A Length of Joy

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


Disclaimers: Please See Chapter One

Chapter 11

Several of the older family members were playing horseshoes, others were swatting the shuttlecock back and forth across the net in a loose game of badminton. Raven had been coerced into being a partner in a close horseshoe match. The children and a few young-at-hearts had a hot volleyball game in progress. Joanna, Aunt Rosalin, Rita, and Sarah had teamed up against Howie, Michael, Sr., Uncle Albert, and the senior Stern in a close, but losing game of croquet, before breaking up and seeking refreshments of different kinds before finding places to lounge for awhile.

Howard glanced at his watch and excused himself to start the BBQing. As soon as he stepped onto the gazebo assigned for food preparation, he was joined by the lanky presence of Raven, who was immediately thrown an apron and floppy chef’s hat.

The family sat around in different areas, all with teacups, or glasses in their hands. Elizabeth, Aunt Rosalin, Joanna, Rita and her husband Michael, Sr., Howie and Sarah had moved to a row of chaise lounges adjacent to the second Gazebo.

“LOOK!” Howie nodded to the cooking gazebo. “Dad is allowing Raven to help him cook.” He stumbled over his tongue in disbelief.

“Isn’t she adorable in that hat?” Joanna swung her head sideways to make her French braid return to the center of her back, and her appreciation of the stunning woman was obvious.

“Yes, she certainly is that… Only I believe I’d call her dazzling… No, stunning,” responded her sister-in-law, gulping her tea. “Never thought a woman would make me nervous, but that one certainly rattles me.” She continued. “Don’t be jealous, Howie, I simply don’t know why she affects me that way.”

“Sarah, don’t feel embarrassed, she has that affect on every man and woman here, and, obviously, on Dad. I can’t believe he is actually letting her assist him.”

“He’s right, sister-in-law, she has everyone here panting. Well, I haven’t actually seen Aunt Rosalin here panting, but I have seen her giving those bones the once over.” She immediately flinched, expecting a swat from her Aunt, who was seated next to her.

Rosalin took another sip of her tea, and turned her head to face her niece. “Henrietta, I haven’t panted after anyone in ten years. Not since my Alexandria passed on. I am merely watching the beauty nature has bestowed on another living thing. If you can’t appreciate natural beauty, you are ready to be laid to rest. I assure you, I am definitely not ready for that phase of my life.” She turned back and made it a point to give Raven the once-over from top to bottom for everyone’ benefit.

“And you, Howie,” she continued, “should not be envious of that remarkable young lady being allowed to assist your father. If I remember correctly, you charred the wieners at your Boy Scout cookout so badly, we all had to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; then, you somehow managed to set fire to the cook-tent.”

“But that was an accident, Aunt Rosalin, and I was only ten.” He whined, seeking sympathy from everyone within hearing distance.

“Stop whining, Henry,” his mother insisted, “Need I remind you of that Australian outback vacation when you were thirteen; not only did you burn the chuck wagon to the ground, but you started a bush fire that scorched over a thousand acres of that mystifying, precious land. The Australian government insisted we leave their country.”

“Yes, Mother, but there wasn’t enough water around to put the fire out and it escalated out of control. That was an accident, also.” The tall blond interjected in self-defense.

“Well, brother of mine, not trying to rain on your parade or anything, but the very next summer, aren’t you the one who insisted you could cook golden brown marshmallows, two at a time, mind you. The same sixteen year old who had the two little marshmallows burst into flames and you waved the stick back and forth so hard, one of the flames came off and landed on Aunt Rosalin’s lap, burning a hole though her skirt.” Heneritta’s voice was gentle, yet exacting.

“Howie, if Alexandria hadn’t poured a decanter of lemonade on the spot, the skirt would have probably burned Aunt Rosalin badly. To boot, your flapping and waving of that stupid burning stick around so hard caused the second flaming marshmallow to be flung into the air and where did it land? Yep, right on the top of your head. It was only by Daddy’s fast action in putting it out that you only received minor burns on your scalp… You had to have a GI haircut to make you look presentable.” His sister related, between deep swallows of her ginger ale.

“But, Sis, I was still a kid. I’m a grown man now. Accidents happen… don’t they, Michael?” he hoped for support from his brother-in-law.

“Henry, you need to leave me out of this,” he stated diplomatically.

“Come on Michael, I come to your defense all the time when Sarah and Rita pick on you.” He pleaded to the lanky Deputy Ambassador sitting next to his mother-in-law.

“Let him be, Henry. He doesn’t want to tell about your fiasco in Japan when we were visiting and you bumped the open-flamed hibachi at our table, turning it over, and almost roasting the Japanese Ambassador At Large. Or your blundered attempt to put the fire out with a bottle of rice wine,” his wife explained, taking his hand and patting it.

“So, this is where your sons get their fire starting genes?” Sarah leaned forward toward Rita and mused.

“It is agreed. My husband is not safe around an open fire.” Everyone concurred, except Joanna. She felt sorry for her brother and his disastrous happenings with flames.

“Well, aren’t you going to add your two cents, oh younger sister of mine?”

“Actually, no.” She attempted to ignore her brother’s invitation. “I know it must set off some annoyance at Daddy allowing Raven something you haven’t been allowed. I can understand that, Howie,” she consoled.

“Sorry, Sis. Thanks for not jumping on the bandwagon even after the jab from me. I know Dad isn’t doing it deliberately to hurt me.” His voice shifted cadence. “I really am a hazard waiting to happen,” he finally laughed at his own shortcomings.

“That my dear son, is the reason your Father finds it necessary to keep you away from open flames, fires, or anything combustible.” His Mother realizing his sensitivity to the issue attempted to console his ego. “Henry, you are a brilliant banker, an avid, almost Olympic quality swimmer, and I could say almost a professional hunter, you shoot so well. But let us face it, son, you are hampered when it comes to cooking.”

“Yes, I know, Mother,” he stood up, “Think I’ll go over and see what Dad and Raven are doing.”

Everyone there groaned at the thought.

“Henry.” His mother called.

“Yes, Mother?”

“Please don’t get near the fire,” his mother requested.

The tall banker smiled, and spoke gently, “I won’t, Mom, I promise. I’ll even keep my hands in my pocket.”

The group was silent as Howie strolled toward the preparation gazebo.

“Think he’ll stay out of trouble?” Sarah posed.

“Lord, let us hope so. It is much too nice a day to have another visitation from the entire fire department.” His aunt interjected, as she finished her tea.

Raven had looked up several times while arranging different items, and assisted Mr. Stern with the food preparation. She could almost feel the extent of the dialogue of her new family. Further, she saw the shadows of sorrow touch the edge of Henry’s eyes, and, by instinct, she knew it concerned her being beside his father.

Why wasn’t Howie assisting his father, or at least, here helping in the food preparation? She couldn’t remember exactly what Joanna had related to her about the honor of cooking, but she knew it was something to do with Howie’s uncanny ability to cause disasters whenever he got close to fire. It was not a comfortable emotion she was experiencing, and one she wasn’t ready to take into her being for very long. She was pleased when she saw Howie get up from the sitting family, and walk in her direction. She had a plan. It only took Howie’s cooperation to be put into place.

“Hello, you two.” He touched his baseball hat brim and nodded to both of them.

“Son. You ready to sink your teeth into some good hickory(-) smoked BBQ?” his father posed smilingly.

“Hi, Howie,” she said thoughtfully, and nodded back.

“Sure am. I am getting so hungry, I could probably eat one of those sides of pork by myself,” he laughed. “That is pork you have in that marinade sauce isn’t it, Raven?”

“Only the top three racks, Howie. The balance is pork chops your Aunt Rosalin requested. That container to your right side is six racks of beef ribs, though, if that is your preference.” Her voice was so easy and lifting.

“Lady, I can eat my weight in BBQ ribs. Dad started us out on them when we were probably five or six. It was a pretty isolated assignment in Bulgaria, and we were all tired of embassy food.” He chuckled softly, a sound Raven liked, and a corner of her mouth turned up in a smile.

“Yeah, I know what you mean.” She found herself wanting to compare notes on the foods they had shared in the various countries she had traveled. She watched him for a moment, noting that his eyes were suddenly serious. In the bright light, his green irises were wide and dark.

“Where’d you learn to BBQ, Raven? I know your parents are deceased, and you were brought up by an aunt?” She gave him credit for having sensitivity.

“There was an old seaman who kind of adopted me. He could cook a rack of ribs that would make your mouth water just thinking about it. Not only that, but he taught me while we were on his fishing boat, same time he was shoving navigation and the ways of the sea down me. He started off with shrimp, then scallops, and gradually, he eased me into ribs.” She laughed, as she absently played with the end of her French braid. Joanna had braided it for her early this morning. She pulled off the rubber band and uncoiled her hair halfway, re-braiding it as she talked. “But the basting sauce came from my Mother’s family, some Greek ingredients, believe it or not.”

The conversation slowed, and their gazes locked. Raven had to admit, he was a very handsome man and she wasn’t even into men. She was aware of the thickness of his muscled arms with the shirtsleeves rolled halfway up, for he obviously worked out. However, the muscles didn’t look like the martial arts kind, more like gymnastic muscles, she surmised. She imagined the keenness of his green eyes cut through every defense of any woman he had ever gone after. He was as gentle as his younger sister, and the tall woman saw many of Joanna’s same traits in her older brother.

He watched her as she stood on the other side of the table; wiping her hands on the towel she had removed from her shoulder, and then discarded it into the soiled receptacle his Dad always had placed nearby. Her jeans were faded and soft, creases underlining where the slimness of her buttocks filled them out. She was stunning and womanly, even in the nondescript plaid shirt tucked into the jeans. No wonder Joanna was so crazy about her, she was every man’s and every woman’s dream. She was genuine. There was nothing artificial about her.

“Howie, I was wondering if you aren’t tied up with something right now, if you could help me out for about a half an hour?”

“Certainly, Raven. Do you need something from the house? What? Just name it, be happy to help.” He gulped, the curious fluttering inside him caused his body to stiffen. With his hands still stuck in his pockets, he looked like a small child, about to be given a surprise.

“Well, I have to dry off these racks of ribs and pork chops before I can throw them on the grill, and it takes a good half hour to mix the ingredients for the basting sauce I use. So, I was wondering, if you wouldn’t mind too much; if I led you step by step through the mixing process, would you prepare the final basting sauce for me?”

There was a quickening silence, except for the gentle breeze that fluttered past them, along with the aroma of smoke that carried the hickory chip scent from the large grill.

His heartbeat accelerated like a tempo change of a song- - a little harder, a little faster.

“Sure, I’d be pleased to blend the mixture for you,” he cleared his throat with a low rumble.

“Great. I need to step over to that faucet, and wash my hands from playing with my hair,” she tossed him a towel, “You might need to rinse yours off as well before we get started.” She picked up another towel, came around the table and poked him in the ribs as they strolled off together to the outdoor faucet.

