The Field Trip
In a rush of adolescent excitement, ten eleven-year-olds, in uniforms signifying one of the infamous Beverly Hills prep schools, descended upon the Page Museum in Hancock Park. Within seconds they turned the solitude of a quiet Tuesday afternoon into a cacophonic, hands-on learning experience.
Jo Zane was sitting next to one of the displays, sketching. She was trying to capture on paper the essence of an ancient Indian woman whose bones had been excavated from the area around the La Brea Tar Pits. Although there was a filmed reconstruction of the womans facial features, Jos artistic sense told her that with the angles of her cheekbones and the shape of her chin the woman would have looked totally different from the vision that kept appearing and disappearing before her eyes. She watched as the exhibit went from flesh and hair to skeletal remains. She then erased, for at least the fourth time, the facial features she could not seem to capture to her satisfaction. Suddenly, her concentration was shattered by a loud exclamation.
"Wow! Check out this sloth bone!" One of the schoolboys was trying to lure his friend away from the asphalt exhibit.
"Wait a minute, Kurt. You think thats cool, but try this!" The larger boy motioned for his friend to join him. "Lets see who can pull the stick out of the tar the highest."
"Its not tar, Hunter. The plaque says its asphalt."
"I dont give a shit what its called. It looks like tar to me, and they call this place the tar pits, so . . ."
"I dont care; its asphalt!"
"Well, I dont care either! Come ereIll bet I can pull this stick up higher than you can." The blond boy nudged his counterpart.
Kurt immediately pushed his friend back and tried to take the stick away from him.
By this time Jo had had about enough. She looked up from her work and glared at the two boys who were now in the middle of an argument as to who was the stronger. Her eyes roamed the room in search of one of the teachers who were supposed to be keeping these kids in tow. She soon spotted a frazzled-looking blonde marching across the museum floor in the direction of the noisemakers.
"Hunter, cant you and Kurt get along for two minutes without getting into some kind of competition?" the teacher asked in an irritated tone.
"Were not bothering anyone," Hunter remarked, giving the other youngster a butt push. "Are we, buddy?"
"Listen, young man, Im not going to warn you again," the teacher threatened. "If you cant behave on these trips, you wont be allowed to come on the next one, and Ill be forced to tell your dad how you behaved today."
"Who gives a fuck?" the boy whispered, loud enough to be heard by both the teacher and any patrons standing close by, as he moved toward the next exhibit.
It was absolutely none of her business, but Jo could not control her desire to meddle. Steel-gray eyes narrowed into slits and with a stern expression she spoke to the rude child. "You shouldnt talk to your teacher like that."
"Yeah, says who?" came the quick retort from the boy, as he threw an evil glance in Jos direction.
The teacher took a step closer to the two students, but Hunters attention was now riveted on the seated woman. Jo rose and the boys eyes followed her movement. He kept his eyes on hers as her face went from being level with his own to towering above him. He bent his head back to continue eye contact. By the time she was standing, his mouth had gone slack.
She ventured two long strides forward and stood looking down at the mesmerized boy. "Good way to catch flies," she smirked as she reached out with a long, tapered finger and gently pushed his chin up. In a deep contralto voice laced with a strong New York accent, Jo continued. "I dont know much about how theyre teaching nowadays, but when I went to school, kids respected their elders, and a remark like the one that came out of your mouth would have gotten you suspended. Do you suppose an apology to your teacher might be in order?"
Hunter broke eye contact as he tried to regain his composure. He considered telling the stranger to mind her own business, but her presence was definitely intimidating. "Um, yeah," he replied in a meek voice. "I guess so."
Jo raised one eyebrow and nodded in the direction of the blonde woman who was staring at the usually unruly boy in total confusion.
"Well?" Jo asked.
Hunter cleared his throat and turned to his teacher. "Sorry, Miss McCole, um, I guess I was out of line."
Never had the teacher seen Hunter Lane stopped dead in his tracks. She glanced in the strangers direction and then turned her attention back to her charge. "Yes, you were, young man, and it seems as though youve been doing that more and more lately. Why dont you two join Miss Dougle and the rest of the class over by the fossil lab? See if you can keep out of trouble for the rest of the afternoon. Well talk later."
