A Length of Joy

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


Disclaimers: Please See Chapter One

Chapter 13

“What time will we be leaving?” Joanna asked, as she emptied the cup for the second time. She went to the coffee maker, filled hers, and pointed the urn towards Raven’s cup.

“Thanks, I guess I won’t float with one more; Rex and I are having coffee on practice field, prior to shooting. He’s bringing the thermos.”

“Raven, did you hear me?” she prompted gently.

“Oh, not until 10:30 or so. Carl promised to pick you up about then. As you know, I have to be at the stadium by eight, because I have a series of shots to take prior to the actual practice. Besides that, I’m picking up Rex, since he has to be at the stadium by eight, also.” Raven commented, as she checked out the lens of the second camera, and placed it into the protected section of her camera bag.

“I promise to join you on the boat by not later than eleven. Believe me when I tell you, the four of us can get an awful lot of scraping and painting done by dark.”

“All Carl and I will be doing until you get there is tape the rails, and all that wood?”

“Yes. But you will need to be in different clothes when we start with the sanding and scraping. You’ll have plenty of time to change into your ‘grubbies,’ Raven said crisply. “If you wear good, daytime clothes, you will ruin them from sitting, standing, and leaning on the boat. And believe me, you’ll do all three this afternoon.” She smiled sweetly at Joanna and was unsettled to find her chuckling.

“What on earth are ‘grubbies,” she asked, not bothering to conceal her amusement.

“Grubbies are clothes you don’t mind getting soiled. Some that you might paint in, or garden in, but don‘t plan on getting the grease out of, ever.” Raven’s lazy blue glance seemed to reach out and touch her, sending new chills down her back. “Just an old worn-out pair of jeans, and a faded tee shirt of some kind. Definitely, not any of those one hundred dollar designer labels you have that look like you’ve never even wore them,” she explained.

“Ooooh, that’s what you call ‘grubbies’.” Her green eyes sharpened and she looked up at Raven again.

“Come to think of it, I can’t remember you ever wearing worn-out jeans at all, not even at the cookout,” eyes wide with the innocent statement, she turned to Joanna in wonder and found her trying vainly to suppress her amusement. “What?” the tall one questioned.

Pleased laughter rang across the table, “You wait right here, Ms. Smarty Pants,” and ran from the kitchen. Before Raven had finished checking out one of the cameras she was taking, Joanna stood in the middle of the kitchen.

“Will this do?” she extended her arm and hands in a modeling flair, and pivoted slowly around, showing off her pale faded jeans, and a washed out NY State University tee shirt. Her feet were housed in her oldest pair of Rebooks.

Raven trilled with laughter and the twirling antics of the shorter woman. “Yes, Sweetheart, those will do. Hey, I haven’t seen you in those, or I would have remembered.”

“I brought them back from the brownstone. I used to wear them in college, when everyone else, including myself, lived in them,” she admitted. “Let’s hope they are not too tight!” She patted her behind, and turned for Raven to check it out once again.

“Nada… I like the way you fill’em out. The guys will appreciate them.” They both laughed.

“Guess I’d better do a little something about that then.” They were a bit snug, but after Joanna did a few deep toe bends, under Raven’s lustful eye, she decided they were now loose enough.

Raven placed her camera bag on the floor, and turned to the honey-blonde leaning against the kitchen counter, coffee in hand. “Joanna, I need to leave.”

Joanna sat her cup down behind her and reached out her arms that were immediately filled by her tall lover. A few kisses later, Joanna shooed her out the door.

She cleaned the kitchen, placed their early morning breakfast dishes in the dishwasher, and went to brush her teeth and hair. She picked up her fanny bag, and the prepared picnic basket and went to sit on the front porch to wait for Carl to pick her up. She had a piece of sheet music on her knee, jotting away, when Carl pulled into the driveway. Joanna sprang from the double rocker, folded the sheet music, and shoved it into her purse.

He smiled and waved as he got out, and went around to open the door for Joanna. Taking the picnic basket from her and placing it on the floor of the back seat, he turned to face the young blonde, who had become a good friend.

“Hi, there.” She hugged the tall smiling lawyer.

“Hi, yourself.” He answered back, and gallantly gestured to the front seat of the Explorer. “Is that fried chicken and potato salad in that basket?”

“How did you guess?” She bowed to him in return, and slipped up on the seat. “Ready when you are,” she said airily, fastening her seat belt.

“I could smell the food. I love your cooking.” Carl mused honestly. “So, you really turned down seeing the Jacksonville Jaguars football team’s summer practice to go work on The Sea Tigress. What’s the matter, too early for you? Or what? ”

“I fixed Raven’s breakfast this morning and had coffee with her before she left before seven. Why would I want to see a bunch of men in pads getting all sweaty? Haven’t you noticed, it is really hot?” Joanna almost squeaked. “Besides that, I am looking forward to the work on the boat. Why? Aren’t you?”

“Oh.” He started to chuckle, looking incredulous. “Yes, I look forward to it every year. Raven helps us with the yellow monster and we help her with the sailboat. That is what friends are for.”

“My mistake,” replied Joanna with relief. “Just for a moment there I was confused.” Carl chuckled again as he headed for the marina and the day’s maintenance duties.

True to her word, Raven and Rex joined their partners in the preparation and weathering of the sailboat. By the time the sun was going down, the deck’s yearly painting had been completed.

They cleaned up on the Yellow Canary and headed over to the Shores Pier Palace where Big Bertha had a corner table reserved for them. The four ate Big Daddy John's prepared seafood platters until they moaned about how full they were. Big Bertha and Big Daddy John joined the four and they sang songs, and drank beer long after the last customer had gone.

*****


Hours after leaving the boat, Raven and Joanna once again entered the beach house. Raven slipped off her jogging shoes on the front porch and motion for Joanna to lift her leg, while she untied her old tennis shoes and placed them next to hers. She’d clean both pairs later back at the outside faucet. Now, she just wanted a large glass of lemonade or iced tea and to slump on the sofa.

“Well, that’s another first I won’t be forgetting anytime soon,” Joanna sighed, as she swung her legs up on the sofa and rested her socked feet in Raven’s lap. “I think I drank too much beer! How come you stopped after a beer with dinner and one afterwards?”

The dark-haired woman pulled off the sock and rubbed the young blonde's feet for a few minutes. “I was driving, Honey. Rex and Carl were spending the night on the Yellow Canary because they drank too much. But

I could sure stand a tall lemonade and I’ll give your feet a massage.” The tall photographer offered.

“Are you always so reasonable when it come to driving.”

“Yes. I never drink and drive. Just one of my quirks.”

“Good to know I’m in love with a sensible woman. Before you give me a foot massage, Raven, why don’t I bring a fresh squeezed pitcher of lemonade to the back porch and our swing?”

“Sounds like a plan,” she removed her socks, and picked up Joanna's, stood up and took the socks to the laundry room where she placed them in a pail of cold water, with some bleach added. She was sure if they stayed in the bleach for an hour it would remove most of the ground in scrapings, but if not, they could use the socks to do scrubbie work in.

They sat on the porch for an hour, sipping lemonade that Joanna had prepared. The conversation went from the day’s event, to their plans for the next couple of weeks, then gravitated to more romantic innuendoes.

Joanna had insisted that Raven turn around and lean back in her arms this time, and she was enjoying having the feel of the full-framed woman in her arms. First, she sang several songs softly in her ears, then she hummed some of the music she had composed. Both were content to be in each other’s presence.

“I love you, Raven,” she muttered softly in Raven’s ear.

“And I love you, Joanna,” the tall woman tenderly affirmed in return.

“This reminds me of one of my favorite pieces of work” Joanna mused, and she turned slightly so Raven’s head was now on her shoulder.

How oft, when thou, my music, music play'st,

Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds

With thy sweet fingers, when thou gently sway'st

The wiry concord that mine ear confounds,

Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap

To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,

Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,

At the wood's boldness by thee blushing stand!

To be so tickled, they would change their state

And situation with those dancing chips,

O'er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,

Making dead wood more bless'd than living lips.

Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,

Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.”

The honey-blonde’s lips were seeking the fuller lips below hers. Once connected, the kiss became demanding…but then, Joanna raised up and sought Raven’s beautiful blue eyes with her own.

Raven reflected on the verse just bestowed upon her, “Ahh, that’s Shakespeare’s Sonnet 128. One of my favorites too, but I prefer:

I think of thee! my thoughts do twine and bud

About thee, as wild vines, about a tree,

Put out broad leaves, and soon there 's nought to see

Except the straggling green which hides the wood.

Yet, O my palm-tree, be it understood

I will not have my thoughts instead of thee

Who art dearer, better! Rather, instantly

Renew thy presence; as a strong tree should,

Rustle thy boughs and set thy trunk all bare,

And let these bands of greenery which insphere thee

Drop heavily down, burst, shattered, everywhere!

