`

A Length of Joy

Copyrighted © 2004 All Rights Reserved
By B. S. Raven


Disclaimers: See Chapter One.

Chapter 3

At the end of the second week, the young visitor looked around the room, and moved to stand in front of a beautiful, framed sunset photograph which captured her eye as she started each day. It was of a fall foliage scene with the sunset hitting the various shades of orange, gold, yellow, red and mint green leaves of the trees in just the right angle across the valley. It had obviously been taken in a mountainous range, which looked a lot like up-state New York. However, she was sure the trees were oaks, hickories and sycamores and she didn’t see any maples, or poplars.

“That scene is so peaceful and beautiful, I wonder if they have horse trails and riding there?” She decided she would ask Raven where she had shot this particular landscape at breakfast.

Joanna turned and caught a glimpse of herself in the dresser mirror. She burst out laughing at the sight. She had confiscated one of Raven’s Jaguar shirts from the laundry room the previous evening. It was just lying there neatly folded in the laundry basket, and she had decided it would be ideal to sleep in, even if the shirt did go way past her knees and swallowed her.

“Have to admit, it doesn’t look glamorous, but it sure is comfortable,” the blonde wiggled her eyebrows as she spoke to the reflection.

The smell of coffee captured her attention and she quickly ran a brush through her hair and exited the room without changing the shirt. She entered the kitchen barefoot and without makeup. It felt so right. She was experiencing a quiet, at home feeling here.

She and Raven had discussed the incident at the Fountain of Youth several times the past couple of weeks. They came to the conclusion that the feelings of destiny would be revealed to them in the proper time. Although both women felt deeply that there was more to be opened to them, neither of them wanted to make the other uneasy in any way. Time would take care of everything, they both had agreed, and they were content with getting better acquainted and enjoying the photo shoot.

“Ah, good morning Joanna. I knew the coffee aroma would find its way to your room and force you to the table,” Raven commented. She had heard the pitter patter of bare feet on the wooden floor as she scooped the last strips of bacon onto the plate. “I hope you don’t mind omelets again, but I did make grits to go with them this mor…nnn… So, that’s where my favorite sleeping shirt went?” Raven queried in a lighthearted tone.

“Oh, Raven, I’ve seen you in three different Jaguar shirts. I didn’t think you would mind me appropriating this one…. You don’t, do you?” Joanna asked teasingly.

“Nah… Have to admit it looks better on you than me… But, I liked the … ah…well, I was getting used to the negligees…” stammered the tall cook.

“Thank you, Raven. But, I noticed you gulped your food when I appeared at the table in those particular garments. I don’t think you received enough sustenance at breakfast…. For some reason, you seemed to be distracted,” taunted the young blonde. “And speaking of food, I would be most willing to prepare the evening meals for us, if you would agree to continue preparing these monumental, but marvelous breakfasts which are fattening me up so quickly,” Joanna teased. “I really am an excellent cook, and I would love to return your hospitality by preparing some dinners for you.”

“Uh...huh, you cook?”

“Certainly, I do. I haven’t been in front of a camera all my life, Tall One. You don’t think I would kid you about knowing my way around a kitchen, do you? I’ll have you know, Ms. Longgear, being a Banking-Ambassador’s daughter, I know first-rate food. I have eaten…and watched the best food prepared around the world since I was four!”

“Do tell! However, my dear Miss Stern, with all that around the world-critiquing, did you ever once actually boil a pot of water?” queried the tall photographer.

“Oh, phew! I’ll show you. Tonight, while you’re doing those nightly routine-developing sessions of yours and printing out the day’s shoot, I’ll prepare the meal. However, we will need to go shopping. We could stop by that grocery facility we seem to pass daily, as I will need to pick up a few things. Isn’t that store called ‘Hoggly Woggly’ a grocery market?” Joanna wiggled her eyebrows at the pronouncing of the strange name.

“Ugh! Did you say shopping? Like in shopping to pick up a few things? Uh…Joanna, it has only been a few days since I went with you to ‘PICK’ up a few things. There is no way on earth, nor any promise of … well, almost no promise of most anything…uh… that would get me in another store to pick up a few of anything!” Raven stated animatedly.

“We are talking food items here, Raven, not clothing and shoes. Besides, I only need a few items. What is the matter, you don’t want a good home-cooked meal, or are you afraid you will have to apologize for your snippy remarks about my not being able to boil water?”

“Okay, I’ll hold off judgment about the boiling water, and yes, the Hoggly Woggly is a supermarket. Tell you what, I will drop you off at the grocery store, and I’ll go across the street and run the Navigator through the Kwik Lube, fill the car with gas and meet you in front of the store. That should give YOU enough time to pick up the FEW THINGS you’ll need,” Raven suggested adamantly.

“Oh, you! How will I know what foods you like if you don’t come with me? Besides, that was almost two weeks ago and I thought you enjoyed shopping with me?” Joanna teased the taller woman as she reached over and confiscated one strip of her bacon before Raven could blink.

“Stop that, you bacon stealer. I made you six pieces and me only three. Where do you put all that food, you are so…”

“Tut Tut.” Joanna shook her finger toward Raven, “Don’t you dare finish that sentence. My stature may not be as tall and lanky as yours, but I still need a lot of food to give me energy. Besides that, you make excellent omelets and these grits aren’t bad, either. They are quite a change from breakfast potatoes.”

“I’m glad you enjoy my breakfasts, Joanna. I have a few specialties, but I’m not a really knowledgeable cook.”

“I have gathered as much from the many meals out,” stated the young actress.

“My aunt tried to teach me southern cooking, but gave up after I finally mastered cornbread, chili and BBQ. Clarea wasn’t much better at cooking than I was, so we did get to know which restaurants offered the best cuisine around here.” Raven eyes moved from Joanna’s to the table with her last remark.

“And Clarea is?” inquisitively asked the young woman seated across from the now fidgeting photographer.

“Was, Joanna. Clarea was my partner. She was from Chile and we took assignments in South America often so she could visit her family. She was killed in an earthquake we were covering.” Raven quietly replied.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Raven, I should not have been so inquisitive. I didn’t mean to pry.”

“That’s all right, Joanna. It was over five years ago, and life does go on. I’m somewhat reconciled to the events now,” Raven confirmed in a monotone. Raven felt a little queasy. Mentioning Clarea in Joanna’s presence had brought back painful memories. Memories Raven didn’t understand. She did not want to revisit the nightmare that followed Clarea’s death. Now it was happening all over again, the pain, the feelings, and Raven hated it. Is this queasiness because I’m having certain feelings for Joanna? No! I’m not going to go through that again! I won’t lose another love. Joanna will leave! I’m not going through that hurt again.

Joanna shook her head, “If you want to talk about it, I will be here to listen. Anything you want to tell me, I will be interested in hearing. I would like to know what kind of person you selected as your partner,” the honey-haired woman responded warmly.

Joanna’s tone changed as she related sorrowfully, “Personally, I didn’t make a very good selection with mine. We were only together three years when I found her in bed with the Assistant Director of the show. Sad part about the whole thing, it was our apartment, and our bed. Needless to say, I now have an agent instead of a manager. Right after discovering the infidelity, the Assistant Director and my former Manager moved to California to work together there for a movie studio, but their relationship didn’t seem to last either…or, so I’ve heard.”

“That must have been a shock,” the lanky dark-headed woman remarked.

“We never really became close, we’d actually grown apart over the three years. We seldom talked when I was in New York or when she joined me in Canada. But yes, it was a shock. She was still the only woman I had ever lived with, and I guess it hit me hard because of how my family was and how I was raised…. Be faithful, talk when there is a problem or issue involved, and remember to approach all dealings you are in with honor, and conduct yourself in a truthful manner, always,” Joanna replied, remembering the pain she’d felt when she had opened the bedroom door. She still didn’t like talking about that period in her life, and yet, it seemed so natural to open up to Raven.

The young woman sighed and continued, “Margie admitted she and Sue had been having an off and on affair for almost six or seven years. The show only made it easier for them. It’s thorny when you find out it was only sex and not love between you and someone else. I knew I wasn’t in love with Margie, but I never suspected she had been deceiving me or carrying on with Sue for several years prior to and after becoming involved with me; much less that she had never broken it off. Unfortunately, Margie died in an accident, shortly after she and Sue broke up,” she admitted regrettably. “How long does it take to get over it?” Joanna asked.

Raven shrugged and considered her reply, “I don’t think you ever really do,” she stated at last. “You just learn to accept it. But you never stop wondering how it might have been. Or what it would have been like to have a complete family with the partner of your choice.”

Joanna closed her hand on Raven’s squeezing gently. “You said a complete family. Did you really want a family? You want children, Raven?”

“Oh, sure,” Raven answered. “I wanted them a lot; most of our friends had young families, and I envied them. But Clarea insisted we wait until the time was right. When we had money saved, or when the globe-trotting was over and our careers were more stable, or when we had a house. But for Clarea, the time was never quite right , so, eventually, I just stopped thinking about it. Then she was killed, and after that, I have kind of… avoided permanent relationships.”

“I can understand you must be still emotionally drained by Clarea’s death. I can’t envision you living with someone you weren’t completely involved with and devoted to, as well. I have wanted children myself, Raven. So, I know what that feeling is like, and for what it’s worth, I think you would make an excellent mother.”

“Thanks, I believe I’d be a good Mom. And yes, it has been draining, not only emotionally, but mentally and physically.” Raven looked back to the kind eyes across from her. “I had a learning experience with Clarea. I do believe she was in my life to teach me to love, and to love unconditionally. I think I learned that lesson, even if it did come with a great deal of grief. I believe she completed her life’s mission and it was her time to go on and perhaps enter an existence that would allow her to be with her soul mate eventually.” Raven continued looking into the eyes of the beautiful face, which she recognized as having sincere empathy to her remarks.

“I loved her very much Joanna, but I was not in love with her. There is a difference to me. However, we both were certain we were destined to spend a period of time together for our life’s goal. Perhaps that is the reason for not having children. However, I don’t regret one day of my time with her,” her pulse quickening as she saw tears forming in the Joanna’s eyes.

“I have always wanted a relationship with that depth, Raven, but never thought I’d find the right woman, or be that fortunate. I think I could make someone very happy if they felt that way about me,” she said emotionally. “Raven, I have to tell you, these last two weeks have been some of the happiest days of my life…well, certainly the last several years any way. I feel as if I have finally found my wings and can fly.”

“Beware you don’t flutter into bad publicity and land in the gossip columns, Joanna. You are a celebrity; the gossip might damage your standing as well as your popularity with your fans.”

“I’ve seen the way the gossip columnists have already linked my name with a variety of women and speculations. My relationship with Margie wasn’t well known outside the show’s powers that be, but I have never hidden my preference. Not from my family, friends or even the press,” Joanna looked straight at Raven, “I can handle what the media and, for that matter, what the public says about my personal relationships, Raven. I wouldn’t be in the kitchen if I couldn’t take the heat.” She reached for Raven’s hand. “My private life is my own. I’m not a politician” Joanna was certain that Raven wasn’t convinced. “All right,” she was fairly certain Raven was of the same mind about her personal life, “If you ever consider such a step again, I want you to know I might be willing to discuss the potential or at least the possibilities with you.” Darn, I really was quite forward with that pass. Heck, I don’t care. I really would consider a relationship with her; it even feels right thinking about it.

“Sounds like an idea well worth considering Joanna. I’m honored by your proposition.” Raven stated as a simple smile began and the blonde sitting in front of her returned it. That was a pass if ever I heard one.

I wonder if she is serious about her personal life coming first. Raven had mixed emotions about becoming involved with a woman who was in the public eye so much. She had always enjoyed her private life and the freedom from worrying about someone’s public image. Besides, she is here only for a short time, and will be flying away as soon as the shoot is over - - only a few more days left…. I wish she… Stop that Stretch, she will be gone soon! Raven enjoyed the warm feel of Joanna’s hand gently on hers, and she wanted to know more about her-her likes and dislikes, her hopes for the future. “Joanna, when you are not working on lyrics, acting, or producing, whatever you do in your spare time?”

Joanna smiled. “Would you believe I actually like to cook---not everyday ordinary cooking, but gourmet meals?”

Raven laughed. “I have to admit I find that a bit surprising. Seems to me, I remember you stating on a TV interview-or was it a talk show that you have a definite aversion to anything domestic.”

“I’m still not wild about spending the day cleaning house,” she admitted, “but after my older sister’s wedding, Mother gave me a gourmet cookbook. I guess she didn’t want her little girl to starve, and I tried out some of the recipes. Watching master chefs all over the world while Daddy was in the Diplomatic Corps actually began my interest in gourmet cooking. After I prepared a few dinners all by myself, and everyone made such a fuss, I kept cooking. I can make a great bouillabaisse, and you should taste my chicken marengo.”

Raven tried to visualize Joanna standing in the kitchen preparing a fancy meal. It certainly presented a far different picture from what she would have imagined two months ago. She smiled at the image of her wearing a dainty apron and shuffling through the pages of a cookbook. “I’d like a sample,” she said.

“Of which? Joanna asked. “The bouillabaisse or the chicken marengo?”

Neither, Raven thought. Of you! Jesus! Where did that come from? This woman is not only getting under my skin, but has me doing tap dances with my mind and body. Must stop thinking about her like tha. She will be gone in a few weeks. No, it will only be a few more days. Get a grip Raven.

Well? Ah…if you would prefer something specific tell me? Now, what do you enjoy eating… huh? Which foods?” Joanna had the definite inner feeling that Raven’s thoughts were on something other than food, but didn’t care to press the issue-not at this time at least.

“Look. It’s late…. We need to get into town and take that carriage ride. Perhaps we could continue this discussion later, Joanna?” The taller woman gently removed her hand from under Joanna’s and lifted the coffee cup to her lips. “As for food, I’m not a picky eater. I like most anything… well, I don’t particular like escargot or boiled eels, but anything else, I will at least try.”

“How about roast beef, and are there any vegetables you don’t care to eat?”

