Preface: Christmas Night 1996
Alone for the first time of the night, a fifteen year old girl stood on the porch of a penthouse apartment. Blue eyes stared out into the vastness of the Milky Way as she honed in on a red tinged star that could have been the planet Mars for all she knew.
The sound of outrageous laughter coming through the French doors behind her drew the teen's annoyance. "Damn it, why do they have to be so loud,"she cursed before turning her attention once again to the Christmas sky. Gazing up at a star, she made her wish. "Somewhere out there I know there's someone special just for me. Let me find them."She glared back at the gathering of people unaware of her pain. "Please let me find a family of my own."Ruth whispered, "One that will make me feel loved and wanted for me, not what I'm worth."
"So, there you are cry baby."An older sibling startled the girl. "What's the matter, can't you take a little holiday cheer?”
"”Can't I have any time to myself?”
"Not on my watch, pip squeak. Now don't be such a baby, Ruth. Come back in here and enjoy the party. Everybody else is."The young adult turned abruptly, then slid back inside the door.
"Maybe I will."Ruth hung her head. "Someday.”
Christmas Eve 2005
Years later and her Christmas wish long forgotten, Ruth Vanderbot filled her free time with necessary things like sleep, study, the procurement of food, and an occasional trip to do the laundry. That was to be her life for a career in medicine for the next three years. Little did Ruth know her life was about to change.
It all happened so innocently after a grueling thirty-six hours on call and another twelve to go before she could cash in her check and enjoy the payday. With little sleep to be had the night before, Ruth stood tired and worn out as her colleagues walked up the hall banded together like the Three Musketeers.
A flash of fluorescent, bright yellow hair nearly blinded everyone in the hall.
"You look like shit."
Ruth turned a dire look to her most vocal supporter. "Same to you,"Ruth mumbled back. "What the hell did you do to your hair, turn it in for a lemon head?”
"No, it just got a little brighter than I thought it would."Sonya tugged self-consciously at her hair. "It will wash out...eventually.”
"Yeah, when hell freezes over,"the man next to her spoke his mind.
"I wouldn't talk if I were you, Big Red."Sonya ran her fingers through hair that looked like an atomic fireball.
"Matt, you're in rare form this morning. What other words of wisdom do you have?"Ruth leaned back into the wall, trying to hide her snickers.
Looking from one first year resident to the other, Matt smiled conspiratorially. "I know who's not getting roasted at the M & M rounds this morning.”
"Ugh! Mortality and morbidity, I hate that."The last of the trio finally spoke.
"I would too, if I were you, Connie."Sonya toned her voice down to a whisper. "Not everyone kills three out of their first four patients.”
"I didn't kill them! The man with Chick O' Sticks for legs was anorexic. He didn't eat thus he died. Not my fault,"Connie protested adamantly.
"And what about the man with gum disease? He died too."Matt crossed his arms and waited for Connie to respond.
"Yes, he was admitted with peridontitis,"Connie declared. "But he died of pericarditis. Everyone knows infection can enter the bloodstream via the mouth. Gum disease was the means to his end, not me.”
"And what about poor Mrs. Ashton?"I chimed in, not wanting to be left out.
"Her-She(y),"Connie stuttered out in a moment of flustered rage, unsure of which way to approach the subject.
"Hey, sit back and take five. Don't go making a scene,"Matt tried to quiet Connie when he noticed the nervous looks of the visitors and patients passing us by in the hallway.
"Dammit!"Connie sighed. "I just get so angry when things go wrong."
"Well a few abba zaba's won't make it any better,"Ruth reminded her, then promptly yawned.
"You mean abra cadabra,"Matt interjected.
"Whatever."Ruth rolled her eyes. "And you were saying, Connie?”
"I was saying the old woman had too many debilitating things going on to contend with."Connie looked from one colleague to another. Seeing no sign of empathy on their faces she rebutted in self-defense. "Hey! That old woman left a starburst on the windshield of her car and the medics saw it when they drove up to the accident scene. You know, being ninety-six and hitting the steering wheel with your face can be a jaw breaker.”
"Jaw buster, if I remember correctly."I turned at the sound of chuckles floating on the air.
"It's not funny, Matt."Connie pouted.
"Sorry,"Matt became somber as he tried to eclipse his boyish tendency to laugh.
"No, you're not."Sonya gave him a sickeningly sweet smile, showing off her perfectly smooth lipstick as she effortlessly played with the love beads that were strung around her neck. "That's exactly why I'd never go out with you.”
"Sweet tart, that's what you are,"Matt sneered.
"Only to you, Matt. I'm a sweet heart to just about every other man that I meet.”
"You are, are you?"Ruth glared down at her colleague. "Maybe you should have told that to Mr. Brown.”
"Mr. Brown?"Milk chocolate brows furrowed underneath lemony hair.
"The jolly rancher from Michigan,"Ruth prompted. "The one that thought flying saucers brought you to work everyday after you told him he was in a stick free zone."
"Well at least I didn't bribe a patient with a pass to Wrigley Field."Sonya crossed her arms over her chest.