Howard Stern stood over to the side of grill. “I hope she knows what she is doing, and keeps him way away from this fire,” he muttered apprehensively to himself.

The sun shone brightly off to the side of the sky, which was blue, flat, and uninterrupted, stretched over the Stern estate like a taunt canvas. Something had changed. Another bonding had been linked, this one of friendship.

“How about sitting on this stool, on that side of the table,” she directed Howie, touching the seat at the end of the table. “I have all the ingredients in containers, just mix all the front row in that bowl. When you get them all combined, then you can slowly pour the honey in a narrow drizzle into that measuring cup.” She forced herself to sit as still as possible on the workbench on this side of the table. She slowly and deliberately started drying the marinate from the first rack of ribs. “The honey has to be dripped in very slowly, Howie, so let me know when that sauce has a tightened consistency,” Raven explained and waited.

“I have all the ingredients in, and the mixture seems about right, I think. So, tell me when you think I should start on the honey?”

“Start adding it, in about two minutes,” the three racks of ribs were complete, and Raven had started on the pork chops.

“When you have the honey mixed thoroughly, about ten or fifteen minutes with really slow stirring, then, just as slowly, add that one last cup of special seasonings and herbs next to the honey.” The drying process had begun on the beef ribs, and before long, she nodded to Howie to add the seasonings. They conversed as they worked, both contributing to the conversation.

“I’m all finished, Raven. Does this look about right?” He lifted the spoon and let the concoction slide from the utensil.

“Looks like a winner. Now for the taste test,” she proposed, lifting a teaspoon and dipping only the tip into the sauce. “Ummmy, here, Howie, taste this.” The spoon was wiped and dipped once more into the mixture.

“Man alive, that’s good. Better than anything I have ever tasted. Must be those last Greek ingredients?”

“You got that right.” Raven high-fived the tall blond, now standing with a big smirk on his face, pride bringing a flush to his cheeks.

“Raven, you can have the lower portion of the grill for the beef ribs, now.” Howard stepped away from the grill.

“Thanks, be right there, Dad. Howie, you did a great job. How about we do this again, say in a few weeks, down in Florida, when your children get out of school? Bring the family and stay with Joanna and me for a vacation and we’ll BBQ often while you’re there. We can go sailing, scuba diving, and, of course, there is always Disney World.” A sly grin covered her face.

“You got yourself a date. Excuse me, please, I want to go over and tell Sarah about the invitation. She will be ecstatic; we have wanted to take the kids to Florida for a long time.” He wiped his hands on the towel, tossed it in the soil pail, stuck his hands back in his pockets, and walked off, whistling a merry tune. He stopped, turned, and walked back up to within three feet of the table. Looking sharply at the tall woman, he smiled and said,

“Thank you, Raven. Thank you very much.”

“You’re welcome, Bro.”

Howie’s big sheepish grin had been all the thanks she needed, but hearing the words felt good, too.

Howard Stern stood staring at Raven as she arranged the ribs on the grill. “I want to thank you, also, Raven for what you did for Howie. His morale jumped two hundred percent at your kindness. I would have never thought of anything so simple to satisfy his need to help me.” He reached out and pulled the young woman into a bear hug. “I’ll always be in your debt.” He kissed her forehead.

She blushed, “Isn’t that what families are all about?”

“Yes. Yes, that is definitely what families are all about.”

Off to the side where Howie had come from originally, the group still remained seated, all with open mouths, and large eyes.

“Saints be praised.” Aunt Rosalin gasped. “He didn’t even overturn so much as a spoon.” Her intake of breath said it all.

“Damn, Sis… That is some woman you have there.” Rita snorted.

“You can say that again,” Joanna’s throat was tight, making swallowing almost impossible.

Needless to say, that family outing was one of the best ever.

*****


“Wow, Joanna. I didn’t expect a five-story structure. This place is huge,” Raven stood with her hands on her hips looking up at the brownstone that the honey-blonde called home. “You must have sunk a fortune into this place, and putting yourself through college at the same time, plus acting. All I can say is... WOW!”

“Truth is, I got it for a steal of a deal. It belonged to Alexandria. She and Aunt Rosalin lived here part-time. She willed it to Aunt Rosalin, who sold it to me for a fraction of what it cost.” The explanation was quick and to the point.

“Here, take this. It’s your key to this, our other home.”

Joanna handed the key to Raven, who smiled as she opened the front door to the five-story, brownstone.

“I’m home,” Joanna called pulling her carry-on through the door and stopping at the staircase with it.

The chauffeur followed them in with Joanna’s other two bags, and placed them next to the staircase. “Do you wish me to take these upstairs for you, Ms. Joanna?” He asked.

“Yes, that would be advisable, I think. You know the way, first floor, last door on the left. Thank you, Roger.” Joanna said as the man tipped his cap and proceeded up the stairs with the two extra bags.

“Marla, I’m home.” She called once again, removing her jacket and flinging it over the staircase banister.

“I’m coming, Joanna,” the voice called, clear from the back of the foyer towards the kitchen. “I had my hands in bread dough.”

“Oh, goodie. Are we having banana nut bread?” The young woman asked, her eyes glittering with excitement at the prospect.

“No, Sugar. You told me your Raven loved sweet pumpkin bread, and that is what I am making.” The salt and pepper head continued to wipe her damp hands on a towel, then stuffed the end of the towel in the huge pockets dominating the front of the white apron.

“Pumpkin?” Raven snickered.

“Shooo, quiet.” Joanna nudged the taller woman in her ribs. “You promised, no pumpkin comments.”

“You got me all wrong, Sweetheart. I was referring to the pumpkin bread.” She pretended to keep a straight face, but burst into jolly laughter.

“OH, YOU!” And she joined the laughter.

“Marla, this is Raven Longgear. Raven, this dear lady is my dear friend, Marla O’Malley.

“I feel we have already met, Raven. We have talked so many times on the phone, already.” The older woman nodded her head with acceptance, and then opened her arms for a friendlier welcome.

Raven went forward and enveloped the shorter woman with the same friendly hug that had been offered her. “It sure does, Ms. O’Malley. You might be surprised by all the wonderful “stuff” Joanna has told me about you, already,” she snickered.

“Call me Marla, young lady. And you’d best be forgetting most of that “stuff” Joanna has filled your ears with…. Or, you will get the same thing she did when she wore my one last nerve thin.” The good-natured threat was accompanied by an ear-to-ear smile.

And just what might that be, Ma’am?” The tall woman questioned respectfully.

“Watch out, Raven. She swings a mean dish towel.” Joanna giggled.

“Oh! Well, in that case,” the dark woman stood up straight, took the hand of the salt-and-pepper-haired woman, raised it, and kissed the knuckles tenderly. “I’m extremely pleased finally to make your acquaintance, Ms. Marla. I promise not to give you half as much trouble as Joanna here,” It was difficult for her to keep a straight face, so she joined Joanna in stifled giggles.

“Oh, Saints preserve and protect me. Now I have to deal with two spoiled ones.” She faked an Irish sigh.

They all laughed.

“Anyone for fresh lemonade? I understand that is a prerequisite with some persons standing here.”

“Yes, thanks, Marla,” Joanna grasped both women by the arm and they walked to the kitchen for the beverage, and some more getting to know each other time.

*****


Joanna, I am going to leave now for my appointments. First, to my agents, then I’m having lunch with Geneva. I should be back here by three. “ She took the shorter woman in her arms, and kissed her. Joanna extended the kiss, and they ended up on the bed. “No, no, no. We can’t start anything now. I have already set up these meetings. Traffic is awful here and Geneva has sent her car to pick me up. I expect the doorbell to ring at any moment, and…” her words were cut off my nibbling lips. “Humm…I can’t stand this…” another kiss was applied to her lips, this time with smoldering passion.

Ding Dong…the doorbell sounded.

“Okay, Lover, just go off and leave me like this,” Joanna pouted.

She moaned, “Sweetheart, you have to get going yourself. Actually, you should have left ten minutes ago to meet your friend as scheduled.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Isn’t that what you always say?” She asked, releasing her embrace on the tall body draped over hers.

Raven eased off her body, poked her shirttail back inside her trousers, picked up her portfolio and started toward the door. She stopped, turned around, and returned to the blonde sitting on the edge of the bed.

“I love you, Sweetheart,” and bent down to kiss her lips gently. Joanna reached up and ran the back of her hand over Raven’s cheek, then stood up tip-toed, and kissed the full lips once more. “I love you too, Darling, now scoot. You’re right; I’m going to be late. I’ll be back by five this afternoon. Wear that blue outfit to the party tonight, it looks smashing on you,” she prompted.

“Will do. Bye, Honey.”

“Later, Darling. Bye.”

Joanna finished dressing, called a cab, grabbed her briefcase and rushed downstairs.

“Marla, are the preparations for the Performance Party tonight at the theater complete?” Joanna asked anxiously, but knew Marla had everything well under control. She felt a bit of panic, anyway. This was the really official kick-off of the musical and a chance for her to show appreciation to the up and coming production.

“The caterers, bartenders, and serving staff, will begin to arrive around four this afternoon. The musicians start at eight sharp, and stay until midnight, as you wished.” She reported to the antsy actress.

“Everyone connected with the production, your personal staff, including agent, publicists, a dozen or so close friends and part of the cast and crew from your series have all been sent invitations; most have replied they would attend. The last count of expected attendance is close to a hundred. With each invited person being informed they could bring a guest to the party, that is as close a count as we could come up with. I have made preparations for one hundred and forty to make sure there was an ample supply of everything.” She reported assertively.

“Excellent. I never worry when you are in charge of my parties. As usual, I would like for you to be there, Marla.”

“Of course I will, Joanna. I haven’t missed one of your get- togethers since your tenth birthday, when I had my operation.” The older woman smiled.

Joanna hugged Marla, and kissed both cheeks of her long time friend. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Marla. You are a lifesaver, and such a help to me.” She embraced the older woman once again and continued. “You’ll find something extra in your pay envelope, and I expect you to make use of it before the musical starts.” She insisted.

“You shouldn’t be doing so much for me, Joanna. You just increased my salary last month. Your agent informed me my insurance benefits had been increased and the premiums paid for another year. You pay me year round, and I have had this big old house mostly to myself for the past six and a half years. That is more than sufficient for what I do,” the grateful woman acknowledged.

“You’re worth more than all the money in the world to me, Marla. And I don’t want to hear another word about what I do for you. It could never make up for all you mean to me.” She joined the crying woman with her own tears. “Use the gift, it will make me happy.” She wiped away the tears from the older woman’s cheeks, turned and dashed down the steps to the waiting taxi. Although, there were two vehicles parked in the downstairs garage, she did not want to be bothered with traffic today.

*****


Joanna grinned like a Cheshire cat, and flung herself into the arms of her college friend. They hugged each other and caught up on family as they walked to Joanna’s spacious dressing room.