The boy lost no time in escaping the watchful eye of the tall stranger and the wrath of his teacher. He pulled Kurt along with him and they joined the rest of the students on the far side of the room.
Miss McCole turned to Jo, who had walked back to the case containing the Indian maiden. "Theyre just at a difficult agetwo-digit in-betweenstoo old to be treated like babies and too young to be treated like teenagers. I guess its my turn to apologize for them disturbing your work." She extended her hand. "My names Kirstie McCole."
Jo accepted the womans hand and gave it a long, strong shake. "Jo Zane. Nice to meet you, Ms. McCole, and no apology necessary."
"Just Kirstie will do . . . Im Miss McCole to fifth-graders," the blonde smiled, nodded toward the children, and for the first time really took a look at the other womans sharp, chiseled features, like those of a high-fashion model, and eyes that would have caught anyones attention. She could thoroughly understand Hunters reaction to this womans intervention. She was definitely a presence, standing almost six feet tall and having a firm muscular build that was accentuated by the sleeveless tee shirt and tight fitting jeans that she wore. Kirstie felt her face flush when she realized she was staring.
Jo broke the awkward silence with a question. "This may sound ridiculous, but I need to ask you anyway. Are you of American Indian heritage?"
Kirstie laughed and batted her eyelashes. "Do I look Indian?"
"No, not exactly, but there is something in the shape of your face that fits what I think that maiden should look like." She pointed to the looped film in the showcase. "Ive been trying to pinpoint whats wrong with this interpretation, and I think I know. They only had 17 bones to reconstruct her from, and I dont think they did a very good job of capturing her true beauty."
"Oh, so youre an artist."
"Sometimes." Jo flashed a dazzling smile at the smaller woman. "It can be a good conversation starter where I otherwise might not get a chance to talk to complete strangers."
"Ill bet. Listen, Id love to stay and chat, but I think the other teacher would consider that a dereliction of duty, especially considering the activity level of this group."
"Pampered children of the rich and famous, no doubt?"
Kirstie gave her an impish smile, tilted her head, and shrugged her shoulders. "Nice to meet you, Jo. I hope you get some work done now that I have my troublemakers out of your hair. I really should go help Sandy herd the class into the movie room."
As she turned to leave, a strong hand cautiously touched her elbow. "Excuse me, Kirstie, I dont mean to be impetuous, but Im new to the area, and I was wondering if you could tell me where I might find a good place to eat dinner, one that isnt a tourist trap?"
The blondes skin tingled where Jo touched her. She could feel goose bumps forming on her arm. Damn, Kirstie, what in heavens name is wrong with you? "Ah, give me a few minutes to get the kids situated in the theater, then Ill slip out and talk to you."
"Thanks, I appreciate that." Jo watched as the other woman hurried toward the other end of the museum to rejoin her co-worker and the students. Well, thats encouraging, at least Ill get to talk to her one more time. Nowhow am I going to explore her personal life without sounding like a pervert? She doesnt wear a wedding band or an engagement ring, and she seems to be the type who would. I did happen to catch the blush in her cheeks and the goose flesh on her arm when I touched her, so I might just stand a chance if I play my cards right and dont scare her off. Time to be charming, Jo, old girl.
Kirstie reached the entrance to the theater in time to help round up the stragglers and accompany them into the semi-darkened room. When all of the students were seated and quietly whispering amongst themselves, the two teachers retired to the back of the room to await the start of the movie and hopefully a 45-minute respite from inquisitive minds. As the first strands of the opening music played, Kirstie reminded the students that they were to listen and learn with their eyes and ears, not with their mouths, and that there would be a discussion on the film in class the next day. There was a small round of moans, but soon everyone except for the teachers was engrossed in the display of prehistoric mammals marching across the screen.
"Kirstie, what the heck have you been doing for the past 15 minutes?" Sandy whispered.
"Fifteen minutes, was it really that long? Gosh, Im sorry, Sandy. I got caught up talking to one of the patrons that Hunter and Kurt had disturbed with their shenanigans."
