A Length of Joy

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


Disclaimers: Please See Chapter One

Chapter 19

“Okay. Let me take a different approach. How does all of this background relate to your investigation?” Sheriff McGuinness asked the retired former State Department Intelligence Officer who was now doing special investigative work for the former ambassador.

That was a tougher one for Mills Carson to answer. He didn’t want to lie to this female sheriff. His investigation had already confirmed she was one of the better law enforcement officers in the state. Yet, he was having trouble explaining his absorption with the Stern family. Because in theory and due to his priorities with the ambassador, he did not want to divulge any private information about the young Stern daughter’s private lifestyle. And he wasn’t prepared to tell McGuinness that he was looking for former internal treachery involving Joanna, because the young woman was an eternal realist. She’d be on him in a minute for withholding any information that pertained to this case, or about her, Longgear or the still unconfirmed stalker, even though he believed he knew the identity of the assailant. So he fudged it as best he could. “I’m not sure that it does relate. But every little bit helps.”

Kate was too intelligent to settle for that. “The official investigation still holds that it was an attempt on either Ms. Stern or Ms. Longgear, or both of them. If you’re trying to understand how anyone could have made this attempt, why are you concentrating on their background and whereabouts for the past few months.”

“I’m not concentrating on them. It’s just a place to begin.”

“That’s an awful lot of investigative work for a here-and-now shooting. Why were you called in to do a background on these two? Isn’t it above and beyond the call of duty for a shooting, or is there more you’re not telling me, Carson?”

“Let’s just say I’m dedicated.”

“Oh, I know that,” her puckered brow was far from a smile. “You’re looking for foul play, and not just here.” The sheriff’s no nonsense stare would have sent most men running.

His eyes met hers. “What gives you that idea?”

“I know you, Carson. I have followed your selected investigations for years now. You solve crimes when others don’t even know there is a crime.”

Sliding down in the wooden dining chair, he crossed his legs, “I’m a detective,” he said offhandedly. “It’s my job to consider every possibility and every aspect.”

“Some of which are?’ When he shot her a rapier glance, she held up a hand. “Hey, I was just curious. But it’s okay, Carson. You don’t have to talk about it. But if it involves this shooting, or if you have any information that might lead to the settling of this case, I advise you not to hold anything back from this investigation.” Kate wondered if he didn’t trust her, or if he doubted her intelligence. Or was he attempting to cover up or protect the Ambassador's daughter and her obvious lover sitting on the couch listening to them. Maybe, he feared she was too intelligent and might just upstage him in psyching out this case. Yet, she didn’t believe that notion for one minute. It had to be the two women he was obviously protecting, but why, and from what or whom?

She started to rise, but he held out his hand in a wait motion. “It’s not that I don’t want to, just that there’s not much to say.” He saw her body slowly recoil, so he went on, but more slowly. “On the surface, an attempted murder could be plausible. Ms. Stern has had some problems… but I can’t discuss them.”

“Mr. Carson, I want you to tell the sheriff why you’re here, and what you know. I don’t know what instructions my father has given you, but I want her to have every bit of information that might help her catch who ever shot at Raven and me.” Joanna's tone left no doubt as to her instructions.

“Ms. Stern, your father's instructions…”

“Tell her, Mr. Carson, or do I have to get my father on the phone to issue those instructions to you?” She asked as she picked up the portable phone.

“Make your call, Ms. Stern. I work for your father.” He said and uncrossed his legs and waited. Moments later, Joanna handed him the telephone and his employer told him to cooperate with the local authorities.

“We’re looking into it, but we haven’t got anything definitive yet. Rumor has it that Ms. Stern doesn’t have any enemies and has only had a few minor problems these past six or seven years. One problem with a production designer seems to have been taken care of, but I haven’t finished with that investigation yet, either. I’m still checking out the stalker issues, have nothing clear-cut on that, but I am making headway.” He chose his words carefully, not divulging any of Joanna’s past relationships or her current one with the tall photographer seated next to her.

“In your opinion, were any of those severe enough to explain what happened here?” the sheriff asked.

“What is this, the third degree?” Carson answered angerly.

Joanna caught her breath, stung by his tone.

“Mr. Carson, I believe the sheriff asked a valid question. I don’t want you holding back anything that will help find whoever shot at us. I want Joanna safe, and you better not sit there and withhold anything that might prevent her from being safe. Dad might be a hard man, but when it comes to Joanna, you better tread softly when it comes to her safety. Do you understand me?” Something in Raven’s voice got to him. Whether it was, her harshness, her sincerity, or an odd kind of sadness he didn’t know. But he felt instant remorse, so he relented.

“No. I don’t know the details yet,” he answered Raven, “but from what I’ve learned, I have my opinion?” His voice lowered.

“Has your investigation turned up any evidence at all that will help with this shooting?” McGuinness asked.

He stared at the fingernails of his right hand and puckered his lips. “Concrete evidence? No. Not yet, sheriff.”

He was frustrated. Raven heard it in his voice, saw it in the downward cast of his head. “If there’s something to be found, you’ll find it, Mr. Carson. You’re the best the State Department ever had, so Dad said when we talked to him last night. That's why he called you, and put you in charge of looking into Joanna’s stalker.”

“Ms. Longgear, is Ambassador Stern your father? I thought Ms. Stern here was his daughter?” The sheriff had picked up on the tall woman referring to Joanna’s father as being her dad, too.

“He’s my… he told me to address him as Dad, Sheriff,” she responded as Joanna reached over and clasped her arm around Raven’s and locked their hands together.

“We are partners, and have plans to marry soon, Sheriff. My parents consider Raven their daughter-in-law.” Joanna added with a big smile.

“Does that relieve any issues you might have in cooperating with the sheriff, Mr. Carson?” Raven asked the refined and quiet gentleman.

Carson considered that possibility for several minutes. When he spoke, it was with a touch of bewilderment. “I..Yeah. It does somewhat, but all I can tell her is the State Department's best is still looking into the case and so far has come up with a big fat zero, as you can’t take my personal opinion into account. At least, not yet.“

“Then it really was an attempt on their lives. This new information will help a lot. It already answers some questions. Do either one of you have a bitter past relationship we need to look into?” Kate asked the two women.

The two women looked at each other, and both slowly shook their heads, ‘no’. “Both our previous past relationships are dead. Mine died in an earthquake, and Joanna’s former relationship perished in a vehicle accident in California about three or four years ago.” Raven answered with the requested information.

“I see.” The sheriff closed her notebook again, stood up and walked over to the window. “The weird thing is that, in my gut, I don’t buy the not-related shooting bit. And it has nothing to do with anything Carson or anyone else has said.” She jabbed her pen on her close notebook.

“It’s just …..” Her bewilderment deepened. “There is something about this scene, about the way the boat crept up to the pier, and about the way the rifle was used at just the right time, like the whole thing was pre-planned.”

She fell silent, grappling with that scenario. After a minute she started to resume speaking when her radio went off. “Sheriff, Elaine here. Call me on you cell phone as soon as you get a chance.”

“Excuse me a minute, folks,” she stated, walked out onto the porch and keyed her office. “What’s up, Elaine.”

“Sheriff, Mr. Clayton called from his landing. Says the bait shop was locked up tighter than a drum and Tommy is missing. Didn’t come home last night, or the night before. He also says there is blood on the floor.”

“Damn, now what? Okay, Elaine, call him back. Tell him not to touch anything, and to wait outside until someone from the office gets there. Call Paul and have him meet me at Clayton’s Landing, and bring the dog with him. I’ll come over in a few minutes, myself.”

“Roger that, Sheriff,” the dispatcher hung up.

The sheriff looked over at the bend of the lake and slid her hand through her short-cropped brown-streaked hair. That did look like a Clayton speedboat last evening. I sure hope Tommy isn’t involved in this mess, she considered silently and she reentered the cabin.

Joanna, Raven and Carson stopped talking when the sheriff reentered the cabin.

“Sorry, folks.” Kate went on distractedly. Again, it was as though she had forgotten their presence, as though she were reasoning with herself. “I don’t buy an unplanned or random shooting. I believe it was premeditated, right down to the last detail. But damn it, we have so few leads! My department has been up all night. We’ve taken the lakefront apart looking for witnesses, abandoned cars or boats, but no one saw or heard anything unusual last night because of the festival. With the rocking of the boats in their slips, there could have been any number of noises that sounded like a gunshot. We won’t know about possible prints on the slug until late this week, but that doesn’t mean anything if whoever did the shooting wiped the ammo clean before they put it into the rifle. And believe me when I tell you, there are probably three thousand .308s in this county alone, and probably ten thousand in the state. It’s a popular caliber hunting rifle.”

“Any unaccounted for strangers around here this past couple weeks, Sheriff McGuinness?” asked the investigator.

The solidly built woman shook her head, “No way of telling. It’s practically the end of the summer. It’s festival time, and three-fourths of everyone in the county are visitors.”

“I see.” The investigator stood. “Sheriff, would you mind if I looked around outside?”

“Help yourself. Ladies, I have a missing man to check on over across the lake. I’ll be taking Emmitt with me and leaving Deputy Willa here until after lunch. You need anything, just call.” She turned to leave, “And I’d appreciate it if those armed security people didn’t go shooting any of our locals out strolling.”

“I’ll have a talk with them,” Raven assured her.

“Sheriff, is there any possibility that we can keep this low-key, and maybe not release anything to the press just yet?” Joanna asked.

“My department has no intention of releasing anything to the papers at this time. It would only hinder our investigation having all those reporters around. I’ve instructed the Doctor to hold his report until I pick it up. So, rest assured, there will be no publicity on this until the case is much further along.” The sheriff put on her hat, and shook each of the women’s hands.

“Thanks, Sheriff McGuinness, we both appreciate your understanding.” Joanna hooked Raven’s arm and they walked the peace officer to the porch.

*****


Mel Long slammed the paper down on the table. “It’s been five days and still nothing about either Joanna or her bitch being dead, or even being shot. Nothing on the TV news, either. I guess I have to arrange for another trip to the lake.” She quickly placed a call to her college friend who believed she lived in Texas to borrow her car once again. Then she called a real estate company located on the lakeshore she had checked out prior to settling on getting a boat from the Clayton’s landing that she would be there this afternoon to look at a certain piece of property down from Joanna’s cabin she noticed was for sale.

She had caught a glimpse of a physical shadow tailing her as she left her apartment, and quickly changed cabs three times, before entering the subway. She held up in the women’s room for an hour before exiting the subway, checking to make sure she had lost the man she sensed had been following her the past few days.

Once at the lake, and attempting to turn to go to Clayton’s landing, she was stopped by a Deputy Sheriff, who told her she couldn’t use the gravel road today, due to some sort of problem. She asked how to get to a real estate office as they were supposed to show her some property on the lake and was directed to a road about three miles further down the highway.

At the real estate office, the middle aged agent was happy to take her out in his highly advertised realty boat to see the for sale property about a quarter mile down from Joanna’s cabin. As he speedily powered the boat past Joanna’s dock, she could see several men about the property, including one with binoculars watching the passing boat. She made every effort to keep concealed beside the elderly agent and the prying eyes of the man on the bank. She knew by the way they were positioned, they were obviously guards of some kind, and the appearance of a uniformed Deputy Sheriff confirmed her suspicions. She then caught a glimpse of Raven and Joanna strolling out of the woods, walking hand in hand, as if nothing had happened. Damnit! She had missed! She steamed inside. She had seen them drop. She hit the side of the boat so hard that the real estate agent jumped.

