A Length of Joy

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


Disclaimers: Please See Chapter One

Chapter 9

"AAWAHH!!!" escaped Raven's mouth, as the chair on which she had been standing tipped over quickly, causing her body to twist as it hurled to the floor. The twisting motion caused her to land on her right knee. The back of her right hand came down with such force on the bottom chair rungs, it snapped two of them immediately and took all the skin off the knuckles of the flung hand. She knew immediately, with her full weight being forced upon the previously injured knee, that the cap was definitely dislocated again. The pain was excruciating, and tears immediately filled her squinted eyes.

Joanna shot up out of bed as if she had been shot from a cannon. "What in the world????" She quizzed, as her feet hit the floor and she immediately looked around the room to see the reason for the commotion. Raven was on her back, rolling from side to side, holding her knee, with blood running down her arm. The blood drained from Joanna’s face, and she was at the tall woman’s side at once.

"RAVEN? Raven? What is wrong? Why are you bleeding?" she kneeled at her lovers’ side, attempting to put her arms around her. It was a useless attempt because of the nonstop turning, rolling and twisting being executed by the injured woman.

"OH! HELL FIRE AND DAMNATION, THAT HURTS!" she screeched, and she continued to roll from side to side on the floor, holding the injured knee.

"RAVEN?" Joanna screamed, "What is wrong?"

After a few more superlatives, she was finally able to sit up with Joanna's assistance. “Holy Jehosaphat, that hurts. You need to leave the room Joanna, I have to push my knee cap back into place and it isn't going to be something you want to see, much less hear,” her pain-filled voice commanded.

“Raven, I am not going anywhere. What happened, and how can I help you? How badly are you injured, and where is all that blood coming from?” She demanded, shaking her head forcefully.

“Damnit, Joanna," she rocked back and forth, grasping the knee close to her body, "I have to push the knee cap back in place before the pain knocks me out. Do you understand?” A strange indignant sound tore free from her throat.

“Yes, I understand that part, but I’m not leaving your side until I know where that blood is coming from, Darling? It’s running down your arm, and it’s all over you?” the honey-headed woman inquired caringly and with determination.

“My knuckles hit the chair rails, and scraped them. I don't think they are broken. Just skinned. Can you please go to the bathroom and get me a damp towel to wrap around the hand?” dark brows furrowed, as she answered patiently.

“Are you sure that is the only place that is bleeding, Raven? That is an awful lot of blood, for just knuckles.”

“Trust me, it's just the knuckles. I'd know if it was anything else. The wet towel, please!” Came a ragged breath from the dark woman.

“Okay.” Joanna hopped up, ran to the bathroom to secure the damp cloth her injured lover had requested. She jerked open the vanity and retrieved a hand towel. She heard another scream from Raven and ran back in the bedroom in time to see Raven slump over her extended leg. Raven’s hands were securely holding the injured knee. Obviously, Raven had popped the kneecap back into place, but she was still in a great deal of pain.

“Are you all right, Raven?” The tall woman found Joanna watching her through narrowed eyes.

"Yes," she whispered, still trembling from the pain. "It’s not as bad as it looks…sounded," she corrected, attempting to ease the smaller woman’s noticeable fears.

"Sweetheart, please get something to wrap around my hand to stop the bleeding. I'm starting to drip blood on my sweats."

Joanna turned and raced back into the bath, wet the hand towel, wrung out the loose moisture and raced back to her lover’s side. "Here, let me see your hand." She reached over and took the injured hand into hers.

Raven was clenching her teeth, and she looked up anxiously as Joanna took her hand. Her eyes were then closed again and sweat beaded her forehead.

"Gosh, Honey. There is no skin on three of the knuckles, and one has a deep gash on it." She responded upon examining the injured limb. "After I get the bleeding stopped, we need to go to the emergency room, and have your knee and this gash checked out."

"I don't need to go to the emergency room, and I don't need a doctor. I just need the ice pack in the freezer wrapped in another towel for the knee so it won't swell." She hissed, "What I need is for you to get the first aid kit from under the sink in the kitchen, pour some hydrogen peroxide over the area, and put some antibiotics on the gash, and the knuckles. There are some butterfly bandages in there, too. You just need to clean the area, and push the gash back together, and place the butterfly bandage over it, so it'll hold it shut." she commanded quietly.

Joanna looked into the tearing eyes, her own filing with moisture, "Raven, I'll clean up your hand as you requested. I'll get the ice pack for your knee," she answered succinctly, "but you are going to the emergency room, and I don't want to hear another word out of you. You either go with me, or I'm calling an ambulance. Your choice, but my Tall, Tower Of Strength, YOU are going, and that is final. You got me?" Her voice left no room for bargaining.

Raven started to respond, but Joanna held up her hand in a silencing motion. "No, no. No argument. Which will it be?" her authoritative voice pierced the atmosphere.

"We'll go to the emergency room.” Raven replied in defeat. “I know several of the doctors and nurses on duty there, and they won't make us wait so long." She continued to hold the right knee with her left hand. "But, I'm telling you, they know my knee. They will only tell me to ice it now that I have it back in place. And they will only use a butterfly bandage for the gash. It's not that bad." Raven attempted pitifully to reason with Joanna.

"Well, My Reason For Breathing, if that is the case, then I'll be satisfied. But, we are still going."

"Honey…" The tall woman pleaded.

"Don't honey me. I want to hear a medical professional's opinion."

"Oh, shit, Sweetheart, we'll be there for at least two hours." She moaned.

"Never mind the time. And how in the world did this happen?" she quizzed her lover. "Wait, let me get another towel, the first aid kit, and the ice pack. Be right back." She leaned down and kissed the tears running down Raven's bronzed cheeks. She returned quickly, after making a stop in the laundry room for several hand and two full size towels. She wrapped the ice pack in a towel and started to place it on the knee, but was stopped by Raven.

"Here, let me do that. I would hate to growl at you when that cold pack touches my knee."

Joanna handed her the requested wrapped ice pack, and placed the other towel under Raven's right hand. "Hold still, I think this hydrogen peroxide will sting just a little."

"Wow! If that is a little, then I'm a midget’s aunt." She squirmed as the pain intensified.

"I need to make sure it's clean, Darling. I don't see any wood fragments or splinters, but its pretty dark in here. Hold your breath; I'm going to wash it off once more to make sure." Joanna allowed the injured woman to absorb the full implication of her words.

Raven gritted her teeth and pushed down on the ice pack without realizing it, until her free hand, also, was throbbing with pain.

A few minutes later, Joanna helped Raven to the Navigator. From the driver’s side of the vehicle, she buckled the tall woman in. She had insisted they bring the wrapped ice pack for her knee, and had made another one for Raven's hand.

Pulling out onto Route One, headed to St. Augustine, Joanna spoke. "Are you going to tell me how this accident happened?" she asked once again.

Raven looked over at her sheepishly. "Well, you are probably going to be pissed, but I stood on the chair to reach the back of the top shelf of my closet. I was trying to get down a pair of walking boots I had placed there in January, when I got back from Austria. I wanted to take them with me when we went to visit your family tomorrow. I forgot I had stacked other boxes on top. I reached over too far, causing myself to become off balance, tipping the chair out from under me and you know the rest." The muttered explanation was followed by a sympathy-seeking look towards the driver.

"You're right; I can't believe you did something so…”

"Dumb. Go ahead and say it. Dumb."

"Nope, you said it for me. Raven, I have to ask, but what were you doing on a chair, when we have that perfectly good step-stool in the kitchen?"

"I told you, DUMB!" Raven shared in her exasperation. "I was going to do my packing today, so we wouldn't have to be so rushed this evening, or in the morning," her tongue thick with self reproach.

"I understand, Darling. I do want you to be careful. Do you think that you'll be able to walk come tomorrow? Do we need to rearrange the travel arrangements?"

"No, don't change anything. I told you, this knee wouldn't have gone out if I hadn't landed with all my weight on it. Honest, Sweetheart, I can take a sweeping kick and it doesn’t bother me. Just landing on it as I did caused a different result. The ice pack will keep down the swelling, and I'll be able to walk and travel. So don't worry. Please?"

"Ok, but we will have to see what the doctors say about you walking on it and traveling."

"There is always a wheelchair, Honey. It has happened before, and I'm telling you, I'll be okay." She insisted.

Three hours later, they were pulling back into the driveway of the beach house. The doctors did, however, put two stitch clamps on the gash and bandaged the hand. Raven was directed to apply the ice pack to her knee once an hour for ten minutes for four hours, and to wear the knee brace she already had stored in the linen closet. The doctor also told her she could travel, but should keep the weight off the knee as much as possible, for the next twenty-four hours.

Joanna assured the doctor she would see that Raven complied with his instructions. Upon entering the house, she insisted Raven lie down and ice the knee as prescribed by the physician and she, in turn, sat adjacent to her lover, doodling on a score she’d been working on.

“Sweetheart, I sure could use some fresh-squeezed lemonade. How about I hop up and go prepare a fresh pitcher full for us?”

Green eyes carefully roamed over the lanky woman until they reached the piercing blues appreciatively staring back at her. They both laughed. “No, you stay put, I’ll fix it. Be back in a jiffy,” she admonished and was gone.

"What are you doing?" The honey-haired woman asked Raven who was standing in front of her closet, running her hands through her hair as Joanna returned with another wrapped ice pack for her knee. "And just what are you doing standing?"

Raven flinched. She had planned the closet examination to be completed prior to Joanna's return to the bedroom. That had been her plan when she asked her to make some fresh lemonade to prolong the return.

Joanna had, however, brought another ice pack for Raven first, before making the lemonade.

"Raven?"

"Oh, for crying out loud. I was just trying to decide what I needed to pack, and I still need those boots." The tall woman offered. She was sure Joanna could hear the low thrumming of her pulse that suddenly filled her own ears.

