Part 6

by Kim Pritekel

For complete disclaimers see part 1.

Thanks, love. Great idea.

If you'd like to tell me what a wonderful writer I am, or that I royally suck, feel free at:

Part 6

The waiting room was nice, spacious. I walked around, my hands casually behind my back as I studied the artwork that lined the walls, most of the artists I had never heard of, but they were talented, nonetheless.

Caden had been in with Dr. Gustov for the better part of an hour already. What was he doing? The surgery all over again? So, I waited, sitting in a chair finally, grabbing an issue of People magazine, and reading about The 50 Most Beautiful People.

We had already been to radiation therapy at the hospital, and I was tired of medical facilities, already. I just wanted to get Caden home, and maybe get out to take some more pictures around Boston. I was beginning to feel antsy and caged in, and needed to get out to stretch my legs.

The inner door to the office opened, and Caden stepped out. Her bandage had been changed, and was a bit smaller, mainly covering the back of her head instead of the entire thing. I couldn't help but stare at her shaved head, week-old stubble poking through, littering her scalp with five o'clock shadow. I smiled at her worried expression.

"Interesting new fashion trend, isn't it?" she said, walking toward me, running her hand over her head.

"Hey, you look beautiful even bald. You and Demi Moore." She smiled wider.

"Thank you. The doctor said everything is going very well, and that I'm fine. My MRI's have come back clear and he expects a full recovery."

"That's wonderful!" I was thrilled.

She pulled her jacket on. "Did you get a hold of your attorney friend?"

"Yup, sure did. Great news, actually. Emily's in Boston this week to meet up with a client, so we can stop by her hotel room. How does that sound?"

"Wonderful!" Caden smiled and led us to the door. "I just want this over with."

My sleep was restless and filled with dreams after my show. I could not get Chantal out of my mind, and certainly not that kiss. I had never in my life kissed anther woman, and definitely not like that. What did it all mean? I could easily just go on with my life and store it as just one of those things, but in the same token, I had enjoyed it, and I had been completely attracted to her, and had wanted her to kiss me.

I stared up at the ceiling of my bedroom when my thought drifted to Caden. I felt a need to talk to her about what had happened with Chantal for some reason. I needed to talk to her about me, too. What exactly did it all mean, I wondered for not the first time that morning.

"Shit." I sighed. Caden had left for class already, and I had to get up and around soon to make my own class on time. I wanted to just ditch the whole day, grab Caden out of school, and go somewhere to talk. But, at the same time, I needed time to think about it, figure out exactly what to say to Caden, what to say to myself.

"Shit, shit, shit." I climbed out of my bed, took a quick shower and ran off to class.

I walked around in a daze, Chantal's business card in my pocket, the sharp edges digging into my leg at one point, never letting me forget it was there. I had known for some time that I was attracted to Caden, and had had crushes on different girls my entire life, but had never, ever acted on it, had never really thought about acting on it. On my own, I wouldn't have kissed Chantal, but I sure as hell wasn't going to stop her. What if some girl from a class had done that? Maybe Marty from my Life Drawing class had. She was gorgeous, and she and I talked often during class, sometimes walking to our next class together. Would I let her kiss me? Would I kiss her back? What about Michael? Would I allow him to?


I just wasn't interested in him that way. I mean, he was Gooper, for crying out loud! He was also Caden's brother, and should something go wrong, it would likely hurt Caden and my friendship. Michael was just too risky.

Did I want to turn my face to the possibility of guys all together, though? I wasn't sure. I didn't think so, but just wasn't sure. I was raised that you met some guy, got married, and had kids. True, with my ambition for my art that probably wouldn't happen anyway, but even so, would I allow it to?

I didn't know, and was giving myself a headache trying to figure it all out in one afternoon. Maybe my talk with Caden should wait until I had a few more answers myself.

I waited patiently as the phone rang, figuring if she didn't answer by the third ring, I'd hang up and try again. To my luck, she answered just after the second.

"Emily Thomas,"

"Emily, hey. It's Laurel."

"Hey, you." I could hear the smile in her voice. "Did you talk with your friend?"

"I did. She wants to meet with you tonight if that's possible?"

"Absolutely. I should be back in my room by seven, tops."

"Great. I look forward to it. I hear we need to do some catching up, a new little addition to your family?"

