A Length of Joy

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


Disclaimers: Please See Chapter One

Chapter 17

Some days later, Marcella joined Joanna and Raven in the small garden in the enclosed backyard of the brownstone where she was attempting to tell her cousin something about the person she had become involved with without giving away details about Melissa. Mel had again expressed specific instructions about keeping certain particulars about their relationship cloaked, for her own unexplained reasons.

“Does she love you the way you love her?” Joanna asked the redheaded flight attendant.

“I think so,” came the bashful and unsure reply.

“She’s never said anything?” Raven gently questioned her cousin’s vague response.

“She…she has never actually… not in words, but I feel affections from her… she is… she always has…. I know there is the definite possibility of permanence… ahh… imminent from her towards me.” Marcella attempted to explain the feelings she felt from her girlfriend.

Joanna clutched Ravens hand tighter, as she moved closer to the tall woman sharing the cast-iron loveseat next to the hand made fountain. Raven squeezed her hand in return and looked over at her. Joanna’s eyes were expressing the same silent concern that the tall photographer was feeling. Something was not right with this situation with her cousin, and she didn’t know exactly how to proceed or express her uneasiness to her only living relative.

“Melissa is a very lovely woman. She can be so warm at times, and the intensity can just consume me. This last visit in Atlanta, was--well, it was just so confusing and so physical.”

It came so quietly and with so little fanfare after such a prolonged discussion that, at first, neither Joanna nor Raven were sure they had heard her right.

“Excuse me Marcella. Did you say Melissa?” Joanna almost whispered her question, and felt Raven go stiff beside her. She had heard right, but they both were afraid to believe it.

“It can’t be the same person, Joanna. What are the chances?” Raven almost forced the words from her mouth. But deep inside, her instinct was forcing a very uncomfortable feeling throughout her body.

“What is the matter, you both have suddenly become pale as freshly laundered sheets, and as if you had seen a ghost?” The redheaded woman’s concern caused her to get up from the bench, and squat down next to her cousin.

“Raven, what’s wrong?” She asked fearfully. The immediate change in the demeanor of both women had caught her by surprise, and she realized immediately that something was amiss.

“Cuz’, did you say Melissa? And, by any chance, is this Melissa also named Long?” Raven placed her free left hand on the side of her cousin’s face, and waited breathlessly for her response.

Marcella was torn between divulging information about Mel, including her name, and being honest with her cousin and her lover who she had come to cherish and had treated her like a sister. Yet, both Joanna and Raven knew her name and from the looks on both their faces, there was something very unexpected and unpleasant about to be relayed about the woman she had come to believe was the right one for her.

“Melissa Albright Long?” Joanna asked quietly.

The redhead’s eyes became large, and reluctant to acknowledge the questioned name. She was uncertain why she responded, but hesitantly, she merely said, “Yes.”

“Oh, my God, no!”

“Heaven help us,” escaped Joanna’s lips.

“What? Please, Raven, tell me?” Marcella’s eyes blurred.

For the next half hour, Joanna and Raven explained the circumstances surrounding Mel, and her treachery. The redheaded flight attendant sat at Raven’s feet, first feeling anger, confusion; then reluctantly somewhat believing the two women, yet wanting to salvage, if possible, the idea of a perfect person in her life, she held up her hand to Raven.

“This is ridiculous, Raven! Do you really think that I’d sneak off and crawl into bed with someone--someone so?’ She held up a hand. “No. Don’t say it. You pictured something more like a little tryst in the sack, and nothing more. Well, it’s more than that to me, cousin. Much more,” her eyes widened, brimming with mock honor.

“Believe me when I say, I was completely taken in by her humor and sincerity also, Marcella. She was so funny, and made me roll with laughter all the time. Besides, she convinced me she only had my best interests at heart, and that she would do anything to satisfy my ideas professionally. I came to believe she and I had so much in common, and we just clicked for some reason. I never realized until it was almost too late, exactly what she did have on her scheming mind. True, she got the upper hand, only because I was so trusting, but I was made out to be a bloody fool, in more ways than one. It almost cost me my life with Raven.” Joanna relayed her encounter with her former production designer.

She somewhat resented Joanna and Raven’s demeaning Mel, but deep down in her heart, she felt they had shared only the truth with her. Pressing the palm of her hand band tightly against Raven’s knee, Marcella shook her head slowly.

“God, I don’t believe this conversation.” The eyes she turned on her cousin were no longer filled with anger, but hurt and disbelief. It was all a lie. Everything that happened between her and Melissa was irrelevant and a lie! All of it! She had been used, and she realized she had been very skillfully manipulated to reveal information about Joanna and Raven.

“We just want you to tell us whether or not you’re all right, Marcella. I know this is so difficult. Yes or no. That’s all we want to hear! We are here for you, and you can trust us.” Joanna had sat down next to the redhead, and had her arm around her shoulder in support.

Raven couldn’t get on the grass because of the braced leg, but she had tightened her hold on her cousin’s hand. “We care about you, Marcella,” she reassured her.

“If you both tell me that Melissa has done these things and was actually your production designer, when she told me she was a website designer working and living in Texas, I’ll have to accept it. I’ll steer clear of her. I can’t go on seeing her. In either case, she’ll never know that we had this discussion.” Her face grew red, but from frustration rather than embarrassment.

“If you were suddenly to stop seeing her, wouldn’t she wonder?” Joanna asked, concerned that Mel might do something or attempt some recourse on being rejected by the flight attendant. “I’m simply asking a question. Would she grow suspicious or attempt contacting you through the airline or cause problems for you?”

“Joanna has a good point, Marcella. It might be a good idea for you to keep on the international flights for a while. You might also want to send her a brief email that you have been transferred indefinitely internationally for an undetermined time period, and don’t know when you will be stateside again. Then just let the emails remain unanswered and don’t contact her further.”

“That sounds like it would be best. I can get my schedule switched tomorrow, and leave then, also. This will work,” she said, grateful she had such support from the two closest to her.

“You can still come see us when you land in New York, and she’ll never know. We are both so sorry, Marcella. We hoped you had found that perfect relationship that would make your life complete. Don’t give up, there is the perfect one out there just for you,” her cousin hugged her.

“I thought she was the one, but now I realize it was wishful thinking on my part. And yes, I know someday, there will be the right one coming into my life.” She said as she hugged Joanna.

“I have to admit, this last time in Atlanta, she did frighten me somewhat. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on, but you know how your instinct and feelings alert you to some danger or difficulty? Well, I was actually frightened when she took my face in her hands once, and had to tell her she was hurting me.”

“You were fortunate she didn’t hurt you. I would have made hamburger meat out of her if she had,” Raven admitted.

“You know, I actually feel better now that the relationship is out in the open, and everything has been revealed.”

They continued talking until it became dark, and Marla called them in for dinner. Just before she entered the back door, Marcella looked off into the night sky. In the faraway distance, she thought she heard someone whisper to her, but the words eddied together like lofty breezes above the clouds. That night she slept, tumbled gently in downy softness, yet anchored by a strong embrace of a repeated gentle voice, be not afraid. It is not yet your time, but in a little season, your love will come, never fear.

*****


“Aunt Rosalin, are you sure that running Marcella by the airport won’t put you out of your way?” Joanna asked the elderly woman as she handed the dark blue umbrella to her.

“No, none whatsoever. She is a sweet child and the airport is actually only a few miles out of my way. It would be forty-five minutes for any of you, and I’m most interested in asking her about her experiences in Greece.” The older woman took the umbrella after she had hugged her niece.

“Thanks, Aunt Rosalin, we are grateful for your thoughtfulness,” stated the tall woman, still sitting in the wheel chair. “Don’t I get a hug before you dash off?”

“Of course you do, sweet one.” She bent down and embraced the tall woman and spoke in her ear so that only she could hear, “Remember our talk when you are alone with her at her cabin, or she’ll beat you to the question.” She raised up and looked to the two tall men standing side by side.

“I do expect you young men to assist Raven and Joanna with those loads of things they are taking to the lake.”

“We are not only going to load up shortly, but we are both driving, and un-loading for them. We will leave Joanna’s jeep for them to use, and will be driving her other car back here tomorrow before we go to the airport.

“Excellent. You ready, Marcella?”

“Yes, Ma’am. Thanks for everything, Joanna, and keep my cousin out of trouble, okay.” The tall redhead hugged both women and the men. “I’ll see you all in about three months,” she said and opened the door for Rosalin to exit before her. Rosalin’s chauffeur took her arm at the door and assisted her down the steps and into the waiting car.

“That is one fine old lady, Carl waved once more before he remounted the steps and ushered Joanna back into the house.

“Thanks, Carl. She is especially dear to me.”

“And me,” Raven stated from the hallway.

“Okay, to the loading. What needs to come down from the bedroom and what from the kitchen?” Asked Rex, as he pushed Raven’s wheelchair into the kitchen area.

*****


Mel sat back in the speedboat seat and gave the tanned young man a thorough once-over. He was fourteen years younger than she, but Melissa had a way with men, as well as most women, no matter what their age. She had practically seduced the besotten boat rental manager her first trip here to scope out Joanna’s cabin on the opposite side of Lake Joseph. The second trip, he couldn’t believe his fortune at having such a sophisticated, worldly woman accept his advances. Needless to say, the poor un-suspecting dock manager couldn’t do enough for his recent lover. What exactly should he call her, he wondered as he sped the boat toward the opposite side of the lake?

Mel had convinced him to keep her visitations to the dock secret, and had even parked her borrowed vehicle on the backside of the waterfront general all around mercantile, bait, boat, rental and tackle shop. He had even removed the chain to the side road and had parked her car out of sight for her the last two visits. She had told him she was planning a big surprise for Joanna Stern and didn’t want it to get out before she had a general layout of the cabin area, and what decorations would be needed. She had called him yesterday, as she had every two days for the past three weeks, and was finally told that Joanna had ordered her boat be removed from the storage facility, serviced and brought to her dock two days hence, which would be tomorrow.

She wanted one last look at the ground and just how close she could get the speedboat to Joanna’s dock and the house without anyone being able to clearly see her or what was planned. Mel hadn’t fully made up her mind if it would be that bitch, Raven, or if Joanna would reap her vengeance, or if it would take both of the unsuspecting women’s demise to satisfy the score. Tomorrow is soon enough to decide my full revenge. Maybe I’ll let one of them grieve for the other… that would be worth standing back and watching for months to come, and it might be a more satisfying way to settle the score, she snorted out loud.

“What’s so funny, Melissa?” Tommy Clayton asked the seductive older woman sitting beside him.

She blinked, but did not answer him. She looked ravishing as usual, and adorable, as usual. Today she wore creamy- white coveralls shorts over a short-sleeved cream T-shirt. On her feet were heavy sandals that were a shade darker than the creamy shorts. These colors offset her almond skin and made the woman more appealing in more ways than one.

“Hi-i-i-i, Mel-lis-sa,” he drawled, crooking his finger for her to come closer to him on the boat seat.

She gave him the finger.

He grinned.

She glared over at the young man.

It was a game they’d been playing for the past three weeks. He attempted the part of big-bad-hunk, and she put up her usual little resistance to keep the game interesting.

He continued to grin and added a look. “Come on now, you know you want to be real close.” Tommy reached over and placed his arm longingly around her shoulder.

She took one look toward the approaching cabin and quickly slid over close to her bulky younger companion as possible, which allowed her to be completely concealed by his physique. In passing the cabin, she carefully scrutinized the scene. Rex and Carl were taking bags onto the porch, and Joanna had pushed Raven’s chair to the steps, waiting for the men to return to assist her with the chair. Damn, I wonder how long those two bastards will be staying? I have to do this tomorrow or postpone it until next month as I have to complete those changed scenery designs, and that can’t wait four or five more days, she muttered silently as she reached over and caught Tommy’s ear lobe with her teeth and gave a tug.

“Whoa, down girl, I need that ear lobe,” his voice playful. “Can’t you wait until we get back, or do I need to pull this boat over in the cove again and let you have it?” Tommy questioned, a lopsided grin covered his face.

