, forget it, I was just wondering. I don't want you to be uncomfortable in any way. I can take you home, Susan." She looked like a child being reprimanded.

"Kelly, wait. I didn't mean to act like that. I wasn't going to say no." Catching her surprised expression, I nodded and continued. "Really. I guess the offer kind of took me by surprise; I wasn't expecting it." I took her hand in mine as we headed back to the couch and turned the music down. We sat down and I kept her hand on my lap inside my own. "I'd rather stay here anyway. I'm sure your bed is gonna be much more comfy than my sleeper sofa."

Her face blushed. "My bed?" she asked softly.

"Oh crap, I didn't mean yours, per se, I just meant..." I could feel my face getting hot and bright red with each passing second. "I just meant here, with you, or, I mean, in your house... Ugh!" I put my head in my hands. I was just going to be quiet for the rest of the night.

Her light chuckling made me look up into the most stunning face I'd ever seen. She had a smile that could brighten the dullest of days. "My God, you're beautiful, Kelly. I know how often you've probably heard that in your life, but it's the God's honest truth." I felt my hands sweating in my lap; I knew she could feel my nervousness as well.

"Yeah, I suppose I've heard that a time or two, but quite frankly, it never really mattered to me how people saw me. Not until now." She paused to turn and face me. "You make me care about how I look. I want to be this way for you. Who wouldn't want to be beautiful for you?" Kelly asked sensually as she stroked my cheek with her knuckles.

My heart beat faster with each word and each stroke of her softness against my face. I dove into blue pools and before I knew it, our lips came together in a brush of tenderness. It was a short, chaste kiss, but what followed packed a whole lot more. We kissed again, this time more passionately and with an urgency that couldn't be denied. Our tongues danced with their own private rhythm to music all their own. As we parted I could see the smoldering desire in her eyes.

My lips were still tingling from the contact. God, she was good at that.

"Wow, that was... incredible," she whispered in my ear.

My body broke out into gooseflesh instantly. "Yeah... it was," I was very pleased to have formed a coherent sentence.

She nuzzled against my neck and tenderly kissed my jaw line. "You don't have to stay, if you don't want," she said again in a very low, sexy voice.

"I want," I said, my own tone low. I wasn't sure how much I wanted or even what in fact I did want; I just knew I wanted to stay here tonight.

"So do I," Kelly agreed as she continued her assault on my ears. My toes curled in response.

Our lips met again and with each passing moment, I could feel my body getting more and more out of control. My heart was racing faster than it ever had in my life. I wanted to possess her with my body. My hands wrapped around her waist and I pulled her harder into me. I felt her groan into my mouth, and that sparked an intensely arousing wave in my belly that could've shaken all of China.

"Oh, Kelly..." I sighed. "You feel so incredible." My body was on fire.

I felt her hands start to roam down my sides and I could feel her outlining the sides of my breasts. I arched into her touch instinctively. Our bodies shifted so that most of her was lying on top of me. She placed her arms just underneath my shoulders as I felt her leg slide in between my own.

"Ohh..." I gasped.

"Mmm," Kelly groaned into my ear as she began to slowly move against me. My legs involuntarily wrapped around her probing thigh.

I could feel my center throbbing from needing her there. Oh, this was amazing! This was heaven! This was... too soon! I don't think I'm ready yet! Dammit! My thoughts were heavily racing through my head, stealing all of my pleasure away. Damn them.

"Wait!" I gasped, breaking our connection.

"Is everything all right, Susan?" The concern that I saw there was enough to melt my heart.

"I'm sorry, Kelly. As much as I want this with you, I don't think that I'm ready to jump right now... I'm so sorry," I looked away from her eyes. I couldn't bear to see the disappointment they were bound to show. I could feel the stinging of tears welling in my eyes.

"Hey..." she whispered as she slowly turned my head to face her. "Baby, if you're not ready, then we'll wait. I'm very pleased that you stopped me. I would never want to make love with someone unless they really wanted to. Especially not with you, Susan, I know how much you've been through. I never want you to feel pressured by me, for anything. Especially this." She kissed me gently on the lips.

I smiled into deep blue orbs. "Thank you, Kelly. You're so wonderful to me. What did I ever do to deserve you?"

"I should be the one asking that question." She smiled and started to raise her body off of me.

"Wait..." I exhaled as she stopped and looked at me, confused. I swallowed nervously. "Can I have one more kiss?" I wasn't sure she'd want to. I hoped she wouldn't think I was just teasing her, but I needed to feel her again.

"You never have to ask that, Susan. I'll kiss you whenever you want." She smiled and slowly brought her lips down against mine in a soul searing, heart stopping kiss that took my breath away.

"Wow... I can't wait for stage two," I breathed out, hearing Kelly chuckling as she sat up. I sat up and ran my hands down my top to straighten it and I felt her breath in my ear.

"I can guarantee it'll be worth waiting for," she whispered, sending gooseflesh down my body.

I don't doubt that.

You can say that again.



Chapter Eleven

My heart was jumping by leaps and bounds just thinking about the contact Susan and I had just shared. I couldn't believe what had almost happened. In a way, the bad side of me really wanted it to happen. The grown up and more responsible and caring side was glad we stopped.

God, I wanted her.

I still want her.

Bad.

"Would you like some more wine?" I asked her, trying to break the frustrated tension that hung between us.

"I'd better not." She looked up shyly at me. "How about some tea?" she suggested and stifled a yawn.

"Sure, I can do that. Besides, I think we still have some talking to do." I couldn't believe I'd just said that.

She smiled. "Yeah, I was hoping you'd continue. I just didn't want to push anymore tonight."

"Don't worry, this will give me something else to do with my mouth," I replied with a wink as I got up to go into the kitchen.

I heard her laughing at my retreating form and I took a deep cleansing breath as I entered the kitchen. I knew the rest of the evening wasn't going to be nearly as fun as what it could've been. What was it my grandma always said to me?

There's always gonna be time for that later.

I smiled at her words. I needed to call her. Her advice was so priceless.

"You want some green tea?" I shouted into the family room.

"Yeah, that'd be great," I heard her respond.

I put the water on the stove to boil. Even though I had most amenities known to a kitchen, the teakettle should always make water for tea and the coffee maker should only heat water for coffee.

Call me strange.

I wasn't sure if I was ready to talk about the loss of my mom yet. That pain was still pretty raw. I knew that Susan would hear that story one day, I just wasn't sure I wanted to go down that road tonight. I'd already spoken of Julie, which I really hadn't thought would happen ever again, but there I was spouting away like there was no tomorrow.

Susan was so comforting and understanding about that whole situation. No wonder she can help people. She had the softest eyes, telling you that you could trust her. It's unavoidable, she'd listen and she'd care. She'd make you feel as if she were there with you through it all. That's a heart you don't find in many people. It's a heart I hope to have one day soon.

Aw hell, who am I kidding? She already has mine. I just didn't think that I'd give it to her so quickly. Who knew that she'd have such an effect on me?

You did, ya big idiot. You knew that from the first moment you heard her ring that bell.

Yeah, well, shoot me.

Don't tempt.

I sat and argued with myself until I heard the squealing of the teakettle. I put the kettle and cups with the tea on a tray and headed back into the family room.

"Here we are..." I stopped short when I looked down into the face of an angel.

Susan had drifted to sleep on the couch with Mattie happily curled below her feet. My heart couldn't take much more in one evening. This woman had officially turned me into a marshmallow.

I didn't care one bit.

I turned around and brought the tray back into the kitchen. I returned and decided that I should put my charge to bed, but I didn't want to wake her. God, she looked so at peace. I'm sure she didn't always look like this while she slept. If she slept at all on the street, that is. I only pray that I can keep her face looking like it does right now.

Mattie looked up at me and thumped her tail against the couch. "Hi, sweetie. Did we wear out our guest?" I asked her as I scratched behind her ears. She rubbed harder against my hand and into the couch. She really thought she was a cat. I laughed at her actions and gave one final scratch before waking Susan.

Leaning down, I brushed a few stray hairs out of her face. My fingers caressed her cheek and I felt her move into my touch. Even asleep she responded to me. She was truly a find. I guiltily continued my touches until I felt my own body announce its fatigue. I covered my mouth as a yawn escaped and cupped Susan's cheek with my hand while attempting to wake her.

"Susan, sweetheart, wake up. It's time to go to bed," I said softly.

Nothing.

Oh boy.

"Susan? Wake up, honey," I said a little louder, as I moved my fingers across her cheek tenderly.

She stirred and smiled into my touches.

"That's it. Wake up, baby. I'll put you to bed in a much softer place. I promise you'll find it much more comfortable," I continued.