"Hey! What do you expect from someone with brain drain?"Ruth offered in self-defense. "It's hard to think when you've had as little sleep as I had. Besides, he was all goo-goo eyed over that nurse with big, cherry, hot lips.”
"Yum, yum."Matt licked his lips solicitously. "Super juicy!”
"Men! You are all alike in thinking you're a big hunk."Sonya snorted. "That's why I've given up the search for Mr. Goodbar."
"Me too!"Ruth added out loud while her mind drifted to more feminine forms. A huge smile lazily lifted the corners of her mouth as a marathon of women marched through Ruth's mind.
Ruth wasn't sure how long she lingered there in her world of self-indulgence, but it was an extra moment more than her time allotted. She came back to reality feeling as much like a nerd as she possibly could with her colleagues staring up at the taller woman.
"What?"Ruth blinked innocently. "Did I miss something?”
"Only life passing you by, Ruth."Matt offered a weak smile as he patted her shoulder. "We're heading to rounds, how about you?”
Ruth shook her head. "Not me. I'm too tired. I'd rather not be reamed out for dozing off in the middle of M&M rounds.”
"Wish I could do that,"Sonya sighed. "Oh well, it's off to the gallows for me."The lemon headed woman animated her own hanging.
"Any of you free tonight?"Ruth cleared her throat as three pairs of eyes converged on her. "Or any time this weekend?"She looked to her colleagues with hope.
"Why?"Connie took up a defensive stance.
"It's nothing bad,"Ruth quickly countered. "I've got some family gatherings this weekend and I was hoping one...or all of you could come.”
"Sorry I can't make it to the party. I have a chance to go home. I can't pass that up."Sonya reached up and cupped Ruth's shoulder before walking away. "Wish your folks a Merry Christmas for me.”
"I understand. Same to you,"Ruth called after her before turning her gaze to another colleague.
"Sorry about the holidays, Ruth."Pity tinged Connie's gaze. "I pulled the long shift. Somebody's got to work. Happy holidays,"Connie said, then started walking away. "I hope you have a good time at the parties though."
"Yeah, yeah,"Ruth muttered before looking at the final member of the trio. "And your excuse is?”
Nervously Matt cleared his throat. "I'm sorry I can't make it to your parents' celebrations this weekend. Maybe next year if I don't have a girlfriend."Matt winked. "Say, I better hurry if I'm going to make rounds. Happy holidays.”
"Yeah, right, goobers. Merry Christmas,"Ruth said but her heart wasn't in it. Instead, her gaze followed a cute nurse as she walked by. Ruth sighed as her blue eyes gazed dismally as the last of her potential dates faded down the hallway from her view. Disappointed but yet slightly overjoyed at not having to pretend for her parents' sake, Ruth looked down to her watch. Her friends were right; it was time to work. It was a nasty four letter word that guided her life for the next eleven and three quarter hours.
* * *
As soon as her shift was up, Ruth made a fast break out of the hospital. Putting behind her all the medical jargon she could, the scrub-clad woman pulled her leather jacket tight as she made her way down the block. Her steps slowed as she turned into a dive of a bar by the name of The Hole in the Wall. It wasn't much to look at, but then again, neither was Ruth after forty-eight grueling hours of work. Dark, dingy, and pretty much what its name suggested, the long hallway opened up into a rather warm and inviting room. In one corner of the dimly lit room was a small stage surrounded by several sets of tables and chairs, while a bar stretched down the side wall. A string of Christmas lights blinked a bright red and green over the top third of the mirror behind the rows of partially poured bottles.
"So, what's it going to be?"
The bartender's voice jolted Ruth from her curious observations. "Huh?”
The woman leaned onto the bar and spoke a little louder. "We're not a fancy place so try to keep it simple."She eyed the tall stranger up, then smiled. "Your order that is. What are you having, Doc?”
Blood shot eyes and a tired expression was the best Ruth could offer as she plopped onto the barstool. "Irish Coffee?”
The woman behind the bar winked and gave a quick nod of approval. "One Irish Coffee coming right up.”
Ruth breathed a sigh of relief. "Thank you,"she mouthed more than said as the bartender turned and headed for the coffeepot at the end of the bar. Yawning, she thought about her order and came to a quick conclusion. "You better make it heavy on the coffee,"she called out. "I haven't been to sleep in over a day and a half, maybe two."Ruth caught site of herself in the mirror. Not pleased with what she saw, blue eyes hurriedly looked to the other patrons.
There weren't many, but oddly enough, all the customers were of the same sex. A smile came to Ruth's face as her gaze settled on one honey-haired woman seated at a table. Ruth watched patiently as the young woman's eyes never rose from the book she was reading, even when her delicate fingers turned the page. Intrigued by this bit o' honey, Ruth considered finding out more about the woman.
"Here you go, a real smoothie."The bartender poured a shot of Bailey's Irish Crème into the decorative cup, then proceeded to top it with a mound of whipped cream. A brisk wipe of a bar towel was the only fanfare for the drink's arrival.
Ruth sniffed the air and savored the aroma of the coffee. "That should do me,"she muttered under her breath as she reached for the mug.
