A Length of Joy

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


Disclaimers: Please See Chapter One

Chapter 7

The next few days, the new lovers were constantly in and out of bed. Of course, they were on and off the couch, on and off the floor of the beach house, the counter in Raven’s darkroom, the sand on the beach, as well as the dunes, which even saw their fair share of the new couple’s explorations and ministrations. The Sea Tigress saw more lovemaking in one day than any other two sailboats on the coast of Florida. Joanna and Raven even attempted their passionate workouts in the canoe once, but after getting tipped over in the bay, the couple decided it would have to be beached before they’d try that particular adventure again. The swing had been not only one of their favorite sitting and lounging spots, but, also, much enjoyed, relaxing, leading up to another romp setting. Only the couple always ended up on the deck of the back porch, laughing and completing their satisfaction-releasing journey well into the night or day. They were in love, and it seemed they could not get enough of each other, on a temporary basis, that is. Both knew it would not always be this way, but they had a lot of catching up to do and they were enjoying each moment of the new feelings.

Life was good, and the women were now more than just good friends, they were partners for life--both knew it and both were exceedingly happy about their fate. Both had said that forever could not be long enough.

Of course, they did do other things, like talk continuously way into the night, and sometimes the sun caught them lying in each other’s arms, or sitting in the swing chatting away. They ate, took photographs, talked more, went for long walks, and jogged frequently. Raven even went a few kickboxing rounds with Joanna to keep in shape. Again, Raven would acknowledge she was beaten and bow to the shorter woman in defeat. Joanna, in turn, allowed Raven to teach her several Karate moves, and decided she would take lessons during the day when they returned to New York. Joanna talked Raven into teaching her how to develop film and make black and white prints. They rounded out the days and evenings with visits to friends and invitations to dinner.

During the next week, the couple had been dinner guests of Rex and Carl several times, and had the “boys” over for several of Joanna’s expertly prepared, cuisine meals. In a few days, the couple had been invited to go watch Carl and his “hobby” auto racing. Raven was doing a photo assignment at the track, and one of the guys would pick Joanna up and take her to the racing strip.

Joanna was about to do another first, with this racetrack visit. But she promised to cheer for Carl, even if he didn’t win at the rally. She anticipated the event, but for the life of her, she could not see mild- mannered, sophisticated, legal beagle, Carl, behind the wheel of a racecar. “He drives an Explorer for Jiminy Cricket’s sake,” Joanna slapped the countertop in disbelief, making Raven jump at her pronouncement.

“We all have our special interests, Joanna. Not all of them are jogging, fishing, filmmaking, or kickboxing.” The look Raven gave her was full of pride and admiration.

Joanna sat transfixed. “I just find it difficult to see mild-mannered Carl behind the wheel of a race car doing a hundred to nothing on a racetrack.”

Raven also drove by a neighbor’s house several times, just keeping an eye on the closed-up home. Her neighbors were out of the country for several months, and although, robberies in this vicinity were not unheard of, Raven was making periodic checks on the house for them as a safeguard. Several times, Joanna and Raven had got out, and gone for a walk down the lagoon path behind the watched home. Joanna could tell the couple who lived there had children from the swing set in the back yard and the bicycles stashed on the back porch.

Raven had told Joanna that the couple would be back soon, and that she would meet them then. The tall woman also assured her she would like the fun loving couple, who, she stated, would keep her lying on the floor in tears from all the humorous antics in which they found themselves.

They had just returned to the beach house from their night out with, ‘Uncle Walt’. Joanna was so taken with Raven’s adopted uncle, that she had been easily convinced that she and Raven should accompany him shrimp bait fishing the next morning. Joanna had never been shrimp fishing, and this was only one of the new experiences she was willing to embark upon. Besides that, Uncle Walt was one heck of a nice man. Joanna believed she could do a made-for television movie on his life and let everyone enjoy the mysterious, old, seafaring, gentle fisherman that had taken Raven under his wing. Now, Joanna became another granddaughter in just a few short hours.

“Lord, Raven, Uncle Walt is such a smooth talker. It usually takes more than a few words to convince me I need to get up before daylight to do anything, especially when I’m not due on a set,” she laughed.

“Yes, the old sea-goat can charm a snail out of its shell. You, however, were a push over. He charmed you without even trying. Believe me, I know his charm. And you, fell, hook, line, and sinker, Sweetheart.” Raven remarked as she opened the refrigerator door and held up both the iced tea and lemonade decanters for Joanna to make a selection.

“I am not a push- over, Raven!” She exclaimed, pointing to the lemonade. “I really like him. And I have never been shrimp bait fishing before. And just why is that, Raven? Why haven’t you or the boys invited me shrimp fishing?”

“Ugh.. Well…Ugh… You see… Well, Joanna, it’s different than regular fishing, and not quite what you think. That is, I don’t imagine you will consider shrimp fishing just another kind of fishing, but you’ll just have to experience it for yourself. Who knows, you might fall head over heels in love with that variety of fishing,” Raven shrugged her shoulders, and turned back to pour the lemonade in the two glasses Joanna had placed on the counter before she had moved around to sit on the opposite side from where Raven normally sat. The tall woman couldn’t help but grin, but she took the expression off her face before she turned back to face Joanna.

“Here you go, one good and cold lemonade over crushed ice. Man, am I glad Clarea talked me into that side by side with the ice-maker when I was drawing up the plans for this house,” she said appreciatively.

“Thanks for the drink, darling. Now, sit down and enlighten me as to what you are not telling me about shrimp fishing.” Her eyebrow arched as she sternly directed her lover to the barstool across from her.

Raven turned her back on Joanna, and bit her lip to keep from laughing out loud. Mercy, she will have a hissy fit. I didn’t convince her to go, but I’m not telling her a thing. Next time, Miss Eager Beaver, you will ask, instead of jumping in like that, she thought to herself as she reached over to tear two paper towels from the rack next to the refrigerator before she turned and sat down on the seat.

“Nothing to tell, just shrimp bait fishing. Course you do it on a little boat, and it’s in the swampy, marshy areas to start. After that, it gets pretty exciting with the shrimp bait balls,” the tall photographer pinched her leg, which was hidden by the counter to keep from laughing. Her straight face was extremely hard to keep, so she upped her lemonade and tried to demolish it in several long gulps.

“Uh, huh,” Joanna looked over at the fidgeting photographer. She is not telling me everything or she is hiding something. I wonder what it could be? she contemplated.

“You want to share a shower, Honey? We need to get to bed early, if we are to be ready by the time Uncle Walt gets here. It’s a good couple of hours drive.”

Joanna was sipping her lemonade slowly, watching the expression on her lover’s face. She knew she wasn’t being given all the facts about shrimp fishing, but she was the one who had insisted they go. Now, she had to just wait and see. “I would love to share a shower with you, my darling. You go ahead and get out your clothes for tomorrow, I’ll finish my lemonade and join you before you finish.”

“Right. I suggest you lay out something very comfortable for being outdoors all day,” she responded, then hopped up, turned around rinsed out the glass, and turned it upside down in the sink before she quickly left the kitchen area and the probing questions of her lover.

“Whew! She is so cute. It’s so hard not to answer her questions. Tomorrow, she is going to cream me,” Raven spouted the water from her mouth as she anticipated the next few minutes and her eagerness of her shower partner.

Joanna finished her lemonade, rinsed out the glass as Raven had. Then she picked up Raven’s glass and placed them both in the upper shelf of the dishwasher before she headed down the hall to the master bedroom, and the love of her life.

“Clothes can wait until tomorrow,” she said, glancing towards the shadow behind the shower curtain that was illuminated through the open bathroom door.

The shower used up all the hot water again, and Joanna suggested they take their continuing rounds to the warmth of the large king-size bed. They toweled each other dry, and then Raven swooped the smaller woman up into her arms. Before the couple emerged from the doorway, they were once again locked in a searing kiss.

Joanna went limp as Raven laid her gently on the bed. She then reached up and gripped her head with both hands, tunneling her fingers into the dark strands… strands so fine it formed a cobweb of dark about her face. Bringing a handful of her hair to her face, she kissed the satiny strands, then pulled the dark head down so their noses touched and rubbed back and forth gently over each other. Raven’s face was flushed from the shower and the continued igniting of the warmth from Joanna’s body.

Joanna turned slowly, at the same time wrapping her leg gently around the long slender woman and, with a gentle flip, Raven was on the bottom and Joanna lay firmly across the sensuous body. She dropped her green eyes under the steady gaze from the blue ones below her.

Raven reached up and traced one of her eyebrows with her thumb gently, as she continued to admire her lover’s misty illumination. Like pale emeralds they were, shaded by the thick lashes of a darker tone. In this light, more brown than dark flaxen.

“Tu es si belle, mon amour. Belle à couper le souffle,” Joanna told her in a voice she barely recognized for its softness. “You are so beautiful, my darling. Absolutely breathtaking!"

Raven’s chin shot up at her words, and her eyes locked with Joanna’s. “I am no such thing, Sweetheart. You are the beautiful one!” She protested hotly, but Joanna could tell she was pleased with her compliment.