Because, in this deep joy to see and hear thee

And breathe within thy shadow a new air,

I do not think of thee--I am too near thee.”

She wrapped her arms around those Joanna had encased around her, and turned her head to reach the lips already bending to met hers.

“Whoa! You’re such a romantic, Darling. But that's no surprise to me, it always touches my heart when I read it. But your quoting it to me, well…” She reached down and the results were an even deeper kiss than before. “I do believe that’s exactly what the twenty-ninth sonnet of Elizabeth Barrett Browning was supposed to be about, and this is what I believe it calls for.”

Tucking her arms and legs around Raven in a spoon-like embrace, she gently rolled them off the swing onto the floor, and continued the roll until she was on top again. She kissed the oily satin of her bare shoulder and murmured in the ear of the captured woman. “You’re so very hot…. ‘KISS’ and sexy, ‘KISS’…, and sinfully carnal… ‘KISS’… every woman’s fantasy... ‘KISS’…

Raven smiled against warm lips that were kissing her, openmouthed and wet, with a pointed tongue delving into her mouth, like an invader staking territory. Not that she was fighting back. No, No, No! But there was more, much more action, going on. Joanna was elevating herself over her on all fours, breasts swinging in a tantalizing swish across her face, barely touching her lips. Before she could grasp what Joanna was about, Joanna eased her hand passionately down her body, massaging her rhythmically, her fingers twitching rapidly as Raven’s center stiffened, and the fingers renewed the stimulation a little firmer and deeper. Holy Heavens, she thought. This is pure paradise, rapture beyond words, and cloud nine… Raven stopped trying to think of thoughts to describe the ecstasy she had reached; she just laid back and enjoyed Joanna’s repeated performance.

*****


“Ms. Stern, I’m telling you the pyramid door will not open as you anticipated.” The irritated construction supervisor gritted his teeth. “We can’t construct this heavy piece of set to do what you want it to, cause it’s designed incorrectly.

“NO, IT ISN”T! I know a good construction crew could use some initiative and get it to spring down as it should.” Mel Long shouted back at the supervisor. “You men are the worst construction crew of inabilities I have ever worked with. You’re useless.” She continued.

Joanna threw up her hand to intercede, “Please stop! Shouting at each other will not correct the problem, and I won’t have this on my set.” Both the supervisor and Long turned immediately toward the smaller woman, who spoke with an authoritative voice that she was in charge and in control of this enterprise.

“Now, Steve, you explain to me why the door doesn’t want to function as it was designed. Understanding that you have constructed it exactly as the design plans call for, what do you recommend be changed so that it will open quickly, and slide down in place to become a part of the set?” She again held up her hand to silence the Production Designer who was about to interrupt her question. “Mel, please, let’s hear him out, and we’ll decide what to do from there.” Mel started to speak, but Joanna’ sharp turn of her head to face her and the piercing eyes silenced her instantly.

“Steve, you have the floor.”

Joanna listened to her construction supervisor as she ran her hand over the top of her head and took her French braid in her hand and pulled it over her shoulder, where she continued to play with the end of the braid. She looked over the stage, and sighed heavily. In the four days she had been here, there had been one production issue after another for her to correct, or make a significant decision on. This morning had been no different. Raven and she even had to change their return flight originally scheduled for today, until tomorrow because of all the unresolved problems she had to address before she left. Both had packed their overnight carry-on bags this morning, so that they could have the evening free to be with Marla, and a good nights rest before they hopped on the plane in the morning. Raven had been gracious with her support, and understanding and had suggested this additional day to iron out the remaining difficulties.

“Okay, Steve. I understand and I believe your suggestion will resolve the challenge.” She turned to her production designer, “Mel, I want you to come up with the appropriate changes as Steve has suggested, and I don’t want to have a long-drawn out discussion on ethics or what ifs. It’s costing us precious production completion time, and we simply can’t afford it. I’m working through lunch and plan on being out of here by three p.m. today, and that isn’t an option, so let’s get to it. ” Anything contrary to her line of thinking this day would cause themselves or that discussion to reap badly for them.

Mel had heard that tone with Joanna, only twice before, so she wasn’t going to challenge anything brought up here. “I realize, Steve is right, I can sketch out the changes in a few minutes. I’ll get back with you as quickly as I can.” The almond-skinned woman picked up her original designs, and went to her workroom downstairs.

Across town, Raven was standing in the doorway of her new darkroom in the basement of the brownstone. Joanna had surprised her this trip, and had taken her hand and led her down the stairs and opened the door to the new construction. Raven went in and astonishment wouldn’t describe the expression on the photographer’s face when she stood in a duplicate darkroom of the one in her Florida beach house.

“How… when…? Golly, Sweetheart, it’s perfect.” Raven was almost speechless.

Joanna locked her arms around her lover’s neck; “I copied your darkroom on a piece of paper and had a company here duplicate it for you. I know you designed your own darkroom, so I figured it would be best if you had something with which you were familiar, to work in here.” She was pulled up by the waist to eye level with Raven, whose kiss made the effort almost as rewarding as the look she saw in Raven’s eyes.

Raven had cleaned up the darkroom so it was spotless. She didn’t want to leave any chemical stains on the new equipment or counters. She had just hung the rubber apron on the door hook, and was standing admiring her gift from Joanna when Marla called down the stairs.

“Raven, your agent is on the phone, she says it is urgent she speak with you. I placed her on hold, do you wish to accept the call?”

“Tell her I’ll be right there. I’ll take it on the hall phone. Thank you, Marla.”

She skipped up the stairs two at a time, and almost bumped into Marla, who had just placed the phone back on hold. “Excuse me, Marla. Didn’t mean to joust you like that.” She hugged the older woman, who swatted her on the arm and continued down the hall to the kitchen.

“Hello, Margaret, what’s up?”

“Raven, I know your schedule is full, but RASP Network has offered you a two week assignment in Afghanistan. The budget is three times your normal fee.”

“Margaret, I’m not interested in going to Afghanistan. They killed a journalist only last month whom I knew.”

“They want to do a series, Raven, one a month, there, Pakistan, Palestine, Syria and several other hot spots. About war torn countries and their survival with the aftermaths. It’s right up your alley, and they only want you. They were extremely impressed with your Amazon expose, and the justice that came from it.”

Raven was silent.

“It could do a lot of good for a lot of people, Raven.”

“I’ll need to discuss it with Joanna first, if I decide even to consider it.”

“Unfortunately, there is a time limit. They have to have an answer by four p.m. today. Some State Department time frame about entry and such.”

Silence.

“Raven, this really is a once in a lifetime assignment. The ramifications and benefits to society could reach mammoth proportions.”

“I’ll call Joanna, and get back to you by four. Thanks for calling, Margaret.” She hung up the phone, pondering if she should even call Joanna, and just forget about the assignment. It’s dangerous, but it could be very beneficial, done right, she thought as she went into the kitchen, opened the door and removed a bottle of spring water. “Marla, I’m going up to our room and make a call, I need to discuss a prospective assignment with Joanna. I’ll be upstairs if you need me.”

“You going to be wanting lunch, Raven?”

“I’m going to try and have lunch with Joanna today. Thanks, anyway.” She turned and again took the stairs two at a time.

“The energy these young folks have just tires me out.” The longtime housekeeper continued snapping the pole beans she was preparing for dinner that evening.

Raven lay across the bed with the cell-phone Joanna had insisted she carry so they could keep instant communication if they wanted. Joanna, had even programmed in her cell phone number, so all Raven had to do was press dial which she did. She turned over on her back, kicked off her loafers, and drew her feet up on the bed.

“Hello, Darling,” Joanna answered the phone.

“Hello, Sweetheart. How did you know it was I, or do you address everyone darling who calls on that thing?”

Joanna laughed, “I have number identification, and yours always pops up with a heart around it.”

“Oh! Mine has a heart around it? Anyone else’s have a heart around theirs?”

“No silly, only one heart on my cell-phone and only one woman in my heart,” she laughed again.

“Good thing, I feel the same way. Honey, I would like to have lunch with you today if you can squeeze me in, I need to discuss a prospective assignment with you.”

“Gosh, Raven, things are nutty here, and I had planned on working through lunch and be out of here by three this afternoon. Can it wait until then, if not, can we discuss it on the phone?”

“This one, I … well, it can wait if you’re going to be home by four this afternoon.”

“Okay, Darling, I’ll see you a bit before four. I need to go, Raven, we were in the middle of a meeting.”

“Sorry, if it wasn’t important I wouldn’t have called, and I didn’t mean to take you away from a meeting. I know you’re being pulled in a dozen directions with so many things going badly. Take care. Love you. Bye”

“You can interrupt me anytime love, your voice made my day a lot brighter. Love you too, bye.”

