The Night Pickup by Dee

The Night Pickup
by Dee

Part 1
It was 1:30 when dispatch called. Nick had been dozing in front of the bus station, just waiting for the shift to end. She needed to go to home to bed. While the money driving a cab wasn’t bad, and it paid tuition, the long days were getting to her. She could study between fares, but two years of this was a long time.

One more year to go. Shame about the scholarship; so stop feeling sorry for yourself. Your luck just ran out. You killed your knee. So ended the big sport scholarship, the fame, and your future in sports. That’s why you were born with a brain.

The radio sounded, crackling loudly in the closed cab, interrupting her thoughts.

Now what? Let someone else take the call, please.

“Nick, I have a fare for you. “

“It’s late, Mac. I’m almost done.”

“You have it, Nick. Don’t give me shit.”

“So where?”

“Interstate 17, Exit 28, the rest stop.”

“You’re kidding!”

“No. Some dame needs a ride to the closest town.”

“In the middle of the night? No way, Mac. I wouldn’t get home until three or four. I have exams tomorrow.”

“Tough shit. Exit 28.”

“So whose the fare?”

“Some chick. She’ll see you.”

“If I get stiffed, Mac…”

“So take a chance.”

“You know we never go that far, especially at night. Why ?”

“Look. You’re up. Deal with it.”

“Great.”

“So drop her off in Full Moon and go home. See you. Unless you want to work tomorrow.”

“No. I won’t do another shift. Some people have a life outside of this cab, Mac. Thursday night through Sunday is enough. My life sucks as it is and if this is some prank…”

“The longer you complain the longer to get home. Can it.”

“I’m moving. But you owe me one.”

“If you can’t handle it, quit.”

“You are so sympathetic. Bite me. Later, Mac.”

“Later, Nick.” He laughed at her tough attitude. Mac scratched his thinning hair.

One-thirty. I should have just said no.

He replayed the conversation in his mind…

“Bateman Cab.”

There was a pause before a tired woman’s voice spoke up.

“I’m at Exit 28 on US 17, at a rest stop. Can someone pick me up?” Her voice was lifeless.

“Where do you want to go?”

“Is there a town…what’s the nearest town?”

“Full Moon.”

“Ok.”

“You want to go to Full Moon?”

“If you can.”

“It will cost you.”

“I can’t stay here. ” Again, the voice sounded flat, lifeless. “I’ll pay you back.” Then there was nothing as she waited for his answer. She continued in a hopeless tone. “I don’t know what else to do.”

“Yeah, we’ll pick you up. Look for a white cab. It will be a while.”

“Thank you.”

******

Shit, you know you should have sent O’Leary. He was up and working all night. Nick should be going home to bed, but the chick sounded like she could use a friend. So what, I’m a social worker now. I’m going soft for sure. See what happens when you hire women drivers? Nick will take care of her, whoever the hell she is. I’d love to see Nick’s face when there’s no money. Shit. No, I wouldn’t. I’ll never hear the end of this one.

He chewed on his cigar, and opened up his Ellery Queen short stories, wishing he had a fresh pot of coffee.

Whatever. If I drink anymore of my own coffee, I’ll die young. Like you’re young at 63? Young at heart.

He put the incident out of his mind, at least for the present.

Nick drove the 40 miles in silence. It was actually a nice night with fall just coming, the leaves just turning. She could almost imagine seeing the colors in the darkness. The moon was bright, beautiful over the mountains to her left.

Oh well, I wouldn’t have fallen asleep right away, anyway, might as well take a drive. Full Moon is another 20 miles I’ll be home by three. Then I can lay awake until five and feel like hell for my 9 o’clock exam, and be so alert for my classes all day. So, I’ll drink a lot of coffee, just like I always do.

She flipped the radio on.

Maybe I can pick up something from Pittsburgh at this time of night. My hometown… for old times sake. Something classical. How about static? This radio sucks. Of course, the mountains have nothing to do with the poor reception. When did you start talking to yourself anyway? So, who else do you have to talk to, Miss Popularity? So, I don’t have a life. I’ll get through school, and then get a life. Yeah. And find love, and happiness. Yeah. Maybe I’ll even get a job, something besides driving a cab. I’ll head back to Pittsburgh. It’s a big town…I’ll find something, with all my connections, an athletic scholarship, and big dreams fallen through. Why did I stay in school anyway? I’ll get a job, with or without my degree. Or else try modeling again. I’m just getting the degree for Mother anyway. She wanted me to be something she couldn’t be and a promise is a promise, even if she’s dead. Whatever. I’ll get the job done. This road’s so empty. No surprise there, genius. It’s 3 am. I can’t believe someone is at a rest stop at this time of night, without a car. I’m going to kill Mac for this wild goose chase.

She turned off the Interstate. There were one or two cars parked near the bathroom and snack stand. She pulled up in front of the lighted building, letting the taxi idle. No one seemed to be about.

Well, I’ll sit here a while. See if anyone comes out. How long are you going to wait? I’ll wait awhile. I’m already here.

Ten minutes passed, and no fare.

Wonderful. I should just call it a wash and go home. Well, I could beep or I could walk around.

She waited a few more minutes in the lighted cab.

Okay…I’ll walk around. Creepy here in the middle of the night…

She turned off the engine, locking the cab behind her. She stood and stretched. Her six foot frame could only stand to stay sitting in a cramped cab for so long.

I’ll walk around, make a pit stop, grab a soda, and go home to bed. I’m sure there’s no fare here and I’m out the gas money, and the sleep. Whatever.

She shrugged, walking into the bathroom entrance. The small lobby smelled of soap, urine, and cigarettes. A man in his thirties was talking on the pay phone, looking weary and angry. There was no one else.

Okay, I’m looking for a woman.

Nick went into the woman’s bathrooms, took care of herself, throwing some water on her face.

You look like hell.

She did look tired and pale in the harsh bathroom lights. She studied her profile a moment longer.

Why do you keep your hair so long? Just more work for you.

She tossed her long black hair over her shoulder, combing it quickly with a folding comb.

“It brings out the feminine side of you, dear.”

She could almost hear her mother, imagined her smiling as she brushed the long silken hair of her daughter.

“You’re a beautiful woman, Nick. You have your Dad’s hair and eyes.”

“And your charm and grace.” She laughed easily with her mother. “I’m such a lucky girl.”

“I hope so, honey. Beauty and brains, what more could you wish for? You should get an agent, Nick. I still have connections in the fashion business. I know you’d do well modeling. “

“Maybe I’ll try it over the summer.”

“Good. I’ll set it up. I can still pull a few strings.”

“You could go back to modeling yourself, Mom, if you wanted to.”

“No one would want to look at a middle aged woman.”

“You look great, Mom, and you know it. Think about it yourself.”

“Well, maybe. We could do the circuit together this summer and see what happens.”

“It would be fun.”

“Then try school. See what you want to do then.”

“I can’t pass up a chance to play softball. I’d be a nut not to take advantage of the scholarship.”

“I’m proud of you, Nick.”

“I have to go to school, Mom. It’s late.”

“Ok, go! Now you look beautiful.”

“See you tonight.”

Everything ended that spring day…summer plans, modeling, and her mother’s life. A hit and run accident ended it all. She drifted through the last month of her senior year of high school in a daze. She spent the summer with her uncle, and went off to college only because those plans were already made. It was easier to just do it, without thinking or feeling. She played two seasons before she blew her knee and quit the team when she couldn’t play. They wanted her to coach. She had too much talent and insight into the game to just walk away, or so they tried to tell her, but she did just that…walked away from the team, from her friends. She got a small apartment, got a job, and just existed to finish her degree, to then go on, where she wasn’t sure.

She shook her head, ending her reverie, still standing in front of the mirror, in the middle of the night at a roadside rest, lost in thought.

Get a grip. Stop it. Move it. Go home. Whatever. I’ll look around, if I don’t see anybody, I’ll take off.

She dried her hands and strolled outside, heading for the snack machines.

A dollar twenty-five for a soda! Rip-off. Great… out of everything but orange soda. Can’t stomach it. Coffee machine out of order. Snack machine empty. This is a good night.

She looked around at the picnic tables behind the snack hut. Not a single soul was about. No one had approached the cab. The man on the phone earlier climbed into a Buick and took off, fastening his seat belt as he drove. There was another car parked down the way, past the bathroom. She could see a heavyset man sitting behind the wheel, staring ahead, at what she couldn’t imagine. His face, in the overhead lights, was greasy, eyes half closed, his head back.

He’s probably jerking off. Fat slob.

She tried not to look at him as she strolled by, but saw him lick his lips, leering at her as she passed.

In your dreams!

She ignored him, walking around the rest room toward the last group of picnic tables on a hill. She could see someone sitting there alone in the dim light.

Looks like I found my fare.

She started to approach the tables slowly, but not before the freak in the car got out, an erection visible through his pants, zipper half undone. He leaned against the bathroom wall, looking with longing at a blonde woman at the picnic tables.

Great. An empty rest stop, a pervert, and me… and her.

She studied the blonde, sitting on top of one of the picnic tables, feet on a seat, head down.

Christ, she’s crying.

She could see the small shoulders shake, and the woman suddenly wipe her face, almost as if in anger, as her tears continued.

Oh, Mac…what are you doing to me?

Nick studied the woman, as she got nearer. She was thin, with short blonde hair, dressed in jeans and a sweater, probably in her early 20’s. Her eyes looked swollen from crying, even in the half dark, illuminated as she was by a nearby lamppost. When she finally did look up at Nicki’s approaching form, Nick thought her own heart would stop. The woman was simply beautiful, with large green eyes and full lips. Nick stood 20 feet away to talk to her.

“Did you call a cab?”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t see you pull up. “

“Yes, well, I’m parked on the other side of the building.”

The woman gave her a quick embarrassed smile, wiping her face again. She stood awkwardly by the table. Her eyes roamed over Nicki’s tall frame before returning to her face.

“You’re a cab driver?”

“Well, it pays the bills.”

She turned and started to walk back toward the parking lot. She heard the blonde follow her hesitantly. Beth hurried to catch up with the cab driver, having finally looked around at the empty, dark rest stop, seeing for the first time the man leering at her from the shadows.

“Hey, baby…I’ll give you a lift. Save you the cab fare.” The stranger fondled himself crudely. “Make it worth your while. Come on, baby… I can be real nice.”

Nick saw the blonde shudder and spoke up as the man advanced toward them.

“He your type? ” Nick asked casually. The blonde shook her head.

“Keep it in your pants, sport. She’s with me.”

The two women walked past, but the man reached out to grab the blonde’s arm.

“Don’t. ” Nick spoke with a low menace, staring the man down.

He dropped his hand. Then they were at the cab. Nick opened the door and the blonde sank wearily into the back seat. Nick crossed around the car, to sit in the driver’s seat, watching the creep who continued to fondle himself in the darkness. She locked the doors and sat quietly a while longer, hoping the blonde would speak up. Nothing doing. The silence stretched and filled the cab. Finally Nick herself spoke, hearing the girl sniffle again, unwilling to face her tears a second time that night.

“So, you want to go to Full Moon?”

“Your company said it was the nearest town.”

“You have family there?”

Nick spoke casually, watching the blonde in the rear view mirror as the cab pulled out, heading for the interstate. No answer. Nick already knew that the girl was in some kind of big trouble.

Finally the blonde spoke. “Did you say something?”

“Nothing important.” She tried again. “Is anyone expecting you in Full Moon?”

“No.”

Nick slowed the car, and waited in neutral.

“Just drop me there. I’ll be fine.”

“You ever been to Full Moon?”

“No.”

“Didn’t think so.”

Beth really didn’t want to bother this woman, but she had to ask. She was realizing more each moment how precarious her situation was.

“Why? What about Full Moon?”

“Let’s see. There’s a convenience store, 6 houses, and a gas station.”

“And?”

“And nothing. So, if you don’t have family, someone expecting you at 3:30 in the morning, I might as well take you back to the rest stop. At least you’ll be out of the night air.”

“I can’t go back there.” She spoke in a small voice.

Nick could hear revulsion and dread in her voice. “I know.”

“Is there another town? I don’t care. You already know I’ll have to pay your company back for the ride. Just tell me your name. I’m good for it.”

“I know.” Nick was surprised at her own calm acceptance of the fact.

“You’re very kind to…do all this.” She turned her face toward the window, trying to compose herself. “I’m so tired of crying…” She spoke her thoughts out loud to no one in particular.

Nick watched her reflection in silence.

Mac, you owe me one for this, big time.

“You have any money?”

“No. Just the 50 cents for the phone call to the cab company. Maybe I should have taken that creep up on his offer.” She laughed with a bitterness that felt like home. “How much do I owe you for the lift anyway?”

“Guess that depends on how far we go.”

Nick had made up her mind. She pulled the cab back on the road, took the first exit, and doubled back on a parallel road to the interstate, heading toward Buffalo. They rode in silence, Nick watching her fare’s sad face in the mirror.

I’m as bad as Mac.

“You hungry?”

“I’m sorry. What did you say?”

“I need a cup of coffee. You mind if we stop a minute?”

“Not like I have anywhere special to go.”

“Okay.”

“Thanks, by the way.”

“For what?”

“Keeping that creep away from me.”

“We girls have to stick together and nothing is worth letting something like that touch you. Don’t talk like that again.”

“I know. I….” She shrugged, looking out at the night. She never continued.

Thirty minutes later, Nick pulled the cab into the parking lot of an all night diner.

“This OK with you?”

“Sure. Go ahead. I’ll wait here.”

“Naw, come on in. I could use the company. I get tired of myself after awhile.”

The blonde smiled in spite of herself. “You want to buy me some supper? Do I look that bad?”

“Nothing a bowel of chili can’t fix.”

“Chili?”

“The answer to loneliness, and misery; chili, cheese and cornbread.”

“That’s the answer?”

“Works for me.”

“You’re nice. I’m not sure why you’re doing this.”

“Told you. I could use the company.”

“Um…I’m Beth, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Beth. I’m Nick.”

“Nick? Short for?”

“I’m not sure I know you well enough to tell you that secret.”

“Sure you do.”

Nick smiled at her, glad to see her a little calmer, trying to be friendly. “Natasha.”

“As in Boris and Natasha?” The blonde’s eyes sparkled for a moment at the tall woman’s embarrassment, making her face even more stunning.

“You say that again, and you’ll be Boris for the duration.”

“I can do Boris.” She smiled at the brunette as they approached the diner’s entrance. Beth touched Nick’s arm softly. “Thanks for making me laugh. I needed it.”

“Just stop with the Bullwinkle jokes. I’m a lot bigger than you are.”