"We certainly do." The pride and happiness in my old friend's voice put an automatic smile on my face. "That little one is a handful and a half!"

"Well, most one year olds are from what I hear." I grinned, leaning back into the seat of the Explorer, Caden sitting next to me.

"I'll show you pictures when you get here. I carry a virtual studio around in my wallet. I've had to get a bigger purse to accommodate the thing."

"Lord, you are a mother, aren't you? You and Caden could swap stories, I'm sure." I laughed. "Okay. We'll see you soon, then. Give my love to Rebecca."

"Certainly. Can't wait to see you."

I put my phone away and turned to my friend. "Okay, it's all set." Caden smiled at me.

"Thank you, Laurel." She took my hand, gently squeezing. "You've been a wonderful friend. So supportive."

"Hey, that's my job." To my surprise she leaned into me, wrapping her arm around my neck, pulling me to her for an awkward, not much space in the car, hug.

"Really. Thank you." I studied her, looking deeply into her eyes, smiled.

"You're welcome."

A week went by after my show, and life went on as usual, filled with school, tests, and more tests. I wanted to talk to Caden, but the time just never seemed to be there. Finally, two weeks later, we both had a free Friday night.

We had decided to go see a movie and have some dinner, so as I dressed in a air of jeans and tee I thought about what exactly to say to her. How do I bring it up? I had been thinking about things from my own point of view, and was maybe a bit closer to an answer; I definitely was into girls, but primarily? I didn't know.

"I hear this movie is supposed to be really good." Caden said, standing in the doorway of my bedroom. I turned to see her leaning against the doorframe, arms crossed over her chest, a grin on her face. "Aren't you ready yet?"

"Hey, now. I took a shower, you didn't, so bite me."

"Yeah, yeah. Come on. It feels so good to finally have a night free, I just want to go. I'm so tired of being stuck here." She looked around my room, taking in the drawings and pictures I had pinned up all over my room; some of it my work, others that of friends.

Tying my flannel around my waist, I walked toward her, and we headed toward the front door. My stomach was in knots from the anticipation of talking with her, and frankly I felt sick.

I thought about those early days as I drove us back to the Lodge estate, smiling to myself at those first awkward times, not sure which was up and which was down. Then my thoughts were scattered as Caden spoke.

"You know, I never should have given up school." I turned to her, seeing the back of her head as she stared out the side window. I said nothing, figuring she just needed to talk. "It was the wrong decision, and ultimately a mistake. Millions of women have finished out school with a child in tow, why not me?" she finally turned to me. "Do you think I was wrong, Laurel?"

I looked at her, not sure what to say. I knew what my head and heart said, but I wasn't sure if it was actually conformation she sought, or just wanted to feel better about what happened. With a deep breath I made my choice.

"You know, we all make decisions in life, Caden. Some work for us, others don't. You did what you felt you had to do then, it worked for you. Perhaps some of it was your age at the time, young, dependant on your family financially, emotionally, and just maybe you wanted their approval more than your own." I took a deep breath, studied her to see if I'd taken it too far. She looked down at her hands, but said nothing. I decided to continue. "After spending ten years to make others happy, Caden, you're still a young woman, and you can do anything. I always thought that about you. You have the determination and spirit, and intelligence to do it all. Do it, Caden. Not for your parents, or for Troy, or even for Annie. Do it for Caden." She looked at me finally, her eyes boring into mine, making me feel almost uncomfortable. I held the gaze.

"You're right." She whispered after a moment. "You're absolutely right. I want to live for me."

Friendly's was busy, as it always was on a Friday night. We found a table near the back, and sat in the large, red booths. Caden smiled at me.

"My mouth is watering for those chicken fajitas. The way I'm feeling right now, I could eat a horse!"

"Please don't." I muttered from behind the menu. I was tying to get my timing just right. Part of me was thinking it was better to talk to Caden while in a public place, then she couldn't throw anything at me. Yet, the other part of me was thinking that it needed privacy.

"What's up?" I lowered the menu to see Caden leaning forward on the table, her fingers interlaced.

"What do you mean?" Maybe I could play dumb.

"Well, all day you've been really distant, almost as if you're worried, or just terribly distracted. Are you okay? Anything I can do?"

Might as well.

"Well, actually, Caden, um, there is something that I need to talk to you about. Um, something that I'm not real sure on, or whatever."

