Christmas Sleigh

The Right Thing


Part 2 (Conclusion)

"Who's up for horseback riding today?" Hennessey asked on the first Saturday of August.

She received six affirmative nods, the Saturday morning ride having become a bit of a tradition over the last month. They set off, with Hennessey on her massive stallion, Tobias, carrying the saddlebags filled with emergency supplies. They trotted along the beach, the horses kicking up sand as they ran through the light surf. After dashing up and down in the surf for a while, they headed inland, making their way through the pine and hardwood forest. There wasn't much forested acreage on the island anymore, most of the trees having fallen victim to loggers, and then developers.

Hennessey loved the inland portion of the trail, having seen so much of the natural beauty of Beaufort County lost in just her short lifetime. They'd gone about halfway when Devlin's horse threw a shoe. That wouldn't have been such a problem on the sand, but the uneven, root-studded trail was far too dangerous for a horse to traverse unshod.

Townsend slid off her mount, a well-mannered filly that responded very well to her, and walked over to Devlin. "I can shoe her for you."

"You can?" the young woman asked dubiously.

"Yeah. I've been riding since I was in diapers. No problem."

Hennessey watched the interchange, preferring to let the girls take care of things on their own, if possible. She'd seen Townsend's competence around the horses, so she felt very comfortable letting the young woman perform this task.

Townsend reached into the saddlebags and removed a horseshoe, a hammer and a few nails. She set to work, with a few girls helping to hold the horse still, and the others keeping her hoof in position for the shoe. Everything was going well, with Hennessey just observing, until a harmless brown snake slid across the path. Hailey screamed and the horse spooked, kicking out powerfully, and knocking Townsend into the air, where she fell in a motionless heap.

Hennessey ran to her, examining her before she moved her an inch. Townsend was unconscious, with a bit of blood running down her neck, seeming to come from her ear. "Oh, no, no, no, no! " Looking up, she shouted, "Go get help. NOW!"

Three girls jumped onto their horses and took off, going as quickly as the narrow path would allow.

The two remaining girls stared at Townsend's still form, Devlin finding the voice to ask, "Is she gonna die?"

"Jesus, no! I think she might have a fractured skull, though. The damned horse must have kicked her right in the head. Take anything you can find, and if you can't find anything, take off your shirts. Go to the ocean and wet them, then come back as fast as your legs will carry you. I need something cold to keep the swelling down."

Both girls took what they could find from the saddlebags, then ran back towards the ocean. With her pulse pounding so hard that she felt like her heart would explode, Hennessey did what she could - murmuring to Townsend, and promising that help was coming. "Come on, sweet pea, hang in there. Please, hang in there. Please, Townsend - you can do it, baby."

Miraculously the green eyes fluttered open, and the young woman looked up at Hennessey vacantly. "What happened?"

"You got kicked by the horse. Don't move, sweetheart. I'm afraid you have a head injury."

"Fuck," she muttered. "I haven't had a headache this bad since I stopped drinking." Looking up at Hennessey, she asked, "Am I gonna be all right?"

"Yes. Definitely. Not a doubt. Without question."

"That bad, huh?" she asked, smiling weakly.

"I'm afraid your skull is fractured. You're bleeding from your ear. That can be bad, baby."

"I'm scared, Hennessey," she whispered. "Will you will you hold me?"

"Oh, Townsend, I'd love to hold you, but I don't want to move you."

The look the blonde gave her melted her heart, and Hennessey lay down on the trail, tucking an arm around the smaller woman and holding her as close as she dared. "You're gonna be fine. Just fine, sweetheart."

"For the first time in my life I have something to live for," Townsend muttered. "Just my luck to kill myself."

"You are not going to die," Hennessey whispered fiercely. "You're gonna be just fine."

Townsend's hand went to her head and she felt around her ear. "Hennessey?" she asked softly, her eyes going unfocused again.

"What, sweet pea? What is it?"

"If I make it, will you do me a favor?"

"Yes, yes, anything, Townsend."

"Will you kiss me?"

Hennessey paused just a second, then leaned in close and whispered, "I'm so confident that you'll be fine, that I'm gonna pay up in advance." She hovered over the injured woman for a moment, then dipped her head and kissed her, putting all of her heart and all of her hopes into the tender embrace.

