~ Murder Most Foul ~
by Lois Cloarec Hart and C. Paradee



Disclaimer: We originally wrote a shorter version, then decided to revisit the story because we wanted to know what had gone before for our older pair of lovers. We hope that readers were curious too, and will enjoy the completely revised, rewritten and expanded version. If you find women in love disturbing, this isn't the story for you. Off you go. Move along. Bye-bye.

Acknowledgements: As always our deepest thanks to our fabulous beta reader, Day, aka Goddess of Punctuation, Grammar and Style. Additionally, we were lucky enough to have Betty join us for this endeavour, and lend her keen eyes to the story. Thanks for the feedback, Betty! And what would a story be without Lois' mother's eagle eyes checking it twice. (Lois' note: Nothing slips by that woman...but then speaking from forty plus years of experience, nothing ever did. <g>)

If you'd like to comment, we can be reached at:
Lois eljae1@shaw.ca
Carol cparadee@cox.net



Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural
- Hamlet: Act 1, Scene 5


Part One


Chapter One

June, 1961

The crooked, old wharf, its pilings green and slimy from decades of immersion in the lake, was the only remnant of the old homestead that had once stood on this shore. Mrs. Stanton Hawthorne III had eradicated every vestige of the original house when she'd decreed, twenty-five years previously, that Lake Sivert would henceforth be the Hawthorne's summer retreat from the swarms of tourists that annually infested Boston.

When her husband, Stanton Hawthorne III himself, suggested instead that they use his parents' home on Martha's Vineyard as a family retreat, Virginia Hawthorne recoiled at the notion of such intimacy with her mother-in-law, a woman far more formidable than her irresolute son. Lake Sivert, a small, isolated jewel of a lake northeast of Boston, was already home to Virginia's brother, Hannibal, as well as an adequate smattering of Boston's upper crust; so Stanton accepted his wife's dictates and acquiesced to the construction of an edifice commensurate with his wealth and her ambitions.

The old wharf had only survived because it was tucked behind some trees, and Mrs. Stanton Hawthorne never actually went down to the lake where she could be aggravated by the eyesore. It was enough, in her opinion, to see the sun setting over the water from afar as she and her cronies sipped their martinis on the summer home's patio, surrounded by elaborately landscaped gardens. There was even a Mediterranean-blue pool set amongst faux-Greek statues for those guests who absolutely demanded a venue for bathing. Mrs. Hawthorne had never deigned to get so much as one toe wet, but she had allowed her three children to use the pool when properly supervised by their nannies.

At the moment, Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne's middle offspring was contentedly sitting on the end of the old wharf beside her best friend. Their dangling feet stirred tiny eddies that rippled outwards, dissipating in the clear waters of Lake Sivert. Patricia Hawthorne, the taller of the two young women, sighed deeply, leaning back on her hands, straight, golden, shoulder-length hair swinging gently as she stared up at the cloudless sky.

Her shorter, stockier, chestnut-haired companion watched her with an affectionate grin, chiding amiably, "The summer's just starting. You can't possibly be bored yet, Patty."

Lazily, Patricia swiveled her head, large hazel eyes taking in her friend's teasing grin. "You know, Dee, if my mother ever heard you call me Patty, she'd have a heart attack. To this day I can still hear her telling me on the very first day of school, 'Don't you ever let anyone call you Patty, young lady. That's simply not acceptable.' I think she issued strict orders to the headmistress that no one was ever to shorten my name."

Delia chuckled. Her best friend had captured her mother's scolding intonations perfectly. "I know, and you learned your lesson well. Even Andi never dared to call you Patty again after you chewed her out in fourth grade, and no one ever intimidates my sister. She always said you should've been a Southern belle, all manners and style on the outside, with a lethally sharp tongue on the rare occasions you decided you use it. I still don't know why you let me get away with it."

"Hah, like I could stop you!" Patricia kicked a small wavelet of water at Dee's freckled legs.

The two friends laughed and fell quiet again, letting the soporific effects of the warm sun wash over them. Inwardly, however, Delia exulted over the fact that she was the only one permitted the liberty of the nickname, enjoying the further confirmation of their deep, intimate bond.

Finally Patricia broke the companionable silence. "Speaking of mothers, is yours still twisting herself into knots over Andi's wedding?"

"God, yes!" Delia gave a melodramatic shudder. "Just before I escaped this afternoon, she and Andi were arguing over what kind of flowers to have in the church."

Patricia shook her head in bemusement. "You know, I never suspected Andi would go in for all that wedding fanfare that our mothers thrive on, but I don't think I've had one conversation with her since we got home from Smith that doesn't revolve around their wedding."

"And Thom," Delia added sourly.

One elegant eyebrow shot up appraisingly. "You really don't like your brother-in-law to be much, do you, Dee?"

She grimaced. "What's to like about Thom with an h? He's a rigid, humourless prude, who marches around like he's got a poker up his..."

"Delia Barrington!"

Dee subsided, but refused to apologize for or withdraw her scathing words about her twin's fiancÚ.

Drawing her feet out of the water, Patricia turned to face her frowning friend, laying one hand on Dee's arm. "Honey, is it possible that you just don't like him because he's taking your sister away? He is awfully handsome, you know, and he sure seems to love her a lot."

Delia felt a rush of pleasure at Patricia's rare endearment, but tried to focus on her question. She shook her head vigorously, sending her thick, close-cut dark waves flying. "No, that's not it. After all, with us being up at Smith, it's not like I've gotten to see Andi that much anyway for the last three years. I just think she could've done far better for herself. Besides, her husband is going to be the father of my nieces and nephews, so naturally I want good bloodlines."

A peal of laughter split the still, warm air. "For heaven's sake, Dee, you sound like Uncle Hannibal evaluating his latest stable of jumpers!"

Abashed, Delia dropped her head. "Aw, you know that's not what I meant. I couldn't care less if her husband was a prince or a chimney sweep, as long as he was a decent guy who loved Andi and was good to her. I just flat out don't like Thom."

A long arm slung around her shoulders and she gratefully allowed Patricia to pull her close, enjoying the sun-warmed scent and feel of her friend. "I know you're not a snob, Dee; that's the last thing anyone would say about you. Heavens, you didn't even want to participate in the debs' ball with the rest of us until Andi and I twisted your arm; but I really think you have to give Thom a chance. He and Andi are going to make a life together, and you don't want to cause her endless grief by having to try to placate both her husband and her twin."

Safely within the circle of Patricia's arm, Dee sighed heavily. "I know you're right. He doesn't like me any better than I like him, but I guess I can at least be polite from now until the wedding. After that, they'll be living in Toronto, so I won't see him much anyway." She let her head drop against her friend's narrow shoulder. "I won't see her much, either."

Long slender fingers worked their way through her short hair, caressing and comforting. Patricia whispered, "I know it won't be easy, but you'll still have me."

Delia pulled back far enough so that her blue eyes met Patricia's loving gaze. Fervently she declared, "Thank God! I don't know what I'd do if I ever lost you."

"You never will," Patricia promised softly. With a quick glance about to ensure that there was no one around, she gently pressed her lips against Delia's.

The kiss ended far too soon to suit the shorter woman-as they always did. After growing up together, enduring the trials of puberty side by side, and going off to Smith College for Women where they'd shared a room in Sessions House for the past three years, Delia and Patricia had finally acknowledged their feelings for each other several months previously. Neither seemed to know quite what to do once their declaration of mutual love was out in the open, and their relationship hadn't progressed beyond furtive kisses, limited explorations, and nights spent wrapped in each other's arms, their dorm room securely locked against intruders.

The young women were well aware of the serious complications their flirtation presented. Delia, more free-spirited and less oppressed by parental expectations, was keen to explore the nuances of their altered relationship...as well as her best friend's body, but respected Patricia's hesitation and understood its source.

Patricia had long been subject to a continual barrage of maternal urgings to make a proper marriage to an approved suitor. She had had to fight tooth and nail to even be allowed to attend Smith College where her best friend had been accepted into the Sociology program. Her parents considered it a waste of time and money, especially as her older sister was already married, and her younger brother would be attending Harvard in a year's time.

When the elder Hawthornes had finally agreed to higher education for their unusually rebellious middle child, they had initially insisted on her attending Radcliffe College so that she could move in the same social circles as the eligible young men of Harvard. Delia never knew how her normally placid friend had managed it, but after weeks of uncertainty, Patricia had announced that she would be joining Dee in Northampton to major in Classical Studies.

They had only completed their junior year several weeks previously, and were intent on enjoying their summer at the lake before returning for their senior year. Left unspoken was the question of what the two would do upon graduation the following year.

In her darkest moments, Delia knew that it would take immense inner strength to go against their parents and societal mores. Flush with passionate new love, she was certain she could do it, especially as she had a trust fund to draw on, but a niggling doubt remained whether Patricia would find the will to defy and break with her family-for it would be a complete break. The young Sociology student knew that the Hawthornes would never accept such aberrant behaviour from one of their progeny. Their best hope lay in maintaining the fašade of simply being friends, while warding off any would-be suitors.

Dee hoped that eventually their families would consign them both to the dustbin of spinsterhood, and allow them to live quiet, unnoticed lives. She didn't consider it an untenable hope. Everyone in their families and social circles had long considered she, Andi, and Patricia inseparable, and thought nothing of the three of them spending all their time together. However, now that her twin was leaving the trio to get married, there would be increasing pressure, particularly on Patricia, to do the same.

For the moment, though, with her best friend close at her side and the early June sun signaling the beginning of another long, lazy summer at the lake, Delia was content to let her thoughts drift. As it so often did, her mind returned to the night the women's true feelings had first emerged.

****************************************

Mid-January, 1961

Delia straggled back from the commons room, reluctant to return to her room where a mountain of homework awaited her. Patricia, less gregarious and more studious than Dee, had resumed her studies immediately after the customary sit-down dinner, while the Sociology major had lingered to gossip with some of the other residents of Sessions House. Now, however, the knowledge that she had to face Professor Abernathy's Soc 311 class first thing in the morning, as well as a desire to see what her best friend was doing, drove her back up the stairs of the 18th century residence.

Flinging open the door of the room they had shared since entering the college as freshmen, Delia waited for Patricia to turn from her desk with an indulgent smile before throwing her arm across her forehead and rendering a mock swoon.

Patricia giggled as Delia slumped to the floor. "All right, what is it this time? Did Lucy chase you up the stairs?"

Dee sat upright and grinned at the mention of the fabled house ghost. "Nope. Didn't see the old General prowling around, either." Legend had it that the eldest daughter of the original owners of the house used to meet her lover, General Burgoyne, in a secret staircase. After being separated in life, it was said that the heartbroken General still pursued his lost love in death, two hundred years later.

"So, why the melodramatics, then?" Patricia smiled as her wayward roommate stood up and closed the door.

"Abernathy." Delia gave a pronounced shudder on naming the baneful professor. His Contemporary Sociological Theory was a required course, but after one week of his class, she knew that she would have changed her major if she'd had him in her first year. His theory of teaching was-in a word-humiliation, and he was known for verbally savaging the women unlucky enough to end up in his class. Dee had to admit that fear was unquestionably a motivating factor, but he was roundly hated, to the point that mock Abernathy-assassination plots were rife in the various Houses.

Patricia, who had lucked out of ever encountering the dreaded professor, gave an unsympathetic grunt. "Hah! I'll trade you Latin 317 for Abernathy's class any day!"

Delia held up crossed fingers to ward off the thought and backed away to her side of the room. In their freshman year, she had taken Beginning Latin as an elective, just to be with Patricia; but after wrapping her brain around months of endless conjugations and verb tenses with very mixed results, she swore the closest she would ever get again to the "dead" language would be passing under the school's seal.

Blithely oblivious to the mound of clothes piled on the end of her bed, Dee burrowed under the furniture, searching for the text she was sure she'd tossed there before dinner. Triumphantly emerging with book in hand, she waved it at her best friend and, opening it to a dog-eared page, sprawled on the bed to begin studying. Patricia smiled and returned her attention to her own work.

A couple of hours passed, with only the sound of turning pages, a scratching pen, and the occasional eloquent mutter from Delia to break the silence. Finally there was the sound of a heavy text hitting the floor, and Patricia looked around to see Delia bouncing across the room. The Sociology student flung herself on her roommate's neatly made bed.

"I can't take any more, Patty. Everything I read is leaking out my ears. I'll just have to take my chances in his class tomorrow. With any luck, he'll call on Hennessey. She's always sniffing around, trying to get on his good side."

Pushing her worksheets aside in acknowledgement that the evening's studies had ended, Patricia asked wryly, "Does he have a good side?"

Delia groaned. "If he does, it's hidden deeper than a pirate's treasure." She rolled over and looked pleadingly at her friend. "Head rub time, pleeeaase?"

Laughing, Patricia made her way to the bed, sliding her long legs under Dee's head as she rested her back against the wall. Her roommate sighed in contentment as slender fingers began massaging her temples. Dee closed her eyes in bliss, loving the way they ended so many of their days together.

A low chuckle sounded, and she opened her eyes to see Patricia regarding her with amusement. "You know, you remind me of an old spaniel Uncle Hannibal once had. All you had to do was rub that dog's ears, and he was in heaven."

"Hey, I'll have you know there is a very practical application for this," Dee protested, never moving an inch from the gentle attention.

"And that would be?"

"You're working all that hard-earned knowledge deep into my cranium so it can't fall out before exams." A firm tug on her ear caused her to yelp. "It's true, I swear it. I did a scientific survey that showed my GPA has gone up 27% percent since you started doing this after study periods."

"You wouldn't know a scientific survey if it bit you in the nose," Patricia teased.

"Mmmmm. Probably right," Dee admitted, her body languid under the combination of the massage, the warmth of the legs she rested on, and her friend's subtle scent. She knew that Patricia thought she was just a pleasure hound, but she mostly treasured these late night indulgences for the chance to be physically close to her best friend. She drifted mentally, allowing her sybaritic impulses free rein for a moment, before idly asking, "Do you ever wonder what happened to break up the General and Lucy?"

The fingers slowed for a moment, then resumed their pace. "I suppose Lucy's parents didn't approve of the General as a suitor and ordered him away."

"I guess, though you'd think they'd jump at the chance to marry their daughter off to a general."

Patricia gave a bitter chuckle. "I know my parents would."

Delia felt her heart clench. Opening her eyes, she stared at her abruptly morose friend. "Patty?"

Her roommate slid away, pulling out from under Dee's head and sitting on the edge of the bed, her shoulders tense. Alarmed, she rose up on one elbow and placed a comforting hand on Patricia's rigid back.

"Hey, Patty, what's going on? Did something happen over the Christmas holiday that you didn't tell me about?"

Delia's father had taken his family and Andrea's fiancÚ on a Christmas jaunt to Italy so that Thom could get to know the family he was marrying into. Dee hadn't seen her best friend from the day they arrived back in Boston to the day before they were to return to Smith, but Patricia hadn't said much about the festive season at all, so she had assumed all had gone as per usual.

Patricia was silent so long that Delia was beginning to panic, but finally she spoke, her voice low and strained. "Four brought his best friend home for the holidays."

Dee sat up, nodding at the nickname for Stanton Hawthorne IV, Patricia's younger brother who was a sophomore at Harvard. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sat close to her friend, murmuring encouragement to continue.

"Mother fawned over this fellow like he was the second coming of Christ, for heaven's sake! She went on and on about how handsome he was, and did I know that his grandfather had been a senator, and was I aware that he was president of the sailing club and played rugby and was on the debate team. She kept encouraging us to take long walks together, seating us beside each other for dinner, and even had Jamison chauffeur us downtown to go dancing one night. The only way she could've been more obvious about wanting to get us together would've been to actually produce an engagement ring."

Delia froze, but only asked, "So what's this paragon's name?"

"Gareth Edwards."

Slightly reassured by her friend's scathing utterance, Delia pressed her to go on.

"Lord knows why, because I sure didn't give him any encouragement, but Gareth seemed determined to spend every moment he could in my company."

"Can't say I blame him," Delia muttered ruefully.

Patricia turned to look at her squarely. "By the end of the vacation, I was using every excuse I could think of to dodge him. I even faked an illness for two days just to get some time to myself. When he came sniffing around, I told him it was 'female troubles,' and he shot out of there like the room was on fire."

