Still Loving You
For my Eleanor of Aquitane…you know who you are.
Lara fished in her pocket for her keys as she balanced the load in her arms. Finally succeeding in opening the door, she slipped through the doorway and closed the door behind her with a shove of her hip. Flipping on the light switch with an elbow, she stepped into the kitchen and dumped her load on the counter. Leaning against the sink to catch her breath, she surveyed her home and felt a brief sense of contentment before the reality of her situation intruded on her thoughts.
Damn, she thought, she’s really gone. How am I gonna make it without her?
Her eyes moved slowly around her home, the home she grew up in, and felt the emptiness left by her passing. They had always been together here. In the early years, it had been the whole family. Each of them had left, one by one, leaving just the two of them in the end.
First David had gone off to war…Vietnam. He hadn’t really known what he was getting into…he just wanted to fly. When the Air Force denied him flight status because of a childhood bout with polio, he joined the Army. They allowed him to fly their helicopters– their flying death traps. He was so proud and happy when Mom pinned those wings on his uniform on graduation day. He went off to fight for his country — and never came home, and they’d all cried together.
Then Sarah left to marry him. Although she was still alive, they hadn’t seen much of her in the last twenty-five years. And even when they had, she wasn’t the same. After all the years of abuse, she was really just a shell. All the laughter and light that had been her sister was gone, snuffed out like a candle under a jar. A flame starved of the oxygen that made it burn bright.
Then Dad lost his mind with the grief. His son was gone and his oldest daughter’s life was hell on earth. It didn’t seem to matter that his wife and youngest child still needed him very much. He drank himself to death, mentally torturing Lara and her mother for twelve years before finding release at the end of a rope in their shed out back.
Then there were two. Lara and her mother had held onto each other and made a new life for themselves. Over the last thirteen years, the two of them had been nearly inseparable. Oh, Lara had brief relationships — first with men and later, when those proved unsuccessful, with women. Mom had always encouraged her to be herself and to look for love in spite of the dangers. Mom never blamed Dad for hurting them, leaving them. She said that he just didn’t have the strength to deal with what life had dealt them. She always said that women were really the strong ones.
Lara used to believe that too, until Mom left. Alone, she was almost as weak as Dad had been. In the months since Mom died, Lara had immersed herself in work. As a historical architect, she traveled all over the United States and Canada, working on the restoration of historical buildings. She felt an indescribable sense of satisfaction when she walked through a completed project. She could experience the past of a building…smell and taste the food they ate, hear snippets of conversation and strains of music. The past was alive for Lara in those places, and here in her own home, she found she could not bear to think of the memories that surrounded her.
Here she smelled brownies baking, heard the musical tones of her mother’s laughter and her heart broke all over again. Stop it Lara, don’t do this to yourself. Shaking the sad thoughts from her mind, she began to sort through her belongings, putting each item in it’s proper place. As she tossed several disks on her desk, she leaned forward to switch on her computer monitor and quickly typed in her log-on to the internet. Guess I’ll check the e-mail, see if anything important is happening.
As she walked back to the kitchen to get a cold beer from the fridge, she wondered, who am I kidding anyway, I just want to see if there’s anything from Jess. A word of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, a faceless confidant to share her secret hopes and fears. Lara was still not sure how all this came about.
Lara had e-mailed her in response to some poetry Jess had posted on the Sapphic Voices web site and they had been corresponding for several weeks now. At first, it had been fan mail — Lara had admired Jess’ talent and was generous with her praise. Jess was a bright young woman and her perspectives on life surprised even Lara. Lara had written to other poets and authors with praise in the past, but none had evolved beyond that stage — except Jess.
Dragging her fingers through midnight hair, she took a long drink from the bottle and sank into her desk chair. Smiling, she noted that the tiny envelope on the lower right of her screen was followed by an exclamation point. That meant she had mail! Clicking on the envelope, she sat back waiting for the messages to download to her machine. She knew that there’d be something, Jess never let a day go by that she didn’t send her at least a short message. Most days she wrote long letters, letters from her heart. Words of encouragement when Lara wanted to give up, words of comfort when Lara just wanted to cry and lately, words of love.
The status bar at the bottom of her screen moved slowly to the right as four messages were downloaded . The first was a note from her sister, reminding her that her nephew’s tuition was due the next week. Lara didn’t talk with her sister much, the guilt of past betrayals weighed too heavily on them both, but she adored her nephew Jason. She had been putting Jason through college and he was in his final semester. Soon he would graduate at the top of his class in Environmental Engineering. Lara was very proud of him. He’d had rough beginnings too, but had risen above it to fulfill his potential.
The next two were junk mail. Jeez, I thought I’d get away from this stuff in cyberspace, but this is getting worse than snail mail. The first was one of those annoying Amazon Books newsletters. She’d subscribed to them a long time ago and had never been able to figure out how to get off their mailing list. She’d followed their instructions to unsubscribe, but it never worked. Finally, she’d resigned herself to receiving their junk forever and now simply deleted the unopened files when they arrived. The second was a Microsoft promo for Windows ’98. Fat chance I’ll try that…it’s just another ‘Not Ready for Prime Time’ disk operating system.
The last message was the one she had been waiting for. Lara’s crystal blue eyes sparkled as she eagerly read each word Jess had sent her today.
We’ve become friends in such a short amount of time,something that is normally impossible. I’ve found that the impossible truly does happen, WE are proof of that. I think our friendship happened because we both can ‘see’ beyond the surface deep down into the true character of each other…and we like what we ‘saw’. then we started to grow rapidly. It’s amazing and a blessing. I cherish true friendships, they are Heaven sent.
I wish I could be there to comfort you now with your mother gone. I know you miss her beyond reason, but she is not really gone. I don’t even believe in ‘death’ per se. I feel the word is used as a scare tactic. You see, I believe beyond any doubt that there really is a different type of life after our short stint here in the physical. True life is eternal. You are, I am, we all are eternal beings. This isn’t just a belief, it comes from the Gift of ‘knowing’ that I’ve been blessed with.
We have known each other before, you and I. We must have to feel this way. And we have faced this darkness before and won. We’re Not going to let the darkness overcome us now. Somehow we will prevail.
Still Loving You,
A tear slipped from the corner of Lara’s eye and slid silently down her smooth ivory cheek. Jess always knew the right thing to say…today, she needed to feel that her mother was still with her. She wondered what Jess was doing right now. Lara wasn’t sure, but she thought Jess must work second shift. Her messages were always sent very late at night, actually in the wee hours of the morning and she’d made references to being at work in the evenings. If this was true, then Jess was at work now.