"Alright. I'm listening." Caden waved our waitress off, telling her we needed a few minutes, then looked at me again. "Come on, woman. Spit it out." She smiled, patting my arm. I sat back in the seat, taking a deep breath.

"Okay. Well, you remember my show a couple weeks ago, right?" she nodded. "Well, a woman came to it, and she bought three pieces, you know she's an art dealer out of New York? She gave me her card, and buys art work from new artists,"


"Oh. Sorry. Anyway, so she and I hit it off really well, and we talked for quite a while. I mean, you had to go home to study, and I was alone, and needed a friend, so, well, she was it." Caden looked at me with confused eyes, obviously not getting my message through its vagueness. "She kissed me, Caden. And, I let her. She was beautiful, and I was completely attracted to her." She looked at me, sitting back against the booth, her eyes locked to mine.

"Okay," her voice was quiet, flat. My nervousness grew, not sure if I should continue. I looked at her for help, some sort of indication of what I should do. "Go on." With a deep swallow, I did just that.

"Caden, I don't know. I just don't. I've been having strange things going on in my head for so long, I don't know what to do with them, all these feelings and thoughts, and curiosities. I don't know if it's just that, or if it's something that will stick with me, or," I sighed.

"You're wondering all this from just one kiss from a strange woman?"

"Well, yes and no. I mean, the thoughts were there long before Chantal, but she definitely helped to cement some things, you know?"

"So what are you telling me?"

"I don't know. I think maybe I'm kind of into girls. Maybe bisexual."

Caden looked down for a moment, her hands dropping to her lap.

"Caden? Are you okay?" she smiled at me with an obviously forced nod.

"Yes, I'm fine. Listen," she scooted out of the booth, grabbing her purse, "I just remembered something I have to do for lab. Um, I'll catch you back at the apartment, okay?" without another look, she hurried through the restaurant, disappeared into the night.


I stayed where I was, not sure what to do. I had driven, so I knew Caden was out walking. I wanted to run out, get in my car, and pick her up on the side of the road, but didn't think she really wanted to be bothered. I didn't know how to feel. I hadn't expected her to react like that. Why? What was behind it?

I felt my eyes sting as tears began to build behind my lids. No, not here, not now.

I closed my car door after me, sat in the driver's seat, staring out the windshield at the restaurant in front of me, the red neon lights of the sign filling the night. I had no idea what to do, what to say. I felt lost.

I drove around Lancaster aimlessly for about an hour, any thoughts of dinner long forgotten. My appetite had left with Caden. I wondered where she'd gone. Why had she run out of Friendly's like that, anyway? I didn't understand. I really had thought that she'd be more understanding than that. We had friends that were gay, and she was fine with them. So why not me?

I drove down Chestnut street until I got to our apartment, and parked at the curb, under the tree as usual. As I grabbed my jacket from the passenger seat, I glanced out the window, saw Caden sitting on the top step of our building. Her knees were drawn up, her arms wrapped around her shins. She was staring down at the step, then glanced up at me when she heard me walking toward her.

"Hey." She nearly whispered.


"Sit?" I looked at the step where she patted, then looked at her, not sure what to do, if I should trust her.

"Okay." I sat. She stared into the street for a moment, then looked over at me.

"I'm really sorry I acted that way. It wasn't what you needed just then. I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive my foolishness?" her eyes begged me, her face looking almost as if she were ready to cry. I sighed.

"It didn't kill me." I gave her a weak smile, the best I could do.

"I certainly hope not. I could never forgive myself if something happened to you because of me, Laurel. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. Thank you. I needed that." She nodded, looking out into the street again.

"Hey, what are friends for, right? Yeah, right."

"Don't beat yourself up too much, Caden. I mean, that just kind of came out of left field; I understand that."

"Thanks." Her voice was small, as I assumed she felt.

"But I do want to know why."

"Yes, I suppose I do owe you an explanation. Well, I guess I was just so shocked, as you said, it did come out of nowhere. I wasn't expecting that. At all." She looked at me again. I had the distinct feeling that there was more to it, like she wanted to say more, but was holding back. I let it go. "Do you plan to see that woman again? You know, visit the home of your artwork, make sure she's treating it well." She grinned, and I returned it.

