The Lion and The Lamb
Disclaimers - See Part 1 for disclaimers.
Christi bounded up the flight of stairs, gym bag in hand. She rounded the second floor landing and stopped short. Bursting into laughter, the blonde regarded the apparition at the top of the stairs.
Jac stood at attention, saluting with a large brush while her left hand held a paint can and long-handled roller. The tall woman had a blue baseball cap on backwards, gray fleece shorts, a cropped black t-shirt and bare feet. She was also sporting the goofiest grin Christi had ever seen.
"What ARE you doing?" Christi asked between fits of giggles as she climbed the rest of the stairs at a slower pace.
"Reporting for duty, boss!" Blue eyes twinkled as Christi shook her head.
"You are such a goof," the blonde said amiably, giving the executive's flat exposed abdomen a quick pat as she passed her.
"Well, you did say you were the head of this project, so I thought it only proper to greet you with deference and respect," Jac said, following the younger woman into the loft.
"Uh huh." The dry answer was cut short as Christi surveyed the loft and started to laugh again. All the furniture and gym equipment had been pushed up against the stone wall, and drop cloths covered much of the remaining floor space.
"You know, Jac. If you'd gotten just got one or two drop cloths, we could've moved them as we worked."
She glanced up to see a slightly chagrined look cross her friend's face. "It's okay. This will work fine. It's just that you didn't need to spend all that money."
"No big deal," Jac assured her, setting the can of paint down next to half a dozen more and a pile of painter's gear. "I've just never done anything like this before, so I decided to err on the abundant side."
"Well, you did that," the blonde said wryly, surveying the equipment. "Guess I should've been more specific about our requirements. Remind me never to send you to a hardware store alone again." Stooping she picked up a small triangular foam piece. "What's this for?"
"Um, I think it's to do corners of window sills," the executive hazarded with a puzzled look. "I just got everything that I thought we might need."
Christi smiled to herself. Her friend's enthusiasm was engaging, if somewhat misguided. She was sure they had enough here to do all three apartments, but was pleased that Jac was apparently throwing herself into this.
"Okay," she said briskly. "I'll just dump my stuff and we'll get started. Did you get all the walls washed?"
"Yes, ma'am," the executive assured her. "All washed and ready to go; and I taped off the non-paintable areas, just like you told me to. You can throw your bag in the closet or up in the bedroom if you want. Keep it out of the way. Did you bring a change of clothes?"
"Oh yeah, I'm not going out to dinner in these," Christi said, indicating the old sweats and t-shirt she was wearing. "You know, Jac, you don't have to..."
"Nonsense," Jac cut her off. "You're doing all this work for me. The very least I can do is feed you. Besides, I owe you since you're missing dinner with your folks."
"Phillip's folks," Christi corrected absently as she deposited her bag in the entranceway closet. "And trust me, it's not like I mind."
Jac knelt to peel plastic off a paint tray. Casually she asked, "Was Phillip okay with you helping me out today instead of going to his family's place?"
Wincing, Christi recalled the scene that morning.
"Phil," Christi said in a conciliatory voice. "It's not like we were going to be the only guests. Your parents invited half the city, so they're not even going to miss me. We'll have them over for dinner next Sunday, and they'll be fine."
"What about me? What if I miss you? Jesus, Christi, lately it's like I don't even count. You go to a concert without me. You go traipsing off to some woman who I don't even know and spend half the night there! What's Mom going to think when she finds out that you'd rather go help a stranger than be with your fiancé?"
"Twice! I've been away from you twice in the last wee,k so I hardly think you've been abandoned!" Christi could feel her temper rising. "And I asked you to come to the concert, but oh no, you had to go to the stupid football game instead."
"Is that what this is all about? You're pissed off because I ditched the concert?" Phil asked incredulously. "That is so goddamned petty!"
"What this is about," Christi said, enunciating clearly and emphatically, "is me making a friend independently, and you can't stand it. God forbid I'm not around 24 hours a day to dance attendance on you and your friends."
Phillip stared at her in outrage, then spun around and stomped out of the bedroom, slamming the door behind him so hard that it bounced back and hit the wall.
'Well, that went well,' Christi thought sadly. She knew Phil would expect her to seek him out with apologies and placating words as she always had after they fought, but this time she couldn't face the thought of having to mollify him yet again. She recognized that if she did that, she would automatically be acquiescing to his plans for the day and that meant going to his parents' party.
The young woman stared at the vibrating door for long moments and then shook her head decisively. Grabbing her gym bag out of the closet, she packed a change of clothes for the evening, picked up her keys and wallet and walked out of the apartment, ignoring the sulking figure in the living room.
"I wouldn't exactly say he was okay with it," Christi said calmly. "But he'll get over it."
Jac stared down at the roller she was fiddling with. "I don't want to make trouble between the two of you," she said quietly.
Christi looked at her friend, dark hair falling forward to obscure her face. "Hey, you didn't make any trouble," she asserted. A touch of defiance flashed in her eyes. "I'm where I want to be today, got it? No one makes me do anything!"
The executive raised her eyes and she gave Christi an enigmatic smile. "I'll remember that." Rising, she held out a roller and pan to the younger woman. "So, gonna show me how it's done?"
Starting at opposite ends of the same wall, the two women worked steadily, chatting as they covered the white walls with a soft dove gray.
"I was looking on the Net last night. I think I saw a couch and easy chairs that would meet with your approval," Jac said, as she carefully edged the bottom moulding. "They looked really comfortable and were a mix of blue, gray and a touch of maroon."
"Sounds perfect," Christi responded, absently wiping at a spot of paint on her nose and smearing it all over. "I was thinking about your bedroom furniture, too. Your dresser and desk are both good solid wood, so I think we should refinish them rather than replace them. We could stain them mahogany to match your bed."
Jac turned her head to answer, then chuckled. "Geez, Christi, you're supposed to be putting the paint on the wall, not your face." Setting her roller down, she crossed the space between them. Cupping the younger woman's face gently in one hand, she used the edge of her shirt to wipe the smeared paint away.
"Thanks," Christi mumbled, flustered by the pleasant warmth of those hands. Unsettled, she glanced at the executive's shirt and said the first thing that popped into her head. "You know, we do have rags. You're going to ruin your shirt."