Assuring him nothing was wrong, she stated she was just anxious to view the property from the lake, but had forgotten a very important meeting in Albany and wouldn’t be able to walk the property today. However, she assured him she would be back in a week to view the property better. He was somewhat disappointed, but Mel had begun her tantalizing seduction sequel the moment she had entered his office, and smiled at him with intent. The older man came under her seemly powers almost immediately, and was almost panting as she placed her hand on his leg, squeezing it gently at the promise to return in a week.

That was a perfectly good, well-executed plan. What went wrong? I’ll have to come up with something better it looks like, if I want those two to pay. Yes, something better, and they both are definitely going to pay. She bit her lip to keep her anger from showing to the agent.

Her mind was in overdrive as she drove back to New York, forcing herself to drive the speed limit as she didn’t want any speeding tickets to be traced back to her. She was obviously being tailed by someone, but who and for what reason? She had been too careful with her plans at the lake. The only thing that came to mind was the possibility that Julia was suspicious of Gordon and was having him investigated. “Will have to be a little more observant and careful of any contacts with that bastard from now on.” Mel said out loud and hit the steering wheel because of another complication from being observed. “Don’t need any creep-assed snoop for some divorce attorney keeping tabs on me right now. But these guys are too professional to be some divorce dick. Think I’ll just turn this around and found out who is following me. Obviously they don’t know who they are dealing with.” She hit the steering wheel followed by a string of profanity.

*****


Mills Carson was sitting in the living room of his Bronx apartment with a lapful of papers, as he had been every night for the past two months.

“You’re muttering again, Mills.” The gentle scolding came from the woman he lived with, Ann Waters, as she strolled in from the kitchen. Propping herself on the arm of his chair, she studied the papers. “More background information?”

“Mmm.”

She slid her eyes from the papers to Mills. His shirt was scruffy, collar open, tails out, sleeves rolled to the elbows. He’d kicked off his shoes and his trim- fitting trousers had long since lost their crease. With his hair cut religiously a little long nowadays, and his jaw day-old shadowed, he looked like a modern day pirate, not one of the most successful intelligence officers the State Department ever had.

Only, he was one of the good guys. Ann knew that, even if she sometimes resented his reverent attitude toward the true red-white-and-blue hat he wore. She also knew precisely how much the Stern-Longgear investigation meant to him. He had, at numerous times, indicated his loyalty to Ambassador Stern and how much he had relied on Mills for accurate intelligence advice while employed by the State Department.

“Anything interesting?”

“Lots. Both families are exemplary. There was no doubt about the Stern’s banking and diplomatic background. But this Longgear history blew my socks off. Her father was a much-decorated WWII naval hero. Her mother a concert pianist. Her grandparents on her mother’s side were Greek royalty, no less. I’m still sifting through the family involvement in the underground efforts during the war.” He held up numerous documents from the State Department that had reached his hands only days before.

“Come on, Mills, that’s very impressive. But how does that help with the current happenings surrounding the Stern woman?”

Carson’s eyes flew to her face, and then he caught himself. He sometimes forgot how perceptive she was. It was one of the characteristics he liked about her. Not having to spell everything out, as he’d had to do for his deceased wife for years, was a relief, as was not being constantly pestered for details on classified, non-classified materials, or any State Department business, which he couldn’t readily discuss with her. However, with Ann and his private investigations now, it was much more pleasant to offer them without being hounded. He supposed it had something to do with his ego; he liked to be the one in control. “Damn right it does, honey. We checked into both women’s backgrounds, I found out everyone they had ever come in contact with since they were born.” Ann watched the unshaven man’s tense muscles at the nape of his neck relax somewhat, and gently massaged his tight shoulder muscles.

“I don’t think it's Longgear…well, maybe in a round about way. I think it is a recent contact of Joanna Stern’s.” He gave her a wry smile. Her touch soothed him.

“You have worked very hard on this and must be a little tired at all the leg work?”

“Are you suggesting that I’m too old and too worn out to get to the bottom of this?” he questioned as his voice shifted cadence. “I’m not that old.”

“All right, Mills. You are one of the youngest-minded men I have ever known,” she drawled. She knew he was sensitive about the fourteen years between them. “In hindsight, you do everything with a great amount of pride and diligence. So, what makes you think that this is all hinged back to Ms. Stern? From what you say, she is well liked, and has never had any difficulty. Hmm, except the small fracas with that Production Design person. I doubt many of her acquaintances has a mind that is bent on murder, do you?”

Only the low drone of the window air conditioning unit broke the silence until he spoke. “Don’t bet on it, Ann. Some minds, like this one particularly, are capable of building up any little thing they do to make it seem earth shattering.” He held up the background check on Melissa Albright Long. “I have a very strong suspicion about her, and have placed surveillance on her. Two of my best operatives. She is up to something. She's cunning and lost her surveillance three times the last three weeks, including the two days during the shooting at Joseph Lake.”

His lover finished reading his background check on Long and handed it back to him. “She comes from nothing,” Ann specified.

We all come from something, and look where we are now, Carson thought, but he knew better than Ann on that, though. “She has a very devious mind, Ann.”

“Maybe she does. But she has neither prestige, connections, nor power. When you pick friends, Mills, you have to pick wisely.”

“She has picked those she can manipulate to get what she wants, and if I’m not off track here, even worse than that. She gets what she wants, and cares less about the cost.”

“But at the expense of so many other people!” Ann knew from the twist of his lips that he was thinking deeply on this case. He did that a lot when it came, in particular, to Ambassador Stern. One day perhaps she would ask him about his dedication, but not today. She wanted to know what else he was thinking, and while she respected his privacy, she wasn’t going to go in that direction either.

He grinned. “No, it shouldn’t be that way, but this woman is extremely dangerous.” He pulled her around to his lap. “See what happens to an old man when he lives with a beautiful, intelligent younger woman who asked him about his dirty business!”

She was going to ask if he was complaining, but knew that he wasn’t. Their relationship, aside from the issues of marriage and children, weren’t major ones since she was only thirty-seven and had a brilliant career. Their life together worked well, symbiotic in its own way. She gave him tender loving care in exchange for his apartment, his companionship, his affection, and great sex.

Connecting the Stern Family or Longgear with something ugly, or the possibilities of a scandal or the shooting, wasn’t any part of Mills Carson’s makeup. “The newspapers are already speculating about Joanna Stern and Raven Longgear; something coming from the local police or the upstate County Sheriff would have that much more weight. I want to squelch this as quickly, and as quietly as possible, for everyone’s sake.”

Ann stared at him incredulously. “Do you mean to say that they’d be willing to leave well enough alone, simply for the sake of their own reputations?’

“Not at all. Ambassador Stern wants his daughter and her lover safe. That is why he hired me.”

“But aren’t you pandering to them by being cautious?’ She would have guessed, given Mill’s feelings toward the Ambassador that he would be more than glad to make things go away to protect them.

“I’m trying to be human,” was his quiet response. “To jump right in with my gut feelings and make some pointed accusations the day after the shooting would have been tactless. I like to think that I’m a step above the sleaze reporter, regardless of my personal feelings. I don’t want Long to get away with this, so I have put more men on the job. I’ll catch her soon. I just know it. She’ll mess up just once and I’ll be there.” Mills’ face slowly relaxed into a smile and she hugged him.

“That’s my man.”

He colored under her praise, realizing that he might have sounded self righteous even though he had meant every word he d said. “But don’t worry.” he said more gruffly. “I’ll do my investigation. In my own time and way, I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever it takes until I’m satisfied one way or the other, and if it means that I’ll eventually have to grill the Ambassador himself, so be it.”

*****


Ironically, Mills Carson found himself on the wrong side of the interrogation table the next morning. Shortly after he reached his office, he received a call from Melissa Long suggesting that they meet for coffee at the Donut Shop on 123rd Avenue. He was stunned by the call.

It was clearly a neutral locale, one where they might be free of curious onlookers. Carson, curious himself, quickly agreed and was at the appointed spot thirty minutes later. The shop was nearly empty, but even if it had been packed, he would have had no trouble-locating Long. She was sitting at the end booth, staring directly at him. Her hands were clasped tightly on the Formica surface. Even with her face drawn tight, there was an aura of power about her, and Carson resented that.

Approaching the opposite seat, he gruffly gestured toward the waitress. “Two coffees.”

Mel looked directly into his strong hazel eyes. She had seen Mills Carson only once before. When she realized she was being followed, she quickly slipped away from the tail, and turned the trick on him, following him directly back to Carson’s Bronx second story office. She sat in a coffee shop across the street from the investigator’s office and waited until both men came out. Carson was quite irritated with his employee, and strong words were obviously passed between the two. She waited until both entered separate vehicles, then walked across the street and up the stairs to the two offices on that floor. One was an insurance company with several employees coming in and out. On the opposite side of the hall, Carson Investigations was boldly painted on the place on the door. She walked in and was told that Mr. Carson had just left and wasn’t due back until tomorrow. She asked for a card, and stated she would call the next day for an appointment.

Carson was puzzled, then wary. In answer to the question in her eyes, Carson nodded, but did not extend his hand. Melissa did not utter a word until after Carson reluctantly sat down across from the woman.

Within a minute two mugs filled with hot coffee were deposited on the booth top. Carson cocked his head toward the woman, but did not speak. How did she know? Who failed in their surveillance? What is she up to, and why has she called for this meeting.

“I understand you’re heading an investigation on me.”

“What gave you that idea?”

“You’re a private detective?”

“That’s right, I’m a Licensed Private Investigator.” Carson bided his time. He knew damn well Melissa Long had known the answers to each of the questions she had asked. A woman like Long, coming from a detailed background check, didn’t approach anything blindly. Carson assumed that Long was using the time to assess him, and he was grateful that he had on his sharp, summer-weight light blue blazer, a crisp white shirt and matching blue tie. Melissa Long should know that she wasn’t dealing with a slouch, even if Carson had splurged on the outfit only at Ann’s insistence.

“I understand that old man Stern was the one who hired you. Why are you and your employees following me, Carson?”

Carson sat there expressionless. His confidentiality toward his client’s identity would always remain secret. He would never divulge any client or reason for him being on a particular case. Not to mention the fact that he wanted to play it safe until he had had a chance to size Long up.

Long was steaming, but wasn’t the type to show her hand. She sized Carson up rapidly; he would pose a challenge if given enough time. She didn’t want him on her case, or poking around in her business.

Her voice showing barely a hint of a Texas accent, she came across as being cultivated, at least relatively so, given her occupation according to the background check.

“You think you’re in for a long haul, Detective?”

Carson gave a negligent shrug. “I’m in for as long as it takes.”

Long was beginning to suspect that her adversary was not only well-dressed and well-spoken, but shrewd. He wasn’t volunteering a thing.

“Have you come up with anything on me that you have found interesting, Mr. Detective?”

“As in anything that might suggest that it was something other than what it appeared to be on the surface?”

“That is why you’re investigating me, isn’t it?” Long answered disdainfully.

Slowly but firmly, Carson sat motionless and silent.

“And?” When Carson didn’t respond, she prodded further. “Have you found anything to satisfy your snooping, Carson?”

“You mean, evidence that someone has been stalking my client, or even stole a boat and took a shot at her?”

“That’s right.”

“We’re working on it. Ms. Long, how did you know someone shot at my client? You already knew before I mentioned it.”