"No." I shook my head. "It was a one time thing. You know what they say, everything happens for a reason. I'm thinking that she was just kind of there to," I spread my hands out, my voice dramatic, " show me the way." Caden smiled.

"Perhaps. What are you going to do now?" I shrugged.

"That, my friend, is the million dollar question. I've been asking myself that for the last two weeks. What can I do? I mean, it's not a like a career change where you start typing up your résumé, you know?"

"Yes, I suppose not." She sighed deeply, put her hand on my shoulder. "I'm still hungry, by the way." She looked at me shyly. I smiled.

"God, you're adorable. Let's go."

Emily's hotel was beautiful, expensive, and hard to find. Finally pulling into the parking lot, I parked, and we got out, headed toward room number 306. I was glad to see Emily. We had met years ago at an art exhibition in New Jersey, and had hit if off instantly. I needed to keep in better touch with my old friends.

As we walked down the hall, the thick carpeting beneath our feet muffling our steps, Caden took several deep breaths.

"Are you okay?" we stopped in front of the door to Emily's room.

"Yes. I just can't believe it's come to this. I really thought Troy would be the first." She looked at me.

"You know, when you were in the hospital Michael told me that he was thinking about it. Troy was going to, Caden. At least now you can get it over with sooner."

"He was going to file?" her voce was low, incredulous. I nodded. "Bastard." She raised her fist and knocked soundly. A few moments later the door opened, and Emily Thomas, attorney at law smiled at us.

"Laurel!" she reached out and grabbed me, pulling me to her. "It's been so long." She pulled away and looked me over. "You look good, though you're a bit too thin." She looked at me accusingly. All I could do was shrug. "This must be Caden?"

"Hello, Emily. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, and during your downtime."

"Not a problem." They shook hands, and we were invited in . Emily looked good, her blonde hair was a bit longer than when I'd seen her last, but her green eyes were still full of life. She was dressed simply in an oversized tee and jeans. Her feet bare.

"How's Rebecca? Still teaching?" I asked as I made myself comfortable on a chair, crossing my legs at the knee. Emily nodded, headed toward the bar.

"She sure is. Just started the new year about a month ago. Can I get either of you anything? We're fully stocked here." I didn't want anything, but Emily brought Caden's water and lime to her before sitting on the bed, patting it next to her for Caden to join her. "You need to tell me everything, Caden. I want to know what we're going up against, here."

The day after my revelations to Caden she acted as if nothing was different or new. I wasn't sure how to take it or what to do with it. I was just glad that she wasn't angry or shocked anymore. The night before we had gone back to Friendly's and eaten dinner, talking and laughing, out until a ridiculous hour, both of us dragging our asses when we got home.

"What about Michael?" she had asked as she prepared her third chicken fajita.

"What about him? I bit into my cheeseburger, looking at her quizzically.

"Well, as I'm sure you know, Laurel, he's interested in you. What will you tell him?"

"Caden, I never promised Goop anything. He and I were never an item. I don't owe him any sort of explanation at all. She looked at me, surprised.

"Oh. Okay."

"Why/" I was suspicious now.

"Well, nothing."

"Spit it out, woman." I put the burger down on the plate, leaning forward to let her know I meant business.

"Well, I think he was planning to actually ask you out, you know, like, well, to risk sounding like high school, I guess to be girlfriend and boyfriend. To date."

"When did this happen?" I was confused. I had figured Michael had liked me, but had no idea it was to that yet.

"Well, I actually think he fell for you the first night he met you." She smiled. "Not that I blame him. I mean, who wouldn't fall for the small, perky blonde?" I smacked her on the arm.

"Yeah, and bite me."

"No, but really. You should tell him."

I needed to think about that one. Telling Caden, my best friend and roomy of three years, and telling her brother who was more like a buddy to me than anything else, I just didn't know.

"So you haven't worked during the duration of your marriage?"

"No. Never."

"Okay. Are any of your combined asset s in your name?"

Caden thought for a moment, her hand on her forehead, then she shook her head.

"No. The cars, house, all of it is in Troy's name."

"Well, then we may have some problems."

I turned to the window, looking out over Boston as Caden and Emily continued talking the case over. I hoped Troy Shepherd got everything that was coming to him, without Annie or Caden getting caught in the crossfire.

"However, there was a prenup."

"Oh, this is too good."

