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Teaser

Life on the Left Coast (Uber/BG): Nikki has built a new life in Santa Barbara full of friends and a unique, enthusiastic staff at her landscape architecture firm.  Helen, a London-based lawyer running an international aid organization, finds her life falling apart.  In search of somewhere to take shelter, she turns to her best friend Claire in Santa Barbara. What ensues is the story of two women who ran away from life in Britain.  They try to help each other find what they need to be happy and whole.  The tale is both heartfelt and funny at points.

 

Note: No prior knowledge of the series is necessary.  It takes place on the central coast of California and BG took place in a London Jail.

 

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Disclaimer: Shed Productions made the characters, wrote the original stories, and have full copyright to them. Here, only three names and a few personality quirks were borrowed.  It’s all for fun (no profit to be had or expected).  The rest… any resemblance to anyone or anything else is purely coincidental. 

I am happy to accept feedback openly by readers. I only ask, please be gentle.

 

 

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Life on the Left Coast

 

By Just Thinkin’

Justthinkin123@gmail.com

 

Part 1

 

The sun had dropped far enough in the sky to stream directly through the west-facing windows of the offices of Walker Architects.  The workplace was silent save for the quiet tapping of computer keys and the soft, rhythmic sounds of someone sketching at the drafting tables.  The noise caused by a stool being pushed back from a table echoed through the offices, startling both occupants. 

 

“Claire,” whined an exasperated, but smiling Nikki Wade as she pushed her stool even farther from her table, dropped her pencil, and ran her hand through dark curls, “How did I let you convince me to do this? It’s Saturday.”

 

Claire Walker looked up regarding Nikki with an amused smirk, “Oh, give me a break! You love this stuff and know it’ll make you a fortune in the long run.”

 

Nikki just shook her head and turned her attention back to the drafting table in front of her.  She needed to finish these designs so that she could actually get out and do the installations, which was going to require coordinating her staff and hauling all the needed materials and equipment to each site.   

 

Looking up from her design plans, she called out to her friend again, “You’re still donating that muscle-bound better half of yours to help me with this, right?”

 

“What?!” Claire’s voice echoed through vacant office.

 

“Yes! You promised! Don’t tell me you haven’t even mentioned it to the poor guy yet,” laughed Nikki.

 

“I guess it slipped my mind,” Claire answered sheepishly.   Her expression soon turned into a devilish grin, “Do you know how many favors I’m going to owe him for this?”

 

“Oi, Claire!  Over Sharing!  Don’t need to know…” grinned Nikki as a crumpled piece of paper came flying across the office space towards her.

 

“Get your mind out of the gutter!” laughed Claire.  After a short pause, the blond architect looked over at Nikki with a suggestive leer and raised eyebrows, “However, if you have any suggestions on how to best make it up to him, I’m certainly open to trying new things.”

 

Nikki choked, nearly spitting out the water she had begun drinking, “Hey, I almost ruined this design!”  Nikki smiled, swallowed her water and continued, her cheeks a bit more flushed than usual, “Not sure I’m exactly an expert in the types of tips you’re going to need.  In fact, I’m not sure I’d even want to think about it! It’s like imagining my brother and sister goin’ at it.”

 

“Thank goodness I don’t think of him as a brother!” responded Claire pretending to be shocked, “Now, if you’d get yourself a spouse, you could stop borrowing mine.  Then you would have no reason to imagine how it is we exchange favors.  In the mean time, I get to offend your lesbian sensibilities, if only to watch the cool Nikki Wade blush.  It’s part of my fee for loaning him to you.”

 

Despite the amount of work she needed to get done, Nikki couldn’t help responding.  This type of banter was part of the reason she agreed to do the landscaping for the home tour that Claire was coordinating.  She knew that while it would result in a several long work weeks, it would be spent with a smile on her face.  Besides, Claire was right, in the long run it couldn’t do anything but help her business. 

 

“Your fee?  I don’t see you out in the sun shoveling and hauling plants around.  Shouldn’t Cory get to decide how he’s reimbursed for his labor?”

 

“Perhaps,” replied Claire with a twinkle in her eye, “but I think you’re too uptight and too gay for what he’s likely to want.”

 

“Claire!” Nikki just shook her head, looking down at her design to hide the fact that she was once again beginning to blush.  After a few moments, Nikki looked up trying to look indignant, but not entirely succeeding in hiding her grin, “Hey! I am not up tight.”

 

Claire’s laughter rang out through the office.  Soon a happy silence settled over the pair interrupted only by the scratch of pencils and tapping of computer keys as both women continued their work.  After over an hour of silence, Nikki stood up from her stool stretching her arm over her head with a sigh.  The designs were going well and she was sure that Claire would be happy with them.  Glancing over at the intense blond, she couldn’t help the smile that crept on to her face.  She could vividly remember her first encounter with the architect and had been grateful for her friendship ever since.   They had gotten along from the start… well, almost from the start.

 

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Claire and Nikki had met five years prior, shortly after Nikki relocated to California.  They both had volunteered their services to the local women’s shelter.  The shelter had purchased a set of cottages to use as transitional housing.  What drew both Nikki and Claire to the project was exactly what made the nine, 100 year-old cottages affordable to the shelter.  The cottages had suffered decades of neglect. The buildings offered the women a roof over their heads, but little else.  Both Claire and Nikki were motivated by a desire to make the cottages and surrounding grounds not only functional, but a restorative place for women looking for a new start. 

 

Nikki’s first day on the site had been spent carefully taking a tour of the surrounding grounds that had been serving as a resting place for abandoned vehicles.  She soon decided that she had enough an idea of what was possible for the site, but wanted to make sure she had a clear understanding of what the women who would be living there might want and need.  She set off in search of the shelter’s director who was working on some of the cottage interiors.

 

The sound of raised voices drew her to the cottage closest to the street.  As Nikki paused at the front door, she was surprised to find that, based on the familiar accent, she was about to meet another transplant from Britain.  She entered the living room of the cottage to find a somewhat bewildered director staring at a petite blond who was now muttering to herself and pacing around the small space.  Seeing the lost look on the director’s face, Nikki decided that her interruption might be welcome.

 

“I’m sorry, I hope I’m not interrupting,” Nikki began, directing her gaze at the director, “I was hoping I could have a few minutes of your time when you’re done here.  I would like to get a better idea of the needs of the women who will be living here.  It would go a long way towards guiding my design for the grounds.”

 

The director seemed to welcome the interruption, but cast a hesitant glance towards the blond, who was lost in her own world at the moment.  Ultimately, she decided this was her chance to distract her preoccupied volunteer, “I’m glad you found me Nikki.  Claire, this is Nikki Wade, the landscape architect I mentioned who will be working on the grounds.  Nikki, this is Claire Walker, a local architect who has agreed to aid in designing structural improvements.”

 

Claire Walker looked up at the dark haired women who had just interrupted her thoughts. She held out her hand with an exasperated look still on her face and greeted Nikki in an even voice, laced with sarcasm, “Hello, have you been told that you will be designing a marsh?”

 

“Nice to meet you Claire,” Nikki stammered before annoyance replaced her surprise.  With a puzzled look at the director and out the window at the dry field of dirt outside, she turned her gaze back to Claire demanding, “What do you mean I will be designing a marsh?” 

 

The director, seeing the potential for two angry designers rather than one, stepped in to explain that due to improper drainage, the site flooded in places during the few months of the year when rain was common.  Evidently, the storm water system was as old as the buildings and had been subject to the same neglect.  Even worse was that the flooded areas abutted the cottages and had resulted in mold and rot problems.  These were the issues that had sent Claire into her current state. 

 

During the director’s description of the problem, Claire had finally looked up to stare at Nikki.  She saw a tall, trim, athletic woman with dark curls that swept wildly around her head who, even in a t-shirt and cargo pants, seemed quietly elegant.  Even more intriguing was the fact that she seemed utterly unconcerned about the fact that her site would be inundated by water for a few months of the year.  Slowly a smile began to grow on her face.  She turned to the director, “I think I know a solution to the whole mess if Nikki here will help me.”  With that, Claire tilted her head towards the front door and proceeded outside, clearly expecting them to follow. 

 

Nikki looked at the director, with a shrug and an amused smirk, before following the blond out the door.  Once outside, they found Claire staring at the roof of the cottage with a furrowed brow, obviously deep in thought.  The director excused herself, seeing this as a perfect time to escape the two designers, knowing that once something had been worked out that they would track her down.   She also wondered if there were fireworks in store as she did not get the sense that Nikki was easily controlled, despite her laid back demeanor. 

 

Nikki just stood watching Claire as she walked around the cottage with a look of intense concentration.  Claire finally noticed that she had an audience that seemed to find her mildly amusing.  Shaking her head at Nikki with curiosity, she asked, “Are you really unconcerned about the flooding?”

 

Nikki chuckled, “Not as concerned as you appear to be.”

 

“Well how would you feel if any work you do on this site would be slowly undermined by the annual rainy season?” responded the architect with a deep sigh. 

 

Nikki laughed. “Well, I know some plants are better adapted to wet conditions than 100 year old foundations,” she shrugged and watched as Claire’s mild exasperation dissolved into a broad grin.

 

“So you’re good for more than planting the Queen’s rose gardens, eh?” asked Claire with a raised eyebrow, acknowledging their shared homeland for the first time.

 

Nikki’s initial reaction was again annoyance.  Only after she leveled a steely glare in Claire’s direction did she see the teasing glint in her eyes.  This earned Claire a smirk and a shake of Nikki’s head. 

 

“All right, Claire what do you have in mind?”

 

“What do you know about green design?” asked Claire

 

“You mean hippy huts?” countered Nikki only half joking.

 

This time it was Claire’s turn to be annoyed when she realized that Nikki wasn’t speaking entirely in jest. It was just enough to set the blond off again, who seemed to speaking as much to herself as to Nikki.  “I’ll have you know that environmentally friendly design can be beautiful in breathtakingly modern ways. We’ll just have to have you over to our place.  I challenge you to see my home as a hippy hut!  Besides you should be someone who is sensitive to the fact that stereotypes are often representations of a small minority that are not necessarily accurate of the whole.”

 

Nikki had followed along with Claire’s mini rant and honestly hoped that she would get to see her home, but her final statement was just plain confusing.  “What are you on about?  Why would I be more prone than the next person to be sensitive to stereotypes? And what in the world was I stereotyping?  I’m afraid you’ve completely lost me.”

 

Claire just rolled her eyes, “You assumed that all green design was ugly.  As a green architect, I resent that and find it wholly inaccurate.  As a gay woman, you should know about stereotypes and understand that any gross generalization like the one you just made about green design is rarely accurate.”

 

Nikki was speechless.  She recovered her voice enough to laugh in wonder at the excitable architect, “You are an amazing woman, Claire Walker.  I can’t believe you just drew parallels between the unfortunate aesthetic history of green design and the narrow, straight world’s perception of gay women.  You’ve got an inventive mind, although clearly observant.  How’d you know I was gay?”

 

“Lucky guess?” answered Claire with a smirk.

 

“Too lucky!” exclaimed Nikki, “I didn’t realize I had been walking around with a sign on my head.  Were you serious about proving my assumptions about green design wrong?”

 

“To answer your first question, I saw you check me out when you walked into the cottage,” grinned Claire.

 

“Confident aren’t you!” laughed Nikki while realizing that she probably did.

 

“I know I’m hot,” answered Claire with a shake of her hips which earned her another chuckle from Nikki.  “To answer your second question, I was definitely serious about inviting you to our home.  I extend the invitation with one condition though.”

 

Nikki just stared at her with her eyebrows raised waiting for the condition.

 

“You have to help me fix the drainage problem on this site by incorporating storm water management into your garden design.”

 

“What?!  You don’t ask for much do you?” answered Nikki, her eyes wide with surprise. “I suppose you’ve already figured out my design for me as well.”

 

“Of course not!” exclaimed Claire, who then apologetically admitted, “I do have some ideas that could help you though.  How long have you lived here? Are you familiar with the low impact design techniques appropriate for the central coast?”

 

Nikki was protective of her designs and somewhat unwilling to cede any control over the garden design, but she had to admit that she still was in the process of familiarizing herself with the palate of plants adapted to the peculiarities of the central coast climate. After an extended silence and a deep sigh Nikki prepared to swallow some of her pride, “I’ve only been in town six months and am not entirely familiar with the techniques you mentioned.  If you have some information on them, I’m certainly willing to look them over.”

 

Claire noticing the resignation in Nikki’s manner immediately felt guilty, “I’m sorry Nikki. I’m far too pushy much of the time.  It really is one of my worst faults.  It’s why I tend to surround myself with folks that will willingly put me in my place.  If I push too hard, please feel free to tell me in whatever language you choose.  Honestly, I don’t offend easily.”  Clare laughed somewhat uncomfortably.  Nikki now looked at the smaller woman in awe, unprepared for her to as self-aware or apologetic.  Claire continued, “I am sure that you are a great designer.  I don’t what to cramp your style.  If you are interested, I’ll happily loan you some resources on storm water if you’d like.”

 

“It’s all right Claire.  I do need to learn more about the area and would love to look through your information.  How about I look through it and then we can meet again and see if I can indeed help you with your storm water project?  If I can design a great outdoor space for the women and simultaneously help you protect the structures from water damage, I’d be happy to work together.” Claire smiled warmly at Nikki as she finished knowing that she had not only gained a professional colleague, but a potential friend.

 

The two women exchanged cards promising to be in touch later that week.  It had been the start of what became a close friendship acting as an anchor for them both.  While the fact that they both had relocated to California from London alone could have been the basis of a friendship, it was Claire’s irreverence, loyalty, and possession of a stubborn streak to rival even Nikki’s that was the basis of their current close bond.  Nikki had not only gotten to know Claire better, but quickly formed a friendship with her husband, Cory.  Much to Claire’s amusement, Nikki and Cory had settled into their own unique banter that relied heavily on innuendo and false bravado that inevitably left them both choking in laughter.

 

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Part 2

 

Monday morning, having completed the garden designs with Claire, Nikki strolled into work.  Her office was nothing like the cool, minimalist architecture firm where she spent her weekend.  In fact, her office was barely more than a few desks and drafting tables housed in a small structure that opened onto what her staff called “the yard.”  The yard was filled with rows of potted trees, two modestly sized greenhouses, machinery such as small loaders and excavators, stacks of lumber, piles of gravel, decorative boulders, and a shed full of hand tools.  While Nikki occasionally took on design work as a sub-contractor for large, often public projects, such parks or green infrastructure, she enjoyed the process of implementing her ideas too much to focus solely on design.  A large portion of the projects she chose to accept were small scale and typically located on private property, which tended to streamline or eliminate permitting issues.  This allowed her the freedom to not only complete the design, but to get outside and play in the dirt a little.  The yard was a testament to this commitment.

 

As Nikki made her way outside, a chorus of “Hiya Boss!” rang out from various corners of the yard, which prompted the obligatory eye roll from Nikki.  She had long given up on getting her staff to call her Nikki; they got far too much glee out of the using the term and she was not annoyed enough by it to really make a fuss.  At this point, the greeting had become a term of endearment.  She gave her team a small wave in greeting before returning to the office space to organize her staff assignments and equipment so that she could complete all the tour sites and still keep up with the other jobs to which she had already committed.  Although they would be spread thin for a few weeks, she figured out a way to make everything work.  She returned to the yard and called in the staff.  Her staff was a collection of student interns, full-time landscapers and designers (all of whom began as interns) and self-taught gardeners.

 

The five staff members quickly assembled in the office, casually gathering around Nikki by pulling up chairs, flopping on the floor, or sitting atop the nearest desk.  Nikki’s announcement that for next few weeks there would be no teams larger than two and a few people would be working alone was met with groans. 

 

“Does this mean you’ll be getting your hands dirty, boss?” called out Courtney, a small blond with short, salt stiffened hair indicating that she had stopped for a bit of surfing before coming in to work.  Her comment prompted another eye roll from Nikki and snickers from the rest of the staff as they all knew that Nikki did the work of three of them combined. 

 

“Even with smaller teams, how are we going get all this done Nik?” asked Jordan. 

 

“You’ll notice that none of you are slated for these three,” answered Nikki pointing to three projects on the board, “Cory and I will be handling those. Cory will also be lending a hand to several of you on days where some extra hands are needed.”

 

“No fair!” called out Elise and Elliott in unison.  They looked at each other realizing they shared a reason for feeling left out.  Blushing, Elliott continued, “You don’t even enjoy the show.” 

 

Nikki burst out laughing thinking of what Cory would make of this display.  She continued to smile answering, “Do I need to remind you that Cory is happily married?  He’s going to helping many of you over the next few weeks.” Nikki paused glancing at the faces of her staff, “Please behave yourselves,” she finished with a smirk before adding, “and you know he also has a wife with a spectacular tempter.”

 

Courtney piped up again, “I’ll work with him the whole time, you know I’m not interested Boss.”

 

“That’s just because you wouldn’t have to lift anything heavier that a shovel,” countered Elliott.

 

“Hey! I bet Cory would rather be coveted for his strength than for whatever nasty things y’all imagine about him while he works,” argued Courtney as a round of giggling rippled through the staff.

 

“Better us than the clients who will be fantasizing about both of them!” retorted Elise waving her hand distractedly in Nikki’s direction.

 

“All right, all right that’s enough!” smiled Nikki, now slightly embarrassed, but glad that her staff seemed to be in good spirits and ready to take on a hard few weeks. She wanted get them to focus long enough to explain the logistics. “The last thing we need to do is coordinate use of the bobcat, it’s going to be required at multiple sites some days so some of you may end up on machine duty all day.” 

 

At this announcement Ian just about shot out of his chair, “I’ll take the bobcat on those days!”

 

Nikki couldn’t hide her grin at his enthusiasm.

 

“Ian your obsession with the excavator might lead people to think your compensating for something,” suggested Courtney with a wicked grin. 

 

Ian laughed and countered, “You like operating that thing as much as I do, what are you compensating for, small hands?”

 

Courtney stuck her tongue out at him in response.

 

Smiling, Nikki posted the project schedule on the wall with all of the jobs and work assignments listed.  Turning around she gave her staff an affectionate grin and told them to get back to work, explaining that she would be leaving soon to spend the day prepping a site with Cory. 

 

After watching her team exit the office and return to their tasks in the yard, Nikki focused on her paperwork with a satisfied smile.  Her staff had become like a family.  She knew that they were as loyal and protective of her as she them.  Most were quite a bit younger and she savored the fact that in addition to her role as their boss, she also had been allowed into their lives as a mentor.  In many ways, she thought of herself as an older sister.  As she reflected on her staff, she realized that it was the familial nature of most of her relationships in California that had resulted in the contentment she now enjoyed.  While she had lost all of her blood relatives one way or another, she realized that she had a chosen family that was as supportive and loyal as blood relatives are assumed to be, but rarely are. 

 

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“Hiya Sexy!  You goin’ for the naughty secretary look today?” drawled Cory as he wandered in the front doors of Nikki’s office.  “I might be able to help you find additional uses for these desks, ya know.”

 

Cory was an American gentle giant with broad shoulders, messy blond hair that seemed to stick out in every direction, an easy smile punctuated with deep dimples, and a wicked sense of humor.  He owned his own construction management company, but despite his good looks and professional success he never seemed wholly aware or overly proud of his advantages.  In fact, the slightly awkward manner in which Cory carried himself betrayed the fact that he had not entirely left behind the bashful adolescent he had been in the past.  It was perhaps the fact that both he and Nikki had at one point had lacked both financial security and social confidence that was a basis of their friendship.  Neither one looked at their current situation with anything other than gratitude, choosing to simply appreciate and enjoy. 

 

Nikki looked up from a pile of paper work and took off her reading glasses, a sly smile playing on her lips, “Don’t go making promises you can’t keep Cory.  We both know you couldn’t handle me.”

 

“What makes you so sure about that Ms. Wade?  I’ll not have you underestimating the prowess of us California boys,” responded Cory trying to be both seductive and macho, but failing miserably at both.

 

Trying to keep from bursting into laughter, Nikki countered, “Well… I’ve heard that most California boys have smoked enough weed to have occasional equipment failure.  I’d hate for you to disappoint both me and my office furniture.”

 

The two stared at each other watching a range of obvious retorts run readily through both their minds.  They both burst into laughter though not a word had been spoken.  With a wide grin Cory plopped down in a chair next to Nikki.  Giving her shoulder a nudge, he leaned over to whisper in her ear, “Those glasses really do make you look sexy.”

 

“They just mean I’m getting old.  The only reason I wear the damn things is that I’m assured a headache every time I read anything if I don’t.”

 

“Yeah, but you paid enough for those designer frames that you ought to wear ‘em just to feel like you got your money’s worth.  Leave it to you to go out and spend a fortune on glasses that you need to wear for about an hour a day.” 

 

“Hey,” laughed Nikki, “If I’m wearing glasses, I might as well get a pair I like and will keep.  I’d end up spending more if I bought a pair I could only tolerate and felt compelled to replace.”

 

“Like your car?” asked Cory with a subtle roll of his eyes.

 

“Exactly like my car, thank you very much!  I have no intention of replacing my car either,” replied Nikki with a childish and satisfied grin.  She looked over at Cory playfully elbowing him in the side.  After a allowing herself moment to simply enjoy the comfort of their friendship, Nikki moved to get on with the day.

 

“All right you! Let’s get going, the garden isn’t going to prep itself,” sighed Nikki as she slapped Cory’s knee and pushed herself up.

 

“What’s the plan then?”

 

“We have to survey and flag. That’s it, which means we’re taking Sprout. I’ve already put the equipment in the back,” declared Nikki grabbing her keys.

 

“We’re taking your car?  Aren’t you afraid of precious getting soiled on a work site?”

 

“Only if you’ve suddenly got bowel control issues!” called Nikki over her shoulder as she strode out of the office toward her car.

 

Cory followed Nikki outside with a grin on his face.  He quickly ran past her and enthusiastically swung himself over the passenger door of the convertible.

 

“Hey! This isn’t Dukes of Hazard! I think the door handles actually work mister,” laughed Nikki as she approached the car. She found Cory’s exuberance contagious and hoisted herself up over the driver’s side door. 

 

“Yeeeehaaaawwww,” yelled Cory watching Nikki follow his lead.

 

As they pulled out the parking lot, Cory let out a sigh trying to feign disappointment, but the fact that one dimple was still evident meant Nikki had more ribbing coming her way.

 

“What?” asked Nikki with her eyebrows raised.

 

 “Well, it’s just hard to feel really cool in a Mini Cooper that is virtually silent. We should be roaring out of the parking lot in a classic American muscle car!”

 

“How old are we Mr. Big Developer?” teased Nikki.  She paused and then continued in mock offence, “I’ll not have you insulting Sprout.  She’s gorgeous, red, and has great little racing stripes.”

 

“We’re driving in a car you insist on calling ‘Sprout’ Nik, how cool can you really feel?”

 

Nikki could only laugh, “Since when have you been worried about looking cool?  Besides aren’t you married to the green crusader? You should be proud to be driving around in a completely electric car.  That is cool in coastal California!”

 

“I still can’t believe you paid someone that much money to take out the original engine, one that worked I might add, and put in an electric one,” sighed Cory. 

 

“I’ll save more on gas than the cost of the engine in just another year.”

 

“Oh no… you didn’t actually figure out how long it would take to make up the cost of the engine in gas savings?  Wow Nik, you really are a closet nerd.  The trendy clothes and sexy bod are all a big cover up!”

 

“Well,” smirked Nikki, “might as well be in the closet about something.  Besides, someone had better make up for that giant gas-guzzler you insist on driving.”

 

“It’s a work car!”  Casting a sideways glance at Nikki, Cory added, “And you can save yourself any comments about my truck compensating for something.”

 

Nikki just pursed her lips trying to hide her smile, “You said it, not me.”

 

They settled into a comfortable silence as Nikki guided the car into the maze of roads snaking their way into the hills above Santa Barbara.  Cory glanced over at his friend and could only shake his head.  Nikki Wade was simply gorgeous.  What blew his mind is that she seemed to have no idea.  She turned heads everywhere she went, both men and women. Hell even her own staff was completely enamored.  His work colleagues found their friendship puzzling as most couldn’t imagine being “just friends” with a woman that looked like Nikki.  What they didn’t understand was that Cory’s gut reaction to Nikki’s unassuming beauty was protectiveness.  He wasn’t sure how it happened, but he almost immediately viewed Nikki as a long lost family member.  He looked over at her with genuine affection, proud he could call her his friend.

 

As Nikki slowly approach the day’s worksite, both she and Cory spied Claire casually leaning against her Vespa at the driveway entrance. 

 

“Howdy beautiful!”  called Cory to his wife, “what are you doing here?”

 

“I finished work early and figured I’d come help seeing as I’m partially to blame for the workload.”

 

“Partially?!  Isn’t this whole tour your hare-brained idea?”

 

“It was my idea Nikki, but your workload is because you agreed to help, so it’s partially your fault,” countered Claire. 

 

“Are you sure your true calling wasn’t law instead of architecture?” asked Nikki thinking of Claire’s ability to turn any discussion to her favor.

 

“Hey hon, that’s a great idea if you want a second career!  I can imagine you in tailored power suits, striding around a courtroom.” Cory was almost licking his lips at the mental image.

 

Claire looked at Cory, her eyes dancing with amusement and her mouth curling into a smile, “You have been watching too many court dramas on TV.”

 

“Or too much bad porn,” added Nikki, which earned her a playful smack to the back of her head from Cory and an eye roll from Claire.  “He’s blushing Claire!  Now I know I wasn’t too far off the mark.  If it isn’t porn, he’s certainly adding his own embellishments to cop and courtroom dramas.”

 

“Wait one minute Ms. Wade.  We’ve watched TV together! You’re just as caught up in checking out the scenery as following the plot.”  Glancing over to Claire, Cory continued, “And don’t think you’re just an innocent bystander Ms. Walker.  I know you check out the men in their tailored suits.”

 

“I’ll admit that I like a man in suit, but, sweets, you know that I fantasize about you in a football uniform, not a suit,” answered Claire playfully ruffling Cory’s hair. 

 

“You Brits and soccer, can’t you find a way to enjoy real sports like American football or baseball?”  asked Cory knowing that he was about to be pounced on by the two women as this was one of the playful arguments that never seemed to grow old for any of them. 

 

Just as Claire was about to start in, Nikki spoke up, “As much as I’d like to educate this poor man about sport, Claire, I’m not sure sitting outside on the street when we should be working is the best time or place to do it.  How about we save it for tonight at the pub? My whole staff is heading out. You two would be welcome additions to the festivities.”

 

After agreeing to save their football debate for later, the three headed into the site and quickly set to work.  The addition of Claire allowed them to flag all of the needed design elements quickly leaving them time to clean themselves up and grab dinner before meeting at the pub.

 

Just as they were cleaning up and packing the total station and other surveying equipment, Cory casually asked Nikki, “You’re comin’ over at the end of next week to house-sit, right?”

 

“What?! You two can’t leave!” blurted Nikki

 

“But it’s our anniversary,” whined Claire who had just sidled up to Cory.  She batted her eyelashes at Nikki with her lower lip curling into a pout.

 

Nikki could only laugh seeing the little spitfire pretend to beg.  “Why do you have to go away just to shag?  You two go at it like rabbits right here at home.”

 

“Maybe we like to try new locations,” chipped in Cory hopefully.

 

Knowing that she couldn’t really deny the two of them much, she soon relented and agreed to house-sit.  Spending a week in Cory and Claire’s home was hardly a chore. Nikki loved waking up to the 180-degree view of the Pacific every morning.  In this case, however, it also meant even longer work weeks than she had anticipated as she would only have Cory’s help for the rest of the week.

 

--

 

 

Part 3

 

Claire and Cory had been gone for three days and Nikki had spent nearly every waking moment working, trying to finish the tour sites and catch up on her existing contracts.  She arrived at Claire and Cory’s late each evening after watering her own plants and checking her mail only to feed their cats and collapse into bed.  Tonight, she was finally allowing herself a night off and had snuggled down on the living room floor with a good book, the comforter and pillows she’d pulled off the bed, and a glass of wine.  As she sipped her wine she felt the strain slowly leave her body.  Reading without interruption and choosing to ignore the guilt that her time could better spent elsewhere, felt indulgent.  Since she was taking the following day off, Nikki aimed to read until she could no longer keep her eyes open.

 

After several hours, her escape into the fictional world of her novel was interrupted by the jarring ring of the phone.  Glancing at the clock and realizing it was nearly two in the morning, Nikki decided that politely explaining that Claire and Cory were not home was a courtesy reserved for people that called at reasonable hours of the day.  The answering machine soon picked up.

 

“Claire?” asked a voice with a soft Scottish accent.  After a long pause the caller continued, sadness clearly evident in her voice, “Are you there?  Please pick up if you are screening your calls.  Claire?  I’d really like to talk.  I miss you.”

 

The voice sounded so hopeless that Nikki was about to scramble over to the phone if only to tell the unknown person that things couldn’t possibly be as bad as they might seem.  As the caller hung up, Nikki set her book aside deciding that perhaps it was time for sleep.  Despite the late hour and her sleep-deprived state, Nikki had a hard time putting the message now blinking at her from the answering machine out of her head.  Almost an hour later, Nikki finally succumbed to sleep, her last thought hoping that the mystery caller’s day would improve.

 

---

 

Nikki woke the next morning and began to shift uncomfortably.  It had seemed romantic to sleep in the living room with the idea that the first thing you’d see in the morning would be the early sunlight over a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.  While the view was spectacular, Nikki found it somewhat less enjoyable with a sore back.  She slowly peeled herself up off the floor and made her way to the kitchen sure that caffeine would help put the world to rights.  Just the smell of coffee seemed to help clear her still groggy mind.  As she began to focus on her surroundings and plot her day, she realized that the sun was quite a bit higher in the sky than her romanticized vision of sunrise.  She was stunned to see that she’d slept past noon, something she rarely, if ever, succeeded in doing.  Nikki decided that since she had already spent half the day lying down, she might as well keep at it knowing that this was her chance to take a whole day off.  She soon settled into a hammock hanging on the side deck with her coffee, closed her eyes, and savored the combination of the warm sun and cool coastal breeze. 

 

Once again, Nikki’s reverie was interrupted by the phone.  And again, Nikki opted to let the machine answer. 

 

“Claire? Please pick up.  I’ve tried your mobile and it’s turned off.  If you’re punishing me for having messed up the time change, I’m sorry.  I really would like to talk. I know it’s mid-day in California.  Even you must be out of bed.  Please call.”  There was a sigh and the call ended. 

 

Nikki could not clearly hear the message from the deck.  As the call ended, she had understood enough to realize it was the same caller as the night before.  Nikki felt guilty about allowing this poor woman to believe her friend did not care enough to return her call.  She decided to head into the house to refill her coffee cup and listen to the new message.  Even if it was her anniversary, Nikki decided that Claire would want to be interrupted to hear that a friend needed help.  She hoped that describing the caller as female and Scottish would be enough for Claire to know who it was because the caller had not given her name.  Realizing that she had saved the phone number of the bed and breakfast where Claire and Cory were staying in her mobile, Nikki went in search of her phone in the pile of blankets on the living room floor. The house phone rang once again.  Nikki let it ring wondering why, during her one day to relax, she continued to be interrupted.  Nikki let the machine pick up as she was now on her hands and knees feeling around for her phone. 

 

“Come on Claire!” While still weighed down by sadness, the mysterious Scottish voice also had a tinge of frustrated annoyance.  “I can’t believe you are punishing me for waking you up last night.  This really isn’t the time for one of our battles of will.  Can you just put it aside for now? I’ll even declare you winner just this once,” the caller pleaded.

 

As soon as she recognized the voice, Nikki leapt up to intercept the call before she hung up.  At the very least Nikki thought she should explain Claire’s absence.  Nikki’s mind fleetingly wondered why someone who knew Claire well enough to not only choose to call her at a time of need, but to have made a sport out of her stubborn streak, wouldn’t know that this was the week she left each year for her anniversary.

 

Nikki grabbed the phone, “Hello?  Hello?  Are you still there?”  Just as she was about to place the phone back down she heard her greeting returned.

 

“Hello.  Claire?”

 

“No.  I’m sorry Claire isn’t home.  I’m a friend of hers and Cory’s.  I’m house-sitting for them this week.”

 

“What?” breathed the woman, obviously surprised.  After a short pause, Nikki heard a long exhale and a mirthless chuckle, “their anniversary.  I’d completely forgotten.  I guess the universe has an even more perverted sense of humor than I thought.”

 

“Claire and Cory chose to leave their cell phones behind.  If you’d like, I can contact the bed and breakfast where they are staying to let Claire know you’ve called,” offered Nikki.

 

“No… that’s all right, although it is kind of you to offer.  I’ll wait for them to return.  I’d hate to drag her down while she supposed to be enjoying herself.”

 

“Are you sure?” asked Nikki thinking about the fact that this woman had called three times in less than 24 hours. “You sound as though you could use someone to talk to right now.”

 

“I’m sure.  I’ll get hold of her early next week,” the caller paused before continuing, her somber tone now marked with embarrassment, “I’m sorry.  This means it was your sleep I interrupted.  You must think I’m crazy calling so frequently each time becoming more frustrated with Claire.”

 

Nikki smiled, “No worries, I got lost in a good book last night so I was still up when you called and I’m quite familiar with Claire’s stubborn streak so the messages today made good sense.”

 

There was no response, only a long, shaky sigh from the caller.  Nikki was unsure of what to say next.  She felt as though it was the natural place for this woman to say something or simply say goodbye.  Instead she had lapsed into silence, with the phone still to her ear.

 

“I’m a pretty good listener if you want someone to talk to,” suggested Nikki hesitantly.

 

The suggestion was answered by another long exhale before the caller spoke, “Thank you, but you don’t have to do that.  I don’t even know your name.  I’m not sure I could or even want to spill my guts at present… or that you’d want to sit and listen.”  

 

The resignation in the caller’s voice only served to embolden Nikki.  Keeping her tone gentle, she continued, “Well, my name is Nikki Wade and sometimes it can be easier to talk to someone who knows nothing about you or your life, since I’m less likely to make judgments, offer suggestions, or bring it up later considering you’re unlikely to ever meet me face to face.”  What Nikki didn’t add was that even with its sad tone she was quite sure she could happily listen to the caller’s voice and gorgeous accent for hours. 

 

The caller softly laughed at Nikki’s logic, “All right Nikki Wade, it’s nice to meet you, at least over the phone.  My name is Helen Stewart and I’m still not sure if I want to talk about me right now, but it is nice to be talking to someone if only to feel less alone.”

 

Nikki’s heart ached for her new acquaintance, “Well Helen, how about we pick a nice safe topic of conversation and start from there?  It’s nice to meet you too, Helen Stewart,” finished Nikki gently.

 

“Ok,” started Helen tentatively, “Given the fact that my life seems to be in shambles, how about if you tell me about your life.  What do you do?  How long ago did you leave Britain?”

 

Nikki took a deep breath before beginning to speak.  She really didn’t enjoy talking about herself, but realized that, in this case, it was her only option.  She decided to just address Helen’s questions directly.  Her tone was a little formal, owing to her discomfort rather than her unwillingness to remain on the phone. “Well, I’m a landscape architect.  I design everything from small parks to stream restoration projects to residential yards.  I have my own business here in Santa Barbara with five employees who not only work incredibly hard, but keep me laughing much of the time.  I’ve been here for five years and can honestly say that I’ve never been more content with either my personal or private life.” 

 

Even though she had kept her tone fairly even and matter-of-fact, Nikki paused realizing that describing how much she was enjoying her current situation might not be the most appropriate topic for someone who was obviously upset.  She continued hesitantly deciding that perhaps talking to a stranger also allowed her the freedom to be more open than she typically permitted herself to be.

 

“To be honest, Helen, I feel like I’ve earned my current happiness.  When I left London five years ago, I’d never felt more lost or alone in my life.” Again Nikki paused.  She wanted to find a topic that would keep Helen company without making her feel worse.  “Helen, I don’t want to make you feel sad and don’t want to trivialize your feelings by rambling on about silly day-to-day happenings.  How about if you promise to let me know if a topic starts to cut too close to home or seems too frivolous?” 

 

There was a long pause before Helen responded. “Thank you Nikki.”  What Helen didn’t know how to verbalize was how much Nikki’s considerate words and simple kindness touched her.  “I’m glad to hear that you’re happy now.  I don’t want to seem inconsiderate, but I’m not sure that my misery can handle company at present.  Perhaps if we ever speak again, you’ll tell me about why you relocated to California.  For now, can you simply tell me about your adopted hometown and life there?  I think a bit of escapism would serve me well.” 

 

Nikki proceeded to describe the Santa Barbara hills in the spring, sunset over the Pacific, the old mission, the vineyards farther north, her favorite shops and restaurants, and finally she began to regale Helen with stories about the antics of her staff.  Helen listened in contented silence, chuckling softly in places, and asking a question occasionally. 

 

“Helen?  Are you still there?”

 

“Yeah, I’m still here,” answered Helen obviously stifling a yawn. 

 

“I’m sorry.  I’ve been talking at you for hours.  It’s the middle of the night on your end.  I hope you are in better spirits tomorrow.  Get some sleep Helen.”

 

“Thank you, Nikki.  I think I might just sleep soundly for the first time in days.  You have been unbelievably kind to keep my company tonight.”  Helen paused, uncertain as to how to proceed.  She was too tired to continue on the phone, but did not want to bid the kind voice of Nikki Wade goodbye. “Nikki…” she began hesitantly, “Would you be willing to talk again? I’d like the chance to have a real conversation with you sometime, one where I am able to be an equal participant.”

 

Nikki smiled at her request.  She felt oddly close to the mysterious Scot.  It was rare for her to simply talk to someone without hiding behind humor.  “Sure Helen, how about if I give you my mobile number?  You can simply call me whenever you like,” finished Nikki before adding, “But remember we’re eight hours behind over here.”  This prompted a final, quiet laugh from Helen.

 

After providing her number, Nikki bid her goodnight.

 

--


 

Part 4

 

It was Friday afternoon when Nikki heard the front door of Claire and Cory’s house open and the sound of luggage being deposited in the entryway.

 

“Welcome home you two!” called Nikki.  “Have a good time?”  Seeing the grins plastered on both their faces, Nikki quickly qualified her question, “I only require a general answer.  In fact, the grins on your faces may be enough.” 

 

This resulted in Cory and Claire dissolving into a fit of giggles. 

 

“C’mon Nik, are you jealous?  You know that she’s just filler until you come to your senses,” answered Cory nodding his head towards Claire.  This earned him a playful slap on the backside from the small blond, to which he responded by giving it a little shake. 

 

Nikki laughed at the display.  “You know, you shake your ass like that a little more often, you may have me convinced.”  Cory immediately began dancing around Nikki prompting another wave of laughter. 

 

As the discussion continued to devolve, Claire excused herself to the kitchen with a smile and a shake of her head.  She did not understand how it was that Nikki and Cory had settled into this form of perverse sexual banter, but it made her smile.  Nikki spoke to no one about her love life, or lack thereof, and Claire’s joking about sex inevitably resulted in Nikki’s silence or obvious embarrassment.  In some way, it made Claire happy to know that someone could get her to talk about it even if it was through absolute silliness.  Claire also had to admit that she loved seeing her husband allow himself to be free around someone other than herself.  Too many of their friends weren’t really mutual friends, instead being a friend to one of them and an acquaintance to the other.  Cory tended to maintain the detached, professional manner required for work or the macho bearing that seemed to satisfy the social expectation for a guy built like he was.  These two personas seemed at odds with the driven, opinionated nature of his wife, which often led people to misunderstand their relationship.  Nikki was one of the few friends that Claire could honestly say was a close friend to both her and Cory as individuals and as a couple. 

 

Claire returned to the living room with a tray of coffee finding Cory still had Nikki laughing, but conversation had left innuendo behind and now Cory was regaling Nikki with stories of their disastrous tide pool adventure, which had left both of them sopping wet.

 

Nikki looked up and smiled as Claire approached, “Didn’t know you were so squeamish!”

 

“I hope he’s explained that his gallant attempt at comforting me resulted in both of us landing in the tide pool with the very things I was hoping to escape.”

 

This prompted another round of laughter as each began to sip their coffee.  Claire snuggled up against Cory at one end of the couch and sat facing Nikki, who had settled into the easy chair.  As the laughter started to die down, Claire asked, “How were things last week?” 

 

“Things went well, I’ve got every house save one set for the tour,” answered Nikki.

 

Both Claire and Cory rolled their eyes at this.  “Please tell me you did something other than work,” pleaded Claire.

 

“I did take one full day off and made use of your hammock,” answered Nikki, “I even worked on my tan a little.”

 

“What’s that matter Nik? It’s not as though you have anyone to look good for or are even looking to find someone,” countered Claire with a smirk.

 

“What year is it Claire?  Women should only look good to please or attract others?  Are you really the same woman who volunteered to help restore the Women’s Shelter cottages and dragged me to NOW protests?  I like lying in the sun because it feels great!  I also like the way I look when I have a bit of a tan.”

 

“Ok ok you win,” laughed Claire, and then added, “You don’t just look good, you look great with a tan, by the way.”  Cory snorted his agreement with his wife’s assessment, giving Nikki a sly wink.  After a short pause to gaze at her friend who was far better looking than she was aware with her trim body, perfect skin, and luxurious dark curls, Claire continued, “I know you have decided you don’t need a partner to be happy and I agree.  I just wonder if you have considered that you might be happier with a partner.” 

 

“You know my feelings on this,” sighed Nikki, “I don’t want my happiness to be dependent on anyone.  I realize that someday I might meet someone and we will each selfishly decide that it makes us happier to share our lives than not, but I’m not going out looking for it.  If it happens, it happens.  If not, I’m still very happy.  I’ve got the business of my dreams, I live in a great town, I have amazing friends, and I’ve got enough money to live the life I want.”

 

“Nikki you should know that we just want the best for you.  I see that you’re happy and know that you’re just as likely to meet Ms. Right just going though your day-to-day life as you are heading out to bars…” Claire seemed to trail off, lapsing into silence until both Cory and Nikki were looking at her expectantly.  Not realizing she had stopped mid-thought, Claire look at the two them, “What?”

 

“You were saying?” asked Nikki a smile starting to pull at the sides of her mouth.

 

“Oh hell, I just wish that if the universe is going to throw someone into your path that it’d hurry the fuck up!”  Claire finished with an exasperated flourish.  Nikki and Cory could only chuckle at Claire’s level of concern for and frustration with Nikki’s love life.  In truth, Nikki found it endearing that Claire cared so much.

 

“What’s with the perplexed look on your face?” asked Cory seeing Nikki’s furrowed brow.

 

“It’s just something Claire said, it reminded me of someone, but I can’t remember who.”  Nikki was mentally going through all the people she had spoken to over the last week until she realized it was Helen who had also referred to a “universe” that intervened into lives.  Nikki had forgotten to relay the message to Claire.  “Claire, I spoke to a friend of yours who was trying to reach you while you were away, Helen Stewart.”

 

This elicited a chuckle from Cory, “Did you talk to the ball-buster or the party girl?”

 

Claire laughed at this comment, but seeing the puzzled look on Nikki’s face she tried to explain, “Helen and I shared a flat for three years while I was finishing up my degree in architecture and Helen was in law school.  She is one of my oldest friends and compared to her feistiness, I look like a kitten.  She has always worked for, or run, NGOs advocating for everything from international debt relief to women’s rights.  She’s passionate and given that she always works for the underdog, can be quite a force.”

 

Nikki was trying to reconcile the driven professional that Claire was describing with the woman she had spoken to on the phone.  Realizing that Claire had only described one of Cory’s two categories, Nikki asked “So that would be the ball-buster.  What’s the party girl label all about?”

 

Cory jumped in this time, “Nikki you would not believe how much that little woman can put away!  She can drink me under the table!  She also can kick your ass in any bar game imaginable, I gave up after being humiliated at both pool and darts.  Not only that, but when she cuts loose, it’s like you’re around a totally different person, one who actually laughs, tells dirty jokes, dances…” This time it was Cory who trailed off into silence. 

 

Now Nikki was intrigued and impressed.  It took a lot to baffle Cory and even more to keep up with him in a pub, with drinks or darts.  Nikki looked at Claire hoping for further clarification.  Claire was looking up at Cory with an amused look on her face.  “I didn’t realize she had made such an impression on you!”  Claire laughed poking Cory in the ribs.  “We went back to London to visit my family several years ago and Cory finally had the chance to spend some time with Helen.  He had only been able to say a brief hello at our wedding, which was the first time they met face-to-face.  In London, we were to meet at Helen’s office before heading to dinner.  We arrived at her office in time to listen to one of the most scathing verbal dress-downs either of us has ever heard.  Apparently one of the contractors who had been hired to build health clinics to act as distribution centers for HIV medication in Africa had been found to be building structures of such low quality that some staff had refused to work in them fearing for their safety.  To top it all off, this guy then had the supreme stupidity to try to imply that sub-standard buildings were adequate giving the population they were serving.”

 

Nikki was shocked not only that someone could think this way, but that they would actually verbalize it. “What did she do? Could she do anything about it if the buildings were already built?”

 

Cory interjected again, “Nikki you have no idea, it was verbal castration.  By the time Helen was done with her tirade that poor man was likely ready to return all the money he’d been paid, tear down the buildings, and rebuild them on his own dime.”

 

Claire smirked but was nodding her head in agreement, “You have to understand Nikki, bureaucrats typically run NGOs, not lawyers.  She not only shamed him on moral grounds, but also accused him of violating any number of international statutes, the laws of various African countries, and British law.  I’m fairly certain that she embellished a little, including things that weren’t technically laws, but should be in her eyes.  Needless to say, the issue was ultimately resolved.  In fact, we ended being able to help seeing as structural standards are one of the few things we both know a little something about.”

 

Nikki was thoroughly enjoying her friends’ tale of their trip to London.  “So, did you actually make it to dinner after that?”

 

Again Cory interjected, “It was amazing.  Having been seated in a waiting area listening to her rant, I expected an angry, uptight woman to come out to meet us.  Instead, I hear this voice chanting some sort of sing-song taunt at my wife.  I look over at Claire and she had almost fallen out of her chair laughing before scrambling towards the door to greet a stylishly dressed, gorgeous woman.”  Poking Claire in the ribs, he continued, “This one was screeching at her that she couldn’t believe she could still remember. Evidently this was a very embarrassing chant.  Claire just about tackled the poor woman when she made it into the waiting area.”

 

Claire was shaking with laughter at this point remembering the scene. 

 

“Well, I hope you two convince the infamous Helen to visit you here sometime, I’d love to hear some stories about Claire’s wild days.  Besides, she sounds like an amazing woman,” commented Nikki through her own laughter at the description and Claire’s reaction.

 

“Oh she is indeed,” confirmed Claire.  “Her Scottish heritage explains both her temper and her alcohol tolerance.  Actually, it’s also the reason she is the keeper of my most embarrassing stories seeing as I was often pissed well past reason while Helen was always in full possession of her senses to act as witness.”

 

Remembering Helen’s state on the phone, Nikki spoke again, “Well Claire, I should tell you that I did not get to talk to either the focused professional or the pool shark.  Helen called hoping to talk to you about something that had gone wrong.  I don’t know what it is, but she sounded pretty upset.  When she realized you were on your annual anniversary trip she made me promise not to contact you, but I really think she could use a friend right now.  From your description, it seems like it would take quite a lot to upset her.”

 

Both Claire and Cory were quiet.  Cory then wrapped his arms around Claire giving her a quick squeeze, “Go call her, hon.”

 

Claire looked at Nikki silently apologizing for her impending exit.  Nikki quickly responded, “Claire, go call her, she could use a friend.”

 

Cory sighed and looked at Nikki as Claire left the room. “Something must be very wrong.  Helen is an incredibly strong woman.  She is smart, funny, fun, and a whole lot of other great things, but she is also very closed.  She doesn’t talk about herself at all and she certainly doesn’t admit to weakness.  Things have to be pretty bad for her to call and actually admit that she needs help.”  Nikki nodded in understanding.  She soon stood to say goodbye giving Cory a big hug and asking him to tell Claire goodbye for her. 

 

After watching Nikki pull out of the driveway, Cory began to think about both Helen and Nikki.  He realized that the description he had just given of Helen also fit his dear friend Nikki.  She wasn’t as overt as Helen about not wanting to show weakness or share personal history, but she was no more forthcoming either.  He shook his head at the thought wondering what could have happened to these two women that they would be so unwilling to be emotionally vulnerable.

 

---

 

 

Part 5

 

“G’mornin’ Claire, happy Monday!” smiled Nikki as she answered the door welcoming her friend into her house. 

 

Claire trudged through the door and threw herself down on the couch in the living room.  “Remind me Nikki.  Who thought this home tour was a great idea?”

 

“I don’t remember,” started Nikki pretending to search her memory.  “Oh, I know! It was this over-ambitious, tightly wound architect who has a propensity to act like a slave driver to employees and colleagues alike. Ever met her?” 

 

“Ha ha,” answered Claire flatly as she propped her feet up on the coffee table. “Do you have any coffee left this morning?”

 

“Poor baby,” smiled Nikki as she headed to the kitchen to fetch Claire some coffee.  “How about this?  We will sit here, drink our coffee, and talk about anything other than work for a little while.  Once we feel like we’ve done something other than think, sleep, and breathe this tour, we’ll get back to it… hopefully with a better attitude.”

 

“You got yourself a deal Ms. Wade, but I think you’re going to have to put on another pot of coffee.  I’m going to need it.”

 

“All right, I’ll go start another pot.  How about we move out to the garden for our little break?”

 

“Perfect!”  Claire immediately headed for the sliding glass door opening onto a deck.  She continued across the large deck and down a few steps into the garden, settling into one of the chairs in a small clearing amongst the flowers. “You’ve been busy Nikki!  It looks fantastic back here,” called Claire as Nikki stepped through the door bearing her own coffee and two plates with scones. 

 

“Thanks. It was my weekend project after you two got back from your anniversary trip.  I guess it took a week of neglect to really motivate me to put in some time back here.”

 

“Scones!  You are a godsend,” exclaimed Claire as Nikki drew closer.

 

“Well… I thought we needed something to go with the sweets,” said Nikki pointing to the border of the garden surrounding the small table and seating area.  It was a curving row of strawberry plants bearing perfectly ripened fruit.

 

“I think I might be in heaven,” declared Claire as she reached down plucking a few of the berries. 

 

“It’s not just berry season,” stated Nikki as she walked over to snatch a few snap peas growing along a fence before joining Claire at the table.  The two women sat in silence simply savoring the morning sunshine, warm coffee, and strawberries.

 

“Claire, did you get hold of your friend Helen?” asked Nikki finally breaking the silence.

 

“Yeah, I did. In fact, I spent much of the weekend talking with her.”

 

“How is she? She sounded pretty down when I spoke with her.”

 

“She’s feeling a little better, I think.  It’s really hard Nikki.  I don’t really know how to help her other than just be there as a listening ear.”  Claire paused, her brow furrowed and her eyes now dimmed with sadness. “I just don’t handle inaction very well.  I know that someone I care about is having a hard time and I just want to fix it, but I don’t feel as though I can help her at all.” 

 

“Maybe, just knowing that you’re there and willing to listen is enough,” suggested Nikki.

 

Claire just sighed.  She slouched in her chair, staring absently at the ground, shaking her head.  She reached down for another strawberry and then looked up to again meet Nikki’s eyes, “That’s just the thing Nik.  I don’t know if just being a listening ear over the phone is enough this time.  I know you talked with her, did she say much about herself?”

 

Nikki smiled weakly. “Almost nothing.  Believe it or not, I ended up doing all the talking.”

 

Claire nodded. “Knowing what I do now, that’s not very surprising.  Here’s what you need to understand, Helen is someone who has always lived with a very clear sense of right and wrong, just and unjust.  She’s dedicated her entire life to fighting for what she knows to be right and to battling injustice.  This clarity is the foundation on which she’s built everything from her profession to her sense of self.”  Claire lapsed into silence obviously thinking about her friend.

 

“And something has happened to shake this foundation,” stated, rather than asked, Nikki.

 

“Got it in one Wade,” smiled Claire sadly. 

 

“Something like the poorly built health clinics?”

 

“No, that’d be easy.  Helen isn’t so naïve as to be unaware of politics, bigotry, corruption, and the like.  Unfortunately, this time the suffering was much closer to home.  I’m afraid it’s going to take a long time, if ever, for Helen to be at peace with it all.  I’ve even begged her to just hop on a plane here if only to get away from everything and allow her the space to think things through.”

 

“You’re a great friend Claire.” Nikki smiled warmly at Claire before continuing, “I know from experience. I’m sure Helen knows it too and appreciates your support.”  Nikki thought about her own life five years ago that drove her to leave London.  While she didn’t know anything about Helen’s situation, she did know something about having to refortify oneself after it seemed that everything that defined you had fallen to pieces.  “I actually think your invitation to come here is a great idea.  Sometimes a change of scenery, slower pace, and time to think allows for greater clarity than would ever be possible staying in the situation that created the problem.”

 

“I agree. That’s why I invited her.  I love Helen dearly, but the problem is that she’s the most stubborn, single-minded, independent person I know.  Just because I, and likely everyone she knows, can see that she needs to take some time to sort herself out doesn’t mean she’ll listen.”

 

The two women lapsed into silence while finishing their coffee, each lost in her own thoughts.  Eventually, Claire let out a long sigh and set her cup down on the table.

 

“Thanks for listening Nikki.  I know this wasn’t exactly the break from thinking about the home tour you had in mind, but it is nice to just talk things through.  I’m much less likely to be brooding about it all day now.”  Despite Claire’s claims about feeling better, she still seemed down.

 

“I’m glad, Claire.  Besides, my only stipulation was that we didn’t talk about work.  Your concerns about a dear friend certainly fit that requirement. Obviously this is upsetting you.  What kind of friend would I be if I begrudged you the chance to simply share what’s on your mind?  You’ve done the same for me more times than I can count.”

 

They both stood up to clear the table. Before any dishes were collected, Claire pulled Nikki into a tight hug.  “Thanks Nikki.  I really needed this.Even though it sounds pathetic, I think I needed to hear that I’m not complete crap as a friend.”

 

Nikki wrapped her arms more tightly around Claire in response.  After a few moments, she wordlessly released the small blonde, handed her some dishes, and kept one arm wrapped around her shoulders as they headed inside. 

 

---

 

Part 6

 

Claire and Nikki had spent the rest of the day working on the final touches for the tour.  This meant a stop at each of the houses to meet with the owners to verify the arrival time and activities occurring at each site.  They also checked that all the design elements being demonstrated were in working order.  The homeowners who had agreed to have their home included were former clients of Claire’s architecture firm.  Nikki had been recruited by Claire (with the owners’ permission) to design at least one portion of each yard to demonstrate how green design need not stop at a home’s outer walls. 

 

Nikki returned home late that evening exhausted, but feeling good about her preparation for the tour.  There were still some logistics to sort and she would make a final visit to all the sites to verify that the gardens, drainage elements, and other features looked perfect, but it seemed entirely manageable for the first time since she’d taken on the project.  She was quite proud of the work that had been completed and her gardens meshed beautifully with Claire’s designs.  Nikki made a mental note to do something to reward her staff for the work they had put in knowing that her current feeling of satisfaction was due, in large part, to their efforts. 

 

Nikki went outside to her garden to harvest fresh lettuce, a few herbs, snap peas and tomatoes for a salad.  She put a salmon fillet on the grill and poured herself a glass of wine.  With work for the tour nearly completed, Nikki decided she had earned a relaxing evening. After finishing her dinner preparations and collecting the fish from the grill, she clicked on the stereo selecting a Billie Holiday album and relaxed into a wooden lounge chair on the deck with her plate.  She sat outside until darkness had engulfed her before gathering her dishes and heading inside.   

 

Deciding to savor the calm, Nikki grabbed a book and her glasses and settled onto the couch.  Just as she was getting comfortable, a crash in the kitchen broke the silence.  Nikki leapt up thinking perhaps she’d left a burner on or set a dish too close to the counter’s edge.  What she found was that her mobile phone had vibrated itself right off the counter and was now buzzing against the floor. Nikki reached down for the phone to see who was calling.  It was not a number she recognized and despite her reservations about answering, she opened the phone. “Hello?”

 

“Nikki? Is that you?”

 

Nikki recognized the voice immediately, “Helen!”  Nikki was thrilled to hear from Helen, pleasure clearly evident in her voice. 

 

Just hearing her name spoken with affection and not pity or concern made Helen smile and immediately relax.  She hadn’t realized that she’d been carrying around so much emotional armor until Nikki’s voice brought it all down.

 

“Hello Nikki.  Have I caught you at a bad time?” Helen began, not wanting to read too much into Nikki’s enthusiastic greeting.

 

“Not at all Helen, you seem to have a special knack for finding me at my most relaxed.” Nikki looked at her watch and quickly calculated London time. “Helen, are you up obscenely late or obscenely early?  I’m fairly certain that 4:30 in the morning is an hour no one should experience regularly.”

 

“Early, I’m afraid,” groaned Helen.  “I normally can barely haul myself out of bed in time for work, but I have a meeting this morning and I cannot be late.  I’m worried enough about it that I’m actually up and ready early. I don’t have to leave for work for another half hour.”

 

“A meeting at 5 or 6 in the morning?!” exclaimed Nikki in disbelief.

 

“That’s the challenge of working for an international organization, occasionally I need to match the business hours of different time zones.  Today it’s a morning telephone conference with collaborators in Moscow,” sighed Helen.  She paused to gather her thoughts, wanting to make sure she got to the real reason for her call.  “I’m calling because I want to thank you, Nikki, for talking with me last week.  You don’t even know me and you spent hours just keeping me company when I needed it most.  I really appreciated it.” 

 

While her tone sounded lighter than the last time they had spoken, Helen still seemed weighed down.  Nikki could only wonder what could possibly unsettle someone who, according to Claire and Cory, was incredibly strong. 

 

“Helen, it was my pleasure.  Plus, you come highly recommended,” smiled Nikki thinking of Claire and Cory’s description of and obvious affection for her phone companion.

 

“Evidently, Claire’s been more forthcoming in talking about me than she has you,” chuckled Helen feigning annoyance with Claire.  She paused for a moment and thought about what she had said and suddenly felt self-conscious. “What has Claire told you?” she asked quietly, fear seeping into her voice.

 

Nikki was shocked to hear the sudden shift in Helen’s tone.  Realizing that Helen’s mood was far more fragile that she had assumed, Nikki quickly tried to ease Helen’s anxiety by gently explaining, “She didn’t betray your confidence Helen.  She’s just worried about you.  How are you doing?” asked Nikki, “You seem a bit better than last week, but you still sound as if you live only under cloudy skies.”

 

Helen sighed in relief. Somehow it was comforting to talk to someone who didn’t know what was going on and couldn’t tell her not to blame herself or, worse, condemn her for her actions.  “I am feeling a bit better.  I guess you could say that the storm clouds are still there, but the rain has let up for the time being,” Helen replied, matching Nikki’s description of her mood. She explained further that, “While the situation is unchanged, I think I’m getting better at compartmentalizing.”

 

“You know Helen, compartmentalizing is another way of saying you’re in denial,” offered Nikki softly.

 

Helen let out a long exhale, “Perhaps you are right.” She appreciated Nikki’s concern, but her life seemed to be filled exclusively with concerned people.  What she wanted was someone to help her forget the present, if only for a short period, but she didn’t know how to ask Nikki to do this.  Unable to find the words to communicate her needs, Helen simply continued trying to explain the need for personal/professional separation in her life. “I cannot function if I dwell on things I cannot change.  I do need to be able to be productive at work.”  Helen still had a nagging fear that Nikki knew more than she had let on. “If Claire hasn’t shared any details about my current state, what has she told you?”

 

“I’ve only heard that you are a lawyer who fights for the little guy.” Nikki paused and decided to try to change the tone and topic entirely. “I’ve also heard that you are more stubborn than Claire, which I find hard to imagine and a little scary, and Cory explained that you’d drink me under the table and kick my ass at pool, both of which I’d have to see to believe.”

 

Nikki’s manner had shifted from concern to gently playful teasing.  She intended her final words to tempt Helen to engage in some lighthearted boasting, hoping to both lift the mood and get Helen thinking about something else.  Helen, relieved that Nikki had heard her unspoken plea, willingly took the bait.

 

A soft, wry chuckle tumbled through the phone line.  “Perhaps it’d be better for your ego if you never had to witness me shaming you on either count,” began Helen a little tentatively.

 

“I’m not sure it’s my ego you should be worried about.  I think the distance is making you cocky, Helen, you don’t have to prove your claims as long as you’re in London,” continued Nikki, hoping to pull Helen further out of her somber frame of mind.

 

“Oh, the distance isn’t doing me any favors.  You on the other hand…”

 

“Ooooo… You’ve got a competitive streak!  Are you sure competitive drinking is a healthy pursuit?” teased Nikki.

 

“I refuse to think of drinking as a vice. I consider it honoring my cultural heritage,” responded Helen with mock pride. 

 

“Whatever you need to tell yourself, darlin’,” quipped Nikki, now thoroughly enjoying the exchange.  Hearing a deep, throaty laugh on the other end, Nikki realized that joking and mindless banter was exactly what Helen needed.  The laugh seemed to be as much an emotional release as a response to Nikki’s teasing.  Although Nikki wanted to learn more about the unhappy woman with the sexy voice, she was happy to provide this escape for her.