“Yes, I love roast beef, and I haven’t found a vegetable I wouldn’t eat yet.”

“It’s settled then; you fix breakfast, I’ll prepare dinner occasionally and we can eat out the other times. Deal?”

“Deal!”

“You had better finish my last piece of bacon and toast, and let’s get started. We will have a long morning and I want to end the day at the Alligator Farm,” the dark-headed woman suggested.

Joanna almost choked as she placed the last fork of grits in her mouth when she heard the words ‘Alligator Farm’. Raven reached over and patted her on the back and filled her orange juice glass again.

“Did you say Alligator Farm? Like in those long things that look like crocodiles?” The panicked expression on Joanna face clearly showed the fear of the mentioned alligators.

“The same. What’s the matter Joanna, you afraid of ‘gators?”

“Yes! And crocodiles, and salamanders and Komodo dragons, and any other long, ancient looking beasties.”

“Oh! I will make sure we only photograph from a distance and there will always be a fence between you and the ‘gators, Joanna. If you don’t want to do that particular shoot, we will skip it and do something else,” Raven countered with concern, “I don’t want to cause any anguish and I don’t want you to be uncomfortable with any setting.”

“No, it’s okay, Raven. We will do the Alligator Farm. It’s just…well… I did a motion picture four years ago filmed on the Nile River. The boat I was on accidentally tipped over and a crocodile bit one of the boatmen. I have been afraid of those sorts of creatures ever since. You have to admit, alligators and crocodiles are look alikes and are even relatives of sorts.”

“I understand. We will do the aquarium instead, or perhaps a canoe trip in the river and check out the Bridge of Lions? That sound okay with you?”

“You have yourself a deal, Ms. Longgear.”

“Anything else you don’t want to shoot? I was planning on taking you bird watching and fishing off my sailboat this weekend with my two best friends. But if you are afraid of being around the water, with fish and such, you need to tell me now.”

Joanna suddenly felt relaxed at Raven’s intentions of introducing her to her friends. She knew this was a significant step for Raven, as she had proven she valued her privacy and placed her friends in that category. Joanna could feel the warmth and contentment starting to rise in the pit of her stomach. “I’d like that very much, Raven. I’ve never been fishing before, nor bird watching, but I do know how to sail, and I am not afraid of the water or normal fish.”

“Good. Then you won’t mind if we go canoeing later this afternoon, instead of the aquarium. I need to check out the Bridge of Lions, and shoot a couple rolls of film for my monthly report to the Preservation Society. You’re welcome to come along tonight. It shouldn’t be a long session, but we need to get this last report in to the Corp. of Engineers and the Historical Society in Washington by the beginning of next month,” she remarked with a faint, easy smile.

“Talk about me being busy and having no spare time-you, Ms. Longgear, have me beat by a country mile!” Joanna eyed Raven over the rim of her cup. “Canoeing sounds wonderful, and yes, I’d like to attend your Preservation meeting with you. Is someone seriously considering removing that beautiful old bridge?” she asked.

“Uh huh-they have been trying for the last eighty years and nearly succeeded a couple of years ago, even though the Society finally was able to get it on the Historical Register. Some movement wanted to put in a modern six-lane express with tollbooths, no less. We really had to fight that pressure group. Nothing as picturesque and as historical as the Bridge of Lions should be replaced by the modern marvel of concrete,” she declared almost growling. “Let them build the express bridge twenty miles down the coast to connect old Route 1 and the Interstate. That’s why I donate some of my time to the Society. If you’re finished, I’ll put the dishes in the dishwasher while you get dressed.”

“Okay, I’ll be dressed and ready to go in a half hour. That all right?” She said as she stood up and handed her cup to Raven.

“Sounds like a plan, but take your time, though, as the carriage rides won’t start for another hour.” Raven smiled as she placed the cup on the empty plate and removed both of them along with hers and placed them in the sink.

Joanna had started from the room, when she remembered the photograph and turned toward Raven, who was now placing the dishes in the dishwasher. “Raven, I was admiring the sunset scene in my bedroom and I was wondering where it had been taken?”

Raven stood up, glanced over her shoulder at Joanna, “It was taken in Tennessee, at a place called Monteagle. I have a little place near there. My vacation cabin of sorts,” she said.

“It’s beautiful, and looks so peaceful. Do they have trails and horseback riding there?”

“Matter of fact, my cabin is located on top of a peak, with forest and a six hundred acre farm down below it. It has several barns and horses, which are well ridden and maintained by the family that lives in the old farmhouse and manages the place year round. There are miles of trails for hiking and riding. A national park backs up to the property on the riverside, so it’s pretty isolated and natural in most every way. The park covers several thousand acres, and also has various trails. You interested in horses and hiking?”

“Sure am, and it looks very similar to our family place in upper New York, at the edge of the Catskills. When I’m not traveling or working, I like to spend as much time there as possible. I’d like to see your place sometime, if you would return the favor and come see mine?”

“Maybe,” was all that Raven spoke as she turned back to placing the tableware in the dishwasher. Slow down, Stretch, she will be gone shortly, don’t let yourself get too involved here, the lanky photographer thought to herself as she closed the appliance and turned the dial to wash.

Joanna was confused by the sudden change of attitude in Raven. She could feel the heat of a blush start as she tried to conceal her embarrassment. She noticed the non-commitment to the invitation, and the almost icy response. Wonder what in the hell is going on; she changed so quickly? then she turned, shaking her head and walked quickly down the hall to get dressed for the day’s photographing session. At least I’ll get to see her everyday. I know time is ticking away and the shoot will soon be over…why do I get the impression that if anything happens between us, I’ll be the one doing the instigating. Besides, I doubt she even realized she was short with me.

*****


Raven and Joanna approached a row of finely decorated carriages and horses with braided manes and tails. Most of the sturdy animals had some sort of highly decorated hats. The drivers were also dressed in early Spanish style. Raven sat her gear bag down in the back of one carriage and stood there waiting.

“Huh-huh.” She cleared her throat and leaned up against the carriage.

The carriage driver had her feet propped up on top of the front of the coach straightened up and turned to face the coughed growl. “Raven!” She screeched and was down off the carriage and draped her arms around the tall photographer before Joanna could blink. “Babe, where have you been? I haven’t seen you in what-three months or more?” She stated as she hugged the photographer. Raven turned her head and allowed the destined kiss to fall on her cheek instead of her mouth, and she gently returned a friendly peck on the driver’s neck. She felt an uneasy feeling of… guilt fill her senses, and quickly removed the redhead’s arms from around her neck and smoothly locked the claiming arms in front of her.

Joanna felt a slow burning start to crawl up her stomach and realized she was clenching her fists tightly. Babe? It sure sounds and looks like she is more than just a carriage driver. Darn it! Is this jealousy I feel? Joanna forced herself to look away and focused her attention on the horse a few feet in front of her. She moved towards the animal and placed her arm around the mare’s neck and patted her gently. “Hey, girl, what a pretty hat you have on. I bet you have one for every day of the week, huh?” The mare rubbed against Joanna’s arm and whinnied softly.

“Uh…Mary, I’d like you to meet… uh…this is ….”

“Hi, I’m Joanna,” the blonde, hearing the stammering attempt at an introduction, turned and extended her hand to the slightly puzzled woman standing in front of the tall photographer.

The driver looked at the beautiful young woman and then back at Raven before she reluctantly shook the extended hand, “Pleased to meet you, Joanna. Cat seems to have our friend’s tongue here. I have never seen her like that before… at least not in a very long time.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about, Mary. I just… well…I ..Oh hell! We want a carriage tour around the old city. Think we can convince you to take us instead of having to take the next carriage in line?”

“Don’t see why not, especially since I bought the inclusive carriage franchise a few months ago.” The redhead, who was almost as tall as Raven motioned for Joanna to mount the steps to the carriage and watched dumbfounded as Raven took the young woman’s forearm and assisted her into the carriage.

“You finally bought the franchise, Mary. Glad to hear of your acquisition, I knew you would eventually. Now... ahh…close your mouth Mary, and give us the deluxe tour please.”

The driver stepped close to Raven and whispered, “Any chance you are free later, Stretch, or is that,” she shook her head toward Joanna who was already seated and looking off to the right at the children jumping up and down in a nearby carriage.

Raven interrupted the redhead, “Just the tour, Mary, and she isn’t a that. I’d advise you to not say anything we both would regret in the future… and no, no later.”

“Shish, woman, I never thought I’d see you hog-tied again,” her stomach made an unpleasant roll as she fidgeted.

“MARY!” Raven glanced at the driver, her face drawn tight.

The driver stiffened, then nodded… and remembered how Raven had felt in her arms that night. Slim and large-boned in the demure satin gown, her body had been firm... and her body had reacted as any woman’s would react to the knowledge that almost nothing separated her skin from full breasts, lightly curving hips and long, fantastic legs. And the whole package had made Mary promise to look after her should the need ever arise. That night had taught her a lesson. For the sake of her mental health, there could never be a repeat performance. If Raven ever guessed she’d wanted to tear off that slip of satin and carry her back to share her big, inviting bed; she’d lose the most worthwhile friend she had.

“Sorry.” Mary said finally.

“Okay.” Raven smiled. “Will you please help me show off our town to my visitor here?”

Mary grimaced and turned beet red. “Hop aboard, Stretch, let us get this tour on the road. She turned and stepped onto the carriage steps and sat gracefully down before unwrapping the reins from around the buggy whip. She lapped the reins firmly across the rump of the mare that knowingly eased out onto the road for the lengthy tour.

Joanna had turned her head in time to observe the whispered comments, and stared at the stunning, serious face of the woman now seated next to her. She honestly didn’t know what she was feeling, but she felt it was virtually the same thought process the photographer was feeling.

“Stretch? Nickname? Do you always speak so frankly, Stretch?”

“Yes, Stretch is what my close friends call me. And the third answer is, not always.” She picked up the camera bag and unzipped one side. “Joanna, I…”

“Let it drop, please, Raven.” The young woman didn’t seem surprised or offended.

The dark-haired woman’s attention centered on Joanna, “She is a friend, a friend who was out of order. And yes, we have a history. We became close after Clarea’s death. I needed someone to talk to without strings attached. Mary was that someone.”

“How like you,” Joanna said softly. “To be so loyal to a friend-particularly a friend who has obviously come to mean so much more than the simple translation of the word.”

“What do you mean?” She felt concerned. Every word that came from Joanna’s mouth seemed to be loaded with innuendos.

Slowly, Joanna twisted the bottled water between her fingers. “Perhaps I should have the backbone to say what I want to say and have done with it.” Her voice became almost inaudible. “It’s just damn awkward, that’s all. And I’m not even sure if I’ll be saying the right thing.” When Raven started to speak, Joanna gestured her to silence. “I’m going to follow my heart rather than my head in this. I don’t understand the feelings I’m having concerning you, Raven. Nor do I comprehend my quick bouts of jealousy. I know you have not been a saint, neither have I. But you must realize there is something going on between us, and it isn’t something shallow or superficial?” The sea-foam green eyes of the young woman were slowly glossing over as she continued to gaze deeply into the deep indigo eyes.

Nothing had ever felt as right to Raven as this did. Without knowing it, all the years of waiting and believing she was intended to live her life alone had been leading up to this day. As recently as six months ago, she’d have laughed at a suggestion that fate just possibly held some of the cards. She wasn’t laughing now.

Like Joanna, she must be almost afraid to believe this was happening between them. On this special day, probably the most special day of their lives, they needed to be alone where there would be no interruptions….but riding down Flagler Avenue wasn’t that place.

“I know,” was all that escaped as she moved closer to the flaxen-haired woman and placed her arm around her. “We need to talk, but not here. But soon, okay?”

“Soon, Raven, soon. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“The Castillo de San Marcos National Monument represents the oldest remaining European fortification in the United States,” came the sturdy voice of the carriage driver, interrupting a tense moment for the two women. They snuggled closer to each other in the back seat of the carriage. Neither really heard the driver as she continued her informative tour of the oldest city in Florida as they passed several concrete hotels.

“The arrival of Henry Flagler in 1885 marked the beginning of a golden era for St. Augustine that extended through 1914. Enticed by the city’s temperate climate and unique ambiance, Flagler saw great potential for St. Augustine as a popular winter resort and playground for rich Northerners. A co-founder of the Standard Oil Company with John D. Rockefeller, he immediately put his vast fortune to work building his dream.”

The redheaded driver turned to direct her conversation to the couple in the back of the carriage; however, the couple continued to stare deeply into each other’s eyes and gave no indication they had heard one word the informative driver had related. Well, at least she picked a very stunning woman to fall for, and one with spunk, she contemplated to herself, and then continued on with the paid tour spiel. “He constructed two lavish hotels, the beautiful Alcazar, and his masterpiece-the Ponce de Leon. Flagler also purchased the newly constructed Casa Monica Hotel, renaming it the Hotel Cordova.

“These hotels allowed St. Augustine to accommodate the wealthiest of travelers with luxurious lodgings and a fine array of leisure activities. His Florida East Coast Railway ensured a transportation link between New York and St. Augustine, and he built a two-story depot to receive arriving guests properly. Flagler was also responsible for building the town’s hospital, city hall, and several churches. Flagler expanded his dream south toward Palm Beach when he moved there in the early 1900’s, but had given St. Augustine an era of prestige and prosperity - the effects of which are still evident today.”

The driver stopped at a street vender and purchased three large iced teas, then shook the cups full of ice in front of Raven, who jumped as the cold cup touched her forehead.

“Thought you two would be interested in something cool to sip as we clip-clopped along the waterfront?”

“Ah… Sure. Sure, why not!” Raven reached into her pocket and produced a bill and handed it to Mary, who took it and shoved it into her pocket then handed the other cup to Joanna.

“Thanks, I was getting thirsty.”

“Hmm, I just bet you were,” said the driver as she returned to the front seat and the reins.

All three women laughed as the carriage started moving again. Having to hold the iced tea meant that the two women could no longer hold hands, but they did remain seated as close as they could. The warmth passing between the two bodies felt so magnetic and, most of all, it felt like a deep link between two souls was once again connected.

