By Emily Duncan
This is a work of fiction and any references to real people, products, and/or organizations are only included to lend a sense of authenticity. All the characters, whether central or peripheral, are wholly the product of the author's imagination, as are their actions, motivations, thoughts and conversations, and neither the characters nor the situations which were invented for them are intended to depict real people or events. The content depicts love and a variety of sexual relationships between consenting adult women. There will also be violence and bad language, but not to any great extent. If it is illegal for you to read work of this nature, then please do not continue.
Copyright © Emily Duncan 2001. All rights reserved. The original fiction works contained herein are the property of the author and are subject to copyright laws, as well as other laws, including, but not limited to, other applicable state, federal, territorial and international laws and treaties. You are granted permission to print these pages or save to a file on your computer for personal use only. No other use is permissible, except where otherwise specified in writing or where the author's prior express written consent has been obtained. Any other use of the materials, including, but not limited to, distribution, modification, reproduction, publication, transmission, participation in the transfer of or sale of, performance, creation of derivative works, or in any other way, the use of which results in the exploitation of any of the materials, in whole or in part, for uses other than those expressly permitted herein, is strictly forbidden.
What a night.
It was the start of the new millennium, and in a small, dark bar in the centre of Manchester, a small blonde woman was leaning on a barstool. She didn't think she'd ever have the strength to get up. Her limbs felt like jelly - far too tired to support even her own slight weight. However, despite the fatigue, a deep sense of satisfaction was fighting its way through the fog of the "morning after".
She smiled a little weakly.
Not bad for a night's work, Nia...even though you're saying it yourself.
She was right. Last night's New Year celebrations had gone exceptionally well - regulars and newcomers appreciating the easy ambience that marked the place apart from Manchester's trendier offerings. Their enthusiasm - and alcohol consumption - had brought in takings that were more than enough to appease the ever-looming Powers That Be. But festivities over, the dirty work was beginning in earnest. The January rain was falling in buckets, drenching the streets outside and running into the gutters as the clean-up operation got underway within.
Damn place looks like a bomb's hit it.
The manager glanced about her, and baulked as she surveyed the filth saturating her small territory.
It was in quite a state. Broken glasses and bottles littered the whole vicinity, along with a liberal scattering of cigarette ends. The chairs and tables looked as though they'd been dug out of a coal mine. And to top it all, the entire area was slick with spilled beer and champagne, sticking feet to the floor and snatching tacky footprints that would be horrendous to get off.
Still, if we all pull together it shouldn't take too long to return to some semblance of normality...she thought, as she breathed in the buzz that permeated the air. Ten of the bar staff had dragged themselves out of bed before noon on New Year's Day to come and clear up - and Nia reflected that they were doing a pretty decent job of it, despite the seemingly impenetrable mess.
These were a good lot. The financial rewards for giving up your New Year's Eve to work were considerable, especially since this was the start of the new millennium - but the staff had given more than their money's worth and worked the shift with patience and good humour, dealing efficiently with the casualties that were a side-effect of cheap champagne and free shots of vodka.
The bar manager tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, and grinned to herself as she remembered one of the evening's more amusing incidents.
The place was filling up fast, and although it was only ten o'clock, many of the customers were dancing. Some of them were criminally drunk, Nia realised, as a besuited young man almost fell into a table in his efforts to cut a move. While observing his antics, she spotted one of her staff elbowing her way in and out of the crowd, collecting glasses cavalier fashion - thin-lipped and methodical, fixated on her task.
The manager smiled in appreciation. Lizzie was a petite, attractive young woman, and her appearance belied a feisty little tiger that could definitely take care of herself. The only clue to the fire that lay within was a certain something in the cut of the profile, a determined nose and angular jaw that jutted defiantly regardless of what mood the barmaid was in. Nia had often wondered what it would be like to take the brunette to bed, imagining Liz to be as much of a handful in the sack as she was in the workplace...and routinely had to shake herself for thinking about one of her employees in such a manner.
She shook herself again, and deep green eyes focused on the figure approaching the bar, with arms full of glasses and an ill -concealed look of annoyance on her face.
Liz set the pile down and gave her boss a tense grin.
"Everything OK, Liz?" Nia enquired, stifling a smirk in case it prompted an outburst from her quick-tempered employee.
Replied the brunette abruptly, before turning to face the man who was dancing behind her, and pinning him to the nearest wall with an icy glare that carried a notable amount of menace, despite her size.
"Listen, mate. The next time you grope me while I'm collecting glasses, you're heading for a broken arm. And if you don't believe I can do it I'd be happy to demonstrate."
Nia choked back a bark of laughter. Stunned, the customer attempted to speak - failed, and sloped off into the crowd, sheepish and visibly embarrassed by the fact that this diminutive barmaid had thwarted his advances so effectively...and publicly.
Meanwhile, Liz turned back to her manager, triumph and apology mingling in her face as she met the blonde's eyes.
"Was it acceptable to do that? I mean, you always say that sexual harassment's not part of the job, but..."
Her voice trailed off, betraying a little uncertainty. Nia was a fabulous boss, normally granting her staff a considerable amount of freedom, but everyone knew there was a line that was not to be crossed with the gentle blonde or there would be hell to pay. Liz wasn't sure whether she'd just crossed it.
But the golden-haired manager just chuckled and patted her on the arm.
"You're a little warrior at heart, aren't you?" She quipped, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
"I like it, Liz. I'd have done exactly the same thing in that situation. Next time, let's tackle him together. I don't think he'd survive if we pooled our resources. That might be fun."
With a wink, Nia moved off to put change in the tills, leaving an admiring Liz gazing after her.
"She's something else, isn't she?" She muttered, to no-one in particular.
A few seconds later, she gave vent to a snort.
"Who's she calling a warrior?"
A disgruntled male voice dragged Nia back to the grime and chaos of January 1st.
"What's the matter, Tom?"
She craned her neck to reply to the hefty lad towering over her. Nia didn't have many men on her staff, finding that communication was much easier with an all-female team - but as she'd reflected when she'd hired Tom and Pete...you have to keep some boys on the premises to do the heavy lifting and the muck-work.
Tom wrinkled his nose in disdain.
"Some customer got pissed as a newt last night - barfed all over the men's toilets - where do we keep the bleach?"
Nia swallowed a laugh at his description.
"I think it's in the cupboard next to the cellar, Tom." She said, solemnly.
"But you'd best check with Max just in case. Here, take my keys."
She threw the large bunch to the boy, who caught them deftly and sloped out, scowling and grumbling to himself. Nia grimaced and decided to leave her assistant to deal with the fall-out from that one.
Although to say that Maxine was Nia's assistant manager would be to grossly understate the case - within the bar's insular community she was more akin to right hand, henchman and familiar. By now Nia had lost count of the times Max had given far more than her job was worth - and perhaps her reasons were less than straightforward, but it was appreciated all the same.
Maxine was definitely the most obvious dyke on the staff at Fire and Ice - a short, stocky character with a neatly shaved head and several tastefully designed tattoos. She rode to work on a Harley, which was about the only thing that would ever have convinced Nia to sleep with her - since the blonde had a well-hidden fetish for girls in leather. And Max had almost pulled off the desired romantic encounter through dint of sheer persistence. Things had become pretty intense, and fearing the loss of a trusted friend and her most valuable employee, Nia had eventually been forced to tell her to back off. The hurt in those big brown eyes had almost torn her apart. Max looked like a stricken animal - shocked, dismayed and unsure of how to handle the twisting in her guts that was almost tangible, it was so vehement.
But much to Nia's relief, the butch had gathered herself up, turned on her heel, and left the office, returning to work the next day with a slightly set look on her face and a pleasant but distant demeanour that lasted a couple of weeks.
Things seem pretty much back to normal now...Nia mused as she reached over and pulled out the Z-read, studying it with a frown puckering her normally placid countenance.
"Hey!" She shouted over the din of the glasswasher.
"Did anyone ring in 40 bottles of champagne by mistake? I've got a transaction record here that says so, and I'm positive we didn't even sell that many in total last night."
She nestled the cash drawer against one hip, one finely arched eyebrow lifting as she waited for a response.
One of the newer staff members put down her broom and looked a little apprehensive.
"I couldn't really see what I was doing...I meant to tell you...sorry," she repeated, staring at her feet.
Nia waited patiently until the shamefaced girl made eye contact, and then quirked a reassuring smile.
It's always the way. They never take responsibility for their mistakes, because they think they're the only ones who ever make them. If only they'd realise that a mistake can be fixed, as long as I know about it.
"Sarah, it's no big deal. But next time, please remember to put a note in the till straight away. It saves a lot of bother."
She continued to smile at the girl until the hangdog look vanished, and returned to the cashing up.
I still can't decide whether she's pretty or not...he ruminated.
So he looked more closely, coaxing himself to regard his manager with the dispassionate glance of a tomcat on the prowl. But frustrated, he found that he could not - and the longer he stared, the more stubbornly his perceptions resisted all attempts at impartiality.
He sighed. Nia was like that - nobody granted the privilege of the small woman's company could deny that she was complex. And this complexity was the key to her charm. To reduce the whole to a single part was impossible. There was nothing obviously outstanding about her - but in combination, the qualities and characteristics the small bar manager possessed produced something absolutely extraordinary. There was an open artlessness about her, and a quiet wisdom that created beauty - without it, there would have been allure, but the whole package was truly breathtaking. Nia's physicality was truly the least of her merits.
She wasn't a tall woman - her chin was about level with Tom's chest - but her lean, elegant build made her appear taller than she actually was. And she moved with the poise of a dancer, making it a standing joke among most of the long-standing members of staff that watching Nia make a cocktail was like being at the theatre. The lad chuckled, remembering the transfixed expressions at the last team meeting, as male and female, straight and gay, they all glued their eyes to Nia's graceful body while they were supposed to be learning how to make a Martini.
Tom squinted as he considered Nia's face, framed by a couple of locks of the strawberry blonde hair that was always falling into her eyes.
Not attractive in the classical sense of the word...he thought. Definitely not.
But there was something about it that was undeniably bewitching.
He decided it was the eyes...large, oval shaped pools of a colour he'd never seen before. A little bit of green, a sprinkling of hazel, the hues of murky dishwater, really - but in Nia's face they sparkled like precious stones, and she unconsciously used them to draw people in. He'd seen customers mesmerised by those orbs from the other side of the bar, and he didn't blame them. When Nia smiled, which was frequently, her whole face was illuminated and those remarkable eyes seemed to twinkle just for you.
The lad released a heavy sigh.
She's so feminine...I don't understand it. Max definitely looks the part, but how can Nia be...?
"No point in standing there gawping, Tom."
Liz briskly finished his train of thought.
"When will you boys get it through your thick skulls that she bats for the other team?"
She slapped Tom on the back of the thighs with her broom, and departed to tackle the tables next to the DJ box. After a moment, Tom pulled a face at her and shuffled off to clean up the vomit in the toilets.
"Are we ready?" She enquired of her small team.
On receipt of a unanimous thumbs up and a nod from her manager, Liz threw open the doors to the sound of the daily downpour, along with the rumble of the buses crawling up and down the main road and chugging out carbon monoxide as they went. And a healthy number of customers immediately surged through the opening, seeking respite from the wind and rain in the warmth and comfort of Nia's small venue.
All ordering Bloody Marys, I'll bet. She snickered to herself as she descended the stairs into her office. Hair of the dog never fails to cure a hangover.
"I'll be downstairs if you need me." She shouted in Maxine's direction, waiting for the answering grunt before removing herself from the public eye.
Ignoring the mess on her desk, the manager settled into her swivel chair, surveyed the takings and prepared for some serious number crunching. This was the only element of the job she really disliked - although she wasn't a stupid woman, something about accounting drove her almost to distraction. Nia survived more than adequately using a delicate blend of willing empathy and shrewd instinct, and the hard logic of mathematics often jarred her senses, making her feel as though she must be insane.
She flinched as she remembered that it hadn't always been like this. Once, there had been someone by her side who could commute between her sensibilities and the cold rationality that seemed so foreign to them.
"Well, sweetie - if you just take the numbers in that column from the next one, then you've got your stocks remaining, and you can check that off against the other sheet using the lookup table. Remember the lookup table I made for you?"
Nia gazed up at the woman who was leaning over the back of her chair, chin resting on her shoulder, patiently giving her the advice she needed.
"I do. Thanks. You know, I'd be really stuck if you weren't here to help me with all this stuff."
She smiled at her partner, enjoying the pleasant warmth that was always evoked by the sight of the woman she loved. She and Paula had been friends for years before deciding that it might be more than agreeable to take their relationship to the next level, and the groundwork they'd already put in made their love affair relatively trouble-free, which was a new experience for both of them. "Friends before lovers" had become their motto and their code, and it seemed to work remarkably well.
Paula was a charming-looking girl. Small yet perfectly formed, her auburn hair fell just below her shoulders in a cascade of riotous curls. And the face behind the mane was the sweetest thing Nia had ever seen...big brown eyes poking out through a thick fringe of dark lashes, a rosy flush on her cheeks that was echoed by the darker shade highlighting her lips. She bent down to give Nia a quick kiss before returning to the monitor, wrinkling up her pretty nose in what looked like frustration.
"I don't quite know what you've managed to do here...how did you get that figure as a total?"
Nia sighed, ready to throw the spreadsheet in the bin and set fire to the whole bloody thing without remorse.
"I don't know. I really don't. Do you want to give up for a few minutes, and make a pot of tea?"
The bar manager jerked herself out of reminiscence and turned to the matter at hand...the year-end report. But she couldn't concentrate - her rebellious thoughts continually lapsed to the emptiness that had been sitting in her gut for as long as she could remember.
God, where did it go wrong with her? We were perfect together. Most people would kill for a lover like that...and we were the best of friends, too. So why did I feel something was missing? Why did I send her out of my life?
What was it that she just couldn't give me?
She remembered nights spent in Paula's embrace, the tiny redhead giving all she had and more - and Nia finding it increasingly difficult to take it. A shadowy figure lurked just on the edge of her consciousness - dark, powerful and proud, making her heart skip a beat and cruelly stealing her attention from the sweet, loving woman she was with. The image had begun to dominate her thoughts, and the shout had grown louder and louder, reaching a crescendo that told Nia it was time to be honest.
Paula's parting shot had hurt, born of the redhead's anguish but baleful all the same.
"Whatever it is you're looking for, Nia, I damn well hope you find it. Because I don't believe it really exists."
Nia released a long breath, tossing her head vigorously to dislodge the painful memories, and turned back to the numbers, screwing up her face in concentration.
Sighing once more, the blonde wondered whether to answer the ring, knowing full well who would be calling her private line at this time on a Bank Holiday. But she knew she had to pick up. She really had no other option.
"Nia." Came a muffled growl.
"Hello." She repeated, wearily.
"We need to make a drop-off, tonight, around 6-ish."
"Make sure everything's in the right place, will you? Thanks." The line went dead.
The bar manager rested her head in her hands for a long moment, fighting the tears that threatened to get the better of her.
Surely this isn't part of my job description? It's more than my job's worth, that's for sure.
But making a stand is pretty much impossible.
Lizzie's voice sounded unusually flustered as it drifted down the line into her ear.
"There's...a customer here who was in last night. Did we pick up a phone?"
Nia wedged the handset between her ear and her shoulder, and rifled through her drawers for the lost property box. Tugging it out by the corners, she discovered a watch, a handful of earrings and a rather scuffed-looking shoe...as well as a mobile phone.
"Yep - It's here in the office, Liz." She confirmed.
"Well, she's just on her way back from the bathroom now - can you pop it up? I'm a bit scared to keep her waiting - she looks as though she might turn out to be difficult."
"Hang on a second - I'll come straight out." The bar manager told her employee.
Just what I need...she reflected a little bitterly. Another problem to deal with.
At the top of the stairs, she paused and pushed open the bar doors with caution, speculating on what kind of trouble this customer must be causing in order to make Lizzie lose her cool.
And was stopped dead in her tracks, by a face she recognised as the one that had haunted her dreams the previous night. Piercing blue eyes shone in the centre of ridiculously chiselled features, framed by a thick crop of raven hair.
Nia wavered on the last step uncertainly, feeling as though she was going to tumble all the way back down, but unable to tear herself away from those eyes that seemed to see into the depths of her soul.
Oh, I remember you...she thought.
In fact, this woman had been the only thing to pique her interest on New Year's Eve. If Nia was anything, she was fair, and she always took her turn behind the bar on busy nights so that the staff could rotate their breaks. She didn't mind this kind of work, being a congenial, friendly sort - but talking to most of the customers in Fire and Ice left her cold and more often than not with a distinct taste of sleaze in her mouth. So she tended to do the job on autopilot, not meeting anyone's gaze directly and certainly not bothering to engage any of the punters in conversation.
But during her hour on the bar on New Year's Eve, she felt those bright blues focusing on her, sending shivers down her spine before she even turned around. And when she did, she found herself staring into a face almost familiar, which was so striking it took her breath away. Her heart threatened to leave her body via her mouth when the tall, dark and handsome stranger eventually approached the bar.
"What can I get you?"
Nia didn't even dare look up for fear that this fascinating woman would see she was already blushing.
"Vodka and tonic, please." Came a deep, husky growl.
Nia managed to prepare the drink without spilling or dropping anything, which was quite a feat considering every limb she owned was shaking. The woman tipped her generously, lightly brushing Nia's fingers with her own as she did so, before disappearing into the crowd just as suddenly as she had come, leaving Nia gasping and searching the room for another glance.
But she didn't see the dark, mysterious beauty again...until the very end of the night. The evening was almost over, the bar was shut, but customers and staff continued to soak up the party spirit, and Nia decided to let her kids have their fun as the reward for a long evening's hard work. She doled out a welcome round of staff drinks, and joined forces with Maxine to accomplish the majority of the cleaning up around various members of her team, who were now dancing on the bar.
The blonde manager was weary, and it was all she could do to engross herself in the task of swilling out glasses under the hot tap, stacking them neatly in the dishwashing tray ready for the next load. And although she was almost ready to drop, she couldn't help dancing as she did it - her lower body swaying gently to a bassy hip hop number that was one of her favourites. She was completely oblivious to the fact that she had an audience. In fact, Nia continued her dance uninterrupted for about ten minutes until she became aware of candid eyes boring into the top of her head. A little embarrassed, she looked up - into the same chips of electric blue that had captivated her earlier.
The woman looked at her for a long time. Nia froze, wondering whether it was right for her to speak, desperate to know more about this stranger who made every nerve in her body feel alive. Then she received the ghost of a grin, and what she could have sworn was a wink - and the charismatic visitor did an about-turn and strode off purposefully into the early morning sounds of the city.
Leaving Nia standing there with a pint glass in both hands, heedless of her surroundings, completely spellbound.
The woman was staring at her again now, barely hiding a look of mild amusement as Lizzie noticed her boss's lack of composure and timidly touched her arm.
The femme pulled herself together and made a feeble attempt to look like a manager instead of a fifteen year-old schoolgirl in the throes of her first crush.
"You...you came to collect your phone?"
Her gaze was keen and intense, but also conveyed an arrogant disinterest - it blistered and chilled in equal measure. Torn between needing to run and wanting to be devoured, Nia shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. She felt like a rabbit caught in a trap - by the sexiest huntswoman she'd ever clapped eyes on. And although her intellect rebelled against the imminent surrender, she sensed that she was already ensnared.
The enigmatic visitor gave the blonde a nod that was curt, yet not unfriendly.
"I came for my phone, yes. Left it here last night."
A woman of few words, I see.
Nia looked down at the phone in her hand.
It was one of the latest models, a petrol coloured pocket-sized thing, with a flip-top.
I wonder what she does for a living? Must be well paid, whatever it is.
She took in the woman's expensively casual attire with a swift, knowing glance.
She certainly seems to have the image well worked out.
"So, can I have it back?"
The woman's deep, husky voice broke through Nia's speculations. Her face was deadpan, but there was a twinkle hiding in those bright blue eyes that caused the blonde to flush as she handed the piece of equipment over.
Nia found herself blushing even harder as their fingers disengaged, and mentally slapped herself in an effort to keep her cool. The mystery caller was making her more flustered with every second that passed. Trying to ignore her nerves, she lifted her chin, cleared her throat, and forced herself to appear professional.
"I need you to sign this item out for our lost property records. The forms are in my office - would you like a coffee while I get somebody to find one?"
The guest settled herself on a stool, with one booted foot propped up on a nearby chair and the other long leg dangling.
"Black, one sugar." She grunted, in the direction of her host.
Nia tried not to take offence at the terse instruction - it was given in the tone of one used to being in command, which was guaranteed to get her back up. Biting down on the tart remark that rose to her lips, she nudged open the swing door to the bar and grabbed two cups.
"Liz, could you do me a favour?"
She motioned to the small barmaid, who'd been hanging back during the brief exchange and inspecting them both with more than a hint of curiosity creeping on to her pert, pretty features.
"The red box file in the office has the lost property sheets in it. I'd be very grateful if you could fish one out and bring it up here."
Although Nia was always impeccably civil when asking anything of her small team, this request sounded almost affected in its politeness - and she knew she was secretly hoping to remind the dark woman of her own manners. A spark of challenge had been ignited between them, and it did not go unnoticed by either. Blue eyes held green for a split second, until the bar manager looked away.
Handing her keys to her employee, she set the espresso machine running. She turned her back to the tall woman as she did so, and heaved a silent sigh of relief at the few seconds' respite from the interaction. Her insides were churning in response to the charismatic guest, and she wondered how the woman managed to be so uncomfortably close and coldly distant at the same time.
It felt like the only sound in the small bar was the steady drip of boiling water through steel filters.
Nia knew that the potent cerulean gaze was still riveted on her, even though her back was turned. Her hands were shaking. She swivelled slowly as the cups began to fill, and faced the vivid stare once more.
"I'm Nia, by the way. And you are?"
The answer was brief but not brusque. And those eyes seemed to be reading her thoughts even better in the cold light of day than they'd done in the dark.
"Jake. That's an interesting name. What's it short for?"
The bright blue began to mellow.
"The cups are overflowing, Nia."
Well done, Nia. You're really managing to keep your cool with this one.
Why does this always happen to me?
The blonde dove for the "off" switch, and watched in slow motion as coffee dripped towards the edge of the bar, sliding down the door of the fridge and collecting in a pool on the floor. She refilled the filters silently and mechanically and made two more cups, managing to put Jake's down in front of her without spilling the dark liquid again.
The woman gave her a nod of thanks but said nothing. She'd barely strung a full sentence together since she arrived, and the hush was becoming almost unbearable for the bar manager, whose life was usually propelled by the chat and laughter of her sociable profession. Nia felt vulnerable and exposed in the face of Jake's silence. But she also intuited depths in the stillness that she knew she craved - promises that were drawing her in with inexorable force.
"We were really pleased with the way last night went. Did you enjoy yourself?"
Clamping down on her tumultuous emotions, she attempted to make small talk.
"Well, there were a couple of interesting moments."
Jake met Nia's gaze directly and finally granted her a smile, revealing teeth that were unusually white for a coffee-drinker, and leaving the blonde in no doubt about which moments she was referring to.
The small woman's guts turned themselves inside out - and she gulped a couple of times, unable to reply. Thankfully, the prolonged period of eye contact that resulted from the dark stranger's bold statement was interrupted by the return of Liz, waving a form and a biro at their guest.
"Here you go." She said, brightly.
Jake's eyes wandered briefly across Lizzie's body before she held her hand out for the paper and pen, and Nia felt an irrational pique, watching this new acquaintance appraise a member of her staff in such a casual manner.
She was immediately irritated with herself for it.
Why on earth does that bother me? She thought.
It's not like I know her. She only just told me her name. And Lizzie's an attractive girl - I've looked at her like that more than a few times myself.
Oh, sod it.
"Liz, I don't think we've stock-checked this week. Can you go down to the cellar and write a list of what we need?"
And with that, she sent the diminutive barmaid packing.
Trying to curb her satisfaction at this neat dismissal of the competition, the bar manager turned once more to her guest - just catching the remnants of the brunette's raised eyebrow. There was comprehension showing, and what she could have sworn was a glimmer of respect - so she grinned slightly and raised her own in response, before returning to the matter at hand with a tinge of triumph colouring her clear voice.
"I just need your address details...here. Phone number is optional. I can complete the rest."
Nia watched as the dark visitor filled the boxes with bold, angular strokes of the pen. She found herself fascinated by the woman's fingers - they were as large as a man's, but graceful rather than ungainly. A sovereign ring sat on the fourth finger of her right hand, and there was a plain silver band on the middle - not the wedding - finger of her left.
Paula's hands were nothing like that...she mused, her thoughts drifting towards her distant ex-lover while she appreciated the long, supple digits of the woman lounging on the stool before her.
They were small, and delicate, and white...and she had such perfectly manicured nails. Her touch was so incredibly relaxing.
Nia looked once more at Jake's powerful hands, imagining their strength covering her body, pinning her against the wall as the tall woman bore down to demand a kiss. This picture was definitely not a relaxing one - and she squirmed in her seat, involuntarily catching her breath as her visitor looked up.
"You've got my address. Is that it?"
The hands went back in the pockets of the biker jacket, giving Nia no time for another glance.
"Yes...I suppose so."
Feeling hot and extremely bothered, she fought an uncharacteristic urge to ask the woman to stay for another coffee. And if she was aware of the bar manager's internal battle, Jake didn't show it. Instead, she drew herself up to her full height and gave the blonde a measured and neutral nod.
"Well then, I'll be off. Thanks again for picking up the phone."
And she strode away, disappearing rapidly in the smog and drizzle of the main road, the grey clouds gathering her to themselves as though she belonged amongst them.
Alone with her thoughts, Nia gave vent to a sigh.
I suppose you win some and you lose some.
But a feeling of melancholy that she couldn't quite account for washed over her, like the January rain, as she watched the retreating figure.
And it was only after a few more cups of coffee, as she tripped back down the stairs to the realm of the dreaded accounting, that she looked at the lost property form in her hand.
There it was, right beneath the postcode - a Manchester telephone number. Scrawled underneath it, in inordinately tiny lettering, were five little words.
Squinting, she managed to make them out -
"Call me - if you want."
Well, well, well.
Rachel asked her best friend, noting the fear in Nia's eyes with some amusement.
She just doesn't realise what a catch she is.
"I dunno, Rach..."
Nia curled her feet beneath her and settled back into the armchair.
"I'd be too nervous...I mean, I told you what happened with the coffee. I can't even begin to imagine what a blithering idiot I'd turn into on a date."
"Nia, come on." Rachel laughed.
"You're just a little clumsy - It's not a crime. And anyway, didn't you spill the coffee BEFORE she gave you her number?"
Rachel levered herself off the sofa and ambled into the kitchen, point made.
"More wine, dear?" She grinned.
Rachel was the blonde's closest friend, and had been since both girls were about 7 years old and Nia's parents had moved into Rachel's street. They'd grown up together, albeit in very dissimilar ways, and had come through a few rough patches and periods of no contact relatively unscathed. By now they knew each other inside out - and although Nia had plenty of other friends, Rachel was the only person she felt she could really trust. Mostly because Rachel was able to match her strength.
Many of Nia's friends stuck around because she was counsellor and Mum rolled into one, carrying them through their worries with her empathy and wisdom and asking little in return - and at the age of twenty-six, her bond with Rachel was the only one that was truly reciprocal. They were as different as chalk and cheese - Rachel was heterosexual and a computer programmer, for a start - but the connection they shared was deepened by the disparity between their characters. Rachel's strict rationality was the perfect foil during Nia's most emotional moments, and the passionate nature of the bar manager encouraged her friend to enrich her experiences by letting go when it was appropriate.
Nia watched Rachel pour the wine and smiled inwardly as she remembered the day she "came out" to her best friend.
She'd been absolutely terrified about what Rachel would think - her friend was straight and had experienced little or nothing of the gay community during her short life.
"What if she can't handle it? What will I do then? What if she thinks I have a crush on her? What if she tells my parents?"
As was her habit, Nia drove herself mad with the "what if's" until she decided she just couldn't stand it any more - she was going to tell Rachel the truth and deal with the consequences, no matter how devastating they were. And she received the biggest shock of her life. Nia could have sworn that Rachel actually looked AMUSED when she turned around and said,
"Christ, Nia...I thought you were going to tell me something really interesting! I've known you were gay since we were kids...I've probably known longer than you, you dope."
Nia felt both gratitude and affection whenever she remembered the episode, and she smiled quietly as she regarded her best friend, now standing in front of her with a glass of red wine.
"Penny for your thoughts, Nia?"
The blonde tipped her a wink, and conceded.
"I think I'm gonna call her."
Sixty-seven, sixty-eight, sixty-nine...seventy.
Jake loosened the foot straps and slid off the rower. One foot behind the other, she stretched her calves, then brought her head to her knees and groaned in pleasure as her hamstrings tugged.
Five days had passed and the manager of Fire and Ice still hadn't called.
Why I am I so het up about this?
She blew out a breath.
It's not as though there's a shortage of pretty little blondes around...she reasoned, rocking back on her heels.
But somehow, she felt as though Nia promised more than the average golden-haired bit of fluff she was used to. She seemed intelligent, for a start, but it was more than that - the woman had an honesty about her that threatened to make the butch feel all at sea without a rudder. She chuckled as she remembered the blonde's nervous blunders during their conversation, her complete lack of guile making the interest immediately obvious. Jake was used to games and machinations in her personal relationships, and Nia's sincerity was refreshing and frightening all at once. It was a strength differing greatly from Jake's own, and it seemed to demand a matching authenticity that she didn't know if she could deliver.
It had taken the dark woman years to amass a battery of self-defence mechanisms, cementing them together with bitterness and resentment and building a fortress that by now was almost impenetrable. In contrast, Nia projected a gate that could be opened with a gentle push. It had drawn Jake in, fascinating her like the peculiar calm that follows a thunderstorm - serene, but at the same time alive with electricity. She was dimly aware of the quiet might that allowed the blonde to hold the door open - and had already sensed that it was greater than what was required for the maintenance of her own barricade. Nia knew only too well that vulnerability and understanding were necessary bed-partners, and her gentle nature gave her the power to marry them.
Jake stood up to her full six feet and stretched her arms above her head. She'd spent the past few days staring at the phone, checking her messages over and over - and had eventually decided that she needed to get over it. She rarely wasted time worrying about problems she could do nothing to change, and the fact that her thoughts seemed to be insistent on dwelling on the small Bar Manager was irritating to say the least. Working out was a tried and tested method of disposing with pent-up energy and frustration, so she had thrown some gym clothes in a bag and made her way out of the house - hoping to leave all vestiges of the blonde behind when she closed the door.
It wasn't working.
If she was honest with herself, the main reason for her chagrin was that her pride had been hurt by what she interpreted as a rejection. The butch was not accustomed to giving her home number to women she'd just clapped eyes on, preferring instead for them to come to her. And come they did - with unerring frequency. Pulled by the power of her physique, her piercing blue eyes and the air of mystery and authority that was the trademark of her potent yet very private personality.
But not, it seemed, the blonde bar manager.
Jake grinned at her reflection in the mirrored walls of the gym.
Your ego's working overtime...admit it. You wanted her to chase you and she didn't. Get over yourself.
Sucking at her bottle of water, she surveyed the machines. Jake was a regular visitor to this particular gym, preferring to come during the day when most people were at work - it was quiet, usually accommodating just a couple of dykes pumping iron to impress their new girlfriends. She watched these visitors with amusement, recognising the frailty beneath the machismo that fluctuated between being exasperating and endearing, depending on who the conduit was.
"Well, I normally push more weight than this, but I'm having an off day."
A voice carried over from the bench-press and the butch shook her raven head.
I wondered when Avril would show up. She doesn't have a hope of endearing anyone.
Avril was a dead ringer for the dyke your mother would have warned you about, if she'd been hip enough to consider the possibility. She cultivated a public face that caricatured the misogynist masculinity of the seventies sitcom - her staple line being, "Come on, baby...I know you want me...don't be such a tease."
Jake sniggered like a schoolboy behind the exercise bikes, remembering the numerous times she'd seen Avril end up with a hefty measure of gin and tonic in her face after pulling that particular trick.
People like her never learn.
Nia would give her short shrift...she thought. The bar manager was an innocent looking girl, yes - but one glance into those malachite eyes and you knew she didn't suffer fools gladly.
Why can't I get her off my mind?
The dark woman stomped over to the low pulleys, moved the pin up a few notches, gritted her teeth, and began to lift in furious frustration.
Nia serving behind the bar...Nia's hips swaying as she washed glasses in the sink...Nia blushing as she spilled the coffee, a little pout gracing her lips as she dispatched that cute little brunette Jake had been shamelessly checking out...
"Long time no see, big boy." Came a familiar voice.
Jake slipped the towel around her neck and flashed a wide and genuine smile.
Thank God. Just the person to take my mind off this before I go nuts.
Covering the length of the changing room in a few short strides, she pulled her friend into a hug.
"It's great to see you." She whispered, into the girl's dark hair.
Kim and Jake had been friends for a little over three years, after meeting on the Internet on a discussion list for butch-femme lesbians. They had begun corresponding privately almost straight away, both relieved to find a sensible person in a forum that was mainly devoted to the discussion of makeup and power tools as people desperately tried to appropriate a role. The conversation had become quite flirtatious, and both were holding out a degree of hope that the relationship would turn into something passionate...until their first meeting.
It wasn't that Kim was unattractive - on the contrary, she was an extremely pretty girl, perhaps a little too pretty for Jake, who appreciated a little character in a face. Rich brown tresses sporting the latest cut framed her porcelain skin, and her small, delicate features almost looked like those of a doll. Jake wasn't surprised when Kim told her she used to earn her living as a model.
The body wasn't bad either, Jake had reflected on their first meeting, when they'd finally taken the plunge and decided to move their cyber-friendship into "real time". Kim was slender, perhaps a little on the skinny side, but shapely none the less.
In short, the pair made a stunning couple when they got together for a few drinks in a bar near the house Kim shared. And the initial meeting had gone remarkably well, with conversation flowing and very few awkward pauses. However, the sexual chemistry both had been hoping for staunchly refused to put in an appearance. After three or four drinks Jake made a half-hearted attempt to take Kim's hand across the table, and both subsequently sat in silence, staring at each other, unsure of what to do next.
Luckily, the irony of the situation won the day, and much laughter ensued.
"It's just not going to happen, is it?"
Kim disengaged her small hand from Jake's large one and looked at her with amusement.
Try as she might, Jake couldn't prevent a snort escaping her at their unfortunate lot.
"I'm sorry." She sighed.
"I didn't mean to come on too strong. It's just that it's nigh on impossible to meet feminine lesbians on this scene. It's shaved heads and combats all the way - I've been bemoaning it for years. And now here I am sitting across from one of the most womanly women I've ever met, and something just doesn't feel right."
Kim giggled in derision and a little shared exasperation.
"You don't need to pay me compliments if you're not trying to get into my knickers, Jake."
The retort was wry, but her beautiful face soon settled into a more serious expression.
"I don't think it's me you're looking for." She said, softly.
Jake sighed again.
"Perhaps you're right. Looks as though we're destined to be friends."
And firm friends they had been ever since. Once the speculation regarding the sexual aspects of the relationship was over both found it easier to open up, and their friendship had gone from strength to strength. Jake appreciated Kin's gentle interest in her life, and as a result began to share some of her concerns with another person for the first time. In return, she became very protective of the bright, beautiful girl, watching over her in a manner akin to that of an anxious older brother.
Kim appraised the outline of her friend under the harsh light of the locker room.
"Well. Nice to see you're still tall, dark and handsome, Jake. Where were you on New Year's Eve? We missed you. Can you spare an hour to come home for a cup of tea and a chat with your neglected old friend Kim?"
"Gabriel still loves you." She commented.
"I know." Was the modest reply.
Jake's friend chuckled, and poured water over the herbal tea.
She's so charismatic...even animals can sense it. She thought.
It's amazing. There's always been something so...primal...about her. It seems even more obvious than usual today. She seems almost ready to explode.
Wonder what that's all about?
Frowning, she gave the tea a stir.
I can see I'm going to have to do some digging. Jake doesn't give anything away for free.
The dark woman winked at Kim as she glided through the opening, and continued to scratch the ginger tom behind the ears, grinning when he wriggled with pleasure.
"I don't really understand I'm getting all this attention, though - doesn't he normally like men? It must be those testosterone pills I've been taking."
"He can sense your masculine energy."
The femme stated in a solemn tone, handing her friend a mug of steaming camomile tea. Jake chuckled and took it. Their battle over the dark woman's caffeine intake was long-running, and had wound up with Kim absolutely refusing to serve her friend a cup of coffee in her own house. The butch knew when she was beaten. And to her credit, she'd taken the defeat gracefully - after a short battle between pride, self-control and cognisance of the femme's good intentions, she'd given up the effort to argue.
"Would you like to stay for dinner?" Kim asked, curling her feet beneath her in the chair.
That ought to do it. She congratulated herself, as the butch shrugged and nodded.
I'll wheedle it out of her before the evening's over.
Kim's housemate Al had returned from a weekend away at a "stress-busting" workshop that sounded so bizarre it was bordering on the insane, and was recounting her experiences nineteen to the dozen. Jake and Kim were sitting at the kitchen table amongst remnants of cannelloni, Greek salad and Rioja, providing a captive audience and obliging the story-teller with mouths agape.
"What?" Asked Kim, indulgently.
"She put some rock music on and asked us all to express ourselves."
"She didn't!" Now the femme was genuinely aghast.
"She did. It was the middle of the day and I was stone cold sober. I don't think I've ever been so mortified."
"Whatever made you go, Al?" Jake asked, staring at the slices of cucumber she'd left on her plate.
"Long story. Condensed to the absolute basics - my damn libido."
Peals of laughter ensued as the listeners voiced their disbelief.
"You mean you went through all that just for a crush?"
Kim began clearing the plates away and filling the sink with hot water and detergent.
"Yep. Although I think after seeing her gyrate like Tina Turner I'm over those desires."
"But did you get any?" The dark woman only just managed to bury a grin.
"Nope. Big fat waste of time."
"Sorry about her." She muttered.
"She's a great girl, but she tends to forget that those around her get bored of being her audience after a while. She's an only child - she expects to be the centre of attention."
Jake's friend finished wiping the large pine table with a soft cloth, and sat down. Looking expectant, she patted the seat next to her until the butch complied and took it.
"Anyway, my sweet...now that my beloved housemate has retreated to her boudoir, it's time for us to get down to business. There was a reason I asked you to stay and eat with us, you know."
Kim concluded the brisk change of subject with a mock glare that was nonetheless penetrating. The brunette's perceptive nature was legendary amongst her friends, along with her ability to keep her finger on the pulse of exactly what was going on in their small community. However, despite her feminine tendency to gossip, those closest to her respected her unusual tact and ability to draw the line between harmful and idle chatter - as a result she never forfeited their trust when it came to more important information.
"Why?" Jake idly wondered whether she'd done anything recently that was worthy of note.
"You know why. Who is she, Jake?"
Shit. She's good...
Although she was aware it was fruitless, Jake elected to feign ignorance and glowered at her friend.
"I have no idea what you're talking about. Who is who? You're hallucinating...have you been smoking those funny cigarettes again, Kimmy?"
"Very funny." Was the retort.
"Denial won't work, Jake - you're too mean and moody to ever make a spectacle of innocence."
Jake stared at her boots to hide her discomfort.
She's right - I can't pull this off. She's going to get it out of me, and sooner rather than later.
Reading the butch's body language with one shrewd glance, Kim grinned and continued.
"Do you remember when we first met and I said you looked as though you were waiting for something?"
Eyes still glued to her boots, the dark woman granted her friend a minuscule nod.
"Well...now you look as though all your buses have turned up at once - but you can't remember where you put the damn ticket. So spill it."
And it suddenly hit her that she was more than a little nervous about calling the blonde bar manager who had dominated her thoughts for the past few days. In fact, she felt decidedly vulnerable - and that was a feeling she didn't enjoy one little bit.
Playing hard to get never hurt anyone, did it? She thought.
I don't want her to think I've been waiting by the phone.
She kept me cooling my heels for long enough - two can play at that game.
She pressed "delete" on the answering machine until the green light stopped flashing. She didn't bother to write the bar manager's number down.
Grumbling and wrapping the duvet around her ears to drown out the sound of the driving rain, she lifted the handset and spoke.
She groggily tried to make her voice sound bright, just in case it was the tall, handsome woman who had persisted in inhabiting the forefront of her mind for the past week.
"Hi there, Nia!"
It wasn't Jake's voice that replied.
"Sam?" She whisperd, as her heart sank into the floor.
Sam was...to put it mildly...a blast from the past. A relic from Nia's college days, when she had experimented with men in an attempt to satiate her desire for a firm hand, the thrill of yin and yang, the attraction of opposites. Before the revelation that was a long time in coming, when her senses and sensibilities had finally joined forces to tell her she was attracted to masculinity, alright - but men just didn't cut the mustard. Nia wasn't a man-hater by any means, and she'd had several meaningful friendships and a couple of very pleasant relationships with members of the opposite sex - but she'd eventually reached the point where she had to accept she was looking for that special person in the wrong place.
Sam had been 28 and Nia was 18. He was the DJ at the bar she was working in to make ends meet while she finished her education, and was a vivacious sort of chap - the life of every party. As a subdued and slightly skittish youth, Nia had been drawn to his charisma, and things had progressed to the point at which their attempts at a sexual relationship had made it apparent that Sam's magnetic energy was all a front. He'd only been interested in having a pretty girl he could control - and she'd become nothing but an accessory, a perk of his glamorous lifestyle. They'd gone their separate ways soon after, Nia moving to Manchester and making sure she didn't leave him a forwarding address.