With a grin, Jac shrugged and returned to her roller. "I've got so much paint on it already that one more spot won't matter. Besides, this shirt is going to be my badge of honour. If anyone ever doubts that I helped paint my own place, I'll just dig it out and wave it in their face."
Christi slid her roller upwards, spreading the paint evenly on the surface. "Maybe I should make you a certificate of achievement to signify your first successful foray into home decorating."
"If you do, I'll frame it and hang it over my desk," Jac asserted, pouring more paint into her tray.
The blonde giggled. "Jac! You don't have anything but thin air over your desk!"
"I meant my desk at work. I'll give it pride of place right beside my MBA," Jac insisted, dipping her roller in the fresh paint. "Where did you learn how to do all this stuff, Christi? Did you have a secret desire to be an interior decorator or a contractor?"
"Nah," Christi laughed. "It comes from growing up in a large family. Mom never let anything go to waste. She could butcher a deer, can vegetables, sew clothes, refinish and upholster furniture...I think the only thing she didn't do was make our shoes, and I'm sure if she'd had more hours in the day, she'd have figured that out too."
"Wow, an early superwoman, eh?"
"I never thought of her that way, but yeah, she's pretty incredible."
"Must be. She raised a pretty incredible kid."
Christi's eyes shot over at Jac, who was concentrating on her work and didn't look at her companion. A slow smile grew on the young woman's face, and she took a moment to enjoy the compliment.
"Um, thanks. Well actually, she raised eight of us."
"Eight!" Jac's head jerked up, and she stared at Christi. "God, she must have had stamina. I don't think I could handle one!"
The blonde laughed. "Oh I dunno. Seems to me that you could handle just about anything you set your mind to. Anyway, Mom and Dad never set out to have so many. They didn't think they could have children, so they decided to adopt one or two. Most of my brothers and sisters were older children that no one wanted. Two of my brothers are special needs kids. Mom and Dad just couldn't say no whenever social services would come to them with a child that needed a home. Anyway, when Mom got pregnant with me, it was a complete surprise. Then she had my little sister a couple of years later, and she finally said 'enough'."
"Christmas around your place must be something else."
Christi thought she heard a note of wistfulness in her friend's voice. "Is it ever! Most of the older ones are married and have kids of their own, but everyone goes home to Mom and Dad's for the holidays. It's a madhouse, but I wouldn't miss it."
Her expression saddened. "Though I might have to miss it occasionally now. It just about drove Phil crazy when I took him home this summer, and only half the family was there." At Jac's raised eyebrow, she hastened to defend him. "He's an only child, so he's not used to all the noise and commotion."
Disturbed by Jac's noncommittal nod, she changed the subject. "So what about your family? Do you have siblings?"
"Uh huh. I have an older brother, Theo, who helps run Mom's restaurant. He's married with a couple of kids, which thrills Mom to no end. And I have a younger brother, Luc. We're never sure where Luc is going to be from month to month. He's got wanderlust and will work at just about anything that'll put gas in his '72 Mustang and get him back on the road. I never know when he's going to pop up on my doorstep."
Christi was amused by the look of fond indulgence on the executive's face. "Your favourite, right?"
Jac chuckled. "That obvious, eh? Yeah, Luc is my buddy. We were best friends when we were kids and probably always will be. I know Theo gets mad at him because he won't settle down, but settling would kill Luc's spirit. I occasionally tease him about when he's going to grow up but he says growing up is grossly overrated."
"What does your Mom think?"
'Aw, Mom thinks the sun rises and sets on Luc's head. She tries not to show it since Theo is the one that stuck with her and worked so hard to help her build the restaurant into a success. She doesn't want him thinking she's ungrateful or loves him any less, but Luc-well Luc is just a charmer and has been since the day he was born."
The women had finished one wall and moved onto the next, beginning again at opposite ends. Christi picked up the conversation. "So does your Mom know about you?"
"About me?" Jac's amusement was clear and Christi flushed.
"Yeah, well you know, about being gay and all. Does she have any problem with that?"
The executive favoured her with a smile, and Christi decided she really liked that look on those angular features.
"Not really. I mean Mom's pretty open-minded, for the most part." Jac frowned a little then and Christi prompted her.
With a sheepish look, Jac confessed, "But she doesn't like the way I run around. She figures I should find a nice girl and settle down, maybe give her more grandbabies."
"Hmm," Christi murmured, concentrating on her strokes for long moments. "And that doesn't appeal to you." When there was no answer, she looked over to see her companion paused in mid-stroke and staring at the wall. "Jac?"
Slowly the executive lowered her roller and half turned to face the younger woman. Christi was surprised at the look of intensity in those startling eyes.
"It didn't used to. Now-now I don't always know. Sometimes I think it would be great to come home to someone, to go to sleep with that someone and wake up with her every day. To know she'd always be there for me just like I'd always be there for her." With a self-conscious laugh, Jac began to paint again. "Hell, I'm just getting old, I guess."
Christi considered her friend's heart-felt words. "No. It sounds to me like you just want what all of us want eventually. Love, security, stability. It's not such a strange dream." She paused and then said quietly, "I hope you get it. I hope you find that someone."
She heard Jac inhale and then her soft, "Thanks." The blonde smiled and continued to paint.
The women worked steadily through the day, stopping only for lunch and refreshment breaks. Christi was surprised when lunch turned out to be large croissant sandwiches. When she looked inquiringly at her friend, she was amused to see the executive blush as she confessed that she'd run down to the market early to get them.
The blonde was charmed by yet another example of Jac's thoughtfulness, and she certainly couldn't disagree about the quality of the croissants. Stacked with layers of ham, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes, they melted in her mouth and before she knew it, she'd eaten three and was looking at a fourth. When she caught Jac stifling a grin behind a napkin, she virtuously pushed it aside.
When they stopped for a mid-afternoon break, Jac returned from the kitchen with two Cokes, the remaining croissant and a big smile. Without a word, she joined Christi on the couch and handed her the plate. When the blonde started to demur, one raised ebony eyebrow told her not to bother, and laughingly, the younger woman finished up the sandwich as the executive sipped her pop with a smug look.
By six PM, all the walls and the underside of the upper level were done with two coats of paint. Christi stood, enjoying the sight of the freshly painted walls.
"I think you were right about the colour," Jac said, coming up beside her. "It's going to be really easy to live with for a long time."