“Julia Bagwell, I am so happy that contract for the two road show musicals has finally come to a close. Now you can stop traipsing all around the country. I think you will enjoy the staff I have already chosen. The people I have been working with for a couple of months now, and a couple longer than that, have been extremely beneficial to me.” She blurted out as she took Julia’s raincoat and hung it on a hanger in her coat rack in the corner of her dressing room.

“Joanna, Darling, you don’t know how good it is to get off the road and back into the loft with Gordon. He thought I would never be home more than three nights for the rest of my life,” she laughed at her husband’s discomfort at their separations due to her work.

“I can imagine. I’m fortunate that Raven and I have worked it out so we are not away from each other more than three or four days at a time.”

“That’s wonderful, Joanna. When am I going to get to meet this elusive, mysterious woman you have told me so much about?

“Tonight. She is coming to the Performance Starting Party.”

“Good. She must be something, you have sounded so happy these past few weeks on the phone.”

“She is something all right… just wait!” The green eyes sparkled as she spoke of the blue-eyed woman.

“Gordon is coming with you?”

Absolutely, we have had such a rewarding time together these past two weeks with me home. But, at least, with me now being positioned here, for ‘hopefully’ several years with this production, maybe we can think about having a baby.” She expounded hopefully.

“That’s wonderful, Julia. The attorneys said your contract is all in order and has been signed properly. So, how about me introducing those already on staff, and you can take over and hire the remainder of the production crews needed?”

“Lead the way, cohort.” Julia exclaimed, as she picked up and raised her clipboard and pad, then opened the door and bowed for Joanna to exit.

“Brat!” the honey blonde mused, as she pushed her long- time friend through the open door laughing.

“I’ve gone over the script, and the music, but I’m sure you will need to give me insight as to the lighting you think you will need.” She exclaimed, as she picked up and raised her clipboard, and started making notes.

“Right. Lighting will be critical for most of the scenes, especially when the full chorus is on stage.” She pointed to the overhead racks of lighting equipment already in place.

“That up there isn’t going to work in this production. It will have to be further back and to the side.”

Julia made more notes on her clipboard as she followed Joanna onto center stage.

“You may have to arrange for extra personnel for the heavy drops, Julia. Those columns and the throne sets are extra heavy.”

“We might need to consider the new soundless hydraulic lifts we used on the road.” The new co-producer interjected.

“Great idea. You also need to call an agency, and select an administrative assistant and a coordination executive to work with you. I don’t want Gordon to come down here with a baseball bat for keeping you away from home twenty hours a day. An executive producer will be a necessity, also. ” She grinned.

Julia chuckled at the suggestion of a baseball bat, “I beat you to the suggestion; called two agencies and will start interviews at nine a.m. sharp in the morning.”

“I knew you were the right woman for this job.” She laughed again. “Isn’t it divine order when you think about it, Julia, how you went into the management/administrative side of theater, and always wanted to work behind the scenes? Whereas I, on the other hand, want it Allllll?!? The honey-blonde accented her desire to be involved with every aspect of theater, production and performing.

“Well honey-child, some of us have a little more sense than others, and some are just natural gluttons for punishment from the time they were born,” the taller blonde faked her southern drawl, and squinted up her nose at Joanna.

“You nut!” she joked, as she placed her arm around her friend. “Come on, I want to introduce you to some of the staff that are already on board.” She emphasized the downstairs work area with her hand. “By the way, our Accounting Firm does need you to fill out paperwork. I called earlier; our Accountant will be here the rest of this week and the next to complete everything required on everyone hired.” They continued down the hallway, their arms still in place around each other’s shoulders.

“I was most fortunate to get Lee Sampo for the choreographer,” before she could continue, Julia interjected.

“Hot damn! How did you manage Lee; he is the hottest thing going?”

“I have been after him for five solid years. Actually, this production and schedule fits right in with his. He just completed “Nightly People” in London two weeks ago. He started his auditioning of dancers yesterday afternoon. He has another audition this morning and again this afternoon. He will be selecting and working with his final cuts the first of the week.”

“Girlfriend, you have been busy,” she flipped Joanna’s French braid as she followed her down the workshop stairs.

“For the last five years, it has taken up every available moment of my time, even when I went on vacations.” Joanna stated as they reached the bottom of the stairwell. “

We have Nancy Kubeck as Wardrobe Mistress; Gloria DeLando as Costume Designer; Mel Long as Production Designer; Thomas Quinn as Chief Hair Dresser…”

“Wait! Did you say, MEL LONG? As in Melissa Ann Albright Long? Joanna, tell me it isn’t that Mel Long.” Julia had interrupted Joanna’s staff list.

The young actress turned and inquisitively glared at her. “Yes, I said Mel Long, and yes, it is Melissa Albright Long. Why? Is there a problem?” her face deep in questioning anxiousness.

“Joanna, Mel Long is not one you want involved with your production. Her somewhat, shall we say, tainted reputation is well known for being… Well, her agenda is definitely not the same agenda as yours.” She stammered.

“What are you talking about?” Joanna asked defensively, convinced there was something a bit strange concerning her long time friend’s accusations.

Julia looked around to check out who was within hearing distance, and seeing two men hammering on a partition, she pulled Joanna into a storage closet beside the stairwell.

“Joanna, Mel Long is known for her treachery, her throat-cutting, and her troublemaking. Her agenda will always be one of her personal design, regardless of what she had to do to accomplish it. Never caring who or how many she has to trample on, deceive, or plot against to be seen in the light as ‘the innocent one’. She is full of deceitfulness, disloyalty, falseness, and fraudulence and is well known for plagiarizing some of her ideas,” there was a sharp note in Julia’s voice.

Silence followed. Joanna looked into her friend’s troubled brown eyes and was stunned at the destructive and hurtful words coming from her mouth. It was though she had been caught in some grave indiscretion.

“Julia, where did you come up with this…these insinuations, this finger pointing? This just isn’t like you.” The look they exchanged was meaningful; another silence followed.

“Joanna, the woman is notorious for calamity, she revels in playing the injured party; that everyone is plotting against her, making allegations against her to make her look like she is underhanded and attempting to destroy, not only friendships, but relationships and marriages as well. The truth is, she is so clever at her deceptions, you would rather give up a hand, or even someone you love, rather than believe this seemingly giving and caring woman would do harm to a living soul. She’s cunning and vicious, Joanna.” Julia could tell that her honesty had startled her long time friend.

More silence.

Joanna’s heart pounded, and she instinctively stepped deeper inside her own personal allegiance to the friendship and trust she had built and accepted from Mel.

“Cut the bullshit and answer me one straight question, Julia. Can you state one particular and specific incident you can prove against Mel? I think this is extremely important that I clear this up, not only for myself, but also for you and Mel as well. I don’t believe, nor will I tolerate injustice, especially when it comes to someone’s character, or character assignation. If these claims aren’t true, then I want this to stop immediately. If they are, then I have had the wool pulled over my eyes by someone I trust and am being made a bloody fool of, and I can’t and won’t accept that, either. BUT, we are not talking about a swine farmer here. We are talking about someone I have complete faith in. So, until there is proof… specific evidence of wrong doing, I trust Mel completely.”

Julia did not regret what she relayed to Joanna. However, how was she to relay one concrete and definite situation to support her claim without bringing up one that would hurt Joanna? Should she tell her about her sham marriage, and what part she had in breaking up someone else’s so she could have the woman’s husband? Neither could she state the half dozen other cases she knew to be true, because then others would also be confronted and have Mel’s long list of deeds come forth and that would probably be something that Joanna could not, and should not, have to handle at this vulnerable time in her life. Her personal knowledge of plagiarized designs was settled out of court, and two other lives were wrecked professionally and personally because of Mel’s actions and lies which could be easily authenticated. Her use of friendships was even easier to corroborate, but again, how many people must be hurt because of this one woman? But the most hurtful and one that Joanna would be most wounded by: specifically, that Marjorie had been sleeping with Mel Long after she and Joanna had become an item, and that Mel knew for weeks that Marjorie was involved with Joanna. She could not relay that Mel had made the comments to members of the theater community that Joanna or Marjorie, or both, would pay for their infidelity…that, also, could be easily verified. It was obvious that Long had worked her magic once more, and that Joanna had been completely taken in by this devious woman.

Joanna had just entered a relationship that seemed to have all ingredients made for a lifetime commitment. At least, she had briefed her friend, now she would have to decide if she wanted to do anything about it or not.

The silence continued.

Joanna shoved the misery-making images aside in favor of more comfortable ones. ‘Mel deserves my support and complete faith; she also deserves my loyalty until proven otherwise,’ she thought.

“Julia, you and I have been friends for what, ten-twelve years now. We have been through some very difficult and trying times, in high school, and through the University, and later, even in our personal lives. I was ecstatic about you and me entering the entertainment field together.” She forced herself to cling to something positive. “Your friendship means the world to me, as you well know. I don’t take friendships or someone’s feelings for granted. I have never known you to backstab anyone or say one harmful word against anyone, for any reason...ever. I trust you implicitly, Julia.” Joanna was uninterested in responding to the unanswered glance from her friend.

How could that scheming bitch get so close to Joanna, Julia pondered.

“Mel has gone the extra mile for me. She has designed and redesigned the production sets over twenty times the last two years. Including making trips to Canada on her own time, to talk through each stage of the designs. She quizzed me about every detail, so that she would only design the exact features of what I have imagined. She is thoughtful, has never said a discouraging word toward or against anyone in my presence.” Joanna went on to praise the woman, whose character and motives had been attacked. “Her loyalty is indisputable, and she has shown, time after time, that she has only my best interest foremost in her mind at all times. Even, sometimes, when others have attempted or thrown up roadblocks towards the friendship we have developed. And it is a deep, mutually respectable friendship, Julia. We have an excellent working relationship, one built on mutual respect, loyalty and admiration. She attempts to help everyone we have come into contact with, dealing with this production. In my eyes, her character is irrefutable, and undeniable, without blemish or tarnish until she, herself, proves otherwise.” Joanna stared at her friend with bewildered eyes.

“On a personal basis, Julia, I truly like her, and enjoy being with her. She makes me laugh and is a very funny individual. Like you and me, Julia, Mel is someone I can relate to, as we have so many things in common.” She stood with her hands hanging loosely close to her side. “I will not listen to anyone, including you, my dear friend, downing, or degrading her without explicit proof.” Her shoulders slumped slightly, not anticipating this unexpected implication from Julia.

“Show me the evidence, or inform me of incontestable behavior and I will listen to you, and take necessary action. But, until there is such evidence, I am going to continue my relationship with Mel.” Joanna stated emphatically.

She has been completely hoodwinked by the woman, Julia thought as she stood in front of Joanna.

“She has been working directly with me, Julia, and I intend to continue that arrangement. If you can’t handle that, then we will need to limit your authority over the production crew.”