 

The two women kept up the playful exchange for another 15 minutes, until Helen had to leave for work.  While they discussed nothing of substance, Helen savored the feeling of normalcy that their conversation brought.  It had been a welcome respite from the realities of her current situation.  She left for work with a smile on her face, feeling lighter than she had in recent memory.  She replayed Nikki’s parting words in her head throughout the day, which caused her heart to swell and a small smile to pull at her lips. 

 

“Have a good day Helen Stewart.  I’m so glad to have met you even though it’s only over the phone.” The warm sincerity in Nikki’s voice had made Helen feel appreciated for the first time in weeks.  “If you ever need a break, know you can always come stateside and prove those claims about your pub prowess.” 

 

--

 

 

Part 7

 

It was the day before the home tour.  Claire was busy taking care of logistics including the chartered buses, refreshments, informational materials, and the final reception.  Nikki was at her office making sure everything was in order for the gardens.  A big part of pulling off a garden tour was having each site demonstrate something new.  Nikki, with the help of her staff, had pulled together a list of key lessons including rain garden design, cistern installation, xeriscaping, and edible landscapes.  Nikki had the interns on staff create pamphlets for each site.  She knew that the educational materials would look great in their portfolios once they graduated.  She always made a conscious effort to create tasks for her staff to help them in their professional future, knowing she couldn’t keep them all.  Nikki had chosen Courtney, Ian, and Jordan to be spokespeople on the tour.  As the three who had been on staff the longest, they had most contact with clients and had also begun to negotiate projects on her behalf.  This was a perfect chance to introduce them to the local design community.

 

“Ok everyone, the tour is tomorrow,” started Nikki once her team had assembled themselves in the office.

 

“Finally!” called several voices in unison.

 

“You could say that again,” smiled Nikki, noting the grins around her, she quickly added, “but you don’t have to actually say it again!”  Laughing, Nikki shook her head and returned to the task at hand. “All right, we’ve got to get through tomorrow before we can simply enjoy being finished.”

 

“So what’s the plan boss?”

 

“You’ll all have a role, but Jordan, Ian, and Court will be the three that do demonstrations.  The rest of you will be there to address questions informally and mingle with the participants.”

 

“Why aren’t you doing the demonstrations, Nik?” asked Elliott.

 

“I’m going to have to get all dolled up for the event and I’m not sure me digging in the dirt is likely to impress the folks we’re trying to teach.  I’ll be doing the introductory bits at each site and Jordan, Ian, and Courtney will be doing the practical demonstrations and lectures.”

 

“So, what do we have to wear if you have to get dressed up?” queried Jordan.

 

“You lot get off easy!  You can even wear your work boots.  Please locate a pair of pants that are free of holes and stains, I know you each have at least one pair, and finally, I had some shirts made up for you all.”

 

“You made us a uniform?” asked Ian skeptically.

 

“Think of it as the horrible clothing item that you receive from a dear relative each Christmas. The one you have to wear just for the days you see them over the holidays,” replied Nikki with a twinkle in her eye.

 

“Are you telling me to think of you as my Aunt Marsha?” asked Elise screwing her face up into grimace, which began a cascade of giggling among the staff.

 

“You can think of me however you want,” chuckled Nikki, knowing that the staff was likely to love the shirts. 

 

Questions continued to come in quick succession indicating that Nikki’s team was a little nervous about the prospect of spending the day mingling with and teaching potential clients.

“Is there anything in particular we should make sure we discuss with folks?”

“Who are these people?”

“Are they really going to be interested in what we have to say?”

 

Nikki finally broke in to try to ease their fears.  “Look, no one has been forced to participate, they all chose to attend. They are taking time out of a gorgeous Friday to tour around with us in hopes of learning new things.  I think you’ll be surprised at how interested some people will be in what we’ve done.  Just be your charming selves.” Nikki looked around at her staff watching smirks growing on their collective faces.  “I mean it!  You all know this stuff inside out and wouldn’t have stuck around if you didn’t enjoy it.  Just answer questions honestly and you’ll be great!”  Nikki paused again, thinking about the group settled in front of her.  She knew that they all would do a great job, but a nagging voice in her head pointed out that collective mischief was also possible, which prompted her to add, “and no, I repeat, NO ice cream dares tomorrow!” Nikki was trying to look stern, but not entirely succeeding.

 

“You’re no fun boss!  How else are we going to get our fix?” pleaded Ian.

 

“I’ll make you a deal.  You refrain from the ice cream dares tomorrow and I’ll arrive with Ben and Jerry’s on Monday.”

 

“All right!  You’re on Nik, ice cream at work next week y’all!” yelled Elliott.

 

“Hey!  Do you realize we’ve just won in a negotiation with Nikki Wade? Oooo we rock!”  grinned Courtney.

 

Nikki could only laugh.  Although she was not going to let her staff know, she considered the price of a few pints of ice cream well worth guaranteeing that she would not have to explain one of her staff’s more bizarre antics. “We all set then?  We are meeting here at 7:30 tomorrow morning.  We’ll go over final details with Claire and then go pick up all the participants at 8 o’clock.”

 

“How are we getting around, Nik?” asked Ian.

 

“Claire has reserved two buses.  Let’s make sure that there are a few of us on each bus so that questions can be addressed while we drive between sites.”

 

“We’re taking greyhound buses on an eco-tour?!  Doesn’t belching exhaust as we wander around the Santa Barbara hills make us all hypocrites?” demanded Elise.

 

“Oh come on everyone, have a little faith!  Claire set this up!  Do you really think the woman who made sure your shirts were organic cotton and that our handouts were printed on recycled paper would allow us to use standard buses?  We’ll be taking two luxury, biodiesel fueled buses.  So instead of diesel fumes, we’ll be making the neighborhoods smell like greasy, fried food!” finished Nikki with an excited flourish.

 

This resulted in a final round of smiles from the assembled group.  The meeting had ended with everyone dispersing to complete the last tasks of the day before heading home.

 

---

 

Nikki pulled up to the front doors of her office at 6:30 the following morning to find Claire already sitting outside, talking on the phone.  Seeing Nikki arrive, Claire gave her a big smile and a wave.  As she ended her phone call she greeted Nikki with a hug asking, “Are you ready for this?”

 

“Ready as I’ll ever be.  I think it’ll be fantastic Claire.  You’ve done a great job,” added Nikki sincerely, handing her a coffee that she had picked up on her way to the office.

 

“Thanks Nik, you know I couldn’t have done it without your help,” responded Claire as she stepped back to view her friend from head to toe.  Nikki looked amazing.  She wore black, pin-striped slacks that rode low on her hips and a fitted, cream colored, silk button-down with the top three buttons open that highlighted her bronze skin.  Her hair had been styled in a manner that was uniquely Nikki Wade, somehow managing to be both sophisticated and a little wild.  

 

Claire’s expression soon turned into a grin. “I also have to say that you look gorgeous this morning! Are you sure you’re only looking for these people to want you to work on their yards? When you’re dressed like that, they’re going to want more than garden design.”

 

Nikki could only laugh as the same question could have been asked of Claire who was wearing a deep blue, high-necked top that caught her eyes and contrasted beautifully with her blond hair.  The top, which covered every inch of her upper body, was fitted such that little was left to the imagination.  She wore cream colored slacks that fit snuggly around her narrow hips and fell gracefully to the ground.

 

The two women headed into the office to go over a few final details.  After reviewing the plans, both were confident that the day would come off without a hitch. 

 

“How was the rest of your week, Claire?” asked Nikki as the two women sank into their chairs, savoring the last 20 minutes of calm before Nikki’s staff arrived and the day started in earnest. 

 

“It was surprisingly less hectic than I thought it would be,” answered Claire.  She paused to sip her coffee, taking a moment to lose herself in her own thoughts.  When she looked back up at Nikki, her calm demeanor from moments before had been replaced by worry. “Nikki, have you heard from Helen since last week?” asked Claire, concern seeping into her voice.

 

“We spoke for a little while on Monday, but I’ve not spoken to her since.  Is everything all right?”

 

“I don’t know.  That’s the problem.  I had been chatting with her daily since we returned from our trip simply to say hello and to remind her that she’s amazing.  I’ve called her six or seven times since Tuesday morning, when I last talked with her, and haven’t heard back.  I’m worried.”

 

“Do you think she could be in danger?”

 

“I don’t think so, at least not in terms of physical harm.  I can’t be so sure about her psychological or emotional health,” finished Claire.

 

“Is there anyone you can call in London to go check on her?”

 

“I don’t know Nikki, maybe I can see if an old college friend can go ‘round her place.  If she is home, she’ll be furious with me for sending a babysitter, but at this point I’d just like to know she’s ok.”

 

Having made a decision, Claire headed outside to sneak in a phone call to London before the tour got underway.  Nikki finished her coffee, gathered all needed materials, took a final look around her office, and headed out the door.

 

Nikki caught Claire’s eye as she entered the parking area and received a small nod indicating that she had gotten hold of someone to check on Helen.  They were quickly interrupted by the arrival of Nikki’s team and the associated round of boisterous greetings.  Claire and Nikki spoke briefly to the group and quickly boarded the two waiting buses to go collect the tour participants. 

 

---

 

The home tour had reached its last stop, a catered reception on the grounds of an estate owned by a close friend of Cory’s. It had been a resounding success.  Participants had been impressed and eager to learn more. Claire, Nikki, and her staff found themselves answering a constant stream of questions throughout the day.  Based on these initial responses, it seemed both women would be quite busy for the foreseeable future.

 

Nikki and Claire were finally allowing themselves to enjoy the success.  Their final duty was to offer closing remarks to the tour participants.  After allowing a half hour for the participants to obtain a glass of wine and their first plate of food, Nikki and Clair climbed onto a small platform to address the crowd.  Nikki spoke first thanking everyone for attending and acknowledging the work of both her and Claire’s respective teams.  She went on to review the themes presented over the course of the day and remind everyone where they could find more information if they desired. 

 

Nikki didn’t notice that while she was speaking Claire had quietly stepped down from the platform.  When Nikki reached the point in her speech where she had hoped Claire would take over to add her concluding remarks, she found that she was standing in front of the crowd alone.  With a quick scan of the grounds Nikki spied Claire walking quickly towards the parking area on the far side of the estate.  As Claire drew farther away from the festivities, she broke into a run rushing towards two people who had just emerged from a large black truck that Nikki recognized as Cory’s. 

 

Nikki recovered her composure quickly.  She expressed a final word of thanks to everyone involved and encouraged them to remain in the garden to enjoy the rest of the evening before stepping down from the platform and setting off in search of Claire.  Nikki’s initial annoyance at being left stranded in front of the crowd dissolved she drew closer to Claire and Cory.  Cory had his arm wrapped protectively around a petite woman with shoulder length dark blond hair and stunning green eyes.  Under different circumstances, Nikki would have been distracted by the woman’s beauty, but the only thing she noticed was the heartbreakingly lost look in her eyes and the defeated manner in which her shoulders sagged. 

 

Helen had noticed the tall, dark-haired, immaculately dressed woman striding purposefully across the parking area towards them.  In her current state, Helen was sure she didn’t have it in her to deal with a work colleague of Claire’s or Cory’s, particularly one that carried herself with such confidence.  As the woman closed the final distance, coming to a stop immediately in front of them, Helen hesitantly looked up and immediately felt relieved.  While the woman was intimidatingly beautiful, the kind, sympathetic brown eyes communicated nothing but tenderness. 

 

The pain and hopelessness radiating from the small woman took Nikki’s breath away.  Her heart longed to do something, anything to ease her pain.  Nikki smiled softly down at the woman in Cory’s arms. 

 

“Helen,” Nikki spoke the name quietly, almost with reverence.

 

Helen involuntarily stepped forward out of Cory’s embrace.  “Nikki?” Helen breathed in wonder, having recognized the soothing voice of her phone companion.

 

To both Claire’s and Cory’s amazement, Nikki simply stepped forward and wrapped Helen in a tight embrace. 

 

“I’m so glad you’re here.”

 

---

 

 

Part 8

 

Helen felt so drained she couldn’t bring herself to feel anything but numb.  Her instinct to get on a plane to the states had proven a good one as she now found herself in the company of people who seemed to instinctively know that she not only needed emotional support, but physical as well.  In her first six hours in California she had not spent a moment without being held in someone’s protective embrace. By the time they reached Claire and Cory’s house, emotional and physical exhaustion had set in.  Claire had gently led Helen to the guest bedroom and tucked her in as if she were a small child.  Helen had fallen asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.

 

Claire wandered into the living room with her head hung and collapsed onto the couch.  Nikki, Claire, and Cory sat in silence.  The success of the tour was forgotten and replacing it was heart-wrenching helplessness.

 

“She was asleep before I’d even pulled up the covers,” whispered Claire into the silence.

 

“Did you know she was here Claire?” asked Nikki quietly, thinking about the fact that Claire had abandoned her on the platform before Cory had arrived.

 

“I got a text from London around mid-day saying Helen wasn’t home and then Cory sent me a text while I was up there with you that simply said ‘have H, there in 2 min.’ I’m sorry for abandoning you, the only thought in my mind was to be there when they pulled up.”

 

“How did you find her, Cory?” asked Claire, turning to Cory, her speech still slow and her voice quiet.

 

“I came home to pick up some papers I’d left and found her sitting on the front stoop.” Cory sighed, obviously still affected by the day’s events. “She was just sitting with a single bag, knees pulled to her chest, and her head resting on her arms.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so drained.  She’s exhausted and not just because she hasn’t slept in over 24 hours, something has happened to break her spirit.  She’s just emotionally spent.”

 

“Did she say anything?” queried Claire helplessly.

 

“Not much and certainly nothing about what drove her to finally hop a plane out here.  Claire, I greeted her with a hug and she collapsed into my arms.  It was as if I had finally given her permission to let go.”

 

“Claire do you know anything that could have happened that would prompt her to feel helpless enough to make a trip to California without even calling first?” queried Nikki searching for some source of understanding.  “Her mood seemed to be improving when we spoke on Monday.”

 

“You’re right, Nikki, she did seem to be improving.  Something must have happened.  Honestly, I don’t know exactly what it could have been, but I also know that the last thing she needs is me sharing what I do know and trying to guess at what I don’t.”  Claire sighed and slumped further into the couch.  “She’s already going to be avoiding me when she finally wakes up.”

 

“Why is that?” asked Nikki, puzzled.

 

“I know too much of what’s going on and Helen hates feeling weak and helpless.  I’ve heard and seen her at her most vulnerable and she’s just arrived at my door with little more than the clothes on her back. Even you two will make her nervous initially just because she’ll feel ashamed at being so shattered today.”

 

“But doesn’t she know that you love her even if she is vulnerable sometimes?”

 

“Yes, she does.  She wouldn’t be here otherwise,” responded Claire wearily. “But tomorrow, she’ll read my worry as pity, which is likely the worst possible emotion in Helen’s eyes, at least when she thinks it’s directed at her.”

 

Nikki thought about what Claire had said and felt deep sympathy for the woman now asleep in the guestroom.  She understood the reaction that Claire described as she too was uncomfortable and ashamed when she allowed herself to be vulnerable enough to admit that she needed her friends’ support, even from Claire and Cory.  She began to feel guilty knowing that if she were in Helen’s shoes, the very fact that the three of them were sitting in the living room discussing her plight would be mortifying.

 

Nikki let out a sigh and hoisted herself off the couch.  She leaned down and gave both Claire and Cory a tight hug.  “Please call and let me know how she is doing.  I would come over tomorrow, but I don’t want Helen to feel as though we’re all hovering.” 

 

---

 

Nikki had a fitful night’s rest and woke Saturday morning feeling unsettled.  She couldn’t get Helen out of her head.  She tried to distract herself with all the house work she had been neglecting during the lead up to the home tour.  By midday, she had completed all the weeding in her yard, tidied the house, and even cleaned out her refrigerator.  Nikki went to bed Saturday night having run out of mindless tasks, frustrated that she still had not heard from Claire.  She chalked up her concern for Helen to her natural instinct to protect all those in need and did not allow herself to examine the fact that her current level of worry went well beyond casual concern for a friend.

 

The next morning, Nikki decided that she had stayed away long enough.  She waited until she was certain that Claire would be up and climbed into Sprout.  She parked in Claire’s and Cory’s driveway, approached the door, and knocked.  There was a long pause. As Nikki raised her arm to knock again she heard the quiet shuffle of feet on the other side of the door.  It opened slowly. Helen was peering hesitantly out of the narrow gap.  Seeing it was Nikki, she pulled the door open.  Helen smiled up at Nikki with relief washing over her features.  Her obvious pleasure at seeing Nikki, made Nikki feel as though her heart and stomach had joined forces and taken up gymnastics.  Nikki swallowed hard to regain her composure and returned Helen’s smile.

 

“Hiya.” Helen shyly greeted Nikki, surprising herself with the breathlessness of her welcome.  She stepped back, inviting Nikki inside.  As Nikki entered, she was pleased to note that a good night’s rest had returned some color to Helen’s cheeks. 

 

“Where have Claire and Cory gone?” asked Nikki realizing that she could hear no evidence of anyone else in the house. 

 

“I think Claire has decided that I need space. She grabbed Cory this morning demanding that they spend the day at the beach.  I’m pretty sure she would have been more subtle if she’d known I could hear her,” finished Helen with a weak laugh.

 

“Was she right? About you needing space?” asked Nikki hesitantly, suddenly feeling guilty for interrupting Helen’s peace.

 

“No,” interjected Helen quickly, surprising Nikki with the speed of her response. “You’re a welcome addition to my morning.  I’m glad you’ve come,” smiled Helen, now feeling shy.

 

Nikki smiled to herself, suddenly feeling bashful too.  Shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, Nikki realized that she had no idea how to act around someone with whom she’d spent hours on the phone, but had only just met.  With her eyes now focused intently on her own feet, she timidly confessed, “I have to admit that it was a struggle not to visit yesterday.  I promised myself I wouldn’t put pressure on you.  I just didn’t think you needed three people hanging over you, wringing their hands.”

 

“Please don’t,” sighed Helen with resignation.  Nikki’s eyes now focused questioningly on Helen.  “Do what you want to do and trust me to tell you what I want and whether or not you’re welcome.  I know I appeared incapable of deciding much for myself on Friday, but I really can take care of myself most of the time.  I love Claire dearly, but she seems to be trying to let what she thinks I need dictate everything she does.  I’m already starting to feel guilty for not responding as well as she had hoped, however sweet and considerate her actions.”

 

Nikki’s heart ached for Helen, knowing how overwhelming the intensity of their mutual friend could be if you weren’t feeling strong enough to match it.  Nikki’s desire to put Helen at ease overwhelmed her initial hesitance and prompted her to act.  Realizing that they had been loitering in the hallway just inside the door, Nikki slung her arm over Helen’s shoulders, “How about we get away from the door and fetch some coffee?  Then you can tell me what you do want.  How does that sound?”

 

Helen nodded her head in agreement, savoring the casual physical contact.  She was grateful for Nikki’s attempt to lighten the mood and distract her with the mundane task of making coffee.  Helen had been finding herself shrinking away from physical contact that seemed to be driven by concern or pity, but Nikki’s loose embrace did not communicate anything other than friendly, genuine affection.  Helen was stuck again by the innate ability of her new friend to know exactly what to do to set her at ease.

 

As they reached the kitchen, Helen looked up at Nikki, “Could you make the coffee?  I haven’t been out of bed early enough to have any need to figure out Claire’s espresso machine.  I’ll scrounge around her cupboards to find something to eat.”

 

“Sure, Helen.  Although, if you’d like a lesson, I’d be happy to make up for your friend’s lack of hospitality,” smirked Nikki.  “If you’re going to be here for a little while, you should know how to make yourself coffee,” suggested Nikki, who was also trying to subtly ask Helen how long she would be in town.

 

Helen smiled at Nikki’s joke about Claire and picked up on her curiosity about her visit as well.  “I would love to figure that thing out,” responded Helen gesturing vaguely at the complicated-looking machine sitting on the counter.  “To answer your implied question, I don’t know how long I will be here.  I didn’t really hop the plane with a plan.  I just needed to get away.”

 

Nikki was about to grab Helen’s hand and guide her over to the espresso machine, but was stopped short by Helen’s acknowledgement of her subtle inquiry.  “I’m sorry Helen, I don’t mean to pry.  Quite selfishly, I’d love it if you could stick around for a bit.  I’d like the chance to get to know you properly, not that I didn’t enjoy our telephone conversations.”

 

“It’s ok Nikki.  You have been great about not prying.  To be honest, I am considering an extended stay.  I need to figure my next course of action and I’m not sure I can do that at home.”

 

“I’m glad you’ve decided to take some time for yourself.  I have a feeling you deserve it.”  Nikki stopped to think for a moment before continuing, “It’s nice that your work has let you have some time.  You’re lucky Helen.”

 

This prompted a mirthless chuckle from Helen.  Nikki looked up from the espresso maker questioning Helen’s reaction.

 

“Nikki, I quit my job.  Well… I tried to resign.  They wouldn’t let me.  We reached a compromise. I am officially on an indefinite leave of absence,” finished Helen with a sad smile.

 

“Why? I got the feeling that you loved your job. Plus aren’t you the director?  Can you really quit?” questioned Nikki, obviously surprised by Helen’s disclosure.

 

Nikki’s questions made Helen chuckle softly.  “I had a title that implied much more power than I had.  I answered to a board of directors.  As for loving the work, I do… or did.  It’s just that it doesn’t feel as important as it did once.  I want to passionately believe in what I do and I don’t know what it is that makes me feel that way anymore.  I guess I’m hoping that I can spend some time here, away from everything that defines my life, simply to have the space to figure out what to do next.”  By the time Helen had finished, her reflective, somber mood had returned.

 

As Helen spoke, Nikki had opted to skip the espresso maker lesson in order to not interrupt.  She retrieved milk from the refrigerator and prepared cappuccinos for them both. Noting the change in Helen’s tone, she handed Helen a cup. “As I said, Helen, I think you’re wise to have taken time to figure things out.  But, you don’t have to figure them out today.  How about if we enjoy our coffee and savor a gorgeous Sunday morning?  I hope you like cappuccino.”

 

“That sounds wonderful Nikki,” answered Helen quietly, rewarding Nikki with a grateful smile.

 

“I vote that we take our conversation outside.  You go ahead and get settled while I finish gathering something to go with our drinks,” suggested Nikki.  She was glad that the ease they had shared on the phone seemed to be slowly surfacing.

 

As Nikki made her way towards the side deck, she paused at the door to gaze at Helen.  She thought Helen looked adorable in a pair of Claire’s yoga pants and a huge t-shirt that was obviously Cory’s.  She was sitting across the hammock sideways with her eyes closed, cappuccino resting on her belly, and bare feet dangling over the edge. 

 

As Nikki set down her own items on a low wooden lounge next to the hammock, Helen opened her eyes to accept a plate bearing a muffin and slice of melon. 

 

“Thank you.  I hadn’t ventured out here yet.  It’s wonderful,” began Helen gazing out over the view of the Pacific.

 

“I agree.  It’s one of the reasons it takes so little to convince me to house-sit for the terrible twosome.”  Nikki relaxed into her chair, savoring the warm sun now bathing the deck.

 

Watching Nikki, Helen thought about the housing sitting duties that brought them into contact and sent out a silent thank you to the universe for bringing Nikki Wade into her life. “Nikki…” began Helen quietly, “I’m glad I met you too.  You’re part of the reason this is the only place I could think of where I might be able to regain my footing.”  She now was gazing out at the ocean, but clearly her attention was turned inward.  Helen didn’t know what else to say.  She didn’t know how to explain that she had felt safe in Nikki’s presence from the first moments of talking with her. 

 

Nikki was stunned by Helen’s revelation.  She also felt relieved that she wasn’t alone in the unexplained connection she felt to the small Scot.  Noting that Helen had drifted into her own thoughts, Nikki sat silently for a few minutes before gently asking, “Now that you’re here, do you think you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for?”

 

Helen let out a long exhale and shook her head.  “I honestly don’t know.  I feel like I just need to find a way to be alone, but not the type of solitude where you just wallow in self-pity.  I mean the privacy and time to really sort through everything without pressure.  Does that make any sense?”

 

To Nikki this made perfect sense, but she wondered if it was possible to achieve at Claire and Cory’s house. “Helen, I hate to ask this and I adore Claire and Cory as if they were my own family, but do you think you’ll be able to find that kind of solitude here?”

 

Helen hung her head as if this was something that she just didn’t want to think about at present. “When I sit out here on the deck, I can imagine it working well here, but I also know that I’ll quickly feel guilty for imposing on their hospitality,” Helen paused thinking of her friend before finishing with a small chuckle, “and Claire will go crazy if I just sit in contented silence for days.” 

 

Helen again stopped speaking, thinking about what she should do.  “Sitting out here makes me think the best thing would be to stick around here for a few more days and then try to find a hotel or small cottage with a deck that faces the ocean.”

 

“Helen, I can see how a small cottage on the beach would suit your needs, but, around here, it’d also be a great way to burn through all your savings in one go.” 

 

Helen’s eyes were now on Nikki, hoping she would continue.  She hadn’t really considered the cost and realized that her idea would simply land her in more of a mess than she already found herself.

 

Nikki had a potential solution, but was unsure how to make Helen the offer without her interpreting it as pity or charity.  She shifted uneasily, took a deep breath, and hesitantly met Helen’s eyes. “Helen, I can offer you an alternative that might grant you the peace you seek, although not the ocean view.”  Seeing Helen move to object, Nikki quickly pressed on, “There’s a little cottage behind my house that I used to rent to tenants to help me make my mortgage. It’s completely unused these days.  It has its own kitchen, a full bath, and a bedroom.”  Seeing that Helen was no longer on the verge of interrupting, Nikki slowed her pace. “It isn’t all that luxurious, but it’s clean and simple and might just suit your needs.  You’d be welcome to come and go as you’d like, you can get to it by just walking around the side of the house.  It might just offer the privacy you’re looking for.” Nikki finished almost out of breath.  She couldn’t believe she had made the offer as her cottage was her own personal refuge, but she could think of no better use for it than sharing her escape with someone who so dearly needed exactly that. 

 

Helen was stunned by the offer.  She didn’t know what to say.  A part of her wanted to leap off the hammock and wrap her arms around Nikki in gratitude for offering up a place to stay where she could have both privacy and some semblance of self-sufficiency.  Another part of her felt guilty for wanting to leave Claire’s home, it felt as though she was rejecting her kindness.

 

In Helen’s silence, Nikki began to fidget, embarrassed that she’d made the offer and becoming progressively more certain that Helen was going to turn it down.  Nikki began to internally berate herself for her impulsive offer. You’ve basically invited a woman, who has only spoken to you on the phone, to move in with you!  Bloody hell Wade… she’s going to think you’re a stalker.

 

A grateful and tender smile grew on Helen’s face as she watched Nikki grow increasingly nervous.  Truth be told, Helen found it endearing to watch the gorgeous, confident woman dissolve into adolescent insecurity.  She slowly began to speak.  “Nikki, you are amazing.  I don’t know how, but you always find a way to say exactly what I need to hear at precisely the moment I need to hear it.  I would love to take you up on your offer if you really have no use for the cottage right now.”  Helen paused to see a Nikki’s face break into a shy grin as if she wasn’t used to accepting direct complements.  Helen continued, concern now creasing her brow, “I worry about Claire though.  I don’t want her to think that I don’t appreciate her kindness.  I do more than she’ll ever know.  I just think it would be nice to have greater power over when I do or don’t have company.”

 

“A guest bedroom that opens onto the living room and a shared kitchen and bathroom doesn’t allow much privacy does it?” asked Nikki with a sympathetic smile.  “Listen Helen, Claire loves you and only wants what is best for you.  I’m certain that she’ll understand.  Plus, it’s not as if you’ll be rid of her or Cory.  Those two spend nearly as much time at my house as I do theirs.  How about if you talk with Claire and explain?  Know that the cottage is yours whenever you like.”

 

---

 

 

Part 9

 

Keeping with their weekly ritual, Claire arrived Monday morning at Nikki’s house to get the week off to a good start.  As was also true nearly every week, Nikki had the door open before Claire could knock, greeting her with the customary, “G’mornin’ Claire, happy Monday!”

 

This morning, however, Nikki’s greeting was a good deal more enthusiastic than normal, her voice more exuberant and her smile a bit wider. 

 

Claire cocked her head to the side to stare at her friend.  “My god Nikki, how much coffee have you had?  Are you really this chipper?  You’re almost giddy!” Claire just shook her head, eyes wide in puzzled wonder.

 

Nikki just laughed.  She’d been flying high since she’d left Claire’s house the previous afternoon. “Am I not allowed to be in a good mood?” she demanded, the grin never leaving her face.

 

“No no, you are and I’m happy for you… it’s just that it’s a little weird for you, or anyone, to be in this good a mood, this early in the morning.  You’re scaring me a little.”

 

Claire entered the house and went directly into the kitchen to pour herself some coffee.  She was soon settled on stool at the kitchen counter.  Nikki was rummaging around in the living room, apparently looking for something.

 

“Hey Nikki!  What are you doing out there?  Come keep me company,” demanded Claire playfully from the kitchen.  When Nikki did not respond, Claire decided to try another tack. “Wade!  Get your ass in here!  It’s the least you can do after stealing my friend right out from under my nose!”

 

Claire’s second attempt to get Nikki’s attention had its intended effect and Nikki quickly appeared in the kitchen, apprehension written all over her face.  She stared intently at Claire trying to figure out if her friend was joking or if there was a trace of genuine offense in her words. 

 

Claire let Nikki squirm for a few moments before giving her an affectionate smile. “You idiot!  Do you really think I’d be upset with you for offering up the hippy hut to Helen?!”  Claire swatted Nikki’s backside as she rounded the counter to prepare her own coffee.  “I think it’s sweet of you and, we both know, that if Helen really needs weeks to get her head together, she’d be much better off in a place where she has some control over her surroundings than having to walk out of her bedroom directly into the chaos of my life with Cory.  Besides, I think she would prefer my twittering in smaller doses right now,” laughed Claire with a shrug.  There was no trace of bitterness in her manner. 

 

Nikki visibly relaxed at Claire’s words and then looked up at Claire in wonder.  She was once again in awe of Claire’s self-awareness.  Nikki envied the fact that Claire could own up to her flaws, but never allowed herself to be ashamed of them or feel insulted if someone pointed them out.  “Claire, there is no one I can think of who I would rather go to when things go ass up. Helen’s lucky to have you.”

 

Having refilled her own coffee cup, Nikki perched herself on another stool opposite Claire.  “I take it Helen spoke to you then?  She seemed nervous about it.”

 

Claire smirked. “She was just as bad as you were.  Scared she’d hurt my feelings, when what I want is for Helen to begin to find her own voice.” Claire had shifted from joking to speaking of her friend in earnest.  “Helen could have told me take a long walk off a short pier and I would have been ecstatic for the return of the woman I know is hiding somewhere in that passive being currently residing in my guestroom. I was thrilled that she could voice her desire to have some space.  I’m shocked that she accepted your offer, but I’m so glad that she has.”

 

“When is she coming?” asked Nikki curiously.

 

“Cory is going to come by in an hour to drop her off with the few items that she brought with her.”

 

“What?!”

 

“Is that all right Nikki? I got the day off and I figured I could just get the key from you this morning and get her settled in.”

 

“Of course, that’s fine,” answered Nikki, recovering from her shock.  “I wanted to be here to welcome her, but perhaps it’ll be better if you show her around.  Maybe it will make it seem less like my space and more like something she can make her own for a little while.”

 

“Thanks Nik.  Will you help me get some linens and other supplies together before you head out? Just so the place is ready for her?”

 

Nikki began to blush and glanced up at Claire sheepishly. “I think everything you’re likely to need is already over there.”

 

“How about the fridge, did you stock that too?” asked Claire with raised eyebrows and a smirk growing on her face.

 

Nikki’s blush turned to an even brighter shade at Claire’s question.  Nikki ducked her head hoping to hide her deepening embarrassment.

 

Claire just about fell off her stool in laughter.  “Christ, Nikki!  I’m going to get you a dog to go with that garden of yours!  You need more company with you in this gorgeous house so you have something else to look after. Remember Helen is leaving my house partly because my attention is oppressive!”

 

“Hey! Be nice. She said she was going to come once she spoke to you and I knew you’d be supportive! Plus, I don’t twitter,” protested Nikki with a smirk as her color slowly returned to normal.

 

“Take it easy Nikki, you’re just too easy a target sometimes,” grinned Claire. “I’m glad things are all set for her and I’m glad that you’ll be here to watch over her if she needs it. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with the task. Now, get yourself to work so that you can come home early to meet your new neighbor.”

 

Claire waved goodbye to Nikki after promising to call if there were any problems.  She then exited the back door and walked through the garden to check the cottage before Helen arrived.  When she entered the front door, Claire gasped.

 

 “Oh Nikki…”

 

The small cottage was scrubbed spotless and was currently bathed in light from the large windows and skylight over the kitchen. The place smelled wonderful as Nikki had placed a small vase of fresh flowers on the counter, the coffee table by the couch, and, as Claire soon discovered, in every single room.  There were fresh white dish towels hanging from the stove and what looked like new, filmy white curtains fluttering over the open windows.  Claire also found that there were fresh sheets on the bed and fluffy towels hanging in the bathroom.  Shaking her head in wonder at the riddle that was Nikki Wade, Claire returned to the main house to wait for Cory to arrive with Helen.  

 

---

 

The roar of a truck pulling up outside marked the arrival of Helen and Cory.  Claire opened the door to welcome them into Nikki’s house. 

 

“Hello you two! Cory, do you have a time for a cup of coffee before you head off?”

 

Cory bounded up the front stairs with Helen’s bag to greet Claire with a hug and short kiss.  “Sorry love, I’ve got to get to the office.  I’ll be home at the regular time.  Want to go out for dinner tonight?”

 

“Don’t know. I’ll call you later,” answered Claire returning her husband’s embrace.  “I’m going to play the day by ear,” finished Claire nodding towards Helen, who was making her way up the stairs.

 

As Helen approached, Claire’s face broke into a broad, welcoming grin. “Hiya Helen, welcome to chez Wade.  She wanted to be here to welcome you. The one hour of warning I gave her wasn’t enough for her to get out of work, but…” Claire now had a sly smile playing at the corners of her mouth, “…I think Nikki has found her own way to make you feel welcome.”  Claire picked up the bag that Cory had dropped at the door and turned to lead Helen inside. “Would you like anything to drink before we go explore your new accommodations?”

 

“Thanks Claire.  I’d love a glass of juice if it’s available.”

 

“Sounds great!  Two glasses of juice coming right up.”  Claire looped her arm through Helen’s to guide her into the kitchen.

 

As Helen watched Claire examine the various options in Nikki’s refrigerator, she glanced around the spacious, simple kitchen feeling a little uncomfortable.  “Are you sure it’s ok for me to arrive when she’s not home?”

 

“Absolutely!  Just make yourself comfortable.  She is thrilled that you are here and will likely come check on you as soon as she’s home from work today.  Want to see the hippy hut?  We could just walk out there with our juice.”

 

“Hippy hut?!”  asked Helen with her eye brows raised.

 

Claire began giggling. “Yep. What did she tell you about the place?”

 

“Just that it was clean and simple with a kitchen, bathroom, and bed,” responded Helen, apprehension now creeping into her voice fearing just how simple this place would turn out to be.

 

“Don’t worry Helen.  The ‘hippy hut’ moniker is a dig at me.  When we first met, Nikki referred to green design as ‘hippy huts.’” Claire was now laughing at the memory.

 

“I’m surprised she survived that first meeting,” smiled Helen weakly, still obviously uncomfortable.

 

“Well, I wasn’t exactly well-behaved that day either.  When we were first introduced I had just thrown a temper-tantrum over some problem I can barely remember now.  And then, once we were able to have a proper conversation, I accused her checking me out.”

 

“You didn’t! Claire!” Claire’s story seemed to have jarred Helen from her self-imposed discomfort. “How did you two ever become friends?”

 

“Likely because neither of us offends easily and we both quickly recognized the humor in the situation.  Well, shall we?  You have nothing to fear about the hippy hut, Helen.  I really think it might be the perfect place for you.  Let’s go.”

 

Claire led Helen into the living room, out the sliding door, and on to the deck.  As the two women stood surveying the yard, Helen could only shake her head in awe.  It was beautiful.  The back garden was an amazing mix of flowers, fruit trees, vines, seating areas, and small winding paths.  The garden seemed to pull off the rare feat of appearing both perfectly maintained and a little wild.  Just like it’s owner, thought Helen to herself.

 

“Claire, where’s this cottage?” asked Helen as she stared out at the garden with a puzzled look on her face.

 

Claire turned to her with a knowing smile and pointed to the far corner where the peak in a roof line could be seen behind a lemon tree.  As Helen looked more closely, and realized that there was indeed a small cottage tucked into the back corner of the yard.  There was a series of asymmetrical, stepping stones leading up to the front door.  Claire descended into the garden leading Helen towards the house.  As they approached, she heard Helen let out a soft chuckle.  Claire looked back and realized that Helen had spied the jagged metal sign affixed to a post in front of the cottage; it read “Nikki’s Hippy Hut.”

 

“Is that a gift from you, Claire?” asked Helen staring up at the irregularly shaped sheet of metal that served as background for crooked lettering that had been cut from metal of contrasting color.

 

“No!” laughed Claire. “I’d find a metal worker with a bit more skill!  One of Nikki’s interns took a welding and metal work class for fun a few years back and made the sign as a class project.  Nikki seems to think the imperfections elevate that thing to the status of art,” finished Claire with a roll of her eyes. 

 

Staring at the incongruity of having the metal sign announce what appeared to be a quaint, rustic cottage, Helen decided she liked it. For some unexplainable reason, it fit.  Helen smiled at Claire and nodded, indicating that she was ready to continue.  Claire enthusiastically escorted Helen through the front door.

 

“Welcome to the hippy hut Helen. What do you think?!”

 

Claire glanced at Helen and realized that an answer was not going to be forthcoming.  Helen was standing just inside the door in stunned silence.  There was no emotion in Helen’s expression.  The only indication that she was present at all was the movement of her eyes that roved freely over the cottage interior.  As Helen’s silence extended into minutes, Claire put her arm around her shoulders and gave her a squeeze.

 

“You ok Helen?”

 

“I can’t stay here Claire…” whispered Helen quietly.

 

“Oh sweetheart, why not?” asked Claire worry seeping into her voice.

 

“Look at it Claire.  I’ve never seen a more appealing little place.  It’s beautiful…” Helen lapsed again into silence.  After a deep breath she continued, still whispering, “…it’s too much. I can’t accept this.  I can only imagine the cost that goes into creating and maintaining a space like this.”

 

“Oh Helen, Nikki wouldn’t have offered if she wasn’t serious about you staying here.  I admit it is a beautiful little spot, but the cost associated with it is a lot less than you think if that’s really what you are worried about.”  Claire now led Helen over to one of the stools at the kitchen bar and sat her down. 

 

Helen followed obediently, but looked at Claire skeptically. “I’m not stupid Claire.  I know what materials like these cost.  It’s not cheap to pull off the trick of looking both rustic and modern.”

 

Exasperated Claire stood next to Helen as she sat on the stool and began to point at elements in the cottage. “Helen do you see the ceiling?  Yes, it’s beautiful and yes, creating an open-beam ceiling does cost, but all of that gorgeous wood is from recycled pickle barrels.”

 

Helen let out a sharp exhale of disbelief.

 

Now giggling to herself, Claire pressed on with her explanation. “Nikki got these old wood barrels that were being tossed, tore them apart, and refinished the wood herself.  Cory helped her put them up.  The countertop, sink, toilet, tiles on the floor, and even those stainless appliances were all leftovers or screw ups from some of Cory’s big projects.  Believe it or not, when a project is big enough, extras are common and they just end up being donated to various charities.  That’s how I was able to do the women’s shelter for so cheap.  In this case, Cory just snagged a few key items for the cottage.  Nikki installed them all with our help, so labor was free save for the food and drink Nikki supplied us.  After that it was just patching some walls, painting, and lighting. This place was Nikki’s little hobby for months where she just tinkered with it.  Truly Helen, it’s not the extravagance that you think it is and it costs next to nothing to maintain.”

 

Helen had relaxed a little as Claire spoke, but still seemed uncomfortable.  “How would you know how much it costs to maintain it?”

 

“I know the architect that helped do some of the design,” replied Claire with a twinkle in her eye.  “Well, I didn’t really design much as the structure was already here, but I helped Nik make this a truly a hippy hut,” chuckled Claire.

 

“How is this truly a hippy hut? I can’t see anything about this place that would deserve that term,” replied Helen, who was now a little grumpy as Claire seemed to be dismissing her concerns.  Helen knew, intellectually, that she was being unreasonable complaining that her free lodging was too nice, but this did nothing to curb the fact that this was her emotional response.  She felt as though she ought to be punished for running away from life, not rewarded with her own little garden sanctuary.

 

“Maybe it’s time for you redefine the term,” responded Claire cheerfully. She then took Helen’s hand and led her back to the front door, outside, and around to the south side of the cottage, where there was a small wooden patio.  “Look up there, Helen,” directed Claire to an incredibly well disguised set of solar panels. “Those things generate so much more power than this places uses that the meter runs backwards and this patio we’re standing on, it hides an underground water tank that stores rain water from the roof.  That’s how Nikki can afford the water to keep this garden looking so amazing. And do you see the low wall around the front door that doubles as a bench?” asked Claire, pointing to a low wall wide enough to double as seating that closed in one side of a small rectangular area in front of the door. “That’s a straw bale wall!”  Claire’s enthusiasm was barely contained at this point.  She turned to Helen with a wide grin on her face.  “Don’t you see Helen, the place was remodeled on the cheap and the bills to keep it operating really are next to nothing!”

 

Helen couldn’t help but get a little swept up in her friend’s excitement, but she still felt overwhelmed and a little uncomfortable about staying in Nikki’s cottage.  “You’re sure I’m not imposing? I don’t want to be an inconvenience or a burden.”  Looking around again at her surroundings, Helen asked in wonder, “did Nikki really rent this place out?”

 

“Yep, she certainly rented it out when she first bought this place.  She couldn’t have made her mortgage otherwise, which means she functions just fine with folks living in her backyard.” Claire’s tone was somehow both teasing and reassuring.  She then paused, before confessing, “but Helen I will be honest, she’s never rented the remodeled cottage.  The remodel was partly a celebration of the fact that her business was successful enough that she didn’t need to rent the space anymore.  Now she’ll host guests occasionally or, in desperate situations, she has let an employee stay when they’ve had roommate trouble.  More than anything else, I think she now uses the space as a personal escape from life to pretend to be someone or somewhere else if only for an evening.”

 

The two women had returned to the cottage and were again settled on stools at the kitchen bar.  Helen still seemed a little stunned by the setting.  Claire began speaking again, hoping to further ease Helen’s concerns. “Helen if you really are going to be uncomfortable with this, you can make it up to her.  Buy her dinner, take her out for drinks, help weed her garden, anything.  But Helen, for now, it really isn’t a problem.  Why don’t you take care of yourself for a little while and then we can sort out a way to make it up to Nikki?”

 

This seemed to finally get Helen’s shoulders to relax.  She gave Claire a grateful smile. “Thanks Walker, you really are my safety net, you know.”

 

With that, Claire got up and pulled Helen into a tight hug. “That’s what friends are for and you, Helen Stewart, are a great friend.”  Claire released Helen.  “Now, I’m going to get going and let you show yourself around the rest of the cottage.  Nikki wasn’t lying when she said it was small.  Besides this kitchen area there’s a bedroom and bathroom located towards the back.”

 

“All right Claire. Tell Cory thanks for bringing me over today.”

 

Helen waved goodbye to Claire and turned to examine her temporary home.  Helen wandered through the other rooms, silently running her fingertips along the walls, down the soft towels in the bathroom, and over the crisp, luxurious linens covering the bed.   It was as if she could feel the thought and effort that had gone into creating the space.  Helen collapsed onto the bed, savoring the first true silence and privacy she’d been allowed since her arrival in California.  She felt the stress slowly leave her body, closed her eyes, and quickly drifted to sleep.

 

---

 

Part 10

 

 “Have y’all seen the boss today?” asked Jordan as he wandered through the side gate and up to Courtney and Elise, who were gathered for lunch in the yard.

 

“Complete waste of space! Hope you don’t have anything too pressing you need to discuss with her.”

 

“What do mean, Court? She around?” asked Jordan, a little concerned as he had just returned from a job site with Ian and wanted to discuss next steps.

 

“Oh she’s in there,” answered Courtney waving her hand at the office, “staring off into space, pretending to work. In her current state, the design plans for the new sites are going to look like the drawings of my 4-year-old nephew.”

 

“I just caught her just smiling for no reason and then a moment later actually muttering to herself,” called Ian as he exited the office and strolled up to join them.

 

“What the hell is up with her? She’s been like that all day!” exclaimed Elise shaking her head.

 

“I think it’s funny.  When do we ever see Nikki affected by anything?  She doesn’t seem upset or mad, just… distracted,” offered Ian before continuing, “Makes me curious.”

 

“Anyone have an idea of what could be going on in the life of our fearless leader?” asked Jordan, now smiling.

 

“Think she met someone?” asked Courtney hopefully.

 

“Yeah right, Nikki might as well be a nun. You just have an unhealthy fascination with her love life Court!” countered Elise.

 

“I dunno, Elise, I think Courtney could be on to something,” responded Ian.  “What do you think Jordan?”

 

“How would I know?  I haven’t seen her today.  I need to though. How about this?  I’ll let you know after I meet with her,” answered Jordan with a laugh.

 

Jordan sauntered over to the office, pausing at the door to observe his boss.  He watched her stare off into space, glance down at the drafting table, run her hands through her hair, and begin to stare at her design again.  Through the entire sequence her right foot was continuously bouncing.  Jordan had never, in the four years he’d worked for Nikki, seen her so fidgety.  Laughing to himself, he entered the office assuming his entrance would get her attention, but Nikki was too absorbed in her own thoughts to notice his approach.

 

“Hey! Earth to Nikki,” yelled Jordan once he was quite close. 

 

Nikki was so startled that her entire body jumped at his greeting, her arm jerking violently enough that her pencil ripped through the design in front of her.  “Christ, Jordan!  You about gave me a heart attack!” exclaimed Nikki as she tried to get her heart rate back down.

 

Jordan’s laughter rang out at Nikki’s reaction. “Wow boss. They said you were out of it, but I didn’t really believe them. What’s going on?”

 

Nikki didn’t really know what to say.  She hadn’t been able to get the hours she spent with Helen on Sunday out of her head and now was wondering how Helen was settling in, whether or not she liked the cottage, if she needed anything… or if she’d like to share dinner some evenings.  These thoughts were then quickly tempered by Claire’s warning that Helen was there to get space, meaning Nikki should leave well enough alone. 

 

“I’ve just got a lot on my mind, Jordan.” Nikki tried to keep her tone dismissive and casual. 

 

“I can see that, Nik. I was asking you what is on your mind,” responded Jordan with an eye roll and amused smirk.

 

“It’s nothing really. There’s just a lot to catch up on now that the tour is over,” replied Nikki, knowing she was lying, but hoping that Jordan wouldn’t catch on or call her on it if he did. 

 

“Whatever you say, boss.” Jordan was obviously not buying Nikki’s explanation. “Will you be in all week?” Seeing Nikki nod, Jordan continued, “Good, Ian and I just got back from working on the Taylor project. Can we talk tomorrow about next steps?”

 

“Taylor project?”

 

“Yeah. Big estate, bioswales… ringin’ any bells?”

 

Nikki looked up blankly.  Shaking her head, Nikki tried to focus on Jordan’s question. “Oh right, did you get the grading done?”

 

“My god Nik, you really are useless today.  Why don’t you just go home?”

 

Nikki looked up, annoyance now playing across her features at Jordan’s suggestion.

 

Holding his arms up in defense, Jordan exclaimed, “I’m just pointing out the obvious Nikki.  Why don’t you go take care of whatever is bothering you and come back tomorrow able to get something done?”

 

Nikki’s response was to level a steely glare at Jordan and turn her gaze back to the design sitting on the table, her foot still bouncing.  Jordan just shook his head and started towards the door.  He turned to look again at Nikki before leaving.  She seemed to simply be staring at the drafting table lost in her own thoughts.

 

Jordan shook his head once more and turned to leave with a single parting shot. “I hope she deserves you, whoever she is.”

 

“What?” Nikki’s eyes flew up in shock at Jordan’s farewell. 

 

Jordan gave a small chuckle and continued out the door.  As he returned to the lunch gathering and the expectant stares of his co-workers, Jordan grinned. “Boss is in love!”

 

---

 

Nikki was now sitting alone in the office more distracted than ever. Even though he had been teasing, it was as if Jordan’s comment had cut straight through her armor of detachment.

 

Christ! What am I going to do?

 

Nikki then considered Claire. Hi Claire, you know that friend you asked me to keep an eye on so that she could sort out her already difficult life?  I’ve made it a thousand times more complicated by ending up hopelessly attracted to her.

 

Nikki buried her face in her hands, wishing she could return to the comfort of her carefully constructed denial.  It had been a very long time since anyone had been able to break through her protective shell and Helen had without even trying. 

 

Jesus, Wade!  Nikki told herself. The last thing that poor woman needs is you hitting on her!

 

Realizing that Jordan was probably right in more ways than one, she grabbed her jacket and keys and headed out the door knowing she was unlikely to achieve much more at work.

 

---

 

The cottage was nestled so deep in Nikki’s back garden that the only sounds Helen could hear as she woke from her impromptu nap was the rustling of leaves and the happy calls of resident birds.  Helen rubbed her eyes and slowly pulled herself up off the bed.  She grabbed her bag to see if she could find anything to wear.  She chose a t-shirt that Claire had given her and a pair of jeans and headed for the bathroom.  Helen gradually woke up as the water beat down on her head and shoulders.  After toweling off and getting dressed, she realized that having satisfied the need for a shower and clean clothes, her stomach now required tending.  As she entered the kitchen area, she noticed that the backdoor to Nikki’s house was open.  Sure that she’d seen Claire close it, she knew that it meant Nikki was home from work early.  Curiosity quickly drove Helen out the door in search of Nikki.

 

---

 

Nikki was pacing.  She did not like feeling unsettled.  It was rare for the confident, decisive woman to struggle to figure out what to do.

 

Get yourself together Wade!  You cannot make life harder for that woman because you’ve got a childish crush on her…

 

… regardless of how appealing she is…

 

… in damn near every way. 

 

Nikki was now taking laps around the living room, continuing to lecture herself.

 

Get this through your thick skull… you have found a potential friend who very well may be heading back across the pond in a few short weeks. You ARE a great and supportive friend.

 

Running her hands through her hair and taking a few deep breaths, Nikki felt herself begin to calm down having come to a decision.  She now set herself to the task of believing her own rationalization and carefully constructing her persona of supportive friend.  Eventually, Nikki felt ready to go welcome her new neighbor.  As she headed for the back door, she was greeted with the sight of Helen climbing the steps onto the deck.  For a moment they just stopped and stared. Both women moved to speak, but stopped seeing that the other was about to say something, extending the awkward silence.  Nikki took a few steps toward Helen and the movement allowed her to gather her thoughts.

 

“Welcome Helen,” she smiled, a little more breathlessly than she had intended. 

 

Helen had now climbed the final step onto the deck and stood before Nikki with a warm smile on her face.  Nikki was shocked at the slow transformation that was occurring in Helen.  She seemed to stand a little taller and, while there still seemed to be hesitance in her eyes, there was also renewed clarity.  Obviously fresh from a shower, Helen’s wet hair messily hung to her shoulders and her skin glowed.  Nikki’s stomach tumbled and her breath stuck in her throat.  Nikki realized that many more self-lectures were in her future if she was going to be able to succeed in playing the role she’d defined for herself.  Aware that she needed to say something, Nikki blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

 

“Nice shirt Helen.” As soon as it was out of her mouth she began berating herself, smooth, real smooth Wade.

 

Helen let out a little laugh at Nikki’s comment. “Thanks,” responded Helen both to Nikki’s welcome and the complement of her shirt. “This is a shirt that Claire gave me.  I like it, but I’m not sure what the design is supposed to be.” Helen pointed to the front of the black, fitted t-shirt.  There was a single white rectangle running like a stripe down the center of the shirt filled with what looked like a series of thin lines and shapes. 

 

“It’s a small slice from the original Olmstead design for Central Park in New York,” supplied Nikki, now embarrassed because she’d commented on a shirt she designed.

 

Helen looked at Nikki in surprise and then cocked her head to the side with a furrowed brow in question.

 

Nikki, now realizing that she had to explain, was even more self-conscious.  “It’s the shirt I designed for my staff to wear to the home tour last week.”  Nikki quickly continued, hoping to change the subject, “How’s the cottage?  Do you have everything you need?”

 

Helen smiled at Nikki’s obvious nervousness, glad that she wasn’t alone in feeling somewhat unsure of how to act, given her temporary quarters. “The cottage is perfect, Nikki.  Or should I call it ‘the hut’?” asked Helen with a twinkle in her eye. 

 

Grateful that Helen had injected a little humor into their conversation, Nikki let out a chuckle and held out her arm inviting Helen into her home. “You can call it whatever you like.  I take it Claire filled you in on the history of the hippy hut.”

 

“She did. Although I find it hard to believe you referred to green design as hippy huts and survived the initial meeting,” laughed Helen as she entered the backdoor. 

 

“Ah, you underestimate my ability to charm my way out of anything,” countered Nikki, grinning. 

 

Helen let out a laugh. “Next you’re going to tell me about your modesty, right?”

 

Nikki’s only response was a wink.  She turned and led the way into the kitchen.  When she faced Helen again, a smile was still on her face, but her teasing tone was now replaced with friendly concern. “Helen, are things really all set out there in the cottage?  If there is anything you need, please let me know.”

 

“Nikki, that space is one of the most charming I have ever seen.  I love it.  I can’t imagine anything is missing.”  Helen paused, unsure as to how to express her gratitude.  Adopting a more serious manner, she continued, “I’m not sure I deserve your generosity, but I do appreciate it.”  Helen began to shift uncomfortably.  She didn’t feel as though she could express how much it meant to her, but didn’t want to dwell on it as she knew it would only make them both feel uncomfortable. Deciding to change the subject, Helen explained, “There is one thing I wonder.  Is there some way to make coffee over there? I’m afraid my morning mood is entirely related to the accessibility of caffeine.”

 

Nikki let out a knowing chuckle and led Helen across the kitchen, stopping in front of the counter.  She threw one arm around Helen’s shoulders and pointed to the coffee maker on the counter.  “This is the greatest machine in the world.  If you grind the beans the night before, it’s got an alarm clock on it except instead of beeping at you it starts brewing.  I set it for 10 minutes before my bedroom alarm.  I’m telling you, it revolutionized my life.  The experience of having to haul myself out of bed is entirely different knowing that the coffee is already made and waiting for me.”

 

Helen didn’t speak; she was too focused on the feeling of Nikki’s arm slung casually over her shoulders.  She was still in awe at the almost immediate comfort she felt in Nikki’s presence, particularly since it normally took her ages to build that level of trust.

 

Nikki was having a similar struggle.  She found that she was unable to keep herself from initiating casual contact with Helen.Trying to keep her tone light, Nikki continued, “Since you’re a fellow caffeine addict, feel free to come in through the slider on the deck and help yourself.  I typically set it to be done brewing at 6 o’clock.  It’ll keep warm for a few hours.  I’m sorry I haven’t picked up a separate coffee maker for the hut back there, but if you really want some privacy there is a french press in the cupboard and I did pick you up some beans yesterday.”

 

Helen looked up at Nikki and smiled her gratitude, not quite believing that she’d just been invited to visit every morning.  Still standing in front of the coffee maker, Helen’s stomach let out a loud gurgle indicating its displeasure with the fact that Helen had been distracted from her quest for food.  A small embarrassed laugh escaped Helen in response. 

 

“Seems someone needs to be fed,” suggested Nikki, a teasing smirk pulling at the corner of her mouth.

 

“So it seems,” sighed Helen realizing that denying it was impossible.

 

“Well, in that case, I have an idea.  How about we get out of here?  I’ll treat you to a local standard for late afternoon lunch and then you can join me for a visit to a place that has always served to lift my spirits regardless of what’s going on in my life.”

 

Helen looked up hesitantly at Nikki, “You’re on, I think.”

 

“You think?”

 

“I have two conditions.”

 

Nikki just raised her eyebrows, waiting for Helen to name her terms.

 

“First, you let me pay for lunch.  It’s the least I can do.”

 

“And second?”

 

“Promise me that this place of inspiration is not a church,” finished Helen.

 

Nikki burst into laughter at Helen’s request.  “Done!  The place we’re going is not intended to cheer you up, it just does.  In fact, we’ll be the ones providing help.  What do you say we get out of here and find some fish tacos?”

 

“Fish tacos?”

 

“Yes!  You can’t come to the California coast without having them.  Let’s take Sprout and make an afternoon of it,” exclaimed Nikki enthusiastically, grabbing Helen’s hand and dragging her out the door. 

 

“Nikki!  I don’t even have my wallet; can you give me a minute?”

 

“You can buy me lunch next time.  Let’s go.”

 

Laughingly, Helen nodded.  She allowed herself to be carried along in Nikki’s excitement, liking the idea that future lunches were in the offing.  “Nikki, what or who is Sprout?” asked Helen as she followed her outside.

 

“She’s the most beautiful of the girls in my life!” grinned Nikki as she locked the door.

 

---

 

 

Part 11

 

“I don’t know about this Nikki,” said Helen staring at a menu with a furrowed brow.

 

“Don’t worry Helen.  I had the same reaction the first time I tried them.  Think of it as eating really good fish with amazing sauce, except instead of a fork, you use a corn tortilla. You’re going to love it,” assured Nikki. 

 

Looking up at Nikki skeptically, Helen responded, “I’ll take your word for it.  I think I’d rather just watch you enjoy the culinary oddity.”

 

“Oh come on Helen, live a little!  How bad could it really be?”

 

Helen rolled her eyes and relented. “Fine, I’ll try them.  In fact, I’ll let you order for me since you’re so sure of yourself.”

 

“Deal!  And I promise to not be insulted by your initial lack of trust,” countered Nikki with an impish grin.

 

The waitress arrived to take their order. “Hey Nikki, long time, stranger!  What can I get you today?”

 

Helen leveled Nikki an amused smirk at the friendly greeting, which earned her an embarrassed shrug from Nikki.

 

“Hiya Devon, good to see you.  How about one of the halibut tacos and one of the cod?  But could you split ‘em so we both have one of each?  Go easy on the salad bits and heavy on the aioli, yeah?”

 

“Right on,” acknowledged Devon as she jotted the order down on her pad. “It’ll be just a few minutes and we’ll have ‘em out.”

 

Watching the interaction, Helen’s lips drew into a knowing smile. “You’re a regular I see.”

 

“Did I forget to mention that these things have become a small obsession of mine? Fish tacos are the ultimate in fast, easy, amazing food.  It’s how I survive when I don’t feel like cooking.”

 

“I’m going to have to taste them before I decide if that makes you smart or just plain lazy,” countered Helen with an eyebrow arched in challenge.

 

Nikki’s only response was a laugh and a waggle of her eyebrows.

 

Devon returned with their order a few minutes later.  Helen gasped as plates were place in front of them. Each plate had two soft, corn tortillas laid open; one holding strips of a halibut fillet seasoned with blackening spice and the other with chunks of beer-battered cod.  The fish in each taco was resting on a bed of greens with a mild, cilantro-jalapeño aioli drizzled over the top.  The plate was completed with mango salsa and sliced fruit.

 

“Not exactly what you picture when you think of tacos, is it?” smiled Nikki.

 

Helen copied Nikki as she put a little bit of mango salsa in a taco, picked it up, and took a bite.  As the mix of flavors hit her tongue, Helen let out a sigh of satisfaction.  Nikki gave her a sly smile, “Say it Helen.”

 

“Say what?” asked Helen trying to feign ignorance.

 

“Say it!  Smart or lazy?”

 

This prompted a burst of laughter from Helen, “You are a smart woman, Nikki Wade.”

 

Nikki gleefully took another bite with a self-satisfied grin on her face.

 

---

 

Nikki and Helen were winding their way through town with the top was down, enjoying the sun on their faces and wind in their hair.  Helen felt more alive and free than she had in weeks, her worries felt miles away. 

 

Looking forward to more surprises, she asked, “Nikki, where exactly are we going?”

 

“I know Claire told you how we met.  How would you like to see the product of our first collaboration?” asked Nikki with a smile.

 

Helen wasn’t sure what she expected Nikki to say, but it wasn’t that.  The place she least wanted to go for their afternoon activity was exactly where they were headed.  It was as if someone had punched her in the gut.  She was so shocked that she initially couldn’t even form words to respond. Trying to calm herself, Helen took a deep breath to let their intended destination sink in.  Her glee from earlier in the day was shattered. “You’re taking me to a battered women’s shelter?” asked Helen hesitantly, her voice now quiet.  Just saying the words ‘battered women’s shelter’ caused a slow panic to begin to rise in Helen’s chest as it meant she was about to face a clear reminder of what she’d come to California to escape.