Joanna lowered her lips to the full ones below. The mating ritual came instinctively to them when the sap thickened in their bodies and pooled in certain places. In truth, it was almost as if they could both feel the blood flowing, torrid and insistent, from their fingertips all the way to their toes, and some significant places in between.

Both tried to ignore their thundering hearts but, almost immediately, under the assault of a million lustful impulses, they gave way to the moment.

“I’m going to kiss you senseless, Raven.”

“Go ahead, Darling, but be prepared for like treatment in return,” came the weak reply.

The young blonde settled her mouth over her lover’s. Slow and gentle, she entreated and persuaded her into the love play by moving her lips against hers, back and forth, till they slick and fitted together perfectly. When Raven’s lips turned pliable, her senses flamed and she glided the tip of her tongue along the seam and curve of each lip.

Raven obligingly parted for her with a moan of surrender.

The moan was Joanna’s undoing. She made a sensuous growl in her throat and entered the slightly opened mouth, her tongue lightly touching the roof of Raven’s mouth.

Instinctively, Raven sucked on her tongue, and she almost catapulted off the bed. Tearing her mouth from Raven’s, she stared down, stunned by the turbulent and consuming passions that swirled between them, at just that one kiss. A deep hunger for the tall woman below her assailed her, so intensely, she could scarcely breathe. She panted, trying to reign in her rapidly increasing desire.

Raven’s long, dark sweeping lashed lowered over her sapphire blue eyes that held a glint of wonder. She, too, was experiencing the selfsame emotions.

“Did you feel that?” she asked in a breathless whisper.

“Yes, and you taste like heaven,” she countered. And she did.

Lacing her fingers with Raven’s, Joanna stretched their arms overhead. At the same time, she positioned her leg between the long, uncovered thighs beneath her, and began a gentle rocking, grinding motion.

“Oh merciful heavens, Joanna!” She rasped out and arched herself up toward the blonde. “What is happening to me, Joanna? You are turning me into an inferno. There is such a blaze burning inside that only you can kindle or put out.”

“Your kisses are sweet agony, Raven,” she admitted through pulsating lips. “I love you with all my heart and being, my darling.”

“Then we are equal, Joanna, for you make me tremble. I am so completely in love with you.”

Her heartfelt admission stirred all that was feeling the same way in Joanna. And, indeed, a red flush did color her skin-her skin that was deliciously warm and tempting to touch. She murmured against parted lips, “I have always wanted to play with fire, Raven. So, be prepared for more of the same.”

When she reclaimed Raven’s lips, there was nothing slow in her approach. Rapacious and devouring, she pressed her lips and thrust her tongue. Raven accepted and responded likewise.

Raven had always prided herself on being an inventive lover, who oftentimes followed specific, tried-and-true steps to bring her lover to ecstasy. Now, she was barely able to focus through the haze of her own excitement. They were both out of control, and they did not care. Raven gave herself freely to the fervor of Joanna’s kisses. When Joanna forced her lips open even wider, she made soft sounds of pleasure into Joanna’s mouth… whimpers that spurred the blonde’s invasion to be even bolder.

Joanna could not swear that it was she making the same kinds of sounds, but she suspected she might have whimpered even louder than the tall woman below her.

Raven had never known that kissing could be so intimate or so glorious, and she told Joanna so, in words that were sinfully explicit. Joanna did not seem to mind. Actually, an erotic tremor ripped over her body in response. Raven even saw chill bumps rise on her bare forearms, and in return felt them rise on her arms and shoulders and make their way down her legs.

But wait, Raven’s hands were fluttering with the need to flip her and start her own ministrations. Swiftly, before Raven could carry out her strategy, Joanna eased her tongue up to Raven’s jaw, up to her ear, which she exposed by brushing back her hair. At first, she just flicked her tongue against the shell of her ear, wetting its grooves and crevices. When Raven made a mewling noise, she knew, she just knew, that she had hit upon one of Raven’s most sensitive spots. All women had them, she surmised, but they were in different places…the ears, the back of the knees, the nipples, the sensitive flesh between the folds of their triangle, the navel, even the arch of their foot. Now, she knew that Raven’s ears were susceptible to titillation, so she launched a full assault. Using the tip of her tongue, she circled her ear, and gently blew it dry. She stabbed and withdrew, then sucked the lobe. All this, accompanied by whispered words of praise and encouragement to the wilting woman below her.

Raven grew wild. “Darling, you are a vixen…a kissing senseless, vixen.”

When their lips met again, it was indeed, sweet, sweet ecstasy, for both of them. It was sweet surrender, the sweet smell of the musk of their excitement that had both of them hissing, and purring and a feverish pitch of sheer joy as they entered into the realms of bliss and fulfillment as one. They soared into bliss that only multi-ecstasies could bring as they came together again. The two lovers had many that night, and well into the morning.

*****


Raven hit the alarm sharply, hopped out of bed, after only getting a few hours sleep. She knew Joanna would need the extra time to wake up and get dressed before Walt arrived.

An hour later, everything was finally on the front steps, waiting for Walt. Joanna had prepared a gigantic lunch as she had been told they would get breakfast at some little hole in the wall on the way there, and breakfast preparations weren’t necessary. Joanna quickly collapsed on the steps next to Raven, and immediately closed her eyes and placed her head on her lover’s shoulder.

“I remember the first time I ever had the chance of experiencing the art of shrimp baiting. Boy, was I in for a big surprise," Raven informed the half asleep young blonde. “Actually, it had seemed easy enough when Walt explained to me before the first planned trip. Man, was I excited. Finally I was getting the chance to go shrimping! I was so excited that, the night before we were to go, I barely slept a wink.” Raven related to the partially opened, questioning green eyes, sleepily looking up at her and grunted, “Uh huh.”

“Earlier that week, I had learned that I needed a salt-water fishing license, so I headed out to the nearest tackle shop the day before and acquired one. The only person who needed a shrimp-baiting license was the shrimper himself, so I didn't need to worry about that part. Now, I was ready to go! I was looking forward to a day and night of fun. This seemed to be a popular thing to do here in central Florida, up in Savannah, and in Louisiana. So, I thought I would give it a shot. How hard could it be?” the tanned, skinned, photographer related to the head of the young blond, who had leaned her head over on Raven’s neck, after she had taken Raven’s arm and placed it around her shoulder so she could get closer to the taller woman.

“Yes, just how hard can it be? That’s why you had me get both fresh and salt water fishing licenses the other week,” posed the sleepy eyed blonde, in lieu of a question.

“Affirmative. Can’t have you getting a fine for fishing violations.” Once we got there, though, my outlook on this popular seasonal sport changed dramatically, Raven reminded herself. Wonder if Joanna will feel the same?

The young actress had dressed in a pair of old, faded blue jeans, a worn out college sweatshirt she had appropriated, with little opposition from Raven, and some good water-resistant shoes purchased two weeks before. She had placed dry tennis shoes, a change of clothes and a light jacket in a garbage bag, along with a full change of clothes for Raven. The photographer had handed her two towels, a bar of soap, and a box of towelettes without explanation, to be placed into the bag as well. The blonde sat the bag at her feet, while Raven placed the packed cooler at hers.

She had noticed that Raven had omitted a camera bag. She was somewhat puzzled. This was the first time they had left the house, and Raven didn’t seem to have at least one camera. She wondered about this, but guessed Raven just wanted to have fun today and not snap away all the time. She and the dark-haired woman waited patiently for their ride to the River. Raven was dressed about the same, except she had on a Jacksonville Jaguars sweatshirt, with an oversized white tee shirt underneath in case she got overly hot and wanted to shed the outer shirt.

“Honey, yesterday when my family called, I kind of told them, well, I kind of told them, you might come up to New York with me next week for three days to meet them. I noticed you didn’t have anything scheduled to shoot that week,” Joanna said sleepily, reached over and kissed the tan woman’s cheek and then her neck. She felt the tall woman become stiff as a board as the words came casually out of her mouth.

After what seemed like minutes, she finally responded, “Merciful, Heavenly Father, you don’t give a body a chance to get used to the idea of meeting your family, do you?” She asked, still as stiff as before. “Just throw it out there and don’t give me a chance to wiggle out of it.”

“Why, Darling, you don’t want to wiggle out of meeting the folks, do you?” The young blonde questioned, knowing that was exactly what the older woman was attempting. “You afraid my Dad will take you to task about seducing me and making me your complete and totally captive lover?” She asked teasingly.

Raven’s head snapped around at Joanna’s insinuations, “NO! No way am I afraid of your father. It’s your Mother that scares the crap out of me. She will rip me up one side and down the other and hang me out to dry from what you have told me about her; and just where did you get the idea that I seduced you? I do believe YOU were the seducer, and I’m the one who is being held captive, and I WANT to remain that way for the rest of my life.” She braved, halfheartedly.

“You big sissy, my mother is two inches shorter than I am,” she chuckled at the now rapidly breathing partner sitting stiffly next to her.

“Although, even my father takes cover when she puts her foot down.” She laughed joyfully as she looked up into the deep blue eyes. “I’m kidding, my love. I think however, it was a mutual seduction, and I have come to believe that we both want to remain each other’s complete captive forever and always. Very mutual for both of us, I’d say. She will just make sure you are not taking advantage of me, and then you will be like one of her own daughters.” Joanna said lovingly as she again reached over and kissed the somewhat less stiffened woman.