She knew that Jess worked for a major motor vehicle company and that her recent transfer meant more responsibility, but she wondered if Jess still worked in shorts and a t-shirt. She’d never actually seen Jess but she imagined that she’d look good with long tan legs showing beneath the shorts. For some reason, she pictured Jess with red-gold hair, emerald green eyes and a lush pink mouth, curved slightly with humor. Lara could close her eyes and almost smell the scent of the forest in that silken hair.
Damn, why am I thinking like that? She’s just being a good friend…she doesn’t deserve me thinking of her that way. Why do I feel I’ve known her forever? Wanted her forever?
Lara finished her beer in one long swallow and got up, leaving her computer on. Later, she needed to work on renderings for her latest project, the restoration of a turn of the century concrete and rebar castle built by Henry Chapman Mercer as his personal estate. The National Historical Society had awarded grants for the restoration of this and two other buildings constructed by Mercer in the early 1900’s and Lara had been selected as the project architect.
Right now she intended to indulge herself with a few minutes to reflect on the words of her friend. She lay back on the worn sofa and absently scratched the cat that wandered under her out-stretched hand. Closing her eyes she pictured the woman in her dreams. She’d dreamed of this woman all her life, even as a child. Now, when she pictured Jess in her mind, she saw the image of the woman in her dreams.
Slowly Lara relaxed, drifting in pleasant thoughts of forests and meadows, morning dew and mountain streams. As she moved along the paths of her mind, she heard the sounds of splashing and the musical voice of someone speaking. Rounding a bend in the path, she saw a small, silvery lake. As she silently approached the shore, she saw the most beautiful woman she’d ever encountered. The woman was standing waist deep in the cold waters of the lake, water glistening on her skin from her morning bath. Her red-gold hair was slicked back from her face, accenting her perfect features. She seemed to be talking to herself, totally oblivious to her secret admirer hidden in the forest.
“Well Gabrielle, what are you going to do now?” The woman paused and frowned. “Xena knows you’re head over heels for her and she just walked away. How stupid could you be anyway…drinking so much and saying those things. She’ll never forgive you…”
At the sound of a twig snapping under Lara’s ethereal foot, the woman’s head snapped up, her eyes scanning the forest line for the intruder. Quickly finding Lara, the woman smiled then lowered her eyes and looked away.
“Xena…I didn’t think you’d be back, at least…not so soon.”
Lara reeled in confusion, her dreams had never gone this far before. Never before had the woman seen her, spoken to her. She had always awakened before anything like this could happen. Lara’s world caved in on itself as her azure eyes met emerald ones and she lost herself in the woman’s gaze. Suddenly dizzy, she felt her knees give way as she collapsed on the forest floor. As she descended into darkness, she heard the woman screaming her name as she splashed toward the shore. Not her name, Xena. Yes — Xena…her name.
“Jess, JESS..Wake Up!”
Jess felt someone tugging her back from her dream. Opening her cloudy green eyes reluctantly, she blinked owlishly up at her co-worker, wondering why she looked so sour.
“Dammit Jess, hurry up or we’ll be late getting back from break.”
“Ah…thanks Mara, I must have dozed off.”
“Hummph…dozed off? You’ve been snoring big time for the last 30 minutes.”
“I do Not snore!”
“Yeah…and you don’t talk in your sleep either. By the way, who’s Xena?”
Jess looked at her friend in surprise, wondering just how much she’d said. If people knew what kind of dreams she was having…had been having all her life, they’d be sure she was crazy. Up until now, they’d only suspected it.
“Umm…don’t know, why do you ask?”
“Oh, never mind. It’s not important, we gotta hustle or we’ll be late for sure.”
Jess breathed a sigh of relief as she followed Mara out of the break room to their assigned positions on the floor.
Damn she thought, this job was supposed to be an improvement and I already hate it. Her previous job in the plant had been a very high paying one, but was so boring and repetitive that she thought she’d go out of her mind. When the new position opened up, she was willing to take a pay cut to have her mind challenged once again. But she hadn’t counted on the safety hazards and the millions of technical details she had to learn in no time at all. Add to all that the fact that she was ruining her eyesight reading the tiny lettering on the prints they were working with and she found herself wishing for that old, boring, high paid job. At least the repetitiveness of the work had allowed her time to mull over ideas for stories and poems. Here, she was keeping up, but just barely.
Setting aside all other thought, she set about her tasks for the rest of her shift. Jess had a quota here too, and here, if she slipped up, she could loose a finger or even a hand. Not paying attention could result in an explosion, like the one last night. Fortunately, she hadn’t been hurt in that one, but the next time she might not be so lucky. She had to concentrate.
It was very difficult not to let her mind wonder to the strange twist her dream had taken tonight. Not only had she been surprised to fall asleep at work — she’d never done that before — but tonight’s dream had taken a decidedly different turn. She’d been having the same dream since childhood. Always, she’d awakened before she discovered the identity of the watcher in the forest. This time, she had seen the watcher.
It might have been better for Jess if she hadn’t. The woman from her dream was the most beautiful she’d ever seen. Her midnight hair and crystal blue eyes had enchanted Jess. She’d wanted to simply stare, but when the woman collapsed, Jess had been frantic. Trying to run through the lake in her dream had felt like…well…running through water. And why wouldn’t it silly. And then she’d awakened.
Snorting disgustedly at her inability to keep her mind on her work, she pushed the dream out of her mind for later evaluation and tried once more to give her full attention to her work.
Well, one bright spot in her day was knowing that she’d have a message from Lara when she got home, maybe even one of those virtual cards she was so fond of sending. Once, she’d even sent virtual flowers…Lara was such a romantic.
Jess suddenly had a flash of the woman in her dream imposed on her thoughts of Lara. And she knew why too…damn…she was beginning to have real feelings for Lara. How did that happen, she wondered, and so fast too. She’d only ‘met’ Lara a few weeks ago on the internet and she felt like they’d know each other all their lives.
“Damn!” Jess had sliced her finger on one of the many sharp parts that she was assembling. Once more disgusted with her wool gathering, she put everything else from her mind but the work in front of her. She was determined this time to save all her contemplation for after work.