Relieved that her friend obviously had no interest in the man, Delia managed a chuckle. "Wow, you really must have been desperate. You never even faked being sick to get out of school."

Sighing, Patricia leaned back on the bed until her head was touching the wall. Delia promptly followed suit, so that they were lying side by side on their backs.

"It's not that I hated him or anything. I mean, he seemed very charming...sort of...and he was handsome enough...I guess, but I just wasn't interested in dating him."

"Well, don't worry. It's not like your mother can force you to marry him. After all, this is 1961, not 1861," Delia reassured her friend. Trying for a casual, cheerful tone, she added, "Besides, true love is waiting for you out there somewhere. You don't want to take second best just because your mother is impatient."

Patricia was quiet for a long moment, then she asked, "Do you really think there's such a thing for everyone? True love, I mean?"

Flustered, Delia blurted, "Sure, of course there is. I mean all the books say so, right?"

"Do you think we'll know it when we see it?"

"Umm, I sure hope so." Delia was feeling somewhat uneasy with the direction of the conversation, and her friend's next words stunned her.

"It doesn't seem like you're looking for it, Dee. I mean, since we've been here, you've turned down at least five dates with Northampton boys that I know of. Why is that?"

"Uh, they weren't right for me?" Delia offered tentatively, aware that her voice had squeaked.

Patricia's serious eyes were regarding her intently from mere inches away, and Delia felt the air in the room become charged with an unfamiliar tension. When gentle fingers brushed the hair back on her forehead, she almost gasped.

"No, they weren't right for you. I can't picture the man who would be," Patricia mused, her fingers still caressing Delia's face. "I never have been able to. I mean, I wasn't surprised in the least when Andi got involved with Thom, even though he didn't really seem like her type. I always knew that she'd get married and be a fabulous mother to a whole brood of kids, but not you."

Convinced that she was going to pass out from hyperventilation, Delia managed to slow her breathing enough to ask, "What...what do you visualize for me?"

Looking pensive, Patricia continued her hypnotic stroking. "You, my dearest friend, you won't take a conventional path. It's not your way. You're a lot like your father in that. They laugh at him, you know. Benjamin Barrington, the old money millionaire who's more interested in birds than banknotes. I mean, he probably could've owned half the country if he'd wanted, but instead he chose the anonymity of ornithology. I've always admired that about him. He travels to the ends of the earth to do his research, and then spends years writing just one chapter in his massive tome that might actually get published some day before he dies; but he's happy. That's pretty rare in our circles. I don't know what your path is going to be, but you'll follow it with absolute dedication and disregard for anyone else's opinion."

Entranced by the unprecedented insight into the way her friend saw her, Delia forced out another question. "And will I walk that path alone?"

Patricia's soft eyes became contemplative. "I don't know, Dee. I hope not, but it will take a strong person to walk with you."

"Would you walk with me?"

Shocked that the words had escaped her mouth, Delia tried to roll away, but was stopped by the arm flung instantly across her chest. Gentle pressure forced her back to look at Patricia. There was no condemnation on those sharply defined features, no revulsion or agitation. The eyes that regarded her were still loving, not angry.

"I wasn't sure...I didn't know..."

Delia held perfectly still, swiftly analyzing Patricia's words. What isn't she sure of? How I feel about her? How she feels about me? If such a thing is even possible?

Her roiling thoughts were stilled and her breath caught as Patricia leaned closer, kissing first one side of her mouth, then the other, then the tip of her nose, as if not confident enough to kiss her full on the lips. Delia exhaled gustily and, acting on pure instinct, threaded her hand through fine, golden hair and pulled her friend down for a long but tentative kiss.

Gently they explored, lips barely brushing as they breathed each other's air. Tongues touched and retreated, then returned for more. As their kisses became more confident, their bodies reacted too, unconsciously straining together. Delia became aware of her friend's breasts pushing against her own and one leg lodged between hers a split second before there was a knock on the door and the sound of Lee-Ann's raucous hail.

Springing guiltily apart, they had barely separated before their friend and neighbour from down the hall burst into the room. Excited about her news, the tiny redhead rushed over and plopped herself down on the bed between the two roommates.

"Hey, did you two hear about Hennessey being caught with a man in her room last night? I hear her parents were called to come pick her up, and she's out of here on her keister as soon as they get here."

Fortunately their oblivious housemate needed little encouragement to relate the juicy gossip and quickly filled in the rest of the story, giving Delia and Patricia time to regain their composure.

Keeping half an ear on Lee-Ann's chatter, Delia tried to process what had just happened. Patricia had kissed her. Well, okay, it was more that I kissed Patty, but she started it! God, what happens now? What do I want to happen now?

Surreptitious glances at her roommate let her know that Patricia had been as affected as she was. She knew the signs were too subtle for anyone to see who didn't know her friend extremely well, but she saw the minutely dilated pupils and the now-fading high color her friend exhibited. She also saw the slight tremble in those slender hands, disguised as Patricia tucked them casually under her thighs.

Both roommates made appropriate sounds of shock and interest as Lee-Ann's story wound down. Eager to pass the news along to the next party, the vivacious redhead jumped up and ran out the door with a hurried, "See you two later!" thrown back over her shoulder.

Quietly, Patricia went to the door and locked it. Then she turned, and leaning back, asked, "What now?"

Delia shrugged helplessly, at a complete loss on how to answer that simple, yet incredibly complex question.

Drawing a deep breath, Patricia suggested, "It's late. Why don't we go to sleep, and see what the morning brings?"

***********************************************

What the morning had brought, after a sleepless night for both of them, Delia mused as she kicked up a small geyser in the lake, was more of the same. They'd been drawn together like magnets, missing breakfast in the exhilaration of discovering new sensations. Dee had failed Abernathy's classroom interrogation abysmally, particularly without the disgraced Hennessey to take the heat off, but all she could think of was how long it would be before she could get back to her room, and her roommate.

They had been careful to lock the door after that, but even in that, they'd had to exercise discretion. Unlocked doors were the norm, even during sleeping hours; so often, evenings were spent in pent-up emotional turmoil as they awaited the lights out. When that signal came, they would quietly lock away the outside world and retire to one of the beds. Afraid of discovery, they kept their nightwear on, but curious, eager hands roamed as they explored each other's upper bodies. An unspoken taboo had kept them from descending further to seek out the wet heat that radiated between their legs, as if acknowledging what they wanted would be final confirmation that they were indeed different...and that there would be no going back.

More than once, Delia had left lunch early for a few private moments in their room, where she could quickly relieve the unrelenting pressure of their semi-abstinence. She had no idea if Patricia did the same, and wasn't about to ask. She didn't want her friend to feel at all pressured into something she wasn't ready for. So she accepted the unspoken limits, even as she longed for them to be lifted.

The women had become adept at sleeping double in the narrow beds, though Delia had occasionally woken up on the floor. They'd had a couple of near-misses, but the only serious threat of discovery came on the night of the fire drill. After rousting them by hammering on the door, when it was opened the proctor had joked about Patricia's bed still being neatly made. They passed it off with a tale of her still being up studying and the proctor didn't hang around long enough to question it. From then on, however, they'd made a point to mess up the sheets on both beds every night.

Delia was distracted from her memories by Patricia's abrupt edging away to a discreet distance. Looking around to see the reason, she noticed a familiar blue MG convertible pulling into Hannibal York's estate across the small lake.

"Oh, I see your cousin Charles is slumming for the weekend."

Patricia snorted. "Hopefully he's only here long enough to pick up his check from dear old dad, and then he'll be back to Boston."

Delia shook her head with disgust. "You know, I never could figure out how a fellow as nice as your Uncle Hannibal had such a snake for a son."

Charles was only three years older than they were, and had spent as many summers at the lake during his childhood as they had, as his divorced parents shared custody of him. Her first memory of Patricia's nasty cousin was the day he had broken into the three little girls' orchard picnic with a barrage of hard, green apples. He had taunted them, calling them the "three little pigs;" and from that moment, the war had been on. Dee, Andi, and Patricia had gotten even on that occasion by planting tadpoles in his bed. He had retaliated by stealing Andi's bike and throwing it in the lake, though they didn't have any proof that would convince the adults. Attacks, counterattacks, and assorted dirty tricks had ebbed as they all grew older, but there was still an undercurrent of relentless hostility between the young women and their childhood enemy.

"Hey!" Patricia sat bolt upright. "Is that someone with him?" She shook her head. "He must have brought another of his doxys with him. Uncle Hannibal will be so thrilled. The one Charles brought home last time just about drove him nuts, smacking her gum and draining his best sipping whiskey."

Delia, not as far-sighted as her friend, squinted, but wasn't certain until Charles got out of the car and went around to open the passenger door, offering his hand to a woman to step out.

The two friends gaped at each other, before Delia sputtered, "Charles? Using good manners? This we have to investigate!"

Springing up, they slipped their feet into their sandals and began the short walk around the beachfront to Uncle Hannibal's place.

"Huh. Charles opening the door for a lady. Who'd have thought it?" Patricia said with bemusement.

"This one must be different from his usual trollops," Delia responded. "Though you have to wonder who in their right mind would have the abysmal taste to go out with him." She glanced up at her friend with mischief sparkling in her eyes. "Wonder how long it'll take him before he's got her out in the boat."

"The luuuuuvvvv boat?" Patricia snickered. "You'd think he'd try something different after all this time."

"Nah, why would he change his tried and true modus operandi?"

Laughing at Charles' predictable romantic maneuverings, they neared the manicured lawns of the large, sprawling, two-story white ranch house with the capacious stables and acres of fenced in pastures stretching out behind. Patricia turned to her friend with a gleam in her eyes. "So, what's the plan, Dee? Do we ruin his reputation immediately, or give him time to hang himself?"

Delia gave that a moment of thought. "If she's a decent sort, we'll enlighten her as quickly as possible. If she's a miserable witch, we'll quietly rejoice that he's getting what he so royally deserves and not interfere one whit. Agreed?"

"Agreed."

The two turned under the arbor and entered Hannibal's estate, gleefully plotting Cousin Charles' comeuppance.

Hannibal opened the door himself. A bald, jovial man with a large girth, bright brown eyes, and a booming laugh, he was bowlegged from decades on his beloved horses. "Patricia! Delia! What a delightful surprise!" He beamed at the appearance of his favorite niece and her best friend. The girls, along with Andi, had spent almost as many hours at his home as at their parents' summer homes, particularly after he started teaching them to ride. "Please come in, my dears. We have company, and I'm just arranging for tea. Do say you'll join us."

"Of course, Uncle," Patricia said, returning his enthusiastic hug. "We'd be delighted."

They trailed after Hannibal, exchanging smiles as their old friend rambled on exuberantly about his latest purchase.

"Fine lines, I must say. His sire is Rupert's Fancy, and his dam took top honors at the Kensington National Open three years ago. He's a bit on the small side, but I do believe breeding will show through once he's properly trained." Rounding the corner, Hannibal stepped aside and motioned the women into the great room. "Come along, my dears. There's someone special I'd like you to meet."

Delia and Patricia strode into the sun-filled room, secretly enjoying the immediate scowl on Charles' face as he rose to his feet at their approach.

"Introduce your guest, son," Hannibal prompted his reluctant scion.

Stiffly, the young man complied. "Lady Lillian, this is my cousin, Patricia Hawthorne, and her friend, Delia Barrington."

The guest rose gracefully to her feet and extended her hand to both women. With a warm smile, she corrected her host, "Just Lillian Westchester, please. I'm delighted to make your acquaintance."

She was the picture of an English aristocrat, right from her plummy accent, to her impeccable manners, to her tailored tweeds and sensible shoes. And although Delia considered Patricia the most beautiful woman she'd ever met, she had to concede that Lillian came a close second with her fair complexion, huge blue eyes, and light brown hair that fell in perfect waves around a heart-shaped face.

At that moment, the housekeeper arrived with a silver teapot and a tray of small sandwiches and pastries. Hannibal bustled about ensuring everyone was served, before sinking back in his favourite chair and smiling beneficently at the small gathering.

Delia and Patricia quickly learned that Lillian had only recently arrived in their country and was staying with an aunt in Boston for the summer. She had met Charles at the home of a mutual friend, and he had invited her up to the lake for the weekend.

It was readily apparent to the young women that Lillian simply regarded Charles as a friendly new acquaintance, while Charles had much more complex designs on the Englishwoman. He hung on her every word, and hastened to cater to her slightest desire before she could even voice it. His obsequiousness was in direct contrast to his outright rudeness to the recent arrivals, and more than once Lillian frowned at sharp words he directed at his longtime nemeses. When he noticed that it offended her, however, he immediately adjusted his behaviour and even went so far as to inquire sweetly after Patricia's studies that year.

It didn't take long for Delia and Patricia to decide that Lillian was a good egg, and must be rescued from Charles' web before she succumbed to his charms, threadbare though they considered those to be. When they departed an hour later, they barely made it out the door before they were discussing plans.

"We have to get her to see him for what he really is," Delia insisted.

Patricia agreed. "I know. I mean, I think she glimpsed that when he was so obnoxious to us, but unfortunately he was on his best behaviour by the end, so she might write it off as a momentary lapse."

"Timing is going to be a problem," Dee mused. "Hannibal invited her back for his Fourth of July party, but that gives Charles a month to work his wiles in Boston. If she doesn't see through him by then, we're going to have to do something dramatic that weekend to shake things up."

Implicitly acknowledging her friend's lead role in their years of high jinks, Patricia laughingly asked, "Any ideas, oh sly and wily one?"

"Not yet...but I'm working on it."

Chapter Two

The dark-haired man touched the match to the end of his cigarette and inhaled deeply. Despite the fact he was lounging in a rattan wing chair tucked in the corner of a spacious porch on a lazy, hot summer morning, nothing about him bespoke relaxation. His long legs, clad in sharply creased dark blue trousers, were crossed casually at the ankles, but one highly polished shoe twitched uncontrollably, as if tapping the air itself with impatience. His dazzling white shirt had lost its earlier crispness, though the young man had been sitting semi-concealed by draping ivy in the cool shade since he'd left his hosts' breakfast table. The ashtray on the floor at his side overflowed with butts, evidence of nerves that had not unwound despite the bucolic surroundings. And as they had for the past half hour, calculating brown eyes were studying the two young women laughing with each other as they waded along the beach below the luxurious summerhouse.

"Oh, there you are, Gareth! I was wondering where you'd gotten to." A slender, stylishly dressed, middle-aged woman stepped out onto the porch and smiled at the young man, tilting her head engagingly.

Gareth sprang to his feet, and nodded his head courteously at his hostess. "Mrs. Hawthorne. What a pleasure to see you this morning. You're looking even more beautiful than usual."

The woman waved dismissively at the soft pink dress she wore as if she had merely thrown on the first thing at hand, but in truth the elegant cut and expensive silk did perfectly suit her fine bones, delicate complexion, and rigidly styled blonde hair. "This old thing? Why, Gareth, you're just too kind."

She waved him back into his seat, while taking the chair beside him. Apologetically, he moved his ashtray to the opposite side and stubbed out his cigarette.

"Terrible habit, I'm afraid," he offered repentantly. "I really should quit."

"Oh, not at all." She laughed brightly, her voice as soft and musical as a child's.

Gareth wasn't fooled. He had seen his hostess in action, verbally eviscerating those fools who dared cross her with an elegant savagery that left her victims cowering in abject servility and properly restored to their place. Such rendering was always done in high-Boston idiom without ever raising her voice. The young man was well aware that she could be a lethal enemy-or equally, a powerful ally. He knew he was currently in her good graces because she had plans for him. Fortunately his plans coincided with hers, and he was determined to stay on her good side.

"My husband enjoys a fine cigar after dinner himself, and I certainly would never begrudge him one of his little pleasures. After all, he works terribly hard and should have an indulgence or two to lighten his load."

Gareth nodded agreeably, though he knew that the current generation of Hawthornes had inherited their substantial fortune, and Stanton III had done little to increase it.

Mrs. Hawthorne's cool blue eyes were assessing Gareth even as she engaged smoothly in small talk. "Is that son of mine still abed at this hour?"