“That made me feel a little better knowing even your father bows to her.”

“Dad can be a complete non-relenting tyrant when it comes to politics and banking, but he is so gentle, and will take you to heart just as fast as Mom. Have to tell you, though, Lover, he can spot a phony a mile away. Just be yourself and they will both fall in love with you,” she responded, taking Raven into her arms.

“Well, I only have your best interest at heart, and I want them to like me, but honestly, Joanna, meeting them scares me to death. Can’t we wait until we move to New York?” She pleaded.

“Do you have any assignments for next week, darling?” She asked.

“No, but…well, I was thinking…”

“No buts, darling, I was thinking it would be a good time, Raven. After all, we are having your cousin here the end of this week. So, I think it is only fair you meet my family soon. Give me one good reason, other than your fear, you scaredy cat, why you can’t come with me next week?

Raven’s mind went to whirling, yet, she couldn’t come up with one sensible, logistical idea, especially one, if Joanna ruled out her fear.

“If you aren’t going to let me slide on my terror, I guess, I have no choice, do I?” She gave in reluctantly.

“Sure, you have a choice, Darling. But it would make me very happy for you to meet my family.” Joanna replied, hoping the sadness in her voice would change Raven’s mind.

“Don’t look at me like that, Sweetheart, and don’t talk like that either. You know I’ll do anything that I think you want me to do. Oh! All right, I’ll go. But, I want you to know my insides are turning upside down at the thought.”

“Thank you, Honey.” She whispered into the neck of her lover. “I do appreciate you making this small concession. They won’t bite you, I promise. I won’t let them.”

“Well, I expect you to keep your word about that. Are your sister and brother going to be there? She asked whiningly.

“Yes. The entire family will be there, and their families also. It is a scheduled family get-together. Even the twins are anxious to meet you. Anyone who has been to the Amazon will get a million questions about the rainforest. They both have wanted to go back there since the family went two years ago. By the way, my brother thinks you are hot; at least that is what he said from the photo I faxed to him. His wife said you were more than hot, and if she wasn’t so content with him, she might consider changing teams.” She laughed heartedly.

“Merciful heavens!” Raven blushed at the comments.

Joanna’s head jerked up when she saw the old Ford pick-up rounding the corner into their drive. Excited, she jumped up off of the steps and walked toward the stopping truck, looking skeptically at the ten "poles" sticking out from inside the small fishing boat on the trailer.

Joanna rolled down the window as she opened the door, and entered the smoke-filled Ford, and said a cheerful, "Hi!" to her new friend, the shrimper. He mumbled a few words, not sure what he was taking on by having both women tag along for the fishing. Joanna sat in the middle, and as soon as Raven had placed the ice-chest and bag of clothes in the back of the rusted pickup, she slid in beside Joanna.

“Morning, Uncle Walt.” Thanks for taking both of us. I promise to help out and keep Joanna out of trouble.”

“She has to pull her weight, girl, or she will have to walk home, or stay here to start with. Better understand that now, Little Lady,” he said as he smoked his pipe and looked at Joanna questionably.”

“I can take care of myself, Uncle Walt, and I promise I will do my share of everything today and this evening.” She responded to the gray haired fisherman next to her. Then looking at Raven, she puckered her lips and squinted her eyes, “I thank you, but I can take care of myself, and I have no intentions of being the least bit of trouble, Miss Smarty Pants.”

“Uh huh,” Raven and Walt said simultaneously.

The old fisherman put out the pipe and reached over and took a pouch of Beechnut chewing tobacco from the dashboard, and placed a large handful in his mouth, shifting it to his jaw. He remained silent for several miles, but did shift his glance every once in awhile, to see the expression on the young woman’s face.

Joanna began asking him questions, and that is when he decided to start talking. He answered her questions about the "poles" in the back of the boat. She was still a little confused, but he assured her by the end of the night, she would understand completely. So, she finally said, "Fine" and sat back and listened to an old Charlie Pride song on the radio as they made their way to the River. Only one problem, she wasn’t particularly happy about the choice of music, but she had a very distinct feeling that messing with the radio dial would get her hands slapped for sure. After a short time, she found herself singing along with the tunes. An hour later, she leaned over on Raven’s shoulder and went to sleep again. Raven moved her arm to the back of the seat to give Joanna more room. The blonde scooted closer to the tall woman and turned slightly throwing her arm over Raven’s lap. Raven rolled her eyes and glanced over at Walt, who was obviously making himself busy getting a new chew of tobacco.

Raven’s nostrils immediately realized they were close when she inhaled the familiar smell of the marsh, an aroma one can only experience for oneself, before knowing what the full effect is. The old Ford took the bumps and the turns pretty well and, before long, Walt and Raven could see the outline of the marsh and the river.

The bumpy road, bounced once too high, and Joanna’s eyes popped open. She sat up straight, and looked around. Joanna was amazed at all the trucks lined up, waiting for their turn to back up their boats into the darkened waters of the Black River. The young woman glanced at Walt nervously, wondering how they would maneuver his boat among the others, but pretty soon they were backing it up and into the water.

As the trio sped away from the landing, Joanna glanced behind Walt at the tiller, still amazed at the crowded boat landing. The small woman also wondering how they would ever find their way back to the small place if a cloud came up, or it became too dark. I wouldn't worry about that for now, though. Not yet, anyhow. The young woman shifted her gaze to the obvious marshes along the riverbanks. How on earth are we ever going to shrimpfish in that?

“That is quite a scent isn’t it, Raven?” She asked as she placed her hand slightly over her nose for a brief moment before lowering it back to her lap for lack of any real effect on alleviating the smell.

“Scent? No, I think it’s called a pungent stink, Joanna. The marshes are sour and decay is all about,” her voice carried just loud enough for the young fair-haired lover to hear. “I hate to tell you this, sweetie, but the stench does get worse the further upriver to the real marshes.”

Joanna smiled and opened her fanny pack and removed a tube of cherry lip-gloss. She clicked off the cap, and applied a genuine amount to her lips and the area between her lips and nostrils. Then she offered the tub to Raven who was watching the comical practice, but refused the use of the lip-gloss.

“You learn to improvise, Stretch,” she said, replacing the lip-gloss in her fanny pack.

Raven only shook her head and smiled. Walt watched the interaction of the two women, and grinned. This’ll be a very interesting day. The old seaman spit the wad of tobacco into the river. With one hand on the handle of the motor, he reached into his back pants pocket with the other, and brought out the chewing tobacco pouch once again.

Joanna ignored the smell as she watched their surroundings, and marveled at the beauty of the countryside. The river was only about 30 feet wide and, on either side, the marsh lined the muddy banks, sometimes a house coming into view, but mostly just trees and wildlife. She would have been content to speed along in the small fishing boat for hours just watching, but all too soon they began to slow down.

They came upon a small spot on the bank with what seemed like hundreds of oak trees hanging over the water. The boat slowed down more, now barely moving. Walt called out to Raven, who left her seat next to Joanna in the middle of the boat, and walked to the front of the boat. Reaching out, she grabbed one of the tree branches, and then pulled the boat up onto the bank. Joanna looked at her curiously and then back at Walt, but still she didn't speak.

Finally, after rummaging around in the boat, Walt found an old bucket and then leaned over the side and began digging into the mud and bringing up handfuls of the smelly stuff. Then he would put the mud into the bucket.

“What are you doing?” Joanna asked with a frown covering her face.

"Getting mud for the bait."

"Oh." She said, not sure what that meant, but, shortly, she soon found out.

Joanna crinkled her nose at the smell of the fish-meal that he explained would attract the shrimp. She ignored the churning in her stomach, pointed at the antics of Walt and inquired, “You have got to be kidding me? Uncle Walt? Right, Raven?

Raven motioned for her to watch as she mixed the fishmeal with the mud and then forming them into balls the size of softball.

“Sweet Jesus,” the blonde uttered, shaking her head in disbelief. Walt offered her his tobacco pouch, and replaced it in his now muddy shirt pocket after Joanna gracefully declined his offer.

Raven deliberately avoided looking directly at Joanna. She busied herself in the procedure and placed another “bait ball” in the crate, which sat between the front seat and the middle one where Joanna was seated. The honey-haired woman watched openmouthed at the muddy, smelly hands of the taller woman, and continued to shake her head in skepticism and disbelief.

Walt spat on the opposite side of the boat and asked wryly, “You going to help, Joanna?” Without waiting for an answer, the old seaman turned back to the muddy bank and started another ball.

Joanna looked at him for a moment, started to answer, when she thought better of her remark. She then turned sharply and looked at Raven, who was half out of the boat reaching way out over the mud.

“Oh, what the heck. When in Rome,” Joanna squinted in the glowing sunshine. She swallowed hard, crossed one leg to the other side of the middle seat, and pushed up the borrowed sweatshirt above her elbows. The younger woman lifted a brow, “Okay, Uncle Walt, show me how to do that ball rolling thing one more time. The old seaman grinned, and complied with the request.