Jess had had just about all she could take for one day. Her nerves shot, all she wanted was rush home, get on the computer and hear the soothing words of her friend Lara. She put her million tools away, cleaned up her work area and walked quickly to the clockout area. There she met a few of her old co-workers. Happy to see their smiling faces, she spent a few minutes chatting with them and exchanging hugs, before leaving the plant. Thank God this day is over…and no major injuries tonight either. Hmmm…maybe I’m beginning to get the hang of this.
She quickly walked the half mile through the rest of the plant and stepped outside, heading for her sleek, black pick-up truck in the vast desert of the company parking lot. Reaching her truck, she ran a loving hand along the edge of the bed before slipping the key in the lock. Jess was very proud of her baby; six years old, in mint condition and only 30,000 miles.
Climbing in behind the wheel, she took a moment to listen carefully to the sound of the engine as she turned the key in the ignition. After a long pause, she smiled, pleased at the smooth purr coming from under the hood. Sounds just as good as she looks.
Carefully backing out of her parking space, she headed for home, hoping that there would be a message from Lara. Lara was very busy and traveled frequently. She didn’t always have a chance to write to Jess every day, but Jess didn’t care. She was grateful to have found a friend like Lara and tried to be understanding of the other demands on her time. Still, she couldn’t help being a little disappointed if there were no new messages from Lara.
In the ten minutes it took to drive home, she marveled at how quickly she and Lara had become close. Jess had begun having feelings for Lara that went beyond simple friendship. She found herself wondering what it would be like to hold Lara and kiss her. She assumed that Lara must be attracted to women…why else would she have been browsing the Sapphic Voices site. But Lara’s so intelligent, so strong and independent that she’d never be interested in someone like me.
Still, Jess was very attracted to Lara. She felt as if she had known her for years rather than just a few short weeks and only through the internet. This seemed strange to Jess, but she was beyond caring. Pulling into her driveway, the young blonde suddenly decided that if anyone was going to make the first move toward a deeper relationship between the two women, it would have to be her. The object of her nightly fantasies was simply too guarded to expect that she would initiate the change in their relationship. The never ending parade of lost loves in Lara’s life had made her extremely cautious and Jess could understand why. She’d experienced loss herself, but nothing compared to the magnitude and frequency of her friend’s.
Finally having decided to take a chance, Jess couldn’t wait to get into the house to set her plan in action. She decided that absolute honesty was her best option. She was fairly certain that even if Lara didn’t share her desires that they could still remain friends. Grabbing a cold soft drink from the fridge as she passed, she tossed her keys on her desk and turned on the computer before bouncing up the stairs to shower and change.
Stripping off her grimy work clothes, she turned on the water and stepped under the steaming waterfall. As she scrubbed the layers of dirt and chemicals from the plant from her ivory skin, she began to compose the letter she would write to Lara this evening. It would have to be short and straight to the point…no sense in muddling it up with shy innuendo, neither of them enjoyed that type of interaction. In fact, Jess believed that the foundation of their friendship was honesty and openness. Over the last few weeks, they had shared private thoughts, tragic memories and words of love and comfort. No, only the absolute truth will do here. I’m going to have to take a chance and just tell her how I feel.
Laughing at herself as she stepped out of the shower, she briskly toweled off her golden hair and her lithe body. Jess wondered just how she was going word her letter. How do you tell a woman you love her in an e-mail? Shaking her head at the absurdity of her plight, she threw on a comfortable t-shirt, made soft by frequent laundering, and headed back down the stairs to log on to the internet.
As she watched her system connect to the server, she hoped for mail, but was disappointed to find her mailbox empty. Wonder if she’s out of town. Usually Lara let her know if she was going to be away, but sometimes she had to leave without any notice. Jess remembered the first time that had happened with embarrassment. She had over reacted to Lara’s absence, thinking she intended to end their friendship. She blushed when she remembered the messages she’d sent to Lara in the three days she was gone. She’d sounded like an insecure teenager, but Lara’s tender response upon her return had reassured Jess with love and compassion.
She had expressed her regret that the silence had hurt Jess. That had never been her intent. She’d had an emergency on a project she had worked on last fall in Oregon and had to fly out to help solve the situation so that construction could continue on schedule. It was a multi-million dollar renovation of a stately Victorian mansion on the Pacific coast and Lara was needed to consult with the project engineers regarding a structural problem that was interfering with some of the more critical architectural appointments.
Jess often didn’t understand the technical language Lara used when she described her work, but loved to read about it nonetheless. She could hear the passion for creating something beautiful and substantial in Lara’s words and envied her friend that. Certainly more exciting than building wiring harnesses. I really blew it when I passed up my chance to go to college. Maybe I could have been an English teacher or even have gotten some of my work published. Now I’m stuck in a job I hate because it pays well and I have to cover my financial obligations.
Well, I’m gonna do it anyway. If I put it off, I’ll lose my nerve. Settling down at the keyboard, Jess began to compose her letter.
I am a bit nervous about this message to you, but I cannot go on without telling you exactly how I feel inside. Over the last few weeks we’ve spoken of many things; love, memories, tragedy and secrets. I have one more secret to tell you, love, one that I hope will not make you run screaming from the room.
I’ve said many times that I love you. I know that you believe that this love is of the platonic variety and that is a part of it. I love the beauty of your heart and the timelessness of your soul, but I also love you in a more intimate way. To be honest, I desire you in all ways. At night when I am lying in bed trying to get to sleep, I am plagued with images of you in my bed…in my arms.
Please forgive me, love, if I go too far. One word from you and I will never mention these feelings again. But on the off chance that you share these feelings, I had to confess the depths of my love for you. I could not take the chance of missing something so precious if you love me in this way too.
Still Loving You,
Jess quickly re-read her letter, making sure that everything was stated concisely and then quickly clicked the ‘send’ button before she lost her nerve. Yawning with exhaustion from her day, she shut down the computer and rose from her chair, stretching as she turned toward the stairs. Better get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day and it might be a few days before I get a response to that message…maybe never. She shuddered at that thought and pushed the possibility from her mind as she ascended the stairs to her room and her empty bed.
Lara awakened slowly, aware of a heaviness in her chest. Opening one crystal blue eye, she found herself face to face with a pair of hungry golden eyes set in a triangular feline face. Dark stripes ran from the outside corners of the magnificent tilted eyes to delicately arched ears, fringed in soft, fine fur. As soon as her other eye opened, her visitor opened his pink mouth and meowed plaintively.