Another silence, then Julia looked her directly in the eyes. “I don’t care if you are comfortable with what I have said or not. It’s the truth. To continue this further will only hurt you. I never meant to hurt you, Joanna, and I will not hurt you further today. You are in a very vulnerable circle, and I caution you to be careful, especially of your relationship with Raven. Do you understand my concerns and what I am saying?”

No reply.

“You do understand that, don’t you?” she repeated to Joanna, typically commanding a verbal response from her.

“I thought I did.” She drew her smooth knuckles across her bottom lip, causing shivers of disbelief to ripple through her that someone she called a long time friend had made claims against someone she trusted, without giving her definite evidence or proof of any kind.

“I can deal with it if you can. Just keep that woman away from me, and especially my husband. And if you have any sense, you won’t let her get her clutches into Raven.”

“I appreciate your candor, and I’ll deal with Mel, personally, so you don’t have to be around her very much.” Green and brown gazes mingled hesitantly.

Joanna tried to wrap her mind around the undeniable realization that she was going to have some stress factors to deal with, especially if Julia voiced her allegations openly with other staff or crewmembers.

“I don’t want to discuss this anymore. Come on, Julia, let me introduce you to everyone.” Her eyes blinked rapidly. She placed her arm on Julia’s shoulder, and Julia extended the gesture, and they embraced and held each other for several minutes.

“I’m ready now, Joanna. Please, let us get on with the introductions. Go on, lead the way.”

*****


Joanna had strolled around the stage area, hand in hand with Raven, and introduced her to everyone. The party was going well, everyone was having a good time. Old acquaintances were renewed, and new ones formed.

Raven was standing talking to Nancy, the Wardrobe Mistress, her husband, Marla, who stood with her arm interlaced with Raven’s, and Lee Sampo, on whom she had done a photo spread two years previously. In a side exchange, Lee had taught Raven to do several dances, including the Rumba and Tango. Frank, Nancy’s husband, relayed a humorous story and the group laughed quite loudly. Everyone was chatting and laughing so the boisterous sound blended in well.

The tall woman observed, that each time Joanna left her side and mingled, her Production Designer gravitated to be in the same area, or actually beside her. At every available opportunity, the dark-haired woman would discreetly place, or lay, her hand on Joanna for some reason. The photographer’s eyes narrowed in concern. This woman obviously had an agenda of her own and Joanna was clearly not cognizant of her Production Designer’s program.

Joanna excused herself and conversed with the musicians for several minutes, handing out some sheet music she brought from her dressing room. Mel attempted a conversation with Julia, but walked away almost immediately. She spotted Raven observing her, and felt a small victory at being with Joanna so much this evening. As she approached the taller woman, her eyes twinkled with triumph. Another coup d’état in the works, she felt she would attempt a little seduction on the tall photographer.

“Hi, how are you doing? Can I get you anything?” Long batted her eyelashes innocently as she offered a sly grin to Raven.

“No, thanks. I have every thing I need, Ms. Long. Everything!”

Marla tugged on the arm she was entwined around, “Raven, I do believe Joanna is attempting to attract your attention,” she nodded in direction of the piano.

The midnight blues immediately sought out those of her love. Once connected, Joanna motioned for the tall woman to join her.

Raven smiled, and nodded she saw and accepted the invitation. “Please excuse me, everyone, I believe I have been beckoned,” she raised Marla’s hand and kissed the back of the wrinkled appendage, smiled, turned and walked towards Joanna.

The smaller woman acknowledged her presence with a tight embrace. She tiptoed and whispered gently into Raven’s ear, who immediately blushed and move her head up and down in agreement with the shorter woman’s suggestion.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if I may have your attention for a few minutes. I have already thanked all of you for all your outstanding work on this production, and have honored the additional friends and colleagues in attendance. Further, we have had some of the most outstanding entertainment tonight that I have ever heard.” She turned and clapped appreciation for the band seated behind her. Raven and the balance of the party joined her with their approval as well.

After the long applause, she turned back to the majority of the crowd, and continued her address to them. “All of you have met my lifemate, Raven, and tonight, I want to do a special song for all of you and dedicate it specifically to her. It’s called ‘Thoughts’. She sat down at the piano, and motioned for the tall woman to join her. The band started, then Joanna looked directly into the eyes gently looking down into hers, and she sang:

A breeze blows past, the night is old

The feelings worth my weight in gold

The waters smooth, the moon is bright

So many thoughts I think this night

Life itself, an ancient state

Cannot be pondered one night so late

A heart will search for love until

Eternity pasts and the earth stands still

The yearning conquers my thoughts so deep

It lurks in shadows, disturbs my sleep

My pulse will race, my heart it pounds

The ocean has a love song sound

I feel her presence, though she’s not near

Her well runs deep, her warmth’s sincere

I see her eyes, so sure like mine

Like diamonds glitter her beauty shines

I crave her touch, so soft and sure

A tiger can be made to purr

Lust, no way, does it compare

To ecstasy or a moment shared

A moment when two lovers merge

To spend their love

Everyone was silent for a moment, and then the applause began. Raven leaned down and their lips touched. She embraced the golden haired-woman and raised a hand to wipe the tears from her eyes. Joanna, snuggled closer to her on the piano bench, and kissed her gently once again.

Mel was standing off to the side as Joanna completed the melody she sang to Raven. She did not clap as the others did. She stood motionless near the curtain, watching Joanna and Raven kiss after the completion of the song…. Watching with and wondering what it would be like to be kissed gently like that, and with such affection …Wondering what it would be like to be kissed by the actress. Be patient…I must be patient. I’ll have those lips soon enough, she thought, then shifted her body, and caught Gordon’s brown eyes glaring at her, almost as if he could see the invisible burden she was carrying. Time to mingle again. Gordon needs just a little more nudging, I believe. Perhaps a few well placed hints of what he could have, she discreetly, but purposely sashayed around the outside circle that had enveloped Joanna and Raven, and deliberately pressed her body into Gordon’s side.

“You don’t look as if you are happy about that touching display a moment ago?” He uttered almost inaudibly; only Mel’s ears heard the comment.

Abruptly her thinly veiled patience ended. “What kind of fool do you take me for? She pays my salary.” Her selected, chipped words cutting like the slice of a sharp knife. Her hatred was growing by leaps and bounds, but her gaze never left Gordon’s.

Wordlessly, the burly hand of the man she was standing beside discreetly reached behind her and rubbed her buttocks. Mel pressed back into his hand. He closed his eyes and moaned.

“Not here, you dope, and keep it down. We both have too much to lose.” She reached into her pant’s pocket, fingered one of her business cards, and slipped it into his jacket pocket. “Call me if you dare!” She uttered quietly, and walked away.

*****


“Your party was a great success, sweet child,” Marla stated upon entering the house, followed by Joanna, then Raven.

“I concur, wholeheartedly,” the taller woman kissed the honey-blonde head.

“Thanks, you two. I had the feeling everyone had a great time. “ She stretched and yawned. “I don’t know about you two, but I am beat. It’s upstairs and bed for me.” She kissed Marla’s cheek and turned to Raven, who took her hand.

“I’m coming up with you, Sweetheart, I’m beat, too.” She kissed Marla’s forehead as she muttered goodnight to the older woman.

“See you two in the morning, sleep well.”

“Goodnight, Marla,” they two women said in unison, and climbed the stairs.

Upon leaving the bathroom, where she had removed her make-up, she glanced over at Raven, staring out the window, deep in thought. The tall woman had changed her clothes, and had on a Jaguar football team-sleeping shirt.

She sat on the end of the bed, watching the older woman, who hadn’t noticed her entering the room. That was another first, as Raven somehow sensed when Joanna was any place closer to her vicinity, and the same with Joanna.

She waited until she was thoroughly settled in the dark woman’s arms before she spoke.

“Something bothering you, Darling?”

Raven tightened her hold on the smaller woman in her arms and exhaled slowly. “Honey, I don’t want to upset you, or cause any friction, but I must speak my mind on something that is troubling me.”

Joanna heard the rasping sound and tone coming from Raven, and it hit the pit of her stomach like a piece of lead. She knew she wasn’t going to like or enjoy what her partner was about to say. She took Raven’s hand and pulled her to the end of the bed. “Okay, Darling, tell me,” she asked, almost in a whisper.

“I don’t know where to start, and I don’t want to alarm you, Joanna.” Her voice rang oddly hollow and fractured as it landed upon Joanna’s hearing. “Just tell me, Raven!” She shuddered.

“Joanna, several times tonight, I saw Mel touching you on various places of your body. It was inconspicuously done and most inappropriate as far as I’m concerned. It was quite obvious to me, she made herself be in your proximity any time you weren’t with me, and, as often as possible, when you were.” She placed her arm around Joanna’s shoulders.

“Honey, I know you have complete confidence in Long, and a deep friendship, as well. I don’t want to shatter or attempt to cast shadows on that friendship in anyway, but I have to tell you: Mel Long’s agenda is not the same as yours. Her motives are not open or honorable.” She spoke honestly, from a sense keen of knowing.

“Have you discussed Mel with Julia?” Joanna asked, blinking rapidly.

“No, Joanna, I haven’t had any type of communication with Julia about Long. I just met both of them tonight. Why would I be talking about Long with Julia?” The dark woman replied quietly, cocking her head.

Joanna placed both feet level with the floor, but it didn’t help the spinning sensation in her head. “Wait, I don’t understand what you’re saying, Raven, or why you’re saying it. I know you’re not jealous, are you?”

A loud voice migrated into her consciousness halted Joanna’s silent castigation.

“Hell, no, I’m not jealous of that woman, nor anyone else as far as you’re concerned. I don’t want you blind-sided by her. That’s all.” Joanna held her temples where pain now pounded and braced her elbows on her knees to support her head. “You’re the second person today, to tell me Mel’s agenda was not in my best interest. Do you have anything more than your personal feeling about Mel?” she commanded when Raven opened her mouth to speak. “Raven, don’t say anything mean or hateful, please.”

“Okay, Joanna, but I don’t want her pawing you. It isn’t right!” “Shish, Darling, she wasn’t pawing me, for crisssakes.” Massaging her temples, she went over Raven’s limited accusations. Since thought didn’t clarify anything, she tried doing it out loud. “Since you aren’t willing to tell me what, exactly, or why, you are on Mel’s case, except for your feelings, which I do respect, tell me what you expect from me? Because I’m tired of people telling me innuendoes and speculations against Mel, without something tangible, something solid for me to go on,” she said, utterly weary with apprehension.

“Her slight seduction attempts should be stopped by you, Joanna, before they get out of hand. Be cognizant of her innocently finding reasons for placing her hands on you, or touching you for whatever reason. And, lastly, be aware of what I told you, her agenda isn’t on the same page as yours.” Raven asserted vehemently.

“Is that all? And what if I DON”T agree with you, Raven?”

“I bow to your judgment. But be warned, Sweetheart, the next time I find her hands on you, no matter how innocently, I’ll break that particular part of her, and I think she’ll get the message.”