The smaller female joined in and helped Raven and Walt make "bait balls. She was glad that she had manicured her fingernails, and made them much shorter the week before! And boy, did this stuff stink.

Soon, after about 50 were made, and her hands were aching, they left their place on the bank and coasted along in the boat, leaving the closeness of the river and heading out towards the Inter-coastal waterway. Before long, they reached some more marshland, and by then, the sun was going down.

Uncle Walt stopped the boat and began telling Joanna what her duties included. She sat there listening, trying her best not to look nervous, but she was sure he could tell. She listened tentatively, and took in everything he said, making sure that she would not forget a single instruction.

Joanna sat on the back seat, maneuvering the small craft alongside the marsh as Uncle Walt and Raven expertly inserted the "poles" into the mud banks about ten yards apart. Once this was completed, they coasted up to each one and began throwing the mud balls they had made earlier in front of the "poles." By then Joanna realized that these "poles" were actually PVC pipes that are mostly used in water lines, but shrimpers, like Uncle Walt, use them as shrimp poles. The poles help him know where the bait was thrown. That made a lot of sense to Joanna.

Then he explained to her that they would wait for about an hour until the tide came in, hopefully bringing the shrimp with it. So they waited, ate a sandwich and drank a pop, and talked some, but mostly just sat there as Joanna took in her surroundings and listened to the sounds around her. She did hum the latest melody she had completed, and she smiled at Raven, who joined her in the humming for a while.

By then it was dark, making it seem almost eerie to the younger woman, at times, yet exciting. Crickets chirped loudly in the distance, cows expressed themselves through their occasional "Moo," and every now and then, a sea turtle swam by, checking them out. Or so, that is what Uncle Walt said. “I’ll take your word for it, Uncle Walt.” She wasn’t about to lean over the boat and see if it was an alligator, or something else.

“Nothing to worry about, Joanna, no ‘gators here. It was a sea turtle.” Raven soothing voice reassured her.

Finally, the time came. He spit out his tobacco chew over the side of the boat and explained to Joanna what she had to do. She listened once more, unsure of what the next few hours would hold for her. After taking one more swig from her bottled water, she put the boat in forward and coasted slowly toward the first pole. As Joanna was almost upon it, she put the boat in neutral, watching as Raven and Walt expertly placed the casting net between their teeth while holding onto the end of it, then casting it outwards. It landed atop the water, directly in front of one of the poles before sinking slowly to the bottom of the river. Jolting Joanna out of her trance, Walt yelled from the middle of the boat, "Back up!" In the excitement, the young woman had forgotten to reverse the boat.

She quickly put the boat in reverse, guiding it back slowly, as she watched Raven and Uncle Walt pull the casting net up and out of the water and into the boat. Joanna could see bright pink eyes everywhere! They held the net up over a cooler and unfolded it and, when they did, it seemed as if hundreds of shrimp fell from everywhere!

This process was repeated over and over again. Joanna began to wonder if the man was going to shrimp all night. Finally, when the fifth cooler was full, and all of the poles had been "hit" at least 20 times, they stopped. Joanna was tired, exhausted actually, but, also thrilled at the same time.

“I have never seen so much shrimp,” she grinned.

After pulling up the poles they headed back to the boat landing.

“You’re in charge of holding the spotlight,” Walt told Joanna.

“I’ll do it, if you just want to relax, Joanna,” Raven volunteered.

“Not on your life, darling. Uncle Walt said that was my job. How about switching seats, please?”

So, up front she sat, huddled in her borrowed sweatshirt as the cold April wind stung her face. But she still kept her eyes glued to the dark, forbidding water in front of the small craft. She wasn't sure how he knew where to go, because she couldn't even see ten feet in front of her, but soon they arrived at their destination.

Raven handed her the soap, and towel and stepped to the edge of the water to wash her hands. Once they completed the basic bathing, Raven handed several towelettes to Joanna to edge around her nails.

“You’ll have to use the finger brush when we get home to get the grime from under your nails, but the basic scent and crud is off, and it won’t smell so badly.”

“Actually, Raven, I’m too tired to care how it smells. I could do with a cold bottle of something to drink, though.”

“I can handle that, what do you want, water, or Dr. Pepper?”

“What, no lemonade?” she laughed. “Give me a water then, please.”

Raven handed her young lover a bottle of water, took one for herself and tossed a can of Dr. Pepper to Uncle Walt, who had tied the poles securely in the boat and strapped the coolers to each seat.

Once they were back in the old truck and heading back home, Joanna finally let out a long sigh.

Uncle Walt glanced over at her, smiling, and then said three words that she had not expected, but longed to hear.

“Good job, kiddo.”

The young woman smiled tiredly, laid her head back against Raven’s arm, which was stretched out over the top of the seat, and thought, about her first night of “shrimp baiting.” She knew it was a night that she would never forget. What was so strange, and yet very satisfying, she also knew, she would be going “shrimp baiting” many times with Uncle Walt and Raven in the future. She was asleep before the old truck hit the main highway, and slept until they pulled up in front of the beach house.

Joanna stumbled toward the house, the unused dry clothes under her arm. Raven took only a couple pounds of shrimp from one cooler for them to eat the next day.

“Thanks, Uncle Walt. I had a great time,” Joanna waved from the porch.

“You’re welcome, kiddo.”

“Take more than those, Raven.”

“Nope. You sell those and put five pounds or so into the freezer for a shrimp feast later this year. Thanks for all you did with Joanna, Uncle Walt. I appreciate it very much.”

“Alright. We’ll have a feast later this summer. But, you, dad-blast-it, have to bring those damn crabs. I can't stand crabbing. No problem about Joanna. You can bring her anytime. You got yourself a keeper there, Raven. See you soon.” He scratched his beard, spit out the tobacco, reached for his pipe, put the truck into reverse and backed up before Raven could answer him. She could see his one final wave prior to his turning onto Route One and back to his boat docked at St. Augustine.

They both showered quickly, and tumbled into bed at almost midnight. “Life just doesn’t get much better then this.” Joanna heard Raven mumble as she felt herself entering dreamland. Both slept through the night in each other’s arms, tired, but relaxed as newborn babes.

*****


Joanna sleepily moved toward the edge of the king- size bed, stretching her arm over the surface, seeking the warm body she had grown accustomed to holding as she slept. When she reached the other side of the bed, she lifted her head and looked around the room. She was alone.

“Raven, I had plans for us this morning. They did not include waking up without my bed companion.” The young woman slowly sat up, and yawned as she stretched her arms over her head. “Oh, well, best laid plans,” she yawned again as she rose and made her way to the bathroom.

Before long, the beautiful blonde exited the bath, bent down and retrieved her sleeping shirt that had not made it to her body the night before. She clutched it to her side as she passed the French doors on the outer wall when a movement caught her eye.

She walked over, quietly opened the door, and promptly slipped the nightshirt over her head. She leaned against the doorframe watching the stunning, tanned woman on a straw workout mat, some twenty feet in front of the doors. Raven was completing the last movements of her “Aikido” routine. Joanna had watched her perform these rituals four or five times a week since her first week here.

She had joined in for a few of the sessions and had agreed to join Raven on a regular basis once they were in New York. Joanna hoped she could convince the third degree black belt expert that she might want to consider teaching a class, maybe for her cast and crew of the musical. Raven had only muttered, “I’ll consider it, Honey,” and had gone on to the next sequence. She quickly realized Raven used this method, not only to keep in shape, but also for her personal spiritual growth. Apparently, it was this meditation that helped keep Raven in focus and balance.

“The word “Aikido” in Japanese is made up of three characters,” Raven explained, during their initial session. “The first is ‘AI’ which means ‘to unite, to bring together, to harmonize.’ The second is ‘KI’ which means ‘the energy of the universe.’ The third character is ‘DO’ which means ‘the way, the path.’ This signifies that the study of Aikido not only involves self-defense techniques, but also includes character-building ideals, which can be incorporated into one's own life,” Raven stated with conviction. “Together, these characters mean ‘The Way to Harmonize with the Energy of the Universe.”

The photographer smiled, reached out and gently ran her fingers down the cheek of the younger woman listening attentively to her. “The most unique aspect of Aikido is that it has, as the basis of its philosophy, the idea of being in harmony with your opponent rather than being in conflict with him. The ideal of Aikido is not to think of defeating your enemy,” Raven stated knowingly, “But rather to be in harmony with him, spiritually and physically. This is why Aikido is sometimes called the ‘Art of Non-Resistance’ or ‘Non-Fighting Martial Art."

Joanna had taken to heart the excellent instruction, and had read several of the books Raven had on her bookcase on the art she was teaching her. She smiled, and shook her head in acknowledgment as she watched Raven move across the mat with the grace of a prima ballerina. And yet, she knew, Raven could easily inflict deadly harm, should she choose to defend herself, whatever the cause; for she also had a third-degree black belt in Karate. Raven had told her Aikido was her choice of the martial arts for inner balance and harmony.

