Santa

Cupid

by S.X. Meagher and Anne Brisk

 


The decibel level at Futures had reached new heights this Thursday afternoon. Three fifteen in the afternoon would have been an early happy hour at most bars, but not here. The Chicago Board of Trade was located right next door, and most of its spawn swam over as soon as the final bell rang.

The crowd thronging the bar was made up of stockbrokers, commodities traders, runners, market makers and an occasional schoolteacher - the only other professional who was off work at this hour.

Although the afternoon was bright and clear, the light didn't reach the interior of the bar. There were wooden blinds on the small windows, and they were shut tight, preventing the patrons from seeing that they were whiling away a perfectly beautiful Chicago afternoon.

Everyone in the place had been there before - most of them daily. And most everyone was still in that special place where you still feel like you're on your first drink, even if you've had three. You look better, tell a joke better, sing better and women love you - especially the cocktail waitresses.

Six clever, shiny young Turks sat in a large corner booth. They'd claimed the spot just after Futures opened seven years ago, and now the booth remained their own - even if they were a little late in arriving at the party.

What you noticed first when you looked at this group was the bright blonde sitting in the center, flanked by five men. It was clear that this particular blonde was not the secretary or the administrative assistant. In fact, she was more one of the boys than the boys.

"Katie, me girl, what about opening day? Get the tickets?"

"I've got two," Kate answered. "I'm working on more, but don't even try to weasel your way into going with me, Alan. Emma and I have been to seven openers in a row, and I'm not gonna break the streak now."

"Damn, I haven't seen Emma in ... what? Three years?" Alan said. "I still can't believe she lets you hang out with us. She must have forgotten what it's like to swim with the sharks."

Kate barked out a laugh. "Emma doesn't 'let' me do anything, Al, and she knows what it's like to play hardball. She just decided she couldn't handle the high, hard ones anymore." Her eyes sparked when she answered, and the guys knew this wasn't a subject that was going to go far.

She was a beautiful young woman hard-headed, smart, quick with her wits and her tongue and driven to succeed in everything she did. She had her private feelings about Emma leaving the business, but she would never share them with the guys.

Rodney, a relative newcomer to the group, asked, "What does your girlfriend do now?"

"She's a social worker," Kate said. "Works at a shelter for battered women."

"Don't tell my wife!" Jack cried, his joke getting a big laugh.

"Oh, please! Sheila could kick your ass, little miss!" Marty said. "You'd be the one to show up in the middle of the night with a shiner, begging for a cot and a crust of bread."

"Emma tells me that lots of men get their asses kicked at home," Kate said. "But shelters won't take 'em."

"Any guy who lets his wife beat him up deserves it," Jack said, in an effort to restore his imagined machismo.

"Always a good idea to arm wrestle before you get married, boys," Kate warned. "If she can take you two out of three, you'd better keep lookin'."

"Who couldn't beat a woman at arm wrestling?" Rodney asked.

Four wallets were whipped out of four suit jackets. "Two hundred on Kate," Marty said, pulling out a few fifties.

#

Emma got off the El and walked the few blocks to her home. It was dark, and one of the streetlights had been broken, making the normally friendly block look a little sinister. When she reached her home, she felt reassured and surprisingly happy to see the warm, golden glow of the lights from the den. Oh, good. She's home.

By the time she had the door open, she heard Kate's voice. "Hi. I'm in the den."

"That's where I'd expect you to be." Emma hung her coat on the rack by the door and dropped her briefcase. Her shoes were off, and her skirt was unzipped by the time she reached her partner. "How's it going?" she asked, kissing her on the top of her head. "Any food left?"

"Yeah. I had Chinese. Want me to warm it up for you while you get undressed?"

"That's the best offer I've had all day." She leaned over and sniffed at the glass on the table. "Pour me a glass of that, too. Smells great."

"It is great. Goes well with the spicy won-tons."

"I'll be down in a few."

Kate got up as her partner started to leave the room. "You okay?"

"Yeah, yeah, just have a few things on my mind. You know."

Patting her back, Kate said, "You'll feel better when you have a drink or two."

#

Emma sat in her favorite chair and polished off the wine that had gone very well with her dinner. "What're we watching?"

"Nothing, really. I was reading. Just had the TV on for background noise. The house creeps me out when it's too quiet."

"Ya know, I was a little creeped out when I was walking home from the train. One of the streetlights was out, and our block looked a little ... I don't know." She shivered and said, "Working at the shelter makes me see how dangerous the world can be for women."

Kate shook the newspaper she was reading at her partner. "Read the news much? It's a dangerous world for everyone. Women don't have a corner on that market."

"I know that. But when you see how afraid some of these women and kids are ... I spent the whole day talking to a woman who's been at the shelter three times. No matter how badly her husband abuses her, she just can't find the courage to leave him. It breaks my heart."

"Any kids?"

"Uh-huh. Two. The older one is really havin' a tough time. She's afraid of her father, but she loves him, too."

Kate tossed her paper aside and made a face. "It pisses me off to know that we're all gonna wind up paying for those kids at some point. They'll either be on welfare or in prison or dependant on the state for some other kind of aid."

Emma had heard her partner's views on the subject enough times to make the rest of the conversation unnecessary. "It's hard for women to leave, Kate. I know you don't agree, but it is hard."

"Women have to think of their kids more than their dick-wad husbands," Kate grumbled. "The whole thing makes me crazy."

"I know it does." She got up to go to the kitchen for the wine bottle. "It makes me crazy, too, but the solutions aren't as easy as you think they are."

Kate called after her, "They aren't as complex as you think they are, either. You can spend the rest of your career doing this, but you won't ever make a dent. Some people are born victims."

#

Kate was doing seventy, streaking down a state highway, propelled mostly by the knot in her stomach. Not that she could acknowledge the knot, but it was there, like it always was when she was forced to visit her family. The forcing part was imaginary, but the knot was real.

Emma, to borrow a popular phrase, felt Kate's pain. But she knew she could no more do anything about it than she could fly. "Hey, Kate, wanna slow down a little?"

"What? You're not in a hurry to get to my parents' house?"

Emma didn't take the bait. She realized, despite what the speedometer said, that it was Kate who wasn't in a hurry to reach their destination.

#

Kate pulled into the driveway of her family home and smiled at Emma. "Ready for the torture?"

Emma grasped her arm briefly. "I know this is hard, but I'm here for you."

"That and the liquor cabinet should get me through the day."

Five years ago, my support might have been enough. Keeping her thoughts to herself, Emma smiled back.

#

The garage door was open, so they went in. Making their way through the breezeway, they ran into Kate's father. "Hi, Dad," she said.

"Oh, hi, girls. You just get here? I was going out for a beer. Want one?"

"Sure. Em?"

"Uhm ... no, I think I'll pass. Thanks, Don."

"Okay there, suit yourself. C'mon, Kate, I'll pop one for ya."

Emma let Don squeeze past her, Kate following him back into the garage. She was left to face Doris alone. She walked into the kitchen and spied Kate's mom at the stove. "Hi, Doris."

No matter how many times Emma visited Kate's parents, she was always amazed at the amount of displeasure Doris could display on seeing her. "Well, we never thought you two would get here. Where's Kate?"

Emma didn't have a chance to answer because Kate walked in with the beer from her dad in her hand. Both women heard the "tsk" that Doris thought was inaudible. "So early?"

"Hi, Mom. Happy Easter." After a perfunctory kiss, Kate snuck a peek into the family room. "Everyone else here?"

"Of course they're all here. They came on time."

"They also all live ten minutes from here, Mom. Chicago's an hour and a half away."

"Did we send you there, or did you pick up and go?"

Emma decided to enter the fray, even though it was early in the game. "Something smells delicious, Doris. Is it ham?"

"It's always ham for Easter." Emma could hear the tacit "...you evil lesbian."

"I'm sure that'll be great. Kate, why don't we go say hello to the rest of your family, if your mom doesn't need us."

"You two go on; I'm used to doing it all myself."

As they beat a retreat, Emma heard Kate say "Welcome to the house of pain" under her breath.

#

Kate eyed the children's table with envy, wishing she were young enough to distance herself from the adults. She felt Emma's foot slip up the cuff of her pants and gave her partner a furtive smile. "It'll be over soon," Emma mouthed, her hand shielding her lips from Doris' eagle eyes.

Turning the point of her knife towards herself, Kate mimicked a ritual suicide, making Emma giggle.