"Are you bolstering your courage or trying to stay awake?"The woman leaned stiff-armed on the bar and waited for an answer. She watched as a speculative blue eye studied her. "I'm not trying to pry. I'm just curious."The bartender reached out her right arm and offered her hand in friendship. "I'm Jerry, by the way.”
"Ruth,"she simply stated and shook the woman's hand. The handshake was firm and Ruth felt an easy friendship in the making.
"So, what is it?”
A quirky lop-sided smile came to Ruth's face. "I guess you might say a little of both."She sipped from the cup before setting it back down.
"You don't say."Jerry's face filled with concern. "Say, you're not driving are you?”
"Nope!"Ruth took more of the drink in an attempt to quench her thirst. "I'm not that crazy."Seeing the disappointed look on Jerry's face, Ruth continued to explain. "I work at the hospital. There's way too many crazy drivers in this city."
"You think this is bad, you should see what it's like out on the West Coast."Jerry winked. "Now that's crazy, five lanes of traffic all going in one direction with no notice of exits until you're practically on them. No wonder they go on road rage sprees.”
"Wow!"Ruth's eyes opened wider, the caffeine in the coffee was obviously doing its job.
"You can say that again. I hightailed it right back here after a year and a half.”
"You at least left,"Ruth pouted. "The farthest I've gone is to move out of my parents' house.”
"I take it you went to school here, too.”
Dark hair bounced as Ruth nodded her head. "And medical school, too.”
There was a moment of silence as Ruth sipped her drink, the whole time her gaze looking just past Jerry and into the mirror.
"So,"Jerry drew out the word. "I know why you're heavy on the coffee. What are you drinking the whiskey for?”
"You're pretty nosey for just meeting someone."Ruth glanced out of the corner of her eye as she brought the mug up to her mouth. "Seems to me you should be more interested in me needing more to drink.”
"Oh, I am. It's just my natural inquisitiveness that makes me ask."The bartender smiled. "That and the fact that you've hardly taken your eyes off the cute blonde in the mirror.”
A blush flashed up over Ruth's neck and cheeks like a big cherry hanging on a tree. "That obvious, huh?”
"Oh yeah,"Jerry assured her customer. "It's like you struck a gold mine. Go ahead. Talk to her. I'll make you her favorite drink, Shirley Temple with lots of fizz.”
"A real teetotaler.”
"Better than an Idaho spud."Seeing Ruth's questioning face, Jerry offered an explanation. "You know...frumpy and dumpy.”
"I guess you're right."Ruth thought for a moment before setting out on her course. "Get me that drink and let's see if I can come up with a few ice breakers."She took another sip. "Hey Jerry, better add some ice cubes to it.”
"In case you crash and burn?"Jerry poured the drink and sat it down on the bar with a napkin.
"Nope. In case I turn her on."Ruth winked. "I wouldn't want her to self-consume while I'm telling my whoppers.”
"I'd be straight with that one,"Jerry said in a harsh whisper as Ruth took both drinks in my hands. She watched as a lone, dark eyebrow challenged her. "Well, as straight as any lesbian can be.”
"Okay."Ruth cleared her throat, then muttered for no one in particular to hear. "Here goes nothing."
Jerry watched as Ruth pushed off from the stool. Like a bazooka fired missile with warheads attached, the scrub-clad woman made a direct beeline for the honey-haired girl.
"So, what's a nice girl like you reading in a place like this?"Ruth mustered up her most engaging smile.
"O. Henry."The woman's eyes stayed glued to the page. "A Blackjack Bargainer to be exact."A delicate forefinger tapped the table twice before turning the page.
"I...I brought you a drink. Jerry said you like Shirley Temples."Ruth sat the drink down a mere inch away from the blonde's hand.
"Fizzies, good and plenty."Ruth blurted out rather nervously as sea green eyes gazed up at her.
"You're not a regular here, are you?”
"No, but I could be."Ruth said, letting a sexy smile slip across her face.
The woman scrutinized Ruth's attire. "I'm not sure you qualify.”
Maybe you could tell me what I have to do to qualify."Ruth sat her drink down and pulled out a chair. "Do you mind if I have a seat?”
"At this table or someone else's?"The honey-haired woman closed her book, then leaned back in her chair waiting for an answer.
"Why here, of course."Ruth scooted into the chair and rested her elbows on the table. "I'm sorry, I should have introduced myself first. I'm Ruth. Ruth Vanderbot and you are?"She watched an amused smile grace the blonde's face. "Come on, I've told you my name, the least you could do is tell me yours?”
"I could but then I'd have to kill you.”
Ruth brushed aside the remark with a wave of her hand. "That's okay, I'm a life saver. A doctor by trade to be exact. So, you see it would be a waste of your effort."
The woman smiled engagingly. "That's a relief. I thought you were out sleep walking."
Ruth studied the raised blonde brow. "Well, that settles your concern about me, but I still don't know who you are?”
"You, my friend, have a one track mind.”
Ruth blushed. "Two really.”
