Snap Shots II by MJ

Snap Shots: Part 2
By MJ

Disclaimer: This is the second part to my original story Snap Shots part 1.

Language warning: Not often but yes.

Love and sex warning: This story definitely portrays a loving relationship between two women.

Violence Warning: Yes definitely more than a projectile camera this time and from about chapter 8 onwards.

Thanks: First of all I would like to thank Garnet for Beta reading this story. Tammy for once again provided me with all the relevant horsey information, and her patience in explaining to me the purpose of a girth!

Sequel to Snap Shots
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1
For the first morning of March, the sky was perfectly clear resembling the beginning of a cool crisp day. The air was cold, as usual, but the sun shone hazily through a scattering of wispy white clouds, making its presence known. The scent of the atmosphere was fresh, creating a tingling sensation in ones nose, clean and salubrious.

Tess leant against the drivers’ side door of her Blazer, and looked around. She felt like she was in the middle of nowhere, hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the big city…and it was wonderful. Pushing her body away from the vehicle, she took long strides across a wide gravelled pathway and looked out to the scenery ahead with hands on hips.

For as far as her green eyes could see, there was a lush expanse of emerald fields, occasionally divided by approximately three-foot high cobblestone walls. Each square division held one wooden gate that led into another field, connecting all the land together. To her very left was a large house, built with old grey stone. It was two stories high, with ivy covering the right hand side. Although the house was old, it held modern triple glazed windows, and solid wooden door. She looked to the second floor and the five square windows in a row. On the ground floor, there were two larger windows on each side with the robust wooden door in the middle; it was all very symmetrical looking.

The sound of lightly trickling water drew her attention away from the building, and she walked over to a slightly slippery bank. A narrow stream ran passed, about fifty meters from the house, and in order to reach the residence you had to drive over a reinforced flat wooden bridge. Tess had already crossed the bridge, and as she looked over at the land opposite the house, taking in the scattering of trees and bushes, she was sure she spotted a couple of black berry bushes out there…her favourite.

Closing her eyes, she once again breathed in the fresh morning air, letting her head fall back, and her long dark locks fall down her back. It was beyond calm out here, more tranquil…serene. The slightest sound to be made was sure to echo for miles.

Turning around Tess looked towards the blonde who stood in the centre of the driveway, her blue eyes closed as she listened to the peaceful sounds of nature. Smiling, she made her way back to her lover, approaching her from behind, and wrapping her arms around the slender waist.

“What do you think?” asked Nikki, already knowing the answer.

Tess breathed in the scent of Nikki’s shampoo, and buried her face into the short blonde strands. She kissed her head, “I can’t believe this is all ours, I think you’ll have to pinch me, because I’m scared I may be dreaming.”

Nikki turned in the woman’s embrace and let her hands fall to the firm behind. She squeezed the flesh gently “Believe it now?”

“Not quite, try again.” She smiled as Nikki’s hands squeezed a little tighter and rose up to meet her waiting lips.

*******

For Tess and Nikki, the months of January and February had been hectic. Tess, knowing how much Nikki wanted to purchase the farm, had been behind her one hundred percent. And as soon as Riverside farm had been placed on the market for sale, Nikki had jumped in, offering the present occupants the asking price.

Within a few days her offer was accepted and exchanges in contracts began. Being that the former owners of Riverside couldn’t move out until the last days in February, it gave the photographer enough time to set about selling her house. And after only two weeks on the market, a recently married couple brought the place; so then, they were all playing the waiting game. For Riversides former owners…their new home in Wales to become available, and for Tess and Nikki…the farm to become available…and so on.

It was as Tess realised, a stressful time; filled with working, packing boxes and meeting with surveyors who in Tess’s own words stated that they ‘demanded extortionate amounts of money for sitting on their arses all day’.
Nikki had helped out as much as possible, but realised that moving house was not going to be one of her skills, especially as she hoped never to be doing it again. So the blonde had done all she could, splitting her time between being with Tess and looking after her horses.

Her father had sent his official car for her every other day while Tess was working so she could return home and pack the remainder of belongings in her own room and look after Thunder and Jenna.

At the back of Riverside farmhouse, were stables for ten horses, with planning permission for an extension. Nikki wanted to move her horses as soon as possible as Jenna was due to give birth in March. So when contracts and been signed and sealed and keys had been exchanged on the last day of February she was happy that they would be moved in time.

During all this time Rosalind Morris had yet to make an appearance. She hadn’t returned from her brothers since she had left on Christmas Eve. Richard had on occasions tried to get in touch with her, but she always seemed to be out when he called, and for both him and his daughters, it was starting to get frustrating.

This wasn’t to say that life had been miserable without her presence…far from it. With only Richard, his youngest daughter Lisa and the butler James Abbot residing in the house, it was a pretty peaceful time. Anita the maid was regrettably let go after it was realised that with the lady of the house gone, nobody else was able to communicate with her. Still, things managed to run smoothly, and lives began returning to certain degrees of normalcy.

Everyone had assisted as much as possible with helping Tess and Nikki make all the necessary arrangements for moving into their new home. Robert had kindly given Tess three days off work starting from the first day in March onwards, and had also offered to help with the moving. Richard had taken a three-day personal leave from his official Mayoral duties, and Lisa had managed to sweet talk her father into a day off from college in order to help them move in. James had also been recruited, though he did admit that he was too old to be lugging around large boxes, so offered to concentrate on providing the workers with refreshments when needed.

So with everything arranged all they had left to do was wait for the big day, and though it seemed to take forever to arrive, within the blink of an eye…it did.

*******

Pulling her lips away from Nikki’s, Tess looked down into sightless blue eyes. She smiled and pushed her hand through shaggy blonde locks, separating the wind blown strands. Could it be possible, she thought, that she seemed love this woman more every day? Placing a kiss on the golden head, she pulled Nikki in close and placed her chin on top of the smaller woman’s head.

“Want to go into the house?” asked Nikki.

“In a minute.” Tess chuckled, “I am just revelling in the contentment of my life.”

The blonde smiled, “Just one more day, and we will never have to leave here again, it will be our home.”

“Yep… and I think Leto is going to love it here too.”

“With all this open space we may not see her for days on end.”

The photographer chuckled, “No way, Leto is a definite home girl…she likes being around people, the prospect of regular food and water, and as much fussing as she can handle.”

“True.” Nikki pulled away slightly, “So have you finished revelling in the ‘contentment of you life’ yet…can we go in the house now?”

“You are just way too excited aren’t you?”

Nikki laughed, “Oh like you’re not?”

The brunette shrugged, “Maybe a little…”

“Uh huh.”

“Oh okay a lot.” She shook her head smiling, “Come on, lets go and tour the place.” She put her arm around the smaller shoulder and proceeded to lead Nikki towards the house.

As they approached the door, Nikki turned to her lover, “Hey do you think we have time to christen the place before we leave.” She waggled her brows suggestively.

Tess pushed her key in, opening the sturdy wooden barrier, “I thought you wanted to check out all the rooms, you know get a feel for the place?”

“Can’t we do both?” Her hands landed on slender hips and sidled up Tess’s side.

Tess closed her eyes willing self-control not to fail her now, “Not if we want to be at that meeting by eleven, we have to see the RSPCA guy remember?”

Nikki sighed as she remembered the man she was supposed to meet with today. If she was to start her own horse sanctuary she need to be registered, and this was her first step. He would also be able to help her out with employing the right kinds of people. “I guess so.”

Tess led the smaller woman into the house, “But we can make up for it tonight, then we have the rest of our lives to christen and re-christen every room in this house.” She said as she shut the door.

Nikki’s smile brightened, “Sounds like a plan to me!”

One finely sculpted brow rose over a clear green eye, “Hmm, you know I kind of thought it would be.” Tess grinned in thought at the prospect of the night to come.

*******

Sensitive fingers moved over the car radio’s buttons with practiced ease. Pressing each one in turn Nikki tried to find a station that played ‘decent’ music. Shaking her head at the meagre offerings, she switched it to the CD player, deciding that whatever Tess had been listening to had to be better than this. She was sorely mistaken, and groaned internally as the first notes of Bach filtered through the speakers. Still she had opted for the lesser of two evils, and decided to let it play, besides, Tess had already started whistling to the piece.

Laying her head back against the car seat, Nikki thought back to her meeting with a guy called Roger Dobson at the RSPCA. He’d been very helpful and had assisted Nikki as much as he could. Questions had been asked, on both sides, and a time had been set for him to visit Riverside farm and look over her stables. She had felt quietly confident that everything was going to turn out, although she was more that a little exhausted with all the running around they had been doing lately.

Tess looked over at Nikki just as the blonde closed her eyes and smiled. She knew that it couldn’t be the music relaxing the blonde, as Tess was very sure Nikki didn’t like her taste in classical pieces. She was a Bach and Beethoven kind of girl where as Nikki was more into Mozart and Chopin. Looking back towards the road Tess growled at the slowest of slow drivers ever, that she had the misfortune to be stuck behind. The road they were travelling was set at the national speed limit yet this guy was driving at half that.

“And us women are supposed to be the worst damned drivers.” She mumbled, stepping on the accelerator and shooting past the old box of bolts with relief.

Nikki chortled to herself causing the photographer to look around in question, “And what are you laughing at Miss Morris?”

Arching her eyebrows, the blonde pinched her lips together desperately trying to calm herself, “Mufing.” She forced out through sealed lips.

Keeping one eye on the road, the brunette looked side ways at her lover, “Awe come on Nik, what’s so funny?”

“Oh all right.” The blonde rolled her eyes, “You…moaning about bad drivers, yet you are showing a classic bad drivers attitude!”

Tess’s mouth dropped, “Am not…what?”

“Impatience.”

The photographer frowned and poked out her bottom lip, “I just decided that I would like to get home before the second coming! It is sixty miles per hour speed limit and that guy…” She grinned, “Way…way back there was doing thirty.”

“Oh just admit it Tess, you like cruising the fast lane. When we get on the motor way I feel the car move right into the fast lane and you hardly ever go back.”

Tess grinned, “I just like to get from A to B in as little time as possible.” she stepped on the accelerator again and passed another ‘slow’ moving car.

“Well I just hope you aren’t planning on driving the truck tomorrow when we move all our belongings, I have fears of it all hitting the back door as you take a sharp turn and our stuff jumping onto the road.”

An evil smirk spread across the drivers face, “Ah…I get it, are you sure this is about my driving abilities and not about what items you would imagine being strewn out over the road…for other people to see…huh?”

Nikki scrunched her nose then sniggered, “Well I was just thinking of you! I mean I wouldn’t want you to be embarrassed if people ever got to find out that the infamous Tess Alexander owned the entire collection of Disney Videos!”

Tess shot the woman a quick look.

“Not only on video, but she’s also buying them on DVD.”

“They’re classics.” She whined.

“Of course they are. Well of how about those old Disney albums, or the stuffed toys that you had stashed away in your closet?”

“Hey they are from my childhood…and just what are you trying to say?”

Nikki shrugged with a sly grin, “Nothing.”

“Huh…seems to me like you are making fun Miss Morris.”

“Me making fun…hey no, I was just pointing out the down sides of over-zealous driving.”

Tess grinned and looked over to the blonde with an arched brow, “Sure…well just remember, you let slip about my Disney videos and I will blab about your collection of…”

“Okay…okay…jeez I was only teasing,” said Nikki with a smile.

The photographer snickered as she turned into the driveway, pulling to a stop in front of her garage, “Uh huh.”

Nikki unclipped her seat belt and opened the door, “I like Disney too…” She climbed out of her seat and paused at the door, “…when I was five.” She stated and quickly shut the door.

The brunette laughed, “Oh I will get you back for that blondie.” She said, and turned round in her seat to grab her things from the back.

Standing by the car door, Nikki let her head fall back as she breathed in cool, fresh air. She was surprised how warm the day was, especially as she was only wearing jeans and a tee shirt. Waiting for Tess to emerge from the car, she sighed, tilting her face towards the warm sun, a light wind blew stray blonde locks around her head.

Suddenly an unknown and somewhat ominous feeling washed over her. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and cold feeling invaded her spine. It was disconcerting, eerily familiar and enough to instil a memorable feeling of apprehension.

Quickly moving around the car, Nikki made her way over to Tess’s side of the vehicle, her hands feeling across the dusty bonnet of the Blazer. “Tess?” She asked nervously, a strong feeling of being watched putting a hint of desperation into her voice.

Hearing her name being called, Tess looked up from her bag collecting and saw Nikki moving around the car.

“Tess?”

“Hey yeah I’m here, what’s up?” The brunette asked as she emerged from the green vehicle.

Nikki walked towards her lovers voice until she was touching the taller woman, “Is there anybody else out here?”

Tess looked around with a frown, “Um…nope, nobody why?”

“I just got a feeling there was somebody else here, watching us.”

Looking around once more Tess studied the empty street, before gazing down upon a nervous looking face. “There is nobody here Nikki, maybe you just got one of those ‘somebody walked over your grave’ type feelings.”
She placed her arms around slender shoulders, pulling Nikki in close.

Nikki placed her head upon the taller woman’s chest, “Maybe, and I can’t say I have ever had one of those walking over your grave type feelings.”

Kissing the blonde locks under her chin, Tess smiled, “They can be a little spooky…makes me shudder…just like those feelings of déjà vu.”

Nikki frowned, “I guess.”

Pulling away the photographer pushed her hand through Nikki’s hair, making the smaller woman’s face turn up to meet hers. “Want to go in and finish off the rest of the packing, we still have the basics to pack away before the cavalry gets here tomorrow.”

A light smile, “Sure, I bet we still have a lot to get through.”

Tess chuckled, “I hope not, I want an early night.” She put her arm around slender shoulders and began making her way to the front door.

Walking close by the taller woman’s side, Nikki wrapped her right arm around Tess. The feeling was still there. It was just like the sensation she got, whenever Tess looked at her, only this one was not pleasurable, it was troubling. The pleasant tingles and sudden feelings of warmth had been replaced with a feeling likening to touching an exposed nerve, or foil touching a filling in her teeth. Shuddering once again, she followed Tess into the house, shutting the door firmly behind her.

*******

Sitting in the drivers’ seat of a dark blue hatchback, vengeful eyes watched the women with interest. When they entered the house and closed the door behind them, the engine to the large car revved into life and disappeared out of sight.

*******

The TV sat upon a large heavy box in the centre of the fairly crowded living room. Piles of boxes stood against the far wall, one on top of the other, filled and ready for transportation. The house seemed different with everything packed away. Voices echoed and the air seemed colder, less homely than before.

Tess sat in the middle of the floor, leaning back on one hand as she flicked through the channels aimlessly. With her satellite TV disconnected until she moved, she was restricted to five channels, and they were nothing if mundane in their offerings. Sighing she switched it over one more time and settled for a late night sitcom called Gimme Gimme Gimme. Smirking as the music started she leaned back onto her elbows and looked over at Nikki. The blonde had fallen asleep on the sofa half an hour ago and thankfully, just after they had finished packing the last of the boxes for tomorrows move. She lay on her stomach, her face was turned towards the photographer and her lips were parted slightly in slumber. One arm by her side, the other hanging down towards the floor, fingers lying limp on a sleeping Leto’s stomach.

Tess smiled at the sight, and gazed at the woman lovingly…for Nikki it had been a couple of tense months. Though she hadn’t actually mentioned it, her mothers’ actions were still playing heavily on her mind; and if Tess was to admit it, on her own mind too. Rosalind seemed to have removed herself from the scene and as far as the brunette was concerned that was not good. Maybe it was her internal voice, or just pure paranoia, but the fact of the matter was that Tess knew the woman was not finished. How could she be, after her parting remarks on the night of the confrontation it was obvious she was never going to accept their relationship. Richard had tried countless times to contact her, and he was rebuffed every step of the way…no, Tess was sure they hadn’t seen the last of her.

Sighing she turned back round to the TV and realised she had missed what was going on. Deciding it was time for bed anyway, she leaned over and switched off the box, disconnecting it from the socket and coiling up the flex for good measure. It was one of the last things to ready for removal in the morning.

Looking back at Nikki, Tess shuffled over to her and pushed a hand through soft golden Tress’s “Nikki?” She whispered…nothing. She tried again, “Nikki…come on we should get to bed.”

She stirred, “Hmm…what time is it?”

Tess smiled, “Bed time…it’s gone ten and being as though we have the cavalry arriving tomorrow for the big move I think we should get some sleep.”

Nikki pouted, “I was getting some sleep before you woke me.” She pushed herself to a sitting position and yawned. Leto looked up at the sudden movement and woofed lightly.

“Yeah, yeah ‘ tow tow’ come on time for bed.”

The golden dog sprung to her feet and trotted to the door waiting for her master. Tess looked back at Nikki who was still sitting on the sofa sleepily. “Are you coming?”

She nodded, “God I am sorry I fell asleep on you, did we get the packing done?”

“Yep everything but stuff for light refreshments.” She pulled Nikki to her feet, “I don’t think your father could survive without his morning infusion of tea…and Leto of course.”

At the mention of ‘tea’ and ‘Leto’ the dog looked at her master with desperate eyes. Tess shook her head, realising her mistake, “No Leto not now…bed.”

The dog cocked her golden head to the side, looking at Tess in question.

The photographer shook her head, “I mean it Leto…no tea…get to bed.”

Getting the hint the dog huffed and trotted out the room.

Tess looked down on Nikki with a smile, “Ready?”

After a slight nod, they made their way out the room. Tess switched off the lights and made sure all the doors were secure as she went. When done, they mounted the stairs Leto scampering off happily in front. Tess allowed her to sleep in their room, just not on the bed like she used to.

Walking with an easy familiarity, Nikki entered the bedroom and disappeared into the en-suite. Everything in there was packed away and all that was left were bare minimal necessities: Toothbrushes, toothpaste, comb, shampoo, soap and a bottle of moisturiser. Nikki had lined them all up on the shelf below the mirror for easy access.

Tess appeared in the doorway, “Are you nervous about tomorrow?”

The blonde nodded, “Yeah, it is going to be hectic and I feel like I will just start getting in the way you know…I am still not sure what I will be able to do…and help out with.” She pursed her lips with a frown.

Standing behind Nikki and wrapping her arms around the small frame Tess leaned forward and placed her cheek against the blondes, “You will never be in the way okay? Look you will have loads to do…don’t think you will be getting out of this.” She grinned, “You can delegate…”

“Delegate?”

“Yeah, we will need somebody to order us around ya know. And you can assist James, put away…stuff, um watch over Leto because you know that when she is with you she behaves herself.”

Nikki laughed, “Hmm…I guess I will have responsibilities. So I get to order you guys around huh? Does that mean you have to do whatever I say?”

“Sure…starting from tomorrow.” Tess smirked, knowing where Nikki was heading with this.

“Oh.” Nikki covered her mouth as she yawned; “Well I guess I can wait until the morning. Oh hey did you decide which room you wanted to use as your dark room?”

Tess thought for a while, she had been considering where to put her darkroom all day. It was a toss up between a room in the downstairs part of the house, or in one of the four remaining bedrooms. Both were on the side of the house, and there was a tree outside the window that filtered away a lot of the natural light. Whatever room she didn’t choose Nikki had decided would become her office.

“Well I think I will choose the bedroom upstairs, mainly because it has a small sink area in the corner, which will be handy.” She pulled away from Nikki and picked up her toothbrush, “And the room downstairs does have that door that leads out to the side of the house, it will be easier access to the stables…especially when you start employing your stable hands.” She grinned, “You can stick your head out the door and issue orders.”

Nikki ran her hand across the shelf until she located her toothbrush; “It’s going to be hard to find somebody who I feel I can trust, especially somebody who will work for somebody like me.”

Tess frowned, “What do you mean somebody like you?” she asked, hoping her mothers’ words weren’t still playing in her conscience. Tess didn’t want Nikki to take to heart all the hurtful things Rosalind had said. And as much as she didn’t want to admit it, she just couldn’t stop the hate she felt for the woman who had tried to hurt the woman she loved.

Nikki shrugged, “I just meant that would somebody be happy working for a blind person?” She sighed, “Oh I don’t know.”

The photographer turned Nikki around until they were facing each other, “Okay Nik, what is this really all about. You know as well as I do that you are an excellent judge of character, you will have no trouble finding the right person or persons to work for you. So what’s up?” The blonde lowered her head, but it was quickly captured in a gentle grasp and lifted again to face the brunette. “Tell me.”

Taking a deep breath Nikki sighed, “I don’t know…it’s just that things are changing, and so quickly. Moving into a new house all of our own, starting the refuge for neglected horses…and then maybe the stud farm. I guess I am just feeling a little overwhelmed with all of this, and scared…”

Leaning forward Tess kissed the blondes’ forehead, “That you won’t be able to cope?” she asked.

Nikki shrugged again, “In a way…but more that fact that I don’t want to let anybody down…what if I can’t cope…what if my mother was right and that I have no place in this world?”

Shaking her head vigorously, Tess pulled Nikki close into her body, “Please don’t ever think that Nik, because it just isn’t true.” She paused and kissed her lips, “I for one wouldn’t even want to imagine my life without you in it now.” Her head fell to one side; “I love you Nik.”

“You know what?”

Tess smiled, “What?”

Placing her head on the taller woman’s chest Nikki closed her eyes; “Nobody makes me feel as good as you do.”

“And if I am being honest, I will say that I am very glad about that.” The photographer said with an indulgent smile. Leaning backward she looked into Nikki’s face, “So are you ready for bed?”

The blonde nodded.

“Good, come on then we have a long day tomorrow, and I want to get plenty of rest if I am to be ordered around all day…I will need my energy.”

Nikki smiled as she finished cleaning her teeth, and placed her toothbrush back on the shelf. She had no doubt that tomorrow was going to be a long, exhausting day and as they made their way over to the bed, the only item left in the room, she still felt a little apprehensive. The prospect of starting the venture she had been dreaming about for so long was now suddenly upon her, and the inner feeling of apprehension would not leave. She sincerely wanted things to be a success, and an internal feeling of doubt still persisted to plague her better judgement. Still…the feeling of the warm body wrapping around her, served as a constant reminder of the unconditional love and support Tess offered. That alone gave her the confidence to face whatever lay ahead with courage and conviction in her ideals.

Lacing her fingers with Tess’s, Nikki smiled sleepily to herself, “G’night Tess.”

Tess pulled the smaller frame close to her body, and breathed in Nikki’s unique scent, “Night Nik, love you.” She whispered.

“Love you too.” Replied the blonde as the first waves of sleep claimed her.

*******

It was a constant sound of yapping, loud and relentless that finally brought the sleeping women into the land of the living. Tess lifted her head from the warmth of her pillow and groaned as she recognised Leto’s rapid shrilling bark.

“What in gods name is wrong with her?” Nikki asked, she too only just waking up.

Pulling the quilt cover up and over their heads, Tess sighed, “She probably saw a bug on the floor, or a piece of lint floating around in the air…damn mutt.”

“Maybe she wants to go out…poor thing could be crossing her legs down there.” Nikki chuckled at the thought and wondered if that were even possible.

Tess sprung up; the cover falling from their tee shirt covered bodies as she did so; instantly the chilled air assaulted their bodies. Since they were moving today, Tess had already turned off the heating…the hot water was still on, but central heating was history.

“Ho jeez that’s c-c-cold.” Nikki squirmed and reached out for the cover pulling it back over her body.

“Sorry.” Tess looked apologetically at the blonde, “But the thought of Leto peeing on the carpet suddenly spurred me into action, this isn’t really our house anymore…I don’t think the new owners would be happy to know that Leto had peed on the carpet only a day before they moved in!”

Snuggling her body back under the quilt Nikki sighed, “Lets hope that’s all she did.” She mumbled.

“Huh?”

The blonde grinned, “I said it’s okay…at least I’m still cocooned in warmth.”

Tess narrowed her eyes and warmed her exposed arms with friction from her hands, “Yeah, yeah, well as soon as I go and let Leto out, I will be right back.” She turned and headed towards the door.

“I’ll be waiting.” Nikki called out as Tess opened the bedroom door and disappeared out the room.

There was a loud thudding coming from the front of the house and suddenly Tess realised what Leto’s barking was all about. Cursing she jogged down the stairs and up to the front door. There she spotted the golden hound, braced on her back legs as she started another round of yaps at the noisy door. “Tow tow.” Tess shouted, and the mass of muscle turned around, spotting her master and launched herself into the brunette’s stomach… “Ooof…damn Leto that is it, I am putting you on a diet.” The dog dropped to the floor and looked at her master in puzzlement. Grinning at the hounds’ expression, Tess shooed her into the living room and closed the door, effectively locking her in the large, box filled room.

Tess then moved to the door and after swiftly releasing the locks she pulled it open. The sight of a crowd of impatient looking faces greeted her. Grinning sheepishly she looked at each person, “What time is it?”

Lisa, who was leaning against the back of the large blue removal van look to her father, who in turn looked at James the butler. James then turned to Robert who had been the one pounding on the front door for about five minutes. It was the tall, dark man spoke, “Tess, it is gone nine o’clock. Now you asked us all to be here at nine, and we were, but you…” he looked down at her shorts and t-shirt covered body to make his point, “…were still fast asleep!”

The tall woman placed her hands on slender hips, “It was a long night, and we were packing the remainder of things so everything was done and ready for today.”

Richard walked forward into Tess’s view, “And I see you disconnected the door bell while you were at it.”

Tess moved to the side as the amateur removal team entered the soon to be vacant house, “Sorry, one of those things I guess.” She moved towards the stairs, “Listen why don’t you guys make yourselves a drink while Nikki and I get dressed hmm?”

“Great idea I’m parched.” Richard proclaimed.

Lisa walked towards the living room door; “I’m going to say hello to Leto…hey Tess do you want me to give her a walk in the woods at the back.”

The photographer smiled, “That would be wonderful, thanks Lisa. Now if you all will excuse me, I shall be back in a sec.” And she was gone, mounting the stairs three at a time.

She dived into the bedroom to find an empty bed and the sound of running water echoing from the en-suite bathroom. “Nik?”

“Yeah in here.” Nikki answered, “I heard all the commotion and realised the ‘cavalry’ had arrived. Jeez Tess did you know it had already gone nine o’clock? You see, this is why I said you shouldn’t have packed the alarm clock until this morning.”

Tess approached the bathroom and opened the door; a swift gust of hot steam assaulted her, “Whoa…cold?” She questioned

Nikki poked her head out from the shower cubical, “Just a little.” She grinned.

Tess picked up her toothbrush, “You know I didn’t think I would need the alarm clock with you around, you always wake up before me.” She applied a liberal amount of white paste to the bristles and stuck the brush in her mouth, vigorously scrubbing her teeth.

Pulling her head from under the spray of water Nikki chuckled, “I probably still would have woken up before you anyway, we both just over slept…I guess we needed it.”

“Gooft jwobb weef haaf wwleetow.”

With a look of complete confusion Nikki poked her head back out of the cubical, “Huh?”

Tess pulled the brush from her mouth, “I said good job we have Leto…you know?”

“Oh yeah…too right.” Nikki shook her head and retreated back to the warmth of the shower.

*******

Robert braced himself as he squatted down on the floor and pushed his hands under the underside of the sofa, “Ready?” He questioned the Mayor who was getting into the same position.

“When you are.” The small man stated.

With a grunt both men pushed themselves to their feet, the three-seat sofa in tow, and started a slow shuffle towards the living room door.

Tess stood with hands on hips as she watched the men manoeuvre the heavy item out of the room. She grinned as she watched Roberts face, the large man showed no sign of exertion at all, yet Richard was forcefully sucking air through pursed lips. “Are you sure I cannot help you guys?”

“No.” both men replied, and Robert continued, “We have it covered.”

She nodded and looked over at Lisa who was rolling her eyes at the men’s display of macho pride. Once they had shuffled out the room she grinned at the teen, “So want to help me move the two seater?”

“Will this be our own display of feminine strength?” Lisa joked.

Tess smirked, “Something like that.”

Walking over to the couch, the two dark haired women squatted down, “Right.” Tess began, “Just remember to keep your back straight and lift from your knees okay?”

“You got it.”

Together they easily lifted the cushioned seat and began to move slowly out the living room. They passed James who was going back and forth moving the smaller boxes and Nikki who was transporting a pile of light bags to the Blazer. Leto sat timidly by the wall, a look of confusion on her canine features as she tried to not get in the way of the humans, while at the same time wonder what they were all doing and why nobody was paying attention to her.

“Coming through.” Tess shouted as she backed her way towards the door.

All bodies moved out the way as they spied the two brunette’s angling the sofa through the front door. Richard looked at his daughter with a hint of surprise, “Lisa honey are you sure that isn’t too heavy for you?”

The teen grinned, “No…no I can handle.”

Tess backed up slowly towards the van, “Yeah us women are not as fragile as you guys like to think you know!”

Robert emerged from the back of the van, jumping onto the ground. “Don’t I know it.” The burly man stated.

Tess looked around to glare at her boss, “And what is that supposed to mean?” She asked as she and Lisa completed their journey to the van and Robert helped them slide it in before he jumped back into the compartment and moved it into a far corner.

The large man smiled and shrugged, “I don’t know?”

“Uh huh.” The brunette stated eyeing him suspiciously.

He smiled weakly and made off into the house again mumbling what Tess thought sounded like ‘I rest my case.’

*******

Three hours and many playful insults later, the gang had more or less completed their task. The van was completely full, and Richard and Tess’s cars were almost to the same point. They all sat on the floor of the empty living room, eating a lunch that James had prepared the night before.

Tess looked down into the sandwich that she had just lifted from her pile and grimaced as the smell hit her. “Ugh tuna…anybody want to trade?” She asked pulling a face of disgust.

Nikki who was leaning against Tess’s right side jumped at the chance, “Tuna…I love tuna, I’ll have it.”

“Um…” Tess grimaced, “I don’t know Nik, I really hate tuna, smell and taste.”

The blonde frowned, “Yeah well that is why I will eat it then…gimme.” She reached out but Tess didn’t hand over. “Hey!”

The photographer looked around and seeing the three men engaged in their own discussion she turned back to Nikki, leaning close to her ear, “I mean I really don’t like it…even if it was on the set on another pair of usually tasty lips.” She arched her brow “Get me?”

Nikki flushed, “Err, yes…no tuna for me when you are around?”

“If you don’t mind?”

A slight shake of the head, “Mind, why would I mind. Eat tuna or…” She waggled her eye brows for emphasis, “You!”

Lisa who had been trying so hard not to hear their conversation suddenly looked round to them, “Oh please.” Her voice was a tight whisper, “I am eating here you know.”

Tess looked at the teen with a smile, “Sorry Lisa.” She winked playfully at the younger girl.

Nikki shook her head as she cleared her suddenly dry throat, “Um…yeah.”

Lisa rolled her eyes and then looked around the room, something wasn’t right. “Hey…you know with all this food about I would have expected Leto to be mooching around.”

Tess frowned, “Yeah, that is weird. LETO?” She shouted. Nothing. “LETO…FOOD!” Still nothing. Suddenly concerned she got up, the rest of the gang watching her.

“What’s wrong Tess, where is Leto?” asked Richard.

The photographer frowned, “I don’t know, but if there is food around so is she…this isn’t like her. I better go and just check and see where she is.”

Curious eyes watched as Tess left the room and started a search of the house, she returned a minute later. “I can’t find her.” She stated worriedly.

Suddenly everybody rose to his or her feet, “Let us all have a look.” Robert stated, and they left the room.

The search started, Tess going out the back with Lisa to look around the woods, James upstairs checking through the wardrobes, and Richard and Robert looking down stairs and around the front of the house.

Nikki stood on the doorstep, “Leto?” She listened carefully with sensitive hearing, “Leto…do you want some tea?” A sudden whine caught her attention. “Leto…where are you?” She heard it again, and after grabbing her cane from the wall beside the door, she moved towards the sound. “Leto?” Nikki heard golden dog again and smiled, “HEY I’VE FOUND HER!”

Suddenly Tess and Lisa came out the front door, followed by James… Richard and Robert emerged some seconds later.

“Where is she?” Tess asked concerned.

The blonde smiled and tapped the closed hatch of the van. Tess frowned and moved towards the vehicle, putting her ear to the back door. “Leto?” She heard a sudden whine. Arching her brow she turned around to face everybody, “Okay, so who packed Leto into the back of the wagon?”

“Awe the poor thing.” Lisa stated as Robert jogged forward and unlocked the back pushing the rolling door upwards. He frowned as they all looked into the mass of Tess and Nikki’s belongings, “Um, well I am guessing she is in here somewhere. Leto?” The bog barked twice then whined again.

Tess sighed, “Okay guys…it’s operation dog rescue…I just hope she isn’t right at the back of the damn trailer.”

*******

Another forty-five minutes later they had rescued Leto and loaded the quarter of the items that she had been stuck behind, back into the truck. Tess looked down at the sheepish looking dog and shook her head.

Nikki stood beside Tess, “This was my fault, I was suppose to be looking out for her.”

The photographer smiled, “No it’s not your fault. Remember when I called you over to hold something for me…I think it was then that she escaped, you had to let go of her lead remember.”

“Yeah and I forgot to go back to her.”

“And so did I…none of us remember to make sure she wasn’t getting herself into trouble…it wasn’t anybodies fault okay?”

Nikki shrugged, “I guess.”

Tess turned away from the moping dog and wrapped her arms around Nikki, “Hey no harm was done…so she decided to follow one of us into the back of the trailer and then got stuck, it was no big deal. Personally I think she is more disappointed that she isn’t going to get that tea we were all shouting about ya know?” She leaned down and kissed soft lips, Nikki moved into the contact but Tess pulled away.

“Um…I don’t think we should be doing this now huh? Lisa might complain again.” She smiled and waggled her brows.

Catching herself, Tess mentally shook her head. Sometimes she acted as though Nikki was able to see her; it seemed so possible with the way the clear blue eyes would seem to find her…look into her…that she was sure the blonde could actually see her.

James emerged from the house carrying a one of the few remaining boxes from upstairs, “Well this just about does it. There are three boxes left in there, Robert has two and Mr Morris has the other one. After this we will all be done.

Tess beamed at the old man, “Great, so I guess that means we are just about ready to get on our way yes?”

“I should hope so.” The Mayor stated emerging from the hallway, “It is almost two o’clock and we still have to get to the farm and unload all this stuff.”

“Well let’s get finished then shall we?” James stated as she emerged from placing his box in the Mayors car.

Twenty minutes later everything was loaded into the small gathering of vehicles. Tess stood in the now completely empty house, her arm securely wrapped around Nikki’s waist. Every tiny sound and movement echoed around the vacant building.

“What are you thinking?” Nikki asked, directing her head up towards the brunette.

Tess looked down and smiled, “Just about when I first moved in here, three years ago…wasn’t that long really I guess. I had mum, Jeff, Barbara and Andrew helping me then, it was quite a time. I had just brought Leto the day before and she spent most of the time hanging off my ankles. It is a good job these dogs have lock jaws as it meant I was able to keep an eye on her…what with the new and sudden growth on my foot.”

Nikki smiled, “Hmm, poor Leto being dragged around all day.” She suddenly frowned, “Hey…Andrew, do you mean the guy who runs the Art gallery?”

“Yep that’s the guy, the one I had the meeting with at the studio the other day. He has been planning another exhibition and wants me to show some of my latest shots.”

“Oh hey that’s great, I remember mum talking about him.” Nikki replied.

There was a sudden moment of uncomfortable silence at the mention of the Mayoress, but it was quickly broken when the rest of the gang entered the quiet room.

“Are we all ready?” Richard asked with a cheerful smile.

Tess nodded, “Um…yep everything is packed, including Leto whom I have already put in the back of the Blazer to make sure she doesn’t go for anymore impromptu excursions.” She shook her head.

“So.” Lisa stated clapping her hands together, “Are we gonna get going then, times a wasting guys and gals”

Taking one more look around Tess sighed, “Yep I guess there is no reason to stay any longer.” She dug a hand into her denim jacket and pulled out the sets of keys for the house. “Richard you said you would drop these into the solicitor right.” The man nodded as he caught the keys Tess threw in his direction, “Great, and James is driving…”

“The rust bucket.” Robert interrupted.

Tess looked at her boss, “Hey be nice to my old car, it is still my pride and joy…even when I spend five hours a week under the bonnet.”

Nikki nodded, “Yeah, at least when she disappears for long periods of time, I know where she is…the dark room or with the rus…” She winced when Tess poked her in the ribs, “I mean Escort.”

“That’s damn right!” The photographer stated with a wicked smirk, and wiggled her fingers in the blonde’s ribs a little longer.

Squirming Nikki pulled away from Tess, “Hey ticklish here!”

Tess feigned innocence, “Really?”

Nikki folded her arms, “As if you didn’t know!”

Lisa rolled her eyes and the three men looked from one woman to another with amusement, “Are we going to get going before it gets too dark to see… we wont be able to start unloading at the farm other wise” She stated.

“Yep come on then guys lets get going shall we?” The photographer said with arched brows.

With final nods the group left the house and Tess locked it securely behind her. She stood by the front door one last time. “I guess this is it huh?”

Nikki nodded, “End of an era?”

“Maybe.” Tess said and put her arm around the blondes’ shoulder and kissed her head, “Or maybe like I said before, it is just the beginning.”

With one final look, Tess and Nikki climbed into the Blazer and followed the chain of vehicles as they all headed down the street.

*******

From a safe distance, the sole occupant of the blue hatchback watched them leave. The observer waited until the last of the vehicles turned the corner before taking off and following them from an unseen distance.

*******
2
The sun was still high enough in the afternoon sky to hopefully provide enough sunlight for removing everything from respective vehicles and into the farmhouse. Overhead a light aircraft flew past, the sound of its engine, exaggerated by the calmness of the countryside. A distant smell of smoke filtered through the air, present but unknown in its origin. From the only road that led to Riverside farm, Tess’s green Blazer was the first to come into view.

Taking a slow turn around the corner, the jeep made it’s way towards the bridge and slowly crossed the wooden structure. She pulled the vehicle to a stop by the far corner of the house, leaving enough space for the other three vehicles to park.

The door opened and Nikki stepped out into the cool air. She took in a deep breath, recognising the scent of smoke. She idly wondered whether there was another farm close by and realised that was one question she never thought to ask. Deciding that she would put that on her endless list of things to do, she moved around to the drivers side of the car as she heard Tess step out into the cooling air.

Pulling off her silver rimmed shades, Tess looked around the area. Well this is it, she thought, home. The word reverberated in her head, never did she think that one day she would be living out in the country, but she was. And what was more, she was firmly looking forward to it. Closing the door, the photographer looked towards Nikki who was walking slowly towards her, a small hand guiding her around the car.

“Where is everybody else?” The blonde asked.

Tess looked towards the road that led off to the side with a frown, “Hmm…I think they must have gotten caught behind that tractor a few miles back. You know that is the one thing I may not like about living out here…god damn tractors that travel the roads at one mile per hour.” Smiling Tess took Nikki’s hand gently, “Come on I want to show you the sights.”

The blonde frowned, as she was lead to the side of the house. Tess looked out over the lush expanse of emerald fields, as she took her place behind Nikki and placed her chin upon the blonde head. Wrapping arms around the smaller frame, the photographer sighed, “Are you ready?”

Nikki nodded.

“Right…well the whole of the back of the house is surrounded by a large stone courtyard…which houses all the stables etcetera…like you know. But beyond that…well there is a gate that leads into a large field. If you take your shoes off you would be able to feel the soft tickling sensation of spring grass under your feet. Take a deep breath, can you smell it?” Nikki did as requested and nodded, as Tess continued. “Imagine walking across this grass, and walking, and walking…looking out over the land, it feels like you could walk forever, well into the horizon…all the while feeling the grass under your feet and hearing the sound of gentle winds as they rustle through a few singly placed trees scattered sporadically over the land. At the front of the house and across on the other side of the bridge, there are a range of bushes, some of them have berries and I bet that during the hot summer days their scent seeps into the air, both fruitful and sweet.”

Nikki closed her eyes and leaned into the body behind her, her own mind drifting to the sound of Tess’s voice. The feelings her words were creating within her left her wanting…for what, she did not know.

Laying the palm of her right hand against Nikki’s stomach the brunette closed her eyes, breathing in the scent of her lover. “The narrow stream that separates the front of the house from the main roads, trickles gently over many different sized rocks. Can you hear it?” Tess’s voice had deepened in tone.

Nikki placed her hand over the brunettes, “Uh huh.”

“It’s a calming sound isn’t it?”

Again Nikki nodded, her hand lifting Tess’s up and she kissed each finger one by one, a moist tongue moving over each digit.

Tess groaned and pulled Nikki tighter into her body, “One day soon.” She whispered into a sensitive ear, “I am going to make love to you out here.” Taking the lobe into her mouth she sucked gently on the soft flesh.

Nikki’s breathing laboured as she felt her body’s temperature rise several degrees. Turning in her partners’ embrace she wrapped her arms around Tess’s neck and pulled the brunette down to her waiting lips. The kiss was deep from the start, Nikki’s body responding to the many ways that Tess was able to stir her emotions. Lips parted as tongues hungrily sought out each other, fuelling a fire that had to be extinguish all to soon.

Nikki pulled away as the sound of distant engines caught her somewhat preoccupied attention. “They’re coming.”

Tess groaned as her head fell gently to the other woman’s shoulder, “I guess we better get started then.” Still hearing nothing she looked up and waited. Half a minute later the sight of the large blue van came into view, closely followed by the Mayors car and her Escort. Moving away from the close contact they shared but still with hands entwined, the women made their way over to greet the oncoming helpers.

*******

It was getting late, the sun had long since sunk out of view rendering the land to darkness. But thankfully due to beaming security lights attached to the front and back of the house the workers were still able to unload the boxes and furnishings with plenty of light.

Tess looked up at the white light and squinted in its blinding ray. Being out in the middle of nowhere, there were no street lamps or car lights to brighten up the eerie darkness, so she was thankful for the artificial light. Letting her mind wander she thought of all the tasks they had ahead of them…the most important was employing some sort of helper during the day. The blonde was the first to admit that there were many things she knew she would need help getting used to, and Tess hoped that employing the services of a domestic helper might be a good idea. The photographer knew that she only had three more days until she had to get back to work and although Hyacinth had already stated that she would come down Friday night until Sunday, they would need help of a more permanent kind. The house was fairly large and she decided that whatever time she did not spend working; she wanted to spend with Nikki.

Tess had been standing still for too long, and suddenly the light extinguished. She was just about to move again so the beam would relight when it unexpectedly came on as Leto bounded up to her master. The brunette looked down at the golden dog, which was stretched up on her hind legs whimpering. Rolling her eyes she bent slightly and braced herself as the dog vaulted into her arms. “Damn it ‘tow tow’ you are just far too heavy to be held anymore…what’s the matter anyway?”

The dog licked her masters’ face, and Tess squirmed away after detecting the scent of dog meat. “Huh! I see you are happy because you have just been fed, why am I not surprised by this.”

Leto wriggled again so Tess put her down and the dog scampered off, back into the house. Looking at the security light, Tess watched a swarm of flying insects as they buzzed around its luminosity. A cold breeze swept over the courtyard and she shivered, wrapping her arms around herself. Looking up into the sky the brunette spotted a familiar constellation of stars right ahead and she wondered whether she would be able to capture the sight…Orion was shining brightly in the thickening darkness.

“Tess?”

Turning back to the house the photographer spotted Nikki standing at the door, “Yeah I’m here.” She replied.

Smiling, Nikki headed towards the voice, and Tess reached out as she approached. Taking the hand that was not holding the cane, Tess gently pulled the blonde in close and wrapped her arm around Nikki’s waist.

“Are you bunking off having to do any work in there?”

The brunette laughed, “No, I just needed some fresh air…wanted to come and look at the night sky, it’s such a beautiful night tonight Nik.”

Closing her eyes as a large gust of wind blew over her face Nikki shivered, “But it’s a bit on the cold side though.”

“Want to go in?”

The blonde smiled, “Well far be it from me to drag you away from your inspection of the night sky, but I do believe you promised the hungry workers in there some take away food…your treat.”

Tess smirked, “You mean they remembered?”

“Like they would forget especially when it involves trying out that new Chinese restaurant in the village.” She grinned, “Of course I reminded them as well, you should know I would never forget.”

“I should have.” Leaning down Tess kissed the blondes’ nose, “Want to go and get some food ordered then?” She asked as they headed back into the house.

“Like I would come for you for any other reason.” Nikki quipped.

Tess stopped, looking down upon the illuminated face, “Hmm, other than my raw sexual magnetism…nope I can’t think of a thing.”

Nikki looked surprised, “Sexual magnetism…you…well I’ve never seen it!”

Arching her brows Tess pushed her tongue around the side of her mouth, “Oh funny…I will have you know that…” Her speech was cut short as Nikki reached up, finding the photographers lips perfectly and silenced her with a soft kiss. All thought left the taller woman’s head at first touch and she sunk into the kiss, forgetting everything around her.

It was moments later that a hungry Lisa appeared at the door looking for her sister. Taking one look at the couple in the driveway she rolled her eyes, “Hey! Hungry workers in here you know.”

The women pulled away surprised.

“Nik, I thought you came out here to get Tess.” The teen folded her arms, tapping her left foot.

Nikki snickered, “I did but somebody was trying lead me astray!”

Tess’s mouth dropped “Was not…hey you were the one who kissed me.” She protested.

The blonde walked into the house, “Uh huh, like I could be led astray by your magnetism.”

“Ah ha…so you are admitting that I have it after all!” Tess exclaimed with triumph, and a winning smile.

“No.” Nikki replied, a twinkle in her eye, “That was you responding to mine.” She stopped at the entrance to the kitchen waiting for Tess and her sister to follow. Richard, Robert and James looked up from their conversations to see the blonde standing in the doorway.

The brunettes’ entered the house and Tess firmly shut the door behind her. Lisa look up at the photographer, “Well are you going to reply to that?”

Tess slapped the teen lightly on her shoulder, “I would Lisa, but the truth is your sister is right.” She sighed dramatically.

Lisa pulled a face, “I never thought I would see the day when the infamous Tess Alexander would be whipped…makes me want to stay single.”

The photographer folded her arms, “HEY! First of all, I am not whipped, and second, why is it that everybody calls me infamous.”

The teen shrugged, “I don’t know…I saw it in a paper once, when a new collection of your work was being displayed at the gallery.” She frowned, “Say don’t you have another one coming up.”

Nikki walked back towards the two brunettes, “Yeah next week, pretty short notice but it took Andrew Spencer a while to convince her to present some of her latest works.”

“Wow.” The teen beamed, “Is there going to be another one of those party type openings with loads of press and stuff like that.”

Tess shuddered, “I would hope not, but you can count on it I am afraid. Still as long as Nikki is with me, I am sure she will keep me sane.”

The blonde smiled, “Of course I will be there, free food, lots of interesting people…I can’t wait.”

Their chatter came to a halt when Richard appeared from the kitchen, “Listen girls, not that us men want to complain, but none of us have eaten since this morning and we want feeding before this take out place shuts for the night!”

Tess rolled her eyes, “Okay, come on…lets go find this menu shall we?”

Lisa took off in front and Nikki held on to the tall woman’s arm as they made their way into the kitchen. The photographer shook her head; it is going to be a long night! She thought, and smiled.

*******

Tess awoke as the first shades of morning light lit up the dusky sky. Frowning, she rolled away from the warmth of a still sleeping Nikki’s back, a little surprised that she had woken before the blonde, and looked out the window. With no curtains up as yet, the room looked bare, even with the pile of boxes and bedroom furniture all standing by the wall. Sitting up, she took a better look out the window, gazing out across the horizon at the front of the house. She could just see the first rays of the rising sun emerging from behind a distant building. Looking closer, she realised it must have been another farmhouse, and she idly wondered what her new neighbours would be like. Tess smirked to herself at the thought, they may have been her closest neighbours, but they must be about three quarters of a mile away. Perfect.

Lifting the covers she got out of bed and grabbed her discarded shirt from the night before to cover her scantily clad body. The air was cold, and she realised she hadn’t remembered to put the heating on the night before. Deciding to do it before Nikki awoke the brunette exited the bedroom and headed for the stairs. The steps were wooden and lead down to a dark timber parquet flooring in the hallway, with a rich natural wood banister.

As Tess reached the ground floor of the house she noticed an increase in heat, and then realised that she had left the fire on from the night before. She walked into the jumbled living room to see Leto, sound asleep in front of the imitation coals. Smirking at the golden hound she turned back and headed for her prior destination.

The kitchen was large with black wooden beams across the wide ceiling. The walls were white, and one held a large rack for holding pots and pans, which Lisa had filled that the night before. The whole kitchen was more or less complete. With only cupboards that needed filling, it was the first room to get done, second only to preparing their bed in the bedroom. Unfortunately for Tess the floor was cold because it was made from old terracotta clay tiles, that although had a remarkable look, held the chill awfully well.

Grumbling at the icy feeling, Tess padded over to the thermostat and turned on the heat, then switched on the kettle as an after thought. She needed some warmth and she needed it quick. Vaulting herself into her usual position, sitting on top of the work surface, she pulled out a cup from the cupboard behind her head and waited…with little patience.

It was then that Leto decided to make her presence known, and the dog scampered into the kitchen when the first sounds of boiling water filtered to her sensitive ears.

Tess shook her head; “Well I might have know it wouldn’t take you long.”

Leto lifted to her hind legs and looked at her master desperately.

“Hmm…let me guess, you want a cup of tea?”

The golden dog whined; wagging her tail in a rapid blur of movement as Tess jumped down from the counter and took one of her clean bowls out of Leto’s own cupboard. Tess had specifically wanted the storage space to be a wall cabinet to stop the sometime mischievous dog from breaking in. She remembered coming home from work once to find the door to the dog food cupboard open and an empty bag a dried food ripped up around the floor. She had then found a very ill and bloated looking Leto moments later, flaked out by the back door…and looking very sorry for herself.

As the kettle clicked off Tess placed the bowl on the surface, dropped a teabag in each container and fill them both with boiling water. She drummed her fingers as she waited for the beverages to infuse. “So ‘tow tow’ how do you like you new home?”

The dog woofed lightly and looked desperately between the brunette and her bowl.

“Jeez mutt okay okay, keep ya fur on.” Shaking her head, Tess took the teabag from the bowl, filled it with enough milk to cool the drink and placed it on the floor. She leaned down and looked at Leto who had yet to touch the drink. “Good girl…” Leto moved to take the drink, “Whoa…hold on…no.”
The dog looked up at her master frantically. “First…kiss.” Giving an exasperated doggie huff, the golden mutt lifted forward and bumped her nose with Tess’s lips. The tall woman chuckled, “Good girl…go on then.”
With those words the dog swooped down on the tea, and within ten seconds it was gone.

Taking her own tea, Tess exited the kitchen and headed back to the stairs.

*******

Nikki was brought to consciousness by the luxurious feeling of warm lips working their way across her shoulder. Humming in delight she rolled onto her back with a smile, “Please tell me that isn’t Leto’s slimy tongue.”

Tess stifled a laugh and pulled away, “Well she is here as well…” she looked across to the other side of the room where the dog lay sprawled against a cardboard box, “…but I don’t think her tongue can reach from all the way over there.”

The smaller woman grinned, “So how is it that you have woken up before me for a change…this is a first.”

Tess leaned on one elbow as she looked down at the blonde, “Don’t know, maybe it was the new room or something, but I just woke up and was wide awake.” Using her other hand she moved a stray lock of honey blonde hair around Nikki’s forehead. “I made some tea…do you want some?”

Shaking her head Nikki snuggled deeper into the covers, “Nope I don’t want to leave here, I’m too comfortable.” She closed her eyes, “What time is it?”

“Well it was almost eight when I came back up here.”

“Really, wow that is later than I thought.”

“Yeah.” Tess lowered her head, tracing delicate kisses across Nikki’s collarbone, “We have both been really tired lately.” She smiled as she heard a sudden gasp resulting from the fact that her tongue had made an unexpected detour and had landed on a rapidly firming, tank top covered nipple. “ We’ve been too tired at night and too much in a hurry to get up in the morning.”

“Uh huh.” The blonde agreed, nodding her head slowly. “But what about all the work we have to do today?” She asked not in the slightest bit bothered if the place stayed a mess of unpacked boxes for the next month.

Tess pulled away causing the blonde to grumble her displeasure, “You want to stop?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

For her response Nikki reached down, pulling the black top from her body and throwing it into some unseen part of the room. It landed on Leto and the dog looked up suddenly, finding her face covered with the dark material. Shaking her wide head the golden dog managed to remove the object where it fell to the ground and she proceeded to show her displeasure by chewing the soft fabric.

Looking down at the body before her the photographer inhaled deeply, “I’ll take that as a no then…huh?”

Moving forward Nikki pushed the taller woman onto her back, “Yeah.” She stated, as her hands started their journey along the taller woman’s body. Perceptive fingers traced the soft skin of Tess’s face, starting at her forehead and moving down. “Remember the first time I did this?” She asked.

Tess swallowed hard, “Yes…you wanted to know what I looked like.”

Nikki nodded, “Yes, I did.” Bracing herself on one arm she used her other hand to glide across the planes of Tess’s features. “I started here…” She moved her fingers over the strong forehead, “…and moved down over here and here.” Her fingers moved to the brunettes’ nose and cheeks. “Before they moved here.” Trembling fingers landed on soft lips. “Do you know something?”

With one arm by her side Tess pushed the other over the smaller body, “What?” Her voice was deep, her breathing shallow.

Leaning in quickly Nikki stole a quick kiss from the smooth lips before pulling away, “I could feel the change in you…from the first moment I touched you. Your skin grew warmer, your breathing faster…and when I touched you here…” She cupped Tess’s jaw; “I felt the beat of your pulse, rapid and out of control…just like it is now.” Leaning forward again Nikki traced her tongue over the hammering beat, sucking lightly on the salty skin. “It was then that I knew.”

Tess close her eyes, her body responding to Nikki in every possible way, but with the last statement her eyes reopened, “Knew what?” she asked breathlessly.

Nikki pulled away leaving a single kiss on parted lips, “That your feelings for me were more than just that of friendship. That you felt…more.”

The photographer nodded knowing it was true but unable to speak. Instead she cupped her hands around the blondes face and slowly pulled her willingly down to meet waiting lips. The touch was intense as soft lips instantly parted and searching tongues found each other with increasing desire.

Locked in the increasingly passionate kiss, Nikki’s hand moved over the body beneath, finding each tiny button on the taller woman’s shirt and pulling them apart. When the shirt was fully undone, she pushed her hands past the fabric, connecting with the warm flesh beneath. Tess lifted to a sitting position, and Nikki’s legs subconsciously wrapped around her waist. Still holding the blonde close Tess shrugged out her shirt, it too being flung far away from the bed.

Feeling the need for air, both women simultaneously pulled away but left their foreheads touching, breathless. Bringing her knees up Tess secured the blonde close to her body as she looked deeply into sightless eyes, “Is it possible to love somebody this much?” She asked astounded at the strong feeling coursing through her.

Nikki ran her hands down Tess back, loving the feel of the sinewy contours, “Must be.” She said simply as they moved back down to the soft embrace of the bed, “Tess?” Nikki asked as she was rolled over onto her back.

The brunettes’ lips started a trail down the blondes’ neck, “Hmm?”

“I…” She gasped as a warm mouth came into contact with her aching flesh, “Don’t…”

Tess looked up from her task, “Don’t what?”

“Stop…” Nikki pleaded, “Don’t stop.”

The woman grinned, as she lowered herself back down to her pleasurable task, not sure who was enjoying this more, “Don’t worry…” she mumbled, “I wont.”

Leto looked up from the material she was chewing, her head to the side. Decided she could get no peace with the two noisy women in the same room she picked up her new chew toy and headed out the door, dragging the fabric devotedly behind her.

*******

Arms folded, Nikki stood at the foot of the bed surrounded by large cardboard boxes filled with clothes. Tess and her father had carried up the chest of draws and bedside cabinets the day before and all that was left was for her to fill them. Along the wall facing the door was a set of built in wardrobes. They were not as big as the old ones, but Nikki figured she could make do with what space they had…she could always use wardrobe space in one of the other bedrooms, the blonde decided.

Nikki moved to the first box as Tess entered the room, “Why do I feel like this will never get done today!” The blonde complained.

The photographer grinned mischievously, “Probably because we spent the morning doing much more…interesting…things.”

The small woman agreed, “Yeah, but now I have returned to the land of reality, filled with lots of unpacking…and your mother is to arrive later this evening. I bet this place is a right mess…in fact I know it is; so far I have walked into four big boxes and almost tripped over two smaller ones.”

Tess sucked in her bottom lip, “Sorry, I was looking for certain objects and just kept placing things in the way…it was my fault.” She approached the blonde and attempted to wrap her arms around the smaller frame, but Nikki backed away, “Hey what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” The blonde replied, “But it took us three hours to get out of bed this morning and I don’t intend on ending up back in there before we have this room fully cleared of boxes…empty boxes.” She stated poignantly.

“Huh.” Tess looked around at the mass of clothes waiting to be put away, “What if I hold off doing my dark room today and help you with this, that way we could be sure to get it done in half the time.”

Nikki nodded, “Great idea, and if it means less unpacking for me, who am I to disagree.” She smiled, “But are you sure you want to put off doing your dark room, I know how important it is for you to get that set up.”

Tess shook her head, “No no, that is the beauty of my job, means I have two…I may just have to use the one at work for a few extra days…no big deal, really.”

“Okay.” Nikki placed her hands on the first box, found the flaps and pulled them open, “Lets get started then.”

An hour and a half into emptying the boxes and with the last container almost done, Tess suddenly had a thought and she looked over to Nikki who was busy kneeling on the floor placing folded shirts into a drawer. Shoving the last of the hanging garments in the wardrobe the brunette closed the doors and headed over to Nikki. “Hey almost done?”

“I think so,” said Nikki.

Tess chewed on her bottom lip, “Nik? I was wondering.”

“What’s that?” The blonde finished with the last of the items of clothing and pushed the drawer shut.

“Well we have a lot of things to do here, and I only have two more days off before I am back at work. I was wondering what you thought to the idea of getting some kind of um…domestic help in.” She looked at the blonde nervously.

Nikki pushed to her feet and faced the brunette with a frown, “Why do you seem nervous about asking me that?”

Tess shrugged, “Well I just didn’t want you to think I was trying to get somebody in to look after you while I was gone…because that’s not it.” She was quick to add, “We do need the help and we will need a cleaner of sorts, this is quite a decent sized place too, I think we should get somebody in.”

“I agree.”

The tall woman looked at her surprised, “You do?”

Nikki smirked, “Yeah…why wouldn’t I?”

“Well no reason, I guess I was a little unsure of how you would feel about it is all. I mean…” She was cut off suddenly.

“Tess look; I know I can get by fine doing many day to day routines on my own, but…well even I know when to admit that there are things that are best done with sight…like cleaning for one. Getting some sort of domestic help, live in or otherwise is a good idea.”

The tall woman breathed a sigh of relief, “Good I am glad you agree.”

Blonde walked towards brunette, “Tess, I am not going to get upset by thinking you thought I would need help…I might be more upset if you didn’t care either way!” She smiled, “With you working and me getting my stables off the ground, we will need somebody to look after the place a little. And now that I think about it…cook edible meals.” Tess chuckled, “You can’t cook and I will admit that even though I love to have a go, it just isn’t my forte I’m afraid…occasionally we may need nutritional sustenance.” She joked.

Nodding the photographer agreed, “Okay, so we look for a housekeeper?”

“Yep.” Nikki scratched her chin in thought, “Hmm…do you think we will find somebody as cool as James?”

“We can but try,” replied Tess. “Does he have a sister or brother we can try and lure away?”

Nikki shook her head, “No, he was an only child. Oh well, we will find the right person I’m sure.”

“Yep.” Tess look around at the mass of empty boxes as Leto entered the bedroom, tattered black rag still between her teeth. Tess noticed her for the first time and realised what that piece of material was, her eyes turned to saucers. “Shit!” she whispered.

Nikki turned, “What is it?”

Looming over the golden dog Tess looked down at a guilty Leto who saw fit to drop her new chewing toy on the floor. “I don’t believe it, ‘tow tow’ you are a bad girl.”

“What has she done?”

Tess bent down and picked up the material, “Um Nik…you know that top you were wearing this morning?”

“Yeah.” Nikki frowned not sure she knew where this was going, but knowing Leto it wasn’t going to be good. “The one I was wearing in bed.”

“Well err…Leto here seems to have used it as her new chew toy.”

Nikki blinked, “No…hold on, is it the one with the raised emblem thingy in the corner?”

Tess looked down at the now rag and searched out what she thought was a corner, “Um…yeah.”

Nikki gulped audibly, “Whoops.”

“Why?”

“Because I borrowed that from Lisa when she stayed over Christmas. I was going to give it back to her, but kept forgetting.” She scrunched her nose, “I guess I won’t be able to now.”

The photographer looked down at the tattered garment, “Whoops.”

“Uh huh!”

Tess stared down at the sheepish dog, “Damn it Leto…does this even look like a bone to you, what is it with Nikki’s clothes that makes you want to eat them anyway?”

“Eat them?” The small woman asked.

Tess pulled a face when she realised they had been caught, “Ah yeah…them. Well it seems that Leto has a thing for certain items of your clothing.”

“What items?” asked Nikki intrigued.

“Well.” Tess stared down accusingly at the golden hound, “It seems that she has a thing for your socks.” She shuffled from one foot to another, and continued looking at the dog that seemed to be doing the same.

“A thing for my socks?”

“Yeah, I came home once and caught her chewing one of your socks. A few days later I found her with another, and when I just happened to look in her bed I found a couple more in there.” She shook her head, “I think the damn mutt has a sock fetish.”

Blonde eyebrows disappeared under Nikki’s hair, “A sock fetish; my socks!” Grinning she pushed off her shoe and lifted her sock covered foot, “Leto do you have a thing for my socks?” She waved the small appendage in the air.

Leto looked at the object that was liken to waving a red flag in front of a bull. She trotted over to the moving foot, and suddenly grabbed the tip with her teeth and pulled the colourful item from Nikki’s foot. With a sudden turn she scampered out the bedroom.

Nikki stumbled back surprised, feeling the cold air across her naked foot. Tess stood back astounded; passing looks between the blonde and the door. With a sudden jolt she took off out the bedroom hot on the trail of the thieving mutt, “Damn it Leto you get back here now right NOW.”

Nikki dissolved into laughter.

*******

The kettle clicked off as practiced hands had just placed a heaped spoon full of coffee into a large mug. Leaving the spoon in the cup, the same hands reached out for the kettle, finding the handle and lifting it from its base. Once securing that the cup and spout were in place, the boiling water was poured into the mug slowly until Nikki knew the water had reached the containers rim. She placed the kettle back down and took the spoon, stirring together the granules and water before placing the spoon in the sink.

Turning she leaned against the work top as she lifted the cup to her mouth and took a quick drink…it was still a little hot and Nikki grimaced as it slightly burnt her tongue. Pulling the cup away and placing it down until it had cooled, she grabbed her cane and made her way to her future office. Even though she wanted to get used to moving around the house without her cane, with all the objects about, she thought it better to wait until things were a little more settled. She walked out the back door of the kitchen that led to another smaller hallway, which in turn lead to the large room.

It empty, due mainly to the fact that all the items that were to be placed there had been stored in the dining room until she could get a feel of the place Nikki placed her cane against the wall and walked into the large spacious area. Taking slow movements she felt her way around, getting used to its size and shape. Nikki found the door leading to the side of the house and stables; it was wooden with two long thin panes of glass going vertically down the top half of the barrier. Walking further on she found a set of two light switches, and along the bottom of the wall three plug sockets and a phone jack…the room she decided would be perfect.

Walking back towards the door, she found her cane and exited, headed back to the kitchen. A smile crossed her face as the thought back to the commotion earlier when Tess had chased the dog around the house, trying to retrieve the sock. Unfortunately Leto had thought it was a game and scuttled through the house mindful of the woman keeping up pace behind her. Nikki had hobbled on her one shoed one bare foot to the stairs as she listened to the dog and master give chase around the lower part of the house. She could hear Tess’s voice cursing the dog every time she came close to catching the golden blur and the dog would veer off in another direction. She remembered Tess’s cheer of triumph when she cornered the mutt in the laundry room and was able to retrieve the soggy sock from Leto’s jaws.

Tess had returned to her breathlessly but informed the blonde she would need a clean pair of socks, she then decided to take Leto out for her first walk around their new home. Tess had asked Nikki whether she wanted to go with them, but the blonde had declined, wanting instead to concentrate on getting familiar with the layout of their home.

Dog and owner had been gone twenty minutes when Nikki re-entered the kitchen and retrieved her coffee. She wondered how much longer Tess would be; knowing Hyacinth was to arrive very soon.

*******

Wearing jeans, two sweat shirts and boots, Tess was actually quite warm as she stood in the centre of one of their fields, watching Leto do a mad dash around the front walled boundary. She had walked half a mile up their own land reaching the borders and was able to see the neighbours’ house not far away.

Hearing Leto to her side, she turned to find the dog leaning over a ditch. Frowning she moved towards the inquisitive hound and discovered what she was looking at. There, down a short bank was the stream; only it was getting wider and she realised it must branch off into the local river at some point.

“Hello!”

Looking up suddenly Tess saw a middle aged woman with medium brown long hair, flecked with wisps of grey, walking towards her. She wore a traditional khaki green country jacket and held a white paper bag in her left hand. Smiling she walked towards the woman. “Hi there,” she said as she reached the visitor. Leto trotted towards her and fell at the woman’s feet desperate for attention as usual.

“Well hello there little one…my aren’t you a little lump of muscle.” The woman looked up to Tess “What’s her name?” She asked.

“Leto,” replied Tess.

“That is an unusual name.” She told the dog and she leaned forward and rubbed the hounds’ stomach. After a couple of seconds she looked back to Tess, “Sorry, let me introduce myself, I’m Kate…your new neighbour.” She held out her hand.

Tess took it with a smile, “Tess.”

Kathy looked at the tall woman, “You know you do have an awfully familiar face, have we ever met before?”

The photographer shrugged, “Don’t think so…I must have one of those faces I guess.” Tess knew it was possible that the woman may have heard of her or seen her in a paper, but she said nothing.

“Hmm.” She shook her head, “Anyway, I just happened to see you out here so thought I would come and welcome you to the area, and give you this.” She handed over the paper bag, “As a sort of moving in gift if you will.”

Tess took the bag with a bemused smile and looked inside, “Wow, a cake…that is very thoughtful of you thanks. You made it yourself?” She asked pulling away from Leto who could smell the treat and was desperately trying for a taste.

The woman laughed, “God no…I am awful, no that would be my other half…Sam is the cook of the house.”

Tess nodded, “Well tell him thank you very much…and I am sure Nik will love it too.”

The woman stepped forward, “Ah so you don’t live alone, I did wonder with such a big house over there.”

Nodding Tess looked quickly back at the house, “Yes Nik’s back at the house getting familiar with the place…” A sudden thought came to her and Tess looked down at her watch, “Oh hell, listen Kate, I am sorry but I must be getting back, my mother is due up for the weekend and she is supposed to arrive very soon.”

Kate smiled, “Well it was nice to meet you…and if you ever need anything, you know where we are.”

Tess looked towards the dog who had her muzzle stuck down some creature made hole, “Leto get your nose out of there before the inhabitant bites the damned thing off.” She said with a chuckle. The dog pulled away and headed for her master, “Actually Kate there is something I need, do you know where I can place an advert for a house keeper…I figure you would know all the places around here; a local news paper or something of that sort?”

The woman smiled, “Of course I think I have just what you are looking for.”

“Great.” Tess beamed.

“How about I get back to you tomorrow, being as though your mother is due to arrive very soon.”

“That would be wonderful Kate thank you.” Tess smiled and waved as she turned around and headed back down the field. She looked back, “Bye.”

The woman waved and headed back to her house.

*******

Holding her lukewarm cup of coffee, Nikki flicked through the channels on the TV. At this time of day, and until their satellite was re-installed, they were stuck with the usual five channels with meant she had a choice of early evening game shows or Australian soap operas. Her flicking stopped when the doorbell sounded.

Getting up, she walked the known path to the front door. “Who is it?” She asked reaching the door; she knew Tess would have her key.

“One rather chilly old woman who has come to visit her daughter and daughter in law in their new home.” Replied the voice.

Grinning Nikki pulled the door open and was taken in a swift hug, “Nikki dear, it is wonderful to see you.” Hyacinth pulled away holding the blonde at arms length, “How are you?”

“Great.”

“Excellent, oh I love this house it is so beautiful around here…” She looked around, “So where is that daughter of mine.”

“Right behind ya.”

Hyacinth turned to see Tess and a fast approaching Leto bounding towards her, “Tessa honey.” The old woman walked towards her daughter and pulled the brunette into a motherly hug.

From below Leto barked repeatedly for attention, scampering around the woman’s legs. Hyacinth rolled her eyes, “Okay, ‘tow tow’ I hear you.” She pulled away from Tess and bent down to fuss the over excited dog. “Ewe…Tess she’s all wet.”

Tess pulled a sympathetic face, “Yeah, seems she got a little excited when she found the stream.”

Hyacinth pulled away, much to Leto’s protests, “Sorry ‘tow tow’ but you will get more fussing when you are adequately warm and dry, and a little more pleasing to my nostrils.”

Nikki stood by the door way, “Tess what do you have, I can hear paper and smell something…” she sniffed the air, “Oh very nice.”

Stepping forward Tess held out the bag, “Here,” and Nikki reached out, her hand making contact with the cool paper. “I’ve just met our neighbour, and she gave us this. Can you believe it?”

Nikki’s voice twinkled in delight, “Oh chocolate cake, damn I know what I’m having for tea tonight.”

“More than just cake I hope!” Hyacinth stated, “I was planning on doing your favourite if that was alright…spaghetti.”

Tess rolled her eyes as Nikki sighed in delight.

“Oh yeah that would be great…wow what an evening huh, all I would need would be a repeat of this morning and I would die happy.”

Hyacinth looked at her inquisitively, “Why what happened this morning?”

Nikki opened her mouth to speak but stopped…she couldn’t tell Tess’s mum that! A blush colouring her face, she turned her face towards the brunette, “Um…oh you know just a nice morning.”

The older woman arched her brows as she looked at her daughter who was examining the stone pathway with sudden interest, “Uh huh, say no more.” She shook her head, “Right, shall we get inside so I can put my things up stairs and have a look around this lovely new house of yours?”

Thankful for the reprieve, Nikki went back into the house followed by Leto, Hyacinth and Tess…the brunette grinning as she shut the door behind her.

*******

It was a beautiful clear night once again. Tess stood in the centre of the driveway staring up at the sparkling sky, gazing at the mass of blinking stars. The air was cool but calm, peaceful and still. Green eyes scanned the constellations until she found the one she was looking for…Orion; it was a favourite of hers. She didn’t know why, maybe it was the fact that it was the first one she had ever known the name of, whatever the case, she decided that she wanted to capture the image in the perfect shot.

Fingering the camera that hung lightly around her neck, she turned slightly as the sound of light footsteps and a slow tapping headed towards her. Looking behind she watched as Nikki walked towards her. “Mum gone to bed?” She asked.

“Yeah, she said she was tired from her journey up…oh and that next time we had to go down to see her.”

Tess laughed, “Yeah that sounds about right.”

Nikki reached her lover and stopped in the embrace of her right arm, taking a deep breath she let her head fell to a strong shoulder. “Tess?”

“Hmm?”

“In the darkness, are people as blind as they say?”

Tess looked down at the blonde with a frown, “Why do you ask?”

“Just wondering.” Nikki took a deep shuddering breath, the same disconcerting feeling of being watched invading her senses. She had felt it from the first moment she had approached the front door, and although she wanted to move away, the knowledge of Tess being out there increased the need to go to her lover.

“The answer is yes.” Tess said quietly, “In the darkness I am as blind as you are…worse in fact.”

“Worse?”

“Worse because you have adapted yourself…you had to, not knowing any different. For those of us who can see, darkness is temporary, where you spend most of the time searching for light. It’s sometimes a little scary, like the unknown…when you know you can see you desperately search for that spark that gives you back the vision you require.” She paused “No…need.”

“So you would agree that being blind, one is able to adapt other senses?”