The boat had made a wide circle and was within sight of a curve on the lake that hid the boat ramp as she reached over with her hand and started unfastening his belt. “Do you think you can make it to the cove?” she asked, slowly unzipping his cut-off-jeans.

“NO!” He pushed the throttle forward, slowing the boat to about forty yards from the shore before he turned off the motor. Mel gave the shoreline a quick look to make sure no one was about, and pushed her hand down quickly between the now opened zipper.

She spent that night with Tommy in the back room of his parent’s general store-bait shop. Tommy had called them, stating he was going to do some all-night fishing as he frequently did this time of year and would not be home until the next evening. He always kept a clean set of clothes at the shop, and they had installed a shower in the bathroom a few years back, as well as placed a bed for use when they were really busy.

*****


Everything had been brought in and was in a logical place. A quick meal had been prepared and consumed by the four hungry friends. They had talked and listened to CDs for a long time and conversed as friends always do. Then Raven decided it was time for her to do a little Aikido to help mend her knee. Although she had been putting a little weight on the knee, most of her getting around was by crutches or the wheel chair, and she had only the past week removed the brace for short periods of therapy. Aikido sequences would help build up the stamina in the damaged knee, muscles, and ligaments from her injury. She removed her brace and with Carl’s assistance used the crutches to maneuver to the pier where the two began a short Aikido sequence, then the two friends had agreed they would sit on the pier and fish a few minutes and, perhaps, catch their dinner.

“Raven promised she would not over do the session, Joanna. Trust her, she won’t take a chance on being back in that hospital,” the sports announcer offered the blonde who was standing on the porch looking down at the pier and the two friends quietly going through an Aikido segment.

Unfolding her arms from across her chest, her head turned and she smiled at the tall, tanned man. “She better not. One, I’ll wring her neck, and two, the hospital would probably cost my family another wing to take her back in there for so much as another day,” she stated good naturally.

“HA! HA! HA! So, your Aunt Rosalin was correct, the hospital was quite ready to get rid of our tall friend.” Rex acknowledged the situation.

“Yes, but Rex, I wanted her back, and it was fine with me she was a pain in the butt about getting out earlier than scheduled.”

“No more than she wanted to be back with you, I’m sure,” he replied honestly.

“Say, how about we go for walk in the woods while those two do the therapy? I saw Carl run back up here for tackle. I doubt they’ll move off that dock for hours.”

“I’d love to, but I need to change my shoes, these loafers won’t take those trails, I don’t think,” he acknowledged as he turned and reentered the cabin to put on walking shoes he always carried with him.

Joanna had put on her walking shoes before she came onto the porch, and was sitting on the steps when Rex quickly returned and ruffled her hair. “You ready to go?” he asked.

“Yes. There are many trails here, but why don’t we do an easy one today, say down by the river that feeds into the lake. There is a nice well-used trail, and the scenery this time of the year is lovely.” The short blonde motioned to the far left side of the driveway, and a well-used path.

They walked for about twenty minutes, conversing as they strolled side by side on the wide trail. When they rounded a curve, a footpath bridge came into view.

“I’m going to ask her for a permanent commitment this week while we are here, Rex.” Joanna stated as she turned to face her tall friend.

Rex stopped, and smiled down at the petite woman. “She might beat you to it Joanna. It was on her mind that week before y’all came back up here and all hell broke loose.”

“I had that feeling, and I’m sure she still feels the same way,” she said as she turned and proceeded onto the bridge. “But, I was the one at major fault, and I need to ask her.”

“Why not wait for a few days, and see how you feel, then. I bet she asks you before the week is out.” He stopped and leaned down on the guardrail of the bridge. “Joanna, this is a beautiful sight,” he stated as his friend joined him next to the rail and rested her chin on her hands she had placed on the top rail.

“It sure is. I stand here almost in a trance every time I come and just admire the beauty.” she responded.

Rex chuckled, “Raven paid me money to jump off a bridge just like this one, only not quite as high when we were in college.”

“I’m surprised you two lived to get through university with all the antics she has told me you two pulled.” She snickered at one of the remembrances Raven had shared with her. “So quiet here.”

“Yeah, really peaceful,” he replied with an easy smile. “Nice trek up here, but we might need to get back.

“Yes, I needed to stretch my legs. You’re not saying if we leave those two alone for any length of time, that they will get into some sort of mischief?” Joanna smiled, knowing the answer.

“Ha Ha. You know those two can’t be trusted along for any length of time without some dilemma following.”

“You into jogging back?” Joanna turned to her companion.

“Sure, if you don’t set too fast a pace.” Rex gestured for his companion to take the trail first. “I’ll follow and call out if I need to slow down.”

Within sight of the cabin, they stopped jogging and hand in hand walked back to the cabin. They found Raven and Carl waving to join them in the fishing from the pier where they were sitting with their legs hanging over the dock and their feet dangling in the water below.

“You better have a pretty darn good explanation why you're hand in hand with my lady, Slick.” The tall photographer smirked, as she handed a prepared rod and reel to the beaming actress who kissed her gently on the lips and sat down next to her.

“Now, Stretch, you don’t want to know all my secrets do you?” The grinning sports announcer sat down next to his partner, who promptly reached over and playfully pushed him into the water.

SPLASH!

“Secrets, huh? Guess that will cool off that particular secret,” Carl declared with an easy smile.

All four friends burst out into the same contagious laughter that had captured Rex and Joanna half an hour earlier. Carl extended his hand and Rex slithered up on the dock like a wet eel. The four friends spent all afternoon attempting to catch fish that had obviously been scared to the opposite side of the lake from the unexpected plunge of the sports announcer.

*****


Raven was sitting in the wheelchair with Joanna standing beside her as they waved to their departing male friends. Joanna waved once more to the departing car as it rounded the bend in the road and out of sight of the young blonde.

“I’m sorry to see them go,” she said.

“Yeah, me, too. But Sweetheart, I’m glad for some time alone with you,” she pulled the petite woman down in her lap and into another deep kiss.

“Querida, you and I are way behind on the lovemaking, and I suggest we do something about it before we both explode,” the tall woman nibbled on the neck of the young blonde.

“That’s the first time you’ve called me, Querida, my darling,” Joanna turned her neck away from Raven and kissed her on the nose and quickly jumped up out of her lap. “And there will be no lovemaking. None, until the doctor says okay in three weeks, Querida.” She said, with determination as she placed her hands on her hips and stared the seated woman down. “NO SEX!”

“Oh, for crying out loud, Sweetheart. You and I both have to have a little release. I can hardly stand lying in bed with you at night, and you keep pushing my hands away from every interesting part of your body,” she whined, hoping the petite woman would agree with her. “I love you, Joanna, and I want to make love with you.”

“And you think I don’t? You know good and well, it is just as hard on me, for I’m the one who has to do all the resisting and follow his orders. I want you so badly that I’m about to explode, just like you. Why do you think I take an average of four cold showers a day, and repeat the process several times at night.” Her concerned beautiful lover held up her hands in protest. “NO, NO, NO. We aren’t making love and you might as well change the subject.” She insisted as she dropped her hands and went towards the kitchen area of the cabin. “You want some lemonade, or iced tea?”

“I want you,” was the exasperating reply.

“Well, that makes it unanimous, Darling, but the question was, lemonade or tea?” She asked as she opened the door to the refrigerator.

“Can’t I have something to drink, and you too?” Raven chimed seriously.

A smirk dashed across her green eyes and she looked directly at the still- seated woman, “Nooooo, just something to drink. We aren’t making love and you need to stop talking about it,” she growled a warning.

“I’ll make a deal with you, Sweetheart,” Raven shrugged, “We won’t make love until …!” The tall woman suggested, almost imperceptibly.

“What was that you said, I could barely hear you? You won’t hound me about having sex anymore until …? Was that what I heard you say, Stretch?”

The words set off a quiet explosion of recognition. One of Raven’s many challenges.

Raven held up her hands in surrender, but the smug smile on her face knew Joanna had taken the bait. Now, just what can I do to make you beg for a little lovemaking my sweet, over-confident one… you simply can’t turn down a challenge of wills, blue eyes blinked slowly to prevent them from getting wider and giving away her thoughts. “You heard me correctly, Sweetheart.”

She tilted his head to one side, as if listening to a far distant voice, Careful, Joanna, she is as slippery as an eel with her challenges, and you have to make a deal all your own to deal with her lovemaking intentions.

“I don’t think….What’s the deal?”

“Your Aunt Rosalin told me you take to a challenge, like it takes a #8 hook set well to catch a bass, and you…”

Joanna interrupted her before she finished, “You lying trawl you, that motto is on one of the French coffee mugs on that shelf above the sink,” pointing to the shelf, and accused Raven with a laugh.

“Well, I knew I heard it, or read it somewhere,” the tall woman grinned unabashedly.

“There’s just one condition to the deal. You will give me a three-week reprieve from your constant seduction endeavors, as long as you consent to...” She paused deliberately.

Raven’s body stiffened and her knee jerked, and the fine hairs stood up on the back of her neck. “Conditions?”

She nodded, and then smiled enigmatically. “No sexual requests.”

“No sexual requests?” She let out a hoot of laughter. She must be kidding, she grinned, easing herself out of the chair, and locked the hinges of the brace in place. This woman filled with uninhibited enthusiasm is saying “No sexual requests?” This woman who echoed my refrain, “You are mine, and meant it, is now saying “No sexual requests?” This woman who is caught in the same love net as me is saying “No sexual requests?”

Joanna didn’t return her laughter. In fact, she folded her arms across her chest and waited.

“Well?” Her heart was lodged in her throat as she waited for Raven’s answer. She resisted. “No sex or no deal.”

She tilted her head in agreement. “It’s a deal. Three weeks. Then all bets are off.” She leaned forward and gave her a quick kiss of thanks for her acceptance of the challenge. “You’ll be sorry, querida. I promise you, you will succumb to the desires running through you long before the three weeks are up,” Raven added confidently, and removed a glass from the shelf next to the mugs and handed it to Joanna, and pointed to the iced tea.

“Just don’t let me forget, Raven… I get three weeks reprieve from your constant wandering hands, and flashing, sneaky tongue. And you win what ever your heart desires if you can refrain from attempting sex for just three little weeks.”

“I love you. Don’t think I take those words lightly when I say them, Joanna. I know you love me, too.”

“I do. And believe me, I take the words just as seriously as you do. But a deal’s a deal,” she pointed out with amusement and pulled Raven close for another kiss.

Raven felt her face heat and considered lying, but only briefly. Her eyebrow would probably give her away anyhow.

“Yes, a deal's a deal.” Raven’s tongue automatically attempted penetration of the soft lips touching hers.

Joanna threw her hands up in a “See!” attitude. “I thought we had a deal?”

Raven thought for a moment. No way was she going to accept her terms, but she understood her lover, and she had swallowed the bait-hook-line--and sinker. She proceeded with caution. “How about a counteroffer? This is a bargaining table, right?” She tapped the forehead of the attractive blonde before her for emphasis.

“Sure. Why not?” She smiled sweetly.

Well, you overconfident faker, you! You still think you can beat me in a seduction deal Ha! Ha! “I give you a three three-week reprieve. You get three weeks of no sexual endeavors--unless you beg for it.”

Joanna burst out laughing. “I'll never do that.”

“Never say never, Babe.” Raven matched her charming smile, and raised her with a wicked wink.

“Never.” She stretched her adorable smile, winked back and added a haughty toss of her hair.

God, I love her. “Never challenge a Greek, Joanna. Especially when she’s betting on a sure thing,” Raven cautioned.

“You’re the one without a chance, Miss High and Mighty Greek.”

Raven grinned. “You have already lost, my dear, beautiful, Joanna.”

“You are outrageous.” As they shook hands to seal the deal, Joanna repeated, “Never, I tell you. Never, never, never. I’ll not beg.”

Never lasted about three and a half hours. But that came about right after lunch.

“How about we slip on our swim suits and go lie on the pier for an hour? I’m getting almost as white as you,” Raven asked, her mind already racing ahead to her planned seduction tactic….Before the day is over my sweet.

“Now, that sounds like a plan.” She filled the glasses with lemonade. “I’ll take these down to the dock, so our hands won’t be so full of towels and suntan lotion.”