I smiled, and continued to stare out the window.

Michael, nor my sexuality, was brought up again during that year. We went on with our lives, trying to get through school. I had three more shows that year, each doing better than the one before it. All the money from each piece went directly into the bank; it's what I intended to start up my studio with once I graduated.

Caden was knee-deep into her studies, and had met a new guy. I didn't know who he was, though. She was very secretive about him, and I had yet to meet him. I hated the idea, but what could I do? I knew I had no chance in hell with Caden, as much as I hated that fact, but I wasn't about to sit around and think about all the what could be's in life. I lived life to the fullest.

The house was rocking, bodies hot and sweaty as they jammed to the heavy beat of the music. My cheeks were red from exertion, and I needed a break before I collapsed. My date led me to the front door to get some air.

"You okay?" she asked, pushing sweaty bangs off my forehead.

"I think so." I turned to her with a grin. Erin Stevens and I had seen each other a couple times, going to dinner or a movie or partying. She was cute as hell with her medium length red hair and fiery blue eyes, dimples that just wouldn't quit. Absolutely adorable.

"Quite the party, huh?" she wrapped her arms around bent legs, and laid the side of her head on her knees, looking at me with a smile.

"No doubt." I looked at her, suddenly feeling very drawn to her. I leaned in, toward her, gently brushed my lips against hers, slowly pulling away. Her eyes were still closed as I looked at her, a small smile forming.

"I've been wondering when you were going to do that." She whispered. I smiled.

"Me, too."

I leaned in again.

The thing is, I liked Erin. I liked her a lot, but whenever I kissed a woman, or had sex with one, I always had this tiny voice in the back of my mind that made me feel guilty, as though I were doing something against Caden, almost cheating. I didn't understand it. But, as I usually did, I pushed it back where it belonged, and enjoyed my time with Erin.

* * *

I walked around the grounds of the house, looking at the distant horizon, wondering when I should go home. I knew that Margaret was scheduled to come back in a week. Do I stay until then? Probably should.

I thought about the night before, after we left Emily's hotel. We drove back to the house in silence. I could tell Caden was in deep thought and in need of a bit of quiet and peace to think.

From what I had heard of their conversation, it sounded as if everything would be fine, and Caden could out relatively painlessly, especially since it seemed as if Troy was no longer against a divorce. He'd probably cooperate.

"Thank you, Laurel." Pulled from my thoughts, I turned to my friend. "Thank you for introducing me to your friend. She is wonderful, and I feel very confident in her abilities to get this over with as quickly as possible." She was quiet again, turning her attention back to the night.

The large gates slowly closed behind us, the headlights of the Explorer showing the trees that were beginning to lose their leaves, leaving them scattered across the lawn, until we finally reached the house.

Caden walked with me to the door of my room where she stopped, her hand reaching for mine.

"I think this is the best decision I've ever made." She looked into my eyes, making sure she had my full attention. "I truly believe I wouldn't have been able to do it without you."

I looked at her, baffled. "How is that? I've only been here a week. I haven't done anything to deserve such a compliment, Caden." She nodded.

"Yes you have. You've reminded of who and what I am, who and what I can be. I've let myself be beaten down, Laurel. My entire life. My fault. I didn't fight it, until now. Thank you." She leaned in, placing her lips on my cheek, a soft, lingering kiss, then I was left alone in the hall to wonder.

I woke up with the worst kink in my neck, which was giving me a headache. With a soft groan I sat up, Erin still asleep next to me. The small room was in complete disarray, clothes strewn everywhere, the mini blinds half raised, the plastic strips bent out of shape in places.

My god. What kind of bomb had gone off in here? I didn't remember a terribly large amount of the night before, just knew that I had drank a bunch, and was feeling every drop now.

"Ugh." I held my head in my hands and took deep breaths. I wondered where the bathroom was; water was usually the best thing to drink on a major hangover. Pulling the sheet off my naked body, I stood on shaky legs, looking around in the mess for my tee and jeans. Spotting my bra in the corner, I hurried over to it, slipping it on, still searching.

"Quite the mess, isn't it?" my head snapped up to see her looking at me, holding herself up on her elbows, the sheet barely covering her breasts. She smiled at me, those dimples peeking at me.

"That would be my observation." I smiled back, pulling the gray tee over my head. Erin sat up fully, holding the covers to her.

