Steph slowed in front of the school, watching for an empty parking space through furiously slapping windshield wipers which, she noted distractedly, were in serious need of replacement. She rolled down the window and reached out to grab a wiper as it made its sweep, lifting it slightly and dropping it back in place, freeing it temporarily of snow and ice.
Through the newly cleared windshield, she spotted the reverse lights on a tan minivan and turned on her blinker, noticing a gigantic SUV coming in the opposite direction slowing and doing the same. She gripped the steering wheel tighter and hazel eyes narrowed as a stab of competitiveness surged through her. "Come on, Come on any day now," she muttered to herself.
After what seemed like an impossible number of children had piled into the van, the doors had been closed, and the children were instructed to put on their seatbelts, the van slowly backed out. As soon as she had enough space, Steph gunned the engine and quickly pulled the aging Subaru wagon into the vacant spot, ignoring the daggers being thrown at her by the waiting woman in the other car.
Eh, get over it, lady. I was here first. She quelled a triumphant grin, squinting through the half-cleared windshield and heavily falling snow at the school steps. Now where is my little man?
Her mouth quirked up in a tiny grin when she spotted a figure bundled in a red parka coming down the steps. She got out of the car and waved, paying no heed to the weather. The figure waved back enthusiastically and broke into an awkward run, his little black backpack slewing wildly back and forth. Steph walked around to the front of the car and laughed as small arms wrapped themselves tightly around one of her jean-clad legs.
"Hey my man." She smiled sweetly down into the excited, red-cheeked face of her nephew, giving his shoulders a squeeze. "How ya doing, Trev?"
"Hi Aunty Steph! What are you doing here?" Soft brown eyes looked past her into the wagon. "Is Jingle Bells with you?"
She laughed, and stiffly began walking to the passenger side door, the small boy still attached to her leg. "Nope, I left Jingle with your mom. I was helping her with some things around the house today, and asked her if I could pick up my favorite nephew."
The boy grinned, wrinkling his nose, which Steph found adorable and she grinned back, not realizing her nose did the exact same thing. She ducked down and reached around her leg to detach the tiny, surprisingly strong arms. "So, how was school today?"
"Eh," he said with a very adult-like shrug, "it was ok."
"Just ok?" She opened the back door and held out a hand. "Pack please." He obediently struggled out of the straps and handed her the pack. "What the heck do you have in here, buddy? This thing weighs a ton." Trevor giggled as she pretended to stagger under the packs weight. She winked and dropped the pack on the backseat.
"Its my costume."
"Oh yeah?" She scooped him up and settled him in the child safety seat. "What kind of costume?" She buckled him in, tickling him until he giggled. She loved to hear Trevor giggle. If she could bottle that sound, shed make a mint.
"All in?" He nodded vigorously and she closed the door, mashing her face against the window and making a face before shaking the snow off her coat and sliding into the drivers seat. Trevor was still giggling crazily as she shut the door and fastened her seatbelt.
"Youre goofy." He gave a little hiccup, and started giggling again.
"Why thank you very much, sir. Ill take that as a compliment." She made another face at him when she turned her head to back the wagon out into the street, and he stuck his fingers up his nose and stuck out his tongue.
"Ewwww." She stuck her tongue out at him and then concentrated on getting the car out onto the road. After she had maneuvered the car safely into traffic, she glanced at Trevor in the rearview mirror.
"So whats this costume for?"
"Its for our Christmas play. Im a little drummer boy."
"Ohhh, that sounds like fun. When is it?" He scrunched up his face in confusion, and she smiled. "Ill ask your mom." He nodded and kicked his heels against the seat, looking out the window curiously.
"Speaking of Christmas, Trev You know that means Santa Claus is coming to town soon. Have you asked for anything special?"
His attention immediately came back to her, and he started bouncing in his seat excitedly. "Oh yeah! I asked for a bike, and a Dragon Tales tent and a "
Trevor was still reciting his Christmas list to Steph when they pulled into her sisters drive fifteen minutes later, and her head was swimming with the variety and sheer number of toys Trevor was convinced were going to be under the tree.
"Sounds like Santa is going to need a whole sleigh, just for you. He might cave the roof in while hes up on the housetop with all those toys."
"Nuh-uh." He said, shaking his head with a frown.
"Uh-huh." She replied, and he giggled.
There was a blue truck parked behind Mels green Explorer, and Steph looked at it curiously as she got out of the car and walked around to get Trevor. She unbuckled him, pulled him from the seat and set him on the ground.
"Stay right there a sec, ok?" She reached across the seat for his pack, slung it across her shoulder, and held out a hand, which he took immediately. They walked towards the front door, swinging their hands back and forth while Trevor kicked at the new snow with shiny, purple boots.
At the front door they paused. Steph stamped her feet a few times, shook the snow out of her short, brown hair and brushed off her coat. Trevor mimicked her stamping motion, and shook his head, not letting go of her hand.
"What about you, Aunty Steph? What do you want for Christmas?" His voice was very serious, and she paused in her movements, feeling a rush of emotion go through her. She was amazed at how much she loved this little boy.
She looked down at his suddenly serious face and smiled. "Know what I want? All I want for Christmas is you to give me hugs, all day long. And maybe a kiss or two. Can you do that?" He wrinkled his nose at her, and she tweaked it before opening the door.
They stepped into the foyer and Steph knelt down to unzip Trevors coat and remove his boots. There were voices and laughter coming from the living room, and low whining.
"Do you hear what I hear?" She whispered conspiratorially to him as she helped him out of his coat and boots.
His body went still and his eyes wide as he strained to hear. There was a bark from the living room, and more laughter, and his face broke into a huge smile.
"Jingle Bells!" He screamed, 5 inches from her ear. She winced and watched as Trevor took off towards the living room, met halfway by an ecstatic, wiggling blue heeler. Jingle took a moment to lick Trevors face a few times and elicit a fit of giggles before scampering over to Steph, whining and wagging.