"Mmm... I like it here. S'warm..." she mumbled softly. Her eyes flickered then opened fully. Those beautiful brown eyes were staring at me. First they were uncertain of where they were and looked a little scared.

"Shhh..." I tried to sooth her panicky eyes. "Hey, sleepyhead. Let me show you to your room."

"Oh, Kelly, I'm so sorry. I can't believe I fell asleep! I'm so embarrassed!" she said, rubbing her face with her hands.

"Hey, don't worry about it. I told you, this couch has no shame," I chuckled.

"You weren't kidding. It totally sucked me in." She smiled a sleepy grin and yawned.

"Well, as comfy as this couch is, it doesn't hold a candle to the bed. Come on, I'll show you the way." I lowered my hand for her to grasp. She took my hand and I guided her up onto her feet. She stretched while I turned off the lights and the stereo.

"Are you sure it's no trouble for me to stay here, Kelly?" Susan asked.

"I wouldn't have offered if I didn't want your company. Besides, it'll be like a slumber party. God knows I haven't had one of those in years!" I chuckled.

"Slumber party, eh? Well, the ones I went to always had all of us sleeping in the same room and laughing and talking until dawn." She smiled in memory.

"We could do that if you wanted. I mean if you want to share a bed with me," I said, watching for her reaction.

None came for a long heartbeat.

"Well, if you promise not to steal all the covers, you've got yourself a deal," she replied sleepily, trying to stifle another yawn.

"Well, from the looks of you, dawn is out of the question, but it'll still be nice to sleep with you. Ahh... if... if you're all right with that. I mean, I don't want to scare you or make you uncomfortable. We've already talked about this, so I do mean sleep when I say 'sleep with you,'" I reassured her. "I'd just really like to hold you tonight," I confessed.

"I'd like that too, Kelly," she admitted shyly. "Very much."

"All right then. Let me get Mattie outside one last time, and then I'll show you where my room is. Okay?" I smiled.

She winked at me. "Sure thing."

I let Mattie out and she decided to cooperate for me for once. Nighttime is her time for mischief. I never expect her to come in until half the yard is dug up. I guess she figures I can't see her in the dark. Luckily for me, she did her business and made her way back to the backdoor without tearing up the lawn.

"Good girl! You deserve a treat for that," I commended as I walked to her cabinet and pulled out a treat.

She eagerly took the rawhide and trotted towards the stairs leading to my bedroom. She had a tendency to prance when she got a treat. She knew she'd done something right to get it, and she'd be damned if she wasn't going to show it off.

I took Susan's hand and led her towards the stairs leading up to my room. Walking hand in hand, I had never felt so content in my life. She was filling a gap that was so huge for so long. I don't think I could ever convey to her how precious she had become to me. I don't think I could find the right words.

We walked into my room and I watched as her eyes scanned the room with approving eyes.

"Kelly, this room is beautiful! God, my whole apartment is as big as your room!" Susan chuckled.

"I'm glad you like it. I hope..." I looked at her and took both of her hands as I faced her. "I really hope you know that I didn't bring you here to um... show off or to brag. I know you've had a hard time and..."

Susan placed her finger on my lips to stop my ramblings.

"Kelly, I know you're not like that. I can tell. I've been around enough people that think their shit doesn't stink, but believe me; they aren't even in your league. You invited me here to see you, not your possessions. For that, I'm grateful, because I've had such a wonderful time tonight. I haven't danced in ages. In forever, I think. I think the last person I danced with was my father..."

She paused and I heard her deep sigh.

"Anyway, thank you for starting to say what you did, even though it wasn't necessary. You're not a fake, Kelly. You're an incredible woman, and I'm really proud and honored that I can call you friend."

I didn't know what to say. She was amazing! All I could do was inch closer and pull her into my arms. Our bodies fit together so well; it felt so right. I rested my chin on the top of her head and took a deep breath. Her hair smelled like sunshine. That analogy made me smile in reflex. I could only imagine one other person smelling like sunshine, and that was my mom. I wondered if she'd sent her to me.

Was she a gift, Mom? If she was, I really can't thank you enough. God, I miss you.

My eyes shed tears that I had no control over. I felt so vulnerable around Susan, but I'd never felt safer. I knew she'd never hurt me and I could trust her with anything or anyone. She heard me sniffle and slowly pulled out of my embrace.

"Kelly?" She looked up and noticed my tears. "Sweetheart, why are you crying?" she asked as she brushed away a few tears with her thumbs.

"I'm sorry, Susan. I was holding you and I um... smelled your hair. It smelled like sunshine." I smiled a watery smile. "My mom was the only other person that I can say that about. I guess it just sparked something inside of me and I was missing her. It happens every once in a while. She was the world to me," I explained in almost a whisper.

"Oh, sweetheart, I can totally understand that. Never apologize for missing your mom. And even though you haven't told me much about her, I know that you loved her very much." She pulled me against her again. "You can cry on my shoulder whenever you feel like it."

"Thanks, I really appreciate that. I haven't had anyone that I could share this with, other than my grandmother. It's nice to talk about my mom with someone else. I'd like to tell you more about her one day. I know she would've liked you a lot."

Like I do.

"Do you see her often? Your grandma?" she asked.

"I see her every once in a while. We've kind of drifted apart. She and I used to talk a lot. She lost a lot too when Mom died. Maybe it hurts her too much to see me, I honestly don't know. I don't like to push her. She's such a sweet lady, though. Funny as hell, too." I smiled in memory of her quick humor and one-liners.

"Kelly? Can we continue this, there?" Susan pointed to my bed shyly. "I'm a little chilly."

"Yeah, sure. Let me get you something comfy to sleep in." I smiled and walked over to my armoire and opened my pajama drawer. I pulled out a pair of my flannel bottoms and a long sleeve T-shirt. "Will you be warm enough in this, or do you want something else?"

"Oh, that's fine. I may even be a little too warm in that, but let's give it a shot," she grinned.

"I have boxers, too, if you'd rather," I offered.

"You know what? I like that idea better. I never could understand pants in bed. My sheets would always wrap around my clothed legs and I'd feel like I was trapped." She grinned and shrugged. "Thanks." Susan said as I handed her the clothing.

"Sure. The bathroom's in there." I pointed to the door. "And there are new toothbrushes in the cabinet. Feel free to use whichever color you like," I offered.

"Again, thanks, Kelly. Your hospitality is absolutely wonderful." She stood on her tiptoes and kissed my cheek before she sauntered into the bathroom to get ready for bed.

I grabbed another pair of boxer shorts and a short-sleeved T-shirt to wear to bed. I couldn't wear anything too warm at night or I'd get nightmares. Who knew why this was, I just didn't want to fuel my overly active dreamscapes. They were scary enough on their own.


*~*~*~*

God, this bathroom is three times the size of the powder room downstairs! I couldn't believe my eyes. Kelly indeed had quite a house. This place was just incredible. The bathtub had whirlpool jets and looks like it could seat at least four. Wow, not even my parents had a tub like that one.

I opened the medicine cabinet and found several toothbrushes, and indeed they were in different colors.

Have lots of overnight guests, Kelly?

Oh, jealousy isn't a good look for you, darlin'.

I'm not jealous! Besides, she said she had quite a checkered past. I also believe she said that those days were over. Maybe she's just planning ahead so she doesn't have to rush out to buy a spare!

Are you trying to convince yourself or me, Suz?

Oh, shut up, please?

I took the wrapper off the toothbrush and found some toothpaste. I looked at my reflection as I cleaned my teeth, and I began to giggle at my appearance. Kelly's clothes were at least three sizes too big for me, but they smelled like her, therefore, it was all good.

I spit the last of my toothpaste down the drain and wiped my mouth on the towel hanging on the rod next to the vanity. I felt my heart go out to the woman in the next room. She must've loved her mom a great deal. I wonder if she'll tell me what happened.

Don't push, Susan. She'll tell you when she's ready. You've worked through a lot of your issues, and maybe she needs a bit more time before she can tell all.

For once, you're right. Thank you. Now goodnight.

Goodnight, Susan.

I walked out of the bathroom to find Kelly pulling up her boxers and smiling shyly at me. Her gaze burned my flesh as I felt her taking in my body.

"Wow, you look absolutely adorable. You look better in my clothes than I do."

"Yeah, but I bet you look better out of them." Hearing myself say that out loud, I felt my ears turn red. I couldn't believe I'd said that. I know my eyes looked like wide, cartoon-like saucers.

Kelly's chuckling was her only response as she walked closer to me. Her head leaned closer to mine and she whispered softly, "I doubt that very much. But ohh... I can't wait to find out who's right," she purred in my ear as she made her way into the bathroom. I felt her eyes on my back and I slowly turned around to see if I was right. I saw her wink at me with a smile before she closed the door.

She's going to kill me. She's definitely going to kill me.