"Get back on that bed, immediately." She ordered. "I'll pack for you later tonight. You just look at the garments, and try and decide what you want packed. I'll get the step-chair from kitchen, and I'll get the boots down. Now… You…. Sit… Down!" She stated forcefully.

Raven took one look at Joanna's face and hopped back to the bed. "I didn't put any weight on the leg or the knee, Sweetheart. Honest, I didn't,” she whined, attempting to gain a degree of compassion from her irritated lover.

"Uh huh!"

"I didn't, honest." Raven realized she had become such a mush ball when it came to Joanna.

She placed the ice pack on the knee, leaned down and kissed the pouting lips. "There, is that better?"

"Well, that is a little better. I bet if you repeated the lip thing, it would get even better." The dark woman grinned, her eyes requesting more.

"Uh huh." She responded, but backed out of reach. "You want a sandwich to go with the lemonade, while I'm in the kitchen?"

"I'm not hungry, just the lemonade. Thank you, anyway," she exhaled.

Later that evening, true to her word, Joanna brought in the stepladder and retrieved the boots without incident. She brought Raven's travel bag from the storage shelf in the laundry room, and laid it out on the foot of their bed.

"Raven, we will only be gone four days. You have only selected two outfits in well over an hour. I have taken down, and re-hung over half your closet. What is your problem? What is taking you so long with your selection?" She stood with her hands on her hips, and tapping her foot.

"Joanna, I'm going to meet your family. I don't have the foggiest idea of what to wear. I want to make a good impression, and … well…. I…uh.."

"Darling,” Joanna interrupted her, “my family won't care if you wear boxer shorts, sweats, or even come naked. So please, Honey, choose," she pleaded. "Well, we can leave the naked part out. I don't want anyone to see you in the altogether, but me."

"That wasn't an option with me, Joanna. I only get nude with you. However, you forgot about my meeting Ms. O'Malley for the first time, too. I know you said she would love me from the first, but she has been with you since birth. I know she is more than a housekeeper to you, and I think I need to impress her more than your family… Well…except for your Mother, that is," cocking her head, Raven also shifted her perch on the side of the bed.

"Honey, I'm going into the other bedroom and pack my luggage. I'll be gone for fifteen minutes. You decide by that time, or I decide for you. Besides, you look great in anything you wear." She wiggled her eyebrows and even licked her lips at the spoken acclamation.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," she commented, "but you're prejudiced."

"Sure, I am, but what I said was absolutely true. You look great in anything you wear." She smiled at Raven as she headed to the door, and turned, "Don't get off that bed, Raven, and don't stand on that leg."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." She repeated, and stuck out her tongue to the departing figure.

"I'll remind you of that gesture later this evening, Darling." Joanna responded, without looking back at the grinning woman.

“Oh, I won’t forget.” Raven added mischievously.

*****


Airport security required they be at the airline destination two hours prior to departure. After checking in at the Delta Airline desk, obtaining their boarding passes, and still having a required one hour wait, the two women sat down in the waiting area, adjacent to the counter and began a quiet conversation. Raven had been accurate with her proclamation that she would be able to walk on the knee. It was, however, still somewhat painful, and she did limp a little.

"Let me get this straight." The blue orbs met green ones. "Marla O'Malley has been with your family for thirty-five years. And upon your purchasing your brownstone on the eastside of Manhattan to go to New York University nine years ago, she came with you from your family’s service, and has been with you ever since, and she lives year round in the house. And did so, even when you were off six months of the year for six years filming in Canada." The dark-haired woman presented.

"Yes. That about sums it up. Marla has always looked after me and it was a given, that when I move to go to school, she would be with me. She is our housekeeper, cook, chief bottle washer, and much more, but she is also a very dear friend. Actually, my parents have always treated her as family." She explained. "I know you will love her as much as I do, and I KNOW she is going to be crazy about you."

"I'm sure we will get along famously. She's not going to try and make me eat things I don't like, is she?" Raven’s concern forced the question.

Joanna laughed, "No, Darling. During our many phone conversations, I have filled her in on your very short list of unacceptable culinary choices. She can cook a fifty-place diplomat’s dinner, or other wonderful delights which you will have to watch out for, or you will be as large as a car…. But, hey, I would love you no matter how chubby you became," she announced with complete honesty.

"Joanna, I'm sure Ms. O'Malley will fit me right into her heart…I already have her, because of her love for you," she mused. "Now tell me this, how'd you happen to have a brother and sister who are twins, and they each have a set of twins. I thought the twins’ business usually skipped a generation?"

"Not in our family, Sweetie."

Their boarding call for the straight-through flight to New York was finally called. Joanna preceded Raven down the covered ramp, and into the first row of first class seats, before she turned and pushed the handle to her carry- on luggage down in place. She was about to pick it up to stash in the overhead bin, when Raven caught her hand.

"I'll do that for you, Sweetheart," she said.

"Thanks. You want the window or aisle seat?" she questioned.

"Aisle, if you don't mind?" she said, placing her luggage lengthwise to Joanna's in the overhead bin, and stored her camera bag next to the two pieces of carry-on. She turned to step out of the aisle and found herself in the Head Flight Attendant’s arms. “Why hello, Beautiful,” she chimed.

"Hello yourself, Raven," she grinned. "Hi, Joanna. Good to see you again." She smiled as Joanna stood and returned the hug.

"Good to see you again so soon, Marcella. I certainly enjoyed the three days you spent with us last week. I thought they put you back on the international flight to Rome?" Joanna quizzed, as she released the tall flight attendant, and sat back down.

"Nope. I'm filing in for a vacationing head attendant. Atlanta, Jacksonville, the Big Apple, then the turn-around back to Atlanta's International," she recited her itinerary, "Today's my first flight on this route. I was in Italy day before yesterday." She continued. "You two going to New York, or is that just your first stop?"

"Just NY for a few days. Joanna has business there, and I'm going to meet her family." The dark woman explained as she sat down next to Joanna and buckled her seat belt.

"Ah… I see... meeting the family." The tall flight attendant laughingly teased her cousin.

"What??? Taunt me and suffer my payback. Remember, they are beauties." Raven countered, teasing her in return.

"Marcella, if you are going to be in NY for any length of time, I'd love to extend the invitation to include you?" Joanna beamed.

"I'd like nothing better, Joanna, but I will only be in NY for an hour. We will be doing the turn-around flight, and my completed journey will end in Atlanta. I will be repeating this same schedule for the next week, unfortunately. And, I won't have any time in NY until next month, when my air travel changes back to the international route."

"That's unfortunate, this would have been the perfect opportunity." The honey-haired woman emitted a sad sigh.

"I agree, but I can't oblige this time. And I, too, look forward to meeting your family soon," she handed Joanna a pillow. "I want to thank you for three wonderful days last week, Joanna. You are a perfect hostess. I never had it so good . . .and the food! Goodness, I tell you I gained almost six pounds from those magnificent, gourmet meals you prepared." She turned to her cousin, "And thank you, cuz', you kept me laughing so hard, my sides ached for days afterwards." She handed Raven a blanket, which was immediately pulled into the other seat by Joanna with a questioning smile. "I'll bring you one later, Raven, okay?"

"Sure, whenever you have time, and how about a couple of glasses of tomato juice for us?" She asked.

"Make mine with ice, please, Marcella," Joanna interjected.

Marcella acknowledged the request with a nod. "Raven," she squatted down in front of her cousin, "I have some happy news of my own I'd like to share with you."

The tall photographer’s complete attention focused on her kneeling cousin with a questioning fixed stare.

"I've met someone," she exhaled softly. "I think it’s the right someone. If things turn out as I hope it will, I might have an announcement to make next month," she continued.

"That's terrific, Marcella. I couldn't be happier for you. You need to tell me more than just this, though. After all, this SOMEONE has to meet my approval, you know?" The tall woman beamed at her only living relative.

"I'm happy for you, also." Joanna reached over and patted her shoulder. "I'm interested in the details, too. It's been a very exciting, fulfilling month hasn't it?"

"It sure has… for all of us." The attendant gave a soft chuckle. "I'll fill you both in later; right now I have to check the flight manifest. I'll bring the tomato juice, once we get in the air." She stood up, and had her hand squeezed by Raven, who stared at her with happiness, before she turned and retrieved her clipboard from the station ahead of them.

"Well, I'll be dammed," a throaty ripple wrapped itself around Raven's adjective.

*****


They sat patiently as the other passengers exited the aircraft. Both wanted to have a farewell word with Marcella. After hugs all around, Joanna exited the plane and pulled her carryon luggage down the walkway. The closer they came to the entrance to the gate of lounging areas of the airport, the faster her legs seem to go. Raven, chuckled at the excitement of the shorter woman ahead of her. She made no attempt to keep up with Joanna, even though she knew her stride could overtake her in only a few steps.

Raven saw two smiling blondes, waving frantically as Joanna exited the walkway and ran into the arms of the taller woman, then excitedly hugged the man with the same enthusiasm. Raven stopped directly behind the trio.

“Pumpkin! It is so good to see you. Golly, you look great. Doesn’t she, Howie?” relayed the smiling sibling.

“She sure does. How are you, Munchkin?” Her brother questioned just as excitedly.

“I’m great, just great. Guys, you don’t know how wonderful it is to see you…the three of us together. I thought Mom was going to pick us up?” The ecstatically beaming actress questioned, but hugged her brother and sister again before they could answer her.

“Mother had an unexpected, special luncheon to come up…you know, one of those charity things where she is President, or Chairperson-in-Charge. She extended her regrets, and asked if we would do the honor.” Her sister relayed, once again hugging the sibling she hadn’t seen in six months. She had just returned to the States only the week before with her husband and their three children for a three month vacation prior to his next diplomatic tour.

“Dad has his hands full with visiting family, so Rita and I were volunteered. But this time, I didn’t mind Mom volunteering me for one of her assigned responsibilities, Munchkin.” His straight teeth could be seen from the broad grin covering his face.