Trevor chased after the dog, and when Steph was through greeting Jingle, he followed the dog into the living room amidst greetings and laughter. Steph took off her coat and hung it on a hook by the door and then sat on a low bench along the wall to remove her shoes.
"Hey good lookin." She looked up and smiled at the dark, stocky man coming towards her. "How was the drive? Still dumping out there?"
"Hey Dom." She stood and gave her brother-in-law a hug. "Yep, its coming down hard. Like a winter wonderland out there. If it keeps up like this, were sure to have a white Christmas." She checked her watch. "Youre home early. Did you see the nursery?" Steph and her sister Mel had spent the day painting and redecorating the spare bedroom, changing it into a nursery for the newest member of the family, little Monique.
"Yeah, it looks great. You two did good. If you ever get tired of the shop, you could go into the decorating business." He moved towards the kitchen. "You want a beer? Im grabbing one for me and Sarah, and a pop for Mel."
She nodded. "Sarah?" She asked as she followed him into the kitchen. "I noticed the extra car out there. If you guys have company, I can take off."
He frowned at her. "Dont be an idiot, Steph. Youre always welcome here." He opened the refrigerator and pulled out a diet soda and three beers. "I was doing some wiring at one of new places in the mall, and ran into an old friend Mel and I used to hang out with a lot in high school." He handed her one of the beers. "Maybe you remember her? Sarah Noel? She was in our class."
Steph shook her head. "No, dont know her." She twisted off the top and took a swig, her expression thoughtful. "I did play ball with an Allison Noel, though " and had a monster crush on her, she added silently.
Dom nodded, "Yeah, that would be her sister. Sarah went to college out in Oregon Portland, I think and ended up staying after graduating. But anyway, shes home for the holidays this year. I saw her down at the mall, and invited her back for dinner." He paused and dropped his voice just a little. "Just to warn you Sarah mentioned that she had broken up with her partner a while ago, so I think Mel is trying to play matchmaker."
Steph looked down at her paint-flecked clothes and rolled her eyes. "Fantastic." Mel was always trying to set her up. On the face of it, it was very sweet. Unfortunately, Mels only criterion was that the woman be a lesbian. Granted, an important distinction, but Steph tended to be a bit pickier.
She smiled wryly at Dom, and patted his arm. "Thanks for the warning. Do you want me to take one of those?" She gestured at the beers and soda he was struggling to hold.
"Nah, I got it." He gave her a teasing grin, and gestured with his head towards the living room. "Come on. Let me introduce you to your new girlfriend."
She kicked him gently in the butt as she followed him out of the kitchen, laughing softly. "Lead me on, dear brother."
They walked down the hall and stepped down into the sunken living room where Mel sat on the couch next to a tall, reed-thin woman with sandy-brown hair, cropped just below her ears. Trevor was on his mothers lap, talking non-stop, and Monique was in the swing near the end of the couch watching the proceedings with interest. Jingle lay next to the baby on the floor.
" And Emily said her grandma went to ALASKA!" Trevor eyes were wide with amazement. "And they saw REINDEER! And even got to feed some!"
Mel made the appropriate noises to show she was listening, giving Dom and Steph a small smile when they entered the room.
"Emily said that one of the reindeers almost knocked her grandma over!"
Dom crossed the room and distributed drinks. "Emilys grandma got run over by a reindeer?" He said teasingly as he sat down in the easy chair across from the two women.
Trevor glanced at his dad. "Yeah, almost." He replied before taking a breath to resume his story.
"Did this reindeer have a red nose?" Steph asked. "Maybe it was Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer."
"Nooooo." Trevor scowled at his aunt to show her just how silly he thought her idea was. "Rudolph lives with Santa at the North Pole, not in Alaska."
"Of course how silly of me." Jingle had padded over to Steph when she entered the room and she leaned over to scratch the dogs chest a few times, nodding at the woman on the couch. "Hi, Im Steph, Melanies sister."
The woman rose and held out a hand. She was even taller than Steph expected, easily over six feet. "Sarah Noel. Nice to meet you," she said with a pleasant smile. Her eyes were bluish-gray, set in a strong, attractive face. Yes, this was definitely a relative of Allys. Her handshake was quick and firm.
"I played basketball and volleyball with your sister Allison." Steph grinned up at the woman from her much shorter five-six height. "Boy, they dont grow em small at the Noel house, do they?"
The woman laughed easily, and sat back down as Steph took a seat on the step down into the room. "Nope, were the house of giants." She studied Steph for a moment. "You were the setter, right? In volleyball? I recognize you now. I used to come to a lot of Allys games."
Steph nodded, and Sarah said, "Thought so. I remember Ally talking about you once, actually. She played at USC on scholarship after high school, and before she left she said she hoped they had someone who could set up a ball like little Stephie Deacon."
An unexpected wave of pleasure rippled through Steph, and she hid it behind a tiny smile. "Well, Im sure at USC she found a setter to her liking."
The tall woman laughed. "Yes, you could say that," she said, grinning as though she found that extremely funny.
Steph decided quickly she didnt really want to know what that smile was all about. "Whats Ally doing now? Did she stay in California?" Probably married with 3 kids in suburbia
"Shes teaching a few science courses at Rolland, and assistant coaching at the University."
"Rolland?" Steph blinked. Rolland was the citys junior college.
Where she lived.
And apparently, so did Ally.
"She lives here?" It came out sounding an awful lot like a squeak and Sarah looked at her curiously, eyebrows raised.
"Yeah, she moved back last year said she missed the seasons."
"Wow, thats "
Thats what, Steph? What are you going to do, track her down and tell her you had a teenage crush on her in high school? That maybe you still do? Oh yeah, and make a complete idiot of yourself
"Thats great for her." She finished, and decided to get off the subject. "And what are you doing now, Sarah? Dom tells me youre up in Oregon "
Sarah gave her a questioning glance, and there was a flicker of humor in her eyes, but to Stephs relief she allowed herself to be diverted from the subject of her sister, and the next hour was spent gossiping and laughing. Steph allowed the three to talk, offering to feed Monique and put her down for a nap after she set Trevor up in the next room watching Blues Clues.