"Whoa..." I breathed out. "This is gonna get more and more interesting, isn't it, Mattie?" I whispered to the dog, which was looking at me with the chewed rawhide sticking out of her mouth. Her tail thumped against the bed and then she went back to work on her treat.

"Thanks, pal. You've been very insightful," I snickered at the beast on the floor.

I heard the water running in the bathroom and decided to get into bed. I was starting to feel chilly again now that the heat flashes had died down a bit. I walked to the bathroom door and knocked quietly.

"Hey, Kelly? While laying on your bed, which side do you sleep on?" I asked through the door.

"The right," she mumbled through her toothpaste filled mouth.

"'Kay, thanks."

I walked to the left hand side of the bed and turned down the sheets and comforter. I climbed into the cool sheets and felt more at home in this bed than I did in the one at my own house. Her scent was everywhere and it was such a comfort to me. I decided that I liked that.

A lot.



Chapter Twelve

I came out of the bathroom to find my guest snuggling into my blankets on my bed. It warmed my heart to see her in my bed. Not to mention other parts of my anatomy. Susan looked up at me and smiled. I couldn't help but smile back. "Comfortable?" I had to ask.

She smiled at me sleepily. "Oh, Kelly, I can't tell you the last time I've laid in a bed this comfy. It's heaven. Thank you for asking me over."

"You're welcome, darlin'. I just didn't want our night to end so soon. Even though the rest of our time will probably be spent sleeping, I didn't want to say good-bye just yet," I confessed.

"I know what you mean. I've had such a good time tonight. Thank you again," Susan said.

I rolled back the sheets and blankets on my side of the bed and got in. I wrestled playfully with Susan a bit for the covers, and then settled comfortably on my left side to look at her. She'd done the same onto her right side, and we just stared at each other for many moments. It seemed like time was going so slowly. I took in every feature on her face, from the tiny freckles on her nose to the chicken pox scar next to her right eye. At least it looked like a chicken pox scar.

Reaching up, I gently caressed her face in wonder of what this girl's childhood had been like. It had to have been so different from the life that she's used to at present. I just couldn't believe that someone's parents would actually throw out one of their own because they didn't agree with their sexual orientation. I was very lucky in that respect. My mom and I had a very close relationship, and I knew I could tell her anything and everything. So when I went to her when I was fifteen and told her I didn't think I liked boys "in that way," she just smiled at me with open arms and said, "I love you, Kelly, no matter what." She was really something.

"Hey, you all right?" Susan said, startling me a bit.

My fingers continued to caress her, and I outlined the small scar next to her eye. "Where'd you get this from?" I asked carefully.

"Chicken pox. Six years old," Susan confirmed.

"That's what I thought. I have a similar one next to my eye. See?" I said as I pointed to where I thought the scar was on my face.

"Wow, look at that. We're twins," she giggled.

"Oh, God, I hope not. What we did downstairs wouldn't be too welcome in most families," I joked.

"Ew, Kelly!" Susan laughed as she swatted my shoulder.

"I'm just kidding," I laughed back and grasped her retreating hand, interlacing our fingers. Taking a deep breath, I looked up at Susan. Her eyes were incredible. They've seen so much more of this life than I ever hope to. They've seen places I'd only heard horror stories about. I felt so incredibly blessed that I'd never had to go through any of the things that she had. I hoped that I never did. I caressed the palm of her hand with my thumb.

Susan caught me staring and just smiled at me. "Something on your mind, Kelly?"

"Well, actually, I'm hoping that we can postpone the remainder of our 'heart to heart' for another day. I don't know if I'm quite up to going into another story tonight." I gave a small sad grin to my new friend.

"Oh honey, you don't have to tell me anything if you don't feel up to it. If you decide one day that you want to share that part of your life, then of course, I'll be more than willing to listen. Please don't feel pressured into telling me something you aren't ready to share. I would hate that." Susan held tight to my hand. "Let's just take this slow. Let's find a pace that we're both happy with and go with it. No pressure?" She smiled in hope.

"No pressure," I gladly agreed. Relief instantly flooded my body and I squeezed her hand. I guess I really wasn't ready to reveal too much too soon. I just wanted her to feel that I'm willing to be an equal part in all of this. Whether it's emotionally or not. God knows I have some baggage that I carry around every day. I know she took a risk when she came out to dinner with me, and especially last night when she shared so much of herself to almost a complete stranger, without batting an eye. I guess she felt the connection as much as I did. God knows I've never had it this strong with anyone before.

"Can we snuggle?" I asked in an almost childlike voice.

"Of course we can snuggle. I was hoping you'd want to," she admitted.

I leaned onto my back and felt the bed shift as Susan rolled closer to me. Finally her head rested on my shoulder and her arm wrapped securely around my waist. My arm instinctively wrapped itself around her shoulders and held her close to me. "This feels so nice," I cooed, and began rubbing her back.

"I have to agree. Your arms feel great around me," she said as she snuggled impossibly closer to me.

I'd never felt more secure. Or more cared for.



Chapter Thirteen

I can hear her heartbeat racing with every breath she takes. At least I'm not the only one who's nervous. I hadn't been in another person's arms since Cindy. God, it's been a long time. This felt too good to be true. I don't think I'll ever forget the sound of Kelly's heartbeat. It's so strong. I love the way that she holds me. Her hands rub my back so soothingly.

I'd bet they'd feel great on other places, too.

Quit that!

Just thought I'd keep you posted on my thoughts.

Well don't!

Nite, babe.

Go away!

If I never heard my shadow's voice again, it'd be too soon. If I could just get over my fears, maybe she'd go away. Who knows?

"Susan?" Kelly whispered.

"Yeah?"

"Are you still sleepy?"

God, she's so cute.

"Yeah, I am. Being all cuddled up like this makes me feel so safe. I could stay here forever," I said before I could stop myself.

Hell, who was I kidding? I didn't want to stop myself. This was where I wanted to be. I'll be damned before someone's gonna take that from me again.

"I'm glad you're comfortable," she said softly into my hair. "I haven't felt this good in a long time."

"Mmm," I murmured into her. "I know the feeling."

"Good night, darlin'" Kelly said quietly.

"Sweet dreams, Kelly," I said as I slowly looked up into dreamy blue eyes.

"You, too," she said as she leaned closer.

Her kiss was soft and warm and it tingled my body completely. I moaned unintentionally into her mouth. Her body coiled like a snake ready to pounce and she deepened the kiss. Our tongues met again and we tasted the fresh toothpaste between us. She was so good at this kissing thing. My body really wanted to sink into her fully. I felt my lips being nipped as our kiss slowly came to an end. "Whoa," I breathed.

"Yeah," Kelly agreed.

I smiled at her. "You are so good at that."

"I'm glad you think so. You're quite gifted as well. My body thanks you, too. It's trying really hard to betray my head," she giggled.

"I know the feeling," I mumbled. "I'm sorry..." I started.

She placed her fingers across my pouting lips. "Shhh, don't go there. I told you I'd gladly wait to make love with you. I just thought you'd like to know what my body thinks of you, too."

"It's nice to know. It really is. It's been so long since I've wanted anyone to feel these things for me. I'm so glad you do, Kelly. You are such an incredible woman. Thank you for approaching me yesterday. I don't know if I would've had the nerve to have gone to you. It's hard to tell what kinds of reactions people like me will get," I sadly said.

"God, it has to be so hard for you. I'm so glad your friend Carol brought you back from the street."

"Yeah, she was the greatest woman I've ever known. She really brought me back to life. I was so dead inside; I never thought I'd make it back to reality. I thought the rest of my life was gonna be as it was in my own little world out there." I sighed, thinking back, thanking God I was warm, clothed, fed, and cared for.

"Susan?" Kelly started. "What are your plans for Christmas? I know I told you that I go to the movies, but I'd love some company this year. What do you think? It's getting closer, and I thought we could spend it together," Kelly bit her lip anticipating my response.

"Well, actually, I am heading a food drive for the shelter. We do it every year; it's something I like to do. It reminds me of Carol, now that she's gone. It kind of brings me closer to her in a way. She did it for me and I really like giving some of that back," I said proudly.

"You need any help?" Kelly asked.

I looked up at smiling eyes. "Are you serious?"

"Of course I am. I wouldn't offer something like that if I wasn't serious," she explained unnecessarily.

"Kelly, I'd love that!" I hugged her tightly. "You are an absolute Godsend! Thank you, you don't know what this means to me."

"I see your face shining like I've never seen before. I have a pretty good idea what it means to you. I also know what you mean to me. There isn't much I wouldn't do for you." Kelly grinned shyly.

"Thank you. Thank you so much," I breathed into her chest.