“Fine, I’ll go change. You remember which bag had my bathing suit in it?” Raven asked as she reached for the crutches Joanna picked up from beside the sofa and held up for her partner.

“I unpacked the luggage while you were still sleeping this morning. All your things are in the chest of drawers, and I believe your swim suit is in the bottom drawer.” She smiled as she picked up the glasses from the coffee table, and began humming as she hurried down the steps and the stone walkway to the pier.

Five minutes later, they were spreading out towels on the wooden dock.

“You rub lotion on my back and I’ll rub yours.” Joanna picked up the lotion and unscrewed the top.

“Okey dokey, you want me sitting or lying on my tummy? The tall woman carefully moved her right leg out to the side.

“Sitting for now, then the tummy for the backs of your legs.”

“Gotcha,” Raven beamed and turned around with her long back to the honey-headed actress.

A few minutes had gone by and Raven was laying on her arms looking thoughtfully over at the soft green eyes gazing back at her. “Joanna, I’ve been thinking,” the injured photographer breathed out slowly and waited.

The young actress opened her eyes, and looked inquisitively over at her lover, “You’ve been thinking?” The sparking green orbs set off a quiet explosion of recognition at Raven’s tone.

“I’ve been thinking you are so tense and up tight with my injuries, and all the stress you have been through these past weeks, how about after lunch, I give you one of my soothing body-rubs?” Blue eyes glistened faintly in the bright sunlight.

Joanna couldn’t think when she’d heard a better idea, but she knew Raven was up to seduction and she wasn’t about to lose the bet. “That sounds like one of your seductive endeavors, my darling. Remember, you have given me several body rubs, and you know what happens when you do that--remember we have a deal, NO SEX!”

Seeing the exasperated expression on the young blonde’s face, she answered succinctly “Honey, I never go back on a deal. I was thinking about you, and helping you relax. No lovemaking attempts, just a simple massage.” Raven held her breath, I didn’t promise, I only offered a resting massage’

Shaking her head forcefully, “Raven, you have something up your sleeve and you know it!”

“You’ve got me all wrong,” she commented with a chuckle. “Are you saying you can’t keep your mind on the deal? That you’ll be tempted to beg me to make love with you?” Raven inquired mischievously.

“You don’t give me enough credit, Darling.” Joanna gave her a soft chuckle. “I can resist you. It will be hard. But I can do it, Sweetie.” She smiled at the image of Raven’s hands caressing her body. Her mind was skipping ahead at the prospects of a massage, so she changed the subject.

“Darling, while we are alone, I have been wanting to ask you something,” Joanna stated calmly. I will ask her about being my manager now and later I’ll ask her the really important question.

Oh, shit! She is going to beat me to the question. I need to get her mind off this and elsewhere. Raven quickly sat up, “Sweetheart, I think you’re well done on that side, how about turning face up and I’ll rub on the suntan lotion for you?” She asked seriously, as she reached for the suntan bottle, and unscrewed the cap. “Come on, up you come.”

“Okay.” She shrugged sitting up. “Raven, I think we make a great team and I was wondering if you would consider becoming my manager.”

“WHAT!?” Raven exclaimed.

“Would you consider becoming my manager? I trust you, and I need to be around you more,” she stated calmly.

“Honey, you’ve lost it. Me! Your Manager? Not hardly!” Raven snorted contemptuously, “I don’t know the first damn thing about being a manager, and even less about the theater or show-business.” She shook her head unbelievingly at her lover's request.

“You know me, and that is what I need.” Joanna placed her hand on the beautiful face sitting next to her. “Don’t look so shocked, darling. I don’t want you to give me an answer right now. Just think about it. Okay?” She leaned over and kissed the tall woman.

“There isn’t anything to think about, Sweetheart. I’m a photographer… plain and simple. That is something I’m very good at, and I want to keep it that way,” blue eyes watched with amazement at the confidence Joanna was showing her.

“Just think about it, honey. Now, are you going to finish my legs or not?” She grinned, laying back on the towel and placing her arms over her head.

Raven gulped a few times and squired the lotion all over her hand and particularly on the smaller, bikini clad woman beside her.

“Watch it, Stretch. I want it on my legs, not my…ah…” she teased.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” she offered, rubbing her hands together and reaching her long fingers down and tickled the front of Joanna’s knees.

“Stop that,” Joanna squirmed. “You’re supposed to be spreading lotion, not anything else,” she snapped affectionately.

“Okay. Okay.”

Joanna returned to the cabin and brought out an iced pitcher of lemonade for the two of them. They lay there for about an hour sunbathing and talking, when Joanna asked Raven if it was her stomach she heard growling.

“For once, I do believe you’re correct. I didn’t eat much for breakfast, and I could eat a salad and sandwich. How about you?”

“Raven, when have you ever heard me turn down food?” She hopped up and extended a helping hand to the tall woman who had slipped her tee-shirt back on. Then she took hold of the shirt and pulled her in for a searing kiss. One that made both their heads swim with the leaping emotions.

“Thank you,” the warm tone of her voice encouraging.

Raven pulled her hands down and held them in hers. The thick French plait of hair slowly loosened from the lotion-wet shoulders and drifted enticingly around her neck. “Did I mention,” Raven continued, knowing that she was pushing her luck, “that you are a fabulous kisser?”

The light sparkling in Joanna’s eyes warned her that she was going to be on the receiving end of a scornful retort. To her surprise, it didn’t come.

Instead, Joanna’s lips turned a sedate smile. “Why, thank you.” She slipped her hands from the larger ones and poured the two remaining glasses of lemonade from the pitcher. “But I think credit should go to the individual who taught me, don’t you?” She handed Raven one glass, and sipped her own, her eyes sparkling at the tall woman her over the rim of the beading glass.

“That was a very gracious compliment.” Raven lifted her glass to tip Joanna’s.

Joanna’s eyes widened in apparent surprise, “Oh, dear; I’m sorry. Did you think I was talking about you?”

Raven choked on a mouthful of lemonade and spilled the rest on her tee- shirt. “If it wasn’t me, then who the hell was it?” She bent down and grabbed the towel and dabbed at the soggy fabric, telling herself to be rational. Joanna could hardly have reached the age of twenty-six without having learned more than kissing, and from others rather than just her.

“What?” The tall photographer looked over at the younger woman..

A Cheshire cat grin was spreading over the actress’s face. Slowly she raised her hand and pointed a finger at her. “Gotcha!” She cooed in delight.

“Very funny!” Raven tossed the towel at her, which she caught with one hand and lobbed it over her shoulder. “You really had me going for a minute.”

“I know,” Joanna took another sip of lemonade, turned and sashayed down the dock. Her hips over-emphasized the swishing as she deliberately taunted the tall woman still standing wide eyed behind her. Guess that will teach that tall seductress, two can play. Then she burst out laughing and ended up running up the stone walk, taking the steps two at a time and disappeared into the cabin.

“Why you little…” Raven cocked her head, “So we want to play, do we? Okey Dokey, we play!” She limped slowly up the dock. One genuine body rub coming up.

*****


Joanna had just finished tidying up the small kitchen and was standing at the sink. She felt really worn-out. The past couple of months had actually drained the young woman. She was about to try to convince Raven to take a little nap. If she didn’t want to lie down for forty winks, there were many wild geese and ducks using the lake and she could photograph all her heart desired…either way, she needed a short rest.

“Are you ready?” Raven asked behind her.

She jumped with surprise at her silent appearance. She’d heard the water from the shower ten minutes earlier and hadn’t heard the bathroom door close, or the bedroom either.

“Ready for what?” she inquired tentatively as she turned with foreboding. Then she gasped. Her partner stood before her, looking like a regal Greek or Amazon warrior--totally naked. Her shimmering dark hair was brushed wetly off her face. Beads of water her towel had missed lay like diamonds on the tanned skin of her collarbone, on the area around her navel and conspicuously on the tips of her nipples.

“You promised,” she accused; “No lovemaking endeavors, remember. We shook on the deal. Is this how you keep your word?”

“Tsk-tsk, my dear Joanna. Did I mention lovemaking? I merely asked if you were ready. Which do you prefer, by the way?”

Joanna noticed, then, that in one hand Raven held a bottle of baby oil and in the other a tube of Aloe cream.

Her face blazed with embarrassment at having misunderstood. She must have a rash and was seeking her advice. Perhaps from chaffing from the brace, or the sides of the wheelchair. She refused to look any lower than her collarbone, though. “I use the baby oil for removing eye makeup, but it’s a good generic lubricant as well. The cream is an excellent cure for dry or chafed skin”

The tall woman grinned.

So, her ravishing lover didn’t have a rash. She should have known. “Which part of ‘No sexual activity’ didn’t you understand, Raven? Listen, I’m too tired for your advances this afternoon. Joke’s over. Ha, ha, ha.”

“That, my dear Joanna, is precisely the point. You’re tired. Give out. Exhausted.”

“Get to the point and cover yourself, for heaven’s sake.”

“Oh, I forgot I was naked,” she lied. And she didn’t need to see a twitch as proof. “But you shouldn’t mind. We’re partners, after all.”

Joanna crossed her eyes with frustration.

“You look kind of sweet when you do that.”

“Aaargh! I’m exhausted beyond belief, Raven. Can’t you see that, Darling?”

“Precisely,” she said, stepping forward. “Actually, I prefer the baby oil. Only I need to pop it in the microwave and warm it up a bit.” She set the tube of Aloe on the table, placed the oil in the microwave and turned the dial for thirty seconds. “So, come, sweetheart. It’s time to put yourself in expert hands.”

“Keep those expert hands to yourself, you seductress.” Her shoulders slumped wearily. “I’m really disappointed in you, Raven. You said I could trust you. You said-”

“No lovemaking advances,” she agreed.

“Huh?”

She dangled the baby oil bottle by its neck with the fingers of one hand, while the fingers of the other hand laced with the smaller ones, coaxing her lover from the kitchen area.

“Do you prefer sensual or Swedish ?”

“Is that a trick question, Raven?”

“Massage, Sweetheart. I’m talking massage here.”

“Whose massage?”

“Yours.”

There are only two people in this hallway. Me and this beautiful, georgeous, naked Greek. If I’m to be massaged, then the masseur has to be... oh, noooo! Her bewildered brain finally cleared.

“No!” she asserted, coming to a halt and digging in her heels, even when the taller woman tugged on her hand.

“Yes. Sweetheart, I insist.”

“Raven, you have no right to insist.”

“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, my love. As your partner, it’s my role to protect you and see to your needs. Right now, your aching, exhausted body needs my ministrations. You will have a massage, make no mistake about that.”

“Listen to me, you… you Hardheaded Nudnik, there will be no sexual encounters. We will not make love!”

“I know that, sweetie.” She paused, her eyes glittering with a fiery gleam. “Unless you beg for it,” she added simply.

So that was her plan, torture till surrender and submission. “No.”

“Yes.”

“You can’t make me!”

She arched a brow with amusement. “You either walk or I carry you. Which will it be? Remember, my knee can’t stand too much weight, just yet.”

She pulled her, squealing and resisting, into the master bathroom at the back of the cabin, where, to her dismay, she saw, that Raven already had several large bath towels laid out on the wood plank floor. Even more shocking were the objects she’d arrayed beside the towels. A satin scarf. A pair of fuzzy mittens. A goose feather from Lord knows where. A powder puff from her makeup kit. A braided cord with beaded tassel ends. What a busy bee the tall seductress had been!

Her eyes shot to blue ones in alarm. She was leaning against the closed door, waiting. Her posture said “lazy.” Her coiled muscles and tight jaw said ready to pounce.” The click of the lock said “danger.”

“Are you a pervert?”

That surprised the tall woman, and her expression relaxed into a slow smile. “Define pervert.”

“I find it really difficult to carry on a conversation with you when you’re wearing no clothing. Put on that robe.” She pointed to her oversized satin robe hanging on the door hook.

“I prefer to give my massages in the nude, as it is much, much less messy that way.

Whoa! What mess? “Given a lot of nude massages, have you, lover girl?” she inquire snidely, hating the rush of jealousy those images provoked.