When both kids were settled, she went back to the living room and tossed an occasional comment into conversation, but mostly she was content to watch and listen as the three friends entertained and charmed her with their easy camaraderie. Sarah was very down-to-earth and had a wicked sense of humor, and Steph was genuinely disappointed when the woman unfolded herself from the couch, announcing she needed to head home before her mom sent out a search party.
"She sent me to the mall for wrapping paper three hours ago " she laughed and smacked her forehead, "and I just realized that I forgot the paper. Guess Ill have to make a quick stop on the way home."
"Ive got plenty of paper here," Mel gestured with a sweep of her hand at a table in the corner, piled high with rolls of wrapping paper, ribbons, bows and tape. "Help yourself."
"Nah, Ill just grab some on the way thanks though, Mel." She turned to Steph. "It was really nice meeting you, Steph. Maybe we can get together for a beer or something this week?" The smile was friendly, and Steph sensed no underlying sexual vibe.
"Id like that, Sarah. It was nice meeting you, too." As she said the words she realized that they were true. She could think of worse ways to spend an evening than in Sarah Noels company. Mel beamed at them like a proud parent, and Steph shot her an exasperated look. Sarah caught the look and glanced over at Mel, and then back at Steph. She winked and gave Steph a small grin. "And Ill tell my sister you said hello."
"Uh yeah, thanks." Steph managed with what she thought was a neutral smile. Sarahs grin widened. She turned and shared a back-slapping, Im-stronger-than-you embrace with Dom, then wrapped Mel up in bear hug that didnt end until the smaller woman squeaked, "Have mercy!"
"Im so glad I ran into Dom. Its really good to see you two. Ill be in town for a couple of weeks, so lets get together again sometime while Im in town, ok?" As the group moved to the door, Jingle yelped and raced ahead of them, stopping at the door to stand on her hind legs and jump up and down, her body wiggling wildly.
"I think someone wants to go outside," Sarah observed dryly, pulling on her coat.
"Looks like it." Steph leaned down to scratch her dogs ears affectionately as Jingle continued her wobbly dance. "We call that the Jingle Bell Rock." She straightened. "Ill take her out back. It was nice meeting you, Sarah. Come on, J."
The tall woman smiled and nodded and Steph took her leave from the group and followed Jingle through the house to the sliding doors that led to the backyard. She let the heeler out and watched as she immediately buried her head in the snow, sniffed, jumped straight up in the air and then ran to another spot where she repeated the performance. Satisfied the dog would entertain herself for a few minutes, Steph followed the sound of voices into the kitchen.
"So, what do you think?" Mel asked immediately as her sister entered the kitchen, "Shes great, isnt she?"
Steph sent a suffering look at Dom. "Shes very nice, Mel, but hold off on the wedding plans for now, ok?"
"Mel," She said warningly.
"Honey, leave her alone. Shes a big girl, and if she wants to see Sarah again, she will," Dom reasoned, rubbing his wifes back gently.
Steph sent him a grateful smile. "Thank you, Dominic, for being the voice of reason."
Mel pouted at her husband, but dropped the subject. "Do you have time for dinner, Steph?"
"No I told Brandon Id be in by six tonight and run the machines while he decorates the store."
"Ah deck the halls night, huh? Oh, that reminds me. That silver roll of wrapping paper in the living room is for him. Can you bring it to him tonight?"
"Sure, no problem." She checked the time. "In fact, I better get going now I need to run by my place to drop Jingle off and shower and change."
She retrieved the paper from the living room and went in to tell Trevor goodbye.
"Ill see you at Grandma and Grandpas house tomorrow night, ok?" He nodded distractedly and let her hug him, his eyes never leaving the television screen. "And were going to have one-eye, one-horned, flying purple people eaters for dinner, and fish heads for dessert." He nodded again, his eyes still on the television. She smiled and shook her head, ruffling his hair. "Ill see ya tomorrow, squirt."
"Bye, Aunty Steph." His eyes finally left the screen, and he smiled sweetly at her.
"Bye-bye, baby." She said softly, and left the room.
She let the dog in and went back into the kitchen, giving her sister a quick hug as she walked by. "Damn Mel, howd the two of you manage to have such cute kids?"
"They are adorable, arent they?" Mel walked over and wrapped her arms around her husband, kissing him on the cheek. "And we have no idea how we did it."
The two smiled adoringly at each other, and Steph made gagging noises. "Ack. No mushy hetero stuff, please. Itll ruin my dinner." She walked to the foyer and sat down to lace up her boots.
Mel followed her. "Thanks again for your help today and Monique says thanks, too."
"Eh, you know I love that kind of stuff." She stood, and shrugged into her coat. "Ill see you guys tomorrow night at mom and dads. Bye."
A blast of warm air, smelling of toner and machinery, hit Steph as she let herself into the back entrance of Deacons Kwick Kopy. She and her sister had bought the business three years ago when Steph had moved back into town after a relationship had gone sour. Mel had been managing the shop for a couple of years and approached her sister when the owners expressed interest in selling. Steph had a business degree and a graphic design background, and they had added typesetting and graphics to the shops copying and binding offerings. It had turned out to be a good move; the business was small, but only a few blocks from the University campus and doing fairly well.
She went into the small office, hung up her coat and grabbed an apron, tying it as she walked out onto the floor. The waiting and self-service areas were empty, but she noted with satisfaction that all the machines behind the counter were humming; working, she hoped, on a large University job that had been brought in the day before.
"Hey Brandon, whats the word?" She addressed a pudgy young man in his mid twenties with glasses and a small pony-tail who was collating stacks of paper on a flat surface of one of the larger machines.
He smiled. "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."
She raised one dark eyebrow. "Good word."
"Uh-huh, and you should get that eyebrow of yours licensed. I bet that drives all the little girls wild."