"What's so funny down there?" Doris asked. "Concentrate on your dinner. I've been up since 5:00 a.m. making this."

"Nothin' funny down here," Kate said, her face devoid of emotion. "Nothin' at all."

#

After dinner the men retired to the family room to play cards, while the women, in the annoying time-honored tradition, cleaned up. For a change, Doris let her daughters-in-law take charge. She walked towards the living room, stopping to stare at the back of Kate's head until the younger woman turned around. Doris didn't speak; she just crooked a finger, and Kate followed behind her, the knot in her stomach coming back with a vengeance.

"What's up, Mom?"

"What's going on with you and her? When's this gonna be finished?"

"Finished?" Kate wondered how, or if, she'd be able to rein in her temper.

"I can't stand this business, and you know it."

"Mom, I'm gay, Emma's gay. We're happy. I'm sorry if you don't like it, but that's the way it is."

"Everyone around here knows, you know. When people at church ask me about the family, they don't even include you."

"My loss."

"No, young lady, it's my loss! I raised a normal girl, not some ..."

"Lesbian. I'm a lesbian."

"Don't say that word in my house!"

"Whether I say the word or not, that's what I am. I can't change who I am, Mom."

"Of course you can. You just won't. I know what goes on."

"What goes on ...?"

"That one ... she takes advantage of you."

Kate could only stare in disbelief. "Where did that come from?"

"I know people," Doris said. "I know how much social workers make. It's a drop in the bucket compared to you."

"How much do you make compared with Dad?" Kate asked.

"Don't you dare compare her to me! I'm married forty-two years!"

"And Emma and I have been together for seven. This isn't a fling, Mom, and ... Why am I having this conversation again? This is finished."

Doris stood and glared at her child for a moment, then marched into her bedroom.

#

Don walked the women out to their car, and as soon as they got there, Doris came out of the house, sulking. "New car?" she asked. "Mmm ... another German one. People up here are starving because no one buys American."

"It's Emma's," Kate said. "She gave her Accord to her younger brother."

"That's nice," Doris said, obviously not meaning it. "We'll expect you back for the Memorial Day barbeque. We're doing it even if it rains," she added, leaving no possibility for escape.

"Great," Kate said unenthusiastically.

"Thanks very much," Emma said. "We'll see you on Memorial Day."

#

Kate lowered her seat to the prone position and closed her eyes. "Mind if I doze?"

"No, not at all. I'll put on a CD."

Kate lay back gratefully and tried not to think, but her mother's poison was in her bloodstream. Emma was singing along to the music, her voice soft and melodic, and it soothed and lulled Kate in a way that conversation never could have.

The pain of the day didn't find a place in Kate's conscious mind. It burrowed into her, adding to the dull ache she often felt in her soul, but could never explain.

Seven years. Have Em and I really been together for seven years? Sometimes it seems like forty. And sometimes I don't even know her. She snuck a look at Emma's profile. She's still so beautiful. That hasn't changed. But something has. Something big. Can you ever get back what you've lost? God, I want it to be the way that it was.

Kate let the tears welling in her eyes roll down her cheeks without a sound.

#

Kate was sitting at the kitchen table, sipping a cup of coffee when Emma came downstairs. "Been up long?" she asked, brushing her hand along Kate's back when she passed.

"Yep. You know I can't get out of the habit. I thought I'd get some work in."

"What time do we have to leave?"

"Oh ... I'd like to be there for batting practice, so I guess we should leave by 11:30 or so. That okay?"

"Sure. I'll get some coffee and make a few calls. Don't let me hold us up, okay? If you don't hear me in the shower by 10:30, come up and light a fire under me."

Kate looked up from the article she was reading and gave her partner a warm smile. "I will. Looking forward to today?"

"Of course. Let's play two today!"

#

The day was gloriously bright and sunny with the lightest possible breeze blowing in off the lake. The grass was so green that it appeared to be painted on, and even though the ivy upon the brick was still in its winter slumber, Emma could imagine it verdant and thick in the middle of summer.

"I could never leave Chicago," she said. "Unless they tear down Wrigley Field, of course."

"Spoken like a native," Kate said.

"I remember the first time my dad brought me here," Emma said. "I must have been five or six. He was sure I was gonna be bored, but I hung in there for the whole game." She smiled, and Kate could see the wistfulness in her eyes.

"You miss him a lot, don't you?"

"Yeah. I miss both of my parents, but I was always closer to my dad. Hard to believe he's been gone five years."

"It is," Kate agreed. She squeezed Emma's thigh. "He was a good guy."

Emma heard a vendor start to come down their aisle. "Two beers!" she called out. She toasted with her cup and said, "To my dad."

"To Artie," Kate chimed in.

#

In the bottom of the fifth, the Cubs were ahead two to one. The starter had already been pulled, his arm not yet up to the demands of a regular season game. "I'm not very confident about our middle relief," Kate said.

"If we can contain 'em till the eighth, our stopper can shut 'em down."

"The fifth ain't the eighth," Kate said, nodding wisely.

"Let's have another beer," Emma said. "Keeps the nerves at bay."

#

The Cubbies couldn't get a thing going in the seventh or the eighth, and both women began to give up hope. A cold, chilling breeze started to pick up, and the sun hid behind the gathering clouds. "It doesn't look good, babe," Kate said.

"Always darkest before the dawn?"

"How about always freeze your ass off on opening day," Kate decided. "That's an aphorism that has legs."

"I don't know anything about legs," Emma said. "Mine are numb."

"Too many beers?"

"A little of that and a little of the freezing cold," she said. "At this point it's a toss-up between having to pee and being afraid my legs won't carry me."

"How about a Cubby kiss for luck?" Kate asked, giving her a sexy grin.

"In front of forty thousand people?" She paused for effect, then said, "Sure, why not."

Kate planted a loud one on her, pulling away to Emma's giddy laugh. "That was fun," she said. "We gotta get out more. It's fun to be silly."

Looking at her for a few moments, Kate felt her smile grow until she was giving Emma a goofy grin. "How'd I ever luck out to get a woman as great as you are?"

"Aw, go on," Emma said, giving her an elbow.

#

The game continued for a total of fourteen innings. And when the Reds scored in the top of the fourteenth, no one had much hope left. The Cubs were down to the last three positions in the order, and there was no one but pitchers left on the bench. When the team made out in order, the fifteen thousand or so hangers-on seemed relieved.

Emma had managed to sneak out to the restroom in the eleventh, but she desperately needed to go again. When they reached the women's room, it appeared that all of the women still in the park were in line. "I will never make it," she moaned.

"Let's go next door," Kate suggested. "We can get a brat and watch the Giants on ESPN."

"I'm game," Emma decided. "Let's run!" She took off, with Kate running behind her, grasping for a piece of her coat so she didn't lose her in the crowd.

#

The line outside of the popular bar was nearly as bad as the line for the rest room had been. "I'm desperate," Emma cried. "I gotta find a bathroom!"

"Follow me," Kate ordered. She led her down the alley behind the bar, with Emma gasping in surprise at the row of men urinating against the wall. "We're going around the corner," Kate said in her best no-nonsense voice. "Nobody peeks!"

Emma looked like she'd been hit with a bat, but Kate told her, "I've got your back. No one'll turn that corner and live to tell about it."

"Are you sure?" Emma asked, dancing from foot to foot.

"Positive. Now scoot!"

Emma did as she was told, with Kate watching the alley for any peeping Toms. No one moved an inch towards them, and when Emma was finished, Kate took her place. "Now I hafta go."

"I'll be sentry. Go on."

Minutes later, the pair emerged from the alley, hand in hand. "That was fun!" Emma said. "Let's wiggle our way into the bar."

"That's the spirit," Kate agreed and followed her partner into the crowd.

#

It was only 8:00 when they got home, but both of them were drunk, tired and cold. "I'm going to bed," Kate said. "I almost fell asleep on the El."

"Me, too," Emma agreed. "I don't think I've been to bed this early since I was in grade school, but I'll never be able to function if I don't sleep this off."

They went upstairs together, then each of them went to her own bath.

Emma was brushing her teeth, and she looked at her reflection in the mirror. How can we have such a good time one day, and then go back to treating each other like strangers for months at a time? If only we could connect like this more often. I just can't stand to be shut out all of the time.

#

Emma was turning down the guest room bed - the bed that had become hers - when Kate poked her head in. "Want some company?"