“Dozens,” she flung out playfully.

The young blonde couldn’t tell if she was serious or not.

“Joanna, there will be no conversation, by the way. I have rules for my massages. No talking from the subject of the massage. Just one-word responses, when necessary.”

Massage rules? Oh, Lord help me! She really must be into this kind of stuff What have I gotten myself into? “Like?”

“Please. Don’t. Tingles. Hot. Stop. Yeeess.”

“You’re incredible.” Joanna shook her head at her outrageous confidence of her massage skills.

“I know. Take off your shorts and shirt.”

“Not on your life.”

Raven shrugged. “Your way. My way. Little difference, Sweetheart.”

Joanna licked her lips nervously and backed up slightly as Raven unfolded herself from the door and began to approach.

“Why are you doing this, Raven?” she retorted, her exasperation obvious with Raven’s onward approach as her back met the wall.

“Because you need it, Honey, and because I want to do this for you. Take off your clothes, Joanna. I want you to shower first.”

“Oh, so now there’s a shower involved, too. No sex, but two naked people in a shower together, lathering each other up? Give me a break, Raven Longgear.”

“I wasn’t planning on joining you in the shower, my dear sweet one. Unless you beg me to, that is. I have only so much endurance and self control.”

In the end, Joanna took off her clothes while her tall partner watched. And she showered alone in the tub shower, the clear curtains obviously only kept the water off the floor and not Raven’s blue eyes watching the stunning body quickly shower. She dried herself off even quicker, while her tall partner continued to watch. She combed her long hair before the mirror, her arms held high, breasts rising and falling with her actions, while the blue orbs watched.

She was more than just aroused. Every fiber of her body was aching to be touched by the long hands of the tall woman before her.

Raven was more than just aroused. That was apparent from her parted lips and dilated pupils, not to mention the repeated licking of her dry lips with her tongue. The dark head indicated, with a motion, she was to lie on the towel.

She did lay down gracefully, as if she were an Egyptian Priestess or Princess lying down on a bed of rose petals. Raven closed her eyes and moaned to herself silently, I hope this works, I don’t think I can take another day without being with her.

A slight swishing and the feel of her body close by indicated that she’d dropped to her knees. Taking the young blonde’s arms, which had been folded under her face, the tall woman arranged them above head. Before she realized what Raven was doing, the tall woman had tied the satin scarf gently around her eyes.

“No,” she protested in a panic, trying to rise up. It was bad enough being naked, but being blind, as well, rendered her totally vulnerable to whatever her partner had in mind.

“Shhh,” she said, pressing a hand to her shoulder blades. “Trust me, Sweetheart.”

Not surprisingly, she did trust her tall partner explicitly-well, in almost everything. “No sex,” she repeated, though, just to make sure Raven didn’t attempt one of her sure seductive techniques.

Raven chuckled. “Unless you beg, Joanna.”

From the instant she began to lay her experienced hands on her, Joanna understood that this was going to be much more than a massage.

“You must remain totally passive, Joanna. Do nothing unless I tell you. Remember to answer or reply to me in only one word responses. Submit to everything.” As she spoke in a low, silky voice, she was warming the baby oil in her hands and slathering it over every inch of her skin, from the nape of her neck down to her toes and out to her fingers. “Place yourself completely in my hands, Joanna. Can you do that for me, your loving partner?”

A little thrill of menace rippled through the prone body. “I don’t know if I want-”

She slapped her lightly on a buttock with the tasseled beads. “Shhhh. One-word answers, remember? “Why?” She was giving her orders, as if she was the royal majesty and Joanna a mere subject. An uncomfortable image. Before she could voice her outrage, Raven spoke again. “In submitting yourself to my will by passively receiving pleasure, you open yourself to the flow of energy coming from my body to yours. The fingertips and hands and mouth and teeth are the conductors, but the message they cry won’t be a physical one. It will be one of love, my Darling. If you are open to it.”

Lovemaking without making love? Her words were magical caresses to Joanna’s strained and weary emotions.

Still, a part of her held back. “And you’ve done all this, and said all those loving things, to dozens of other women?”

“Well, maybe not dozens,” she admitted with a rasping laugh. “And that was more than one word, you naughty nymph. I’m keeping a list of all your disobediences, for which you will have to suffer dire punishment later.”

“A punishment which will, no doubt, involve much moaning, I suppose.”

"Ab-so-freekin-lutely, my beauty. And you now have two check marks on your disobedience list.”

She recalled then that she’d said she hadn’t performed this special massage for dozens of women. “How many? Other women, I mean?”

Raven hesitated. “None.”

NONE? Joanna’s heart sang at the news, however, improbable as it was. “Hah! I’ll bet your eyebrow is twitching on that one.”

“No, it’s not, my mistrustful lover. And you have four check marks, in case you’re interested in your transgression record.”

“Then how do you know all this massage stuff?”

“Five transgressions! Geesh! Are you a glutton for punishment, my sweet? If you must know, I read this in a book. No, don’t snicker, Joanna. Really, I did. But I have never tried it on anyone else.! I think-Well, I think I was, waiting for you, Joanna.”

Waiting for me? Oh, my goodness, I believe her. My heart feels that to be so true!

A throbbing silence followed in which Joanna decided, for once in her life, to take a chance. Go against the tried and true. She would give up her will to another, and prayed to God that her partner, her lover, would live up to her trust.

For an hour and more, the tall photographer worshipped her body by stroking her palms over the slick surfaces of her skin. Wide sweeping caresses. Circles. Short skimming strokes over sensitized flesh. Then she moved to kneading the large muscles in her back and arms and legs, even the insteps of her feet and the joints of her toes.

After that was friction- -delicious exercises in how textures affect the body’s senses. The soft but firm press of skin against skin. Feathery tracing of curves, followed by the harsher abrasion of the power puff, then back to the whispery tendrils of a goose feather gently flickering over the overly sensitive skin. A soft brush, and the fuzzy mitten were then put into play. And if that wasn’t enough, Raven began percussion--the gentle pounding of her body surface. All this she did, then flipped her over on her back and started over again. Never once did Raven touch her breasts or genital areas. She didn’t need to. The entire time she whispered soft admiration for her individual body parts and wicked, wicked words of what she intended to do to those body parts someday. But not today, because she’d promised her no sex-no sex unless she begged for it. In the end she punished her, as she’d promised, for not adhering to her rules, and she moaned as she’d promised, and she wished she’d never made her promise to honor her conditions.

When she was done, having reduced Joanna to a boneless, mewling repository for her flow of sweet love energy, only then did she sit back on her knees, straddling her thighs, and release her scarf. Joanna could tell that Raven was very, very aroused, her entire body, starting with the blue orbs, rang out desire, as did her own.

“I love you,” the tall woman whispered.

She thought she said the same, but perhaps not. Her body was so eroticized, she felt disoriented. Holding her arms open for her, she did what she’d probably planned all along.

“Please,” Joanna begged.

But Raven shook her head slowly from side to side, and leaned forward to press a soft kiss to her lips. “Not now, my love. Not like this.” In one fluid movement, she stood, lifted her into her strong arms and carried her into the bedroom, being careful not to put their full weight on the weak knee.

Tucking her into the cool sheets on the large bed, she slid in behind her and wrapped her arms around her, enfolding her in her spoon-like embrace. As they began to drift off, she kissed the oily satin of her bare shoulder and murmured sleepily. “We will continue this soon, Sweetheart. I promise. Sweet dreams.”

Joanna moaned silently, before she heard Raven start breathing heavily. Damn you, Raven, I begged. I begged, and you reneged. The smaller woman lay in her lover's arms for a few long minutes. Oh, well! Two can play this‘ not until you beg‘ idea. She surmised to herself as she contemplated her next actions.

Sweet dreams awakened Raven within the first fifteen minutes after she had drifted off. Well, actually, they weren’t sweet at all. They were hot. Very hot, and raw, and sinfully carnal--a woman’s complete fantasy. She smiled against a pair of warm lips that were kissing her, openmouthed and wet. A very persistent tongue inquired into her mouth, like an invader staking territory. Not that she was fighting back. Hell, no. Not one bit of struggle was offered.

But there was more--much more action, going on. Joanna was elevating herself over her on her all fours, breasts swinging in a tantalizing brush across her bare nipples. Before she could grasp what Joanna was about, Joanna eased herself down on Raven’s breast and sank her tongue into Raven’s captive mouth once again, as one hand found the center of her core and gently lay there not entering.

This was pure heaven. The Gods must be rewarding her for her earlier gallantry in foregoing sex with her beautiful partner after driving herself practically up the wall and back again with her erotic massage.

Joanna just lay there, kissing her repeatedly. Her eyes however, weren’t closed. They were watching her. Then, when she sensed she had Raven’s full attention, she raised herself up to a sitting position. Arching her neck, Raven gritted her teeth against the overwhelming waves of pleasure washing over her. She was in paradise. When she made love with Joanna from the top position, they both savored the intense, concentrated feeling of their bodies clasping each other, like hot, lubricated fingers. But when Joanna sat astride, like her dream lover was now, oh, it was so much more subtle. She had to concentrate to prolong the lapping, stroking, and licking sensation of her lover that she knew was about to unfold. But Raven couldn’t concentrate. And she sure as hell wasn’t going to be prolonging the main eruption for very long at this rate, even though Joanna hadn’t begun her strokes yet.

Huh? Since when do dream lovers talk?

“Are you ready to beg?” a silky voice asked as the hand pressed gently into the triangle area.

A sneaky suspicion crept into Raven’s dazed brain. She cracked open one eyelid. Then both eyes flew wide open. Holy hell! Joanna was sitting on top of her like some princess on a throne, grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary.

“Joanna?” she cried out, reaching up to pull her down close.

“Oh, no!” She laughed and rocked her hips around in a perfect circle as she pushed the reaching hands away. Then the taut body reversed the movement.

Damnit it all to hell! She’s playing hula hoop on my center. Then she stopped. She just stopped and smiled at her prone lover, a teasing, exultant, I’ve-got-you expression of a challenge.

“What are you up to, Joanna?” she growled.

She leaned forward and tweaked her on the chin. “First, I’m not the one who’s up to anything. You are, and you were. I’m waiting for you to beg, my dearest Raven. Remember, no sex till the begging begins.”

“That was supposed to be you, Joanna. Not me. Move about on me, you vixen, before I explode.” She tried to grasp her hips and make her begin the strokes that would bring her some release.

She thumped the larger hands aside. “I already begged, Raven, an hour ago. Now it’s your turn.” Meanwhile, bending down, she was doing something really interesting with a strand of her hair, brushing it back and forth across one of Raven’s erect, taut nipples. She was usually sensitive there, but now she swore there was a direct electrical current to the pulsing rod embedded in her circuit walls.

Wrapping her fingers around Raven’s forearms, she extended her arms so that her upper body bowed backward, then spread her legs flat, parallel to Raven’s, and let herself spasm around her. Raven couldn’t tell if she was climaxing or making her inner muscles work. Either way, the older woman was impressed. Joanna’s posture gave Raven access to her breasts, which, she most likely realized was probably another part of her seduction scheme. She raised her head and took one nipple into her mouth. It was hard and incredibly sweet. With her first suckle, Joanna let out a primitive, needy moan. Now she was climaxing, and she was trying to buck up against her to begin the strokes that would start her crest, too. But the stubborn blonde wrapped her legs around hers and refused to move, even when she was unraveling around her.

“Sonofabanchee!” Raven groveled in surrender. “Please. Joanna, I’m begging. Please, please, please, pretty please!”

Only then, with sobs and panting noises, did the young woman begin to move on the tall slender body in a slow, steady lifting and easing down of her breasts to touch Raven’s.

Too slow, too doggone slow! Raven flipped her over on her back, still enwrapped in her legs, and laced hers fingers with hers. Then she began the long, hard, pummeling strokes of her tongue into Joanna’s willing mouth that were essential to ease this building firestorm. She had no idea what words she was uttering as she kissed her lips, laved her nipples, nibbled at her ears--the whole time pummeling her long fingers where needed. Finally, with a roar of exultation, they both reached a zenith of a pinnacle never before reached with the joint exposion, fulfilling the long overdue satisfaction of both women.

