Reticulating Lives

Part Two

by Lexibard

Disclaimer: See Part One


(How do I love thee, let me count the lies...)

Chapter Six

At exactly 7:10, Carrie pulled the black convertible Jaguar into the entrance of the parking lot. One attendant smiled and opened her door, while another went to the passenger's side and helped Erin exit. Carrie hated turning the keys of one of her most beloved toys over to the pimply faced boy, but after driving around a two-block radius several times, and having no luck in finding a parking space, she had no choice. Taking the claim ticket in hand, she escorted Erin out to the sidewalk. She lightly put her arm around Erin then quickly removed it and opted to gently put her hand to the base of her spine, and steer her in the direction of Seventh Avenue. She was a bundle of nerves. Erin looked so cute when she had breathlessly ambled up to her outside of Gentry. The kissing marathon they enjoyed had satisfied a craving that nagged her all day, but now that craving was returning and this made her feel skittish.

She was acutely aware of Erin's presence as they negotiated their way down the crowded street. Out of frustration, she grabbed Erin's hand and pulled her closer to her. "Wouldn't want to lose you out here," she said to questioning green eyes. When white teeth beamed up at her, she smiled back and relaxed to enjoy the warmth of their joined hands.

At first it had been difficult for Erin to keep up with the long strides of her companion but when she took her hand the two fell into sync and Erin relaxed considerably. The connection felt right to both of them and as they reached the entrance of the restaurant neither let go of the other.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Val and Paula were already there, and Val noticed it right away. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew something was different about her sister. Her blue eyes were sparkling, making her even more beautiful then she usually was. Of course she looked confident, collected, and in command as she always did, but there was definitely something else. 'Happy!' Val said to herself. 'My little sister looks genuinely happy!' She watched as Carrie and Erin made their way over to them. They were taking their time, scrutinizing the restaurant, its patrons, and the staff with keen eyes. Carrie in front and Erin close behind. Val contemplated how much Erin looked like Tina Thomas. She had thought so yesterday when she first met Erin. Now looking at her again she had the same thoughts. This girl was a far cry from the usual. She didn't have the 'Super Model' look, which had become Carrie's taste of late, nor did she have the 'Lipstick Lesbian' look that seemed to sniff behind her sister all the time. No, this one was more of the 'Girl Next Door' variety that Tina had, but with a lot more innocence. As they neared, Val could see the two women were holding hands. Unconsciously, a small smile came to her face and Val thought 'Could it be my sister's in love?' At her own surprise she was delighted for Carrie. It had been years since the incident with Tina Thomas. After all, didn't Carrie deserve to be happy...finally?

Val hated the person Carrie had become, and the private hell she had erected around herself. At first it was a stream of one-night stands. Carrie was always with a different woman whenever she saw her, and she chose the most diametrical personalities she could find. She had become mean and uncaring, nothing like the easy going, self-sacrificing humanitarian she grew up with. Then came the disappearances for long periods of time. No one knew where she was or what she was doing. She would just disappear then show up again looking tired and worn out. If someone asked where she had been, her answers would be evasive at best, if she answered at all. Lately it had been a slew of loveless relationships where she made it clear to everyone concerned that they were simply bed partners, nothing more. Val had hoped that someday Carrie would wake up, turn around, and notice the ever faithful, Jean, who was always waiting on the sidelines with love in her eyes. Even when Carrie had been her meanest, Jean's friendship never wavered. But that never happened, Jean was not the answer. So if the petite blond was indeed the one, then so be it, and Val would be grateful for small miracles.

Paula greeted them first. "So what do you think? Is this not the ideal location or what?" Paula was grinning from ear to ear. She had done well, if she must say so herself!

Leaning in to kiss her politely upon the cheek, Carrie said, "Hi Paula, how are you?" She then turned to her sister and did a half wave. "Hey Val." Turning back to Paula, she pulled Erin in front of her and said, "Paula this is Erin. Erin, Paula..." The two women shook hands. "...And you remember my sister, Val."

"Yes, hi Val." Erin beamed as she smiled at Carrie's sister. "Good to see you again." Val greeted her warmly, which didn't go unnoticed by Carrie.

Pulling out a chair for Erin, Carrie sat down next to her, placing Erin between Val and herself. "Yes, you are right Paula. This is the ideal location. How did you find it?"

Paula's face lit up with a smile. She was eager to tell the tale of the desperate Mergiotti family that contacted her brokerage firm trying to gain some fast dollars in exchange for an unbidden restaurant they had inherited. She hadn't known why they had contacted her firm, but figured it had something to do with the fact that her last name was Morrelli.

While the restaurant had been in the family for generations, Joseph Mergiotti's heirs weren't the least bit interested in the business. Having little or no contact with the elder Mergiotti, they were instead hoping to inherit cash rather than what they considered a white elephant. Because Mergiotti had made some less than wise business investments, when the estate paid off all his debts and obligations, the family was left with only the restaurant -- no cash. The family intended to unload their burden as quickly as possible and split the money evenly not thinking about the fact that in their haste they would be losing out on the true value of the restaurant and it's property.

Paula didn't have to see the actual building to know that it was worth five times the amount that the Family was asking. It was in a prime location where just the property itself was worth what they were selling it for. The only hitch was that they wanted cash, and they wanted it now. She had only one client who could come up with that kind of money at such short notice, and she was now facing her. Paula was ecstatic over her latest coup. She would provide her client with the financial security he sought, would make a good deal for the sister of her best friend, and would make a hefty commission for herself. In the end everyone would be happy!

"I'm telling you Carrie, a deal like this doesn't happen everyday." She heard herself saying. She didn't know why she was trying so hard to sell Carrie on the place, when it really could sell itself; but old habits die hard, and she was now truly in her seller's mode. "Here..." she said pushing a folder towards Carrie. "Just look at that asking price."

Carrie casually opened the folder, smiling gently at Paula's antics. Paula had been a family friend for years. Out of all of Val's friends, Paula was at the least, tolerable. She had snooty ways like her sister, but Paula also had a kind and gentle side that she wore on her sleeve. She had never married, like most of Val's friends, and Carrie often wondered why. She wasn't the most attractive person but she wasn't displeasing either. Carrie suspected that Paula played on her side of the fence, which had her questioning her sister's motives for the friendship, too. They seemed to always be in each other's company, which meant Paula spent a lot of time at the estate, giving Carrie the opportunity to get to know and accept her. Carrie had always enjoyed their friendship of friendly bantering and playfulness that included Paula constantly trying to sell Carrie some property or another, calling it an investment. So, it was without reserve that Carrie beckoned Paula to look for a restaurant that she and Jean could invest in. She had confidence that Paula would do her best, for her.

When Carrie laid eyes on the seven-figure asking price, she sucked in her breath, then let it out slowly, while clearing her throat. Paula panicked. "What? ...Surely you don't think that's too high?!"

Shaking her head Carrie replied, "No, no, not at all." Carrie looked back at the figure. "Paula, no one buys property in Manhattan for this price anymore..." She looked at Paula with a mocking lift of the brow. "Are we stealing from the Indians again?"

A relieved Paula sighed loudly. "That's what I've been trying to tell you, Carrie. These people are desperate for cash. Exactly why, I can't tell you. All I know is that Joe Mergiotti III is the legal executor of the estate and that's the price he's asking. He's so hot to get his hands on the money, that he insisted I draw up the papers and bring them with me tonight. He's going to be here, between 9:00 and 9:30, expecting to sign below your signature to seal this deal."

Carrie looked at her pensively. "You sure this is legal?" Paula nodded her head emphatically. "You personally checked out the legalities?"

"Carrie" said Val in a low exasperated tone. "Everything has been checked and rechecked I had Martin look into it myself. You do trust your brother-in-law don't you? ...Just sign the damn thing...You shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth."

Carrie studied her sister for a moment then looked over to Erin. 'God she has the prettiest green eyes.' she thought. She turned the folder more towards her, pointing to the asking price, so she could get a good look. "What do you think?"

Erin looked surprised. Was Carrie really asking her for her opinion; No one ever asks for her opinion! She looked down at the figure above the long slender finger, again. That was more money than she could fathom. With no frame of reference she couldn't really give an opinion. Slowly shaking her head she said, "I'm sorry Carrie, I'm way out of my element here." Looking up into amused blue eyes she continued, "That seems like an awful lot of money to me and I can see where someone else would gladly take it in lieu of a property that they felt they were stuck with."

Carrie smiled broadly. Erin had answered the one question that was bugging her the most. 'Intelligent', Carrie silently added it to the list of things that made Erin irresistible. She leaned and kissed Erin soundly on the forehead and whispered. "You are truly magnificent." She then took her hand in hers and put them in her lap under the table. Turning back to Paula she said, "Well I'm convinced. Now all you have to do is convince Jean and you, my friend, will have a sale."

Paula beamed with delight. She wasn't worried about Jean. Val had told her that it was Carrie who was putting up most of the money anyway, and she was well aware of her best friend's sister's financial status. Leaning back in her chair she motioned over to their private waiter who was standing patiently off to the side. "Bring us your best bottle of champagne and three of your tastiest appetizers...and double the portions" Looking at the others at the table she asked, "Is there anything else anyone wants? I thought we could nibble now and order dinner when your partner gets here."

Erin looked up shyly. She asked, "Could I have a coke?" Champagne always gave her a headache, and she had a job to go to in the morning.

The waiter smiled and nodded at her. He had been watching her ever sense the two of them sat down at the table with the two other women. He had seen the exchange between her and the tall woman with blue eyes. It was quite obvious to him that the two of them were in love. They touched every chance they got and if things were going the way they appeared, she would be frequenting this establishment quite often. He only hoped that he and the other staff would still be here.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Carrie was lightly caressing the back of Erin's hand when she spotted the hostess escorting Jean and Sonny to their table. Her eyes gleamed and the smile she was already sporting deepened. Erin took notice and turned her attention in that direction.

"Whoa..." Jean breathed as she reached them. "Is this really the place? Far more than I expected."

Paula was up in an instance. "This is it!" she said enthusiastically. "I've been filling your partner here, in on everything and she's as excited about this as I am." Val and the others at the table laughed lightly at the embellishment as Paula gave an account of the night's conversation. "Well, Carrie you did say you were in."

"That I did. Sit down you two, Paula's not big on greetings." Carrie sat up straighter and waved her unoccupied hand at the two seats across from her.

Jean took the one opposite Erin next to Paula, as Sonny took the one across from Carrie. She looked at Erin noticing the resemblance to Tina right away. Not meaning to, she rolled her eyes and looked at Carrie with upraised eyebrows. Not liking the scowl she got when she met the blue eyes, she quickly looked back at Erin, and said, "Hi, I'm Jean" She reached across the table and clasped Erin's hand briefly. Without looking in the direction, she flung a hand towards Sonny. "This is Sonny."

Sonny took a brief glance at Erin and said "Hello", then shifted her eyes back to the table. She was still fuming over Jean's unreasonableness about the rings. She just didn't understand it. After a few seconds, she pushed back and stood up. Not looking at anyone she mumbled that she was going to the ladies room and walked off. The entire table silently watched her back as she made her way further to the rear of the restaurant.

"Um...Carrie, aren't you going to show the figures to Jean?" said Paula breaking the silence. She hadn't a clue about what was going on, but whatever it was it wasn't going to ruin her sale. She discreetly went in her purse and retrieved her platinum pen. Signing the contracts was surely going to be the next step.

Carrie, smiling once again, slid the folder towards Jean. Noticing the small shopping bag on the table, she asked, "What's in the bag?"

Barely looking up from the contents in the folder Jean answered. "Gifts from Lars." She blindly pushed the bag forward.

Carrie eyed Jean suspiciously as she took the bag from the table. Looking into it, Carrie pulled out one of the boxes. She opened it and let out an audible gasp followed by a whistle. "Say about 5 grand?"

She arched a brow at Jean who rolled her eyes and muttered under her breath, saying "He's such an ass whole".

Peering into the box Erin's eyes grew big. "Wow!" she whispered, hoping Carrie only heard her.

Carrie glanced at her out the corner of her eye. "You like this sort of thing?"

"Oh Carrie, it's beautiful." The wonder was still in her voice.

She turned the box towards Erin. "Hmmm. I had you pegged for something a little more tame ...not so glittery."

Erin was opening her straw for her soda, happy that Val was starting on the appetizers, she was hungry but didn't want to be the first to dig in when the waiter placed them on the table. "Well, it's not exactly something I would buy for myself, but it's nice."

Val glanced over at the ring. "Oooo, I didn't know you and Lars were fucking."

Jean jerked her head up at Val. Seething she said, "We're not!"

Without looking at her, Val responded. "Well somebody is fucking something. To get a rock like that..."

Seeing that Jean was about to lose it, Carrie quickly interjected, "Val! Please there is a lady at the table!" She winked at the blushing Erin.

"It's simply a gift, Val." Jean turned back to the folder, realizing Val was only goading her. The bad part was that she had had those same thoughts, only Sonny had been the one in question.

Carrie smiled closing the box. Looking at Jean she said, "Are they both the same?"

Jean nodded. This was frustrating. She didn't like disappointing Sonny, but she hadn't really had a choice. Those rings were going to leave a sore spot in their relationship. "The other one has a gold band. We're giving them back..." After a moment, Jean continued with wonder in her voice, "...Is this the asking price?" She looked up at Carrie then back to Paula.

"That's it!" said a gloating Paula. She was eagerly twirling the pen around on her fingers.

Jean's brows furrowed and Carrie smiled at her friend's apprehension. She then looked up at Carrie again and asked, "Have we toured the kitchen?"

"I was waiting for you before taking a closer look."

Paula sighed inwardly. 'What was wrong with them. Didn't they realize that even if the kitchen was gutted and the Chef was using a hot plate, this place was a steal for the price!' Rising she said, "I think we can do that."

Carrie leaned into a now eating heartily Erin. "You going to be all right?"

"Sure...go ahead," she said as she swallowed another stuffed mushroom. "Give the Chef my compliments. These are really good!"

As Jean and Carrie stood to follow Paula, Sonny was returning to the table. She sat down abruptly and gave Jean a sneer. Jean ignored it and followed Paula, as Carrie fell in file behind them. They judiciously weaved their way through the restaurant, towards the kitchen. Carrie extended a hand to Jean's shoulder to slow her pace. "You're right, you know...He's either insane or up to something to give you guys a present like that. Is that why you two aren't talking to each other?"

"I guess...but he's definitely taking them back!"

Carrie caught the tone of rage in Jean's voice and was about to question it; but they made their way into the noisy and brightly-lit kitchen, so, she stored her questions for later, and ogled at the chaos around them. A short stubby man, who Paula introduced as Sam the restaurant manager, came over to greet them. He pulled them to the side, out of the way of the bustling waiters, cooks and busboys, who Carrie observed and concluded to be putting on a show for them. 'No one can keep up a pace like this all night!' she snorted.

Half listening to Sam explain the logistics of the workings in the kitchen, Carrie was subjecting the workers to her 'I've got my eye on you!' leer. She didn't know if the staff was going to remain or not, that was totally up to Jean. It was Jean's ball park and Jean's game, she was only along to finance the ride...a way of paying back a debt that she, for unknown reasons, felt she owed her long time friend. But if this staff did remain, they needed to know that she and Jean were no pushovers, and it would be work as usual.

Much to the gratitude of the now tense staff, Jean grabbed Carrie's arm and pulled her over to a neutral corner, taking icy blue eyes off of them. Out of earshot from the others Jean asked, sounding very frustrated, "So, what do you think?"

Carrie smiled down at her friend and pushed a clump of hair away from her eye. Jean had seemed wound-up all night. What should be a happy event was being over shadowed by some domestic problem she was having. Carrie knew Sonny was going to be a handful when she first met her...and to top things off, Jean had the extra burden of having to tell Lars about her leaving, tonight. Feeling sympathy for her friend, Carrie sighed and began to try and provide some relief for her. "Relax Jean. I don't care what Paula says, we don't have to make a decision tonight. If you're not comfortable with this..."

"No, no!" she said, tucking that same clump of hair back behind her ear. "It's okay. I can handle this." She shifted her stance. "Fuck her. She's not going to ruin things for me." Jean knew that Carrie was referring to her problem with Sonny, but that wasn't really what was bothering her. It was the Tina Thomas clone sitting out there at the table. Carrie had dated this type from time to time but the word 'love' had never been spoken in reference to someone, and it disturbed her deeply. She looked back out over the kitchen and began to smile. A sparkle came to her eyes and her smile deepened. "I like this. It has all kinds of potential, it won't require a lot of change, and it's definitely the right price." Looking back up at Carrie with a gleam in her eyes, she continued, "And Carrie, we'll be partners, right? You and me, just like we planned." She was now grinning with up-raised eyebrows and licking her lips, causing Carrie to grin wildly too. They hugged in honor of their impending partnership.

Paula took this as a positive cue to join them. "So, do we have a deal here ladies?" She looked back and forth between the duo waiting for an answer, when a large pan of pasta that was being taken from one of the ovens, tumbled loudly to the floor. Sam threw his hands in the air and began to holler in Italian. While, he and other workers rushed to the flustered cook's side, Carrie draped an arm around Paula and Jean, and escorted them through the kitchen doors. "I think we're going to take it Paula."

"Excellent." said Paula. Moving out from under Jean's arm, she hastened her pace and motioned them to follow her to the table. She was eager to get the contract signed before Joe Mergiotti showed up.

This time it was Jean who laid a hand on Carrie's shoulder to get her attention. They stopped off to the side, by the ladies room. "So nothing has changed, has it?"

Carrie looked at her in puzzlement. "What do you mean?"

Jean gestured towards the table. "Your new friend...I mean we'll still be partners, right?

Carrie watched Erin as she was carrying along a conversation with Val. She was smiling brightly and Carrie could see the sparkle in her green eyes, from where she stood. She looked back at Jean with a look of amusement then leaned in. "We've been friends forever, what makes you think that's going to change now?" a mocking eyebrow went up. "Jean, what ever it is between Erin and me, it has nothing to do with us or our partnership." She was now looking at her friend with tenderness and she gently brushed her cheek to reassure her.

Jean blushed and managed a smile. She wasn't totally convinced, but the appearance of Lars at the front of the restaurant stopped all thought of anything else she wanted to say. Instead her heart began to beat faster. The moment of truth was about to be revealed. She looked behind him to spot Steven but he wasn't there. "Shit!" she said aloud.

"What's up?" Carrie turned in the direction that Jean was gesturing and eyed him too.

"I had invited Steven to join us but it looks like he couldn't make it. I thought his being here would help neutralize Lars when I hit him with the news."

Carrie shrugged. "Forget it. C'mon let's get this show on the road."

"Not just yet", said Jean as she and Carrie made their way back to the table.

Paula stood with pen in hand, smiling from ear to ear when they approached. Her smile disappeared as Jean grabbed the little shopping bag from the table, and walked past her to intercept Lars before he made it to the table.

"Now where is she going?" wailed a frustrated Paula.

"She'll be right back, Paula", said Carrie as she reclaimed her seat next to Erin. Erin smiled at her, which made her smile in return. At that moment she had the impulse to kiss her but chose to take her hand instead. Public affection wasn't something she was afraid of but, she didn't know how Erin would feel about it and didn't want to make her feel uncomfortable, so she settled for the discreet groping of Erin's hand under the table. When she looked up, Paula was wearing a full pout and tapping her platinum Watermark pen on the table."

"Paula?" called Carrie. She was in just too good of a mood to see anyone unhappy tonight. "Give me the contracts, I can begin signing." As she reached for the folder that Paula was happily pushing her way, she also picked up a menu and handed it to Erin. "Here, I think we can order, now that he's here."

By the time Lars swaggered into the restaurant, it was 8:30. He was already a couple of sheets to the wind, but his mood was light. Jean reached him just as he was passing the bar. She slipped her arm around his and led him in that direction.

"Hey" she said in a low voice that sent chills down Lars' spine. He grinned shyly and cocked his head slightly. "No, that little boy act is not going to work this time. What the hell is this?" She held the bag up to him and put her hand firmly on her hip.

"It's your wedding present." Before Jean could utter a sound he put both hands up in front of him and backed away slightly, shaking his head. "Please, please Jean. Don't ask me to take them back." He looked at her sincerely "I knew you were going to feel this way that's why I didn't tell you at work...Jean, you and Sonny mean so much to me that I ...I just wanted to show you how much." He managed to give her his best contrite look that was actually difficult sense the liquor he had swilled earlier had him in a giddy mood. Jean's dark eyes were giving her away. He could see the hesitation there and decided to go in for the kill. "Jean, you know your friendship means the world to me. It's all I've got to hold on too."

Looking clearly disturbed and uncomfortable, Jean sighed loudly. 'Why did this have to happen now? The very night that she was about to tell him she was leaving the company?' She mentally slapped herself for her timing, but with a desperate urge to simply end this conversation, she shoved the bag into his chest. "Lars no. You don't prove friendship this way...take them!" she said, with a little more authority than she meant.

Lars slowly reached into the bag and pulled out the boxes. There was something in her eyes that now told him she meant business. He had seen that 'no-nonsense, I'm determined' look before and he knew better than to push things now. Besides, he could talk to Sonny in the morning and get the 'greedy bitch' to do his dirty work. He tucked one into his left inside pocket of his jacket and the other into his right. Looking back up and into Jean's eyes, he took the now empty bag and folded it. "I guess it wasn't a good idea after all."

"No..." Jean said, now feeling slightly bad for him. "You have to realize that our friendship is deeper than material's deeper than the fact that I work for you. Lars, you and I will be friends forever, ...I hope, no matter what happens." The last part was said with a bit of question in her voice.

Lars suddenly felt a blanket of melancholy, overcome him. Before it could take a firm hold, he pulled Jean into a hug. "You're not angry with me are you?" he whispered in her ear.

"No...not at all." She brushed down the back of his hair as she hugged him back. "Enough of this!" she said pulling away. "Tonight is to be a happy occasion. I have a surprise for you." She managed a smile trying to put him in a better mood. It worked.

"A surprise? I love surprises. Will it cheer me up?"

"I hope so!" Jean said as she took his arm and led him to the table. "Like I said you're my friend and I hope you'll be as happy about this as I am."

Sonny had been watching as Jean intercepted Lars and ushered him over to the bar; she watched as the bag was thrust into Lars' chest and he sheepishly accepted them; and she watched as he tucked them into the pockets of his jacket. 'Spineless mother fucker!' she raged to herself. When she had called him to warn him of Jean's intentions, he had told her not to worry, that he would handle Jean. 'Handle my ass!' She was smoldering. He had given that ring to her and Jean had no right to return it. It was hers! She shot daggers at them across the room and didn't care who saw it. An idea popped in her mind as she now watched them make their way to the table. Instantly a huge smile appeared.

"Lars" she said, as she exaggerated her greeting. She pulled him tightly into an embrace and whispered, "You can slip them back to me, and I'll work on her later."

Lars pulled up from the hug and smiled. Sonny was so predictable. He rolled his eyes and adjusted his jacket. Looking back at the table he spotted Erin right away. A look of curiosity settled on his features as he allowed his gray eyes to focus intently.

Feeling slightly uncomfortable under his gaze, Erin smiled and started to lean away from Carrie. She recognized him, just as she had recognized Jean and Sonny when they first walked in. They were the people with Carrie the first night she met her. She recalled the pang of jealousy she had experienced that night when Carrie and Jean had seemed so close, and she recalled the painful look that fell upon his face too. For the first time tonight Erin felt out of place. It felt as if Lars' presence completed a circle that didn't include her.