Her arms held me firmly against her. I knew without a doubt, that Kelly Cavanaugh was going to make it impossible for me not to fall in love with her.

"You're welcome, baby."

"Kelly?"

"Hmm?"

"Can I ask you something?" I said quietly.

"Honey, you can ask me anything you want," she reassured.

"Why don't you have a Christmas tree?" I felt her giggle under me.

"Funny you should ask me that. I have an artificial one that I keep in my garage. I haven't put it up yet, because I wasn't sure I wanted to. I never really celebrate Christmas with anyone, so I guess I figured, why bother?" she said matter of factly.

"Well, I'd love to help you decorate it," I said, a little too excited. "I haven't decorated a tree in a long time. My parents always had a huge nine or ten foot tree in the living room. It was always so magical to me. Bing Crosby would be crooning in the background, and we'd dress the tree as a family... God I miss that," I sighed.

"You miss doing the tree?" she asked, sounding a bit confused.

"No, well, yes, but what I meant was, I miss having a family," I said sadly.

"I can be a part of your family, Susan. All you have to do is say the word. I know what missing family is all about. My mom was my world," Kelly began as she started running her fingers through my hair. "Even though it was just my mom, grandma, and myself, it was so special for me. I knew if I needed anything, they were there. If I was sick, my mom would take care of me. Even if I only needed a hug, she was there for me. And if I needed a good kick in the ass, they were both on me faster than lightning. Believe me, that happened way too often for my liking." Kelly chuckled along with me.

"I bet you were something else when you were younger," I giggled.

"You have no idea. I had so much energy when I was a child. My mom went to a preacher because she thought I might be possessed or something!" Kelly laughed.

I was shocked. "No way! Are you serious?"

"I'm very serious. She was a very religious person. She was a hard core Catholic woman up until the day she took her last breath," Kelly said sadly. "God, she was a fighter."

I didn't want to push anything with Kelly about her mom. I knew she would tell me the whole story when she was ready. I would take these bits and pieces, though. It made me believe that she was starting to trust me. That in itself was good enough for me.

"Anyway, I'd love to decorate the tree with you this year, Susan. It'd be great fun, I think. It's been a while since I've had anyone other than Mattie to enjoy it with," Kelly said wistfully.

"I'd love to. Thanks for asking me," I smiled.

"You're welcome, darlin'," Kelly reached back and clicked off the lamp which rested on her night table.

The moon was shining through the windows as the wind blew outside.

God, I'm glad I'm in here. The memories of freezing my ass off weren't far enough away yet. Kelly kissed the top of my head and settled down for a comfortable slumber.

"Night, baby," she said into my hair.

"G'night, Kelly." I turned my head and kissed her neck.

I snuggled deeper into my human pillow and happily let sleep take me.



Chapter Fourteen

"Are you sure, Gram? I mean, could they be wrong?" Kelly asked hopefully.

"No sweetie, they've confirmed it with the tests," Connie said sadly.

"Is Mom there? Can I talk to her?" Kelly inquired.

"She's sleeping, dear. She's had quite a day. We'll be flying back tomorrow. She's going to need you to be strong for her, Kelly. The doctors told me about this illness, and I'm gonna be honest with you, honey, it's going to get really hard on the both of you," Kelly's grandmother explained. "She's eventually going to lose all of her muscle control. Slowly but surely this disease will take all of her abilities away from her. Everything from her ability to walk, to eat, and she may even lose her ability to talk."

Kelly was crying on the other end of the phone, and couldn't seem to stop the tears. "Is she going to be in pain, Gram?"

"I don't know, sweetheart. They seem to think that part of the mind goes too, so she may not be aware of it. Sometimes they are completely lucid, though. It's hard to say. Everyone reacts differently. We'll just have to wait it out. We won't know until it happens." Kelly's grandmother sighed sadly. "She's strong, Kelly. The Lord will take care of her."

"How long, Gram?" Kelly sobbed into the phone. "How long does she have?"

"They say anywhere from two to five years. Again, it really depends on how badly it affects her. She could live longer or shorter. Only time will tell us that." Connie paused. "Listen, I'm going to get back to your mother. Try to pull yourself together for her. She needs you to be strong. For the both of you. I know you can do it, sweetie. I love you," Connie finished.

"I love you, too, Gram. Thanks for letting me know. At least we understand why she's been acting so differently. God! This is so not fair!" Kelly screamed.

"I know, baby. I know. Shhh... We'll be home tomorrow. Will you be okay? Why don't you call a friend to come over to stay with you tonight." Her grandma suggested.

"No, Gram, I don't want anyone around me right now." Kelly took a deep breath, stilling her tears briefly. "All right, Gram. Take care of her and I'll see you guys tomorrow," she sniffled.

"All right, dear. Bye."

"Bye, Gram." Kelly dropped the phone onto the coffee table.

Tears and anguish filled Kelly with every breath she took.

"WHY? Why, God dammit! Why her? Why'd you have to do this to her?" Kelly screamed up at the ceiling. "She's a fucking saint! She's been the kindest person to everyone! Everyone loves her. She's never done a cruel thing to anyone or anything in her whole life. Jesus..." Kelly collapsed on the couch and wept until she passed out.


*~*~*~*

Kelly peeked her head inside her mother's room. Normally at this hour, her mother would be resting. "Mom? Are you awake?" She looked down at her sickly mother and felt her heart constrict painfully. There she was, lying in the hospital bed the hospice had given them to use until her passing. Her frail form was curled on her side, with a catheter tube running down the length of the bed and into her body. Her breathing was shallow, but she was still alive with Kelly and her grandmother.

Dorothy's eyes slowly opened and looked a bit glazed over. They slowly moved around until they rested on her daughter, who was silently watching her. She made a slight noise to let Kelly know she knew she was there.

"Hi, ma," Kelly started as she ran her fingers through her mother's fine hair. "How was your nap?"

Her mother raised her eyebrows, trying to communicate with her only daughter.

"I hope I didn't disturb you too badly." Kelly took a deep breath. "Mom, I really wanted to talk to you." The tears had begun to roll down Kelly's cheeks. She reached down to her mother's bed and held one of her hands. She felt a slight pressure in her grasp. making her smile sadly. "Oh Mom, this is the hardest thing I've ever had to do. I know I've only been around for seventeen years, but I think I've seen more in the last two years than I ever want to again. I know that soon we're gonna be apart, and I think that maybe this is the best time for me to tell you all that I wanted to. Somewhere inside of you, I know that you can hear me, and you can understand what I'm saying. I really hate that guy that comes in here and pretends like you don't know what's going on. I know you do!" Kelly paused to catch her breath.

"I just wanted to let you know, that I think you're the most wonderful woman that God put on this earth. You've been the best mom and the best friend anyone could ask for. You've gone out of your way to keep food in my mouth, clothes on my back, and you kept me in better schools than most kids go to. You let me go the popular school, just because I asked to go there. I could've easily gone to Winston High down the road, but no, I wanted to go to South with all my friends. You never even said a word when you had to work longer hours to make sure I was able to go there. You drove me every single day, too. I don't know of anyone else that didn't have to take the bus to school." Kelly wiped her nose and eyes with her drenched Kleenex. She could feel her mother's hand tighten ever so slightly in her grasp. Kelly knew her mother could hear every word she spoke.

"You did so much for me, Mom, in the short time that we've been together. I'm truly blessed that I had you in my life. Even though my father, whose worthless ass I could kick right now, is nowhere to be found, he gave life to me and therefore brought me to you. That's the only thing I could ever thank him for. Lord knows he doesn't deserve shit from anyone." Kelly felt her mom tighten her hold a bit more. "Sorry, I know you hate when I curse." Her grip loosened up. "I don't want to waste my time talking about him anyway. This is all about you, Mom. The words, I love you, don't mean nearly enough to me right now. I wish you could see inside of me to know how much you mean to me, Mom. You're my life; you've always been there for me. Even when I told you that I was gay when I was fifteen. I thought for sure you'd disown me or beat the tar out of me until I changed my mind, but you didn't. You opened your arms to me and told me you loved me, no matter what. I will always remember that day, Mom. Always.

Kelly began to cry in earnest and had to try to calm herself to finish what she needed to say. "I hate with all that I am to see you like this. You were such an independent woman. You've never asked for anything in your whole life. Now you can't. What kind of divine love is that? Why did God do this to you? You've gone to church almost daily since I was born. Is this the gratitude He shows you? I don't nor will I ever understand the justice in all of this. You serve Him, so He knocks you down with a fatal illness that has no cure? What the hell is that? I know you've served God your whole life, and I know you told me that you thought He chose you because He knew you were strong enough to handle it. Well, I don't buy it! You're too good of a person for this to happen to. I just don't understand that kind of love." Kelly stopped to sob against her mother's side. "I'm so sorry this happened to you, Mom. I'm so sorry..."