 

“Well, not exactly.  It’s the transitional housing for the women’s shelter. But, yes, it’s part of it. Is that a problem?” asked Nikki now concerned having noted the sudden shift in Helen’s tone.

 

“No,” answered Helen shakily.  “What exactly will we be doing?”

 

Sensing Helen’s unease, Nikki tried to explain.  “Helen, it isn’t a battered women’s shelter in the way that you’re thinking.  The cottages are for women with children who are getting back on their feet.  They have all made a break from the situation that drove them to the shelter in the first place.  They are allowed to live in the cottages for up to two years while they reestablish themselves.  The women are amazing and strong.  They are survivors in the best sense of the word.   The community at the cottages is about hope and moving forward.”

 

Nikki paused to see if her words were having any effect on Helen.  Helen appeared to relax, but she was still lost in her own thoughts.  Thinking that maybe explaining what she planned on doing would further ease her fears, Nikki continued, “Helen, I go by whenever I can to make sure the grounds are still looking good. Most recently, I’ve been teaching the children about plants and trying to get them to be the caretakers of the gardens.  They are an incredible group of youngsters.  Working with the kids also allows me to provide a break for the women. I called the director on my way home. It sounds like that’s what it’ll be today.”

 

Helen murmured an acknowledgement of Nikki’s explanation and settled into silence.  She was focusing all her energy on keeping her heart from racing. 

 

Nikki was puzzled by Helen’s sudden change in mood, but was convinced that time on the grounds would serve to cheer her.  They parked on the street and climbed out of the car.  Helen followed Nikki into a small courtyard bordered by several of the cottages.  A door was thrown open with a loud crash, startling Helen, but prompting Nikki to break into laughter.

 

“Nikkkkiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii,” squealed a small girl with long, curly dark hair and baggy overalls.  She came running out of the open door and threw herself at Nikki, who leaned down to scoop up the little ball of energy and swing her around, which prompted more screams of delight.  Setting her small companion back down on the ground Nikki looked up to the doorway of the cottage and greeted a young woman who looked no more than 25 years old.  “How are you Sarah?”

 

“I’m good Nikki.  What’s your plan today?”

 

“I thought we could take the munchkins for a little while.  Those new beds could use some TLC and I figured you all could use a break.”

 

Sarah broke into a grateful grin. “A break is always welcome.  I could do with some adult conversation,” Sarah paused seeing Helen trailing behind Nikki. “It looks like you’ve brought help with you.”

 

Nikki couldn’t help but smile at the thought of sharing her time at the shelter with Helen.  She found that investing her energy at the cottages always served to fulfill her spirit in a way that few other activities could.  The act of focusing on the needs of others always seemed to make the challenges in her own life appear trivial and small. Knowing that Helen had once loved a job where she dedicated her time to helping others, Nikki assumed Helen shared her commitment to volunteerism and thought that the benefits of spending time focusing on others might be just what Helen needed.

 

Nikki turned to find Helen and her smile quickly dissolved into concern.  The Helen that had spent the last few hours with a sparkle in her eyes and an easy laugh was gone. It was as if the woman who boarded a plane to California in desperation had returned.  Instinctively, Nikki drew Helen to her in a protective embrace.  To Helen she whispered, “Are you all right?”  Helen silently nodded that she was despite the apprehension written on her face.  Without releasing Helen, Nikki turned to Sarah and smiled. “This is Helen. She agreed to come along to share in the fun.”

 

Helen raised her eyes to Sarah, offering a small smile and wave.  Nikki gave her another squeeze and then sank into a squat so she was eye-to-eye with the little one who had greeted her.  She looked the youngster in the eyes and addressed her very seriously.  “Brit, I have a job for you.  Could you do me a favor?”

 

The little girl’s eyes got very wide.  Her chest visibly swelled with pride at the idea of having a task specifically assigned to her.  Nikki began to chuckle at her reaction.  Smiling affectionately and ruffling her hair she continued, “Could you go find the others and bring them out to the gardens? But Brit, you need to make sure they change into play clothes that can get dirty, ok?”

 

“O-K Nikki!” she responded enthusiastically before sprinting off to the nearest cottage.

 

Standing up with a soft smile on her lips, Nikki turned to face Helen, gesturing for her to follow.  With a final wave to Sarah, Nikki led them wordlessly out into the gardens towards a series of raised beds in one corner.  Nikki settled onto a bench and patted the seat for Helen to join her.  As touching as it was to watch Nikki interact with her young friend, Helen couldn’t shake her own visceral reaction to being at the shelter’s housing facility.  She followed Nikki, silently grateful that she was taking charge. 

 

“Helen, are you all right with being here?” Nikki had wrapped her arm around Helen’s shoulders wanting to make sure she felt safe.  Helen snuggled into Nikki’s shoulder like a child, unable to find the words to explain her reaction.  Nikki was overcome by the change in Helen.  She had no idea what had set it off, but wanted to do everything she could to shelter her from further upset. With her chin resting on Helen’s head, Nikki softly tried to help Helen find a way to be comfortable in the setting. “Helen in a few minutes, seven energetic kids, all under the age of seven, are going to descend on us.  You can participate as much as you like, ok?  You can just sit on this bench and watch.  You’re welcome to the keys for Sprout, if you’d like.  I will try to wrap up here as soon as I can and take you home, ok?”

 

Helen could only muster a silent nod in response.  She stayed curled up in Nikki’s arms until a chorus of children’s voices rang out from across the gardens.  Nikki gently released Helen and got up to greet the children now bounding towards them.  The first few crashed into Nikki, hugging her legs and tugging on her arms.  Nikki’s mood was immediately brightened with the exuberant greeting. Looking over to Helen still sitting on the bench, she hoped that the children’s energy would have a similar effect.  She found that Helen was watching one of the children still making her way over with a lost look in her eyes.  A small girl, no more than four years in age, was slowly approaching the group.  She shyly looked up at Nikki as she drew near.  Nikki stepped out of the embrace of the rest of the group to squat down amongst them.  As the girl closed the final gap, Nikki pulled her close and then looked at them all with a broad smile on her face.

 

“How are all of you?”

 

A chorus of indecipherable answers was Nikki’s response.  Laughing, she continued, “Are you having a good day?”  This time the answer was a resounding ‘yes’.  “Good! Have you all been watching out for our plants?”  At this question, the small girl in Nikki’s arms began to vigorously nod her head.  “You have?” grinned Nikki as she poked her in the belly, which prompted a wave of giggles.   “Well, are the plants happy?” 

 

“We have peas!”

 

“You do?  Can you show me?” responded Nikki, which resulted in the group rushing over to one of the beds and lots of enthusiastic, proud pointing.  Nikki turned towards Helen with a soft, reassuring smile before following after her charges.  Nikki and the children were now far enough away that Helen could no longer make out words. 

 

Helen was grateful to be left alone in the garden.  She still had a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach and felt unsteady, but the initial, almost paralyzing, panic at visiting the housing began to ease.  She sat for another 20 minutes while Nikki successfully combined entertainment and education with her pack of adoring children.  Nikki was able not only able to keep their attention, but had them laughing and participating in activities that included them all despite the varying ages.  From the sparkle in Nikki’s eyes and the unabashed joy in her smile, it was clear why Nikki saw the place as one sure to lift her spirits. 

 

Helen’s attention was drawn away from Nikki by a shout of laughter coming from the courtyard where they had first encountered Brittany and her mother.  Helen peered curiously into the courtyard and could see that a series of chairs had been set up and were now occupied by the women living in the cottages.  Helen felt drawn to the gathering as if by gravity.  She slowly got up and timidly approached the group.  Sarah immediately recognized her and introduced her as a friend of Nikki’s, which won Helen immediate acceptance and the offer of a chair. 

 

Nikki was now navigating the chaos of having added hoses to the mix.  She was sopping wet and thoroughly enjoying herself. She glanced over to where she expected to see Helen sitting and saw that she had left.  Looking around to see where she’d gone, Nikki was surprised to see her in what appeared to be a deep conversation with some of the women.  Helen was leaning forward in her chair, listening intently. 

 

Conversation in the small circle had been serious, heart-wrenching, and raucous in turns.  While Helen did not participate vocally, she was engaged wholly in the conversation, soaking the full range of emotions shared by the women.  She wanted to understand who these women were; how it was that they were able to step away from abuse and summon the strength required to rebuild their lives.  The gathering in the courtyard was eventually interrupted by the excited calls of children.  The assembled group looked up to find Nikki crawling towards them with two children on her back with the rest of the pack either pretending to pull their “horsy” or swatting her ass shouting “giddy-up!”  Nikki was stifling her own laughter only to keep from dumping her riders on the grass.  Finally giving up the battle, Nikki lowered the two children on her back to the ground.  She then reached out to catch any of her other ‘handlers’ and began to tickle, which led to ear-splitting shrieks and frantic runs for cover.  Sarah stood up with a broad, mischievous grin asking the children, “Why aren’t you tickling Nikki?”  At this, all seven gleefully piled onto Nikki. 

 

Nikki slowly extricated herself from the pile as the mothers gathered their charges, explaining that it was time to get cleaned up.  Nikki got down on her knees to hug each child goodbye.  As they scampered off, the women turned to Nikki thanking her for the time and energy she dedicated to the kids. Nikki was offered a chair and glass of lemonade, but she politely refused citing her own need for a bath and clean clothes.  Turning to Helen, Nikki saw that she seemed less anxious than earlier, but that there seemed to be something haunting her.  Helen smiled softly up at Nikki from her seat before taking her offered hand to stand up.  With a sad, but grateful smile, Helen turned to her new acquaintances and spoke with heartfelt emotion, “Thank you for a lovely afternoon and thank you for including me.”  To Nikki’s surprise, several of the women embraced Helen in farewell.

 

When Helen turned to follow Nikki to the car, her face was vacant.  Helen got into Sprout without a word, seemingly lost in thought.  Twenty minutes later they reached Nikki’s house and Helen still had not spoken.  Over the course of the drive, her mood had grown increasingly somber.  Helen had spent the time evaluating her own behavior over the last decade.  She couldn’t help but wonder if there was something she could have done that would have saved her dearest family member.  The guilt associated with her self-examination was crushing.  Helen entered the house and slowly made her way towards the backdoor and the hippy hut.  Nikki followed closely behind, worried and feeling responsible for having put Helen in a situation that caused her such distress. As Helen began to open the door the cottage, Nikki finally reached out to Helen, laying a hand on her shoulder.

 

“You ok, Helen?”

 

Nikki’s touch broke Helen’s resolve.  She turned and looked up at Nikki, tears now glistening in her eyes.  Nikki immediately wrapped an arm over her shoulder and led her into the cottage and onto the couch.  What had begun as a few silent tears had become a steady stream.  It was as if a dam had finally broken.  As Nikki wrapped both arms around Helen, sobs began to wrack her body.  Amongst Helen’s gasps Nikki began to make out words that were being repeated over and over with each labored breath.

 

“Emma…  oh god…. I’m so sorry.”

 

Nikki held Helen close trying to convey through touch that she was safe to simply let everything out.  Eventually, Helen’s body began to relax.  She continued to cling to Nikki, her face buried in her shoulder.  Nikki was soothingly stroking her head with one arm, the other holding Helen tight.  They sat for so long that Nikki began to wonder if Helen had fallen asleep.  Only the occasional shaky exhale from Helen indicated she was still awake. 

 

Helen began to slowly release her arms from around Nikki’s waist.  Nikki gave her a final squeeze, pressing a tender kiss to the top of her head.  Helen was now sitting up, clutching her hands in front of her and staring intently at the floor.  Her eyes were bloodshot and swollen.  Nikki didn’t say anything initially, but decided that Helen seemed to want to talk.

 

“Who is Emma?” asked Nikki gently.

 

Helen took a deep breath as if trying to summon courage.  Her voice was almost a whisper. “I didn’t have any siblings growing up.”

 

Nikki was now staring intently at Helen, unsure where the story would lead.

 

“My parents, especially my father, were firm believers in the adage that children were to be seen and not heard. It could have been a very lonely way to grow up.”

 

Helen’s voice was devoid of emotion.  She had paused, momentarily lost in her own thoughts.  The only indication of emotion in Helen’s manner was her uneven breathing.

 

“Fortunately, we had a next door neighbor who also had a daughter my age, Emma.”

 

At the mention of her name, Helen’s breath caught in her throat. She stopped again trying to maintain control before continuing.

 

“We did everything together. I think our parents were grateful as it got us out of their hair.  It was as if I had been granted the sibling I always wanted.  We were each other’s best friend and protector.  We stayed close through school and even went to the same university.”

 

Helen’s mood seemed lighter as if she was mentally reliving happy memories of her childhood.  At the mention of university, it was as if a cloud had come across her face.  Tears began to silently trail down Helen’s face.  Nikki wanted desperately reach out to Helen, but instinctively knew that Helen needed room to tell her story.

 

“During our first year at university, Emma met Neal.” Helen said the name quietly, but with unmasked hatred.  Her she leaned forward over her legs and clasps her hands so tightly that her knuckles were now white.  Taking a long, shaky breath, Helen continued, “Emma adored him.  He really could do no wrong in her eyes.  I even thought he was a nice enough guy at the time.  I didn’t think anyone was good enough for her, but he seemed to make her happy.” 

 

Helen again lapsed into silence.  She wiped the tears from her face only to have them replaced by the unending, silent stream.  Continuing to stare at the floor, she began to speak again.

 

“I remember the first time I saw the bruises.  Emma swore she had simply fallen down, but I knew.  I knew,” repeated Helen in a whisper. There was so much guilt wrapped in the final two words that it brought tears to Nikki’s eyes as she began to understand Helen’s reaction to the day.  Helen was becoming more unsteady, her story now coming in short snippets rather than in any sequential or smooth narrative, and her voice catching in her throat.

 

“I held her while she cried so many times; put bandages on her injuries… I even sat back as she lied to doctors.”

 

Helen had taken hold of a throw pillow, clutching it to her chest.  She sat on the edge of the couch with her feet on the floor, still staring blankly ahead.

 

“I thought just being there for her without judgment was the best thing I could do…it got too hard…She even left him… more than once.  She’d move into my flat for a few weeks…and always go back.”

 

Helen’s breathing was becoming labored again.

 

“I’m so sorry, Emma.”

 

As Helen repeated her mantra, the silent stream of tears again gave way to sobbing.  Nikki could no longer hold back.  She moved so that she was sitting behind Helen and wrapped her arms and legs around her from behind.  Helen did not react to her touch, but did not push it away either.  She just sat staring at the floor, tears falling.

 

“I gave her an ultimatum,” whispered Helen almost inaudibly.  “I told her I couldn’t pick up the pieces anymore.  I told her I would be there if she ever decided to leave him for good, but not before. I wasn’t strong enough… we would still talk, but never about him.  ”

 

Helen’s body began to shake as sobs once again took over.  Nikki had never felt more helpless in her life.  She simply held Helen, trying to gently surround her with warmth.

 

Helen now seemed to be speaking directly to her childhood friend. “It had been months since we last talked when I got the call… you were in the hospital… coma… I watched you for days and days with all those tubes…They blame me. I’d blame me too...  I dedicated my whole life to saving people and I couldn’t save you… you… my dearest family.”

 

Helen now could barely breathe, her chest heaving.  Nikki pulled Helen on to her lap and leaned back into the corner of the couch, letting Helen curl up in her arms.  She held Helen tight, gently rubbing her back and trying to contain the pain radiating from her.

 

With a final burst of emotion, Helen gasped, “Emma… I can’t believe you’re gone.”

 

Helen buried her face in Nikki shoulder, continuing to weep.  Slowly Helen began to relax into Nikki’s embrace.  Nikki felt Helen’s breathing slow and acquire the deep rhythm that indicated sleep.  Knowing that Helen was emotionally exhausted, Nikki stayed on the couch for another hour, happy to have at least provided the safety that allowed sleep to overtake Helen.  Finally, Nikki decided to get Helen to bed where she could continue her slumber.  Nikki walked a half awake Helen to the bedroom and laid her down.  She slid off her shoes and pulled the covers up.  Helen sighed as she sank into the pillows, immediately falling asleep.  Nikki sat at the edge of the bed and gently brushed the loose strands of hair off her face.  Satisfied that Helen was asleep, Nikki leaned down and pressed her lips to her hair and whispered, “Sleep well beautiful.  I hope you can find a way to begin to forgive yourself.  You did nothing wrong.”

 

---

 

 

Part 12

 

 “Nikki?  Nikki, are you home?” called Claire as she let herself in the front door.  It was Wednesday evening and Claire had stopped by on her way home from work.

 

“Yeah! I’m back here.  Hang on one moment while I get the clothes sorted.”

 

Nikki soon emerged from her laundry room to greet Claire.

 

“Hiya Nik, how are you doing today?”

 

“I’m surviving, I guess.  To what do I owe the honor?”

 

“You’re asking why I’m here?”

 

Nikki smiled, raising her eyebrows.

 

“I haven’t seen or talked with Helen since I dropped her off.  I was hoping to pop in to see how she was doing.”

 

The smile evaporated from Nikki’s face.  It was replaced by apologetic concern. “Claire, I have to warn you that I may have made a huge mistake Monday afternoon.”

 

“That’s awfully cryptic.  What did you do?” asked Claire, beginning to feel a little alarmed.

 

“Let’s just say that your respect for Helen’s privacy may have backfired,” answered Nikki apprehensively.

 

 “What do you mean?”

 

“Claire, I didn’t know.”

 

“Nikki!  What did you do?”

 

“I took her with me to volunteer at the women’s shelter cottages.”

 

Claire gasped.  “Is she all right?”

 

“Honestly, I have no idea.  She got very quiet while we were there, but I had no idea why. So I left her to just sit on a bench while I entertained the kids for a while.  She actually got up and joined the women who had assembled in the courtyard.  At the time, I was shocked, but knowing what I do now it makes some sense.”

 

“So she spoke with you?”

 

“Yeah.  When we got home she broke down.  I just tried to be a shoulder to cry on.  She seemed to want to talk, I really only caught pieces.”  Nikki was speaking slowly and quietly as she allowed herself to relive the evening.  She felt herself get choked up just thinking about the burden that Helen had placed on herself.

 

Claire was touched seeing how affected Nikki was by Helen’s story.  She threw her arm over Nikki’s shoulder. “I’m so glad that you were there for her.  How is she doing?”

 

“She cried herself to sleep.  I just held her and then put her to bed.  I haven’t seen her since.  I know she’s padding around the hut as I’ve seen movement in the windows and the doors have been propped open at times.  I just figured that she might have a lot to sort out and that if she wanted company she’d come find me or call you.”

 

“Nikki, you did the right thing.  Allowing herself to experience the grief may be the best thing for her.”

 

Nikki looked up at Claire and saw the same helplessness she felt written on her face. 

 

“You knew Emma, didn’t you?” breathed Nikki as she remembered that Claire and Helen had been roommates at university.

 

Claire nodded slowly. “Yeah, after she moved in with Neal, Helen needed a new roommate and I needed a room.  Emma used to come over to our place all the time.”

 

“You met Neal too?” asked Nikki, as Helen’s reliance on her old roommate in her time of need began to make more sense.  Claire had been part of her friendship with Emma.

 

“I only spoke briefly with him once or twice. Emma almost always arrived alone.” Claire paused to search her memory before continuing, “It was only during the first year that I lived with Helen that Emma came over to hang out as a friend might.  After that, the abuse was no longer a secret and our flat was her haven.”

 

“Do you know why she always went back?  Helen seems to think that she could have done something to change it.”

 

Claire took a deep breath and dropped on to the couch before answering.  Her tone was quiet and tinged with sadness.  “I don’t know Nikki.  I never really understood.  Emma was an incredible woman, but she seemed to have an unshakable faith in that man, which he never deserved.”  Claire shook her head at the memory and ran her hand through her blond tresses. “As for Helen, she sure as hell tried to get her to change her mind about him.  At first she just comforted Emma and would then rage at the world for a few weeks in frustration over what was happening to her friend.  Eventually, she couldn’t keep her mouth shut.  She would be heartbroken at the state in which Emma would arrive at our house, but her frustration would boil over when Emma defended him or justified his actions.  I remember listening to them yell at each other.  When gentle, caring words failed, Helen would demand that she look in the mirror to see what he had done to her.  Emma actually accused Helen of betraying their friendship.  It was really awful.”

 

“It was at that point that Helen finally pulled back?”

 

“She didn’t pull back per se.  She asked if they could simply leave the topic of Neal out of their friendship since it was tearing apart what was the most important relationship in both their lives.”

 

“Claire, was that really possible? Wouldn’t censoring conversation like that just make things harder?”

 

“You’re right, Nikki. I think the unspoken topic of Neal clouded all their future interaction.  Afterwards they communicated less frequently.”

 

Nikki took a deep breath before quietly asking her next question, half dreading the answer. “Did he really kill her?”

 

“It’s not nearly as clean cut as that,” sighed Claire in resignation.  “From the little Helen told me over the phone while Emma was in the hospital, she fell and knocked the base of her skull on something.  It wasn’t clear if she was pushed or not, although those familiar with Emma and Neal all assume the worst. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised.”

 

“And that’s what drove Helen to your front steps?” asked Nikki, still trying to put together all the pieces.

 

Claire audibly sighed at Nikki’s question.  “Did she mention Emma’s parents?”

 

“I don’t think so, but she did mention somebody who blamed her.  I don’t know to whom she was referring.”

 

Claire rubbed her eyes and took another deep breath. “She was referring to Emma’s parents.  They were like a second family to Helen.  I think she spent more time in their house than her own growing up.” 

 

“How did they drive Helen away?” asked Nikki, now confused.

 

“Oh Nikki, they banned Helen from the funeral,” Claire voice now shook with emotion both in sadness for Helen and anger at Emma’s parents. “They told her that if she’d been a better friend to their little girl, she’d still be alive.”

 

“What?” gasped Nikki. “How could anyone do that?”

 

“They were in shock over their daughter’s death and were looking for someone to blame.  Neal had disappeared, leaving Helen to face Emma’s parents.  Helen had been keeping a vigil at her bedside in the hospital.  She left only to maintain a minimum presence at work and catch a few hours of sleep so she could remain upright.  Emma was in a coma for just over a week before she died.  Helen was stretched very thin at that point, but being barred from the funeral was what ultimately broke her spirit.” 

 

Nikki could only let out a long exhale as she tried to get her head around what Helen had experienced.  She finally looked up at Claire with glassy eyes. “Thank you for sharing this with me Claire.” 

 

The two women sat in silence for several minutes reflecting on their conversation.

 

“Do you think I’ve made things worse by taking her to the shelter cottages?” asked Nikki, fearing the answer.

 

“You know Nik, you might have done her a favor,” answered Claire thoughtfully.  “Helen is so good at compartmentalizing that she was likely to have pushed this down so far that it wouldn’t re-emerge for years.  I was starting to fear that she was using her time in California to pretend it never happened instead of coming to terms with it all.  It sounds like you inadvertently forced her to deal with it in the here and now.  Over the long term, it’s likely the best thing that could have happened to her.”

 

“What about the short term?”

 

“I really don’t know.  But I am going to head out to the cottage before I leave to see how she’s doing.”

 

“Claire, you’ll let me know if I can do anything?”

 

“Sure Nikki, of course,” finished Claire leaning over to give Nikki’s knee a squeeze.

 

---

 

Part 13

 

It had been two days since Helen had woken to a light breeze blowing through an open window and the sun streaming through the gaps in the curtains, only to realize that she was still in jeans and the t-shirt Claire had given to her.  That first morning, she simply took a deep breath and snuggled deeper into the covers as she began to remember her day at the women’s shelter cottages and the evening that followed.  Helen knew in the past she would have felt ashamed of her loss of restraint with Nikki.  But that morning, if she was honest with herself, shame for her vulnerability was not among the range of emotions she felt.  Helen’s thoughts drifted to Emma, as they did most often when she had time to herself.  However, this time, she did not allow herself to either banish the memories from her mind or delve into guilt-driven, self-criticism. 

 

Helen had spent the days in the cottage simply lost in thought.  She never even considered finding distractions such as a book or music.  Sometimes she relaxed in a bath or threw open the doors and windows to enjoy the breeze, but more than anything else she allowed herself to risk exploring her own thoughts, memories, and feelings from the final years of her friendship with Emma to the amazingly strong, resilient women she’d met at the shelter cottages.  Helen realized that she both needed and wanted to allow Emma’s death to be part of her waking reality. 

 

Helen did not desire company or comfort.  She wanted to get things straight in her own mind and welcomed the privacy and safety that the cottage afforded.  She allowed herself to cry for the loss of her friend, and, eventually, was even able to smile at the happy memories of their teenage antics.

 

---

 

 

Claire left Nikki’s and crossed the yard, finding the front door of the cottage propped open.  As she paused at the threshold, Claire was struck by the serenity of the scene before her. Helen was lying on the couch with pillows under her head and feet resting on the arm.  She was cradling what looked like a cup of tea on her stomach.  Her eyes here open, but did not seem to be focused on anything in particular. 

 

Claire knocked lightly to get Helen’s attention.  Helen turned and rewarded her with a soft, welcoming smile.  She nodded her head, inviting Claire into the hut.  Claire smiled as she entered, taking a chair at a small table.

 

“How are you doing?” asked Claire.

 

Helen, who had swung her legs to the floor to face Claire, responded with a smile and a shrug.

 

Claire had to chuckle at her friend. “Have you decided to stop speaking all together?”

 

Helen let out a soft laugh before speaking, “No, I’ve not taken a vow of silence.  It’s just a little strange.  I’ve been existing in silence for two days now.”

 

“How are you?” asked Claire again.

 

Helen took a deep breath. “For the first time in weeks, when I tell you I’m doing well, I think I might be telling the truth.”

 

“I may actually believe you Helen,” replied Claire staring intently at her friend searching for a way to describe her mood.  “You seem… calm, or at least on your way towards some sort of peace.”

 

“I am.”

 

“I’m so glad,” answered Claire, staring at Helen still trying to gage her mood.  “I was worried, though, when Nikki told me about taking you with her the cottages.”  While Claire had kept her tone gentle, she intentionally brought up the cottages as a way to see if Helen was really doing as well as she seemed. Carefully watching Helen’s reaction, she continued, “It seems as though Nikki may have unintentionally done you a favor.”

 

To Claire’s surprise, Helen looked up to meet her eyes rather than avert them to the floor as she had been doing since her arrival in California.  Holding her gaze, Helen firmly, but calmly answered, “I think she did.” 

 

Helen understood what Claire was doing by asking her about the cottages and decided that her friend deserved as much honesty as she could muster.  She broke eye contact to shake her head and draw a slow breath; looking back up at Claire, she continued with a small self-depreciating laugh. “Although, if you’d suggested that a few days ago, I’m not sure I would have seen it as a good thing.”  Helen paused, her tone now reflective as she was giving voice to her internal thoughts. “I think it was good for me to meet women who had gotten through it.  I needed that to see that all my support could only have made Emma’s choice easier, but she still needed to choose it.  I find it heartbreaking that she never did and I think I’ll always wonder what I could have done differently, but I think I am starting to accept that I did the best I could given where I was at the time.  Perhaps if a friend found herself in that situation today, I would handle it differently…. I don’t know… I don’t know if anyone can predict how they’ll react until they’re there.”

 

Claire was stunned by Helen’s disclosure.  She didn’t know what to say.  She was so happy to hear Helen begin to forgive herself that she was close to tears.  Needing to do something, but finding no way to express it, Claire crossed the room to join Helen on the couch and pull her into an embrace.  After a few moments, Claire let out an embarrassed giggle at her own reaction. “I’m so happy to hear you say that.  I’ve been worried about you.”

 

Claire’s tone implied that she was also saying I’m so proud of you. While Helen was touched by Claire’s reaction, she was also a little uncomfortable.  She hoped that as she healed her own wounds that her relationship with Claire could again be an equal one.  Sensing Helen’s discomfort, Claire lapsed into silence.  She dropped her arm from Helen’s shoulder and slouched into the couch hoping to make the atmosphere more comfortable.  Claire was not; however, ready to let the topic drop.  She was still worried that if she changed the subject to something mindless that Helen would willingly follow, pretending nothing had happened. “Helen, I’m impressed that you told someone who didn’t already know Neal and Emma.  You’ve never done that before have you?”

 

Helen glanced down at the floor realizing that Claire wasn’t going to let her off the hook and shook her head.  She didn’t know why she told the story, but something about Nikki made her feel safe.  She knew that having told someone, who neither belittled what had happened nor placed blame, had been cleansing.

 

“I’m glad you did,” said Claire, breaking the silence.

 

“I am too.”

 

Claire thought of Nikki and could clearly imagine her brow furrowed in concern. “When you feel up to facing people again, Helen, you might head over and let Nikki know that you are ok.  She feels pretty awful about unknowingly subjecting you to such a strong reminder of Emma.”

 

“What?” Helen’s eyes flew up.  As realization hit her, she could only hang her head.  She had been so wrapped up in her own reactions and memories that she hadn’t thought about what Monday must have been for Nikki.  “I will, Claire.  I’ll get over there sometime tomorrow.”

 

“Helen, this is not something to feel guilty about.  She’s just worried.  I already told her that I thought she did you a favor.  I’m just not sure she believes me, at least not completely.  She understands enough that she’s known to leave you alone for the past few days. She just needs confirmation that you’re doing all right out here.”

 

“Ok.  Thanks Claire.”

 

“No worries.  I’m going to head out and leave you be.  I’m so glad that you seem to be doing well.  You’re an incredible woman, Helen Stewart.”  Claire got up to leave pulling Helen into a close embrace.  As she reached the door she turned back to Helen with a wicked grin on her face. “I’m so happy that you have begun to heal. I can’t wait to have you back, even the parts that are frustrating as hell.” 

 

This prompted a small burst of laughter from Helen.  Claire gave her a wink and headed back down the path.  She stopped in with Nikki to let her know that Helen was doing well and to tell her that the best thing she could do was to simply give her space. 

 

Satisfied that Helen wasn’t hiding from the past, Claire promised herself that the only time she would talk about Emma was if Helen brought it up and asked Nikki to do the same. 

 

---

 

 

Helen spent that evening and most of the following day savoring her solitary existence.  Talking with Claire had confirmed that she was indeed starting to heal, but also pointed out that she had a long way to go.  Still preferring seclusion, Helen lingered in the cottage well into the evening.  Seeing that the lights were still on at Nikki’s house, she finally decided to head across the yard.  Just as she opened the slider, she heard a loud crash from within the house followed quickly by an ear splitting yell.

 

“Ooooooowwwwwwwww!  Fuck!”  Another cascade of crashing followed that sounded like part of the house was collapsing. “Oh Shit!  Fuckin’ hell!!!”  While Nikki’s voice lowered in volume the profanity laced tirade did not. As the sounds of movement drew nearer, Helen could once again make out words.  “Christ!  Bloody waste of space!  You’d make great sawdust, you know!  And you Wade… when’d you become such a clumsy twat?!”  There was a pause filled only with stomping and other crashing noises.  “Ahh!  Bloody hell!  Anything else???”  Hearing Nikki trudge into the living room, Helen could barely contain her amusement.   

 

As Nikki limped into view she stopped short.  “Helen. Fuck!”

 

Seeing a shocked smirk on Helen’s face, Nikki ran her hands through her hair.  “Shit, I’m sorry Helen.”  Nikki didn’t seem to be able to calm down enough to address Helen properly. “Bloody hell, you just heard all that?” Seeing Helen’s small nod, Nikki let loose again. “Fuck! I’m sorry.”

 

At this point, Helen was shaking in laughter.  Seeing that Helen was amused instead of being upset by her outburst, Nikki began to calm down although she was not yet to the point where she could join in the laughter. As Helen regained her composure, she asked, “Who or what were you yelling at?”

 

“I think my old desk just declared war on my foot,” declared Nikki, still irritated.

 

“You were yelling at a desk?” asked Helen incredulously.  Glancing down at Nikki’s feet she noticed that one of her socks was now sporting a growing red stain.  “Nikki!  You’re bleeding.  Are you all right?”

 

Nikki just gave a frustrated sigh. “I’m fine. I accidentally kicked the leg of that pain in the ass desk back there…” started Nikki as she threw herself onto the couch and began to gingerly remove her sock, “… and the damn leg gave way.”

 

“And the desk fell on your foot?” asked Helen, joining her on the couch.

 

“That and every fucking box, book, or other piece of junk I’d stacked on top it,” responded Nikki now just sounding dejected.

 

“Oh. Well, that explains the crashing… and the cursing,” added Helen with a twinkle in her eye.

 

“Yeah, real articulate, eh?” asked Nikki sheepishly.  “I really am sorry about that.  I bet it was quite a jarring change from the quiet of the cottage.”

 

Helen realized that Nikki’s outburst had not only snapped her out of her self-reflection, but also seemed to have relieved Nikki, at least momentarily, of her self-appointed role as caretaker. “It was, but honestly, I’m relieved to see that you aren’t as perfect as you appear.  Somehow it’s refreshing to see you’ve got a bit of temper, if only because everyone seems to be hiding theirs to protect me. Some unfiltered anger was nice, as weird as that might sound.” Helen paused glancing over at Nikki giving her a wide grin. “I also needed a good laugh and, Nikki, I’m sorry your foot is hurt, but that was really funny.”

 

“Glad I could be of service,” smirked Nikki not quite finding it as funny as Helen.

 

“Well, it’s not everyday that you get to hear someone threaten a desk or deem themselves a ‘clumsy twat’,” replied Helen in mock seriousness.

 

This finally broke Nikki’s resolve, but her laughter was cut short by a sharp intake of breath as she completed the task pulling off her sock. “Damn! I think the desk won,” exclaimed Nikki looking down at her big toe.

 

“Ouch, think you’ll lose the nail?”

 

“Naw, it’ll just turn a nice pretty color for the foreseeable future,” answered Nikki, making a face.

 

“That’ll ruin your pedicure.”

 

Nikki now just stared at Helen to see if she was teasing or serious.  Helen kept her somber tone, “It’ll be near impossible to find a shade to match the baby-puke yellow and brown that toe is going to turn.”

 

It took Nikki a moment to process what Helen had said before dissolving into laughter and throwing a pillow at Helen.  They both sank back into the couch giggling, eventually settling into comfortable silence.  After a few minutes, Nikki lifted herself to standing.  “Helen, I think I’m going to try to clean up this toe.  Would you like anything to drink while I’m up?”

 

“Sure, a drink would be great.  Would you like some help with that?  How are you planning on cleaning it?”

 

“I was just going to try to lift my foot under the sink.”

 

“The kitchen sink?” asked Helen with a look of mild disgust on her face.

 

“Yeah, I want to run water over it.  Is that a problem?”

 

“You wash your food in there.  Don’t you think it’s a bit gross?”

 

“The food is dirty until it goes under the faucet too!” protested Nikki with a smile on her face, which prompted an overly dramatic eye roll from Helen.

 

Helen got up from the couch.  “You stay put,” she ordered, pointing at the couch.  “I’ll get drinks and something to clean your foot.”

 

“You always this bossy?”

 

“Probably,” Helen stopped in her tracks and turned to look at Nikki.  Her face was now serious, and her voice quiet, “at least before I dropped out of life entirely.” 

 

Nikki moved to speak, but Helen gently raised her hand to silence her.  “I know that you have been worried and I appreciate your support and friendship more than I can express.  I also know that if your storage desk hadn’t collapsed on your foot, you would have played the role of supportive friend perfectly… yet again.  Nikki, I am making progress, but I need to do it in my own way.  I’ve now had three days of introspection and truly believe for the first time that it’s possible to eventually make peace with all that has happened.  It will take me a long time and there are a lot of things I still need to decide.  As a result, I will likely hole up in your cottage some days, but I would also like to find a way to reclaim me, a me that doesn’t need caretakers all the time.  I don’t want people to have to be so careful in my presence.  So, while I’m sorry about your poor crushed toe, I’m really glad it happened.”

 

Nikki, who had settled back onto the couch, glanced up at Helen in awe. 

 

“Now, please let me get you a drink and clean up your foot.”

 

“Sure Helen.”

 

Listening to Helen rummaging around in her kitchen made Nikki happy.  Somehow it just felt ‘right’ to have Helen in her home.  Nikki couldn’t help but fantasize about having the gorgeous Scot become a regular fixture in her house.  But as soon as the thought entered her head, Nikki banished it knowing that as soon as Helen felt strong enough, she would be boarding a plane back to London.

 

Helen emerged several minutes later with a tray containing two beers and a large mixing bowl full of water.  She set it down and wondered off towards a hallway on the opposite side of the room.  Nikki grinned as she watched Helen curiously peer down the hallway before calling, “If you’re looking for a bathroom, it’s the first door on the right.”

 

Helen returned with some antiseptic, gauze pads, and athletic tape.  “You must be either an avid athlete or extremely accident prone.  I’ve rarely seen more bandages, wraps, and braces.”

 

“I’m afraid it’s both,” laughed Nikki, watching Helen settle onto the floor in front of the couch. 

 

“All right, let me see that foot.”

 

Helen slowly rolled up the leg of Nikki’s jeans.  While her focus was on the injured toe, she couldn’t help but notice the incredibly toned, tan calf now visible.  She held Nikki’s leg just above the ankle with one hand to keep her foot still while she carefully cleaned the wound with the other.  

 

As Helen gently washed the blood off of Nikki’s foot, Nikki gazed admiringly at the woman seated below her.  She had on no makeup, her hair was tucked behind her ears, and she was once again wearing a shirt that was obviously Cory’s… and Nikki was sure that she’d never seen anyone quite so beautiful. 

 

Nikki let out an audible sigh when Helen finally finished the cleaning process, released her grip, and began gingerly drying her foot with a towel. “Am I hurting you?” queried Helen looking up from her task.

 

“No, not at all. Thank you for doing this,” replied Nikki trying to steady her voice.  She certainly wasn’t going to admit that her sigh had been the result of the sensations caused by Helen’s gentle but firm grip of her lower leg. 

 

Helen crawled onto the couch and took Nikki’s foot into her lap to bandage the toe.  “You’re not ticklish are you?”

 

“No I’m not very ticklish, but I can’t promise you I won’t jerk when you apply that antiseptic.  I have a feeling it’s going to sting.”

 

“Poor baby,” smirked Helen. 

 

Helen kept her eyes on Nikki as she quickly swabbed her foot.  Nikki was biting her lower lip obviously trying not to move, despite the fact that her foot felt as though it was on fire.  Looking at Nikki’s long, lean body and flushed cheeks Helen couldn’t help, but admire her beauty.  She was not ready to acknowledge any of the other responses being elicited by her proximity to Nikki.

 

Helen eventually finished dressing Nikki’s foot and they found themselves sipping at their beers facing each other from opposite ends of the couch.  “Thanks for fixing my foot and fetching the drinks, Helen.  I’ve got to admit, I’m surprised by the choice.  I thought for sure you were going to emerge with the wine that’s setting in there.”

 

“I’ll admit that the wine was tempting, but the blood, profanity, and furniture damage reminded me of nights at a favorite pub with a cold pint.”

 

“Where in the hell did you hang out in London?”

 

Helen raised her eyebrows. “Wouldn’t you like to know.” 

 

You have no idea. “You’re full of surprises Helen Stewart.”

 

Helen’s only response was a sly smile and another swallow of her drink.  Nikki shook her head and followed suit.

 

They sat for hours and several more beers simply enjoying easy conversation that never ventured beyond the ordinary or silly.  Stifling a yawn, Helen moved to get up.  “Nikki, this has turned out to be a wonderful night.  Thank you.  I think I’m going to head back to the hut for the night.”

 

“It has Helen.  I’m glad you ventured over.  You’ll let me know if you need anything, yeah?”

 

“I’d love it if you could tell me if there are any parks or good areas for running nearby.  I’d like to start exploring a little and exercise always seems to clear my head.”

 

Nikki smiled and turned to fetch a pen and paper so she could jot down directions to a few parks and draw some of her favorite running routes. 

 

A little more hesitantly, Helen began to speak again.  “Nikki, I’d also like to find a way to repay your kindness.  Is there anything I can do to help around the house, garden, or somewhere else?”  Seeing that Nikki was going to protest, Helen quickly pressed on. “I’d like something to do. I can only sit in the cottage for so long before I go stir crazy.  Sometimes I do my best thinking when I have a task to occupy my hands.”

 

A smile began to pull at the corners of Nikki’s mouth as she listened to Helen virtually beg for household chores.  “All right, all right Helen,” interjected Nikki with a broad smile.  “If you really want mindless, but necessary tasks, I can come up with some. In fact, you’re welcome to help with the weeding and pruning around the yard.  I never seem to be able to give it the attention it really needs.”  Nikki squinted her eyes at Helen, as if she was sizing her up. 

 

“What? Are you trying to decide if I’m good enough to touch your garden?” demanded Helen with a mix of embarrassment and indignation.

 

Nikki could only laugh and shake her head.  “No. I was trying to decide if you would want the option having company while you fondle plants.  If you do, you are welcome to come with me to work.  Tomorrow is a staff work day where we will be transplanting all the seedlings in one greenhouse, laying a new paver demonstration area, and generally making sure we’re ready for the summer work season.”

 

“I don’t know, Nikki…”

 

“Helen, you are welcome to do whatever you’d like. I’m just laying out some options.  You now know where the local parks are, good routes for your morning run, and know that if you want a task to occupy your hands, my garden would welcome the attention.  But if you decide that you’d like a break from the solitude, you are welcome to join me for the work party tomorrow.  I’ll be leaving around eight.”  Nikki finished with a warm smile and reached out to gently squeeze Helen’s shoulder.  “I’ve had a wonderful night, Helen.  Sleep well.  If I don’t see you in the morning, have a great day tomorrow, yeah?”

 

“All right, Nikki.  Thanks. G’night.”

 

---

 

 

Part 14

 

7:45 Friday Morning

 

Helen was sitting at the kitchen counter in the cottage. Her internal struggle had been raging for nearly half an hour.  In 15 minutes, inaction would make the choice for her.  Intellectually, Helen told herself that she needed time on her own.  In many ways, it was what she thought she deserved, yet every other part of her being longed for an excuse to spend more time with Nikki.  Thinking about the night before, Helen realized that she not only felt safe with Nikki, but whole… more like herself.

 

Rationalizing that social interaction was part of the healing process, Helen headed out the door.  When she reached the deck slider, Helen was struck dumb.  Her reaction to the sight of Nikki was strong enough that, this time, she could not ignore, dismiss, or easily explain it away.  It was as if she was allowing herself to see Nikki, to really look at her, for the first time. 

 

She stood silently outside the door, unnoticed by Nikki, watching.  Nikki was seated on the couch with her legs splayed out in front of her reading the newspaper, modern black glasses framing her warm, brown eyes.  She was wearing low-slung, jeans that were frayed along the edges and a long-sleeved shirt, faded to a ruddy, pink.  Nikki’s sun-kissed, smooth skin seemed to glow against the contrast of the lightly colored clothing.  The shirt had ridden up in back where she’d slid down in the couch to reveal that her torso was also a warm golden brown.  Helen swallowed hard to control her reaction as she wondered just how much of Nikki’s body had been bronzed by the sun. 

 

My god, she’s gorgeous. 

 

Helen began to feel overwhelmed.  She didn’t feel ready to add attraction to her mix of emotions.

 

This was a mistake… turn around… go back to the cottage…

 

Just as Helen was about to begin her retreat, Nikki glanced up.  The joy and warmth expressed in Nikki’s reaction to seeing her at the door reminded Helen of why she chose to come across the garden in the first place.  She felt happy around Nikki.  The safety and comfort of her presence overwhelmed all of Helen’s reservations.

 

“Helen!” grinned Nikki, making no effort to hide how happy she was to see her.  “Are you here for just coffee or have to you decided to brave a work day with my staff?”

 

“I thought I’d join your staff, if the offer is still open,” began Helen, her internal acknowledgement of attraction now making her feel awkward, “although I may reconsider if it’s something that must be braved.”

 

“No no… It’s hard work, but I think you’ll find it can be fun.”

 

“Does the offer of coffee still stand?”

 

“Absolutely.  We can fill up a few travel mugs and take them with us.  If you haven’t eaten, there’s sure to be food in the office.  I will warn you though, it’s unlikely to be terribly healthy.”

 

“Sounds perfect.”

 

“Nikki…” began Helen hesitantly, “…what if I’m not so good with plants?  I have to confess that I know virtually nothing.”

 

Nikki smiled. “No worries Helen, you’ll be able to do all the tasks planned for today.  Today’s much more about putting in the time and hard work than anything else.  Let’s grab the coffee and go, yeah?”

 

Helen smiled and nodded.  She noticed that that the bandage on Nikki’s foot had been changed, but that she still walked with a bit of a limp. 

 

“How’s your toe? Will it limit you today?”

 

Nikki let out an exasperated sigh, indicating she was still annoyed with herself, “It’s a little sore and hurts like hell if I bump it, but it should be ok.  I’m going to wear my steel-toed boots today to protect it from any further bouts of clumsiness.”

 

---

 

 

On the way to her office Nikki tried to prepare Helen for her staff.  “Helen I’m going to apologize now for my staff.  They’re great, but not exactly subtle.”  Nikki could only smile to herself, knowing the kind of reaction Helen was likely to illicit.  While she knew Helen would likely be embarrassed, she felt that both the good-humored fun and flattery would do wonders for Helen’s psyche. 

 

“What do you mean?” asked Helen, now curious about the kind of workplace Nikki ran.

 

“I spent several years working in large design firms in London and found the atmosphere stifling.  It was just so restrained and you had to be so careful about what you said.  I often just lost my temper trying to conform to standard office etiquette.  It made me hate a profession that I love.  I promised myself that if I ever had my own business, I’d create the work environment I always dreamed.  I try to make it place that values hard work and discipline, but also individualism and fun.  I just feel like people do better work if they feel like coming to work is a freeing experience rather than a constraining one.”

 

“That sounds wonderful Nikki, why are you apologizing for it?”

 

“Well, let’s just say that my staff has fully embraced their freedom.  There really is no filter on what people say and if you’re not used to it, it can be a little disorienting at first.”

 

After arriving at the office, Nikki walked Helen out into the yard.  The standard chorus of “Morning Boss!” rang out from all directions. 

 

Helen glanced over at Nikki with her eyebrows raised.  Nikki held up her hands in mock defense, “I did not ask them to call me that!  I think they do it because they know it drives me crazy.” 

 

Helen laughed. “I think I like your staff already.” 

 

As Nikki’s employees began making their way towards the two women from distant corners of the yard, the shouts began.

 

“Hey Nik brought in fresh blood!”

 

“You take pity on us today boss?”

 

“Naw, if she were taking pity on us, she’d have kidnapped Cory to help us lift all this stuff.”

 

“Looks like she brought us a new bird, though”

 

Helen was laughing now as she watched the motley crew draw nearer. 

 

“Damn! You’re hot!  Are you a new staff person?” inquired Elliott.

 

As the rest of her staff gathered around, Nikki began introductions, “No, she is not staff.  This is Helen Stewart, she’s a friend of mine and Claire and Cory who is visiting for a while.  She has agreed to help out today, so be nice!”

 

“You know much about potting plants?” asked Courtney hopefully.

 

“Not much more than how to kill them, I’m afraid.  I’m relying on all of you to show me what to do.”

 

There was a stunned silence for a few moments as the assembled group registered not only a new accent, but the green eyes and smile of their guest.  The silence was quickly broken by assorted members of the staff enthusiastically offering to help Helen.  This resulted in an argument as to which of them would get the privilege.  Nikki looked over to Helen seeing a shy smile grow on her face and knew that the energy of her staff was just what Helen needed. 

 

“Ok, don’t scare her!  How about if you two take Helen over the table next to the greenhouses and start some of the transplanting?” instructed Nikki pointing to Courtney and Ian. 

 

“If she doesn’t want to plant, she could just read aloud to us over the intercom system,” suggested Elise.

 

“What?!” exclaimed Elliott.

 

“Did you just listen to her accent?” Looking over to Nikki, Elise continued, “Sorry boss, your accent is sexy and all, but it’s got nothing on Helen’s.  Wow!”

 

Nikki smiled as she watched a slow blush creep onto Helens cheeks.  She decided to spare Helen further embarrassment and turned to address her team, raising her hand for silence.  “As you all know the tour was a resounding success.”

 

“Which just means we all have more work, right?” interrupted Elise.

 

“And job security,” countered Nikki with a smirk. “All of you should stop with the sarcasm now as I was about to tell you about the reward.”

 

“There’s more than Monday’s ice cream?!” exclaimed Ian.

 

“Ian, that ice cream was a bribe to not embarrass her on the tour,” explained Courtney with a wicked grin, which was confirmed by the twinkle in Nikki’s eyes and the smile now pulling at her lips.

 

Helen was enjoying the easy, playful banter between Nikki and her staff.  She found herself envious of the obvious affection and camaraderie between them all.

 

“I’d like you all to reserve next Saturday night for dinner and a party at my house.”

 

Nikki was again interrupted by the cheers of staff. “Yeehaaww… we’re going to party Wade-style!”

 

Laughingly shaking her head, Nikki continued, “the dinner is just for staff and Claire and Cory.  You all are free to invite whoever you’d like to the party that will likely get underway after 10 in the evening. Sound good?”

 

“Sounds great, boss!  Does Helen get to come to dinner?”

 

Helen, warming up to the playful atmosphere, looked up at Nikki batting her eyelashes in mock pleading.  Nikki laughed out loud seeing Helen beginning to join in the fun. Throwing her arm around Helen and giving her an affectionate squeeze, she responded. “Of course Helen is coming!” Nikki finished addressing her staff by assigning tasks and dismissing them to get on with their work.  Before Helen could leave to make her way to the greenhouses, Nikki leaned over to whisper in her ear, “I really hope you don’t mind me throwing a party in your front yard.  It’ll be great to have you there.”

 

Helen turned her face to Nikki, treating her with a wide, heart-warming smile before heading off to join Courtney and Ian. 

 

Watching Helen approach, Courtney leaned over to Ian. “I think we now know why Nikki’s been so distracted.”

 

--

 

 

Helen found herself near the greenhouses with Courtney and Ian.  Jordan soon joined them to help with the transplanting and the rest of the staff continually stopped by using any excuse they could to join in the conversation.

 

“So where are you staying while you’re in town Helen?” began Ian conversationally.

 

“Right now, I’m staying at Nikki’s, in the little cottage out back.”

 

“You’re staying in the hippy hut? Wow Nikki must like you!” exclaimed Courtney.

 

“Or you’ve got some serious dirt on her,” offered Jordan.

 

“Or she owes you something,” added Ian.

 

Helen looked up with her brow knotted in confusion.

 

Courtney spoke up trying to explain.  “That hut is Nikki’s sanctuary.  She doesn’t allow many people to even set foot inside, let alone stay there.  Basically, Helen, you should be flattered.  It just means that Nikki must think pretty highly of you.”

 

Helen’s heart swelled at this explanation, although a small part of her feared that it could also mean that Nikki saw her as so desperately needy that she’d offered it up as some sort of charity.

 

The group worked in for a while companionable silence until Jordan decided to restart conversation. “So Helen, have you fallen for Nikki yet?”

 

Helen was speechless and stared blankly at Courtney and Ian as she began to blush.

 

Seeing her reaction was more telling than any verbal confirmation. Jordan nodded to himself. “Yep, never fails, everyone does.”

 

Relieved that she’d been let off the hook, Helen slowly regained her composure. “What do you mean everyone does?”

 

“Every time we bring on a new intern, get a new client, collaborate with a new firm… doesn’t matter who it is.  They’re all smitten.” 

 

“Doesn’t that cause problems for her?” queried Helen trying to keep an air of idle curiosity.

 

“Not really,” explained Courtney, “Well… other than embarrass her.   Nikki is the master at being friendly to everyone.  Damn! She can be such a charmer.  Not sure how, but she can make almost anyone feel interesting and important.  I’ve seen her carry on long conversations about the most bizarre topics with clients.  I’m telling you, her mind is the repository of the most random information.”

 

“Courtney, you’re getting side tracked,” interrupted Ian. “The key is that she also is able to keep all of them at an arm’s length.  Jordan calls it her ‘don’t fuck with me aura,’ but somehow everyone sees her as absolutely desirable, but utterly unattainable.  So they just leave her alone.  Or in our case, we’re around her so much that you start to see her as a friend, our boss, a role model, or any number of other things.  Once she’s become one of those you more or less stop thinking of her sexually.”

 

“Sexually?  Isn’t she a little old for some of you?” asked Helen, shocked.

 

“Come on Helen, have you looked at her?  We’ve collectively decided that the decade rule doesn’t apply to Nikki.”

 

“Decade rule?”

 

“Yeah, the one that says you shouldn’t date people with more than a 10 year age difference.”

 

“I hope in your case that means 10 years older, as I doubt folks 10 years younger than most of you have even hit puberty.” 

 

“Hey!  We’re not that young!  I’ll officially be back within ten years of Nikki next week!”

 

“And how old will you be?” Helen was trying to be casual but was relishing her chance to learn more about Nikki.

 

“24!”

 

Helen quickly made a mental note of Nikki’s age, pleased they were so near in age, before continuing in a teasing tone. “So you’re telling me that a 14 year old is fair game by your rules?  I believe there are laws against that, even in this country.”

 

“Ahh, but Helen, have you seen the 14 year olds down at the beach,” asked Jordan, emphasizing the word ‘seen’ with a suggestive leer.

 

“So bad! Don’t even go there J,” exclaimed Ian kicking Jordan in the shins.

 

The banter continued until Elise’s voice rang out over the yard. “Welcome to the gun show!”

 

An enthusiastic chorus of whoops and cat calls came from all parts of the yard.  Helen looked up unsure of what was happening until she noticed Elliott and Nikki stripping down to sleeveless tops.  Nikki was wearing a thin, white, racer-back top and Elliott, a t-shirt with cutoff sleeves. 

“The gun show?” asked Helen.

 

“Have you seen the biceps on our fearless leader?  Elliot’s a brave man to be willing to work next to her with bare arms.  It could do some serious damage your ego.”

 

Helen chuckled thinking that they were joking, but looking towards Nikki, her breath caught in her throat.  Nikki’s back was to her and she was swinging a pickaxe to break up compacted soils in preparation for laying the pervious pavers.  Each time she lifted the axe, well-defined muscle in her arms, shoulders, and back tensed for the next swing. “My god,” breathed Helen, “you could do an anatomy class on her.”

 

Helen’s tablemates exchanged amused glances.  Realizing that she’d spoken her thoughts aloud, Helen quickly settled into an embarrassed silence.  She tried to focus intently on her transplanting task, but continued to steel glances at Nikki.  She found that since she had allowed herself to admit her physical reaction to Nikki it was impossible to turn off.  Nikki had turned and was now facing Helen.  She set her axe aside and was now using a shovel to remove the dirt and rock that had been loosened.  Helen had never seen someone that could be so defined without looking hard or bulky.  Nikki pulled off the rare feat of appearing incredibly strong, but still smooth and soft.  As Nikki drove in the shovel head, Helen could make out the flexing of her pectoral muscles before they gave way to the softness of full breasts. 

 

Helen decided if she was going to keep from staring, and possibly drooling, drastic measures were needed.  She turned her chair to face the opposite direction and looked up at Courtney, Ian, and Jordan. “So how long have you all worked for Nikki?” 

 

The three exchanged knowing smiles at Helen’s obvious attempt to distract herself before Courtney answered. “I think Jordan and I have been here the longest. Most folks start and then try to stick around as long as possible.”

 

Helen smiled. “I can see why you all would want to stay. It’s not often that you can find a workplace as close knit as you appear to be.”

 

“Close knit?  I only stay to make sure this lot does go ruin all the work I’ve put in over the years,” countered Jordan, with a twinkle in his eye, which earned him a pair of punches to the shoulders.

 

“The real reason we all stay is because we want to make sure we’ve got mama bear in our corner when things go wrong,” offered Ian with a broad grin.  The corresponding smiles on Courtney and Jordan’s faces indicated their agreement.

 

“Mama bear?”

 

“Yeah… boss, fearless leader, super Wade, Sister Nicola Marie, mama bear… Nikki,” finished Jordan with an impish grin.

 

Helen couldn’t help, but laugh out loud at the string of nicknames. “Before I make you explain ‘mama bear,’ I’ve got to hear about ‘Sister Nicola Marie’.”

 

“You know anything about Nikki’s love life?” asked Courtney.

 

“Or lack there of,” interjected Ian. 

 

“Exactly!” confirmed Jordan.

 

Seeing Helen’s continued curiosity, Courtney explained further, now with a mischievous grin on her face, “Since Nikki seems to have taken a vow of celibacy; we decided to give her a nun name.  What do you think?”

 

“How’d you come up with that?” asked Helen, thoroughly amused, but also intensely curious.

 

“Well, Nikki is short for Nicola and Marie is a derivative of Mary, as in the mother of God.”  Jordan chuckled to himself, “That’s as reasoned an answer you’re going to get on that one.  I think the real reason is that after trying out a whole host of other names over lunch one day, that’s the one that we collectively thought sounded best.”

 

“But don’t repeat it to Nikki!” exclaimed Ian, eyes wide.

 

“Oh no Helen, she’d skin us alive if she knew we were sharing this nickname,” confirmed Courtney.

 

“Why is this one worse than the rest of them?”

 

“That’s easy.  It combines two things that are out of bounds with Nikki,” explained Jordan, “her given name and references to her love life.  Both are grounds for summoning the Wade temper, except if you’re Cory.  He can make the most suggestive sexual comments to her!  It’s so unfair.  Anyone else and you’d be likely to lose a limb.”

 

“Really, Helen, I’m not sure you could find something that would piss her off more,” added Ian seriously.

 

Courtney snorted indicating her disagreement with Ian’s comment and then seemed to let out a little squeak, which caused Jordan to start laughing.  Ian looked up confused until she repeated her aside.  This time Helen understood Courtney’s comment.  In a high pitched, sing song voice, Courtney seemed to be squealing, “Sticky fingers!”

 

The three dissolved into laughter just as Elise wandered up to the table.  Looking curiously at her workmates, she turned to Helen, “You know what they are on about?”

 

Looking puzzled, Helen answered. “Sticky fingers?”

 

Elise rolled her eyes. “I can’t see how you guys can laugh about the most terrifying day we’ve ever had at work.”

 

“Only because enough time has passed and it wasn’t directed at us!”

 

“What exactly is the meaning of sticky fingers?” asked Helen.

 

“Ok, let’s see how to explain this,” began Courtney. “Nikki’s trust is hard earned, but if you earn it she’ll go to the wall for you. In fact, that’s where the whole ‘mama bear’ thing comes from.  The flip side of that though is that if you betray her trust, her anger is just as fierce.”

 

“And someone betrayed her trust.”

 

“Big time,” confirmed Ian. “This person not only betrayed Nikki’s trust, but actually endangered her business too.”

 

“What happened?” asked Helen now feeling strangely protective of Nikki.

 

“Well we had an employee, she-who-will-not-be-named, that worked for Nikki for over a year,” continued Jordan.  “This person eventually reached a point where Nikki would send her out to sites alone.  To make a long story short, particularly valuable trinkets began to disappear from the homes of clients when she worked.”

 

Helen was shocked.  “What did Nikki do?”

 

“Scare the living shit out of everyone!” exclaimed Elise to murmurs of agreement.

 

“We were all treated to a front row seat to an eruption of Mt. Wade that day. I don’t’ think any of us had any idea how terrifying Nikki’s temper could be before that,” explained Courtney. “Needless to say, she-who-will-not-be-named lost her job and likely any chance to work at any firm in the central coast.  I think she actually ran off site.”

 

“Did Nikki contact the police?”

 

“No.  Nikki has a deep-seated distrust of the police.  In reality, losing her job and enduring the wrath of Wade was plenty of punishment.  Afterwards, Nikki contacted all the clients and replaced any items that not been returned.”  Courtney paused before continuing, now seemingly muttering to herself. “It took Nikki a little while to get over it… and that bitch made it so that we all had to re-earn her trust.”

 

“I could understand where Nikki was coming from though, as much as it sucked to be associated with it,” added Ian. 

 

“I’m glad you all were able to restore her faith.  It’s great to see that you are looking out for her,” said Helen looking at the assembled group. 

 

“I’m not sure how much looking out for her we do.  It feels selfish really.  We’re just protecting our protector,” countered Ian seriously.

 

“I think you’re selling yourself short.  She seems to think of you all as friends as much as employees.”

 

“I don’t think so, Helen, Nikki’s like a mother hen. She watches over all of us,” interjected Jordan.

 

“It’s really sweet.  She likes to pretend that she blends in and is just one of us, but she always seems to keep a small part of herself detached, watching to make sure we’re happy.”  Courtney squinted her eyes trying to think of way to explain.  “If you really want to see Nikki stop being the responsible adult and really just be herself, watch her with Claire and Cory.  It’s awesome!  She’ll hang out with us, but she only laughs like that with them.” 

 

“Think there’ll be dancing at the party?” asked Elise.

 

The eyes of all four staff members all grew in size and expectant grins soon graced all their faces. “Helen, if there’s dancing, we will have no need to justify our suspension of the decade rule,” grinned Ian.

 

“Oh my… just wait until you see the Nikki and Cory show.  I can’t believe Claire lets that happen.”