Jovial laughter brought her attention back to the tall woman standing directly behind her, whom she had momentarily neglected, but not forgotten. She turned around and wrapped her arms around Raven’s waist, and looked up to hear Raven once again break out in a belly laugh that filled the area.

“Pumpkin? Munchkin?” The dark woman’s face beamed with prankish merriment at the names. “Oh, Joanna, this is priceless,” she exclaimed, once again laughing at the top of her voice.

Joanna shot her a fake frown, followed by an unexpected and decisively delivered whack to the laughing midriff. “Oh, forgive me, Raven. I didn’t mean to thump you that firmly.” The expression on the young woman’s face showed she was indeed earnest about having wrongfully retaliated about the boisterous laughter. She slipped her other arm around Raven’s waist and pulled her close. “I’m so sorry, Darling,” she once again expressed regret.

At that manifestation, Raven once again opened up with lively, jolly laughter. “Munchkin, Pumpkin, you didn’t hurt me at all. I can’t believe you never told me about these nicknames. This is just too good to be true.” And cheerfully, again, her laughter filled the area as she reached down and took the smaller woman into her arms and planted a kiss on her hair.

Immediately, Raven could see the two siblings mentally kicking themselves for having revealed even something so minor about their sister’s past. “I want to thank you two for the best laugh I have had in a long time. I will cherish this tidbit of Joanna’s childhood forever.” She attempted to console the anxious faces before her. When Joanna reached up and pulled Raven’s head down to hers and kissed her gently on the lips, her brother and sister realized they were off the hook and joined in the laughter. Soon, even Joanna joined the trio.

“You have got to promise me you’ll forget you heard those nicknames, Raven?” She looked up inquisitively at the still grinning face of her lover. “Hey, they quit calling me Pumpkin and Munchkin in my early teens…believe me, when I tell you that.” She poked Raven gently in the midriff again.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Her mind replied mockingly, “I believe you, Munchkin, Pumpkin.” With that remark, all of them broke out into contagious laughter once again. The laughter continued to escalate until all four had to sit down in a row of waiting seats to recover.

At last, the four stood and Joanna wiped her eyes from the laugher with the handkerchief her brother had handed to her. “Sorry, Guys. Raven Lenna Longgear, I wish to introduce my sister, Henrietta Elizabeth Brooks, and my brother Henry Howard Stern. Rita and Howie, meet Raven, my life partner.” She proudly squeezed Raven as she spoke.

“How do you do.” They both said in unison and embraced Raven as if they had known her all their lives.

“Pleased to meet you both. I’ve looked forward to this meeting; didn’t realize it would be so amusing, though. How on earth did you come up with those nicknames?” Raven questioned mischievously

“Well, as Joanna was born on Halloween, she automatically became my “pumpkin”. I even talked Dad into buying her this cute pumpkin Halloween costume which he did, and Mom promptly dressed her in it.” Rita related openly. “Ask Mom to see those photographs, and be prepared to laugh again. The costume swallowed her, she was so small,” her sister related the event.

“And as she was the tiniest little thing, only weighed around four pounds if I remember correctly, I just naturally called her Munchkin for years. That is, until she was about thirteen, I think, and we had a birthday party for her. For the first time in years, she didn’t want decorations that had pumpkins or anything little or munchkin size in, or on it.” Her brother started laughing again, and was soon joined by the trio standing there like they had been friends for ages.

“Munchkin… Pumpkin! Man alive, how I would love to relay this to Rex and Carl.” The tall woman squinted gleefully at the prospect.

“Oh, no, you don’t, Raven. You promised me, and you never break a promise.” Joanna had a little whine in her pleading voice.

“Okay, Okay, Sweetheart. Your childhood secret is safe with me,” she promised as she tickled the side of the young blond and pulled her close to her again.

“Here, allow me to pull those two carry-on’s. Do you two have other luggage?” Howie asked as he grabbed both bags and they headed towards the main terminal.

“I’ll bet anyone a chocolate shake; Joanna has at least one other, if not two bags she’s checked,” Rita expressed, her and Joanna’s arms linked as they walked side by side.

“No bet.” Raven and Howie responded simultaneously, and did a high five at knowing Joanna so well.

*****


The butler met them at the front door and he and the chauffeur, took their bags from the back of the limousine and up to Joanna’s childhood bedroom.

“I need to check on my children, and their mother. Everyone is still outside, awaiting the arrival of the balance of the family.” Howie stated to his sister and the tall woman, their clasped hands swinging between them. “Good to have you home, Sis. Welcome to the family, Raven.” He hugged his sister once again, and shook Raven’s hand warmly before disappearing through down the hallway.

“Yes, me, too. Joanna, Dad requested you bring Raven to his study when you arrived. He is drafting some special banking negotiations that he plans on presenting to the World Counsel on Banking and Trade next week.”

Rita drew in a deep breath. “It’s wonderful to be home and see you, Joanna. And, it is nice to meet you, Raven. The photograph Joanna faxed us overseas does not do you justice.” She laughed. “I have to tell you, lady, if I wasn’t so committed to my husband, you are the one woman I do believe could convert me to change sides.” She reached over and planted a kiss on Raven’s cheek. See you both later.” She finished and headed in the same direction as her brother.

Raven blushed at the familiarity and the remarks, but hoped Joanna wouldn’t comment on the redness of her face.

“See the effect you have on everyone, Raven.” She rubbed her hand gently over the tall woman’s back. “Besides that, I think that blushed color of yours is cute.” She whispered suggestively.

“Yeah, right.” The blushing woman replied dryly.

“Come on, Darling.” Joanna pulled the hand she was holding through the double doors to the right. “Daddy’s study is through here,” she laughed softly, attempting to reassure the tall woman the meeting would be pleasant.

The young woman knocked gently before entering, “Hi, Daddy,” she greeted.

“Hi.” The air became trapped in his throat. He hadn’t talked to her since the previous Saturday when she’d informed him she would be here this week. He was tickled that his youngest was going to be here for the family gatherings.

He was across the room in a heartbeat to wrap his arms around her. “When did you get here? Was your flight uneventful?” A smile bloomed; he continued to hold her affectionately.

“We just arrived, and the flight was short, and without incident.” A tiny smile tipped up one side of her mouth. “Daddy,” she returned to Raven’s side and placed her arm around the tall woman’s waist, “I want to introduce you to Raven Longgear, my partner and lifemate.” She announced proudly.

Raven felt a moment of apprehension twist in her stomach. Their gazes locked and held. Slowly, a lip curved on the elder Stern mouth and he extended his hand.

“Finally we meet, Raven. Joanna has filled me to capacity with your attributes and her love for you. It is extremely pleasant at last to make your acquaintance.”

Without hesitation, Raven took the hand and returned the firm grip. “It is I, who have looked forward to meeting you, Sir.” A slow appreciative smile curved Raven’s lips. “I hope Joanna hasn’t built me up so high, that I can’t meet any expectations you may have envisioned of me. I really have many faults, I’m afraid.”

To her amazement, he laughed lightly and reached down and kissed her cheek. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am to know that you’re really not a saint.”

Raven nearly choked. “A saint?”

He looked at her with sparkling eyes. “Yes! To hear Joanna tell it, you are one step beyond sainthood.” He chuckled again.

“Daddy!” Joanna exclaimed.

“I’m kidding!” He let them both off the hook.

Thoroughly embarrassed, she reached up to rub the back of her neck. So much for worrying about how he would going to handle her and Joanna’s relationship. There didn’t appear to be any problems at all.

“I’m happy for you both.” He kissed her cheek again, and Joanna’s as well.

Raven’s brow shot up to disappear beneath her dark bangs. “Oh, my gosh,” she whispered, clearly stunned. Thank goodness for all favors granted this day, her silent prayer went up to all the deities she knew.

“Thank you, Daddy.” A smile flourished on the honey-blonde, covering her face, from ear to ear.

“She is quite stunning, you did not over exaggerate that feature.” He laughed and hugged his daughter again.

“Geesh! Daddy. I know she is stunning, and absolutely gorgeous. Her personality is just as astonishing!” She admitted sheepishly as she drew away from him, and once more, and slid her arm back into place around the tall woman’s waist.

With all the weight of the world lifted from her shoulders, Raven placed her arm around the smaller woman’s shoulder and let out a fortified breath she realized she had been holding. Everything was going to be okay with Mr. Stern. Now, only Joanna’s Mother remained. At that thought, Raven’s stomach tightened and twitched again.

He reached out and smoothed Joanna’s hair, smiled and shook his head. “I’m so glad you’re home.”

“Me, too.” She beamed, a sense of well-being filled her consciousness. Of course, being in love probably had a lot to do with her sense of well-being.

Joanna opened her mouth to speak again, but was distracted by the sound of a door slamming somewhere down the hall and the murmur of voices. “Daddy, that sounded like other relatives have arrived. I need to make some business calls before we get tied up with family. So, if it’s all right with you, I think I’ll go into the library and use the phone? Darling, you might want to freshen up, or you can come with me?”

“Raven, why don’t you stay and talk to me for awhile. I am most interested in your work. As you can see, I admired your last photo spread so much, I have had the cover of Life framed.” He said proudly, pointing to the framed cover on the wall beside his desk.

“I’d love to stay and talk, but Rita told us you were preparing a special presentation to be given next week,” she commented.

“I completed it yesterday, and was only going over the details for accuracy. Please, have a seat, and tell me all about this Amazon Rainforest adventure.” He pulled the stuffed chair back and motioned for the tall photographer to sit down.

“Thank you, Mr. Stern. Joanna, I’ll hang out here for a while. Catch up to you in a bit?”

“Sure,” she embraced the tall woman again, and quickly exited the study and the pending telephone calls.

“Would you care for something to drink?” He asked her as she carefully eased into the overstuffed chair.