"Ah...the truth comes out. You have an ulterior motive for delivering my drink.”
"Call me an airhead but it totally slipped my mind until now."Ruth glanced over to the bartender and Jerry's words raced through her head. "I'd be straight with that one.”
"What's that?"She waved at Ruth trying to get her attention.
"Huh?"Ruth snapped out of her reflective moment. "Sorry, I was just...never mind."She sat up a little straighter and took a cleansing breath before starting. "Look, I'm in a bind. It's Christmas Eve and I have a family party to attend.”
"So, why are you here?”
"I need a date."Ruth watched as blonde brows arched high on the woman's forehead.
"Well, not just a date,"Ruth winced. "I need someone who could pull off an evening of scrutiny from my parents and siblings. I have two sisters and we're very competitive,"she confided, then drank from her mug.
"And I fit in this scenario how?"Before Ruth could answer, she offered her own suggestion. "You want to borrow my boyfriend?”
The tentative smile slipped from Ruth's face. "If I have to but I'd rather take you.”
"Oh, I see. You're a lesbian.”
"Look, I may not be a regular here but if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, you call it a duck not a marshmallow peep."Nervously Ruth glanced around the room. "This is a gay friendly environment, isn't it?”
"Lesbian, yes. Gay?"The woman tapped her finger on her lips in thought. "It definitely depends on the queen.”
Ruth smirked. "Yeah, some of those guys can be a little..."she wangled her fingers, "too gay.”
The blonde laughed. "I didn't mean it that way.”
"No need to be sorry. You said you weren't a regular here.”
"So,"Ruth drew out the word. "Will you..."she shifted gears and changed her approach. "Would you please accompany me home for the holiday?”
"You're desperate, aren't you?”
Ruth closed her eyes in resignation. "Totally."There was a long moment of silence before she mustered up enough courage to lay it all on the line. "Look, I'm the baby of the family. Every year my sisters rub my nose in their accomplishments and growing families. They treat me like I'm some twelve year old that still can't make up her mind on what she wants to be.”
"But you said you were a doctor. Surely that should count for something.”
"I'm a resident. I work long hours, get paid a stipend for what I do and have all my student loans to pay on. It doesn't leave much time or money to impress women with."Ruth bit her lip, debating if she should reveal her heart. The warmth of the green eyes cast in Ruth's direction egged her on. "For once I'd love to be able to throw it all right back in their faces by having the beginnings of a future on my arm in an adult relationship or at least what appears to be a relationship."She stared down into her drink and shrugged before looking up. "Pathetic, isn't it?”
One corner of Ruth's mouth tugged up into a half grin. "Thanks,"she whispered.
A pair of blue eyes met green. "Yes?”
"What time is the party?”
"Eight,"Ruth gulped. She watched as the woman across from her glanced down to the delicate timepiece on her wrist and frown, causing Ruth to speak up. "But I never arrive on time. None of us do.”
"A family of slow pokes, huh?"
Ruth smiled openly. "We prefer to call it being fashionably late.”
"So,"the blonde tapped her fingers in time to the music floating through her head. "I guess we'll be even more fashionably late than most."
"You'll go?"Ruth eyes opened wide. "You'll go with me to the party?”
"That was my intent."The woman stood and grabbed the leather jacket that hung over her chair. She pulled it on, tucked the book under her arm, and regally walked toward the door.
Ruth was transfixed to the movement of well-rounded hips hidden under the tightly stretched jeans. Slowly her eyes rose to encompass the back of the leather jacket. The finely tooled embroidery of a crossed axe, arrows, and trident were highlighted by the words 'Amazon Sisters' emblazoned around it. "Great! I'm taking a gang member home to meet my family for Christmas."
"We're not a gang. We're a tribe maybe, but not a gang."The woman stiff-armed the door open and stuck her head out to survey the street. She stepped back inside, still holding the door open.
Ruth rose slowly from her chair with a most skeptical look in her face.
"Gang?"Blonde brows furrowed, then she looked from one woman to the next. "No, no, no. We're not a gang. We're a family,"the blonde smiled sweetly. "Amazons by name. We're not as numerous or powerful as we once were in history but I assure you, we're just as real as you are at this moment, Ruth. Let me introduce you to some members of my tribe."The woman pointed to the couple in the corner booth. "Sarah and Jane.”
Ruth's gaze went to the couple as they acknowledged the introduction with a smile and a wave. Next her attention was diverted to the woman leaning up against the jukebox.
"And that's Mary.”
Mary looked up when her name was spoken. "Hey ya'!"
"Hey?"The weak greeting came out of Ruth's mouth before the woman realized she'd said it.
"So, what's it going to be, your highness,"Mary dug into her pocket for some coins, "pop, rock, or the oldies?"
"Nothing now, but thank you."The blonde turned her attention to the bar. "You already know Jerry so, that leaves Callie at the door."
The dark, curly head nodded as her name was mentioned. "After you, Your Highness"the stout woman said, showing the utmost of respect as she held the door.
"Thanks, Callie."The blonde smiled graciously as she turned back to Ruth. "Well, are you coming, or am I on a quest of my own to meet your parents?”