"Uhm ... sure. When do you have to get up?"

"6:00, same as always. We can sleep in here, and then you can go back to sleep when I get up."

"Okay. Jump in."

Kate slid under the covers, the sheets like ice against her bare legs. "I don't think I'll ever warm up."

"I can warm you up," Emma decided. She got in on the other side and stretched her arm out behind Kate's head. "Come on, cuddle up."

Greedily, Kate soaked up her larger partner's warmth. "Ooo ... this feels divine," she purred.

"G'night," Emma said. "Sleep tight."

"You too," Kate sighed. She closed her eyes, but her thoughts kept her awake for a few minutes. God, we haven't had fun like that in years. Why did she have to change so much? We used to party and raise hell all the time, but now she acts like she's got the weight of the world on her shoulders. We're wasting our youth!

#

When Kate got home the next night, there was a note on the kitchen counter.

Hi,

Don't forget that we're having a party

for our intern, Michelle, at the Twin

Anchors tonight. I'd love for you to

come if you can.

It starts at 7:00 and should be a lot of fun.

We could get silly two nights in a row!

Hope your head feels better than mine.

Love,

Em

Oh, shit. I've never even met this woman. Why should I go to her going away party? Besides, I've still got a headache from yesterday. The last thing I need is another night in a bar. Em won't mind.

#

Emma closed the door behind her and sagged against the doorjamb. She stayed there for a minute, listening to the sounds of the house. Her last glimmer of hope that Kate was at least awake had faded on her way down the block. She went to the kitchen and saw that Kate had added a few lines to the note.

Hi,

Hope you had a good time. I just

couldn't stand the thought of another

night in a smoky bar. Your stamina

must be better than mine.

Love you,

K

Stamina? I'd think drinking for two or three hours every night after work would give Kate enough stamina for an army.

Emma headed upstairs, not fighting the sadness that seeped through her. She stopped at Kate's door and went as far as putting her hand on the knob before she turned away and went to bed alone.

#

On the first of May, Emma opened the door and called out, "I have a surprise for you, Kate."

"One of my favorite phrases in the English language."

"Usually, it is," Emma said, still only half inside the door. "This one could go either way." Emma's surprise couldn't be contained any longer, and it burst through the door, all fluffy and wiggly.

Before Kate could get up from the sofa, the surprise ran into the den, making tiny mewing sounds as it jumped up and put it's paws on her legs.

"What in the hell!"

"Surprise," Emma said weakly. "Isn't he cute?"

Kate bent over and picked up the squirming ball of fluff. "Of course he's cute. But why's he at our house?" The puppy began to lick her face, managing to get his tongue into her mouth in no time.

"Well ... it's his house, too, now. Do you mind?"

Kate was so busy fending off the ferocious love fest that she could barely speak. "Friendly little devil," she managed. "But when did we decide to get a dog?"

"We didn't," Emma said. "But a woman came to the shelter today with her kids and this puppy in tow. We can't keep dogs, so ... here he is."

"Jesus, Em, you can't just take a puppy away from a bunch of kids!"

"Oh, the kids barely noticed him. They'd only had him for a week, and all they used him for was target practice. They thought he was a toy. The woman said the dog's crying and wetting the carpet was part of the reason her husband beat her so badly. She just wanted to get rid of it."

"Great! We get a dog that made a man beat his wife." She held the little pup up to her face. "Did you know you broke up a family, ya little creep?" He licked her enthusiastically, and she had a hard time maintaining her scowl. "Maybe this constant licking had something to do with it, too. This could get annoying - fast."

Emma noted with pleasure that Kate's words didn't match her expression. "Will ya keep an eye on him for a minute? I've gotta run to Jewel for some dog food."

She was nearly out the door when she heard an outraged, "Hey! Get back here! Your dog wants to go with you!"

#

When Emma got back, the puppy was sound asleep on Kate's lap. "You play dirty," the dog sitter muttered.

"Hey, he needed some food. I don't think they were feeding him anything but table scraps."

"I'm not talking about the food, Em. I'm talking about him." She reached down and rested her hand on the dog's back, smiling when he let out a very happy puppy sigh and curled himself up into an even tighter ball.

"Cupid."

"What?'

"Cupid, not 'him.'"

"Did 'we' name him?"

"No, he came named. See the little heart-shaped black spot on his back?"

Picking through the mostly white hair, Kate found the spot in question. "Why didn't she call him 'heart?'"

"She's a romantic," Emma said dryly.

"We need to have a serious talk about this, Em. We don't have the kinds of schedules that dog owners have to keep. It's not fair to ... Cupid."

"I'm not asking you to do anything, Kate. I know you don't have time in the morning to walk and feed a dog. I promise I'll do all of the dirty work. The only thing I need is for you to let him out in the backyard when you get home."

"I thought you weren't going to ask me to do anything," Kate said.

"If you don't want to let him out, I'll hire someone to come over at lunch and take him for a walk. No problem."

Kate looked at the sleeping dog. "I guess I can open a door," she said. "But that's really all I can commit to, Em. I don't have time for this."

"I know. I've always wanted a dog, and now that we have a house, it just seemed like the perfect time. And he's just so cute!" Her smile was infectious, and Kate mirrored it.

"He is pretty cute. His name's dumb, though. Do we have to keep it?"

"I think so. He responds to it."

"Cupid it is, then," she said, giving the pup a scratch behind the ear.

#

The next afternoon Kate got home at her usual time, and as she put her key in the door, she could hear muted whining. "I'm coming, I'm coming. Give me a second, will ya?"

Emma had closed the pup into the kitchen, and he'd dutifully peed on the newspaper she laid out. "Hi, doggie." He jumped as high as his short little legs would take him, nearly doing a somersault. "Wanna go outside?"

She opened the sliding door and watched as he scampered outside, looking like a condemned man just pardoned by the governor. He kept looking over his shoulder as he peed, keeping his eye on Kate. "Go on, go do what doggies do. Have fun." She closed the door and went upstairs to change. Coming back down a few minutes later, she went to check on him, surprised to find him with his nose pressed against the glass. "What's wrong? Aren't you supposed to play or something?" I'm talking to a dog, she reminded herself. He's barely old enough to speak canine, much less English.

"Wait just a minute," she said, unable to stop herself from speaking to a semi-sentient being. She took out a rocks glass and poured two fingers of Scotch. Her thoughts on whether to take it neat or with a splash were interrupted by more whining. To complicate matters further, the whining wasn't truly annoying - it was just loud enough to be heard, and she had a hard time turning a deaf ear. "Oh, all right!"

Abandoning her drink, she opened the door, expecting the dog to come in. But he didn't. He just sat there and looked at the bright green grass, then back at her. "I'm supposed to be out there with you?" she asked. "I'm a human. You're a dog. We have different interests. I like to read. What do you like to do?"

He obviously liked to be outside with a human, because he ran to the middle of the yard and picked up the Big Mean Kitty toy that Emma had brought home the night before. He grabbed it in his mouth and started shaking it, while running towards Kate, looking exuberantly happy. "What am I supposed to do with it?" she asked when he dropped it at her feet.

If dogs could sigh and roll their eyes, this one would have, but he patiently began again, doing his best to train the slow human. After three rounds of instruction, Kate began to catch on. "I shouldn't do this," she told him. "My responsibilities were clearly laid out by the woman who does own you." But by then, her drink was forgotten, and if she let herself feel what was in her heart, she'd have to admit that she was having fun.

#

A couple of weeks later, Emma and Cupid returned home from their nightly leash training session. As usual, Cupid carried the lead in his mouth as soon as Emma dropped it, and ran through the house to show Kate his prize. "Hi, buddy! Did you have fun?" She looked up at Emma and asked, "Any progress?"

"I think he's getting the idea," Emma said. "But he's not fond of my deciding where to go and when to stop. He's a headstrong little thing."

Kate picked up the pup and let him kiss her. "Who do you take after, Cupid? Is your momma headstrong? I think she is."

"Funny," Emma said. "Any food left?"

"Yeah. I ordered a pizza. There's more than half for you." Emma headed for the kitchen, with Kate calling after her, "I have to call my mom tonight to ask if there's anything we should take for Memorial Day."

Emma stopped and turned. "Are you gonna tell her about Cupid?"

"Tell her?"

"Yeah. Tell her we're bringing the dog."

"We are?"

Emma walked back into the den. "We have to. We're always gone for more than ten hours. He can't be locked up in the kitchen all day."