"Uh huh," Christi agreed. "And it blends beautifully with the stone wall. By the time we finish the baseboards and mouldings, get the new furniture in and add a few accent pieces, you're going to have a real show home here."
Jac regarded her closely. "Thank you. I can't believe all you've done for me, but I really owe you."
Christi blushed and tried to wave off her friend's thanks. "Believe me, I've had fun doing it. I love discovering the hidden beauty of things."
"Yeah-me too," Jac said slowly. "I just didn't know it."
There was an underlying intensity to her words that puzzled and fascinated Christi, but before she could explore it, Jac chuckled.
"Well lady, I think we'd better get cleaned up and dressed for dinner. I made reservations at the Grotto for seven. You look like you got more paint on yourself than the wall."
"I do?!" Christi joked indignantly. "You should look at yourself, tall, dark and spotted!"
Grinning, Jac nodded. "Yeah, I think we could both stand to wash up. Do you want the bathtub or the shower?"
"Uh, doesn't matter, I guess," Christi managed to get out through a throat that had suddenly tightened.
"Okay, why don't you go up and soak some of that paint off in the tub? I'll just clean up here a bit and then grab a shower," Jac said casually as she started stacking empty paint cans. "We only need about ten minutes to walk to the restaurant, so we have lots of time."
Christi blinked and, giving herself a mental shake, went to retrieve her bag from the closet. Taking a deep breath, she mounted the stairs to the upper level and entered the large bathroom. Turning on the taps, she inspected the row of bath oils and bubbles on the tiled tub surround, amused at the woman's extensive selection. She wasn't kidding when she said she likes long soaks.
Finally settling on one with a clean herbal scent that reminded her of Jac, she poured a generous amount under the running water and turned to strip off her clothes. Laying out fresh underwear, dark green cords, a pale green shirt and a cream coloured fisherman's knit sweater, she stuffed her paint wear back in the bag and slid into the water, sighing with pleasure.
A few minutes later, Jac entered the bathroom and opening the door of the glassed in shower, turned on the taps to adjust the temperature. Closing the door to keep the steam in, she casually stripped off her clothes and tossed them at the laundry hamper.
"I think you forgot something," Jac said, as she pulled towels out from a cupboard. Crossing to the tub, she laid one towel on the bathmat. "Is one enough or do you need another for your hair?"
Christi swallowed hard, trying not to think of all that naked female flesh-that incredibly toned and gorgeous female flesh-only inches away. "No, one's enough," she managed to squeak as Jac nodded and returned to the shower.
The blonde slid down until her head was under the water for a long moment and then pushed back up, shaking the water out of her eyes. What the hell is wrong with me? Christi was no prude. Privacy was a non-existent concept growing up in a house with eight kids. But she'd never been so conscious of a human body before. There's no doubt that gym set isn't just for show!
Jac seemed perfectly comfortable, and Christi envied the woman her careless lack of affectation. She tried to avert her eyes, giving her friend the privacy Jac didn't seem to require, but her disobedient gaze kept drifting to the glass enclosure where the executive was lathering her long, lean body. Entranced, the blonde watched the soap run in rivulets down that smoothly-muscled body, chased by cascades of water that sparkled and danced over the executive's form.
Unable to look away, Christi's breath caught as Jac raised her arms to shampoo her hair, pulling her firm breasts up in sharp relief. God, she's beautiful! Like a Greek statue! She didn't realize she'd been holding her breath until she gasped for air. It brought her sharply back to reality and she hastily began washing her own body, acutely aware of the feel of her flesh as she did so.
Finishing body and hair, she practically leapt out of the tub, drying off and donning her clothes before the other woman had even finished her shower. Exiting the bathroom hastily, she missed seeing Jac's smile as blue eyes watched her leave.
Christi sat on the old couch, listening to the noises of Jac dressing coming from overhead, wondering numbly what was going on with her. She'd never had this visceral reaction to anyone in her life, male or female. She couldn't stop the traitorous comparisons in her mind between Jac's smooth perfection of form and Phil's hairy, thickset body.
Too much indulgence and too little exercise had her fiancé moving prematurely into middle-aged spread. She'd never minded, reasoning that she was marrying him for the inner man not the outer one, but she had to admit, she'd never reacted to him as profoundly as she just did to the mere sight of her friend in the nude.
Her thoughts were cut off as she saw Jac descending the stairs and her breath caught all over again. The executive was wearing black, close fitting jeans, a bright red pullover with a white button down shirt underneath and black demi-boots. Oh, red is SO her colour!
"You look nice," Christi said as she stood up.
"Thanks, you look good yourself. Are you ready to go?"
Christi nodded and followed Jac to the door, picking up her bag on the way. She followed Jac down the flights of stairs and out into the cool evening air. After tossing her bag in the car, she paced quietly beside her tall friend, glad for her thick sweater as Jac headed for the spiral staircase that would take them to the bridge level where they'd cross over to the marketplace.
Jac chatted easily as they walked, seeming not to notice her companion's unusual silence. Christi began to relax, enjoying the amiable camaraderie and beginning to look forward to dinner. It had been many hours since her afternoon snack, and her stomach was reminding her of its shameful neglect.
"Have you ever been to the Grotto?" Jac asked as they stopped for a traffic light.
"No, I don't think so. Tell me about it."
The executive laughed. "Well the first thing you have to know is not to let appearances throw you. The food is fabulous, the atmosphere is casual and relaxed, but Mario's decorating taste is not nearly as good as yours."
"Okay," Christi said in puzzlement. "What's so bad about the decorating?"
"Oh no, that's all the warning I'm giving you," Jac grinned. "I really think you need to see it to get the full impact." She placed a light hand on Christi's back and directed her down a lane one block away from the main market area. Pointing halfway up the road, she indicated a covered entrance. "That's the Grotto there. The whole restaurant is actually below street-level."
Intrigued, Christi willingly followed her companion down the narrow flight of stairs. Reaching the bottom, she stopped short, staring around her in amazement. The restaurant was styled to look like an underground cavern, complete with stalactites and a series of smaller caves that housed three or four tables apiece. The truly shocking part was the colour. Everything was painted terra cotta--walls, floors, ceilings and stalactites. Even the tables had salmon coloured tablecloths, set with white and terra cotta dishes. The effect was almost overwhelming and Christi wondered wildly if the washrooms were subject to the same colour scheme.