 

“Really?  I think she enjoys it as much as the rest of us, and she gets to take one of the participants home for the night, which is more than any of us can say.”  At this, conversation devolved into childish snickering.

 

--

 

 

“Well Helen, did they take good care of you? I’m sorry to have left you alone for so long.  I had no idea the paver project would take so long.”

 

Helen and Nikki were now headed home in Sprout after bidding everyone good night and locking up the office. 

 

“They were wonderful Nikki. You really have created an amazing workplace,” answered Helen seriously.  Thinking back on her day Helen realized that it was a perfect social setting because no one had asked any personal questions.  She was able to be swept up in the workplace banter and there were plenty of people to keep the conversation lively so she did not feel any pressure to participate more than was comfortable.   

 

“Thanks.  It means a lot to hear it.  I was worried that they might be a little overwhelming,” responded Nikki genuinely pleased.

 

“I could see why you might fear that, but they really were wonderful.  I can also say my day was very educational,” added Helen with a smirk.

 

“I take it you’re not talking about plants,” quipped Nikki with a roll of her eyes, imagining the tales her staff may have shared with Helen.

 

Helen’s only response was a knowing smile and a wink.

 

---

 

 

Part 15

 

“I thought you were going to stand me up,” called Nikki as Claire pushed through her front door.

 

“Stand you up?  Never!” laughed Claire.  “How else am I going to get the extra caffeine fix critical for surviving Mondays?”

 

“And here I thought you came for the company,” sighed Nikki in mock offense, which earned her a grin and peck on the cheek from Claire.  “Aren’t you going to be late for work?”

 

“Nope, I took today off.”

“Your office is going to start thinking you only work four days a week.”

 

“They are,” confirmed Claire.  “But isn’t that the point of having your own business? It should allow me to take the day off if I want, right?”

 

“I guess so.  But I don’t seem to have managed that trick.  It feels as though having my own business means fewer days off rather than more,” responded Nikki with a weak laugh.  “Speaking of which, I’ve got to get going. I’m sorry I can’t stay to talk, but you were late.  Are you heading back to see Helen?”

 

“We’re going shopping!” responded Claire gleefully. “Have you seen much of her lately?”

 

“She came with me to work on Friday, which was great!” began Nikki enthusiastically, before continuing in a more serious tone. “She’s been lying low this weekend.  Last week she warned me that she may want to be alone some days, so I’ve let her be.”

 

Claire noted that Helen’s silence seemed to sadden Nikki.  She didn’t think much about it, assuming Nikki simply liked having company after living alone for so long. 

 

“I’m glad she went with, I’m sure your staff was great entertainment,” smiled Claire.  “Now… get your lovely self to work.  I’m going to fetch Helen.  Have a great day, Nik.”

 

“Thanks Claire, I’ll try.  Have a good time shopping.”

 

Just as Nikki was leaving, Claire called out one more time. “Nik, if you need any help or supplies for the party, you’ll let me know, yeah?”

 

“I will.  Cheers.”

 

----

 

 

Claire watched in amusement as Helen silently wandered around the lingerie store.  It had been their first stop because Helen only brought a couple days worth given her hurried departure from London.  “Helen Stewart!  Do you intend on displaying your knickers while you are here?”

 

Helen looked up at her friend. “What do you mean?” Her tone was more aggressive than she intended in an effort to mask her embarrassment. 

 

Claire, unfazed by Helen’s tone, just rolled her eyes. “There is no practical reason to spend that kind of money,” began Claire, eyeing the 150 dollar black lace bra and matching thong in Helen’s hands, “unless you expect someone to see it… and like it.”  Claire finished with a twinkle in her eye, gazing at her friend.  She had a sneaking suspicion of who Helen was looking to seduce, but wanted Helen to admit it.  She also found that while she was happy that Helen had reached a point where she could think outside herself enough to even have a crush on someone, she wasn’t sure about how she felt about that person being Nikki.  She didn’t want to see Nikki hurt and Helen not only was on an emotional rebound, but she also was notorious for getting in too deep and leaving broken hearts in her wake. 

 

Claire stood outside waiting for Helen to pay for her lingerie.  When she emerged from the store, Claire looked at her expectantly.  “All right Stewart, where to next?”

 

“Well… I would like to get something so I can begin running again and I’d like to find some clothes for simply walking around town, going to the beach, or even out to a restaurant.  Not too many, but something beyond the jeans I was wearing when I arrived.  Your yoga pants and Cory’s t-shirts have been great for simply hanging about the house…”

 

“… but you’d rather feel like your gorgeous self or at least somewhat more put together now that you’ve decided to rejoin the world,” completed Claire with a smile.

 

Helen frowned. “You make it sound so superficial.  Is it so bad that now that I’m feeling better on the inside, I’d like my outside to match?”

 

“Helen, I’m joking.”  Claire looked at her friend with a smile now growing on her face. “But, if the trip to the lingerie store is any indication… you are either feeling much better than I thought or you’ve decided to set some lofty goals for your insides.”

 

Seeing Helen begin to pout, Claire laughingly continued. “There’s nothing wrong with a little consumer therapy.  I’m quite enjoying it.  It’s an excuse to visit all my favorite shops without parting with my money.  I can just live vicariously as I watch you blow yours.”

 

Helen seemed to relax, “All right Claire, lead the way. I’m ready to see your favorite shops.”  Helen stopped walking and looked at her friend, feigning concern, “You’re not going to take me to shops where the clothes are made of used bin liners and the shoes would be just as at home in a compost pile as my feet, are you?”

 

“Hey!  Helen, I’m hurt. Have a little faith!”  Claire glanced up at Helen seeing the teasing look on her face and burst into laughter.  “You’d think I was a tie-dye wearing, patchouli smelling hippy listening to you!”  As Claire’s laughter died she sheepishly looked back at Helen. “I promise you’ll find plenty of amazing clothes, but I reserve the right to restrict you to buying clothes from companies with good ethics.”

 

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” grinned Helen.

 

----

 

 

Now laden with shopping bags, Helen and Claire collapsed into their seats in an outdoor patio along State Street that allowed for people watching while enjoying a late afternoon meal.  The two had had a great day reminiscent of their friendship at university.   

 

“I can’t imagine it, but I have to ask.  Is there anything else you hoped to find today, but have not?” asked Claire with a laugh. 

 

“There is one thing, I still might need,” began Helen, now feeling a little uncomfortable.  “What should I wear for Nikki’s party?”

 

A sly, knowing smile began to pull at Claire’s lips, “That depends.”

 

“Depends on what?”

 

“Are you seeking to simply be appropriately dressed so that you don’t attract attention… or are you hoping to attract a certain type of attention?”  Claire’s eyebrows were raised, daring Helen to come clean.

Helen began to fumble with her napkin, eventually whispering, “I want to look good, Claire.”

 

“Are you looking to impress anyone in particular?” pressed Claire.

 

“Claire…” pleaded Helen.

 

“I take it this means you’ve noticed Nikki… and her many qualities.”

 

“I’ve been sad, not dead,” responded Helen, her cheeks now flushed with embarrassment.  “Not that I’d have a chance with a woman like that,” sighed Helen.

 

Claire was conflicted.  She wanted to shake Helen and remind her that a woman with her looks, smarts, and sense of humor could damn well land who ever she wanted, but she wasn’t sure she wanted her dear friend Nikki to serve as Helen’s ego boost.  She decided to simply be honest. 

 

“Helen, I don’t seem to remember you ever having trouble pulling whoever you wanted… with good reason, you’re amazing.”

 

Helen could hear it in Claire’s tone and decided to speed things up. “But…”

 

Claire let out a slow exhale and looked sadly at Helen. “I want you to feel loved and worthy of love and I want you to regain the confidence to seek that out, but I don’t want Nikki to be hurt.  She’s too dear a friend and Helen you have a spotty track record at best.  Nikki is one of the most beautiful human beings you will ever find, but she is also one of the most sensitive. So Helen, if you are acting on lust, go to the beach. If you need a good shag, you’ll find plenty appealing candidates there.”

 

Helen wanted to be angry, but she wasn’t.  She knew who Claire was trying to protect and couldn’t fault her for it. 

 

“I know Claire.”  Helen hung her head and tried to find someway to explain.  “I don’t think it’s just because I’m needy right now, but, to be honest, I’m real not sure what it is that I feel for Nikki.” 

 

Helen took another breath and then laughed to herself. “I’ll admit physical attraction is part of it.  How could it not be? She’s the most stunning woman I’ve ever laid eyes on.  But beyond that, it’s something else, something more.  She was the only person other than you that I felt I could talk to… even before I arrived in California.  There is just something about her, Claire…” Helen was lost for a way to describe what she felt partly because she wasn’t sure herself. “…I like the way I feel when I’m near her.”

 

Helen stopped again trying to gather her thoughts. “God, that sounds so selfish.  Have you ever met someone that seems to bring out the best in you?  Where you find that you like the person you are when they are around and it’s not that they do anything in particular, it just that the whole world seems different somehow.”

 

Claire stared at Helen. She had been expecting a sarcastic retort telling her to mind her own business, not a heartfelt confession.  “Ok Helen, I can see you’re looking for more than mindless sex, but please think carefully about what you want and what you’re in a position to give,” pleaded Claire.  “I really don’t want to see Nikki’s heart broken.  I presume that you’re going to heading back to London eventually.  Please don’t abuse her kindness.”

 

“Claire, don’t you think this whole conversation is a little premature?  From the sounds of it, Nikki’s not exactly one to just jump into a relationship, even of the temporary variety,” sighed Helen.

 

“I’ll grant you that.  She’s been single as long as I’ve known her. But I think you underestimate yourself.  It’s possible you’ve already made an impression,” replied Claire thinking back to her morning conversation with Nikki.

 

Helen didn’t respond.  As the food arrived, both women were content to stare out at the passing crowds and savor their meals.  Helen couldn’t stop thinking about Nikki.  She was torn.  She wanted to get to know her, to develop a closer relationship with her, to at least try, but knew that she had little offer either in terms of emotional stability or time.  While these two thoughts dueled in her mind, a third broke in reminding Helen that Nikki may not even be interested.

 

Thinking about her day with Nikki’s staff, Helen asked, “Has Nikki really taken a vow of celibacy?”

 

“Is that what her staff told you?” responded Claire curiously.

 

“Sister Nicola Marie,” replied Helen.

 

“Who? Oh, no… they don’t really call her that, do they?” asked Claire, eyes wide, before bursting in uncontrolled laughter.

 

While Helen could see the humor in it, she wanted an answer.  She patiently waited for Claire to recover, before repeating her question. “Well, has she?”

 

“I doubt Nikki thinks of it that way, but I suppose she has.”

 

“Do you know why?”

 

“Honestly Helen, I really don’t.  She doesn’t talk much about her life before she arrived in California.  I get the feeling that someone broke her heart.”

 

“It’s a bit of an overreaction, don’t you think?”

 

“Perhaps, but Helen you need to understand something.  Nikki doesn’t do things by half measures.  She throws herself into everything completely or not at all.  That’s why her staff adores her and that’s why she’s such an amazing friend… actually that’s likely also why she has such a ferocious temper.  While I don’t know, because I’ve never seen it, I suspect she loves the same way.  What would be a painfully process for anyone, a broken heart for Nikki would likely feel like betrayal on every level.  I desperately want Nikki to find someone, but Helen you’re just figuring yourself out and you’re going to leave.  I love you both, but I can tell you now that I’ll have a hard time forgiving you if you hurt her.”

 

Helen’s heart contracted as Claire described Nikki’s passion.  Helen knew enough of Nikki to realize that Claire was right.  Just the thought of feeling that kind of love rocked Helen.  She looked up at Claire and immediately felt ashamed.    

 

Claire watched Helen’s face.  She could see a range of emotions play across her features from anger that someone might have hurt Nikki, to awe at the prospect of Nikki’s love, to anguish.  Sensing that Helen’s mood was becoming somber, Claire attempted to lighten the conversation.  “While I’m not sure the timing is right, I have to admit that Nikki certainly marks an improvement in your taste in prospective partners.”

 

“What do you mean?” asked Helen slowly.

 

“Oh come on Stewart.  While I respect that fact that you aren’t picky about gender and I’m glad you’ve made peace with it, you are rarely more discerning when comes to the more important issues… like personality.”

 

Helen’s response was to weakly toss her napkin in Claire’s direction, before acknowledging her comment. “Ok… she would be a big step up from Gregory… and Alice.”

 

“And Sean and Rochelle and Avery and…” offered Claire pretending to tick them off on her fingers.

 

“That’s enough Claire.  I get your point.  I’m complete crap at choosing boyfriends… or girlfriends,” responded Helen feeling embarrassed. Helen began to speak again, but stopped, the words dying on her lips.  Regaining her composure, Helen breathed, “I’ve never even asked.  I just assumed. Is Nikki even open to dating women?”

 

Claire could only shake her head with a small smile playing at her lips.  “You mean we’ve had this whole conversation with you not only assuming that you could pull Nikki, but that you could even if she was straight?”

 

Helen was now blushing.  “No! Well… yes… is she?”

 

“I still don’t know if this is a good thing, Helen, but, yes, Nikki is gay.”

 

---

 

 

Claire and Helen spent a few more hours browsing the shops, successfully finding something for them each to wear to the party.  Having more than filled Helen’s shopping needs, they returned to Claire’s car to head home. 

 

“Thanks for a wonderful day, Claire.”  More seriously, Helen added, “Thank you for talking with me, I needed a sounding board.”

 

“It was a pleasure,” responded Claire warmly. Claire had gotten out of the car and was walking her around the side of the house towards the cottage. 

 

“Claire, I do have one more favor to ask.”

 

“Sure Helen, what do you need?”

 

“Could you give me the phone number for the women’s shelter?”

 

Claire stopped, leveling a questioning look at Helen, surprised by the request.  “Sure Helen.”

 

“Before you ask, I don’t know why or what I hope to do or get out of it, but I want the option to figure it out, ok?”

 

Claire smiled and wandered into the cottage.  She reached into her purse retrieving her cell phone and a small slip of paper.  Finding the number stored on her phone, Claire began to jot down the number. “The director’s name is Denise Shaw.  I’ve given you her direct line.  I don’t know what you are looking for Helen, but she’s a great woman and can likely point you in the right direction.”

 

“Thanks Claire. I appreciate it. I am truly grateful… for everything.”

 

Claire tilted her head in acknowledgement, giving Helen a warm smile before exiting the cottage and heading to her car.

 

---

 

 

Part 16

 

“Hey Nikkkkkaaaayyyy!” shouted Courtney as she and Elliott walked into the house carrying large glass, two-gallon jugs with spigots at the base.  “Where do you want these? There are four more coming.”

 

Party preparations were in full swing.  People had been coming in and out of Nikki’s house all day.  Long, narrow tables had been set up at either end of the deck to hold food and drink.  A large table had been set up in the center for dinner.  Two gas grills were resting in the garden waiting for cooking to commence. 

 

“Just line them up on the far table, with the spigots hanging over the edge.  Thanks, you two.”

 

“So… are these containers going to hold what I think they are?” asked Courtney with an expectant grin as she turned to go back outside to retrieve the remaining jugs.

 

“You’ll just have to wait and see, won’t you?” called Nikki.

 

As the final two were carried in, Nikki offered her helpers a cold drink and joined them for a short break on the deck. 

 

“So Nik,” began Elliott, sipping his drink.  “Your friend Helen, she’s a lawyer, right?”

 

Nikki’s head snapped up looking at Elliott.  “How did you know that?”

 

Elliott shrugged.  “I googled her.”

 

“You what? That’s stalking Elliott!”

 

“Easy there boss, I do it to everyone.”

 

“El… I really don’t want to know.”

 

“Fine. That’s not the point anyway.  I wanted to know if you thought I could bring Helen to class with me for show and tell.”

 

“Excuse me?” demanded Nikki, with a baffled look on her face.

 

“It’s not as dirty as you’re making it sound. Geez Nik, give me some credit.  I looked her up, yes, but I want to take her to my summer class at UCSB.  It’s in international policy.  We are required to do a presentation or line up a guest speaker as part of the class.  Have you looked at her bio?  She’s amazing.  She’d be perfect to talk about the role of NGOs in foreign relations and human rights.”

 

Nikki’s initial shock eased as Elliott continued his explanation.  She also decided that a bit of internet surfing may be in her future.  “I don’t know what she’d say, Elliott.  I think you’d best just ask her.  I’d leave out the parts that make you seem like a creepy stalker, though.” 

 

“You’re all heart boss,” laughed Elliott. “I am going to ask her.  Getting someone with her experience in the door should assure me an ‘A’.”

 

“I’m sure Helen would be flattered to know that your interest is in getting a good grade and not learning from her experience,” deadpanned Nikki.

 

“Of course I want to hear what ever she’d have to say, but I’m not going to argue if it gets me brownie points with Prof. Harris.”

 

“Go for it, Elliott.  All she can do is say no.”

 

“Thanks.  That makes me feel real confident.” 

 

---

 

 

All the supplies had been delivered and Nikki was busying herself in the kitchen putting the final touches on the food and drink preparation.  Looking down at her watch, she had a little over an hour before Cory was slated to arrive to watch the grill.  The rest of the dinner guests would follow a half hour later.  Nikki did a final survey of her kitchen and retreated to the bathroom to shower and ready for the party. 

 

A sharp, drawn out whistle startled Nikki as she organized the food trays in her kitchen.

 

“Damn!  I thought you only dressed like that for me!”

 

Nikki turned from her task with a broad smile to be wrapped in a bear hug that lifted her off the ground and swung her around. “Cory, you know this is just because I knew we’d have a half hour alone,” laughed Nikki as she found her footing again and patted Cory’s cheek. 

 

“All right sexy, I guess I can buy that explanation,” offered Cory pretending to give it some thought.  There was a long pause, interrupted by the laughter that neither could hold back.  Leaning casually against the counter, Cory surveyed the kitchen. “I know I’m here to work.  Where are these grills and what am I cooking?”

 

Nikki awarded Cory with a grateful grin.  “Grills are out in the yard and we’ve got something for everyone.  Seasoned halibut and jumbo shrimp, steak that we’ll slice into strips, and for the vegetarians there’s a bunch of vegetables to be grilled and some seasoned tempeh.” 

 

Cory whistled again, “I’d forgotten the wonder that is a Wade party.  I’m going to go get the grills warming and then I’ll be back for everything that goes on them.”  He sauntered out the door towards the garden. 

 

---

 

Helen had spent the day at Claire’s house and had chosen to dress for the party there.  The two women had left shortly after Cory with the intention of arriving a few minutes early so they could enjoy a bit of calm before things got underway.

 

As they pulled up in front of Nikki’s house, Claire looked over at Helen.  “This might be the first time you’ve ever been early for a party.”

 

“It is not!” answered Helen. Seeing the look of disbelief on Claire, Helen began laughing. “Ok, so the only time I tend to be early is when someone like you has harassed me into it.”

 

Helen and Claire wandered into Nikki’s house and on to the deck.  It looked beautiful.  The narrow table to one end was draped in black fabric and lined with the glass jugs delivered earlier in the day that had been filled with a variety of colorful drinks.  The dining table appeared overflowing with food.   

 

“Wow!  The scenery just keeps improving,” smiled Cory gazing appreciatively at the two women now standing on the deck.

 

“Talking to yourself is an early sign of mental instability, Cory!” shouted Nikki from a hidden spot somewhere within the garden, which prompted giggles from the new arrivals.

 

Nikki emerged from her garden carrying flowers in her hand ready to shoot another quip Cory’s way, but stopped short at the sight on her deck, words dying on her lips.  Helen was similarly powerless to move or speak.  Neither woman could take her eyes off the other.

 

Nikki was wearing black capris hanging dangerously low on her hips.  She wore a pale blue vest with a deep vee in front revealing a hint of cleavage.  The top tied around her neck, leaving her back bare, and ended a few inches short of her trousers revealing just a glimpse of her golden, toned stomach.  Her hair was a loosely controlled mane of dark curls.  Subtle eye makeup seemed to both enlarge and darken her eyes and a thin layer of color highlighted her lips.  Against the blue top, the bronzed skin of her shoulders and neck glowed. 

 

Helen couldn’t believe that anyone could look so untamed, yet somehow also appear perfectly refined and incredibly sexy.  Her whole body seemed to weaken; legs became shaky, breath short, pulse racing.  She was unable to do anything but gape. 

 

Claire and Cory were silently observing the situation, eyes moving from Nikki to Helen and back.  Nikki was in no more a condition to form intelligible sentences than Helen.

 

Nikki had only seen fleeting glimpses of Helen all week.  She saw her head out some mornings in running shorts and noted that after returning, presumably to shower and change, she often left, spending the bulk of her afternoon away.  Nikki was thrilled that Helen was attending the party, if only for the chance to spend some time with her.  She was not, however, prepared for the impact of Helen dressed in something other than jeans or Cory’s t-shirts.

 

Helen was wearing a silk, pale green dress.  It was held up by thin spaghetti straps and clung to her figure just past her hips before dropping loosely to her knees.  Her hair shined and her makeup accentuated her green eyes, flawless skin, and full lips.  It was clear that she had spent some time at the beach during the intervening week as her skin had acquired a healthy glow. The thin silk of the dress seemed to glide smoothly over every inch of Helen’s body making Nikki wonder if it was even possible for anything to be underneath.  Just the thought caused Nikki to swallow hard and involuntarily lick her lips. 

 

Cory could no longer contain himself.  Speaking more loudly than necessary, he broke the silence. “Well! I think we all can use a drink to cool off, don’t you Claire?”

 

Claire could only smile indulgently at her husband and nod her head.  She realized that no amount of warning to either of her friends was going to save them from what she still thought could be a complete train wreck.  Seeing their shared attraction, she silently absolved herself of responsibility and decided that she was simply going to enjoy watching what promised to be an entertaining game played by her two closest friends.

 

“You’re right Cory, how about getting us all a drink Nik?”

 

This seemed to finally snap Helen and Nikki out of their daze.

 

Shaking her head to clear it, Nikki walked up on the deck to greet Helen and Claire and explain the drinks setup.  Normally she would have embraced both women in greeting, but opted instead to give them a warm smile.  She was certain that bodily contact with Helen would prove  overwhelming.  To hide her discomfort, she turned towards the drinks table and began to explain.

 

“All right, so there’s ice in the insulated container at the end and then you can choose what you’d like over it.  There’s sangria, which may not need the ice, margaritas, mojitos, and, for the more adventurous, there’s a few of my own creations down at the end.”  Nikki was glad for something to explain as it allowed her a chance to regain her composure.  “If you’re boring or over-indulge in the summer drinks… there’s some nonalcoholic, homemade lemonade and water in the pitchers.  And for Cory, there’s also beer.”

 

“What’d you pick out?” called Cory from his post at the grills.  “You know I like it doggie-style, Wade.”

 

Nikki began to laugh, Claire just rolled her eyes, and Helen looked up with a mixture of confusion and alarm.

 

“Cory, I know all about that particular preference… but I’ve decided that for tonight, I’d leave it to your wife,” replied Nikki raising her eyebrows at Claire.  “I chose Fat Tire as that ups the odds of Claire drinking beer since it doesn’t offend her environmental sensibilities.”

 

Realizing that Helen may need an explanation, Claire leaned over to whisper in her ear. “Believe it or not, there’s a beer called ‘doggie style.’  I’m not even sure Cory likes it.  I just think he wants able to order it and say he likes it.”

 

Helen let out a small laugh of understanding.  She was grateful for the return of the playful banter as it was a perfect distraction from her physical and emotional response to Nikki.  Helen decided that a drink could either calm her nerves or make her forget them, both of which would be welcome.  She headed over to the row of jugs to grab a glass and add ice.  Staring at the colorful contents, Helen turned to Nikki, “I’m not sure I’m adventurous enough to try your personal concoctions without at least a bit more explanation.”

 

“So little faith! You’d think after treating you to fish tacos, you would know I’d never lead you astray.”

 

Claire sidled up to Helen and turned her so that she was facing the garden. “I have a suspicion that we could figure it out by just looking at what’s ripe in the garden.”  Turning to Nikki, she continued, “I’m betting that this brown colored one is part iced tea, part fresh lemonade, the green bits are mint, and that there’s a kick provided by something. And… this pink one definitely has fresh strawberries in it and I suspect that it also has some more of the citrus from the yard, yes?”

 

“You’re on the right track Walker,” smiled Nikki, indicating that no further explanation would be forthcoming.

 

The three women were now settled onto chairs enjoying what would be the first of many drinks that evening.  Cory had returned to the grill.  Soon, Nikki’s staff began to trickle in and Nikki excused herself to play hostess, making sure everyone had a beverage and that food from the grill made it safely on to the table. 

 

Dinner was raucous, as expected.  The food, provided in mass quantities, was incredible.  The relaxed, fun atmosphere, fueled by friendship and alcohol, was a perfect opportunity for Helen to ease her way back into a party setting.  Both Claire and Nikki noticed that Helen’s shoulders had begun to relax and her smile seemed truly free and genuine.  Nikki had kept an eye on Helen throughout the evening, savoring her chance to get a glimpse of who she must have been before Emma died.  It made her indescribably happy to watch Helen sharing dinner with her dearest friends and colleagues.

 

As dinner wound down and people began to push back from the table, Nikki stood up to say a few words to the assembled group.  “All right everyone, could you give me a minute?”

 

As everyone turned their attention to her, Nikki continued.  “While you are all still at least partially coherent, I’m going to try to be serious for just a moment.”

 

“Is that possible?” shouted someone from the table.

 

“Sometimes… if it’s deserved.  For some reason, I got it into my head that you lot were worthy,” laughed Nikki as she affectionately looked around the table.  “After five years in this god forsaken country, you lot were the best I could do... I’m glad you’re all here.”

 

“You said you’d be serous!”

 

“I’m trying,” answered Nikki with a lopsided grin.  “I am very appreciative of all the work everyone put into the home tour a few weeks back. Claire for dreaming the damn thing up and to all of you for making it happen.  I also wanted to welcome Helen to the festivities.” 

 

Helen looked up at Nikki giving her a wide grin that made Nikki’s heart skip a beat and caused her to lose her train of thought for a moment.  Nikki tore her focus away from Helen and back to the table in an effort to gather her thoughts and continue. She individually recognized the contributions of her staff and encouraged everyone to have a great night.  As she sat back down, Nikki spoke again trying to deflect attention from herself and make sure Helen was included in conversation.  “For those that didn’t know, Helen was a certain blonde’s roommate at university.  If anyone can, Helen may be able to offer some insight to into our favorite architect’s past.”

 

Leaning back in her chair and reaching for her drink, Nikki turned to Helen, “So tell us, was Claire always as perfect as she is now?”

 

”Was she always as straight as she is now?” piped Courtney.

 

“Hey, I’m not sure I like that line of questioning,” scolded Cory playfully.

 

“Why not, if she once liked girls too that means she picked you out of a much larger pool of people, right?” reasoned Jordan

 

“I guess you could say that…” responded Cory slowly.

 

“I’m glad that you see it that way Cory because I think there is evidence that Claire has at least some appreciation of the fairer sex,” began Helen trying to hide the smile that was gnawing at the corners of her mouth.  All eyes went to Helen who was now grinning mischievously.

 

“Oh no you don’t!” yelled Claire, eyes wide with shock.

 

As Cory watched the interaction between Helen and Claire, he realized that he knew to what Helen was referring, “Oh yes! I think this is a perfect story.  Go on Helen, this lot will love it!”

 

Helen looked around and realized she had everyone’s attention. Rather than feeling uncomfortable, she was surprised to find herself enjoying it.  She graced Claire with a winning smile and started her story, “Well back in college, Claire didn’t hold her drink too well.”

 

“She still doesn’t!!” shouted nearly everyone in unison.

 

At this, Helen burst into laughter.  Turning to Claire she quipped, “Some things never change, eh?”  Turning to the rest of the group she asked, “Does she do a better job of holding her tongue these days?”

 

Claire now had her head in hand. “Helen, you tell this story, I may never live it down.  Do you realize your audience?”  Thinking of Nikki’s staff, she groaned.  “I may never visit you at work again, Nikki.”

 

All eyes turned expectantly to Helen waiting for her to continue. “Well, on this particular evening Claire had enough to drink that she believed herself to have great insight into just about everything.  We were at a house that was packed with people and the music suddenly stopped.”

 

Helen’s story was interrupted, by Claire whimpering into Cory’s shoulder.

 

“I take it our favorite architect decided to entertain a restless crowd?” prompted Nikki.

 

“Hmmm…” Helen seemed to think carefully, trying to suppress her grin, “I think educate would be the more accurate term for what Claire was trying to do.”

 

“Helen! Do you have to draw it out?” pleaded Claire.

 

“Well, it’s going to take longer if you keep interrupting!”

 

“Will you remind me why I welcomed you to California?”

 

“Because you’re a great friend and you love me…” Helen turned a wide, false smile towards Claire and batted her eyelashes.

 

“I do love you, Helen Stewart, and as proof I’m not going to shoot you on the spot for polluting the only place I have left that can’t tease me about this.”

 

“Oh good, because at this point they’ll all find out from Cory even if you succeed in stopping me,” countered Helen with a wry grin.

 

“Oh thanks, that’s a great comfort!”

 

“Hey you two, as much as we’re enjoying the bickering we’re waiting for the dirt on Claire.  Come on Helen!  Finish the story!”  pleaded Elise.

 

“Ok, ok!  Where was I?  Oh yes, big house party, the music system goes out, and Claire decides to give all in attendance a little education… it’s coming back to me now,” Helen grinned.  “Your beloved blonde here hopped up on a coffee table, got everyone’s attention, and began, in a very academic tone, to give a lecture.”

 

“Claire! Only you would decide to give a lecture when pissed,” added Nikki.

 

“Oh but the title of this lecture was ‘My favorite parts of the human body’ by Claire Walker!”

 

A cacophony of snorts, giggles, and shocked gasps interrupted Helen’s story this time. 

 

Helen, enjoying the reactions from Claire’s American family of friends, cocked her head to ponder for a moment. “Now that I think of it Claire, I don’t remember you taking an anatomy course while you were in school, but you must have as you were quite detailed in your discussion,” Helen paused again before continuing, “either that or you had some extensive experience with both sexes that I didn’t know about.”

 

Cory couldn’t contain himself anymore. “Oh but it gets better!  Helen, you’ve got to explain how she started her treatise.”

 

Helen just grinned, “You want to help me Cory?”

 

Claire now just had her head buried in her arms to hide the fact that she was now beat red with embarrassment.

 

“Well as you all know a good lecture has to start with a great opening statement.  So, you might wonder how our favorite architect began so that she was ensured the rapt attention of everyone around her.  She got up on the table, held out her arms to quiet the crowd before thrusting them in the air and declaring exuberantly…” Helen, who was now standing, paused to make eye contact with Cory, who also stood up, and in unison they enthusiastically yelled, “Breasts are cool!”

 

Helen, Cory and the rest of the dinner gathering broke into a fit of laughter. 

 

Nikki finally found her voice to choke out, “My god, if my neighbors thought I was a little eccentric before, I shudder to know what they think of me now.” 

 

“Claire, here I thought you were as straight as they come!” Courtney shouted.

 

“If you’d heard the detail with which she discussed nipples after her opening statement, you’d definitely revise that assessment!” declared Helen who never ceased to find the story funny.

 

“So Cory, how do you know the story so well?” asked Jordan as the laughter began to die down.

 

“Evidently, just about every friend from Claire’s college years was a witness to this little educational lecture. When we were in London, each time we met one of her old friends for dinner or at a pub Claire was still greeted with some variation on ‘breasts are cool,’” Cory chuckled.  He then turned to his wife in an attempt to be serious, “I’m sorry dear, but while we’ve all done stupid, silly things when drunk, few of us have done something quite as quotable.  I’m also sorry you will now have live with this in your adopted country as well.”  Cory’s kind words would have sounded more sincere if the dimple on his right cheek had disappeared.

 

“That’s a nice sentiment Cory.  I’d be nicer if I really thought you meant it!” laughed Claire, who was obviously not very upset about this as she ultimately had been laughing along with everyone else.  She had long since made peace with this particular story and could certainly see the humor in it.  This did not, however, stop her from continuing to find it a least a little embarrassing.

 

As dinner slowly wound down, all the guests gathered the food and plates, carried them to the kitchen, and removed the dinner tables from the deck to make room for the dancing to come. 

 

---

 

 

Part 17

 

As darkness fell, strings of tiny white lights that had been hung along deck railing and strung through branches of selected trees in the yard created a festive, fairytale-like atmosphere.  An endless stream of new arrivals were pouring through house onto the deck and into the garden.

 

“How many people do you expect tonight?” asked Helen, watching the growing crowd.

 

“I’m sure we’ll be over 50; I’m hoping we stay under 75 or so, though,” replied Nikki.  She had joined Helen on the periphery of the party to simply catch her breath.  

 

“That many?” exclaimed Helen.

 

“Yeah… well… you heard me tell the team that while dinner was only for staff that they could invite anyone they wanted to the party.  Funny how many 20-year olds will show up for free drinks,” responded Nikki rolling her eyes.  More seriously, she added, “I also think that Claire’s office will be coming and Cory invited his workmates and football buddies.”

 

Helen’s eyes grew wide as she considered the number of people that would soon fill the deck and garden. Nikki immediately worried that a large crowd of unfamiliar people might not be what Helen had envisioned when she agreed to attend the party.

 

“I hope all this isn’t too much,” said Nikki gesturing at the horde of people now milling around the deck and garden.

 

Helen was touched by the concern in Nikki’s voice and gave her a grateful smile.  “It’s been a wonderful evening, Nikki.  I’ll be fine. And I have an escape route if I need it.  I’ll just retreat into the cottage.”

 

“You’ll let me know if you reach that point, yeah?”

 

Helen nodded that she would, keeping her eyes fixed on the party unfolding before her.  She was feeling uneasy, but it was not due the growing crowd.  Having covertly observed Nikki all evening, her easy grace, quick wit, and innate compassion, she realized that her feelings ran much deeper than she even let on to Claire.  It wasn’t just that she found Nikki’s company comforting and her beauty mesmerizing. Helen wanted to deserve her kindness and earn her respect and love.  As this thought occurred to her, she blushed. Helen allowed herself to admit, at least internally, that her desire for Nikki’s love was a wish that her own feelings were returned.  She had come to the party with the intention of seducing Nikki, but the realization that she wanted more made her nervous. The stakes of this game had just become terrifying. 

 

Nikki stared at Helen as they stood in the shadows of the garden.  The smaller woman was simply stunning.  Helen appeared to be lost in her own thoughts and Nikki initially tried to respect her silence, but knowing she would soon be pulled into the chaos and was unlikely to have another moment alone with Helen, she decided to interrupt.  She leaned down, gently laying her hand on the small of Helen’s back, and whispered in her ear.  “I should have told you earlier, you look amazing…”  Nikki stopped, becoming uncomfortable. She was worried that even a simple compliment would betray too much and possibly frighten Helen. Taking a deep breath, Nikki continued, “…and Helen, I’m really glad that you’re here even if it took some terrible circumstances to bring you to California.”

 

The combination of Nikki’s words and her proximity, which allowed Helen to smell her perfume and feel the warmth of her body, was overwhelming.  Her only response was to audibly sigh and lean into Nikki allowing her arm to move from her back and wrap around her waist.  Knowing it would be short lived, Nikki savored the moment.  Turning her head, she buried her nose in Helen’s hair and gave her gentle squeeze, before excusing herself to tend to her guests. 

 

---

 

During the reorganization of the deck from dining to dancing, a set of turntables and associated equipment was positioned in one corner.  Nikki had lined up a DJ for the evening through a friend of one her staff. Music now blared through the speakers that had been discretely positioned around the deck.  Slowly the party began to hit stride.  The deck soon filled with bodies moving in rhythm and the garden became the place for mingling. 

 

Claire and Cory made sure to keep an eye on Helen.  They introduced her to their workmates and associated friends, all of whom were excited to meet another import and hear something of Claire’s past.  The crisp summer evening, music, endless drinks, and easy conversation made Helen feel wonderful.  She was shocked to find that she had been happily flitting between conversations with her new acquaintances for over an hour.  She finally excused herself, finding a quiet spot under a tree that afforded a good view of the dancing on the deck.

 

“Aren’t you the little social butterfly?” joked Claire, giving Helen’s shoulder an affectionate nudge as she joined her under the tree.

 

Helen smiled softly in reply.  “It’s been a nice evening Claire.” 

 

“You know that you deserve it, don’t you Helen?” asked Claire, recognizing that Helen’s past social reluctance was one side effect of her guilt over Emma’s death.

 

“I’m not sure I’m to the point of believing that, but I am learning to accept kindness.”  Thinking of Nikki, Helen continued, “I’d like to get to a point where I feel enough like my old self that I deserve it.”

 

“Helen,” began Claire throwing her arm over her shoulder, “maybe you should think of it like this. You’ve met a bunch of really amazing people this evening, yes?”  Claire waited for Helen to nod before continuing.  “A bunch of amazing people would not be kind to you or want to chat with you if you weren’t deserving.”

 

Claire was rewarded with another smile from Helen and a tilt of her head in acknowledgement.  The two women stood silently, sipping their drinks, watching the crowd, their eyes settling on the deck, now functioning as a dance floor.

 

“What this I hear about Nikki and Cory dancing together?”

 

A silly grin was now drawing across Claire’s face.  “I don’t’ know what you’ve heard, but it’s likely true and I’m not going to try to explain it.  You’ll get to see for yourself eventually.  I’m sure they’ve both had nearly enough to drink to begin the show.”

 

“The show?”

 

“Helen, it really is something you have to see to believe.”

 

As the two women stood simply enjoying the atmosphere, the music, which had been a predictable, danceable blend, shifted.  The beat slowed slightly as remixed reggae with a driving, ragged bass that could only be described as dirty rumbled through the speakers, shaking the glasses now perched on the railing.  It was the kind of beat that reached into your ribcage to dictate heartbeat, caused your knees to drop, and your hips to rock.

 

Nikki had been playfully dancing with some her staff, reliving some the more unfortunate dance trends of the last several decades.  As the music shifted, Nikki caught Cory’s eye and he began beckoning her with a curl of his finger.  With a broad smile and a wink, Nikki made her way towards Cory.  As she got close, Cory reached out and spun her forcefully towards him.  The spin stopped with Cory and Nikki hip to hip, knees slightly bent, bodies grinding in rhythm.  Nikki’s arms were soon hanging behind her, Cory held her with one hand on her low back, bodies molded together. 

 

Helen was mesmerized.  Nikki’s lithe body moved so sensually.  As she watched Cory take Nikki’s hand and lower her down his leg and watched her shimmy back up, Helen gasped.  Deciding she needed another, much stronger drink, she headed over to the spigots, but this time topped her fruity drink with an additional shot of vodka.  She then returned to Claire’s side and continued to watch the dancers that were now the focus of most people’s attention. 

 

“Are you really all right with your husband dancing like that with another woman?” asked Helen, nodding towards the pair, before adding, “And I thought you said Nikki was gay.”

 

“First, it’s not just some other woman.  It’s Nikki… and, yes she’s still gay.  Stop starring at their bodies and look at their faces.”

 

Helen forced herself to follow Claire’s instructions and immediately understood.  Cory and Nikki’s expressions were in distinct contrast with the sexual nature of their dancing.  They appeared to be on the verge of hysterical laughter.  Making faces at each other, intentionally over the top seductive expressions, just trying to see who could push the other further.  Helen realized that it was like a game of chicken trying to see who broke first.  “Do they do this often?”

 

Claire smiled seeing that Helen understood the nature of the odd relationship between Nikki and Cory.  “All the time, I can’t say I understand it, but I find it more entertaining than anything else.  They’ll just push each other until one of them starts laughing.  What happens when you add alcohol is that both will push it a lot further than normal.”

 

As they watched, Nikki seductively ran her hand down Cory’s chest daring him to respond, their hips never parting and the rhythm never broken.  His answer was to lean Nikki back. She arched her back and let her head fall, Cory openly gazing at the cleavage now clearly visible.  As Nikki swung back up, Claire looked over at Helen. “All right Stewart, if you need extra courage, finish that drink, but I think it’s time that we broke up the floor show.”

 

Helen looked up questioningly at Claire.

 

“If I’m going to cut in and steal Cory, it’d only be polite to bring someone to dance with Nikki,” answered Claire innocently.

 

Helen’s eyes widened in shock.

 

“Oh come on Helen, I saw the way you looked at her.  Didn’t you buy that dress with the intent of seducing Nikki?”

 

Helen glanced down at her glass, “Yeah, I guess I did.”

 

“And you’re hesitant to dance because…”

 

“I’m scared Claire,” answered Helen softly enough that Claire could barely hear her over the music.  Looking up at Claire, she continued, “I’m not sure it’s just Nikki’s heart that you should be worried about.”

 

“Oh honey,” smiled Claire squeezing shoulder.

 

“I’m falling for her, Claire.”

 

“Helen,” began Claire soothingly.  “I don’t think you’re alone.  Nikki can barely keep her eyes off you.”

 

“She doesn’t seem to have much problem right now,” pouted Helen as she watched Nikki laugh at something Cory had said, her arms now comfortably thrown over his shoulders, their bodies still keeping perfect time to the music. 

 

Claire grabbed Helen’s hand, led her onto the deck, and approached Cory and Nikki, tapping Cory on the shoulder.  Cory’s face broke into a wide grin as he turned to see his wife. 

”May I cut in?” asked Claire with a flirty smile.

 

“Absolutely!” exclaimed Cory picking Claire up enthusiastically.  Squealing with glee, Claire wrapped her legs around Cory’s waist as he began to dance, carrying his petite wife around the deck. 

 

Nikki looked at Helen questioningly.  “Shall we?”

 

Helen’s response was a small smile and raised eyebrows.

 

Holding out her hand, Nikki asked, “Helen, would you like to dance?”

 

Tilting her head in acceptance, Helen took Nikki’s hand and curtsied with a smirk.

 

Nikki could only laugh and pull her closer. 

 

Helen closed her eyes and let herself feel the pulsing bass; she began to subtly move her hips to the music.  After a few minutes her entire body was engaged and the music seemed to course through her, driving the rhythmic movement of her hips.  Nikki had watched Helen begin to dance.  She stayed close, but not close enough for their bodies to touch.  Their hands continued to be the only point of contact.  Nikki’s eyes feasted on the woman now seductively circling her hips to the hypnotic beat, the silk of her dress sliding smoothly over her body. 

 

Helen finally opened her eyes, gazing intently at Nikki, inviting her to join in with just a look.  Nikki gradually moved into Helen’s space and as they found each other’s rhythm, their bodies molded together, legs entwined.  Nikki laid one hand on Helen’s hip and Helen took her opposite arm and let it drape casually over Nikki’s shoulder.  Hip to hip, they allowed the music to simply take over, forgetting everyone around them, focusing only on the feel their bodies and pulse of the music.  Their hips were moving in unison, stomachs gently brushing with each beat.

 

Nikki’s hand was gliding, lightly over Helen’s hip with the silk of her dress.  Helen found the subtle movement maddening, wanting more, and firmer, contact.  For Nikki, the movement of her hand on Helen’s hip confirmed her suspicion that the Scot had little on under her summery, green dress.  They now danced with their eyes locked.  Where Nikki’s eyes had sparkled with laughter as she danced with Cory, they had now darkened with arousal. 

 

Surprised to see her desire matched in Helen’s gaze, warning bells began blaring Nikki’s head.  She told herself that there was no way Helen was even aware of what she was feeling.  As far as Nikki was concerned, Helen was straight and leaving the country.  Yet, in the moment, Nikki found her body and her heart overwhelming her head. In a final effort, Nikki closed her eyes to stop herself from pulling Helen to her and capturing herlips with her own.  Helen watched Nikki as she threw her head back, eyes still closed.  Her skin glistened as the fairy lights caught the light sheen of sweat covering her exposed neck and chest.  Helen decided to follow Nikki’s lead and closed her eyes as her internal battle between the temptation to taste the salty skin just inches away and her fear of rejection became too much. 

 

The two women reveled in their self-imposed, exquisite torture, continuing to dance, bodies pressed together and eyes closed.  Songs smoothly blended from one to the next.  Helen and Nikki remained oblivious to everyone around them until the drunken stumbling of a fellow partier interrupted them.  Typically, Nikki would have given him a piece of her mind, but the loss of contact with Helen was so jarring that she could only stand there stunned.  Realizing that the spell was broken, Nikki gently reached out snaking her arm around Helen’s waist.

 

“Helen, I think that might be the signal that it’s time for a drink.”

 

Helen nodded mutely allowing Nikki to lead her towards the drinks area.

 

---

 

As the evening wore on, the crowd began to thin.  The dancing devolved into drunken sing-alongs to everything from ABBA to Madonna before eventually dying out all together.  Claire, Cory, and Helen were winding down the evening, sprawled out on a blanket in a hidden corner of the garden, nursing mugs of hot buttered rum to ward off the coastal night air.  Conversation was intermittent as all seemed content to sip their warm drink and gaze at the lights and night sky.  For Helen this is was a perfect way to end the evening.  Her head was spinning from a combination of too much alcohol and her time with Nikki.  Helen hadn’t seen Nikki since they poured themselves fresh drinks after dancing.  Nikki had been immediately swept up in making sure everything for the party was going smoothly. 

 

A luxuriously soft blanket was gently draped over Helen’s shoulders, interrupting her contemplation.  Looking for the source, she saw Nikki’s warm brown eyes smiling down at her as she moved to join the group on the blanket. 

 

“Hiya Nik,” smiled Claire casually, scooting over to make room.  “Things starting to slow down out there?”

 

“Yeah, they are,” sighed Nikki clearly tired.  “Most everyone has gone and I think we succeeded in making sure they all could get home safely.”  She let out a long exhale and laid back so that her head now rested in the grass. “I just want to relax.  Tonight was fun, but I’m ready to stop worrying if everyone is enjoying themselves.”

 

“It was a great party, Nikki. Will you want some help with clean up tomorrow?” asked Cory.

 

“Nah, I’ll likely just putter around the yard and combine clean-up with weeding. It really won’t be too bad.  I think Court and Jordan are going to come over tomorrow afternoon and pick up most of the stuff that isn’t mine.”

 

“Will you be up for a hangover buster in the morning?”

 

Claire just rolled her eyes.  “You two are insane, you know that?”

 

Nikki let out a small chuckle.  “That’d be good, Cory.  Let’s just not make it too early.  How about meeting around 11?”

 

“You’re on Nik.  Bikes or boards?”

 

“Bikes. I think some time in the hills sounds good.”

 

“Helen, while these two seem to think extreme exercise is a good idea after a night out, I favor a fattening breakfast and loads of coffee. Care to join me?”

 

“Sure Claire, sounds perfect.”

 

“Great.  How about if you just come over whenever you wake up?” Claire leaned over grabbing Cory’s hand, using him as counterbalance to hoist herself up off the ground.  She then leaned down and helped Cory up.  “I think it’s time for us to head out.  We’ll see you both tomorrow.”

 

Nikki and Helen both got up to give them a hug goodbye.  Now standing, Helen decided it was time for her to go to sleep as well.  “Nikki, I think I’m going to turn in.”

 

“Sounds good.”  With a soft smile, Nikki drew Helen close and began to walk her towards the cottage.  When they reached the door, Helen pulled at the blanket still covering her shoulders and handed it Nikki.

 

“It really was a great night, Nikki.  Thank you.”

 

Nikki had removed her arm from Helen’s back when she gathered the blanket, but replaced it immediately.  She now held the blanket in one hand with the other wrapped around Helen.  She looked into a gorgeous pair of green eyes. “I’m really glad that you were here.” 

 

Helen snuggled into Nikki’s arms not wanting to give up the warmth and comfort of her embrace just yet.  Nikki did not want the moment to end either.  The two women simply stood arm in arm outside the cottage looking at each other. Inescapably caught in the moment, unable to stop herself, Nikki leaned down and gently pressed her lips to Helen’s.  As Helen responded, a small moan of pleasure was swallowed up in the gentle kiss.  Nikki slowly pulled back as if in a daze.  Helen looked up to see panic begin to play across Nikki’s features.  Nikki took an involuntary step back, reached out to brush a strand of Helen’s hair behind her ear, and whispered frantically, “I’m sorry,” before quickly turning and walking towards her house.

 

Helen was too stunned to move or speak.  She wasn’t sure what had happened.  She was elated that Nikki had kissed her.  It was one of softest, sweetest kisses she’d ever experienced and it was certainly not something she felt required an apology.  Helen couldn’t understand the fear she’d read in Nikki’s eyes and desperately hoped that it wasn’t regret.  She turned to enter the cottage knowing that despite being tired, sleep would not be forthcoming.  She lay down in bed, only falling asleep hours later having driven herself crazy with imagined explanations.

 

---

 

 

Part 18

 

Come on Wade!  Last push…

 

Nikki’s legs had long since gone numb and now, slowly, the throbbing was returning.  It was a predictable battle when climbing: try to keep pedal cadence through each stage of leg fatigue, the initial burn, the eventual numbness that you hoped would last, and, finally, the return of painful muscle strain.  Nikki’s chest was now heaving, her breathing was deafening, echoing between her ears.  And yet she kept pushing, now out of the saddle, dancing on the cranks, ignoring the pleas of her tired quads.  It was her second trip up the hills towering above Santa Barbara and she had reached her goal: enough physical exertion and the associated exhaustion to drown out all competing thoughts.  Today, that meant forgetting Helen Stewart and their brief kiss the night before.  Feeling her legs on the verge of cramping, Nikki finally stopped at a small park, laid her bike on its side, removed her helmet, and threw herself down on the grass.  Laying flat on her back with legs bent, Nikki waited for her heart rate to slow and the rapid rise and fall of her chest to ease. 

 

“Christ Nikki, what’s wrong with you?” exclaimed Cory as he flopped down next to her.  “I think the last drop of alcohol left my system about 20 miles ago!”

 

“Nothing.  I just felt like going hard today,” answered Nikki defensively.

 

“Bullshit. Give…” chided Cory.

 

“Cory! Leave it!”

 

Surprised by her outburst, Cory now hoisted himself to sitting, resting his arms on bent knees.  He turned to look down at Nikki, concern on his face. 

 

“Nik, you all right?”

 

The shift in Cory’s tone, robbed Nikki of her anger.  She sat up next to Cory and ran her hand through her hair.  She finally just hung head muttering, “I don’t know, I really don’t know.”

 

Cory was stunned.  Nikki didn’t often let her walls down enough to admit weakness or uncertainty.  “Hey,” began Cory gently.  “It can’t be that bad, can it?  What could possibly have happened between now and when we left last night?”

 

Nikki let out a sharp exhale.  She shook her head not real sure what to say or do.  Without lifting her eyes from the grass at her feet Nikki whispered, “I kissed her, Cory.”

 

“What?” breathed Cory. “Helen?”

 

Nikki audibly groaned.  She was now resting her forehead on her knees.

 

“That’s great, Nik.  Based on the way you two were staring at each other last night, it’s hardly a surprise.”

 

“How’s that great?” asked Nikki quietly, still hiding her face from Cory.

 

“It’s about damn time you were interested in someone.”

 

Nikki let out a rueful laugh.  “Yeah, it’s great.  The first time I feel anything for someone in years, I have to fall for a straight women who lives on another continent.”  Nikki hugged her knees to her chest, burying her head in her arms. “Christ, I’m pathetic.”

 

“Hopeless, more like,” added Cory nudging Nikki with his shoulder, a smile pulling at his lips. 

 

“Thanks, you’re a great help.”

 

“You really are masochist, aren’t you?” asked Cory.

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nikki was still hiding her face in her arms.

 

“Well… if things aren’t tough enough, you make shit up just to make it harder.”

 

“Excuse me?” Nikki now laid her head to the side so that she could see Cory.

 

“While I’ll grant you that Helen does live in London, she’s hardly straight.”

 

Nikki didn’t respond but lifted her head, staring at Cory with eyes wide, mouth trying to form words, but nothing coming out.  Cory watched in amusement as Nikki let the realization sink in.  Nikki’s expression quickly turned from shocked wonder to agony, “Fuck.” She now was running her hand through her sweat drenched hair muttering to herself.

 

“Oh Nik, what did you do?”

 

Nikki met his eyes with a hesitant, embarrassed expression, speaking again in hushed tones. “I panicked, told her I was sorry and ran.”

 

Cory just burst into laughter.  “No wonder, you’ve been single for so long!”

 

Nikki gave a weak laugh, elbowing Cory in the side. “Fuck you.”

 

The two were silent for a moment.  When Nikki looked over she saw that Cory had a smirk growing on his face and one dimple was now clearly evident. Raising his eyebrows at Nikki, Cory began, “So…”

 

“What now?”

 

“Tongue?”

 

Nikki nearly choked on her own breath.  Unable to think of an immediate reply, she reached back and swatted him in the head.  Cory was once again laughing. 

 

“Such a pig!”

 

“Hey! Go easy Nikki, I had to cheer you up if only to keep you from thinking up any more bicycle torture.”

 

Nikki leaned over affectionately nudging Cory’s shoulder with her own realizing that she was in a better mood. “Thanks Cory.”

 

“Always.  So what are you going to do about Helen?”

 

“I don’t know.  She’s still going to leave town.”  Nikki was now occupying her hands by pulling at the grass in front of her.  “I’m still going to get my heart broken,” sighed Nikki. 

 

“Hey, you don’t know that.  And Nik, if you’re heart’s going to get broken anyway, why not enjoy a week or two of bliss?  It’ll be more than you’ve had in the five years we’ve know you.”

 

“Very logical,” responded Nikki sarcastically. “You’re assuming Helen wants that too, it does require two people, you know.  She came here to get her life back together, not complicate it further.”

 

“Sure you’re not just coming up with excuses to protect yourself?”

 

“Yes…. well no… do I think her leaving will hurt less if I put an end to it now rather than later?  Yeah, I do.  Is that so wrong?”

 

“No Nikki, it’s not.  But remember, you really don’t know what’s going to happen and, quite frankly, I’m not sure you have much control over it.”

 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

Cory lifted himself to standing and held a hand out to help Nikki up.  “Sometimes, heart rules head.  We’ve all done something that makes no sense in the name of love.”

 

“Right,” countered Nikki sarcastically, while inwardly acknowledging the accuracy of Cory’s statement.

 

“Yeah, exactly right.  How do you think I ended up with that high-strung blonde that’s always hanging around my house?”

 

This got a final laugh out of Nikki as they both grabbed their bikes and set them back on the road.  “All right Cory, let’s get you home to that wee blonde wife of yours.”

 

---

 

 

“How are you doing this morning?” asked Claire as she welcomed Helen into her home.

 

“Better than I thought I’d be, but I’m still tired and a feeling a little rough ‘round the edges.”

 

“Take this as a first step to feeling better,” responded Claire thrusting a mug of coffee into Helen’s hands.

 

“Thanks, Claire, I need it,” laughed Helen. “How is it that you are so awake this morning?”

 

“I’m already two cups into my morning… and I had a lot less to drink than you did.”

 

“Untrue!  You were matching me drink for drink most of the evening.”

 

“That I was, but I did not add shots to my drink and I happen to know you did at least twice.”

 

Helen gave a small laugh of acknowledgement, following Claire towards the kitchen.  “Fine, I drank more than you.  Where’s this breakfast I was promised?”

 

“Almost done. Could you fetch us some plates?”

 

Helen and Claire were soon settled at the table gazing out at the ocean and hungrily digging in to their overflowing plates.

 

“Thanks for this Claire, it’s great.”

 

“No problem, plus hangover food tastes better with company.  How did your evening end up?” Claire tried to ask the question with innocent curiosity, but the knowing smile pulling at her lips ruined her attempt.

 

“Aren’t you the gossip!” 

 

“Oh come on, Stewart.  I saw the way you two were dancing.  We left you alone in the yard with her.  You’re not going to tell me nothing happened?”

 

Helen now was uncomfortably poking at her food with her fork.  “I’m afraid I am.”

 

“What? Really?”

 

“Ok, something did happen.  She kissed me.”

 

“And you’re not happy about it because…”

 

“I’m happy, but Claire it was over before it really began and she ran away.”  Helen had yet to look up again; her tone was despondent.  “She apologized as if she regretted it.”

 

Claire looked up at Helen sympathetically, but couldn’t suppress her wry laugh.  “Christ Nikki, you really are a mess,” muttered Claire, more to herself than to Helen.

 

“Hello.  I am sitting here Claire.  Why is Nikki a mess?”

 

“Oh Helen, she’s scared.”

 

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?  What is she scared of?”

 

“You.”

 

“That really doesn’t make me feel any better,” sighed Helen.

 

“Helen, think about this from her perspective.  She hasn’t dated anyone for years and now finds herself attracted to you.”

 

“Am I that much of a tragedy?”

 

Claire couldn’t help, but smile and shake her head at Helen.  “You came here to find a place to deal with your own life. Nikki is trying her best to help you to do that and then you’re going to leave.  My guess is that she’s terrified of getting hurt and feels as though the last thing you need is to deal with someone hitting on you.”

 

“Shouldn’t I be the judge of what I need?” asked Helen now frustrated.

 

Claire grinned at Helen, thrilled to see a glimpse of the Stewart feistiness, however misguided. 

 

“Well what do you want, Helen?”

 

Helen paused.  She knew that Claire was asking about much more than Nikki.  “I don’t know anymore.  I am feeling better, but in some ways I’m more lost than ever.”

 

“How so?”

 

“Yes, I need to learn to accept Emma’s death and I am making progress, but I find that I’m questioning everything these days.” Helen stopped to take another sip of coffee and gather her thoughts. “What do I really have, Claire?  A job that takes up virtually all of my time, a love life consisting of a few convenient partners, and, yes, I have great friends, but with the nature of my work, they’re scattered all over the globe.” 

 

Claire looked sadly at Helen, but couldn’t lie to her by saying that she was being overdramatic or exaggerating… it was all true.  She reached out to take Helen’s hand.  “Maybe this should be your chance to do more than deal with Emma’s death.  Perhaps this can be your chance to re-evaluate a few things, get a new start.”

 

“I’d like my time here to be just that, but right now I just feel lost.  I’ve always had a clear set of goals guiding my life.  There’s no path anymore, at least not one I want to travel.”

 

Claire knew this was hard for Helen.  As long as she’d know her she’d been one of the most driven, single-minded, passionate people she’d ever met.  “Helen, I think you should take the pressure off yourself.  Just do what feels right, in the moment.  The more you expect a new found passion or career goal to emerge, the less likely it’s going to.  As tough as it will be for you, I think you’ve got to be patient.”

 

Helen gave an exasperated sigh, squeezed Claire’s hand in acknowledgement, and settled into self reflection.  The two women sat in comfortable silence, each considering their conversation, until voices outside the house distracted them.  They looked up towards the living room window to see Nikki and Cory standing over two sleek Bianchi bikes laughing.  They embraced in farewell and Cory wheeled his bike towards the house while Nikki put her sun glasses back on, reached down to take a drink from her water bottle, and prepared set off towards her own home.

 

Helen was dumbstruck.  Nikki was outside the house in full cycling kit.  Glancing at her friend, Claire began to giggle.  “Close your mouth Stewart, I don’t want drool all over my table.”

 

Helen didn’t even try to pretend she hadn’t been staring.  “I’m a mess aren’t I?  I should be trying to figure out my own life and all I can think about is…” Helen completed her sentence by letting her eyes roam freely over Nikki as she pushed off, disappearing down the road.

 

Claire laughed affectionately.  “Helen… one piece at a time.  Just take it as it comes.  I know you’ll figure it all out.  Just don’t be too hard on yourself.” 

 

Claire felt as though she should be warning Helen to leave Nikki alone, but she knew that if Helen didn’t do anything, Nikki was sure to… eventually.  She also wondered if there was some way for her two friends to make a relationship work.  Based on her conversation with Helen, it was possible.

 

---

 

 

Part 19

 

Nikki returned home from her ride with Cory tired, but considerably calmer.  She set the coffee to brew and headed for the shower.  Looking out the window as she dried herself, she sighed.  The bottles, plates, chairs, and other party artifacts strewn across the yard served as a clear reminder of how the rest of her day would be spent.  She shook her head at her own planning, realizing that she’d waited until late afternoon and the heat of the day to begin tidying the yard. 

 

Deciding that she wasn’t ready to face Nikki, Helen had returned from Claire’s and made her way around the side of the house to reach the cottage. She was still trying to sort through her morning conversation.  Helen also indulged in a shower and then settled on the couch in the front room with a cup of tea intending to spend the rest of the day lost in thought.  Her attention was soon drawn to the window by the sound of someone working in the yard.  She peered out the window to find the source, knowing it was likely Nikki.

 

With her hands full of bottles and discarded glasses, Nikki passed the cottage window on her way to the bins setting on the deck.  For the second time that day, Helen was left speechless by Nikki Wade.  Nikki was wearing nothing but a pair of board shorts that seemed to defy gravity by remaining on her hips and a halter-style bikini top. 

 

“Not exactly bashful is she,” muttered Helen to herself as she continued to track Nikki’s movements around the yard.

 

Helen soon retreated to the bedroom to change clothes, realizing a day spent in thought was impossible.  Self-reflection required a setting free of distraction and a nearly naked Nikki Wade prancing around the yard qualified as a distraction of epic proportions. Helen decided that at the very least, she could try to make herself useful.