“You’ve just had more chili and cheese than I have. Makes for good stronk woman like you…” Beth continued in a heavy fake Russian accent.

“I’ve had more late night chili than I care to admit. But it always works better with company.”

They sat down across from each other at a booth along the wall. Beth studied the taller woman quietly. ” The kindness of strangers…”

Nick looked up from the menu, and caught Beth’s open appraisal.

“What?”

“The kindness of strangers…I’m just in your debt. You don’t have to be doing any of this.”

“Well, don’t embarrass me and just don’t tell anyone. It will ruin my reputation.”

“Oh, what reputation is that?”

“Your basic heartless bitch.”

“You need to work harder on that image then. Your mask is slipping badly.” Beth replied quietly, before turning her eyes back to her menu.

The waitress approached with a full pot of coffee.

“Yes.” Nick pointed to her cup. “Beth?”

“Please.”

“And I’ll take the chili and cheese, and cornbread.”

Beth smiled again at her. “You were serious.”

“Very.”

“Make that two.” She smiled in turn at the waitress.

“Right. Coming up.”

The food arrived quickly, and both women ate in silence for a while. Finally, Beth spoke up. “You were right. I do feel better.”

“Of course.” Nick smiled at the blonde across from her. She hesitated before continuing. “Want to talk about it?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

When Beth didn’t volunteer more information, Nick finished her bowl…and signaled for more coffee. “I’ll be right back.” She headed off to the bathroom, hoping Beth would be there when she got back. She found the woman folding a napkin over and over into ever smaller triangles. She sat down.

“Look,” she rushed ahead. “I’m a senior in college. I work driving a cab part time. I live alone. I have a one-bedroom apartment, outside of Buffalo.” She continued nervously. “I don’t smoke or drink. Don’t do drugs. I’m going to head back there now…and you’re welcome to crash there for a while, until…well, until you get on your feet.”

“Nick, you don’t know anything about me. You can’t be taking in strays.”

“Why not?” Nick looked up shyly. “I’ll try anything once.”

“You’re crazy.” Beth shook her head in quiet amazement.

“You like chili and cheese. How bad could you be? And you don’t know anything about me, but I have a great couch. And I’d like to help.” she added softly.

“Why?”

“Seems like the right thing to do…until you figure out where you’re headed…if Full Moon is really the place for you,” Nick added with a half smile.

“I like the name.” Beth smiled back.

“But it’s a sucky place.”

“Does Buffalo have a…woman’s shelter?”

“I think so.”

“It’s got to be bigger than Full Moon?”

“Slightly bigger, yes.” Nick smiled.

“I do need to get on my feet. I wouldn’t be a burden for long. Until I find a shelter or someplace…Or until I work off my debt to you.”

“What, like an indentured servant, you mean?”

Beth nodded.

“Naw. I’m not into slavery. Anyway, the longer you stay, the bigger the debt, what with room and board, the company store. You’ve heard that old song. You’d never get out from under.”

“We’d have to have a contract,” Beth added seriously.

“A contract for what? All you really owe me is a bowel of chili.”

“I’ll think of something. I’ll help you with your schoolwork…and do the wash.”

“Can you cook?”

“A little.”

“Okay. One load of wash, proofread my next paper, and some oatmeal cookies, and we’re square.”

“Your services come rather cheaply.”

“I didn’t say how many oatmeal cookies.”

“Oh, I see. One of those open-ended contracts…”

“Until you get on your feet and put whatever is troubling you behind you. Don’t do the shelter thing unless I get on your nerves. My place, however humble, has got to be better than a shelter.”

Beth smiled in amazement. “Here I am, in the worst mess of my life, without a cent to my name, totally at a loss, and you drop out of the sky…protect me, feed me, house me, show me support and concern. Amazing. Like an unexpected gift, you know, especially memorable like when you thought everyone had forgotten your birthday. Well, I’m just going to go with it. What’s the expression…if it feels right, it is right?”

“Life’s funny.” Nick agreed. “I certainly didn’t expect to find a friend at a roadside rest in the middle of the night.”

“Okay, friend, but I get to call you Natasha. It’s in the contract.”

“Okay, Boris. Let’s blow this joint. I have an exam in the morning. Or shall I say in 4 hours.”

“Sorry.”

“Don’t be. I wouldn’t have slept much anyway.”

“Why not? You have to be tired, working this late.”

“That’s a long story.”

“We’ll have to swap stories sometime. I bet I get the “You can’t be serious” award.”

“I don’t know. What do they say, if I didn’t have bad luck…”

“I’d have no luck at all.” Beth continued. “Been there, done that.”

“So, we make a good team.” Nick smiled at her.

“Yes. Maybe we do at that, Natasha. Take me any place you’re headed. I’m forever in your debt.” She added more seriously.

“Oatmeal cookies. Think oatmeal cookies.”

“I should feel some doubt, some apprehension going home in the middle of the night with a complete stranger, shouldn’t I?”

“Well, I should feel some hesitation welcoming a stranger into my home, shouldn’t I?”

“But you don’t?”

“Nope.”

“Neither do I.”

****

Nick parked the cab a few houses down from her building, and watched the sleeping blonde a moment.

I have no idea what I’m doing. This is dangerous, you know. If she knew you were into women, she wouldn’t be sleeping so peacefully now, or be so willing to come home with you. Well, I’m not going to take advantage of her. Don’t I wish. She’s beautiful and she likes you, trusts you. When was the last time that happened? Don’t blow it. You could use a friend as much as she could. I could use more than a friend. Cut it out. Don’t even go there. You and the creep with the hard on, waiting in line. Can’t I just like her and want to help her? Right.

“Beth?” The blonde didn’t stir. “Beth?”

Well, so open the door and wake her up.

The sound of the door’s latch made Beth turn slightly, but she still slept soundly. Nick bent down, squatting, and shook Beth’s foot.

“Beth?” Nick shook her shoulder. Nothing. “Beth?” She hesitated, and then cautiously she gently rubbed the girl’s cheek to wake her, hoping not to startle her. Beth turned toward the hand touching her. Nick inadvertently touched her lip. Beth’s eyes fluttered open.

“Oh…”

“You’re hard to wake up. We’re here.” Nicki tried to cover her own embarrassment with a casual smile. “You must be tired.”

Beth smiled warmly at Nick. “Exhausted.” She sat up, moving closer to Nick as she waited outside the cab. “I can’t believe I fell asleep like that.”

“Hey, driving in a quiet car at 4 in the morning will do that to you.”

“Not me. I haven’t slept well in a long time.”

“Then it’s the boring company.” Nick smiled, happy the girl felt at ease with her.

“That, somehow I doubt.” Beth smiled.

“Come on. Welcome to Chez Nick.”

“Chez Nick?”

“The original 2nd floor walk-up.”

Beth followed Nick up worn and heavily painted porch steps, through a slightly warped but sound red front door, up carpeted steps. The carpet was thin, faded, but clean. She could smell the aromas of a thousand cooked meals that had soaked into the walls and carpets. Beth walked quietly, imitating Nick, through the hall toward the rear of the building, and stood while Nick opened a dead bolt, flicking a light on inside the small apartment. The place was utilitarian at best. The small kitchen was lit with overhead florescent bulbs. Nick headed there, for a bottle of cold spring water.

“Want something to drink?”

“No thanks.”

With bottle in hand, Nick led Beth through the plain but cozy rooms. “Pardon the books and clutter. I use the kitchen table to study.

Here’s the bathroom. I’ll get you a clean towel. The bedroom is through there. I need to get you something to sleep in, if you want?”

“Sure. Okay.”

“And let me grab a sheet and blanket for the couch. Help yourself to the bathroom, while I get organized.”

She turned to go into the bedroom and her dresser, but found Beth just standing where she had entered the apartment, looking overwhelmed, on the verge of tears again.

“It’s not much, I know, but…ugh, don’t cry, Beth. Whatever it is, it will get better. It will be okay.”

Beth sank down on the nearest chair, and cried, her shoulders heavy with racking sobs.

Shit. Nick hated to see the girl cry. She turned to grab a box of Kleenex from the bathroom and silently handed it to the blonde. She stood there awkwardly, shifting her weight from foot to foot, terribly troubled to see the stranger so shaken by life’s hardships. Finally, she sat down on the floor in front of Beth, Indian style, tentatively touching her knee.

“Hey, it’s not that bad an apartment. We do have indoor plumbing. And the roof doesn’t leak.”

“I’m sorry, Nick. You’re being so nice to me. I’m such a wreck. You need to get some sleep.” She tried to smile, and wiped her face, disgusted again at the helplessness she felt, but she wanted to explain. “When you were little, did you ever get lost?”

“Once.”

“Were you scared?”

“After I figured out my brave adventure had backfired.” Nick was surprised to find herself talking about her past. “I went into the city with my parents. I was four. We went into Kaufman’s, the big department store. I thought I knew where the toys were, and dashed off, up the escalator, and found myself surrounded by the tallest strangers, all rushing by, stepping around me. I felt so alone in that crowd, until some woman in a brown suit and the ugliest hat bent down and talked to me. I just remember looking at her, wanting her to make it all right, and took her hand. I just stopped looking at all the strangers, and clung to her like a lifeboat in a storm at sea.”

“What did she say to you?”

“Come on, little girl. It will be okay.” Then she smiled, and I knew everything would be all right.”

“Well, even though I’m crying like an idiot, I’m clinging to you like a lifeboat, Nick. Thank you, for helping me feel not so alone, or so lost, for sharing your refuge.” She wiped her eyes again, and stood up with renewed determination. “Can I take a shower?”

“Sure. I’ll get you a towel. And a new bar of soap.”

“Just the towel is fine.”

`”I steal my soap from the best hotels.”

“It’s the only kind I use.”

Nick jumped up, went to a hall closet, and returned with a large fluffy bath sheet. “My one indulgence…nice soap and decadent towels.”

“I’ll get cleaned up.”

“I’ll make up the sofa.”

“Don’t fuss. Just a pillow and a blanket.”

“Hey, I take good care of my indentured servants.”

“I can see that.”

“Go! Shower! There’s a new toothbrush in the medicine cabinet.”

“All right, already. I must really smell.”

****

When Beth returned to the living room, only a small table lamp was on in the corner of the room, the sofa made up with sheets and blankets, a clean pillow case covered a down filled pillow. A large T- shirt was draped across the sofa’s arm. Nick had closed the bedroom door. No light was visible from there, but Beth could hear faint strains of Debussy filtering from the darkened room. It was almost 5:30 in the morning.

Well, Beth, you wanted to regroup, to start over. And here you are, like a new babe, wrapped in a towel, with nothing but memories, a stranger in a strange place. Poor Nick. She doesn’t know what or who she has sleeping in her house. Just a blonde. That’s all I ever wanted anyone to see, though, isn’t it? Just me.

She crawled gratefully between crisp, new sheets that smelled of potpourri, and was asleep as soon as her eyes closed.

Eight o’clock in the morning rolled by much too soon. The alarm sounded harshly in Nick’s ear. The sun was too bright. She felt like cold spaghetti. She dashed into the bathroom, muttering to herself, until the shower woke her fully. She dressed quickly in jeans, a cotton shirt, and sandals. She paused a moment to smile at Beth, sleeping peacefully, hugging the blankets to her chest, like she must have done with a teddy bear or doll. Nick saw none of the anguish and sadness in her still face of repose. She folded her books quietly, stuffing them and her notebooks in her backpack. She paused once more before flying out to the cab and campus.

A note, leave her a note.

Morning, Beth. Hope you had a good rest. I have a 9 o’clock class. I’ll be through by four. I don’t have to work tonight. Make yourself at home. It’s a bright new day. Nick

****

Beth stretched, opening her eyes to bright sunlight, and a strange room. She blinked, sitting up, puzzled for a moment, until she remembered Nick and her chili.

It’s one o’clock. If I didn’t have to go to the bathroom, I would have slept all day, but I do feel better, finally. Chili, a shower, a warm bed…I’m a new woman. Well, I am a new woman, I guess. Just Beth. Not a good name. Beth who? Beth Boris. Think Nick will figure that one out? Subtle I’m not. Still no one else will know.

****

Nick was surprised at just what a good mood she was in all day, despite not getting enough sleep. Rather than feel burdened by Beth’s presence, she was looking forward to going home for the first time in a long time.

Pathetic, Nick. Are you so starved for friendship, companionship? Seems so. Stop deluding yourself about Beth. She’s there because she has nowhere else to go, not because she chooses to be there. Wise up, before you get hurt. You’ve known her what, 3 hours? All right, already. It is still nice to go home to someone. Like you even know she’s still there.

Her good mood was replaced by a more somber realism, as she walked down the hallway toward her apartment.

You’re doing her a favor, Nick. Get a grip. She’ll be gone in a few days, if she’s not already . Your life will go back to normal. You are just a cab ride, and a couch for the night, woman.

She unlocked the door, hesitating before entering. Taking a deep breath despite herself, she opened the door, prepared to face an empty apartment and couldn’t help but smile when she saw Beth in the kitchen, and smelled fresh baked cookies.

“Hi.” Beth called to the tall brunette. “Hope you don’t mind if I took over your kitchen? Or that I put your books back on your bed?”

“Great. I mean, no, I don’t mind. Something smells good. How are you feeling today?” Nick spoke seriously for the moment.

“Better. I slept well. I folded the sheets and blanket, and stuck them in the closet. So you can use the couch.”

“All right.”

“How are you holding up?”

“Good. Actually great, thanks. I think I aced the exam. Classes were cool.”

“You look different in the daylight.”

“Good different, or bad different?” Nick smiled quizzically.

“Good different.”

“Care to expound?”

“No.” Beth smiled mischievously. “I made peanut butter cookies. You don’t have any oatmeal.”

“I’m surprised you found anything to make cookies with. I’m hardly home. I don’t really cook. No, I can’t really cook.”

“Good thing, then, that you have an indentured servant.”

“Beth,” Nick sat down at the kitchen table, “I’m joking about the indentured servant thing. You do know you don’t owe me anything. Right? If you have someplace you’d rather be, or need to be, I can…”

“Well, I… If you’d rather, I know I’m intruding,” Beth replied.

“No, wait, Beth. I just didn’t want you to think…I want you to stay.”

I can’t believe I just said that. Great, you’re begging. She’ll feel more obliged.

“You do?” Beth smiled incredulously.

“Well, yes, I do. I like you. I don’t know why.”

“I don’t know why you’d like an emotional wreck either, who…”

“No, I didn’t mean it that way. I… I feel like, well…I was looking forward to coming home. You’ll think me a complete nut case. I’m not very good with words.”

“I feel comfortable with you as well, Nick. Not just grateful. I’d like to be your friend. No matter what, you know? You’re the first person in a long while that just cared…with no hidden agendas.”