Nia shuddered at the vision of her ex-lover hovering over her, moaning and grunting and never noticing the bored look in her eyes.
How on earth did he get my number?
"How are you, Nia?" Her old flame began to prattle, nineteen to the dozen. "I've never been better. I moved to London. I've got a new job - presenting at breakfast on Capital Radio."
"That's great." The bar manager vainly attempted to muster some enthusiasm for his news. "How's the show going?"
His reply made her wish she'd never asked.
"You tell me." He said. "You're on it."
"I'm sorry...what did you say?"
Nia lowered herself into a chair, for fear she might fall down.
"You're live on the radio, my darling. As we speak, the whole of London is listening. I thought you could help me to entertain them - I've told them all about my little Barbie girl."
Please, tell me I'm dreaming. This is just about the worst stunt he's ever pulled.
Sam had pulled these tricks all the time while Nia was at college. He had a spot on the university radio station, and made a habit of calling her while he was on air. She was expected to be dumb blonde or doting girlfriend as the mood suited - it gave him something to talk about when they went to industry parties, and it made him look virile, smart, and in control. It was beyond frustrating - being forced to play appendage in front of everyone she knew.
Nia choked back her anger. It was just like Sam to call her unannounced after years had passed, and expect her to put up with the same old shit.
Sorry Sam - I'm nobody's plaything any more. Find some other little blonde to harass.
She hung up, and put the answering machine back on.
She threw two teabags in a small blue teapot.
I left that message over a week ago - why hasn't she called?
The kettle began to whistle.
Shit. I wish I'd called her earlier - she probably thought I was playing some stupid game.
But the truth of the matter was her planned phone call to Jake had been delayed for a very good reason - events at Fire and Ice had taken a remarkably unpleasant turn since Nia first met the fascinating, dusky butch.
It was the day after Jake's visit, and she'd been sitting in her office completing the spirit order when two large men barged in without knocking.
"Hi there, sexy."
Fuck...she thought. Why can't they just come here, do what they have to do, and leave me alone? I don't need this in my life.
"Is there a problem?" She asked, politely. "Everything's in the usual place. Or has the panel in the Gents come loose again?"
"Oh everything's just fine." The larger of the two sneered.
"We just thought we'd drop in and see our favourite bar manager."
"Well, you've seen me now...is there anything else you want?"
Nia desperately tried to talk the aggressors out of her office, wondering if there was anyone upstairs who would hear her if she yelled.
"Well, now you come to mention it..." snarled the smaller, weasel-like companion,
"Perhaps there is something you have that we want."
The men advanced on Nia's desk, smirking at the terrified look in her eyes. One of them grabbed her wrist and held on to it tight, leaning so close to her that she could feel his hot breath in her ear and smell the stale sweat and cigarette smoke on his clothes.
"Come on, sweetheart...do yourself a favour."
Nia really thought it was going to happen this time. This sort of intimidation was a fairly frequent occurrence on the part of the controlling gang who were the best kept secret of the bar, but it had never gone far enough to make her believe they would actually do what they promised.
Until today, that is.
"Take your hands off me, moron." She plucked up all her courage and looked the nearest man directly in the eyes.
"You cheeky bitch!"
He backhanded her across the face and sent her sprawling from her chair.
"What are you, a dyke or something?"
If only you knew...Nia thought.
She looked up from her prone position to see both men bearing down on her, anger fuelling the lust in their eyes. The one who had slapped her unzipped his trousers.
"I think it's time to show you who calls the shots around here, sweetheart."
Nia closed her eyes to stop the tears from falling.
I've had nightmares about this...she thought miserably.
But when the chips were down, Nia was no shrinking violet. So she retained her self-possession, lifted her head and met their eyes without flinching - which just seemed to enrage them even more. You could have heard a pin drop as all three occupants of the office stared each other down.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
The most welcome voice in the world broke Nia first. She yelped with relief and jumped to her feet, diving straight for her assistant who was standing in the doorway, hands balled into fists, furious.
"I think you'd better leave - NOW!"
Max's face was purple with emotion.
"Before I call the police." Nia added, a little shakily.
Both men straightened up and headed for the door.
"Just a bit of fun." One of them spat, turning around. "No need to make a big drama out of it."
"Fucking dykes, the pair of you." Hissed the other. "And you know you can't call the cops."
Nia waited, face set, until the door was safely shut, then burst into tears and collapsed into Max's waiting arms.
Nia sighed and fingered the rapidly darkening bruise on her cheek.
"Yes, I know - but if I do, then I'll lose my job, and put myself at risk of losing everything else, as well. You know it's true, Max."
She regarded her assistant with sad green eyes.
"The only reason they keep up this intimidation is to make sure I won't tell anybody. It's part of the system and you know it. They depend on my fear. And I am afraid. Two men, fully prepared to barge into my office and rape me in broad daylight. What else are they capable of?"
"Dammit, Max! I can't even resign because that would make things worse. They'd never leave me alone if I left this place - they'd be too scared of who I might talk to. They'd have to make certain I wouldn't tell a soul. I'd be on the run."
"Well, why don't you speak to Matt about it?"
Max eventually asked, knowing that the manager was ready to snap and desperate to make some sort of suggestion.
"Come on, Nia - I'm sure he wouldn't be happy about his employees throwing their weight around like that."
Matt was the head of the drug cartel who owned the bar, and Max was right - he had a strict code of honour. "The murderer with manners", as Nia had christened him, was always perfectly pleasant and polite, unlike the thugs he hired to do his dirty work for him.
It was always the way...she reflected. Where there are bars, there are drugs. And where there are drugs, there are always thugs.
"But if I speak to Matt, they're going to know it was me who told him. What's to stop them coming after me and finishing what they started to get their revenge? I can't win, Max." A tear dripped from the end of the Bar Manager's nose.
"It frustrates me beyond belief that I can't handle this. I try not to let them get to me, but it's just so hard..."
Max drew Nia into a hug.
"Nia, this would test anyone's strength. And for what it's worth, you deal with them remarkably well. You never let them see how much they upset you, and I admire you for that."
Nia's assistant paused and looked at her boss. The sheer panic she saw in those usually cheerful features thrust straight at her heart.
"We'll put our heads together and work out a way to get you out of this mess...even if it means I have to deal with them myself."
Nia didn't like the sound of that.
People are strange.
From her seat at the back of the bus, Nia idly wondered why the crowd standing up at the front, squashed together like sardines in a tin, didn't do the sensible thing and spread backwards. Especially since there seemed to be nothing for them to hang on to. Plus, the bus was lurching from one side of the road to the other when the driver spotted a puddle in the road close enough to a group of students on the pavement for them to get soaked when he drove straight through it.
Students made up about fifty percent of Manchester's population, and the other half, resentful of the fact that their space was being invaded by ever increasing numbers, made their feelings known with a vengeance. Not that Nia blamed them. She'd been at Manchester University herself, but even during her own student days had rapidly lost patience with the proliferation of "champagne socialists" who seemed to be the stock-in trade of the industrial North's premier institution. The kind whose after-dinner repertoire consisted of bemoaning the lot of the proletariat with quotations lifted directly from the writings of Karl Marx - but who, much like that celebrated German philosopher, had barely done an honest day's work in their lives. They were an insult to the hallowed halls...well, the red-brick...in which they studied. Slaves to fashion, they could be spotted a mile off - wearing authentic Dutch clogs because they were the latest on the catwalk, supplemented with the genuine mohair poncho they'd purchased in their year out between A'levels and University, while trekking through Nepal on Daddy's Trust Fund. Incidentally, this acquaintance with the different cultures of the world not only enhanced their wardrobe, but also made them feel well travelled and worldly-wise enough to patronise their peers at every opportunity. Even when you knew that their time abroad had not been spent immersing themselves in history and tradition but smoking weed, having public sex and creating litter.
Absently studying the headline "Albanian Sex Workers Flood the Streets" splashed over the front page of the paper being read by the woman opposite, Nia chuckled at the memory of numerous such characters who'd populated her degree course in Political Science. Most of this politically correct society were now gainfully employed in the City as stockbrokers and advertising agents, spending their Friday nights in theme pubs moaning about how much of their 6-figure salary went to the taxman.
Ironic, isn't it? Oh well...how does the old saying go? If you're not a Marxist at 21, you've got no heart. If you're still a Marxist at 31, you've got no money. Ain't that the truth.
Nia had been a very high achiever during her own college days. Her position at the top of the class owed more to her way with words than to her ability to retain information, but she had impressed the academics enough to prompt them to ask her to stay on for postgraduate study. Unfortunately, money was an issue: government funds were tight that year and Nia was determined not to ask her parents for any more help, so she had been forced to follow her head instead of her heart. She increased her hours at the bar she'd been working at, and started saving for the future while she looked for a more permanent position. Her ultimate plan was to make enough money to pay her way through a doctorate. It was starting to look more and more like a pipe-dream - but as was her nature, she stubbornly hung on to it and refused to let it go.
Then the manager's vacancy had come up at Fire and Ice, and Nia had applied. At that time she had little experience with the ins and outs of running any kind of establishment, and was surprised to say the least when she was hired after the first interview. Of course, with hindsight she realised that she'd been taken on precisely because of her inexperience - Fire and Ice was already a buzz word for gang activity on the grapevine of Manchester's recreation circuit, and Matt was in desperate need of a puppet - someone who was naïve enough to jump in head first with no thought of the risks or consequences because she had no idea what she was getting into. Nia had been that someone. And the gentle, trusting blonde had grown up fast during the first difficult months of her new position.
I definitely learnt the hard way...Nia reflected bitterly, as the bus swerved round a corner and passengers were flung against the windows. The next stop was the University, and many of those standing at the front were dispatched, leaving a little old lady to get on.
Nia took a quick look around the bus - all the seats were taken. So she slipped out of hers and motioned for the pensioner to take it.
"Thank you, dear." The old lady warbled, with a weak smile that lacked nothing in warmth.
"Nobody gets up for old folks any more...kids today are too busy dealing drugs to respect their elders."
Shooting a glare at the nearest available teenager to make her point, she settled herself on the seat with a heavy sigh.
Nia looked at her blankly for a moment.
If only she knew...my hands are probably dirtier than those of anyone else on this bus.
I'm such a sham.
I give up my seat for an old person, but I'm part of the system that makes her scared to leave her house alone at night.
"You're welcome." She eventually managed, regaining her composure - while grabbing at the back of a seat to retain her footing as the bus started up again.
Swaying gently with the vehicle's movements, she continued her reverie.
The biggest disappointment of Nia's short life had occurred when she'd been ensconced as Manager of Fire and Ice for a couple of years. Although she'd gotten used to the job and the troublesome connection it afforded her with Manchester's rotten underbelly, she was feeling bored and disgruntled with a daily routine that didn't even come close to challenging her abilities. And right on cue, as though they knew she was longing to begin studying again, the university wrote to offer her another postgraduate place - but this time with full government funding.
"We assume that you will want to develop your academic abilities in the future." The letter said. "We would like you to consider a career at this University as opposed to elsewhere."
Nia had been terribly excited. At last, a chance for her to get a foot on the first rung of the academic ladder without crippling herself financially. She decided that it was time she followed her heart - and feeling as though she was in clutching distance of her dreams, she accepted the place.
However, when she handed in her resignation at Fire and Ice she was in for a nasty shock. Matt, the owner of the bar and head of the forbidding group who controlled the clandestine business behind it, paid the golden-haired manager a visit that crushed all her tender hopes. As usual, he had been painstakingly polite and respectful, but had left Nia with no illusions about the extent to which her life was - or wasn't - her own. From this point she had no doubt that she was trapped. She was convinced that she'd gotten herself into a situation that nobody ever got out of. It was also at about this time that Nia realised nobody had ever mentioned what happened to the previous manager of the bar. Feeling sick to her stomach, she decided not to ask.
"You see, Nia...I think you're great." Matt had given her a pleasant smile that almost succeeded in concealing the threat implicit in his words.
"You and me, we have an understanding. I don't want to have to look for someone else. It could take me ages to find someone I can trust. And if you leave, then I'm going to have to worry about you...do you see what I'm saying?"
Nia nodded mutely. She knew Matt was afraid she'd talk, and she also knew that she'd picked up enough information to put him and not a few of his cohorts behind bars. This would make her extremely dangerous if she managed to escape the range of his purview.
She made a last-ditch attempt to grasp the freedom that was slipping through her fingers. But a sick feeling told her nothing she could say was likely to make any difference. If she stepped out into the light she automatically became a liability that might illuminate Fire and Ice in the process.
"Matt, what if I gave you my word that you absolutely will not have to worry about me? I think you know you can trust me on that."
Even as the bar manager said the words, she knew they were lies. If she quit her job she would no longer be under surveillance, and her keen moral sense would certainly lead her to risk danger in the cause of the greater good. She wondered if Matt had already worked this out. She was pretty sure that in a roundabout way he was trying to protect her - Matt was known in gangland as someone who only used violence when it was absolutely necessary, but many of his associates were not so restrained. She had experienced their brutality first hand - and had heard rumours of other, more heinous crimes that sent chills up and down her spine. If she left Fire and Ice, there would be a price on her head, and they both knew it. She also knew that Matt couldn't keep an eye on all his people all the time - keeping her on the job was the only way he could personally ensure her safety.
Nia looked up at the imposing man who was perched on the edge of her desk. He smiled, but there was regret shadowing the corners of his eyes as he shook his head.
"It won't do, Nia. You see, I'm a worrier - always have been. I wouldn't be able to sleep at night without you here, where I can look after you, and you can look after my bar. Stay put...alright?"
Nia understood that this wasn't so much a request as an order. With a weary nod, she said goodbye to her dreams and commended her future to Fire and Ice.
The bus screeched to a halt outside the bar, almost throwing Nia through the front windscreen.
"I'm not a student any more, you know." She joked with the driver. "No need to try and kill me."
"Hi guys." Nia yelled as she opened the door, getting little more than a grunt from most of her employees.
Glad to see they're about as enthusiastic as I am...she smirked as she made her way down to the office to grab some floats for the tills.
"Nia." Liz shouted after her.
"Ricky's waiting for you downstairs."
The five words stopped the manager dead in her tracks.
That doesn't sound good.
Ricky was one of her regular bouncers, and usually manned the door over the weekend with his brother, Harry. Both were friendly, decent blokes with connections enough to know whose favour Nia needed to cultivate and who she could stand up to with impunity. Their protective advice had considerably eased her dealings with the dark world behind the doors of Fire and Ice. But for one of them to show up to speak to her before the night began normally meant trouble.
Nia reached the bottom step and almost bumped into the man who was leaning against the wall, hands stuffed in the pockets of a huge black bomber jacket with his registration number on the sleeve.
"Hi Ricky." She said, with some apprehension.
"Nia." The tall, hefty man grasped her arm affectionately, pushing a couple of stray dredlocks away from his eyes so he could see her better.
"I need to have a word. We've got some news about tonight that isn't going to make you very happy."
Nia drew the bouncer into her office and shut the door.
What did I ever do to deserve this? She asked whoever might be listening as her heart dropped into her shoes.
"What?" She whispered.
And when Ricky started speaking, Nia really wished she hadn't asked. Apparently Fire and Ice was in for some serious gang action tonight. One of the bigger collectives from the Moss Side area, identifiable to those in the know by their distinctive blue baseball caps, were planning on visiting the bar en masse for a show of strength. This was typical gang activity - if a bar looked to have rich pickings for the dealers, MC's or romancers then the whole group would mark it out as their territory. This involved the entire pack showing up to drink, smoke, take drugs and cause trouble as a sign of their dominion. Of course, everyone in the underworld knew Fire and Ice was already owned and run by a drug cartel, but members of Matt's own entourage were forbidden to visit the bar socially for fear of raising police suspicion. Matt actually encouraged Nia to let members of other gangs have a presence, since this functioned as a red herring that took the heat off him and his people. However, he had warned the manager on numerous occasions never to allow the gang presence to loom too large for fear that the cops would start keeping tabs on the place as a matter of course. Most of the Vice Squad could be - and had been - bought off, but the last thing Matt wanted was to alert the attention of the bobbies on the beat.
With this in mind, the incumbent mass visit was promising no end of risk. Nia's mind was already whirring nineteen to the dozen as she tried to work out how on earth she was going to protect her staff from having to endure the worst excesses of a gang call, while trying not to draw too much attention to the place. For some reason, her thoughts kept returning to the dark, mysterious butch - the woman hadn't returned her call and Nia had given up all hope of seeing her again - but she felt instinctively that if Jake had been around, she would know exactly what to do.
I screwed up there. I left it too long before I called...she probably thought I was playing some dumb game.
"Well, thanks for the warning, Ricky." She said quietly as she followed the bouncer back up the stairs.
"It's no problem. You know Harry and myself will always look out for you, Nia. Try not to worry about it too much."
"Yeah." She made a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob.
"Oh, well...perhaps my handsome prince will choose this evening to show up and carry me away on a white horse. Or do you think pigs might fly instead?"
"Are you OK, Nia?" Ricky's brother Harry placed a huge hand in the small of her back, sympathy and concern showing in his large, kindly features.
Breakbeats began to pump as the DJ cranked up the sound system. She knew this was her cue. Her eyes swept around the room, taking in each member of staff, all patiently waiting. Their faces betrayed the apprehension she felt, and she realised they'd been affected by her mood.
That's not good. I don't want them all to be scared shitless without knowing the reason why.
Pull yourself together, Nia.
The small, golden-haired Manager concocted a big smile and spread it across her face, adding a wink for good measure, and then waited until the group visibly relaxed.
That's better. What they don't know will protect them...poor kids.
She turned back to the burly doorman at her side. "I'm fine, Harry. You can open the doors now."
It'll be over soon - keep your chin up, remember you're the Manager, and keep your staff out of trouble.
"You can handle this, Nia."
Harry gave her a reassuring rub between the shoulder blades, and threw the double doors open. Letting in plenty of Manchester smog, a little acid rain, the rumble of the buses, and the first few customers.
But not for long.
Nia knew when the first had showed up because she received a barely perceptible nod from both brothers standing just in front of her. As if she couldn't tell from the dark blue baseball cap that almost obscured the man's features.
Perhaps that's a good thing...she mused. I'll bet he's scary when he takes that off.
Predictably, the scary individual in question jumped the queue and approached the door with an uneven swagger and a half-shadowed sneer.
"That's five pounds, please." Nia said, quietly. It was important to maintain the appearance of order, even though she knew circumstances would go rapidly downhill.
"I don't pay." Came the surly response.
"Of course not." The blonde tried to keep an even tone. The first act of forced surrender was making her flesh creep - she knew she had no choice but to roll over and let them take what they wanted.
The gangster kissed his teeth and strutted inside, taking a seat at one of the stools at the bar and motioning with an imperious wave of the hand for Liz to serve him.
Despite the churning in her guts, Nia almost chuckled at that.
I'll bet that'll go down well with our resident gender-terrorist ...she thought wryly.
I hope she doesn't do anything stupid.
The remainder of the gang followed in close quarters. Nia desperately tried to work out which was the alpha male - she knew if she stayed on the right side of the leader, he would be inclined to keep the others in check. But she had no luck in finding out, and the connections of her doormen had not proved extensive enough to be of help.
"They all look the bloody same." She complained to Ricky and Harry, who stood rock solid and immovable on either side of the doors.
When they estimated that most of the faceless mob were inside, Nia motioned for Liz to take her position and made her way to the bar. As was her habit in these situations, she was determined to invite the onus on to herself - to put herself on the front line, so she could take the brunt off her staff.
I wonder how long before they start yelling "jump!" and expecting me to ask "how high?"
It began immediately.
Eight men lined up on barstools, all sporting matching dark blue caps, made a pretty imposing group. Nia made the drink mechanically and set it down in front of the one who had ordered.
"It's not for me, it's for him." The churlish piece of work gestured with a thick hand, smirking at Nia's confusion.
"Fine." She slid the glass past each grinning face, until she was at the end of the line.
"Three pounds, please." She knew she had to appear to be charging, or other patrons would start asking questions. And she was grimly aware that if she made the conquest too easy, the gang would start to think she was a pushover - which would not bode well for her, her staff or her bar.
"I don't pay."
Of course he doesn't.
None of them pay, do they? Despite the fact that they take home my yearly salary every week in drug and protection money.
If they were classy gangsters they'd hand me a fifty-pound note and tell me to keep the change.
But instead the little weasels refuse to pay, and take pleasure in seeing me squirm.
"Are you deaf? I said I DON'T PAY!!!!" The shout shattered her resentful thoughts.
Nia gathered herself up and looked the Blue Cap straight in the eyes, holding the hooded stare until she had his full attention.
"I heard you the first time, thanks. You don't pay. I get the picture."
Shock registered on the gangster's features.
"Who the fuck do you think you are, little girl? Do you need me to come over there and show you who's boss around here? Where's your boss, anyway?"
The Blue Caps at the bar sneered as one man, looking at Nia with a contempt that made her either want to cry or scratch their eyes out in blind fury.
But she did neither. Instead, she drew herself up to her full five feet and six inches and spoke quietly and firmly.
"Actually, I am the boss. I manage this bar."
Silence fell, as the line of men digested this information and Nia's steely gaze. But she knew this was only a temporary reprieve. In fact, she'd probably made things a great deal worse for herself - but self-respect was refusing to let her sacrifice her dignity by being at the beck and call of these hideous specimens who thought she was their territory.
Why don't they just pee on the floor in a circle around me and have done with it? She thought, miserably.
They look like chimps lined up at the zoo waiting for someone to throw them a banana.
Unfortunately, they're chimps with friends in the police and hands big enough to break my neck.
The blonde looked at the clock.
Only a few more hours to go.
Keep it together, Nia - you're doing fine.
And she was - the buffoons at the bar had been pretty quiet after realising she was the Manager and probably had Matt's protection, and the lighter atmosphere that resulted meant that most of the staff were getting on with their work, oblivious to the dark undercurrents around them.
Perhaps the rest of the evening will be uneventful, as long as I manage to keep everyone happy. The bar manager thought, hopefully.
But a sudden commotion by the door burst this pleasant bubble.
I obviously spoke too soon.
Shaking her golden head, Nia hurried over to investigate.
It wasn't pretty. Ricky and Harry were restraining Liz by the elbows, the barmaid looking as though she was about to fly at the Blue Cap in the doorway.
"What does he mean, he doesn't pay? This is a bar, not a soup kitchen. Besides, he doesn't look short of a bob or two!"
"Let it go, Liz." Ricky growled, grabbing her arm even tighter.
"No! I won't let it go! This is ridiculous! I'm getting Nia."
"I'm right here, Liz." Nia interrupted, gently.
"Just let it go, sweetheart. Please."
Liz was taken aback, and opened her mouth to argue - but immediately shut it when she saw her Manager's face. It betrayed little emotion other than sympathy, but there was a familiar "no-nonsense" look in those green eyes that told the small barmaid it was time to blindly obey.
"Ok. I'll let it go." She stood back to let the man pass.
"You'll be sorry you messed with me." He spat. And after shooting a last menacing glare across the whole group, he strode off to join the conglomerate of primates at the bar.
For once, Nia failed to find Liz's high spirits amusing.
God knows what we're in for now.
She motioned for Max to come and take Liz's post. Her assistant was the only person she trusted with any information about their iniquitous visitors, knowing that the less the staff knew the safer they'd be. But Max was different - they were friends - and Nia knew that the butch would never forgive her if she shouldered the burden alone.
Max took her seat at the door, giving Nia's arm a supportive squeeze as she did so. The blonde let the anguish show in her eyes for a few seconds as she looked at her friend, before forcing her face to return to neutral as she drew an enraged Liz over to the bar.
"Nia, what's going on? Why did you let him in without making him pay?"
"I can't explain that, Liz. It's too complicated. Stay here and help me behind the bar."
"But..." Liz began.
"No. No buts. Just do it." Nia's patience was finally beginning to run out.
And when she spoke in that tone of voice, nobody dared gainsay her.
Sighing, Nia poured another one, and forced her hands to stop shaking. The Blue Caps were getting rowdier and even more arrogant as the brandy loosened their tongues and fed their egos, and she was on her own behind the bar, having stationed Liz at the other end to wash glasses. She no longer trusted the belligerent little barmaid to deal with these boorish customers without getting herself - and everyone else - in trouble. And she felt instinctively that worse trouble was brewing.
"What's her problem, then?" An element of the aforesaid trouble gestured towards Liz.
"She's fine. She's just having a bad day." Nia replied, shortly.
"Oh. Bad day, is it? That's a shame. Mouthy little half-pint, isn't she? I don't think she has a right to abuse paying customers just because she's got PMT."
The blonde sighed again.
Here we go. I think someone's spoiling for a fight. I could just sit here and let him tell me how to do my job, or...
"But you don't pay." The retort slipped out before she had a chance to bite her tongue.
And the anger that rose in her opponent's countenance made her wish she'd put her brain in gear before she spoke.
"You think you're smart, don't you? Right, little Manager. I think it's time we had a word in private."
That was clever.
The blue cap that now over 6 feet off the ground, as its owner rose to his full height. Nia tried not to panic, as she racked her brains for the best way to placate him.
"Hey, it was a joke. Sit down, have another drink. I was just playing, honestly."
She watched the cap travel to the left until her adversary was blocking the swing doors at the end of the bar.
"Well I'm not playing any more. I've had enough of you. I said, I want a word."
Nia realised she was close enough to be in grabbing distance, but started back too late. The man had her by the arm, and to her horror, she felt a blade digging into her back.
"Come on, little lady. Let's have a chat."
The blonde wondered if it would do any good to scream. She reasoned that the man wielding the knife wouldn't be stupid enough to use it in front of a bar full of witnesses, but she also knew that if she made a scene, questions would be asked after the commotion had died down. Not least by the staff, who would then be targets by virtue of the information they possessed. And it would probably make the papers. Matt would be absolutely furious at all the unwanted publicity, and Nia knew instinctively that rousing the ire of her polite, sinister ally would probably be the last thing she ever did.
Feeling sick to her stomach, she nodded and followed the man through the door down to the cellars.
Nobody saw them leave.
"What the hell is going on?" Wide-eyed, he surveyed the chaos.
Men in dark blue baseball caps occupied the length of the bar, thwarting the attempts of other customers to order drinks and shouting random curses at members of staff and each other. He watched as one took a mirror and a small bag of cocaine from his pocket, and used a credit card to methodically cut a line.
"Liz?" Tom began to panic.
"I don't know! All these idiots came in, refused to pay on the door, and Nia just let them in! There's something up, Tom, and I don't like it one little bit."
"They're doing drugs. Do you think they're gangsters?"
"Gangsters? Are you serious? Come on, Tom - Fire and Ice isn't that sort of place...is it?"
Tom's face betrayed a trepidation that threatened to turn into hysteria. "Where's Nia?"
"I don't know." Liz replied, miserably.
"Maybe she ran away."
Max, still watching the door, had also noted the manager's absence. Every nerve in her body was frozen solid and it took her all the strength in her limbs to train them to the seat and not jump out of it and start searching the bar, knowing she'd create a potentially disastrous panic if she did. She looked blankly ahead, frightened and hunting for an answer.
And she was greeted by a ferocious vision in black motorcycle leathers, piercing blue eyes afire as she sped through the door with no heed to the bouncers, pushing a couple of caps aside to hit the bar with a resounding thud.
"Um...I dunno." Liz couldn't even meet the flashing, truculent gaze.
"But I'm sure she's here somewhere, perhaps she..."
She hadn't even finished the sentence when Jake dove down the stairs at a run.
Why didn't you just move out of his way? Or better yet, keep your mouth shut?
Nobody even knows where I am.
"I think you know who we are." The Blue Cap was still irate.
The blonde bar manager nodded mutely.
"I don't appreciate the attitude of some of your staff. What we say goes around here. We don't pay, we always get a seat, and we don't get any lip. Or you will live to regret it, my love."
The endearment, spat from thick, snarling lips, made Nia lightheaded with fear.
This is pretty hopeless.
Even if someone did notice I was gone and was stupid enough to come down here and try and save me, it would probably make things worse. He could take me and any of my staff...I hope to God Max doesn't come diving in.
"So, do we understand each other?" The Blue Cap was towering over her now, and she wondered whether there was going to be violence.
Nia shuddered, remembering the scene with Matt's bruisers in her office. She nodded again, biting her lip hard to keep it from trembling.
"Lovely. Let's kiss and make up then, blondie. I'm not going to hurt you."
The man patted her on the behind, and she felt something inside her snap.
"No!" She yelled, kneeing him in the groin as hard as she could, almost knocking him down and leaving him reeling.
"You BITCH!!!" He roared, doubled over in pain and stumbling towards her. Nia steeled herself for the blow she knew would come. Perhaps he'd stop short of beating her to death - but part of her welcomed the impending violence. It was a far better option than the other threat she constantly dreaded.
"Stay away from her."
The words were calm, but the intent behind them was unmistakably deadly.
Nia and the Cap both wheeled around to find Jake standing in the doorway, with face set and savagery glittering in her ice blue eyes. A small, malignant grin began to grace her features as she saw fear rise in the Blue Cap's face.
This time it was the turn of Nia's tormentor to be struck dumb. His eyes were riveted on Jake as he cautiously stepped backwards towards the door.
"She yours?" He asked, pausing with his hand on the doorknob.
"None of your damn business. Now get out, and take the rest of those morons with you."
Nia's vision was tunnelling, and her legs buckled underneath her. She collapsed next to one of the kegs, only to be caught in strong arms before she hit the barrel. At this point she lost her self control and sobbed, half sitting, half standing, into the leather-clad shoulder.
"We need to sit you down and get you a glass of water. Did he hurt you?"
"Mmmph...jusaminute..." Nia mumbled. Despite the traumatic events of the evening, the smell of leather had invaded her senses in a way that made dizziness feel quite pleasant.
She shook her golden head vigorously.
"Have to go upstairs...see if everything's alright...and the staff are safe."
"Nia." Jake repeated, taking her by the shoulders and regarding her with warm blue eyes.
"The Blue Caps have gone, and they won't be bothering you any more. Your staff will be fine, I promise."
The reassuring words hit her as she began to come around - but despite Jake's attempts at comfort, the events of the past ten minutes were whirring round in Nia's head nineteen to the dozen.
"How did you know I was in here?"
"Lucky guess, I suppose. I...just popped in to see you."
"But that man seemed to know you. How did you get him to leave like that, no questions asked?"
Jake shrugged easily.
"I was just in the right place at the right time. That's all. I caught him in the act - he was shocked and confused and decided to run. He was just a coward."
"Yes, he did seem scared." Nia couldn't quite make sense of it all.
"But those bastards aren't scared of anything, and he looked at you with fear in his eyes...almost as if you were...mmmmph!"
The words on her lips suffered the same fate as the thoughts in her head as Jake took her by the chin and kissed her long and hard.
Nia released a tiny moan as the tips of Jake's fingers moved lightly across her throat. The dark woman's tongue had already worked its way into her mouth, sending shivers up and down her spine and making her body convulse with each advance and retreat. Her own hands were tangling freely in the short, inky crop, and she felt the sharp intake of breath as her right slid around to play with the ends of hair on the back of Jake's neck. The blonde fuzzily wondered whether they ought to check that everyone had survived upstairs, to make sure that all the Blue Caps were really retreating to the hole they'd crawled out of - but this errant thought was dispersed with little resistance when Jake grasped her by the elbows, drew her up to a standing position, and backed her against the wall in one fluid motion.
So this is how the bad girls do it...was Nia's last coherent thought, before she resigned herself to complete loss of control as a solid thigh wedged itself between her legs. Unconsciously, she ground against the limb, eliciting a groan from its owner as the muscles pulled taut and almost lifted the small bar manager off the floor.
"Does that feel good?"
Came the husky growl that had been wreaking havoc with her hormones for the past week. And as the meaning of the words permeated her brain, she surrendered to the knowledge she was careering straight towards the edge and Jake was driving. The dark woman's lips resumed the assault on her neck, and she let her head fall back, powerless to do anything but give in to the sensation.
One large hand traced Nia's collarbone and cupped a firm breast, palming it gently until her nipples were aching for attention, visible even through two layers of clothing. Jake worked them both between her thumb and index finger, holding the blonde tight with the other arm and continuing to thrust with her tongue as Nia gasped into her mouth. The blonde's hips were undulating of their own accord, sliding on the leather-clad thigh upon which she was perched as both sets of breathing became ragged and two bodies began to throb together.
The responsiveness of the small blonde was a revelation to Jake, and she wondered how long she'd be able to maintain her fabled self-control before throwing her down on the cold cellar floor and ravishing every inch. But even though they were precariously balanced between crates of Diet Coke in a beer cellar that was not especially clean, and all hell was probably breaking loose upstairs, the brunette had decided that she was not to be rushed.
Not exactly the time or place to blow someone's socks off, Jake...but you'll have to be inventive.
Consideration for her conquests was not a new phenomenon in the life of the dark woman, given that her own desire seemed to be primarily satiated by the experience of having them helpless to her touch - but Nia was provoking a hunger to please that came from a source usually untapped. Looking down at the woman who was clinging to her, stroking her hair, covering her face with soft kisses, and seeming to fit between her long limbs as though she was made for precisely that purpose, Jake felt compelled to put herself at the service of Nia's pleasure - an inclination that was alien to the complicated power games that normally characterised her sexual relationships.
She gently flicked at Nia's ear with her tongue, before breathing into it softly,
"You're driving me wild, Nia. You really are."
Nia was convinced she was going to lose it right then and there. Squirming beneath Jake's solid, capable hands, pinned against the wall by a pair of strong arms and shuddering under the assault being made on her body, she discovered soundless promises that almost blew her mind. She felt the butch's tongue in her ear and her chest began to heave frantically. The muscle was warm, wet, and soft, filling her and blocking her hearing until she could only make out her own quickening heartbeat. Which raced and began to flutter as the hand kneading her breast unbuttoned her shirt, and slipped under the fabric of her bra.
"You...and...me...both..." The blonde mumbled into a muscular chest, as skin connected with skin at last. She began to work at the dark woman's T-shirt, worrying it upwards to reveal a washboard abdomen and beautiful, flat breasts. She experimentally flicked out her tongue, level with a reddened, straining nipple, and was rewarded with a hoarse groan that echoed her own intense pleasure.
The butch's hands had already begun their downward exploration, one grasping Nia's behind and the other hovering for a moment at the top button of her jeans. Nia instinctively felt the fleeting pause and looked up at the beautiful woman wrapped around her, seeing the hint of a question floating amidst the passion that half-lidded those incredible blue eyes.
"Please?" She whispered, so quietly she wondered whether or not Jake had heard.
Came an ear-splitting, exasperated shout that told her she wasn't going to get a chance to find out.
Blue eyes met green and the two women froze against the wall for what felt like half an hour. For a moment Nia was tempted to ignore the imminent interruption and damn the consequences, but her better nature eventually won out - and with a sigh, she raised her own voice to reply. Never once wavering from the gaze that she'd locked with the tall, dark butch.
"I'M IN THE CELLAR, MAX!!"
"ARE YOU OK? WHAT'S GOING ON?"
Damn. I should have known she'd come looking for me.
If she catches me like this she'll be horrified.
Answering the question in Jake's eyes with a regretful nod, she slipped out of the clinch that five minutes previously she'd been fantasising about staying in forever. Hurriedly buttoning her shirt and wishing with all her heart she'd had the presence of mind to lock the door after the Blue Cap had left.
Thankfully, the bar manager had time to set her clothing, if not her hormones, to rights before the cellar door burst open and Max crashed in, clutching at her hands and venting all her concerns at once.
"Nia, are you hurt? I was really worried...you disappeared, we couldn't find you anywhere...we thought you'd been murdered, and this wild woman bowled right past me on the door, asked for you by name at the bar, dashed down the stairs so fast she almost fell and broke her neck, and then the Blue Caps all left, tails between their legs, for no apparent reason, but you still weren't there, and..."
Here the small butch stopped short, noticing that the woman who had almost knocked her over earlier was leaning against a crate in the corner of the room, displaying no reaction to her arrival and hasty speech save a slightly amused look in her eyes. The barely discernible twinkle, coupled with a telling twitch at the corners of Jake's mouth, appeared to nettle Nia's assistant, who shot several agitated glances from the "wild woman", to her friend, and back again.
"OK. I can see I've missed out on part of the loop. Would either of you like to fill me in? What's going on?"
She demanded, her ire no longer directed towards the Blue Caps but at the suspect character lounging in front of her in the recesses of the dank, dusty cellar.
Looks as though she thinks she owns the place...thought the assistant manager, bitterly.
"Nia?" She looked to her boss for an explanation of the strange scene she'd stumbled upon.
Nia sighed, knowing that by virtue of a painful history Max deserved some attempt at a story, but reluctant at that moment to oblige. Her assistant's self-righteous indignation at finding her in the cellar with a strange woman was leaving a disagreeable taste in her mouth, although she couldn't work out why her irritation was so extreme. She knew her friend had overprotective tendencies - but had always found it flattering in previous situations when the "big brother" streak had reared its head. However, this time Max seemed to have moved up in the billing, playing a role that was a little more invasive.
Who does she think she is? My girlfriend?
For the umpteenth time Nia wished that she wasn't quite so responsible for her friend's emotional well-being.
"Listen, Max...its no big deal. One of the Caps dragged me down here to intimidate me a little, and Jake told him to back off. I was feeling a little shaken up, so she stayed until I calmed down. That's all."
Fervently, she hoped that this rationale would suffice - she wasn't feeling inclined to clutch at straws for Max's benefit if it didn't. She idly wondered whether it was at all likely that her furious assistant would just turn around and leave them to finish what they'd started.
Max turned to Jake, incredulous.
"You told him to back off? YOU? Why should he listen to you?"
A shrug was all she got in response, as Jake crossed her ankles and slouched against the cellar wall. This seeming display of arrogance caused Max's face to turn redder and redder, threatening to send her into an apoplectic fit and inspiring a tiny smirk from Nia, who had been watching the interaction between old friend and new and trying to scout a way out.
I don't think I can chat my way out of this one. She thought, wryly.
In fact, I'd probably have better luck trying to negotiate with the Cap.
But the Bar Manager knew her taciturn, enigmatic new acquaintance was relying on her to smooth things over. And despite the brevity of their encounter, she felt an inexplicable urge to protect the dark woman from Max's irate inquiries.
"Listen Max..." She began again. "I don't care WHY he listened, he just did. And they all left. Can we leave it at that?"
She thought she saw a flash of gratitude in the blue eyes that were now fastened intently upon her, but it vanished just as soon as it had come, leaving her straining to read the careful neutrality that soon took control of Jake's features.
God, she's complicated. I've never seen anyone with so many visible walls. Wonder how many invisible ones she's got? Wonder if I could ever work her out?
Putting her burning curiosity aside, Nia turned back to her assistant.
"We need to get back to the bar. I think all this hassle calls for an early closing, a quick cleanup and a round of staff drinks, don't you?"
Max looked as though she was going to continue to argue the toss, but Nia turned an inflexible gaze directly upon her stubborn assistant and watched her decide against it. The defeated butch darted one last hostile, suspicious look at Jake before nodding.
She did an exaggerated about-turn and started back up the stairs, leaving the cellar door wide open in a clear invitation for Nia and Jake to follow her at close quarters. Nia rolled her eyes. It was clear that her assistant manager was not going to give them any opportunity to spend more time in private.
The bar manager turned to her dark guest, with regret and apology showing in her face. "I'm sorry about that. Max can be a bit of a bulldog. She's a little over-protective sometimes."
And as she finished speaking, she was surprised by the gentle understanding that suffused the face in front of her. But too soon, a detached, lofty demeanour took its place.
"Well..." Drawled the butch. "I can see why."
The small manager found herself blushing, and as was her wont when she was embarrassed, she blurted out the first thought to enter her head.
"Do you want to hang around so we can carry...I mean...um...I can thank you properly for saving my bacon? The cleaning won't take too long."
Her new friend hesitated for a few seconds. Then a slow grin began to dilute her disinterested expression, making Nia instinctively smile back.
"Oh, what the hell. You're on."
And I was getting pretty comfortable with it, too...until Max turned up.
Her interest in Nia seems to be quite intense...wonder what that's all about?
Jake shook her head at herself as they mounted the last of the four flights.
What is up with me? They could be married for all I care.
She spread a charming smile across her face as Nia turned around and motioned for her to enter the bar.
But once inside, a resounding commotion pulled both women up short. The two brawny bouncers were having a heated discussion with a small brunette that Jake recognised as being the one she'd been checking out on her last visit.
"We need to find Nia!" Liz was yelling, desperation and frustration clouding her pretty face. "They could have done anything to her!"
"And who was that woman that came rushing in and demanded to know where she was? She could have been one of them! Nia could be downstairs bleeding to death for all we know!"
"Liz." Said Harry, quietly. "This isn't helping. Just calm down."
"I'm fine, Liz." Nia assented gently, as she began to approach the group.
"They just shook me up a little bit, that's all."
The bar manager was touched when the small barmaid flew at her and caught her in a hug. Patting the girl's back, she murmured awkwardly, "It's over now."
She missed the barely perceptible nods exchanged by Harry, Ricky and Jake.
Although they didn't go unnoticed by Max.
There's something fishy going on here, I know it...she thought.
The dark woman was well aware that she was the focus of a good deal of concealed attention. However, but most of the glances thrown at her held little more than curiosity, apart from the vitriol directed at her by Max.
Her sensitive ears picked up a conversation bouncing back and forth between two girls who were gossiping while they washed trays of glasses.