 

Nikki looked up from her task to see Helen wandering towards her in running shorts and a t-shirt.  “Christ,” she whispered under her breath. Helen showing that much leg would not be doing her heart rate or ability to concentrate any favors.  With a shy smile, unsure of the reception she would receive, Nikki greeted Helen.  “How are you today?  Good breakfast with Claire?”

 

“It was great.  Less likely to do my waistline any favors compared to your morning, but nice nonetheless.”

 

“I’m not sure your figure has anything to worry about,” blurted Nikki without thinking.

 

Helen was surprised and flattered, but unsure how to respond.  She wanted to return the complement, but couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound suggestive given Nikki’s state of relative undress.  “You don’t look any worse for wear.”  Helen cringed inwardly at her own comment. Shifting a little uncomfortably, Helen let her eyes examine Nikki from bikini top to surf shorts to the brightly colored shoes on her feet.  “You really have adopted the California lifestyle haven’t you?”

 

Looking down at her own attire, Nikki shrugged. “When in Rome…”

 

Helen’s gaze lingered on Nikki’s feet. She smirked and questioningly raised her eyebrows at Nikki.  “These are only for the back yard!” laughed Nikki. Shaking one of her purple Crocs at Helen, Nikki continued, “Having shoes that protect my toes and can be hosed out are great for working back here.  I’d wear flip-flops, but as you know, I need to protect my feet from my own stupidity.  However… I haven’t become enough of a Californian that I wear them in public.”

 

Helen chuckled at Nikki’s justification glad that there did not seem to be any lingering discomfort between them after the previous evening.  “All right I’ll take your word for it on the shoes.  I came out to see if you wanted any help with the clean up.”

 

“Sure, that’d be great.”

 

“Where should I start?”

 

“You can grab anything you see.  There are bins on the deck for recycling and trash.  Any of the dishes that need washing can be set in the kitchen. I’m aiming to get all the party remnants picked up before moving on to reign in the jungle.”

 

Helen dug in with gusto, grateful for a task to act as a distraction and buffer for interaction.  Between the two of them, the clean up went quickly.  They worked in companionable silence each scurrying around the yard to collect discarded items.  Soon their efforts shifted to focus on the yard itself.  Nikki provided an extra pruner for Helen, demonstrated where to cut to assure plant health, and taught her how to identify a few of the more persistent weeds.   

 

They had been working for several hours.  Having not started until mid afternoon, temperatures soon began to drop, signaling that evening was fast approaching.  Nikki looked around the garden wiping the sweat from her face.  Watching Helen study a garden plot intently, brow furrowed in concentration made her smile.  She found it adorable that Helen was putting so much effort into trying to garden perfectly.  Nikki was struck again by how well Helen seemed to fit into her life. It was becoming harder and harder to banish these thoughts from her head. 

 

“Hey green thumb!” called Nikki.  “How about we call it a day and catch a beer on the back porch? I think we’ve earned it.”

 

Helen looked up with a broad smile on her face.  “Sounds great, Nikki.”

 

“Then come on over here, so we can get you cleaned up,” responded Nikki holding up a hose.

 

“That’s only for washing hands, right?” queried Helen eyeing Nikki suspiciously.

 

“I promise.  I will only spray your hands… today.”

 

“I’m not going to get you to make that promise for other times, am I?”

 

“Not a chance!  Don’t you know that water fights, sprinklers, and water slides are just as much fun for an adult?” countered Nikki with an impish grin. 

 

Helen laughed at Nikki’s childish glee.  “Are you really in your 30s?”

 

“It’s possible my maturity level stalled out a while back,” explained Nikki in mock seriousness.

 

Helen let out a snort of laughter and shook her head.

 

“All right, let see those hands… and I promise you won’t get wet.”

 

Helen held out her hands while Nikki sprayed them off.  After leaning down to turn off the water, Nikki turned again to face Helen.  The light, relaxed atmosphere that had dominated the afternoon evaporated the moment their eyes met, replaced by heightened awareness made all the more acute by the previous night. Both women were caught, neither moving nor breathing.  Without breaking her gaze, Nikki reached out with a gentle smile to wipe a streak of dirt from Helen’s forehead and finished by tucking strands of hair behind her ear.  Helen’s body began to tremble at Nikki’s tender, intimate gesture.  Nikki’s hand lingered, lightly stroking Helen’s jaw line from ear to chin.  It was a moment whose natural progression would have resulted in Nikki pulling Helen closer and meeting her parted lips with her own.  Instead, Nikki broke eye contact, dropped her hand limply to her side, and turned, half stumbling, towards the house.

 

“I’ll go get those beers, yeah?” she mumbled and gingerly headed for the door. 

 

In an exact replay of the prior evening, Helen stood in stunned silence, mind racing. 

 

She’s running away… again!

 

Am I that damaged in her eyes?

 

Helen wanted to believe what Claire had told her, but frustration began to overwhelm reason.

 

If she really wants to keep me at arm’s length… the decent thing to do would be tell me!

 

Maybe your maturity level really did stall out somewhere along the way Nikki Wade.  A mature adult would be able to be honest and not just play with my emotions!

 

Deciding to confront Nikki, Helen strode towards the house, walking through the open sliding door, coming to a stop at the entrance to the kitchen.  What she found caused her resolve to crumble.

 

Nikki was leaning over, her back to Helen, both hands gripping the counter, and head hung. 

 

“You’re a bloody idiot Wade,” she hissed to herself in a forced whisper.  Nikki took several deep, calming breaths before continuing, her tone was now one of defeated resignation. “What the hell is wrong with you?  What are you doing in here?” Shaking her head, she quietly added, “Christ, I’m a mess.”

 

Nikki pushed herself to standing, head still hung.  Running her hands through her hair she reached for the door of the refrigerator, removing two beers.  She set them down, leaned back against the counter, and threw her head back.  With a long exasperated sigh, Nikki seemed to quietly plead with the ceiling.  “It’d be nice if my body came with an off switch.”

 

“Now that would be a damn shame,” drawled Helen from the door, a sardonic smile growing on her face.

 

Nikki gasped in shock, clasped the counter for support, and gawped at Helen, who was now leaning against the doorframe.  Helen smirked and looked at Nikki from head to toe.  Her eyes finally pausing at Nikki’s taught nipples, straining against her bikini.  Raising her eyebrows, Helen continued, “Seeing as you appear to be a long way from ‘off.’”

 

Nikki still trying to recover from the shock of Helen arriving in the kitchen, glanced down, noticing her nipples and muttered, “real subtle Wade.”

 

Nikki wrapped her arms around herself and began to shift uncomfortably, unsure of how to read Helen’s reaction.  “How long were you standing there?” she asked hesitantly.

 

“Long enough,” answered Helen, taking a step into the kitchen, her teasing smirk replaced by unmasked affection.  As she drew a few steps from Nikki, she gently asked, “What are you so afraid of?”

 

Nikki could barely form words, Helen’s proximity was making coherent thought challenging.  Casting her eyes at the floor, Nikki spoke in an anguished burst. “I don’t think my heart can handle it.”

 

Helen quickly stepped forward, compelled by a desire to comfort and ease Nikki’s pain, regardless of cause.  She reached up, her hand reassuringly guiding Nikki to meet her eyes before softly speaking.  “Nikki, I know.  I’m scared too…” Helen paused assuring that Nikki understood, “…but I’m long past self-preservation.”

 

Helen ran her thumb gently over Nikki’s cheeks and watched her eyes, filled with unshed tears, shift from frightened uncertainty to awed affection.  Nikki took a small step forward bringing one hand to Helen’s waist and the other tangling in her hair.  She gently brought her lips to Helen’s.  The kiss was soft, even hesitant.  Lips brushed, entry simultaneously offered, and gradually accepted.  Hands and bodies were stationary, all energy focused on the sensations of the kiss. The only movement was to adjust the tilt of their heads affording greater access as they allowed themselves to savor, without urgency, the closeness they each craved.  Tongues caressed, drawing lazy circles around the other, lips explored, soft sighs of pleasure released, and comfort, a feeling of safety, received.

 

When they finally broke apart, they simply gazed at each other and hands continued the gentle exploration their mouths had begun.  Touches were so light that they could only be felt by sensitized skin.  It was as if both women could not quite believe they finally were able to touch the other.  Their awed silence, the savoring of mutually acknowledged attraction, was only interrupted as the response of their bodies began to snap them out the trance.  Helen tenderly ran her fingers down Nikki’s bare stomach causing her breath to catch, while Nikki’s hands had found their way under Helen’s t-shirt and now caressed her sides and low back.  Helen’s body began to quiver.

 

By unspoken agreement, they now collided, the gentle exploration over and possession begun; hands gripped tightly and moved incessantly; teeth were bared, gently nipping at lips, ear lobes, and necks; tongues were aggressively staking claim. The two were now pulled close, breasts pressing against the other.  Helen ran her hands down Nikki’s back pulling her tighter and slid her hands under fabric of the board shorts, eliciting a soft moan of pleasure from Nikki. 

 

“You’re not wearing anything under these,” breathed Helen as Nikki trailed kisses up her neck.

 

Nikki, burying her face in the crook of Helen’s neck, grinned into her skin.  She ran her tongue lightly up to her ear and before taking the earlobe between her teeth she whispered, “They’re for surfing. You don’t wear anything under your swim costume do you?”

 

Helen let out a small giggle.  “Yes, but you were gardening not surfing, Ms. Wade.  Care to explain?”

 

Nikki’s response was to capture Helen’s lips again, while gently shaking her head.  Her hands had made their way under Helen’s shirt.  As her hands encountered the unmistakable texture of lace, Nikki pulled away from Helen, removing her shirt to reveal a low cut, black lace bra whose sole purpose was to enhance cleavage.  Nikki was paralyzed momentarily by the sight.  She ran her thumbs gently over the hard nipples jutting through the intricate material, causing Helen’s knees to buckle and a small cry to escape her throat. 

 

“I don’t think this is exactly the most effective support for running Helen,” began Nikki, her eyes dilated with arousal and a teasing smile pulling at her lips.

 

Helen could only grin in response and pull Nikki close again whispering in her ear, “Just as appropriate as gardening in swim wear, don’t you think?”  Helen did not wait for a response, lacing her fingers through the hair along the nape of Nikki’s neck and dragging her into a searing kiss.  As Helen trailed her lips down Nikki’s neck and the valley between her breasts, Nikki gasped realizing that Helen had succeeded in untying her swim top and now had full access.  Helen brought her hand up to cup one breast, her lips closed around the nipple of the other.  Nikki buried her hands in Helen’s hair and closed her eyes as she felt Helen circle her nipple with tongue and gently take it in her teeth. 

 

“Helen…” gasped Nikki, barely able to muster speech.

 

“Hmm?” responded Helen, never breaking her ministrations of Nikki’s breasts.

 

“I think we had better get out of the kitchen,” came the broken reply.

 

“And why is that?” asked Helen, now shifting her lips to Nikki’s other breast. 

 

Nikki was rapidly losing control.  She took one long breath and gasped, “because I wash my feet in here.”

 

This seemed to get a Helen’s attention.  She was silent for a moment, before a deep guttural laugh began to bubble up from her toes.  Helen buried her face in Nikki’s chest shaking in laughter.  Grinning, Nikki pulled her into a tight embrace.  As Helen regained enough composure to savor the sensations that skin on skin afforded, she demanded with a grin, “then get me out of the kitchen Wade.”

 

“Done,” announced Nikki with a small kiss to the tip of Helen’s nose. “Follow me Stewart,” commanded Nikki with raised eyebrows and a wink.  As she turned to lead Helen out of the kitchen, Helen jumped on her back for a ride.  Nikki let out a burst of laughter to match the shouts of delight from Helen as she set off with her passenger towards the bedroom.  By the time they reached the living room, Helen had begun a thorough examination of Nikki’s neck with her lips, while her arms, hanging over Nikki’s shoulders, were alternating between agonizingly silky caresses of her breasts and more determined attention to her painfully erect nipples.

 

“You keep that up I my legs aren’t going to make it much past the couch,” breathed Nikki.

 

With a wicked grin, Helen sank her teeth into Nikki’s neck and gave one nipple a firm twist.

 

“Ouch!” exclaimed Nikki nearly dropping Helen. “What was that for?!”

 

“I wanted to wake you up a little.  Don’t want my ride to break down now do we?” teased Helen now rubbing her nose in Nikki’s hair and wrapping her arms around her neck in a tight embrace.

 

“No we don’t,” answered Nikki with a mischievous smile as she continued through the bedroom door. “But… Stewart… payback can be a bitch.” 

 

Nikki attempted to unceremoniously dump Helen onto the bed only to find herself being pulled down with her.  The resulting gales of laughter echoed throughout the house.   

 

---

 

 

Part 20

Nikki woke the next morning with a start, momentarily not knowing where she was. Opening her eyes, she recognized the familiar setting of her bedroom. Unfamiliar was the weight resting on her shoulder and the warm skin under her fingers. It had been a very long time since she hadn’t woken up alone. Nikki slowly closed her eyes, a smile on her lips, as realization sank in.

Unable to sleep, scenes from the prior night replayed in her head. Nikki had never been one to want to too much conversation associated with sex… ruined the mood. She was stunned to find that with Helen conversation, laughter, silence, passion, aggression, tears… everything felt intimate. All that was needed was a level of trust and depth of feeling she never even realized had been missing. Nikki was shocked at the emotional vulnerability and honesty she’d allowed herself and the generosity with which Helen had matched it. For the first time, Nikki felt that a relationship could last, that it wasn’t something she believed just because she wanted it to be possible… she knew it. She could imagine a future with Helen and different from every other relationship she’d had, that future had no end or blurry uncertainty.

Admitting to herself that she wanted a future with Helen forced Nikki to acknowledge its impossibility. Drawing a long shaky breath, Nikki thought about the distance that would soon separate them. She regretted nothing, but the thought of having something so precious bring ripped away was overwhelming. Fighting off tears, wanting to treasure the time she had, Nikki tighten her arm around Helen, who sleepily snuggled closer. Nikki closed her eyes and forced all negative thoughts to the periphery, slipping back into peaceful oblivion.

---

The next time Nikki woke, she was perfectly aware of her setting and company. Unfortunately, she also was aware of the time and, with a shocked start, the day of the week, Monday. Her surprise had jostled Helen to the extent that she too was roused from sleep. Seeing that Helen was coming to, Nikki gently smoothed her hair as she watched green eyes only partially succeed in opening. As the sunlight that flooded the room invaded her eyes, a gargled, decidedly grumpy groan escaped Helen’s lips.

Nikki chuckled continuing to stroke Helen’s head with one hand and the other wrapped tightly around her. “Hiya beautiful… g’morning.”

Helen’s response was to bury her head in the crook of Nikki’s neck, clasp the covers more firmly over her head and let out a low, frustrated growl. The words that came next were barely decipherable from under the blankets. “Not morning yet. You stay right here.” Helen punctuated her monosyllabic demand by clinging more tightly to Nikki.

Nikki tried to ease Helen’s grip, but Helen, feeling Nikki trying to pull away, clung tighter. “No!”

Nikki was now openly laughing. She pulled back the duvet covering Helen’s head and whispered, “Helen, while it’s fun to learn that you are not a morning person, one or both of us has got to get out of bed… unless you want ice water poured over you by your dear friend Claire.”

Helen jerked her head up to look at Nikki, eyes wide in horror. “She wouldn’t!”

Unable to wipe the smile off her face Nikki continued, now thoroughly amused, “Oh she would, and has. Trust me you want me to be up to greet her.”

Helen now began poking Nikki in the side and belly. “Go go go… go make coffee!”

Nikki was shaking in laughter. She pulled Helen into a tight embrace, half to keep her from being able to tickle her. She was nose to nose with the now wide awake Scot. Nikki drew her into a slow, seductive kiss that silenced Helen. Resting her forehead against Helen’s, Nikki whispered, “Helen I’m going to go make coffee, but don’t think for a minute I’d wouldn’t rather be here with you.”

Helen furrowed her brow, stuck out her lower lip to pout, and pulled the covers over her head again. “Well… then keep your voices down out there. I need sleep,” came the muffled reply.

“Cheeky!” exclaimed Nikki as she pulled back the blankets and planted a kiss on Helen’s head before fetching clothes from the closet and retreating to the bathroom for a quick shower.

When Nikki stepped out of the bathroom, she found Helen curled up in the fetal position clutching a pillow. She had fallen back asleep. Nikki paused to stare, her heart felt as though it would burst. I love you Helen Stewart.

Nikki gently shut the bedroom door and headed for the kitchen to prepare coffee and something to eat knowing Claire would be arriving any moment. She attempted to keep all noise to a minimum to avoid waking Helen. The quiet was broken by a loud crash from the front door.

“Nikki!”

Nikki peeked her head out of the kitchen to see Claire striding purposefully towards her. She entered the kitchen and threw down a newspaper on the counter.

“Have you seen this?!”

Nikki smiled at Claire and raised her eyebrows, calmly responding, “Good morning to you too Claire. Care for some coffee or a scone?”

Claire gave a weak laugh, plopped down on a stool and held her chin in one hand. “Sorry Nik. I’d love some coffee. How are you this morning?” Unable to entirely let her anger go, she added, “Have you seen this morning’s paper?”

“Here’s your coffee. I’m only just out of bed and haven’t glanced at the paper yet.”

Claire let out an exasperated sigh. “Today is one of those days where I’m ashamed that I pay taxes in this country.”

Nikki laughed. “Doesn’t the former president Bush make everyday a day where you’re a little embarrassed to call this country home? I know it does for me.”

“True. But I always tell my friends and family back home that it’s all about the states and local government. California has the world’s 8th largest GDP. We are a country. And now I’m embarrassed for us too and not just because we once elected the terminator for a governor and approved Prop 8 even though neither is relevant any longer.” Claire finished by shoving the newspaper in Nikki’s direction.

Realizing that Claire was not to be deterred Nikki finally picked up the paper and began reading. She immediately looked up, shock in her eyes.

“We’re going to do something about this, aren’t we?” Nikki firmly asked pointing to the headline that read ‘Women’s Shelter Facing Budget Shortfall – Programs to be Cut.’

“Yes,” confirmed Claire. “But we shouldn’t have to! How is it that a social service like this is reliant on private donations and grants? Grants that require staff time to write! Don’t they realize they are understaffed to begin with? What’s that say about societal priorities? It’s criminal!”

Nikki shook her head agreement. “So what are you proposing we do?” Nikki knew that Claire likely had a plan. She was not someone who simply worked up a righteous anger to blow off steam. Claire was about action and often achieved results solely by force of will.

Claire took a deep breath and outlined her plan for Nikki. Nikki quietly contemplated her proposal. “It sounds good Claire, but I need to look over some things at work to make this happen. How about we meet tomorrow with your financial advisor and figure out how much we can do?”

“Thanks Nikki.” Claire took a deep breath and finally seemed to let the last of her frustration go now that a plan was in place. Both women sipped their coffee and nibbled at the scones, contemplating the day ahead.

“So Claire, how are you doing aside from this morning’s paper? Weekend wrap up well?”

“Yeah it did. After Helen left yesterday, I took the day to relax.” Claire let out a self-depreciating laugh. “And, you’ll be proud of me, for the first time in weeks I’m going to work on a Monday.”

“Your staff may pass out in shock when you walk in,” grinned Nikki.

“That they will. What about you? Is the diligent Nikki Wade going in late today?” asked Claire glancing at the clock knowing that Nikki would normally be rushing out of the house.

“I’m actually considering taking the day off,” offered Nikki softly, a smile tugging at her lips.

Claire looked at Nikki suspiciously. “Have you seen Helen? How is she doing?”

“She’s good, I think.” Nikki could no longer suppress her smile, a dazed, dreamy grin.

“Oh my god! You finally did something about Helen, didn’t you?”

Seeing Nikki duck her head, confirmed her question. Claire stared at Nikki and the faraway look on her face, exclaiming, “You had sex… you soppy cow!”

“Claire!” Nikki cheeks were now pink with embarrassment.

“You let me bang on about the women’s shelter when you had a bombshell like that to drop?!”

“I didn’t have much of a choice about listening to you about the shelter, did I?” countered Nikki.

“Granted. Would you have told me if I hadn’t guessed?”

“I still haven’t told you anything.”

“Aye, but you haven’t contradicted anything either, have you?” asked Claire pursing her lips knowingly.

“I don’t know, Claire.”

“What don’t you know?”

“If I’d have said anything. Talking about it feels as though it might cheapen last night and I’m still trying to get my head around everything.”

Claire looked at Nikki realizing that whatever had happened between her two friends, it went well beyond a quick shag. Claire gently laid her hand on Nikki’s arm. “Nikki I’m glad. I don’t know if it’s for the best, but I think you two go well together.”

“Thanks.”

A mischievous smirk began to grow on Claire’s face. “So… now that all that sweet, heartfelt stuff has been said. I want details!”

“You’re as bad as your husband!” exclaimed Nikki, blushing again.

“You’re stalling, Wade!”

Nikki buried her head in hands.

“How is it that you turn into such a prude around me?” asked Claire finding Nikki’s discomfort highly amusing.

Helen stood at the kitchen doorway long enough to observe the glee Claire was taking in teasing Nikki and decided to come to her rescue. “Claire Walker, how is anyone supposed to get their beauty rest with you yammering away?”

Helen walked into the kitchen with pillow rumpled hair, wearing a robe that was obviously Nikki’s. She flashed a grin Claire’s direction and walked past Nikki dragging her hand across her back and pulling her into a lingering kiss. “And good morning to you, Ms. Wade.”

Nikki could only gaze at Helen, eye’s half-lidded, a loving smile on her face, and a embarrassment once again turning her cheeks pink.

After recovering from the shock intended by Helen’s entrance, Claire burst into laughter at how thoroughly Helen had turned the tables. “And here I thought it was only caffeine that could turn you into a chipper, coherent adult in the morning.”

“Oh there are other things that can put me in a good mood first thing in the morning, Claire,” began Helen, cocking her head to one side looking at her friend. “But you’ve never offered me the alternatives.”

Oh Stewart… two can play this game, thought Claire. “I didn’t know I was an eligible provider of such services in your eyes.”

“Don’t underestimate yourself, Walker. You’re a cute little piece of tail.”

Claire snorted, nearly spitting out her coffee.

Nikki could only look back and forth at the two women. “Claire, you can never again give me a hard time about my banter with Cory.” Nikki continued with her eyes wide. “You two are worse than we are! I understand the basis of your marriage much better now.” Nikki turned her gaze to Helen, her face softening. “Helen, darling, please help yourself to coffee.”

“Thank you Nikki.” Before Helen turned to pour her coffee she made eye contact with Claire. The two women dissolved into fits of giggles. After preparing her coffee Helen turned back to face Claire and Nikki. She leveled Nikki with an amused smirk, “And Nikki, we are not worse than you and Cory. I’d never dance like that with Claire.”

Nikki could only laugh, knowing that she had a point. Claire feigned a pout. “I’m insulted Helen.”

After a final round of laughter, Claire began to gather her things and start towards the door. “I’m off you two. I actually intend on arriving at work on time today,” she declared.

“Bye Claire,” called Helen and Nikki in unison, watching the blond walk out to her car.

Finding themselves alone in the kitchen, Helen wrapped her arms around Nikki. “What time do you have to be at work this morning?”

“I was thinking that I might take the day off,” answered Nikki running hands over Helen’s hair and caressing her cheek.

“You don’t have to do that Nikki. I have an appointment this afternoon. How about we plan on meeting up this evening?”

Nikki was disappointed that Helen didn’t want to spend the day together, but the offer of an evening eased her fears. “You’ve got yourself a date. Can I fix you dinner tonight?”

“That sounds wonderful.” Helen smiled up at Nikki, her expression turning more serious. “I want to spend time with you, Nikki. I also know that we have to talk.”

Nikki pulled Helen close, resting her chin on her head. “I know we do. Although I have to admit, I’m dreading it. I would much rather allow myself to live in this fantasy world where neither of us has other obligations.”

Helen’s heart ached at the pain that had seeped into Nikki’s voice. “I’m not planning on trying to end whatever it is we have, Nikki, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Helen looked up into Nikki’s eyes and saw fear. “I’ve fallen for you Nikki Wade,” began Helen gently cupping Nikki’s face in her hands. “and while I also want to savor the time we’ve got, I know it won’t be enough for me. I want to find a way to keep you in my life, somehow. I don’t want us to be something that only exists in a fantasy world. I want it to be real, even if that means it’s hard.”

Nikki couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Feeling that tears were about to fall, she again pulled Helen into a close embrace. “Thank you, Helen.”

Helen threaded her fingers through Nikki’s hair and pulled her into a kiss that expressed both the love and anxiety they both felt. Pulling away, Helen gave Nikki a pat on her ass. “Now get yourself to work so you can come home early to prepare my dinner.”

Grateful for Helen’s injection of humor, Nikki smiled and tapped her finger on Helen’s nose. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”

Nikki dropped the dirty dishes in the sink and went into the living room to gather her things. With a final embrace and farewell kiss, she headed out the door.

 

---

 

 

Part 21

 

“’Morning Boss,” called Elise as she clamored into the back seat of the waiting truck.  “You’re late!”

 

“That I am,” confirmed Nikki with a laugh.  Nikki’s relaxed demeanor took Elise by surprise.  She had expected Nikki to be frantic getting such a late start on their day.

 

Nikki interrupted Elise’s thoughts before she had a chance to question Nikki’s lack of concern.

 “Are Jordan and Elliott on their way out?”

 

A loud clang from tools being tossed into the back of the work truck confirmed their presence. 

 

“Shorties in back,” declared Jordan looking at the seating arrangement. 

 

“Eh, who you callin’ short?  I think it would have been safer to just claim seniority,” responded Elliott as he climbed over the folded seat to reach the small bench in back.

 

Nikki could only grin at her staff.  She felt so high that it seemed nothing could dent her mood.  “Everyone in?” 

 

During their short trip to the site, Nikki reviewed the tasks for the day and how they would be organizing the work between them.  “If we hit it hard, I think we’ll be done by three,” she finished hopefully.

 

“We’d be planning on being done by lunch if you’d have gotten your lazy ass to work on time,” teased Jordan. Eyeing her suspiciously, he continued. “You’re in a freakishly good mood today.  What are you so excited about that’s happening at three?  Hot date?”

 

Nikki tried unsuccessfully to suppress the goofy grin now taking over her face.  Seeing her reaction, all three occupants of the car began shouting.

 

“You do have a date!”

“What?!”

“Who?!”

“When?”

“That’s why you were late today!”

 

“Nikki you had better fess up!” demanded Jordan as they pulled to a stop at the work site.  “We’re not getting out of the car until you at least tell us who the lucky woman is and what you’ve got planned.”

 

Elise and Elliott voiced their support of Jordan’s threat as Nikki turned off the engine.  Nikki rested her forehead on the steering wheel.  Taking a deep breath she swung around to face her team, a shy smile on her face.  “Who do you think it is?” she slowly asked.

 

“Helen!” all three gleefully sang out in unison. 

 

Nikki burst into laughter, nodding her head in confirmation. “Can we all get to work now?”

 

Deciding to let her off the hook, Jordan opened the door to the truck and got out.  “Don’t think this is over Nikki.  We will get all the details while we work.”

 

Nikki bowed her head in acknowledgement and got out of the truck.  The promised harassment from her staff was soon blunted by the realization that they had underestimated the amount of effort it was going to take to ready the site.  Silence reigned as the four focused solely on the task at hand. 

 

Hours later, while working side-by-side, Elliot queried Nikki. “You really have a date with Helen tonight?”

 

“Not that it’s any of your business, but we’re going to have dinner.”

 

“It’d better be just dinner. You can’t keep her up late. She’s got to be ready early tomorrow.”

 

“What?” asked Nikki, her brow furrowed.

 

“Helen. She’s talking to my class tomorrow morning. It’s at eight.”

 

“I didn’t realize you’d actually asked her.”

 

Elliott laughed.  “I told you I was going to.  I’m coming by at 7:30 to pick her up.”

 

Nikki glanced down at her watch shocked to find it was already four.  “Well we’d better hurry up.  At this rate we’ll have to get takeout if we’re to have any chance of getting a reasonable night’s rest.”

 

“How late is it?”

 

“A little past four”

 

“Shit, really?”  Elliott eyes were wide with shock.  “Hey, y’all we need to get goin’!  At this rate, we’re going to make boss late for her date. That means I’ll have a cranky guest speaker tomorrow and my grade needs Helen in top form.”

 

“Ay Elliott, what makes you think your grades are going to motivate me to work faster?” called Jordan.

 

“If not me, think of yourselves. You think you’ll have a good day at work tomorrow if Nikki’s late for her date with Helen?”

 

“The boy’s got a point Jordan,” began Elise.  “Plus, I want all the juicy details tomorrow.  If we don’t get her out of here, there won’t be anything to tell.”

 

This received a knowing grin from Jordan.  Nikki kept her mouth shut through their exchange, deciding that she didn’t much care what motivated her staff to wrap up quickly as long as they did.  They worked for another half hour before gathering their equipment, piling into the truck, and returning to the office. 

 

Nikki quickly retrieved keys from her desk and leapt into Sprout.  She knew it made sense to simply pick up takeout, but she’d been planning a perfect meal in her head all day.  Determined to make it happen even if it meant having to wait while the meal finished cooking, she headed for the store to pick up a few last minute items. 

 

Nikki was breathless as she trudged into her home bearing shopping bags with the final touches for her meal and few extra surprises.  She set the groceries down on the counter, hit the button on her answering machine, and began unloading. 

 

“Hiya Nikki,” began Helen’s voice from the machine.  She sounded tired and apologetic, but upbeat.  “I was just calling to let you know that I’m going to be a little late tonight.  I’ll try to hurry.  I hope you don’t mind holding off for an hour or so.  I really am sorry.  I can’t wait to see you and hope you’ve had a great day.”

 

“I can’t wait to see you either.”  Nikki spoke into her empty kitchen and set to work on their dinner, grateful that she now time to pull off all the plans she’d had for their dinner.

 

---

 

 

As she had everyday the previous week Helen arrived at the women’s shelter in the early afternoon to find it in chaos.  The newspaper article had resulted in uproar among the women, staff, and community members.  Puzzled and concerned, Helen went in search of Denise, the director of the shelter.  Helen found her in an office talking on the phone.  Her face was drawn, stress obviously taking a toll.  She motioned Helen inside while wrapping up her phone call.

 

“I’m sorry for the uproar, Helen.”  Denise groaned as she realized why Helen was at her door. “I didn’t call you.  I forgot.”  Shaking her head, she continued. “All the regularly scheduled meetings and events are canceled today.  I’m sorry for your wasting your time...”

 

Helen put up her hand to stop, Denise mid-sentence.  “Denise, by the looks of things, my time is the least of your worries.  What’s going on?”

 

“Did you see the paper this morning?”

 

“No, I haven’t been keeping up with the local paper.”

 

“They published an article making it public that we are underfunded this year and will be cutting programs.  It has resulted in panic.  I knew this day was coming, but I was holding out hope we could scratch together a few more dollars to minimize the impact.  I’d told very few people.”

 

Helen was stunned. “How did this happen?”

 

Denise wearily looked up at her. “Short story? We’re funded primarily by grants and donations. We just haven’t brought in as much money this year.”

 

Helen took a deep breath; her initial shock was slowly being replaced by frustration at what she perceived as gross injustice.  “You aren’t government funded?  Which programs are you going to cut?”

 

Denise felt like she’d been answering these questions all day.   She tiredly looked at Helen. “The government funding is nominal, although many of the grants are through state or federal agencies.  I’m still trying to figure out just what will be cut and ways to minimize the impacts.  It does appear that, at a minimum, some of our children’s programs will have to be scaled back.”

 

As Denise spoke Helen began to stand a little taller, her jaw now set in steely determination.  “Denise, how can I help?”

 

“Thank you for the offer, but….”

 

“Look,” began Helen quickly, cutting off Denise a second time.  Her tone softened but she maintained her intensity.  “I know you only know me as the poor woman from Europe trying to deal with murder of her friend, but I can help you.”

 

Denise looked up frustrated.  This was not the day she wanted to deal with someone trying to ease their own guilt.

 

Seeing skepticism on Denise’s face, Helen quickly continued.  “I can help.  I’m the director of an NGO back in London.  We’re entirely financed on soft money.  I really do understand your situation.  Please let me help.”

 

Denise’s expression turned from annoyance to curiosity.  “I had no idea, Helen.”

 

“There was no reason for you to know, was there?” countered Helen logically.

 

Denise was intrigued, but skeptical.  “What can you really do?  I can’t help you today. I have way too many fires to put out.”

 

Helen had always been one to relish a challenge. The combination of Denise’s reluctance and a cause in which she had unquestioned belief only served to strengthen her resolve.

 

“Can you spare me 15 to 30 minutes and the use of a computer?” asked Helen firmly.

 

Denise glanced down at her watch. Figuring she had nothing to lose, she answered, “Sure, let’s be fast about it.”

 

Helen got a very brief summary of shelter finances and was pointed to a bookshelf holding all the summary documents for funding agencies as well as all the informational and outreach materials. 

 

“Thanks Denise, this is enough to get started.”

 

Helen dug in, energized.  As she began poring over documents, she realized just how much she’d missed this feeling of purpose, internally acknowledging that it was one that she’d lost well before Emma ended up in the hospital.  It was the closest she’d come in years to reproducing the high that once sustained her.  A thrill based on the absolute conviction that the purpose was noble and her role critical.  Helen smiled recalling the naïve, passionate, and sometime irrational approach she’d brought to her first efforts in international relief organizations.  She also knew that it was that very intensity and naivety that had yielded her early success and rapid ascension through the organizational ranks.  It was all the more satisfying now as she was sure she could help and that confidence was borne not of ambition or optimism, but of hard earned experience. 

 

Helen had been working for hours when Denise peeked her head around the door.  She found her examining documents that covered every surface near her and occasionally entering data into the computer.  “Helen, I can’t believe you haven’t moved.”

 

Helen looked up, eyes tired, but smiling.  She shrugged. “I tend to get tunnel vision when I work.” 

 

Denise’s eyes widened. “What have you been doing in here?”

 

“Finding you a way out of this mess,” explained Helen, her excitement palpable.  “I don’t know that you can solve all your short-term problems, but I think I’ve found some long-term opportunities.  I also think you can do some streamlining around here and maintain more of the existing programs than you think.”

 

Denise smiled weakly.  “Can you show me what you’ve found?  I could use some good news today.”

 

Helen and Denise spent the next hour examining various granting agencies’ RFPs, a new system for organizing and soliciting private donations, and general shelter operations.  Denise leaned back in her chair rubbing the bridge of her nose.  She was exhausted, but her time with Helen had given her hope.  “Helen, this really is amazing.  I can’t believe what you’ve found in such a short time.”

 

“Denise, it really was my pleasure.  This is what I love to do.  I consider it a privilege to have the chance to work on something I believe in absolutely.  While it has taken a horrible circumstance for the shelter, I think I needed this.”

 

Denise looked at Helen, brow knotted in confusion.

 

“Coming here and having the chance to put my experiences with Emma in perspective has been wonderful, but today… this…” Helen gestured at the piles of paper scattered around her, “… it’s made me realize that I’m not only ready to get back to work, but that I need it.”  Helen took a deep breath.  She was satisfied.  She hadn’t experienced this, once familiar, state of exhilarated exhaustion in ages.  She missed it. 

 

“I’m glad you feel you benefited as you have certainly provided the shelter a ray of hope on a very dark day.”  Denise seemed to shudder as she thought back to her morning.  She got up to leave, giving Helen a grateful smile.  “Now, Helen, it’s nearly dinner time.  Why don’t you head home?  I think you’ve earned it.”

 

Helen looked up at a wall clock in shock realizing that she’d let herself get so caught up in helping the shelter that she’d forgotten she’d promised to have dinner with Nikki.  “Do you mind if I use the phone?  I need to make a call.”

 

Helen was disappointed to have reached Nikki’s answering machine, but left her a message.  Looking around the office and silently calculating how long it would take her to clean up and get back to Nikki’s by bus, she decided she would only be an hour late. 

 

Denise came back into the small office carrying her purse and jacket.  “Helen, I’ve got to head to a meeting.  Please don’t stay too long.”

 

“I won’t. I just want to organize this mess a little bit and type up a summary of what we’ve talked through. I’ll be out the door shortly.”

 

Denise smiled. “Thank you again Helen, truly.”

 

“Sure Denise.  Have a good evening.”

 

Glowing with the sense that she’d contributed to something larger than herself, Helen set to organizing the mounds of paper strewn around the small office.  She wanted to glance over a few of the reports before she set to typing up the strategies she’d discussed with Denise.  She was so focused on finishing up her tasks that she did not hear the door to the room open.  Her concentration was broken when she heard a soft knock on the door and a gasp as the visitor recognized her.  “Helen?”

 

Helen recognized her visitor as one of the women living in the transitional housing.  Seeing the defeated sag in her shoulders, Helen gently greeted her.  “Hello Sarah.  Everything all right?”

 

Sarah seemed stunned to find Helen in the office, her words coming in a soft, jumbled, increasingly rapid stream. “No. I don’t know.  I’m just worried.  What are you doing in here?  Do you work here?  Have you heard about the shelter?  Do you know what’s going to happen? Do you think they’ll ask people to leave? When will we find out?”

 

Helen’s heart lurched as she watched Sarah slowly spiral towards panic.  She quickly got up from her seat, putting her arm around Sarah, which silenced her stream of questions.  She pulled up another chair next to hers inviting Sarah to take a seat.  Helen continued to keep her arm around Sarah as tears began to fall.  She pulled Sarah’s head to her shoulder wrapping both arms around her and let her cry. 

 

As Sarah’s tears began to slow, Helen released her grip and quietly asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”

 

“I’m sorry to break down on you,” sniffed Sarah. “I’m scared.”

 

“There’s no need to apologize Sarah.  I’m glad I was here.  What’s frightened you?”

 

“Things are just starting to get better for Brittany and me.  I’m not sure we’re ready to be on our own yet.”

 

Helen thought back to the beautiful bundle of energy she’d seen at the cottages.  Seeing worry crease Sarah’s features, Helen squeezed her shoulder reassuringly.  “Why would you have to be on your own sooner than you need?”

 

“What if the new budget means we can’t live in the cottages as long?”

 

Helen internally chastised herself for not realizing the full range of consequences of the budget uncertainty.  She knew that Denise had not indicated exactly what would be scaled back or cut in hopes that she could minimize the impact.  Instead of providing hope, it seemed to be interpreted by Sarah as indicating that everything was potentially at risk.  “Sarah, I don’t know what is going to happen and I don’t think anyone does.”

 

“But some things will be cut though, right?”

 

“I really don’t know. But I don’t think it will be as bad you fear.”

 

“Do you know anything?  What are you doing in here?”

 

Helen smiled weakly.  “I have some idea of the degree of the problem.  I’ve been trying to help Denise a little today.”

 

Helen continued to talk with Sarah hoping that being able to verbalize her fears might ease them.  She was pleased to find that with time, Sarah gradually grew calmer.  She gazed up at the clock realizing it was well past when she’d said she would arrive for dinner, but couldn’t bring herself to leave Sarah. 

 

Eventually, another knock came from the door and one more familiar face appeared.  “Sarah, there you are.  We were getting worried.” 

 

Helen recognized another of the women she’d met at the cottages. 

 

“Hello Helen.  I’m surprised to see you here.”

 

“She’s been helping Denise,” Sarah offered, slowly getting out of her seat. 

 

“Well Sarah, we should be getting back.  It’ll be time to collect the kids soon.”

 

Sarah softly smiled her agreement.  Turning to Helen, she squeezed her shoulder and began to speak, only to stop herself.  She finally got out a simple, “Thank you, Helen.”  It was clear she wanted to say more, but didn’t really know how to express it.

 

Helen smiled. “It was my pleasure. You hang in there and give that little girl of yours a squeeze when you get home.”

 

Helen watched the two leave and immediately turned to the office calculating what had to be done immediately and what could wait.  Getting to Nikki’s was her sole focus.  Deciding she could type up her notes tomorrow, Helen hurriedly finished tidying the stacks and scribbled a note to Denise explaining that she’d be back to finish the following afternoon.

 

---

 

 

A tablecloth was wadded up and tossed on the floor just inside the door leading towards the deck.  Two candle holders supporting mounds of melted wax set on the kitchen counter alongside a simple, but elegant bouquet.  Two plates holding meals that were uneaten and ice cold were perched next to the sink.  Outdoor speakers that once provided atmosphere had been disconnected and the stereo turned off.  The only remnant of dinner that remained was a bottle of wine.  It was sitting half full on the coffee table. 

 

“Hello, Claire?” Nikki was pacing, phone to her ear.  Her initial frustration was now replaced with worry. 

 

“Hiya Nikki.  What’s wrong?”

 

“Have you seen Helen today?”

 

“Not since I left your house, why?”

 

“She hasn’t come home yet.” 

 

“Do you know what she was planning on doing today?”

 

“She said that she had an appointment this afternoon, but I have no idea where.  She left me a message saying she’d be a little late, but that was hours ago.”

 

“Don’t worry Nikki.  Helen’s a big girl.  Maybe she ended up having dinner with whoever she was meeting today.”

 

Nikki closed her eyes, not wanting to consider the possibility.  “Claire, she was supposed to meet me for dinner.”

 

Claire let out a sharp exhale.  “I’m sorry Nikki.  I didn’t know.  It isn’t like her to miss dinner when she’s said she’ll be there, particularly after seeing the two of you this morning. Is it possible that she just got delayed?”

 

“How would I know?  I haven’t a clue where she went.  I know I’m being stupid.”

 

“No, you’re not Nikki.  I can tell you’re upset.”  Claire paused as she began to fully understand what was going on.  “Oh I’m sorry Nikki.  You made dinner, didn’t you?”

 

Nikki, now embarrassed and mad, both at herself and Helen, answered only with a quiet resigned, “Yeah.”

 

Hearing no further response from Claire, Nikki ended the conversation. “Thanks Claire, I’ll make sure to give you a call when she shows up.”

 

Claire turned off her phone thinking, Helen, you bloody well better have a great excuse for this.

 

No sooner had she turned off her phone did it ring again.  Without glancing at who it may be, she answered.  “Hello.”

 

“Claire.  I have a huge favor to ask.”  Helen sounded tired and a little frantic.

 

“Hello Helen.” Claire began slowly wanting to gauge Helen’s mood.  “What can I do for you?”

 

“Can you come pick me up?  I don’t want to be later than I am already.  Please.  I’ll explain in the car.” 

 

Hearing Helen’s plea, Claire decided she could wait for an explanation.  “Ok Helen, where are you?”

 

“I’m at the women’s shelter.”

 

“What are you doing there?”

 

“Can I explain in the car?”

 

“Fine.  I’ll see you in 5-10 minutes.  While you wait, call Nikki.  Let her know you’re ok and on your way.”

 

Claire hung up before Helen had a chance to respond.  As Helen began to dial Nikki’s number she considered what her tardiness must seem to Nikki.  She didn’t regret her time at the shelter, but she did lament the timing.  Knowing that a full explanation was not possible over the phone, she punched in the final digits to Nikki’s number.

 

“Hello?” 

 

Just the sound of Nikki’s voice made Helen smile.  “Hiya Nikki.”

 

“Helen!  Are you ok?  I’ve been worried.”

 

Hearing the concern in Nikki’s voice, Helen momentarily forgot the emotional high of working at the shelter.  Guilt washed over her like a wave of nausea.  “Oh Nikki, I’m so sorry.  I’m just fine.  I did not intend to be so late.  I’ll be there in about 15 minutes.”

 

Nikki was unsure how to respond.  Her emotions were a jumble of worry, relief that Helen seemed ok, excitement that she would return soon, and hurt that Helen had chosen something over arriving for dinner.  As a result, her response came out stiff, seemingly devoid of emotion. “I’m glad you are all right.  Have you eaten?”

 

Unsure of what to make of Nikki’s tone and knowing Claire would be arriving soon, Helen kept it short.  She just wanted to get to Nikki so that she could tell her about her day. “I feel terrible Nikki.  I just lost track of time.  I hope I haven’t put you out.  And to answer your question, I have not eaten a thing.”

 

“No worries Helen.  I planned something quite casual and simple.  I’ll set dinner to reheat.”  At her own lie, Nikki felt a combination of shame and pain.  How do you tell someone that you spent hours over the stove and tried to orchestrate the perfect outdoor, candlelit dinner, when they couldn’t even be bothered to arrive?

 

Not sure what to make of Nikki’s aloof tone, Helen answered. “I’ll see you soon, Nikki.  I’m looking forward to it.”

 

“I am to, Helen.  See you soon.” 

 

Helen would have been comforted by Nikki’s words had they been spoken with feeling.  Setting the phone back into cradle, Helen gathered her things and headed to the door to meet Claire.  Claire pulled up and Helen quickly ducked into the front seat.

 

“Thanks so much for coming Claire.  It would have taken me at least another half hour to get there by bus.”

 

Claire looked over at Helen.  She was thrilled to find her at the shelter, but upset at what she perceived as inconsiderate behavior towards Nikki.   Claire let out a long sigh.  “No problem, Helen.  I really don’t mind.  What were you doing at the shelter, today of all days?  Did you see the paper?”

 

“I’d been going everyday since you gave me Denise’s number.  I didn’t know about the article until I arrived today at the usual time.”

 

“So why did you stay?  What happened that made you miss dinner?” pressed Claire.

 

“I stayed to help.  If you remember, I do have some expertise in organizing and locating funding sources.” Helen’s tone was aggressive, Claire becoming the target of the uneasiness resulting from her exchange with Nikki. 

 

“Hey!  I’m not the enemy here.  I’m glad you could help and I’m thrilled to hear you’ve been spending time there.  What I do not understand is how you could stay so late.  Did you at least call?  I told you that if you hurt her, I would have a hard time forgiving you.”

 

“What are you saying, Claire?”  demanded Helen, her accent thickening.   “Of course I called… twice if you must know.  First, to say I’d be late and again, a few minutes ago, to let her know I was on my way.”

 

“What happened? Why on earth did you stand her up?” ask Claire, incredulous that Helen seemed so defensive.

 

“I’m not standing her up, Claire.  I got caught up at the shelter.  I would have been finished much earlier, but one of the women found me.  She was very upset and I couldn’t very well leave her.”

 

Claire sighed, realizing she should have known something like that had held Helen up.  She felt her frustration dissolve.  “Helen, I love you for your compassion.  But you are going to need to talk to Nikki and make her understand.  I have a feeling she’s going to be much more upset than you think.”

 

“What?!  Why?  She loves the shelter and the women it serves.”

 

“That she does.  But just think for a moment about things from her perspective.  You hop into bed with her and then when offered the chance for a first real date, you decide working at the shelter is more important.”

 

Helen sighed.  “Claire, I think she’ll understand.  Nikki even told me she had planned on dinner being casual.” 

 

This made Claire laugh out loud.  “Christ Stewart, you actually believe that  bollocks?  I’d bet my life that Nikki had a perfect evening planned for you.”

 

Helen was stopped short.  She realized Nikki was likely to have planned something special.  Claire was right; she had actually failed to arrive for their first date.  Helen was quiet for a moment and Claire was content to let her stew.

 

“I messed up didn’t I?” whispered Helen. 

 

“You didn’t really, but it’s going to look that way until you get a chance to explain,” began Claire gently.  “You’ve got to talk to her, Helen.  I’ve told you that I don’t know why Nikki’s been single for so long, but I do know that she does not wear vulnerability well.  She will understand and likely be thrilled that you have been helping the shelter.  Lord knows, they need it.  But sometimes, it’s harder to keep focus on the big picture when it’s personal.”

 

“So you’re saying that Nikki’s afraid that’ll I’ll hurt her and I’ve basically proved her right?”

 

Claire silently nodded.  “She doesn’t open up easily, but if her reactions this morning were any indication, you’re likely the most terrifying person in her life.”

 

Helen stared at her friend.

 

”Helen, whether she gave it to you willingly or not, I think you have the power to hurt her more deeply than anyone has in many years.”

 

Helen spent the remaining few minutes of the ride reflecting on what Claire had said.

 

Pulling the car to a stop in front of Nikki’s house, Claire softly spoke.  “We’re here. Have a good evening, Helen.”

 

---

 

 

Part 22

 

Claire drove away leaving Helen gazing up at the warm lights shining from the windows of Nikki’s house.  She climbed the steps and paused at the door. Unsure of the reception she would receive, Helen didn’t know if she should knock or just walk in.  Deciding that she shouldn’t presume anything, she gently knocked and waited nervously on the front porch.  She took a few deep breaths trying to settle her varied emotions that ranged from elation at reclaiming her professional identity, guilt for missing dinner, apprehension at Nikki’s reaction, excitement at getting to see her, to the twinge of arousal that seemed to increasingly accompany thoughts and interaction with Nikki. 

 

Nikki padded to the door similarly conflicted.  She had been looking forward to seeing Helen all day.  She knew her heart was making plans that life was unlikely to accommodate and Helen’s tardiness made her feel as though her excitement was not matched.  She kept reminding herself of Helen’s words that morning, but was having a hard time believing them.  Nikki knew she had begun to set herself up to have her heart broken, something she’d long promised herself she would not allow to happen again. 

 

As the door opened, the two women faced each other, oblivious to the cool night air.  Each was struck by the immediate physical and emotional impact the presence of the other caused.  They stood, stunned.  Nikki collected her powers of speech first.

 

“Helen,” she began haltingly. “Come in. It’s getting cold out there.”

 

Helen’s feet followed instructions and, before her brain fully recalled her apprehension, her heart compelled her feet to keep moving.  She stepped toe-to-toe with Nikki and wrapped her arms around her waist, resting her head against her shoulder.  The proximity felt so comforting and… right.  For Helen the embrace was an attempt to express all that she felt knowing that the words were likely to be much more difficult. 

 

Nikki didn’t know what to do.  She placed her arms gently around Helen, but couldn’t help wondering what it meant.  Helen back in her arms was intoxicating, but her nagging fears prevented her from losing herself in sensation.  Nikki tried to step back, but Helen would not let go.  Nikki rested her arms on Helen’s shoulders and softly spoke into her hair.  “I’m sure you’re starving, Helen.  Let me go get dinner settled.”

 

Helen could feel that Nikki did not fully return her greeting.  She loosened her arms, but kept her hands clasped behind Nikki’s back.  Looking up at her, she saw eyes full of fear and uncertainty.  She also noticed that the hair around Nikki’s face was wet and her cheeks flushed.  Not knowing quite what to do or think, Helen nodded with a small smile and released her hands.  She watched Nikki pad barefoot into the kitchen.  She was wearing low-hanging, tattered jeans and a fitted t-shirt revealing the curves underneath. 

 

Helen was left standing in the entry.  Unsure of what to do, she quietly followed Nikki towards the kitchen.  As she approached, she spied the wadded up tablecloth against the deck door and changed course, stopping above the discarded linen.  Cupping her hand against the glass she could see that a small table had been set up on the deck.  Helen’s heart sank.  Wanting a moment to collect her thoughts, she called out towards the kitchen, “Do you mind if I take a moment to freshen up?”

 

Startled, having been lost in her own thoughts, Nikki answered.  “Sure.”  After a long pause adding, “Do you need anything?”

 

“No.  I’m fine.  Thanks.”

 

“All right.  Remember where it is?  First door on the right.”

 

Helen headed towards the door, noting that Nikki gave her directions to the second bathroom that was intended for guests not the one adjoining her bedroom.  She washed her face, finding the act cleansing.  Looking at herself in the mirror she realized that she had wet tendrils around her face to match Nikki’s.  Suspicious, she left the bathroom and tiptoed towards the door of Nikki’s bedroom, pushing it open.  Her heart contracted as she recalled the joy she’d found in this room just 24 hours earlier.  A pair of stylish trousers and what looked like a light cashmere sweater were tossed on the bed and pair of boots, polished to gleaming, had been haphazardly flung on the floor.  Helen was simultaneously touched and overcome by guilt.  She really had missed their first date and it meant much more than Nikki had let on. 

 

Helen took a moment in the hallway outside Nikki’s bedroom.  She leaned against the wall, head tilted back.  She tried to reconcile the fact that all she really wanted to do was crawl into Nikki’s arms and tell her about her day while knowing she had no right to ask that of Nikki.  She was the one that needed to offer reassurance and comfort.

 

By the time Helen re-entered the living room, Nikki had pushed the coffee table aside and set dinner trays on the floor, creating an informal picnic in front of the couch.  A bottle of wine, half gone, was setting next to two steaming plates of food.  Helen crawled down onto the floor next to Nikki, both women using the couch as a backrest. 

 

“This looks wonderful,” smiled Helen gazing at her meal. 

 

“Thanks,” responded Nikki softly, her eyes never leaving her own food. 

 

Helen was at a loss.  Nikki wasn’t outwardly upset, just quiet.  Not knowing how to remedy the situation she followed Nikki’s example, using her food as a distraction. 

 

 “Would you like some wine?  I’m sorry I forgot to offer you some earlier.”

 

Helen looked up at Nikki and this time Nikki met her eyes.  For a moment they just stared.  “Wine would be great.  Thanks.”  Helen didn’t feel any anger from Nikki, or even the uncertainty she’d observed earlier.  In fact, the silence, to Helen, was unexpectedly comfortable.  It was as if both women knew words carried risk.

 

Nikki had promised herself not to speak until the hurt roiling just beneath the surface had subsided.  She could feel herself teetering on an emotional tightrope where the slightest disturbance would send her tumbling.  As she slowly savored her meal, she congratulated herself. Nikki knew that had this same situation arisen in the past, she would have long since flown off the handle. 

 

Perhaps you’re finally learning keep that gob of yours shut, eh Wade?  Or maybe you just haven’t had proper motivation before.

 

Nikki closed her eyes in thanks for the extended phone conversations and weeks spent getting to know Helen before facing this, their first potential conflict.  She was sure they were contributing to her ability to keep calm.

 

The two women slowly finished their meals, neither breaking the silence.  Observing the empty plates, Nikki got to her feet and held out her hand for Helen’s dishes with a small smile on her face.  Helen gently passed her plate. 

 

When Nikki returned, she switched on the stereo, volume low, and cracked the backdoor to allow some fresh air into the room.  Nikki made her way towards Helen and wordlessly slid one leg behind her.  Helen scooted forward to make room and found herself leaning against Nikki, enveloped in her legs.  Nikki rested her chin on Helen’s shoulder, hands casually resting on her knees.  Still content to simply savor being in each other’s presence, the two women listened to music, lost in thought.  Slowly Nikki’s arms found their way around Helen in a loose embrace.

 

“Nikki…” Helen began slowly, her voice soft.  She relaxed further into Nikki’s arms to gather strength and to reassure.  “… I had a great day today.”  Helen felt Nikki stiffen and quickly continued. “I woke up this morning in the arms of the most incredible woman I have ever met.  A woman I can’t imagine a life without.  I was greeted at breakfast by my closest friend, and later, I rediscovered fulfillment of a different, but no less important, sort.”

 

Nikki didn’t know what to think.  Her heart swelled as Helen described her morning, but fears began to resurface as Helen referred to the appointment that kept her late.  “Where did you go today?” whispered Nikki.

 

Helen wrapped her arms around Nikki’s bent legs. “I was at the women’s shelter today, Nikki.”

 

“What?” breathed Nikki, obviously shocked.  “Why?”

 

Helen chuckled softly.  “I think you’ve forgotten ‘who, when, where, and how’.”

 

Nikki smiled quietly in response reminding Helen, “I know the answers to those questions.  What were you doing at the women’s shelter, Helen?”

 

“I have been going nearly every day.”

 

“I didn’t think you’d ever go back after our trip to the cottages.”

 

Helen paused trying to figure out how best to explain.  Her words were quiet, but deliberate.  “Nikki, the day we went to the transitional housing was one of the best things that could have happened to me, although I didn’t know it at the time.  I needed to meet the women there.  It made me realize that I didn’t really understand domestic abuse.  Claire gave me Denise’s number and she put me in contact with other friends and family, as well as survivors.  I needed it, not to absolve myself of guilt, but to understand what I could have done and accept that those things I couldn’t have changed.”

 

Nikki sighed.  She’d had no idea.  “That explains where you’d been disappearing every afternoon.  What kept you so long tonight?”

 

Helen, grateful that Nikki’s question was asked gently, out of curiosity, laced her fingers through Nikki's and pulled her arms tight around her.  “I didn’t read the newspaper this morning.  I assume you know about the article.”

 

Feeling Nikki nod, her head still resting on Helen’s shoulder, she continued. “It was chaos, Nikki.  The staff, the public, and especially the women were panicked. Denise was out of her mind.”

 

“What did you do?”

 

“You don’t know much about my life in London. I’m quite familiar with organizations reliant on grants and donations.  I used to run one.”

 

“Were you able to help?”

 

“I think so.  It won’t solve the problem in the short term, but I think I identified some ways that Denise can assure long-term stability.”

 

“So that’s what you were doing until nearly 10 tonight?”

 

Helen sighed, gently answering, “Aye. I had Denise shut me in a room with a stack of organization and funding docs.  I just got lost in it all.  When I finally realized the time, Sarah, from the cottages, walked in.  She was upset and worried.  I stayed to comfort her.  I had no intention of missing our dinner.”

 

As much as she wanted to savor the embrace as Nikki’s arms tightened around her, Helen felt compelled to continue.  “But Nikki, and I have to be honest with you, I don’t regret today.  I regret hurting you, but I do not regret staying to work at the shelter.”

 

Nikki did not immediately respond, but Helen felt arms relax from around her.  Nikki took several long breaths, willing herself keep calm.

 

“What do you mean, Helen?”  Nikki’s voice was still low, but strained. What couldn’t wait a day?

 

Helen began to sense the effort Nikki was making to allow her explain.  The simple gesture was one of the most powerful statements of affection and trust that Helen had ever received.  Matching Nikki’s strategy of pausing to simply breath, Helen slowly filled her lungs to calm her nerves.

 

“I’ve always believed that everyone is a bit like a prism…” began Helen.

 

Nikki didn’t respond, puzzled by the direction Helen was taking their conversation.

 

“…the more sides, the more beautiful the refracted light.  The source of the light and position of the viewer matters as well.  I think that’s why some people click and others don’t, or why the same person can be viewed very differently by different people.”

 

Helen paused to gather her thoughts and pulled Nikki’s arms around her like a blanket.

 

“When I arrived here after Emma died, I was like a single pane of glass.  Depending on the lighting, I either reflected the emotions around me or I was completely transparent.”

 

Nikki tightened her arms protectively, thinking of how vulnerable Helen had seemed those first few days.  Helen stopped to gather strength from Nikki and savor the closeness.

 

“I slowly began to regain pieces of myself.”

 

“You started to become three dimensional,” whispered Nikki, understanding.  Helen nodded, a smile on her face.

 

“You were part of that discovery process.  But Nikki, you must know I still felt incomplete.”

 

“And you’ve found the missing piece?” asked Nikki quietly.

 

“I think so.”

 

“Work?”

 

Helen’s first impulse was to answer in the affirmative, but caught herself. 

 

“I don’t know,” responded Helen in a defeated sigh. 

 

“What don’t you know?” prodded Nikki gently.

 

“I think the missing piece is feeling useful, like I’m contributing to the greater good.”

 

“Helen, you work in international aid. I think your entire life is defined by such contribution.”

 

“I know,” countered with an exaggerated moan.  “But I don’t know if I can keep that up.  Before I left, I wasn’t as happy in my job as I was when I began.  It got harder and harder to care that much.  I don’t know if that’s because of all that happened with Emma or if it was the job. Maybe, I simply got selfish.”

 

Nikki was aghast.  “Helen, the woman who just came home saying she’d been fulfilled by spending a day helping at a women’s shelter is hardly selfish.”

 

Helen appreciated the support, but found herself frustrated by her inability to explain.  “I realize my career would say otherwise, but I just don’t seem to have the emotional endurance for it anymore.”

 

“Helen, a job should never require emotional fortitude.  It can be tiring and time consuming, but it shouldn’t leave you empty.”

 

Helen knew she was right.  Taking comfort in Nikki’s arms, Helen snuggled in deeper.  “It used to be the reverse.  I’d leave work exhausted, but fulfilled and more inspired than when I went in.  It was a win-win.  I felt as though I received as much or more than I put in.”  Helen’s tone was somber, a sad whisper.  She felt as though she was mourning the loss of a part of herself.  “I miss it.  I don’t know how to get that back.”

 

Nikki didn’t know what to say.  She understood the rewards of doing what you loved, but didn’t know how to help.  “You found that passion today, didn’t you?”

 

“I did.”  Helen seemed almost in awe of her reaction to the day.  She was much less sure of what it meant.  “I just don’t know if I can recreate or maintain the energy of today back home.” 

 

Helen lapsed into silence and Nikki let her, partly because the mention of Helen’s home in London had caused her stomach to drop.

 

Helen began speaking again seemingly more to herself than to Nikki “Maybe I’ll view work differently as I make peace with Emma’s death.  Maybe I need to change some things, ease my schedule enough to allow to me to recharge.  Maybe…”

 

Nikki didn’t know what to say as Helen’s voice tailed off.  Helen was speaking as if she would be back in London soon.

 

Swallowing hard, Nikki asked, “When are you planning on going back?”