Raven lay there for a few minutes, thinking about the prospective assignment. Her gut feeling told her she should walk away from this one.

She would leave it up to Joanna. She emptied the bottle of water in a few gulps. She blew out a deep troubled breath, sat up, put her shoes back on, slipped the cell-phone in her trousers pocket and went downstairs to see if she could help Marla with anything around the house.

Joanna had stepped over to the side of the stage and away from the table the meeting was being held to talk to Raven. She sat back down at the table, and apologized for the interruption. Each of the department heads finished with their areas, and solutions had been found for only half of them. It looked like she would be ending her day a lot earlier than she had anticipated, as there didn’t seem to be much more she could complete today. She picked up her notes from the table, and wished everyone a good week, and told them she’d be in touch in a couple of days to go over their solutions to the unsolved problems.

“Hey, Joanna, if you have a few minutes, I’ve redesigned the pyramid problem, and have several other sketches I need to run by you?”

“I’m going to my dressing room for a quick shower, I’ll see you for a few minutes after that.” She did a few stretching movements to work the kinks out from sitting for two hours, and started to walk towards the dressing room areas.

Mel reached out and took hold of Joanna’s arm, “Actually I was hoping you would have a quick bite to eat with me while I showed you the sketches. I worked late last night on those changes you wanted on the third scene in the second act and didn’t get any dinner, and you had us all here at six this morning, and I’m not a sweet roll breakfast person. I thought since you didn’t eat any rolls, either, that we might have a salad around the corner at Rosie’s Cafe. You know they make great French onion soup, also.” Smiling, the production designer released her hold on Joanna’s arm and stepped back, hoping the actress would feel guilty about the long hours.

“I hadn’t planned on lunch today, Mel.”

“It won’t take half an hour, forty-five minutes at the most,” she pleaded.

Joanna was torn between getting home and salvaging something from today’s disappointing events. “Well, if I approved the changes, the construction crew could complete this series of structures before I return next week.”

Long beamed, “Plus, the third scene in the second act could almost be completed as well, if you approved the designs…This would make up for some of the lost construction time.”

“Okay, It’s just ten minutes of eleven now. I’ll take a quick shower, you meet me with the designs at the stage door, and we’ll make it a quick lunch. I want to be completed by and back here by ten after twelve.

“Right.” Long rushed off to collect the balance of her designs.

Joanna quickly undressed, and hurried into the shower. She started to sing as she scrubbed body wash with a sponge over her body.

*****


Raven had carried some potted plants from the sunroom, to the sitting area on the little stone patio behind the brownstone when Marla appeared at the back door. “Raven, your agent is on the phone again. She said it’s quite important, something about a deadline change.”

“I’m coming, Marla,” she picked up the hand towel and wiped the dirt from her hands before she entered the house. She picked up the kitchen wall phone, “I’m here, Margaret, what did you want to tell me?”

“Raven, they have moved the deadline up to one this afternoon. They have to have an answer by then. What shall I tell them?”

“Don’t tell them anything yet… I will get back to you before one.” She hung up the kitchen phone and looked at the clock, which read 10:55 a.m. She pressed both hands to the side of her head, to help relieve the oncoming headache that was starting in her temples. She opened the refrigerator, pulled out another bottle of water, sat down at the kitchen table, and pulled the cell-phone from her pocket, and punched Joanna’s programmed dial button, taking a long drink of water from the bottle as she waited for Joanna answer.

Long had returned with her designs and had passed Joanna’s dressing room, and heard the faint voice of singing coming from her the room.

Temptation won out, and she looked around to see if anyone was looking. When she saw that no one was around, she tried the door handle, expecting it to be locked, and grinned when it opened. She quickly walked in, and sat her designs down on the dressing table, and went to the bathroom door, turned the knob quietly and opened it a crack. One eye immediately went to the opening, and pushed the door open a bit more to see the shower. The curtain was transparent and Joanna’s silhouette was visible. Long licked her lips at the sight and bit down on her lower one, drawing blood.

Beep…Beep…Beep, Joanna’s cell-phone went off. Long shut the bathroom door quickly and rushed to pick up the phone from the dressing table. She didn’t want it to cause Joanna to leave the shower and catch her in the dressing room.” Yes,” she answered quietly.

Raven recognized Long’s voice immediately. “Where is Joanna, and what are you doing answering her phone?” She demanded.

“She’s in the shower, Longgear. We’re going around the corner to Rosie’s Café for lunch, and she wanted a shower first.”

“I need to talk to her. It’s important.”

“I’ll tell her you called,” upon hearing Joanna turn off the shower, Mel abruptly disconnected the call. She started to sit the phone back on the dressing table, but lifted it back up, flipped the off switch, then sat it back down exactly where she had found it. She quickly picked up her sketches, and hurriedly went through the door. She leaned against the wall beside the door and blew out a rush of breath she didn’t realize she had been holding.

Raven redialed Joanna’s number, which rang and rang without an answer. “Damnit, why doesn’t she answer the phone?” She tried the phone again. She got up and walked around the kitchen and tried the phone a half dozen times before she picked up the kitchen phone and dialed Joanna’s cell phone and still no answer. “She always keeps that phone with her.” She was getting irritated, not only at the phone not being answered, but she was getting a most uncomfortable feeling about Long being in Joanna’s dressing room and answering her cell phone.

Raven paced the floor in the kitchen until she was sure she would wear it out, and then started in the hall. “I won’t accept an assignment like this without talking to her.” She paced the hall, and talked to the walls. Suddenly, she stopped pacing. Joanna had told her she was working through lunch so she could come home early and wouldn’t have lunch with her. Yet, Long had stated Joanna was having lunch with her at Rosie’s Café. She had lunch with Joanna there yesterday, and she knew it was just around the corner from the theater.

“MARLA?” She called.

“I’m right here, Raven, no need to shout.” The older woman stepped into the hall from the door behind the taller woman.

The photographer jumped at being startled by the housekeeper. “Sorry. Do you know the number that I can get a cab quick?”

“Sure I do, honey, but you’ll get one a lot quicker by walking to the corner. There are taxis passing there frequently, and it would be a lot faster than a call and waiting.

“Thanks, Marla, I’m going to the theater.” She kissed the older woman’s cheek and ran out the door. She ran the third of a block and turned the corner and through up her hand to hail an oncoming cab. The cab pulled over and Raven jumped in and gave the cabbie the address.

All the way to the theater, she kept running the morning events over and over in her head. Nothing was making any sense; either, Long had lied to her, or Joanna had. There had to be some explanation for Long being in her dressing room with Joanna in the shower…that is, if Joanna was even in the shower in the first place. And what if Long was correct, and they were lunching together? She didn’t even want to think along those lines. She trusted Joanna, and there was some likely explanation. Long had obviously gotten hold of the cell phone…Joanna had probably left it laying someplace…hadn’t she? What if they were lunching together???? “NO WAY!” She bellowed.

“You want something, lady?” The cabbie asked, looking in the mirror at her.

Raven jumped at his question and realized she had spoken out loud. “Ah… No, I was just talking to myself.” She pulled out the phone and tried Joanna’s number again with the same consequences as before.

The driver nodded his head ‘okay’ and continued to glance up at the reflection in the mirror until he pulled up in front of the theater. Raven paid the fare and rushed down the side street to the stage door, only to be told by George, the door man, that Ms. Stern and Ms. Long had left together about twenty minutes before. Shaking her head, Raven walked back up the alleyway to the front of the theater and looked around. She tried Joanna’s cell phone once more, same results. Remembering the Café, she walked swiftly around the corner and stood briefly in front of the restaurant before entering.

She looked down one side of the café, then the other, before an apron waitress asked if she could find her a seat. She was about to speak when she heard Long’s laugh coming from the booth section of the café. “No thanks, I’m going to join a friend,” and walked toward the booth section that was partially blocked by a desert cabinet. She immediately stopped when she saw them sitting in the end booth, and Long had her hand placed comfortably on Joanna’s arm. There were salads off to the side, and several sketches on the table between the two women.

Raven felt rage at the betrayal. And it was obvious to the tall, stewing woman that it was dishonesty, at the least. She gripped both her fists, and forced herself to breathe in and out slowly. Her eyes never left the booth as she walked up to edge of the table between them and placed her hands palm down on the table. She hadn’t the strength to contain her despair, and the sight of Long's attentiveness and Joanna not seeming to mind ripped at the tall woman’s heart.

“What are you doing having lunch with this sack of manure, when you told me specifically you were working through lunch and didn’t have time to have it with me? Did you forget what I told you about her hands on you?” She did not give the honey-blonde an opportunity to respond, but Joanna looked down at her arm and snatched it from under Long’s hand before Raven continued in a harsh tone. “I told you I had an important assignment to discuss with you, Joanna. They changed the timeframe for an answer to 1:00 p.m., and I wanted to discuss this Afghanistan assignment before I accepted it.” She raised and slammed her hand down on the table.