“Did we pass those old hotels, Raven? I’m afraid I wasn’t listening.”

“Yes, but I think we were hearing what we needed to hear, don’t you?”

The two women laughed again, and toasted the two teacups together.

“Touché.”

“I really am enjoying this sea breeze along the waterfront. Look at those sailboats cruising the bay. Reminds me of an era long past. Is your sailboat moored close by, Raven?”

“Yes, docked at Matanzas Bay, just past the point there, on the other side of the river,” she pointed in the direction to her right.

“Could we stop here for a few minutes please, and watch for awhile?”

“Certainly. Mary, could you please pull over for a short time and let us take in the view?”

“Absolutely, what ever you want. How about I stop at the pier, and run over and get an ice-cream cone? Either of you want one?”

“Yes, chocolate please,” requested Joanna.

“I’ll just finish the iced tea, Mary,” Raven replied as she reached into her pocket and handed the driver another bill.

Joanna looked out on the water and watched sailboats rock lazily on their moorings and old shrimp boats pass under the historic Bridge of Lions.

“Look,” she gestured toward the water. “Are those sharks?” She asked excitedly.

Raven immediately looked toward the area Joanna had pointed, and chuckled. “No, Joanna, not sharks. What you are seeing are a few playful dolphins.”

“Oh! Could we walk down the pier for a few minutes and watch them?”

“Certainly, here, let me help you down.”

“I don’t need your assistance to get down, but I’ll take your hand if that is all right with you.” She said as she hopped down off the carriage step and extended her hand to Raven, who immediately clasped her larger hand over the smaller one offered to her.

They strolled down the pier completely oblivious to the passing tourists and fishermen with reels slung over their backs. They stopped every few feet to gaze at the comical, playful antics of the dolphins swimming only a few yards from the pier.

“What beautiful creatures, and they seem so lively, almost mischievous, as they swim around. I’ve heard tell that dolphins can be understood by some trained humans?”

“I know they are very trainable, and I, too, have heard they are making remarkable progress in the study of sounds made by the dolphins.” Raven turned quickly to face Joanna, “Say! How would you like to go swimming with some dolphins? We could join the “Swimming With The Dolphins sessions offered at the aquarium.”

“Really? That sounds wonderful, but there won’t be sharks there, too, will there?” The young woman asked earnestly.

“Joanna, are you afraid of sharks, also?“

“Don’t know if I am or not, but they don’t look anything like alligators, so I will have to presume I’m not.”

“Good, I think you will enjoy the episode with the dolphins. No, Joanna, the sharks are in a different tank, and a different staging area, but we can feed them if you like. Actually they are afraid the dolphins will torpedo into the sharks and do them physical damage, or even kill them. So, they don’t allow the two to mix. We could go one day next week.”

“Great, I’d like that very much, and that sounds like a superb photo shoot don’t you think?”

“My sentiments exactly,” laughed the tall photographer as she slightly squeezed the small hand that now had fingers laced with hers.

“Isn’t that the state park we were in yesterday?” Joanna indicated a peninsula that protruded into the river down from the pier.

“Yes. The park boasts a broad beach flanked by sand dunes and a lagoon bordered by rich tidal marshes. A hardwood forest of ancient wind-swept oaks was in its youth when Juan Ponce de Leon landed near the area, giving Florida its name. Since Florida state parks are managed to appear as they did when the first Europeans arrived, you can easily imagine the bustle of the early native’s daily life. That is why the park attendants and all the exhibits have the traditional clothing and trades they did a couple hundred years ago, like when we went to old St. Augustine and the shops there.” The tall photographer spoke to the young woman who was only a few inches away from her as she felt the blonde tighten her fingers on her hand.

“Didn’t you tell me that, during the summer months, special slide programs are given on Saturday nights at the Campfire Circle?” Joanna asked.

“Yes, each program is nature-based and covers various topics such as Sea Turtles and Wildlife of Anastasia. The programs begin after sundown and all campers and tourists are welcome.” Raven explained and turned sideways to have a better view of the lovely face she was becoming drawn to very much.

“Anastasia State Recreation Area hosts two special events each year: Beach Bash and Carols By Candlelight,” continued the taller woman as she pointed to another flip by a nearby dolphin. “Beach Bash is held the first Saturday of June and is a family-oriented celebration of the beginning of summer. Activities are scheduled throughout the event and there is something of interest for all ages. Families are encouraged to participate together on the Treasure of Anastasia scavenger hunt, visit local vendors demonstrating their products, and enjoy the beach,” continued Raven.

“Joanna, you have never heard such singing as Carols By Candlelight. It is held on the first Friday night of December in the St. Augustine Amphitheater. This is a holiday event that features various community performing groups and as a grand finale, includes an audience participation, candlelit sing-a-long. The event is highly publicized by all local newspapers, radio and television stations and draws larger crowds each year. Just like Beach Bash, there is something for all ages, with the carols varying from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer to The Twelve Days of Christmas to Silent Night,” explained Raven.

“That sounds so welcoming and friendly. I imagine the natives attend every event?” Joanna’s excitement could be heard in her voice.

“Yeah, it kind of grows on you and you hate to miss the special festivities.” Raven chuckled at the blonde’s enthusiasm about her city. “Here from November through the end of January, the oldest city shines brightly at night with more than a million white lights strung like pearls along the bay front, the buildings, and the city’s central plaza. You missed that arrangement by a few months.”

“Well, perhaps I will be afforded the opportunity to see that site for myself next year,” she responded sincerely.

“Perhaps you will.” Raven looked at her questioningly, That sounded like she might be around, and yet her musical is scheduled to began rehearsals in about six months...wishful thinking on my part. Come next month, she will be gone…I must stop anticipating she will stay around to be with you, Stretch, Raven shook the dark thought from her head.

“Tell me about Mary, Raven. She seems to be more than just a carriage driver-entrepreneur?” Joanna pulled Raven’s hand up to her chest and spread both her hands over the larger one.

Raven looked at Joanna uncertainly, but decided to answer the question frankly and as direct as she could. “Mary is a Mental Therapist, well, at least she used to be before she decided she needed to be a free spirit and get out in the open more. She still owns the Counseling Center here in town and is a partner in two over in Jacksonville. Plus, she is the owner of several strip malls, and several carriage franchises in Ocala, and Orlando. Apparently, she now owns the carriage franchise here. She and one of my neighbors were lovers for quite a few years, but they parted peacefully and still remain friends. We have known each other since childhood, and we did date off and on for a while. We don’t see each other as often now because of my traveling and work, but we are there for each other when we need to be. Is there something else you want to know?”

“Were you lovers, Raven?” she asked softly.

Raven felt her throat tightening, and wished she could respond differently, but she simply looked directly into the sea foam green eyes of the enchanting woman standing before her and replied, “Yes, only once, though. It was physical, Joanna; we needed each other. We haven’t been together that way in over three years.” With that admittance, the dark-haired woman hung her head.

“Thank you for being so straightforward with me, Raven.” She reached out with her other hand and lifted the almost square chin up so that their eyes met once again. “Thank you for being open with me, and sharing this part of your life. I don’t feel jealous anymore.”

“You… you are jealous of me? Of Mary?”

Joanna laughed at the astonished photographer. “Well, don’t think I just get jealous over just any Jane, Sara, or Kate. This connection between us is a new experience for me. I’m not quite sure where or how the green-eyed monster comes in to play, but, yes, I didn’t like the tones and touches of familiarity Mary was lavishing on you. Besides that, she is one good looking, sexy woman, and if things were different, she would probably cause my blood to heat up a bit also.”

“Joanna, you cause my blood to heat up, not Mary. It’s running races through my veins and I’m not even observing the yellow flag that keeps waving before my eyes. I don’t want to cause any covetous feelings, or misunderstandings between us. I’m like you in this, it’s new to me and I want to take it slowly. Besides, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and you will be leaving soon; I’m not sure where this will go.”

Joanna dropped Raven’s hand from her chest, and looked as if she might burst into tears. Raven could see emotions dart like thunderheads across Joanna’s face and, although she’d expected some repercussions to her remarks, the magnitude of her anger staggered the tall woman.

“NOT SURE WHERE THIS CAN GO? LEAVING? LEAVING? Raven, I just told you I believe I was falling for you, and you hem-haw around the issue. Oh, hell, forget it. You! You!..” She clenched her fists hanging close to her sides as if holding back from an attack, and her eyes blazed like green fire in the afternoon sunlight. “How dare you! How dare you toy with me like that?”

“You have every right to be….furious--”

“Furious?” She spat the words at her. “Furious doesn’t come close to how I feel.” Wariness joined the anger and hurt in her eyes. “Why, Raven? Why?”

Her heart lurched at the distress she’d caused the young woman. She had not meant to start an altercation. The thought of becoming close to this woman only to have her leave and knowing her heart would be a twisted mess once again left her in state of unrest and turmoil.

“Joanna, I swear to you, I never meant to cause you hurt, or to cause this feeling of … pure torture. I just want us to slow down and take this easy. I don’t mind telling you I am on uncharted ground here, and I feel like I have a knife piercing my heart. I don’t want to cause un-repairable events between us. Can’t we please just…?”

Joanna pivoted on her heel and would have run if Raven hadn’t leaped in front of her and grabbed her hand.

“Wait.”

She jerked from her grasp.

“Please,” she begged, “let me explain. Then, if you still want to leave, I won’t stop you.”

Raven held her breath as she hesitated. If she walked away now, she would lose her forever. She would lose everything she knew was her soul’s contentment and fulfillment, her length of joy of living itself.

She stomped back to where they had been standing and flung herself around to face the taller woman. “I’ll listen. But I can’t imagine any excuse to justify your remarks.”

Raven exhaled in relief and quickly stepped back to stand beside the younger woman whose knuckles were turning white from the clutching. “I didn’t say I could vindicate my remarks. I can only share my motives.”

“I’m listening.” The pain in her voice stabbed Raven with fresh guilt.

“I admit, in retrospect, my comments appear inconsistent. But when you first arrived, I was still angry from the New York scene, and I had to learn whether I could trust you, whether you would be around and not on the phone at every turn. Joanna, I have had my heart torn out and have had a protective shield up around it so long, that I couldn’t believe you could and were feeling the same as I. You confused me immediately with your openness, your simplicity. You…you…hell, Joanna, you jumped into my life so quickly, I didn’t have time to recognize this as real, that it isn’t going to go away. And if I don’t give out the same type of openness that is exactly what will happen. I only ask for us to slow down, and allow this right feeling, this ‘connection’, as you call it, to develop in an unhurried and deliberate mode. I’m talking about the rest of my life, Joanna; the rest of our lives.”

Joanna pressed her fingers against her temples, as if her head hurt. Then she crossed her slender arms across her chest, as if safeguarding herself from the memory. She threw her a puzzled look. “I know this is fast, Raven. And I don’t understand this connection, either. But I realize just as you do that there is more here than either of us has admitted, or that either of us understand. You’re right; we need to slow down. So where do you suggest we go from here, Raven?” she asked anxiously.

The dark-haired woman lifted her face and unshed tears glistened in the blue eyes. “Wherever you decide we go, Joanna.”

“Okay, suppose we proceed in an unhurried and deliberate mode as you requested, one step at a time. But we must have fruitful communication, and most of all, honesty about what we feel. Are we in agreement?”

“Agreed.”

Both women let out long, jaded breaths. “This has been an emotional roller-coaster for both of us; what do you say, we find another iced tea vendor and go for that canoe ride you promised me? Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Does this slow mode prohibit us from holding hands?” Asked the blonde as she turned toward the pier end.

“Certainly not,” came the reply as the photographer reached and grasped the hand already extended to her.

“Here’s your ice-cream cone, Joanna,” Mary said, as she handed the now dripping chocolate to the oval faced actress.

“Thank you,” responded the younger woman who hopped into the carriage and sat down in the middle of the seat.

Mary looked at Joanna and then Raven who had just re-entered the carriage and slumped down on the far side without looking up. Well, I guess I was a bit quick to judge this one, or Raven has again turned into a piece of granite. Too bad, Joanna seems like a frisky, but pleasant catch. “We have another twenty minutes of tour left, so I thought I’d just drive along the waterfront and back to the arcade circle, unless there is something specific you two want to see?”

“That’s fine Mary, whatever you decide,” responded the somewhat bewildered photographer.

“Fine, we’re off then.” I think this is going to be the longest twenty minutes I have ever driven, the redhead thought to herself as she once again eased the reins over the rump of the mare. “Home, girl.”

The next few minutes were so silent you could almost hear the heartbeat of the two women who were sitting side by side. True to the previously projected thought of Mary, the two women in the back of the carriage didn’t speak the remainder of the tour. Each was processing the staggering feelings and emotions that had ripped both of them on the wharf.

Raven gave Mary a quick hug, and told her she would keep in touch more frequently in the future before she reached into the back of the carriage and retrieved her unused camera bag, and turned to see Joanna waiting for her about twenty feet from the carriage.

Joanna turned and looked back toward the carriage for a moment and heard Raven’s comments of, “will keep in touch more frequently,” and immediately her eyes returned to view the town square again. What would she do if I stepped right back to the carriage and hauled her into my arms? The young blond ached to do just that. Every time she looked at the tall woman, her body tightened with need, with the desire to break through the barriers Raven kept between them. She clenched her teeth and balled her fists at her sides.

Patience, she thought. It had never been one of her strong suits, and though she had learned to exercise it somewhat when she was alone, she was no longer alone, she no longer wanted to be alone, and her patience was wearing very, very thin. What was going on, anyway? What was going on with Raven? Raven Longgear is not just another woman. Darn! I am tied up in knots over her. She had enjoyed her company during their past three weeks together, but none of the enjoyment had been sexual. That part of the realization had been fantasized, and if she had her way, they’d be enjoying themselves now. She wasn’t getting her own way, however, so why was she so frustrated? I’m falling hopelessly in love with her…that’s the whole damn reason!