“Yes, a glass of water would be fine with me.”

He picked up the intercom phone, and dialed the kitchen. Ruby, would you, please bring a tray with ice-water to my study, and two glasses.” He sat down behind the desk. “Tell me how you managed, in that dense jungle, to get so close to that butchery slaughter?” He requested.

The time seemed to fly by before they realized they had spent several hours conversing about each other’s profession, and their families. Raven was not surprised to learn Harold Stern was a well-established International Banker when he had met his future wife at an international bankers event hosted by her father. An Ambassador at the time, he convinced Harold he could serve his country best by joining the Diplomatic Corp. and establishing a stronger banking background for diplomatic personnel and foreign consuls as well. Harold did this willingly, and before long, Elizabeth and he had fallen deeply in love and were married. They had a faithful marriage, lasting almost forty years.

His light brown, caramel hair was streaked with silver and fine lines bracketed his eyes and mouth. She knew that those lines hadn’t been worn into his face by pain and worry. They were etched there by his life of love and laughter. She liked him. He had true character, and was an honorable man; one who gave his word for purpose and meaning. He was one who abided by his word.

In due course, the conversation shifted again to family and would include Joanna and Raven.

I’ve always been proud of all three of my children, Raven. Henry has banking talents that even surpass mine, and he is a fantastic father and devoted husband. Henrietta, our Rita, although she had a phenomenal future in the Diplomatic Corps, settled on being a model Diplomat’s wife. She has borne three astonishing children, whom she disciplines in a fashion after her own mother.” He related proudly.

“On the other hand, Joanna chose a vocation that is equally as positive. Perhaps her selection, deviating from our family’s traditional custom, has been much more complicated for her,” pride filled his voice, and his eyes twinkled at her accomplishments. “She is a formidable musician, gets that from her Mother, I’m certain. Her natural talent had been barely touched. She doesn’t play games and she has learned from her choices. All have not been as shrewd as you or I might have made, but they were necessary for her growth,” he spoke affirmatively.

He held up his glass and proposed a toast, “To the loves of our days, and the choices they have, and will make, and to the rules we establish for ourselves that regulate our lives,” he interrupted her whirling thoughts and tipped her glass. The silence thickened around them before he spoke again.

“Several months ago, Joanna sent me the LIFE Magazine, which featured your spread. I knew then she had found her counterpart. All I ask is that you be truthful, honest, and be sure your love is sincere.” He requested.

“I assure you, Sir, I want our relationship built on nothing but truth, trust and love. I want our love to grow deeper and stronger… like it’s going to change and grow endlessly, not wither and die, strangled by its own traps and pretenses. I want it always to be real…And, I do know this is for always, for all eternity with me. I know Joanna feels the same, and I’m so blessed that Joanna wants to find, by my side, total commitment. It feels right. It feels so beautifully right, and I do love her with all my heart.“ She was almost in tears, but the openness felt freeing with this man.

“I know she feels the same about you, Raven. And please, as you are going to be around for a long time, why don’t you call me Dad. I would consider it a honor if you would.”

“Thank you, Sir.” Her blush was interrupted by a gentle knock and a middle-aged woman entered. She was all smiles and proceeded to the middle of the room, where she was met by her husband, who embraced her openly, and introduced her to his guest.

Raven stood and extended her hand to Joanna’s elegantly dressed mother. Joanna was correct. She only stood 5’4”, but radiated power, finesse, and gracefulness that even royalty would covet. A woman of delicate, Greta Garbo-like beauty, Elizabeth had pale, almost translucent ivory skin, artfully styled white hair, with every hair in place. For a woman of her age, and having birthed three children, she still had a body that could stop traffic in any city in the world.

“Raven, I’m ever so pleased to meet you,” Elizabeth cooed delightedly. “I have been looking forward to this meeting for months now. I feel as if I know you already. I apologize for not meeting you and Joanna. I had something arise unexpectedly.”

“Believe me, the pleasure is all mine,” said Raven, her blue eyes alight with appreciation. “No problem in meeting us, or being here, Ma’am. Mr. St…, Dad and I have had an interesting discussion.” She blushed at using the term for the first time.

“Excellent. I suppose our daughter is either napping or on the phone?” She laughed softly, not making a big concern out of the personal reference her husband had bestowed on Raven.

“She had some business calls to make and is in the library. Shall I ask her to step in here for a few minutes?” Howard asked.

“No, I’m sure she will find me once she has concluded her affairs. Raven, may I suggest you and Howard join me in the music room for a little refreshment. Although, I just returned from a luncheon, I feel parched.” Her voice was soft and smooth.

Raven felt immediately comfortable in the attractive woman’s presence.

“Darling, why don’t you and Raven go without me? I need to make sure the special food arrived for the cookout tomorrow. Won’t you please excuse me for a few minutes, Raven? I hope we can continue our talk later, I am most fascinated in your photography expose of the Ukraine.” He once again kissed his wife’s cheek, and exited the room.

Looping her arm through Raven’s, she suggested, “Shall we adjourn to the music room and a hot cup of tea?” The radiance of her smile lit up her entire face.

“I would love some.” She grinned willingly.

“Excellent. You know Howard thoroughly enjoyed that edition of Life so much, we have several copies stored away.” Elizabeth’s green eyes twinkled, and her smile became infectious, as they proceeded down the hall, the petite woman talking nonstop until she reached another set of double doors, which Raven opened for her.

Elizabeth picked up the staff phone and requested hot tea. Hanging up the receiver, she went to the grand piano and sat down. She patted the padded seat next to her. “I understand from Joanna not only do you have a baby grand in your home, but you play very well, including duos?”

Smiling, she sat down next to the petite woman. “That is one of my fondest memories of my Mother. She was gifted, actually played with the Jacksonville Symphony for over ten years. My first memories of her were my legs dangling off the piano bench, and her helping my fingers’ placement on the proper keys. I have long fingers as she did,” she looked down at her hands, “And I really enjoy playing for myself and a few friends… sometimes,” she laughed. “I didn’t have the determination for the years of training required to be a concert pianist. I had to practice, practice, and practice some more, whereas, my Mother was so talented, it seemed to me she didn’t have to practice. Although, I realized years ago, she practiced many hours and way into the night sometimes.” Raven blushed, and added, “My parents and my older brother were killed in a vehicle accident when I was eight. When I came home from the hospital, my aunt insisted I continue with the piano lessons.” Sadness touched the edge of her voice. “I suppose if I had really been cut out to be a professional musician, it would have been my hearts desire. It wasn’t!” She said un-hesitantly.

“We all know what feels right with us, Raven. I agree with your hesitancy in pursuing a musical career. Especially, if your heart wasn’t in it,” she replied supportively, then reached over with one long finger, and pushed a damp tendril away from Raven’s forehead, and tucked it behind her ear. “I’m so sorry about your family, Raven. It must have been extremely difficult for you to deal with at such a young age. No child should have to go through such sorrow.” Her heart went out to the tall woman sitting beside her.

“Yes, it hurt, still does sometimes. But my Aunt took me in and showered me, not only with love and affection, but insisted I always, remember my parents and what they were about,” she conveyed proudly.

“Heritage is always important, Raven,” she said warmly.

“Same thing my Aunt tried to pounded into my brain for ten years.” She grinned sheepishly. “Like, the first time Aunt Kate took me to my first Museum of Art when we went to Washington, DC, and to the National Archives, I knew I had found my destiny, and I do believe it was destiny.” She said, turning to face the attentive woman next to her.

“When I saw the Ansel Adams collection and the Matthew Brady Civil War Prints, there was an inner yearning to produce spectacular photographs like those. I was so fascinated with the cameras at the Smithsonian, that I knew I had happily discovered another world-one of privacy, Ms. Stern. One of my own inspiration and creation. I don’t have to worry about what I say and do. One, where I’m not in the public eye all the time as my Mother was, or as Joanna is, constantly. Even though my work is in the public view occasionally, my creativity is very private. I can choose the kind of job I want, and now it’s up to me to prove that I can do it, and make a living with it as well. My success certainly isn’t as public, or as world renowned as Joanna’s, but I am considered one of the better photographers in the world. I’m proud of that. I believe it reflects very much upon my heritage.” The dark woman forcefully breathed out. “One where I can provide for myself quite comfortably, and Joanna, if it ever becomes necessary,” she was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable.

“You obviously have a brilliant talent when it comes to your photojournalism. However, I doubt you realize just how much you are in the public eye, or how well-known you have become.” The emotion in her voice indicated admiration and praise for the younger woman beside her.

“Raven, I never doubted for a moment your ability to provide for yourself, or Joanna, if that is what she chooses. The important issue, and I believe you have already discovered that…is…DO WHAT MAKES YOU FEEL HAPPY DOING!” She said smoothly, and reached her arm around Raven’s waist and squeezed tightly.

“Now that we have that out of the way…We do have that out of the way, don’t we, Raven?” Elizabeth cocked her eyebrow questionably at the dark-haired woman. “Oh, and Raven, we will discuss your issue of being frightened of me at a later time,” the stunning white-haired woman nudged her gently with her elbow and chuckled. “Good, and you might as well call me, Mom, seeing as how I am going to be your new mother-in-law.”

Before Raven could answer, Elizabeth changed the subject again, “How about playing a duo with me. Joanna and I play together for hours sometimes.”

She slid the key cover back off the keys, and ran her hands up and down the keys. Raven sat there momentarily stunned, as the skilled smaller woman proceeded to begin a well-known rhapsody. Shortly, Raven extended her hands over the keys and joined the smaller hands in a dramatic duo. Music filled the room and seeped out into the hallway. The staff stopped their duties and listened to the beautiful compositions filling the house.

*****


Chapter 10

Raven stepped onto the terrace, and walked slowly towards the pedestal railing off to the right side of the double French doors. The air was crisp, and the tall woman rubbed her sleeved arms as she stepped closer to the stone enclosure.