When her heart slowed down from its heart attack speed and blood no longer roared in her ears, Raven raised her head to look down at her amazing partner.

Joanna smiled up at her, shyly. How can she look shy after practically blowing my head off? Raven thought contentedly.

“My Conqueror!” Joanna sighed, pulling her lover closer for another kiss.

She rolled over on her side, taking Joanna with her, and began to laugh with pure, soul-swelling joy. “The crusade has barely begun, Sweetheart.”

*****


Chapter 18

Mel showered, and put on clothes she had brought to the back room from the car the night before, and remained out of sight of Tommy’s customers. She was going over her course of events for the next few hours several times in her mind. When there was no one about to launch a boat from the boat ramp, or rent a rowboat or one of the several speedboats for hire, she took the speedboat out on the lake several times and went speeding by Joanna’s cabin to check out her quarry. At about nine o’clock, and on her third trip, she saw the two unknown men waving to Joanna standing on the porch and Raven sitting in her wheelchair. She watched them climb into a car, and drive off down the winding gravel road she had walked two weeks previously.

“Good!” She muttered, “With those two men gone, I’ll have no problems in fulfilling my plan. Only have to wait until closer to dark, and I have to take care of my only witness,” she said coldly, “I don’t need any loose ends walking about. Got to keep everything simple, no hang-ups or unfinished business,” exasperated, Long turned her attention to the approaching bait shop. “That place sure as hell stinks… but then again, that moron has made this much simpler for me,” she scanned the area behind her to make sure no boats were returning.

She sped by the boat ramp, making sure no customer was about, or ready to launch a boat. She saw no one, and the parking lot was empty as it had been a half hour before when she had left the dock quickly. Swinging the boat around and easing it back to the ramp, she pulled into the same slip, and wrapped the rope around a pier piling. She did not remove her gloves until she was walking through the door of the store.

“I need a cold drink, Tommy. You want to share a beer with me?” The almond-skinned woman asked, as she motioned to the cooler.

“Nah, the old man would have a hissy fit if he caught me drinking while on duty. But, here, let me get you a frosty one,” he said, opening the cooler, reaching into the back for a chilled Bud Light.

“I’m gonna lie down for a few hours. We didn’t get much sleep last night. Would you wake me promptly at five, or as soon as you close the store for the evening?”

“Sure. There is a big shindig at the Catskill Resort, and I don’t have any boats out, so I doubt it will be much after five.” Tommy handed the older woman the beer and bent down for a quick kiss. Mel pulled him closer to her, and deepened the kiss. “Damn, Melissa, I have to keep the store open, even if I don’t have any customers.” He chuckled and pushed her gently toward the back room, “You have a nice nap, and we’ll take this up later.”

“You can count on it, Tommy.” Her eyes narrowed, and she forced a half grin to one corner of her mouth.

Hours later, she heard the front door slam, and she knew Tommy had closed the shop for the evening. She sat on the side of the bed, reached down to the night bag she had placed on the floor earlier and pulled out the revolver. She quickly inserted a full clip into the butt of the weapon and stood up. She moved her arm with the weapon behind her back and waited for the young man to enter.

“Hiii ya, sexy. Your nap okay?” He asked, walking bare footed towards the short woman, his tennis shoes in his right hand.

“It was fine, Thomas!” She replied to the approaching figure.

His face went from tan to red as she a quick step forward directly in front of him. Then she pulled out the pistol, causing his heart to drop about three feet.

“What the hell?” That was just before she stomped on his bare foot, hard. . . really hard. “Owwwww!”

Through the haze of pain, he realized that she wasn’t waltzing victoriously into his arms as he had anticipated. He hoped she wasn’t planning on using that gun, especially since it was aimed at a really particular place on his body he was really fond off, one he hoped to keep for a real long time. She waited until his vision cleared and he helplessly reached up toward her.

“No, no!” She said, “You and I are going to take a little spin on the lake,” she explained with hidden meaning, as she slammed the barrel of the gun across his face.

He sank to his knees and grabbed his face. “What the fuck’s wrong with you, Mel? This is not one bit funny.” His heart was lodged in his throat as he waited for an answer.

Molding her gaze, she again raised her weapon and hit him on the top of the his head. “Don’t push me, Thomas,” she warned, as she stepped past him into the open doorway, and motioned for him to get up and follow her.

“What is wrong, Melissa? Why are you doing this?” he asked again in an increasingly distraught state.

The woman backed through the door, her gun aimed at the man who was slowly rising from the floor, blood running down his strained face and dripping on the floor. She quickly went to the window, checking for any last minute customers… There were none. She motioned for the man to unlock the door and pushed him through the doorway, causing him to stumble on the narrow deck leading to the pier. She reached down and picked up a twenty foot coil of rope as she followed him down the dock to the boat she had been using.

“Into the speedboat, Thomas, and make it snappy,” she commanded and nudged him in the back with the pistol. She eased into the back seat, and motioned for the still dazed man to get in and sit down.

Tommy reluctantly obeyed her orders, and sank into the seat. “Please, Melissa, what have I done? What is wrong? Please, tell me, what is wrong?” he cried, tears running down his bronzed, blood soaked face.

“Just head for the cove, Tommy. I’ll explain everything there,” she lied.

The stunned young man did as he was directed, after she pushed the end of the barrel against the back of his neck a couple of times.

“S’okay, Tommy, s’okay, just go to the cove,” she offered hopefully.

Upon arriving at the secluded cove, she ordered him to shut off the engine, which he did, not looking around at the woman he had spent the night with having ravishing sex, but he did asked her once again what was wrong.

Without another word, Mel picked up the life vest on the seat beside her, and pushed the gun into the folds of the vest, twisting the barrel deep into material. She looked around the cove banks and, spotting no one, she raised the vest and gun to the back of Tommy’s head and fired. POP, the sound barely audible, the bleeding head snapped forward then slumped. Removing the gun, she tossed the vest and gun on the back seat. She threw the coil of rope on the front seat next to the dead man, and crawled out onto the front of the boat and removed the anchor and chain from the halyard, lifted the heavy anchor over the windshield of the speedboat and let it fall to the front seat.

Tommy was pulled to the middle of the front seat, where the anchor and chain were secured to his lifeless body by the rope. Long carefully wiped the anchor and chair to remove any fingerprints and threw the boat rag, used to clean the windshield, back on the seat. She then pulled him to the left and started the engine and eased out of the cove unto the open lake. She glanced up and down and all around the lake.

“Everyone must be at that Resort thing he mentioned. That makes it perfect for me, just perfect,” she muttered as she headed up the lake in the opposite direction from the boat landing, all the time surveying the distance to avoid any last minute boaters. After five or six minutes, and almost in the middle of the large lake, she again looked around. Satisfied she was alone, she picked up the rag and placed it over the anchor so she could lift it with both hands. She lifted the anchor which only had a half foot of chain from the tied body, and snatched the rag off the anchor as it slid over the side of the boat into the water. Tommy’s body was pulled snugly against the side of the craft. The huffing woman lifted the man by his shorts and gradually inched his body up onto the side of the boat, until he slipped over and disappeared beneath the surface, anchor and body making only an unheard splash.

“Dumb shit. Just another dumb shit.” She shook her head at the faith and trust so many people gave her without question. Waiting until she was sure the body had sunk to the bottom, which Tommy had told her was over thirty feet, she again started the motor and headed back to the landing.

About five minutes from the dock, she reached over into the back and picked up the gun, and removed the magazine, ejecting the bullets into the water. With the boat rag kept under the front seat she wiped the magazine clean of any fingerprints, and flung the clip far out into the lake. The gun was also wiped thoroughly clean of any tell-tell fingerprints and flung into the lake on the opposite side from where she had tossed the clip.

Once back at the landing, she quickly retrieved the rifle from the concealed vehicle and took the weapon inside where she quickly wiped down the bathroom walls, bedroom area, and anyplace she might have touched during her visits or stay at the store. The beer bottle she had drunk from; she tossed into the lake as far as she could throw it off the end of the dock. She locked the door of the shop from the inside, wiped the knob and pulled the door shut and again wiped the door handle clean, and flung Tommy’s keys into the water. Pulling on her gloves, she placed the rifle on the front seat, removed the life vest and placed it in the trash barrel at the end of the shop and set fire to the almost full container. The cardboard boxes beneath the life vest quickly roared into flames, leaving only ashes for anyone to find. She went to the boat and wiped down the boat from the front anchor halyard, to the back seat. Satisfied she had erased any evidence of her being at the general store, she pulled a hooded sweatshirt over her body, turned the switch on the speedboat and roared around the bend and headed across and down the lake.

“Soon, real soon, Joanna,” she mocked. Soon, she would end the injustice she believed she had received from the two women at the cabin and there would be no one to place her there. No one. She had just dumped the only witness to her being at the lake all these times. “Damn, I’m so smart. They will never know what happened here, or even suspect who did it,” she snickered and continued, “Just like before. HA!HA!HA,” her brown eyes flashed with the anticipated excitement.

The sun had sunk as she sped by the cabin at full speed. A quick glance told her the two women were sitting on the porch swing, and it certainly didn’t look like they would be moving any time soon. She made a wide circle and slowed the speed to ease in closer to the unsuspecting women. She picked up the rifle off the seat and checked the weapon once again before she laid it gently back down on the seat beside her. Her speed was almost like a slow swimming crawl as she gradually eased towards the cabin.

*****


The sun had begun its downward slope over the lake when the two lovers exited the cabin with two glasses of iced tea and took up an entwined position on the swing to observe the sunset. Joanna’s back was against Raven’s chest, with their arm wrapped around each other.

“Your knee okay, darling? Your abdomen?” She turned her head and their lips met.

“It's fine, sweetheart. I’m fine. I’m really healing quite quickly now.” She kissed the lips reaching up to her once again. “How about you? Your body feel better?”

Giggling, the actress nibbled the full lips once again, “I have never felt better in my entire life. I should have insisted on a full body massage weeks ago. Hope we didn’t tear anything loose.”

“Nope. Nothing tore. I’m just fine. Actually, I feel GRR-EAT--TTT!” The photographer bellowed towards the lake.

“Joanna, stop worrying. I’m fine. You're fine. We’re fine. Besides, what good is a relationship that doesn't have its ups and downs? The ups and downs are the builders of a true relationship. You can look back on a down period and say "Yes, we got through that, it made us stronger", or look at an up period and say "Wow, we had great times.. Let's have more!" be fruitful in your mind, Sweetheart, be caring in your heart. Know I love you and I’m looking forward to our future and every opportunity that comes our way to make us stronger. I love you beyond measure, Joanna. I will forever and ever.”

“Oh, Raven, I do so love you with all my heart and being. I realize if the feeling of love between two people is overall mutual, then difficulties can always be worked out. All it takes is a lot of love, communication, trust, time, and inner peacefulness. My love and longing for you will only get more emotionally and physically powerful as each day goes by, my darling.” She leaned back and their lips found each other again.

“We are certainly blessed, Sweetheart. This was one blissful day.”

“It certainly has been. A marvelous ending to a wonderful day.” Joanna beamed.

“I couldn’t agree with you more,” Raven tightened her hold on the love of her life.

“Looks like someone else is enjoying the sunset and not paying attention to their course,” her head nodded toward the speedboat slowly drifting towards their dock.

“That’s surprising, Raven. Most everyone is usually at the Catskills Resort big annual outing. We should be able to see their fireworks just after dark.” She snuggled deeper into Raven’s chest as the swing lazily moved back and forth.

Two souls, bonded by fate and destiny; joined together by some magical power neither could understand or explain. Absorbing the beauty of their surroundings and becoming one with the natural force of love and multi-colored growth of that love. That love showed them many things. The secrets of life yet undiscovered. The secrets of love and gentle kindness that had been missing from their separate lonely lives until just a few months before. Things and events of the past, previously thought important faded into obscurity as their minds opened to the possibilities of the future they envisioned together. Their embrace tightened as the swing swayed gently, as the twilight glow of the setting sun cast shadows on the end of the porch.