"I'd hoped it would happen, but not like that, I guess." She looked around the room again.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, both of us loaded." She suddenly looked shy.

"Yeah." I walked over to the bed, sat on the edge, pushing some of her wild hair behind her ear. "But I don't regret it." She looked at me, hopeful.



"I'm glad. Me either." I kissed her lightly.

"I do need to go, though. My roommate is going to kill me." I grinned. She nodded in understanding.

"I've got three myself. When can I see you again?"

"Well," I stood from the bed, finding my jeans and slipping them on. I had yet to find my underwear. "I have to study today and do a portrait, so how about tonight? Or tomorrow?"

"Okay. Give me a call." I walked over to her again, kissed her deeply, and stood.

"See you later."

As I drove home I thought about Caden. What would she say? I hadn't told her anything. She knew I was going out, and I had even invited her, but she hated parties, so I'd gone with Erin. Even so, I didn't even call her to let her know what was up. That was our rule; call so no one had to worry.

I parked in front of the apartment, and lugged my hung over self inside, up the narrow stairs, and stuck my key in the door to find it was indeed locked. This meant one of two things; either Caden was still asleep, which meant I could possibly slip into bed without her being any the wiser, or she was awake, which was more likely, and had left if locked after getting her morning paper, in which case my ass was grass.

The apartment was dark, which I was grateful for. None of the heavy curtains had been opened to let in the early morning light. The kitchen was empty, Caden's bedroom door was closed, so I wondered into the living room, empty. Confused, I headed to my room with the strange thought that perhaps she was in there. It had happened before, she'd waited up for me in my room after a show, and had fallen asleep. I opened the door, nothing.

Confused and a bit worried, I headed toward the kitchen to look for a note on the dry-erase. Nothing. Just my note from earlier in the week reminding her to buy milk. Where the hell was she? My confusion was quickly turning to worry.

I grabbed the phone, punching in the number of our neighbors downstairs. Maybe she had seen or talked with one of them. After four rings a groggy voice answered.


"Derrick? It's Laurel upstairs. Did you see Caden last night?"


"Did you or anyone there see Caden? She's not here."

"The nun isn't there?"

"No. Did you see her or not?" I was beginning to get irritated on top of my worry. Not a good combination.

"No. Hang on. I'll see if anyone else did." The phone was put down on something hard, the loud clang not helping my head any. I put my hand to my forehead and closed my eyes. I could hear talking in the background, and tried to ignore it, focusing on my head, and picturing a nice big bottle of Aspirin in my mind.


"Yeah. I'm here."

"Noah says he saw her leave late, like midnight or later with some guy."

"Does he know who?"

"Nah. He didn't ask, neither."

"Okay. Thanks, Derrick." After a grumbled uh huh the phone was hung up with another loud clang. I clicked off the cordless, and set it on the counter, trying to decide what to do. This was so unlike her. Who was this guy? Was it the mystery guy she was dating? I figured it was, but why was she out all night? She would never even so much as consider such a thing. Was she okay? Had this guy forced her to stay with him? Was she hurt? Laying somewhere bleeding or, or worse?

"Oh, god." I put my hand to my mouth as horrifying images began to flash through my mind. Please, please let her be okay. What could I do? I could call Michael, I guess. Maybe he'd know who the guy was. Maybe,

I started as the front door was opened, then gently closed. Footsteps leading toward the bathroom, the door closing and the turn of the lock.

"Caden?" I hurried down the three stairs to the hall where the bathroom and Caden's room was. "Caden?"

"Yeah?" came a muffled voice from inside.

"Are you okay?" I placed my hand onto the hard wood, wishing so bad I could be in there. I felt it in my gut, something was wrong.

"Yeah." I heard a sniffle. "I'm fine."

"Please unlock the door, Caden. I want to come in." I knocked lightly.

"No, no. There's no need. I'm fine, really."

I sighed, staring at the painted wood, wondering what to do. Nothing I could do, really. If she wanted to be alone, what could I do?

"Well, um, okay. If you need me, I'm here, okay?" no answer. I sighed again, walked away.

The next morning was beautiful. October had taken a backseat, and it was unseasonably warm. Caden was in extremely good spirits when I found her in the kitchen talking with the cook, munching on a bagel.