“Alright Ares. Some war god you are…the only things you battle are your cat food dish and the occasional spider. Come on tiger, I’ll get your dinner.”
The cat looked at her as if he understood the meaning of each word and leapt lightly to the floor. Looking back at Lara to make sure she was moving, he meowed again and sauntered toward the kitchen.
Lara rose from the comfortable old sofa and stretched as she followed her feline companion to the kitchen. Reaching into the cabinet for a can of food she asked “Well, what’ll it be tonight my love, catfish or mixed grill? Hmmm?”
“Meorrw” came the response.
“Okay, catfish it is.” She popped the lid of the can and pulled a fresh dish from the same cabinet as Ares began his ‘catfood’ dance around her ankles, accompanying himself with endless musical meowing until the food dish finally hit the floor. Lara stood up and watched her friend as he settled in to his dinner, amazed that he could purr so loudly while eating.
Well, I’d better get to work or I’ll never finish the drawings in time for the meeting tomorrow. This project was very special to her since it was virtually in her back yard. She’d grown up in the shadow of Mercer Castle and had spent many happy hours as a young girl wandering the wooded paths of the estate and playing in the dilapidated guest house in the forest.
Lara settled in at the computer and began revisions on her drawings for the main library of the estate house. She envisioned the room as a combination of medieval castle and late 19th century elegance, with lots of dark rich wood and muted lighting. Every wall would be covered with shelves intended to house the vast array of literature in the Mercer collection. In the center of the outside wall would be the open hearth concrete fire place, finely appointed with original Mercer tiles depicting the Pickwick Papers, a favorite of Dr. Mercer’s.
Lara remembered visiting the estate house when she was a child. At that time it was still occupied by Dr. Mercer’s ancient housekeeper who’d been allowed to stay there as long as she lived. She remembered tours of the house she’d had from the old woman and could still hear the high pitched, but commanding voice explaining about the tiles and Dr. Mercer himself.
It was then that Lara’s desire to build emerged. She read books about the building of the estate and had been fascinated with the process Mercer had improvised by pouring concrete into forms to create walls and ceilings reinforced with iron rods. The process developed by Mercer was the forerunner of modern concrete and steel construction so popular in contemporary commercial building. She became so frequent a visitor at the castle that she began bringing little gifts to the old woman whose name was the same as hers, Lara Swain. The old woman, sensing a kindred spirit in the lonely child, had eventually allowed Lara run of the place. She’d spent many happy hours in her teen years sketching the narrow passages and arched ceilings of Dr. Mercer’s home.
When Lara was working, she became totally oblivious to the passage of time. It was nearly 3 AM when she finished the final details of her drawings and printed the color renderings on acetate for display in tomorrow’s meeting…actually, later today. Waiting for the drawings to print, she decided to check her e-mail to see if Jess had written again. She felt a bit guilty for not having sent a message to the sensitive young woman before getting so involved in her work. It had only been 9 PM when she started working and she’d intended to stop long before now and drop a note to her friend.
Lara smiled as she retrieved a single message from her mailbox, so sure that it would be from Jess. As she began to read, her breathing became erratic and her heart began to race. She could hardly believe what she was reading. Jess desired her…wanted to take their relationship to another plane.
Sinking back in her chair, she re-read the message, savoring each word. It seemed that this charming, talented young author was having difficulty finding the words to express her true feelings for Lara. Well, at least she tried. You’ve been too much of a coward to do it yourself.
Easily imagining how brave the young woman had to be to take this chance, Lara decided to reward her efforts with a glimpse of the dark passions inside Lara’s own heart. Strong, long fingered hands poised above the keyboard, she began to type.
My Darling Jess,
How happy you’ve made me. Your shy confession has warmed my heart and caused my body to burn with desire for you. I too have a confession to make. Last night I masturbated thinking of you. I could almost feel your hands roaming my body, cupping my breasts in your palms and teasing the nipples until they ached with sensation. When I pictured your velvety warm tongue sliding across my saturated clit, I came…hard.
Then I imagined swirling my tongue around your nipples before I drew them into my mouth and sucking…gently at first, then harder as your excitement rose. I imagined slipping my thigh between your luscious thighs and watching you ride me, watching your face as you melted in my arms.
Jess, these feelings in no way take away from the deeper side of our relationship. That is still very important to me. But right now, I get wet when even I think of you. I imagine removing each item of your clothing, piece-by-piece…slowly discovering every inch of that luscious body with my hands, my lips and tongue.
I wonder if you’ve ever pleasured yourself thinking of me…I’d love to watch that. But
I’m afraid I wouldn’t be able to keep from participating, the image of your creamy white thighs spread and your fingers buried in soft, honey-gold curls, glistening with moisture from your arousal, is so exciting.
Do you dream of me? Do you wake up wet? God, I’d love to taste you. I imagine you’d be sweeter than ambrosia. Can you believe now that I want you too?
Now close your eyes and imagine the softest, most sensual good night kiss you’ve ever wanted and that’s what I’m sending to you.
See you in my dreams…
Still Loving You,
Breathing heavily from the arousal created by the images in her mind, Lara re-read her words. She wanted to be sure that there was just the right mixture of romance and sensuality in her message. Jess was too important to her to mess this up. Changing a word here and there to smooth out the flow, she was finally satisfied that this would convey her multi-faceted meaning to the shy young woman.
She paused, then clicked on the ‘send’ button…committed now beyond recall. Lara sighed as she shut down her system and headed for bed. Too tired to make the effort to climb the stairs to her room, she opted for the sofa again. The last thing she saw before closing her eyes was the glowing display of the clock on the table, proclaiming it to be 5:37 AM. Damn, I’m going to drag ass tomorrow.
The sun was high in the sky when Jess finally awakened. Rolling over, she covered her eyes with her arm and tried to shut out the bright light flooding her room. Hating mornings, Jess usually left the blinds open so that she would not oversleep. Slowly coming awake, she remembered her bold actions the night before and her eyes popped open.
Unsure of the reception of her message, she forced herself to get up slowly and not jump up to check her mail immediately. Whatever awaited her, if anything, would still be there after breakfast.
Stumbling out of bed, Jess headed for the kitchen and the pot of freshly brewed coffee her sister Sharon would have left for her. Standing on her toes to reach the top shelf, the petite young woman grabbed a coffee cup and poured her first cup. Sipping contentedly, she opened the fridge and selected orange juice, two eggs, a loaf of bread and a container of milk. From the cabinet next to the stove, she retrieved a frying pan and a mixing bowl, and set about making a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast.