"Do you think that's Nia's girlfriend?"
"I dunno. She's gorgeous though, isn't she? Did you see the way she charged in here?"
"I know. I wish someone would play hero for me."
"Look at those cheekbones! Do you think she's sucking in?"
Jake suppressed a snort and turned back to the action.
The small Bar Manager was mucking in with the rest, she noticed with approval, watching as Nia swept up bits of broken glass, cigarette butts and beer mats with quick flicks of her wrist. The blonde was also keeping half an eye on everyone else in the little team, making sure jobs were being done properly and that no-one was struggling unduly with their task. The dark woman reflected with regret that fear was usually the means of administering any projects she'd been involved in. But Nia managed to remain on friendly terms with her staff without putting any unseen boundaries at risk. That the staff liked her was obvious, some even treating her with affection, but more importantly - she appeared to command a great deal of respect because the camaraderie forfeited not one iota of her serene authority.
They get a kick out of helping her. And I don't blame them. A smile and a little praise from her would be a pretty powerful motivation.
There had been plenty of questions about the evening's events, not least regarding the bar manager's disappearance. Nia had dealt with these by playing her report down, telling the staff enough to let them know they could be trusted, but leaving out details that might cause them panic.
Hmmm. Those kids obviously don't know much about what really goes on here. Not that it's a bad thing. The less people carrying information the better, I think.
But Nia must bear the brunt of it alone. Jake mused, marvelling at the strength that faced the ogre without asking for help.
"Jake, are you OK? Would you like another drink while we get the last of this cleaned up?"
The brave, gentle blonde came sharply into focus, as Nia leaned her broom against the bar and patted Jake on the arm.
"I'm fine, thanks. I was just wondering...can I be of any help?" The dark woman devoured the delighted gratitude in Nia's eyes as she voiced her offer.
"I think you've done enough, thanks." Max piped up from behind her boss.
Oh, God. Doesn't she ever give over? This is getting a little tiresome.
Nia's eyes flashed as she turned around to face her assistant. "Max, please don't create a scene. I don't need your opinion on this."
Out of politeness, the bar manager had been planning to refuse the dark woman's offer of help, but Max's attitude aroused a tendency to petulance she normally kept well hidden. However, she did force herself to refrain from darting a victorious look at her over-zealous friend, before she made her point.
"That's very kind of you, Jake. Do you think you could stack some chairs up by the wall?"
"No problem." Jake slid off her barstool, and met Max's glare with another characteristic shrug as she began hefting wooden chairs into neat piles.
"Nia, what do you think you're doing?" Hissed the assistant manager, as soon as the dark woman was out of earshot. "You know nothing about this woman. I know she helped you out earlier on, but why is she still here? Can't you just say thanks and send her home?"
The still-fresh memory of the ordeal in the cellar, coupled with Max's grasping behaviour afterwards, was making Nia feel like a gazelle caught in a trap. The sensation of being physically and metaphorically pawed at by so many people was distasteful beyond belief to the blonde's keen sense of pride and dignity, and her temper was beginning to rise.
"Max, if you force me to argue with you in front of the staff, I'll be furious." She said. "Remember who you are. You're management, and management don't bicker in front of employees."
She watched as her friend forced a slow nod. And although she knew she was tiptoeing on the line that separated assertiveness and anger, her turbulent emotions were rapidly throwing her off balance. Impetuously, she continued.
"And for your information, Jake will stay here as long as I want her to. You have no right to ask her to leave. Those gangsters don't own me. You don't own me. And you can't tell me who I should and shouldn't consort with. Alright?"
Anticipating the hurt expression on her assistant's face, Nia sighed and tempered her statement by patting Max on the arm and speaking a little more gently.
"I appreciate your concern, I really do. But I can look after myself. I don't need anyone to take care of me."
Oh yes you do. Thought the assistant manager.
But I can see I've been pipped at the post for that job.
Jake set the last chair atop the pile, as the quiet young man regarded her with undisguised interest.
This could be messy. She thought, turning to face him.
Her interactions with men normally followed one of two routes - they either viewed her as a threat, or identified with her masculine qualities, affording her a grudging acceptance that rapidly turned to respect. She sent a silent prayer up to whoever might be listening that the latter would be the case in this instance.
Come on, cut me some slack, please. Haven't I dealt with enough animosity for one evening?
"Yes, I am." She replied, briefly.
Tom gave her a sober nod of recognition.
"Listen." He said, turning his back on his colleagues and dropping his voice.
"I don't really know what went on tonight, and I'm not about to ask Nia any difficult questions. But I saw what happened out here. She was nowhere to be seen, then you stormed in, shoving people out of the way, rushed down the steps, and soon after that all the Blue Caps left. I don't know what you did - I don't really care, but thanks for taking care of Nia. And all of us."
He clapped her on the back, a gesture that Jake recognised with relief as part of an attempt at male bonding.
Suppressing a jubilant grin, she grasped the lad's arm.
"No problem." She said. "Just glad I was here to help."
After the little exchange, they regarded each other politely until the silence became uncomfortable. Despite his friendly overtures, the lad was obviously intimidated - and the dark woman was unsure of how to make him feel more comfortable. Clearing her throat, she enquired,
"Do you like working here?"
Tom's face brightened and he relaxed into a shy smile.
"Oh, yeah." He nodded, enthusiastically.
"I've been here a year and it's the best job I've ever had. Not because of the work, but because of the people. They're a friendly bunch. And Nia's a great boss, you know. She never makes you feel as though you're just a lowly employee."
He bashfully glanced over to where his manager was standing, deep in conversation with Max.
Jake nodded in acknowledgement, and was surprised to see a wicked glint appearing in the timid young man's eyes, as his voice faded out to a conspiratorial whisper.
"But for all her sweet, harmless appearance, she's got one hell of a temper when she thinks someone's trying to pull a fast one...doesn't take any shit, you know? She's sweet as honey most of the time, but bees can sting as well. I wouldn't mess with her - anyone who thinks they can control her has another think coming."
He smiled at the dark woman and moved off to finish the clearing up, leaving her chuckling to herself.
I think I may have met my match. She thought.
Nia surveyed the bar with a rapid, practised eye and noted that everything was roughly in order.
Twenty minutes...must be the quickest cleanup ever. Not that it had anything to do with a certain tall, dark handsome rescuer of maidens...she grinned.
Jake had made herself more than useful, helping out with the heavy work that normally took some time.
Looks as though we're both being motivated by the promise of things to come.
Nia was well aware that her new friend probably didn't usually spend her time offering to help clean up in dirty bars, and the small woman was touched by the interest that Jake's efforts had shown.
She's fascinating. I hope I get to know her better. She's probably dangerous, I know - but that just makes her more attractive.
She shook her head at herself in the glass door.
Get over yourself, Nia. Thought you'd left that bad boy fetish behind.
You know, you'd think I'd be sick of tough guys, working here. And I am. But there seems to be more to her than six feet of leather and bad attittude. Max thinks she's suspicious...I suppose she is, really...I can't explain how she managed to scare the Caps away, and I don't know whether I want to even try.
But I feel as thought she's a good person, deep down.
And I can't wait to pick up where we left off earlier on.
"Ok!" She shouted.
"I think we've done enough! Sit down and I'll get you all a drink."
She watched as the staff gratefully finished their chores, and hauled stools up to the bar. Jake favoured Nia with an enigmatic smile as she sat down, almost turning the Bar Manager into a quivering heap on the floor and making her determined that this round of drinks would be a very quick one.
Handing over a large vodka and tonic, Nia leaned towards the dark woman, and whispered in her ear.
"We're nearly done, I promise. I'm really sorry you've been hanging around."
Why am I hanging around, anyway? Jake mused.
It's not as though I'm desperate to get laid...I'm not short of offers.
I can't believe I've been helping to close a bar for the sake of a one-night stand.
Maybe I should have walked out while I had the chance.
But she found herself responding with unusual tenderness. "No problem, Nia. Take all the time you need."
And Nia could have sworn Jake's lips brushed lightly against her cheek before she moved away.
"Sorry about Liz. She's a lovely girl, but she can be a tad nosey."
Jake nodded in recognition and raised an eyebrow. It was getting late, and as well as being painfully conscious of Max's constant, hovering presence, she found herself impatient to get Nia alone. She could still feel the blonde's soft skin beneath her fingertips, and her warm breath in her ear.
"Are you ready to go?" She asked, a little hoarsely.
"Max and I need to sort the tills out first. Five minutes more at the most, I promise."
Nia rang up a "no sale", and removed the till tray, which was stuffed with a considerable amount of money.
At least we didn't do too badly on cash...she thought.
"I'll take that." Snapped Max, striding through the swing doors.
"We shouldn't leave money out in front of people we don't really know."
She finished, with a pointed look at Jake.
The dark woman sighed. She had attempted to deploy herself with tact during the course of the evening - an undertaking which mainly consisted of attempts to avoid Nia's glowering assistant and her constant barbs - but it was 2 O'clock in the morning, she was feeling increasingly tired and frustrated, and her good humour was almost spent.
"Listen." She said, shortly. "If I was into stealing money from bars, which I'm not, don't you think I would have done it already? While the coast was clear and you were all cleaning up? Don't insult my intelligence."
The two stared at each other for a long moment. Then Max returned the till tray to the top of the bar, muttering,
"Fine. You do whatever you like. Nia, are you sure you need me here at all?"
Sarcasm dripped from each word as the little butch jutted out her chin and turned to face her boss. Seeing too late the fury that was beginning to distort her friend's normally cheery face.
"Max, I've pretty much had enough of you." Nia spat. "Of course I still need you here - we're going to go through the takings, and then you're going home. And I'd appreciate it if you could learn to act your age."
Oooo...she does have a temper...thought Jake. Looks as though that lad was right.
"Shit!" Max exploded. "You stay there...I'm going to check who that is."
Jake turned to Nia. "Do you want me to go?" Max was already nearing the door and trying to peer around the frame without being seen.
"No." Said Nia abruptly, her anger still riding high.
"Don't make it any worse than it is. I don't need both of you engaging in heroics at the same time. In fact, I'd have been perfectly capable of doing it myself."
A bit nettled, Jake resumed her seat and began to turn her back on the fuming blonde, only to be stopped by a hand on her arm. She looked up into translucent green eyes that had taken on a milder hue.
"I'm sorry." Nia offered, softly.
"I didn't mean that. I speak before I think, sometimes. I don't think I'd have gotten through tonight without your help, and I'm very grateful for it, honestly."
Jake's shuttered expression melted under the gentle treatment that caressed her small insecurity and carefully laid it aside.
"Don't worry about it." She said quietly, with a small, but genuine, smile.
"I didn't mean to try and take over. It's just that I'm impatient to get out of here and spend some time alone with you."
Nia's blush was the most charming thing that Jake had ever seen. And her thumb was unconsciously making circles on Jake's arm, a sensation the dark woman found strangely comforting. She wished that Max would get rid of the mystery visitor and then hurry up and make herself scarce.
But no such luck.
"Nia!" Hissed the assistant manager from the door. "It's Matt!"
Nia's heart sank, and perhaps in response to her distress, she felt Jake's arm tense for a few seconds.
"You'll have to let him in, Max." She sighed.
Max unbolted the front door and let the gangster in. The huge blonde man was sopping wet from the rain, but otherwise looked unperturbed.
He doesn't seem to be spoiling for a fight...thought the assistant manager with relief, hoping that this meant the visit would be short-lived.
But unlike Max, Nia knew the underworld well enough to know that judging a situation, and more specifically, a person, according to appearances was a mistake.
She'd seen Matt with exactly the same expression on his face before he calmly broke someone's arm with his bare hands. Which was not an experience she'd care to repeat. Acutely attuned to Jake's presence beside her, she was also aware of the fact that Matt did not tolerate customers staying behind after the bar had closed. It was far too risky, from his point of view, for the public to be exposed to even a hint of the private face of Fire and Ice.
Stay calm, Nia.
Speak when you're spoken to, and don't do anything stupid.
The imposing Chief began to make his way over to the bar, at the same time asking a barrage of questions in a tone that betrayed little hint of feeling. Nia couldn't decide whether this should cause relief or fear.
"Nia, what's going on? Heard from a contact that the Caps were in here. What happened? Did they hurt you? Those guys are pretty..."
The interrogation stopped, mid-flow, as Matt's eyes fell upon Jake. His progress towards the bar ground swiftly to a halt, and he became rooted to the spot, staring at Nia's visitor. In fact, Nia was convinced that if he'd had a little less self-control his jaw would be hanging open. She froze, unused to seeing her intimidating boss so speechless and unsure of how to handle it.
I knew he'd be annoyed at me for keeping a punter behind, but I didn't expect him to lose his cool like this. He's really disturbed. This does not look good.
I know I ought to say something, but what?
Luckily, Jake was not struck dumb. She rose at a leisurely pace, saying evenly,
"I don't think we've met. I'm Jake." Extending her hand to the gang chief in a gesture intended to placate.
Matt considered the extended hand dumbly for a long moment, before grasping it and nodding his head. Three pairs of shoulders relaxed as he did so.
"Sorry about that." Matt said gradually, speaking to Jake but looking at Nia.
"You just reminded me of someone I used to know."
Nia's wits were slowly returning to their rightful place. "Would you like to come through to my office, Matt? I can fill you in on what happened tonight."
Jake and Max watched in silence and a little apprehension as the tiny blonde woman preceded the enormous blonde man down the stairs.
"Is she going to be OK?" Jake whispered, their earlier friction momentarily forgotten in the service of Nia's welfare.
"She'll be fine." Returned Max, caustically. "Nia can handle herself, you know."
Funny...thought the dark woman, biting off the cutting remark that was on the tip of her tongue.
You didn't seem to think so when you were implying that I should stay away from her.
"I don't normally let customers stay late, whether there's trouble or not, but the woman upstairs...um...stumbled upon me in the cellar when one of the Caps was giving me a hard time, and I think she surprised him into leaving."
She had already decided that it was wise to make light of Jake's involvement in the proceedings, since she knew there were factors at play that she didn't understand. Somehow she felt that telling Matt how Jake had scared the Blue Cap almost out of his skin would make the situation more complicated than it was already.
Matt's face betrayed nothing that told her whether or not she'd chosen the right approach.
"Did she tell you who she was?" He asked carefully, perching on the edge of the desk.
"No." Nia said, unlocking the safe and depositing the entire till tray inside.
"It didn't matter. She's a customer who just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
"Has she been here before?" Asked Matt, raising an eyebrow.
"No." Nia lied.
It was an irrational move, she knew, but Jake's actions had inspired a loyalty in the small manager that made her want to protect her new friend, even if it was dangerous, and most probably stupid. She knew that if she told Matt about their previous meeting, he'd probably consider the acquaintance a risk. Although on the other hand, if he found out she'd lied to him, she'd be history.
The Chief gave her a penetrating stare.
"What happened with the Caps?"
"I tried to keep them happy. But they got boisterous and the customers started to smell a rat, so in the end I put my foot down. One of the Caps dragged me down to the cellar to tell me who was boss." A familiar set, sinister look worked its way on to Matt's face as Nia relayed this information.
"Did he hurt you?" Was the tight reply.
"No." She said, knowing what might have happened if Jake hadn't been in the right place at the right time.
The Chief gave her a slow, deliberate nod. "I'll take care of it."
His demeanour softened slightly, as he noticed the troubled expression that crept on to Nia's face.
"Don't worry about it, Nia. The Blue Caps won't be bothering you any more."
Funny...thought the bar manager.
That's exactly what Jake said.
"I'll be in touch." Muttered Matt, rising to leave. "And someone will be making a drop-off tomorrow afternoon."
"Right." Nia murmured assent, glad the interview had been brief. "I'll see you."
She watched the door close behind the commanding figure, and for a fleeting second considered staying behind to cash up. But the promise of the dark, handsome butch who'd been waiting so patiently all evening made her throw the thought away.
Regaining some of her bounce, she tripped back up the stairs to the bar. She was keen to forget her worries and enjoy the imminent tryst she knew would be explosive.
"Where's Jake?" She asked her assistant.
"She split." The abrupt reply crushed all her tender hopes.
"Cut and ran." Repeated Max. "Five minutes after you took Matt down to the office, your marvellous new friend just up and left without a word."
"I don't believe it."
"Told you she was dodgy." Max was feeling pretty complacent. But the imminent smirk had barely a chance to form before being halted by the confusion and anger in Nia's eyes.
"I couldn't bloody well believe it."
Nia was pacing about the sitting room in Rachel's flat, recounting the events of the previous night to her friend in tones that were heated to say the least. And despite her intimate knowledge of the usually gentle blonde, Rachel found herself flinching at the scorching anger rolling off her small friend.
Damn. She's really furious. She thought.
"One minute she's rushing through the door like a conquering hero, swaggering about and intervening in what could have been a hairy encounter with a customer, and the next she's helping me clean up - actually helping me clean up! She went from lion to lamb in a matter of minutes. And then she left. Just like that, without a word. Isn't that dreadful?"
"Well." Rachel began a half-hearted attempt at reason, although she knew all to well that this generally served to fan the flames when Nia was wound up.
"Did she have any good reason to leave? Did Max say something to put her off? Sounds pretty suspicious to me. What do you know about this woman? What happened that night, anyway? Sounds like there was trouble."
Nia stopped her nervous circuit of the room, thrown by this tirade of queries from her friend. Since being hired as manager at Fire and Ice, she'd tried to shield Rachel from the grim realities of her position, knowing that if her friend became involved in her affairs she would never be able to guarantee her safety.
Sensing the blonde's discomfiture, Rachel raised one eyebrow and folded her arms, a signal that she was anticipating a far fuller explanation than the one she'd been given.
"Yes, there was trouble, and no, Max didn't say anything." Nia muttered, hoping that this would stave off the inquisition she'd invited upon herself.
The blonde was sorely tempted to go against her own better judgement and tell Rachel about the hideous machinations that went on behind the scenes at Fire and Ice. It drove her mad that she had nobody, except Max, to turn to for support. And something about the situation didn't sit well with her - she was certain that Matt's sudden appearance was connected to Jake's hasty departure, and she was desperate to voice her hunch in front of a disinterested audience. Otherwise, she knew she'd just end up jumping to conclusions that were sensational in the extreme. Nia had trouble thinking clearly when her passionate spirit was in control of her agile mind, and Rachel's detached, unsentimental way of handling anything personal - a way that less understanding friends had called heartless on occasion - would come in very useful in her current frame of mind.
"Well, do you know who this woman is? Did you ask her anything about herself before she kissed you?" Rachel persisted.
She was determined to ferret some sense out of her small friend, even if it killed her. How Nia expected her to give useful advice without any of the particulars, she just didn't know. Rachel loved the blonde bar manager like a sister, but found her infuriating beyond belief when she was letting her emotions blur her vision. It was a weakness the computer programmer couldn't fathom, no matter how hard she tried.
Nia owned, frantically trying to quench the tinge of embarrassment that crossed her pretty features as she watched Rachel process this information and wondered how she'd react.
Rachel had told her to call the woman, sure, but Nia was certain that she hadn't been expecting her to get in so deep in such a short time. Her friend was what you'd call conservative - and some of Nia's wilder impulses often left her a little shocked and more than a little scared. But to the blonde's surprise, the computer programmer rolled her eyes and went on with the questioning.
"What was all the trouble about? You don't think Jake had anything to do with it, do you? Do you think that's why she cut and ran?"
Nia knew that the ice she was walking was getting thinner by the minute. In fact, if she looked down, she could just about see a couple of cracks beginning to sprout underneath her shoes.
My dear, smart friend is going to put two and two together one of these days. And she'll come up with sixty-eight.
And what's worse, she'll probably be right.
The bar manager miserably wondered what Rachel would do when she finally found out that she, Nia, who'd been top of her class all through school and of whom everyone had harboured such high hopes, was now beholden to Manchester's Mafia.
But surely Jake couldn't be mixed up with them as well? If the dark woman was one of Matt's inner circle Nia was certain she'd know it - he always made sure she was kept informed of the identity of local personalities, so that she knew who she had to curry favour with and who would become impotent if she stood her ground.
Max and Rachel are right about one thing, though.
Jake is suspicious.
And I almost gave it up in that cellar without knowing the first thing about her. That was clever, Nia. What were you thinking?
Nia squirmed again, at her own question this time. Because she knew she hadn't been thinking at all - she'd been a more than willing participant in the dark, dusty cellar - in fact, she hadn't been in control of any of her own reactions. Max's appearance had been the only thing in the way of her shedding her clothes and allowing the dark woman to take her in every way that was humanly possible. And now that Jake was nowhere to be seen, Nia's dignity was suffering some extremely harsh blows.
I can't believe I did that.
Maybe that's why she left - I was too easy and she just got bored. I don't blame her.
God, when I was dating men I used to make them wait at least two months before I even let them see me in my underwear. In a matter of minutes, this woman had reduced me to a quivering heap.
What on earth is wrong with me?
"What on earth is wrong with you?" Asked Rachel. "You seem so injured by all this."
The bar manager turned to the friend who'd been part of her life for so long now they could communicate without words. Rachel had begun to regard her with genuine concern, instead of the long-suffering, patient expression she often wore when she was waiting for Nia to calm down. This in itself was enough to start tears forming behind the bar manager's beautiful green eyes.
"It's not really the end of the world, is it? Talk to me, Nia. What's going on?"
A long silence followed as the small blonde avoided eye contact and furiously fought the urge to tell her friend everything. Absolutely everything, with no holds barred.
"I don't know." She eventually replied, in a small voice.
"I realise I'd only ever clapped eyes on this woman twice before, called her once, and let her kiss me in a cellar before she disappeared."
She sighed, knowing full well that what had gone on in the cellar was much more than a kiss. In fact, she doubted whether she'd ever meet another woman who could so effortlessly light her fuse.
Rachel put a hand on her friend's arm, mutely encouraging her to carry on. Nia wiped away a few tears with the tips of her fingers and looked helplessly at the computer programmer.
"I just can't seem to forget about this and chalk it up to experience. And I don't know why. I feel...hurt. And I've really no reason to be. I barely know her. But I just can't stop thinking about the way she left."
She searched Rachel's face with sad green eyes, pleading for an answer from her ever-practical friend.
And she got one.
"It seems to me that you need an explanation."
Nia nodded, slowly.
Rachel took the bar manager's hand.
"I said this the first time, Nia, and I'll say it again...call the woman. It's the only way."
"But Rachel, I called her before and she didn't even bother to call me back. I'm starting to feel like a stalker. Surely it's right to wait for her to make the first move?"
The computer programmer heaved an exaggerated sigh. Nothing was ever simple with her sweet, sensitive friend - she saw the politics in everything. Even when they weren't really there.
"Yes, Nia. A self-respecting woman wouldn't dream of picking up the phone. Not in a month of Sundays. But you want to know what her game is. So put your pride in your pocket for the time being, and give the woman a call. You can worry about making a fool of yourself later."
"I left my phone in Fire and Ice on New Year's Eve, and met Nia when I went back to pick it up the next day. It was by no means an intentional acquaintance, I can assure you."
She was leaning against the wall in her sparse flat, a cup of coffee rapidly going cold on the small table in front of her, listening with a growing sense of apprehension to the gang chief's complaints. She knew she wasn't at risk - and anyway, she'd probably rise to the challenge of living her life with a price on her head - but the gruff voice at the end of the line carried a familiar sinister note that made her fearful for Nia.
I shouldn't have gone there in the first place.
I should have ignored my impulses when I found out the Caps were planning a visit.
I've probably made the situation even worse for that poor girl. She berated herself.
Face it, Jake - your help is the last thing in the world she needs right now.
The growl was becoming deeper and more ominous by the minute - and although Matt always kept his voice scrupulously quiet, it made the dark woman flinch.
"I don't care who you are or who you think you are, but Nia ought to be off limits. Not only because she already knows far too much, but also because I don't want her put at risk. I'd have a hell of a time finding someone else to manage my bar, and she's a damn good manager. Do you get my drift?"
"Yes, I do." Replied Jake.
I wonder how he keeps her there? She thought.
Simple threats or something a little more sophisticated?
I hope to God he's learned from the mistake they made with the last guy.
She shook her head sadly at the memory, as Matt continued.
"However," he said, "Now you've started this friendship with my little blonde, I think the best thing for you to do is to maintain it - otherwise she's going to start to smell a rat. And loath as I am to reconnect you with the operation at Fire and Ice, I need to keep Nia's mouth shut."
The dark woman blinked a couple of times as she considered this line of reasoning.
I suppose that's logical enough. Because Nia will have already assumed that if I'm connected with Matt, I won't be coming back. If I show up, then I'm in the clear.
It's the classic double bluff.
And now he's going to tell me that if she blabs I have to "take care of it". He's so predictable.
"I think you should stay in close contact with Nia, so that if she's tempted to blab, at least I know you can take care of it. It would be a shame if you had to, don't get me wrong - but I need to have you near her, just in case. And if she has no idea who you are, that gives us the advantage."
Jake suppressed a snort of laughter as the head of Manchester's gangs played his part to perfection.
He ought to be careful. He's in danger of becoming a parody of himself.
"I have to keep an eye on her, after the scare she had on Friday." Matt said. "She's likely to snap, and I need you to be there if she does. I'd consider it a personal favour, Jake."
And for his final trick, he pulls out the loyalty card.
"So, what do you say?" the Chief finished.
The question hung in the air, delicately, for a moment. But Jake already knew what her answer would be. She was uncomfortably aware that Nia's future rested in her large, powerful hands. The head of Manchester's gang scene was playing on her protective instincts to get what he wanted, and she had no choice but to play along. If Matt gave the task of watching Nia to anyone else, she'd probably end up dead.
I'd much rather saddle myself with this job than give it to someone else who might actually be compelled to follow orders, and I think he knows that.
But I hope she keeps her mouth shut, for my sake as well as hers
"No problem, Matt. I can do that for you."
She sighed, as her reply put both women in a predicament that was going to be potentially explosive. She knew they were going to end up in bed. She just hoped it wasn't going to turn out to be a fatal attraction.
"So, have you seen Nia since Friday night?" The gangster asked, lightly.
Jake replied briefly, deciding at great speed that she wasn't going to mention the irate message Nia left on her machine demanding to know what she was playing at.
"I suggest you see her again soon, Jake." Matt said. "She'll be suspicious as hell if you're nowhere to be seen after what happened on Friday. And that's the last thing I want."
Little does he know that I've already done the disappearing act. Jake thought. How am I going to talk my way out of that one? I get the feeling that Nia's not going to be fobbed off too easily.
"Okay, Matt." She automatically acquiesced to the Chief's demands. "I'll do it."
"All right, Jake. See ya."
Jake leaned her head against the wall as she replaced the handset. The chilly, unyielding feel of the paint against her skin did little to assuage the feeling of guilt that was becoming overwhelming.
What a mess.
Not only have you gotten yourself in trouble, but that beautiful, innocent girl is mixed up in it as well.
Nice one, Jake.
When are you going to get out of all this shit for good?
She gulped down the remnants of her cup of coffee, stone cold now, and stood with her back to the wall, staring out at the pounding rain, for a very long time.
"A little bit higher, Tom!"
Nia yelled over the news broadcast, holding a barstool steady as it shook precariously with the young man's weight. She'd recently revised the menu at Fire and Ice, and Liz, the resident artist, had written up the new selection on a blackboard that normally sat on a high shelf behind the bar. Now it was the task of Tom and his long arms to set the board back in its place.
"Drugs became an integral part of the Albanian black-market economy under the communists, and during the disorder and violence following the stockmarket crash of 1997 the forces of the underworld began to cement their influence. By 1998 the country was home to more than 10,000 drug addicts."
"Left a bit! Don't fall over!" Shouted Liz from the other side of the room, where she was unstacking tables and chairs in preparation for opening time.
These audacious remarks earned her nothing but a scowl from her good-natured colleague, who almost lost his balance as he poked out his tongue in reply.
"Very amusing, Lizzie!" Was his retort. "You're just jealous 'cos you're too short to be able to reach."
"Farmers who used to provide groceries are now finding it more profitable to grow marijuana. Cocaine refining laboratories are thriving in the South of the country, and some of these drugs leave the country via the border with Greece. The rest is transported via Macedonia, an easy gateway towards the West due to the unstable state of this particular region. European integration has meant that border checks in most of the states throughout the European Union are very limited."
Is this OK, Nia?" Tom swivelled from the waist so he could see his boss, an awkward position that nearly threatened to send him tumbling down on top of her.
"That's perfect! Thanks. You can get down now."
After helping her employee down from the stool, Nia surveyed their handiwork. The blackboard looked pretty. Now she only had to check that the food would do it justice.
The bar was due to open in half-an-hour, but there was very little left to do that the staff couldn't handle. Turning off the radio, the small manager noticed Liz coming up behind her with a "can I help you?" look on her pert, pretty face.
"We'll open at about midday." She told the brunette. "I think we're close to being ready, but can you get some beermats out and check the glasses? Send someone down to me in about ten minutes and I'll bag up some change."
The small barmaid nodded at her boss, and Nia gave her a grateful smile before making her way downstairs to check up on the chef.
She was halfway down the stairs when the ambient sounds of her favourite CD drifted into her ears.
Well that's a bit of a contrast to the hubbub that seems to be going on down here...she grinned, as she prepared to brave the disorder of the kitchen.
Bracing her broad shoulders, she pushed her nerves down into the pit of her stomach and prepared to approach the nearest member of staff with her customary self-confidence.
But as she navigated her way past the tables occupied by the first few customers of the day, the woman who could cut off someone's breathing with one powerful hand found herself admitting that this situation was making her a great deal more apprehensive than she'd ever imagined. Under circumstances such as the Caps' raid of Friday night, Jake could deploy herself with self-possession and an intimidating presence that meant nobody could get under her skin. But she knew that when it came to truthful, personal communication, the shield she habitually erected would wind up as little more than dust on her steel-toed boots. Jake didn't care too much for too many people - but somehow, Nia had managed to join the ranks of the privileged already.
Sucker for a damsel in distress...that's my trouble.
And a few harsh words from this particular damsel would probably smart a lot more than somebody's fist in Jake's face.
What a mess.
She sighed inwardly as the bar came into view, and she realised that the member of staff who was manning it was the feisty brunette who'd been mouthing off on Friday night.
Great. Let's hope she's less outspoken during the day, shall we?
The dark woman advanced a little shakily, and cleared her throat in order to get Lizzie to turn around. She wondered if she'd be met with open hostility or something a little more subtle - but in her heart there was no doubt that she was about to be given her marching orders.
After the stunt I pulled on Friday night, I don't deserve any better...she thought, sadly. Well, at least if I get it in the neck from her first it'll cushion the blow.
She was convinced that Nia's suspicions and her own subsequent failure to return the manager's phone call would mean that the staff would be instructed to throw her out on sight - to play it safe with reference to Matt, as much as anything else. Whether she was connected to him or not, playing host to her at Fire and Ice would be a very dangerous move. She was suspicious, and she probably had "great big risk" painted all over her now, as far as Nia was concerned.
She must have been going through hell trying to work out what to do.
I'm such a rat.
But to the dark woman's surprise, Liz turned around with a beaming smile, and her greeting betrayed barely veiled interest rather than righteous indignation.
"Good to see you again! How are you?"
Interesting. Jake thought.
Looks as though Nia's been keeping it all in. This girl has no idea.
Wonder if any of them have any idea about what went on in here on Friday? And do they even know that Fire and Ice is run by a gang? Nia's been hiding a great deal to protect these kids, I think.
"Liz, is it?"
She responded, combining a non-committal tone with a subtle perusal of the brunette's trim body.
Liz dropped her eyes slightly, and Jake saw the hint of a blush just below the lashes.
I've still got the knack...she thought, suppressing a chuckle.
"Are you here to see Nia?" The barmaid asked, regaining her composure and picking up the internal handset attached to the wall.
The dark woman's smirk faded, as though she'd forgotten why she was really there. And as she nodded, she remembered that this encounter was highly unlikely to be as pleasant as the last. Her heart leapt straight into her mouth.
She's going to pretend to be out. I know it.
Liz, about to dial, looked on with amazement as the enigmatic visitor went from smooth operator to gawky teenager in a matter of seconds. It seemed like an age to both - but it was probably only ten seconds or so before Jake blurted out,
"Could you not tell her it's me?"
Gritting her teeth and hoping fervently that the little brunette wouldn't demand an explanation. All the carefully erected barriers had come down momentarily as the dark woman tried desperately to find a way to bring Nia upstairs to speak with her.
Liz seemed almost as surprised by Jake's sudden loss of control as the dark woman was herself. Looking slightly askance, she hit the speed dial on the phone without another word.
"Hi, is that the kitchen? There's someone here to see Nia. I don't know who it is, just tell her she has a visitor. And tell her to come straight up."
Jake was leaning against the bar, the serene set of her long limbs belying the trepidation she felt, when Nia appeared five minutes later. But the nervous twitch of her fingers, wrapped around a triple espresso that would make an Albanian coffee drinker proud, might have given the game away - if the Bar Manager had bothered to look.
Came a tight, cold voice, telling Jake before she turned around that this was not going to be a pleasant encounter. She nervously reflected that it was pretty easy, when a person was usually so warm and open, to tell they were feeling the chill.
She has every right to be. Considering the fact that I legged it with no explanation, following the appearance of an underground drug lord.
I just didn't expect it to make me feel so...small.
The dark woman replied quietly, swivelling slowly to face her Waterloo, and swallowing her nerves along with the dregs of her hot drink.
She'd been rehearsing several explanations at breakneck speed for the short time she'd been waiting, stopping only when the reactions she was attributing to Nia became so ridiculously cruel and dismissive she knew she was assuming the worst. But the altercations seething inside her head were squashed by the vision that was her nemesis. And for the second time that day, Manchester's Charmer of Maidens found herself lost for words.
She's adorable...she thought.
Nia was wearing a pair of faded workman's jeans that threatened to swallow her whole from the waist down, juxtaposed against the most petite red T-shirt Jake had ever been lucky enough to clap eyes on. Over this ensemble was thrown a huge black apron, splattered from top to bottom with some kind of tomato sauce. The fine, strawberry blonde hair had been twisted into an absent-minded knot at the back of her head, held in place with a ballpoint pen - and an intrepid blob of flour had taken up residence on her right cheek, just below the freckles that were darkening angrily with her blush. Jake's self-control reached phenomenal proportions as she valiantly fought the desire to reach over, tilt Nia's chin, and dust away the flour with her fingertips.
Sadly, the big, beautiful green eyes that were the crowning glory of the whole image were not such an agreeable sight. Jake baulked as she saw a storm brewing in their depths. There was surprise written all over Nia's features, her appearance fluctuating between the most implacable of the Furies, and a startled deer caught in the headlights of a car. However, the obstinate set of the pretty lips and determined jaw hinted that the young doe was not to be quietened by her assailant.
Don't you dare bolt, Jake. The butch told herself.
Disappearing is what got you into trouble in the first place, remember? You're better off staying put and trying to explain.
Unaware of the internal battle that preoccupied the dark, mysterious woman facing her, Nia decided to break the silence.
"I really didn't expect to see you." She said.
Her voice, pitched a little higher than usual, was betraying remnants of her shock. Jake was the last person in the world she'd expected to ever darken the doors of Fire and Ice again. But there was something else fighting its way through the cadences, something that allowed the dark woman a small hope that this situation might not end with a door closed in her face and a barring order.
It was relief - as much as she wanted to play the injured maiden, Nia couldn't deceive herself about the fact that she was glad to see the tall brunette. She found herself hoping against all hope that the explanation she was about to be offered would be acceptable, wouldn't connect Jake to Matt and his gang - because she desperately wanted to see the dark woman again. And again. And finish what they'd started. And then maybe start something else.
However, the ever-vigilant sense of honour and justice that informed the small blonde's understanding of the world, as well as the sleepless nights spent worrying over Jake's sudden departure, were not going to let her push the events of Friday night to one side just yet. With a resolute inward breath, the diminutive Bar Manager decided that she was going to assert herself.
Or at least to start with, until her burning desire to know this strange woman liquefied her resolve.
Green eyes met blue as the air began to sharpen around them. They were quite a tableau - to outsiders, the tiny blonde bravely facing off against the dangerously magnificent figure of the brunette must have looked like a madwoman. Whispers were coming from all quarters, but Nia was too consumed by the interaction between herself and the dark butch opposite her to care.
I must be mad...was her first coherent thought.
What if she's working for Matt?
From the sheer size of her, she'd be able to kill me with her bare hands if she wanted to. I must be crazy to even think about standing up to her. She's unreliable, volatile and probably an extremely hazardous proposition.
But Nia was not crazy, and she certainly wasn't stupid. She knew that a public confrontation would be relatively safe. And she also had an instinct that her new acquaintance was not going to hurt her. It was a strange certainty, but it went bone deep and felt as old as the hills.
Also, being an infinitely sensible girl, she knew that if her relationship with Jake was going to progress, she was going to have to kick off on the right foot with the intimidating brunette. Nia already had a definite impression that the tall, dark and handsome object of her desire was used to having her own way, and a sly suspicion that most of her sexual conquests had let her get away with it.
Well, not me. She thought.
Not on her nelly.
I don't care how big, bad and bossy she is.
Silence continued to hang in the air, as both women deliberated over what to say next. Inner conversations grew even more heated as they refused to break eye contact even for a second. Customers in close proximity began to comment on the restless fizz emanating from the bubble that seemed to envelop the two.
And still, the small blonde and the large brunette stared at each other in silence, straddling the fault line between emotional combat and something infinitely sweeter.
It was Jake who broke the deadlock.
"Um...can we talk?" She asked.
Great opener, Jake. That's original.
And after what you did on Friday I wouldn't blame her for telling you to get lost.
However, Nia's reply was not so dismissive as the miscreant had suspected.
"All right." She said.
"But this is my lunch break and I'm hungry. Have you eaten yet?"
Jake shook her head.
"Fine." Replied the bar manager.
"Take a seat. I won't be long."
The bar manager gave Jake a tight smile, setting half her burden down in front of the other woman before she sat down. Crossing her legs under the table, she motioned with a flick of the wrist that was both imperious and endearing, for her guest to commence her lunch.
Looks as though it's food first, argument after. Thought the butch.
Well, I suppose I can live with that...
Shrugging and unfurling the large, red napkin that housed her knife and fork, Jake looked down at the concoction she'd been presented with.
"This looks great." She said, with genuine enthusiam.
A shy smile and a grateful flush began to jostle each other for purchase on Nia's face. And for the second time since she'd entered the bar, Jake became sharply cognisant of the fact that the small woman was wreaking more havoc on her senses with every moment. That her need to be exonerated and to compensate for the events of Friday night was really tied to her own awakening feelings, rather than any outmoded loyalties she may have owed to the head of Manchester's most formidable gang.
"We're trying a new menu today." The blonde told her guest. " Let me know what you think."
The plates were piled high with large chicken pieces, tender and slipping off the bone, drizzled over with a simple tomato and honey sauce. Fragrant wild rice framed the dish, which was sprinkled liberally with toasted almonds and sesame seeds, caramelised onions and sultanas, and roughly chopped coriander.
Jake intoned, as the first forkful melted in her mouth.
"This is wonderful."
"I'm not just trying to butter you up - I mean it!" She protested, in response to Nia's raised eyebrow.
"I dated a chef a long time ago, but her inventions had nothing on this."
To Jake's surprise Nia failed to respond to the compliment, merely conferring another little smile as she continued with her lunch. Alone in the silence, the raven-haired caller wondered if she'd said the wrong thing.
Careful, Jake...flattery won't get you anywhere. Even if you mean it, you'll only end up looking insincere.
And talking about your personal history may be a little inappropriate, considering you almost bedded her and she's mad at you.
Curbing an unusual impulse for chatter, inspired by the delicious food and the even more delectable blonde sitting opposite her, Jake concentrated on clearing her plate before she cleared her throat. Ten minutes later and feeling a good deal calmer, she resumed the conversation.
"So what's this creation called? Chicken, honey and almonds is such an original combination...it must have an exotic name."
"Yeah." Replied Nia, dryly. "Chicken with honey and almonds."
The chuckles that erupted at this gentle irony were a tonic for two wary souls. Nia's anger seemed momentarily forgotten, as she favoured Jake with a beaming smile that started at the corners of her eyes and didn't stop until she'd revealed two rows of small white teeth. The front incisors were slightly uneven, Jake noticed - which only served to enhance the charm.
"I'm glad you like it."
Nia's radiant countenance was infectious, and Jake found herself grinning in reply, reasoning with premature satisfaction that perhaps the confrontation she'd been dreading was not going to occur.
"Where did you learn to cook like this?" She asked.
"At home." Replied the blonde.
"My parents were very busy people, and I was the eldest child - cooking was one of my chores."
Filing away this microscopic insight into the curious blend of innocence and responsibility that Nia embodied, Jake nodded as she polished off the last piece of chicken on her plate.
"Dishes like this one were easy because they're so quick - you can prepare the sauce in advance. I became pretty good at convenience cookery when I was a teenager." Nia said, stacking the plates in front of her.
"I'll say you did if this is anything to go by." The agreement resounded, from the beneficiary of her latest culinary labour.
The bar manager favoured her guinea-pig with another wide smile.
"I invent the menu here, and hire a couple of chefs who learn my recipes. It's arrogant, I know - but I'm a control freak in the kitchen."
"You have every right to be. You have many skills." The brunette bantered.
"More than you think." Was the manager's good-natured response.
"I'd love to attend one of your cookery classes. What's the reward for good behaviour, teacher?" Countered Jake, with a wink.