She barely responded as he took her hand in greeting. She looked into his gray eyes and could have sworn he winked knowingly at her. 'But what did he know?' A chill ran down her spine at his touch and she quickly retrieved her hand. The sudden warmth of Carrie's thigh against hers brought a smile to her face as she drew her attention back to her. Carrie reassuringly patted her hand, and Erin began to relax again. The feeling of safety and security was upon her, once more, and she willingly took refuge.

Lars took the seat at the head between Sonny and Carrie. He looked down the table, smiling. 'Well, well, well...' Lars thought to himself. 'What a pleasant surprise!' He looked back up and stared at Erin, again. He was gloating as if there was some inside joke. Turning his gaze from Erin he winked at Jean who looked away with disgust. She knew exactly what was going through his head. The two of them had a long time debate going on. It was Lars' position that Carrie's heart would always belong to Tina Thomas and she could never have another meaningful relationship. Of course it was Jean's position that it would take sometime, but Carrie could and would open her heart to another someday, hopefully her. She just needed to learn how to trust again, and only unconditional friendship was going to do that for her. Recently Lars' views were starting to waiver. It had seemed as if Carrie and Jean had been growing closer, if that was possible, and Carrie was turning Jean against him. But now with this Tina Thomas look-alike on her arm, his fears of losing his closeness with Jean were put to rest, and he could relax. Carrie was obviously well entrenched in her pathetic 'broken-heart' syndrome and he had no worries.

Turning towards Carrie, he cleared his throat and asked, "So, Carrie, what have you been up to lately?"

Before answering, Carrie gave him an icy stare. She didn't like Lars -- never had. He was a pariah that she could do without. He created havoc among people, for his own amusement without any regard towards the feelings of others. He was cold, calculating and dishonest in his relationships and she had always feared for Jean being involved with him. She suspected that he was behind the story that leaked out about her and Tina Thomas but could never prove it. They did business together, but that was the extent of their relationship. There was an unspoken competition between them, leaving them to vie for everything from control of a mutual contract, to Jean's friendship. The only reason she saw him socially was because of Jean. Jean had a big heart and could see redeeming qualities in just about anyone. She often tried to warn her friend about him but he always seemed to cultivate his relationship with Jean. It was unnerving waiting for the other shoe to drop in their friendship, but tonight that would end. She hadn't intended to, but now watching him eye Erin and make her feel uncomfortable, for whatever cruel reasons he had, she would enjoy his misery of losing Jean and watching her pull her from under him. Whatever he was smirking at it wouldn't be there for long. It was now time for him to get what was coming to him.

Carrie motioned over to the waiter. "Waiting for your ass to get here so we can eat." she deadpanned. There were nods of agreement as every one lifted a menu.

The waiter went around taking their orders. While Lars ordered, Paula presented the folder again to Jean. It was almost 9:00 and Joe would show up soon. She didn't know what was going on between the friends, but she could sense that there was tension at the table. She wasn't going to let it interfere with her sell. "All that's needed now is your signature too." She said, smiling.

Jean visibly flinched. 'This is it!' she said to herself, mentally crossing her fingers. She felt eyes upon her and quickly began scratching her name in various places below Carrie's.

"What's that?" said Lars stretching his neck to see what was in the folder. "...My surprise?"

Carrie could see Jean trembling. "The reason we're here to celebrate." She said giving Jean her cue.

Sonny sighed in disgust and mumbled to no one in particular, "More like signing her life away, if you ask me."

"No one asked you!" said Carrie glaring at Sonny. This caught Erin's attention. She had barely recognized the voice. Carrie hadn't meant to sound so cruel but Sonny's attitude tonight wasn't helping things. Jean would need her support. It was going to be hard enough on Jean once Lars heard the news.

"Did I miss something?" Lars looked between the two. He was baffled. No one appreciated a good cat-fight, more than he did, but he needed to be let in on the dynamics.

Jean signed her name to the last blank and handed the folder back to a much-relieved Paula. She looked up, first at Erin then quickly she turned her eyes to Carrie, her blue eyes, her up raised brow...'she's waiting', Jean thought. She looked down the table at Lars. He was staring back with that cocky smile of his. It pained her to think about how hurt he was going to be, so she gave him a lopsided smile in return. "Lars..." she began. "You know I really appreciate everything you've done for me professionally..." He nodded as his smile began to fade. "...But, you also know I've had this someday own my own business." All humor left his features and Lars sat up straight and looked intently at Jean. "Well, it looks like tonight I got my wish." She smiled and looked to Carrie. "Carrie and I just signed the contracts...It's official...We're business partners."

"In what?!" he asked, trying not to show the fear he was feeling in his gut.

Jean smiled enthusiastically. "Here Lars! ...This's ours!" she through up her hands to encompass the whole room. "Isn't it great?!"

Jean tried to hold the smile she was sporting until she got a reaction from Lars, but there was only silence. Lars sat dumbfounded, staring at her. His eye twitched as a tear threatened. And as the smile began to dissolve from her face, his face turned into a snarl and his eyes blazed. "What the fuck are you talking about?"
Jean swallowed hard "Lars, listen to me. I...We've been planning to..."

"You've been planning this?!" Lars' tone was curt and biting. He stood up from his chair and leaned across the table towards Jean, looking down at her he asked, "You're leaving the company?"

Jean was about to answer but Carrie spoke up. "Lars sit back down...people are staring." His aggressive posture made her nervous. She went to touch his arm but he spun around at the contact, knocking his chair to the floor. "Don't you fucking touch me bitch!"

Carrie quickly stood at his words and Erin placed her hand on her arm. He backed away with clinched fist. His eyes where burning with rage as he stared into hers. The chattering from the other restaurant patrons that had been prevalent throughout the night ceased. All eyes were now trained on the table of celebrants that had been continually gathering.

He turned back towards Jean. "You fucking betrayed me...After all I've done for you! I took you from nothing and gave you everything!" Closing his eyes he took a deep breath and for what he felt would be the last time, he opened them again, and laid eyes on Jean, taking all of her in. It broke his heart. He had to get out of there.

He started towards the door, but Jean grabbed his jacket sleeve. "Lars..." He brushed her hand away and kept walking. "I've got to talk to him." She said to the table and got up to follow.

"Jean..." Carrie called.

"It's okay. I've just got to talk to him." Jean said this over her shoulder as she briskly walked after Lars. Almost bumping into the man that was coming towards her. She quickly maneuvered around him and continued after Lars.

Carrie stared after her, then sat back down. She looked to Erin and tried to give her a smile, but it just wouldn't come. She was too worried about Jean. She picked up the glass of champagne in front of her, and threw it back wishing it was something stronger.

"Joe!" Paula called, relieved by the appearance of the burly man. Things were getting too intense for her. If she didn't get this deal completed now, it may not happen. She pulled him to the end of the table between herself and Val. "Everyone, this is Mr. Mergiotti" She started around the table giving their names. When she got to Carrie she spoke a little louder, introducing her as one of the buyers.

Joe enthusiastically walked over to her and shook her hand with both of his. He was at first startled by her beauty, especially the eyes but quickly recovered and returned to his seat. Paula pulled out her folder and pen once again and commenced the signing.

"Are you all right?" said Erin, turning her body almost completely towards Carrie. She had been watching her watch the front door ever since Jean left. She could see the underlying strain of trying to control her anger.

Carrie looked into sea-green concerned eyes. This time, the smile she was trying for came and she lowered her own, as she patted Erin's hand, and said, "Sure I am. I'm just concerned about Jean out there with that lunatic." She then looked at Sonny who was intently devouring the pasta dish that the waiter just sat down in front of her. Erin watched, as Carries eyes grew dark again.

"Carrieee" Paula called to her with a singing voice. She held the documents up "Congratulations!"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

When Jean stepped outside the restaurant, she didn't have to look far for Lars. He was about four doors down leaning against a car with his head hung low. She walked up slowly to him and put her hand on his shoulder as she moved around in front.

Lars looked up with a pained face. "Why Jean? Why would you do this to me? ...I thought you...out of everyone else I know, I thought you were really my friend."

"Lars...I am your friend! This doesn't change that." Jean was on the brink of tears. " I've told you how someday I wanted to be in business for myself."

"But you're not, are you? You partnered with Carrie! She put you up to this didn't she? She never did like me. She's only doing this to get back at me." He spat the words at her as if they left a bitter taste in his mouth.

"Carrie and I are equal partners."

"You were supposed to be my partner!"

"Lars, I work for you. It's your company and I work for you. I want to work for myself."

"If you wanted a piece of the company you should have said something. You know I would have given it to you. And what about the Shirakawa account? I just put you in charge of the biggest account we've ever had! ...No, you're too valuable to just let you walk away from me like this. I can't do it. Name your price or demands...whatever you want." Lars was now moving around animatedly. He was starting to feel desperate. He brushed his hand through his blond hair trying to compose himself. But it was difficult. All he could think about was that Carrie had beat him, she had won! She had successfully pulled Jean right out from under him. 'She will pay for this!' He vowed to himself.

Jean put her hand to his chin, "Lars look at me." She said. Once she got his attention, she looked him in the eye. "It's not about money, it's not about power, and it certainly has nothing to do with our personal relationship. It's about me finally being able to do something that I've always wanted to do. I'm doing this for me."

Lars dropped his eyes. He couldn't look at her. From the day he first laid eyes on her, she had had his heart. Jean had been the only one he could count on. He had divulged all his deepest and darkest secrets to her and she hadn't judged him. Instead she had encouraged and supported him. She had been his rock, and now all that was gone. Jean had endangered their friendship for some false hope to get closer to Carrie, and Carrie had used Jean's naiveté to triumph over him. This was the ultimate deception.

Jean's voice filtered back to him, "Lars, why can't you be happy for me. It's not going to interfere with our relationship. If anything, I hope we can get closer. Especially now that it won't be an employer, employee relationship." Jean was groping. She would say anything to take that hurt look from his eyes. "I'll stay with the Shirakawa account until it is launched -- I'll stay until after the New Year.

Lars suddenly saw a spark of hope. "You promise?" Seven months was plenty enough time to expose Carrie's true nature and put an end to this stupid idea of leaving him.

"Yes, I'll stay...Now come on back in with me and celebrate. It's times like this that you're supposed to share with good friends."

He started to protest but stopped. He looked down at his watch and a little smile came to his face. 'That's right I still have a trump card that hasn't played. Carrie will soon get hers and I definitely don't want to miss that.' He shrugged and offered his arm to Jean. She looped her arm through his and clasped her hands together as she pecked him on the cheek. They started to walk back towards the restaurant. "I guess you're probably ready for a drink right about now." She grinned at him, hoping that the mention of his favorite beverage would up-lift his mood.

Lars gave her one of his roguish smiles and said, "You know Jean, she still won't see you the way you want her too."

"Lars I didn't do this just to..." she stopped herself as his gray eyes bored right through her. "You're right. Carrie will never feel about me the way that I feel about her." With that admission she opened the doors and stepped in.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The table grew silent as Lars and Jean approached. Carrie breathed a sigh of relief when she saw that Jean had a small smile on her face and Lars was back to his usual smirk. While Lars held the chair for Jean to sit, he started to make his apologies. "I owe you all an apology for disrupting your celebration. It was the shock of" He sat in his seat and looked down at his now cold dinner and chose to finish his drink instead. "Especially you Carrie. You were right, I was out of line...All of you, please forgive me." He gave her and the rest of the table his best boyish grin. He held his glass up, noticing Joe Mergiotti for the first time, and waited as everyone else did the same. "To Jean...and Carrie, I wish you much success in your new business venture." Everyone followed in the toast and clinked glasses.

For Erin, everything on the surface seemed to have returned to normal but the lack of conversation was becoming deafening. Carrie was barely touching her meal. Her face was stone, showing no emotion and this worried Erin. She figured that Carrie was still upset by Lars' behavior. They were a strange group of friends and Erin was eager to get Carrie alone so she could get the story of how they became friends.

Erin also sensed that something more was going on and perhaps she had something to do with it. Lars and Jean both were constantly giving her the eye. If Lars wasn't looking at his watch or looking at the front door, he was looking at her and would smile or wink then turn away every time their eyes met. However, Jean would just stare, causing Erin to feel uncomfortable and turn away first. She figured Jean didn't like her, but why? She didn't even know her. Other than their introduction they had barely said two words to each other. Perhaps she was jealous. Yes, that had to be it. Jean was jealous that Carrie had a new friend, and was probably even a little paranoid that Carrie would cast her aside. Erin shrugged to herself and pushed the issue aside. That was between them. She just had to stay aware and make sure she didn't give Carrie's best friend a reason to fear her. As for Lars, she decided he was a little weird anyway, and Carrie didn't seem to like him very much.

Carrie had a sudden feeling of uneasiness enfold her. She grasped Erin's hand, her head snapped up to the front of the restaurant, and her eyes took in the vision that was coming their way.

At the sudden grip of her hand, Erin looked up at Carrie, whose countenance was like stone. She looked as if she saw a ghost. Everyone else at the table noticed it too and one by one they all turned in the direction she was looking. Lars stood with his mouth wide open in surprise, as a short thin sensuously clad figure stood before their table, gazing at Carrie with a hooded hungry look in her emerald eyes. "Tina Thomas!" He said as he scrambled to her side. "When did you get to town?" He pulled her to him giving her a quick kiss on the cheek. Jean stared as well, her brain was telling her to say something, but she couldn't. She was in shock. She quickly turned to Carrie and saw a look of terror in her eyes.

While Carrie's mouth wasn't agape like the rest of those at the table, her jaw was clinched so tightly that the strain had reached her eyes. She could hear Joe whisper in the background, "Isn't that the actress...uh, what's her name?" Slowly she stood, unaware that she was still tightly clutching Erin's hand. 'This can't be! This can't be!' Carrie silently repeated the words to herself, and her breathing stopped as the woman moved directly before her. Carrie's heart fluttered.

Lars, Jean, and Val eyed the reunion nervously. Neither of them knowing what to do. Tina cocked her head and took a long look at her ex-lover, her gaze slowly moving over Carrie's body while the fingers of Carrie's hand slowly released the grip they had on Erin's hand. She hadn't even noticed the loss of warmth. Instead she laid her hand on the edge of the table to balance herself. She could feel her body trembling and only hoped the mask she was wearing was enough, as she fought to control her reaction. She knew this was no ghost, it was Tina.

Tina missed nothing it seemed. One slender hand moved to cover Carrie's clenched grip, stroking the tense muscles that knotted beneath her touch. Without warning, her hand slid up Carrie's arm and curled around the taller woman's neck. Carrie knew what was going to happen. She knew she shouldn't allow it, and yet she could not seem to stop it. The touch of Tina's fingers was cool on her skin and yet she felt nothing but heat racing through her body as Tina pulled gently and lifted her lips to Carrie's ear. "Catherine," she breathed softly. "I've missed you." She quirked a sinister grin, cutting her eyes to Erin, who sat uncomfortably behind Carrie. Taking in the almost mirrored version of herself, she sighed and whispered, "I see you've missed me too."

Carrie swallowed hard. Their audience was forgotten as Tina pulled away to look closely into the endless ocean of blue. The kiss to her cheek that followed seared Carrie like a brand. She inhaled Tina's scent, intoxicated by her nearness, drowning in the release of the ache that had been part of her ever since Tina left.

That thought seemed to have cleared the haze. Carrie blinked twice as images of Tina callously leaving their home invaded her senses. The mask was back and Tina watched as the icy transformation took place.

"How did you know I was here?" Carrie said with all the venom she could muster. Her eyes were hooded and her jaw was held tightly, once again.

Tina unconsciously took a step back. Carrie's eyes where blazing with hate. What had she done wrong to lose control of this situation so fast. "I...I didn't...I"

"What a coincidence we're all here at the same time." Lars laughed as he pulled his seat away from the table to offer it to Tina. "Tina have a seat. What are you drinking?"

Tina and Carrie sat at the same time. Neither one taking their eyes off the other.

"A Stoley's please, with three olives." Tina smiled brightly up at Lars, trying to ignore Carrie's stare burning through her flesh.

While Lars was busy procuring her martini and a chair and drink for himself, Jean's anger took hold. "You didn't answer her question, Tina!"

With her award-winning smile, Tina directed her attention to Jean. She summoned up her best condescending tone and said, "And what question was that dear?"

"How did you know we were here?" Jean was trembling with rage.

Chuckling softly, Tina put a hand lightly to her chest and asked "Moi, with extra sensory perception? ...not likely. No, I was just out for a late meal and just happened into this place." Feeling back in control, she turned her attention to Carrie and softened her voice. "I had no idea that I would happen upon an old and dear friend who is so close to my heart." She leaned in. "Carrie, I've been leaving messages for you to contact me. I called the moment I hit town. We really need to talk."

Just as she said this, a woman walked up to the table with pen and paper in hand. "Excuse me." She said to Tina. "...But Miss Thomas I've been a fan of yours for a long time. Could I have your autograph?"

Tina blushed all over. She was candidly surprised. Ever since she stepped foot in New York she had felt detached from everything. This gesture from a fan gave her the connection she had missed. "Of course!" she gushed as she took the pen and paper from the woman. "Now who should I make this out to?"

"Oh brother." Jean sighed as she turned her attention towards Carrie, who was staring blankly at the table. Her face was unreadable. Erin was becoming alarmed. She didn't know what to do. This woman who she had perceived as confident and in total control was now sitting passively, and clearly disturbed by the presence of Tina Thomas. 'Obviously a past lover.' She thought to herself. She started to say something when she felt a hand on her left risk. She turned to meet the warning eyes of Val. She nodded her head to show she understood, then turned her attention back to Carrie, silently sending her words of comfort and solace.

As the fan departed Jean felt herself losing control. Tina was basking in being the center of attention, flirting contemptuously with Carrie who appeared to be down right miserable. She slammed her glass down on the table a little harder then she intended, but the adrenaline was flowing. She would be damned before she sat there and had a drink with this woman as if she hadn't tried to destroy her friend. "You've got some fucking nerve waltzing in here like nothing has happened!"

"Jean!" said Sonny alarmed by the sudden outburst. She grabbed Jean's arm to get her attention.

"Stay out this Sonny, it doesn't concern you!"

"It doesn't concern you either." said Lars, who now was rearing back in comfort, next to Tina, looking like he was having the time of his life.

Jean looked at him questioningly, her eyes blazing with anger. "The hell if it doesn't!"

"This is between them." He said casually. "Carrie's capable of fighting her own battles." They both looked to Carrie. She didn't move. She continued to stare, with clenched jaw and dark eyes. Jean could tell she was fighting for control. She could take no more. Carrie was a basket case and she was going down fast. Jean felt she had to do something.

"Why don't you just leave?!" said Jean, turning her attention back to Tina. "You're not wanted here."

Tina laughed lightly, smiling at Jean as if there was some inside joke. She knew her behavior would get to Jean, and reveled in the ability to provoke her. " Jean you always were one for dramatics. Lars is right this doesn't concern you. Haven't you caused enough tension between Carrie and me? If it weren't for you..." she turned back towards Carrie, "Things would have been different between us."

"Oh no you won't!" said Jean as she leaned threateningly across the table "How can you sit there and try to pass your despicable behavior off on me. You've got a lot of balls lady!" She stood abruptly, shrugging Sonny's hand from her shoulder. She stuck out an accusing finger and pointed it at Tina. "If you don't get your ass out of here I'll remove you myself!"

"Ladies!" said Lars, standing. He was barely able to control his laughter. "There's no need for violence."

"Oh, on the contrary Lars." Said Tina placing her glass on the table. She stood too. "If she intends to physically move me there will definitely be violence." She looked at Jean coolly. "Jean and I have an old score to settle, don't we."

"Okay, that's enough!" said Val rising too. "This is clearly getting out of hand and I'm tired of being tonight's entertainment. Carrie will you please say something and end this spectacle."

All eyes went to Carrie. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, she turned towards Erin and said "Let's go." She pushed back her chair and stood. Grabbing Erin's hand she headed for the door, leaving the rest of them looking after her in silence.

Paula spoke first "Well...?" she didn't know what to say but the look from Val told her it was time for them to leave too. She began to gather her things when she heard a slight rustling at the table. Everyone who was left sitting was now on there feet.

Sonny was draped across Jean, holding her back while Lars stood between them and Tina, with arms stretched out like a referee. "That's enough now. You ladies have got to calm down . She's not even here any more."

Sam eased his way over to Paula. He had been called out of the kitchen when things started to get heated, by one of the waiters. "Ms. Morelli, what is going on here? They're scaring the customers away!" he was in a tizzy, whispering but gesturing loudly with his hands.

"It's okay Sam." She said as she turned to him. Jean seemed to have calmed down and everyone was preparing to leave. "It's settled now."

"But Ms. Morelli..." continued a flustered Sam. "These are the people who are buying the restaurant?! Momma Mia...impossible!"

Paula laughed nervously. She understood Sam's distress. 'What a wild evening!' "Sam" she said. "Don't worry about a thing. Everything is under control. My clients are professionals. This..." She looked Sam in the eye, trying to reassure him. "This will not be the norm." She then turned to Joe, trying to put the voices that were behind her and getting loud again out of her mind. "Mr. Mergiotti, don't let this bother you. They're really good friends."

"It's okay." Said Joe. "I know how eccentric the rich can be. As long as everything has been signed and agreed to."

"Yes it has, and I'll have that bank draft in your hands first thing in the morning."

Joe smiled brightly holding out his hand. "Thank you very much Ms. Morelli. I appreciate everything you've done. And..." He looked back at the table, eyeing Jean with her finger pointed accusingly at Tina. "...Tell the ladies I said 'Thank you' and I hope they work out their problems with, friends."

"Sure, Joe..." Paula turned him towards the door. "I'll tell them. See you in the morning." When she turned back around Sam was still standing there looking at her with questioning eyes. She looked over to Jean who was still in a heated argument with Tina. "Hang on Sam. I'll see if I can get your new Boss' attention." She gave him a quick smile of optimism but swallowed hard, dreading her mission.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Chapter Seven

In silence, they walked to the parking lot. Carrie gave the claim check to the attendant then began to pace up and down the walkway. Erin watched and slowly took a seat on the bench. She didn't utter a sound. She didn't know what to say. Everything was so confusing. 'What the hell happened to Carrie in there?!'...'And why was Jean fighting her battles?!' She had so many questions. She looked up at Carrie's somber face. It wasn't as ridged as it had been before and her eyes weren't as cold and distant. She looked more distraught than angry, and Erin found that her own heart was aching for her. She wished she knew how to help her.

The Jaguar came screeching down the ramp. Carrie clenched her jaw once again. She was about to explode but she didn't -- 'not in front of Erin' she told herself. She had all ready thoroughly embarrassed herself tonight and she wasn't going to add to it. She tersely grabbed her keys from him and gave him a look that caused him to step away from the car. She jumped in noticing that Erin was buckling her seat belt. Once Erin was finished she put her foot to the gas and left abruptly.

They drove in silence. Carrie had a medley of thoughts coursing through her mind. Not only had Tina's appearance shocked her, but it also awakened a bevy of insecurities that she thought, she had reconciled. What had she been thinking? How could she even begin to have a relationship with Erin when she was such an emotional mess? What right did she have to pull Erin into this chaotic life of hers. What made her think that she deserved someone as decent as Erin? She mentally berated herself.