Her mother made a vocal sound and Kelly got closer to her mouth so she could listen better. "What, ma? I didn't hear you."

"Laaa you," her mother's voice stretched.

"I love you too, Mom," Kelly sobbed.

She walked around to the other side of her mother's bed, climbed into bed with her mom, and held her spooned tightly against her. They lay there together silently crying until they both fell into a restless sleep.


*~*~*~*

Kelly watched as they took the oxygen away from her mother's nose. She didn't want any respiratory help once her lungs began to fail. Her mother had slipped into a coma and was breathing in quick, short gasps. The nurse was watching as Kelly and her grandmother waited for the inevitable. Dorothy's breaths evened out, until finally, she took one last breath then was taken silently into the heavens. The color faded from her cheeks, as did the warmth from her skin. Kelly hung on to her mother during the whole process. She sobbed endlessly until she heard the word Coroner. She looked up into the dark, loving eyes of her grandmother and wordlessly asked for a few minutes alone with her mom.

Connie rose and took the nurse into the kitchen to give her granddaughter the privacy that she too would ask for shortly.

Kelly clung to her mother's nightgown and rested her head on her mother's chest. She heard nothing beating or moving inside, finalizing everything in her own mind. She cried and murmured words of love and longing, until she finally said good-bye.

One of the nurses from the hospice was called and even though it was the middle of the night, came right over before the Coroner arrived. Pat was Dorothy's favorite nurse and vice versa. She wailed into Dorothy's lifeless body. Seeing Pat hunched over her mother sent a wave of new tears down Kelly's face.

The doorbell rang and she knew it was the coroner's office to pick up her mother's body. She didn't want to answer the door, believing if she didn't let them in, her mother wouldn't leave. Realistically, she knew better, and opened the door to find two pairs of warm comforting eyes.

"Miss Cavanaugh?" Kelly nodded and let the two gentlemen into their home. "We're so sorry for your loss. Is she in there?" Kelly nodded dumbly and watched as her grandmother readied her daughter for removal.

Kelly heard the words "expire" and "patient" in the same sentence. She'd never heard someone's death referred to as them expiring. It was a world of language she never wanted to learn.

They wheeled her mother's body out of her room on a gurney. It wouldn't have been so bad, but her mother's remains had been put in a body bag. She took one final look at her mother's form being wheeled out of her life and collapsed into the waiting arms of her grandmother.

"No! I can't believe she's gone, Gram. No! Mommy! No!" she continued sobbing.


*~*~*~*

I felt movement under me, and I started to wonder where I was. I heard Kelly moaning in her sleep and it started to get louder.

"No..." I heard Kelly whisper. "No..." she repeated.

"Kelly?" I hoped she wasn't one of those people that couldn't be woken from a nightmare. "Kelly, honey, it's okay. I'm here with you. Everything's fine." I tried to soothe her back into consciousness. I held her close and caressed every body part I could reach.

Kelly jerked awake and clutched at me desperately. She was crying.

"Shhh, baby. I've got you," I said as I rolled to my back, taking her with me. Kelly's head rested on my chest and I could feel her tears soaking through the material of my shirt. I ran my fingers through her hair and lightly scratched her scalp. "It's okay now, sweetheart. No one can hurt you now," I soothed into her hair.

I heard her sobbing quietly, unsure if she was really awake or not. "Kelly? You want to talk about it?" I asked.

She just shook her head like a small child. My heart broke for her at that moment. It was obvious by her reaction to the dream that it must have been about her mother. I held her closer and rocked her with all the will and strength that I had. I may not like my mother, but at least she hasn't died. Not that I know of, anyway. Kelly was only seventeen, I think she said, when her mother died. It must have been cancer or something. I hated not knowing. At least I could try to help if I knew what I was talking about. This patience thing was truly virtuous.

I felt her sobs lessen with every deep breath she took. She raised her head and softly kissed my cheek.

"I'll be right back. I just need to use the bathroom for a second," Kelly said quietly.

"Are you going to be all right, honey?" My heart was breaking at the sound of her saddened voice.

"Yeah... I just um... I haven't had a dream like that in a long time." She sighed and got up off the bed and walked into the bathroom.

I heard the faucet turn on and the splashing of water. I could only assume she was rinsing off her face. I would just have to wait until she was ready to talk about it.


*~*~*~*

That was a bad one. I hadn't had one of those dreams in a long time.

I rinsed my face off with cold water, trying to shut out the images of my mother on her deathbed. The straining of her last breath would always be a visual I could've lived without. Although, being with her during her last moments on this earth made it as good as it was going to be. I'm glad she didn't die all alone. She didn't deserve to go that way. When it came to her dying, it was the only thing I was grateful for.

Poor Susan. I don't think she was expecting our first night together to be quite like this. Hell, I had no intention of this happening. The peace that she gave me is just so reminiscent of my mom. It simply brought it into my subconscious, I guess.

I looked at my reflection and saw red puffy eyes staring back at me.

She'll help you through this. You know she will. Let her in, Kel.

I will, but not tonight. I just don't have it in me tonight.

I used the toilet and washed my hands and face one more time. I brushed my teeth again for good measure and went back towards my bedroom.

The light on my nightstand had been turned on, and Susan and Mattie were nowhere to be found. My heart was racing.

"Susan?" I called out to her.

"I'll be right up!" I heard her shout from downstairs.

I heard the whistle of the teakettle and it brought a smile to my face. She is really something. I don't know what I did to deserve her, but I'm thankful.

Thanks, Momma.

I heard the padding of several feet heading my way. I sat on my bed and was greeted by Mattie and Susan, who was carrying a tray that had our tea from earlier in the evening.

"Hey." she smiled at me.

"Hey." I smiled back.

"I thought you might want something warm to drink to try to help you fall back to sleep. I saw that there was no caffeine in this, so I made the tea you brought out earlier. You think you could handle some?"

Susan's beautiful face lit up when I nodded. She handed me a cup of tea with the tea bag's string resting over the brim and onto the saucer. I bobbed the bag up and down until I got the water to my desired color and flavor, pulled the bag from the cup, and rested it on the saucer. Taking my first small sip, I felt the warmth of the liquid flow through my body, giving me solace.

"Thank you, Susan. This is exactly what I needed," I said graciously.

"I'm glad. I know when I've had a bad dream or I can't sleep that a nice cup of tea usually does the trick. I'm glad that's the case with you, too." Susan smiled into her cup.

"I'm so glad you're here," I said quietly. Reaching for her hand, I led her to the bed to sit next to me. "Thank you for being here."

She smiled softly at me. "There's no place I'd rather be right now."

We drank our tea, then sank into the warmth of the linens on my bed. I held Susan in my arms and breathed in her scent. My voice was heavy with emotion. "Good night, baby."

She squeezed my mid section and kissed my clothed breast. "Sweet dreams."

I truly hoped my dreams were over for the night.



Chapter Fifteen

Christmas Eve arrived before I knew what hit me. This time of year is always so damn busy, I never have time to do anything except work. All I did was check on the stock levels in each store, make sure each schedule had been made properly, and call my managers to make sure they didn't have any needs that hadn't been met yet. Only two more weeks of this and it's over, and I can get back to my regular life.

With Susan.

Susan.

What a difference a name makes. I just hear that name and my face lights up, regardless if it's indeed my Susan that's being thought about.

Your Susan?

Oh, hush!

You've come a long way, Kel.

Don't jinx it!

I have NO intention of doing that. She's the best thing to happen to you.

Don't I know it.

Our time together had been wonderful. The last couple of weeks had been kind of quiet, though. I knew the reason and I hoped she wasn't feeling left out. It's impossible to get in touch with her since she has no phone. That just gives me a reason to see her every day. I didn't see her this morning, though; I was running late. Perhaps she was, as well.

I am anxious to spend tonight with her. We are going to decorate the Christmas tree that had been lying dormant in my garage forever and a day. I can't wait to watch her face light up when we turn it on for the first time. That was always my favorite part of tree trimming. You got to see the finished product: tinsel glistening against the ornaments that reflected the light from the thousands of strings of lights you wrapped around the branches.

This was definitely going to be a night to remember.

Not like the weekends haven't been wonderful. They truly have been some of the best that I can remember. Even though my nightmares continued, Susan was so incredible. She has such a huge heart; I can't imagine hurting her, ever.

You hope you don't hurt her.

You're right... I hope I never do.


*~*~*~*

God, it's freezing out here today. I cannot wait until I can stop with bucket detail. It's not that I mind; I'm just frozen like a Popsicle. Only a few more weeks, then it's paperwork month. Oh joy. It's better than being out here, though.

