The Lion and The Lamb
Lois Cloarec Hart
The slender redhead shuddered. Nothing good ever followed those words from her best friend. She glanced uneasily up at the tall woman who was casually surveying the room full of women, elbows resting on the bar. Victoria studied her friend.
Jac was undeniably beautiful; a fact she’d used to her advantage constantly in the years Victoria had known her. Her physical allure aside, she had an edgy aura of power about her, a tension in her long, lean body that rarely went away. She often reminded the redhead of a jungle cat, thick ebony mane sweeping over her shoulder, high cheekbones slashing angles in her patrician features and glacier blue eyes daring the world to take her on her own terms.
Right now those restless eyes were sweeping the bar, stopping occasionally to scan a knot of women or linger over a woman alone. Victoria drew a breath and momentarily wished she’d refused Jac’s invitation to go out that night. With a small sigh, she asked, “Why are you bored? You could walk up to just about any woman in this bar and find a cure for your boredom.”
A small snort met her words, and Jac half turned to face her. With a little smirk she asked, “What’s this ‘just about’, Vic? Are you doubting me now?”
Victoria groaned and dropped her head on her folded arms, thumping it a few times for good measure. A low chuckle assailed her ears, and she raised her head to see Jac grinning widely at her. Dryly the redhead retorted, “God forbid that I ever doubt Jac the Invincible, Jac the Seductress, Jac the Temptress, Jac the mphhh…”
“Okay, I get your point,” the tall woman laughed as she removed her hand from the redhead’s mouth.
“You are such an arrogant bitch,” Victoria said mildly, unconsciously licking her lips.
“Yeah, but you love me.”
Jac had turned back to the room and didn’t see the brief flash of sadness in her friend’s eyes. Victoria knew it was true. She did love this arrogant hedonist even though she knew Jac was adamantly against crossing the line of their friendship. She’d almost wrecked her marriage for this woman. Ironically, it was only Jac’s unique moral code and firm resolve that had made her return to her husband. A small bitter smile crossed her face at that thought. She was still amazed that they’d salvaged their friendship from that wreckage. Resolutely, she pushed those thoughts aside.
“So what’s the matter? Don’t see anyone to your taste tonight?”
Jac shook her head slightly. “Aw, I dunno. Maybe I’m not in the mood or something. Geez, Vic, look at them.”
The redhead frowned. “What’s the matter with them?”
The tall woman sighed and turned her back to the crowd. After signaling the bartender for another round for the two of them, she turned to her friend and said, “Nothing, really. Bunch of vanilla pudding pops though. Hell, they’d probably go running to mommy if I turned one of them over my knee.”
Victoria rolled her hazel eyes expressively. “Well if that’s the problem, why don’t you go over to the Tube?” The underground club was notorious for catering to those with darker sexual tastes, and though Victoria had never been there, she knew that Jac was a frequent patron.
The tall woman stared at the bottles lined up behind the bar, and Victoria found it impossible to read her friend’s expression. Finally Jac said, “Maybe later.” Throwing some bills on the bar, she downed half the scotch at one swallow and said quietly, “There’s no challenge anymore. Not here. Not at the Tube. Nowhere.”
Sipping her martini, the redhead contemplated her friend’s ennui. Much later she would wonder what evil imp put the words in her mouth, but aggravated by her friend’s dismissive attitude, she blurted, “It’s not like you can have absolutely any woman you want, you know!”
Jac’s eyebrow rose and she regarded Victoria intensely. “Are you challenging me?”
The redhead saw the flicker of interest in those blue eyes and knew she’d inadvertently roused her friend’s rarely dormant competitiveness. Oh shit! Now what? Victoria strove to appear calm but knew those piercing eyes had read her easily as Jac smiled triumphantly.
Suddenly the redhead wanted nothing so much as to win a round from her charismatic friend. Jac had always been the alpha female in their friendship and as much as Victoria loved her, she ached to claim the laurels at least once.
Not allowing time for second thoughts, Vic said firmly, “Yes—I am.”
Now both sable eyebrows rose, and Jac straightened. “Name your terms.”
“I select the target. You have one month to get her in bed or you lose.” Victoria couldn’t believe what she was saying, but her impetuous tongue had gotten her into this and she couldn’t face backing down.
Jac nodded thoughtfully. “And the wager?”
The redhead hesitated. She’d intended to bet money, but impulsively altered her conditions. “If you win, I’ll convince Roger to go to the Tube one night.” She knew Jac would be enticed by that, having been trying to convince Victoria that she and her husband should check out the club scene for the last year.
“And if you win?” Jac grinned. “Not that there’s a chance you will, mind you.”
Victoria clenched her hands around her martini glass and refused to meet her friend’s eyes. “If I win—you ignore your rules and come to the mountains with me for a whole weekend.”
There was silence between the two women now. Victoria had heard the sharp intake of breath from the tall woman and finally forced herself to look up. She found Jac regarding her with a troubled expression.
“Vic—are you sure?”
Nodding jerkily, Victoria drained her glass and set it carefully back on the bar. She waited quietly for her friend’s answer, knowing that her terms had the potential to endanger their friendship but helpless to resist a chance, however remote, to be with the magnetic woman who haunted her erotic imaginings.
Long moments passed until Victoria was sure her challenge would be refused. She almost jumped when a low voice sounded next to her ear. “You’re on.”
Exhaling deeply, the redhead closed her eyes, not sure whether she was relieved or terrified by the agreement.
Briskly, Jac stretched to her full height and focused cool unreadable eyes on her friend. “Okay, who’s the target?”
Victoria smiled slyly. “Her name is Christi Blaine. She’s a young woman I work with at the agency.”
“Tell me about her.” The command left no room for waffling, and knowing Jac wouldn’t welsh now that she’d accepted the challenge, Victoria filled her in.
“She’s a great kid. One of those people that are beautiful inside and out, you know? She’s not very tall, but you can tell she’s in great shape. She’s got short blonde hair, kinda shaggy like, and big eyes that look right through you.”
“So what aren’t you telling me?”
This brought a smirk to the redhead’s lips. “She’s straight and engaged to be married in about three months.”
Jac shrugged. “Minor details. So when and how do I meet her?”
“I’m taking her out for lunch on Monday because it’s her 25th birthday. Why don’t you meet us at the Aerie for lunch about one?”
“And the thirty days starts ticking off the moment you meet her,” Victoria clarified.
“All right,” Jac agreed. Pushing off from the bar, she looked over her shoulder at her friend. “I’ll see you on Monday then.”
Victoria watched as her best friend started prowling the crowded room. She wasn’t the least bit surprised when Jac moved in on the crowd around the pool table and skillfully separated a curly haired blonde from the pack. Drawing the slightly dazed looking blonde to a dark corner, Jac leaned close, lightly running one finger down the woman’s arm as she verbally seduced her.
The redhead sighed when Jac and the blonde left the bar shortly after, knowing her evening out with her best friend had ended in its usual precipitous manner. She didn’t know why she subjected herself to it time and again. Yeah, you do. You’ll take being with her any way you can, and you know it!
She winced as she acknowledged the truth.
People were Jac’s friends on Jac’s terms. If they didn’t accept that, she made no effort to change their minds. No one, friend or lover, ever truly pierced her impassive exterior. Part of Victoria’s obsession with sleeping with her best friend was a desire to see if Jac let herself go at the height of passion. That and the fact that you know she’d twist you in knots and wring you out!
Exasperated with her annoying inner voice, she forcibly turned her mind to the wager they’d just made. Victoria bit her lip as she had a small crisis of conscience about turning such a wolf loose on the young innocent with whom she shared her office. However, she’d worked with Christi at the travel agency for over a year and was certain that the woman was devoted to her fiancé, Phillip, and eagerly planning their life together. They’d even been out house hunting the past several weeks. She also knew the small blonde was the most honourable person she’d ever met, and was sure that Jac wouldn’t stand a chance.
Banishing any ethical qualms, Victoria pushed her empty glass across the bar and shook her head at the bartender. Time to go home to Roger. Leaving the bar, she dug into her pocket and extracted her wedding ring, sliding it smoothly back into position.
Jac shuffled the papers in front of her, frowning at the data that hadn’t changed since the last time she’d studied it five minutes before. Glancing up, she checked the small pewter desk clock that had been a gift from her boss on her last promotion. She still had forty-five minutes until she was due to meet Victoria and her colleague for lunch. Jac reminded herself to leave a few minutes early to secure the first element of her campaign.
Leaning back in her well-padded executive chair, she allowed herself a few moments of anticipation. Victoria’s challenge had been completely unexpected but, she had to admit to herself, welcome. Banking did not provide much in the way of thrills, at least not at her current level in Senior Management.
Jac’s earlier years with the bank had provided her with the stimulation of climbing the corporate ladder, and she’d taken great satisfaction in advancing all the way from MBA graduation to Senior Sales Leader-Commercial Lending in record time. The men who’d once trained her, now reported to her, a fact that caused much resentment in the lower echelons.
For the most part the executive ignored the rumblings of discontent, knowing she’d achieved her position through talent and backbreaking hard work. Jac had shattered glass ceilings with a sharp, agile mind and a keen knowledge of human nature that made customers, subordinates and superiors open books to her. A fierce dedication to pushing herself far beyond normal limits was the final ingredient to her success. At 32, she had forged her career advancement much as a general would wage a military campaign, understanding her opponents, her allies and the field of battle with intimate savvy.
Of course, it helps to have no home life and no domestic commitments. She gave a small sigh, acknowledging the truth of that. Recently the six figure income, the downtown loft overlooking the river, and the perks her wealth and position brought her felt like small compensation for the loneliness that dogged her more and more.
Jac knew that was a large part of the restlessness that had led her to accept Victoria’s challenge in the first place. Early Sunday morning after she’d sent her latest conquest packing with cab fare, she had stood at the windows of her darkened loft looking out over the city lights, wondering if there were any truly happy people out there; and, if so, what they had that she didn’t.
All right. That’s enough! Jac determinedly wrenched her mind from its maudlin track. The executive had no empathy for whiners and wouldn’t tolerate such a weakness in herself, either. She had an excellent job, terrific prospects and an intriguing challenge to keep her attention for the next month. Once she’d bedded Victoria’s friend, she would turn serious attention to achieving the next level in management. Jacqueline Lanier—Senior Executive. I like the sound of that. A slightly feral smile crossed the dark woman’s lips as she tapped commands into her computer and resumed her work.
Jac paused in the alcove of the exclusive restaurant, letting her eyes seek out her friend. Spotting Victoria and another woman seated at a corner table, she studied her prey. Hmm, well Vic wasn’t lying. She is cute. The woman who was chatting animatedly with her companion had a slim, compact build and a sweet, open face with delicate features. Sunbeams danced off her short blonde hair, rendering it almost incandescent.
The executive spoke to the maitre d’ briefly, handed her coat to the attendant, and began to make her way across the floor holding a long, slim paper wrapped cylinder in her hand. The blonde was looking down at her menu now, and Jac wondered what colour the woman’s eyes would be.
Green, they’re green. Jac shook her head impatiently. You don’t know that!
But then, the blonde looked up, saw the tall woman approaching and gave her a welcoming smile. And Jac’s stride faltered as she saw that the blonde’s eyes were indeed green. Like new grass growing after a long winter.
Disturbed at her flights of fancy, Jac rationalized, Must have met her at Victoria’s office and just forgotten until now. But she couldn’t shake the sense of déjà vu, of having seen this woman before. Glancing at her best friend, she found Victoria frowning slightly at her.
Reaching the table, Jac flashed a dazzling smile taking in both women. “Hello, Victoria. And you must be Christi. I hope you don’t mind me joining your luncheon. It’s just been so long since I’ve been able to get together with my best friend that when I heard she was having lunch out today, I rather rudely invited myself.”
The blonde smiled in return, and Jac could see the genuine warmth in those marvelous eyes. “Not at all. You’re very welcome. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you, Jac. Victoria speaks of you all the time.”
Jac gently set the cylinder in front of Christi. “This is a small apology for crashing your birthday lunch, as well as congratulations on the big day itself.”
The executive slid into the chair directly opposite the blonde, amused at her childlike delight with the surprise. Christi carefully peeled back the paper to reveal two perfect roses, one white and one red, in a tiny, slender crystal vase.
“Oh my heavens,” Christi enthused. “Those are beautiful. Aren’t they beautiful, Victoria?”
The redhead, who had been conspicuously silent, nodded dryly. “Yes, Jac’s always had excellent taste.”
Jac ignored her best friend’s acidic glance and asked smoothly, “So which birthday is it, Christi?”
“A whole quarter century,” Jac exclaimed, reflecting that the woman didn’t look a day over twenty. “Then this is an occasion for celebration. I hope your 25th year is filled with marvels, magic and much joy.”
Christi looked up shyly. “Thanks. Well, it’s certainly gotten off to a good start. Thank you very much.” She ran a finger gently over the red rose, tracing the softness of the petals. Jac was struck with the unintended eroticism of the innocent gesture and quickly reached for her water glass, taking a deep swallow.
“Well, we’re ready to order, Jac. You’d better catch up,” Victoria said pointedly. The executive smirked at her friend and opened a menu. Choosing swiftly, she motioned the waiter to them and the women gave their orders.
Once the menus had been collected and coffee cups refilled, the women settled back. Well aware that she was under scrutiny both by her best friend and the curious blonde, Jac maintained an amiable, open visage, smiling often and chatting comfortably. Small talk did not come naturally or easily to her, but she’d trained herself ruthlessly in the art and it had stood her in good stead in the corporate world. Now she used it to draw out her prey.
“Have you been working with Victoria long, Christi?”
The blonde knitted her brow, concentrating for a moment. “I’ve been at the agency for just over a year now. Victoria was wonderful about taking me under her wing and teaching me the trade.” She smiled gratefully at the redhead who responded with an anemic grin of her own.
“Do you enjoy it?” Jac found she enjoyed the sound of the young woman’s lilting voice, but reminded herself this was business, not pleasure. Though if what’s under that dress looks as good as I think, there’s going to be a lot of pleasure involved too.
Oblivious to the executive’s discreetly carnal assessment, Christi answered enthusiastically, “I love it! I really enjoy helping people take their dream vacations and go places they’ve never been before. Not to mention all the business trips I get to take too. I just got back from the Cook Islands last month.” Looking curiously at the tall woman, she asked, “Do you like to travel, Jac?”
“I do enjoy it. However a certain best friend, who shall remain nameless sent me to this godforsaken island off India last year, where I’m convinced they still practice cannibalism!” Jac grinned teasingly at a blushing Victoria.
“Hey, you’re the one who said she wanted to get off the beaten path!” the redhead protested.
“Uh huh. Off the beaten path, Vic, not on a whole other planet!”
Christi joined in the amusement at her colleague’s expense, and Jac reveled in the sound of the blonde’s laughter. The three women chatted easily as their meals were served, and time passed swiftly. Jac was pondering her next move when an opening unexpectedly emerged.
“Victoria, are you sure you can’t come on Friday?” Christi asked pleadingly. “I hate to waste the tickets, and I don’t want to go alone.”
“Sorry, Christi. Roger and I have been invited to his boss’ place, so I can’t get out of it.”
Smoothly, Jac interjected. “What are the tickets for, Christi?” Hiding an involuntary smirk, she ignored the look of belated alarm crossing her old friend’s face.
Sighing, the blonde said, “A Blue Rodeo concert at the Jube auditorium. My fiancé and I were supposed to be going, but he says he’d made prior arrangements to go to a football game with his friends and can’t get out of it.” Frowning, she went on, “I’m sure I checked with him about the date before I bought the tickets, but he says I didn’t. I can’t refund them, and I don’t have anyone else to go with.”
“I like Blue Rodeo,” Jac fibbed. “Why don’t I buy one of the tickets from you and keep you company?”
“Really?” Christi asked in delight. “That would be great! But you don’t have to buy the ticket, I’ll just give it to you.”
“No, ma’am, I insist on paying you for it,” Jac said earnestly. “I don’t want to take advantage of you.”
She was rewarded with a brilliant smile from the blonde and a choking sound from Victoria. Reaching a long arm over, she patted her best friend on the back and asked sympathetically, “Something go down the wrong way, Vic?”
The redhead sputtered into her napkin and glared at the executive who returned the look with mild concern. Turning back to Christi, who was also regarding Victoria with solicitude, Jac suggested, “Why don’t I contact you at your office later in the week, and we can make arrangements from there?”
Christi nodded, and Jac looked down at her watch. “I’m so sorry. I’ve really enjoyed our lunch, but I have to get back to work.” When Christi went to signal the waiter over, she laid a large hand lightly over the small one resting on the table. “No that’s all right. It’s your birthday after all, and I took the liberty of ordering a small treat, so please stay and enjoy it. I hope you like chocolate?”
Green eyes widened in delight. “I love chocolate! It’s a spiritual experience for me!”
Jac grinned at her enthusiasm. “Then I think you’ll enjoy this. The chef only creates it for special occasions, but this seemed to warrant it.” Retrieving several bills from her wallet, she laid them on the table. “I think that should cover it. Enjoy your dessert, ladies. Victoria, it was wonderful catching up with you again. We mustn’t leave it so long next time. And Christi, I’ll talk to you in a few days, all right?”
“I’ll be looking forward to it, Jac. And thanks again for the roses. They truly are exquisite.”
Jac nodded at her companions and turned to go just as the waiter arrived with dessert. She smiled as she heard Christi’s rhapsodic exclamation, knowing the confection of chocolate mousse, solid white and dark Belgian chocolate and fresh strawberries was sure to delight the young woman.
The executive left quickly, reflecting that she’d enjoyed the lunch much more than she’d anticipated and was looking forward to Friday’s concert. It was only as she approached the bank office tower that she reluctantly prompted herself to view the engagement as step two in her campaign, rather than a date with a lovely woman. Frowning, she cautioned herself against such indulgence even as the sound of the blonde’s laughter, the feel of a small hand under hers and those amazing verdant eyes lingered with her.
Victoria listened to Christi enthuse about the luncheon as they walked back to their office and wondered what had gone wrong. She had not counted on the obvious chemistry between the two women. Small tendrils of doubt began to grow in her uneasy mind.