‘Aikido techniques express elements of philosophy, psychology, physics, and spirituality. As you learn the body movements, you will, at the same time, train your mind, improve your health and develop self-confidence. Through the physical practice of the self-defense techniques, you will begin to appreciate and understand the mental and spiritual aspects of Aikido. During practice sessions, partners work in harmony with each other, learning when and how to yield, how to lead and guide another person's movements, and how to control an attacker through non-resistive techniques,’ she remembered reading Raven’s hand written notes. Joanna was glad she could memorize pages and pages of script with only a couple of readings.

Joanna’s thoughts went again to their first session, as she shifted her position, and sat down cross-legged in front of the open door.

“Aikido movements emphasize flexibility and balance, Joanna. They derive their power from strong circular and spiral movements, which allow a defender to control a much larger aggressor.” Raven demonstrated, and had Joanna follow her movements. The Master then allowed Joanna to control her with several of the movements.

“Ah ha! Just because someone is bigger than I am can work against them, right?” Joanna asked and extended a hand to Raven, now on the mat.

“Right. Remember, you have kickboxing experience, with sweeps and punches. But now, you can combine these movements with what you already know, and use it to your advantage.” She leaned in, and captured a quick kiss, and danced away before the surprised young woman had an opportunity to react.

“You are a meanie, Raven Longgear. I need more than one quick kiss.”

“Later, Sweetheart. Later. Now, try that last movement once again,” she commanded as she resumed her position in front of the younger woman. “You can have all the passionate attention you want, once this session is over.” The tall woman promised.

“I’ll hold you to that, my love.” She grinned as she held up her arms for the appropriate movement.

“The aim of the Aikidoist is to be in conscious control of both mind and body and to maintain a calm presence. The continuous and flexible motion which originates at the hips is like the performance of a dance - a graceful, spherical motion.” Joanna smiled at that explanation, for not only was she feeling the movements and motions throughout her body, but it felt as if she was beginning to understand what Raven had told her about harmony.

“The beauty and strength of Aikido movements come from the coordinated motion of the entire body. The joint-locking techniques, such as those applied to the wrist or elbow, are in harmony with the natural flexing and, when done with skill and compassion, result in no permanent damage,” Raven again demonstrated.

“The dynamic throws of Aikido can be applied throughout a range of intensity. They can knock an attacker down in an instant, or they can guide someone gently into a safe place with minimal impact,” she said, confirming several throws with Joanna. She was careful to explain each throw so her young lover would not be taken by surprise, or be injured.

“These techniques allow a person to make appropriate choices in conflict situations, so that neither the defender nor the attacker is harmed, right Raven?” The shorter woman questioned.

“That is correct, sweetheart. You always have choices. It is up to you what choice you make.”

The session lasted for an hour, and Joanna sat down on the mat upon completion and mulled over the repetitions of the same technique Raven had shown her. Raven sat down next to her, but left several feet between them to complete the session with silent meditation.

“I developed my own version by weaving together silence, movement and seated meditation, Joanna. You’ll have to decide what works best for you.” Raven confided.

“I realize that, in an unexpected way, this practice has its roots in such silence, Raven. I guess, I need to think about the creation of my own Aikido meditation practice. Did it take you a long time, and did you have help?”

“Actually, when I started going to a New Age Church, the meditation practice was derived from the silence. And yes, it did help when it came to the meditation practice I have now after a workout. Meher Baba said, “Things that are real are given and received in silence."

“That quote was in that book you let me borrow. I like the idea that we each have to clear the mind, so that your eyes can see what is really there, not what education and experience tells you to see.”

The continuous ringing of the telephone brought Joanna back to the present. She quickly hopped up, almost skipped to the nightstand and picked up the instrument.

“Hello.”

“Hello, this is Bertha. May I speak to Raven, please?”

“Hi, Ms. Bertha. She is outside. If you will hold for a moment, I’ll go and get her.”

“Is this Joanna?” Big Bertha asked.

“Yes, Ma’am, it is.”

“Good morning, Honey. No need to bother her. Just take a message. Tell her, Johnny can’t go fishing with you’ll today. We just got back from the emergency room with him. Me and his granddaddy was up with him most of the night,” the buxom woman stated. “Finally, we took him to the hospital, cause he was coughing so hard, and the fever wouldn’t go down.”

“My goodness! Is he all right?” A premonitory chill tiptoed up Joanna’s spine.

“He’s doing better. They gave him some shots. His fever has gone down some, and his coughing ain’t as bad. He has a bad case of bronchitis, the doctor said.”

“That sounds pretty serious, Ms. Bertha. You have any thought as to what brought about this ill health?” She sighed with regret.

“I sure do. Him and Billy Caspero decided they would bring on summer a month early. They went wading in the ditch next to the canal out back, and decided to have a splash fight with their clothes on. Unbeknownst to his granddaddy or me, both of them were wet all afternoon, including their tennis shoes. They were playing in the backyard, and we didn’t notice he was wet until he came in for a drink. I gave him a hot bath, changed his clothes, but it was to no avail. He doesn’t get sick often, but he does have bronchitis several times a year. Needs his tonsils out they say, but me and his granddaddy didn’t want him to miss school, so we were putting it off to the summer.” She offered in the way of an explanation.

“I am so sorry to hear this. Is there anything you need, or something we can do?” anxiety sounded in the young woman’s voice.

“Nothing, Honey. Just wanted you and Raven to know what was going on. Didn’t want you to come over when he can’t go with you. He is so upset and crying about not getting to go fishing with Raven. I had to promise him he could go sailing with her once he was well enough… and I never let that boy go in, or on, the ocean. I always insist they go to the lake or river.”

“I’m sure she will take him on a special outing once he is feeling better.” Joanna fumbled with the telephone cord. She heard Bertha blow her nose vigorously. Obviously, she had been crying, also.

“We are still having his birthday party tomorrow, so you and Raven please come then. He cried so hard when we told him we might have to cancel, that we figured we’d just go ahead with it. We won’t be going to church, though, but you all can come over about eleven if you still want to come.”

Joanna shook her head in acknowledgment, “Certainly, we still want to come. We will be there, and bring Johnny’s birthdays presents also.”

“Don’t you and Raven go spoiling that young’un with expensive presents, you hear? She spoils him rotten enough, as it is.” Big Bertha laughed. She knew Raven would make her gift to Johnny something he would treasure. She always had.

Joanna snorted, “I can’t make any promises, Ms. Bertha. Johnny is way up there on Raven’s list of priorities. Do we need to bring anything for the cookout tomorrow?” She asked.

“No, don’t bring anything, except that sexy, handsome woman.” She chuckled.

“That, I can promise. See you tomorrow,” she said.

“By eleven, you hear? Bye for now.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I’ll tell Raven. Hug Johnny for us,” she barely got the words out of her mouth, before she heard a click on the other end. Returning the phone to the cradle, she turned, and jumped… startled at Raven unexpectedly standing right behind her.

“Didn’t mean to frighten you, Sweetheart. What’s wrong with Johnny?” She took the young woman into her arms, and they both sat down on the edge of the bed.

Joanna relayed the conversation, reassuring Raven that the boy was okay, and his grandparents were still having his birthday cookout.

“Was Big Bertha sure we can’t do anything for him or bring them anything?” Raven looked down in gloom, her heart aching dully. Johnny was very dear to her. She had such empathy for the small boy.

“She said no, but I recommend we call and check on them later this morning and again this afternoon,“ she suggested in an attempt to ease Raven’s concern for the family.

“Yes. We’ll do that, and stick around the house, just in case they need us.” Raven glanced at Joanna.

“He means a great deal to you, doesn’t he, Raven?” She asked, deeply concerned for the weight of Raven’s anxiety.

“They all do. But, yes, he is a pretty special kid. Now, I know what you were going through with your nephew at the photo shoot in New York.” She again looked into Joanna’s eyes and saw the understanding there.

“Children can really get to you, can’t they? Seems like my nephews are always getting into something, and it usually is naughty or unpleasant.”

“They certainly can. That little fellow sure has had a lot of bad things happen to him these last four years. Damn, Joanna, he had an emergency spleen operation last year when he fell off the porch roof.” The dark woman shook her head in disbelief at the boy’s unfortunate experiences.

What in the world was he doing on the roof?” She asked.

“Would you believe, he climbed up on the roof of the back porch and attempted to fly. Billy, that’s his little neighbor and classmate, and Johnny made a pair of kite wings. Johnny jumped off first. SPLAT, he hit the ground. But that wasn’t enough, he told Billy, he was coming back up, as he believed he hadn’t flapped his wings hard enough and needed to try it again.

They had the tape on the roof, and repaired the one rip. Big Bertha said she was hanging out clothes, when she turned around, and saw him take a running start, and soar into the air flapping his arms with the paper wings like there was no tomorrow. SPLAT, he hit the ground so hard that time, it ruptured his spleen. Scared Bertha almost into a heart attack.” Raven shook her head.

Joanna reached out and took Raven’s hand. “And that boy is only six. Lord help Big Bertha when he gets to be ten. My nephews built a campfire in their tree house a couple of summers ago. The fire jumped out of the bucket they had built the fire in and blocked the trap door. They had to jump to safety from the window, which was twenty feet off the ground. One broke his foot, the other, his arm.” She related. “The tree-house was pretty large, and the fire so intense, the fire department had to come. By the time they got there, flames were leaping out of the roof, and the tree caught fire. Mother wouldn’t allow Daddy to build the boys another tree house. I think that summer was the summer her hair turned completely silver. She always said it was from that visit.” Joanna snickered at the remembrance, then put her arms around Raven’s neck.