"Or do I get the feeling that you like the bad boys best?"
As the last, teasing words dropped from her lips the brunette realised that she'd made a mistake. Her outrageous attempt at flirting had rekindled the tension the meal had dispersed. The shuttered look returned to the green eyes that had previously been dancing with light.
"I believe you had something to say." Nia stated, quietly.
Jake refused to meet the blonde woman's eyes. She'd never been one to apologise, especially not in the context of a relationship that promised to be more than just a friendly one - it tore at the gossamer strands of power that always had to be woven in her favour. Not unevenly enough for her partners to notice - Jake was not a cruel woman, so she liked to grant her conquests a certain degree of independence - but the subtle disparities still had to exist, if only in the shadows. If she was honest with herself, this was motivated solely and simply by fear. Fear that if her intimates were not bound and beholden more to her than she was to them, they would leave her, betray her, and break her heart as it had been broken many years before.
Even after devouring the healing gifts of time, a few stubborn, battered remnants of the dark woman's heart continued to call out to the architect of her destruction.
In the bleak aftermath of the devastation that Tara had wrought, an apology had become something that was highly unlikely to cross Jake's mind, let alone transmute itself into speech. Even if she'd done something terrible, she learned to be extremely clever about admitting responsibility - avoidance, denial and half-baked admissions became her stock-in-trade. And the women she picked up and discarded were left frustrated, denied any valid reason for their distress.
Jake had seriously wounded some of her paramours. She wasn't a philanderer by any means, but she habitually managed to convey the impression that she was looking for something...and that this prize had so far managed to elude her. Her attention was as fleeting as it was intense, and when the honeymoon was over and she'd reached the threshold of boredom, she invariably managed to find someone else, usually an even more beautiful blonde, to gift with her legendary charm. And she never, never let anyone close.
She winced as she remembered one particularly well aimed parting shot.
"If you'd only pluck up the courage to let me in, we might have a chance! But that would perforate the armour, wouldn't it?"
Momentarily unconscious of her surroundings, the dark butch allowed a sigh to escape her.
It certainly would.
I let Tara in, and she took the damn lot - busted my heart into smithereens and left me with nothing.
I can't risk that again.
The voice of the bar manager, clear as a bell, pierced through the Babel of bewildered, abandoned sweethearts that were grasping desperately at her visitor's heart and mind and almost winning the struggle for suffocation.
With one foot still in the desolate battlegrounds of the past, Nia's dark guest stepped into the immediacy of a charged situation - and not without an inward moan at her own weakness, decided to try again with the charm.
After all, it normally worked a treat in the first stages of an acquaintance.
"Listen, babe...I had to take off on Friday night - something came up - you know how it is. I hope it didn't screw up your evening too much. Maybe we could try again - I've been thinking about you ever since."
Watching carefully for a sign of relaxation on the blonde's face, but finding none.
In fact, the charm seemed to be having exactly the opposite effect to the one Jake had intended. Nia's mouth was hardening into a thin line, and suppressed anger made her eyes sparkle like emerald chips.
Fuck. Thought the butch.
I seem to be making things worse.
What am I going to do?
And as she searched for an answer, the words of Nia's young employee began to drift around her head.
"for all her sweet, harmless appearance, she's got one hell of a temper when she thinks someone's trying to pull a fast one, you know? Anyone who thinks they can control her has another think coming."
The dark woman blew out a breath.
I'm treating her like a fool...and she knows.
And frustrating as this was, she couldn't resist a smile.
Well, Jake - someone has your number at long last.
Now do you think you can bring yourself to cut the crap?
She really didn't know.
But looking at the beautiful blonde who sat across the table waiting for an explanation, a hint of trust and acceptance still visible, although her eyes were now brittle with anger, Jake felt that perhaps honesty might not hurt her pride after all. The words "I'm sorry" seemed to lose their power to humiliate when confronted with Nia's sensitivity and lack of guile, and became a way of reaching out, rather than an admission of defeat.
So Jake took her courage in both hands and decided to try a brand new endeavour - speaking from the heart.
"I'm sorry, Nia." She said.
To her relief, a slight warming in the depths of the resentful green eyes facing her told her that she might be on the right track, emboldening her to continue.
"I didn't want to leave on Friday night. I was having a wonderful time."
A slow nod from the blonde.
"I know you must have been worried sick for the past few days over why I left."
The words were beginning to come naturally now, as she who was normally berated for being as cold as ice confessed to a complete stranger,
"I like you. I think you're beautiful, and warm, and interesting."
"But there are parts of my life that I just can't talk about, even though at the moment I feel like I could tell you everything."
A statement which she realised with some shock was true.
"It's not only in my interests, it's in your interests, too. I think you're smart enough to know that."
Nia was by now both judge and jury, so earnest was Jake's intent - and the explicant saw warmth start to spread, suffusing the beautiful eyes she was by now ready to drown in, as flecks of gold punctuated the green.
"I'll never hurt you or get you into trouble. I promise."
Relaxation was dawning on the Bar Manager's face, as a hint of a smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth and softened the lines of her jaw. Jake took a deep breath and voiced the question she'd been longing to ask.
"So do you think you can risk going out with me tomorrow night?"
The manager of Fire and Ice was universally known for her ability to listen with generosity and grace. However, during the past few minutes she'd been uncharacteristically inanimate, digesting Jake's offering with a far away look muting her pretty features. Now the smile finally broke through in all its glory.
"It's a date."
OK...It's a date. Thought Nia.
So far, so good.
But what on earth am I going to wear?
A few hours after the conversation during which the most baffling woman she'd ever met had asked her out, Nia sat cross-legged on her bed, chin resting on her hands, contemplating her wardrobe.
I don't think anything in here is at all suitable...considering the fact that I'm always at work, and all I ever go to work in are baggy combats and T-shirts.
Not particularly appropriate for a first date, Nia.
Shuffling over to the small rail, she leafed through the collection of hangers, perusing each item and mentally wearing it for Jake's intent gaze. Her eye was swiftly drawn to the little black dress she'd worn for her graduation ceremony - but this idea was thwarted by a well-practised sense of occasion and the start of a shrewd understanding of the dark woman's wild spirit.
Nah...the black dress is out. That would be a tad too much. She thought.
Something tells me that if I look as though I've made an undue amount of effort in a bid to "catch" her, she's going to head for the door.
A shake of the pretty golden head punctuated this thought.
Butches are so predictable. I swear most of them think it's charming to be a lady-killer who runs scared at any sniff of commitment. And it's our idea of romance that's to blame - Heathcliff, Rhett Butler and Mills & Boom have a lot to answer for.
Nia chuckled and chided herself as she admitted how many times she'd sat through old black and white films, lapping up the drama and loving every moment.
But this is real life. She mused. Everyone likes the bad boys, but there is a difference between being sexy and a little dangerous, and and out-and-out bastard.
They didn't tell you that in Gone With the Wind, did they?
The bounders and cads may be able to get the girls ·but they're highly unlikely to be able to keep them.
But while she continued to examine her wardrobe, the feisty bar manager climbed down from her favourite soapbox, admitting to herself that her new acquaintance might be able to break the usual cycle.
She did a pretty good job of dropping the tough guy routine when it really mattered. She was far more open than I'd ever have expected. And when she apologised I thought I must have been dreaming.
She didn't look as though she was used to letting the barriers down.
Feeling encouraged by the memory, Nia continued to flip through the contents of her closet, until her gaze alighted on a long khaki skirt with deep pockets that clung to her small waist and slender, shapely legs.
Following the breakthrough, it didn't take the small bar manager long to team this with a fitted vest in fawn-coloured cotton, and her favourite piece of clothing, an indigo denim jacket.
The garment that goes with everything...she thought triumphantly, as she slipped it over the back of a chair so she could grab it when it was time to depart.
A chunky silver necklace fastened around her slender throat completed Nia's look. This had been a gift during a relationship that turned out to be one of the briefest and most hurtful of her short life. After Paula, when she realised it was time to acquaint herself with the desires that she'd spent most of her adulthood trying to understand, her journey of self-discovery paved the way for her first, and so far only, experience of the butch-femme dynamic. The dance had been beautiful but the ending had been explosive and it had taken her a long time to recover. But these days her dogged determination to forgive and forget meant that the trinket evoked only the pleasant, if bittersweet, memories - of strong arms around her, ready laughter and a passionate if translucent love.
She slid in front of her full-length mirror to survey the total effect of her outfit.
Not bad at all. She thought.
Nia was a tomboy at heart. Although the small blonde had proven on more than one occasion that she could be a knockout in standard feminine gear, she preferred to garb herself primarily with comfort in mind. She worked and played in the same scruffy old pair of combat pants. And although for a couple of years she'd been happy to embrace the combination of her lesbianism and her femininity, she had quickly tired of the short skirts and spike heels that seemed to be standard uniform for the lesbian femme. Not only were they uncomfortable, but they often tended to attract the wrong sort of butch. Generally what she termed superficial "jock" butches, who proclaimed the desire to be with a femme but who actually meant "wife", which loosely translated as someone who would accompany them to sporting events and bars as a trophy who was seen and not heard.
And the prospect of being a silent ornament was not especially palatable to Nia. Though she was normally a gracious and dignified contributor rather than the life of the party, she was nevertheless someone who seemed to command attention when she did open her mouth to speak. Because what came out of that pretty mouth was the product of an insightful, sensitive intellect and was generally worth listening to.
And while she might be lacking in confidence on occasion, the small blonde possessed a healthy amount of self-respect that made her balk at the idea of being anybody's appendage. Being dominant was not her scene, either - having realised thanks to several adoring men during her period of "playing it straight" that an inordinate amount of power made her uncomfortable - but she passionately believed in equality. A commitment that encompassed more than the boundaries of her own life, and one her friends admired, even if sometimes they didn't understand the fervour with which she pursued it.
Having provisionally approved her own reflection, the prettiest bar manager ran her fingers through her hair and fought the urge to cover her face in makeup.
The awareness of this urge was a gift she'd forever be thankful to Paula for. She smiled gratefully as she remembered the day the redhead had exclaimed,
"Why do you wear so much makeup, Nia? You're perfect without it. In fact, you probably don't need to wear any."
The blonde had been shocked and a little offended by the blunt statement, her sensitive power boundaries screaming at what she thought was an attempt to tell her what to do.
And she'd spent years hiding behind her painted face.
Nia was only just beginning to grow into her looks, having spent years at school being bullied for being a "Plain Jane". This had been compounded by the fact that she was a rather anti-social child, preferring to spend her free time living in her head, making up stories about a life which was far removed from her own. Nia was an escapist by nature - even as an adult her stark reality often paled in comparison to the fantasy life she sustained in her imagination. She spent a great deal of her free time devouring books, films and the theatre, living vicariously through characters she was convinced were more beautiful, more exciting...and happier...than her.
Although she had to admit that the prospect of tonight's date with a tall, dark, mysterious stranger came close to rivalling even her most exciting daydreams.
Nia had known throughout school that the other kids thought she was strange. And when she'd discovered makeup it was welcomed as a mask, a fake smile behind which she could hide the hurt and insecurity caused by the teenage boys whose favourite amusement was to rag her for her physical imperfections.
So when Paula suggested she reveal the reality under the disguise, she'd been terribly afraid. In truth, she didn't even know if she would be able to wean herself off her security blanket.
But the trust and genuine love she'd felt for the redhead had at last lead her to take the well-meant advice, and she had felt the benefits immediately. It wasn't that she laboured under the delusion that "natural" was better - it was a look like any other, and probably no more genuine in terms of trying to project a representation to the outside world - but she had to concede that Paula was right, and she'd been wearing piles of makeup for the wrong reason, not to enhance, but to hide her face. And not only did it take her at least half an hour less than usual to get ready to face the day, but people even began to comment on how healthy she was looking. It was bizarre. At twenty-six, she was just beginning to realise that she was an attractive woman - that indeed, some people even thought she was beautiful.
Thanks, sweetheart...she thought, mentally giving Paula a hug as she applied a little blusher and a slick of mascara to her otherwise bare face. A squirt of perfume on her wrists and behind her knees - and she was ready.
But it's only five-thirty.
And she's not picking me up until half-past seven - what am I going to do until then?
The quarrel had resulted from the dark woman's painful realisation that as well as being the setting for her first date with Nia, tonight was to witness the staging of a mammoth birthday party for Kim's housemate Al. Jake knew that the event would be packed to the rafters with Al's colleagues - loud, obnoxious television wannabes - but she also knew, with a sinking heart, that absolutely nothing could get her out of attending.
So, rumpling her thick raven crop and bemoaning the fact that of all the nights for a media "happening", this had to be the one, Nia's incumbent escort turned to Kim's famed negotiating skills to salvage the situation.
"So you have a date with the girl you met in the bar on New Year's Day - that's great!" Kim twisted a long strand of chestnut hair around her index finger as she and Jake sipped herbal tea in her cosy kitchen.
Jake shrugged her broad shoulders, a little abashed by her friend's effusion.
"It's just a bit of fun, Kim." She said, gruffly.
The knowing look that came from her old friend caused both her hubris and her hackles to rise.
"It IS. It's nothing serious - I asked her out, and she couldn't resist my charm."
Ignoring Kim's playful swat and the flagrancy of her own untruth, Jake continued with growing irritation and unusual petulance. "Don't make a big deal out of it. We're only going for drinks."
For God's sake. She thought, bitterly.
Why is it that every time I show an interest in a woman she - and everyone else - thinks it's love at first sight?
Why can't women understand that a little flirtation doesn't necessarily lead to a big commitment?
Especially not with someone like me.
I don't want to be tied down, and I never will.
The tall, dark butch looked accusingly at her friend - but the only satisfaction she got was a dramatic roll of large grey eyes. Kim was well acquainted with Jake's predilection for either sulking or posturing when she felt ill at ease, and normally chose to ignore it, knowing that this was the best way to make her incorrigible friend "get real" and cut the crap. This was a lesson that few of the people close to Jake ever learned, and the tall, dark butch had more than once cursed Kim for doing her homework, following her perceptions, and working out how to handle her.
"Well, you know Al's going to be upset if you don't show, so whether she's the love of your life or not, you're going to have to bring her down to the bar for an hour or so at least."
The dark woman sighed, her fretful mood worsening as she anticipated the difficulties of the situation she faced.
"Yeah, you're right." She said, ruefully. "If I don't go I'll never hear the end of it. But when Al gets together with her friends they can be so embarrassing."
"I know. I think they all have ADHD." Kim laughed, sympathetically.
"They've got what?" Jake asked.
"ADHD. Attention Deficiency Hyperactive Disorder." Replied the femme. "Don't you read the papers? It's what some kids get - makes them misbehave - it used to be called bad parenting."
"Perhaps we ought to spike the champagne with Ritalin to keep them happy for a few hours." Snorted Kim.
Jake chuckled in agreement. "If it'll keep them quiet, let's do it."
"Well, I can't guarantee that would work." Said her friend. "But that's the media for you. No matter what they say - and they will deny it, mark my words - every single one of those researchers and techies working behind the camera secretly longs to be in front of it."
Although she'd been chuckling at Kim's shrewd wit, Jake continued to look downcast, and was actually starting to dread the moment when she'd have to introduce Nia to Al and her friends. For some reason, what the small blonde thought of her, her acquaintances and their social activity was beginning to become disproportionately significant.
Staring at her boots, the dark woman failed to detect the signs of comprehension on Kim's face.
"Hang on a minute, Jake. If you're not really bothered about this girl, then why are you so worried Al might embarrass you?"
The astute brunette received no reply but a glare, and what she could have sworn was the beginning of a pout gracing Jake's full lips.
Kim let out a hearty laugh. "You're impossible. If you weren't so damn sweet underneath it all I swear I'd give up on you."
The butch made no answer, although the corners of her mouth twitched in response to the backhanded compliment.
"Here's the plan." Kim told her, briskly. "And make sure you follow it, or you're going to upset her. Remember - I know how women think - I am one."
"And I'm...what?" Asked Jake, outraged.
"A clueless but absolutely darling boy." The femme replied, laughing infectiously.
"Listen to me. Bring her down to the bar for a little while. Make it early - because then I'll be there to greet you. I don't plan on staying long, either. But make sure you tell Nia that this party's a commitment you can't break. Don't let her think you're using an excuse to get out of being alone with her."
"Kim." Said Jake, her exasperation returning.
"It's only a flippin" date. I'm sure she won't be mortally wounded by the fact that we have to drop in on a friend of mine."
"You really don't have a clue, do you?" Kim asked, amused.
"Of course she'll be upset."
"God, why are women so difficult? Why do they read so bloody much into everything?" The butch said, frustrated.
"What is wrong with you, Jake? Why are you being so heartless about this? There's nothing wrong with exercising a bit of sensitivity, you know."
"But women expect so much."
"Honey, it's relatively easy to please a woman when you know how."
"You know what? I think you've got butch block." She pronounced.
"Butch what?" Jake looked at her friend as though she'd lost her marbles.
"What I mean is that your reluctance to show any kind of enthusiasm, even though I know you've been thinking about this woman ever since you met her, has a logical, and psychological, explanation."
"Alright, smart Alec." The butch was beginning to feel a little vulnerable - but she was damned if she was going to show it.
"Hit me with it. Tell me all about the insecurities lurking in my unconscious. I've no doubt got thousands of them. Should I get horizontal on the couch?"
"Very funny. Jake, you have defences." As she stated the obvious, Kim felt her irritation rise.
"But I don't think you realise that having those elaborately built barriers doesn't turn you into you a mysterious, romantic hero - it makes you downright frustrating. So whatever you do, please don't try and cultivate them. You can stride about with your elbows out and your nose in the air and say you're independent. I don't agree."
The femme paused for breath and added, a little more mildly, "Now let me finish what I was about to say. Someone hurt you terribly, didn't they?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"I've never seen anyone so gun-shy in my life. And as a femme lesbian who's been dating butches for many years, that's worthy of note. Someone broke your heart so completely you're afraid to try again, I'm sure of it."
"Kim...you know I'm not scared of anything."
"Oh, I beg to differ." The femme looked as stern as her exquisite features would let her, in her eagerness to make her point.
"I know you're tough physically, Jake, and your job requires a great deal of emotional detachment and resilience that I can't help but admire in you. But put your heart at the mercy of a beautiful woman and you're absolutely petrified."
"I am not."
"Oh, spare me the argument and just admit it. You like this woman - you've told me as much, and even if you hadn't I'd be able to tell - it's obvious from the way you talk about her."
"But you're scared, because you know that you might not be able to leave and shut the door after the one night stand like you usually do. You'll probably want to see her again. And maybe again after that. And after that, who knows what might happen?"
"Kim, you're hallucinating."
"I don't think so. And what happens when you've known each other for a few months, a year, even? She might acquire the power to affect you, to get past the shields you have on alert. And the thought of letting those barriers down is frightening, isn't it? That, my friend, is what they call butch block. It's not that you're a cold, heartless womaniser - in fact, It's the opposite - you treat women badly because you're scared to unlock your feelings in case you turn into a great big ball of mush. And then the control that you cherish, sometimes over other people but mostly over yourself, might be threatened. And then when your girl leaves you, as you believe she always will, she'll take far too much of you along with her. You know I'm right."
There was a long pause, as the ethereal force in Kim's delicate grey eyes challenged her friend to defy her.
But she couldn't.
She's right. Jake thought.
I'm so scared to let anyone in that I can't even admit an interest half the time. Which is why all my relationships since Tara have been dead in the water before they even started.
Why can't I let go of the past? I was such an idiot then...
"Then" was while the dark woman was at college in London. She'd been studying for a qualification in Social Work, while at the same time getting heavily involved in all the social activities - and trouble - that university had to offer. Eventually she'd become entangled with a local drug gang - small timers, really - who would visit her small apartment most evenings and spend their time inhaling marijuana by heating a small lump clasped between a couple of knives on the stove. This procedure was imaginatively termed "hot knives", and they swore it got them stoned much quicker than usual - so by the time Jake left her student accommodation all the knives in her cutlery drawer were ruined. After enough of the substance had been consumed, the lads would retire to the sitting room to chat with Jake and her long-suffering flatmate, perhaps winding up a couple of deals on their mobile phones at the same time. Jake would never allow them to deal from her terrestrial line - she knew the risks well enough, having seen plenty of university dealers carted off to prison for Possession with Intent to Supply.
She didn't really experiment with the stuff herself - not after the first year, when she tried just about anything she could get her hands on that wasn't administered via a needle. Looking back now, she couldn't really explain why she'd done it - but at any rate, it was true that a social worker who was going to be dealing with kids who were using would be better able to empathise if she had a little understanding of what they did and the culture they were engrossed in. She hated it when people made proclamations about how drugs ruined lives, repeating what they'd heard in the right-wing press, without really knowing what they were talking about. It wasn't that she thought all illegal substances should be legalised - she knew both sides of the debate and honestly didn't have strong leanings one way or the other, mostly because she didn't really think the law could make much difference. But she hated self-righteous opposition that was only based in ignorance. Like the old argument that smoking pot automatically lead to injecting heroin.
Jake's friends were thankfully not involved in heroin - dope being their main business, with a bit of ecstasy, cocaine and speed on the side. They were criminals, yes, and could also be idiots, but all in all, she had fun.
Not too much fun, though.
The leader of the pack, Greg, was a rough but perceptive man who soon cottoned on to the fact that Jake was completely immune to any kind of masculine charm. Probably because she had plenty enough of her own. After confronting her about her proclivities, he made it his task to see that none of his cohorts overstepped the mark. More for their own safety than Jake's, he would readily admit - even at 19, the young butch was showing signs of the physical power that would for a brief period make her notorious across Northwest England, and would even earn her the nickname of "The Crow", because she regularly brought decimation in her wake. But whatever the reason, Greg's mantra became "nobody touches Jake."
That is, until Tara came on the scene.
Tara was employed as a podium dancer at one of Manchester's premier nightspots, and would often visit Greg or one of his cronies for a little cocaine to keep her energy - and her confidence - going. This should have been a warning signal to anyone on the alert: however, once the two women met all rational thought was burned out of their heads by a chemistry that was incendiary.
And unusually, the initial physical attraction lead to an equally ardent love. It lasted a few months - but Tara's residence in the UK was subject to the operation of her short-term Visa, which was nearing the end of its duration by the time she met the young Jake. In fact, the toast of Capetown's socialites winded up overstaying her welcome, loath to leave her new-found love and return to a home and country that continued to be beset with complications, even after Mandela had claimed both his freedom and the government. However, the Immigration and Nationalities Directorate caught up with her, and the love of Jake's life was unceremoniously given a week to pack her bags and leave. It was too bad that marriage between two women remained illegal, and that Tara was too proud and Jake too possessive for her ever to marry a man.
A devastated young Jake decided to quit university and follow her fugitive African consort. However, the funds and travel documents required took some time to amass, so during the year-long wait the two women kept up a lively correspondence via post and E-mail. Their love remained strong - or so Jake thought. But when she reached Capetown's International Airport, Tara turned up to meet her with a new partner.
A husband, no less.
One of South Africa's new generation of entrepreneurs, he was successful, moneyed, and male. Three things Jake couldn't compete with. She never realised that such a man was just an easy option, in terms of the wishes of Tara's family and the traditions of her ancestry, she'd never forget Jake. The cruel, exquisite African woman never told her that. She couldn't. She did what she thought was her duty while laughing at Jake for her "outmoded" loyalties and reminding her that open relationships were actually coming back into fashion. In short, she ripped out the vulnerable heart of the young butch and ground it up beneath her spike-heeled shoes.
Her hopes and plans shattered, Jake continued in South Africa, wandering the cities and old Bantu homelands with a heart cleft in two, and jobbing as a driver for tourist trucks full of camera-flashers. While on a restless drift through Johannesburg, she had a chance encounter with a couple of men who were associates of her old ally Greg. By this time too well known to the police in London, they'd made the trip over to the 'Burg in search of cheap LSD, which apparently was coming back into fashion among Britain's student populations. So Jake took the plunge back into the shadows, and when her new cohorts decided that the North Country was the safest setting for their return, she accompanied them to their next base - Manchester.
On her return to England, the bleeding heart of the wounded warrior breathed a sigh of relief, and she made a vow to never again to let Tara's name cross her lips. She'd never broken it. To start with the silence helped keep her together, and eventually the episode merged with the armoury of defences that made up the dark woman's personality - the most prominent hurt but by no means the sole source of pain.
"You look so far away. Come back, please."
Blinking away the past and willing, as she always did, the remaining bruises to fade, Jake turned to her now repentant friend.
"Look, Jake...I'm sorry." Said Kim.
"I didn't mean to be so belligerent about it. You're entitled to be cautious. I just want you to be happy, that's all."
Jake took her friend's small hand in her own large one, still duly chastised, but a little mollified by the apology.
"I know you do. And you were right."
"I do block people out, I always have - because I'm afraid. And I'm attracted to Nia, so the once-bitten-twice-shy defence is on extra alert. Do you know what I mean?"
A sympathetic glistening in soft slate-grey eyes showed that Kim did.
"I wish you'd talk to me more, Jake - but I know I can't force you. You can't wallow in old resentments forever - one day it'll become an effort to keep them alive, and it really won't be worth it."
She patted her friend's hand.
"Do you think Nia is different to the woman you were involved with before?"
"Yes, I do." Jake replied without hesitation. "She makes me feel...safe." She admitted.
"Well, there's your answer." Replied her friend. "She's different - so don't treat her as though she's the same. Let yourself go, big brother. Don't hold back - or you'll regret it later."
"I'll try." Muttered the butch, as she headed for the door.
Kim didn't hear her whisper, "I just hope it isn't too late."
Jake was almost ready to tear her own hair out by the clump as she followed Nia's instructions and rapped smartly on the window - not the door - of a small ground floor flat two hours later. She'd already walked around the block twice, puffing and blowing against the cold Manchester air, scuffing her feet amongst the litter and remnants of the previous night's revelries, for fear of turning up early and appearing too keen. The tall, inscrutable butch took great pleasure in the ease with which she merged with the rain and the grey, dreary landscape, finding in its desolation a safe haven that allowed her to wander amongst the jostling crowds unnoticed. Even with her head down the imposing figure of the half-woman, half boy, commanding in her ambiguity, did not fail to attract the attention of some passers-by - but Jake merely slunk back into the shadows, waiting for the strange gazes to fade away. Afraid of being scorched by the light that tantalised her with its brilliance, the proud, sensitive brunette had yet to become acquainted with the rainbow inside her own heart.
There was a battle raging in her head - prompted by the nagging feeling that she was, in fact, nervous.
Come on, Jake...this is absurd. She thought.
You've dated plenty of women before - and some of them were sophisticated on a scale that Nia couldn't even aspire to.
A bold and slightly impudent statement - but it couldn't be dismissed as the product of an over-active ego. Although she was well aware of the extent of her own appeal, and could even be accused at times of believing that her charm was infallible, Jake refused to labour under the delusion that she was always the centre of attention.
However, there had been a stage of her life during which she'd enjoyed such a status.
After Tara, when darkness had wrapped tightly like a mantle around her heart and soul, the tormented butch began a period of almost frenetic promiscuity in a drive to rebuild her shattered sense of self. Contrary to her hopes, the multitude of sexual partners she managed to attract left her feeling more empty than ever - but the experience did a great deal to cement the masculine identity that was becoming as prominent as her dark hair and keen blue eyes. As her limitless supply of cocaine bought her entry into Manchester's burgeoning high society set, the young Jake realised that there existed legions of women who didn't make the usual assumption that she was some sort of oddity, but appeared to adore her traditionally manly qualities. For a long time she was caught up in a barrage of superficial attentions, her trampled self-esteem gobbling up the boost it was granted by each actress, model, city chick and "It" girl thrown at her feet. All making promises they wouldn't be able to keep, some even going so far as to proclaim that they loved her - but luckily the dark heart was too firmly shuttered by this time for Jake to even consider believing them. She simply worked out what she could grasp from her happy situation, attempting to throw some light on herself via the radiance she assumed would go hand in hand with the loveliness on her arm. It worked, when her paramours were truly dazzling - their beauty emanating from the inside as well as out - but others were no more than exquisite, empty shells, hollowed out by years of privilege and adoration. For months the damaged, misguided young butch deceived herself that it would increase her value as a person if she had an attractive woman at her side. What she didn't realise was that she possessed a light of her own - which could only grow brighter when kindled by a flame that was not just skin deep.
Knocking on the window a second time, Jake allowed herself a wry smile, as some of her more satisfying memories began to flood her consciousness.
Remember that politician's wife in Capetown? You took her out to a cocktail party while her husband bought 6 kilos of blow, and he didn't even seem to care that you fucked her in his car...or that you'd done a better job of it than he could. You were completely undaunted then.
And now you're scared of a sweet little Bar Manager who's not going to eat you alive...probably couldn't, even if she tried. She doesn't want to seduce you with her feminine charms because you're the butch fantasy she requires for a night or two, or the bad boy she can play with behind the millionaire's back. She's genuine and you know it. She wants nothing but to know you...for who you are, not who she wants you to be.
Jake leaned her tousled dark head against the windowpane.
Or is that what scares you the most? Not used to spending time with real people, are you, Jake?
Perhaps you might have to grow up.
Perhaps you're already considering a relationship based on friendship and honesty...instead of a quick fuck with the most beautiful woman in the room.
The brunette's uneasiness was intensified by her knowledge that in having the courage to stand up to her earlier that day, regardless of her possible connections, Nia had displayed a will that matched - nay, surpassed - her own. The small Bar Manager had been David to Jake's Goliath - and had played her part with equanimity. For someone who was usually so adept at convincing people to yield by the force of her own personal magnetism, this was a frightening prospect.
I never guessed that such a sweet little girl could be a woman of steel...but she was more than a match for me.
Jake sighed again, and realising that the sweet little Bar Manager in question wasn't rushing to answer her knock, tried once more with a sharp rap at the window.
Squeezing behind a very inconvenient bush, the butch poked her dark head a little closer to the window of what she supposed was the sitting room. Nose pressed up against the glass, she was shocked to see Nia crouching on a low couch, with her head in her hands.
Shit...she looks really upset. She thought.
I hope she hasn't had a visit from Matt.
He promised to leave her to me. What's he playing at?
She was just starting to trust me. She probably won't open the door to me now.
What the hell have they done to her?
She kicked the edge of the nearby front step in reflex, cursing at her own aggravation but unable to control the lurching in her stomach.
"Jake, are you OK?"
Came a gentle voice from the front door, which was now standing wide open, a worried-looking Nia filling its frame.
For once, the haughtiest butch in Manchester forgot to "play it cool", as she grasped the small blonde's arm and looked searchingly into deep green eyes.
"More to the point, are you?" She asked.
The puzzlement that furrowed the pale brow in front of her did nothing to lessen Jake's panic, as she elaborated nineteen to the dozen...without letting go of her companion's arm.
"I guessed someone might have paid you a visit. Are you all right?"
Misunderstanding now turned to shock and surprise, as Nia replied sharply, "What kind of visit?"
Seeing her mistake in opening her mouth to speak before she knew what she was dealing with, the dark woman tried desperately to dissemble.
"Um...I don't know...but I saw you in the front room, shaking, with your head in your hands. I was worried."
Perhaps I jumped to the wrong conclusion.
Better say something, quick...before she gets even more suspicious...
But when she guiltily raised her head to meet the blonde's eyes, she was surprised to see that perhaps she needn't turn on her heel just yet. Nia's face had relaxed into a benevolent smile, and her eyes were twinkling.
Maybe she was touched by Jake's distress - or tired of the intrigue - but luckily for the backtracking butch, Nia had obviously decided to let this one go. A small chuckle bubbled up from her throat in reaction to her visitor's continued discomposure, as she patted her date on the arm.
"I'm fine. It isn't how it looks. Come on in."
She grinned cheerfully at the dark woman, who followed her through the small hall without a word.
Announced the blonde, throwing open the door to her apartment and releasing the aroma of fruit-scented candles into the hall as she did so. Jake stepped inside a little awkwardly, ducking her head to avoid banging it on the doorframe, and took a good look about, with interested eyes.
Nia's apartment was warm, and appeared as comfortable and hospitable as its owner. Freestanding furniture in a wide variety of natural woods was much in evidence, as were framed modern art prints by the usual suspects - Picasso, Klee, and Matisse. The choices were not too imaginative, but pleasant to look at nonetheless. Still more pleasant was the sight of all kinds of plants - hostas, ferns, and even a Scarborough lily. Jake also observed the absence of ornaments and bric-a-brac - it was clear that Nia was not fond of clutter. The décor was not expensive but displayed an irreproachable taste and not a small amount of skill, the butch noted, as she saw that the hardwood floors had obviously been sanded and polished by hand before being softened by a couple of rugs in cheerful colours. A futon took centre stage, littered with throws and large cushions, and a couple of small, beige leather pouffes sat nearby, obviously designed to prop up feet. Stainless steel lamps with large, cream shades threw soft lights on the scene, and standing in a corner was a small TV set, housing an image Jake swore would give her nightmares for weeks afterwards.
She balked unconsciously and heard Nia snort in amusement.
"I know - awful, isn't it? When you spotted me I'd just about lost control of myself. I was laughing so much it was starting to hurt. I had to put my head between my knees to calm down." She grinned.
The vision in question consisted of one of the UK's best known - and most obnoxious - pop exports, strutting around on the raised set of a music show. His trousers were hanging around his ankles, revealing a pair of snug black briefs that left little to the imagination...and to add insult to injury, sported a pink Playboy insignia.
Jake, wisely deciding that it was not appropriate to relate her various liaisons with legitimate Playboy centrefolds, rolled her eyes in reply.
"Some people should be shot at birth."
Nia snorted again. "Well, if there's ever an argument for the fact that some people should certainly not be inflicted on an audience, he could be wheeled out to justify it. Look at the state of him!"
"I agree." Smirked the butch.
"He would be exhibit A - followed by that lot." She motioned to the television, where an extremely motley crew had taken over and started their latest number.
"Take one inane lyric, four complete morons wearing clothes even stupider than themselves, a badly operated drum machine, and you've got yourself a hit dance band these days."
"Na na na na na na na na..." Warbled the band tunelessly, helpfully reinforcing Jake's point.
Nia nodded enthusiastically.
"I know. They're certainly an insult to the public's intelligence." She directed a baleful stare towards the television, almost convulsing Jake on the spot.
"I can't believe that guy was prancing around in his underpants." Nia said. "I'd be willing to bet that they haven't brought the watershed forward in his honour. Children watch this programme - it's not right."
"Well, look at it this way. At least all those little girls will now grow up to be lesbians." Retorted Jake, sending Nia into a fit of the giggles.
The blonde's laughter was infectious, and her dark companion found herself chuckling in reply. They ended up laughing until tears ran down their cheeks, and the performance was long finished.
"Wow...that felt good. I haven't had this much fun watching television in ages." Sighed Jake, clearing her throat and wiping her eyes, as a companionable calm descended.
"Oh! I'm sorry."
After the hilarity, Nia's manners suddenly returned to their rightful place. "Won't you sit down? Or do you want to get going straight away? Can I get you a drink or something? Please, make yourself at home."
As she debated what to say to such a cordially given invitation and how to explain the evening's predicament, Kim's advice came rushing back into Jake's head.
"I don't think you realise that having those elaborately built defences doesn't turn you into you a mysterious, romantic hero - it makes you downright frustrating. So whatever you do, please don't try and cultivate them. You can stride about with your elbows out and your nose in the air and say you're independent. I don't agree."
And along with this timely prompt came the realisation that although the sun had gone down on her heart all those years ago, a gentle but persistent warmth was poking its way through the cracks, making her hungry for more, and desperate to do the right thing lest the benignant presence vanish.
"I think we'd better get going. In fact, there's something I have to do tonight, I'm afraid, and I was going to ask you to do me a favour and come along. But please don't think that means I wouldn't rather be alone with you."
I really wasn't expecting someone who's obviously led such a dissolute existence, pleasing only herself for the most part, I shouldn't wonder, to be such a...gentleman.
The blonde smiled at the object of her musings, pulling her seatbelt taut and clipping it into place.
"You know, I'm surprised to be sitting in a cab," she began impishly, earning herself nothing but a raised eyebrow for her trouble.
"Somehow I imagined that you'd probably ride a great big Harley with mud and blood splattered up the sides."
The dig was roguish but good-natured - a growing fascination concerning her evening's date producing the mischievous desire for a bit of play.
Now we'll find out just how seriously this big bad butch is going to take herself.
The bar manager was astounded again, when instead of a bunch of bravado her companion merely gave her an amiable grin.
"I do own a motorbike, yes." Was the genial rejoinder.
"But I think it's irresponsible to drink and drive, so I thought a taxi would probably be better for tonight's festivities. Champagne tends to flow at Al's parties, and it's impolite to refuse it, you know."
This last said with a wink telling that champagne was not Jake's beverage of choice, a disclosure that didn't startle Nia in the slightest.
Well, I could hardly see her housing a dainty champagne flute in those magnificent paws. But a wild thing with a sensible streak who's able to take a joke! Oh, I think the evening is going to go very well indeed.
Young though she might be, the manager of Fire and Ice was not stupid. She'd been aware almost from the first second they met that she was in grave danger of being bowled over by her new acquaintance, but she was not in ignorance...or denial...about the woman's connections. Anyone who'd lived the life the small blonde had been thrust into, winding up in the position in which she was currently trapped, quickly learned that they could not afford to be naïve. One look at Jake had told her the butch had enough skeletons in her closet to staff the bar at Fire and Ice for a few nights running.
She'd known very well from Jake's behaviour at the front door that something very untoward was going on with her new friend.
And Nia had been left smarting one too many times in her brief experience by the bad boy with the chiselled cheekbones and winning smile.
But she'd decided, for the purposes of the evening's excursion at least, to try and forget her fears, to stamp down her tendency to suspicion, in order to get to know her new suitor better. She realised that the episode promised to be reminiscent of past mistakes - but her nature was not to be coarsened by cynicism, and she was determined that old hurts should make her savvy and prudent rather than feeding her qualms. Because much as her good sense told her she might be asking for trouble, Nia desperately wanted to know this baffling butch who seemed to embody such a spellbinding combination of raw power and vulnerability.
If she was honest with herself, it was the vulnerability that drew her, despite her penchant for intense and vigorous boys. She'd quickly intuited that Jake's appearance of total self-sufficiency was a cleverly drawn veneer, and had been studying the shuttered features ever since, trying to delve beneath their opacity. A couple of times her keen gaze had shown her that the dark woman's piercing midnight blue eyes were striving to hide an unadulterated truth. In unguarded moments, Jake wore the hungry look of one whose emotional solitude had been imposed by a pain almost too great to bear.
Nia did not know very much in the grand scheme of things - but she had an instinctive ability to read the human heart, and had already sensed Jake's tender sorrow as though it were her own. Wisely, though, she opted to remain silent until closer contact and trust prompted her mysterious new friend to speak. She just hoped it would not be too long in coming - as she was aware that there would need to be openness on both sides, if the budding relationship between the two women was going to stand a chance.
So even in the first blush of friendship, she found herself hoping against hope that the brunette would eventually muster some strength - an ability to connect with the remnants of those intense emotions and passions that had not quite successfully been retracted under a chilly heart. She didn't romanticise the hurt - having learned early that this would cause it to linger well beyond its lifespan - but nevertheless, she was astute enough to be willing to wait, and to hope that natural human empathy would win the day before long.
And after all, Nia had a talent for uncovering the troubles of others. Without even trying, the gentle little blonde normally found hearts opening to her as naturally as flowers open to receive the sun. It was a rare person who could remain silent when confronted with those sympathetic green eyes, the soft touch of her hand and the encouraging murmur of her soothing voice.
She smiled shyly at the tall, dark butch occupying the seat next to her, but felt no urge to break the convivial silence as her reflections turned away from her new friend, and towards the drawbacks that were often part and parcel of her compassionate gifts.
Hmmm. If she doesn't want to share, then we might as well forget it. But if I do get her to open up, who's to say that she's not going to turn out like every one else? Perhaps that's my problem...I make it far too easy.
She sighed quietly, turning her golden head to stare through the window at grey skies and driving rain.
Nia had spent her life being a giver. Not living for others, exactly - she cherished plenty of hopes and ambitions of her own - but notwithstanding those, one of the greatest pleasures in her life was to help another human being. This propensity to nurture and aid was one of her most appealing qualities, but also one of the most hapless - leaving the door wide open to those who wished to take advantage of it, sometimes unknowingly and sometimes with forethought. In her darker moments Nia reflected that she couldn't remember being blest with a rapport, romantic or otherwise, that wasn't dependent on her taking responsibility for phone calls, arranging time together and time apart...and providing a sounding-board for gripes, expectations and fears. Which inequality of effort often left her with a sour taste in her mouth, and an underlying unhappiness that marred even the sweetest moments. It was ironic, really, because Nia was ludicrously easy to please - if you were to ask the thoughtful, sensitive girl for her heart's desire, she would not have said fame, love or money - all she wished for was the simplest gift of a few minutes of time and a listening ear. Unfortunately, Nia had discovered that she could give these valuable commodities to a greater degree than anyone else she knew.
But maybe I should give her the benefit of the doubt.
Perhaps she's the one who's going to have what I need. I can almost see it in her...if I look carefully.
It was certainly true to say that during the few moments they'd snatched in each other's company, Jake had shown her a quiet consideration unlike anything that had touched Nia's previous experience. And then there was the spontaneous burst of honesty in the bar, which had obviously cost the dark woman some emotional labour, and after which Nia imagined that Jake's heart had briefly been allowed to rule her head. With Nia, heart always won the battle - and she knew that her destiny would be someone who possessed enough self-control to temper these impetuous tendencies - but she also knew that her heart would be very lonely if attached to a lover who kept her feelings completely under lock and key.