Knowing it wasn't the right time to question Carrie, Erin sat nervously while she waited. She tried getting a peak at her without turning her head but it was too dark. She couldn't tell what was going on with Carrie. Right then Erin realized that she didn't know this woman, next to her, at all. She didn't know her, she didn't know her friends, and she didn't know her world. All she knew was that after two days of being in her presence, she loved her. Her heart fluttered at the thought and she sighed audibly.

Carrie suddenly pulled to the curb bringing the car to an abrupt halt. She turned the car off and stared out the windshield. Erin looked to her just in time to see a solitary tear slowly make its way down her right cheek. Erin felt as if her heart would break at that very moment. "Carrie?" she said softly. Once Carrie turned towards her, Erin undid her seat belt and opened her arms, leaning in. Without hesitation Carrie fell into them and silently willed herself not to cry. Instead she allowed herself the comfort of basking in the scent of Erin. It was heavenly. For a moment she felt all her fears wash away. Erin caressed and ran her hands through her hair, whispering comforting words.

All too soon reality came flooding back to Carrie and she pulled up from Erin's arms. Placing her hands back on the steering wheel she began her impromptu speech. "I'm so sorry, Erin. I didn't mean to put you through this. I didn't know tonight was going to turn out like..."

"I'm all right, Carrie. It's not your fault."

"Thank you." She whispered. Erin barely heard her. "If you don't want to...I mean if this...If I'm not..."

Erin interrupted her again. "I don't know what I want, Carrie. Everything is happening so fast...We need to talk..."

"I know," sighed Carrie. "I know."

"But, thing I do know, and I'm really looking forward to..." Erin put her hand on Carrie's and smiled. "Is that, being with you is not going to be dull at all."

Carrie looked over at her dancing green eyes and smiled too. Once she saw the sincerity there, her smile grew brighter. They laughed lightly and Carrie hugged her tight. Kissing the top of her head, she said, "You're right about that Erin. Never dull." When they released, Carrie started the car up again. She put the car in gear and started to pull off but stopped suddenly. Looking out the windshield then the side windows she said laughingly, "Where the hell are we?"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Erin walked softly as she lead Carrie up the stairs to her apartment. She knew this was a mistake. Lucille was bound to be in the hall the moment she heard her and she would have to introduce them. But Carrie's mood had improved for the better. They had actually had fun talking about music and their favorite artist as they drove towards her home, blasting the radio. Well, actually she did most of the talking, but it had been a pleasant ride home. And when they reached her block, she wasn't ready to say good night, Instead she invited Carrie up for coffee. As Erin turned the key, right on cue, Lucille's apartment door swung open, and Lucille stuck her head of pink rollers out. "Hi Erin!" Lucille called.

"Hi Lucille" said Erin turning towards her.

Noticing Carrie, Lucille came further out into the hall revealing her robe and bunny slippers. "Where have you been? I've been lookin' for you all day!"

Erin concealed her anxiety with a smile and walked towards Lucille before Lucille could start towards her. The last thing she needed was for Lucille to invite herself in to join them. "I've been so busy, you wouldn't believe it."

Lucille smiled and shook her head but she was looking past her. She was looking at the tall thin black woman that was casually leaning against the frame of Erin's door. She took in the uncharacteristic blue eyes and asked, "Who's that Erin?"

Although Erin knew it was inevitable, Lucille's question unnerved her and she hesitated before she answered. This got a mock eyebrow lift from Carrie who smirked as she waited for the answer too. "Oh, this is" Erin hesitated again when her heart rate increased as she locked on to blue eyes. Her eyebrows knitted in response to trying to recall what she was saying. "Um Carrie, Lucille."

"Nice to meet you" Carrie said pushing off the frame to stand upright, and nodding at Lucille. She was taking pleasure in Erin's predicament, and poured the charm on. She gave a smile, showing off perfect pearly whites.

Lucille responded with a curt "Hello" while trying to control her bulging eyes as she took in all 5 foot 11 inches of the statuesque beauty before her. "Erin can I see you for a minute...It's about Lorcan"

"Lorcan!" Erin said, alarmed. She had forgotten all about him. With the door opened he would have come out into the hall by now. "Is he all right? What's happened to him?"

"Just come into the apartment with me and I'll tell you." Said Lucille grabbing Erin by the arm to hasten her. Erin looked back to Carrie. "I'll be right back. Go on in and make yourself at home."

Lucille closed the door behind her. "Lucille, what's happened to Lorcan?"

"Nothing. He's fine. Danny took him for a walk." She leaned closer to Erin and asked, "Erin, who is she?"

"Nothing! ...You mean to tell me you just said that to get me in here and ask me about her? ...Lucille I don't believe you!" Suddenly she felt very tired.

Looking ashamed, Lucille lowered her eyes. "Well, I had to think up something and I did want to tell you where Lorcan was.

"You could have told me that out there. Sheesh! You had me upset!

"I'm sorry Erin, I didn't mean to scare you. But who is that? Where did you meet her?"

Erin took a deep breath and rolled her eyes. Starting for the door she said, "She's a friend Lucille. I'm going home." She walked out of the apartment leaving a flustered Lucille behind. Just as she was passing the stairs she heard the foot falls of her best friend. "Lorcan" she sang out smiling at the sounds that now sped up and was accompanied by whimpers. Before she had a chance to brace herself completely, the huge German Shepherd had launched himself forward. Lorcan's back legs supported his black and tan body as his front paws scrambled for purchase against Erin's chest, driving her back into the wall of the hallway. "Did you miss me boy? Did you miss your mommy?" Erin's demeanor softened as she petted and scratched the wagging dog hanging from her shoulders. She heard heavy breathing as Danny rounded the landing. "Hey Danny," called Erin. "Thanks for walking Lorcan for me."

Danny grinned and handed the leash to her. "No problem Erin." He reached out and petted the dog on the head roughly. "He gives me an excuse to get out and get some air when I need it."

Erin smiled back at him as she recognized the smell of beer. Danny was out for more than just air. "Well then, I'm glad you both can be of service to each other."

Lucille stuck her head out the door "Come on Danny. It's getting late." Danny raised his eyes to the ceiling then back down to Erin. "Coming, Dear! ...She's a little upset with you for having a life, you know."

"I know..." She sighed looking back at her apartment. "But, I can't deal with that right now, I have company. I'll talk to her tomorrow."

Danny glanced in the direction of Erin's apartment wondering who was in there. Then he patted Lorcan on the head again and turned towards his apartment. "Good. She'll be happy then. See ya' Erin."

Erin said her goodbye then turned her attention to Lorcan, grabbing him by the collar. Leaning down to his ear she said, "Come on, boy. You wanna go inside, and meet the woman I was telling you about?"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The door was ajar and Erin used her other hand to push it open. An eruption of barking commenced the moment Lorcan noticed the dark figure sitting relaxed on the couch. The only response it elicited from Carrie was an up-raised eyebrow.

Erin grinned and smoothed the dog's fur gently keeping a firm grip on his collar. "It's okay boy." She said soothingly. "She's friend, not foe." She continued to smooth his fur as he calmed to a whimper. "Stay!" she commanded with authority when she let go of his collar. Lorcan remained still but kept his eyes on Carrie.

She closed the door, locking it and putting the night chain on. "How are you with dogs?" she asked, after she put her light suit jacket over the arm of a chair, and walked towards Carrie.

Carrie sat up straighter, not taking her eyes off the dog either. "I don't know...haven't had much experience with the four-legged kind."

Erin smiled at the mirth in her answer and sat down with their thighs touching. She took Carrie's hand into hers and looked up into azure eyes that were now trained on her. Her heart rate increased. "Well...Lorcan is a well-trained dog. He's a warrior, having spent the first four years of his life on the police force. He doesn't trust everyone...but, I think I can get him to trust you."

Carrie tore her gaze from the sea-green eyes to the deep brown one's of Lorcan. For a moment she thought he was mocking her. She quirked another brow at him then looked back at Erin. "Do I have a choice." This was more of statement than a question and Carrie crooked her lips playfully to make her point.

Still under the spell of sitting so close to Carrie, Erin muttered, "I could put him in his kennel in the kitchen if you'd like."

"Something tells me that if I want you I had better be accepted by him."

Erin quirked a brow of her own. She liked the thought of Carrie wanting her and marveled at Carrie's perception of how important Lorcan was to her. "Heel!" she commanded still holding Carrie's hand. Lorcan instantly sprinted over to her side and sat, looking up at her with affection. "See, he's very well trained. I'm going to offer your hand to him to let him get used to your scent then I'm going to let go, okay?"

Carrie nodded with an amused look on her face. She wasn't the least bit afraid of the dog but she appreciated Erin's desire to facilitate her introduction to Lorcan.

Erin took her hand and led it to Lorcan's muzzle. He butted and sniffed at it. When Erin let go Lorcan moved closer to Carrie, and Carrie fluffed and rubbed his fur. Lorcan began to sniff at her knees and down her pant legs. Finding something interesting he laid down and began his exploration of her booted feet.

"He likes you." Said Erin smiling down at her dog.

"Almost as much as his mother?"

Erin's smile grew larger and she went with impulse and kissed Carrie firmly on the lips. "Almost." She hissed.

They stared at each other for a moment before commencing an assault upon each other's lips. Tongues entwined, arms became wrapped, and breathing increased. Erin was succumbed by desire. She felt it all the way to her center and she groaned in pleasure. The sound of her pleasure sent shivers through Carrie and she moaned of her own desires. Pulling back, only because she needed air, Carrie brushed Erin's hair back and cupped her cheek. "I thought you asked me up here for coffee?" She asked huskily. She was mentally trying to get a grip on her emotions. Erin was still in her arms, resting her head on Carrie's shoulder, and their faces, just a hair apart.

"Um...I did say something about coffee, didn't I?"

Carrie kissed her passionately on the lips, again. "Yeah, you did."

"Well, I could put a pot on right now... or..." She leaned up and kissed Carrie, again.

"Or...?" Carrie placed a kiss on her forehead.

"...Or, I could put a pot on in the morning." She tried not to blush, but she did.

Carrie grinned maniacally. She pulled Erin tighter to her, giving her a hug. " feel so good in my arms." She buried her face in Erin's hair and breathed deeply. This is what she needed. Tonight had been devastating and the last thing she wanted was to be in her apartment, alone, reliving her past. She pulled back to see her face. "You sure? Earlier you said you wanted to talk."

Erin looked as if she was in a trance and she felt that way too. Her mind was telling her she should be having that talk right now but her body was saying something else. Her eyes focused on Carrie's lips and all she wanted to do was devour them. "Later," she whispered. Leaning forward she captured Carrie's lips lowering her eyelids, basking in the feel as the tongues entwined hungrily. She was practically in Carrie's lap, so Carrie tightened her grip and pulled her on to it the rest of the way. They kissed passionately, thoroughly and completely before they came up for air.

At some point their bodies had started a seductive dance, igniting a fire that they both were feeling. Once again they tore hungrily at each other's mouth as if they couldn't get enough. Hands began exploring. Strong tapered fingers ran from Erin's thighs and up her back, to the tops of her shoulder blades and back again. Carrie slid her tongue down her cheek to the pulse of her neck, licking and sucking at the intoxicating scent of her and panted. "Guide me to the bedroom" she said huskily, while standing and lifting Erin up, who reflexively encircled her waist with her legs.

Erin's mind was in a whirlwind. Breathing heavily, as she attacked Carrie's ear; her hands embedded deeply in silky black hair. Breathlessly she said, "Walk forward, I'll tell you when to stop."

Following Erin's seductively delivered instructions Carrie made it to the bedroom.
She used her foot to close the door, successfully shutting a curious Lorcan out. She continued her attack on Erin's lips as she stumbled her way to the bed. Once she had Erin flat on her back, without prelude, she began undoing her buttons, kissing and licking every bare spot that was revealed. Her hands were roaming underneath the clothing like she owned her. They kissed again as she pulled Erin's blouse and bra off with one hand and supported her back with the other. Carrie's senses were on fire. She couldn't unwrap her gift soon enough. The skirt, half slip, pantyhose and panties all came off with one exuberant pull and Erin found herself sprawled across her bed totally naked, watching Carrie remove her own clothing with furious speed. She thought about participating but by the time the thought truly registered in her mind, Carrie was leaning over her, breast dangling and swaying as she moved herself into position.

"So beautiful..." Carrie murmured as she claimed Erin's lips as hers' once again, wrapping her close to her body in her arms. The kiss that started passionate became softer as it started to level off. Carrie slowed the pace of their rocking bodies noticing the slickness that was covering her thigh. She pulled up and looked down at the closed eyes of Erin and whispered "open your eyes". Erin obeyed, misty green eyes fluttered open. It was the sexiest thing Carrie thought she had ever seen. "I want to touch you," she said still whispering and gently gliding a hand down between Erin's legs, stopping at her smooth stomach for a moment. Once she felt the wetness of the velvety folds she let out a groan and slowly bathed her fingers. Erin gasped willing her eyes to stay open and fixed upon the dark blue orbs above her. It was a difficult task as her hips swayed and jutted to take in all that was being offered to her. She bit down on her lower lip to keep from screaming when she felt two fingers enter her. They took up a rhythm that her hips happily followed. A low purr that had originated somewhere deep within her made its way to the surface and she couldn't help but close her eyes.

"Open your eyes. I want to see your eyes when you come." Carrie said again nipping at her lips. As her climax began to climb, Erin obeyed and opened them again. "Yes!" she breathed loudly. Her hips were now racing as she sat on the precipice of her climax.
"Yes!" Erin's hand grabbed the shoulder of the arm that Carrie was using to stroke her flesh. She dug her nails in deep causing Carrie to groan. Carrie latched on to her right breast, rolling the swollen nipple with her tongue between her teeth. Erin felt her hips rising from the bed. Her eyes bulged as her body went ridged and breathing stopped. Time stood still and then she fell. Spiraling out of control as an array of colors flashed before her eyes, her body spastic and unrepressed. "Carrie!" she heard herself cry out from a distance.

Everything seemed to be still for a moment. Then she was breathing again. Her body heavy and unmoving she felt detached from it as she tried to get her bearings. She heard crooning in her ear, 'I want to taste you', but she couldn't respond to it. Her breathing was deep, slow, and deliberate. Carrie was moving about on the bed but she couldn't make out exactly what was happening. Something wet was moving across her breast and down her stomach. Her body tensed comprehending what was next even though her mind couldn't. She felt her legs spreading once again in anticipation. Her feet twitched as it started; up her legs, to her hips, through her torso, neck, and face, she exploded, coming again. Ripple after ripple, the fervor was exploding in her head. Digging both hands into Carrie's hair and holding on for dear life, she cried something out, but didn't know what because her lips were moving on their own accord. She fought for control but had none. Finally she surrendered and everything went black.

Erin awoke cradled in Carrie's arms. "Are you all right?" she heard her say from lips that was rubbing across her forehead.

"No..." breathed an exhausted Erin. "I'm paralyzed from the neck down."

A low soft giggle emerged from within Carrie. "Close your eyes and get some sleep."

"Okay, but you're not going to leave me are you?" Erin said, snuggling deeper into Carrie.

A kiss to the forehead, "No baby, I haven't had my coffee yet." Carrie reached down and pulled the sheet up to cover them. She heard the soft steady breathing of Erin and smiled, then settled down to rest herself. "Love you." She whispered into the top of her head and closed her eyes.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Chapter Eight

Erin awoke to the dull buzzing sound emanating from the clock radio that sat next to the bed on a nightstand. She reached and tapped it on the top, successfully shutting it off. She groaned wearily as her surroundings came to consciousness, and she could feel the warmth of the body spooned up against the back of her. Carrie's arm was possessively draped across her waist and her hand was claiming one of her breast as her own. Erin moaned again, pushing back into her as the events of the latter part of the night came to mind. The arm that possessed her stiffened and pulled her tighter. With a smile on her face Erin spoke softly, "You awake?"

"Mmmhum..." came her answer from above her head. Carrie had been laying there somewhere between wakefulness and sleep for some time. Usually an early riser, Carrie was content to just remain spooned around her lover.

There was silence as they both silently recalled the events of the night before. Erin starting at the end and rewinding to the beginning, Carrie, starting at the beginning and forwarding to the end.

Erin sighed. "I have to start getting ready for work."

Carrie sighed. "Do you have to go in? I mean...can't you call in sick or something?"

Erin thought about it. She never calls in sick. In the five and a half years that she had worked for the company she had only taken one week of sick leave, and that had only been because she had pneumonia and she couldn't leave the house. "I suppose I could. It's not like I do it all the time." She said, thoughtfully.

"Then it's settled. Go back to sleep." She lovingly placed a kiss to the top of Erin's head and snuggled closer.

"I can't." Erin said, regretfully. Carrie's tugging and caressing of her breast was sending cardinal thoughts to her brain. She cleared her throat. "I still have to walk Lorcan."

"Mmm" breathed Carrie, not liking the idea of Erin moving out of her arms.

Erin twisted around to face Carrie. What she found started her heart to beat double time. 'Man she's beautiful!' she said to herself. She pulled Carrie closer to her as their lips found each other's. "Morning." She whispered as they parted.

Carrie's eyes crossed as she tried to look at Erin so close to her. "Morning. How are you feeling?"

"Right this moment...Wonderful!" She smiled as Carrie drew her in for another kiss. Their bodies began to move on their own accord as the heat rose between them. Carrie rolled to her back, pulling Erin on top of her. She ran her hands down the length of Erin's body as she spread her own legs to accommodate the smaller ones. Her hands found the firm full mounds and she pulled them into her, looking up to see emerald eyes staring lustfully back. Erin groaned in satisfaction. She began to knead the mounds and spread them as her own body found a rhythm. "Erin, I know I promised you we would take it slow but, every time I'm near you I...I can't help it. I just have to have you, completely."

Erin was watching as Carrie's lips formed the words, mesmerized by the movement. Carrie would ever so often lick her bottom lip as she talked and Erin found it to be most erotic. Pressing into Carrie's body and following the rhythm they shared, she started to say something to alleviate her lover's worry; but she changed her mind and decided to show her instead. She leaned down and captured Carrie's lips with hers. She let her tongue snake out and caress her bottom lip, then sucking it into her own, her tongue continued to taste and caress it. Carrie bit lovingly at Erin's top lip as she allowed the assault upon her own. They both moaned in ecstasy. Erin let go of the lip as she moved down to Carrie's neck, stopping at the juncture between the neck and shoulder. She sucked and licked hard inspired by the soft moans of Carrie.

Carrie's hands were now slipping in and out of the moist folds of Erin's buttocks as she continued to knead and massaged them. Erin raised her head and bared down hard as a particular need surged through her body. Her clitoris was on fire and she rubbed it hard against Carrie. "Carrie," she whispered as she slid her body down away from the masterful hands, bringing her lips to Carrie's breast. She felt Carrie's body tense as it prepared to roll her on her back, but she pushed back against her, "Please Carrie..." she breathed into the breast beneath her. "Not yet, let me have this." While she had the want to feel Carrie's hands upon her she also had a stronger desire to taste the flesh of the woman below her. Carrie nodded her acceptance. She lavished on the nipple she captured between gentle teeth, while her fingers twisted and tugged at its twin.

Carrie's body was responding fully. She thrust into the body above her, smearing her wetness all along Erin's abdomen. "Erin" she cried. It took everything she had not to flip the little blond to her back and take her completely. But her lover had sound resolute, so she relinquished, and struggled to remain docile. Erin's ministrations were right on target, and after conceding her fate, Carrie wanted to feel Erin's lips at her center. "Erin...Oh Erin, please." She commanded with tightly closed eyes, and guiding her with hands tenderly submerged in her tresses.

Erin heeded her call, but slowly and purposefully made her way down, licking and biting every inch of the way, leaving a trail of sensations. The scent of Carrie caused Erin to breathe in heavily. It was sweet yet musky and oh so sexy. Erin smiled as she stuck out her tongue for a taste. Carrie's body jerked forward in anticipation. Positioning her hands on the insides of Carrie's thighs and using her thumbs to spread the labia, Erin looked closely at the sex before her. The opening and closing of the muscles around the velvety pink portal excited her. She felt as if it was calling her, and she dove in, tongue first. "Ohhh..." came from Carrie as she bucked up into her lover. Erin's thumb had found her throbbing clit and the stiff tongue was causing her to go over the cliff much sooner than she wanted. She sucked in air and panted trying to slow its ascent.

Erin's own aching center had taken up residence on the flesh of Carrie's leg. Her mind was flooded by the smells, tastes and sounds of Carrie and she was on the brink herself. Steadily they worked themselves into a frenzy, until together, they soared to the zenith of their existence.

Silence reigned for a number of heartbeats as they both tried to gather their strength and control their breathing. Carrie's long arms reached down and pulled Erin up into her, hugging tightly. The lay like that, basking in the sunshine of their newfound love until a high pitched whimper at the bedroom door called for both of their attention. "Damn" cried an exhausted Erin. She had her arms wrapped around Carrie's neck, resting her head on her chest. She was at peace and really didn't want to move. "I forgot to take him out."

A low chuckle emerged from the chest below her ear and Carrie tightened her grip about her. "Umm...If you like, I could take him out for you?" She was tired too but she really didn't want to see her lover trudging out in the early morning light, walking that monster of a dog. Lorcan was huge and Carrie wondered how her tiny little Erin could handle him. "I mean...What better way for him to get used to me."

Erin thought about it for all of two seconds, then intently said, "No, that's all right." as she reluctantly moved away from Carrie. The last thing she needed was Lucille to see Carrie walking Lorcan. "I'm used to this. It won't take me long." She stood, stretched, then disappeared through the door.

Carrie had watched her and smiled at what she saw. Erin wasn't as hard bodied as she was, but she was firm and toned, and curved deliciously in all the right places. Carrie found her just as pleasing to the eye, as she had been to the touch. She moaned in satisfaction, gathering Erin's pillow to her chest. Waiting for Erin to return she started to drift back into a sleep when the face of Tina suddenly entered her thoughts. Panic hit her and she sat up breathing hard. She closed her eyes trying to wish the thoughts away. Erin reentered the room wrapped in a towel, startling her from her memories.

Erin took a mental picture of Carrie in her bed and smiled. Carrie was truly beautiful in a drop-dead way, and she could not believe her luck. "Those sheets look good on you Catherine." She said jokingly, offering up her best Sean Connery impression.

"I...I've gotta use the bathroom." Carrie said, throwing the sheets back and scrambling to her feet.

"Sure." Said Erin, confused by the suddenness of her actions. "Across the hall, on the right." Carrie fled the room without another word. She shrugged and dismissed the situation turning to the pile of clothing, at the foot of the bed. She sorted through them separating hers from Carrie's. An unconscious smile came to her lips as she thought about how they got there. When Carrie returned she looked pained and worried as she sat down on the edge of the bed. Erin watched her out the corner of her eye as she continued to hang her skirt up and gather the rest of her things for the hamper. "Is everything all right?" she inquired.

Carrie looked up at her sadly and smiled. "I don't know Erin...I..." she hesitated and looked back down at her trembling hands. She didn't know. The scenes of the night before were playing over and over in her mind, clouding any other rational thoughts except for one -- she knew she couldn't hide out in Erin's apartment forever. She would have to face Tina soon. "We really do need to talk."

The last bit came out in almost a whisper. It was clear to Erin that something was terribly wrong and right away she thought the worst. 'Oh no, she doesn't want a relationship!' she almost started to cry. Now she was the one that was panicking. She turned away from Carrie and grabbed a pair of jeans that were hanging on a hook on the door of the closet. Then she grabbed a T-shirt from the folded pile at the top of the closet. She quickly stepped into the jeans and threw the T-shirt over her head. While, combing her hair in the mirror she managed to pull her emotions together, and cleared her throat before answering. "Okay, we can do that. But I have to walk Lorcan first. Go ahead and make yourself at home until I get back." She started to leave the room and stopped. She was scared. Dread was hanging over her. She turned abruptly to make a plea but the look of Carrie staring down at her hands, and lost in thought, stopped her. Her heart ached and she felt herself trembling. "I...I'll put a clean towel and wash cloth out for you." 'I love you.' She whispered to herself.