“You don’t call oatmeal cookies a hidden agenda?”

“You don’t even know if I can cook.” She smiled wickedly. “It may have been my cookies that got me into my predicament. You did hear of the Great Cookie Scandal, didn’t you?”

“No, but I’ve got all night.”

Beth grew serious. “You probably have a thousand questions about me.”

“No. Not that I’m not curious and concerned, but if you want to tell me, you will. I wouldn’t ask for information you didn’t feel comfortable sharing.”

“See why I’d like to be your friend?”

“No.”

“You’re nice, kind, nonjudgmental.”

“But then, I haven’t tasted your cookies.” Nick smiled at her innocently.

“Would you like a cookie?” Beth asked formally, holding the plate out for Nick to reach.

“Thought you’d never ask.” She munched happily on the offering.

“Well, I know what I’m having for supper. What about you?”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Did you eat today?”

“Well, no, but…”

“Not into peanut butter, Campbell’s soup, and cereal?”

“Actually, they’re my favorites, but…”

“But you’re standing on formalities? Afraid you’ll eat me out of house and home? Waiting to be asked?”

“I didn’t want to presume.”

“Beth, even indentured servants have to eat. I should go to the store and buy some real food, you know, fruits and all those funny vegetables, what with company and all. Are you up for some grocery shopping?”

“You’re asking me with a straight face if I like to shop?”

“I take that as a yes?”

Beth nodded.

“Oh, and I need to stop at the cab company office to pick up my check, then we’re good to go. “

“Which brings me back to feeling like a leech.”

“A leech?”

“You know, one who sucks another dry, a freeloader, a…”

“Stop. I thought we had this conversation.”

“It’s my pride talking. I hate to take advantage of you.”

“Just what did you have in mind, anyway?”

I didn’t say that out loud! Sexual innuendoes are not cool.

“Oh, good one. Don’t worry. I always pay well for special favors,” Beth parried easily with Nick. “When I have cash.”

Stop it, Nick.

But her mouth kept talking. “And when you don’t?”

“Then we get back to the indentured servant thing. Or a very good line of credit.”

Don’t, Nick.

“Well, that can be arranged.” Nick was suddenly embarrassed at the question she thought she saw in Beth’s eyes. She stood, and tossed a cookie toward the blonde. “Have a cookie. They’re very good. Let’s do shopping. Hey, do you need anything? I mean, let’s get you some clothes, so you can wash those.”

“I think my line of credit is already stretched too thin.”

” I don’t think my stuff will fit you very well. If you promise not to tell anyone my secret, I’ll take you to my favorite boutique. We can pick up some things your size.”

“Really, Nick, I can’t expect you to…”

“You’ll pay me back, right?”

“Right, but…”

“What you don’t know is just how exclusive my boutique is.”

“All the more reason not to…”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk. Do you believe in careful spending?”

“For sure, right now I do.”

“Do you believe in recycling?”

“Yes, but…”

“Do you try to help you fellow neighbors, support charities?”

“I have done so, but…”

“So, the store closes at 6. Would it gross you out to browse through the racks of the Goodwill Industry Thrift Store?”

“I guess not. I’ve never…”

“Maybe that sounded like I was unwilling to spend real money on you. We can go anywhere you want, but I really do shop there.

You know, stretch the old dollar; pre-washed jeans, great coats. Lots of the college students buy there, at least in Buffalo and after a good wash, but, if it grosses you out, we can…”

“No, let’s do it.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ll try anything once, Nick.” Beth smiled as she repeated Nick’s line from last night.

“Instead of a pair of jeans for $35, you can get 4 pair for $10, and shirts are a dollar. Sometimes they have a dollar-a-bag special.”

“You really do get stuff there.”

“I told you. Hope you don’t think I’m some kind of a creep.”

“You’re on your own, right? Earning money working, paying your own tuition, and rent?”

“Yes. That’s another long story.”

“And you’re doing just fine. So, teach me how to make ends meet. God knows I need the instruction right about now. And pre-washed jeans go for $60-$80 in the big cities.”

“Suckers.”

“Yes, I guess it is stupid, when you think about it. I would love to have something else to wear. These jeans are a little ripe.”

“I don’t do underwear at the Thrift Store.”

“That’s okay. I don’t do underwear.”

Nick raised her eyebrow at that statement, and Beth just shrugged. “Don’t tell anyone my secret.”

“My lips are sealed.”

They walked down to the car with a camaraderie that just seemed natural.

“Now, for the fine points of Thrift Store shopping. ” Nick held the door open for Beth, as they entered the storefront.

“Yes? I’m all ears.”

“Don’t look any of the other customers in the eye.”

“Okay.”

“It’s easy to sort out the ‘you should have just thrown this out’ quality, from the ‘you threw this out?’ quality.”

“Okay.”

“Some big stores donate new merchandize at the end of the season, the stuff that didn’t sell. Look at the tags, that’s the ‘never washed’ quality.”

“Got it.”

“What size are you?”

” A six or eight.”

“Are you genetically sleek or starving? I’m jealous.”

“Ha Ha. Like you have anything to be jealous about.”

“True. Not many of us are lucky enough to be 6 feet tall, female, and be genetically barred from wearing heals.”

“Hey, if you’ve got, flaunt it. That’s what I always heard.”

“Maybe you, but not me.”

“You’re kidding, right? How many five foot 4 centerfolds do you know? I need heels to just look out the window.”

“Glad to see you haven’t lost your sense of humor. Come on. Let me find you a selection. What kind of clothes do you like? Designer jeans, silk blouses, ultraseude, right?”

“Well actually…”

“So, I got your number. Let’s see what we can find.” She started rapidly sorting through racks.” Stop me if you see something you want.”

“You’re going too fast.”

“Grab a cart. Over there by the door.”

“All right. Be right back.”

Beth returned to find Nick with six or seven jeans on her arm, a pair of corduroy slacks and a pair of navy wool slacks that did look new.

“Do you want to try these on?”

“Sure.”

“The dressing room is that wooden booth with a curtain across the doorway.”

“And if someone decides to come in while I change?”

“I’ll be right over to guard the door.”

“My hero.”

“Well, since you don’t wear any…” Nick smiled a crooked half smile.

“Don’t spread it around, Natasha.”

“Okay, okay…not so loud with the name. What kind of shirts?”

“You pick. I like your taste.”

“Sweaters or sweat shirts?”

“Either.”

“Blazers or wind breakers?”

“Blazers.”

“Need a winter coat?”

“Not yet.”

“Skirts?”

“Maybe one.”

“Cool. I’ll be over in a few minutes.”

“You have this shopping thing down to a science.”

“Well, I hate to shop. I just get something when I desperately need it, but it’s kind of fun picking things out for you.”

“Why?”

“Well, I never got to dress up dolls when I was little.”

God, I’m flirting with her….

Beth punched her in the arm, and turned away, only to see a pile of hats on the counter near her. She found a blue and white conductor cap that looked new. She grabbed it, surprising Nick by pulling it down snugly on her head.

“What the…”

“It’s you. I insist.”

“Looks good?”

“Definitely. It’s either that or the Indy Jones hat. Either makes a statement.”

“I like Indiana Jones.”

“Maybe you should take both.”

“Go. Try on those slacks. The store closes in 20 minutes. “

“I can’t go that fast!”

`”Sure you can.”

“You’re pulling too many things off the rack anyway. I’ll never…”

Just then, the overhead speaker crackled.

“Shh. Listen.”

“The Monday Store Special, until closing, a dollar a bag. All clothes except winter coats. Shoes excluded.”

“Not a dollar a bag?” Beth asked in amazement. “Puts a whole new slant on high fashion!”

Nick smiled like a small happy child. “I can get a lot into a bag. You’ll have a new wardrobe that puts mine to shame.”

Beth rushed off to the single dressing room. She soon found two pair of jeans that really looked good.

“Beth?” Nick approached the curtain with an arm full.

“Hand them in. I’m half naked.”

“I’ll throw them on top of the rod.”

Suddenly a pile of shirts, shirts, blazers, and slacks almost bent the rod. “Nick, what are you trying to do, wear me out? I have ten minutes.”

“So, stop talking and move it, woman.”

“Ugh. Nick?” Beth called to her as she waited outside by the racks.

“What?”

“Will you take back what I don’t want?”

“Sure.”

“How many should I take?”

“Well, let’s see. A dollar a bag, ten or so items per bag, plus my hat. I have $25 on me. How about 50 items?”

“Okay. I get the point. Catch.”

Three pair of pants and two shirts flew over and hit Nick in the face. “Hey, watch it!”

“You told me to hurry!”

The pile of clothes shrunk rapidly and more things flew through the air toward Nick. In five minutes, the blonde exited the dressing room, with a pile of clothes on her arm. She smiled at her new friend.

“This is amazing, Nick.”

“Cool, yes?”

“Cool. Do you need anything?”

“No, I’m good. Except my new hat.”

“My treat.”

“You’re too good to me, Boris.”

“Naturally, darlink.”

“You really have that Russian accent down.”

Nick deposited the rejects in another shopping cart. “Didn’t you like the blue blazer? It’s an Ann Klein, 100% wool. I think it might even be cashmere.”

“I didn’t want to take too much.”

“Did it fit?”

“Actually it did.”

“Probably goes for $300 retail.”

“You talked me into it.”

The sales clerk tallied up the purchases, folding each item and laying them into a large gray bag. Nick pulled her hat off, “And this.”

“That will be $3.00. The hat is a dollar.”

“Two bags and a hat. $3.00.” Beth repeated, in quiet amazement.

“Okay. ” Nick reached into her pocket for the cash, but saw a wallet on the counter, and a new suede and corduroy baseball cap. “These too.”

“Five dollars and fifty cents and we’re closing in two minutes.”

“Thanks.” Beth picked up a large bag, heading toward the door, as the lights flickered, then shut off in the rear of the store.

“I think they are trying to tell us something.”

Nick grabbed the other bag, setting the wallet on the top of it, and followed Beth out to the parking lot. The clerk locked the doors behind them.

“Made it. A new wardrobe in fifteen minutes.”

“Incredible.” Beth laughed, smiling as Nick placed the baseball cap backwards on her short blonde hair.”

“Perfect.” Nick paused dramatically to scrutinize the hat.

Beth laughed again. “Now I look like the perfect dyke.”

“Hey, some of my best friends are dykes,” Nick joked, trying not to reveal too much, the disappointment she felt at the slight she couldn’t help but feel. Beth’s next line gave her a reprieve.

“Mine too, Nick. Mine too.”

Nick put the bags in the back seat, smiling at Beth as she climbed in the front seat with her. “I need to run over and pick up my check.”

“All right with me.”

“Then we’ll do some groceries.”

“I’ll make supper.”

“Or we could grab a bite.”

“I actually want to look at all my new clothes. This is so neat. I love bargains and I just found the treasure cove of bargains.”

“The mother of all bargains.” Nick joined in the light banter.

“Really!”

“We should run a wash.”

“I can do it tomorrow.”

“Okay. The laundry is in the basement. “

“Anything you need washed?”

“You twisted my arm. I need to warn you.”

“About what?”

“The price tags are stapled on. Expect some broken nails.”

Nick parked the cab in the lot along with five other white Fords.

“I’ll be right back.”

“Take your time. I’m going to flip and find a station.”

“The radio is worthless.”

“I have to try.”

“Knock yourself out.”

Beth watched her disappear into a gray looking building next to a garage, and shrugged, shaking her head in amazement.

If I didn’t know you any better, Beth, I’d say you were almost happy.

Nick strolled slowly toward the dispatcher who had looked up quickly, then chose to ignore her until she loomed a few inches from his face.

“Mac….” Nick let her voice drop into a deeper octave, and spoke with a low menace.

“Well, hello there, Nick. How are you this fine Monday? Get to class all right?”

“No, thanks to you,” she growled.

“Now, Nick, don’t do anything foolish.”

“Mac….”

“I thought I’d hear from you this morning. I’ll make it up to you. I included $15 extra in your check for gas.”

“You knew the fare wouldn’t be paid?”

“Now, Nick, she seemed like she was really in trouble.”

“And….”

“And if I sent O’leary, she’d still be sitting there.”

“You mean I wasn’t even up?”

“Well, not technically.”

“Not technically?”

“I couldn’t send O’leary. You know he’s such a cold bastard.”

“And I’m what, Mac?”

“Well, I know some of the guys call you a heartless bitch.”

“And?”

“And I know you don’t take any shit from the boys.”

“And?” she paused again dramatically. When he just shrugged, she continued. “So, I want the weekend off.”

“Nick, you always work Friday and Saturday nights.”

“For two years, Mac. Class Monday through Friday, and that miserable cab Thursday night, Friday night, then all day Saturday and Sunday. As a matter of fact, I should ask for Friday, Saturday and Sunday off.”

“Nick, I can’t cover all three nights, not on a weekend. You know people tip better on the weekend and a lot of short fares around town. Lots of tips.”

“Mac….”

“Okay. How about Friday night off?”

“And Saturday.”

“All of Saturday?”

“You owe me.”

“All right, but then we’re even.”

“No, we’re not. ” She picked up her check, and pocketed it.

“What do you mean, we’re not?”

“I just wanted to thank you.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, thanks for getting me to meet her.” She strolled out calmly, to the chagrin of the dispatcher.

“Why that wise-ass, manipulating bitch!” He smiled after her retreating form. “I knew she’d help the kid.”

Nick looked happy as she approached the cab.

“Get a bonus or something?”

“Actually, you’re entirely off the hook. As in free of your indentured servitude.”

“What? No more oatmeal cookies?” Beth smiled, not sure if she was happy or oddly disappointed.

“Free as a bird.”

“Why?”

“Because of you, I got Friday and Saturday off from work, the first weekend off in two years.”

“Why because of me?”

“Mac felt guilty about sending me out on a freebie last night. He knew when I found out, I would kill him.”

“You mean that you didn’t know I couldn’t pay for the ride before you got there?”

“Nope. It was a surprise.”

“And you didn’t just get angry, abandon me, whatever?”

“Nope. “

“And you’re not mad at me?”

“Nope.”

“And you still fed me and took me home.”

“Yep.”

“Why?”

“Don’t know. Just glad I did.”

Beth studied the brunette as she sat at the wheel, buckling her seat belt, and then backed out of the cab’s parking lot. Nick was humming unconsciously. “I’m glad you did too, Nick.”

Beth’s words seemed to carry an emotion buried just deep enough for Nick to search for, but not quite find. She met Beth’s eyes a moment, startled by the openness and affection she saw. She let her own eyes convey maybe more than she wanted, before changing the subject, disturbing the unsettling connection she felt with the blonde.