An irrepressible giggle slipped out of the blonde, and she heard a low chuckle beside her. Warm air caressed her ear as Jac whispered, "Told you!" Biting her lip, Christi tried to restrain herself, but when a man walked up to them looking like he'd stepped right out of Lady and the Tramp, she had to bury her face in her friend's broad back to suppress her fit of laughter.
"Good evening, Ms. Lanier. How are you today?" There was a strong hint of the mother country in the man's speech.
"Mario, good evening. I'm fine. My friend and I have been looking forward to your lasagna all day."
Mario leaned forward conspiratorially. "It's particularly good tonight. You will enjoy yourself." With a wink, he turned to lead them to their table. Christi followed Jac, biting her lip to regain control.
Once they were seated in one of the smaller caves, she stared accusingly at her friend. "You could've warned me," she hissed but her grin belied any vexation.
"And missed that look on your face? No way!" Jac chortled. "That was priceless. Mind you, I think I had the same look the first time I came here, too. Trust me though, Mario's lasagna will make you forget everything else."
"Sublime!" Jac asserted.
Christi closed her menu. "Then I guess I don't need to look at this. I'll go with your recommendation."
When the main course arrived, Christi had to concede that Jac hadn't been overstating things. Taking her first bite of the dish, she closed her eyes and moaned with pleasure. Opening them, she found her companion grinning at her.
"Guess I now know what you sound like at the peak of pleasure," Jac teased.
Christi blushed furiously and Jac laughed. "I'm sorry. You just sounded so orgasmic over there. It is great though, isn't it?"
Christi nodded emphatically, not even pausing to answer before taking another bite. They talked and laughed their way through the meal, as Jac kept their wine glasses filled. When Christi finally pushed her plate aside with a sigh, completely satisfied, Jac asked drolly, "Any room in there for dessert?"
The younger woman chuckled. "I know you're not going to believe this, but I'm not sure there's an inch of space available."
"Are you sure? Mario makes an incredible homemade gelato, and it's not too filling." Jac smiled winningly at her companion.
Christi rolled her eyes and laughed. "All right. Twist my arm."
With a triumphant grin, Jac summoned their waiter and ordered dessert and coffee. Christi had to agree that the gelato lived up to the rest of the meal, but she stopped Jac from filling her glass with the remainder of the wine.
"I have to drive, remember?"
"You could always bunk down at my place," Jac suggested lightly.
Christi was silent for a moment, struck by what an attractive idea that was. She had no desire to end such a wonderful day with conflict, and she knew Phil wouldn't be in a pleasant mood. Finally she sighed. "No, I'd better go home, but thank you." Looking up into warm blue eyes, she joked, "Besides, you just want me there so you can put me to work at the crack of dawn tomorrow. You'd probably put a paint brush in my hand before I even woke up."
"Caught me," Jac laughed.
"Anyway, I don't think I want to sleep on that old couch of yours. I strongly suspect there are things living in there."
"Tch, what kind of a hostess do you take me for? I'd have shared my bed. It is a king-size for heaven's sake. There's tons of room."
"I have seen your bed," Christi said dryly. "You have room for ten people!"
"Hmm, now there's an interesting thought," Jac leered comically, squawking when the younger woman swatted her arm. "Hey, it was your idea!"
"Uh huh, I can see it now, people sliding around on your satin sheets, slithering out on the floor from every angle." Christi had a sense she should stop while she was ahead, but she was enjoying the banter too much.
"Satin? I'll have you know my sheets are flannel," Jac asserted loftily.
"No way!" Christi laughed. "Flannel-you?"
With a mock wounded look, Jac asked, "Yeah flannel, why not me?"
Christi grinned widely. "You just don't strike me as the flannel type, Jac. Satin or silk yes, but flannel?"
Jac leaned forward and purred, "But flannel feels SO good on naked skin, Christi."
The blonde gulped and hastily took a sip of her coffee, trying to banish the instant image of Jac sliding her nude body between flannel sheets. "Ah, we should probably be going, don't you think?"
The executive sat back with a small triumphant grin. "Sure." Jac called for the check and when Christi tried to contribute, firmly insisted it was on her.
The women left the restaurant, but with an unspoken mutual agreement, did not start right back to the old firehouse. Instead they ambled over to the market, window shopping and watching the street entertainers.
Finally Christi said, "I think I've worn a little of my dinner off. I really should get back."
Jac nodded and turned their steps in the direction of the bridge. They were quiet on the walk back, but it was a comfortable peace--like that between old friends who know they don't have to fill up all the silences. Christi marveled anew at how easy it was to be in this woman's company.
When they descended the spiral staircase back to the river's edge, she found herself unaccountably wanting to link her arm in the tall woman's as they walked down the road to where her car was parked. When they reached the VW, Christi turned to her companion. "Thank you, Jac. I had a wonderful time. In fact, the whole day was a lot of fun."
"I'm glad, but it's me who should be thanking you, Christi. You worked hard today, and I appreciate your help." The tall woman hesitated. "I never knew that painting could be that much fun." She flashed a brilliant smile at the blonde. "Though I think that mostly had to do with the company." Leaning forward, she lightly brushed her lips against Christi's. "Good night. See you tomorrow."
Christi stared after the woman who was walking up the firehouse steps. Dazed, she ran her fingers over her lips. It was only when Jac disappeared into the building that she finally unlocked her car and slid inside, but she didn't start the engine until she saw the lights come on in the top floor. Then, still mildly stunned, she began the drive back to her apartment, her mind on the overwhelming sensation of those impossibly soft lips on hers.
Jac carried the covered Styrofoam trays carefully as she walked down the sidewalk to the Trevor Travel Agency. A man exiting the agency held the door open for her, and she rewarded him with a smile. The office, decorated with alluring posters of exotic locations, held six desks, four of which were currently occupied by agents on phones or at their computers.
Spotting a familiar blonde head bent over some paperwork, she headed for Christi's desk. Taking the client chair in front, she greeted her friend cheerfully. "Hi."
Startled, the younger woman looked up and grinned widely. "Hey, you. I didn't know you were dropping in today. Are you looking for Victoria? She's not in right now."
"I know," Jac said, sliding one of the packages across the desk. "It's the third Thursday of the month."