The redhead had been so sure that Christi would be immune to Jac’s undeniable charisma; but she’d watched her colleague closely as the executive charmed the birthday girl over lunch. She’d seen the slight blush when Jac turned the full force of her attention on the blonde. She’d heard the soft giggles when Jac gently teased the young woman. Victoria knew from personal experience how overpowering and flattering it was to be the sole focus of Jac’s attention.
With a small frisson of misgiving, she summoned the mental image of Jac’s grand entrance. The executive had foregone the usual upswept hairdo she favoured at work and had allowed her ebony mane to flow over her broad shoulders. The dark woman had obviously dressed carefully in a royal blue suit that highlighted her already striking cerulean eyes. The tailored lines of the jacket clung to her lean body like a glove, and the skirt stopped just above her knees, emphasizing long shapely legs. A white silk blouse, small silver earrings and a large silver pin on her lapel completed her ensemble. Victoria didn’t need to look around to know that virtually every male eye and most of the female ones in the restaurant were on her best friend. She hadn’t missed the small intake of breath when Christi had first looked up to see Jac approaching either.
They’d almost reached the travel agency, and Victoria glumly noted that Christi had yet to stop talking about Jac and the luncheon. Damn! I’d better start working on Roger now to convince him to try the Tube one night.
The dense crowd exiting the auditorium carried Jac and Christi along with it. Glancing over her shoulder, Jac reached back and took her companion’s hand with a little squeeze. She got a raised eyebrow and a grin, but she noticed that Christi didn’t try to extract her fingers from the executive’s tight grasp.
When they spilled out onto the sidewalk, Jac tugged Christi out of the crowd’s path and then prudently dropped the small hand, even as she kept herself between the young woman and the throng.
Zipping up her black leather bomber jacket against the brisk October evening, she observed, “You know, it’ll take forever to empty that parking lot. I know a nice little cafe about half a block away. Can I interest you in a coffee while we wait for the crowd to thin out?”
“Yes, I’d like that.”
Christi didn’t appear in any hurry to end the evening, and Jac smiled as she stepped aside and motioned the blonde to precede her up the short flight of stairs to the street level. The executive enjoyed the view as she trailed behind, watching the sway of the woman’s hips and the delightful way the blonde’s faded blue jeans hugged her bottom. Suddenly she felt a rush of desire so strong it made her knees quake. Down girl! Patience.
Her attention elsewhere, she tripped over a stair but Christi whirled and caught her, steadying Jac until she regained her balance.
“New feet?” Christi teased.
“Yup, just breaking them in. Thanks for the rescue,” Jac laughed in chagrin.
Exiting on the street level, Jac drew in a deep breath of the cool night air and concentrated on tamping down her arousal. The auditorium fronted on a popular avenue of many restaurants, bars and clubs. The usual Friday night crowds sauntered down the sidewalks in couples and groups, and the executive was grateful for the distraction as she placed a light hand on Christi’s back and steered her around the pedestrians towards the café.
“They make a Bavarian torte here that melts in your mouth,” Jac advised as she held the door open for her companion.
“Oh, you just think you have my number, don’t you?” Christi grinned up at the executive. “Okay, twist my arm.”
God, I hope I’ve got your number! “Great. I know you’ll like it,” Jac said as led the way to an empty table. Plain white coffee mugs appeared before them instantly and the waiter held out two pots.
“High octane or unleaded?”
“High octane,” Jac answered. “Christi?”
“Decaf, please. Phillip will kill me if I keep him awake tossing and turning.” Christi gave a little laugh.
“Two pieces of Bavarian torte too, please,” Jac instructed the waiter before turning her attention on the blonde. “So tell me all about the man who’s captured your heart.”
“Well, his name is Phillip Emerson. He works for his father’s company, Emerson’s Luxury Auto.”
“Oh, I know that place,” Jac said. “I drool over that Boxster in the showroom every time I walk by.”
“Yeah, well Phil isn’t a salesman or anything. I mean, he was when we met, but now his Dad’s got him working in management. Um, we met when I moved here from a small town north of here a year ago. He came into the agency to book a holiday and he kept coming back, even after everything was finalized. He’s really sweet. I didn’t know anyone here and he took me under his wing, introduced me to his friends and showed me the city.”
Jac was watching the younger woman closely. She saw affection in those green eyes, but not the passion she searched for. Interesting. “Have you been engaged long?”
Christi dropped her eyes and fiddled with her cup. “A few months. We’re getting married on New Year’s Eve.”
The waiter returned with the torte and set them on the table. Jac took a bite before asking gently, “Something troubling you?”
The blonde dug into her torte, and Jac ate silently as she waited for an answer. Finally Christi sighed and said, “Well, I kind of feel rushed, you know. I mean we only knew each other for four months when he proposed. We hadn’t even…um, well you know.”
Jac admired the pink flush on her companion’s delicate features and chuckled softly. “I take it you have, ‘you know,’ now?” She grinned as the blush deepened and decided to take pity on the blonde. “Hey, I’m sorry. None of my business. Forget I asked.”
Christi peered at her through golden bangs and gave a constrained chuckle. “Well, once we were engaged, Phil said it didn’t make sense to keep two apartments, so I sublet mine and moved in with him. We’re looking around for a house now, but Phil can’t seem to settle on one that suits him.”
“Maybe you should look at building a new one,” Jac suggested casually.
The blonde perked up noticeably. “I’d love to do that. Choose all the colours and fabrics right from scratch. I really enjoy decorating. I guess I’m just a nester at heart.” Then her face fell and she said, “I did mention that to Phil, but he says that contractors just rip you off and you never know what kind of quality you’ll get. He says it’s safer to buy a proven property.”
“Shouldn’t you have an equal say in this? After all, it’s going to be home to both of you.”
“Yes, you’d think I’d have an equal say, wouldn’t you?” Jac was fascinated by the stubborn set to the small shoulders and the green fire that flashed in those expressive eyes. Then the blonde’s shoulders slumped in resignation as she said, “But his Dad is financing the house, so I guess he feels he should have final say. Sometimes it’s just easier not to argue any longer, you know?”
“Hmm, well not really.”
Christi looked at her wryly. “Yeah, I doubt that many men argue too long with you. Maybe if I’d had a foot more growth, they’d listen to me too.”
Jac broke out in a laugh. “Oh I dunno. I’d pit a terrier against a Great Dane any day. I think when you find something you want badly enough, you won’t let anything stand in your way.”
The mood lightened as they finished their torte. Noticing how Christi cleaned every last crumb, Jac grinned. “Like another?”
The blonde blushed and giggled. “Would you?”
“I don’t think I have room, but please don’t let that stop you. If you want another, have another.” Jac saw the internal struggle going on as Christi bit her lip. With a smile she signaled the waiter over and ordered her companion another piece.
Christi gave her a grateful expression. “I like going out with you. Phil always worries that I’m going to put on weight, but honestly, I think my metabolism must work overtime because I never gain an ounce.”
“No, you certainly aren’t carrying any extra pounds,” Jac said appreciatively. Before the blonde could respond, she continued, “You know what you were saying about liking to decorate?”
Her companion gave her a quizzical look but nodded.
“Well, I could sure use some help with my loft, if you’re interested. I’ve got nothing in there but bare white walls and hardwood floors. Even the furniture is a relic from my university days that I’ve never gotten around to replacing. I’ve been thinking for quite a while that I really should do something to spruce the place up, but I never get around to it. Would you be interested in lending me a hand and giving me the benefit of your talent?”
“How do you know I have any talent?” Christi asked cheekily, but Jac could see her eyes sparkling with interest.
“Gut instinct,” Jac replied off-handedly. “Do you?”
“Yes, I do,” the blonde asserted confidently as she leaned forward. “Are you serious? Do you really want my help redecorating?”
“Trust me, Christi, there’s no ‘re’ about it,” Jac laughed. “But yes, I’d love to have help.”
“All right. That would be a lot of fun,” Christi enthused. “When do we start?”
“Whenever you’re ready; and the sooner the better.”
Christi fumbled in her purse for her Daytimer, opened it, and scanned her schedule. “How about this Monday after work?”
“Great. I’ll even make you dinner as a thank you,” Jac said, delighted with the turn of events.
The blonde raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Can you cook?”
Jac clutched her shirt and groaned theatrically. “You doubt me?”
Christi giggled. “Well, forgive me, Jac, but you don’t really strike me as the domestic type.”
The executive grinned and sat up straight. “Caught me. But I do make a mean stir-fry for the nights when I get tired of take-out, so I promise I won’t poison you.”
The waiter arrived with another piece of torte, and Jac enjoyed watching Christi dig in. The younger woman took such a sensual delight in eating, almost moaning as the cake slid between delicate pink lips. The executive closed her eyes as her errant mind pictured those lips moving over her body.
“So,” Jac said hastily. “You said Phil went to the game tonight. Too bad because he sure missed a great concert.”
It was true. The concert had exceeded Jac’s expectations. She was an old rocker, favouring bands like The Stones and Alice Cooper. There was nothing she liked more than having sex to the sounds of Santana blasting from her multi-speaker stereo set-up. But she’d enjoyed the evening, though she wasn’t sure if that was entirely due to the music or had more to do with the enthusiastic company she kept. Christi had a habit of grabbing her arm in excitement every time the band began one of her favourite songs, and Jac considered herself fortunate that the younger woman had so very many favourites.
“Uh huh,” Christi mumbled around a mouthful of torte. Swallowing, she grinned sheepishly. “It was great, wasn’t it? But I know Phil was happier going to the game with his buddies. You know how guys are.”
“Not really,” Jac said dryly.
Christi looked at her curiously. “That’s the second time you’ve said that. Do I take it you don’t have any significant other in your life at the moment?”
“I’m getting the feeling that Victoria didn’t tell you much about me,” Jac said slowly. When the blonde shook her head in confusion, Jac said bluntly, “I’m gay, Christi.”
Her companion stopped chewing and then gulped down her mouthful. “Oh, um, no I didn’t know.”
“I hope that’s not a problem. I thought she’d told you.” Actually Jac had no idea whether Victoria had mentioned her orientation to Christi or not. It hadn’t altered the terms of the challenge, so initially it was irrelevant to her. Now, however, she found herself hoping that the answer would be favourable.
Christi shook her head. “No, not at all. I would never hold anything like that against you.”
“Good,” Jac drawled. “And I won’t hold your being straight against you.”
The young woman stared at her and then broke out laughing. Reaching across the table, she patted Jac’s hand, then returned to her torte, finishing it with relish.
The rest of the evening passed swiftly until finally Christi looked at her watch and regretfully said, “I have to get home, Jac. Phil will be back from the game now and wondering where I am.”
They settled the bill and returned swiftly to the now empty parking lot at the auditorium. Jac walked Christi to her bright yellow VW Beetle and quipped, “Sure makes it easier to find your car this way.”
The blonde laughed. “Good point.” Unlocking her door, she turned and smiled warmly at the tall woman. “I had a really great time tonight. Thank you.”
“So did I,” Jac asserted truthfully. “I guess I’ll see you Monday then, right?”
“Right.” Christi slid into the front seat of her car and waved as Jac stepped away.
Hands thrust deep in her pockets, Jac watched her new friend drive away. Alone now, she ambled over to her own black CRV. Once inside, she started the engine and let it idle as she contemplated her options. Christi had ignited a hunger in her that she wanted to sate. The only question was where. She dismissed the bar she and Victoria had been in the previous week. The executive didn’t feel like putting out the energy for a seduction. The Tube. Yeah, that’ll do it.
No strings, no complications, everyone there knew what they wanted and didn’t expect anything beyond an evening’s diversion.
Decision made, she put her car in gear and pulled out of the lot, heading out of the city limits, her destination firmly in mind.
Several hours later, Christi lay on her side, Phillip’s arm wrapped possessively around her naked body. She stared at the wall, unable to sleep and chafing at the heavy limb that encompassed her. The woman listened to her fiancé’s deep even breathing until finally, unable to contain her restlessness, she stealthily slid out from under and stood up.
Grimacing at the stickiness between her legs, she half-wished for earlier days when they had used condoms. Snagging her robe, she wrapped it tightly around her slight form and left the room. Wandering out to the living room, she curled up in the recliner and stared out the window at the apartment building that faced theirs across the courtyard. She mused idly over there being lights in some windows and not others, wondering about the lives going on behind those faceless portals.
Then, unbidden, an image drifted into her mind’s eyes--an angular face framed with waves of sable hair, with brilliant blue eyes that seemed to see right into her, but never through and beyond her as Phillip’s brown ones often did. When she was out with the woman tonight, she’d felt Jac’s attention focused completely on her. Her companion had paid attention and remembered everything she said. The executive’s regard never drifted, she never interrupted Christi; and even when the blonde took off on one of her flights of fancy, as she was wont to do, Jac only smiled indulgently and followed her lead.
Christi couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt so comfortable with a person. She had relaxed completely with her tall companion, laughing and teasing as if they’d known each other for years.
The blonde considered Jac’s revelation and decided it was irrelevant. If this was the way a lesbian treated her friends, she’d been moving in the wrong circles. Adopted into Phil’s circle almost immediately on her arrival in the city, she’d never tried to make an independent circle of friends. With the exception of Victoria, she really didn’t know anyone that wasn’t primarily Phillip’s crony.
Might just be time to change that.
Christi drew a brush quickly through her hair and looked up as she heard the apartment door open. With a deep breath she tossed her brush on the bureau and went out to greet her fiancé.
“Hey, babe,” Phillip called, as he slung his suit jacket over a nearby chair. “What’s for dinner?”
The blonde kissed the man’s cheek, as he loosened his tie with a groan.
“God, what a day! You wouldn’t believe the mess that idiot Carpenter caused.” Phil peeled off his shirt and tie, tossing them aside and scratching the thick coarse mat of chest hair. After stretching vigorously, he wrapped his arms around Christi and nuzzled her with his moustache. “Ah, but it’s good to be home with my girl. So what are we having for dinner, babe?”
Christi placed her hands on his chest and gently pushed away. “’Fraid you’re on your own tonight, Phil. I’m going over to a friend’s to give her a hand.”
The thickset man frowned. “What friend?”
“I told you about her. The woman I went to the concert with on Friday—Jac. She asked me to help her redecorate her loft, and I’m looking forward to the project. I put some ideas together over weekend. I just have to see what the layout is like so we can make some decisions.”
“Shit, Christi. I was looking forward to spending some time with you tonight,” Phil complained. Swaggering forward, he gathered her tightly back into his arms. “C’mon babe, blow her off. Stay with me.”
From within enveloping arms, Christi sighed, feeling him press harder against her. More firmly, she extricated herself. “No, Phil. I made a commitment and I’m going to keep it. I won’t be that late. You and I can have time together later on.”
He dropped his arms and turned his back to her. She watched him walk into the kitchen and open the fridge to snag a beer. Silently she opened the closet and took out her jacket. Picking up her purse, she was almost to the door when he said with a hint of challenge in his voice, “Think I’ll invite a few guys over to watch Monday Night Football. You won’t mind, will you, babe?”
Christi shrugged. She knew that meant she’d come home to a bunch of drunks lounging in the living room, the air blue with smoke and empty bottles and pizza boxes littering the floor. Phillip had been good in recent months about taming his old buddies’ rowdy behaviour around her, but he obviously was in no mood to accommodate her tonight. “It’s your home,” she said, quietly closing the door behind her.
The blonde took the elevator to the underground parking and walked quickly to her car. Determinedly putting any unpleasantness out of her mind, she concentrated on how much she’d been looking forward to this evening. Glancing at the directions that Jac had drawn on a napkin for her, she headed towards the river. Crossing one of the many bridges that would take her into downtown, she turned into a side street and then took an immediate hairpin onto a small service road that edged the riverbank.
She wondered momentarily if she’d gotten lost, seeing nothing that resembled an apartment, but then she noticed an old stone building on a steep rise ahead of her. Drawing up in front of it, Christi saw that she had the right address and she studied the building with interest. It was obviously one of the original city buildings, nestled in the shadow of the bridge that loomed above it. It wasn’t large, three floors high and forty feet across. The blonde noticed several narrow floor-to-ceiling windows set in each level. The windows had an odd silvery sheen that complemented the stone construction, even as it was apparent they were not part of the original design. In the centre of the peaked slate roof, a small turret loomed upwards until level with the adjacent bridge, and a small covered parking garage abutted the building on the northern side.
Intrigued by the unusual building, Christi locked her car and strode towards the front door. Entering a small alcove, she saw three mailboxes and three intercom buttons, the topmost of which was labeled, ‘J. Lanier’. Pressing the button, she was surprised at the crystal clear quality as Jac’s voice came over the com system. She’d expected the customary tinny reception.
“Hi, Jac? It’s Christi.”
“Hey, Christi. C’mon up. I’m afraid there’s no elevator so you’ll have to take the stairs to the top floor.”
The buzzer sounded, and Christi heard the click of a lock being released as she pushed through the door and found herself facing a steep flight of stairs that ran up the inside wall. Mounting them, she admired the care taken even in the stairwell. Rich muted colours in paint, textured wall coverings, and thick sound-deadening carpets combined with intricately worked wood detailing to give a subtle air of opulence. Porthole windows were set at regular distances, illuminating the stairwell with natural light. She kept her hand on the carved solid oak railing as she climbed past the second floor and emerged on the third floor landing.
Jac was leaning against her open door, grinning widely. “Guess I forgot to mention it was a walk-up, eh?”
Christi regarded the woman with a raised eyebrow. “Uh huh. I think you may have overlooked that. Must be tough when you bring in the groceries.”
The tall brunette snorted and stepped aside, motioning Christi to come in. “Why do you think I don’t cook most nights?”
The blonde looked up into bright blue eyes. “Well, I didn’t think it was because of the stairs.” She got a little hip nudge for that as Jac followed her into the loft and took her jacket to hang up.
“Oh ye of little faith.”
Christi was about to respond to Jac’s quip when she emerged into the loft and caught her breath. “Oh my god! Jac, this is beautiful!”