“Hey, you got the radio to actually pick up a station. Classical. Cool.”

“Shall we go shopping? I think I’m hungry all of a sudden.” Beth spoke up after a few moments of silence.

An hour and a half later, Nick pushed her plate away with a sigh of contentment.

“What do you call these?”

“Meat patties… just a little more flavorful than plain burgers.”

“They were good. Thanks. Everything was good. Even those funny vegetables.”

“I’m glad. Up for cookies and milk?”

“Definitely. “

“I’ll do oatmeal cookies tomorrow.”

“Wait until we finish these first.” Nick regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth.

Like she’s going to be around and make you cookies in a few days. Right.

“All right.” Beth responded happily, speaking spontaneously, but then she grew embarrassed again about being a burden. “If you don’t mind my hanging around a while,” she added more quietly.

Nicki smiled with a confidence she didn’t feel. “Don’t mind at all. Well, I have to study.”

“Let me clear the table.”

“No. I can study in the bedroom. “

“I noticed you don’t have a desk.”

“I can flop on the bed.”

“Not. Don’t change your routine for me, or I’ll feel badly.”

“Maybe I’m glad to change my routine.” Nick spoke her thoughts aloud and was embarrassed again.

Beth only smiled kindly at her admission. “Change is sometimes a good thing, isn’t it?”

“Yes, it is sometimes. I’ll go get my books.”

“I’ll clean off the table, and get the dishes done.”

“I should help.”

“Not. Work. You have some studying to do.”

Nick smiled at the concern she saw in Beth’s eyes.

The women worked in silence. Beth finished up in the kitchen and smiled as she walked by, seeing a frown on Nick’s face as she read some problem, scribbling hurriedly. Beth was amazed that she felt unexpectedly comfortable here with Nick. There was just something about the tall brunette, something familiar, warm, and welcoming. She strolled toward a bookshelf she noticed earlier, but then changed her mind. The clothes.

She quickly emptied the bags, and unfolded each item. She tackled the stapled tags, one by one, trying not to tear the material, using her fingernails to pry open the back of the staples.

“Ouch!” She shook her finger a moment, having managed to pierce her fingertip with one of the staples.

“Been there, done that.” Nick looked up to see Beth suck her finger. “Want some help? Or a knife to get those pesky stables out?”

“No, I’ll get them.”

“Clothes okay?”

“Really, they are great. I’ll look vastly better once I get some clean clothes on.”

“You couldn’t look vastly better. You already look good.”

Stop it Nick. Well, she does look good.

“Thanks, I think.” Beth laughed. “Maybe later, you can show me where the laundry is?”

“I’m almost up for a break.”

“No rush. I’m going to read. Hey, can I steal some paper and a pencil?” Beth asked in afterthought.

“Sure. What kind of paper do you want?’

“Do you have any unlined stuff?”

“Over there by the printer, and my still running ‘despite being hopelessly outmoded’ computer.”

Beth walked over to find a package of printer paper.

“Thanks.”

“Pencils and pens are in that mug.”

“Got it.” Beth moved to the bookcase, looking for a hard book. She found a high school yearbook, which was large enough to be a work surface. She kicked off her shoes, and crawled onto the couch, folding herself at one end. She studied Nick’s face and hair, the lighting, the shadows on the table.

God, she’s beautiful; the perfect subject.

She bent over her paper, her pencil quietly sketching and shading. She really didn’t need the eraser that was missing from the pencil she had grabbed. It was a #1, soft lead, with a good point. Soon, she was lost in the artwork, the task of capturing the incredible woman who had taken her in. She was finishing the background of the drawing, the window and checkered curtains, the old-fashioned wooden wall clock, when she felt Nick looking over her shoulder.

“You like?” She smiled up over her shoulder.

“Wow. “

“Wow? That’s all you have to say?”

“Double wow. You are really good. Have you studied? What other medium do you work in?”

“I like charcoal the best…pencil’s fun. Watercolors I do. I hate acrylic and oil.”

“Do you do landscapes as well?”

“I can, but I like portraits the best.”

“You could sell your sketches. You have a real talent.”

“You mean I could do one of those starving artist’s displays?”

“Sure, on the sidewalk, on a quilt and a folding chair. Or portraits while you wait.”

“I like your sense of humor there, Natasha.”

Nick looked over her shoulder again toward the sketch. “Don’t forget to sign that. Can I have it?”

“Shall I sign it Beth or Boris?”

“Boris, and as corny as it may seem, you really could sell sketches. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a good likeness.”

“You’re a pleasure to draw.”

Pleasure to…Shut up, Nick. Don’t go there.

Beth signed the sketch . ‘Boris 9/99’ and handed it to Nick with a flourish. “A token of my affection and gratitude.” she spoke formally.

“I’m honored, Madame. I’ll cherish it always.”

Beth winked at her, and stood to stretch. “This is a comfortable couch.”

“Well worn.”

“Just broken in. Do you want to show me the laundry?”

“Gladly. I could use the walk.”

“I could put a load on tonight.”

“No. It’s late. Let me show you the laundry room. And if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to go to sleep. I think I’m beat. Long night last night. Do you mind?”

“Of course not. “

“I feel like I’m abandoning my guest, though.”

“So what am I? A guest, indentured servant, or a friend?”

“Anything you want to be,” Nick replied too quickly in an unconsciously flirtatious tone. Then she kicked herself.

Stop it, Nick. Stop the double entendre. You’ll freak her out and she’ll be gone.

She continued smoothly, she thought, covering her blunder.

“As the artist in residence, you get unlimited freedom of choice. You know, one of those extra perks, that have no real monitory value.”

“Thanks, Nick. You are sweet and a gracious hostess.”

“If I were a gracious hostess, I’d offer you the bed, not the couch.”

“Not. You have classes. You need your rest especially since I kept you up most of last night.”

“Yes, but it was worth it.” She winked at the blonde, before they turned to walk down the steps into the basement.

Ugh. You are digging yourself such a big hole and if you’re not careful, you’re going to fall into it.

Beth didn’t seem to mind as she chuckled, and blushed a delightful shade of pink.

“I do aim to please.”

Beth, you are playing with fire here. You promised you weren’t going to do this again. I know. You don’t need another heartache.

“What?” Nick spoke up. “Did you say something?”

“I hope not.” Beth answered softly, preoccupied.

Nick turned on the step to catch the blonde’s expression, but Beth looked away, eyeing the dark basement. Down ten steps later, Nick stopped, turning quickly on the bottom of the dark stairway, to reach for the light switch and ran right into Beth as she advanced down the last two steps.

“Ump. Sorry.” Nick jumped back, embarrassed by the close contact, and even more by her arms that had reflexively held the blonde upright. She pulled her arms away as if burned. Beth smiled at Nick’s embarrassment.

She is so cute…and she feels so wonderful.

She mulled over her next comment before she spoke.

“I don’t mind,” she finally laughed. “You’re not the first beautiful woman who’s bumped into me in the dark.”

Wow…I’m so bad, but I don’t think I’m wrong about her and honestly; I really need some affection, some warmth right now. I’m just so tired of being alone.

She unconsciously blew her breath up her face, getting her bangs out of her eyes, to cool the flush she felt.

Nick was again surprised by the woman.

Is she hitting on me? Can’t be. I better just stay loose, show her the washer and dryer, then get back up, go to bed before I make an ass out of myself.

Nick avoided the sparkling green eyes that seemed to invite just the response she’d love to make.

“So,” she turned away abruptly, “here are the washer and dryer. Laundry soap is upstairs, under the sink. The washer takes three quarters and it usually takes two runs for the dryer to get everything completely dry. I’ll leave the change for the morning.”

Beth heard, despite the matter-of-fact tone, the underlying nervousness in Nick’s voice. She was, however, determined. She knew what she needed then more than anything. She stepped into Nick’s space again, stopping inches away from the suddenly jittery brunette.

“Nick?”

“What?”

“Can I ask you something personal?”

“Well, sure. Maybe, I guess…”

“You don’t sound too sure of what you want.” She continued, trying to stay ambiguous herself, just in case she was wrong about the beautiful college student. Then she saw Nick’s blue eyes darken, as her pupils got large.

“Oh, I know what I want.”

Beth smiled, and let her eyes roam from Nick’s intense eyes to her full lips.

“What did you want to ask me, Beth?”

“Well, I was wondering how my line of credit was.”

Nick found her hand moving on its own accord to adjust a tuft of Beth’s hair that had fallen into her eye. She smiled at the question.

“I guess that depends on how far we go.”

Beth caught the fingers that lingered on her check. “Are we talking about the same thing?” Beth asked in a sexy voice.

“God, I hope so. ” Nick’s own voice was husky. “Because from where I’m standing, you could have just about anything you want. Your credit is that good.”

“Anything?” Beth moved Nick’s long fingers gently across her check, letting her eyes gaze openly into Nick’s. She let the desire that was rapidly filling her thoughts show.

“You’re not the first beautiful woman that’s bumped against me in the dark either,” Nick murmured.

Beth pulled Nick’s fingers against her lips, and then softly kissed her palm.

Nick inched closer. “But it’s been quite a while. Too long.”

“Well,” Beth kissed her palm again, but continued in a deadpan voice. “You know, I did promise to help you anyway I could think of.”

Nick gave her a half smile.

“You do know you’re killing me here, don’t you?”

Nick bent her head closer to Beth’s partly open lips, their breath mingling a moment.

“Nick….” Beth pulled back abruptly, suddenly unsure.

“What?”

“Maybe this isn’t a good idea. I have a really fucked up life. I don’t want you to get hurt. You don’t deserve it.”

Nick’s mouth was very dry, her pulse already hammering with Beth’s nearness. “What do you want, Beth?”

“I want you to hold me, kiss me, make love to me, but that’s not the point. It’s not too late to just stop this.”

Nick let her free hand caress Beth’s hair and cradle her head gently, her fingers around the back of her neck. “Yes, it is.”

“Yes it is what?” Beth licked her lips unconsciously.

“Yes, it is too late to stop this. May I kiss you now?”

“Please.”

Their lips met in gentle exploration, but it didn’t take long for each to step still closer, to melt against the other. Nick welcomed Beth’s arms that circled her waist. Nick pressed harder against Beth’s lips that parted in invitation. She entered them delicately, touching the tongue that suddenly toyed with her own. She stopped reluctantly, stepping back, still enfolded in Beth’s arms. She heard Beth sigh, and worried a moment.

“Not what you had in mind?”

“Actually, I wanted to do that all night.”

“I’m glad.”

“And I was just thinking,” she closed her eyes, pausing while Nick’s hand moved slowly from her neck toward her spine, unable to concentrate until it rested in the small of her back..

“You were just thinking what?”

“Well, I was thinking that I wanted to go back upstairs, and see just how late I could keep you up tonight.” She gave Nick a look filled with such lust that Nick sucked in her breath involuntarily.

“I wonder,” Nick spoke softly, “if you would mind not sleeping on the couch tonight.”

“Who said anything about sleeping? Or are you turning me out?”

“I was trying to turn you on.”

“You have succeeded beyond your wildest imagination.”

“I have a pretty wild imagination.”

“So do I.”

“We’ll talk about the wash later?”

“Much later.”

“I’ll get the light.”

Beth stepped back to glance at the tall beauty, to openly take in her breasts and long legs. She turned to mount the steps. She was halfway up and turned to look quizzically at Nick who still watched from the bottom. “Having second thoughts?” she smiled down at her gently.

“Oh no. I was just enjoying the view.”

“I can do better. Much better, if you give me the chance.”

Nick started up the steps, smiling back.

“Have mercy. I’m out of practice here.”

“Actually,” Beth paused, waiting for her to approach. She wrapped her arm around the tall woman’s waist, then walked up the steps together with her. “Actually, I am too. This is a luxury I haven’t allowed myself for quite a while.”

“Then I’ll have to make it worth your while.”

“Oh, Nick, you are very much worth my while. I’m not sure I deserve you.”

“I was just going to say the same thing.”

Nick opened the apartment door, allowing Beth to enter. When the door closed and was locked, she turned to see Beth watching her from the couch.

“Come here.” She requested softly to Beth, her voice a deep husky whisper.

Beth moved slowly up to her, pressing herself close, wrapping her arms around Nick’s long neck, and needing to arch her neck back to meet the tall woman’s gaze. She smiled in almost childlike wonder.

“You are very tall.”

“I know.”

“I think I could kiss your breasts a lot easier than I could kiss your mouth, which is okay. I like breasts.”

“That vantage point changes quickly when I lay down.”

“I would like that.”

“What?'”

“To quickly lay down.” She pulled Nick closer for a hungry rough kiss, taking possession of her lips and mouth. Nick returned the kiss with a passion that swept her away. She broke the kiss.

“Can I ask you something?” She stilled Beth’s hands that had moved to her shirt buttons.

Beth hesitated. ” Too fast?”

Nick tried to slow her rapid breathing, enough to talk.

“Why me?”

Beth looked up with an amused expression, but then seeing the genuine concern in Nick’s eyes, answered with delicate care and honesty.

“I think you are one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. Your nearness is intoxicating. I am filled with lust and craving, a yearning for everything about you.” She looked away a moment before continuing. “I want to loose myself in you, to forget everything that hurts and replace it with everything I discover about you. I want to sleep and wake in your arms, even if only for a little while. I want to reward your kindness and concern. I want to be surrounded and filled with your strength and safety. I want to take the loneliness out of your eyes, and I really like you,” she added, smiling gently, kissing Nick’s hand that she had reached for and found. She smiled again, seeing Nick shake her head in amazement.

“Not good enough?”

“Oh, it’s very good enough. As a matter of fact, I’m speechless.”

“Good. Because I don’t want to talk anymore.”

“I need to say one more thing.”

Beth had resumed the task of unbuttoning Nick’s shirt, pulling it free. She smiled up at the young woman.” What? I am listening.”

“All this…with you, really matters to me.”

“I know, Nick or I would never have started. It matters to me very much, more to me right now than you could ever know.”

“We need to talk about…everything…about you.”

“I know, but right now, I am done talking.”

“Oh, you are?’

“I have other things in mind I’d like to do with my mouth and tongue, besides practice my diction.”

“I thought you said you were out of practice.” Nick laughed as she found herself without a shirt or bra, standing in her bikini briefs before the other woman.

“Some things are hard to forget.” Beth played with the elastic rim of Nick’s pants.

“I’m glad.”

“What are you glad about?” Beth closed her eyes as she felt Nick’s fingers caress her breasts through her shirt, and then lift her shirt over her head, and off.

“That you…” Nick bent down to capture a nipple playfully between her lips, and then pulled away a moment later, smiling at the sigh she heard from Beth. “That you don’t wear any underwear.” She quickly unzipped Beth’s jeans to leave her standing naked before her. “Come to bed.”