Long could feel her patience fraying, and she had no intentions of answering him. Getting information from Mills Carson was like pulling teeth.

“Do you have any leads? Or is it only speculation?”

“I have almost enough to put you behind bars for the better part of your life, Ms. Long. But I want it to be for the remainder of your life.”

“You will never get it, not even enough to be even questioned by the cops. You might as well stop hoping I’ll slip up.”

“I’m not hoping for anything. Regardless of what you think, an investigator doesn’t hope for murder, or for anyone to get hurt. You’re going down, Long. You can place a year's salary on it.”

Mel sighed. The man obviously had a chip on his shoulder against anyone as brilliant as she was. She was tired of playing around with him, and even more aggravated with her being followed by the dogs from his firm.

“Let me give you a piece of advice. Take it or leave it, Carson. Stop investigating me, and stop today. No more following me, or attempting to keep tabs on me.” She finished her coffee and stood up. “I won’t tell you again. You will suffer the consequences if you or your men don’t disappear from my life today.” Long said, gritting her teeth, her gaze sharp as she shot daggers at the seated investigator.

It was Carson’s turn to be taken aback. He hadn’t expected such directness or such resignation. “You threatening me, Ms. Long?”

She leaned forward until she was only inches from his face, “Damn straight, you asshole.” Her tone was low, dangerously so, and a muscle high in her cheek twitched, in another less public place she would have exacted her wrath on Carson. But she could wait, he was only a small fly in the ointment, and she knew how to swipe a bothersome fly. Now she knew she would have to prepare for this elimination carefully, he wasn’t as stupid as he looked.

“We’ll know exactly what you did yesterday, exactly what you’re doing today, and exactly what you plan to do tomorrow and every day after. That is, until you are behind bars where you belong,” he struggled to contain himself.

“Listen, Carson” Long cautioned, holding up a hand, “You don’t frighten me. I’m not making apologies for what I have done, or what I will do. You, on the other hand, need to get your affairs in order.”

“You don’t need to patronize me, either, Ms. Long.”

“I wouldn’t waste my time even attempting that, Carson. I meant what I said.” Her features tightened as she threw two dollars on the table and walked out.

Carson didn’t turn and watch the woman leave. He knew she meant every word; now, he needed to take better precautions to protect Stern and Longgear. Damn. That is one devious woman. She is even more treacherous than I first imagined. He got up and hurried back to his office. Extra precautions would now have to be put into place, and immediately.

*****


With her pale gold hair swinging freely and emerald eyes alight in the healthy tan of her face, Joanna was very much a fine-looking woman. Raven’s heart did flip-flops each time she gazed upon the love of her life, as they strolled hand in hand up the path.

The path meandered through hills and endless reaches of forest. The flat, meadow areas were coarse grass dotted with dandelions, short-stemmed daisies, and scaly red flowers resembling twinkle. The brief meadow areas had little or no tilling. Once reaching the crest of the covered hill, they discovered the road meandered down and down, and all at once, it seemed, a far-reaching valley spread before them.

Raven caught her breath at its unexpected loveliness. “It’s almost as beautiful as the view from my Tennessee cabin,” she remarked to Joanna.

Resembling a patchwork quilt, on the opposite side of the crest, cultivated fields curved in terraces along the hillside and scooped down into a river delta, whose tributaries emptied into the lake that, Raven could finally see, was shaped like a kidney bean, and covered several hundred acres.

The two security guards had discreetly spread out about fifty yards below the crest of the hilltop, and had made themselves almost unnoticeable a few hundred feet behind the couple.

Her already high spirits winged upward into pure bliss as she took in the scenery. She happened to glance around to see how Joanna was doing.

Joanna relaxed her grip on her walking stick, a long narrow sapling she had picked up next to the winding path, and wasn’t staring around at the wonders of the rich multi-covered valley below, but had her eyes fixed on the tall woman, a slight smile covering her face. Raven could find no words to express her delight and so smiled back, to be rewarded with an understanding grin so wide and warm and ravishing that it left her bemused and blinking and thinking that, in the space of a few months, she and Joanna had become more than familiar with each other. She felt closer to the petite woman in that moment, which was silly, really, for she had felt a union with Joanna from their first meeting.

She reached in the pocket of her khaki shorts and clasp the small velvet box in her large hand. Today, I ask this woman to be my wife, she gripped the box firmly, and returned the smile from Joanna.

Joanna insisted they stop at the small overlook, and have lunch, which she had painstakingly prepared, stuffed the backpack full, and had been the one to carry the pack up the hillside to prevent any weight on Raven’s still tender shoulder.

“Here, Darling,” Joanna extended her full hand up to Raven. Raven reached out and took the two brown bags from the delicate fingers. “How about taking these bag lunches to our shadows. I have planed on us being here for awhile, and I don’t want them to start eating the bark off the trees.”

Raven smiled at her thoughtful partner and lifted the brown bags and sniffed them.

“Hey, I smell sweet pumpkin bread in here. Did you make it, and do you have any of this in that backpack for us???” She questioned hopefully. She opened one bag and peaked in… “Ah hah. Chicken, deviled eggs, and a big chunk of pumpkin bread. Oh, and a bottle of water. Nice.” She grinned down at Joanna.

“Honey, the bread is freshly made. And yes, you tall turkey, there is half a loaf in here just for you,” she giggled at the tall stunning woman standing before her, who was already licking her lips in anticipation.

Raven did a little one legged-gig as she proceeded to the edge of the path. She placed two fingers in her mouth, and a sharp whistle rang out.

“Come and get it.”

Raven motioned to one of the security crew who stepped out from the nearby stand of trees. Just as quickly on the other side, the other crew member stepped out from behind a group of boulders and looked around. The guy from the trees motioned for the female agent to ascend the trail and see what the tall photographer wanted.

“Joanna thought you two might like a lunch and some water. We obviously are going to be here for some time.” She handed the brown bags to the woman who accepted them, smiling, and thanked her. “Ah, by the way, if either of you don’t like pumpkin bread, rest assured, I love it,” she chuckled as she turned and went back up the path to the crest overlook, where Joanna had spread out the blanket and sat out their lunch.

After a leisurely lunch, complete with a dozen deviled eggs, and mustard potato salad that her tall companion enjoyed so much, as well as devouring half the pumpkin bread, they lay down on the small blanket serving as a picnic tablecloth for a short break. After about a half hour, with sweet conversation, and the constant hand holding, both women sat up.

Raven chuckled, as she rubbed her stomach. “Have to tell you, Joanna, that was a very tasty picnic, and the sweet pumpkin bread it was exceptionally delicious. It was as good as Marla’s.”

“Maybe you were just hungry, Darling. You seem to have a hollow leg, much like mine.”

“And maybe you don’t give yourself enough credit.”

She restored her sunglasses and wiggled closer towards her. Another millimeter or so, and she’d be lying on the tanned woman beside her.

“Told you cooking is one of my strong suits.”

“You’re not kidding! You have a great talent, one of many I might add.” Raven edged herself just a teeny bit closer to her lover. “But your cooking was what won me over in the first place.”

Joanna raised her sunglasses again. “I beg your pardon?”

“Don’t you remember?” She stretched out her arm, drew a lazy circle down the curve of her short-clad hip. “It was the day you made the bouillabaisse. You baked me two loaves of sweet pumpkin bread that day.” She inched closer, seductively stroking her bare thigh. “I think that was when I first started falling for your pumpkin bread…ah… I meant to say, I first knew I loved you.” She whispered softly, her voice catching in her throat.

Joanna stared at her, her face perfectly still. Then, the corners of her mouth began to twitch. Her eyes sparkled with mirth. Finally, she burst out laughing.

Raven watched in bewilderment as Joanna flopped back onto the blanket, unable to contain her merriment. “Mind telling me what’s so funny?” she asked. She’d just revealed something intimate and sentimental to her, and here Joanna was, apparently finding it hilarious.

Joanna wiped her eyes with a corner of the blanket and sat up. “That sweet pumpkin bread you just ate,” she said, still hiccupping with laughter, “I didn’t bake it.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t bake it?” Raven swung herself into a sitting position. “I was certainly no expert on sweet pumpkin bread, but even I can tell that didn’t come out of a package.”

Joanna scooped up a handful of sand and small rocks and watched it drizzle through her fingers. “Honey, Marla made it,” she admitted sheepishly.

“Our Marla made it?”

“Yes, she certainly did. She sent it up with the replacement security crew this morning, just for you. Now, tell me you smelled the bread cooking in the cabin? I don’t think so!” A faint smile flickered at the corner of Joanna’s fine mouth as she snickered again.

“You’re kidding?” The older woman searched the depths of those gorgeous sea green eyes and chuckled before she asked again, “You aren’t kidding, are you?”

“Nope.”

Raven braced her hands on the ground behind her, dropped back her head and gazed at a puffy white cloud drifting. “You mean, you attempted another gotcha on me again?”

“Sure did, but I didn’t say it, now did I?”

Raven glanced sharply at Joanna. “No you didn’t, but why not?”

Joanna’s tone had gone teasing to seriousness, “I wanted this day to be light and…Well, to be special.” She answered with a twinkle in her eyes, as the sun slipped behind a cloud for a brief moment.

“Thanks, honey. I want today to be memorable too.”

Sitting on the hillside, and looking across the valley, and lake below, Joanna’s heart grew quiet. Her mind drifted across to the one her heart thought of most of all.

She was tall and built just right. Her blue sapphire eyes melted the young blonde when she looked into them. She smiled with the thought of how gentle her voice was to hear. Like the wind whispering soft loving words. Joanna breathed in deeply of the fresh air and released a deep sigh.

“Just wait until the snow falls and we come up here skiing.” Joanna pointed to the far side of the valley and the tall mountains before them.

“Hate to disappoint you, honey, but I don’t know how to snow ski.”

“I have seen you water ski, and it will take no time at all for you to get the hang of snow skiing. There is an excellent instructor at the lodge.”

“What makes you think I want to learn to ski. I heard that the snow, when packed and solid, is as hard as ice.”

“That makes for great skiing. Don’t tell me you are afraid to try?”

“Didn’t say I was afraid. I said I have never had a desire to fall off the side of a mountain… In winter…And break a leg….”

“Sceesh! I was willing to learn to fish, and to snorkel with you. Are you saying you won’t attempt the runs with me?” Joanna gave the older woman a pitiful look.

“Ahhh. So, you want me to ski with you. Okay. But don’t say I didn’t tell you so, when I’m in a wheelchair with a broken leg, or worse.”

Joanna leaned over and kissed her lover. “I’ll make it worth your while, beautiful.

“Have you ever-Uh--Well, made out in the snow?”

“No. I can’t say I have ever done that. Well, now that you brought that up, I think I might find the snow an enjoyable place.” Her Cheshire cat grin gave way to her eyebrows being raised up and down in one of her seductive moves.

“Oh you! I look forward to the first time on the slopes with you. So, we have a deal?”

“We have a deal.” She answered and looked across the valley again at the mountain slopes and enjoyed the prospective rewards of learning to ski. After all, she would do anything in her power to make the young blonde happy.

Joanna looked back towards the mountains too, and smiled. Thinking to herself, How wonderful this tall Greek makes me feel. Like the peacefulness of the land that rested at their feet. As the treetops swayed and danced with the soft gentle wind, and the birds sing with soft lullabies, Joanna reached over and drew the backpack to her. She unbuckled the front pouch, reached in and brought out the black leather box she had been carrying around for over two months, until the time was just right. Today! Now, the time was just right.