"Good morning, Laurel." She said when she spotted me, walking over to me, holding out a bagel to me. "You must try one of these. Freshly baked this morning by Calvin." I took it.

"Thank you."

"Did you sleep well?" she hopped up on a stool next to the busy cook, indicating one near her where I was to sit. I did, happily taking huge bites from the delicious treat.

"Pretty much. Yourself?"

"Oh, yes! I haven't slept so well in years." She smiled, her entire face lighting up. I was completely charmed by her mood, her smile, everything. "I had the most incredible idea, well I think it's incredible, come to me this morning as I was getting dressed. I really want to discuss it with you, Laurel."

"Sure. Shoot."

"Well," she hopped down from the stool, taking my arm to pull me with her. We walked out the side door, out into the morning sun. She kept her hand on my arm as she looked around, almost like she had never been outside before in her life. "I feel so fresh today." She closed her eyes as she took a deep breath, a smile forming. She turned to me. "I love the smell of autumn. Especially when all the fireplaces are going here at the house. The smell is beyond wonderful. I love the smell of burning wood." She released my arm, and literally skipped away from me. Part of me wondered if she'd lost her mind!

"Caden? Are you okay?"

"I have never been better!" she began to run, giggling, her voice echoing through the small valley of the estate. "God, I just feel as if I've been given a second chance at life, Laurel. My health is good, my marriage is over. I am free!" I watched, entranced by her energy. I finished my bagel, popping the last bite into my mouth, and followed her, running to catch up.

Finally she stopped near a stand of trees, bending over, her hands on her knees, breathing hard. I reached her and put my hand on her back.

"Are you okay?" I asked, panting from the exorcise.

"Oh, yes. I guess I just never realized just how out of shape I am these days." She smiled and stood. "You know, before I got sick I used to swim everyday? I swam, biked, and jogged. I always wanted to keep tight control on my body, and what I was doing with it." She raised her long arms to the sky, stretching her fingers toward the heavens. "It nearly drove me crazy when I couldn't do anything anymore. My doctors advised me not to when things began to get worse, and my balance was so God awful. I could fall over if someone looked at me crooked." She smiled at me, I returned it.

"So what's this incredible idea of yours?" I asked, leaning against a tree, truly curious. Knowing Caden, it was brilliant.

"Well," she leaned against the tree opposite of mine, and looked me dead in the eye. "You remember you said you wanted to photograph me the other day?" I nodded, wondering where this was going. "Well, what if I let you. But here's the thing. Laurel how about making another book? You said your first one was so popular, and lucrative, and successful. Why not do another?"

"But, what would be the theme? The purpose?" I was baffled. Caden pushed away from the tree, walked to me.

"Well, while you're here with me you're missing out on opportunities to work, and make money. I'm not worth you losing your livelihood over. Plus," Her voice softened. "Laurel, you have reminded me what a woman can do if she puts her mind to it, al the power that women possess that I've allowed myself to miss out on for half my life, hell, most my life. I don't want to do that anymore. I want to show other women out there, no matter what their station in life, or career, or whatever they may be doing, that women have power over themselves, and their own lives." I stared, wanting to hear more. "You ask about a theme? How about strong women."

I cocked my head to the side as I studied her, her blue eyes opened wide, filled with excitement and hope.

"You really want to do this, don't you?"

"You have no idea."

I tucked in my bottom lip, chewing on it as my mind turned.

"When you were going through therapy, and all your doctor visits, were there other women there with you? Others that suffered the same thing you did?"

"Oh, yes. Too many, I'm afraid." I smiled.

"Wonderful." Caden's face fell from excitement to confusion.

"Wonderful? I don't follow."

"You're right, a book on strong women would be great, but how about not just strong women, but on survivors?" blue eyes filled once again with excitement and possibility.

"Really?" she whispered, almost as if she were afraid to dream. I nodded.

"I need to talk with my agent, and see what she says, but something tells me she'll go nuts over the idea."

I laid on my bed, attempting to get some sleep, but couldn't do it, tossing and turning. It was useless. Caden was on my mind, and I couldn't stop worrying.

I pushed the covers off, my feet hitting the floor, jolting my entire body, making it feel as it my brain was rattling around in my skull. I pulled on a pair of shorts with my tank, and padded out to the living room. Caden was curled up on the couch wrapped in a blanket sipping what looked to be hot tea.