Even in the darkness Kirstie knew there was a grin on her friends face.
"Yeahright. They disturbed her while she was trying to draw; shes an artist from New York."
"Hmm, 15 minutes and you already know shes from New York and that shes an artist. Fast work, kiddo."
"Very funny. The accent is a dead giveaway, at least Im pretty sure its New York, and she was drawing when the boys started their nonsense."
"Of course it didnt hurt any that shes drop-dead gorgeous, tall, dark, and . . ."
"Okay, Im caught."
"So what else did you find out?"
"Just that shes new to the area and wants to know if there is somewhere close that isnt a tourist trap where she can eat dinner."
Kirstie elbowed her friend in the ribs. "I didnt ask . . . yet." She leaned in closer to her friend and whispered. "I did notice that she wasnt wearing a wedding ring."
Sandy giggled and shook her head. "Listen, everything is under control in here. If it gets hectic Ill send one of the monitors in search of you. Go . . . but when we start filing out you had best come join the group." She gave her friend a gentle push toward the opening of the room. "You know I expect to be filled in completely on the ride back to school."
"Absolutely. Thanks, Sandy, youre a keeper." Kirstie took a long look around and when she was satisfied that all the kids seemed to be interested in what was happening on the screen, she hurried out of the room.
Jo was still sitting where she had left her, and Kirstie took in the vision of the woman she was walking toward. Jos short-cropped raven-colored hair accentuated her long neck; her long, slender fingers applied quick short strokes of pencil to the piece of art she was creating. Jo must have felt the Kirsties eyes upon her for she suddenly stopped drawing and looked up. Her eyes met Kirsties as the blonde stopped before her.
"Hi again," Kirstie said.
"Hi yourself. Glad you could make it back." Jo put her pencils away and moved them off the bench and then motioned for Kirstie to sit beside her.
"I guess the first thing I need to ask is what you want to spend for dinner."
"Price doesnt really matter. I want a restaurant where I can be comfortable walking in dressed like I am now. But I dont want any fast-food joints, and I dont eat red meat."
"Okay, that cuts the choices down considerably." Kirstie smiled. "You said red meat; do you eat chicken or pork or . . ."
"No, no mammals. But I do eat seafood."
"Great. Now, do you want someplace close to where you are staying?"
"That might be a good idea, until I get the lay of the land, so to speak."
"Okay," Kirstie chuckled, "then youll have to tell me where youre staying."
"Duh!" Jo smacked herself on the forehead. "Im at the Le Parc Suites Hotel on Knoll Drive, about five minutes from here."
The other womans eyes got large and round and she took a deep breath. "Wow, I guess you wouldnt care about the expense, not if thats where youre calling home."
"I know, youre probably thinking that I have a kitchenette, so why not use it. But I just got in last night and havent had a chance to do any looking around for supermarkets. Besides, Im a typical spoiled New Yorker . . ."
I knew it! I knew she was from New York. Kirstie congratulated herself.
" . . . I have a few favorite restaurants at home that I frequent almost on a daily basisthat is, when Im not ordering in. I live alone and hate the thought of having to eat my own cooking."
"I see." Kirstie grinned and scratched her head. "Now Im totally not sure where to send you for dinner."
"Let me put it this way. If you were to go to dinner with me, dressed like I am, and there was no spending limit, where would you like to go for a dinner that was delicious without being extravagant?"
"Since you put it that way . . . " Kirstie thought for another minute and then rattled off two or three restaurants within walking distance of Jos hotel. "Youre in a great area, so there are quite a few nice places." Curiosity got the best of her, and she decided to ask a more personal question. "So, what are you doing in L.A.?"
"My company supplies museums, hotels, resorts, large business buildings, and the like with murals and paintings. We supply our clients with contract artists, if they have a specific agenda. We also have quite an extensive inventory of art for them to choose from and, if they dont like anything in the warehouse or on the showroom floor, we can get them almost anything they so desire. This museum is thinking of expanding and wanted to know if we had an artist who could handle doing the murals. I came to check out the blueprints, get a look at the place, and a feel of what is already here. I want to find out exactly what they have in mind before suggesting someone."
"Im impressed," Kirstie remarked.