"Not sos anyone would notice." She replied with a shrug. "So, is this the Cullen job?"
"Yup. Its about halfway done, and should be finished before you close up tonight."
They looked over as the bell above the front entrance tinkled and two young women walked in.
Steph smiled at them, and Brandon called out, "Good evening, ladies. Can we help you with anything?"
"No thanks, just making some copies," one of them replied. Brandon nodded and turned his attention back to Steph.
"Theres a present from Mel for you in back."
He clapped delightedly. "My paper?"
"Some very pretty paper."
"Goody, goody. Want to know the theme this year?"
"Lay it on me."
After a pause, he gestured theatrically with his hands. "Blue Christmas and Silver Bells."
"You said it, girlfriend. Its going to be stupendous!"
"I have no doubt, Brandon."
He gestured at several boxes behind the counter. "Kelly and I did some thrift store shopping and found three blue Christmas trees, some blue reindeer, blue angels and blue wise men. And now, with my spiffy new silver paper, I can make hundreds of silver bells to hang all over the store."
Steph looked around the small shop dubiously. "Hundreds?"
"Youll love it, I promise."
She shrugged, "Ok, but you know its Mel that has to love it, not me."
"Mel will be gaga for it. Trust me. Now let me show you whats going on with these other orders. Then I can work my magic."
She bowed low with a flourish. "As you wish, my lord."
Brandon brought her up to speed on what was going on, and then began digging through his boxes, humming happily. Steph watched him for a while and then shook her head with a smile and started punching stacks of paper for binding.
By eight oclock, the transformation was nearly complete. Every available piece of wall was now covered by either blue or silver, and Brandon had recruited Stephs help in hanging nine blue reindeer and a blue sleigh with silver runners from the ceiling behind the counter.
"Cant we just hang them directly over the counter?" Steph asked, as they both stared at the ceiling that was just out of reach, even when they stood on the stores small stepladder, "Then I could climb up on the counter, and it wouldnt be a problem."
The entry bell jingled and Brandon walked towards the counter, leaving Steph to stare at the elusive ceiling. She heard him greet the customer and a female voice decline any help.
Still staring at the ceiling she said, "Brandon, if it absolutely has to be in the middle of the floor instead of over the counter, were going to need a different ladder." She shook her head in frustration. "Or a freakin giant."
Soft, familiar laughter came from the counter. "Perhaps I can help you with at least one of those things."
Steph turned in surprise. "Sarah!"
The tall woman grinned at Steph, her hands in the pockets of faded jeans and her long length casually leaned against the front of the counter. The grin was infectious, and Steph immediately found herself grinning back.
"Hey, what are you doing here? In need of some copies?"
"Actually, no." The woman looked curiously around the shop, taking in all the decorations before resting her eyes again on Steph and looking at her intently. "But now that I know the scenery is so interesting, I may come here for all my copying needs."
Stephs smile faltered a little under the intense scrutiny and the possible double meaning of the words, but she quickly pushed the thought aside when Sarah gave her another friendly, open smile. Sarah had a great smile. Just like her sister.
"Well, Id be happy to help you with your needs," she replied automatically, and then her eyes widened in realization of what shed said. She could feel the heat immediately suffuse her face and said hastily, "I mean anytime you need copies " She shook her head. "Oh, hell."
Sarah was laughing softly, but her face was sympathetic, and Steph smiled wryly at her.
"Let me try this again. What can I do for you, Ms. Noel?"
"Well, I had come to ask you a favor, but now that I see your predicament, Im prepared to offer you a deal."
"Predicament?" The brunette asked, confused.
Sarah gestured with a long, graceful arm at the ceiling. "Your reindeer. Im prepared to supply you with one giant," she gestured to herself, "in return for a favor."
Steph lifted an eyebrow. "And the favor?"
Sarah put her hands back in her pockets. "Oh, its something I dont think youll mind. I told you that Ally was assistant coach at the University, right?"
Steph nodded cautiously.
"Well, theyve got a game tomorrow night and Id like to go, but I dont want to go alone."
Steph stared at her for a moment, trying to imagine why this confident woman would have a problem going anywhere alone.
"So," Sarah continued when Steph didnt say anything, "one giant in return for one volleyball match. Seems a fair trade to me, dont you think?"
"You want me to go to the game with you tomorrow night?"
"Yes. We can even sit behind the bench and yell obnoxious things to the assistant coach." She paused, and looked searchingly at Steph. "And after the game, you can say hi to Ally yourself."
Steph blinked. What the hell was going on? Did Sarah just ask me out, or is she trying to set me up with her sister?
"Yes." Brandons voice came from beside her, and she turned towards him, having forgotten that he was there.
"Yes what?" She asked.
He stepped past her and held his hand out to Sarah. She took it, looking slightly bemused. "Brandon Woodley. And yes, she accepts your terms."
"Terms?" Steph was fast losing track of what was going on.
"Of the deal. You know - one giant for one volleyball game." He looked at her like she was dense.
"Brandon, I "
"Come on, Stephie! We need a giant; you like volleyball; so whats the problem? And this woman " He cocked his head at the tall woman.
"Sarah." She supplied.
He nodded. "Although Sarah is quite impressive, she seems fairly harmless." He looked Sarah up and down. It took a few moments. "Youre harmless, arent you?"
"Absolutely." She said solemnly.
"Brandon," Steph began, exasperated, "Tomorrow night "
"Oh right Tuesday night. Family dinner night, right?" He tapped his finger on his chin and then snapped his fingers. "Ah-hah!" Steph jumped, and was pleased to notice even Sarah seemed startled.
Brandon peered through his glasses at Sarah. "What time is the game?"
"Uh 8:30?" It came out as a question.
"Perfect!" He cried, causing Steph to jump again. "Your family eats at six, right? So you can go to dinner, and then go to the game. Plenty of time for both. There, its all settled." He put an arm around his stunned boss before walking to the counter and lifting part of it to allow Sarah to come behind the counter. "Come on, Giant. Follow me."