Joanna realized she liked being with her, wanted more and more of her company, and even more. But Raven continued her elusive ways and there was little she could do about it, except be patient. She sighed. Patience was not a new and unwieldy characteristic for her, but she couldn’t get a grip on why something in her demanded she continue to practice it regarding the tall photographer-but something inside her did. Something told her the waiting would pay off in the end.

In the end, it was the exhaustion caused by the long hours shooting and the outdoor playing that saved her. She slept, but often when awakened, she was intensely aware of Raven in the bed in the room across the hall from her-except for that night when she awoke to hear Raven creeping down the hall. Thoughts about the coming and going, and what the tall woman was doing on those nights kept her awake until she returned to her room. She would find dozens of processed proofs on the kitchen counter the following morning, or see Raven’s jogging clothes in a heap on the laundry room floor. Joanna hadn’t asked Raven about her nightly plights…deep down she was too darn scared of being told to get out-of her home and out of her life. She wasn’t ready to sleuth yet, not until Raven came to her, not until she’d had enough of her. Enough of her? Heck! I can’t visualize any other place-or any other woman. I know I’ll never get enough of this woman. I don’t believe my earlier thinking was correct-not falling in love with her. I am already head over heels in love with her. I feel I’ve been in love with her my whole life. Just waiting for her to appear and be receptive of that love.

Her shoulders slumped as she proceeded to catch up with Joanna. Raven was trying not to think about the warm, fluffy feeling she was having towards the pretty, young, desirous female before her, but oh, it was so difficult! If only she could forget how much she wanted her. As each day went by, she needed her more and more, and she knew it was her own fault that she was still sleeping alone. Could she have a short-term affair with Joanna? Because Joanna was going to leave for sure. What would keep her here? She was famous, beautiful and very desirable, why would she want to stay with me? The memory of what she had gone through, how she felt after Clarea’s death had subsided, but could she go through that again? She will leave, but can I have anything for right now? Lord! What I wouldn’t give to have this feeling of completeness and love returned and her to be in my life forever.

“Ready to go?” Joanna asked tenderly, pulling Raven out of her fantasy world.

“Oh, yes. Sure. You?”

Joanna shrugged and affectionately answered. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”

Raven was so startled by the warmth in her voice that she lowered the camera bag, stepped closer to Joanna, and looked down into her sparkling eyes. Determined to make a move, some kind of move, and any sort of move while she was in a relaxed frame of mind, she slid her arm around the shorter woman. Joanna stiffened for a moment, and then softened against her. They shared the first real smile they had allowed themselves the past hour.

“Raven…uh.” Her warm breath puffed across her lowered tanned cheek. Her lips were parted; they looked full, inviting, and warm. She was going to kiss her-damn the consequences.

“On main street - Downtown Square?” Joanna asked quietly and the tall woman swallowed and stepped back a little, but didn’t release her hold on the shorter woman. Joanna could sense the time was near. How many times had she glanced up from working on her musical scoring to see an expression of hunger in the indigo eyes, a hunger she quickly cloaked. It was there, she knew it. She recognized it as the same hunger that was tearing her gut apart.

“I…I guess you’re right. Not the place, or the time.” Raven said slowly, connecting, feeling her way through the thought.

Joanna nodded, blinking as the sun shone on her eyes causing reflections in several directions. She pulled the taller woman under the shelter of a large palm tree, leaning back on the trunk out of the sun. Looping the tan hands loosely behind her back, she drew the taller woman close enough so that their toes touched. She shook her head to send a shower of gleaming smile at Raven. Her dangling earrings caught the light and played blue fire across Raven’s neck and under her chin, and she nearly gave in to the desire to touch those moving sparkles of color with the tip of her tongue. She knew she would taste as good as she smelled.

Raven stood very still in the loose embrace, her gaze fully on Joanna, questioning, wary, she thought, and she deliberately tightened the rein on herself, forced her body to be still and her attention to return to their conversation.

Suddenly, Joanna had to swallow hard against a lump that formed in her throat. She lifted one hand and touched the blue fire reflected on Raven’s throat.

Raven lifted her hand and ran a very deliberate, very evocative caress from her left temple to her chin, “I think I’m tired of playing charades,” she said, “and something tells me you are, too.”

Joanna said nothing. She wasn’t capable of speaking. Her voice was trapped beneath the sudden wild pounding of her heart in her throat. Suddenly she was more fearful than she had ever been in her life. It took her a few minutes to get a grip on herself. All right. She had called it. The time was now, and she was right. She was as tired as Raven was of playing charades with her. She loved her, and now, this afternoon she was going to show her. She met her gaze and realized… Raven knew, also.

A shiver of fear blended with anticipation prickled her arms, raising goose bumps. Joanna saw them, smiled, and smoothed them from her skin. She wondered what she would do if Raven acted like a wimp again. Would she continue, maybe force her to overcome whatever had cooled her ardor the past several weeks, or would she stop? Oh, Lord, what if she stopped again? She couldn’t let herself think of failure, think of having to stop.

First, they had to start. Fear rose in great choking spasms inside Raven. She knew she had to fight off her fears and force herself to go through with this initiation. Did this mean that, deep down, she thought this was different, the fear would leave? Did this mean that somewhere inside her she was beginning to hope there was a small chance Joanna wouldn’t take off in the end? She looked at Joanna and didn’t know.

Raven took her hand and stood, her gaze on her face, her mouth taut with the same kind of tension she felt quivering along her muscles. Joanna took her other hand and shoved it into her jumper pocket, wrapped in her own. It was such a strangely intimate thing to do that it took her breath away.

“Woooow,” quivered Raven.

“Ms. Longgear, would you be interested in sharing an uninterrupted evening with me?”

Again a prickle swept over her arms, tightened her nipples, and heated her insides. “Why, Ms. Stern, are you asking me for a date?”

“If I were, would you be interested?” Joanna was very still as she waited for her reply.

“More than interested.” Raven’s voice was a soft, low rumble. It thrilled her.

“Oh,” Joanna continued to look up at her.

“I’m interested in more than a date, sweetheart. And if you don’t quit looking at me like that, I can’t guarantee I can maintain a friendly distance until we can get out of public view,” Raven warned the smiling beauty.

The fluttering inside her grew stronger, became a tremor that threatened to knock her knees out from under her. “Is that a fact?” Joanna stated.

“Yep. A fact.” Her look dared the younger woman to go further, she knew it did. But she wanted so much to kiss her just once before risking losing her completely that she continued to look at her. For a moment she considered not heeding the municipal surroundings, but then, with a regretful sigh, she retreated. They had a long way to go yet. A very long way to go.

“We have to take the canoe out this afternoon so you can get those shots of the bridge for the Historical Society meeting you have tonight. Tomorrow we are going sailing with your friends and on a picnic, as well as visiting the Bird Sanctuary for those shots you promised the Wildlife Federation, therefore, we won’t be back until late, so tomorrow night is out. We have only a partial day’s shoot at the Bridge of Lions the day after. So, my dear Ms. Very Busy One, would you grant me the pleasure of your company for the evening…say… day after tomorrow?” Joanna asked.

She saw Raven swallow, saw her close her eyes briefly as if possibly sending up a prayer of thanks. A smile formed on her face, crinkled her eyes, curved her mouth, and grooved her cheeks as it grew wider and wider.

“That,” she said softly, “was the most gracious and welcome invitation I have ever had. I accept.”

“Wonderful,” Joanna acknowledged and nodded, grinning, and then said, “Now, how about us going on that canoe excursion. By the way, I believe I’ll forgo attending your Historical Society Meeting with you. I’ll still prepare dinner, but I would like to complete another portion of my score, and this one section finally clicked in my head this afternoon. I want to get it down on paper tonight. It that okay with you?”

“All right. Sure. No problem,” she replied. “ I forget sometimes how very creative you are and that you have your own work and need some time for yourself. You going to use the piano or do you need me to move your keyboard into the living room from your bedroom? And we could pick up some carry out for dinner if it’s too much trouble,” her voice almost a whisper.

Touching her hand to Raven’s cheek, she leaned closer, “Thanks. I’ll use your piano, if that is all right? No carry out, Raven. I plan on a nice meal, and then you can be off to your Historical Society Meeting.” She reached down and caught Raven’s hand once more and held it gently in hers. “I’m ready for that canoe trip. Raven?”

Raven beamed from ear to ear, “Yes. Let us be off.” She reached down quickly and lifted the camera backpack over her shoulder. Reluctantly, they dropped each other’s hands as they headed for the parked SUV and the short ride to the site Raven had her canoe stored.

Both women felt the initial hurdle was over. Their journey together had begun.

I almost lost this, the dark thought made Raven cringe, Raven, stop being an ass and enjoy this for whatever or however long it lasts. If it lasts a long time, thank goodness for that time. After all, she has given no indication she will just pack up and fly away overnight. Well, at least she hasn’t, yet!

Raven opened the storage locker to the right of the steel rack on which two canoes were stored. Life vests and a half dozen paddles were neatly hanging from the opposite wall. “You need to select a proper vest, Joanna. I think this one will fit you best,” she said as she handed a smaller vest to the petite figure standing beside her.

“Ok. You need me to help you lift the canoe from the rack?” She asked as she slipped the vest on and tied the lower sashes.

“Nope. I’ve been lifting and jerking these two beauties for years, and I have a set pattern. You can hold open the storage door for me if you don’t mind, and bring these two paddles with you?” Raven answered, as she pointed to the first two paddles and went to the rack and hoisted the top canoe as if it was a feather.

“Want me to close and lock the door behind us?” She called after the burdened photographer.

“Yes please, and bring my camera bag if you can manage that, also.”

“No problem, I may be small, but I’m verrrrryy adaptable.” She laughed as she sat the paddles down to slip the lock back through the hasp. Picking up the camera bag and paddles, she scooted down the walkway to the pier where Raven had safely set the canoe.

“Front or back?” She asked as she set the camera bag at Raven’s feet.

“Please sit up front, Joanna. I feel more comfortable on drag, and I have more control that way. I need to be able to take photographs and that requires I guide the canoe just right.”

“Okay,” came the reply as the fair-haired woman lowered herself into position at the front of the green canoe. “Where are we going?”

“Today, I think we need to do a couple of miles on Salt Run. Salt Run is a protected tidal lagoon a quarter mile wide and two-three miles long located between Anastasia and Conch Island. Then we will head around the basin to the Bridge of Lions.”

Joanna could see the tide was near high. The temperature in the 70’s, with bright sunshine, and a 5-10 knot wind coming from the east or south felt nice and warm on her face. Passing Anastasia Island, she wondered if the many live oaks that looked like trampled grass had been pushed down by a constant wind or a past hurricane. Then, as Conch Island came into view ,she noticed the difference in the two islands, as Conch seemed to be all sand dunes edged with marsh grass. Joanna noticed that fences could be seen attempting to keep the sand from drifting.

Lovely, she thought to herself, then glanced toward a noise as a wood stork and an American egret were closely watching a couple of fishermen. Joanna suspected if they caught anything there might be a tussle for it.

Raven noticed that Joanna matched her stroke per stroke on the paddle as she waved methodically in and out of the water. “We’ll paddle down to the end of Conch Island, Joanna. That is where that black and white striped lighthouse is across from it on Anastasia Island.”

“I haven’t done this in months, it feels great. Are we going to paddle among those sailboats up there before heading back?” Joanna asked over her shoulder.

“That’s the plan, unless you don’t have another mile or two in you?”

“Your trip, your destination, your choice, Raven. I’m more than happy just to be here.” She drawled.

“We’ll turn around after the sailboats, then,” she said simply.

Joanna pointed to a pelican as it crashed-dived into the water after a fish not twenty feet off their port beam. After that, the two women noticed several lines of six brown pelicans flying by in single file. Joanna wondered, with that number, if they might not be families?

“Joanna, check out our bow,” the tall woman called out to her canoeing partner. “Beautiful sight, isn’t it?” asked Raven, as an osprey crash dived fifty or so feet from them but came up empty. Ospreys are white underneath, but the under wings and tail feathers are brown and white and made little or no reflection on the water’s surface to scare away the fish.

“STUNNING!” She replied, her face all smiles.

As they made their turn and headed back between several sailboats, a couple of wood storks came flying in with their long dangling legs to see if the women had anything to eat. When that proved to be a bust, they went off to bother the fishermen who were still nearby.

Raven caught herself examining the stunning woman in the front of the canoe, and neglecting her navigational duties. Why am I feeling so close to her? It’s almost as if I have known her all my life… Almost as if… No! Allow this, or whatever this is, to advance at its own progression, Raven. Don’t manipulate anything, she frowned, digging her oar deeper into the water. After another troubled glance at her passenger, she forced herself to loosen up and concentrate on the canoe ride. Joanna’s grinning glances touched her briefly, but told her no secrets. It was moments like these when Raven was silent and uncommunicative that made her uneasy with herself. She doubted she knew herself at all when it came to the flaxen-head before her.

With over the shoulder glances, Joanna studied the tall woman behind her. The cut of her profile was strong and forceful, enhancing the beauty of the older woman. The clean line of her jaw and the forward thrust of her chin expressed power and elegance as the same time. Her cheeks were tanned, lean, yet not hard. The skin stretched tautly over her cheekbones and grooves etched at the corner of her mouth enhanced her smile. A baseball cap covered the virile thickness of her dark hair and shaded those impenetrable blue eyes. Her glances strayed to her mouth, not lacking in softness, yet so capable of passion, she assumed. Like her hands, she thought, and studied the work-roughened hands on the oar. They were large hands, firm in their grip and always in control whether it was controlling the canoe… or without a doubt controlling me in passionate lovemaking, she thought. Sighing inwardly, Joanna turned her gaze towards the marina on her left.

All the slips seemed to be occupied with a good number of twenty-five to fifty-five foot sail and powerboats. Raven guided the canoe close to the dock and tapped the canoe seat in front of her to attract Joanna’s attention.

“My boat is the second one from the end,” she said as Joanna’s eyes immediately sought out the huge sailboat and nodded her head as she carefully surveyed the craft.