The loft wasn’t huge, but it gave an overwhelming impression of space. The outer wall was stone and the other walls were plain white, as were the crown mouldings and wide baseboards. Shimmering hardwood floors caught the rays of the setting sun through the tall narrow western windows. The entire lower floor was open living space with a small kitchen to the rear, a corner fieldstone fireplace, gym equipment tucked in a back corner and an impressive home entertainment system backed against the stone wall. A short circular flight of stairs led off the kitchen to the half split-level where Christi assumed the bedroom and bath were.
Lost in admiration at the loft, it took the blonde a few moments to notice that the furniture was indeed as dilapidated as Jac had indicated and she turned to the tall, quiet woman with a grin.
“Your home is spectacular, Jac. Sorry I can’t say the same thing about your furniture.”
“I did warn you,” Jac said with amusement. “Come and see the view, and then I’ll give you the rest of the tour.”
Christi trailed after the lean form, still in awe of her surroundings. Jac stopped by the window and gestured outside. In the failing light, the blonde could see the wide, fast-flowing river below her, edged by groves of ash, maple and poplar, their leaves having already changed colour and falling fast. Across the river, she could see the city’s trendiest shopping area, home to quirky shops, cafes and an outdoor market.
“Part of what I love about this place is being right by the river. I often go running down there, and on weekends I usually finish up by heading over to the market. There’s this great bakery there that makes croissants to die for.”
“Doesn’t the noise of the bridge traffic bother you?”
“No. Actually the stone walls are so thick that they deaden most of the sound. Besides, it’s a small price to pay for the privacy of this location. Our nearest neighbours are far enough away to give the illusion of isolation even though we’re right downtown. C’mon, let me show you the upstairs.”
Jac led Christi through the kitchen and up the circular staircase. On the upper level, the blonde saw that two thirds of the space was open and the other third closed off. A waist high banister encircled the space, but the rear of the lower floor was open to view. A king-sized poster bed backed onto the stone, a walk-in closet was partially open. An old mismatched dresser and bedside table, a couple of chairs, lamps and a large roll top holding a desktop computer and printer completed the room. The tall windows soared to an open beamed angular ceiling. The only oddity was a short ladder leading to a trapdoor off to the side of the windows.
Christi turned a curious face to Jac, only to see her companion’s eyes sparkling with childlike glee. “That’s the best part of this place.” She grabbed the younger woman’s hand, and Christi found herself being propelled across the floor, laughing at her friend’s enthusiasm. She watched as Jac climbed the ladder and pushed the trapdoor open, lifting herself through the opening and extending a hand back.
“Here, come up. You have to see this.”
Shaking her head slightly, Christi followed the executive up and hoisted herself through the trapdoor, aided by Jac’s helpful hands. Looking around, she realized she was in the small round turret she’d noticed from outside. Windows were set in an almost continuous line around the tower, which was the same unfinished stone as the lower wall. She discovered that, except for obstruction of the bridge, she’d have had a 360-degree view of the city around her.
“This was the original city fire station,” Jac explained, as she closed the trapdoor and unfolded a sling chair that had been leaning against the wall, gesturing for Christi to take a seat. “And this used to serve as an observation and bell tower. The stables for the horses were just over there.” She pointed in the direction from which Christi had driven in. “And they used the river to fill the holding tanks. This building was in service for about eighty years, until the city outgrew it and they had to build bigger fire stations. It’s gone through numerous incarnations since then, but when they turned it into condos a few years ago, I knew I had to live here.”
“It’s wonderful, Jac,” Christi said, enthralled by the sight of dusk gathering over the city as rays of ebbing sun flashed off office towers. “No wonder you love it here. I would too.” She glanced down to where Jac was sitting on the floor beside her. “Hey, don’t you have another chair?”
The woman shook her dark mane. “I, uh, don’t usually bring anyone up here. It’s sort of my private hideaway.”
Christi marveled at the note of shyness in the self-assured woman’s voice and as she studied the angular face, deeply shadowed now by the fading sun, she felt an unexpected surge of affection for her companion. She reached out a hand and rested it on one broad shoulder. “Thank you for sharing.”
The soft words fell between them, and as they locked eyes, Christi felt an undeniable connection building with the charismatic woman. Vaguely she wondered if she should draw back, but it felt so natural--sitting here watching the waning daylight with her new friend. It was only when a warm hand closed over hers, still resting on Jac’s shoulder, that she realized it had gotten so dark she could barely make out the other woman’s features.
“Hey, I promised to feed you, remember?”
Reluctantly Christi shook off the spell she’d fallen under, and stood up. Jac folded the chair and put it back against the wall before pulling up the trapdoor. The blonde wondered how she could see anything in the near dark, but followed Jac’s voice to the ladder and back down to the upper level.
Cautioning her companion to watch her step, the executive crossed the room and flipped on a lamp. “Well, that’s pretty much it up here except for the bathroom. You can take a look in there if you want.”
Oddly eager to see every bit of her friend’s home, Christi opened the door to a large bathroom, immediately noticing the unusual size of the bathtub.
“Good heavens, Jac!” She heard a low chuckle from right behind her.
“Yeah, I know. It’s bigger than the average bath; but I love long soaks, and the standard tubs just don’t give me room to stretch out, so I custom ordered this one.”
Christi glanced over her shoulder and grinned. “Well I can see that, but geez, Jac, you’ve got enough room in there for four people!”
“Hmm, well two anyway.” The contralto purr beside her ear sent shivers down the young woman’s spine as an uninvited image of Jac lounging in the tub with another person—a female person—flashed before her eyes. Flustered she backed out hastily, running smack into a tall firm body, which made her even jumpier.
“Whoa, tiger,” Jac laughed as she placed her hands on the blonde’s shoulders. “You’re going to mow me down there.”
Christi waited until Jac had turned to go down the stairs before she spun around and followed, raising a hand to her cheek to feel the heat there. Embarrassed at her lack of composure, she hoped Jac wouldn’t see her rising colour. She was thankful when her companion made no mention of it, but only set to work pulling things out of the fridge.
“Can I help?”
“Sure,” Jac said cheerfully. “You can start washing and slicing the vegetables while I do up the meat.”
Grateful for a job to occupy her, Christi set to work industriously at the sink and then stood beside Jac at the counter, slicing on one cutting board while her friend worked at the other. She stopped halfway through a carrot to stare in fascination at the way Jac’s blade flashed in swift, precise strokes.
“Wow, you could work in a Japanese restaurant! Where did you learn to cut like that?”
The executive grinned as she pushed the beef slices into a bowl. “My Mom was a sous-chef back long before women chefs were accepted. She studied in Paris many years ago. In fact, that’s where she met my Dad. Anyway, I loved to watch her in the kitchen, so Mom put a knife into my hands when I was just a little girl and I seemed to have an affinity for it.” She laughed as she retrieved a bottle from the fridge, shook it and poured it over the beef. “Not for much else though, and Mom soon banned me from doing anything but slicing and dicing.”
Christi was charmed by the image of a small Jac working beside her mother, industriously wielding a paring knife. She continued with her work as Jac pulled a battered old wok from the lower cupboard. Setting it aside, Jac washed her cutting board and knife and took half the vegetables from Christi’s stack.
“Thief,” the blonde accused good-naturedly.
“Slowpoke,” the executive shot back with a grin. Working companionably, the two swiftly completed the preparations, and then Jac delegated the rice to Christi while she began the stir-fry.
Once Christi had cleaned up, she settled onto one of the high stools beside the island and watched her friend deftly shuffle the meat before setting it aside and steaming the veggies. Inhaling the aroma of garlic, sesame oil and an indefinable tang, she asked, “What’s in that marinade?”
“Sorry, state secret, I can’t tell you.” Jac’s voice was serious, and Christi was thrown for a moment until she saw the corner of the woman’s mouth curling up in a smile.
“Right!” she snorted. “Really, Jac, what’s in it?”
“Nope, can’t tell you. This recipe was handed down by my mother on her deathbed with instructions to take it to my grave.”
“Yeah, you’re right. My Mom is alive and well and running her own restaurant in Chicago.” Jac grinned, ducking as Christi tossed an errant pea pod at her.
“Messy child,” she teased. “Why don’t you quit harassing the chef and open up the wine. You’ll find a corkscrew in the right hand drawer.”
Christi did as bidden and then slid two glasses out of the overhead holder. Filling one, she set it beside Jac who smiled her appreciation. Pouring her own glass she asked, “Anything else I can do?”
“Nope, just about ready.” Within moments, Jac was setting two full plates on the island. Grabbing cutlery and napkins, she went around the other side so that she faced Christi across the island.
Lifting her wine glass, she touched it to Christi’s. “Cheers!”
“Cheers,” Christi responded softly, thinking she could think of half a dozen heartfelt toasts at the moment. She watched Jac take a deep sip of her wine and close her eyes in appreciation. When blue eyes opened and sought her own, she quickly took a sip and set her glass aside.
“Dig in,” Jac instructed, doing the same.
Christi took a forkful and murmured in pleasure as the savoury tang hit her taste buds. “Oh, Jac, this is great! You have to give me the recipe.”
“I dunno,” the executive said doubtfully. “I only have a couple of dishes I do well and if I give you the recipe, it won’t be special when I make it for you here.”
The blonde halted in mid bite. She felt a sudden rush of pleasure at the implications that she’d be a regular visitor and that Jac cared enough to want to make something special. Lowering her eyes to her plate, she couldn’t suppress an involuntary smile as she listened to Jac begin to discuss decorating plans.
After Christi had finished a second plate, Jac asked with a grin, “Got any room for dessert?”
Laughing, Jac collected the dishes and then retrieved a pint of ice cream from the freezer. Setting it down between them, she handed Christi a spoon.
“Okay to share this way?”
“Ohhh, Haagen-Dazs! Oh yeah, we can share; but I feel I should warn you, I’m pretty fast with the spoon.” Christi eagerly dipped a spoonful of the chocolate confection and had returned for a second as Jac was taking her first. The executive chuckled as their spoons battled momentarily for space.
“Remind me next time to get two of these.” Jac’s wide smile brought an answering grin from Christi and the two finished the ice cream in rapid order.
When they were done, dishes were pushed to the side and the blonde pulled a small notebook out of her purse. The next hour was spent discussing colour and accessory options until finally Jac suggested they move to the couch. Christi sank into the mottled mushroom coloured cushions and watched as Jac built a fire.
Once it was blazing, the executive settled on the opposite end of the couch.
“So would you like me to give you a hand painting?” Christi asked as she sipped her wine.
Dark eyebrows rose. “You’d do that?”
The blonde smiled at the surprise in her friend’s voice. “Sure. After all, if I’m architect of this project, I want to make sure it’s done right. Besides, after we get the walls and trim painted, we can start with the good part—shopping for new furniture!”
Jac groaned. “Shopping? Can’t we just go on-line and order new stuff?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Christi teased, enjoying the mournful expression on the beautiful face. Relenting, she compromised, “We can get some things on-line, but I’m still taking you shopping for art pieces and accessories.”
“I guess that wouldn’t be too bad,” Jac conceded. “Okay, so I’ll pick up the paint and supplies, and we’ll start on Saturday. Would that be all right?”
“Sure.” A thought suddenly struck Christi and she frowned.
Christi looked up to meet her companion’s concerned gaze. “Um, I think I’m supposed to be going to Phil’s parents place on Saturday.”
“That’s all right,” Jac reassured her. “I’ll just start without you. I’m pretty sure I can handle a paint brush competently.”
The blonde grimaced. “Believe me, I’d rather be working here with you than going to the in-laws. Phil’s Dad is all right, but his mother drives me crazy. Look, let me see what I can do, and I’ll give you a call later in the week.”
Jac nodded her acquiescence, and the two continued to chat amiably for the next couple of hours. Finally, Christi reluctantly checked the watch she’d been studiously ignoring all evening.
“I’m afraid I’ve monopolized your whole night, Jac. I’d better go.”
“Don’t go on my account, Christi. I’ve been enjoying the company tremendously.”
The blonde could hear the sincerity in her companion’s voice, but knew she was overdue at home. “Thanks, Jac. I’ve had a great time too; but Phil was probably expecting me an hour ago, so I’d better go.” Unwillingly, she stood; and Jac rose to escort her to the door.
The executive held her jacket for her and as Christi slid her arms into the sleeves, it struck her that Phil had never done this for her. Distracted, the young woman almost missed Jac’s parting words.
“Goodnight, Christi. I had a really good time this evening. I hope you can make it back on Saturday.”
“Um, yeah. Me too.” Impulsively, Christi rose on her tiptoes and lightly kissed Jac’s cheek before starting down the stairs. Glancing back from the second floor landing, she saw Jac watching her with a curious expression. She waved and was gratified when the dark woman returned her wave with a small smile. Hurrying down the rest of the stairs, she emerged into the cool air and hastened to her car.
Driving home, Christi pondered the evening she’d shared with the woman who’d been unknown to her only a week before. She was amazed at how comfortably they’d interacted and how at ease she was in the executive’s company. Despite her natural warmth, the blonde had a shy streak with strangers, but it’d been non-existent around Jac since the day they met.
Making a sudden decision, Christi determined she wanted to paint with Jac and resolved to get out of dinner with the senior Emerson’s on Saturday. She knew Phil would be upset, but she was confident that she could soothe his ruffled feelings.
A tall dark form stood framed in a window, watching the canary yellow VW drive away. When it was out of sight, Jac let her eyes drift to the river, its dark waters lit only by the running path lights. It always calmed her to watch the endless flow, and tonight her mind desperately needed that peace.
What the hell happened? She hadn’t intended to make a friend. It was irrelevant whether she liked her prey or not. The only thing that counted was getting her into bed within the month. Yet she’d wantonly lost herself in the sheer pleasure of the young woman’s company tonight. Inexcusable! What in God’s name is wrong with you?!
The river refused to work its magic, and Jac turned angrily from the window. Get your mind back on track! You seduce her. You fuck her. That’s it. Game over—you win. Stoically she tried to focus on her goal but the insidious warmth that Christi’s image evoked made that impossible.
Flinging herself onto the couch, Jac concentrated on her campaign. After all, it was going well. She hadn’t missed Christi’s hand resting on her shoulder in the turret, or the blush when the young woman had backed into her at the washroom door. The executive knew when she was affecting a woman, and while Christi might not know it yet, she was being affected.
Jac tried to concentrate on the moment of victory and how that would feel, but it felt strangely hollow to contemplate. Suddenly she realized that she was inhaling deeply. Puzzled, she focused; and suddenly it struck her: her head was resting on the pillow that Christi had leaned against all evening, and it was her scent that Jac was unconsciously breathing in.
With a deep groan she seized the pillow from under her head and hurled it across the room where it hit the stone wall and tumbled to the floor. You’ve got five days to get yourself under control, you idiot. Now do it!
Christi bounded up the flight of stairs, gym bag in hand. She rounded the second floor landing and stopped short. Bursting into laughter, the blonde regarded the apparition at the top of the stairs.
Jac stood at attention, saluting with a large brush while her left hand held a paint can and long-handled roller. The tall woman had a blue baseball cap on backwards, gray fleece shorts, a cropped black t-shirt and bare feet. She was also sporting the goofiest grin Christi had ever seen.
“What ARE you doing?” Christi asked between fits of giggles as she climbed the rest of the stairs at a slower pace.
“Reporting for duty, boss!” Blue eyes twinkled as Christi shook her head.
“You are such a goof,” the blonde said amiably, giving the executive’s flat exposed abdomen a quick pat as she passed her.
“Well, you did say you were the head of this project, so I thought it only proper to greet you with deference and respect,” Jac said, following the younger woman into the loft.
“Uh huh.” The dry answer was cut short as Christi surveyed the loft and started to laugh again. All the furniture and gym equipment had been pushed up against the stone wall, and drop cloths covered much of the remaining floor space.
“You know, Jac. If you’d gotten just got one or two drop cloths, we could’ve moved them as we worked.”
She glanced up to see a slightly chagrined look cross her friend’s face. “It’s okay. This will work fine. It’s just that you didn’t need to spend all that money.”
“No big deal,” Jac assured her, setting the can of paint down next to half a dozen more and a pile of painter’s gear. “I’ve just never done anything like this before, so I decided to err on the abundant side.”
“Well, you did that,” the blonde said wryly, surveying the equipment. “Guess I should’ve been more specific about our requirements. Remind me never to send you to a hardware store alone again.” Stooping she picked up a small triangular foam piece. “What’s this for?”
“Um, I think it’s to do corners of window sills,” the executive hazarded with a puzzled look. “I just got everything that I thought we might need.”
Christi smiled to herself. Her friend’s enthusiasm was engaging, if somewhat misguided. She was sure they had enough here to do all three apartments, but was pleased that Jac was apparently throwing herself into this.
“Okay,” she said briskly. “I’ll just dump my stuff and we’ll get started. Did you get all the walls washed?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the executive assured her. “All washed and ready to go; and I taped off the non-paintable areas, just like you told me to. You can throw your bag in the closet or up in the bedroom if you want. Keep it out of the way. Did you bring a change of clothes?”
“Oh yeah, I’m not going out to dinner in these,” Christi said, indicating the old sweats and t-shirt she was wearing. “You know, Jac, you don’t have to…”
“Nonsense,” Jac cut her off. “You’re doing all this work for me. The very least I can do is feed you. Besides, I owe you since you’re missing dinner with your folks.”
“Phillip’s folks,” Christi corrected absently as she deposited her bag in the entranceway closet. “And trust me, it’s not like I mind.”
Jac knelt to peel plastic off a paint tray. Casually she asked, “Was Phillip okay with you helping me out today instead of going to his family’s place?”
Wincing, Christi recalled the scene that morning.
“What do you mean you’re not going with me?” Phillip demanded angrily. “We said we’d be there weeks ago!”
“Phil,” Christi said in a conciliatory voice. “It’s not like we were going to be the only guests. Your parents invited half the city, so they’re not even going to miss me. We’ll have them over for dinner next Sunday, and they’ll be fine.”
“What about me? What if I miss you? Jesus, Christi, lately it’s like I don’t even count. You go to a concert without me. You go traipsing off to some woman who I don’t even know and spend half the night there! What’s Mom going to think when she finds out that you’d rather go help a stranger than be with your fiancé?”