"Can't we put him in a shelter or something?"

"I hope you mean a kennel, and, no, we can't. I'm not gonna have him locked in a little cage all day. Besides, I want him with me when I have a day off." She gave Kate a troubled look. "Don't you?"

Kate nodded. "Yeah, I do. You're right. It's not fair to stick him someplace ... he shouldn't have to suffer just because we have to."

#

Kate picked up the phone and started to dial the dreaded number. She was on the last four digits when Cupid came in and gave her his "pick me up" look. Sweeping him up, she let him settle on her lap while she finished. "Thanks," she whispered while she waited for her mother to answer.

"Hi, Mom, it's Kate. I wanted to see if you need us to bring anything to the party."

"No, that's not necessary. You don't make anything special, do you?"

"Nope. Nothing at all." She gritted her teeth and said, "We have a new member of the family. We got a dog."

"Dogs are pets, Kate. They aren't members of the family."

"Well, we'll be bringing Cupid for Memorial Day, so you can see for yourself how cute he is."

"You're not bringing a dog into my house. Don't even think about it."

"We'll be outside most of the day, Mom. Your yard is fenced. What could he hurt?"

"That's not your concern. I don't want a dog here, and that's final. If we wanted a dog, we would have got one."

Kate took a deep breath. "I understand, Mom, but he's just a puppy and we can't leave him at home all day. We'll have to take a rain check."

"What? You're not coming because of a dog? Why can't she watch him?"

"She?" Kate's dander was up now, and she was not going to budge an inch on this one. She was going to wait her mother out if it took all day.

"If you can't be here, that's fine with me." A few seconds passed, and Kate heard the dial tone.

She gathered the dog into her arms and hugged him tenderly. "I owe you one, buddy."

#

On the morning of the Memorial Day party, Kate woke in a sour mood. She quietly opened Emma's door to let Cupid out, then went downstairs and made coffee, almost completely ignoring the canine song and dance going on next to her. "All right. I'll let you out in a minute. I need some coffee first, and this time, I'm getting my way."

The dog sensed her mood and quieted down, meekly waiting by the door until she was finished. That, of course, made her even grumpier, and when she opened the door, she left the room, letting Cupid do his thing alone.

#

"G'morning," Kate said cheerily when she walked into the den a couple of hours later. "How's everyone?" Cupid responded by running to her like she was a living version of the Promised Land. "Well, someone's glad to see me." Bending to scratch the belly being offered, she looked at Kate. "You okay?"

"Fine."

"I'm gonna make some pancakes this morning. Want some?"

Kate gave her a scowl. "I already had cereal. I woulda waited if I'd known you were gonna make pancakes."

Emma sat next to her partner and placed a hand on her leg. "Since we can't go to the party, I thought we could have our own little family celebration. We've got a nice barbeque that we've never even used. What do you say?"

"Whatever."

Emma got up and went into the kitchen. "How about one pancake. Could you handle that?"

"I guess," her grumpy partner allowed.

#

Kate's mood and the weather brightened almost simultaneously. By one o'clock it was warm and sunny, and all three members of this newly minted, though somewhat unaware, nuclear family found themselves in the yard, tossing a variety of toys around. "Do we have anything to eat?" Kate asked.

"Yep. I bought everything yesterday."

"You remembered where the groceries were? I thought you could only find dog food at the store."

"I used to be a pretty good cook, pal."

"I remember. I loved having dinner together. You ever miss it?" Her tone was off-handed and light, but she was intensely interested in Emma's reply.

"Sure. Sure I do, Kate." Suddenly, Kate saw the Emma she used to know, and her heart skipped a beat. "We're having dinner together today," Emma said. "Let's enjoy it."

#

Dinner was an American feast. Burgers, hot dogs, potato salad and fresh strawberries with homemade shortcake were had by all - well, two-thirds of all. Cupid had his normal kibble, but he got one special treat - a container of Frosty Paws, the doggie equivalent of ice cream. He wasn't sure how to eat it, so Emma wound up holding the little cup in her hand while he licked at it as if it were mother's milk.

Kate lay on a chaise, the top button of her jeans open. "I'll never be able to look at another strawberry," she moaned.

Emma got up from her own lounger and took Kate's hand. "Come on," she said, tugging her upright, "we've got to work some of this off. Grab a dog toy and throw it."

"That'll only help Cupid work the Frosty Paws off," Kate said. "Reading helps me digest."

"It's a holiday," Emma said. "No work."

"All play and no work makes Kate a piss-poor commodities trader. How can I relax if I haven't checked the weather in Kazakhstan today?"

Emma got behind her and pushed, having to use her shoulder to force the smaller, stronger woman along. "Come on, you can do it. You can enjoy yourself. I remember."

That stopped Kate in her tracks. She turned slowly and looked at Emma ... and an incandescent smile slowly bloomed on her face. "Right. Fuck Kazakhstan."

#

Dinner was well on its way to being digested, but Cupid wasn't ready to give up the fight. Emma had the nylon rope from his Kong, and Cupid had the red rubber in his mouth, the pair in a standoff. Kate went to assist, getting a hand on the rope and tugging with all of her might. The humans "won," but their victory landed both of them on their asses. The real triumph was Cupid's, who suddenly found his beloved humans on his level. He went for Kate first, putting his paws on her chest and pushing just enough to force her onto her back. Now he had her where he wanted her - her lips were his. He went at them with his usual abandon, and Kate rolled up in a ball, trying to protect herself from a determined pink tongue. "Help me!" she said, giggling helplessly.

Emma came to her rescue, pushing Cupid aside while she climbed on top of her partner. "I'll save you, Nell," she said in her best Dudley Doright voice.

Now that Emma had most of Kate's body covered, Cupid ran to their heads and tried to lick Emma's mouth. "Now he's got me!" She squirmed and wriggled, trying to hide her lips, but Kate had another plan. She took her partner's head in her hands and pulled her close, kissing her tenderly, while the dog scampered about, looking for a way in. The kiss continued for moments or minutes, neither woman having any sense of time. They experienced only the softness of each other's lips, the press of their breasts, the thumping of each other's hearts. Emma slowly pulled away, looking into Kate's eyes all the while. Both women were breathless and quite senseless. Unwilling to let this rare moment end, Emma reached to touch her partner's cheek, then bent her head to touch her lips to Kate's again. Their eyes closed, and they breathed the same air. It was a moment more sweet and tender than any they'd experienced for a long time. When they pulled back from their kiss, they smiled, each of them thinking it was strange how shy you could feel with someone you knew so well.

Cupid was sitting next to them with what looked suspiciously like a grin on his face.

#

When Emma got home on a muggy June evening, she found Kate in the kitchen on her hands and knees begging the dog for mercy. "Please, Cupid. Give mommy back her new Coach wallet. Please. Please."

As soon as the pup heard Emma enter, he dropped the wallet and ran to his other mommy, the joy of the greeting tempered by Emma's scowl. "What were you doing?" she asked in a no-nonsense voice.

"Ach ...," Kate said, exasperated, "that creature has been a little devil all week. It's like he's in the terrible twos."

Emma dropped her keys and let out her own sigh. "I think he is. I think he's at the point where he needs more stimulation and more exercise."

"Well, that's one of my favorite words," Kate said, grinning slyly.

"No, really, Kate. He needs a nightly walk. I'll go change and take him out."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. He needs it. Besides, it'll be a nice way for me to wind down."

"Okay. I'll catch up on my reading while you're gone. Then we can watch TV or a movie together."

"Sounds like a deal," Emma said. "And you, you minion of Satan, prepare to have some of the evil walked out of you."

#

A week later, Emma came in, and before she had a chance to drop her briefcase, her nose began to twitch. She followed the scent wafting in from the kitchen, and found Kate at the stove, stirring a pot and humming.

The dog woke from his snooze and ran to her, plastering himself to her legs as always. She reached down to give him a scratch and said, "What a portrait of family bliss."

Kate snorted. "I wouldn't go so far as to call it bliss."

"Isn't this the third time this week you've cooked dinner?"

"Well ... yeah. But tonight it's just chili dogs."

"Never say just chili dogs, Kate."

"Go change you clothes, and when you get back, I'll serve 'em up."

Emma left the room puzzled, but very pleased, by Kate's domestic streak.

#

Kate cleaned up as well as cooked, and Emma went to get Cupid's leash. She was just about to say goodbye when Kate came into the entryway. "Mind if I join you? "

"Huh?"