‘The Sea Tigress,’ I wonder if that is significant of something, pondered the smiling blonde. “Nice,” she called back to Raven. “I can’t wait until tomorrow and I get to go out on her.”

Thirty more minutes of steady paddling against the wind brought the canoe to the cut where Tolomato and Matanzas Rivers and Salt Run meet to flow past Vilano Point into the ocean. As they looked up the Matanzas River, they could Castillo de San Marcos and much of the old part of St. Augustine. They poked around past the fort and on down to the Bridge of Lions.

Raven made adjustments and the canoe eased up to a large concrete piling under the bridge. She retrieved her camera with the long-range lens and proceeded to shoot several rolls of film at different areas under the bridge. Fifteen to twenty sailboats and cabin cruisers were anchored on one side of the bridge or the other. By this time, the tide was coming in fairly strongly. Raven didn’t want them to get caught too far away with the wind and tide against them so they paddled back towards the inlet.

A large number of brown jellyfish the size of softballs were coming in with the tide and Joanna saw a single dolphin swimming along a seawall in front of several upscale waterfront houses, which she enthusiastically pointed out to her paddling partner.

“Joanna, after 3:00 p.m., the cruising boats, both sail and power, really start coming and going between the Atlantic and Matanzas River, most of them are in the 35-50 foot range. Some of the power cruisers throw up quite a wake and we need to be alert.” She looked up thoughtfully into the green eyes that had turned to face her so she could hear every word the dark-haired woman spoke to her. “We need to hug the beach as closely as possible and head back to the main channel.” Raven suggested strongly.

“You’re the captain, point the way.” Joanna smiled as Raven indicated with her paddle the direction needed.

After ten minutes, she quit paddling and turned to address Raven. “At least we can watch the big boats go by and ‘admire’ all the condos along the river, can’t we?”

“Sure,” came the reply.

Less than a mile down river, the condos began to recede into the background, as did FL A1A and most of the traffic noise. The canoe slowed down as the two women came across twenty brown pelicans, half of them on the beach and the other half just floating around.

“Mercy, we don’t have scenes like this in New York, nor on the lake in the Catskills,” mused the actress as she sat breathlessly before returning to the chore at hand.

The temperatures were in the low 70’s under a slightly hazy sky by the time the two women paddled up to the dock.

“Could we stop by the grocery market, Raven? I think I have changed my mind about the roast for dinner; this salt air has my tummy interested in something else. Is that alright with you?”

“Okay. That is, if I don’t have to go in with you?” questioned the taller woman as she eased the canoe out of the water.

“Oh, you!” replied Joanna as she gently bumped Raven’s backside with the wet paddle.

“Careful there, sweetheart, or you might be taking a bath in salt water.” Raven teased.

Both women laughed as they walked up the path to the storage shed, returned the gear to the proper racks, then walked hand-in-hand back to the vehicle and off to the market.

All too soon, they were on their way back. The sun was a great, golden ball hanging low over the far western horizon as Raven pulled the Navigator into the parking lot. Raven changed her mind about getting the lube job, and sat patiently in the car as Joanna went into the market. When the blonde returned rather quickly, much to the stunned photographer’s surprise. she hopped out of the vehicle and placed the several bags of groceries in the back before returning to the driver’s seat.

“You certainly bought a lot for only being in there such a short time,” Raven said as she looked at her watch, “Merciful Lord, you were only in there fourteen minutes. Unbelievable.”

“Hah, you don’t know how fast I can shop when my tummy is involved. But, I’ll need an hour and a half to prepare this meal. That fast enough for you, Stretch?”

“Uh, sure, I’ll just print out the negatives from last night while you’re preparing dinner, or do you need help?” She asked.

“No help needed, except for helping me carry the bags into the kitchen. Ok?”

“No problemo,” responded the photographer.

“Ha, Ha, that was a poor imitation of Arnold if I ever heard one. You’d better stick to your day job, Stretch.” The imitator joined Joanna in laughter. “I don’t need your assistance anymore, Stretch. Out!” The determined blonde shoved the taller woman towards her darkroom. “I’ll call you when dinner is only five minutes away. OK?”

“OK. You sure I can’t …..” she had a dishcloth hit her straight in her surprised face….. “Ok, Ok, I get the message. This had better be good.” She wiggled her eyebrows as she turned and proceeded towards her darkroom.

True to her word, Joanna took exactly an hour and a half. She called out, “Raven, soup’s on. You have five minutes. You need to wash those chemicals off your hands and come pour the wine for me, please.”

Raven had actually completed the printing a dozen minutes before, turned on the light and had squeegeed the prints off prior to running them through the dryer. She had been sitting and looking at the early evening’s work.

“These progress photos show the Bridge holding up very well,” she said as she placed them to the side for her meeting later that evening. She then picked up the next batch of dried prints. “Damn, that is one fine looking woman. Such a natural, and makes my job so easy,” she mused as she held the matte print up to see the captured Joanna pressing the rail on top of the lighthouse at the park. The actress was so engrossed in every single beautiful scene before her she had forgotten Raven was busy clicking away as she studied the river over the trees before her.

“Raven, you coming?” Joanna called out again.

“Absolutely, be right there.” Raven laid the prints out on the long narrow drying table behind her and tossed the apron on the dryer before she left her darkroom and quickly entered the kitchen.

“You washed up?”

“Nope, be right back, only take a minute,” as she scooted down the hall to the bathroom and returned in record time.

“Ok, what kind of wine, red or white?” Raven asked as she reached the wine rack near the dining room wall.

“I purchased the wine at the market, you’ll find it in the ice-bucket next to the ‘fridge’. They don’t have liquor stores opening to grocery facilities back home. Interesting concept.”

“Yeah, means you don’t have to make two stops. Goodness, something smells heavenly. What are we having?”

“Just pour the wine and you’ll find out.”

Raven did as instructed and sat down to a table that had been fully set, including a full entrée of silverware and her mother’s china. It had been placed carefully on the table, which was adorned by the linen napkins her mom had left her so many years ago. A brightly glowing, dinner candle in the middle of the table next to a fresh vase of flowers made the table arrangement complete.

“I hope it was okay to use that elegant china and silver I have admired in the china cabinet?” Joanna asked. “It looked as if it hadn’t been used in quite sometime, even though I could tell it had been dusted frequently.” Joanna asked.

“It’s okay, it was my Mother’s.” Raven offered no further explanation.

“Thanks, I’ll be very careful with it, I promise.” Joanna responded as she set a soup-bowl in front of Raven. She returned to fill her bowl, then returned to the table and sat down across from the tall woman who was becoming… what? She was becoming more than dear to her; she realized she was falling in love with her every minute she was with her.

“This is?” Raven asked as she slowly picked up the soup spoon.

“That, my dear Raven, is bisque. It’s a puree of lobster, crab, mussels, & oysters, blended with fish stock and heavy cream. The soup gets its thick consistency from the cream and the pureed seafood, not from the addition of flour or other thickeners. Try it, you’ll like it.” She said as she looked across the table at a dark-haired woman looking at the spoon full of combinations explained to her. Her nose was slightly ruffled up, and the side of her mouth looked. Well, her mouth had taken on a downward shape as if she was seriously questioning the concoction before her. She slowly raised a spoon full of the bisque to her lips, open her mouth somewhat reluctantly and spooned the food in quickly.

“Mmm, sweetheart, that is really delicious,” she said as she raised the spoon again and again. “I don’t know when I have tasted anything as mouthwatering as this. Mmm, mmm,” was the only pleasurable groans Joanna could hear for the next several minutes.

“I’m pleased you like it. I wasn’t sure, but it sounds like it is eatable.”

“Eatable isn’t the word, absolutely delectable is more like it. Yum.”

Raven was enjoying the taste tempting entrée and didn’t even sip the white wine Joanna had painstakingly picked out for the dinner.

“Woman, if you cook like this very much I will be bigger than the side of the house, and your slave forever. Guess I owe you an apology about you boiling water. Joanna, this is scrumptious.”

“Apology accepted, but don’t you think you should wait until the end of the meal for the compliment?”

“End of the meal, you’re telling me there is more than this? Damn! How lucky can one gal get? I’m ready, please bring on the next course.”

“Your humble servant, ma’am,” laughed the satisfied chef, as she quickly set the next dish before the lip-licking woman.

Raven looked at the herb-crusted loup-de-mer with lobster-mashed potatoes, grilled tuna with warm black bean relish and crispy goat cheese and beamed from ear to ear. Joanna sat red-pepper jelly and leek and goat cheese flan to the side for Raven to sample as she went along.

To their mutual delight, it turned out to be one of those rare occasions when everything went perfectly, the meal, the light conversation, and the contentment both women were feeling with each other. Thirty minutes turned into forty-five before Raven finally held up her hands and said, “I can’t eat another bite. I have to tell you, Joanna, you could open up a restaurant and have a line waiting around the block every night of the week. Wonderful meal, just wonderful.”

“Thank you, Raven, I told you I could cook.”

“Yeah, you told me you could cook, but you didn’t tell me you could COOK, as in really, really cook.”

“Yes, I did, Raven. I told you I enjoyed the kitchen and certain gourmet foods. Guess you can’t always tell a book by its cover, now can you?” She teased the grinning photographer.

“No, guess you can’t. You certainly had me fooled by a country mile, and what a pleasant surprise. Guess I’ll have to clean up the kitchen, as you prepared the meal?”

“No. You go on the back porch, I’ll bring the coffee and let us sit and listen to the surf for a while before you have to go to your meeting. I’ll clean up later, and then hit the score. That okay with you, Raven?”

“I won’t argue with that suggestion,” she said as she held up her hands and rose from the chair slowly. She rubbed her tummy and sighed as she ambled to the porch swing and flopped down contentedly. “Life doesn’t get much better than this,” she sighed again.

*****


Joanna had cleaned the kitchen, turned on the dishwasher and was working on the third song of the second act of her musical score when the doorbell rang. Joanna erased the last few notes on the sheet, then re-replayed the last bar or two when the door bell rang several more times finally bringing her out of her productive ambiance.

“I wonder who that can be,” she questioned, looking at her watch, then at the door. “Raven’s meeting isn’t due to be over for another hour at least.“ She clicked on the front porch light and opened the door. Through the glass screen storm door, she saw a very anxious, but attractive redhead woman extending her hand to ring the bell again.

“Yes?” Joanna inquired politely, “May I help you?”

“Hi, who are you, and where is Raven?” came the response.

Joanna was set back by the bluntness and manner of the redhead. “I’m a guest of Raven’s,” she countered, “Raven is not here at present. May I be of assistance?” she asked again through the still closed storm door.

Latvia Latzie was unaccustomed to beautiful women answering Raven’s door, especially at this time of night and during the week. She always dropped by unannounced, uninvited, and at questionable hours when she saw Raven’s lights on or knew the tall photographer was home from one of her assignments. She had often overextended her welcome since Clarea’s death. She wanted to be visible to Raven as often as she could. One day she hoped, she believed, that she and Raven would be an item.

Guess this is another of Raven’s flings. God, will that woman never get tired of this occasional fluff stuff and settle down with a no-nonsense, stable professional like me? How many of these bimbo’s will she run through before she realizes I’m all she needs. I thought she had gotten over the one-night stands a few years back. Guess this fair-haired twit turns her on or has need for a little casual fun at the blonde’s expense. It was difficult for Latvia to imagine Raven having a house-guest for more than one night. That face is so familiar. Very attractive, but I just can’t seem to place it, she thought to herself.

“You expect tall, dark, and dangerous back soon, Ms?”

“Joanna. Raven isn’t scheduled to be back until after ten this evening. But, you are welcome to come in and wait,” the young blonde opened the storm door to the light caramel-skinned woman and hoped she would not accept the offer, for she still had work to complete on the stanza she had been attempting to complete for several hours.

“No thanks, honey. Raven and I are more than just very, very, good, close friends, if you know what I mean, and I really wanted to see her tonight,” the tone and inflection in the redhead’s voice was enough to make Joanna retch her evening meal. “Just tell her, Latvia was by and I’ve scheduled her to lecture next month for four sessions, if she is available.” The redhead stressed the innuendo and her sensual tone was apparent.

“Oh, yes. Professor at Fulton University; Raven has mentioned you. I’ll be happy to give her the message,” Joanna stated graciously, but decisively as she allowed the spring on the storm door to pull the door back into place rather quickly, startling the redhead. Joanna stifled the urge to laugh at the expression on the tall woman’s face. Two infatuated redheads in one day, Lord give me strength.

“If you would ask Raven to call me, I’d be ever so grateful. Hope I haven’t disturbed your evening, Joanna,” the words dripped off Lativia’s lips.

Not this week, Ms. Amazon, Joanna thought. “No bother at all, and yes, I’ll see make sure she is aware of your visit and urgent need to talk to her.

“You’re so sweet. Need to run now, nighty nite.” The frustration was obvious as the redheaded professor turned and stomped off the porch and back to her car.

“Goodnight, Professor.” Joanna called out pleasantly. “Professor Wanna-Be-Seductress is more like it, and I don’t believe for one moment, that Raven has ever been more than friends with a redheaded academic idealist, superior node-nick like you even in her worst days,” the young blonde robustly replied to the leaving vehicle.

Joanna heard the screech of tires as she raced off, and again when she made the sharp turn on the highway. Shaking her head as she backed up and shut the front door securely, she made her way back to the baby grand piano in the corner of Raven’s great room.

Lativia had to be a throwback to a recessive gene in the Latzie family, Joanna decided. “Well, I have to say she has some interesting friends and acquaintances. LATVIA,” Joanna rolled her name off her tongue as if it was hot pepper as she said it. She then laughed at the thought of Raven and the Redhead together. “Nope. I can’t even imagine it.” She wickedly chuckled out loud to the piano as she sat down again to arrange the last stanza once again “Guess I’ll leave her a note before I go to bed, and let her know about tonight, before her academic cyclone pal calls.”