Tonight is going to be so much fun. I haven't decorated a tree in years. I hope I don't break any of her family's ornaments. I'd never forgive myself. I have dinner duty tonight. I'm going to make her spaghetti. It's really the only thing that I can cook well. I know how to make anything from a box, but I wanted to cook Kelly a real dinner to celebrate our first Christmas together.

God, she's incredible. She makes me feel so special and so beautiful. I'm the luckiest woman on the planet. I'm completely smitten with her, I forget my name while looking into her eyes. It's an abyss I'd fall into without hesitation... every time.

Clink

"Thanks, ma'am. Have a happy holiday!" I shivered.

I'm so sad her nightmares have hit her so hard. I feel so bad for her. I know she sleeps badly the rest of the night. I can feel her under me, trying not to wake me with her restlessness. I'm quite a light sleeper, so that doesn't work at all.

For either of us.

When morning comes, I'm never sure what to expect. Some people will hide in their shells when they think you've seen too much. Not Kelly. She is sweet and kind, even though I know she was tired as all hell. I know I was.

Saturdays have been spent just hanging out and watching movies. I could get used to watching movies like that. Her family room is a theater all its own! I could really get used to that way of living again.

Don't get too comfy.

Oh, now you don't like Kelly?

No, I'm just playing devil's advocate. I know she won't hurt you, at least I hope she won't. Just make sure you don't take her for granted. There aren't many people out there that would've approached you like she did.

I know that! Jesus! Go away! Kelly isn't like everyone else!

Hey, I'm just trying to protect you.

No, you're my fears trying to rebuild themselves again. Well, just stay out, because I haven't got any room in here for you anymore!

Thank God my break's coming soon. I need to put on a second pair of long johns.



Chapter Sixteen

I'm sitting in my office on Christmas Eve, trying to put out every damn fire that my managers have thrown at me. I'm gonna kill them, I swear to God. Not everything is an emergency! I should be out on the sales floor today with our customers — I love that part of the job, not stuck in here on my phone!

I'm almost done. One more call and I'll go out there.

Until the next page comes.

Arghh!


*~*~*~*

"Can I help the next guest in line, please?" Therese said with a smile.

A short, dark haired, unshaven man, dressed in black, walked up to the sales counter holding a fur coat which he slammed down on the counter.

"I WANT A NEW COAT! THIS ONE HAS A RIP IN IT, AND I SPECIAL ORDERED IT FOR MY WIFE FOR CHRISTMAS! I DON'T HAVE ANOTHER THREE WEEKS, EITHER, SO DON'T EVEN START SUGGESTING THAT!" he shouted loudly at the saleswoman.

She tried to placate him. "Sir, please calm down, and I'll help you as best as I can."

"Don't tell me to calm down! I waited three weeks for this coat and it's fucking ripped! I want a new one and I want it NOW!" he exploded.

"Could I see your receipt, please?" Therese asked politely.

"HERE!" The man threw the receipt at the nonplussed woman.

"Sir, let me look this up on the computer and see if we have another one in stock. I'll just be a moment," she smiled.

"You'd better have one. This is bullshit!" he cursed again.

"Sir, I'll ask you once again to please lower your voice. There are children nearby that don't need to hear that," she said calmly as she typed information into her computer.

"Whatever!" he said indifferently.

"Well, I'm sorry to tell you that we are out of stock on that item. I can look..." She stopped when the man in front of her interrupted her.

"I TOLD YOU I DIDN'T WANT TO HEAR IT! I WANT A NEW COAT FOR MY WIFE, AND I WANT IT NOW!" he bellowed again.

"Sir, I can't give you what I don't have. I'm very sorry. I will call around to other stores..." Her eyes went wide when she saw the knife in his hand.

"I'm not gonna tell you again. I want that coat for my wife and you're gonna get me one or I'm gonna hurt you," he snarled.

Kelly heard the shouting from her office and came out to see what the problem was. She saw the man holding a knife up to her employee and immediately ran to her aid. She raced behind the counter and tripped the silent alarm for Security to come.

"Hi there, I'm Kelly. How can I help you today?" Kelly smiled innocently.

"Look! I bought this coat for my wife... I had to fucking order it and it's ripped! I can't give her that! I want a new one, but Miss High and Mighty back there won't get me one, so I'm gonna take it out of her ass!"

"Now hold on a minute. You're not going to hurt anyone. I will find you what you want. Just give me a chance to call some other stores..." She stopped when she saw the man grab the woman behind him and place the knife at her throat.

"I'm not waiting anymore. I want something done, and so help me, I'm gonna get what I want!" he screamed into his victim's ear.

The small woman in his grasp started crying desperately for help.

"Shut up, bitch! Not one more word, or I swear I'll gut ya like a trout," the deranged man hissed.

The frightened woman looked up at Kelly, who was staring into her eyes trying to calm her. Kelly saw the security guards approaching, and she quickly moved in front of the armed man, hoping to keep him distracted long enough for the guards to act.

"What are you, fucking stupid? I should just kill your ass while I'm at it," he said, taking a swipe at Kelly.

The security guards watched Kelly and made their move as the armed man blindly lunged for her. Kelly sidestepped the man's attack and watched as the security guards jumped on him, disarmed him, and handcuffed his hands behind his back.

Kelly immediately went to the woman hostage to make sure she was unharmed. "Therese, call the police!" Kelly shouted.

"We already did. They should be here in a couple minutes," the burly security officer explained.

"Good." Kelly sighed. "Ma'am, are you sure you're okay?" Kelly wanted to make sure she was fine. "Is everyone okay?"

"I'm fine, young lady. We all are, thanks to you. That was either the bravest or the stupidest thing I've ever seen anyone do. He could've hurt you," she said in an awed voice. She continued to watch the security guards hold down the belligerent customer. He was straining for release to no avail.

"Nah, he was too upset to be accurate," Kelly smirked at the woman. "I'm glad you're all right, though. I'd never have forgiven myself if something had happened to any of you. Once you walk in through those doors, you're all my responsibility," she explained.

"You must be the manager here, then?" the woman inquired.

"Actually, I'm the regional manager for this area. This just happens to be the base store where my office is located. I'm glad I was here to help," the blue-eyed woman said, trying to downplay her heroics.

"You're a hero, is what you are, Miss... Kelly did you say your name was?"

"Yes, ma'am, Kelly Cavanaugh," Kelly said. "I feel awful that this happened. Please let me know if there's anything I can do for you."

"Don't worry about it. Unlike a few people I could name, I'm not going to sue you or anything because of this. You've already done quite enough. You saved my life. No one's ever done that for me before. Thank you, Kelly Cavanaugh."

Kelly blushed at this woman's outpouring, "You're very welcome," she smiled.

Kelly saw the police enter the building and rolled her eyes when she saw a camera crew for Channel Four News right behind them.

Oh, Christ, here we go. Merry Fucking Christmas! Kelly thought to herself.


*~*~*~*

Susan watched as the police cars screeched around Lawrence Avenue towards Saks. The sirens on each car were blaring loudly. She saw the Channel Four News truck right behind them. All of the vehicles raced up to the Saks building and stopped. Several people got out and ran inside.

Jesus! What's going on in there? Susan thought to herself as she felt her throat constrict.

"Oh, my God! Kelly's in there!" she shouted, and grabbed her bucket and ran for her office.

Susan dropped the bucket off with the woman at the office and said she had to leave. The woman at the desk looked bewildered at the whirlwind that was Susan. She assigned another person to the post and waited for the explanation that she knew would come from the loyal employee.

"I've got to get to her," Susan panted as she ran towards Saks. "I don't know what I'd do if I lost her, too."

Susan ran until she got to the front door. The police were bringing out a scary looking man, so she had to wait for them before she could enter. She looked through the windows, frantically searching for any sign of Kelly inside. Her eyes were filled with tears and her heart was thumping rapidly in her chest. She turned to one of the officers exiting the site.

"Officer, I have to get in there. My partner works in there! I have to know if she's all right," she tried to say calmly.

"No one's been hurt as far as I know, Ma'am," the young officer said.

"Can I please go inside? I really have to find her. Please?" Susan pleaded.

"Let me make sure you can go in." The officer turned and spoke with what Susan suspected was his superior and he returned to her shortly. "He says it's safe for you to go inside." he smiled.

"Thank you!" Susan exclaimed.

She ran inside the doors of Saks, beyond anxious to find Kelly. She headed directly towards the group of people with the camera crew.

"Kelly!" she cried.

She looked around and finally saw what she was looking for: a tall, auburn haired beauty that had climbed into her heart faster than the speed of light.

"Oh, Kelly!" she cried, and ran towards her.

Kelly saw the teary eyed woman running at her as she was answering questions for the Channel Four News. She smiled and turned towards her to absorb the impact of Susan's body against hers, then held the woman against her.