Raven’s was busy clicking away with the camera Joanna had placed in the backpack, when Joanna’s voice pleasantly interrupted her concentration. Raven turned to face the loveliest face she had ever seen.

Joanna’s voice was perfectly calm as she said, “Raven, this might seem rather sudden, but I’ve come to love you beyond words, and I want you in my life forever. Forever, as my wife.” She held out the small black open leather box to Raven.

“Oh!” Raven covered her mouth with both hands and her eyes widened in disbelief. Then she placed a hand over her heart and tears pooled in her midnight blue eyes.

“Marry me, Raven. Please.” The rest of the world seemed to dissolve, so all she could see was Raven’s face.

All Raven could hear was the sound of her voice. “I want to spend the rest of my life with you,” Joanna said.

Raven’s heart soared. “I’ve never wanted anything else,” she replied as soon as she could speak.

Joanna dropped the leather box, and gripped her hands. “Then you’ll…”

“Marry you?” All at once, Raven felt like singing with glorious joy, and shouting her answer over the hillside and as far as her alto voice could reach. She donned a doubtful expression instead. “Well... it depends.”

All the color drained from Joanna’s face. “Depends on what?”

Instantly, Raven regretted her teasing. “Depends on whether you will make it a double ring ceremony or not!” Her voice wobbled with emotion.

Joanna kissed her lightly on the lips, as if to seal a promise. “Of course I want a double ring ceremony. We promised we’d do everything together, remember?”

She’d never before seen such an expression of pure, uncomplicated happiness light up Raven’s face. “Oh, Raven..?”

She would have been hilarious under other circumstances. But Joanna wasn’t exactly in a laughing mood, she was in a very serious mood.

“I’ll marry you, Joanna.” Raven said simply. “I love you with every fiber of my being, Sweetheart. I always will, always.” Raven blinked, unable to hold back tears.

“Oh, my goodness. I don’t think I have ever been so happy in my entire life. Come here, you,” Joanna said, opening her arms wide, and tears streamed down her cheeks as she cried vehemently as well.

When the hugging , kissing and crying were over. Joanna reached for Raven’s hand and placed the diamond-shaped ring on her long finger.

Raven stared at the ring, which was a two-carat rectangle emerald, surrounded by elegant diamonds. Raven had never seen such well-designed piece of jewelry before.

“It’s... Oh, Joanna, it's stunning.”

“I’m glad you approve. It has a band with the same design to be added at the wedding ceremony.” She reached up to give her a kiss.

“Thank you,” was all the stunned dark-haired woman could say.

The love Joanna had tried so hard to contain erupted inside her, warming her with its passionate radiance, dizzying her with its depth.

“I love you, Raven,” she said solemnly. “It feels like I’ve loved you virtually my entire life, even before you were a part of my life.”

In that moment, as soul-deep certainty rose up to fill all the once empty aching places inside her, Raven knew she had loved Joanna from the beginning of time, and many lifetimes over. She became aware of the sensations that stimulated her heart and the unfathomable love she had for the petite woman. “I do believe I have loved you earlier than this lifetime, my sweet.” Raven whispered, her eyes lit up with joy as she lowered her mouth to hers.

Joanna flung her arms around Raven’s neck and kissed her until she could barely breathe. When their lips parted at last, Joanna’s knees were trembling.

Raven sifted her fingers through her hair as if she couldn’t believe she was real. “I love you so much, Joanna.” She felt the last of her emotional defenses melt under the warmth of her smile, the twinkle in her brilliant green orbs as they gazed up at her.

“Uh, Raven, when do I receive my ring?”

“Actually, it’s right here,” Raven said , reaching into her shorts pocket, she pulled out the small velvet box.

This time it was Joanna whose mouth dropped open. She hadn’t given a single thought to Raven actually having a ring with her. As she pulled a beautiful diamond solitaire from the box, her heart beat fiercely in her chest. It was a simple yet well-designed marquis cut that sparkled brilliantly as she held it up for Joanna’s inspection. When Raven took her hand in hers and slid the ring on her finger, she had to bite down on her lip to keep her emotions in check.

“It fits.” Raven sounded relieved.

“It’s perfect.” Joanna finally managed to say, gingerly moving her hand back and forth as she stared at the ring in amazement. Expecting simply to brush her lips, she was surprised when her mouth lingered over hers. Before either one realized it, they were both breathing heavily, much to Joanna’s delight.

She placed a finger on her lips, “Be careful, Sweetheart.”

The young woman nodded, then continued to ogle the ring. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful diamond before.”

“Then I’d say it was the right choice.” She said in a very low, seductive voice.

“There is an inscription inside, Joanna.”

The honey-blonde looked up from the ring to the face of the woman she loved,

“There is one in yours, also, my love.”

The both laughed, and each slowly slid their rings off and held them up to see the writing.

“Yours Forever, Until Eternity Ends,” Joanna read.

“My Love Is Yours, Till The End Of Time, ” Raven whispered.

They replaced each others’ rings, and kissed intensely.

Joanna finally spoke softly, “You sure know the way to a woman’s heart,” then the tears returned.

Raven held her close until the tears subsided, then set her camera on the timer, and pulled Joanna closer as she placed Joanna’s hand in hers with both rings showing. It would always be a reminder to them, of what had transpired this day, and both knew it was--without end.

Immediately after the camera snapped, the women fell into each other's arms and lay back on the blanket.

“Don’t stop, Raven it feels good,” she heard her voice say. Those were the only words between them that afternoon, as their bodies came together in the most beautiful union of love. An awakening of their souls, a rebirth of the women they both had hidden away for years. Raven was a passionate lover, demanding she give everything, yet tender as she took her on a journey of sensory bliss. Never had Joanna felt so loved as that afternoon..

With every beat of her heart, with every breath she took, she knew that, forever, Raven would be in her heart. And when the climax finally came, it was joyful, and tender for both of them as they trembled in ecstasy as they ended the journey.

As she fell asleep in Raven’s arms, there was only one thought going through her mind. She really loves me and I love her. I will always know that she belongs to me, as I belong to her. Our love is beautiful and most wonderful. Our love will last forever… and ever! It will never end!

Down the hill, the security team made themselves invisible to the two women on the overhang. However intruders would find it impossible to gain access to that particular ridge for the remainder of the day.

*****


“Raven?” The young blonde leaned into her lover as the swing gently swayed back and forth. The sun was sinking slowly and the two women had only been back at the lakeside cabin for about half an hour.

“Huh?”

“Raven, I’ve been thinking. I can’t wait six months for us to get married,” she exclaimed. “What would you say to us having our commitment ceremony on the beach at Anastasia Island, with all the family and friends there, then flying off to Vermont for a quiet, small church wedding?”

Raven looked down at the green glittering eyes gazing up at her. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”

“Very serious, Darling.” She pulled the dark head down for a passionate kiss.

“That sounds great. I guess you already have a date in mind?”

“Yes.”

“Well, when?”

“What would you say to the commitment ceremony next week, and the day after for a legal union in Vermont?”

“Hahaha. Talk about, ‘can’t wait’.” The tall photographer laughed at her anxious partner. “That sounds like a excellent plan to me, Sweetheart.” Their lips met once more.

Joanna’s heart was pounding in her chest at Raven's willingness for the hurried- up events.

“Only, I am not going to be the one to call your folks and spring this on them. Your mother will have someone’s behind, and it sure as heck isn’t going to be mine,” blue eyes glowed with happiness.

“Coward!” Teased the honey blonde.

“You got that right.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to ask you to call them. And I will be willing to bet that after they get used to the idea, they will both be willing to forgo the long engagement and planning.”

“I can hear your mother now, and by the time she gets through with you, I’ll be lucky to have any of your small, delicate, but well-shaped fanny, to sit on my lap.”

“I’ll bet she will come around. Daddy will be on my side and that is half the battle,” she laughed softly, but somehow the laugh wasn’t really convincing to either of them.

Joanna kissed the soft lips once more. “Where are you taking me for our two week honeymoon?”

“Ah… Now we get to the good part. I thought we would go to New Zealand for this honeymoon. And when your musical has been running for a year, how about we take six weeks off and go to Fuji for a proper honeymoon?”

“That sounds perfect. Just perfect,” she increased the pressure of her lips on Raven’s.

“You know, I already have my wedding outfit? What are you going to wear on such short notice?”

“So that is what that white three-piece Armani is for? I wondered why you were being so mysterious when it was picked up three months ago in New York, and you were so secretive and evasive about the purpose and promptly hung it in the back of your closet in that long bag and wouldn’t even try it on for me to see.”

“Yep!” Raven fought to keep a stupid grin from running lose across her features, then continued. “I knew we would be getting married, and I had that ensemble tailored the first time we came to New York,” the dark-haired photographer beamed, pleased with herself.

“You did? How did you know I’d marry you?” Eyebrows arched as the question was asked.

“Sweetheart, I knew from the moment you stood on my doorstep, you were my lifemate, and if you are honest with yourself, I believe you felt the same way?”

“You believe correctly,” she replied, sinking deeper into Raven’s chest.

“Have you given any thought as to what you're going to wear, Sweetheart?” Raven kissed the top of her head.

“Sure do. Have known that since I was twelve.” She exclaimed, confidently.

“Twelve?” Raven puzzled looked down at the green-flexed eyes looking up at her.

“Yes, twelve. I’m going to wear my aunt Rosalin’s wedding dress.” She proudly and with poise exclaimed. “Before you ask, yes, aunt Rosalin’s wedding dress. It is over a hundred and seventy years old and was passed down to her by my great, great grandmother. Aunt Rosalin even wore it at her and Alexandria’s wedding and showed it to me when I was staying at their home one summer. She will pass it down to me, and I, in turn, will pass it down to my daughter, granddaughter, or niece when the time comes.”

“Whoa!” Was all the stunned woman could utter.

“Oh, Raven, it is so beautiful, and they just don’t make lace like that anymore. Wait and see, you will think I’m a beautiful bride wearing it,” she boldly voiced.

“Honey, you could wear a potato sack and I’d think you were beautiful. You are beautiful and I can hardly wait to see you in this dress.”

“Well, why don’t we go inside and call now. This will make Mom’s evening for sure.”

“Uh huh…and you have to make it clear it was your idea not to have a long drawn out affair, with fifteen bridesmaids…”

“Stop your laughing, or I’ll tell her it was your scheme.”

“Okay. Okay. Come on. I’ll need to call Marcella as well.” The tall woman stood and extended her hand to her future spouse.

“We need to call Marla as soon as you reach your cousin.” She said taking her lover's hand as she stood.

“Yes, and we need to arrange to go back tomorrow.”

“I’ll tell Daddy. I don’t know what he’ll do about the security.”

“I’m willing to let him do what he wants about that,” she said, opening the screen door to the cabin and allowing Joanna to enter first.

For the next forty-five minutes, Raven watched the young blonde pace back and forth in front of her as she sat comfortably on the sofa awaiting the outcome of the call. Joanna and her mother had been discussing the up and coming wedding, and from the one-sided conversation that the taller woman heard, she knew her future spouse’ mother had been convinced that one week's preparation was just not enough time.

The small woman had indicated several times she was fixed on the short notice wedding. Obviously, her mother wasn’t.

“Well, that didn’t go as expected,” she exclaimed, disappointedly, as she sank on the couch next to Raven.

“Yes, I heard,” she drew the younger woman into her arms, her eyes narrowed in concern.