“Just a minute, Raven. What is wrong with you?” The smile left Joanna’s face.

“Don’t ‘just a minute’ me. And what in the hell was Long doing in your dressing room while you were showering? And why was she answering your cell phone? And why didn’t you return my call? I told this dung pile it was extremely important.” The eyes she turned to Joanna were wounded, virtually devoid of hope.

“Longgear, you..,” Mel started to butt-in.

“You keep your mouth shut, or I’ll shut it for you.” Her slung words weren’t to be misunderstood.

She stood up straighter, rigid as a statue, “It seems to me you have changed your priorities, and, obviously, I’m not your number one priority anymore.” She looked at Long with bitterness and anger pouring from her eyes. With that, she turned on her heels and stormed toward the door.

“RAVEN!” Joanna called after her and started to get up, when Mel caught her by the arm and pulled her back down.

“Let her go, she is too hot-headed to listen to reason right now.” Mel didn’t turn loose Joanna’s arm.

Joanna looked across at the smirking woman, and snatched her arm away from her grasp. “Mel, you had better tell me the truth. Did you neglect to give me a message from Raven?”

“Of course not, Joanna. I have never spoken with her on the phone.” She spun her web of deceitfulness.

“You’d better be telling the truth. I’m going, and don’t grab me again.” She reached for her purse and ran from the café, determined to catch Raven and get this misunderstanding straightened out.

When Raven exited the restaurant, her fury took over and she flung the cell phone against the brick wall and waved her hand to the taxi that had let his fare off at the building next to the café. She jumped into the cab and told him if he could get her to the brownstone address in fifteen minutes, it would be worth an extra hundred dollars. He took off like there was no tomorrow, and cut down a side street before he let up on his horn.

The taxi pulled up in front of the brownstone, and Raven told him to wait, she needed his expedient services to take her to the airport. He happily kept the meter running. She ran in and to the hall phone, where she called Margaret and told her to call the Service; she was taking the assignment and was on her way to the airport. She also instructed Margaret to get her on the first flight and cut some red tape about the long airport wait, if possible. Margaret told her she was trying to keep ahead of her and the flight left at 1:15 p.m. and she was to go directly to Security, who had been briefed by the Services to speed up her clearance for the flight. She thanked her agent, took the steps two at a time to get her packed carry-on luggage and her camera bag. She threw some extra clothes from the closet and the dresser into a duffle bag and down the stairs she went. She sat both bags on the floor, and eased the camera bag from her shoulder and approached Marla who was still standing in the hall after hearing Raven’s conversation with her Agent.

“Marla, please watch over her.” She hugged the older woman tightly, kissed her on the check and picked up her bags and left the brownstone. The cabbie had his trunk lid open, and placed Raven’s bags in the compartment while Raven bent down and entered the back seat of the taxi. Tears were running down her face and she made no effort to wipe them away or stop them. ‘There is no death where the spirit lives.’ She kept repeating it over and over silently to herself for the next hour, until she entered the aircraft for the long flight. Once buckled in, she again repeated the mantra over and over and over. Her heart was broken, she was broken, and she wasn’t too sure about her soul or spirit. She would always love her honey-blonde. She surmised it would just have to be from a distance in the future.

Joanna rushed out the door and saw Raven's head in the back window of a fleeing cab. She opened her purse and dug out the cell phone and dialed Raven’s number as she ran down the street. There was no ringing as she held it up to her ear. She noticed there wasn’t even a dial tone; checking the phone she was puzzled as to how the phone was in the off position. “Doggoneit!” She muttered, and switched the phone to on and redialed Raven’s cell phone again. It rang and rang, but no answer. She turned the corner and raced past the theater and into the building a block away that housed the six story indoor garage where she had parked her car. Upon reaching her car and getting in, she tried Raven’s number once again. But again, it rang and rang without an answer. “Oh! My God! She said Afghanistan. I’ve got to stop her!” Joanna realized Raven’s projected destination and yelled loudly. The tears started flowing and soon she was wiping her eyes with her shirtsleeve so she could see how to drive.

There were several accidents and traffic jams and she didn’t drive into the garage behind the brownstone until well over an hour since she had seen Raven last. She ran into the house, “Raven, Raven, where are you?” She screamed.

“Joanna, she isn’t here, honey. She picked up her luggage and left with the same taxi she came in.” Marla exited the laundry room and tried to calm the distraught young woman she loved.

“Marla, please call me a cab, I have to get to the airport, and I don’t trust my driving, I’m so nervous.” Joanna was crying, and almost hysterical.

Marla took the young woman in her arms to comfort her and looked up at the kitchen clock. “Joanna, you’re going to the airport won’t do you any good. I over head her talking to her Agent. She was being given special security screening and her flight left at l: 15 p.m.”

The young blonde looked up at the clock, “NO! It can’t be too late.” Even Marla strong arms couldn’t keep her from sinking to the floor and crying hysterically. Marla sank to the floor with her and she began to cry as well. After what seemed like an eternity, both woman finally held each other on the floor. “Marla, I can’t lose her, I’ve just found her. I love her so much. She is my life.”

“My dear little one, that woman loves you with all her being. You will never lose her,” she spoken honestly and with conviction.

“We had a big misunderstanding, and we didn’t get to straighten it out, and now she’s on her way to a place where she might be harmed, or worse, she could be killed.” She started crying again.

“Oh, honey.” Marla comforted her.

It was getting late when they finally got up off the floor and sat in kitchen chairs. Marla tried to get Joanna to eat something, but she only wanted something to drink.

“Marla, that night at the party, did you see Mel trying anything with Raven?” Joanna took hold of her hand and squeezed it, “I really need to know.”

“Honey, that production designer of yours not only came on to her at least twice that I saw, but the last time, it was in front of Lee, Nancy, and her husband. She literally threw herself at her. I think she said something like could she do anything for her, anything at all and she emphasized the anything. Your Raven only looked at her like she was out of her mind and informed her, quite frankly, that she had everything she would ever need.”

“Really?”

“Yes, it was just before you called her over to sing to her.”

“Joanna would this misunderstanding you had earlier today have anything to do with this Long woman?”

“Yes, partially, the other was because I was leaving the theater four hours earlier than expected to come be with Raven and you. Mel had drawings completed that would have meant the crew could have the sets built by the time I returned. Raven found us getting a bite to eat, and exploded, not giving me the opportunity to respond to anything.”

“Don’t get upset again, but the I was in the pantry with the door open and I heard Raven on the phone asking that woman what she was doing on your phone and in your dressing room. She didn’t leave here in a sweet mood, like she usually does.”

“Oh, God… I’m not believing any of this.” Joanna held her head in both hands. Suddenly her eyes became larger. “My cell phone!” she exclaimed, “I can check my log of calls.” She grabbed her purse from the table and removed the cell phone. Her face became distorted as the small screen lit up. “It can’t be,” she cried, “it just can’t be.”

“It shows the call doesn’t it?” Marla asked and placed her hand on the small shoulder in a comforting jester.

“Marla, it shows she called and there was conversation for almost a minute. I never received this call.” Joanna dropped the cell phone to the table top.

“Are you okay?” Marla pulled her to her feet.

“Mel lied. She deliberately lied and now Raven is gone.”

“I know, Joanna. You might want to give your father a call, and see if he can talk to someone at the State Department. I don’t know what they could do, but they should be able to do something about her roaming around in that country.”

The younger woman jumped up from the table, “I don’t know why I didn’t think of that. I’m going upstairs and wash my face and call him. Can you come up shortly and sit with me for awhile?”

“Sure, honey, I’ll bring you a bowl of soup and a glass of milk. You’ve got to eat something. Now don’t argue with me; go on, I’ll be up shortly.”

Joanna talked to her father for a long time. She left nothing out, including her misgivings and her part in the misunderstanding. He assured her he would attempt to find out what he could and call her back. But, he told her it would take some time, and probably not until tomorrow, as the Department always took time to do a thorough check.

She got up off the bed, and washed her face. She decided to change into a sleeping shirt, and went to the dresser drawer where she had stashed her appropriated Jaguar one from Raven. She gasped as her eyes scanned the dresser top. She slipped on the shirt, returned to bed and threw herself across the comforter, and started crying again. This time, her heart was broken. This time, the tears wouldn’t stop.

Marla came up the stairs, into the young woman’s room and sat the tray down on the end of the bed. “Joanna, I brought up the soup and milk.”

“Oh, Marla!” She scrambled into the older woman’s arms and the choking tears poured out uncontrollably. “I’ve lost her. I’ve lost her.”

“Child settle down, you’ll make yourself sick. She’ll come back. I know she will.”

“No, she’s gone, I’ve lost her.”

“What makes you say that, honey?”