Joanna allowed the answering machine to pick up calls for the balance of the evening, and only half listened to the numerous times in the next two hours as Lativia, called and frantically left lengthy, supposedly urgent messages for Raven.

Joanna worked on her score until eleven o’clock, turned the ringer down to mute on the telephone, wrote a note for Raven and went to take a shower before going to bed.

Raven was tired when she entered the kitchen sometime later, and sat her portfolio down on the counter. The Preservation Society Meeting had gone over the scheduled time by over two hours. She saw the note propped up on counter and held in place by the saltshaker. She was still smiling as she picked it up and began to read.

“WHAT?” The dark-haired woman bellowed. The smile quickly vanished and she flung the note down in disgust. “Where did Latvia get the idea we were anything but friends? There has never been MORE than friendship between us and never will be. Damnit! I have told Latvia that at least a dozen times.” She spoke loudly as she stormed into the great room and noticed the blinking light on the answering machine. Pushing the replay button angrily, she sank into a recliner for the first five messages from the redhead. Disgusted, she stood, went to the answering machine, and hit the erase button.

The dark head shook back and forth, sickened by what Joanna must have thought of Latvia’s remarks. Raven walked quickly down the hall and paused before the bedroom door. Slowly she raised her hand and knocked gently.

“Come in, Raven,” came the tender response.

Raven opened the door and stood in the opening. “Joanna, I hope I didn’t wake you. I’m very sorry for your experience with Latvia this evening. True, we are friends. I give you my word, there has never been anything but friendship between Latvia and myself. She had no right to insinuate anything more. I am so sorry for this happening,” the photographer expressed her sincere apology for the earlier dialogue with the redheaded professor.

Joanna arose from the bed, walked over to where Raven stood, still holding onto the doorknob, and wrapped her arms around her waist and buried her head in her chest, giving her a warm hug. “You don’t need to explain to me, Raven. You should call your friend though and relieve her frustrations. She sounded very upset when she left.”

Raven let go of the knob and placed her arms around Joanna and returned the hug. It was a welcome hug of comfort and they both needed the reassurance. It felt right, so right for both of them.

Neither wanted to end the embrace. Finally, Joanna spoke, “I’d rather just forget the incident, and not mention it further. If that is okay with you, Raven? It’s late, and we are both dead tired, and need rest. We have a long day tomorrow. So, please, go make your call, and I’ll see you in the morning. Okay?”

“Thanks. So would I, Joanna. Until tomorrow. Sleep well.” Raven was relieved at the understanding from the younger woman.

They hugged each other tighter before Joanna broke the embrace and slowly walked back to the bed, got in, pulled up the covers and turned over on her side.

“Good night, Raven,” she whispered softly.

“Good night, Joanna,” resounded the response just as tenderly.

*****


Chapter 4

Raven tip-toed into the room where Joanna lay sleeping. She stood at the foot of the bed for a few minutes just looking at the beautiful young woman, who lay contentedly enveloped within the pillows. What I wouldn’t give to be that pillow, she moaned without a sound.

“Joanna, time to get up. We’re suppose, to meet the guys at the wharf at 7:30 this morning,” she shook the sleeping beauty lightly.

“Just ten minutes more, please, I’ll get up in just ten minutes.” The young woman moaned pitifully without even opening her eyes.

“Sweetheart, you need to get up. We have to go by and pick up ice and you promised to pack the picnic lunch for all of us today.”

“Go away, Stretch, I told you just ten more minutes.” Joanna pulled the covers over her head and sank back into a peaceful sleep.

I think I know what will bring her out of that slumber, Raven contemplated as she headed for the kitchen and the gourmet coffee she had been preparing the past several weeks. “More than one way to reach a woman’s heart,” she spoke jokingly to the coffee maker.

Five minutes later, Raven lowered the coffee cup to about an inch from the nose of the sleeping woman who had pulled the cover from her head and half way down her body in an attempt to get comfortable and remain asleep. Raven waved the cup back and forth over the nose several times before she heard a positive sniff, sniff and saw one eye open and look up at her.

“You are such a meanie, Raven Longgear. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Well, no, ma’am. No one has ever called me a meanie before except you, but I’ve been called a lot worse than that, I suppose.” She expressed amusement as she sat the cup down on the night-stand. “You getting up, or do I have to pick you up and throw you into the cold shower, or better still, are you up for a nice cold ocean dunk?”

Joanna sat up as if a bolt of lightening had struck her, “You’d do that, too, wouldn’t you? You are such a Meanie.”

Raven took a step towards her and Joanna threw up her arms and swung her feet off the bed, “Shush! I’m up, I’m up. Don’t get your panties all out of sorts. Chill out, Raven, I’m up.”

“Ok, I’ll fix breakfast. Are you showering before you come to the table?”

“Yes, quickly. I’ll be there in ten minutes. Thanks for the coffee.”

“You’re welcome,” was the reply as she walked out of the bedroom for the second time.

The young actress slowly stood and made her way to the bathroom, where she glanced at her reflection in the full-length mirror as she closed the door. She stopped and looked at the sleepy-eyed replica staring back at her and slowly pulled off the borrowed Jaguar sleeping shirt.

“Mercy, Joanna, when did you get to be such a sleepy head in just three weeks. Even during your off season, you have always been an early riser. What is it with this not up until 8 or 9 a.m. and just five more minutes?” She spoke to the eyes looking back at her. I believe you have finally found a place you can sleep with ease and comfort, Joanna. But there is still something missing. I have no doubt it is sleeping with that tall, dark-haired beauty now preparing another wonderful breakfast. I always knew there was someone out there who would make me feel so complete, the other part of my very existence, my soul. Joanna smiled at these thoughts and opened the shower door and turned on the water. Another stanza of the song that had been wandering through her mind came to her and she began to sing as she lathered her hair with the honeysuckle shampoo. “She’s all I need. Yes, she is all I need.”

Raven sat the cooler down beside the entrance gate to the pier where her boat was moored and punched in the entry code to open the gate. “You go ahead, I’ll park the car and be right back,” the dark-haired photographer said as she also placed her camera bag on top of the cooler.

“Ok. It’s The Sea Tigress, next to the last sailboat on the left side, correct?” Joanna picked up the picnic basket from the pile Raven had placed beside the gate.

“Yeah, you can’t see anything but the masts from here as it’s moored the other side of that monster yellow cabin cruiser down there on the left.”

Joanna noticed there were a mixture of sailboats, cruisers and several fishing boats of various sizes on the right side of the pier, but only sailboats and the one cabin cruiser on the left. She pulled the backpack with her spare clothes and swimsuit up over her arm before she picked up the heavy-laden picnic basket and strolled down the pier.

“You need any help there, Little Lady? Looks like you done got your arms full up,” a full-bearded, weather-beaten seaman asked as she passed the first fishing boat.

“Thanks, but I think I can manage,” came the reply.

“You must be Raven’s friend? She called and had me fill up her tanks with fuel just in case the winds ain’t obliging out there today,” he tipped his cap to her.

“Yes, I am. Thanks again,” she smiled and proceeded down the sturdy, recently replaced pier. She stopped in front of The Sea Tigress and admired the beautiful lines of the craft. “Nice, very nice. Today is going to be so much fun,” she said as she slipped over the back rail of the sailboat and sat her bundles down next to the cockpit.

Joanna placed her hand on the cockpit rail to climb up when she heard a yell.

“Hey, catch, Short Stuff.” She looked up just in time to see a large duffle bag coming down on top of her. Before she could do more than throw up her arms for protection, she and the duffle bag were lying flat on the deck.

“Shit! Rex, you might have caused her to crack open her head yelling and throwing things at her like that,” bellowed the tall tea-skinned, muscular man as he pivoted over the rail of the Sea Tigress and was beside Joanna before she could sit up. “You ok?” Came the sincere query as he removed the heavy sea bag from across her body.

“Yesss… yes, I think I’m ok,” as she said up and rubbed her head on the back where she knew she would have a knot in a few minutes.

Joining them was another well-built man, but this one wasn’t quite as tall as the first. “Damn, I’m really sorry Short Stuff. I hope you aren’t hurt any. That was thoughtless of me, but I have to admit, your reactions are really first rate.” He reached down and took the other arm opposite the one his partner had, and they carefully lifted her to her feet.

“Maybe you should sit down back here for a minute and let me check out your head. That was a pretty nasty fall. By the way, that’s Rex Marston,” his head nodded towards his tanned partner, “and I’m Carl Wareham.”

“Joanna Stern, and nice to meet you both. I think,” came the muffled reply.

“Yeah, we know who you are. But the question is, are you alright, except for the headache you probably have?” Rex asked. “Raven will wait until we are way out to sea, then throw me overboard with the anchor wrapped around my neck if you aren’t!”

“I thought you two were her best friends? Would she still toss you overboard because of me?” She asked curiously, as she rubbed the back of her head.

“Yeah, and not give it a second thought. She has had nothing to say about you except several thousand words like, ‘wait until you meet her, she is wonderful, she is the best subject I have ever photographed, she is a marvelous cook, yada, yada, yada, it goes on and on. Trust me, she’d strangle me and not blink and eye if I hurt you. So, are you sure you’re ok?” came the eager question.

“I’m fine.”

Down the pier Raven looked up to see Carl examining the blonde-headed woman, dropped the ice-chest, and sprinted down the pier leaping over the stern of the boat and was sitting beside Joanna before the younger woman knew she was there. Raven took her by the shoulder and asked, shocked “What happened? YOU HURT? WHAT’S WRONG? SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT IS THE MATTER HERE, WHY IS SHE SO PALE? DAMNIT! SOMEONE? DON’T ALL OF YOU SPEAK AT ONCE.” Raven shouted as she continued unconsciously shake the smaller figure between her hands.

“Raa…vvenn… Ra…ven…yo..uuu,” Joanna stammered as Raven continued to shake her. Finally she reached up and touched Raven on the face and she instantly calmed down. “I’m okay, sweetheart. I’m fine, just a little accident. I bumped my head on the deck…now please stop shaking me so hard, ok?”

Fear had clutched Raven as she looked at the woman seated beside her. Damn, I’m acting like a maniac here. Heck, I don’t care, I don’t want anything to happen to her. NOT EVER! “Sorry. Would someone please tell me what happened?”

“It was me, Stretch, I accidentally tossed a sail bag to her, but it was too heavy and it landed on her.” Rex stated and stepped back.

Raven was up on her feet and in front of the taller man before anyone could blink, “YOU WHAT? Why did you do that? Don’t you realize you could have caused serious injury to her, you big galoot?” The dark-haired woman clenched her fists as she eased closer and closer to her long-time friend, who was now backed against the cockpit.

Before either realized it, Joanna was putting her arms between the two friends and placed herself in front of Rex. “Ease off, Stretch, it was an accident.” She smiled up at the shaking woman before her. She slowly raised her hand and slowly rubbed it down the left side of the almost crying, taller woman. “I’m okay, Raven; really I am,” she said as she winked at the photographer and turned to the man she was pressed against and looked up to an appreciative grin shining back at her. “Why don’t you get the other end of this sail bag and help me fasten the jib sail in place? That way, you’ll be up front with me and just a bit out of harm’s way--if you know what I mean?” beamed the young actress.

“Yes, thanks, my pleasure there, Short Stuff, and you can call me Slick, all my friends do,” came the appreciative response as the taller man walked around the two women and lifted the bag to one shoulder and quickly ascended the steps on the far side of the cockpit. He was followed close behind by the beautiful woman, who stopped on the top step, and looked back at the stunned photographer.

“Aren’t you forgetting something, Stretch?” she asked simply as she looked at the puzzled look on Raven’s face. She then motioned her head towards the pier and the downed ice chest Raven had dropped. “I suggest you retrieve our drinks, Stretch, and get this beauty under way. Time’s a’wastin’ and the wind is gusting,” she turned around and started forward. Before she had taken three steps she stopped and returned to the ladder, and looked back down at the still dumbfounded photographer, “Thank you for being concerned, Raven. I do appreciate it,” smiling, she turned again and quickly joined Rex, who was already pulling the jib sail from the bag. “Don’t call me SHORT STUFF, Slick, my name is Joanna,” she called to tall man ahead of her.

Carl had been sitting quietly, watching the scene before him, Well, well, my friend. It has finally happened. You are so hooked. Can’t say as I blame you, Joanna is quite impressive. The lawyer started grinning and began humming one of his favorite tunes. It’s about time, he thought to himself as his humming became louder.

“What did you say?” Raven snapped at him.

“You talking to me, Stretch?”

“I don’t need any smart-butt remarks from you, Carl,” the dark-headed woman spoke abruptly and quickly scampered over the stern and trotted down the pier towards the ice chest.

Carl laughed so hard his sides began to ache. My squeamish buddy has finally found a suitable match; wonder if she has the slightest inkling she is off the market. Nope! I bet she doesn’t have a clue, he thought and began laughing out loud again.

“Er’thing alright down yunder, Raven? Is the Little Lady okay?” Questioned the old seaman who had been watching the scenario from atop his wheelhouse. He had known Raven since she was knee high to a lobster, and had been the one to teach her to navigate and sail. And yes, he knew about her lifestyle, but it made no matter to the old mariner. He thought of Raven as a granddaughter he never had, and was glad she finally seemed to be achieving some degree of happiness.

“Yeah, everything is apparently okay, Uncle Walt, and thanks for filling up the Sea Tigress for me. You did put it on my account, didn’t you?” She asked.

“You’re welcome there, girl, and yep, I put it on your account. Thanks for the pipe tobacco you had the Trader’s Post order for me. I always seem to forget about it until I’m done run out,” stated the gray-whiskered, weathered face.

“It’s nothing, and you remember, we are having dinner at the Crab Net this Thursday night, right?” Raven asked as she picked up the ice-chest and started back down the pier.

“I’ll be there Raven, wouldn’t miss them dinners together for nuthin’. Hey, girl, bring that there Little Lady witchya? She’s quite a looker that one.”

“Oh, you old dirty sea dog. Yeah, I’ll bring her, thanks for asking.” She remarked as she once again turned and started down the pier.