“Twice! I’ve been away from you twice in the last wee,k so I hardly think you’ve been abandoned!” Christi could feel her temper rising. “And I asked you to come to the concert, but oh no, you had to go to the stupid football game instead.”
“Is that what this is all about? You’re pissed off because I ditched the concert?” Phil asked incredulously. “That is so goddamned petty!”
“What this is about,” Christi said, enunciating clearly and emphatically, “is me making a friend independently, and you can’t stand it. God forbid I’m not around 24 hours a day to dance attendance on you and your friends.”
Phillip stared at her in outrage, then spun around and stomped out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind him so hard that it bounced back and hit the wall.
‘Well, that went well,’ Christi thought sadly. She knew Phil would expect her to seek him out with apologies and placating words as she always had after they fought, but this time she couldn’t face the thought of having to mollify him yet again. She recognized that if she did that, she would automatically be acquiescing to his plans for the day and that meant going to his parents’ party.
The young woman stared at the vibrating door for long moments and then shook her head decisively. Grabbing her gym bag out of the closet, she packed a change of clothes for the evening, picked up her keys and wallet and walked out of the apartment, ignoring the sulking figure in the living room.
“I wouldn’t exactly say he was okay with it,” Christi said calmly. “But he’ll get over it.”
Jac stared down at the roller she was fiddling with. “I don’t want to make trouble between the two of you,” she said quietly.
Christi looked at her friend, dark hair falling forward to obscure her face. “Hey, you didn’t make any trouble,” she asserted. A touch of defiance flashed in her eyes. “I’m where I want to be today, got it? No one makes me do anything!”
The executive raised her eyes and she gave Christi an enigmatic smile. “I’ll remember that.” Rising, she held out a roller and pan to the younger woman. “So, gonna show me how it’s done?”
Starting at opposite ends of the same wall, the two women worked steadily, chatting as they covered the white walls with a soft dove gray.
“I was looking on the Net last night. I think I saw a couch and easy chairs that would meet with your approval,” Jac said, as she carefully edged the bottom moulding. “They looked really comfortable and were a mix of blue, gray and a touch of maroon.”
“Sounds perfect,” Christi responded, absently wiping at a spot of paint on her nose and smearing it all over. “I was thinking about your bedroom furniture, too. Your dresser and desk are both good solid wood, so I think we should refinish them rather than replace them. We could stain them mahogany to match your bed.”
Jac turned her head to answer, then chuckled. “Geez, Christi, you’re supposed to be putting the paint on the wall, not your face.” Setting her roller down, she crossed the space between them. Cupping the younger woman’s face gently in one hand, she used the edge of her shirt to wipe the smeared paint away.
“Thanks,” Christi mumbled, flustered by the pleasant warmth of those hands. Unsettled, she glanced at the executive’s shirt and said the first thing that popped into her head. “You know, we do have rags. You’re going to ruin your shirt.”
With a grin, Jac shrugged and returned to her roller. “I’ve got so much paint on it already that one more spot won’t matter. Besides, this shirt is going to be my badge of honour. If anyone ever doubts that I helped paint my own place, I’ll just dig it out and wave it in their face.”
Christi slid her roller upwards, spreading the paint evenly on the surface. “Maybe I should make you a certificate of achievement to signify your first successful foray into home decorating.”
“If you do, I’ll frame it and hang it over my desk,” Jac asserted, pouring more paint into her tray.
The blonde giggled. “Jac! You don’t have anything but thin air over your desk!”
“I meant my desk at work. I’ll give it pride of place right beside my MBA,” Jac insisted, dipping her roller in the fresh paint. “Where did you learn how to do all this stuff, Christi? Did you have a secret desire to be an interior decorator or a contractor?”
“Nah,” Christi laughed. “It comes from growing up in a large family. Mom never let anything go to waste. She could butcher a deer, can vegetables, sew clothes, refinish and upholster furniture…I think the only thing she didn’t do was make our shoes, and I’m sure if she’d had more hours in the day, she’d have figured that out too.”
“Wow, an early superwoman, eh?”
“I never thought of her that way, but yeah, she’s pretty incredible.”
“Must be. She raised a pretty incredible kid.”
Christi’s eyes shot over at Jac, who was concentrating on her work and didn’t look at her companion. A slow smile grew on the young woman’s face, and she took a moment to enjoy the compliment.
“Um, thanks. Well actually, she raised eight of us.”
“Eight!” Jac’s head jerked up, and she stared at Christi. “God, she must have had stamina. I don’t think I could handle one!”
The blonde laughed. “Oh I dunno. Seems to me that you could handle just about anything you set your mind to. Anyway, Mom and Dad never set out to have so many. They didn’t think they could have children, so they decided to adopt one or two. Most of my brothers and sisters were older children that no one wanted. Two of my brothers are special needs kids. Mom and Dad just couldn’t say no whenever social services would come to them with a child that needed a home. Anyway, when Mom got pregnant with me, it was a complete surprise. Then she had my little sister a couple of years later, and she finally said ‘enough’.”
“Christmas around your place must be something else.”
Christi thought she heard a note of wistfulness in her friend’s voice. “Is it ever! Most of the older ones are married and have kids of their own, but everyone goes home to Mom and Dad’s for the holidays. It’s a madhouse, but I wouldn’t miss it.”
Her expression saddened. “Though I might have to miss it occasionally now. It just about drove Phil crazy when I took him home this summer, and only half the family was there.” At Jac’s raised eyebrow, she hastened to defend him. “He’s an only child, so he’s not used to all the noise and commotion.”
Disturbed by Jac’s noncommittal nod, she changed the subject. “So what about your family? Do you have siblings?”
“Uh huh. I have an older brother, Theo, who helps run Mom’s restaurant. He’s married with a couple of kids, which thrills Mom to no end. And I have a younger brother, Luc. We’re never sure where Luc is going to be from month to month. He’s got wanderlust and will work at just about anything that’ll put gas in his ’72 Mustang and get him back on the road. I never know when he’s going to pop up on my doorstep.”
Christi was amused by the look of fond indulgence on the executive’s face. “Your favourite, right?”
Jac chuckled. “That obvious, eh? Yeah, Luc is my buddy. We were best friends when we were kids and probably always will be. I know Theo gets mad at him because he won’t settle down, but settling would kill Luc’s spirit. I occasionally tease him about when he’s going to grow up but he says growing up is grossly overrated.”
“What does your Mom think?”
‘Aw, Mom thinks the sun rises and sets on Luc’s head. She tries not to show it since Theo is the one that stuck with her and worked so hard to help her build the restaurant into a success. She doesn’t want him thinking she’s ungrateful or loves him any less, but Luc—well Luc is just a charmer and has been since the day he was born.”
The women had finished one wall and moved onto the next, beginning again at opposite ends. Christi picked up the conversation. “So does your Mom know about you?”
“About me?” Jac’s amusement was clear and Christi flushed.
“Yeah, well you know, about being gay and all. Does she have any problem with that?”
The executive favoured her with a smile, and Christi decided she really liked that look on those angular features.
“Not really. I mean Mom’s pretty open-minded, for the most part.” Jac frowned a little then and Christi prompted her.
With a sheepish look, Jac confessed, “But she doesn’t like the way I run around. She figures I should find a nice girl and settle down, maybe give her more grandbabies.”
“Hmm,” Christi murmured, concentrating on her strokes for long moments. “And that doesn’t appeal to you.” When there was no answer, she looked over to see her companion paused in mid-stroke and staring at the wall. “Jac?”
Slowly the executive lowered her roller and half turned to face the younger woman. Christi was surprised at the look of intensity in those startling eyes.
“It didn’t used to. Now—now I don’t always know. Sometimes I think it would be great to come home to someone, to go to sleep with that someone and wake up with her every day. To know she’d always be there for me just like I’d always be there for her.” With a self-conscious laugh, Jac began to paint again. “Hell, I’m just getting old, I guess.”
Christi considered her friend’s heart-felt words. “No. It sounds to me like you just want what all of us want eventually. Love, security, stability. It’s not such a strange dream.” She paused and then said quietly, “I hope you get it. I hope you find that someone.”
She heard Jac inhale and then her soft, “Thanks.” The blonde smiled and continued to paint.
The women worked steadily through the day, stopping only for lunch and refreshment breaks. Christi was surprised when lunch turned out to be large croissant sandwiches. When she looked inquiringly at her friend, she was amused to see the executive blush as she confessed that she’d run down to the market early to get them.
The blonde was charmed by yet another example of Jac’s thoughtfulness, and she certainly couldn’t disagree about the quality of the croissants. Stacked with layers of ham, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, they melted in her mouth and before she knew it, she’d eaten three and was looking at a fourth. When she caught Jac stifling a grin behind a napkin, she virtuously pushed it aside.
When they stopped for a mid-afternoon break, Jac returned from the kitchen with two Cokes, the remaining croissant and a big smile. Without a word, she joined Christi on the couch and handed her the plate. When the blonde started to demur, one raised ebony eyebrow told her not to bother, and laughingly, the younger woman finished up the sandwich as the executive sipped her pop with a smug look.
By six PM, all the walls and the underside of the upper level were done with two coats of paint. Christi stood, enjoying the sight of the freshly painted walls.
“I think you were right about the colour,” Jac said, coming up beside her. “It’s going to be really easy to live with for a long time.”
“Uh huh,” Christi agreed. “And it blends beautifully with the stone wall. By the time we finish the baseboards and mouldings, get the new furniture in and add a few accent pieces, you’re going to have a real show home here.”
Jac regarded her closely. “Thank you. I can’t believe all you’ve done for me, but I really owe you.”
Christi blushed and tried to wave off her friend’s thanks. “Believe me, I’ve had fun doing it. I love discovering the hidden beauty of things.”
“Yeah—me too,” Jac said slowly. “I just didn’t know it.”
There was an underlying intensity to her words that puzzled and fascinated Christi, but before she could explore it, Jac chuckled.
“Well lady, I think we’d better get cleaned up and dressed for dinner. I made reservations at the Grotto for seven. You look like you got more paint on yourself than the wall.”
“I do?!” Christi joked indignantly. “You should look at yourself, tall, dark and spotted!”
Grinning, Jac nodded. “Yeah, I think we could both stand to wash up. Do you want the bathtub or the shower?”
“Uh, doesn’t matter, I guess,” Christi managed to get out through a throat that had suddenly tightened.
“Okay, why don’t you go up and soak some of that paint off in the tub? I’ll just clean up here a bit and then grab a shower,” Jac said casually as she started stacking empty paint cans. “We only need about ten minutes to walk to the restaurant, so we have lots of time.”
Christi blinked and, giving herself a mental shake, went to retrieve her bag from the closet. Taking a deep breath, she mounted the stairs to the upper level and entered the large bathroom. Turning on the taps, she inspected the row of bath oils and bubbles on the tiled tub surround, amused at the woman’s extensive selection. She wasn’t kidding when she said she likes long soaks.
Finally settling on one with a clean herbal scent that reminded her of Jac, she poured a generous amount under the running water and turned to strip off her clothes. Laying out fresh underwear, dark green cords, a pale green shirt and a cream coloured fisherman’s knit sweater, she stuffed her paint wear back in the bag and slid into the water, sighing with pleasure.
A few minutes later, Jac entered the bathroom and opening the door of the glassed in shower, turned on the taps to adjust the temperature. Closing the door to keep the steam in, she casually stripped off her clothes and tossed them at the laundry hamper.
“I think you forgot something,” Jac said, as she pulled towels out from a cupboard. Crossing to the tub, she laid one towel on the bathmat. “Is one enough or do you need another for your hair?”
Christi swallowed hard, trying not to think of all that naked female flesh—that incredibly toned and gorgeous female flesh—only inches away. “No, one’s enough,” she managed to squeak as Jac nodded and returned to the shower.
The blonde slid down until her head was under the water for a long moment and then pushed back up, shaking the water out of her eyes. What the hell is wrong with me? Christi was no prude. Privacy was a non-existent concept growing up in a house with eight kids. But she’d never been so conscious of a human body before. There’s no doubt that gym set isn’t just for show!
Jac seemed perfectly comfortable, and Christi envied the woman her careless lack of affectation. She tried to avert her eyes, giving her friend the privacy Jac didn’t seem to require, but her disobedient gaze kept drifting to the glass enclosure where the executive was lathering her long, lean body. Entranced, the blonde watched the soap run in rivulets down that smoothly-muscled body, chased by cascades of water that sparkled and danced over the executive’s form.
Unable to look away, Christi’s breath caught as Jac raised her arms to shampoo her hair, pulling her firm breasts up in sharp relief. God, she’s beautiful! Like a Greek statue! She didn’t realize she’d been holding her breath until she gasped for air. It brought her sharply back to reality and she hastily began washing her own body, acutely aware of the feel of her flesh as she did so.
Finishing body and hair, she practically leapt out of the tub, drying off and donning her clothes before the other woman had even finished her shower. Exiting the bathroom hastily, she missed seeing Jac’s smile as blue eyes watched her leave.
Christi sat on the old couch, listening to the noises of Jac dressing coming from overhead, wondering numbly what was going on with her. She’d never had this visceral reaction to anyone in her life, male or female. She couldn’t stop the traitorous comparisons in her mind between Jac’s smooth perfection of form and Phil’s hairy, thickset body.
Too much indulgence and too little exercise had her fiancé moving prematurely into middle-aged spread. She’d never minded, reasoning that she was marrying him for the inner man not the outer one, but she had to admit, she’d never reacted to him as profoundly as she just did to the mere sight of her friend in the nude.
Her thoughts were cut off as she saw Jac descending the stairs and her breath caught all over again. The executive was wearing black, close fitting jeans, a bright red pullover with a white button down shirt underneath and black demi-boots. Oh, red is SO her colour!
“You look nice,” Christi said as she stood up.
“Thanks, you look good yourself. Are you ready to go?”
Christi nodded and followed Jac to the door, picking up her bag on the way. She followed Jac down the flights of stairs and out into the cool evening air. After tossing her bag in the car, she paced quietly beside her tall friend, glad for her thick sweater as Jac headed for the spiral staircase that would take them to the bridge level where they’d cross over to the marketplace.
Jac chatted easily as they walked, seeming not to notice her companion’s unusual silence. Christi began to relax, enjoying the amiable camaraderie and beginning to look forward to dinner. It had been many hours since her afternoon snack, and her stomach was reminding her of its shameful neglect.
“Have you ever been to the Grotto?” Jac asked as they stopped for a traffic light.
“No, I don’t think so. Tell me about it.”
The executive laughed. “Well the first thing you have to know is not to let appearances throw you. The food is fabulous, the atmosphere is casual and relaxed, but Mario’s decorating taste is not nearly as good as yours.”
“Okay,” Christi said in puzzlement. “What’s so bad about the decorating?”
“Oh no, that’s all the warning I’m giving you,” Jac grinned. “I really think you need to see it to get the full impact.” She placed a light hand on Christi’s back and directed her down a lane one block away from the main market area. Pointing halfway up the road, she indicated a covered entrance. “That’s the Grotto there. The whole restaurant is actually below street-level.”
Intrigued, Christi willingly followed her companion down the narrow flight of stairs. Reaching the bottom, she stopped short, staring around her in amazement. The restaurant was styled to look like an underground cavern, complete with stalactites and a series of smaller caves that housed three or four tables apiece. The truly shocking part was the colour. Everything was painted terra cotta--walls, floors, ceilings and stalactites. Even the tables had salmon coloured tablecloths, set with white and terra cotta dishes. The effect was almost overwhelming and Christi wondered wildly if the washrooms were subject to the same colour scheme.
An irrepressible giggle slipped out of the blonde, and she heard a low chuckle beside her. Warm air caressed her ear as Jac whispered, “Told you!” Biting her lip, Christi tried to restrain herself, but when a man walked up to them looking like he’d stepped right out of Lady and the Tramp, she had to bury her face in her friend’s broad back to suppress her fit of laughter.
“Good evening, Ms. Lanier. How are you today?” There was a strong hint of the mother country in the man’s speech.
“Mario, good evening. I’m fine. My friend and I have been looking forward to your lasagna all day.”
Mario leaned forward conspiratorially. “It’s particularly good tonight. You will enjoy yourself.” With a wink, he turned to lead them to their table. Christi followed Jac, biting her lip to regain control.
Once they were seated in one of the smaller caves, she stared accusingly at her friend. “You could’ve warned me,” she hissed but her grin belied any vexation.
“And missed that look on your face? No way!” Jac chortled. “That was priceless. Mind you, I think I had the same look the first time I came here, too. Trust me though, Mario’s lasagna will make you forget everything else.”
“Sublime!” Jac asserted.
Christi closed her menu. “Then I guess I don’t need to look at this. I’ll go with your recommendation.”
When the main course arrived, Christi had to concede that Jac hadn’t been overstating things. Taking her first bite of the dish, she closed her eyes and moaned with pleasure. Opening them, she found her companion grinning at her.
“Guess I now know what you sound like at the peak of pleasure,” Jac teased.
Christi blushed furiously and Jac laughed. “I’m sorry. You just sounded so orgasmic over there. It is great though, isn’t it?”
Christi nodded emphatically, not even pausing to answer before taking another bite. They talked and laughed their way through the meal, as Jac kept their wine glasses filled. When Christi finally pushed her plate aside with a sigh, completely satisfied, Jac asked drolly, “Any room in there for dessert?”
The younger woman chuckled. “I know you’re not going to believe this, but I’m not sure there’s an inch of space available.”
“Are you sure? Mario makes an incredible homemade gelato, and it’s not too filling.” Jac smiled winningly at her companion.
Christi rolled her eyes and laughed. “All right. Twist my arm.”
With a triumphant grin, Jac summoned their waiter and ordered dessert and coffee. Christi had to agree that the gelato lived up to the rest of the meal, but she stopped Jac from filling her glass with the remainder of the wine.
“I have to drive, remember?”
“You could always bunk down at my place,” Jac suggested lightly.