“I would think so.” Tess replied, “Why?”

Nikki shrugged unsure and unable to express the feeling that was once again overwhelming her senses. It was just like the feeling she got only two days before outside their old home, but this time is wasn’t as strong. “Tess is the light on out here?”

“Yeah, Leto is trotting around…she is keeping the sensor working.”

“Oh”

Turning to face Nikki, Tess chewed on her bottom lip. “Okay Nik what’s wrong, you seem a little distant.”

Placing her head on the taller woman’s chest Nikki sighed, “Nothing, I just have that weird feeling again…what is it, that ‘walking over your grave type feeling?’

Tess looked across the bridge and beyond, “Well I can’t really see that far ahead, but there can’t be anybody around if that is what you are thinking… or feeling.”

“Just weird I guess,” said the blond as she frowned, not understanding the feeling that refused to leave her…but one thing was certain, she didn’t like it. “Tess are you ready to go in now?”

The photographer looked up at the stars then to her unused camera hidden under Nikki’s chin, “Yeah I guess, it is starting to get a little chilly out here isn’t it?”

“Hmm.”

Come on then.” Tess placed her arm around the smaller shoulders and headed towards the house. “Leto…come on, bed time.” From nowhere the golden dog sprinted into the house way ahead of the two women.

Tess closed the door with a frown, twice now Nikki had spoken of being watched and twice she had been unable to see or feel anything herself. She didn’t know what to think of that, was the blonde being overly cautious or was it something more. However much Tess didn’t believe there was any cause for concern she also didn’t want to make light of Nikki’s feelings, she was definitely disturbed by something.

Watching as the small woman disappeared into the living room with Leto, she leaned back against the door in thought. Maybe it was the sudden disruption in her normal life and routine, or maybe it was all the commotion of moving house, whatever it was Tess hoped that as they settled into their lives, Nikki’s sudden nervousness would settle too.

Pushing away from the door, Tess entered the living room in time to see Nikki sprawled out on the floor, taunt her socked feet playfully with the dog. She smiled at the gentle way Leto was with her; still amazed in the way she seemed aware of Nikki’s sightlessness, and mindful of her actions around the woman.

Aware of her lovers’ presence, Nikki reached out her hand in Tess’s direction and wasn’t disappointed when it was taken readily by one large warm appendage. Tess moved to sit on the floor beside Nikki as she kissed the entwined fingers, “So how about we end this perfect evening of yours?”

With a shy smile Nikki nodded and moved to straddle Tess’s lap, “As long as you are around it will always be a perfect evening.”

“Awwe.” Tess chuckled, “Flattery will get you everywhere.”

Nikki waggled her brows, “I hope so.”

*******

Standing in the shrouded darkness and at a safe, unseen distance from the house, a long figure studied the dark building. He spotted two security lights, and a small dog, but a breed well known for their sometimes vicious temperament. Other than that, there didn’t appear to be any other form of security, and definitely no sign of an alarm. It was just too good.

Turning away he headed back to his car, parked some way in the distance. With a snarl he fingered his crooked nose, glad that he was finally going to get the chance to get back the bitch who got a lucky shot at him in the shopping centre. He had never failed on a job before, and wasn’t going to rest until this one was complete either…only this time, he was calling the shots.
3
It was a ringing sound, distant but still annoying…and persistent in its quest to drive both women insane. Tess pulled the pillow from under her sleepy head and proceeded to place it on top, effectively covering her ears in hopes of drowning out the sound. Nikki snickered as she realised what the older woman was doing and tried to prise the padded material from the brunette’s head.

“Come on Tess…answer the phone, it is cold out there and you feel it less than I do!”

“No…I’m still sleeping.” Came the muffled response.

“Whoever it is will hang up soon!” She tried.

“So what…that is why we have a machine.”

With an exasperated sigh, Nikki decided on a different approach. Grabbing the edge of the quilt she slipped her hand under the cover and located a known sensitive spot on the taller woman’s ribs. With a swift attack she pounced on the prone form moving her wiggling fingers rapidly around the brunette’s sides. Tess gasped and squirmed at the sudden invasion.

“It’s still ringing…” Nikki laughed as she tried to bat away hands that were in turn trying to push away hers, “and I…” She paused as the phone stopped ringing. “Damn.”

“The machine got it.”

Sighing Nikki fell back down to the bed and reached out, searching fingers located her audio watch with familiar precision. She pressed the button and listened to the time.

Tess’s head shot from underneath the covers, “Six o’clock, six o’clock in the morning, who in the hell would call at six o’clock in the sodding morning.”

Nikki smirked, “What time?”

The photographer pursed her lips, “Oh ha ha…I don’t believe, it’s still night time.” She flipped the cover back over her head, closing her eyes.

“Um, Tess?” Her answer was a stifled groan, “I…” Nikki paused as the phone started ringing once again. “I don’t believe it!”

“My point exactly.” Came Tess’s still muffled voice. “I think somebody has it in for us today.”

About to get out of bed, Nikki stopped as she heard the sound of footsteps descending the wooden stairs. “I think your mother is going.” She said and Tess answered with the same muffled grunt. Listening, Nikki heard Hyacinth answer the phone; there was a fifteen second conversation before the handset was replaced back on the receiver. A minute later Hyacinth ascended the stairs and Nikki reached for her tee shirt; she was sure they were about to get a visit.

Seconds later there was a timid knock on the door, “Anybody awake in there?” Hyacinth listened until she heard the definite sound of her daughters’ grunt and Nikki’s quite permission to enter. She opened the door and poked her head around the barrier seeing the blonde sitting up in bed, “Nikki dear, that was a young man calling to let you know that your horses are to be transported here in about two hours.”

“Oh that is great!” Nikki beamed, she had hoped they would be arriving nice and early.

Hyacinth turned to the unmoving form of her daughter under the covers, “And Tess honey?” She eyed the lump curiously.

“Hmm.”

“There was a call on the machine, it was Andrew Spencer, he wants you to call him about some exhibition next week…you didn’t tell me there was an exhibition!”

Tess begrudgingly pulled herself from under the warmth of her covers, and squinted in the artificially lit bedroom. “Last minute decision, didn’t agree to do it until the other day.” She rolled onto her back and looked up to the sitting blonde, “Why the hell are people ringing us up so god damned early anyway?”

Nikki let her hand fall to the brunette lying by her side and patted the body beneath her palm with a grin, “Ah it must be that raw sexual magnetism of yours, you just can’t help drawing people to you like…”

Tess looked up suddenly, “Careful with your analogy here blondie.” She warned.

Nikki’s face was the picture of innocence, “I was just going to say um…moth to a flame.” She felt the body beneath her shake with a silent chuckle.

Hyacinth shook her head as she backed out of the room, “Huh…funny I was thinking…flies around shit!” she stated and disappeared out the door, shutting it firmly behind her.

Tess sat up suddenly, her mouth open in shock, “Hey.” She shouted as Nikki fell back into the bed with laughter.

*******

Lisa stood by the large wooden doors, as she watched Thunder being led out the stables by her father. The Mayor carefully walked the tall black stallion into the back of the large trailer making sure the area was secure. The teen stood back as she watched her father converse with the two men who had been hired to transport the horses to their new home.

She studied both men. The first must have been in his late twenties, but she didn’t find him particularly attractive, mostly due to his rather crooked looking nose. The other guy was more to her taste; he was younger with bleached blonde hair and a dark stubble. The young man looked in her direction and caught the blatant perusal; he smiled giving her a quick wink. Lisa grinned shyly and blushed as he headed towards her.

“Hi there…” he said giving her his winning smile.

Lisa stomach fluttered nervously, “Hi.” She said as he stopped in front of her. She smiled looking up into dark brown eyes as he held out his hand.

“Lisa right?” He asked. Taking her hand he kissed the appendage as she nodded her head. “I’m CJ.”

“Ah.” She looked at him in question, “And can I ask what CJ stands for?”

He smirked mischievously, “You can ask…”

“But?”

“But I don’t have to tell you…unless.” His eyes twinkled with humour.

“Unless?” She asked.

“Well I could be encouraged to divulge that piece of information if…you allow me to take you out sometime.” He looked at her expectantly.

Lisa folded her arms, “Well somebody certainly seems sure of himself.”

CJ smirked, the right corner of his mouth turning to one side. “That isn’t the answer I was hoping for.” He turned looking quickly at the Mayor talking with his brother before looking back at Lisa and taking a step closer. He lowered his voice, “You are supposed to say yes.”

The teen looked deep into the chocolate brown eyes and knew she couldn’t refuse. She nodded, “Um…I…err yes?”

The tall blonde pursed his lips to keep the smile from his face, “Okay.” He nodded, “I have your number…I shall call you tonight?”

“Tonight is fine.”

CJ nodded and took a step back, “Talk to you later then.” He turned to walk away but stopped when Lisa asked him to wait. “Hmm?”

“Name?”

“Ah…okay it’s Cee Jay.”

Lisa looked at him with a frown, “Yes but what does CJ mean.”

The young man laughed, “That is it Cee Jay, I don’t think my parents had very active imaginations. My brothers…” he turned and pointed to the sandy haired man with the crooked nose, “His name is Bradley, after my father!”

“Well CJ…it’s original…I like it.” Lisa smiled shyly at bleached blonde.

“Listen I have to go and get these horses taken to your sisters is it?” Lisa nodded, so he continued, “So I guess I will talk to you tonight?”

“Until then.”

The young man turned and headed back towards the trailer. As he passed the two men still talking, he threw a quick wink in his brothers’ direction before disappearing to the drivers’ side of the vehicle.

*******

Hyacinth Alexander exited the spare bedroom and made her way down stairs. Her daughter had shockingly offered to make breakfast and she didn’t want to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to witness such a rare act. Reaching the lower level of the house, she turned on the parquet floor and headed towards the kitchen. The sight she was greeted with forced a tender smile upon her lips.

Nikki stood at the work surface, in front of her a selection of food, and behind her Tess. The tall woman had her arms wrapped around the blonde, her chin on the slender shoulder as she listened tentatively to instructions on how to cook a traditional English breakfast.

“Right…” Nikki began as she fingered the pack of bacon, pulling out one slice and holding it up, “When it comes to bacon…if you cut the rind off and cut three of four small incisions along one side that will stop it from curling.”

Tess, still with her chin on the blondes’ shoulder and arms around the small waist, picked up the sharp scissors and cut the bacon slices as instructed. Occasionally she would place a teasing kiss on the tempting neck, enjoying the slight tremors that coursed the smaller body. She finished the sixth slice, “Okay done that…now what?”

Nikki felt around for the sausages, “Right now if you pierce these, a couple of times in each one, it will stop the sausages from bursting in their skins while they are cooking.” She found a fork and held it up for Tess to who proceeded to prick tiny holes in the meat.

“Done” she proclaimed proudly.

Hyacinth grinned as she watched her daughter follow Nikki’s instructions, moving away and placing the meat under the grill for cooking. Once done, she returned to her place behind her blonde lover and slid her arms back around the waist. Next were the eggs, and Nikki went through the many different ways in which they could cook them, both finally agreeing on scrambled, simply because it was the easiest.

Tess cracked four eggs in a bowl and Nikki added the milk before beating the mixture together with a fork. The tall woman watched over her lovers shoulder, “I think that our future house keeper will definitely have to cook for us as well, there is no way I will be able to do this again. If you weren’t here those eggs would burn right there in the bowl.”

Nikki poked the inside of her mouth with her tongue, trying to keep the smirk away from her lips “Tess this is hardly cordon bleu honey…most chefs would scoff at the thought of having to cook something like this…and look…for us it is a combined effort.”

Tess leaned forward taking Nikki’s chin gently and pulling her around to kiss soft lips, “Mmm…but I like combined efforts.” She deepened the kiss briefly before pulling back, “Some things are much better done as a team effort.” She whispered seductively.

Deciding that the scene was getting a little personal Hyacinth quietly left the doorway of the kitchen and went off to have another look around the house. She still couldn’t get over the change in her daughter. Since meeting the blonde she had opened up a side of herself that even her mother had never seen, but was always sure existed; her ability to open her heart to love and be loved unconditionally. The older woman always knew that if her daughter could overcome her fear of losing that one special love, she would be able to give her heart fully. And she had.

Hyacinth was brought out of her musings by the sound of an approaching engine. Curiously she walked over to one of the living room windows at the front of the house and looked out. She spotted a large trailer heading towards the building. With a sudden feeling of excitement brought on by the prospect of finally having a chance to get up close to a real horse, she headed off to tell Nikki. She came to a halt in the hall way as she noticed the two women heading towards her.

“Nikki says there is a large vehicle heading our way.” Tess said from behind the blonde. Together the three women headed out into the courtyard.

*******

CJ slowly manoeuvred the large trailer over the wooden bridge as he approached the driveway. From the front door he saw three women emerge, and recognised their descriptions immediately. One small blonde, a tall dark brunette, he wasn’t expecting the older greying brunette. Stopping at the front of the house, he left the engine running as he jumped out the drivers seat and watched the women draw near. “Miss Morris?” He asked the small blonde.

Nikki smiled, “That would be me.”

“So were do you want me to take these.” He patted the vehicle gently, indicating the two horses inside.

Tess stepped forward and pointed to the side of the house, “Can you back up through there?” She asked the young man, wondering why he was looking at her so intently.

CJ blinked, so you’re the one who smashed up my brothers’ nose, he thought. “Sure can.” He replied, and climbed back into the trailer.

The women moved back slightly as CJ steered the vehicle around to the side of the house as instructed, and backed up to the stables now in sight but on the other side of a large wooden gate. Tess followed closely behind, ready to open the gates for Thunder and Jenna to enter. The gentle nickering of the two animals filtered through the air, and Nikki smiled glad to get her two companions back. When the trailer came to a halt, Hyacinth led Nikki around to the side of the house.

CJ jumped out of his seat and headed around to the back of the compartment. Unlatching the lock, he opened the back pulling down the ramp for the horses to exit their confines. Tess stood back, leaning against the wide gate as she watched the expression of joy on Nikki’s face as the first beast was led down the ramp. She smiled to herself, a warm feeling surrounding her as she gazed at the unrestrained delight on the blondes face.

Nikki approached the first horse, instantly recognising the sound of hoofs against the cement drive way. “Jenna honey…how is my beautiful girl?” She pushed her hand across the large body, feeling the swelling of the golden mares pregnancy and impending birth. “Not long to go now hey baby?”

Tess pushed herself off the gate and proceeded to open the latch, “Hey I thought you called me honey!”

The blonde smirked, “It’s a term of endearment used for all my loved ones.”

CJ listened quietly to the women’s banter with a frown. He looked over to the tall dark woman who held an unguarded expression of tenderness with this short blonde, and could not figure her to be the same woman who had managed to get one over his brother at the Gallowtree shopping centre. Secretly watching the pair, he led Thunder down the ramp and up to Nikki who was waiting for the stallion.

Thunder nickered happily as he was greeted by the blonde offering the usual petting and apple half. The large creature took the piece of fruit off her hand with delicacy and munched on it happily.

“I’m so pleased to have you both back with me.” Nikki stated.

Hyacinth watched quietly until she could stand it no longer, “Okay I have waited long enough, can I please pet your horses now…I am just dying to meet them.”

Tess rolled her eyes and Nikki chucked as she turned to the woman, “Hyacinth it is my greatest pleasure to introduce my two babies…Jenna, who is to give birth very soon…and Thunder, the proud father.”

The old woman stepped forward, “Is he okay to stroke?” She asked Nikki.

With a nod the blonde pushed her hand over the stallions body, “Yes he is fine, Thunder here has quite an easy temperament. His last owners mistreated him, which is very sad because he has such a gentle nature really.”

Hyacinth nodded as she stroked the horses nose, “Well hello there handsome.”

Thunder nickered and gently nudged the woman causing her to chuckle at the large animals antics, “Does that mean he likes me?”

“Well you see that is the thing.” Nikki started, “Thunder is a great judge of character, he can always tell the nature of a person…no matter how hard they may try to hide it,” she prodded Tess whom she could feel standing behind her.

The tall woman looked down wearing a clueless expression, “What does that mean?”

“Just that Thunder doesn’t take any notice of the fronts most people wear…like those who can be aloof and stoic in nature,” she prodded Tess’s stomach again. “He can see the person inside…and if he didn’t like or trust a person, you would know it.” Nikki smiled ruefully, “I guess that is why he never went near my mother.”

Tess put her hand reassuringly on Nikki’s back and kissed the top of the blonde head.

“Well…” CJ closed the back of the trailer and turned around to the women, “I guess I am done so I will be off.” He looked intently at Tess, “I’ll be seeing you.” He stated and turned, heading back to the drivers side of the truck, where he jumped in and drove swiftly away.

Hyacinth watched him leave, “Strange young man.” She commented.

“Hmm.” Tess agreed as the trailer disappeared out of sight. She turned back to the blonde with her horses, “Well shall we go and introduce these two to their new home?”

“Lead the way.” Nikki exclaimed, and together they familiarised the two ‘happy to be back with their owner’ horses around their new residence.

*******

Waiting half a mile up the road and hidden in a crop of thorny bushes, Bradley White stood patiently waiting for his brother. He had exited the trailer as his brother delivered the horses, knowing that his face, though now slightly altered, would still be recognised by at least one of the women.

Hearing the recognisable engine of his brothers’ work vehicle he emerged from the undergrowth just in time to spot two women heading down the road. He nodded at them politely and turned away, anxious to get away from their curious eyes.

CJ spotted his brother and pulled to a halt at the side of the dirt track. Bradley jumped into the passenger side of the truck, and the vehicle headed off down the road.

“Well?” Bradley asked.

CJ looked at his brother; “You are sure that is the woman who put you in hospital?”

“Don’t ask stupid questions.” He growled, “Just tell me.”

The younger brother clenched his jaw, “Err…okay. Well I think I am in there. The blondes sister will be easy, and through her we can get to the other women, no problem.”

Bradley turned back to the road with a smile, “Perfect.”

*******

Tess opened the boot of the blazer. It had taken her a while, but she had finally remembered Andrew Spencer’s call and had called him back to ask what he had wanted ‘so damned early in the morning’.

The man, who completely ignored Tess’s grousing, informed her that she had to get her shots to him today, in order help the exhibition be ready in time. So, she had no choice but to get down to the studio and collect the work she intended putting on show Tuesday night.

Tess picked up the only picture that she had kept at home. It was the one she had taken of Nikki out with Leto in the forest the day before Christmas. She hadn’t intended on doing anything with the shot, but after seeing the picture it struck a cord deep within her and she just had to show it. There was something so eye catching about the sight. It was Nikki walking in the distance, cane in one hand, Leto and stick in the other. They were surrounded by the overwhelming presence of looming trees and fallen snow. To her it symbolised a portrayal of both visual delicacy and inner strength.

Placing the wrapped image in the back compartment of the vehicle, Tess made sure it was secure before closing the boot, instantly locking it shut.

“Hello again.”

Tess looked across to the bridge where she saw her neighbour Kate, crossing the wooden structure, another woman by her side.

“Not come at a bad time have we…you appear to be going out?”

She headed towards the approaching women, “Hi Kate, no not a bad time. Well I have to go out, but Nik and my mother are inside. Is this about the house keeper?”

The woman nodded and turned to the woman by her side, “Tess I would like you to meet Sam.”

Tess looked at the medium height woman with long auburn hair, slowly recognition began to sink in and she blinked in surprise. “Oh!” was all she said.

Sam held out her hand with a friendly smile, “Hello Tess, pleased to meet you, I’ve already heard about you and your effervescent little hound.”

The photographer smirked, “Yep Leto does tend to make an impression on the people she meets, that’s for sure.” She looked at the house then back to the women, “Well I have to nip into work in a few moments, but you can talk with Nik about the house keeper.”

The visitors nodded so Tess led them to the house, “I apologise in advance if you stumble over the odd box, we pretty much have all the furniture sorted, but there are still the basics to put away. The trials and tribulations of moving house, I hope I never have to go through this again, that’s for damned sure.”

Sam and Kate looked at each other knowingly, “Oh believe me.” Sam said, “We know all about that, we have moved many…many times over the years.”

Tess opened the front door and looked back at the two women stunned, “Wow…how so?”

“Work.” Kate shrugged, “We both used to serve in the armed forces, the army actually, so tended to get sent here there and everywhere.”

Dark eyebrows disappeared under equally dark hair in surprise, “The Army! And um…I mean…were you both together then?” Tess stopped in the hallway as she waited for an answer.

It was Kate who spoke, “Yes in a way, whenever we could be I suppose…it was hard, very hard at times but we got through it. As you may have heard or seen on the TV, relationships like ours were not really tolerated, and investigation departments were set up in order to route people out.”

Tess nodded, “Yeah I saw a program on the TV once, based on a true story.” She frowned, “So when did you both leave the forces?”

“Five years ago.” Sam announced, “Not at the same time, but within five months of each other. Then we brought the house across from this one and we have been there ever since. Never to move again we hope.”

The women’s conversation stopped as they heard the recognisable sound of the back door shutting, the sound echoing through the half furnished house. Tess turned to her visitors; “Well I think that sounds like Nikki coming back from settling in her horses.” Leading the way, Tess directed the women into the kitchen to await Nikki’s arrival. She knew that the blonde would be pulling off her outer clothes by the door.

*******

Nikki braced herself against the wall as she pushed off her boots, then lifted the large fleecy jacket she was wearing over her head, placing it on a near by table. She knew Tess was to fix a coat rack by the door, but hadn’t had time to do it as yet, and with Hyacinth still out with the horses, she wasn’t sure where she was to put her things. Nikki knew she didn’t want to trek her possibly muddy boots over the floor, and she was aware that she had trudged over a stretch of sludgy land.

Clad in her light blue tee shirt, jeans and black socks she reached out for her cane. Nikki had asked Tess to place it on the table for her return from the stables. She didn’t think the photographer would still be there, as she had already presumed the woman would be on her way to the studio by now.

Finding the cane where she expected it to be, Nikki snapped it into place and headed trough the house. She intended on calling her sister, but as she neared the kitchen the blonde became aware of at least two voices, one of them, Tess’s. Frowning she entered the kitchen, “Tess?”

Seeing her lover enter the room, Tess jumped up and approached the small woman, “Hey I bet you didn’t expect me to still be here…we have visitors.”

“Oh?” Nikki grinned.

Standing by the blondes left side, Tess put her arm around slim shoulders and drew her towards their neighbours. “Nikki…this is Kate and Sam our neighbours.” Nikki held out her hand as each woman shook it and introduced them selves. “…Kate and Sam, this is Nikki…my other half.” She smirked at the slight surprised look on the women’s faces.

After initial introductions the four women fell into an easy rhythm of light conversation. Nikki led the discussion, questioning the women about themselves and the area. She was pleased to find that there was a recently built sports centre a few miles away, and internally made a note to drag Tess down when they had the time. Swimming was an enjoyable past time of hers but one she wasn’t able to partake in often due to her mothers somewhat over protective nature when it came to public or crowded places.

Ten minutes after the blondes’ appearance, Hyacinth appeared and Tess decided it was time for her to get to the studio. So after making a quick apology about running out on women, she left for Snap Shots.

After Tess made her exit, Hyacinth decided to make drinks and they all moved to the comfort of the living room. Nikki led the way, and sat in a single chair facing the visitors.

Kate looked thoughtfully at Nikki, “Tess mentioned having to get to the studio, could I ask what she does for a living…is she an artist of some form?”

“Of course.” Nikki beamed, happy to discuss her favourite topic…Tess. “She is a photographer, does a lot of freelance work, but she also works at…”

“Snap Shots!” Kate finished.

The blonde grinned, “That’s right.”

“Well well, I don’t believe it.” Kate looked at her partner stunned, “All this time I thought she looked familiar and it turns out she is the Tess Alexander. Why I saw her on the television last year, there was a news article about an exhibition in the city, and she was the main attraction…who would have guessed.”

Nikki smiled proudly, “Yep that’s my Tess, and actually the reason she had to leave today is because of finalisations for the ‘modern arts exhibit’ at the city gallery next week.”

Hyacinth walked in with fresh tea and biscuits that she had baked the night before. She placed the tray on the coffee table as Kate spoke, “I was just saying to Nikki, I thought I recognised your daughter when I saw her yesterday but couldn’t place it. When I mentioned this to her she stated that she just had one of those faces.”

The old woman laughed, “Oh that’s typical of my daughter. You know considering the occupation that she is in, she really doesn’t like any form of personal publicity. When she came down to visit me in Cornwall last year, she was stopped by a couple that asked whether she was whom she indeed was. And do you know what her response was?”

“Do I want to know?” Kate asked.

Hyacinth laughed, “Oh it wasn’t bad really. She made a little bit of a scene about hating the fact that people thought she was this Tess Alexander, and how personally she hated the woman’s work, and thought it both unimaginative and trite.”

Kate stifled a laugh; “Oh those poor people.”

“Hardly.” Hyacinth spouted, “They were quick to jump to her defence, and told my daughter off good and proper. They also said she obviously didn’t have an artistic bone in her body…and that Tess Alexander was a true visionary of the photographic arts…then left!”

Nikki laughed out loud, “Oh jeez, and what did she say to that?” She asked, curious as to how Tess would have reacted to such an outburst.

The woman frowned bemused, “Actually, she didn’t say anything. She gave me a mysterious smile, winked…then strolled off down the beach. But I did notice her shoulders move as she chuckled silently to herself.”

The blonde shook her head, “Oh yes that sounds like Tess alright.”

*******

The dark green Blazer pulled into the car park behind the Snap Shots building and Tess switched off the engine. With a content sigh she opened the door and long legs exited the vehicle. Pushing hands in the pockets of her khaki combat trousers she headed off towards the employees’ entrance.

The familiar but distant aroma of coffee invaded her senses, and Tess breathed in deep, revelling in the customary scent. It was true, she thought, that certain smells are able to trigger the brain in to remembering certain events in ones life. For her, the fresh smell of coffee always made her remember the first time she entered the Snap Shots building. The aroma of lilacs always conjured up images of her grandmother, and the smell of natural wood now reminded her of the first time she held Nikki in her arms. She smiled slightly to herself as she entered main reception.

Upon entering she saw a familiar sight that always meant trouble. Kat and Jason sat with their heads together, obviously engaging in some form of scandalous gossiping. She shook her head. Keeping her expression neutral, and folding her arms Tess approached the duo, “So tell me, have either of you actually done any work today or have you both been too busy prattling to even bother?”

They looked up surprised, but it was Jason who was the first to speak, “Well hell, if it isn’t the woman of luxury. Enjoying your time off?”

Tess playfully scowled, “There is no time for luxury when moving house Jason.”

“So.” Kat interjected, “How is the new house, how was the move, how are you settling in, and when are you going to invite us all around for a house warming party?”

Tall woman rolled her eyes, “Fine, fine, fine…and when hell freezes over…how’s that?”

“What no party?” The blonde asked dejected.

Pursing her lips the photographer narrowed her eyes, “I’ll think about it.” She looked around the room briefly before turning back to the duo, “But if you will excuse me, I have some things to collect and have to get going.” She turned to exit the main reception.

“Ask her,” came the sudden whisper.

Tess stopped and turned around to see Jason prodding Kat in the ribs. The woman shook her head vigorously and moved out of the way, shooting eye daggers at the receptionist.

“What?” She asked.

The pair stared, their eyes boring holes in the others. “It’s nothing.” Kat stated, shaking her head at the receptionists’ behaviour.

Tess glared, “Doesn’t seem like nothing to me.”

Jason looked poignantly at Kat, “It was you who asked the question in the first place girl…now you have the perfect person to ask and you go chicken.” He closed his eyes, shaking his head with faux disappointment.

“Ask…me…what?”

“Nothing.”

The receptionist sighed dramatically, “Oh for crying out loud, I will ask her.”

“It was something that I saw in a film and wondered whether it was true.” Kat stated knowing there was no way Jason was not going to stop from asking the question he himself admitted to being intrigued about.

Tess looked at the digital readout on her wrist, indicating she wasn’t into time wasting. The watch was one of Nikki’s, and had an audio time feature. She had taken to wearing it so the blonde would always have at least one watch at hand if she ever wanted the time of day.

Jason smirked, “Well it’s like this. You see, Kat was watching this film…one that Jake and I rented out a while ago…anyway; part of the story line included this blind woman getting into a relationship with a copper. And we were both wondering whether it was true what was said in the film…that blind people make incredible lovers because like…the sensitivity and touch perception is increased?”

The brunette was silent as she tried valiantly to stop the upturn on her lips, “That’s it?”

They both nodded mutely.

Pulling the corner of her bottom lip between white teeth, Tess smirked and turned to leave the room. She stopped again and spun around at the sound of Kats exasperated sigh.

“What…and you aren’t going to answer?” She asked.

Tess looked back at her colleagues and shook her head, “Guys, do you really expect me too?”

Jason shrugged, “You know I’d tell you anything you wanted to know.”

“Uh huh.” Tess nodded her head with a grimace and left the room.

Jason watched her leave, “She is just way too mean…I always give her juicy bits of gossip.”

Kat shook her head, “Yeah but she never asks does she, you always get that way after a heavy night.” The blonde photographer elbowed the younger man, “I told you not to say anything; one day you may just listen to the voice of reason.”

“Oww!” Jason rubbed his side with a pout, “Voice of reason maybe…actual physical harm…not fair.” He lifted his shirt with a look of concern, “Am I bleeding?” He winced.

Kat sighed and strolled away, “Men!”

*******

The room had been left untouched for only four days, yet already Tess felt that there was enough dust on her equipment to cause a whole new strain of allergies within her system. It was bad enough that she had hay fever during the summer and would suffer streaming eyes and nose for a couple of days…at least until her medication kicked in. But this was just amazing. Okay…so she would be the first to admit, that she has personally scared the companies cleaner so much about the consequences of accidental breakage that the poor woman refused to even enter the photographers’ studio. Still she didn’t expect the room to look like she had been away for weeks. Maybe that was a slight exaggeration, she thought, but it was still bloody dusty.

Intent on searching through her latest works, Tess headed towards a small back room in which she stored all her personal shots. She opened the door, and turned on the overhead diffused lighting, instantly illuminating the room in a bright white glow. Stepping inside, Tess set about choosing her works for the exhibition.

*******

Lisa Morris had decided to stay in home all day on the off chance that she may get a call from CJ. Having refused a shopping expedition with her friends, she had opted instead for cleaning her room…a monumental shock to both male inhabitants of the Morris household. She just couldn’t believe that a good looking guy like CJ would ask her out on a date, but there was no way she was going to miss the possibility that he may indeed ring her.

So all day she was waiting, and as every hour passed she got a little more disheartened, that was until the main line of the house rang again for the eighth time that day and she ran to the stairs intent on listening to whom it may be. As usual, it was James who answered the phone, “Good evening…this is the Morris household how can I help you?” Lisa hung over the banister as she listened to James’s quick conversation, and when her name was called she casually, but a little swiftly made her way down stairs.

The teen was more than a little happy to find that it was indeed CJ, and together they made plans for him to pick her up Sunday at three o’clock, to catch an afternoon showing at the cinema. He was aware that Lisa had college on Monday and didn’t want to get her home too late.

When their conversation was over, Lisa hung up, but quickly lifted the receiver again intent on ringing her sister to tell her the news…after all she herself had met the guy as well.

*******

Sam and Kate had been gone for half an hour, and Nikki stood in the kitchen washing up their dishes. Carefully she lifted each item in turn and thoroughly scrubbed the crockery making sure she removed every single mark. Washing the pots was something else she never got to do at home, mostly because she was told that was why they had both hired help and a dishwasher, but Nikki actually found it quite a relaxing chore. Plus she loved immersing her hands in the nice hot water.

As the blonde lifted the last cup from the water and placed it on the draining board, she was startled out of her reveries by the phone ringing. Sighing at the bad timing, she shook off her hands and reached out for the hand towel. Nikki grumbled in exasperation when it wasn’t in its place, and felt around for the missing object. She soon came across the item, as she happened to stand on it, and bent down to retrieve towel when she heard Hyacinth answer the phone. A few seconds later the woman came into the kitchen, “Nikki dear, it’s Lisa for you.”

“Oh thanks Cinthy.” She replied as she hung the towel back in its designated place and wandered into the hallway. Knowing exactly where the phones hand set should be she reached out and found purchase of the receiver, placing it by her ear, “Hi Lisa, what’s happening?”

“You’ll never guess what!” Came the disembodied voice.

“Probably not so why don’t you tell me.”

Lisa sighed, “You know the two guys who delivered the horses this morning?”

Nikki thought for a moment, “No there was only one guy this morning.”

“How can that be…two guys came here to pick up Thunder and Jenna…they were brothers,” Lisa commented. “Anyway, guess what.”

The blonde rolled her eyes, knowing Lisa and where this would lead, “What…and don’t tell me to guess…just tell me what you seem so excited about okay.”

“God you are no fun. Anyway CJ the younger of the two brothers, he asked me out tomorrow…we are going to the cinema.”

“Hmm…which one was CJ then. Hyacinth described the guy who came here to have bleached blonde hair and to be quite ‘dashing’.”

“That’s him…that’s him…so what did you think?”

Nikki shrugged, “I don’t know, he didn’t really say a whole lot, but he seemed okay I guess.”

“Oh he is.” Lisa gushed, “And he is so gorgeous…I can’t wait.”

She may not have wanted to sound matriarchal, but she felt the need to instil a little caution in her sister, “Well just remember, he may be gorgeous be you don’t know him…if you want to go out with him remember be careful, stay in public places and…well…just be careful okay?”

“I will, I will, god sis, don’t go putting a downer on this already.”

“Hey I’m not trying to do that I was just…”

“Yeah I know…looking out for me. Thank you, but I have a good feeling about CJ, I like him, and his has lovely big brown, friendly eyes.”

Nikki shook her head; “Fine well have a lovely time tomorrow then.”

“I will.” Lisa remarked, “I’ll call you when I get back.”

“Yeah you do that Lisa…bye.”

“Bye.”

Nikki hung up the phone, “Kids.” She said and chuckled to herself, deciding to make a mental note to ask Tess what she thought of CJ, when she returned home.

*******

Tess mounted the wide rising of stone steps that led to the entrance of the city gallery. There were thirty grey stone steps in all, with handrails on both sides and one in the middle. To the right side there was a chair ramp, that Richard Morris had proposed and had built the year before, as he wanted the gallery to be as accessible as possible.

As she reached the top step, Tess pulled open the large glass door and walked into the foyer of the building. The room was large and covered with original prints and paintings of local artists of all ages. The floor was a tiled grey, and her booted feet echoed over the cold ground as she approached the reception, a circular structure that stood in the centre of the foyer.

Along the three remaining walls was a selection of glass doors, each leading off to a different section of the building. Photographic art, paintings, sculptures, the showing room for when the gallery was given a high profile piece on loan and a room which told the history artistry from stone age times, antiquity, the birth of the Renaissance, to modern day.

Tess loved this place, and on many lunch breaks her aimless ambles around the city would often end outside the glass doors of this huge building.

Stopping at the main desk, Tess spotted a familiar face. It was Tracey, the young woman who had worked the information desk now for almost four years. “Hey Trace, how’s things.”

The mousy blonde smiled at the tall woman, “Been just great Tess thanks for asking…you? Andrew tells me you moved house.”

“Yep…and everything is fine. So is the boss in?”

Tracey looked towards the ‘History of Art’ room. “He sure is, I saw him disappear down there not ten minutes ago…I bet that’s where you will find him.”

Tess grinned, “Thanks Trace…catch you later.” She turned towards the last known place Andrew had been spotted and went in search of her college friend.

Entering the main door Tess started her search at the beginning of man. Walking through the carefully constructed caves she passed a group of waxwork cave men busy finger painting the walls. The human forms were all works of Madam Tussaud’s, and served as a popular attraction especially with the galleries younger visitors.

The photographer carried on her search for Andrew and soon found herself in the history of classical art. Images of the early Greeks and Romans, creating mosaics, statues of gods and such fine pieces of works, that Tess found utterly fascinating. By the time the brunette reached the Renaissance section she was beginning to wonder whether the guy was actually in this part of the gallery at all. With an internal growl she decided to finish her search before checking his office.

“Heads up!”

Tess shot a look to her left in time to see a hurling projectile of used packing tape heading towards her. Easily catching the sticky ball, she gave a stern look to the man with a large black marker pen hanging out of his mouth.

“Andrew I might have known.”

The tall man laughed and pulled the bulky pen from his hips, “Tess you were always good at catching balls, but damn hopeless at kicking them.”

The photographer threw the ball of tape at the black haired man, and it stuck to his colourful Simpsons tie. “And you always had a rather un-natural interest in gut wrenching, headache causing multicoloured ties from hell.”

The man looked down at the portrayal of Homer Simpson in his underwear, “What you don’t like it? I thought it was funny.” He pulled the tape from his chest.

“You would.” Tess approached her old friend who stood four inches taller than her and pulled on the visually offending neck garment, “It certainly wasn’t a female admirer who brought you that, I am sure.”

“Actually no, my latest seems to think that a man in my position should wear boring stripy ones or ones that have those ugly paisley patterns.” He snorted, “Fat chance, not even for my bleeding funeral thank you…I do have some taste.”

Tess arched an eyebrow, “Questionable in standard, but true. Anyway less of this chit chat.” She looked around at the illustrations of Leonardo da Vinci’s work. “I am sure you know why I am here…I’ve got my stuff in the back of my car.”

Andrew’s eyes bulged, “Tess! Don’t tell me that you have just dumped your latest works in that bloody heap of yours. Where’s the pride, you should have called and I could have sent a transit round to pick them up.” His face was a portrayal of pure horror, causing Tess to smile.

“Don’t sweat it Andy, one…I have a new car now, two…they are not just dumped in, and three…I individually wrapped each on in cushioned packing material to keep them safe. I had to set down the back passenger chairs in the Blazer to get them in though, two of them are rather large canvases.”

The man visibly sighed, “Well good, you had me worried there for a moment.” He placed a hand on his brow and shook his head, “Shall we go and get them?”

“Age before beauty.” Tess remarked, as she followed the tall man back to the main foyer.

*******

It was almost seven o’clock in the evening by the time Tess returned home, and as she pulled into the driveway the beaming ray of the security light shone down on her.

Heading through the front door, she was not in the least bit surprised to find herself pinned up against the wall as Leto traditionally greeted her home. “Hiya ‘tow tow’ baby you missed mummy?” She slid down the wall and allowed the dog a few moments of indulgence. Squirming her face away from the pooches’ insistent tongue, she looked up to see Nikki descending the stairs. The blonde was already dressed for bed, wearing one of the photographers oversized rugby tee shirts and black sweats. Tess smiled and pushed to her feet, “Cold?” She asked as Nikki reached the bottom step.

“Tis a bit chilly this evening.” The small woman answered, and held out her hand for Tess. The brunette took the small appendage and together they walked into the living room.

Tess sat down on the single chair and pulled Nikki into her lap. Nikki sat slightly to the side and wrapped her left arm around the photographers shoulder. They sat that way for some minutes in content silence, just relaxing in the comfort of each other. Nikki was the first to break the quiet, “How did it go at the gallery?”

“Fine.” Tess commented, “I got the prints there and together with Andrew we got them put up in my little part of the exhibition room. It’s going to be quite a night by the looks of things.”

Nikki wiggled excitedly in Tess’s lap, “Great I can’t wait for Tuesday.”

Tess shook her head with a smile as she turned the blonde towards her and placed a gently kiss on cherry flavoured lips. “Mmm, lip balm…my favourite.” The kissed them again, “So how did things go with our new neighbours, did they give you the information on where we could look for a house keeper?”

“Oh they did more than that.” Nikki beamed, “They are such nice people, and ended up staying for about two hours…we just talked about all sorts.”

“And the house keeper?”

“Oh yeah, well it seems that Sam was actually looking for that kind of work and if her cooking is anything to go by then she is as good as hired. I said I would discuss it with you first, but knew you would be okay with that.”

Tess looked surprised, “Sam huh? And yes if she can cook as good as she can bake cakes then I think we have our first employee.” She nodded, “Well that’s the house keeper sorted, now all we need are the stable hands right?”

“Uh huh.”

Their conversation stopped as the sound of descending footsteps floated into the front room. Tess looked up to see her mother enter and her mouth dropped. The woman was wearing a simple but elegant long blue dress with a string of cultured pearls around her neck. Tess looked at her mother in shock, “You look nice…going out somewhere?”

Hyacinth smiled, “Thank you dear, and yes I am going out. James offered to take me to dinner this evening.”

“James Abbot?” Tess asked looking briefly at her lover.

“Of course dear, I don’t know that many people around up here you know.”

“Oh!” Tess fidgeted in her seat, “What time are you…” She stopped when the outside security light came on. “I guess that would be him then.”

The doorbell sounded and Hyacinth went to answer as Tess gently eased out of her seat, depositing Nikki on the warm cushion. “What’s wrong?” The blonde asked.

“Nothing, just checking to make sure she leaves okay.”

Nikki rolled her eyes at Tess’s behaviour; she knew what the brunette was up to.

Out in the hallway, James Abbot was helping Hyacinth on with her coat. He looked up to see Tess exit the living room. “Miss Tess, nice to see you again, how are you?”

“Fine.” She replied evenly, “You?”

“Oh I am wonderful.”

“That’s great…so…where are you taking my mother this evening James?”

The butler looked at his date for the evening and smiled, “Well actually it is a surprise.”

“I see.” She looked at her mother, “Well I hope you have a good time mother, and I shall see you when you get back.”

Hyacinth looked at her daughter, hiding her perceptive smile, “Tessa honey you don’t have to wait up.”

Tess shrugged, “I am not really tired yet anyway, there was a film I wanted to watch on TV tonight …so no problem, I shall see you later okay.” Her expression was one of forced innocence.

“Yes dear…see you later.” With a smile and shake of her head, Hyacinth and James left the house, the old man waving to Tess and shouting a quick good bye to Nikki, as he was unsure as to where she was at the time.

When the door shut and Tess turned around she noticed Nikki standing by the entrance of the living room. The look on the blondes face was one of mild amusement. “Tess what was all that about. You are not really going to wait up for them are you?”

Tess shrugged “Might do, I’m not tired and I want to make sure she comes home safely.”

“Tess this isn’t about the fact that your mother may in fact start a relationship with James is it?”

Looking at the floor the tall woman sighed, “I just don’t know how I feel about another man taking my mum out. Yes I know James is a decent guy, but I feel weird about the fact that she is with someone other than my father, even though I know that isn’t possible. I know it isn’t really like cheating, but…” She shrugged again.

Nikki moved towards her lover and wrapped her arms around the tall body, longer arms followed suit, “Look honey, it is only dinner, it may not mean anything…just two new friends who enjoy each others company…there really isn’t much point in jumping to conclusions.” She placed her head between the valley of the taller woman’s breasts and closed her eyes.

Tess lay her cheek upon the blonde head, “I know, you’re right.” She sighed, “So do you want to have something to eat, we could order pizza?” She asked hopefully.

Nikki shook her head, “No I’m actually a little tired, and I was going to lay down for a while maybe have an early night.”

“Oh…are you okay?” Tess felt a sudden concern.

“Yeah fine, must have been all the time spent outdoors today” she yawned, “Or all the hectic last few days finally catching up with me.”

Tess leaned forward and kissed soft lips, “Okay, well in that case I will see you in a little while, I’ll just have something to eat and come to keep you company.” She kissed her again, and then watched as the blonde disappeared upstairs.

*******

Having found nothing she could zap in the microwave, and no bread for a sandwich, Tess decided on a pizza after all. And an hour later the half eaten remains of the heavily topped meal lay on the coffee table in front of her.

Tess was sitting sideway on the single sofa, her back against one arm and her legs dangling over the other, watching an old black and white horror. She would occasionally chuckle at the poor effects and wonder how on earth people could have been so easily impressed by such things back then. The ringing of the phone interrupted her musings, and not wanting it to wake Nikki she dived out of her chair to answer the shrilling object.

“Hello?”

“Oh hello, I was wondering whether I could speak to a Miss Nicole Morris…I was given this number by her father.”

Tess frowned at the unrecognisable voice, “Nikki is in bed right now could I take a message?”

“If you could that would be great. Could you please tell her that Doctor Jacobson called, regarding our conversation last year…I wanted to know whether she has changed her mind about the surgical procedure I proposed and could she please get in touch with me so we can discuss this matter further.”

“Surgery?” Tess frowned, “Um okay sure…I will get that message to her as soon as possible.”

“Thank you…good bye.”

“Bye.” Tess put down the receiver with a confused look. Nikki never mentioned having surgery, she thought, what’s going on?
4
Rosalind Morris entered the foyer of the Charnwood Hotel Sunday morning and made her way to main reception. She had left her brothers’ house incredibly early that morning in order to get back to her hometown by nine o’clock. Approaching reception the small woman gave her name and was give the room she had booked the day before.

It had been a quick but sudden decision to go back home, and one she had come to only minutes before she made her booking with the Charnwood hotel. Two months was a long time to have been away, much longer than expected, but she had finally come up with a plan that would, she decided, get her daughter away from that Alexander woman once and for all. It was a simple notion really, and one the Mayoress thought she should have come upon sooner.

Checking into reception, she accepted the key for a first floor room and head off towards the stairs, not being a fan of lifts. In a few days time, she was to make her appearance known to the rest of her family, and put her plan into action. Rosalind wanted the element of surprise definitely in her favour.

*******

Tess awoke Sunday morning to an empty bed. She looked to the digital clock on the bedside table and was surprised to find that it had gone nine o’clock. Looking around and listening to near by sounds, she couldn’t see or hear any sign of Nikki, though the blonde’s night clothes from the day before lay across the bottom of the bed.

Letting her head fall back to the pillows Tess yawned as she recalled the phone call from the night before. What was his name? She thought, Doctor Jacobson wanting Nikki to call him about a surgical procedure they had previously discussed. Nikki had never mentioned this to her before, in fact Tess couldn’t recall Nikki ever mentioning any thing about a Doctor Jacobson

Deciding it was time to talk to the blonde, Tess pulled her long frame out of the bed and dragged her still sleepy body towards the shower. She could have done with few more hours she realised, after spending half the night laying in bed wondering who Doctor Jacobson was, she hadn’t actually had much sleep at all. The photographer had even heard her mother return home at a quarter past eleven and had debated going to talk to her, but then decided against it and had spent the rest on the night thinking.

Entering the bathroom, Tess pulled off her tee shirt and stared at her tussled reflection in the mirror. Slight dark circles rimmed her glazed eyes, and she sighed at the image. Why she had worried over this so much last night was beyond her, all she had to do was ask the blonde, and she knew she would have received her answer. But it was those words, surgical procedure… closely related to hospitals and in her mind so closely related to death and the loss of somebody she loves. Tess let her hands fall to the rim of the sink, head lowered and brows drawn together in thought. A tight feeling of fear coiled in her gut, almost painful in its presence. Shaking her head she looked back into the mirror, “Come on T, you are letting your fear get a grip on you again…snap out of it.” She told herself, and with that she turned away from the reflection, deciding she should really just go get ready and give Nikki her message.

*******

Leto lay on her stomach, paws stretched out and crossed at the end, her muzzle nestled snugly in-between. She was lying through the side doorway to the kitchen, and from a distance, seemingly sleeping. But amber eyes were open and alert as she stealthily tracked the progress of one decent sized black spider as it made its way down the wall. The eyes moved with hidden intent as the eight-legged creature came closer and closer to the kitchen floor.

Hyacinth entered the kitchen through the main door and walked through the room slowly. From the corner of her eye she spotted the golden mutt and turned to give the dog some attention. She stopped curiously as she noticed the pre-occupied look in her eyes, and turned to see what the hound was looking at. An amused smile graced her lips as she spotted the source of the dogs’ attention.

From the hall way Hyacinth heard the definite sounds of her daughters booted feet making their way down the stairs, and she decided to have a little fun. “Tess dear, quick come here.” A moment later the photographer entered the kitchen looking at her mother in question. “Come and have a look at this will you.”

By this time Leto had pulled herself up and was now close to the wall watching as the spider neared her nose. Tess approached the scene with intrigue, but it soon faded. Her eyes turned to saucers as she leapt back a foot, “Ho Jesus a spider…mum get her away from it…quick.” Her voice had raised an octave in alarm.

Hyacinth rolled her eyes, “Tessa just because you are afraid of spiders doesn’t mean that we all are.”

“I am not afraid.” The woman insisted, “I just have a healthy respect for distance around them. Eerie little things…get her away…she might eat it.” Tess hovered back and forth wearily watching the dog and eight-legged creature.

Leto tracked the spider as it completed it’s journey to the floor and proceeded to nudge the creepy crawly with her nose, pushing it along the tiled floor.

“Leto…leave it. Mother if she eats that thing I will never want her near me again…god that is so disgusting.” Tess’s eyes widened in horror, “Oh my god it’s on her nose.” The usually reserved woman shuddered, “Ugh, how can she stand it,” she uttered in disbelief. Leto shook her head suddenly, catapulting the black creature across the kitchen. It landed on Nikki who had just entered the doorway, wondering what all the commotion was about. The brunette stood routed to her spot, and stared in horror at her lover, “Nikki don’t move.”

The blonde frowned, “Why?”

“Nikki dear.” Hyacinth started, “A projectile spider has just landed on your sweater. Between your um…breasts.”

Wincing Tess looked away to the golden dog that was licking her lips, “That… was… not… food… Leto.” The photographer scolded the hound.

Frowning Nikki lightly fingered her chest until she came into contact with the black creature. Much to Tess’s horror the woman watched as Nikki grabbed the spider and held it in her hand, “Hold on a moment.” She disappeared off to the front door where she gently placed the scurrying creature onto the ground before re-shutting the entrance and making her way back into the kitchen.

Tess’s face scrunched in revulsion, “Ugh how can you touch those things, that tickling feeling when one walks upon you.” She shuddered at the thought.

“Oh I like that tickling feeling, it’s funny.” She scrunched up her nose, “I like spiders they are so cute and wriggly.”

Hyacinth continued to smile at the look on her daughters face.

“When I was fourteen my dad let me have a tarantula.” Nikki smiled, “I called him Fuzz, because he had such a fury body. I only had him six months before he was taken away though.”

“What happened?” asked the older woman, knowing her daughter wouldn’t really want to know. Tess had always held a natural dislike for the tiny creatures ever since she was little. She would say it was the thought of one being on her and her not knowing about it that made her shudder, it was the same with any insect. Hyacinth could recall many times throughout Tess’s childhood when she had walked into a room and found empty drinks glasses, upside down with little creatures trapped inside. Tess would catch the bugs, but refused to transport them outside the confines of the house.

Nikki laughed, “Hmm…what happened. Well let’s just say that it took Fuzz six months before he tried his first break out. I didn’t realise this at the time of course…that was until I heard the screams.”

Hyacinths eyes glowed in interest, “Screams?”

The blonde snickered, “Yeah turns out Fuzz had taken a little tour of the house and had…in his meanderings wandered into my mothers room. Well she had a surprise one morning when she got up and found this big fury thing playing happily in her drawer…the one that she kept her underwear in!”

Tess couldn’t help it, even she had to laugh at that, just the thought of old Fuzz scaring Rosalind like that was enough for her to allow spiders a little more respect. “Oh…maybe spiders aren’t so bad…especially tarantulas, I mean at least you can see them approaching on the floor…kind of hard to miss.”

“So do you want to get one?” The blonde asked with faux sincerity, as she fully entered the kitchen and sat down at the pine table.

Tess followed suit, “Um let me think about that for a while…err nope, I don’t think so,” she deadpanned.

Nikki pouted, “Spoil sport.”

The photographer shrugged, “What can I say…the only thing I like in my underwear is me thank you very much.”

“Hey what about…”

“Well I think I should go and get my bag packed, I will be going home later today and don’t want to leave it for the last minute.” Hyacinth stated as she excited the room swiftly. Knowing the two of them as she did, she was pretty sure she knew where their conversation was about to lead.

Tess watched the retreating form of her mother, “I think you just scared her off!”

Nikki gasped in surprise and smirked, “Moi…hey can I just say that it was completely obvious where you wanted that statement to lead… I know you too well Miss Tess.”

“Uh huh.” Tess leaned forward picking up Nikki’s hand, the one that hadn’t recently just held the spider, and kissed the knuckles. The phone call from the night before instantly came to mind. “Hey you had a phone call last night.”

“Yeah, who was it?” The blonde asked happily.

“A Doctor Jacobson.” Tess watched as the smile fell from Nikki’s lips, “He wanted to speak with you. Who is he?”

Nikki pulled away from the brunette’s hand and sat rigidly in her chair, “Oh um…nobody just my doctor…err, what did he say to you?”

Tess frowned at the uncharacteristic behaviour of her lover; “He mentioned something about a surgical procedure and asked that you call him.”

Nikki’s face was expressionless, “Oh well, it was nothing important, I may call him some time.” She moved uncomfortably in her chair, ready to leave.

“Nik, what was he talking about, what surgical procedure did he mean.”

The blonde shook her head, “It’s nothing trust me.”

“Any kind of surgery isn’t nothing Nik, what’s wrong why wont you talk to me?”

“Because there is nothing to talk about.” She got up from her chair, “I have to go, there are things to be done you know. Contact Sam and let her know that we will require her services, contact the RSPCA for that list of qualified stable hands…they wont get done if…”

“Nikki!” The photographer looked up at the blonde, “Your shutting me out, what’s wrong and don’t say nothing because I can tell okay. Sit down here and talk to me…please?”

Nikki backed away, “Tess you are blowing this all out of proportion, nothing is wrong. Now I really must go, I am late to see Thunder and Jenna and with her ready to give birth soon, I want to spend as much time with Jenna as I can.” Nikki turned around swiftly and made to leave the room, bumping into the back of Tess’s chair as she did.

Tess watched the retreating form with confusion, “Sure didn’t seem like nothing to me,” she muttered and sighed her head falling into large hands.
“Damn it.”

She had never seen this side of Nikki before; it wasn’t the fact that the blonde was hiding something from her, more that it was the fact that she seemed afraid of whatever that something was. And why didn’t she want to talk about it? Tess thought they could talk about anything with each other, they always had done in the past. What the hell was this that seemed so unapproachable to Nikki? Whatever it was, Tess knew she would find out.

*******

For a Sunday afternoon the city was fairly busy and many shops were open and doing surprisingly good business. Even though the British trading laws stated that all retail outlets had to shut in one hour, from the amount of people milling around, it would appeared to have been a normal week day trade.

Rosalind had spent the morning resting in her hotel room, and then decided to go and do some window-shopping. Her monetary situation at that moment was low, but part of the plan she had in mind would soon change that for the better.

Walking down Oxford street the woman realised she was approaching the city art gallery, so decided to have a quick look at the latest attractions. As she mounted the stone steps a large multicoloured poster caught her eye, and naturally she moved to investigate. She realised it was an advertisement for Tuesday nights Modern Arts Exhibit, and as she scrolled down the list of artists a familiar name caught her eye. With a smug smile she realised she had just found the perfect venue to put her plan into action.

Across on the other side of the street, and not very far away Lisa Morris was exiting the cities multi complex cinema. Hand in hand with CJ, they made their way to the café across the road. She was in good spirits, and so far the day had been very enjoyable. CJ and herself had talked constantly on many different subjects, and she was amazed at how much they seemed to have in common.

CJ put his arms around Lisa’s shoulders as they neared the pelican crossing, “So your sister Nikki right? Has she always been blind?” He asked.

Lisa shrugged, “More or less, it was quite complicated I am told.”

He nodded, “And she lives with Tess Alexander…you know…as a couple?”

“Yeah.” She smiled, “They met last year during a photo shoot for my dad, and I guess it just progressed from there.”

Reaching the other side of the road, they headed towards their destination. CJ looked down at the brunette, “You know when I met her…Tess I mean, the other day…she didn’t seem like the same person you hear so much about. She was…well…quiet I guess, but she was nice you know.”

The teen nodded, “She is amazing, everybody has this opinion of her based purely upon speculation and hearsay, but the truth of the matter is she’s really nice. And she loves Nikki very much…I mean, it is soooo obvious.”

CJ pursed his lips with a frown as they entered the café. His brother said this woman had attacked him just because he had tried to start a conversation with the blonde. Now he really didn’t want to think his brother a liar about this, but there was no way in his mind that Lisa wasn’t honest in her descriptions of the photographer. Confused, he pulled out a chair for Lisa, and then sat down opposite the brunette.

Lisa took her seat not at all surprised by CJ’s chivalry; he had been opening doors for her all afternoon. She looked through the window onto Oxford Street and watched the passers by. Suddenly a familiar figure caught her attention and she rose from her seat to get a better look. Leaning forward with her hands on the table she watched as the figure stood at the side of the road and waved, a second later a taxi pulled up and the woman got in. Lisa blinked in surprise, mum? She thought with confusion, it seemed so unlikely, but at the same time the teen knew it was her…she would recognise the woman anywhere.

CJ looked over to a suddenly pale Lisa, “Hey…something the matter.”

Lisa shook her head and looked down, “Ugh…I…I…um I think I need to go home CJ, do you mind? I am sorry but something has just come up and I need to go.”

The young man looked at the shock on the brunette’s face and nodded, “Sure, if that is what you want then of course I will take you home.” He got up and helped Lisa around the small tables and out the door. “Lets go back to the car park, get my car, then I will take you home…okay?”

Lisa nodded, and together they headed for the multi story car park.

*******

Tess lay upon the top of her bed, making shapes out of the aertex designs on the ceiling. She had been there for almost an hour, and up to that point, had not wanted to move ‘why bother’ she had thought. Her conversation with Nikki, or lack of as she realised, had left her feeling confused and concerned. And what was more, Nikki hade been out in the stables since their brief exchange that morning and hadn’t been seen since. She wanted to give the blonde time to think, hopefully to see that whatever this thing was, she could talk to her about it…after all damn it, they were supposed to be in a relationship, didn’t that mean something?

A gentle knock on the door pulled Tess’s eyes from the ceiling and she turned to see her mother standing in the doorway. “Hi…how are you feeling?” Hyacinth asked. The brunette had told her about how Nikki had reacted to her message right after she had grilled her about her evening with James Abbot.

Tess shrugged and turned back her inspection of the roof, “I don’t know, Nikki hasn’t spoken to me all day, and I don’t know why…how am I supposed to feel?”

Hyacinth entered the room and sat on the corner of the double bed, “Listen honey, I really have to get going if I am going to make it back home with enough light, but before I go I would like to leave you with a few parting words okay?”

The photographer nodded, needing some kind of input.

“From what you told me I don’t think that Nikki is intentionally hiding something from you…she seems afraid to confront whatever this thing is.”

“I know that but…”

“Let me finish.” Hyacinth said with a smile, “From what I know of Nikki, it seems that she needs time to acknowledge whatever this thing is and then she will talk to you about it.”

“But I don’t know what this thing is…and that is what concerns me.”

The older woman patted her daughters hand, “Listen dear, be patient with her…she is probably out there right now wondering how she is going to explain things to you. Did the Doctor you spoke to make it sound urgent that Nikki call him as soon as possible?”

“No.”

“Well then…please don’t worry so much…you know you will find out in the end don’t you.”

Tess smiled and nodded, “I get the feeling I will.”

Hyacinth nodded, “Well good. Now come on and lets maybe start the ball rolling. I need to get going, but there is no way I shall be leaving without saying good by to one certain blonde first.”

“Thanks mum.” Swinging her long frame off the bed, Tess hugged her mother briefly before heading out the room. She picked up the single suitcase, and together they headed down the stairs, just in time to hear cautious footsteps making their way through the house.

Tess looked over the banister to see Nikki reach the phone and pick up the receiver. “Nik, what’s wrong?”

The blonde started dialling her veterinarian’s number from memory, “It’s Jenna; I think she may soon foal so I want Monica to come take a look at her.”

“Monica?”

“Monica Fletcher…she’s the vet.”

The Alexander women carried on down the stairs as Nikki conversed with the woman on the other end of the line. Tess put down her mothers suitcase as Nikki hung up the phone. “She’s on her way.”

Hyacinth looked concerned at the blonde, “Nikki dear, will everything be alright?” she asked.

“Oh yes, I should think so. I just need Monica here to check on how Jenna is doing…there are things that I cannot do for Jenna that will need doing, so I could do with her help.”

The old woman nodded, “Well that is okay then.” Hyacinth looked back between her daughter and Nikki, “Well Nikki dear, I have to be going…it is a fairly long drive back to Cornwall so I need to start my journey.”

Nikki nodded suddenly feeling very guilty about the fact that she had spent all morning and afternoon in the stables hiding. “I didn’t realise it was so late.” She looked down, “I’m sorry Cinthy; I was…”

“No need for any of that Nikki, come on now Jenna is at an important stage and she needs you there right?” Hyacinth had an idea what Nikki must have been thinking so she decided to ease her mind. Whatever it was that was bothering her, the old woman knew they would get through it together.

The small woman nodded, “Yeah I guess.”

“Well then. Come here and let me give you a hug before I leave…it may be some time before I see you both again.” Hyacinth looked pointedly at her daughter, “At least until you come down to Cornwall right?”

Tess rolled her eyes, “Yes mother…we’ll come down to see you next time, I promise.”

“Good.” The sturdy woman smiled as she pulled Nikki into a goodbye hug, “Now you two take care of each other understand?”

“Yes.” The others said in unison.

Hyacinth pulled away, “Well then, I guess it is now time for Hyacinth Rose Alexander, to leave the building.”

Tess opened the door, and with Nikki by her side, they bid the old woman a safe journey home.

*******

When the door shut, Tess turned around and looked down at the blonde. Nikki was silent, but she seemed to be making no moves in order to leave the photographers company so she took this as a good sign.

From the smaller woman’s point of view, Nikki could feel Tess’s eyes boring into her, the wariness and concern Tess was feeling was almost palpable. She breathed in deep, taking a lungful of calmness into her system, hoping to dispel the nerves that had been plaguing her all day. From the moment she entered the stables she had felt the tears threaten to come, and she had fought hard to keep them at bay. She needed to think, to wonder how she was going to tell Tess a little piece of information about herself that she had been too scared to confront. It wasn’t bad, she decided, far from it in fact, most people would consider it wonderful, but for her…uncertainty of the unknown was just too unnerving to face.

Still looking down at the blonde, Tess had been watching the mirage of emotions as they played across Nikki’s face. She sucked in her bottom lip nervously and chewed lightly, “Nik?”

“Hmm?”

Tess reached out and cupped a soft cheek, “What is it?”

Nikki lowered her head, but as usual Tess caught it, not allowing her to turn away from this, “Tess.”

“Tell me what it is please…can’t I help?” The taller woman’s voice held a note of desperation. She watched as blue eyes filled with tears, tears that began a gentle flow down Nikki’s cheeks. “Please don’t cry Nik, I don’t know what it is honey and all I want to do is help you, I don’t want you to feel like this.” She pulled the small frame into her body and held her close.

After a minute of silence Nikki pulled away, “Tess, look into my eyes and tell me what you see.”

Tess did as requested and cupped soft cheeks, staring directly into Nikki’s eyes, “I don’t get it Nik…what do you want me to look for?”

Nikki’s right hand came up and rested upon Tess’s left, “The difference, can you see the difference, it is slight so I am told, but it is there.”

Frowning Tess leaned closer and looked deep into Nikki’s eyes. She alternated between one eye and the other, looking for the difference the small woman was talking about, “Nik, I don’t see…” She stopped and looked again, switching from the right eye to the left. “I think I see it.” She stated and looked again. Staring into Nikki’s right eye she spotted light green flecks, turning to the left eye she frowned as she looked at light golden flecks. “They are slightly different colours,” Tess said. “Nikki I don’t…?”

The blonde nodded, “Different.” She stated seriously.

The brunette blinked and shook her head, “I don’t understand where you are going with this Nikki.”

“That phone call…from Doctor Jacobson.”

“Yeah?”

Nikki opened her mouth to speak but the shrill of the front door bell caused her to jump. Sighing she pulled away from Tess and moved to open the door. Monica Fletcher stood with a lopsided grin, “Hey Nicole, nice to see you again…so where’s the patient?”

Nikki grinned, “Monica…great come on in,” she moved out the way as Monica entered the house.

“Great place you have here…lovely scenery and all.” The vet stopped as she almost bumped into the photographer. She frowned and let her head fall to the side, trying to recall the woman’s face.

Tess smirked and looked quickly at Nikki before turning her attention back to the smaller woman with short dark hair. She was wearing a pair of green medical overalls and held a large metal case in her right hand. She arched her brow, still under the scrutiny of this dark haired woman with the quirky expression on her face. “Something wrong?” she asked.

Monica rebalanced her head and pursed her lips, “Hmm…know the face, can’t quite remember where from.” She searched her mind, “Oh hey, you didn’t once own a ferret called Arnold did you?”

“Nope.”

She thought again, “A Bassett Hound with one ear called Gertrude?”

The photographer scoffed, “Hardly.”

Monica thought harder as Nikki chuckled at her vets’ typical behaviour. She was an amazing vet, but at times could be somewhat comical in her behaviour.

If it were possible a light bulb suddenly beamed above the small vets head, “I’ve got it…a Staffy called Leto right?”

Tess blinked, “Yeah that’s it, she’s out in the yard now…how did you know that?”

“I saw you in the surgery once, probably for injections or something like that. I think Leto is one of my husbands patients.”

The photographer rolled her eyes, “Dominic Fletcher right?”

Monica grinned, “Yes that’s him, wow small world huh.” She turned to Nikki, “So you two are friends?”

“Something like that.” Nikki replied and Tess smiled, “So Monica shall we go and see Jenna?”

“Lead me to her…oh I haven’t seen her since I was at your fathers house, not so long ago but still, I am betting she is almost ready to foal. Gosh I am getting rather excited now.”

Tess smirked bemused as the three women headed off to see the expectant mother.

*******

It was beginning to get gloomy, the first stars in the night sky were already out and twinkling in the darkening expanse. The wind had clamed to sporadic gentle gusts, and the temperature had dropped several degrees. Out by the entrance of the back door, Leto lay on her side, eyes closed seemingly in deep slumber. She had already had her fill of greeting the new visitor, so was content to just lie back and relax.

Tess stood beside Nikki, who was leaning against the stable wall waiting for Monica. She had already answered some of the woman’s questions and was now waiting for the vet to finish her examination of Jenna’s present condition. She could hear the gentle voice of the vet as she spoke soothingly to the golden horse. Sighing, the blonde tapped her cane repeatedly into the cemented ground.

“You think Jenna will be okay?” Tess asked.

Nikki nodded, “Oh sure, it’s getting through the eleven months that is the biggest worry…usually the labour and delivery are for the most part uneventful. Well apart from the monumental happening in itself.”

Tess just nodded as Monica emerged from the barn, “Well ladies I would have to say she is close…there is a definite rise in her calcium secretions, but the amount dictates that she still has a few days left. I would suggest you keep an eye on her and call me when you need me…okay?”

“Thanks Monica, I will.” Nikki released a breath.

“Listen I was wondering.” The vet continued, “You mentioned something about needing some stable hands right?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well this is just a thought, but I know of a young woman who would be perfect for you and the horses if you wanted. Her name is Janie; she is twenty-two and has worked with them for over seven years, her father used to train them. Anyway she came to me looking for a job last week, but I was unable to help out, I know her number if you would like me to send her round to you in the morning…well if she is still looking to work with horses that is.”

Nikki beamed, “Yes…please, that would be great thank you…you know I trust your judgement with matters such as this.”

Monica smiled, “Great, I will call her tonight and if all is well you will hear from either Janie, or myself in the morning.”

“Thank you Monica…that would be a god send.”

“No problem.” The vet moved down and picked up her medical case, “Well I better be going, I shall see the both of you soon I am sure.”

Nikki said her goodbyes and went back into the stables as Tess showed Monica to the door.

*******

In the stable, Thunder stood quietly in his stall munching on his forage feed, while Jenna was out, pacing the a small area of the room. In one corner there was a large but silent generator that powered an artificial light, it was on a dimmed setting but still light enough to be able to see clearly around the area.

Nikki stood in the centre of the stable as Tess approached, shutting the door after her and wrapping her arms around the small frame from behind. She pulled Nikki close and closed her eyes, “It’s amazing really isn’t it…new life I mean. Personally I have never felt the need to be in that position, but it is still a wonderful aspect of nature.” She opened her eyes, “Have you ever thought about it?”

“Nature?”

Tess smiled, “No…about having a child.”

Nikki shook her head, “Can’t say that I have, to be honest I have never thought it worth consideration.”

“How so?”

The blonde shrugged, “I don’t know, just never have.”

They were silent for some minutes until Nikki spoke, “You want to know who Doctor Jacobson is?” There was a slight tremor in the blondes’ voice.

Tess moved away, pulling off her coat as she did and led the Nikki over to the sidewall of the stable. Then she moved against the wall and slid down to the straw ground, pulling Nikki with her. The women landed next to each other, shoulders and legs touching as Tess placed her denim jacket over Nikki’s body. “Tell me.” She said.

Nikki nodded, “Okay, but I will have to start from the beginning.”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

Taking a deep breath Nikki closed her eyes, “Okay. When I told you that I was blind from birth, that wasn’t completely accurate.”

“But…”

“Please just let me explain Tess…and you will get your answers.”

The brunette nodded, “Sorry…go on.”

“Well…when I was born I was completely blind in my right eye, but for a while they thought my left eye to be okay. Then they noticed something, it must have been when I was a few weeks old, but the pupil of my left eye turned white.” Tess nodded, listening carefully to everything Nikki was saying. “I was referred to an eye specialist where the symptoms were confirmed. It seemed I had what is called Retinoblastoma.”

“What…sorry…but what is that?” Tess asked confused.

Nikki took a deep breath, this was the bit she was worried telling Tess about. “Um…Retinoblastoma, is a cancer in the eye.”

Tess felt the air leave her body as a physical tremor shook her to the core. Cancer, the same disease that had claimed her fathers life. She grabbed a hold of Nikki’s hand then pulled the blonde in between her long legs, “Cancer?”

Nikki nodded, “Yeah it is quite rare, and tends to only be in the one eye.” Nikki felt the grip Tess had upon her tighten and she turned to her side, sitting upon the taller woman’s legs, “Tess it’s okay honestly.”

The brunette nodded, “Um okay…please continue with this.”

“Okay.” Nikki thought for a moment, “Anyway when they examined my eye they found that I had multiple tumours and the only way to get rid of the cancer was to remove the eye…there was no way my vision could be saved.” She took a deep breath, “Well from what my father told me, my mum wasn’t too happy about having a daughter with only one eye, so she made some enquiries and eventually found a surgeon who stated that he could transplant another eye to replace the one that had been removed. By that time I had been living with one eye, and wearing a patch until I was two years old. Anyway it was said to be a very serious operation, but one that the surgeon…a Doctor Jacobson felt positive he could perform.”

Tess felt a strong feeling of anger towards Nikki’s mother and it suddenly dawned on her why she hadn’t seen any pictures of Nikki as a young child in Rosalind’s house. She had put her young child through a serious operation at such a young age just because she didn’t want a child with one eye. God help me…but I do so hate that woman, she thought.

Nikki shuffled in Tess’s lap making herself more comfortable as she continued, “So I had the operation, and got myself a new eye. They were all aware that due to previous damage there was no way I would be able to see, but I guess by that time everyone was used to this fact, including myself.”

Tess took a hold of Nikki’s hand and kissed each finger. She felt a deep emotion well inside of her and was helpless to fight its release. Silent tears fell from green eyes, trailing down her cheek where she left them, letting them fall to her jacket covering Nikki’s body. She was trying to be strong for Nikki and didn’t want to lose control of her emotions now.

Nikki laid her head on Tess’s shoulder. Aware of her lovers’ plight she released her hand from the larger grasp and gently wiped the tears away. “So basically that was how it had been for the last twenty years. Then suddenly out of the blue I get a phone call from Doctor Jacobson. I was lucky; he called when my parents were out. He said he wanted to talk to me, so arranged an appointment to meet with me at home…of course I made sure it was a time when my mum and dad were away…for some reason I got the feeling, this was something I needed to hear on my own first.”

Tess nodded, “And?”

The blonde moved to a sitting position once again, “Well.” She took a deep breath, “We met and he told me that he had been doing a lot of research on the restoration of sight.” She bit her lip hesitantly, “He said that…well he said that there was a eighty percent possibility that he could restore at least partial sight in my right eye. Not the one that was transplanted, but the other one…that was blind from birth. It would be enough for near vision.”