Raven chuckled at Joanna’s hand gestures and facial expressions while telling the story, then drew her lover into an embrace, followed by an intense kiss.

“Hmm. Honey, as I am drenched from my workout and we aren’t going fishing, could I interest you in a joint shower?” Raven wiggled her eyebrows suggestively.

“I accept your offer,” she said standing, “Only it has to be a quick shower, and then how about a different kind of breakfast? One with lots of kisses, plenty of cuddling, and anything that might follow that course of action.” Joanna said seductively.

There was plenty of hot water left from the speedy shower, but the breakfast of seduction lasted well into the morning.

*****


Chapter 8

“Damnit all to hell!” The tall woman snatched the torn paper from around the rod, wadded it up, then threw it across the living room to the other seven wads of torn and crushed paper already lying there. “How freaking difficult can it be to wrap one stupid birthday present?” she growled.

“Hum, well,” Joanna cleared her throat. She was sitting with her bare feet tucked beneath her on one end of Raven’s extra long couch. Next to her was a beautifully wrapped package, with a large blue bow completing the decoration.

“Don’t you start on me, Joanna, please. I’m not in the mood.” She tartly advised the blonde grinning down at her from her perch on the sofa.

“I knew we were in trouble when I saw you toss six rolls of wrapping paper into the buggy, as I was selecting my one. When I carefully placed my selection in the buggy and turned back to you, Sweetheart, you had another four or five rolls of the same kind of paper and threw those, also, into the buggy.” The small woman puckered her lips and playfully extended the pretend kiss to the frustrated woman sitting on the floor. “I offered, then, to wrap Johnny’s present for you, but no. You insisted you could wrap one rod and reel all by yourself.”

“Well as you can tell, my wrapping expertise apparently isn’t all that great. I knew, from past experience, I would need the extra rolls of paper to wrap his present.” Raven grimaced, as she picked up the top of the line, Shakespeare 535 spinning rod and reel, and flexed it up and down a few times.

“Don’t you think a six foot rod is just a little much for a just turned seven year old boy?” the blonde inquired softly.

“No more than that exclusive name brand, oversized tackle box, stuffed to the top with all sorts of fishing tackle, line, bait, lures, bobbers, worms, hooks, leads and about anything any grown person could ever dream to have in a lifetime.” An elegantly curved eyebrow arched reflectively, while tapping the wrapped present next to Joanna, with the tip of the held rod.

“Now don’t go ripping or poking holes in my package, with your old rod, Raven. I don’t have enough paper to rewrap it.” Joanna echoed and sipped her lemonade somewhat more sedately. “Besides, I think Johnny deserves to have his own tackle box. You don’t expect him to carry around his lures or hooks in a paper sack, do you? Especially, since you are giving him an oversized, extra long rod and reel. Besides that, Ms. Smarty Pants, if you will be nice, I’ll make a bargain with you, in exchange for wrapping that ugly pole.” Joanna ignored the glittering sapphires arrogantly roaming her.

“Ugly! Ugly? Why, I have you know this is a fantastic, exquisite rod. Just listen to the swish of rod as I flex it up and down. Anyone, including a seven year old, will be able to cast this baby exactly where he wants it.” A responding grin lit up Raven’s face. “And just what kind of bargain did you have in mind, Ms. Kind and Helpful?” Raven shrugged, clearly hooked by the proposition.

Joanna swallowed the last of her drink and stood up; she retrieved Raven’s already empty glass and went to the kitchen with them. Upon refilling both, she returned to a still antsy woman in the middle of the floor and sat down beside her. Handing her the full glass, she proposed; “I’ll wrap your present. In exchange, you will prepare my breakfast for three mornings in a row, and serve them to me in bed.” The actress shrugged her shoulders, as if the deal was already done.

A kinetic attraction between the two sparked. Joanna took a long sip of her lemonade and waited for the dark woman to give in to the bargain.

“Let me get this straight. All I have to do is prepare and serve you breakfast in bed for three mornings, no strings attached, and you will wrap this rod and reel to look just as nice as your gift?” Excitement shone in the clear green eyes gazing up at her, and Raven couldn’t help but question her motives once again. “That’s it, nothing more? And you aren’t going to demand I wear something shocking like Denise Virtue did in her novel, “The Corporate Raider,” are you? I saw you reading my copy of her book yesterday, and I will not serve you breakfast in only an apron, or naked either,” her words came out gently serious.

“Nope, dress as you wish. Only, I get to choose the menu, which will be one of your wonderful omelets, six slices of bacon, two pieces of whole-wheat toast, orange juice and a carafe of coffee. That’s the deal. Take it, Babe, or I’ll leave you to your wrapping and go for a walk, while you attempt to wrap this long, narrow, almost impossible shaft and try and make it look as good as mine,” came the equally serious reply as Joanna drank deeply from her lemonade glass.

“Deal!” Raven held out her hand for an acknowledging handshake.

“Deal.” Joanna accepted.

“Phew! I was getting pretty frustrated over this. Remember, you said it would look as good as yours,” Raven handed the rod and reel over to the outstretched hands before her.

“Noooo problem,” Joanna grinned.

Taking the rod and reel, she gently laid it on the floor. She hopped up, strolled to the laundry room, and brought back a six inch by six inch box, about three feet long she had stored there the week before, knowing full well it would come in handy for something. She tossed it on the floor next to the rod, and sat back down. Picking up the rod, she gave it a couple of flick as Raven had demonstrated, “Yes, good snap there. Johnny will be able to get great cast from the flexibility.”

Joanna took the rod, carefully examined the shaft, and about two feet from the reel, she twisted gently as she pulled the long shaft apart. Then on the remaining piece, she again examined the rod, and at the next linkage, she again twisted gently and pulled the shaft apart. Once more and the rod was in four parts, which she placed carefully inside the box. She taped the end, and held out her hand to Raven, for a roll of the paper on sitting on the floor on the opposite side of Raven.

“Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?” Raven moaned, handing the roll of wrapping paper to the outstretched hand.

“You yourself told me, use your options, Honey.” Joanna stopped, and placed her free hand around Raven’s neck, pulled her down and kissed her full lips gently, but firmly. “I love you, Darling,” and pulled her down for an encore kiss.

“And I love you, Sweetheart. Thanks for not taking advantage of my dim wit. Sometimes, I can be so hard-headed.” Smiling at the deepening flush that covered her bronzed face, Raven leaned into another kiss and placed her arm around the shoulder of the smaller woman.

“Darling, you might want to go get us another glass of lemonade. If we keep this up, the present won’t get wrapped. And we need to leave shortly, as Big Bertha said we weren’t to be late and eleven is creeping upon us quickly.”

Reluctantly, Raven released her hold, sighed and lay down on the carpet beside Joanna. “Neither of us needs another glass of lemonade. I’ll be good and just lie here until you’re finished. Okay?”

“Okay.” She reached for the paper once again, and set about her task. In less than five minutes, the three foot box was wrapped and had a large blue bow placed neatly in the middle of the present.

“Nice, very nice. It does look at great as yours. Thanks, Honey.”

Joanna stood up, and placed the present next to hers on the sofa, “No problem, Stretch. Are you wearing what you have on, or should we change?”

“Change. I can’t wear torn blue jeans to Big Bertha’s. There will be a good crowd there. I’m wearing my khaki’s, the yellow button down shirt, loafers and I’ll take my windbreaker, just in case.”

“How do my green twill pants, and the green and yellow stripped sweater sound? She asked, as she extended her helping hand to Raven, who was preparing to get up off the floor.

“Joanna, anything you wear is great. Actually, I think the sweater may get too heavy. You might want to consider that pullover green thing you had on the other night, and carry the sweater,” she suggested.

“The green pullover thing, huh?” She laughed and pulled Raven towards the hallway. “Ok, I’ll go to my room, and get dressed there. I know if I bring it back to our bedroom to change, we definitely will be late.” Joanna grinned rakishly.

“You are getting to know me too well, Sweetheart,” a playful light crept into her gaze. “Okay. Meet you in the living room in ten minutes?”

“Nope, fifteen minutes.”

“Nope, ten minutes,” she help up her wrist for Joanna to check the time.

“Darn. Okay, ten minutes.” She let go of Raven’s hand and dashed down the hallway to the end bedroom where her clothes remained. There was no closet space in the master bedroom at this time, but Raven had mentioned, she would have another walk in closet added for Joanna’s clothes. Joanna had declared it was not necessary; her clothes were fine where they were.

True to her word, Joanna was sitting on the sofa when Raven entered the living room and went over to pick up both presents.

“I can handle mine, Darling,” the smaller woman said.

“No trouble. How about you taking our sweaters? As you see, I brought along the brown, striped one you like, instead of the windbreaker.”

“It looks nice on you. Ok, I can handle that. Here, let me get the door for you.”