Joanna sat back and held out her hand. Marla looked down at the extended hand and her sudden intake of breath was exhaled with a steady stream of tears.

In the open palm of Joanna’s hand lay Raven’s lone key to the brownstone.

****


Chapter 14

Values: truth, integrity, honesty, love, faith, devotion, and beauty; without these values, there is confusion and chaos. When values disintegrate, everything disintegrates. Health disintegrates; poverty attains dominance over affluence, societies and civilization crumbles. Raven could feel the captions for the scenes she had just witnessed and photographed. This was more than a terrorists’ war. This was genocide in the highest form.

She remembered a quote that Clarea had written when they both had been on a short assignment a few years earlier to an Indonesian country that had ousted the dictatorship and held free elections for the first time in thirty years. ‘When we pay attention to values that society has already sacred, then order emerges out of chaos, and the feeling of pureness inside us become all-powerful, crediting anything it desires.’ As the flashes of gunfire over the rubble continued, Raven knew that there would be an order emerging from the chaos she had been shooting and experiencing the last two weeks, not only in this useless terrorists' conflict, but her inner struggles and loss.

Several times the patrols had confiscated her cameras and pushed her around trying to intimidate the photojournalist before the Militia’s Commandant had ordered her equipment returned and given her a pass for the area. Her reputation, and having won a Pulitzer Prize in Photojournalism, had saved her from the grueling hands of several disorderly patrols, rape, and even a worse fate. Now, it was getting too rough even for her. Several journalists and crew personnel had been killed already. The militia in this area was uncontrollable, the further they patrolled away from the main body of troops. The area commanders had stated categorically they could not guarantee her safety out of their site. It was time to pack it in and return to the States…even if she had nothing to return to…no Joanna.

She could suffer the emptiness on her screened-in back porch in St. Augustine. Perhaps even go to Brazil and shoot the Carnival…. She had changed her mind about nothing to live for, and it didn’t make any sense in getting killed for a few photographs. Maybe she would approach Joanna at least one last time.

“Yes, I’ll give that a try. She might at least give me the chance to let me talk and perhaps she has come to realize her priorities and how that luncheon looked.

“Maybe she has had a chance to think about it. She did look confused, and I didn’t give her all that much leeway to explain. I don’t know, though, she lays high store in her production designer….Hell; I wished I hadn’t decided to come on this assignment. I should have stayed and fought for what I know I want, and what I believe Joanna wants…US! Dagnabit! I’m going to get killed if I stay here and I don’t think that would settle anything for me. In death, I would still be searching for her.” Raven muttered just beneath her breath.

‘There is no death where the spirit lives.’ She had come to believe, and Joanna had assured her they would always live in each other’s spirits, wherever, or whatever plane they dwelled in.

As she turned the corner of a nearly destroyed building, a barrage of mortar explosions, or rockets, she wasn’t sure which, started falling on both sides of the tall woman. The photographer started running towards the central square of the small village. She had two cameras hanging from straps around her neck and one telephoto lens clutched tightly in her right hand as the little public well came into view in front of the small sandstone building.

A flashing light nearly blinded her momentarily, as a nearby explosion blew her into the partially destroyed jagged sandstone wall on the opposite side of the square.

“Ooh!…. Joanna!” she gasped. Blood filled her mouth and nose. Another stream of her life force gushed from her forehead and ran down into her eyes as they gradually turned upward and closed slowly as she sank in a heap at the foot of the wall.

*****


Joanna sat huddled on the huge, king-size, four poster bed with her legs drawn up. Her arms were wrapped around them and her chin rested on her knees. Restless, and still unable to sleep, she glanced at the small travel clock, she’d set on the nightstand. It belonged to her lover and had been overlooked in Raven’s haste to leave the brownstone. It was nearing midnight, yet she was no closer to sleep than she had been four hours earlier when she’d retreated to the gracefully decorated bedroom that she had shared with Raven. For the last four days sleep only came in short, erotic dreams, or worse, frightening nightmares.

She sat on the bed listening to the noises of the house for over an hour. No sound interrupted the silence, which she hoped meant her Aunt Rosalin and Marla had retired for the night. The two had played cards, and drank hot tea for the past four nights until rather late, and only after repeated attempts to get Joanna to retire for the evening without success, did they finally succumb to their own weariness. Her Aunt Rosalin, who resided in her own house in a quiet suburb on Long Island, had been staying in the house with her for the past four days as a comforter, not only at her request, but her parents' as well.

She had been a complete mess; in a panic-stricken frenzy, since Raven had abruptly walked out and left her seated in the restaurant for an assignment. An assignment Joanna knew was risky and perilous at best, but her subconscious and inner feelings sensed this hazardous assignment might mean Raven’s life at well. But she hadn’t had the opportunity to convince Raven to decline the project. There had been a misunderstanding… a big misunderstanding, in which Raven had jumped to conclusions that something was going on between Joanna and her production manager… or so it had looked to the tall photographer.

“Raven, how could you think I would look at another woman, knowing my love for you? It was business, only business,” she kicked aside the blanket that covered her feet, and slipped from the bed.

She dragged her slipper-clad feet to the French doors of the second floor front bedroom’s little balcony, and stood. She didn’t go out, or even stand directly in front of the drapery clad doors. Instead, she remained behind one of the heavy drapes and peeked around it at the moon-swept street.

Joanna had sensed someone had been watching earlier when she stood on the balcony for a long time thinking, before she reentered the bedroom, turned off the light and sat down on the bed. She hadn’t felt that gaze on her until only seconds before she’d walked back into the room, but that had been long enough for her to be certain. It was the same kind of feeling she had twice before at her parents’ house when she sensed being watched. Her gaze roamed the street at length, pausing upon every shadow, but she had no sense now that anyone was looking back at her.

Looking back at the now empty street, she found herself suddenly overcome by a more intense sense of loneliness than she had felt in a very long time. The acknowledgment of it made her exasperated. She needed peace, quiet, more creative time, and most of all… she needed Raven,… not this solitude… not the kind of torment having Raven gone was creating. “Damn you, Raven,” she snarled frantically, but quietly. “Damn you! You better be safe! You better come back to me!’

Her father, Howard Stern, a former Ambassador and retired international banker and her brother-in-law, a member of the Diplomatic Corps, had used their influence with the State Department and Department of Defense, to determine that Raven Longgear, Pulitzer Prize Photojournalist, had indeed landed safely in Afghanistan and had been transported into a highly disputed, combat-skirmishing area. Howard Stern had also called in a marker with a long time personal friend who was the Commanding General of the area to keep Raven under the protection of the army, and, in, if at all possible, an area they controlled.

Unfortunately, the tall dark-headed, photographer, had her own ideas of what and where needed to be photographed. Her broken heart overshadowed every dark thought and thread of common sense that she possessed. Without Joanna in her life, she didn’t care about anything, not even her own life.

Her family, friends, and even Raven’s friends had convinced Joanna, that she should keep busy. Specifically, she should put the final touches on her musical, and let the two-week assignment of Raven’s come to a close, then confront the strong willed photographer with her actions, her misgivings, and her lack of faith in their relationship. She had agreed, and would return to work at the theater the next day, but now… that was later this morning. Joanna frowned, trying to decide what to do, until… she became so weary, her body would finally rest a few minutes. She opened her briefcase, and retrieved the musical score she’d placed there earlier. She slipped from her room and hurried down the hall, careful not to make any noise to awaken her aunt who was sleeping in one of the guest rooms across the hall from hers.

The house was dark, the foyer stairs illuminated only by the faint moonlight that shone through the entry’s fanlight window. Upon entering her music room and sitting down at the piano, she couldn’t come to a decision where to start. Finally, the chief theme of her musical, the Egyptian Princess’s farewell song, flowed from her pen and was rewritten in less than an hour. She played the music through several times. Then, softly and agonizingly, she sang the words she had penned from her own heart-weary feelings. After singing the final verse, her shoulders slumped, and she breathed a sigh of relief. Her pain was somewhat released with the song, and she knew she would now be able to sleep for a few hours. She left the music on the piano and returned at a snail's pace to her room.

Rosalin, her aunt, and Marla, her long time housekeeper, both lay awake in their respective rooms, listening to the heart-breaking song. Although both realized instantly that the song would be a big success, they both understood the agony behind the melody, and their hearts went out to the young woman they both loved dearly. Both closed their eyes, and silent prayers were uttered to remedy this agonizing situation for not only Joanna, but also the tall dark-haired woman they both had come to love. They belong together, please let it be so….

Joanna sank onto the bed, and pulled the covers over her body, despairingly closed her eyes, and fell into a restless slumber. A couple of hours later the covers were kicked off, and the petite body turned and twisted in the bed, deep in another dream….