Carrie lifted her head and held out her arms. Within a beat, Erin was there. She placed her head against the T-shirted stomach as she tightened her grip about her waist. She took in a deep breath as Erin massaged her scalp tenderly. "Hurry up, okay."

Erin shook her head and said, "Okay" as she bit down on her lip to keep from crying. Aversely she pulled away leaving the room. As she started to undo the locks, with an agitated Lorcan in tow, she called out. "If the phone rings don't answer it, just let it ring." With that she quickly went out the door.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Erin reentered the apartment to the smell of brewing coffee. She watched as Lorcan made his way to the kitchen. He growled slightly when he saw Carrie, but then trotted over to his water dish, ignoring the intruder. Erin entered the kitchen tentatively. While walking Lorcan she had debated with the idea of just not going back because she didn't want to here what Carrie had to say. How could things have unraveled so quickly? What had she done to put Carrie in such distress? She had thought they shared something special -- especially when they make love -- everything just felt so right! The thought of never seeing Carrie again unnerved her. So, she had devised an argument as to why they should stay together and try to work whatever problems Carrie had out. It was a pleasant surprise when Carrie bent down and kissed her, as she entered. She had obviously showered and dressed and was looking a lot more relaxed than she had when Erin left. Carrie had turned the radio on and the antics of the morning DJ's had put a smile on her face. Erin felt optimistic.

"I see you found the coffee." said Erin as she opened the freezer.

"I didn't want to make a liar out of you." Carrie grinned at her.

Erin put a bag of cinnamon raisin bagels on the table and turned to retrieve the butter and cream cheese. She was starting to relax too. Carrie seemed to have shed her dark cloud. She was singing along to an old Toni Braxton tune.

Erin smiled to herself. "What time is it?"

"8:34" Carrie was pouring the coffee. She had found two large mugs in the cabinet and selected a black one that had "Sopranos" etched in red across it for herself and a green one that had no writing but screamed 'Erin' when she looked at it.

"I had better call in before they call me." Said Erin as she picked up the wall phone. "Can you get the bagels, please?"

Typically Carrie burned the tips of her fingers as she pulled the bagel halves from the toaster. Erin silently captured the injured hands in hers and tenderly kissed each fingertip. Carrie looked down at the red-blonde head administering to her and her heart swelled. Jade eyes looked up at her playfully and she smiled back feeling all the love they shared between them. The other end must have answered because Erin suddenly dropped her hands and turned away, listening intently.

All through breakfast Erin talked non-stop about her place of employment and its cast of characters. She even went so far as to mention the guy that worked on the third floor, who was fired when he was caught in the air ducts looking in on the Women's bathroom. They had fallen into a fit of laughter that even Lorcan found contagious and pranced around in excitement.

"Only in New York!" cried Carrie as she tried to control her laughter. Erin found she loved Carrie's laugh. It was full and throaty and she looked so much younger. Unexpectedly she launched herself into Carrie's lap, hugging her tightly. They began to kiss softly and tenderly. When they parted Carrie asked, "Now that we have the whole day, what do you want to do?"

Erin thought carefully. It had been a long time since she had a day off. "I don't know. What do people do during the day on a Tuesday? ...Besides work!" she quickly added.

"Anything they want." Carrie smiled at her. She was making small gentle circles on Erin's back, enjoying the relaxed atmosphere. "I'm usually in the gym this time of morning."

"Sooo, that's where all the muscles come from." She was playfully poking at Carrie's stomach. Carrie giggled. "Oh, you're ticklish too!" she began poking the ribs as Carrie squirmed beneath her. She turned more into her and began an all out assault upon the hard abs. Carrie guffawed loudly and slid out of the chair to the floor in a fit of laughter. It didn't take long before the tide had turned and Erin found herself on the bottom roaring with laughter. Lorcan was just as excited hopping back and forth across them barking with glee. The horseplay ended with them in each other's arms kissing tenderly.

Carrie pulled back staring into Erin's eyes; her face had been captured between soft hands. "I've got an idea..." she said getting to her feet. She held a hand out to Erin, who happily took it and raised herself up. "We have to talk right? I know the perfect place." Carrie looked down at the hyper dog that was still prancing around them. "We can even take the beast with us." She petted him on the head. Erin would have worried but Carrie was still relaxed and smiling. So she remained that way too and happily went about readying herself and Lorcan to go.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

At 9:15 Lucille passed discreetly by Erin's empty cubicle. She wasn't surprised to see it empty. 'She must have called in.' thought Lucille to herself. Erin must think her stupid if she thought she was going to put one over on her. On her way in, she had seen the sleek black jaguar that was parked a block away from the apartments. Who wouldn't have noticed a car like that in their neighborhood. And that black woman she was with, that car was made for someone like her. Tall, exotic and obviously a 'DYKE!' the word screamed out at her. Lucille shook visibly at the thought. Erin was caught up in something that was way out of her league. Lucille smelled trouble. The woman had spent the night, 'Doing god knows what to Erin!' If only she had made Erin stay and talk last night, things would have been different. She would have made her talk to her and tell her everything. Then she would have got Danny to go over there and through the bitch out. Erin would have been upset with her but at least she wouldn't have defiled herself by going to bed with that woman! 'Joe!' she thought about Erin's father. 'This is just going to kill him. How do I tell him about this one!?'

"Hey you okay Lucille?" The words brought her out of her musings. Donna was leaning over her cubicle, looking concerned. "You comin' down with what Erin got?"

"Huh?" Lucille couldn't quite catch what Donna was talking about.

"Erin called and said she wasn't feeling well. You comin' down with it too?"

"Oh, no. I...I was just lost in thought."

"Well c'mon it's break time."

Lucille started to decline. She had a phone call to make. But she thought further about it and changed her mind. She didn't want to miss morning break with her friends and she could definitely use a cigarette. "Okay..." she said standing. "I'm right behind you." She would make that phone call later.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Steven rested the cup of coffee on the nightstand. He really didn't relish his job of having to wake Lars, but he had to go into the studio, and wasn't going to leave that boy here with Lars asleep. He didn't want to leave the two of them alone at all but he really didn't have a choice. It was too late to call in sick; they wouldn't be able to find coverage in time. But, Lars needed to be told about his misgivings for the boy in the guestroom.

Steven had watched him closely last night and had concluded that the boy was not all there. He had sat on the couch watching the cartoon channel all night, laughing hysterically at some of the most juvenile pranks. When Steven had suggested he get cleaned up, the boy just stood, walked silently to the bathroom and striped. Steven had to turn the water on and tell him to get in the tub before he moved again. Then he played in the tub so long that Steven had to tell him when to get out of the tub and to get dressed. It was too weird for him and he just didn't trust the boy alone with Lars.

He padded over to the windows and withdrew the curtains. The sun beamed into the room brightly and he winced at the sudden glow of light. Lars still hadn't stirred. Back at the side of the bed, he looked down at his friend, and smiled to himself. 'You sure are a son-of-a-bitch' he thought to himself. 'Why do I love you so much?'

Lars had come home last night furious at the world. He barely said two words to Steven and Kyle before he grabbed a bottle of Beefeater's and retired to his room. By the time Steven finished putting Kyle in the guest room, straightening up the mess Kyle left in the living room and locking up the condo for the night, Lars was fast asleep, taking up most of the bed. He didn't get to find out what Lars' problem was or give him his thoughts about Kyle.

Gently he stroked the sandy blonde hair back away from Lars' face. His face grimaced and his body twisted away from the offending hand. "Lars." Steven said softly, more than a little hurt by Lars' reaction to his touch. "Come on man. It's time to wake up."

"What time is it?" His eyes were still closed and his voice was low and harsh.

"It's 10:20, man. Come on and get up. We need to talk before I leave."

"Emma hasn't called."


"Jean must have shown up on time." At the thought of Jean he opened his eyes. He groaned at the light coming from the windows, then laid flat on his back staring at the ceiling. Steven sat down on the edge of the bed facing him. "She's leaving me." He said softly."

"Who? Jean?"

Still staring at the ceiling, he swallowed hard. "Yeah, she's leaving me."

Steven couldn't understand what he was saying. "What, she's leaving you?"

Lars closed his eyes tight as tears rolled out the corners, settling in his ear. "Yeah. That's what the dinner was all about...a set up. No doubt orchestrated by your good friend Carrie." He said with venom. "They both sat there...gloating at my misery."

Steven could hardly believe his ears. In all the years he had known Jean she had never been any thing but loyal to Lars. Even when he tried to goad her into saying something negative about Lars, she would turn it around and make it sound positive. She was definitely Lars' number one fan. "What did you do this time?"

Lars looked at him incredulously. He sat up in the bed and wiped his face with his T-shirt. "What did I do! I didn't do anything! You should be asking what did Carrie do to Jean!" He stood abruptly to continue his rant, shaking the bed as he did so. "You should have been there Steven! She wasn't herself! It she was possessed or something!"

He stared at Lars for long moment not knowing what to say. He put a hand up to stop Lars' tirade. "Wait. Just wait a minute. Calm down and start at the beginning. Start from the moment you first got there." He reached over and handed Lars' his cup of coffee.

Lars sat back on the bed and rubbed his face vigorously trying to calm himself. He took the offered cup and nodded a 'Thanks' at Steven. He started his story while staring down at the floor. "When I reached the restaurant, they were all there; Jean, Sonny, and Carrie with her crew, a bunch of lesbians smirking at me because they knew what was going down. Everyone knew what was going down, but me!" He took a deep breath, as if to calm himself. "Champagne was already on the table, man. They were celebrating Carrie's little ploy to have Jean all to herself."

Steven had to cut in. "You don't really believe that do you?"

Lars jerked up to face Steven. "What, that Carrie planned the whole thing?"

"Well, yeah that...but that she wants Jean all to herself. Carrie's not like that. She's not possessive."

"Yeah, see she's got you fooled. She flashes those baby blues and everyone is fooled. You should have been there, you would have seen for yourself. You would have seen the real Carrie, last night. She even stood up like she was going to hit me! Fucking Dyke!"

Steven stood and started to pace. This just didn't make sense. "What exactly did Jean say to you?"

"She said she quit!"


"She said 'I quit!' I'm in business with Carrie now. We own this restaurant."

Steven stopped dead in stride. With wide eyes he stared at Lars. He was stumped for words. "They own a restaurant?"

"That's right, they own a restaurant together. Been planning it for months behind my back." Lars stood confident that Steven was now seeing things his way. "I'm just hoping that Carrie didn't turn her head so much that she leaves me high and dry before I can find a replacement."

"Jean wouldn't do that."

"It's not Jean I'm dealing with here...It's Carrie. You think Jean has that kind of money?" He shook his head in defeat, moving closer to Steven. "No, man. That place took a lot of cash. The kind that only Carrie has. I couldn't of even financed that kind of move...Oh yeah, they even waited until I got there to sign the papers. They had this big fat fuck sitting there. He must have been a lawyer or something. Grinning at me. He knew what was up too." Flinging himself into the arms of a startled Steven, he added, "It was so humiliating."

Steven, still in a state of shock, put comforting arms around his lover and kissed his temple. It was all so unbelievable. It wasn't so much that Jean wanted to change careers. Actually that was a good thing. He had always felt that Lars and Jean's relationship wasn't a healthy one. But for them to set him up like that... 'No. No, there has to be more to this story.' Secretly he looked at the time on his watch. It was 11:05, 'Damn!' he would be late for work...again. "Look, man..." He said detaching himself from Lars. "I've got to get to the station. Are you going to be all right?"

Lars shrugged walking into his bathroom. "Yeah, I guess." He said, flushing the toilet. He walked to the bed and sat down hard. "You've got to help me get that bitch back."

"Who? Jean?"

Lars sighed. Steven could really be obtuse sometimes. "No. I'm talking about Carrie. I have got to get my revenge. She and I have been fighting this little war over Jean's friendship for years. Up till now it has been done in good fun, but after last night..." He shook his head again and stopped talking, as if contemplating his options.

Steven didn't like where this conversation was going and put a stop to it. "We can talk about that later. Right now I have to go to work and you have to deal with your friend in the guess room."

Looking up in confusion, Lars started to inquire until it hit him that he had brought Kyle home with him yesterday. He grinned shyly at Steven. He hadn't given the boy another thought. "Sorry about that, love. Yesterday I was in a philanthropic mood. I didn't want to see him sleeping on the streets. He didn't give you any trouble did he?"

"No, not any trouble but I don't think he's all there. Something's wrong with him."

Lars laughed slightly, wondering if Steven got his dick sucked. He wouldn't admit it if he did. He would ask Kyle later. "Don't worry about it. I'm no longer feeling charitable."

Putting his suit jacket on, Steven stood in the mirror. "I don't want to leave you alone with him. I don't trust him."

Lars stood and walked behind Steven, peering at him through the mirror. He reached around and adjusted his tie. "I said, don't worry about it. I'm putting him out when I leave for the office, which will be shortly."

Turning in his arms Steven gave Lars a peck on the lips. Lars grinned and cupped his jaw, "Come on, I'll walk you to the door."

They started out the room, Steven in front, and Lars behind him with a hand on his shoulder. As soon as they opened the bedroom door the loud sound of cartoons on the television assaulted their ears.

Lars dropped his hand from the shoulder and Steven turned towards him. "I told you something is wrong with him." Lars smiled lightly leading Steven to the door. He let him out and locked it back. Turning towards the living room Lars poked his head in, then walked all the way in when he saw it was empty. He turned the television off, then headed for the kitchen.

When he walked in, he suddenly turned red from a blush that started at his cheeks and ended at his groin. Kyle was sitting upon the counter in only a pair of briefs, with a huge bowl up to his face. Lars stood silently taking in the hairless well-developed chest, the smooth abs, and a slightly hardened penis that was straining against the white fabric to get out.

He would have stood there longer admiring the scene before him, but the slurping sounds that were coming from Kyle was too disgusting. Lars cleared his throat loudly.

Kyle jumped pulling the bowl down from his face, letting the milk dribble down his chest. "Hey man! How you doin'?"

Lars looked at him slyly, cracking a half smile. He looked to the kitchen table and spotted the box of cereal, milk, and canister of sugar. "I see you made yourself at home. Get down off my counter. I have chairs." Lars poured himself another cup of coffee and sat down at the table. Kyle jumped to his bare feet and sat at the table too.

Lars sipped his coffee staring at Kyle, making him fidget, and watching his eyes dance around the room, focusing on everything but Lars.

"You want some cereal?" Asked Kyle. "It's not bad. At first it taste like straw, but if you put enough sugar in it and let the milk soak it up, it's not bad."

"It's called shredded wheat. It's supposed to taste like straw." Lars' tone was flat and cold and Kyle became more nervous. He decided to stop talking.

Finally Lars broke the silence. "I have to go to work. You need to be dressed and ready to go by the time I'm ready to leave.

"Oh...Okay." Kyle let his eyes settle on his hands. "What time should I come back?"

"I can't let you stay here Kyle."

Kyle looked up at him with surprise. "But...But I thought you...what you told that guy last night. You didn't mean it?"

Lars looked down at his cup, turning it in his hands. He was hoping that the boy didn't start crying. "I did then, but...But after what happened to me last night, I think I had better stop putting myself out there for others. I have to stop being so generous and trusting.

Kyle looked at him with upset eyes. He reached out and touched Lars' hand, "What... What happened? Someone hurt you?"

"You could say that Kyle." Lars sighed for effect. "I put my trust in someone. Took her off the street, gave her a good paying job, protected her, and made her my best friend. Last night she threw it all back in my face."

"That bitch!" exclaimed Kyle.

"No, no, it wasn't her fault. It was this other person that convinced her to do it" Lars quickly had to clear that up. He didn't like anyone talking about Jean like that. Jean was no bitch.

"Convinced her? Convinced her how?"

Lars pulled away from the cup and Kyle. He stroked his hand through his hair, letting the silence in the room build. Calmly he put his elbows up on the table and leaned in to Kyle, motioning to him that he should follow suit. "Kyle there are people in this world who are just pure evil." Kyle blinked. "They have a way about them that mesmerizes others to bend to their will...You know what I mean by mesmerize?"

Kyle shook his head 'no'.

"It's like hypnotizing." Kyle shook his head in understanding. "Anyway, this person has done that to my best friend. She has her so mesmer...uh, hypnotized that she doesn't know what she's doing."

"Why would she do something like that?"

Lars reared back. "To hurt me. I'm in business Kyle. In business, people play rough. She has more money than me, she has a better home than mine, her business is even more successful than mine. But there is one thing she could never beat me at, I have a big, kind and generous heart -- she has no heart. That's why she turned my best friend against me, to break my heart."

Kyle shook his head in disgust, anger building in his guts.

"It's like in the Soaps, Kyle. You ever watch the Soaps?"

"No but my mom does, and I hear her talk about how back stabbing the people can be. Just hurting each other for fun!"

A slight grin hit Lars' face. "Yeah. So you see Kyle I have to protect myself. I have to be sure the people around me are loyal."

Kyle thought hard. What could he do to help Lars, and prove that he would be a loyal friend? "What are you going to do about it?"

Lars looked puzzled. "Huh, do? What can I do Kyle?"

"You could get revenge. Like they do on the Soaps. People are always getting back at each other in the soaps. You could teach her a lesson!"

Lars' smile was full blown now. "Revenge. Revenge. Yeah I could." Suddenly the smile left his face. "Nah, I couldn't do that I would be no good at it."

Kyle was starting to get excited. This was something he could do to show his loyalty. "I could do it. I could be good at it."

Lars looked at Kyle seriously. "I couldn't ask you to do that for me."

Kyle was looking at Lars with hope in his eyes. "You don't have to ask. I want to do it. I want to show that bitch, that good beats evil! I want to do this for you, Mr. Lars. Please let me."

Grinning again, Lars put his hand out to Kyle. Kyle quickly laid his in his. "Kyle will you be my new best friend?"

Kyle was stunned. "Sure Mr. Lars!"

Retrieving his hand Lars stood. "Good, then that's settled. It's getting late. I have to go to work. You go get dressed and we'll walk out together. You can come back at nine tonight. I should be home by then."

Kyle stood up too, grinning from ear to ear at his new friend. Lars noticed his penis again as soon as he stood. He smiled at Kyle. "Kyle...Did you give Steven head last night?"

Kyle's face dropped. He looked down at his hands and then back to Lars. "Um, no. Should I have?"

Lars chuckled under his breath. "No Kyle, you should not have. Never give Steven head."

"Okay." Said Kyle watching Lars turn to leave. "Um, Mr. Lars?"

Lars turned in the hall towards Kyle. "Yeah?"

"Um...Could I have more cereal?"

"Of course Kyle, but don't take too long. I have to be at work."

"Okay." Said Kyle grabbing the box to prepare his third bowl of cereal.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

By the time Carrie pulled the Jaguar into a parking space just off 84th street, across from Central Park, it was 11: 23. They had stopped by Gentry so Carrie could change into a pair of jeans and one of her favorite silk T-shirts. She instructed Joan to cancel her appointments for the day and made the appropriate calls to her banker to get a bank draft out to Joe Mergiotti, after a frantic call from Paula. She had to whisk Erin and Lorcan out of the building before someone else intruded on their day. They had also stopped by the World Trade Village and bought a basket of baguettes, fruit, wine, and cheese for their impromptu picnic. The sun was shining brightly as the three crossed 5th avenue and entered the park. With her Nikon, which she kept in the trunk of her car, draped over her shoulder, Carrie had taken Erin's hand as they were crossing the street and to Erin's joy hadn't relinquished it, now that they were walking down a winding path.

"Where're we going?" asked a happy Erin.

Carrie looked at her coolly. "I'm taking you to my favorite spot." She smiled down at her friend and winked. They walked a ways in silence. Each with their own thoughts of what they wanted to say to one another. The moment seemed to build for Carrie, who knew that this could very well be the end of them once she revealed everything to Erin. It made her nervous but she was determined to tell her everything. She loved Erin, this she was sure of, and she didn't want there to be any secrets between them. She would be up-front and honest and hope that Erin would except her as is.

They had crossed a shallow creek and were now heading towards dense trees. Erin had never ventured this far into the park. "Where are we going?" she asked as she looked up into dancing blue eyes.

Carrie arched a brow dropping her hand and placing a long arm around her shoulders. "I told you, my favorite spot. You trust me don't you?" she was grinning mysteriously. Erin just shook her head and tightened her grip on Lorcan's leash.

As they cleared the trees Erin's eyes widen as she took in a wonderful site. It was an open clearing surrounded by a ring trees. "This is beautiful!" she exclaimed. "How did you find this!?" She had left Carrie's side and stood in the middle twirling around looking up into the afternoon sun. Lorcan had quietly sneaked off after his unconscious release, sniffing at trees and chasing butterflies.

Carrie smiled broadly at Erin's joy. She loved making the smaller woman beam like this, and her own heart filled with happiness too. Taking the Nikon in hand she began taking pictures of Erin marveling at her surroundings. "Like it, huh? It's just one of the places I come to when I want to be alone and think." Stopping her picture taking, she began to spread the blanket out on the ground.

Erin looked down at her spreading the blanket. "But, you're not alone, now."

Carrie stopped what she was doing and looked up at her. "I know...and I hope I won't ever be again." She held a hand out to Erin who quickly took it, falling down beside her.

"You won't." She said, covering Carrie's mouth with hers.

When they parted Carrie sat up straighter. Her features began to harden and she looked at Erin sternly. "You may not feel that way after you hear what I have to say."

Erin pushed the fears that had surfaced to the back of her mind. "Well that's what we're here for." Carrie took a deep breath. Erin continued. "...And Carrie, there is nothing you can say that will change the way I feel about you...nothing." She looked Carrie dead in the eyes, hoping she was conveying exactly how much she loved her.

It brought a smile to Carrie's lips and hope to her eyes. She began to fiddle nervously with the camera. "I don't know where to start?"

"Why don't you start with who Tina is."

Carrie's eyes clouded over again and she quickly looked up at Erin and snapped a close up picture. Slowly pulling the camera away from her face she looked out pass Erin and began. "Well, the short story is...she's an ex-girlfriend who walked out on me five years ago. Without any explanation...any good-bye." She shook her head in memory, then looked back at Erin. "The long story starts nine years before, when a young naive girl gave away her heart unconditionally and...defenselessly."

Erin found her voice after a moment of uncomfortable silence. "Okay. Since we have all this delicious looking food and all the time in the world, ...why don't we hear the long version." She tried to smile but the hurt look on Carrie's face was breaking her heart. She busied herself with setting out the food while she listened. She already wanted to break Tina's neck and she hadn't even heard the whole story yet.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jean stood extending her hand out to the other people in the room. The meeting had finally ended and she was anxious to get back to her office. It had been like this all morning -- one meeting after another. She was covering for Lars who hadn't shown up or called in yet. But she didn't have time to worry about him, she was too consumed with worry about Carrie. In between meetings she had tried to get a hold of Carrie but hadn't had any luck. 'Where was she!' Jean tightly closed her eyes for a second, trying to ward off the onslaught of thoughts about Carrie somewhere suffering alone.