*****


“Hell, I’ll be able to pick either one off without even setting foot on the dock,” a playful light danced in her eyes, “That way, there are no shoeprints to come back to me.” She slowed the boat down even more, and allowed it to drift slowly toward the dock. When it was about forty yards from the dock, she was overcome with anxiousness and picked up the rifle and carefully raised the gun until her site was directly on the short blonde sitting in the arms of the dark haired woman on the swing.

“Damn, I believe I can get them both with one shot the way they are all snuggled up like that,” she muttered to herself, and slowly squeezed the trigger.

“BANG” The shot rang out.

Seeing both women topple from the swing to the porch floor, and not waiting to take a second shot, she threw the rifle on the seat and pulled the throttle forward sharply to full speed, turning the wheel and headed back across the lake. Halfway across the lake and just as she piloted the boat around the curve in the shoreline, she raised the rifle, removed the clip and wiped it and the rifle off just as she had done the pistol earlier. She tossed the clip overboard casually, and reached down with the glove-covered hand for the rifle, and slid it over the side of the speeding boat.

When the boat was within twenty yards of the landing, she cut off the engine, and wiped down the dashboard, the ignition, throttle, and steering wheel. With the rag in her hands, she scooted over the back seat, reached into the fishing well, and unscrewed the draining bolt. She watched as the water quickly filled the well, and started pouring over into the back seat. Within minutes, she knew the boat would sink, so she tossed the rag overboard, and jumped into the lake, and quickly swam to the loading ramp. As she felt the concrete ramp beneath her feet, she raised herself out of the water, walked carefully up the ramp, making sure she stayed on the concrete. She proceeded down the gravel road and turned to the left of the driveway, behind the grove of bushes, where Tommy had concealed her vehicle. She retrieved her night pack from the front seat, and quickly changed back into the dry clothes she had been wearing the night before.

“NO ONE SCREWS WITH ME!” she screeched as she carefully backed the car from the isolated area and onto the gravel road. She slowed, but did not stop as she came to the highway. Glancing down each way of the two-lane blacktop, she smiled, and headed the vehicle back to New York, making sure she observed the speed limit all the way.

*****


The sun was a great golden ball hanging slightly above the far horizon. Daylight was still sharp and clear, but the shadows were lengthening over the trees surrounding the lakeside cabin.

Raven gently strengthen her hold around her petite lover as the swing moved backward and forward. As she bent down to kiss the top of the blonde’s head, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. Her intuition of pending danger immediately enhanced her survival instincts. Her piercing blue orbs peered carefully in either direction before settling sharply on the speedboat slowly inching closer and closer to the cabin pier. Her pulse rushed rapidly through her veins as she caught the distinctive sight of a rifle barrel catching the final rays of the downing sun. It was pointed directly at the couple. Instinctively, Raven tightened her hold on Joanna, and quickly flipped their bodies out of the swing, harshly landing on top of her lover on the porch floor. A shot rang out as she hurled their bodies downward. She felt a hot, stinging sensation in her left shoulder as their bodies began their descent.

“What the devil?”

“Sheeech! Joanna be quiet and don’t move. Someone just shot at us.” She muttered calmly into the ear of the woman pressed beneath her.

The roar of the speedboat being shifted into high gear and speeding off filled the silence around the cabin. Raven looked up cautiously and caught sight of the boat just before it whished out sight behind the trees surrounding the shoreline.

“It’s gone. Are you okay, Joanna?” Raven questioned, as she quickly stood and extended her hand down to assist the smaller woman.

“I… I think so. How about you, darling?” The young actress pivoted her body to check out her partner and accepted her offered hand.

“Let’s get inside, and call the sheriff. They might circle around and come back to make sure they were successful.” Her arm encircled the smaller waist and they quickly dashed into the open cabin door.

Inside, Raven went immediately to the side window and checked out the view and saw the speedboat making a large circle and head across the lake at full speed.

“The boat is going away. Call the sheriff, Joanna,” she directed as she quickly approached the cabinet next to the fireplace and removed the 12-gauge shotgun. “ Where are the shells for this, Honey?” she asked.

“Do you think we need a loaded gun, Raven?”

“We can’t take the chance on them coming back, and our being unprotected.”

“I understand. The bottom drawer of the gun cabinet should have a full box,” she answered as she picked up the portable phone and started to dial 911 before she looked at Raven once again and screamed, “RAVEN, you’re bleeding!” She threw the phone down and rushed to the woman’s side.

“It’s not serious, Sweetheart. It went right through the flesh on the top of my shoulder.”

“You’re pouring blood, Raven. Sit down here and let me check that out.” She demanded, pulling the tall woman toward the sofa.

“Joanna, call the sheriff first, and let me check the lake once more, then you can play doctor,” Raven pulled away from the smaller woman and pointed to the phone as she went back to the open door and carefully glanced out, scanning the lake for the speedboat. Her eyes intensified as she diligently searched the shoreline and the trees surrounding the cabin for any sign of movement.

Joanna hurriedly picked up the portable phone once more and punched in 911, which was answered in that county by the sheriff’s office for all emergencies. She told the dispatcher about the shooting, and a doctor was also needed. Then she ran to the kitchen and retrieved the first aid kit that was always kept on top of the refrigerator.

Seeing no boat, or movement in the surrounding area, the tall woman stepped out cautiously, to the end of the porch and listened for the sounds of any motor. Searching the lake carefully for sight of any movement on the now darkening water, she guardedly stepped off the porch, and slowly made her way toward the pier, the loaded shotgun held ready to fire. Standing on the pier and surveying the lake for a few minutes, she gradually lowered the gun and retraced her steps back to the porch, where she once again searched the surrounding area for movement of any kind.

Joanna had the first aid kit open on the coffee table, and ripped open a package of gauze as she reentered the cabin.

“Anything?”

“Not even a ripple on the water. You can hear the crickets starting to chirp, but there isn’t a sound of a motor in the immediate vicinity, nor did I see any movement around the cabin,” she stated, placing the still-loaded shotgun across the coffee table and sitting on the edge of the sofa. She then removed her tee shirt.

“You were right, the bullet went through the shoulder,” Joanna wiped the sterilized gauze over the front of Raven’s shoulder.

Throwing the blood-soaked pad down, she picked up another and poured the hydrogen peroxide over the new gauze pad and wiped it carefully over the exit wound.

“I don’t think it hit anything major, just the flesh.” She wiped both sides of the tall woman’s shoulder several times before she placed a large gauze pad over the front wound and told Raven to press down until she could tape it. She repeated the process on the exit area before she ran and brought Raven another tee shirt and helped her slip it over her head.

“Raven, who would want to shoot at us?” She asked, as she sat down on the sofa next to the photographer.

The tall woman placed her good arm around the shorter woman’s shoulder and replied quietly, “I don’t know, Joanna. I just don’t know.”

*****


Sheriff Mary Kate McGuinness shifted her weight and leaned against the corner post of the Resort’s long veranda. All the while, her eyes scanned the crowd for any foreseen trouble, or disturbances that might possibility break out. Although the festival had normally been a peaceful celebration, she wasn’t taking any chances and intended it to remain the quiet event it had always been. She laughed as two young boys ran by squirting water guns at each other before disappearing around the end of the Resort.

“Nice way to cool off if you can’t go swimming,” she smiled.

“Sheriff, this is Elaine, you need to call me on your cell phone.”

McGuinness reached up and pressed her lapel radio. “Will do, Elaine.” Un-snapping her cell phone from her belt, she hit the already programmed office button. Her dispatcher picked up before the first ring had ended.

“Sheriff, there has been a shooting over at the Stern cabin. They want you to bring a doctor with you.”

“Do you have any details, Elaine?” The seasoned sheriff leaped off the veranda not bothering to waste time going over to the side steps.

“Only that someone fired from a speedboat on the lake, real close to her pier, hitting her guest.”

The sheriff stepped up on the bench of a picnic table and raised the binoculars that had been hanging around her neck by a strap. She immediately surveyed the opposite side of the lake, and slowly scanned the entire lake with the binoculars. When the glasses viewed the shoreline down from the resort, she thought she caught a glimpse of a speeding boat disappearing around the curve of the lake. However, when she retraced the area, no boat was visible, so she continued scanning. The lake was completely still, and no trace of any activity of any kind on the water.

“Okay, Elaine. I’ll take Frank with me in the patrol boat along with Dr. Musicale, who is here at the festival with his family. Have Paul meet us at the Stern cabin, and tell him to check out any vehicles on the road on that side of the lake,” she directed on the cell phone to her dispatcher. She started to disconnect, then added, “Elaine, tell Paul to be careful in approaching any vehicles over there.”

“Roger that, Sheriff.”

“Frank?” she pressed her lapel radio button again and waited for her deputy’s response.

“Here, Sheriff,” came the reply.

“Frank, go round up Dr. Musicale, and tell him he will be going with us to the far side of the lake to the Stern cabin. There has been a shooting.” She clicked the radio again, “And, Frank, do it quietly. We don’t want any unnecessary attention.”

“Roger, Sheriff.” Ten year veteran, Sgt. Frank Taylor, picked up his hat from the barrel next to his cup of coffee, emptied the coffee on the ground and tossed the cup into the trash container a few feet away as he surveyed the crowd to pinpoint the doctor. Locating the physician on the plank dance floor, he replaced his hat and headed toward his quarry. He reached up to his radio, “Sheriff, I’m about fifteen seconds away from the Doc, and will met you at the boat. By the way, Kate, isn’t that Ms. Rosalin’s niece’s cabin?”

The sheriff headed towards the boat, “Yeah, it is, and to make matters worse, it also happens to be former Ambassador Stern’s daughter, so keep it low key, and step on it.”

“Damn! Just what we needed in our peaceful community.”

“My sentiments exactly.” She clicked the radio, “Emmitt, Frank and I will be gone for awhile. You are in charge here, and don’t let Willa get out of hand until this event is over. You hear me, Willa?”

“Loud and clear, Kate.” Deputy Willa Burkett radioed back.

“We have it covered here, Sheriff. If you need assistance, just call and we’ll come as soon as the crowd breaks up,” Emmitt responded.

*****


The doctor had completed his examination and redressed the flesh wound Raven had received. He encouraged her to go to the hospital for the evening, but she flatly refused.

Sheriff McGuinness and her deputy had made an initial investigation of the site, but there wasn’t much to be discovered. She had questioned both women for half an hour after the doctor had worked on the photographer. Kate had re-walked the entire site the third time and directed her deputy to check the area around the house again as well. She removed her hat as she climbed the steps to the porch and stood in front of the swing studying the area. This simply did not make any sense. She then turned and looked back at the pier. She slowly turned back to the swing, and squatted down, resting her body on the heels of her shoes. She glanced back at the pier area and the swing, and then her sharp eyes caught sight of a breakage on the bark of the tree just behind the porch and swing. She stepped around the swing and looked back at the pier area once again, then back at the tree.

“Hey, Frank, come around here for a minute,” she called to her deputy who was again examining the ground at the side of the cabin.

“There are no tracks on the ground around the cabin, Sheriff. Absolutely nothing. I’ve checked the ground three times now, and have gone thirty-forty feet away from the cabin and down to the water,” he said, stepping up on the end of the porch next to the sheriff.

“Look over there on that tree, Frank. That looks like a bullet hole to me,” she pointed the disturbed bark. “I noticed a step ladder in the shed outback, go get it and let’s see if we hit it lucky.”

Looking at the tree, the deputy shook his head, “Yeah, it does looks like a bullet impact. I’ll be right back.” He hopped off the porch, rounded the cabin and quickly returned with the ladder.

“Yep, it’s a bullet, my knife won’t go that deep though,” he wiped his pocketknife on his pants legs before folding it back up and slipping it into his pocket.

“Here, try mine,” she said, removing the hunting knife from its sheath next to her phone and handed it to her deputy handle first.

“Damn, Sheriff, you gonna let me use your pig sticker, huh?”

“Get on with it, Frank. If you break my blade, I’ll take it out of your hide,” she smirked. Her deputy knew she was kidding him, but he also knew she had been given that blade by her father years before and he was really careful as he dug the spent bullet from the tree trunk.