Staring at the tall bronze body above her, Joanna imagined the long slender hands gilding slowly, determinedly, over the rounded swell of her breasts. Raven’s thumbs flicked taunting touches upon pinkish nipples that seemed to be straining against her green silk negligee, and beckoning to her to rise to the dark-haired woman’s touch. Raven watched as the sheer silk of Joanna’s gown billowed out around her, furling about her shapely, shorter legs, the delicate curve of each fold catching the moonlight and reflecting it in shimmering cascades of light that made her, momentarily, appear a diaphanous illusion. The gown was quickly slipped off, and flesh touched flesh. She could almost feel the long legs of the older woman entwined about hers, the hot sheen of her naked body pressed to the tanned body above her. The hot, throbbing desire, melding them together.

Suddenly, a blaring wail split the early morning air.

Joanna, startled, sat upright in the bed, whirled about in search of what had made the almost unearthly sound. It was obvious that she knew what it sounded like, but it was also obvious that she reasoned her conclusion impossible. It wasn’t Raven’s cry. The agonizing wail had come from her own throat, and the tall woman was only in her vision, and not in the room with her. She sank back onto the bed. Perspiration covered her body.

“Raven… Raven… I love you so. Please come back to me safely. Please,” she moaned heartbrokenly, with the return of the night’s silence, which seemed now, almost so extreme, as to be eerie.

*****


“Now, Marla, don’t fuss so,” Joanna said standing at the kitchen table. You know I’ll be all right. Although I am not looking forward to returning to the theater this morning.” Still standing, she reached over and filled her glass with orange juice once again.

A forced smile lurked at the corners of her mouth as she sat down across from where Marla was busy whipping pancake batter. “Did you know that it’s unusually chilly outside for this time of year?” she asked, changing the subject on her troubled housekeeper.

“You’re absolutely impossible, you know,” Marla countered with a grin. “No wonder your Aunt Rosalin throws up her hands in total despair.” She paused as her eyes scanned the room. “Speaking of your Aunt Rosalin, where is she?”

Joanna gave an exasperated sigh. “She was on the phone in her room when I came downstairs. Probably updating my parents, and getting some further recommendations on how to handle me.”

“Don’t be too hard on her,” Marla admonished. “I know exactly how she feels. It’s terrible when you can’t fix the situations for those you love.”

Joanna groaned again. “I don’t need fixing, just support.”

Marla grinned sheepishly. “Never said you need fixing, Little One. And the support you have is from all of us and you know that!” Her longtime housekeeper continued, “Besides that, you have us all at your beckon and call, and twisted around your little finger and you are well aware of that, also.” Although her somewhat stern voice said one thing, her twinkling eyes said another. Joanna knew she was being teased to change the atmosphere and relax her.

She played along and humored the older woman she had loved since she was an infant. “Twisted around my little finger? What ever do you mean?” Joanna groaned, and rolled her eyes heavenward.

“Pooh!” Marla replied. “Don’t you try that with me, Joanna Rosalin Stern.” She stared into the piercing green eyes which were the exact replica of her mother’s.

“That’s what wrong with you now. You’re spoiled absolutely rotten.”

“Who, me?” she teased. “You must have me mixed up with some other honey-haired blonde?” Joanna laughed, enjoying this rare moment of camaraderie with her adored housekeeper. It was highly unusual for the young woman, or compassionate Marla, to let her guard down long enough to indulge in this type of exchange under the current, sad circumstances. However, both women needed the light-heartiness, if only for a few minutes.

Changing the subject, Joanna suggested, “Why don’t you talk to me about your planned trip to Florida to visit your sister, while I devour some of your wonderful pancakes. I would wait for Aunt Rosalin, but I’m starving.”

“Sure, how many do you want to start off with?” the older woman asked as she flipped the first batch of pancakes.

“Oh, I’ll take all of those, and… Marla, just keep them coming, please.” She reached over and helped herself to half a dozen small link sausages the housekeeper had just taken out of the skillet. It was the first decent meal she had eaten in five days, and her much-loved housekeeper was happy to see the young actress finally put something in her stomach, before she went into the laundry room for another task.

Joanna was halfway through her meal when Rosalin appeared in the doorway of the eat-in kitchen. “I’m sorry, Aunt Rosalin,” she said, swallowing a mouthful of pancakes, “but I couldn’t wait another minutes to feast on Marla’s savory delights.”

Her elderly aunt waved her hand, warding off further apology. “That’s just fine, dear. I’m glad you didn’t wait. It’s good you finally put something in your stomach, instead of just stirring the food around on your plate with your fork.”

Joanna shook her head in adoration as she looked at Rosalin … There was not a hair out of place on her finely shaped head, nor was there an extra ounce of flesh on her frame, for even Joanna couldn’t keep up with her exercise routine, or in the pool with her. Of medium height, if you can call five feet four inches medium, with magnolia-tinted skin, it was hard to believe that she was already seventy-eight years of age. The only visible sign marking her years was the pure white, not silver, but pure white hair. She was the gentlest and the kindest, as well as the most inquisitive, adventurous person Joanna had ever known, and she loved her deeply and beyond words.

Joanna had traveled the world with her darling aunt and her life-partner, Alexandria, and had the clever guidance of both older women gracefully rub off on the very inquisitive young woman.

“Joanna, where is Marla?” her aunt began. “I don’t mind sharing her with you part of the day, but she and I have a good deal of business to cover today.”

“She stepped into the laundry room, Aunt Rosalin. She said she would be right back, after she put a load of clothes in, but I’ll get your breakfast for you if you wish?” she added hastily.

Rosalin smiled and patted her on the shoulder, “Certainly not. You finish yours, Sweet One. I can wait. However, I can get my own tea you know, I’m not disabled yet.” The older woman took the already set serving from the table and went to the tea urn for her morning hot tea. Returning to the table where Joanna had pushed the cream urn toward her placemat, she sat down and poured the half-cup of green-blended tea full of cream.

“There you are, Marla… just one pancake for me, thank you.” The older woman addressed the housekeeper upon her return to the room. “It’s a shame you’re going to be so busy today, or you could join Marla and me for the matinee performance of ‘Phantom of the Opera.’ She was able to get us our favorite balcony seats.”

“I appreciate the offer, Auntie, but I have a full schedule at the theater today and I need to use this time productively. Besides, haven’t you two seen that…uh… how many times now… ten?”

“Actually, it’s thirteen times already, but who's counting. We will probably see yours as many times as well, Joanna.” The bigger woman responded as she flipped the one requested pancake, and poured herself another cup of coffee.

“You have arranged for a car to drive you today, haven’t you, Joanna?” Her aunt asked as she accepted the bowl of fruit passed to her by Marla.

“She’s right, dear. I don’t believe you’re in any shape to get behind the wheel of anything in this city.” Something squeezed Marla’s heart at the thought of the young woman being hurt or having an accident.

“Hey, you two, cut it out!” Joanna demanded. “Remember, I’m a great big girl now, who’s perfectly capable of making my own decisions and knowing my own ability. Believe me, when I decide to drive with as little sleep as I have had these past five nights, you’ll be the first to know, and you can step in and put all four of your dancing feet on my noggin. Okay?” she replied. “And stop worrying, I have actually arranged for a driver for Mother's Bentley for the next ten days. He’ll be here with the car in about an hour.” She smiled, taking the edge off her voice. She then rose and covered the short distance to the kitchen sink, where she deposited her dishes and cup.

Marla grumbled under her breath but, for once, held her tongue.

Rosalin’s eyes followed her to the sink. “I’m sorry, honey,” she said, a flush staining her cheeks. “It’s just that we want what’s best for you, and we’re concerned about your not getting enough sleep or rest.”

“You’re right to tell us to mind our own business, Joanna… but…we…uh,” Marla started.

“I know.” Joanna smiled shakily. “And I really appreciate your concerns. It’s just that…” She let her voice trail off. Raven’s leaving had almost crushed her, and having to confront an obvious troublemaker on her production staff was another huge strain that she could do without. What more could she say, unless she told both that she really didn’t want to face going to the theater today…not that she didn’t want to work. It was having a face to face with her production designer who, she now knew, had lied and caused needless issues between Raven and herself. She had been so appreciative of all the efforts of the woman, of her designs and encouragement. It was almost like she had been her protector, of sorts, on the production. And now she had to face the ugly situation that had caused her partner to go away... not only placing her own life in serious danger, but their relationship in dire straits as well. She had been so trusting of Mel. No…she would have to handle this matter today…by herself… but how? she asked silently.

“Joanna, dearest, what’s the matter?” Rosalin asked, following a moment of uneasy silence. “Remember, you can’t conceal your feelings from me. I’ve seen you through many bumpy periods.” Her gentle voice was full of tender concern for her namesake.

“I-I know,” Joanna gulped, busying her hands with the pretense of rinsing off the plate before placing it in the dishwasher. “And I love you both so much. I don’t know what I’d do without you two.” She forced a smile and tried to lighten the mood. “Don’t you two ever get tired of taking care of me?”