She rounded the corner, heading to her office, and stopped at Emma's desk. "Emma have you heard from Lars yet?"

"No, not a word. You sure you don't want me to try and track him down?"

Jean sighed and smiled at Emma. She was tired and emotionally drained from worry about Carrie. She hadn't had anything to eat or drink since the morning and she could feel her energy draining away. But Lars' absence had meant that she had to take up the slack and that's what she was trying to do. "No that's all right. What's next on his agenda?"

"He's clear until 2:00. At 2:00 the 'Tasty Time' people will be here. You want to go over the account before hand? ...In case Lars still isn't here."

Jean accepted the folder. "I guess I should. Thank you Emma." She turned away and continued her journey to her office. She could feel the beginnings of a headache come on.

Once she entered her office she threw her things on the couch and went straight to the phone. The little red light was blinking and her spirits lifted with the hope that one of the messages was from Carrie. She waited patiently as the voices of customers and staff requested her assistance for what Jean felt were trivial matters. None were from Carrie and she sadly hung up the phone.

The last message had been from Sonny. She was excited about their appointment at the jeweler's that evening where she would get to pick out a ring. Jean had awakened that morning to a barrage of tears, cursing, and more tears. Exactly in that order and it didn't stop until Jean caved and promised to buy her an engagement ring. Jean didn't like being hustled like that but she had more important things on her mind. She figured she would handle Sonny later when she was more emotionally fit. She hadn't thought that Sonny would make the appointment so soon. What will she use for money? She had just spent her savings on the restaurant. She really couldn't afford another bank loan. Jean sighed and reached in her drawer for the aspirin when Paula entered her mind. She could call Paula to see if she had heard from Carrie. The purchase of the restaurant had to be made today. Without hesitation she dialed Val's mobile number.

"Hello?" Came the low melodic voice that sounded very much like Carrie's.

"Hey Val, Jean. Have you heard from Carrie today?"

"Hi, Jean. No, I haven't. I called last night and again this morning but she's not around. I guess she's back to pulling one of her disappearing acts."

"I know." Said a frustrated Jean. She had called twice last night and four times this morning with the same results. "You think maybe Paula heard from her? I know the money had to be transferred today."

Val rolled over onto her stomach, and smoothed the towel beneath her, back out. She was sunning by the pool at the Seven Hills Estate. She went there straight from the restaurant to tell her mother about what happened. Tina's presence in Manhattan only meant trouble for Carrie. Melinda needed to be informed. "I don't know, Jean. Paula called me earlier looking for her but I haven't heard anything since. Want me to call and see?"

"Would you please." Jean's headache was getting worst. She eyed the aspirin's again. "I don't think she should be on her own right now."

"Exactly my thoughts. I'm just hoping she hasn't been to see Tina. It would be disastrous for them to get back together."

Jean's heart jumped at the thought of Carrie and Tina together. She tried to talk around the lump in her throat. "Let's...Let's not even think about that. Make that call and get back to me as soon as you hear anything."

"Will do." Val clicked the phone off folding it up to its compact size, then laid her head on her folded arms. She would call Paula to find out if she'd heard from Carrie, but later. Right now she had to get back to her dream lover who was just about to release her breast from their captivity.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

"You've got exactly 1 hour to pack your shit and get your ass out of that room before I instruct the hotel security to through you out!"

"Lars!" said Tina sitting up trying to compose herself. When the phone rang she had thought it would be Carrie finally returning one of her numerous calls. To her dismay it was Lars and he was in rare form. "Now wait a minute Lars. I did what you asked me to do. Things are in motion."

"The only motion I want to see is your ass high tailing it out of that room. I'm not spending one more penny for you to lay there and eat, drink, and sleep my money away!"

"Lars, what are you talking about! I did as you asked! I think last night went well!"

"Yeah, you would...You were late, you were ineffectual and she doesn't want you."

"What do mean she doesn't want me? Did you see her last night? She was so stunned she couldn't move. She still wants me Lars. Who do you know can cut through her demeanor the way that I did last night. If Jean hadn't of been there..."

"She didn't leave with you."

No...but I didn't know she was going to have my doppelgänger with her either. Who is she anyway?"

Lars sighed heavily. He had forgotten all about the blond that accompanied Carrie last night. She was a real looker...different from Carrie's usual. 'Wonder how that went over with Jean?' he thought to himself. If she is now in the picture, what does he need with Tina. He smiled sweetly into the phone, "She's Carrie's new girlfriend. I found her and set them up. I knew you couldn't handle the job so I went out and found fresh meat. So you see Tina..." He paused for effect. "I don't need you anymore."

Tina panicked "But...BUT! Lars you promised me! What...what about our deal? What about the play?"

Lars chuckled evilly into the receiver. "The theater is dead! No one goes to your type of plays anymore! I would be a fool to sink my money into a venture like that."

Tina could hardly believe her ears. They had had a deal! She had given up so much, her son... her husband, to help him. He had come to her with this insane scheme. While she hadn't been totally happy with her life in Vancouver, it had been bearable. And now he was leaving her with nothing! "Lars you can't do this!

"Oh, but you see I can Tina. I can do this and I can do anything I want."

"I...I've given up so much to come here! I didn't have to, you know! I did it because I thought you were a true friend!"

Lars couldn't remember the last time he had so much fun. He could just picture Tina's distraught face. "Tina, come on now. You know you and I have never been friends"

"Lars, please." She said softly into the phone. He could hear her sobbing on the other end, and his smile grew a little wider. "...and as for what you gave up, you should be thanking me for getting you out of that hum drum situation you were stuck in!"

She sniffed again, violently wiping the tears away. It was time to change tactics. Sitting up straighter on the side of the bed, she said, "Lars you don't really want me to leave, do you?"

"Yes, Tina I do." He responded, trying to constrain his laughter.

"But if I do that, where would I go..."

"Why the hell should I care?"

"...but, maybe to Carrie's?...and If I go there, she'll want to know why I returned to New York in the first place." She paused for effect. "Then I would have to tell her all about your evil little plan...and if I did that..." She paused again. Lars' silence signified that she had his undivided attention. "She will have to tell Jean...and if she did that...well Lars, I don't have to tell you how unforgiving Jean can be."

There was silence, total silence. It became unnerving and Tina started to ask if he was still there, when she heard him speak, almost inaudibly.


"What? What did you say?"

Lars sighed. "I said, okay." He was fuming. How dare she try and blackmail him! He had to stall for time. "You win, but the deal is still on with one little amendment. Not only will you get her back, but I want you to get her to leave the city. Get her to move with you to L.A.

"L.A.?! But,...but what about my play. You promised to back my play!"

Lars sighed again. "Like I said before, the stage is dead, Tina. It's the silver screen now. I have friends in L.A. They'll have you in a staring role within a month of your arrival.

"L.A. doesn't like me. They don't like stage actors and they treat us like shit. I...I don't think I can go through that again."

"Tina don't worry about it. I'll get you an acting coach..."

"And an agent? I'll need a good agent out there."

"Whatever is needed. You'll have it all, but I don't want you to think about that right now. You need to concentrate on Carrie. The little blond might be a problem."

"I can handle that...that's not a problem. But, Lars?...Don't try to screw me again. Even if I'm in L.A. I can get back at you. Remember I still know all."

Lars chuckled lightly. Sarcastically, he said, "Yes, Tina. I know how powerful you are."

"And just so you won't forget, I know all about Rosa Hernandez too!" With that she quickly hung up the phone.

Lars stared at the phone, as the hollow sound of space hissed, in his ear. All the blood had drained from his face. 'Tina wasn't powerful, she was dangerous!' Something had to be done about!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The low ringing of the telephone woke Jean from a sound sleep. She had slipped off after hanging up from Val and washing the two aspirins down with cold coffee. She quickly made her way from the couch thinking it might be Val with news about Carrie, or even better, Carrie herself.

" McKinney?!" she said into the receiver.

"The boss is here and wants to see you now." Emma's voice was conspiratory. She hadn't a clue about what was going on but she could tell something was wrong, things weren't going as usual.

"Okay, Emma." Jean was disappointed that it wasn't Carrie or at least Val, and it showed in her voice. "Tell him I'll be right there." Stretching some of the tension out of her back, Jean put her shoes on, straightened her skirt, and ran a hand through her braids. She looked down at her watch and saw that it was 1:15. 'Good!' Jean thought, 'Now Lars could attend his own 2:00 meeting.' She grabbed the folders she carried in earlier and headed for Lars office. She prayed silently that he would be in a good mood.

Jean sauntered pass Emma, and knocked gently on Lars' door, but didn't wait for an answer. She opened the door and spotted him sitting behind his desk, with his back to the door, talking on the phone. When she entered, he spun his chair around to see who had entered and waved a hand at her to have a seat. As she waited for the phone conversation to end, Jean busied herself by pretending to look over the notes she had made from that morning's meetings. She kept her head down knowing that he was staring. She hadn't realized that this moment was going to be so awkward. Events of last night were flooding her mind. In retrospect it had been an awful night, and she was now wondering where things stood between she and Lars.

"Yes, it's hard for me to believe too...I have to go. Some one just came into my office..." Said Lars to the other party. He signaled Jean that he was about to hang up. "Sounds good, I'm counting on you. Talk to you soon...bye." He hung up the phone and looked at Jean sternly, then his features changed into a smile. "Thought I was angry with you didn't you?" He started to laugh "Well I'm not." He stood and took off his jacket and winked at her.

Jean gave an uneasy smile back at him and shifted her position in the chair. His cheerfulness was unsettling.

He then started towards the pushcart. "Will you join me?" He said, holding up a liquor canister.

"No..." said Jean, still unsettled. "I haven't had a bite since breakfast...So, you're okay with my decision?"

Lars grimaced, but was smiling when he turned back to Jean. With drink in hand he walked towards the couch. "Come on, let's sit over hear." He sat down and patted the cushion beside him. Hesitantly Jean rose and took a place at the other end of the couch. She was still uneasy of Lars' behavior and kept her guard up. Feeling her uneasiness, he placed an arm across the back of the couch, turned in her direction, and looked at her sincerely. "I had a lot of time to think about what you said last night...No. It's not okay with me, but it's not up to me what you choose to do with your life..." He took a big gulp of his drink. He looked across the room, then to the ceiling, as if trying to hold back tears. Jean put her hand on top of his across the back of the couch, in comfort. He looked at her gesture and continued. "I had my chance and I blew it..." Jean started to interject but he stopped her. "It's true. I treated you like you were just another employee when I should have given you your just due and offered you a partnership...You deserved it, you earned it." He took another gulp. Silence reigned after the ice settled back in his glass. Lars stared at the floor, while Jean stared at his features.

It was times like this when Jean felt she loved Lars the most. He was noble and discerning, and it was difficult for him to admit his failures. His distress was so apparent that even a stranger could see the vacuity and loneliness in his heart. This kind of openness and honesty made him so vulnerable, that Jean understood why he didn't show this side of himself to others. She lowered her head and made a solemn vow that she would always remain his friend.

Lars wiped his eye and swallowed what was left in his glass. He turned back to Jean. "I hope everything works out for you Jean, I really do."

"I want things to work out for you too Lars. And like I said last night, you and I will always be friends...always."

He smiled gently at her "I really appreciate your hanging around until the end of the year. It's going to be hard trying to find someone to replace you."

Looking thoughtfully Jean sighed. "Well I know Ron Hillman has been putting in a lot of extra hours and doing a pretty good job too. He just about landed the Gortman account on his own. And then there's Leigh Eastman, she..."

Lars threw his hands up "Whoa, hold on." He stood laughing, making his way back to the pushcart. "Thanks to you I have plenty of time. We can tackle that a little later..." He dropped a couple of ice cubes in his glass then held it up to Jean, asking the wordless question. She shook her head 'no' and he turned away to continue making his drink. "What I really need to know, is what went on this morning in the accounts meeting. I saw Bob as I came in and he didn't look at me too kindly." He retook his seat on the couch chuckling lightly.

Jean sat back and relaxed considerably. She opened the folders on her lap and began her recitation of the morning's business.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

With a flick of her wrist, Melinda tapped the cue ball with the pool stick. It streaked across the table hitting the four, which smacked into the eight ball, sending it straight for the corner pocket. Quickly she stuck her hand in it, keeping the ball from going down.

"Did you see that?!" said Joan in amazement, as she stood erect with her hands on her hip. "How can we have a game if your going to keep cheating?"

Melinda ignored her, placed the eight ball back on the table, then stretched across and lined the cue ball up with the seven. "It's still my turn."

Val laughed. "Joan you're the one who taught her how to play?"

"I didn't teach her that...You know your mom, she learns the right way, then does it her way."

With a light stroke of the pool stick, Melinda missed the ball completely and said, "That one didn't count. I wasn't ready." She repositioned herself and tried it again. She watched the cue ball tap the seven, sending it up against the left bumper. She then slowly walked over to Val, as Joan positioned herself.

"So, you say, Carrie just sat there?" She asked, watching Joan methodically knock the balls, in descending order, into the table's pockets.

Val bobbed her head slowly. "Yeah, she just sat there, staring at the table...letting Jean fight her battles."

Melinda grabbed her beer bottle off the bar and raised it too her lips. "What was her little blonde doing?"

"Nothing. She was probably wondering what the hell was going on along with everyone else in the restaurant. Mom, it was awful. Even I felt bad for her." Val winced at the memory. "If you had of seen her when she first came into the restaurant..." she shook her head and smiled. "...I mean, she looked so happy. It was if the old Carrie was back. And then just like that!" She snapped her fingers for emphasis. "...Tina walks in and...Shit! No one should have that kind power over anyone." She shook her head again.

Joan stood resting her arm on the pool stick, the table void of any balls. "And no one has seen or heard from her since?"

Val shook her head in the negative. "At least no one we know. I figure she's either out there on her own, licking her wounds or shacked up somewhere with Erin. My money is on the latter, and I hope last night is the furthest thing from their minds."

"Erin, that's the woman who was with her on Sunday?" Joan asked with a tone of worry in her voice.

"Yeah," answered Val. "I think she may have found someone special this time."

The comment weighted heavily in the air as each of them pondered a thought; Val and Jean pondered the comment, while Melinda pondered something entirely different.

"Tina didn't happen to say what hotel she was staying at, did she?"

They both turned and looked at her. Val broke the silence. "No she didn't...but I think I know someone who does."

"That's all right. I can find her." With that Melinda turned to leave. She called back over her shoulder, "Sorry I can't finish our game, we'll just call it a draw."

Joan looked at the empty pool table then back to Val in confusion. "Did I just miss something?"

With a smile, Val patted Joan on the shoulder and chuckled under her breath. "I don't know why you bother to play with her. You never can win."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Carrie sighed as another painful memory passed through her mind. She had been telling Erin her story for the last hour and a half, and now the memories were spilling out at random. It had been her intention to share everything with Erin but as the images flooded her mind she found them more and more difficult to share. She had begun to give less detail, if for no other reason, because she was totally embarrassed. There was no reason to tell Erin of the chronic pain of loss and self-doubt she had suffered when she realized the woman she loved, the woman she trusted, had abandoned her in such a callous way. Carrie knew deep down within, that there was something that she had done wrong that was the cause of everything that had happened to her. Something that she had done to make Tina just up and leave her like that.

Erin had been wonderful. She sat silently listening to Carrie through much of it. Offering words of comfort and telling her it wasn't her fault, much like her family and friends had at that time. And when things had become particularly difficult, Erin had taken her into her arms and allowed Carrie to weep uncontrollably.

In Erin's mind she was enraged at the story that was unfolding before her. She knew that Carrie was holding back, but of what she had heard already, it was enough. Carrie had told of her seduction, and then the total commitment and then of the betrayal of trust. 'No wonder the sight of Tina scared her!' At many times during the narration Erin wanted to reach out and hug Carrie to assure her that she would never do anything like that. 'How could one person be so cruel, so inhumane, so uncaring?' But she had decided to wait for Carrie to come to her and she did.

They sat in silence. Each in the their own thoughts. Lorcan had come back earlier, looking for scraps and was treated to a sourdough roll that he took skeptically from Carrie's hand. In gratitude he had chosen her side to curl up next to, and allowed her to stroke his fur, which put him in a puppy like state of sleep.

"I'm so sorry that you went through that." Choking back tears that were trying to surface, Erin found her voice and bit through the silence. She was astonished by some of what she heard, and down right angry at other parts.

Carrie looked up at her with dark unseeing eyes. She was feeling a bevy of emotions. She had been on a roller coaster of emotions ever sense she began her story. And right now the embarrassment of it all was tearing at her insides. How could she had been so stupid and naïve. Erin rubbed small soothing circles on her back. She turned her head up to look into emerald eyes that looked down on her with promise. Erin smiled slightly. Carrie whispered " I'm sorry."

"Sorry? Sorry for what?"

"Erin, I can't help but think that if only I had been more open with my feelings or maybe more mature, I could have done things differently. I could have been what she wanted...needed. I tried but in the end I failed and she left me.

"You didn't do anything wrong, Carrie! I'm sorry that your first experience had to be with someone who is such a bitch" There was venom in Erin's voice. Carrie watched as her delicate features twisted in distaste. "I mean, I thought my first experience was the pits, but this woman, she could have ruined you for life...she tried to ruin your life!"

In spite of herself, Carrie had to laugh. Erin looked so cute as the feisty side of her emerged. Her face took on a ruddy red glow that indicated her Irish temper. Carrie thought it to be cute, as well as a real turn on, to know that it was in her defense. She repositioned herself and pulled Erin in for a smoldering kiss. "Thank you for being in my corner." She said sincerely. Finding herself in a better mood, Carrie didn't want to go back to being the topic of conversation, so she deftly changed the subject. "Now, what's this about your 'first time' being the pits?"

Erin blushed, adorably. "Sooo, it's my turn is it?" She cleared her throat as she pulled Carrie back into position, with her head in her lap. She liked playing in Carrie's hair. It was thick and silky, and Erin found this to be comforting. "Well, let's see...first you've got to promise that you won't laugh."

"Laugh!? Why would I laugh?"

"Because...It's embarrassing, stupid and dumb!" She pouted for full effect, unknowingly turning Carrie on with every little gesture.

Carrie cleared her throat. "Like what I just told you wasn't?" She looked sharply at Erin. "I think I'm the one here that has cornered the market on stupid and dumb, let alone embarrassing. I have no room for laughter...believe me."

Erin smiled contritely, letting her index finger trace Carrie's jawbone. "Okay." She took a breath. "My first time was on a ratted old leather the manager's office of a Laundromat." She paused, staring down into eyes that looked translucent, from the sun, and waited for a giggle from Carrie. There wasn't any...until Erin cracked a smile, then they both burst out laughing. Erin pushed Carrie off her lap in mock anger, which caused the resting Lorcan to jump up too.

"You made me laugh!" Protested Carrie, rolling around on the ground with laughter.

Erin tried to look upset, but the situation was too funny. She pouted again and folded her arms in front of her.

"Awww, poor baby." Carrie said rising to her knees and pulling Erin into a hug. She calmed herself and was now trying to soothe Erin. "I'm sorry. Now go on with your story."

Carrie put a finger under her chin, lifting it so that she could see her face. Erin relinquished and smiled back. They settled down in reverse position; this time Carrie was holding Erin in her lap. "So, how long did you stay with this guy?'

"Oh, we weren't a couple or anything. He was just one of Danny's friends. He went to the movies with us one time -- Danny, Lucille, and me -- and I met him then for the first time. He owns the Laundromat around the corner from us. I had never met him because I have my own washer and dryer."

Erin paused as if she was quietly recalling a moment. Carrie felt a pang of jealousy and she needed to know more. "So what made you chose this guy to be your first?" She said, hoping that her jealousy wasn't detectable.

Erin didn't answer right away. She looked wistfully at Carrie and smiled. "Would you believe, I just didn't want to die a virgin...It was Valentine's day and just after my 25th birthday. I..."

"When's your birthday?" asked Carrie. Erin's answer had made her fell guilty about being jealous, so she was trying to stop the onset of melancholy.

"February 12th, When's yours?"

"September 6th"

"Anyway, I just didn't want to wait any longer...Even though I wish I had..." Her voice trailed off and Carrie waited patiently for her to start up again. After a moment she did. "It was nothing like us...nothing like it. He was trying to be gentle, I guess...but, I...I walked out of there feeling so disgusted with myself. So violated...Needless to say I didn't go around there anymore. I gave excuses when he called, and I made quick exits whenever he was over at Lucille and Danny's. After awhile he stopped trying."

"What was the longest relationship you've had?"

Erin h'rumfed sarcastically. "Relationship? You mean romantically involved? Carrie the longest I've ever been with anyone in a romantic way has been exactly four days...these past four days." She looked up at the blue orbs staring at her in disbelief."

"How about in high school?"

"Nope, to busy with sports and other extracurricular activities. You are my first!"

A triumphant smile came over Carrie's features and she bent to nip lovingly at Erin's lips and nose. "Is that what we have?...A relationship?"

Erin looked sincere, "If you want to?"

"I want to." Said Carrie bringing Erin's body in contact with hers so that she could kiss her fully and deeply on the lips.

Carrie held Erin gently in her arms thinking how nice it was to just sit here and hold her. Erin's head was resting on her shoulder while Carrie stroked and played with her red-gold strands. "So, how does it feel to be a lesbian?"


Carrie chuckled at Erin's reaction. "Calm down. There are worst things to be, you know."

"No, it's not that. It's just that I never thought of myself as...a lesbian." Erin said the word as if she was trying it out on her tongue. Her features wrinkled as if she were deep in thought. She looked at Carrie and asked, "What constitutes a Lesbian...I mean am I one just because we slept together?"

Carry looked at her thoughtfully. "I don't know. I never really gave it any thought." They were silent for a moment as they each went off into deep thinking. "I think maybe the word Lesbian is just a label. A label society applies in order to identify...You know if someone says that they are a Lesbian or someone else is, society knows right away what that persons sexual preference is..."

"And society can speculate further about other parts of that person's life." Erin said.

"Society thinks it can by applying stereotypes and making assumptions."

"Well, I guess I am then by society's rules."

"Yeah, but what do you think? Do you think you're a lesbian."

"I don't know this is all so new to me...I know I like having sex with you." Erin gave Carrie a bright-eyed sensuous smile. "I know I want to be with you...always." This she said shyly and lowered her eyes.

Carrie put a finger to her chin to bring her eyes back to hers. "I want to be with you always too."

Without a second thought Erin reached up and pulled Carrie into a kiss it was tender but it lasted until they both needed air. As they pulled away, Erin said with all her heart, "I'm so in love with you Carrie."

Carrie pulled her back into an embrace. She didn't want Erin to see the panic in her eyes. For some reason, even though she knew she felt the same way she couldn't get the words out. They were stuck in her throat, and this terrified her. Just yesterday she was ready to shout it to the world. But now, now that she knew Tina was in town she wasn't so sure if she was ready to risk her heart like that, again. Closing her eyes tight she prayed that Erin wasn't hurt by her cowardliness.

"All right now! What do we have here?" said a gruff voice right off to the left of them. Carrie and Erin jerked apart and turned in that direction. Three youths were standing there in T-shirts and jeans, grinning at them, and suggestively grabbing their genitals.

They looked to be between the ages of 15 and 18, and Carrie stood bringing Erin with her, and thinking she could easily take all three. 'Punks.' she said to herself.

"A couple of Lesbians putting on a private show." Said the tallest one who also looked to be the oldest. "Yall, need a man to put between you?"

Carrie kept quiet but put herself between Erin and their would be assailants.