"What's this?" Christi asked curiously. She carefully opened the tray, releasing a burst of steam and piquant aromas. "Oh, Jac. This looks great!" Looking up at the executive who was looking very pleased with herself, she chastised half-heartedly, "Jac, you're going to spoil me!"
The executive shrugged. "It's only Thai take-out, Christi. Compared to all the work you did last weekend, it's a small reward. I just thought it might be a more appealing lunch than a sandwich. Here, use these." She handed over a small plastic bag of cutlery and napkins, and opened her own lunch.
Jac grinned to herself as she watched her friend enthusiastically dig in. She'd had a hunch Christi would like Thai food, but then she suspected her young companion had never met an ethnic cuisine she didn't like. The executive had rarely seen anyone who enjoyed their food as openly and thoroughly as this slight woman. Taking a forkful of spicy noodles for herself, she had to admit this had been one of her better ideas.
"So what did you mean about it being the third Thursday?" Christi asked around a mouthful of shrimp.
"You mean you've worked with Victoria a whole year now, and you've never noticed that she's always out at noon on the third Thursday of the month?"
Her fork halted halfway to her mouth, the blonde thought about it. "You know, I'd never noticed, but you're right. Where does she go?"
"She has a standing appointment with Renaldo to have her hair done," Jac said, waving at the air in front of her mouth. "Do you have water around here? I think I just burnt my tonsils off."
Christi laughed and pushed her chair back. Going into the back room, she returned with two Cokes, pushing one over to the executive.
Jac snapped open the can and poured the cold liquid down her seared throat. Sighing in relief, she set the pop down and glared across the desk where her companion was blithely downing the spicy food without any sign of discomfort.
"Don't you find it the least bit warm?" Jac demanded, gingerly examining the rest of her lunch, looking for the least potent part.
The blonde chuckled. "Nah, barely tepid." When Jac looked at her in disbelief, she explained, "Cast iron stomach. It helps if you're not really picky when you're competing with ten people at the dinner table. I learned early to dig into whatever was closest and not worry what it was."
"Huh," Jac nodded. "Makes sense I guess." Changing the subject she said casually, "You didn't return my call last night. I just wanted to let you know that the furniture we ordered is going to be delivered on Saturday."
Christi stared at her in puzzlement. "You called last night?"
"Yeah, about six thirty."
Jac could see the cloud pass over the blonde's sweet face. She'd been expecting it. When Phil had answered the phone and she'd identified herself, he'd been barely short of rude. When Christi hadn't called back, she suspected that her message never got passed on.
"I'm sorry, Jac. I didn't know you called. I was out grocery shopping and I must have missed Phil's note or something when I got home."
Christi lowered her eyes to her plate, but Jac could see her friend's irritation in the vicious way she stabbed another shrimp. She allowed herself a tiny smile before saying, "No big deal. I just thought since you were instrumental in the shopping, you might want to see what you spent all my money on."
Christi's head jerked up. "I do. Besides, we have to stain your bedroom furniture, so we can do that while we wait for the deliverymen." Her sunny nature reasserting itself, she waved a plastic fork at her companion. "Did you finish stripping the desk?"
Jac grimaced. Christi had taught her how to strip furniture the previous Sunday after they'd finished all the mouldings and trims. It had been fun working with the younger woman on the dresser and bedside table, but they'd run out of time to do the desk. The blonde had left her with detailed instructions on how to strip the remaining piece but without Christi's ebullient presence, the task had turned into a real chore.
"Ye,s boss, I finished it last night. What a job though! I couldn't believe how many nooks and crannies there are in my old roll top." There was a beat of silence and then, with a gleeful twinkle, she added in a drawl, "Luckily, I'm very-very, experienced with nooks and crannies."
Christi started to choke, and Jac scrambled around the desk to pound the blonde's back. The travel agent grabbed her Coke and took a swallow, coughing several times as she waved a hand weakly. A middle-aged woman at the next desk looked up in concern.
"Are you all right, Christi?"
With a final cough, Christi managed to say, "Fine, Irene. Just got something caught the wrong way." The blonde turned her attention back on Jac, who'd returned to her chair. Glaring at her unrepentant friend, she sputtered, "I can NOT believe you said that!" Shaking her head at the grinning executive, she accused with a laugh, "You really are incorrigible. You could've killed me there."
"Nah, I know how to do the Heimlich," Jac assured her.
Doubtfully, Christi challenged, "Do you really?"
Sheepishly Jac confessed, "Um, well, I'm pretty sure I could learn it fast if I had to."
"Oh great," Christi teased with a grin. "Remind me never to put my life in your hands!"
You could put your life in my hands. The unbidden thought startled Jac, as did the intensity of feeling underlying it. She stared at her food tray, an unfamiliar hesitancy overwhelming her.
Oblivious to her companion's disquiet, Christi went on, "Look, if we're going to do the staining on Saturday, why don't we hit the art galleries on Sunday?" She looked expectantly at her companion. "Jac?"
"Um, yeah, great. That sounds like a good plan." The executive felt unaccountably flustered, and she was grateful when Christi detailed what galleries she wanted to visit and what she thought would look good in the loft.
"Hey, I've got an idea!" Christi said exuberantly. "Why don't you come over to my place for dinner after we finish shopping? I already had a big dinner planned because the in-laws are coming over, and I'd love you to meet Phil."
That caught Jac's attention. Somehow I don't think Phil wants to meet me. That thought in itself was enough for her to say with a genuine smile, "I'd like that, Christi. I'd be happy to come."
"Great!" Christi's grin faded a little as she rolled her eyes. "I should warn you ahead of time though, Phil's Mom can be a pain in the ass at times. Don't let her get to you, okay? His Dad is a pretty good guy, and I'd really like you and Phil to get along."
"I'm sure we'll all get along wonderfully," Jac lied. Judging by old Phil's voice on the phone last night, I think he'd rather welcome a rattler into his home. This should be interesting.
The women finished their lunch, and Christi took the empty trays to the back. The blonde returned and walked the executive to the front door.
"Thanks, Jac. One of these days I'll return the favour and show up at your office with lunch. Or better still, I'll take you out for lunch."
With a grin at her friend, the tall woman suggested hopefully, "But not Thai, right?"
"Wuss!" Christi teased as she held the door open. "All right, bland it is." She gave her head an exaggerated shake. "And here I thought you'd be a woman of the world."