Even though the question stumped Emma, Cupid seemed to understand Kate's request. He jumped up and did a little dance on just his back legs, making both women laugh. "Somebody's happy," Emma said. She gazed into her partner's eyes for a brief moment, smiled and added, "Both of us are."

#

They'd walked just a few blocks when Emma asked, "How do you have time for this? This is normally your work time."

"I got a lot done this afternoon," Kate said.

"This afternoon - where?"

"At home, silly. Where else?"

Emma stopped. "What am I missing?"

"It's not a big deal. I didn't go to Futures. I romped with the beast and got a little research done."

Emma smiled. "Is that what happened the other nights you've made dinner?"

"Yeah. Pretty much."

"That's kind of a change, no?"

"I guess." Kate scuffed at a crack in the sidewalk.

"You - yeah." Emma pulled herself back from the precipice of the astounded "You guess?!" she was about to utter. Discretion is the better part of valor, she reminded herself.

They walked along in silence for quite a while, finally reaching a neighborhood park. "I've been letting him off leash if there's no one around," Emma said. "I'm still fast enough to catch him, and he seems to love it."

"Okay, if you're sure he can't get hurt."

"He's fine." They walked to the middle of the small park, and Emma unhooked Cupid's lead. He started to yip and jump for joy, acting as though he'd never had a free moment in his short life. "He really likes to fetch," Emma said. "Anything." She picked up a short stick and threw it, laughing when Cupid took off in the dark.

This game continued for a while, Emma finally asking, "Everything okay at work?"

"Yeah. I didn't have a very good week, but everyone's down right now. Some guys took a real beating this week; I just got a bloody nose."

"You still like your job, don't you?"

Kate picked up the stick and gave it a healthy toss. "Nah. I've never liked it. I have to do it."

"Katie! If you don't like your job, you need to find something you do like."

Kate laughed. "I didn't mean it that way. I need a job like this, Em. I need the thrill." She thought for a moment and said, "You know how it is. When you were trading and riding a big wave -"

"I don't think I ever rode a wave," Emma said.

"What? Then no wonder you quit. This job sucks if you don't get the thrill. When I'm really flying, it's like riding a roller coaster, sky diving, bungee jumping and hot sex all at the same time. You didn't get that?"

"No. Never. I just got the 'This is giving me an ulcer and I hate it' part."

"Oh, baby. I never knew!"

"Yeah. I thought everybody felt like I did, but they had stronger stomachs and got used to the money."

"Em, I'd trade if they paid me less than the checkers at Jewel. It's not the money - at all!"

Emma stared at her for a moment, amazed. "I always thought that you went out after work to ease the pain."

"Hell no! I go out to help decompress a little. I'm so cranked up that a few drinks brings me back to normal."

"So ... why no drinks this week?"

"Because I've decided that throwing a toy to the munchkin is better for my liver."

"Huh." Emma stared at her profile in the darkness. She wanted to know more, wanted to delve deeper, but she knew the time still wasn't right.

#

The evening had reached full dark almost an hour ago, and though it was early summer, the night air was chilly. The dog's lead had been reattached, and as the women turned from the park to return home, they joined hands. The attachment was a little tentative at first, but an impartial observer would have sworn that they slowed their pace the closer they got to home. Just to prolong their time together.

#

Emma held her sides and rocked forward, gasping. "Stop, God, stop please! I'm gonna pee if I keep laughing, John!"

Her brother was relentless. "Come on, come on, repeat the punch line with me: And the nurse said, 'The Koala tea of Mercy is not strained!'"

"Oh, Jesus, John! You do realize just how awful that is, right?" Kate said as she passed with a huge bowl of corn on the cob.

John's repertoire of puns in every form had always made his sister howl with laughter and Kate grimace. Nonetheless, if pressed, Kate would admit that she was having a great time at their little 4th of July party. John, his wife, Kirsten, and their dog, Milo, had come down from Evanston, and a few of Emma's co-workers had happily accepted her invitation.

Cupid and Milo, who'd never so much as sniffed each other before, got along famously. They were cheek by jowl all day and kept everyone entertained with their antics.

Kate went back into the kitchen for ice and beer and found Emma dabbing her eyes and still wheezing. "Doesn't he kill you, Kate?" she asked.

"No, he kills you, Em. But I love him anyway."

Emma came up from behind and wrapped her arms around Kate's waist. Giving her a squeeze, she leaned forward and asked, "Are you havin' a good time, babe?"

"Yeah. We should do this more often."

"I'm glad you're having a good time. Doin' okay with the whole holiday thing?"

Kate turned in her partner's embrace and gave her a warm smile. "Yeah. I think I am."

#

It had been one of the hardest calls she'd ever had to make. Kate needed three fingers of Scotch and the reassuring presence of not only Emma but Cupid at her side.

"Mom, it's Kate. Calling about the 4th of July."

"Oh. I hope you're able to get here early this year. It's hard on the younger ones to have to wait to eat."

"Well, that's the, uhm ... thing, Mom. We're not gonna to be able to make it this year."

"What? Is this about that stupid dog again? You might as well get it out of your head, young lady. You're never going to bring a dog to one of my parties."

"That's your choice, Mom, but that's not why we can't come. We're gonna have Emma's brother and his wife over. We don't see nearly enough of John and Kirsten."

"You can see them any time. The 4th of July is for families."

"I know that, Mom. And this year we're spending it at home - with part of our family.

"You're being ridiculous, Kate. And if I know you, you're just being hateful because I won't let your dog come."

"Maybe you don't know me, Mom, because I'm not being hateful. We've just made other plans."

Kate thought she heard a growl, and then the line went dead. When she turned her head, Emma saw the eyes of a lost child. But Kate tried to shrug off the encounter. "I wonder how many times I'll have her hang up on me before it doesn't hurt."

#

"We don't want to go either, Cupid, but you know how you get when you don't have your exercise." The threesome stood on the corner of their block, one recalcitrant white and black dog refusing to budge.

"He has plenty of energy when he's in the house," Kate said.

"I'm sure he'd have plenty of energy if Chicago were air conditioned," Emma said, "but it's not, and he has to have his walk."

"But he doesn't want to," Kate said, the beginnings of a whine in her voice.

Emma threw up her hands. "Fine. We'll go home. But don't complain to me when he chews something of yours."

Kate threw an arm around her partner, feeling the moist heat of her body through her tank top. "I think I'll hide a few pairs of your socks around the house to keep him busy."

"If my socks start disappearing, someone's gonna lose her new headphone radio. You know he likes things that have been near our heads as much as the things near our feet."

Laughing, Kate said, "Why'd we get a dog with both a head and a foot fetish."

"Just our luck." They turned towards the house and shared a smile when Emma dropped the lead and Cupid ran back to the house at full speed. "At least he's not a threat to run away."

#

A few nights later, Kate came home from the grocery store, bearing frozen juice bars for the humans, and Frosty Paws for Cupid. She waved a flyer at Kate, saying, "Check this out. I think this might be the solution to our problems."

"Must be some flyer," Emma said dryly.

"No, really. The city has opened an off-leash dog park."

"Really? Where?"

"They've fenced off five acres of the park right here in our neighborhood. We haven't been there in so long, we didn't see them building it."

"Cool! But why will it solve our problems?"

"Because Cupid loves other dogs, and he'll play even if he's hot."

"Ooo ... I see your point. When do we leave?"

"Get your juice bar and follow me!"

#

They had to drive because Cupid couldn't read the flyer, and he wasn't about to go for a long walk without proper motivation. But once they got to the well-lit, enclosed space, his ears picked up, his tail began to wag and he started to talk. "Someone's excited," Emma said.

"Cupid is, too," Kate said, her eyes bright.

They got out of the car, Cupid straining at the leash. The moment they got inside, though, he looked up at his moms as if asking what he should do. Immediately, at least six other dogs ran up to him, and he cowered behind his moms' legs. Both Kate and Emma got down on his level and stroked his back to reassure him. He quickly acclimated, and ran off to say hello to everyone in the place. "That didn't take long," Kate said.

"Eeeyup. We done raised our boy right."

"Come on, sheriff, let's set a spell."

#

After just a week's worth of visits, they knew the names of at least fifteen dogs and about ten owners. Admittedly, the dogs' owners were named Rollie's mom, Destiny's mom and Oliver's dad and the like, but it was a start. "This is a lot of fun," Kate said as they made their way around the park. "Somehow, it doesn't seem as hot here. Reason enough to come."