 

Hearing the strain and vulnerability in the question, Helen turned around to face Nikki.  Nikki couldn’t bring herself to meet her eyes, afraid of what she might see.  Helen gently guided her face up forcing her to look at her.  “My ticket is for next week.”

 

Breaking her gaze, Nikki soon found her pant leg interesting. “Will you be on the flight?”

 

“I think I will,” was the barely audible reply. Just uttering the words aloud made Helen feel as though her heart had been ripped from her chest. 

 

Nikki continued to fiddle with fabric of her jeans.  Her breath was now coming in short, constrained bursts.  “Couldn’t you change the flight?” she breathed.

 

Helen turned her eyes to the ceiling to stave off the tears threatening to fall.  “I don’t think I should.”

 

“Why?” gasped Nikki, her voice cracking.

 

Helen couldn’t bear the pain she saw etched on Nikki’s face.  She pressed Nikki’s knees to the floor, straddled her legs, and pulled Nikki into a tight embrace.  Nikki couldn’t return it.  She just wanted to run away, escape the pain, but was pinned against the couch by Helen. 

 

Helen held her until she felt Nikki relax.  She pulled back enough to look her in the face.  “Nikki…” began Helen taking one hand to cup her cheek.  “…I think even you know I can’t stay here forever.”

 

Nikki just stared, a tear escaping her eyes and making its way slowly down her cheek.

 

Helen brushed away the tear with her thumb and rested her forehead against Nikki’s.  She was having a hard time keeping her composure as well.  “Nikki I want this… us.”

 

Nikki gently rested her hands on Helen’s low back, unsure of how she could simultaneously want her, but insist that she had to leave. 

 

“But if this, whatever we have, is going to last, I need to find me. I need something to offer you.”

 

Helen brought her hand to Nikki’s lips as she felt her begin to protest.  “No, listen Nikki.  I need to feel whole.  I don’t want to need you as an emotional crutch.  I want to feel that I am your equal.”

 

Feeling Nikki, again begin to disagree, Helen quickly continued.  “I don’t mean intellectual equal, Nikki.  I’m not referring to that.  I need to be an equal if we are to try to have a relationship.  I need to feel like I have energy and emotion to give.  That means regaining my professional identity as well as emotional stability and confidence.” 

 

As much as Nikki wanted to disagree, she understood.  She knew that if the tables were turned she would want the freedom to re-establish herself.  It felt selfish to ask Helen to stay just for her, she wanted Helen to be happy even if that meant letting her go.  Nikki met Helen’s gaze and gave slight nod of understanding.  Her eyes, however told of the heartbreak. 

 

“What happens now?” choked Nikki.

 

Helen caressed Nikki’s face again, her fingertips lingering on her lips and trailing along her eyebrows.  “I don’t know.  I think we may have to simply take it as it comes.”  Helen paused, an affectionate smile forming on her lips.  “I do think it might make sense to investigate international calling plans.”

 

This brought a soft chuckle from Nikki.  “I’ll miss you.  It’s barely been a month, but I can’t imagine life here without you in it.”

 

Helen’s heart swelled at Nikki’s words.  “I have a feeling my life back in London is going to feel incomplete without you in it.  But, sweetheart, we started all this talking on the phone.”

 

“I know.  I’m not sure that will be enough now.”

 

“Nikki we can’t predict the future.  I have no idea what I’ll be returning to in London.  I left and haven’t really looked back.  Let’s just see what happens and not assume anything, yeah?”

 

Nikki could only nod, words felt wholly inadequate to express all that she was feeling.  She leaned forward and took firm, but slow, possession of Helen’s lips.  This kiss was intense, possessive, a confirmation of shared fears, and a promise to try.  Hands gripped tightly seeking to achieve the closeness they both feared losing.  Arousal was powerful and nearly instant.  Not a word was spoken; both women were lost in sensation, trying simultaneously to make the other feel the strength of their bond, and escape, at least temporarily, the pain of knowing they would be apart. 

 

Helen’s hands were running through Nikki’s hair, clutching clumps of dark curls.  Nikki descended down Helen’s neck with a combination of tongue, lips, and teeth.  Feeling Helen arch against her hands, Nikki slid off her shirt and quickly dispatched her bra.  The only noise was ragged breathing punctuated by sharp gasps.  Coherent thought had long since left for Helen.  She could feel that Nikki was taking ownership and willingly offered herself.  Nikki had begun to hungrily devour her breasts. She then lowered a zipper and slid her hand inside. 

 

Helen was simply hanging on, one hand still gripping Nikki’s hair, the other clutching a fistful of her shirt.  Her hips were now rhythmically rocking on Nikki’s lap, responding to each thrust and curl of her fingers.  Nikki continued her assault on Helen’s breasts. With her free hand she rocked Helen up on to her knees to allow her to add another finger and slide her thumb across her clit.  Helen immediately began to shake, her hips bearing down on Nikki.  The orgasm ripped through her body.  Helen collapsed forward on to Nikki, quakes still rocking her core, her breath coming in shaky gasps.  Nikki just held her until her body calmed and turned to gently press her lips to Helen’s temple. 

 

Helen lifted herself from Nikki’s shoulder to gaze into her eyes.  Bringing her hands to her face she began to gently kiss her eyelids, forehead, cheeks, nose, each ear lobe, and ultimately her lips in a slow, fiercely gentle kiss.  Helen had taken to her knees when she began her exploration of Nikki’s face, allowing Nikki to tenderly remove her hand.  Helen shuddered into her mouth as she felt Nikki pull her hand from her. 

 

Helen ran her hands under Nikki’s shirt, lifting it over her head.  As she reached behind to free her bra, she shifted her weight, turning and pushing Nikki down, onto the floor.  Jeans quickly joined the discarded shirts. Helen descended on Nikki with equal ferocity, repaying Nikki by making her forget, freeing her to be completely present in the here and now.

 

The two women did not speak another word.  They eventually made their way to Nikki’s bed to continue their carnal escapism, finally falling asleep in the tangle of bedclothes.

 

---

 

 

Part 23

 

Nikki was in the shower.  She had pulled herself from bed and Helen’s vice-like clasp knowing both their days began early.  She stood in the shower hoping that the warm cascade would clear her sleep-muddled mind.  While Nikki still felt melancholy about Helen leaving, there was also a lightness to her mood, as if the weight of her own fears and insecurities had been lifted.  Exiting the bathroom wrapped in a towel, Nikki wandered into the bedroom to find the bed empty.  The space once occupied by the gorgeous Scot now held a small note propped on the pillow. 

 

Good morning beautiful.

I’m in the cottage to locate clothes appropriate for playing teacher.

Save me some coffee?

 

H

 

 

In the cottage, Helen stood with dripping hair in front of a small closet contemplating what to wear.  She opted for smart, but casual, and set about drying her hair and applying makeup.   Finally ready, she gathered her things and ventured back toward the house.   As she approached the deck door she was immediately reminded of the first time she’d observed Nikki through the slider.  Nikki was once again seated on the couch, glasses perched on her nose, papers scattered around her feet, brow scrunched in concentration.

 

“Where are you off to looking so fancy?” asked Helen as she pushed through the door and gazed at Nikki appraisingly.  Nikki was wearing flowing, high-waisted slacks, a crisp, white, collared shirt, and the pair of black boots, with hair and makeup to match.

 

“Good morning, Helen.  You’re gorgeous, you know that, right?” smiled Nikki.  Helen responded by leaning down to cup Nikki’s cheek and capture her lips in a gentle, lingering kiss. 

 

Helen glanced again at Nikki’s clothing and raised her eyebrows.  “I’m meeting with accountants and lawyers this morning.  I thought I should at least try to look like someone who owns their own business,” finished Nikki, with an embarrassed shrug. 

 

“I’m impressed,” replied Helen with a wink.  “Is there any coffee left?”

 

“Sure.  This is only my first cup. Help yourself.”

 

Helen disappeared into the kitchen to gather coffee.  After several minutes she returned with toast slathered in raspberry jam for them both. “I’m assuming you haven’t eaten.”

 

“That’d be accurate.  Thank you.”  Looking at the laden toast skeptically, Nikki shook her head. “Do you really think I can eat that without adding pink polka dots to my shirt?”

 

“Would you like a bib, dear?” asked Helen in mock seriousness as she placed the toast down on the coffee table that had been returned to its spot in front of the couch. 

 

Nikki looked at Helen trying to figure out if she was serious.  The twitching of one corner of her mouth gave away the joke.  Laughing, Nikki declared, “Yes, I think I’d like a bib.”

 

Helen immediately returned to the kitchen to gather a clean dish towel, which she tied in a knot and launched at the back of Nikki’s head.

 

“Oi! Do you want me wearing my coffee too?”

 

Nikki untied the towel and gamely shoved it in the neck of her shirt making sure to spread it out to maximize coverage.  She then picked up her toast, making an overly dramatic show of taking delicate, dainty nibbles of her breakfast, all while casting sideways glances at Helen to see if she was succeeding in making her laugh.  Helen kept a straight face initially, but eventually dissolved into giggles. 

 

Swatting Nikki on the back of her head, she laughed. “Eat your toast, goofball.”

 

“You’ve been hanging around Claire and Cory too much.  Why is it always a knock to the head?” asked Nikki rubbing her scalp. 

 

“Maybe it’ll help you to think straight.”

 

“Never!” gasped Nikki trying to look scandalized.

 

Helen groaned. “I just walked into that one, didn’t I?”

 

“Yep.  Are you all ready for today?  Has Elliott had the courtesy to tell you anything other than ‘come talk with my class’?”

 

“He’s told a little bit more, but not much.  I figure I’ll just be honest.  I get the feeling that they want to hear stories about my time working abroad.  I’m sure I’ll find something to talk about.”

 

“You should plant questions.  Give El some ideas.  He can be your safety net if you get stuck.”

 

Helen pursed her lips, contemplating the suggestion.  “Sneaky Wade, very sneaky.”  Helen took a sip of her coffee and settled back into the couch.  “Enough about my one-day stint as teacher.  When will you be finished tonight?  I want to take you out.”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes, really.  Since you’re the local, I’ll let you choose the restaurant.”

 

“You’re on, Professor Stewart.  I should be done by six.”

 

“Professor?”

 

“You are, for today. Will seven work for dinner? I’d like time to change.”

 

“It’ll be perfect.  And Nikki… “

 

“Yes?”

 

“I’d love to see you in the soft blue sweater and dark gray pin-striped trousers.  You can keep those same boots.”

 

“You’re observant.  It was late and I was distracted when we finally made it in there last night.”

 

“Oh, I too was incapable of coherent thought at that point,” began Helen with a knowing smirk that quickly became a soft, affectionate smile as she continued.  “I saw them when I went to wash my face earlier in the evening.  I know you changed to make me feel less guilty.”

 

Nikki dropped her chin. “I didn’t want to seem over eager.”

 

“Hey, I like it and I would have been flattered.  I am sorry to have made you think I didn’t care.  Now, I want to maximize the time I’ve got with you.”

 

Nikki tried to smile, but found it hard when discussing Helen’s eminent departure.  “All right, Helen.  I’ll be ready by seven in the clothes you’ve requested.”  Wanting to change the subject, she glanced down at her watch. “Shouldn’t Elliott be here?”

 

“He should.  I hope we’re not late. I’d love the chance to talk with his professor before we start.”

 

The crunch of the gravel outside indicated that Elliott had arrived.   The sound of a slammed car door was quickly followed by someone bounding up the steps and pounding on the door.

 

Nikki leapt off the couch to greet him.  “Geez El, go easy on my poor hinges!”  She couldn’t help but laugh at his nearly panic stricken face.  “Elliott, you’re ok.  She’s right here.  Come on in and take a deep breath.”

 

As he entered the house, Nikki noticed that he had dressed up for the day in ironed khakis and a button down.  Nikki rested her hand on his shoulder and smiled indulgently at him, finding it really cute that he was so obviously nervous. “You going to be all right?”

 

“Yeah, thanks Nik.  I guess I’m a little worried about today.  I’m supposed to introduce Helen and help guide discussion.  You know how I feel about talking in front of people.”

 

Helen had left the couch to join them and, like Nikki, found Elliott’s nerves endearing.  “Elliott, it’ll be just fine.  We’ll be a team and get the discussion going.  What do you say?”

 

Elliott’s clenched shoulders dropped in relief.  “That sounds great Helen.  Shall we go?  I’ll feel much better if we can get there a little early.”

 

“Sure.  Let’s go.”  Helen turned lightly brushing her lips against Nikki’s. “I’ll see you at seven.”

 

---

 

 

Helen and Elliott parked and made their way to the classroom arriving 10 minutes early.  The classroom had only a few students and Professor Harris had not yet arrived.  Elliott led Helen to the front of the classroom and stood chatting.  As students slowly began to fill the seats, a few others introduced themselves and joined the conversation.

 

A tall athletic man with floppy dark hair stood at the rear entrance to the classroom watching Helen chat with a small gathering of his students.  He had a smile growing on his face that slowly grew into laughter.  Sauntering into the classroom he let out a whoop. “Lock up your sons and daughters and hide the vodka! Stewart’s in town!”

 

Helen gasped, turning towards the door.  Seeing the newcomer she let out a shout of delight. “Corbin? Corbin Harris!”  Helen broke into a run and launched herself into his arms, his embrace picking her up off the ground. 

 

“Helen ‘Dusty’ Stewart!  How the hell you been? And what are you doing in my classroom?”

 

“Your classroom? Seriously?”

 

Seeing him nod and flash a grin, Helen burst into laughter.

 

The students at this point had fallen silent, staring at the interaction between their professor and guest speaker. 

 

“I’m getting old darlin’. It was time to be respectable,” drawled Corbin with a twinkle in his eye. 

 

“You? Never!”

 

“Which will I never be?  Old or respectable?”

 

Helen let out an affectionate chuckle.  “Take your pick.”

 

Corbin threw his arm around Helen’s shoulders as they strode to the front of the classroom.  He gave her a squeeze and shook his head.  “I can’t believe you’re here to talk to my class.”

 

“Why?  Don’t think I’ll have anything to say?”

 

“Oh I know you’re never at a loss for words, Dusty.  I just can’t believe you’re here in California. What are you doing here?”  Corbin paused, becoming more serious.  “I’m thrilled and, truly, I can think of no one whose experience would benefit these students more.”

 

“Thanks,” sighed Helen gently leaning her head on Corbin’s shoulder.  Looking up at him, she continued softly.  “As for why I’m in California, it’s a long story.”

 

“Can I buy you lunch after class?  I want to catch up and hear what’s happening in the life of my favorite protégé.  But you first have to tell me how you ended up here, in my class.”

 

“Short story is that a friend of a friend is this man’s boss,” smiled Helen gesturing to Elliott. 

 

Corbin broke eye contact with Helen and looked at Elliott.  “Elliott, my boy, you have bagged the best guest speaker of the quarter.  I don’t quite know how you pulled it off, but I’m so glad you did.  I know I assigned you to write an introduction for Helen, but would you mind allowing me the honor?”

 

Elliott gave a small laugh and nodded, still not sure what to make of the obvious familiarity between his professor with a southern drawl and the Scottish guest he’d convinced to come along.  Corbin looked up at the clock on the wall and cleared his throat to gather the students’ attention. 

 

“Good mornin’ everyone. Today we have a guest speaker invited by Elliott.  However, I’m going to break tradition and do the introduction myself.  This is a perfect example of how small and incestuous the world of international aid really is.  I met our guest today, that little Scottish firecracker to my right,” began Corbin tilting his head in Helen’s direction, “when she was barely older than most of you, fresh out of law school, and was broadly known as the wild child of the health clinic and school in… where was that?” asked Corbin looking over at Helen.

 

Helen was now a distinct shade of pink not quite believing the way her introduction was beginning.  “I think that first one was in Guatemala.”

 

“Yep, that’s it.  I was her boss believe it or not; taught her everything she knows.”

 

Helen was staring at the floor, shaking her head wondering how she could possibly follow this introduction.

 

“I learned very quickly that Helen had particularly useful skills, namely a take-no-prisoners approach to contract negotiations, staff organizing, and fund raising.  Mind you this was a product of her passionate belief in the rights of all people and some very strong political opinions.  I had the benefit of her skills for several years after that.  We worked on two continents and five countries in that period.  Each and every center, organizational office, and village benefited from her efforts.”  Casting a sly look in Helen’s direction, he continued, “well, at least they felt the benefits after the appropriately aged members of the community recovered from heartbreak.”

 

Helen let out a gasp that Corbin had actually broadcast her former dating habits to a room full of strangers. 

 

“Now, many of you are likely wondering what she’s done since that time.  Let me tell you, she’s gone much further than I ever did. Heck, she went and made use of that law degree of hers.”

 

Corbin continued to provide a more clinical description of her more recent career path culminating with her current position as an organization director.  Helen finally took the floor and thanked Corbin, repaying him with a few embarrassing stories of her own and ribbed him a little bit about his own return trip to grad school. 

 

The class was a rousing success.  The students responded to her stories and had so many questions that she wasn’t able to discuss many of the topics she’d planned on covering during the two hour period.  As class wound down, Helen found herself surrounded by eager students wanting to further the conversation.  Corbin let it go on for another 15 minutes before he broke up the discussion, dismissing the students.

 

“How about I take you to lunch?” 

 

“That sounds great, Corbin.”  Helen then turned to Elliott.  “Thank you for bringing me today.  I know you promised me a ride back to Nikki’s, but I’ll make sure I get this old cowboy to take me home.”

 

“Sure Helen. Thanks for coming today.  You were great.”

 

“Thanks Elliott.  Tell Nikki I’ll see her tonight.”

 

Elliott’s face broke into a mischievous grin.  “I’ll happily pass on that message!”

 

Helen rolled her eyes.  “Be nice.  Don’t give her too much grief.  You’ll be venturing very near a topic that I believe to be off limits.”

 

“That’s why it’ll be fun!” called Elliott as he scampered out of the room.

 

When Helen turned back to Corbin he was looking at her with a grin that nearly matched Elliott’s.  “What was that all about, Dusty?”

 

“You’re worse than the kids.  I’ll explain if you provide me some food,” countered Helen linking her arm in his as they headed for the door.

 

---

 

 

Nikki had left her house shortly after Helen.  She stopped by Claire’s office to pick her up and then the two of them headed to the offices of Claire’s financial advisor.  The women were soon gathered around a table with both a financial advisor and a lawyer that Nikki had invited to help draw up the agreement.  Discussion had been enthusiastic and serious in turns, but slowly the best strategy began to take shape.

 

“So this will be a bit like creating an endowed chair, yes?” asked Nikki looking around the table.

 

“A bit.  You two will create an endowment fund for the shelter where proceeds from the fund will support shelter staff, but the principle won’t be touched,” replied the accountant.

 

“In other words, we pay a staff person at the shelter with the interest?”

 

“Exactly.  I think it’s the best option given your and Claire’s goal to create a long-term solution.”

 

“Can we specify the primary task of that staff person?” asked Claire turning to the lawyer. 

 

“Yes, there are ways to do that.  I would suggest that you talk with shelter personnel first to make sure that any language we draft will fit into their organizational structure.”

 

Claire turned to Nikki.  “We can just talk with Denise about this.  Do you know how much staff gets paid?”

 

Nikki shook her head. “Not exactly. I’m certain it’s no where near enough, but I don’t know a precise figure.”

 

Claire then turned to the accountant. “I realize that we aren’t in a position to create an endowment for a full time position, but Nikki and I would like to at least be able to fund someone half time and have at least part of their job description be grant writing and fund raising.  Is the amount we’ve agreed on enough to do that?”

 

The accountant pulled out a spreadsheet that combined the amounts that Nikki and Claire could contribute personally and in the name of their businesses to the effort.  “I think you might be able to do that, but it will depend partially on interest rates and the hourly wage that the staff person is paid.  I think what might be important for you two to realize is that you don’t necessarily need to think of this as hiring an additional staff person.  You could simply be allowing the shelter to increase the hours of an existing staff member.  You’ll be providing a security blanket.”

 

Nikki looked directly at Claire.  “Think of it this way, Claire, if we can offset some of the staff costs every year, it means more of the other shelter funds can go to the programs that directly benefit the women and children.  For me, it’d be icing if part of that staff person’s time is dedicated to grants and fundraising.”

 

Claire nodded at Nikki and leaned back in her chair with a satisfied smile.  “You’re right.  I think we’ve done all we can do today.  I feel like we’ve at least sketched out a possible approach.”  Turning her eyes to the professionals, she continued.  “Could you two draft a mock up of what we are proposing from the size of the fund and the language dictating its use?  I’d like to have an example when Nikki and I speak to Denise and the shelter governing board to solicit feedback.  Does that seem like a reasonable next step?”

 

“Sure.  We can have something to you by the end of the week.  Will that work?”

 

Claire glanced at Nikki and received a relaxed shrug, before responding.  “That will be fine.  Nikki and I will set up a meeting with the shelter for early next week.  I’d like to get this settled quickly.”

 

After verifying the timing and tasks, the meeting adjourned allowing all four to get on with their day. 

 

Claire and Nikki left the office and made their way back to Sprout. 

 

“Where to Claire?  Back to your office?”

 

“No. Could you just drop me at home?  I think I’m going to work from there for the rest of the day.  And…” continued Claire, “I forgot to pass on the message.  Cory wants to have lunch with you.  Do you have time?”

 

Nikki laughed.  “Sure.  I’ve always got time for that man.  Will you join us?”

 

“No. I’ve got plenty of catching up to do.  My multiple weeks of playing hooky on Monday has finally caught up with me.  That’s why I’m going home.  I need to be able to work without interruption.”

 

“Fair enough.  Where is Cory?”

 

“He’s at work, eagerly awaiting your call.”

 

“Then let’s get you home so I can meet my lunch date,” grinned Nikki.

 

Claire sat in the passenger seat clutching the documents they’d just spent hours reviewing.

 

“We should ask Helen about how to set up this fund for the shelter.  In fact, she could probably set it up for us,” offered Claire as the flipped through some of the financial statements. 

 

“Claire, could we not do that?”

 

“Why?”

 

“She’s going home next week.  Did you know?”

 

“She is?” asked Claire, obviously shocked. “I had no idea.  Why has she chosen to head back to London?”

 

“She’s decided that she needs to reclaim her life, I guess.”

 

“How do you feel about that? Are you ok, Nikki?”  Claire couldn’t decide if she should be upset with Helen or not.  She realized that it wasn’t realistic for Helen to drop everything and move to California, but she was worried about Nikki.

 

“I’m trying to be,” sighed Nikki.  “We’ve talked about it some and I’m trying to keep an open mind.”  Noticing Claire’s skeptically raised eyebrows, Nikki continued, her voice tinged with somber resignation.  “I didn’t say it was easy.”

 

Claire reached over and squeezed her shoulder.  “I’m glad you are trying to be supportive.”  Claire spoke the words with affection.  She paused, glancing again at the pile of papers in her lap. “But the fact that Helen may leave soon doesn’t tell me why we can’t ask her to take a look at this.”

 

“Claire, please?”

 

“Not without an explanation.  Sorry Nik.”

 

“We’re creating a job at the shelter that Helen could do in her sleep.  I don’t want her to feel like I’m pressuring her to stay.”

 

“But you do want her to stay, right?”

 

Nikki took a deep breath. “Of course I want her to stay, more than anything.  But, I want her to do what’s best for her.  I would not want her to take a part time job for which she’s wildly overqualified for me.  She’d just resent me in the long run.”

 

“Fine.  That’s very noble, although masochistic of you Wade, but it still doesn’t explain why we can’t ask her for help in formulating the fund and legal framework for setting it up.”

 

“I don’t want her to know.  I don’t want her to even think that it’s our intent. Can you please just do this for me?  We’d be doing this even if Helen had never arrived.”

 

Claire rolled her eyes and let out an exasperated sigh.  “Fine Nikki, you can have your way.  It’ll be our big secret.  But, for the record, I think it’s stupid.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

-----

 

Part 24

 

“All right, Dusty.  What do you fancy for lunch?”

 

“Choosing the restaurant is the least you can do since you insist on calling me ‘Dusty,’” grinned Helen. 

 

Corbin and Helen were slowly wandering along the streets of downtown enjoying the distinct pleasure of getting reacquainted with a dear friend not seen frequently enough.

 

“Perfect!  I will choose the restaurant… and you deserve to be called ‘Dusty.’ You’re the only person I’ve ever known of that’s turned herself into a human dust storm.  I still can’t believe you were so drunk you actually thought sleeping outside the tent in the desert was a good idea.  You should be happy I didn’t tell that story today.  Although… I think I might, seein’ as you called me a ‘cowboy’ in there.”

 

Helen laughingly shook her head as she recalled that night.  She sent up silent thanks that she’d passed out, slept through much of the ordeal, and was found before anything worse could happen.  She then glanced up at Corbin with a wicked grin. “What’s wrong with ‘cowboy’? I think it fits.”

 

“I’m from New Orleans and I have never herded anything!” exclaimed Corbin, scandalized. 

 

“What do you call the time you spent in Texas?  And what do you call that ridiculous hat you loved to wear?”

 

“My time in that godforsaken state was the ultimate sign of love.”

 

“It just means you were whipped,” interjected Helen.

 

Corbin just grinned.  “Ok, that too, but you wouldn’t tease me if you had seen my Tommy in tight jeans and boots.”

 

Helen burst into laughter. “I miss Tom!  How is he?”

 

“He’s still his wonderful self.   We’ll have to have you for dinner while you’re in town.”

 

“I’d love to see him!” exclaimed Helen.  She then raised her eyebrows in challenge at Corbin. “You still haven’t explained why you used to wear that horrible hat.  Don’t think I’m going to forget about it.”

 

“I knew you wouldn’t let it drop.  You wouldn’t be you if you had.”  Corbin paused, giving Helen a sly grin, “as for my hat, my dear, we do have a thing here in the states we refer to as an urban cowboy.  I’ll have you know I bought that hat in New York.”

 

“You ride mechanical bulls?” asked Helen innocently, a smirk pulling at her lips.

 

“Are you comparing me to John Travolta?”

 

Helen nodded and burst into laughter.  Corbin rewarded her by pulling her into a headlock and ruffling her hair.  The two continued to wander through town only turning when Corbin indicated the restaurant he’d chosen.

 

“Oh! Great choice!  I’ve tried the tacos. They’re wonderful.”

 

Corbin glanced at Helen in surprise. “Who beat me to treating you to our local specialty?”

 

A soft smile turned up the corners of Helen’s mouth.  She glanced up at Corbin and answered simply, “a friend.”

 

“Whoa!  Don’t tell me you’ve only been in town a few weeks and you’ve already ensnared some poor, unsuspecting soul. You haven’t changed a bit, have you?”

 

When Helen didn’t immediately leap to defend herself, Corbin glanced down in time to see Helen wince slightly.  He drew Helen to him.  “Oh darlin’, have the tables been turned?”

 

Helen looked up as they entered the restaurant giving Corbin a slight nod and a glassy-eyed smile. 

 

They chose to sit in a circular booth in the corner of the restaurant, opposite the front door.  Corbin handed Helen a menu.  “Let’s start with a small appetizer.  It’ll allow us to stretch this out a bit.  I want to hear about everything.  But, how about if you take a moment to browse the menu and pick your lunch?”

 

Helen looked up at him grateful that he understood her need to gather her thoughts.  She surprised herself with the sudden emotion that swept over her when Corbin had teased her about Nikki.  They both sat contemplating their menus in silence.  Soon someone came to take their order.

 

After ordering, Corbin slid around the booth to Helen, threw his arm over her shoulder, and gave an encouraging squeeze.  “You all right Helen?” he asked gently.

 

Helen smiled and nodded.

 

“Want to tell me about it?”

 

“I don’t even know where to start,” sighed Helen.

 

Corbin gave Helen a grin.  “The beginning might be a bit traditional, but it generally works well.”

 

This prompted a small chuckle from Helen.

 

Nudging her shoulder, Corbin continued, “Come on then.  How did you meet?”

 

Helen took a deep breath and let herself think back to her first encounter with Nikki.  A smile soon took possession of her lips.

 

“That’s more like it!” laughed Corbin.

 

Helen smiled up at him, a dare in her eyes, knowing that she was about to surprise him.  “We met over the phone.”

 

Corbin’s eyebrows shot up. “How did you manage that? And how did you end up on the phone with someone in Santa Barbara?”

 

Helen laughed, but did not move to answer any of his questions.  She just waited for him to continue to think as his eyes continued to widen.

 

“You came to California to meet someone you’d only ever talked to?!  Wow, Stewart!  I must say it seems a little out of character for you.”

 

Helen had begun to laugh at Corbin’s assumption, but immediately recalled the real reason for her hurried escape to California.  Her face quickly sobered. “I’m not sure anything about my current situation is ‘in character.’” 

 

Corbin was instantly worried for his friend.  “You’re not sounding like someone in love anymore, Dusty.  What really brought you here?”

 

Helen took a deep breath and began.  “Do you remember me talking about my old roommate, Claire, when we first met?”

 

Corbin chuckled.  “Sure I do.  I always remember thinking how much I’d have loved to meet the woman who could put you in your place.”

 

“She lives here.”

 

“You came to visit?”

 

“No, I came to escape.  I ran away.  Now I’m not so sure I want to go back.  In all honesty, I don’t really have any idea of what I want anymore.”

 

“Slow down there, beautiful.  How about you really start at the beginning?  You can feel free to mix in the parts about whoever it is that makes you smile, but I want to hear it all.  Sometimes it’s easier to just get it out.”

 

Helen took a long, shaky breath.

 

Corbin spoke again, this time low enough to be a whisper, “You don’t have to, Helen.  I’m only offering to be a listening ear.  If talking isn’t what you need, just say so. Ok?”

 

Helen nodded.  She began to speak as she found that she wanted to confide in Corbin.  It was comforting to have someone who knew her so well. 

 

Appetizers arrived, soon to be followed by fish tacos.  Helen spoke evenly throughout the meal.  Beginning with Emma, Helen detailed their history and continued through her phone conversations with Nikki, the impromptu trip to California, time with Claire, moving into the cottage, and her time at the women’s shelter.  Corbin listened intently, one arm wrapped protectively over her shoulder, occasionally asking questions. 

 

As Helen came to the end of her story, Corbin removed his arm from her shoulder to wipe his face with a napkin.  Helen smiled at him realizing he’d eaten his whole lunch one-handed in order to keep a comforting arm around her. 

 

Corbin shook his head.  “That’s one hell of a month Helen.  I’m amazed that you’re doing as well as you are.  I also think I owe this Nikki of yours a thank you for taking care of my girl.  She really does sound amazing.”

 

“She is,” replied Helen simply. 

 

Corbin was now looking at Helen with a furrowed brow. “When do you go back to London?”

 

“Five days.”

 

“Wow. I’m so glad I saw you while you were here.  Are you excited to go back?”

 

Helen paused, unsure how to explain.  “I’m ready to reclaim my life and deal with what I abandoned in London…”

 

“I sense a ‘but’ coming,” interjected Corbin as Helen’s voice trailed off.

 

Helen looked at Corbin, unsure how to explain.  She felt ashamed.  How could she tell the man who had started her down this path and who had always been her biggest supporter that she couldn’t do it anymore?  Helen folded and refolded her napkin trying to figure out what to say. 

 

“Corbin,” she began slowly.  “I’m not sure I’m cut out for it anymore.”

 

Sensing Helen’s discomfort, Corbin reached out and took her hand. “What aren’t you cut our for?”

 

Words started spilling from Helen in a quiet stream, her eyes fixed to the table ahead of her.  “Aid work, funding meetings, playing witness to suffering, arguing with shitheads, mentoring newbies, feeling helpless, always being the underdog… everything.”

 

As Helen finished she drew a breath.  Slowly she allowed herself to meet Corbin’s eyes, fearing the disappointment she was sure she would find there.  Corbin was stunned.  He looked at Helen with concern and deep affection.  He wrapped one of his long arms tightly around Helen and she gratefully rested her head against his shoulder. 

 

“Oh darlin’, I’m amazed you’ve lasted as long as you have.  It’s the kind of work that chews you up and spits you out.”

 

Helen lifted her head, staring at Corbin with wide eyes.

 

“Don’t look at me so surprised.  Did you really think I could be disappointed in you?”

 

Helen ducked her head in confirmation.

 

“No way, Stewart.  Our work can suck you dry.  You can’t maintain the energy forever.  Why do you think I’ve started to teach?  I figured it was time to inspire the next generation.  It keeps me in the game without the emotional toll.  I can be close to Tom… and I still have enough friends fighting the good fight that I can get in the field for a short stint if I start to miss it.”

 

Helen didn’t know what to say, but was staring intently at Corbin wanting to assure the he was being completely honest with her.

 

Seeing her uncertainty, Corbin continued.  “Helen, you aren’t going to disappoint anyone if you move on to new things.  You have already given so much and everyone you’ve worked with knows it.  Find something you love to do that loves you back.” Corbin finished by tapping Helen’s heart. 

 

Helen felt a weight lift from her shoulders.  It was as if Corbin had given her permission to free herself from a self-imposed prison.  Helen threw her arms around Corbin’s neck, planted an kiss on his cheek, and whispered, “Thank you.  You have no idea how much I needed to hear that.”

 

Corbin reached up to ruffle Helen’s hair affectionately.  She again leaned against his shoulder with a smile on her face and looked up to meet a pair of anguished brown eyes.

 

Nikki stood frozen at the entrance of restaurant, her eyes fixed on Helen and the man she’d just embraced, jealousy and betrayal robbing her of breath.  She stumbled backwards though the entrance and began tearing blindly through the small parking area in front only to be caught in a pair of strong arms.

 

“Whoa there, Nik!  Where are you going?”

 

Nikki just tried to shake him off and keep walking, but Cory was too strong and forcibly grabbed her shoulders, making Nikki stand and face him.

 

“What’s going on?” he demanded.

 

“Nothing.  Let me go, Cory!” demanded Nikki. 

 

“Hey! Tell me what’s going on! Why are you running away from lunch?”

 

“Cory.  Please.”  Nikki’s eyes flashed in warning.

 

“No.”

 

Nikki violently ripped her arms from Cory’s grip.

 

“Fuck you, Cory.  Just leave me be.”  Nikki quickly strode out of the lot, heading down the street.

 

Cory was left standing in the parking lot wondering what had just happened.  After a few moments he turned to wander in the restaurant, curious as to what could have set Nikki off.  Just as he was about to reach for the door, it was flung open by a distraught Helen.  In an exact reenactment of his actions with Nikki, Cory reached out to grab Helen. 

 

“Helen!  Are you all right?” asked Cory as he brought her to a stand still in front of him. 

 

“Where is she, Cory?  Where did she go?” asked Helen growing increasingly frantic.

 

“Slow down, Helen.  What’s going on?”

 

“Please, Cory.  Just tell me where she is,” pleaded Helen, tears gathering in her eyes.

 

“Helen, you’ve got to tell me what’s going on.  Nikki was in no state to talk with anyone.  It’s likely best for us all if she’s left alone for a while.”

 

As it became clear that Cory was not going to help her find Nikki, Helen’s shoulders sagged in resignation. 

 

Cory felt Helen accept defeat.  He wrapped his arms around her.  “Helen, don’t worry.  We’ll fix whatever is going on.  Just let Nikki calm down for a bit.”

 

“Ok,” sighed Helen clutching Cory for support. 

 

The door of the restaurant opened again revealing Corbin.  “Helen?” he asked staring at the woman wrapped in a strange man’s arms. 

 

Cory looked up, and seeing the confusion on the other man’s face, he loosened one arm from Helen and reached out to greet him.  “Hi, I’m Cory.”

 

Corbin accepted his hand.  “Corbin.”  Corbin looked from Helen to Cory with a puzzled look on his face.  Concerned, Corbin looked at them both and asked, “What’s going on here?  Helen, are you all right?”

 

Helen stood back from Cory and looked at both men, but did not speak.  Cory and Corbin just stared at her, shifting uncomfortably. 

 

Cory again reached out to Helen.  As his arm settled around her shoulders, he asked, “Did something happen with Nikki?”

 

Helen nodded.

 

“Do you know why she was so upset?”

 

Helen slowly nodded again. “I think so.”

 

Corbin watched the exchange and realization began to dawn on him.  “Oh Helen, that woman at the door who looked like she’d seen a ghost was your Nikki?”

 

Helen looked at Corbin and nodded a third time.

 

“I’m sorry.  I’m sure she’ll understand once you explain.”

 

It was now Cory’s turn to be confused.  “What needs to be explained? Can one of you tell me what happened?”

 

Hearing exasperation begin to seep into Cory’s voice jarred Helen from silence.  “Cory, Corbin is a dear friend of mine.  We worked together for several years.” Turning to Corbin, Helen continued.  “Corbin, Cory is Claire’s husband.”  Helen looked at them both and realized that her introduction explained how she knew each of them, but did little to explain the situation.  “Cory, when Nikki walked in I was giving Corbin a hug.  I think she may have assumed the worst.”

 

Cory blew out his breath audibly.  “Unfortunately, I find that very believable.”  Looking at Helen and Corbin, Cory felt as though he had to ask.  “It is just a big misunderstanding, right?”

 

Corbin immediately stepped forward.  “Hang on there.  Helen may have broken a lot of hearts in her time, but she’s never dishonest!”  Throwing a skeptical look at Cory, Corbin continued, looking at Helen, “maybe you’re better off without her if she can’t trust you.”

 

As Helen felt Cory begin to respond to Corbin’s slight of his friend, she laid a hand on his arm. “Stop it.  Corbin, Cory is only being as protective of Nikki as you are of me.”  Looking at Cory, Helen began to explain.  “I love Corbin, even though I speak to him far too infrequently and see him even less.”  Seeing Cory beginning to interject, Helen quickly pressed on. “I love him as the big brother I always wanted, but never had.  And if that doesn’t convince you that our embrace was innocent, his ruggedly handsome husband likely would.”

 

Cory had the good grace to look at both Corbin and Helen apologetically.  “I’m sorry you two.”  Cory kicked lightly at the ground to gather his thoughts.  He then turned his gaze to Corbin.  “Corbin, it’s good to meet another of Helen’s friends.  We should get together sometime, I’m sure my wife would love to meet you, if only to swap Helen stories.”

 

This yielded a weak smile from Helen and genuine grin from Corbin.  “Thank you, Cory, I’d like to meet the infamous Claire.  I’ve been hearing about her for over a decade.”

 

All three lapsed into an awkward silence that was eventually broken by Corbin.  “Helen, it was lovely to see you.  I have another class this afternoon and need to get back to campus.  Let’s make sure to get together again before you go.” Corbin gave Helen a warm hug and handed her a business card with his contact information.  As they broke apart, he gently lifted her chin.  “Now, you go get your Nikki back.  I want to meet her.”  Turning to Cory, Corbin reached out his hand. “Cory, it is nice to meet you and I want to thank you and Claire for taking care of this one.  She’s lucky to have you.”

 

Cory responded with a warm smile.  “Thanks. I was serious when I said we should get together.  Maybe we can host a dinner this week.”  Glancing at Helen, Cory continued.  “I’m sure we can get things with Nikki settled… eventually.”  Helen tensed at the implication that things with Nikki might not be quickly remedied.  “Helen, you’ve not seen Nikki’s temper on full display.  She’ll eventually calm down and begin thinking clearly.  It’s only then that you should talk with her, not before.”

 

Corbin graced them both with a smile and turned to leave.  “Cory, I was planning on giving Helen a ride home on my way back to work.  I still can…”

 

“Thanks.  I’m happy to take Helen from here.  I have a feeling that Claire’s company might be welcome right now and she’s working at home today.  What do you say, Helen?”

 

Helen nodded gratefully.

 

---

 

 

Part 25

 

The gravel crunched under the tires of Cory’s truck as he pulled to a stop on front of the house.  Helen hadn’t spoken.  A combination of guilt and helplessness was slowly engulfing her.  She fought the emotional invasion by defiantly telling herself that she’d done nothing wrong.  Intellectually, she knew this was true.  She should have been feeling elated after lunch with Corbin, but Helen could not shake the memory of the stricken look on Nikki’s face. 

 

The slam of the car door broke Helen’s introspection.  She exited the truck and wordlessly followed Cory to the front door. 

 

“Claire?” called Cory as they entered.

 

“In here,” replied Claire from her home office.

 

“Come on out, you’ve got company.”

 

Claire’s head soon popped out the door to see who had arrived.  Her broad smile at the sight of Helen quickly evaporated when she noted the tension in Helen’s stance.  She quickly went to Helen and led her to the couch.

 

“Oh dear. Helen, what’s happened?” questioned Claire.

 

Not receiving any answer, Claire tried to lighten the mood. “Students give you a hard time today?”

 

Helen began to speak, but stopped herself, returning to silence. Watching her, Cory decided to try to help.  “I think the students were great and Helen ran into an old friend,” explained Cory.

 

Claire turned to Helen questioningly.  Thinking of Corbin brought a small smile to Helen’s lips.  She was grateful that Cory had moved things to a more comfortable topic.  “Corbin teaches at the university.”

 

Claire’s brow furrowed for a moment, turning to wonder as she realized where she’d heard the name.  “Corbin, as in the one in all your stories?”

 

Helen nodded. 

 

“Wow. That’s fantastic! It must have been wonderful to see him. Did you know he was here?”

 

 “It was wonderful to see him. He hasn’t changed a bit. We hadn’t talked in quite a while. I had no idea he was here until he walked into the classroom.” Thinking about Corbin lifted Helen’s spirits. She smiled at the memory. 

 

Claire was thrilled for Helen, knowing that having another member of her support system could do nothing but help.  However, hearing about Corbin, left her puzzled.  “I’m confused Helen.  Why aren’t you flying high? You played teacher and then found one of your closest friends. What happened today?” Claire then looked up at Cory, becoming more confused. “How did you find Helen? Where’s Nikki? Didn’t you two have lunch plans?”

 

Helen took a deep breath not knowing where to start. Cory decided to help out again. “Helen, you and Corbin had fish tacos for lunch, yeah?”

 

Helen nodded and began to recount her story. She detailed her lunch with Corbin, finally recalling Nikki’s reaction and departure. 

 

“Oooo boy,” sighed Claire. “Nikki does have a temper. Cory was right to hold you back.”

 

Helen looked at Claire pleadingly. “She will come ‘round, right?”

 

Claire considered Helen closely.  “I hate to ask this, Helen. But…”

 

“Not you too!  There’s nothing with Corbin; you know he’s big queen.”

 

Claire held up her hands in defense. “Hang on Helen!  I’m not implying anything.  I just wanted to know what this hug looked like.  Even though Nikki is prone to over-reaction, I just can’t see her storming off following a friendly embrace.  Is there anything you’re not explaining?”

 

“Sorry, Claire, I realize you wouldn’t assume I’d sleep with him, or anyone else, given things with Nikki.”  Helen closed her eyes remembering her time with Corbin. “Corbin is one of the people that was always there.  He was my shoulder to cry on for nearly 10 years.  We do have a pretty tactile friendship.  It’s likely because we both know it is will never be anything other than a friendship.”

 

Claire nodded, understanding.  She’d heard enough about Corbin over the years to know that what Helen was saying was true.

 

“I’d been crying over lunch and Corbin was wonderful.”  Helen paused and hung her head.  “If I think about it from an outsider’s perspective, it likely appeared I was nearly sitting in his lap.  I threw my arms around him and planted one on his cheek.”  The image of Nikki’s face again invaded her mind.  “It looked awful, Claire.”

 

“Helen,” began Claire gently.  “You did nothing wrong.”

 

“You didn’t see her face.”

 

“I can imagine, but even if Nikki is upset, it isn’t your fault.  It’s her own damn fault for jumping to conclusions.”  Claire paused, thinking.  “Isn’t Corbin a good bit older?  She’d have had to believe you going after an old guy on top of it all.”

 

“Um…” started Cory.  “Corbin doesn’t exactly look old, Claire.  He’s pretty fit.”

 

Claire raised her eyes to her husband, a smirk pulling at her lips.  “That so?”

 

“Well, yeah,” responded Cory uncomfortably.

 

“Didn’t know you noticed such things, dear,” deadpanned Claire, finding Cory’s discomfort endearing. 

 

Helen cleared her throat.  “I’m not sure establishing that Corbin is good looking, helps anything.”

 

“No you’re right.” Claire turned her attention from Cory, focusing again on Helen.  “Cory is right, you’ve just got to wait for Nikki to calm down enough to talk with you.”

 

“She will come talk to me, right?”

 

Claire looked up at Cory who shrugged.  She hesitated before answering.  “I think she will eventually, but I know there is part of Nikki that will want to run away.  She’s obviously assumed the worst and self-preservation may mean just avoiding you altogether.”

 

“Would she really?” gasped Helen.

 

“I’m afraid so.  I’ve told you that I don’t know the whole story and I’ve also told you she hasn’t dated anyone seriously in over five years.  Helen, you don’t wall off your heart like that unless someone has hurt you badly.”

 

Helen met Claire’s eyes and realized she was right.  “Maybe I’ll just head to the cottage and wait for her to come home.”

 

A sardonic chuckle escaped Claire. “You may be waiting a long time.”

 

“What do you mean?  We had planned on having dinner tonight.”

 

“I think you can assume those plans are canceled, Helen.”

 

“What?”

 

“Helen, Nikki can be quite a drama queen.”

 

 “Hang on, that’s bullshit, Claire.” Interjected Cory, feeling compelled to defend his friend.  “How can she be a drama queen when you don’t even know what could have possibly caused this reaction?”

 

“Fine.  God forbid Wonder Wade let anyone know something is wrong in her perfect world.  But you know that while she’ll pretend everything is great to the outside world, she’ll hole up in that house, listen to depressing music, drink herself to sleep, and cry into her pillow.”

 

Thinking back to the state they’d found Nikki on a few occasions in the first few years of their friendship, Cory tilted his head in acceptance. “So you’re saying she’s a little melodramatic in private.  With that, I agree.”

 

“Exactly, she’s a closet drama queen,” confirmed Claire with satisfaction at having won Cory’s concession. 

 

While Claire and Cory seemed to be enjoying their debate, the idea of Nikki wrecked enough to drink and cry alone made Helen gasp.  She couldn’t believe that Claire and Cory were arguing about how to label Nikki’s coping mechanisms.  “How can you two sit here discussing semantics when your friend is off to god-knows-where thinking that I’m sleeping with Corbin?”

 

Claire and Cory looked at Helen realizing they had allowed themselves to be distracted.  “Ok, you’re right Helen.  There’s nothing we can do right now, but wait. I have to warn you though.  Since you will be at her home, I think she’ll try to escape somewhere else.  She may not be back tonight.”

 

“Fine,” stated Helen firmly, with a hint of frustration.  “I’m going to go back to Nikki’s.  I’ll wait there until she finally shows.”  Helen stood up with determination.  “Claire, can I borrow your scooter?”

 

“Sure Helen, keys and helmet are by the door.” Claire stood and wrapped her arm around Helen. “Be safe, ok?”

 

Claire watched Helen leave and turned to Cory.  “This could be interesting.” 

 

Seeing Cory raise his eyebrows, Claire continued.  “I think an epic battle of wills is in the offing and I don’t know what will happen.  I’ve seen that look on Helen’s face and I’m not sure even the Wade temper is any match.”

 

---

 

Helen parked the scooter in front of Nikki’s house and immediately headed for the cottage.  She had a little less than two hours until she and Nikki were slated to meet for dinner.  She showered and soon found herself staring at the closet wondering what was appropriate to wear when you were unsure if your dinner date was going to show and knew that if she did, she thought you were a slut. 

 

Helen settled for something comfortable as she recalled Claire and Cory’s certainty that Nikki would not be arriving.  Standing in the front room of the cottage, Helen decided she’d drive herself crazy if she stayed there.  She crossed the garden and let herself into to Nikki’s house, settling on the couch to begin her vigil. 

 

 

Hours later, the silence was only serving to fuel Helen’s escalating frustration.  It was now nearly nine o’clock, hours past when she and Nikki had arranged to meet for dinner.  Helen had already paged through the various books on Nikki’s coffee table, sipped enough juice from the kitchen that she was sure her eyeballs were floating, and had resorted to pacing.  As she circled the couch, she mentally began to berate her absent dinner partner.  Questions kept rhythm with her feet and her feet were moving with escalating speed and emphasis.

 

Are you really going to simply avoid me? 

 

Step.

 

For how long? My last five days here?

 

Step. Step.

 

Are you really that childish? 

 

STEP!

 

Are you making ME pay for the mistakes of some faceless woman from your past?

 

Stomp.

 

Where ARE you?  Did you find some lonely bar to sit and sulk? 

 

Stomp. Stomp.

 

Do you have any idea how stupid you’re being?

 

STOMP.

 

Do you really have that little faith in me?  Do you think I was lying last night? What about trust?  Do you really believe me to be THAT kind of person?

 

Helen spun on her heel, heading directly for the phone. 

 

Muttering, she punched in Claire’s number. If you don’t have the maturity to come here and talk to me, I will have to come to you.  We need to talk.  I’d even settle for yelling at this point. 

 

“Hello?”

 

“Claire, ask Cory where he thinks Nikki has gone,” demanded Helen.

 

“Oh hello, Helen.  Nice to hear from you.  I take it the elusive Ms. Wade has missed your dinner date.”

 

“Cut it Walker. Just ask him.”

 

“All right, all right.”  Claire couldn’t keep the amusement out of her voice. As long as it wasn’t directed at her, she had always found Helen on the warpath particularly amusing.

 

Helen could hear Claire and Cory talking, but could not make out the words until Claire gasped, “No!  She’s not going there.”

 

“Claire!” yelled Helen through the phone.

 

“Hi Helen.”  It was Cory this time.  “My wife seems to think it’d be better if I just found Nikki and dragged her home willing or not.”

 

“You know where she is?”

 

“I’m not positive, but I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

 

“I’m going Cory.”

 

“Helen…” began Cory.

 

“Just tell me,” demanded Helen, her tone even and uncompromising.

 

“Ok… it’s about 10 miles north.”

 

“She was on foot!” exclaimed Helen.

 

“Exactly.  Nikki likes to walk things off and I’m guessing that she wanted a place where she’d know no one.”

 

“Ok.. so where is this place?”

 

Cory gave Helen directions.  As he finished, Claire grabbed the phone. 

 

“Helen, go change into your grubbiest jeans and makes sure you have a warm jacket.”

 

“What are you talking about, Claire?”

 

“It’s not the nicest bar on the central coast, ok?”

 

“Claire, I can handle myself,” responded Helen defensively.

 

Claire signed, resigned to the fact that Helen had made up her mind.  “Be careful.”

 

“I will. Thanks.”

 

---HH

 

 

Part 26

 

Helen barely acknowledged the sting of the cool, night air on her cheeks as she speed north on Claire’s Vespa.  She had quickly left the lights of the city and was now following a narrow road that wound its way along the top of the coastal bluffs.  The coastline soon gave way to a small harbor and a series of ramshackle buildings making her feel as though she’d not only left town but gone back in time.  She passed the harbor noting that, in stark contrast to the yachts docked in Santa Barbara, the small cluster of boats was made up of nothing but trawlers.  She slowed as she approached the timber structures overlooking the water.  The worn storefronts faced a long, thin pier held up by an irregular sequence of spindly pilings.  Helen could make out the silhouettes of a few fishermen on the pier, rods propped against the railing.  Dim light seeped from an open doorway, casting ghostly light on the saltwater weathered trucks and motorcycles parked outside.  Helen shook her head at the scene wishing she’d demanded Cory’s truck instead of Claire’s perky little scooter. 

 

The entire area felt abandoned and eerily quiet.  The air was tinged by the smell of seaweed exposed by low tide.  As she parked outside, Helen took an extra moment to examine the exterior of the Seawall Tavern.  Peeling layers of paint covered the vertical wood siding and a thick, scarred, wood door stood propped open with a cinder block in defiance of the dropping temperature and accumulating fog. 

 

While the mysterious bar and cool weather might have deterred Helen under normal circumstances, they only served to blunt her initial intention of aggressively confronting Nikki.  Helen stood outside taking a deep breath and walked in. 

 

Despite the unfamiliar setting and a front room could only be described as dank, the familiar and, nearly universal, din of a pub filled Helen’s ears. Patrons were assembled along a bar and at an assortment of booths along the wall.  Looking around, Helen realized the men, and from what she could see they were nearly all men, were just as weathered as their cars and the pier that the bar overlooked. 

 

Helen sauntered up to the counter to get someone’s attention.

 

“Welcome to the Seawall.  What can I get for ya, love?” asked the bartender in a rumbling, gravely voice.   

 

As Helen was about to speak, a round of excited voices erupted from the back of the bar.  Helen looked up seeing an archway that opened to a darkened backroom that appeared packed with people.  Helen raised her eyebrows at the bartender asking, “What’s going on back there?”

 

“Oh, some woman’s been holdin’ court on the pool table all evening.  I think the boys have made a sport outa knockin’ her off the table.”

 

“Hmmm,” murmured Helen craned her neck trying to get a better view of the room.  A dark head matted with curls was momentarily visible amongst the sea of bodies crammed into the small room.  Helen was startled to feel the bottom drop out of her stomach. 

 

Stewart, you’re angry!  Helen scolded herself.  She felt frustration burn through her, betrayed by her body’s reaction.  You’re not supposed to be collapsing into a hopeless puddle of goo at the mere sight of her! 

 

Helen turned her attention back to the bartender.  She had every intention of dragging Nikki home on the back of the scooter, but decided that one drink couldn’t hurt, considering it may take some time to convince Nikki it was a good idea.  “How about a pint of the darkest thing you’ve got on tap?”

 

With a curt nod, a glass was obtained, filled, and slid across the bar towards Helen.  She grabbed her pint and chugged down half the liquid to the widening eyes of the bartender.  She set the glass down firmly and took a deep breath.  On hearing another round of hollering from the backroom, Helen decisively took her glass and made her way to the back of the tavern.  Wanting to attract as little attention to herself as possible, she took up residence against a wall behind the layers of large bodies gathered around the table.  She was now able to covertly watch the game and the tall brunette. 

 

Nikki was lost in her own world.  Gone were the friendly demeanor, kind eyes, and easy laugh.  Her expression was cold; menace seemed to be radiating from her. 

 

What did her staff call it?  wondered Helen to herself.  Ah yes, the ‘don’t fuck with me attitude.’  So that’s what they were talking about. 

 

Helen watched, fascinated by the scene.  Nikki was wearing a form-fitting, navy blue t-shirt and a pair of work jeans.  Her hair was matted to her head, from the long walk and conditions in the backroom. Nikki made no eye contact with any of the onlookers despite the collective volume of the crowd and the near continuous heckling.  Her energy was focused solely on the table.  The only break in her focus was to take another swallow from her drink.  She was playing with cool precision, quickly eliminating all daring or foolish enough to face her.  

 

Deciding she needed a closer look and a bit more information, Helen pushed off the wall and edged forward.  She made eye contact with a group of men standing around a small bar table watching the game.  She had identified the table as the least likely to cause her problems because one of the men looked old enough to be her father and two of the four had wedding bands on their fingers.  Helen quietly approached the table and they shifted to make room, each giving her a nod of acknowledgement.  The lack of any other comment confirmed to Helen that she’d chosen the right table to approach.

 

“How long has this been goin’ on?” asked Helen quietly, nodding towards the pool table. 

 

“Dunno for sure.  I think several hours now,” offered the oldest of the four men never tearing his eyes from the table.  He had several days worth of stubble on his chin and was wearing jeans and a work shirt that looked as though they hadn’t been changed since he’d last found need of a razor.

 

“Have you played her yet?” queried Helen.

 

“Nah.  I don’t need to be humiliated tonight. Watchin’ everyone else is entertainment enough for me.”

 

His response prompted a snort of laughter from another man at the table.  “Frigid bitch ain’t worth it.”

 

“What a waste,” came another voice near Helen.

 

“What’s a waste?”  The question came out of her mouth before Helen was able to stop it.

 

“Woman that looks like that…” began one of the younger men to Helen’s left.

 

“with a body like that…” continued another.

 

“and a rack…?” added a third, only to be cut off.

 

“…y’all know she’d not only kick yer ass at the table, but use your balls as a hood ornament,” countered the older man.  His statement received a round of muttered agreement from the table. Helen simply shook her head looking around the crowded room.   

 

Despite the disparaging comments about Nikki, Helen could see why the men were spellbound by the unfolding scene.  Watching the stoic woman coolly take down all comers, one at a time, built its own drama.  Each new player tempted the audience to believe that they might be the first to win or possibly achieve an even more daunting task, illicit a reaction of any kind from the brunette.

 

Standing at the table allowed Helen a clearer of Nikki.  She appeared entirely oblivious to her surroundings.  It was as if she had decided to go somewhere where she could truly be anonymous, a place where she could drown her sorrows however she pleased without consequence.  At present, she seemed to have focused all her anger into humiliating working fisherman at eight ball. Helen watched the game end as Nikki tapped the corner pocket with her cue and sank her final shot.  Wordlessly, she racked the balls and nodded to her next opponent, scowl firmly affixed to her face, eyes cast downward. 

 

“How do you get in line to play?”

 

Four shocked sets of eyes took full stock of Helen for the first time.  “Look lady, I don’t know what you’re lookin’ for, but you’ll get your clock cleaned if you go out there.”

 

Helen internally acknowledged there was a chance of that.  It had been awhile, but she knew rusty or not, she wouldn’t embarrass herself.  “Isn’t it my choice if I want to make a fool of myself?”

 

After a series of exchanged glances, one man growled, “Suit your self.  See those three in the corner? They’ve started takin’ bets on each challenger.  Just put your name in with them.”

 

Helen nodded at the men in thanks, drained the last of her pint, and edged her way around the room.  The men taking bets were the type that made her skin crawl.  As it became clear that she was heading their way, the three men openly leered at her, making Helen shudder.  She sent up a silent ‘thank you’ to Claire for telling her to change into grubby clothes.

 

“And just what can we do for you?” asked the man that seemed to be the ring leader with a suggestive smirk.

 

“I’ve got some ideas,” offered up his sidekick.

 

Helen paused to squash not only the shudder of revulsion that threatened to shake her body, but also her tempter.  She wanted a target for her anger, but figured that wasn’t the best way to get a chance to talk with Nikki.

 

“I want a game.”

 

All three men just stared first at Helen and then each other.  “You any good?”

 

“Would I want a game if I wasn’t?” countered Helen, sounding more confident than she felt.

 

“Lady, I’ve got no idea if you’re that stupid.”  Seeing Helen begin to interject, he quickly continued. “But, I gotta tell ya, we’ve watchin’ the ice queen win for hours now.  Havin’ two hot chicks go at it, even if you suck, will be a great change of pace.  In fact, I’ll give you the next game.”

 

Helen nodded and quickly retreated to the back wall to wait.

 

---

 

 

Nikki had noticed Helen the second she made her way to the backroom of the bar.   The sight resulted in a surge of near overwhelming, and conflicting, emotions. 

 

What is she doing here?  Does she realize where she is?  This isn’t a place for her!  Why the hell does she think I’m here?!

 

The emotion made the scowl on her face seem to harden and her stance, a flashing caution sign.  All evening, Nikki could see both distain and fear in the eyes of those around her and it had brought a sense of grim satisfaction.  Helen’s arrival added shame to the mix.  Nikki didn’t want Helen to see this side of her.  Helen was taking away the privilege of privacy.  She was at the bar playing witness to Nikki’s attempt to escape. 

 

Fine.  I guess you get to see what you’ll be saving yourself from.  You want to see what’s underneath.  Here you go, Stewart.  Fuck you, you two-faced tart!

 

I was happy before you arrived and I’ll be fine once you’ve left.  Thankfully, that’ll be soon.

 

Nikki set her jaw.  The pain of seeing Helen embrace and kiss someone else at lunch earlier in the day was all the fuel she needed to believe the lies she was telling herself.  She coolly set about winning yet another round, taking perverse pleasure in turning away another opponent with near surgical precision. 

 

Despite appearances to the contrary, Nikki was also keenly aware when Helen left her post along the wall and decided to join a table of spectators. 

 

What in the hell are you doing?  You stupid woman! 

 

Go ahead assholes, touch her.  I’ve been looking for a reason to well and truly blow my top all evening.

 

Nikki continued to glare, focusing again on the pool table once she was sure Helen was safe.  Safe?  Where’d that come from?  Boy, you are one screwed up woman, Wade.  You’re feeling protective over a woman who just trampled all over you.

 

Nikki won the game, racked the balls and began the next.  In her peripheral vision she knew Helen had made her away around the room to the table handling bets.  Nikki forced herself to ignore her, even though she knew Helen was talking to the sleaziest of the men gathered around the table.

 

You’re on your own Stewart, if you don’t have the sense to steer clear of that lot. 

 

---

 

 

Helen watched Nikki calmly sink her last shot and observed that she wasn’t speaking at all and only made eye contact when absolutely necessary.  Helen was surprised no one had tried to directly rattle Nikki by refusing to move out of her way to allow a shot or demand a verbal answer.  As she continued to watch, Helen realized why.  Nikki moved about the table like a caged tiger.  It was clear to everyone in the room that it would require very little for her pounce. 

 

Nikki again racked the balls and glanced up to see who the next opponent would be.  Helen calmly strode to the table, removed her sweater and jacket, accepted a cue, and met Nikki’s eyes.  They seemed to burn into her, the mix of anger and pain almost making Helen stumble backwards.  Nikki made a small gesture indicating Helen should break with no other indication of recognition.