"Oh God! Tell me it's a dream. I've fallen asleep in a bar and I'm dreaming that I'm taking royalty home for the holidays."Blue eyes searched the front of the leather jacket the blonde was wearing. Ruth's only cue to the woman's name was in the form of a capital 'Q' scripted eloquently on her left breast. "But I still don't know who you are.”
White teeth flashed into an inviting smile. "Why I'm the Queen, of course, but you can call me Marlie."Green eyes twinkled with delight.
"Marlie,"Ruth repeated the name in a haze, then promptly pinched herself in the arm. "Ouch!"The self-inflicted pain registered on her face.
Women dashed from all sides of the room and surrounded Marlie in a tight rank circle, each one striking a fighting poise.
Seeing the flurry of activity, Ruth quickly apologized. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. I was just checking to see if I was dreaming.”
"Ah, so you think this little date is too good to be true. I assure you it's not. Shall we?"Marlie promptly turned and headed for the door. "You know, I've been waiting for this all my life.”
Five pairs of eyes held onto Ruth's figure, anticipating her reply.
"Damn it, girl! Go for it. It's the best offer you're ever going to get."Jerry voiced her encouragement from behind the bar. "I'd do it if I were you."
Ruth glanced down to her watch and noted the time. It was already nine o'clock. There'd be no time to find another date even if she'd wanted to. "Alright, I'll do it,"she said more for her own benefit than anyone else's, then started for the door.
"Hey! Aren't you forgetting something?"Jerry stood poised with both hands gripping the chunky edge of the bar.
"Oh, fudge!"Ruth dug into her pocket as she hurried over to the bar. "I'm sorry. I forgot to pay for my...I mean, our drinks.”
"It's not the money I'm reminding you about."Jerry's gaze drifted to the bag on the floor. "I didn't think you'd want to show up at the party in your jammies, Ruth.”
"Oh shit!"The whites around Ruth's eyes seemed to glow. "I've got to change.”
"Damn right,"Jerry muttered as she wiped down the bar.
"Give me a minute to change Marlie and I'll be right with you."Ruth grabbed the bag and stood up looking from one end of the bar to the other. "Washroom?”
"Across the room, door on the left."Jerry stated without giving it a second thought.
There was a moment of silence in the bar as Ruth disappeared from sight.
"Nice touch, Jerry."
"Thanks. I can say the same thing about that bookworm act.”
"I told you it was a nice touch."Marlie waved the book in the air then turned her attention to the women standing around her. "So what do you think, good mark or not?"
"Depends,"Mary said thoughtfully. "If her parents live uptown, we've got it made.”
"Yeah, boss...er my Queen.”
"Let's take the get away van this time. I think we're in for a big heist.”
"This one's an easy mark,"Sarah solidified her statement with a nod. "I swear it's the best scam idea you've ever had, Marlie."
"I don't know. Something tells me this one is going to be different,"Jane cautioned.
"Look, just go along with whatever I say and don't..."Marlie looked directly at Mary. "Don't get greedy like last time. Wait for my signal before you start doing the five finger discount.”
"You're the Queen,"Mary voiced mockingly.
"You're right, I am."A satisfied smile settled on Marlie's face.
* * *
"So, where am I driving to again?"Callie waited patiently for an answer.
Ruth shook her long, dark hair loose from its tied confines before getting into the car. "Fifth Avenue, corner of Park Place to be exact."
"Pretty expensive digs for a resident in that part of town,"Marlie said looking out the window of the car.
"My parents' address. I'm far from making the 100 Grand necessary to be considered a possible renter there."Ruth straightened her collar. "Trust me, my idea of going on a spending spree is having enough money to buy a take-out pizza at the end of the month after all my bills are paid.”
"Poor,"Mary noted under her breath.
"But honest,"Rita countered with the look of promise all over her face.
"Hey, I've got to have something in my favor besides a great bedside manner."Ruth glanced over to Marlie. "I really appreciate you doing this for me. Thanks.”
"It's my pleasure."Marlie reached into her pocket and withdrew a small compact. "Would you mind if I...”
"Not at all,"Ruth fought hard to hide her widening grin. "Man, I'm going to blow my sisters and their husbands away when they see you.”
"And if I don't, I'm sure one of my family might."Marlie looked over to Ruth and winked. "Honestly, I'm just kidding.”
Ruth settled back into the seat. "This Christmas is going to be a lot different than the ones I've had in the past.”
"You have no idea how different it's going to be,"Callie muttered out of the side of her mouth before pulling the van out into traffic.
* * *
Ruth felt cramped and crowded on the elevator as she made her way up to the penthouse floor. "I didn't think we were all going on this date together,"she whispered to Marlie while eyeing the four other women standing around them.
"A queen needs her bodyguards."Under Marlie's scrutiny the four women stood up a little straighter.
"I'm not sure my family is going to be ready for this,"Ruth fretted.
"They never are,"Callie spoke without thinking.
"It's alright, Ruth,"Marlie assured Ruth with a pat on the arm. "They'll still be alive tomorrow. I promise you. Right girls?”