Christi was silent for a moment, struck by what an attractive idea that was. She had no desire to end such a wonderful day with conflict, and she knew Phil wouldn’t be in a pleasant mood. Finally she sighed. “No, I’d better go home, but thank you.” Looking up into warm blue eyes, she joked, “Besides, you just want me there so you can put me to work at the crack of dawn tomorrow. You’d probably put a paint brush in my hand before I even woke up.”
“Caught me,” Jac laughed.
“Anyway, I don’t think I want to sleep on that old couch of yours. I strongly suspect there are things living in there.”
“Tch, what kind of a hostess do you take me for? I’d have shared my bed. It is a king-size for heaven’s sake. There’s tons of room.”
“I have seen your bed,” Christi said dryly. “You have room for ten people!”
“Hmm, now there’s an interesting thought,” Jac leered comically, squawking when the younger woman swatted her arm. “Hey, it was your idea!”
“Uh huh, I can see it now, people sliding around on your satin sheets, slithering out on the floor from every angle.” Christi had a sense she should stop while she was ahead, but she was enjoying the banter too much.
“Satin? I’ll have you know my sheets are flannel,” Jac asserted loftily.
“No way!” Christi laughed. “Flannel—you?”
With a mock wounded look, Jac asked, “Yeah flannel, why not me?”
Christi grinned widely. “You just don’t strike me as the flannel type, Jac. Satin or silk yes, but flannel?”
Jac leaned forward and purred, “But flannel feels SO good on naked skin, Christi.”
The blonde gulped and hastily took a sip of her coffee, trying to banish the instant image of Jac sliding her nude body between flannel sheets. “Ah, we should probably be going, don’t you think?”
The executive sat back with a small triumphant grin. “Sure.” Jac called for the check and when Christi tried to contribute, firmly insisted it was on her.
The women left the restaurant, but with an unspoken mutual agreement, did not start right back to the old firehouse. Instead they ambled over to the market, window shopping and watching the street entertainers.
Finally Christi said, “I think I’ve worn a little of my dinner off. I really should get back.”
Jac nodded and turned their steps in the direction of the bridge. They were quiet on the walk back, but it was a comfortable peace--like that between old friends who know they don’t have to fill up all the silences. Christi marveled anew at how easy it was to be in this woman’s company.
When they descended the spiral staircase back to the river’s edge, she found herself unaccountably wanting to link her arm in the tall woman’s as they walked down the road to where her car was parked. When they reached the VW, Christi turned to her companion. “Thank you, Jac. I had a wonderful time. In fact, the whole day was a lot of fun.”
“I’m glad, but it’s me who should be thanking you, Christi. You worked hard today, and I appreciate your help.” The tall woman hesitated. “I never knew that painting could be that much fun.” She flashed a brilliant smile at the blonde. “Though I think that mostly had to do with the company.” Leaning forward, she lightly brushed her lips against Christi’s. “Good night. See you tomorrow.”
Christi stared after the woman who was walking up the firehouse steps. Dazed, she ran her fingers over her lips. It was only when Jac disappeared into the building that she finally unlocked her car and slid inside, but she didn’t start the engine until she saw the lights come on in the top floor. Then, still mildly stunned, she began the drive back to her apartment, her mind on the overwhelming sensation of those impossibly soft lips on hers.
Jac carried the covered Styrofoam trays carefully as she walked down the sidewalk to the Trevor Travel Agency. A man exiting the agency held the door open for her, and she rewarded him with a smile. The office, decorated with alluring posters of exotic locations, held six desks, four of which were currently occupied by agents on phones or at their computers.
Spotting a familiar blonde head bent over some paperwork, she headed for Christi’s desk. Taking the client chair in front, she greeted her friend cheerfully. “Hi.”
Startled, the younger woman looked up and grinned widely. “Hey, you. I didn’t know you were dropping in today. Are you looking for Victoria? She’s not in right now.”
“I know,” Jac said, sliding one of the packages across the desk. “It’s the third Thursday of the month.”
“What’s this?” Christi asked curiously. She carefully opened the tray, releasing a burst of steam and piquant aromas. “Oh, Jac. This looks great!” Looking up at the executive who was looking very pleased with herself, she chastised half-heartedly, “Jac, you’re going to spoil me!”
The executive shrugged. “It’s only Thai take-out, Christi. Compared to all the work you did last weekend, it’s a small reward. I just thought it might be a more appealing lunch than a sandwich. Here, use these.” She handed over a small plastic bag of cutlery and napkins, and opened her own lunch.
Jac grinned to herself as she watched her friend enthusiastically dig in. She’d had a hunch Christi would like Thai food, but then she suspected her young companion had never met an ethnic cuisine she didn’t like. The executive had rarely seen anyone who enjoyed their food as openly and thoroughly as this slight woman. Taking a forkful of spicy noodles for herself, she had to admit this had been one of her better ideas.
“So what did you mean about it being the third Thursday?” Christi asked around a mouthful of shrimp.
“You mean you’ve worked with Victoria a whole year now, and you’ve never noticed that she’s always out at noon on the third Thursday of the month?”
Her fork halted halfway to her mouth, the blonde thought about it. “You know, I’d never noticed, but you’re right. Where does she go?”
“She has a standing appointment with Renaldo to have her hair done,” Jac said, waving at the air in front of her mouth. “Do you have water around here? I think I just burnt my tonsils off.”
Christi laughed and pushed her chair back. Going into the back room, she returned with two Cokes, pushing one over to the executive.
Jac snapped open the can and poured the cold liquid down her seared throat. Sighing in relief, she set the pop down and glared across the desk where her companion was blithely downing the spicy food without any sign of discomfort.
“Don’t you find it the least bit warm?” Jac demanded, gingerly examining the rest of her lunch, looking for the least potent part.
The blonde chuckled. “Nah, barely tepid.” When Jac looked at her in disbelief, she explained, “Cast iron stomach. It helps if you’re not really picky when you’re competing with ten people at the dinner table. I learned early to dig into whatever was closest and not worry what it was.”
“Huh,” Jac nodded. “Makes sense I guess.” Changing the subject she said casually, “You didn’t return my call last night. I just wanted to let you know that the furniture we ordered is going to be delivered on Saturday.”
Christi stared at her in puzzlement. “You called last night?”
“Yeah, about six thirty.”
Jac could see the cloud pass over the blonde’s sweet face. She’d been expecting it. When Phil had answered the phone and she’d identified herself, he’d been barely short of rude. When Christi hadn’t called back, she suspected that her message never got passed on.
“I’m sorry, Jac. I didn’t know you called. I was out grocery shopping and I must have missed Phil’s note or something when I got home.”
Christi lowered her eyes to her plate, but Jac could see her friend’s irritation in the vicious way she stabbed another shrimp. She allowed herself a tiny smile before saying, “No big deal. I just thought since you were instrumental in the shopping, you might want to see what you spent all my money on.”
Christi’s head jerked up. “I do. Besides, we have to stain your bedroom furniture, so we can do that while we wait for the deliverymen.” Her sunny nature reasserting itself, she waved a plastic fork at her companion. “Did you finish stripping the desk?”
Jac grimaced. Christi had taught her how to strip furniture the previous Sunday after they’d finished all the mouldings and trims. It had been fun working with the younger woman on the dresser and bedside table, but they’d run out of time to do the desk. The blonde had left her with detailed instructions on how to strip the remaining piece but without Christi’s ebullient presence, the task had turned into a real chore.
“Ye,s boss, I finished it last night. What a job though! I couldn’t believe how many nooks and crannies there are in my old roll top.” There was a beat of silence and then, with a gleeful twinkle, she added in a drawl, “Luckily, I’m very—very, experienced with nooks and crannies.”
Christi started to choke, and Jac scrambled around the desk to pound the blonde’s back. The travel agent grabbed her Coke and took a swallow, coughing several times as she waved a hand weakly. A middle-aged woman at the next desk looked up in concern.
“Are you all right, Christi?”
With a final cough, Christi managed to say, “Fine, Irene. Just got something caught the wrong way.” The blonde turned her attention back on Jac, who’d returned to her chair. Glaring at her unrepentant friend, she sputtered, “I can NOT believe you said that!” Shaking her head at the grinning executive, she accused with a laugh, “You really are incorrigible. You could’ve killed me there.”
“Nah, I know how to do the Heimlich,” Jac assured her.
Doubtfully, Christi challenged, “Do you really?”
Sheepishly Jac confessed, “Um, well, I’m pretty sure I could learn it fast if I had to.”
“Oh great,” Christi teased with a grin. “Remind me never to put my life in your hands!”
You could put your life in my hands. The unbidden thought startled Jac, as did the intensity of feeling underlying it. She stared at her food tray, an unfamiliar hesitancy overwhelming her.
Oblivious to her companion’s disquiet, Christi went on, “Look, if we’re going to do the staining on Saturday, why don’t we hit the art galleries on Sunday?” She looked expectantly at her companion. “Jac?”
“Um, yeah, great. That sounds like a good plan.” The executive felt unaccountably flustered, and she was grateful when Christi detailed what galleries she wanted to visit and what she thought would look good in the loft.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea!” Christi said exuberantly. “Why don’t you come over to my place for dinner after we finish shopping? I already had a big dinner planned because the in-laws are coming over, and I’d love you to meet Phil.”
That caught Jac’s attention. Somehow I don’t think Phil wants to meet me. That thought in itself was enough for her to say with a genuine smile, “I’d like that, Christi. I’d be happy to come.”
“Great!” Christi’s grin faded a little as she rolled her eyes. “I should warn you ahead of time though, Phil’s Mom can be a pain in the ass at times. Don’t let her get to you, okay? His Dad is a pretty good guy, and I’d really like you and Phil to get along.”
“I’m sure we’ll all get along wonderfully,” Jac lied. Judging by old Phil’s voice on the phone last night, I think he’d rather welcome a rattler into his home. This should be interesting.
The women finished their lunch, and Christi took the empty trays to the back. The blonde returned and walked the executive to the front door.
“Thanks, Jac. One of these days I’ll return the favour and show up at your office with lunch. Or better still, I’ll take you out for lunch.”
With a grin at her friend, the tall woman suggested hopefully, “But not Thai, right?”
“Wuss!” Christi teased as she held the door open. “All right, bland it is.” She gave her head an exaggerated shake. “And here I thought you’d be a woman of the world.”
“I am,” Jac protested. “I’m just partial to keeping my taste buds non-blistered.”
“So why would you buy Thai in the first place then?”
Jac looked up at the skyline. “Um, well I thought you might like it.” There was silence; and when the executive glanced down, she found a slightly stunned look on her friend’s face. Christi regarded her, green eyes bright with appreciation. Recognizing the perfect moment to leave, Jac said, “See you Saturday then.”
Turning away, she heard a quiet confirmation. “Saturday.”
Walking the few blocks back to the bank, Jac considered their final exchange. She found, to her amazement, that she’d spoken the truth. The executive had consciously selected a Thai lunch because she was sure Christi would enjoy it. Makes sense. I mean, I want her to like me, right? I’m certainly not going to win the challenge if she hates me.
But the rationalization felt hollow and to her amazement, she realized that somewhere along the way, she’d crossed the line from seduction to courtship. Now the question was, how did she get back on track? Do I even want to?
Jac continued her purposeful stride down the sidewalk, her disciplined mind torn between an ego that demanded she win at all costs and a heart that was tapping into something far more powerful, something she was only barely cognizant of. Resolutely she pushed all thoughts of the young woman out of her mind as she entered the bank and nodded at the doorman who greeted her cheerfully. Enough! I have work to do!
Jac flexed her legs uncomfortably. Volkswagens weren’t made for six footers. Christi noticed her discomfort and smiled.
“Sorry, I didn’t know I was going to have a giantess for a friend when I bought this car.”
“And I didn’t know I’d be hanging with a midget either,” Jac shot back amiably.
“Who’re you calling a midget?”
Jac grinned at the look of mock outrage on her companion’s face. “Hey, if the shoe fits—the teeny, tiny, wee little shoe…”
She got a smack on the shoulder for that and broke out laughing. It’s been a good day. It had been a good day. Jac squirmed a little more in the restricted space, but smiled as she looked out the window. Christi had dragged her all over the city, which normally would have driven her crazy, but she’d genuinely enjoyed their shopping trip.
And now I get to meet ole Phillie and his dragon mother. Her smile turned rueful at the thought, but part of her anticipated the confrontation. She’d decided to take the high road, fairly certain that Phil would not. Christi hadn’t said anything outright, but reading between the lines, she knew her friend’s fiancé wasn’t thrilled with his intended’s new companion and all the time they’d been spending together. Oh yeah, this could be very interesting!
“There’s home,” Christi said, nodding at a pair of apartment blocks ahead of them.
Jac surveyed the buildings with interest. Generically constructed, there was little of interest about them. Diplomatically she withheld any comment as Christi drove underground and parked. Following her friend to the banks of elevators, she mused that the old firehouse suited the blonde much more than this bland structure. Maybe it’s better inside the apartment.
Trailing Christi into her home, Jac gave a tiny shake of her head. Keenly aware now of how talented her friend was at decorating, she was surprised at how little of the blonde’s stamp was on the insipid interior.
Almost as if reading her thoughts, Christi gave her an abashed look. “Phil doesn’t really like change.”
Jac barely had time to whisper, “Then Phil doesn’t know what he’s missing!” A burly man strutted up to them and gathered Christi in his arms. He kissed the blonde deeply, ignoring her quiet protestation.
Jesus, why don’t you piss on her while you’re at it? Talk about marking your territory! Jac kept the distaste off her face and maintained a look of mild interest. When Phil finally released a blushing Christi, the blonde turned abruptly and tugged Jac forward.
“Jac, this is my—this is Phillip Emerson. Phil, this is my friend, Jac Lanier.”
Jac held out her hand, giving the scowling man a big smile. She was amused to see that she topped the man’s height by at least four inches. “Nice to finally meet you, Phil. I’ve heard so much about you.” That wasn’t actually the truth. Christi talked a lot about her family, but very little about her fiancé.
Phil shook her hand and muttered, “Likewise.” Turning to the blonde, he said, “Mom called. They’ll be here in about an hour.” Without a word or backwards glance, he returned to the living room where an NFL game was blaring on the television.
Christi glanced apologetically at the executive. “Um, why don’t I take your jacket, and then maybe you can give me a hand in the kitchen?”
Jac nodded and handed over her leather bomber. She could see the tension in Christi’s stiff shoulders, but rather than that pleasing her, she regretted her part and wanted to ease her friend’s tension. As they made their way to the kitchen, she did her best to tease and charm the blonde into a better mood. Her efforts were rewarded by a genuine smile that even illuminated those gentle green eyes.
By the time Christi set her to peeling potatoes, the younger woman had recovered her élan and was chatting enthusiastically about their afternoon.
“That sculpture is going to be the focal point of your loft,” the blonde insisted as she tore lettuce for the salad.
Jac nodded her agreement. She’d fallen in love with the black marble sculpture as soon as she’d seen it. The torso of a nude woman, her head thrown back in an expression of ecstasy; the lines flowed so naturally from the stone’s shape that it took her breath away. It was the epitome of grace and elegance, and she knew she had to have it.
Christi was shocked at the price and wouldn’t let Jac simply open her chequebook. Much to the executive’s amusement, her young friend haggled the dealer down almost two hundred dollars with the promise they’d buy a second work from his gallery too. Christi had her eye on a small, brilliantly coloured tapestry for Jac’s bedroom. She managed to get that at a slight discount too, though she did have to accept a delay on delivery until the artisan could deliver a replacement to the gallery. The dealer assured her it would be no more than ten days, and Christi gave him her numbers with firm instructions to call her the moment it arrived.
The tall woman hadn’t bothered to tell Christi that two hundred dollars was little more than pocket change to her, and that the cost of all the artwork combined barely made a dent in her account. She simply enjoyed the blonde’s triumphant grin and congratulated her on her bartering skills.
“Yes, it is. By the way, remind me to take you with me the next time I hit the Moroccan bazaars.” That earned her a big grin. “So where do you think we should put it?” Listening to Christi expound on the options, Jac never even noticed how easily she’d slipped into the plural pronoun.
They were setting the dining room table together when a sharp knock sounded at the door.
“Phil, would you let your parents in?”
Grumbling under his breath, Phil tore himself away from the game and went to the door. Out of the corner of her eye, Jac saw Christi shake her head. They quickly finished the table, and the blonde went to greet her in-laws as Jac hung back, watching with interest. She saw the stiff way the two women greeted each other. Christi’s future mother-in-law was a thin woman of medium height, her rigid posture, lacquered platinum hair and drawn features creating an indelible impression of brittleness.
Mr. Emerson was a burly, balding man who resembled his son but without the sullenness that marred Phil’s features. After he and his wife handed over their coats, he strode over to Jac and offered his hand with a genial smile.
“I don’t know if you remember me, Ms. Lanier. We met last year at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. I know I remember you. Your presentation on commercial pitfalls for mid-sized companies was brilliant. Not to mention that you were the best-looking banker I’d ever seen.”
“Of course—Andrew Emerson. I do recall having the pleasure of talking with you then. As I recall, you brought up some interesting points on competitiveness.” Jac did remember the man now. He’d cornered her after the luncheon, monopolizing her with a multitude of earnest questions until her VP had dragged her off to meet the President of the Chamber.
Andrew beamed. His wife cleared her throat ostentatiously behind him, and he started. “Oh, Ms. Lanier, this is my wife, Phyllis. Phyl, this is Ms. Lanier.”
Jac extended a hand. “Please, call me Jac. It’s nice to meet you Mrs. Emerson.”
The woman took the proffered hand and shook it limply, unable or unwilling to conceal her distaste. Huh, wonder what her problem is? The executive nodded politely, ignoring the woman’s overt antagonism. She saw Christi frown at the exchange, but met her friend’s disturbed gaze with a subtle wink, winning a small smile in return.
Jac was content to let Andrew talk business until dinnertime arrived. When she noticed that neither Phil nor his mother made any attempt to help Christi, she politely excused herself and went to help her friend.
“Hope you like pot roast,” Christi said. “I put it in on low before I picked you up and it looks like it’s perfect.” She bustled about filling serving bowls that Jac transported to the table. When the executive returned, the blonde was whipping the potatoes, and she nodded at the roast standing on the carving board.