 

Frustrated by the lack of acknowledgement, Helen bent down, focusing on the game.  Her pent up energy that had been building all day released itself in a shockingly powerful break, sinking three balls.  The attention of Nikki and the rest of the assembled bar crowd was immediately drawn to the table by the sharp sound. 

 

Helen, with a glint in her eye and a raised eyebrow, looked over to Nikki.  “I guess I’m stripes.”  Helen again glanced over the table, lining up her next shot.  Her quick success had the rapt attention of all assembled in the back room.  She sank one more ball before having a shot rattle out of the corner pocket.  Nikki took over.  She did not look once at Helen directly, instead she seemed to be stalking the table, evaluating every possible angle from which to begin.  

 

Even though there was no exchange of words or visual acknowledgement, both women felt the charge in air between them.  It was as if Helen could see the willpower Nikki was expending to willfully ignore her, to shut her out.  To Nikki, if felt as if Helen was taking an emotional battering ram to the defensive walls she’d constructed out of anger. 

 

The game of pool was merely serving as a point of focus that kept both women’s emotions in temporary check.  Nikki finally settled on a plan of attack and sank two balls before gently settling the cue ball in a spot making it near impossible for Helen to do much of anything. 

 

Slowly getting caught up in the competition, Helen began to relish it.  She decided to try to prod Nikki a little to see if she could crack her emotional barriers.  Helen whistled lightly through her teeth at the placement Nikki had left her.  “Quite a shot there, Wade.  You tryin’ to challenge me?”  Helen kept her voice low knowing that few, but Nikki could hear her comments.  Nikki’s only response was a dismissive sniff, eyes kept fast to the table.  Helen was now wandering around the table trying to find a way out of the jam in which Nikki had left her.  Unable to find a solution, Helen opted to return the favor and gently rolled the cue ball into an equally unworkable position for Nikki. 

 

The game of cat and mouse continued, each woman sinking the occasional ball as the game progressed.  The head start with which Helen began served to be the difference.  Helen murmured, “Side pocket,” and sank her final ball.  The room exploded as the watching men celebrated Nikki’s first loss.  They quickly surrounded Helen offering drinks and other congratulatory services.  Nikki walked directly to the far wall, snatched her jacket, violently pressed her cue into an onlooker’s hands, and stormed out a side door.

 

An argument had broken out among the assembled men about who got to take on the sexy newcomer. 

 

Helen looked frantically around the room for Nikki to no avail. 

 

She was gone.  

 

---

 

 

Part 27

 

“The next game’s mine!”

 

“Bullshit!  Get in line asshole. She’s playin’ me next!”

 

As the volume and intensity of the voices around her escalated, Helen was left wondering how her attempt to confront Nikki had backfired so spectacularly.  She now watched wide-eyed as the drunken arguments around her threatened to spill into violence. 

 

A hand roughly grabbed Helen’s arm tugging her closer to the table.  As she saw another hand reach out to pull her away, Helen’s temper finally crested.  Helen forcefully wrenched her arm away from the first man.  The pool cue, still in her hands, swung wildly, forcing the men surrounding her to step back

 

“Take your hands off of me!” Helen glared so fiercely that the man nearest to her took another involuntary step back.

 

There was a moment of silence while the crowd recovered from shock.

 

“Come on now sweetheart, no need to get all worked up.”

 

Helen stared at the man now addressing her as if she were a small child.  She was incredulous that he was so smug that he saw this as a good approach.  Glancing at the assembled crowd, she realized that no one worthy of her anger was staring back at her.  “I don’t have time for this, play each other!”  With a final flourish, she took her cue and threw it on the pool table, scattering the remaining balls.  Helen quickly swept up her sweater and stormed through the front of the tavern to a chorus of protests.

 

Adrenaline carried Helen out the door and across the street.  She’d begun to make her way down the street on foot by the time she realized that in her haste she’d left her jacket in the bar, with scooter key tucked safely in the pocket.  She sighed wondering if her evening could get any worse.  She was now outside, in a strange neighborhood, and had completely lost track of Nikki.  Knowing Nikki was on foot and couldn’t have gone far, Helen began to look. 

 

Helen toured the small waterfront area for about 15 minutes without spying any evidence of the elusive brunette.  Frustrated, she stopped to consider her options. She needed her jacket for warmth and the scooter key in the pocket to get home, meaning she had to return to the bar at some point.  Looking down at her watch, she told herself to stay away for at least a half hour to let things settle down before venturing back to retrieve the items. 

 

The anger that had fueled her for most of the evening was waning. Helen wrapped her arms around her midsection and headed for the pier to wait until she felt enough time had passed to re-enter the bar.  Helen quietly walked along the railing, taking comfort in the sound of the water lapping at the pylons.  She was lost in thought, reviewing how her day had gone from guest lecturing and rediscovering an old friend to being stranded in a small fishing neighborhood.  As she slowly picked her way along the uneven wooden beams of the pier, she noticed a solitary form huddled over the railing.  The figure had one foot perched on a lower railing rung, face half-lit by streetlight, and cigarette smoke circling her head.

 

As Helen approached, Nikki looked up, noted her presence, and immediately resumed staring blankly at the dark water.  Helen shifted uncomfortably, unsure of what to say or where to start.

 

 “I didn’t know you smoked,” blurted Helen, not quite believing that was the first thing she could think to say and that she’d actually said it aloud. 

 

“I don’t.”  Nikki answered flatly without raising her eyes.  She slowly blew another stream of smoke into the air and continued to lean on the railing, arms folded, weight supported by her elbows.

 

“Oh,” responded Helen awkwardly.  She walked forward, stopping just short of Nikki with the expectation of recognition.

 

Nikki continued to ignore her presence, moving only to light another cigarette. The nonchalance with which Nikki was ignoring her, finally broke Helen’s resolve.  She wanted to make things right, but was finding Nikki’s disregard maddening. Helen finally lashed out, desperate for some type of acknowledgement, even if it was anger, from Nikki.

 

“You…” breathed Helen in a forceful whisper embodying both the frustration and helplessness she felt at the situation.  “… infuriate me!”

 

Nikki turned her head to look at Helen momentarily and turned away with a dismissive look of disgust.

 

“Don’t!” demanded Helen, taking the final step bringing her to Nikki’s shoulder. “You can at least give me the courtesy of a conversation.”

 

Nikki didn’t respond.  Helen could see her jaw flex and hands clench.

 

“I owe you nothing,” hissed Nikki, still facing the water.  “Don’t you have someone else to keep warm tonight?”

 

For the second time in the evening, Helen lost her temper.  She reached out, firmly grabbing Nikki’s arm and spinning her around.  She latched her hands to the wooden railing on either side of Nikki to keep her in place.  “Is that what you want?” demanded Helen forcefully through clenched teeth.  “It sure seems as though you’re trying your damnedest to drive me away.”

 

Nikki was stunned by the vehemence of Helen’s outburst and could only stare wide-eyed at the woman inches from her face. 

 

Helen was only getting started.  She pulled one hand from the railing and began a litany of accusing questions, each punctuated with a firm poke to Nikki’s chest. 

 

“Have I done nothing to earn your trust? 

 

“How could you assume that I would want to be with anyone else? 

 

“Why would you think so little of me? 

 

“Why couldn’t you try to be a mature adult and come ask me about what you saw? 

 

“What in the HELL happened to you that you have so little faith in people?”

 

Helen finished by leveling a glare at Nikki, daring her to retaliate.

 

Nikki experienced each question as physical blow.  They were inescapable accusations that claimed her breath.  Nikki had always found safety in anger, but it was as if Helen’s words had robbed her of all defenses.  Nikki stood in overwhelmed silence, trying to regain emotional footing.  What was only a few moments of silence, felt like an eternity. 

 

“Who was he?” Nikki whispered desperately. 

 

A stinging retort leapt immediately to Helen’s lips, only to be swallowed back.  She bowed her head, growled in frustration, and turned towards the simple wooden bench behind them.  Helen collapsed onto the seat and looked back at Nikki, noting the defeated sag to her shoulders.  She rested her elbows on her knees and ran her hands over her face trying to reign in her anger.  Nikki remained at the railing, still requiring the external support. 

 

Helen calmly looked up meeting Nikki’s eyes.  Her tone was even.  The frank, quietly defiant explanation seemed forceful even though Helen neither raised her voice nor altered her cadence.   “He was one of my oldest, dearest friends.  He was my mentor the first six years I spent doing international work.  I had no idea he was here until I found myself guest lecturing in his class.  Finding an old friend should have been icing on what could have been a perfect day…”  Helen’s eyes narrowed as she left an unspoken “but…” hang in the silence between them. 

 

A wave of shame and regret overtook Nikki.  She slid to the deck of the pier, her defeat complete.  Her back was against the lower railing, knees hugged to her chest, and her eyes cast down. 

 

The emptiness and absolute resignation portrayed in Nikki’s collapse made Helen’s heart contract.  She had been seeking a way to break through to Nikki, she realized now that she’d inadvertently stripped her emotionally bare.

 

Helen slid off her bench and joined Nikki against the railing.  The two women sat side by side on the pier in silence.  Helen wanted to comfort Nikki, but did not regret any of her actions or words.  She simply waited, hoping Nikki would respond.  Nikki had not moved, she was staring blankly over the water on the far side of the pier.  The only indication of her emotional state was the rise and fall of her chest and rapid blinking that kept tears from trailing down her cheeks.

 

In a strangled gasp, Nikki finally spoke.  “You ruined it for me.”

 

Helen was startled.  She took a moment to mentally go over Nikki’s words, making sure she heard correctly.  Leaning down so that her head was even with Nikki’s, Helen asked, “What have I ruined?”

 

Nikki’s voice was a ragged whisper.  “Here. California. My life in the states.”

 

“What? How?”  Stunned, the questions leapt from Helen’s lips.

 

Nikki continued to whisper as much to herself as to Helen.  “I was sure I was happy…. It isn’t comfortable to learn that you’ve been lying to yourself for years.”

 

While flattered, Helen felt her frustration begin to return.  “I’m not sure what you got out of our conversation last night, but it clearly wasn’t what I came away believing.  I thought we were going to try to make this work.” Helen was gaining momentum; it was as if verbalizing her views was strengthening her convictions.  “I thought we’d realized that our lives would be better for it, even if it was hard.  You’ve got an amazing life, just as there are many good things about my life.  To me, the effort to build something with you would make things more complete, better… NOT ruined.” 

 

Nikki looked up to find herself again caught in Helen’s fixed glare, again daring her to argue.  Nikki’s instinct was to argue, but as she searched for a flaw in Helen’s statement, she found nothing.  While she understood Helen’s logic, her heart still felt trampled.  She had already resigned herself to sadness and couldn’t muster the optimism required to believe Helen’s words.  “It just feels empty now that I know how much better it could be,” whispered Nikki, stubbornly.

 

Helen was trying to reconcile the optimistic, funny, compassionate woman she’d gotten to know over the past few weeks with the sullen, angry person in front of her now that seemed determined to make herself miserable.  “Why are you acting like this Nikki? I don’t understand. Who are you?”

 

Nikki’s gaze seemed to bore a hole in the pier deck ahead of her. “Maybe you just had the wrong idea.  Maybe this is saving you from making a colossal mistake.” 

 

Helen was stunned.  She turned and forced Nikki to face her.  “Why are you so intent on pushing me away?”

 

Nikki didn’t respond directly.  Even though she was now facing Helen, her eyes were unfocused and her soft voice indicated absolute resignation.  “I’ve had to start over before.  I’ll be fine…”

 

A frustrated growl rumbled from Helen’s throat as her grip on Nikki’s folded arms tightened and she shook her hoping to snap her out of the spiral of self-pity Nikki seemed intent on following.  “What?! Why on earth would you need to start over?”

 

Helen’s outburst seemed to at least bring Nikki into the present.  Nikki’s eyes were now focused intently on Helen, a combination of shock and dread.  Helen felt a wave of compassion for Nikki.  Nikki seemed paralyzed by fear.  It was vulnerability that Helen had never seen in Nikki.  When words did not seem to be forthcoming, Helen decided to fill the void, her voice now gentle. “Is that what you were doing when you left London for California?  Starting over?”

 

Seeing a slow nod from Nikki, Helen continued.  “Were you running away from something?”  Nikki’s eyes widened and then fell in an ashamed confirmation.  Helen appreciated the effort it was obviously taking Nikki to engage and, despite her discomfort, did not want to let it drop.  “Someone?”  Nikki nodded again, her head still hanging.  Pieces to the puzzle began to form a clearer picture for Helen.  She reached out taking Nikki’s chin in her hand.  She leaned forward and gently pressed her lips to Nikki’s.  “Nikki, I am not that person from your past.  Please don’t punish me for their sins.”

 

Helen saw a softening in Nikki’s features as her words sunk in.  “You don’t have to explain, but please ask me before you assume anything about my feelings or the reason for my actions.”  Helen took a deep breath and searched Nikki’s face to see if she was reaching her. “If you want to explain, I want to know, to understand, but you don’t have to.  All right?”

 

Out of words, Nikki numbly nodded again.  She then reached for Helen pulling them into an awkward embrace.  Nikki held tight taking comfort and strength from the feel of Helen against her. 

 

The embrace lasted several minutes before being broken by Helen beginning to shiver in the cool night air.  Nikki scolded herself for not noticing sooner that Helen was only wearing a thin sweater. 

 

Helen’s need pulled Nikki from her introspection. “Helen, we need to get you warm.  Let’s go back to the bar,” directed Nikki gently as she pulled them both to their feet. 

 

“I can’t go back in there.”

 

 “Why?”

 

“They began to argue after you left.  I made a less than graceful exit.”

 

Nikki cringed when she realized the situation in which she’d left Helen.  “I’m sorry I left you to that scene.”

 

Helen nodded in acknowledgement of the apology. “We have to go back there.  I left my jacket with the keys in the pocket.”

 

Knowing nothing more could be resolved on the pier, Nikki gently wrapped an arm over Helen’s shoulders.  “Let’s go.  We need to get you home so you can truly warm up.”   

 

“Nikki…” Helen began hesitantly.

 

“Don’t worry about the jacket and keys.  I’ll go in and fetch them.  I’m certain that I’ll be left alone.”

 

---

 

 

Part 28

 

Helen climbed into the passenger side of the car.  As she settled into her seat for the ride to Claire and Cory’s house, Helen couldn’t help but think of the chilly ride back from the tavern the night before.  While the journey in Sprout would be warmer than Claire’s scooter, Nikki’s emotional state was unchanged.  They wound through the hills towards Claire and Cory’s house in awkward silence.

 

Helen knocked on the door as they reached the front stoop.  She could hear Nikki shifting uneasily behind her.  Waiting for someone to answer, Helen sent up a silent plea that the familiar banter of an evening with Claire and Cory would snap Nikki out of the silent introspection that seemed to be consuming her. 

 

“It’s about time you arrived!” grinned Claire as she answered the door.

 

“You know I can’t make it anywhere on time without you around to harass me into it,” countered Helen with forced playfulness, trying to set the tone for the evening. 

 

“I would have thought the knowledge that it was my house where you were arriving would have been motivation enough.”

 

“Hardly!  I’m coming to see people who know I’m likely to arrive late.  For all I know, you gave me a false time on the assumption that I’d arrive late,” laughed Helen.

 

Claire rolled her eyes.  “Now that you mention it, that’s a great idea.”

 

From the laughing, it was obvious that the exchange was familiar and enjoyed by both women.  Claire made eye contact with Nikki for the first time.  “Couldn’t you have helped her along?”

 

Nikki smiled weakly and held up her hands as if to say I’m not getting involved in this.  She looked curiously around the room.  “Where’s Cory?”

 

“On the deck, he’s watching the grill.  If you are going out there, could you bring him a beer?  I think the poor man has earned it.”

 

“Sure.”  Nikki headed to the kitchen to retrieve a beer and walked quietly towards the deck.

 

Watching Nikki retreat, Claire was struck by the vacancy in her demeanor.  It was as if the vitality that typically characterized her had retreated so far inside that all was left was a hallow shell.  She turned to Helen with a raised eyebrow. 

 

Helen shook her head, a wave of sadness washing over her features.  “I don’t know, Claire.  She seems all right, but she’s just… I don’t know… subdued? She didn’t go into work today and just messed about in her garden.  That lost look in her eyes has been there since the other night.” 

 

“What happened?” asked Claire handing Helen a beer. 

 

“I don’t know where to begin,” sighed Helen as she collapsed on to the couch. 

 

“I’m assuming you found her at that stinky Seawall Tavern,” prompted Claire, her nose wrinkled in disgust.

 

“Yeah…“ Helen lapsed into reflective silence.

 

“Helen?  You found her, knocked some sense into her, and brought her home, yes?”

 

“That’s not exactly what happened.”

 

“Well then, how did it go?”

 

Helen took a deep breath and began to recount the evening for Claire.   Claire didn’t touch her beer. She barely moved as Helen’s story unfolded.  When Helen finished describing Nikki retrieving her jacket and scooter key from the tavern, Claire let out a long exhale. “Whew.  Did you two continue talking when you got home?”

 

Helen shook her head wearily.  “No… she hasn’t really strung together more than a few sentences at a time since.”

 

“Well, what did you do?  Sit on the couch and have a staring contest?” ask Claire trying to inject some humor.

 

“No.”

 

There was a long pause as Claire stared expectantly at Helen.  “Well???”

 

“She just wanted to be held, Claire.  I wrapped my arms around her until we both feel asleep.  When I woke, she’d already gone outside.  She left me a ‘good morning’ note, coffee, and a scone.  It’s as if the joy that Nikki seemed to find in everything is gone.  I don’t know what drove it away, shame, fear maybe… but of what?”

 

Helen’s shoulders had begun to take on a defeated sag as she spoke. “As you can see, she isn’t any more verbal this evening.”

 

Claire reached out, giving Helen a reassuring squeeze.  “You’re amazing Helen, Nikki is lucky you were there for her.  Maybe she’s embarrassed?”

 

Helen looked at Claire, brows furrowed.  “Of what?”

 

“Helen, think about it.  You’ve heard the names her staff call her.  One of them is ‘mama bear.’  Nikki is proud. She always takes on the role of protector, not the one who needs protecting… even if it’s from herself.  She doesn’t like anyone to see chinks in her armor.”  Claire paused to see if Helen understood.

 

“You’re saying that since I saw her let her guard down, she’s uncomfortable around me.”

 

“Helen, it doesn’t sound to me like you simply saw her lower the shield.  I think she felt bloody naked.”

 

“What?  You’re serious aren’t you?”

 

“Yes.  Want to know what I think?”

 

Helen rolled her eyes and smiled at her friend. “Claire, we both know that it doesn’t really matter whether I do or not.  Tell me, what do you think?”

 

“Nikki has no idea how to act around you.  What you witnessed contradicts the way Nikki sees herself.  I suspect that what you observed at that bar runs counter to all the things that she thinks she has to be to be a good friend, good boss, and, most importantly, appealing to you. I don’t think she knows what to do or feel.”

 

Helen shook her head disbelieving.  “Are you telling me that Nikki is always the shoulder on which to cry and never the one needing support?  You’re her friend; surely you’ve had to be there for her.”

 

“Aye, I’ve been there for her.  But Helen, that means giving her space and letting her know that no matter what happens or what she does that you’ll still be her friend.  If she breaks down, it is outside the view of any observer.”

 

“I don’t think I realized…”  Helen couldn’t think of anything else to say.  While she too preferred to present a strong front, she could not imagine bottling her fears and failures from her closest friends.

 

“I think the best person for her may be Cory.  Nikki confides in him because he’s just as uncomfortable showing emotion.  He responds with humor and never lets her wallow.  Somehow that seems to make her feel safe.”

 

Helen shook her head.  “She’s lucky to have you two, Claire.”

 

“We’re lucky to have you both.”  Claire paused to take a deep breath.  She exhaled letting the air out in soft whistle.  “I’ve got to tell you.  I’m still reeling from the night you described.”  Claire shrugged and relaxed her shoulders as if to snap herself out of the reflection. “It sure does make you wonder about what happened to her in London since it sounds like it still haunts her.”

 

“It does,” sighed Helen with resignation.  “I don’t know if I’ll ever know.”

 

Claire smiled.  “Be patient.  You’ve already seen more vulnerability from Nikki than most.”  Standing up, Claire left the room declaring, “This is getting all too serious.  I want to have a good evening and enjoy the final days of your company.” 

 

On her way to the kitchen, she opened the deck door to instruct Nikki and Cory to find their way inside.

 

While Nikki entered the living room to sit with Helen, Cory joined Claire in the kitchen while she was making final dinner preparations.  Cory stood at the counter fingering a small towel, eyebrows furrowed.  Claire stopped her preparations to watch her husband fidget.  “Hiya love, how was Nikki doing out there?” she asked nodding towards the deck. 

 

Cory let out a frustrated snort.  “What’d she do to her?”

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“Helen. To Nikki.  She lost her mojo.”

 

“Her what?”

 

“Her groove, her game, her hook, her swagger… her mojo.”

 

“What exactly do you mean?” asked Claire cocking an eyebrow at her husband.   She held up her hand stopping him from speaking. “In English.”

 

Cory rolled his eyes.  “I just spent a half hour having a polite, but awkward conversation about the weather… WITH NIKKI, for christ sake! What the fuck is up with that?  What happened to her?”  demanded Cory, sounding like a child who’d lost his favorite toy.

 

Cory paused, waiting for Claire to respond, but she seemed lost in thought. Faced with her silence, Cory tried again, obviously frustrated and worried about his friend.  “Do you understand? This is serious! It’s as if she’s Samson and Helen hacked off her hair.”

 

The analogy snapped Claire from her reflection.  She burst into laughter and turned to Cory with a wide smile and patted him on the cheek.  “Thank you.  Biblical references make it so much clearer.”

 

“Claire.  I’m not joking!  Nikki sipped, SIPPED, her beer and talked about the weather.  She’s making ME feel weird.  She’s got me all edgy. What are we going to do? We need to fix her.  I won’t make it through an entire evening of this.”

 

Claire smiled indulgently at Cory. “I don’t know, hon. Let’s try to make things as normal as possible and hope that she comes around on her own.”

 

“What if that doesn’t work?”

 

“I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.”

 

Claire leaned out of the kitchen to peer at Nikki and Helen on the couch.  “Hors d'oeuvres are on their way.  Who needs a refill?” 

 

“I’ll have another, thanks Claire,” replied Helen.

 

As they were exiting the kitchen with drinks and food, Claire leaned over to Cory, “Try to be at least a little subtle sweetheart.”

 

“When am I not?” asked Cory innocently. Claire could only shake her head and make her way to the living room. 

 

Barely leaving time for everyone to get settled on the couch or nearby pillows, Cory immediately began questioning.  “So, how’d you get home the other night, Nik?  I’m assuming Helen found you.”

 

Three pairs of shocked eyes stared at Cory.  Claire shook her head, “Subtle.”

 

“Oh come on.  It’s what happened in the last few days, I’m just asking about their week.”

 

After an awkward silence, Helen supplied, “We rode home on the scooter.”

 

“But Nik, you’d been drinking!”

 

Nikki ducked her head hiding the blush coloring her cheeks.

 

“I drove home,” offered Helen politely.

 

Cory took a moment to digest the information, his eyes widening.  “You not only rode the scooter, but you rode bitch?!” he screeched before beginning to giggle while staring pointedly at Nikki in anticipation of a quick retort.

 

Nikki shrugged indifferently, muttering, “Sod you, Cory,” without looking up.

 

Cory couldn’t believe Nikki’s reaction, or lack there of.   He simply sat in silence staring at Nikki’s form huddled on the couch, which was making Claire nervous.  She knew that the likelihood of him doing something drastic or just plain strange was increasing by the minute.  Cory puffed out his chest, furrowed his brow, and in a particularly overwrought British accent proclaimed, “You’re a right stroppy cow, you are!”

 

All three women, including Nikki, looked up at Cory with a combination of shock and incredulity.  Time seemed to stand still as the three slowly replayed the scene in their heads. The silence gave way to giggles and then full-fledged fits of uncontrolled laughter. 

 

“That was terrible!” gasped Helen.

 

Not expecting this reaction, Cory got up in frustration.   As he rose to standing, Nikki choked out, “How can you be married to a Brit, yet imitate the accent so badly?” 

 

Nikki’s observation brought another gale of laughter from the women.

 

Cory stood his ground with a reddening face.  “My trying to speak like you people is no weirder than you discussing the weather!  You’re starting to freak me out!  What’s wrong with you?  Since when do you daintily sip your beer and make small talk?”

 

All three women were again staring at Cory, none expecting the additional outburst.  Claire began to chuckle. “You handled that beautifully, dear.  How about you go get us another round of drinks?”

 

Cory began to stomp away in a sulk.  Half-way to the kitchen, Nikki caught him.  She had quickly left the couch and taken off after Cory.  She flew over him, wrapping one arm around his neck as she landed, pulling him into a headlock.  “Now call me ‘dainty,’ asshole!”

 

A deep chuckle rumbled gleefully from Cory’s chest as he reached out for Nikki’s legs.  Catching one, he yanked, and both tumbled to the floor, continuing to wrestle.  

 

Seeing concern etched on Helen’s face, Claire reached a reassuring hand towards her.  “Don’t worry about them.  Want to help me get dinner ready while the children roughhouse?”

 

Nodding, Helen rose to follow Claire into the kitchen.  She couldn’t help but gape at the scene of Nikki and Cory rolling around on the floor.  “Helen, are you coming?”  Claire distracted her from the scene and prompted her to continue her journey to the kitchen. 

“No broken lamps, tables, or other items, you two!” shouted Claire as a parting shot. 

 

“This happens often?”  asked Helen, trying to make sense of it all.

 

“Often enough.”

 

“And it’s really okay?” 

 

“Oh sure. Think of this as a more macho version of the exact same game of one-upmanship that they play when dancing.”

 

Helen stole another glance at the mass of human bodies rolling around the floor outside the kitchen. “I think I prefer the dancing.”

 

“You and me both.  I think Cory occasionally sees Nikki as the younger brother he never had and Nikki doesn’t seem to mind.”  Claire paused in thought.  “Helen, this may be exactly what Nikki needs.”

 

“Someone to beat some sense into her?”

 

Claire smiled and nodded. “Can you help me finish things up? The sooner we get food on the table, the sooner they call a truce and join us.”

 

By the time dinner was ready, Nikki and Cory were lying on the floor exhausted and more than willing to come to the table.  Two decidedly disheveled diners joined Claire and Helen at the table, both wearing embarrassed grins. 

 

---

 

Helen pulled Claire into a hug as she and Nikki stood at the door to leave. “Thank you,” she whispered.

 

 “Take care of you both,” replied Claire.

 

Nikki and Helen had a quiet ride back to Nikki’s house, but the silence was comfortable as opposed to the awkward tension in the car on the way to Claire and Cory’s house.  The two women parked and made their way into the house.

 

“Would like some tea?” asked Nikki as they made their way into the living room.

 

“Sure.  Thank you,” answered Helen as she settled onto the couch. 

 

Nikki returned bearing two mugs of steaming tea to find Helen with her head thrown back and eyes closed.  As Nikki set her tea on the coffee table, Helen cracked her eyes and sat forward. 

 

“Tired?” asked Nikki with a gentle smile as she settled on to the couch opposite Helen.

 

“Mmmm” affirmed Helen, accepting her tea.

 

“Perhaps you should head to bed, Helen,” suggested Nikki, trying to phrase things as neutrally as possible.  While her impromptu wrestling match with Cory had served to ease some tension, Nikki still felt some hesitance when it came to Helen.  They had yet to talk through what had happened on the pier.

 

Helen stared calmly at Nikki, wondering what was going through her mind.  She could see that while the embarrassment that Nikki seemed to have over her behavior had gone, there still seemed to be something weighing her down.  “I was just resting my eyes for a moment.  I think I’m more emotionally drained than physically tired.  It’d be great to have some quiet time with you.”

 

Guilt flashed across Nikki’s features as Helen explained.  “I’m sorry Helen.  I never intended to put you through all you’ve endured these last few days.”

 

“There’s no going back,” shrugged Helen softly. 

 

“No, perhaps not.  I do regret it.”

 

“I know that you do, Nikki.”  Recalling the evening, Helen tilted her head and gave Nikki a small smile. “Some good did come of it, though.  Don’t feel too badly.”

 

“Really?” breathed Nikki.

 

“I think so.”  The smile on Helen’s face grew into a teasing smirk. “You now know that I wasn’t lying about my prowess with a pool cue.  I took out Nikki Wade,” boasted Helen, playfully puffing out her chest in pride.

 

The gesture drew a burst of laughter from Nikki. Holding up her cup of tea, Nikki made a show of toasting Helen, eyes twinkling.  “That you did.”

 

“I learned more than just your deficiencies at the pool table,” continued Helen, more seriously.

 

“Deficiencies, hmm?  I demand a rematch.”  Nikki was grateful for the return of playful banter.  While it did not have the exuberance of some of their earlier exchanges, the casual ease of their exchange was comforting.  “So, what else did you learn Ms. Stewart?”

 

“That you are an amazingly strong woman, Ms. Wade.”

 

Nikki’s eyes widened in shock.  She broke eye contact with Helen, suddenly finding her tea interesting.  Her emotional collapse on the pier kept running through her head.  “I hardly think you saw a demonstration of strength,” mumbled Nikki, continuing to gaze at the mug in her hands.

 

“No one can be as perfect as you seem expect yourself to be.  That’s quite a burden.”  Helen reached out giving Nikki’s knee a gentle squeeze. 

 

“I’m far from perfect, Helen,” muttered Nikki.

 

“You come closer than most, Nikki.  Don’t you dare punish yourself for showing some vulnerability.”

 

Nikki looked up at Helen with questioning eyes.

 

“Nikki, I did not intend to upset you to that extent, but I’m glad to have been there.  I hope someday you will share what happened that has made it so hard for you to trust.”  Seeing panic overtake Nikki’s features, Helen quickly continued, “not now… sometime…when you feel comfortable.” 

 

Nikki nodded, unable to find words.  She reflected on that evening and was still ashamed of her behavior, but found she was more comfortable with the memory of her tears than of her anger.  She sat up so she could cover Helen’s hand that was still resting on her knee.  “Thank you for your patience with me, Helen.  I don’t often breakdown.  I’m glad you were there too.”  Nikki spoke softly.  She then let out a small exhale of self-disgust, before continuing, “Unfortunately, my temper rears its ugly head more often than I’d like.  I apologize.”

 

Helen couldn’t bring herself to say it’s all right or don’t worry about it.  Nikki’s anger hurt, but Helen knew that she too was capable of letting her temper overwhelm reason.  She turned over her hand, lacing her fingers in Nikki’s, and pulled it to her mouth to place a gentle kiss on Nikki’s knuckles. 

 

With the gesture of acceptance, Nikki felt her fear of having done permanent damage to her developing relationship with Helen begin to disappear.  All she wanted now was to curl up in the green-eyed woman’s arms and savor some of the final moments of closeness before she boarded a plane back to London.  Nikki clasped Helen’s hand in both of hers whispering, “Thank you.”

 

Helen saw the unspoken plea in the soft brown eyes and pulled Nikki across the couch, situating her between her legs, back against her chest. Helen had one arm loosely draped over Nikki’s shoulder and the other wrapped around her mid-section.  The two sat in silence savoring the close proximity. 

 

Nikki laid her head back against Helen’s shoulder.  “You never had the chance to tell about your day playing teacher,” she began hoping to move the conversation to safer topics.  “How did it go?”

 

“It went great.”

 

“How’d Elliott’s introduction go?”

 

“He didn’t have to do one.  Corbin decided to embarrass me a little bit.”

 

Nikki could hear the smile in Helen’s voice.  “I’d have liked to hear that,” she responded sadly, knowing it was her own impulsive behavior that robbed her of the chance to meet someone who played an important role Helen’s past.

 

“You still can, you know?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“I talked to Corbin yesterday while you were out in the garden.”

 

“I’m sorry Helen.  You didn’t deserve to be ignored all day.”

 

“I know you were upset and I know you’re sorry, Nikki.  You can stop apologizing, ok?”

 

Nikki snuggled deeper into Helen’s embrace.  “I’ll try.”

 

“We’ve been invited to dinner.”

 

“With Corbin?”

 

“And his partner, Tom.”

 

“When?” asked Nikki hesitantly.  As much as she wanted to meet Corbin, she wasn’t sure she wanted to face someone who’d been witness to her anger and insecurity.

 

“Tomorrow,” answered Helen casually trying not to react to Nikki’s trepidation.  “Would you be up for it?  They’d like to meet you.”

 

“Are you sure about that? I’m certain I didn’t make a very good first impression.”

 

“Yes.  I’d like for you to meet them.  I want share what I’ve found in you and I want you to meet two of my oldest friends.”

 

Nikki’s breath caught at Helen’s answer her heart soared in hope that Helen had found herself falling for Nikki as deeply as Nikki knew herself to be falling for Helen.  Doubts immediately quashed her elation, as she replayed her behavior from the last few days. 

 

“What have you found?” quietly slipped from Nikki’s lips.

 

“Nikki,” sighed Helen, surprised again by how insecure the beautiful woman in her arms could be. “I hope I’ve found a new beginning,” she whispered, running her fingers through Nikki’s dark curls. 

 

Nikki sat up and turned to face Helen.  She wanted to look Helen in the eye to assure herself that she’d heard correctly and that Helen was being honest.  Helen met her gaze, quietly waiting for her words to sink in. As they gained access to Nikki’s heart, tears escaped from her eyes.  Helen brushed the tears from her eyes and met her lips with her own.  The kiss was gentle.  Helen sought to reassure and communicate the depth of her feelings. 

 

Nikki began simply accepting the affection offered in the kiss.  Slowly, the need to feel closer began to overtake her.  She pulled Helen closer, deepening the kiss.  As they broke apart, Nikki buried her face in Helen’s neck and whispered against her skin. “I’m not sure it’s possible to be as close to you as my heart desires.  Sometimes wish I could just climb inside.”

 

Helen began to softly chuckle at Nikki’s declaration.

 

Nikki smiled and pulled back to look at Helen through hooded eyes.  “I didn’t mean it like that… although that’s nice too.  I’m going to miss you so much Helen.  I’ve only just found you and now you have to leave.”

 

“I know, sweetheart.  Can we enjoy the days we do have and spend our time apart finding a way to make this work?”

 

Nikki looked at Helen with shining eyes and gently answered, “I’d like that.”  Nikki got up from the couch and held a hand out for Helen.  She pulled her into a tight embrace and led her to the bedroom.

 

---

 

 

Part 29

 

Helen was in the cottage choosing something to wear to Corbin and Tom’s for dinner.  She smiled at her surroundings.  The cottage had come to symbolize not only a restorative safe haven, but the warmth she’d found in her burgeoning relationship with Nikki.  As she pulled on trousers and a casual, scoop-neck shirt, she let her thoughts wander to the coming evening. She wanted Corbin, Tom, and Nikki to get along.  She was sure that in other circumstances they would enjoy each other’s company, but the awkward initial encounter between Nikki and Corbin worried her.  A ghost of a smile crept to her lips as she imagined Tom.  He had never encountered an uncomfortable situation he didn’t feel compelled to heighten or further instigate.  Helen decided it would either break through all the discomfort or make for a torturous evening.  She hoped that Nikki and Corbin both had their sense of humor tonight.  Having finished dressing, she checked her appearance one final time in the mirror and made her away across the garden.

 

“Ready?” called Helen stepping through the deck door, knowing Nikki had only recently returned home from work to fit in a quick shower.

 

“As I’ll ever be,” replied Nikki as she exited her bedroom.

 

Nikki was wearing tailored black slacks that hung low on her hips.  They were cut close to her legs and flared slightly to hang over low-heeled black boots.  A sleeveless, v-neck, black, lamb’s wool jumper set off the golden color of her shoulders and neck.  Her hair was its usual barely-controlled mane of dark curls and dark makeup set off her eyes. 

 

Helen was stopped in her tracks at the sight; Nikki had pulled off the feat of appearing stunningly beautiful, but also stark and intimidating.  Nikki paused as Helen stared. 

 

Glancing down at her attire, she asked, “Will this be all right?”

 

It took Helen a moment to gather her wits to respond.  “You look beautiful, Nikki.”

 

“I know you said casual, but I couldn’t find anything in which I felt comfortable.”

 

Helen was puzzled by the explanation, but did not let it show.  “You’re perfect.  Let’s go.”

 

As Helen watched Nikki exit the house ahead of her, she realized that Nikki’s outfit was as much for self-protection as wanting to impress anyone.  She suspected that Nikki needed to feel beautiful and, perhaps more important, powerful.  The outfit communicated to Helen that Nikki was trying to reclaim the image of strength that she felt she’d undermined.

 

---

 

“Welcome!  Dusty, you look beautiful as always,” smiled Corbin as he opened his front door to welcome the two women.

 

“Thank you, Corbin.  I’d like you to meet Nikki.  Nikki, Corbin.”

 

Both Nikki and Corbin viewed each other cautiously, before reaching to shake hands.

 

“It’s good to meet you, Corbin,” supplied Nikki politely.

 

“Likewise.”

 

Corbin led them into the house.  He wanted to get to know the woman Helen had described, but was unsure how to ease the obvious tension in their interaction.  He draped his arm over Helen’s shoulders and turned to face Nikki.  “Nikki, I understand the smile on Helen’s face is largely due to you.  Thank you.”

 

Nikki blushed.  Nikki recognized Corbin’s statement as a peace offering, but found herself replying in a manner was still stiff and formal.   “I think most of the hard work has been done by Helen herself.  She also has quite a support system here in Claire and Cory.” 

 

Corbin had to smile at the obvious discomfort of the tall brunette.  “I’m sure that’s true, but I know that you have played a part as well.”

 

Nikki simply tilted her head in acknowledgement, letting conversation lapse into silence. 

 

The lag in dialog and initial over-polite interaction was making Helen nervous. “Where’s Tom?” she asked, breaking the silence.

 

Corbin smiled at mention of his partner and responded, grateful for the shift in topic.  “He’s putting the final touches on his masterpiece.  You know that he lives for any opportunity to show off his culinary skills.”

 

Helen grinned up at Corbin. “Do you think he can take a break to say hello?”

 

Talking about his partner seemed to relax Corbin.  To Helen’s relief, his tone began to return to the playful exuberance that she had always associated with him.  “As you know, I have all the charm in this household.  I’m always giving instructions in common courtesy,” declared Corbin with a dramatic sigh.  He winked at Helen and called, “Tom, get your cute butt out here and greet your guests.”  Hoping to ease Nikki’s discomfort, he added, “You need to meet the woman who has finally tamed Helen!”

 

Nikki barely had time to process the Corbin’s comment when a towering, broad shouldered man came lumbering barefoot out of the kitchen.   Tom was well over six and a half feet tall, with square shoulders, and a chiseled, tan face.  He was wearing snug, straight-leg jeans and a faded, plaid button-down that hung open over a white t-shirt.  He entered casually with a grin on his face.  His progress into the living room was stopped short as soon as he caught sight of Nikki.

 

“Whoa!  You’re Nikki?” exclaimed the tall Texan with a deep chuckle.  He stepped back to shamelessly take her in.  “Darlin’ you are more than man enough for Helen...” Tom paused to let is eyes slowly peruse the curve of her hips and swell of her breasts.  “… and far more of a woman than my dear Corbin could ever be.” 

 

Nikki stood in shocked silence trying to work out if she’d been complemented or insulted. 

 

A deep chuckle rumbled from Helen’s lips to break the silence.  “I’ve missed you, Tom!”

 

Tom laughed and picked up Helen in an enthusiastic embrace.  “Oh honey, I’ve missed you and that dirty laugh of yours.”  As he set her back down, he theatrically whispered, “and you’ve outdone yourself with this one, dear.  She’s awful sexy.  I’m not sure she’s looked in a mirror recently if she thinks you’d pick my Corbin over her.”  Casting a playful eye at his partner, he continued, “Just don’t tell Corbin that!”

 

Nervous about Nikki’s reaction to his partner, Corbin dramatically cleared his throat.  “Nikki, you’ll have to excuse Tommy.  Someone forgot to teach the poor boy manners during his unfortunate Texas upbringin’.”

 

Nikki had recovered from her initial shock and was slowly warming up to the atmosphere.  She let her eyes give Tom’s large frame an equally thorough appraisal before responding to Corbin with a smirk.  “Well, they may have forgotten to teach manners when he was growing up, but they certainly didn’t forget to feed him.”

 

Tom shouted with laughter, enthusiastically threw his arm over Nikki’s shoulder, and began to drag her towards the kitchen, “You just might be perfect, beauty, sexy accent, and a sense of humor!  You come with me to finish with dinner and we’ll leave the two do-gooders to themselves.” 

 

A bright smile broke across Nikki’s face as she let herself be caught up in Tom’s enthusiasm.  She looked to Helen, who smiled and gave her an encouraging nod.  Nikki turned to Tom with a laugh.  “I’d love to help.  Lead the way big boy.”

 

Tom soon had Nikki helping with the remaining preparations.  As they worked, Tom began to pepper Nikki with questions about Helen and their relationship.  As Nikki detailed the prior months from phone calls, to impromptu lodging, to romance, she found herself grinning.  For his part, Tom was charmed.  Nikki’s face had progressively brightened as the described Helen and their initial interaction.  As she finished by explaining that Helen was going back to London in two days, Tom gasped.

 

“Why haven’t you convinced her to stay?  It sounds as though she’s got more here than she has waiting for her back in London.”

 

Nikki hung her head knowing she’d had the same thought ever since Helen had mentioned leaving.  “She needs to choose that for herself.”

 

“Then make it an easy choice!” declared Tom.

 

“It’d be so selfish of me to have her stay because it’d make me happy.  She’d just grow to resent me.”

 

“Darling, I see what you are saying and it is very sweet of you.”  Tom had thrown an arm over Nikki’s, now slumping, shoulders and tapped her nose with his finger.  “But you are suffering from a dramatic lack of imagination,” he finished with a satisfied flourish.

 

Unused to anyone talking to her as though she were a young child, Nikki burst into laughter at the tall man’s gesture. “All right, what have I missed?”

 

A mischievous grin pulled at Tom’s lips.  “Don’t you worry about that, sweetheart.  You just leave it to your new, devastatingly handsome friends.”

 

Tom’s relentless good humor again lifted Nikki’s spirits.  “I don’t know whether I should be comforted or terrified by that,” she grinned in reply.

 

“Never fear, my dear, we’ll get Helen to the left coast.  I’ll bet Corbin has already begun the campaign in there.” Corbin gestured toward the living room.  “Help me gather our feast so we can get our better halves to the table.”

 

Nikki and Tom returned from the kitchen bearing serving platters to find Helen and Corbin huddled in deep conversation. 

 

“You two had better not be working over there!” called Tom as he spied them.  “It’s time to belly up to the bar, dinner is served.”

 

The four assembled themselves at the table.  Having enjoyed her time with Tom, Nikki found herself looking forward to the dinner conversation the learning more about Helen’s past.  “So Corbin, why do you call Helen, Dusty?”

 

Her question brought howls of laughter from her dinner companions and began an evening comprised entirely of Corbin and Helen playing a game of one-upmanship seeing who could come up with a more embarrassing tale from their days working together.  Nikki and Tom served as an appreciative and well-entertained audience. 

 

---

 

 

“Helen, has Corbin talked you into staying in California yet?”  Tom posed the question as they settled into the living room to more comfortably enjoy the final swallows of port in their glasses. 

 

To Nikki’s surprise, Helen laughed good naturedly at the question. “Your grand plan of talking all your friends into moving to the same city would work a whole lot better if you two would settle somewhere permanently.”

 

“We have!” sang Tom and Corbin.

 

Helen smirked at the two men and began to silent count her fingers.  “How many times have I heard this before?”

 

“I know, Dusty, but we’re getting old.  I really do think we’re here to stay,” countered Corbin.

 

“Think of it this way, we’ve tested out so many other cities that now we know there is no where else we’d like better,” added Tom.

 

Helen smiled affectionately at them both.  “While I’m flattered that I’m still on your list of friends to recruit, I have to see you to settled somewhere for more than a few years before I believe it.”

 

“I’m hurt!  Don’t you believe us?”  questioned Corbin with a grin on his face that was met with laughter by the assembled group. 

 

“Your doubts about us aside, what would it take to get you to stay?”  pressed Tom once the laughter had calmed.

 

Helen immediately glanced at the floor and began to shift in her seat.  “I don’t know, Tom,” she quietly replied.  “Nothing… everything…”

 

“Oh honey, I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable,” replied Tom soothingly, now understanding Nikki’s hesitance to pressure Helen. 

 

Helen smiled weakly at him.  “It’s all right.  Can you just wait until I get my own life sorted before you start your recruitment strategy?”

 

Corbin reached out for Helen’s hand.  “Of course, Helen, we really do want you to be happy.  We’ll even be happy if you decide you’re happiest somewhere else.” Corbin gave Helen’s hand a squeeze and glanced at Nikki before adding, “Although, I highly doubt anywhere could make you happier than here.”

 

Helen smiled softly at her friend.  “You could resist a final plea could you?”

 

“Of course not, I wouldn’t be me if I let it go, would I?

 

“No you wouldn’t, and I don’t want you to change.”  Helen stood as she spoke.  She had noticed that Nikki had withdrawn during the after dinner discussion.  She knew that her immanent departure was weighing on her and decided that a change in scenery was needed.  “I’ve had a great evening.  I think Nikki and I need to get going.”

 

Corbin and Tom quickly rose to bid them goodbye.  Corbin pulled Nikki into a hug, whispering “I’m glad I had to chance to meet you properly.  Take care of her for me.” 

 

Nikki pulled back to look him in the face.  “Thank you.”

 

The two men swept Helen into group hug. As they released her, Tom glanced at Nikki.  “Helen, I can’t believe you are going to leave this woman behind.  I hope you realize women are going to be lining up to take your place.” 

 

“I know,” sighed Helen.

 

“Don’t worry Helen,” began Corbin.  “I’ll appoint Tom as protector of your woman’s virtue.  He’ll fight off the lesbonic masses for you!”

 

For his part, Tom began flexing for Helen, which drew laughter from both women and served to lighten the somber mood that had begun to seep into conversation.

 

Helen looked at Nikki.  “It seems you’ve acquired another brawny protector.”  The thought of both Tom and Cory acting like protective older brothers made her grin.  She couldn’t think of another woman less in need of protection, although she could admit to herself that needed or not, she found the idea of people watching over Nikki comforting.

 

The two women descended the steps from Corbin and Tom’s house with grins on their faces. 

 

Helen beamed up at Nikki.  “I’m so glad you got to meet them.”

 

“I am too. They’re great.  Maybe I’ll eventually look at this night as when I met two new friends in town,” replied Nikki with a calm smile. 

 

“You have already!  They adore you!”

 

Nikki raised a skeptical eyebrow at Helen.

 

“They do!” exclaimed Helen.  “They don’t tease, or offer to help, or protect people they don’t like.  And you heard them, they were scolding me for leaving you.  They loved you.”

 

“Yeah well, I got a reprimand for letting you leave.  Don’t get carried away, Stewart.”  Nikki’s voice was tinged with sadness.

 

Helen saw their impending separation once again threaten to sour the mood.  “Nikki?” 

 

Nikki paused looking at Helen with an eyebrow raised.

 

“I leave the day after tomorrow, meaning I’ve only got one more whole day here.  Can we do something fun?”

 

Nikki stared at Helen trying to gauge her mood.  “What do you have in mind?” she asked, pausing in front of the passenger door of Sprout. 

 

“I’ve promised Claire breakfast the day I leave.  I want tomorrow to be just us, but I don’t want to focus on being apart.” Helen put her arms around Nikki’s waist and laid her head on her chest.  “Can we spend a whole day enjoying this? I want to do all the things I can’t do in London.”

 

Nikki pressed her lips to Helen’s hair and turned to open the door for Helen.  She then rounded the car and climbed behind the wheel. 

 

Nikki sat in silence for several moments as a sly grin began to slowly pull at her lips. 

 

She slowly pushed the button to start the car and asked, “Do you trust me?”

 

Helen was tempted to answer with my heart, but settled for, “Absolutely, what do you have in mind?”

 

“Do you like surprises?” queried Nikki, eyes now shining in excitement.

 

“Depends.”

 

“I guess that brings us back to trust,” quipped Nikki with an impish grin. 

 

Helen smiled indulgently at Nikki.  “What should I bring and what should I wear?”

 

“Bring only yourself, a swim costume, sandals, shorts, t-shirt,  a long sleeve shirt, some long socks, and maybe something a little nicer for dinner, just in case.”

 

Helen’s eyes grew wide as Nikki ticked off her list.  “What on earth!  We only have one day.”

 

“I think that it’s time that you experience all the things you’re supposed to do when you visit California…” began Nikki.  “…or at least a few of them.  I’ll save wine tasting and Big Sur as ways to lure you back.”

 

Helen smiled affectionately at Nikki and leaned over to gently kiss her cheek and nuzzle her neck while she drove.  “I don’t need anything more than this to bring me back to California.

 

---

 

Part 30

 

“If you scream ‘Yahoo!’ as soon as get movin’ you’ll feel like a badass no matter what!” exclaimed Jordon enthusiastically.

 

Sitting atop a surf board floating beyond the break, Helen rolled her eyes.  “Is that so?”

 

“Sure! You could always try ‘whee,’ but I’m not sure it’d work as well,” replied Jordan with an impish grin.

 

With a smirk, Helen cast a glance to the figure floating to her left.  “Nikki, you thought it’d be a good idea to have Jordan teach me to surf, why?”  Despite the attempt at sarcasm, the smile pulling at the corners of her mouth made Helen’s good mood obvious.

 

Nikki grinned.  “He is someone who has given surf lessons professionally,” she began thinking of Jordan’s job as a surf instructor before joining her team. “Plus if you hated it, I’d rather you were mad at him.”

 

“You’re all charm boss!”  called Jordan with a laugh.

 

“Hey!  You’re doing this instead of working in the yard.  Want me to send you to work?”

 

“No, no, I’m good.” 

 

Helen waited for the exchange to end before turning to face Nikki.  She raised an eyebrow at Nikki asking, “You do realize that by taking the coward’s route on surf lessons means that if I like surfing Jordan gets all the credit?”

 

“Nope!” declared Nikki with a smug grin. “I thought it up, so I get credit if you like it.  If you hate it, it’s because scruffy here is a bad teacher!”  Nikki turned with a laugh when Jordan splashed her in protest. She than looked back to Helen and confessed, “I was more worried about the cold water and early morning.”

 

“Well,” began Helen playfully tapping her chin.  “I think breakfast in bed softened the blow of waking…”

 

“…up at the ass crack of dawn!” interjected Jordan.  “You aren’t the only one she hauled out of bed this morning.”

 

“True.  I’m still making my mind up about…“  Helen paused and looked at Nikki with the furrowed brow. “What was that again?”

 

No amount of teasing could wipe the smile off Nikki’s face. “Huevos rancheros!”  she replied gleefully.  “It’s hearty. It’ll keep you warm.”

 

Helen begin to chuckle at Nikki’s excitement, but continued to press her point.  “Isn’t this wetsuit you had me squeeze myself into supposed to take care of the warm part?”

 

“It does, from the outside. The breakfast works from the inside,” Nikki replied logically.

 

Laughing at Nikki’s unsinkable good humor, Helen threw her head back so quickly that she nearly flipped off her board.

 

“Watch it there, short stuff!” called Jordan.

 

“Oi! Short? It’s you who’d better watch it mister, I know your boss!”

 

Nikki watched the exchange with an affectionate smile on her face.  She was treating the day as her last chance to share all the things made her adopted home special to her.  While she’d never put words to the intention, the day was also a way for Nikki to share more of herself.  It was as if Nikki hoped that by bringing Helen along with her to enjoy the things that made her feel most alive, Helen would be able to see Nikki in a way the tall brunette didn’t know how to verbalize.

 

By midmorning, Helen had successfully reached her feet enough times on her foam, learner’s board that she felt she could honestly say she had been surfing.  She also finally convinced Nikki to abandon her self-appointed roll of cheerleader to catch a few waves.  Helen watched from the shore and decided that watching Nikki was almost as exhilarating as the feeling of catching her own wave. 

 

Nikki walked from the water carrying her board, a smile splitting her face.  She felt fantastic.  Surfing always provided an adrenaline rush.  With an impulsive whoop, she set her board on the sand and ran full speed up to Helen, picking her up, swinging her around, and pulling her into an enthusiastic kiss that quickly settled into something deeper.  As Helen pulled back and ran her hands through Nikki’s wet hair.  “Mmm… maybe you should surf more often if it inspires that.”

 

Nikki smiled kissing Helen on the nose. “Your day has only begun.”

 

With a smile, Helen promptly turned towards the cars and began unzipping her wet suit.

 

“Hold up, Helen.  I’m going to have Jordan drop Blu back at my house for me,” called Nikki to Helen’s retreating back.

 

Helen stopped and nodded as Nikki turned in search of Jordan.  Helen had learned that Nikki named what she called her ‘toys’.  In addition to Sprout, the car, Nikki had Blu, a custom surf board she’d had made with a gorgeous strip of silk under the finish with an intricate navy blue pattern that ran the length.  Nikki had mentioned with a smirk that Sprout and Blu weren’t the only women in had taken up residence in her house, but Helen had yet to be introduced. 

 

Nikki returned to lead Helen to the shower and changing area on the beach to rinse off and change clothes. 

 

Helen glanced skeptically down at her attire and shook her damp hair.  “Are you sure?”

 

“About?”

 

Helen gazed at Nikki.  She was wearing a pair of loose board shorts and a t-shirt with wet, messy hair, no make-up, and a carefree grin.  She looked free and happy.  Helen took a moment to savor the image and keep it for memory.  In that moment, it captured everything about California that was coming to feel like home.

 

Helen’s thoughts were interrupted by the questioning look on Nikki’s face.

 

Suddenly, Helen’s insecurities suddenly seemed irrelevant.  Why not spend the day in comfortable clothes and drip-dry hair?   “Nothing, Nikki, nothing at all.  Where to now?

 

Nikki let out another laugh and held out her hand.  “What would a visit to California be without a trip down the coast in a convertible?”

 

Helen grinned.  “It’s a good thing I know a woman with a convertible.”

 

---

 

Helen and Nikki stood next to Sprout in a small parking area above the beach after a two-hour drive down the coast.  Helen was still grinning from the sights of the Santa Monica Mountains, the coastal cliffs with waves crashing at the base, and a trip through Malibu.

 

“Look up and close your eyes,” instructed Nikki.

 

Helen tilted her head towards Nikki and closed her eyes.  A tender kiss was pressed to her lips.  As soon as the kiss ended, Nikki’s sunscreen-covered hands pressed into her face.

 

“More?” yelped Helen in surprise.

 

“You think the morning layer is still there?” queried Nikki as if speaking to a child.  “I can’t have you going back to London red as tomato,” finished Nikki, tapping Helen on the nose. 

 

Nikki took Helen’s hand and led her towards the water.  Helen eyes widened in disbelief.  “Now I know where they take all the pictures for California postcards,” she muttered.  Helen couldn’t help the feeling that she was living a fantasy.

 

Nikki looked up at the beach with lifeguard towers that seemed straight out of an old TV show and the amusement park on the pier.  “I guess you’re right.  If I were choosing spots to put on a post card, Santa Monica would be a top choice.”

 

The pair continued to walk on, Nikki allowing Helen to simply absorb the scene.  As they neared a set of small shacks arranged on the paved walkway along the beach, Nikki squeezed her hand and playfully asked, “Two rows or one?”

 

The question shook Helen from her silent musings.  She just grinned and shook her head.  “What do you have in store for me now, Ms. Wade?”

 

“I’m wondering how you like your wheels,” countered Nikki in mock seriousness.

 

“Wheels?”

 

“On your feet.”

 

“Feet?”

 

Nikki could feel her composure starting to break and a silly grin begin to take over her features.

 

Realization hit Helen.  “You want me to rollerblade?”

 

Smiling broadly, Nikki reasonably countered, “Or rollerskate.”

 

“People still do that?”

 

“They’re making quite the comeback, haven’t you heard?”

 

“Uh… no.”

 

“Oh come on Helen, you did rollerskate when you were young.”

 

“Of course… and I do have rollerblades back in London.”

 

“Well, which is it?”

 

Helen seemed to ponder her choices for a moment and then broke out in a child-like grin. “Rollerskates!  Two rows, please.”

 

“You’re on!” Nikki grabbed Helen’s hand pulling her towards the small shed whose sign proclaimed ‘Skate Rental’.

 

Helen and Nikki soon found themselves skating along the beach trail hand-in-hand at a casual pace.  Helen had given up on trying to separate all elements that were slowly turning her day into one of the best in memory.  As soon as she tried to dedicate the attention she felt each deserved, she realized she was neglecting the others.  How could you do it?  The sun on her skin, the waves in the distance, the beach life, kites, lifeguard posts, amusement park on the pier, buskers performing along the path, and it all seemed amplified because she was with Nikki.

 

As they slowly made their way down the paved beach trail, Nikki gripped Helen’s hand and steadily began to increase her speed.  Soon they were winding around pedestrians and dodging baby carriages as if it were an obstacle course. 

 

“Nikki!  We shouldn’t be doing this! Other people using the path!” exclaimed Helen worriedly trying not to let on she was finding herself enjoying the thrill of trying to follow Nikki.

 

Nikki turned to look at her and flashed a cocky grin. “Just smile and apologize. You’ll be forgiven.”

 

Helen pulled up next to Nikki as she began to coast.  She tilted her head looking at Nikki, puzzled. “Forgiven?”

 

Nikki nodded confidently. “Accent.”

 

“Accent?”

 

“Yep.  First, everyone will assume you’re a tourist, which means you get the benefit of the doubt.  We drive on the wrong side of the road in their eyes after all. Second, if my staff hasn’t already tipped you off, Americans LOVE our accents, yours especially.  You could get an unlimited supply of drinks here, even without your looks.”

 

Helen raised a skeptical eyebrow at Nikki.  “Something tells me you’ve thoroughly tested this little theory of yours.”

 

Nikki’s only response was a waggle of her eyebrows and a devious grin.  Helen began laughing, enjoying Nikki’s playful mood. 

 

As they neared Venice beach, the two had slowed their speed and were again rolling along hand in hand.  Helen’s head seemed to be on a swivel.  She couldn’t believe the shift in setting in just a short distance.  She took in the vendors wide-eyed, gaped at the weight lifters, and shook her head at Nikki in wonder.  Nikki found herself re-experiencing the sights for the first time watching Helen take them in.  What surprised Nikki was watching Helen’s look go from curiosity to something decidedly more predatory. 

 

“Other than my dubious dating record, do you know the other thing I’m know for when working abroad?” asked Helen with a gleam in her eye.

 

“Nooo…” answered Nikki hesitantly before adding, “I think I’d like to hear more about this dubious dating record though.”

 

“I’ll save that for later,” smirked Helen.  She quickly continued on undeterred.  “My other talent, is that I’m the best at shopping… THE BEST.”

 

Nikki, startled by the turn in conversation, asked, “and Venice Beach reminds you of this?”

 

“Umm hmmm,” grinned Helen.

 

“Really?” squeaked Nikki, now frightened.

 

Helen tapped her chin playfully, “I realized that this is just like any other open air market.  And I have a particular talent for finding a good deal.”

 

“You enjoy bargaining, don’t you?”

 

Helen flashed a wolfish grin at Nikki and sped off.  Nikki caught up to watch Helen argue over the price of what she thought might be the ugliest statue she’d ever seen.  Nikki tried to subtly clear her throat to get Helen’s attention.  This earned her a swat to the stomach from Helen and stern glare from the merchant.

 

---

 

“Feeling a little peckish?” asked Nikki, trying not to think about the ‘souvenirs’ nestled in the bag now clutched in her hand.  They had returned to Santa Monica and turned in their skates.  Nikki now just wanted to savor the early evening on the beach.

 

“Sure.”  Helen looked at Nikki with a grin.  “Something tells me that you have someplace in mind.”

 

“I may…” began Nikki with a smile.

 

“Lead the way, Wade.”

 

“How about I leave you here with your ‘treasures’ and I’ll gather the food?”

 

Helen eyed the people swinging on the various ropes and gymnastics apparatus on the beach and pointed to low stone wall nearby, with a bright smile she happily answered, “I’ll wait for you there.”

 

Enjoying Helen’s exuberance, Nikki winked, “Well, I won’t worry about you being bored in that case.”  She quickly left. 

 

When Nikki had returned, she found Helen still enjoying the spectacle.  She walked up behind Helen, draping her arms over her shoulders and rested her cheek against her hair.   The two stood in silence enjoying the moment.  A DJ had set up at the edge of path providing a soundtrack for the evening.  The sun slipped down the sky, turning the backdrop a golden orange, and served to silhouette the athletes on the beach. Between the music, the cooling night air, gorgeous sunset, and the community of strangers sharing in evening enjoyment, the moment felt near perfect.

 

As the sun slipped slowly from sight, Nikki gave Helen a squeeze and stepped back.  She unzipped the backpack and reached for a light jacket for Helen and laid it over her shoulders.  “How about something to eat?”

 

Helen looked up at Nikki, eyes shining.  “Thank you for today,” she breathed, as she wrapped her arms around Nikki and pulled her into a slow, heartfelt kiss. 