She liked her eggs scrambled light and so they were ready even before the toast, allowing Jess time to retrieve the morning paper before settling in at the kitchen table to enjoy her breakfast. She tried to concentrate on the front page as she ate, but her mind kept drifting back to Lara and her reaction to Jess’ last letter. So distracted that she didn’t even taste her food, Jess finished her meal and rinsed off her dishes before placing them in the dishwasher.
Well, might as well find out.
Jess refilled her cup and wandered into her tiny office, switching on her computer before she even sat down. Waiting for the system to boot and log onto the net, she sank into her chair and slowly sipped her coffee. The tiny envelope finally appeared in the lower right corner of her screen and she noted that there was new mail. Her hand almost shook as she clicked on the envelope to retrieve her mail. She had only one message since she’d checked last night and it was from Lara.
Unsure of what to expect, Jess’ eyes scanned the screen for her friend’s response. Her fear quickly dissipated as she discovered that the content of Lara’s message was far more than she could have wished for. Her coffee forgotten, she read and re-read Lara’s message, overcome with first relief, then acute awareness of her body’s reaction to the sensuous message. She wants me too. Oh God…she wants me too.
Jess sat unmoving at her desk for a long time, her thoughts running wild with happiness and desire. Finally, she glanced at the clock and realized that she’d better get moving or she’d never make it to work.
She made a quick decision and dashed off a short message to Lara.
My dearest Lara,
My heart is overflowing with happiness at your response to my confession. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep my mind on my work today…I’ll be constantly distracted with thoughts of you. Thank God it’s Thursday and I don’t have to work tomorrow.
Sweetheart, if you want to call me this weekend, here is my phone number (989) 555-6428. I want you to know I’ve NEVER given my phone number to anyone I’ve met on the net…you are the first and the last.
Still Loving You,
Briefly considering staying home from work, Jess shook her head at her foolishness. She needed the money and couldn’t afford to take another day off right now. She quickly printed Lara’s last letter to her and, switching off her computer, she headed upstairs to get ready for work.
Jess worked swing shift and left the house every day promptly at 2:30. Dressed in denim shorts and a light blue t-shirt, she smiled as she climbed into the cab of her beloved truck.
Driving the short ten minutes to work, she trolled the huge parking lot in search of a decent space. Usually she had to wait for some day shift people to leave so she wouldn’t be stuck parking out in BFE (Bum F… Egypt), but today, luck was with her and she managed to snag a spot fairly close the the plant entrance.
Jess was able to cover the half mile into her section of the plant in about five minutes. Swiping her security badge through the reader at the door, she entered plant 19, greeting familiar faces as she went. Plant 19 was extremely noisy and housed several high-tech machines worth millions of dollars. The noise in this section of the plant was deafening, easily over 80 decibels. Inserters clanged constantly, spitting out terminals at a phenomenal rate.
Pausing to put on her safety glasses, Jess crinkled her nose in response to the noxious fumes and gases permeating the air. Turning to head toward her section of the plant, she jumped aside to avoid a tow motor driver. Damn, those guys will run me over one of these days.
Descending the ramp to her section of the plant, the noise fading somewhat, she went straight to her assigned station and began her set up. Her work station was a flat board about twenty feet long. Organizing all the colorful wires and components that would make up the wiring harness she’d be assembling today, she occasionally banged into the metal racks and drawers behind her. She was constantly coming home with bruises all over her body, to say nothing of the occasional cut. Last year, she had become quite ill due to a gas leak in the plant.
Carefully studying her paperwork and prints, she waited for her turn at the various machines she would use in assembling this harness.
“Jess Curran, Press 55.” Caught daydreaming, she jumped when her name blared over the loudspeaker.
Jess hated this antiquated machine. She’d seen several people lose fingers on this beast. Checking the machine for the proper terminals, she sat and carefully inserted the stripped ends of the wires into the proper slot. Taking a deep breath, she steadied her shaking hands and stepped on the foot pedal. A loud Cha-Chunk reverberated thought her body as the press engaged. Checking the tolerances of her work, she made the required notes on her paperwork and continued with the rest of the leads.
After hours of struggling with the press, she wearily headed back to her board to check what she had to do next. Crossing the room, she passed the dip solder machine just as the solder pot burst into flames, covering the unsuspecting operator with 600 degree molten lead from head to toe. Even safety gear offered little protection in an explosion of this magnitude.
Jess managed to escape the worst of the flying lead as the force of the explosion lifted and slammed her body across the room, battering her small frame against every machine in her path. Noxious gasses burned her eyes as her safety glasses were ripped from her face. Her broken body came to rest more than thirty feet from her original location and she heard a deep moan of pain as the darkness closed around her.
Sharon rolled over in bed, moaning in frustration as the telephone rang continuously. Pulling a pillow over her head, she tried to shut out the sound with little success. Finally giving up, she got out of bed and stumbled across the room to answer it.
“Do you have any idea what time it is? This had better be good.”
The calm, male voice at the other end asked “Ms. Curran?”
In that moment, a cold wave of fear swept over Sharon. She had a feeling she wasn’t going to like this. “Yes, this is Ms. Curran.”
“Ms. Curran, my name is Jack Issacs. I work with your sister Jess.”
“What’s wrong, what happened this time?” Sharon was instantly alert, fear evident in her voice.
“Ms. Curran, I sorry to have to tell you this, but Jess was injured in an explosion this evening. She’s been taken to the county hospital. You should probably meet her there.”
“How bad is she?”
“Well now Ms. Curran, I’m no doctor, so I couldn’t really say.”
“Don’t give me that crap. Did she walk out or was she wheeled out?”
“She was taken out on a stretcher, ma’am. I’m real sorry.”
He continued to talk, but Sharon was no longer listening. She sank into a chair and slowly replaced the receiver in the cradle, silently praying for her sister.
By the time Sharon was allowed in to see Jess, she was lying in an intensive care cubicle. The doctors said she had several broken bones, head trauma and chemical burns to her eyes. They had reassured her that Jess would likely survive the accident, but might be permanently blind. Sharon gazed sadly at her tiny frame utterly lost in the maze of wires and tubes. The nurses had told her that Jess had not regained consciousness since her admission to the hospital. Since it was so late, they had been kind enough to bend the rules and allow Sharon to spend the rest of the night in a chair at Jess’ bedside.