Tess sat up amazed, “He could restore you sight…how?”

Nikki shrugged, “Well it was only explained to me in laymen’s terms but it was something to do with repairing the optic something or other, or retina… or something along those lines. Thing is that it was two years ago and I was kind of in shock from the moment he said the words ‘restore my sight’. I mean he did say it wouldn’t be perfect, but I would have near vision and with help of corrective lenses I could have some measure of long distance sight as well.”

Shock was evident on the brunettes face, “So what happened, it didn’t work…did you tell your parents…what?” She was anxious to here this.

“I didn’t tell anybody, because I didn’t go through with it, I refused to have it done…it was my decision.”

Tess placed her hand over her mouth and shook her head, “Why not.” She asked confused, then suddenly noticed the tears forming in Nikki’s blue eyes, “Nik what is it honey…is this the reason you were upset earlier?”

Nikki shrugged, and wiped a fallen tear from her cheek. She took in a shuddering breath.

“Nikki come on sweetheart, please tell me what is bothering you so.”

The blonde buried her face in the photographers neck, “I’m scared Tess.”

“What, of the operation…Nik, it is only natural that you would be scared sweetheart.”

Shaking her head the blonde pulled away from the comfort of Tess’s embrace, “No it’s not that, well in a way maybe, but not really.”

“What then?”

A sigh, “I’m scared that it won’t work, and I am scared that it will.” She wiped the tears from her faced with the cuff of her sweater, “I am scared to build hopes that it may work only to be disappointed when I find out it didn’t. That would be more than I could bear. Yet at the same time I am terrified at the prospect of it working and being able to see for the first time in my whole life…what if I couldn’t cope, what if I just couldn’t get used to it. I’ve been blind for twenty four years…this is what I know…and no matter how much I would like to see…I am terrified that I wont be able to adjust.” She took a breath, “That is why I refused to go ahead with the surgery…because sometimes I feel that I am better off the way I am…it is all I have ever been used to and all I’m familiar, comfortable with. You know the saying ‘Ignorance is bliss’. Sometimes I feel it is just best to carry on the way things are and act like I was never given this opportunity.”

Tess pulled Nikki in close to her, tucking the blonde head under her chin, “I understand.” She said letting her own tears fall.

The blonde turned her head towards Tess and sighed. It felt so good to finally be able to tell somebody about this; somebody she knew would not push her into anything she wasn’t sure about. Nikki knew she had that with Tess…with her parents, it was different. Even her father would be excited by the news and want her to go through with it, but it was her mothers’ would be reaction that forced her to keep quiet. The blonde knew she would be pushed, coerced and browbeaten into going through with the surgery and without council from somebody she could trust not to push their own desires on her, she was in a quandary as to what to do.

Tess kissed Nikki’s forehead and ran her hand through the soft blonde hair. She realised it must have been hard for Nikki to live with this decision when every option seemed to cause her varying degrees of distress.

“What are you thinking?” The blonde asked

Tess shrugged, “How much I love you…how hard this must have been for you to have on your mind. Such a wonderful possibility, yet so many reasons to fear the potential outcomes.”

Nikki turned and wrapped her legs around Tess’s waist, “It is important for me to know what you think of all this Tess, I need to know.” In the dull light her eyes seemed to almost look straight into the photographer.

The brunette shrugged, “I think that for now, we just have a few days to think about this. I don’t want to influence your decision Nik, but I want to help you come to it in the best way I can.”

“And what if I decided that I can’t go through with the surgery?”

“Then you don’t have to.”

Nikki sighed and lowered her head, “I’m sorry I was distant with you earlier Tess.” She smiled, “I knew I could talk to you about it…it just caught me by surprise.”

“That’s okay, but…” she paused and looked away, still finding it hard to communicate the way she was internally feeling.

Nikki took a hold of Tess’s arm, “What?” She noticed the tension that invaded the taller woman’s body, “What is it Tess?”

The brunette looked back, and stared into blue eyes shadowed in the dim light, “Earlier…when you sort of clammed up on me, it…” she frowned, “It hurt Nikki. I could see that you were hurting, that something was bothering you, and the fact that you didn’t seem to want to share it with me, hurt.” She looked away feeling slightly foolish about expressing her insecurities.

Nikki felt her heart drop, the fact that she had caused Tess any amount of anguish caused feelings of guilt. “I’m so sorry.”

Tess looked back to see Nikki’s trembling lip, “Hey no, I mean I understand that you were feeling scared.” She sighed, “I don’t want you to feel sorry for the way you acted, we both have been that way on occasions, I just needed to be honest with you.” She smiled, “After the talk my mum had with me after what happened at the shopping centre I need to keep this level of truthfulness between us. Do you understand? ”Nikki nodded. “Good. You needed some time to think, I understand that, and I am just glad you knew that you could talk to me.”

“Always.” The blonde placed her forehead against Tess’s.

“Good, and do you want to know something?”

“What’s that?” She faced the brunette again.

“I love you.”

Nikki smiled, “I know that silly…I love you too.”

“No Nikki I mean I love you.” Tess kissed her softly; “No matter what happens nothing will change that…nothing could ever change that. I guess I just want you to know that I will be there for you, and help you as much as I can, but nothing will ever change my opinion of you…or feelings for you…because it is you that I love…understand?”

“Uh huh.” She smiled contently, snuggled into Tess’s embrace and yawned, “What time is it?”

Without looking Tess reached around and fingered the audio button on her watch. Nikki blinked in surprise, “Wow I had no idea it was getting so late.”

“Want to go inside?” Tess asked.

Nikki burrowed deeper into Tess; “Hmm…in a while I just want to sit here for a bit and besides…I am too comfortable to move.”

Tess smirked as she moved against Nikki, adjusting the denim jacket that was covering the small frame. “Okay…just a little while longer.” She said, and closed her eyes.

*******

In a small two bedroom flat on one of the roughest parts of the city, where street crime and drug dealers were as common as night and day, CJ White sat in his front room. He had just finished ironing his clothes for work the next day and was waiting for his brother to return home. Being a haulage driver he had many contacts in the business and it was after his brothers coercion that they had discovered Nicole Morris’s need for horse transportation, and Bradley’s plan had progressed from there.

He thought back to his day with Lisa Morris. It hadn’t been as bad as he thought it was going to be, he also thought the brunette had a good time, at least that was until the café incident. After that she had been rather quiet all the way home and he was concerned as to the cause. She did say she would be all right, and even agreed to him phoning her in the next few days. He wasn’t sure why…but he had every intention of doing so.

The sound of the front door opening and shutting signalled Bradley’s return home, and by the commotion being made, CJ could tell that his brother wasn’t alone. It was only seconds later that the older man entered the small living room, two other guys in tow. They were friends of Bradley’s and they only ever seemed to get together for one reason. CJ sighed; knowing it was going to be a long night.

“Evening bro, so how was your date with the bitches…bitches…sister?” He laughed and his two friends followed suit. “Did you get anywhere?” He asked with a lascivious leer.

CJ shook his head; “I thought you just wanted me to get information on the woman who put you in hospital.”

Bradley’s friends laughed, and the older brother glared at them, “She had a fucking baseball bat…what the hell was I supposed to do against that huh?” He angrily pushed his hand into his coat pocket, pulled out a small block of resin, and proceeded to start rolling himself a joint.

“Well.” CJ started, thinking carefully. “I wasn’t able to get much out of her…it was the first date, and I wanted to build her trust.”

One of Bradley’s friends, a small man with an very old worn bikers jacket grinned and winked at CJ, but he ignored him.

“Yeah well just don’t take too long about it okay.” The older brother warned.

CJ nodded, but said nothing. He had been thinking about it all day, and realised that in no way did Miss Alexander attack his brother for nothing. CJ knew Bradley, they had lived alone together since their parents had died some years ago, and although he hated to admit it…Bradley was no good. He came to a decision then…there was absolutely no way he was going to allow his brother to hurt any of those women. How he was to go about this was another matter.

*******

The photographer felt herself coming around. She didn’t know what it was that had initially pulled her from her sleep, but as she became more aware of the conscious world she began to make her assumptions. Maybe it was the artificial light, maybe it was Nikki’s gentle snoring, ‘ha and she said that’s just me’ she thought. Maybe it was the aroma of ‘Eau de stable’ or just maybe it was the tone of straw that she could feel poking her in places she didn’t even care to think about. Yawning she opened her eyes and lifted her head slightly, pulling pieces of straw from her face. She looked down at Nikki who was nestled closely into her, they were both on their sides and Nikki’s face was burrowed between the valley of the taller woman’s breasts. ‘Could explain the snoring’ she thought with a wry grin.

Rubbing her eyes, Tess lifted up onto her elbow and looked out into the dim light of the stable…she froze, “Oh my god…bugger me…I…I don’t believe it.” She whispered lightly in shock.

Nikki mumbled in her sleep.

Tess looked down and whispered gently, “Nik…Nikki honey…for gods sake wake up will you.”

Nikki stretched and rolled onto her back, frowning at the unusual feeling under her body, “Hmm…what’s that, what’s going on…Tess?”

The tall woman prodded the blonde lightly, “Nikki…this is amazing I can’t believe this.”

“What…that we fell asleep in the damned stables…neither can I.” She mumbled.

Tess shook her head, “No…it’s Jenna, she only gone and delivered her little foal. My god it is so remarkable.” The brunette looked on in wonderment.

As the words sunk in Nikki sat up suddenly, “What! Jenna delivered… already, oh shit…I mean wow…is she okay?”

Tess smiled and looked at the scene, “Well I am no horsey expert, but by the look of things I would say that both mother and…” She twisted her head looking closely at the foal, “son I think…are doing fine.”

Nikki lunged herself into Tess’s arms smiling widely; she tried to keep herself from laughing hysterically, not wanting to cause alarm to mare or foal. “Quick, do you have your mobile out here?”

“Yeah it’s in my jacket why?”

“I gotta ring Monica and let her know…she will have to come and check things over.” Nikki found the mobile phone in the jackets inside pocket, and proceeded to dial the vet’s number, “I can’t believe it happened to soon…we were sure she had at least a few days left.” Nikki stopped talking suddenly as the phone was answered at the other end of the line. The conversation was quick as Nikki informed the vet of the news and the woman stated that she would be on her way.

Tess moved to her knees and looked over at the mare and foal, “Nik, should we do anything?” She asked in a light whisper, not wanting to break the moment.

Nikki bit her lip, “Um what’s going on…is he nursing yet?”

“Oh yes, firmly latched to his mother.”

“That’s good…it’s important for him to feed as soon as possible. Jenna’s colostrum will provide him with all the necessary antibodies to help protect him against infection.” Nikki reached out and found Tess’s arm, she slid down until she was able to grasp the larger hand. “We really should leave them alone, but it important to wash the umbilical cord with iodine to prevent septicaemia. I think I will wait for Monica for that though, unless you feel like doing it while I hold Jenna.”

Tess grimaced, “Can it wait, I really don’t like the sound of touching things I know nothing about.”

A slight nod, “I am sure it will be okay…Monica should be here very soon anyway.”

Sitting down into the hay, Tess crossed her legs, “So Nik, have any idea what you are going to name him?” She just couldn’t keep the smile from her face as she watched the scene in front of her.

Nikki placed herself by the woman’s side, “I don’t know, I was kind of thinking you would like the honours.”

“Really?” Tess thought hard, “Hmm, I don’t know…are you sure.”

“Of course.” The blonde stated surely, “Just look at him, what name springs out at you?”

Looking long and hard at the foal, Tess considered the possibilities, “Well he is black in colour like his father, and he has this white mark down his nose that is shaped like a carrot.” She frowned, “You know when I was younger I had a little black stuffed animal…it was a horse, and I called it Jasper. How about that…I like that name.”

Nikki nodded, “Hmm…Jasper, hey I like it…Jasper it is.” She sniggered, “You used to name your stuffed toys?”

The brunette scowled as she looked down, “Watch it blondie,” she warned.

“Oh hey I wasn’t making fun…honest.” She tried so hard to keep the smile off her face, “I mean, I bet Jasper is still up stairs hidden among your collection of stuffed teddies right?”

“Actually no.” The photographer sulked, “Leto used him as a chew toy about two years ago…bit his head right off. I came home and found little pieces of white stuffing all over the house.”

She pursed her lips trying so hard not to laugh, “Uh hum.”

Tess fought to contain the lopsided smirk that spread across her features. She looked down at a suffering Nikki, “Oh go on I can just tell you are dying to do it…go on get it over with.”

And with that, the blonde (not wanting to unnerve the horses) fell into a silent laughter. She closed her eyes, her shoulders shaking uncontrollably.

“Tell anybody and I will inflict the worst punishment possible,” the brunette warned jokingly.

Nikki shook her head, “Oh don’t worry T,” she chuckled, “nobody would believe me even if I did.”

Tess folded her arms; pout truly in place. “Good,” she muttered.
5
Robert stood in the large employees lounge. In front of him stood his new toy and while he set about choosing his drink, a large grin formed on his face as he perused the multitude of options. Checking the digital clock, another feature on this new toy, Robert frowned at the time. It had already gone nine o’clock and he would have expected Tess into work by now.

“Morning.”

Robert turned to see the woman in question entering the lounge. He frowned, “Morning Tess…whoa…sorry my friend but you look like shit.”

Tess sighed, “Thanks Robert, but it was a rough night.” She pushed a hand through her hair ruffling the dark strands. “Jenna gave birth to her new little son…we have called him Jasper.” She smiled widely, “Actually I got to name him,” she said proudly.

“Wow…hey that’s great, and did you actually get to see the delivery?”

The photographer shook her head, “Ah no…I just sort of woke up and there it was, right in front of me…it was pretty amazing.”

The tall dark man nodded, then frowned, “Whoa, hold on. ‘You just woke up’, where were you when this happened?”

“In the stable.”

Robert looked at her strangely, “You were asleep in the stable. Please don’t tell me Nikki has gone and chucked you out already? You could have said you know, I have a shed you could have used.” He grinned at the exasperated look on the woman’s face, “It really didn’t take long for that pseudo moodiness of yours to wear thin did it!”

The brunette scowled, “You know if you weren’t my boss Robert I would have to kick your butt…and I am not moody around Nikki!”

“Yeah, yeah…why I bet you are just one big ole teddy bear.”

Tess’s eyes narrowed, “Why did you say that?”

“What?”

“Teddy bear…have you been speaking to Nikki?”

The large man scratched his head in complete confusion, “Huh? What are you talking about Tess? What’s wrong with Teddy bears?”

“What Teddy bears?” Jason asked as he entered the employees’ lounge.

Tess shook her head, “Nothing…absolutely nothing. So…” She looked around the room, deciding a change of subject was in order. The large machine caught her attention, “What’s that?” She eyed the monstrosity curiously.

Roberts wide toothy smile caused Jason to groan, “Ugh, it’s the bosses new toy. The Ultra Deluxe Coffee Machine; it makes all those fancy drinks, cappuccinos, espressos, blah…blah…blah.”

Tess stared at the illuminated machine that stood a foot shorter than Robert and an inch higher than herself, “Impressive.”

The proud boss beamed, “Yep it’s just wonderful. And what’s more, it takes no money…I wangled it so you don’t have to pay, just key in your choice and away you go.” He sighed, “All the way to caffeine heaven.”

Jason looked at his boss strangely, “If you don’t mind me saying sir, you seem to have an unnatural attachment to that thing…it is only a machine you know.”

“No no no Jason you are mistaken,” Robert patted his new toy, “This is not just a machine…it is a miracle of the twenty first century.”

Tess folded her arms, “Oh boy,” she shook her head, “Well I would love to stand here and chat some more with you about the wonders of the twenty first century, but I have a booking at half past nine and would like my own caffeine fix before then so gimme.” She moved towards the machine and looked down at her selection. A frown creased the photographers’ brow, “Okay where’s the coffee?”

Robert moved his hand in a sweeping motion across the options list, “Earth to Tess…right in front of you.”

She shook her head, “No…non of that garbage, I just want plain and simple black coffee.”

“Tess with all these options, you can have anything you want,” said Robert astounded.

“Yeah? Well then where is my plain old boring, black coffee?”

The large man sighed and pressed a button, “There, that’s your boring button.” The machine whirled as it produced the photographers’ beverage. Robert looked over at Jason, “So what delight can I tempt you with this fine Monday morning Jason?”

The receptionist smiled weekly, “Um, I was thinking maybe warm milk?”

Roberts face dropped in horror, “Milk?” He asked, like man had just uttered blaspheme.

“Err yeah I need my daily fix of calcium…got to keep my bones nice and strong you know.”

Tess smirked, blowing on her own beverage as she went to leave the room, “Uh huh.” She said mono voice, so only the young man could hear, “Got to keep Jake satisfied.” Then left, leaving a completely confused Robert wondering why Jason was standing there, crimson cheeked and slacked jawed.

*******

The city council offices were housed in a large ominous building. Built almost a thousand years ago, the structure was dark in appearance and held a sinister gothic like appearance. Within this building was the entire cities congress, a mass of different areas of business all linked to the administration of the whole city. And within this mass of offices was a certain chamber that stood out above all others; it was the headquarters of the Lord Mayor.

The room was large and almost regal in appearance. All the furniture was a deep glossed mahogany, the soft furnishings a mixture of rich creams and reds. Seated at a sturdy desk sat Richard Morris, engrossed in scanning certain areas of the yellow pages. His daughter had returned home the evening before and had informed him of her sighting of his wife. At first he found this hard to believe, but as all the pieces began fitting into place he realised two sure facts. One, Rosalind was back with an agenda, and two, that it involved his daughter and Tess. He also figured that being as though she hadn’t returned to the family home, the marriage was over, and for completely obvious reasons…he was monumentally relieved by that. He just thought it was a shame that it took the events that it did to force him to see this. Picking up the phone, he dialled yet another number of a local hotel, trying his hardest to find the scheming woman before it was too late.

*******

The word hectic didn’t even begin to describe the kind of morning Nikki was having. Never had she felt the pressure of responsibility so much in her life, and if she was to admit it…she loved every minute of it.

Monica had arrive within twenty minutes of her calling the woman, and had set to work on giving Jasper a quick check over while Nikki held Jenna. She had informed the blonde she’d had been able to get in contact with Janie, and the girl was more than happy to be given the opportunity to help in looking after of the horses.

After the vet had left, Tess and Nikki had gone in for some much needed sleep, and managed to grab a couple of hours before Tess had to get up and go to work. The photographer did suggest staying home, but Nikki assured her that with Sam and Janie’s arrival, she would be able to cope just fine. So begrudgingly Tess had dragged her exhausted butt out of bed and into the invigorating spray of the cold shower. Of course it wasn’t meant to be cold, and the brunette quickly discovered that the boiler had shut down, so she had no choice…besides it did shock her uncooperative body, and woke the hell out of her. So that turned out to be yet another job on the list of things Nikki had to accomplish this Monday morning.

Sam had arrived first, bright and early and bang on nine o’clock. Nikki had only just gotten dressed and had answered the door with sopping wet hair and a hungry Leto hanging from her heels. While feeding the dog, Nikki and Sam had discussed what her responsibilities were to be, when she would be needed, (Nikki hoped weekdays would be acceptable…it was) and what her wage was. The blonde thought that the woman may want to negotiate on that, but it seemed she was quite happy with Nikki’s first proposal and that had been agreed upon.

At a quarter to ten the repairman arrived to fix the boiler, and Sam let him into the house, to a customary greeting from Leto. Unfortunately the guy seemed to have a fear of Leto’s breed and refused to enter the house until the dog had been properly secured. Sam did so as Nikki let the man in and explained the problem, but while talking with the man whom she discovered was called Jonathan, she was interrupted by three phone calls. The first by a window company trying to sell double glazed windows, next Monica to let her know what time Janie would be arriving, and straight after Tess, wanting to know how her day was going. Nikki had refrained from growling down the phone at that question. Eventually she was able to get back to Jonathan, and explained to him what the dilemma was. Minutes later, he was well on his way to sorting the problem.

By half past ten, Nikki was already tired out and had flaked out at the kitchen table while Sam offered to make her a drink. She was busy working her way around the kitchen, getting used to where everything was stored. “Is it always going to be this hectic around here?”

Nikki’s head fell to the table, “God I hope not.” She blew out an exasperated breath, “And it is only half ten, the new stable hand Janie, should be here any minute…why do I get the feeling this is the only time I will be able to sit down all day?”

Sam laughed, “Things will settling by the afternoon…it’s like Tess said the other day… ‘The trials and tribulations of moving home’…can be rather taxing to the system.” She opened a cupboard and located a box of fruit tea, “Wonderful, how does strawberry and raspberry tea sound?”

“Bring it on.” Nikki stated and sighed as a loud clashing echoed through the house followed by a loud cursing male voice. She chuckled, “I hope we are not about to get our very own indoor water fountain!” She shook her head, “And there was me practically pushing Tess back to work this morning.”

Sam patted the blondes shoulder, “Don’t worry Nikki, House Keeper Sam is ready to help however she can.”

“Famous last words.” Nikki stated as the doorbell rung.

Sam went to answer it, so Nikki set about getting preparing the drinks.

*******

Behind the door, a young woman with long, light brown hair and blue eyes, stood nervously. She hoped she had gotten the right house, but being as though there were only two that were accessible on this road, she figured she was close. Still she thought; she would be so embarrassed if she had indeed chosen the wrong place. Janie was startled out of her wonderings as the door opened and a medium sized woman with long auburn hair stood looking across from her with a smile. “Hi,” she said nervously, “Nikki Morris?”

Sam shook her head, “No sorry darling,” she noticed the awkward look on the girls face and smiled, “Nikki is inside, I am the newly appointed house keeper…come on in.”

Janie relaxed visibly as she entered the house, she noticed an assortment of boxes piled up by one wall and realised this residence was recently moved in to. Following Sam they made their way into the kitchen.

Nikki was standing by the work surface, pouring hot water into two mugs; she stopped and turned at the sounds of footsteps entering the kitchen.

“Nikki…this is Janie.”

Nikki held out her hand with a smile and waited, “Hi.”

Realising she wouldn’t be recognised until she made a move, Janie stepped forward and took the blondes hand, “Hello Nikki.”

“So Monica tells me you are looking to work with horses,” she said as she released the young woman’s hand, “Tell me why…oh and would you like a drink?”

“Oh whatever you are having will be fine.”

“Okay…fruit tea it is.” Nikki searched out another cup from the cupboard, “So tell me why you want to work with horses.”

“Um…” Janie stuttered; she didn’t expect this interview to turn out the way it was. She had expected a formal room, sitting at opposite sides of a desk. Not in a kitchen, drinking tea, with her prospective new boss perched on the edge of the work surface. “Well I have grown up around them, my father is a trainer and I helped him. I have taken care of horses for quiet a few years now, and have even had some experience with training myself. I just love them really…they are my favourite animal.”

Nikki nodded, “I know what you mean,” she smiled, “So…at the moment there are three horses out there, Thunder, Jenna, and her new foal Jasper. I will at times be taking in rescue horses and eventually I will be starting a stud farm…but in the meantime it will just me you and me…how does that sound?” Nikki picked up her drink.

Janie blinked, amazed at this opportunity. “Um, sounds just wonderful…too good to be true…just the kind of job opportunity I was looking for.”

“Great.” Nikki beamed, “So how about after these,” she held up her drink, “We go out and you can have a look around. Jasper has only just been born, so things are still a little delicate between mare and foal, but you can still check out the sights, and I can show you where the office will be etcetera…then you can tell me whether or not you want to work for me.”

The young woman frowned, “Me decide…I thought you were supposed to do that?”

The blonde shrugged, “I figure it is a two way street, you have to work for me as much as I would want you to work for me. I tend to think I am a good judge of character, and I am happy to employ you…it is whether you wish to work for me now.”

Janie nodded furiously, “Well then yes, I have already made up my mind, I would really like this job.”

Nikki slid off the counter, “Wonderful, so why don’t we go and have a look around?” She asked as the doorbell rung.

“Yes…okay.”

Sam entered the kitchen; “Nikki the plumber would like to discuss something with you about his findings concerning the boiler. There is a delivery for you to sign, and a sales man at the door trying to push the owner of the house into buy a new brand of multi purpose vacuum cleaner.”

Nikki rolled her eyes, “Typical.” She turned to Janie, “Welcome to the mad house, I hope you don’t get scared off by this hectic day…I don’t think it will always be this bad.” Her speech ended with the ringing of the telephone.

*******

Richard Morris sat rigidly at his desk; he had tried all morning to locate his estranged wife and had drawn a blank every step of the way. Either Lisa had only seen somebody who looked like Rosalind, or the woman had entered the city under a false name. And although the second seemed more likely, it would have been hard considering the cities Mayoress was a pretty recognisable figure.

Holding the phones receiver to his ear, he waited patiently for his daughter to take the call. The phone had been answered by an unrecognisable female voice, and he didn’t even have time to ask whom it was before the disembodied voice had gone in search of his daughter.

“Hi dad.”

Richard smiled down the phone, “Hi sweetheart…how are you today?”

Nikki sighed, “At this moment in time…thinking I might be grey before my twenty-fifth birthday!”

“Bad day?” Richard asked.

“Not bad really…just hectic. What with Jenna delivering, Tess off at work, the boiler conking out on me, numerous phone calls, visits, my new stable hand and house keeper arriving…you could say I have been on my feet all day.”

“So that’s who the voice belonged to…” Richard paused, “wait a minute… did you say Jenna foaled, hey that’s great news what did she have, and how are mother and baby?”

“She had a colt, Tess called him Jasper…” after her stuffed toy, she thought with a grin, “And they are both doing fine.”

“Excellent news.” Richard nodded, his face falling serious as he tapped the index finger of his free hand onto the solid mahogany desktop. “Listen sweetheart, the reason I am ringing today is to tell you that it seems your mother may be back in town. Lisa saw her yesterday, but as yet she hasn’t made contact…because of this I am thinking that her presence is not that of a remorseful parent.”

The blonde was silent for a moment, “You…think she is here to cause trouble dad?”

The Mayor sighed, “I don’t know, but I feel that after everything that’s happened we should all be aware that she could make an appearance at any time.” He frowned, “Nicole honey…I want you to know that, well because of all this…there will be no way your mother and I will be reuniting martially. I know that time is supposed to heal, and you are supposed to forgive, but all I feel is…” he paused shaking his head; there was no way he could express to his own daughter the contempt he was feeling towards the woman who had tried to hurt her.

Nikki sensed his hesitation, “It’s okay dad; I know what you’re trying to say.”

He nodded, “So I…” Richard paused as Leto’s barking suddenly sounded down the phone. He pulled the phone away from his ear, looking down the receiver with a bemused expression. Three different voices, talking in a less than quiet voice echoed down the line.

“Dad?”

The man put the phone back to his ear.

“I’ve got to go. Janie was just having a look around the house, and she accidentally released Leto from the laundry room. Now she’s gone on a mad greeting escapade and apparently she has the plumber cornered in the airing cupboard.”

Richard frowned in confusion, “Um…okay sweetheart…you go and calm things down.”

“Okay…I’ll talk to you later…sorry.”

Putting down the phone Richard chuckled, it really did seem hectic over there. A fleeting concern crossed his mind as he wondered whether his daughter could cope, but inside he knew the answer was yes…Nikki had shown more strength and courage in the last few months than she had ever done living under the restrictive grasp of her mother. He wondered whether things would have been different now if Rosalind had never coerced him into employing Tess Alexander. Somehow he knew the answer was yes.

*******

Tess sat in her office, pushed back onto the rear legs of her chair, eating her lunch. She swayed slightly as she readjusted her position on the seat, but managed to keep herself balanced. Sandwich hanging out of her mouth, Tess perused a copy of the Exhibition brochure that Jason had given her when he brought in her lunch. He didn’t need to do it…bring lunch, but he seemed to see it as his responsibility to make sure all the employees of Snap Shots were properly fed. He liked choosing Tess’s lunch the most because he knew the photographer would eat whatever he gave her, no questions asked. So he tended to be a little on the experimental side, and had on occasions given her such things as rabbit and even kangaroo meat sandwiches. Jason considered her his test subject, and if she liked it…he would try it himself. Tess didn’t mind, she often stated to him that she would eat anything as long as it didn’t spend its life covered in slime and eating vegetables from the garden. He could live with that, he never did understand that whole fascination with escargot anyway. Of course the draw back to feeding Tess whatever he chose, was the moment he had to tell her what she had in fact just eaten. Tess especially remembered one time in particular.

She had taken the lunch Jason had given her out that day and had eaten it during one of her ambles around the city. She did enjoy the food, but couldn’t quite put her finger on the meat. When she got back to the studio, she had asked Jason what was in her lunch, and the receptionist had casually told her she had just eaten ‘Skippy’. ‘The bush kangaroo?’ she had asked disbelievingly, and after a simple nod Tess had been infused with guilt. Of course she didn’t want the rest of the gang to see that she felt remorse about eating kangaroo meat, but she had adamantly told Jason not to give her that again. Her excuse… ‘It was a little on the bland side.’

Leafing through the brochures pages, Tess scanned the itinerary for tomorrow night’s exhibition. It looked interesting enough, drinks, talks, food and of course more drinks. She frowned when she realised that the local press had been invited, not that it surprised her; Andrew liked as much publicity as possible. She read that the evening was to be kicked off by the Lord Mayor and smiled; she hadn’t even thought to ask whether Richard would be going, but it would be nice for him to be there…and another known presence for Nikki.

Chucking the paper back onto her desk, Tess pushed herself back to a less precarious position on the chair and picked up another sandwich. She peeked in between the slices of bread with curiosity, and thankfully found another slice of chicken. She was glad, she really wasn’t in the mood to be Jason’s test subject today.

Breaking the comforting quiet, the phone unexpectedly rang. She picked up the receiver, “Hello Tess Alexander speaking.”

“Oh I have never heard you sound so professional…I like it.”

Tess smiled, “Hey gorgeous, how are things going, and how’s Jasper?”

There was a blushing smirk, “Fine…Jasper is just great. As for how things are going here…now they are okay…a while ago, I thought I was living in a circus.” Nikki rolled her eyes, “But I am glad to say things have quieted down now, and Leto has given up her pursuit for the plumbers affections.”

The photographer scratched her head, “Huh…what the hell has been going on over there?”

Nikki chuckled, “Oh you really don’t want to know…but I have things totally under control now…I will explain later.” The blonde sighed, “So how are things going your end?”

Tess shrugged, “Oh you know, a pretty normal day I guess. Jason got me something boring for lunch…for a change, I did three shoots this morning, have one more at half past one, then I am done for the day. I was going check in the gallery on my way home and bug Andrew for a while.” She grinned evilly at her final comment, and Nikki laughed almost as if she could sense the pleasure Tess was to get by bugging her college friend.

“Well may I suggest you play nice…you don’t want to get his goat before the big night do you? I could well imagine him getting his revenge by leaving you alone in a room full of reporters tomorrow night.”

Tess shuddered at the thought, “Ugh…okay you have a point, I will only bug him a little bit. Just enough to get him back for Saturday when he pretended that he had dropped one of my framed shots in the gallery.”

“Well okay.” Tess heard a quiet whisper, then Nikki came back to the phone, “Tess I’ve got to go Sam says the plumber has returned with the part he went to buy.”

“Alright see you later…I love you.”

Nikki smiled, “Love you too…bye.”

Tess hung up the phone with a toothy smile. She actually had an ulterior motive for going to the gallery, but she wasn’t going to tell Nikki that, it was a surprise. A good one she hoped.

Jason chose that moment to barge into Tess’s studio, “Oh whatcha thinking about to give you a cheesy smiled like that…or need I ask?”

Tess looked up at the receptionist standing in the doorway and frowned, didn’t he look different the last time she saw him? “Jason, if you don’t mind me asking…where’s your hair?”

The man ran a hand over his head, “What do you think? I just popped out and got it cut.”

The photographer shook her head, “No, getting a cut means you have the ends chopped off Jase, you my friend are bald.”

Jason smiled, “Nope not bald, I had a number two blade, there is still some hair here,” he paused, “Just not a whole lot…so what do you think?” He did a mini twirl in the doorway.

Tess put on her diplomatic face, “Well err okay …the look as it is…is fine. But I’m afraid you’ve lost that smart, boy next door appearance.”

Jason flapped his hands, “Well I have had enough of that all sweetness and light image. I want to go for something a little bit more macho.”

The brunette chewed on the inside of her mouth, “Jason you are wearing beige slacks, a white shirt and pink tie…I am afraid I must be the one to tell you that pink and macho just don’t cut it…especially on you!”

“Well…” Jason flexed his arm making a muscle, “Who said anything about being macho with clothes on, I am thinking more of the old birthday suit…you know to give me that ‘grrrrrr’ look.” He smirked, “Do you want to see?” He began to loosen his tie.

Tess dived out of her seat, hands up in front of her vision, “Hell no, I’m an artist, are you trying to blind me for gods sake.” She stalked towards the smirking receptionist, “Now did you come in here for a specific reason, or just to annoy me because I have things to do.”

“Actually yes…I came in to tell you that your half one booking had to cancel…something about a guinea pig, a pencil, and a vet … I really didn’t want to know, so anyway I moved it to tomorrow morning.”

The brunette sighed, “Jason I’m not in tomorrow remember?” she paused, “Oh well I can make an exception being as though it is in the morning.”

Jason nodded, “Good thinking…sorry,” he turned to leave, “Oh and by the way…good luck for tomorrow evening. I shall be there showing my support, and maybe gloating slightly to your adoring fans because I know you in person,” he winked.

The photographer chuckled, “Thanks Jase, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Jason exited the studio, shutting the door behind him.

Tess folded her arms and looked around her empty studio, “Well if I have no other reason to be here, I might as well go and see Andrew now.” With an affirmed nod, she grabbed her bag, jacket and left the room

*******

Train stations had always been a pet hate of hers. Having to wait around the working class as they stood like flocks of sheep waiting for the inevitable late train to arrive. Rosalind had always tried to avoid them as much as possible, preferring any other form of transport than this; and right now she was glad that she was just waiting for somebody else to arrive.

Sitting in a sectioned off waiting room beside the platform, on a seat she hoped was clean if nothing else, Rosalind looked impatiently through the window. Out to her left was a group of teenagers with probably nothing better to do; she idly wondered why they weren’t at school, and was just glad they showed no interest in her. To her right stood a couple of smartly dressed figures, holding suitcases and umbrellas like it was about to rain. The fact that the forecast for the week had been rather sunny seemed to have missed them, but then again she thought, when has anybody ever trusted the weather in England anyway.

Looking down at her gold watch, Rosalind scowled at the time; the train was near on ten minutes late. Muttering to herself she got up and exited the waiting room, walking out onto the platform. The sky was bright, but the air cold, with a brisk easterly wind chilling the atmosphere. Wrapping her long wool coat tightly around her small frame, the woman looked out along the tracks. A voice suddenly filled the calm, informing passengers that the train from Oxford was about to arrive. The small woman sighed in relief; she was beginning to get impatient.

Out in the distance the blurry image of the passenger train came into view. Rosalind watched as it neared the platform, slowing in its approach. Then with a loud hiss and crank of brakes, the large vehicle came to a halt. The woman watched as bodies mounted and dismounted the train, all the while keeping a look out for a certain individual. She didn’t exactly know what this person would look like, but she could start by a process of elimination. She dismissed every elderly man and woman, every child, obvious couple, and man until she had narrowed her search down to one of two women in their late twenties. The first wasn’t particularly striking in her appearance, and wore what the Mayoress considered cheap market clothes. The second woman was more appealing, with shoulder length red hair, and an expensive looking two-piece skirt suit. It seemed that her deep canal green eyes were also searching the platform.

Rosalind approached her, “Mrs Baldwin, Mrs Jennifer Baldwin?”

The woman looked at her, “Rosalind Morris?” She asked

The Mayoress nodded, “Hello…I am so glad you were able to make it down,” She sighed, “And that you are able to help myself and my daughter.”

Jennifer nodded sympathetically, “When I heard, I was more than willing to help you Mrs Morris believe me.”

“I am so glad.” Rosalind looked around and spotted a porter, motioning him to approach, “Well shall we get back to the hotel, I for one know that I am more than willing to get out of this place.”

The red head nodded, “Oh please lets, I would have taken the car but mine is being serviced and my husband has gone away in his, so I had to take the train…something I usually try to avoid.”

“I understand completely.”

The porter arrived and picked up Jennifer’s bags, following the two women as they headed towards Rosalind’s car.

*******

Nikki stood in the bathroom pulling off her clothes. She had been unable to have a shower this morning due to the boiler being down, and now that it was back up and running she was going to make full use of the fact. Nikki had decided that she never wanted to wash her hair over a sink ever again; more water had landed on the floor than in her hair. Pulling the final garment from her body the blonde stepped into the shower and turned on the spray, instantly the water warmed to her specification. With a content sigh, she immersed herself under the rapid beat of the water and closed her eyes in bliss. After this chaotic day, she was so much in need for a few moments of tranquillity.

*******

Holding Thunders reigns tightly in her left hand, Janie walked the large black horse around to the front of the house. She had decided to get Thunder used to her and of course, vice versa if they were to be working closely together. They’d already had a small trek around the back fields, and Janie wanted a few moments to look around the front of the house as well. She liked the place, the whole area in general and knew that she was going to love working here. Even her boss was an unexpected surprise. She had never expected somebody so close to her own age…and blind. Still she thought with a smile, she was going to have a great time here.

From the distance Janie heard the sound of a car engine, and looking up she spotted a dark green vehicle crossing the bridge. She approached the visitor cautiously. The car door opened and a tall figure emerged from the drivers seat.

Tess turned to her right to see a young woman standing with Thunder. She moved towards the girl whom she presumed was the new stable hand. “Hello.”

Janie blinked, “Oh hi…um can I help you?”

The photographer smirked, “Hmm…I don’t think so, but I’ll let you know if anything comes to mind.”

A slight frown, “Excuse me?”

Tess had to smile, “I’m Tess; I live here with Nikki.”

Blue eyes turned to saucers, “Oh…god I am so sorry I didn’t know who you were and I just presumed you were another sales person or something like that.” She blushed profusely.

A shrug, “Hey that’s okay, nice to see you are keeping a look out…thank you.” Tess looked towards the house, “So I presume Nikki is inside?”

Janie nodded, “Uh huh, she said something about finally being able to use the boiler. I think she was going to have a shower.” Janie watched as blue eyes glowed with mischief.

“Really? Hey do me a favour, if anybody comes around looking for us or if there is a phone call…whatever; just take messages or tell the person to call back. There are a few matters I need to discuss with Nikki and I think it should be done now. Is that okay?”

The mousy haired young woman looked up at Tess, “Of course, I shall go and tell Sam as well not to disturb you as you are in a meeting.” Janie nodded seriously and walked off to stable Thunder.

Tess watched the girl go, well a meeting of sorts, but hopefully more of the bodily kind.

*******

She heard it, even though Tess was trying her very best to be as quiet as possible. It still seemed that the photographer tended to forget just how sensitive Nikki’s hearing actually was. Yet she played along, innocently taking her shower seemingly unaware of the body sneaking up behind her.

Tess crept as quietly as possible, advancing on the small form in the shower. She reached the cubical and tried to open the door with as least amount of noise as possible, but as the magnetic strip along the door was pulled away from the frame, she knew she had to have been caught.

Nikki turned to face Tess, “You do realise I knew you were around from the first moment you entered the house, Leto is an excellent alarm system.”

Tess grinned and stepped into the shower, closing the door behind her and looking down at the soapy body, “Well then I guess you know what my intentions are then hmm?” She said with a thick voice.

The blonde stayed under the hot spray of water, “What about the others down stairs?”

“We are not to be disturbed while we are in a meeting.” Tess assured.

“Ha…and you really think anybody would buy that line?”

The brunette shrugged, “It seems Janie did…she can be convincing enough for the both of us, she has an innocent look about her.”

Nikki arched her eyebrows as she reached out and pulled the tall woman towards her and gasped in surprise, “Your still dressed!” She said to the rapidly soaking woman.

“Not for much longer.” Tess whispered.

Suddenly she heard it, a quiet but definite sound of knocking coming from the outer bedroom door. Nikki sighed, her head falling to the soaked chest in front of her, “There is somebody at the door.”

“Impossible,” Tess groaned, “I gave specific orders.”

“Then it must be something urgent do disturb our ‘meeting’ I guess.”

Tess ground her teeth, “Hell.” She stated as Nikki turned off the shower and she stepped out, leaving a wet trail along the carpet as she went. With a huff, Tess opened the door and Sam was greeted to the sight of one severely soaked and moody looking photographer.

“Whoa what happened, did the plumber break a pipe?” She asked.

Tess shook her head, “Nope!”

“Oh, okay.” She eyed the woman curiously, “Well I know you were supposed to be having a meeting or something but there is a Richard Morris on the phone…hey do you think that is the Mayor?”

“I should think so.” Tess said, “That’s Nikki’s father.”

“Really, gosh I never realised. Well then Nikki’s father is on the phone and he wants to talk to her urgently.”

Tess frowned wondering what the urgency was, “Sure okay, she will be right down.”

*******

It soon became increasingly apparent that wet clothes were incredibly uncomfortable to wear, and as Tess pulled off the annoying garments, she had to peel certain items away from her body. Grimacing at the feeling, she muttered that it would have been much better having Nikki do this, but the blonde had already gone down to take her call. The final piece of clothing landed with a slosh on the bathroom floor, and Tess grabbed a towel and wandered off in search of something dry to wear.

Leto sat tall on her masters’ bed watching the photographer amble through the bedroom with a towel wrapped around her torso. The golden dog wagged her tail, the appendage moving rapidly across the beds navy surface. Tess glanced at the friendly hound and narrowed her eyes in suspicions, “No way ‘tow tow’ you are not going to get any attention from me at the moment so stop looking at me like that. And don’t for one moment think that I have forgiven you for that whole spider incident yet.” Leto whimpered and rolled onto her back, legs suspended in the air, “At least let me get dressed first,” the brunette pleaded. Leto huffed and rolled onto her side, watching her master out of one eye; her vision shifted as Nikki walked into the room.

“Sam and Janie have gone home now.” She walked over to the bed, sensing Leto’s presence and sat on surface. Leto rolled onto her back as perceptive fingers started a tickling exploration of her chest and stomach. “My mums back in town.”

The statement was so unexpected that Tess almost did a double take at the blondes’ words. Pausing only briefly the photographer resumed her task of pulling well-worn blue jeans over her hips. “Is that what you father wanted?” She looked over at Nikki who was chewing the thumbnail of her free hand. It was a nervous gesture of the blondes but one Nikki had only told her about, thinking she was free of the habit. Pulling on a white cotton shirt, but leaving it unbuttoned Tess walked over to the seated woman and gently pulled the hand away from her mouth as she knelt down at the edge of the bed. “Nik?”

There was a slight shake of the head, “No, he told me earlier today but said he was doing some investigating to see whether it was true. I didn’t say anything because I wanted to be sure.” She sighed, “He just told me that one of his own colleagues spotted her at the train station earlier today, so I guess there is no doubt now.”

“She couldn’t have been there waiting to leave the city I suppose?” Tess hoped.

Nikki shrugged, “I doubt it.” Pulling her hand away from Leto, she pulled her legs up from the ground and crossed them. “The fact that she has yet to even make contact with any of us is what makes me nervous, why cant she just get it over with, what ever she has to say…just say it.” Rubbing her eyes, the blonde sighed again, “God I’m so pissed.”

Tess blinked; it was not like Nikki to use any kind of harsh language. “Look I can’t say I know what Rosalind is up to, but I can personally assure you that what ever it is, will not work.”

“You personally assure me huh?”

“Yep.” Tess climbed onto the bed, sitting beside her lover. She fiddled with the corner of her unbuttoned shirt, “For a start we know that she is here, and secondly although we have found out what she is capable of, whatever she has in mind will not work. My guess is that she has some devious little plan in mind to try and discredit me; she did say she would attempt it. Now although I know you wont believe her…as for everyone else,” She shrugged, “what can that do to my career anyway… most people see me as this grouchy, temperamental artist,” she chuckled, “Hey it’s what is expected, your mother said she would ruin my reputation, but to be honest it is like what Robert said, it really wouldn’t make any difference.”

Nikki frowned, “I don’t like the perception people have of you Tess.”

The photographer let her head fall to Nikki’s shoulder, “It only matters what you think of me anyway, and besides I am not going to think this is all about me…so to speak. She wants her daughter back from the clutches of the devils spawn.”

The blonde chuckled, “Hey those were Lisa’s words!”

Tess shrugged, “Whatever…look the point I am trying to make is that we know she is here and we are ready for whatever she has in mind. Hey it could even be a reconciliation and apology for her behaviour.”

“You think?”

Tess scrunched up her nose in disbelief, “Well it is one of many possibilities, lets keep our options open shall we.”

“Hmm.” Nikki let her head fall onto the brunette’s; her eyes glazing over with unshed tears. The more she thought about the way her mother had behaved, the more it hurt her. “Why is this happening Tess? Why does she have to be like this? You know part of me just wants to give her that money if it means she would stop all this hate…if I thought it would make her just love me as her daughter…I think I would.”

Tess heard the hitch in Nikki’s voice and pulled away, turning so she could pull the blonde into her chest and wrap both arms around the slight frame, “I’m sorry Nik, but if it were really that simple then I would truly have to hate your mother.” She sighed, “Nik, the love a mother has for her child should be lasting and unconditional, and if the money is more important to her than her own daughter then she doesn’t deserve either.” She paused in thought… “I know it may not help much, but my mother already loves you like a daughter.”

Nikki smiled through her tears, “It does…” She wiped her eyes, “help I mean. I don’t think I could ask for a better mother in law.”

“And I am sure she feels the same way about you.” Tess smiled. “Look whatever happens we will face it together, nothing is going to break us apart right?”

“You say that like you need reassurance.” Nikki said with half a smile.

“Just hoping you agree with me.”

“Well I do, and you are right…so lets not dwell on this anymore and talk about something a bit more interesting, like do we have any plans for tonight?”

The photographer frowned in thought, “Um, I don’t think so why?”

“Because my father had reservations for the Japanese restaurant in town, only now he has decided not to go, he said we could have them if we so wished.”

Tess could hear the hope in Nikki’s voice, “Well okay if you want to but I must warn you…I have never done Japanese.”

Nikki pulled back in shock, “What! Tess…miss I’ll eat anything as long as it doesn’t leave a trail in the garden Alexander, has never tried Japanese?”

She shrugged, “Never had the opportunity before, I take it you like?”

“Oh yes.” Nikki’s scrunched up her nose with a wide smile, “I love Japanese, my father used to take us to that restaurant all the time. I can use chopsticks but find them a bugger to eat with. The good thing about this is you get to use your fingers if you wish.”

“To eat?”

“Yep.”

“So are we talking sushi, and that kind of thing?”

“We sure are…are you game?”

“You know me.” Tess stated, “Just lead me to…hey hold on, do you have to sit on the floor?”

Nikki rolled her eyes, “You can if you wish, but you see they have this long curved table, kind of around half the bar where you can sit and eat from this wide selection of foods. There is also a secluded eating area with tables if you wish to sit in there, so do you want to go or are you going to ask me more questions?”

Tess narrowed her eyes, “Just one more…what do you have to wear? At the moment I have on jeans and a shirt.”

“That’s okay.” Nikki reached forward feeling the garments, she grinned “But you may want to do the shirt up.”

She looked down, “Good point.”

“Hmm.” The blonde smiled, “Wouldn’t want to scare the patrons away now would we.”

Tess looked up from her task of buttoning up her shirt, “Hey!”

*******

MikiMoto was by far one of Nikki’s favourite places to go. She loved the atmosphere, the food, the music, and the staff. The interior of the restaurant was typically oriental in design with white, black and maroon colours. Nikki entered the establishment first, followed by a curious Tess who having never been there before studied the setting with intrigue.

It was large, and divided into three main areas. There was the kitchen, open to view by the cliental where cooks with white uniforms and red ties and chef hats prepared the dishes in full view of the patrons. The private dining area was set off to the right side of the building and entered into by a small archway. Tess took a quick look inside and found the room to be subtler in appearance. The colours were lighter with more creams and beiges with framed Japanese prints on the wall.

The main area where Nikki preferred to eat was a lot livelier; the atmosphere was quite jovial, and light music played in the background. To the left was a curved bar, where you could sit and eat if you so wished, but Nikki preferred the conveyer. It was a long seating area where a wide variety of foods would pass by and you could take your pick of whatever was on offer. Richard would always sit with his daughter in the MikiMoto and describe every selection that passed by them until she became quite proficient in recognising those foods herself. She could even identify some of them as they passed simply by detecting their aromas.

From out of nowhere a small oriental man approached the couple. “Nicole Morris, how nice it is to see you again; we were expecting Mr Morris here this evening.”

Nikki smiled, “Hi Junya, no I am afraid he couldn’t make it so you are stuck with us.” She turned to the tall woman by her side, “Junya meet Tess, Tess this is Junya, his father owns this restaurant.”

They shook hands, as Junya moved his vision back to the blonde, “So Nicole I am guessing you would like a spot in the usual area right?”

“You know me so well” Nikki chuckled, “As long as it is near the influx of moving food I will be happy.”

The young man led them over to a spot by the long conveyer, luckily there were just two seats available; even for an early week night; the place was full. Tess sat down on a low back chair after Nikki had boosted herself up onto the other. The seats were round in shape and stationary, only turning in circular movements. Looking down at the conveyer, Tess watched the steady movement of brightly coloured foods as they passed her by.

Junya appeared by their side, “Would you like any drinks?”

Tess looked to the blonde, “Nik?”

“Just a water for me thank you.”

The brunette nodded, “I’ll have a tonic water with ice and lemon thanks.”

The young man disappeared, leaving Tess looking down at the array of foods on offer. She watched as certain items passed her by, checking to see what looked raw and what looked cooked.

“So what do you think?” Nikki asked.

Tess frowned watching a particular piece of suspect fish pass her by, “I’ll let you know later. So is all this stuff supposed to be good for you…personally I don’t see how raw fish can be good for you.”

Nikki rolled her eyes, “Tess, it isn’t exactly the raw part, but the fish in itself, you know all that omega three fatty acids that’s good for the heart, the bones, and of course the brain.”

“You are not going to start lecturing me now on the benefits of healthy eating are you, I used to get enough of that from my mother. ‘You have to stop eating ready meals and eat more fresh produce…” she imitated then smirked, “Do you think she meant fresh as in raw?”

The blonde shook her head, “You know if I could issue a glare at you right now I think I would.”

Tess shrugged, “Anyway…” She looked over at the moving selection of foods on offer. “When do we eat? I am starving over here.”

Junya re-appeared holding a try with the women’s drinks and a selection of plates and bowls upon the surface. Holding the serving apparatus with one hand, he placed down the drinks followed by the crockery and eating implements. He smiled at the couple, “There you go Nicole, the chef has prepared your favourites tonight ohitashi, and inari.”

“Oh great.”

Tess leaned to the side, “What’s that?” She whispered.

Nikki grinned, “Ohitashi is boiled green vegetables in a sesame sauce, and inari is sushi and tofu cooked in a sweet soy sauce…my favourite.”

The photographer looked along the conveyer, “Well damn it what are we waiting for? I am about ready to gnaw off my own fist here.”

Nikki grinned in Junya’s direction, “She’s a little hungry.” She stated with a chuckle.

*******

They left the restaurant just before eleven o’clock, Tess sweating and red in the face, Nikki with an amused smirk still on her features. The brunette looked down at her lover, “You know it wasn’t that funny.”

“Am I still laughing?” Nikki asked, with a chuckle, “Oh okay maybe a little, but you can’t blame me, it was funny.”

“No it wasn’t funny, it was blasted hot!”

The blonde hooked her arm tighter around the taller woman’s, “Of course it was hot…it was wasabi, it’s supposed to be hot.”

“Well you could have warned me.”

“Tess how was I supposed to know you don’t go for hot foods, you seem to eat anything and anyway if I knew you were going to try it in the first place I could have warned you.” She chuckled, “I was trying to talk you through the different items, but you were getting carried away with yourself.” She let her head fall to the strong arm by her side, “So how are you feeling now…has your tongue stopped swelling.” She grinned again, unable to help herself.

“Hmm.” Tess looked down at the crown of blond hair, “Thank god for chilled lagers that’s all I can say.”

“Just a shame you had to grab the one that belong to that guy sitting next to you.” Nikki snickered as she remembered the incident, Tess had gone through four drinks to try and get the taste and temperature out of her mouth. “Still if it makes you feel any better, the same thing happened to me the first time I tried wasabi, which is why I tend to stay away from it.”

Standing at the curb, Tess waited for a break in the traffic so they could cross to the other side. She had parked the Blazer facing the restaurant, but on the other side of the road, and although it was getting quite late, there was still a generous flow of traffic. She laughed, “Well at least I am not the only one who has gotten a vocal cord scalding, curtsey of the MikiMoto.”

Nikki sighed dramatically, “Nope, and can you believe it, before I first tried wasabi I used to have a really deep manly sounding voice.”

The traffic cleared and Tess led the blonde across the road, “Hmm, I can actually.”

“Oh you cheeky sod.”

Tess chuckled, “Just getting you back for laughing at me in there.”

“I didn’t laugh while you were going through your consumption of liquid products though,” Nikki stated, “It wasn’t funny until you told Junya that if you’d had wanted ‘hot flushes and a mouth full of searing liquids you would have stayed at home’.”

The photographer snickered, “At least he didn’t get it.”

“I’m glad he didn’t.” Nikki pulled her arm from Tess as they reached the car and the tall woman unlocked the doors. She climbed into the passengers’ side and waited as Tess took her place behind the wheel. “Unfortunately the man beside you understood that statement completely.”

Tess laughed out loud, “Yeah I guess that’s why he started choking on that temaki thing.” Pushing the key into the ignition, Tess pulled out into the road, and headed home.

*******

She had recognised the dark green Blazer parked on the side of the road, mainly by accident. Having gone to close the curtains of her hotel room, Rosalind’s eyes caught the familiar looking vehicle and on closer inspection of the number plate, confirmed it did indeed belong to Tess Alexander. It seemed only obvious that her eldest daughter would have been with the photographer and as her constant vigil continued she eventually spotted the couple exiting the MikiMoto a couple of minutes before eleven o’clock.

Rosalind watched them make their way towards the green vehicle, noting their close proximity. She scowled at the happy look on both faces, knowing it wouldn’t last much longer. Soon they would all be aware of her return to the city, and with the help of her new ally, Nikki would discover the true nature of Tess Alexander.
6
Looking through the viewfinder of her camera, Tess studied the family coming into focus. Father, mother and two pre-teenage sons. She narrowed her eyes as she witness the elder of the two boys Michael, stick his tongue out at her. He had been doing that all through the shoot and she had been hard pressed to get many decent shots, especially with the two brothers working together. It seemed that every time their parents attention turned to the camera, they would pull faces, stick out their tongues and at one point give her the finger.

Internally the photographer shook her head, knowing exactly why that poor defenceless guinea pig had bitten the youngest of the brothers, Fredric. She guessed that was what happened when you tried to stick pencils in places that weren’t meant to be touched. Fredric had been made to keep his gnawed finger hidden for the shoot, but he still managed to produce it in time to ruin one of Tess’s pictures with a nice shot of him holding up his middle finger and smiling proudly. The brunette sighed, oh how she wished she were still in bed this morning; still if all went well and the rightly named Michael and Freddy would just behave for a few more minutes, she would be finished and back home for eleven o’clock.

Tess poked her head above the camera and looked at the grinning Freddy, I wonder whether he has the stripy orange sweater yet? She thought and grinned to herself, causing the eldest brother with the two missing front teeth to stare at her in suspicion. Tess noticed the look, and hid her face back behind the camera hiding her smile. She usually had a way with the people she was shooting, able to bring out best in them, make them laugh with strange stories and knowingly lame jokes. But with this sitting she was having no luck. It seemed the parents were aware of the boys’ typical behaviour and seemed more focused on hoping the shoot went well than actually getting involved. Still the photographer had to be patient, she was formulating a plan and if all went accordingly, she would soon have these two tear-aways eating out of her hands.

Frowning, the tall woman backed away from the camera, “Excuse me a moment Mr and Mrs Simpson, I need to go grab another film.” And with that she quickly escaped to her office. Picking up the phone the brunette dialled the front desk and Jason answered the phone. “Good Morning Snap Shots, this is Jason speaking how can I help you?”

“Jase, it’s me…can you do me a fake card check and I need it now, got it?”

There was a muted snigger, “Yep no probs Tess, give me one minute.”

“Thanks.” She placed down the receiver and walked back into the studio. “Sorry about that I wanted to make sure I had enough of a certain type of film.” She approached the family, seeing the toothless grin on the eldest boys face. “So shall we get back to it, oh and will you be wanting some pictures of the boys together?”

Husband and wife looked at each other wearily, “Um I don’t know…it would be nice?” The woman said quietly, “But I don’t know how the boys will feel about that, they are not big on getting their pictures taken.” She said.

Tess nodded, Uh huh, well they better get used to it because in a few years they will be sitting for their mug shots! she thought and just managed to keep the smirk from her face. As the brunette approached the camera there was a sudden knock at the door, and she shouted for the ‘unknown’ person to enter.

Jason appeared in the doorway looking a little perplexed. “Um, Mr and Mrs Simpson, I just tried to get validation on your card for those frames you wanted to purchase but it seems it has been denied.”

The couple looked at each other, “That is impossible,” said the husband, “Are you sure?” Asked the wife.

Jason shrugged, “As far as I know…I could try again.”

The woman got up, “Yes please, I don’t understand how it could be refused.”

“If you would like to go and check, I can wait…you are my only booking this morning so I am in no rush,” said Tess.

Husband and wife nodded, “If you don’t mind?”

Tess smiled sweetly, looking in the boys’ direction, “No go ahead…we will be fine here wont we guys?”

After casting a nervous glance at the two boys, both parents left the studio.

Silence reigned for a few seconds as the remaining occupants of the room sized up their opponents. Tess stood tall, folding her arms, while the two boys looked at each other with nervous expressions. It seemed that all of a sudden the tall photographer looked a little on the intimidating side.

Pursing her lips, Tess approached the little horrors with a blank expression. Once they were inches apart, she stopped and looked down upon the seated brothers, with an arched brow. She smiled sweetly, moved to a kneeling position and cleared her throat. “I bet it really hurt when your guinea pig, what was his name…” she grinned, “Oh yeah…Tinkerbell, bit you?”

“No.” Replied Freddy.

“Uh huh.” Tess let her arms fall to her lap and switched her look between the two boys; she narrowed her eyes in thought. “You know…I really don’t like it when people make faces while I am trying to take pictures, it makes me a little annoyed, and kind of makes my job a little harder to do, you know!”

The brothers shrugged smugly.

The brunette frowned in thought, “Hmm…trouble is that when I get annoyed, it’s not a pretty sight, I tend to lose my patience if you know what I mean.”

Michael rolled his eyes, “You can’t touch us…were kids and you are a grown up, you would get done by the police. I would tell on you.”

“Oh you would huh…” She rocked back onto her heals deciding on a slightly different tactic. Getting up Tess walked over to her door and leaned against the frame. She looked at the dent still in the hardwood, “See that there.” She nodded towards the indentation, “That hole.”

“Yeah?” Both boys said in unison.

“Well that is what happened the last time somebody made me angry.” She pulled her hand into a fist and placed the appendage into the dent, fitting it together like a jigsaw. “See?”

“So what, you hit the door…wow,” Freddy said sarcastically.

Tess shook her head; “No I hit the door because the person that made me angry wasn’t here at the time. You two are here…just you and me, it’s like Tinkerbell…you annoyed him and he bit you. You see that’s the thing guys, you play up too much, annoy somebody for too long…and eventually they will bite back.”

There was silence as comprehension dawned on the brothers. Tess made her way back to the camera when she heard the parents approach. They entered the studio, and after an apology for the interruption, an explanation that it had been a misunderstanding and comment on how quiet the boys had been, Tess carried on taking their pictures. The rest of the shoot went off without a hitch.

*******

She had wanted a few moments of peace and quiet, a little piece of solitude in order to observe her own thoughts, to bask in the calm stillness of this cool spring morning and allow her mind to wander.

Nikki reclined on the back of the shallow stream, her naked feet hanging over the dirt ditch, just touching the cool water below. She had put on a pair of cropped trousers that morning, and although it wasn’t intentional, they were indeed a good choice. Hanging just below her knees, they were well out of the waters reach. Nikki was surprised by the relatively warm temperature of the atmosphere, and had decided on a short tee shirt with sweater that she had wrapped around her waist.

Leto sat by the blondes’ right side, idly looking out over the fields at the front of the house. It was Leto who had decided to follow the blonde outside, and although Nikki hadn’t considered it at the time, she always welcomed the golden dogs reassuring presence. Leto seemed to understand her, and as unexpected as it had been, she was a natural guide. With a sigh the dog fell to her stomach, conveniently placing herself by Nikki’s removed shoes and of course…socks. Nikki let her hand fall to the golden dogs head and gently stroked the soft fur, “Don’t you go getting any ideas about my socks there ‘tow tow’.” Leto rolled onto her side, closing her eyes in contentment.

Nikki smiled and pushed herself forward slightly, letting her feet lower further into the water where she moved them through the gentle current. She was happy for these few moments of tranquillity. Sam had arrived on time that morning and was already set on clearing away the empty boxes in the house, Janie had arrived an hour later and was busy cleaning out the stable. She had things to do herself; in fact there was a whole mental list of things for her to be getting on with, but for the moment she was content to do nothing at this precise moment in time.

Running the fingers of her right hand through Leto’s soft fur, Nikki wandered in thought. Tonight was going to be big. Many artists from all around the country were going to be at the gallery this evening, either showing off their works whether it be photographic, painting, or sculptures; or just viewing them. Tess had even told her there would be one artist whose flair was fresco and that was something she would have loved to feel. Apart from Tess there were three other photographers there this evening, all male. In fact the more Nikki thought about it the more she realised that there were only two female artists attending this evening, Tess being one of them.

Nikki leaned back onto her one free hand, tilting her head towards the sky and letting the gentle breeze flow over her features. She took in a deep breath, as her heightened senses caught the familiar sound of an approaching vehicle…Tess’s. With a smile, she pushed herself forward and waited as the Blazer rolled gently over the bridge. Beside her Leto rose to her feet, tail wagging in anticipation as she waited for her master approach. “I guess Tess is home hey ‘tow tow’?” The dog barked excitedly as Tess opened the door to her Blazer and stepped out onto the driveway. Nikki chuckled, “Oh go on then, go and greet her before you just burst with excitement.” At her words Leto took off towards her master.

Tess laughed and prepared herself for the impact as Leto hurled herself into her masters’ stomach. The golden hound hurtled towards the brunette and threw her small muscular form into the tall woman, knocking her slightly, but Tess still managed to keep on her feet. “Hey there ‘tow tow’ I have only been gone for a couple of hours.” Leaning down Tess allowed the dog a few more moments of excitement before standing back up and issuing an order to calm herself. Leto did as ordered and stopped her insistent quest to cover as much of the photographer as she could with her tongue. With a satisfied nod, Tess moved past the dog and walked up behind Nikki. Kneeling down she placed her arms around the smaller woman and kissed her right cheek.

“You are earlier than I expected.” Nikki said with a smile.

“Hmm…thought I would come and spend some time with you. So what are you doing?” She asked as she placed her chin on Nikki’s right shoulder and looked down into the trickling river below.

“Thinking, enjoying some peace and quiet,” she grinned, “Trying to get out of doing all the chores I have.”

“Want help now that I’m here?”

Nikki shook her head as she let it fall back to the photographer shoulder. “Actually no…I have a suggestion, if you are game though.”

Tess arched her eyebrows as she turned to Nikki, feeling the soft strands of the blondes hair tickle her cheek, “Oh sounds fun, do tell.”

“I was wondering…well actually it was one of the things I intended to do today probably with Janie, but now that you are here I was thinking maybe you would like to come with me?”

The tall woman frowned, “You know you just asked me to do whatever you are intending on doing, without even asking me.”

The blonde bit her lip, “Um…come riding with me? I want to take Thunder out for some exercise around the boundaries. Would you come with me? We can walk him for a while, ride if you are willing but I really want to take him out.” Nikki internally crossed her fingers. She knew how Tess felt about getting up on a horse, but hoped her lover would trust her enough to know that she would be in experienced hands.

Sucking on her bottom lip Tess frowned, “I err…um…” she nodded, “If you want me to go with you…then of course.”

A wide smile, “Really?”

“I’ll admit that I will be a little cautious, but I trust you Nikki so of course I will go with you…however much I may grouse about the thought of getting on a horse, there is a part of me that really wants to try it.”

Nikki turned and put her arms around Tess, “Great…trust me this will be wonderful, it really is a great experience.” She pulled away, her hands cupping Tess’s cheeks, “You ready to do it now?”

“No time like the present.” Tess leaned forward and kissed the blondes lips once, “But let me just go and get changed, I don’t think riding in my work clothes will be a very wise move.”

“Okay.” Nikki moved to the side, climbing from Tess’s lap and rising to her feet. “You go and get changed while I get Thunder saddled and ready to go.”

Tess got to her feet, then leaned down and picked up Nikki’s cane, taking the blondes hand and placing it within her grasp. “Lets go,” she said, and together they made their way to the house. Walking across the gravelled driveway Nikki hooked her arm around Tess’s with a smile as the taller woman looked down at her, “What are you grinning at Miss Morris?”

Nikki shrugged as Tess pushed open the front door and guided her into the house, “Just happy you are coming with me.”

The photographer smirked, “Hmm…well just remember I am putting my life in your hands here.” Nikki rolled her eyes, “Hey don’t give me that look.”

“Fine.” The blonde pulled away and headed towards the kitchen as Tess approached the stairs, “You go and put on your protective body armour, and I’ll saddle Thunder.”

Sniggering as she mounted the stairs, Tess pulled off her jacket, “Protective body armour,” she chuckled, “Smart arse.”

“I HEARD THAT!”

Tess stopped and looked back bemused, “That’s my line.”

*******

Moving through a crop of high bushes, Bradley White stopped as Riverside Farm came into view. Squinting in the sunlight, he scanned the house and surrounding area. He took off again, moving to the side for a better view but in no way closer to the building. In the distance he spotted the small golden dog running around the houses left side. It stopped, moving around the ground as it detected a familiar scent, before taking off again and disappearing to the houses rear.

Crouching in the thick undergrowth Bradley pulled a small pocket size pair of binoculars from his jacket. Placing them before his eyes, he twisted the eyepiece into focus and obtained a closer look at the house. He saw a young woman probably early twenties; standing outside a large outer building that he presumed was the stables where CJ delivered the horses. He observed the girl as she turned, obviously hearing something, and watched as the blonde woman approached her. With a sneer, he pulled the binoculars away from his face and simply watched.

*******

Janie turned at the sound of her boss’s voice, and smiled as the blonde approached. She had been expecting her, knowing Nikki intended on taking Thunder out for some exercise this afternoon; she wondered whether she would be required to go with her.

“How’s Jenna and Jasper doing?” Nikki asked as she approached the young woman.

The mousy haired girl placed the brush she was holding by the side of the brick structure, “Mare and foal appear to be doing just fine…Jasper is feeding well, and trotting around the stable happily.”

“Good.” Nikki stopped by the stable door; “I am going to take Thunder out for some exercise…Tess is coming with me.”

“Okay,” she didn’t realise Tess had returned from work, “Do you want me to saddle him?”

Nikki shook her head, “I can do that…I love preparing the horses for riding.” She entered the stable, Janie following directly behind.

“Do you want me to fetch everything from the tack room?”

“Yes please, thank you Janie.”

The young woman went off as Nikki moved further into the room. “So Thunder are you ready to come out with Tess and me?” Thunder trotted into the centre of the barn, approaching the blonde then nuzzled her neck. “Hey baby,” she pushed her free hand over the horses’ head, “Are you ready for our excursion?” Thunder nickered softly causing Nikki to smile.

“Okay…are we ready to go?” Tess entered the stable arms out wide in expectation. After Nikki’s joke about body armour, Tess had taken the statement seriously. She had donned a pair of black steel toecap boots, her thickest pair of jeans over Lycra gym sweats. All topped off with three tee shirts, a sweatshirt and her thick denim jacket…and still she wanted more.

Nikki approached her lover, “We sure are, just as soon as we saddle Thunder.” She put her hand on Tess’s arm and frowned as her hand moved over the photographers body, “Tess what are you wearing?”

“Clothes.”

“Your entire wardrobe?” The blonde asked incredulously as she felt the density of her garments.

Hands landed on padded hips, “No…just a couple of layers…it’s cold out.”

“Is not!”

She sighed, “Alright fine, I’m being precautious.”

Nikki snorted as her hands travelled over the tall woman’s body taking on the extra layers of clothing. She bent down feeling Tess’s legs, “Jeans and something underneath? Patting the woman’s knees she frowned, “Are they your roller-blading knee pads?” She felt lower, “Steel cap boots.” Nikki shook her head as she righted herself and allowed one of her hands to run through Tess’s hair.

“What?”

“Just seeing whether you had on that construction helmet you own as well.”

“No!” She paused, “I figured you would have the protective head gear.”

Wrapping her arms around the taller woman, Nikki let her head fall to the woman’s chest, “Oh…don’t worry I’ll look after you.” She lifted up onto her toes kissing the photographers chin before pulling away, hearing the sound of approaching footsteps outside.

Janie entered the stable loaded down with Thunders tack. Tess noticed the girls discomfort and moved to release her of some of the burden. “Nice to see you again Janie.” The photographer stated as she took the large leather saddle out of the girls arms.

“You too Miss Alexander.”

“Ugh” Tess growled, “Call me Tess please.”

Janie placed the remaining tack on a side bench, “Okay Tess.” She smiled and looked towards the blonde “If you don’t need me for anything else, I shall get on with cleaning out the other side of the stable.”

“Sure Janie go ahead, Tess and I can handle this.”

The stable hand wandered off into the back of the building as Nikki rubbed her hand together, “Right then ‘Evel Tessa Knievel’, lets get Thunder saddled shall we?”

Scowling Tess picked up the saddle, “Lead on oh wise assed one.”

*******

With practiced hands Nikki tightened the girth, then checked the saddle, “Hmm I think that just about does it.”

Not knowing what to do Tess fussed around the horse, “Are you sure they are all on tight?” She circled the large creature checking every nook and cranny; not that she knew what she was looking for.

The blonde straightened herself with an exasperated look, “Tess…trust me, I do know what I am doing, and yes everything is safe and secure.”

“Okay…I trust you.” Tess smiled with thin lips as she studied the large black stallion, “It’s him that I am a little wary of.” She took a step towards Thunder, looking him squarely in the eyes, “Just so you know horsey, I have never ridden before so I am hoping you will be gentle with me.” Thunder nickered and nuzzled the photographers’ cheek. “Is this a good sign?” she asked with uncertainty.

Nikki smiled as she took Thunder reigns and began to lead him out the stable, “Hey if he comes near you, he likes you…if he really didn’t like you, you would know.”

“How?”

“Do you really want to know?”

Tess thought for a while as she exited the building, “Actually no…I think I would prefer not to.”

Nikki nodded, “Wise choice.”

The sky was littered with an array of peculiar shaped white clouds, floating swiftly through the breezy mid morning sky. The sun was out, shining brightly over the grassy lands, but its rays were constantly interrupted by the overshadowing presence of wispy billowing vapours.

Tess approached the gate that led into the first field and pulled it open, allowing Nikki and Thunder to pass through. She then entered the field herself, securely shutting the gate behind her and looked out over the surrounding area. They had entered the smallest field, which Nikki intended on being a paddock for the horses; there was another slightly larger field just beyond this one that she wanted to use for the horses exercise as well. The women walked together quietly, peacefully enjoying the tranquil sounds of the countryside, the distant sound of the trickling stream, birds singing in the multitude of sporadically situated trees. High above, a jet aircrafts thunderous engines echoed throughout the sky.