"No need to be, its just what we do."
"How long are you here for?"
"Im not sure. The client list for southern California has tripled since the last time I was here. Im sure Ill be spending a lot more time on this coast than I have in the past. I was thinking about doing some driving around and maybe doing a little house hunting this trip. It never hurts to have a place to call home, especially if Im going to be spending a lot of time here."
The sound of adolescent voices began to sift into the room. Kirstie looked toward the theater area and realized that it was time for her to go.
"Hey, it was really nice meeting you, Jo." Kirstie offered her hand. "I need to get back to work. One short walk around the outside of the building and itll be time to get these kiddies home."
Jo was not ready to let Kirstie walk out of her life. "Come to think of it, I havent seen the museum grounds, either. Would it be too much of an imposition, if I kind of tagged along on your tour?"
Relieved that she might be able to spend a few more minutes with the beautiful stranger, Kirstie wasted no time in inviting Jo to join the group. She felt strangely drawn to Jo and there was a comfortable feeling that she rarely felt upon a first meeting. "I hope you dont mind curious minds. The kids will more than likely be full of questions."
"Wont bother me in the least." Jo smiled and picked up her belongings. She slowed her pace to match that of the other woman. There was an unusual sense of familiarity with this small, green-eyed blonde.
Kirstie introduced Jo to Sandy and the three women formed a common defense against a barrage of questions fired upon them by the students about all the exhibits and displays they had seen in the museum. They were given a short break when the tar pits became the center of the young peoples attention.
Sandy said goodbye to Jo and told Kirstie that she didnt need any help getting the kids on the bus. "But departure will be in ten minutes," she warned.
The blonde again thanked her friend and turned to say her own farewell to Jo. "Its really been a pleasure meeting you, Jo . . ."
"Didnt you say something like that a few minutes ago?"
"Yeah, I probably did, but I have to be on that bus when it leaves, or I wont have a job in the morning."
"I understand that," Jo acknowledged. "But since I dont have any time to be subtle about thisare you busy for dinner tonight?"
Surprised and elated by the question, Kirstie heard her own voice answer. "No. Im not busy."
"Will you have dinner with me?"
"Id love to." It was like she was an observer, listening to the conversation. Her body was reacting and answering for her, and her mind was a swirl of excitement.
"Great! Where do you want me to pick you up?"
Now that question came a little fast, even for Kirstie. She took hold of her automatic response system and pulled the emergency brake. "Um, maybe it would be best if we met in the lobby of your hotel."
Jo felt a small twinge of letdown but scolded herself for being so damned self-assured. Its probably better that shes a little cautious. Thats to be expected. An hour discussion does not make a stranger into a friendit takes a delicious meal to do that. She noticed that Kirstie was waiting anxiously for her answer and grinned. "Seven oclock, the lobby of the Le Parc Suites, does that suit you better?"
"Sounds perfect, Jo, see you then."
Jo watched as the pert blonde boarded the bus and she waved back when Kirstie waved goodbye. Gray eyes followed the large yellow vehicle, until it turned a corner and disappeared from view. Cant wait til seven oclock tonight! Listen to yourself, Jo Zane, you sound like a schoolgirl. Hell, its nice to feel like a schoolgirl for a change-leave me alone. She was still grinning when she opened the door to her rented car.
Kirstie had been ready to leave the house for nearly an hour, but didnt want to arrive too early for fear of seeming overly anxious. She had changed clothes twice and finally settled on a hunter-green velvet pants suit. It was a little dressier than a tee shirt and jeans, but she had a sneaky suspicion Jo would not be in the same clothes she had worn to the museum. Busywork was just not keeping her occupied, and she finally decided the hell with appearances and headed for her car.
She walked into the lobby and her attention was immediately drawn to Jo, who was seated in the chair closest to the entrance. As Kirstie had expected, the brunette had changed from her sleeveless tee into a sports shirt and a pair of khaki slacks.
Jo told her heart to stop racing as her eyes captured the picture of loveliness moving gracefully toward her. Kirsties deep green outfit brought out the emerald in her eyes, and Jo found herself more attracted to the woman walking toward her than she had been earlier in the afternoona feat she had somehow felt was an impossibility. She eagerly motioned for Kirstie to join her.