As the hours passed, Sharon watched Jess for any signs of awareness. Sometime near morning, Sharon dozed off and was awakened from a light sleep by the sound of movement. Ever so slightly, Jess was moving a hand, grasping at the sheet tucked around her battered body.
Leaning forward, Sharon noticed that Jess was trying to speak. Bending closer, she was able to hear only one word…a name, Lara.
Forty seven hours after the accident, an exhausted Sharon opened the door of the house she’d shared with Jess since their parents had been killed in a car crash eight years ago. Her older sister had always taken care of her, giving up her scholarship to get a job and support them both. Jess made sure that Sharon got the chance to attend college, even if she had given up her own dreams of a good education.
Sharon sank into a chair in the kitchen and leaned forward, resting her head in her hands. She was trying not to cry, but she felt lost and alone without Jess to guide her. Now it would be her responsibility to care for Jess and she wasn’t sure if she could do it.
Taking a deep breath, she glanced around the room for a distraction. That was when she noticed the answering machine blinking furiously at her from across the room. Counting the red flashes between each pause, she realized that they had several messages.
Sharon hit the play button and sat back down to listen. Most of the messages were from Jess’ co-workers, asking how she was doing. Jess was very popular with her fellow employees, her bright personality and her sense of humor making everyone like her. There were three short messages that intrigued Sharon, all from a woman named Lara. Is this who she was asking for? I never heard her talk about anyone named Lara.
Sharon was aware of her sister’s preference for women and, although she didn’t share that preference, didn’t find anything wrong with Jess’ choice. They’d often talked late into the night when Jess had developed a crush and needed someone to confide in. Sharon had always known about any relationship Jess had been involved in, and she’d never heard her mention anyone named Lara.
Desperate for anything that might bring Jess back from the shadow world in which she now walked, Sharon jotted down the telephone number and lifted the receiver to call.
Lara sat on the comfortable old sofa, trying to study the latest revisions to the project plans. Unable to concentrate, she abandoned the task and stood up, deciding to have a cold beer and try to relax. She’d sent her message to Jess on Thursday night and had been delighted to find a return message from the young woman that included her telephone number.
Since then, she’d left three messages for Jess. She’d kept them short, not sure who else might have access to Jess’ answer machine. So far, she hadn’t received a return call. That fact and the absence of Jess daily e-mail message was causing Lara to become increasingly concerned.
The other thing bothering Lara was the change in her dreams. Almost every night of her life, she’d had the same dream. Always, when she’d approached the peaceful mountain lake, the young woman, Gabrielle, was there bathing. Last night, the dream had repeated several times, but now, when she approached the lake, it was empty.
As Lara returned from the kitchen, beer in hand, the telephone began to ring. Trying to curb her anxiousness, Lara let it go to the third ring before answering.
“Hi, you don’t know me, but I’m Sharon Curran, Jess’ sister.”
Lara’s heart almost stopped. Why is her sister calling me and not Jess?
“Well, I was checking our messages and since you called three times, I thought I should let you know what happened.”
“Is something wrong with Jess?” The concern in Lara’s voice quickly blossomed into full blown fear.
“Yeah, well…there was an explosion at the plant Thursday night and Jess has been in the hospital ever since…intensive care. She’s been unconscious since they brought her in. I don’t know who you are, but the only word she’s spoken since the accident is your name. I thought you should know.”
Lara’s mind raced, quickly running the gambit of emotions from fear to despair. Questions fell from her lips in a torrent, allowing no time for breathing in between. “What’s wrong with her? Is she going to be okay? What hospital in she in?”
“She’s at county. She’s got some broken bones, a concussion and chemical burns in her eyes. The doctors said she might be permanently blind”
“What county? For that matter, what state?”
“You don’t know where we live?”
“Look Sharon, its a long story. I’ll explain when I get there. Now, will you tell me where she is or do I have to waste time trying to track her down on my own?”
Lara could almost hear the wheels spinning in Sharon’s mind as she tried to decide what to do. Finally, she answered. “She’s at Cook County Hospital… Illinois.”
“Thanks Sharon, I’ll be there as soon as I can get a flight out.”
Two hours after later, Lara’s plane was departing Philadelphia International Airport en route to O’Hare in Chicago. In the seat next to her was her old friend, Michael Tait. The small, but powerful private jet they traveled on belonged to Michael.
When Lara had hung up from speaking to Jess’ sister, her first call had been to Michael. Lara had known Michael for years, having first met in college. Both were loners in school and quickly discovered that their sexual preferences had put them both on the outs with society. Over the years, they’d ‘dated’, when necessary, to divert suspicion for one or the other of them in professional situations.
Michael had continued his studies after graduation and was now one of the leading eye specialists in the country. He managed a successful practice in the Philadelphia area and was on staff at Will’s Eye Hospital. When Lara had heard that Jess’ eye injuries might be permanent, she’d thought of Michael immediately. If anyone could restore Jess’ vision, it would be Michael.
As soon as Lara had explained the situation, Michael had instructed her to meet him on the tarmac as soon as she could. She’d get there faster in his private jet that if she had to wait for a commercial flight, and besides, Michael was going with her.
Grateful that her old friend was willing to drop everything to help her, Lara tried not to panic on the short flight to Chicago. Michael had arranged to have a limo waiting to take them straight to the hospital.
It was nearly midnight in Philadelphia when they departed. That would put them at O’Hare sometime around 1:00 AM local time. Even with the ride from the airport, Lara would be at Jess’ bedside before 2:00 AM. Too long…she needs me now. I can feel it.
Although she had been able to move heaven and earth in the last two hours, she couldn’t do anything to shorten the travel time. So she tried to relax in her seat and meditate to calm her ravaged emotions.
Unable to concentrate, she gave up and listened to Michael as he made a series of telephone calls to Cook County Hospital, gathering information on the young woman’s condition. Indicating that he would be Jess’ doctor, he requested that the attending emergency room and intensive care physicians be available to meet with him when he arrived.
“Yes, I do know what time it is doctor. I also know that Ms. Curran’s condition must be treated immediately to avoid permanent damage.” Raising his voice slightly, he continued. “So tell those docs to get their dead asses out of bed and BE there when I arrive or I’ll see that the entire hospital is slapped with a malpractice suit so fast that next week you’ll all be wrapping burgers at McDonalds…Got me?”