Sarah looked questioningly at Steph, who shrugged, and then smiled slightly. "Well, come on, Giant."
Thirty minutes later a blue sleigh and nine blue reindeer hung over the two large copiers behind the counter; three wise men hung in the front window; and dozens of silver bells hung from other sections of the ceiling. The three decorators leaned against the counter, surveying the results of their labors.
Everywhere they looked was silver and blue. Steph had been sure that the end product was going to be garish but instead, the shop looked vivid, colorful, and festive. "You were right, Brandon." She patted him on the back. "Mel will go gaga over this."
"Thanks, Steph. And thank you, too, Sarah. We couldnt have done it without those insanely long arms of yours."
Sarah smiled and picked up her coat. "Youre welcome. It was nice meeting you, Brandon. The place looks great." Brandon beamed as Sarah slipped on her coat.
She looked at Steph, and there was an awkward silence.
Brandon cleared his throat. "Uh, Im going to go put these boxes away in the back. See you, Sarah."
As Brandon walked towards the back, Steph lifted the counter flap and followed Sarah through. "Thanks, Sarah. It was nice of you to help out."
"Hey, we had a deal, right?" She smiled down at Steph, and again, the smaller woman couldnt help but smile back. She liked Sarah and enjoyed her company, but wasnt sure exactly what she wanted.
Some of her wariness must have shown and Sarahs smile faded into seriousness. "Listen, Steph," she said quickly, "you dont have to go tomorrow if you dont want to. Im going anyway I just thought you might like a chance to see some ball and renew an old friendship."
Ok. So she is trying to set me up with Ally.
Steph felt a flutter of something at the thought, although she wasnt sure if it was excitement or She shook her head. It must be excitement. Ally Noel, the hugest crush of her life, lived in the city, was apparently a lesbian, and Allys sister was giving Steph the perfect opportunity to reconnect.
What are you waiting for?
"No, Sarah." She touched the tall womans arm. "Id like to go. Thanks for the invite. Ill meet you at the ticket window around 8:15?"
"Great!" The smile was brilliant. "Ally will be so happy to see you. See you tomorrow." With a wave, she was gone.
"Ive got something for you." Mel held out a folded slip of paper.
The two sisters were standing in the kitchen of their parents house, Steph cutting up vegetables for a salad while Mel watched, bouncing a fussy Monique on her hip. Steph wiped her hands on a towel and accepted the object, looking at her questioningly.
"Its Sarahs phone number while shes in town."
"Dont Mel me. Its just a number, Steph, Im not setting you up. Im merely giving you information so that you can set yourself up."
"What are you two arguing about in here?" Gretchen Deacon walked into her kitchen and held out her arms for her granddaughter.
"Nothing, Mom." Steph glared at Mel, who smiled sweetly back.
Mel kissed Monique on the forehead and placed her in Gretchens outstretched arms. "I was just giving Steph the phone number of a woman she met yesterday."
"You met someone yesterday, Steph?" Her mother asked eagerly.
Steph closed her eyes and sighed.
"Dom ran into Sarah Noel yesterday," Mel explained, "He brought her back to the house for a visit while Steph was there. They really hit if off."
"Oh, I remember Sarah! What a sweetheart. Are you going to call her, honey?"
"Grandma, where does the fork go again?" Trevors voice floated in from the dining room. "Grandpa doesnt know."
"On the left, dear."
"Ill go help him." Steph said quickly, wiping her hands and fleeing the kitchen - and the conversation - hastily.
Her reprieve was short-lived. As soon as the family sat down for dinner and began passing dishes, her father, Terry, turned to her.
"Whats this I hear about you and Sarah Noel?"
Steph glared across the table at Mel, who shrugged.
"Dont glare at your sister, Steph. It was your mother who told me. Mel says Sarah lives in Oregon now do you think its a good idea to get involved with someone who lives so far away?"
Steph dropped her silverware with a clatter. "Oh for gods sakes! What in the hell are you telling them, Mel?"
"Stephanie Jean Deacon! You will watch your mouth!" She cringed at her mothers stern voice.
"Im sorry Mom," she said contritely, and looked down at her nephew seated beside her, "and you didnt hear any of that, did you sport?"
"You mean the hell part?"
"Oh crap," she muttered, drawing another admonishment from her mother.
She looked around the table, finding the only sympathetic faces were Dom and Trevor. She sighed heavily. "Yes, I met Sarah yesterday at Mel and Doms. Yes, I thought she was very nice. But no, Im not involved with her."
Honey " Her mother began, but Steph held up a hand to stop her.
"Im not finished. Ill tell the rest, since youll find out anyway, and if you dont hear it from me, youll jump to completely wrong conclusions." She noticed Dom was trying not to smile and made a mental note to torture him later. "Sarah came by the shop last night and helped Brandon and I decorate. She also invited me to go to watch a volleyball game up at the U tonight. Her sister Ally is the assistant coach."
This time it was Mel who tried to speak and Steph silenced her with a withering look.
She pointed to herself. "This is me, still not finished."
Mel quieted, and the older sibling continued. "Sarah is very nice. We enjoy each others company, and I think we could be very good friends." She glared around the table. "Did everyone hear that? F R I E N D S." She spelled it out. "Friends. Sarah and I are friends, ok? Now you know everything, and this topic is no longer up for discussion. Pass the bread, please."
There was stillness around the table for a moment then her father silently handed her the breadbasket; she took a slice and passed it on before picking up her silverware and starting to eat.
"Shit." Steph looked at her watch and made a face. "Shit, shit, shit, shit."
She hurried as fast as the slippery walkway would allow, but nothing was going to change the fact that she was already a half an hour late.
"Damnit!" The family had decided to play some games after dinner, and she had lost track of the time. Way to go, Steph. Shes going to think you blew her off. She realized the idea disturbed her a great deal.
She climbed the stairs to the gymnasium entrance and burst through the doors near the ticket office, her abrupt entrance causing several people in the concession line to turn and watch her. Quickly she scanned the sparse crowd milling around the gym entrance. No smiling, sandy-haired giant in sight.