“You want to tell me why you had Raven’s jib sail, or do I want to know?” Came the soft query as Joanna attached the last halyard in place.

“Well...you see..…hum…well ….uhh…Carl and I were out on the Sea Tigress a few weeks back and we...well…we...There was an accident and the jib sail somehow…uhh… had the sail slightly torn…Uhh...We had to replace the entire sail.” Rex embarrassed face stammered out the explanation.

“Uh huh. Just what I thought, don’t need further details.” The grinning actress held up her hand knowingly. “You and Carl have been together a long time? If you don’t mind me asking?”

“Almost ten years now, and no, don’t mind you asking,” came the reply.

“How long have you and Raven known each other? The three of you seem to be very close.”

“We are very close. Actually, Raven and I went to school together. Well, I was three grades ahead of her, but she skipped several grades and we actually went to the University of Jacksonville together. Neither of us wanted to go to the Swamp, or Miami, and Tallahassee was too far from the ocean. She is my best friend, outside of Carl, that is, and I’d do anything for her just as I’m sure she would do for me. She has been sitting in the booth with me for the last five years when I announce the football, basketball or hockey games. The three of us do a lot of things together,” laughed the tall sports announcer. “You might say we are the Three Musketeers of this century.”

Hmm, interesting. Skipped three grades, and to boot, she enjoys hockey- -one of my favorites, thought the honey-headed woman as she finished her sailing chore and settled down on the deck. “One for all and all for one huh?” quirked the attentive young woman. “And just how much trouble do the three of you get into?”

“You don’t even want to go there Short Stuf-Uh, Joanna,” Rex laughed. “Let me just say, when we go out, trouble follows. Just can’t seem to help it,” chuckled the tanned man as he flopped down next to her. “But, I have a feeling that is about to change,” came the gratifying assessment.

“What do you mean?” Joanna asked lighthearted.

“Come on, Joanna, don’t play coy with old Slick here. You know exactly what I’m referring to. About time someone tamed that woman.” He replied tossing his head towards Raven who had started the engines and was backing the Sea Tigress cautiously away from its long-time mooring at the popular wharf.

“Maybe so, maybe not,” Joanna countered. They both laughed.

“My goodness,” the smiling actress exclaimed as Rex pointed to the school of porpoise circling the boat. Both stopped to watch the porpoise and their many antics. It was just a given that they would become fast friends, and they both knew it as they sat down and started an in-depth conversation of everything that came to mind.

Twenty minutes went by. “Hey! You two, want to come help set out the fishing lines?” Carl called to the two contented people leaning back against the first mast talking quietly and enjoying getting to know each other.

“Fishing lines?” questioned Joanna. “Thought we were going sailing and on a picnic?”

“We are, but we always set out the lines. Never can tell when we catch several nice ones for dinner. You like char-grilled snapper, Joanna?” Rex asked as he stood up and offered a hand to the still-seated actress.

“Is that anything like blackened snapper?” asked the flaxen-head as she accepted his hand.

“Kind of, but even better. We usually have a contest to see who catches the most, but we can forgo that today. But the next time, well, you will have to clean the fish if you lose,” he howled as he descended the ladder to the main deck.

“Geesh! Rex, I’ve never been fishing, so cleaning fish doesn’t seem quite fair to me,” the charming visitor exclaimed as she followed the tall, deep-tanned announcer down the ladder.

“We’ll teach you, and don’t put on that innocent act to me. I saw you in that documentary two years ago when you were pulling in those salmon off the coast of Seattle, Washington.”

“Honest, Rex, that was a promotional piece, and I didn’t actually catch one fish. But I’m certainly willing to try,” came the laughing response. “Show me what to do, please,” she requested as he glanced over at Raven, who had taken in the comments and grinned at her willingness to attempt the routine being explained to her.

The fishing lines were set out immediately, but the two couples weren’t too hopeful and really wanted to reach their destination before having to deal with fish. They passed several schools of bluefish surfacing and Raven piloted the craft inland to avoid the feeding frenzy of the bluefish.

“Set sails, guys, the wind is just right,” requested Raven. Immediately, the assigned crewmembers busied themselves with the sails for a fast run.

A short time later, they were sailing wing on wing, jib out to starboard and main to port, making six or seven knots in a good east wind, gliding and rolling down the waves. When the drag on the port sideline went off, it was obvious they’d hooked something really big.

Carl jumped to the rod, while Raven started working to slow the boat down, first starting the engine and putting it into reverse, then working the main to kill its effectiveness. Normally, Raven would have slowed the boat for big fish by depowering the jib, but with the pole out it was too difficult to mess with. They had hoped for a giant grouper, which they knew roamed the area; Carl saw a flash of color as the fish jumped, and thought they might have a mahi-mahi. He reeled in a few feet; lost ground as the fish ran out again, then reeled in some more. It darted this way and that, sometimes running toward the boat and sometimes away, and finally it got close enough for the passengers of the Sea Tigress to see.

“You’ve hooked a marlin, Carl! A blue marlin, I think,” shouted Rex.

“Although it’s hard enough to tell the difference between the various species when you’re not really sure. Certainly it is a lovely iridescent blue, with a big purple dorsal fin and tail,” explained Carl to Joanna who was now seated on the padded side bench, next to the chair Carl was strapped into.

“At something close to five feet long, it was probably the largest fish we have landed, although for a marlin, that’s relatively small,” exclaimed Rex.

“People pay big money to go out on sport fishing charters and battle these babies. And we got it trolling from our dinky sailboat!”

“Dinky sailboat?” questioned Joanna, “Rex, this boat is almost forty foot long. Not so dinky to me,” exclaimed the enthralled performer as she watched Rex’s every move.

“He’s joking, Joanna, just pulling your leg,” laughed Carl. “The next problem is how to get rid of it, as marlin are not good to eat. Unlike the sport fishing boats, we don’t have a nice wide low transom for hauling fish in.”

Carl tightened his grip on the rod, and Rex removed the helm seat, put on leather gloves, poked the gaff out under the dinghy strapped across the stern, and hooked the fishing line to bring the marlin closer. Once it was against the transom, he grabbed the long bill with one hand and unhooked it with the other. It took some work, and they all watched with relief when the marlin was finally free and wriggling off in the water.

“Nice catch, buddy,” called Raven from behind the wheel.

“Even nicer release,” Joanna said, patting the gloved man on the back.

“We don’t keep anything we can’t eat, Joanna, and none of us believe in trophy fish hanging on our walls,” Rex acknowledged the compliment.

Ten minutes later, they got another huge strike, on Joanna’s reel. This time the fish immediately dove deep, indicative of a tuna, so they all worked hard again to slow the boat and tire out the fish. But once Joanna got it close, they could see--it was another marlin! This one was a good deal bigger than the first one, with a brownish rather than a blue back. When she finally brought it alongside, it did the classic marlin tail-walking move, dancing along right next to the boat. Joanna screeched with joy at the antics of the huge fish. It took both men to release it, Rex holding onto the astonishingly long bill while Carl worked the hook out. Two big fish caught, but no fish for dinner. There was back clapping and hugs all around.

“That calls for a beer,” Rex wiped his brow.

“Phew, I gave out wrestling that monster,” laughed Joanna, “And a beer sounds wonderful right now. Thanks for all the help, guys.” She again patted the two men on the back.

“No problem, Short-Uh--Joanna,” Rex whistled as he accepted an opened beer from Carl.

“Watch it there, Slick,” laughed Joanna as she took the beer she was handed and walked over to Raven and offered it to her.

“Thanks for the cold one. You did a good job on holding onto that reel yourself, Joanna. You know that was a trophy fish you let go, don’t you?” Raven turned the beer up and guzzled down about a third, then handed it back to Joanna, who tipped it up and guzzled down another third before handing it back to the tall pilot.

“Like the man said, I don’t keep stuffed fish on my wall, either. I think that was a nice size for my first sea catch.” Joanna responded, “Would you like another beer? Seems we about finished this one off?”

“You bet it’s a nice catch. I can hardly wait to take you fresh water fishing and see how you handle a large mouth bass,” she grinned. “No thanks on the beer, but, how about a bottle of water? Better still, how about you handling the wheel for awhile, and I’ll get us both a bottle of water?” “

I’m your girl. Been hankering to get my hands on this wheel since I came aboard,” giggled the new pilot, as she stepped up to take a turn at maneuvering the boat. “When is fresh water fishing on our schedule?” she asked interestedly.

“We’ll have to make time, take a whole day and maybe the guys can go with us up the river, or over to the lakes at the sand-hills on the panhandle, or close to Tallahassee,” Raven stated as she returned with two bottles of water and handed one to Joanna.

“Okay. I’m all for that.” She said.

“Sailing downwind is certainly a lot more pleasant than beating into it,” Raven stated, “but it’s just as tough on us and on the boat. Even with the whisker pole keeping the jib stretched out, the sail still slaps and cracks a little whenever we roll particularly far as we corkscrew down the waves,” Raven stated to Joanna, who was holding onto the wheel with ease.

“Raven, I noticed that the stitching along the foot of the sail, the bottom edge had unraveled for quite a distance, and a big section of the hem had unfolded and was flapping in the wind. Are we going to have a problem with that?” Joanna asked.

“We might if we had much further to go, but we are almost there. Sailing back we will do it with only two sails. I needed to get a new sail or repair that one anyway, just been putting it off,” the boat owner acknowledged.

The Atlantic turned out to be the perfect place to do sail work. Sailing close along Florida’s East coast, they couldn’t see the narrow entrance until they were nearly there. A cut through low marshes, like a river, gave way to a large multi-lobed bay; well protected by the surrounding thick groves of trees, and perfectly smooth. They anchored near the wildlife refuge, which the three hadn’t seen for three months. As is typical for a bay surrounded by land in a fairly large island, they took the jib down. Good thing they did-as Rex, Carl, Joanna and Raven fed the sail out of the roller furling slot, they saw that the topmost foot or so of the luff-the edge of the sail that fits into the slot, had ripped apart. “This is a more serious problem that definitely needs immediate attention,” remarked Raven, as she raised one eyebrow at the problem sail.

“Damn, that sail has a serious defect,” cursed Carl.

“No joking, partner. What gave you that idea?” Rex quirked.

“We’ll have to repair it before we go back, guys, or use the motor,” countered Raven.

“Might as well repair it now, it’s almost nine, so we have time,” Carl retorted as he wiped the beading perspiration off his face with his tee shirt, which he had pulled off.

Getting the sail down to the deck, even with the calm conditions, was a chore. Rolling it up so that the pieces they needed to work on were easy to reach was even harder. Then they trundled it awkwardly back into the cockpit, and with even more effort, stuffed it below. They had to set up the big table leaf, which extends across the whole cabin to help hold the sail. The large sail was spread across the table, the settee, and the cabin floor clear up to the companionway steps. In order to get to the sewing machine, they had to crawl underneath the sail. There was barely room enough for the four of them to maneuver!

Raven had retrieved a hunk of old salvaged sail from the storage hold, and Rex cut a strip of the sailcloth to repair the luff. It took both of them to feed the heavy sail through. Even though they had a Sailrite sewing machine, always kept on board, and intended for fairly heavy-duty use, the multiple layers of heavy sailcloth taxed the machine to its limit. Carl spent more time adjusting the machine than sewing, but eventually the job was complete. Just as the sun was directly above, they tugged and heaved until they had the sail back in place, but did not hoist it up. That would wait until the trip back.

“One of these days, I’ll have to take down the mainsail and check it for problems-that one’s never been down at all,” Raven commented.

“Guys, how about we take the dinghy, and head to that shaded area over there and eat. My stomach is growling, breakfast was six hours ago, and I’m extremely hungry,” peeped Joanna as she grinned at Raven.

“Hahaha,” all three friends laughed at the synopsis presented by the young blonde.

“My sentiments exactly,” seconded Rex.

“Okay, Rex and I’ll lower the dingy, how about the picnic basket and cooler?”

“I can handle the basket, Raven.” Joanna headed into the cabin and returned momentarily with the packed full picnic basket, only to find Raven had the cooler and was standing at the rail of the boat handing it over the side to Carl, who was already in the dinghy.

Raven took the basket from Joanna and handed it to Rex, who quickly stowed it under the dinghy seat and sat down. Raven held out her hand to Joanna, assisting her over the side into the small craft, and flung herself gracefully over the side to join the seated woman on the bow of the small craft. The tanned, shirtless men had already picked up the oars, and were paddling toward the quaint shoreline.

Sometime later, all four of the friends lay on the spread out blankets and looked up through the trees at the rolling clouds.

“Man, I’m stuffed. Joanna, that is the best fried chicken and potato salad I have ever eaten,” commented Rex.

“Same here, I can’t move, or my belly will pop.” remarked Carl. “Those deviled eggs were out of this world, Joanna. Who would have ever thought that such a talented and gorgeous woman as you could cook?”

“Ugh… don’t go there fellows, I can tell you from experience, she not only cooks, but creates feasts that you wouldn’t believe,” piped in a smiling from ear to ear photographer. “Yes, I agree with the fellows, Joanna. The lunch was fantastic.”

“Thanks, all of you. Are you all too stuffed to have dessert?” asked the proud blonde as she sat up and reached for the basket.

“Dessert?” Raven sat up almost as fast, “You have dessert in there also?”

“Yes. Would you like some?” she asked.

Rex sat up when he saw Raven shoot up, for Raven wasn’t much for desserts, but if she was so interested in Joanna’s, then he knew it had to be something special.

“What you got, Pretty Lady?” asked Rex.

“Oh, just a few pieces of homemade cheesecake,” she said nonchalantly.

Even Carl’s eyes opened wide and he sat up as well. “Uh, I’ll have a piece of that, if you don’t mind?” the lawyer interjected. “I know my friends here wouldn’t save me a slice if I don’t get it now.”

“You got that right, my friend,” Rex said as he wiggled down the blanket to sit next to young blonde.

“There is plenty,” laughed Joanna.