"Oh, don't forget the pungent smell of urine," Emma reminded her.

"I think it's growing on me," Kate decided.

"That's what I'm worried about," Emma said, giving her a playful pinch.

"Well, we're at the front gate, and it's 9:45. I guess we'd better go. C'mon, Cupid." The pup ran to them, ears up, followed by a pack of his friends. "Not you guys, just Cupid." Kate attached his lead, and all of the other dogs ran away, mortally afraid of the same fate.

They got into the car and started the engine, the air conditioning feeling wonderful after the time in the park. "Hey," Kate said, "look at that pair."

Emma followed Kate's pointing finger and saw a pair of young women with a frisky blond Labrador puppy. "Cute pup," she said.

"God, you've been at the park too long," Kate said. "I meant the women."

Emma took a longer look and focused her attention on the couple. They were dressed in haute lesbian couture, and each had a hand in the other's rear pocket. They stopped repeatedly to kiss or touch. "They're adorable!"

"Were we ever that young?"

"Yep. The bigger question is, did we ever look so obviously in love?"

She turned, and was met by Kate's lips. Kate threaded her fingers through Emma's dark hair and whispered, "We still do sometimes."

Their surroundings were forgotten, and they kissed again. Kate turned almost fully in her seat, and Emma heard the squeak of her thigh against the leather seat. Kate pressed against her and took her in her arms. Emma felt the strength and surety in those arms and surrendered to her completely. Kate seemed to be part of her - her smell, the light sheen of sweat on her skin, the weight of her breasts - all coming together with Emma's own. Her head began to swim, and she lost track of her boundaries. A flush of desire spread through her body, heating her skin and making her throb. Kate was at her neck and ear, breathing lightly. "Em," she said, and it sounded like a plea. Emma molded her mouth to her partner's, and their lips parted. She felt Kate's tongue and took it into her mouth, sucking lightly. "Unh," the blonde moaned and pressed closer. Her hand went to Emma's neck, and she held her in place while they both sucked slowly and slid together.

The sound of a nearby car door startled them, and they pulled apart. "When's the last time we did that?" Emma asked, breathless.

"Uhm ... tonight." Cupid was in the back seat, not making a sound, and when Kate turned to check on him, he was lying on his side, sound asleep. "I think we've been here awhile," she said. Looking at the clock, she was astounded to see that it was 10:30.

"It's past your bedtime, Katie."

"Yeah." Kate sat back and turned the key in the ignition, smiling at Emma. Emma was smiling back.

#

"Right to sleep, now. No reading under the blankets with your flashlight."

Kate giggled, enjoying the wonderful giddiness of happy fatigue. "I promise. ... Good night, Em."

"Night."

She was halfway up the stairs when Emma caught up with her.

"Kate?"

She turned, finding herself face-to-face with her partner, who was a step lower. Emma put her arms around Kate's waist and slid her hands up her back beneath her shirt. They both ached a little, and their kiss was sweet and slow. Kate sighed when the brunette pulled back and placed feathery kisses on her eyelids.

"Sleep tight, my Katie."

"'Kay."

Emma watched her go, then went back down the stairs to close up the house. She wound up on the couch with Cupid, both of them staring into the middle distance, lost in thought.

"Something is changing, buddy. Something big is changing, and it's good."

#

By the next weekend, they knew not only a few dozen dog names, but some human names as well. The humans mainly discussed their dogs, everything about their dogs, and really nothing but their dogs, but one day, there was a buzz throughout the park. Someone had suggested a doggie Halloween party, complete with costumes. At first, Emma and Kate discreetly rolled their eyes, but the more they thought about it, the better it sounded. Cupid would look fantastic as a superhero, a knight, a court jester, one of the Village People ...

#

On Tuesday night, Emma came in, shedding her work trappings as she went. She found Kate in the kitchen and wrapped her arms around her from behind. She nuzzled the blonde's hair and was filled with happiness and longing.

"Kiss me, Kate." She giggled a little every time she said it.

"Mmm." Kate turned in her embrace, wrapped her in her arms - then popped her own wad of chewed gum into Emma's mouth and ran.

"Oh, blech! Nice."

Kate was howling with laughter from across the room.

"Somebody needs a little discipline," Emma said menacingly.

The chase around the kitchen table began right on cue with Cupid gleefully joining in the merriment.

#

Later that evening, they were sitting in the den, watching TV when Emma pulled one of Kate's bare feet into her lap. "Poor little tootsies," she said. "You're on your feet all day long now."

"Don't I know it," Kate said. "I'm gonna have to start going for pedicures."

"No need." Emma started to massage her, smiling when Kate purred with pleasure. Soon Kate was on her back, both feet in Emma's lap. Her eyes were closed and she was on the verge of sleep.

Emma tickled her soles lightly. "Time for bed, sweetie. It's ten o'clock"

"Don't wanna go," Kate's baby voice answered.

"I know. But you have to be up early." She put Kate's feet on the floor and helped her up. "See you in the morning."

"'Kay." Kate draped her arms around her partner and kissed her, nearly missing her mouth. "Tired."

"I love you, Katie."

"Love you, too." She shuffled towards the stairs, saying, "Thanks for the foot rub. I feel loved."

"You are," Emma said, blowing her one last kiss.

#

Mid-September brought a welcome break in the hot weather Chicago had had all summer. Cupid, it was clear, was a very reliable barometer because this change in the air had him positively wriggling with happiness. Kate, who was always early to bed and early to rise, had become Cupid's morning walk partner. She wasn't complaining about the weather either - though wriggling seemed out of her reach.

I'm so happy about doing this morning walk; it's almost like a meditation for me. I'm so clear when I get to the office. We should've gotten a dog a long time ago. "Isn't that right, boy? Isn't that right, my fat boy? Gimme' that belly! Give it to me! Ohh, he's not fat! No, he's not! Come on, Cupid, let's get your lead." No second invitation was needed; the dog shot out of the kitchen with Kate following at a safe distance.

She bent and clipped his leash to his collar, and before she was upright again, Cupid was racing for the stairs to the second floor. "Cupe! What're you doing?"

The dog dashed upstairs and sat in front of the still-sleeping Emma's closed door, thumping, scratching, whining and dancing from left to right. Kate had followed as fast as she could, but the damage was done.

"I'm up, I'm up. Yeah, yeah. I'm up."

Kate had caught up, and she opened Emma's door, realizing as she did that she was looking forward to the prospect of seeing her partner at this early hour. Cupid trotted in and jumped up onto the bed with his leash held invitingly in his mouth.

Kate leaned against the jamb and giggled. "Morning."

"What's all this about?" Emma said, propping herself up on her elbows.

"Well, you know our dog as well as anyone. What do you think he wants?"

Emma's moan turned into a laugh as she fell back onto her bed. "Oh, fine. I'll be down in a minute."

#

"Wow. Is it always so beautiful at this hour of the morning?" Emma came out their front door with a generous mug of coffee in hand.

"You know, it is deeply troubling that you can't make it around the block without caffeine, Fiend," Kate said, giving the taller woman a friendly slap on the back.

The old nickname caught her by surprise, and Emma let out a hearty laugh. "Oh, damn! I haven't thought of that in years! Besides, listen to you - Brazil called, Katie; they need some beans back." But as she ribbed her, Emma linked her arm through Kate's and they began their walk, Cupid leading the way.

"You're behind the learning curve, Fiend. I'm drinking tea now."

"What? You're kidding!"

"I am not," Kate assured her. "And it gets worse."

"Don't tell me!" Emma gasped.

"Yes, it's true ... decaffeinated!"

Their walk and affectionate banter continued for several blocks that morning, with Cupid turning occasionally to be certain that his little pack was happy and intact.

#

Kate was sitting out back, listening to the sounds of her neighborhood at night and the sound of Emma in the kitchen. Cupid was lying on the grass next to her, his head on his paws. Kate watched as he twitched and seemed to dream. "Are you chasing rabbits?" she whispered.

Her self-imposed nightly workload was long over, and she'd been letting idle thoughts run their course. She found herself taken unaware at one point by the realization that she was content. Well, happy really, and she had been for a little while now.

"One cup of Tazo Wild Sweet Orange."

"Ooo, thanks, Em." Kate took a sip. "Are you having a cup?"

"No. I still prefer the traditional after-dinner treat - chocolate," she said, fishing some Kisses from her shirt pocket.