"Who are you?" The thin, shrill voice carried clearly through the area, and bounced off the wall behind the tall woman.

Startled, Raven turned sharply and banged her knee against the flower box. She closed her eyes and fought to control her breathing. The pain shooting up her leg and into her thigh did a wonderful job of clearing her head, which was a good thing, since she'd need an uncluttered brain to deal with the golden-haired sprite, now dangling by her legs from the tree branch that enveloped the terrace. She turned her head and looked into eyes as green as the sea-foam ocean, and brimming over with ingenuous curiosity.

"I'm Raven," she answered, shifting her focus from her knee to the quizzing face dangling before her. "Who are you?"

"I'm Joanna Jennifer Stern. I'm five, almost six, and you can call me Jenny.

"Jennifer!" A woman's stern voice called from the steps on the opposite side of the terrace. "Get down from there right now. How many times have you been told you not to climb in your Grams and Papaw’s trees?"

"Okay, Mommy." Agreement came grudgingly, but she immediately did as instructed.

"Come on, Raven.” Jenny winked at Raven as she pulled the hand of the tall woman towards the steps and the gathering area below. Her grandfather had set up his BBQ equipment under the second large gazebo situated there, and there were several tables and chairs precisely placed for tomorrow’s event. The dark woman could hear multi-voices, especially the shrieking children below. Jenny pulled her down the steps quickly. She was anxious to join the family and introduce her find of the tall woman to her cousins.

"Not so fast, Jenny, my leg can't take the steps quite so quickly this afternoon." She asked, to which the stunning young girl grinned and slowed down as requested. Jenny stopped at the bottom of the circular steps and pointed to the children and adults gathered there.

"Come on, I'll introduce you to my twin cousins, then I'm going to run to the powder room." The assertive girl stated to the tall woman, never releasing her hold on Raven's large hand.

"Powder room?"

"Certainly, you don't expect a diplomat’s daughter to say potty, toilet or little girl‘s room do you?" the green eyed girl exclaimed, scornfully.

"I guess not. Lead on, Jenny." Raven stared at the child. The Diplomatic Corps will have its hands full with this one when she comes of age. The tall photographer shook her head in bewilderment. "Is everyone in this family a diplomats?" She muttered as her hand being tugged once more by the impatient child.

"No. Not everyone, the balance are bankers or financiers, except for me, that is." Came the response from behind her.

Raven turned and was immediately hugged by the green eyes that had captured her heart.

"You stayed in with Mother for quite a long time, but you look none the worse for wear. The music was heavenly. I resisted interrupting."

"Just another of my amazing talents." She released Joanna from the one handed embrace. "Along with not letting people change the subject. Diplomats and bankers, huh?"

"Mostly." Joanna looked into Raven's midnight-blue orbs, orbs that were much too knowing, much too alluring, much too close. She swallowed hard and willed her feet to move away from Raven's intoxicating nearness. Her feet, however, refused to move. "Uuh… Darling, everyone is giving us the once-over." She concentrated on holding back the urge to throw caution to the wind, and ease back into Raven's one available arm.

She bent down and kissed her niece, “Hi, Jenny. Where did you get that skinned knee? I can’t tell you how many scraped knees I got from that tree.” She laughed at the remembrance.

“Mummy made me get down again,” she pouted.

Joanna smiled down at the child, “Mother always made me get down, too. Always told me the same thing, ‘climbing trees isn’t lady-like’. Somehow, I turned out pretty much a lady, and I still climbed trees,” she sympathized with her tiny niece, turned and reclaimed Raven’s free hand. “Come with me, Darling, I’ll introduce you to the rest of the family.”

"Aunt Joanna, I asked her first. I'm going to introduce her to my cousins. You have to wait." Jennifer turned to Joanna eagerly. Her raised eyebrows and frozen tone made the idea sound utterly, diplomatically correct.

Raven and Joanna laughed. "Okay, Jenny. Lead on. Is it permissible to hold her other hand? Joanna asked.

Jennifer weighed the request, and the alternatives. She laughed suddenly and shrugged, "Seeing the moon eyes you were both giving each other and all that heavy breathing you two were just doing, I guess it’s okay. You know, when Mommy and Daddy do that around us children, one of them always says….'A cold shower… Icy cold’."

Both adults laughed together, but the idea of a cold shower was a very good one, they both thought.

Three children, bouncing a basketball on the stones just below where the trio was standing, interrupted Jennifer’s speculations.

"Hey, Aunt Joanna. Is this your new girlfriend?"

Joanna stepped down and hugged all three children, who giggled as they stepped back and the youngest child asked the question again.

"Well, is this your new girlfriend, Aunt Joanna?"

Before Joanna could respond, Raven stepped forward, amusement crinkled the corner of her eyes. "I'm Joanna's new friend, and I'm a girl, so I guess you can consider me her new girlfriend."

"Actually, guys, this is my girlfriend, but she is more than just a girlfriend. She is my new partner, and I intend to spend the remainder of my life with her. So, you see, she is much, much, more than just a girlfriend." Joanna smiled at the children.

"Darling, I'd like you to meet…"

"No, you don't Aunt Joanna! You forgot, I'm supposed to introduce her." The small child who had not relinquished her hold on Raven’s hand interrupted the honey-blonde.

"Excuse me, Jenny. That was impolite of me. Please, do the honors." Joanna finished her sentence and stepped aside.

The young girl giggled, "Raven, I'd like you to meet my three cousins, Martin, Michael, and their little sister, Mary Alicia Brooks. This is my new friend, Raven… What is your last name, Raven?" Jennifer looked at her skeptically, her expression serious.

Risking a sidelong glance at Joanna, who had stepped beside the three cousins, her momentary embarrassment melted under the warmth of her lover's heart-stopping smile. “It's Longgear, Jenny. Raven Longgear,” the dark woman allowed a slow grin to across her face as she once again looked down at the small girl.

"It’s a pleasure to meet you, ma'am." They said in unison. They each returned Raven's handshake with a firm grasp of their own.

“Mary Alicia is eight. Her identical twin brothers are twelve.” She exclaimed with authority. We all speak French. Do you speak French, Raven?" Jennifer gave Raven a quizzical glance.

Joanna was speechless, but Raven wasn't. “I speak Spanish, Greek, and German, but no French, Jenny. Is French a requirement in this family?” The tall woman asked softly.

The young girl looked up inquisitively at the tall woman, tapped one finger against the side of her face deep in concentration of the posed question. She suddenly stopped tapping her face in consideration, her thoughts clear, “You must not be a part of the diplomatic or international banking community, so I guess you don't need French to become a part of this family.”

Joanna groaned.

“Phew!” Her voice held a teasing note, but the look in her blue eyes, and a quiver at the corner of her mouth assured Joanna, that Raven knew how to handle children. "I was worried there for a moment, Jenny. Unfortunately, I'm not a banker or a diplomat. I'm a photographer." Her upheld hand reached out and brushed the top of the honey-haired girl.

"Actually, Raven is a photojournalist. A rather famous one, I might add. She is published, and has three books to her credit." Joanna interjected.

“Gosh!” Mary Alicia gulped.

“Hey, I know now where we have heard her name. She took that photograph that is in Papaw's den, that framed Life cover thing. You know, the one of the Amazon Indian.” Martin spurted out.

“That’s correct, guys,” Joanna relayed to the foursome.

Raven blushed.

“Neat!” Michael smiled.

“Yes, neat.” The small child holding Raven's hand responded in awe, but quickly regaining her composure. “You can take over now, Aunt Joanna, I have an engagement elsewhere,” Jenny exclaimed as she turned and scampered back up the steps.

They shuffled their feet and stared at her, curiosity written all over their smudged faces. Michael, the oldest bounced the basketball he was carrying.

“Want to play basketball or shoot some hoops?” he asked eagerly.

“I can't today,” Raven said regrettably. "I had a little accident yesterday and I'm pretty stove up and sore, but I'd love to watch you, or just shoot a few hoops later."

"Boy, you're not a creep like Aunt Joanna's last girlfriend." Martin expressed, as the other two children nodded enthusiastically.

"Marjorie hated kids… Especially us." Mary Alicia stated sincerely. "If you said something to her, she'd go like this." She rolled her eyes and gave an exaggerated sigh of boredom.

Raven bit the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. "Well, I'm not Joanna's previous girlfriend, and I like kids very much, very much indeed. Actually, I have several small friends back in Florida whom I hang around with frequently. Hopefully, one day, there might be a few running around calling me Mom."

"Knock it off, you guys." Joanna didn't even try to hide her amusement, or the suggested, future hopefulness of parenthood. The thought of having children with Raven was one she had seriously contemplated, since Raven had mentioned the subject week’s before. "I have to take Raven over to meet the rest of the family.

"Okay." The trio shrugged and started toward the backyard basketball court.

"Hey, Aunt Joanna," Michael called over his shoulder, "Why don't you marry this one? She's a fox."

I'll take that under advisement, Mike." She answered her nephew. "There you go," Joanna stated, "Rave reviews from the first three smaller critics. You obviously, have already charmed Jenny, so that's actually four. Of course, Howie, and Rita seem to be taken with you as well. Daddy indicated you were a very pleasing individual. He admired your spunk, and stated he was pleased to have you in our family. You don't look scared or injured, so I assume you have passed my Mother’s assessments, so I'd say you have the family completely in your pocket."

"Your parents are fantastic, Sweetheart. Your Dad, well, he and I hit it right off. Your Mother is charming. I was totally incorrect in my first impressions of meeting her. She is really a very graceful and intelligent lady. She told me to call her, Mom."

"Mom, huh? Daddy told me he had requested you call him Dad. Guess, the parents were a pushover, huh?"

"Not as difficult as I thought it would be," the taller woman sighed. "Somehow, I think the next set will be a little tougher to charm."