“I thought you’d never ask.” She reached out for Nick’s hand and pulled her toward the bedroom.

Hours later, Nick lay with her eyes closed, trying not to cry, her heart rate slowing, almost returning to normal, her breath still ragged.

Beth lay wrapped over her like a quilt, her head resting between her breasts, her legs draped heavily across her thighs. Nick caressed the still damp skin across Beth’s back, and the sweat drenched hair along the nap of her neck. She didn’t have the energy or will to move. Yet she could tell Beth was awake.

Just then, the blonde head tilted up, and green eyes looked up at her own. Beth smiled. “Are you okay?”

“Hmm?”

“Are you all right?”

“Wait a few minutes. I still can’t think, let alone talk.”

“Okay, no rush. I do like my new pillow. “

“Don’t move.”

“Don’t plan on it.”

Finally, Nick felt in control of her emotions and body.

“Come up here. I want to look at you.”

Beth slid up on the pillow, resting her head facing Nick’s, who had rolled on her side. Beth tried to read the emotions that seemed to cloud Nick’s eyes. Instead of talking, Nick kissed the blonde’s forehead tenderly, moving back to study her.

“Do you know what you’ve done, Beth?”

Beth was puzzled by the sudden question, and maybe a little worried. “I think I just made love to you.”

“No. “

“No? Now I am worried.”

“You have ruined me so that I’ll never be able to appreciate another lover. No one else will ever make me feel like you just did.”

“Like we just did.”

“How can you know all that, have that power?”

“To weave passion and love together, pleasure and emotions, to break down and then restore? That’s all I did with you.”

“Everything I’ve ever known pales. Who are you, Beth?”

“Just a blonde from a rest stop.”

“Beth, I’m so serious. Who are you?”

“I’m not sure, dear Nick, that I am ready to tell you what you want to know, but you have seen all of me, Nick. Very few have and welcomed me so fiercely, and completely.”

“And you haven’t even let me love you back.”

“Go to sleep, beautiful woman and dream of me. I just want you to hold me and to thank you.”

“Thank me?”

“For giving me this moment, this place, and this most precious of gifts, allowing me to love you.”

Despite herself, Nick felt her eyes close. She gave over herself to the softness, the gentle warmth that surrounded her.
Part 2
The alarm sounded in the still dark bedroom. Nick reached over quietly, lest she wake Beth tucked snugly against her back. It was almost 7 am, just getting light out. She had an eight o’clock lab. Why she took physics still eluded her. She did like it. It was a small class, advanced level, and would be of no use to her as a photojournalist major. Hey, why not be different? She really enjoyed physics. Part of her wanted to do graduate work in physics, but financially, it wasn’t possible. Almost time to get a real job.

She let her mind run over the last few weeks, and the amazing woman who slept in her bed, Beth…what a mystery. So beautiful, such a wonderful lover. Even the memory of her touch made her aroused, wet, craving the sweet magic that Beth could craft. She longed for her with a need that was almost painful. Even more so when she admitted to herself that Beth would leave eventually to abandon her, to be stranded in a transformed world. Nothing was the same anymore. Not herself, her needs, or her plans. What she wanted more than anything was Beth. The attraction and draw was so much more than physical. The sex was incredible, but so too was the closeness, the communion. Nick knew she had opened herself completely to the blonde. She had shared parts of herself that were so carefully buried and she was vulnerable because of it. Now that she felt made whole by the hands of this woman, she wanted more. Going back to her old life seemed as impossible as returning to a fluid filled womb to breath liquid instead of air. She felt so hopeless, yet so happy, a paradox that made her pause every time she looked at Beth.

What am I going to do? How can I go on without her in my life? She is all the family, all the future I want.

She felt tears forming in her eyes, and wiped them away with annoyance.

“Hey, beautiful. Are you crying?” Beth touched a damp check.

“Go back to sleep, Beth. It’s early.”

“Not until you tell me what’s troubling you.”

“Nothing.” Nick smiled despite her somber mood, at the sight of the sleep tossed hair, and heavy lidded eyes that Beth rubbed to awaken herself.

“It’s not nothing.” Beth sat up to study her lover’s angular face.

“I’ve got to get going. If I don’t shower, people will be talking.”

“I think you smell wonderful, like us, sweat, sex and paradise. Don’t shower. Let them be jealous. Let them wonder who it is that pleasures you.”

“I don’t want to go to class. I don’t want even to get out of bed.” Nick pulled her closer, kissing her.

“I’m a bad influence on you.” Beth smiled, half serious, with sultry eyes.

“Well, I’ve never slept so well, ate so well, felt so well as I have since I met you. I Never knew such joy, passion or pleasure. I’d say you are good influence. “

“And you haven’t even tasted my oatmeal cookies.”

“You keep promising.”

“But that’s all I promised.” She meant it as a joke.

“I know.” Nick seemed suddenly too somber. Beth saw the last piece of the puzzle slip into place.

She wants me to stay. Oh Nick, I can’t, not that I don’t want to.

Beth chose to ignore the unspoken question, at least openly, and responded on a different level.

“Okay, okay, oatmeal cookies today.” She pushed Nick playfully away, toward her side of the bed. “Now go shower, and get to class. What time are you through today?”

“Today’s a long day. I have two morning classes, then nothing until a 6-9 seminar.”

“What will you do in the afternoon?”

“The library, to study. I have so many papers to write. It’s an uphill battle. I took a heavy course load, to be done sooner. I should hibernate there, so I can enjoy the weekend. Do you mind if I…”

“I don’t mind anything you do. As a matter of fact, I love everything you do.” Beth wiggled her eyebrows, leaning over to kiss the expanse of skin before her. “Now go. I need more beauty sleep.”

“Don’t get any more beautiful I can’t stand to be away as it is.”

Beth lay in bed long after Nick left. Nick seemed in a better mood finally, with their light banter, but it all left Beth deep in thought, her wants and needs in major conflict, and Nick entangled in the core of her dilemma.

She’d been with Nick almost six weeks now. The distance from her real life helped, had allowed her to make some decisions that she had been putting off for too long. That was the good news. She just hadn’t planned to fall in love with the beautiful student who had only given to her. She had never been happier, living in a second floor walk up, wearing discarded clothes, and selling sketches on weekends in the arms of someone who, she knew, felt the same way she did.

For once in my life, I am truly happy, content, at peace, and you know it has to end. The longer you stay, the more you’ll hurt Nick in the end. It’s already too late as it is.

What started as a night of comfort, of pleasure, and of sex, led to more caresses, more nights, and unspoken promises, made by her body and heart, promises of some reassurance, some commitment from her, that she would stay. She could see fear sometimes in Nick’s eyes, after they had made love and a question, a plea as well, that she saw flicker briefly in those blue eyes repeatedly…

Isn’t it enough, what we have? Will you stay? Don’t leave me…

And yet, Nick would not ask, just as she had not asked again for Beth to explain who she was, where she came from, what she ran from. Nick waited for Beth to reveal herself. As days became weeks, and Beth still chose silence, Beth could sense a hurt below Nick’s calm and strong exterior.

I’m sure she senses my own conflicts. I’ve listened to her reveal the loneliness of her life these past few years, all her disappointments, and sadness. I’ve tried to comfort her, in the only way I can…just to love her, hold her. It must seem like I don’t trust her, or maybe don’t care enough to make the effort.

Oh, Nick. If you only knew how much I want to tell you everything, to let you share my past, my future, but how can I? It’s tearing me apart. Every time I see the love and adoration in your eyes and now to find you crying, needing something more from me than I can give you, now or ever. It’s not fair to you, Nick. I have to go, and hope you’ll forgive me, forget me, that you’ll find someone more worthy of the love you have so freely given me.

It was after ten when she dragged herself out of bed, the sweet scent of Nick locked in the linen. She showered, made the bed up fresh, and put on a final wash of the towels and bedding. She folded carefully each of her clothes that Nick had gotten her. She borrowed Nick’s gym bag, placing her miscellaneous toiletries there as well. Her sketch pads would leave with her, filled as they were with sketches of Nick. Ones she had worked on while Nick was in class…a collection of dresses, slacks, gowns, and a new fashion line for the spring and fall. Crisp lines and bright colors replaced all the bland starkness of the last few years; cloths all imagined draping Nick’s tall frame.

The flair was back in her work. She felt more like the young fashion designer who had invaded New York four years ago, to win awards and praise, and build a large following in the fickle world of high fashion. Before she had allowed her father, who had grudgingly admitted her talent, help run her growing empire; an empire of clothing, and now cosmetics, jewelry. The name of Rebecca DeWitt seemed almost overnight to be a household word, a major force in fashion. She was the owner of a multimillion-dollar company. Her ideas and inspiration had launched it all, but as it all grew, her father’s advisors and investors had their own agendas. She hired numerous designers and artists to work under her, to cope with the increase and scope of the business, the increased demands on her time, letting some develop the jewelry line, the accessories. All succeeded because of her name.

The latest, the cosmetics line had been George’s idea, and was making more money than the rest combined. The main fragrance, “Simply Rebecca” was actually nice. She had insisted on getting involved with the final production choices for the exclusive perfume.

Money making money and the DeWitt name, her father’s business expertise, guaranteed her more success than she wanted. She was a success, certainly wealthy in her own right and heiress to more millions when her father died; not likely to happen any time soon. At fifty-four, he was as strong, as demanding, as overbearing as he had ever been, maybe more so. Especially now that she had her own business for him to oversee.

Yet, the more successful she became, the more removed she grew from her real love, art and women’s fashion. Somehow, she felt like a token presence in her own boardrooms and studios. What she wanted was the novelty and fierce independence of her starting days, when all she desired was to prove her talent, to share her view of how to make women more beautiful through clothing. Now she oversaw other designers, participated in corporate decisions, and made the necessary PR appearances to keep her name in the forefront of fashion, all this to keep her empire growing. What had started her off, her maverick spirit, her design talent, were now unimportant in the greater scope of things. She only had to rubber-stamp other’s designs, sell her name for fame and fortune, always propelled further away from her true desires by her father.

She resisted him for years. She refused to follow in his footsteps in real-estate, or to participate in any of his industries. She refused to play the social roles forced upon her. As a teen, the exclusive prep schools where she boarded at least put a distance between them, allowing her to grow and remain independent. She had never fit in there, but her family’s wealth assured her acceptance, no matter how renegade she must have seemed to all the other proper girls. From grade school through high school, the fortunate, the wealthy, the beautiful, very few of whom had themselves any real plans or desires for a future, surrounded her. They already had money and position in society. They wanted to marry and to continue the roles set by their mothers and sisters, the privileged few. There were so many BMW’s and Mercedes coupes owned by her sixteen year old friends in school and so many summers in Europe, winters skiing.

Yet, none of the glitter appealed to her. Nor would she simply exist as one more accomplishment of her father’s life. She wanted her own fame. She was not interested in becoming a loving wife, far from it. She went through the motions of dances and proms, heavy petting with the football captains, and the wealthy pretty boys who would step into their father’s shoes after four years at a liberal arts college. It all meant nothing to her. Rather, Rebecca DeWitt was a lover of women. She quietly explored the world of lesbian love, from timid touches in high school, to torrid affairs with wild friends, and the women she met in bars and clubs. She remained discrete, but she had no plans to marry and have a family.

While she worked in France for two years, things changed for the young Rebecca. She finally fell in love. Lara was a model that she met in Paris. What had started out as an affair quickly grew to mean so much more. Lara came to New York with her. They lived together for four wonderful months. Then Lara suddenly moved out, leaving no forwarding address. She heard that Lara had returned to Europe, but was never given any explanation for her departure.

Beth was broken hearted, until she discovered ten months later that her father forced the issue, threatened, or paid her lover off. It was during the second year in fashion, at a time when her line had really taken off, that her image, her name needed to be promoted. Suddenly, to her father, she was no longer just a woman who liked to sketch, who fancied other women. She was influential, near the core of the new fashion world, rich, glamorous, and therefore heterosexual, by definition. It all came to a head one morning.

“Rebecca,” Her father demanded her presence in his offices one day. “You have done very well in fashion. You are truly a DeWitt.”

“Thank you, Father.” She accepted his praise reluctantly.

“We need to insure your success financially. I’ve asked some of my people to present some ideas to you, to expand the fashion line. The DeWitt name, and now you’re name, Rebecca, will guarantee that more success will come your way.”

“I don’t mind some advise, Father. Actually, the business side of things has never been my forte. You know that. I only want to continue in design.”

“Good. I’ll have McDonald make an appointment with you. You need to expand your executive team. More business savvy and much more publicity.”

“I think I’ve already established my name in fashion, Father.”

“I agree. Now we need to cement it there, keep it in the minds of those who matter. You’ve done far better, Rebecca, than I thought you would.”

“It must be in the blood.”

“Now, I have something else to say. You are one of the most eligible single women in New York, rich, powerful in your own right and beautiful. You have your mother’s looks. I know all about your slutting around with other women, Rebecca. Does it shock you that your dirty little secret isn’t so secret?”

“What I do in my private life is of no concern to you, Father. I’m twenty-six. I will live my life as I see fit.”

“Rebecca, I don’t care who you fuck, but you will keep it discrete. No live-in lovers like that French whore.”

“What do you know about Lara?”

“I know enough that I put an end to it. Keep it on the side, Rebecca. You need to keep a public face. You need men as a part of your public persona. You need to be seen in the right places, with the right kind of people…if your fashion house is to remain mainstream. You need to marry.”

“I will not, Father. I will not marry for appearance, for convenience. I will love whom I chose. I will never forgive you, if you hurt Lara.”

“Don’t worry about that woman. She’s better off where she is.”

“You are really responsible for her going?”

“Of course, as I already said, much too public, Rebecca. You need to learn discretion. Your name means too much.”

“Bull shit! I thought I disliked you before, Father. I was wrong. I despise everything about you.”

“Touchy, aren’t we? I’ve been very tolerant of your resistance to me all along, allowing you to pursue your art. I’ve been tolerant of your perversity. I don’t care what you do, Rebecca, behind closed doors, but you will not embarrass me or drag my name through the mud. If you won’t chose some reasonably prominent man to marry, I’ll choose one for you.”

“Love means nothing to you?”

“Grow up finally, Rebecca. You’ve been such a dreamer. You can’t suppose love has anything to do with most of the marriages you see. Marriage is a social institution, based on common needs…power, convenience. It provides us children to carry on the family name. It’s an arrangement, Rebecca, not about love, passion, and hardly sex. Just how much time do you suppose I devoted to fathering you? Fifteen minutes of husbandly duty.”