Joanna tried not to be so foolish as to think she meant it. It was just the way she sounded, so honestly sincere.

“Raven, that sounded a little like jealousy, but more like a threat.” She gazed into the blue eyes that had suddenly turned cold.

“She’s vermin, Joanna. Hell, she even attempted seducing me three times tonight, and once in front of Marla.”

“What?” Joanna jumped up off the bed, and then sat back down beside Raven. “Well, you have to give her credit, she picked one hell-of-a beautiful woman to make passes at. I can’t fault her for trying,” she finally smiled, and pulled Raven into her arms for a tension-breaking kiss.

“Darling, I promise I will watch out for the actions you have pointed out. Nothing is going to happen between Mel and me. We have a good working relationship, and we are becoming good friends. But, my dark-haired beauty, my heart has already been captured. It’s yours, completely.” She said, and her lips were met with the full ones of her lover.

Several kisses later, Joanna moaned, “Let’s go to bed, Darling, and I’ll show you exactly who has my affection.”

Raven only grunted, and gently pushed the smaller woman back on the bed, not breaking her hold, or the kiss.

*****


Chapter 12

She sat on one of the wood pilings. Ankle-deep in the ocean, she shifted until she was looking back at the shack on the old pier. The old shack was hers by a previous conquest, a former lover. Gordon wasn’t there. She waited, giving him time, but still he didn’t come. He had ignored her latest bait. He hadn’t come as expected. Coward! She shrieked silently, pushing off from the piling and starting across the rocky beach.

Mel called him an assortment of other names, and then turned many of the same ones on herself. Fuming, she made her way toward an outcropping of rocks, which she proceeded to scale in a way that would have been reckless had her anger not endowed her with greater than normal strength and agility.

That strength was spent, though, by the time she had reached a small hollow in the rocks cushioned with beach grass. She had gone there often, both as a child and an adult. Shielded on both sides by boulders, it was a throne from which she could survey her domain, plan her vile plots, and, when they failed, her throne provided a safe haven to express her sorrow, her undeserving betrayals.

But at the moment she wasn’t feeling particularly regal, or powerful. She was feeling rather foolish, a mite embarrassed, and very, very frustrated. It occurred to her that the only person she had set a fire under was herself, and it wasn’t simply one of anger. Each time she had skillfully touched Joanna yesterday, while showing her the intricate mock-up details of the different scenery, she had been excited.

Since the party two weeks ago, she knew she had to do something about Joanna’s relationship with Raven, and break up the longtime friendship of her co-producer, or at least casting doubts on Julia’s loyalty to Joanna. She seemed to trust her judgment in production too much, and had overridden some of Mel’s recent suggestions. When she had boldly studied Joanna’s body, her own had stirred in response. And earlier today, backstage, giving Joanna what she had considered to be an irresistible show of loyalty and only wanting the best for the sets, had only heightened the eroticism in her own mind. If she had the strength or good sense, she mused, she’d climb right back down and take a swim in the ocean. The water was cold; it was always cold. Somehow, though, she knew that it wouldn’t help her. The problem was every bit as much in her mind as her body.

She was staring out to sea, feeling extremely sorry for herself, when Gordon’s thundering voice split the afternoon air high above her.

“What the hell are you doing up here?” She whirled around to see him towering atop the boulder. “You could have killed yourself climbing up this seawall!”

“I’ve done it before,” she said curtly. Self-pity was forgotten, replaced by defiance. “You know nothing about me, Gordon, I have been coming here for years. It’s my little hiding place. You’re fortunate I was willing to share one of my secrets with you. I was six years old when I found this place. I couldn’t make it up here then, but I remembered just where it was and have been coming here since I was eight. You’re noted for being a man who likes a little adventure, Gordon, one who goes after what he wants. Or are you a pussy with no courage?” The last was offered pointedly. Melissa lay down on the boulder.

Gordon stood thinking of her obvious offer; he sat down hard on the edge of the boulder, gave a quick shove off and jumped. It was ten feet worth of jump.

“Damn, that wasted a perfectly good pair of trousers!” He exclaimed, as he slipped and his backside landed in a small pool of water in one of the rock crevices.

Melissa rose to her knees in alarm. “My God, Gordon, look who’s talking! That was stupid! Self-destructive from the word go! There is another way up here, not so hazardous.”

“And if it was?” He brushed off his hands and the back of his trousers as he came to his feet. His eyes warmed on her. “You’ve been playing a game, Melissa, and I don’t like it.”

“What game?” she asked, wanting to be as perverse as he was.

“Oh, come on, Melissa. We both know what you’ve been doing.”

“Well, that’s a relief. I was beginning to think you were deaf, dumb, blind and sexless.”

“I am not sexless.”

Without guile or the slightest hint of humor, she dropped her gaze to the front of his expensive trousers. “It’s obvious that you’ve got the goods. Whether they work is something else.” She shrugged her shoulders, and looked back out to sea.

“You know they work. You just experienced it, yesterday.”

“How would I know it’s still working?” she yelled. “You’ve never given ME a demonstration until last week, and those were feeble to what I have had. How in the hell do I know it is working today?”

“Is that what you want?” he snarled. Before she knew what he intended, he dropped into a crouch directly before her and took her chin in his palm. Between his thumb and the rest of his fingers, her jaw was immobilized. “You’ve been taunting me. Little touches here, little looks there, from the night of Joanna’s performance starting party. You’ve been doing it on purpose, Melissa, and it’s spiteful and cruel!”

“You don’t know what cruel is,” she managed to grit out between her teeth.

“And you do? What an incorrigible you are, Melissa. What a sweet, sweet incorrigible. But I damn sure like it.” And with that lie, moved closer to her, catching her chin in his large, strong hand, he took her mouth, bent on destroying her teasing attitude, once and for all.

His mouth was warm and silky smooth on her lips, and she couldn’t help but respond. His seduction was gentle, teasing, his teeth softly nipping at her full lips, his tongue searching for every sweet drop of honey she might harbor. She sighed as she turned toward him like a flower to the sun. He was right, damn him. She always had liked the feel of a man sucking on her face, planting his shaft deep into her. Once, she had thought she couldn’t live without it. But she had cured herself of that addiction. Was she going to have to go through that all over again? Not likely…not with a woman like Joanna just waiting to be conquered.

“Whatever else you may have thought of me, Gordon, you know you not only like this, but want it, too.”

“Oh, Mel,” he breathed against her swollen lips. “Let us go back to the shack, and the cot.” He hopped up and pulled her with him. They made their way down the safer side of the boulders and down the pier to the shack.

The next hour was a hot frenzy with two sweaty bodies doused in the oldest pleasure known to man. Finally spent, they lay side by side on the narrow cot.

“You get better every time I have you, Mel,” he offered, as he unfolded his long body from her. “Why didn’t you meet me at your apartment, like the first few times. Yesterday, and today, on this cot, is not the best place on earth to do my best, you know what I mean?” He elicited a ragged breath, his eyes meeting the dark ones flaring coldly back at him.

“Why didn’t you have a little more faith in my discretion? I sure as hell don’t intend for Julia to find out. You damn well shouldn’t want her to, either. Your ass would be grass in the production… but you knew that already, you loose piece of …” He rose beside her, looking down into her face with haunted eyes. “I can’t believe you didn’t want more than this from me. Tell me that you did?”

She gazed at him, bewildered. Of course she had wanted more than his manhood. He knew that, he had to. Why did he pretend to have doubts? He was part of her plan, well--he didn’t know that and never would.

“Never mind.” He turned over roughly, standing up and replaced his clothes on his sweaty body. He opened the door, bent down to talk to her through the low doorway, “I’ll see you tomorrow night, Melissa. I’ll take you to dinner at the place of your choosing.” With a slam of the door that rang in her ears, he was striding toward the little, expensive luxury car parked at one of the spaces opposite the private pier.

She stared after Gordon in silence. He was part of the strategy, just a small part. How fortunate to have been able to have enticed him so easily that night at the party. But he had offered little resistance to her devious charm. Not many had survived that gift. She sneered at just how many others.

She closed her eyes and one particular memory came to mind.

Mel looked up occasionally to find Marjorie’s eyes on her, and often she was startled by the intensity of her stare, sometimes she was chilled by the look she saw in her eyes. But whenever she came close, her manner was all she could wish for.

“Do you remember,” she said once, when she had taken a shower with her, and they were lying nude on the rug on Mel’s living room floor, “that time you had car trouble just beyond that curve, out close to the pier?”

She refused to meet her eyes, embarrassed to recall her obvious ploy, but a smile fluttered on her lips

Her fingers curled around her upper arm, stroking a tantalizing message.

“I knew, then, that I had to have you at all costs,” Margie growled so near her ear that she could feel her warn breath stir the hair that hung there. “You were so hot looking, so inaccessible, I just had to have you.” She glanced up and caught the-odd look in Mel’s eyes again. “But, even now, I don’t have all of you,” she said in a voice bemused. “When do I get it all, Melissa?”

Mel stared at Marjorie. What on earth was she talking about? She’d given her everything a woman could. She’d given her body. She couldn’t imagine what she meant.

The moon was hanging low in the evening sky when the work slowed, and Mel had completed another set design and started home to wait for Marjorie. She was floating ‘on a cloud of success’. She’d made it. She’d fought off failure, turned down designs, come back with something a little more this… or a little more that, until, through her own mental variation, she had turned the game on them, and had succeeded in the points that mattered to her. She’d weathered the thunderstorms, the being set aside by less talented designers than she was. From now on, she set the rules. She decided how the games should be played, and who would play them with her. Anyone who didn’t stay in the confines of the rules she had established for them… well, they paid… sometimes they would even pay the ultimate price.

Margie had all of me she was going to have. She has not played the game according to my set of rules, she thought. She had followed Marjorie on several occasions, and she knew about one particular honey-blonde she was favoring over her, and several others. Yet, she had been staying pretty regularly with her for several months now, shared her food, used her apartment, shared her bed, and her body.

“Why should I give you anymore than I have? Are you giving me all of yourself, Margie, or am I being used, and given tidbits. Just your spirited past-time?”

“I told you, Mel, I don’t mix my professional life with my sex life, unless it’s beneficial to me. What’s it to you anyways? It’s my life, and I can do without your interference! I never promised you forever, not even faithfulness. It is what it is, nothing more.” The younger woman pushed herself up off the rug. “I have a long day tomorrow, I’m going to bed. You coming?” She waited briefly, “Suit yourself,” she turned and went into the bedroom.

From the living room floor of her second and third story apartment, located over a woman’s dress shop on West Sixty-Third Street, Mel watched ‘The Crisis Negotiator’ and tried to sort out her feelings for the woman who was presently asleep in the next room. Marjorie Bauer had come into her life and thrown a rock into the still pond of her existence. The chains that had bound her emotions for so long had begun to fall away. The force that had constrained her soul seemed to vanish into thin air. Was this love? Could this be love? Would she ever find out? She hadn’t, so far in her almost thirty-four years of life. What could possibly change enough for love to come into her life? It was lust, the need to possess and control. She didn’t want it any other way, and anyone who didn’t fall in line… Well... They paid. They paid dearly.