The gruff voice came again from the little pudgy boy. "You need some of this baby!" He was talking to Erin who let out a yelp when the boy exposed himself and shook it at her. The boys burst into laughter slapping him on the back and egging him on.

His performance angered Carrie and it showed in her eyes. Her fist balled and she started for him but Erin's hand on her arm stopped the momentum. Instead, she shouted "Get the fuck out of here!"

As if on cue, Lorcan came from the trees, barking ferociously. He bared his teeth and stood at attack awaiting his master's command.

"Get your fucking dog, lady!" screamed the gruff voice, that was now an octave higher. He was trying to put himself away. The others started to back off leaving him in the forefront. "You better get him lady before I put a cap in his ass!"

Erin ordered "Heal" and Lorcan obeyed, coming to rest at her side, keeping his attention on the boys, with his back hairs standing. Erin didn't attempt to calm him she wanted to keep him on full alert.

"Okay, you've had your fun. Now, why don't you run along." Carrie was still angry but it wasn't present in her voice. She was talking directly to the boy who exposed himself. Consciously she tried to commit his face to memory. What she planned to do with the information she really did not know but she felt that he had violated Erin and this was unforgettable.

"Fuck you bitch!" the boy called out walking backwards, now with a little more conviction. "Don't let me catch you without your fucking dog. Your ass is mine!" He turned and started running to catch up with his friends who were out of view now. "Dykes!" he yelled over his shoulder.

Carrie stood unyielding as she watched the pudgy form run into the trees. Erin began to stroke Lorcan to calm him and tell him what a good boy he was. When she noticed that Carrie was still watching the trees with no sight of the boys, she began to stroke her back too. Her jaw and fist were still clinched. "Come on...they're gone now."

Carrie blinked and turned to Erin. "You all right?"

"Yeah," said Erin starting to smile to calm her friend. "I guess I just got stamped by society."

"Does it bother you?" Carrie held her breath for the answer.

With great sincerity Erin smiled, "Not at all."

Carrie smiled back, and let out a sigh of relief. Then she looked at Lorcan. She began playfully petting him. "Thanks Lorcan, but you know I could have taken them."

"Yeah, right. All three of them?" Erin was gathering up their things.

Carrie looked at her startled for a moment. Then she grinned. "Yes, all three. You don't believe me?"

Erin stopped what she was doing and turned toward her. She saw the glee in her eyes. "I don't doubt that you wouldn't have tried, but come on Carrie, there were three of them."

"Well it's just lucky for you that today is Tuesday."


"Because if it wasn't I would have been forced to show my martial abilities to you personally." She wiggled her eyebrows for effect. "But since it is Tuesday, you can come to the gym tonight with me and watch me show-off on someone else."

"You know Karate?" Asked Erin intrigued by this new information.

Carrie began to finish the job of packing up. "Yup. And I know Tae Kwon Do, Tai Chi and Judo, too."

"Are you any good?" Erin had always wanted to study the martial arts, but Lucille wasn't interested and she didn't want to go to the Women's Center alone.

Carrie looked at her and shook her head. "You'll see...tonight. Now come on and help me clean up your mess. It's getting late and I don't want to get caught in rush hour traffic."

Erin looked at her long form and the 'muscle-play' under her shirt as she packed their stuff up. 'I bet she is good...good at everything,' thought Erin. Happy that Carrie was her friend -- her lover, Erin helped to fold the blanket, and gave Carrie a chased kiss when they finished. She then happily placed the leash on Lorcan.

"What was that for?" asked Carrie smiling.

With the leash in one hand and her other hand tucked into Carrie's, she said, "Because you make me happy." With that they headed towards the car.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
They walked slowly up the inclined path, towards the car. Erin left her hand entangled in the crease of Carrie's arm. In order to keep pace with the long strides of her mesomorphic friend, she found that it was easier to walk with Carrie this way. Carrie's long strides had kept her running to keep up with her earlier and she wasn't about to experience that again. Besides, the contact made her feel safe. She glanced around briefly at the people in the park, who seemed oblivious to them. She couldn't explain it, but she knew that she simply had to be around Carrie, had to touch her, had to be with her. She had known her for only a short time, yet Carrie was already an important force in her life. It was as if they had known each other for a lifetime. Shyly she looked up at her new lover and smiled at her good fortune. Would she ever get used to Carrie's beauty? Erin did not know the answer to that question but she prayed she would be around long enough to find out. A gentle clutch to Carrie's arm as she swallowed hard brought the bronze face towards her. Flashing blue eyes complimented the radiant smile that befell her, and Erin looked away in a blush.

"What?" Carrie said looking down at Erin with a cocked eyebrow.

"Oh,...nothing." Erin answered with a slight smile she couldn't help her giddiness. She couldn't remember the last time she was this happy.

"Mmm Hummm, I guess you have some private joke going, huh?"

"No, it's not a joke, and it's hardly private. I think if anyone looked close enough...they could see what's in my heart right now."

Carrie looked away with a blush of her own and stood a little taller as she beamed with knowledge of her own good fortune. Erin was enchanting in every way. She felt good with her, she even felt safe. With Tina in town, Carrie knew that if it had not been for Erin's presence, she would be somewhere in total agony, reliving the anguish of her yester years. She mentally added an I.O.U. to the column under Erin's name. She would have to do something special for her. "Since you're going to go to the Dojo with me tonight, would you like to have dinner at my place?"

Erin smiled. She wasn't ready to part company either. "Sure." She said enthusiastically. She was about to tell Carrie what she was thinking when a woman walked up to Carrie.


Carrie turned to see a charismatic Annabel Scorcini smiling at her with arms wide open. "Hey, Anna!" Carrie said with delight. She hadn't seen her friend since the party and was genuinely happy. "When did you get back from Europe?"

"Just a few weeks..." She answered, holding her left hand out for Carrie to see. "...and look what I've got!"

Holding a pale thin hand at arm's length, Carrie perused the diamond on the third finger admiringly. "My, my, my haven't we been a busy girl. Congratulations Anna. Who's the lucky guy, Gerald?"

Annabel gave a hearty laugh. "No, silly! Gerald is hardly the marrying type. No, I met this absolutely gorgeous guy on the Rivera. Soon as our eyes met it was instant attraction...Truly, love at first sight."

Carrie watched and listened with a smile on her face. She knew exactly what Anna was talking about. She turned her attention to her companion who was obviously having the same thoughts. "I know what you mean." She said softly, gazing into Erin's eyes.

The softness of Carrie's voice bought Annabel from her reminiscence, now noticing the petite blond at Carrie's side. "Oh, who's your friend?"

Without turning away, Carrie replied "Annabel this is Erin, Erin Annabel."

With great regret Erin broke their stare and turned towards Annabel and held out her hand. "Hi, pleased to meet you."

"Same here...Well looks like love is in the air." She smiled at the two, knowingly. "I guess she's why the whole world is looking for you."

Carrie cocked an eyebrow in Annabel's direction. "What!?!...The whole world? Who?"

"Well not the whole world, maybe. But enough of them."

"Who, Anna?" Carrie was now giving her, her 'no nonsense' stare.

Annabel rolled her eyes to the sky brazenly ignoring the stare. She began to tick off at her fingers, "Let's see, Jean called,...Val called,...then Jean called again,...your Mother called, and...oh yeah, Tina called. I didn't even know she was back in town." She looked at Carrie in confusion. "When did that happen? Last I heard she was..."

Carrie cut her off grabbing Erin's hand abruptly. "Got to go Anna. I'll be talking to you soon."

"Oh...Okay Carrie!" She said, trying to keep an eye on the swiftly moving back of her friend. She added loudly "Maybe you guys could have dinner with us and meet Giancarlo!" Annabel wasn't sure if Carrie had heard her or not but she stood there on the sidewalk and watched as Carrie packed their items into the trunk and then gallantly opened the passenger door for the dog and her little blond friend. Although they were now a ways from her, she could tell that the two were definitely a couple. She smiled at that thought and mumbled to herself as she turned away, "Well, it's about time!"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Once Carrie had the car packed and her guest settled she reached into the glove compartment for the cellular. "Damn, seventeen calls."

"Is something wrong?" asked Erin.

Carrie glanced at her then back at the phone. She tapped the talk button and proceeded to dial a number. Placing it to her ear she glanced back at Erin and winked. "I'm just hopping nothing went wrong with the deal. If that didn't go through, Jean is going to kill me...Paula, que passé? Did everything go through okay?"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Chapter Nine

It had taken the rest of the afternoon and most of the evening for Carrie to settle all the problems that her latest business venture caused. The bank transaction went according to plan, but the restaurant workers had panicked and refused to work until they were let in on exactly what was going on. Paula had managed to calm them and with the help of Val, contacted Jean, who swiftly made it over there. However, Jean had refused to make any final decisions until Carrie was present, which caused a mini revolt from the kitchen staff.

Carrie's presence and no nonsense attitude put everything on track by the time the dinner crowd began to show up, but there were still some staffing problems and salary disputes to extricate. Even though she was slightly annoyed because she hadn't planned to be this hands on with the restaurant, Carrie changed their evening plans and instead solicited Erin's accounting knowledge to make sense of the books. She enticed her with an endless amount of stuffed mushrooms and salmon quesadillas, her favorite appetizers.

Jean on the other hand was dealing with a full set of her own problems. She was visibly relieved when Carrie showed up but was surreptitiously confused and annoyed when she saw that Erin was with her, and had been with her all day. 'Carrie had never spent that much time with a skirt' she thought to herself, as she watched the two of them from across the desk in the back office. Their heads were together as they perused a ledger. Erin was sitting and Carrie was standing beside her, leaning down, across her shoulder. Periodically, Carrie would brush back the red-blonde hair, tucking it lovingly behind Erin's ear. Erin would glance at her and smile shyly. Jean was about to gag. Carrie seemed happy and relaxed and sure of herself, something Jean hadn't seen in a long while. She knew she should be happy for her best friend, but there was something about Erin that didn't feel right and she didn't trust her. She watched them for a few moments, trying to sort through her conflicting feelings, when an angry and seething Sonny burst through the door.

"Do you know what time it is? We were to be at the jeweler's by six!"

In surprise, Carrie and Erin looked up, and Jean jumped to her feet. "How...How did you know I was here?"

"I called the office and Emma said you had to run off to some crisis at a restaurant." She rolled her eyes for effect. "I knew it had to be this shit whole."

Ignoring her, Jean tried to escort a non-moving Sonny back out the door. "Then you should know I can't get away right now, I'm handling a crisis.

Stomping her foot Sonny moved away from the door and towards the others at the desk. Pointing she said, "She's here! Can't she handle the crisis?"

Embarrassingly, Jean glanced over at a staring Erin and an amused Carrie. She shook her head. Perhaps it would be better to leave things to Carrie and go with Sonny, if not better, at least, easier! Looking back at Carrie she raised her eyebrows in question.

"No problem!" Carrie said lifting her hands in concession while, barely being able to contain her laughter. Jean was a dictionary version of 'pussy whipped!' "Much of this can wait until tomorrow. Why don't we meet here in the morning before we open."

While trying to agree Jean barely got the words out before Sonny had her by the hand, dragging her through the doorway. When the door closed Carrie and Erin looked at each other then resumed their study of the business ledgers.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

It wasn't until nine that evening that Carrie dropped a tired Erin off at her apartment along with an equally tired Lorcan. As soon as Erin opened the door, the foul odor assaulted her senses. Scrunching up her nose she quickly shut the door and followed the stench to locate its origin. Lorcan ran straight for the kitchen with Erin following. Standing over the trash can, she located the culprit, a cantaloupe rind that she had discarded on Saturday. "Yuck!" she said, quickly wrenching the bag from its container and tying the ends in a knot. She then reached under the sink and pulled out a can of Lysol, which she sprayed into the can, then, squirted in the air. "Choo" sneezed a puzzled Lorcan, who was curled happily on his pillow, in his kennel. He was obviously happy to be back on familiar ground.

"Sorry, boy. Happy to be home?" she asked as she put fresh water in his bowl. She then back tracked to the bedroom and hit the play button on the answering machine.

"You messages...(beep)...Tuesday 2:26 p.m. 'Hey Erin this is Janice. Barb told us you called out sick today. I just wanted you to know that I took today's mail from your in basket. I didn't think you wanted to come back to that. Anyway, feel better and hopefully we'll see you tomorrow. Click '...(beep)...Tuesday 4:12p.m...'Hi sweet pea, Daddy. Been trying to reach you all day, you okay? Anyways give me a call and say hi, so I won't worry. Bye'...(beep)" Erin sighed, audibly. "Tuesday 8:36p.m...'Um...Erin, this is your father...I wanna talk to you. Phone home...Um...please.' Click...(beep, beep, beeeeep).

With a perplexed frown Erin stared at the answering machine. 'That sure sounded weird.' Joe sounded as if he was upset. 'No...' Erin thought to herself, 'not upset...embarrassed, as if something was bothering him but he was afraid to mention it.' She thought about it some more then shrugged her shoulders since she couldn't figure it out. Anyway, it had to wait. First she had to take the trash out.

As Erin headed back down the hall towards her apartment she spotted Danny coming up the front stairs. "Hey Danny. What's going on?" She said cheerfully. "Lucille still up?"

Danny's look of surprise, from unexpectedly seeing her, quickly changed to a look of embarrassment. "Um, hey Erin. Um, um..." he gestured to her door. "You got a minute?"

Erin's smile faded too, as she watched the seriousness take over his entire body. "Sure...Come on in." She walked past him and pushed her unlocked door open. They walked in with Erin sitting down on the edge of the couch and Danny's bulky form standing in the middle of the room. He looked around nervously as he tried to find the words to start his conversation.

"Danny? ...What's wrong?"

Danny took a big breath in and shrugged his shoulders, stuffing his hands in his pocket. He let out the breath just as exaggerated, showing how uncomfortable he was with what he had to say. To him Erin was just a kid -- a good kid, and she didn't need the grief that was about to fall upon her. If what Lucille said about her spending the night with a dyke was true...then so what. It was her business. It would certainly explain a lot of things about her. Larry had told him Erin was frigid. Yeah, it would explain a lot. "Um, Erin. I don't know what's going on around here, and I don't need to know." He put up a hand to quiet a totally confused Erin from responding. "It's none of my business who you sleep with and it's none of Lucille's either...It's just that...well, Lucille told Joe and I thought you should know." The last bit was said with flourish and a sigh of relief.

Erin stared at him unseeingly. The tears that were threatening were clouding her view. She swallowed hard thinking, 'Oh god! They know! They know!' Sniffing she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. "She told Joe?" she asked quietly, still staring at Danny.

"Yeah." He mumbled, staring down at his feet.

"! ...How did she..."

"She saw her with you last night then saw the Jag out on the street this morning. She put two and two together." Danny had looked back up at her as he said this. He was so uncomfortable, and Erin looked so embarrassed. Why couldn't Lucille just mind her business. "I tried to get her to hold off, talk to you first, and get her facts straight...But...You know Lucille. Once she has her mind made up..." He shook his head disgustedly.

Coming out of her shock at the news, Erin sighed, wiping her eyes again. "It's all right Danny. It's not your fault." She stood and began to pace the room in thought. "Is she upset with me? You know, for not telling her?"

Danny whistled, grinning nervously. "Is she ever." He quickly added, "but not at you. She thinks that...that um, woman, kind of mislead you, you know. She thinks you're kinda in over your head."

"Oh, no." Erin said halting her pace and whipping around towards Danny. "She couldn't be more wrong." She laid a hand on Danny's arm to get his full attention. Staring him straight in the eye she said, "Danny, I went after her. I was the one who initiated everything." She dropped her hand from his sleeve and ran it through her hair, beginning her pace again. "I met her that night we were at the club...I was taken by her, that I had to go back!" She turned towards Danny again. "Danny, have you ever wanted something so bad that you'd risk it all! matter what the consequences were? That's how I felt...I wanted her. I wanted her bad. So I went back Saturday night just to be with her." Dragging a hand through her hair again, she sighed. "This is me, Danny. This is who I am. This is what I want to be. I love her." Erin flopped down on the couch, letting out a loud breath.

Danny stood looking at her. He let out a breath of his own then went down on one knee at Erin's side. Taking her hands into his, he looked at her with a serious expression. "Erin, I'm not the one you have to convince. Like I said before it's none of our business, but for what it's worth, I'm glad you've finally found your way. You've been unhappy for a long time. I just hope this person feels the same way about you and you can finally find some happiness."

With tears again, Erin smiled at her understanding friend. She shut her eyes letting the tears roll. Sniffing and opening them again, she said shakily, "Thanks Danny you're a good friend...(sniff)...It means a lot...(sniff)...I love you and're like family, and what you think means a lot to me (sniff)."

"You're family to us too, Erin."

Erin allowed another smile for her friend. "I hope Daddy and Lucille take this as well as you did."

Standing again Danny shook his head. "I don't know...but if you tell them the way you just said it to me, they'll understand."

"Think so...Where is Lucille, anyway?"

"She and the kids are over at Betty's place. Little Susie turned two today. Would you believe she gave her a birthday party on a Tuesday night." He chuckled lightly and looked at his watch. "It's about time for me to go get them." He looked at Erin's now swollen pink face. "Hey, don't worry. I'll talk to Lucille some more tonight. She'll come around."

Erin wrapped her arms around herself and walked him towards the door. Danny opened it and turned back towards her. "You know you never answered my question...Does she feel the same way about you?"

Erin smiled still sniffling. She thought back to when she had said 'I love you to Carrie'. Carrie had never said it back to her. She looked up at him with a half smile. "I don't know Danny. I...I hope so."

Danny leaned down and gave her a peck to the cheek. "She probably does." He shrugged. "What's not to love?" He smiled broadly and waved goodbye as he headed back towards the stairs.

Erin closed the door and leaned her back against it. "Oh God." She sobbed softly, closing her eyes. "What do I do now?" Suddenly she felt a chill in the air and she tightened her grip around herself. She felt totally exposed, and totally alone. Lorcan cautiously came up beside her and gave a high pitched whimper. Erin looked down at her faithful pal who was staring sadly up at her. He whimpered again. Switching to a smile and wiping her face on her sleeve, she bent down in front of him and wrapped her arms around his thick furry neck. "Thanks boy." She squeezed him tightly. "You always know when I need comforting. We are definitely in sync, aren't we Lorcan?"

Just then the phone rang. Erin stared as it ended its first ring and started its second. She gave one last squeeze and slowly walked to the phone. 'Well I guess I had better get it over with' she thought, as she lifted the receiver. "Hel...Hello?"

"Hi, baby. Did I wake you?"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Carrie hit the rewind button then the play button again, on the answering machine. She had been repeating this process for the last fifteen minutes, listening to Tina's voice again and again. She knew she had to do it. She had to go and face Tina. If she was going to try and have any type of a relationship with Erin she was going to have to first put some closure to her old relationship with Tina.

'...I'm at the Trump Plaza. Room 812. Please, come see me. We've got a lot to talk about. (click)...beeeeep.'

Carrie sighed, closing her eyes and throwing her head back to stare up at the glow that was being cast off by the soft lighting. A Luther Vandross CD was playing in the background and the patio doors were wide open letting a cool breeze circulate around the room. Carrie was sitting on the floor with her back up against the couch, next to the end table that held the answering machine. In one hand she was holding a half-filled glass of White-Zeffendale and in the other a lit cigarette. She purposefully hadn't smoked around Erin, noticing that she wasn't a smoker when they were in the Casino. The pack she had was stale but being an occasional smoker, she was used to it. She only smoked when she was in the company of certain friends, or drinking alcohol, or when she was really stressed out. It was hard not to smoke after her run-in with Tina, but Erin had calmed her and she found she didn't need it. As upsetting as Tina's presence had been, Erin's presence had been soothing and she silently wished she was there now.

Again she hit the rewind button, then the play button, catching the tale end of Tina's message. 'We've got a lot to talk about.' "Yes, we do." Said Carrie out loud. Tina had looked good last night. Her thoughts lingered on the night before. 'Her hair was Shorter and blonder than she remembered, she looked a little too thin and a little older but still she had been attractive, and her eyes were just as they had been the first time she saw her, bright, alert and the color of emeralds.' Sighing again she flicked a long ash into the ashtray. 'Erin's eyes were green too but they were different. Where Erin's eyes conveyed openness, loyalty, and serenity, Tina's eyes conveyed insincerity, slyness, and superficiality. They may look somewhat alike but the similarity stopped there.' They were total opposites. Carrie chuckled to herself as she likened them to animals. 'A fox and a dear.' Thought Carrie. Without thought she reached for the phone and tapped out a number. On the fourth ring she started to hang up, but Erin's sweet melodious voice sounded on the other end.


"Hi, baby. Did I wake you?" There was silence on the other end. ", you all right?"

"Yeah...No. No I'm not all right." She took a deep breath "But I'm glad you called." She said sadly.

"What's the matter?" Carrie sat forward as her heart began to speed up.

Erin tried to keep her composure. "When I...When." And then she lost it. She began to sob into the phone. "Oh Carrie!"

Something was wrong. Something was very wrong! Jumping to her feet Carrie spoke loudly "Erin I'm on my way!"

"No, no don't Carrie. (Sniff) I'll be all right."

"I'll be there as fast as I can, baby!" she hung up the phone, not waiting for a response from Erin. Shutting off the stereo she grabbed her keys and her jacket and raced down the back stairs, forgoing the elevator.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

What was normally a 45 minutes drive had Carrie taking the wooden stairs, two at a time and knocking at Erin's door, in only 27minutes. As soon as the door opened, she grabbed Erin tightly to her, whispering soft words of comfort, and lightly kissing her hair. Erin had managed to compose herself and tidy up in her anticipation of Carrie's visit. But now, as she felt the strength of Carrie's secure arms, she was about to lose it, again. A noise behind them, in the hall, startled them both and Carrie turned abruptly, only to look straight into the menacing eyes of Erin's neighbor, Lucille.

"Open the door, Dan!" Lucille commanded turning her back on them, while cradling their two children protectively to her side.

Carrie stood firm, planting herself defensively between Erin and the obviously piqued Lucille. "Are they your problem?" She said loudly.

"Nooo!" Whispered Erin grabbing Carrie's arm and dragging her stiff body into her apartment. "Get in here before you make things worst!" She slammed the door just as Lucille was turning back around at the commotion.

Leaning her back against the door she closed her eyes, trying to compose herself. She ran her hand through her hair, saying, "Well, not really, but kind of."

"I don't understand." Carrie stared at her in disbelief. The women had just looked at them as if they were the scum of the earth and coddled her children to her as if she and Erin were contagious!

Taking a deep breath Erin looked into piercing blue eyes. Carrie looked furious and her fists were still balled tightly. She was the picture of rage but for some odd reason Erin was not afraid. Taking a step forward, Erin grabbed the aforementioned hands and squeezed them lovingly. "Relax sweetheart." She whispered, still looking up into Carrie's eyes. "Relax."

Letting out a breath she did not know she was holding, Carrie tried to relax. She took Erin's hands into hers and pulled her into an embrace. They stood like that for minutes, simply soaking up the comfort they each provided for one another.

Once Erin felt Carrie's body mellow out, she gently pulled back to look at her eyes. The love was there again and she smiled. "I'm glad you're here."

"I'm glad to be here." She said back. Looking into Erin's eyes made her weak in the knees and an all too familiar stirring was building in her insides. But that was not what she was there for. 'I have to ignore those sexy green eyes and concentrate!' she reminded herself. "Now what's going on, Erin. Is she the problem or isn't she?"