They proceeded south for four or five miles on Route One, until what seemed like a deserted dirt road appeared on the right. Raven turned and drove the Navigator down the winding road until three houses came into view on the edge of a bay before them. At the far house, the driveway and turnaround were already filled with vehicles. Raven pulled up behind the last vehicle and shut off the engine.

Raven didn’t enter the house, but took the walkway around the side and proceeded to the back. There were, perhaps, thirty adults, standing and sitting, and about ten children running around. She directed Joanna to the patio and the picnic table, where they placed their gifts next to the stacks already there.

“Ours are the prettiest wrapped,” supplied Raven grinning. She took Joanna’s hand and walked towards the other three picnic tables that had been pulled together at the water’s edge.

Big Bertha was the first one to spot Raven and Joanna, “Here comes my handsome, sexy woman, and she brought that beautiful blonde with her,” she acknowledged. Within moments, everyone was hugging the both of them and being introduced to Joanna.

“Where is the birthday boy?” Raven glanced around her.

“Over there, behind that protective canvas to keep the wind off him. He is still running a little fever, but we thought if we keep the wind off him and him wrapped up, he could stay out for a few minutes.” His grandmother supplied and pointed to the white sail near the four grills.

“Joanna, you want to come with me and say hello to Johnny?” She didn’t want to leave the repeatedly-hugged blonde woman to the perils of the anxious friends gathered for the birthday celebration.

“I certainly do. Lead the way.”

They walked side by side until they got to the canvas protection Big Daddy John had rigged to protect his grandson. Raven peeked around the canvas at the small figure lying on a chaise lounge, covered up to his face with a green blanket.

“Hi, Big Guy. How are you feeling?” She stepped around the protection and smiled at Johnny.

“RAVEN!” He jerked the blanket down and attempted to get up.

“No, you stay put, Big Guy. How about I sit here on this side of you for a few minutes?”

Johnny moved to the middle of the lounge while still sitting up, and hugged Raven as she sat down. He looked up and saw the figure coming around the canvas barrier, and smiled. “Hi, Joanna! I told Billy The Negotiator was coming to my birthday party. He called me a fat, twisted-tongued liar. He even bet me his new slingshot you wouldn’t be here. Wait till he sees you.” Grinning, the young boy patted the chaise lounge for Joanna to sit down on the opposite side from Raven.

Joanna laughed, “Nice to see you again, Johnny. How are you feeling?” She asked as she sat down next to the frail child.

“I’m better, now that you and Raven are here.” With one of his hands he took Raven’s hand and continued, “Gosh, Raven, Grannie wouldn’t let me go fishing yesterday. She made me so mad. I almost cursed like Uncle Walt. But she told me, she’d tan my backside if I used one of his favorite words, then she’d wash my mouth out with soap, even though I was feeling puny.” His frown was almost humorous and Joanna put her hand up to her mouth to prevent a laugh.

“It’s all right, Big Guy. She said I could take you out on my sailboat as soon as you were better. She has never allowed you even to go in swimming in the ocean, so that is quite a nice thing, don’t you agree?”

“Yeah, and you will take me, right?” He asked anxiously.

“Sure will, just as soon as Big Bertha gives the okay.”

Excitedly, he turned to Joanna and asked, “You’re coming with us, right, Joanna?”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she responded as she took his other small hand in hers.

“Joanna, Uncle Bart took me to the mall, and I got me a door poster of you. It’s on the back of my bedroom door, autographed and all. But I was wondering, I thought, maybe you could write me something on it just so everyone would know you was really a friend of mine and not just a mailed out or bought thing?”

“I would be honored, Johnny. I’ll go you one better: how about I get Raven to take some photographs of us together today, and when you come on the sailboat? I’d like one of us together, and you can sign it for me to put in a frame.”

“Boy, that would be great. You’ll do it right, Raven?” He turned to the tall photographer with pleading eyes.

“Sure, Big Guy. Why don’t I go get my camera case and I’ll start now? I was going to shoot your party anyways, just take me a minute. You keep Joanna company, ok?”

“Got you covered, Raven. She can sit right here. HEY BILLY, YOU AND THE OTHER GUYS COME OVER HERE AND SEE WHO IS HERE FOR MY PARTY.” He bellowed toward the group of kids playing follow the leader, running in a line like a kite’s tail, down the bank of the bay. Within a minute, Joanna was swamped with little hands being extended as Johnny proudly introduced each of his friends to her.

God, she even charms the children. I’m one lucky woman, Raven thought as she turned around again, and made her way back to the vehicle for her camera bag.

She shot several rolls of film, and would continue to shoot throughout the party, including Johnny opening his presents. She then took Joanna’s hand and led her to some lounge chairs just set up by Bart and Uncle Walt, about ten feet from the tables for the overflow.

“There are a couple of people who just arrived that I would like you to meet,” she said, drawing Joanna closer to her side, and kissing her head.

Just as she stopped at a chair, two women jumped up and went for her.

“Raven, how are you?” they asked in unison. They all laughed.

“I’m good, really good. Come here and give me a hug. I knew you were back from the Caribbean, for Big Bertha told us Billy was with Johnny when they went wading.” She hugged each of the women, and then turned to Joanna.

“Joanna Stern, I would like to introduce Marissia Caspero, that’s Billy’s mother. And this cute button is Angelena Valdez, Billy’s other mom.

“So very nice to meet you both,’ she shook hands with each of the women, and then laughed as she blushed, as she remembered hugs were also part of the introductions.

“Pleased to meet you finally, Joanna,” they both replied.

“When Johnny was introducing me to his friends, there was a delightful little girl there that had the name Caspero also, Helena, I believe. Does she belong to you two, also?”

“Yes, although she is my sister’s daughter, I have full custody since childbirth, after Helena died. She has never known anyone except Angelena and me. Although she is Billy’s cousin, they act so much like brother and sister, we don’t say anything. It works for us.”

“She looks just a bit older than Billy, and, shall we say, a bit quieter.” The blonde laughed.

“She is over a year older. But boys grow so much faster than girls.” Angelena stated proudly. “She is our little princess, and she is just as quiet at home. It’s a break from Billy and his antics,” she grinned.

“My nephews shot up two inches taller than my nieces, seems like it was only a summer that happened.” She laughed knowingly.

“Joanna, Marissia and Angelena work for the state. They go different places and recruit MD’s for service in different areas of the state that wouldn’t have a doctor otherwise.” She informed the smaller woman, who now had her arm around Raven’s waist, and Raven had placed her arm around Joanna’s shoulders.

“That sounds like very rewarding work. Have you two been doing that for awhile?” The smaller woman asked.

“It can get hectic at times. Especially, when we have to take the kids out of school for up to three months. But schools in different countries haven’t seemed to hinder them much. And we do try and home school both of them at the same time. We have been in this field for over ten years.” Marissia answered.

“I know about that different school thing. Although, I did change schools about five times in ten years, I did get to know the students in that time. It must be difficult for the children at times,” Joanna could relate with the parents.

“We work very hard at making sure they keep in touch with their friends here by the Internet, and phone calls. It does have its down side, but the kids seem to have adjusted pretty well.” Angelena reached down and took Marissia’s larger hand in her smaller one.

“When did you two get back?” Raven asked.

“Just two days ago, Raven. We were going to call, but with Billy having to get over here to see Johnny, and Helena wanting to go visit little Camilia, and unpacking; we thought we’d just wait until today. But, if we’d known that Joanna Stern was at your house, we would have been over there the first night.” All four laughed together.

“Joanna, their home was the house we drove by and checked on several times since you’ve been here. They keep a close eye on the beach house when I’m away in return.”

“Oh, yes, the next house over on the opposite side of the road. Great arrangement. Raven, aren’t you going to invite them to dinner?” Raven looked embarrassed, “I didn’t know if you were up to preparing a full course dinner or not…. Uh, I have to tell you, Joanna, both of them have your appetite.” She whispered loudly and snickered.

“Why you!!” Marissia playfully punched her in the ribs.

“We’d love to come, just say when.” Angelena accepted.

“Good, I’ll call you and set something up as soon as we return from New York, and bring the kids, also,” Joanna responded.

Their conversation continued until Big Daddy John announced that the BBQ was ready. Everyone eased to the tables, and Raven carried Johnny to the head of the kids’ table, and his Grandmother made him put on a sweatshirt with hood, much to his dislike.

“You have to admit, Raven, Big Daddy sure puts a mean BBQ together. These ribs are so juicy, and tender.” Bart’s wife, Patty, said to Raven sitting across from her.

“Yeah… and they make my BBQ seem like rocks.” She laughed, and placed another ear of corn on her plate.

*****


After everyone had seconds, and some thirds, they intermingled, each finding a friend or two to chat with, catching up on all the ins and outs of the other’s lives.

Finally, Joanna and Raven found themselves standing and talking to Bart and Patty. Bart excused himself to help his brother with the clean up.

“So, you’re the lady everyone is talking about. Gossip is, if you pay any attention to the gossip here, that is, that you reeled ol’ Raven in faster than Bart can clean a ten-pound grouper. Any truth to that…never mind, I can see by the gleam in her eyes, she has been hooked, lined, and sinkered. Don’t you let the riffraff get your dander up. You have got to be a very special lady, if you’ve taken the most eligible woman in the state off the market. Come to think about it, she didn’t do so bad herself, Joanna.” Ms. Patty hugged Joanna, and offered the smaller woman her place at the table. “Raven, why don’t you go get us something to drink? I’ll have some coffee if you don’t mind,” and picked up her cup and handed it to the blue eyes standing next to Joanna.