“Not if Rex gets his way, there won’t be,” interjected Raven as she also moved closer to Joanna.

The friends gobbled down an entire nine-inch cheesecake and licked their fingers upon completion.

“That was the best I have ever eaten, Joanna. How did you manage to keep a whole cheesecake from Raven?” Carl asked.

“Simple, I made it last night and put it in the cooler fresh vegetable drawer in the bottom of the refrigerator. She hasn’t ever used the vegetable drawer, and I knew it would be safe there,” she laughed.

“Now, Ms. Smarty, just how did you know I haven’t used the veggie tray and wouldn’t look there?” smirked the tanned woman.

“It was really logical, Raven. The tray still had the tape on the drawer to keep it closed. That was the first indication of it not being used, and the second was, I have never seen you fix a fresh vegetable since I have been here,” she laughed in amusement.

The men joined her in laughter.

“Har har-diddy har!” retorted Raven, “that doesn’t mean… Oh, shoot! Forget it. Anyone up to a stroll on the beach to walk off some of this food?” she asked.

They all got up, shook out the blankets, folded them and placed them on top of the picnic basket and started down the beach. Ghost crabs scurried out of their way as they strolled. Ahead of them, a family of a half dozen little birds ran along the wave line with a funky stiff-legged stride. The birds stopped every so often to poke a beak awkwardly into the sand, searching for goodies; then they’d skitter back abruptly before an encroaching wave could get their little feet wet. Pelicans wheeled above the two couples, while boobies glided just above the waves.

The sand was sugar-fine, soft and light brown in color. In some places, the wet surface was hard and packed tightly, with a cross-grained pattern like a woven blanket, and the four individuals’ feet barely made marks; in others, their feet sank deep into goopy ooze. When they ran out of beach, they slipped on their sandals and deck shoes and picked their way across the coral boulders to the westernmost tip of the island. Nestled among the rocks and coral, Joanna found a perfect cowrie shell, the size and shape of a large egg, a pale cream color with streaks of caramel. A bit further on, Rex found another, then a third. It seemed miraculous to find these beautiful shells unbroken on the hard shore after what must have been a violent journey on the waves.

Carl suggested they move to the south side of the island so they could try some different snorkeling spots. It was better there, as there were fewer boats, just the sailboat and a catamaran making its way around the island.

The terrain there was different, though; instead of dramatic coral there was a shallow, ford-like lagoon, which began with coral and rock and ended in mangroves. The mangroves were fish nurseries, where baby fish hide from birds and bigger fish among the roots. The four friends dunked into a lagoon and snorkeled along the edges of the mangroves, finding them absolutely thick with tiny fish. Hundreds of thousands; millions of inch-long fish, pale and iridescent, flashed above and below and alongside them, a meteor shower of little fish.

About three o’clock, Raven stated she needed to go inland for a while and do some shooting of the birds there. All three of her companions were eager to join her, and changed from the bathing suits, back into shorts, shirts and deck shoes once again.

The inlands’ grown-up path curved through the mango and pine forest and passed areas where the blossoming old magnolias created a stunning contrast against the lush greenery surrounding the area. A few moss-covered cypresses undulated, presented unexpected vistas; blue-hazed swamp areas and endless forests abounded with wildlife. Beneath the ancient cypress flashed an occasional cloud of white dogwood. The path straightened, then curved through the wet areas, and then twisted through a stretch of untainted wildwood.

Joanna removed her sunglasses and studied further. The place seemed so familiar, yet she knew she had never been there before. The smell of the woods was rich and fecund. Her gaze lifted to the heavens - oaks and sassafras trees and one venerable magnolia at least 150 years old loomed about.

Drawing a deep, shaky breath, Joanna slipped her glasses back on and made her feet move down the covered path and stand next to Raven who had removed her pack and was taking out her photo equipment.

A faint memory shivered through her. Don’t be silly, she thought. How can you remember something you’ve never seen? She then quickly asked Raven what she was going to photograph.

“I’ve been watching the aeries over there,” she said pointing to the tangle of sticks atop an ancient cypress overlooking a swamp like lake. “From what I could tell through the glasses, there’s only one chick.”

“I was afraid of that,” Rex glanced back at the nest as he and Carl settled down on the grass close to Raven’s pack.

“Last year, when we scaled the trunk and peaked into the nest, there was quite a bit of other stuff in the nest too,” Carl added. “Looked like some bottles.”

Rex laughed at the surprise on Joanna’s face. “Eagles are real pack rats,” he told her. “Over the years, here and at Wakulla Springs, we’ve found bottles, old shoes, light bulbs, even a bit of scrap wire and plastic bottle caps.” He glanced back at the nest.

“By the size of that aerie, I’d say it was twenty-five to thirty years old, so there could be just about anything in it,” Carl commented.

“Thirty years?” Joanna said.

“Probably,” Raven replied. “Some nests stay active as long as fifty, added to or repaired each year. That’s why it’s so important to preserve old-growth timber massive enough to support them,” responded the photographer as she clicked the telephoto lens on the camera and removed the lens cap.

“Do you think I could climb the cypress and look into the nest?” asked the astonished younger woman.

“Not at this time, Joanna,” came the reply. “The eagles don’t take kindly to humans even breathing on their young, and they are very protective of their offspring. They are especially protective of only one chick. Usually, they have at least two and sometimes three or four.” Raven informed her.

“Raven’s right about the protectiveness of the one chick. I can’t tell what else is in the nest, but it looks like a bottle.” Carl surmised as he lowered the binoculars and handed them to Joanna.

Raven lowered the camera to find Joanna looking intensely through the binoculars at the nest; her silhouette edged in gold as the sun peeked through an opening in the clouds and struck her honey-blonde hair. As she stared, the wind whipped her hair into a torrent of honey strands, all but obscuring her delicate face. Raven felt an overwhelming urge to take her in her arms, to hold her and press her lips to hers. Damn, what a thought, Raven smiled.

Joanna turned to catch Raven watching her. She held her gaze and contemplated her beautiful features. She might even be considered handsome, thought Joanna. Warm feeling flooded her body at the way Raven looked at her. She gave her a big smile and glanced down the camera in Raven’s hand. “May I look through the viewfinder?” she asked.

“Sure,” Raven replied, walked over and handed her the camera in exchange for the binoculars.

Joanna held up the camera and looked into the shallow depression of a nest lined with grass. “The bottle looks like a Coke bottle,” she remarked. She turned the focusing ring until a wooly eaglet came into view. “It’s gray,” she said, expecting to see a chick with mottled brown-and-white feathers.

“That’s postnatal down,” Rex said. “The chick’s younger than the others I’ve seen. Probably no more than a couple of weeks old.”

Raven and Joanna exchanged camera for binoculars once again, and as Joanna watched the young bird through the glasses, an adult swooped into view and perched on the edge of the nest, a fish dangling from its hooked beak.

“That’s probably the mother,” Carl said as he focused his own binoculars.

“For the first few weeks, the father hunts and the mother feeds. Look closely and you’ll see her show her chick how to rip the kill into bite-size pieces.”

The steady clicking of Raven’s camera for the next half hour could only be slightly heard over the ‘ohhs,’ and ‘ahhs’ from the young woman now seated beside the two men. Raven moved to different spots to get various views and shots of the scene playing out above them.

While Joanna watched the eagle feed her young, a series of chortling cries, like the loud laugh of a maniac, came from high above, the sound rolling and echoing against the bold forest ceiling. Joanna looked above to see another eagle gliding overhead.

The mother bird left the nest and flew up to join her mate. Together the majestic pair circled in a wide arc, their snow-white head and tail feathers contrasting the blue-gray of the sky. Then, suddenly, they came together and plunged toward the earth, rolling and tumbling faster and faster until it seemed certain they’d crash. At the very last moment, in perfect control, they broke apart and pulled out of their free-fall, soaring swiftly and silently away on a current of the gentle wind.

Joanna rose to get a better observation point to view the eagles. “That was incredible,” Joanna breathed, then turned to find Raven watching her again.

Carl and Rex elbowed each other as they not only watched the antics of the gracious eagles, but also the interaction of the two women. Both males grinned happily, then returned the binoculars back to their eyes to watch the birds in the air for a while, instead of the two love-struck birds on the ground.

Raven’s eyes moved slowly over her face. “When they’re courting,” Raven said in a quiet voice, “their aerobatics can be pretty spectacular.” Her gaze moved over Joanna’s lips and back to focus on the soft green eyes. “Just then, you saw them lock talons and begin their cartwheel toward the ground in sort of a love ritual.”

Joanna blinked. “Love?” The word drifted from her lips and hovered between them.

Raven saunter closer to the younger woman. “They mate for life and live with fierce devotion to each other,” she said, her voice low, “sometimes staying together as long as twenty-five years.” She moved imperceptibly closer, realizing now that she was talking about more than the eagles. “When one dies, the other begins a lonely journey, roaming the skies until it finds a new mate, and leads it back to the familiar nest.”

Joanna wanted to touch her lips, feel her lips become soft and sweet. And she wanted more, so much more. She wanted time with her - time for them to get to know each other, to grow to love each other deeply. Will she give us this time? wondered Joanna silently.

Raven realized with clarity that she desperately wanted Joanna to love her, and she wanted to give her back her own love in return. A love that she knew was from another time and had never died. Will she leave and not give us this time? A warmth radiated through her that could not have been stronger had Joanna enfolded her in her arms.

Unprepared for the bittersweet yearning growing inside and wary of her own vulnerability, Raven moved slightly away. She continued to snap shots not only of the birds, but of the three people sitting on the ground. Her task was easy for the three individuals were totally engrossed in the eagles’ tactics overhead.

“It’s been a long time,” Joanna whispered to herself. Please, Raven, give us this time, my love, give us a chance, she breathed, feeling a heaviness settle inside, which caused a knot to coil in her stomach, as she looked back over at Raven once more before raising the glasses back to her eyes.

All four sets of eyes went back to the eagles without much being said for the next half-hour. Finally, Rex stood and indicated they should be on their way back to the sailboat. Carl agreed as he hopped up and extended his hand to Joanna, who had sat back down next to them some time before. Raven busied herself storing the camera gear in the backpack and, once finished, she motioned for Rex and Carl to take the lead with Joanna behind them and she brought up the end of the procession.

Later, as Joanna scurried down the path to keep up with the taller men, Raven intercepted her. She closed her hand on the young woman’s forearm. “I’m so glad you came with us, and were able to see this,” she whispered, gazing at her solemnly, her eyes luminous in the subduing light.

“So am I,” Joanna replied, her heart beating so rapidly she felt it might leap from her breast. The warmth generated by Raven’s touch spread through the young woman like wildfire.

They smiled at each other deeply, and again proceeded down the overgrown path.

“This is going to be a beautiful sunset, folks,” Carl pointed to the sky which had turned a rich purple and orange as they reached the dinghy. “Why don’t we watch it from the boat before we start back?

“That has my vote,” agreed Joanna as she stepped into the small boat.

“I’m of the same mind,” beamed Rex, “That okay with you, Stretch?”

“Sure. We can finish off that jug of iced tea in the cooler,” she said happily.

The four friends sat with their legs dangling over the side of the craft, and leaned against the guardrail as the sun slowly and beautifully sank into the west once again.

They once more set out the reels on the way back since, except for one itty-bitty baby redfish they caught on the way out of the cove, too small to keep, they’d gotten nothing but one stupid barracuda. Well, their luck with the sun and a good wind had made the day. So, the fishing would wait for another time. The outing had been a great bonding for the two couples, and the trip back to the wharf was filled with good talk and laughter. It was full dark when Raven cut the engines on the sailboat, and the two fellows jumped upon the dock to tie up the boat.

“How about we stargaze for awhile, before we call it an evening,” suggested Rex, as he tied the Sea Tigress’ stern line in place.

“I’d love to do that,” came back Joanna, as she placed the basket on the edge of the wharf and turned to Raven, seeking her approval.

“Sure, why not. Can’t think of a better way to top off a great day and a beautiful night,” the tall woman answered.

The problem with stargazing at night on the water, with the wind blowing from the north is that it got darn chilly. So the four of them lay on the hull of the boat, close together, with the blankets draped over them, gazing into the magnificence of the April sky. Not far away lay the light pollution of the city; the night was still except for the wind whipping the masts back and forth slightly. The sky was inky-dark and the constellations shone, and they saw them all as they huddled together on the deck at 2:30 a.m.

Carl had heard there would be a meteor show sometime that night, so the friends remained up at that ridiculous hour to see it. The meteors put on a show for two couples, winking and blinking and streaking across the sky. Every ten seconds or so, another one flashed by, and they oohed and ahhed appropriately. Mostly, they were not very bright, but a few really sizzled, and one flared so vividly in orange and blue that it lit up the whole eastern sky.

Finally, Rex and Carl waved bye to the two women as Raven pulled the SUV away from the parking area and disappeared down the causeway.

“I like her, Carl. Those two are a good match.”

“Yep, so do I. I couldn’t agree with you more about the match. Just hope Raven won’t do an about-face with her.”

“Yeah, me, too,” came the response as Carl threw the blankets on the back seat of the Grand Cherokee and closed the door. “Okay, lover, how about you and me getting home and into a warm hot-tub? You interested?”

“You’re on. You driving?” Rex laughed as he scurried to the passenger side of the vehicle.

*****


Note: For those of you who aren’t sailors: the parts of a sail all have weird names designed to intimidate and confuse landlubbers. In addition to the luff, a sail has a roach, a leech, a clew, and several cringles. LOL




Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6 Part 7 Part 8 Part 9 Part 10



Home
About The Author
What's New
Stories
Short Stories
Poetry
Odds & Ends



If you have comments about the site, or the materials you find here and want to send me an email, you’ll find the mailbox below. If you find technical problems with the site, a page or section, please let my Web Mistress know the difficulty. She can be reached at:

Bluemoon Projects

send B.S. Raven mail

Copyright: This material has been copyrighted under Federal and International Laws with all rights reserved. For your reading pleasure only, and please, do not reproduce in any form except for your reading enjoyment without permission.