Nikki sighed in content bliss. This was where she felt most at home, out in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the comforting sounds of nature. Holding Thunders reigns in one hand and Tess’s in the other, the tall woman led her to the outer edges of their land. Beyond that was the general countryside, and a lake where small wooden boats were moored around the edges, their painted shallow structures faded and peeling, showing their age. Tess looked out over the lake spotting the ‘no fishing’ signs around the boundaries. “Maybe one day we could go out on that lake over there.”

“Hmm…what lake?” Asked the blonde.

Tess nodded in its direction, “Over to our right, there is a small lake with some old boats around the edges. Not big ones really, slightly larger than canoes, but the same kind of shape.”

“That would be nice.” Nikki answered lightly, enjoying the feeling of solitude in the wide-open space of her rural surroundings.

They were quiet once again, and as Tess closed the last gate to their own land, she looked out upon the open space beyond. To their left was a densely populated forest but she really didn’t think Nikki would take her riding in there; it seemed much too precarious for her first time on a horse. Instead Nikki headed towards the lake.

“I want to sit by the water for a while,” she stated, putting her arm around the brunettes and leading her in its general direction. She began to hear the gentle splash of water as a family of ducks glided over its rippled surface. “It sounds like we are not the only ones out here toady!”

The brunette looked out across the water, “Mmm hmm, there’s some ducks out there; a big one that looks like the mother, and four,” she frowned and looked closer, “no five babies swimming behind.”

“Do you think they will mind the intrusion?”

Tess shrugged, “Probably not, though if we had some bread they would probably welcome us with open arms…or um wings.”

Nikki smirked, “Uh huh!”

Once reaching the lake, Nikki turned to Thunder and patted the large horses neck lightly, “Okay boy, I am going to let you wander freely around here for a while okay?” The stallion nickered and Nikki grinned, “Good boy…don’t go too far…and come when I whistle.” She released the reigns and allowed him to stroll around the shore of the lake.

Tess looked down at the blonde, “Will he actually do that?”

“What?”

“Come when you whistle?”

Nikki shrugged, “It’s a talent in training, he comes when I call him but I wondered the other day whether he would come when I whistled, so far it has not worked…I don’t think he likes being liken to a dog. He probably saw Leto come when you whistle her and decided that was more the trick of a lowly hound.”

“Lowly!” Tess asked incredulously.

“Hey I am just thinking in horsey terms now, and Leto’s difference in size etcetera, I mean Thunder is taller than you…even I used to wonder how I managed to get up on him.”

The photographer looked down at Nikki’s legs, “Hmm…I have no idea.” She grinned lecherously then cleared her throat, looking away to the gentle lapping of the lake. “Do you want to sit?” she pulled off her jacket instinctively and lay it upon the ground. With the amount of layers she was wearing, in no way would she feel any sort of chill outside today anyway.

“Oh such graciousness.” Nikki gushed with a smirk as she heard the photographers’ antics, and lowered herself to the denim-covered ground. Taking in a lung full of cool fresh air Nikki sighed, closing her eyes and lowering herself to lay fully upon the grassy surface. “Ah this is pure bliss.”

With a bemused expression Tess plonked herself next to the blonde and looked across the water. The family of ducks seemed to be taking an interest in the new arrivals, probably wondering whether we have any food, Tess thought.

Lacing dainty fingers behind her head, Nikki turned her head towards Tess, “Are you nervous about tonight?”

“Nope.”

“Tess, you know you can’t hide your feelings from me.”

A slight sigh, “Oh okay…maybe a little, it’s a big night Nik and there are going to be quite a few influential people there.” She turned her eyes to the wispy sky in thought, “You know I just realised something.”

“What’s that?”

Reaching over Tess rubbed her palm against the blondes stomach, “This will be our first time out together…as a couple I mean.”

Nikki bit her lip as a sudden feeling of uncertainty inched its way into her mind, “Does that bother you? I mean especially when all these people are going to be there.” She paused, “You…do still want me to go don’t you?”

Tess turned suddenly and looked down at the reclined blonde, “Nik, of course I still want you with me…jeez…I was just making an observation that’s all.” She frowned, “Why would you think that?”

Rising to a sitting position the blonde shrugged, “You once told me that Andrew Spencer used to have feelings for you…in the eyes of a lot of people, you two would make a much more acceptable match than us, especially with you being in the public eye.”

Tess snorted, “Nik this is England,” she chuckled wryly, “This would just be considered another facet to my ‘enigmatic’ personality I guess.” She sighed, “Besides, I can’t wait for them all to see the most stunning looking woman there tonight on my arm.” The blonde blushed, lowering her head but it was pulled back by gentle fingers, “What have I told you about that hmm?”

A frown, “Do you mean that?”

“What?” Jade eyes searched the heart shaped face confused.

“That I am ‘stunning’?”

With gentleness, Tess lifted up and straddled the smaller woman’s legs, making sure to brace her weight on her own limbs. She cupped Nikki’s face, “Nik you are gorgeous. I know it maybe hard in a way for you to understand physical beauty when for you, it comes through in personality… which by the way still makes me wonder why you liked me in the first place.” She chuckled, “But as I was saying before I rudely interrupted myself, everyone has different ideas of the ideal beauty, and to me…that is you.” God if only you knew how much.

There was a tiny smile “Tess, I was attracted to you from the onset because I could see through that unapproachable exterior of yours…it was like I felt the person that was inside.” She poked her index finger into the photographers’ chest, “This person…the one that I wake up with every day, that cares for others much more than she herself would care to admit, and the one that lays her jacket down on the ground so I don’t get a damp back side!”

Tess laughed and leaned forward sealing her lips with Nikki’s and kissing her softly. She pulled back and looked into sightless sky-blue eyes with wonderment, “Ugh, we better stop this before I start getting all mushy on you.”

“Ready for your first riding experience then?” Nikki asked.

“On second thought.” Leaning forward the photographer sealed her lips with Nikki’s as she pushed her back towards the grass. They kissed for some minutes, until both women pulled away for the mutual need of air. “Hmm, seems I like the mushy stuff after all.”

Nikki pushed her hands across the body above her, “You wouldn’t be trying to stall would you Miss Tess?”

Tess became a picture of innocence, “Moi…why of course not,” she said as her right hand started a journey across the woman’s chest, “What would make you think such a thing?”

“Because…” Nikki gasped as the roaming hand reached its intended destination, “One, I know you; two, you couldn’t play innocent even if you tried, and anyway…there is still the journey back to consider so no matter what you have in mind…either way…I still win.” She smiled, trying to ignore the growing need within.

Tess’s head paused millimetres from its intended target, “Damn.” She sighed, “Well then I guess I am just going to have to make the most of this aren’t I?”

“Be my guest.” Nikki groaned as the dark head completed its journey.

*******

The sound of a shrill, high-pitched whistle shattered the peaceful calm. Tess grimaced and placed her finger in her ear, wiggling it around as she tried to ease the sudden popping sensation. She looked at Nikki accusingly, “Damn it do you have to be so loud, I think you just burst my ear drum.”

Nikki rolled her eyes and listened, “He isn’t coming is he.” She sighed and tried again, placing the middle and index fingers of both hands into her mouth and blowing harshly.

Tess’s face scrunched as she pulled away, “Whoa, you have some mega lungs on you there blondie.”

Nikki raised her hand and listened, there was no sign of Thunder. Feeling a little nervous she called out, “Thunder come on boy.” There was nothing and Tess looked around the fields with a frown.

“Thunder come on, time for home.” There was still no sign of the stallion and the nervousness within her grew.

Tess looked at Nikki concerned, “Shouldn’t he be here by now?”

Nikki nodded, “Yes. THUNDER…COME ON BOY.” She shouted as loud as she could through cupped hands to enhance her volume. Nikki listened intently as Tess scanned the horizon. “What if something’s happened, what if somebody’s got him…THUNDER?”

Tess frowned, “There isn’t anybody out here Nik.”

“Well what if…” Nikki paused and tilted her head to the right, she smiled, “Oh good here he comes.”

Looking up the photographer saw the black stallion emerging from the forest; she breathed an internal sigh of relief. “He had me worried there for a moment!”

Nikki let her head fall to her hands, “For a while there I had this awful feeling,” came the muffled response, “I thought something had happened.”

Tess watched as the horse trotted happily over to the blonde and nuzzled her cheek, she shook her head, “Thunder, you ever do that again and one of us may just have a break down.” She sucked in a deep breath, “So that was a bit of excitement huh…I think a nice calming walk would do us all the world of good.” She looked towards Nikki, “Don’t you agree?”

Tongue in cheek, Nikki snickered, “Tessa Josephine Alexander!”

The photographer scowled, her eyes glaring with hidden mirth at the blonde.

“I cannot believe you would try and get out of this, especially after all the time you put into padding your body with as much layers of clothing as possible.” She scratched her nose, hiding the smile behind a conveniently placed hand. “Trust me Tess, you will love this.”

Twisting the toe of her booted right foot, Tess kicked the grassy earth, “Aww…okay, come on then.” She sighed dramatically.

Nikki clapped her hands, “Excellent.”

*******

Sucking on her bottom lip, Tess’s eyes narrowed as she studied the large stallion. Standing at Thunders left side, she folded her arms as Nikki checked over the fastenings, securing the girth one more time, just for the brunettes’ own peace of mind.

“Okay.” Nikki stepped back, “We are all set.”

“Are you sure?”

A sigh, “Yes!”

Nodding, Tess blew out a forced nervous breath, “Right, lets get to it.”

Giving an affirmed nod, the blonde stood by Thunder. “Okay, now listen. I am going to hold onto Thunder and I want you to get up on him first.” At Tess’s high pitched ‘what’ Nikki continued, “Look, all you have to do is put your left foot in the stirrup and lift yourself up and into the saddle, taking hold of the pommel. I will hold Thunder to keep him still, trust me Tess you will be fine.”

Arms hanging limply by her side, capable hands clenched and unclenched repeatedly. Tess stared at the stallion and took a breath of courage, feeling her heart flutter in her chest. Was that excitement? She shook her head, “Right.” Stepping forward the photographer braced her foot in the stirrup. She closed her eyes, Okay Tess girl, here we go…one…two…three “Oh shit!” She exclaimed as she vaulted up into the saddle, hand grabbing a firm hold of the sturdy pommel.

“How do you feel?” Nikki asked from beside Thunder.

“Okay, um are you getting up here now?”

“Uh huh.” Nikki moved herself to the stallion’s side and placed her foot in the stirrup, lifting herself up onto Thunder, easily and efficiently. She landed behind the photographer. “Feel okay?”

Tess held the pommel securely, squinting forward through one eye, unmoving. Taking a deep breath she opened her other eye and took another deep breath, “Um, yeah…I feel okay.”

“Ready to go?”

“Slow right?”

Nikki smiled, “Of course.”

“Okay.”

With her heel Nikki urged the stallion into a gentle gait. In one hand she held Thunders reigns, keeping her other arm wrapped securely round Tess’s waist. “Remember to keep your eyes open Tess, I may be controlling Thunder, but you are my guide.”

Tess nodded, “Sure.”

She held on to the pommel with a strong grip, but as their slow pace continued, Tess’s confidence grew. She began to relax in her surroundings and sighed at the comfortable feeling of closeness she was able to share with the blonde behind. Leaning into the body behind, Tess’s mind began to unwind, and aided by the gentle sway of Thunders pace she drifted in random contemplation. Pleasant memories and feelings came to mind, and she smiled in thought. However, she soon lost that smile as a specific person came to mind. Rosalind. Nikki had seemed positive that her mother was back in town, and as far as she was concerned that meant trouble. The photographer didn’t want to express to her lover just how much contempt she had for the woman, and had done so much as to try and find explanations for Rosa’s behaviour. Nikki had been hurt too much already, hurt by a mother who seems ashamed of her daughters’ disability. A woman who had done so much as to put her two year old daughter through a serious operation just because she was displeased with the prospect of a daughter with one eye. Anger seethed through the woman and she held a little tighter to the pommel, her fingers digging into the hard leather.

“Hey! What’s wrong?”

Tess blinked, becoming aware of her surroundings, “Hmm?”

“What are you thinking about?” Nikki asked sensing the taller woman’s sudden agitation.

“Oh um.” She thought quickly, Hell…to lie or not to lie…damn it I can’t do that to her, Tess swallowed, “Um, I was just thinking about everything that has happened over the past months.”

“My mother!” The blonde stated; it was not a question.

She nodded, “Yeah…I’m sorry Nik, I know you could sense my anger.”

A shrug, “I know.” Leaning forward Nikki rested her head on Tess’s back. “We are not going to let this bother us remember…whatever she has in mind we will face it together.” She smiled, “Besides this is supposed to be a nice relaxing day, you’re not allowed to think broody thoughts today.”

Tess smirked, “Oh is that right?”

“Uh huh, I know you feel more anger to my mother than you will admit Tess, and I think I can understand your feelings, but I wont let what she says or does affect me anymore. If I do, I will never move on.”

Tess smiled, “You are right…”

“Of course!”

She rolled her eyes, “As I was saying…you are right, we have our own lives to live, and I will not let anybody change that.”

Nikki nodded with a contented sigh and Thunder increased his gait a little. “How are you doing?” When she first felt the tension slipping into Tess’s body, she had thought it was nervousness brought on by her current position, but as the tension turned to ire, she realised that wasn’t the case, and in a way was glad. Now she could feel the relaxed state Tess emitted and was happy; she knew she would enjoy this.

“I’m doing fine.” Tess replied, feeling an ounce of shock at her own statement…she really was quite comfortable.

“And that surprises you?”

“That I am having fun on a horse…too right.”

A sudden laugh, “Tess did you really think horses were that bad?”

Tess bit her lip, “Well no offence Nik, but before I met you, I wouldn’t have given one the time of day…or you know, any consideration or acknowledgement of any kind.”

“And now?”

“And now…you have introduced a whole new experience to me, one that I am actually enjoying very much!”

Nikki laughed, “Again that element of surprise in your voice.” She paused as a mischievous smirk cornered her mouth, “So…do you fancy going for a light trot?”

Tess looked down, “Huh? A light trot as in speeding up a little…um no thank you, with this being my first time I am quite happy just to move at this safe pace.”

“Whatever you feel most comfortable with.” The blonde stated and leaned into Tess’s, content to move at this leisurely pace if it meant spending longer with lover’.

*******

It was one of the best rooms of course, and although The Carnwood Hotel was only five floors high, it definitely was the most prestigious in town. Each room decorated with a certain regal air, it was the lodgings of choice for many important visitors to the city. It was a combination of these facts that obviously drew Rosalind to reside there, and thanks to a naïve young girl on reception, she had been able to sign in under an assumed name.

Though the room was occupied, to an outsider it would appear that it was in fact vacant. The plush double bed was immaculately made, tucked and folded rigidly in each corner. The light green carpet showed not a scuff nor indentation that anyone was using the room at all. All the furniture, comprising of one wardrobe, a chest of drawers and bedside table, were all completely clear, free from dust or any every day objects that would prove the room did indeed have an occupant. The silence was palpable, and if it weren’t for the slight form of the small middle-aged woman sitting in a large chair by the far corner…you would think the suite empty.

Rosalind looked at her watch; it had only just gone midday. She sighed and pulled her attention back to staring at the elaborate print of the of the hotel rooms wallpaper. There was just less than seven hours to go, so with nothing left to do, she waited. Constantly going over the plans in her head, a smile formed as she devised her reprisal; one way or another she would get back what was rightfully hers…and if that meant her eldest daughter had to be part and parcel of that…then so be it.

*******

The black stallion came into view, Tess strolling causally by its side as she opened and closed the gates to each part of land they entered. Nikki sat high atop Thunder, enjoying the feel of riding one of her favourite horses… of course she did have three now! They had made it back in good time, as Sam had informed Tess before she left that she would have lunch prepared for them by one o’clock, and Nikki was ‘starving’.

As they entered the paddock, Nikki felt a shudder of discomfort run through her. She frowned, recognising the same disconcerting feeling of being watched…again. It was cold, constricting and down right scary. Leaning slightly forward in the saddle Nikki moved towards the photographer, “Tess?”

“I know,” the brunette replied, “I feel it too.”

“You do?” She asked; her fear escalating giving credence to her perceptions that she had hoped was nothing more than Tess’s explanation of a ‘déjà vu type feeling’.

“Yes.” Green eyes scanned the surrounding area with caution. “I can’t explain it Nikki, but I sensed a change in you then all of a sudden I felt like we are being watched.” She frowned, “It’s a strange feeling though, almost like I recognise or am familiar with where it’s coming from.”

Nikki stopped Thunders gait and swung her leg over the large horse sliding to the ground beside Tess; taking the woman’s hand as soon as she was able. “Can you see anything?”

Looking all around her Tess took in the distant forest, expanse of fields, the emerging house and stables, and bordering bushes. She paused suddenly, something catching her eyes.

“What is it?” Nikki asked sensing the change in her lover.

Looking harder she saw it again, a flash of light, liken to sunlight glinting of a shiny object. It was sudden, brief and if Tess had at that moment she would surely have missed it. But she didn’t miss it, it was there and whatever it happened to be, it was pointed in their direction.

“Tess?”

“I don’t know Nik, but it looked like sunlight reflecting of a foreign object in the bushes.” Tess stood her ground, looking across the field and into the over growth of shrubbery, but she no longer saw it. No flash of light, no shining objects and no movement to indicate any sort of presence whatsoever. She sighed, her eyebrows drawing together as she turned away. “Whatever it was, I can’t see anything now. Maybe I should go and take a closer…”

“No!” Nikki said suddenly, “Please don’t go over there.”

Tess looked over at the bushes one more time, then down to the heart shaped face so full of concern, “Okay…I won’t.” She rubbed her forehead, ironing out the creases of uncertainty, “But what if there was somebody out there Nik?”

“I don’t know.” A trembling hand took a hold of Tess’s right arm, “But I just didn’t want you to go over there Tess.”

Tess’s mind pounded with indecision. This time she felt it, whatever this feeling was that had disturbed the blonde had worked its way into her consciousness. Usually her skeptical mind would insist that it was her emotions towards Nikki that had felt an empathetic response. But the fact that she had felt it before Nikki had even spoken, forced her be believe that was not the case. Putting her arm around slender shoulders, she pulled Nikki in close as they made their way back towards the house.

Once more she looked back, her vision intently poised on the tangled branches of the overgrown bushes. But there was nothing, no glint of sunlight hitting a reflective surface, no ounce of movement or presence at all. Sucking on her bottom lip, she turned her vision back towards the house and led Nikki and Thunder to the stables.

*******

He had watched them return, sitting quietly in the bushes he was quick to spot the two women make their way back from wherever they had been. The brunette walking idly by the black horses right side, the blonde…sitting confidently on top. They seemed strangely content to be lost in their own thoughts, and then unexpectedly it happened. With a shift the mood changed, and suddenly both women seemed alert…almost as though they were aware of his presence. Bradley had stared through his binoculars with an interest that soon vanished as the tall brunette look straight in his direction. He had pulled the object away suddenly, feeling a certain amount of shock and confusion as to why they would seem aware of his presence.

Then he watched from a distance, aware that his binoculars my indeed be signaling his position, he kept still. Watching as the taller of the two women stared intently in his direction; then seemed to make a move to get closer. At that point he had on impulse pulled the knife out of his pocket and readied himself. But it seemed that the blonde had held her back, and he breathed an internal sigh of relief. He wasn’t ready for them yet. So keeping as still as possible Bradley watched as they completed their journey back towards the stables and disappeared from sight. Once he felt the coast was clear, he backed his way out of the undergrowth and disappeared from hidden sight.

*******

They had returned home, both feeling a little subdued and lacking the appetite they had originally gained. Nikki entered the house, working her way through the lower floor until she reached the stairs, where she ascended the wooden structure and disappeared into their bedroom.

Tess made her way to the kitchen, knowing that was where she could hear Sam; she wanted to speak to the housekeeper. Entering the large area, Tess found Sam with her nose buried deep in a large book, “Something interesting?” She asked.

Sam jumped and looked up from the book, hand on heart, “Oh for crying out loud, you just scared the life out of me.”

Tess smiled apologetically, “Sorry!”

Putting the book down Sam shrugged, “I was just looking through one of these cook books.” She tapped the rigid cover, “Nikki led me to believe that it didn’t belong to you though.” She smiled

“They publish books on how to cook?” Tess joked with faux surprise.

Sam arched her eyebrows, “Uh huh…which is why I presume you have a wide variety of frozen ready meals in that fridge of yours.” She looked behind the taller woman, “Nikki still in the stables?”

“Ah!” Tess shook her head, “Actually no, she has gone up stairs to get changed…and while she is gone I was wondering whether I could ask you a question Sam.”

“Okay…shoot.”

“I was just wondering…being as though you have lived here for some years now…I was wondering whether you have seen any unrecognizable faces round here in the last few days?”

Sam thought for a moment, “Um…I’m not sure…not that I can recall why?”

Folding her arms, Tess leaned against the kitchen work surface, “I was just wondering.” She didn’t want to alarm the housekeeper with matters she was still uncertain about herself.

“Actually…”

Tess looked up suddenly.

“…I did see somebody the other day, I think it was when Kate and I first came to visit you and Nikki. There was a youngish looking man standing on the road leading towards the house…I hadn’t ever seen him before, but he did seem pleasant enough…well as far as I could make out, he smiled and nodded a hello to us, he had rather a bent looking nose if I remember correctly.”

“Hmm…” Tess rubbed the back of her neck, “Well if you do happen to see him or any other unrecognizable characters could you let me know.”

“Sure…but I don’t understand why?”

Just then Janie entered the kitchen from the side entrance. She noticed the two women who appeared deep in conversation and paused, “Should I come back later?” She asked, poking a thumb over her shoulder.

Tess frowned then shook her head, “Oh…no, no, Janie let me ask you…have you seen any people hanging around here…other than the three of us?”

“No…nobody.”

“Oh.”

“Why?”

The photographer pushed her bottom lip into her mouth with her right thumb and began chewing on the soft flesh. She couldn’t really not provide some form of explanation for the questions she had been asking, “The other day Nikki thought she sensed somebody out here, and today I thought I saw somebody…it may be nothing, but I would much rather be safe than sorry.”

“Sometimes distant sounds can seem louder, closer in countryside. The wind blowing in the trees or wildlife mooching around can catch our attentions.” Sam stated, “It has happened to me on occasions, thinking there was somebody out there when it actually turned out to be a little fox, or badger in the undergrowth.”

“Maybe.” Tess replied, still unsure herself. She didn’t want paranoia to overcome her, but she did feel something, even if she didn’t understand what that something was. Pushing away from the worktop, Tess headed towards the door, “Well if you will excuse me, I need to go and see how Nik is, we have to choose our clothes for tonight, and she is trying her best to get me in a dress.”

Sam laughed, “Oh a fate worse than death!” She joked.

Tess pulled a face, “For me…yes.” She winked and left in search of Nikki, joined by Leto who emerged from the living room, carrying one of the blondes socks happily between her jaws. Tess looked down at the golden mutt, “Give me that.” She bent down, pulling the woolen piece of clothing out the dogs grip, “One of these days Leto you and I are going to have a serious chat about chewable and non chewable objects…but just for the record, Nikki’s socks are not to be eaten…got it?” Leto huffed as she followed her master up the stairs, “I hope that means yes!”

“What means yes?”

Tess spotted Nikki standing by the bedroom door, “Oh you know I was just having a few words with Leto.” She followed Nikki into the bedroom, “So how are you feeling now?” Tess stood by the bed and sat down. Leto who had watched her master followed suit and jumped up beside the photographer. Tess looked at the golden hound with an arched eyebrow and pointed to the floor. With yet another doggie huff, Leto slid to the ground and lay down on the carpeted floor.

“I feel alright.” Nikki responded, “Better now.”

“Good.” Tess watched Nikki open her wardrobe door and feel around the items of clothing, “What are you looking for?”

A frown creased the blondes brow as she searched the garments, “The dress I want to wear tonight. Lisa thinks I should wear the light blue one with the thin straps, I can recognize it by feeling those straps.” She paused as she located the familiar garment and pulled it out with a smile, “So what have you decided to wear hmm? Personally I think a dress would be just wonderful on you.”

Tess grimaced as she rose to a standing position and stalked towards her own wardrobe, “I don’t know, let me look.” She opened the double doors and looked inside, pulling out two black dresses, “There are these I suppose.” She held the first one out as Nikki stepped forward and felt the garment, “It’s strapless and reaches all the way down to the floor.”

Nikki ran her hand over the material, “Oh silky…I like…and the other?”

Tess held out the second black dress, “This one is shorter, comes just above my knees, is fitting and has thin straps similar to yours.”

“Oh I like the sound of this one.” She pushed her hands over the soft material, “Yeah I think you should go for this one.”

“Really?” Tess looked down studying the dress, “I don’t know Nik; dresses aren’t that comfortable you know.”

Nikki rolled her eyes, “Tell me about it, but sometimes it is nice to dress up for an occasion…it makes you feel special.”

Tess held the dress in front of her, studying it with a confused expression, “Really? The only thing I ever feel in a dress in exposed.”

Shrugging Nikki hung her dress on the wardrobe door handle, “Well your choice…I am not going to force my opinion on you. As long as you are comfortable that is all that matters.”

“Hmm.” Tess looked at the dress then at the expression on the blondes’ face, an expression that gave away her desire to have Tess wear the dress, “Well I will see.” She hung her own garment next to Nikki’s as though the decision was already made. “So are you looking forward to tonight?”

Nikki’s face lit up with excitement, “Oh yes I can’t wait…why are you?”

“Yeah it should be fun…as long as the press stay away from me that is.”

She shook her head, “Oh come on Tess it wont be that bad…besides I have a feeling that tonight is going to be one hell of a night!”

Tess nodded, in one way or another she was very sure that was indeed to be the case.
7
As the sun disappeared behind the horizon and the marble moon rose gracefully into the darkening sky, the city centre became alive with the buzz of excitable expectancies. Out along Warwick Street, the air was thick with anticipation, and the grandeur of the approaching exhibition brought a feeling of exhilaration, even to those who weren’t attending the showings.

The gallery was lit with a multitude of illuminated white lights shining down upon the building. On the roof was a wide beamed spotlight, which lit up the cloudy night sky with a wide circular swirling ray. Tess looked up at the beam shaking her head, almost picturing the ‘Batman’ symbol moving around the sky. Andrew Spencer had really pushed the boat out this year, making it the most spectacular event so far.

The gallery itself was decorated with even more multi coloured lights. Wrapped around the handrails that ascended the wide stone steps was a long train of what Tess assumed were blinking fairy lights, which although may have looked aesthetically pleasing, took away rails primary use. The stone steps themselves were covered with a wide red velvet carpet, spanning the width of the grey ascending structure. Tess couldn’t help feeling that there was just way too much of pretentiousness about the whole setting, and if she was honest with herself she really didn’t want to be here. Though on the plus side, she wasn’t the only artist there this evening which meant plenty more to take the spotlight away from herself. Still…why the hell did I agree to this? She thought.

Looking through the right hand side window of her taxi, Tess watched the gentle flow of guests as they made their way into the gallery. They were stuck behind a row of seven cars, all waiting in a line as each cab was emptied of its occupants and the vehicle drove away. She sighed and adjusted the hem of her short dress as she looked over at a quiet Nikki. The blonde appeared to be deep in thought, her head facing forward as she fiddled with the strap of her shoulder bag. Tess placed a soft hand on her arm, “Hey Nik, are you alright?”

The smaller woman nodded, “Yeah, just feeling a little nervous with all these people being here,” she shrugged. “So what is it like out there, describe it to me.”

Tess turned her vision back towards the gallery, “Well, there doesn’t appear to be that many people swarming around, still I am thinking there will be around a hundred people inside tonight.” Her eyes wandered towards the scenery, “The Gallery is a very large, old stone building; though there are no windows apart from the wide glass doors at the front. Instead there’s a row of carved stone coats of arms running along the front of the structure. Some of them are Royal, some belonging to generations of families who have contributed to the financial success of the gallery over the years.”

“What do coats of arms look like Tess?”

The photographer frowned, “Well for the most part they are shaped like shields, for you know…in battle. The Royal ones can have gold crowns above them…if they are in colour. Inside the shields are different symbols, for instance…animals, usually lions like with the England football team, or birds of prey. Swords and weaponry, more crowns, little patterns like those fleur-de-lys, I used to have one on my blazer at school, it was an eagle, poised above a scroll which had two crossed over quills upon it.” She smiled in thought, “God I hated wearing school uniforms…even more than wearing a dress!” Tess frowned, “Do you um…know what any of these things look like…or feel like?”

“We used to have lots of models of things in school, I was able to get perceptions of how many animals appeared…kind of like my wooden horse you know.”

Nodding, “Ah, I was just wondering.”

“Uh huh.” Nikki smiled as she thought for a while, “And what is the atmosphere like out there, you know like the decorations and such?” Asked Nikki.

Tess sniggered, “Well let’s just say that Andrew definitely spare any expenses this year.” She looked once more over the array of ostentatious trimmings. “Have you ever been to the gallery your self?” After Nikki shook her head Tess continued, “Well there is a very plush looking red carpet spanning the entire set of steps; it’s very warm looking, inviting. The handrails are decorated with rows of beckoning lights. Oh and on the roof there is a large spotlight directed towards the sky, reflecting off the dark clouds.”

“Sounds very picturesque.”

“Well it’s definitely a sight to behold.” Tess replied rolling her eyes. The taxi started moving again and she looked out noticing they were now, finally next in line. She fiddled with her hair, pulling on a loose dark strand that wasn’t tied up in the French roll Nikki had styled for her. The photographer was quiet surprised, Nikki had done an excellent job of fashioning her hair and she had to admit, it looked quite chic…a look she would never usually have associated with herself.

The taxi moved forward again, stopping outside the carpeted ground. “Are you ready?” Tess asked the quiet blonde.

“Lets go.” Nikki replied, and followed Tess as they excited the car.

The night air was cold, and being as though Tess knew the gallery was going to be very warm inside, neither of them had opted to wear any form of outer layers of clothing; a decision that both were now beginning to regret. Shuddering against the chilly breeze, Nikki wrapped her free right hand around the photographers as they headed towards the steps. They mounted them slowly; Tess carefully making sure Nikki was comfortable in her surroundings. The blonde had decided to take her cane, but left it folded in her left hand, only intending on using it if she so needed.

Once reaching the top of the steps, Tess pulled open one of the wide glass doors and they stepped inside. The chill soon left their bodies as they were assaulted by a wave of soothing heat. The photographer looked around the foyer. For the most part the main desk had been cleared of the clutter that usually covered it during open hours. Leaflets, information booklets, small history books for children and the odd trinkets that you could find in the galleries shop; even the computer had been removed. Instead, were trays of drinks to welcome the night’s guests, glasses of Champagne, red or white wine, and for those who didn’t wish to drink alcohol, glasses of orange juice.

The red carpet came through the glass doors and carried on its journey towards the function room, which in turn led into the showing room. Tess walked towards the main desk, “Would you like a drink, there is Champagne, wine or orange juice.”

“Oh I would love a glass of Champagne please.”

Tess smiled as she disengaged from the blonde and picked up two glasses of the bubbly liquid, smiling at another couple as they also took two glasses from the same tray. She turned to the blonde and placed one of the glasses in her out stretched hand, before placing her left hand around Nikki’s back and on her opposite side so she could still guide her around the gallery.

“Thanks.” Nikki took a sip of the fizzy drink, “Wow, this is pretty good stuff.”

Tess tried her drink, “Oh yeah, certainly better than the fizzy wine I usually buy that’s for damn sure.”

Together they slowly followed the red carpet towards the function room, Tess taking in the sights. There was a large board by the entrance, which named all the artists that were exhibiting this evening, and on a low table sat a pile of programs for the night. Tess stopped, placing down her drink as she picked up a program, “I just want to look at one of the brochures.” She told Nikki as she flicked through the colourful pages. It listed the artists once again and the pieces of work they were showing. Her eyes scanned down to the very last name and a smile graced her lips. Placing the brochure under her arm Tess picked up the drink and led Nikki into the function room.

The noise level increased considerably as then entered the main gathering area for the evening. It seemed that many people had already arrived, mingling around and chatting with each other animatedly, almost excitedly. Tess scanned the area taking in the main layout. It wasn’t an incredibly large room, but still big enough to hold a hundred to one hundred and fifty people. At the far end was a small stage with a microphone in the middle, and as Tess took in the main design of the rooms’ presentation, she described the sights to Nikki. They continued walking further into the crowds of people, Tess nodding polite hellos to people who were currently engaged in conversations, but she was sure would accost her as soon as they were free.

“Well, would you look at this!”

Tess turned to see a shocked looking Andrew walking towards them, “Andy, I was beginning to wonder where you were.”

The gallery curator stopped in front of Tess, looking her up and down approvingly, “Tess I cannot believe what I am seeing my friend, you in a dress! Did I miss the headlines this morning, did hell actually freeze over?”

“Oh ‘ha de ha’ Andrew you are as side-splitting as usual.” Tess glared up at her friend with a hidden smile.

Andrew looked towards the blonde securely encased by the photographers side, “And this must be the infamous Nikki that I have heard so much about…Nikki, it is an absolute pleasure to finally meet you, I take it the dress was your influence?”

Nikki smiled, “Well actually I suggested it but it was Tess’s choice in the end. And it is a pleasure to meet you too, I was beginning to wonder whether you actually existed, I have heard quite a bit about you as well.”

“Well then it is about time we met.” Andrew looked briefly around the room, “Tess told me your father is Mayor Richard Morris, of course I already knew this…what with your mother and the volunteer work she has done here in the past. I saw him arrive earlier but I am not sure where he is at this precise moment. He will be making the official speech just as soon as I think everybody has arrived…maybe in another ten minutes or so.” He looked towards Tess, “It is quite a turn out tonight, there’s some guy from a big TV station, I am not sure which one it is…but he is on the look out for a certain person…rumour has it, that he is after you Tessa girl.”

Tess looked at him surprised, “Me! What the hell for?”

He shrugged, “Like I would know, the info came to me second hand; it’s only hearsay, but I have a feeling it is true.” He looked towards the stage, “There are also guys from seven different newspapers here as well, of course I invited four of them but the other three asked for invites.” He moved closer to the two women, “And I should warn you, two of those guys are tabloid.”

Tess sighed, “Oh our favourite.”

He moved away, “Well if you will excuse me, I see my other half seems to be on the look out, and I can only presume it is for me.”

Blinking in shock Tess felt her friends forehead, “Other half…since when have you ever considered any woman your other half?”

Andrew sighed, “Since she decided to make an honest man of me.”

“She proposed?”

“Yes!”

“And you said yes?”

“Yes…I thought about if for a while and realised that my feelings for this woman were more than I have ever felt for any of my conquests.” He shrugged, “We all have to settled down at some point Tess, might as well do it when you are still good looking enough to attract the babes.” He wiggled his eyebrows.

Nikki laughed as Tess shook her head, “I should have known. And she doesn’t mind your warped taste in colourful ties?”

Andrew pulled the vibrant neck garment out from his grey fitted suit jacket; it featured a picture of Winnie the Pooh eating honey, “Nope, which of course was the decider.” He looked down at the tie, “Anyway you brought me this so don’t start on me woman.”

Tess looked down, “Oh yes, so I did…was I drunk at the time?”

The curator chuckled, “I think we both were a little.”

“Figures.”

“Anyway, I better mingle until the rest of the guests and artists arrive. Tess I will see you later, Nikki you too and it was very nice to finally meet you.” Andrew looked at Tess giving her an approving nod and wink. The photographer sighed as he walked away.

“What’s with the sigh?” Nikki asked

Tess shook her head looking down, “Oh nothing…but I told you I would have the most stunning looking woman on my arm tonight.”

They walked around a while longer as Tess introduced Nikki to many acquaintances of hers. Most of them were artists that she had met at one function or another. In the far corner Tess spotted a long table with a selection of finger foods and breathed an internal sight; she hadn’t gotten around to eating all day and was famished.

Soon the final guest entered the function room and the lights dimmed a little as the cities Lord Mayor mounted the stage. Nikki placed her arm around Tess and smiled as her fathers voice echoed out over the speakers, she didn’t often get to experience the official side of him and was enjoying it very much. She felt proud, and wanted to tell everyone listening and laughing at his light-hearted jokes that the man standing up there was her father. Soon the Mayor finished his speech declaring the viewing room ready to enter, and he left the stage to a round of applause. Tess bent towards Nikki’s ear, “Ready to go inside?” She asked. Nikki nodded excitedly, and together they made their way towards the exhibition room.

This room was just as large if not slightly bigger than the function room. Pictures and paintings covered every wall with little plaques underneath telling the title and artist. In the centre of the room, stood nine sculptures ranging from clay, stone to what Tess considered junk metal and in one case…junk plain and simple, still it drew her attention. The room was brightly lit with diffused lighting that was unable to cast a shadow in the large, predominantly white room.

They started at the beginning of a long selection of paintings and Tess described each picture to the Nikki. Five minutes into their perusal the blonde felt a tap on her shoulder. “Finally I get a chance to see one of my favourite daughters.” The Mayor exclaimed.

Nikki turned and was engulfed in a gentle hug by her father, “Dad, I was wondering when you would get time to come a see us, I was beginning to get paranoid!”

Richard laughed, “Oh please, I have been trying to get to you both since seeing you arrive, but what can I say…everybody wants to speak with the Mayor.” He fingered the official golden chain and crest around his neck, “Sometimes this thing is a curse, it stands as a beacon to all those who have grievances with this damned cities council. Now although I have a lot of power even I don’t think I am able to move trees with conservation orders on them, just because the nit-picker thinks it overshadows his swimming pool.”

“Somebody mentioned this tonight?” Nikki asked.

“Yes can you believe it?”

“And this is supposed to be an arts exhibition!” Tess remarked. “Not a councillors surgery!”

“Hmm.” Richard looked around, “And speaking of arts,” his eyes glowed with excitement, “Nikki I…” A sudden movement by Tess caused him to pause and look in the brunettes’ direction to find her standing there wide-eyed and a finger placed over puckered lips.

“What?” Asked the blonde.

Richard looked back at his daughter, “Oh um nothing…” He looked at Tess confused, “I was just going to say how wonderful it is to see you here.”

Nikki frowned not quite believing her father, “Uh huh?”

Needing a quick change in subject, Tess looked around the room, “Oh I see the press are making their way around.” She spotted a familiar figure, “Ah I see Hugh Stein has arrive, he takes pictures for ‘The Social Scene’ the magazine that does articles on all the large events around the country.”

Richard looked up, “Really? Oh I do wish to speak with him, girls if you will excuse me, I have to go and see a man about a dog?”

Tess looked down confused, “See a man about a dog?”

Nikki shrugged, “It is one of my fathers sayings, you know…when he has to go and do something, but doesn’t necessarily want to say what that something is, he just says he is ‘going to see a man about a dog’.”

Nodding Tess looked at the retreating form of the Lord Mayor, “Strange, but there you go I suppose!” She smirked.

“Anyway.” Nikki prodded the taller woman’s arm, “What was my father about to say that made you shush him up so abruptly? And don’t tell me nothing because I may be blind but I am not stupid Miss Tess.” She tapped her foot in expectance.

Tess smiled at the endearing sight of an indignant Nikki, “You really want to know huh?”

“Yes!”

“You know it is a surprise.”

Nikki folded her arms, “For me?”

Tess tapped the blondes’ nose, “Of course for you.”

“Then before I die with curiosity tell me wh…”

“Come on then.” Tess interrupted, “I can see you are just aching to know.” Taking Nikki’s arm she began to lead her towards the far wall that situated her own prints.

On their way over a small round man stepped into their path effectively blocking their progress. Tess looked down at the short man with a receding hair and a thin moustache, staring with a hit of menace.

“Miss Alexander I was wondering whether I could have a few moments of your time, my name is Jared Green and I work for…”

Tess cut him off, “I know whom you work for Mr Green; I’ve seen your work.” She glared at the man who in her opinion worked for one of the worst tabloid papers in the country. Not that she ever brought the paper, in fact she wouldn’t even spit on a copy, in fact she wouldn’t even use one as…Whoa calm down Tess no need to go there, she thought. Still she was well aware of his writings as Jason had a tendency to buy that paper purely for gossip reasons; it gave him something to talk with Kat about during the day. “Like I said Mr Green, I am well aware of the kind of ‘news’,” and she used the term very lightly, “you like to report, which makes me wonder; what are you doing here, and why you wish to speak with me?”

Nikki gave Tess’s arm a reassuring squeeze.

Jared smiled, “To be honest Miss Alexander I am not sure why I am here actually, my editor ordered me to come, said it would be in my best interest, but he never said why. Anyway, I though that while I was here I would do a bit of reporting.”

“You still remember how?” Tess asked sarcastically.

The man laughed, “Oh Miss Alexander I see you do live up to your reputation…I like that.” He turned his attention towards Nikki, taking in the close proximity of the two women, “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure?”

Knowing he was indeed talking to her Nikki smiled politely, “Nicole Morris.”

His eyes glowed with wonder, “Not Richard Morris’s eldest daughter?”

“That would be me.” she replied.

“Interesting!” Jared said, his mind working overtime.

“Well I do apologise Mr Green, but Nicole and I were just about to look at something so if you will excuse us?”

The journalist bowed his head and moved to the side, allowing the women past. Jared watched them leave with a frown, he did indeed have no idea why he had been given this assignment, all he knew was that his editor had been given a tipoff and he was sent to follow through. Looking around the rest of the room Jared searched out his next target…one way or another, he was going to get a story here tonight.

Tess led Nikki past a row of small canvases, “I can’t believe the gall of that guy, what the hell is he doing here anyway?”

“Calm down Tess it maybe nothing at all, he could be just grilling everyone here tonight to find a story.”

The photographer looked back to see the reporter engaged in conversation with another artist, “Hmm…you could be right.”

Tess walked past a few more pictures, just passing a woman with red hair, before coming to a halt. She stopped before a specific shot. “Well here we are Nik…your surprise.”

The blonde rolled her eyes, “Tess you are going to have to do a little better than that if you want me to find out what it is, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

The photographer took a quick look around and after seeing nobody apparently looking in her direction she stood by the blondes right side, putting her left arm around slim shoulder, before taking Nikki’s right hand within her own and kissing the sensitive fingers, “Feel.” She said and guided the small hand towards the shot hanging on the wall.

Nikki reached out, her brows drawing together in concentration as she came into contact with a wooden frame. She bit the corner of her lip as her fingers moved over the surface, feeling the swirls and edges of a pattern etched so lightly into the grain that the human eye would have to get very close indeed to make out the design. Still not sure what she was in fact supposed to find, her fingers carried on their journey, moving to the right across the bottom of the frame. Suddenly she felt the recognisable raised indentations of Braille. Nikki frowned as she read the heading, “The Beauty of Age, captured by Nicole Morris and Tessa Alexander.” She pulled her hand away, “Tess?”

The photographer sucked on her bottom lip, “Um remember that big old tree you found in the forest, and how it’s peculiar swirls and knotted patterns in the bark captured you…and how I took a shot of it?”

“Yeah?”

“Well I developed it at work a couple of days after Christmas with Robert and well lets just say that is turned into a really beautiful shot.”

“That tree I found?”

Tess smiled, “Yes…it really is something Nik, this beautiful old tree surrounded by smaller plainer ones. I enlarged it and put it on a canvas to give it a kind of painted effect. Anyway when Andrew saw it, he said it had to go in the exhibition, but I said no because it is really your shot…then I thought that maybe I could include it anyway as a sort of surprise…for you.”

“But you took the picture Tess.”

The tall woman shrugged, “I pushed the button on the camera Nik, it was your shot, it captured you remember.”

Nikki’s sudden smile was blinding, “I have a picture on display…at this exhibition!”

“Uh huh.” She couldn’t help the warm feeling she received looking at the unreserved joy upon her lovers face, “but that isn’t the best part…somebody has already placed a purchase offer upon it.”

Innocent blue yes turned to saucers, “Really…how much?”

The brunette took a deep breath, “Well actually… fifty.”

“Pounds! Wow hey that’s not bad…do you know who placed the offer?”

Tess shook her head “No…Nik not fifty pounds, fifty thousand.”

Nikki was silent as her mind processed the last piece of information, “Fifty thousand pounds, really…who on earth would wish to pay such a price? I mean no offence but…”

“Beats me.” Tess shrugged, “The offer was placed before the exhibition even opened this evening, Andrew said it was an anonymous collector who admired my work. Apparently after he explained to the collector about the nature of this picture he was adamant to buy it…that’s why such a high price I guess. I did want to meet this guy, but Andrew said he couldn’t be here tonight.”

“I’m in shock!” Nikki stated placing a hand over her chest, “I can’t believe somebody would offer you fifty thousand pounds.”

The brunette roller her eyes, “Nikki…not offered me…offered you. Like I said I only pushed the button, you are the one that found the shot.”

“Us then.” Nikki said, “We took it together, it was a combined effort, so the offer was to both of us.”

Thinking for a moment the photographer folded her arms, “Okay us, though only because I know that no amount of persuading is going to change your mind about this.”

The blonde nodded, “Very true.” She blew out a surprised breath, “Wow, fifty thousand pounds huh!”

“I know!” The photographer said, still amazed herself. When Andrew had first told her the news she had thought him joking, but it soon became apparent that he was indeed earnest.

“TESS!”

Tess turned at the sound of her name being called across the room and saw Andrew Spencer standing with another old college friend. She waved quickly before turning back to Nikki, “Hey Nik there is somebody over there I haven’t seen in a while, want to go over and say hi?”

“Do you mind if I stay her for a while Tess, I am still trying to get my head around this.” She reached out again, her fingers connecting with the fine detailed surface of the canvasses wooden frame.

“Okay, are you sure will you be alright here for a moment?”

“Of course I will, just don’t be too long though, I wont go anywhere.”

Tess nodded and leaned down, discreetly kissing her on the cheek before pulling back and heading off to speak with the Andrew and the woman she hadn’t seen since college.

*******

From the location of secluded corners of the rooms, Rosalind had watched her daughter and that woman as they had circulated the area. Meeting different people, talking with them and between themselves. She watched intently as her husband approached the women, and saw the easy way in which all three of them interacted with each other. She waited, knowing the moment would come when Nikki would be left on her own, she knew that woman wouldn’t be able to put up with her for the whole night. Finally it arrived, and Rosalind watched as Tess was called over by Andrew Spencer and a tall longhaired woman. At last, she thought.

*******

Nikki stood quietly by the row of Tess’s prints, her fingers once again moving over the Braille especially carved into the corner of the frame. It was obvious Tess had the frame made especially, and she couldn’t help smiling at the brunettes’ continual thoughtful gestures.

“Hello Nicole.”

Nikki froze, her heart fluttering excruciatingly in her chest. Pulling her hand away from the frame she turned to face the woman she had been half expecting all night. “Hello mother.”

Rosalind smiled, “I must say it is a surprise to see you here.”

“You knew I would be.” She said confidentially.

The older woman looked intently at her daughter, “Yes you are right of course, I did hope you would be. Why else do you think I would be here?”

“That is actually what I would like to know.” Nikki stood firm, hoping to keep her nerve.

“I am here because you are my daughter, I know what I said just before Christmas but I didn’t mean it dear…you will always be my daughter; I love you, and only want what is best for you, surely you have got to know that?”

Nikki felt her nerve slip as she detected the hint of force in her mothers voice, she recognised the inflection and knew the woman was restraining herself. She needed to get away, but had no idea where Tess was and didn’t want to cause unnecessary attention to them both, especially with a certain Jared Green stalking the place. “What do you want mother?”

“All I want is a chance for you to hear me out…to prove to you once and for all that Tess Alexander is a bad seed, I can prove to you that what I said is correct and that she has lied to you all this time.” Rosalind advanced on her daughter forcing Nikki to back up. It didn’t take the smaller woman long to know that she was against a wall and needed to get out of her current situation quickly. Snapping her cane into place, Nikki moved sideways away from her mother, “I don’t want to hear anything you have to say mum for I know you are wrong, please just leave me alone.”

Rosalind followed her daughter, “You wont even allow me to prove this to you…all I am trying to do is save you hurt in the long run Nicole, why can’t you see that?” She asked angrily

Nikki carried on moving, knowing her mother was keeping pace, she increased hers; trying hard to get away from the woman who still managed to intimidate her. Finding herself against another wall, she let her free hand travel across the smooth surface until she found a corner and not knowing what else to do, Nikki took the bend, disappearing from the main viewing room. She found herself in an alley that although she was not aware, led to the emergency fire escape.

“Nicole would you please stop this and just talk to me.”

Knowing there was no way out of it, Nikki stopped and faced her mother, “Fine.” She said, her eyes glistening with tears, “Tell me what you have to say.”

The woman smiled, “Finally…I knew you would see this my way.” Rosalind paused and Nikki heard the sound of approaching footsteps, her hopes that it was Tess were short lived when she didn’t recognise the short pace. “Nicole I would like you to meet Jennifer Baldwin.”

“Who?” Nikki asked, wondering why Rosalind spoke as though she should recognise the name.

The older woman sighed impatiently, “Jennifer Baldwin…the former Jennifer Moon?”

Suddenly it dawned on her, Jennifer Moon was the girl Tess shared a dorm room with at college. “I don’t understand?”

Jennifer walked forward, “I’m sorry Nicole that I have to come here like this, under such awkward circumstances, but when Mrs Morris contacted me and told me what was happening to you, I knew I had to see you and stop you from making a big mistake.”

Nikki walked backwards finding herself up against the wall, “Mistake? I don’t know what you have been told Jennifer but I am not in any kind of trouble with Tess. How could I possibly be making any kind of mistake with her?”

“By trusting her.” Jennifer said simply, “She is a woman who will do anything to get what she wants, not caring who may get hurt along the way. I have known her a hell of a lot longer than you Nicole and she is trouble. When I was in college she got me mixed up in drinking, drugs and many other perverted acts just for the possibility of getting her hands on my inheritance.”

Rosalind watched the woman’s interaction with her daughter, hoping that Nikki would see the error of her ways and the obvious truths in Jennifer’s words. It was the whole reason she had invited the woman over from Oxford after all, knowing this woman knew the truth about the genuine nature of Tess Alexander. How could a good mother stand idly by and watch money that by all rights belongs to her in the first place…go to a nobody, a compete stranger.

“Your wrong!” Nikki stated forcefully.

“I wish I were.” Jennifer said, “But I have been in your position myself. She will lie to you, sweet talk you, give you what she can…but it all comes at a price. She will make you think that together you are a team, though she will lead you to believe it is you that makes the shots.” Jennifer paused for effect, but it was this pause that made Nikki realise Jennifer was the unknown person she sensed standing near by while Tess was showing her the surprise. Nikki knew Tess, in every sense of the word, and knew that in no way was the photographer capable of the things both her mother and Jennifer where implying.

“Is that all…have you finished?” She asked.

Jennifer looked at the older blonde confused as Rosalind stepped forward, “Nicole haven’t you heard a word Mrs Baldwin has said to you”

“How could I not!”

“And yet you choose to stupidly ignore our cause’s for concern?” Her voice rose an octave in anger.

“I heard you out like you asked me to mother, but you are wrong…both of you. I know Tess, and she just isn’t like that.”

Rosalind felt her anger rising, “Nicole I shall tell you this just one more time.” She took a hold of her daughter arm, “Tonight when you leave here it will be with me…do you understand?” She moved her face to within an inch of Nikki’s, “Don’t make me have to force you for your own good Nicole, I am your mother…you will do as I say.” Her fingers gripped painfully around the blondes upper arm, “Got it?”

Nikki whimpered as the feeling sharp nails penetrate her soft flesh.

*******

Standing in the centre of the function room Tess scanned the mass of people involved in a multitude of different conversations. She was hot; the gathering of bodies increasing the rooms’ temperature, and beads of sweat trickled down her forehead. She was looking for Nikki after not being able to find her in their designated position. The photographer knew she had been longer than expected, but that was purely because the man who worked for a satalight TV station had accosted her. His company was hosting the next British Music Awards and he wanted her to be the official photographer that night. Of course she had accepted instantly, feeling it would be a great opportunity, so they exchanged phone numbers and he said he would call her within the week.

Now she was looking for Nikki, and as every second passed she began to get a little more worried. Looking to her left Tess spotted Richard, “Hey have you seen Nikki?”

The Mayor frowned, “No, has she done a disappearing act on you…you know she was always doing that to us when she was younger.”

Tess smiled trying to appear outwardly calm, “It seems so…I am sure I will find her though.”

“Have you tried the buffet table?” He asked.

“Good idea.” Tess said, and headed towards the food. Once there she spotted Andrew talking with a young blonde. “Andy have you…”

“Tess finally I am able to get you two to meet. Annabel this is my college friend Tess, Tess…Annabel, the woman who has turned me into an honest man.”

The women shook hands, “Hi Annabel…listen Andy sorry I can’t stick around and talk, but I was wondering whether you have seen Nikki?”

The man nodded, not knowing the detailed history of what had happened between mother and daughter, “Yeah sure, she was with her mum last time I looked.”

Tess was certain her heart had just stopped beating within her chest, “Her mother…are you sure?” Tess asked disbelievingly.

Andrew folded his arms, “Tess I am able to recognise one of the charity heads of this gallery. Yes Rosalind Morris was with her daughter when I last saw her; I think they were standing near the hallway that leads towards the fire escape.”

Tess blanched as she spun around and headed back towards the exhibition room. Suddenly she remembered why she hated dresses so much, because they were so damn awkward to move in!

*******

Nikki tried to free her arm from the painful grasp of her mother, “Let me go mum. Please just let me go.” She tried to wriggle free, but the woman’s grasp was too strong. She hoped Jennifer would intervene, but the woman stood back keeping very quiet.

Rosalind ignored her daughters’ pleas, “Not until you understand that every thing I do is for your best interests Nicole. I am your mother, doesn’t that mean anything to you?”

“It certainly doesn’t mean anything to you.” Nikki spat.

At her words Rosalind’s anger rocketed and she slammed her daughter hard against the wall, “I bet it’s that woman who has instilled such ill respect into you. Who do you think you are talking to.” She pulled her daughter away from the wall, “You must do as I say.”

“I will not.” Nikki stated much to her own pain and regret as she was once again thrust against the wall. She closed her eyes, trying so hard to stop the tears that succeeded in flowing forcefully down her face.

Jennifer had been watching the scene with a small amount of horror at the older woman’s actions, “Maybe we should just…”

“No!” Rosalind stated, “I can get through to her.” She released the daughter, leaving her slumped against the wall, one hand covering a face covered with tears. She wanted to run, to escape, but in the array she had dropped her cane and was completely disoriented having no idea where she was or how to get away. Pulling the hand away from her face, Nikki let her head fall back against the wall breathing heavily.

The Mayoress shook her head, “You are as spineless as your father Nicole; I approached this situation all wrong I know that now.” Rosalind’s mind drifted, speaking aloud her thoughts without actually realising she was doing so. “I should have paid Bradley White to take a harsher action…maybe by removing Tess from the scene permanently.” She whispered

With the most unexpected force it happened, SLAP…the impact hitting her hard across the face. Rosalind stepped back stunned into silence, clutching her suddenly throbbing cheek.

Tess, who had rounded that corner at that precise moment, froze as she witnessed the scene ahead of her. Routed to her spot, she stood muted, jaw almost hanging in disbelief.

Nikki pulled her hand back, shock evident across her features. Never in all her life had she ever had the desire to hit anybody, but as she heard her mothers whispered thoughts she snapped, anger forcing her to take action. Dropping the stinging hand back to her side, Nikki realised she felt no remorse for her actions. The hurt and pain she had felt for many years under the hand of her mother had taken away the respect she had at one point in her life held for her.

Blinking away her surprise Tess ran forward, “Nikki?”

Through the haze of emotions that clouded her mind Nikki heard the desperate sound of Tess’s voice, and it was this that brought her shocked mind back into focus. “Tess?”

“Yeah sweetheart…are you okay” Tess grabbed a stunned Nikki pulling her into a fierce hug, “God I am so sorry.” She pulled away looking into the pained expression on the blondes face, “I should have been here Nik.” Tess noticed the bruised fingernail marks on her upper arm and cursed herself for leaving Nikki alone. Leaning forward she kissed her forehead gently, “I’m so sorry.” She looked over her blonde head to the silent woman still holding her cheek in shock. Cold jade eyes stared at the woman with overflowing contempt, “If you know what is good for you Rosalind you will go now.” She really wanted to say more, to do more, but Nikki was more important and right now the blonde needed her.

The silent woman moved past the couple and headed back towards the function room, she had only one option left now.

Tess looked to the redhead standing mutely against the wall, “Jen?” she asked in question.

The redhead nodded. She had watched the interaction between her old roommate and the Mayoress’s daughter and just couldn’t place her with the woman her parents had spoken so much about. The woman who had used and abused her, for the intent of wanting her money; what had really happened to her in that rehabilitation centre and why did she suddenly feel so confused about her past?

“What are you doing here?”

“I thought I was helping, from what I remember of my college days, I though I had to stop Nicole from ending up the same way I did.”

“But it wasn’t…”

Jennifer interrupted, “I know…you are not the woman I have in here Tess.” She said tapping her head, “I’m sorry.” She started to walk away.

“Hey wait.” Tess called, “What…I mean how…I don’t understand.”

Jennifer shrugged, “Neither do I…yet. But I soon will.” She turned, wanting nothing more than to leave, wondering why had she even come here in the first place. Suddenly, it seemed like everything she knew from her past was a lie, and Jen had no idea of what was true anymore. When she had received the call from Rosalind Morris, she thought she was doing the woman and her daughter a favour, but she soon changed her mind. Just seeing the way the woman treated Nikki began to sew the seeds of doubt into her mind. Then seeing Tess again and the obvious tenderness she demonstrate towards the small blonde was enough to convince her that the woman she thought she knew was not this woman. Was the Tess Alexander she knew, nothing more than a portrayal of her parents over subjugated views? Shaking her head, Jennifer carried on walking and the photographer let her.

Tess turned to the blonde nestled against her chest, “Nikki, are you alright?” the blonde nodded, but Tess could feel the tears flowing onto her chest, “Talk to me sweetheart.”

Nikki pulled away slightly, “I am just like her Tess, I got angry and I hit out. I am just like her,” she cried.

Taking the blonde by the shoulders Tess looked down into watery blue eyes, “No…you…are…not.”

“But…”

“But nothing Nik, what you just did came from years of mental abuse from a woman who seemed to resent you for whatever her warped reasoning was. It was probably physical as well if you count the fact that you had had to go through that damned operation at such a young age, purely because she wanted a perfect looking daughter. You are nothing like her Nik…nothing.” Tess pulled Nikki close and kissed the golden locks, “What was the final straw…what did she do or say to you that forced you to make a stand?”

Nikki closed her eyes, every fibre of her being telling her not to tell Tess this, not wanting to upset her lover. But she could deny the brunette nothing, and would always be truthful with the woman who had battled her own self-doubts and fears to be truthful with her. “She…more or less stated that she wished Bradley White had taken care of you in a more permanent way.”

“Who’s he?”

Nikki shrugged, “I presume he was the guy from the shopping centre.”

“So that was his name.” Tess pulled Nikki away from her chest, “Thank you…for sticking up for me then. I think this is the first time anybody has ever bothered to stand up to somebody else on my behalf.” She leaned down and kissed lips still moist with tears.

The blonde smiled, “It’s not the first time Tess, your mother told us about the time on the beach when a couple though you were the infamous Tess Alexander and you had your little tantrum about how you hated people thinking that.” She chuckled, “Apparently those people defended you pretty well too.”

Tess smirked, “I guess so.” Pulling away Tess spotted Nikki’s shoulder bag and cane lying on the floor. Bending down she picked them up, handing them over to the blonde, “Here’s your things…so do you want to leave?”

“Hell no!” Nikki shook her head as she accepted the bag and cane, “I want to get out there, and try and enjoy the rest of this evening.”

“Are you sure you are alright?”

Nikki placed her arm around the brunettes back, “For some reason I feel like a huge weight has just been lifted off my shoulders.”

“You feel that too huh?”

“Yep.”

“Ready to go back out there?”

“Does my face look alright?” Nikki asked patting her cheeks.

Tess kissed her nose, “Hey you look beautiful…stunning, as always.” She put her arm around the smaller woman and together they headed back towards the exhibition room.

*******

As soon as she had made her way back into the function room Rosalind eyes scanned the mass of attendants, searching out one person in particular, and as her eyes fell upon the form of her husband she headed in his direction.
Rosalind approached the man from behind, tapping him on the left shoulder. Richard turned around with a questioning smile that soon faded as he saw his wife standing before his very eyes. “Rosa…well…well…well.”

“Richard…have you missed me?”

The Mayor looked evenly at his wife, “I cannot say that I have I’m afraid.”

Rosalind’s face turned to a scowl, “I should have known you would still be angry with me for leaving. Not that I blame you of course, I would be too I am sure, but I am not here to start arguments…I have a proposition.”

Richard looked disbelievingly at his estranged wife, “Oh really, please do fill me in.”

“If you want me back I only ask one thing of you.”

“Which is?”

Rosalind straightened her peach cotton jacket, “All I ask is that you talk to Nikki. Try and persuade, make her see the truth about Tess Alexander, the woman is evil Richard evil. That is all I ask of you, and if you do this I will come back to you.” She licked her lips as she stepped close, “If you don’t do this small favour then I will no longer be your wife. And what is more I will sell my house, and you and Lisa will have to leave.”

The Mayor kept his face even, “You would remove your own daughter from the home she has grown up in…lived in her entire life?”

“When I know I am right I will do whatever it takes to get what I want Richard, you should know this by now…how else do you think I was able to force the issue with us getting married. I knew if I were to get pregnant you would do the decent thing.”

Richard glared at his wife, jolting slightly forward as a crowd of people behind bumped into him. He turned around looking to see what had just jarred him, and after receiving an unexpected apology from a young man, he turned back round to his wife, “All you ask is that I no longer give my consent to Nikki concerning Tess.”

“Yes.”

“It is a simple enough request.”

Rosalind smiled knowing she was getting through to the man, “That it is, and as soon as you do this, I shall return home and things can get back to being just like they were before all of this unpleasantness happened. I know Nicole values you opinion for some reason, but whatever it takes to get her back, I am willing to do.”

To the left of the couple a voice called out to Rosalind and she turned to wave a quick hello to the unknown person. At the same time Richard looked over his wife’s shoulders to see Tess and Nikki approaching, he shook his head slightly indicating that they not come over. Tess stopped, and spoke quietly into Nikki’s ear. The blonde nodded slightly in agreement.

Looking back at her husband, Rosa stared at him in question, “Well I trust you will do this as soon as possible Richard.”

He’d had enough. Enough of Rosa’s spiteful ways, her domineering personality, disregard for her own daughters well beings, but most of all, enough of his own weakness that had allowed him to turn a blind eye to just how callous his wife really was. With sudden anger as much towards himself as his wife he took a firm hold of the woman’s arm and dragged her over to the entrance of the gallery. Pulling open the glass doors and dragging Rosalind out into the cold night air. “The only thing I have any intention of doing Rosa is removing you from our lives once and for all.” He pinned her up against the grey stonewall.

Shock evident on the small woman’s face, she looked at him with an expression of almost fear, “Richard, what are you doing?”

“Something I should have done a long time ago.”

“You are making a big mistake Richard I am warning you.”

The Mayor laughed, “I have made plenty of mistakes in my past, it’s now time for me to put some of them right. So first of all, there is no way in hell that I would ever oppose my daughters’ relationship with Tess. She has never been happier and for that I am eternally glad. Glad that she is away from you, and glad that she has found somebody that even I can tell worships the ground she walks upon. Secondly, go ahead and sell your damned house, do you really think I cannot simply go and buy another? It might even be a blessing in disguise as I will be able to move closer to work and Lisa will love living in the city. And last and most importantly, now that I know you are back in town, you can expect notification from my lawyer concerning our divorce…I shall arrange the papers as soon as I am humanly able.” He took a step away from his wife, “I think that just about does it, and of course remember Rosa, you have dug your own grave here, and I have enough ammunition to keep you down there…got it?”

Rosalind drew her fist back ready to hit out at her husband, but he caught the hand mid air, “Goodnight Rosa…and thankfully goodbye.” Richard released her hand and turned away, heading back towards the warmth of the gallery. He stopped as he noticed Jared Green standing by the doors, “Well I guess I should have known you would be here.” Richard stated, “Want a scoop do you.”

The reporter grinned, “Always.”

“Well how about this…City Mayor starts divorce proceedings against his estranged wife for the years of mental abuse she afflicted on her daughter.”

Stunned Jared looked to Rosalind before moving his vision back to the mayor, “Excellent.”

Richard nodded, “For me and my girls yes.” He took a step towards the reporter, “And if you do print a word of that you shall lose your job quicker than I can say ‘slander’.”

“The truth isn’t slander Mr Mayor.”

“No that is right, the truth isn’t slander.” He smiled, “And neither is my knowledge of how you managed to obtain those tapes in the Parliament scandal.”

The reporters face dropped, “How did you…”

“Mr Green I am the Mayor, it is my job it keep one step ahead of things.” He looked back at the quiet form of his wife standing shocked by the wall; “Of course it is a pity I never kept one step ahead of my wife.” Richard looked back at the reporter “Now I trust there will be no word of what you overheard out here tonight?”

“Of course Mr Mayor.” The stout man said through gritted teeth.

“Good, I knew this is something we could both agree upon…well if you will excuse me…goodnight.” And with that he left his soon-to-be ex-wife and the reporter standing in the icy chill of the night air.

*******

The bedroom was silent, and due to the lack of outside street lighting… incredibly dark. There was a certain amount of unspoken tension in the air, and as Tess lay unmoving in the large bed, she wondered what Nikki was thinking. The blondes light breathing told her that she hadn’t yet fallen sleep, and due to the circumstances, Tess wasn’t in the least bit surprised. She wondered whether she herself would sleep tonight.

Lacing long fingers behind her head, Tess was startled out of her thoughts by Nikki’s quiet voice. She turned to the still blonde, “Hmm?”

“I said…do you think there is a meaning to life? Everybody speculates about the fact like it is some life changing question…but I was wondering… do you really think there is one?” Her voice was light and distant.

Tess turned back to the unseen ceiling with a smile; Nikki had the strangest ability to surprise her with the most philosophical questions at times, “Why wondering…you weren’t after another kiss were you?”

Nikki frowned in the darkness, “Huh?”

“Well if I seem to remember correctly, the first time you came out with an unexpected question like that, we ended up in our first kiss.”

The small woman smiled, “Well however much of a nice idea that sounds, I was actually just wondering. Tess, ever since we met it seems that things have been against us…we have always had to fight. It’s almost as if something is opposed us being together, that is why I was wondering.” She turned to the photographer, “So what do you think?”

Tess arched her eyebrows and sighed, “I really don’t know Nik, I mean in this huge world of infinite possibilities, were every living being is different, how can there be a single meaning. Who can say if we have a fate, or destiny, when we live with the unknown every day.” She rolled onto her side, facing the blonde, head propped up in one hand. “How could there be one meaning, we are all different and we all have our own offerings for the world…things that we can give, and do for the good of others.”

“Maybe that is the meaning.”

“What?”

Nikki imitated the brunette, rolling onto her side to face her lover, “To give for a superior purpose, to create happiness and harmony in the world.” She sighed, “and not hate.”

Tess smiled, “Maybe it is, after all…love is the greatest gift one can bestow, and to give it so freely can only create more right?”

The blonde shrugged, “Not everybody wants to see love so freely given though Tess…my mother for one.”

The photographer reached out finding the soft skin of the blondes face. Gently she cupped the smooth flesh, “Remember what you told me about your grandfather and what James said about his relationship with your mother. It wasn’t very close right?” At Nikki’s nod Tess continued, “Well maybe your mother finds it hard to give love, because it wasn’t given to her when she was a child. With her mother dying during childbirth, maybe your grandfather lost his ability to love when he lost his.”

“Is that her excuse?” Nikki asked evenly, “Because I sure didn’t feel she had any love for her less than perfect daughter.”

Tess moved forward, sealing her body with Nikki’s. She leaned forward kissing her forehead, nose and lips, “Well all I can say is that she missed out, and I myself know that I have enough love inside me…for you…for the both of us. You are the most perfect thing in my life, and without you I know mine wouldn’t have any meaning. If there is a meaning of life then maybe that was yours.” Tracing her hand over Nikki’s arm she circled the bruising mark of Rosalind’s grip on her daughter, leaning forward she kissed the forming contusion.

“To what?” The blonde asked intrigued.

Tess looked back at Nikki in the darkness, “To awaken the heart of one lonely fool, who had already given up the prospect of loving another purely because of her own selfish fears.”

“They are not selfish Tess, we all fear losing the ones we love.”

The brunette nodded, “I know, but I was stupid to think I would be happy closing my heart to the possibility so I could never get hurt.” Tess kissed Nikki’s lips once again, “Because I know that I could live the rest of my life alone with just the knowledge of what your single presence in my life has meant to me.”

Nikki smiled shyly, “I would rather live with you…than alone.”

“Me too.” Tess affirmed.

Nikki wrapped her free arm around the longer body, “Then maybe the meaning of life is love?”

“It would be wonderful if true.” Tess said with an indulgent smile.

“And making love?”

Tess’s smiled widened, “That’s just a wonderful experience in itself.” She moved forward touching her lips with Nikki’s, gently pushing the blonde back to the softness of the pillows, “Care to share in the experience?” She whispered.

“With you…” Nikki replied “Always.”
8
For Tess and Nikki the next few weeks flew by in a buzz of settling into their new home, along with working and caring for the horses. During the first couple of days after the exhibition, Tess had been unusually quiet and subdued, even for her. Nikki had been concerned, sensing the subtle ways in which Tess would retreat into herself at the drop of a hat. She refrained from approaching the subject for a whole two days, a very long two days, until she realised Tess would need some form of gentle persuasion if she were to open up. So she had confronted the photographer, and it didn’t take long before the brunette was admitting that she was feeling very accountable for the fact that she hadn’t been there for the blonde at the exhibition. Naturally, Nikki was quick to point out that simply wasn’t the case, Tess had been there for her just when she most needed her most, and if she didn’t ‘snap out of it’ Nikki claimed she would be forced to take drastic measures. She never actually stated what those measures would be, but hinted towards her foot and the photographers’ backside featuring largely in the equation. That was all it took, and Nikki managed to pull the photographer out of her self-induced funk with a relieved smile.

So life around Riverside farm returned to an easy flow of normality. With the help of Sam and Janie, Nikki was able to get her office together. Tess had put up a selection of wall shelves at the weekend and the women had filled them with books, both Tess’s collection of detective novels, and Nikki’s eclectic range of reference books, all in Braille of course. The desk had been moved in and it took Nikki and her two employees two hours to set up her computer. The blonde had decided that being as though Tess had read through the entire set of information booklets, they should have waited, but no matter how long it took them, they did do it and Nikki felt a great sense of group achievement in doing so. The blonde had made sure she had a space on her desk especially cleared for the carved wooden horse Tess had given her the year before. Making sure it was no more than an arms length away for the numerous times she would hold the carving, running her fingers over the fine detailing.

The weekend after Tess had finally found the time to set up her dark room, starting the process by moving the simple furniture around single-handed. Nikki had then helped by carrying in the smaller boxes of photographic paper and assorted chemicals for developing. Tess had even persuaded Leto to help, bribing her with doggy biscuits if she picked up the small objects the photographer dropped as she carried boxes weighed down with her own personal, and what even she would admit ‘junk’. Of course Nikki had been fascinated by Tess’s boxes of ‘nick nacks’ as she had called them, and had routed through the containers searching out items that she found interesting. She couldn’t help smiling when she found a small glass jar full of Jacks, and the photographer explained that she used to play them as a child conning the local boys out of their pocket money. She did admit her interest in simple games, which explained to Nikki her discovery of tiny spinning tops, decks of cards, poker dice and marbles in a the same box. She decided to challenge the woman to a game at some point. It took Tess a whole day to complete her darkroom, finishing the look off with a carefully situated shelf on which she proudly placed her Wilken Walsh antique camera.