“She is right, one week isn’t long enough, but thank God, she agreed to help and we will only have to postpone for one additional week. Moving the wedding back two weeks is alright with you, isn’t it, Darling?” A very anxious blonde asked and she took the larger hand in hers.

“Of course, it is. I think that will give us enough time to have the large affair you want…. And I heard your mom agree to help make calls and the planning.” She replied, managing to keep her voice casual.

*****


They returned to New York the next morning on one of the security helicopters, while two of the security personnel drove Joanna’s Jeep back.

When they arrived at the brownstone, Joanna’s mother and her aunt Rosalin were already sitting at the kitchen table with notebooks. Each had already devoured several pots of tea as the couple joined them at the table.

Several hours earlier, Marla had been dragged into planning the event, so Raven had made herself scarce and had settled in the garden for a little downtime. She had just opened the newspaper when Aunt Rosalin stepped up to the table and sat down a tray.

“Mind if I join you?. I can only stand so much of those three.” She offered hopefully. “You interested in a cup of hot tea?”

“Absolutely.” She stood and pulled out the chair for the elderly woman.

“I won’t talk. Just go ahead with your paper.” She explained, pouring the tea and pushing one cup over in front of Raven.

“Thanks.” She answered, and picked up the cup. She had taken a long sip when suddenly; she almost dropped the cup and did spill some of the liquid on her slacks and on the table as she sat it down.

“Darn, that’s hot.” She whimpered as she grabbled the napkin and dapped at the front of her slacks.

“You okay, Sweet One?” The elderly woman asked.

“Yes. Aunt Rosalin, listen to this article in the paper….better still, read this, please,” she passed the folded paper to the wrinkled hand.

“Which article, Raven?” She asked patiently.

Raven stood slightly, bent over and pointed to the lower side of the page.

Rosalin adjusted her glasses, and read the brief article. “An early morning, unexplained gas explosion takes the lives of five individuals on the second floor of an office building on the lower East side. Fire Marshals and Police are investigating the suspicious fire for details of the explosion claiming all lives of a well known Private Investigator’s firm located on that floor. Other businesses located on the floor suffered only slight smoke and fire damage. Several individuals who worked on the floor indicated the PI’s early morning meetings were commonplace,” she lowered the paper without finishing the article.

“That is the firm hired for your and Joanna’s security isn’t it, and the one checking out the shooting?”

“Yes. The heads of the firm, and their lead investigators were mysteriously killed.”

“I’ll go in and call Howard.” She stood up with the paper in her hand.

“Raven, I think you should tell Joanna, her mother, and Marla. I noticed the security people outside when we arrived at seven this morning, but they were probably already scheduled. Howard will need to know… I’m sure he will take care of it. It will be okay, Sweet One.” She patted Raven’s hand as she reached the door, which Raven opened for her.

She disappeared inside as Raven stopped in the kitchen doorway, and looked back over the fenced garden area only to see two security people walking up and down the side of the fence.

The three women had taken their planning to the living room, and didn’t bother to look up as Raven stood beside the couch waiting to interrupt.

Soft green eyes appraised her, and an unquestionable, loving smile came to her lover’s face. “You joining us again, Darling?”

“Yes. But not for what you think. All three of you need to listen.” Her voice dropped an octave as she continued the explanation and sat down next to Joanna, taking her hand in hers.

Howard Stern had another reputable investigating firm secured and on the job within the hour. His State Department ties had been an excellent source of highly regarded firms for the protection of his family.

“Did he have any idea who was responsible for the shooting, or the stalking?”

Joanna’s mother asked, as she returned from checking the window to make sure the security team were still in place in front of the house.

“Mom, he was going to come over tomorrow and discuss what he had come up with.” Joanna answered.

“Day before yesterday, he indicated he had a pretty good idea about the responsible party. But he never actually named anyone.” Raven added.

“We want to continue, Mother. I will not have anyone spoiling this for Raven and me.” The young blonde said unwaveringly.

“I agree. Howard will make sure the security is doubled and everyone is safe.”

Elizabeth Stern picked up her notebook. “Now, where were we… yes, Marla will coordinate with Raven’s friends about the catering for the wedding. Joanna will arrange for the musicians. Raven will arrange for the tent and gazebo for dancing…..”

“Mom, I need a break. I’m hungry and I need some lemonade. How about the rest of you?” She said as she stood and motioned for Raven to join her.

“I think we all could stand a break,” Rosalin stated as she headed down the hall towards the bathroom.

The next three days were packed with telephone calls, arrangements, and every detail imaginable. Rosalin had spent each night with the young couple, while Joanna’s mother had been chauffeured home each evening. Finally, on the afternoon of the third day, Joanna and her mother agreed, it had come together nicely, and the wedding was now scheduled.

Joanna and Raven were booked on an early morning flight to Vermont, where they had a three day wait to obtain a marriage license, so they could be legally married the day after their Florida ceremony. They would arrange for a small new age church and minister to perform the private ceremony for their immediate family, before they left for New Zealand for a fast two week honeymoon, before returning to the final rehearsals and grand opening performance of Joanna’s musical.

*****


Chapter 20

Waves crashed against the jagged coral and rocks, sending sets of water high in the air. Rivulets of foam spilled the dark sandstone boulders as the ocean with the dune behind readied itself for the next assault. Gulls wheeled overhead, their raucous cries piercing the thunder of the sunny day. A brown-necked pelican glided on a current of wind towards its perching place on a distant piling partially submerged in the tidal basin behind the shoreline.

In the upper levels farther inland, the reeds, cattails, and tall grasses in their growing season were a multitude of shining leaves, and the three beach-comers stopped periodically at the sound with all the airs that come through them. That part of the marsh, from brackish back to fresh water, takes the puffs and roaring of the wind, and the reeds sway and swish, grasses touch together lightly, ticking and scraping, joined in late summer by the insistent rasping of crickets. At the edges of ditches and creeks, pickerel frogs jumped at anyone’s approach, or there was a splash as a muskrat in a great hurry dove into a hole.

“Look! I found a starfish!” Crouched beside the edge of a pool, Johnny called over his shoulder to the two women as he pointed to his discovery.

Joanna came scrambling over the uneven terrain, wheeling her arms as she slipped on an algae-coated rock and nearly lost her balance. She flung herself down next to her young guest.

“Wow, neat!”

Raven picked her way across the rocks and peered over the tops of two loved heads.

“Yup, that’s a starfish alright. Good job, Johnny.” She ruffled his hair.

Joanna tilted back her head so she was looking upside down, squinting into the sunlight. “I never saw teal starfish before.”

“You did, too,” Johnny contradicted. “At the aquarium, three months ago.”

“Oh, yeah.” Her excited smile dimmed a few watts.

“But this is your first wild starfish,” Raven pointed out, restoring her smile to full power.

“Uh-huh!”

“Raven, come closer and see the starfish,” Joanna coached, as she dipped her hand experimentally into the water left behind by the receding tide. “Is it okay if we touch him?” She asked.

“Well, he won’t hurt you,” Raven said. “But how would you like it if some giant creature came along and picked you up while you were just hanging out, minding your own business?”

Johnny screwed up his mouth to one side, considering. “Not very much, I guess.”

“I don’t think I would, either,” the beautiful blonde agreed.

“How do you know it’s a boy starfish?” Johnny asked.

Raven chuckled. “Good question, Big Guy. Maybe I should have said she wouldn’t like it.”

“She who?” Joanna asked, not catching on to the jest.

Raven winked at the young boy. “Why, Susie Starfish, of course.”

“OH!”

Raven and Johnny burst into laughter, and were quickly joined by the short blonde squatting beside them, who flicked seawater on the duo.

The sound of their laughter played against Raven’s ears as the pleasant tinkle of wind chimes. Yet, it also reverberated in her heart with an echo of anticipation and a slight nervousness of the festivities that would follow in a few days. After all, she was about to leave the late summer days of being single, for a life of marriage. She chuckled at her turmoil… Thank heavens, for my blessings. What a wonderful turmoil it is. She thought

Heck… She was hopelessly, and helplessly in love, and even though she knew she was headed straight for emotional completion that would make her life totally different, a part of her knew she wanted this more than anything else she had ever wanted.

Johnny took this time to throw his arms around Raven's neck and hug her tightly.

“You guys really getting married?”

“Yep. We sure are. You’re going to be the ring bearer tomorrow evening, aren’t you?” Raven’s arms encircled the small frame leaning into her.

“You know I am. But I have to tell you this, I don’t want that girl trying to hold my hand like she did at rehearsal yesterday.” He squelched his nose up in disgust.

“You mean my niece?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. You got to tell her to stop it, Joanna. She makes me want to spit.” He moved into the young blonde's outstretched arms.

“Why, Johnny, I’m surprised at you. She is as cute as a button.” Raven tried to appease the little boy. “I’ll give you three years, and I bet you’ll be kicking yourself for not wanting to hold her hand.” Raven said.

“No, I won’t. She talks funny. And she didn’t want to go wading.”

Both of the adults squirmed to suppress chuckles.

“She likes you very much Johnny, or she wouldn’t have tried to hold your hand,” the young blonde explained.

“Well, if she liked me, she could have gone wading with me. Grams told me I’d either hold her hand for the ceremony, and be nice to her, or she’d whomp my butt.”

“I’ll talk to her about being nice to you, Johnny.” Joanna assured him.

“Thanks, Joanna. I’d do anything for you and Raven. But that girl just… well, she just… she ain’t like anybody I know or play with. And she don’t like playing with worms or in the mud.”

“Gosh, Johnny, I can’t imagine anyone not wanting to go wading in the mud, or playing with worms,” she squinted up her nose at the prospects.

“You making fun of me, Joanna?” The young boy looked up at her questioning her remark.

“No Johnny, certainly not. I’ll talk to her, I promise,” she said and kissed the boy on the cheek.

Raven stood up. Just as these late summer days would soon give way to the stormy winds and chill of September, so too would their afternoon together in the tidal basin.

“Guys, we need to think about heading back.”

Joanna looked up at her smiling and nodded. Johnny flicked water from the basin once more and joined Raven who had turned and was slowly retracing their earlier steps.

Joanna made her way gingerly over the rocks, tagging behind the tall woman and the little boy, as Raven pointed out a sea urchin, barnacles, and a couple of hermit crabs to the eager tyke beside her.

A part of Joanna wished they could stay here forever, cut off from the outside world with all its conflicts and complications…just the two of them. Later, a family. Their planned family. Maybe, even Johnny. She wanted them always to know this Bay as home. Their home.

Although the tide pools were a mere half mile from Raven’s house, it was like a whole different world here. Steep dunes rose up from the rocky shoreline almost to touch the sky. To reach the pools, they’d had to climb over an outcropping of concrete boulders, dodging the ocean spray each time a wave hit. Here, in the crescent-shaped alcove formed by the man placed concrete boulders which were the remains of a bridge, and rocky outcroppings, it was peaceful, completely isolated from the sight and sound of other human beings. Not too far away, the security personnel kept diligent surveillance on the trio without seeming obvious with their difficult task.

Joanna was still reeling from the admission she’d made to herself a few minutes before. This just felt like home. She stopped, accepted her admission, and smiled at the tall woman before her. Raven was assisting Johnny up a large piece of concrete, and turned to check on Joanna. Their eyes met. Both women smiled.

“You need any help, Sweetheart?”