"I am," Jac protested. "I'm just partial to keeping my taste buds non-blistered."
"So why would you buy Thai in the first place then?"
Jac looked up at the skyline. "Um, well I thought you might like it." There was silence; and when the executive glanced down, she found a slightly stunned look on her friend's face. Christi regarded her, green eyes bright with appreciation. Recognizing the perfect moment to leave, Jac said, "See you Saturday then."
Turning away, she heard a quiet confirmation. "Saturday."
Walking the few blocks back to the bank, Jac considered their final exchange. She found, to her amazement, that she'd spoken the truth. The executive had consciously selected a Thai lunch because she was sure Christi would enjoy it. Makes sense. I mean, I want her to like me, right? I'm certainly not going to win the challenge if she hates me.
But the rationalization felt hollow and to her amazement, she realized that somewhere along the way, she'd crossed the line from seduction to courtship. Now the question was, how did she get back on track? Do I even want to?
Jac continued her purposeful stride down the sidewalk, her disciplined mind torn between an ego that demanded she win at all costs and a heart that was tapping into something far more powerful, something she was only barely cognizant of. Resolutely she pushed all thoughts of the young woman out of her mind as she entered the bank and nodded at the doorman who greeted her cheerfully. Enough! I have work to do!
Jac flexed her legs uncomfortably. Volkswagens weren't made for six footers. Christi noticed her discomfort and smiled.
"Sorry, I didn't know I was going to have a giantess for a friend when I bought this car."
"And I didn't know I'd be hanging with a midget either," Jac shot back amiably.
"Who're you calling a midget?"
Jac grinned at the look of mock outrage on her companion's face. "Hey, if the shoe fits-the teeny, tiny, wee little shoe..."
She got a smack on the shoulder for that and broke out laughing. It's been a good day. It had been a good day. Jac squirmed a little more in the restricted space, but smiled as she looked out the window. Christi had dragged her all over the city, which normally would have driven her crazy, but she'd genuinely enjoyed their shopping trip.
And now I get to meet ole Phillie and his dragon mother. Her smile turned rueful at the thought, but part of her anticipated the confrontation. She'd decided to take the high road, fairly certain that Phil would not. Christi hadn't said anything outright, but reading between the lines, she knew her friend's fiancé wasn't thrilled with his intended's new companion and all the time they'd been spending together. Oh yeah, this could be very interesting!
"There's home," Christi said, nodding at a pair of apartment blocks ahead of them.
Jac surveyed the buildings with interest. Generically constructed, there was little of interest about them. Diplomatically she withheld any comment as Christi drove underground and parked. Following her friend to the banks of elevators, she mused that the old firehouse suited the blonde much more than this bland structure. Maybe it's better inside the apartment.
Trailing Christi into her home, Jac gave a tiny shake of her head. Keenly aware now of how talented her friend was at decorating, she was surprised at how little of the blonde's stamp was on the insipid interior.
Almost as if reading her thoughts, Christi gave her an abashed look. "Phil doesn't really like change."
Jac barely had time to whisper, "Then Phil doesn't know what he's missing!" A burly man strutted up to them and gathered Christi in his arms. He kissed the blonde deeply, ignoring her quiet protestation.
Jesus, why don't you piss on her while you're at it? Talk about marking your territory! Jac kept the distaste off her face and maintained a look of mild interest. When Phil finally released a blushing Christi, the blonde turned abruptly and tugged Jac forward.
"Jac, this is my-this is Phillip Emerson. Phil, this is my friend, Jac Lanier."
Jac held out her hand, giving the scowling man a big smile. She was amused to see that she topped the man's height by at least four inches. "Nice to finally meet you, Phil. I've heard so much about you." That wasn't actually the truth. Christi talked a lot about her family, but very little about her fiancé.
Phil shook her hand and muttered, "Likewise." Turning to the blonde, he said, "Mom called. They'll be here in about an hour." Without a word or backwards glance, he returned to the living room where an NFL game was blaring on the television.
Christi glanced apologetically at the executive. "Um, why don't I take your jacket, and then maybe you can give me a hand in the kitchen?"
Jac nodded and handed over her leather bomber. She could see the tension in Christi's stiff shoulders, but rather than that pleasing her, she regretted her part and wanted to ease her friend's tension. As they made their way to the kitchen, she did her best to tease and charm the blonde into a better mood. Her efforts were rewarded by a genuine smile that even illuminated those gentle green eyes.
By the time Christi set her to peeling potatoes, the younger woman had recovered her élan and was chatting enthusiastically about their afternoon.
"That sculpture is going to be the focal point of your loft," the blonde insisted as she tore lettuce for the salad.
Jac nodded her agreement. She'd fallen in love with the black marble sculpture as soon as she'd seen it. The torso of a nude woman, her head thrown back in an expression of ecstasy; the lines flowed so naturally from the stone's shape that it took her breath away. It was the epitome of grace and elegance, and she knew she had to have it.
Christi was shocked at the price and wouldn't let Jac simply open her chequebook. Much to the executive's amusement, her young friend haggled the dealer down almost two hundred dollars with the promise they'd buy a second work from his gallery too. Christi had her eye on a small, brilliantly coloured tapestry for Jac's bedroom. She managed to get that at a slight discount too, though she did have to accept a delay on delivery until the artisan could deliver a replacement to the gallery. The dealer assured her it would be no more than ten days, and Christi gave him her numbers with firm instructions to call her the moment it arrived.
The tall woman hadn't bothered to tell Christi that two hundred dollars was little more than pocket change to her, and that the cost of all the artwork combined barely made a dent in her account. She simply enjoyed the blonde's triumphant grin and congratulated her on her bartering skills.
"Yes, it is. By the way, remind me to take you with me the next time I hit the Moroccan bazaars." That earned her a big grin. "So where do you think we should put it?" Listening to Christi expound on the options, Jac never even noticed how easily she'd slipped into the plural pronoun.
They were setting the dining room table together when a sharp knock sounded at the door.
"Phil, would you let your parents in?"
Grumbling under his breath, Phil tore himself away from the game and went to the door. Out of the corner of her eye, Jac saw Christi shake her head. They quickly finished the table, and the blonde went to greet her in-laws as Jac hung back, watching with interest. She saw the stiff way the two women greeted each other. Christi's future mother-in-law was a thin woman of medium height, her rigid posture, lacquered platinum hair and drawn features creating an indelible impression of brittleness.