On the Sunday, Tess was surprised to get an unexpected phone call from her mother, a surprised that was heightened in magnitude by Hyacinths admittance to her growing relationship with James Abbot. Nikki sat by Tess during the phone conversation smiling as she discovered James was in fact down in Cornwall visiting Hyacinth that very weekend. At first Tess was a little taken aback by this news, but it didn’t take her long to hear the happiness her mother expresses as she described the weekend she’d had with James and the obvious affection they held for each other. Still that didn’t stop the photographer from getting over protective of her mother and demanding to speak with James where she ‘ever so politely’ (thanks to Nikki’s jab in the ribs) told the man to take good care of her mother. James had smiled at the sudden reversal in roles thinking that it wasn’t too long ago that he had wanted to say the very same thing to her concerning Nikki.

Due to the events at the art gallery Tess’s conversation with Jim Eagles, a producer with the TV station hosting the next British Music Awards had completely skipped her mind. And it wasn’t until his phone call several days later that she remembered to tell Nikki about their agreement. The blonde had been amazed and truly excited when she found out Tess was going to be attending the event, and would be meeting a whole host of famous singers and musicians. It was an excitement that increased ten fold when she realised Tess of course wanted Nikki to come with her. How could she refuse, music was a love of hers and to have the opportunity to possibly meet some of her favourite artist was a chance not to pass upon. So it was agreed upon and within two days Tess received a three-year contract she needed to sign securing her as the official photographer for the British Music Awards. She also received her passes for the event, even though it wasn’t to be held for another four months.

Within two days after the exhibition, Richard Morris had served divorce papers to his estranged wife, and the woman had agreed, but did indeed as her own form of revenge set in motion the proceedings for the sale of their home. Nikki had offered her father, sister and James a place to reside at her home, but Richard declined the offer. He had already made arrangements to purchase a house on the outskirts of the city.

As the place was considerably smaller, it meant a decrease in workload for James, and knowing the man would soon be reaching the age of retirement, Richard had decided to give the old man three days a week off. He didn’t want James to feel like he was being pushed out, but knew that after many years of service the butler was well due the benefits of retirement. Of course he too was aware of the budding relationship with Tess’s mother and thought it would be a good way to encourage this by giving the old man a couple of days off a week where he could take the train down to Cornwall and spend some time with Hyacinth.

Richard had told his daughters and Tess about the events and outcome of his confrontation with Rosalind, including Jared Greens presence; and they were all relieved that no word about this had been printed in the tabloid papers.

During this whole period of time Nikki had been thinking hard about certain subjects that were beginning to reach a conclusion in her mind, and it was three weeks later on a warm Friday evening that the blonde decided to speak with Tess about her decision.

*******

The brunette arrived home to the usual greeting from an over excited Leto who was always happy to see her master. Tess was thrust against the door as the golden hounds rapid body and wagging tail, moved in a blurred haze as she tried to lick as much of the tall woman as possible. Dropping her silver case, Tess allowed Leto a few moments of indulgence before pulling back and ordering the over affectionate mutt to calm down…she did so on command. With a satisfied smirk Tess went in search of Nikki, knowing at least that the blonde would be aware of her presence. How could she not, Leto wasn’t the most subtle of dogs when it came to vying for attention.

“Nik?” She shouted, having already looked in the living room and not finding her there, she entered the kitchen.

“In here.” Came the distant reply.

“Where?”

“The office.”

“Right.” Tess replied as she excited the side door and walked along the small back passage towards the office. Pushing the door open she found Nikki sitting at her desk obviously reading through an information section on her new ‘Web Braille’ digital books page. Ever since she and Tess had installed the technology Nikki was finding it a great way to access reference books on the net without having to go out and buy them.

“Hey.” She said leaning down and kissing the blonde on the cheek.

Nikki smiled moving away from her computer and directing her head up towards the photographer, “Hey to you too, so how was your day today, did you survive that shoot at the local primary school?”

Tess pursed her lips, “Please tell me again why I agreed to do that, I don’t do schools, I have never done schools and what’s more I have no experience in dealing with that many snot nosed little brats, half of them screaming, half crying because they don’t like having their picture taken.”

“Because you are a nice person who agreed to do it for a friend who was in hospital.”

A heavy sigh, “No, I did it because I was conned into returning a favour that I didn’t owe anyway.” She shrugged, “Hell maybe that does make me a nice person.”

“Uh huh…and modest too.” Nikki replied with a smirk.

After an exaggerated sigh Tess continued, “Anyway, it went reasonably well I guess. I had to do ten minutes of the shoot sitting with a young girl in my lap who believed I was a magic lady…don’t ask me why because I am still wondering that myself. Three kids actually cried, one five-year-old spent ages brushing her hair, and a six year old boy peed his pants.”

Nikki laughed, “Oh god it sounds like you had a ball, I wish I’d have been there.”

Tess sulked, “Yeah well next time you can come with me, children always seem drawn to you, must be that whole blonde haired, blue eyed innocent look you have. I don’t think they liked the ‘big scary lady’.”

“Is that what they said?”

“One of them.” Tess sighed pulling a slip of paper from her jacket pocket, “Anyway enough of that…guess what I have here.”

“Oh!” Nikki rose from her chair, “I have no idea.”

“Hold out your hand.” Nikki did as requested and Tess placed the long slip of paper into her left hand, “Here take a gander at this blondie!”

Nikki’s brow creased in concentration as she studied the item, “It’s a check!” She stated with surprise.

“Yep, go ahead have a read, it was especially embossed with Braille just for you.” Tess watched as Nikki’s fingers ran over the slip of paper.

“Um…” Her fingers ran over the name of the payee first, “Mr Austin Reed?” She carried on, moving her fingers over the rest of the cheques surface, “Pay Miss Tess Alexander and Nicole Morris the sum of…” her expression turned to one of shock, “Fifty thousand pounds! The picture?”

“Yep.” Tess looked over Nikki’s shoulder, looking once again at the check, “Fifty god damned thousand frigging pounds. I met Austin Reed today, bit of a strange man, but with the obvious money he has I guess the rich can afford to be a little on the eccentric side.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah…so what shall we do with it?”

“What do you mean?” Nikki asked handing the cheque back over to Tess.

The brunette folded the slip of paper and strode over to the cabinet by the side of the wall. Opening the lower cupboard she pulled out Nikki’s metal cash box and opened the lid, placing the check inside and locking it again securely. “Well it isn’t like we don’t have pretty opulent bank accounts anyway, so I was just thinking maybe this could be a little mad money, you know spend it in some slightly extravagant way.”

“What like an outdoor swimming pool?” Nikki asked

“Or the new block of stables you wanted to build for the stud farm.”

“A rock garden.”

Tess rolled her eyes, knowing Nikki’s fascination with rocks. The blonde had a whole box of them that she had been collecting since she was a child. It consisted of many interesting shaped rocks that Nikki loved to feel, “Yeah or a sauna.”

“A holiday.”

“A boat.”

“Your own studio.” Nikki paused, “You want a boat?”

Tess grinned as she moved away from the cabinet walking towards the blonde, “No not really, I was just thinking of over extravagant items…you know like an apartment in Paris, or a small island somewhere in the Pacific, way too expensive anyway.”

“Ah…well maybe it’s something for us to think about.” She chuckled and leaned forward, reaching out to her computer where she proceeded to shut the system down, “And speaking of things to think about, I have something I want to talk to you about.”

“Yeah? Well okay, do you want to go and sit outside, it is a really a nice night out for an early April evening.”

“Sure let me just finish off in here and I will meet you…at the front or back?”

Tess scrunched her nose in thought, “Um, on the front, I want to sit near the stream, and with Leto playing around out there it will keep the security light on.”

“Alright then.”

Tess jogged out the office, heading back towards the kitchen where she took a detour to the fridge. After grabbing a bottle of wine and two glasses, she called Leto and together they walked through the house and out the front door. The brunette waited for Nikki by the porch, deciding that she wanted to sit on the bridge so needed to make sure Nikki got there easily. The blonde was now very comfortable with the layout of the house, but was still a little wary with the front of the building when it came to the bridge and stream.

Looking out across the illuminated courtyard, Tess watched an over enthusiastic Leto as she chased night insects flying through the air. The brunette cringed as she seemed to catch a large moth, and after a stern command not to eat bugs, Leto dropped the soggy creature to the ground. She bent down, sniffing the bug, but it was too late the moth was dead, and the golden hound wined for all of three seconds before chasing off in search of another flying creature.

Hearing the sound of approaching footsteps Tess turned to see Nikki exiting the front door. “Are you ready…I was thinking we could go and sit out on the bridge if that’s okay with you.”

Nikki nodded, “Sure.” And together they made their way to the wide wooden structure.

The sky was clear after an earlier fall of spring rain, and the moon shone brightly in the sky. Tess stepped onto the bridge and looked across to the water, noticing how the moons reflection shimmered in the gentle current of the narrow tricking stream. Moving to the edge of the bridge, both women sat down, their legs dangling over the surface of the structure.

Nikki sighed angling her face towards a gentle breeze, “You know what I don’t get?”

Tess studied the form of the blonde sitting peacefully by her side, “What’s that then?”

“Well.” Nikki fiddled with her cane briefly before placing it by her side, “This is a stream right? I mean rivers are usually much larger aren’t they?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well then why is the house called Riverside Farm, it’s not really by the river is it, that’s a couple of miles away.”

Tess frowned bemused, “You know that is a good question, I never really thought about it before. Though I suppose if I do think about it Streamside Farm really doesn’t have the same ring to it. Yeah I suppose whoever named this place was tying to go for something a little more traditional, but at the same time romantic.”

“Why romantic?” asked Nikki, enjoying the tranquil sounds of the trickling water below.

A light shrug, “I don’t know, a beautiful house in a country setting, surrounded by lots of Mother Natures own creations.” Finding a stray stone on the bridge Tess picked it up and threw it into the stream, watching the moons reflection dissipate in a flow of gentle crests. After a couple of seconds it reappeared?

“What was that plonking sound?”

Tess smiled, “Just me trying to skim a stone of the waters surface, it doesn’t really work with round bulky ones though.” Twisting to her side, the brunette picked up the bottle of wine and pulled out the cork, “Want a glass of Chardonnay?”

“Please.”

Tess half filled the two glasses; she placed one in Nikki’s waiting hand. “So what did you want to speak with me about?”

“Oh um…” Nikki took a quick drink, “Well I have been thinking a lot over the past couple of weeks about Dr Jacobson’s call.”

Tess immediately placed down her glass ready to give Nikki her full attention, this had been playing on her mind a great deal too. She did want to approach the subject with Nikki, but didn’t want the blonde to feel like she was being pushed into anything. However much she would love Nikki to be able to get back at least partial vision, she wanted it for Nikki…she herself was happy with whatever the blonde decided. “And?”

“And I am still a little scared…but…I think I am prepared to talk with him properly.”

“Yeah? What made you change your mind?”

“You.”

“Me?” Tess shook her head, “Hey Nik, you know I would never push you into this; I don’t want you to think in anyway that you have to do this for me because you don’t.”

A smile, “Thanks, but that isn’t exactly what I was talking about. I mean it’s your faith in me that makes me want to do this. No matter what does or doesn’t happen I know that you will always be there for me. I feel less trepidation when thinking about facing this knowing you will be here for me.”

“Always Nik.”

“So the least I can do is hear him out right?”

Tess shrugged, “I guess I don’t see why not.”

Nodding the blonde sighed, thinking, “I want to know what colours look like…I want to see them like you do and be able to associate them with things just like the way you describe colours to me…making me feel them.”

Smiling the photographer took Nikki’s hand, “What else do you want?”

Shaking her head Nikki turned away, “I don’t want to want anything,” she paused, “I shouldn’t have even said that…I don’t want to build up any expectancies only to be disappointed when they don’t happen.”

“You can’t…”

“No.” Nikki interrupted, “After meeting you Tess I have wanted this more than I have ever wanted it before in my life.” She sighed exasperated and climbed to her feet, anger suddenly building inside her. “DAMN IT TESS… I love you, I love being with you, I love the feel of you, the sound of you, the taste of you and more than anything I want to see all that. To see what you actually look like when I feel your lips smile, and I hear you laugh. I want to see the ways in which you respond to me physically, and that serious look on your face that I know is there when you speak sometimes.” Tess jumped to her feet and moved towards her lover, but Nikki backed away, “And do you know what…I hate you for it.”

At those words Tess stopped moving, feeling as though her heart had just died right there within her chest.

“You make me want things in a way that I have never felt before. I had never even bothered…it wasn’t like I knew what I was missing right? But now because of you I feel like I want more, need more…anything as long as it’s all to do with you.”

Silence reigned for some seconds as the brunette tried to digest what the blonde has said; she swallowed hard feeling bewildered and wounded.

Nikki’s head lowered, her shoulders slumping in defeat as tears sprung to her eyes. She shook her head, “No…I don’t hate you…I could never hate you.” She whispered, “I hate me for wanting those things, for allowing myself to want those things, to be even considering those kinds of thoughts.”

Breathing heavily Tess tried to calm the torrent of emotion that engulfed her heart. Her lip trembled as tears stung cloudy emerald eyes, “Maybe…” She took a deep breath, fighting the hurt she felt at Nikki’s words. “Maybe you allowed yourself those kind of thoughts…because of this opportunity.”

“Maybe,” said the quiet voice.

“You can’t hate yourself for wanting those things Nikki.”

“Why not. I have never felt anything like this before. The overwhelming desire to be able to look in your eyes and see my own reflection, see the love that you make me feel every day. I’ve NEVER felt like this before and it scares me.”

“But that’s love.”

“Love?”

Not being able to stand the distance any longer Tess moved forward and took Nikki into her arms. “The overwhelming desire you just mentioned, don’t you think I feel that too? It’s all part of being in love Nik.” She lifted the blondes face and kissed each closed eye tenderly, “I love you, sometimes I wish I could just wrap myself around you and never let go.”

Tears leaked from reopened blue eyes, “I’m sorry Tess.”

“For?”

“For saying that I…you know…I don’t even want to say it again.”

Leaning forward Tess kissed away the fallen tears, “That’s okay, but I will be honest with you and say that I am glad you don’t want to say it again because it um…”

“Hurt you.” It wasn’t a question.

Nodding the photographer sucked on her bottom lip, “Yeah.”

Letting her head fall to Tess’s chest, Nikki laughed silently.

“What are you laughing at Miss Morris?”

Sighing Nikki pulled away, “Actually I would like to see that as well.”

“What’s that?”

“You sucking on your lip, I hear you do it every time you get nervous.” She arched her brow waiting for Tess to respond.

“Really?”

“Uh huh.”

“I didn’t realise,” she said in wonder, suddenly aware that she may do it again and conscious of this fact. She shook her head with a smirk as she pulled Nikki into her body holding her tight.

Looking over to Leto, who was in the middle of a series high vaults in the air as she tried to catch more flying bugs, Tess smiled “I think we should go in before Leto catches something a little bigger than a bug and it fights back.”

“Like what?”

“A bat.” Tess replied, watching several of the black creatures wiz around the courtyard at swift speeds.

“Is that what that faint whooshing sound is?” Nikki asked as they stepped off the bridge.

“Sure is.”

“Ugh then quick lets get in because I don’t think I like bats.”

Tess frowned, “Don’t think?” She asked as they made their way towards the house.

“Well I don’t like rats, and Lisa says bats are just rats but with wings.” She shuddered noticeably.

“Well now you know how I feel about bloody spiders…personally I like bats, they are so dark and mysterious.”

“Tess!”

“Sleeping all day and coming out at nights, just like vampires.” She said in her most ghoulish of voice.

“Tess!”

“The squeaking…”

“Tess if you don’t shut up now I may have to remind you about the large amount of spiders that more than likely spin their webs along the nooks and cranny’s of the bridge.”

Falling silent, Tess looked back at Leto who was in the midst of scratching behind her ear, “Leto, come on in now.”

At her masters command the golden hound hurtled herself into the house, followed by a smug Nikki and a suddenly very itchy Tess.

*******

CJ pulled his red Civic into the driveway of the Mayors home. Looking up he noticed the large ‘for sale’ sign and looked over at his passenger. “So that’s really it huh, you are definitely moving for sure?”

Lisa nodded, “Yeah, my mum is selling the house, so my dads brought another one nearer town, that way it means less travelling for him and less for me too, as now I have decided to attend a closer college.”

Nodding CJ looked back at the house, “Can I ask why your mum is selling?”

The brunette shrugged, “My parents are getting a divorce. At first when it all happened I was sad, but now I am glad because my dad is happy, Nikki seems happier and even I feel it too. My mum wasn’t always a nice person CJ, she used to shout a lot and make Nikki and myself feel bad.”

Looking intently at the girl sitting next to him CJ couldn’t help be feel amazed at the sudden change in events. What started as him agreeing to help his brother get even with the woman who had so noticeably smashed up his nose, ended with him meeting somebody that he was falling for very quickly. He was confused, wanting to stay loyal to his brother, yet not wanting to give up the chance to see where things would go in this ‘dare he say’ prospective relationship. Not knowing what his brother had in mind was a draw back, and also not wanting to get Bradley into trouble with the police put him in a very uncomfortable situation. He didn’t know what was best to do, so did the only thing he could and that was play this situation by ear.

“So would you like to go and properly meet Nikki and Tess tomorrow?”

CJ looked away from his intent study of the steering wheel, “Will that be okay?” He asked, knowing that if he were to do this he would in no way be telling his brother.

“If you want to then yeah, I know Nikki is just dying to give you the third degree.” She joked and watched as the bleached blonde blanched, “I was only kidding CJ, my sister is cool…so is Tess.”

Nodding the young man smiled, “Okay, tomorrow. So what time do you want me to pick you up?”

“Midday?”

“Sounds okay by me.” Taking her hand he leaned to the side kissing her cheek.

Lisa smiled coyly, “Is that all I get?” She asked.

Scratching his slight stubble CJ looked back towards the house, “When your father is standing by the door I am afraid so, yes.”

Eyes moving to the form of Richard Morris standing expectantly in the doorway Lisa flushed with embarrassment, “Ugh god, now I know how Nikki must have felt.”

*******

Being woken up early on a Saturday morning was not Tess’s idea of how she wanted to spend the weekend. After having to get up at seven o’clock every morning, seven o’clock, she stressed to herself, and having to leave Nikki happily in bed, she wanted to spend the weekend just lying with the blonde catching up on some much wanted (not necessarily needed) sleep. But alas it was not to be so, for at half seven she had been woken up to the infuriating sound of a ringing telephone, why me she thought with a sigh.

It was Nikki who had answered the phone, dashing down the stairs and vowing to get an extension put in their bedroom. A pledge that was answered by Tess’s simple statement, ‘don’t even think about it blondie’.

Tess lay on her back, looking up at the white plaster ceiling, wondering what was taking Nikki so long, she had been down stairs for almost five minutes and without her Tess was getting decidedly less sleepy.

A minute later Nikki came back into the bedroom, “Tess you are not going to believe this.”

Rolling onto her side and looking at the joy on Nikki’s face brought an instant smile to the brunette, “What?”

“That was the RSPCA on the phone, there’s a rescue horse they want me to look after, isn’t that wonderful?”

“Yeah, why do they want you to look after it, I mean what happened to it?”

“Well he didn’t say much, just that she was rescued from an abandoned field, she is slightly cow hocked, and she is a miniature!” Nikki smiled with excitement.

Tess arched an eyebrow, “Okay I give…what’s a miniature?”

Nikki’s expression turned to one of disbelief, “Tess a miniature horse, you know of the small variety.”

“You mean like a pony?”

“No this is a horse Tess, only small.”

“Like it’s stunted in growth?”

Nikki rolled her eyes, “No they are a breed; they are supposed to be that size.”

Tess pursed her lips nodding, “So does she have a name?”

“Apparently one of the guys called her Shannon, though we are not supposed to say who named her, as his wife may get a little offended…her name is Shannon too.” The blonde rolled her eyes, “Men!” Nikki shook her head as she headed back towards the bathroom, “Anyway,” she shouted, “I better get dressed because the guy said he was bringing her round at about ten o’clock, so I want to make sure everything is ready. That means I would like your help…if you don’t mind.”

Pout fixed firmly in place Tess pulled the covers from her body and swung her legs out of bed, “Great…so much for that lie-in time.”

*******

Her watch read five past ten…again. Tess sighed and dropped her wrist to the kitchen table. She and Nikki had already been out this morning and prepared a stall for Shannon, now they were just awaiting her arrival. Reaching forward Tess picked up the pot of sugar and started pulling out the small cubes. She placed them on the table and proceeded to see just how many sugar cubes she could pile on top of each other before they fell down. She reached seven before her first tower fell to the pine table, so she started again.

“Tess what are you doing?” Nikki asked as she entered the kitchen, Leto following devotedly behind.

The brunette looked up surprised, “Oh nothing I was just…” she started shoving the cubes back into the pot. “You know waiting and…”

“Building forts again?”

“Um…” Tess looked down at the mess of sugar granules on the table top; cupping her hand around the grains she started clearing them away, “No towers actually,” she smirked.

Nikki shook her head, opening her mouth to speak when she paused, “Oh hold on…” she listened intently, “I think our new wee horsey has arrived.” Nikki grinned excitedly as she headed for the door, Tess right behind.

*******

Leaning against the stable door Tess stared at the small horse standing in the corner of the stable, timidly tucking into a sack of forage feed. She pursed her lips, trying incredibly hard not to let the smile past her lips but as she watched the tiny horse, it came anyway. She had never seen anything like this before but the longer she watched the small animal, the more she felt herself warming Shannon. Cute! It was not a word Tess liked to use very often, if ever, but when she looked at the hesitant horse the brunette found herself actually wanting to spend time with the animal.

Tess turned to the side, watching Nikki as she grabbed a grooming brush, “Nik, what are you doing?”

Nikki held up the brush, “I’m going to groom Shannon, she will need it every day so I figure I may as well get on with it now.”

Taking a hesitant step towards the blonde Tess fiddled with the cuff of her dark green Tigers sweatshirt, “Can I do it?”

“You.” Nikki turned to face the photographer, “You want to groom her?”

“Um…yeah.”

Cocking her head to the side the blonde smiled, “Are you developing a soft spot for our new member of the family Tess?”

The photographer scowled folding her arms, “No, I just thought I would help you.”

“Oh come on.” Nikki demanded moving towards the brunette, “Admit it, she is cute and you want to play with her.” She waved the grooming brush in the air.

Letting her arms fall to her side, Tess sighed, “Oh alright Nik,” She grinned, “She is kind of cute.”

Walking forward Nikki held out the brush and smiled when she felt it being taken from her hands, “You do remember how right?”

“Yep.” Tess looked down at the brush briefly, “I remember my first lesson in your stable back at home, I have seen you do it enough and have enough gumption to know what I am doing.”

Nikki nodded agreeably, “Okay, well enjoy and don’t try any of your intimidating growls if she is a little resistant at first, she is a little nervous at the moment so be patient okay.”

“I can do patient.”

Poking out her bottom lip Nikki frowned, “Hmm well then lets go and get to know our new mini huh? Then when you two are getting on with each other, I will start grooming the others.”

From the back of the stable Thunder nickered appreciatively.

“Yeah, yeah…don’t mention it.” Nikki replied with a smirk.

*******

Both being out in the stables, and because neither Sam nor Janie worked during the weekend, neither woman were aware that two visitors had just pulled up outside Riverside Farm nor could they hear the loud tapping on the front door.

Lisa frowned as she knocked on the door again, followed by a multiple pressing the doorbell, “They have got to be in, both of Tess’s cars are here.”

CJ walked to the side of the house and spotted a golden dog running around the yard on the other side of the gate, “Lisa, they have a dog right?”

Approaching her new ‘boyfriend’ Lisa nodded, “Yeah Leto, why can you see her.” Looking over the gate she spotted the golden hound, “LETO…hey girl come here.”

Leto paused, sock hanging from her mouth as she looked up, spotting the familiar form of Nikki’s sister. She barked excitedly and approached the pair with uncontained excitement as she noticed a completely unfamiliar human who had yet to give her attention. Reaching the gate, she jumped up as Lisa leaned over scratching her wide head.

“Maybe they are in the stables.” Lisa commented as CJ began a much-demanded fuss of attention. “Shall we climb over and go see?”

“Okay…if we can do that,” The bleached blonde replied.

Thankful at least that she had decided to wear jeans today, Lisa climbed up onto the three foot high gate and swung her leg over, CJ holding her the whole time. Once she was over, CJ followed suit and vaulted over the gate in one jump. He winked at the brunette, “High jump and hurdle champion for three years at high school.” Taking Lisa’s hand they headed towards the stables.

*******

Tess held on to the small reigns as she led a nervous Shannon around the back yard, outside the stable. She looked down at the tiny horse, who’s body came just above her knees and smiled, this has got to be the cutest thing I have ever seen, she thought.

Looking up suddenly Tess spotted Leto trotting towards her. She had been worried that the over exuberant dog would frighten the nervy horse, but Leto seemed to sense the animals’ disposition and had kept her distance. Tess watched as Leto switched her looks between herself and the corner that led towards the gate, wagging her tail rapidly.

“Hello?” Came a recognisable voice.

Knowing whom it was, Tess called out to the visitor, “Hey Lisa we’re at the stables.” Seconds later the teen appeared, followed by a face Tess recognised instantly, horse delivery guy! She thought.

Hearing voices Nikki emerged from inside the stable, “Lisa, hi we weren’t expecting you today, how are you?”

Tess stood by Nikki, “Well are you going to introduce us?” She asked the brunette.

“Introduce us?” Asked Nikki.

“Yes…Nikki, Tess I would like you to meet CJ, you may remember him from when he delivered Thunder and Jenna.”

The ‘real’ blonde stepped forward, “Hi CJ nice to finally meet you… properly.” She held out her hand and it was taken in a warm grasp.

“Hi Nikki.” CJ looked towards the photographer, “Tess…nice to meet you properly too.” He smiled.

The blonde turned towards her sister, “I was beginning to wonder whether you had been making him up this whole time. Sorry CJ, but I have heard so much about you, and it has taken my sister so long to finally introduce us all.”

Laughing CJ looked towards Lisa, “Oh and what have you been saying about me…should I be getting worried now?”

“Yes!” Lisa deadpanned then laughed at the sudden look of surprise CJ’s face.

*******

After re-stabling Shannon the four went into the house, where Tess and Nikki got to know CJ and vice versa. They spoke for over two hours until CJ received a call on his mobile, and he stated that he had to leave. Knowing that her father was to be visiting Tess and Nikki soon, Lisa said she would stay at Riverside, wanting to spend more time with her sister; she would go back home with her father later that evening. So after saying his goodbyes, Lisa led CJ back out to the courtyard where after an extended farewell and a promise to call her the next day, CJ left.

Lisa walked back into the house grinning widely.

“You were gone an awful long time just to be saying a simple goodbye!” Tess stated with a knowing wink.

Lisa flushed as Nikki tapped her lovers arm, “Don’t she will get embarrassed.”

The photographer smirked, “Too late.”

“Ugh don’t,” Lisa pleaded, “It was bad enough having dad stand out side last night after CJ brought me home from bowling.”

“What does CJ stand for?” Nikki asked curiously.

Lisa laughed, “ ‘Cee Jay’ apparently. His parents were not very imaginative when it came to naming their children, his brother has the same name as his father, Bradley.”

“Just one brother?” Her sister asked.

“Yeah but he certainly didn’t get the looks in the family, his nose is all crooked, looks bent to the side…CJ said it’s always been that way.” She looked between the two women, “So what do you think…isn’t he gorgeous?”

Tess rolled her eyes, “Yes Lisa, even I felt an overwhelming flutter when I gazed upon his outstanding physique.”

Nikki shook her head, “Don’t listen to her Lisa, I thought he was sweet.”

“Yeah I liked him too.” Tess said.

Lisa smiled, “Good, because so do I.”

*******

It had taken CJ a good forty minutes to drive home, getting stuck behind a slow moving tractor. After receiving the call from his brother he wondered what had Bradley wanted that sounded so urgent. He had demanded to see him as soon as possible, saying that he needed him without delay.

Reaching the block of flats, CJ pushed the key into his door and stepped into the narrow hallway. There an impatient looking older sibling greeted him. “Hey, what’s up?” He asked.

Bradley advanced on his brother, grabbing him by the collar of his blue sports jacket and throwing him back against the front door, “Where the hell have you been, what took you so long? I needed you here.”

Eyes wide in confusion CJ looked at his brother, “I was just out with a few friends Brad, I came home as quick as I could.”

“Well you took ages.”

“Sorry I was down town with a few of the guys, I got away as quick as I could.” CJ said.

Bradley nodded and let go of his brother, “Yeah well I was worried.”

“Sorry.”

Stepping away the elder brother looked briefly towards the ground. He seemed to be staring at his shoes and just as CJ was about to ask what he wanted him for he was once again thrust up against the door.

“Liar…you stupid fucking liar.” Bradley lifted his leg kneeing his brother in the stomach. CJ slid down to the ground, gasping for air, but Bradley pulling him by the collar back to a semi standing position, “WHY ARE YOU LYING TO ME?”

Holding his stomach CJ wheezed, “What do you mean…Brad?”

Spinning around Bradley threw his brother to the ground, “You…I saw you out there at their house.” He kicked CJ twice in the stomach, “You have told them haven’t you?”

“NO!” CJ shouted as he received a kick to the head, he felt his eye pound with sudden pain.

“LIAR…what did you tell them. I SAW you with them…I SAW you with that sister of hers…WHAT were you doing there?”

CJ cried out as yet another blow landed in his side, “…nothing…” he whispered, finding it hard to breath. “…Honestly…”

Bradley dropped to his knees, “You must have been there for a reason bro,” he said pulling CJ up by the collar and staring at his rapidly swelling face.

“You asked me to get close…so I did.” CJ ground out through a bloody mouth.

Pushing the weakened form of his brother back to the ground Bradley rose to his feet, “YOU ARE LYING TO ME,” he shouted, “Your own brother…and you are lying to me.” He lifted his foot to kick out again…

“I said nothing about you I swear, they know nothing.” CJ stated rapidly, hoping to stop the pain of another kick.

It worked and Bradley dropped his foot back to the ground, “On mothers grave?”

“Yes…I swear.”

He nodded, “Alright then I believe you.” He grinned down at the prone form of his brother on the floor, “No matter anyway, I was there for a while today and I left them a little present when I left.” Laughing, he kicked his brother one more time, “And that’s for lying to me.” He stated before walking off into his bedroom.
9
While Nikki had taken Lisa back out to the stables in order to see Shannon, Tess stayed behind in the kitchen. She was hungry; Lisa had offered to cook them all dinner just as soon as her father arrived, but Tess needed something now, and sucking on a sugar cube that she had pulled from the porcelain pot left her with an uncomfortable ache in her teeth, and a still empty stomach.

Opening the fridge, the photographer looked over the row of fully stocked shelves. She frowned wondering where all her convenience foods were. There were no pork pies, no sausage rolls, no tuna and mayonnaise pasties; she was just about to close the door with a huff when something caught her eye. In the far corner she spotted a tray of scotch eggs. With an internal, yes, she grabbed the savoury treats and placed them on the table. “This will do until dinner.” She affirmed.

It seemed that since Sam had started working for them, the cupboards were stocked with much healthier snacks. Nikki would go shopping with the housekeeper every week and buy much more nutritious foods. She said that they were able to eat better without Tess picking up every box of ready meal or mini rolls she could find. Tess didn’t mind though, as long as she still got her favourite packets of ‘Jaffer cakes’, Nikki could buy ‘whatever the hell’ she wanted. Jaffer Cakes, the photographer thought and pulled open the top cupboard where she found four boxes of her much loved orange flavoured biscuits. Taking out a full box she placed them on the table next to the eggs and started tucking in to her nutritionally void snack.

*******

Heading back from the stables Nikki heard the unmistakable sound of her fathers’ diesel pulling into the driveway. Taking a detour from their approach to the back door, the sisters headed towards the front of the house to greet their father.

Richard Morris stepped out of his car and looked up to see his approaching daughters. “I didn’t know you would be here Lisa.”

“I visited with CJ earlier and decided to stick around and get a lift back with you later, besides I am cooking dinner tonight and there was no way Tess would even allow me to leave!” She joked.

Shaking his head, Richard moved towards his daughters and put an arm around each shoulder. “Well let’s go in then.”

The three walked towards the house when a sudden sound caught Nikki’s attention. She carried on moving but listened out again, hearing the same noise only more distant. With a frown she stopped causing the others to do the same. “You go in dad, I just want to check on something first.”

“Need any help?” Lisa asked.

“No I will be right in, I just need to go and…” She heard the sound again, and it suddenly sounded awfully familiar, “…check something out.” She said as though the statement was more of a question.

Nodding Richard and Lisa disappeared inside the house as Nikki listened out for that strange noise. She cocked her head to the side, hearing it once more and moved in its general destination. Gradually the sound though still weak, began to get louder and as she approached her cane suddenly came into contact something soft. Leaning down, she reached out and touched the object; “Leto?” she asked. A pained whimper was her response confirming her suspicions. Nikki frowned as she moved her hand along the dog; then froze as her sensitive fingers came into contact with a warm sticky substance. It soaked up the dogs’ side, thick and warm with a strong metallic stench.

Heart leaping into her throat Nikki’s body shook with fright. “Oh god… TESS…TESS!” She cried and leaned forward placing her other hand on the golden hound and smoothing the dog’s trembling form. “It’s okay Leto…it’s okay…TESS.” She shouted again.

Leto started whining louder, and Nikki bent down kissing the frightened dogs head as she heard the door open and multiple footsteps run out into the courtyard.

“What is it?” Tess asked looking around until she spotted Nikki crouched down beside the far corner of the bridge. Thinking she had fallen, Tess sprinted towards her lover. What she saw instead turned her cold with fear. Leto lay on her side; eyes wide open looking hazily around, the left side of her body completely soaked with bright red blood. She stared down in bewildered horror.

Richard and Lisa approached. “What is it Te…Oh Jesus.” Richard exclaimed as he spotted the golden dog and his daughter, her hands covered with Leto’s blood as she tried to cover the wound.

“Tess?” Nikki cried, feeling hopeless as she blindly tried to calm the trembling hound.

Blinking, Tess moved forward and fell to her knees beside the blonde. She stared down into Leto’s eyes; eyes that looked back at her with fear. Shaking her head the photographer switching to automatic pilot, “Okay.” She turned to the Mayor and his daughter, “Lisa go into the house and get towels…anything that we can use to cover Leto…quick.” The teen ran off into the house as Tess pulled the mobile from her trouser pocket. She tossed the phone to Richard. “Call Dominic Fletcher and tell him we are on our way, his number is seven on the speed dial.” Richard did as requested, and Tess turned towards a silent Nikki.

Tears fell from wide blue eyes as the blonde kissed Leto again. “It’s going to be okay ‘tow tow’ Tess is here now,” she whispered, feeling a reassuring hand on her back.

Lisa emerged from the house with an arm full of towels. She sprinted towards Tess and handed her the bundle. Shaking out the large pieces of fabric, Tess covered Leto making sure she put firm pressure on the obvious gaping wound in her side. Once she was done she lifted Leto carefully into her arms hearing the dogs painful whimpers of protest as she did so. “Sorry baby, but I’ve got to do this okay.” The whines of pain were almost her undoing, but she stayed strong…she had to.

Richard approached his car. “Dominic is waiting Tess; I’ll drive.”

Shaking her head Tess held Leto carefully with one arm as she pulled two sets of keys out of her other pocket; she threw one to Richard and the other to Lisa. “No take mine, I don’t want to get blood in yours, and Lisa lock up the house.”

Once everything was done the four climbed into Tess’s Blazer, Richard and Lisa in the front, Tess and a very silent Nikki in the back. Blood still covered the blondes’ hands and she wiped them over her lilac tee shirt, trying to remove the tacky substance from her skin. As it was, the strong odour of Leto’s blood filled the confines of the car making her feel nauseous, afraid and very confused.

The drive was tense and silent; except for the intermittent whimper of pain from Leto and gentle shush of the photographer, as she tried to reassure the dog as best she could. Richard drove fast, running one red light, and exceeding the speed limit for most of their short journey, but within ten minutes they reached the surgery; all breathing internal sighs of relief when they arrived.

Dominic Fletcher, a tall man with auburn hair, was waiting outside with an animal stretcher as they arrived. Tess carefully but swiftly exited the car and placed Leto on the stretcher where she was quickly wheeled off into the operating room.

Richard, Nikki and Lisa approached Tess in the reception. “What now?” The Mayor asked.

“Wait.” Tess replied evenly. “Dominic said he had to operate immediately, so all we can do is wait.” She pointed to a secluded room. “In there.”

As four approached the waiting room, Richard looking at his daughter; “Nicole honey, are you alright?” He looked down at her clothing, “Oh, look at you, you are covered in blood.” She even had it in her hair.

The blonde nodded. “I can’t get that smell out of my senses dad. God what happened, did you see anything that could have caused that? There was so much blood.” She rubbed her hands roughly over her clothes, desperately trying to remove the feeling.

Taking off his black suit jacket, Richard placed it around Nikki’s shoulders. “Here put this on, you look awfully cold.”

Nikki slipped her arms into the over sized jacket. “Thanks dad.” Even though Richard Morris was himself small in stature, his jacket still drowned the slight blonde.

Entering the waiting room, they all became very silent. Tess sat down in the far corner and Nikki sat opposite, Richard beside her and Lisa beside Tess. The room was thick with tension; nobody knowing what to say, or ask as to how this had happened. An hour passed, seeming more like two and still nobody had spoken. Richard looked towards Tess who was chewing her bottom lip, Nikki who was picking at her thumbnail and Lisa, who was staring intently at the vaccination posters on the wall. He stood up suddenly. “Well I need a cup of coffee, I saw a café a few buildings down so am going to get a cup, I’ll bring some back with me.”

Lisa approached her father. “I’ll come too.” She said, and together they left the room.

Trying so hard not to release her emotions, her constricted throat stung and her body shook. Tess tried to clear her mind, focussing on anything other than her present whereabouts, but every time her eyes turned to Nikki she saw the traces of Leto’s blood on her shirt and hair.

She closed her eyes, rubbing her face in frustration. What happened, she thought and sighed as the unavoidable images came to mind. Leto lying on the ground, amber eyes staring up at her in a mix of…loving trust, fear and terrible pain. The small golden body shook continually, and as each flash of pain swept throughout Leto, her body would go ridged, coiling in agony as tortured whimpers filed the air.

Tess swallowed, feeling her eyes sting with tears. She saw the blood, so much of it covering the grassy ground and Nikki’s hands. The smell, oh god the smell…it was so strong, and still she could detect the sharp scent, knowing it would stay with her for a long time to come. Breathing deeply the brunette tried to cast the images from her mind, but still they came.

Opposite Tess, Nikki sat with head in hands. The silence was becoming unbearable, and Tess’s reluctance to communicate or express her feelings, was adding a palpable tension within the air. Try as she might, the blonde just couldn’t get the tacky feel of blood from her hands and she desperately wanted to ask directions to the nearest bathroom in hopes of finding a sink. She decided to ask Tess and was just about to do so when she heard it; an increase in breathing followed by a chocked back sob. Standing immediately, Nikki moved towards Tess’s seat until she was directly in front of the brunette. She reached out, finding broad shoulders and pulled Tess into her stomach as the last of the photographers control crumbled, the shock wore off and her body shook with uncontrollable sobs. Still standing, Nikki slipped between Tess’s thighs, holding the woman close to her body as long arms wrapped around her own waist.

Tess cried, overwhelmed by fearing the worst. She held onto Nikki, knuckles white as she clung to the blondes’ side. Tears rolling down her own cheeks; Nikki leaned down, kissing the brunettes head.

“She was in so much pain Nik, I hated seeing her like that.” Tess cried.

Laying her cheek upon the dark locks Nikki sighed. “She will be fine Tess, she is a tough little cookie.” She ran her fingers through the dark hair in a calming gesture.

Taking a deep shuddering breath, Tess’s lip trembled as she spoke “How did it happen? Do you think she fell?”

“I don’t know… I just found her Tess. I’m so glad I heard her thought.” Nikki shook her head; not even wanting to consider what would have happened if she had never heard Leto.

“Me too.” Tess sniffed, and took another quivering breath, “God knows how long she had been there, or how long she would have stayed there if you hadn’t have heard her.” Pulling slightly away Tess looked at the blonde; she couldn’t help but smile “I think I leaked on you.”

“I’m sure I can handle a few tears.” Nikki replied, and Tess chuckled through her own flowing tears. “What are you laughing at?”

“I wasn’t talking about tears!”

She frowned for a moment then…“Ah!” Nikki smirked as she realised what Tess was implying, “Well this is my dads jacket anyway, though I hope it isn’t one of his posh ones!”

Wiping wet cheeks with the cuff of her sweater Tess pulled away looking up into Nikki’s own watery blue eyes. “Dominic has been in there a long time in there.” She stood up suddenly and started pacing the waiting room. “God! What’s taking so long, it’s been over an hour.” She looked at her watch. “Just how long has he been in there?”

Nikki turned to face the pacing woman. “Let’s hope it’s a good thing that he has been in there for so long. Can’t operations sometimes take a long time?”

“Hmm.” Folding her arms the photographer expelled a forced breath. “Damn it, gaping wounds like that don’t just appear Nik, what the hell…”

She was interrupted as Dominic Fletcher entered the room, looking between both women solemnly, “Miss Alexander.”

Tess stepped back grabbing Nikki’s had and together they approached the vet, “Yeah doc how’s Leto…what happened?”

A wide brow creased in thought as Dominic rubbed his forehead, “It was a deep and sharp cut; obviously made by an object of such description, probably a knife of some kind.”

Nikki paled as Tess’s eyes shone with anger, “What do you mean a knife, are you saying that somebody purposely hurt our dog… that somebody attacked Leto?”

“I don’t want to make any harsh assumptions but that is what it appears has happened.” Dominic looked towards the chairs. “Please sit down and let me explain.” Tess stood her ground and when he realised the women were not going to move the vet continued. “The weapon was probably about five inches in length and three in width at the base…my guess would be that is sounds like a butchers knife of some kind, definitely something incredibly sharp.” He paused. “Do you yourself own such a knife?”

Tess frowned. “Knifes…” she shrugged, “Sure in the kitchen, but not one like you have mentioned. Our kitchen is hardly that of a connoisseurs.”

“And what about Leto?” Nikki asked. “How is she?”

Dominic nodded. “Well I did all I could…”

Tess stepped back, the air leaving her body. “Oh no!” she whispered, tears once again threatening her eyes.

Nikki squeezed the hand holding hers tight.

Swiftly Dominic raised his hands. “Oh no, no, no…I did everything I could, and now it is up to Leto. She is doing very well, and an educated guess would say that she is going to pull through this just fine…she is a strong little hound Miss Alexander, she will be okay.”

Profound relief flooded the photographers system. She sighed, her chin dropping to her chest. “Thank god.”

Nikki pulled her hand from the photographers, taking a hold of her arm. “Can we go and see her Mr Fletcher?”

Tess looked at the man hopefully.

“Of course, but I must warn you, she is still under the anaesthetic.”

*******

The recovery room was a medium size sterile room that held a small variety of different sized cages. It’s smell was strong, a consistency of animals and surgical cleaning fluids, both potent and overwhelming. Besides the recovering hound there were three more animals but these were caged. A cat, which seemed peacefully asleep; a very large black dog with a luminous green bandage around his back leg and a chinchilla, which ran happily and in a some what gravity defying way around the top of its cage.

As they entered the room Tess’s jade eyes immediately searched out Leto; finding her resting securely on top of a wide surgical table. She sucked her bottom lip between her teeth, her brow crinkling in anguish as she stared at the unconscious form of the golden mutt still trembling upon a large thermal blanket. Every so often sporadic whimpers would fill the air as Leto cried out in her drug-induced sleep.

With hands entwined Tess and Nikki approached the prone dog, Dominic Fletcher following just behind. They stopped at the table and Tess ran a shaky hand over Leto’s sleeping face.

The vet stepped forward. “She was very lucky, the blade missed any major organs or arteries and her dense muscular structure did indeed protect her from any serious harm. I was able to repair the inner lacerations, hopefully she will recover relatively scar free.”

Daring not to reach out and touch Leto for fear her searching hands may make contact with something tender Nikki turned to the vet. “Why is she crying like that Mr Fletcher, I thought she was unconscious?”

Dominic nodded. “She is, but it isn’t uncommon for animals to whimper while they are still unconscious, probably due to trauma and such…she will come around in an hour or two, but I will have to keep her here over night for observation.”

Tess nodded as she instinctively lifted Nikki’s hand and placed it upon Leto’s broad head. “Of course, whatever is best for her Doc.”

Perceptive fingers moved gently over golden fur. “Will there be any long term or lasting effects to this Mr Fletcher?”

The auburn haired man folded his arms. “Physically I can say no, but as for mentally we will have to see. From personal experience and knowledge of Leto I can say that she is immensely friendly and trusting, whether this will change her…make her less forthcoming with people I don’t know, only time will tell I’m afraid.”

Looking down at the dog Tess could feel her anger boiling within. She couldn’t believe what had happened, but as apprehension sunk in she did indeed realise that possibly somebody had hurt Leto on purpose. Taking advantage of the dogs over friendly temperament, and good nature. Leaning forward Tess kissed her head; she didn’t know how, but one way or another she would find out who did this and why.

*******

Bradley White emerged from the dark confines of his bedroom, and spotted the lifeless form of his brother lying on the hallway floor. With an amused frown he approached CJ and bent down, placing a hand on the young mans shoulder. He shook it gently. “Hey CJ, come on wake up, what are you still doing out here bro?”

There was no response.

He rolled his eyes with a smirk. “Hey,” louder this time, “Come on CJ wake up, I think you need to get to bed for a while.”

A slight groan was his response as CJ opened his one eye, the other being too swollen. He looked around, as his mind recalled the events of the hours before and bruising pain racked his long body.

“That’s is CJ, come on let me help you to bed.” Bradley placed a hand under CJ’s arm and lifted him to a sitting position. “You are in a bit of a mess aren’t you…good job I am here to sort you out huh?”

With a grimace of pain the silent younger brother was hauled to his feet and led slowly to his own room. Bradley pushed the door open with his shoulder and half led half dragged CJ and over to the bed where he deposited the tall form onto the soft sheets. Bradley shook his head, soft clean sheets! CJ always did have an obsession with keeping his room clean, he did it once a week for gods’ sake; why, Brad had no idea.

Pulling the thick quilt over his brothers’ shoulders Bradley patted his brother on the arm. “You get some rest now bro, and I will see you later.” Then he backed away, and with on final look into the darkened room; he left, closing the door firmly behind him.

*******

At first sight it would have appeared that nothing was different. The house looked the same, the gentle murmurs of the country sounded the same and the peaceful flow and calmness in the air were still present. If it were not for the patch of dark red blood by the bridge, nobody would have been any wiser, and as Tess stood on the sturdy wooden structure she stared down at that patch as if looking for answers.

Richard had driven them home from the vets, and Tess had gotten out the car just before the bridge so she could look around the surrounding area. She watched as the other three occupants of the Blazer all stepped out the vehicle, heading silently into the house…all except Nikki. The blonde stood quietly at the door before sliding down the wall and sitting on top of the three steps. Thinking.

Tess’s vision returned to the drying patch of blood, half on the grass, and half on the driveway. Her brow creased in thought as she bent down, reaching out as if to touch the spillage, but long fingers didn’t connect. Instead Tess mind worked overtime; desperately trying to come up with an explanation for how this could have happened. She found it hard to accept Dominic’s explanation that it was indeed a malicious attack, and although she had every faith in the vet, she was greatly hoping she would find a less disturbing answer. Though if she couldn’t, she knew what she had to do.

Looking up the photographer watched Nikki who was still sitting silently by the front door. She held the cane in her right hand as she slowly moved it across the ground, her mind seemingly elsewhere. Pushing to her feet, Tess brushed a dusty hand across her jeans and approached the blonde. “Hey!”

Nikki’s head moved in Tess’s direction and she smiled. “Hi, did you find anything?”

Shaking her head, Tess looked back towards the bridge. “No, nothing…not a bloody thing.” She sighed, though it sounded more like a growl as she pushed both hands into her pockets. “You think that somebody did this on purpose don’t you.”

It wasn’t a question and Nikki knew it. “Yes. You know I felt like we were being watched Tess, and you did too on the day of the Exhibition. I think somebody hurt Leto, but I don’t know why.”

Tess was silent, her mind a whirl of thoughts and feelings as she tried to make sense of what had happened. She folded her arms, looking back over to the bridge as images and memories of the past months flitted through her mind. Sucking her bottom lip between her teeth Tess once again approached the spot where Nikki had found Leto feeling like she had missed something important. She bent back down, running her fingers through the dry dirt and gravel… thinking. Nikki felt like we were being watched, I felt it too. I saw a shiny object in the bushes. She bit hard on her lip; inadvertently drawing blood. Sam saw a man on the track…Leto got hurt when we were inside with Lisa and CJ. Her mind drifted as she remembered snippets of remarks from conversations she’d had. Sam said the guy on the track had a crooked nose…and Lisa said CJ’s brother Brad wasn’t very attractive due to his dodgy looking nose. She paused, what was the name of that guy Rosalind mentioned at the exhibition?

The brunettes’ eyes moved rapidly over the ground as parts of the puzzle began sliding into place, and as the last piece slotted inside her mind, her eyes turned to saucers and she stood abruptly. “Son of a fucking BITCH!”

Nikki jumped, surprised by the photographers sudden outburst. “Tess?” Hearing rapid footsteps approach her on the gravelled driveway she got up. “What is it Tess?”

“Take my hand.” Tess stated, and Nikki did as requested without thought, holding out her own hand until it was engulfed in Tess’s larger one. “I think I know who is behind this.”

“Who?” The blonde asked as she was led into the house. “Who hurt Leto?”

“Yeah.” Tess stated. “AND who’s been spooking you these last weeks.”

They entered the house following the sound of muted voices that led to the kitchen. Tess walked in slowly, but with raging conviction as she escorted Nikki into the room. She stopped and looked at the Mayor and his younger daughter.

Richard frowned as he noticed the mounting rage in the photographers’ eyes. “Um…did you find anything?”

“You could say that.” Tess replied then looked towards the younger daughte. “Lisa… what is CJ’s last name?”

The teen looked confused. “Oh um White why?”

Tess nodded. “And his brothers name?”

Lisa could see the burning gleam of escalating rage in Tess’s jade eyes. “His brothers name? Well it’s Brad…why are you asking?”

The brunette turned to Nikki, still within her grasp, “Bradley bleeding White.” She said through grated teeth.

Richard looked confused. “Who’s Bradley White?”

Nikki paled as she began to understand just what Tess was saying. “Bradley White, he was they guy who attacked me at the shopping centre.”

“You know his name?” Asked the Mayor.

“Rosalind let it slip at the exhibition; she said that was the guy she had employed to frighten Nikki.”

Lisa realised what Tess was implying. “Hey no…how can you be sure?”

Tess’s angry eyes moved back to the teen. “You said it yourself Lisa, CJ’s brother had a crooked nose! And guess whose fist just happened to land squarely in that position when I got Nikki away from that bastard.”

“CJ told me Brad’s nose had always been like that.” The teen said mono voice.

“Oh come on Lisa.” She didn’t mean to sound so irate with the brunette, but her good nature was dwindling to nothing. “It’s his brother; they are probably in this together.”

“NO!” Shouted Lisa. “No, CJ isn’t like that. I know him; he wouldn’t want to hurt anybody or anything.” She felt a sudden panic at the photographers’ insinuation. She wanted to believe Tess was wrong. She may not have known CJ for a lengthy period of time, but it was long enough to know that there was no way he could be capable of what Tess was implying.

Tess turned to a quiet Nikki. “What do you think?”

Nikki blinked. “I think we have to call the police this time Tess, this has gone far beyond anything we thought would happen. If he is the same guy from the Gallowtree, then he has more than proved he means business and I don’t want to take any chances; Leto nearly lost her life because of this.” She squeezed the hand around her own, trying to covey her underlying fear.

Tess looked back at the Mayor. “I agree, do you?”

Richard nodded. “Absolutely.”

The photographer nodded. “Fine, then I call them right now.”

*******

Head feeling heavy, the pain only just bearable, CJ opened his eyes to the dimness of his bedroom. He squinted in the hazy shroud of darkness surrounding him and looked at the clock, it was almost seven o’clock. Attempting to move he was assaulted with a wave of agonising pain shooting through his stomach and side. Crying out the young man fell back onto the bed, his mind hazy he rapidly drifted into unconsciousness.

*******

Sitting in the living room, two officers from Derbyshire’s Criminal Investigation Department faced Tess and Nikki. The blonde now wearing an oversized shirt that actually belonged to Tess, she had instantly alarmed the police when they had entered, seeing her wearing a tight tee shirt covered in dry blood. Though it did stand as a starting point for their explanation as to why they had been called. The Mayor stood by the fireplace, and Lisa sat on a single chair near the television. She appraised the two men, taking in the reasonably priced suits, and clean-cut image. D C Brian was a man in his thirties with slick short blond hair; D S Fairbrass was an older man with a high receding hairline and thin moustache. The younger man took notes as the elder questioned the women.

“Miss Alexander, what makes you so sure that this Bradley White was the man who attacked your dog…and has apparently been stalking the both of you?”

The photographer sighed exasperated. “I have already explained this to you. The brothers names, the sightings of a man matching his appearance in this vicinity.”

Lisa folded her arms; she sincerely hoped Tess was wrong about this. How could she believe that the guy she had been seeing was just with her to help his brother get back at her sister and Tess? It hurt to imagine such a thing when she thought they had been getting on so well together. What was more, she was developing serious feelings for CJ.

Fairbrass shook his head. “Yes you have explained that Miss Alexander, what you have yet to explain is why you think this man has singled you and Miss Morris here out.” He paused, “Do you think it is because of the nature of your relationship?”

Tess’s eyes narrowed and Richard stepped forward. “Sergeant Fairbrass, before Christmas my daughter was attacked by a man at the Gallowtree shopping centre, and it was Miss Alexander who rescued her.”

Constable Brian looked at his partner before turning to Richard. “So there will be a report of this?”

Richard shook his head. “No…no report was ever made, because it turned out to be a family matter.”

The young constable frowned. “I am sure I don’t need to explain to you the necessities of reporting any attack to the local constabulary Mr Mayor!”

“Yes I do realise that constable.” Richard sighed knowing he was going to have to explain his wife’s actions. “We discovered that my wife had hired this man to try and scare Nicole into coming back home. It was she who let his name slip by revealing to Nicole her attacker was called Bradley White.” Richard paced in front of the two men. “We thought that would be the end of it, but it seems very possible that this man has taken it upon himself to exact revenge upon my daughter and Tess.”

Fairbrass looked over his younger partners shoulder. “And you think this was the man who you believe tried to kill…”

“Leto.” Nikki stated quietly.

“Leto right.” He looked at the blonde. “And it was you who found him?”

Nikki sighed. “Her and yes I did…I heard her whimpering and just followed the sounds.”

Rubbing his large hands together Fairbrass stood quickly. “Well I think that with the information you have given us it will be enough to bring the brothers in for questioning.” He looked towards Richard. “Unfortunately Mr Mayor I also intend to question your wife on this matter.”

Richard shook his head, “Of believe me detective I hold nothing but anger towards my soon to be ex wife for the way she has acted; she deserves whatever punishment you boys in blue dish out!”

Fairbrass nodded slightly surprised by Richards’s evident contempt towards his wife, as Brian rose to his feet, “Then you will be hearing from us very soon. Mr Mayor, Miss Morris, Miss Alexander and Miss Lisa, we will get on this right away.”

“Thanks,” said Tess, as she also stood followed by Nikki. Lisa remained seated, staring at the carpeted floor as she realised CJ was about to be questioned by the police.

After a shaking of hands and another promise to call them with news as soon as possible, the officers left the house. Richard stood by the door and watched them leave. When they were out of sight, he returned to the living room.

“Listen, I’ve just realised something,” he scratched the back of his neck, “My solicitor gave me the address of Rosalind’s current place of residence; I wrote it down on a post-it, but left it in my office at home. If I go and get it I can call it into the station and save the officers some searching time. The sooner this mess gets cleared up the better.”

The photographer pursed her lips with a nod, “Good idea, anything to get this moving along.” Tess looked at the teen, “Hey Lisa do you want to go home with your father, or stay here with us?”

The quiet girl looked up glumly, “I’ll stay here if that’s ok; you are coming back right dad?”

The Mayor nodded.

Taking in the sight of Lisa’s grave expression Tess softened, “Lisa, I’m sorry about the way I spoke to you earlier.” She sighed, “I didn’t mean to sound so harsh, but I was angry and I know this is in no way your fault, how were you to know CJ was helping his brother.”

Lisa shrugged, but Nikki stepped forward, “Tess I really don’t think CJ is as bad as it appears, I just didn’t get that malicious vibe from him.”

Tess was still not fully convinced, but she was willing to give the young man the benefit of the doubt, “Well I am sure we will soon find out for sure wont we!”

“That’s right.” Richard walked forward hugging his daughters then took the surprised tall woman is a fatherly embrace as well. “I am going to get that address now; I will see you all in a couple of hours.” And with a warm smile, hiding the nervousness and anger that he felt towards this whole situation, a situation initially caused by Rosa, the Mayor left.

*******

He had stood in the bushes not far away from the house and watched them leave. Bradley laughed; it was completely obvious that the two men were police officers. Not only did the average suits and strong smell of cheap cologne give them away, but the dark green Impretza, (used by the police force because of the cars above average handling and manoeuvre-ability during chases) parked in the court yard served as another giveaway. He wasn’t stupid and he did know the police, after all he had been questioned by them often enough, fortunately for him nothing had ever stuck.

The car drove off but still he waited; unsure of why, he soon understood his decision as he spotted Mayor Morris leaving the house. Within a minute Richard was gone, leaving the two women completely alone. Bradley grinned, wide and toothless; this time there were going to be no mistakes. This time he was not going to let that woman get the upper hand over him; he was calling the shots, and he had the element of surprise firmly in his favour. In no way would they be expecting this so soon after their ‘precious’ dog had died.

Moving from his hidden position in the bushes, Bradley crept to the side of the house, intent on approaching the side door. He had already checked the building over while the women were away last week and found the side door, which led into what looked like an office, to be his best point of entrance. There was only one simple lock on this door, and he knew from experience the best ways in which to breach that barrier.

Reaching the end of a high set of bushes, the man stopped and looked around thoroughly before taking off with a swift dash to the next lot of greenery. These ones surrounded the tree that stood about ten foot away from the side door. He crouched, now hidden within the crop of wildly growing shrubbery and scoped out the area, taking in the sights one last time before he made his approach towards the side door. After deciding the scene was all clear he moved to the door and stood against the wall, pushing a hand into his khaki green jacket pocket and pulling out a long silver key. He wondered how many people actually knew how certain numbered keys, which you could buy in any local locksmiths or dry cleaners, could penetrate the locks that they thought secured their homes. With a triumphant grin, the door opened and Bradley walked quietly into Nikki’s office.

******

Nikki sat on the large three-seat sofa, legs up and crossed as she nursed a large cup of coffee in both hands. Taking a drink, she grimaced as the still too hot liquid slid down her throat; she took in a deep breath cooling her overheated mouth. “I wonder how Leto is.” She muttered.

Tess looked up from her position, sitting on the floor facing the blonde. Nikki was the first one to speak since Richard had left, even their drinks had been made with presumption; she hadn’t even thought to ask either sister whether they wanted one, just doing so automatically. Lisa had disappeared up stairs, before her drink even arrived and had yet to return. “”I’m sure she’s fine, if she wasn’t we would have heard something right? And it has been over two hours now, actually I think I should ring to see that she came around from the anaesthetic okay.”

“Hmm.”

Tess looked up. “Talk to me Nik.”

The blonde sighed and leaned forward, placing her hot coffee on the floor beside her chair. “I just can’t believe that it’s him again. I thought that guy from the shopping centre was just a distant bad memory, yet now it appears he is back.” Uncrossing her legs Nikki let them fall to the floor. “You know… now that I think about it… the first time I felt like we were being watched; the feeling was familiar, like I had already felt this before…maybe that was because he has made me feel that way before. Frightened, watched, overwhelmed and in a way alone.”

“Alone?” The brunette asked confused.

“I don’t know…alone as in, I feel overwhelmed by his presence and his alone. That cold icy feeling I got when I felt his knife on my throat… that is the first feeling I get whenever I feel we are being watched.” She laughed wryly, “I’m thinking about this so much that it’s almost like I can feel it now.”

Tess smiled and leaned forward, shuffling over to the blonde on her knees. “Look,” she kissed Nikki gently. “Leto will be fine…the police will find this guy and question him once and for all…whatever happens Nik, remember that we can get through anything as long as we do it together.” Her right hand travelled through short blonde locks until it reached the back of Nikki’s neck where it stopped as Tess pulled her in for a lingering kiss.

“Together.” Nikki affirmed as she pulled away with a smile.

“Damn right!”

Nikki laughed as she rose to her feet. “Right, well while you go and make that call to the vets; I am going to get my book I need to occupy my mind with something for a while.”

“Want me to get it?” Tess asked as she rose next to Nikki.

“That’s ok,” the blonde stated, “it’s in my office…I’ll get it while you go and see how ‘tow tow’ is doing.”

“Right.” Tess affirmed as they both left the living room, and headed to their intended destinations in different directions.

*******

He felt himself coming to again, but this time his mind was clearer, more alert. Taking a deep breath CJ opened his eyes, and looked around the dark interior of his room. It was now half past eight and the young man gingerly pushed himself to a sitting position. Blinking, his mind tried to recall how he had come to be in bed at this time of day; when the last thing he remembered was kissing Lisa goodbye outside her sisters’ house.

Suddenly it all came back, Bradley, his accusations, his anger and his violent outburst. Reeling in shock he rose to his feet and tentatively excited his bedroom. The pain in his head and stomach was sharp, but not enough to force him to stay put…he needed to find Bradley…now. Walking down the hallway he stopped at a large mirror and looked at his swollen reflection with shock. His left eye was half swollen and purple; dry blood ran from the corner of his mouth. Unzipping the jacket he still wore and lifting up his white tee shirt he saw large contusions covering both sides of his body. Frowning, and anger replacing the upset he had been feeling CJ moved past the mirror and into Bradley’s bedroom, it was empty. He walked into the living room finding that just as vacant; then a swift disturbing thought came to mind. With Brad’s current state of mind, he knew how unpredictable his brother could be. Yet one thing he knew for sure, if his Brad did still fear Tess and Nikki may have some idea of what was going on, he wasn’t going to wait around any longer.

Sensing the urgency in this revelation, CJ reached into his pocket and pulled out his car keys. He had to get back over to Riverside Farm, not to stop his brother from making another terrible mistake, he was finished with that…what ever Bradley got he definitely deserved. No, he had to get over there and help make sure nothing terrible happened, and knowing his brother the way he did…he knew just how malevolent that man could be.
10

Moving without the cane, mainly due to her now complete familiarity with the layout of their house, Nikki made her way through the kitchen and on to her office. Trailing one hand along the wall, she counted the usual ten steps from the side kitchen door, past the dining room until she reached the entrance of the office. She pushed the door open and walked into the quiet room.

*******

Sitting on the stairs, Tess pulled her mobile from the inside pocket of her denim jacket hung haphazardly over the banister. She hit the speed dial button seven, instantly connecting her with the veterinary surgery. The brunette waited, drumming her long fingers on her right knee as she waited for the call to be answered. Seconds later an elderly voice reverberated down the line.

Tess spoke briefly with the veterinary nurse; discovering that Leto had indeed come around from her anaesthetic calmly and quietly. The golden hound was now sound asleep in a large cage and would be ready to go home the day after tomorrow. Tess was a little disappointed that she had to wait until Monday before she could bring Leto home, but she understood that it was in the dogs’ best interests.

Disconnecting the call, the photographers stomach rumbled, reminding her that none of them had really eaten much today. At least she’d had her ‘nutritionally void’ snack, but Tess was sure Nikki hadn’t eaten much of anything all day. Walking into the kitchen the photographer pulled open a small drawer and picked up the nearest Indian take out menu. She perused the selections. “HEY NIK?” She yelled.

“Yeah?” Came a distant voice.

“DO YOU FEEL LIKE A TAKE AWAY?”

“Sounds good to me.” Nikki answered in a raised voice.

“Great…I’ll go and ask Lisa.” She said wondering where the teen was; knowing Lisa had been upstairs for quite a while now. Chucking the menu down, it slid along the varnished surface of the table as Tess exited the kitchen and approached the stairs.

*******

As a child Nikki loved to sit in her bedroom and listen to storybooks on tape. Rosalind was never one to read her daughter bedtime tales and refused to do so, believing her daughter had to be as normal as possible and not rely on others. It didn’t seem to register to the woman that a parent reading to her children was a normal occurrence anyway. She had objected greatly to the blonde attending a school for the visually impaired, but Richard had insisted, pointing out the many benefits it could offer the younger girl. So Nikki had started school; learning Braille quickly and soon reading became one of her favourite relaxing past times.

During his spare time James himself learned to read Braille; also helping a young Nikki with her reading and did on occasions read to her when her parents were out for the evening, though Richard Morris did when he had the time, read to his daughter. It was obvious to them all Nikki’s passion for books and fictional stories, and on many occasions Richard would go out of his way to purchase as many books for Nikki; taking time out on his lunch hours to visit book stores in the city.

Standing in the office, Nikki turned to the right and headed straight for her bookshelf, but as her hand reached out and found purchase of a row of familiar books…she froze. The feel of the room, the whole atmosphere had changed, sending an icy chill of fear down her spine. Moving away from the shelf Nikki turned around; senses alert as she tried to gage her distraction. Somebody was in the room. “Who’s here?” She asked shakily. There was no response but Nikki sensed a sudden shift in the air to her right. Fear escalating; she felt the sudden urgency to leave the room, but as she made her way towards the exit an unknown hand reached out, grabbing her by the arm and pulling her backwards into a hard body. Nikki whimpered as a hand covered her mouth and a familiar sensation of cold steel pressed against her throat.

“Déjà vu!” Said the recognisable voice. “Hmm…you know I get the familiar feeling that I have done this before; don’t you think that is strange?”

Terrified, Nikki struggled against the strong hold but the grip just increased, holding her securely.

“Ah ah ah, if you are wise you will keep still, and if you shout or scream it’ll be the last thing you ever do, understand?”

Nikki nodded and the hand moved away from her mouth. “What do you want Bradley?” Her voice trembled with restrained fear.

Bradley pulled Nikki over to the entrance leading to the rest of the house and closed the door, before moving to the exit, dragging the blonde along with him, “You know my name? So my squealing brother did tell after all!” He opened the door and pulled Nikki out into the night air. “Well after I have finished here I may need to go back and teach him a lesson about lying to family.” Still holding the sharp knife against Nikki’s throat Brad dragged the stumbling and frightened blonde over to the closest crop of bushes.

*******

She had mounted the stairs quietly, wondering where Lisa would be hiding herself. It was obvious that teen was upset about the recent turn of events and the subsequent allegations. But although inside Tess didn’t want to believe CJ was as corrupt as she had insinuated, she could only go with the facts. And the facts were rather indisputable.

Walking along the landing, Tess spotted the light from the bathroom shedding a small ray from the gap at the bottom of its door. She approached it quietly and rapped her knuckles on the solid wood. “Lisa?”

A few moments of silence past before a quiet voice gave permission to enter. Tess walked into the room and looked at the slight form of the teen sitting on the edge of the bathtub. Red swollen eyes and a handful of tissues told the photographer all she needed to know. “Um…are you alright?”

The teen nodded mutely.

Come on Tess think. “Err…we are ordering in if you would like something to eat.”

Another silent nod was her reply.

Damn it! Tess scanned the bathroom as if looking for insight. Jade eyes followed the blue/grey swirls of the surrounding tiled design, then looked upon a wide cabinet screwed securely to the wall. She looked at her reflection in the mirror and shook her head at the uncomfortable expression staring back at her.

Walking further into bathroom Tess closed the distance between her and the bath, before sitting down on the edge beside Lisa. “Um…I know I could be wrong you know… If CJ doesn’t have anything to do with this then we will soon find out for sure wont we.” She placed her hand upon Lisa’s shoulder and inclined her head. “Lisa?”

The teen nodded. “Yeah, but the more I think about it the more I am scared that you are right… it all makes sense and that’s what bothers me. What if he was using me all this time?”

Tess sucked in her bottom lip; chewing on the soft flesh. “It really isn’t worth thinking about any of this until we know what is going on for sure. Nikki doesn’t believe CJ’s intentions were bad and you know not to mess with her intuitions!”

Lisa laughed. “Yeah I’ve kind of realised that over the years.”

Smirking the brunette placed her arm around the teen shoulder and pulled her in. “So let’s not go making any more assumptions until we have our facts straight okay?” Hmm these delicate conversations aren’t that bad; Tess thought relieved I can do sensitive! “Yeah?”

Nodding Lisa smiled. “Yeah okay.” She looked up to the tall woman still slightly surprised that this was the same Tess Alexander who was reputedly as reticent as they come.

Tess pulled away and rose to her feet. “Want to go down and make an order? Nikki is probably waiting right now with menu and phone in hand wondering where we are.”

Lisa nodded, and together they left the bathroom.

*******

It was painful to move, almost too painful at the beginning, but as CJ dove into his Civic and made the journey towards Riverside Farm he became accustomed to the sharp pains that assaulted his body with every sharp turn and swift movement the vehicle made. It was fast approaching nine o’clock and the sky was already dark; street lamps having illuminated the roads almost an hour before.

Entering the narrow driveway that led towards the farmhouse, CJ drove his car carefully over the bumpy track, trying hard not to jar his already abused frame. And as he approached the bridge he slowed the Civic down further, moving over the wooden structure at a dawdling speed.

The front security light shone down upon the young man as the car stopped and he climbed cautiously out the drivers seat. Once the door was closed, he quickly approached the front of the house, his body already feeling the effects of over exertion.

*******

Tess and Lisa descended the stairs as the front bell chimed, startling the smaller of the two brunettes’. Both thinking it was the Mayor; they approached the door together, Tess reaching over the teen and unlatching the lock. What they saw instead caused a look of shock on the photographer and horror on the small teen.

“CJ!” Lisa stated, moving quickly away from the doorway so the young man could enter.

He stumbled in, clutching his side with obvious pain. Dry blood still covering the side of his face and mouth; one eye swollen shut, even Tess had to grimace at the sight. Instinctively she looked outside, taking stock of the young mans car; well it least it doesn’t look like a traffic accident! She thought. Turning back to CJ, she took a strong hold of the young mans elbow and helped him towards the stairs, the nearest place for him to sit.

“Thanks” he replied, closing his eyes with relief.

Worry etched deep into her brow; Lisa moved to his side eyes wide with alarm. “What happened? Have you seen a doctor, I think you should go and see one…what happened?”

CJ looked at Lisa then to the tall woman looming over him. He was just about to answer when realisation hit; he was going to have to come clean about everything. Who he was, who his brother was, and more importantly, what his brother wanted. Not that he knew any specifics of that part, just that he intended getting revenge on Tess; but knowing Bradley the way he did, anything was imaginable.

Placing his right hand over bruised ribs the tall man cleared his aching throat. “This is all…” he coughed, wincing as the pain sliced through his body. Lisa moved forward concerned but he held up his hand halting her movement. “No…this is all my fault.”

Lisa frowned. “What do you mean CJ?”

“He asked me to watch you all; get close and learn your movements, but I couldn’t do it.”

Tess bent down. “CJ look…”

“No, you don’t understand,” he interrupted. “My brother Brad? I am sure you can remember him from the shopping centre. I don’t know what happened there, but I know he came away pretty beaten up…” He looked deep into Tess’s eyes.

The photographer shook her head. “It’s okay CJ, we know.”

The young man frowned and looked quickly at Lisa before turning back to Tess. “What do you mean you know…what do you know?”

“Your brother is Bradley White. He was the guy that attacked Nikki at Gallowtree shopping centre. He has been watching us for over a month now, and earlier today he tried to kill Leto.”

Brown eyes widened in shock. “Leto… is she alright?”

Tess nodded. “She will be; right now I want to know what happened to you.”