"Can I get you a drink? Ive been sitting here nursing this one for what seems like an eternity." She flashed a gracious smile at her companion.
Flustered, Kirstie glanced at her watch. "I couldnt possibly be late; I know I left the house in plenty . . ."
Jo laughed and shook her head. "No, youre not late. I just couldnt sit penned up in the suite any longer. Ive been people-watching."
The blonde breathed a sign of relief and told Jo she would love a glass of Merlot.
"Be right backheyon second thought, why dont we go into the bar? Its a little less of a fishbowl, and we can talk about where youd like to have dinner."
There was a small empty table in the far corner of the room and Jo gravitated in that direction. She pulled out the chair for Kirstie and received a shy smile. "Um, thanks Jo," Kirstie said as she sat down.
Jo chastised herself for acting so butch and reminded herself that she had no idea of Kirsties sexual orientation. This isnt a real date, you know.
Kirstie, on the other hand, was beaming within and was almost positive that her gaydar was just as reliable as, if not more than, her talent for picking up accents. Now, how do I get her to admit shes a lesbian so I can admit that Im a lesbian and we can stop playing cat-and-mouse?
"So, tell me more about this company you work for, Jo. It sounded unique when you were talking about it this afternoon."
Jo cleared her throat. "Well, I dont actually work for the company, Kirstie, I own it."
"Wow," was all the blonde could think of to say at first. She took a sip of her wine and tried to formulate a statement that wouldnt make her sound like a schoolgirl. "It sounded so big when you were discussing it in the museum."
Jo shrugged her shoulders and grinned. "Actually its not that small of a company anymore. I have about 500 full-time employees and that again in part-time people and as-needed associates. I was very lucky that there was a huge need for what I wanted to offer when I started the business."
Kirstie figured now would be the ideal time to ask if there was someone special in this successful womans life. "So, do you have a business partner or maybe someone who was there for you in the beginning for moral support . . . like a significant other?"
Ah, the question has been asked, the gates opened! "No, I dont have a partner in any sense of the word. When I opened the firm 12 years ago, I didnt have the time to invest in a personal relationship. As the years went by the business became my family. My constant traveling made it difficult to put down roots long enough to pursue a normal personal life. Its only been within the past two years that Ive started to take more time to enjoy the benefits of success. But enough about me, tell me a little about your life."
"My life is rather drab compared to yours, Im sure. You already know that Im a teacher. Its a profession I more or less fell into out of college because I wasnt sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. A liberal arts degree doesnt prepare you for many things in the mainstream work force, unless you are specialized, and I wasnt. So I became a teacher. I make enough to live comfortably, and I get three months paid vacation during the summer plus all the school holidays off and a week at Christmas and Easter. What more could a gal want?"
"Anyone special in your life?"
"No. Ive had a few flit in and out in the past ten years, but no one has stayed long enough to grow moss." She finished her wine and stared into the empty goblet. I still wasnt able to breach the subject of sexual orientationdamn!
There was a short uncomfortable silence, and Jos inner voice spoke up. Were strangers. Just ask her the damn question and get it over with. Shell either hate you and leave or your instincts will be right and you can both stop playing games-or at least this is she isnt she game. You have nothing to lose either way. The only way to do this is to step blindly into the abyss. She took a deep breath and looked intently into emerald eyes that were now staring back at her from across the table. "Im sorry, Kirstie, I drifted off for a minute."
"Thats okay; I think we just ran out of things to say for a bit."
"Actually, I didnt run out of things to say, I was busy having a conversation with myself about the topic I really wanted to discuss."
"What topic is that?"
"I guess I was wondering why you said yes to my invitation to come to dinner tonight." Now thats the cowards way out, Jo. Put it back on the other persons plate. "I know why I asked, but was pleasantly surprised when you accepted."
A slight tinge of red crept up Kirsties neck to her cheeks. Shit. Does she think Im promiscuous? "There were actually a few reasons why I accepted your invitation."
Jos eyebrow arched as she awaited the smaller womans answer.