“I’ve seen the way you handle a knife. Feel like carving for me?”
“Sure,” Jac assented, pulling a large knife from the butcher block on the counter. “Do you like your slices thick or thin?”
Christi’s answer was cut off by a rough voice. “Here, I’ll do that.” Phil shouldered between the two women and stood truculently in front of the roast.
Wordlessly, Jac turned the knife and extended it handle first, before quietly asking, “Anything else I can do, Christi?”
The blonde silently held out the bowl of potatoes. Jac could see the points of colour on her face, and the anger in her eyes. Exiting the kitchen, the executive heard her friend’s whispered hiss.
“What is the matter with you?! That was rude!”
“Carving’s a man’s job, Christi. Wouldn’t be right to ask our guests to do my job.”
Jac rolled her eyes at the lame defence but was startled at Christi’s acid response.
“Funny, that never stopped you before!”
Oh boy! Wouldn’t want to be in his shoes tonight! Jac set the bowl on the table and walked over to join the Emerson’s. Andrew turned to greet her gladly, but Phyllis gave her a sour look.
“Excuse me, please. I’ll just freshen up before dinner.” The woman stalked off and her husband sighed.
Awkwardly, Andrew covered up his wife’s abrupt departure. “So how did you and our little Christi meet?”
Jac was in the process of telling him of how Victoria had introduced them when the blonde called everyone to dinner. The executive was seated across the table from her friend. Andrew sat beside her, and Phil slumped beside his fiancée. Phyllis took the head of the table as if it were her natural due.
Covertly watching her friend, Jac saw the unmistakable signs of stress in her white-knuckle grip on her fork and her rigid posture. Sighing inwardly, she decided to try to lighten the unbearable tension. She engaged Andrew in a lively discussion about the annual Christmas charity show his company sponsored. Adroitly she pulled Christi into the conversation, drawing the younger woman in an animated debate about the best uses of the funds raised.
However, the conversation went only three ways. Phil maintained a sullen silence, and his mother concentrated intently on her food until suddenly interjecting, “Christi, I believe I may have found the perfect house for you two.” Turning to Jac, she said casually, “Phil and Christi have been searching for just the right house. It has to be in a good neighbourhood, and of course, have enough room for the children.”
Jac nodded politely. “Well, when they find it, I can certainly vouch for Christi’s talents in decorating it.”
Phyllis waved her hand dismissively. “Don’t be silly. That’s what professional decorators are for. Now, Christi, the Carlton’s just put their house up for sale. It’s perfect for you two, and I’ve made an appointment with the realtor to look at it tomorrow after work.”
The executive could see Christi visibly blanch, and she wondered what it was about the Carlton house that chilled her. The blonde was virtually wordless through the rest of the meal and by the time it was mercifully over, Jac simply wanted to leave—as quickly as possible. She helped Christi clear the table, and while in the kitchen, said quietly, “I think I should get going. I’m pretty tired from all we’ve done this weekend, and tomorrow is a work day.”
Christi stared at the floor and muttered, “Don’t blame you.”
“Hey,” Jac said gently, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. “Are you all right? I’ll stay if you want me to.”
The blonde gave a short bitter laugh. “Now I know you’re my friend.”
“There was never any doubt about that.” Jac’s soft words pulled Christi’s head up, and the younger woman gave her a grateful smile before a thought occurred to her.
“Wait a minute, how are you going to get home? I drove today, remember?”
“No problem. I noticed a cab stand at the motel down the street. I’ll just grab one there.” When Christi frowned and tried to protest, Jac stopped her with a finger over her lips.
“You can’t abandon your guests.”
“Can’t I?” But the protest was half-hearted. Christi sighed and said, “C’mon. I’ll walk you to the elevator.”
Jac bade the other guests goodnight, ignoring Phil’s look of triumph. She accepted Andrew’s business card and promised to give him a call if the bank PR department was interested in participating in the Christmas fundraiser.
Christi escorted her out into the hall and down to the elevators. She pressed the button for Jac and then looked up remorsefully. “I’m sorry,” she said with a helpless shrug. “I didn’t mean to subject you to the Spanish Inquisition.”
“Shhh, it’s not your fault. Sometimes I just rub people wrong.” Seeing tears building in those green eyes, Jac impulsively pulled her friend into a hug. She held her for a moment, feeling small arms tighten convulsively around her body. Whispering into the delicate ear next to her mouth, she said, “Can you imagine how they’d have been if I’d brought a date?”
Christi snorted with laughter and pulled back. Jac brushed her hand over wet cheeks and grinned, pleased when she elicited a wan smile.
“No big deal, my friend. Now you have a good night, and I’ll give you a call later in the week, okay? We’ve been working hard. Maybe we can plan something fun next weekend.” Jac marveled at how soft the young woman’s cheek was and had to force her hand away.
The elevator arrived and Jac entered. Turning, she watched as the doors closed and wondered if that was really wistfulness she saw on Christi’s face.
Poor kid. I feel like I’m leaving her in the snake pit. She fought an impulse to hit the stop button and return to her friend’s floor. Yeah, right. Ride to the rescue. I’m sure that’s exactly what she wants.
Her sarcastic thought mildly depressing, Jac left the building and headed for the cab stand, grateful to be out of the oppressive environment.
The senior Emerson’s had left a few minutes before, and Christi was still cleaning up in the kitchen. Phil came up from behind and wrapped his arms around her.
She pushed him off, stepping away and continuing to load the dishwasher.
“C’mon babe, that can wait for the morning. Why don’t we find something more fun to do?” he wheedled, trying again to embrace her.
She pulled away and spun angrily. “You think after the way you behaved tonight that I have the least interest in sleeping with you?”
All wounded innocence, Phil protested, “What? What did I do?”
She stared at him incredulously. “You were a total jerk to my friend. I invited her tonight because I wanted you two to get to know each other. Now I wouldn’t blame her if she never sets foot in this apartment again.”
“Good! I don’t want her here anyway,” Phil sneered.
Livid, Christi demanded, “What the hell is your problem with her? You’ve never even met her before tonight, and you act like she’s your worst enemy!”
“Look, you don’t know anything about her.”
“I know that she’s a wonderful friend, that she’s considerate and sweet and funny.”
“She’s a dyke!” Phil shot his trump card at her with an exultant smirk.
Christi shrugged. “I know. So what?” She almost laughed when Phil’s jaw dropped, but she was too angry to find anything comical.
“You know?!” His voice was stunned and he stared disbelievingly at her.
“Uh huh. She told me the first night we went to the concert. She didn’t want me to be uncomfortable. So how did you know?”
Phil’s eyes darted around the kitchen, avoiding the blonde’s intense gaze. “Uh, well it’s obvious just looking at her.”
“No—it’s not. Now how did you know Jac is gay?” Her steely voice brooked no evasion; Phil thrust his hands in his pockets, fidgeting uncomfortably.
When he couldn’t stand the silence any longer, he blurted, “Mom told me.”
“What?! How the hell did your mother know?”
Phil stared at the fridge, refusing to meet infuriated green eyes. “I told her I was worried about your new friend, and she told me she’d check her out. She has a lot of contacts in this city you know.” Defensively, he added, “She was just worried about you, and so am I. You haven’t been yourself since you met her, and I’m afraid she’s twisting your mind.”
Fervently, Christi declared, “I’m never more myself than when I’m with her. She doesn’t try and put me in a pigeon hole like some people I might mention. And where the hell do you get off having your mother check out my friends?”
“God, see what I mean? She’s got you all messed up,” Phil blustered. “I’m serious, Christi. I do not want you to see her ever again!”
She stared at him, shaking her head in disbelief. “Did I just hear you forbid me to see my friend?”
Phil jutted out his chin defiantly. “Yes, I did. You’re going to be my wife, Christi!”
“Your wife—not your property!” she shot back furiously. “And frankly, I’m not even sure I want to be your wife anymore!”
He gaped at her, sputtering in disbelief. Christi regarded him coldly. “Oh, and another thing. If you think I’m going to live in a house across the street from your mother, you and she are sadly mistaken. I would live in the street before I’d live in the old Carlton place.” Abandoning the clean up, she stalked out of the kitchen. “I’m going to bed. Don’t bother joining me.”
Over her shoulder, she heard him holler, “It’s my home, and I’ll sleep where I damned well please.” Ignoring him, she walked away, but she hadn’t missed his turn of phrase. At that moment though, she didn’t care if it was ever their home again.
An hour later, lying in bed wide-awake as the dull roar of the TV echoed from the living room, Christi stared at the darkened ceiling. Wonder how long it’ll take the neighbours to call the Superintendent?
She let her thoughts drift, musing about the disastrous evening and her relationship with her fiancé. Not for the first time, she wondered if she’d made a mistake by getting engaged so precipitously. Phil had been so sweetly insistent and when she’d finally agreed, he’d been exultant, telling her that even his Dad felt she’d be the making of him.
Christi knew that his parents disapproved of the fact that he hadn’t settled down and was still running around carousing with his high school buddies. Aware that his father didn’t promote him into management until after they’d made their big announcement, she questioned now whether that had been the impetus behind Phil’s urgency to get engaged.
Rolling onto her side, she pulled a pillow over her ears. She concentrated on quieting her mind, but sleep remained elusive. Memories of their summer trip to her family’s home surfaced. Her family had not been impressed with her fiancé. Their sign of acceptance was to tease and razz a newcomer unmercifully. With Phil, they’d all been ultra-polite, a clear sign that they were less than captivated.
Christi had been hurt. She cornered her mother in the kitchen before they left. Looking into green eyes that mirrored her own, she asked plaintively, “Mom?” Sighing, her mother grunted an answer to the unspoken question. “Maybe he’ll grow on us.” It was the best she could get out of the blunt, earthy woman. She’d hoped subsequent visits would warm her family’s view of Phil, but her fiancé had procrastinated on any further visits to the farm.
Jac would go see the family with me. The thought didn’t even startle her. She was getting used to the constant comparisons her mischievous brain insisted on making between her friend and her fiancé. Rather than fighting it, she let herself examine the thought.
Her family would love Jac. Her brother Jason, who was a banty rooster barely topping five-five, would probably insist on arm wrestling the Amazon. She grinned at the thought and found herself warming as she pictured Jac sitting comfortably at the crowded kitchen table. Christi knew her friend would give as good as she got, and she also knew her family wouldn’t give a fig about her orientation. They were already such a diverse group that one more oddity would barely faze them.
She imagined showing Jac around the farm, introducing her to Maggie, the ancient white mare that her father couldn’t bear to put down, and showing her where the hens hid their eggs in the hay.
Christi finally relaxed, her mind letting go of the evening’s tension. At some level, the young woman knew she had some serious decisions to make it, but put them off until she was thinking clearly, preferring instead the comfort rendered by the images of walking her father’s fields with Jac. Drifting into sleep, she felt the inescapable rightness of that vision.
Jac sat at her desk staring at the loan documentation she was supposed to be assessing, but completely unable to focus. Instead, her mind was on a young woman—a young woman who in the space of three weeks had completely shaken up her world. The executive shook her head in bemusement. This was the last thing she’d expected when she’s accepted Victoria’s challenge.
It had been two days since the disastrous dinner at Christi’s place. They’d spoken several times since, though Jac was careful not to call Christi at home. She decided she’d pushed Phil’s buttons hard enough and didn’t want to make things more difficult for her friend.
When Christi phoned on Monday, Jac had delicately asked if things were all right between the couple. The young woman had sighed and told her that she couldn’t talk about it just then. The executive had respected her friend’s reticence and turned the conversation elsewhere. When the blonde reminded her that Jac had promised them a fun outing, she suggested going to the zoo, which met with enthusiastic approval from the younger woman.
Contemplating their plans for the weekend, Jac suddenly realized that this was the last weekend before the wager expired and if she were going to win the challenge, she’d have to have sex with Christi before next Wednesday. With a small whistle, Jac leaned back in her chair and stared at the ceiling. Oh boy! Now what?
Jac had no doubt that if she exerted the full force of her charisma, she could have Christi in her bed before the deadline. The chemistry between them was so palpable that the air around them practically sizzled. She knew the young woman wasn’t quite clear on what she was feeling for Jac, but with the difficulty between Christi and Phil, she also knew it would take very little for them to cross the line between friends and lovers.
She frowned as she remembered her original plan to seduce and then abandon Christi. That thought was repugnant now. She’d come to value the blonde’s friendship too highly to carry out such a course of action. Maybe I could win the bet AND keep the girl too. With that hopeful thought, she finally accepted that she wanted Christi in more than just her bed—she wanted the young woman in her life.
The executive let her mind drift over the times she’d spent with Christi--all the laughing and teasing, how comfortable they were with each other--yet also how a current of eroticism ran between them. Jac knew she was the main instigator of that, but she hadn’t missed the signs of the blonde’s reciprocal interest. She smiled as she remembered her friend’s hasty exit from the bathroom and the affectionate way those soft green eyes regarded her. When she’d kissed Christi goodnight after their dinner at the Grotto, Jac had felt an unmistakable response in those soft lips.
Do I push her this weekend? Okay, pros—I want to make love to her anyway—God, do I ever—and the sooner the better. I’d win the bet, which means I wouldn’t have to take Victoria to the mountains for a weekend.
The thought of having sex with her old friend disturbed her even more now than when she’d agreed to the challenge. She loved Victoria, but not in a carnal sense. Jac knew that wouldn’t necessarily stop her if she had to pay up, but she wasn’t looking forward to the prospect.
Cons—pushing our relationship prematurely could ruin what I really want with Christi and, even worse, it cheapens what I feel for her. What I feel for her?? What DO I feel for her? Could it be possible? Do I love her? God, I don’t know! I just know I don’t want to make love to her on a deadline.
Confused, Jac shook her head. One thing at a time. I have to talk to Vic and cancel this bet. After that, we’ll let everything happen in its natural time.
Knowing that her old friend wouldn’t let her out of this easily, but for the first time in her life prepared to eat humble pie if necessary, Jac placed a phone call.
“Trevor Travel Agency. Victoria McDermott speaking.”
“Oh hi, Jac. What’s up?”
“Look, I have to talk to you. Could you meet me after work?”
“I guess.” Her voice was puzzled. “What time and where?”
“I’m going to be tied up here until about six thirty. Can you meet me at the firehouse around then?”
“All right. I have to work at our north end office this afternoon anyway, so I won’t be too far away. See you then.”
“Thanks, Vic. See you then.”
Jac hung up and noticed her hands were trembling slightly. A smile spread over her face as she realized she was excited. Excited about possibilities, excited about the young woman who haunted her thoughts most of her waking hours and not a few of her sleeping ones, excited about a future that suddenly looked miraculously bright.
She reminded herself that Christi was still engaged to Phil, and for a moment that took the edge off her anticipation; but then she thought of how the blonde’s face lit up whenever she saw Jac coming, and the executive knew that Phil simply couldn’t compete with what they’d begun to feel between them.
Entering the last details of the Harlands’ cruise itinerary, Christi absently grabbed the ringing phone.
“Trevor Travel Agency. Christi Blaine speaking.”
“Miss Blaine, it’s Sandor Fregosian from the Fregosian Gallery?”
“Oh, hi Mr. Fregosian. How are you today?”
“Fine, thank you. Miss Blaine, the tapestry was delivered this afternoon so you may pick it up at your leisure. We’re open until nine during weeknights and until five on Saturday.”
“That’s wonderful! I thought it would be at least next week before it was in.”
“I did too; but I was unaware that the artisan had already planned another delivery for this week, so things fell into place.”
“Great, okay, I’ll be by later to pick it up. Thanks for calling, Mr. Fregosian.”
“My pleasure, Miss Blaine. We’ll see you later.”
Christi grinned delightedly as she hung up the phone. The tapestry was the last piece she needed to complete Jac’s loft. She was tremendously pleased with how her friend’s home had shaped up, and she reveled in the executive’s lavish praise for the improvements. She’d even coaxed her tall friend into a duvet and pillow set that suited the new colours perfectly. The tapestry would be the piece de résistance, and she could hardly wait to see it hanging in Jac’s bedroom.
She reached for the phone again, beginning to punch in the number she now knew off by heart, but then she hesitated. Why don’t I surprise her with it? If she picked the tapestry up after work, she could have it hung by the time Jac came home. Then maybe they could order something to celebrate the conclusion of the project. I guess the boss could spring for pizza.
Chuckling, Christi turned back to her computer. Then a thought occurred to her and her smile vanished. With a tiny groan, she acknowledged that she would have to tell Phil she’d be home late. They’d maintained a stony civility since their fight on Sunday night, but she knew going over to Jac’s was very likely to reignite the fires. God, is it worth it?
She knew the answer to that without even thinking. Christi enjoyed Jac’s company immensely, loved the unexpected playfulness of the executive and soaked in the acceptance and comfort of their friendship. Feeling like she’d known the other woman forever, despite only having met her three weeks prior, the blonde wasn’t going to give up this new friendship, even if it caused a rift with her fiancé.
He doesn’t like Jac—Well, I don’t much like his best buddy Denny either! We’re both just going to have to make allowances for each other’s friends. And if he won’t compromise… Christi let the thought trail off, not yet ready to consider those implications.
Quickly she dialed their home number and left a message on the answering machine that she’d be late tonight. Christi knew it was the coward’s way out and only delayed the inevitable conflict, but she didn’t feel up to dealing with Phil’s outrage at the moment.
Jac waved at the figure sitting on the firehouse steps as she pulled into the covered garage. Once parked, she walked back out to the entrance and smiled at her old friend.
“Hi, Vic. Why didn’t you let yourself in?”
“Because I forgot to grab the key from my desk before I went to the North office this afternoon.” The redhead stood and followed Jac into the building. “So what’s the big mystery, Jac? What did you want to see me about?”
The two friends climbed the stairs while Jac tried to figure the best way to approach this. They’d passed the second floor landing before she decided it was best simply to blurt it out.
“I want out of the bet.”
“What?? Like hell you do! Just because you’re going to lose doesn’t mean you can back out now!”