"Oh, Kelly, I was so worried!" Susan cried.

"Hey," she soothed. "I'm fine, sweetheart, I promise."

Susan held very tightly to Kelly until she was certain she was fine. "What happened? Why are the police in here? I saw them dragging out some scary looking dude. Did he do something?"

"Yeah, He was a bit unhappy with a gift he'd gotten for his wife, and he snapped. It happens this time of year. Not usually so extreme, but still..." Kelly smiled.

"What did he do?" the brown-eyed woman asked.

"He pulled a knife on one of my customers." She paused, unsure if she should tell the whole story. "Then he um... tried to stab me," Kelly said quietly, hoping Susan wouldn't freak out. The camera was still facing in their direction.

"What?" Susan cried. "Did you get hurt?" she asked again, this time trying to take a full inventory of all of Kelly's parts.

"Susan, I'm fine. Please, believe me. Besides, I think we've given them quite enough news already." She blushed at Susan who finally realized this was being captured for the world to see.

"Oh, screw them," she said as she leaned up and kissed Kelly solidly on the mouth. "I'm just so glad you're all right."

Kelly laughed at Susan's antics. "Me too, darlin'. Me too." She brushed her fingers down Susan's cheek. "Let's get out of here. I've had enough of this for one Christmas Eve. What do you say? Can we start celebrating early?"

Susan couldn't deny that hope filled face any more than she could live without breathing. "Okay, let me just finish up at the office and let them know that I'm leaving. I have an emergency to take care of," she winked. "Besides, we'll be there most of the day tomorrow. They'll be okay without me for a few hours."

"Great. Let me just grab my briefcase from my office and I'll be ready," Kelly said.

Susan smiled. "Okay, come to the office and I'll be there."

"All right, sweetie. I'll see you soon," she promised.

"Kelly... I... Bye," Susan stuttered as she waved. I love you, she thought to herself not being able to say the words.

"Bye," Kelly answered as she watched her friend walk towards the exit.

"Miss Cavanaugh, who was that?" the journalist asked.

With a look of awe on her face, she stared at the retreating figure. "Only the most wonderful person who's ever walked into my life. Are we finished?" Kelly asked, now filled with anxiety to get out of there.

The reporter smiled. "Yes, thank you, Miss Cavanaugh. Merry Christmas to you."

"Yeah, you too," Kelly said absently and headed towards her office.

"Wow, did you see that?" the cameraman asked the journalist.

"Oh, yeah, a Christmas story for the New Millennium," she smiled. "Tell me you got all of that," she said sternly.

"All of it," he said proudly.

"Good man."



Chapter Seventeen

God, I'm so glad to be out of there. That was as close to being killed as I'd like to come. I sure hope Susan's all right. She had such a distressed look on her face when I first saw her. Aw, hell, I'd be just as upset if our roles were reversed.

All right, Kelly, tonight is going to be fun. Let's not think bad thoughts any more than we have to. I'm sure Susan's gonna want the whole story, but after that, it's all about celebrating your first Christmas together.

Thank you. Yes, it's going to be great. I'll hold onto that thought.

Wow, our first Christmas together.

I couldn't believe I was sharing a holiday with someone this year. It'd been so lonely without my mom. My grandma came the first few years after my mom passed away, but I think it's just too hard for her. I buried my mother; she buried her daughter. I'm a reminder of that, I think. Hell, I don't think I could bury my own child.

I pray I never do.

It's always so hard for me this time of year, though. In four days it will be the anniversary of my mom's death. At least I got one more Christmas from her before she left. It was always such a special time for us.


*~*~*~*

Sleigh bells ring
Are you listenin'?
In the lane
Snow is glistenin'.
A beautiful sight
We're happy tonight
Walking in a winter wonderland

"Isn't this great, Momma?" Kelly asked as she placed the tinsel on their artificial Christmas tree.

Her mom glanced quietly at her daughter from her wheelchair. Kelly could see a little of the woman she knew as her mother staring back at her. Her grandma sat on the couch, coaching Kelly on where to put the rest of the tinsel.

"Honey, there's a blank spot towards the back. Can you get it?" She winked.

"Sure, Gram. I got it." She walked over to the bare part of the tree and placed some tinsel, as well as rearranging the ornaments to fill the area better.

"Perfect," her grandmother beamed.

Her mother peeped, letting Kelly know that she agreed. Pat, her mother's nurse, rubbed Dorothy's shoulders with affection.

"It's a beautiful tree, Dot," Pat smiled.

"I have to agree. Must be the trimmer," Kelly said confidently.

Her mother peeped again at the statement.

Kelly smiled lovingly at her mother. "So, Mom? Do you want to put up the last of the tinsel?" the teenager asked.

Her mom reached for Kelly's hand and she placed the tinsel over her mother's arm. Pat wheeled her mother closer to the tree and watched as Dorothy tried desperately to loop the tinsel onto the tree branch. Kelly watched painfully as her mother continued to try to get her hand to cooperate. Dorothy had lost her abilities in her right hand, but still had some movement in her left.

With a victorious gleam in her eye, her mother placed the last piece of tinsel on their tree.

"Oh, Momma, that's beautiful! This is the best tree we've had yet!" Kelly's face was as bright as Christmas lights.

Kelly saw the first smile from her mother in days. Her heart flooded, as did her eyes. She looked away so her mother wouldn't see the sadness that prevailed.

They all knew Dorothy didn't have much time left. She could barely keep anything in her stomach. Her body would purge anything it was fed. Her breathing had become increasingly shallow, and she needed more sleep now than she ever had.

Kelly moved to change the record. She found one of her mother's favorite Christmas songs.

It's the most wonderful time of the year
There'll be much mistletoeing
And hearts will be glowing
When loved ones are near
It's the most wonderful time of the year

Andy Williams sang in the background as Kelly composed herself. She took deep breaths and told herself that she needed to show her mom that she'd be all right. She thought her mother stayed around because she was worried about her. As much as Kelly didn't want her mom to leave her, she wanted her to be at peace.

Kelly moved to sit next to her grandma on the couch. Pat wheeled her mom close to them as they all looked at the tree.

"Ready?" Pat smiled.

"Do it!" Kelly shouted.

Click

The tree lit up brilliantly when Pat flicked the switch. All four of them just stared at it, lost in their own thoughts. Smiles were wide, even on Dorothy. Kelly leaned over to her mom's wheelchair and reached for her hand. Dorothy grasped Kelly's hand with as much strength as she could muster. Connie reached over the chair and placed her arm around her daughter's shoulders.

"Picture time!" Pat shouted as she walked to the kitchen table to grab the camera.

The three women looked up at Pat and put on their best smiles. As the flash went off Kelly sobered, knowing this was the last Christmas she would have with her mother. She leaned over and placed a kiss on her cheek. "I love you, lady," she rasped as she felt her hand being squeezed slightly.


*~*~*~*

Tracing the picture of the three of us with my fingers, I waited for Susan to change clothes. I kissed the photo and returned it to its place on the mantle of my fireplace.

"Penny for your thoughts," Susan chimed, startling me for a moment.

"They're not worth that much sometimes," I said blankly.

"Honey, what's wrong? Are you still reeling from today?" Susan asked tenderly.

"No, just feeling a bit sad, I guess. I promised myself I wasn't going to feel that way this year, but it always hurts so damn much," I said, trying to swallow the emotions I could feel building. I reached out and handed Susan the picture.

"Is this your mom?" she asked in a childlike voice.

"Yes, it was the last picture we'd taken together. Christmas Eve, eleven years ago. She died four days later," I said gravely.

"Can I ask you what she died from?" Susan asked softly.

"ALS," I answered stiffly.

I watched her brows furrow and I figured I should just get it out in the open. She deserved to know the truth. She'd earned that trust and then some.

"Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's Disease. It's a gradual, fatal, neuromuscular disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and around the spinal cord. Basically, the motor neurons die and can't send signals to the muscles. The brain just stops working in that way. The muscles get no nourishment, so they turn to mush. All voluntary muscle movements are affected and the person eventually becomes completely paralyzed. The lungs give out, and that's what actually kills them. They suffocate, and then die. It's just brutal," I said hoarsely.

"Thanks for showing me the picture. She was very beautiful, just like her daughter." She handed the picture back to me.

"Thanks," I said, feeling the tears brim in my eyes.

"I think I have a good idea about why you don't like to celebrate Christmas. I'm so sorry, Kelly," she said as she looked so compassionately into my eyes.

That was all it took, I felt the floodgates open and suddenly Susan's arms opened wide.

"C'mere," Susan whispered.