Smiling, the young man nodded. "Yes, ma'am. I'm afraid he was very tired after driving up from the city last night."

An almost unladylike snort escaped the thin lips before the society matron caught herself. With a terse smile and a raised eyebrow, she mildly disagreed. "More likely my son was exhausted from partying all week in the city."

A small noncommittal chuckle was her only answer as Gareth decided that discretion was best called for when discussing her son and his best friend. Changing the subject, he said pleasantly, "I really appreciate you and Mr. Hawthorne having me up for the holiday weekend. It's always a pleasure to indulge in your hospitality."

Obviously deciding her son's shortcomings were best dealt with at another time, the woman smiled at her guest. "Not at all, Gareth. You're always welcome." Shooting a glance down at the beach where Patricia and Delia were now skipping stones, she frowned slightly then turned back to the young man. "After all, you're Four's best friend, and virtually part of the family already." With a small chuckle she added, "Who knows, from the way my daughter's been looking at you, you may be one of the family very soon."

There was underlying steel in the soft, cultured voice; and though Gareth knew that Patricia had never looked at him with anything but casual courtesy in her eyes, he understood the implicit message and ducked his head in acknowledgement.

"It would be my greatest honour should I be fortunate enough to ally myself with your wonderful family in the future, ma'am." Gareth projected his most sincere smile. Then with a patently rueful glance at the two women on the beach, he added softly, "I do hope I can get a chance to spend some time with your lovely daughter this weekend and let her get to know me better before I return to Boston."

This time Virginia Hawthorne made little effort to conceal her disdain as she eyed the young woman who was now laughing and splashing her daughter in a lively water fight. "I'm sure Patricia would be delighted to have someone other than...Miss Barrington to spend time with." She turned her icy gaze on Gareth. "She does come from a good family, but I'm afraid she's not always been the best influence on my daughter."

"Perhaps I could escort Patricia to your brother's July 4th celebration? I understand that's always a wonderful party."

With a tight, half-smile, the woman agreed. "My brother is renowned for his parties. People plan their entire summer vacations around his patriotic soirees. I have no doubt that Patricia would love to go with you this year."

Patting the young man firmly on the knee as if they had just concluded an agreement, she rose gracefully to her feet. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have an engagement in the city this afternoon and I've kept the driver waiting long enough."

Well aware that she would keep the driver waiting 'round the clock if it suited her, Gareth nonetheless took the hint and quickly jumped to his feet, smoothly ducking around her in order to open the door. She nodded her thanks, flashed him a coquettish smile, and slipped soundlessly past him into the house.

Gareth stared after her for a moment, then returned his gaze to the beach where the two women had begun to wander off in the direction of the Barrington summer home. Leaning on the porch railing, he tapped another of the endless line of cigarettes out of his pack, and flicked a match into life with his thumbnail.

"Patricia, Patricia, Patricia," he murmured through the smoke ring he'd exhaled. "Patricia Hawthorne Edwards." He tried the name on as if rolling a fine wine around his mouth, but there was no affection in the brown eyes focused on the retreating figure of the tall, slender, young blonde. His expression was more that of an accountant, toting up columns of figures and calculating a vital bottom-line.

An errant wisp of wind blew cigarette ash onto the sleeve of his shirt and he brushed it away absently, frowning when he saw that the edge of the cuff was faintly frayed. His jaw tightened as he regarded the evidence of his sinking fortune. He worked hard to maintain the illusion of wealth, knowing that if his friends and associates in the upper levels of Boston society became aware of his family's reduced circumstances, they would abandon him in a heartbeat, as if penury were contagious.

Gareth had the good fortune of being able to draw on the Edwards' position as longtime stalwarts of New York society. A whiff of scandal two years previously when his father and uncle were implicated in stock manipulations had been quickly hushed up, covered over so rapidly that most wrote it off as simply the usual business dealings-perhaps slightly shady, but perfectly in line with the normal trading standards, and certainly not something to be discussed in the finer salons of society.

The young man, who had been in his freshman year at Harvard, was shocked to learn that his family's fortune had evaporated almost overnight in the reparations that were the cost of keeping his father and uncle out of prison. At an emergency family summit, it was decided that all the chips would be placed on Gareth, the eldest son. Through the discreet sale of family possessions and holdings, his continuing education at Harvard was financed. The clothing, lodging, and vehicle supplied him were creditable enough not to raise eyebrows among his set, though perhaps not as fashionable as they might have been. Familial pressure on him to make, maintain, and exploit contacts with wealthy young men and women was immense. The amiable party boy, Stanton Hawthorne IV, had already been a casual friend, but after the Edwards' summit meeting, Gareth cultivated him assiduously and used their friendship to acquire a summer position in Hawthorne Industries, Inc.

One day, while waiting in his friend's suite for Four to get ready for a night on the town, Gareth had noticed a small family photo and the beautiful blonde woman standing between Stanton IV and another young woman holding a fussing baby. Casual questioning elicited that the blonde was one of Stanton's sisters, still unmarried and not, to Four's knowledge, seriously involved with anyone. Subtly wangling an invitation to join Four at the family estate for Christmas, Gareth had been introduced to Patricia for the first time, and on balance decided that she met all the criteria to be his wife. She came from a very wealthy family, would undoubtedly eventually inherit a good portion of that wealth, had extensive social connections through her family, would be an attractive ornament on his arm, and was ostensibly malleable enough that she wouldn't hinder his lifestyle unduly. When the elder Hawthornes made their approval of his obvious intentions known with a figurative wink and a nod, Gareth turned on his considerable charm. He'd had to return to Harvard with his ambitions temporarily frustrated, but he'd kept tabs on Patricia through Four, who was amused but helpful with his best friend's matrimonial crusade.

Forced by necessity to return to his summer job at Hawthorne Industries, Gareth used any opening to ingratiate himself with Stanton senior, as well as partying with Stanton junior and his cronies at every opportunity. His campaign had run into a snag when Four, having far too much fun in the city, dragged his heels about making the trip out to the lake where Patricia was spending her summer. Much to the young hustler's consternation, the July 4th long weekend was the first time he'd had access to the young blonde since Christmas, and he was determined to make the most of it. At breakfast, he had been delighted to see that only he and Patricia were at the table, and he'd worked hard to charm and flatter her. She hadn't turned a cold shoulder, but when he had suggested a walk after breakfast she'd politely turned him down, explaining she'd already made plans.

Which led to him covertly watching the two young women from the haven of the summerhouse porch. The friends had now disappeared around a bend in the shoreline, and Gareth spat in frustration.

"Don't get used to leaving me behind," he muttered fiercely. He briefly considered following the two women, but had little inclination to soil his gleaming shoes with sand. He turned several plans over in his mind, even as he considered the "competition" for his quarry's company. Gareth's research on his bride-to-be, albeit sketchy given that Four was his main source, had revealed the identity of his rival. Patricia had a best friend...well, two best friends, but one was apparently getting married and would soon be out of the picture.

Gareth frowned; puzzled at the blonde's apparent unwillingness to ditch the Barrington girl for him, as that had never been a problem with other women he had dated. Lighting a new cigarette off the old one, he pondered whether this might present a serious problem. Deciding to walk down to the pool, the young man descended the steps and followed the pinkish granite paving stones that wound along the front of the house through lush, manicured gardens to the azure pool. By the time he lowered himself into a deck chair beside the water, he'd decided that he couldn't simply dismiss this threat to his plans. He could not allow Delia Barrington to interfere. There was simply too much at stake.

*****************************************************

Delia glanced back over her shoulder, scanning the Hawthornes' porch uneasily as they walked away from the summerhouse. When she turned back, she found Patricia regarding her with amusement.

Defensively, she asked, "What?"

"He's not Beelzebub, you know, Dee. He's just Four's best friend, and he'll be heading back to the city with him after Uncle Hannibal's picnic."

Patricia's tone was one of playful indulgence, but Delia couldn't shake the uneasiness she had felt from the moment she'd arrived at Patricia's door that morning. She knew that her best friend had missed it, but she had seen the flash of raw anger across the young man's face when Patricia bid him a cheerful goodbye and turned to her. It had vanished almost instantaneously, but Dee was left with the unmistakable impression that he considered her a most unwelcome trespasser.

They rounded the bend in the shoreline that would lead to the Barrington summer home, and Patricia tucked her arm inside her friend's. Determined not to let Gareth ruin their day together, Delia smiled up into loving eyes and pushed the memory of that malevolent glare to the back of her mind.

"I should probably warn you that Mother is just waiting for the first opportunity to shanghai you into a dress fitting," Delia warned. "She's already had me pinned and poked and primped to the nines in those damned bridesmaid's rags, and now it's your turn."

Patricia groaned. "Just tell me that Andi didn't choose chartreuse."

Delia snorted. "She might as well have. Actually, the dresses are lilac. The color is all right, but there are way too many ruffles and frills. You can probably carry it off since you would look great in a gunnysack, but I look like a refugee from the Ziegfeld Follies. I asked Andi how she could do this to someone who had shared a womb with her, but she patted me on the head like I was a puppy and totally ignored my opinion. I'm going to feel like an idiot standing in that thing in front of three hundred people!"

The indignant recitation had Patricia in stitches, and Delia was delighted by her friend's mirth, even if it was at her expense. It was easier to forget her earlier apprehension when the woman she loved was laughing at her side as they walked along a beautiful shore on a hot, summer morning. Suddenly she grabbed her friend's hand and tugged her away from the water's edge toward the tree line.

Momentarily startled, Patricia quickly caught on and the two of them darted into the shade and privacy of the dense brush. Delia pressed her very willing friend up against a thick tree trunk.

The taller woman wrapped her arms around Dee's shoulders and smiled knowingly. "Are you trying to take advantage of me?" she whispered huskily.

That sound sent a thrill right through Delia's body and she murmured, "Mmmm, maybe..." Then words became superfluous as they lost themselves in the renewed pleasures of kisses and intimate touches.

It was only when Delia realized her damp shirt was half off and her hands had strayed down the back of Patricia's shorts, well on their way to unexplored territory, that she found the will to pull back from their torrid encounter. Gently she released the warm, firm flesh she'd been stroking and stilled her lover's hands, halting the delicious torment that had her nipples-and the rest of her body-screaming for relief. Sucking in deep breaths, she watched as Patricia fought for the same control. If the fervid look in her lover's eyes was any indication, they could have consummated their relationship right then, but Delia wanted more than a quick, fumbled liaison in a thoughtless, stolen moment. She wanted the luxury of time and of privacy, but mostly she wanted to be absolutely sure that this was what Patricia wanted. For all the pleasures and delights her imagination conjured for them to enjoy together, the dark flip side was picturing an uncertain and guilt-ridden lover running away from her...perhaps for good.

She would wait.

Patricia smiled at her sheepishly. "Um, sorry. Got a bit carried away there."

Delia returned the grin as she buttoned her shirt. "We got a bit carried away, but this probably isn't the best time or place."

"Mmm," the tall blonde agreed, tugging her clothes back into some semblance of order. "Good thing Gareth didn't decide to invite himself along."

A quick glance around reassured Delia that they were alone, and she chuckled shortly. "Wouldn't that have been an eyeful!"

Propriety restored, the young women resumed their walk, leaving the sanctuary of the thick forest for the easier path along the shoreline. Within ten minutes they came into sight of the Barrington summerhouse. Far less ostentatious than the Hawthorne estate, the large, old, two-story log residence had a relaxed, inviting air. Expansive picture windows overlooked a wide wraparound porch, and a massive stone chimney formed most of one end wall. A broad stretch of beach fronted the property where a canoe and a wooden, lapstrake runabout were tied up to a wharf that had seen better days. A deep fire pit lined with native stones was halfway between the lake and the house, and rustic Adirondack chairs littered the property. Rather than emulating the overly planned gardens and manicured lawns of many of its neighbours, the Barrington grounds were allowed to grow unfettered. Wildflowers and long, natural grasses competed for space, while untrimmed aspen, elm, and white ash overhung the house so that the faded log structure almost seemed one with them. Decades of Barrington progeny had worn paths from the house to the water, but the only thing that even resembled a paving stone was an asymmetric piece of concrete that one Theodore Barrington had long ago chiseled his name into, and which served as a perfectly good doorstop.

As the friends approached the house, another young woman stepped out onto the porch and waved excitedly. Smiles broke out on Patricia and Delia's face at the sight of the third member of the once inseparable trio, and they waved back.

The woman waiting impatiently for them was clearly Delia's identical twin with the same short, sturdy build, bright blue eyes and chestnut hair, though she wore her hair long in contrast to her sister's short, practical cut. When they had been children, they had often been mistaken for each other, except by their parents and Patricia. Delia had once asked her best friend how she could tell the difference, and the taller girl had simply said, "By your smiles." For a while she had studied her smile in the mirror looking for the telltale differences, but, never detecting what Patricia saw, had finally given up.

"I've been waiting for you two," Andrea said as the newcomers mounted the steps. "Mother wants to see you, Patricia. She said to send you right in."

Delia shot her friend a commiserating look as Patricia reluctantly headed for the back room that had been turned into "Wedding Central" by the twins' mother. Her eyes followed the tall blonde as she disappeared around the corner, and she heard her mother's exuberant welcome. Knowing that her strong-willed mother would occupy the reluctant bridesmaid for at least an hour, she turned to her sister, only to be met by an amused smile and knowing eyes.

"What?" Delia demanded, even as Andrea began dragging her up the stairs to their bedroom.

"What what?" Andrea answered blithely, with patent disingenuousness.

Delia snorted, trotting up the stairs behind her twin. "What was that look all about?"

Andrea paused on the threshold, serious now as she turned to regard her sister. Puzzled, Delia waited for her to speak, but her twin just shook her head and beckoned her to follow.

Slightly bewildered by the odd, unspoken exchange, Delia trailed her sister into their room. Perching on her bed, she leaned back on her elbows and watched as Andrea absently picked up items on her dresser and mindlessly set them back down again. Knowing with a lifetime of experience that her twin was working up to something, but would take her time before revealing her thoughts, she let her eyes drift around their room.

It was a very large room, taking up a full third of the upper floor with three big dormer windows that overlooked the lake and flooded the inviting room with sunshine. Two double sleigh beds were narrowly separated by a battered, pine night table. Thick, solid beams braced the vaulted ceiling, supported by sturdy log walls, worn smooth by the passage of years. Generations of Barrington children had etched their initials into the corner wall behind a dresser, each unconsciously marking the inexorable course of time. Ugly, comfortable, paisley armchairs abutted a huge, rough-hewn wardrobe that had harbored everything from children's swimming suits and pajamas to an unlucky snake smuggled in by the twins' father when he was ten. When the girls turned twelve they were offered one of the guest rooms as a means to split up and each have their own bedroom, but after a moment's consideration they refused. Neither could bear to give up whispered midnight confidences, or the way the stars shone just so when they lay with their heads against the footboards and watched the universe through the clear glass. Their father had smiled gently, perhaps remembering a time when he and his younger brother had turned down a similar offer.

"Delia..." Andrea's voice trailed off, then she began again. "Dee, I..."

Again she stopped, and her sister stared at her in bewilderment. There had never been anything they couldn't share. Drawing in a deep breath, Andrea turned and marched determinedly over to her bed, sitting down opposite her lolling sister.

Delia sat up, and with their knees touching, teased her uncharacteristically tongue-tied sibling. "So what it is, Andi? Need some advice on your wedding night?"

At that, Andrea laughed and cuffed her twin lightly. "Not likely! Thom and I will manage just fine, thank you very much. Besides, somehow I doubt that Thom would appreciate any expert advice you might have to offer."

It was an offhanded acknowledgement of the tension between Delia and her future brother-in-law, and the young woman wondered if that was what was bothering her sister. Remembering Patricia's advice, she decided to extend an olive branch.

"You two make a great couple, and you're not going to need anyone's advice, I'm sure."

Andrea smiled wryly, but chose to accept her sister's overture. "Thanks, Dee. I know Thom can be a little...stiff at times, but he's really good to me; and I do love him."

"Then that's all that matters," Delia replied, resolving to put aside her reservations about Andi's stiff-necked future husband.