"She knows about us, yeah, but I have bigger problems." Erin closed her eyes and shook her head as the impact of Lucille's loose tongue hit her again. "She told my father about us."

"She what!?!" Carrie said in disbelief. "She told your father!" Her eyes became dark again. "Did you know she was going to tell him?"

Erin furrowed her brows. "No! I didn't even know she knew."

"You mean to tell me she knew just from seeing me with you last night?"

"That and the fact that she spotted your jag on her way to work. I guess she just put two and two together."

"Humpf. That old bag. She needs to mind her business!"

Erin started to defend Lucille but after further thought, she knew Carrie was right. Lucille had no right to run to her father with that information, especially sense she hadn't talked to her first. They were supposed to be friends. Friends don't rat each other out. A single tear slid slowly down her cheek.

Quietly, Carrie asked, "I take it your father isn't going to take this too well?"

Erin chuckled lightly. "To say the least. He left me a message, telling me to call him. He didn't sound happy, that's for sure."

Carrie winced. She had intended to come to Erin's rescue and solve her problem, but this problem was out of her league. She had no frame of reference. Telling her parents was a piece of cake. In fact she hadn't really even told Melinda and Joan that she was a Lesbian. She had just showed up with Tina one weekend and introduced her as her girlfriend and that was that. No one seemed surprised and no one asked any questions. It was as if it was as natural as anything. "I don't know what to tell you Erin. I...I wish I did."

Erin smiled with tear stained cheeks. She leaned her head against Carrie's chest and embraced her. She shivered when she felt strong warm arms wrap around her. Sniffing she closed her eyes and savored the comfort. "That's all right. I'm just glad you're here. It's my problem and I have to face it. It's not like I wasn't going to have to tell him anyway. I...I just wanted to tell him my way...when I was ready."

Carrie tightened her hold and kissed the top of her head, still searching for words to comfort her.

"Maybe it's better this way." Erin continued. "At least I know it won't kill him, and he is still willing to talk to me."

"And maybe he'll understand." Carrie said softly. "After all, you are his only daughter and I'm sure he loves you very much."

Erin looked up again, not letting go of the waist she was holding. She wanted to say 'I love you', instead she said "Make love to me. I need you".

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Feeling drained but satiated Carrie pulled Erin closer to her. She lightly brushed Erin's hair away from her face and smiled as her nose twitched in response. In her sleep she looked so innocent and young. At that moment Carrie realized that she didn't know Erin's age. Was she older than she was or younger? It didn't matter to her, but shouldn't lovers know these things about each other?

With crinkled eyebrows she leaned in on her elbow and studied Erin's sleeping face. She smiled as her eyes studied her features, her dainty nose, her full sensuous lips, her chubby cheeks and the emerald green eyes that were hidden behind long eye lashes that were now splayed tenderly upon her cheeks. Erin wasn't beautiful, but she had a cuteness that Carrie found irresistible. Carrie leaned over kissing her lightly on the nose and then lay back with her hands clasped tightly behind her head. She stared at the ceiling not feeling sleepy at all.

Their lovemaking had been slow and tender, and they had both surrendered to it thoroughly. Erin had surprised her again with her knowledge of what feels good. From day one she had performed like she knew exactly what to do and how to do it. 'For someone who is new at this,' Carrie thought, '...she sure is knowledgeable.' She made a mental note to ask her about that.

Becoming restless, she rolled to her side, spooning Erin's sleeping form. Slowly she snaked an arm across her waist and reached up to tenderly clasp Erin's breast, and then snuggled her nose into her hair as she closed her eyes. She loved the way Erin's hair smelled, clean and fresh. Subconsciously she took a deep breath and let it out contentedly and smiled. This was heaven. This was home. She could stay like this forever. The last time she had felt this good, or this light, was when she was a teenager. Her Father had died months before and Joan had come to live with them. Joan had brought so much happiness and love into their household.

Abruptly her eyes popped open and her body stiffened as she had a thought, 'I really am in love!'. There was a time when she couldn't imagine being that vulnerable to anyone, again. But here she was snuggled up to Erin thinking 'I'm in love.' With love came the likelihood of pain, and was she ready for that? Suddenly she couldn't breath. Carrie slowly detached herself from Erin and made a silent dash out of the bedroom.

In a half-awake sleep, Erin reached out for her lover. She was surprised to find that she was alone. In desperation she quickly sat up and turned on the night-light. In front of the closet Carrie was kneeling on the floor sorting through their pile of clothes.

"You're leaving?" Erin asked, wiping the sleep from her eyes.

Finding her shirt, Carrie stood up clad only in her jeans and sports bra. She walked to Erin's side of the bed and nudged her over so that she could sit on the edge. "I've got to make a run. There's some...loose ends I have to tie up."

Erin looked at the alarm clock, which read 11:48, in blazing red numbers. "This time of night?"

Carrie eyed the clock too, then sighed as she braced herself to say what exactly was on her mind. Turning to face Erin directly she took her hands into hers and kissed her lightly on the forehead. "I was laying here falling asleep and I got to thinking. I've got to tell you Erin, this thing between us scares me." Carrie saw the twitch of pain in Erin's eyes and quickly added, "But I'm willing...I want to give it a try. And, if you and I are going to have any kind of chance, I need to tie up some loose ends...There are just some things that I've got to put closure to."

"You mean, Tina?" Erin asked softly.


"Do you still love her?" Erin asked even more softly.

Carrie looked away. At that moment she didn't know how she felt. The only thing she was sure of was that she had to put closure to her relationship with Tina and the only way she was going to do that was to confront her and find out why she had forsaken her in such a cruel way.

She looked back at Erin with sincerity, hoping she would understand what she was about to say. "I don't know. I don't know how things stand between her and I." She shifted nervously, trying to collect her thoughts. "These last few days have been wonderful for me. I really like being with you Erin. I'm starting to feel things that I had never thought I would allow myself to feel again. I feel like it''s right between us and I don't want to lose this. I want to be with you completely and I can't do that if I still have this old obsession hanging over my head. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Erin shook her head in the positive. "But, now?" She tried her best to not sound like she was whining. The thought of Carrie alone with Tina scared her. "It's almost midnight."

Carrie stood to put her shirt on. "If I don't do it now Erin, I..." Teary green eyes beckoned to her. Suddenly she felt a surge of love transpire. She went to her knees and leaned on the bed. "I have to do it now. It can't wait...We can't wait." She said these last words in almost a whisper.

Erin grabbed Carrie about the shoulders and hugged her fiercely. She trembled as Carrie returned the hug. They parted and kissed with just as much force. Their tears mingling as their tongues entwined.

"I love you!" Erin whispered, and for the first time Carrie echoed her sentiments. "I love you, too!"

Erin's heart soared. "Will you come back? I mean afterwards, will you come back here?"


Wiping her eyes, Erin tried to give her lover a smile. "Please, please come back. I need you."

"I will. It won't take me long, baby. I just want to get this over with." Carrie kissed Erin again, then stood, and buttoned her shirt. She smiled down at Erin. "Come on and lock the door behind me."

Obeying, Erin slipped out of bed and put on her robe. They walked hand in hand to the door. Before she opened the door, Erin reached up and pecked Carrie on the cheek, then reluctantly turned the locks. "Be careful and hurry back."

"I will." Carrie bent and kissed her lightly on the lips. "I'm on my bike tonight. It won't take me any time. Lock the door." After hearing the locks turn Carrie swiftly made her way down the stairs.

Erin stood at the window and watched as Carrie exited the building. Her bike was parked on the pavement next to the stoop. Erin waited as Carrie snapped on her helmet then expertly started up the motorcycle. The loud noise filtered up to Erin and her heart soared as Carrie revved the engine. At that moment she knew without a doubt that Carrie was what she wanted. She had waited a lifetime and she wasn't going to lose her - no matter what. As she stood there, she recited silent prayers, and watched her heart ride away, until the taillights were too small to be seen anymore.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Chapter Ten

Carrie balled her fist as she dug them deep into the pockets of her bomber jacket. She could feel the eyes of the guy at the front desk watching her, but she stared straight ahead, as she made a purposeful stride towards the elevators. He cleared his throat as if he was going to say something, but the glare she gave him made him think twice. Instead he dropped his head and busied himself with the papers in front of him. Once she reached the elevators, she hit the up arrow and tried to relax. The elevator she was in front of opened promptly and she stepped forward pushing the number eight.

"Relax Carrie." She mumbled to herself. "Just relax. You came to get answers and nothing more." She began to breathe deliberately so she could calm herself. But the pounding of her heart in her ears was making it difficult. "Breath!" There was a dull ding as the doors opened to the eighth floor. Slowly she stepped out and sighed. This was it. Wiping the dampness from her forehead she noticed the sign with an arrow pointing right and displaying the numbers '800 - 815'. Clinching her jaw she strolled down the hall with trepidation.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Tina almost fell as she jumped up at the knock on the door. 'About fucking time!' she thought to herself tying the sash of her robe. "Coming!" Undoing the locks, she swung the door open and blinked in shock. "Ca...Catherine?"

"You said you wanted to talk?"

Quickly finding her composure Tina grabbed her by the arm and pulled her in past her. "Of course. Come in." She glanced both ways down the hall before stepping back and locking the door. Turning she looked at Carrie and smiled as she stood tall and strong in the center of her hotel room. Her hair slightly askew from wearing her helmet, her skin still glowing with a fine sheen of perspiration, her arms hung at the sides of her firm athletic form, and her eyes - blazing with an intensity that brought instant pangs of need to Tina's center. That was her Carrie, she thought, the smile deepening across her face.

"Catherine, I'm so glad you're here." She said softly walking towards the couch. "Please have a seat. Can I get you anything?" She gestured to the wet bar. "I'm fully stocked. Well, there's no more Scotch of course. But I have wine...and beer?"

Carrie looked at her and rolled her eyes. She glanced around the room taking in it's disheveled looked. It was a suite. Clothes were everywhere, along with full ashtrays, empty liquor bottles and a trash can overflowing with fast food wrappers. The double doors leading to the bedroom were wide open and she could here the television playing and could see the unmade bed. Feeling sorry for the cleaning staff, she shook her head in disgust. Tina always was a slob. Sighing loudly she looked back at Tina, who nervously ran a hand through her hair feeling self conscious under the scrutiny. "You said you wanted to talk Tina. I'm here. Let's talk."

Tina's deep green eyes drifted over Carrie's form. 'My God, she is beautiful!' Not for the first time, Tina cursed herself for leaving Carrie in the first place. "Same old Catherine." Tina chuckled lightly. "Well sit down, will ya'?" She pushed some clothes and a small stack of magazines to the floor to make room for Carrie to join her, on the couch.

Instead, Carrie walked to the table, brushed crumbs from the seat of a chair, and sat down.

Tina smiled at her. "You look good Catherine. You've been taking care of yourself." Carrie stared at her. Nervously, Tina pulled cigarettes from the pack lying on the table in front of her. It was the same old Catherine, but there was something different about her. She had an edge that hadn't been there before. It was a little unnerving to say the least. Had Catherine grown up while she was gone? Tina took a breath from the cigarette. This was going to be harder than she thought. "Want one." Carrie sighed and shook her head, no. "Gave it up, did you?"

"Tina why are you here? What do you want?"

Letting out another breath, Tina eyed her sternly. "You know the answer to both of those questions!" Blue locked on to green. Through the haze of smoke Tina continued softly, "It's you, Catherine. It has always been you."

Breaking the stare Carrie stood abruptly and began to pace. "Why did you leave me?!"

Shaking her head, and taking another drag of the cigarette, Tina sighed loudly. 'Sometimes Catherine could be so thick!' "You know I had no choice. You know I had to save my career...We've been through this!"

Carrie stopped her pacing and stared at Tina with fierce eyes. "Stop your bullshit! I want the truth, Tina! Why did you leave me!" Why did you chose your career over me!" she was shaking with fury. "You were supposed to love me! How could you just through me away like that! How could you! I want to know! ...I want to hear you say it!"

Tina stood too, wrapping her robe tighter. She brushed a shaky hand through her hair. "Say what! That I'm sorry! Okay, I have already said it a thousand times, Catherine. I'm sorry! I'm sorry!"

The silence was deafening, as each stared at the other with scenes from their past flashing in their minds. Tina recalling the many times that they spent making up after a shouting match. Catherine would be relentless in their love making, wild and passionate. She was hoping that this ended the same way.

Carrie was reliving the hurt she felt when she showed up in Los Angeles on Tina's wedding day and Tina had looked her straight in the eye and told her to get out before she had her new husband threw her out! She spoke softly, "I want to hear you say it. I want to hear you say you didn't love me...that you never loved me! ...that for whatever sick twisted reason you had, just used me..."

"Catherine, No! That's not true!" She flung her arms haphazardly around Carrie's neck. Summoning tears, she leaned into Carrie desperately. "Please Catherine, please. I know I made a mistake. I know I hurt you. But I have always loved you!" Feeling the strength of her body and the taut muscles just below the thin layer of clothing, Tina was aroused. She pressed herself tighter against Carrie's thigh, receiving the tingle, to her groin, she sought. "I have always loved you darling. From the first moment I saw you, I knew you were the one...the other half of my soul...the yin to my yang. It has always been you!" She softly placed butterfly kisses on Carrie's neck and jaw.

Recognizing the locution from the stage play that Tina starred in when they first met, Carrie closed her eyes in disgust. At that moment she knew the real Tina. She was a liar! A sick, compulsive, and heartless, liar. She would never get the truth from this creature, she was incapable of telling the truth. At that moment Carrie felt tired, spent. What had she seen in her? Her rage receded. Why was she here when she could be home in bed with Erin...safely in bed with Erin.

Becoming aware of Tina pressing her body against hers, Carrie's features contorted to a scowl. 'What had I seen in her!...She doesn't even smell right!' She went to dislodge Tina's arms from around her neck, when Tina grabbed her hand, and placed it inside her robe, against her folds. Carrie could feel the wetness of desire. "You feel that, Catherine? How could you say that I don't love you...that I don't want you?"

Carrie slowly withdrew her hand wiping it on the robe. "I don't want you. I have someone else. And unlike you, I don't cheat!"

Tina jumped back, as if slapped by Carrie's words. Her green eyes flashed angrily. "You mean that bleached blonde you had with you the other night? Oh, I've heard of your sexual exploits since I'd left - screwing every Model that walks through your door!" The thought of Carrie with someone else, surprisingly made her jealous. She stepped back into Carrie's face. "But, you can't replace me don't need to. I'm back!"

Carrie pushed her aside and stepped around her. "Like I said, I have someone else. And no she didn't replace you. She's not a liar...she can be trusted!" Carrie headed for the door.

Now Tina was furious. "Oh, you think so!" Tina shouted to Carrie's back. "Why don't you ask her who sent her to you!"

Carrie stopped just as she was opening the door, and closed it back. She turned towards Tina and asked, "What are you talking about?"

Tina calmed herself as she realized she might have said too much. Then an idea popped in her head. She could use this to her advantage. "I...I didn't want to have to tell you this, but...but you are being set up."

Carrie's eyes grew dark again and she hesitated before she made her way back over to Tina. Grabbing her firmly by the arm she said, "What the hell are you talking about!?"

"It's not me!" Carrie was hurting her arm. She pulled violently away from her and rubbed it. "I don't have anything to do with it. It's...Lars. He's paying her to come between you and Jean."

"What?!" Carrie paced away from her. Running both hands through her hair, she exhaled loudly. 'What the hell was going on!' "You're lying!" she shouted. Walking up closely on Tina, she stood over her menacingly. "Why are you doing this!"

Tina tried to move away from her but Carrie caught her and held her where she stood. "I'm not lying!" Tina shouted back. "Lars hired her to seduce you and get you away from Jean!" she tried to calm herself but Carrie's grasp was hurting her arms again, bringing tears to her eyes. She knew she would have bruises there in the morning. "That's why I'm here Catherine. I came to warn you..." She looked at Carrie with tear soaked eyes, and said sincerely, "No that's not true. I came to take you away from all this. To get you out of this town."

Carrie stepped back, dropping Tina's arms. 'This was ludicrous...insane! Erin working for Lars! No!' She stared at Tina with incredulity.

"Come to L.A. with me. We could be happy there." Tina watched the maelstrom of emotions that was crossing Carrie's face. She could see the confusion, the hurt. "Catherine, just you and me - no one else. Just like you wanted it." Approaching Carrie slowly, she was about to put a hand on her arm when Carrie flinched away from her. "I've got a chance for a movie out there. It's a done deal. We'll be happy, Catherine. Just you and me", she said softly.

Carrie blinked at the words 'You and me'. She didn't want it to be with Tina, she wanted Erin. 'Erin...' she thought to herself. 'With Lars?!...But why?' she thought 'Why would Erin want to hurt her?' Out loud she said, "Why would Lars do this?"

Wiping her eyes, she looked at Carrie in amazement. 'Catherine really could be thick!' "He hates you, Catherine! He has always been jealous of your relationship with have to know this."

"But...but to go to this length. To hire someone!"

Tina shook her head. "You are so gullible." Taking the upper hand, Tina smiled stealthily. "How did you meet her. Was it by accident? Some chance meeting in a place that you frequent...and her just happening to show up out of the blue? Did the two of you make love on the first night? Was she shy, bashful... all if butter would melt in her mouth...and flashing those green eyes? ...eyes that remind you of me?"

"Shut up!" Carrie screamed.

Tina didn't heed. Instead, she laid it on thicker. "...And did she profess her undying love to you...after just one encounter? ...telling you to trust her? believe in her.

"You don't know what you're talking about! You're lying! Just like you always do!" Carrie was enraged. She wanted to strikeout at something...anything! All she could see was red. Her heart was beating fast. Her hands were clinched tight. Tears were streaming from her eyes. There was an explosion of some kind. What, she didn't know. She looked down and saw Tina sitting on the floor, holding the side of her face. She blinked hard trying to clear the haze from her eyes. She had to get out of there. She had to get air! She headed for the door. Tina was saying something but she didn't know what. She kept moving down the hall. She had to get out of there. A door closed softly as she passed it. 'Where was the elevator!'

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Steven threw his tan leather trench coat to the chair as he raced to pick up his ringing telephone. "Hello?" he said breathlessly.

"Steven. You're finally home!"

Rolling his eyes to the ceiling he reached and kicked his front door closed and flicked a switch to illuminate the room. "Yes, Lars. I'm finally home. And how was your day?"

Lars sighed. He had been trying to reach Steven all day. Leaving a number of messages on his cell phone as well as one at the studio. "I have had a lousy day. Where have you been? I need you here. You have a bitch with you?"

Steven ignored his last question. To Lars all women were bitches or whores. Steven kept up his dating women because it was good for his image, and Lars knew this. "I went down to Philly, to cover the Nicks - Sixers' game. Didn't you watch the broadcast?"

"No. You didn't tell me you were doing that game. You know I only watch if I know you are going to be calling it."

"Sorry. I thought I told you. So, what's been happening? Did Jean show up for work?"

"Yeah...acting as if nothing happened...Carrie sure has her head screwed up."

"I meant to call Carrie today but I didn't get a chance to. I want to know what's going on."

"Tsk...she's the least of my problems right now."

"What do you mean?" Steven had made himself a drink and settled in his favorite chair.

"Steven, who else knows about Rosa Hernandez?"

Steven almost choked when he heard the name. "Rosa Hernandez!?"


"Well, ah...I don't know! I...I didn't tell anyone.

"Are you sure?" Lars' voice was accusatory.

He repeated sternly. "I didn't tell anyone!"

"Not even Tina Thomas?"

"No! Why would I tell her? How could I tell her? I don't even know where she lives."

"Well she knows."

"How? How do you know she knows?"

"She's New York. She called me to tell me she knows." Lars paused to let that sink in. "I want to know how she knows, Steven."

"I didn't tell her! I don't know how she knows." Steven spoke indignantly. Lars should know he could trust him.

After a sigh and a long pause, Lars spoke softly. "What are you doing there, when I need you here?"

"I didn't know what you had on for tonight. I didn't want to get in the way."

"You're never in the way."

"Where's your house guest? Tire of him already?"

Lars laughed lightly. Steven could be such a wuss. "No, I sent him on an errand. Get over here before I change my mind."

Smiling into the receiver, Steven spoke shyly. "It's going to take me a while. I have to shower...Get some of this travel grime off of me."

"Shower here. I needed you hours ago."

"See you soon." With that, Steven hit the end button and threw the cell phone to the couch. He would need to take a suit with him, for work tomorrow.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Upon entering her apartment by way of the back metal stairs, Carrie quickly noticed the mess she left on the floor from earlier when she had to abruptly leave to help Erin. She went to it, placing the phone back on the end table, picking up the ashtray and wineglass, and tucking the half-filled wine bottle under her arm. She went to the kitchen and unloaded her burden, putting the wine in the refrigerator, emptying the ashtray, and placing it along with the wineglass in the sink. She turned on the faucet and began to run water into everything, watching them overflow.

She didn't know how long she had been standing there watching the water, but she then turned off the water and placed them in the dishwasher. Taking the sponge she began to wipe around the sink, and then the counter top. Suddenly she stopped and grasped the edge of the countertop tightly. "Erin..." she whispered. With white knuckles she began to sob silently and slowly slid to the floor. Leaning her body against the coolness of the cabinets, she continued to sob and mourned the lost of a love she thought would be forever.

Fifteen minutes later she found herself sitting on the couch dialing her Mother's number.

"Hello?" Joan's deep melodious voice sounded from the other end.

"Hi, Joan. It's me."

"Hey, sweetheart. How are you doing? We've all been worried about you. You okay?"

Carrie sighed. "Yeah, I guess so. Mom around?" she didn't want to lay her burden on Joan. She knew that Joan loved her and she thought the world of Joan. But she also knew that Joan was lousy at sensitive chats and knew it would only make her uncomfortable. Besides, Joan was her hero and she didn't want her hero to see her as emotional or weak.

"Well...actually, no. She's supposed to be in the city with you. You haven't heard from her?"

"No. What's she doing here?"

Joan didn't want to tell Carrie that Melinda was aware of Tina being in New York and went there to confront her. "Um...I think she had some business to take care. You know what? She probably took a room at the Milford. You know how she loves that hotel.

Carrie didn't fall for it. "Business? And you didn't come with her. Come on Joan, why is she in New York?"

After a pause, Joan came clean. "I think she went to see Tina."

"Tina! Why? How did she know..."

"Val was here today and told us about the confrontation at the restaurant. I think your mother has some unfinished business with your Ex."

"Oh, boy! Just what I need. When is she going to learn that she can't keep fighting my battles?"

"Carrie, when Tina...did what she did, she didn't just do it to you. She did it to all of us who trusted her and took her into the family as one of our own."

"I know...I know."

"And, I think your mother was pretty hurt about that. You know she doesn't take too kindly to people who put one over on her. I think she's been waiting for this opportunity for quite a while."

"I know Joan. It's just that Tina can be so cruel. I can just imagine the things she's telling her."

"Don't worry about it. Your mother always did have her suspicions about her. She's not going to fall for her lies again."

They sighed together, each lost in their own thoughts.

"Well, I'll let you get to bed. I'll try to catch up with her tomorrow." Carrie finally said.

"Yeah, that will be good. She's been worried about you. It will do her good to know you're okay."

"All right, talk to you later then."


Carrie hung up the phone and slid back on the couch. She didn't know why, but for some reason she felt better. She now despised Tina and was happy that her mother was going over there to straighten her out. If Tina had ever shown any fear it was towards her mother. She smiled to herself hoping Melinda gave it to her with both barrels.