Opposites attract, I know that...but I just hope she's not all that different from me inside. It's not too much to ask...is it?
"Just here, please." Drawled her companion, tapping on the grille with a keyring and rousing Nia from her contemplation.
The taxi turned the corner and drew up at a small bar, half-hidden in a cubbyhole behind Manchester's gay village. From the outside, Nia noticed that the light twinkling through the narrow windows had a decidedly red tint, and absent-mindedly wondered where on earth this bad boy intended to take her for their first date.
Looks like a brothel. Ah well...in for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose. I get the feeling it's going to be a night to remember.
So...enough! No more introspection. I'm determined to enjoy this...and give her a chance.
"Here it is!" Jake cheerfully announced, unfolding her long legs before alighting on the kerb and opening Nia's door.
"And if they start singing karaoke, we're leaving quick smart. Nobody needs to be subjected to that."
Nia answered with a grin, as she yelled over the growing hubbub on the dancefloor,
"Well, the music's not bad so far! Let's hope it stays that way."
The DJ had started spinning one of her favourites, a chirpy, boppy house number that made her feet tap and her body want to move.
Involuntarily, she bestowed a sunny smile on the short, curt barman who appeared to take their order, simultaneously taking note of the thick, angry scar that bisected his face.
Hmmmm. He looks like he's been done for a few. But I wonder if he can mix a drink?
"What would you like?" Asked Jake gently, turning to Nia and noticing with a stifled chuckle that she was practically dancing up to the collection of stools strewn around by the bar.
"I'd like a gin and tonic, please." Came the courageous reply, as Nia determined not to treat her friend's choice of bar with distaste.
And she was flabbergasted when the wizened old bartender actually produced a premium bottle from underneath the till, free-pouring a generous measure over plenty of ice, and rimming the glass with lime before topping it up with tonic water and sliding it across the surface towards her. She looked up at Jake, but her incredulous question was crushed by the merriment dancing in her companion's eyes, betokening that the butch had been expecting her date to receive such treatment.
Again, Nia bit her tongue and smiled.
Some things it's better not to know, I suppose...she thought, amused in spite of herself, as she watched Jake order a beer...with a wink to the server.
Well, bottled beer's a safe bet, that's for sure. I'm not sure what'd come out of the pumps if she asked for draught.
"Come with me." Burred her escort, having procured her beer and taken a long swig.
"I'll introduce you to my friends."
Were the first words to escape Nia's lips as they approached the large table around which Jake's friends had ensconced themselves, upon camp, gilt-edged, emerald green velvet chairs.
Kim was standing near the edge of the group, which was peopled with guests who seemed pretty obnoxious to Nia's fresh eyes - Jake recognised them as being the usual suspects, rowdy colleagues of Al's. The chestnut-haired femme wore a floor-length black dress embroidered with bold flowers close to the hem, that clung to her willowy form and tapered upwards to form a striking halter around her neck. With outsize gold hoops in her ears, she looked exotic and exciting - Nia felt at once that her own pale hair and eyes were unforgivably bland and insipid in comparison. Unaware of their presence, Kim was smiling and laughing with as much enthusiasm as she could muster at several absurd conversations, some obviously designed to impress her - and presented a vision that epitomised polished, exquisite elegance.
"That's my best friend, Kim." Said Jake, displaying her customary pride at being associated with such a gorgeous creature.
"Wow!" Nia exclaimed.
"She is, isn't she?" Agreed the dark butch - a little too enthusiastically, she realised, seeing Nia's face fall. To make amends, she hastily added,
"Beauty comes with a price, you know. It can be a curse as much as it's a blessing."
Nia regarded her quizzically, as well she might, before responding, "What do you mean, comes with a price?"
"For a start, Kim never knows whether people genuinely like her or just want to get in her knickers." Jake said.
The blonde looked sceptical. "Well, I can see that would be a problem, but I wouldn't call it a curse. Is that as bad as it gets?"
"Well, she's also caused trouble for more than one couple and wound up feeling dreadful about it." Responded her date.
Nia's breath caught.
"It used to happen a great deal." Jake continued. "She'd take a casual fancy to someone, and they'd fall for her immediately, regardless of whether they were already attached or not. Then by the time she lost interest, a relationship she probably didn't even know about in the first place would be in the dustbin. So everybody ended up alone"
"But surely the person who is already committed is culpable, not Kim - she can't help it if people fall in love with her, and it's up to them to tell her they're taken."
Replied Nia, Jake's last statement stirring her instinct to defend any woman - even a criminally pretty one - from injustice.
Her new friend turned to regard her with a warm smile.
"You're right." Was the reply.
"Kim would be touched to hear you say that. But she's such a tender-hearted girl and she hates hurting people. She feels a lot of guilt when her arrival causes someone's cherished partner to become second best, especially when there was never any serious interest on her part."
"What Kimmy's only just beginning to realise is that her beauty confers an awful lot of power and responsibility, and she needs to be careful how she uses it, to avoid pain for other people and for herself. You're right that she shouldn't be taking the blame for the weaknesses of others - but it's a rare person who has the strength to say no when confronted with a face like that."
"A rare person...or someone who's genuinely in love." Finished Nia, quietly.
"But what can she do about it?" The blonde remained puzzled.
"Well, she's learned that if she wants someone she'd better be really certain about them, because they're likely to offer themselves on a plate if she as much as clicks her fingers. She's very careful now about who she flirts with. And she's unusual in that."
"Wow." Said Nia. "I never really thought of it that way before. I suppose I can see your point."
The Bar Manager looked at Jake's beautiful young friend through new eyes for a brief moment, envy warring with sympathy - until, with a whimper, sympathy lost the battle.
"But isn't that just the way of the world?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, aren't some people naturally shallow? I've seen it happen - boy meets girl, they fall in love, but one or the other gets dropped when someone "better" comes along - someone who's richer, more intelligent, more beautiful - and must be recognised by society as a whole as being so. For instance, someone like Kim."
"That's a pretty shocking way to treat someone."
"Well, I think it's callous and foolhardy, but some folks seem to like to keep their options open."
"Not everyone, Nia." Whispered Jake, softly. And as their eyes met this half-promise was filed away by both.
In an attempt to break the tension, the dark woman continued a little more light-heartedly, "I was never attracted to Kim. You can ask her yourself - she'll back me up on that one without hesitation."
"Why weren't you?" Was the obvious question.
"Her beauty is a little too symmetrical for me, you know? I find it...boring, to be blunt. The faces I find most attractive are challenging in their beauty - they make me sit up and take notice, and use my imagination - like yours."
It was an innocent statement, not made in order to give a compliment - in fact, there was no thought of its probable impact. But it was the most wonderful thing the dark butch could have said, in Nia's opinion.
She made no response, but resolved to put her resentful feelings aside, and contented herself with a squeeze on her date's arm, as both women noticed that the subject of their discussion had spotted them, and was making her way over.
Nia's jealous streak was a well-known fact amongst her close friends, but a well-hidden aspect of her public demeanour. She despised the quality in herself, considering it to be pusillanimous and even vulgar, but her efforts to conquer it had so far borne little fruit. More than one instance in which she'd lost the game to someone she considered to be a superior player had caused the weakness to grow strong - and by her twenty-sixth year, envy was probably the single negative emotion that Nia had really allowed to colour her life. And she'd found few who were responsive enough to anticipate her occasional feelings of comparative worthlessness with a couple of well-chosen words.
But she did it. Totally unconsciously, and without guile.
The blonde turned in the direction of a lively, musical greeting, and found herself face to face with what she had to admit was one of the loveliest visions she'd ever seen.
Normally I'd have been wishing I was her by now...was her grateful thought, as the beautiful brunette kissed her on both cheeks.
"It's so great to meet you." Said Kim, warmly. "I hope you didn't mind coming. The onus should fall on my housemate, really - it's her birthday. Jake had no say in the matter."
Nia smiled at the friendly overture, and was about to reply with equal cordiality when another voice broke into the conversation.
" 'Bout time you turned up!"
"Here we go." Whispered Jake conspiratorially. "This is Al - it's her birthday. She's a great girl, but she can be a little much. Don't say I didn't warn you."
Not bad...thought the bar manager. Al was a heavyset butch with a soft appearance - dark hair flopping over her eyes, and a tasteful outfit consisting of a loose-fitting linen shirt and trousers.
"Happy birthday." The blonde offered, extending her hand as the newcomer approached.
"Thanks!" Al replied, cheerfully bowling up beside her. "Are you having a good time?" She asked, looking Nia up and down.
"Great. This is an interesting place."
Nia had the distinct impression that Al was leering at her, and trying not to let it make her feel uncomfortable, she decided to do what she did best - to get the butch to talk, instead of staring.
"So, Al...why don't you tell me about yourself?"
This was the prompt that Al, completely unashamed, had been waiting for. Within five minutes Nia was wishing she'd asked about the weather, as her new acquaintance proceeded to chew her ear off with royal enthusiasm, while the hapless bar manager strained her patience trying to listen, and her ears attempting to eavesdrop on Kim's conversation with Jake.
"Oh Kim." Jake slung her free arm around her friend's shoulders. "I told you before you don't need to say sorry. I needed to hear those things you said. In fact, I should be thanking you." She admitted.
Kim's face lit up. "It's going well so far?" She asked, excitedly.
"Wonderful." Confessed the butch. "Kim, she's so sweet - I can't even begin to tell you."
"I can see it for myself." Whispered her friend. "I like her very much."
The blue eyes sparkled with pride, before clouding over momentarily.
"I seem to be doing everything right so far. I just hope I can keep it up." Jake confided, haltingly.
Kim's sweet face took on a hint of seriousness as she regarded the couple standing before her. Although engaged in separate conversations, the two women were already clearly together - each body angled towards the other, and Nia's fingers lightly entwined in the leather of Jake's jacket. They looked wonderful. And right - in a way that she and Jake, despite their combination of stunning good looks, never had.
"Oh, you will keep it up." She murmured, in response. "It looks as though it's coming naturally."
Her reward was a look of gratitude and affection that warmed her heart and made her glad to have spoken up about her earlier misgivings. But before their confab could go any further, Al dug Jake in the ribs and began to issue instructions in none too dulcet tones.
"Drink up. Nobody wants to be sober when we start the karaoke. Jake - you'd better get up and sing with me. I've already put our names down for Bat Out of Hell."
"Not on your nelly." Retorted Nia's date, softening the verbal blow with a punch to Al's arm.
Undeterred, the small butch leaned forward and began to enunciate in a dramatic stage whisper.
"See that woman over there?"
Nia, Jake and Kim all whirled around to see a mini-skirted redhead staring over at the group.
"She's been giving me the eye for a while." Al continued. "I think she's gonna make a play. And that other one next to her - she tried it on last week, but I wasn't interested. She's developing a bit of an obsession, now - she won't leave me alone, even for five minutes. These women are so persistent! I might have to draft you in to fend them off."
And with this last threat directed at Jake, off she went - in a waft of cigarette smoke and Calvin Klein.
"Sorry about her." Said Jake, with a sigh. "As you can probably see, modesty isn't one of her virtues. I'm surprised she even manages to have fun when she goes out - she's so preoccupied with who's looking at her."
Nia snorted in reply, as Kim rolled her eyes and took up the report.
"And then, when she gets home, she analyses every little flirtation to death. It drives me crazy. She likes to think of herself as a bit of a stud, surrounded by women who can't help falling at her feet. I swear she thinks she's a character in a book. You know, the tall, dark handsome one, that everyone's in love with."
Nia raised one eyebrow, biting down with great tact on the riposte that rose to her lips, a struggle that was not lost on the other two, judging from their grins of delight.
"She has a good imagination, at least." Jake supplied, as all three shook with suppressed laughter, and the music began to slow. Pretty soon the change in tempo appeared to remind Kim that three was a crowd, and she looked about the bar, obviously in search of an excuse to extricate herself.
"I should go and speak to my beloved housemate, really - before she embarrasses herself." She said, abruptly. "I'll see you in a minute or two."
She glided off without another word, but not without sacrificing a few moments to telegraph to Jake, behind Nia's back, what would be an appropriate course of action. And after a short fight with her unease, the butch mustered all her courage and very hard not to feel awkward, as she followed her friend's excellent advice.
"Nia, would you like to dance?"
Upon receipt of a surprised nod and a shy smile, she took her date lightly by the hand and led her to the dancefloor.
"They've got it bad." She said to no one in particular, congratulating herself on her success.
The blonde was a petite woman, but not short - about five feet and six inches - and Jake's magnificent six feet allowed her to rest her head comfortably on a broad shoulder as they moved slowly against one another, oblivious to the curious stares of the other patrons. There were no grand gestures or dramatic dance moves, and no conversation - just two people clinging to each other in the darkness of a small bar, in the middle of a very rowdy party.
And as she closed her eyes, Nia couldn't help feeling that unlikely as it might seem, perhaps here was a place she could finally come to rest. They might well belong to a gangster, a drug lord, or an extortionist - but these arms felt tranquil and safe, as far as she was concerned.
Partygoers prowling the streets of Manchester's gay village that night, looking for some cheap amusement, might have found it in the snippet of by-play that took place in a dimly lit alley nearby. But the only audience available in those shadowy reaches was a scruffy urban cat, watching with curiosity and disdain as a tall, striking woman with a raven crop emerged in rather a hurry from around the corner, a petite, prettyish blonde following closely on her heels. After a few harried looks behind them, seemingly to check for pursuers, both sidled up to the main road to join the chattering flow of after-dark pedestrians.
"Wow...that's one way to get out of a party!" Hissed the smaller woman breathlessly, as they slowed to a more unobtrusive pace.
Her companion gave her a sheepish nod.
"I know. I hope you didn't mind leaving...but I hate it when Al and her friends start getting inebriated. It's never pretty. And once Kim left, I didn't really see any point in us staying."
"Well, I can understand that...but why the Bond-esque exit?"
Jake laughed easily, shifting her gaze over the top of Nia's head to settle on the steady stream of passers-by. "I didn't really want to deal with Al begging me to stay - this way, I'm pretty sure she was too far gone to notice us leave, and tomorrow I can tell her we were there 'till the end."
"You naughty boy. I admire your cunning, although I'll warn you that trying to deceive your friends might land you in hot water." Responded Nia, with a wink.
In fact, the blonde had been secretly relieved when Jake had grabbed her by the hand with the terse statement, "We're leaving." Although she was a little puzzled by the abruptness of the cut-and-run, she found it far preferable to the outcome she was fearing - that Jake would get into her stride, and become inclined to socialise. She'd been pleasantly impressed by Kim, finding her infinitely more sincere than others with her natural advantages, but had quickly decided that Al and her friends were...well, frankly...quite obnoxious. As the champagne - and cocaine - began to flow freely, the short spells of time she'd spent away from Jake had turned into a quest to find anyone who was capable of stringing two sensible words together.
Fighting through the crowds who were queuing to get in to one of Manchester's seedier queer nightspots, the pair stepped out to cross a road still teeming with traffic, although rush hour had long passed. As they did so, Nia found her hand being gently taken and wound around a strong, leather clad arm - a tender, protective gesture that she found as startling as it was charming.
"Thanks for coming with me." Said Jake softly, as they reached the other side.
"You're welcome." Replied the blonde. "Thanks for taking me."
"Did you enjoy yourself?"
Nia stifled a sigh. She'd been half-dreading this question.
"I had a great time." She said, mustering up a good deal more enthusiasm than she actually felt and hoping desperately that it was convincing, for it suddenly struck her that her new friend was looking surprisingly earnest.
Well...it's not a total lie. She thought.
I wanted to spend some time with her, and I did. To give her credit, she didn't leave my side all night. And despite her scandalous good looks, I enjoyed meeting Kim, too.
And I certainly didn't expect her to ask me to dance...let alone hold me so close in front of all those people. In fact, I was half anticipating she'd be dancing with other women all night, to make sure I knew my place in the pecking order. Women like her usually like you to be aware of the fact that they've bedded every girl in the room.
A frown graced the pale brow, as Nia brought to mind the partner who had played those vicious games to hurt her. And as the recollection eliminated her cosier sentiments, her thoughts of the woman who was walking the kerb, putting herself between Nia and the oncoming traffic, began to cool.
But if she's planning to take me to many of those gatherings, I can't see this little relationship lasting too long. Honestly - I'd rather spend the evening with those bloody gangsters than with the lot I was subjected to tonight.
Drink, drugs and superficial people...It's probably been the story of her life. Why would she give it up now?
Had she known that her character was being sketched so unceremoniously without any request for clarification or input from her, Jake would probably have clammed up tight without further ado. Judgement without discussion was particularly abhorrent to someone who tended to keep her more endearing qualities...or as she would call them, weaknesses...far too close to her chest.
As it was, in blissful ignorance of Nia's pronouncements on her ability to wean herself from a lifestyle of delinquency, she failed to prickle. Instead, she paused under a bright street lamp to give her date a grateful look.
"Listen, Nia...you're being very polite, but I know this probably wouldn't have been your evening of choice. I was glad you got a chance to say hi to Kim, but the rest of those guys are a waste of space on a good day, and plain embarrassing on nights like tonight."
Noticing that the blonde was looking at her a little strangely, she went on, "I just want to say thanks for being such a good sport. I won't ever put you through that again, if I can help it."
Still unaware that her statements were causing her small friend to shamefacedly revise a hasty verdict, she finished,
"And thanks for sticking up for me in the Ladies' room, too. You really didn't have to do that, you know."
At this, Nia's face assumed a look of quiet compassion that the self-sufficient butch would normally have found patronising in the extreme. But, bewildered, she instead found herself wrestling with a delicate warmth that began to spread in response to the empathy that seemed too frank to give offence.
"I know." Replied the blonde, giving Jake's arm an almost imperceptible, feather-light squeeze.
"And I probably shouldn't have gotten involved. But I couldn't just stand there while she abused you like that."
"She was pretty poisonous, I suppose. I've seen worse, though."
Jake attempted to shrug off the daintily offered affection and appear blasé about the episode. But her efforts did not entirely manage to mask the starved look that crept upon her shuttered features and spoke to Nia's heart...and her sense of apt and inappropriate moments...in a way that thousands of words could not.
The blonde's beautiful, candid green eyes glistened as she hesitated for a second or two...before making the effort to grin and crack one of the jokes that Jake was beginning to realise were as functional as they were amusing.
"To say the least! If you'd found a scorpion behind the cistern I dare say we'd have encountered less venom."
Laughter ensued to disperse the rising discomfort, causing more than one person to turn and stare at the two figures, day and night in harmonious disparity, as they covered the pavement with the same confident stride and remembered standing side by side to face this first minor battle.
Briefly separated from her date, Nia had decided to visit the bathroom...mainly to check whether or not the warm, smoky atmosphere was making her look as hot and sweaty as she felt. The WC's had obviously been furnished by the same hand as the bar's camp interior - with velvet-covered walls and a leopard-print chair strategically placed for the first in the queue.
Luckily, there was no queue in evidence - most of the punters being well-oiled by that point, enough to try their luck on the dancefloor - so Nia took a quick look in the mirror and prepared to head back out.
But she was pulled up short by a shrill, censorious voice.
"Excuse me, young man - I believe you'll find these facilities are for ladies."
Nia whirled around just in time to see Jake emerge from one of the cubicles, straight into the warpath of the middle-aged woman who'd been the only other occupant of the bathroom when she came in. Lost for words, the butch teetered at the door, and Nia was astonished to see that a person she'd assumed would be afraid of nothing was on the verge of diving down the toilet in a bid to escape.
Automatically, the blonde spoke up.
"Yes, it is the Ladies'. And I don't see any men in here - do you, Jake?"
At Nia's reference to the brunette, their antagonist shot several rapid glances from one woman to the other - but made no reply. Jake remained where she stood, stoically silent and obviously still shocked - but the slight lift of her powerful chin showed that her courage was fast returning, fortified by Nia's intervention.
"Perhaps you ought to look a little more closely before making judgements about whether a person belongs here or not." Suggested the blonde, gently but firmly, unaware of the amazement and increasing respect she was inspiring in her dark friend.
Their adversary said no more, but departed in a hurry, her high dudgeon resumed to hide her embarrassment - leaving Nia feeling relieved that the fight had been brief, but wondering whether she'd done the right thing.
Shit. Anyone can tell that she's terribly proud...she's probably furious that I stepped in.
I think you might have trodden on some toes here, Nia.
You're such an idiot.
But Jake, still quiet, had taken her hand and kissed it, astounding her with the small gallantry before leading the way back to the bar and fetching her a drink. The scene was not mentioned, but Nia was satisfied that her interference had been forgiven.
In fact, the blonde's impetuosity had for once been well placed. Caught out on her own, Jake probably wouldn't have even bothered to argue, knowing that it was more likely to lead to her own untimely eviction from the party, than to any intellectual victory. But Nia, with her appearance approximating that of a "normal" girl - and a nice, innocent one at that - was much more likely to be able to stage an effective face-off against the voices of intolerance and prejudice.
And the dark woman had been touched beyond words that Nia had used...even risked...this greater acceptability in her defence. She'd known women to be explicitly attracted to her masculinity before, and even some who were prepared to own it in public - but none who'd stuck their neck out to protect it, allying themselves with her regardless of the consequences. Even the strongest advocates had so far had proven to be fair-weather friends.
But it seemed that Nia was different - more loyal, or perhaps just gutsier than other women she'd come across. Her attraction to the butch seemed to spur her to action, rather than being a flattering but temporary fascination that would abate as soon as there was a sniff of danger or disapproval.
The episode put Jake in a good mood for the rest of the evening. It wasn't as though she'd been in mortal danger - but that wasn't the point. The support itself was wonderful - and extraordinary - and the feeling of being precious enough to warrant such a rescue was brand new to her experience.
However, while pacing Manchester's bustling streets Jake had been forgetting her gratitude, as the bright night-lights animated her humiliation at being so efficiently "looked after". Fragments of vanity also arose, arrogant but ignominious, to swell her bravado.
"I'm used to being thrown out of public loos, though." She said, rather brusquely. "Once an old woman even started beating me around the head and shoulders with her handbag, yelling for the police - it wasn't pretty."
But the combination of amusement and distress that crossed Nia's face at this comment made the butch feel cruel, and unable to stay miffed, she finished a little more gently.
"It didn't hurt, don't worry. The only thing that suffered was my pride. Thanks for sticking up for me, really. Nobody's ever done that before."
"It was nothing."
"No, it wasn't." Jake managed, in response to the blonde's uncharacteristic shrug.
"As you can probably tell, most people think I'm odd - you don't, and you were perfectly willing to say so and damn the consequences. That's pretty unusual." Said the butch, a little shyly.
And as they walked the rest of the way to the taxi rank, both mulling over the little exchange, Nia made up her mind that if this woman ever needed a champion, she was going to be it.
Partly to lighten the mood, and partly to take her mind off the miasma of lager and vomit that permeated their surroundings, Nia cleared her throat and spoke.
"I've never been beaten with a handbag in a public toilet, but I've been thrown out of a gay bar, if it's any consolation to you." She said, trying to seem offhand.
"Why on earth...?" Her companion sounded suitably shocked.
"Because of the way I look."
Jake's eyebrows almost disappeared under her thick dark hair.
"Your appearance doesn't make you any friends in the straight world, but mine earns me a lot of distrust outside it." Nia explained. "Apparently I'm not a 'real' lesbian, in some peoples' eyes."
The butch continued to look puzzled, as Nia continued.
"Remember when you came out, Jake? When you had to pluck up your courage and defend your sexuality against people who found it shocking?"
The dark woman nodded.
"Well, I have to do that every single day." Nia finished, a little bitterly.
She forced a valiant grin, trying not to hold her breath as she waited for Jake's reaction.
If she pats me on the head, and smiles, and tells me she's sure people don't mean anything by it, I think I might cry.
Too many of the dykes Nia met refused to take her seriously. Some viewed her with patronising indulgence, convinced she was just "going through a phase", but charmed enough by her blonde hair and good nature to tolerate it. Others despised her femininity while it appealed to them, treating her as an insignificant or even reviled species, resentful of the power she wielded over their physical desires and unwilling to admit that someone like her could light the fire in their loins. Her resemblance to "normal" heterosexual womanhood was too threatening to their sense of self - it made them feel as though they were endorsing a world that they normally related to with mutual abhorrence. Most of the gay community walked by the frustrated blonde without a second glance, not realising she was family - and the other tiny percentage recognised but refused to acknowledge her presence. Yet in the straight world the attractive, personable woman found it easy to make friends - which had the effect of making her feel as though she was telling a lie she could not control.
The femme and the butch shifted their gazes from the heavens to their feet, Jake for the first and Nia for the umpteenth time contemplating and despairing of the small-mindedness that often pervades communities who themselves ask for acceptance, the exclusion that accompanies definition, and the denunciations that are necessary to facilitate solidarity.
"Not a "real" lesbian..." Jake thoughtfully repeated.
"Yep. That's what people tell me."
Sapphire eyes flashed.
"Shower of idiots." Muttered the butch, under her breath. But Nia heard, and laughed in delight at her companion's righteous anger on her behalf.
Encouraged, she continued.
"It drives me mad. Don't get me wrong - I understand that every community has a 'dress code'. Otherwise, how would we recognise each other?"
"Yes, you've got a point there." Agreed the dark woman, thinking about just how blatantly her own attire tended to announce her sexual preferences. Nobody confronted with the black-cropped, leather-clad figure could think her anything other than a lesbian...a dyke...or if they were clued up, a butch. The presentation came naturally to her - but she realised now that the totality of her appearance made a carefully constructed statement, none the less. A proclamation that she was proud to make - but one she had hitherto been barely conscious of making.
"And I realise that the majority of lesbians are more comfortable presenting themselves as butch or androgynous than being overtly feminine."
Nia went on, unconscious of the effect she was having on the butch's perceptions. Jake usually took little notice of the reactions provoked by her presence on the street, knowing that they were generally extreme, and negative, more often than not. The blonde's quiet analysis caused the other woman to examine her own exterior for the first time, and prompted her to consider how others might construe it, and identify her as either friend or foe.
The bar manager chuckled and shivered at the same time.
"Hell, I can even understand it - I have reservations myself about an image that's normally associated with trying to catch a man. But this is the way I am - the way I'm supposed to look. I've tried to do the butch thing, and I can't pull it off."
"I can imagine!" Came the laughing reply. "I can't see you looking at home in steel-toed boots and leather."
The blonde giggled again.
"I look pretty funny. And although wearing all that stuff felt like a banner for my sexuality, it didn't say anything about the person I am. It was a shocking lie - at least the untruths I tell with my appearance now are based on other people's interpretation of it."
Jake nodded in agreement, at the same time noticing that the blonde was pulling her coat tighter to ward off the pervading cold. Without a word, she removed her own leather jacket and slung it around Nia's shoulders. The bar manager opened her mouth to protest - but clearly thought better of it, contenting herself with a grateful look that, for the butch, would have made a far bigger sacrifice worthwhile.
"You're welcome." The dark woman replied, and as she continued with her tirade, Nia could have sworn the butch was blushing.
"You know, I don't want to have to change my appearance so I can belong, but most people run scared when someone's identity doesn't conform to what they define as the norm, without bothering to check whether they're reading it right. I've been denied entry to more gay bars than I can count - when a few simple questions would have made it obvious that I had a perfect right to be there. And that quickness to judge comes from prejudice, pure and simple."
"It's not always as simple as that, though."
Nia's incipient diatribe was pulled up short by this unexpected dissent. Taken aback, she blinked a couple of times, inviting the brunette to explain.
"I sometimes make those snap judgements myself, Nia." Jake owned. "It's almost like a mental shortcut - we read people by the visual markers they put out, and sometimes those symbols can be misleading. But we all do it."
Blue eyes met green, and a spark of challenge passed between them.
If there was one thing Nia hated, it was losing an argument. She'd been known to take her views to ridiculous lengths, tying herself up in knots and outrageous statements because of her reluctance to back down - winding up with egg on her face, more often than not. And it looked as though this was going to be another one of those occasions, but for the genuine interest and respect she saw reflected in the face of her new friend - which made her pause for a moment, seeing the conversation, rather than the competition, with a gracious smile and a soft indrawn breath.
"Yes, you're right."
She smiled more widely, inspiring an answering grin from her new friend as the friction began to clear.
"When we name ourselves, we also name everyone else. We work out what we're not as well as what we are. And for most queers, I fall outside the boundary. Hell, I probably even demarcate it. You're absolutely right, Jake."
She repeated, with a sigh.
"That's no excuse for the way I'm treated, though." She finished, quietly.
"No, it's not."
The conversation had become pretty serious, both realised, as they consciously tried to relax their postures. But the femme and butch were also tempted to rejoice in this connection on a deeper level than chitchat and small-talk, even though they knew that self-protection demanded they slow the pace. Nia especially, was revelling in the discovery that her date so obviously knew how to listen. The small blonde often had conversations that wound up with the other participant pushing their 'transmit' button, reciprocity forgotten - which was highly irritating, even though she knew that her willingness to ask questions and her talent for empathising with the answers made it inevitable. More than one budding relationship had suffered an untimely death, as the bar manager ceased to feel able to speak for - or about - herself. But Jake appeared to be able to resist the temptation to take advantage of the blonde's generous conversational habits and talk her ear off, a skill that Nia knew was as uncommon as it was enchanting.
"So what exactly is the problem with the way you look?" Asked the brunette, lightly. "You look pretty good to me."
Nia secretly thrilled at the comment as she carefully replied, "I suppose it's the confusion between gender and sexuality that people can't deal with - they think that femmes are less gay than other lesbians, because their appearance doesn't fit."
"So other lesbians don't trust you because they think you have a choice about your sexuality?"
"Yes. A biologically determined sexual preference has to go hand in hand with gender dysphoria, in some people's minds."
"And why does that matter?"
"Well...I think there's a belief that when the going gets tough, someone who looks like me is going to take the easier road and go back to being with men."
"Because I can."
Jake didn't have a reply to that. Shaking her dark head, she could only slide an arm around Nia's shoulders.
"You know what I think?"
"Go on." Whispered Nia, resisting the urge to bury her face in the folds of Jake's shirt and relax against the sturdy chest.
"I think it's terribly sad, that as a culture, we don't love ourselves enough to love each other."
Well, I really hope you don't include yourself in that judgement...thought Nia, as their cab drew up.
"Aiiiie." Grunted the cabbie, by way of a greeting.
The women grinned at each other. Manchester's cab drivers were notorious for having interests that extended beyond the boundaries of their routes - and the law. The ear-shattering music that normally accompanied any journey was a critical component of the lifestyle and an aural pennant for the image.
"Yeh?" The driver asked Jake, obviously pegging her as the decision-maker of the couple.
The butch turned to her date, eyebrows raised in question.
"Do you want to try Vanilla?" Suggested the blonde.
Jake's lips quivered in amusement at the comment. Well, that'll be a new experience.
"May as well." She managed to reply nonchalantly. "Vanilla, please." She added to the driver.
"Safe." Came a gruff mumble, as the door-locks were released.
As Nia seated herself in the back and watched Jake shut the door behind her, she inwardly debated whether to continue the conversation on the serious turn it had taken. Deciding against it, she had her next comment all rehearsed and ready by the time Jake was seated and belted up next to her.
"I'm glad to be rescued from the karaoke, at any rate. When Al tried her hand at Mustang Sally I thought my eardrums were going to burst."
"Yeah." admitted the butch, with a shrug.
"That kind of thing is like torture for me. I just don't have the urge to expose myself like that, or watch other people do it, you know? Especially Al and her crowd...they're all frustrated divas minus the voices."
Nia snorted in reply, and after a whispered confab with the clipboarded Rasta outside the office of the taxi company, the driver shoved the vehicle into first gear, and rather jerkily, they were off. Hardstep blared from all four windows, which were open wide, despite the bitter cold. Jake tried and failed to shut the one nearest the blonde, shrugging with resignation and a little amusement when she found that the switch had been disconnected.
"I mean", the brunette continued the conversation, to take her mind off the freezing wind and thumping tunes.
"If it's rehearsed, then I love watching a performance. I might even take part. But these impromptu affairs attract the wrong crowd, especially when the show's mixed with alcohol and charlie. If it hadn't been Al's birthday today, I would have stayed well away."
The femme nodded her agreement while vainly trying to stop her teeth from chattering. Noticing her date's discomfiture, Jake started to ponder the risk of unclipping the seatbelts and putting her arms about the blonde to keep her warm. But before she could manage it Nia spoke again, in a tone mingling mirth and ill-concealed disapproval,
"Well, the birthday girl certainly seemed to be enjoying herself. Does she always "hold court" like that?"
"She does." Assented the dark woman, raising her voice slightly in competition with the breakbeats and rising bass.
"All that effort must be tiring, though. Doesn't she ever feel the pressure of being the centre of attention all the time?" Asked Nia, amazed.
"Wow. She must really care what people think of her."
Jake sighed a little, shifting lower in the back seat in an attempt to accommodate her long legs, which felt as though they were wrapped around her shoulders. But the exercise only caused her to get one foot jammed underneath the seat in front. Tutting under her breath, she violently tried to extricate herself.
"Al lives in a small world, Nia. Her social group is really tight - and she works with most of them too. She isn't interested in what's going on in the world or even what's going on with anyone else, unless she can gossip about it." The butch shook her head. "So as a result, little things..."
"Such as who's attracted to her, or her status within her own sphere..."
"...exactly! ...Become inordinately important. Anyone can convince themselves they're the centre of attention, if they need the attention enough."
"That's SO sad."
Groaned the bar manager, while reaching over with nimble fingers to gently disengage Jake's right trouser leg from the back of the passenger seat. Foot freed, the butch sat back with a more comfortable expression.
"It is. And deep down, Al's a decent person with a good heart - she just lets it get taken up with trivial crap. Emotions even exist inside her somewhere - but they'll probably die eventually, from lack of exposure."
"Sounds like she's got her priorities all wrong." Said the blonde.
"She has. And it's a real shame...she comes across as being a bit of a plonker, but there's more to her than the ego on legs she seems to be."
"Well, there's more to everyone than meets the eye." Nia offered.
"Yes, there is."
There was a short lull in the conversation at this, as both women stared out of their respective windows, contemplating the familiar maxim and wondering just how much it rang true in their present circumstance.
"Well, it did remind me of a tacky variety show. Talk about loving the stage." The blonde responded, amiably.
"I was actually talking about her cracking on to you while I was talking to Kim." Returned the dark woman. "But you're right - they do make a brouhaha about these things. They're like the kids from Fame at the best of times - they're even worse on special occasions."
"Aren't they all in the media, though?" Nia enquired, trying to detract her companion's attention from her blush. "If that's the case, their exhibitionism isn't that surprising."
Jake gave vent to a hearty guffaw.
"You don't miss a thing, do you?" She laughed. "They're entertainment journalists, most of them. So I guess they're used to performing to strangers. It's too bad that most of them are less entertaining than a bunch of performing seals." She finished, with a wink.
"I take it you don't, then." Murmured Nia, half to herself. "Perform to strangers, I mean."
Catching the faint whisper, the butch shook her head emphatically.
"What does Kim do for a living?" She asked, carefully, to hide her surprise.
"Kim works in fashion. She used to be a model..."
"...but she got a little bit tired of just being a clothes-horse. She wanted to use her brain - she's a bright girl, and she was tired of people assuming that she was thick because she was beautiful."
"That must've been pretty annoying." Said the Bar Manager, thoughtfully.
"Yeah. But at least she wasn't the butt of any blonde jokes...hey!" The dark woman laughed as Nia cuffed her on the shoulder.
"Only joking. Anyone can see you've got a brain in your head - It's obvious from the moment you open your mouth. Kim's not quite as intelligent as you - but she's definitely quick."
A small part of Nia was still walking on air after their talk at Al's party, during which they'd discussed Jake's beautiful friend and she'd made the incredulous discovery that in the butch's eyes, she was more attractive. The blonde had been gratified beyond measure to find that her new friend was a person who could use her imagination to define this phenomenon rather than feebly following the catwalk parades and absorbing the images in glossy magazines. But at this second comment, her face glowed even more brightly. The Bar Manager enjoyed receiving compliments as much as any other young girl - but she had sense enough to realise that those attached to her appearance, while the most pleasant, were the least durable of any. She knew only too well that physical beauty was a temporary phenomenon, and that the sort that was not strictly in the eye of the beholder said as little about the intrinsic value of its possessor as the colour of their shoes. Jake's obvious respect for her intellect, she knew, would serve both of them well if the relationship were to progress.
But while appreciating the butch's stark honesty, the blonde also found herself wondering if it could be tempered by tact and sensitivity when the statements were not so flattering. Nia was a kind sort, who would rather say nothing at all if she could muster no positive comment, and she expected the same courtesy from all her close associates - unless criticism was absolutely necessary, in which case she tried to accept it with grace. Being the target of more than one judiciously truthful acquaintance had made her suspicious of those who were habitually negative about others' traits and abilities, no matter how helpfully the comments were meant. Brutal honesty was not a good quality, in her opinion - since, contrary to the protestations of those who bandied it about, it was not normally without motive. She doubted whether someone who could so easily compare their best friend in an unfavourable light with a new acquaintance could be relied upon to show any discretion when it came to pronouncements on anyone else.
"Thanks", she replied, a little absently.
"Anyway, so now Kim is a dresser to the stars. That's how she met Al - she was wardrobe-mistress for the presenter of an entertainment show that Al was working on."
"That must be an interesting job! She's obviously suited to it, too, judging from her exquisite taste."
"She is indeed. Here's Vanilla, Nia."
As the taxi pulled up outside the small lesbian bar that was their next port of call, Nia could see that it was already heaving. In fact, patrons were beginning to spill out on to the streetside patio, despite the biting cold. While she alighted on the pavement a reckless combination of the gin and tonics she'd consumed and the butch's own intriguing, intoxicating personality made her feel bold, killing her earlier resolution to play hard to get.
"It looks pretty busy in there. Do you want to come back to my apartment instead? I don't have any beer, but I have a good bottle of red wine that's waiting to be opened."
Having paid the driver, the butch didn't hesitate.
"Great. It's not too far to walk from here."
The speakers blared, as the cab sped shakily away.
Passing a small row of newsagents and cafes, shutters closed against the night's embrace, the pair came across a tramp wrapped in a sparse, moth-eaten blanket - just one of Manchester's abundant community of homeless. The melancholic sight of the man slumped over in a doorway, either inebriated or asleep, should have been no less affecting because it was so commonplace in the grey, gloomy atmosphere of the city. But absorbed in one another, their burgeoning understanding and the promise of Nia's warm, waiting apartment, the women might have marched straight past had he not roused himself.
"Spare a little change, gels?"
Releasing Jake's hand, Nia immediately began to fish in her purse. Unlike most of Manchester's citizens, the Bar Manager had not experienced a hardening of her attitudes as her residence lengthened in the North's haven for the dispossessed. She'd long ago ceased to care what family and friends said about charity money being good for nothing but funding the drug habits that had probably got these people in trouble in the first place. And her conviction that everybody deserved the benefit of the doubt had grown in response to the hard-hitting lessons that city life dealt her. Streetwise she certainly was not - but she knew a great deal more about the struggle for survival than would ever be revealed by her innocent green eyes. And if she could do her bit to ease some of the shocking social discrepancies that paraded before her and made her wonder just how the powerful nations managed to proclaim themselves "civilised" in front of all and sundry, then so much the better.
She wondered whether Jake would think she was impossibly idealistic and susceptible, as other friends and lovers, who lacked her social conscience and hopeful spirit, had done in the past. Sticking out her small chin as far as she could, she regarded her date with a little enmity, determined to start off on the right foot this time and defend her action if necessary. But the proposed barricade was pulled up short by signs of recognition in the dark woman's eyes.
"How are you, Pete?" Jake asked, her apprehension partly due to Nia's quickly masked, incredulous stare.
The man's eyes, heavily bagged and just discernible beneath a thick woolly hat, began to gain some lustre and spread a gentle brightness across the unhealthy, dirty grey of his skin.
"Alright, chief. Wikkid, wikkid..." He replied in a gravelly voice, pausing for a racking cough that made his whole body shake. "Can't complain."
"Sick teh death of t'ut cold." He coughed and spluttered again, so violently that Nia started back a step, for fear that he would knock himself unconscious.
Since her earliest years, the Bar Manager had always laboured under a strong impulse to heal, to improve the lot of her fellow man. It was what had drawn her to academic politics in the first place - the belief that perhaps the world could be changed, if only the people in power cared enough to do it. This initial optimism had rapidly been squashed by to the carnival of bigots that staffed most public arenas, but her altruistic instincts were still alive and kicking - and needed no more summons to awaken them than the spectacle of this cold, hungry chap. Tears welled up in her eyes, and she blinked them angrily away, determined not to lose her self-control as she removed the Burberry scarf from around her neck and wrapped it about his, saying compassionately,
"This might keep some of the cold out."
Although ailing and exhausted, the man's manners were obviously still intact, as he struggled with his thanks while regarding the blonde with gratitude and disbelief.
"Very kind. Very kind." He repeated, half to himself, overwhelmed and clearly bewildered.
"Much appreciated. Much appreciated. Most people don't notice old Pete no more...he don't matter to them"
His own eyes began to fill now, as he turned the ends of the scarf over a few times between knarled fingers, stroking them as if to make a closer acquaintance with the garment, lest Nia ask for it back.
"Well, I thought it was a bit unfair, since I'm wearing two coats, for me not to share my warmth."