"Yes, it is...and speaking of which, are you ever going to tell me?"

Delia blinked at the apparent non-sequiter. "Um, tell you?"

Andrea shook her head and sighed. "About the love of your life, of course."

She froze at her twin's words, unsure if her sister had discerned her feelings for their friend, reluctant to admit it if she didn't know, but also unwilling to deny her heart's truth.

A warm hand curled around hers and a gentle smile reassured her. "It's not like I haven't known for years, Dee. I used to wake up sometimes when she slept over and find the two of your curled around each other like a pair of puppies, even up to last week. You gravitate to each other no matter who else is in the vicinity, and the way you look at each other, you'd think the sun and moon revolved around you both."

Delia felt the rise of panic. If they had been that obvious, who knew how many others were privy to their secret.

Reading her like an open book, her sister hastened to reassure her. "It's okay. I really don't think anyone who doesn't know you as well as I do would've noticed. After all, we've all been best friends since we were little, so no one thinks twice about our hanging around together all the time." Growing more somber, Andrea continued, "But you have to be careful, Dee. Once the wedding is over and I'm gone, there's bound to be more attention focused on you and her."

"I know, but we'll be going back up to Smith at the end of the summer." Delia sought comfort in that thought, before hesitantly asking, "Do you think Dad and Mother would understand?"

"I'm not sure they would understand, but I don't think they would make your life a living hell over it either. Mrs. Hawthorne on the other hand..." Andrea shuddered visibly. "You weren't around to see the fall-out after Patricia got her father's permission to go to Smith. Her mother was livid in that oh so subtle, well-bred way of hers. Her youngest daughter had crossed her once and gotten away with it; I'm not so sure it would be conceivable a second time. And you know there's just no possibility that they'd accept you two as lovers."

"Do you?" Delia stared at her hands, awaiting her twin's judgment.

Andrea sighed deeply. "At first I had a lot of trouble believing it was happening. Then when I accepted that it was and that it went both ways, I got scared for you and her. I wished that it could be different, because I can't see how you two can have a happy ending and I love you both so much." Squeezing her twin's hand, her voice softened. "But falling in love with Thom opened my eyes. There's just nothing like this feeling, is there?"

Delia looked up in relief. "No, there isn't."

"For what it's worth, Dee, you have my blessing. I've always considered Patricia one of the family, anyway. If there's ever anything I can do for either of you, just let me know, but please, please be careful."

The sisters leaned forward and met in a fierce hug. Drawing back, Andrea smiled ruefully. "It would be best if you didn't tell Thom about this, all right?"

Delia chuckled and nodded her acquiescence. It wasn't like she was about to begin sharing confidences with her prudish brother-in-law to be anyway.

More relaxed now, Andrea stretched out sideways on the bed, fixing amused eyes on her sister. "You do realize that I'm putting up with all Mother's fuss just for your sake?" she quipped.

Recognizing her sister's attempt to lighten the mood, Dee responded with mock outrage. "My sake? How in heaven's name is it for my sake?"

Grinning, Andi explained. "I'm letting her sate herself on my wedding so she doesn't bother you to come up with a fiancÚ too."

"Oh, like you're not loving every moment of it," Delia scoffed. "You and Mother are having the time of your life debating every infinitesimal detail of the ceremony."

Apparently deciding no verbal response was required, Andrea sprang up and launched herself at her twin, bearing Delia to the mattress under a flurry of tickling fingers. The battle ended in a draw, with both sisters laughing themselves into helplessness as usual. Contented, they lay across the double bed, idly contemplating the sun-dappled ceiling.

"I'm going to miss this," Andrea murmured.

Delia sighed in response. "Won't be the same without you, that's for sure."

They fell silent, but before melancholy could overtake them, Andrea elbowed her twin. "Shall we go rescue Patricia from Mother's clutches?"

Nodding, Delia rose to follow her sister, still warmed by Andi's loving acceptance but unable to shake a niggling uneasiness that overshadowed her joy. If they didn't tread very carefully, Mrs. Hawthorne would be a formidable obstacle to any future with Patricia.

Chapter Three

"There's only one shot left on the film, Dee. Hold still so I can finish it off, please?"

Patricia cajoled her impatient friend as she fiddled with her Brownie Cresta 3. Ever since her parents had given her a Baby Brownie Special a decade earlier when she was eleven, she'd been an avid photographer. Her mother encouraged her interest, hoping that the genteel hobby would dissuade her daughter from less ladylike pursuits with Dee and Andi.

Instead, Patricia's succession of Brownie cameras had caught hundreds of images of the three friends as they grew and romped together. One of Patricia's favorite pictures had been snapped of Charles' outraged face when he discovered his new sports car egged by the trio in retaliation for him squealing on Andi when the girl had snuck out to meet a boy at a forbidden dance.

"Let me take the next one of you," Delia urged, obviously tired of being the subject of her friend's obsession. "We'll take the horses back, go down to the pavilion, and cool off in the lake."

Patricia hesitated. In her opinion she could never have enough pictures of Dee, but long experience had taught her to read the signals of impatience. Reluctantly she lowered the gray plastic box and was met with a relieved grin.

Dee snagged the reins of Sunburst and Traveler, two of Hannibal's older horses-long past their competitive jumping days, but perfectly suited to desultory ambles on hot summer days. Passing Traveler's reins to Patricia, Dee expertly swung up on Sunburst, a tall chestnut with a wide girth.

Taking a moment to admire her friend's athleticism, the blonde stowed her camera in the bay's saddlebag and mounted up. The horses automatically started back towards the ranch, following the wide path that edged the meadow where they had picnicked earlier. Riding side by side, Patricia felt the occasional brush of her bare leg against her friend's. The contact, brief and intermittent though it was, was enough to make her shift in the saddle, seeking an unnamed relief.

Nearing the edge of the meadow, they entered the stretch of forest that separated them from Hannibal's ranch. Cantering ahead, Delia took up the lead on the narrowed path, and Patricia was grateful for the opportunity to observe her friend undetected. She considered the tousled hair, just a few shades lighter than Sunburst's sweat-darkened flanks. Her eyes trailed over the sturdy shoulders and solid thighs that gripped the horse securely. Her memory summoned up a picture of their bodies surging together in one of their many late night trysts.

Closing her eyes and trusting Traveler to follow his stable mate, she allowed her mind to conjure up the sensation of warm, supple flesh straining against her own as hands and mouths frantically sought each other out. She almost groaned aloud as she recalled how much harder it was to stop each time they came together. Patricia knew Dee only held back because of her fears, and she was well aware that it was only her anxieties that prevented them from moving beyond her imposed limits. The first time Delia's hand had slipped under the waistband of her pajamas, she'd frozen, desperate for her lover to continue and equally desperate for her to stop. With exquisite tenderness, the other woman had pulled back and whispered, "When you're ready, my love."

I'm ready. Oh, God, am I ever! Patricia slid back then forward in her saddle, trying to calm the incessant longing that was driving her to distraction. With the intensity of their studies over for the time, and the two young women together constantly on the long, lazy summer days, the blonde was being driven half-mad with longing. However, her fears were still ascendant. She was terrified that her parents would learn the true nature of her feelings for her longtime best friend, and couldn't begin to imagine what they'd do if the truth emerged. The only thing she knew for certain was that they'd separate the lovers if they could, and the mere thought of that was enough to sicken her.

At that moment, Delia glanced over her shoulder, flashing Patricia a broad grin. "Did I tell you that I came up with a plan to thwart Charles' romantic aspirations?"

Breathing a silent prayer of thanks for the diversion, Patricia shook her head. "No, you didn't, oh fearless and sneaky leader. So, what are we going to do? Kidnap him? Kidnap her?"

Laughing, Delia shook her head. "No, we're going to show Lillian the true nature of Charles' pusillanimous and perfidious character."

"Wow, pusillanimous and perfidious...I like it already." Patricia chuckled gleefully. "And how exactly are we going to demonstrate this?"

Delia ducked under a branch overhanging the trail before answering. "What do you think would be the likelihood of Charles following the ancient maxim of 'Women and children first,' if his precious life was in danger?"

Patricia snorted derisively. "Zero to none."

"Exactly what I thought. So what would happen if he took Lillian out on the boat, and it began to sink?"

A wide smile spread over Patricia's face. "Oh, you're evil! You know Charles hates to swim."

It was true. The trio had learned early that the best way to escape Charles' torment was to spend summer days on the raft anchored in the middle of the lake, as Charles was an awkward, inept, and fearful swimmer, unlike the girls who were virtually water nymphs. Unfortunately, Hannibal had turned his attention from his precious horses long enough to acquire a Lyman 15 foot outboard runabout several years before.

Charles had taken to the boat with gusto, using it to torment bathers and fishermen all over the lake until his father, alerted by angry neighbors to his son's activities, clamped down on him. Charles was now more careful, but the boat was a stock part of his romantic repertoire. Lake Sivert had crystal clear waters, abundant sheltered coves and inlets, and thickly forested slopes on the eastern end. There were even a few old, abandoned cabins that Charles and his conquests were undoubtedly familiar with.

"So what's the plan?" Patricia loved the sparkle of mischief in Dee's bright blue eyes as she began to outline the scheme.

"According to my mother, who was talking to Uncle Hannibal, Charles is bringing Lillian to the lake tomorrow evening. Everyone will be gathered on Tuesday for the traditional July 4th celebration, and I'm sure your dear cousin will seize the opportunity to take her out for a little ride on the lake. Monday night, you, Andi, and I sneak out and loosen a couple of the boards just above water level towards the stern where he'll be sitting. If I've got this calculated right, when they both sit down in the boat, they'll lower it in the lake enough so that water will soon start rushing in. You know Charles always roars away from the dock, so by the time he clues in to what's happening, they should be halfway across the lake."

Patricia considered the plan carefully. "But doesn't it seem unfair to Lillian to get her soaked, too? And what if she can't swim?"

"I'll bring our boat over on some pretext and have it standing by when they go out. Plus, we'll insist that she wear a life jacket. Look at it this way, Patty: we're saving her from a lifetime of having to put up with Charles. Surely that's worth a couple of wet feet."

The blonde thought about it. Did the ends justify the means in this case? She had seen numerous young women fall for her cousin's good looks, money, and veneer of charm, only to be tossed aside like yesterday's trash when he got bored. While Lillian seemed far too levelheaded to be taken in, Charles was obviously making an extra effort to woo her. She shuddered at the thought of anyone having to endure her cousin for a lifetime of wedded sorrow.

Patricia gave her answer. "All right, I'm in." Then she frowned. "The only fly in the ointment might be Mother. She's already made it plain that I'm expected to accompany Gareth to the party, and I'm not sure how to get out of it."

Delia scowled fiercely over her shoulder, and the blonde was taken aback by the intensity of her reaction. She strained to hear what her friend muttered under her breath, but was unable to decipher the angry rumble.

The horses had reached the edge of the forest where the path widened before paralleling the white rails of the far pastures. Dee reined in Sunburst and waited for her friend to join her. Patricia guided Traveler up beside the chief plotter and reached out a hand to squeeze Delia's knee.

"Hey, don't worry about it, Dee. I'll think of something." She thought for a moment and brightened. "I know! I'll tell Mother that Uncle Hannibal wants me to stay with Lillian tomorrow night, as he doesn't feel it's proper to have a young lady in the house with just two men and an old, half-deaf housekeeper. I'll lay it on thick about her being English aristocracy, and Mother will eat it up. You know how she is about titles and propriety."

Delia stared at her admiringly, her pique fading rapidly. "Oh, you're good. You know all the right buttons to push, don't you?"

Patricia chuckled. "I should by now."

"What about at the party itself? Is she going to expect you to hang on Gareth's arm the whole time?" Delia's voice was worried, and her friend hadn't missed how she had spat the man's name.

"I don't think so," she answered hesitantly. "After all, there'll be plenty of people around for him to hang out with, including Four and his buddies. I think she was just being polite to a visitor. I'll make sure I go over and say hello at the party, and that should satisfy Mother."

"The only thing that's going to satisfy your mother is to see you in a white dress standing at the altar with that man."

The words were soft and sad, and alarmed Patricia more than Delia's earlier anger.

"Whoa! That's not going to happen! I'm not in the least interested in Gareth. I thought I'd made it perfectly clear where my heart lies..."

The two women stared at each other for a long moment, then Delia nodded noncommittally before signaling Sunburst to begin moving. Feeling a rush of panic, Patricia urged Traveler forward and grabbed Delia's reins, halting both their horses in an awkward entanglement.

"Listen to me," Patricia insisted hotly. Then seeing she had Delia's complete attention, she gentled her voice to an intense whisper. "Nothing and no one is going to separate us. I won't let them." And as she uttered the words, she knew them for the truth. She would brave her family's censure-she would brave society's condemnation-she would brave anything the world could throw at her for the joy of being in this woman's arms. "I love you. I want to be with you forever, no matter what it takes."

The smile spreading across Delia's face engendered a wild giddiness that flooded through Patricia. Quickly she dismounted and ran around to Sunburst's side, reaching up as the shorter woman slid off the saddle and into her eager arms. Relying on equine bulk to shield them from the distant ranch house, they embraced feverishly, bodies straining together and lips seeking reaffirmation of their love.

Lost in each other, they failed to notice that the edge of the tree line thirty feet behind them was broken by an irregular shadow, a shadow that didn't fit the natural contours of the forest's edge or move even slightly as a breeze rustled past.

The heady joy that had fueled their embrace finally subsided and the women drew apart, smiling with the pure, undiluted pleasure of young love on an endless summer's day. Remounting, they cantered off in the direction of the ranch house, the sound of their laughter floating behind them.

**********************************************************

Stanton Hawthorne IV looked up as his best friend rounded the corner of the summer home. The slight, blonde man was the picture of indolence as he lolled in a deck chair by the pool, dressed in dazzling white from head to foot. The only splashes of color about him were his pale blue eyes, a red ribbon on his foppish straw boater, and a yellow silk cravat knotted loosely around his throat. Long slender fingers held an almost empty martini glass as he lazily saluted Gareth's approach.

"I was wondering where you'd gotten to. Come join me in a drink. You'll need the fortification. Julianne and her squalling brats are due to arrive within the hour."

Gareth shook his head as he took the chair next to his friend. "No thanks, not in the mood."

"Nonsense. Trust me. No one should have to deal with my sister's children without liquid reinforcement." Stanton gave a dramatic shudder and sipped his drink before casting a jaundiced eye at the new arrival. "Besides, you look positively pale, old man. What have you been doing?"

"Just walking about. Exploring the lake." Gareth's words were clipped, but it didn't faze the young hedonist at all.

"Well, that's the problem, then. Exercise and afternoon sun simply don't go together." He signaled a servant who had been discreetly waiting in the shadow of the pool house. "Two more of the same, Randall. Actually, bring out a pitcher while you're at it."

The servant nodded and walked quickly back to the main house.

Gareth raised an eyebrow. "You might want to take it easy, Four. I got the impression your mother wasn't exactly happy about our delayed arrival on Friday night."

The young man grimaced. "I know. I've already been lectured up one side and down the other. I got the whole spiel about how my current behaviour affects my future, and how I can't afford any scandal whatsoever if I'm going to be President some day. She even issued directives on whom I'm to talk to at Hannibal's party. Seems mummsy and dear old dad prevailed on my uncle to invite some GOP bigwigs. Apparently they feel it's none too soon to start grooming me and getting my toes in the door." He waggled one loafer derisively and drained his drink, letting the empty glass dangle loosely.

"You don't seem too keen about the whole idea," Gareth commented, his dark eyes searching his friend's face.

"Well, it certainly was never my brilliant idea to become leader of the bloody Free World. Too damned much work, if you ask me."

The brief emotional outburst seemed to drain the young man and he sank deeper in his chair, a sullen look distorting his handsome features. The squall quickly passed, however, as Randall returned with a tray holding a crystal decanter set in a bowl of ice, two fresh glasses, and a small silver dish of olives. Stanton roused himself enough to exchange his empty for a new drink, then settled back, sighing with satisfaction before dismissing the servant with a brief nod. Randall departed, leaving the two men to their martinis and conversation.