She yawned and closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the couch. In the pitch black of her mind the image of Erin appeared, and she whispered, "Erin...Why?"

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Erin looked out at the dark barren streets below for the fifth time since Carrie left. It was 2:15 and Carrie had not returned. 'Where is she?' Erin thought. When Carrie left she had found it hard to sleep, worrying about her alone with Tina. So, instead she pulled out the journals she had bought home with her from the restaurant and continued to try and balance the books. It had proved to be a difficult task, with half of her mind thinking about Carrie and what she was doing.

And now here she was again, staring out the window. She pictured Carrie throwing her leg over the seat of her motorcycle and strapping on her helmet. 'She had!' Erin thought. Suddenly a chill ran through her. 'Suppose she had an accident?' Quickly shaking her head she put that thought out of her mind. She didn't need to worry about that on top of all her other worries. 'Maybe she thought it was too late and went home instead.' She went to the phone and began to dial then abruptly hung it up. 'Suppose she didn't. Suppose she was still with Tina. Suppose Tina persuaded her to spend the night with her.' Another chill ran through her body. 'No! No! She would never do that to me!' She walked to the window again and looked out. A tiny tear leaked from her eye and she violently wiped it away.

Lorcan pressed a wet nose to the back of her calf, and she looked down at her faithful friend. "I know Lorcan. There's a perfectly good reason for her not being here. We just have to be patient." Absentmindedly, she reached down and patted him on the head, then looked out into the street, again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Erin awoke to the telephone ringing and Lorcan barking at the noise that interrupted his sleep. She stretched languidly feeling the stiffness that resulted from sleeping on the couch. Recovering she stepped to the phone and lifted the receiver. "Hello?"

"Hey baby girl. Don't tell me I woke you?"

"Hi daddy. Yeah you did. What time is it?"

"It's 7:30. I thought you would be about ready to leave for work?"

"I'm not going in today. I um...promised a friend I would help her with the books of her business." With the thought of Carrie, Erin glanced around the apartment as if she would find her there.

" that what you were doing yesterday, too? I was trying to get a hold of you and I know you weren't at work."

"Yes, I was." Erin shifted nervously. She wasn't telling a total lie. She worked with the books that evening.

"Erin...I talked to Lucille yesterday, and...well, we need to talk."

"I know, daddy."

"But I don't want to do it over the phone. Could you come home today?"

"Well, daddy I did promise my friend..."

"I mean later, after you finish. Maybe you could come around for dinner? I'll make a pot of stew."

"Yes, okay. That sounds fine...I miss your stew."

"Good! Then I'll see you tonight, say around 5:00?"

Erin agreed and quickly ended the phone call, at Lorcan's insistence. She glanced around the living room again. Carrie had not returned, like she had promised. All the possible reasons why that she had contemplated earlier, had flooded her mind. She wanted to cry. 'How could she sleep with that bitch! ...Let her use her again!' As he watched his master in deep thought, Lorcan decided to dance around a little. He understood that Erin had some kind of problem, but his bladder was full and his patience was wearing thin. "Ruff! Ruff!" he barked loudly to get her attention.

"Sorry, boy. Let me put some clothes on." She turned and went into the bedroom.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jean walked into the restaurant at 9:00 on the dot. She was surprised to find that the door was unlocked, the lights were on, and the floor looked as if it had been mopped and waxed. She had made plans to meet Carrie here this morning to finish making logistic decisions and truly thought she would be the first one there. "Hello?" she sang out.

A curly head popped up from behind the bar and beamed a huge smile in here direction. It was Mavis, the morning manager. Mavis Singleton was a stout woman, in her early forties, with deep brown eyes. She was rather 'chesty' for her short stature, but her wide hips more than made up for the weight distribution. She had been with the restaurant for sixteen years and praying that the two women would keep her on for another sixteen. She loved her job and the responsibilities that went along with it. The previous owner, old man Mergiotti, had placed a lot of trust in her, and had allowed her to manage the place in her own way. She was now eager to gain the trust of her new owners so that she could achieve the same autonomy.

Smiling back, Jean walked towards her. "Wow you're here already? We don't open until 11:00."

"The morning crew comes in at 8:00 every day to prep for the day. Because we close so late, the evening crew doesn't get the chance to prep for the next day. There's a lot to do before we open."

"I see." Jean said, shaking her head in the affirmative. She liked Mavis and her motherly demeanor. She had spoke up yesterday for her crew but had been very helpful in keeping them calmed and open minded. Jean was hoping that Mavis would be one of the ones to stay on. "So, who else is here?"

"Mike, Tony, Jimmy and Karen, our head chef. David, who tends the bar, won't be in until around 10:00, along with Harry, our second chef. The waiting crew will show up about 10:30, in time for opening." She ended with a smile, finding Jean attractive and easy to talk to, unlike the other owner, who was perhaps even more attractive, but who seamed to be cold and distance. "Oh yeah...," she continued. "Your partner is here, in the back office."

Jean's eyes lit up with surprise. Even Carrie was here before her. And here she thought she was ahead of the game. Smiling she thanked Mavis for her assistance and turned towards the office.

"Morning." Shouted Jean, as she entered the office. She looked around the room and was pleased when she didn't see Erin anywhere. "You're here awfully early. What's up?"

Carrie looked up at her friend who had just entered the room, and smiled wearily. She was fatigued, having not slept well. She had played the events of her confrontation with Tina over and over again in her head. She didn't know what to believe or who to trust. Perhaps Tina had been right. Maybe she did need to leave. Go some place where she could start her life over. She was starting to hate New York. Jean's voice brought her out of her musings.

"Hey, are you all right?" Jean was leaning over the desk, studying her face intently.

Rubbing her eyes with her palms, Carrie sighed loudly. "I'm fine, fine. Just didn't get much sleep last night."

Jean seemed to accept her answer and sat in the chair in the corner. "How's everything going with the books? You and Erin able to make sense of them yet?" At the mention of Erin's name, Carrie blanched and Jean picked up on it. "Everything all right between you two? Don't tell me the honeymoon is already over."

"I don't know." Said Carrie, dejectedly. "I...I just don't know."

Jean wanted to smile, but didn't. This was good news. She hadn't liked the way that Carrie took to her and was glad that things were going back to normal. "Well, I could have told you that wasn't going to last."

With an interrogative look, Carrie cocked her brow. "What do you mean by that?"

"I...I just thought," Jean stumbled over her words thinking she may have said too much. She then gathered her nerves and decided to lay it all out. "Come on Carrie. She's not your type." Carrie was staring at her. "I mean, it's not like she's ugly or anything but just a few months ago you were sleeping with Tamara...the 'super model' Tamara!" She watched as Carrie continued to stare at her. "Erin is cute but face it, she is not your usual. You can do a lot better." Carrie now turned her eyes away from her. Maybe she was getting through to her. "I never liked her...the way she was all over you all the time. She's the girl next door. The kind that will tie you down."

"What's wrong with that?" Carrie asked tersely. "Maybe that's what I'm looking for. You got yourself tied down!"

"And don't I know it. I'm paying for my bad judgment everyday...literally!" Jean's thoughts turned to the trip with Sonny to the jewelers yesterday. It had really set her back.

They sat in companionable silence, each in her own thoughts.

Finally Carrie asked, "Why do you not want to see me happy with someone?"

Jean looked at her in surprise. "It's not that I don't want to see you happy. It's just that I don't want to see you hurt. Carrie, you are my best friend. I love you!"

"If that's so then why won't you tell me the real reason you don't like Erin?"

Jean hung her head. She had said too much. "I...I just. I don't know. She just makes me feel..."

"Jealous?" Carrie asked, waiting for a reaction.

"Yeah," said Jean, quietly. "She makes me jealous."

"And you don't think I get jealous. You think it didn't hurt to hear that you moved Sonny in with you...And my best friend didn't even tell me about it.

Jean looked up with furrowed brows. "I did tell you...didn't I?"

"No, we've never discussed it. Of course when you first got with Sonny, we didn't discuss much of anything. You were so into her... But, I let you be, Jean. I didn't try to interfere. I was happy for you. Just like every other time you found someone you thought was special. Why can't you do that for me?"

Jean's eyes grew watery. Carrie looked hurt, and she had caused it. She had been acting irrationally in her feelings for Carrie. Carrie didn't love her the way she wanted her to, and she knew that. It was selfish of her to try and stop Carrie from finding someone to love. "Carrie, I'm sorry. I...I didn't mean to cause you...pain. It's just that, I love you so much. I don't ever want to see you go through what you went through with Tina, again, ever."

"And I don't ever want to go through that again. But if I do, it's my choice. I have the right to take my life in any direction that I see fit."

"I know, I know, and you're right. I shouldn't have interfered. I'm sorry Carrie."

Carrie watched Jean hang her head and she felt for her. She wasn't angry because she knew that her friend was not acting out of malice. She loved her too. And Jean hadn't done anything that she hadn't allowed her to do. "Don't apologize. You only said the things you said because you love me...just as much as I love you." Carrie threw her pen to the desktop in frustration. She was tired. Not only physically, but mentally. "Besides you might have been justified in doubting Erin."

Jean looked up. "What?"

Carrie sighed loudly again. "I went to see Tina last night."

Both eyebrows shot up in surprise. "What?...Why?"

"I had to. I wanted to build a relationship with Erin and couldn't do that without finishing things between Tina and I."

"How did it go?"

"Not good." Carrie stood. She started to feel restless. "She said some things, more lies, you know, her usual." She stopped her pacing and stood before Jean. "But she also told me something about Erin."

"Erin? She knows, Erin?"

"No, not really. But it seems that Lars does." Carrie watched the confusion cloud Jean's face. "She said that Lars hired Erin to come into my life to break our friendship up."

"What!" At that revelation she shot up next to Carrie. "Oh, please! You don't believe that do you?" She looked at Carrie, incredulously. Her voice was booming. "Carrie, she's lying! Lars might be a lot of things but he would never stoop that low! Is she out of her mind making an accusation like that? She's bound to be found out. Did you ask Erin about this?"

Carrie shook her head, and turned away from Jean. "No, I haven't had the chance."

"Well then just ask her, and I bet she's never even met Lars before." Seeing the turmoil in Carrie's eyes, she quieted down. "Carrie you can't be believing that bitch. I mean I've only been around Erin a few times but I can tell, she's not like that. She just isn't the type!"

Carrie nodded her head as Jean echoed her thoughts. "You're right, she isn't. I don't know what I was thinking. She would never do anything like that." Relief was written all over her face.

Jean smiled brightly. "Is that what's been bothering you? Some stupid lies that Tina made up?"

Carrie gave a small smile back at her. "Jean this thing has been ripping me up inside."

"Why do you always fall for Tina's bullshit?"

"I don't know." Carrie shook her head in disgust. "Last night it seemed so plausible. I like Erin a lot but I don't know her that well. If you could of have heard some of the things Tina was just fit. It seemed so likely...yet it didn't."

"You should know Tina by now. You can't believe a word that comes out of her mouth."

"She made me so angry, Jean." Carrie was reliving the episode and looked up at Jean with tears in her eyes. "Jean I hit her...I just hauled off and hit her. She made me so mad!"

"You hit her? Whoo hoo! About time!" Jean clapped her hands in excitement. "Did it make you fell better?"

Carrie had to smile at her friend's antics. "No, silly, it didn't. I could have really hurt her. I hate her but I don't want to physically hurt her. She just got me so angry."

"Well that's the best news I've heard all day..." She looked at her watch. "And it's only 10:00. You made my day. I just wish I had been there to see it."

"See what?" Sonny said from the doorway. She was dressed in a black slip dress and heels, looking every bit the hostess of an exclusive, expensive restaurant.

"Hey, baby..." said Jean moving to her. She looked at her from head to toe and smiled in approval. Sonny was sexy when she wanted to be. "You look good baby." She finished, kissing her soundly on the lips.

"Hi Sonny." Carrie said smiling. Sonny did look nice. She had to admit if Jean wasn't her best friend, she would have wanted her in her bed, at least for one night. "You look nice. On your way to a photo session?"

"No. I'm here to start work." She said, smiling heavily at Jean. Last night Jean had told her she could play hostess and manage the restaurant if she wanted too. She knew Jean hadn't mentioned it to Carrie because she also knew that Jean didn't think she was going to take her up on it. Jean had only offered it to her because she was whining about Erin having a role with the business and she was being left out. Jean meant it as a concession so that they could get on with their lovemaking, she never thought she would really want to go to work.

At Carrie's arched eyebrow, Jean quickly turned Sonny around. "Yeah, um...okay baby. Go and get to know the place. Let me finish up with Carrie and I'll be right out." Turning back to Carrie, she saw that the eyebrow was still arched. She shrugged. "Um...I was going to tell you about that."


"I was, seriously."

Carrie started to laugh. Jean looked cute trying to find the words to get herself out of this one. She decided to let her off the hook. "It's okay, Jean. You don't have to explain yourself to me. It's your restaurant, hire who you like. But, I must admit, I never thought of Sonny as a working girl. Are you sure about this?"

"I don't know." She shook her head. "I never thought I would see it either. I just kind of offered it to her to shut her up! I never thought she would take it seriously."

"Well, it looks like she did. So, you had better get out there and show her the ropes. It's almost lunch time."

Jean let out a loud breath. "Damn!" Still shaking her head, she reached in her pocket and pulled out an envelope. "By the way this is for you." She handed it over to Carrie. "It's a bank draft for my part of the restaurant. Um... it's a little short. I had to put more of a down payment on the rings than I had anticipated." She looked up at Carrie shyly, feeling bad that all of the money wasn't there. It was bad enough that she couldn't afford to give Carrie the full fifty-percent of the cost, but to be short on what she did promise to pay was embarrassing. "I can get it to you next month."

Carrie threw the envelope to the desk. "Don't worry about it. We can use this money on some of the renovations we talked about yesterday." She smiled kindly at her friend. Sonny was sucking her dry, but she must love it. After all she puts up with it.

Carrie was trying to make her feel better, and Jean appreciated it. She smiled back at her friend and wiggled her eyebrows. "Let me go see what I can do with Sonny. Maybe Mavis can put her to work on something." She started to leave but turned back towards her friend. "And you should be making a phone call. Just ask Erin, straight out. She'll tell you the truth." With that she turned away and left Carrie to her thoughts.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Carrie stared at the phone. Jean was right. Why should she take the word of that lying bitch? 'She probably made it all up.' But too many things fit into place. Tina had been right about the way they had met, and Erin had seemed too good to be true. It was as if Erin knew her, knew all about her. And what about their lovemaking, Erin did not act like a beginner. Not like the sweet little straight girl she was supposed to be. Something just wasn't adding up. She had to get to the bottom of this and the only way she would be able to do that was to talk to Erin. 'Like Jean said, ask her straight out.' Carrie was lifting the receiver when she heard a soft knock. She placed it back when she looked up. Erin was standing in the doorway, looking embarrassed and frightened.

"E...Erin?" Carrie said softly, her surprise written across her face. "Come in...please."

Erin tentatively walked into the office. She was filled with all kinds of emotions. She had finally found the nerve to face Carrie by using the return of the account journals as an excuse to see her. But now face to face she didn't think it was wise. It was obvious that Carrie hadn't had an accident last night, so the only reason she hadn't returned was because she was other wise occupied. Erin felt sick to her stomach. How could she have been so stupid to think someone like Carrie wanted her? As she sank into the chair, she closed her eyes to hold back the tears. She wasn't going to cry, at least not here, not in front of her.

Carrie's mind was going through too much turmoil to notice the condition Erin was in. She cleared her throat to speak first. It was now or never. "I was just about to call you." When Erin didn't answer, she continued. "We need to talk. Actually I have something to ask you." She looked up just in time to see a tear roll down Erin's check. It alarmed her. "Erin, is something wrong?"

Erin kept her eyes closed. She was trying to stop the tears but they wouldn't stop. She grasped her mouth as she felt a sob enter her throat. Carrie jumped up and closed the door. She squatted down in front of Erin, and tried to lift her head. "Erin, what is it? Is it your father?"

When Carrie touched her hand, the dam broke and she was sobbing uncontrollably. Her nose was running and she knew she looked a mess. This was not supposed to happen! Carrie reached up to the desk and picked up the box of tissues. She grabbed a few and put them to Erin's face. Erin began to wipe her face and control her crying. She blew hard into the tissues and tried desperately to pull herself together. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." She whispered. Carrie was so close to her she could smell her cologne. It only brought up thoughts of their lovemaking and she was about to lose it again. She had to get out of there. "Please say what you have to say. So, I can leave."

"Leave? Erin, what's going on? Why are you so upset?"

Erin looked into clear blue eyes. There was genuine concern there and she was puzzled. What had happened? What made Carrie betray her like that? What kind of hold did Tina really have on her. She sniffed again and found her nerve. "You slept with her, didn't you?"

"What?...You think I slept with Tina?"

"Well, didn't you! Why else didn't you come back last night?" she began to cry again. "You promised me! You promised that you would come back!"

"Oh, God!" Carrie said pulling the sobbing Erin to her chest. She had forgotten that she was to return to Erin's apartment last night. "I'm so sorry!...Oh, Erin. Please!...Please! Forgive me!" she hugged her tighter. "I'm so, so sorry. I forgot." She kissed the top of her head as she felt Erin start to settle down. "I went through so much shit with Tina last night that I completely forgot where I was supposed to be. After I left her, I went straight home."

Erin collected herself. Was Carrie telling the truth? Had it just been a misunderstanding? "I called you and didn't get an answer. I was worried. I didn't know if you had gotten into an accident or what?"

"Oh, sweetheart. I'm so sorry. I wasn't answering my phone. I wasn't in the mood. It was stupid of me I know. I was just so upset and so unsure..."

Erin slowly lifted her head, and looked into the sullen blue eyes that she now was noticing were puffy from crying too. "Unsure about what?"

Carrie swallowed hard. She felt she knew the answer to her question, but she had to hear it from Erin's mouth. She moved further back, resting on her heels and looked Erin straight in the eyes. "Erin do you know Lars?"

Erin looked at her in confusion. "Huh? You mean the guy at the restaurant?"


"Well, yeah. You introduced me to him."

Carrie shook her head. "No, no. I mean, did you know him before that night?"

"No! Why would I know him?" The look of confusion on Erin's face was doing wonders for Carrie's heart.

Carrie smiled, as relief washed over her. "You have never seen him before that night?"

"No, not at all. What's this about?"

Carrie was almost giddy. She didn't know if it was the lack of sleep or the roller coaster ride her emotions had been on for the last twenty-four hours, but whatever it was, the relief felt good. She went into deliberation about what had transpired between her and Tina, leaving out the part about hitting her.

"I swear to you Carrie, that is not true. I have never even laid eyes on the man before the other night." Erin's voice was pleading. She was shocked and appalled at what Tina had said about her. 'She must truly be a bitch!' Erin thought. She shook her head again. "Tina is sick, Carrie. She really has a problem."

"You telling me?" Carrie looked at her and smirked. "You think I don't know that by now? ...I'm just glad that she's out of my life...for good."

"Yeah..." said Erin, as she slid out of her chair and down to the floor with Carrie. She circled her arms around her neck and kissed her soundly on the lips. Carrie hadn't slept with her. It had all been a stupid misunderstanding. "...If she knows what's good for her. She just added another enemy to her list."

Carrie smiled broadly and kissed Erin on the tip of her nose. It was still raw and pink from her crying, and Carrie thought it to be adorable. "You still love me?" she asked rubbing Erin's back with her large palms.

"Of course I do! I never stopped..." She kissed Carrie again and asked for entrance by licking her bottom lip lightly. Carrie's lips opened instantly and their tongues entwined with a fierceness that set them both afire.

Coming up for air, Carrie drew back and looked at Erin questioningly. "I have to clear up just one other thing."

"What's that love?" Erin cooed going back for another nip at Carrie's lips.

Carrie sighed. The nips were distracting her, but the question was important so she grasped Erin's arms lightly and moved back away from her. "Seriously Erin, you have to clear something up for me.

"Of course, anything...What do you need to know?"

Carrie stood up. Suddenly she was nervous again. She wasn't afraid to ask the question, she was afraid of what the answer might be. She stood still as she watched Erin make her way back to the chair. She looked up at Carrie with curious eyes.

"You told me that you've had very limited experience with... with sex."

"One, to be exact." Erin blurted, then blushed.

"Yeah, one. So how is that you are! I mean, Erin, you're good!"

Erin turned beet red. She closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands. Shaking her head from side to side, she whispered, "Oh, god!" When she looked back up at Carrie, she could tell that she needed to hear the answer. So, Erin swallowed hard and cleared her throat. "Carrie, I'm 26 years old. Just because I hadn't wanted to have sex with anyone didn't mean that I hadn't wanted to have sex." She looked back at Carrie again to see if she was getting a clue. The blank stare told her "no" so, she tried another approach. She walked over to Carrie and lifted her hand. "Meet lefty the only lover that knows me better than you do."

If she hadn't been so humiliated, she would have laughed right along with her. Erin stood with her arms crossed as Carrie guffawed from one end of the tiny office to the other. She finally found her way to the desk and collapsed in its chair. "I'm...I'm sorry." She managed between giggles. It really wasn't that funny. It was just that Carrie's emotions where so charged that the relief flooded her ten-fold, leaving her hysterical. Looking at the pout on Erin's face sent Carrie into another fit of laughter. She held her arms out to Erin, who found her way there, instantly. The hugged hard. Carrie calmed down. "I love you," she said with the biggest grin Erin had seen yet. "You are adorable!"

Erin smiled at that. "I love you too."


* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

As Jean swiveled around on her stool at the bar, she looked back towards the closed office door and wondered again, what was going on in there. Tina had to be lying. Lars wouldn't do anything like that. She knew he was jealous of the friendship that she and Carrie shared, but he would never do anything that stupid. '...Or, would he?' She shook her head to clear her thoughts. Lars was capable of anything and she knew it. But then Erin would have to be in on it too, and that was impossible! It had been a long time since she had seen anyone that old and that naive! She was one step from being a country bumpkin. No way is that girl part of some elaborate scheme. She laughed silently to herself. Glancing over at Sonny, she smiled brightly.

Mavis had given Sonny the coveted job of hostess, and Sonny was playing it to the hilt. You would think she was 'Vanna White showing vowels to their table.' Jean smiled again lifting her orange juice for another sip. 'But she's happy! And a happy Sonny, meant a slap-happy time between the sheets!' Jean grinned, again into the glass. The sudden vibration of her cell phone brought her out of her musings.

"Yes?" she sang, sweetly into the phone.

"Jean, where are you?" Lars' voice sounded panicky.

She sat up straight. "I'm a couple of blocks away. What's the matter?"

"Get in here. There's...there's a crisis."

"What, Lars? What's wrong?"

"The police were just here. Tina Thomas was found dead this morning! She...she was murdered!"

"What!?" She spoke so loudly that everyone looked in her direction. Whispering she said, "Murdered! ...Lars I'll be right there!" She slammed the phone closed and moved from the barstool. She made her way to the office and pounded heavily on the door "Carrie!"

Seconds later Carrie threw the door open. Looking disheveled, she stared down at Jean menacingly. "What?"

Noticing Erin off to the side behind her buttoning up her shirt, Jean smirked at Carrie lifting a brow of her own.

"What is it?" Carrie asked again.

Jean suddenly remembered what she was there for and all expression left her face. "Carrie, Lars just called me. He says that Tina...Tina's been murdered!"

To Be Continued
In the Second Book: Reticulating Lives II
Due: Late Summer 2001

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