“Incompetent morons,” Michael muttered under his breath as he hung up the phone. “They’d damn well better be there.”
Lara gazed at her old friend in surprise. She’d never heard him in action before and was amazed at his command of the situation. When he said ‘jump,’ he expected everyone around him to ask ‘How high?’ In his private life, Michael was a gentle, sensitive man, who like Lara, had been emotionally battered by life.
Michael set the phone back in the cradle and turned to Lara. “It’ll be okay honey,” he reassured her, while gently patting her hand. “Even though they’re idiots, they seem to be competent idiots. So far they’ve done everything I’d have done initially, but they’re out of their league. I’m glad you called me, she’ll have to be transferred to Will’s as soon as she regains consciousness and we can stabilize her other injuries.”
Lara tried to suppress the tears threatening to spill from her azure eyes as she squeezed Michael’s hand. Her throaty voice nearly cracked as she said “Thanks old friend.”
Six Weeks Later
As she sat in the comfortable lounge, waiting impatiently for Michael to come for her, Lara thought back on the last few weeks. It had been six weeks since the night Sharon had called and told her of Jess’ accident. So much had happened since then, she was still not sure that it had all been real.
When they had arrived at Cook County Hospital that night, the attending physicians were indeed waiting for Michael. As they whisked him away to a private conference room to review the case, Lara was escorted into intensive care.
Entering the room, she felt a flood of emotions engulf her. Lying in the sterile bed in front of her lay the most beautiful woman she’d ever seen…and she looked exactly as Lara had expected. Here was the vision from her dreams. The honey blonde hair pushed back from her face revealed the same delicate features as the woman from Lara’s fantasies. Even though her eyes were closed and bandaged, Lara was sure they’d be a vibrant emerald color. Her ivory skin was bruised in several places that Lara could see and her right arm and leg were restrained in fiberglass casts.
The tears that had been threatening since she’d gotten the call from Sharon finally escaped her beautiful, sad eyes and she choked back a sob. Gotta be strong Lara…always…you gotta be strong. The mantra from her youth and her recent loss of her mother ran repeatedly through her head.
And she had been strong. She had remained at Jess’ bedside until her sister, Sharon, dragged her away, insisting that Jess would never forgive her if she allowed Lara to starve herself waiting for Jess to awaken. During their meal, Sharon had questioned Lara, getting her to talk about how she and Jess had ‘met’ and become friends, thanks to modern technology.
Over the next several days, Lara found herself often sharing meals and conversations with this bright young woman who shared her love and concern for Jess. As the doctors tried to stabilize her condition and bring her back to consciousness, Lara and Sharon never left the hospital. Michael stayed with them too, occasionally slipping away to conduct business long distance and making arrangements for Jess’ transfer to Will’s Eye Hospital in Philadelphia.
Sharon knew that all this medical attention was necessary, but couldn’t help but worry about how it would all be paid for. One evening at dinner, she asked Lara about that. The older woman looked at her friend’s sister with surprise, then understanding as she remembered what it was like to be without endless resources. Lara reassured Sharon that it would all be taken care of. That, in fact, Lara’s own attorneys were preparing to serve papers on the plant on Jess’ behalf. Sharon would have to sign those since Lara did not have power of attorney for Jess…yet.
Hours turned into days as the two women sat vigil at Jess’ bedside. Sharon leaving only to nap in the waiting room and Lara not sleeping at all but for a few stolen moments in the chair next to Jess’ bed. Sometimes, Jess would call out for Lara from her dreams and Lara would be instantly by her side, holding her hand in a gentle grasp, whispering reassuring words in the still of the night.
Finally, three days after Lara had arrived, Jess’ regained consciousness. Lara was near the edge of sleep, when she heard movement from the bed next to her. She shifted in her chair to take a look and heard Jess call her name. With a sigh, she stood and sat on the edge of the bed, intending to comfort Jess as she had many times over the last few days, only to realize that this time, Jess was really talking to her.
Lara’s joy knew no bounds. She spoke quietly with Jess for a few moments, explaining that she’d been there since Sharon had contacted her. She held Jess’ hand and tried to reassure her that everything was going to be okay and that the doctors would be able to make her whole again. When Jess fell asleep again, it was a natural, healing sleep. Satisfied that things were improving, Lara had climbed into the empty bed next to Jess and fell asleep herself as exhaustion claimed her.
Within twenty-four hours of Jess’ regaining consciousness, Michael had made arrangements to transfer the young woman to Will’s Eye in his jet. Jess, Lara, Sharon and the doctor were medi-vaced to O’Hare Airport where Jess was moved right from the helicopter to the waiting jet. Lara and Sharon kept each other company, while Michael spent the trip monitoring Jess.
Safely ensconced in a private room in the Philadelphia hospital, Jess began a series of operations that would hopefully help her regain her vision. A few days after their arrival, Sharon returned home to resume her classes at Jess’ insistence. After all she’d sacrificed to see Sharon get her degree, she wasn’t going to allow this situation to interfere.
Lara spent as much time as she could with Jess, only leaving her side to take care of essential business. She’d finally been forced to allow others on the project to take care of the details they had been hired for to begin with. Lara practically lived in the hospital. When Jess was sleeping or in surgery, Lara spent her time working on the laptop computer she always carried with her.
They spent many hours talking about their separate pasts and their future together. Lara had even devised a plan to keep Jess with her after her recovery. Knowing that Jess would resist any attempts on her part to support the young woman, Lara was nonetheless determined that Jess never return to her old job again. She’d go insane if she had to worry about her safety constantly. Lara’s attorneys had been able to encourage the multi-million dollar parent company of the plant that Jess would be better off with a nice fat settlement that would allow her to get an education and make a career change.
During their talks, Jess had encouraged Lara to talk about her work just for the enjoyment of hearing her voice. Late one evening, just before falling asleep, Jess had asked Lara if she would take her to see the castle when her eyes got better. Lara made that promise happily as tears of joy slid down her face.
Now, Lara was once again waiting — this time for the final results. Jess had asked Lara to leave the room when Michael came to remove the bandages. She hadn’t wanted Lara to be there to see her reaction if it didn’t work out. She knew she’d break down and didn’t want Lara to see that after everything she’d done for Jess since the accident. This she had to face alone.