Jac winced at her friend’s raised voice, but she felt the first stirrings of anger within herself. Doesn’t Victoria understand that this isn’t a game anymore? Doesn’t she know how important this is? Patiently she tried again, as she unlocked the loft door.
“Look. I should never have agreed in the first place. It was a dumb bet and I don’t know what I was thinking when I made it.” Jac tossed her coat into the hallway closet and made her way to the kitchen.
Still agitated, Victoria’s raised voice chased her. “You were thinking that you were God’s gift to women, and you could fuck anyone you set your sights on. Don’t be blaming me if Christi proved too tough a challenge and failed to knuckle under to your charms! You owe me, Jac. You’ve got one more week, and then you owe me! I’m NOT letting you back out of this bet!”
Jac turned to argue with the angry redhead when an icy voice slashed through the room.
Gasping, Jac spun to see Christi standing halfway up the stairs to the upper level. Oh God! Unable to convince her numb tongue to form words, she simply stared at the blonde whose usually soft green eyes were throwing daggers at both of them.
“I said, what bet?”
“Uh, we didn’t know you were here,” a subdued Victoria muttered.
“Obviously. I was hanging the tapestry. You remember the tapestry, Jac? The one we picked out on one of our friendly little expeditions? Now, ladies, I believe there’s a question on the floor.”
Jac cringed at the hostility lacing that gentle voice. Sinking down on a tall stool, her voice barely audible, she said, “Tell her, Vic.”
“Yes, do tell me, Victoria. What’s this about a bet involving me knuckling under to Jac’s charms?”
The redhead’s eyes fluttered nervously, and she cleared her throat several times. “Uh, well it was just—look, I mean we’d been drinking at the time—we weren’t—we didn’t mean…”
Raising her head, Jac recited the bet emotionlessly. “A few weeks ago, Victoria challenged me to bed the woman of her choice within one month.”
“I see.” Christi hadn’t descended the stairs and was still glaring at the shocked and guilty pair. “And how did I become the lucky target?”
“Well, I thought you and Phil were real solid, so I didn’t think Jac stood a chance with you,” Victoria confessed, taking a stool next to the executive.
“And what were the terms?”
As her world crumbled around her, Jac closed her eyes and longed desperately for this nightmare to end. She heard Victoria’s voice echo as if from a great distance.
“Um, well if Jac won, Roger and I would go to this club she likes. And if I won—she’d go to the mountains for a weekend with me and um, well we’d, uh...”
“I get the picture. And to win, Jac had to fuck me by when?”
The executive grimaced, agonized by the anger and hurt in the young woman’s voice. God, why? She wasn’t even sure what she was asking why about. Why did Christi have to be here at the wrong moment? Why couldn’t she have met the blonde under pure circumstances? Why had she made the goddamned bet in the first place?
“Next Wednesday.” Jac didn’t think she’d ever heard Victoria so chastened. Her old friend continued in a tiny voice, “Christi, I’m sorry. I really didn’t think…”
“Didn’t think what? That maybe she was better at the game than you thought? That maybe it might have some effect on my real relationship? That maybe, just maybe, you were ruining my life with your little bet?” Christi’s voice cracked over them like a whip. “No, you two didn’t think at all, did you?”
She didn’t wait for an answer as she descended the stairs, reaching into her pocket. Contemptuously Christi tossed a key at Jac’s feet. “From Victoria’s desk. I was trying to surprise you. Guess I succeeded, eh? Well, I’ll never need that again.” Turning to Victoria who was the picture of dejection, she snapped, “Enjoy your weekend with her in the mountains!”
Spinning, the young woman stormed out. Jac stared after her, then frantically she surged to her feet and ran after the blonde.
“Christi, wait! Please wait! I want to explain! I have to explain!”
Christi halted on the top step, but didn’t turn around. In a voice that hurt Jac to listen to, she asked, “Explain what? That I don’t mean any more to you than what’s between my legs?”
“No! No, it’s not like that, Christi! You have to believe me!”
“I have to believe you? How can I ever believe you again? Everything you said—everything you did these last few weeks—all you wanted was to get me into bed. I thought we were friends.”
“We are! Christi, when we made that bet, I didn’t know you. I had no way of knowing that we’d become friends. I’d never make that bet knowing you. I was trying to back out of it today!”
Jac could see the blonde trembling. She longed to reach for her, but knew she’d just drive her off. Desperately she prayed that Christi would hear the truth of her words.
“You know the irony?” Christi’s voice was so low that Jac had to strain to hear it. “You didn’t even have to work that hard. I was falling for you. No one has ever made me feel the way you did. God, I’m such an idiot!”
“Oh no, sweetheart. You’re NOT an idiot! Give us a chance—give ME a chance. I’ll make this up to you, I swear. Please, please don’t go. However it all started, it brought us together. That can’t be all bad, can it?”
Christi turned slowly and Jac held her breath. The young woman’s face was streaked with tears and her lips quivered. With quiet contempt, she said, “You just don’t get it, Jac. It’s not only that you made a fool of me, it’s that you would treat any woman as nothing more than a piece of meat. I don’t want to be around someone who has so little respect for herself and everyone else.”
With consummate dignity, Christi slowly resumed her descent. Jac sank down on the landing, staring after the blonde with dry eyes as her heart shattered. She had no idea how long she sat there, but finally she dragged herself to her feet and numbly made her way back into the loft. She found Victoria hunched over a half-empty glass, with a newly opened bottle of scotch on the island in front of her.
“Want one?” the redhead asked, pushing the bottle in Jac’s direction.
Jac looked at the bottle distantly. “I think you should go, Victoria.”
Her friend nodded and downed the rest of her drink. Standing, she squared her shoulders and said, “I’m so sorry, Jac. I should never have started this whole thing.”
The executive shook her head lifelessly. “We’re equally culpable, Vic.” She gave a bitter snort. “In fact, there’s more than enough guilt to go around.”
“I still feel responsible. Look, why don’t you let me talk to her?”
“No, leave her alone. She doesn’t deserve to be afflicted with the likes of us. Just go, Vic.”
The redhead nodded and brushed by Jac who was staring into space. She’d almost reached the door when the executive said impassively, “You won, Vic. I’ll meet you at the cabin on Friday.” Stonily she added, “I’ll even bring the toy bag.”
“Aw, Jac, forget it. It’s over now.”
Lips turned up in a smile that never reached dead blue eyes. “No, it’s not. I pay my debts. You wanted this. Be there.” Despite the lack of inflection, the command was clear, and Victoria nodded hesitantly before hastening out the door and closing it softly behind her.
Jac knew she was punishing herself. Victoria would have let her out of the pay-off without protest now. Having sex with the redhead all weekend rather than going with Christi to the zoo would inflict the worst kind of pain on her heart, and she took a perverse satisfaction in that. Christi’s parting words were flayed into her soul, and she knew she’d never forget them—or the woman who spoke them.
Absently she turned to the island and dragged the bottle over. Not bothering with a glass, she was about to tip it to her lips when she noticed a paper rolled and tied with a blue ribbon on the counter. Brow furrowed in puzzlement, she reached for it and carefully unrolled the parchment coloured paper. In beautifully precise calligraphy, she read:
Certificate of Achievement
This is to certify that Jacqueline Lanier has earned
her beginner’s merit badge in redecorating. The recipient
demonstrated the highest levels of dedication, professionalism and aptitude. She is hereby judged competent to undertake any future
projects (under strict supervision!)
Jac almost couldn’t read the signature through tears that were now falling thick and fast, but straining, she read, Christi Blaine, The Boss It hit her then--exactly what she’d just lost; and she let her head fall on crossed arms, the scroll clutched tightly in one hand, sobbing as she hadn’t since she was a little girl.
Jac carefully negotiated another hairpin curve. The old logging road that led to the McDermott family cabin was tricky to navigate, particularly in the gathering dusk. The narrow road cut through thick old-growth forests, winding its way up the side of the mountain. Small waterfalls tumbled down steep rock faces to her left, and towering pines rose from the crags to her right. There was no room for error or woolgathering drivers. Jac had been here with Victoria and Roger several times but even so, had nearly missed the turn-off from the main road.
Should have kept going. Her sullen thoughts reflected the mood she’d been in most of the week. She hadn’t slept all night after Christi’s calamitous appearance in the loft. When Victoria called her at the bank the next morning to report anxiously that the young blonde hadn’t showed up for work, and a call to her home revealed she hadn’t been there all night either, Jac panicked.
She knew Christi’s friends were all Phil’s friends, and she doubted the woman would turn to them in a crisis. She ‘would’ have come to me. The bitter irony of that thought almost doubled Jac over in pain. God, what did I do? She paced frantically, trying to come up with an idea of what to do until Victoria called again a short while later to report that Christi had phoned in and requested a week of her vacation time from the manager, citing a family emergency. Jac assumed she’d gone home to her parents’ farm for a few days, and was sadly grateful that the blonde had a loving sanctuary to retreat to.
And as for me—well I made my bed, now I’m going to lie in it—literally! With a bitter laugh, Jac shook her head. Victoria had tried again on Wednesday to let the executive off the hook, but Jac refused her offer. When the redhead hesitantly proposed they take one vehicle to the cabin, she’d also rejected that. Part of her expected the weekend to ruin this friendship too, and she wanted to make sure they each had separate ways home if it came to that.
They’d made plans to meet at the cabin around eight on Friday evening and stay until Sunday afternoon. Jac found herself longing for Sunday night, when she could isolate herself in the loft and start trying to forget the whole debacle.
Spotting the clearing ahead that signaled her approach to the cabin, she downshifted and swerved to avoid the huge pothole that Victoria’s father swore to fill in every spring and never did. Turning up the short access road, she came to a bumpy halt, her headlights illuminating the front of a log structure. She took a moment to appreciate the view.
Victoria’s great-grandfather, a logger, had originally built the cabin to house his family while he worked the mountain. Over the decades, successive generations had lovingly maintained the small building as a vacation home; and when additions were built, they were carefully wrought to blend with the pioneer structure. Nestled under pines that cast a protective embrace around the clearing, the cabin blended with its environment, appearing to have grown with the forest rather than as an incursion of man. Standing on the front porch, a visitor could look out over the valley and listen to the roar of the glacier fed river that provided the cabin with its water.
Jac was puzzled to see a trail of smoke from the large stone chimney, though there was no light in the windows. Victoria’s car wasn’t there and when she stepped out of her CRV, she didn’t hear the sound of the generator. Shrugging, she decided Vic must have been there already and lit a fire before going to one of the neighbours for some reason. There were only a handful of homes along the old road, mostly those who had a grandfather clause that protected their residency when the government had declared the area protected from development thirty years earlier.
Shivering, Jac walked around her vehicle and unlocked the back gate. Almost November, the mountain air was cold and bracing. The executive had seen many patches of fresh snow on her drive up, and she hoped Victoria had built the fire high before she left. Snagging a small duffel bag, her thick, fleece- lined barn coat, and a leather satchel from the interior of the CRV, she slammed the door closed and hurried to the cabin.
“Brrr,” she muttered as she reached for the doorknob. Jac smiled in relief, as it swung open. Unlocked. Dunno what I’d have done if she’d left it locked, though I assume she’ll be back soon. It’s almost eight now.
Stepping inside, she swung the door closed, enjoying the warmth of the greatroom that held a kitchen and living space. Taking a moment to let her eyes adjust to the dim interior, Jac dropped her bags by the door and started towards the fire blazing on the hearth across the room. It was only when she crossed the cabin that she realized a silent figure was watching her from the old rocking chair at the edge of the fire.
Startled, she stopped dead; and then, as she saw who it was, her jaw dropped. “Christi?” she asked incredulously. Jac’s knees threatened to buckle under her, and she grabbed the back of the couch that paralleled the hearth, hanging on for dear life. She stared at the young woman who regarded her gravely.
After long moments of silence, broken only by the crackling of wood and the snapping of the flames, Christi nodded at the armchair right-angled to the couch and directly opposite her position.
“Looks like you’d better sit down before you fall down,” she suggested calmly.
Jac stumbled around the end of the couch and dropped into the armchair, her eyes still fixed on the apparition across from her. She tried to speak, but couldn’t form any words. That seemed to amuse her companion as Christi took a sip from the wine glass she was holding. Entranced by the way the firelight flickered off the sweet features, bright golden hair and the ruby depths of the wine, Jac found herself wondering if she was dreaming. A surreptitious pinch convinced her this was real, and she studied the young woman closer.
Christi was wearing a tight black turtleneck tucked neatly into the same faded jeans she’d worn the night of the Blue Rodeo concert. Sleeves pulled up her forearms, legs extended in front with her hiking boots crossed comfortably at the ankles, she was the picture of relaxation. Shadowed green eyes were serious, but Jac couldn’t see any trace of anger in them.
The executive swallowed, a rush of hope overcoming her as she permitted herself to consider the implications of the woman’s presence here--tonight. She hardly dared believe as she tried desperately to read her companion’s face, but the impassive expression gave nothing away.
Finally, unable to bear the suspense, Jac asked, “Um, I thought, I mean…where’s Victoria?”
“Victoria and I had a long talk yesterday. We agreed it would be better for all concerned if I met you here tonight rather than her. She very graciously brought me up here earlier and left hours ago.” Christi’s tone was cool and matter of fact. Jac didn’t know what to think. She desperately didn’t want to take a false step and ruin what could be a second chance.
It has to be a second chance, doesn’t it? She wouldn’t be here otherwise, would she? Finding her throat dry with desperate want and growing anticipation, the executive nodded at the wine glass Christi was holding and asked, “May I have some of that?”
Jac blinked, startled at the forthright refusal. She thought of protesting, but decided not to make an issue of it.
Christi gave a little sigh, set her glass on the side table beside the wine bottle and leaned forward, resting her forearms on her knees and pinning Jac with her gaze. “I’ve done a lot of thinking since Tuesday.” She gave a rueful laugh. “In fact, that’s about all I’ve done.”
The executive couldn’t meet those penetrating eyes and dropped her head. “I was worried about you when I heard you didn’t go home that night,” she confessed softly.
“I went up to Lookout Point. Stayed there all night trying to figure things out. When dawn came, I went home and broke up with Phil.”
Jac’s head jerked up in surprise. “I made you end your engagement? I’m sorry, Christi. I didn’t mean…” She stopped there. She wasn’t sorry. She was delighted that old Phillie was out of the picture, but she did regret causing the blonde even more pain.
Christi shook her head in exasperation. “I told you once that no one makes me do anything I don’t want to. Have you forgotten that already?” Without waiting for an answer she went on. “All you and your little scheme did was crystallize things I’d been ignoring. For all your callous disregard of my feelings, the simple fact is that if Phil had been the right one for me, nothing you did could’ve broken us up.”
The tall woman flinched at the coolly accurate assessment of her actions, but she didn’t try to argue. “Um, how did Phil take it?”
There was a long moment of silence. “How do you think he took it? He certainly wasn’t happy, though I don’t think he was too surprised either. He said some rather nasty things.”
The dark mane snapped up, and Jac glared at the thought of anyone hurting the young woman, momentarily overlooking the hypocrisy of that instinctive reaction.
Christi, obviously interpreting the look on her face, held up her hand and said somberly, “He had the right, Jac. I hurt him—almost as badly as you hurt me. He does love me, and although you haven’t exactly seen him at his best, he’s a good man. He can’t believe the way his world and his future fell apart so quickly. I think it will take him a long time to get over this. If calling me a few bad names helps ease his pain, then I owe him that.”
Sinking back in her rocking chair, Christi continued, “I spent a couple of hours packing up my stuff and then headed for home. After a lot of thinking, and talking to my mother, I called Victoria on Thursday and met her back in the city. So here I am.”
Jac looked at her quizzically. There was no enthusiasm in the blonde’s voice, no joy or passion at the prospect of being here this evening; and the executive still wasn’t sure what this all meant.
With a small, humourless smile, Christi picked up her wine again and took another sip. Giving Jac several more moments to stew in her own confusion, she finally sat up purposefully.
“Okay, this is the way it is. You have a choice here, Jac. We can leave together tonight and when we get back to town, maybe we can be friends again. It would take time and work, and I’m not even sure if we can repair the damage, but I’m willing to give it a try. However, if we leave tonight, that’s ALL we’ll ever be—friends.”
Jac held her breath, knowing this was what she’d been waiting for, and listened on tenterhooks, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Christi regarded her sternly. “Or we can stay the weekend on MY terms, and maybe when we leave on Sunday, we’ll have a chance for much more than friendship. The choice is yours. You’re obviously not averse to wagering. Are you willing to bet on us? On giving us a chance?”
The dark woman blinked even as her heart soared. A chance? We have a chance? She was so certain that she’d ruined any hope of a relationship with Christi that she could hardly believe her ears. Then her mind fully processed what the young woman had said. “Um, on your terms? May I ask what those terms are?”
For the first time, Jac saw a genuine smile on the blonde’s face; but instead of a direct answer, Christi instructed, “Bring your bags over here, Jac.”
Puzzled, the executive did as bidden and retrieved her bags. She was about to set them down by her chair when Christi said, “Over here.” Obediently, she crossed in front of the fireplace and set the bags beside the young woman. She hesitated, hoping for an invitation to stay, to be allowed to touch the blonde who held her heart. An almost imperceptible shake of golden head sent her reluctantly back to the armchair. Once settled there, she focused on her companion again.
“Victoria and I had a very interesting talk, Jac. I think I understand you a lot better now. I even have a clearer idea of why you agreed to the wager in the first place.”
Jac dropped her head in shame, unwilling to meet those insightful eyes.
Christi’s voice softened. “You know what puzzled me for the last few days?”
Jac shook her head, not bothering to answer the rhetorical question.
“I couldn’t reconcile the sweet, considerate, funny, lovable woman I’d gotten to know with a sexual predator that would target an innocent without regard to what her actions would do to that person. Over and over in my mind, I examined every moment we spent together. I asked myself if you were some kind of sociopath, or if you were that good an actor that you could’ve pulled this off. I questioned how I could have been so dumb, so gullible and naïve.”
Jac’s heart steadily sank, even though her companion’s voice held no anger. She stared at the toes of her boots, unable to look up.
“Finally I came to a conclusion. I wasn’t that dumb, and you weren’t that good an actor. However it started, what was happening between us was real.”