“Put on your gloves, Frank. I don’t want any possibilities of any partial prints being covered up by yours.” She handed the deputy a clear bag to house the bullet.

“Way ahead of you, Boss.” He pulled on the gloves, accepted the bag from the woman, and carefully pried the bullet out of the tree. “Looks like it came from a .308 rifle, Sheriff.” He remarked as he dropped the bullet into the clear bag and held it up for the sheriff to view.

Kate took the bag from the deputy, and held it up again. “We won’t know for sure until we send it to forensics, but I believe you may be right. We need to get a sample of Ms. Longgear’s blood to see if any of hers are on this slug.” She pocketed the bag as she returned to the inside of the cabin for one of the gauzes from Raven for the lab tests.

“If you two won’t go to the hospital, then I’ll leave Frank here until I can replace him with another deputy around midnight. I’ll be back in the morning for another talk. Right now, the only thing we have is a spent slug,” she commented to both women.

“That will be fine, Sheriff, but we aren’t going to the hospital. We appreciate the deputy. I’m exhausted, and don’t relish sleeping with one eye open, or Raven standing watch with that shotgun.”

“I’ll have another deputy here in a couple of hours, and I have another deputy already circling the lake on the road, and he will be stopping by throughout the night as well.”

“Thanks, Sheriff, I’m sure who ever it was won’t be so stupid to try again tonight. The deputies are welcome and appreciated.” The tall photographer placed her arm around Joanna’s shoulder as she finished her comments. “I want to thank you for your quick response and for bringing the doctor over here,” she added and turned to shake hands with the physician.

“Just doing my job, Ms. Stern. You two sure you have no idea who might want you dead? Might it be someone just wanting to scare you?”

“Sheriff McGuinness, if Raven hadn’t thrown us to the floor that shot would have gone through both of us, I’m sure. It was no accident, and it wasn’t to scare us. Someone wanted us both dead, and I don’t have a clue as to whom it might be,” the young actress answered honestly.

“It was a deliberate shot, Sheriff. I don’t know who or why either,” Raven added her remarks to those of her lover.

“You want me to call your father, Ms. Stern?” the sheriff inquired.

“I’ve already called him. But thanks, anyway.” Joanna answered as she placed her arm around Raven’s waist. “He is hopping mad, and will have his own security crew here soon,” she added.

“He can be demanding and overprotective when it comes to his family,” Raven commented. “You might tell your deputies not to shoot them.”

“I’m well aware of Ambassador Sterns’ concerns. I’ve had several conversations and two visits from him since Ms. Stern here bought this cabin six years ago.” She remarked, and snapped her pocket size notebook closed and inserted it into her uniform pocket. “Ms. Rosalin has been even more explicit about her niece’s safety. You need to call the office when you’re going to be here from now on, and we’ll make more frequent sweeps by the place.” Kate explained the situation to the two women.

“We will in the future. We promise, Sheriff,” Joanna assured the concerned county sheriff.

“Hate to break this up, Kate, but my cell phone just went off. Mrs. Sullivan is on her way to the hospital to have her baby, and you need to take me there as soon as possible.” The doctor shut his bag.

“Sure, it’s closer to go by boat to the office, then I’ll have one of the night deputies drive you over to the hospital.” She indicated for the physician to go to the boat. “You two stay inside for the rest of the night, please,” she requested of the two women.

“No problem there. We’ll see you in the morning, and thanks again.” Raven shook the sheriff’s hand.

Forty-five minutes after the sheriff left, a helicopter landed on the gravel driveway behind Joanna’s Jeep, and six private security officers jumped off the aircraft. Joanna’s father called within two minutes of their landing, and informed Joanna and Raven that a high profile private investigator would be on their steps by 7 a.m. in the morning, and that the security crew would be replaced at sunrise. Raven’s questioning stare at Joanna lead to a long discussion about the three or four times Joanna felt she had been watched, including the night they had spent at her parents’ estate at the family BBQ outing. The tall woman pulled the younger woman into her arms. They both felt the comfort of being close to each other.

“I told you Daddy has had this investigator checking these incidents out for several months, Darling.”

“Yes, your father told me he was the best there is. When was the last time you had the feeling you were being watched, Sweetheart?”

“About two weeks after you left on that assignment. I was sure someone was watching me on the balcony of the brownstone one night. I looked back out several times but only saw shadows and an empty street.” She buried her face in the neck of partner. “I did call Daddy the next morning, and he called this investigator with the information. I haven’t felt it yet. Well, actually, Raven, I did feel a little uncomfortable earlier this morning when the fellows left, but passed it off as being so tense with everything that has happened.”

“Anytime you get that feeling, you let me know. We don’t need to take any chances. We have only just begun our lives together, I want about fifty or sixty more years with you, Sweetheart,” the tall woman leaned over and their lips met, and lingered.

“So do I, honey, that time frame should about right. I’m tired, Raven. You ready for bed?”

“Yes, I am. I’ll tell the security crew and deputy they can come in, and use the kitchen for coffee, and the bathroom facilities. No sense in them standing around outside all night.”

“Raven, how about we go upstairs and use one of the bedrooms up there?”

“That is a great idea, Sweetheart. Use the one on the opposite side of the lake though, okay?”

“You know it. I’ll take our sleeping clothes up. See you in a few minutes,” she said as Raven went toward the front door.

*****


In spite of waking with a very nasty taste in her mouth the next morning, Joanna had slept soundly. Which was something of a miracle, she thought, considering the state of affairs from the night before. Indeed, she had been sure she wouldn’t sleep a wink, but lying in Raven’s arms and the safety she felt there must have been stronger than she’d thought. Raven’s touch throughout the night must have soothed her, and that was okay with her. It was probably just as well, in the circumstances. She didn’t want to think about the state of affairs, but the security crew outside, the sheriff and her crew, as well as her father's private investigator assured her she had to think about the shooting and the conditions surrounding it.

Cleaning her teeth in the cabin’s upstairs bathroom, she felt the full horror of what had happened and how close she came to losing Raven again. Raven being shot and the seriousness of the incident swept over her once again like a sickening cloud of anguish. Raven’s life being in jeopardy was pure torment. She’d have the security for as long as it took to bring the shooter to justice, no matter how long or how many inconveniences it might cause. She jumped into the shower, allowed the hot water to pour over her body for only a short time, exited, and quickly dried off. She stood naked before the mirror once again; just staring at the mist covered glass for a few seconds before she reached up with her hand and wiped her hand up and down on the surface.

Now, Joanna used her damp hands to push her hair back from her face, and stared unblinkingly at her reflection. Who was doing this? She wondered. Could this be a former jealous lover? No, she didn’t think so. The only person she could think of that might have a grudge against her was, and she hated to even think this of someone she had once trusted so much--was Mel. The things she had said at her dismissal, and the flowers, and her previous actions all pointed to her former Production Designer.

Oh, my God! She didn’t like to condemn her former friend unheard, but she couldn’t help remember how Mel had looked the last time she’d seen her. The edginess, the lack of acknowledgement of the position she’d put everyone in, the lies and obvious schemes, all the brittle exuberance, which Joanna had accepted as thoughtfulness and dedication on Mel’s part. Was it possible that, even then, Mel had been on the point of doing something so diabolical as to plan on killing her soulmate as well as her? Joanna pondered. She didn’t have any solid answers.

Leaving the bathroom, Joanna stepped into the bedroom, where she spotted coffee cooling on the bedside table. Raven must have brought it in while she was in the shower, and then decided not to wait for her to come back into the bedroom. Raven must really be more concerned about last night than she let on, or she would have been here waiting for me to come out, she deduced.

Seating herself on the edge of the bed, Joann poured a cup of coffee from the carafe, and sipped it slowly. Her mind was in turmoil, and she didn’t know what she was going to do. The simplest thing would be to pack up and whisk Raven and herself back to New York, or even Florida, and leave the investigator and her Daddy’s security crew to sort all this out. Then she knew, she had to tell Raven about her suspicions about Mel, and that would probably set off more fireworks. Then there was the musical, and the last finishing touches on everything, as well as the final rehearsals…

Right now, all I want is for Raven to be safe, she muttered silently. But there was another reason why she shouldn’t leave here so soon, Joanna admitted, putting the empty cup back on the tray. Aside from everything else, she had her own feelings to consider. It would probably be wise to stay here while Raven was going through such a difficult time. Actions could be misconstrued, and, when emotions were near the surface, all sorts of mistakes could be made. And she certainly didn’t want to have any more misunderstood issues between them. “I’ll just go down and talk to her, ask her what she wants to do, and together, we will go from there,” the young blonde uttered to the bedroom.

Raven had risen at her normal early morning waking hour, dressed quickly, and slipped downstairs. She had spent half an hour in meditation in the bedroom downstairs, before she put on a fresh pot of coffee. She wanted Joanna to sleep in, if possible, she needed the rest, and Raven needed a little time by herself to think. What do I do to keep Joanna safe? What can I do about any of this? Should I insist on us going to St. Augustine. At least there, everyone knows me, and any strangers messing around the house would be spotted quickly? No, I think we need to stay here with the security, and let them do their job and find this insane person. And I certainly need to talk everything over with Joanna. Damn it! The only person I can think of that would want to do me harm is that dung heap, Mel Long. If I tell Joanna my unfounded suspicions, will she react negatively? I just don’t know what to do.

Beyond the living room window, another perfect morning was unfolding as she threaded her hair into a French braid and let it flop down her back. She carefully massaged her left shoulder, attempting to take out some of the soreness and not touch the actual wound. This was a beautiful place and it was a pity they hadn’t been able to enjoy it as planned. She shook her head, at least they would have some memories to take back to New York with them, and what a tale this would be for their friends on some rainy night. “HA! I can think of much nicer things to relay to our families and friends,” she stated, and then heard the shower upstairs turn on. Turning to the kitchen area, she poured the carafe half full of coffee, set it on the prepared tray and took it upstairs for Joanna.

Returning downstairs, she had no difficulty finding her way outside, picking up one of her cameras on the way. The sun-splashed porch was as delightful as on the previous day, and although it was not the same as yesterday, she still admired the freshness the sun brought to the day, and the warmth it brought to her skin as she glanced around the area. She could clearly see two men checking out the lake with binoculars, and she snapped their photograph. When satisfied with their surveillance, they walked to the end of the pier, stepped off the dock and proceeded to walk the shoreline. Several others could be seen walking the perimeter of the grounds and nodded to her as she stepped into view. She nodded back.

She didn’t immediately go and sit down on the swing. Instead, she ambled down the stone walkway to the edge of the dock, and looked out over the lake, which was glittering again this lovely morning. The oaks and elms, that grew in such profusion at the edge of the waterline, were dark against a sky as blue as periwinkles, and along the shoreline a clump of vines had been washed up on the sand nearby, and covered the water area as well. It was the cause of some dispute between a pair of squabbling ducks, and their raucous cries rose shrilly over the murmur of a flock of geese waiting their turn at the bug-covered vines.

When Joanna walked out on the porch, she saw Raven standing on the dock. She walked quietly down the stone walkway and stopped at the edge of the pier and gazed at the tall, dark, muscular-framed, female before her. Raven was dressed in khaki shorts with an oversized white shirt and her scroungie deck shoes without socks. She is so beautiful. Oh God, how I love this woman, she thought to herself.

The tall woman was so intent on watching the quarrelling ducks that she didn’t hear the sound of footsteps behind her and she jumped almost guiltily when a soft voice said, “Good morning.”

“Um, good morning to you, Sweetheart,” she responded at last, pulling her hands out of her shorts pockets and holding out her arms for Joanna to enter.

However, the unconscious provocation of the outstretched arms exposed the round swell of her breasts, and as realization dawned she felt a corresponding awareness harden her nipples. The taut peaks pushed against the thin fabric of her shirt, hopelessly noticeable, she thought, but she didn’t give a damn, she rushed into Raven’s arms instantly.

Raven noticed and felt the instant awareness in Joanna, and tightened her arms around her lover, before bending her head for a good morning kiss, which almost sent both into overdrive. It was wonderful and blissful to be in love, and these two certainly were completely in love with each other and didn’t care who knew it.