She hesitated for a moment, and then bought a ticket, asking which side the home team was sitting on.
"East side portals E thru H," the cashier replied, pointing to his right.
"Want a roster?" He held up a booklet.
"Theyre free, if that makes a difference," the man said with a smile.
She held out a hand. "Sure, thanks."
She followed the cashiers directions and entered the gym, just as the tiny but vocal crowd was yelling its approval for something happening on the court. The squeak of rubber on gym floor, the smack of flesh on leather, and the sometimes calm, sometimes frantic calls of the players and coaches became more distinct as she walked out of the portal and into the gym.
She paused at the portal entrance, watching the game for a few minutes before moving her eyes from the court to the bench, remembering Sarahs comment about sitting behind the home team bench. Her attention was drawn to a tall, auburn-haired woman sitting near one end of the players bench.
Ally. Her heart flip-flopped. She unconsciously rolled the roster into a tight tube, nervously squeezing it as she stared at the woman who had dominated her fantasies in high school. The assistant coach watched the game intently, occasionally leaning over to speak to the man on her left or calling out to the players, her intensity tangible even from 100 feet away.
Same old Ally - intense as ever.
Steph blinked as a group of younger girls pushed past her. She mentally shook herself and looked around, slightly embarrassed and not sure how long she had been staring. She noticed a pair of amused blue-gray eyes watching her from a few rows behind the bench.
Sarah nodded as Steph dropped unceremoniously into the seat to her right. "Glad you finally made it. I thought youd changed your mind."
Steph smiled sheepishly. "Im really sorry, Sarah. We had a pretty competitive game of Yahtzee going, and I sort of got caught up in it lost track of time."
"Yahtzee?" She laughed. "Youre late because of Yahtzee?"
"Uh, yeah. Its almost a contact sport at our house."
"Now that Id like to see."
"Careful what you wish for, Ms. Noel."
"Ill keep that in mind, Ms. Deacon."
They grinned at each other, and turned to watch the game. Steph pulled her fleece over her head and glanced at the scoreboard, running a hand through her hair. "How many games did I miss?"
"They started a little late this is only the second. They took the first one 25-21."
The Cougars, Allys team, were now losing 4-10. Steph winced as two players failed to call a ball and it dropped to the floor between them. "Ouch. If Allys anything like she used to be, someone will hear about that one."
"Oh, shes the same," Sarah said dryly, "and I think someones going to hear about it now."
The head coach had called a time-out, and the team huddled around the two coaches. He said a few words and then looked over at Ally. She spoke urgently, punctuating her words with a pointed finger.
"God, I always hated when she did that." Sarah murmured. "That pointing thing."
Steph smiled slightly, eyes still on the tall coach, watching the fierceness of her expression. "Me too."
Sarah looked over in surprise and Steph shrugged. "It always scared the crap out of the whole team, when shed start waving that finger around. I was afraid shed poke my eye out."
The taller woman turned her attention back to the game, her face thoughtful. "She can be a little over the top, sometimes."
"Sometimes," Stephs voice was distant, almost dreamy, "but God she sure made you want to win." Among other things.
Sarah didnt respond to that, and they watched the game for a while, occasionally cheering a good play or yelling at a bad call. The cougars dropped the second game 12-25, and both the head coach and Ally were obviously furious. Steph was grateful not to be in the team huddle afterwards.
"Steph?" The brunette blinked, realizing Sarah had been speaking to her.
"Oh..uh sorry." She blushed at having been caught staring again.
Sarah laughed lightly and stood up. "Ally has that affect on people." She looked down at the smaller woman as though she was going to say something more, but looked back at the court instead. "Im going to grab a drink can I get you something?"
"My butt could use a break from the chair." She stood, "Mind if I go with you?"
Steph wasnt certain, but she thought Sarahs eyes dropped momentarily to check out the part in question, and she was undeniably pleased by the thought.
"Not at all." The tall woman nodded at Steph to precede her out the row and the two climbed the stairs to the portal entrance side by side.
They waited in the concession line for several minutes, chatting easily about the shop, Mels kids, and Sarahs job as an EMT in Portland. They reached the counter and ordered drinks, which Sarah paid for, waving off Stephs protests.
"When we go out for that beer we talked about, then Ill let you pay." The promise was accompanied by one of her infectious smiles, and Steph found herself hoping she would get a chance to repay the tall woman.
Agreeing that neither of them wanted to go back into the gym just yet, they took their drinks to a bench near a window and again fell into comfortable conversation; the topics ranging from politics, to past Christmases, to common acquaintances. They were still talking nearly an hour later, when people started to flow out the portals to the exits.
"Crap, Sarah, Im sorry," Steph said, annoyed with herself, "first I show up a half an hour late, and then I make you miss the match."
Sarah smiled, and shook her head. "I had a great time talking to you, Steph. And to be honest," she leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, "I never really did like volleyball, anyway."
Stephs burst of laughter startled an elderly couple who were putting on their coats nearby, and she covered her mouth, as surprised by the outburst as they were. She was still chuckling occasionally as they slipped through the exiting crowd, back into the gym.
"How can you have the," she paused, searching for the right word, "physique you do, grown up in the same house as Ally, and not like volleyball?" They reached the seats where their coats waited, and Sarah gestured at the court below and the happy group of athletes celebrating their win.
"Theyll be going into the locker room soon, and Ally and Coach Stark will go in and talk to them for a bit, and then shell come back out and meet us."
Steph nodded, her nervousness returning. Feeling a little cold from sitting by the window for so long, she picked up her fleece and attempted to pull it on. The zipper at the coats neck caught in her hair and she found herself stuck with her arms through the sleeves but her head only partially through the neck.
"Ow, Damnit!" she muttered, and tried to blindly free her hair from the zipper, very aware that Sarah stood beside her, no doubt watching the whole episode in amusement. Just as she was getting ready to yank the hair forcibly from the zipper, gentle hands stilled her movements.