Don’t care for her too much, she cautioned herself. You’ll only get hurt.

Marjorie had told her she had found an apartment she liked and was about to sign a lease. Should she attempt to halt her from moving out? Would it even be within her power to make her happy? Could she make her see how much she needed her? Fucking liar. She knew there was no lease. Margie had been slipping around and had been seeing Joanna Stern, the woman she was now watching on television. She had followed her a dozen times, and she knew. She even knew where the actress lived and had even been inside the townhouse once.

She was well aware she was older than Marjorie, and married. But the five-year marriage had been for show. Edward wanted the marriage after she had ruined his relationship with Allison. The affair had turned uninteresting and was no longer a challenge. The union hadn’t been worth it to her, most people had come to the conclusion that it was a sham. Edward lived in the fourth story of the building. A locked stairwell door separated the apartment so Mel could entertain, have her flings, and Edward respected her privacy. It was the name of marriage he wanted, nothing more, not now anyway.

Mel didn’t like for others to end relationships with her. No, she didn’t tolerate anyone breaking up with her. That was her exclusive right, and anyone who messed with her life to--what she considered hers--PAID. Mel was the master of retaliation and revenge.

You have to do it.... You know you have to try and convince her not to go. What would keep her interested in someone less attractive than her, someone not a public figure--not a television star? What could Margie be offered to stop sleeping around?’ She got up from the floor, slipped her robe back on, picked up the remote and cut off her competition. She was hungry. There was a half chicken still in the refrigerator. Perhaps, concentrating on solutions would be easier with something in her stomach. She picked up the knife she had taken from the Red Velvet Cafe and began methodically slicing spidery, thin crimson lines along the side of the chicken. She sliced harder, and harder. The plate broke. She stopped.

You have to be punished. . . you have to feel the pain. She was lashed to the wheel of fire; there was nothing she could do about it-nothing at all. There was nothing she could do to stop the dull, barren feeling that had settled over her like a colorless, cobweb-covered shroud.

Years of unfulfilled conquests, a loveless marriage of convenience, betrayals, and not reaching the top of her profession, not being sought after by the leading production companies for her designs, resulted in a very unhappy, troubled woman. It had become a way of life for her, and she didn’t care who she hurt, what friendship, relationship or marriage she broke up. Conquer them, use them, and toss them away when she was finished with them, had become her trademark. She had become a genius at using one or the other of the involved parties to further her career. Everything was about her!

But, the question tonight, was she willing to give up the relationship with Margie? Was she too old to keep up with her, to satisfy the woman ten years her junior? Was she finished with the Personal Manager? Maybe she would try once more. She’d sleep on it… Tomorrow was another day.

The next morning, she heard Margie talking low on the phone in the kitchen. If Mel had picked up the bedroom extension, she would have heard her unfaithful lover talking to one Joanna Stern. She was sure she had heard her say she would meet her, but couldn’t hear the time or the place.

She finished her temporary designing job for a daytime television show, and scurried to Manhattan. Mel found herself atJoanna Stern’s brownstone townhouse. She smiled as she remembered the one time she had been inside, with Pat Noelle, attending one of the Performing Arts’ notorious charity bazaars. Never in her life had she seen so much of everything: food, drink, celebrities, egos; ladies of distinguished age wearing extremely valuable jewelry; swaggering executives of the entertainment industry; financiers from every banking institution in the state; and to round out the attendance, there were noted political figures and representatives of the diplomatic corps. Joanna was an excellent hostess, but Mel was sure she hadn’t made an impression on her, and Joanna had not mentioned the bazaar or her attendance in the two years she had been working on the musical with her.

She stood in a doorway down the street for a long time thinking about Marjorie. She had decided to talk out her feelings, but was now having second thoughts. She just wasn’t into this romance game. It was getting late and her stomach was beginning to growl. She turned and started to move on. Then she saw Margie coming down the block. She was about to call out to her, but froze in silence when she stopped in front of the five-story brownstone, opened the wrought iron gate, and walked up into the entry alcove.

The street went momentarily still. There was no traffic in sight, and not a pedestrian coming from either direction. It was as if time had stopped. Melissa was almost breathless as she watched Marjorie press the bell. In a moment, Joanna Stern opened the door. The actress locked green eyes with Margie’s brown ones, smiled, pulled the taller woman to her, embraced her passionately, then led her inside, closing the door behind her.

Melissa went home and made herself a cup of tea, added a shot of bourbon, pondering what she would say to Margie when she saw her again.

Marjorie didn’t come home that night.

Marjorie moved out the next day.

Closing her eyes, she leaned her head back on a tiny pillow, on the cot in the old shack …Damn, seduction is so sweet. Hell, women and men are both so easy. Second step of my plan is in place. How will Joanna handle trouble in her home camp? Her co-producer will complain about me, I’ll deny it, and say I’m being stalked by her husband, and he won’t leave me alone. Joanna will believe me above any of those blubbering idiots. Now for the third phase of my plan, dissension at home. The caramel-skinned woman laughed another wicked snort. Who needed a real relationship?

She too, had found her length of joy. And it was so sweet.

*****


Joanna opened the door, and stepped aside for Raven, who had a carry-on in each hand and her camera bag over her shoulder. Joanna had left two full pieces of luggage in Manhattan so she wouldn’t have to take as much luggage the next few trips back to New York. Joanna set the overnight case and both handbags on the kitchen counter.

“Phew! I don’t know about you, Darling, but I am exhausted. Working all day and catching that last flight out of NY back to Jacksonville is not something I want to do on a regular basis,” the honey-blonde sank onto the couch. “I’m for taking the early morning flight from now on, how about you?”

“I’ll go for that, Sweetheart. Our schedules need to be just a bit more convenient for us, or we will be two worn out travelers in less than a month.” she agreed, as she set the carry-ons down. She removed the camera bag from her shoulder, and went down the hall to her darkroom. A minute later, she returned, carried the luggage to their bedroom, and set them down against the wall…. No unpacking tonight.

Upon returning to the living room, she asked Joanna if she wanted something to drink and the young woman shook her head negatively. Raven thought about it for a second, and shook her head. “Don’t think I do, either,” she murmured, and went and sat down next to her lover.

Joanna kicked off her loafers, snuggled closer to her, and pulled her feet up beside her on the sofa. “Honey, what would you say if we slept late, then tomorrow afternoon went for a cruise? No specific sailing destination, just a picnic lunch and us anchored someplace for a few hours… Just the two of us?”

Raven bent down and gently kissed her forehead. “I think that is a wonderful idea. I don’t know about you, Sweetheart, but I’m going to bed. I’m exhausted.” With that, she arose slowly and offered her hand to Joanna.

“I don’t even think I’ll shower tonight,” the young blonde mumbled sleepily, as she accepted Raven’s hand.

“Me, neither.”

They walked down the hall arm in arm. Both stripped off their clothes, and climbed into bed. They snuggled, kissed, and before the kiss was cold on their lips, they were both in dreamland.

*****


The sun was almost overhead when Raven was brought to a semi-conscious state by the repeated ringing of the doorbell.

“Who in the heck has decided that the only way to ring that bell is to go to sleep pressing it,” she grumbled as she unwrapped Joanna’s arms and legs from her body and eased out of bed. She grabbed a sleeping shirt on her exit from the bedroom. “I’m coming, keep your britches on.” She called as she sleepily walked to the front door.

“Hi, tall, dark and dangerous,” Lativia stood with a sexy smile covering her face. “You forgot to call me about the lecture. Are you going to invite me in?”

“Sure.” Raven unlocked the storm door, and held it open for the attractive woman, and motioned the Professor towards the kitchen

“What time is it?” Raven asked, determined to make polite conversation.

This gave Latvia the opportunity to step confidently inside. “It’s almost noon, beautiful,” she exclaimed, dropped her purse on the kitchen bar and moved a stool out some before she sat down.

“You had agreed to lecture next week. All the approvals have gone through, and class schedules have been printed,” retorted the woman defiantly. “Changes at this late date will cause complications.”

“Latvia, I made the commitment to lecture, and I intend to fulfill that obligation. We have been out of town this week, and we didn’t return until early this morning. My intentions were to call you this afternoon to confirm the times, and the lecture hall.” Raven said matter-of-factly. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t our last conversation about this very thing, and didn’t I tell you I would get back to you by today, for the particulars?” Raven rubbed her forehead, and pushed her flowing hair back over the top of her head.

“WE?” Latvia’s face suddenly looked stern.

Raven sat down on the opposite side of the bar. “Yes, we. Joanna and me… Joanna and I. We.”

Latvia gave a mirthless gasp. “Are you talking about that woman who was here a few weeks back?”

Raven did not want to start another scene with Latvia, nor did she want to hurt her feelings. She had been a friend for years, but that was all it had ever been to Raven, friendship. The Professor, on the other hand, had grandiose ideas of there being more. It would never be what the redhead wanted, not even close.

“Latvia, I haven’t had the opportunity to introduce you two properly, or tell you about Joanna, so… We are in a very committed relationship. Our plans are to live together for the rest of our lives. Hopefully, you will eventually accept this, and perhaps, one day Joanna and you can be friends.”

A fleeting range of expressions chased across the redhead’s face. There were no more feelings of warmth and excitement, only the feelings of drowning, and abandonment. The light in her eyes was suddenly quenched. “Are you sure of this, Raven?” Her face flushed.

“I’ve never been as sure of anything in my life. Please, Latvia, be happy for me. I have found true love and it has made my life whole.”

The woman could not look Raven in the eyes. She hung her head. If I put up a fuss, or show resentment, there will never be a chance for us. I waited patiently for three years while she was with Clarea, but I don’t know if I can stand to watch her with someone else again. Oh, Raven, you spoiled everything between us!

“Then I wish you every happiness, Raven. Hopefully, our friendship is still intact,” retorted Latvia doubtfully. For a moment she was tempted to demand further explanation from her, but pride restrained her. It would be too humiliating if she let Raven see how deeply she had the power to hurt her.

“I don’t need convincing. Our friendship is still intact, you are the one who has doubts,” her voice was full of concern.

“Then there’s no question of convincing anyone,” she replied as coldly as if she were giving one of her lectures on Natural Science or the Environment.

“Okay. I know this is a shock. There just hasn’t been the opportunity for me to tell you. And as I said, I’m happy, very happy.” Raven looked mildly perplexed at Latvia’s contradictory tones.

“Forgive me, Raven. Of course, I wish you and… Joanna, all the best, years and years of happiness.” She forced a fake smile, and jumped up off the stool.

“I’ll fax you over the schedules and room numbers by close of business Monday. Will you need a slide or vu-graph projector?”