"I don't think you will have any difficulty with them either, Darling. They are pushover compared to Mom… Well, all of them, that is, except Aunt Rosalin, who I'm named after. But you'll capture her heart just as you did mine, I'm sure." Joanna led her down the stone path to the second enormous gazebo. The smaller woman opened the gate on the gazebo, with its criss-crossed decorative panel and stepped inside, never relinquishing her tight hold on the taller woman’s hand close to her side. At one end, a wooden swing swayed gently on its chain.

"Oh, a swing! That's something I could get used to," the dark woman chuckled. "No wonder you enjoy our back porch swings so much. You grew up with one."

"You got that right. Wait until summer, Raven, and we visit my Aunt Rosalin. You'll see everyone up and down the street out on their porches, checking out what the neighbors are doing."

The assumption that they would still be doing things together in the summertime filled Raven with elation and contentment, a mixture that was becoming more familiar the longer she knew Joanna.

Raven was overwhelmed by voices, music and the clatter of drinks. One by one, the voices and the clatter stopped, until only the music was left as a background for what appeared to Raven like a vast sea of curious faces.

"Raven, I'd like you to meet my family." Joanna took her around the gazebo, introducing her to each person. Raven shook hands and smiled automatically, wondering how she would ever remember the right names with the right faces. Uncle Michelo, Aunt Beth, Uncle Roberto, Aunt Katherine---some of the names sounded familiar, but there were also younger cousins and their spouses that she would have to associate with something in order to remember their names, she was sure. Sarah, who was Howie’s wife, and Michael Sr., who was Henrietta’s husband would be easy enough, especially since she could relate and associate the children she met with Joanna's brother and sister. Jennifer was Howard and Sarah's youngest daughter, and the sister of Margaret and Marion, ten-year-old twin girls of Joanna's brother and his wife. Their eight-year-old son, Thomas was seated on the rail of the gazebo, would also be easy to remember, for he was the exact image of his father. In seeing his three cousins headed toward the basketball court, he hopped down from the railing, shook her hand enthusiastically and scampered off to join the hoop shooting.

Raven looked around the area once again, all the chairs were occupied with Joanna's relatives, and several had been brought from the terrace to seat them all. Joanna's aunt, a tiny lady with stunning, short, white hair, beckoned to Raven to join her on the overstuffed chaise longue to the side of the covered gazebo.

"Come here." She directed authoritatively to the two women who had made the rounds holding hands. The older woman patted the seat next to her for Raven to sit. "Joanna, it would be nice if you refilled my cup of tea. This is now cold.” Rosalin handed her cup to Joanna. “Don't worry, I'll keep your friend company."

Joanna nodded and went to get her aunt’s tea.

"So, your name is Raven. Like the bird?”

"Yes, Ma'am, and No, Ma'am. It is more like the idea of the bird, swift and mysterious. It’s also an old family name bestowed on a girl child every other generation," she explained.

"Mysterious as the shiny, silky color of the bird, and a historical family name?" The older woman asked, inquisitively.

"Yes Ma'am. I was born on a very dark night in May, but my Mother told me it was a shiny, black night because I entered their lives. Also, Raven was my grandmother’s middle name."

"Beautiful name, for a very beautiful edifice, or woman, if that is your preference," she laid a fine-veined hand over Raven's. Everybody calls me Rosalin. Joanna is named after me. It’s a good feeling to know you will always be remembered, even if only in a name, isn't it Raven?" She looked around the room at her other relatives.

"What's that you say, Rosalin?" The woman on the other side of Joanna's aunt, even older and more wrinkled, spoke again. "I didn't hear what you said."

To Raven's surprise, Rosalin ignored the other woman and continued talking. "Joanna is not only my namesake, Raven, but my pride and joy. I did not approve of her last relationship, but that was her choice. However, I could tell instantly, that you two were destined to be with each other. It is obvious, from the moment I saw you together, that you were soulmates." She patted Raven's long hand with her wrinkled one, once again.

"I'm going to give you some advice. Take it, young one, and remember it well." Her mellow voice dropped an octave as she began her informative instructions to the dark woman seated beside her. "Remember, our soulmate is someone who magnifies our inner beauty, our strengths as well as our imperfections and weaknesses. She is someone with whom we find our eternal home, and, just as I'm sure, you and Joanna have realized that factor in each other already. Joanna is someone you share a deep bond with, beyond words and beyond understanding, and you both will learn and grow from this, more than in any other relationship you have ever had, or ever will have." The wrinkled woman nodded knowingly, then continued. "You both are going, and will undergo an emotional transformation, a soul cleansing, if you wish to call it that. For being together will dredge up all of your unfinished emotional business and feelings of which you may not even have believed yourselves capable. A significant part of your purpose in coming together, Raven, is to clear up and heal the past... your old grief, your old jealousies, those undisturbed wounds and those unanswered and unresolved emotions; many of which you may have forgotten about until now, until this lifetime, Young One. No matter what, nothing and no one, can break the invisible soul connection between you two. Not death, or time, or any amount of distance. For, My Lovely, at another place in the eternity of time, the two of you will pick up and continue where you left off, just as you have now joined once again," quirked a graying brow. "Be careful with each other's feelings, and love each other with all your being. " She patted Raven's hand once more, her old eyes glittered at the instant knowing she had contacted in the blue ones next to her. "When you and Joanna move here, come and visit me. We have much to discuss,” the older woman reflected with an easy smile.

"Yes Ma'am, we will. I promise." Raven shook her head in acknowledgment as her heart sang. She did not understand the connection with this elderly woman, or her general acceptance of her counsel. She realized it was there, and she did accept all she had said, just as she realized the connection between Joanna and herself that first time at the shoot in New York. She would repeat this to Joanna when they were alone later tonight, but not now. She knew she must wait.

"Here you go, Auntie. Just like you prefer, lots of cream, one sugar, a dash of cinnamon, a dash of ginger and two drops of lemon." Joanna sat the cup down on the tea table in front of her aunt and her great aunt. "Auntie, if you’re finished with Raven, I thought she might enjoy a break from the family, and I need to have her to myself for a few moments.”

"Go ahead, My Angel. Talk with her about our conversation, but not until you have retired for the evening, Joanna." She inhaled deeply, savoring the enticing fragrance of spices wafting from the cup she was now holding slightly under her nose.

"Yes, Ma’am, I will, Aunt Rosalin," she said, her eyes twinkling as Raven and she joined hands and walked towards the beverage table.

Later, as they settled back into the swing with beverages, Raven placed her arm around the back of the swing, and Joanna scooted closer to her life partner, the taller woman sighed. "You have a large, wonderful family, Sweetheart. They are all so kind and I like them a lot. I'll have a time remembering so many names."

"I can tell they were all impressed with you, and the names will come. Don't worry about it." She placed a kiss on Raven's cheek. "Isn't Aunt Rosalin a dear?" She certainly is that," Raven blushed at the gesture, but took Joanna's hand in her own and pressed it against her lips. "I love you, dearly," she smiled at Joanna, a slow, intimate smile.

Raven's words lit a sudden fire in Joanna, making her wish she had the tall woman in a more private place. "And I love you, also, my dearest." She breathed, shuttering inwardly. Joanna resisted the impulse to break all land speed records to make it back to her room.

Raven's voice cut through the heat she knew they both felt, and deliberately changed the path and texture of their conversation. "You are a very young aunt, Joanna. Actually, you're pretty young to be an aunt seven times over, but you do it so well. You are so caring."

"You're quite the diplomat after all," she laughed softly. "But, thanks, Honey. It helps when you have siblings eight years older than you. And you already know, I'm, also godmother to Rita's boys." It was a statement, not a question, "And I take that honor as being a very high precedence with me." Raven remembered the disastrous first photo shoot and Joanna's preoccupation and concern of Martin's illness and surgery. It was just one of the many traits that Raven admired in her lover.

"Excuse me for interrupting, Ms. Joanna. You have a telephone call. The party said you had requested it be returned. Unfortunately, the plug-in on the terrace is temporary out, so you need to take it in the house," Morris, the Stern's long time butler stated.

"Thank you, Morris, tell them I'll be right there. Excuse me, Darling. This is the conference call I was expecting with Julia Bagwell, my co-producer of the musical. We need to work out some additional details, before we meet day after tomorrow, so I may be awhile. You're welcome to come with me."

"You go ahead, Sweetheart. I think I'll mosey over and kibitz the basketball festivities…. Looks like they are playing horse. I think my knee could stand a few shots."

“Don't you dare go one-on-one with the boys, Raven. Your knee doesn’t need the pressure on it, and besides that, the guys are on their Jr. Varsity basketball team." Joanna raised her eyebrows, and waited for an answer even though she hadn't spoken a question.

"What? You think two twelve year olds could take me? Ha! Don't worry, Joanna. I don't intend to do any… one-on-one… only shoot a few hoops, if they are still playing horse." She smirked, laughed and then held open the gazebo gate for Joanna to exit.

"Good." Joanna reached up and kissed Raven on the lips. “I'll try and not be long," she promised.

"Take your time, Sweetheart," she gestured towards the basketball court, and waved as she turned on her heels and limped to the game.

The afternoon passed quickly. Raven had played Horse for an hour with the four children, then had sat on the grass and watched the cousins for several hours before she excused herself. They had arrived at the airport at 5.00 a.m., this morning. However, their evening lovemaking had continued until well after midnight. The tall woman felt she needed to return to Joanna's room and a much-needed short nap in order to be prepared for the evening with whatever family activities were scheduled.

*****


Raven woke abruptly, surprised to discover that she’d been sleeping soundly. She’d only meant to rest for a few minutes, but she had slept much longer than she had anticipated. An unsettled feeling nudged at the edge of her consciousness, causing her pulse to accelerate. Listening intently, she had the distinct impression that something out of the ordinary had awakened her, but she couldn’t identify what it might be. The wind was up, rustling the leaves outside the window, and everything appeared to be as it should be. Slowly, she sat up and peered around the large room, filled with memorabilia of Joanna, her childhood, and her achievements. She washed her face, and changed her shirt to a fresh one that had been removed from her luggage, pressed and hung neatly in Joanna’s closet.