"Hold on, let me." Sarah carefully untangled the hair, pulled the zipper out of the way and tugged the jacket down into place. She smoothed the sleeves and straightened out the collar, not meeting Stephs eyes.
"Growing up with Ally " She said quietly, finally meeting Stephs eyes,
"is exactly why I dont like volleyball. Who could compete with that?"
Steph held her gaze for a moment, noticing things she hadnt before. She noticed a face devoid of makeup, with a dusting of freckles over a straight nose, and thin, elegant eyebrows that arched naturally. She noticed that today, the bluish-gray eyes seemed more blue than gray, and wondered if it was the womans mood that changed the color, or the lighting around her. She noticed the sandy-brown hair was streaked with blond, and tucked carelessly behind surprisingly delicate ears. She noticed the full lips were slightly wet, as though they had just been licked, and acknowledged a hidden wish to have witnessed it.
The last stray thought caused her to blink, and she stepped back quickly, muttering her thanks.
"Sarah!" The two women turned towards the voice. Ally was crossing the gym floor, smiling at her sister. "Hey, you made it." Her heels clopped loudly on the nearly deserted gym floor and Stephs heart rate sped up in time. The coach looked stylish in black slacks, a black turtle neck and a cream colored blazer and she moved with the same liquid grace that had fascinated Steph as a teenager. She had always loved to watch Ally move. All that lithe power wrapped in remarkable athleticism it was beautiful to watch.
"When I didnt see you before the game started, I thought maybe mom had talked you into " She looked curiously over at Steph, and her voice trailed off as her eyes widened in recognition. "Stephie?"
"Look who I found wandering around." Sarah said, gesturing to the woman beside her.
"Hi Ally." Steph smiled nervously, hoping she looked more confident than she felt. "How ya doing?"
Ally took the steps two at a time and was soon standing in front of Steph, her dark blue eyes seeming to take in every inch of the smaller woman. Steph was startled to realize she was being checked out. She should have been thrilled, but instead she felt vaguely uncomfortable under the scrutiny, as though she were something on display in a store window.
There was an awkward silence and then Ally stepped forward and drew Steph into a quick embrace; a brief contact that left Steph with a fleeting impression of hardness and strength, a trace of musk, and surprise at the rush of giddiness that never came.
"Wow, its great to see you. You look fantastic!" Ally again sized her up from head to toe, and Steph pushed aside a stab of annoyance.
Allison Noel is possibly showing interest in you, and youre annoyed? What the hell is wrong with you? Steph looked briefly over at Sarah. The woman was smiling, but the smile lacked its usual openness and Steph felt a pang of guilt. She shook it off. What would I be guilty about?
"You too, Ally." She took a step back and put both hands in her pockets. "Congratulations on the win tonight."
"Thanks," the coach said with a dismissive wave of her hand, "I thought my girls were going to screw it up there for a while, but they got their heads back into it in that third game and managed to put together a decent match. Listen," She looked over at her sister and then back at Steph, "I have to go in to the locker room while Brian talks to the girls would you wait, and then maybe we can grab a drink? Id love to catch up with you, Steph."
"Maybe I should let you two go ahead " Sarahs voice was hesitant.
"Oh no, Sarah!" Steph turned to her in dismay, suddenly terrified at the thought of being with Ally alone. And besides, she thought to herself, I really enjoy talking with her. "Come on. Im buying, remember?" Hands still in her pockets, she shuffled over to Sarah and bumped her in the arm with her shoulder. "Please?" She gave the woman her best pout.
Sarah shook her head with a little smile. "Oh my. How could I possibly refuse that look?"
Steph grinned and the two women turned to Ally, who was watching the interaction with a slight frown. Her face cleared and she stepped back and said briskly, "So, were all set?" She waited for two nods before continuing. "Ok, Ill be out in about 15 minutes. See you in a bit."
Santa baby, slip a sable under the tree, for me
Ive been an awful good girl
Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight.
Steph sang softly to herself, twirling a pencil in one hand, her eyes on the paperwork in front of her.
Santa baby, an out-of-space convertible too, light blue
Ill wait up for you dear
Santa baby, so hurry down the chimney tonight
"I always wondered what the words to that song were." The voice at her office door startled the brunette badly, and the pencil flew out of her fingers to land at her visitors feet.
"Jesus, woman!" She held a hand to her chest, glaring. "You scared the crap out of me."
Sarah laughed. Steph had found, over the last few days, she liked the sound of that laugh. A lot.
"Sorry to scare you," the tall woman said as she bent to pick up the pencil. "Brandon told me to come on back, that I wouldnt be interrupting you." She stepped forward and handed the pencil back to Steph, "Am I?"
"Well, now I know how much payroll means to him," she answered, gesturing at the papers on the desk, "but Im happy to take a break. Have a seat." She waved at a chair against the wall, and hid a smile as Sarah tried to fold herself into it and get comfortable. "What brings you by our humble shop? You just missed Mel she usually leaves by 4:30 or so."
"Yeah, Brandon told me. I thought Id come back and see how you were doing, and how things went last night after I left. Ally says youre going out again on Friday?" Her smile was friendly and curious.
Steph felt a blush creep up her cheeks, and dropped her eyes to the desktop. Shed had a great time with the two sisters the previous evening. To her disappointment, Sarah had left after an hour or so, but at Allys urging, Steph had stayed and the two had continued to catch up, talking mostly about Allys years at USC and her accomplishments over the last 10 years.
In fact, Steph realized now as she thought back over the evening, Ally had hardly asked her anything at all about her own life. But it had still been a pleasant evening, and when Ally suggested they get together on Friday, she had accepted. She assumed this was what Sarah was expecting, so she wasnt sure why she was uncomfortable that Sarah knew about their plans.
"Yes. We had talked about dinner and a late movie " She looked up at her visitor. "Hey, would you like to come with us?" She said suddenly, and Sarah raised her eyebrows in surprise.