Cupid got up for a scratch from Emma and then settled between them.

"Thanks for dinner tonight. You haven't lost your touch; it was great."

"Anytime. But I gotta tell ya, I'm beat. I know why you go to bed so early."

"Ooo ... is the baby tired?"

"Yes, the baby is tired."

"Might as well head up," Kate said. "How about you, Cupid? Ready to turn in?"

Emma answered for him. "We're right behind ya."

They turned off lights as they passed them and climbed the stairs together. Kate reached out when they both paused and took Emma's hand, guiding her into their bedroom.

#

Just after dawn, Kate woke and snuggled closer to her partner. Her hand was on Emma's belly, just the way it had always been when they slept together. Emma stirred in her arms, waking slowly. She put her hand atop Kate's and pressed gently. "This okay?" Kate whispered in her ear.

"Of course." Emma pulled the hand up and kissed it. "Silly girl."

Kate stilled, on the verge of asking a question, but she immediately thought better of it. They got out of bed and threw on their clothes, since Cupid was desperate to go out.

Kate was unnaturally quiet on the outbound trip, and Emma took her hand and asked, "Everything okay?"

"Sure." That one word answer didn't provide many clues, so Emma tried again.

"How'd it feel to sleep together?"

"How'd it feel to you?" Kate countered, not revealing anything.

Emma stopped and put her hand on her partner's shoulder. "I can tell something's bothering you. What is it?"

"Why'd you do it?"

"Why'd I do what, honey?"

Kate looked like she was on the verge of tears. "Why'd you leave our bed?"

"Leave our ...?"

"Why'd you move out of our bedroom?"

"Sweetheart, I thought we'd agreed. It made sense at the time."

Kate's head shook. "It never made sense to me. I just didn't want to fight."

"Baby! Our habits were so different! We didn't eat at the same time, go to sleep at the same time. You know what a light sleeper I am."

"You were always a light sleeper. You used to be willing to put up with that to be with me."

Emma was surprised by the hot tears that suddenly spilled down her cheeks. All she was able to say was, "Oh, Katie."

Kate took her hand again and said, "Come on, let's walk."

"I don't know how it started, but everything seemed to go wrong at once. When my dad died I just wanted to be alone. I'd lie in bed and cry all night long, and I didn't want you to see that."

"Emma, why? That's why we're together."

"I know that now, but I didn't have a clue back then. I was scared, I was depressed, I hated my job. I felt like running away from home."

"You mean running away from me."

Emma grasped her partner's hand harder. "Not just you. I was running away from everything. My feelings, my sadness. It was a horrible time for me."

Kate stopped and wiped the tears from Emma's cheeks. "If I'd known what you were going through, I could have helped. I just thought you were ... tired of me ... of our life."

"No, no, never! I've never been tired of you, Katie. I was just depressed. Then, when I started my new job, I was depressed and overwhelmed. I never should have taken on a new job and school at the same time. But I obviously wanted to tire myself out - so I could sleep at night."

"Em, please, please don't ever keep something like that from me again! What's the point of being in a relationship if we can't rely on each other for support and understanding."

"We were young, Kate. We didn't have much experience. We were stupid."

"I should have asked," Kate said. "I shouldn't have let you go so easily."

Emma drew her into a hug and said, "I'll never go away again."

"I'll never let you."

#

That night they lay in bed, both feeling apprehensive and tentative. Kate was propped up on one elbow, and she brushed the fine hair from Emma's brow. "I want to make love again," she said, "but ... I'm a little scared."

Emma brought the hand to her lips and kissed it. "I am, too. I feel kinda awkward. Like I did the first time my parents let me have Jane stay overnight when they were gone for the weekend. I knew I wanted to touch her, and I knew she wanted me to, but it was so hard to break the ice."

"What'd you do?" Kate asked.

"Nothing." Emma laughed and said, "It took me another six months to get another opportunity, and that time, I just bit the bullet. But it scared the hell out of me."

"I don't want you to be afraid of me, baby. Let's take it slow. Get used to each other again. Wanna just go to sleep?"

Emma rolled onto her side to face Kate and said, "I wanna kiss."

They kissed, slowly and softly, exploring each other's mouths with an unhurried thoroughness. Emma slipped her hand under Kate's shirt and cupped her breast, smiling through the kiss.

"Like that?" Kate asked.

"Mm-hmm. Very much. I've missed them."

"They've missed you, too. Don't play favorites."

Both breasts were fondled gently, Emma's touch a little tentative, but very welcome. Kate put her hand on Emma's rear and pulled her tight to her. She could hear Emma's heartbeat racing, and she knew they should slow down. "I love you. I loved this," Kate whispered.

"I did too," Emma said. "Go to sleep now?"

"Yeah. Let's sleep." Emma rolled onto her side and Kate snuggled up to her back, her hand in it's favorite place - right on her lover's belly. It wasn't long before they'd dropped off and their hearts slowed to beat in unison.

#

Halloween morning found Kate and Emma putting the finishing touches on Cupid's tux. "I still say the eye patch is a great idea," Emma said.

"He's not a pirate going to a formal dinner," Kate said. "No eye patch."

"Okay, I guess you're right. But he does look cute in it."

"He would also be driven insane by it," Kate said. "It's bad enough that we're dressing a dog in a tuxedo. Can't we stop there?"

"I guess it would ruin his allure if he repeatedly walked into the fence at the park," Emma said.

"Our work here is done. You get to look like a dog until three o'clock, Cupe. Then, it's Cary Grant."

"Let's see what game's on and think about lunch. I'm working up an appetite."

They sat together on the leather sofa, Emma's leg crossed over Kate's. Cupid napped on the floor, his morning of modeling and posing having proved too much for him. Emma surfed a bit until she found her new favorite commercial. It always made her laugh herself silly, and when she turned to Kate to comment, she found herself just inches from her face. There was something indescribable in her expression, and Emma felt her heart beat pick up. Without a word, she pulled Kate onto her lap, and they kissed tenderly. Emma's hands slipped under Kate's shirt and started to massage her back while the kisses continued. Kate squirmed further into her embrace, and the kisses grew hotter.

Soon Emma was lying on the sofa, Kate on top of her, slowly moving against her. Emma's tongue darted into her lover's mouth, teasing and arousing her. Kate grasped Emma's ass, grinding her into her pelvis. They were mouth to mouth, breast to breast, belly to belly, their lips never losing contact.

Kate rasped into Emma's ear, "Baby ... I love you." She fumbled breathlessly, sitting up just enough to pull her T-shirt over her head. Emma's shirt followed, and Kate lay back down, purring in delight when their breasts crushed against each other. Emma's skin was so hot, so soft, so delicate, but her breasts were firm and resilient, cushioning Kate's weight.

Emma's hands roamed up and down Kate's bare back, pulling her into her body. She needed her closer, no matter how close she was. Her hunger for her was enormous, and she felt like she'd never be sated.

Just when she felt as though she would scream, Kate's sure hands slid her sweatpants off of her. The smooth leather surface of the couch felt cool against her heated skin, and she opened her legs in anticipation. Sensing her need, Kate's hand traveled along her thigh, causing goose bumps wherever it touched. She paused for just a second, cupping Emma's warmth in the palm of her hand. "I can't to wait to touch you," she murmured.

Emma grabbed her arm with both of her hands, pulling Kate against her. Their lips met again as Kate parted her gently and began to stroke her, Emma's incoherent utterances urging her along. Kate's fingers were drawn to the heat, and she slid inside, feeling Emma shiver. Her tongue probed her lover's mouth while her fingers slipped through her wetness. Emma's flesh pulsed against her hand, her cries growing louder and more desperate. Giving her the relief she so badly needed, Kate touched just the tip of her clitoris, barely exerting any pressure against the tender spot.

Stifling a howl, Emma cried out when she crested, Kate's wet fingers still pumping inside of her. She grabbed her lover and hugged her as hard as she could, rocking gently as she came down from her high. "My God, I've missed this," Kate murmured. "How could we let this go?"

"That doesn't matter," Emma soothed. "The only thing that matters is our future."

#

"Hey, there they are!" John said, taking his wife's hand and weaving through the crowd. John, Kirsten and Milo were joining Kate, Emma and Cupid for Halloween afternoon at the dog park. They hadn't gone as far as a full-fledged costume for their dog, but they did outfit Milo in a fetching little Cubbies T-shirt.