It seemed as if she had been waiting forever when Michael entered the waiting room with a wide smile on his face. Lara began smiling too, as her old friend embraced her and exclaimed “We did it…she’d going to be okay.”
“I want to see her, now, please Michael.”
“She wants to see you too Lara.” His double meaning was obvious.
Lara practically ran down the hall to the room she’d shared with Jess over the last few weeks, only managing to slow her step as she reached the door. When she entered the room, Jess was sitting on the side of the bed with her back to the door, brushing her magnificent honey blonde hair. Recognizing Lara’s step from so many days of blackness, she knew who was there before she turned around to face her love.
When she finally turned, she said nothing, just gazed intently at Lara. Finally her gaze settled on tear filled azure eyes. Jess smiled gently and spoke. “I knew you’d be beautiful and you are. You look just like…” Jess paused for a moment, not wanting to scare her love by mentioning the dreams, but Lara had listened to her talk in her sleep and already knew that they shared the dreams. “…like the woman in your dreams, I know. You look just like the woman in my dreams too.” Lara finished the sentence for her.
Lara stepped tentatively toward the younger woman and Jess fell into her arms. The two women held each other for long moments, enjoying the feelings of love and comfort washing over them both.
Stepping slightly back from the young woman, Lara leaned forward and kissed her lightly on the forehead and asked, “Ready to go home?”
“Yeah, lets get out of here.”
A Few Days Later
“Want to take a walk?” Lara asked her lovely companion.
“Sure, it’s beautiful out tonight.”
The two women walked hand in hand, Lara leading the way. This evening they deviated from the normal route of their walks, making a few twisting turns through the suburban community until rounding a final corner, Jess was faced with the vast grounds and buildings of the Mercer estate.
“Want to go inside?” Lara asked with a grin.
“Can we? I mean, aren’t they closed?”
“Yeah,” Lara smiled as she pulled a skeleton key from her pocket, “but I have a key.”
Opening the heavy oaken door, Lara guided Jess into the main library. A welcoming fire was blazing in the fireplace and an ice bucket with champagne and two glasses were set on a cloth covered table next to the antique sofa.
Jess took her time looking around the room. Since almost losing her sight, the young woman spent far more time looking at the world around her than she did speaking. It was almost as if she wanted to be sure she didn’t miss anything in case the darkness claimed her once more. Her eyes came to rest on the champagne next to the fire and she turned to Lara with a smile.
“You planned this, didn’t you.”
Lara was at a loss for words. Romantic gestures unfamiliar to her, she hoped she’d done it right. Jess gazed into her beautiful blue eyes and reached up to brush her cheek with a gentle caress. “It’s perfect, love. Thank you.”
The two women snuggled up together on the sofa in front of the fire and sipped their champagne. After several moments of comfortable silence, Jess took their glasses and set them on the table. Turning to Lara she brushed her lips against the older woman’s and said, “I love you.”
Lara’s eyes shimmered with unshed tears as she responded. “I love you too.”
Jess leaned forward and slid her fingers into the silken mass of Lara’s hair, pulling her lover close for a sweet, sensual kiss. Lara had waited so long for this moment, she didn’t know if she could restrain herself and take it slowly as she’d planned. Their lips melted into each other as their bodies came together, hands everywhere, stroking, caressing.
They undressed each other slowly, discarding each item of clothing in a disorganized pile behind the sofa. Naked at last, they leaned away from each other and looked at each other with devouring eyes. Lara thought she’d never seen a woman as beautiful as Jess and Jess knew that her life would have been incomplete if she had never been allowed to gaze upon the lovely creature in front of her.
Again they came together, kissing and caressing each other’s sensitive bodies until they both were struggling for breath. Lara pulled away and gently pressed Jess back until she was lying full length on the sofa, her honey gold hair in sharp contrast to the royal blue velvet upholstery.
Lara separated Jess’ slender thighs with trembling hands and settled her body between them so that she could taste the treasures the young blonde offered. Dropping soft kisses along the inside of each silken thigh, Lara made her way to the center of her lover’s passion. Softly, slowly trailing her tongue along the moist folds of Jess’ exquisite center, tasting for the first time, the sweetness of her love.
Jess gasped as the older woman made light contact with the swollen nub hidden beneath her folds, her reaction exciting Lara even more…making her feel powerful. Lara loved the young woman’s uninhibited response to her touch. Settling her shoulders under Jess’ thighs, Lara applied gently pressure, forcing her to raise her knees so that Lara could reach her gorgeous breasts.
As Lara’s tongue applied more pressure to the young woman’s slick center, her fingers closed around her nipples and gently roll the hardened tips, lightly rubbing the peaks with her long nails. Unable to take her eyes off Jess’ face…Lara watched her lover respond. Jess’ eyes were half lidded, but Lara could see the fire in them as they meet her own. Her lips were slightly parted and her breathing erratic.
Lara wanted to laugh with joy and triumph that this magnificent young woman was weakened by her attentions…in her complete control, if only for the moment. Feeling her lover’s hips begin to writhe beneath her, she increased the pressure and speed of her tongue. Lara wanted to enter the her love, sink her fingers deep in the tight, warm wetness that she knew awaited her, but Jess’ breasts were just so enthralling that Lara found she could not release them. Next time.
Taking Jess’ swollen clit between her lips, Lara applied gentle torture with quick, circular motions of her tongue. The young woman’s excitement increased and her hips rose from the sofa to meet Lara’s ravishing mouth. Lara took her time, wanting to keep her lover on the edge of orgasm as long as possible.
It was a challenge, taking Jess to the edge time and again…seeing how far she could push the young woman’s sensuous body before she lost complete control. Jess’ breath was coming faster now…Lara wanted to hear her scream her name as she exploded in a torrent of pleasure. She sensed her love had been teased to the end of her endurance. Jess’ hips arched high off the sofa as her release began. Wanting to intensify her pleasure, Lara increase the speed and pressure of her tongue once more and lightly pinched the young woman’s exquisite nipples.
She was rewarded by a flood of honey sweetness and the sound of Jess’s voice keening her name over and over. The young beauty keep coming and coming…Lara didn’t know anyone could orgasm for that long. Finally, her satiated body relaxed onto the sofa, all her muscles limp with release.
Smiling, Lara raised her body over her lover and lay against her inviting curves, leaning down to kiss Jess…sharing the sweet taste of her release on lips and tongues.
“I love you Jess.”
“I’ll always love you Lara…yesterday, today and tomorrow.”