Gareth poured himself a drink, but unlike his friend, did not settle comfortably into his chair. Instead he held himself stiffly on the edge of his seat, one leg folded awkwardly under the other, rigid fingers gripping the glass tightly. He allowed himself a small sip before asking, "So, if you don't want to be President, what do you want to be?"

"I don't want to be anything but what I am...obscenely, independently wealthy." Stanton waved a graceful hand at his surroundings. "I am the consummate wastrel, the crowning achievement of generations of careful breeding-rather like one of Hannibal's jumpers, if you will. I can dance like Fred Astaire; I can mix a perfect martini; I have an excellent serve and an adequate backhand; I know the difference between baccarat and chemin de fer; and I can charm ladies of all ages from grande dames to teenaged girls... In short, I serve a purpose. I am the one invited when a dinner party is one body short, when a foursome is required for tennis or bridge, or when an elderly aunt must be persuaded that her nephew is really a decent, hard-working chap, even though he's run through most of his fortune at the track. I am seen at the best places with the best people. I am a friend to one and all-providing they can afford my company, of course. After all, do you ask a Monet to be more than a painting? Of course not. It is what it is, and therein lies its intrinsic value."

Shaking his head at his friend's cheerful cynicism, Gareth posed a question. "But what happens if your parents won't permit you to live the life of leisure you want? I can't see your mother giving up on her dream of you being President too easily. If you don't cooperate, won't they close the bank vault to you?"

"Ah, I see Mother has you wrapped around her elegant pinky, too." Stanton chuckled lightly, one blonde eyebrow raised disdainfully. "You only have to learn how to handle her. You let her think she's getting her way, while quietly having your own. For instance, on Tuesday I will attend Hannibal's party, stone cold sober and dressed to the nines. I will be the bright, ambitious, up and comer that she deludes herself I am. I will converse intelligently and knowledgably with the men she's arranged to have at the party, paying them the compliment of hanging on their every word. They'll leave thinking I'm quite the fine chap, one with a sterling future, though far too young to take seriously yet, and Mother will be satisfied. She'll back off, and I'll return to my normal ways until the next time her ambition raises its ugly head."

"But eventually she's going to catch on," Gareth insisted, his brow furrowed. "What are you going to do then?"

"Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Absolutely nothing." The young man beamed with self-satisfaction. "You see, as much as Mother wants to be First Grandmama, that lust is overshadowed by her biggest fear."

"Which is?"

"Scandal." Stanton tipped his boater back and smirked. "For Mother to disown me would be a tacit admission that all was not perfect within the hallowed walls of her family. She would rather slit her throat than concede that vile possibility. And since she knows I'd make a huge stink if I were forced to become useful," he shuddered at the very thought, "she'll simply fold her cards and find another venue for her ambitions."

Gareth nodded thoughtfully, impressed with his friend's analysis. He hadn't expected that depth of thought from the self-indulgent young man. "So, what-you've never had a scandal in the family?"

Stanton cocked his head slightly and pursed his lips. "Well, there was the time my Great-Uncle Jonathon briefly took up with an Italian comtessa while on a summer jaunt to the Continent, but Great-Grandmama quickly put a stop to that, so I don't think that would count. He had the good sense to expire young, because the family was still haranguing him about his misdeeds until the day he died, a dissipated and disappointed bachelor."

The young man finished his drink and poured another, raising an inquisitive eyebrow at Gareth's barely touched martini. Gareth hastily swallowed it down and allowed his friend to refill his glass, intrigued that this cocktail hour was turning out to be much more informative than he'd anticipated.

"So, when I was walking about, I noticed your sister out horseback riding with her friend-what's her name again?" Gareth asked casually.

"Well, it'll either be Andi or Dee. Never could tell those two apart." Stanton smiled benevolently at his friend. "You've really got it bad for Patricia, don't you?"

"I think she'd be perfect for me." Gareth forced enthusiasm into his voice and rushed on. "She's really everything I've been looking for in a wife, you know? I mean she's gorgeous and bright and sweet."

"And loaded."

Gareth looked up sharply, but Stanton just smiled placidly and sipped his drink.
Uncomfortable with his friend's insight, he steered the conversation carefully.

"Well, of course, you never know how these things will go. She might have her eye on someone else."

"Like that's ever stopped you before," the blonde man yawned. "Besides, I don't think I've ever seen my sister get serious about anyone, so the field is probably clear for you."

"Mmm," Gareth murmured noncommittally. "Is Andi the twin that's getting married next month?"

"Uh huh. She's hitching up with some Canadian preacher-type. He doesn't look like he'd know a good time if it hit him over the head. Still, it should be a great party. The Barringtons are old money, and I hear Mrs. B is sparing no expense on her daughter's soiree."

"So the other twin-Dee, is it? Is she seeing anyone that you know of?"

Stanton chortled. "Covering all your bases, old man?" When Gareth straightened indignantly, he raised a placating hand. "Didn't say I blamed you, but in all honesty, I have no idea if Dee's seeing anyone. She's always just been Patricia's best friend and not exactly my type, so I never made inquiries. She and my sister go to Smith College, so she may have someone there. Hell, ask her out. That's one way to find out."

"I'm really not interested in her," Gareth denied stiffly. "I'm only interested in what kind of friends Patricia has. You know, what interests her and what they like to do for fun."

"Oh, I get it. Get the best friend on your side, and it'll make the path of romance smoother. Yes, I've worked that angle myself. Hmmm, well she's the sturdy, outdoorsy type. Not my cup of tea at all, though she's a pretty good egg. Plays a mean game of tennis, she does."

"Outdoorsy? What do you mean-like hiking in the woods and such?" Gareth's eyes narrowed speculatively.

"Dunno. More likely riding. She's always spent a ton of time at Hannibal's, and my uncle had all three of them riding almost as soon as they could walk. One time when I was little, I thought sure she'd broken her damned neck. She was sailing over fences on this gigantic beast when it stumbled and threw her off. Turned out it just knocked the wind out of her, but it scared the hell out of me!" Stanton heaved a melodramatic sigh and took a deep sip of his martini to punctuate his story.

"A bit of a daredevil, is she? Likes to take chances?"

The blonde man shrugged carelessly. "Well I don't know about that. She does take her father's old motorcycle into town all the time, and if you ask me, riding that piece of junk is living dangerously. I think Mr. B's father brought it back from the First World War. You sure wouldn't get me on that deathtrap for all the gold in Fort Knox."

Just then a loud honking was heard at the end of the long driveway, and a huge blue sedan drove into view. Stanton scowled and drained his glass. "God, the rabble has arrived." Picking up the crystal pitcher, he stood. "This pool will be crawling with squalling brats within moments. If I were you, I'd retreat. Join me in father's study, if you like. They're not allowed in the sanctum sanctorum. It's about the only place in the house that's safe."

He strode away with unaccustomed haste as Gareth looked after him speculatively.

"So, it's a deathtrap, is it?"

The murmured words were lost in the clamour of small children piling out of the sedan, and Gareth quickly decided discretion was the better part of valour. Moving swiftly, he followed his friend into the summerhouse, abandoning the field to the newly arrived juvenile interlopers.

***************************************************

"Shhh, not so loud!"

Patricia's caution was met with a smothered giggle as Delia resumed tapping her small chisel lightly between the planks of the runabout. They'd dragged the boat out of the water onto the dock and had spent the last twenty minutes working on loosening several of the stern boards by the light of the stars and a small flashlight.

"There! That should do it," Delia whispered as she set aside her tools. "Let's slide it back into the water and see what happens."

The women eased the boat back into the water, wincing as it splashed, though none were awake to hear it at two in the morning. Intently they studied the small vessel as it rocked gently beside the dock, their handiwork above the waterline.

"Looks okay," Patricia said hopefully.

"Uh huh, this should do the trick," her fellow subversive responded with satisfaction. "We just have to make sure that no one uses it before Charles and Lillian, especially the kids."

"Why don't we take them out in your boat first thing, and then we'll be out on the lake when it happens, in case Lillian needs any help," the blonde woman suggested, helping to gather up the tools.

"Good idea," Delia agreed, casting a glance over to where she and Andi had tied up on the opposite side upon their arrival earlier in the evening. "Now, let's get these back to the stable and sneak back into bed."

The co-conspirators trotted back up the beach and across manicured lawns, dodging around the picnic tables, chairs, and umbrellas festooned with red, white and blue bunting in preparation for the Fourth's festivities. Stowing their ill-gotten equipment in the stable's tool shop, they swung the big door shut as quietly as possible, grateful that Hannibal insisted on rigid maintenance of all the barns and outbuildings.

Once outside they stood for a moment, inhaling the sweet night air and listening to the song of the frogs and crickets. Patricia glanced sideways, enjoying the way the soft moonlight caressed her friend's face. Delia smiled up at her, then took her hand, gently tugging her in the direction of the ranch house.

Hand in hand they walked back to rear of the sprawling, two-story, white building. Their plans had gone perfectly so far. Hannibal had enthusiastically embraced the idea of the three friends joining Lillian in a sleepover, and Patricia's mother had reluctantly acquiesced to the propriety of not leaving the English guest alone with her brother and nephew. Andi had jumped on her twin's plan with glee, delighted to see Charles' get his comeuppance one last time before she left the Three Musketeers for life in Toronto.

The three women had spent a pleasant evening with Hannibal and the foreign visitor, ignoring Charles' scowls as Lillian made her delight in their company readily apparent. Then Andi and Lillian had retired to one guestroom, as the other two had taken their customary room down the hall. Both rooms were in the opposite wing from Hannibal and Charles, and housed the elderly housekeeper too, but she was unlikely to be wakened by less than the sound of a cannon outside her bedroom door and they'd had no problem sneaking out.

Relishing the feel of Delia's hand in hers, Patricia's mind drifted idly to earlier that evening and Andi's conspiratorial wink at her twin as she'd quickly volunteered to sleep in Lillian's room when it had come time to retire.

Suddenly cognizant that that wink might have had more meaning than just an unspoken alliance between conspirators, Patricia pulled her companion to a halt. Startled, Delia turned to see why.

"Does Andi know about us?" Patricia asked, unsure which answer she hoped for.

Dee nodded.

"And she doesn't... I mean, she's not mad at us or anything?"

The shorter woman smiled. "She said she wondered what took us so long, and that she knew ages ago."

Patricia's eyebrows rose at that, and as they resumed their walk, she pondered the implications. Finally, she sought reassurance. "She won't say anything to anyone, will she?"

They had reached the back trellis that they would have to climb to reach their room. Delia paused, then took both Patricia's hands. "This is Andi we're talking about, Patty. She's one of us; you know that. She doesn't recommend telling the world, but she would never betray us. Trust her, sweetheart, like I do."

The taller blonde touched on the deeper implications, her voice trembling. "If Andi knows, do you think anyone else does? Have we given ourselves away somehow?"

"My concern, too; but she says not." Delia stepped closer, pulling the other woman into her arms and hugging her fiercely as she whispered, "We're safe, love."

Patricia relaxed into the embrace, her fears pushed aside by the pleasure of the moment. Without even her usual instinctive glance around, she lowered her head and touched her lips to Delia's. What began as a light buss to bolster her confidence quickly escalated to passion as the adrenaline of the night's activities spurred them on. Only the sound of Dee's low gasp recalled Patricia to her senses enough to pull back. Swallowing, she indicated the trellis.

"Up," she croaked unsteadily.

Delia stared at her, eyes dark with emotion, then she turned wordlessly and began to climb. The trellis was a familiar route for the women, one they'd used since childhood when staying with Uncle Hannibal, so Patricia didn't have to consider where to place her feet. That left her mind free to appreciate the body climbing ahead of her, and by the time she slithered in over the windowsill, she was feverish to hold her lover.

Frenzied, they came together, fingers fumbling with zippers and buttons, shedding clothes until finally they fell together naked on Delia's bed. And as Patricia rose above her lover, she knew this time she wouldn't stop-couldn't stop. With everything that she was, she needed all that the other woman could give.

Straddling the shorter body, she took Delia's hand and guided it to where she had longed for it. As the strong fingers slid firmly across soft, swollen flesh and into her wet depths, she moaned with pleasure, her hips moving of their own accord. Forcing her eyes open, she drank in the loving delight on Dee's face, the eyes that adored her even as they devoured her. Swamped by the physical and emotional overload, she found herself quickly on the edge and unable to hold back. Moving frantically, she tried to stifle her cries as the powerful waves pulsed through her. Finally falling forward, she collapsed into welcoming arms.

"I'm sorry. Too fast."

The panted words were muffled by Delia's hair, but her lover seemed to understand them. "Shhhh," she whispered, carefully rolling Patricia over onto her back and beginning a slow, gentle stroking from her lover's face down to slender thighs and back again, sparking a resurgence of desire in the exhilarated woman. "We have all the time in the world, my love. Don't worry about a thing."

And as Delia's head lowered and lips closed firmly around her nipple, Patricia's body arched and her mind let everything else go, content to live for the moment in the idyll they'd created for themselves.

Chapter Four

Gareth kept pace with Stanton IV as they walked from where his friend had parked his red convertible behind the stable to Hannibal's lakeside party, already in progress though it was barely noon. Despite the shortness of the walk around the lake from the Hawthorne summer home to Hannibal's ranch house, Stanton had insisted on taking the car to preserve the brilliant shine on his oxfords. True to his word, the young man was dressed to the nines in sharply creased light gray trousers, a dark blue blazer over a crisp white shirt, his Harvard tie knotted far less flamboyantly than normal, and his blonde hair slicked back in a conservative collegial style.

Even his demeanour had undergone a radical change. Absent was the airy insouciance of the previous day. Yesterday's hedonist now strode purposefully across the lawn, his carriage erect, and his expression resolute and serious-the very picture of an ambitious young statesman.

Still marveling at the transformation in his friend from aesthete to ascetic, Gareth slowed and watched as Stanton veered towards the small group of middle-aged and older men loosely grouped around Stanton Sr. and Virginia, their beverages and spouses readily at hand. He had no doubt that these were the Republican eminences grise whom Four had been firmly instructed to impress.

He couldn't help chuckling to himself as he watched the reaction of the senior Hawthornes when their usually indolent scion smoothly infiltrated the gathering and embarked on his campaign to dazzle. Stanton III watched his son with open amazement, while his subtler spouse merely arched one eyebrow, then nodded briefly in approval.

Hearing the roar of a boat motor, Gareth turned towards the dock, watching idly as a man powered his runabout out into the lake. His attention was distracted by another boat not far away and his eyes narrowed as he recognized Patricia with several small, life-jacketed children. A scowl covered his face for an instant as he recognized who was driving. The bitch! Refusing to accord Delia the status of rival, he had settled on simply viewing her as an odious impediment.

Before Gareth's thoughts could continue in that vein, his attention was drawn back to the first boat by shouts and wild curses as the boat slowed to a halt, its momentum stalled by an increasingly apparent wallow. Startled, he watched as the boat clearly sank lower in the rear and the man bailed frantically. Obviously giving it up as a lost cause, the driver jumped frantically from the craft and flailed towards shore, abandoning his hapless passenger.

Within seconds, the other boat pulled alongside and the woman gingerly transferred to Patricia's runabout, shaking her soaked feet. Gareth reluctantly had to admit to himself that Delia handled her craft skillfully, as she came about and snagged the lead rope. Navigating carefully, she slowly steered back towards shore, towing the damaged boat, which having been relieved of its human cargo, had risen slightly higher in the water.

Gareth watched Delia slow the boat alongside the floundering swimmer in the water, but a resounding "No," drifted across the water. Amused by the exclamation and emphatic gesture that the one-time passenger gave her wet, would-be paramour, the dark-haired man lit a cigarette and settled into a lawn chair to watch the little drama. He had no idea who the rescued female passenger was, but now recognized the man in the lake as Four's cousin, to whom he'd briefly been introduced at a party in the city.

After the three women and children disembarked, Delia secured both boats while Patricia accompanied Lillian back to the house. Gareth eyed his intended as she passed within feet of him without so much as a nod of acknowledgement, but then his attention was dragged back to the shore, where Charles was wading from the water, glaring at the target of his wrath who stood calmly on the beach.
Livid, the sodden man screamed at Delia. "You fucking bitch! You sabotaged my boat!"