“By no means, Little One.” Marla shook her head to let her know that wasn’t the case. She knew Rosalin and she would always be here for anything the young woman might need… for as long as she lived, Joanna would be her primary importance.

This statement brought a wistful but warm smile to Rosalin’s face, making her wrinkled face more beautiful than ever. “Never, my dearest, never! From the moment you were born, you brought me untold joy. When your mother named you after us, Alexandria and I, were so touched, we could hardly stand it.” Her eyes began to fill with tears. “When your mother and father gave you her name as well, I knew she would always be with me through you,” she paused and wiped her tears.

“When your father placed you in my arms, a tiny bundle so real and so demanding, none of us, and that includes Marla, ever looked back on what we would do for you. I promised to love you like the child Alexandria and I never had and to give you the very best life had to offer, as has Marla here.”

“And you all did, too,” Joanna stated softly, “for which I’ll always be eternally grateful.”

“I wouldn’t take anything for those years I spent looking after you,” Marla stood next to the young woman and gently placed her arms around Joanna’s shoulders. The hug was instantly and affectionately returned.

“As for me, and I’m sure I can speak for Alexandria, even if she is no longer with us, we wouldn’t take anything for those hours we spent in molding and teaching your young, inquisitive mind, or for the time you spent with us, just being you.”

Suddenly, Joanna felt a burning sensation at the back of her eyes as she leaned against the counter top. Her eyes darkened. “I don’t know what I would have done without the three of you, for you have been constant in my life and the encouragement you have given me can never be honored as much as it should. I hope you both realize that.” It wasn’t a question.

“Child, you are so welcome. I haven’t really done anything this time, but if just being here as you have requested, is of help, then I shall remain until you don’t need me anymore.” Another flush stained her cheeks. “Anyway,” she went on hurriedly, “Raven will be back in ten days, and I’m absolutely certain you two will work out your differences.”

“Me too, I feel just as certain this little misunderstanding will be resolved within two minutes of you setting eyes on each other again.” Her long time housekeeper and friend reassured her, and patted the young woman’s back to confirm it.

“You both may be wrong,” Joanna countered. “If you could have seen Raven’s face in that restaurant… I… I don’t…”

“Nonsense, Child,” her elderly aunt interrupted. “I have seen the way that woman looks at you. I have heard the way she talks to you. I have seen with my own eyes, the way she glows when she is near you. Trust me, Joanna, your dark-haired, tall soulmate will come back, and you will be together… that is, if you put your main precedence in the proper place.” Her aunt declared positively.

“Rosalin is correct,, Little One, and she is right about your priorities as well. Even though, unknowingly, that Long woman manipulated you, Joanna, and she did maneuvere and conspire against you. I don’t think you realize the control she so deceptively and cleverly mustered over you. Only eradication of her vicious presence will allow Raven and you to have a contented life together. You can trust Raven, Little One. I’d stake my life on her honor and faithfulness. But Mel Long is one woman I wouldn’t trust as far as I could throw this brownstone into the Hudson River.” Marla stated, not exaggerating her convictions.

“I agree with Marla one hundred percent, dear! She told me of that woman’s actions at your preparation and appreciation party for the musical, which in itself was unthinkable, and absolutely inexcusable. Further, I strongly believed something was amiss with her, from the four or five times she came to see you in Canada when I was there with you.” Rosalin acknowledged the plainspoken comment by the housekeeper and added her own observations. “I never trusted her, Joanna, nor did I like her. I could sense something wicked about her. Something terribly depraved, which I haven’t been able to put my finger on, exactly. However, you can mark my word, she is and was up to no good, you can be sure of that, my dear.”

Joanna sighed as she gave Marla’s hand a grateful squeeze. How could she explain to either of them that her emotions were in shreds, that right now she knew she had to deal with the production manager, but she felt she was being less than honorable toward and somewhat deceitful to herself about her sense of obligation to the woman, and hated herself for that feeling. She was fresh out of ideas as to how to exorcise Melissa Albright Long from her life without causing irreparable harm to the production designer's career.

New York was not a forgiving town, and blemishes on anyone’s ability or reputation were extremely difficult to purge from their lives, whether factual or not. The tendency for theater people to remember the tarnished incident would probably damage Mel’s career, if not end it altogether, if not handled properly. But how… her mind clicked? To try and decide this without guidance made no sense. She needed to seek advice, and what better than the two women in the room who loved her immensely.

“Okay, I want to give you a blow-by-blow account of the circumstances surrounding Mel, and ask your advice in handling this bedlam.” She paused, the grooves deepening around her mouth as she and Marla sat down at the table.

“Raven has handled a couple of her would-be suitors in a very amicable manner, and I don’t feel the least bit jealous of either. But Mel… well, she was never anything but a helpful contributor to my musical, and never… and I mean NEVER, was she a suitor. Although I don’t think Raven is jealous of her, I’m certain by her reaction in the restaurant that day, she won’t tolerate Mel being around me at all now... not in any capacity at all… of that I’m sure. It’s these feelings of responsibility toward Mel that are causing the most complications in the situation.” The young woman’s eyes softened as she expressed herself and sought to overcome her feelings of helplessness.

Both women sat attentively as the young woman continued to summarize the predicament and quandary she was facing.

*****


“Good morning, George, and how are you today?” The young actress stopped as was her custom and asked the stage-door-man about his day. “Your wife over that bout with the flu from the past several weeks?” She asked.

“Top of the morning to you, Ms. Stern. Both the wife and I are doing fine. She wanted me to be sure you thanked Ms. Marla for that container of home- made chicken rice soup. It was so thick, it reminded us both of that chicken chowder we use to get all the time when we lived in Maine forty years ago.” He tipped his hat in appreciation.

“Glad you both are doing so well, and I will certainly tell Marla, she was glad to prepare it and I was fortunate to have her make a big pot so we had some, also. I have my Aunt Rosalin staying at my house for a while, George. Although she won’t be coming to visit me today, she will probably be a regular visitor, so please let her in without difficulty, okay.”

“Not a problem, Ms. Stern, and it's good to have you back so soon. Mrs. Bagwell informed all the company, you would be back today, and would be pushing things for the next two weeks. Anything I can do help, just call me.”

“Thanks, George, I’ll do that.” She walked down the hall toward the back of the theater, which housed her dressing room, greeting everyone with a pleasant smile as she passed him or her. She stopped several times to speak directly to this one, or that one, about a particular problem. She was laughing as she turned the corner to the hallway housing several dressing rooms, including her own, when she looked up and saw her production designer coming out of her dressing room.

“What are you doing in my dressing room Mel?” she asked sharply.

The caramel-skinned woman turned, startled at the appearance of her … hopefully, soon to be lover, if she had anything to do with it. “Why… Why you startled me, Joanna. Your old college buddy, Julia Bagwell, told us you would be in today, but indicated it would be around nine or so. It’s barely eight. I … Well, I wanted to express how happy I was to have you back so soon, so I left you a little bouquet inside.” Her big brown eyes widened at the presence of the attractive performer.

Joanna turned her head to check out the hallway, as she wanted to make sure no other theater company employee could over hear her conversation with the seemingly eager production designer.

“Mel, the ONLY gift I want from you is the final designs of the last scene of the scenery changes of the third act. Are they ready?” Joanna arched a brow, the laughter gone from her throat, and the beautiful face solemn with her inquiry.

“Why, of course they are, Joanna. I actually had them finished the day after you left four days ago, but I didn’t know where to overnight them to you for approval.” The production designer shrugged uncomfortably and squirmed under her steady gaze. Something was not quite the same with the younger woman. Something had changed; the tone of her voice sent off an alarm to the shorter, black-haired, older woman.

“Since when have you ever shipped me anything overnight?” Joanna tilted her head in question, “Just what is going on here, Mel? Never mind. I will wait for your response until after, I SEE the designs. Please get them now.” Joanna turned without allowing the older woman to respond. She opened her dressing room door and was upset to see a dozen red roses on her dressing room table.

“Wait a moment Mel,” she called to the caramel-skinned woman. She quickly entered the room, hastily jerked the flowers from their resting place, and went back to the open doorway, where she placed the rose vase on the small table outside her door.

“Take these with you, Mel. These were most inappropriate on your part. The only one with the privilege of giving me red roses is the keeper of my heart, NOT YOU! Do I make myself crystal clear on this?” Upset with this improper act, Joanna prodded for a response. Before the startled production designer could reply, the young woman continued, “Never mind, just bring the designs to me immediately,” she turned and stormed back into her dressing room, slamming the door.