“I’m fine. Just keep an eye on Johnny. A scrape from the concrete would really hurt.” She answered with another smile. “Yeah, right. Swiss Family Stern, “I’m not. Joanna moaned as she stumbled over a rock, nearly twisting her ankle. She was instantly caught by Raven’s large hands, and was pulled upright and into the tall woman’s arms.

“You okay, Sweetheart?”

The smaller woman wiggled her ankle back and forth and finally placed it on the rock and put her weight down on it. “Seems to be okay. Geesh! That’s all I need. Walking down the aisle on crutches on my wedding day.”

“I’ll carry you, if necessary.”

Soft green eyes looked up to the blue ones, “Thank you, Darling. That is so sweet. But, I think it is okay. You had better catch up to Johnny.”

“Come on, we both will catch up with him,” Raven said, not releasing the smaller hand from hers.

Even if they were stranded on a deserted island somewhere, Joanna knew without a doubt, that Raven would figure out a way to build a raft and get back to civilization, and that she would always be safe with her by her side, no matter what. It was a very nice feeling.

The couple walked up the beach, hand in hand as Johnny ran circles around them and played chase with the incoming tide.

The little boy suddenly stopped and threw up his arms. “Whoa! That is a big tent they have put up. Look at all the people running around. You’d think it was a circus coming to town.”

“Looks like they have about finished, Darling. Even the gazebo for the ceremony is complete.”

“Boy, did you ever see so many flowers before? I don’t think you two left a single flower in any shop in Jacksonville, much less St. Augustine,” the little boy stated innocently.

“Well, the gazebo is also going to be the dance floor for the reception, Johnny,” Joanna added. “We wanted the beach to smell like the flowers.

“I think Big Bertha talked to the flower warehouse over in Ocala for us, Johnny. There was a huge truck from there unloading boxes of flowers and greenery before it got light this morning,” the tall woman clarified.

“Yep. Sounds like my granny. Seems like she knows everybody in this state,” he said proudly, then ran toward the gazebo to try out a jig on the floor before joining the couple standing to the side on the wood platform that was to be used as a band stand.

“You don’t think two different bands is too much, do you, Raven?”

“Not if you want them, Honey. Besides not everyone wants to dance to orchestra music all night. That rock and roll group should make the jive and shakers happy.” She placed her arm around the shoulder of the shorter woman.

“The tables look nice, Darling. They said they wouldn’t put the flower centerpieces on them until tomorrow afternoon. Keep them fresh for the reception.”

“Good idea,” the tall woman said approvingly.

“Ms. Stern, your Mother just left to go back to the hotel to lie down for awhile. We only have these last six tables to put the chairs around,” the hired wedding coordinator stated . “I s there anything else you or Ms. Longgear wish for us to do.?”

“No, I can’t think of a thing. How about you, Raven?”

“Hmm…”

“Before you ask, Ms. Longgear, a particular requested item will be placed at that end of the tent tomorrow afternoon, just before the ceremony.” The coordinator pointed to the opposite end of the tent and smiled knowingly at the tall photographer.

“Then I can’t think of anything else,” she grinned smugly, and turned the smaller woman towards the house.

“What particular item? What’s he talking about, Raven?” Joanna looked questioningly up at her soon to be spouse.

“Don’t be so nosey, honey. Just a little surprise I have planned.” She hugged her partner with the arm still around the smaller shoulder.

“Aahhhh!” Was all the young blonde said, but smiled at the caring gesture of her lover to do something special for her. ‘Hope she will enjoy the song I have written for her. Hope she doesn’t blush too much when I sing it to her at the end of the ceremony at sundown tomorrow.’ She leaned into the taller shoulder and they followed Johnny into the house.

“There you three are! Raven, Johnny’s grandmother wants him home. Said he was supposed to be back an hour ago,” Marla stated. “If anyone is interested, there is fresh lemonade in the fridge, and I made a decanter of tea.”

“Thanks, Marla. I’d better run Johnny home first.” She said, looking directly at the boy. “You didn’t tell me Big Bertha set a time for you to be back? Now you have us both in trouble.”

“Ahh, Raven, I forgot. She won’t be too mad, cause I’m with you and Joanna.” He squirmed innocently.

“Yeah, yeah… She’ll cream the both of us and you know it. Come on, Big Guy. Let us get you home. You coming, Joanna?”

“HA HA. Not a chance. Big Bertha is your problem.” She held up her hands in protest.

“Coward,” Raven chuckled.

“Rather be a live coward, than a tall Greek bearing a late boy,” she laughed and headed towards the kitchen and a cool drink.

“Hurry back, Darling. You know you have to get your stuff for spending the night with Rex and Carl.”

Stunned, Raven turned and look flabbergasted as the blonde removed the decanter of iced tea and placed it on the counter across from her Aunt Rosalin, and Marla.

“What do you mean, spend the night with Rex and Carl?”

“Tradition, Sweet One. Can’t see your bride the day of the wedding until you see her walk down the aisle,” the elderly Stern chirped in, and drank the hot tea Marla had prepared for them.

“Tradition, my foot. We’ll talk about this when I get back,” she grabbed the keys to her truck. “Come on, Johnny. I have to get back here,” she said half heartedly as she opened the door for the young boy.

“She sure has a cute pout,” exclaimed Marla.

“She knows she has to leave before midnight. We have already had this go round.” Joanna snickered.

“Mrs. Stern gave her the option of you spending the night at their suite, and she clearly stated it was easier for her to come with her best men to the wedding and you have access to the house.” Her long-time housekeeper and friend confirmed. “I believe her cousin is staying with them, too.”

“Yes, she is staying with Rex and Carl, and she was absolutely beautiful in her bridesmaid’s outfit.”

“She sure was,” Marla acknowledged.

“They all look fabulous, Joanna. Your sister and sister-in law are beautiful matrons of honor as well.” She agreed.

Chuckling, her aunt sounded so conventional, “Honey, Raven just thought the tradition would be overlooked at the last minute,” Aunt Rosalin shared, “Just like me with my Alexandria.” The elderly woman snickered at the remembrance.

“Yes, you did try to pull off a quick visit, so Mother told me.” Joanna grinned at her aunt.

“Almost worked, too.” Rosalin beamed.

“Well, Mother put her foot down on this one thing, so I guess we both can suffer for a few hours.” Joanna sipped the iced tea and continued. “I packed her bag, and Rex already took her suit over to their place early this morning while Raven was in her darkroom with the door locked.” The younger woman confirmed. Tears began to form in her green eyes.

“Is everything alright, Joanna?” Her aunt asked.

“Ye…yes,” Joanna answered, although her cheeks were flushed, and she kept tugging at her long out of place, wind blown hair. She managed to regain her usual composure. “What could be wrong?”

The two older women eyed Joanna knowingly, who smiled at them with misty eyes, and realized that, just as obviously, the younger woman had the jitters.

“Joanna.” Rosalin acknowledged her with a barely perceptive nod. “It’s quite normal to have butterflies the day before your wedding.”

“Sure, honey. It’s okay to cry.” Her friend responded.

“Uh, really?” Joanna asked nervously.

“Of course.” Both women answered in unison.

An instant later, Joanna was around the counter and into her aunt's arms. Marla joined the two and draped her arms around them, and soon all three were crying tears, only these were tears of happiness and joy. Later, all three wiped their eyes and noses with tissues from the living room, and then refilled their glasses and cup.

“Thank you both. You darlings are so dear to me and I love you both so much. I’m so glad you are here to share this with me.” The young blonde sniffed and smiled at the two older women sitting across from her. “I don’t know when I have ever been this happy. I didn’t know anyone could be this happy.”

“That goes without saying, sweet one. That goes without saying.”

“We are happy we could be here to share this once in a lifetime experience with you.”

“Now, you finish your tea on the porch, as your Aunt Rosalin and I are making a batch of pumpkin bread.”

“Just pumpkin bread?” The young woman quizzed.

“If you get your cute buns out on the porch, we might make some banana nut bread, also.” Her aunt reached under the counter and raised the bag of pecan chips for her to see.

“I’m out of here.” She jumped off the stool, and kissed both women on the cheek, then took her tea and went toward the back porch of the beach house. “You two are the greatest,” she called over her shoulder as she opened the storm door to the porch.

That evening after the four of them had a light supper, the two older women went to their room to pack their bags partially. The two women would be joining the Stern’s at their hotel tomorrow night, so Raven and Joanna could have the beach house to themselves for their honeymoon night. Joanna and Raven sat on the swing and cuddled until Raven’s mother’s grandfather clock struck eleven.

“Honey, you need to get on the road. I know Marcella, Rex, and Carl will stay up until you get there.”

“Sweetheart, do I really have to leave you tonight?” She begged of her lover.

“Now Raven, we have been through this already. We’ll talk on the phone as long as you want tonight, and tomorrow, but you promised you’d observe this long-time family tradition…. Please, darling, I know it’s hard, and I don’t want to climb into bed without you beside me. But, it’s only one night, and you p..r..o..m..i..s..e..d. Please don’t pout, and please don’t make it harder on us than it already is.”

“Okay, okay, but I wish I hadn’t promised. It’s a dumb tradition anyways!”

“I know, but we’ll have the rest of eternity to be together.” She reached up and slowly brought the dark head down to meet her lips. The kiss continued and became deeper. Both women were starting to moan, when the uncompromising voice of Aunt Rosalin came from the doorway.

“Enough of that, my Sweet Ones. You two will have plenty of time for smooching tomorrow night. Now Raven, up with you and drive carefully.”

Joanna slid off Raven’s lap and out of her arms and stood without effort. She extended her hand to her partner, who reluctantly accepted it and stood halfheartedly.

“Okay, but I want you both to know I’m doing this under protest.” The tall woman’s lips dropped.

“Protest duly noted. Now get your handsome self on the road,” the older woman chuckled.

Joanna laughed at the obvious pouting. “Come on Raven, I’ll walk you to your truck. Your packed overnight bag is just inside our bedroom door.”

*****


“Damnit, where are they?” Mel threw the paper against the kitchen wall and reached for the coffee pot. “It’s as if they just disappeared from the face of the earth. No one knows anything about them.” She cursed as the cup overflowed into the saucer and onto the counter. “Hell, I can’t even pour a damn cup of coffee.” She grabbed a dishtowel as she picked up the cup and set it in the sink.

She had scanned the paper, watched TV news and even discreetly called a couple of people she knew, who were friends with others in Joanna’s musical. There wasn’t a scrap of news about the couple anywhere. Mel had picked up the phone to call Gordon several times, but slammed it down before he picked up. She had even driven by the brownstone six times the past three days and there were no lights or activity.

She wiped the counter off and picked up the cup and ran the towel over the bottom of the cup. Mel reached up for another saucer and placed the cup on a clean plate and stepped over the paper as she went back to the living room and clicked on the local news channel.

Frustrated after watching several programs without any news of Stern or Longgear, she clicked off the TV. She had no choice. She would have to call Gordon. Mel hissed as she picked up the phone once more and dialed his cell phone. It rang several times before Gordon’s voice mail came on. “This is Gordon Bagwell, I will be out of town for a couple of days and not available by phone. If you have an emergency, call my office, leave a message and one of my partners will get back to you as soon as possible.”