"Um no, I dont think thats quite the evening Ally had in mind." Her expression was amused, and then turned serious. "Steph " she glanced down at her hands, and then back at the brunette. "Just be careful with her, ok?"
Steph frowned, wondering how Sarah thought she could possibly hurt Ally. The woman had an ego the size of Montana, and Steph very much doubted that she had the ability to put any kind of dent in it. "Im not out to hurt her, Sarah hell, its probably me that should be worried about that. Ally doesnt strike me as the monogamous type." Her tone was sharp.
"Its not Ally Im worried about." Sarah shook her head in frustration. "Look, Steph, Ive really enjoyed getting to know you these past few days. I like you a lot - and I know my sister. So unless youre just in this for a little fun ." She sighed, and dropped her gaze. "Just be careful, ok?"
Steph blinked, momentarily at a loss for words. Sarah was worried about me. Me. She smiled, enjoying the warmth that the sentiment brought. "Thanks, Sarah," she said softly, "that means a lot."
Sarah looked embarrassed, and shifted in her chair. "Yeah, well "
"Hey!" Brandon came bounding into the room, startling both women. "Steph, did you want to run those booklets down to the Javahouse, or do you want me to?"
"Brandon, do you ever just walk into a room and say hi?" Steph asked in exasperation, calming her racing heart for the second time in twenty minutes.
He gave her a curious look. "What would be the point of that?"
"Never mind." She shook her head and stood up. "Ill take them, I could use the walk." He nodded and went back out to the floor. "Ive got to drop an order off," she said to Sarah, realizing she didnt want to leave the tall womans company just yet, "its about a half-mile away," she said hopefully, "care to take a walk?"
Sarahs smile showed genuine pleasure. "Love to."
It was snowing again outside, and just getting dark. They walked for a time without speaking, enjoying the silent night. "Do you like it here? Since youve come back, I mean." Sarah broke the silence.
Steph took a moment to answer. "I was glad I left - glad I got away for a while," she began slowly, "but Im happy being back. Being close to the family; watching Trevor and Monique grow up yes, Im happy here."
Sarah was quiet for several steps, and then nodded, moving the conversation on to different topics. In what seemed like no time, the two had arrived at their destination. Steph offered to buy her companion a cup of coffee, Sarah accepted, and the two spent another hour talking in a corner table in the tiny coffee house before Steph reluctantly admitted she needed to get back to the shop.
"If I dont see you before Friday," Sarah spoke as they stood at the front entrance of the shop after the walk back, "I hope you and Ally have a great time."
"Uh, thanks." Steph cleared her throat, and took a breath, "Um, Sarah " She looked down and kicked at the curb with her boot before looking up again and trying to read the eyes that this evening, in the harsh neon light outside the store, looked gray. Gray and unreadable.
She shook her head. "Never mind. Ill see you later, ok? Feel free to come by anytime I love having a reason to play hooky from work." She hesitated, and then stepped forward and gave Sarah a quick hug which the tall woman immediately returned. After a moment Steph tried to step back, but Sarah held on for a few moments longer, and then finally released her slowly.
"Goodbye, Steph." She said softly, and then turned and walked away. As Steph watched her tall form fade into the darkness, her expression was wistful.
Steph straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath, and raised her hand to knock on the dark green door. She rapped sharply three times and then stepped back, nervously stuffing her hands in her pockets and staring at her shoes, going over in her head what she wanted to say.
The door swung open and she raised her eyes and smiled at the tall form that filled the doorway.
"Steph?" Sarah blinked.
God, shes adorable.
Sarah stared at her several moments, and then seemed to shake herself. "Oh. You must have come to see Ally." It was a statement, not a question. "Shes not "
Steph shook her head. "No, actually, I just talked to Ally." Sarahs eyes narrowed a little. "I came to see you. I wanted to talk to you about something."
"Me?" Sarah stared again.
"Yes, you." Steph rubbed up and down her arms. "Can I come in for a minute? Its cold out here."
"Oh! Um, sure, come in, please." Steph smiled her thanks and moved past Sarah into the house. "So what did you want to talk to me about," the tall woman asked as she shut the door. Her tone was wary.
When Steph didnt speak immediately, Sarah crossed her arms in an almost defensive gesture. "You said you were with Ally earlier does that have something to do with what you want to talk to me about?"
"Yes no well, sort of " Just tell her.
"I talked to Ally earlier today to cancel our plans for Friday." Steph said in a rush.
Sarah looked curious. "Really? Why?"
"I had a feeling that Ally was thinking that Friday night was going to be some kind of date, and I I dont want to date Ally." The shorter woman smiled nervously.
"You dont?" Sarah sounded dubious, but hopeful, and Steph felt her nervousness disappear.
"No, I dont. Ive met someone else recently."
"Oh," the womans face fell, but she managed a smile. "Shes a lucky gal, then. Congratulations."
Steph smiled. "Im glad you think so." She studied the taller woman for a moment, wondering how to proceed. Her carefully rehearsed script had flew out of her head the minute Sarah opened the door. She looked around, stalling for time, and noticed small, green wreath above them over the door.
She looked at the sprig of green above them. "Is that mistletoe?"
Sarah looked up, then back at Steph, her expression sad. "Holly."
Just do it! She screamed at herself. Just kiss her! Shell figure it out.
"Close enough." She stepped forward, grabbed the front of Sarahs shirt with both hands and pulled the startled woman down until their faces were just inches apart. "Dont need an excuse," she whispered, and brought their mouths together softly, just a brief touch of lips, and then another, longer exploration before she pulled back a few inches to gauge the other womans reaction.
Sarahs eyes fluttered open and a slow smile spread across her face. "Do that again."
And Steph obliged.
Later, as Steph sat wrapped in the warmth of Sarahs arms on the couch, listening to her steady heartbeat and the gentle rhythm of her breathing, she thought of how funny life was sometimes.
The first Noel had captivated her for years, but it was the second Noel who had captured her heart.