The picture of innocence, Delia merely smiled and cocked her head at her accuser. "Now why would I do something like that?"

Charles' carefully styled blonde hair was plastered to his forehead, rivulets of water tracking down his face. He savagely wiped the water from his eyes and came to stop in front of Delia. Towering over the short woman, his face a mask of rage, he snapped, "Because you couldn't stand the thought that I'd found someone to make me happy, when no man in his right mind would ever want you!"

Delia's laughter rang out and her words could be clearly heard throughout the crowd, which was now avidly watching the confrontation. "Temper, temper, Charles. Remember your father's rules when taking a boat out? Always do a safety inspection. Did you forget, Chucky? I hardly think you can blame me for your total disregard for safety."

"Don't call me that! I know you were behind this... You and those other two hags. You just wanted me to look bad in front of Lillian." Furiously, Charles grabbed for Delia's arm, but she deftly avoided his hand.

Tauntingly, she danced back out of his range, as his wet feet had become mired in the soft sand. "You didn't need our help, Charles. You made yourself look bad. As usual, you only cared about yourself. That's all you've ever cared about. Lillian's just lucky we were out in our boat, because she obviously couldn't depend on your less-than-chivalrous nature for any help. "

"That's my point! It's just a little too convenient that you just happened to be there." Charles pulled a dripping pack of cigarettes out of his breast pocket and flung them at Delia, who easily avoided the sodden missile.

Listening to the feuding nemeses as he joined the crowd of partygoers who had gathered near the dock, Gareth mulled over potential ways to use Charles' fury to his advantage. It was obvious the man was convinced Delia was behind the boating mishap. While Gareth had little patience for the shallow, egotistical blueblood, and couldn't have cared less about their apparent feud, Charles' anger at Delia might make him useful.

Gareth approached the pair. "Hey, Charles, what rotten luck. What happened?"

Pointing at Delia, who had turned and was casually walking away, Charles said, "That witch sabotaged my boat." Staring after Delia, he called out, "You'll pay for this if it's the last thing I ever do!"

The crowd began to dissipate once they saw no one was hurt. Quiet laughter followed, and whispered comments about Charles' petulant behavior was the primary source of conversation.

Gareth placed a placating hand on Charles' shoulder. "How about getting cleaned up? Lunch is going to be served shortly. You can tell me what happened on the way up to the house."

Frustrated and obviously embarrassed that the other guests had witnessed the humiliating affair, Charles nodded in agreement. "Fine. But she will pay. I have had quite enough of the twins from hell, and Patricia, too."

"Patricia? You think she was involved in this?" Gareth asked innocently.

"Those three are inseparable and they hate me. I know Delia was the instigator. Patricia doesn't have the devious mind that bitch does, and Andrea just goes along with anything her sister suggests." Charles wrung out the bottom of his shirt, scowling as water dripped to the sand. Picking up his rant, he spat, "She's just jealous because I have a date for Father's party and she doesn't."

While Gareth seriously doubted that was the motivation behind the sabotage, if in fact it was sabotage, he nodded in agreement. "Maybe so. No sense dwelling on it right now, though. You've got to make amends with Lillian."

Charles' shoulders slumped. "She wouldn't even let Delia stop to pick me up on the way to shore. Everything is ruined - just ruined!"

Gareth silently agreed that Charles relationship with Lillian was ruined; but despite his animosity towards Delia, he inwardly acknowledged that it was because of the man's own ignoble actions, not anything she might have done. Nonetheless he offered encouragement. "The day's still young. You've got plenty of time."

Looking at him hopefully, Charles asked, "Do you think she'll?"

Putting on his most sympathetic face, the dark haired man reassured the wet, despondent man. "Forgive you? I don't know, but the only way to find out is to apologize. Besides, women love groveling. If you grovel sincerely enough, it just might work. You certainly don't have anything to lose."

******************************************

Leaning against the hallway wall, Delia grinned broadly. "Charles is so predictable. He never even thought of Lillian, and she finally got to see the real deal."

"Do you think he suspected anything?" The question echoed concern. Patricia was well aware that Charles wouldn't let any real or imagined transgression go unanswered.

Delia shrugged negligently. "Oh, he accused me of sabotaging him, but I pointed out he was the one who left Lillian to fend for herself." Looking at Patricia's worried face, Delia placed a comforting hand on her arm. "Don't worry. He can't prove a thing."

"I know and I'm not sorry we did it, but I think we'd better be on our guard." The blonde bit her lip slightly as she cautioned her lover. "No telling what he'll come up with for revenge."

"True, but he hasn't gotten the best of us for a long time. He has no imagination." The two friends chuckled over the truth of that observation. Charles' wrath was predictable, but so were his methods. He was sneaky, but he had little subtlety; and they were confident that they could out maneuver him.

The bedroom door opened and Lillian emerged, with dry footwear and a change of clothes. She smiled at the two waiting women. "I can't thank you enough for rescuing me. I can swim, but I prefer to do so in a bathing costume."

"You're welcome. I'm glad we were around so you didn't have to get totally drenched. Ready to go rejoin the party?" Patricia asked, falling in on Lillian's left side as they walked down the hall.

"Absolutely. I'll be going unescorted though, I dare say. I wish to have nothing to do with that scoundrel Charles."

Delia smiled sympathetically. "I don't blame you. He was so inconsiderate."

Her eyes blazing, Lillian said, "To say the least! I shall inform Charles in no uncertain terms that we are finished. Honestly, are there no American gentlemen left?"

Patricia and Delia simultaneously replied, "There is one."

Looking at them curiously, Lillian asked, "Who?"

Casting a quick glance at her best friend, Patricia baited the hook. "His name is Gareth Edwards. He's my brother's best friend-single, wealthy, very handsome, and quite the charmer. My mother seems intent on us making a match, but he's really not my type, if you know what I mean." At Lillian's interested nod, she continued, "If you like, I can introduce you two. You may hit it off, and at the very least, you'll drive Charles quite mad with jealousy."

That prospect appeared to delight the Englishwoman, and she linked arms enthusiastically with her companions. "Well, ladies, I do believe introductions are in order." Suddenly recalling her roommate of the previous evening, she asked, "By the way, where did Andi get to? I haven't seen her since breakfast."

"She went into town to meet her fiancÚ. He was coming in on the morning train from Boston. She'll be around later, though," Delia assured their friend. "There's no way she'd ever miss the fireworks."

"I'm quite looking forward to that myself," Lillian said, then added with a grin, "I think perhaps there may be additional fireworks this year, though. Shall we see what kind of mischief we can stir up?"

Laughing together, the three women descended the stairs and headed outside to rejoin the party.

****************************************
Gareth's eyes searched the crowd for Patricia even as he made small talk with his new acquaintance. While he was flattered by Lillian's attention, he could not afford to waste time on a woman who didn't fit his matrimonial prerequisites, particularly as he had caught Virginia Hawthorne frowning at him only moments ago as the beautiful Englishwoman hung on his arm. He was well aware that her newfound interest in him was just for Charles' benefit, and he was worried that he would lose his edge with Four's cousin if the man saw him making time with his erstwhile sweetheart. Luckily Charles had not yet reemerged from the house, and Gareth fervently hoped that he would take his time licking his wounds.

Suddenly seeing Charles emerge from the house, he felt a stir of desperation. Quickly he called out to his best friend who had finally fled the political gathering around his parents. Having done his duty, the younger Stanton was making a beeline for the bar set up under one of the oak trees.

"Four! Four, old man, have you met Lady Lillian?"

Stanton stopped in his direct route to the nearest martini and detoured towards them. Taking the Englishwoman's hand, he bent slightly in a graceful bow as he greeted her.

"Indeed, I've not had the pleasure. It's beyond me how I missed the opportunity, however. Surely my eyes must be going dim to have overlooked this fair English rose."

Lillian smiled at Stanton's outrageous flattery, but allowed herself to be led away as Four winked over his shoulder at Gareth and mouthed, 'You owe me!'

Gareth heaved a sigh. It was a temporary solution, but it left him free to seek out Patricia. He had been pleased when she'd come up to him in Lillian's company, but less happy when she'd foisted the Englishwoman off and slipped away. He had caught several glimpses of her, but always in the company of the damn Barrington bitch. Their incomprehensible bond absolutely eluded him, and he shook his head in frustration. Looking about, he saw Charles approach Stanton and Lillian. With eyes narrowed, he watched Four's cousin get a very obvious and public brush-off. Deciding it was the perfect time to approach his potential ally, he followed Charles to the bar.

Coming up beside the disconsolate man, he asked quietly, "Did you apologize?"

Charles tossed back the amber contents of a highball glass before answering. "Yes, but she said I'd behaved disgracefully and she wanted nothing whatsoever to do with me-ever!" He slammed his glass down on the bar and motioned the bartender to pour another. "I've lost her, and all because of that bitch, Delia. She's going to pay, if it's the last thing I do!"

Signaling for another of the same, Gareth asked neutrally, "What do you mean?"

Charles looked at him cagily. "I'd rather not say. I don't want her tipped off."

Gareth chuckled reassuringly and put a fraternal hand on the man's shoulder. "You don't have to worry about me tipping her off. I've been trying to get a date with Patricia for months, but she is too busy with her 'friend.' Delia is not on my list of favorite people right now."

Grunting, Charles shook his head and finished his second drink. "I think you could do better than my dear cousin, but it's your funeral." He snorted contemptuously and accepted the third highball Gareth nudged in front of him. "I wouldn't want to have to bed her for a lifetime, but I s'pose you may as well lay down with a rich bitch as a poor one. After all, who can tell the difference when the lights are off, right? When they spread their legs, they're all the same."

Slightly taken aback at the man's crudity, and worried that he'd become too drunk to talk at the rate he was throwing them back, Gareth steered Charles away from the bar, but not before the other man snagged the half-empty bottle from a surprised bartender. Subtly bringing the conversation back where he needed it, the dark-haired man continued.

"You're right, of course; but I do think Patricia will be fine once I get her away from Delia's influence. Once we're married, I have no intention of allowing that woman into my home. Patricia will be expected to keep much more appropriate company and set a good example for our children."

Charles lifted his glass in a toast. "Good for you. Put your foot down, that's what I always say. A woman's gotta toe the line-listen to the head of the household-show respect..."

"Absolutely. Not like that Delia, that's for sure. What she did to you! Why she humiliated you in front of everyone, and she probably cost you the love of your life."

Belatedly Charles returned to the subject of his wrath. "Damn straight! Gonna get her for that. You can bet your last ten dollars on that, my man."

Ruefully, Gareth acknowledged that it might actually come to his last sawbuck if his plans didn't come to fruition, but outwardly he coaxed, "So, what have you got on your mind, Charles?"

Blearily, Charles tapped the side of his nose and smirked. "Well, you never know. One of these days, she might just have an accident. She's always taking chances. Christ, lots of people have broken their necks riding horses; and the way she goes hell bent for leather...who knows? Anything could happen. And that old motorcycle she insists on riding into town. Everyone knows that women don't ride motorcycles. There's something unnatural about her. It would serve her right if that old bike up and threw her on her ass. Might just teach her how to be more of a lady."

"She is rather independent for a woman, but I doubt she's just going to go away or have some bizarre accident and disappear." Gareth watched his companion speculatively and wondered how much of the man's vengeance fantasies were just talk, and how far he might be able to push Charles into action. "Delia's made us both look like fools. She's an obstacle to my interest in Patricia, and you've lost Lillian because of her. I know if she weren't always around, Patricia would welcome me with open arms. As it is now, she spends every spare moment with that woman."

Charles sneered. "You know it. Bloody inseparable, those two."

Over the man's shoulder, Gareth spotted Patricia near the punch bowl. Heartened by their exchange, he decided the seed had been planted and he needed to give it time to ripen. For now, he had other fields to cultivate. Slapping Charles congenially on the back, he told him, "I'll get back with you later, all right? At the moment, there's a lady that awaits my attentions."

More interested in his bottle than Gareth's departure, Charles just shrugged. "Yeah, sure, whatever..."

Gareth began weaving through the crowd towards his quarry, when he felt a hand on his arm and looked down to see a smiling Lillian at his side.

"Gareth, why don't you join Stanton and me for lunch?"

Glancing toward the punch bowl, Gareth watched Patricia walk away and hand Delia a glass of punch. Inwardly steaming, he put on his best face as he accepted the invitation with a smile. "Certainly. It would be my pleasure, Lillian."

As he trailed her over to where Four lounged on a chequered blanket in the shade, surrounded by the trappings of a picnic, he reflected on the apparent impossibility of getting time alone with Patricia, but it merely reinforced his determination to remove Delia from the equation all together. For now, he would bide his time and cultivate allies. A chess player since he was a small boy, Gareth knew he simply could not afford to lose this game. The consequences were unthinkable, but if he handled all the pieces precisely...
He knew Virginia Hawthorne was the queen, and his most powerful backer, but perhaps the bumbler, Charles, might have his uses. For that matter, even the oblivious Four could be a valuable pawn if properly handled.

Reaching the tree, Gareth helped Lillian get seated on the picnic blanket, then grinned at his best friend and accepted the offered martini. Sipping slowly and listening half-heartedly to his companions' small talk, his gaze drifted over the crowd, drawn magnetically to the sight of Patricia and Delia enthusiastically greeting some new arrivals. He repressed the automatic scowl, but found solace in one thought.

It's not even close to end game, yet.

********************************************

Delia and Patricia rose a couple of hours past dawn the next morning. They had agreed to meet up at Hannibal's for an early horseback ride before his remaining guests were up and about. There had been precious little opportunity for them to share any private time throughout the previous day's festivities, and they exchanged ardent greetings inside the safety of the stable's four walls.

They quickly saddled their mounts and, leading them from the barn, swung up with practiced ease. Intent on getting away and spending time together, they failed to notice a figure watching them from Hannibal's ground floor study window.

Taking the lead on Traveler, Patricia called back over her shoulder, "Lillian was great at the party yesterday, wasn't she? She kept Gareth busy all day."

Patting an unusually skittish Sunburst on the withers to calm him, Delia distractedly agreed. "Mmm, yes, she sure was. He barely even had time to glare at me."

Reluctant to deal with the subject on such a fine morning, Patricia nonetheless revealed her concerns. "I've been noticing that, Dee. He really seems to dislike you for some reason. He's always been very nice to me, but I sure don't like his attitude towards you. And it's certainly not like he's going to make points with me by being nasty to my best friend. You have to wonder what's going through his mind. Oh well, he's gone now. I was relieved that he decided to go back on the night train instead of waiting for Four to drive him in this morning. I'm glad to have him out of my hair."

"I'm glad to have him out of your hair, too," Delia said wryly, as Sunburst shied sideways. "Hey, you, what's gotten into you? Get a little loco weed in your oats this morning?"

Casting off any worries, Patricia felt her own spirits rise in response to the fine summer morning and the movement of the bay horse under her. "Hey, race you to the woods," she called, as she urged Traveler to a gallop.

Grinning at the challenge, Delia wasted no time and soon had her mount abreast of her friend. Approaching the edge of the woods, they pulled up, and Delia settled back comfortably into the saddle only to find herself gripping the reins tightly as the chestnut horse reared. She spoke soothingly to the strangely high-strung horse, but Sunburst whinnied and jerked his head up and down. Puzzled by her favorite steed's behavior, Delia halted him and slid off, only to have the horse calm down immediately.

Patricia joined her on the ground. "What's wrong? Sunburst never acts like that. He's always been the mellowest one in the stables, not to mention that he just about purrs when you come around. He'd never try to hurt you."

Delia ran her hands over the tall gelding's flanks. "I don't know." Suddenly her eyes narrowed. "Charles!"

Patricia looked at her in puzzlement. "Charles, what?"

But Delia was already removing the saddle from the chestnut's back. After carefully examining it, with Patricia looking over her shoulder, she set it aside and removed the saddle blanket. She saw nothing on the outer side and turned it over. "Damn him!"

"Dee?"

"Look what that bloody fool did! He embedded a burr in the blanket. It's obviously a payback for yesterday. He's such an ass. Poor Sunburst. Any other horse would've thrown me with that digging into their back."