She moved through the large house, hoping to spot Joanna but to no avail. Morris approached the tall woman as she entered the kitchen, still looking for the Sterns’ youngest daughter.

“Everyone is outside on the patio and under the gazebo’s, Ms. Raven. Can I get Mrs. Bailey to prepare a beverage for you, or shall I mix you an early evening cocktail, or some wine perhaps?” The elderly butler asked, and waited for a response.

“No, thank you, Morris. I'll just amble down and pick up something outside. I believe I can hear the glasses clinking.” She chuckled, and moved through the kitchen door.

Upon approaching the patio, where dozens of chaise longues and chairs were neatly placed, Mrs. Stern called to her, and motioned for the tall photographer to join them.

Taking hold of her hand, the elegant woman addressed the dark one before her. "Raven, Darling, you'll find Joanna down that path on the east side of the lake. She requested you join her there, and suggested you wear a light jacket. It does become a bit nippy this time of the year, even if it is spring." She smiled and motioned to the path along side the basketball court. "She also had Howard bring a golf cart around for you to use, as she is concerned about your knee. It is several hundred yards to the lake."

"Thank you, Ma'am," she shrugged sheepishly, then turned to retrace her steps back into the house to obtain the suggested jacket.

A few minutes later, she stepped upon the cart. "I don't think I'll need the golf cart, but she'll get irritated at me, and I don't want that." She muttered under her breath, and started the cart without difficulty. She proceeded slowly past the basketball area she surmised the Stern's had built for their grandchildren, and came upon an older built, indoor tennis court, which she also imagined was used by Joanna and her siblings.

She followed the path slowly, and eased off on the accelerator as she saw Joanna come into view. The honey-headed woman was sitting on a blanket, her knees drawn up to her chest. Raven just sat quietly, and took in the lovely scenery for a few minutes before pressing the accelerator once again, and stopped the cart about a dozen yards from Joanna and the blanket.

“Hi,” she raised her head and patted the blanket beside her. “Join me, please.”

Raven did, and sat down making sure to extend her right leg. Joanna reached over and took Raven’s hand in hers and pointed to the sky with the other.

The sun was sinking behind a stand of trees on a distant hillside and the sky was a glorious blend of red and pink and mauve like paint spilled on a fresh canvas. Shadows grew long and the air grew still, filled with the echo of the scattered birds’ songs. They experienced the whole incredible show from the crest of a hill which Joanna had selected. They were both wrapped in the arms of a rare serenity.

Beside her, Raven eased her arm around her shoulders. Joanna looked over at her, feeling a fragile tenderness creep into her heart. The lines on Raven’s face were not as evident as when they sat on the swing in the gazebo. Their breathing was deep and even, and Joanna knew the rest had been needed by her lover, for neither had slept much before they had to get up this morning.

Memories of the intense moments in meeting Joanna’s parents flashed across Raven’s mind, causing her stomach to do a slow, deep somersault. She’d been having flashbacks all day long, accompanied by a multitude of physical responses that made her restless and edgy. They were unfamiliar to her, but she recognized them as uncertainties and unknowns. Her brief encounter with Joanna’s aunt weighed on her, but not with heaviness. On the simplest level, she knew she wanted to make love with Joanna. But, she was uncertain about some of the other feelings swamping her.

After three long years, Joanna found her thoughts drifting to issues of trust, love, and consistency. She’d promised herself that she would never leave herself open to be hurt the way Margie had hurt her. But she knew that promise, or her life with Raven, was not in question when it came to trust, love and consistency. She knew with all her being, that Raven was certainly an exception to any previously formed promise to herself about withholding her trust and her love.

She gazed over at Raven, smiling. Yes, she was certainly the major exception in her regimented life. It thrilled her to know how much the tall woman wanted her, and how much she, in return, wanted Raven. Some primitive female intuition told her that she’d been close to blocking out anyone from the depths of her being. On some intricate, womanly level, she savored the knowledge that Raven had, from the first moment, filled that depth within her, and hadn’t even attempted an entry.

Joanna resisted the urge to touch the bronze face or trail her fingers through the long, dark brown hair. Content just to be close to her, she turned her attention back to Mother Nature’s masterpiece.

At the base of the mound was a stocked lake; actually, it was man-made. Occasionally, she would catch the movement of a fish as it darted to the top of the water to capture an unsuspecting insect. More often, she’d hear the thick plop after the fish retreated below the surface. She had never fished the lake, but her Dad had spent many days with Howie on all sides of the well-preserved pond. Joanna’s mother had never cared for fishing, and had the lake created as a resting place for the many ducks that stopped on their migratory flights. She smiled, as she remembered the “tame” ducks her Mother had brought to the lake, and their many antics. She sighed, deciding that remembrance would be shared with Raven another time.

She wished she could suspend this moment in time. If it were possible, she’d stay right here, out in the open with nothing to conceal her, with the sweet air wrapping around her, and Raven at her side. She realized, however, that their time together had just begun. She wanted to experience everything with this woman who had captured her heart without even endeavoring to do so.

“That was a stunning sunset.” Raven’s husky voice filled the silence.

Joanna smiled at her and shifted into a better position, facing her. “It certainly was colorful,” she said.

“Thanks for thinking of this, and our being together to share it.” She brushed a hand over Joanna’s shoulder in a light caress, her brows drawing together. “What were you thinking about just now?”

It automatically sprang to Joanna’s lips to tell her “nothing.” But she paused thoughtfully before saying quietly, “I was thinking about my life. My life here with my parents, my not so good choices, my failures, my happiness in finding you.” Joanna felt a strange stirring of emotions inside her. She knew she had found the crossroads in her life. A leap of faith now had easily changed the course she had followed all these years.

Raven stared into her eyes, her hand still resting on her shoulder. Darkness gathered and dew began to settle.

Unshed tears burned in Joanna’s chest. She stared into Raven’s face, drinking in the beauty of her and rediscovering a long ago dream-the dream of finding the kind of love her Aunt Rosalin and her life partner had shared, as well as the kind her parents shared.

In a heartbeat weeks ago, everything had become crystal clear. She knew all her dreams could be found with the woman sitting next to her. To wake up every morning knowing she belonged. To face each day knowing Raven was there beside her, the simple desire to belong and be loved, no matter how long or short their time together.

“A simple desire that has eluded me most of my life, until now. A simple desire that has become a reality with you, Raven.” Immediately, she felt herself safe with this realization.

There was urgency to Raven’s voice as she gently cupped Joanna’s chin. “I share the same feelings, the same realization, and the same desire. I want to share all my intimate emotions, all my thoughts, and my hopes of the future with you beside me. You will be in my heart, always. I promise you.” She promised, and she pressed her fingertips against Joanna’s lips.

She saw deep inside the remarks made by Joanna, and she honored her commitment. Her fingers moved slowly over her lips before drifting upward to her cheek. She shifted toward her more, at the same time reaching out with the other hand to make the same journey along the other side of her face. She was struck by the contradictions her touch revealed. The firm line of her jaw was tempered by the soft contours of her cheeks and the softness of her skin.

For a moment, she cradled Joanna’s face in her hands. She stared into the sea-foam ocean depths of her eyes and felt everything fade into nothing. She loved her. She couldn’t say in specific terms how she knew she loved this woman, she just did. She was thrilled and terrified, in equal measure. She wondered how this could have happened to her, how she could be so lucky, so fortunate to have found her…Soulmate. She started to draw away, but Joanna’s hands shot up and circled her arms firmly.

“Don’t pull away from this, Raven,” she murmured as she pulled her closer. “This is stronger than the both of us. We have found each other. You are where I live. I am home… We are home. ”

“I never will pull away from this, Joanna. You are my home, forever.”

Joanna felt lips graze the corner of her own as hands dropped to her shoulders. Her eyelids drifted shut with the first wave of pleasure. Raven placed light, teasing kisses from her mouth to her ear, sending shivers skipping along her spine. The ground seemed to drop out from beneath her. She moaned softly and arched her head to the side as the dark woman continued to explore the sensitive length of her neck leisurely.

Smaller hands crept along the soft cotton covering Raven’s shoulders, feeling their way into the thick hair at the back of her head, which was now falling over her shoulders. Silky stands slipped through her restless fingers until the texture became familiar to her.

Raven bent closer, her lips tracing the scooped neckline of her soft linen blouse. Joanna slid her hand along the taut column of Raven’s neck, down over her shoulder and lower. Heat rose through the taller woman’s shirt as she flattened her hand against the arched plane of her back.

Joanna was suspended in some kind of sensual limbo. Raven’s mouth teased and tempted as she nibbled and tasted, her pace unhurried as if she were a delectable fruit she intended to enjoy to the fullest. Each flick of her tongue, each soft kiss, kindled another mammoth flame within the younger woman.

Joanna’s hands traveled up and down her back in quick, worked up movements as the epic heat consumed her, rising from deep inside and spreading outward. She didn’t want her to stop. She wanted more. More of everything Raven had to offer.

The sudden feel of the strong hands slipping beneath her top to encase her bare waist sent a shaft of pure pleasure shooting through her small body. Her breath caught on a gasp as the large palms slide upward over her ribs. Balanced on the edge of some unknown precipice, she waited for Raven’s hand to rise higher, to claim the soft flesh of her breasts. But Raven stopped, just shy of her bra, and drew away from her. What she was doing must be considered some sort of erotic torture, but it was so sweet she never wanted it to end. With some effort, she managed to open her eyes and focus on the tan face. Then, the bronze figure was bending toward her again.