Mr. Emerson was a burly, balding man who resembled his son but without the sullenness that marred Phil's features. After he and his wife handed over their coats, he strode over to Jac and offered his hand with a genial smile.
"I don't know if you remember me, Ms. Lanier. We met last year at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon. I know I remember you. Your presentation on commercial pitfalls for mid-sized companies was brilliant. Not to mention that you were the best-looking banker I'd ever seen."
"Of course-Andrew Emerson. I do recall having the pleasure of talking with you then. As I recall, you brought up some interesting points on competitiveness." Jac did remember the man now. He'd cornered her after the luncheon, monopolizing her with a multitude of earnest questions until her VP had dragged her off to meet the President of the Chamber.
Andrew beamed. His wife cleared her throat ostentatiously behind him, and he started. "Oh, Ms. Lanier, this is my wife, Phyllis. Phyl, this is Ms. Lanier."
Jac extended a hand. "Please, call me Jac. It's nice to meet you Mrs. Emerson."
The woman took the proffered hand and shook it limply, unable or unwilling to conceal her distaste. Huh, wonder what her problem is? The executive nodded politely, ignoring the woman's overt antagonism. She saw Christi frown at the exchange, but met her friend's disturbed gaze with a subtle wink, winning a small smile in return.
Jac was content to let Andrew talk business until dinnertime arrived. When she noticed that neither Phil nor his mother made any attempt to help Christi, she politely excused herself and went to help her friend.
"Hope you like pot roast," Christi said. "I put it in on low before I picked you up and it looks like it's perfect." She bustled about filling serving bowls that Jac transported to the table. When the executive returned, the blonde was whipping the potatoes, and she nodded at the roast standing on the carving board.
"I've seen the way you handle a knife. Feel like carving for me?"
"Sure," Jac assented, pulling a large knife from the butcher block on the counter. "Do you like your slices thick or thin?"
Christi's answer was cut off by a rough voice. "Here, I'll do that." Phil shouldered between the two women and stood truculently in front of the roast.
Wordlessly, Jac turned the knife and extended it handle first, before quietly asking, "Anything else I can do, Christi?"
The blonde silently held out the bowl of potatoes. Jac could see the points of colour on her face, and the anger in her eyes. Exiting the kitchen, the executive heard her friend's whispered hiss.
"What is the matter with you?! That was rude!"
"Carving's a man's job, Christi. Wouldn't be right to ask our guests to do my job."
Jac rolled her eyes at the lame defence but was startled at Christi's acid response.
"Funny, that never stopped you before!"
Oh boy! Wouldn't want to be in his shoes tonight! Jac set the bowl on the table and walked over to join the Emerson's. Andrew turned to greet her gladly, but Phyllis gave her a sour look.
"Excuse me, please. I'll just freshen up before dinner." The woman stalked off and her husband sighed.
Awkwardly, Andrew covered up his wife's abrupt departure. "So how did you and our little Christi meet?"
Jac was in the process of telling him of how Victoria had introduced them when the blonde called everyone to dinner. The executive was seated across the table from her friend. Andrew sat beside her, and Phil slumped beside his fiancée. Phyllis took the head of the table as if it were her natural due.
Covertly watching her friend, Jac saw the unmistakable signs of stress in her white-knuckle grip on her fork and her rigid posture. Sighing inwardly, she decided to try to lighten the unbearable tension. She engaged Andrew in a lively discussion about the annual Christmas charity show his company sponsored. Adroitly she pulled Christi into the conversation, drawing the younger woman in an animated debate about the best uses of the funds raised.
However, the conversation went only three ways. Phil maintained a sullen silence, and his mother concentrated intently on her food until suddenly interjecting, "Christi, I believe I may have found the perfect house for you two." Turning to Jac, she said casually, "Phil and Christi have been searching for just the right house. It has to be in a good neighbourhood, and of course, have enough room for the children."
Jac nodded politely. "Well, when they find it, I can certainly vouch for Christi's talents in decorating it."
Phyllis waved her hand dismissively. "Don't be silly. That's what professional decorators are for. Now, Christi, the Carlton's just put their house up for sale. It's perfect for you two, and I've made an appointment with the realtor to look at it tomorrow after work."
The executive could see Christi visibly blanch, and she wondered what it was about the Carlton house that chilled her. The blonde was virtually wordless through the rest of the meal and by the time it was mercifully over, Jac simply wanted to leave-as quickly as possible. She helped Christi clear the table, and while in the kitchen, said quietly, "I think I should get going. I'm pretty tired from all we've done this weekend, and tomorrow is a work day."
Christi stared at the floor and muttered, "Don't blame you."
"Hey," Jac said gently, placing a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Are you all right? I'll stay if you want me to."
The blonde gave a short bitter laugh. "Now I know you're my friend."
"There was never any doubt about that." Jac's soft words pulled Christi's head up, and the younger woman gave her a grateful smile before a thought occurred to her.
"Wait a minute, how are you going to get home? I drove today, remember?"
"No problem. I noticed a cab stand at the motel down the street. I'll just grab one there." When Christi frowned and tried to protest, Jac stopped her with a finger over her lips.
"You can't abandon your guests."
"Can't I?" But the protest was half-hearted. Christi sighed and said, "C'mon. I'll walk you to the elevator."
Jac bade the other guests goodnight, ignoring Phil's look of triumph. She accepted Andrew's business card and promised to give him a call if the bank PR department was interested in participating in the Christmas fundraiser.
Christi escorted her out into the hall and down to the elevators. She pressed the button for Jac and then looked up remorsefully. "I'm sorry," she said with a helpless shrug. "I didn't mean to subject you to the Spanish Inquisition."
"Shhh, it's not your fault. Sometimes I just rub people wrong." Seeing tears building in those green eyes, Jac impulsively pulled her friend into a hug. She held her for a moment, feeling small arms tighten convulsively around her body. Whispering into the delicate ear next to her mouth, she said, "Can you imagine how they'd have been if I'd brought a date?"
Christi snorted with laughter and pulled back. Jac brushed her hand over wet cheeks and grinned, pleased when she elicited a wan smile.