Closely examining the gelding's back, she found a small spot where the burr had rubbed his coat off and his skin was scratched and oozing. Delia shook her head furiously and pointed to the mark.

"Look at this! A little longer and this would have been a full-fledged sore. Charles didn't even care about hurting an innocent animal. All he cares about is getting even." She rubbed around the open wound gently before digging a handkerchief out of her saddlebag and folding it carefully to cover the sore. "Damn, I'm so glad Lillian got to see his true colors. How in God's name did you ever end up with a blood relative like him?"

Patricia smiled at the rhetorical question and answered anyway. "We can pick our friends, but not our family. His mother was just as bad, and I think even Uncle Hannibal was glad the day she left him. Maybe someday Charles will learn, but I'm not holding my breath."

Dee snorted. "It's a good thing. No one can hold their breath that long."

Patricia chuckled. "At least Sunburst is okay. Here, give me your saddle and blanket. I'll put them on Traveler and we can walk back."

Dee looked around at the beautiful morning, the sun still low in the sky, shaking her head regretfully at the forced cancellation of their plans. "All right, but after we get Sunburst taken care of, we're going to have a little talk with that skunk.

*****************************************

Charles watched the women return from his father's study, where he had taken refuge after a disastrous breakfast. His residual anger of the previous day was now further fueled by the ice-cold reception he had received from Lillian that morning, and the news that she planned to depart immediately afterward.

He wasn't sure if he was angrier at having a woman dump him, or at Delia and Patricia for setting him up; for Charles was certain that was exactly what had happened. With the exception of Gareth, not one person had believed his claims of sabotage, and he had become the laughingstock of the party. Even his father had simply sighed and offered half-hearted sympathy, though he had dismissed his son's charges against the women as an emotional overreaction.

Once they'd tended to the horses, the two young women came into the house looking for Charles. Hannibal directed them to the study, his usually cheerful eyes distressed. Delia felt a pang of guilt that the older man was being discomfited by the antics of the younger generation, but her remorse was quickly displaced by fury at Charles' actions.

Reaching the study, Delia wrenched opened the door, intent on giving her old enemy a piece of her mind. "Charles, you ball-less jackass! How dare you take your anger at me out on an innocent animal! I cannot believe you would harm one of your father's horses to exact your petty revenge. How low can you sink?"

Charles narrowed his eyes balefully. "I have no idea what you are talking about, and I want you out of here now."

Advancing on the man, Delia glared at him menacingly. "Not before you and I have this out once and for all. Just how do you think your father would react if he found out what you did? You know he has zero tolerance for anyone who abuses animals."

Less aggressively, Patricia added, "That really was mean, Charles. Sunburst never did anything to you. Whatever you think we may have done, you've no call to injure a helpless horse!"

"I told you, I don't know what you're talking about. Now leave me alone!" Charles had not yielded an inch, and was now face to face with a fuming Delia. They glowered at each other for a long moment before Patricia stepped in and urged her best friend away.

"C'mon, Dee. We've got better things to do than hang around this...this...weasel!"

The women turned and left, Delia still steamed at what had happened to Sunburst. They had decided to omit telling Uncle Hannibal about the incident, not to protect Charles, but rather to prevent the whole matter from escalating out of control. They hoped that now that Charles had struck back at them, he would let the whole incident go and return to Boston as quickly as possible.

"He's such a lowlife," Delia muttered. "He won't face up to what he's done even when we have him dead to rights."

"Did you expect him to, Dee?" Patricia reasoned as she led the way back outside. "I'll bet he was counting on you to come back all banged up so he could publicly harangue you about not being able to ride an elderly gelding. It would have given him great pleasure to see you embarrassed in front of the remaining guests just the way he was humiliated yesterday, especially since he knows you can outride him on your worst day."

"I still think he's a total jerk."

Holding the door open for her frustrated friend, Patricia nodded her agreement. "So do I. We're going to have to keep an eye on him, though. He's so angry he could be dangerous. Stop and think about it, Dee. Charles knew you'd take Sunburst, because you always do. What he didn't bank on was that Sunburst would never throw you because you've got that big chestnut wrapped right around your little finger. Anyone else, and Sunburst would've thrown them in a heartbeat. Maybe Charles really did intend to hurt you badly."

Delia gave that some thought as they made their way through the detritus of the previous day's party and down towards the lake. "I don't know, Patty. I don't really think Charles meant for me to get seriously injured. I think you were right the first time about him just wanting to embarrass me."

Patricia said nothing, but a minute, unconscious shake of her head spoke volumes.
***************************************

Delia rolled her father's vintage BMW R32? from its berth in the garage out into the driveway. She hadn't ridden it since before the 4th of July party, and was eager to take it into town. She was preoccupied as she checked the gas and oil mixture, adding a bit from the canister in the garage, and then doing a visual inspection of the motorcycle, even as her mind worried relentlessly at the situation between Patricia and her mother.

In the weeks since the party, Mrs. Hawthorne was monopolizing more and more of Patricia's time, insisting that her daughter join her for tea, or be present when she invited some of her cronies for brunch. Delia knew her lover's mother was doing everything she could do to keep them apart. To make matters even worse, Gareth was present every weekend whether Four came home or not; and even though Patricia slipped away every chance she got, the Hawthorne matriarch enforced a distasteful degree of togetherness for her daughter and their guest, infuriating and frustrating the young women. They had even taken to writing letters, surreptitiously posted without return addresses and filled with their love, longing and plans for a future together. Delia cherished those letters and read them over repeatedly, but they couldn't compensate for the scarcity of time she'd had with her lover over the last couple of weeks.

Banishing such gloomy thoughts, Delia swung her leg over the BMW? and settled comfortably in the seat, her short stature allowing only her toes to reach the ground. She pulled out the choke, and a moment later the motorcycle was idling smoothly.

Looking forward to the ride, she pushed off, coasting down the long driveway until she could accelerate onto the road to town. The woods on either side of the road were rife with wildlife in the early morning hours. Dee caught the occasional glimpse of a rabbit, and smiled at a deer and its fawn alongside the road.

The wind blowing her hair back and the sun illuminating her freckled face, she let her thoughts turn to the previous few weeks. She had unaccountably become very accident-prone lately, and Delia knew Patricia was worried about her. At first, she had attributed the strange events to Charles trying to exact additional revenge, but the incidents had continued even after he returned to Boston.

Delia still questioned whether it had been Charles who had fired a shot from the woods right over her head as she rode Sunburst along the beach one Saturday evening, but he had vehemently denied it and blamed it on an out of season hunter. She couldn't deny that overeager and illegal hunters had done such things in the past, and it had been getting dark when the incident happened; though she found it hard to believe they'd been taken for a deer. The trellis she used to sneak into and out of her room at Hannibal's had mysteriously broken one night when she attempted to scale it after a rendezvous with Patricia in the woods behind her parents' house. Fortunately, Andi, who was sleeping over with her, had covered with a story that she'd accidentally locked her twin out of the house. Delia sported a bruised shoulder and tender ribs for days after that fall. Later that week, a large rock, near boulder size, suddenly crashed out of the woods and into her path while riding Sunburst. It had taken all of her skill to stay aboard the frightened horse. Only the previous day, she had discovered Sunburst's bit was broken, the leather mysteriously parted at a stress point. With Charles gone, the incidents appeared to be nothing more than a series of bizarre coincidences, but they were troublesome. Shaking off the memories, she consciously focused her thoughts on a much more pleasant subject-Patricia.

Rounding a curve only a mile from home, Delia saw what appeared to be some debris in the roadway. Expertly shifting the motorcycle a few inches to the right to avoid the rusty metal, she tapped her brakes to avoid a squirrel crossing the road.

The bike responded sluggishly; and Delia tapped the brake again, intending to stop and see what the problem was. Vintage or not, the motorcycle had always stopped on a dime, but this time it had barely decelerated when she'd applied the brake. Exerting more pressure on the foot brake, she simultaneously applied the hand brake, suddenly releasing it as she realized the foot brake was not functioning at all and she was likely to stand the BMW? on end with only the hand brake. She began downshifting to reduce her speed, and gently pressed the hand brake to aid in slowing the motorcycle.

Several long minutes later, Delia was able to stop; and she removed her helmet, mopping her sweaty forehead with one sleeve. When her heart rate slowed to normal, she dismounted and bent down to survey the brake line of the motorbike. A gentle tug left her with the end in her hand, but there was no fluid coming from the line and it was severed too cleanly to have broken from wear.

Delia settled onto her knees and quickly ran her mind through her preparations before starting out. She was positive there had been no brake fluid around the motorcycle. Whoever had cut the line, had removed all evidence of the tampering. This was obviously not an accident. Or was it? Could her father have taken the bike out and somehow gotten the line severed, and he just hadn't gotten around to fixing it? It would be just like him. He tended to be quite absentminded when it came to mechanical things. He might have sighted one of his beloved birds and totally forgotten about any problem with the motorcycle.

She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but that explanation just didn't feel right. Setting the puzzle aside for the moment, Delia slowly stood and climbed back aboard the bike. She turned it around and very slowly drove back to her house, deciding as she did, not to tell Patricia. Her lover was already upset at the series of near misses, and Delia had no intentions of worrying her further. Nonetheless, she cautioned herself to be extra careful henceforth.

Chapter Five

"Can you believe that by this time next week, Andi will be Mrs. Thom MacLaren?"

Delia looked up from where she had her head resting in Patricia's lap. "I know. It boggles the mind, doesn't it? Lord, I can remember like it was yesterday when our kindergarten teacher was bawling her out for eating paste. And now she's about to walk down the aisle and out of our life."

Patricia shook her head chidingly. "Not out of our life, Dee. We'll still see her often. You just know she'll be bringing her children to the lake to see their grandparents and favorite auntie all the time. I wouldn't be surprised if she spent most summers here; it has to be better than a hot, dirty city. And if I know Andi, she'll be so keen to start her family that she'll have us both changing diapers within a year."

Yawning, her companion stretched lazily and smiled up at the thick foliage dangling over them and effectively concealing them from any prying eyes. "Andi as a mother-now if that isn't a sobering thought."

"You know, I think she'll make a great mother. I hope she has half a dozen kids. She always said she wanted that many."

"Mmm, so did Mom. She always claims she wanted babies so badly that she got pregnant with us on her honeymoon, but she had to stop with just us two."

Patricia tickled her lover lightly, eliciting a giggle. "That's because the two of you were more than enough for one woman to handle!"

Delia grabbed the offending hand and kissed the slender fingers one by one. Sighing, Patricia leaned back against the tree, running her other hand through her lover's dark hair. The women enjoyed the familiar caresses for long moments before the blonde spoke again.

"We have to talk, Dee."

Both the words and the serious tone instantly distracted Delia from the pleasurable task of counting the scant smattering of summer freckles on the back of her lover's hand. Looking up, she studied the eyes that were watching her gravely. A nervous frisson rippled down her spine, but she fiercely pushed it away, responding instead with a steady, "All right."

Patricia took a deep breath. "Things are getting worse at home, my love. Last night I overheard mother telling one of her bridge cronies that Gareth and I were madly in love, and that she wouldn't be surprised if we eloped at any minute."

Given how Mrs. Hawthorne had been pushing Gareth's company on her lover, Delia wasn't exactly surprised at the disclosure, but the implications of the matriarch's words were deeply worrisome.

"Did you confront them, or at least have a word with your mother later?" She'd been trying very hard not to push Patricia to take a stand, especially when her lover was already enduring so much pressure at home; but her instincts were warning her that they couldn't ignore the situation much longer.

"I did-well, once mother was alone anyway. I tried to explain gently, but firmly that Gareth really wasn't my type and I had no interest in marrying him."

Delia's keen eyes read the frustration lurking on her lover's face. "I take it that went over like a lead balloon?"

Patricia snorted and unconsciously tightened her hand in Delia's hair. "You could say that. It's like she's got these blinders on, and she's so hell bent on our getting married that she can't even consider the possibility that he and I aren't meant for each other. She told me not to worry if I wasn't madly in love when I got married-that that kind of nonsense was overrated anyway, and love would come with time, just as it did for her and Father. She lectured me for an hour on how he was a good and suitable match, and that it was high time I settled down, just as Julianne had by my age. She even said that Gareth would probably let me finish Smith if I really wanted to. Hah! Let me!"

Gently loosening the fingers entangled in her hair, Delia rolled to a sitting position and turned to face her lover. Feeling as if she were navigating a minefield, she asked hesitantly, "What can I do to help? What do you want us to do about this?"

Her companion's lovely face tightened and her eyes shone with determination. For a split second, Delia saw the mother reflected in the daughter's countenance.

"You know the only reason I got away today was because Mother unexpectedly had to go to Boston. It's driving me crazy: having to act like an undercover agent in my own home just to get some time with you. For God's sake, I even had to bribe Randall to make sure I get my mail before my parents see it. Dee, I think we need to get serious about our plans, maybe even change them radically."

"Change? You mean you want to head back to Smith right after the wedding instead of waiting until the end of the month?" Delia really didn't mind that idea at all. She would gladly even give up the last two weeks of summer at her beloved lake if it meant getting away alone with Patricia.

Her lover leaned forward, placing both hands on Delia's knees and staring at her intently. "Honey, what would you think about skipping a year before we went back to Smith?"

Baffled, Delia cocked her head and looked at her questioningly. "Skip a year? Why? Don't you want to get away from your mother and Gareth?"

"Yes! That's exactly what I want," Patricia exclaimed, squeezing Delia's knees harder. "But it's not going to be enough to just return to college. We have to get further away. I was thinking we could go on a cruise to Europe, do a grand, year-long tour like your mother did just before she got married."

Delia couldn't help grinning. "Okay, but remember that World War II broke out three months after she got back. I'm not sure that's the kind of precedent we want to follow."

"And World War III is going to break out here once Mother finds out she's not going to get her way," came the snappy retort. "Far better for us if we're thousands of miles and an ocean away when that happens. Give her a year and hopefully she'll have calmed down, or at least given me up as a lost cause and gone on to run Four's life or something."

Sobering, Delia nodded her head slowly. There was merit in Patricia's idea, though she was disappointed to have to delay her senior year.

"There's another thing, love." Patricia looked her squarely in the eyes, a slightly defiant air about her. "There's a very good chance that my folks might disinherit me for going against their wishes, even if they don't know about you and me. If that's the case, you may have to return to Smith without me while I find work somewhere in Northampton."

"Oh for heaven's sake! Like I care whether you're an heiress or not," Delia snorted dismissively. "I've got enough to put both of us through Smith, go onto graduate school, or even live a life of indolence if that's what we wanted. Don't even give that another thought."

Patricia sighed deeply. "I knew you'd say that, and in truth it's not the loss of my inheritance that concerns me. I'd gladly wait tables for the rest of my life if it meant I could come home to you every night."

Seeing the sadness in her lover's eyes, Delia asked gently, "What is it, Patty? What's bothering you so?"

She didn't answer for a long moment, and when she finally spoke, she did so in a voice so low that Delia had to strain to hear.

"For all the insanity-for all of Mother's blind willfulness and Father's lack of spine, they're my parents, you know? It's hard sometimes to think that I might be cut off from my family altogether. I love my siblings, and I adore my nieces and nephews. I'd really miss watching Julianne's children grow up, or seeing who finally manages to pin my brother down in matrimony." She looked up at Delia, her eyes shining with unshed tears. "Why can't things just be easy for us, Dee? Why can't they just let us alone to live our lives the way we want?"

It was Delia's turn to sigh as she mulled over Patricia's words. Am I asking too much? God, I don't ever want to hurt her! Maybe...maybe I should just let her go..."

"Don't even think it!"

Surprised out of her reverie, Delia glanced at her lover to find Patricia staring at her fiercely. "Um, what?"

"Don't even think what you were thinking!" Patricia pounced on the startled woman, pinning her to the ground. "Don't you dare even consider walking away from me! I don't care what the cost is, Delia Jaye Barrington. You're worth everything and anything to me, and don't you forget it! If I have to walk away from my family, I will. If I have to give up my fortune, I will. If I end up living in a hovel on the wrong side of the tracks just to be with you, I will!"