"Right, Marlie."A disjointed chorus chimed in as the elevator came to a stop.
"Well, here we go."Ruth took in a breath and let it go. Without warning, the door opened, and the small band of leather-clad women were thrust into the middle of a party.
"Hey! The runt's here,"a middle aged man shouted out above the music and chatter.
Turning to see the women, a smile swiftly spread across another man's face as he tried in vain to keep the drink in his hand from sloshing onto the floor. "Check out the cow tails on these fine women."He snickered, "More classmates, Ruth?”
"No, my girlfriend and her tribe...I mean, family.”
"Ah...sorry,"the man tugged at his turtleneck nervously. "I..ah...I...didn't know."He leaned into Ruth and whispered. "Does your mother know?"
"Nope,"a Cheshire grin came to Ruth's face. "No one does yet, Lloyd.”
The man turned abruptly and shouted, "Rose! There's someone here for you to meet.”
Green eyes shifted to blue looking for answers.
"My mother,"Ruth sighed. "Marlie, let me introduce you to my brother-in-law Lloyd. He's married to my big mouthed, oldest sister, Rita."Ruth searched the crowd and pointed out the woman. "That's her over there, next to my other sister Rene seated in the chair."Ruth turned to the man standing next to Lloyd. "And this is her husband, John.”
"And the rest, do they have names?"John pushed for introductions, his gaze roaming over the other women behind Ruth.
Marlie placed her hand on Ruth's arm to stop her. "Allow me, sweetie. This is Mary, Sarah, Jane and Callie,"she smiled. "Ladies, this is Lloyd and John, Ruth's brothers-in-law."Marlie's intense gaze at her family screamed for a response.
Jane peered out for the rear of the group. "Nice meeting you."
All eyes turned to the silent forth member of the family. Feeling the pressure, Mary finally gave in. "I need a drink,"she squeaked out breaking rank and heading toward the modest bar off to the side of the room.
"She's had a little bit of a tickle in her throat,"Marlie offered a feeble excuse.
"And you haven't done anything for her,"John stated. "What kind of doctor are you, Ruth?”
A pair of blue eyes pinned the man where he stood. "Gynecology and obstetrics, John. It's the opposite end of the world.”
Marlie hid her surprise behind a giggle. "You're so modest, Ruth.”
"Well if you are a dyke, it's the right end to be working on. Nothing wrong with catching a peek at a hot tamale."Lloyd wobbled a little as he winked.
"And that's enough of the dragon fire for you."The gray-haired woman snatched the glass from his hand. "I think you've had enough for a while.”
"Ruth."Rose returned the greeting just as crispy as it was given.
"Let me introduce...”
"Marlie."The blonde offered her hand to the older woman. "Ruth has told me so many things about you. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Vanderbot.”
Rose studied Marlie for a long moment. "Have I met you somewhere before? Perhaps at the symphony, hiking on a snow capped (sno-caps) Everest, the Boston Baked Bean festival, or maybe on a train, the Charleston Choo (chew)?”
"Sorry, I...I don't think so,"Marlie glanced over to the woman next to her who had started to giggle. "Maybe you should go freshen-up, Sarah.”
"That sounds like a good idea. It'll give me a chance to check things out."Sarah looked to Ruth as she started to walk away. "Bathroom?”
"Down the hall and to the left,"Ruth offered, wondering if the woman had even heard her, then turned her attention back to her mother. "And these are Marlie's other family members. Ruth nodded to each one as she said their names. "Jane and Callie."She searched the crowd, not being able to find the forth member of the Amazon gang. "Mary's around here somewhere.”
"She needed a drink,"Marlie added in explanation. "Thank you for inviting us.”
"Any friend of Ruth's is always welcomed. I hope you enjoy the party."Rose set her penetrating gaze on her youngest daughter. "Ruth, can I have a moment with you?”
"Of course, Mother."Ruth turned to Marlie. "Make yourself at home. I'll be back in a few minutes.”
* * *
"Ruth, what's going on? This isn't like you bringing a group of strangers home without even warning me.”
"Huh?"The question caught the woman off guard.
"You know what I'm talking about. Every year you try to pass off a classmate as a lover of some sort. This one is definitely not a classmate, with that leather jacket and tight jeans. Where did you pick her and her entourage up at, some kit-kat club or a bun bar? What does she do, the mamba while sliding down a pole?”
"Mother!"Shock filled Ruth's face. "You're talking about the woman I...I love."Had she really meant to say that? Realization struck her. Yes, she had.
"Ruth, do you mean that? You really love her?”
Slowly Ruth started to nod. "Yes, I do."
* * *
"So, you're Ruth's girlfriend."And older version of Ruth with a lot more attitude stood appraising the blonde.
"Marlie."She offered. "I'm glad I finally have the chance to me you, Rita.”
"How long have you known my sister?”
The blonde didn't have to think Marlie merely stated what was in her heart. "It seems like my entire life."
"Do you hear that, Rene? It seems our little Ruth's found her soulmate.”