“Yes!” Jac blurted eagerly. “It was, Christi!”
The young woman nodded. “I know, and in an odd way, that asinine wager served to bring us together, so I shouldn’t even be mad about it, right?”
The executive hesitated. She wasn’t willing to write off her culpability that easily. Slowly she said, “I’m not sure what to say. I’m profoundly glad that we met, Christi. It was like being torn in half when you left that night; but if I could spare you the pain and humiliation my actions caused you, I would. I’m so very sorry for hurting you.”
Jac was surprised to see the approval on Christi’s face and realized she’d just passed some sort of test.
“I know you’re sorry, love.”
The dark woman just about jumped for joy at the unconscious endearment, but she forced herself to concentrate on Christi’s next words.
“Which brings us back to my terms for the weekend. Jac, Victoria told me a lot of things, including your affinity for the Tube.”
Jac gulped. Oh God! Her eyes flicked guiltily to the satchel sitting beside Christi’s chair. She looked up to see that the byplay hadn’t escaped her companion, who was sporting a little grin. The blonde reached over and grabbed the satchel, dragging it in front of her. Jac shrank back in her chair, covering her eyes until she heard a low chuckle. Peering through parted fingers, she saw Christi examining the contents with interest.
“Do you need these things, Jac?”
“Yeah, do you need them? It seems like a simple question.”
Flabbergasted, Jac considered her answer. Slowly she said, “I don’t think I need them. I mean they’re just toys, just for fun.”
“Hmm, some odd ideas of fun in there.” Christi closed the satchel and slid it out of the way. “Okay, here’s what I’ve been thinking. What you’ve been about, what the damnable bet was all about, is power and control. For whatever reason, it’s been your driving force. Would you agree?”
Jac squirmed. “Yes, but that’s not what we were about.”
“My point exactly. I don’t have anything against the occasional bedroom games, Jac, but if we’re going to have a serious relationship, then it has to be one based on equality and true partnership. I’m not sure you’re up to giving up total control.”
Christi rocked gently, giving the dark woman time to mull over her words. Jac considered what her companion had said. She let her mind drift over past relationships, both casual and serious. It was true that she’d always held the balance of power, whether it was a romance or a friendship. Every relationship was conducted on her terms, up to and including when it ended. Even her reputation in the Tube was as a hardcore Top. She had never allowed herself to be vulnerable to anyone—ever.
Can I change? Do I want to? Jac looked up to find green eyes studying her affectionately. She locked gazes and looked deep into compassionate eyes, questioning her companion, questioning herself, and questioning a future for them together. Yeah, for her I can change.
Quietly, Jac asked, “What did you have in mind?”
Christi smiled at her. “I don’t want you to alter the essence of who you are, my love. But I need you to trust me and I need to trust you, especially after what happened the past three weeks. I need to know that you have the capacity to grow into this relationship, because Jac, I don’t intend to take us lightly. If you agree, if you want to explore fully whatever this is growing between us, I need to know you’ll dedicate yourself to nurturing it as completely as I will. If you can’t give me an honest commitment to that, then we should leave now before either of us gets hurt.” Her voice aching, she added in a whisper, “I don’t think I could take another hurt like that.”
Blue eyes closed and when they opened again, Jac said firmly and with utter conviction, “You have my heart. You have my commitment.”
The two women looked at each other searchingly, looking for assurances, for trust, for the unavowed love that each could see in the other’s eyes. Finally Christi nodded.
“All right, then for this weekend, you’re mine. I get to call the shots until we leave on Sunday.”
Jac gaped at her. “You’re going to top me?” she asked incredulously, inanely wondering what pod person had taken over her companion’s body.
Christi chuckled. “Hmm, well I was thinking of it more as a couples’ weekend retreat and trust-building exercise, but you can call it whatever you like. Last chance to back out, Jac. Are you ready to gamble on us?”
The executive swallowed her trepidation and sent up a quick prayer for strength. She couldn’t see this gentle lamb hurting a soul, but she had a feeling that Christi was going to put her through the wringer, at least psychologically.
“Yes.” It came out in rather an undignified squeak, but Jac’s message was received.
“Good. It was a long drive up here. Why don’t you use the washroom and then grab a couple of pillows off the bed and bring them back here.”
Without a word, Jac went to the larger of the two back bedrooms and took two pillows from the bed, wondering as she did if they’d end up in here together sometime. At this point, she wasn’t willing to bet on it. Dropping the pillows on the couch, she made use of the washroom, lit only by the moonlight streaming through the window. It was cool in here. Without the generator turned on to provide electricity, the only heat came from the fireplace it backed onto. Washing her hands, she stared in the dimly illuminated mirror.
“What are you getting yourself into?” Jac asked the dark-haired image with the somewhat apprehensive blue eyes. Drying her hands, she laughed. This is Christi, you twit. What the hell are you afraid of? Hanging the towel, she aligned it carefully, taking her time. I’m afraid I’ll let her down—again. With a final glance in the mirror, she straightened her shoulders, drew in a deep breath and returned to the main room.
She was welcomed by a warm smile as Christi lifted her wine glass in an unspoken toast and a quiet command.
“Take off all your clothes except your jeans.”
Jac gulped but gamely began to unbutton her denim shirt. Trembling fingers fumbled with the buttons, and she cursed her lack of coordination. God! You’d think I was a thirty-year-old virgin on her wedding night! Suddenly small warm hands closed over hers and stilled their tremors.
“I won’t hurt you, my love. I would never hurt you.”
The calm reassurance in that sweet voice soothed Jac’s fears. When she raised her eyes to meet green ones watching her with concern, the executive managed to nod.
And she did. Somehow Jac knew that her heart, soul and body were safe in this woman’s care. Christi reached up to draw the dark head down, and Jac greedily absorbed the sensation of soft lips possessing hers. Lost in the intoxication of the kiss, she almost didn’t notice the blonde pull back. Opening her eyes, she saw Christi smiling at her.
“Finish up. I’ll put some more wood on the fire. I wouldn’t want you to get cold.”
Cold? She has to be kidding. I’m on fire here! With a wry chuckle, Jac managed to finish undoing her buttons as she watched Christi pile two more logs on the healthy blaze. Stripping off her shirt and bra, she sat down on her chair to untie her boots. The blonde dropped a pillow midway between their chairs and settled back in her rocker, watching as Jac kicked off her boots and thick wool socks.
When the tall woman was down to her jeans, Christi nodded at the pillow and said, “Kneel there, love.”
Jac knelt, sitting back on her heels and placing her hands on her thighs. She held her shoulders back, enjoying the appreciative examination the blonde was giving her half-naked body. Giving her head a minute shake, she realized that with barely a touch, the blonde had her more aroused than the hottest night at the Tube.
Christi took a tiny sip of her wine and grinned. “At least I’m in no danger of drowning this time.”
The executive chuckled. “You knew?”
“Not at the time. But after everything happened this week, I figured out that you were putting on a show in the shower.”
Jac dropped her eyes, but couldn’t hide a guilty smirk. Unconvincingly she protested, “I was just getting the paint off.”
“Sure you were,” Christi drawled. “You sure spent a long time scrubbing areas that the paint never touched.”
The executive peeked at her companion. “Um, cleanliness is next to godliness?” She was rewarded with a hearty laugh, but then the young woman fell silent, and Jac could feel the heat of green eyes tracing over curves and hollows. Remaining silent now, Jac submitted to the loving survey even as her body loudly demanded attention.
She started when Christi finally moved, strolling over to rest a hand on ebony hair and issue a soft command. “Up straight, love.”
Still on her knees, Jac straightened and found herself staring at a ribbed black turtleneck that was rising and falling visibly with Christi’s heightened breathing. She was deeply gratified that she was having the same effect on the young woman that the blonde was having on her.
Christi sank down in front of her, and Jac realized she was still carrying her glass of wine. The blonde held the glass to her lips, and Jac took a swallow, surprised to find it was her favourite French red. After a few more swallows, the young woman took the glass away and Jac ran her tongue over her lips, gathering the last drops.
“Put your hands behind your back and then don’t move, love. Don’t touch me and don’t touch yourself.”
Jac nodded and then gasped as a wet finger trailed over her collarbone, followed immediately by a warm tongue removing the traces of wine. She quivered as the finger trailed wine down between her breasts and around the soft curves. Clutching her wrist tightly so rebellious hands didn’t fly forward and seize the golden head that was moving over her breasts, Jac endured the loving torture gratefully.
Her breath grew ragged as hardened nipples were painted red and then laved with a gentle tongue. Jac feared her heart might burst from her chest as Christi explored her body: thoroughly, sensually, softly. She wanted desperately to pull the woman into her arms, roll the lithe body under hers and rip the blonde’s clothes off, but with every ounce of her formidable will, she held still and submitted.
When the golden head pulled away and teasing strokes stopped, Jac had to bite off a plea for more. Chest heaving, she waited to see what her sweet captor would do next. Christi set her empty glass aside and reached for Jac’s waist. Nimble fingers undid the buttons of her jeans. The executive swore her head was getting light as she felt the pressure of those hands undressing her.
She wasn’t prepared for the peal of laughter as Christi slid her jeans over her hips. Startled, she looked down.
“Dilbert?! You’re wearing Dilbert underwear?” The blonde’s giggles were shaking her whole body. “Why do I get the impression your heart wasn’t really in this weekend?”
Sheepishly, Jac grinned. “Um, because it wasn’t? At least not when I dressed to come up here.” Christi’s mirth showed no signs of subsiding, and Jac said with mock-indignation, “Hey, do I laugh at your underwear?”
“Honey, I promise you, I am NOT wearing Dilbert boxer shorts.” Christi’s voice had dropped to a sultry purr and Jac felt a flood of moisture between her legs.
When the young woman pulled her jeans and shorts down to her knees, she couldn’t prevent a groan.
“Oh God, Christi! What are you doing to me?”
“Teasing you. Teaching you. Loving you.”
Jac swayed a little as Christi picked up her empty glass and returned to her rocker. Pouring another glass, she sipped at it as she regarded the tall woman kneeling before her.
The executive had never felt so exposed, nor so excited. Always alpha in sexual games, the woman prided herself on her control, but she was certain it would only take a single touch from this young innocent and she’d explode. Innocent, my ass! Look at her. She’s looking at you like a lion watches its prey!
The dark woman watched as hungry green eyes swept over her body. She saw the gaze still when it reached the black triangle of coarse, curly hair, and when Christi’s nostrils flared, she wondered if the scent of her desire had reached the young woman. Helpless to stop the trembling that shook her body, she could only stare, blue eyes vulnerable and pleading. She wanted this woman’s touch like she’d never wanted anything in her life.
Christi set her wine aside and reached for the button of her own fly. Jac’s eyes fixed on the fingers sliding the zipper down. She caught her breath as an agile hand slipped under the waistband of dark silk panties. A bear breaking through the front door of the cabin couldn’t have torn her eyes away from the movements inside the young woman’s pants.
Jac found herself panting in time with the rise and fall of Christi’s hand. Oh God! It was no longer a problem preventing movement. She was utterly paralyzed, except for the quivers that started between her legs and fluttered through her whole body. Listening raptly to the blonde’s quiet grunts escalate, her body jerked sympathetically when Christi finally uttered a small cry and thrust upwards.
She sank back on her haunches, watching as Christi extracted her hand and fastened her pants. The blonde took a deep breath and closing her eyes, rocked gently for long moments while Jac tried to calm her breathing and focus her mind on delaying her own gratification. She was so intent on her task, that she didn’t even notice the young woman had moved and was now standing in front of her. Fragrant fingers traced her lips and Jac eagerly opened her mouth, sucking those aromatic digits inside and reveling in the flavour.
Christi dropped her other hand on Jac’s head, caressing and soothing the aroused woman. The executive whimpered when the blonde gently extracted her fingers.
“Shhh, love. You’re all right. Let’s get those jeans off you.”
Jac said nothing as she hastily pushed her jeans and shorts over bare feet, and tossed them aside. Her lust making her uncharacteristically clumsy, she wavered as she tried to resume her kneeling position. Strong hands caught her shoulders and then guided her head down to the other pillow Christi had tugged to the floor.
“Please, oh please,” Jac moaned, parting her thighs as she buried her head in her arms.
Christi dropped to her knees beside the prone woman, and gentle hands started gliding over her long back, kneading, caressing and memorizing the leanly muscled planes.
“You are so beautiful, my love. It was the first thing I noticed about you--how you turned everyone’s heads in the restaurant. I couldn’t understand my own feelings that day. I’d never reacted to anyone, man or woman, like that before. But you—you haunted me from that very first meeting.”
The blonde’s hands had dropped down, caressing Jac’s ass as the dark woman’s hips began to rock involuntarily.
“After we went to the concert and I discovered how much I liked the person beyond your beauty, I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”
One hand drifted softly up the delicate skin of Jac’s inner thigh while the other ran underneath, over her hard abdomen and cupped a dangling breast, teasing a rigid nipple before sliding over to its mate and inflicting the same delicious torture.
The executive stifled a groan. Patience—patience—patience! The inner mantra was NOT lessening or delaying the heavy sensation of arousal that curled in her belly and spread between her legs. Her body was now so sensitized that she felt the shadow of Christi’s path over her flesh as acutely as she felt the small hands dancing on her anatomy, wrenching her desire to new and powerful levels.
Distracted by the multitude of sensations assailing her mind and body, Jac uttered a tiny scream when a finger penetrated her, sliding smoothly into hot welcoming depths. Frantically she thrust back and begged, “More! Please—more!”
The invader slid out and then back in, this time filling and stretching her as two more strong fingers joined the loving assault. Absorbed in the wonder of being taken, Jac barely noticed when the hand that had been caressing her breasts traveled down her belly and came to rest between her legs, but when a delicate touch tentatively stroked her swollen clit, she sobbed in relief.
“That’s it, my love. You’re safe. It’s okay to let go. Trust me, my love, trust me.” Christi’s whispers filled her ears, urging her on.
Jac’s body jerked frantically, seeking absolution in the inexorable hands and heart that possessed her, drove her and released her. With a loud cry, she climaxed—shuddering and crying out, calling for her saviour who gentled her back to earth with loving words and soothing touches.
She fell forward, sucking in air, aftershocks rocking her body as strong hands rolled her over and into welcoming arms. The dark woman clung to Christi, resting her head on a soft breast. It was only when soft fingers brushed at her cheeks that she realized she was crying.
“I love you, I love you, I love you,” Jac mumbled against her human pillow.
A soft chuckle floated over her head. “And I love you, my beautiful one. Rest now. I’m not going anywhere.” With that assurance, Jac let the lassitude take her, completely content to be sheltered in her lover’s arms.
When she awoke again, the fire had burned low. She raised her head a little and found green eyes watching her lovingly. Awe in her voice, she rasped, “What have you done to me, my imp?”
Christi smiled, and Jac knew she’d do anything in the world to wake to that smile every day of her life.
“Only what I hope you’re going to do to me soon, love.” The green gaze twinkled as Jac’s eyes widened eagerly.
“Um, soon? As in tonight? I get to make love to you too?” Jac wasn’t sure about the rules of this game they’d been playing--and she was determined to stick to Christi’s directives--but she desperately hoped to touch and taste her lover as soon as allowed.
In answer, Christi eased out from under Jac’s body and stood. The executive rose up on one elbow, watching in fascination as Christi slowly removed her clothes. Her breath caught in admiration when her lover stood proudly naked in front of her, extending a hand.
Jac took the hand and rose to her feet. Christi moved smoothly into her arms and for the first time, the dark woman felt the silky, supple flesh that moulded to hers as if the smaller figure was returning to its source. She clung to Christi, holding her securely as she absorbed the intensity of their physical connection and reveled in the emotional onslaught washing over her. Whispering into the golden head tucked into her neck, she swore her love, her fidelity and her devotion. Arms that tightened around her waist expressed her lover’s acceptance of the vows, and she heard the young woman sigh happily.
They stood, locked together for long moments, and then Christi drew back. Still holding Jac’s hands, she looked solemnly at the tall woman. “I love you, Jac. No more games between us, okay?” The executive nodded seriously. “It’s just us now, my love.”
Jac smiled and raised their joined hands to her lips. “It will always be just us, beloved imp. That is my promise and commitment to you.”
Eyes met and exchanged pledges. Hearts promised forever; and bodies surged together as Jac brought her mouth down on her partner’s.
The executive soaked in the sensation of her lover’s eager kisses, running her hands over Christi’s back and down to cup smooth, firm cheeks. Flushed, the blonde pulled back and asked hoarsely, “Now?”
“Oh yeah, now,” Jac agreed, leading the way to the bedroom. Then with a little grin she glanced over her shoulder. “Are you going to let me put clothes on at all this weekend?”
Christi smirked. “Oh, I’ll let you put on boots if we go for a walk tomorrow. Wouldn’t want you out of action because of frozen toes.”
The executive grinned. “What about other frozen bits and pieces?”
“Oh, not to worry. I’ll keep the other…bits…warm.”
Jac’s eyes widened and a delighted smile crossed her face before another thought occurred to her. “Hey, does this mean I still owe Victoria a sex weekend?”
Her impudence was met with a sharp smack on a convenient bottom, and Jac yelped. “I take it that means no,” she laughed as she turned around and backed up in front of the glowering blonde, rubbing one red cheek as she did. “Geez woman, that’s quite a hand you have on you.”
Christi snorted in amusement. “Oh for heaven’s sake. Compared to what you have in that bag, I’m surprised you even noticed. But I’ll tell you this, Victoria is now off-limits, except as our friend.”
Jac pouted, blue eyes sparkling with mirth. “No more fooling around, eh?”
The blonde raised one brow and smirked. Pushing past Jac, she opened the door of the room and paused. “I didn’t say that. I’m just not letting you fly solo anymore.”
The executive’s jaw dropped as she stared at the pale form vanishing into the dark room. Oh boy, what have I gotten myself into? With a huge grin, she shook her sable mane. Don’t know. Don’t care. I’m just going to spend the rest of my life thanking every deity ever known to mankind for this woman! And with that thought, she hastily followed her mate into the bedroom.
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