“I’ll only be using slides on this one, and I already have my trays prepared, so I’ll just bring my own.” She stood up, and came around the bar and embraced the shorter woman in a warm hug. “Thanks for understanding, Latvia.”

“You deserve happiness, my friend,” the professor said, “I’ll see you next week.”

“See you next week.” The taller woman repeated.

Moments later, Latvia pulled over to the side of the road a couple of miles from Raven's on Route One, and wept. A dreamlike sense of reality finally settled over her. Reality that, once again, she had lost Raven to another woman. This time, she sensed it was for good.

“What did Miss Tempting, Flirtatious want?” Joanna asked as she sat down at the kitchen counter.

She smiled at Joanna and said, “I apologize for Latvia waking you so early this morning. I’d forgotten about that possibility when I told her I’d get back with her today, about the lecture next week.” She glanced sideways at her, shrugging in apology. “Hadn’t had the opportunity to tell her about us, so I did that this morning, also. She seemed happy for us, and wished us well.”

Joanna had a curious expression on her face, and wrinkled her nose, “Uh huh.” She nodded her head, and changed the subject. “I can’t say I loved the wake-up call, but I’ll settle for one of your great cups of coffee.” She looked over at her with bright, shining eyes. “Could I interest you in some breakfast, perhaps some scrambled eggs to go along with that coffee?”

“You won’t even have to twist my arm.” Raven grinned with anticipation. “We didn’t have anything to eat last night, and I’m starved. It will just take a couple of minutes for me to scramble some eggs.”

“I’ll do the eggs, Darling. You make much better coffee.” She suggested as she came around the counter. “Deal?”

“Deal.” She pulled out the coffee maker right away, and opened a cabinet door for a can of gourmet coffee.

When she turned back, she noticed Joanna stirring half a frying pan full of scrambled eggs. When the younger woman turned down the burner under another frying pan and lifted the lid, she saw she had hash browns starting to simmer. There were enough hash browns there to feed a family….or one starving blonde.

Chuckling, Raven fixed toast, and set the butter and jelly on the counter. She decided she liked the homey intimacy of sharing the kitchen with her. When Joanna backed into her as she bent over to check the burner once again, the tall woman turned and steadied her. Joanna turned and the kiss lasted much longer than either suspected, until the toaster popped up.

Joanna turned off both burners, lifted her head and stared at her, one hand still holding a large wooden spoon, the other resting lightly around Raven’s neck. The gazes connected deeply, and both became very still as time seemed to slow. Joanna noticed Raven had a very nice mouth, one usually spread in a generous smile, as generous as her nature.

“I’m…ah…I …” She ceased attempting to talk.

Expectantly, Raven’s arms came out to circle her body, holding her close while she executed a slow, lingering kiss.

Threading her fingers through her long dark-brown hair, Joanna drew Raven’s head down to her own, joining them in yet another kiss that was gentle and tender, yet devastating in its intensity… a reaffirmation of the commitment they now shared.

When at last she lifted her head and paused for breath, Joanna sighed contentedly. There was no need for them to hurry now. They had the rest of their lives to savor the passion that flowed between them. “You know, Darling,” she said dreamily, “I have an appetite for something other than food.” Raven knew the same hunger. She slowly secured her hands around Joanna’s

waist, and almost magically lifted the smaller woman up her body as close as the tee shirts would allow. Joanna fastened her legs around the tall woman’s waist; their eyes never broke the connection.

Mouths were warm, enticing, and prone against each other, yet barely touching. The smaller tongue slid between the full lips, and as it did, tingles began to move further down on bodies, tallying, sly, suggestive touching and gasps and shuddering. Drawing herself up on the balls of her feet, Raven slowly proceeded to the bedroom with Joanna securely locked around her; their lips never losing contact.

Gently lowering their bodies to the bed, Raven’s hair brushed against Joanna’s face. The small hands reached up and brushed the hair aside and unlocked her legs from around the tall woman and let her legs rest against the covers, with Raven tucked securely between her legs.

Full lips began their search, kissing every curve and cavity from the smaller woman’s shoulder to the tips of her toes, basting her with an aching, physical desire of gigantic proportions. Raven and she had shared a bed for weeks now, and yet she realized that her deepest capacity for love and arousal had to do with something awakening deep within her, not any physical lust. The awakening was growing, building to a ratio she didn’t and couldn’t phantom. Never, never, in her life had she imagined there could be such a blissful sense of union, such amalgamation of their essence, and such pulse-racing ecstasy as this. Their breathing came in fast, shallow gulps. They strained against each other as if they could obliterate all barriers. Their souls were once again fused as recklessly as their mouths sought the other’s flesh to ramble over. An alarming crescendo of need and love and incredible yearning began to build and build deep inside, until finally, it reached an explosive climax. Every emotion, every muscle, every portion of her tensed, and a low, unearthly cry escaped her lips. Raven gripped her hard against her, locking her in her long arms and a moment later, she too, cried out, shuddering against the smaller woman, before collapsing, beside her, spent.

They lay together for a long time, hot and sweaty and tucked tight in each other arms, exhausted. It was almost as if they had run a race and collapsed at the finish line; yet, they were filled with happiness too deep for words.

Joanna, at last leaned forward to kiss her eyelids, nose and lips. “I love you. I love you so much,” she smiled and nuzzled her face against the neck of the tan woman.

“I love you, too,” she blissfully responded, as she pulled the smaller body closer within her arms, and shut her eyes for a short nap. Joanna muzzled her neck gently, once again, and joined Raven in sleep.

*****


It was a little past three that afternoon when Raven cast off the stern line, and hopped aboard The Sea Tigress. Within a few minutes, with Joanna at the wheel, they cleared the harbor area, and were motoring the short distance down the river to the bay outlet to the ocean. When they entered the bay, Joanna cut the engine as Raven pushed the power button to hoist only the main and jib sails.

“How about the south side of Lafayette Island?” asked Joanna.

“I thought you wanted peace and quiet, and just the two of us?” The tall woman laughed. “There will probably be twenty or more boats there.” She interjected, “But, if you try the west side of the Island, I don’t think there will be as many,” she explained.

“Sound like a wise choice, Stretch.” She reached up and kissed the tan cheek. “I want to thank you for turning down the dinner with Marissia and Angelena, and for arranging another time to go out on the “Yellow Canary” with Carl and Rex.” Joanna grinned.

“No, problemo, Baby. That was an “okay” nod you gave, to our accepting dinner on Wednesday night wasn’t it?” Raven cocked one eyebrow upward.

“Sure was, I think those two will become good friends,” she laughed at her statement, “I should have said, I believe those two and I will become friends. YOU,” she emphasized, “Have both of them eating out of your hand.”

“I certainly don’t have them eating out of my hand. I have you know, I have never even…. Well, that isn’t exactly true. I was going to say I have never even kissed either one of them, but I have hugged and kissed them on the cheek many times.” She chuckled. “We have been friends since college. Actually Jimmy used to hang around with us, and everyone called us the four rebels of monumental terror.” She raised her shoulders and chuckled wickedly at the memories.

“You want to elaborate on that statement?” The honey-blonde asked and then continued, “From what I’ve heard, Jimmy and you were terrors from the time you were six or seven, but I can’t see Marissia and Angelena terrorizing the county. They seem so….grounded,” she emphasized.

“Well, that just shows what you know, Sweetheart.” She reached into the ice chest and retrieved two bottles of water. Joanna, who accepted the spring water and gave her a quick thank you kiss. “They settled down completely, after our time at the University together. They wanted a family right away, and they figured they’d have a better chance of having a steady home life if they weren’t almost getting caught at some mischief or the other all the time.” Laughter filled the air again. “Clarea used to kid them about reminding her of the painting of the old couple with the pitchfork and apron, standing in front of the old home place… You know the one I’m talking about?” Raven asked cheerfully.

“You’re talking about the Grant Wood one, aren’t you?”

“Yeah! That’s the one.”

Shaking her head, Joanna dissolved in helpless laughter at the mentioned characterization. “I’d be willing to bet you were the chief instigator of the terror?” she said, peering at her closely.

“Who, me?” Raven said innocently.

Pointedly, Joanna ignored her, “You’re not attempting to lay that function off on Jimmy or the girls, are you?” she mused; making no attempt to hide her amusement. And where was Rex during these times of terror?”

“Nah. I guess I was the chief culprit,” she said with a cheerfulness that was filled with warmth and love of the three individuals being discussed. “Rex was usually with us, but our last year at the University, he kind of got sidetracked by that tall fellow he started seeing.”

“You mean Carl?”

“Yes, that’s the tall gent in question.” She wiggled closer to the honey-blonde, squatted down a little and bumped her hips against the young woman’s.

“Behave, would you!” She laughed, swatting playfully at Raven’s rear end. Turning loose the wheel, using both hands, she braced herself against the side of the galley way opening and hipped Raven until she staggered sideways. “Get back down to the stern, to your seat. How do you expect me to steer this craft with you standing so close and starting the roguish mischief I know is rolling around in your head?”

“Who, me?” She chuckled again. “Oh, all right.” Raven grumbled good-naturally. “You don’t have to get pushy. I’m going.”

“Raven,” she turned sideways and glanced toward the now seated woman, who was playing with the setting on the camera she had brought with her. “I have been meaning to ask about ‘The Yellow Canary’. What on earth possessed Rex and Carl to paint their yacht such a bright yellow color?”

The photographer raised the camera towards Joanna and clicked off several shots. “The yacht came that color, honey. It was a drug lord’s boat that was confiscated in Miami and sold at public auction there. Rex’s favorite color is yellow, and he convinced Carl they shouldn’t change the colors.” Raven stated calmly, still clicking away with her camera.

“I see.” Joanna chuckled, making no attempt to hide her amusement.

“You have to admit, you know who it is, and you can definitely see them coming,” She joined Joanna in gleeful chuckles.

Raven got up, placed the camera strap around her neck, and scampered up the ladder to the top deck of the boat. She moved to the main mast, where she slowly climbed the metal stirrups mounted on the sides of the large mast. Joanna watched her until she was about ten feet off the deck. Raven leaned in, hugging the mast and removed her camera, brought it around in front of her, and smiled down at the woman she loved. “Just navigate the boat, Sweetheart, I’m going to do a few downward shots of you. You look divine with your hair blowing back like that.” She grinned, raising the camera to her eye.

“Okay, but you hold on tightly, Raven. I really don’t want you falling and breaking anything,” she prompted.

Looking down, she flashed her a cheeky grin, “¡Usted es exquisitamente hermoso! Estoy tan en amor con usted, amor!” She licked her lips, and continued photographing the young form below her.

“English, Raven, please,” green eyes flickered, as the younger woman looked up. “You know I only speak French, and not any Spanish.”

“You are exquisitely beautiful! I am so in love with you, Sweetheart.

”Why, thank you, darling. And I love you, too.” Joanna grinned and blinked at the compliment.