I fell into her arms and began to cry. I hadn't felt this out of control in years. It'd been over a decade since her death and I still had a hard time. I guess I always would. After several moments I stood straighter and wiped my eyes. "I'm sorry. This is supposed to be a fun night for us. Let's start that fun, shall we?" I asked, sniffling.

"Yes, let's. I'll get dinner started, and you go turn on the tube or something until it's ready," she directed.

"Are you sure I can't help?"

"You can help by eating everything on your plate. How's that?" She smiled such a beautiful smile, and I knew I couldn't deny her.

"I'll be in here until you call then," I acquiesced.

"Good girl." She winked and patted my behind as I turned towards the couch. She smiled at me and walked towards my kitchen, where she stayed to fix dinner.



Chapter Eighteen

God, how awful for her. I'd only heard bits and pieces about that illness. How does a seventeen year old girl watch her mother die like that? How does anyone watch someone they love die at all?

Jesus.

I turned my thoughts to my spaghetti. I needed to make the best damn pasta I'd ever made. I wanted this night to be special, now more than ever. I hoped once we started trimming the tree, we'd both fall into a fun rhythm and begin to make new and happier memories. I'd do everything in my power to make this a special time for her again.

For both of us.

I'd found some eggnog at the grocery. God, I haven't had that in ages. I hope she likes it, too. I could get used to working in this kitchen. She has every amenity I've ever seen! I bet she's used every appliance in here, too. They way she's cooked for me, I'd bet my last dime on it.

"Ten more minutes!" I shouted into the family room.

"Thanks!" I heard her call back to me. I smiled in response and stirred my sauce a little more.

I took a spoonful into my mouth for a taste and hummed in pleasure. It'd been a while since I'd cooked this for anyone. I think Carol was my last taker. She was such an amazing woman. I feel her presence with me every once and again. I know she'll always be a part of me.


*~*~*~*

"Hey, you still up?" Susan asked from the sleeper sofa.

"Not anymore. What's the matter, darlin', can't sleep?" Carol asked from her bedroom.

"No. I could never sleep the night before Christmas. I guess I'm wondering what my parents are doing," Susan admitted softly, staring at the small tree in their living room.

"Get your butt in here. This old bird can't hear you all the way in there. If you wanna talk, then assume your position," the older woman chuckled.

Susan was already three steps into Carol's room before she finished. "You sure you're not tired?" Susan said as she snuggled into Carol's bedding.

Carol turned to face her bedmate. "What's on your mind, kiddo?"

Susan was on her back with her hands behind her head, looking at the ceiling. "Do you think they still think about me?" she asked shyly.

"I can't answer for them, darlin', but I know that if you were my kid, I'd be sick over not knowing where you were," Carol said honestly.

"If I was your kid, you'd never have tossed my ass out in the first place," the bitter woman spat angrily.

"You're right, my dear. You're absolutely right on that," Carol said as she fingered Susan's pillow-smashed hair. "They had their reasons, though."

"Their reasons were bullshit, Carol, and you know it! How could they throw away their own child because they didn't agree with her sexual orientation? That is just ludicrous! I would never do that to my child. It's not like I invited them into my bed, for God's sake!" Susan cried. "It was a mistake the way they found Cindy and me. I never meant for them to see me that way. I never meant to hurt them."

"Shh, honey. No one can explain that except for your parents. They must've grown up believing that. Some people just can't deal with change," she explained softly.

Susan began to cry in earnest. "Why didn't they love me enough to keep me?"

"I don't know, honey. I just know that I've been blessed to have you in my life. You're such a strong woman, Susan. You've come so far in such a short amount of time," Carol soothed. "When I met you, you were so full of piss and vinegar! I couldn't get anything nice to come out of your mouth for weeks." The woman chuckled in memory.

"You had such a tough skin when we first met, I thought I'd never get in. I'm so glad I kept at you, darlin'." She turned to lie on her back. Susan soon followed her movements until the larger woman was cradling her.

"So am I. I was so angry all the time. I'd forgotten how to feel anything else. You came along and changed all of that. Thank you for letting me feel loved again." She snuggled deeper into the woman. "I wish you were my mom, sometimes."

"I'd be the luckiest woman on this planet if I had a daughter half as wonderful as you, darlin'," she sighed, feeling the tears come to her own eyes. "Thank you for letting me in."

Susan smiled. "Thanks for knocking."

"Merry Christmas, Susan," Carol softly whispered into Susan's hair.

"Merry Christmas, Carol," she said, and giggled to herself at the way that sounded.

"Ha, ha, very funny. Now go to sleep," Carol mumbled.

"Yes, ma'am." Susan smiled. "Good night."

"Good night, darlin'."


*~*~*~*

I wiped my eyes at the memories flooding through my brain, just in time to hear the bell on the stove ring. God, she was special. If she hadn't found me, I shudder to think where I'd be right now. Certainly not in here. And certainly not with the beautiful woman that's waiting for me in the next room.

I'm feeling pretty darn lucky right now.

Thanks, Carol.

"Hey, Susan! Come quick! We're on TV!" I heard Kelly shout.

I raced into the living room and saw the five o'clock news.


*~*~*~*

"Kelly Cavanaugh, Regional Manager for Saks Fifth Avenue, an up-scale clothing chain, spread a little bit of her own Christmas cheer today when she saved a woman's life right here in her own store." The interviewer turned to face Kelly.

"Miss Cavanaugh, can you tell us what happened today?"

"Well, I was in my office when one of our customers came in and was unhappy with a purchase. He kind of got out of hand with a sales clerk and another customer."

"Can you describe what happened?"

"After he had shouted his unhappiness with the product, he pulled a knife from his pocket and pointed it at one of my employees," Kelly began.

"Then what?" The interviewer shoved the microphone back into Kelly's face.

"At that point I'd come out of my office to find out what the shouting was all about, and saw him pointing his knife. I tried to intercede and help with the transaction, but he got impatient and grabbed the woman in line behind him and put the knife to her throat. I'd called for Security and when I saw them arriving, I made a move to distract him; which is when he tried to take a stab at me. The guards jumped him, and the rest is history," she smiled shyly.

"Oh, don't let her fool you! She's a hero!" a woman in the background cheered as the camera focused in on her. "She saved my life as well as everyone else's here today. Kelly Cavanaugh is a hero."

The camera panned back to show Kelly's flushed face and then focused on her turning towards Susan who was running towards her and crying out her name.

Susan ran into her full tilt as the camera continued to roll. "Oh, Kelly, I was so worried!" Susan cried.

"Hey," she soothed. "I'm fine, sweetheart, I promise."

The camera cut to Susan's kiss on Kelly's lips, then Susan's voice was heard. "I'm just so glad you're all right."

Kelly laughed. "Me too, darlin'. Me too." The camera and the viewing audience watched as she brushed her fingers down Susan's cheek. "Let's get out of here. I've had enough of this for one Christmas Eve. What do you say? Can we start celebrating early?"

Cut to:

"Okay, come to the office and I'll be there."

"Alright, sweetie, I'll see you soon."

"Kelly... I... Bye," Susan stuttered as she waved.

"Bye," Kelly answered as she watched her walk towards the exit.

"Miss Cavanaugh, who was that?" the journalist asked.

With a look of awe on her face, she stared at the retreating figure. "Only the most wonderful person who's ever walked into my life." A beat. "Are we finished?"

"Yes, thank you, Miss Cavanaugh. Merry Christmas to you."

"Yeah, you too," Kelly said as she walked away.

"A Christmas story for the New Millennium. I'm Tina Simkins reporting. Back to you, James."


*~*~*~*

Kelly turned down the news as we looked in awe at each other.

"I can't believe they showed me kissing you on national television!" I exclaimed.

"Me neither!" Kelly smiled. "You looked pretty good, I have to say."

I felt my face flush in embarrassment. "Thank you. You're not so bad yourself, Miss Hero."

She modestly changed the subject. "So, how's dinner coming?"

"A couple of minutes and it should be done," I smiled. I had so much energy all of a sudden from the news broadcast. "God, I want to call someone to see if they saw us on TV!" I shouted.

"Well, I'm sure plenty of people saw it. Besides, it had a happy ending. What better story can you tell on Christmas, right?" Kelly beamed.

She looked more beautiful to me at that moment than she ever had. I knew without a doubt that Kelly and I had a future. A very happy and loving future. At this point, I could've forgotten about the newscast. The whole known world could've seen us for all I cared. I just wanted to spend Christmas with the woman that had stolen my heart.

"Let's eat!" I exclaimed.

"I'm right behind you," Kelly smiled.


*~*~*~*

"...I'm Tina Simkins reporting. Back to you, James."

The TV was muted as a hand covered the mouth that hung agape. Hazel eyes filled with tears as the realization hit like a ton of bricks.

"Oh, my God... Susan..."


*~*~*~*

To Be Continued in Part 3.

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