"No big deal, my friend. Now you have a good night, and I'll give you a call later in the week, okay? We've been working hard. Maybe we can plan something fun next weekend." Jac marveled at how soft the young woman's cheek was and had to force her hand away.
The elevator arrived and Jac entered. Turning, she watched as the doors closed and wondered if that was really wistfulness she saw on Christi's face.
Poor kid. I feel like I'm leaving her in the snake pit. She fought an impulse to hit the stop button and return to her friend's floor. Yeah, right. Ride to the rescue. I'm sure that's exactly what she wants.
Her sarcastic thought mildly depressing, Jac left the building and headed for the cab stand, grateful to be out of the oppressive environment.
The senior Emerson's had left a few minutes before, and Christi was still cleaning up in the kitchen. Phil came up from behind and wrapped his arms around her.
She pushed him off, stepping away and continuing to load the dishwasher.
"C'mon babe, that can wait for the morning. Why don't we find something more fun to do?" he wheedled, trying again to embrace her.
She pulled away and spun angrily. "You think after the way you behaved tonight that I have the least interest in sleeping with you?"
All wounded innocence, Phil protested, "What? What did I do?"
She stared at him incredulously. "You were a total jerk to my friend. I invited her tonight because I wanted you two to get to know each other. Now I wouldn't blame her if she never sets foot in this apartment again."
"Good! I don't want her here anyway," Phil sneered.
Livid, Christi demanded, "What the hell is your problem with her? You've never even met her before tonight, and you act like she's your worst enemy!"
"Look, you don't know anything about her."
"I know that she's a wonderful friend, that she's considerate and sweet and funny."
"She's a dyke!" Phil shot his trump card at her with an exultant smirk.
Christi shrugged. "I know. So what?" She almost laughed when Phil's jaw dropped, but she was too angry to find anything comical.
"You know?!" His voice was stunned and he stared disbelievingly at her.
"Uh huh. She told me the first night we went to the concert. She didn't want me to be uncomfortable. So how did you know?"
Phil's eyes darted around the kitchen, avoiding the blonde's intense gaze. "Uh, well it's obvious just looking at her."
"No-it's not. Now how did you know Jac is gay?" Her steely voice brooked no evasion; Phil thrust his hands in his pockets, fidgeting uncomfortably.
When he couldn't stand the silence any longer, he blurted, "Mom told me."
"What?! How the hell did your mother know?"
Phil stared at the fridge, refusing to meet infuriated green eyes. "I told her I was worried about your new friend, and she told me she'd check her out. She has a lot of contacts in this city you know." Defensively, he added, "She was just worried about you, and so am I. You haven't been yourself since you met her, and I'm afraid she's twisting your mind."
Fervently, Christi declared, "I'm never more myself than when I'm with her. She doesn't try and put me in a pigeon hole like some people I might mention. And where the hell do you get off having your mother check out my friends?"
"God, see what I mean? She's got you all messed up," Phil blustered. "I'm serious, Christi. I do not want you to see her ever again!"
She stared at him, shaking her head in disbelief. "Did I just hear you forbid me to see my friend?"
Phil jutted out his chin defiantly. "Yes, I did. You're going to be my wife, Christi!"
"Your wife-not your property!" she shot back furiously. "And frankly, I'm not even sure I want to be your wife anymore!"
He gaped at her, sputtering in disbelief. Christi regarded him coldly. "Oh, and another thing. If you think I'm going to live in a house across the street from your mother, you and she are sadly mistaken. I would live in the street before I'd live in the old Carlton place." Abandoning the clean up, she stalked out of the kitchen. "I'm going to bed. Don't bother joining me."
Over her shoulder, she heard him holler, "It's my home, and I'll sleep where I damned well please." Ignoring him, she walked away, but she hadn't missed his turn of phrase. At that moment though, she didn't care if it was ever their home again.
An hour later, lying in bed wide-awake as the dull roar of the TV echoed from the living room, Christi stared at the darkened ceiling. Wonder how long it'll take the neighbours to call the Superintendent?
She let her thoughts drift, musing about the disastrous evening and her relationship with her fiancé. Not for the first time, she wondered if she'd made a mistake by getting engaged so precipitously. Phil had been so sweetly insistent and when she'd finally agreed, he'd been exultant, telling her that even his Dad felt she'd be the making of him.
Christi knew that his parents disapproved of the fact that he hadn't settled down and was still running around carousing with his high school buddies. Aware that his father didn't promote him into management until after they'd made their big announcement, she questioned now whether that had been the impetus behind Phil's urgency to get engaged.
Rolling onto her side, she pulled a pillow over her ears. She concentrated on quieting her mind, but sleep remained elusive. Memories of their summer trip to her family's home surfaced. Her family had not been impressed with her fiancé. Their sign of acceptance was to tease and razz a newcomer unmercifully. With Phil, they'd all been ultra-polite, a clear sign that they were less than captivated.
Christi had been hurt. She cornered her mother in the kitchen before they left. Looking into green eyes that mirrored her own, she asked plaintively, "Mom?" Sighing, her mother grunted an answer to the unspoken question. "Maybe he'll grow on us." It was the best she could get out of the blunt, earthy woman. She'd hoped subsequent visits would warm her family's view of Phil, but her fiancé had procrastinated on any further visits to the farm.
Jac would go see the family with me. The thought didn't even startle her. She was getting used to the constant comparisons her mischievous brain insisted on making between her friend and her fiancé. Rather than fighting it, she let herself examine the thought.
Her family would love Jac. Her brother Jason, who was a banty rooster barely topping five-five, would probably insist on arm wrestling the Amazon. She grinned at the thought and found herself warming as she pictured Jac sitting comfortably at the crowded kitchen table. Christi knew her friend would give as good as she got, and she also knew her family wouldn't give a fig about her orientation. They were already such a diverse group that one more oddity would barely faze them.
She imagined showing Jac around the farm, introducing her to Maggie, the ancient white mare that her father couldn't bear to put down, and showing her where the hens hid their eggs in the hay.
Christi finally relaxed, her mind letting go of the evening's tension. At some level, the young woman knew she had some serious decisions to make it, but put them off until she was thinking clearly, preferring instead the comfort rendered by the images of walking her father's fields with Jac. Drifting into sleep, she felt the inescapable rightness of that vision.
Continued in Part 3
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