“Look after her, Ms. Patty, she isn’t quite used to us river folk yet,” the tall woman gave Joanna a hug and smiled as she scooted off to fill the beverage request.

“I think the conquest was very mutual, Ms. Patty. And I, for one am extremely happy with the outcome.” She said pleasantly, as she sat down next to the buxom woman who was almost as large as Ms. Bertha, but not as tall.

“There is no doubt about Raven. We have all been concerned about her for years. Bart kept saying, when the right one comes along, she will know and she won’t settle for anything short of that. I do believe he was right on the nail head.” She confided.

“Thank you, Ms. Patty,” was all Joanna could say, before Raven offered her a glass of iced tea, and handed the stout woman her coffee.

After Johnny opened his presents, and declared he had the best birthday ever, including not accepting help in taking his rod and reel and tackle box into his room. It took him two trips, and the tackle box was certainly opened and reopened, and each piece of tackle was examined several times. “Guess you’re pleased with yourself?” Raven had asked Joanna.

All she could do was shake her head, and try to keep from crying. Raven hugged her closer, knowing the same feelings almost had her in tears too.

*****


Big Bertha made a large pot of hot cocoa for the children, and the grownups had their coffee, tea and soda pop. They pulled the chairs around a small fire Bart and Uncle Walt made down close to the lagoon.

“Hear you went shrimp-bait fishing, Joanna?” Big Bertha sounded out the smaller woman sitting next to Raven.

“She sure did, but, Big Bertha you should have seen her. She had mud all over. You wouldn’t have recognized her face.” Raven chuckled at the remembrance. “Her nose must have itched, for it looked like she scratched it a half dozen times,” Raven butted in before Joanna could answer Big Bertha’s question.

“She did really fine,” interjected Uncle Walt in Joanna’s defense.

“It was a most interesting time, and I actually enjoyed myself,” the blonde responded in a kindly tone. “And, I plan on going again, so there Ms. Smarty Pants,” the smaller woman stuck out her tongue at Raven.

“You ought not to pick on her like that Raven. After all, she ain’t the only one to get messy while fishing, or don’t you remember?” Bart threw in.

“Oh, no, you don’t, Bart. Not you, either, Uncle Walt. You both need to come up with something else. Besides that, I was only fifteen years old, for goodness sake. Give me a break, won’t you?” The tall woman whined.

“She never told you why she is a scaredy cat when it comes to snakes?” Ms. Patty chimed in.

“Oh, for crying out loud,” wailed Raven. “You all had this set up from the beginning didn’t you? You’re all in it together.” She threw up her hands, hopped off the chair and huffed over to the ice chest and removed Dr. Peppers for Uncle Walt and herself.

“You might as well come sit back down, Raven. I do believe I am going to be told a story, which you apparently haven’t thought I should hear.” Joanna patted the seat next to her.

A deep sigh ran through Raven’s body as she flounced down in the chair. She handed the drink to Walt who was sitting next to her and acknowledged her jester with a nod of his gray head.

“Growing up in the country, and on the coast, we had many opportunities to use the local rivers and ponds for fishing,” Bart began. “When we fished, we liked to think that, at least, we had given the fish a fighting chance.“

Uncle Walt took a swig of the drink, “We didn't need fancy tools like rods and reels and expensive bait. We couldn't afford them anyway. We used the ultimate fish-catching device -- our hands!” He held out his large, wrinkled old hands.

“All Floridians are familiar with the Choctawhatchee River that flows through southeast Alabama and empties into the Gulf of Mexico just south of Panama City. Well, that same river also meanders through the part of Alabama where I was raised until I was sixteen and headed for the coast for a life of shrimping and fishing in the Gulf. After a trip out of Jacksonville on a fishing vessel in the Atlantic, I made this area my home.” Uncle Walt reminisced. “But, I still remember those early years. Every summer during the hot, dry periods, the river would slow nearly to a stop, causing many side-sloughs to form, which became isolated from the main flow. These sloughs were fertile fishing pools with huge bass, bream, catfish and other things to catch.” He laid the foundation for the events to come. “By then, Raven, Jimmy, and Bart were going with me, up there, to fish on a regular basis.” He nodded his head in a northerly direction.

“Bart, here, who, by that time was like a son, had become good friends with the fellows we fished with up there. The locals we called them,” he laughed at the term. “From time to time, old Bart here, would borrow a water pump from the county road department and we'd use it to pump the water from the sloughs back into the main channel of the river until the slough was only about knee-deep. Then we'd wade out, armed with garden hoes, and rake like hell, to stir up the bottom.” The gray-bearded seaman grinned.

“This had the effect of turning the water into a muddy, murky, milk- chocolate color, Joanna. It also depleted the oxygen and forced the fish to the surface, where we were waiting to grab them with our hands.” Bart informed her, the others listening attentively to the story.

“Well, at this point, maybe I should clear up this part about our hands,” interjected Raven, as she crossed her ankles on the chaise lounge and proceeded. “As the youngest, my job was to stand on the bank with a ‘croaker’ sack and when Jimmy, and Bart, and Uncle Walt, would catch a fish they would throw it up on the bank. I was the one who was supposed to catch what they threw and put it in the sack. So it was that we fished the sloughs every summer,” Raven conveyed. “But, as with all good things, eventually our slough-fishing days had to come to an end. And how!” She squirmed on the chaise.

“One hot, sultry day we were having a particular good “catch.” Jimmy and Uncle Walt, and me were grabbing huge bass and bream as we waded around in the murky water.” Bart stated.

“I had nearly filled my croaker sack when I saw Uncle Walt reach down and grab at something swimming by his leg.” Raven stopped abruptly, and swallowed hard. “Instead of a fish, when he pulled his arm out of the water I saw to my horror that he had caught a moccasin. It was one of the biggest snakes I have ever seen. Luckily, Uncle Walt had grabbed it just behind the head, but as he pulled it from the water, the moccasin immediately coiled around his massive arm.

“Uncle Walt!” I yelled, “That’s a damn snake. Throw it down.” Bart related to the attentive group gathered there. No one was moving, all ears waiting for the next segment of the story to be conveyed.

A squeak in the voice betrayed his high anxiety, and Walt shouted back, "Bart, Bart! Damn, Bart! I can’t turn loose. I can’t turn loose.”

“For what seemed an eternity, Walt and the moccasin snake wrestled each other to a stand-still in that muddy, river slough. Walt kept a vise-like grip on the snake’s head while the snake applied the full force of its body in a death-squeeze around his arm.” Raven wiped her now clammy hands on her pants.

“But Walt was and still is a powerfully strong man. Finally, the pressure of his relentless grip caused the snake to relax for just a moment. And that was all the opening Walt needed,” Bart chuckled to the listeners, as they leaned forward on their seats. “He drew back his arm and with a throw that would have made Willie Mays envious, he launched that ol' snake into the air and sailed it past the bank, and over the treetops for what seemed, sure to be a mile or two of flight.” Bart’s hand drifted through his hair and came to rest on the back of his head, as he passed on the journey of the moccasin.

“I never saw Jimmy move so fast in his life. He was out of that slough, and up on dry land before any of us could blink. That boy was as white as a ghost,” relayed Bart.

“I then waded to shore and announced that I had caught enough fish and other critters for that day.” The old man’s thin, clear voice carried through the humid atmosphere. “As I look back, I realize that afternoon was the last time we ever borrowed the county pump, or fished the isolated sloughs of the Choctawhatchee River.” The old seaman remembered.

“But, I should add one last thing,” Bart’s chipped voice added to Walt’s explanation. “There was a clump of bushes on the bank of that river slough. And I have noticed over the years that these bushes seem to be much taller, lusher, and more verdant than any of their neighbors,” he paused purposely.

Raven shook her head from side to side, as she gritted her teeth. She knew he wanted her to finish the story. “I think the reason is those old bushes were given a special application of nutrients that summer day. You see, I just happened to be standing next to them at the precise moment Uncle Walt launched that ol' moccasin of his into the air. I saw the snake headed RIGHT at my croaker sack and me. It took another moment, before I realized it was going to sail well over my head. But, by then, it was too late.” Raven ended in a low tense voice.

“Yep. Scared the hell right out of her,” the old man eyes narrowed as he sipped his drink and spit off to the side of the group.

“I don’t think it was that, exactly, that was scared out of her that day,” Bart’s voice rang out, then he burst into a belly laugh that became contagious with the rest of the crowd.

Joanna clasped her hand over her mouth to help retain her laughter, also. She looked over at Raven, who had blushed on every part of her face and neck that could be seen. She patted her arm gently in support.

“You might as well go ahead and laugh with them,” Raven’s voice rang with impatience. “I was only fifteen, for goodness sake,” she repeated and emptied the Dr. Pepper before lowering it.

Raven’s phobia of snakes had been revealed. Nevertheless, the fear remained.


*****



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