The femme quipped, her diplomatic instincts deployed just in time to save the tramp's self-respect from the imminent and potentially embarrassing breakdown.
"And yeh did share it. Very, very warm." He repeated, a little more steadily, smiling now into the sympathetic face so near his own.
"That's a precious little friend." His next comment was addressed to Jake, who had been silent throughout the brief exchange. "Look after 'er."
"I'll try my best to keep her safe." The dark woman spoke softly, almost as if loath to break a spell. "I promise."
And again Jake's down-and-out acquaintance was ignored, as two pairs of eyes met, green melting into blue, and the wall between them began to develop another infinitesimal crack.
Eventually the butch began the conversation again, with a whisper that sounded as choked as Nia was feeling.
"Have you eaten today, Pete?"
Still staring at the Bar Manager's scarf, the man did not look up. But a tiny furrow appeared between his eyebrows as he shook his head slightly in dissent.
"I'll buy you dinner." Jake put her hand across Nia's shoulders, an intimate gesture that was noted by the blonde and the vagrant alike.
"Do you want to come with me?"
Reluctant as she was to be parted from her escort at this point, Nia's empathy was beginning to kick in.
"Thanks, but I think I'll stay put." She said.
"What do yeh do, dear?" He asked.
"I manage a bar in town...Fire and Ice." Nia replied.
She wondered if she'd said the wrong thing, as the expression on Pete's face underwent a transition from genuine interest to absolute shock. Struck dumb, she waited for a moment while he regained his composure, and leaned forward again to catch his next question.
"Oxford Road...red doors?" He stammered.
Clueless as to where these enquiries were headed, Nia decided it was best to answer them as briefly as possible and then attempt to change the subject, as Jake's friend was obviously disturbed by something. She idly wondered whether he knew the place - perhaps he'd been a regular customer before he started living on the streets, perhaps when the previous manager had been in charge.
Looking as though he'd seen a ghost, Pete expelled a heavy sigh, but seemed to have lost the desire to delve. Instead, he pulled a cigarette out of his pocket, and Nia flinched as he lit it and the end began to crackle.
"Well...tell Jake to look out. Runnin' them places can be a dangerous business." He whispered.
He patted Nia's hand, slurring slightly as his pupils started to dilate.
"I ran one, y'know...'fore I got in a mess."
Nia felt a chill go down her spine at Pete's words. She wondered whether his establishment had gone bankrupt and left him destitute. She was also starting to doubt whether she was doing him a favour by trying to engage him in conversation, after all.
Perhaps I should have gone to the take-away with Jake. What am I going to say now?
But luckily for her, the misgivings were dissipated before they began to take hold by the reappearance of the dark woman, with hands full of paper bags and a broad, cheerful smile on her face. Nia heaved an inward sigh of relief while the butch spoke to her friend.
"It's pancakes tonight, Pete - from the Dutch Pancake House."
Although the blonde was glad that the bad memories she'd awakened for him had clearly been forgotten, the man was now quite out of it, and he slid down even further against the shop door as he reached for the bundle Jake held out to him.
The dark butch turned to the blonde with a wry smile.
"I like to vary his menu, so he doesn't get bored. And a diet of hamburgers and those horrible thin chips is no good for anyone."
Pete was already busy eating, and seemed quite unaware of their presence as he devoured his pancakes with the frantic hunger that is only known by those who have known starvation. Nia shied away mechanically much as an intruder would, wishing to preserve the tramp's dignity - and half turned her back as the butch stepped forward.
"Got this for you, too." She muttered.
Crouching down, Jake slipped into Pete's pocket a small piece of card that Nia recognised as being a weekly pass for Manchester's buses. Although a pretty overpriced invention, most commuters used these to get around the city, as they were valid on any service, at any time.
"Come on, Nia, let's get you home." The brunette said, taking Nia's hand. "Pete, take care of yourself."
Although still engrossed in his food, Jake's vagrant friend looked up to wave at the two women as they walked away.
As soon as they were out of earshot behind a nearby skip, Nia asked the question that was burning on her lips.
"Not that it wasn't a sweet gesture, but why did you give Pete a bus pass? He didn't really look as though he was planning to take a trip anywhere."
Jake answered her a little shortly. "He likes to ride the buses in the winter. They're warmer than the streets."
Nia could have kicked herself for her own stupidity.
Of course he does. Of course they are. What a question.
"Oh." She said.
"I book him into a hostel for a night or two every couple of weeks, as well. He gets some decent sleep, and gets cleaned up. That way, people don't complain about him using the bus service. And the bus rides break up the day a bit, too. He gets bored, and that's when he starts looking for smack."
"That's a good scheme."
Was the only reply Nia could come up with, as she regarded her companion with renewed respect. Almost immediately upon meeting the dark woman she'd had the feeling that Jake didn't expose the tender side of her character too often, and resolving to make the most of this disclosure, she motioned with her eyebrows for the butch to carry on.
"I bought him a train ticket to Penzance once. He was so chuffed - he just went down the line and came straight back, but I think it was one of the cosiest days he's ever had."
"And how did he end up on the streets?" Asked Nia, a little fearfully.
"He got involved with the gangs." Was the grim answer.
"They turned him into a junkie, made him completely dependent on them for his supplies, and used him like a puppet."
Shit. Apart from the drugs, that sounds awfully familiar. No wonder he was concerned when I said I managed a bar. He must think I'm in danger. What a sweet guy.
I dread to think of the gangsters that must have terrorised his bar. I don't think even Matt and his cronies would stoop that low, to get someone hooked on drugs so they could control them.
"And how do you know him?" She asked her companion.
"He's an old friend." Replied the dark woman.
She was smiling, but her inflexible tone of voice definitely told the femme that the conversation was over. Nia wasn't satisfied with the answer by a long stretch, but knew better than to push. And in accordance with her earlier resolution to let no unfounded suspicions spoil their first evening together, she decided to leave the next question unasked.Ten
Exclaimed the blonde, sounding a good deal more confident than she felt - after she'd fiddled with the key in the Yale lock that always stuck, cursing to herself, and managed to prise it open while scraping her knuckles on the frame.
I really wish my fingers weren't shaking. I wonder if she realises? I wonder if she ever gets nervous?
In fact, she's probably been in more women's apartments than I've had hot dinners. This is a normal Friday night event for her, I shouldn't wonder.
Yuck. Better stop that train of thought right now, or I'll be tempted to throw her out right away.
Give her a chance, Nia.
And as she continued to lead the way, trying to ignore the unpleasant taste that leapt into her mouth in response to an indiscriminate promiscuity she could almost visualise, the Bar Manager was shocked and elated to see a tiny tremor in the large, capable hands that pinned the door wide open above her head, preventing it from swinging back and whacking her as she passed through it.
"That's a beautiful instrument." She commented.
"Thanks" Smiled the blonde. "It used to belong to my parents. I played it incessantly as a child, so when I bought my own flat they sent it up here for me. It makes me feel at home."
"Do you still play?" Asked the butch, interested.
"I do, but the occasions are getting fewer and fewer." Replied Nia, a little ruefully.
"I don't get the time to practice as much as I used to. But it's a great stress-buster when I have a chance. I can forget about everything else when I'm sitting at the piano, you know?"
Agreed the dark woman, although she didn't really understand what her new friend was talking about. Jake had spent far too much of her adult life on tenterhooks about saving her own skin or someone else's to ever lose herself in an activity, no matter how enjoyable it might be. This dictatorial self-control was one of the reasons that her hobbies thus far had been pitifully few.
But loath to ponder the totalitarian tinge of her history, she instead took a more pleasant route - surrendering to a curious impulse to tease.
In the moment of quiet, Nia had been grinning and squirming at the same time, wondering what was coming next as the vibrant blue eyes that had captured her gaze were taken over by a fiendish glint.
"So?" Asked the butch, leering wickedly and displaying an impishness that was far more out of character than her host realised.
"So...what?" The bar manager demurred. Always prepared for a spot of banter, the response was immediate, automatic - and unmistakably a challenge.
"Are you going to play it for me?" Jake persisted, undeterred.
"It's only fair."
"Oh, only fair, is it?"
The blonde laughed, trying to appear unflappable and not to show that the request actually made her want to dive under the dining table and stay there. In fact, she considered the option for a moment - but looking at the minuscule amount of cover that piece of furniture promised to afford, and considering that the retreat would probably make it worse in the end when she had to come out and face the provocation, she shrugged her shoulders. Sea-green eyes twinkled irrepressibly as she threw caution to the winds and decided to stand and fight.
"That's a little tacky for a sophisticate like you, Jake. This isn't a B-movie, you know."
As she had hoped, the combination of delicate compliment and good-natured but slightly caustic rebuttal did the job - although she was obviously enjoying Nia's consternation, the butch's eyes widened for a second or two in response, and soon after, she dropped her demand with an affable snort.
"OK, OK...I was only joking."
"You're dreadful." Returned the blonde, swatting the rogue lightly in the stomach and making her start back a step at the unexpected touch.
"You haven't even sat down yet, and already you're making me nervous by demanding a performance."
The words sounded harsh, but their sting was assuaged by the merriment that made Nia's lovely features dance, as she neatly dispatched her guest's good-natured aspirations to debase her.
"Go on, bad boy - sit down, be quiet, and I'll open the wine...and I'll give you a show when I'm good and ready."
"I'll hold you to that." Unbeknownst to the dark woman, this audacious response sent a thrill of excitement scuttling down the bar manager's spine.
Meanwhile, Jake eyed the sofa.
Looks a little cosy.
I reckon if I sat on that there'd be no room for anyone else. And then where would she sit?
I always have this problem in apartments that belong to petite women - I feel as though I'm taking up the whole room. I wish she'd come back and tell me where to put myself.
The strong jaw displaced slightly, as the remembrance that Nia was just one in a long line of many struck the butch as being particularly repugnant. Although she couldn't quite work out why, she closed her beautiful sapphire eyes for a moment, as if to banish the errant thought from her mind.
"You could put on some music before you make yourself at home, if you like."
The shout gave the butch a temporary reprieve, as corkscrew in hand, Nia popped her head through the brightly beaded grocer's curtain that separated the sitting area from the kitchen and gave her visitor an engaging grin.
Relieved, Jake began to negotiate the undersized room. While doing so she glued her long arms tight in to her sides, afraid that one careless swing might bring one of the lamps, plants or even the bookshelf down.
Oops. This apartment definitely wasn't built for an oaf like me.
Eventually the butch came to a squat by the appropriately tiny stereo microsystem, and grabbed a handful of CD's. It was a random bunch, but she soon found something soothing and appropriate among the collection of teenage heartthrobs and angry femmes. Then she could put it off no longer. Nia still busy in the kitchen with the wine, and she had to park herself. Seating her large frame on the small sofa, the guest looked about as uncomfortable as she felt.
But she'd chosen this album because it was an old favourite, and it made her feel a little more at home, if not at ease. And judging from the moan of delight that proceeded from the kitchen, Nia shared her appreciation for the track she'd selected as an opener.
The melancholy refrain was just about to begin as Jake's host re-appeared with two large glasses of satisfyingly heavy red wine. Now side by side on the small couch and more than a little squashed, they sipped in silence for a moment, enjoying the assault on their senses that was created by the combination of heady beverage and passionate lyrics.
"You've got a pretty eclectic music collection there, Nia." Commented the butch a little awkwardly, as the first chorus came to an end.
"Yeah, I know."
"This one's a classic, though."
Jake tried desperately to sound relaxed, while sitting on a sofa so snug that it threw the bodies of the two women into intimate contact from their feet right up to their shoulders. Feeling as though she was manhandling the blonde without an invitation was making her perturbed to say the least.
"Yeah. I find Joni Mitchell a bit of a tearjerker when I'm all alone, but listening to her with you in the room is rather different."
This was muttered wryly, the blonde seeming to speak more to herself than for her companion's benefit.
"I'm sorry - shall I put something else on?"
Nia gave her guest a shy smile.
"You make...I mean, you made...a good choice."
The bashful grin that was shared at this comment injected a welcome dose of brightness into the tepid, tricky atmosphere. Suddenly the couch didn't seem like such a tight fit, after all.
Still, Jake's host soon extracted herself from her seat, and looked a little shaky as she retrieved the open bottle of wine from the kitchen. While she did so, the dark woman made use of the opportunity to look around again.
On the small coffee table next to her sat a silver frame, displaying a picture of Nia with a tall, Hispanic, and feminine-looking man. They had their arms around each other, and were both laughing - they obviously were, or had been, very close. Underneath the photograph, across the bottom of the maroon-coloured mounting card, was a message written in a bold, curly hand, and adorned with numerous kisses and flourishes.
"Nia, thank you for being here, there and everywhere.
By far the strongest person I have ever known.
Love always, Theo."
Jake sighed, as the saccharine familiarity of the picture and the loving tone of the words began to arouse the wistful feelings she normally so effectively kept at bay.
Wow...they look so...normal.
When she could have this, why on earth would she want someone like me?
And then she remembered the Bar Manager's words at the taxi rank.
Because she doesn't have a choice. That's why.
She sighed again.
That ought to make me feel better.
For the third time, she sighed.
Admit it, Jake. You want to know that even if she did have a choice, she'd still choose you.
"Who's Theo?" the butch asked casually, moving over as best she could and patting the space - or lack of it - beside her.
"He's an old friend."
Replied the blonde, eyeing the gap Jake had cleared, mentally trying to squeeze herself into it again, and deciding that as a home for the duration of the evening it was probably a no-go even for her petite derrière. Lost in these logistics, she was no doubt too tense to be conscious of it - but her closed statement sounded very much like mimicry to her visitor, exactly echoing Jake's earlier duplicity with regard to Pete.
Well, I suppose I deserved that...thought the butch. If I'm not prepared to disclose, I can hardly expect her to be.
"Share and share alike"...and all that.
However, Manchester's most hardheaded, cynical butch, the toughest customer most of her intimates had ever met, soon began to realise that Nia was not interested in keeping score. Cheerfully, she perched on the arm of the sofa - and as Jake averted her gaze to hide the guilt of her hostile assumption, the blonde began to elucidate.
"I met him working in a nightclub. He used to run coke for the owners - shady mafia types. I hated them."
Jake continued to stare at the rug.
Was the only reply she could muster to this rather unforeseen statement.
Well, that certainly came fast around a blind corner. Bit too close to home. But it looks as though she's always been mixed up with the Mob, in one way or another.
"The last straw finally broke the camel's back when he came back from a run covered in blood and slashmarks..."
Managed the butch this time, still unable to meet Nia's eyes. If she had done so at that point, she might have seen regret and faded anguish enough to arouse all her protective instincts at once.
But she couldn't - she was aware of how disingenuous she might sound if she said anything else. Such dramas were probably the least violent of the episodes that plotted the action-film inspired reality that had once been her life. She curled her lip grimly, wondering whether Nia realised that her friend had probably had a narrow escape, as her host carried on with her recollections.
"...and after that, I encouraged him to move away from their influence. I knew that he'd probably got off lightly that time - next time he might not have been lucky enough to come out alive."
"You were right." The dark woman concurred, finally lifting her chin to encounter the disconsolate green gaze. Nia seemed to be miles away by now, almost remembering to herself as she relived the old heartache.
"I helped him get through his cold turkey after he quit - which was one of the hardest things I've ever done. I was 19 at the time, and he was 27."
"That must have been a real struggle."
"Yeah, it was."
Despite the fact that her respect for the blonde was increasing with every second, Jake also found it difficult not to feel awkward as her new friend divulged minutiae of such a private nature on their very first date. To be frank, she thought it was odd - it was about as foreign to her disposition as any form of emotional or personal camouflage would be to the woman facing her, sharing with unguarded sea green eyes and so little apparent effort. She was yet to realise that openness went hand in hand with sincerity and informed everything Nia did - a trait that was testament to her strength. If Kim had been present, she'd no doubt have pointed out that there was a lesson for the butch in the Bar Manager's ability to reveal her heart to anyone who bothered to ask. Jake could almost hear the beautiful brunette's voice ringing in her ears with triumph as she listened to the blonde's story.
"See Jake? See how easy it is! The world doesn't end when you make the effort to express yourself, you know. It doesn't have to be such a big deal."
God, Kim...you're certainly acting as my conscience these days. Even when you're not around you manage to give me a lecture.
"Anyway, I don't want to bore you with the details, but he couldn't keep food or water down for more than five minutes. The mood swings were dreadful, too. I couldn't do anything right - I thought he was going to kill me more than once."
"But you loved him." Jake supplied, still pensive.
"Yes, I did. He was one of the best men I've ever met. And he never hurt me - he always controlled himself, despite what he was going through."
Responded the butch, more abruptly this time. The thought of anyone daring to lay a finger on Nia made her feel unreasonably incensed - she could feel a familiar prickling sensation that told her the hairs on the back of her neck were probably standing straight up on end.
The brusqueness of her tone clearly bothered her host. "Are you all right?" Asked the blonde.
"I'm fine." Jake replied.
"You seem a little...nervous." Nia persisted. "Are you?"
Jake rarely - if ever - admitted to what she considered to be a weakness. Her life so far had been concerned with self-protection, not the self-awareness that would have told her to confess her demons and ask for understanding in order to communicate with her strength. But staring deep into earnest green eyes, she felt perilously close to drowning - and the candour she found there obliged her to be frank.
It was as though, once given a chink through which to escape, the word slammed against the barriers that Jake had spent years erecting with such care, and drove itself through her rancour, out towards the light. Tightening her grip on the arm of the sofa, she reeled slightly from the force of the compulsion, and wondered about its origin.
"Because you're a real person."
This admission was carried out on an inaudible moan of defeat, emerging from outside the dark woman's control and with complete disregard for her consent.
And it didn't seem to startle Nia in the slightest.
Jake began a little gawkily, desperate to change the subject after her unprecedented disclosure. Luckily, her companion appeared to have no objections, and gave her a friendly grin.
"It is, isn't it? I always think it tastes like berries and cream."
Agreed the butch, picking up the bottle to examine it more closely. It was a 1994 Syrah from the Australian Rosemount Estate, altogether too expensive to have been bought on a Bar Manager's meagre salary.
Wonder what that's all about. Perhaps it was a present from Matt. He's not the sort of guy who really needs to buy anyone's loyalty, but you never know.
"It was a gift from my Dad." Nia said.
"He gets bottles and bottles of the stuff every Christmas from his clients."
"What does he do?" Asked the dark woman, reflecting that here was another layer of her companion she'd been hitherto unaware of.
"He's Director of Estates at a big university. He deals with building contractors a lot, and they like to buy flashy presents to keep on his good side - the contracts he deals with are worth millions."
In keeping with the theme of the evening so far, Jake found it difficult to dream up a response.
My God...she's about as different from me as a person could get. Am I just fooling myself that we could even be friends?
What would we talk about?
I know she's not as much of an innocent as she appears, but still -
Some of the things I've done she probably couldn't even imagine. And if she finds out I'm connected to Matt she'll never forgive me.
Should I even bother to give this a chance?
She stared at her boots.
But thankfully, her rather sober train of thought was halted by something altogether more urgent, as her fingers brushed against the Bar Manager's hand in passing the bottle back to her host. Rather hesitantly, their eyes also met - and what passed between them was unspoken but perfectly understood.
The wine almost spilled as the bottle slipped back on to the coffee table, forgotten in the sparks of electricity that had been lurking beneath the surface ever since the two women first met. Lying in wait for what had seemed a protracted evening's activities, they were ready to flare up now - asserting their supremacy over the minds and bodies of the women sitting together in the small, dimly lit room.
"Can I kiss you?"
It was a question Jake had asked thousands of times, often when she shouldn't - but somehow on this occasion it didn't feel so rhetorical as usual. Perhaps that's why the words seemed clumsy as they escaped her - the smooth operator wasn't feeling so sure of herself this time.
"No." The femme smiled as her guest was thrown even further off course.
"Because I think I'll get there first - I'm not asking for permission."
As Nia leaned forward, capturing her date's full lips in a soft, sweet kiss, Jake could taste the wine on the blonde's tongue. She willingly granted it entry, and moaned in silence as it explored gently at first, growing firmer and more insistent as the sensation took hold of them both.
Initially the encounter was almost delicate - for moments, nothing touched except two pairs of lips. But soon Jake's hands were in the Bar Manager's hair, caressing the soft, silky strands as the blonde leaned closer and her ardour began to rise.
However, as the dark woman started to draw the femme into her lap, Nia pulled away. She was panting slightly as she shifted back in her seat and regretfully shook her head.
"I'm sorry. I can't do this yet." It was almost a whisper.
The words crashed over Jake like a bucket of ice-cold water.
"Care to tell me why?"
Feeling a little peeved, she slid backwards on the sofa, turning slightly away from her host, willing her chest to stop heaving.
"It's not that I don't want to." Nia's voice was full of remorse.
"Then what is it?" Asked the butch, a little more gently.
"Look." The bar manager gave her a straightforward, direct stare.
"I'm not stupid. I get the feeling you've had a lot of experience with women, most of it sexual."
Jake inclined her head slightly in assent, trying not to be offended as the blonde summed up her romantic history with a few blunt words.
"And I think if we sleep together now you'll probably have no reason to stick around afterwards."
There was a long, painful pause, during which Nia mournfully acknowledged that she'd probably hit the nail on the head. And her hunch was not refuted when Jake eventually spoke.
"Well, I suppose I can't fault your logic."
The dark woman's hubris had been stirred by what she perceived to be a brush-off, and was on full alert - preventing her from telling the blonde exactly what she wanted to hear. That she was different - and that her refusal to jump in to bed on the first date only reinforced that, elevating her even further in the butch's estimation. But this would have been too humiliating to bear for Nia's proud, sultry companion. Instead, she clamped her mouth tight shut and listened to the rest of her date's rather garbled defence.
"Please don't think I'm being callous. I just want to get to know you a little better. I like you - and I don't want you to lose interest too soon. So don't take this the wrong way, but I don't want to be another notch on your bedpost tonight."
"It's your bedpost." The butch pointed out, still a little nettled. But her eyes were shining.
I suppose I don't blame her. A few years ago she would have been right. I can give her some time.
She wants to get to know me. The butch was astonished at the thought.
I think that's worth the wait. Or it will be, if I can let her inside and she doesn't run screaming.
It was early.
Too early, in fact.
The sun was just starting to rise, turning the grey sky into candyfloss, clouds pink and pregnant with the weight of the rain that would probably fall by the bucketload later on.
Flicking the CD player on to "random", Nia paused for a second to berate herself for forgetting her umbrella. Not that they were of any use in Manchester - instead of protecting the carrier from the interminable downpour, they generally blew inside out at the first puff. But wrestling with a recalcitrant umbrella was a tradition on wet days in Northwest England.
Hmmm. Maybe I have a spare one in the office. I lose enough of the damn things - odds are one ought to turn up where I left it eventually.
She grumbled to herself as she picked up her clipboard and continued with the stock check, excruciatingly aware of the vision in the corner of her eye - Max, working doggedly, crouched in front of the other fridge with a set look on her face.
The relationship between the two close friends had been strained ever since the night the Blue Caps - and Jake - had paid Fire and Ice a visit. Nia had been furious at Max's overprotective behaviour, and the small butch's fears for her friend's safety had only grown worse with time and the silence that had fallen between them. Max's imagination was lively when it came to those she loved - and Nia's situation was dreaming up all kinds of possibilities for her faithful, fretful assistant. As far as she was concerned Nia's flirtation with fire would only end in a blaze that might consume them both. They were far too fond of each other to be uncivil - but the repartee that had always underpinned their relationship was frozen for a moment, by the tension in the air around them.
I miss her.
Looking directly at the stooped figure of this most dependable of her employees, affection finally got the better of Nia's annoyance. It was like her to concede first - and once roused, goodwill soon grabbed a handhold and shifted her brain up a gear, insisting that enough was enough - it was time for her to make the first move before the pair drifted too far apart.
"Hey, Max, did you see that programme last night? Richard Attenborough got a camera right inside a pride of lions. It was interesting watching - the females hunted for food, raised the young and made the den - in fact, did everything - while the males just slept and tried to mate with them. Isn't that just typical?"
Max chuckled softly, recognising the gentle olive branch her friend was extending and taking a moment to cherish it. It was a small act but at the same time momentous - because it required gumption she rarely felt herself capable of. The prospect that her advances would be rejected invariably cracked her courage, and she preferred to turn her energies towards dealing with the inevitable loss, rather than rebuilding the chasm that gaped in front of her.
But Nia was different.
Behind the blonde's back, the butch allowed herself a doting look.
She's always the first to give in. God, Max - she's so evidently a bigger person than you.
Out loud, she said,
"Yeah. But it wasn't Dickie, it was David - and anyway, David Attenborough didn't even organise the camera. John Downer did - David's just the storyteller."
"Just a storyteller, indeed!" Snorted the femme. "That man is the bard of the natural world."
"Anyway, stories are important, Max - they're one of the basic building blocks of culture."
Replied her friend, sighing with the studied ennui she normally used to slow Nia's ever-ready lectures. It worked a treat - the Bar Manager subsided with a smirk, secretly delighted that they appeared to be slipping back in to their old routine so fluently.
"I don't think much of him, Nia. I think that girl who watches the monkeys is much better."
"How predictable." In between counting alcopops, the blonde affected a yawn.
"But you watched it, anyway."
"Yeah, I did." The butch admitted, with a grin.
"Watched it with my Mum. That was an experience in itself - she kept complaining about all the gratuitous violence."
"What?" Nia almost dropped the bottle she was holding.
"She thinks even lions should be vegetarians. She's never been the same since the peace camps at Greenham."
"I can believe that." The bar manager stared at her clipboard.
"Actually, you should see it when she gets together with her friends - ageing hippies are pretty entertaining. They're against just about everything - you'd probably get on with them."
"It's a good job you're my friend, Max - or I'd sack you for that piece of outrageous cheek."
The conversation ended in a hearty laugh that washed away much of the previous week's discord, leaving both women in better spirits.
Max stood up and tore the sheet of paper from her own clipboard, handing it to her Manager with a smile and a squeeze on the wrist that made Nia want to cry with relief.
"And did you see the article in the Daily Express about the six-million year old thighbone they found in Kenya? They think it belonged to the Missing Link...you know, between the apes and man."
"Missing Link, eh?" Nia mused, eyes twinkling.
"I think I've dated that guy."
"Very funny. The sad thing is, you probably have." Max shook her head.
The blonde added Max's totals to the boxes she'd already counted down in the cellar, and wrinkled her nose as she did the mental arithmetic.
"Listen, Nia." Said Max, in a small voice.
"I'm sorry about the other night. With your friend."
The blonde had never been too adept at bearing a grudge. Some even thought she was too forbearing - since the words "I'm sorry" were always sufficient to bring her umbrage to an end, no matter how vile the misdemeanour. So as soon as they were out of Max's mouth she was at her friend's side, tenderly taking the butch's face in her hands and nodding her understanding.
"Don't mention it. You had my best interests at heart."
"I'm glad you realise that. I'd never intentionally hurt you, you know." Max stared at her feet.
"I know." Both paused to acknowledge a declaration that had always been taken as given between them.
"I think you're being a little too vigilant, though." The bar manager's tone was earnest. "If Jake was connected with Matt she'd hardly have shown her face in here again after the other night. I don't expect gangsters to be breaking down my door or anything."
The dialogue broke for a second, as the assistant manager wondered whether she could summon up enough pluck to share the real disquiet that had kept her awake at night, ever since the raven-haired woman strode into Nia's life.
"That's not what I'm worried about." She finally owned.
Another pause descended as Nia digested this statement with a frown. The blonde was intuitive enough to discern that the conversation was about to turn a corner - and she wasn't sure she was going to like what was around it.
"I don't understand. Then what's the matter?"
I can't remember the last time I saw Max this upset. Something must be bothering her an awful lot.
"Come on, Max - tell me what's on your mind."
Their gazes locked - the ingenuous green of Nia's drenched with trouble, and mutely imploring her friend to express herself. So Max took a deep breath, and decided to speak.
"I'm scared that you might get hurt." The small butch admitted quietly.
"But I'm talking about your feelings, not your physical safety, Nia."
"What do you mean?" The blonde asked.
"You really like this woman. I can tell." Max told her.
Nia's eyes lowered to the table between them, and a ready blush took possession of her cheeks. Sighing as the blonde's mounting colour confirmed her fears, Max carried on.
"And she's a complete mystery to you. Alarm bells are going off in my head - I can hardly hear myself think sometimes."
Although the bar manager's head was still bowed, Max saw her friend flinch - and almost fell silent. But conscience and concern forced her to continue, no matter how much her words might wither the rose.
"Remember what happened the last time you went for one of those dangerous types? By the time you found out what was behind her tough exterior, it was too late. You were so in love with her, and she turned out to be such an ogre. You were crushed. It broke my heart. I can't help thinking you should look before you leap this time." She said.
Max tried not to stop breathing as she waited for her friend's reaction. Her nature rarely inclined her to be bold - but once she decided upon a particular path she was certainly tenacious. She minced none of her words, and they slammed straight into Nia's heart - the verbal offensive would have sent the Bar Manager lurching had she not been sitting down.
I was devastated.
I never knew a human being could hurt so much. What if I'm setting myself up?
Nia approached all things with the same unadulterated zeal - and this was especially true of her relationships. She was among those rare beings who are usually mocked and envied alike - because she lived for love. Most of those she came across viewed affairs of the heart as pretty diversions or necessary hassles - but for her, romance had to be all-consuming. She didn't want to be swept off her feet - her healthy suspicion of melodrama telling her that passions declared in hushed tones often proved more robust - but she was desperate to meet the one who would really know her, who could be trusted implicitly with her heart, and even her life. Looking back, she realised that her impatience at the lack of this elusive figure had probably turned her into a fool.
Immediately following the breakup with Paula, she'd been as good as slapped across the face by the charms of an incredibly charismatic butch - a regular in the old-school gay bars she was frequenting as part of her search for that which she could not yet define. She'd fallen hard and fast. To start with, the liaison had been a fairytale - fodder for romance novelists in its tempestuous zeal - and as a result the young femme was deeply attached by the time she realised she'd made a very bad call. Her adoration for KJ was unrequited - her butch was in love with someone else. Not a real person, either - she was impossibly involved with the memory of an ex-girlfriend she'd never been able to forget. KJ's only desire was to relive her past - insensible of the fact that she would never find the magic she sought, unless she let the ideal go free. And just a few short months into the relationship, it became apparent to the butch that Nia was never going to match up to the woman whose appeal was unparalleled, after years spent sitting in state upon an imaginary pedestal.
When the bar manager realised that KJ's heart wasn't accessible to her touch, she was devastated. The discovery smashed her self-esteem into smithereens and the fragments were left to rot, untouched inside her emotional isolation. Having to compete with a Goddess-like ghost of relationships past was soul destroying for such a sensitive young girl, especially one who was desperate to find some security in what seemed to her a horribly hostile world.
The relationship had gone rapidly downhill from that point on.
Nia couldn't remember exactly when the condemnation had started. All she knew was that KJ was brandishing the spectre of her ex-lover like a weapon, goring her through and spitting her on its perfection, over and over again.
It was like tiptoeing across a minefield, or playing a game of cat and mouse with a panther - as long as Nia made all the right moves she was sure of survival, but one false step and she awakened a white-hot snarl that left her afraid and reeling - and she knew it would eventually harden into resentment. So, understandably, she alternated between silence and saying only what KJ wanted to hear - afraid to speak her mind, in case she ignited the ferocious blast. Nia had sense enough to know that the anger she shrank from was not explicitly directed at her - it was years of hurt and disappointment never entirely expressed - but that didn't make it any easier to deal with.
The epiphany was a while in coming, but the young Bar Manager eventually realised she had to leave - before she became inextricably embroiled in a relationship with a person who was utterly, unbearably unlike the glorious butch she'd fallen in love with, all those months ago.
She remembered it so clearly. It was as though she'd stepped out of herself, to hear KJ make some disparaging comment about her dress, her walk, or the way she wore her hair, seeing the contempt that crept on to her features as she did so - only this time Nia was playing the role of impartial observer, the unbearable emotional strain propelling her detachment - and she idly wondered why she stayed put to listen to the insults that rolled off her lover's tongue. She had started to scream inside after the first few months, and now the cries reached a pitch that was almost deafening - the incumbent explosion needed little more to ignite it.
Nia wasn't stupid. She knew relationships took work, and she even half-believed the old romantic adage that love was supposed to hurt - the curse of feminists the world over. But she also knew love wasn't designed to reduce a girl to a constant state of depression.
Which is where she found she'd ended up. The quiet, thoughtful girl had grown used to standing up to bullies when she was a child, but it never crossed her mind that she might be subjected to similar debilitating emotional brutality again, especially not in the context of what was supposed to be a loving relationship. When combined with the weight of Matt's thugs bearing down on her constantly, the gentle Bar Manager felt as though she was beset from all sides.
So she'd taken a deep breath, and ended the relationship. After this, she congratulated herself on having handled the whole affair with grace and dignity and decided to move on.
However, the cruelty had already taken its toll, and Nia's body eventually collapsed under the strain. A few weeks later, a small ovarian cyst she didn't even know she had grew and ruptured inside her - landing her in a hospital bed in Manchester's Royal Infirmary. And during the month following her collapse, she lost her voice to laryngitis as she struggled to regain her health - and her self-respect.
The recovery was arduous. But through the ailments that troubled her body, Nia's spirit gained in strength, and with the natural buoyancy of youth, she learned to forgive, if not to forget. Not a day went by without KJ crossing her mind - that was part of her nature. When confronted with evidence of her own failure, she couldn't rest until she'd formulated an explanation. But she'd gradually come to understand that she had no control over the inadequacies KJ had perceived,, because they were directly connected to who she was. Or rather, who she wasn't.
And Nia was less fragile than she looked. Otherwise, she might not have been able to avoid the bitterness and animosity that normally emerge close on the heels of heartache, malevolent siblings that irritate and enrage. She turned her back with an emotional austerity and self-discipline she would never have expected from anyone else, forcing herself to shun them, erasing the bad and remembering only the good.
Max did not find it quite so easy.
Shocked to see such unnecessary pain inflicted on one she'd grown to love more than herself, Nia's assistant internalised a barrage of resentments that the blonde had managed to keep at bay. Despising KJ for being able to pull the wool over her eyes, and at the same time blaming herself for failing to see the ghouls that had been lurking behind the walls of the butch's emotional fortress. It was this - and her own tacit devotion to her friend - that motivated Max's suspicion, her jealous protection of Nia's interests, and the loathing that she could not help whenever she thought about Jake. As far as she was concerned, the dark woman was a wildcard who would probably turn out to be the Ace of Spades rather than the King of Hearts - Nia might win a few tricks along the way, but she was doomed to lose the game.
"Come on, Nia." Said Max, exasperated.
"You were the best thing to happen to that woman - she was just too stupid to realise it."
Nia couldn't resist a smile, appreciating her assistant's blind loyalty, but knowing it was probably misplaced. Max saw her friend's lips quiver - which provoked her ire.
"It's true! Why is it that in relationships where one partner's so blatantly unworthy of the other, the worthless party can't show any respect?"
"Max...you're biased. Let's not go into it. It's water under the bridge. Don't get upset." Nia tried to placate her friend.
"I'm not upset!" Max's tone belied her words.
"And I don't care if you're over it or not. I'd still like to rip out that woman's throat."
Although her own vitriol over this particular episode was long spent and faded, Nia had retained a lively sense of humour when it came to scenes of imaginary revenge - and she allowed herself a wry chuckle at the image of Max going after her ex-partner like a vicious pit-bull terrier.
"Well, I should have wrung her neck myself. I still can't believe I let anyone treat me that way."
She looked sheepishly at her friend, for all the world expecting to be rebuked for her own part in an unpleasant drama she would much rather have avoided.
"Don't do that." Max stated, quietly.
"Take responsibility for her behaviour. You're a good person, Nia - but that doesn't give people the right to walk all over you."
The bar manager sighed. "Yeah, I know."
"So stop making excuses for that woman's shortcomings."
"I mean it, Nia!" Max slammed her fist down on the table in frustration, making her friend jump. "She was an asshole, through and through."
"But..." The bar manager half rose, frightened by Max's outburst.
"No more buts." Said her friend, a little more calmly. "You're too lenient with people who treat you like shit. You deserve better - until you realise that, you'll always be paired with bastards." Shaking her head, she followed the manager to the bar.
"Max, she wasn't a bastard." Nia switched on the coffee machine. "She just didn't know how to handle her own pain."
"Well, perhaps not. But she should have tried to treat you right. She shouldn't call herself a butch if she doesn't know the rules." Max replied, as Nia handed her a cup.
The blonde squeezed her friend's hand with a lump in her throat. If there was one thing she loved about Max it was her unwavering respect for women. Her gentlemanly qualities were the strongest defining elements of the assistant manager's identity, and friends and lovers alike treasured her it.
If only there were more people like her in the world...I might have a chance at finding one for me.
However, the strange impulse to defend the new friend against the old was growing stronger, and as peace fell between the two, Nia began again.
"Max, listen to me for a second."
"I can see how you might feel inclined to compare KJ to Jake. She's powerful and very enigmatic, and it's a fair assumption that she might have something to hide."
Nia's eyes were wide and earnest, willing her friend to believe what she was saying. It was completely irrational, even considering the snippets of information she'd managed to collect during her date with a woman who was impenetrable more often than she was frank, but she was telling the truth.
"But KJ was proud of her scars. She cultivated the fact that nobody could get close."
The bar manager took her friend's hand between both her own as she uttered her final petition.
"Yes, Jake's got similar defences - and if she proves to be as attached to them as KJ was to hers, I'll run a mile. But I feel as though I can trust her - and that's a brand new experience for me." She confessed.
Max looked at her friend for a long moment.
"This isn't a romance novel, Nia." She muttered, as she picked up her clipboard.
And as her assistant shuffled off to count kegs in the cellar, Nia sighed inwardly.
I hope I'm not wrong this time. She thought.
I was wrong about KJ and I suffered for it.
But I always expected her to hurt me - and people generally get what they expect.
Oh well...she comforted herself, as she started on the spirit stocks.
At least I haven't slept with her yet.
A luminescent finger poked through the vertical blinds and wagged at the blonde, whose resolve to delay the moment had proven to be as brittle as the glass vase by the bed. The ornament had gone flying and smashed into a thousand pieces during the course of the previous evening's acrobatics.
It had been quite a night.
Having exercised an admirable degree of self-restraint on her first date with the dark, mysterious butch, Nia soon discovered that she was unable to follow through. In the face of an almost primordial desire that grew in intensity until she felt ready to faint, she gave in to her baser urges no later than their second formal meeting. And not only that, it was her idea to do so - since the butch's ego was still a little frost-bitten and sore, the femme found herself making the first move.
Although it hadn't taken Jake long to reciprocate.
Not one to revel in being chased, the dark woman had rapidly taken on the role of stage-manager and had ravished her new lover for all she was worth, while Nia bit down on the pillows to keep from screaming Jake's name and waking all the residents in the neighbouring block of flats.
And the dark woman had taken Nia beyond the brink, over and over - until her thighs were aching and the sheets were sticky, and both were sleepy and satiated.
So they slept on.
But the sun was beaming now, throwing shafts of light over the snoozing couple and prodding the femme out of her restful state.
Still not fully conscious, Nia's first reaction was to chastise herself for giving in too soon. But the physical compulsions of the previous night had been too strong for her to withstand. And although she was barely awake, the fact that Jake had stayed in her bed to greet the morning light was reassuring. She guiltily allowed that perhaps she'd misjudged the butch who remained in her arms until the sun came up, and made assumptions about the persona she'd read as a ruthlessly independent sexual virtuoso.
She was fantastic...she thought drowsily.
I don't think I've ever let my body take charge before.
God, the first guy I slept with had to ask me 27 times first.
She giggled softly to herself, eyes half-lidded with sleep, drinking in the satisfying scent of sex, aftershave and sleeping butch next to her.
Sighing with contentment, the bar manager snuggled tight into the warmth of Jake's embrace, before dropping back to sleep with a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth.
By ten in the morning neither woman had yet risen, and the cold February day was growing bizarrely bright in its impatience. But both were exhausted, drained after the antics that had kept them going for most of the night. Like most "first time" experiences, the encounter had been onerous and a little fumbling, and Jake in particular had been surprised by Nia's seeming lack of sexual confidence. But she touched the young blonde slowly at first, waiting for consent to be followed by desire as Nia's green eyes grew sultry, not stopping to question her own unusual patience while she focused her attentions solely on the beautiful face and body beneath her.
Partly thanks to her recent heart-to-heart with Max, Nia's thoughts had stubbornly turned to KJ, even as she strained to watch the dark head that bent between her thighs, tasting her core and making her grind her teeth in pleasure. But the blonde's ecstasy partly derived from comparing the honesty of this experience with the sexual machinations of her past. Towards the end of her last relationship sex had become a battleground. Mostly the butch would roll over and sleep without a word - which was preferable to the other times, when she would take what the young femme offered in an advance that was rough with unnatural desire. Love and loathing reached a terrifying climax as KJ tried to exorcise her ghosts by forcibly ingesting her present. And the blonde was expected to lie inert, mistrusted and disempowered by KJ's sexual caprices. KJ wasn't strictly sexually stone - it was more that she used her body as a means to dominate Nia's mind, sometimes placing it in the blonde's hands under her governance and sometimes withholding it, taking her pleasure alone while Nia looked on, helpless and rejected.
This merciless veneration felt like another universe away when her new paramour took the bar manager close in her arms, the blonde moaning her release into her lover's ear.
"Morning." Nia murmured, sleepily.