The full mouth covered hers fully, without a trace of the earlier laziness. There was no tenderness now, no question. This kiss was filled with flagrant and unapologetic passion, designed to drag her into a dark, swirling world of sensation. She clung to her, opened to her, and realized in a dazed sort of way, that this was what she wanted; this woman was what she needed. This woman was all she would ever need from now through eternity.

She felt the larger hands lift her, felt her shift. Then Raven laid back, taking Joanna with her, her mouth still fused to hers, her grip firm on her waist. She jolted, finding herself covering Raven, her body pressed intimately to the firm lines of hers. She jerked upward as the electrifying feel of the long thighs cradling hers caused all kinds of crazy tremors inside her body. She was shaking; her breath coming in short, labored gulps.

Raven didn’t loosen her arms, but continued to hold her close, her hands stroking in a soothing rhythm up and down her back, her voice husky with calm assurances, words of desire, and words of love.

The eruptions continued, causing the small body to tremble as wave after wave flooded her, overflowing into blissful ecstasy. She felt Raven quivering beneath her; mirroring the explosion that erupted, continually pulsing through her own body. Slowly, she began to relax; the pressure in her chest easing, her pulse quieting and no longer a roar of sound in her ears. At Raven’s luring, she lowered her head to her chest, where her heart beat under her ear, fast and hard, yet steady and comforting in a way she didn’t quite understand.

Raven stared into the inky sky and watched as one by one the stars blinked to life in the deepening darkness. She continued to stroke Joanna’s hair and back, feeling the tension in her ease. As the body resting on her began to relax, her body responded likewise. This was the first time they had ever enjoyed lovemaking through to orgasms and neither had touched breasts or intimate parts of the other. The feeling was awesome, and completely fulfilling for both women. This was another first for them. Raven’s eyes closed briefly as the thought trailed away. They both had been consumed by a passion stronger than either had ever experienced previously.

“I’ve never experienced that before. I’d say that makes our bonding complete,” Joanna’s admission tumbled out into the stillness.

Raven’s hands slowed their movement until they stopped completely. Joanna’s declaration affected her on a deep level she never knew existed until the small woman stepped into her life. She filled an empty space in her, one which she’d thought might be necessary to leave vacant for the remainder of her life. A place that had actually been empty her entire life. She couldn’t string together the words to explain how she felt. She only knew she had shared with Joanna the most intimate bond between two individuals; she had shared her soul.

“Yes, I’d say you were right, Sweetheart, our bonding is complete.”

They lay there, holding each other for some time before they sat up and continued in each other’s embrace.

“I love you, Raven,” the words spoken softly and committing.

She felt the impact of those words deeply. She kissed Joanna’s shoulder and said close to her ear, “You have one very special gift to give, Joanna, and I can’t tell you what it means to me to be the one you’ve bestowed that gift of love upon.” She tightened her arms around the smaller woman. “Love is an interesting emotion, Joanna. I’ll continue to love you for always, until the end of time.”

*****


Raven was finishing her long shower from their full day’s events, after having insisted Joanna shower first. Her other motive was so Joanna’s Aunt and Uncle, sleeping in the bedroom next to the bathroom, wouldn't hear their nightly bathroom antics.

Joanna had turned out the lights, and gone over to pull the drapes over the bedroom window. She stood for a moment and looked out over the alcove of trees that lined this side of the house. The wind had picked up, and the branches swayed gently back and forth, almost hypnotically, and it had started to mist lightly.

Joanna's eye caught a shadow at the base of one of the trees. She wasn’t sure, but she got the distinct feeling that someone was standing there, watching her, or at least, watching the window opening into her room. Her skin crawled, and her body shivered as she stepped back and moved the drapes over the opening. It was the very same spot she thought she had noticed a shadow the night before she left for Florida. She rubbed her arms to ward off the shivering, and shook her head. Must be my imagination, she reflected. Out of curiosity, she turned back to the window, and peaked out the side of the drape to the spot she noticed shortly before. The shadow was gone. “That was not my imagination,” she shivered again.

"I think I'll mention this to Daddy in the morning. He might have changed the security system without informing me." She returned to the bed, pulled back the covers, got in and waited for Raven.

“This has been a wonderful day,” commented the lanky woman as she stretched beneath the covers and felt the smaller body wiggle over to join hers.

“It certainly has been.”

“Joanna, we have so much to talk about, but I feel the need to discuss your Aunt Rosalin, and our conversation of earlier this afternoon.”

“I surmised as much,” she rolled over, placed her head on Raven’s shoulder and extended her arm around the tall woman’s waist. “I’ve had this connection with her all my life. I can’t tell you how much I enjoy just being with her, listening to her and her tales of her adventures with Alexandria.” “She admonished me earlier today, to treat my soulmate with reverence and respect. She invited us to visit her often when we are here. She knew we would be moving here for a while, even before I relayed this information to her.”

“Even more astonishing, if you can say anything is astonishing about my Aunt Rosalin: she knew we were soulmates the moment she heard there was a new love in my life. So strange, yet it feels as if she is our channel, our…guide so to speak, if that is the correct word for it.”

“I agree. Don’t know the correct word either, but I feel she knows more about us than we do, almost. I would like very much for us to have her in our lives, visiting us as much as we do her, Sweetheart.”

They talked long into the night. Finally, they snuggled closer as sleep crept slowly over them.

*****


The next morning, Raven and Joanna joined the immediate family for breakfast in the dining room. A large buffet of eggs, waffles, pancakes, teacakes, sausage, bacon and toast, along with Danishes of all kinds and several other sweet rolls filled the sideboard.

After breakfast, Raven joined Mrs. Stern in her prize flower garden and was treated to an informative tour of various rows of exquisite shrubs and bushes the white-haired woman had tenderly risen from bulbs. Joanna had asked to use the extra phone line in the library again, hoping to complete her calls before lunch and would join her later, she had said.

Leaving Mrs. Stern with the gardener, and returning to the house, Mr. Stern happened to look up from his open study door, and called out to Raven to join him for a moment.

"Please close the door and have a seat, Raven." His hand indicated a large, cushioned chair directly in front of his desk.

Shoot! I knew things were going along too good. I must have done something wrong, she assumed as she sat down and crossed her legs. "What's up, Mr. Ster…uh, Dad?" She asked.

"I just want to have a little chat with you about something Joanna brought to my attention this morning. There isn't anything about you that might be considered dangerous is there? I mean, is anyone out to do you harm? I know those photographs of the murders in the Rainforest raised eyebrows all over the world. But the Brazilian government put a group of individuals away for long jail sentences, didn't they? And even executed several?" His voice was steady but filled with concern.

"What are you saying? Asking? Has someone indicated I have threatened Joanna, or that she is vulnerable in some way?" A brow drastically ascended of its own volition, and she sat upright, uncrossing her legs.

"Don't become alarmed, Raven. It is probably nothing, and it probably doesn't involve you at all, considering Joanna… Well, I suppose I should start from the beginning. This morning, Joanna asked me if I had made any changes in our security. I advised her I had not. She then told me she had seen a figure, even though she could only see a shadow, standing in the trees below and up the crest from her window. She said she checked the window a second time, and the shadow was no longer there. She reported that she had seen another shadow in that same spot on the last night she spent with us before she left for Florida and her vacation.” He hesitated, before continuing. "It's probably nothing, but I believe it warrants a review by my security people. I just wanted to make sure you understood, and it didn’t catch you unaware in case they popped up to ask you some questions."

"Thank you, sir. Come to think about it, I have had a strange feeling of being watched, several times, this past couple of weeks. Actually, there were two separate incidents recently, in Florida. The first was outside a restaurant, where Joanna and I had gone to eat. Then, the next afternoon, a boat was extremely close to the shore, and I thought I saw the reflection of a binocular lens in the sunlight, and had the distinct impression we were being scrutinized. But I marked it up to my own imagination or thought it might be someone who recognized Joanna. I just couldn't put my finger on what the feeling triggered." She could hear the low thrumming that suddenly filled her own ears.

"I don't know of a soul that holds a grudge against Joanna. Everyone thinks the world of her. But, there are so many individuals out there nowadays who have weird notions of what others do, that you can't be too careful. I'm not an Ambassador anymore, but I realize I have made some enemies. And I would hate to think I didn't take the necessary precautions to protect my family against some vendetta, perceived or otherwise." Any threat of any kind against his family, including Raven, was totally unacceptable to the tender, loving man.

“I agree with you sir.”

"Thank you for chatting, Raven. Best we keep this low key. We need not over-react, and Elizabeth and Joanna need not be alarmed when it might not be necessary. I’ll get back to you as soon as my security people do a little research.”

“Whatever you feel is best, Sir. I’m no authority on security, and I certainly don’t want something to pop up that might be a danger to anyone.”

“My security has already been informed.” He sat down his coffee cup, and diplomatically changed the subject. “Oh, by the way, I would consider it a big favor if you would assist me in the cooking festivities this afternoon. I'm curious as to your skills in this area. Joanna swears you prepare a great rack of ribs." He smiled at the tall woman sitting across from him.

"I'd be delighted, sir. What time do you want to get started?" She answered and asked softly.

"I have just the apron and hat for you… Let us make it about one. We have a quarter of a side of beef, and a half a pig to BBQ." He laughed as he rose from his chair. "My daughter finalized her calls and would like you to join her in the music room. I believe you know the way. She has been playing some very wonderful music all morning, and I believe she wants to try some compositions out for you," he explained.

"Thank you. I'll be outside on the patio at 1 p.m. sharp." She eased out of the seat smiling, and made her way to the door.

"Raven," he called gently.

She turned and looked back quizzically at the man. "Yes, Sir?"

"Welcome to the family." He beamed.

She cocked her head and returned the smile. "Thank you very much, Sir. I'm pleased to be a part of this family." She started humming the melody that was saturating the hall areas as she made her way to the music room.

*****



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