Still reeling at the abrupt change from melancholy to militancy, Delia could only blink at the fierce hazel eyes boring into her own. "So, what you're saying then..."

"Is that I want to be with you forever, whatever it takes. And I don't want to put off our life together any longer, Dee. I want to be with you now-now and forever."

Patricia's voice had grown soft, and the gaze that now caressed her was gentle and loving. Delia was able to ease her hand out from under her lover's, and she reached up to push back the curtain of pale silk that dangled tantalizingly against her face. Smiling at the woman stretched out on top of her, she said, "I do believe you just proposed, Miss Hawthorne."

Squirming a little, Patricia settled herself more comfortably on her lover's body and smiled. "Why, I do believe you're right, Miss Barrington. And will you do me the honor of accepting my proposal?"

Delia used both hands to cup Patricia's face and gently pull her down. "Yes," she murmured as she kissed her lover softly. "Yes, I accept." Hearing the low, satisfied hum her words elicited, she deepened her kiss and carefully rolled Patricia over. Never losing contact with her lover's lips, she deftly began unfastening the woman's buttons. When she felt a giggle vibrate through her lover's body, she drew back slightly, though her fingers continued their progress.

"You laughed?" she drawled as she parted Patricia's striped, sleeveless shirt, pushed up her bra, and bared the soft, white flesh beneath to her wandering hands.

"Why, Miss Barrington," Patricia smirked, "are you trying to take advantage of me? And before we're properly hitched? I'm shocked!"

The dark-haired woman noticed that her lover's "shock" didn't preclude her raising her hips so that Delia could slide shorts and panties down long, slender limbs and toss them aside. She chuckled when Patricia's mock protest was lost in a moan as she ran her hand up the inside of a naked thigh and danced her fingers lightly over moist, velvety flesh. Too eager now to take time to remove her own clothes, Delia quickly scrambled into the valley formed by legs that had spread with alacrity to accommodate her. Lowering her head, she let herself get lost in the rapture of loving her mate, letting thoughts of insistent suitors and obdurate mothers drift away...for now.

***********************************************************
Gareth pulled another file toward himself, casting a jaundiced eye at the stack in his in-box that never seemed to get any smaller. His name and social connections may have gotten him in the front door of Hawthorne Enterprises, but so far they hadn't gotten him any further than this tiny, windowless closet of an office where he labored every day over shipping invoices as a junior clerk.

The only thing that made it possible for him to continue in this menial post was the knowledge that it wouldn't last forever, was only a stepping-stone to his higher aspirations. Once he was married to Patricia, he would be elevated to the boardrooms, ten stories above his current position. Gareth knew he had what it took to compete in the cutthroat world of commerce. He even believed that he could make it on his own without marrying into the Hawthorne empire; but unfortunately, time was of the essence, as he was embroiled in a race to see which would last longer-Patricia's stubbornness or his family's rapidly dwindling fortune.

The erstwhile clerk was about to open the Lake Superior Timber Company file when he heard a noise at his door. Glancing up, Gareth was shocked to see Virginia Hawthorne standing in the doorway, looking distastefully around at the shabby surroundings.

"Mrs. Hawthorne!" Gareth sprang to his feet and hastily donned his suit jacket. Bringing his chair around the desk with him, he offered his visitor the least uncomfortable chair in the office, taking its dangerously unbalanced mate for himself. "I had no idea you were going to be in Boston this week."

"I wasn't aware I would be coming in myself, however something has come up." Cool blue eyes pinned him in his chair, and Gareth felt uncomfortably like a boy called to the headmaster's office.

"May I get you something to drink?" Gareth offered. "I can send up to your husband's secretary for tea or coffee."

"No, I don't wish Stanton to know I'm here quite yet." Virginia crossed her legs and folded her hands, a stern expression on her face.

Intrigued, Gareth maintained an attentive posture, waiting for his unexpected guest to reveal the purpose of her visit. He was surprised when he noted a fleeting look of regret cross her face, but it was quickly replaced by an expression of steely determination.

"Close the door."

"Yes, ma'am." Gareth jumped up to do as he was bid, then resumed his seat. Burning with curiosity, he hung on her every word.

"What I'm about to say is to go no further than these four walls, is that clearly understood, Gareth?"

A lesser man might have quailed under the fierce glare directed his way, but Gareth simply nodded. "As you wish, ma'am. I'll never repeat a word."

Virginia had not moved so much as a muscle since she had taken her seat, but Gareth got the impression she was exerting tremendous force of will to contain her emotions.

"I had a rather interesting conversation with my daughter last night. Would you care to guess the contents of what we discussed?"

Choosing his words with utmost care, Gareth offered, "Was it concerning your daughter's future?"

That got him a thin-lipped smile of approval at his delicacy. "Indeed, Gareth, you might say that. More precisely, we discussed her future marriage to you." She waited for any sign of reaction, but he schooled his face to impassivity and remained silent. Again he was rewarded with her cool, half-smile of approval.

"I'm pleased to see there will be no sentimental nonsense between the two of us, no talk of undying love, romantic passion, or other such tripe." She leaned forward slightly, her pale eyes never leaving his. "We are of a kind, Gareth. We both see clearly and refuse to be hindered by emotional flummery. You need to marry my daughter-I need you to marry my daughter."

Cautiously Gareth offered, "I do care for Patricia, ma'am."

Virginia waved a dismissive hand. "And I expect you'll be good to her and to my grandchildren. I trust that is well understood?"

"Absolutely, ma'am. They'll have the best that I can give them," Gareth assured her.

She smiled coldly. "They'll have the best that Patricia's inheritance can offer them." Gareth's face tightened, but he wisely chose not to rebut the bald statement. "I'm well aware of your family's pecuniary state, young man. I would never consider a woman in your position as a suitable spouse for my son, but Patricia...Patricia is a different case."

His mind's eye flashing back on the passionate embrace between his intended and her best friend, Gareth wondered if Mrs. Hawthorne knew exactly how different her daughter was. He didn't have long to wait.

Reaching into her purse, the woman extracted a single sheet of paper. It had obviously been crumpled and discarded, then smoothed out again. "I dislike requiring my servants to spy on my offspring, but there are times that it is necessary. Two weeks ago, the upstairs maid found this under my daughter's bed where she must have overlooked it, and quite properly brought it to me immediately. I suspect that its contents will not come as a complete surprise to you."

Accepted the proffered paper, Gareth saw it was half covered with a woman's fine script, and although there were no names mentioned in the lines he read, it was easy to deduce that it was a note between lovers.

"...and I count the moments until I'm in your arms again, my darling. I yearn for the feel of your hands on my naked body-stroking, caressing, driving me mad with boundless passion. Even now I feel your breasts pressed against mine and your loving fingers slipping between my..."

The note ended there with a glob of ink, and the writer had obviously decided to rewrite that page. Gareth shifted uncomfortably, half repulsed and half aroused by the vivid descriptions on the page. Swallowing slightly, he looked up to find Virginia's nostrils flaring with disgust.

"Were you aware of my daughter's perverted activities with that Barrington girl?"

Gareth had a split second to decide whether to tell the truth or lie, but even as his mind processed his possible replies, he knew it would not be wise to prevaricate with this woman. "I suspected, ma'am. I once saw them in an embrace that appeared to me more than a hug between friends, though I never knew for certain."

That last was a small deception. He may not have actually seen them making love, but it did not take a genius to detect the emotional bond between the two; and he'd had no doubt whatsoever that they had already acted on their feelings. The physical connection between them was tangible...at least to someone who was looking for it.

Virginia's eyes became calculating. "It will undoubtedly come as no surprise to you that my daughter is adamantly opposed to marrying you."

No, it was no surprise, but obviously Mrs. Hawthorne did not think that barrier insurmountable, or she wouldn't be sitting in his shabby little office. For the hundredth time Gareth gave thanks that she was on his side, and his confidence grew. "No, ma'am, that doesn't surprise me, given the circumstances; but perhaps I should make it clear that I'm still willing to marry her, despite her...perversions."

A satisfied smile greeted that statement and Virginia relaxed almost imperceptibly, as if a hurdle had been cleared. "Good, and I can promise you that you won't regret it. Patricia comes into her trust fund when she's 25, or upon her marriage if that comes first. I'm of the firm opinion that she simply doesn't have the experience necessary to oversee the management of her wealth, and will need someone with a sound grasp of economics to do it for her. Legalities will be in place to ensure that if you leave her, you also leave that management position." She gave him a shrewd look, then cast her gaze about the unprepossessing surroundings. "I'll have a word with my husband today. A future member of the family deserves windows, at the very least. Further, I believe that there may be lucrative openings in our New York offices for your father, as well as your younger brothers when they come of age." She fixed her canny eyes on him. "I assume that would be to your liking?"

Gareth felt a surge of triumph, as he nodded. Not only would his family be taken care of, she had as much as guaranteed him control of Patricia's vast fortune. He was on his way! But then reality brought him back to earth. Feeling his way carefully, he said, "There is still the problem of Patricia's refusal to marry me, ma'am. Perhaps you would offer some suggestions on how I might best change her mind?"

The look of ice-cold calculation she directed his way sent an uncontrollable shiver run down his back. I will never, NEVER cross this woman!

"I'll do better than that, young man. I'll give you carte blanche." She rose to her feet and he joined her, still uncertain of her intent. "We will be attending the Barrington girl's wedding in one week. I will expect you to have secured Patricia's acquiescence to your engagement by the time the reception is done. You may do so by any means you deem necessary...no questions asked. Is that understood?"

Gareth stared at her in disbelief. Was she really telling him what he thought she was telling him? A careful examination of the aristocratic features left no doubt that was exactly what had happened.

"Should you require any...extraneous assistance with your project, you're to come directly to me." She took a large envelope out of her purse and laid it on his desk. "Additionally, you will not wait for a grand, society wedding, even though one would normally be expected. It will be much more efficacious for the two of you to elope. The groundwork is already laid in that regard, and it will be viewed as a romantic escapade by a young couple so in love that they simply couldn't wait. You will cement this impression by leaving immediately on an extended and isolated honeymoon."

Trying hard not to gape at the woman's back as she turned and walked to the door, Gareth was still stunned at her parting words.

"You understand that I believe in the sanctity of marriage, though I have no problem with...extracurricular activities as long as they're discreet. However, I don't want Patricia to indulge in any notions of leaving you in years to come. I believe it would be best, under the circumstances, to start your family immediately. I doubt she would ever contemplate leaving her children, especially knowing that she would lose them under the circumstances. After all, fit mothers do not leave their husbands for another woman, and no court in the country would disagree. My daughter is an intelligent woman, and you'll ensure that she understands her position with absolute clarity."

She sailed through the door without waiting for his strangled agreement. Stumbling back to his chair, Gareth sank into it, his mind furiously processing what had just happened. Virginia had given him permission to...what? Kidnap her daughter? Blackmail her?

"Jesus!" Gareth's stomach turned over. He hadn't exactly been hampered by scruples in his recent campaign against the Barrington bitch, but he saw that simply as the fortunes of war. Her actions were reprehensible, and if she had to bear the penalty for them; she had no one to blame but herself. However, he could not picture himself abducting his future bride. "It's the 20th century, for God's sake. How in the hell does she think I'm going to get away with that!"

He fumed silently for a few minutes, then remembered the envelope Mrs. Hawthorne had left on his desk. Picking it up, he felt its weight. Puzzled, he opened it to find a sheaf of typewritten pages, as well as a series of lurid black and white photographs. His mouth dropped open as he realized what he was viewing. Oh my God! How the devil did she get these? He studied them, vaguely aware that his interest was more prurient than clinical. He admired the way the photographer had obscured the identity of Delia's lover, while making it crystal clear that she was having and enjoying sex with a woman.

Turning the incriminating photos over, he examined the rest of the papers. The cover sheet was simply information-what Justice of the Peace would be on call for a quick, quiet marriage ceremony; airline details for their flight to Los Angeles; what arrangements had been made for a month-long honeymoon on a South Pacific cruise and where he could pick up the tickets.

The next part of the information packet was even more interesting. It appeared to be several clinical studies examining the deviant behaviour of homosexuality. He noticed extensive discussion of the theories of Irving Bieber and Charles Socarides, which argued that homosexuality was a pathological disorder. The medical community at large seemed united on the view that such behaviour was maladaptive and self-destructive. Treatments such as psychotherapy, lobotomy, and electric shock were debated and sanctioned.

Gareth gave a moment's consideration as to whether his future wife would require such treatments to correct her behaviour, though the possibility was not enough to dissuade him. He truly believed that Patricia only needed to be wrenched away from Delia's corrosive influence, and she would be cured. Whether it was instantaneous or took several years was irrelevant to him.

As he read, the full impact of the ammunition Virginia Hawthorne had knowingly placed in his hands began to sink in. When he reached the final page, again a simple typed sheet of information, he began to smile. It wouldn't be necessary to kidnap his bride at all. She would come with him most willingly.

*******************************************************

"How do I look?" Patricia asked as she brushed off the incriminating leaves.

"Gorgeous," Delia sighed, her eyes half-lidded with dreamy satiation.

The blonde put her hands on her hips and looked at her lover with mild exasperation. "I mean: will I pass inspection? Do you think anyone will have any idea what we've been doing for the last couple of hours?"

"Hmmm," Delia murmured as she did a circle around her companion. Coming to a stop, she looked up and snickered. "Nope, no one will have the slightest idea you've been rolling around the forest floor in the throes of passion."

Aiming a light slap at her impudent companion, Patricia reminded her. "I wasn't exactly rolling around by myself, you know."

"Of course not. That would've been kinky," Delia retorted cheerfully, eliciting a chuckle from her lover. "Seriously, honey, you look just fine."

Patricia linked arms with her best friend as they began to make their way out of the forest glade that had become their favorite summer rendezvous. "So, what's our story for today?"

"We were looking for ferns for Andi to include in the wedding decorations." Delia stepped over a fallen log and watched carefully as Patricia followed suit.

"Ferns? Shouldn't we have collected some, then?"

"We did." Delia's cocky grin was back in place.

Patricia raised one eyebrow. "Darling, I don't know what you were doing this afternoon, but I can assure you that I wasn't gathering any ferns. I may have done a little hunting through bushes..."

Delia burst out laughing. "I can NOT believe you said that!"

"God, I can't believe it, either," muttered the blushing blonde. "You are such a bad influence on me."

"Oh sure, blame me," Delia teased, then relented. "Andi actually picked all the ferns she'll need yesterday and stored them in the basement cool room at the house, but she said we can take credit for them if we need to."

"She's a good friend," Patricia said seriously. "We're going to miss our best ally when the wedding is over."

Her mood sobered, Delia nodded her head. "I know. Look, Andi and I are going into the city on Tuesday. Why don't you come along, and we'll go see a travel agent and book our reservations? We can put them under Andi's name and no one will think twice. They'll just assume they're for the honeymoon."

Patricia groaned. "I'd love to, Dee, but Mother apparently has plans for me just about every day this week. I may not even get to see you until next Saturday. I'll try to get away Friday, though, and stay overnight with you. I'll tell Mother that you and I are helping Andi with last minute preparations."

Frowning at the thought of having to go a whole week before seeing her lover again, Delia sighed. "I suppose it's best we don't make waves this close to our departure." Cheering up, she turned and took Patricia in her arms. "Besides, we're going to have our whole lives together. It's probably a good idea for you to spend some time with your family. It might be a while before you see them again."

"Mmmhm," Patricia agreed as she leaned into her lover's embrace. "You're probably right, but I sure am going to miss you."

"I'll miss you, too, but it won't be for long." The women indulged in a prolonged kiss, then parted as they prepared to leave the sheltering forest for the open beach. Reaching the parting point between their houses, Delia gave Patricia a wink. "See you on Friday, love. Don't let your mother get to you too badly this week."

"I won't," Patricia assured her. "Get us a good cabin on the ship, okay? One with portholes."

"And a double bed," Delia said laughingly. "Not to worry. I know exactly what we want."

They smiled at each other, then turned in opposite directions, walking away with frequent looks over their shoulders. One last wave was exchanged before Patricia disappeared around a bend. Casting a wistful glance in that direction, Delia comforted herself with a single thought. Won't be long now.


Continued in Chapter 6



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