 

As the kiss ended, Nikki rest her forehead against Helen’s and willed herself to not utter the words I am going to miss you.  Instead she swallowed her sadness and smiled affectionately at Helen.  “I’m going to treasure this day for some time.” 

 

Nikki led Helen to a soft spot in the sand lit by a combination of the flashing lights from the amusement park on the pier and the tea lights decorating the balconies of the beachside hotels.  She pulled a blanket from her backpack, spread it out, and placed a small stone at each corner.  “Take a seat, beautiful.”

 

Helen settled on the blanket and realized that it was the perfect bookend to a day that began with surfing.  Dinner on the beach just fit, more than any restaurant would have.  They had privacy, but still got to share in the vibrancy of the beach in the evening.  Nikki retrieved two wine glasses and served white wine.

 

“Nikki!  Where have you been hiding this?” exclaimed Helen.

 

“Just you watch, I’m full of surprises,” teased Nikki.  “I do have to warn you that the wine is the highlight for now.  We’re really having a snack as opposed to dinner.  I’ve got some brie and a fresh loaf of bread to go with the wine.  I know I asked you to bring nicer clothes for dinner, but I think I’d rather be a little less formal tonight.”

 

Helen smiled affectionately at Nikki.  “It’s perfect.”

 

Nikki scooted next to Helen and put her arm over her shoulder.  She nudged gently letting Helen know that she too was feeling the perfection of the moment.  After silently sipping their wine and enjoying the sounds around them, she continued, “Well, I wanted to have a moment of quite to savor the day before we go get dessert,”

 

Helen’s eyes widened and a grin bloomed on her face.  “Dessert?”

 

Nikki sipped her wine trying to keep the smile off her face. “Mmmm hmmm. Dessert.”

 

Helen and Nikki lingered on the blanket for another half hour before packing up.  Soon they found themselves slowly wandering down the pier. 

 

“We have to make Claire proud and ride the ferris wheel. Then we need funnel cakes,” stated Nikki with certainty.

 

“Claire would be proud?”

 

“Absolutely, the whole thing is solar powered, even all the crazy lights!” grinned Nikki.

 

“And funnel cakes?”

 

“Fried, sugary things always taste good!” declared Nikki.

 

Helen again found herself laughing.

 

---

 

Helen sat back in the seat of the car and closed her eyes letting the cool, night air float over her.  She had been on an emotional high all day. Her face hurt from smiling and now her body seemed to eagerly embrace the chance to relax.  Helen reached over to rest her hand on Nikki’s seat and gently ran her fingers through the curls at the base of her neck.  The journey home was spent in comfortable silence, both women content to savor the memories of the day.

 

Helen was shaken from her relaxed state by the sound of Sprout’s tires on the gravel outside Nikki’s house.  “We’re home,” said Nikki, softly breaking the silence.

 

Helen offered up a sleepy smile at Nikki as she opened the door to get out of the car.  She waited for Nikki to unlock the door to the house.  Once it was unlocked, Helen took Nikki’s hand and led her through the house and out the door to the back porch.  Puzzled, Nikki pulled on their joined hands, stopping their progress.

 

Helen looked up at Nikki’s questioning gaze.  “Nikki, I want my last night to be in the cottage… with you.  That space was a salvation to me and you kindly allowed me to make it my own for the last six weeks.  But you are as much a part of me being able to regain my footing as that little cottage,” explained Helen, quietly squeezing her hand.  She wasn’t sure if she had really explained herself, but hoped that Nikki would understand.

 

Nikki’s gaze softened.  She nodded silently indicating that she realized Helen’s invitation was something far more intimate than simply a change of venue.  Helen then continued their trek across the garden to the cottage, still hanging on to Nikki’s hand. 

 

Nikki obediently followed Helen to the cottage. As they passed through the bedroom door, Nikki again gently pulled on Helen’s hand to stop her.  She stepped past Helen and then turned back to face her.  Nikki gently ran her fingers over the soft planes of Helens face, brushing her hair back.  She let her fingers sink into her hair, glide slowly down her neck, and come to rest on her shoulders.  She leaned in resting her lips on her forehead before stepping back and leading Helen toward the bed by her shoulders. 

 

Helen moved to sit on the bed only to be held in place by Nikki.  Nikki met her eyes trying to communicate all that she was feeling, but did not speak.  Helen’s breath caught in her throat when she observed the intensity of Nikki’s gaze. 

 

With a tender touch, Nikki began again to trace the features of Helen’s face as if memorizing them.  As Nikki let her hands glide down Helens back she softly rested her forehead against Helen’s whispering, “Please let me…” 

 

Helen looked up into Nikki’s face as her hands came to rest on hips.  The gentle ascent of Nikki’s hands that brought Helen’s top with them made clear what Nikki was asking.  Helen indicated her acceptance with a loving tilt of her head and a soft curve of her lips.  Nikki removed Helen’s clothing with painstaking care, her hands, hair, and lips whispering over Helen’s skin, leaving no part of her untouched.

 

By the time, Nikki had lowered Helen’s shorts and undergarments to the floor Helen was shaking.  Between the arousal threatening to overwhelm her and the internal battle she fought to stay still, resisting even running her fingers through Nikki’s hair, Helen felt ready to explode.  What kept her desires in check was the realization that this was part of Nikki saying goodbye, trying to communicate something she hadn’t found words to express.  In fact, Helen now recognized the whole day had been carefully planned to achieve the same result.

 

Nikki rose to standing dragging her hands from the back of Helen’s ankles, over her thighs, the curves of her hips, breasts, and came to rest around her cheeks.  She bent down and delivered a gentle kiss that felt almost reverent.  She then stepped back and slowly removed her own clothing, pleased that she still had the dexterity to do so..  Soon they were both standing naked in front of one another.

 

When Nikki returned her gaze to Helen, Helen placed her palm on Nikki’s hip, pulling her close.  As she wrapped her arms around her back, both women released a sigh of pleasure as they met skin to skin. 

 

Nikki had treasured the intimacy she had established with Helen partly because of the comfort that offered both women the freedom to talk, laugh, and explore.  It was as if they had created a space that allowed them both to safely express all they felt without fear of any reaction other than unquestioned acceptance.  While Nikki loved the fact that the physical expression of their feelings could be silly, fun, and passionate, she did not desire that tonight.  She wanted to pour out her soul in an attempt to physically express all that she was feeling.

 

Somehow Helen knew.  She could feel the need not just for physical release from Nikki, but also for emotional expression.  She pulled Nikki into a slow, deep kiss to communicate her understanding and willingly submitted to follow wherever Nikki led their farewell dance.

 

---

 

Part 31

 

“If you’re not decent, you’ve got five minutes to get that way before I take matters into my own hands!” called Claire as she strode into the cottage.

 

Claire’s assumption about their current state of dress was correct; neither woman was clothed nor well slept. Still wrapped in each other’s arms and trapped in a tangle of bed linens, Helen and Nikki gazed softly at each other.  In that look, they silently acknowledged what had been shared.

 

Hearing impatient shuffling in the kitchen, Nikki pressed her lips to Helen’s whispering, “I’ll go greet blondie out there.”

 

From Claire’s perspective, the only response was shuffling of blankets and a loud thump.  Claire’s eyebrows rose and a smirk pulled at her lips as she waited. “You’re down to 30 seconds!”

 

This threat seemed to prompt a bit more response as a decidedly disheveled Nikki Wade slowly made her way into the front room of the cottage.  “Christ Claire, take it easy,” began Nikki, now leaning against the counter in the small kitchen. 

 

“I have already searched your house to find out that you two didn’t stay there to shag.  Where’s Helen?” demanded Claire.

 

Nikki simply raised her eyebrows at Claire.

 

“G’morning, Nikki,” smirked Claire.

 

“Need you be so loud?”

 

“You have robbed me of an hour of my time with Helen, AND you hogged all her time yesterday!” declared Claire with a pout. 

 

Nikki felt a smile spread over her face.  She walked to Claire and wrapped her arm around her shoulders, giving her a squeeze.  “You’ll get your friend back in a few minutes.”

 

The two women stood silently arm-in-arm.  Nikki exhaled and turned to rest her head on Claire’s.  “What are we going to do after she’s gone?”

 

Claire pulled Nikki into a tight embrace and whispered, “You never know.  I think what has begun between you two may demand attention regardless of distance.”

 

Feeling Nikki nod in agreement, Claire kept holding her.  Helen looked on from the hallway.  Sad to be causing Nikki pain, but not wanting her last few hours spent wallowing in sadness, she spoke up. “Walker! Don’t you think I’ve had enough troubles in my love life without you moving in on one of the best I’ve ever found?”

 

A laugh bubbled up from Claire.  “I’ll agree that she’s one of the best, Helen, but you know that’s not a very high bar.”

 

Feigning offense, Helen replied. “I can’t help that I’m an optimist.”

 

“That’s putting it mildly, Helen,” countered Claire with an eyebrow cocked.

 

Nikki understood what Helen was doing and found herself grateful for the playful banter. “Hello?  I’m right here you two,” she began.  “How is it that you both called me ‘one of the best’ and not ‘the best’?” she asked looking at Helen and then turned to Claire, “You’re allowed because you’re biased and I don’t even think I measure up to your better half, but he’s the only one I’d allow.”

 

Claire shoved Nikki with her hip.  “Aren’t you modest?”

 

Helen had left her perch in the hallway to approach Nikki.  She ran her hands from Nikki’s hips, over her breasts, to cup her face.  She pulled her down for a gentle kiss, whispering, “You should know that you’ve been climbing the list since we met.”

 

Nikki pulled Helen to her and buried her face in her hair.  “You let me to the top of that list and I’m never leaving.”

 

Helen tightened her arms. “I’m counting on it.”

 

Watching the interaction, Claire cleared her throat.  “All right you two, break it up.  I do not want you disappearing back down the hall.”

 

Helen stepped back from Nikki with a soft smile on her face. “Where shall we go, Walker?”

 

“Well it seems you need some breakfast,” began Claire with a twinkle in her eye.  “How about a mid-morning picnic brunch?”

 

“Sounds great, Claire,” replied Helen softly.

 

Claire and Helen turned toward Nikki, who was now shifting awkwardly from foot to foot, staring at the floor.  Noting their silence, Nikki looked up.  “Don’t feel bad.  You two go and enjoy some time together.  You rarely see each other.”

 

Helen thought Nikki looked adorable in her wrinkled shorts from the day before and t-shirt.  She walked to Nikki, pressing a lingering kiss to her lips. “I’m going to go get dressed.”

 

As Helen walked back toward the bedroom, Nikki walked to the couch and flopped down with a long sigh.  Knowing how hard Nikki was trying to put up a strong front, Claire bit back her sarcastic remark about her private pity party.  She wordlessly walked over to Nikki giving her shoulder a squeeze before heading to the kitchen.  “Want some coffee, Nik?  It’s going to take Stewart a bit to get herself presentable.”

 

“Sure, Claire.  That’d be great.”  Nikki looked over at her friend and softly called, “Thanks.”

 

Claire smiled at her knowing that she was being thanked for more than supplying caffeine.  Claire finished preparing coffee and set the pot down on the low table by the couch near Nikki.  “How shall we handle taking Helen to the airport today?”

 

Nikki took a long, shaky breath.  “I think you should take her following your brunch.”

 

“Really? Don’t you want to be there as she leaves?”

 

“I don’t think I can do it,” mumbled Nikki, staring at her hands. “I think I’d rather just savor our day yesterday and try to establish something by phone when she gets back to London.  Prolonging the goodbye seems…”  Nikki trailed off and turned pleading eyes to Claire.

 

“Oh Nik, are you sure?” asked Claire, only now realizing how hard Nikki was taking Helen’s departure.

 

“Yeah, I think so,” whispered Nikki.

 

“Is she packed?” asked Claire hesitantly.

 

“I’m pretty sure that what little she’s got is pulled together.”

 

“I’m going to go back there and check so that she knows to bring her luggage with her,” stated Claire as began to get up.

 

Nikki reached out to stop Claire, resting her hand on her leg.  “Let me.”  Nikki rose to her feet and walked toward the back of the cottage.

 

Nikki peaked around the bedroom door. “Hiya, beautiful,” she called gently.

 

Helen was standing in the center of the room tucking in her shirt.  She quickly turned to Nikki with a soft smile on the face. “Hiya, Nikki, are you going to come with us after all?”

 

Nikki tried to ignore the hope in Helen’s voice.  “No, I think you and Claire deserve some time together.”  Nikki paused having a hard time speaking about Helen’s imminent departure.  She realized she was afraid of her response.  What if she was excited to go home?  Nikki shuffled her feet awkwardly.  “I wanted to make sure that you grabbed your luggage.  That way if brunch goes long, you can go straight to the airport.”

 

Helen stopped moving and just stared at Nikki.  She had assumed that Nikki would take her to the airport.  “You’re not going to take me?” she breathed.

 

Nikki sagged against the door.  She met Helen’s gaze and tried to find the words to explain.  “Too hard,” she mumbled.

 

The two women stared at each other in silence.  “C’mere Helen,” asked Nikki gently opening her arms.

 

Helen willingly stepped into the embrace and held on.  Nikki felt her eyes begin to water and tried to find the words to express the mix of emotions flooding her senses.  After a few minutes, Nikki finally whispered, “I’m going to say goodbye here.”

 

Helen pulled back without letting go to look questioningly into Nikki’s eyes. “Why, Nikki?”

 

Noting that Helen was similarly glassy eyed, Nikki had to look away to keep her emotions in check. “I don’t want to see you leave.”  Saying the words out loud just made Nikki feel childish.  She sheepishly continued to explain, “I don’t do well with emotional goodbyes.  As silly as it sounds, I’d rather think of you going off to eat with Claire.  I want to remember you here in the cottage, sitting on a surfboard, and out with friends here in California.  I don’t want to have the vision of you carting you luggage through an airport burned into my brain.”

 

Helen felt tears start to cloud her vision as a smile pulled at her lips during Nikki’s awkward explanation.  She cupped her cheek, bringing her face so that she could see her.  She observed that Nikki too was near tears.  Helen brushed her thumb gently across her cheek and whispered with a soft, watery smile, “Do these head games you play with yourself really work?”

 

Nikki felt a smile pull at her lips.  She appreciated the soft humor.  “Hoping.”

 

Helen wrapper her arm around Nikki’s waist and laid her head on her shoulder.  “So I’m going out for a really long lunch in Santa Barbara?” she asked, her voice muffled against Nikki.

 

“Mmmm hmmmm, a really long one,” agreed Nikki softly, her cheek resting on Helen’s head.  Nikki took a final deep breath and whispered, “I just hope you come back here once you’re done.”

 

Helen’s heart soared and quickly plummeted.  She wanted to come back, wanted to be with Nikki, but couldn’t see a way for it to realistically happen.  Helen tightened her grip around Nikki and tucked her face into Nikki’s neck. 

 

Nikki buried her face in Helen’s hair and gasped, “Oh god, I’m going to miss you.”

 

Helen pulled back once again to hold Nikki’s eyes with a look of determination. “We’ll figure this out.”  Threading her hands through Nikki’s hair, Helen whispered, “I’m not letting this go.  I just found you.”  She pressed a kiss to Nikki’s lips and took a step toward the door. She held on to Nikki’s hand as she picked up her bag and finally felt their fingers part as she stepped toward the door.

 

“Goodbye”

 

“Bye, beautiful,” was the whispered reply that was swallowed by the empty doorway.

 

---

 

Helen walked slowly to the front of the cottage trying to gather her composure.  Claire saw her coming, walked over to wrap her arm around Helen’s shoulder and led her out of the cottage and through the garden to the car.

 

Recognizing the strain on Helen’s face, Claire let her sit in silence the whole drive to the park and while she gathered a blanket and basket.  After sitting the grass and handing Helen a cup of coffee from a thermos, Claire finally spoke. 

 

“Are you doing alright there, Stewart?” she asked, gently nudging her shoulder with her own.

 

Helen swallowed and attempted a small smile. “I don’t know, Claire.  I just don’t know.”

 

“Oh sweetheart, you hang in there.  I know you’re hurting, but I really do think you’re doing the right thing.”

 

“Am I?” pleaded Helen helplessly.  “I’m been waiting my whole life to find someone with whom I fit so well and now I’m running away.”

 

“Is that what you see yourself as doing?  Running away?” questioned Claire.

 

“No,” signed Helen.  “I realize that’s what I did when I left London, but I’m having a hard time justifying leaving California right now.  It feels as though there’s more for me here than what waits for me back in London.”

 

“You can come back, you know,” pointed out Claire softly.

 

“Why can’t you just tell me leaving is the right thing?” begged Helen.

 

Claire paused and looked sadly at Helen.  “Because I just don’t know, Helen.  I understand you having to go back. Whether you end up here or in London in the long run, you’ve got to go back.”

 

“But?” interrupted Helen.

 

“Helen, I adore and worry about Nikki.  I don’t think you realize the extent to which you’ve captured her heart.”

 

“Don’t you know it’s mutual?” replied Helen forcefully.

 

“Is it?” countered Claire.

 

Helen’s tone immediately softened. “Claire, you have no idea.  I know she’s flawed, but so am I and I’ve never wanted to just be around someone like I do her.” Helen paused frustrated.  “I can’t put it into words, Claire, they all feel completely inadequate.”

 

“Do you love her?” asked Claire bluntly.

 

Helen stared intently at Claire, not expecting the question.  She finally whispered, “I think I do, Claire.”

 

Both women remained quiet for several moments.  Helen lost in thought and Claire deciding to let Helen’s admission sink in.

 

Helen finally let out a long sigh, “What am I doing?  I can only say ‘I think’ I love her because I’ve been an emotional mess for the last few months.  How can I trust anything I feel?  I only spoke to Nikki on the phone for the first time mere months ago and even then I was enough of a disaster to let a stranger comfort me.”

 

Claire broke in noting that Helen was beginning to spiral into panic.  “You need to patient with yourself, Helen,” she began gently.  “You have to go back to London either to reclaim your life there or to wrap it up properly so you can truly come back to stay.”

 

Helen appeared to slowly deflate.  “I know you’re right, Claire, but I can’t help but fear that all I have here will go away if I leave.”

 

“I think you’re underestimating the impact you’ve had on Nikki.  I doubt she’ll forget you anytime soon,” chided Claire with a smile.

 

“You never know.  I can’t imagine she lacks options,” responded Helen despondently.

 

Claire began to lightly chuckle.  “No she doesn’t lack interested parties, but Helen you’re the first to catch her interest in years.  You know that.”  Claire paused a moment and then asked, “Have you at least told her how you feel?”

 

“Yes!” responded Helen defensively.  At the raised eyebrows from Claire, she continued, “Maybe… I’m sure she knows,” finished Helen weakly. 

 

“Oh geez, Helen.”  Claire was now exasperated.  “You can’t assume things like that, especially not with Wade.  She may appear confident, but in things like this everyone is insecure, particularly Nikki.”

 

“What am I supposed to say Claire?  ‘In my emotionally unbalanced state, I think I might have fallen in love with you. Oh and by the way I’m leaving to deal with the mess that is my life back in London?’  I’m sure that will go over well,” countered Helen sarcasm lacing her words.

 

Claire smirked.  “I’m not sure Nikki would hear more than the ‘love’ part in all of that, Stewart, though I do see your point.”

 

“Okay, how about this?  I’ll talk with her once I have my own life back in order.”

 

“Helen, this isn’t buying a house where you have to wait until all your ducks are in a row.  Just be honest.”

 

“It’s not as if Nikki is an open book in the matter,” replied Helen.

 

“I see. You’ll only put your heart on the line if someone else does first.  You know that’s cowardly and really quite sad, don’t you?”

 

“Yes,” pouted Helen, now childishly sticking out her lower lip. 

 

“Helen, I love you,” laughed Claire throwing her arm around her.  “I love both of you and want you to figure it all out.  You two are the most foolishly stubborn people I know.  Tell her if it feels honest and be patient with things.  I think they’ll work out in the end… somehow.”

 

Helen exhaled, grateful that Claire was going to drop the subject.

 

“Do you have a plan for your return to London?” asked Claire, choosing a safer topic.

 

Helen let out an exasperated sigh.  “I’ll visit my flat first to see which plants are dead and to sleep.  Then I’ll likely call work and eventually seek out food to fill the fridge.” Helen paused.  “It’s all pretty mundane, isn’t it?”

 

Claire smiled in agreement.

 

“I think I’ll give myself a day or two before really dealing with the hard stuff.”

 

“Hard stuff?” questioned Claire.

 

“Everyone and everything I just abandoned with I left.”

 

Claire winced.  “Will it be tough?”

 

“Some of it,” began Helen.  “There are some people that don’t know why I left and deserve to know more than ‘I left for personal reasons’. A few of those conversations will be tough.”

 

“Are you ready for that?”

 

Helen’s gaze scanned the park surrounding them and she reached for one of the sweet rolls Claire had packed.  “Yeah, I think I am.  I can’t thank you and Cory enough for providing both the physical and mental space to get to this point.  You two really are an amazing safety net.  I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

 

“Always,” answered Claire squeezing Helen’s hand.  “I think there are few more folks that you can consider part of that net in Corbin, Tom, and Nikki.”

 

“I’m realizing that and feel really lucky.”

 

Claire smiled at Helen and glanced down at her watch.  “We should probably get going if you’re going to make your flight.”  Claire began packing up the basket and turned to Helen. “Cory has this saying that seems really fitting right now.”

 

Helen looked at Claire skeptically.

 

Claire grinned, “Sometimes doing the right thing SUCKS!”

 

This got a chuckle from Helen, which was Claire’s intent. “I wish you two had kids so that Cory could hear some of those sayings coming back at him.”

 

“That’s what Nikki is for,” replied Claire easily.

 

“Nikki is going to have your kids?”

 

“God no!” replied Claire scandalized.  “Nikki seems to pick up Cory’s speech patterns with alarming regularity.  We both are frequently subjected to hearing his favorite sayings come out her mouth.”

 

Helen cocked her head at Claire trying to imagine Cory’s language coming from Nikki.

 

“It’s just as disorienting as it sounds,” confirmed Claire, throwing her arm over Helen’s shoulder as they walked to car.  She gave her a final squeeze, “Well, let’s go get Cory and get you to the airport.”

 

Helen nodded silently.

 

---

 

 

Part 32

 

Nikki sipped her coffee in the cottage and stared sightlessly out the window for over an hour after Claire and Helen had left.  She felt as though a void was growing inside her with each passing minute.  While she didn’t regret a moment of her time with Helen, she feared that the prospect of a future without her could prove overwhelming. 

 

Will phone calls be enough to make this last?  Is that something Helen even desires?

 

Nikki immediately forced herself off the couch at this thought.  It had been barely an hour and her insecurities had already surfaced.  She was aware of her penchant for self-doubt. Get it together Wade. Helen deserves your trust!  With this thought fixed firmly in her mind, she moved to leave.  She briefly considered stripping the bed and cleaning up the cottage, but decided she could not bring herself to erase the evidence of Helen’s stay just yet.  Instead she headed across the garden to her house.  It was a setting where she had always been alone. 

 

Nikki busied herself with mindless chores for several hours in an effort to distract herself from thoughts of the absent Scot.  While it worked to some degree, Nikki quickly learned that her house was also marked Helen: the living room where Helen had tended to her toe; the kitchen where they had first admitted their feelings; her bedroom… Nikki sighed and acknowledged defeat.  There was no way that she could escape the memories.  Nikki could imagine Claire asking her if she really wanted to escape them.   Perhaps memories should be treasured rather than avoided, even if doing so was bittersweet.

 

Nikki heard footsteps followed by the door being flung open and Claire and Cory entering the house. 

 

Seeing her friends, concern etched on their faces, brought a sad smile to Nikki’s face.  “Do you two know how to knock?” she asked, only partially succeeding in her attempt at the teasing tone that most often characterized her interactions with the pair.

 

Cory stepped forward wrapping Nikki in a warm bear hug that lifted her off the ground.  “My mom forgot that lesson, Wade.  How are you doing?”

 

“Okay,” murmured Nikki. 

 

“Well that’s a good bit better than Helen.  She was wailing, tears pouring down her face at the airport today… such a pathetic scene,” replied Cory seriously. “What did you do to the girl, Wade?”

 

This got Nikki’s attention.  “She what?”

 

“Stop it, Cory,” scolded Claire.  “She may have been crying on the inside, but not outwardly.  Stiff upper lip and all that,” explained Claire with a roll of her eyes.  “She was not excited to be leaving, but was resigned to having to go.” 

 

Nikki nodded offering a smile to Cory for trying to joke with her and a look of gratitude at Claire.  Wanting to shift focus from herself, Nikki gestured toward the kitchen.  “Would either of you like something to drink or a snack?”

 

“Beer,” blurted Cory already feeling tired from the emotional toll of saying goodbye to Helen and witnessing Nikki trying to put up a brave front.

 

Claire rolled her eyes, ready to tease her husband, but decided perhaps he had the right idea.  “How about an afternoon cocktail?”  I think we can all use a drink.

 

Nikki retreated to the kitchen to make drinks, leaving Claire and Cory on her couch.  It provided a break for her to gather her thoughts.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be distracted or if that was even their intent.  Peeking in at her two friends, she saw them slumped against each other on her couch.  Nikki realized then that she may have misjudged her friends.  Perhaps, in addition to wanting to check on her, they just wanted to hang out with someone else who understood the emotions wrapped in Helen leaving.  Nikki smiled, grateful for the pair and went back to making the drinks.

 

Nikki returned carrying three stiff cocktails.  As they each took their glass, Claire raised hers, “Here’s to a great first half of the summer. I hope the second half can come close to matching it.”

 

Nikki nodded. “I hope Helen’s return to London goes well,” she added.

 

“Whatever it is that would qualify as going well,” contributed Cory voicing what all three were thinking.  They had no idea what a good outcome would be for Helen. 

 

They slowly sipped their drinks, silently taking comfort in the company of friends.

 

Nikki broke the silence, “Does Helen even know or have hopes for what waits for her back home?”

 

Claire looked up at Nikki, surprised at the question.  She knew that revealing the hope and vulnerability evident in Nikki’s voice had cost her.  “I don’t think she does, Nikki,” began Claire, gently.  “I think she is largely motivated by a sense of obligation after having left everything so suddenly.”

 

“Do you think there’s any chance she’ll come back?” asked Cory, saving Nikki from having to ask the question.

 

“I don’t know that either.  I think she’s ready for a change and burned out at her current job, but she’d have to have something drawing her to California that provides a viable alternative.”

 

Frustrated, Cory grunted, “You think just falling for Nikki would be enough.”

 

While the thought hurt, Nikki was touched by Cory’s loyalty.  “Thanks, big guy.  I think we all know that we’re past the point in our lives where you just drop everything and leave with only suitcase and hope.”

 

Cory sighed in resignation. “Getting old, sucks,” he stated with certainty.  “It’d be so much easier if we were barely 20 with no responsibilities.  I think we’d have all happily hopped a plane and moved at one point in our past.”

 

Claire and Nikki laughed fondly at Cory’s childish behavior.  Nikki then sobered, “Or some of us found other reasons.”

 

Claire looked closely at Nikki, wondering if she spoke indicating a desire to examine her own escape from London. It was a topic that Nikki had never discussed in detail with either of them instead saying something along the lines of realizing that there was nothing there for her anymore.  Nikki’s eyes widened under Claire’s scrutiny with the realization that she’d opened herself up to a question she didn’t want to answer.  Seeing panic in Nikki’s expression, Claire decided to save her.  “I, for one, decided to move because I wanted to dedicate my life to charity.”  Claire had a twinkle in her eye and held up her hand to stop Cory from interrupting. “I met this awkward bloke who could barely function in civil society without constant supervision,” she continued seriously, although her struggle to maintain a straight face was obvious.

 

Cory caught on to the joke and quickly pounced on his wife. “Supervise this!”

 

Squeals of laughter erupted from Claire under the onslaught of Cory tickling her.  Nikki chuckled at their antics, grateful for the distraction and change in topic.  She got up to collect everyone’s glasses.  “Refills?” she asked.  Claire and Cory both nodded their heads. 

 

Two hours later, all three were drunk.  Claire and Cory had called a taxi to take them home knowing they each needed to be at work the following day. 

 

“Thank you.” Nikki bid goodbye to her friends knowing that they understood how much was bound up in the simple words.

 

“Always. You take care,” replied Cory, as he and Claire walked toward the waiting taxi.

 

Nikki decided to embrace her alcohol-induced stupor and go to bed, knowing it was one of the few things that would allow her to sleep.  She clumsily made her way to the bedroom and collapsed on to the bed.

 

---

 

Nikki’s cell phone jarred her from sleep at 5:30 in the morning.  Her hand fumbled clumsily across the bedside table in search of the offending noise. 

 

“Hello?” Nikki mumbled into the phone as she unthinkingly answered.

 

“Nikki?  Oh shit, the time!  I’ve woken you,” lamented Helen, distress evident in her voice.  She had spent the 15 hours of travel thinking of Nikki and had arrived in London wanting to hear her voice. 

 

The sound of Helen’s voice quickly pulled Nikki from sleep.  She quickly sat up in bed, clutching the phone. 

 

“Helen, is that you?” she began, wanting to ease Helen’s distress. 

 

“Hiya, Nikki,” replied Helen softly.

 

Nikki felt her entire body respond to Helen’s voice.  It was a combination of comfort and longing.  “I’m so glad you called,” Nikki breathed in naked honesty.

 

Helen felt her heart swell at Nikki’s admission. “I just wanted to let you know I made it back,” began Helen unsure of what to say next.  She immediately began mentally berating herself for resorting to something so mundane rather than admit how badly she just wanted to hear her voice.

 

Nikki could hear nervousness in Helen’s voice and smiled at the fact that she also was unsure of this new dynamic to their relationship.  “I’m glad.”  Nikki too sought safer ground and didn’t’ really know where to go next with the conversation.  “Is Heathrow still the nightmare it was five years ago?”

 

“Worse,” came the immediate reply.  “At least I had little in terms of luggage, which saved me from having to deal with baggage claim.”

 

“Where are you now?  Have you made it home?” 

 

“I just made it in the door,” replied Helen, realizing after the words had left her mouth that she was admitting to calling Nikki as soon as she reached a place quiet enough to have a real conversation.

 

Helen’s admission brought a smile to Nikki’s face. She felt a small glimmer of hope blossom in her heart.  Maybe Helen wanted this as badly as she did.  “I hope you are heading for your kitchen to heat water for tea or prepare yourself a stiff drink.”

 

Helen was touched that Nikki was still looking out for her. “That’s a wonderful idea, Wade,” declared Helen with a laugh, grateful that their conversation seemed to be slowly finding its way past the awkward beginning.

 

“So what’ll be?  Tea or alcohol?”

 

Helen glanced in her cupboard realizing that while she didn’t have much, she did have alcohol.  “I’m going to have a drink.  I think laundry will be easier to tolerate with a drink, plus it may help me sleep.”

 

Nikki nodded and then smiled realizing that Helen could not see her, “That it will.  I can personally attest to that as I fell asleep last night with the help of a few cocktails.”

 

“Oh?”

 

Nikki was unsure as to whether or not she should reveal how down she had been after Helen left. “Claire and Cory came over as it seemed I needed looking after yesterday.”

 

Helen closed her eyes in wordless gratitude that Claire and Cory had been looking out for Nikki.  She also realized that she wasn’t ready to hear that Nikki was upset and decided to leave that question unasked. She felt guilty enough as it was. “Looking out for you by getting you drunk?” asked Helen with a smile in her voice.  “Are you still grateful for their friendship this morning?”

 

“At 5:30?” shot back Nikki, teasingly.

 

Helen had forgotten that she had been the one to wake Nikki. “I’m really sorry about that.  I should have thought.”

 

“Helen, it’s no problem.  My alarm was set to go off at six.  I’d much rather wake to your voice than the screeching of my alarm, or even the signal that the coffee is ready.”

 

Helen was unsure if Nikki was aware of what she was saying, but was flattered nonetheless.  “I’m glad.”

 

“I’m sure I’ll screw up the time change at some point and call you at some ungodly hour.  This just means that I get at least one freebie.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” remarked Helen dryly.  “What do you have planned for the day?”

 

Nikki stretched her arms over her head and thought about the day to come.  “I have to head into the office a bit today.  Following the tour, we have a whole slew of projects that are just starting.  That means I have lots of quality time with a drafting table.” Nikki realized that meant quiet time in the office, which suited her mood.  She didn’t think she would be able to join into the exuberant antics of her staff today.

 

“I hope it goes well,” offered Helen sincerely. 

 

“Me too,” replied Nikki.  “Do you have your drink?”

 

“Aye, I do,” answered Helen softly, realizing their conversation was winding down. “I’m standing the kitchen afraid that if I sit down I’ll never get up and my bag will not get unpacked.”

 

“All right, beautiful,” smiled Nikki.  “Make sure that you give yourself a relaxing bath after dealing with your luggage.  Sleep well.”

 

“Thank you.  It was really nice to hear your voice,” whispered Helen, finally giving voice to the whole reason for the call in the first place.

 

Nikki felt her heart swell at Helen’s farewell. “You too.”

 

---

 

Nikki got herself out of bed following Helen’s call, quickly showered, and readied herself for work.  She wanted a distraction and work provided the perfect opportunity.  By 7:00 Nikki was heading for the door, only to be stopped by the phone ringing again.  Thinking it could be Helen, Nikki stopped before exiting the house to answer.

 

“Hello?”

 

There was a long pause, only the sound of faint breathing could be heard.

 

“Hello?  Is someone there?” asked Nikki.

 

Quiet breathing was again the only response.  Nikki was about to hang up, but an elderly female voice with a Scottish accent spoke up stopping her.  “I’m looking for Helen Stewart.  Is she there?”

 

Nikki suspected she knew exactly who the caller was and felt anger gather so strongly that she had to take a deep breath simply to calm herself enough to speak. In a stiff, cold voice, she answered, “She’s not here.”

 

Her response was met with a moment of silence.  “I was told by that kind man that I could find her here,” stammered the caller. 

 

Nikki had no pity far the woman.  Making no effort to soften her voice, she responded. “Well, she’s not here.”

 

“Do you know how I can reach her?” pleaded the woman quietly.

 

“Why should I tell you?” demanded Nikki firmly.

 

“I knew her well as a child,” began the woman, her voice catching as she spoke.

 

“All the more reason for me not to provide information,” Nikki seethed as her control on her anger began to slip.  All she could think of was the amount of pain the caller had caused Helen.

 

The woman gasped at the vehemence in Nikki’s response, realizing she was talking to someone who, at the very least, was in Helen’s confidence and had talked to her since the funeral. “I know I don’t deserve your kindness, but I really need to find Helen, if only to apologize.”

 

The tears that Nikki could hear in the woman’s voice and the obvious pain she was feeling, made her bite off a sharp retort and take a breath.  “Do you really think an apology will fix anything?”

 

There was a long pause following Nikki’s question.  “No, it won’t, will it?” responded the caller in a pained whisper.  “I cannot undo the past no matter how much I’d like to.”

 

As Nikki listened to the woman, she felt her anger recede enough for her to remember that she was talking to someone who had recently lost a daughter.  The thought was enough to allow Nikki to soften her voice a small amount.  “No, an apology cannot fix anything,” Nikki paused and sighed with resignation, “but, it is likely the best place to start.”

 

“You’ll help me?” gasped the woman.

 

“I won’t give you her information, but I will tell her you called.  Is there a message that you would like to deliver when I next talk with her?”

 

“Oh… please.  Just tell her how sorry I am and how wrong we were.  I now realize that we lost two daughters that day instead of just one.  Please ask her to call us at home.”

 

Nikki nodded in the silence of her home. “I will.”

 

“Thank you,” sobbed the woman.

 

---

 

 

 

Part 33

 

Nikki pushed through the door leading from her office into the yard to the muffled whispers of her staff, the immediate silence and guilty looks on their faces left little question as to the topic of conversation. 

 

“Mind if I interrupt?” asked Nikki tiredly.

 

Nikki staff all looked at each other silently confirming their suspicions: something was wrong.  The boss they had all grown to respect and enjoy would have either teased them or made a sarcastic remark about their scheming.  Yet today, Nikki didn’t even acknowledge the fact that they were obviously talking about her.   Many thought privately that they would even prefer anger to the listlessness Nikki was currently displaying. 

 

Nikki broke the awkward silence that had engulfed the yard. “We’re out on site today.” Noting the nods of her staff, Nikki continued, “Can you all be ready in an hour so we can get everything loaded?”

 

“Sure boss,” replied Jordan speaking for everyone.  “Nothing has changed from the plans, has it?”

 

“No, things are exactly as we laid it out last week. I’ll see all of you in an hour.”  With the clipped directive, Nikki quickly retreated back into the office to prepare and, if she was honest, escape her staff.

 

“Damn!” Courtney muttered.  “Boss is in a bad way.”

 

“No shit, Court,” seconded Ian.  “I’m surprised she’s still functional at work.”

 

“Of course she’s functional at work, it’s all she’s got,” interjected Jordan.  “She’s bummed about everything else in her life, or is at least denying herself everything else, so she works.  Do you realize she’s been in early every day since Helen left and has stayed late most nights?  I’m betting that on the days she goes home early, she just works there.”

 

“It’s only been a week since she left.  Maybe we just need to give Nikki time to figure things out.  You know work is her coping mechanism” reasoned Elise.

 

“You mean escape mechanism, don’t you?” questioned Courtney.

 

“Whatever it is, we’ve got less than an hour to have everything ready and I’m not sure what Nikki’s reaction would be to us being late right now.  Maybe we should all be glad that this hasn’t impacted the quality of her work.  Perhaps making her time here as stress free as possible can help shake Nikki out of this,” suggested Jordan who knew they still had a job to do and hoped that his comment would serve to prod his workmates to get back on task.

 

The staff looked at Jordan understanding the message and quickly scurried off to finish their preparations.  The team joined Nikki an hour later to travel to the day’s work site.  The project progressed well, but Nikki maintained her reserve. She did not feel up to engaging in the free-flowing dialog typical of workdays with her staff. For Nikki, throwing herself into the physical aspects of her job served as a needed distraction from her own thoughts, most of which revolved around an absent Scot.

 

---

 

Nikki entered her house, dropped her work bag on the floor by the door, and carried her takeout to the couch.  She threw herself down and dug in with her chopsticks. Glancing at her phone she did the quick calculation of what time it was in London.  Once again, she hadn’t left work early enough to catch Helen before she went to bed. 

 

The time difference was creating far more problems during the workweek than either woman had expected.  Nikki knew if she stayed up until 11 PM she could catch Helen in the morning, but first thing in the morning with a whole workday looming didn’t exactly result in long or even engaging conversations.  They’d both left messages for each other and had exchanged a few emails, but it seems as though their schedules were conspiring against them.  The lack of direct contact was playing havoc with Nikki’s psyche. She was trying to take comfort in that Helen seemed to making an effort to contact her, having left Nikki just as many frustrated messages as she had left Helen.

 

Nikki resolved to stay up to call Helen before she left for work. Not only was she desperate to hear her voice, but also wanted to pass on the message that had been left a week prior.  She just didn’t feel that this message was appropriate for an email or voice message.

 

Nikki had made herself a cup of tea and picked up a book to try to wait for an appropriate hour to call Helen.  She was well enough acquainted with Helen’s distaste for mornings to refrain from calling before 7 AM, but the wait was wearing on her.  As Nikki finally tossed her book on the floor knowing she’d read the same paragraph several times, her cell phone sprang to life on the coffee table. 

 

Nikki quickly snatched her phone.  “Hello?”

 

Startled by the immediate answer, Helen laughed nervously, “Waiting for a phone call?”

 

“Hoping,” replied Nikki, smiling into the phone.

 

“What are you up to tonight, Nikki?”

 

Nikki closed her eyes, savoring the sound of her name coming from the Scot.  “I’ve been trying to waste time until it was an appropriate hour to call London.” 

 

“Calling someone important?” teased Helen, grateful that Nikki seemed to want to talk as badly as she did.

 

“Mmm,” confirmed Nikki.  “This beautiful do-gooder that I know.”

 

“Reeeaaally?” replied Helen.  “Should I be jealous?”

 

“Very,” responded Nikki, now grinning. 

 

Helen broke into laughter that was answered over the phone.

 

“Damn,” breathed Nikki. “It is so good to hear your voice. I can’t believe you called. What are doing up?  It must be 4:30 in the morning for you.”

 

Helen groaned, “Don’t remind me.  I couldn’t sleep.  After tossing and turning half the night, I decided to just get up and make a cup of coffee.”  What Helen didn’t add was that she blamed thoughts of Nikki for her sleepless night.  She’d set her alarm at 6 to allow ample time to talk with Nikki, but found herself so eager for the phone call and afraid she’d sleep past her alarm that sleep became impossible.

 

“Well, I’m selfishly glad that you decided to call.  I can serve as entertainment on sleepless nights anytime… at least on the phone”

 

“I’d rather it was your physical presence causing my sleepless nights,” blurted Helen, immediately falling silent realizing what she’d just said. 

 

Nikki felt her body respond and choked out, “Are you trying to make sure that I don’t sleep tonight?”

 

“No, but it sure feels good to know I’m not alone,” answered Helen wistfully as both women lapsed into silence.

 

The silence that followed was not awkward.  It felt to Nikki as if she was comfortably sitting next to Helen on the couch rather than holding up a phone to her ear.  With a sigh, Nikki decided that it was a little silly to be taking comfort in breathing with Helen.  “I’m not real sure if this will be good news or bad, but I received a phone call looking for you earlier this week.”

 

“Looking for me?  How would anyone get your number?”

 

“It seems Cory is very forthcoming,” answered Nikki with a hint of sarcasm.  “Helen,” she began with her voice noticeably softer. “It was Emma’s mom.”

 

A sharp intake of breath was Helen’s immediate reaction.  “What did she want?”  she asked tentatively.

 

Nikki swallowed hard, unsure if she was doing the right thing.  “I think she wants to apologize. It sounded as if she misses you.” 

 

“Are you…” stumbled Helen, her voice now broken.  “Are you sure?”

 

“I don’t know her, but it seemed as though she was being honest, Helen,” replied Nikki, now trying to soothe.

 

Helen did not reply. 

 

Nikki could only hear her shaky breath over the phone.  “She would like you to call her.”  Nikki hoped this would be seen as a good thing.

 

“You’re sure she wants to talk?”

 

“Yes, Helen.  I’m sure,” confirmed Nikki realizing that whether she felt certain or not, what Helen needed was someone else to provide the certainty that she couldn’t muster on her own. 

 

“Thank you,” whispered Helen so softly that Nikki had to strain to hear it.

 

“I’m just passing on a message, beautiful.  Are you all right?”

 

Helen nodded quietly with tears streaming down her face.  The lack of response from Nikki reminded Helen that Nikki couldn’t see her.  “I’m okay. I’m glad I heard it from you as opposed to listening to a message on my voicemail.”

 

“I’m glad too,” responded Nikki, who was still concerned.

 

“She is…” started Helen, trying to find the right words to explain her reaction.

 

“Helen, you don’t have to explain if you don’t want to.”

 

“I know,” sighed Helen.  She realized that she actually wanted Nikki to know.  She wanted to be understood.  “I want to explain for some reason.  I feel safe somehow and no one other than Claire realizes the role they’ve played in my life.  I think I’d like to double the number of people who might understand.”

 

Nikki didn’t know what to say. She felt unbelievably flattered, but did not want their conversation to come at cost.  “I’d like nothing more to know more about you, Helen.  It doesn’t have to be now.”

 

“Thank you,” replied Helen sincerely.  “I actually think it would do me good.  It’s one good thing about being up so early.  I have time to talk with you.”  Helen paused to gather her thoughts.  “They’re my only remaining parents,” she began, her voice still rough.  “I’m not ready to lose them too.”

 

“Oh Helen…” sighed Nikki, wondering just how much emotional turmoil one woman could withstand. 

 

Hearing Nikki’s pained reply, Helen quickly tried to explain. “It’s not as dramatic as it sounds.  My parents died years ago of natural causes, if that is a reasonable way to describe a stroke and a heart attack a year later.  I’ve mourned them and have made peace with it, but I think that period of my life was easier because I’ve always had an extra pair of parents in my life.  They have always been there for me.”

 

Helen spoke for nearly 30 minutes describing her history with Emma’s parents.  Nikki listened enjoying the soft lilt to Helen’s voice and the glimpse she was being offered into her past.   She also knew that describing the role of Emma’s parents from her childhood to the death of Helen’s parents in her twenties was therapeutic. Helen’s voice grew stronger as she spoke and the stories, while tinged with sadness at points, also revealed a past marked with humor and unfailing support.

 

“Nikki, I’ve got to get to work.”

 

“How has work been?” asked Nikki realizing that they had not even discussed Helen’s return to London.

 

Helen growled, “That woman doesn’t know her head from her arse.”

 

“That well?” grinned Nikki.  “Please tell me you aren’t talking about your replacement?”

 

“That would be her.”

 

“Are you going to resume your duties officially?” asked Nikki tentatively.

“Not yet,” replied Helen slowly.  “I don’t really know what I am going to do. I’m not sure if I’d want to return to my old job, but the choice to leave opens up the equally terrifying reality of not knowing what to do instead,” finished Helen miserably.

 

Nikki was grateful that Helen could not see the grin on face over the phone.  Nikki took a moment before she replied. “You’ve got be patient with yourself Helen.  You’ve been back a week.  Things will work out both at work and with everything else, just give it time.”

 

Helen let out a frustrated breath, “Time…”

 

Nikki laughed, “… sucks!”

 

This got a laugh out of Helen.  “You obviously spend too much time with Cory!”

 

“Not possible!” countered Nikki laughing. “Although, I’ll admit my vocabulary seems to be evolving, or maybe devolving, the more time I spend with him.  Can you imagine what I’ll sound like after another five years?”

 

Helen’s laughter died.  “I hope I’ll be able to experience what 10 years of Cory’s influence sounds like,” she whispered.

 

Nikki immediately heard Helen’s unspoken plea.  “You’re not getting rid of me, Stewart!”  Nikki attempted to playfully tease Helen, but it sounded forced.  She was well aware of the underlying meaning in their current exchange and decided to address it directly. “Helen, I can’t predict the future and I don’t know what our relationship will become, but regardless of geography, work, or anything else, I intend to stay in your life if you’ll allow it even if it is just phone calls and an occasional visit.”

 

“I’m counting on it Wade,” replied Helen softly. 

 

---

 

 

Part 34

 

“Nikki?” called Claire as she stepped through the front door of Nikki’s house.  They had not seen each other since Helen had left and that was nearly two weeks prior.  Both of them were busy.  The weeks following Helen’s departure revealed to both women that they had put off many tasks in favor of spending time with her.

 

“Out here,” called a voice from the garden.

 

Claire followed Nikki’s voice to the back deck curiosity etched on her face. “What are you doing out here?” she asked, as she stepped onto the deck.

 

Nikki looked up as she detached her bike from the trainer she’d set up in the garden.  She was wearing a t-shirt soaked with sweat and cycling shorts. 

 

“Roads aren’t good enough anymore?” asked Claire raising her eyebrows.

 

Nikki shrugged and mumbled, “Didn’t want company.”

 

Claire stared at Nikki as if trying to make up her mind about what to say.  “I don’t want to overstep any bounds with you, Nikki, but maybe company is exactly what you need.”

 

Nikki smirked at Claire, “When have you ever had any boundaries with me?”

 

Claire grinned, glad to see a glimpse of her friend’s humor.  “True.” She seated herself on the porch steps while Nikki continued to gather the items she’d brought out for her workout.  “I still think you need to get out of this house.  I hear you’ve only been working and hiding out.”

 

“Spying on me now?” asked Nikki, one eyebrow raised.

 

“Well, you have neglected one of your closest friends and he’s moping around with a pathetic lost look in his eyes. We also live in a small city.  It’s easy to keep track of you.”

 

Nikki felt a twinge of guilt at neglecting Cory.  She just didn’t want to have to talk about Helen.  “Ok, I know I’ve been a crap friend to Cory for the last few weeks.  As for the small city justification, wouldn’t it be easier to just tell me that my staff has no discretion.”

 

“Well, yes, they can lack tact, but I don’t,” answered Claire with a self-satisfied grin. 

 

Nikki laughed at her friend’s antics.  It felt good to interact with Claire. Nikki realized she had missed their weekly banter.  “It’s good to see you, Claire.”

 

“I bet it’d be good for you to see Cory too.”

 

Nikki tipped her head in acknowledgement, “You’re likely right.”

 

“Oh, care to repeat that?  What am I?” teased Claire.

 

Nikki tried to glare at Claire, but had a smile pulling at her lips.

 

“Waiting Wade!” demanded Claire with a playful pout.

 

Nikki released an exasperated laugh and plopped down next to Claire on the steps, “You’re right,” she sighed.

 

“I should have brought something to record you saying that,” laughed Claire.  “I’d make it my ring tone.”

 

“That’s just scary,” countered Nikki shaking her head.  “You’d do it too.”

 

“Of course I would,” confirmed Claire impishly.

 

Nikki leaned to the side nudging Claire with her shoulder, “I’m glad you came by.  I didn’t realize I missed you, but I do.”

 

“You’ve got an amazing community here, Nikki.  We all miss you,” replied Claire seriously.

 

“I know, Claire,” replied Nikki softly. 

 

“So you’re not hiding until a certain Scot figures herself out?”

 

“No,” sighed Nikki, wondering if some part of her was doing just that.

 

“You sure?” chided Claire. “Because it seems as though you are hiding away as if you can’t let yourself be happy without her.”

 

Nikki rolled her eyes at Claire.  “I’m sure,” she answered slowly.  “I’d like to think I’m past the stage that where I place my entire worth on whether or not I get the girl.”

 

“Doesn’t maturity stink?” asked Claire in gentle support.

 

“Actually, it may be a saving grace.  Most of the time, I realize I’ve built a good life here, inhabited by amazing people, and that I can be happy.”  Nikki paused.

 

“But…” offered Claire.

 

“Well, I just know my life would be even better if she were in it.”

 

“She didn’t die Nikki,” countered Claire rolling her eyes.

 

Nikki chuckled softly.  “You know what I meant.  I’d love for Helen to be here.  However, it is comforting to know that even though she’s in London, I know I’m not going to lose her friendship.”

 

“Well,” started Claire not bothering to hide the satisfaction her voice. “You’ll just have to be patient then, won’t you?  She’s only been gone two weeks.  If you’re going to keep her friendship, who knows what can happen later.”

 

Nikki looked over at Claire, teasingly. “Can I whine a bit?”

 

“Please,” came Claire’s dry reply.

 

“I want her to come back now,” exclaimed Nikki in childishly, high-pitched squeal.

 

Claire’s laugh echoed over the garden as she threw her arm around Nikki.  “Me too, Wade.  Me too.”

 

Claire paused a moment and glanced over at Nikki, “You two are talking often aren’t you?”

 

A small smile found its way to Nikki’s lips and she whispered, “Yeah.”

 

“Don’t get bashful on me, Wade. How often? Is that why you’ve holed up in your house?”

 

“Geez Claire, you really are relentless,” laughed Nikki. 

 

“Waiting…”

 

“After a rough start, it seems as though we’ve finally figured out how to match our schedules and deal with the time difference,” explained Nikki.

 

“What does that mean exactly?” asked Claire, still pressing.

 

“We missed each other for almost a whole week, but this week we’ve talked everyday even if it’s just for a short bit.  We talked for a lot longer over the weekend,” admitted Nikki sheepishly.

 

“Damn!  You two are going to bankrupt yourselves with your phone habits.”

 

“Claire,” began Nikki as if talking to a child.  “Ever heard of Skype?”

 

“Oh,” answered Claire, now feeling a little silly.  “I hadn’t thought of that.  That does make sense.”

 

“Thanks,” smirked Nikki.

 

“So you are hiding out at home just to talk to Helen.”

 

Nikki just shook her head.  “You just don’t give up do you?”

 

“I wouldn’t be me if I did and you love me for it!” 

 

Nikki smiled at Claire, “As unbelievable as it is, I do.”

 

“Does Helen know that you’ve basically stopped living your life except when you’re on the phone with her?” asked Claire.

 

“That’s overstating it a little.  Don’t you think?” countered Nikki.

 

“Name one thing you’ve done other than work and talk on the phone since she’s left,” challenged Claire.

 

Nikki cast a sidelong look at Claire indicating her reluctance to reply.  “Touché,” Nikki softly acknowledged.  “It’s only been two weeks, Claire.  I told you that I know I can eventually be happy regardless of what happens with Helen, but you’ve got to let me deal with this for a little while. The last few months were some of best I’ve ever known. Now that she’s back in London, it’s over or at least it has changed.  Give me some time to think and figure things out for myself.  Can you do that?”

 

“I can Nikki,” was Claire’s soft reply.  “I don’t need you to pretend that you don’t miss her.  Even if you aren’t in your usual spirits, we’d love to see you.  No one expects you to pretend that these last few months never happened.”

 

“You’re right,” answered Nikki with resignation.

 

“That’s twice in one day!” exclaimed Claire brightly, eliciting a laugh from Nikki.  “Have you talked to Helen about all of this? Does she realize that you’ve been hiding?”

 

Nikki again rolled her eyes at her friend. “It hasn’t really come up.  We’ve talked about work, Helen’s reintroduction to life in London, and simply gotten to know each other a little more.”

 

“How does Helen sound?” asked Claire curiously. 

 

“It sounds as if she’s settled back into her old life pretty well.  She’s got a lot of friends back there,” answered Nikki carefully. 

 

“I’m glad she seems to be doing well,” answered Claire absently.  She realized that the two women were mirrors for each other.  In her conversations with Helen, she sounded lost.  Claire wondered if Helen had been led to assume that Nikki was as happy as she’d always been, just as Nikki seemed to believe that Helen was happily settling into her life in London.  As soon as she thought it, she knew it was true. There really cannot be two more frustrating women, she thought with exasperation. 

 

---

 

Part 35

 

“Hiya Stewart!” exclaimed Claire.

 

“Walker,” came the reply, accompanied by a chuckle at Claire’s enthusiasm.  “What’s got you in such a good mood?”

 

“I actually caught you at home,” smiled Claire into the phone.  “How are you doing?”

 

“I’m doing fine,” came the neutral reply.

 

“That’s not the most descriptive response,” countered Claire.  “I want to know how you are doing.  Really.”

 

There was a long pause followed by an audible exhale.  “I don’t even know how to answer that question, Claire.  I feel like a yo-yo.  One moment I feel great and the next I feel completely lost.  I feel as though I can’t find any balance.  You’d think I could figure this out by now.”

 

“Because you’ve had so much practice with your closest friend dying, being disowned by your surrogate parents, and falling in love? You need to cut yourself a break, Helen.  I doubt anyone would be dealing well with what you’ve been through in the last few months.”

 

Helen did not reply.

 

“Helen?  Are you still there?”

 

“Yeah,” sighed Helen.  “I know, you’re going to tell me to be patient with myself, but damn it, I want to have it all sorted now.”

 

Claire’s giggles began slowly and quickly grew into uncontrolled laughter.  “You and Nikki are almost twins,” she gasped into the phone. 

 

“Excuse me?” demanded Helen, not seeing the humor.

 

In her mind’s eye, Claire could see Helen’s eyebrow raised in an attempt to be intimidating.  This set her off into another fit of laughter.  “Nikki sounded just like you when I talked with her last week.”

 

Still not understanding, Helen asked, “How so?”

 

“She was whining like a petulant child too!  I want my toy NOW,” mimicked Claire in a singsong voice.

 

This yielded a half-hearted chuckle from Helen, “So now you’re comparing us to greedy children?”

 

“If the shoe fits.”

 

Helen was silently pleased to hear that Nikki was impatient too, but this response was quickly replaced by guilt with the realization that Nikki was impatient with her.

 

“How are things going at work and with Emma’s folks?” asked Claire, changing subjects.

 

“All right, I guess.”

 

“Stewart!  What does that mean?”

 

“Fine.  Work is going well.  I am putting in a lot of hours. I feel as though I’m getting back in stride.  Very little has changed, some projects are great and some are just frustrating.”

 

“But you’re not the acting director, right?”

 

“No, I’m not.”

 

“Do you want to be?” asked Claire.

 

“I’m still not sure.”

 

“Do you know what you’ll do if you decide to officially step down?” asked Claire hesitantly, not wanting to push.

 

“That brings us back to the need for patience,” sighed Helen.  “I just don’t know.  I keep hoping that I’ll come across something that will just seem to fit.”

 

“Have you been exploring other options?”

 

“I don’t have time,” countered Helen quickly.  “I’ve been working really long hours.”

 

“Then how are you going to find something else?  Are you at least reconnecting with your friends?”

 

Silence was all that initially met Claire’s questions.  “I’ve been busy,” answered Helen weakly.

 

I bet she’s been as much of a hermit as Nikki, thought Claire.  She took a deep breath in an attempt to reign in her frustration that was only partially successful.  “How are you going to ‘come across’ something if you only go to work and talk on the phone?”

 

Knowing that Claire’s assessment of her day-to-day life was accurate, Helen didn’t even try to argue.  “I just don’t know what to do.  How am I supposed to look for something when I have no idea what it I’m looking for?” 

 

Claire could hear the pain and frustration hidden in Helen’s plea and felt a wave of guilt wash over her. “I know you’ll figure it out.  I have faith Helen and, you’re right, it is time to be patient.” Claire didn’t think Helen could take being pressed any further on the issue of work and decided to change subjects. “Have you talked to them?” she asked referring to Emma’s parents.

 

“I had coffee with her mom this week,” began Helen.  “It was nice.”

 

“You were able to talk about things?”

 

“We did.  I think we scared most of the other café patrons while we were at it too,” replied Helen with a weak laugh.  “I’m not sure what people made of the two women sobbing into their coffee.”

 

“Sobbing?”

 

“Yeah,” confirmed Helen softly. 

 

“Things are sorted now?” asked Claire carefully.

 

“On their way,” replied Helen slowly.  “She realizes that she spoke in the heat of the moment, but I think she still is searching for a way that it all could have been avoided or someone to blame.”

 

“Wouldn’t the best place to start be the bastard boyfriend?” asked Claire more sharply than she had intended, still unwilling to forgive the pain caused to her friend.

 

“I don’t know, Claire.  I don’t know why she doesn’t focus there.  I think perhaps it’s because he still hasn’t been found.  She’s grieving and still pretty raw.  Maybe a small part of her is trying to figure out why no one stepped in to stop this from happening.”

 

“You did!  She has no idea how hard you tried.  She didn’t have to bear the emotional burden of being Emma’s safety net.  No one was going to save her until she decided that she wanted to be saved.”

 

Helen smiled as she listened to Claire rant. “Walker, I love that you always have my back.  I appreciate the loyalty.”

 

“Always,” answered Claire firmly. “I know she just lost her daughter, but that woman makes me so angry.”

 

“Well,” began Helen quietly.  “She learned a lot during our conversation.”

 

“You told her?”

 

“Yeah, I did.  Things started so poorly.  She missed me and said that she felt horrible about the funeral, but still had so much anger.  I just snapped.  I described the scenes that played out at our flat when Emma would arrive battered and explained my choice to step back.”

 

“I’m glad you told her, Helen. Could she hear it? Did she understand?”

 

“At least part of it, I think,” sighed Helen.  “She had no idea how often we patched her up and begged her to get out.  But given how things ended, it is hard to hear that her daughter’s closest friend stepped away.”

 

Claire was troubled by Helen’s phrasing of the situation.  “Don’t you dare take on responsibility for her death, Stewart.”

 

“I know, Claire.  I really do.”  Hearing a snort of disbelief, Helen continued, “I’m not just saying that Claire.  I learned a lot spending time at the women’s shelter while I was in California.  It’s hard not to wonder if you could have done more, but I’ve accepted that at the time, I did all that I could.”

 

“I’m so glad to hear that,” replied Claire, her voice cracking with emotion.

 

“I think she also learned that I have some very protective friends.”

 

“Yeah?” asked Claire.

 

“Evidently, Nikki gave her a bit of a hard time,” chuckled Helen softly.

 

“Oh no, bad?”

 

“No, nothing like that.  It sounds as if she was just very protective,” answered Helen, a smile evident in her voice.

 

“Mama bear,” laughed Claire.  “How on earth did she end up talking to Nikki?”

 

“This affable American bloke gave her the number.  Evidently it took her nearly a week to work up the courage to call.”

 

“Cory.  I should have known.  Half the time I don’t know whether I should hug or throttle that guy,” quipped Claire.

 

“Isn’t that part of his charm?” smirked Helen.

 

Claire laughed.  “True enough.  I know you’ve also succumbed to another equally infuriating, yet somehow lovable character.”

 

“Yeah, I have, but I have no idea what to do about it,” lamented Helen.

 

“Patience, Helen.  You’ve got to give it some time.”

 

“Ugh!  I’m coming to hate that word!” complained Helen.

 

“Hang in there, Stewart,” smiled Claire.

 

“I’m trying.  I really am,” sighed Helen.  “It’s been great to talk with you.”

 

“You too, Helen.”

 

 

---

 

Part 36

 

“Hiya beautiful,” grinned Nikki as she greeted Helen.  Nikki had decided to go in late to work, allowing her to talk to Helen when she got home at the end of her day.