“What the hell?” She stared at the phone as the recording ended. “I didn’t kill that young want-be stud up at the lake, or arrange for that explosion to take care of any evidence Carson had on me and eliminate him and his investigators to be left totally in the dark. Nor will I sit silently by and have my plans for Joanna and her bitch not be complete.” She jumped up from the sofa and ran to the bedroom to change clothes. “Joanna’s assistant hairdresser tried to come on to me a few times. She might know something. Think I’ll just show up at the stage door and take her out.” Mel chuckled at her new plan. “There is always a way, Joanna. Always a way, and I will have my revenge and I don’t care if it has to wait until after I return from Europe and my new production assignment.”

After a trip in the rain to the theater, only to find it dark with only two very, uncooperative security guards, she returned to her apartment even more irritated then she was before she had gone out into the down-pouring rain.

“This is only a little set back, Joanna.” She stared out the window as the rain beat against it Finally the short woman turned and walked to the hall closet, where she removed her luggage and took it to the bedroom. “Enjoy yourself with Joanna, Longgear, because your time on this earth will end upon my return.”

*****


It was a bright and sunny day. There were warm breezes and the scent of flowers filled the air. The chairs had been placed in semi-circled rows around the gazebo, with a royal blue carpet from the back door of the beach-house and up the steps of the gazebo separating the rows.

Carl and Brian had directed Marla and Aunt Rosalin to the front row, followed by Howard ushering their mother to her place next to Marla and Rosalin. The organist began playing the wedding march promptly on the stroke of six. Raven stood at the edge of the blue carpet watched the two matrons of honor, Joanna’s sister and sister-in-law, and Raven’s cousin, assuming the role of bridesmaid dressed in floating pale green gowns, paused at the edge of the crowd and looked out over the chaired area which was filled with flower and people.

“There she is!… By all that is holy, she is beautiful!” Raven whispered anxiously as Joanna stepped into view behind her bridesmaids. Henry Stern’s smile was almost as big as that of his lovely daughter beside him.

The ancient but beautiful, old Italian lace dress, with matching veil, that had been passed down for many generations, had only three peach roses entranced in the headband, and fit the young woman as if it had been especially designed and fitted for her.

Actually, there had been no alterations of the ancient gown, except for the floral headband. Joanna held the matched color bouquet gently to her waist as her eyes settled on her future wife.

“Easy, honey.” Her father tightened his hand over hers as he felt her anxiety and misstep to the march. “She is waiting for you, so slow down, dearest, and let us proceed without incident,” requested the elder Stern as he held her arm for more support.

“Oh, Daddy, she is so beautiful,” she muttered, her entire body shaking gently. She could feel it completely down to her matching white shoes.

“You both are beautiful,” he assured his daughter. “Now, concentrate, breathe and pretend you’re taking a leisurely walk,” he said. His eyes flicked over her in a manner that reminded her the hour was late.

“I think you're right, Daddy.” A deafening roar of a firing cannon from the Fort at St. Augustine seem to confirmed the time. Joanna ignored her stomach butterflies to focus all her strength on the tall, white-clad dark-haired woman smiling lovingly at her from the gazebo platform.

Heart pounding, Raven watched as Joanna and her father began again to walk down the aisle toward her.

Raven’s best man, Rex spoke softly, “Breathe, my friend, she’s coming,” he mused.

Raven released her breath, totally unaware she had been holding it since she had uttered her praise only moments before. She took a deep breath, wishing she could call off the wedding, wishing she and Joanna could just elope and be done with it… But, she knew her feet wouldn’t move from the platform until the lovely woman drawing closer toward her was her partner for all time to come; was her wife.

Raven didn’t hear the minister ask who gave this woman away, she only saw Joanna turn and hand her sister her bouquet, and her father lift the small veil before he gently placeed Joanna’s small hand in hers.

“Joanna, you came,” her pulse thrummed wildly.

“Did you think I would abandon you, my sweet?” She said, her voice velvet soft with joy.

“Never! Not in a million years.” Raven’s deep voice sent shivers up the smaller woman’s spine.

Joanna smiled then, her slow, sexy smile that made her knees tremble so badly that her dress began to shake. She stepped closer and caught hold of Raven’s arm, tightening her hold on her hand, smiling at the dark woman.

“And you’re soon to be mine for always!” she said, barely able to believe her eyes. Her gorgeous hero was standing there before her.

“I am yours forever, Sweetheart. We don’t need a ceremony for that,” Raven said softly. Then she kissed her, trying to tell her how much she loved her with her lips because she knew she wasn’t as good with words as Joanna. Trying to tell her that she would walk through any torture or anguish to be at her side today and always.

Behind her, Rex cleared his voice. “Raven, Joanna, the music’s stopped.”

Reluctantly, Raven raised her head and gazed at Joanna, her eyes caressing her face.

“Lord, you’re absolutely beautiful,” she said as she bent toward her again.

“Wait, Darling. Let us say our vows, then,” Joanna smiled at Raven.

“Sorry, I …, Honey. First…I,”

“Afterwards,” Joanna spoke softly, her eyes never leaving Raven’s. She placed her hand over Raven’s. “Shall we let the minister proceed, my Dearest?”

“Absolutely!” Raven whispered, so surprised and elated that she could hardly speak.

Together, they stepped into the center of the gazebo and the minister and paused, as a mumble of relief swept through the guests who had been standing, anxiously watching the couple and finally sat down again.

Joanna heard someone sob and glanced at the guests, noting with surprise that most of them were crying. Flashing them a quick smile of reassurance, she turned her eyes once more to Raven, feeling so proud of her. She wanted to cry and laugh and sing all at the same time. Feeling as if the sun would always rise and set on her because of the love she was sensing and sharing. Knowing Raven would always be her friend . . her playmate… her queen… her soulmate.

Joanna was smiling at her with her wide, wonderful smile, making her feel as if she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Making her feel very, very lucky to be treasured and cherished in such a way by this lovely and charming woman…, the woman who was about to become her wife.

Raven smiled at the green eyes before her, silently thanking the universe for allowing this deep love to be bestowed upon her. She knew this young blonde had become the center of her life… and always would be.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together,” the minister began, and continued to read the familiar words of the ceremony until it was time for the couple to repeat their vows. “They have written their own, so will you begin, Raven.” The minister nodded towards Raven.

“I, Raven Lenna Longgear, have always loved you, Joanna Rosalin Stern, and I promise to love you, forever,” she began softly, gazing tenderly into the soft green eyes.”

Yes, she knew Raven had always loved her, Joanna thought, smiling at her, her green eyes never leaving the blue ones.

“And I promise always to look after you, Joanna Rosalin Stern, to cherish you in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live.”

And she would do just that, Joanna knew, believing in the depths of her heart that if something did happen to her, Raven would look after her. She would cherish her always.

“But more than that, my darling, I promise to forget my stubbornness and selfishness, and to let you cherish me in sickness as well as in health, for as long as we both shall live,” she said. Her expression was still solemn, but her eyes were smiling down at her.

Joanna laughed softly, then gave a prayer of thanks. She would always have trouble getting this self-reliant, tall Floridian to let her do anything for her, but from now on she’d remind Raven of her vow. To think that Raven, this very outgoing, but very private woman, would be saying these beautiful, heartfelt words to her! She started to speak, but the tall woman shook her head, and she realized there was even more she wanted to say.

“I pledge always to share with you what I’m thinking, and feeling, as I know you will share with me.” Joanna affirmed with a nod of her head that she would share with the tall woman.

“I also promise you, Joanna Rosalin Stern, that I will never leave you. I will stay by your side, loving you, for as long as I shall live. Raven paused, and stared at Joanna, so overcome by the special significance of her words that she could barely breathe. How had she ever thought that this warm, wonderful woman would leave her? Raven would always be there beside her, and her life would be fuller, richer, more meaningful because she gave her the courage to hope, to dream, to feel the love.

“And when the time comes for me to draw my last breath in this world, I will still not leave you, she said, her voice softer, deeper, but clear enough to reach to the very back of the gathering and into everyone’s heart.

Raising her hand, Raven laid it tenderly against Joanna’s cheek, making her feel so cherished, so adored. “Whenever you feel the warm, west wind on your face, my darling, it will be my hand touching you.” Gently she stroked the tender skin beneath her ear, making her feel as if she were her precious queen, and that she would always keep her safe. “When you hear the mockingbird greeting the dawn, it will be my voice calling to you, and I will stay with you all the day long.”

Then she smiled at her, the smile that had always made her feel so special. . so beloved, and she smiled back, her green eyes shining with flecks of gold.

“When darkness falls and the moonlight steals through your bedroom window, it will be me lying beside you, loving you.”

Joanna gazed into Raven’s eyes, loving her so much that it filled her heart and soul and every fiber of her being. Her next words made her realize that her love would never end.

Leaning over, she whispered the rest of her vow against her lips, “And when the time comes for you to leave this world, my forever, my love, I will still be by your side…Loving you throughout eternity.”

Tears of happiness streamed down Joanna’s face.

The minister tried to touch lightly the tears flowing from her own eyes with the hankie she had attempted discreetly to raise for that purpose. In looking out over the ceremony gathering, she saw there had been no attempt to discreetly screen or hide the tears. There wasn’t a dry eye in the group, including the tall man standing off to the side, who had removed his tuxedo handkerchief and was gently dabbing his damp eyes.

“Now you, Joanna,” the touched minister urged softly.

The honey-haired woman sniffled, and Raven gently touched her hankie to the moist eyes and her lips twitched into a smile. Joanna returned her smile with the greatest aplomb.

“My love, there is so much I wish to say to you: first and foremost, I love you, so much more than words can express. And I’ll never be able to express my gratitude to the Almighty for giving me the ability to find you. And, I love you, for finding me.

“You’ve given me a new outlook on life, and beginning our life together is more than I could ever dream of or thought possible. And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak for, in you, my love, I find the happiness I sought. I love you for showing me the truth behind love. I love you for being the one I can turn to, in happiness and sadness, sickness and health.” The words came pouring out of Joanna.

Raven looked earnestly at the smaller woman with a feeling of complete calm. She loves me. Oh, thank you, she loves me.

Joanna’s voice was filled with delight. “May you always know the joy you’ve given me. The peace. The fulfillment. You bring the butterfly out in me. Because of you, my love, my wings can spread, and I can fly now with you close by my side.” She stepped closer to the taller woman, and continued her vows.

“Always, my love, remember this, our love began, and never ends. You are a circle of love embedded on my heart forever. For the lives that were two are now one, for eternity, becoming one whole, not two separate identities, but one life force. Forevermore, my love, my heart belongs to you. And forever, from this moment on nothing can change the way I feel for you. Know that I love you now, forever, and always.”

The tears slowly rolled down the tan woman’s cheek. Joanna gently removed Raven’s hankie, and quickly blotted the tears.

“Raven, Joanna has also penned a song for you, and she will sing it for you at this time. She has called it, Love’s Security,”said the minister.

Joanna turned slightly, looking earnestly into the blue orbs, still moistened with droplets, glittering down upon hers. She encircled both of Raven’s larger hands in hers, and as her soft lovely voice expressed, conclusively, the younger woman’s heart.

“My life has known much loneliness

For love I could not find

I just lived in emptiness

A dark and barren time

My soul was just an empty shell

Nothing lived inside

As I lived my private hell

My spirit slowly died

I felt I could no longer cope

When you materialized

And through the fog a ray of hope

Came shining from your eyes

Then began a brand new start

From the ashes of defeat

I finally found the missing parts

Your love made me complete

I never knew Security

From loving someone else

Through our loves maturity

I became more than myself

The fullness that your love provides

Words cannot describe

Nor what you’ve brought into my life

Or how I feel inside

As I struggle to find the words

That says our loves surreal

Your eyes tell me that you have heard

Exactly how l feel

I will spend eternity

Forever in your debt

Living with the certainty

Of our loves’ safety net

As can the wind, the sun, the sea

You breathe spirit into my life

You have loved me, dear, so faithfully

As a friend, a woman, and now as my wife.”