CJ nodded. “Brad saw me here today; needless to say he wasn’t very happy to think that I might be fraternising with the enemy.” He looked beseechingly at the teen. “I’m sorry Lisa. I know I should have said something earlier, but I was afraid that it would jeopardise what we had together… and I didn’t want that.”

Lisa nodded, tears clouding her eyes.

Tess rose to her feet. “Where is your bother now CJ?”

The blonde looked up at Tess nervously. “That is just it, I don’t know. When I came around earlier he was gone, but after the rage he displayed I can only assume he has stepped up his plans of revenge. I had to get round here and inform you before it was too late.”

Nodding Tess looked around the hallway. “Right, then I…” she frowned. “Nikki?” She called suddenly, wondering why the blonde hadn’t emerged at the sound of another voice.

There was no answer.

“NIKKI?” Still frowning, Tess looked quickly to the couple sitting on the stairs before taking off towards the front room. Seeing no sign of the blonde, Tess retraced her steps, heading instead to the kitchen and on into the office. She opened the door and looked inside, finding the room empty.

From behind Tess heard a rapid set of approaching footsteps and turned to see a concerned looking Lisa. “Tess?” The teen noticed the look of apprehension on the photographers face. “What’s wrong, where’s Nikki?”

Tess looked back into the office, wishing she knew the answer to that one simple question. “I…I don’t know. She said she was coming here to get a book.” Tess re-entered the office and tried the handle on the other door. It easily swung open, allowing a gust of cold air into the heat radiated room.

“Did she go out to the stables?”

Shutting the door Tess shook her head. “No; her cane was in the front room and she never goes out there without it.”

Lisa turned to see CJ slowly approaching; the worried look in her eyes sent sudden alarm bells ringing in the young mans head. “What is it, where’s Nikki?” He asked.

Shaking her head Lisa moved out of the way as Tess entered the back passage.

CJ’s eyes widened. “You don’t think…”

“No time for speculations.” Tess interrupted; “We don’t want to jump to any conclusions here, we just need to find Nikki… now.” She didn’t allow the terror she was feeling inside to affect her outer calm; it wouldn’t help the situation. But she did have an awful feeling and wanted so desperately to be wrong. “Right… so we have to check the house and surrounding area.” Tess looked towards CJ; “How are you feeling because I could really do with your help.”

The young man stood tall; not wanting to let any of the women down, he had done that enough already. “Just tell me what you want me to do.”

Tess nodded once. “Right, Lisa you check the house, look around the rooms upstairs and down.” She turned to CJ. “Can you check the back of the house; while I look around the front. Then I will come around and meet you out back.”

Giving affirmed nods, the three set off in separate directions.

With urgency Lisa moved around the house; entering each room she scanned the area thoroughly, but found nothing. She even checked the laundry room and the cupboard under the stairs but found nothing more than sports gear. A deflated football, fishing rod, tennis rackets and a rugby ball covered with a multitude of signatures. Closing the door Lisa turned to the stairs and made short work of the fifteen wooden steps. Reaching the landing she checked Tess’s dark room; the remainder of the bedrooms and both bathrooms, but still she found nothing. Concern mounting, she hoped Tess or CJ were having better luck outside.

CJ walked swiftly out to the back of the house, holding his injured side gently. The outside security light instantly illuminated the area as he started searching his surroundings. The young man didn’t have very intimate knowledge of the vicinity, so he decided to just check everywhere he could. If Nikki had come out side, and he hoped that was all she had done, he hoped to find her.

Tess entered the courtyard, moving into sensor range of the security light. She looked around deciding her best method of detection was to basically to keep moving.

“Nik?” Tess shouted as she approached the bridge, almost afraid to look down into the murky waters of the shallow stream below. “NIKKI” more desperate this time. She peered into the bank of the stream but found nothing out of the ordinary. Cursing, she turned back continuing her search by checking the rest of the courtyard. “NIKKI?” Damn it where are you? Fist balled almost painfully by her side Tess headed back into the house.

*******

Holding the small blonde firmly within the confines of the over grown shrubbery, Bradley white kept his hand clasped firmly over Nikki’s mouth. He was waiting, sooner or later that photographer would come out looking for her, and then he would strike, using the blonde as a means of stacking the odds firmly in his favour.

Nikki grimaced, kneeling silently in the dry soil. She was held in a tight grip; pulled firm against the body behind her, but at least the knife was no longer positioned against the soft flesh of her neck. She swallowed hard, finding it difficult to breath with the large hand so tightly wrapped around her. Nikki fought to fight hyperventilation; she was scared, more so than before, and the added pressure on her lungs wasn’t helping. She didn’t know how much more she could take.

“Mupfh.” She whimpered, shaking her head slightly from side to side, desperate for oxygen.

Bradley growled deep in his throat, pulling the blonde’s head back to rest upon his shoulder. “Quiet!” he warned.

Nikki nodded, thankful at least that the movement had allowed her more room to breath; she took in a gasping lungful a fresh night air.

“I said quiet.” He warned in a tight whisper. “This isn’t personal you know.” He trailed his knife along the contours of her heart shaped face; “I wish it were, but this is all about that bitch you’re shacked up with. I’m not going to hurt you…” he grinned maliciously; “Unless it hurts her for me to do so that is.”

“Nik?”

Nikki’s sensitive ears picked up the sound of her lovers voice.

“NIKKI”

It was louder this time; Bradley jumping at the unexpected sound of the photographer. He had been waiting for her of course, but with his sudden change of plans all thanks to CJ, Bradley was a little unsure of how he would carry out his means of vengeance. Whatever happened as long as was able to pay back the photographer he really didn’t care. Looking around hastily, Brad inadvertently loosening the grip on the small blonde within his grasp.

“NIKKI?”

Acknowledging the opportunity and knowing she may not get another chance, Nikki struggled unexpectedly, fighting against the arms around her. She kicked her legs out, twisting within the circle of strong arms and released an elbow, driving it back into Bradley’s stomach.

Brad curled in sudden pain; winching as he held his stomach, not a sound leaving his mouth. Looking towards the blonde, he noticed her taking off into the dark night. Growling with rage he climbed to he feet in pursuit of the small woman slightly ahead.

Nikki panicked. “Tess?” she shouted, and stumbled as her foot caught an errant root sticking up through the ground. She fell to her knees hard; feeling the skin rupture underneath the lightweight sweats she wore. Still Nikki didn’t acknowledge the pain, pure adrenalin forcing her to get up and keep moving. If only she knew where she was.

She kept running, hearing the rapidly approaching footsteps of Bradley from behind. Suddenly however she found herself colliding with a solid stone structure, and as the shock wore off she realised it was the stable. Feeling around she found the latch of the door and opened it wide, an impact hitting her from behind as she and Bradley fell onto the hay-strewn ground inside.

Bradley sat on top of Nikki as they grappled for control of her arms. She lay face down; struggling under the larger man and winced in pain as her arms were pulled savagely from behind. She cried out helplessly.

“Nikki… is that you?”

They both froze as Brad recognised the voice of his younger brother. He leant down to Nikki’s right ear and whispered hoarsely. “Stay here and if you make a sound I will kill him…understand?”

Tears stung the blondes’ eyes. “You would kill your own brother?”

“He betrayed me, he’s not my brother anymore…now stay.” He punctured his words with a hard thrust into the middle of Nikki’s back.

*******

Tess jogged desperately through the house, her fear mounting with every passing second of the blonde not being by her side. Her feeling of dread increased; she can’t just vanish into thin air for gods’ sake. Her mind fluttered back to the last time she had spoken to Nikki. She definitely sounded okay then. “Damn it!” Entering the kitchen Tess bumped into a worried looking Lisa. “No sign?” she asked, already knowing the answer.

The teen shook her head. “Nothing I was kind of hoping you might have found her by now.”

Tess clasped her hands together, rubbing the palms roughly against each other, as her eyes darted around the room nervously. “No, I haven’t.” She turned to Lisa; “You keep on looking and I’ll try one more time as well; if we still find nothing I’ve got to call the police.” Tess closed her eyes; she so desperately didn’t want to think Nikki could be in danger… she just had to find her.

*******

CJ approached the stable warily; he was positive he had heard Nikki’s voice, and was also sure that that stable door had been shut last time he checked. Still holding his side that had now eased to a low tolerable ache, the young man walked cautiously towards the entrance.

He stopped dead in his tracks; hiding his surprise as his brother emerged in the doorway. CJ looked directly at Bradley; taking in his tousled appearance and the malevolent gleam in his grey eyes. “Brad.”

The older man smiled. “Bro…what are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.”

“Why?”

Why, that was a good question…what was he supposed to say. He desperately wanted to placate his brother, but wasn’t sure how to go about this, the man was walking a thin line of stability as it was. He stared deep into Bradley’s eyes, desperately trying to find a glimmer of the brother he’d grown up with, who had taken care of him after their parents had died; but there was nothing. All that was left was a shadow of the man who had sold out on everything he once believed in, in order to fund his addiction without conscience or regret. He closed his eyes; remembering the day he had found his brother in a secluded room at a friend’s party. Strap tight around his upper arm, syringe still in hand… he had known from that moment things had changed forever.

CJ opened his eyes. “Where’s Nikki?”

Bradley frowned. “You mean the blonde…why?”

“Is she alright?”

Brad stepped closer, his hand falling to his side knife firmly within his grasp. The younger man could just make out a splatter of blood upon the blade.

“What have you done to her?”

Inclining his head to the side, Bradley frowned. “You disappointed me bro, I would have expected loyalty from my own blood kin, but no…you go and take their sides…AFTER ALL THAT BITCH DID TO ME…LOOK AT MY FACE!”

CJ stepped back, alarmed at the volatile rage mounting in his brothers’ eyes. He held up his hands. “Brad…please…” It was Bradley’s own decision not to get to the hospital and have his nose set. The more he thought about it, CJ realised that should have been the first sign that his brother had been up to no good. Not going to the hospital for fear questions may have been asked.

Bradley pointed his knife towards CJ. “Now you’re next.” He stated and lunged forward.

CJ moved out of his way, much to Brad’s anger as he advanced again, storming towards his brother with an angry growl. He managed to move again, but not before the large blade made contact with his forearm. CJ winced and grasped a hold of the wound as blood commenced flowing rapidly from the deep gash. He turned towards his brother, knowing that his only hope was a full a contact collision and as Bradley advance once more; they came together with surprising force, both falling to the ground with a heavy thud.

From inside the stable, Nikki had heard the brothers altercation and as they both hit the ground; she realised this was her perfect time to make an escape. She had travelled back and forth between the stable and the house countless times already and she was positive she could make it to her office door as quickly as possible. Then she could get help; to in turn help CJ before it was too late.

Bracing one hand against the stables doorframe, she listened closely, hearing the sound of the brothers’ struggle to her left. Thankful of this fact, she turned right and headed back towards the farmhouse. She moved as swiftly as she could, concentrating on her steps; arms out stretched desperately as she felt around for looming objects and buildings.

Once again she felt herself slam into a brick building, and feeling around she soon found the door leading to her office. With monumental relief she fell into the house, unaware of the approaching figure advancing from behind.

*******

Tess ran along the landing and approached the stairs. There was still no sign of Nikki so she had no choice but to call the police; she didn’t want to fear the worst, but the indescribable panic escalating within was rapidly forcing rational thought from her mind. As she descending the stairs, her booted foot hitting the first step…Tess froze.

“Tess?”

Eyes wide, Tess moved faster down the stairs, not bothering to reach the bottom as she grabbed a secure hold of the banister and vaulted her long frame over the wooden railing. She landed on the ground with a solid thud. “NIKKI?” Tess couldn’t keep the desperation from her voice.

“Tess where are you?”

“I’m coming!” She called, moving in the direction of the blondes’ voice; she stopped suddenly as her eyes met Bradley White, standing menacingly in the kitchen doorway.

*******

Lisa had decided to once again try looking around the outer boundaries of the farmhouse. She started at the front, moving round the far side of the house and around to the back. The silence was overwhelming, and her periodic calls of her sisters’ name had all gone un-answered, causing her apprehension to grow. What was more, she had yet to meet up with CJ.

Approaching the stables, she noticed the door wide open and knew from experience that Nikki always kept at least the lower half of the barrier closed. Lisa picked up her pace, moving swiftly towards the brick structure when an unrecognisable form to the left caught her eye. She frowned wondering what it was, and as she reached the prone figure her throat constricted in shock. “CJ!” she cried running towards the apparent lifeless body, she fell down to her knees grabbing hold of the blondes’ shoulders. “CJ!”

CJ jumped, feeling an unexpected jolt through his body; dark eyes opened at the sound of Lisa’s familiar voice. “It’s okay, it’s okay.” He assured her.

Relief flooded through the teen. “I thought something had happened to you.”

The young man grimaced. “I though it better…to pretend…” he struggled for breath; “I was out for the count than continue to let him pound on me.” CJ winced. “I think my arm is broken.”

Lisa looked worriedly down at the blonde. “We need to get the police; I think he must be in there with Tess and Nikki… I’m scared CJ.”

With effort CJ pushed himself to a sitting position, aided softly by Lisa. “My mobile is in the car… we can call from there.”

“Yeah okay, come on then…I’m not leaving you here.” Lisa held out her hand and helped CJ get to his feet. His body throbbed with repeated abuse. Putting her arm around the taller mans side; Lisa led CJ back towards his car. All the time looking frantically around, desperate to make sure Bradley was not lurking in the shadows, ready to stop them from reaching the phone.

*******

A slow malevolent grin spread across the thin lips of Bradley Whites features as he came face to face with the woman he had been plotting against for months. Tipping his head to the side he stared curiously at the tall woman who had yet to speak. “What…no emotional reunion?”

Tess took a step forward. “If you don’t get out of here now the only reunion today will be that of my fist with your face, Bradley.”

Shaking his head the smile left his features. “You caught me by surprise last time; you’ll not get that chance again.” He too took a step closer until they were standing less than six feet apart. “It’s my turn now Tess.”

Tess stood her ground, feeling the mounting surge of apprehension on the inside yet she still appeared outwardly cool. “Where’s Nikki?”

Bradley lifted his shoulders with an expression of nonchalance. “Around I guess; why should I care, it’s you I want.”

“If you’ve hurt her I’ll…”

“…What?” Bradley questioned holding up his knife; “Oh I hurt her alright.” He twisted the wooden handle between his fingers, the contrast of dark red blood and shiny metal glinting in the artificial light.

Tess stared at the sharp object with an inner horror. She took a breath, trying to remain calm; I heard her; she called out to me; she has to be okay.

The look on Brads face turn to one of absolute hatred; “Now it’s your turn.” With a swift step he lunged towards the tall woman, swinging his arm out savagely. Tess jumped back, eyes wide with shock as she dodged the sudden charge of the blade.

He moved again, charging Tess with full force and they came together with a violent impact, both bodies hitting the wall and knocking a framed print from its angled position. It fell to the ground with a clash; glass shattering over the wooden floor around their feet. Tess desperately grabbed the arm holding the knife and held it away from her body; twisting Bradley’s wrist until he grunted in pain and dropped the sharp weapon from his grasp. That too fell to the floor; hitting the shards of splintered glass.

Tess gasped as a hand clamped around her throat, and in defence her knee came up, hitting Bradley solidly in the stomach. He released her in shock and moved away winded but Tess approached, advancing on the man as she hurled her body towards him, kicking him violently in the stomach once again. He fell backwards into the kitchen, landing with a thump onto his back.

Anger seething; Tess stepped towards Bradley ready to grab him once again but he kicked out, effectively knocking the photographer off her feet. She fell to the ground, half on the floor half upon the man who had already found a new weapon… a sharp piece of splintered glass from the frame.
With a savage growl he lashed out, slashing the glass from the brunettes’ ear to her chin. Tess cried out clutching the stinging wound, feeling the moisture underneath her hand. Bradley grinned in triumph and pulled his hand back again, driving his weapon towards Tess’s shoulder but she swiftly moved her body to the side and he missed her by a mere centimetre. Tess grabbed the hand, thrusting it hard against the floor. It hit another slither of glass, slicing into Brad’s hand and he released his weapon helplessly and with a growl of agony.

They traded blows then; frantically moving around the floor as each tried to get the upper hand over the other. Grabbing a hold of the photographers’ sweatshirt, Bradley rolled over, trapping Tess under his own large frame. He grinned down at her and laughed. “Look what I’ve got!”

Tess sneered. “You got nothing.” She growled and lifted her knee up and in between their bodies, planting her foot on Brad’s stomach. With adrenalin induced might, she kicked out hurling the man back towards the kitchen doorway where he landed with heavy thud. Tess pushed to a sitting position breathing heavily; looking at the man as he warily pulled his own body to an upright position.

Suddenly the lights went out.

*******

Throughout the struggle, Nikki had frantically tried to get her bearings. She was confused, frightened, and her body ached with tremendous fright. Moving along with her back against the wall, she desperately searched for a way to get to Tess and help her.

Arms out wide, she felt around for anything that could possibly help and as her left hand moved back to the wall, something caught her attention. It was a wooden box fitting securely to the wall; Nikki knew that inside that box was the complete set of circuit breakers for the entire houses electricity supply.

Pulling open the small wooden door, she felt inside, her fingers running over a row of small plastic flip switches, all connected to and controlling different areas of the houses power supply. Without much thought and only a brief hope that she was doing the right thing, she swept her hand across the row of switches, cutting off all power and instantly rendering the whole house in complete and utter darkness.

*******

Hitting the termination button on his mobile phone, CJ looked up suddenly as the house became shrouded in total blackness. If it wasn’t for the fact that the car door was open and the vehicles inside light was shining, he too wouldn’t be able to see anything.

Lisa looked down at the blonde man. “What was that?”

“The power just went out.” He carefully pulled himself up from his seated position in the car; sitting side ways with his legs out on the ground below. Gingerly, he walked into the courtyard only slightly lit by his cars cab-light. “Everything’s gone…not even the security lights are working.”

Lisa stayed by the car; she swallowed tight. “How long until the police arrive?”

CJ shrugged. “About ten minutes they said.” He took a step towards the house; “I’ve got to go in there.”

“NO!” Lisa shouted. She approached CJ; “You are hurt enough as it is, hell you only have the use of one arm.” She looked towards the house. “We won’t be able to see a thing in there…right now, Nikki is the one with the upper hand.”

*******

Tess pushed herself along the kitchens tiled floor, moving rapidly away from the unknown whereabouts of Bradley White and hitting a solid leg of the pine table. Swiftly she pulled her exhausted body to its feet and backed away, reaching for a way out. She moved through the kitchen; following a row of appliances until she reached the side doorway and instantly left the room. She found herself in the back passage and helplessly made her way to what she presumed was the entrance of the dining room.

Lifting her head Nikki listened as she immediately recognised her lovers’ footsteps. “Tess,” she whispered.

“NIKKI?” Tess looked around blindly.

Nikki moved towards Tess’s voice and instantly found the tall woman, wrapping her arms around the taller body with profound relief.

“Oh thank god!” Tess held Nikki tight, squeezing the smaller body into her own; “I was so scared.” She laid the uninjured side of her face against blonde locks.

“Are you alright?”

Tess smiled in relief. “I am now.”

From somewhere in the house they heard the sound of bumping and clashing. Nikki jumped and wrapped her arms tighter around the photographers’ body. The knowledge that Bradley was still out there almost over-rode her relief to have Tess safely in her arms.

“Are you alright Nik?”

“Now that you are with me yes.”

“I’ve got to get back out there… what happened to the lights… did you do that?”

Nikki nodded. “I didn’t know what else to do.” She lifted her face towards Tess; “All I knew was that I had to stop him.” She reached out; her hand coming into contact with the injured side of the brunette’s face, Tess hissed and pulled back in pain.

“Tess?”

“It’s nothing, really.” Tess said, knowing that wasn’t exactly the truth. With the pain and size of the wound she knew she was going to be scarred permanently. “Just a lucky shot. Listen Nik, I’ve got to stop him, I’ve got to get the lights back on.”

“No.”

“Nikki! I can’t see a damned thing.” Tess whispered harshly.

“I’ll help you.” The blonde replied, laying her hand upon the photographers’ shoulder; “Please trust me, just do as I say and we can beat him.” She needed Tess’s co-operation and she needed it quickly; not knowing how long they would have before Bradley would find his way to the back of the house again.

She didn’t need to think twice. “What do you want me to do?”

Nikki smiled taking the hand upon her shoulder and kissing the injured knuckles. “Close your eyes.”

“I can’t see anything anyway, and you want me to close my eyes?”

Nodding. “Yes, Tess you may not be able to see anything but you are still trying to look around aren’t you. You said it yourself, for people who can see, being in complete darkness is worse because of the desperation you feel to get back your sight. I want you to just accept this and close your eyes, listen instead.”

With only a moment’s uncertainty, Tess closed her eyes hesitantly.

“Tess, tell me what you feel, what you smell and hear.”

She frowned in the darkness. “I feel fear, and I’m scared for you… that you may get hurt or worse, that I may get hurt and not be able to protect you.”

“What else?” Nikki asked desperately.

Tess opened her senses. “I hear my heart beat, it’s loud in my ears and both our breathing.” She smiled. “And I can smell your shampoo, the scent of the apples.”

Nodding Nikki held on tightly to Tess’s arm, “What else do you hear?” she asked, feeling rapidly rising fear.

She listened hard. “I hear the sound of the ticking clock in the hallway and I…” her face dropped, “I hear footsteps…coming our way.”

“It’s him.” Nikki stated gravely.

Taking both arms Tess turned to Nikki. “Get out of here now…through the patio doors.”

“NO!” the blonde whispered savagely.

“Yes Nikki, please…its me he wants; please just trust me.”

“I’m not leaving you Tess.”

They both turned as the sound of footsteps stopped outside the entrance to the dining room. Tess took a hold of Nikki’s face and kissed the softly. “Get behind that armchair in the corner…now.”

Knowing not to argue this time Nikki did as told and easily made her way to the chair, moving out of harms way.

Tess stood by the table in the dining room; keeping her eyes tightly closed as the door slowly creaked opened. She did as Nikki instructed and opened her senses to the changes around her. Tess heard Bradley enter the dining room.

“If you are in here I will find you.” Came the taunting voice.

Tess remained still, forcing her eyes tightly together, she heard Nikki whimper.

Bradley smiled in the darkness. “I know somebody is here.”

Praying Nikki wouldn’t make another noise the photographer remained open; suddenly she was besieged with a multitude of sensations. Her hearing picked up the close approaching sound of slow footsteps and breathing. Her sense of smell detected the aroma she identified immediately as Bradley’s, the strong stench of body odour and unwashed clothes. Then as the man came within three feet of the woman; she felt the change in the air around her, the density increased and a sudden gust to her left gave away the mans very position.

With sureness Tess kicked out to the side; her foot instantly slammed into Bradley’s groin. He howled in unexpected agony and leaned forward only to cry out again as the tall woman’s foot connected with his face. His head whipped back as his whole body fell against the wall. He didn’t even have time to react as the foot once again smashed into his stomach before he felt Tess’s elbow to his chest; followed by her fist in the side of his throat. His world dimmed to blackness as his unconscious body slid to the ground with a heavy thud.

The sound of heavy breathing filled the air and Tess trembled as she opened her eyes to total darkness. “Nikki?” She asked timidly.

The blonde rose to her feet. “Tess, I’m here…I’m coming.” She moved forward, easily finding the brunette and engulfing her in relieved embrace. “Is he…?”

“No.” Tess sighed; “He’s alive.” She leaned down kissed Nikki’s forehead relieved yet still scared, as they both heard the sound of approaching sirens.

*******

Thirty miles away and on the outskirts of the city two plain clothed officers stood by the front door of a large three-bedroom maisonette. The taller of the two lifted his arm, rapping harshly on the PVC barrier. Seconds later the door opened and a small middle-aged woman with light greying blonde hair came into view. “Yes?”

The taller officer looked at his pad briefly. “Mrs Rosalind Morris?”

“Yes?”

“I’m Detective Sergeant Faribrass, this is DC Brian, we would like you to accompany us to the station for questioning.”

The woman looked alarmed. “For what reason.”

DC Brian took a step forward. “We would like to question you about your dealings with a Mr Bradley White, Mrs Morris.”

Rosalind blanched. “Am I to believe I’m under arrest?”

“No Mrs Morris.” Fairbrass replied, much to the obvious relieve of the small woman. “Not yet!” He added meaningfully.

*******

Power to the house restored, and accompanied by the multitude of flashing red and blue lights, Tess decided that Riverside farm very much resembled Blackpool illuminations. Five police cars and two ambulances were parked in the courtyard; surrounded by a multitude of uniformed and plain-clothes officers and medical personnel.

Tess sat on the back of one ambulance, Nikki by her side as a male paramedic efficiently taped a long strip of padded gauze to the side of her face. He had already treated Nikki, covering her arm; the only wound Bradley had been able to inflict on her, in a similar fashion with a piece of square gauze.

Richard Morris had arrived not ten minutes before, alarmed and horrified as he witnessed the scene ahead. He now sat with his youngest daughter in the back of the ambulance as another paramedic assessed CJ’s injuries; it was obvious that the young bleached blonde had physically come out the worst in all of this. Suffering numerous broken bones and internal bleeding at the hands of his brother.

Tess looked up as the two paramedics from the other ambulance emerged from the house, both carrying a long stretcher holding Bradley Whites now fully conscious body. She watched them closely, assessing the man lying prone upon the stretcher, taking note of his every move and making sure he stayed exactly where he was. Once the man was carried into the ambulance, followed by two uniformed officers Tess turned her attention back to Nikki. The blonde hadn’t spoken a word since the police had arrived and Tess knew they would soon be questioned about the frightening events. She could tell Nikki was in shock. “Hey?”

Nothing.

“Nik…sweetheart?”

Nikki turned her face towards the photographer. “Tess.”

“Yeah?”

“Is it over now? I don’t think I can take anymore.” Sapphire eyes filled with heavy tears.

Heart breaking at the sight, Tess wrapped her arm around the body by her side, “Yes, it’s over now…I promise it’s over.”

Nodding, her lip trembling Nikki let her head fall to Tess’s shoulder. “I feel so empty…so…I don’t know; my head hurts and my heart hurts.”

A single tear ran down Tess’s cheek, soaking into the gauze along the side of her chin.

“How can you even stand to be near me? When it comes down to it Tess, all this happened because of me. All this pain, Leto, you, Lisa and CJ…all because of me and my own selfish desires.”

Exasperation swept through Tess and she pulled away, jumping off the back of the ambulance and standing in front of the blonde. She grabbed a hold of Nikki’s chin and gently pulled the face to meet her own, “Never say that again…that is your mothers way of thinking. Everything you wanted Nikki, was nothing more than you deserve; none of this is your fault…none of it.” She sighed jade eyes looking deep into clear blue. “As hard as all this was, I want you to know that I would go through it all again for you…you mean so much to me Nikki, I never want to lose you and I will do whatever it takes to keep you safe and happy… do you understand?”

Tears fell from Nikki’s eyes. “But you could have been killed, we all could have.”

“But we weren’t…we are all going to be fine Nikki.” Tess let her hand roam to the side of the blonde head; “It’s over now remember?”

A slight nod; “I hope so.”

“Well I know so…please trust me Nik.”

“I do trust you Tess.”

Smiling the photographer leaned down, taking the blondes lips in a gentle kiss. “Thank you.”

“Ahem.”

Tess looked up and to her left to see the paramedic who had been treating her, standing holding the left side of the vehicles double doors. “Miss, we are ready to leave for the hospital now, if you would like to get inside.”

“I’ll stay here.” Tess stated.

“I’m sorry Miss Alexander, but your wound requires at least seven stitches; it is advisable that you accompany us to the hospital.”

“I don’t care!”

“Tess!” Nikki held onto the brunettes’ hand lightly. “Please let’s go with them, if you need stitches then we should go now…please!”

Looking down into sightless blue eyes the tall woman sighed. “Okay.” She looked at the paramedic; “But it better be quick, there is a lot that needs taken care of.”

Tess helped Nikki into the back of the vehicle before climbing in herself. She took one last look at the house and surrounding commotion knowing it would still be there when she returned; then moved back as the paramedic, dressed in an all-in-one dark green suit, closed the double doors and moved around to the passenger side of the ambulance. The engine started; lights instantly flashing as vehicle made its way through the crowd of officers and on towards the hospital.
11
She was surrounded by darkness, but that was nothing new. It was the same overwhelming kind of darkness that had accompanied her throughout her life. She felt caged, restricted; wedged in between two solid objects and although she thought she could move – she was wrong.

Ahead the frantic sounds of a violent struggling ensued. Grunts of pain and cries of agony filled the otherwise silent air with horrifying clarity. It was as if there was nothing else, her whole being focused on this mix of terrifying sounds and there wasn’t a thing she could do to get out of or ease the situation. The sounds increased amplifying in volume as they slowly approached her from ahead. She struggled, frantically trying to free herself from the confines that she herself had entered, but it was in vain as she still couldn’t move.

Suddenly a recognisable voice cried out in her darkness and she froze, calling out in desperation, but there was no reply as a heavy thud hit the ground. Then there was silence. The most overwhelming kind of silence that you could reach out and almost touch, great in density and presence. Not even the sound of her harsh breathing filtered through to unexplainable deaf ears.

Seeing and hearing nothing she tried to move; relieved when she was able to pull her body away from the confines of her enclosure. Her relief was short lived however as an unseen pair of hands grabbed her from behind and the hauntingly familiar feeing of cold steel pressed up tight against her throat.

Nikki awoke with a start, sweating profusely and her body trembling with the remains of conscious fear. Lifting to her elbows in the large bed the blonde took a deep breath before allowing her body to fall back down to the soft sheets below. Right arm falling over her eyes she sighed, shaking her head at the same dream that had plagued her for the past two nights in a row. Do dreams actually mean something; have an underlying message? she thought, and hoped beyond all measure that was not the case. Taking another deep breath she let the arm fall back to her side, her mind drifting to the day before.

*******

They had awoken together Sunday morning and for those first few moments before the somnolent mind drifted back to subconsciousness, everything seemed normal. Tess had awoken in Nikki’s arms; the uninjured side of her face pressed in between the blondes’ neck and shoulder. With a content sigh she angled her head upwards, looking towards the blonde who was herself just entering the realm of the conscious mind. She smiled, always moved by the endearing countenance upon the blonde’s face, on those odd occasions that she actually woke up before her. Pushing up onto her forearm, Tess looked down upon Nikki’s sleepy face. “Morning Beautiful.” She said, not even giving the smaller woman a chance to reply as she leaned down, claiming soft lips in gentle kiss. As Tess pulled away Nikki lifted her hand up to caress the brunettes face thus feeling the secured gauze on the photographers lower cheek. Then the events of the night before began to surface both women’s minds and an uneasy silence passed over the room. Tess stared down at Nikki, her jade eyes moving rapidly over the smaller woman’s features as she tried to gage her thoughts; a myriad of emotions flickering over Nikki’s face. Moving to the side, Tess settled to the blonde’s left and watched her lover.

“I thought it was just a bad dream.” Nikki said finally.

Tess fiddled with the honey golden strands of Nikki’s hair, fussing them tidily around her head. “I wish it were. Sweetheart, are you okay?” she asked with a frown, as sea blue eyes glazed over.

Nikki nodded, then shook her head. “I don’t think…so,” she managed then covered her face with both hands; managing to maintain the fragile hold upon her emotions. She sighed. “I’ll be alright” though the comment was more to herself. Of-course she would be all right…she had to be.

Thoughts of her mothers’ statement the day she had forbid her from seeing Tess surfaced in her mind once again. With misguided clarity she realised that maybe Rosalind was right, what could Tess see in her, always having to look out and protect her, eventually it had to become a burden…right?

The photographer frowned not quite believing that. “You don’t seem wholly convinced of that yourself,” she said, referring to Nikki’s last comment.

Pulling away irritably, Nikki swung her legs around to the side of the bed and rose to her feet. “I’m fine.” She stated and walked off towards their bathroom.

With a saddened expression, Tess watched the angry, retreating form of the blonde as she disappeared into the bathroom. She sighed forcefully and swallowed hard against her own rise of emotions, telling herself this was no time to lose it now not when there was so much at stake. Rising to a sitting position Tess stared at the closed door to the bathroom; her first instinct was to go to the blonde, but she decided to give Nikki a few moments of thinking time…unaware just how wrong she was.

Throughout the day the blondes’ mood had worsened, swinging from bouts of quietness to emotional outbursts, even at the police who had come to ask yet more questions. Still, Nikki thought, on a positive note they were informed that Bradley White had been arrested for his crimes and Rosalind Morris was too being held for questioning after Bradley had spoken against the woman who had originally hired him. Nikki hadn’t known how she was to respond to that. Saddened that her mother was being held by the police, or thankful that she was finally being held accountable for her actions; her emotions were unpredictable and confused.

Tess had maintained a short distance from the small woman; upset and bewildered by Nikki’s disposition. She had tried to speak with her on several occasions but was met with either silence or an emotional outburst that was more out of frustration than actual anger. So she stayed away; keeping herself occupied by putting the house back together, while Nikki disappeared out to the stables to take care of Thunder and Jenna. In the afternoon she had called her mother, informing her on what had happened and after convincing the obviously shaken woman that they were all okay physically, she had asked James for advice on Nikki. The butler had explained to Tess that whenever the blonde was profoundly upset she would withdraw until she worked out her own feelings (a trait that Tess was already aware of) and that she just had to wait until Nikki was ready to talk.

Richard had arrived Sunday afternoon to see his daughter but had found her silent and uncooperative. So after his attempts to speak with her had failed, he spoke instead with Tess, informing her that Lisa was fine, CJ had been questioned by the police and was resting comfortably in hospital. He asked the photographer how she was and Tess had simply stated that she would be fine as soon as Nikki was.

So the rest of the day had been relatively quiet and uncommunicative. Nikki lost in her own thoughts as she battled between self-worth and utter despondence. Inside she knew what she was doing to Tess, but feared opening up until she was ready to do so. She didn’t want to alienate the woman permanently and with her present mood of hopelessness she feared that would indeed happen.

*******

Coming out of her thoughts Nikki shook her head as if to clear the last vestiges of remembrance from her mind. She reached over, pressing the audio time feature on her clock and realising that it was still reasonably early in the morning, almost seven o’clock. Tess had opened the window the night before and the delicate smell of sun warmed shrubbery floated through the air. She could tell the sun was already shining high in the morning sky and that it was the beginning of a lovely day.

Rolling onto her side Nikki faced Tess, still in a deep exhausted slumber; unbeknownst to Nikki the tall woman hadn’t fallen asleep until the early hours of the morning. She reached out, her left hand trailing over the relaxed countenance of her lovers snoozing features, tracing the smooth plains of her skin. The fingertips stopped as Nikki came into contact with the seven stitches on the side of Tess’s face. Tess had obviously removed the strip of bandage the night before to allow the sutured gash time to breathe. She leaned forward, kissing the wound gently.

It was the tickling sensation upon her face that finally brought Tess around to consciousness. Opening tired eyes, she looked up to see Nikki; her own blue eyes glazed over with unshed tears. She wanted to speak, to pull Nikki into her arms and hold her, but kept still, not wanting to rush the blonde and instead waited for Nikki to acknowledge her first.

Nikki was indeed aware of when Tess had woken up; she too wanted to speak, to apologize for her reticent behaviour the day before. She had spent too long dwelling on comments her mother had said and the possibility that they may be true, and in doing so she had neglected the one person that meant everything to her. Licking trembling lips, Nikki tried to speak but it came out more as a choked sob, forcing the brunette to pull the woman into her arms and hold her tight as she released days if not months of pent up tension and hurt through harsh tears.

Feeling completely drained herself, Tess held onto Nikki tight, trying to convey her understanding and love but also immensely glad to have her Nikki back. She hated seeing the blonde so despondent, and knew that whenever Nikki got like this it was in some way due to of her mothers’ callous influence.

Minutes later a fatigued Nikki pulled away from the comforting crook of Tess’s shoulder. She sniffed, using the back of her hand to wipe away the remains of fallen tears from her cheeks. Clearing her throat the blonde tried to find her voice, desperate to make amends for the way she had acted. Why did I have to be like that when Tess tried so hard to communicate what she is feeling and for her it has always been harder. It was then that she realised two things, first why she had acted the way she had, and secondly how hard it must have been for Tess to open up when she herself was now experiencing the same fears of losing the one she loved.

Tess looked upon the heart shaped face, watching Nikki’s expressions carefully. Green eyes traced over the complex expression on the smaller woman’s countenance as she tried to decipher her thoughts. “Penny for them?” she asked timidly.

Nikki let her head fall back to the slender shoulder. “I hate myself for the way I behaved yesterday Tess.”

“Me too.” She felt the blonde stiffen, so she elaborated quickly. “I mean I hate the way things were yesterday when all I wanted to do was hold you and reassure you that everything would be alright, you know.” She paused, hoping Nikki was now ready to communicate. “Will you tell me what was wrong, what you were thinking that upset you so?”

The golden head nodded against her shoulder, but remained quiet.

Tess stroked Nikki’s back. “Now?”

There was another nod, before Nikki lifted her head until she was once again face to face with the brunette. “Ages ago, well the day after the Christmas charity function in Birmingham, my mum told me that nobody would ever want somebody that they had to look out for, that wasn’t able to take care of themselves.”

The photographer frowned. “But you can!”

“Yeah, she meant more in general though. I mean, I still prefer to rely on another person’s presence when I am out in crowded places…it makes things easier you know. And I do need everything to always stay tidy so I don’t bump or trip up on anything. She said that eventually you would tire of me because nobody wants put up with somebody that they have to look out for all the while.”

Tess rolled the blonde over until she was looking down into weary blue eyes. “Nik you amaze me, you are the most remarkable person I have ever met. The way you go about normal day-to-day activities is remarkable, I mean, you can prepare food better than me, and I can see what I am doing for gods’ sake!” She smiled; “So what if you stay by me when we are out, if you hold my arm, I love these things because I love being close to you.” She stared intently into hazy blue. “I am only going to say this once and I could care less what anybody thinks but…I don’t give a god damn fuck about your mother or a damned thing she says. Sod her, she is a bitter twisted bitch who is well overdue a trip to the psycho ward, and if she was here right now I would…” Tess paused, confused as she saw the sudden beaming smile on Nikki lips; followed by a burst of laughter. She smirked, “What?”

Nikki pulled Tess down, kissing her hard on the corner of her mouth. “God I love you.”

Tess smiled indulgently. “Yeah?”

“Yeah!” Nikki grinned; “Thank you.”

“For what, bad mouthing your mother?”

The blonde laughed. “No, for always knowing what to say to make me feel better.” She sighed. “I don’t know why I still let her affect me like that, when all I kept thinking was that I would lose you if I didn’t pull myself out of this. Then I would think of more things she had said to me, and get even more disheartened. Yesterday I felt like I was trapped in a vicious circle, I wanted to talk to you but couldn’t get the words out, and that in-turn just kept making me angry.” She moved her fingers over Tess’s injured face. “I kept remembering the feel of this and thought you would hate me for it.”

“Never.”

“But you are going to be scarred Tess… for life.”

The photographer shrugged. “I don’t care, as long as we are both alright then I am happy, that is all that matters.” Tess grinned; “Though I must admit, this will turn into a pretty cool scar. Do you think it will make me appear all tough and mean looking?”

Nikki chuckled. “Even more than people already think you are…probably. Then again for those that actually know you…no!”

“I can live with that.”

“It doesn’t bother you?”

Shaking her head. “Nope, I mean it is long but more near my jaw, I can live with that.”

Nodding the blonde released a sigh of relief. “I’m sorry Tess…for yesterday.”

She smiled. “Hey although I will admit that I was upset by it, I did sort of understand what you were going through; I knew if I waited we would eventually reach this point. Just remember in future, talk to me Nik… all I ever want to do help you get though things in any way I can, I will always be here for you.”

Nikki nodded. “Okay.” She smiled suddenly the expression lighting up her face. “Are we bringing Leto home today?”

“I hope so.”

“Good, I miss her.”

Tess nodded. “Oh me too, believe me. I’ve found it hard to concentrate without her constant yapping for attention in the background. I used to think it would one day drive me insane.”

A smirk. “You can’t go somewhere if you are already there Tess honey!”

Narrowing her eyes Tess glared tongue in cheek. “And what exactly does that mean blondie?”

Nikki pursed her lips trying hard not to smile. “Oh nothing.”

“Spill it now, don’t make me have to use my forceful acts of persuasion!”

A blonde eyebrow arched over a blue and gold flecked eye. “Oh really, well I would like to see you try Miss Tess, remember your tough exterior only works with those who don’t know you, to the rest of us you are nothing more than a big old…” Nikki gasped as knowledgeable lips found a particularly sensitive part on her body.

Tess looked up through hooded green eyes. “What was that?”

She cleared her throat. “Oh ahem…nothing…please don’t let me stop…you.”

Jade eyes twinkled. “That’s what I thought!” Tess moved towards Nikki’s lips and captured them in a deep kiss, happy that once again they had overcome the domineering thoughts of Nikki mother that always seemed to cast a shadow over the blondes’ happiness. Not any more…I hope thought Tess.

*******

It was a little before nine o’clock. Tess sat in the living room, TV remote in one hand, cordless phone in the other. She flicked through the multitude of channels, idly watching the early morning offerings as she hit the speed dial button, connecting her to Snap Shots. As the line was answered she pulled a large slice of toast covered with butter and lime jam from her lips. “Jase… good morning”

“Hey girl, how are you, I’ve been hearing all kinds of strange things on the news this morning what’s going on?”

“What?” She asked confused.

“On the radio this morning, there was a news item about how the Mayoress had been taken in by the police for questioning about a man that had attacked her daughter Saturday night…what was all that about?”

Tess sighed. “Great…I should have know it wouldn’t take them long to get wind of this. Listen Jason… everything is fine and we are all okay, but I will not be able to come in today so do you think you could get one of the others to take over my bookings?”

“Sure…what happened?”

“I’ll tell you all soon, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell you not to listen to the press Jase, I will give you the full story when I get back. Sorry I can’t talk longer but I have to go, we have quite a few things to get through today.”

“Alright Tess, talk to you soon, and don’t worry about anything here, I’ll take care of things for you…though you are a tease making me wait until tomorrow.”

Smiling. “Thanks Jason, bye.” Tess hung up the phone and chucked it down onto the chair behind her. Closing her eyes she cracked her knuckles; great it’s on the buggering news now…I better tell Nikki if she ever emerges from the shower!

Taking another bite of her toast, the photographer realised that she had already lost her appetite and chucked the remains of her breakfast onto the plate by her side. Turning back to the TV she tuned to a satellite station and waited for the local new bulletins to air.

Nikki walked into the front room wearing khaki shorts and a navy tank top, a white towel draped over her wet hair. “You’re watching the news? Anything interesting, it’s not like you to bother though; I thought you found all that too depressing?”

“Hmm…” Tess rose to her feet, and approached the blonde. She pulled the towel away from her head and started rearranging the mass of wet, honey blond locks. “I spoke to Jason just now and he said there was something about Saturday night on the news, I was just seeing whether it was just local radio, or TV as well.”

Nikki’s face fell to one of concern. “And?”

“And so far nothing, it looks like just the radio at the moment, but we can count on a phone call from your father soon letting us know what is happening.”

“You can count on it,” replied the blonde knowing that with her fathers’ position in the city there was now way this would stay private. “So is it your turn to get dressed now, or are you going to walk around in that devastatingly tight tee shirt of mine all day?”

“I’m wearing shorts!” Tess replied indignantly.

Nikki reached down feeling the garments, “Shorts indeed, are they mine too?”

Grinning. “Possibly, it was dark last night and I couldn’t rightly see what I was grabbing; I actually thought I was pulling on a tank top!”

“I bet.”

Both women jumped at the sudden sound of knocking on the front door. Nervously Tess looked down into Nikki’s anxious expression. “Should we sneak a peep first?”

Nodding the blonde moved towards the front door. “Yes…please, I do hope that’s a friendly face out there though.”

“Yeah.” Tess followed Nikki to the door. She leaned forward and looked through the spy hole. A sigh of relief escaped her lips. “It’s Sam, thank god…why didn’t she use her key?”

Nikki shrugged. “She said a while ago that she would always knock if we were both in, as she didn’t want to just barge in…just in-case!”

“Just in-case what?”

“I didn’t ask; but the inflection in her voice didn’t leave much to the imagination!” Nikki chuckled.

Rolling her eyes the photographer stepped back and opened the door.

The friendly smile on the housekeepers face disappeared the moment her eyes fell upon the two women. She took in the sight; Nikki with her scraped knees, odd bruising and cut arm, Tess with her bruised fists and limbs, slightly shaded eye and row of seven stitches upon her face. “Goodness, what on earth happened?”

The women stepped back and allowed the housekeeper to enter. “You mean you didn’t see all the commotion at the house Saturday night?”

Sam shook her head. “No, Kate and I were visiting my sister and her family over the weekend, we didn’t get back until last night.”

“Ah!” Tess arched her brows. “Well in that case you better sit down and let Nikki fill you in on what has been happening; it is only right that you should know…just in-case we get any unwelcome visitors.” She took a step backwards. “I’m going to have a shower…Nik, is that okay?”

Nodding. “Sure, you go and get dressed, I’ll talk with Sam,”

“Okay.” Tess turned and head up the stairs while Nikki and Sam moved towards the kitchen.

“We better stick the kettle on Sam, this may take some time.”

With a concerned expression, Samantha followed Nikki into the kitchen.

*******

She needed to break some of the tension still heavy in the air. After Nikki had explained the events to Sam, and then a briefer version to Janie when she arrived the two employees had seemed a little subdued. Sam was now busy preparing a vegetable soup in the kitchen while Janie had gone to work, clearing out the stables. They were all a little on edge and Tess felt the need to lighten the mood…after all a downcast feeling in the house wasn’t going to be very productive, and she needed to smile.

Tess crouched down to a shelf hidden by the side of the sofa and perused a row of compact disks. She looked up as Nikki entered the room. “Any requests, I’m putting on some tunes…but it has to be light-hearted.”

Nikki approached Tess and stood behind her, placing dainty hands upon denim covered shoulders. “You choose, as long as it isn’t by either Bach or Beethoven…they give me a headache.”

“Oh no, no, no…I was thinking more in the way of pop music.”

Nikki smirked. “Do you actually own any pop music?”

One long sinewy finger moved along the list of titles. “Nope but you do, there was a whole pile of them belonging to you. So any suggestions?”

The smirk got wider, “Oh yeah I know, put on ‘Texas’…I just love the lyrics to that song…how does it go…” She bent close to Tess, singing quietly in her right ear, “I’m so in love with you, I’m so in love with you, whether it is right or it’s wrong, I’m too weak to be strong, I’m so in love with you.”

Tess smiled and turned her head to the side, pulling Nikki into a loving kiss. She moved back a few moments later, staring adoringly into blue eyes. “Thank you sweetheart, but next time…don’t sing.”

Nikki scoffed. “Oh you cheeky ratbag” she replied slapping the brunette on her shoulder.

Laughing. “Hey I was only kidding…I like the words a lot.”

“And the voice?” Eyebrows arched in waiting.

Tess bit her lip. “Well um, I love it when you sing ‘Far Away’…”

“Yeah?” Nikki frowned, hands on hips. “Hold on what’s ‘Far Away’?”

“…Or ‘Silent Night’” Tess grinned. “and even ‘It’s oh so Quiet’ and ‘Silence is Golden’ oh and of-course not forgetting ‘The Sound of Silence’.”

“If you don’t quit it now you will be experiencing the sound of silence first hand.” Nikki warned with a smile.

Tess chucked, pulling out Nikki’s choice of band and slid it into the player. She hit the button and lifted up from her crouched position near the stereo. Turning around she pulled the half-smirking/half-pouting woman into her arms and started moving her slowly around the room, as music filtered through the speakers. “You know we’ve never danced together before!”

“No,” Nikki sniggered. “Though we should wait for my choice, it is kind of hard to dance like this when an upbeat tune is pumping through the speakers.”

“True.” Tess conceded; “But I’m dancing to a different rhythm… and the music of Lurve” She lowered her voice “…moving to the rhythm of my heart baby.”

Nikki laughed at Tess’s antics. “You, are a goof ball.”

“Really!” Tess bent slightly, lifting the blonde up into her arms, Nikki’s legs wrapping instinctively around her waist. “But you still love me right?”

“When you are not insulting my singing voice…yes.”

“Oh well in that case…I love your voice, I adore your voice, the sound of it alone liquefies me to the very core,” she embellished.

Kissing the tall woman lightly on the nose the blonde shook her head, “Yeah, yeah…it’s too late honey, but don’t worry I do still love ya…” Nikki paused as the sound of a ringing phone filtered through to her sensitive ears. “That’s the ‘dog and bone’ I can here.”

“Really?” Tess asked, not releasing her lover.

Nikki listened, still moving around the room in Tess’s arms until Sam appeared in the doorway; she smiled bemused at the two women.

“Nikki your father is on the telephone.”

“Okay thanks Sam.” The small woman slid to the ground and Tess helped her regain her bearings before she moved off into the hallway to answer the phone, while the brunette turned down the music.

*******

Richard Morris stood in the station waiting room, his left side leaning against the wall; phone in hand as she waited for his daughter to answer his call. In the background of the station he could hear the sound of many voices, both police officers and possible criminals.

He had been at the station for the last hour, half of that time just waiting in the corridors and trying hard not to make eye-to-eye contact with the many dubious characters that were escorted past him. He would admit to himself that this certainly wasn’t a nice place to be, thought the last time he had been here he never got to see this part of the station. He had spent his time talking with the Chief Constable in the finer part of the building, fulfilling his Mayoral duties of-course.

He looked around, his eyes taking in the array of posters. Pictures of missing persons, posters on the evils of drugs, even the odd mug shot of wanted criminals, all lined up nicely along the magnolia walls.

Richard blinked, jumping out of his haze of thoughts as his daughter answered the phone.

“Hi dad.”

He smiled. “Hi Nicole honey, how are you today?” Richard had spent the last day feeling concerned by his daughters’ lack of communication.

“I’m feeling okay now…sorry about yesterday.”

“Hey that’s okay I do understand, at least you seem better now. Anyway the reason I am calling is because I think you need to know this before anybody else tells you, somehow it has already leaked to the press and I wanted you to hear this from me and not some badgering vulture.”

“Okay?”

“Nicole your mother has been arrested.” There was silence as Richard waited for his daughter to reply. “Nicole?”

“Arrested!”

“Yes after her questioning, in which she still denied everything by the way, she was arrested for her involvement with Bradley White. Turns out he is in no way willing to take the wrap for this alone!”

“Where is she now?”

“She has been put on remand.”

“Remand?”

“Yes honey, she has been sent to prison until her hearing. DS Fairbrass has already told me that he doesn’t expect her to be released then, so I think she will stay there until the trial, if they have one that is.” Richard looked up as the officer in question approached him.

“Um… okay… I can’t believe it… she is being sent to prison!”

Fairbrass waved a stack of papers in front of the Mayor and he nodded his head. “Listen honey I hate to have to just tell you like this then run, but I have to read over some things with Detective Fairbrass…I will call round later okay.”

“Okay dad, thank you… see you later… bye.”

“Take care Nicole, bye.” Richard placed down the receiver on the pay phone and followed Fairbrass into a secluded room.

*******

Nikki held the dead receiver in her hand a few seconds longer before placing it back down onto the base of the phone. She was silent, slightly in shock, and as Tess entered the hallway she stared at the quiet blonde with questioning look.

“Nik, what is it?”

Nikki turned towards the photographer. “My mother has been arrested and put on remand.”

Tess’s folded arms fell to her sides. “Oh!” She moved from one foot to another. “Is your dad down at the police station now?”

Nikki nodded. “It’s already been leaked to the press that the Mayoress has been arrested so he thought I should be told as soon as possible, just in- case.”

Moving forward Tess started at the unreadable expression on the blondes face. “What are you feeling Nik…?”

“Nothing.” Nikki stated quietly. “Truthfully, I feel nothing Tess. No happiness that she has been arrested, but then again no sadness either…I just don’t feel anything,”

Frowning. “You think that you should feel something, but you don’t.”

Nodding, Nikki directed her face towards the taller woman. “She is my mother Tess… but the only thing I feel is relief that this is all over.”

“And you think that is wrong?”

“Others might.”

Combing her fingers through honey blonde strands Tess smiled sadly. “Only those who don’t know the truth Nik, for those of us that do she gets everything she deserves for what she had put you through, and I want her to pay for all of it.” She pulled Nikki in close to her chest once again and laid her head upon the smaller woman’s. Tess just wished Nikki would realise that her feelings towards her negative mother were not necessarily anything to feel guilty about.

She looked up as Sam entered the hallway. “Just thought you might like to know lunch will be ready in about ten minutes.”

“Great, I’m starved.” Nikki stated pulling away. “Tess, will you go and inform Janie, she is having lunch with the three of us.”

“I’m right on it,” the photographer stated and disappeared off into the kitchen.

*******

A large, robust white van with high obscured windows steered through wide iron gates, framed by a high stone wall. The building it’s self dated back to the fourteenth century; serving as its current purpose since Edwardian times. The noise of the diesel engine echoed around the high walls of the closed in courtyard, ricocheting off the aged stone structure.

The vehicle moved in a semi-circle around the yard coming to a halt by the far wall and a set of eleven steps leading up to a heavy metal door. With a loud cranking sound the side door of the vehicle opened and a tall thin man dressed in black and white, stepped into the fresh air. In one hand held a black clipboard as he turned back to the remaining occupants. “Right ladies, come on let’s be having you, we have a lot to get through so the quicker you get moving the quicker you can settle into you new dwellings.” He smiled smugly to himself.

The three occupants of the vehicle came into view. First a young woman with long blonde hair stepped out; in her hand she held what was left of her meagre possessions. She glared at the haughty officer as she stepped off the van. Second was a younger brunette no older than nineteen years, her eyes heavy and glazed, and her demeanour that of somebody who had absolutely no idea of where she was. She stepped wearily from the van, following the blonde in front. Last of all came Rosalind Morris, desperately clutching her purse in one hand and a large plastic bag in the other. She looked nervously around the yard before the officer verbally forced her to get moving. With a jump she fell into step behind the other two offenders.

Leading the women up the small set of steps the officer opened the strong door, allowing the followers to enter. It closed with a heavy slam behind them.

The waiting room was stark, a row of chairs up against the far wall with a long desk ahead of them. Rosalind looked over to the two female officers behind the partition, who were not so quietly talking about the latest batch of prisoners.

“What are you in for?”

Rosalind jumped and turned to the blonde woman by her side. “I beg your pardon?”

Rolling her eyes the blonde looked at her as if she was brainless. “I… said… what… are… you… in… for?”

“My being here is a big mistake.” The ex-mayoress replied.

“Aint it for us all darling,” was her nonchalant reply.

“MORRIS…Rosalind, come up to the desk please!”

Rosalind walked nervously over to the two female officers. The taller of the two, Miss Martin, had short red hair, and a dower expression. The other officer a Miss Stevens, had shoulder length black hair and olive skin.

“Right, empty your bag onto the table.” Said the taller officer.

Taking note of the abrupt tone of the woman’s voice Rosalind did as ordered, turning her bag upside down and allowing the contents to fall onto the table. Miss Martin started sorting through the objects. “Okay you can keep that, and that.” She picked up a compact. “You cannot keep this, or that or that, that, that or this.”

After her belongings were separated into things she could and couldn’t keep, Miss Stevens pulled out a yellow form. “Right just sign for these Rosalind, and we will keep them for you until you leave here.”

“What, can’t I keep my money?” The small woman asked, looking towards her purse.

“Nope sorry, you will have a small allowance each week while you are here.”

“Allowance!” She asked shocked.

Miss Martin looked impatiently at Rosalind. “Right take this,” she handed the woman a large robe; “and go into that room over there. Strip down to your underwear… a nurse will be along in a while for your medical, then you will be strip searched…then you can go for a shower.”

Eyes wide Rosalind started at the female officers in horror. “Strip searched?”

“Don’t know what you might have smuggled in here now do we love.”

“Do I look like the kind of person who would carry drugs or weapons into a prison?” she asked desperately.

Miss Stevens smiled acidly. “We’ll soon find out wont we Rosalind!”

*******

Tess sat on a single plastic chair leaning forward with elbows on knees. Lifting her right hand, a lone finger prodded full lips and bounced over the soft flesh before moving to her nose, where she scratched the smooth skin. Her hand wandered and before long she was fingering the stitches on the side of her face. A sudden elbow jabbing her softly in the right side halted all movement and she looked over to Nikki with accusing eyes. “Hey!”

“Well stop picking your stitches.”

“I was not.”

“Were to, I could here you Tess. Do you want that to heal or get the sadistic doctor to start prodding you again with that god awful needle of his?”

Tess grinned. “Point taken.” She lowered her hand, clasping the appendage into a tight fist, no way am I having that guy sew me up again. Next time I am asked whether I want an anaesthetic I shall ask for a two-by-four and knock myself out! She chuckled wryly to herself causing Nikki to frown at her antics; still the blonde said nothing.

Resting her head back against the wall Nikki sighed. “How long until Mr Fletcher comes out see us, Leto can come home today right?”

“Uh huh…relax Nik, I bet he is with a patient at the moment.”

“Hmm I guess.” She fidgeted in her seat, and tapped the end of her cane upon the cold tiled floor. “I wonder if Leto knows she is coming home today.”

“I bet the only thing she is aware of are the feeding times in this place.”

Nikki laughed. “Yeah but I bet she has missed you.”

Tess looked up suddenly as Dominic Fletcher entered the waiting room. The man looked around briefly before his eyes came to rest upon the two waiting women, he smiled and waved them over.

“That’s our cue.” Tess stated as she and Nikki stood and walked over to the vet. “So Doc how’s Leto doing?”

Dominic smiled. “She is coming on well, and will be fine to take home just as long as you stick to a few rules, do’s and don’ts etcetera.” He frowned as he spotted the injuries on each woman. “Can I ask what happened to you both?”

Tess arched her brows. “Well lets just say Leto’s attacker has been brought to justice!”

“Really, so you found out who it was?” Dominic asked as he led the two women towards Leto’s room. He opened a white door and entered, Tess and Nikki following behind.

“You could say that,” replied Tess cryptically, her eyes lightening up as she spotted Leto lying snugly upon a large navy blanket. “ ‘tow tow’!”

The golden hound looked up at the sound of her masters’ voice; amber eyes wide with enthused excitement. Still lying down, her tail started a rapid wag, banging against the table she was upon as excited barks reverberated through the room.

Grinning, Tess approached the dog. “How has my baby been hmm?” She leaned forward kissing the twitching muzzle as Leto bathed the side of her masters face in never-ending ‘pooch smooches’. Tess turned the injured side of her face away from the exuberant dog and revelled in the unconditional loving attention she received. “Ready to come home with Nikki and me?”

Leto barked again and looked to the side of Tess where a smirking Nikki stood quietly. She barked louder, her tail slamming repeatedly against the metal table, eyes pleading with the blonde.

“I think she wants some fussing Nik!”

Nikki stepped forward and reached out, finding the horizontal dog upon the warm surface of the blanket. Sensitive fingers located the hounds wide head where she began a customary scratch behind the ears. “Hey pooch how are you?” She bent forward and allowed Leto a few moments of indulgence, before pulling away with a laugh. “I think somebody is happy to see us!” Leto sat up carefully on the table, her tail wagging cheerfully.

“How’s the wound Doc?”

Dominic turned his amused attention towards the photographer. “Healing beautifully I am happy to say… she is one very lucky beast. As long as you stick to a few do’s and don’ts, she will be ready and more than willing to go home with you.” He looked around for a sheet of paper. “There are a few post op guidelines you will have to follow, but apart from that all is well.”

“Wonderful.” Tess turned to Leto. “Well ‘tow tow’ looks like you are coming home with us.”

*******

Once again wearing the clothes she had arrived at the prison in, Rosalind Morris stood with the other two women in a small holding room. Around the walls were a row of posters and her eyes instantly fell upon a large notice detailing the dangers of drugs. Scrawled across the poster in thick etched writing were the words ‘fuck you’ obviously written by an inmate. Sighing as reality began to sink in Rosalind jumped as the door swung open and a small stout woman with greying mousy hair stomped into the room. The expression on her face was that of a woman who took nonsense from nobody.

“Okay ladies.” She looked down at her clipboard. “Smith, Berry and Morris …my name is Miss Ellis, and I am here to escort you to ‘A’ wing, that is where all who are on remand are held until your hearings and what have you.” Her eyes scanned across the three faces, stopping when she spotted the elder woman. “Well well, if it isn’t the lady mayoress herself! What are you doing here, forget to curtsy to the Queen or didn’t you polish your husbands gold chain sufficiently?”

Rosalind remained silent, as the other two occupants of the room looked at her with shock and sudden interest.

“Right, well we can’t stand around here all day, I am due a break.” She opened the door again where another officer was waiting. “If you will follow us ladies we will take you to your cells.”

She was escorted through the building, feeling more and more claustrophobic the deeper into the prison she went. It seemed that every corner she turned held another white steel gate, loud and heavy, as it slammed shut behind them. Rosalind looked around the dingy corridors wondering what she had done to warrant being in such a place.

Eventually they were led to a large area housing a row of heavy dark blue metal doors on either side. In the centre of the area was a set of small tables occupied by a few lounging girls. They stopped as Miss Ellis approached a tall male officer. He in turn approached the three new inmates. “Alright ladies my name is Mr Gardner, Smith and Berry, you go with Miss Ellis over there, Morris… you get to come with me.”

Silently Rosalind followed Mr Gardner to one of the blue metal doors. She watched as he opened the barrier and stood back, allowing Rosalind to step inside. What she saw forced a look of horror upon her face.

The room was small, about fifteen by fifteen foot, with bunk beds on either side. There were two cabinets by each bunk, battered, faded with age, and covered with scrawled phrases and coarse words. In the far corner of the room was a single sink and toilet, only cordoned off by a small three-foot high barrier on one side. There was one occupant to the room; a tall woman with ripped jeans and a red tank top. A cigarette hung limply out of her mouth and her arms were covered in a wide variety of multicoloured tattoos. She stared at the new comer through a haze of grey smoke.

Rosalind turned back to Mr Gardner in disgust. “You cannot possibly think I am to stay in here, do you even know who I am? I demand a room of my own.”

Gardner’s eyes hardened, and he leaned down staring directly into cowering green. “You demand nothing in here Morris, you do what we say when we say it. Quite frankly nobody gives a rats ass who you might have been out there, in here you are no better than the rest of these girls, and if you want to get through your time here at Belgrave, it will be wise to remember that!” He straightened his posture. “Now be good and get into that cell, my tea is getting cold.”

Stunned Rosalind stepped quietly into the room, and the door was pulled to behind her. She looked up at the woman who slid from the top bunk and landed on the cold ground with a thud.

A malicious smile spread across the woman’s lips. “Welcome ‘Morris’. You might like to know that this is my cell, and in here you do what I say, when I say it… got it?”

Rosalind’s face fell as the woman approached.

*******

Their journey home had been slow and cautious; Tess being careful not to make any harsh moves or drive over any bumpy surfaces that she thought might upset the still tender dog. So it had taken twice as long for them to get home, all the while Nikki holding Leto securely in her arms, treating the happy mutt to endless amounts of loving attention.

They pulled into the courtyard to find Richard Morris’s car already parked beside Tess’s old Escort. “Hey looks like your dad’s arrived Nik!” Tess said as she turned off the engine and exited the drivers’ side. She walked around to the back seat and opened the door, reaching in to take Leto from the blondes’ arms.

“Great, I was wondering when he would arrive.” Nikki allowed Leto to be taken from her, before following them out of the car and towards the house. She snapped her cane into place and Tess waited until she was ready, before they approached the building together.

Just as Tess was about to knock, the door swung open and Richard appeared in the doorway. “How’s Leto?” He asked.

“Going to be just fine.” Nikki replied as they entered the house.

“As long as she gets plenty of rest.” Tess chimed in, heading straight into the living room where she deposited the golden dog into the pre-made bed she had asked Sam to arrange while they were out. “I’m just going to get her things.” The photographer said as she left the room.

Richard turned to his daughter, pulling her into a fierce hug. “How are you holding?” He asked her gently.

Nikki smiled. “Fine, I feel a lot better now. How is Lisa?”

“Oh she is okay; I was a little worried that all this may have affected her but she seems to be doing just fine. She was asking for the Bentley this morning so she could take it shopping, I think that’s a pretty good sign that Lisa is her usual self. As for CJ he still resting in hospital, but so far no charges has been brought against him.”

“Do you think they will?”

“I don’t know; it is hard to say. He was supposed to be helping his brother, but his actual intentions were to help you girls. I think I will put a good word in for him. You can’t be the cities Mayor without having some clout you know and I am very grateful to him for helping you girls.” He smiled. “Lets just say I intend to make damn sure nothing befalls the young man, besides, he and Lisa already seem to have developed a serious attachment towards one another.” He sighed dramatically. “I always dreaded the day my daughters would start bringing men home with them.”

The blonde smiled. “Well at least you had nothing to worry about with me,” she joked, and then her face fell serious again. “Dad, what about um… him.”

“Ah!” The Mayor looked down at his daughter. “Well Mr White has been charged with a whole list of crimes including attempted murder, and after what the police found when they searched his room; possession of class A drugs with intent to sell! He is at this very moment unhappily residing at Her Majesties Prison in Leicester, so I don’t think Mr White will be seeing the light of day any time within the next twenty years or so.”

Relieved Nikki pulled back from her father as Tess entered the room carrying two bowls, one of water the other food. She placed them down by Leto’s make shift bed and got down onto her knees. “There you go girl, a light dinner for you… so dig in.”

Leto looked down at the bowl of food and nudged it with her nose.

Tess frowned. “What is it ‘tow tow’, this is your favourite.” She bent down, picking a piece of chicken out the basin and held it out. Leto took the offering and happily chewed on the morsel of meat. “There see, you like chicken, now eat up.”

Leto looked down at her bowl again and huffed, nudging the container lightly.

Tess’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t believe it.” She picked up another piece of meat and held it out for Leto who took it cheerfully from her masters’ fingers. “The cheeky little sod.”

“What is it?” Nikki asked noting the amusement in Tess’s voice.

The photographer shook her head. “The little bitch is playing on our sympathy and expecting to be hand fed!” She picked up another piece of chicken to prove her point, and watched astounded as Leto accepted her dinner. “Would you look at that!” Leto looked at the bowl then to her master with hopeful eyes. “No way ‘tow tow’ eat your own god dammed food.”

Round amber eyes blinked beseechingly at the photographer as the golden hound whimpered quietly for added effect.

“Oh…okay, okay!” Tess sighed as she picked up another morsel of meat. “But this is a once in a life time occurrence dog, after this you are on you own.”

Nikki stifled a laugh behind her raised hand. “And Lisa says you are whipped, it turns out Leto here has you wrapped around her little paw!”

Tess glared at the blonde in mock anger. “Watch it blondie, or the next time you request a finger feeding of whipped cream, we’ll just see how far it gets you!”

Nikki’s mouth dropped. “I do not… Tess you can’t say that in front of my dad.” A blushed coloured her cheeks.

Richard held up his hands. “Me? I heard nothing absolutely nothing.” He grinned at the photographer and his blushing daughter before clearing his throat. “Well I think I will ask Sam whether she needs any help preparing the tea.” And with those words the grinning patriarch left the room.

Tess smirked at the pouting blonde who was depositing herself down upon the nearest sofa.

“Tess, I have never asked for a ‘finger feeding’ of whipped cream… that was you!”

The brunette chuckled as another piece of meat disappeared into the dogs mouth. “Too late now.”

“Uh huh… well let’s just see where that request gets you next time.”

Tess face dropped. “Oh well.” Then a sudden glimmer entered jade eyes. “Will I still get to eat it off other body parts?” She asked hopefully, only just managing to dodge a projectile cushion that was propelled in her direction.
12

Tess Alexander strode through the main entrance of the ‘Snap Shots’ building, a few minutes before eight o’clock – in the bloody morning she mumbled to herself. Standing in main reception she looked around the vacant room before taking off again towards the back of the building. Today was June the fourth; the employee’s general meeting and every member of staff had to be there. It was usually held in the evening, but Tess stated that she and Nikki had an important appointment at five o’clock so she asked whether it could be rescheduled. It had… to the morning instead, and she was not best pleased with this as it meant having to get up earlier than usual.

Walking down the back corridor the brunette could hear a loud slamming sound echo through the passage, followed by a cheer of obvious triumph. She frowned and stopped just out side the door, holding her ear to the barrier with a confused expression. The voices inside grew louder…

“Ha ha, read it and weep losers, who’s the champion now eh? All praise the mighty one chaps.”

That deep voice was most definitely Stan.

“Oh please I saw you looking for gods sake…you are a cheat!”

No doubt that was Jason.

“I agree, there is something dodgy going on here…Stan, let me check your sleeves.”

That was Carl, with him doing all outdoor shoots including weddings and schools; it was a change to have him in the office!

“He is not cheating, I was sitting next to him the whole time!”

Tess smirked as she heard Kat’s voice; she knew just what Jason’s reply to that remark would be and listened closely with a knowing grin.

“Oh for gods sake Kathryn, of-course you are going to say that, you two are sleeping together fer crying out loud!”

“Bingo!” Tess whispered with a smug grin.

As silence filled the room Tess decided that was her time to enter and slammed open the door, watching her colleagues jump in reaction. Oh I will never get tired of doing that she told herself, hiding the self-satisfied smirk. A crowd of wide-eyed, though friendly faces looked at her with surprise that quickly turned to relieved amusement.

“Well well, I was beginning to think you wouldn’t turn up.” Jason said. “Nice do, did you get it cut?” He asked remarking to Tess’s hair; she had visited the salon the day before and had a few inches taken off the length; it now rested upon her shoulders and had been layered for extra body.

“Yep” Tess replied. “Thought I needed a slight new look.”

“Uh huh…looks good. Anyway Robert called in about ten minutes ago, he is running a little late so we are passing the time by playing a few games.” He waved the deck of cards around in his hand. “Want to play, there is a fifty pence stake per hand.”

Tess pursed her lips. “Sure might as well; what are we playing? Poker, Black Jack, Pontoon, Rummy?”

Kat grinned. “Not exactly.”

“What then?”

She licked her lips. “Um… Snap!”

Tess froze in her descent towards the empty seat. “Huh… Snap? You are playing a kiddies game for fifty pence stakes?” She looked around the circle of grinning faces. “I suppose I don’t need to guess whose idea this was… Jason.” She turned to the man with arched brows.

“Hey what makes you think it’s me?” He asked indignantly.

“Because you’re the one with a pack of ‘Happy Family’ cards in your desk drawer!” Tess pointed out.

Kat looked towards Jason smiling. “You have ‘Happy Family’ cards in your drawer?”

The man fidgeted in his seat. “Well they were left by one of the kiddies who came in for a shoot with her parents a while ago, I forgot to hand them in is all.”

“Never mind that,” Kat stated. “Whip them out, we can play ‘Happy Families’ instead.”

Tess’s head dropped to her hand. “Ugh god, me and my big mouth.” She mumbled.

Just then the door swung open and Robert trudged into the staff room, arms loaded down with manila folders and stacks of paper. “Good morning everyone, how are you all? Welcome to Snap Shots annual meeting… I’m glad you could all make it here so early in the morning.” He paused to a series of mumbles and groans. “Hey don’t blame me, I wasn’t the one who had an urgent appointment this afternoon that couldn’t wait.”

All eyes turned to Tess, as she in turn glared at the burly man.

Robert smiled innocently. “Nice to see you in so early anyway Tess, thank you, and nice hair. Say your face is healing really well, I can hardly see that scar any more.”

Tess narrowed her eyes. “It’s called foundation Robert; covers a multitude of sins. Anyway, how can you call this the annual meeting when this is the third of such in the past year!”

He shrugged. “I like to be thorough.” Bending down he deposited a thick pile of papers on the table, scattering the small stack of fifty pence pieces over the shiny surface. “So are we all ready to get started?” Robert moved off towards his pride and joy and selected a cappuccino, “I can see an awful lot of eager faces here.”

Blinking, the green eyed photographer smirked. “Don’t confuse eager with tired or hung over Robert.”

“Hey!” Carl screeched from beside her. “Who here has a hangover?”