"Morning." Replied the butch.
Jake watched with fascination as her new lover sat up and stretched, the delicate muscles in her back and shoulders rippling as she did so. Nia was a slim woman, but through exploring every nook and cranny of the pint-sized body, the butch had soon found out she wasn't just skin and bone. Her limbs were beautifully toned - and although she was velvety soft, she was also as firm as the waxy, dwarfish crab-apples that appeared in the Autumn and replaced the blossoms in the postage-stamp garden outside. Her skin even had a similar subtle, spicy scent - Jake sensed rather than felt her mouth going dry, and she had to swallow several times, observing the sunlight dancing on the bar manager's silhouette, highlighting the soft down of cobweb-fine hairs that covered it. She remembered those places her tongue had tasted and touched, Nia's fingernails raking down her back, teeth tugging at her earlobe in a passion that was almost crazed in its intensity.
And now Nia's lips were on her again, but in the morning the kiss was tranquil - quiet but not chaste, the butch's arms tightened around their prize.
The femme stole a glance at her new bed-partner, noticing that even though it was approaching 10 o'clock, the butch was struggling to keep her eyes open. She briefly considered letting her sleep in, but the turbulence of her emotions, and an almost painful fascination with the woman who'd brought her screaming into rapture for most of the night, pushed her to make the most of this chance to be alone.
She prodded her lover in the ribs.
"Ow!" Sapphire eyes opened wide, regarding her with an injured stare.
The blonde suppressed a giggle at her friend's indignation.
"I don't want to sleep any more, Jake. I want to be awake with you, and talk to you a little bit."
This seemed to do the trick. The cerulean gaze mellowed, and a half-smile started to curve the butch's full lips.
"Ok...let's talk." She said amiably.
"Where did you learn to play the piano?"
She asked, winking and harking back to the skirmish they'd had on their first date. Nia feigned a glare, but answered nonetheless.
"Well, I did most of my training when I was a kid."
"So you were a child prodigy, then?" The butch sat up and regarded her intently, chitchat giving way to legitimate interest.
"You were...weren't you?" Persisted the dark woman, in response to Nia's blush.
"Yeah." The bar manager admitted, with some reluctance.
"I was...a little bit."
"Oh, hell." She laughed, as Jake's eyebrows shot up.
"I was downright precocious - I was talking by the time I was 7 months old. People used to flock to the house to watch me perform - isn't that awful?"
Nia's expression grew serious for a moment, and she gave vent to a shrug that was almost forlorn.
"I'm in my late twenties, and my Mum still brings it up. I think she likes to remember me as the perfect child - because I turned out so contrary to her expectations."
She shifted slightly between the sheets, managing to pull most of the covers off her companion - who smiled indulgently, half to herself, and said nothing.
"Do your parents know you're gay?"
Nia was hesitant as she asked this of her new friend. It was important for her to know at least the rudimentary details of her acquaintances' lives, not least those she had a habit of sleeping with. But it hadn't taken her long to glean that the dark woman would be loath to unveil even the most superficial of layers, if the bar manager's efforts to unwrap her emotional bundle were clumsy or crude.
The reply was candid, all right - and it almost knocked her for six.
"I never knew them." Jake said.
She spoke with no bitterness, but with a resignation that if not deadened, was at least anaesthetised in tone.
The blonde could have kicked herself for the tactlessness of her question. However, as was her wont, she refused to ignore the disclosure. Instead, she seized the revelation with both hands, and gave a good tug.
"I'm sorry. If I'd known I'd never have asked..."
"It's okay, really." The dark woman's voice was surprisingly warm.
"It's not as if they died or anything."
"So...how come you don't know them?" Nia ventured timorously.
"Because they put me in care when I was just a baby."
The blonde said no more, but her look spoke volumes as she trailed a small hand down the side of Jake's cheek. This quiet compassion was typical of a person whose solace was like a magnet for the troubled and heavy-hearted, and it seemed to urge the butch to carry on.
"I lived in a residential home." Jake said.
"It wasn't bad - the social workers were nice, but they were too busy dealing with the violent ones to parent us properly. And we didn't expect them to. After all, they had their own families at home, at the end of the day."
The dark woman's tone was low, sounding repressed and stilted to her listener, who wondered whether she might be pushing too hard.
Come on, Nia...perhaps you should give her a break. Not everyone can reveal this stuff so glibly as you.
But privately, the butch was amazed at herself. It felt to her as though the words were tumbling down a waterfall. And she was damned if she knew why, but she felt intrepid enough to navigate the rapids that surfaced ahead of her.
"While I was at college I managed to find out where I'd come from." She confessed.
"And was it what you'd expected?" The blonde asked.
"Not at all." Jake gave her lover a reticent and almost apologetic smile.
"My grandparents were gypsies who came over from Eastern Europe, I'm not sure where, exactly."
If Nia was taken aback, she certainly didn't show it. And the soundless absorption of Jake's little speech felt unbearably pleasant to one who'd spent the best part of her life being judged. It made her ravenous - she could glimpse cornucopia within the verdant mists of the bar manager's eyes, and she was impatient to find it. She took it like the Blessed Sacrament - a last cleansing, lingering peep - and elaborated.
"They came over during the Holocaust. But when they got here, they found it really hard to scrape a living." She sighed, quietly. "They escaped the gas chambers, but they almost starved instead."
Nia frowned, shaking her head in sympathy as she spread the duvet back over her friend, tucking it in and patting Jake's leg.
"My parents were even poorer than their parents were. So when I was born, they turned me over to Social Services." The butch finished, matter-of-factly.
"And they didn't keep in touch?"
The bar manager's question was mournful, because she already knew what the answer would be. The grief washed over her like a tidal wave, and she felt overwhelmed by it - not on behalf of the woman lying beside her in the morning sunlight, but for the abandoned child she could almost catch sight of, if she closed her eyes.
"No." The child sobbed, as the woman shook her raven head.
"While I was at college I tried to find them - but with no joy. They could be anywhere - It's not as though the Rom are asked to complete the Census." Jake said.
"I suppose not." Said Nia.
"I don't even have a birth certificate." Jake chuckled sadly, before stopping for a moment to gaze at the femme whose emerald eyes were still full of sympathy.
"I've never told anyone about my parents before." She confessed, in a whisper.
"Not even Kim?" Came the tremulous question.
"Not even Kim."
Lowering her eyes, Nia tried unsuccessfully not to gloat.
"So, why did you tell me?"
"I don't know." Was the honest answer.
"Well, I appreciate it." Whispered the bar manager, leaning forward to brush her new lover's lips with her own.
The kiss was gentle, and although it lacked the fervour of the previous night's exchanges, it contained something more significant and even more intimate - they were building a raft, a basis of trust and understanding. Jake felt her heart grow weightless within it - and playfully, she turned over, flipping the blonde on to her back.
"Now", She said, resting on her forearms and giving her companion a rakish grin.
"Play fair. Tell me something nobody else knows about you."
Delighted, Nia screwed up her face in concentration.
"I had six toes on my right foot when I was born." She deadpanned.
"You didn't!" Laughed the dark woman.
"And you call that a confession?"
"Hey! Nobody else but my Mum knows that! It was really hard for me to share it with you."
"Yeah, right." Replied the butch, with an affable tickle between Nia's toes, where she was inspecting the scar.
The dark woman gasped as Nia's body stretched out languorously before her - lithe and slender, built like a gazelle - or perhaps even a cheetah.
Yes, That's it...she thought.
A green eyed, golden-haired cheetah, with all its beauty and lacking none of its power, staring up at her with a look of total trust that she knew she didn't deserve.
God, I'm waxing poetic...I must have it bad.
She pressed a kiss to Nia's collarbone and heard the blonde sigh in response.
Last night, in the dark, she had strained to see her new lover with such spectacular clarity. Then, her sense of touch rather than her vision had been aroused, as she devoured Nia's soft skin and silken folds with her fingertips and tongue. This morning, her eyes were partaking of the feast.
"You are so beautiful, Nia." She breathed.
The Bar Manager shivered a little.
"I'm not going to hurt you." Whispered the butch tenderly.
"Not ever." This so faint, remote, under her breath - that it was barely audible.
Then the blonde spoke.
"Don't make promises you might not be able to keep." The growl startled her companion.
"Kiss me instead."
"Not there." Nia grunted, as the butch went for her mouth.
She raised her knee, propping her foot on the bed.
Was it an invitation or a command? Jake didn't care.
She just complied.Twelve
Tonight was going to be the night - she knew it.
It was dark in the small room, and silent - even the most inanimate objects looked strangely unfamiliar, as though they'd been moved just a little out of place. Not enough to make anyone look twice - but as much as was necessary to create a sense of unease. There was anticipation in the air, but not impatience - like the peculiar peace that falls when treasures long sought are within reach. The bar manager felt like a child on Christmas morning - tripping down the stairs at the end of a sleepless night, imagining the gift to come - and finally spotting it, beneath the tree. She felt no urge to move just yet. She just wanted to stay still for a minute, even to hold her breath. She knew that never again would this moment be so completely and utterly hers - that once she'd removed the wrapping the moment of offering would be over, reward granted - she might need to remind herself every once in a while to cherish it.
Then the blinds moved in the breeze and a weak beam from the streetlamp outside stole through, casting odd shadows on the surface of the bed. Nia's nerves responded to the faint wash of light, agitating and threatening to choke her. Her throat felt dry and constricted as the butch grasped her small hand, guiding it lower between the sheets.
"Are you sure you really want this?" She whispered to her partner.
Jake made no answer, but her grip was reassuringly firm as the blonde's fingers, beneath the dark woman's, made first contact with skin. The butch's thighs were surprisingly smooth, and Nia lingered there, and then amongst the damp, downy curls, as if to prolong the moment still further - before reverently parting the folds, nuzzling Jake's neck in an manner that was almost coy. She felt timid in the half-light - afraid to meet those piercing blue eyes, in case the butch saw the chaotic hunger swirling in the depths of her own.
The bar manager moaned in delight when warm wetness engulfed her fingers. The first touch was slow and uncertain, but the movement soon became instinctive as their tongues tangled together in the dark woman's mouth. Using the flat of two digits Nia made minute circles in the centre of the cleft, careful not to penetrate, and gasped involuntarily as flesh yielded under her hand. Feeling the nub of Jake's clitoris harden, she began to concentrate her ministrations there, wanting to feel it quiver as she rolled and tweaked it lightly between her fingers.
A fortnight had passed since their first sexual encounter.
And since then, the butch and the femme had spent at least part of every day together - enjoying conversation, silence, and a great deal of hot, heavy sex. Barrier after barrier had fallen away when confronted with Nia's empathetic presence, Jake fascinated by the woman who was able to diminish her defences so easily without making it a conquest. And Nia was slowly but surely beginning to feel safe.
But like Alice through the rabbit hole, she knew that there were plenty of doors yet unopened - she felt surrounded by them. Turning from one entrance to the next, she was poised at the largest of them all. She knew she could unlock it. She just had to make herself tall enough to reach the key.
The Bar Manager was aware that they'd assumed clearly demarcated roles in the bedroom as much because of her own mental block about giving gratification, as the butch's reluctance to lie on her back. At first, sensitivity and an intuitive respect for possible sexual boundaries had made her reticent - but even after it emerged that her new partner did indeed crave her touch, she felt impeded by her own lack of confidence. So she hesitated. And then she hesitated some more. And then she came close...but hesitated. And the self-doubt that often put shadows in the young Bar Manager's sea-green eyes had eventually made the dark woman forget about her own trepidation and unwillingness to surrender control - anything to chase the darkness away. Because when Nia smiled, it felt to her new lover as though the sun had come out to play.
And with every grunt of enjoyment sounding deep in the back of the dark woman's throat, Nia felt her courage bolstered. She knew the power of assurance as aphrodisiac, which drove her to maintain it - even though her insides were churning with nerves and insecurity. She forced herself to be wilful - to experience nothing but voracious, shameless lust - and image and reality began to blur. She turned into something debauched, immoral and relentless...and it was terribly sexy.
Jake was powerless to do anything but respond.
The butch's hips started a slow grind, and her thighs began to jerk in response to the work of the blonde's fingers. Her clitoral erection felt so good it was almost painful. The duvet had already hit the floor - but funnily enough, neither woman was cold.
Their tongues circled again, and then the dark woman began to devour the bar manager's throat - nibbling so doggedly that the blonde was almost distracted from her task.
But Nia needed this. She needed it like a drug, the sensation of her own sexual agency. The thought that she, Nia, was capable of acting as provider, giving fulfilment to such a potent partner, already had her wound so tight she felt she might explode. It was intoxicating. She wanted to take the woman into her mouth, to swallow her whole in one compulsive, succulent gulp - and she felt as though she would die, if she made Jake come. She also felt as though she'd sink into a hole in the ground if she didn't.
"I need your tongue, Nia..."
The dark woman breathed, stammering a little, into her lover's ear. Her eyes were closed and she threw her head back against the headboard as she asked for what she wanted, voice cracking at last with the abandonment of desire, limbs cumbersome in her intense arousal. Nia had never seen such a powerful sight.
And she needed no other invitation. Inclining her head in answer, limpid green eyes dark with sensuality, she traced a line down the dark woman's torso with feather-light kisses, striving to remain self-possessed. She loved the firmness that rose to meet her lips - and moaned in greedy satisfaction while she stopped to pay attention to the large, reddened nipples, lavishing a few butterfly flicks until they stood hard against her tongue. It was stunning, the way they crowned breasts as flat as a man's, merging into solid pectoral muscles that were as tense as the veins in the butch's neck, overwrought with stimulation. Sliding downwards, past an intricately toned, washboard abdomen, the blonde lowered her face to the dark triangle between her lover's legs, drinking in the womanly scent with a deep indrawn breath.
She felt quite wanton.
It was incredibly, subversively sexy - the juxtaposition of the masculine torso against something so unmistakeably female. Her mind and body were besotted by it.
First, she used the very tip of her tongue - painting her desire in a fine, delicate line and making the butch hiss with pleasure.
"Deeper." Came the grunt.
The dark woman reached down and parted herself, exposing her clitoris and pulling back the hood, muscles taut as her hips lifted in expectation. But Nia gently moved the butch's hands, replacing them with her own and stilling her movements for a second.
"Relax. Please." She said, softly.
"I can't do this if you don't trust me."
Both looked up, and at last their eyes met.
"Let go." Whispered the blonde. "You won't regret it."
It was a plea, and was recognised as such by femme and butch alike.
Nia had been to bed with women who were so loath to let anyone else influence their bliss that they did little more than thrust their pussies into her face until they were done. And she couldn't deny that she enjoyed it, being used like a vessel - it was hot because it felt so impersonal, pure sex with no trimmings, just two people connecting on a furiously physical plane. But looking at the butch who lay before her, legs spread to give her access, eyes drifting closed as Nia touched her most sensitive spots, the bar manager's past felt dreadfully empty.
She needed them to be inside their bodies - she needed the butch to know that it was Nia who could make her come. She was tired of being used - she wanted to gobble up this woman from within, to crawl inside the fierce, sweet-smelling cavity before her and become one with the blood that raced around the butch's veins.
And the bar manager felt tears well up in her eyes when the dark woman lay back on the pillows and put her hands behind her head, giving her a crooked smile and a barely perceptible nod. It was a momentous event for both - the movement a tacit agreement on the butch's part, to let the blonde do what she would.
Now Nia had to make sure she could perform.
Parting her lover with her own hands, she entered with her tongue, relishing the warmth that surrounded and buffeted the muscle. Slowly, she began to explore - using a subtle twist that forced her to move her neck and felt desperately erotic. Flesh was throbbing all around her mouth, and she paused for a second to run her teeth over the engorged clitoris, chewing gently until the butch gasped and shook.
Then she took a deep breath, and began in earnest. Her tongue soon reached a natural rhythm, the muscle alternating between short, sharp thrusts and more leisurely swirls that took in the whole landscape between the dark woman's legs.
She vaguely heard Jake whisper her name as she speeded up her assault, and it was as though she was supping at the wetness running down her own thighs as she buried her face between the dark woman's, sucking and fucking amongst the butch's moans and her own. Her own nipples were as hard as pebbles, and as she pushed her face further inside and arched her back they brushed against the sheets of the double bed, puckering and sending a rush of arousal that shot straight to her centre. Blood hammered at the hub between her legs until she felt ready to scream.
Nia knew Jake could overpower her physically - in fact, that was a turn-on in itself for the demure bar manager who normally kept her bit of kink well hidden. It also made her lover's consent even more precious. It made her feel almost faint, the fact that the same woman that could take her with such feral passion could surrender control and accept this gift, hips bucking, face contorted in rapture.
It didn't take long for the dark woman to come. She shuddered with a sensation so raw it was almost frightening. She was less vocal than the blonde - Nia often listened to her own arousal as a means to heighten it. But the femme could tell that the butch was at the point of no return when her limbs went rigid and began to spasm - and her release was marked by a delicious bolt of musky warmth that Nia just had time to drink, avidly licking the butch's skin, before her lover sat up. She was shaking, but her movements were brisk, almost panicked, as she snatched the femme up her body. Then she finally relaxed, spent and boneless, wrapping herself around the blonde with a pronounced sigh.
"I can't get close enough..." She whispered, wrapping her legs around Nia's waist and tucking the blonde's head under her chin.
Nia didn't know how long they lay there. Long enough for the dark woman's breathing to grow less uneven, and for the blonde to wonder whether her new partner had fallen asleep.
The dark woman shifted beside her, releasing a growl that spoke of a fire simmering deep in her belly. And as the butch began to touch her, Nia imagined herself writhing in ecstasy underneath those firm, practised hands. She whimpered with excitement when her lover crawled on top of her like a predatory animal, pinning her wrists behind her head and sinking her teeth into her neck.
"I'm going to fuck you now, Nia." It wasn't a question, it was a statement.
So the blonde made no reply, but reached into the bedside drawer and pulled out a harness.
"Use this. Please."
Jake groaned in gratitude as the blonde pushed her on to her back again, taking the dildo in her mouth and swallowing her erection with the same ardour as she'd bestowed on what was beneath it.
Drawled the butch lazily, a few hours later.
It was hot and sweaty beneath the covers of Nia's double bed - but neither woman had yet suggested an evening shower. Content to lie there in the evidence of their recent physical union, ensconced in a sanctuary they were loath to leave. Nothing was said about the massive seismic shift that had occurred between them, but another, unspoken agreement to prolong the new familiarity had quickly grown up in its place.
The dark woman reached down by the side of the bed, and pulled a carrier bag from one of the pockets of her jacket.
"Look inside." She urged gently, handing it to her bed-partner with an endearing, lopsided grin.
Nia returned her lover's bashful smile, and drew out a scarf - exactly like the one she'd impulsively given Pete a few weeks ago.
"Oh, Jake..." She breathed.
It was a small token, really - but the gift touched her to the core. The bar manager wasn't normally impressed by presents, infinitely preferring to be granted time and consideration, rather than any material possession. She'd also learned from experience that habitual extravagance of any manner normally had an ulterior motive - namely, to compensate for perceived inadequacies in other areas. Flowers, chocolates, soft toys and jewellery had all been thrown at her - and generally left her cold.
But the enormity of this tiny gesture made her gasp. It spoke to the deep-seated need of a soul that was so weary it belied her youth - that her new friend had noticed her bequest to another person, and had not only appreciated, but also sought to replenish it. It was quite extraordinary.
"This is wonderful. I'm overwhelmed. Thank you."
The femme followed up her thanks with a kiss - and her heart was on her lips.
"Aw...hey now, It's only a scarf."
Stammered the dark woman, obviously a little uncomfortable in the face of her own thoughtful deed, and such effusive gratitude on the part of its recipient.
"It's only fair, since you gave yours to Pete."
"But you're not responsible for Pete, Jake. You really didn't have to do this."
A short silence fell, during which the dark woman stared at the duvet and her new friend handled her present with the delighted wonder of a child.
"I'd had that scarf for years...where did you find this?" Nia asked, eventually looking up.
"Well, it was a bit of a mission." Admitted the butch.
In fact, it had been more difficult than that - she'd spent a whole weekend trawling Manchester's vintage shops looking for an exact replica of Nia's lost accessory. Normally, she would have found such a task irritating in the extreme, but she amazed herself with her own tenacity, the thought of the Bar Manager's sweet, delighted face spurring her on in her quest.
And she had to admit it was worth it. Beaming, Nia stared at the scarf for a few more moments, before folding and returning it to the bag.
"You're a sweetheart." She said.
"In fact, you're almost too good to be true." She continued, playfully.
"I am?" Laughed the butch. "It's the first I've heard."
"It's true! You're an absolute darling." The bar manager insisted.
"I can't even believe you're single - I keep expecting a jealous girlfriend to burst in here and scratch my eyes out at any moment. You're not keeping anything quiet, are you?
The question was half-joking, but it had serious undertones, and both knew it. The femme had already glimpsed parts of the enigma that was her new companion - she realised that some of the secrets would take a while to emerge, and that she would probably need to be patient, if the relationship was to progress any further. But she was eager to get closer - and although she knew better than to push for information, she couldn't resist a light-hearted probe.
The teasing backfired in a dramatically unpleasant manner.
Jake took one look into her lover's earnest green eyes, and the glib response that was about to roll off her tongue stopped dead in its tracks. She took Nia's hand, almost as though she feared that the blonde might drift away, if she decided to reply.
And the shift in her body language, the guilt in her motion, the blink that lasted just a second too long, ignited all the blonde's defences at once. She disengaged her hand from her companion's grasp.
"There is, isn't there?" She asked, tightly.
"Someone else, I mean."
After the intimacy they'd shared, this accusation felt like a bucket of cold water dashed in the dark woman's face. She recoiled from it, automatically hanging her head.
The confirmation the bar manager was looking for.
Nia jumped out of bed and began to dress rapidly, tension etched into the lines of her face.
"I can't believe this."
"Nia, wait." Jake managed.
"I haven't even answered you yet."
Nia stopped and regarded her a little sadly.
"You don't need to." She said.
"I can tell by your eyes. You're in love with someone else. I can practically see her."
"Nia, That's ridiculous. Yes, I was in love once - but that was years ago."
The dark woman protested.
But she knew the blonde's assumption, although hasty, was at least partly justified. She'd never really gotten over the beautiful African woman who'd broken her heart, whose name was now never spoken - the feelings had been bottled up, not mentioned, not laid to rest. She couldn't believe Nia had intuited this, but she couldn't completely naysay the hunch that was rapidly growing into a catastrophe in her lover's head.
Nia was fully dressed now, and looked wild-eyed and distraught. Like a woman who was struggling to maintain control - who would come undone as soon as she was left alone.
"I can't believe this is happening to me again." She whispered numbly.
"Nia, let's talk about this. Please."
Jake tried again, helpless in her nakedness and in the face of the blonde's obvious distress.
"There's nothing to talk about. I don't want to know. I think you should leave."
The butch's last attempt was summarily and decisively silenced when her new lover collected her clothes into a ball and threw them across the bed towards her.
"I mean it! I'm sick and tired of being second best, Jake. Why is it that I'm always the bloody booby prize?"
Realising that discussion was futile, Jake blindly began to don her clothes. The over-reaction was becoming hurtful in the extreme. And deciding that the best course of action would be to get out as soon as possible, to save either of them any further humiliation, she resolved to let her new friend endure her pain in peace. Not stopping to think that perhaps walking out at that very moment would bear out all the blonde's worst fears, that what Nia really needed to know was that the dark woman had staying power, that she was prepared to fight for the budding relationship they shared. Which meant insisting that they talk things out - instead of vanishing at the first sign of trouble.
But she knew no better than to disappear - and in a few moments she was at the door.
"Just let me say one thing before I leave." She murmured heavily, before she opened it.
The blonde gave her a tight-lipped nod. Anguish was stamped on her features, and the butch had to force herself to remain calm, gulping back the lump that rose in her own throat at the sight.
"You're not second-best as far as I'm concerned. You're the most amazing woman I've ever met."
She really meant it, she realised, even as the words escaped her.
The femme had stopped her manic movements, and the dark woman paused again, her hand resting reluctantly on the doorknob. Realising that when the door slammed shut in her face she might never walk through it again, and hoping against hope that the agitated blonde might relent and give her a last minute reprieve.
But the green eyes grew shuttered, and when Nia spoke again her voice was detached, as though she was speaking about some other person, living some other life.
"Listen, Jake. The last butch I fell in love with was unable to love me back, because she'd already given her heart to someone else. She ended up hating me for it. And I stayed because I didn't think I deserved any better. I thought it was right for me to be an unpaid slave who cooked and cleaned and made myself available for her to grope when there was no sport on telly. I thought it was normal for me to spend my evenings sitting in bars, nodding and smiling while she played pool and danced with other women."
Her voice broke as she continued.
"And later on, I thought it was acceptable for her to yell at me, push me around and call me worthless. So you see, even the slightest possibility that there's someone you haven't quite gotten over, is too much of a risk."
The butch made no answer. Refusing to take responsibility for another woman's obvious mistakes, she could nevertheless understand the agony that motivated the bar manager's excessive response. She'd felt it herself, when her heart had been broken - although somehow, being the spectator as Nia relived the disaster seemed even more harrowing than her own had been.
"Look." The femme muttered, a little more calmly.
"I think you're a wonderful person. I'm terribly, desperately attracted to you. But I need more than you telling me it's really me you want, before I can feel safe."
"I don't understand."
"You can tell me over and over again, Jake, but I've heard it all before, and it turned out to be lies. Words are easy. I need to be shown."
The butch turned to leave. But before she did, the blonde bar manager grabbed her coat sleeve in a last fraught, penitent plea.
"I can't be a victim of your past. And if you really wanted to put it behind you, you could."
The words were harsh, and after she finally left the small flat, they rang in the dark woman's ears for days.
Nia spoke sadly into the phone, a few hours later. It was almost midnight - and she'd been pacing her tiny apartment. Remembering Jake's kind, sensitive face, and the way the dark woman had felt beneath her hands, and berating herself for letting the butch under her skin too soon.
"I like her - I really do. But she's starting to look like a bad risk."
The sound of Rachel's heavy sigh made her friend flinch.
"Do you really want my opinion, Nia?"
The blonde spoke a little tentatively, knowing she was probably in for a few home truths. After the fiasco with KJ, Rachel had spent the best part of three months telling her friend how stupid she'd been, how she really ought to be a better judge of character, and sharing various gems of wisdom concerning her terrible choice that had made Nia reluctant to even start a conversation.
Wincing, she held the phone away from her ear, expecting more of the same to come careering down the line.
But Rachel's answer was totally unexpected.
"I think you're being terribly hasty and a little unfair."
The bar manager felt almost physically winded.
"Wh...what?" She stammered.
"I know you've been hurt before, Nia," said her friend, "but you really can't tar everyone with the same brush. And I think you'll regret it if you don't see Jake again."
Wow...thought the blonde, managing to regain her composure. I definitely didn't see that coming.
"Care to explain?" She asked.
Rachel took an unusually melodramatic breath that resonated painfully in her friend's ear. Nia was rapidly starting to wish she'd sat on her impulses and not picked up the phone.
"First of all, you didn't even wait for her to explain before you told her to get out. You're making some pretty big assumptions based on very little evidence, Nia."
Unseen by the computer programmer, the blonde hung her head.
"I suppose so."
She owned, in a small voice. Deep down she knew it - she'd over-reacted dreadfully, letting her own scars dictate her behaviour toward someone who had nothing to do with them.
"And I think you need to learn to trust again, Nia - or soon it'll be too late." Unaware of the turmoil her words were causing, Rachel carried on like a bull in a china shop. Nia could almost hear the sound of objects smashing, as her friend ransacked her emotions with the usual lack of tact and diplomacy.
"What on earth do you mean?" Asked the blonde.
"Just listen to me for a moment." Her friend told her. "You've had a tough ride with relationships, I know."
"That's certainly true." Nia agreed wryly, eyes flicking round the room at the evidence of this statement - pictures of ex-lovers, memories of failed pairings - smiling sadly back at her. Some who'd hurt her feelings, some whose feelings she'd hurt, some who'd just drifted away - every time leaving her a little more alone than before.
"And it seems to me that most people are attracted to you because of what you give them, rather than because of who you are." The computer programmer began her analysis.
"Yes, I generally do give more than I get back. But I'm cool with that, Rachel."
Nia could almost see her friend shaking her head in exasperation at what was obviously a blatant lie.
"Are you really? I don't believe you're cool with the fact that nobody seems to give a damn about what's inside you. Don't you want them to care about what makes you tick? You're all things to all people, Nia - and you always lose yourself in the process. Are you really cool with that?"
"No." The bar manager fought back the urge to cry, as her friend became increasingly irate.
"It's as though you have this instinctive connection with anyone in pain. Even if the magnitude of their pain is outside the realms of your experience. I've never seen anything like it."
"I can't help caring, Rach."
"I know. But it drains you. You bleed a little, whenever you see someone suffering. You feel for them, you wind up taking their troubles on if you possibly can. You want to heal the world. And you can't do it alone."
Finally there was quiet, as a fundamental truth was spoken. It rested between them for a moment - Nia completely overwhelmed, and Rachel wondering whether she'd finally overstepped the mark.
"But I've always been on my own." The bar manager replied eventually, sadness tinging her voice.
"Right." Came the quiet reply.
"I can sense that sometimes. It's in your eyes - because nobody seems interested, you've decided to keep yourself to yourself, to avoid being disappointed when they turn out just like everyone else. You don't really trust a soul, because you feel as though you can't count on anybody to be there in your time of need."
Tears streaming down her face, Nia nodded into the phone.
"Unless you find someone to lean on when you're tired, you're always going to feel this way." Said Rachel, a little more kindly. "You need someone who knows that sometimes you need a little looking after, that you need a safe, quiet space where you can regain your strength."
"Yes, I do." Nia replied, heavily.
"But I've come to the conclusion that such a person doesn't exist."
Rachel took the phone away from her ear for a moment, to brush her own tears away from her cheeks.
Nia was the most sensitive, empathetic person the computer programmer had ever met and probably would ever come across - and she knew that for someone like her beloved friend, the world could seem very cruel. Perhaps Nia was right - perhaps what she was looking for didn't even exist. But until she was shown conclusive proof of this, Rachel would refuse to believe it.
She felt helpless, and she hated the sensation. So she did what came naturally to her - she tried to provide a solution to the situation at hand, instead of speculating about problems she couldn't control.
"Well, I don't know Jake at all, but from what you've said, it seems to me as though she warrants a second chance."
"Rachel..." Nia began.
"Just think about it - think about how close you've gotten in such a short time. Look at how she behaved with that homeless guy. And you've already told me that she's a gentleman - which is a big improvement on that reptile you dated before. Give her another chance, Nia - it's worth a shot." Rachel said.
"But it's not that easy, is it?" Nia continued to protest. "Yes, she's all those things you just said...and more."
"So what's the problem?" Unseen by her friend, Rachel threw up her hands in disbelief, while Nia emitted a tragic, high-pitched laugh.
"She just walked away." The bar manager said, quietly.
"Nia, you threw her out!"
The blonde sighed, knowing she was beaten this time.
"Give her time, Nia." Rachel said. "She's probably licking her wounds."
"Maybe." Was the glum reply.
Rachel smiled into the phone.
"She'll be back. And if an ex-girlfriend is all she's hiding, you're lucky."
She was terrified.
It had taken her days to decide to come - and she didn't really know how she'd reached the conclusion. It wasn't even rational - she felt driven, compelled to make the Bar Manager listen to what she had to say. She'd been miserable ever since she left the blonde's apartment, unhappier than she'd been in years. Nobody in her recent past had managed to have such an impact on her state of mind. Normally, she would have resented it - but instead, she felt as though she was just waking up, roused by the power of these unusual emotions. She felt wretched, but at the same time more alive than she could ever recall.
As was her habit, she hadn't spoken to a soul. She'd considered going to Kim for a few words of advice but had shied away, feeling that a talking-to from even her gentle friend would probably be too much to bear. So she'd gone it alone - but this time, instead of brushing the confusion aside, she'd taken the plunge and examined it.
It was the first time in years - and she was a little out of practice. In fact, the dark woman was so unused to self-analysis that it had taken a manic workout and a few bottles of beer before she could even bring herself to sit still and think about what had passed between her and the sensitive, anguished femme. So it was a miracle in itself, that she'd turned up at the door of the bar so soon.
Jake wasn't emotionally stunted, but she often did a good imitation of it. She'd spent years "playing it tough," bottling up her feelings, ignoring her emotions, and compartmentalising her experiences. She just didn't want to deal with them. At the time, she'd told herself she just didn't have the energy for all the negativity, but in reality, it was more that she was afraid.
As afraid as she was now. Except this time, something was different.
Nia's tear-streaked face, her quiet plea to be shown proof of their burgeoning bond, had made the dark woman realise just how effectively she'd shut any genuine communication out of her life. She'd hurt women who had loved her, and had thought it was acceptable to do it, because someone had hurt her before. Then, she'd wanted a woman who looked nice and didn't talk back. Now, she told herself it was time she grew up, and made herself available for someone who could really be her equal.
And in addition to all this, the thought of wounding the small bar manager seemed totally unconscionable.
She shook her head at her own timidity, and stepped through the door. Heading straight for the bar, navigating a few tables and chairs placed in her way, she took a deep breath and prepared to ask for an audience.
The petite brunette she normally made a habit of checking out was manning the pumps. But unusually, the butch barely noticed her. She certainly didn't bother with the customary flirtation, and her lack of interest caused Lizzie to look a little miffed. But the dark woman didn't seem to notice this either. For once in her life, she was focused on one woman, and one woman alone. The instincts that had dictated her social behaviour and fed her ego in times past were well and truly curbed. She had one object, and what she would previously have defined as harmless fun now seemed like a gratuitous distraction. Kim would have jumped for joy to see it.
"Is Nia in?"
Was her immediate, purposeful question. And after answering Liz's nod with one of her own, she turned towards the stairs.
She paused outside Nia's office. She'd reached her destination, and the sight of the closed door threw her for a blank. All the soul-searching of the past few days seemed suddenly futile, when confronted with the thought of Nia's reproachful face. Her courage began to falter, and she almost turned on her heel.
In other relationships, Jake had invariably indulged her instinct to walk...no, to run...away at the first sign of failure, telling herself this was the only route that would afford her any dignity. Mistakenly interpreting what was actually an overweening pride and defining it as self-respect, she'd lost friends and lovers as a result. They'd all been relegated to the bottom of the litter-heap that was forming in her heart, while she moved on without looking back.
But for some reason she felt unable to take flight this time. The urge to break away was tempered by something infinitely stronger. She was unable to define it, but it was beyond her control - she felt an irresistible pull towards this dirty Manchester bar, and its charming young manager. It came surging up from her gut, and it felt inexorable as the tides. There was something she wanted, and she was prepared to fight for it.
So she swallowed her pride, her qualms and her past, and pushed at the door. She didn't even think to knock.
And when it swung open, there was no need for words. The femme had risen from her desk, but when she saw the dark woman standing there, contrite and anxious, she froze. For a moment she looked as shocked as someone who'd been shot.
The butch choked out, before her arms were full of shaking, stammering blonde.
"I'm sorry..." Nia whispered.
Nia leaned back in her swivel chair, pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and smiled quietly to herself.
What she really felt like doing was purring like a cat.
Or standing on top of her desk and giving three cheers.
If the staff hadn't all been downstairs setting up for the lunchtime rush, she might have done just that.
She sighed contentedly.
The past few weeks had been some of the happiest of her life. For once, everything was right with the small woman's world. On the surface, nothing appeared to have changed - but underneath, a strange sense of clarity was edging its way into the midst of the usual confusion. And the strangest thing about it was that the reason for this new peace was the dark, mysterious stranger who'd walked into her life less than three months ago and who had, paradoxically, brought her a flash of light. And even more marvellous, after the first flash the brightness had decided to remain, transmuting itself into a warm glow that filled them both with joy.
The two women had since laughed - albeit a little nervously - about the blonde's initial conviction that Jake spelled trouble. Because it had turned out that since their first confrontation and the butch's mad dash into the bar to try and patch things up, their relationship had gone from strength to strength.
That afternoon had been one neither would ever forget. After the worst of the emotional storm abated, they sat in Nia's small office for hours, the dark butch holding her lover tight against her chest as the first waves of discord broke over them...and passed. They talked a little, trading stumbling, incoherent declarations and confessions - and had eventually realised there was no more need for words. Their understanding was already becoming deep and instinctive, and was born from a few core similarities that transcended their dramatic differences. They were as unlike as night and day - but seemed to come together in the half-light that united the two.
The bar manager smiled to herself again.
She was starting to feel very, very lucky. For the first time in her life, she felt as though everything was going her way.
If she'd wanted proof of the butch's burgeoning attachment, she had certainly been given it with the appearance of the dark woman at her door that day - eyes full of regret and trouble, voice breaking with the fear that she'd really screwed up this time. The blonde's resolve to stand firm against any efforts to charm her chagrin had not been able to withstand the image that confronted her - the butch was genuinely distraught that conflict had broken out so soon between them and was clearly desperate to put it right - something that the femme could sense was not usually the case with her proud companion. So Nia had taken a deep breath - and decided to trust. And she was starting to realise that this was the best decision she'd ever made. Just a month later, the feelings of security and safety she experienced were new...and also staggering. The sense could actually be described as tangible, she reflected - she could actually put her finger on it - in short, it was real.
For a start, the two women were becoming friends. Not just acquaintances who enjoyed each other's company in the bedroom as well as outside it - her usual, empty experience - but real, firm friends. It was far and away the closest and most fulfilling friendship to have touched her short life...and her new friend also happened to make her weak at the knees. This was a phenomenon as far as the bar manager was concerned. Or perhaps, she could more accurately term it a miracle. Sex and communication had been sadly disparate entities in her life thus far, since once one began, the other tended to disappear. In her shakier moments, she feared that the novelty would wear off with this newest and most precious acquaintance, the little voice of doubt whispering that Jake was bound to get bored and stop making the effort eventually. But deep in her heart Nia was sure that these new feelings were too solid to be frightened away. They filled her mind, and were beginning to gain purchase on her heart.
Sometimes, the blonde felt almost pitiful in her gratitude, ashamed to admit that nobody had been interested in her before. But nobody really had. She hadn't been beneath notice - scores of people had sought her out, all wanting something they knew she could offer - but this attention had waned once the desired prize had been granted, leaving Nia with a full and hopeful heart that was destined to be disappointed. The loneliness had eventually become too much, and in reaction, she locked the most precious parts of herself away, no longer able to risk the rejection that threatened to crush her with each new neglect. But with every day spent in the dark woman's presence she increasingly felt as though she was the subject of a true and genuine attention. And as this impression was cemented over the course of picnics, dinners, coffees and plenty of whispered bedside confidences, the two women related many of their experiences and aired feelings that had barely before seen the light of day. The mutual risk-taking this involved was slowly but surely forcing Nia's fears to dissipate. When first confronted with the strength and power of her new companion she found it hard to divorce her feelings from the self-absorbed brutality that had come at her from her previous lover and the thugs who dominated her life. The pain she'd endured had taken its toll, and the resulting scars were deeply etched - not manifesting themselves in bitterness and resentment, but in skittishness and an inability to meet the butch's eye. But these misgivings were gradually beginning to slip away. Nia knew her new lover was dangerous. Probably deadly, in fact. Nobody admitted to the privilege of her company could come to any other conclusion. But somehow, in the presence of the small blonde the dark woman became milder, her impulses for competition and aggression unable to withstand the bar manager's sweet, empathetic face. She found herself wanting to be unusually gentle - because before she even knew it, her heart was sweetly and gently possessed. It was an inadvertent surrender by the primeval force that had terrorised Manchester's underworld for so many years. And as Jake put her heart on the line and took Nia's small hand in her own, it became almost impossible for the blonde to hold back.
Nia remembered waking up in the middle of the night not long ago, to find the butch resting on one elbow, watching her, with a smile on her face and a strange light in her eyes.
"What are you doing, Jake?" She murmured, sleepily.
The butch smiled sheepishly - and Nia caught her breath at the look her companion bestowed upon her. There was admiration there, and tenderness - and something else that she could not define.
"Just looking." The dark woman replied, searching the blonde's eyes with her own, before reaching out with a gentle hand to smooth a strand of fair hair away from her face.
Nia smiled and heaved a drowsy sigh, and as her head began to nod she felt herself being pulled close by strong, steady arms. She fell asleep on the butch's chest, to the sensation of her back being gently scratched and her lover breathing in her ear.
Things had been...difficult...of late.
As her relationship with the dark woman had grown more serious, Nia had become increasingly concerned about her assistant's feelings. At first she'd tried - albeit unsuccessfully - to curb the joy of her new romance in her friend's presence. She hung her head to hide her flushed cheeks and shining eyes, made feeble excuses for rolling in late to work, and became unusually withdrawn as she attempted to restrain the desire to share her bliss with all and sundry. But instinct and good sense both told her that this solution would be transient at best. That apart from the fact that she was a lousy liar, feelings would be hurt, sooner or later, if she continued to dissemble. Respect for new lover and old friend had eventually driven her to come clean - she knew the budding relationship that occupied her waking hours, and most of those during which she should have been asleep, was not going to prove to be a flash in the pan. And as well as being anxious to grant this fact due recognition, she also felt the futility of any effort to spare her assistant immediate pain, when this was bound to lead to greater upset in the long run. Nia preferred to take action and make herself responsible for the earlier hurt, rather than let inaction invite a later one. And although she cherished her friendship with the small butch, she was reluctant to pander to the fear and guilt that weighed on her mind, because she knew that the omissions that made her blameless would also break Max's heart eventually.