“You mean your marriage to Mother, however shortened by her illness, was nothing to you but a means to carry on the name, to keep up a proper image?”

“I cared about your mother, Rebecca. I just didn’t love her. I’ve had mistresses before even while I was married to Jean. I still do. You just won’t hear about it or see it in the papers. Grow up. Keep your little sluts, but do it away from where you live and work. I expect you to be married in six months. If not, I will step in. I have a list of men you should consider. I won’t tell you my choice, unless I have to. It’s about time that you finally understood the distinction between the private and public life that a DeWitt must live. That’s all, Rebecca.”

He picked up the phone, ignoring her presence as she sat, stunned and angry. She finally left the offices, and returned to her studio.

During the next five months, she struggled to go on, to find Lara, to heal the hurt she felt by her departure. She ended by burying herself in her work, her new collection, and continued to succeed in the demanding world of high fashion. She did not, however, pursue a husband. She lived a celibate life since Lara left. At first she was too saddened and hurt, and then too angry at her father’s pervasive influence even in her bedroom.

As six months passed, and no wedding happened, she silently gloated. Her father could demand anything of his lackeys, but she would rather burn in Hell than allow him to manipulate her into a life style she did not want.

She was surprised one evening to find her father sitting in her living room, sipping her scotch, looking out of the picture window at the New York skyline.

“How did you get in here?”

“Really, Rebecca. I own the building.”

“I hadn’t realized. I’ll move tomorrow.”

“It’s a nice apartment, a good address. Don’t be such a little brat.”

“Leave, Father. I have nothing to say to you. I can’t stand to be in your presence.”

“I thought you’d like to see the social section of the Times. I got the early copy.”

“What have you done?”

“Why, I’ve announced your engagement to a long time family friend, and business magnate in his own right.”

“What? How dare you?”

“I told you, six months. I certainly wasn’t just talking.”

Rebecca grabbed the paper from his hands, her fingers trembling in anger, and glanced down at the lengthy article with her picture featured. She recognized the photo from a earlier fashion article. She looked so young and happy. She recalled how she felt that day, feeling successful, content, and in love for the first time in her life. Lara had accompanied her to the photo shot, and it was a smile for Lara on her lips captured there in the photo. Now, the smile of happiness was to celebrate her upcoming marriage to a Mark Haviland, a 45 year old business man, previously married and divorced, with children near her own age.

“Who is this man?”

“Someone you will marry in November. A sharp investment banker who will advise you well, will escort you in your very visible profession and social obligations, who has a home in Connecticut, and a home outside Paris. His children are happy for him, all out of the house, by the way, settled in marriages of their own. He does not wish more children. He will do quite well financially and socially by this marriage. He has no pretense in regard to your sexual proclivities, and he will continue to pursue whatever sexual liaisons he chooses and can perhaps be of some assistance in teaching you the art of discretion. He’s actually quite broad minded, my dear, having had a host of male and female lovers for years. We’ve actually shared a mistress. When your mother died, I broke off with my lover as well. Seemed like the right thing to do. She drifted to him. We had some interesting conversations about her, you might imagine. He might even be willing to procure you appropriate women, as long as he can watch. But then, that’s something you can work out.”

“I don’t know what to say, Father, except your baseness exceeds my worst fear.”

“Thank you, Rebecca. At least we understand each other. You’ll see, in the end, that what I do is for your best interest, and the public face of Rebecca DeWitt, fashion designer, business magnate, a successful woman in a man’s world, who will be safely entrenched socially and financially with a competent husband and advisor.”

“And pimp.” She added bitterly.

“I do so like to look after all your interests, daughter.” He laughed rather heartily, proud of his worldly wisdom and tolerance. He stood, and left his drink on the coffee table. “Goodnight, Rebecca. I don’t see the need to repeat this visit. I’ve completed my fatherly duties. I’ll confine my advice now to strictly financial ones, through dear Mark.”

“And when I refuse to allow this charade?”

“Then I will hurt everyone you ever cared about. I don’t make statements idly. I have a list of all your lovers, their present locations, especially Lara. She’ll be the first to suffer at your foolish headstrong posturing. Not to mention all your loyal coworkers that have helped you build your fame. I know you care very much about Kate, Freddie, and George. They are very vulnerable as well. Please don’t force my hand. But then again, you know I love to use my not insignificant power.” He paused a moment, before continuing.

“Mark will call tomorrow, to arrange a list of your upcoming commitments. You have a position to maintain, appearances to keep. He won’t lead you astray. He’s been playing the game for years. You will learn something from him, if nothing else. Who knows, he may even turn out to be a friend, like your mother was to me.”

Rebecca stood looking at the closed door of her apartment for a long time. She could still smell her father’s presence…the smell of cigars, starched dry-cleaned shirts, and the scotch.

That’s it… the scotch, something to quiet the screaming in my head, the crying in my heart.

She started to drink in earnest that night, remaining pleasantly numb, smiling at the parties, stumbling in the clubs, nodding in church, fumbling on the arm of the man chosen to lead her along the path of public decency and personal deceit. She drank at board meetings. She allowed her other Designers even greater freedom in selecting all aspects of her lines.

Numb and miserable, she could feel her health slipping, her mind slowing, and her will eroding. Her appearance suffered, sometimes not bothering to change from old jeans and sweaters even at work, but at the last press release, she struggled and couldn’t keep the trembling out of her voice or hands.

Her long time friend and chief designer, Kate Dennison, took over for her, motioning her to sit, calmly assuming the podium, finishing the discussion of the upcoming shows, the success of the cosmetic branch, and the final release of two new fragrances. Kate continued evenly, fielding questions. She concluded with the news that Rebecca DeWitt was taking a much needed vacation, to recover from the productive season, which understandably had taken its toll. She would return rejuvenated to the city to release yet another line of fashion, that would keep her on top of the designer market.

Rebecca smiled in affirmation, thanked the news people, and linked arms with Kate as she left the auditorium.

Kate pulled her quickly aside, into another office, and pushed her into a chair.

“I’ve watched you go to Hell in the last four months. You’re drunk. You look like shit. You can’t pull us all down with you, Beth. You have to get it together. You heard me announce your vacation.

Don’t make me announce your retirement!”

Beth struggled upright and stood glaring at her best friend.

“Everyone seems to know what’s best for me. Everyone is more capable than me to make the important decisions in my life. Somehow, I can’t drink enough to forget it all. You’re oh so right, Kate! I do need some time away…from everyone. I can’t go on like this.”

Kate saw the desperation in her friend’s eyes.

“Oh, Beth, what’s really wrong? I’ve never seen you like this. Is it me or is it Mark? Have you had a fight? Is the wedding off? The papers have been so full of you two. I just assumed everything was all right.”

Beth stood stiffly, and spoke more loudly than she had intended.

“I will not marry that man!”

She then fled the room, narrowly missing two reporters who had been lounging outside the office, waiting to talk to both women, if they could. They shrugged at each other, seeing DeWitt fly out of the room.

“Trouble in paradise?” The reporter from Vanity Fair asked quietly.

Kate exited the office, and met their questioning looks.

“Did we hear Ms DeWitt announce that she will not marry Mr. Mark Haviland?”

“No, you heard a woman say that she would not marry that man.”

“Who else was in the room, besides you and Ms DeWitt?”

“I have no comment, gentlemen.”

While they could not print the story, the hounds would be out.

Why was DeWitt going away? Was the engagement still on? If not, was there another love interest? Were there financial problems in the DeWitt fortune? Why had Rebecca withdrawn into a more passive role in the fashion line? Was the preeminent new light in fashion dimming already?

Beth did not emerge from her apartment for eight days, but read the gossip columns, heard the unending number of inquiries via phone calls that were dutifully recorded on her answering machine. She did not return calls from friends, reporters, or from work, but she did stop drinking. She couldn’t sleep. She spent the first twenty-four hours vomiting, but chose not to seek medical care. By the fourth day, she felt a little better. She managed to keep some soda and broth down, eat some crackers and tea. By the end of the week, she managed to dress in old jeans and a sweater, and wander out into the faceless crowds of New York City.

She walked for hours, gladly pushed, and tossed, but grateful for the sunshine and the peace of anonymity. She found herself finally in Soho, watching the young crowd of artists and college students, some lovers, some gay couples, street musicians, the children in a park. Her life was so different than she had planned. Her passion for design lay somewhere beneath the bottles of scotch in her dumpster. She recognized her betrayal of all that had mattered to her. While before she had been happy to blame her father alone for this sad state of affairs, she now knew where the responsibility lay, on her own tired shoulders. She cried a long time, that afternoon in the park, choosing not to see the concerned expressions of the people around her, or the children who stood to watch her cry. She cried for the girl she had been, the woman she had tried to become.

She knew then, with blinding clarity that she had to get away from everyone and everything, to refocus, to rebuild. She watched as another young woman hitched a ride, and stood to mimic her action, standing wearily in Soho, in a busy intersection.

A supply truck, bringing apples, and produce from Upstate New York stopped to pick her up. The driver was a Hispanic man in his sixties.

Jesus, this girl looks sad. Standing in the street, her face wet with tears. She’s so thin, such a pretty girl. I can help her, anyway. Take her away from what ever she’s running from. Maybe this kindness will get me my Maria back. My own poor girl. She broke our hearts, running with the crowd she did and I was too proud to help her. I pray she’s all right.

With these thoughts and prayers, the driver rolled down the window, calling to the blonde.

“You need a lift?”

Beth nodded mutely.

“Come on. I’m holding up traffic. “

Beth climbed into the high cab, and sat quietly.

“You want out of the city?”

“Yes. Yes, I do.” She looked at the older man, and saw kindness and concern on his face. “I want to get out of the city.”

“Okay. I’m going back upstate. I’ll take you as far as you want. This city is no good for living. I should be home tonight. You can catch another ride later, yes?”

“Yes, thank you. As far as you’re going.”

She put her head back wearily, and closed her eyes, falling into a fitful sleep. When she woke, it was night. The air was cooler. The rumble of truck wheels on the freeway replaced the sounds of the city, and a soft tape on the radio played salsa.

The driver saw her stir.

“I’m almost at my home. You hungry? My wife, she always packs me too much to eat. You want a sandwich? An apple? “

He pushed a large lunch box toward her.

“Go on. Help yourself.”

She picked up an apple, and ate it quietly.

“Where are we? Are we still in New York State?”

“Yes, past Buffalo.”

“What time is it?”

“Almost midnight. I’m going to drop you off at the next rest stop, okay?”

“Fine.”

“My home’s out in the boonies. You’re better off catching a ride here on the interstate. But I don’t like to leave you here.”

“I’ll be fine. Thanks for the apple.”

“Well, I haul enough produce into that city. Might as well eat some of it, yes? So, you be all right?”

“I’ll be all right.”

“You got some family you should call?”

“No. No one I should call tonight. Thank you, though. Thank you for the ride.”

Then the truck was gone, and she sat, watching the moon rise higher, and the stars come out. She cried again for all the mistakes she had made, wondering if she could undo them, or prevent the hardships her actions might bring to those people about whom she cared.

What a mess. I’m not sure I have the strength left to fight it all. I need some time. I’m running away. I’m running away to find myself. Then I’ll know what to do.”

She sat in the dark, letting the sounds of the night fill her, letting the damp night air cool her tear streaked face. Finally, the reality of her situation hit her. She didn’t bring her wallet.

I don’t have a cent on me. I refuse to call him. If I call Kate or any of the others, I’ll be right back in the thick of it. I can’t go back. Not now. Not yet.

She walked into the restroom, washed her face, and studied long and hard the face that looked back at her from the mirror…short blonde uncombed hair, swollen eyes, pale face, puffy from lack of sleep, too much alcohol, too much crying.

Well, one thing, love, no one will mistake you for the wealthy Rebecca DeWitt.

She looked around at the stalls and read the graffiti. She wandered out to the phone, and saw more graffiti, but no phone book. Patting her pockets, she found a quarter. Not enough for a phone call. She jiggled the phone’s coin return, and heard a coin fall into the return cup. She opened it, another quarter.

So, I have 50 cents. Enough for a condemned woman’s last phone call. Who shall I call? Where shall I go? I doubt I’ll get a ride anywhere else tonight if I try to hitchhike.

She saw ‘CAB’ and a phone number, scribbled by the phone.

Why not? A cab, wherever it will take me. Then I’ll figure out where I’m headed tomorrow.

And so, without really thinking through her options, she dialed.

“Bateman Cab.”

“I’m on interstate l7…”

She remembered the first time she saw Nicki, and smiled, feeling again the unexpected protection and her concern that lonely night, how she wanted her company, and that bowel of chili that warmed her.

“Dear God, how can I leave her?”

The wash was dry. She rose from the cellar step, and retrieved the last wash she’d do for Nick. When the apartment was neat, and all her things were packed, she turned to look again at the small haven, the unexpected piece of paradise she had stumbled into. She would leave Nick the small self-portrait she sketched one afternoon, and a plate of oatmeal cookies. She couldn’t help but cry as she arranged the plate, allowing the cookies room to cool, and yet all fit on the dish.

I have to go back. I can’t involve her in any of it. My fatherwould only hurt her in ways she couldn’t imagine.

She wondered again about Lara, the only other woman besides Nick that she had loved. It was different with Nick, though. Different from anything she had felt before. She could be happy with Nick. She could love her forever. She knew Nick wanted the same thing, for them to stay together. She just couldn’t give her more of herself than she had…six weeks of complete surrender. She had lost herself in Nick’s love, and found herself again in her gentle support, unquestioned acceptance, and her warm embrace. Now she would hurt Nick, like Lara had hurt her, and just disappear…to protect her from her father, from her unhappy, overwhelming whirlwind life. She had already called her driver, who would arrive shortly. She hesitated before writing a note.

Dearest Nick,

I cannot repay you for your kindness or the love you so freely gave. I wish things were different, that I could promise you more.
I have to go back. I have responsibilities I cannot ignore any longer. Forgive me.

Love, Beth.

I took your gym bag, just one more thing that I can only thank you for. I am forever in your debt.

She saw the limo drive up, stood straighter, carried the bag over her shoulder, and walked out of Nick’s apartment, and out of her life.
Part 3
Rebecca sat silently in the rear of the limo, watching the driver.

“John?”

“Yes, Miss DeWitt?”

“I trust you will keep this address confidential.”

“Yes, Miss DeWitt. Discretion is assured, Miss.”

“Especially from my father, John. I know you worked for him a good number of years before coming to work for me.”

“My loyalties are to you, Miss. Don’t worry. I’m glad you’re back.”

“Well, that’s a lot more than I am. But thank you, John.”

She got to the city by 4:45, and was in her apartment by 6:00.