Tess turned to the man and stared into his eyes. “Hmm, okay. Blood shot eyes, slight sway while still sitting. For gods sake, Carl you are almost emitting a potent aroma; I bet the air around you is fifty percent proof!” She made to shuffle her chair away with a grin. “Should I be sitting near you when I am driving later?”

Carl smiled serenely. “Ah but it was worth if for what I went home with last night. Sexy blonde, firm backside, long legs…and the biggest pair of… Ouch…Hey!” He rubbed his throbbing forehead with a pout.

Kat smiled sweetly. “And next time it will be more than just a marker pen I throw at ya, you misogynistic… womanising… dirty minded…”

“Okay that’s enough.” Robert sat at the head of the table. “Man I almost feel like I am sitting a bunch of kids here. Let’s get this meeting under way guys and gals, we all have busy days today so the sooner we get this started the sooner we get finished.”

“I agree.” Tess leaned back in her chair folding her arms. “Get on with it.”

The manager nodded. “Right. Okay point one… I want to talk about a few thought’s I’ve had on upgrading the coffee machine.” Robert looked around confused to an outburst of deliberate groans.

*******

Tess decided the meeting had been the shortest one to date. It lasted only thirty-five minutes with Roberts’s topics of debate being another new coffee machine, the prospect of accepting a teenager on college work experience, and a new promotion campaign. The first two topics had taken ten minutes to discuss, where as the third was thrown open to debate. Still it didn’t take long for Robert to agree to Tess’s idea of free makeovers for glamour shots. They were always a popular aspect of the business, and to offer the free makeovers could more than triple the bookings.

Leaning on the back two legs of her chair, Tess swung her body back and forth in a precarious motion, her legs resting on the surface of her desk. She checked her watch and realised it was only ten o’clock, seven hours before Nikki’s appointment and four before they were to leave for London. She estimated that the journey would take about two hours and wanted to make sure she had enough time to navigate the busy and sometimes one-way streets of London in order to find Harley Street. Today Nikki was to meet with Doctor Jacobson and they were both feeling more than a little anxious about seeing the specialist, especially Nikki.

What the hell am I still doing here? Tess thought. I’m sitting here doing bugger all while Nikki is at home probably still as nervous as she was when I left this morning. Righting the chair, Tess made an executive decision. Home!

Pulling her jacket from the back of her chair she shrugged into the lightweight denim and grabbed her keys from the corner of the desk. With a satisfied nod that she had everything Tess left her studio.

Walking through the back corridors the brunette stopped outside Kats studio knocked quietly on the door. “Anybody home?”

“Yeah Tess come on in.”

Tess twisted the door handle and pushed open the heavy wood. She looked inside Kats studio to find the photographer in the middle of a family shoot. She smiled apologetically. “Sorry, just wanted to say bye and I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Kat winked. “See you tomorrow, T good luck with whatever this appointment is that you don’t seem to want to tell us about!”

She rolled her eyes. “Soon okay.”

“Okay… see ya.”

Tess nodded. “Later” and shut the door. She carried on through the building, navigating a twist and turn before entering the main reception. There she had a short debate with Jason about advantages and disadvantages of buying store brought fresh pasta before finally leaving. She really had no idea about what the man was talking about but knew that if she just agreed with him she would get out faster, and it had worked.

*******

Tess arrived home just before eleven o’clock, happy to see the sun shining high in the mid-morning sky. It was surprisingly hot though, the air thick and humid, stifling the atmosphere. Parking the Blazer next to Janie’s Moped, Tess turned off the engine and pulled her long frame out into the hot, sticky atmosphere; disturbing her fringe as she wafted cool gusts of air with a folded sheet of paper. She was hot, and beads of sweat ran down her forehead and back.

Taking off her jacket, Tess slung it over her shoulder as she approached the front door; opening it and stepping into the cool house as a certain golden hound thrust her up against the wall.

“Hey ‘tow tow’ calm down mutt before you rupture something!” Tess stared at the excited dog. “SIT!” The dog fell to the ground with a whimper. “Good girl, now give me your paw.” Leto lifted her front leg producing her paw with a look of pure boredom. “Good ‘tow tow’, now calm down and bugger off!” Leto huffed and walking off into the living room, picking up her bone as she went.

Grinning at the sight Tess shook her head knowing that although Leto’s operation had been a few weeks ago and the wound had supposedly healed, she still didn’t want to take any chances. Dropping her jacket on the banister Tess wandered into the kitchen where she found the housekeeper routing through a cupboard. “Hey Sam, how’s things?” She dropped her keys onto the table.

“Oh fine, I was just looking for a pot of silver polish. Nikki has a little Celtic cross on a chain that I said I would polish for her, she wants to wear it when you go out tonight. I tell you what, Tess she seems awfully nervous, I don’t know where you two are going later but she has been rather anxious since I arrived.”

Tess frowned. “Hmm, yeah okay, where is she now?”

“When I left her, she was routing through the wardrobe trying to find something to wear.”

“Right.” Tess headed back out the kitchen. Time to release some nervous tension, she thought.

*******

Dainty fingers pulled open a wide double width drawer and sunk into its contents, rummaging around the mass of garments. Nikki forced a strained breath through pursed lips as she picked up each item of clothing and identified the garment. She had been sorting through her clothes all morning, doing whatever she could to try and occupy her mind with anything other than that where she and Tess were heading later. She hadn’t even bothered to get dressed and had been wandering around in her bathrobe since getting out of the shower. Now she sat on the floor rifling through her drawers.

She had contacted Doctor Jacobson only three days before and told the man she would come in for a talk. Jacobson was surprised to hear from her as she hadn’t returned his call for over four weeks and he was beginning to think that Nikki was never going to be interested in considering this offer. Hell, he hadn’t ever carried out this operation on a patient before and was hoping Nikki would be willing to go through with his new procedure.

Holding out another top Nikki felt around the edges as she identified which garment it was. She frowned, remembering that specific top was brown in colour and it wouldn’t go with the black trousers she had picked. Nikki dropped the top back into her drawer as she wondered whether to change her choice from trousers to the cream skirt she had considered. Lisa had spent a long weekend some years ago, educating Nikki into what colours go with what so she always looked coordinated in her clothing. All she needed to do when choosing her clothes was to work out what item it was, then she would remember the name of the colour, thus remembering that black does not go with brown, or red does go with blue… etcetera.

“God I hate clothes!”

“Awe, what have they ever done to you?” Tess asked as she entered the bedroom. Already pulling off her sweater and letting her trousers slip down her legs to pool around her feet, thus slightly hindering her movement; she shuffled her feet across the carpeted floor.

“I can’t decide what to wear.” Nikki turned to her side facing Tess. “Why are you shuffling your feet?”

Tess kicked the black garment across the floor. “I’ve just taken off my trousers. Do you have any idea how hot it is out there; you could fry an egg on the bonnet of the car.” She leaned down picking up her trousers and placed them on the bed; “I need a shower!” Nikki smiled but remained quiet and Tess noticed her tense expression. “You still nervous about later?”

She nodded.

“Want to talk about it?”

Nikki shook her head, “Nothing to talk about, I am just nervous about meeting Doctor Jacobson…I mean,” she sighed letting her head fall into her hands. “Ugh, I’m just feeling a little apprehensive…you know that.”

Tess moved forward leaning down onto her knees. “Yeah I know, but I will be with you every step of the way Nik, and remember this is just an informal chat, nothing has to be decided today.”

“Yeah your right.”

Smiling the brunette leaned forward kissing Nikki’s lips gently. “But of-course. Now… we have a couple of hours before we head out to London, so how about I make a suggestion.”

“Which is?”

“Ah ha…you get dressed… just something causal for now and all will be revealed.”

“Oh!” Nikki smiled. “I can do that.” She reached out feeling Tess’s scantily clad form. “And are you planning on dressing or staying in your underwear?”

Tess bit her lip as a wandering hand moved across her thigh. “Ugh… um dressed… yeah dressed.”

The small appendage carried on its journey. “Are you sure?”

Grabbing the hand before it reached its destination. “Uh huh believe me, it will be worth it; I want to take you somewhere.” She got up and headed towards the shower leaving an inquisitive Nikki full of excited speculation.

*******

Tess had pulled on a pair of blue denim shorts and a deep red tank top before taking off down stairs to grab a few items for their spontaneous excursion. She jogged into the empty kitchen and pulled open the fridge, taking out a bottle of sparkling grape juice and a tub of cherries. Stashing them in a small navy cool bag, she chucked the carrier over her shoulder just as Sam entered the kitchen. She told the housekeeper she was taking Nikki out for an hour or two and would be back at two o’clock. Then she dashed into the laundry room and gathered a few more items.

She arrived back in the hallway as Nikki descended the stairs, a curious Leto trotting happily by her side. Tess looked down at the dog shaking her head. “No way Leto, you are not coming with us.”

Reaching the bottom Nikki pouted. “Awe… why not?” she asked, smoothing her hands over white cotton shorts and a lilac sleeveless tee shirt.

“Because!” Tess and Leto stared at each other in a silent duel. She narrowed her eyes as the dog started her customary and somewhat sneaky whine that was always guaranteed to melt the blondes’ heart – It worked!

“Oh Tess come on she can come along, she just wants to go out for a while.”

Tess rolled her eyes, knowing she would get no peace from either golden haired individual so gave in. “Fine, she can come.”

Leto wagged her tail and dashed off to find the lead.

With an exaggerated sigh, Tess went back into the kitchen and grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and one of the dogs bowls. With the weather as hot as it was she knew Leto would be panting hard and wanting a drink in no time, she still wasn’t quite as fit as before her operation. Tess shoved the items into her overstuffed cool bag and headed back towards the waiting duo. Nikki and Leto were already waiting outside, lead firmly attached to her red collar, leather handle securely within the blondes grasp. Tess had decided to take the car, as it would give them an extra twenty minutes of resting time that would have been taken up with walking.

They jumped into the car and Tess took off, taking a well-hidden dirt track that she had found one day while taking a walk. It led to a small, secluded area where the stream trickled down a three-foot bank like a waterfall. It was peaceful, isolated and a wonderful place to just sit and listen to the wonderful sound of nature.

Within five minutes they arrived at Tess’s secret destination. “Well we’re here.”

“And where is here?” Nikki asked, noting the serene sense of mystique that washed over her. “I’ve never been here before have I.” She heard the flapping sound of bird’s wings as they flew by overhead.

Tess shook her head as she pulled her cooler from the back of the seat, thus allowing Leto freedom. The golden hound dived out of her confines of the Blazer and started her customary ritual of sniffing every nook and cranny of this new environment and peeing on most of it. Tess watched the dog with amusement. “Do you think dogs have endless bladders?”

Nikki smirked. “I think they just save it for something interesting!”

“Yeah!”

Taking a hold of Nikki’s hand Tess led her over to a grassy verge by the stream. “In answer to your earlier question… no you have never been here before. I found it during a walk with Leto a few weeks ago and thought I would surprise you with it one day… maybe on a picnic or something.”

“Oh picnic, have you brought food?”

“Not really.” Tess placed the cooler and the ground, and pulled a large tartan blanket from around the handles. She shrugged the material out before letting it fall to the ground beneath them, and straitening out the edges. “There you go ma’am, a nice comfy seat.”

They sat down upon the red and green blanket

Nikki closed her eyes and sighed. “Tess, will you describe this place to me?”

“Of-course.” Jade eyes scanned her surrounds, taking in every aspect of the glen and surrounding sights. “Well to the left of us there is a huge crop of coniferous trees looking very much like a small forest, it’s obviously green all year round… so full of life. There is this strange kind of stump of an old sawn down tree trunk right before the entrance to the woods, I saw it last time I was here.” She picked up Nikki’s hand holding the palm face up. “It’s must have been a very old tree as the circles inside it’s trunk are many.” She started drawing tiny circles on the blonde’s hand to emphasise her point. “You would think such a tree should not have been cut down; it must have been beautiful and majestic looking.” Kissing Nikki’s palm, she lowered it to her lap. “Surrounding the rest of this clearing are normal deciduous trees of all different varieties and in the autumn the leaves will all fall to the ground covering this grassy verge with a blanket of crispy dry foliage. Ahead of us is the stream; it is about four feet wide and the water about one foot deep. It must slope at an angle because the water trickles down the stream with a gentle force and then flows down a short bank like a tiny water fall, doesn’t sound too loud though does it?”

“No” Nikki smiled. “But it’s like a slightly louder version of the one outside our home.”

“I bet this is the same one, only it starts getting wider and deeper the closer it gets to the river.” Tess looked around for Leto and found her lounging under the shadow of a large oak tree.

Sighing the blonde moved backwards and rested on her back upon the blanket, basking in the searing heat. She could feel the sun shine down upon her face, warming her from the outside in. “I love the way you describe things to me Tess… you create such a clear perception for me.”

Tess dragged the cooler to her side and pulled open the lid taking out the tray of cherries. She leaned onto her side facing Nikki, her head resting in the hand of her left arm. With her free hand she placed the container above Nikki’s head and pulled one of the fruits from the tray.

“What are you doing?” The blonde asked, hearing the noise above her. She could smell a subtle sweet scent, but wasn’t able to identify the aroma.

“This.” Tess said as she held one of the cherries suspended above Nikki’s lips by the stalk. “Try it.”

She opened her mouth and accepted the fruit, pulling it from the green stalk and chewing cautiously until… “It’s a cherry!” She pulled the stone from her mouth and threw it in the direction of the stream. “Oh that was tasty.”

“Want another?” Tess asked, already reaching into the plastic container.

“Mmm hmm.” Nikki opened her mouth accepting the cherry as she reached above and felt around for the container. Once within grasp she pulled one of the tiny fruits out and cupped Tess’s cheek before holding the red berry against her lips. Tess bit into the fruit, taking Nikki’s fingers into her mouth as she did so. Her tongue moved against the small digits causing a shudder to run through the woman below. “You’re not playing fair!”

Tess smiled slowly and extracted the stone from her lips. “Why am I not playing fair? I intend on fulfilling one of my vows here today… that is definitely fair and you know me… I always keep my promises.”

“Promises?”

She leaned closer to Nikki’s ear and whispered enticingly. “Remember when we first moved into the farm house, I told you that one day soon I was going to make love to you out here.”

Nikki swallowed – hard. “Right now?” she asked with a squeak, a heated blush covering her cheeks. “In the open?”

“Nik this isn’t the open… well not really. We are secluded from the outside world. Right now it’s just you, me and the squirrels in the trees but I don’t think they are particularly interested unless I start feeding you nuts along with these cherries; then we may have a slight battle on our hands.”

Nikki smiled. “What about Leto?”

Smirking. “She’s not interested in anything other than food and attention since I got her fixed.”

“You did… when?”

“Later!” Tess reached above Nikki’s head and picked up another cherry, only this time she crushed the fruit in her fingers allowing the juices to run over the tips. “Here comes another.”

Nikki opened her mouth expecting another cherry but instead she got Tess’s juice covered fingers. She hummed in delight, closing her eyes and sucking on each digit, thoroughly working her way around the long appendages with her tongue. And just as Tess was about to pull away, she grabbed a hold of the slender wrist, wrapping her own fingers around it and pulling her forward as she trailed small kisses up to the inside of Tess’s elbow.

The brunette released a ragged breath, feeling tiny tingles of electricity every time the smooth lips touched her heated skin. Not being able to take a slow seduction at that precise moment she moved forward, taking Nikki’s lips in a deep penetrating kiss; groaning as she tasted the sweetness of cherries in the blondes mouth. She advanced further, not breaking the kiss as she gently laid her form above the smaller woman, holding herself up on one strong arm as her other hand sunk into blonde tresses.

Nikki ran her hands along the body above, until her fingers disappeared into the brunettes’ own dark hair, holding the woman close.

Eventually Tess pulled away and stared down upon Nikki’s flushed countenance. “Did I tell you how much I love you today?”

“Not that I can recall no.”

“Oh!” Tess leaned down, her lips moving across the blondes’ neck with tiny kisses.

“What… and you are not going to… tell me now?” She asked breathlessly.

“Hmm… nope… I’m going to show you instead.” Her hands found their way around the blonde’s tee shirt and pulled it up over her head. Lips instantly dropping to the rim of Nikki’s breasts that peaked out above her bra.

Her nostrils flared as she inhaled deeply, hand rising to the back of Tess’s head where she held the woman in place; willing her to explore further. She growled in frustration when the woman’s lips started a journey back up towards her neck. Warmth mounting within her, Nikki spread out both arms feeling around the empty space on both sides of the blanket. Suddenly she grabbed a hold of Tess and flipped her over, surprising the brunette with a surge of underlying strength. Nikki landed on top of Tess, holding her down with the weight of her own body as she reached around for Tess’s hands, finding them and holding them above her head.

Tess looked up with darkening eyes, gazing at the flushed state of her lover. “Going too slow?” she asked.

Nikki leaned forward trailing kisses from the photographers chin to the side of her face, moving her tongue gently over the raised scar. “Hmm,” she replied as she held onto Tess’s willing wrists with one hand, the other moving to the waist of her denim shorts. She unsnapped each button before pushing her hand inside and grabbing hold of the corner of her tank top, pulling it up and over her head.

Taking advantage of the fact that their hands had separated, Tess rolled the blonde over, trapping Nikki underneath her larger body. “I thought I was fulfilling a promise here today?”

Nikki smirked as she once again flipped Tess onto her back. “Yeah you are… but I kinda like it better up here today!”

Tess ran her hands over Nikki’s back; unclipping the bra strap in her descent to the waist of the blondes’ own shorts. She moved her hands under the elasticised waistband and pushed them down soft thighs. “Far be it from me to deny you anything.”

“Anything?” Nikki asked in a whisper as her body moved slowly against Tess.

“What did you have…” She closed her eyes and sighed at the increased pressure, “…in mind?”

Licking her lips, Nikki moved to the right side of the photographers face and whispered thickly in her ear.

Tess’s skin flushed, a sweat breaking out over her forehead, her body aching as she listened to Nikki. When the blonde moved away she captured her face between warm hands and guided her towards her own lips, kissing her intensely. Moments later she pulled away breathlessly. “I… definitely think I can…” She swallowed trying to moisten her dry throat, but it seemed all fluids had moved to lower parts of her body. “Comply.” Tess said as she removed Nikki’s shorts completely, moved the blonde tenderly to her knees then guided the smaller woman up and along her body for the most intimate of kisses.

*******

Sam exited the front door carrying a bucket filled with fresh tepid water and a squirt of washing liquid. She handed it over with a smile to the man who was waiting patently by the nearest window. He was middle aged, and of average height with a head of dark blonde hair and matching groomed moustache. They both turned at the sound of an engine coming from the distance and Sam watched Tess’s Blazer until it slowly crossed over the wooden bridge. “Ah here’s Tess and Nikki now.”

The car pulled up outside the house and the two smiling women climbed out the front. Tess approached the stranger as Nikki pulled out her cane then went to release Leto from the back seat. As she opened the door Leto jumped onto the ground cautiously, eyeing the man with some measure of concern. Nikki sensed the dogs’ apprehension, and Tess watched as Leto walked protectively by Nikki’s side as she approached the others. It was just like Dominic had thought. Leto had lost her overfriendly enthusiasm that she once had with unfamiliar people, opting instead to stay close by the two women and issue cautious glares. There was one instance when a temporary postman delivered the mail; she came very near to chasing him off the property, and would have done so if Nikki hadn’t assured the dog that the man was perfectly friendly.

The photographer smiled sadly; it wasn’t the fact that Leto was less forthcoming with strangers. That in itself was fine as she always thought the dog should show a little more reserve. No, it was the fact that Leto was less trusting, she watched people with an air of concern, not just for herself but for Tess and Nikki also. It hurt to think that her attack had left some emotional wounds.

Sam decided introductions were in order. “Tess, Nikki, I would like you to meet Ben, he is the window cleaner in these parts. I realised the other day that you didn’t have one so asked Ben to come around and speak to you both.”

Tess held out her hand, taking Ben’s in a firm shake. “Hi Ben, so how much do you charge, and how often do you come around?”

“For a house of your size I would charge seven pounds and I will come around as often as you like, but I average it to once a month.” Ben looked down suddenly as the stocky dog by the blonde woman’s side started barking at him in a warning manner.

Tess smiled. “Hey Leto!”

Leto stopped barking and looked up at her master.

“It’s okay, good girl.”

Leto’s head fell to the side as she studies the man briefly before trotting up to him and falling at his feet waiting for attention. Ben bent down and scratched her stomach much to the delight of the golden dog.

“Well yeah I think that sounds okay. Once a month, at seven quid…that’s fine.” Tess looked at her watch then to Nikki. “Hey Nik, we better go in and have a quick shower etcetera; we have to leave in about half an hour.”

“God yeah!” Nikki headed towards the door. “Nice to meet you Ben… sorry we have dash off like this but we have an appointment later that we really cannot miss.”

“That’s alright Miss, nice to meet you too.” He bent down picking up his bucket of fresh water. “Well if you will excuse me I must get on with doing your windows.” And with a smile he headed off to the far corner of the house.

Tess watched him walk away before turning back to the housekeeper. “Well, Sam will you lock the house up when you leave and activate the alarm?”

The alarm was Tess’s idea and she’d had it installed four days after the events with Bradley White. Paying for the best on the market, one that was connected to a monitoring station that would alert the necessary emergency services whenever an alarm was raised. It had taken Nikki two days to learn and memorise the lay out of the keypad but she was soon familiar with the device and comfortable in its usage.

Sam nodded. “Of-course, just leave it all to me. You two get going to this appointment of yours.”

Tess smiled as she headed into the house. They had told nobody as yet about where they were actually going and why. Nikki was still too anxious and didn’t want to build expectations on anyone’s part, until she was herself comfortable with what was happening. She was also trying so hard not to build up her hopes and so far it had worked.

Tess shot up the stairs three at a time and made her way into the bedroom. “Nik?”

The blonde stepped out of the bathroom, already pulling on her clothes. “Don’t think I have ever showered so quickly in my life.”

“Ah ha, well we still have twenty minutes.” Tess pulled off her top. “Wanna join me in the shower?”

“Tessa Josephine Alexander, are you trying to make us late?” Nikki shook her head and continued to get dressed.

Disappearing into the bathroom Tess chuckled. “Well it was worth a try I suppose.”

Nikki heard the shower start as she sat down on the bed pulling on her shoes. She closed her eyes falling back onto covers, trying so hard not to let her mind wander and think of the approaching hours. The blonde supposed she should be doing something, anything to keep her active and away from the brooding that she was in-fact now doing but it was fruitless. Since she had risen this morning she had spent every quiet minute thinking up all possible scenarios on how this meeting could transpire. In one way or another she wasn’t sure whether she like the out come of any one of her scenarios. Sorry Nicole, but I am afraid I will not be able to give you the gift of sight and you will never be able to fully appreciate and experience the visual beauty of this world, she shook her head. Or, Well I am pleased to say that you will get your sight back Nicole and you will enter a completely unknown and somewhat overwhelming territory that will change everything that you have accepted and been familiar with your whole life! She began to wonder whether she should start having second thoughts.

Suddenly she felt warm lips upon her own, shocking her because she hadn’t even been aware the approach.

“Stop pondering so hard Nik.” Tess kissed her again before moving away with a smirk. “You may rupture a cell or something.”

Nikki pushed herself back to a sitting position and pulled on her other shoe. She listened as Tess put on her clothes. “What are you wearing?”

“Clothes!”

A warning tone; “Tess!”

She smiled. “You know the usual, why?”

Nikki shrugged. “No particular reason, I’m just trying to focus my mind on something other than the meeting with Doctor Jacobson.”

Tess thought for a while. “Well… on our drive down to London I’ll tell you about the reason I got Leto spayed if you want, it’s quite a funny story.”

“Oh tell me now.”

Shaking her head. “Oh no, later.” Tess knew how curious the blonde could be and knew she wouldn’t stop thinking about this until she told her. The brunette thought it would be a good way to keep the blondes mind occupied. Well at least until she would give into Nikki’s badgering to relinquish the information.

*******

Heading south down the M1, traffic was typical for an early afternoon. As usual Tess preferred to spend as much time as possible alternating between the middle and fast lane; driving at a steady eighty to ninety miles per hour. They were heading south towards London and Tess spotted many large wagons coming in the opposite direction, obviously from abroad where they crossed over to England via the Channel Tunnel.

Tess turned to her left and looked briefly at the quiet blonde. Nikki hadn’t spoken much since they had joined the motorway and Tess knew exactly the reason why, though she did think Nikki would brow beat the information out of her. She grinned, her vision directly on the traffic in front as she turned down the radio. “I’ve never known you to be so patient.”

“I’m trying so hard to keep from pleading with you here!” Nikki replied, her lips in full pouting mode.

The photographer rolled her eyes. “I can tell… you have been huffing, puffing, and fiddling with the corner of your top since we joined the motorway. I am impressed at your patience.”

“Well it’s wearing thin, so spill Miss Tess before I start whining. Why did you get Leto fixed?”

Approaching a black Mini, Tess pulling right into the fast lane and overtook the shiny vehicle. “Well it was in around the first year that I got her, when she entered her first season. I started noticing that she wanted to go out more and was almost literally scratching at the door to be released. Anyway on this one particular day, it was a Saturday afternoon and I had let Leto out into the garden; she had been whining since I first let her out that morning. So I let her out and she more or less fled into the garden like her very life depended on it. I decided to follow her just to see what the hell she was up to. She disappeared around the back of the shed and as I started up the garden path I heard her barking… that kind of double, attention seeking bark, you know!”

“Oh yeah, I know the ‘I want some attention’ bark!”

Tess bobbed her head up and down. “Anyway you know how the fence in the old garden was slatted with gaps in-between?”

“Uh huh.”

“Well I made my way up the garden and peeped around the shed. I could not believe what I saw!” Tess paused.

“What? Oh come on Tess are you going to make be beg here?”

Sniggering. “Well there she was staring through the slats in the fence and barking her bloody head off at this young man walking his dog through the woods. She kept turning around and thrusting her… um you know…!”

Nikki rolled her eyes.

“Up between the panels as though the was offering herself to him and every so often she would have a go at digging ditch under the fence. Then she would go back to barking at the dog on a lead and shoving her back side against the damned fence… slut!”

Laughing. “Oh that’s funny!”

Tess shook her head. “That isn’t the worst of it. A couple of hours later, I had let her back out into the garden thinking she would behave. I realised that she had gone awfully quiet so decided to see what she was up to. I found the little bitch ‘getting it on’ with that same little dog from hours before! He had got into the garden through the hole Leto had been digging under the fence…!”

“Oh my god!” Nikki chuckled. “What did you do?”

“I chased that bloody mutt out of my garden, kicking its horny ass back under the fence! I was so angry at the time that I ordered her back into the house and the next day I had to take her to the vet to get a shot. Needless to say that event served to fuel my want to have her spayed. There was no way I would be able to handle half a dozen ‘mongrel Leto half breeds’, running around and causing havoc.”

Laugh quietly Nikki’s head fell to her hands. “Ah poor Leto; so she has only ever known one moment of unadulterated passion!”

Tess shrugged. “I don’t think she cares. She’s gets unadulterated satisfaction every time somebody tickles her tummy, scratches behind her ears, or even feeds her for gods sake.”

“True.”

“Hmm.” Tess steered the Blazer back into the middle lane and looked to the roadside as they passed a signpost. “Hey only twenty miles to go until we enter the capital. How are you feeling?”

Nikki frowned. “Up until about five seconds ago fine!”

“Oh come on Nik, you will be fine. We go in there… You do want me to go in there with you?”

“Yes.” The word was said with utter conviction.

“Well then, we go in there and just talk. Nothing has to be decided at this point in time remember?”

A small nod; “Yes.”

Tess reached over and took a hold of Nikki’s hand bringing it to her lips and kissing the soft skin gently. What she hadn’t told the blonde was that she was just as nervous as Nikki was herself. Half because she had no idea what was to happen and half because she felt the blondes’ uneasiness and knew that even though she may be able to divert her attention from time to time, it would never fully release the tension Nikki was feeling. Only time could do that.

*******

They had entered the congested, bustling streets of London with just over half an hour to spare until Nikki’s appointment. Tess navigated the roads with proficiency as she wound her way through the onslaught of surprisingly heavy traffic and of one-way systems. She looked up as a large red Double Decker bus passed them; the side of the passenger vehicle covered with advertisements of the latest released films.

She carried on their journey and soon found herself turning onto Oxford Street. Known as the heart of London and west end shopping; she had only ever been down this road once before when she was in her teens with her mother and was overwhelmed by the amount of shops there, being well over three hundred. If she did enjoy shopping she would love this place; she was damned sure Nikki would love it, though it was just so crowded.

“So tell me what’s London like?” Nikki asked with excitement.

“You’ve never been here before?”

Shaking her head. “Not since I was a ‘wee bairn’” She chuckled at her bad imitation of a Scottish accent. “I had my transplant down here, Doc Jacobson has always worked in London, though only recently it would seem has he moved to Harley Street. He must be pretty good huh?”

“I would guess so.” Tess frowned as she looked down at her watch. “Hmm, we still have a little while yet; do you want to get something to eat first. I for one am bloody starving over here.”

“Sure where do you want to go?”

Tess looked around. “Well Nik we are on Oxford Street surrounded by an abundance of shops, hotels and restaurants. Hmm…” she looked down at her watch once again. “I think we should make it quick though, I want to leave us enough time to get to Harley Street, even though we are more or less round the corner from it.” She looked out along the throng of shoppers taking in every establishment until something caught her eyes. “Hey a fast food restaurant want to go there; it’s quick!”

“Sure, but where are we going to park?”

“Are you kidding, we are approaching one of the largest car parks in London.” Looking around the lively street. “Lets hope I can get a space,” she muttered.

Finding a parking space had been harder than anticipated and Tess finally managed to locate a space by a small eatery. Unfortunately by that time Nikki’s nerves had raised a notch too high and she no longer wanted food. Tess decided to buy her something for later, knowing she would be hungry after her appointment at least. She herself had eaten her sandwich as they headed towards Harley Street.

*******

The outer office of Doctor Jacobson’s surgery was incredibly plush and cultural in its appearance. It held definite characteristics of somebody who had travelled the world, picking up interesting knick knacks along the way. Sitting in a large brown leather sofa, Tess looked around the office trying to identify the different clay pots, wood carved figures and other interesting objects. She could tell that Doctor Jacobson lived very well and he probably charged a fortune for his skills.

Directly across from her and Nikki was a large dark wood, stack of shelves that in its self looked like it had been carved completely by hand, and it stood almost six feet tall. Tess scanned along the four shelves, eyeing each object with interest. On the top shelf was a carved wooden figure of an ethnic woman holding her obviously pregnant stomach. Jade eyes scanned down to the next shape and she frowned at the crouching form of what she decided was the male figure, with a large phallic symbol protrude out between its thighs, each to their own, she thought with a wry smile. Shaking her head, Tess looked back to the middle-aged woman sitting behind a large oak desk. She wore a beige tweed suit, her hair was held up in a severe French twist and she wore small circular spectacles on the end of her nose. Every so often she would look up and smile politely at the couple before turning her attention back to a small computer screen.

Nikki sat beside Tess chewing nervously on her thumbnail. The photographer noticed this out of the corner of her eye and gently nudged the blonde. “Hey I thought you weren’t hungry,” she teased.

The smaller woman smiled slightly but said nothing.

Tess placed her arm around Nikki’s shoulder. “Hey come on, just a chat remember?”

Nikki nodded.

Just then a large set of double doors opened and a tall man walked into the outer office. His hair was black with many flecks of white and grey and he wore an expensive double-breasted navy suit with a thick silver watch around his left wrist. His brown eyes turned to Nikki and an affectionate smile graced his lips. “Nicole Morris.”

Nikki rose at the sound of her name on the familiar voice. “Um… Doctor Jacobson.”

The doctor walked forward, smiling brightly. “Please Nicole, Eric remember? No need to sound so formal.” He looked towards the brunette standing by Nikki’s side and held out his hand. “And this would be Tess Alexander… wonderful to meet you, I hear you are the official shooter at the Music Awards!”

Tess nodded shaking his hand with a firm grip. “Yeah… but I didn’t think that was public knowledge yet?”

The doctor smiled tapping the side of his nose. “In this city Miss Alexander it is all about whom you know and let’s just say that the event manager happens to be a patient of mine.”

“Ah I see.” Tess winked with a smile and then they both looked down to a quietly smiling blonde.

“So Nicole.” Eric turned to his office. “Are you ready to talk?”

Nikki nodded. “Sure, lead the way Eric,” She said apprehensively as she took Tess’s arm and together they headed into his office.
13
Nikki awoke early Tuesday morning to a strange sound coming from an unknown location in the house. Yawning, she lifted herself from her position of laying half upon a deep sleeping Tess and rubbed tired eyes. Moving her head side to side she loosened a tight kink in her neck before twisting her body around and out of the bed, reaching for her watch as she did so and securing it around her wrist. Once done, the blonde quietly crept out of the bedroom and headed off in the direction of the odd noise, knowing it had to be Leto.

As she descended the steps Nikki fingered her watch activating the audio function and realised it was only half past five in the morning. With a shake of her head the blonde reached the bottom of the stairs and turned in the direction of the now familiar sound; she could hear it coming from the front room.

Pushing the door open slightly Nikki walked cautiously into the room; mindful of the noises that were now beginning to sound more like tortured whimpers. Knowing the golden dog had a tendency to get up during the night and go down to sleep by the fire, whether it was on or not, Nikki walked cautiously over to where she was sure Leto would be lying. The whimpering became louder and Nikki realised Leto was in the middle of a dream, and not a very pleasant one by the sounds of it. Kneeling down she reached out until her searching hand found purchase of soft golden fur. “Hey ‘tow tow’ sweetheart come on wake up!” Leto opened her eyes with a start and looked up at Nikki, instantly wagging her tail and climbing into the blondes lap. Nikki smiled and felt around for the dogs’ head before leaning down and planting a soft kiss upon the silky fur. “Good girl,” she ruffled her hands over the dogs body before lightly tickling her stomach. Leto sighed and stretched out in Nikki’s lap, closing her eyes in bliss. The blonde shook her head. “Leto, I swear you are just like Tess!” Adjusting herself to a more comfortable position Nikki mindlessly stroked the dog as her mind wandered back to the appointment with Doctor Jacobson the day before.

*******

Nikki had entered the doctors’ office; her arm firmly wrapped around the brunettes. Eric led the way ushering the women to the far corner of the room where two extremely comfortable black leather, three seated couches sat facing each other. As the women sat down the doctor offered them a drink then disappeared into a small side room to put on the kettle.

Tess had looked around the room in awe commenting to Nikki how she thought she was in the wrong profession, and if she had known doctors could live so comfortably she would have attended medical school instead!
She then went on to describe the room to the blonde while Eric was still making their drinks and had stated on how it was very different to his outer office. It wasn’t so much the way it was decorated, although that was impeccably tasteful and thought out, it was again the furniture and ornaments that adorned the spacious room. Original paintings ornamented two walls, there stood a large Tiffany lamp in the corner in between the two sofas, and a beautiful Chippendale chair beside the doctors’ desk. Even the desk was beautifully made, and the photographer was sure it must have been Edwardian. She leaned over to Nikki with a smirk. “Either the doc is really good, or he has a side job as a criminal mastermind!” Nikki chuckled silently, aware of Eric entering the room.

Eric sat down after handing both women a small cup of tea. Tess had looked down at the cup wondering whether she dare drink out of the delicate china pottery, or set it on a mantelpiece for show. She shrugged and placed it upon a low coffee table between the chairs as she watched Nikki do the same.

“So, Nicole how have you been?”

The blonde shrugged slightly. “Fine. I moved out of home and am now living with Tess in Derbyshire. We have a farm house and I am planning on starting a stud farm in the near future.”

“Ah,” Eric had looked between the couple noting their close proximity, and the way Nikki’s right hand was unconsciously resting on the photographers’ thigh. He hadn’t realised it at the time, even when Nikki said she was bringing her partner down to London, but it suddenly became obvious to him that Nicole and Tess were partners in every sense of the word. His eyebrows arched in recognition and a slight smile played across his features. I would never have thought it! He mused silently.

Nodding Eric took a drink before placing his cup on the antique table, “And how are your parents?”

The blonde grasped Tess’s thigh silently, an unconscious gesture that didn’t go unnoticed by the doctor, “Um… they are fine, father’s now the Mayor.”

“So I heard.” He smiled. “I saw your father on the television during the General Elections; he is definitely passionate about his causes isn’t he!”

Tess chuckled. “Oh yeah that is something you notice over time, and to think I didn’t even vote for him.”

Nikki turned to Tess shocked. “You didn’t?”

“Um… no, I voted for that other guy Jefferson Daniels I just didn’t know who to vote for. Anyhow, I knew I wasted a vote as soon as I heard the guys’ speech… anyone who can seem more interested keeping animal blood sports legal is not in my favour.”

The doctor shook his head. “Yeah I heard about that; seems it was a good job your father was elected in the locals Nicole.”

Nikki nodded quietly, she knew this chat was just a temporary ease for her obvious jitters but it wasn’t working, just get on with it, she thought. Nothing short of leaving Eric’s office would have calmed her nerves at that point.

Sensing the blonde’s obvious discomfort, Jacobson leaned forward in his chair and looked intently at the smaller woman. “Okay Nicole, we all know why we are here, so let’s talk shall we?”

Nikki nodded tightly, her hand instantly being captured by Tess’s.

“Alright, lets get right on with this.” Eric rose from his chair and walked over to a high set of filling cabinets in the opposite corner of the room. Pulling open the top drawer the doctor pulled out a large blue folder containing Nikki’s medical history. He flicked through the files briefly before returning to his seat. “Well to refresh our conversation from the year before last. There are many different causes for blindness, through accidents, progressive disorders, other forms of conditions such as diabetes, and of-course from birth. As you are aware I believe your blindness to be linked with a form of damage in your eye to brain connection. I am hoping the problem is within the eye as that is what I anticipate in being able to repair.” He placed the folder on the low table and opened it to a particular page. “Certain forms of blindness can be reversed and I have been doing an awful lot of research on the causes of blindness from birth and possible cures.”

Tess sucked her bottom lip nervously as she looked towards Nikki, tightening her grip on the blonde’s hand.

“Now in order for me to find out whether I will be able to revert the blindness in your eye, I would have to start by going in for an initial examination and general look around.”

Nikki licked her lips nervously. “What does that mean?” She really didn’t like the sound of that in the slightest.

Eric cleared his throat. “Well basically what I said; I will have to see what the actual problem is first. You see, I have studied the complexities of the eye for quite some years Nicole and am very confident in my abilities to give the gift of sight to those who have been blind their whole lives.”

Nikki frowned at the doctors’ sudden display of bravado. “You can’t always be sure that it is a gift Eric, this isn’t something I would consider lightly and you know how long it took me to get to this point. For me personally this is a daunting and potentially life changing step to take.”

Tess rubbed her thumb over Nikki’s palm reassuringly.

“Oh.” The doctor readjusted his position in the chair. “I guess I have spent so much time looking at this from my point of view that I have never stopped to consider how it would affect my patients. Are you saying that you are still undecided in this?”

“I’m intrigued definitely,” the blonde replied; “but I would like as much details as you can give me before I make my decision.”

“Well then… let us not waste any more time, I will explain every thing to you and you can ask as many questions as you desire… by the end of this meeting I hope to leave you with enough information that will to aid you in your judgment.”

Tess sat back quietly as Eric discussed the many different procedures he had devised that he hoped would help give sight to the blind. Their discussion was long and the doctor spoke in quite complex terms about many details, which although she really didn’t quiet comprehend, Nikki understood completely. The longer they conversed the more Nikki seemed to warm to the operation doctor Jacobson was suggesting. It was complex, that was for sure, but even Tess found herself gaining confidence in Eric’s abilities the longer they spoke and it was quite obvious he himself was extremely convinced in his new methods.

It was almost eight o’clock by the time the meeting was over and as Nikki left the office she was filled with much confidence. In her mind she had already made the decision but had decided to sleep on it and hopefully give her answer to the doctor the next day.

Tess had stated that she had wished they had booked a hotel for the night as they both knew it would be well past ten o’clock by the time they got home. Nikki was aware that it was still light out as they left London, but by the time they had arrived home Tess was navigating the dark, narrow roads of the countryside in almost total darkness.

As predicted, Leto was waiting patiently when they got home and all three females headed straight to bed, Tess allowing the dog to sleep at the bottom of the divan, an act that she and Nikki had taken to since Leto’s injury. Sleep came easy for all but Nikki who had lain awake a while longer; processing all the information Eric Jacobson had told them hours before. Gradually she gained confidence in her decision.

*******

Tess rolled over, her right arm reaching out to the empty space by her side. Frowning she opened her eyes, and looked across at the vacant spot by her side. The sheets were cold and she realised that Nikki had obviously been out of bed for a long time. Reaching to her side Tess grabbed the alarm clock off the bedside table, willing her blurry eyes to focus. It was only seven o’clock so Nikki had obviously been up for a while. Stifling a yawn the photographer pulled her long frame from the bed as she reached over to a single chair where she picked up her discarded tee shirt from the seat and pulled it over her nakedness. Exiting the bedroom Tess looked around the landing trying to locate the blonde. She listened to her surrounding carefully, but after hearing nothing she decided to try down stairs.

A gentle heat from the glowing fire drew a searching Tess into the living room. She stepped quietly inside, her eyes instantly searching and locating her missing lover. Nikki lay upon her side in front of the fire, her knees drawn up close to her stomach and Leto resting sleepily by her chest. The tall woman smiled tenderly and approached the sleeping pair. Her smile increased as Leto opened her eyes and looked up at the approaching brunette, waging her tail sleepily.

“Hey sleepy head!” Tess whispered as she knelt down, running her fingers across the golden hound. Leto lifted herself, swiping her tongue over the photographers hand before laying her head back down under Nikki’s chin.

Sensing the movement and extra presence Nikki pulled herself from a dreamless sleep. Tess leaned forward and placed a soft kiss upon the blondes’ lips as she came around. “Morning sweetheart, what are you doing down here, was I snoring again?” She gazed down at Nikki’s slumber flushed cheeks affectionately.

“Hmm,” Nikki stretched and lifted to a sitting position. “No I woke up too early.” She winced as a sudden pain invaded her neck. “Ugh god, remind me never to fall asleep on the bloody floor I think I’ve a knotted muscle!” Kneading her neck, Nikki tried to loosen the painful ache.

“Come here.” Tess took a hold of Nikki’s shoulders and gently turned her around and onto her stomach. Nikki lay down willingly as Tess straddled her hips and applied a gentle massaging pressure to her shoulders.

“Ugh, oh yeah… that feels so good.”

A smile. “Good, but don’t make a habit of sleeping down here just to get my free massages alright!”

Nikki chuckled as her free hand absently picked at the soft fibres of the rug by the fire. She turned her head to the side closing her eyes against the heat. “Oh but you are so good.” She sighed, breathing deeply and relaxing into Tess’s manipulative touch. “You know, this is the first time I have ever had a massage.”

Tess stopped briefly, and looked down in disbelief. “Really?” She resumed her ministrations, and double her efforts in making sure Nikki was thoroughly satisfied. “Well okay now you have just convinced me to make sure you get this treatment, at least once a week.” Skilled hands moved under Nikki’s tee shirt and smoothed out the muscles along her back, gliding over soft inviting skin. “But no more sleeping down here, I’ll get paranoid!”

The blonde nodded, grunting her agreement as larger hands touched a particularly sore spot on her upper back. Tess’s hands stopped wandering and concentrated in that one area, working the muscle in gentle circles. The photographer looked up as a movement from the corner of her eye caught her attention. She watched amused as Leto rolled onto her back, legs hanging limply in the air as she lightly slept, seemingly oblivious to all around her.

“What time is it?”

Tess looked over at the clock on the videocassette recorder. “It’s twenty past seven, I’ll have to go and get ready for work in another twenty minutes.”

Feeling slightly disappointed, Nikki reached behind her and stopped the hands that were working her shoulders. She began to turn and Tess lifted slightly allowing the blonde room to roll onto her back until they were face to face. “I was thinking.” She stated; eyes directed up in Tess’s direction.

“About?” Tess asked, already knowing the answer.

“About yesterday and the operation.”

“And?” The brunette asked, not noticing that she was holding her breath in anticipation.

Nikki’s hand reached out, finding purchase of barely covered thighs belonging to the woman above her. “And… I have decided to give it a try.”

There was a moment of silence as the spoken words settled into both women’s minds. To hear herself actually say it caused a flicker of anticipation in the blondes’ own chest. She bit her lip nervously and waited for Tess’s response.

“Okay,” the brunette nodded slowly. “Then you know I will stand by you one hundred percent in this Nik; I will help you with this any way I can.”

A small nod; “I know. I don’t really want to tell that many people though Tess, maybe just Dad, Lisa, Cinthy, and James. Lisa may tell CJ and I don’t think we will be able to keep it a secret from Sam and Janie but apart from that could we keep it as close to our chests as possible in the meantime?”

Tess frowned. “Nik, of course we can. I know how you are feeling about this and don’t want to get your hopes up… we will take it one step at a time okay?”

“Yeah.” A sigh. “I wish you didn’t have to go to work so soon.”

Smirking, Tess leaned down, placing an arm either side of the blondes’ head. “Want me to stay an extra hour this morning? I really don’t have an appointment until eleven; I was only going to help Jason with some inventory this morning anyway.”

“Won’t he mind?”

“Naw, I can call… I know he wont mind.” Tess looked up to find her mobile conveniently placed by the television where it lay plugged into its charger. She reached out, and pulled the phone over. “I’ll call him now.”

“It’s a bit early.”

“So! This will get him back for the time he called us at six o’clock in the bloody morning, just to ask me whether I would be in for Kats birthday that wasn’t until the next frigging day anyway…why he couldn’t wait until I got there was beyond me.”

“You still haven’t’ gotten over that have you.”

“Nope!” Tess poked out her tongue in concentration as she dialled her friends’ number, grinning evilly as the line started to ring.

“If I could see you now I know you would be wearing your most nefarious smirk!” Nikki said. She reached up and caressed the lips of the woman who was poised only six inches above her finding the indulgent grin. “I knew it.”

Tess captured a finger between her teeth; then paused as the line was answered.

“Hello?” Came a quiet voice.

“Good morning sunshine.” The photographer said, using Jason’s own words to get a rise out of the man.

“Tess?”

“Uh huh,” she replied with an impish smirk.

“Jesus woman it is half seven in the morning for goodness sake!”

Tess pulled an innocent face as Nikki chuckled silently at Jason’s exasperated voice. “And you should be up and about by now young man… Jeez the youth of today, no stamina I tell you.”

“Tess, I am two years older than you for crying out loud… now what do you want?”

“Oh testy! And to think I was never this crabby when you called me at six o’clock in the god damned morning.”

“Hold on a minute.” There was a ruffling of sheets followed by and a quiet muttering. “Okay fine, you are getting me back… now what can I do for you girl?”

“Remember when I said I would help you with inventory this morning?”

“Yeah?”

“Well I may be an hour or so late.”

“What… that is it, you called to tell me that?” There was another exasperated sigh down the phone. “Fine, I wasn’t going to start it until ten o’clock anyway.”

“Oh well that’s okay then.”

Nikki, who had been listening silently suddenly chimed in. “Morning Jason.”

Tess grinned. “Nikki says hi.”

“I heard? Where is she, what phone are you on?”

The photographer rolled her eyes. “She is right here with me and I am on my mobile… any more questions?”

“Where is right here?” Jason asked suspiciously.

Tess looked down. “Um, beneath me why?”

“WHAT? Tess girl give that phone to the blonde right now!”

With a bemused frown Tess held the phone to Nikki’s ear, and the blonde took possession of the small device. “Hi Jase.”

“Nikki sweetheart don’t tell me that colleague of mine is using the phone while you two are in the middle of…” he cleared his throat, “the wild thing… just because she wants extra desert?”

A sudden blush graced Nikki’s cheeks as she laughed out loud. “Oh no nothing like that Jason I assure you!”

Tess smirked at the expression on the blondes face and wondered what Jason was saying to her. If it were the other way round she was sure Nikki would be able to hear what was going on but she was in the dark.

“Shame… well for you not me; last thing I want is images like that at this time of the morning. Not that you would produce bad images sweetheart, you are just darling, but still…I mean it’s Tess…Oh… you get me don’t you?” He babbled.

“Um yeah!” She rolled her eyes. “Jason I better hand you back to Tess before you permanently wedge that foot of yours forever into your mouth!” She chuckled at the sudden spluttering down the phone, and handed the mobile back to Tess.

“Jase?”

“Ciao Tessa.”

“Ah buon giorno Jake, come stai?”

“Bene grazie, e tu?”

“Great. So where has Jason disappeared to?”

“Hmm, I think somebody just cut him down a peg or two…” he laughed, “I took the phone away from him after he started stuttering down the receiver. I think that little one of yours just flummoxed him, not a feat often achieved so I commend her.”

Tess arched her brows. “Really?” she asked mysteriously.

“Yeah”. The photographer heard the muted sound of the receptionist demanding back the phone. “Tess? Jason vuole indietro il telefono SUBITO!”

Chuckling. “Jake, perché devi sempre interromperlo così, sai che si arrabbia quando cominci a parlare in italiano, diventa matto!”

“Perché è divertente.” Tess shook her head at the mans impish tone. “Allora, tu stai bene ma che mi dici di Nikki, lei come sta?”

Looking down at the blonde who portrayed a mix of impressed surprise, the taller woman smiled. “Molto bene.”

“Sai una cosa? Voi due dovreste proprio venire al bar. Non venite da parecchio!”

“Va bene Jake. E’ una promessa. Nikki ed io verremo presto.”

“Benissimo. Beh, sarà meglio che io restituisca il telefono a Jason. Mi sta guardando con occhi cattivi!”

“Alright Jake; a presto amico mio.”

“A piu tardi Tessa ciao.” The phone switched users. “Damn it Tess I hate it when you two start switching languages and I know he only does it to wind me up!”

“Hey don’t blame me; Jake did start it!” Tess stated with a mischievous grin.

“Oh in no way do I doubt that… anyway Tess, you tell that Nikki she is on my list!”

“And what list would that be?” She asked amused.

There was a short silence. “I don’t know, but when I make one she will be on it.”

A silent chuckle; “Sure Jason.”

“Damn right!” A long pause; “…oh who am I kidding, I can’t even try to be mad at her but you tell Sparky next time I see her there will be trouble… I owe her good!”

Nikki laughed as she said in a raised voice. “Them sound like fighting words Jase my boy.”

“Sparky?” Tess asked.

“Yeah the live wire! Okay Tess I’ve got to go… I will see you later.”

“Yeah bye Jason.”

“Bye girls.”

Tess disconnected the phone shaking her head. “Damn that guy,” she laughed.

“You didn’t tell me you could speak Italian.” Nikki stated.

“Ah, well you learn something new every day I guess!” Tess leaned further forward until she was inches away from the blonde. “I used to holiday in Italy a lot as a child so picked up the language pretty easily. Of course I did also take a couple of courses, to improve my reading and written language as well.” She paused to lick her lips and consciously lowered her voice. “Um… Vorrei tagliare I capelli e fare la messa in piega con il föhn.”

Nikki arched her brows. “Oh sounds sexy, what did you say?”

Tess pursed her lips, tongue in cheek. “Sono rimasto chiuso fuori della mia stanza.”

Grinning, Nikki pushed her hands through the brunettes’ hair. “Oh come on, Tess what did you just say, you know sound really sexy, I love your accent!”

Jade eyes glittered with mirth. “Well… I just asked you for a cut and blow dry then told you that I had locked myself out of my room!” She chuckled. “They were some of the very first phrases I ever remember learning!”

There was a sudden laugh as Nikki slapped the brunettes behind playfully. “Damn it, Tess you are just so romantic. You could have lied and said you wanted to make mad passionate love to me or something along those lines.” She pouted. “I think you just doused my rising libido… so what were you two saying anyway?”

“Nothing much, I told Jake off for speaking in Italian when he knows it makes Jason paranoid. He asked me how you were and told me that we needed to go down to the bar soon… that was it basically.”

Nikki nodded. “I thought I heard my name mentioned once or twice. Oh hey did you hear what Jason said?”

Stretching out her long form Tess lay upon the younger woman looking down into hooded blue eyes. “No, I couldn’t hear; what was he going on about anyway?”

“He thought you had called him while we were,” she made a slight back and forth hand gesture, “ ‘Doing the wild thing’” she laughed again, “And wanted seconds, or thirds… so rang him to say you would be in late because of that reason!”

Sniggering. “He does have a good idea though!” Tess stated as her lips moved slowly down until they landed upon the blondes’ neck. Gentle lips moved across soft skin with an excruciating tardy speed. “How’s your neck ache feeling now?” Tess asked against Nikki’s flesh.

“What ache?” she breathed.

A slow smile spread across Tess’s lips as she moved up Nikki’s chin and towards her lips. The kiss was deep and seductive as the blonde’s hands slid up Tess’s body and into shoulder length hair, where short fingernails moved along a sensitive scalp.

Tess groaned and pulled away. “Ugh, can I just skive off today?”

“Nope.” Nikki smiled as her hand took a different direction and moved back down the photographers’ body and up her tee shirt. Her body was telling her to continue with the pleasurable task but her mind refused to stop thinking and as much as she didn’t want to, she had to voice a sudden thought that had entered her mind. “Tess.”

“Hmm?” she asked, looking up as she noted the serious tone in Nikki’s voice.

“I’ve changed my mind, I don’t want to tell anybody about the surgery… is that okay?”

Tess looked down at the blondes’ anxious expression. “Um… sure, of course… if that is what you want then you know I am with you whatever you decide Nik. What made you change your mind?”

Nikki sighed as Tess pulled her to a sitting position. She sat up straight; her legs stretched out with the photographer astride her thighs. Long fingers moved under her chin and directed her face to seemingly look straight into inquisitive green eyes. A small hand rested upon Tess’s thighs and fiddled with the edge of her shirt. There was really only one main reason why she didn’t want anybody to know. The expectancy. She had no doubt that for her father especially, he would be ecstatic, overjoyed and would want her to pursue this as quickly as possible and that was the problem. Nikki had already faced the great possibility that the operation may not work and didn’t know how she would handle the disappointment of her family if the procedure were indeed to fail. Was this a selfish decision to make? She was unsure but knew she had to do this for herself and as long as Tess stood by her she knew she could face what lay ahead.

The blonde had been silent for some minutes and Tess ducked her head, looking directly into watery blue eyes. “Nik?”

“If this fails at least I spare them the disappointment… and after everything my father went through with my mother and the operation when I was two, I don’t think I could put him through any more stress.”

Tess sucked in her bottom lip, looking intently into Nikki’s aqua eyes, she studied the difference between the left and right eye. “Won’t he be upset that you didn’t tell him before hand?”

“I don’t think so, he will understand I know he will.” The blonde let her head fall to Tess’s chest. “What about your mother, do you think she will be upset if we don’t tell her until after, it is going to be a pretty big announcement whatever the case!”

Shaking her head Tess kissed the golden locks. “Yeah, and no she won’t mind…” She paused, “So… we are going ahead with this?”

Nikki nodded affirmatively. “Yep!”

A wide toothy smile spread across the brunettes’ features; leaning forward she kissed Nikki gently. “I love you Nik.” Tess whispered softly as she lowered the blonde back down to the floor. “And by the way… Voglio fare pazzamente e appassionatamente l’amore con te”

“Which means?”

“I want to make mad passionate love to you.”

With a growing smirk Nikki chuckled. “Oh yes I can definitely feel that libido rising again now!”
Chapter 14

She was sure it was the same for a lot of people. Hospital – even the word sent chills down her spine. They are supposed to be places where one goes to get better; to visit one’s loved ones as they battle through the sometimes worse of afflictions known to man, and stand triumphant through the storm. But for Tess it was not so.

She was four years old when she broke her leg while exploring the six-foot high climbing frame in her uncles’ garden. The doctors had called her brave because she hadn’t even cried but if she were to admit, she was just too frightened to cry. Taken to the hospital cradled in her fathers’ arms Tess was whisked into the emergency room before she even knew where she was. There she waited for three hours, on one of the busiest evenings of the year, November the fifth – bonfire night. What she had been witness to there had left permanent scars in her sub-conscious mind.

Sitting frightened in her fathers’ lap she had watched horrified as the influx of casualties streamed through the emergency room. Children of all ages crying in agony as their burnt hands overwhelmed them; destroying the wonder they had felt while innocently playing with sparklers in their own gardens. Older children and teenagers, wheeled rapidly past her with severe burns and lacerations upon their faces and other body parts, the result of practical jokes gone wrong. Even the elderly were not immune after having cheap fireworks shoved through their letterboxes that had resulted in explosions and occasional fires in their small homes. At such a young age to see such misery had left her with an intense dislike of hospitals in general.

Then came her fathers’ cancer. It had happened so unexpectedly that she was sure she would have plenty of time to be with him. Of course she had been to see him, but evade going again as much as she could thinking there would be more than ample opportunity for her to see him… if only she had known.

Yet now here she sat again in a small recovery room of a London based private hospitals ophthalmology unit, waiting for Nikki to return. They had arrived not long before the blonde was taken away for her pre op check up and although Tess had stated that she wanted to be with Nikki, a need that the smaller woman herself had echoed, the nurse, a tall thin woman with wiry blonde hair and cold blue eyes had firmly stated ‘no’. So Tess was led into the small room where she impatiently waited for the blonde to arrive. Nikki had been nervous their whole journey down to the hospital and Tess really didn’t want her to be alone with the ‘evil bleached blonde nurse troll from hell’ as she had affectionately named her, for too long.

The day Nikki had made her decision to go through with the operation was the day they had been given the procedure date… the ninth, just four days later. Still it had worked out well. Being a Saturday the women could state that they were going away for the weekend and had left Leto with Sam and Kate who had offered to look after the house and horses while they were gone. Even though it was her request Nikki still felt terrible about keeping her family and friends in the dark, but she just didn’t feel that she could handle the pressure of others knowing; especially when she was so nervous herself.

Perched on the corner of the high hospital bed, Tess folded one arm across her stomach as she balanced the others arms elbow upon it and proceeded to fiddle with her bottom lip. She tapped the soft flesh repeatedly, listening to the muted popping sound it made as it re-hit her top lip. Nikki had been gone now for almost twenty minutes and she was beginning to get anxious. What was more, she had yet to even catch a glimpse of Doctor Jacobson and wondered as to his whereabouts; she hoped he was at least in the building and hopefully with Nikki.

With a sigh of exasperation Tess folded her arms and rose from the bed walking over to the window where she looked out onto the scenery below. There was a large car park directly in front of the building, then beyond that a vast expanse of dark yellow fields; crops of some variety Tess mused. Scanning the outer surrounding, Tess wondered whether this would be one of the first sights Nikki would behold. Don’t start thinking like that T, remember what Nik said, no expectancies.

With a sigh Tess turned away from the window and started an impatient pace across the private rooms floor. She was on her tenth circuit of the small room when the door opened and Nikki walked quietly in closely followed by the ‘evil bleached blonde nurse troll from hell’, The photographer glared at the nurse who saw fit to avert her eyes. Nikki had obviously changed clothes while she was away and was wearing a hospital issued green nightgown. She had brought her own in an over night bag but had left it with Tess when she had been whisked away. After leading Nikki to the bed the nurse quietly stated she was going to find Doctor Jacobson, then left. As soon as the door closed, Tess quickly approached her lover and sat next to her on the bed placing her right arm around the slender waist. “Hey, you okay?”

A small nod; “Yeah. Turns out its just hospital policy; all patients are taken by the nurse for a pre op work over.”

“Work over?”

She smiled. “You know what I mean, just to change, get the third degree making sure I hadn’t eaten for twenty four hours etcetera.”

“Well I didn’t like her!” Tess stated with a pout.

Nikki’s nose crinkled in thought. “She was a little harsh; god forbid she ever works on paediatrics she would frighten those poor children to death.”

Tess grimaced. “Eww!”

“So.” Nikki fidgeted restlessly upon the bed. “Did you stash my bag?”

“Hmm.” Tess got up and walked over to the small cabinet by the bed. “I put your stuff in here.” She pulled open the bottom cupboard as Nikki reached over and felt around the storage unit.

“Right.” Nikki re-closed the unit and turned to face Tess and the photographer noticed the look of apprehension in the blonde’s eyes. She stepped forward and took Nikki within her arms, tucking the golden head under her chin. Nikki sighed. “Eric should be here soon.”

“Yes.” Tess smoothed her hand down Nikki’s arm and took a gentle hold of a small trembling hand. She raised the appendage up to her lips and kissed the shaky fingers one by one. “I’ll be here with you for as long as I can.” She led Nikki back over to the bed and they sat down together on the firm surface, the blonde still firmly tucked into Tess’s right side.

They were both still very tired due to lack of sleep the night before. Tess hadn’t been able to finish work until after six o’clock, as she had an impromptu meeting with Andrew at the gallery and needed to visit a shop where she had purchased a small gift for Nikki straight after that. By the time she arrived home the photographer was already tired yet had to face a long journey down to London before she could rest in the hotel room they had booked for the weekend. To the brunette’s surprise, Nikki had been almost jovial. It seemed that her nerves up to that point had more or less worn away until she no longer had the energy to be anxious any more.

Driving south in Friday evening traffic was not one of the most relaxing of experiences to say the least. Tess had only just escaped with her sanity after being cut up on the motor way several times and one instance where a mindless driver had suddenly pulled out in front of her from the hard shoulder. Nikki was beginning to think that the stress she had been feeling the last couple of days had now transferred itself onto the photographer.

Tess checked her watch; it was five minutes to ten o’clock and Nikki’s operation was scheduled for half past. “Eric should be here, it’s five to.”

Taking a long shuddering sigh, Nikki pulled away from Tess “Don’t leave me until the anaesthetic kicks in Tess, I want you to be with me until I lose consciousness.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Placing the side of her bent finger under Nikki’s chin Tess angled her until they were facing each other. She leaned forwards and brushed her lips over Nikki’s gently before pulling back. “And I will be here as soon as you come around okay?”

“Yes… please.” Smaller hands reached out claiming Tess in a strong grip and drawing her back into a reassuring kiss. They leaned into each other, desperately taking advantage of the few moments they had left until Nikki heard the unmistakable sounds of approaching footsteps. They pulled away simultaneously.

Eric Jacobson walked into Nikki’s room wearing his scrubs. He looked towards the two women sitting casually on the bed with a friendly smile, “Morning Nicole, Miss Alexander… I hear things are all ready to go?”

“I hope so.” The blonde replied cautiously.

They all turned towards the door as another nurse entered the room. In front of her she pushed a small silver trolley with a metal bowl and syringe upon the surface. Tess looked down at the long needle of the hypodermic and cringed knowing Nikki was not going to like that. She had once before stated her dislike for needles after Tess had told her about a time she had cut her leg on a rusty nail while working on an outdoor catalogue shoot and had to have a tetanus shot.

Eric looked back towards Nikki. “Nicole this is Mina, she will be giving you your injection.”

Nikki held out her hand with a smile and an equally small hand of the slender Asian woman took it. “Hello Nicole.”

“Hi.”

Mina then nodded towards Tess with a smile of acknowledgement. Tess nodded back, her green eyes only straying from her lover long enough to acknowledge the other woman’s presence.

“Right…” Eric folded his hand together, “…since I have already explained everything to you Nicole, I do believe we are all ready to go… yes?”

The blonde nodded quietly as she shuffled herself back and onto the bed; laying down with her head upon the small pillow, her hand never letting go of Tess’s. She waited as Eric spoke quietly to Tess, telling her she could stay with Nikki until the anaesthetic took effect and then the blonde would be wheeled out into surgery. Nikki had to smile as the needle slid into her arm; she knew the photographer would have done whatever it had taken to make sure she was with Nikki until she slipped from consciousness.

Tess leaned down and kissed Nikki’s forehead softly, she spoke in muted whispers loud enough for only the blonde to hear. “You’ll be just fine Nikki, I’ll be waiting for you… I love you so much… see you soon.” She kissed her once again.

Nikki smiled as she drifted. “See you soon,” she whispered as her eyes closed and she slipped into unconsciousness.

*******

Tess sat in the corridor leaning against a tall drinks machine. She checked her watch for the seventh time that hour and realised Nikki had been in the operating room for over three hours already. She sighed as her head fell back to the tall illuminated machine and closed her eyes, not knowing how much longer she could take the agony of waiting for the unknown.

Suddenly the double doors at the top of the hospital corridor swung open and Tess spotted Doctor Jacobson stride out into the main hall way. The doctor looked around before his eyes spotted a small plastic chair and his body fell into the uncomfortable seat.

Pushing herself away from the drinks dispenser Tess made her way over to the surgeon with anxiousness. “Doc?”

The man looked up; his face ashen; sweat still thick around his brow. “Miss Alexander.”

“How is Nikki’s, how did things go?”

The man sighed and Tess noticed the look of complete despondence upon his face. She frowned and waited the agonizing long seconds until the man spoke again.

“I did every thing I could.”

Confused. “Pardon?”

“The procedure was just too delicate… I thought I could do it… I never anticipated that happening… and by then it was just too late.”

Feeling her heart rate accelerate Tess took a hold of the mans shoulder. “What are you saying, Eric?”

“It was an accident… there was just too much blood… I couldn’t stop it, I’m so sorry.” He lowered his head in shame.

Feeling the breath leave her body, Tess grabbed a hold of the man and pulled him to his feet. “DOC! What the hell are you trying to say… where is Nikki?”

“She didn’t make it.”

“Didn’t make it?” Suddenly every nerve in her body throbbed with mounting shots of piercing pain.

“She’s dead.”

“NO!” The word echoed throughout the hospital corridor, causing several passers by to jump and look over at the pair with surprise. Eric smiled at the visitors then turned his attention back to the brunette.

“Miss Alexander… Tess?” He placed his hand on the photographers arm.

Blinking, Tess pulled her head away from the drinks machine bewildered. She looked around trying to gain her bearings. “Doc?”

“Yes.” Eric looked down at Tess, still sitting confused in the plastic chair by the drinks machine. “I think you fell asleep.”

“No shit!” Rubbing her eyes the photographer pushed herself to her feet. It was just a dream… just a dream damn it, she looked down at the surgeon. “How’s Nikki.” The mans face suddenly fell and Tess was transported back to that dream, a shudder of fear racked her frame. “Doc?”

“We should sit down.”

“No!” Tess stated forcefully still shaken by her dream that was definitely more like a nightmare. “Tell me… is she alright?”

He frowned. “Nikki?”

A severe nod

“Oh god yes she is fine… please we need to talk.”

Still sensing the despondent tone in Eric’s voice, Tess did as asked and took a seat next to the doctor. She looked deep into his eyes. “What?”

Eric’s brow creased in what Tess could only describe as disappointment. “Things were a little unexpected in there.”

Not needing word games or beating around the bush, Tess’s jade eyes drilled into the greying man. “Just tell me.”

“Well…”

“In layman’s terms.”

Eric smiled despite the situation. “I found the problem but it is something I could or would have never imagined, and or for that matter ever seen before.” He scratched the back of his neck in thought before continuing. “There was a form of degrading that I have never seen before in all my years research into the causes of blindness.”

“I don’t understand.”

Taking a deep breath. “The problem… which caused Nikki to lose her site before she was even born… it was a form of break down, a decay that had left the eye to brain connections completely useless. I did my best to try and rectify the damage.”

“But it didn’t work.” It wasn’t a question.

The man shook his head. “No, not like I would think. I did try to restore the connection so to speak but instantly it started to degrade, almost like it was never meant to be.” He said in wonder while rubbing his forehead, eyes wide with confusion.

Sighing Tess fell back against the back of the chair. However much they had prepared themselves for this outcome, the thought of the operation not working was more than disappointing to Tess and deep down she knew it would be to Nikki as well. “Has she come around yet?”

Shaking his head. “No, but soon.”

“I want to tell her.”

“I think that would be best…” he paused, “…and what are you going to say about her present condition?”

Frowning, Tess looked at the man in confusion. “What present condition?”

Suddenly Eric realised he obviously hadn’t explained himself very well. “Tess… the degradation… I did repair the cause but it is degrading, it hasn’t degraded yet.”

“You mean…” she left the sentence hanging.

“At the moment she can see.” He raised his hand, as the brunette was about to speak. “But it isn’t going to last forever.”

Eyes wide Tess rose to her feet completely stunned. As much as she had been waiting to hear that Nikki could see… she suddenly felt like the ‘Sword of Damocles’ was hanging over their heads. “How long?”

Eric rose beside the brunette. “One minute, one hour…” he shrugged despondently. “No more than a day at the very most.”

An unexpected bang echoed through the corridor causing Tess and the doctor to jump. Looking up they observed two orderly’s emerged through the double doors of the operating room pushing a still sleeping Nikki out into the hallway and on into her room. Tess watched until they disappeared into Nikki’s recovery room.

Eric stared at the silent woman. “You go in. There is a red button hanging down by the side of the bed, if you need me just push the buzzer. I understand that you need to be alone with her.” He looked up as the orderly’s exited the room leaving it empty.

Tess turned back at Eric with watery Jade eyes. She nodded mutely as she moved away and headed back towards Nikki’s room.

*******

White blinds that had once adorned the top of the window were now pulled down, casting the room in a dull shadow. Tess entered the area quietly, her eyes searching and instantly finding the still sleeping blonde lying prone upon the bed. She studied the small form, taking in the large white patch covering Nikki’s right eye and bandage that was wrapped around her head keeping the medical lint in place.

Stepping forward Tess looked upon the woman whose pale face was still visible in the gloomy room. She frowned in thought. “How am I going to tell you this?” she whispered painfully; it seemed so unfair. Placing her backpack at the bottom of the bed Tess moved to Nikki’s side and sat beside the sleeping blonde. She didn’t have to wait too long before she noticed the small fingers twitching signalling Nikki’s return to consciousness.

The first sensation Nikki experienced was that of soft warm lips against her own. She breathed in deeply, recognising Tess’s aroma, a mixture of the photographers’ favourite perfume and the unique scent that belonged to Tess alone. Sighing as their lips parted she smiled slightly and whispered. “More.”

Tess gazed down at the blonde lovingly as she allowed Nikki one more kiss. Nipping at the bottom lip with her own lips before she pulled away. “Afternoon.”

“Hmm.” Still not fully coherent Nikki sighed feeling totally relaxed.

Sifting her fingers through the golden hair Tess allowed the blonde a few minutes of time to gradually regain her bearings. “Hey Nik sweetheart how are you feeling?” She leaned forward kissing the smooth forehead.

A quiet whisper; “Tess?”

“Uh huh.”

“What time is it?”

The brunette smirked at the question. “It’s almost two o’clock why?”

“Just wondering.” Slowly her foggy mind started clearing and shifting into gear. “Two o’clock… It still kind of feels like ten… so does that mean I have already been into surgery… where is Eric… what’s this?” She pulled at the bandage wrapped around her head.

“Hey…” Tess reached out and stopped the hand. “That is there for a reason you know… yes you have been into the operating room and Eric is probably getting out of his scrubs as we speak. If you need him I can just press the buzzer and he will come… do you need him?

She shook her head. “Tess?”

The photographer knew what was coming next; she took a deep breath. “Yeah Nik?” Tess sucked in her bottom lip, biting on the malleable flesh. The crease in Nikki’s brow and sudden air of nervous expectancy left little doubt in her mind.

Nikki smoothed her fingers over the bandage. “What… did it… has it worked?”

Taking a deep shuddering breath the photographer ran her hand over Nikki’s cheek, taking the small hand that was still upon the bandage and entwined their fingers together. What should she say? Tess knew that whatever the case, the consideration of whether Nikki should know the truth was not her decision to make even though she wanted to protect her from as much heartache as possible. Nikki had a right to know the result of her operation and make her own decisions with that information.

“Tess?” Nikki pushed herself to a slight sitting position as Tess readjusted her seating on the bed and repositioned the pillow behind Nikki’s back. She sat by the side of Nikki’s outstretched legs.

Ignoring the nervous fluttering in her chest Tess closed her eyes tight, for god’s sake T, just tell her… she is waiting here. After another deep breath, Tess re-opened her eyes and looked at her golden haired lover. “Nik…” she stroked her free hand over Nikki’s cheek. “Eric… the… operation didn’t go as expected.”