"Hi, guys! Happy Halloween!" Emma said, reaching to kiss her family. "Aw, look at Milo. Sweet!"

"Welcome to the Kanine Kostume Parade," Kate said, kissing John's then Kirsten's cheek. "God, I hate it when people use K's to deliberately misspell stuff. What is up with that?"

Kirsten laughed. "I don't think we can ever know that, Kate." She bent to pet Cupid and said, "Oh, you did it! The tux is gorgeous! And so are you, little man. Yes, you are."

"He looks like half the top of a dog wedding cake," John said.

"He does!" Kirsten said, laughing. "Is that a diamond stud in his shirt?"

"Well, they're all formal shirt studs, but this one - see? - is a rhinestone. Cute, huh? A guy needs a little extra sparkle sometimes," Kate said.

"Gosh, some of these dogs are outrageous," Kirsten said. "Ha! What's that - I think - bulldog supposed to be? Isn't that just garbage?"

"Oh, that's Oliver; he's toxic waste," Emma explained.

"Eww! Poor pup."

"Let's take our guys for a stroll, and I'll show you some of my favorites," Emma said, taking Kirsten's arm. "Wait'll you see the dog that can walk backwards and has a Pat Robertson mask on its ass."

John and Kate laughed, trailing behind. "Hey, John?"

"Yeah?"

"I'd love it - I mean, Em and I would love it - if you and Kirsten joined us for Thanksgiving this year."

"Really? Don't you guys usually go to your parents' house?" John asked.

Kate stopped. "We used to, but I'm thinking, ya know - it's time to start our own family traditions."

"We are a family, right down to our dogs," John said. "We'll be there, Kate, with bells on."

"Great!"

"No moratorium on puns, right?"

"No moratorium," Kate agreed, giving her brother-in-law a quick hug.

#

The party broke up early, since it was dark before five o'clock. Emma and Kate said goodbye to John, Kirsten and Milo, and dragged Cupid to the car. "Come on, boy; you can't go to Milo's house," Kate said. "I know you love him, but you'll see him soon."

"Really?" Emma asked. "Did you make plans?"

A slightly guilty expression settled on Kate's face. "I ... should have talked to you first, but I invited John and Kirsten to our house for Thanksgiving."

Emma slid into the car and sat still for a moment. Kate and the dog followed suit. The only sound in the vehicle was Cupid's usual quiet panting. "I can't believe you did that," she said quietly, and Kate thought she saw a tear.

"I'm sorry, honey, I know I should have talked to you first ..."

Emma turned to her, and Kate saw that there were tears, but there was also a beautiful smile on her face. "You've made so many changes in such a short time." She took Kate's hand and held it against her cheek, then kissed it. "I feel so loved. More than I ever have."

"Really?" Kate smiled as well, looking expectant. "More than ever?"

"Oh, yes, baby. Yes. When we were young, I knew you cared for me, and I knew you were attracted to me - but I wasn't sure how much you loved me. Now I don't have a doubt in the world."

Kate leaned over and hugged her partner, giving her a good squeeze. "You never should have doubted me. I would've done anything you asked. You just never asked for anything."

Using just the tips of her fingers, Emma drew them along Kate's cheek and past her mouth, smiling when Kate sucked one of them in. "We've both grown up a little. Now you know how to make me feel loved without my telling you how to do it. You know me well, and you know yourself better, too."

"I guess growing up isn't so bad after all, is it?"

"Not if you do it right," Emma said, giving her lover a noisy kiss. "Let's go home and play."

"I need to stop at the store for a few things," Kate said. "I'd like to make a special Halloween dinner. I'll drop you two off first, okay?"

"Sure, if you don't mind. We could just order in."

"Nah. No carry outs on the weekend. If we have time, we should pamper ourselves with a good meal. You get Cupid out of his tux, and I'll be home in no time."

#

Kate was gone for so long that Emma was sure something had happened to her. "Sweetheart, is everything all right?" she asked, her concern evident, when she reached her on her cell phone.

"Oh, sure, I just had to make another stop. Sorry I didn't call. I won't be long."

"Hurry up," Emma said. "We miss you."

"Will do.

Forty-five minutes later, Kate came home, her arms laden with bags. "Sorry it took me so long," she said as Cupid jumped all over her, acting like he hadn't seen her for days. "I kept thinking of one more thing I had to buy." She put the bags on the counter and shrugged out of her coat.

"Damn, Katie, what is all of this?"

"One more thing!" Kate dashed back out to the car, running in with an enormous bouquet of lilies and roses. She held it in front of Emma and said, "This is just a small way of showing you how happy I am that we've been able to make a new start." She leaned forward and kissed her partner. "I love you, Em."

"What beautiful flowers, Kate!"

"There's a card attached," the blonde said. "Yeah, that's it. G'wan and open it."

As Emma read the card, she started to cry. "You are so sweet," she sighed. "Is this true? Did your life really not start until we met?"

"Of course it's true," Kate said. "Every day we have together is precious to me, Em. I honestly didn't know what it felt like to be happy until I met you."

They held each other tight, sharing a few kisses. "I bought some champagne, too," Kate said. "I thought we deserved a little celebration."

"Ooo ... I love champagne." She took the bottle out of the transparent, golden wrap and nodded approvingly. "You really know how to run a romance; you bought the good stuff."

"Just what you deserve."

"Would you like me to open it now?"

"Nah. Let's wait a little while. I'll make dinner first."

"I'll help."

#

The dinner wasn't extraordinarily fancy, but it required all of Kate's culinary skills. Emma was very complimentary, beaming at her lover for her efforts. "More champagne?" Kate asked.

"Sure. It's delicious, Katie." She took a sniff, letting the bubbles tickle her nose. "A great meal and a great wine."

"Save a little because we have to toast."

"Okay. What are we toasting?"

"Us," Kate said. She reached below the table and took out two boxes she'd hidden when she set the table. "Here's a little gift I saw when I was out. I don't know why, but something about it said, 'Take me home to Emma.'"

Emma laughed at her playfulness. "When gifts talk to you, you just can't ignore them. It'd be rude." She opened the box and took out a lovely camisole and a pair of matching panties. They were a pale salmon color - satin with lace trim. "Lingerie?" she asked batting her eyes.

"I know you don't wear a lot of lingerie, but I thought it was a nice way to celebrate our ... uhm ... physical closeness."

"I have a feeling we'll get close pretty quickly if I put this on. I know how you feel about sexy undies."

Kate blushed becomingly. "Well, everyone needs a hobby." She cleared her throat and slid a smaller box across the table. "One more present."

"More? Really?"

"Yep. One more."

"You are full of surprises today, Katie." An anticipatory smile was on her face, but Emma's expression quickly turned serious. "Oh, sweetheart, this is so beautiful!"

Kate took the ring from her partner and explained, "This ring has three different bands that are all connected. The first one represents the years we've had together. This one," she said, indicating the silver one, "is for our future and all of the joy we'll experience together. But this one, the most valuable one," she said, holding up the gold band and watching it sparkle in the candlelight, "is for the present. The time we have now - the ways we show each other every day that we not only love each other, but that we're in love with each other." She slipped the ring on Emma's hand, making a face when it was too small. "I'll take this one," she said, laughing. She stuck her hand in her pocket and pulled out three more rings. "I didn't want to screw this up," she said, "so I bought four, figuring that two out of the four would fit us." The next attempt fit perfectly, and Emma gazed at it with an expression of wonder.

"I can't believe how perfectly wonderful this entire day has been," she said, her eyes sparkling with tears. "Making love with you, having fun with Cupid, your offering to share the holidays with my brother and now this." She looked at the shiny, tri-color bands and then gazed at Kate. "I love you with all my heart, Katie."

"That's exactly how I feel about you, Em. All of my heart for all of my life." Kate stood and pulled Emma up. They hugged each other for a long time, then started to kiss. "Let's go upstairs," Kate murmured. "Cupid's too young to see the things I want to do to you tonight."

Giving her a sexy smile, Emma grabbed the new accessories. "No time like the present to wear the new undies, huh?"

"God, I love how you think," Kate said, kissing Emma while she guided her to the stairs. "And taste ... and smell ... and feel ..."

Cupid cocked his head, doggie instinct telling him that he wasn't going to get to join his mommies at the moment. He went into the living room and curled up on the sofa. He dozed, but didn't sleep, knowing that his job was to protect his pack and keep them safe all the days of his life.


 

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