The traffic and the smog were a shock to her after six weeks of quiet small towns, and the frequent excursions into the country side she had enjoyed with Nick with time spent at the nearby lakes. Now just gray dirt and noise all around her.

The first thing she did was to call Kate at the design studio, to set up a meeting for dinner that night at her apartment, with the other four design artists included. She called the club to have a meal catered, and went about sorting the mail already piled on her desk. Her secretary, who she knew had cared for her plants as well, had attended to much of the business side of things.

Everything looked unchanged here, wide expanses of windows, a modern decor, little in the way of personal touches. The decorator had created the perfect executive retreat, yet she felt no warmth here. The ceilings were too high, the walls too white. The place was too big for one woman to fill, she thought as she looked around, comparing the apartment with the one she had just left.

The caterers came, and made ready the meal.

”Thank you, I’ll serve. That’s all for tonight.”

“Are you sure, Miss DeWitt? We were planning on serving, then cleaning up, as always.”

“No. That’s all. I’ll call tomorrow for you to pick up the dishes. The doorman will let you in at a convenient time.”

“Very well, Miss DeWitt. We put coffee on. And uncorked your favorite wine.”

“Fine. Thank you.”

Kate arrived before the others at 7:00 PM. She was anxious to see Beth, and rushed to hug her.

“You look so much better, Beth! Are you all right?”

“I am, Kate. Thank you for everything. I needed time away. “

“I was so worried. You never called. I covered for you, of course, but I had nightmares. You looked so broken when you fled the press conference. I said some harsh things. I shouldn’t have.”

“Kate, you are my best friend. I love you. I needed to hear it all. Now tell me what happened while I’ve been away.”

Kate eyed the wine bottle uneasily. “Shall I pour us some wine?”

“No thanks, Kate. I haven’t touched a drop in six weeks.”

“Thank God. Shall I put it away?”

“No. The others might want some. I’m fine with it, Kate.”

“Does your father know you’re back?”

“I just got to the city after 4 o’clock. But knowing my father, he probably does.”

“Does Mark know you’re back yet?”

“Only if my father told him.”

“The papers have been full of stories…where you were, where he was, if there was a private marriage ceremony.”

“He’s been away?”

“That’s the word in the gossip rags.”

“Not with me, Kate.”

“Just checking.”

“The others will be here soon. I’ll tell you everything later.”

They stayed until 11:00, discussing changes, problems. Beth showed them all her sketches, and outlined plans for the fall and spring lineup.

Jerry finally looked up, and smiled at the serious executive

“You’re back, aren’t you, Rebecca?”

“I’m back.” she smiled gently.

“The clothes are fantastic. A new look, simple but confidant. We’ll kill them in Paris.”

“I need this connection, guys. I’m nothing without my fashion, my art. I got swept away with the corporate thing, you know, just lost.”

“We missed you, sweetie.” Another of her old friends, Freddie, spoke up.

“I want to concentrate on just this again.”

“I can see the fire is back in your eyes, love.”

“Thank you all for coming. I’ll be in tomorrow around eleven. I have a lot to catch up on.” She rose as they did, to escort them out.

“Love the look, sweetie.” Jerry looked her up and down, taking in her worn jeans and denim shirt.

“What look?”

“The starving artist thing…lean but knowing, in charge. We should do it.”

“I was thinking of that, actually, a line of clothes for real people. Not this designer thing exclusively. Too small an audience.”

“It all trickles down.”

“I know, but way too elitist, you know.”

“This time has been good for you, Beth.” Freddie added. “Re-grounded you.”

“Finally grounded me, you mean.”

Kate lingered after the apartment cleared out.

“Are you going to tell me where you’ve been? And who she is?”

“What?”

“The woman in all of your drawings?”

“You weren’t supposed to notice that, Kate.”

“Dear girl, we’ve been friends too long. I haven’t seen you this happy, this centered, since Lara. Did you bring her back with you?”

“No, I didn’t Kate. And she doesn’t know who I am.”

“What do you mean, who you are?”

“I’ve been on my own, no name, no baggage.”

“And you found this beautiful creature where?”

“That would be telling.” She smiled sadly at her friend.

“You can’t loose her, Beth.”

“I’m sure I already did, coming back.”

“You told her nothing? Just walked away?”

“Yes.”

“Are you getting heartless, calloused? I am shocked, Beth.”

“It was the hardest thing I ever did, Kate, but I want to protect her.”

“From what?”

“From my father, my fucked up life.”

“What about Mark?”

“What about him? You know I don’t care about him.”

Kate’s eyes got large.

“You thought I fell in love, and actually wanted to marry him?”

“Well, he seemed well suited to you, everything your father would want in a husband for you.”

“Exactly.”

“Exactly? It was all…arranged by your father? Why?”

“To allow me ‘my perversity’ and still have a public persona that would protect the DeWitt name.”

“Beth, since when did you ever listen to him?”

“He threatened me, Kate.”

“How? You’re not afraid of him, are you?”

“He couldn’t hurt me, Kate, but he threatened everyone else. Lara, you, Jerry, all my old lovers…’everyone you ever cared about.’ I just gave in, Kate. I couldn’t let you all get hurt because of me. The perfect solution; a marriage for appearance sake for the prodigal lesbian daughter. I’m sure it’s been done so many times before.”

“More than you might imagine, I’m sure, and you just kept this all to yourself and suffered? I’m hurt, Beth.”

“I don’t know why I’m telling you now, Kate. You can’t fix this. I just don’t want to lie anymore.” She shrugged. “I think I’m getting hoarse from all this talking.” She added, smiling sadly again.

Kate hugged her. “Well, I’m glad, no, we’re glad you’re back and if your father wants to try to hurt me…I say, go for it. I’ll go down fighting…for the best cause I know. We all love you, Beth. Don’t do anything you don’t want to for us. Not one of us could live with seeing you so unhappy, ever again. Not worth the price, dear, not by a long shot. Our well-being for your happiness? Not going to happen! You know, Beth,” Kate continued thoughtfully,” you probably have near the financial worth your father does. Maybe it’s time for you to start to throw your own power around. You don’t have to take it from him, without giving it back.”

“Maybe you’re right, Kate. Again. Goodnight, friend.”

Kate paused at the doorway, turning around to face her oldest friend.

“And Beth?”

“What, dear?”

“If this woman means to you what I think she does, you’re never going to be happy until she’s with you. She got you this, your style, your art back. Your spirit is alive again. I see strength there in your eyes that has been missing too long. If she did this for you, you owe it to all of us to keep her in your life.”

“Goodnight Kate. I have so much to think about.”

“Don’t think so much about everything. Some things are just too fundamental for thought.”

“Get home, Kate. Sam with wonder where you’ve gotten.”

“Oh, he trusts me around you. I’m not sure why.” She winked as she gave a final wave. “Nite, honey.”

The next weeks flew by. Beth didn’t allow herself to think of Nick. Except late at night when she tried to sleep. She sent Nick a set of luggage. She also sent $500 to Bateman Cab Co, for the drivers and dispatcher’s pleasure, like coffee and donuts. She anonymously paid off Nick’s tuition, knowing she would get a refund. She tracked down Nick’s landlord, and paid for the next three months rent.

It all seemed so impersonal, almost insulting, she knew. It was all she could do. She didn’t want to imagine Nick’s face, coming home that night, to find the place empty…and the cookies. She knew they wouldn’t be eaten. Everything she did to repay Nick must have seemed like a slap in the face to the generous woman, a bitter reminder of her own apparent disregard for Nick’s feelings.

Oh, if you only knew, Nicki. I am hurting so much. Every moment that I stop, I think of you. I see your face. I feel your gentle embrace.

Her father, in the meantime, was surprisingly silent.

Beth sent telegrams to both Mark and her father the second day she was back. ‘ There will be no marriage.’

That’s all she said. Nothing more was needed. She did not owe either an explanation. To put questions to rest, she arranged an interview with a friendly member of the press…on the pretense of discussing the new line of clothes she planned, but encouraged questions of a more personal nature. She denied rumors she had been ill. She confirmed that she had been away, overwork demanding that she regroup, allowing her time alone to produce the new fashion look. She admitted that she and Mark had found irrevocable differences between them, and while he would always be her friend and advisor, marriage between them was not possible. Now and in the future, both families would remain close, but no more than that was now possible. To the questions of new loves and future plans, Rebecca DeWitt professed a renewed commitment to her craft, discussing a new popular line of clothing for college students, discussing the unnecessary division between high fashion and working women, and students, and her plans to unite both.

The piece would be a long one. She knew from that interview other snippets would appear in the gossip columns. She looked renewed. She had no marriage plans. She denied any other love interests. Unattached, free to sample, still too wild to settle down. These phrases were batted back and forth over the ensuing months. Rebecca DeWitt, the catch of city, was still up for grabs.

Beth knew, in a way, that her father had been right. She did need to be more visible socially, at operas, at charities, at shows. She went, always cheerful, very much a part of the New York scene, but never with an escort. She would only smile, winking at the many questions of new love interests, and dismissed them all away with the wave of her elegant hand.

The studios, in the mean time, were frantic to get ready for the fall show. The outfits were going to be ready in time. The statement was a strong one…of independence, feminine yet strong, unencumbered, in command.

Beth allowed the other divisions of DeWitt Fashion to function without her direct involvement. A few new accessories, a new scent, a revamped cosmetic line with more natural colors were in the works.

Life went on. The DeWitt Empire grew. Beth survived, lost in the pace, the demand for her presence and her approval at many levels.

She, nonetheless, turned her main attention to preparing for the important fall showing, even helping to select the models that might best compliment what she had in mind. She wanted them tall, sleek, dark, and commanding. She wanted them all to be Nick. The modeling agencies were only too happy to provide portfolios on all their women.

Only Kate knew what she was doing, saw the emptiness that crept into Beth’s eyes as she watched each model. Three days, and fifty girls later, they had selected only three women to show the clothes. Kate pulled Beth aside.

“We’ve got to do better than this, Beth. We’re wasting time we don’t have. We need at least fifteen girls.”

“I know, Kate. I’m sorry.”

“Let me pick the rest? I know what you’re looking for. I’ve seen the sketches. And I know who you’re looking for.”

“Oh Kate, I miss her so much.”

“Have you called her?”

“No.”

“Is your father being nice?”

“No. Just silent. I’ve spoken to neither Mark or my father since I’ve been back.”

“But the papers, the marriage being off…”

“I sent them telegraphs.” Kate choked on the coffee she was sipping.

“Telegraphs?”

“Well, they didn’t involve me in setting the marriage up. I just read the announcement in the Times. I didn’t involve them in undoing it.”

“You are amazing.”

“No more lies…that’s all, Kate.”

“Then why haven’t you called her, sent for her?”

“It’s not that easy, Kate. I know I hurt her. She won’t trust me.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Please, Kate… I can’t talk about her. Not yet.”

“You have been back four months, Beth. You owe her something.”

“I owe her everything, Kate. I’m going to my office. Will you look over the last two agencies’ offerings?”

“I will. There are some new faces, I understand. Some girls with real potential…new blood for a new look.”

“All right, I trust you, Kate.”

“We’ve been doing this long enough, together. “

“I know. And I haven’t felt this good about my work in a long time.” She kissed Kate’s cheek, and returned to the executive offices.

“I’ll send up the girls I pick, before you leave and I’m going to re-look at the photos from this morning. I think there are five or six women we could use.”

“Fine. I’ll be here until nine at least. I have some other work to do.”

There was one woman, Kate was sure, that looked almost like the woman from Beth’s sketches, but older, more world weary.

The stance, the grace, the strength were there. She would be the lead off, the woman for the most stunning pieces, despite her relative inexperience. The name sounded unusually familiar…Ruselli. Perhaps she was related to the woman who had commanded top dollar in the seventies, and who had graced the covers of most fashion magazines for several years before she disappeared. Kate promised herself to hunt down the connection.

For now, they had enough models for the show…all with a similar aura, all different shades of dark elegance like the Ruselli woman. Kate asked the seven women she had selected that afternoon to come with her to meet Rebecca DeWitt, designer and owner of the fashion house.

Kate and her entourage approached the offices; only to hear loud angry voices emanating from the inner suite of rooms…she recognized the authoritative voice of Mr. Greyson DeWitt, and the angry and equally commanding voice of Rebecca.

“Ladies, sit here a while in the outer lounge, down the hall there. I’ll send for you when she’s free.”

Nick stood quietly in the executive’s hall, looking at the plush surroundings, the awards, the press articles. The woman’s voice she heard in the background made her look sharply at the press clippings adorning the walls beside her. The blonde woman, elegant and smiling, could only be… Beth!”

“Beth…Rebecca DeWitt.” She should have made the connection. Now she understood the money tossed her way so casually. Beth had returned to her responsibilities, to her wealth and power. She had paid off her temporary lover with money, money to assuage any guilt she might have felt for using and then abandoning her.

How ironic, Nick, and here you are, hired to model her line. Perfect. An open door to the fashion world, a place in the DeWitt fall show guaranteed to get me any job I want for the next few years, especially if I am lead model.

Could she swallow her pride and work for Beth despite how she had been treated? No. Simply no. She would go back to Buffalo. Then, in the summer, go to Europe for work. She’d get another break, and avoid any heart wrenching contact with Beth…Beth who obviously regarded her as a closed chapter, a diversion, and an escape from her real life. Nick laughed at the irony of taking Beth shopping at the Thrift Store. What a beautiful example off why their lives would forever remain separate.

She sighed, looking again at the picture of the woman who had touched her heart and soul like no one else. She wanted to remember the bliss of those few weeks, the love and gratitude she knew she had seen deep in those green eyes.

Could I have been so wrong? Am I that big a fool?

A louder commotion from the inner offices caught her attention. Kate rushed away toward more loud arguments, Beth’s voice, indignant and angry. Then Nick heard a note of fear there as well in the voice she remembered. She didn’t pause to think. She needed to help Beth, moving past the other models, through the empty outer office of the secretary to the corporate executive, to finally stand in the central office doorway, seeing distress and anger cloud Beth’s face.

She took in the expanse before her, ornate cherry desk, oriental rugs, a velvet sofa, large vase of iris and orchids, and behind the desk, a framed sketch in pencil. A picture of a happier Nick, sitting at a table, books open… like the first sketch Beth had made of her. She forced herself to focus on the conflict before her, to listen to the man’s angry threats. Threats…he was threatening Beth.

“I will find your slut, and ruin her. I warned you. I’ve only begun to reward your insolence.”