Nikki frowned. It was so very obvious that Tess was trying hard to explain something to her that she obviously found very difficult. The longer Tess stuttered over her words the uneasier the blonde became. “Didn’t go as expected… Tess what does that mean… didn’t it work?” The hitched tone didn’t go unnoticed by the brunette.

Eyebrows drawn together Tess felt her lower lip tremble. “Eric… he called it degradation; a form of break down with the eye to brain connection that renders permanent repairs impossible because the cells just begin to break down again. I can’t really explain it properly Nik, I am no surgeon here; Eric would be better for all the technical information.”

Nodding quietly Nikki took a deep breath. She had tried to prepare herself for this, for the high possibility that the operation may not work, but however much she tried not to get her hopes up Nikki began to feel the first twinges of disappointment. “We had anticipated this… I…”

“Not this…” Tess interrupted.

“Tess?”

Taking yet another deep breath of courage, the brunette stared intently at the blonde. “Nikki, the doc did try and reverse the problem… he… he tried to um… re-establish the connection…”

“But?”

“No… no buts, he did manage to do it Nik.”

Confused Nikki gripped the larger hand wrapped around her own. “Tess I don’t understand.”

“Nik… he… Eric did manage to temporarily repair the connection.”

“Temporary… Tess what do you mean?”

Why does this feel so hard? “Temporary Nik, temporary vision.”

The words sank slowly into Nikki’s mind as realisation set in. “Temporary vision?” Said in a whisper disbelief.

“Yes. He said he had never witnessed anything like this before. The connection was repaired, but already it is beginning to break down.” Tess kissed the slender fingers wrapped around her own, “Nikki. If it hasn’t already broken down yet… you can still see.”

Biting her lip, Nikki felt her eye sting with tears as tingling chills spanned the length of her body. “But it isn’t going to last is it!”

“No.” The words were spoken barely above a whisper.

“How long?”

“Eric said one second, a minute, but no more than a day.”

I can see? The words reverberated in her mind like a proclamation, over and over again as though she were herself trying to believe what she had just been told. Releasing Tess’s hand, she fingered the white bandage covering her right eye as a single tear fell from her left. “Tess… what do I do?”

Tess leaned forward and kissed the tear from her cheek. “What do you want to do Nik?”

“I… I don’t know. I don’t know whether I can do this, Tess this is like the only chance I have.” She drew a shuddering breath and smoothed soft fingertips over her suddenly aching forehead.

Tess looked at the anguish displayed on Nikki’s features and wondered whether she had made the right decision in telling her. She had no doubt that Nikki had a right to know, but it was obviously causing her distress and the longer she waited the less chance she had of taking advantage of this once in a life time experience.

Nikki reached out for Tess, her searching hand finding the photographers knee. Tess looked down at the appendage and took possession of the small limb. She rubbed her thumb over the back of Nikki’s hand. “What do you want to do?”

“I’m scared Tess.”

“Nikki I can’t even begin to understand what this must feel like for you sweetheart, but I know that you will make the right decision. It’s only natural for you to be scared but I will always be here for you.” Leaning forward Tess placed her head upon Nikki’s and looked into the one exposed eye.

“Tess?”

“Hmm?”

“Help me take it off?”

Feeling the very breath leave her lungs Tess pulled away slack jawed. “Are… are you sure?

“No… yes… I don’t know Tess. All I do know is that if I don’t take this chance I will never have another opportunity will I? How many others get the chance I have?”

Licking dry lips Tess felt her breathing labour. Jade eyes moved over golden locks, a crisp white bandage; small pert nose and down to full pink lips. Trembling hands rose to either side of Nikki’s head. “Okay… ready?”

A soft murmur; “Yes”

“Are you sure, you are sure?”

“Yes.”

Willing shaky hands not to freeze on her Tess moved her fingertips around the bandage until she located the end of the wrappings. Nikki waited patiently as Tess pulled at the micro-pour medical tape holding the bandage firmly in place. With a slight tear the sticky strip pealed away from the dressing instantly loosening the firm binding.

Her entire body throbbing with anticipation, Nikki held onto Tess’s forearms as the photographer began pulling the dressing from her, twirling the wrapping around her head. She felt the binding loosen and the padded covering upon her eye begin to slacken its pressure.

The room was dull, silent except for the sound of nervous breathing coming from both women. In the distance Nikki heard the sound of muted voices moving away from her room.

As Tess began to reach the bottom layer Nikki lowered her head and let go of the brunettes’ arms. With trembling hands she reached up and covered the patch covering her right eye as the last of the bandage fell from her head and Tess slipped it through her hands. It fell unwanted between them, landing upon Nikki’s lap.

With her head still lowered Nikki held onto the medical lint covering her eye, chest tight, and breath held in anticipation. Tess’s hands dropped to her lap as she started at Nikki’s lowered head. “Nik?”

“What if it’s too late?”

“Only one way to find out.” Swallowing hard the brunette took Nikki’s free hand in a strong reassuring grasp, hiding the fear that was almost painfully constricting her chest.

Squeezing blue eyes tightly together, Nikki cautiously removed the hand away from her face, the soft covering staying in her grasp as she did so. The moment they moved away her senses were assaulted with a sudden shift in shading, a move from blackness to shrouded grey. Her breath hitched with shock and her body trembled harder. “Tess?”

“Yeah sweetheart.” Leaning forward Tess placed her forehead upon Nikki’s lowered head. She twisted slightly and kissed the golden locks, moving her lips further down the crown of Nikki’s head and towards her forehead. Heart hammering so loudly within her chest that she was sure the blonde could hear, Tess cupped Nikki’s cheeks and gently lifted her head.

Feeling the pressure but unable to open her eyes, Nikki raised her head and felt Tess’s lips cover her own. Blue eyes firmly shut, their kiss started soft and gentle but soon increased in passion, lips parting and searching tongues meeting each other in desperate loving caresses. Taking one hand away Tess let it fall upon Nikki’s leg where she caressed the soft skin beneath the hospitals allocated gown. Slowly she decreased the pressure until she had pulled away from the inviting lips of her lover and stared upon enclosed eyes. “Nikki… look at me.”

“I’m scared Tess.”

“I know sweetheart.” She looked at Nikki’s face, noticing the obvious swelling around the right eye.

Stomach racing with raging butterflies; Nikki loosened the lids and slowly opened her eyes.

Suddenly – she was bombarded with a multitude of shapes and colours which although were dulled in the shrouded room, to her seemed vibrant and full of life. Blinking rapidly, her blue eye searched and found the figure sitting directly in front of her.

“Nik?” Tess whispered as the blonde focused on her features. A thrill of unknown anticipation ran through her entire frame.

Carefully Nikki reached out, her fingers gliding over Tess’s chin as a small smile edged the corners of her mouth. “Tess.”

The photographer sat transfixed; her own vision focussed solely on the blonde. She felt her heart jump within her chest as Nikki spoke.

“Eyes like spring time…” she whispered her own orbs filling with salty tears that she desperately willed stop, not wanting to cloud her vision for fear of not knowing how long this precious gift would last.

Mesmerized, Tess’s hand reached up and covered the smaller one upon her face; she smiled through her own tears. “You can see me.” Even to Tess’s own ears she didn’t know whether her words were a question or statement of fact. She gazed directly into Nikki’s eye and notice how the blue orb was fixed openly upon her face.

“I can see you.” Nodding, the blonde kept her eye trained upon the dark woman. She moved her temporary vision over every nuance of her lovers face, as if memorising every line, angle, and sporadically placed freckle. Fingers tracing the raised scar upon the side of her face; “Hurt?”

Tess shook her head. “Nothing hurts with you by my side.” She smiled as the blonde wiped away tears flowing freely down her cheeks. “How do you feel Nikki?”

She thought carefully. “Scared… elated… overwhelmed. I know there is so much I feel I want to do but I don’t want to waste a single moment of this… of you.” Nikki brushed her fingers through dark locks. “I don’t know visual beauty Tess, but you look magnificent.”

She stared at Tess for what to both women felt like long minutes, neither of them able to tear away from the fragile connection that passed between them. Caressing Tess’s face her vision followed every movement of her hand. “I can see you!” she said in wonder, “and you are wonderful, more wonderful and beautiful than I could have ever imagined.” She looked around the room before turning back to Tess. “So your tee shirt… that is the blue one?”

Tess pulled at her top. “Yep this is blue!”

“Show me some more colours?”

Tess grinned excitedly. “Okay well this here,” she prodded the bed spread. “That’s white. And that wooden cabinet is brown… kind of like a lighter version of my hair yes?” Tess lifted her leg exposing her training shoes. “These are also white, but that emblem on the side… that is the colour red. And what you are wearing… that is green…”

“Like your eyes!” Nikki interrupted.

“Yes like my eyes, and your eyes would be like my tee shirt, only lighter… like the sky on a hazy summers day.” Tess looked around the average sized room. “You see that poster on the side wall?”

“Just!”

Tess frowned. “Is it too dull in here?”

Nikki shook her head. “No it’s fine I can tell the difference; it’s just that I can’t understand all of that stuff upon its surface.”

Tess looked at the blonde strangely then realised that Nikki had never seen letters before. “Ah well, they would be words.” She smiled. “It is the back ground I am more interested in showing you… that is the colour yellow!”

“Like the sun!” Nikki grinned. “What does that poster say?”

Chuckling. “It says ‘please turn off the tap after use’… I guess some patients must leave it running.” She pointed to the sink situated under the poster.

Nikki sighed. “Colours are really beautiful Tess!”

“So are you.” The brunette smiled thoughtfully. “Let me show you more.” Tess rose from the bed reluctantly. “How is your eye feeling do you feel any sensitivity towards light?” Not knowing herself how much time the blonde had, Tess wanted Nikki to experience as much as possible.

Holding out her hand Nikki studied the dainty limb, turning it back and forth as she began to take in the sight of her own form. “I did feel some sensitivity but it is quickly fading.” She looked up at the tall figure of Tess standing by the bed, her hand outstretched in silent invitation. “I don’t want to stop looking at you Tess, I’m so afraid that this vision is going to fade at any moment.” She took the offered hand and rose from the bed.

“Then let us not waste one moment.” With the hand firmly encased around her own Tess led Nikki to the foot of the bed where her bag still lay in the corner, and sat her down. Nikki looked around the room in wonder as Tess picked up her bag and routed through it’s contents looking for a particular item that she had placed in the carrier before they left for London. “Do you think you could take a little extra light? I think you will need it to see this!” She looked towards the switch on the wall. “Can I?”

Nikki stared at Tess in fascination. “Go ahead.”

With a nod and a smile the photographer flipped the switch, instantly illuminating the room with a brilliant white. Nikki’s eye stung and she flinched, lowering her head away from the overwhelming brightness.

“Damn I’m sorry Nikki I’ll…”

“No Tess.” Nikki held out her hand. “Wait.” Blinking, the blonde grimaced as she allowed her eye to get used to the increased glow of the room.

Tess approached the bed and knelt down in front of the smaller woman. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah… just getting used to this. Does it always feel so bright… hurt so much when you put on a light like that?”

“Sometimes it can. For everybody at times, especially if you have been in the dark for a while… you know like in the middle of the night, when I put the light on and tend to moan about the brightness.”

“Oh yes,” she said as she remembered several occasions when the photographer had indeed grumbled about putting lights on during the night. Slowly her eye became accustomed to the brightness and Nikki looked back up at Tess, a smile instantly gracing her features as she gazed upon Tess’s face taking in the site of the tall woman nervously sucking on her bottom lip. “Smile for me?” At the request a natural smile spread over Tess’s lips and Nikki felt her heart throb with intensity in her chest.

“I have something I want to show you.” Still kneeling in front of Nikki, Tess pulled her backpack from the bed and took out a certain object. “I brought this down with me… I usually keep it on my desk in the dark room but I… just in case you couldn’t wait, I mean… I hoped that maybe…” she shrugged at a loss for words.

With an inquisitive frown Nikki looked down at the rectangle shaped silver object Tess held in her hands. “What is it?”

Tess grinned. “Remember on Christmas day when I set the timer on one of my cameras and we all posed for that group photo?”

A small nod

“Well this is the shot.” Kneeling directly in front of Nikki Tess smiled at Nikki’s sudden look of excitement as she turned the photograph around for the blonde to look at. One blue eye turned down to the family shot, as Tess began pointing at the individuals. “You see that man right there?”

“Yes?”

“That is your father.”

Nikki looked wide-eyed at Tess before moving her vision back to the shot. “My father!” A small finger moved over the image of the handsome man.

“And that girl sitting by his side… that’s Lisa.”

“Lisa.” A smile graced Nikki’s lips as she studied the young brunette.

Tess moved on. “Okay… that man next to Lisa and the woman beside him… that is James and my mother!”

Still smiling the blonde laughed slightly as the stared at the four happy faces sitting together. These are the people that I love! She looked back at Tess her eyes once again filling with tears.

“Please don’t cry… at least not just yet.” Tess smirked. “Look at the two figures standing behind the sofa.” Nikki did as bade. “That’s you and I.”

Feeling a heightened sense of inquisitiveness, Nikki looked at the woman standing by Tess’s side in the photo. “That… that’s me?” She stared hard at the picture, taking in the blonde haired young woman standing within the protective embrace of the taller woman’s arms, “That’s me?” This feels so peculiar…do I always look like that?

The brunette had to chuckle at the expression on Nikki’s face, “Yes, that’s you. The woman I fell in love with… the woman I adore more than life, or dare I say photography its self!”

It was Nikki’s turn to chuckle as she pulled her sight away from its perusal of the figures in the photograph, “I love you too… so much.” She stared at Tess, once again unable to pull her vision away from her lover. “You know what else I would have liked to see?”

With a smirk Tess pulled a small hand full of photographs from her bag. She held the first one out. “That is Thunder.” She watched Nikki looked down at the horse with a smile. “This is Jenna with Jasper.” Nikki took the picture and gazed at mother and son. “This is Shannon.” She handed the picture to Nikki and waited several seconds before handing her the final shot. “And this little bag of muscle is Leto.”

The blonde laughed at the picture of the golden hound staring directly into the camera, her head bent to the side and a certain persons’ stripy item of clothing hanging out of her mouth. “And I take it that would be one of my socks!”

Laughing the brunette nodded. “How did you guess that I wonder?” She smiled. “So… does that solve the other things you would have like to have seen because that really is the end of these pictures I’m afraid.”

“Do you take pictures of everything?”

Tess smirked. “Hey I am a photographer that’s what I do. I wish I remembered to bring the ones of the house and the bridge over the stream…” she shrugged. “Can’t remember everything I suppose!”

Sliding from the bed Nikki slipped onto Tess’s knees and placed her arms around the photographers’ neck with a smile. “What would the nurse say if she came in here and found us like this?”

“Would you really care?”

Shaking her head Nikki laughed. “No… I just need to be close to you.” She ran her hand down Tess’s chest and over her left breast where she stopped and grasped the mound with a gentle pressure, then watched as Tess’s eyes closed in pleasure. Leaning forward she sealed her lips with Tess’s and instigated a hot, penetrating kiss, her eye wide open as she took in the close proximity of her lover, not wanting to waste a single moment. Already she could sense her vision dimming and gradually as their ardent exploration continued, Nikki’s vision of Tess began to get unfocussed and shadowy.

Thoroughly into the extensive kiss Tess was only pulled out of their passionate embrace when she felt hot moisture upon her cheeks. Moving away from a reluctant Nikki, Tess looked upon the blonde as Nikki lowered her teary eyes. “Look at me.” Nikki shook her head. “Why Nik… please?”

“I can’t.”

Placing her finger under the small woman’s chin Tess lifted the tear stained cheeks up to eye level. Straight away she notice the unfocussed gaze. “Nikki?” Her heart jumped in panic as the blonde closed her eyes, forcing more tears to leak from their ducts. “No!”

Lip trembling, the blonde took an erratic breath. “It’s going Tess… already it’s going.”

“So soon?” Jade eyes clouded with tears. “No… that isn’t fair.” Oh please god not yet!

“All I can see is dull outlines of objects in the room… and you.”

Cupping the blondes face in both hands. “It can’t happen so soon, there is so much more I wanted you to see… damn it this is not fair.” She choked back an emotional sob of grief. Nikki lowered her head but Tess captured it again. “No, don’t stop looking at me Nikki… please.” She was desperate to not let the last vision her lover was ever going to see to be the ground beneath them and held on to Nikki’s jaw in a firm but gentle grip.

Holding onto the hands upon her cheeks Nikki smiled despite herself. “I can still see you Tess… in here,” She placed one hand over her heart; “And in here.” Moving the hand higher, she tapped her forehead. “I will always have a vision of you in here.”

“How can you feel so calm about this?” As if on cue both women rose to their feet and Nikki backed up against the bed where she sat down upon the soft surface. Tess looked at Nikki with imploring jade eyes. “How?”

She held on tight to her emotions knowing Tess was having a harder time dealing with this than she herself was; after all she had tried very hard to keep an open mind. “Because I came here trying not to get my hopes up.” The blonde trembled as her vision surrendered to total darkness and she re-entered her own familiar world. In a strange way a sudden sense of normalcy filled her mind and relaxed her senses.

“But to have it and then for it to go just like that…” she snapped her fingers for emphasis; “Nikki?” Tess’s shouted in frustration.

The blonde jumped. “What, Tess what can I do?” Her voice was high and broken as the emotions that she had tried to keep inside, rose to the surface. “It just wasn’t meant to be… I have to accept that… please don’t hate me,” she pleaded, sobs wracking her small frame revealing her underlying disappointment.

Tess froze at the words, arms falling limply to her sides. “Hate you? Nikki I…” Rushing forward the photographer took the blonde in her arms and held her tight. “I’m sorry, I’m not angry at you just the situation… god I am so sorry Nik.” Tess closed her eyes unable to keep a hold upon her own feelings any longer… she cried silently.

For long minutes the women held each other, each drawing strength from the others presence. It was when Tess heard Nikki’s breathing deepen and even out that she eventually let go releasing the small frame and laying her down upon the bed gently. She looked down at the exhaustion on Nikki’s face and sighed, smoothing unruly golden locks away from her eyes. Leaning forward she kissed Nikki softly upon pink lips before backing up and heading out of the room, turning off the light as she went. With the blonde now resting Tess decided it was time to go and see Eric.

As the door shut the sole occupant of the room sat up slowly. Swinging her legs down onto the floor Nikki sat despondently in thought; She never said she didn’t hate me.

*******

Staring at the reflection in the bathroom mirror, Tess gazed at her red-rimmed eyes. Looking down to the sink against her stomach she turned on the silver tap, filling her cupped hands with freezing water and splashing it upon her face, again and again. After the fifth splash of water she looked back at her reflection. The puffiness around her eyes, had decreases slightly, but it was still exceedingly obvious that she had been crying. To hell with it!
Drying her hands on a paper towel Tess left the bathroom and headed to Eric’s office.

She knocked quietly on the door and after hearing a loud ‘come’, she entered the room finding the aging doctor sitting at his desk, diligently working on his notebook computer. He looked up noticing Tess’s expression and obvious sadness straight away. “Miss Alexander… are you alright?”

Tess sat down quietly.

“I was beginning to wonder about you two. You had been gone for almost forty minutes without any word yet I didn’t want to just barge in unless there was an emergency. How is Nicole?”

“She could see doc!”

Eric blinked in surprise.

“For about twenty minutes she could see… then it just started to fade until… nothing.”

Sighing, the man rubbed the back of his neck. “How is she?”

“How do you think she is?”

Nodding, Eric rose from his chair and walked around into the centre of the room. “I would have never predicted this. If I had known for one moment that was problem I would have never gone through with the procedure. It was just something I had never seen before… such a strange and unique phenomenon.” He sat beside Tess. “How are you?”

“Angry, upset, it all seems so unfair doc. Her face when I showed her a picture of the family, it was so full of loving intrigue.” Tess’s head fell to her hands. “I just don’t know how this will affect her in the long run.”

“Maybe it won’t? Nikki is a very level headed young woman Miss Alexander…”

“Tess… please!”

“Tess… I think only time will tell.”

“God I hate this.” The photographer sighed and stood back up to start her customary pacing of the room. “No offence doc but I really wish you had never come to Nikki with this.”

Eric lowered his head. “ If I am honest I am I am beginning to thing that too. I feel like I have let her down.”

Tess stopped her marching at stared at the doctor. “You never let her down; don’t think that… I know Nikki wouldn’t consider that for a second. When it comes down to it, maybe it was like Nikki said and it just wasn’t meant to be.”

Nodding, Eric rose beside Tess. “Maybe… listen I have to go and give Nikki a check up… see how she is doing… do you want to sit with her?”

With an assertive nod the brunette followed the Eric Jacobson out of his office and on towards Nikki’s room.

*******

Tess opened the door quietly and snuck into the room, closely followed by Eric. Neither of them wanting to cause Nikki any undue alarm, Tess spoke quietly; “Nik sweetheart are you awake?” she whispered. The room was still fairly dull and as her eyes adjusted to the gloominess she frowned staring at the empty bed.

“Maybe she went to the bathroom?” Eric stated.

“Hmm yeah…” Tess paused as she spotted Nikki’s nightgown discarded on the floor. “What the?” Stooping, she picked up the garment with a frown and as an after thought, opened the cupboard containing Nikki’s belongings. It was bare. “It’s empty!”

“Empty?” Eric looked over Tess’s shoulder; “You mean her things are gone?”

Panic rose within her chest; “Yes!”

Looking around frantically, Tess surveyed the room. All of Nikki’s possessions were gone and the set of clothes that had lain neatly folded upon the top of a side table were missing too. All that was left was her bag, lying upon the bed with the small pile of pictures and her mobile phone.

The colour drained from Tess’s face. “She’s gone!”
15
“Gone… what do you mean gone?”

Tess looked around the room. “All her belongings have disappeared, Eric, including Nikki. I think it’s pretty safe to say she’s gone.” Heading towards the door Tess pulled the barrier opened and stepped out into the corridor. “She can’t have gone far, I have to find her.” She took off in a jog down the long hallway, calling the blondes name as she went. Intense feelings of confusion, desperation, and near panic rose in her chest as she started her search for Nikki.

“Tess, hold on.”

The photographer turned at the sound of Eric’s voice. “What is it doc? We don’t have time to stand around here; Nikki is gone and I need to find her.”

The man held up his hands. “Yes you are right but we will have more luck if we widen the search a little.” He walked over to the ‘evil bleach blonde nurse troll from hell’ who was sitting behind a small desk station opposite the main lift. “Jayne, did you see Nicole Morris walk past you not long ago?”

The woman frowned. “No but I have only just returned from my lunch break… why?”

Eric sighed. “She is missing. Look can you send a call out to every floor of this hospital asking whether anybody has seen her; give a good description and if she has been spotted, where that was and how long ago… okay?”

“Of course Mister Jacobson.”

Eric turned back to a fidgeting Tess. “There now all we have to do is wait and see.”

Tess stared at the man like he had just lost his sanity. “Wait… are you out of your mind? I am going to look for her right now!” She set off on a search of the hospitals third floor, checking every room that she was able before descending the stairs to the lower level. Never before had Tess felt such a desperate need burning inside of her. As she continued the search her mind replayed the moments before she exited the room; anxiously she tied to call to mind their conversation. Tess was so certain Nikki was asleep when she left to see Eric; had that been an act? And why had Nikki just disappeared the way she did when she thought they would handle these turn of events together? Inside Tess knew there was something more; something she was missing.

She carried on her search, stopping as many passers by as she could and questioning them as to whether they had seen a young blonde woman walking past them, wearing cropped jeans, a white tee shirt and obviously using a white cane for the visually impaired. Nobody had seen anything and the photographer didn’t know whether that in its self was a good or bad sign. If Nikki hadn’t been spotted, where could she be?

Within fifteen minutes, Tess re-entered the hallway to the third floor needing to know whether Eric had heard anything, she hopefully approached Nikki’s room. The anticipation that had teetered precariously in her mind shattered as she entered the empty space. Everything was still as she had left it; her own belongings lying scattered upon the unmade bed.

Tess sat down as the Doctor entered the room. “Anything?” he asked with a look of dejection, knowing that if Tess had found anything, her expression wouldn’t have been that of somebody who should have been told yesterday that she had a day to live.

“Nothing… I don’t understand doc. I was only gone twenty minutes at the most, where the hell can she disappear to in that amount of time… and why?”

“Maybe she needed to think Tess, she couldn’t have gone far could she!”

Biting her lower lip Tess stood up and moved to the window, looking out over the distant farmland. “I don’t know how far she cold have gone doc, but I wouldn’t put anything past her, she is a lot more resourceful than I think you would give her credit for.” Turing back around to face the room, Tess looked at the doctor before her eyes moved to the bed again; she frowned.

“What is it?” Eric asked as he noted the sudden change in expression.

“My phone.”

“What about it?”

“It wasn’t out before!” Tess walked over to the bed and picked up the small object. She looked at it thoughtfully before absentmindedly pressing the redial button. With an air of nervous anticipation, Tess held the small device to her ear.

A female voice answered the line. “Good afternoon Express Taxis.”

Eyes wide, Tess looked over at Eric in shock. “Um… hi, did you by any chance just receive a phone call from a young woman booking one of your taxis?”

“Only seven in the past ten minutes darling, you will have to be a little more specific than that!” Replied the board voice.

Tess narrowed her eyes. “Fine, you do ask for names I presume?”

“Yes!”

“Good. Did you just pick up a young woman from the London Medical centre? Her name would have been either Nicole, or Miss Morris, or Nikki… anything like that.”

“Not my call darling, hold on a moment.”

Tess waited impatiently, pacing the floor and delivering looks that could kill to all the inanimate objects of the room.

“There was a fair picked up about three minutes ago.”

“Three minutes?”

“Yes, a young woman… quite a pricey ride, she wanted to go all the way to Derbyshire… that is going to cost her a fortune… I swear some people have more money than sense…”

Tess disconnected the phone as nurse Jayne entered the room. “Mister Jacobson, I just got a call from reception saying that Miss Morris was spotted leaving the building and getting into a taxi cab a couple of minutes ago.”

Eric looked towards Tess.

“She is on her way home!” Tess stated dejectedly.

The Doctors eyes widened. “On her way home, she can’t… she has just gone through a pretty serious operation, she can’t walk out of here… I need to check her over and make sure there are not any repercussions to the procedure.” He turned back towards nurse Jayne anger evident in his eyes. “How in the hell was one of my patients able to walk out of this hospital so freely?”

The nurse gulped visibly. “I… I don’t know Mister Jacobson, but I shall investigate this right away.”

Eric shook his head. “No I intend to handle this personally.” He turned to Tess. “Miss Alexander, how do you think we should deal with this? Would you be willing to go after her?”

Tess shook her head as she picked up her backpack, and placed the phone and pictures back inside. “Willing to go after her? Are you kidding, I am already out the door!” She slung the bag over her shoulder and exited the room then paused. “Is Nikki in any serious trouble health wise doc?”

Eric shook his head. “The first few moments after I would have considered the most unstable. I really just wanted to give a the once over and make sure she is fine, not just physically, but mentally too.”

Tess nodded. “I’ll call,” was all she said.

“Right, bye Miss Alexander.” Eric watched as Tess disappeared from view, hearing rapidly fading steps as she jogged down the corridor.

*******

Heavy footsteps echoed through the Medical centres car park as Tess fled from the hospital and headed straight for her car; unlocking the vehicle with the remote locking device before she had even reached her destination. She pulled open the drivers door, hurling her backpack onto the back seat and climbed inside, starting the engine with one hand while securing her seat belt with the other. She was out of the car park within ten seconds.

Tess thought logically, considering the most obvious route the taxi driver would take towards the Midlands. She desperately hoped she would be able to catch up with the vehicle and find Nikki before they reached the motorway. Unfortunately, Saturday afternoon traffic in London was at it’s peak and navigating the busy, claustrophobic streets with as much speed as possible was near to impossible.

I don’t understand what’s going on? Tess thought as she spotted the turnoff sign for the motorway and directed the car towards her way home. Come on Nikki you have to be taking the same route as me! Jade eyes scanned the road looking out for any taxis. When one was found she would approach the vehicle and try to get a look inside the cab trying to make out just whom the passenger was; each time she was unsuccessful.

Reaching the last turning before the motorway Tess had a sudden thought that made her pull into a side road and stop the car. “The god damned hotel!” she proclaimed. “We still have our belongings there; surely she would go back there first and retrieve our stuff!”

With a growled curse at herself for being so slow Tess pulled back onto the main road, this time heading into London. She hoped to god she wasn’t too late, knowing that the time she had wasted heading out of London was heavily stacked against her. Nikki had to have gone back to the hotel Tess reasoned, as she had left one of her favourite books and a change of clothing in their room.

The drive back seemed to take much longer, with the brunette’s limited patience dwindling away to nothing. So by the time she reached the Claremont Tess felt ready to physically hurt the next person who stood in her way. Entering the building she dashed past reception and straight towards the stairs, not liking the look of the three adults and four children waiting for the lift to arrive; she was in no mood to deal with the obviously misbehaving little ‘rats’!

She started up the stairs, not allowing herself one moment’s break as she climbed the steps two at a time all the way to the tenth floor. The landing was empty as Tess strode through the door and out into the corridor, looking in all directions as she headed towards her and Nikki’s room breathing heavily. It was a long shot; she did know that but needed to be sure in her mind. Reaching the door, Tess swiped her key-card through the locking device and let herself into the room not even bothering to shut the door as she searched for her lover. “Nikki!”

There was no reply.

“Nik… are you here? Please answer me.” Still nothing. Tess moved through the large room, walking into the separate, peach and cream bedroom and on into the en-suite bathroom. Nikki was nowhere to be seen. “Fuck it.”

Tess stormed back into their bedroom and opened the double wardrobe doors. She stood back with a surprised frown… they were empty. Looking around the room Tess noticed that everything was gone; not even her own belongings were there. Stunned, she sat down onto the bed with a heavy thud and stared into nothingness. “What are you thinking Nikki?” Tess drifted back to her last moments with the blonde, replaying their conversation over and over in her head. She felt like she was missing a vital clue to Nikki’s sudden departure. Salty tears stung her eyes and she tried desperately to keep them at bay, not wanting to lose her poise and presence of mind. She had to find Nikki, and she had to do it now. The blonde was obviously hurting, distressed and by the sheer fact that she had run out on Tess proved to her that she was… if at least, half the cause. Aimlessly looking round the room Tess rose to leave when the bedside phone caught her eye. Her father? Tess pulled the mobile from her bag and hit the mayors’ home number on the speed dial waiting as the line started to ring.

“Good afternoon this is the Morris residence.”

Tess pulled the phone away from her ear and stared at the contraption with a mix of surprise and confusion. She placed the device back against her ear, “I thought I’d just rang the wrong number!”

“Tessa honey, what a surprise!”

“What the hell are you doing there?”

Hyacinth chuckled, “Well that is a nice greeting from ones own daughter, ‘what the hell are you doing there!’ Can you believe I actually came down here for a surprise visit; only you never saw fit to tell me you two were going away for the weekend. Did you know I was coming or something?” she joked. “Anyway, Richard very kindly said I could stay here until you two wanderers return home.”

Tess smirked despite the situation; then her disposition became serious once again. “Mum I have a question… has Nikki called there at all… say in the past ten to fifteen minutes?”

“No dear she hasn’t…” There was a significant pause. “Why what has happened?”

“What makes you think something has happened?”

“Tess!”

The brunette sighed. “Mum I have no time to explain.” Tess got up and walked back out of the room, locking the door behind her and approaching the elevator. She stood by the wall as she waited for the lift to arrive. “I’m sorry but I need to get to Nikki. I am on my way home and should be there in about two hours or so, okay?”

“Tess honey, you know I trust you but you are making me awfully nervous here.”

The lift arrived and Tess stepped into the empty compartment hitting a small circulate button indicating the ground floor. “I’m sorry mum, I know but this isn’t something I can’t explain on the phone. I will see you soon okay?”

There was a long pause, followed by a sigh. “Okay, see you soon; and drive carefully alright!”

“Okay mum, bye.” Tess hung up the phone as she reached the ground floor, stepping out into the foyer it had already been settled. The photographer asked how long ago that had been and she and been told no more than thirty minutes before. She then went on to ask whether it was indeed Nikki who had paid the bill and was told by the auburn haired desk clerk that it was a young, blonde haired woman who had settled the bill before following a tall middle aged man who had been carrying her suitcase, out into the streets.

Tess frowned. She really didn’t like the idea of Nikki out with somebody she didn’t know, even though she had taken taxis before… somehow this was different. Storming back out of the hotel the tall photographer headed to her car and jumped back into the vehicle swiftly. Nikki had at least a half an hour start on her, and she was determined to make that time up.

*******

When Nikki was seven years old she had been invited to her first birthday party by one of her school friends. Being as though it was the first party as such that the very young blonde had ever been invited to, she was obviously very excited about going.

She arrived home that afternoon; her Braille invitation clasped firmly within her small hands as she entered the house with James and went in search of her mother. Nikki was extremely thrilled about the invite, but had to have Rosalind’s permission and signature on the reply slip before she could be sure that she would go.

Her other hand enclosed within the butlers larger appendage Nikki called out for her mother as she and James moved through the house. They searched continually until Rosalind was found entertaining a small group of female friends under the pagoda in the centre of the garden. James led Nikki up the winding garden path until they reached the gathering of chatting women.

“Mother!” Nikki called out excitedly.

Rosalind turned towards her daughter with a scowl.

Diane, the Arch Bishops sister, a tall full figured woman with naturally curly dark hair turned to the small blonde with a smile. “Well if it isn’t little Nikki… how are you dimples?”

The blonde blushed thinking it amusing how this woman would call her Nikki. Nobody had ever used it before, but because of her, a very young Lisa had even started using that name. Though only just learning how to speak, it sounding more like ‘icky’ than Nikki.

“Hello Miss Diane, I am happy.”

“Thank you…” Rosalind looked at Nikki. “Remember your manners Nicole!”

The small blonde smiled brightly. “I am happy thank you.”

Diane beamed at the adorable little girl who she believed looked much younger than her seven years. “And what do you have there dimples?” Dimples, was Diane’s nickname for the blonde as she had once changed Nikki’s nappy years before and proclaimed that she had the cutest little dimples on her behind!

Nikki’s face shone with excitement. “I’ve been invited to a party by my best friend Natalie.”

“Does Natalie go to the same school as you do?” Asked Paula, a slender woman wearing a large amount gaudy dress jewellery.

“Yes, Natalie is in my class. She is slightly deaf as well as blind and today we were learning how to use sign language to communicate with people who cannot hear too well. I was learning how to do the alphabet on the teachers hand… it was fun!” Nikki grinned with excitement as she turned to her mothers position Rosalind. “Can I go mother?” She held the invitation out in front of her. “You have to say yes and sign the bottom of this letter.”

Rosalind took the invitation from her daughters’ hand and read over the request. “Would you like to go Nicole?”

“Oh I would love to go, I have never been to a party before… this will be my first… can I please”

Rosalind nodded. “Very well, I shall be in to talk with you later alright?”

Nodding, Nikki reached out for a silent James who had been waiting at the foot of the pagoda for the blonde. Taking the tiny appendage James prepared to lead Nikki back towards the house when Rosalind called out to him.

“Abbot, would you bring out another jug of ice tea and a selection of fondants.”

The butler bowed slightly. “Of course, Mrs Morris I shall return presently.”

The young blonde had walked back to the house merrily and had gone straight to her playroom. Waiting as patiently as she could for her mother’s friends to leave so she would come and sign the letter.

It was three hours later, and while Nikki sat at her small desk reading a new book her father had brought for her, Rosalind entered the room. Holding the small slip of paper the older blonde stood against the door. “Nicole, I think it would be wise that you didn’t attend this party at your friends house.”

Nikki turned to her mother with teary eyes. “But why?”

“I don’t believe you are ready for something like that.”

“Why? Everybody else is going and they are all in my school, why can’t I go mother?”

“Nicole I made my decision, you should have known you would never be allowed to go when you gave me this invitation. I don’t want you going to that place when I don’t know the people.”

Nikki lowered her head wanting to state that if Rosalind had come to pick her up from school once in a while then maybe she would get to know some of the other parents. “But you said ‘very well’.”

Rosalind sighed as she shook her head and tore up the invitation. “But I didn’t say yes did I? I just didn’t want you causing a scene while I was with representative of the women’s institute… I will never become a part of that society if they think I can’t even control my own child!”

“But you said…”

“Nicole!” The woman interrupted. “I didn’t want to say anything while outside, you would have started whining and I was in no mood for that.” The woman re-opened the playroom door. “If a person doesn’t actually say the words, Nicole then they never meant it, you should know that by now. Sometimes it is better to skirt around the truth rather than speak it and cause an upset.” Rosalind walked through the door. “Soon you will know that I am right Nicole, everything I do is for your own good.”

The older woman left the room leaving the small blonde alone, trying valiantly to hold back her tears.

*******

Peter Lewis looked in his rear view mirror once again at the passenger that was by far ‘the’ quietist fare that he’d ever taken. He frowned, russet brows wrinkling over hazel eyes as he looked upon her downcast expression. “Care to talk about it?” He asked.

Nikki shook her head silently.

“Come on love, things are never as bad as they first seem.” He pushed her gently wanting to see the young woman smile. The cabby was your typical chatty driver who would often spend hours discussing and solving the world’s problems with his passengers.

“It’s nothing important.” Nikki lied, biting her thumb and moving her face to the window as if looking out at the masses of traffic on the motorway.

Peter nodded. “Well I could make a guess. I would say that by the mixture of sadness, confusion and heartache that a loved one is the cause behind your disposition… am I right?” The blonde shrugged slightly causing the cabby to smile. “I though as much. Sometimes is good to talk about things as they can be aired from a different perspective. Hey I’m a guy too so I do know my own species and how we can be at times… maybe if you talk about it you can get over this man?”

Nikki pulled herself away from the window. “It’s not a guy… and I don’t want to get over her. She is the only person I have ever loved.”

Peter absorbed the information then smiled gently. “There was this man once, Victorian… writer and politician… um… Benjamin Disraeli who said ‘The magic of first love is our ignorance that it can never end’… beautiful words aren’t they?”

A frown. “Thank you for making me feel even worse.” Nikki replied despondently.

The driver smiled. “But there is a difference you know… between first love and a true love.”

Nikki moved closer in sudden interest. “Really… how can you tell then?”

“Well your first love is somebody who occupies your every thought, you feel you want to be with them for the rest of your life… and you think there could never be anybody else for you… ever!”

Nikki frowned. “Then how is that different from a true love?”

“Ah well you see; a true love is very different because it’s fate. Yes you may feel all the same emotions as a first love but not only are they mirrored by your lover, but in some unseen written law of providence almost like a spiritual design, you and your one true love are predestined to be together.”

“How can you tell the difference?”

Peter shrugged. “You just can… hey I didn’t write the laws of nature you know!” he paused, “So do you want to tell me what happened between you and her?”

Lowering her head Nikki sighed. “I think I just ruined what we had by once again surrendering to the thoughts and emotions of my past and not giving her the credence she most definitely deserves. I ran out on her, too scared and possessed by my own insecurities… again.”

“This isn’t the first time it has happened?”

“No!”

“And she knows about your past?”

“Yes.”

Peter smiled. “Then if she loves you, she will understand that and come for you.”

“It couldn’t be that simple. I know I’ve hurt her… I was just too overwhelmed by what had happened that I didn’t think and just acted through my own doubts and fears.”

“If she truly loves you she will come and understand why you acted the way you did… you will grow stronger together; you’ll learn and she will help you.”

Nikki smiled despite herself. “How can you be so sure of that mister?”

Peter chuckled and looked out the window of the cab as he noticed another motorway sign for Nikki’s requested destination. “I’ve been driving a cab for a long time miss; almost twenty years now. During that time I have listened to thousand upon thousands of stories, tales of life, loves and losses… it is only natural that one would require a certain outlook on the vital essences of living and being.”

“You make life sound so easy!”

“And we as humans in general make life seem so hard. All we have to do is love and accept that which is around us and we will gain the best in what this life has to offer.” Peter turned off the motorway and onto the slip road towards Nikki’s destination. “Life is too short for anything more… why waste it with negativity.” He looked back into the rear mirror at the young blonde. “You know it was Sophocles who once said, ‘One word frees us of all the weight and pain of life; that word is love.’… Pretty perceptive huh?”

“It’s a very beautiful phrase.”

The cabby nodded. “Sure is… so will you give what I said any thought at all?”

Nikki smiled. “Yes I will.”

Peter smiled back. “That is all I ask… and you will be pleased to know that my sanctimonious ramblings are free, no charge there!” The cabby grinned as Nikki laughed.

*******

She’d only been on the motorway for less than an hour before she had been given a ticket for speeding. Driving at near one hundred miles per hour the photographer was signalled down by a motorway patrol vehicle and made to pull into the hard shoulder. Tess fumed as she stopped the Blazer and waited for the officer to dismount and approach… she was sure Nikki had to be almost home by now.

Not wanting to cause any arguments and needing to get back on the road as soon as possible, Tess had simply stated that she hadn’t been aware that she’d been speeding but apologized to the female officer for doing so. After being given her ticket, Tess glared at officer Foster before climbing back into her car and resuming her journey. By the time Tess reached home over three and a half hours had passed since she’d left London.

Pulling into the driveway of Riverside Farm the tall woman jumped out of the vehicle only just managing to turn off her engine and approached the house rapidly. Opening the front door she was greeting by one ecstatic golden hound that one would think hadn’t seen Tess in a long time. Scooping the burly dog into her arms Tess allowed Leto her indulgence as she strode through the house. “Nikki!”

Kate emerged from the back hallway, coat and boots in hand. Tess could tell she had just been to see to the horses. “Tess! What a surprise; we weren’t expecting you until possibly tomorrow evening.”

Trying hard to smile but failing miserably, Tess lowered Leto to the floor and looked back at Kate. “Is Nikki here?”

Just then Sam emerged from the back. “Nikki? No why… no she isn’t here, why what’s happened? I thought you were in London.”

Sighing, Tess leaned against the kitchen cupboard and massaged her aching forehead. “We were.” Looking back at the two alarmed women Tess tried to smile again but failed. She moved back towards the door. “I’m really sorry but I have to go; I will explain to you all later but I need to find Nikki and if she isn’t here I know of only one other place she would go.”

As she headed back out the door Leto barked repeatedly at her master and Tess looked down in defeat. “Okay ‘tow tow’.” Leto trotted out into the cool air as Kate and Sam followed her to the door. “I’m going to take Leto with me… I will see you later alright; and thank you for looking after the place and animals while we were gone.”

Sam shook her head. “No problem, Tess; now you go and find that Nikki of yours.”

Nodding the photographer headed back to her car. Kate and Sam watched her drive away. “I wonder what that was all about?” Kate stated.

Sam watched the green Blazer as it disappeared over the horizon; she shrugged lightly. “Who knows!” Though secretly she did have an inkling that Tess and Nikki did have an ulterior motive for going down to London this weekend but refused to speculate; she was sure they would all find out eventually.

*******

God damned stupid woman! Tess muttered to herself as she thought of the officer that had caused her to lose so much time during her drive home. She stared down at the speeding ticket on the dashboard and shook her head; this would be her second ticket. The first of such she received while running late on a magazine shoot. Tess would be the first to admit that maybe she did deserve the ticket but she would have much rather received a hundred of such tickets than be possibly on the verge of losing Nikki.

Entering the narrow dirt track that led towards the Mayors home, Tess spotted a large ‘For Sale’ sign at the entrance and realised Rosalind must have already made steps in putting the property on the market. She wondered whether Richard and Lisa had already made plans on moving to their new house in the city.

Moving carefully along the road, Tess watched as the large house came into view. From the back of the car Leto whined as she recognised the large building and the prospect of who lived there. Never one to pass up the prospect of a good bout of fussing, Leto barked excitedly in her seat.

Shaking her head the brunette pulled onto the gravel driveway and stopped the car; turning round to the hyperactive dog with warning eyes. “Calm down Leto… if you don’t I’ll leave you here!” The golden hound quieted immediately. “Damn right!”

Tess nodded in approval as she got out of the car and watched amused as Leto bound over the seats and followed her out through the drivers’ door. With a smiled that soon turned to a look of apprehension Tess faced the house and approached the door, knocking on the thick wooden structure three times.

She didn’t have to wait long before James appeared. “Miss Tess, we have been expecting you.”

Tess nodded as she looked down at the golden hound between her legs. “Is if okay if she comes in too James, I wouldn’t want to leave her outside.”

The butler smiled. “I don’t think Mr Morris would mind in the least. In fact he probably wouldn’t mind if Leto wasn’t even house trained. As you may have noticed Mrs Morris is selling the house so naturally Mr Morris is getting a little lax about respecting her wishes when it comes to the buildings up keep! Unfortunately I cannot be the same… I do have a reputation to uphold you understand,” he winked.

Tess smirked as she entered the house, closely followed by Leto who was gingerly looking around her new environment. She walked over to the telephone table and started inspecting the furniture, avidly sniffing all available surface areas.

James watched Leto with interest. “She isn’t about to cock her leg and…” he gestured amusingly with his hand.

Tess smiled. “No. James don’t worry… one, she is house trained as you know, and two she is a girl and girls don’t cock their legs!”

The butler rolled his eyes. “Right!”

Just then the remaining occupants of the house entered the main hall. First Richard followed by Hyacinth, Lisa and finally CJ, who still walked with a pronounced limp. Tess noted the expression of each face, knowing they all knew something she didn’t. Her eyes fell upon her mother as Hyacinth took in her daughters’ appearance. Having not seen her for a while, she was shocked by the noticeable wound on the side of her face.

“Oh my goodness sweetheart, look at you!” The older Alexander rushed forward and encompassed her daughter in a motherly embrace. “When you said you were wounded in the incident with that monster from the shopping centre you really did play things down didn’t you!” She stepped back looking at her daughter and the long scar upon her cheek. “First there is Lisa’s young man, and now you!”

Tess looked down, knowing she had tried to minimize the extent of what had happened that night with Bradley White; she didn’t want her mother to know just how dangerous it had been. The brunette wondered whether Hyacinth had found out that CJ was Bradley’s brother. Tess knew it wouldn’t make any difference to her when she did hear the facts, but things had been complicated enough as it was without making it worse by having to explain just how convoluted and perilous their whole experience had been.

Looking up Tess smiled. “It’s fading and with a bit of makeup, it’s hardly noticeable at all.”

“Hardly noticeable isn’t the point child, you know that. And it isn’t just your face it is; Nikki’s isn’t exactly scar free herself is s…” Hyacinth quieted abruptly.

“Nikki!” Tess asked. “So she is here… Where is she?”

Richard stepped forward. “Yes Nikki is here but I want some answers first.”

Tess shook her head. “No… you want answers? You will get them later; right now I need to see Nikki.”

“I want answers now damn it!” Richard stated evenly. “My daughter arrived at this house in bloody taxi that had brought her all the way from London. She looks like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders, yet states that she wants to be left alone. What is more, I notice the right side of her face is swollen like she has been struck and all she says is that her allergies bothering her… she doesn’t have allergies for Gods sake! Tess, I love my daughter very much and I know you know what the problem is, so before I tell you where she is I want to know what happened down there.”

Tess ground her teeth as she looked among the sea of expectant faces, even her own mother held the famous, ‘do as you are told’ expression that she remembered since childhood, she sighed noticeably. Would it be a breach of confidence to divulge what had happened in London when Nikki had stated that she didn’t want anybody told, she thought. Looking to Leto who was staring adoringly up at her master Tess realised that she had no choice but to tell them. Nikki was only nervous about telling her father before the operation and right now Tess would do whatever she could to get Nikki. “Fine. Lets sit down.” Tess led the way into the living room, as she muttered. “You are going to need it when you hear this!”

The photographer sat down in a chair that seemed to face the rest of the room and waited as the others all took seats. She looked around spotting the large portrait that she had taken of Nikki and Lisa before Christmas, situated on the wide, protruding chimneybreast on the other side of the room.

When everybody was seated Tess took a look around the sea of anxious expressions and took a deep breath. She had no idea how she was going to explain this and knew it was going to be a great shock to all parties; she just hoped they wouldn’t be hurt or angry by the blondes’ decision not to tell them. If they were, then she decided she would say it was her suggestion that they keep it quiet for the mean time.

Looking down at her hands Tess began. “I am sure you will know the name Eric Jacobson?”

Richard stared at the brunette with a look of question, “Mister Jacobson… the surgeon?”

Tess looked up and nodded.

Hyacinth frowned. “Who’s he if you don’t mind me asking?”

Still portraying a look of confusion, Richard turned to Hyacinth. “Mister Jacobson is or was Nikki’s surgeon.”

Lisa looked at her father stunned. “What do you mean surgeon dad? Why does Nikki have a surgeon; she has never had an operation has she?”

Tess felt herself do a mental eye roll. So it looks like Lisa was never told the full story about her mothers’ demands I take it, and I would guess Nikki was told not to speak of this. Telling me must have really been a huge weight off her mind. Looking at the mayor Tess noticed the uncomfortable look in his eyes.

Richard looked briefly towards James before continuing. “Yes honey, Nikki did have an operation.” At the surprised look’s coming from Lisa, Hyacinth and CJ, Richard pressed on. “What you do know is that Nikki wasn’t born completely blind at birth. What you don’t know is that she had cancer in her left eye…”

Hyacinth placed a hand over hear heat. “Oh that poor child!”

Richard smiled sadly. “…She had multiple tumours and the only option available was to have her eye removed; I believe if I remember correctly that the procedure is called enuculation.” The mayor stood and began pacing the room. “Your mother really wasn’t too pleased when she discovered that Nikki would have to grow up wearing an eye patch until she was old enough to consider the option of a glass eye.” His face twisted in anger. “I tried to talk her out of it but it was as though she saw her as less than perfect.” Shaking his head Richard closed his eyes to forceful tears. “How she could even think such a thing was beyond me… We fought constantly then. She wanted Nikki go have a transplant to replace her eye with that of a donor. We even split up over this but I came back thanks to James.”

The butler smiled. “I had to bring you back sir. I was the only one looking after Miss Nicole at the time as it seemed Mrs Morris was more interested in finding a surgeon that could perform her request. I believe she ignored Miss Nicole as a form of protest to you leaving.”

“I’m glad you did talk me back; I still can’t believe I was stupid enough to leave my daughter in her hands.” Richard re-claimed his seat and slumped down in defeat. “Mister Jacobson was the man who performed Nicole’s operation and gave her a new eye. She was two years old by then.”

Tess nodded and waited knowing Richard would soon ask what this present situation had to do with him.

Lisa looked at her father with teary eyes. “Dad, if you and mum didn’t get along before I was even conceived then how could you have gone back to things being the way they were?”

All eyes turned to the Mayor in question. “We did what we could for your sisters sake. To be honest, Lisa when your mother said she wanted another child I thought things were on the up. I soon realised she wanted you because she wanted what she considered a ‘normal’ child…”

Tess closed her eyes, feeling physical pain at Richards’s words. She lowered her head again, rubbing the back of her head roughly. Why is it so wrong to hate? She mused, because god help me I seem to hate this woman more every day.

“But she never treated me like she wanted me?” Lisa stated tearfully.

“That was because you were too daddies little girl!” He smiled then before he turned back to Tess with a look of question. “Why did you bring up Eric Jacobson anyway, Tess what does he have to do with this?”

It was the question she had been dreading and now it had arrived, Tess realised she hadn’t even practiced what she intended on saying – something she always did when faced with a difficult situation – at least that was what she did when she was younger and thought she was going to get into trouble with her mother!

Licking suddenly dry lips Tess leaned forward in the chair, clasping her hands together. “Doctor Jacobson contacted Nikki a while ago concerning further research he had been doing into the possibilities of reversing certain cases of blindness. He thought Nikki would be the perfect candidate for his procedure.”

“She never said anything!” Richard exclaimed as he looked to the other members of the room.

Tess continued. “She was very taken aback by this Richard and was so scared about the possible inclinations that she refused to give it another thought. Anyway, recently he called her again wanting to see whether she had changed her mind. We had a long discussion and after much inner debate on Nik’s part, she decided just to go down to Eric and talk to him about it.”

Richard scratched his stubble chin in disbelief. “And?”

“We had a long talk. The doc outlined the major aspects of his surgery, and by the time the meeting was over I think we were both convinced that it was worth a try.”

Looking at the photographer Richard suddenly rose to his feet, anger evident upon his features. He stared down accusingly at Tess. “And through all of this neither of you thought to tell your families about this life changing decision?” He resumed his pacing, casting many confused glances in Tess’s direction. “I really don’t understand this.”

Noticing the pained expression on her daughters face, Hyacinth rose and moved to sit beside her daughter. “What happened honey?”

“She had the operation this morning!” Tess answered quietly.

James moved forward and sat beside Hyacinth. “This morning? Then how and why did she turn up here the way she did. After any surgery a certain amount of recuperation time is advisable.”

Still sitting beside CJ, Lisa looked beseechingly towards Tess. “It didn’t work then?” she asked, already thinking she knew the answer.

“That would seem obvious!” Richard stated and fell to his seat in defeat.

Hyacinth rubbed her daughters back. She knew her daughter, knew her well enough to know when Tess was bottling up her emotions. “What happened honey?” she asked coaxingly.

Taking a deep shuddering breath Tess continued. “Eric went in and performed his procedure and basically found out what the problem was… Nikki has some kind of break down in the brain to eye connection that although he tried to repair… just doesn’t seem to…” she shrugged at a loss for words, “I don’t know… stay repaired, mend, whatever the correct terminology is.”

“So it was un-repairable!” Richard stated. “And Nicole was upset by this!” He lowered his head. “What heartache she must have felt; I just wish she would have told me about this before hand.”

Tess shook her head. “No, Nikki had faced the possibility that this wouldn’t work, she knew the score and didn’t want to get anybodies hopes up. Well she thought she knew… we were both so wrong.”

“How wrong dear?” asked Hyacinth.

Lowering her head as expected tears stung her eyes, the photographer closed jade orbs against the onslaught of emotions trying avidly to overwhelm her. “Eric did try and repair the connection but all he could manage was a temporary solution.” She looked up, eyes brimming with tears. “She could see though… for about twenty minutes Nikki had sight in her right eye.” A single tear escaped rolling lazily down her cheek. “It was amazing.”

Richard blinked and stared at the brunette in confusion; he tried to talk but words failed him.

Lisa sat in bewilderment. “Nikki could see?”

Tess nodded.

“Then how and why did she end up here?”

She shrugged. “That is what I have to find out.” She rose suddenly. “Please just tell me where she is; I need to see her now.”

My daughter could see? Not making eye contact, Richard stared at the ground in total disbelief. “I don’t know where she is…”

“…But I do.” James replied. At Tess’s insistent look the butler continued. “Before she left she disappeared up stairs and retrieved her guitar from the storage cupboard her mother had placed it in. Whenever she was down and was able to get away she would always escape with her guitar and go down to the stables. If you have ever looked you may have noticed that there is a small loft at the far end with a square hatch that opens out upon a spectacular view of the countryside. My guess is that you will find Nikki sitting at the hatch. There is a small ladder to the left of the stable; it’s the only way to get up there.”

Tess nodded with a heartfelt look of thanks as she headed out of the room. “I have to speak with her; I’ll bring her back with me and we can continue this.” Without waiting for any answers Tess left the silent room of shocked family members and headed off in search of Nikki.

The closing of the front door brought the remaining members of the Morris household out of their haze of profound shock. Richard shook his head. “I… I’m utterly speechless!”

A new silence settled over the room as Tess’s words replayed over and again in stunned minds.

*******

Tess followed the stone path, heart pounding almost excruciatingly within her chest as the large wooden structure came into view. Her mind drifted back to the first time she and Nikki had met in the stable and she suddenly realised just how far they had come together. Tess smiled as she remembered how the blonde had taught her to groom a horse and just how nervous she had felt as their entwined hands moved over Jenna’s coat with a physical bond of almost intuitive synchronicity. She had known then, as she felt the heat of Nikki’s own palm seep into the back of her hand, that they were destined to share their lives together.

Reaching the opening of the barn Tess moved through the space between the half open door and looked into the vacant space. With the horses gone it had definitely lost its charm and warmth. Suddenly the pricking of musical strings caught her attention and she moved her vision up to the loft at the far end of the stable. To her intense relief she saw Nikki sitting on the ledge of the hatch, her legs obviously dangling over the side as she ran sensitive fingers over the taut strings of the instrument. The sun was setting in the evening sky and the waning light of the sinking golden orb framed the small woman beautifully.

Tess stood silently, taking in the vision and listening to the gentle mix of tunes as they filtered through the air. She wasn’t able to recognise any of them but felt more than defined the weighty presence of melancholy in each heartfelt note.

Finally, not being able to take the distance any longer Tess took a step into the stable and slowly moved across the hay-strewn ground until she reached the ladder. With agility she mounted the rungs two at a time until she reached the upper level and stopped just short of standing no less then ten feet away from Nikki. The blonde stopped her playing, fingers resting lightly upon the guitar strings as she listened to Tess’s nervous breathing. She hadn’t been aware of her approach and had only realised the photographers’ presence as she climbed into the loft. Still facing forward she placed the instrument to the far right of her and slid it across the wooden flooring.

Tess took in the sight of Nikki wearing only light trousers and a thin top; she visibly shivered in the cooling night air. Shrugging out of the warmth of her own denim jacket, Tess stepped forward and placed it upon Nikki’s shoulders before bending down and kneeling to Nikki’s left side. She adjusted the garment making sure it covered the exposed areas of her body before looking upon the blondes lowered features. Tess wanted to speak but her mind refused to offer her the appropriate words.

Nikki stirred and moved to slightly face Tess; the photographer gazing upon the way her golden hair twinkled in the fading rays of the disappearing sun. She quickly glanced out over the horizon and watched as it dipped slowly behind an expanse of lush emerald hills.

Nikki swallowed tightly. “Sometimes even the most heartfelt apology doesn’t even begin to express how sorry one can be does it?”

Lifting her hand to run through the shining hair, Tess paused. “No.” She completed the journey and strong fingers wound through blonde locks with a gentle worshiping nature. “But understanding does hold insight into the reasons why.” She released her hand and placed it upon Nikki’s back. “And I do understand. Nikki, faced with something so literally…” she paused, trying to find the right words. “Mind blowing and life changing as what you had to face I’m not surprised you acted the way you did. You were scared, overwhelmed, and quite obviously shaken from your experience.” Tess’s hand ran down the blondes arm and settled upon the smaller hand. “And the disappointment you must have felt…”

Nikki shook her head. “It wasn’t that.”

Tess looked at her in question. “Explain it to me Nik?”

She faltered slightly before speaking. “When I asked that you not hate me you didn’t exactly say that you didn’t…”

Tess frowned. “But…”

“I know it was silly of me but I guess with everything that had happened it brought out my past insecurities and I just… for one moment… because of how upset you were… thought that you did hate me.”

Expression twisting in pain; Tess moved forward and engulfed Nikki in a loving embrace. “Never… I could never hate you.” She pressed a soft kiss upon the crown of golden hair. “I bet I don’t need to even ask where those insecurities originated now do I hmm?” How could one woman be so fucking cruel?

Nikki shook her head as she felt the last of her composure dissolve and long held back emotions poured from her. She cried, holding on to Tess as though afraid she may disappear like a fading dream. The brunette held her close; her own vision clouded with sadness as she comforted the blonde within her arms. She turned and looked out over the horizon; watching as the sun made its final decent and an increasing darkness surrounded them. In the sky bright stars twinkled over their heads.

It was long moments later when Nikki pulled back; she faced Tess wiping the excess tears from her eyes. “I really do love you.”

Smiling a sudden thought came to Tess and she pushed her hand into the inner pocket of the jacket Nikki still had upon her shoulders. She pulled out the gift she had purchased for Nikki the day before. “I have something for you.”

Feeling a twinge of excitement and curiosity Nikki smiled. “What?”

“This.” Tess opened the small square box and placed the tiny object inside upon Nikki’s outstretched palm. “I saw it and immediately wanted you to have it.”

With perceptive fingers Nikki examined the object, “It’s a ring!”

Tess smiled. “It’s an antique Poesy ring, medieval in fact… it’s very old… ancient”

Sensitive fingers lifted the small circular piece of jewellery and moved around the circumference. “What’s a Poesy ring?”

Tess smiled in excitement. “Well back in medieval times brave knights would give their ladies tokens of love during the time of courtship. These rings were small gold bands engraved with tender heart felt messages of devotion. I saw this ring in a back-street antique shop a few days ago and I wanted so much for you to have it.” She looked down upon the ring. “Can you feel the inscription? It is a little faded in parts obviously but it’s still clear in what it says.”

Nikki did as requested and nodded her head. “What does it say?”

“Pour Tous Jours.”

“Latin… what does it mean because I would be right in thinking you know this wouldn’t I?”

Tess grinned. “It means ‘for all days’… or basically… forever.”

“It’s beautiful!” said Nikki, feeling her eyes once again sting with tears.

Taking the ring the brunette took Nikki’s hand. “Do you accept?”

“Accept what?” She asked with equal parts of nervousness and excitement.

“My pledge to love you for all days… my commitment to you forever.”

Wiping her eyes, the blonde’s lip trembled as she fought to keep her composure. “Of course I accept.” She smiled cheerfully as Tess pushed the circular band onto her ring finger. “I wish I had something to give you.”

“You give me more than you could ever imagine.” Tess kissed Nikki’s hand. “But how about a promise?”

“Okay?”

“Just promise me that from now on whenever you feel upset, overwhelmed or insecure about anything, you tell me.” Tess smirked. “And I can get down on my knees and profess my love to you over and over until you understand that nothing is going to change my feelings for you… got it?”

Nikki laughed. “Yes I’ve got it.”

At those words Tess moved forwards and captured Nikki in a kiss of complete love, a seal of their bond and commitment. They deepened the kiss as the brunette moved forward laying the smaller woman upon the wooden rafters and covering her with her own length; both luxuriating in the presence and touch of the other.

Endless moments later Tess pulled away much to the disappointment of her lover. “I hate tell you this but we have to get back inside. Not just because we have our entire family waiting in there but because it’s so damn dark out here now I can hardly see a thing!”

Sighing the blonde lifted to a sitting position as Tess moved off her. “Okay I suppose we better get back and face the music huh?”

Sucking on her lip nervously, Tess looked towards Nikki. “Um I kind of had to fill them in on what had happened a little; Nik… they wouldn’t’ tell me where you were until I surrendered some answers. I’m sorry.”

Nikki shrugged. “Hey that’s okay; I should have guessed… I know my dad after all!” She rose to her feet and after gaining her bearings began to approach the ladder.

Tess managed to grasp a hold of her arm. “Nik, you may have to help me I can’t really see a whole lot up here.”

Smiling. “Of course I will Tess. Hey you be my guide in the light and I can be yours in the darkness… deal?”

With a small smile Tess nodded. “Deal.”

*******

Together they made their way back to the house and entered through the side patio door leading into the conservatory. Tess followed Nikki as she made her way through the large home until eventually arriving in the drawing room where all five family members were still waiting anxiously. Tess watched as a row of nervous faces glanced at them both curiously and seemed to relax as they noted their close proximity and firmly entwined hands. Leto wagged her tail frantically as the spotted the blonde but CJ kept a secure hold upon her as she sat in his lap.

Richard arose as Nikki walked into the centre of the room. “Nicole… sweetheart?”

Nikki smiled sadly towards her father and released Nikki’s hand. “Hi dad… I’m… I’m sorry.”

The Mayor shook his head. “Nothing to be sorry about honey… I’m just glad you are alright.” Moving forward he took Nikki into his arms and hugged her intensely.

Tess smiled and looked down at her mother. Hyacinth winked with a smile and exchanged looks between her daughter and Nikki’s hand lying visibly upon Richards shoulder. She wiggled her own ring finger and raised her eyebrows in expectance. Tess smiled and nodded, then chuckled silently as her mother clasped her hand together in excitement and looked towards James who was shaking his head at the pair. Rolling her own eyes the photographer looked to Lisa and CJ who were smiling with equally toothy grins. Tess smirked and looked back to father and daughter knowing that finally everything was going to turn out just fine.

Epilogue…

The air was still, calm and peaceful. The sky above was a rich expanse of hazy blue broken by nothing more than the odd soaring bird as it swirled lazily in the atmosphere. High overhead the sun shone blindingly in the sky releasing warm waves of incredible heat over the opulent land below.

Tess sat back into the far corner of a small rowing boat; slumped against the side. Her hands entwined behind her head as jade eyes rested closed under dark, silver framed sunglasses. She breathed in deeply, taking in a lungful of warm air with a content smile, even with the uncomfortable beads of sweat rolling down her languid body. Feeling a sudden tickle, she opened her eyes and looked down to her exposed stomach where a small fly had landed upon the soft skin. Absently she flicked it away then rested her hand upon her white crop top that complimented devastatingly high cut, denim shorts.

Looking across the boat she smirked almost nefariously. “Come on put some welly into it; why have you stopped?”

Nikki scowled at the amused woman. “Oh well excuse me miss high and mighty but how am I supposed to row a bloody boat when I have no idea where I am going and apart from that we are on a circular lake for crying out loud!”

Tess pursed her lips holding back a chuckle. “Hey I told you I would say when we reached the bank, then all you had to do is use on ore to turn around like I showed you and carry on rowing!”

“How are you supposed to know where we are going when you have your eyes closed huh?”

“I wasn’t…” Tess paused, knowing she had been caught. Nikki knew her far too well it seemed! “Oh okay you got me!” She giggled suddenly causing Nikki to frown in amusement. “What?”

Shaking her head. “You giggling… I’ve never heard you do that before… just exactly how much of that wine have you been drinking?”

Tess picked up the empty bottle and grimaced. “Um hold on.” She looked around for the other bottle and lifted it up to the sunlight. “How many glasses did you have?”

“One!”

“Come on… surely more than one!”

Nikki shook her head. “Nope,” she grinned, “I’m driving!”

Snorting – the photographer shook her head. “Well in that case I’ve had just over a bottle.” She placed the remaining half full bottle back in the hamper and sat forward, shuffling herself closer towards Nikki. “So how are you liking ‘driving’?”

“I’m having a lot of fun thank you… how is Leto?”

Tess turned her vision towards the golden dog lying under Nikki’s seat. “Oh she is just peachy.” The brunette examined the dog. “You know her fur has grown back so well that you would never have guessed she had been injured at all. Mr Fletcher really did to an excellent job.”

Nikki smiled sadly. “Leto knows… she is still a little cautious around people she doesn’t know and it’s so upsetting.”

“I know but she is getting better.” Looking up Tess took Nikki’s left hand and kissed the ring on her finger. “At least the responsible parties are paying for all they have done huh?”

Head directly facing Tess the blonde nodded. “Tess, do you think my mum feels sorry at all. You know… for what she did, Bradley and Leto, and… well everything?”

“I would like to think yes” Tess stated firmly. “That would be the only way she can truly come to see just how miserable she has made things and truly appreciate how unpleasant life inside is going to be for her. And when she finally gets her court date, I hope she realizes the consequences of all the wrong she has done.”

*******

The sound of clanking metal and shouting voices echoed around the large building. Coarse swearwords and the occasional threat bounced off the confines of the large prison followed by laughter and bellowing from voices of authority.

Rosalind sat alone in the confines of her shared room. The other occupants had all left for lunch but she wasn’t feeling very hungry so had opted not to leave their cell. Of course the fact that she loathed to step out of the small room also helped to encourage her decision somewhat; not that inside the cell was any better. Sitting upright on her lower bunk the ex-mayoress looked across at the other set of beds. Claire Saunders, a heavyset woman who was serving a two-year sentence for repeated shoplifting offences, and Victoria Robertson, a Scottish woman who had been caught with a large quantity of class one drugs during a random check at the airport, usually occupied the bunk.

Rosalind found both women infuriating but even they were better company than the woman she had been made to share a bunk with. Her name was Spider, so named because of the large tattoo of a web covering the complete surface area of her back. Spider had taken a warped liking to the older woman and had for some unknown reason to Rosa, decided to focus a lot of her attentions upon her. There was no doubt Spider terrified her, but at least Rosalind found she was more likely to be protected from the other ‘scum’ – as she though it – while under Spiders control and control was the operative word. Rosa did everything the much larger woman ordered, whether it be doing her laundry, cleaning her cupboard or changing her bed sheets.

The door to the cell slowly creaked open and Spider walked in carrying a tray of tasteless prison food. She placed it down upon the bed beside Rosa. “Can’t have you passing out on us now; got to eat aint-cha.”

“I’m not hungry.” The older woman replied.

Spider narrowed her eyes. “Eat it.” And Rosalind did as ordered. Spider nodded. “Now that is better, see it’s like I told you when you first came here, do exactly what I say when I say it and things will be fine.”

Rosalind nodded as she ate the tasteless offerings.

“Good. Now then…” Spider stepped closer and kneeled down until they were eye level with each other. “I have heard a few rumours around here about how a certain ex-mayoress has put her house onto the market and may soon be coming into a large amount of money.”

Rosa looked up suddenly. “How did you…?”

Spider rolled her dark eyes. “You think we are sectioned from the outside world in here so much that we have no idea what is going on. Damn woman we do have newspapers and shit you know. Anyway this is the thing… I heard a few of the gals talking on how they want to squeeze you for some cash, maybe get you to bring in some gear.”

Rosalind looked at the woman in horror. “Whatever happens, it’s not like I would be able to get any of the money while I’m in here is it. How am I supposed to do that?”

“The fact that you are connected to money is more appealing to them Rosy. Anyway I don’t think your current services for me are enough to protect you from what these women have in mind!”

Rosalind felt a shiver of fear run through her spine. “What would be enough?” she asked almost dreading the answer.

Spider smiled almost nefariously as she caressed the older woman’s cheek. “Well you see you do have something that I am definitely finding quite attractive… if you know what I mean.” Watching Rosa’s expression, Spider let her hand drift lower and travel between the valley of her breasts. “We all get lonely in here don’t we? What’s wrong with turning to each other for a little comfort hmm?”

The ex-mayoress swallowed hard in absolute horror as realisation of what this woman had in mind sunk in. What did I do to deserve this? She thought.

*******

Nikki smiled as she caressed Tess’s hand lovingly. “I hope that she does see the error in her actions.”

“Me too.” Tess leaned forward and placed gentle kisses upon Nikki’s lips that opened up in silent invitation. As their embrace grew in intensity, Tess pulled Nikki off her seat and the blonde wrapped her legs around the firm waist revelling in their close proximity and intimate embrace.

Tess was the first to pull away. “I’ve had an idea!”

Nikki groaned, feeling an aching need flow through her body. “And you have to tell me now?”

Tess smirked. “Let’s go on Holiday; we still have that fifty grand. Lets go somewhere neither of us have ever been before.”

“Oh yeah. Making love on the beach, making love the sea, on the sea front, under an exotic moon…”

“It seems to me Miss Morris that you are thinking with parts other than that of your brain.”

Nikki laughed. “Well you can’t just get me going then stroll off on a whole new road you know!”

Tess smiled sheepishly. “I know but I suddenly had the idea and needed to share it with you.” She let her hand trail down the smaller woman’s back until she cupped a firm behind, pulling them into a closer contact and slowly ground into her. Nikki moaned as her head fell to the woman’s shoulder. “So what do you think?” asked Tess.

“Feels wonderful.”

“About the holiday?”

“Sounds wonderful.”

Tess smirked as she slipped off her own seat and carefully placed Nikki onto the empty floor space of the small rowing boat, mindful of its precarious rocking motion. “Something nice and relaxing,” she said opening Nikki’s short blouse and trailing kisses down her chest. “Hot, luxurious and… wet?”

“Oh yeah!” Nikki replied with a smile. “Wet.”

Tess looked up. “How about the Gaza Strip?”

Laughter bubbled up from the blonde’s chest. “A bit too adventurous for me. Why don’t you just continue with what you were doing and leave everything else to me?”

One sculpted eyebrow arched over darkening jade eyes. “I can definitely do that.” Tess replied lovingly.

And as the ancient sun shone hazily in the midmorning sky, soft lips connected and a seal of love was established that would last ‘for all days’.

The End

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