“How are you, Darling? How does your shoulder feel?” she asked now, and made a conscious effort to act casual.

“Fine, Joanna. My shoulder aches a little, and is a bit sore, but it’s not that bad. How are you, Sweetheart, and how did you sleep?” She allowed a smile to relax the tight muscles in her face.

“You are a fine pillow and comforter, Raven. I slept soundly. I’m afraid I overslept again.”

“It happens. No big deal.” Raven’s lean features and embrace were graciously comforting.

Joanna pulled her neck down for another slow, meaningful kiss. “Oh, yes! That’s how I like my morning to start off.” She nodded with a big grin. Then feeling compelled to say something about yesterday, she added, “I suppose there’s no…”

Her voice trailed away, but Raven clearly knew what she was going to ask. “No,” she said heavily, and to her relief, Joann buried her head in her chest and sighed. “No news, yet. It’s as if the shooter was a phantom. Puff, a ghost and gone.”

Joanna moistened her lips. “The investigator indicated to Daddy when I called him just now, that he only has some basic ideas, nothing concrete yet. Daddy did say that the investigator has one substantial impression about the stalker and feels it is probably the same individual who did the shooting. He is going to go over his suspicions with us this morning,” she sighed. “I’m sorry.”

“You’re sorry?” She turned then; a frown drawing her darkly defined brows together. “Why should you be sorry, Joanna. It’s not your fault.”

“Well, of course not, but…”

“But what, Joanna?” The taller woman gave her a narrow-eyed appraisal.

Joanna stiffened. “Can we sit down on the dock for a few minutes, Raven, I need to discuss something with you.”

“Certainly,” she responded, and laced their fingers together and proceeded to the end of the dock, where they sat down together. Raven carefully placed her camera on the deck next to her, and then looked back to the beautiful green eyes staring at her.

“Raven, you know I love you with all my heart. Your safety is extremely important to me,” she pulled Ravens held hand to her lips and kissed it several times.

Raven was regarding her intently now. “You know I love you also, with all my being. Your safety is just as important to me.” She returned the kisses to Joanna’s hand.

“Listen to me, and please don’t get angry, okay?” She asked and she brought Raven’s hand to her chest, and held it tightly.

Raven pushed her free hand into the low waistband of her shorts, and then said flatly, “I’ll not get angry. What is it?”

Joanna was briefly bewildered, and then she explained. “Honey, deep, deep down, and I hate to condemn anyone without facing them and having evidence, but deep down, I have this nagging feeling that Mel is behind all this.” She swallowed hard and tightened her grip on Raven’s hand.

Raven caught her breath. For a moment she couldn’t speak. Then she pulled her hand free from Joanna’s grip, and drew the young blonde into a tight embrace. “Sweetheart, I have been tossing this over in my mind since yesterday. And my instincts keep gnawing at me with the same feeling you have about that dung heap. There may not be any evidence right now, but my instincts are seldom wrong. She is behind this as sure as I’m sitting here. I just don’t know what to do about it, or how to prove it.” She said frustrated.

“Oh, Raven. How could she be so evil? I know she was a little jealous of my not spending so much time with her on the designs as I usually did… But, you came into my life, and the designs were no longer at a critical stage of development. I never once gave her any reason to believe that our relationship was anything, but of business… well, a working friendship at best. Never, I promise you, I never encouraged her, or led her on.” Joanna started crying.

Raven used her shirt collar to wipe away the tears, and held the smaller woman gently in her arms. “It’s not your fault, Joanna. Some people just assume that any attention you pay to them is of a personal nature. They just can’t accept that there is only friendship involved. They don’t have the foggiest conception of what friendship is, much less love. It is about their self-esteem and their unsatisfied needs.” Raven looked down with a rueful smile, a smile meant to comfort the sad face staring back at her. “For instance, just look at how she manipulated sweet Marcella.”

She took a deep breath, “Oh, God, I’m beginning to see what you mean. I just don’t understand how anyone can be like that. I guess I just wasn’t brought up that way, and I know you weren’t, either.” Joanna felt detached from the idea of so much hatred and apparent reprisals.

Raven raked her fingers through Joanna’s hanging loose hair, bringing her hand to rest on the back of the blonde’s neck. “That’s just human nature, Sweetheart. It takes all kinds. Truth, integrity, honor and love is as foreign to them as doing what is right. We have to acknowledge their existence, but we don’t have to like what they do, or how they live their lives.”

“What are we going to do?” Joanna blinked.

Raven tore her gaze away, and looked down the shore at the still squabbling ducks. She lifted her shoulders in a helpless gesture. “I don’t know exactly what to do. Maybe we should just stay put for a few days, and let the sheriff and Dad’s investigator do their jobs.”

Joanna’s response was barely audible, and Raven’s mouth twisted with some emotion she couldn’t identify. “Yes, I agree, we need to just stay put for awhile. I had wanted these few days to be different, but I believe divine justice will be done in the long run.”

“I agree.”

“Raven, do you think we can salvage any sort of normality for this outing? I would like to forget the shooting, and just be together, having a good time, even if only for a short while.” Joanna’s expression was pleading.

“I’d like that as well, Honey.” The photographer sounded acceptance of Joanna’s request.

In spite of the heat of the risen sun, Joanna shivered. “I… I..”

“I know,” Raven wrapped her arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders and snuggled closer to her side. Joanna laid her head over on the taller woman’s shoulder and they gazed out over the lake.

The two women stayed for a long time in that position, not moving. For some reason, the atmosphere between them was suddenly rigid with unspoken emotions, and a trickle of moisture ran chillingly down both their spines. Their bonding connection had kicked in, and both began to breathe slower as their muscles and emotions started to blend as one. It was if they both could see right through each other’s thoughts, their façade of composure, into the forbidden tangle of unspoken feelings. The knowledge caused their hearts to quicken, and their blood to race like liquid fire through their veins. Oh, God, they couldn’t know what the other was thinking, could they?…. Yes, they looked at each other knowing their bond was allowing their thoughts to connect. They wanted to console each other, to comfort each other, to touch each other…

They kissed slowly, deliberately, allowing the kiss to finalize the connection. Everything was going to be okay with them. They would be out of harm's way and safe in each other’s heart.

Finally, the squabbling of the fighting ducks and their wings splashing into the water broke their kiss. Joanna pointed to the bickering ducks and laughed heartily. Raven grinned at the shenanigans of the two birds and picked up her camera to capture their latest snapping bills, and flapping wings.

Joanna started a low giggle, which ended up as a snorting cackle at the heckling ducks’ antics. Raven chuckled as one duck, swinging head and bill, pulled several feathers from the other duck, which immediately returned the folly by catching the beak of the offender in his bill and attempting to toss the same size duck back and forth to no avail.

“They sure are funny to watch.” Raven chuckled as she slid over one of the dock posts and leaned back against the timber. She spread her legs and motioned for Joanna to join her. The petite woman quickly scooted between the long legs and leaned back against her partner, who immediately wrapped her arms around the younger woman. Joanna wrapped her arms over Raven’s, and the two women settled back to watch the show being put on by the two squabbling ducks. Nearby, the flock of geese were giving the two bickering ducks more room, hoping that they would quickly end their fight and allow them to get in on the insect-covered vines.

“They surely are beautiful-looking birds, Joanna. And those geese have such striking coloring.” She kissed the small head resting on her chest. “We have some beautiful birds in Florida, but these are really stunning.”

“Yes, they are. Not at all like the Muscovy Ducks we have at the lake behind my parents' home,” the young actress responded.

“Yeah, those ducks on your family’s pond were, and I mean no offence, but they were kind of ugly--well, not ugly, but, well, not beautiful like these.” Raven didn’t want to upset her lover.

“I agree with you, Dearest. These are beautiful and yes, our Muscovy ducks, well, like you said, they are…” she laughed and Raven joined in the affectionate amusement.

“You can say that again,” Raven pointed to the geese that were getting annoyed at the two selfish ducks taking so much time over the domain of the vines.

“I suppose Muscovy ducks are not the most beautiful ducks in the world. However, once you really begin to know their personalities, the old adage "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" takes over.” Joanna suggested. “Mother thinks our ducks are fabulous,” she added. “Raven, as with most wildlife, the girls are rather petite while the males are at least one-third to one-half heavier. Some of our boys seem to weigh about fifteen or more pounds. Mother’s oldest ducks were born in the summer of 1996.” She stated, then continued, “During mating season, the males get very territorial, engaging in lots of fights with each other, almost like those two out there fighting over those vines.”

“I imagine that mating rights is a really good reason for fighting,” Raven interjected, bending down to receive the lips offered to her.

“Yes, generally,” she kissed Raven once more before continuing, “But aside from some cuts and bruises, the worst things hurt are their egos, and Mom’s plants and flowers. However, at times a fight can get fierce, particularly when the males are well-matched.” She explained. “It was then that we would send out our best mediator, Athena, our lab, who because of her herding instincts knew just how to separate them. Since Athena is no longer with us, we will chronicle the antics of Hedrena, our lab-puppy-in-training, as she develops her herding instincts.”

The young blonde pointed at the two ducks again snapping at each other’s bill, and when that didn’t seem to catch, jabbing their bills into each other’s head.

“Now, that is just like our ducks at home at times,” she giggled.

The tall photographer loosened her hold on the young actress to pick up her camera and snap away not only at the fighting ducks again, but the impatient geese which seemed to be swimming closer and closer to the ducks and the vines.

“While the girls do argue, primarily for nesting sites, they very rarely get physical. They are wonderful mothers and the sight of them parading their babies, no matter how often I see it, always fills me with wonder. I especially enjoy watching them teach their babies what to eat, how to catch bugs, who to be afraid of, and how to preen.”

“You really believe the mothers talk to their babies?”

“Sure I do. The mothers "talk" to their babies constantly and most of the time, the babies listen. I wish I knew how they accomplished this. It could certainly be useful information when we raise our half dozen babies!”

Raven almost fell into the water, “Half dozen--as in six children? Joanna, we talked about having children, but don’t you think half a dozen is overdoing it just a little?” She gulped, her voice showed more than just a little nervousness.

“Gottcha!” She grinned willingly, her eyelashes batting innocently.

“Why you… how’d you like to take a swim with your clothes on?” She questioned, ignoring the astonishing grin covering Joanna’s face.

“If I go in, so do you, and remember the dressing on your shoulder and the doc isn’t coming back until late tonight.” She admonished as she tightened her hold on Raven’s arms. “We really need to discuss the baby thing, but I thought we’d do that once the show is in its sixth or seventh month.”

“You’re right about that, Sweetheart. I definitely want us to have children, but I had three in mind,” came Raven’s comeback.

“Yeah, that’s right, three from me and three from you. That’s six.” She laughed loudly and turned her head to see Raven’ eyes blinking rapidly, and she could feel her tall lover begin to tremble.

“Honey, can we go back to the ducks for now? I don’t think I can take a six-baby conversation right now, and I never--I never once said I was going to have any babies. Now, did you ever hear me say that?”

Joanna’s lips reached up and captured the trembling full lips above her, “Darling, slow down, breathe slowly. The baby issue is on hold, remember? Now where was I about the ducks…oh, yeah, their talking to their babies…,” she snickered as she felt Raven’s body start to uncoil from the tautness she had felt previously.

“Look at that,” the tall photographer pointed to the ducks as one had gained an advantage over the other and was ducking the captured bill under the water, which only lasted a few seconds as the vicious flapping of the confined bird loosed the hold on its bill, and it immediately pecked at the head of the other duck.

“Those are two noisy ducks, darling,” Joanna shook her head.

“Yes, they certainly are… rowdy and funny, too,” countered Raven as she leaned over and started tickling Joanna in the side.

“Oh, you-don’t you even go there,” she swatted her lover's arms, then raised them and kissed both hands. Again, the men on surveillance heard the two women roar with laughter. The ducks and geese were a refreshing distraction from the events surrounding the two women. They stayed and watched the waterfowls’ antics until the sun started to go down before they returned to the cabin.


*****



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