"She always claimed to be gay. I guess it's true,"Rene twisted the bottle cap off her drink. "Wine cooler anyone?”
"No thanks, I like to keep a clear head.”
"That's funny, most working girls don't."A teetering dark eyebrow tempered Rita's words.
"If you'll excuse me,"Ruth came up behind Marlie and wrapped her arms around the woman's waist. "I'm going to steal my girl away from you crowsnow, and later I just may let you intrude on our pleasant evening.”
"Daddy's little sugar baby has finally grown up,"Rene countered. "What's the matter, you finally grow out of those Mary Janes?”
"My choice of shoe style has nothing to do with whom I choose to date."
"No, it doesn't. We do,"Rene crackled (Krackel) out around a choking cough.
Seeing Ruth's neck hairs bristling, Marlie offered an alternative thought. "Have you ever considered that maybe its fate?"Silence reigned supreme for a few seconds. "Ruth, why don't you show me that special spot of yours.”
The concept took Ruth by surprise, but she recovered quickly. "Sure, Marlie. It's right over here."
* * *
The two women stood huddled together on the outdoor patio. Above them the stars stood out against the night sky.
"Star light, star bight (brite),"Marlie whispered softly as she closed her eyes and made a silent wish.
"I've made many a wish out here over the years. I have to admit, some of them were pretty stupid.”
"Like what?"Marlie never wavered from gazing up at the twinkling lights. "Did you wish for a dolly, lolly, or a trip to Wrigley Field?”
"You're close,"Ruth confided. "I wanted to be a pitcher for the Yankees.”
"Yep! Right down to the big league chew in the side of my mouth."Ruth chuckled.
"I take it that wish never came true.”
"Nope, I wasn't very good with sports. It seems I've got butter fingers."Ruth wiggled her digits. "See?”
Marlie took Ruth's hands into her own. "They don't feel greasy to me. They're smooth and soft like a dove."She looked up and the two women locked gazes.
Ever so slowly they drifted together until one pair of lips touched the other. Hesitant at first, Ruth melted into the kiss. One by one her arms encircled the other woman's body. Like a breath of fresh air, the hugs strengthened as the kisses continued.
Slowly Ruth pulled away and started the conversation. "Hearts don't beat like this."She held her hand over her chest. "My heart especially."She looked up to the stars and wondered. "Could this be,"her voice trailed off.
"Could this be what, Ruth."Green eyes searched Ruth's face.
Ruth shrugged. "On a rating scale of one to ten, I've always felt like such a zero compared to my sisters.”
"And now, what do you feel like?”
Ruth closed her eyes and took stock of her emotions. "I feel like...”
"Boss, er...my Queen,"Callie rushed onto the patio. "You've got to come quick, Mary's in trouble.”
Green eyes flared with anger. "Hold that thought, Ruth. I'll be right back."Marlie took off in a run.
"Hey, I'm the doctor here, maybe I can help."Ruth quickly followed the blonde.
* * *
The sound of raised voices sent a feeling of panic through Marlie. There, in the center of the noise was Mary, her head cocked back and pitcher of beer in her hand readying to chug the beverage like some underage frat party drill.
"No!"Marlie converged on the scene with the utmost of speed. "No, no, no.”
Mary pulled the pitcher back into her body, leaving a splashing of amber fluid to fall in dots on the carpeting. "But Marlie, it was a challenge.”
"And so is this."Marlie's hands balled up into fists and were planted on her hips. "Now walk away."
The standoff lasted nearly a full minute, but Mary finally caved into Marlie's demand. "Sorry, Lloyd. I guess you'll have to come down to the bar if want to have that chug off."She glared at Marlie, then started to walk away as the crowd dispersed around her.
"Hey!"Marlie grabbed Mary by her sleeve and pulled her aside. "What were you thinking? Can't you see I'm trying to make a good impression here?”
"Since when do you care what the people we rip off have to think about us?”
"Since now. This is different.”
"You're telling me. What's up with you, Marlie?”
Good question. What was up with her? Marlie considered her actions and it began to trouble her. "I'm not sure.”
"Well if you ask me, I'd say you're falling for this mark.”
"Me? Fall?"Marlie laughed. "I don't fall for marks."
"No, you don't. So what's so special about this one?"Mary scrutinized the blonde as she mulled the question over.
A gambit of emotions swept over Marlie as she tried to pinpoint the reasons for her concern.
"Look, Marlie. If you want to pull out, we'll understand, but as far as we're concerned this deal is going down whether you're apart of it or not."Mary looked down at her watch. "Come midnight and not one moment extra, we're out of here."
Marlie munched on her lip as she thought. "Yeah, I guess you're right.”
"There you are,"Ruth came up behind Marlie. "What was all the hubba bubba about?”
"A game,"Mary barked out, her gaze never leaving Marlie's. "It's all about the game. Now if you don't mind, I'm going to get back to it."
"Game? What game?”
Mary turned and walked away leaving Marlie to explain.
"Marlie, what's going on?”
"Something I never thought would happen,"Marlie muttered, looking down to the floor.
"Is it something bad?"
"Actually, it's something good.”