So, she had resolved to lay bare her connection with the dark stranger who had filled her assistant with such dismay on their first meeting. She was heartened by the possibility that if she did so, her friend would eventually decide to find some other object for her attentions. Frankly, Nia felt that it was a terrible waste - Max had a capacity for love the like of which she'd never seen. To squander that on someone whose feelings would never be mutual seemed senseless, as far as the bar manager was concerned. She had told her assistant the whole truth - she'd spoken quietly and clearly and tried with all her might to break the news as gently as possible - but she had also been candid and direct, refusing to mince any words. And the selflessness of the butch's devotion had been revealed in her response - cognisant of the fact that her misgivings had already been voiced, she had kept her mouth tightly closed and offered nothing but her support. Nia had come away from the conversation with an unshakeable conviction that no matter what happened, Max would be behind her all the way. It was a gift for which she could find no words of adequate thanks.
However, adjusting to the new situation in practice rather than in theory was another matter. Previously, Nia's status as a singleton had put her fairly constantly at her friend's disposal, and Max was not accustomed to being anything but first on the bar manager's social list. So she veered between being sulky and melancholy, or angry and critical, depending on her mood - and despite all their best efforts, relations between the two friends had become extremely strained. Max was dealing with her tumultuous emotions as best she could, and Nia was feeling ready to plummet, as her friend finally began to chip away at the pedestal on which she'd sat for as long as they'd known each other.
Shuffling past her manager's desk, Max sat down at her desk without a word.
Nia sighed, and turned back to her work. Fire and Ice felt alien and strange without their usual banter. The easy rapport she'd developed with her assistant had brought them through periods of stress and boredom alike - and its absence had been noted by both. It was upsetting. They'd reached a point where they'd begun to work in miserable silence - and neither was able to get anything done because of it. It was pretty intolerable, Nia reflected, as she looked down at the order summary she'd been filling in for the past hour and shook her head.
Gotta get over it, Nia - or this place is going to go to pot. You've got a job to do.
And as the femme turned back to her task with renewed concentration, the butch looked up from hers. Her assistant had been thinking, Nia could tell - there was a familiar furrow creasing the broad brow that signified something was about to happen. And a moment later, with a brief, decisive nod of her head, Max held out the paper she'd been reading.
"Hey, have you seen this?" She asked, a little awkwardly.
Nia quirked a tentative eyebrow - having caught a glimpse of the headline, 'SWAGGERING INTO SOFT-TOUCH UK' - and held out her hand.
She knew she was accepting more than the paper, as her assistant passed it across the desk towards her - it was a conciliatory gesture, made in the only way Max knew how. It looked as though they were going to have their first argument in weeks.
"What is it?" The blonde asked, hiding a grin.
"Oh, the Mail are being xenophobic again. Apparently, we're letting in millions of asylum-seekers through an 'open door' in the Balkans."
Max informed her, with a familiar look in her eye. She was being provoked, Nia knew it - and inwardly rejoicing, she decided to take the bait. Smiling to herself, she gave the article a quick skim.
"God, I wish they'd give those people a break!" She said, with genuine anger colouring her voice.
"Isn't that part of being a developed country? Don't we have a duty to provide refuge to citizens who aren't so lucky?"
"I don't know, Nia..."
Max began, automatically - words that were bound to goad her friend into a full-blown rant. It was a pattern as old as their friendship - they'd been interacting this way ever since they first met - and after the enmity of the past weeks, the bickering was inordinately comforting to both.
"No, really...I'm serious."
The bar manager sat bolt upright in her chair as she began to get into her stride, and her assistant unsuccessfully tried to conceal her glee. Max was fond of playing 'devil's advocate' where her small friend was concerned, willing to make statements that were outrageous and basically untenable, in order to see Nia get on a roll. It was pretty spectacular, as most of their staff would agree. A keen intellect, plus a passionate belief in justice and an often-ridiculed belief that wrongs could be righted, made the bar manager a formidable opponent in any discussion.
"We should take a leaf out of Sweden's book, Max - the first thing they do with newcomers is explain their rights. The first thing WE do is try and work out how soon we can send them home! And anyway, I'd rather make room for two billion asylum-seekers than all the drugs that seem to be slipping to us through the Balkans these days."
"I don't know, Nia..." Max demurred again, in a tone she calculated would be non-committal enough to stir a further burst of indignation.
"Who let the Daily Mail into this bar, anyway?" Nia scowled, playing - as both knew she would - straight into her assistant's hands.
"Bloody Nazis, all of them. Honestly, Max - all the journalists probably have copies of Mein Kampf and The Fountainhead jostling the pens for space in their desk drawers. It's disgusting."
She let out a disdainful snort.
"And the people who read it are almost as bigoted - the sort who start every sentence with, 'I'm not racist, but...' You know that's bad news."
"Please don't buy it, Max - it upsets me." She finished, a little more mildly.
"But the sports pages are good."
The butch eventually managed to object, elated with the knowledge that resistance was futile.
Looks like I'll have to start reading another paper. She grinned wryly to herself. Trying to change Nia's mind once she'd made it up was about as easy as trying to stop a steamroller.
The two exchanged a genuine smile, before Max went upstairs to put change in the tills, giving Nia's shoulder a friendly rub before she went.
Somewhat mollified by her conversation with Max, Nia turned back to her work with renewed vigour. The silence that had fallen between herself and her assistant had been a source of great distress over the past weeks, and after the friendly interaction her heart felt considerably lighter.
I really thought I was going to lose a friend over this...she thought. Looks as though I underestimated her. That was pretty unfair, Nia.
Feeling a little guilty, she opened the drawer at her feet and began to rifle through the hanging files. An old member of staff had written to complain about a missing paycheque, and Nia had promised to sift through her records in order to get to the bottom of the problem. It was going to be no small task. Pulling out a wad of papers and setting them down in her lap, she began to thumb through, skimming the names and photographs with a practised eye.
While she did so, she resumed her contemplations. Her relationship with the dark woman was in its infancy, it was true - but there was already an understanding between them, a genuine bond, that was as rare as it was precious. Beyond their initial, physical attraction, the two women had discovered that they just plain liked each other - a luxury Nia had never experienced as part of her relationships in the past. She reflected wryly that had she met many of her previous lovers in different situations, they probably would not have even warranted her interest as friends.
A couple of weeks ago, Nia had decided that she wanted to do something to show her appreciation for this new friendship - so she invited the dark butch over to her flat for dinner. She was determined the meal was going to be a masterpiece - and had slaved in her tiny kitchen all day long, in order to create a dish worthy of a true culinary virtuoso. The desire to impress her new lover had also driven her to shop for the occasion, and before Jake arrived, the small blonde slipped into her latest secret weapon - a dark blue cocktail dress cut so low in the back that she blushed at herself in the mirror. But her fight with her inhibitions proved more than worthwhile, when she saw the look of stunned appreciation on her guest's face.
"You look...beautiful." Managed the butch, stooping down to confer a kiss that almost left the bar manager breathless.
The Thai curry Nia had lovingly created was almost left to blacken in the pan after this - and it was only the memory of the day's efforts that motivated the blonde to stay her partner's wandering hands long enough to serve up her creation with a couple of large glasses of wine.
Excitement had put a damper on the bar manager's hunger; and she did little more than chase her portion around her plate, watching lustfully as her guest devoured the meal and bestowed praise that made her verdant eyes sparkle in the candlelight.
"This is wonderful, Nia." Jake said, and the blonde beamed with delight.
After a few mouthfuls, the butch sat back in her chair, taking a long swig of wine. Rather too long, Nia thought...noticing a suspicious pucker at the corners of Jake's mouth.
Her own plate remained untouched...and tentatively, she put the first forkful in her mouth. It took all her self-control not to spit it straight back into her napkin. The curry was unbearably hot - leaving an unpleasant aftertaste that Nia found somewhat reminiscent of sour milk.
"My God!" She exploded. "This is disgusting!"
She met the butch's eyes, and saw relief mingle with embarrassment between the shades of blue.
"It's kinda...spicy." Jake admitted.
"But I'm enjoying it." She said earnestly, trying to placate the mortified chef.
"Nobody could enjoy eating that, Jake." The blonde snapped back, overcome with discomfiture at her failure. "It's horrible. I must have got the proportions wrong, or something."
Looking down at her feet, Nia fought the urge to cry. Her plans for the perfect evening of seduction had gone sadly awry - and she found herself uncharitably wishing that her guest would just take her leave, and leave her alone with her misery.
However, Jake had no intention of doing anything of the sort. Nia suddenly found herself looking into a kind, sympathetic face, as the butch got down on her knees before her.
"Nia, the meal was perfect. It really was." She said, softly. "Because you made it...for me."
Despite a strong compulsion to sulk, to show the butch the door and to berate herself after it closed in her face, a smile tugged at the bar manager's lips.
"I never thought a tough guy like you would be such a sweetheart." She confessed. "Thanks."
"You're welcome." Returned the dark woman. "Now can I please have a glass of water?"
The meal was finished with a hearty laugh and some grilled cheese sandwiches - and for Nia, a feeling of real intimacy that she'd long been deprived of. With KJ, any small mistake had been treated as a crime - and had usually been accompanied by a torrent of abuse. The small blonde had laboured under the image her partner had projected upon her since the day they first met - and it turned out to be an impossible set of instructions, designed to make her feel as though any minor imperfection was a disaster of heinous proportions. Being allowed space to screw up was certainly new to her experience.
Jake would have eaten that whole plateful of curry, rather than hurt my feelings...she thought, amazed. I can't believe anyone would do that for me.
Her thoughts snapped back to the missing paycheque, as she caught sight of a familiar face on one of the staff files. Examining it more closely, she noticed the job title 'Manager', and realised that she must be looking at a picture of her predecessor. A clean-shaven man with deep-set, merry eyes - Nia idly wondered where she'd seen the face before. And as she stared at the small passport photo paperclipped to the foolscap wallet, a beard began to grow in her mind...getting longer, coarser, and more bushy...until the face confronting her was that of Pete, Jake's homeless friend.
She blinked a couple of times in disbelief.
It can't be. Pete used to manage this place?
I wonder what happened to him?
She unclipped the picture and held it up to the light to study it more closely.
Jake said he got addicted to crack. No...she said that someone 'got him' addicted. That means Matt and his gang were probably responsible.
And with a sinking feeling, Nia knew she couldn't put this kind of cruelty past her aloof, inscrutable boss. She'd long known that Matt's distant manner and cool detachment were merely a veneer assumed to hide an implacable, noxious ferocity. To assume that the man adhered to any kind of moral code would have been foolhardy to say the least.
She stared at the picture again. It was unmistakably Pete - the face was clean of muck and streetwise stubble, but the eyes - kindly, almost ingenuous - were the same eyes that had filled with tears when she wrapped her scarf around his neck on that cold night, almost a month ago.
So how does Jake know him? Her mind turned rapidly from one possibility to another. And it was testament to the bar manager's growing bond of trust with the dark woman, that the obvious answer was not uppermost in her thoughts.
But suddenly...the penny dropped.
Nia felt sick to her stomach. The photograph slipped from her limp fingers, and disappeared under the desk as she collapsed against it. She retched, holding on to the back of her chair for support, as the betrayal hit her with full force.
Jake's involved with Matt, after all.
The blonde closed her eyes, unable to keep her balance as her brain turned in circles around her, accelerating from zero to five hundred miles an hour, in about a millisecond. What little she already knew of the dark woman told her with certainty that if Jake was caught up in gangland activities, she wouldn't just be a small-time thug. She wouldn't be one of Matt's satellites, she'd be his right-hand man - the jewel in his crown, glittering black and fierce beside him.
I don't believe it.
Grisly details began to flood her senses, threatening to overwhelm Nia's troubled mind as she called up snapshots of gangland legends she'd heard people whisper about - one of these a vengeful fiend who was at once boy and girl but also neither - and who invariably disappeared into the night leaving death in her wake.
She fell to her knees beside her chair.
Remembering Jake's appearance in Fire and Ice on New Year's Eve, and on the dot of six O'clock on New Year's Day - and realising with a sick feeling that these had both been scheduled times for drug pick-ups. Recalling the terror on the Blue Cap's face when the dark woman surprised him in the cellar, Matt's shocked expression when he first clapped eyes on her, and her subsequent hasty exit from the bar. Recollecting her equally hurried and inexplicable departure from Al's party - which had occurred at about the same time as the clientele began to look shady, and the cocaine began to flow.
And also thinking back to the incident in the Ladies' bathroom...when Jake's masculine appearance had thrown suspicion upon her right to be there. And as the pieces clicked into place, the odd moments of disquiet the blonde had been suppressing over the past few weeks suddenly gained significance.
Of course...she thought.
The drugs are always left behind a panel in the Gents'. Matt uses that system in all the bars he owns.
Jake's looks are a perfect cover - she's probably been one of Matt's pick-ups for years.
She can slip into the Gents' unnoticed, but if the police call in, the fact that she's a woman is the ideal alibi. They always search the men first.
Why didn't I think of that before?
Nia could have kicked herself.
Blinded by my emotions and my libido, that's why. I should have listened to Max.
I'm such a fucking idiot.
And now, not only am I involved with a gangster...I'm sleeping with one of the most dangerous people in this city.
As comprehension dawned, Nia also realised that if Jake was associated with Matt, then any relationship that developed between the two women after the night in the bar would have to be under his orders.
He probably told her to watch me in case I 'talked'...she thought, miserably.
And she decided to bed me into the bargain. What better way to gain my trust?
Nia's burgeoning bond with the dark woman dissipated in the bitterness of her reflections, as she looked back upon the development of their friendship with new-found cynicism, and found in her anger a respite from the pain.
This whole thing has just been one big charade. I've been so stupid. I was taken in again.
I almost...fell in love...with her.
This last revelation was almost too painful to bear.
Need to find Max...was Nia's only coherent thought, as she rushed towards the door.
But before she could even grab hold of the handle, the reality of Jake's treachery hit her once more, and with full force. She slid down against the doorframe, tears pouring down her cheeks, unable to move.
It was here that Max found her, over an hour later.
I bet Jake's done something to upset her. She thought. I knew she was no good. I warned Nia, too - but God forbid she should ever listen to me.
A little embarrassed by the bitterness of her reflections, she pushed a strand of hair away from the bar manager's face, and shifted her focus to her friend's obvious pain. Nia was calmer now, and looked up at the butch with red-rimmed, watery green eyes as Max asked the obvious question.
"What's going on, Nia?"
A stifled sob escaped the back of the blonde woman's throat.
"Jake's involved with Matt." She delivered the bombshell.
Max found it extremely difficult to be surprised at this news, given her lively suspicions during the past month. However, she managed to manufacture a look of shocked sympathy, and gave her friend's back a supportive rub. Nia leaned her head against her assistant's shoulder, drawing comfort from the strong, solid muscles, as she sat amongst the debris of the little world that for the previous weeks had made her so happy. Now, she knew it had all been based on lies - and it made her sick to think of how easily she had been taken in, and how willingly she had given herself to the dark woman, without once suspecting the truth.
"How did you find out?" Asked Max, gently.
"Well, I met this guy when I was out with Jake, and he was homeless...and he said he used to manage a bar...and then Jake told me the reason he was on the streets was because someone got him addicted to drugs...and then I was looking through the files for Tony's missing cheque, and I saw his picture."
The blonde paused for breath, and looked at her friend for signs of comprehension.
"I'm confused." Max was having trouble keeping up. "Whose picture did you see?"
The butch continued to look puzzled.
"The homeless man...his name's Pete. He used to be the manager here." Nia elaborated.
My God. The pieces finally began to click into place for Nia's assistant. So that's what happened to the last guy.
"And then I thought, so how does Jake know him? And how does she know how he ended up on the streets? She must have been involved, Max." Finished Nia, a little breathless.
"It does look that way, yes." The butch said, thoughtfully.
"And then I got to thinking about how we met, and I realised that it's all been a big lie. It's got to be, Max. If she's connected with Matt, she wouldn't come near me unless he told her to."
"So after things kicked off with the Blue Caps, he asked her to watch you..."
"In case I talk." Whispered the small bar manager. The tears welled up again, and she voiced her hurt to the only person in the world she felt she could trust.
"I thought she was interested in me...because of me."
As she wrapped her arms more tightly around her injured friend, Max fought to gain control of her anger. She knew that a ranting, raving butch was not what Nia needed - she needed comfort, not another dose of angst. But inside, the assistant manager was furious.
What a thing to do.
I knew Matt must've had some way of keeping his managers in post - he couldn't get Nia addicted to drugs, so he intimidated her instead. And then when he got scared that wasn't going to be enough, he decided to get one of his lowlife thugs to bed her.
She's in love with that woman. I can tell.
The small butch's jealousy of Jake turned rapidly into outright hatred, fuelled by the suffering that was written all over her friend's face, and her own concerns for Nia's safety. If Jake was capable of using someone in cold blood, it was certainly a possibility that she'd come after the bar manager, when she found out Nia knew the truth. So hours later, when Nia had gone home to rest her weary head ...Max picked up the phone.
"I'd like to speak to the Sergeant in charge, please. I need to file a formal complaint."
It was only after she'd confessed everything to the police that Max realised she'd probably just opened Pandora's Box.
She didn't even remember how she'd gotten home the previous night. After her conversation with Max, she'd wandered the hostile streets for a while, blindly getting on a bus when the cold became excruciating. Her movements after that had been automatic, she was sure - and she had finally fallen into bed, exhausted by her tears and emotional distress. After KJ, the young bar manager had resolved to never again let her heart be so easily touched - to hold back and hide the most precious parts of herself, until the next suitor proved worthy of the gift. But her feelings for the dark woman had tolerated no restraint, and now here she was, alone and picking through the ruins of a broken heart...again.
I can't believe I was so damn stupid...she thought, for the umpteenth time.
I probably fell for every line in the book.
Shuffling into the bathroom, she inspected her face in the small mirror hanging on the wall. Her eyes were red and puffy from the previous day's crying, and behind them swelled an emptiness she knew all too well. During the past few weeks, the void had begun to retreat - now, it gaped and sent shooting pains into her heart, as she stared into her own vacuity.
She practically ran into the small kitchen, unable to bear the sight of her own reflection. Fresh tears fell into her morning cup of tea, as she remembered how she and Jake had gazed into that mirror together - fair and dark, day and night, blending in satiated contentment. They'd spent many lazy mornings in Nia's flat, leading to plenty of raised eyebrows amongst her staff, as she left Max to open the bar and turned up in time for the lunchtime rush, looking flushed and dishevelled. Insulated by the passion of her new romance, she'd ignored the whispers - now, she doubted whether she could ever face her employees again. She knew that word of Jake's betrayal would spread rapidly, and she'd already contemplated taking an extended holiday while the gossip died down. But this would have to be authorised by Matt - and she had an uncomfortable feeling that once he found out she knew the truth, he'd want to keep her in a place where she could be watched.
There's nowhere for me to run...she thought, miserably. And nobody I can really trust.
The realisation was stark, and she collapsed on to the sofa, hiding her head in her hands to shield herself from the pain. She'd long ago learned to live with her loneliness. But knowing that someone could use her so unfeelingly was something quite different. It felt as though one of Jake's large, powerful hands had wrapped itself tight around her heart, squeezing relentlessly until Nia's lifeblood ran dry through her strong fingers.
She didn't know how long she sat there. It could have been as much as an hour or as little as a minute. But she was stirred by the sound of the telephone.
The blonde woman looked at the machine as though it was a bomb. She knew who would be on the other end of the line. For a moment, she contemplated letting the caller ring off - but her hands seemed to have a life of their own, as she picked up the receiver and held it to her ear.
"Hi, darlin'." Came the familiar, husky voice. Nia choked back a sob, resolving to harden her heart.
"You've got a nerve, calling here." She said, quietly.
There was stunned silence on the other end of the line at this - during which Nia fought the urge to scream.
"What's going on?" Jake's voice sounded wary.
"I should probably ask you the same thing." Was the blonde's chilly reply.
"Nia, what are you talking about?"
"I know the truth, Jake." Said the bar manager, dully. "About Pete. You've been working for Matt all along."
The butch said nothing for a very long time - her silence confirming Nia's suspicions, provoking her ire and dissolving her decision to remain calm and aloof.
"Don't you have anything to say?" She asked, sharply.
Jake sighed, and the soft sound launched spears through the blonde woman's soul. "Not really, no." She said.
Nia took a deep breath, and held her courage in both hands.
"Well, I suggest you leave me alone from now on. I don't want to see you again. Not ever. Do you understand?"
The line went dead.
"Aren't you going to go and explain?"
"What's the point, Kim?"
Jake sighed heavily.
"She hates my guts. I'll only embarrass myself if I go crawling back. She's already made up her mind that I'm a good-for-nothing. I'm not going to beg her to change it."
The butch folded her arms and slouched in the armchair, daring her friend to defy her. Kim almost let loose a yell of frustration.
"Jake, you can be so irritating! She doesn't expect you to beg, you idiot. She just wants a reason to believe in you again."
"Why should I give her a reason? She should believe in me anyway. She should have trusted me, instead of jumping to conclusions." Came the glowering response.
Wow...thought the femme. Jake's really offended. I haven't seen anyone get to her like this before.
"Do you care about Nia?" She asked, quietly.
"Yes." The butch grudgingly admitted. She started intently at the cuffs of her leather jacket, turning them between her fingers, as she contemplated her feelings.
I really do care about her. When she told me she didn't want to see me again, it felt as though the sun went out.
"Well, are you going to let her go without a fight?" Asked Kim, in a reasonable tone.
"You can't just sit back and let life happen to you like this, Jake. Go and see her, and try to explain. Isn't the possibility that she might understand worth the risk of putting your pride in your pocket?"
"I suppose." The dark woman allowed.
"But she didn't seem willing to show me any understanding on the phone, Kim. She just assumed the worst and told me to leave her alone."
"So you're going to?" Kim took one of the butch's hands in both her own.
"That's what she wants." Said Jake, managing to meet her friend's eyes. The hurt and rejection Kim saw written all over her friend's features slammed straight into her heart.
Sometimes she looks like a bewildered child...she thought. Like an orphan who knows she's not wanted, but doesn't understand why.
"Jake, that's not what Nia wants at all." The femme said, gently. "She's hurt and confused, and doesn't know who she can trust. How can you expect understanding from her if you haven't even deigned to try and explain?"
"This isn't a novel, sweetheart." Kim gave Jake's hand a comforting squeeze. "Life isn't that simple. Sometimes, it doesn't matter who's right and who's wrong - as long as somebody makes the first move. You have to go and say sorry, or risk losing her."
A wave of pain crossed the butch's face.
"I don't want to lose her." She whispered. "I don't...I don't think I could handle that."
For a split second she looked inside her own heart, and was overwhelmed by what she saw there.
For the most fiercely independent inhabitant of the North's most inhospitable city, this was an admission of gargantuan proportions.
"So go get her." Said Kim, gesturing towards the door.
There was a moment of silence, as pride warred with emotion inside the dark woman's head. But she rose suddenly, looking fierce and resolute.
"You're right." She said.
"It was silly of you not to tell the truth from the start." The femme said softly, as the butch made a move to leave. "But being too proud to tell her what's going on now would be an even bigger mistake."
Jake gave her friend a single, grateful look before she closed the door.
The dark woman contemplated Kim's words as she trudged through mud and rain towards the bar. She'd thought about telling Nia the truth hundreds of times - but the truth always seemed too complicated for her to communicate.
How would she have reacted if I'd told her how vicious I used to be? She thought, bitterly.
That I used to break arms, legs...and necks...for a living?
Would she really have been interested in the fact that I've changed?
The butch had been afraid the game was up when the two women had stumbled upon Pete. The homeless man had been nothing but a puppet while Fire and Ice was being bought and set up, and Jake had watched as her remorseless colleagues got the poor chap addicted to every narcotic under the sun. But she'd done nothing about it. She'd felt too secure and important in her position at Matt's right hand, indispensable as his mainstay and troubleshooter, to want to jeopardise that with something so feeble as sentiment. She waited until the bar manager broke down and ended up on the streets - and that had been her catalyst for change. Something shifted inside the proud, dark butch when she saw what Pete had been reduced to - wrapped in a blanket, grubby and starving, out of his head. A little intimidation on behalf of a powerful drug dealer was one thing - playing God with the lives of innocent people was quite another.
So she decided she needed to get out. And Matt knew better than to argue - he'd seen enough of Jake's strength and ferocity to know he couldn't hold her against her will. But the gang chief had one last card to play - the dark woman was well aware that her boss had enough information to put her in jail for a very long time, so he let her go on one condition - that she would help him out if he needed a favour.
Jake had been paying off a dual debt ever since, beholden to the Mob but also putting her heart and soul into her new field of work, as an outreach worker for the homeless, drug-dependent and disenfranchised. She paid her dues and alleviated her guilt in her own way, working day and night in the service of the people whose lives she felt she'd helped to ruin - and tried to forget her old habits as she left them behind. But when Matt and his cronies wanted something from her, she had no choice but to acquiesce.
The last phone call she'd received had been on New Year's Eve. A massive shipment of heroin and cocaine had been successfully smuggled in from the Balkans, but after the drugs were past Customs and safely stashed on British soil, the police had been unusually quick on the draw. Matt needed to shift his portion fast - and Jake was the only person he felt he could trust. He needed someone who could sneak in to Fire and Ice on its busiest night, and pull off a pickup. He told the dark woman that nobody else would do.
Jake realised ruefully that had probably sealed Nia's fate.
I should have stayed away from her...she thought. The last thing she needs in her life is someone like me.
But she kept on walking.
After her disastrous telephone conversation with Jake, she'd decided to let Max open the bar alone, feeling too distressed and vulnerable to face the outside world just yet. But after an hour spent moping around her tiny flat, she realised that idle solitude was doing nothing to ameliorate her gloom. So she got dressed and braved the cold - hoping to make it to Fire and Ice before midday, so she could make herself scarce in time for the arrival of most of her staff.
Rarely in her short life had Nia felt quite so alone. With her quiet, cheerful disposition and air of confidence and capability, the small blonde was never short of friends or people to spend time with - but strangely, this jovial network seemed to disappear whenever trouble was afoot, leaving her with the distinct feeling that there was nobody left to turn to. Rachel was normally her prop and mainstay during testing times - but the shady dealings that went on behind the scenes at Fire and Ice were not something Nia wanted to share with her best friend. Not as long as she valued both their lives, she thought, as she traipsed through the mud covering the well-worn path to the park.
The small blonde paced the grass restlessly, followed by a significant number of admiring glances. Although she was well bundled up in scarf, gloves and winter coat, the gloss on her golden hair and the soft shine in her eyes couldn't fail to attract attention. She epitomised the effortlessly stylish city girl that was Manchester's most famous export - but inside, she felt like an open wound. Tripping over carelessly strewn litter as she walked, she wished she could double up inside to relieve her pain. So she groped her way to a park bench and sat down, feeling helpless in the midst of an unhappiness that seemed insurmountable.
The hardest thing to bear, she reflected, was that she was beginning to blame herself.
Immediately after telling the butch to leave her alone, Nia had started to regret her words. Because with the click of the receiver as Jake hung up, the bar manager realised she'd said goodbye to any hope of an explanation.
I'll never find out the truth, now...she thought, desperately.
I know I told her to get lost. But I didn't really expect her to take me at my word!
And I can't be very important to her, if she's prepared to just walk away.
The blonde woman stared blankly into space, contemplating the futility of her situation. She'd told Jake to leave her alone - so she couldn't really blame the woman for doing what she asked. And she was already painfully well-acquainted with the dark woman's pride - she knew the butch would never return after being told she wasn't wanted.
Shit. She shook her golden head at her own stupidity.
I've really messed this up. I should have given her the benefit of the doubt and let her explain, before I went off the deep end.
Her eyes dropped to the grass at her feet as she spotted a tiny form moving close to her shoes. It was a wagtail - a cheeky, black and white bird - and it cocked its head at her as it hopped close, seemingly unafraid. Nia was fixed for a second by its beady stare, before the bird spied a crumb, snatched it up in its beak, and flew away. And as it alighted on the monument that commemorated the Peterloo massacre, Nia's world began to seem brighter.
Life goes on, Nia...she chided herself.
This isn't a novel, and you're not a tragic heroine.
You got over a broken heart once before. That means you can do it again. Now get to work, and get on with it.
The bar could have been a beacon, even in the stark grey light of midday - glowing with flames and billowing smoke into the cold air. The smell of the fire mingled with the smog of the city, sending a horrendous, warning stench into the atmosphere.
Both women rounded opposite corners at the same time. Unable to see each other through the dense curtain of smoke that surrounded the building, they stared at the wreck of Fire and Ice in stunned and separate disbelief.
Nia...thought Jake, breaking into a run.
"MAX!!!" Screamed Nia, as she dashed towards the blaze.
Jake reached the burning building first, and unaware that the bar manager was following close on her heels, dove straight in with no thought for her own safety. She felt too sick to think - with images of the death and carnage of her past flashing before her eyes - except this time, the bleeding and tortured victims she pictured all had blonde hair and Nia's face.
On rounding the corner, the totality of the blaze had told her this wasn't a mere accident. It had the look and feel of arson about it - and in her gut, she knew Matt and his gang were tying up loose ends. She wondered if Nia had finally cracked and gone to the police. That could be the only explanation for a total destruction like this - the operation was imploding, and Matt needed to dispose of the evidence. And that included his bar manager. She knew there would be a gruesome price to pay for the blonde woman and anyone else who happened to be in the way, when the gangsters came to finish the job. She also knew she had probably arrived too late.
Pulling her handkerchief over her mouth to keep out the dense black smoke, she picked through piles of chairs and tables and made her way towards the bar. So far, the blonde woman was nowhere to be seen.
Jake looked fearfully towards the office.
If the bar manager was down there, the chances of getting her out alive were going to be slim - judging by the crashes coming from the direction of the stairs, timbers were already beginning to fall in the basement.
Stifling the urge to cough, the butch headed for the staircase. From the amount of smoke puffing out of the stairwell, she'd rapidly worked out that the fire had started downstairs - and gritting her teeth, she strode purposefully towards it. Perilous and foolhardy it might be - but she had to try and find Nia if she possibly could. Even if just to reassure herself that the bar manager had perished in the inferno, and hadn't been dragged away by Matt's thugs, to be used and abused for their express amusement.
She felt queasy at the thought - and pushing her dour speculations aside, she concentrated on navigating the stairs.
I hope to God the cellar hasn't caught yet ...the dark woman thought grimly, as she gingerly stepped upon creaking wood. Once the barrels caught alight, she knew it was only a matter of time before they blew, causing an explosion that would destroy everything in its wake.
She also knew that if she didn't get out soon, she'd be blown to bits.
Bent over from the effort of trying to breathe, Jake cautiously pushed open the door to the office, and winced as a cloud of smoke hit her squarely in the face. It was almost impossible to see through the angry black haze, but it didn't take a genius to work out that the construction was already starting to buckle.
She took a frenzied look around - and gasped with shock as she saw a body in the corner of the office, trapped under a timber.
Oh, please. It can't be her. She thought, desperately.
Jake practically dove across the piles of mess and rubble until she could squat down beside the prone figure.
And the face that confronted her - bloody, bruised and covered in soot - was not that of the bar manager.
It was Max.
Jake winced in sympathy as she took the butch in her arms - careful not to cause any more damage, even though there was probably no chance of saving her. Max's head lolled on the dark woman's shoulder, and Jake feared that she was already dead.
But two tiny words escaped the small butch's lips as they mounted the stairs.
"Try not to talk." Jake replied, grimly. She didn't want to think about where the bar manager could be. Matt and his associates never left a job half-finished - if Nia had been on the premises when they arrived to start the fire, she was likely to be found in an even worse state than her assistant.
Once I've gotten Max out, I'll go back in ...the dark woman told herself. But the reassurance was empty - on her way out she'd seen flames licking at the door of the cellar, and she knew it wouldn't be long before the building blew. Going back would be certain suicide - with no guarantee she was going to find the blonde bar manager in one piece.
As they left the burning building, the street was already being evacuated. Jake heard the sirens of the approaching fire engines, and desperately hoping that an ambulance was also on the way, she continued to walk with the dying butch in her arms, carrying her beyond the police barricades and past the gathering crowds.
The dark woman stripped off her jacket, and slipped it under Max's head as she set her on the ground. The smaller woman was already beginning to turn blue - and her voice was almost a whisper, as once again, her friend's name crossed her lips.
"Nia..." She coughed weakly, spattering blood over Jake's shirt.
The tall butch took the assistant manager's hand in her own, and met her eyes for a brief moment. For the first time, an understanding passed between them.
"I'm going back in to get her." She said, quietly.
Max heaved a shallow sigh, and her eyes began to close.
She knew she probably wouldn't be coming back out.
Taking one last look at the scene outside, she shoved her face back into her handkerchief and began to clear a way through the gathering rubble. She was dreading what she knew she would find - a charred body, visible only by a shock of strawberry blonde hair.
In fact, she could almost see it - and she dashed the tears away from her eyes with an impatient hand. She had no time for anguished hallucinations - she had to find the bar manager's body, no matter what state it was in. But when the mist cleared, the image was still there - and she blinked a couple of times as she registered the figure, leaning over the bar, perfectly still.
Jake numbly wondered how she could have missed Nia's body the first time...when the blonde head moved.
Without a word and with a few swipes of her powerful arms, the dark butch forced a way through to the blonde bar manager's side. Nia was doubled over from a violent fit of coughing - but apart from the smoke inhalation, she looked relatively unscathed. Supporting the fainting woman with an arm around her waist, Jake drew her towards the door.
"No..." She murmured, fretfully. "I have to go back..."
She freed herself from the dark woman's embrace - although she was still on the verge of collapse, she was determined to start back towards the burning bar.
"I can't leave her in there." She said, resolute.
"Nia." The urgency in Jake's voice halted the blonde in her tracks.
"The building is going to blow. We need to get away."
Nia looked at the dark woman, tears welling up in her eyes.
"Max is in there." She sighed.
"Oh my God...Max." Tumbling down on to the kerb, Nia eased her friend's head into her lap.
"Someone call an ambulance!" Her voice cracked as she feverishly looked around her.
"No...no." Max rasped, weakly. Her breath was coming in uneven gasps, but she managed a small smile as she looked at her friend. "Glad...you're...here."
Nia's eyes swam with verdant grief as she looked up at Jake. And in answer to the bar manager's unspoken question, the dark butch forced a slow nod. Max's chest was filling - she was going to be unconscious in a matter of minutes, suffocated by her own blood. The only thing they could do was leave her be - any attempt to resuscitate her would crush her chest completely, and the cavity would certainly give way under their helping hands. Either way, she was sure to die.
Blue eyes held green for a long moment, and Nia drew strength from the dark woman's sympathetic face before she turned back to her friend. She knew that Max needed her at this moment more than ever - and her slumped shoulders straightened, as she put her own pain aside to do what little she could.
"What happened, Max?" She asked, gently. "The fire alarm went off - why didn't you get out?"
"Looking...for...you." Coughed the butch. "Then...I don't...remember."
She coughed again, spraying Nia's face with the blood that bubbled up from her throat. There were just minutes left - and the blonde squeezed Max's hand with her heart in her mouth.
"I'm...scared..." Max whispered.
"I know." Nia replied, softly.
"I'm here. I won't let you go."
Max's eyes closed, and a tear stole its way down her face.
"I...thought," she gurgled, "when...someone...dies..." she paused for another cough that made her whole body shake. "their angel...comes to get...them."
She opened her eyes again for a last look at her friend.
"I'm...leaving...mine...behind." She choked, through the bar manager's stifled sobs.
Jake turned her face away, ashamed of the hot tears that poured down her cheeks.
It took ten more minutes for Max to die. There were no more words after this - she slipped in and out of consciousness as Nia held her close, whispering tender incoherences that she hoped would ease Max's passage. The bar manager wasn't really sure when the small butch drew her last breath. She felt as though she was waking from a dream, when the paramedics arrived and she watched them take Max's body from her and load it into the van.
Only then did she allow herself to cry. Standing alone on the pavement, she let out a wail - groping blindly around her for something to hold on to.
And for the first time in her life, she found it. As Nia sobbed on Jake's shoulder, Fire and Ice exploded, sending tremors down the length of the Oxford Road.
Fourteen - Epilogue
It was six weeks since the bar manager had laid her assistant in the ground, and the spring sun was just beginning to hit the North's grey city, gently warming the new shoots that would soon turn into primroses and bluebells, as the grass grew green over Max's grave. The change in the weather had not, however, taken the chill out of Nia's heart - although for the first time since the fatal fire, she was beginning to feel a sense of acceptance, if not peace.
She'd taken her friend's death hard, almost getting herself killed by lashing out and screaming blame at everyone she came across. All thoughts of imminent danger were quickly dashed by her implacable grief - and if it had not been for Jake's constant, hovering presence, the remnants of Fire and Ice's controlling gang might quickly have lost patience with their most recent manager. The dark woman became increasingly concerned, seeing the bar manager's accusations for what they were - a fragile veneer for the fact that she really saw her friend's untimely demise as her own responsibility. The memory that Max had sacrificed her life by remaining in the burning building to look for her kept the small blonde awake at nights as it tortured her soul.
The bar had been totally swept away by the force of the explosion - nothing had been salvaged from the rubble. With no job to go to, there was nothing for Nia to do to take her mind off the pain.
The blonde spent weeks locked in her apartment, imagining what could have happened if she'd arrived at the bar a few moments earlier, remembering Max's bloodied body lying in the street, reliving their last moments together. She saw only Jake - the dark woman was her lifeline in the chaos that grew out of the destruction of Fire and Ice, bringing her news of the tug of war between the remaining leaders of Manchester's underworld, and the slow, painful progress of the police investigation. But Nia had no hope that the forces of law and order would manage to turn up a culprit. Even without their extensive contacts within the metropolitan forces, Matt and his colleagues were notorious for their rapid disappearing acts. So the bar manager sat in her flat, refusing to expect good news - and even Rachel found it difficult to gain entrance, inexperienced as she was with grief of this magnitude.
This was Nia's way - despite her easy openness and cheerful disposition, the strongest emotions struck her very core. She reeled from them - and when this occurred, she preferred to deal with the tidal wave alone, knowing it could easily submerge anyone else who came near. Beaten and suffocated by a current of conflicting feelings, she could do nothing but wait for the storm to pass. She emerged eventually, a little more rested and slightly less wan and drawn, and seemed to have found a grudging recognition of her loss - but the tide had gone out in her eyes, leaving a numb emptiness behind. With the confusion on the streets, she was able to slink quietly away from her old life, secure in the knowledge that everyone would be too busy fighting to try and follow her or even notice she was gone. But she still wanted answers - and there was nobody left who could satisfy her demand.
Matt was nowhere to be found. He'd apparently also gone into the bar, in search of Nia - it seemed that he'd known about Max's call to the police, but knew nothing of the radical plan to dispose of the evidence. The fire had been started without his authorisation, by various renegade elements within his team. Or so said the heavies who paid Jake a visit, a few days later. Apparently, he'd last been seen dashing into the burning building - but a body was never found.
With the head gangster's disappearance, Manchester descended into anarchy. The power vacuum that sprung up gave birth to a number of pretenders with lofty ambitions, and in the weeks after the fire, there was constant war between rival factions. Drive-by shootings, bar-room brawls and street-stabbings grew increasingly common, and although more than one civilian got caught in the crossfire, the police refused to intervene.
A few years earlier, Jake might have been tempted to step into the breach and return order to Manchester's disintegrating underworld. But somehow, the prospect of forging her own empire amidst the ruins seemed strangely unattractive - now she had someone else to consider, and a new focus in her life. The small bar manager had assumed an importance she'd never expected, and these days, her first thought was always of Nia.
Surprisingly, it felt right that this was the case.
She leaned back in her chair, and looked questioningly at Jake, silhouetted against the background of the lunchtime traffic. The warm weather had convinced many of Manchester's bar owners to put their tables and chairs out on the street - and the two women were sharing a cup of coffee on the veranda of one of Manchester's quieter gay bars.
"I can go and start doctoral research whenever I like. They're even going to pay my fees." She finished.
The dark woman gave her a serious, intent look. "Are you ready for that?" She asked.
"I think so." Nia replied.
Her eyes welled with tears, as they always did when she thought of Max.
"I miss her so much, you know." She whispered.
"But going back to school will do me good. She'd want me to."
"Yes, she would." Replied the butch, with a smile.
A ray of spring sunlight glinted off her shades, illuminating the face the bar manager had come to love. She smiled back - reflecting that Jake had been a pillar of strength over the past weeks. After the blaze had died down, explanations had been given, and apologies exchanged, although much still remained unsaid. But Nia was beginning to realise that it didn't really matter - what was important was the fact that her trust in the dark woman had been restored. Jake's heroism in pulling Max out of the burning bar, and going back in to look for her, was something she'd never forget.
For the first time in a long while, the blonde woman felt content. The insecure, wide-eyed girl had disappeared for good since she lost her friend - but in her place had grown a woman who knew pain and suffering, and had triumphed over it, as she realised every time she looked in the mirror at the brand new crow's feet and grey hairs that signified the new maturity.
"Who knows what could happen in the future." She speculated, aloud.
Her companion looked down, surprised. "I certainly don't." She muttered, half to herself.
Nia reached for the butch's hand. "Do you want to stick around and find out?"
And as the afternoon wore on, more than one passer-by stopped to stare up at the veranda, captivated by the tableau of the small blonde in the dark woman's arms, both oblivious to the world around them.
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