Mel’s anger escalated towards the woman she had planned to make her next lover. “What burr did you get up with this morning, Miss High and Mighty? Don’t you realize you are in love with me, not Raven Longgear? Or don’t you realize what I have done for you, and how much you owe me? Guess I’ll have to bring this little matter to a head, and today is as good a day as any,” she muttered under her breath as she snatched the flower vase from the table and stomped to her production office downstairs.

Joanna could feel her temperature rising as she paced back and forth in her dressing room. How you express your anger should be determined by your goal. If you want to be better understood, or want to change the relationship, you need to express yourself in a cooperative way-which can be difficult when you're feeling angry. Unless your goal is specifically to hurt someone, you never have the right to talk hurtfully. Your own anger is no excuse.

“That’s doggone strong advice you threw out at me this morning, Aunt Rosalin. How do I not become angry and express myself in a cooperative way when she is obviously out to encroach into my personal life, and Lord knows what else?”

The irritated young woman stopped pacing and remembered the Aikido discipline relaxation practice Raven had taught her a few weeks before. “Okay, my own anger is no excuse,” she stopped in the middle of the room and dropped her arms gently to her side, closed her eyes, and exhaled slowly and deliberately. Her thoughts were drawn into the relaxation procedure and she concentrated on restoring a sense of balance to her trembling body. She became lost in the focus procedures until, a few minutes later, a loud, repeated knock at her door brought her back to the present.

“JOANNA! My time is valuable, also, so open the damn door and look at these designs,” Melissa Long spoke hatefully into the still-closed door. She really did need to get out of there, she thought. That was the only way she would be able to clear her head enough to find an adequate explanation for Joanna’s inappropriate, completely unethical, un-Joanna-like, behavior toward her. Then again, it wasn’t the behavior that had been un-Joanna-like, and it wasn’t the behavior that was puzzling her right now. There was nothing unusual about her wanting to bring the woman roses, or taking her to dinner, or advancing their relationship. No, what had Mel troubled so much now, were the emotional repercussions of that behavior. No telling what Joanna might do in her current state of mind. Joanna had never talked to her in that manner before, or demanded anything, or dismissed her like that, and Mel had a sinking feeling that if she didn’t stand up and let her desire be known, that Joanna might continue this unacceptable behavior.

Simply put, she had never had emotional responses nor allowed anyone to address her in that tone before and she wasn’t about to start now.

No, Never! Damn, sex had always been a sweet release of pent-up energy for me, a nice way for two consenting adults to pass the time, she thought, tapping her foot anxiously at having to wait. But this was beginning to feel more of a sweet release than sex ever had. She survived on turmoil and was a master of deception. Joanna had to be taught another lesson. Joanna had to realize she needed her and just how much the young woman was obligated to her. The brown eyes twinkled, and Mel knew she was going to turn on her charm right now, and smile her wistful little smile to the honey-blonde as soon as she opened the door.

Damnit! Her mind changed once more… more than anything at the moment, the production designer realized she wanted to be alone, to try and figure out just what the hell she was thinking, and what would be her next step in Joanna’s seduction. Joanna had caught her off guard, and she took exception to anyone getting the upper hand over her. Why did she even bother to get out of bed this morning, as nothing, just nothing was going as she had planned?

Joanna opened the door, and stood in the middle of the doorway. Mel attempted to push by Joanna, but the young woman continued blocking the entrance and stepped forward forcing Mel to back step to allow the younger woman space to stand in the corridor.

Again, Joanna looked up and down the hallway, and allowed the two costume-seamstresses with bundles of material to proceed down the hallway, and out of hearing before she turned to face the production designer once again. She reached out her hand, “Designs, please,” and did not lower her gaze or her hand until the older woman placed the three layout boards in the outstretched hand.

Joanna continued her gaze directly into the brown eyes glaring back at her, and finally raised her other hand to help hold the boards and only then did she drop her green eyes to the designs on the board. She studied each one carefully, nodding her approval as she went to the next board. She stopped on the third board and moved the board to the side to allow the overhead light to catch it better.

“These are excellent, Mel, and I approve and accept all three designs.” She said softly, then turned halfway back into the doorway and placed the boards down on floor and leaned them up on the wall just inside the entranceway before she straightened up, and turned back to face her anxious and very irritated production designer. Before she spoke, she again looked up and down the corridor again to maintain privacy.

“Mel, one of the ways any relationship between two people gets into trouble is the unspoken agreement that as soon as someone is angry, he or she can express his or herself in a rude or hurtful way. I do not wish to hurt you, or be rude to you. And I have no intention of expressing myself to you in an angry manner. However, I find that I cannot accept your conduct of last week. You were not truthful to me about being in my dressing room, answering my phone and with the conversation you had with Raven. It caused embarrassment for all of us, and worse, misunderstandings that have had serious consequences as well.” Joanna stated in a tone that broached no argument, yet it was without hostility or anger.

“Damnit it all to hell, Joanna, let’s go into your dressing room and discuss this like two civilized grown-ups,” Mel’s voice was strident in protest as she attempted to push pass the actress.

Joanna made no effort to move, but did place her hand on the door-jam to prevent the sullen woman from pushing past her into the dressing room. “NO! I do not wish to be in a closed room with you, Mel. I don’t want there ever to be any opportunities for anyone to be able to say anything went on behind closed doors, or that there were some secrecies, or improprieties, between you and me.”

“You sure as hell owe me the courtesy of this discussion in private, Joanna!” She demanded bitterly, her voice rough with strain, attempting not to scream at the young woman before her.

“Actually, Mel, I owe you for the three accepted designs in my dressing room. My accountant has been directed to deliver a check for your entire fee for this production, even though only the payment for these three re-designs are the only ones that haven’t been paid for yet. She should be here in about a half-an-hour with your check.” She said as she glanced as her watch to check the time. “That will allow you the time to gather your personal things, boards and production tools from downstairs. In checking this legality with my attorney, he assures me, this check more than concludes our contract agreement. The designs are now mine and belong to my production company.” Her voice tight but, again remained without anger in the pitch or tone.

“You will be given full credit in all Program Bulletins for the production designs. Further, I will instruct everyone connected with this production that you are to be given the highest praise for these designs and a flowing recommendation to anyone who makes inquiries of your ability or work performance here,” she continued in a normal voice, meeting Mel’s angry gaze evenly. “There will be no ill will or tarnish on your quality, skill, or expertise of your work, Mel. And your leaving now will in no way hinder you from seeking projects elsewhere.” She had never seen anyone look so miserable as the caramel-skin woman before her. Yet, the wickedness almost seemed to leap from the dark brown eyes and showed the angry woman was quickly losing her composure.

“How can you stand there and do this to me after all I have done for you. You have to realize I have made this production for you, Joanna Stern,” she gritted her teeth and hastily shook her head in disbelief. “Not only that, you know we have something going on between us, even if you don’t want to admit it… there are deep feelings between us that haven’t been allowed to come into fruition.” Her patience gone, she attempted to reach out and hug the woman in front of her.

Joanna immediately blocked her advance with her arms, and gently pushed her terminated production designer away from her. She did not want this to come to a physical encounter, but she wasn’t going to be embraced or allow any intimate encounters of any kind by the older woman.

“You are mistaken, totally and completely mistaken, Mel. There is nothing between us. You obviously have read more into my friendliness and this situation than what is there. It’s business, Mel, and NOTHING more! I respected you, and even took up for you when others advised me that you lived your own malicious agenda, and I didn’t believe them. You were deceitful. You lied to Raven and to me, and you cause problems. That is unacceptable and I don’t care to continue this conversation. Please gather your things and be out of here as soon as my accountant arrives!” The young actress said with finality, turned, walked hurriedly into her dressing room, and closed the door gently behind her.

The production designer stood there gazing at the closed door. If a look could kill, the young blonde on the other side of the door would be falling to the floor at the continued bitter gaze from the dark brown eyes. I will have my revenge, Joanna. You can’t treat me this way. I won’t allow it. You will be sorry the day you ever took that tall bitch to your bed. You will hurt, just as you have made me hurt this day. She turned and stomped down the corridor to collect her personal things.

“I have something very special planned for you, Joanna, and your lover, Raven Longgear when she returns…Heh-Ha-Ha, if she returns. Guess phase three of my plan worked. Yes, I’d say it worked quite nicely. Now for phase four.” She murmured under her breath as she gathered her designing instruments and stuffed them into her large portfolio.

“YOU BITCH! YOU WILL REGRET THIS, JOANNA!” Exploding out of the storage area of the production office, and replacing the remaining blank drawing boards in to the display portfolio, “You sold me out! You stupid broad! Did you think just because I bowed to your every whim that I’d allow you to get away with something like this, when I wouldn’t allow Margie any leeway? Weren’t you paying attention at all? Nobody stabs me in the back, Joanna.” Her voice dropped to a harsh whisper. “Nobody! I’ll even let you know just moments before, just as I did Margie. NO ONE screws with me, NO ONE!”


*****



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