“Enough, Father. I won’t listen to this anymore. If you insist on threats, I’ll make my own. Kate reminded me that I could do my own damage, if necessary; to protect those I care about. You are not invincible, Father. We’ll dig in your own closets, and see what dirt, whose skeletons we can unearth and what business dealings are beyond the law. The IRS would be very interested in the sale of the last few companies. I know what their real worth is. I know the profits were carefully folded into other offshoots. How careful were you, Father? You and all your clever accountants? Don’t threaten me any more. I’ll protect her at any cost. Nick means too much to me, Father. I won’t let you touch her.”

Nick found herself walking quietly and confidently into the office and saw Mr. DeWitt stop before he replied to Beth’s last declaration, seeing his eyes widen in surprise. Beth saw puzzlement replace her father’s usual harsh commanding glare, and turned herself to see a tall brunette walking toward her. She could feel again the confidence, strength and courage that radiated off the woman. Nick stopped beside Beth, putting her hand on the smaller woman’s shoulder.

“Is this bastard why you left without me? His threats against me?”

Now an even angrier man yelled at Beth.

“Rebecca, I told you to keep your sluts private…to keep your depravity behind closed doors.”

Nick calmly turned, meeting his angry glare with quiet disregard. She felt Beth tremble beneath her hand.

“Does she know she’s just your latest whore? Another model willing to let you fuck her for a nice income?”

“It’s not true. When I met her, I had nothing, She took me in, loved me when I had no where else to go.”

“Well, exactly my point, amazing who you sleep with to accomplish your goals. You got your escape, a roof over your head and she got to fuck you as reward. You’re no different than I am, Rebecca. You use your models to play with, those willing to sell themselves to you for work. You use your own body to accomplish what you want. Why you refused Mark, I’ll never understand. He’ll still take you. Financially he needs this deal. You’re a fool to pass him up. Maybe your little slut here can make you see the value of a public marriage. Talk some sense into her, Nick. I’ll make it worth your while. Then leave her alone. Crawl back under your rock, where you belong. Better yet, I’ll keep you to play with. We’ll keep you in the family. Our little secret, eh daughter?”

Nick let her anger build, saw the hurt and defeat in Beth’s eyes, the cold look of victory on her father’s face as he sensed his daughter’s resolve falter. This man had demoralized, dominated Beth, had reduced her to the broken tearful woman who had run anywhere to be free so many months ago. Whether she could remain in Beth’s life suddenly didn’t matter. What mattered was only keeping Beth safe, free from this man’s pervasive evil and domination.

She stepped in front of Beth, and walked calmly toward the gloating man. Her voice was calm when she spoke.

“Money is the answer to everything, they say. Money and power. You have a lot of both.” She looked him over as if she were buying a horse. “I respect power. You are very good at crushing people, aren’t you? Crushing the spirit out of them and tossing them away, I’m sure. Every one has their price, Mr. DeWitt. You can usually get your way, buying people, or ruining them, but then, I’m an expensive diversion. I’m not sure you could afford me. You certainly can’t hurt me. You must have done your homework. I have no family, no property, and no plans. I have no debts, no vices that I wouldn’t gladly admit to. I’m very open about my sexual orientation. I don’t embarrass easily. I don’t back down from what I want. I have nothing to loose, Mr. DeWitt.
I don’t have expensive tastes. I live quite well on a small income. I don’t want your money. I certainly don’t want to fuck you. In fact, I may be the only person you can’t threaten or buy off. So, I’m a dangerous enemy, Mr. DeWitt because I’ll do anything in my power to protect Beth, to help her, and I am at her complete disposal. If she asks me to go, I will. If she asks me to stay, I will. If she asks me to take you apart, to beat you to a pulp, I will. If she asks me to help ruin you financially, to expose you as the mean spirited dominating bastard you are, I’ll be happy to make you grovel at her feet. Are we clear, Mr. DeWitt? But we can keep it in the family, if you want. Just keep away from Beth, before I get really angry, and do something about it now.”

She turned indifferently and walked back toward the stunned blonde who had yet to speak to her. Nick smiled. “I could use a cup of coffee. Want to join me?”

“Oh God, Nick…” Beth ran to her, and was folded in strong arms.

“I didn’t think I’d find you here, Beth.” Nick spoke softly. “You have a habit of showing up in the strangest places.”

“Nick, what are you doing here? How did you find me?”

Both women paused, turning as the office door slam shut.

“Well, he’s gone.” Nick spoke absently, still holding Beth gently in her arms.

Kate rushed in once the senior DeWitt stormed by her, only to stop in surprise at the two women clinging to each other.

“Now what?” Nick asked, getting annoyed again, just wanting to talk to her lover, to hear an explanation as to what she thought she already understood. She needed to hear the words.

“Beth,” Kate spoke with some embarrassment. “Is this her? Oh my God. I’m so glad. I’ll leave you two alone.”

Beth pulled back and stood a moment to look at Nick. Then she took her hand and turned a smiling face toward her friend.

“Kate, meet Nick.”

“We’ve already met.”

“What?”

Nick spoke up quietly. “I came for the modeling job.”

“I didn’t even know you modeled.” Beth was stunned again.

“I guess there’s a lot we don’t know about each other.”

“I hired her. ” Kate gushed. “I thought she’d make a perfect lead, exactly like the spirit of your drawings come to life. I was bringing the girls up for your approval. I selected seven plus her.”

Beth squeezed Nick’s hand, and smiled at Kate.

“I don’t have to see them today, Kate. I trust your judgment.

Apologize for me. We’ll start tomorrow in earnest. We have a lot of work to do before the show.”

“We’ll get it done. I’ll see you on Monday, Beth.”

“Kate, it’s Wednesday.”

“Exactly. Executive privilege. Rank has its rewards. You two have a lot of talking to do, a lot of catching up to do.”

“Can you spare the time, Beth? We do need to talk.” Nick asked hesitantly.

“Oh, Nick, I so need to talk to you.”

“Well, nice to meet you finally, Nick. You didn’t let him scare you?”

“Nothing he can do or say matters at all to me.”

“Good. I feel the same way. She’s worth it. We all love her. She’s been so willing to sacrifice herself for others. I say…to Hell with him!”

“To Hell with him, is right!” Nick repeated, draping her arm protectively across Beth’s shoulder. “So, how about that cup of coffee? I certainly could use the company.”

Beth could feel her tears coming, and looked up helplessly into Nick’s blue eyes. Kate quietly closed the door, leaving the two women alone, and returned to the task of marshaling the models on to another floor for employment papers and contracts.

Beth was once again carefully held, gently caressed as she cried. Nick only wanted to feel her, to soak up the sorrow and free her lover from the suffering she again felt. Finally, Beth calmed, and wiping her face, she looked up at Nick.

“Do you want coffee? I have a carafe here. We can sit and…” She sank into the sofa. “Can you forgive me, Nick?”

The tall woman sat a distance apart, and studied her a moment.

“You know I’ve been worse than miserable these last few months.”

“I know.”

“All I could discover was that a limo picked you up.”

“I couldn’t tell you. I was so afraid he’d hurt you.”

“He is a bit much.”

“The understatement of the year.”

“I’ve missed you terribly. I knew you’d leave eventually, but it didn’t make it any easier when it happened. And you shouldn’t have sent all that money.”

“I wanted to do more. The money, it’s something I have more than enough of in my real life. And it all means so little to me.”

“From one extreme to the other.”

“It’s ironic. That 50 cents I spent on the phone call to your cab company is the only money I consider well spent, Nick.”

“Your only 50 cents at the time.”

“But it was the only money I really ever needed. And look what it got me…talk about a bargain.”

“What did it get you, Beth?”

“Only the most important person in my life, the only person I have ever loved so much, that accepted me, just me, for exactly who and what I am. I would have spent everything I had to get that.”

“Some things can’t be bought, Beth, only given. I offered you everything I had, however pitiful it was, in comparison to your world.”

“And I offered you everything that I could give you then, Nick, my heart, my love.”

“And what can you offer me now, Beth? The money you sent?”

She could see the blonde cringe at her words.

“I didn’t mean to insult you, Nick. Please, I know how hard you work, to get by. I only wanted to give you some freedom, to let you enjoy your last year in school, even if it wouldn’t be spent with me.”

“I don’t want your money, Beth.”

“What do you want?” Beth asked softly.

“Only what you want to give. I’m not blind, Beth. I know I was opening myself up for a major hurt, to let you inside, to open my heart and life to you so fully. I made myself promise to ask for nothing in return, to just love you…no strings attached, no hidden agendas. Part of me hoped you’d stay, even though I knew you would return to your life, to the life you ran from. It’s just been so hard to let you go, to try to build back up those walls, you know?

It hurt, Beth, even though I prepared myself. Honestly, I lived through finding you gone, the apartment empty, every time I came home at the end of the day, even when you were there. Then I’d see you smiling up at me after I opened the door and I would have hope, until the next time I had to return.

When it finally happened, when I saw those damn oatmeal cookies, I knew you left. Debt paid in full. I just sat there like an idiot, and looked at those cookies. I didn’t read your note for a few days. I didn’t have to. I missed a couple days of classes, until my physics professor called and made me get my ass in gear. I finished early. I couldn’t stay in that apartment without you. I thought about grad school, but then, I had to move on. I modeled some in high school. My mother was quite well known, Maria Ruselli. “

“I’ve seen her pictures. I never thought…”

“No. Who would link a cab driver in Buffalo to a top fashion model? Before she died, we were going to make a try at the circuit, but then, well, you know the college part. I bored you with the details already.”

“Not bored me. Please Nick. I so much wanted to tell you who I was, but it would have changed everything. I wasn’t ready to deal with it all. “

“I know. Well, after you left, Buffalo seemed too small a town. I wanted to forget you, Beth, that’s why I called my mother’s agency, and I’ve been modeling in New York for a month now. Doing well, I might add.”

“Doing well? Of course. I told you, Nick, you are one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.”

“So, here I am, answering the agency bulletin for tall, dark and sleek. Only to find the person I was trying so hard to forget.”

“Do you still want to forget me, Nick?”

“Part of me does. Part of me wants to promise I’ll never leave you, no matter what.” She studied the blonde, trying to remain detached. “I don’t know how I can fit into your life, Beth. I have nothing but a college degree in my pocket. I’ve been staying in a hostel here in Manhattan, until I could get enough together to get a place of my own. “

“You should have had some money back from the university.”

“I couldn’t take it. I have a credit there, for future studies.”

“Still making ends meet.”

“It’s what I do best.”

“Let me return the favor.”

“What?”

“Stay with me, until you get on your feet. My place, no matter how decadent, has got to be better than a hostel in Manhattan…until you know what you want.”

“Oh, I know what I want. I just don’t think it will ever happen.”

“What do you want, Nick?”

“It’s such sweet pain to sit here, to see you, Beth. I’m not that tough. If you decide again, that I can’t be part of your life…”

“Nick, I hurt you so badly. I was selfish to give in to my needs, my wants, that first night. I so desperately needed you to love me, to heal me. I’m asking again out of selfishness, asking you to take another chance on me. Even if there is a risk of my father trying his utmost to destroy you, to destroy us. I want to be with you, Nick. If you ever can forgive me.”

“And have me just be a leech, a freeloader?”

“You can model if you want. It doesn’t matter. I have enough money to buy the state of Rhode Island.”

“If it comes out that we’re lovers…”

“It would do wonders for your modeling career. This business loves a scandal.”

“What will it do to yours?”

“You know, Nick, I don’t care. I played the little straight socialite for the four months before I met you, engaged to marry a stranger at my father’s insistence…to keep the family name pure and to do whatever I wanted in private. So I lived a lie and got drunk everyday, to numb it all away. I believed his threats, to hurt everyone I cared about if I defied him. He would have driven them all away. He’d done it before, so I discovered, with the only other woman I loved, years ago. So I just stayed drunk, until I couldn’t even function, couldn’t think or draw, until I just ran away, and found myself in your arms.

I don’t care, Nick, if it’s common knowledge, that I have a woman as a lover. I have enough money that it really won’t matter if my companies suffer. Some might. Some might actually prosper. It doesn’t matter. You matter. You gave me back my pride, my strength, my design, and art, just by your love and support. I’m kidding myself if I think I can battle him alone, that I can continue in this vacuum without your love. So, I’m asking you to come and stay with me. To give us another chance.”

“And all the money you gave me?”

“You can owe me.” Beth smiled hopefully, seeing the glint in Nick’s eyes. “Or work it off…the indentured servant thing. I do have some first hand knowledge about that.”

“If I stayed with you, room and board, plus the cash, I’d never get free. Without some sort of contract.”

“Honestly, dear Nick, I’m not sure I want to define any limits in a contract, or that I want to give you the option of walking away debt free. Not unless you take me with you.” She added quietly. “I’d like to be as gracious a hostess to you, as you were to me. To offer you everything I have, everything I can give you.” Beth kissed Nick’s hand that had moved to her own, before continuing. “But, I have a very uncomfortable couch.”

“How many bedrooms?”

“Just one.”

“Two beds?”

“No.”

“I can get used to a hard couch.”

“I was hoping to offer you the bed.”

“You like the couch?”

“Not.”

“You’re not suggesting I sleep with you, in exchange for room and board? That I fuck you to get ahead?”

“I was hoping we might fuck each other, just because it feels so damn good.”

“No hidden agendas?”

“No hidden agendas, but lots of strings attached, with promises spoken, assurances given.”

“Of what?”

“Just of love, Natasha. Just of love, need, and comfort.”

“No cookies? You know I never ate those oatmeal cookies.”

“I figured as much. They weren’t very good. I couldn’t find a recipe, and I was crying so hard when I made them, I’m sure I forgot something.”

“I love you, Beth.”

“Are we okay, Nick?”

“Kiss me, and I’ll tell you. Give me your best shot.”

“Everything depends on this kiss?”

“Seems fair to me.”

Beth stood up a moment, looking down at Nick’s beautiful face and smiled. She started away.

“Hey, where are you going?”

“I want to lock the office door, and close the blinds.”

“Why? Don’t want to be seen necking with me in public?”

“No. That’s not it. I’m just not sure if you want this office, and the office across the way, to see me strip you naked, and make passionate love with you.”

“Confidant, aren’t you?’

“No. You just gave me permission to kiss you. You just didn’t specify where I should kiss you. And since this counts so much,
I have very definite ideas.”

“You’re killing me here, Boris.”

“Oh, I intend on making you scream, in the very least.”

“Have Mercy. I’m out of practice again.”

“Well, then, I’ll have to make it worth your while.”

Nick moved closer, caressing Beth’s face, outlining her lips with her fingertip.

“Beth?” she asked, before bending to kiss the blonde’s full lips. “Are you done talking yet?” Beth nodded silently. “Because I have one question. Why me?”

“Because I love you, Nick. I just love you.”

 

The End

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s