"From the very beginning I thought you seemed like a really nice person, especially when I heard the little lecture you gave Hunter. Then when you asked me about places to dine, my heart kind of went out to you. I hate eating alone, and you never mentioned that anyone else was with you, so I assumed you were by yourself in a strange city. And finally, I was attracted to you." There, you said it, now she can either tell you to take a hike or acknowledge the fact that her butch traits are a dead giveaway.
"Hmm, I dont get many dates on the grounds that women feel sorry for me." Jo was grinning from ear to ear.
At first Kirstie groaned and mentally chastised herself for her obvious confession, but the tone of Jos voice and the way she had pronounced the words dates and women caused the blondes smile to mirror her dinner companions.
"I didnt mean . . ." Kirstie started to explain.
"I was only joking." Jo patted her on the arm.
The two women simultaneously breathed a sigh of relief to have that particular topic of conversation over with.
Jo initiated the next course of action. "Okay, now that we have that subject out of the way, and I believe we both know where we stand, where would you like to go for dinner?"
"What are you hungry for?"
"At the risk of sounding risqué, thats a loaded question, Kirstie," Jo chuckled and winked. "But seriously, the bartender here told me that the café upstairs is noted for quiet dining and good food. If you dont have anywhere else in mind, we could just stay here."
"Hmm, and then we could go back to your room to see your etchings?" Kirstie asked, as she returned the brunettes wink.
"My momma didnt raise no fool," Jo answered.
"To digress, the café sounds like a good idea. Its getting late and going anywhere else would put us dining with the aristocrats."
"Darn, I thought thats who we were."
"Not in this lifetimeat least not me." She gave Jo a questioning look. "Did I mention Im starving?"
"I dont believe you did, but we can certainly remedy that."
The two women stood, and Jo pointed the way to the elevators. The view from the café was breathtaking. For the past week the Santa Ana winds had been blowing and the air was unusually clear.
"This view is magnificent," Kirstie exclaimed after they had been seated at a table overlooking the Los Angeles skyline.
"Yes, it is," Jo agreed. "You have quite a city here, Kirstie."
Small talk continued through a delicious dinner as the two women got to know each other better. Over coffee Jo did, in fact, invite Kirstie back to her suite for a nightcap, barring the mention of etchings.
"I cant stay long," the blonde informed her hostess as she walked out to the balcony. "Im a working girl, you know, and tomorrow is just another work day."
"I promise not to keep you too late, if you promise to have dinner with me, again, as soon as your schedule allows."
Kirstie agreed and Jo handed her a snifter filled with warm blackberry brandy. "Excuse me, Ill be right back." She hurried into the bedroom and returned carrying a sheet of artists paper. "Heres the way I think the Indian maiden at the museum might have looked in life. I had a few minutes to finish it while waiting for seven oclock to arrive. It probably wouldnt be a very popular concept, but its how I see her."
Kirstie took the sketch from Jos hand. Her eyes misted over as she examined the now resplendent chalk drawing. "You colored it; shes beautiful." She looked up at the artist and then back down to the illustration. "She looks like me," the blonde whispered.
"Yeah, well, whos to say that all the people who called the Los Angeles basin home during that period of time had brownish-red skin, dark hair, and almond-shaped eyes?"
Kirstie grinned. She looked up into intent gray eyes that seemed to soften whenever her own emerald eyes found them. "You know, its not every day that a field trip with my students becomes more of an adventure for me than for them. Who would have ever thought that an afternoon spent exploring prehistoric dinosaurs and saber-tooth tigers would lead to a possible new and exciting romance . . . " she chuckled " . . . or the discovery that there might have been other people in this area besides those of Indian heritage?"
Jo placed her arm around the smaller womans shoulders and drew her close. The cool night air felt exhilarating, and the breeze made the lights of Los Angeles dance in front of their eyes. Jo gently kissed the crown of Kirsties head. "You know, this could be the start of something big."
Kirstie recognized the familiar line from an old love song and smiled. She looked down at the drawing she still held in her hands. "I guess theres some truth in the old adages love is where you find it, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder."
"Absolutely, my dear Kirstie, absolutely."