After circling the island once, they lowered the sails, and lay anchored off the leeward side of Lafayette Island. Joanna had spread a large blanket on the deck below the sails, and placed the picnic basket off to the side. Raven brought two bottles of spring water and two bottles of lemonade and settled beside the young woman. Joanna stretched out on the blanket with her arms reaching up, and her hands locked under her head as a pillow.

“What a lovely afternoon,” she said, green eyes twinkling merrily.

“It certainly is,” Raven nodded her head in agreement.

They both enjoyed their surroundings and each other’s company for a long time, neither of them talking. Finally, Joanna turned over and propped herself up on her elbow.

“Darling, I want to thank you for being so open and accepting of my family. And for what you did with Howie.”

Raven’s eyes gravitated over to the green ones sparkling back at her.

“You don’t have to thank me, Joanna. Your family is very important to you, therefore, they are important to me,” she pointed out, gazing at her calmly. “It’s imperative that we accept each other, and each other’s family. It’s also crucial that we confide in each other, and that we are always honest with each other. I don’t ever want you to fear me, or be afraid to discuss anything with me. Nor do I ever want you to hide your anger or any other feelings you might have because you’re afraid of my reaction to any thing that is important to you. So, let me be up front, Sweetheart; I’ll be patient. I won’t push you about anything or anyone,” at that, her brow twitched.

“Well, sometimes I can be very hardheaded, but I’ll try to be patient and if I forget my manners, or jump to conclusions, or don’t listen to you, you let me know.” Joanna twined their fingers together and brought them up to her lips and kissed each fingertip. “You can poke me…better still don’t poke me, just tickle me on the tummy, or rub my backside. That will remind me I’m out of line. Okay?”

“Okay. Now, would you like to go for a walk on the island, find a nice secluded spot to sit, talk and rest, or should we just stay here?” Raven smiled, revealing strong white teeth in a face deeply tanned, yet smooth from her days’ outdoors in the Florida sun, and her many outdoor assignments. Her sheer charisma stole Joanna’s breath away.

“Just stay here. Why would we want to move from this blanket for the balance of the afternoon?” she smiled wolfishly, then lay back down and propped up on her elbow once again. Joanna felt a thrill go through her at the knowledge that this woman wanted to spend the rest of her life with her, and she, in turn, felt the same way. Her pulse leaped with excitement at that thought, the rest of our lives, together. Hooray! She sighed. It felt so good to sit, to lie, and to be off her feet. “Heaven. It is heaven to be off my feet, no dancing, no thousand steps without going anywhere. Just off my feet,” she sighed again.

Raven sat up, and moved to the end of the blanket in front of Joanna, and took one of her feet in her hands. To Joanna’s surprise, she removed her shoe.

“Honey, what are you doing? Ooooooh, never mind.” Sheer ecstasy flowed through her as Raven took her swollen toes between her big, warm hands and massaged them carefully. Joanna closed her eyes. Never, not once, had anyone done this to her, and it felt heavenly, absolutely sinful. She lay back on the blanket, placed her hands beneath her head, and let Raven’s fingers work their magic, and they were magically rubbing and putting just the right force on several pressure points. When she was done with her left foot, she repeated the process on her right. She sighed when the tall woman set her foot back down on the blanket.

“Here, sit up, sweetheart.” Her deep, soothing voice came from behind her.

Joanna sat up with protest. “That felt so good. I never imagined it could feel that good…well, not in that area, anyways.

“Anytime you want your feet massaged, you just tell me.”

Raven settled herself behind Joanna, drew her back into the cradle of her hips, supporting her with her chest, her arms wrapped around her, resting her forearms on the shelf of Joanna’s stomach, just below her breasts. Her head idled back, finding a perfect hollow near her shoulder. She spoke, her mouth so close to the blonde’s ear that she felt the warmth of her breath. “I remember the evenings when my Dad used to set my Mother down in her big platform rocker in front of the Ben Franklin stove and take her shoes off. He’d rub her feet and tell her about his day. Sometimes, he told her stories about fishing, or his misadventures when he was growing up… most were blarney and she’d laugh, but that time in the evening belonged to them. None of us. Not even Grandmamma Raven dared to intrude.”

Joanna tipped her head back to glance at her. “You miss them still, don’t you?”

She smiled down at her. “Yeah, I do. It’s been a long time.”

“Tell me something about your family, Raven.”

“As I said, Joanna, it’s been a long time, but I still remember all the love and laughter in our home. Once a week we’d gather, including Aunt Lenna and Uncle Franklin, in the living room, and sing and dance; that included the old Greek folk dances and the German Polkas my Father loved. Mother and Grandmamma would play the piano, and then we all would just sit and listen to Grandmamma telling stories of the old country and her family during the early days, and her life with my Grandfather. Then Mother and Aunt Lenna would tell about Grandfather’s antics. Mother and Grandmamma, both were for family togetherness. Both also insisted we learn to appreciate music.”

She hesitated, and then took a deep breath. “My piano belonged to my Mother. She used to play the great music, and sometimes, she and Grandmamma would play the folksongs or the popular songs of the day and Aunt Lenna would sing, then we would all join in with them. Mother insisted I learn to play the piano, even though she knew I did not have the heart for music as she and Grandmamma had, or even Aunt Lenna with her voice, but she didn’t push hatefully. She just insisted I learn to play. Now, I’m glad she did, and I certainly do love good music. Well, most all kinds of music, to be truthful.”

“Those are sweet memories, Raven. And you do play well! Very well indeed.”’ She appreciated the tall woman even more, remembering the first night she’d played for her, then asked her to play some of her compositions for her in return. The thought, so lovely and romantic, made her smile with pleasure and forget her hesitancy in asking Raven to speak of own family more. She didn’t want Raven to be heartbroken or sad. But, the dark woman seemed to enjoy talking and remembering her treasured moments with her family.

“I had some of the same good memories that you do, Darling. There was so much love, amusement and some sad times in our house.” She fell silent, not wanting to spoil Raven’s precious moments, by relating to hers, or spoil the mood of the moment.

“Please go on, Joanna. I would love to hear something of your early family life.” Raven urged her lover, tighting her arms around her waist, and kissed the top of her head.

Joanna looked up at her and saw the most pleasant, encouraging smile, “Someday…. Let’s just say our children will know the love and laughter you and I have had.”

Raven swallowed hard and was silent. Finally, she took a deep breath, feeling amazingly light of heart. “You want to have children with me, Joanna?”

Joanna tightened her hold on Raven’s arms. “Of course I do, Darling. I have thought of that possibility since that day in the kitchen when we discussed children. If you are willing to give me a year for performing in the musical, I would like very much to start our family immediately after the first full season. Does that time frame sound about right with you?” She tilted her head up to see tears coming down Raven’s cheeks. “Don’t cry, Darling. I thought you’d be happy for us to have children?”

“Oh, Joanna, this is the second best moment of my life.” Her cheek brushed the hair of the honey-blonde, and she gently held her tighter.

“Second best moment? And what might the first be?” Joanna asked, giggling with happiness.

“The day you said you loved me was the first.”

Joanna turned around in her arms, and the kiss that passed between them not only sealed their planned parenthood, but made their future seem as if it had unlimited possibilities. They stayed in the close embrace for a long time, just feeling each other’s heart beat, and soaking in the deep love they shared.

At length, Raven encouraged her to return to the previous position, and they sat for a time longer. Then the darker woman reminded Joanna she hadn’t told her any early memories.

Joanna tightened her arms around Raven’s. “All right. Let me see…ah yes,” she began. “Late one night, when I was about six, just months before Daddy was assigned to the Embassy in Sweden he came into my room and woke me and quietly urged me outside. Rita and Howie were there, too, all of us in our bare feet. Mom insisted we return to the bedrooms and put on slippers. Together, Daddy led us to the caretaker’s utility shed, where our favorite dog, Athena, was having puppies.”

“We’d spent the long night with the dog, coaching her, stroking her and, finally, just before dawn, she had her litter…four squirming, hungry pups. Howie immediately claimed the first-born, a brown and black female that looked like Athena. Daddy allowed us to take the dog and puppies into the kitchen where his Mother already had a nice fluffy bed waiting in the laundry room. We were all still up, had been up most of the night when Aunt Rosalin and Alexandria arrived. Howie had been tired, had known he had a long day ahead of him as he and Daddy were leaving on a hunting trip after breakfast, but Daddy had surprised him by insisting that the three of us go to bed for a few hours. They would go on the hunting trip in the afternoon. Rita, unwilling to leave the puppies… her puppy, Aristotle… had brought her bedding to the kitchen floor to sleep. My puppy was named Nethos. After he was housebroken, he slept on the foot of my bed until just before I started my first year on the series, and he died of old age.”

“Both Athena and Aristotle are now gone, also; Athena, to old age, Aristotle to a fatal heart attack, but, by then, there’d been another litter of pups. Howie had kept Almentaka, also the first-born of Athena, and a first-born of every litter thereafter. Howie has promised, if I want, I can have my pick of next year’s litter.”

“If you want another dog, why don’t you take him up on it? I had a dog, and I think it would be great to have another one.” Raven asked.

“We’ll see. I think you should look at the litter first, and, maybe, you could choose for us? But let’s wait until next year’s litter.”

Raven nodded her approval and watched Joanna talk about her youth, her hands making motions and gestures of the events. She wondered how Joanna managed to act on a six year series without using her hands like she was doing now. She was content just to hold her and dream of their future. And as she did, for the first time in a long time, she thought differently of her parents, of their marriage.

Suddenly all their shared looks, flushed cheeks and laughter took on new meaning. Only now did she realize just how happy her parents had been. She’d grieved for them when they died, but now she knew that it had been best and they’d been happier dying together. They’d been that close, that much in love, that she couldn’t imagine either one of them without the other. Somewhere along the way, she’d closed herself off to feeling that herself. That is, until now, until Joanna had come into her life, and they now shared that length of joy.

Glancing around, Joanna saw they were still alone on this side of the island. There were boats passing on the north side of the island, but here, in this one spot, it was only Raven and she, peace and quiet, no intruding voices, no demanding decision. She fought back a yawn, relaxing more completely into the peaceful feeling.

An hour passed, then two, with each woman’s thoughts alternating between half-forgotten memories and visions of the future. When Raven noticed the sun was lowering, she nudged Joanna. She’d have bolted upright, but Raven held her tight. “Easy, Sweetheart, just wanted to show you that. Look.” She pointed to the horizon where all that remained of the sun was a last burst of brilliant scarlet red sky streaking toward them, shading the world in hues of bright orange to the deepest red. Behind them, to the east, the color faded to a golden-yellow with a faint hint of blue-gray.

“Oh, Raven, what a glorious sunset.”

Her lips moved against her hair. “It’s not as beautiful as you.”

She shifted Joanna slightly so she could stare down into her face. Mesmerized, Joanna stared back, her lips parted. Their kiss did not fade like the vanished sunset; it brought on the passion, which lingered well into the evening.


*****


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