"Well, that's a relief. I can deal with good.”
"I'm not so sure you're going to be able to."Mary looked up into Ruth's eyes.
"Look, whatever this is, we can deal with it."Ruth reached out and took Mary's hand into her own. "Mary, I've never said this to another woman before,"she smirked, "or a man."Ruth gazed adoringly into green eyes. "I love you.”
Marlie's mouth was agape. "You what?”
Ruth pulled Marlie into an alcove. Their gaze met and held. "I love you,"she said leaning into a kiss.
Warm lips invited Ruth in while Marlie's mind fought to gain control over her emotions. It took some time for her to muster up her courage. Struggling against all that cried out in her to stay in Ruth's embrace, Marlie broke free.
"I can't do this.”
"Can't do what, breath? Don't worry, I'm a sort of breath saver."Ruth gave her an endearing smile.
"Ruth, there's something you need to know before this goes any further.”
Startled Ruth stepped back. "You have another lover?”
"You don't love me."Hurt filled Ruth's eyes.
"I didn't say that.”
"Good!"Ruth sighed in relief. "I figured that out by our last kiss.”
"Look, Ruth, I don't want to hurt you.”
"And you're not. I'm a big girl. I know when I'm taking a risk and I know that giving my heart to you is something that I want to do.”
"Ruth, I'm not what I appear to be. I have secrets. My family has secrets.”
"Black sheep,"Ruth laughed, "bring them on. I'm used to them. No family would be complete without them. Heck, I've got an uncle who has a glass eye.”
"Well..."Marlie narrowed her gaze.
"Marlie, come quick."Callie moved down the hall. "Sarah's gone wild and I can't stop her.”
Ruth smiled pleasantly. "So, Sarah's the black sheep, eh?”
"Where?"Marlie attention was directed at the panting woman.
"Master bedroom,"Callie said at a clip.
"Oh, this I got to see,"Ruth chagrined. "Follow me.”
* * *
Ruth opened the door to her parent's bedroom and stopped dead in her tracks. "What the heck?”
"Sarah?"Marlie called out the name before she was even in the room. "Put it back.”
"Put what back?"Sarah tugged and pulled at her clothing to hide the assortment of loot stashed beneath the thin veil of material.
Ruth lurched with the jolt of bodies piling into her.
"I told you not to get greedy,"Mary struggled to get into the room.
"Hey! What's going on?"Rita raised her voice as she came down the hall.
"Nothing's going on."Marlie spoke up. "Isn't that right, Sarah?"She turned a glaring eye to the woman.
Sarah didn't move.
"Sarah, don't force me,"Marlie warned.
Tensions grew as the stand off continued.
"You need help, Sarah. We all need help,"Marlie pleaded with her. "Something's telling me it's time to stop this charade and come clean.”
"Yeah, the jigs up,"Rita smirked. "I knew they were all fakes. Ruth could get somebody to love her if she were the richest woman in the world.”
"And who's to say I'm not?"Ruth jumped into the action. Her gaze drifted over to Marlie. "Money isn't everything. I can be rich with all the material things.”
"Don't burst the double bubble,"Rita smirked. "We work hard for it. Being poor isn't as carefree as it seems.”
"I agree with her,"Mary chimed in with her arms folded over her chest. "I'd love to be having drinks in some sky bar right now, but to do that you need money. Loot,"she looked directly at Marlie, "You know what I mean?”
"Yeah, Marlie."Sarah took a step toward her leader, letting a small silver picture slip from out of her jacket. "Oops! God I hope that didn't break.”
Marlie closed her eyes and waited for the accusation to come. In a second her newfound world was going to be dissolved.
"There's a name for that,"Rita pointed out. "Thief!"
"No, kleptomaniac. That's the term to use,"Ruth said with utter assurance.
"Yes,"Marlie's eyes opened at the thought. "That's what she is, a kleptomaniac. It runs in our family."She moved over toward Callie and started to frisk through the woman's pockets. "See, here's proof."Marlie held up a gold edged ashtray and smiled. "We pick things up without even thinking about it."Marlie turned to her family for confirmation. "Don't we girls?”
Under their leader's continued scrutiny, one by one of the woman conceded their downfall. Pieces of brick-a-brac along with assorted wallets, checkbooks, and small change purses were piled into a heap on the end of the bed. When the last piece of loot was gathered in, Marlie sighed in relief.
"Now, doesn't that feel a whole lot better?"
"And what did you steal...er take?"Mary sneered, "Come on, cough it up.”
There was nothing for Marlie to return. There wasn't a single thing had she picked up this night that hadn't been offered freely to her and that included Ruth's heart.
Seeing Marlie's quandary, Ruth readily stepped forward. "My heart. She stole my heart the moment I laid eyes on her. I'm not taking my heart back, Marlie. Don't even try to return it.”
Green eyes met blue and an exchange of words were no longer necessary. Each woman felt what was in the other's heart. Love filled the room and a sense of family embraced them all.
It had taken years for Ruth's Christmas wish to come but at this instance in time, it was never more welcomed on everyone's part.
Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.
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