Without realizing it, the couple’s lips touched contentedly once again.

“Uh-Huh,” the minister cleared her throat to regain their attention, ”As you both have uttered your vows and wish to exchange rings, please do so at this time.” The minister motioned for Johnny to come forward. Rex and Rita removed the individual rings and handed them to the couple.

“Do you accept these rings as a symbol of your binding eternal love?”

“I do.” Both trembling voices responded simultaneously, as they placed the rings on each other's finger.

“Having agreed to this union, and wishing to complete this joining together in an old Greek uniting ritual, please extend your hands.”

They reached their joined hands forward as requested. The minister performed the almost forgotten Greek fashion; she took a rope and gently bound their hands and lower arms together.

“As a sign of your love and affection for each other, I hereby, before The Heavens, and these witnesses, bind your hands and hearts with this rope. Let no one ever break the bond that now holds you together.” Raven and Joanna looked deep into each other’s eyes and, smiling, said their words: “Heart to thee, body to thee, now and forever, so shall it be.”

“So shall it be.” The minister repeated. “Raven, you may now kiss your Bride… again.” She chuckled, faintly.

For a moment they looked into each other’s eyes. Raven pulled her close, as Joanna placed her hands on the taller woman’s chest, then they kissed. It was not a kiss of passion, but a kiss of true love. It reminded everyone of something in a movie they had once seen. As their lips met again, but certainly not the last kiss as a married couple, the entire grounds erupted with applause and laughter.

They had spoken of nothing but pure love and trust. When they said I do, the entire gathering could tell they meant it. Then came the moment most had been waiting for.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” The minister turned around to the now standing assembly and said, “I present to you, Raven and Joanna."

The crowd once more erupted with applause and a few whoops and yells. If there was one moment where nothing could go wrong, this was it, Raven and Joanna’s wedding. And like the time that they met, time stood still, for a few minutes at least.

Subsequent to brief mingling, the band started, and Raven took Joanna’s hand and they walked slowly to the dance floor for the first dance. They danced several dances before Mr. Stern tapped Raven on the shoulder for his traditional dance of the evening. Raven and Joanna danced with all the men and most of the women as the light faded, and the stars began to twinkle overhead. Raven was surprised at how light Aunt Rosalin was on her feet. Joanna mused at the thought of her Aunt and Alexandria so many years before, and her heart became even lighter as she watched Rosalin bestow a gentle kiss on her spouse’s cheek. The music continued playing.

Big Bertha told Joanna and Raven that the dinner and cake cutting was ready. Carl stopped the band and requested they all join the happy couple under the tent for other festivities.

As they sat down at the head table, Joanna noticed a huge screen had been erected to the side of the platform.

Raven stood, and took the microphone Carl handed to her. “May I have your attention for few moments while the meal is being served and the champagne glasses refilled?” She reached over and took the remote control from Rex, who had uncovered the slide projector nestled to one side of the tables.

“I can’t write like Joanna. Nor, could I in a million years, compose and sing such a beautiful song. But, I do have one skill in which I believe I can show how I see this lovely lady. This is for you, Joanna.” She turned to her seated bride and nodded her head gently. The young blonde grinned from ear to ear.

The overhead lights were shut off, and only the candles in the center of each table cast a flickering light over the group. Raven snapped on the projector, and clicked to the first slide which filled the large screen. There the image of a wind blown Joanna blazed to life. She was standing, leaning out over the rail of a lighthouse. The blonde’s focus was on something on the horizon. The photograph was breathtaking to say the least. Quickly then, appeared the same figure hanging off the Bridge of Lions, followed by a sensuous smile of the blonde hugging an ancient oak.

“I bet there were a million men and women wishing they were that tree when that magazine cover came out,” stated Carl leaning over and whispering into Marcella’s ear. “Don’t you just know it,” came the reply.

A childlike look filled the screen as Joanna was shown playfully splattering the water in the little pool on top of the rocks. Quickly, the scene changed to a pouting expression, to a dreamy one, then one of a proud likeness. Joanna’s reflection again popped up filled with excitement about something, followed by one with the misty green eyes looking up in a most devilish manner. The images stayed only briefly on the screen, before another took its place. All the time the hundred slides were shown, the band was playing Joanna’s Someone Like You softly in the background. Raven didn’t speak, but the images she had captured on the screen said more than a thousand words each.

The petite shape next appeared lying nude on a bed on her stomach, her breasts pressed gently into the sheet, as her eyes clearly indicated more than seduction was at hand. She was covered only across her rump with a portion of one end of the sheet. Mouths dropped opened and gaped at the clearly defined photograph. The slide changed almost immediately to the final one of the young blonde cuddled up in the fetal position and fast asleep on the sand, as the late sun hit certain parts of her anatomy.

“With this late day sun shining on my love, that completes my tribute to the love of my life.” Raven announced as the lights came back on. Before she could hand the remote back to Rex, Joanna was in her arms.

“Oh, Raven! They were beautiful. Just beautiful. Thank you, my darling.” Joanna’s voice trembled with approval.

“And thank you for the song, Sweetheart. You touched the deepest recesses of my heart.” The tall woman whispered into the ears of her new spouse.

“I’ll show you how much I appreciate the photographs later. I promise.” A sudden surprising grin filled the young woman’s face.

“And I promise, tonight will be one you will remember,” Raven said, her voice a low rumble.

The dinner went well, and everyone danced until their feet hurt before they were herded towards their cars by Rosalin and Big Bertha.

“These girls need a few hours alone on their wedding night, folks. They will be in the air by five a.m. tomorrow.” No one challenged Big Bertha as she motioned with her large hands towards the front of the beach house.

Johnny was hefted firmly asleep onto the shoulder of his grandfather from the couch he shared with Jenny inside the beach house. Both children had given out several hours before and had quietly fallen asleep on the large sofa. Billy and Angelena had been removed from the guest bedroom by Marissia Caspero, and Angelena Valdez an hour before, as both had prior morning appointment themselves and had to leave earlier than they had really wanted. The older children, still full of energy, begged to stay longer, but their parents were firm and agreed with Rosalin and Bertha about getting some sleep, as they would have to be on the same private jet in the morning to attend the small Vermont civil ceremony scheduled for four the next afternoon.

“You two don’t worry about the outside. Arrangements have been made to remove everything around eight in the morning.” Bertha waved as she opened the door of their vehicle for Johnny to be placed on the seat.

“We won’t, and thanks again,” Raven called.

“Thank you, everyone, we love you all,” Joanna waved to the exiting vehicles, her spare arm had found its way around Raven’s waist. Raven had her arm over Joanna’s shoulder. She closed the door, locking it, then turned to the tall woman beside her.

“Alone at last.”

“Yes, alone at last.”

Their lips met, and lingered. And lingered. And lingered.

“Darling, I would like for you to wait in our bedroom for a few minutes. I have something special to put on for this evening.” Joanna had broken the long-prized kiss.

“I’d just as soon have you without anything on, Sweetheart.” Blue eyes winked at her.

Joanna’s expression became dreamy, “Well, you can have me that way… later. I’ll only be a couple of minutes. Why don’t you take the champagne and glasses to our room?” She reached up and touched Raven’s full lips and was off down the hall without waiting for an answer.

“Wait…” Raven shrugged, shook her head and quickly went into the kitchen turning off all the lights as she went. She reached under the island and brought out two special candles she had picked up for this very night and placed them snugly under her arm. A special magnum of bubbly had been put in the ice bucket for the new couple. The dark woman swooped up the bucket and neatly banded ribbon glasses from the island top and started humming as she went down the hall to their bedroom. She was out of her clothes, put on a new satin robe and pulled the cover back in record time. She turned off the light, lit the candles and placed one on each night stand. She removed the cork from the magnum of champagne and poured the glasses half full before she placed them on the nightstand next to the candles. She was still humming as she climbed up into the middle of the bed and sat cross-legged waiting for her bride.

“Hi,” a honey-head peaked around the slightly opened door, with a surprising grin. A white, see through teddy hung off her shoulders.

“Hi yourself, Wifie,” came the faintly mincing answer. “Come here please,” the tone changed as she slowly wiggled one finger towards the head still grinning from the doorway.

“I like that idea, Wifie.” Lips twitched into a smile.

The candles flickered as gentle voices could be heard for hours expressing the same words over and over.

“I love you, I love you,” were the only words between them that night, as their bodies came together in the most delicate union of love. An awakening of their souls, a final rebirth of the women they had hidden away for this night and yet, it was the knowledge it was the first night of the rest of their committed lives.

Raven was a passionate lover, demanding she give everything, yet tender as she took her new wife on a journey of sensory bliss. Never had Joanna wanted anyone as much as she wanted Raven that night, nor did Raven. With every beat of her heart, with every breath she took, she knew that Joanna forever would be in her heart. And when the climax finally came, it was joyful; tearfully, Joanna trembled in ecstasy as they ended the journey… Then, started it over again, with Joanna’s voyage of Raven ending in the same trembling ecstasy and delight. The couple’s spasms continued several more times, then they slept peacefully in each other’s arms. Their wedding night again validated; as far as they were concerned, it was an endless confirmation of their love.

*****


The flight to Vermont aboard the Stern's private jet went without incident, even though everyone was a little exhausted from the late night. The official ceremony was performed by the selected minister, the marriage recorded, and family and friends went to the arranged restaurant for a final dinner together before everyone disbursed in different directions.

Mrs. Stern noticed the time, and showed her watch to her husband.

“Friends, it is time for us to get to the airport. Our flight leaves in just over two hours.” Joanna’s father bent down and kissed his daughter’s head.

“Dad, thanks for the use of the jet. We really appreciate your insisting we use it. It will make the trip to New Zealand so much shorter.” She stood and hugged her father.

“Yes, Dad, thanks for making the arrangements for the fuel refilling in California and Hawaii for us.” Raven extended her hand, but was drawn into the elder Stern's arms.

“Our pleasure. Our pleasure, you two. Your mother and I thought it would be best if you two had a couple of extra days together, and I feel comfortable with the security on our own aircraft. The crew will layover and have a paid vacation while you two honeymoon. They will return with you to New York in two weeks.”

“Henry, the time,” his wife pointed out once more. “We all want to see you two off before we catch our flight. So, shall we go?”

The ride only took five minutes, and the farewells at the airport were cut short by the private flight attendant informing the couple they had been cleared for take off.

Joanna and Raven waved as they raced down the enclosure and stopped at the doorway of the aircraft and waved one final time before the door closed.

“You know, Marla, everyone at sometime has a length of joy in his or her life, but I believe those two will be filled with joy without end, no matter what trials come.”

The other woman shook her head in agreement as they both raised their hands in a final wave as the aircraft raced down the runway.

Rosalin lowered her hand, and a twinkled of light filled her eyes as she expressed softly, “Yes, their length of joy is the everlasting kind.”

End.

I appreciate your comments, good or not so good. If they are constructive, they will be answered. If you want to read more of these characters, please let me know. If there is a sequel, it will be different, not so much angst, and more loving related by the two main characters, maybe…???? LOL Thanks again for reading.

Betty

You can reach me at: bsraven2000@yahoo.com



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