"Hey." She said glancing up at me.

"Hey." I sat on the couch next to her, tucking my feet up under me, the chill in the apartment making me wish I'd grabbed some sweats and socks.

"Here." She lifted the blanket, and I wasted no time scooting under it with her, our body heat combining to make a sort of warm cocoon to envelop us both.

"Thanks." Shoulder to shoulder, I stared down at the patterns of the old 70's style orange and yellow design. I wasn't sure what to say. "Do you want to talk about it?" Caden was quiet for a moment until I heard her take a shallow breath, letting it out slowly.

"I slept with him." Her voice was so quiet. I said nothing, not sure if she was finished. "I'm so ashamed."

"Why?" I turned more toward her, my hand rubbing her arm. She looked at me, her eyes swimming.

"I didn't want to." Said, her voice getting thick from the emotion she was trying to hold back.

"He didn't..." I couldn't finish the question.

"Oh, no! No, I did it myself. It was my own stupidity." She closed her eyes, a single tear managing to seep out. I caught it on my fingertip before it could get very far.

"Caden, it's perfectly natural for a woman your age, it's not so unusual or anything,..."

"I've always told myself that I'd wait, Laurel. I'd wait for someone that I love, really care about." She looked at me with pleading eyes. "I know it's an outdated idea, and may seem stupid to you, but I always wanted that, and always figured I'd stick to it."

"Then why didn't you?"

Caden pulled away from me, looking away toward the window above the TV. She sighed, wiping at her eyes, getting herself under control.

I really don't want to answer that right now if it's okay." She turned to me again, begging for my understanding. "Please?" I opened my mouth to say something, but quickly snapped it shut.

"Okay. I don't get it, but alright. If that's what you need." I began to stand when to my surprise she grabbed me, and buried her face in my shoulder, sobbing. I could feel the wetness through the material of my shirt. I wrapped my arms around her heaving body, murmuring word of comfort to her, rocking her.

"I was so stupid, Laurel." She cried. "So stupid."

"Shh. It happens. Shh. It'll be okay."

I snapped my phone shut with a satisfying click, and beamed. I couldn't wait to find Caden and tell her the good news. Tammy, my agent, had absolutely fallen in love with the idea before I fully had it out of my mouth.

"Yes! Do it, Laurel. It will sell like gangbusters! I'll call the publishing house today and see what Fran can tell me."

I ran down the stairs, looking in every room as I passed until I found Caden sitting by the fire, reading.

"Hey, you." I said as I burst into the room, nearly scaring her out of her skin. I kneeled in front of her and took her hands. "It's a go. My agent loved it!"

"Really?" her face lit up like a Christmas tree, and she squeezed my fingers. "I'm so happy. I can't wait to get started." She stopped suddenly, letting our hands fall.

"What is it?" with furrowed brow I stood, looking down at the top of Caden's bandaged head.

"Well, I would think, from what I've seen of your work, your photographs, all the women you shoot are beautiful." She looked at me, rubbing the top of her head. "I'm not anymore, Laurel. I've become hideous since I've gotten sick." I kneeled down again, studying her eyes. "Perhaps you could just shoot the other women, those who are still beautiful."

"Caden, what are you talking about? You are as beautiful today as you were the first day we met."

She looked at me, disbelieving. "No. I have no hair, and this awful bandage on my head, I've grown so thin, pale,"

"Caden, if you're not in this book, then it does not get made. Do you understand me? You are so beautiful and you don't even see it." I put my fingers under her chin, lifted her face up to me, turning it to the left then to the right, studying her features, the chiseled cheekbones, incredible eyes, aquiline nose, delicate, yet strong eyebrows, dark as midnight. I smiled in appreciation. "You are gorgeous."

She looked at me with tear-filled eyes. "Thank you."

I nodded. "Anytime." I stood again, clapping my hands together. "Now, how to get started." I walked away, beginning to pace as I thought about the upcoming project, trying to decide the best angle to take. "Do you still know these women from your treatments?"

"Yes. We became very good friends, especially during my stay in the hospital all those times. Some have gone home and fully recovered, but others, well, some are still going through the worst of it."

"Well, perhaps then we can try and make them feel better." I raised a brow at her. She thought for a moment, then smiled, the kind I loved that spread over her entire face.


Part 7

original fiction <> homepage