As Hennessey pulled away, she heard the roar of an engine coming across the sand. The doctor whose office was located just outside the compound jumped off the vehicle and rushed over to examine Townsend. "What happened?"

"Horse kicked her in the head. I'm not sure where he got her," Hennessey said, hearing the tears choke her voice.

Swabbing away the blood with some alcohol-soaked gauze pads, the doctor let his fingers linger over an egg-sized knot on the side of Townsend's head, just behind her temple. "Here's where he got her," he said. "Was she unconscious?"

"Yeah. For about four minutes. Her eyes keep losing their focus."

"Looks like a concussion. We'll get her transported as soon as the ambulance arrives."

"But the blood her ear "

"Oh, that was from the wound over her ear. I seriously doubt that she has a fractured skull. She'll be just fine."

Breathing a sigh of relief, Hennessey asked, "How will the ambulance get in here?"

"I can walk with help," Townsend said.

"No. We'll ride," Hennessey said. She went to her horse and quickly removed his saddle, then stepped onto a fallen tree and threw her leg over Tobias' broad back. Guiding the horse over to the all-terrain-vehicle, she asked, "Can you help her stand on the seat, Doctor Flanders?"

He helped Townsend to her feet, then held her as she stood on the seat. Reaching over, Hennessey pulled her aboard, then cradled her against her chest. "Where did you tell the ambulance to go?" Hennessey asked.

"Right where the forest path meets the highway," the doctor said.

"We'll be there in a few. Will you call them and tell them we're coming? Oh, and have one of the girls come get my horse. I'll tie him to a tree there."

Holding Townsend tightly, Hennessey urged Tobias forward, keeping him at a very slow, gentle pace. "Are you all right? Not too jarring?"

"I'm fine." After a pause, she asked, "That doctor wouldn't let me get on a horse if I were gonna die, would he?"

Chuckling softly, Hennessey said, "I don't think so. I think you're gonna be right as rain."

"Thanks, Hennessey," she said softly, nestling against her. "Thanks for everything."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The next morning, Hennessey lightly shook Townsend's shoulder. "Hi, sweet pea. How's the melon?"

"Huh?"

"Your head," Hennessey said. "How's your headache?"

"Mmm years of alcohol abuse have prepared me well for this," she said, trying not to laugh, knowing that it would only make the headache worse. "Where am I?"

"At the hospital. The doctor said you can go home, but he'd like you to try to get some breakfast down to make sure you're not nauseous."

"I think I can do that." She struggled to sit up, with Hennessey's assist. "I'm still a little sick to my stomach, but I'm sure I'll feel better if I can keep something down."

"That's the girl." She placed the tray across her lap, and sat on the end of the bed. Townsend took a few bites of the cornflakes, managing to swallow and suffer no ill effects.

"Thanks for picking something simple."

"No problem. I know what you like in the morning." Quickly, she added, "I know what all of you guys like."

Running her foot under the covers, trailing it along Hennessey's leg, Townsend said, "Don't worry, pal. I know you don't feel like I do. I'm just happy to have gotten a kiss."

"Aw, Townsend, don't say things like that. So much has happened to you in the last two months - far too much to even think about loving someone."

"Who said anything about love?" she asked, trying to hide the hurt. "I just meant that I'd like to fuck your brains out."

Laughing gently, knowing that Townsend was trying to cover, Hennessey nodded. "I do believe you'd be able to. I think you could do anything you set your mind to, Townsend. Anything."

"Anything but you." The younger woman stared at her, not looking away until Hennessey replied to her statement.

"Look, you've been in recovery for just over a month. You just turned seventeen. You're my student. You're living in my bungalow. The only way a relationship with you would be more illicit is if I became a priest, or you were a goat! Come on, Townsend, look at the reality."

"I am," she answered quietly. "And I also paid close attention to your list. I heard all of the reasons why you shouldn't have feelings for me - but I never heard you say you didn't have feelings for me. Am I all alone here, Hennessey, or do you feel something, too?"

Bright blue eyes focused on the floor. "I'd really rather not answer that, Townsend. I know we've always been honest with each other - but not this time."

"If you didn't have feelings for me - would you tell me?"

The dark head nodded. "You know I would."

Reaching out with her hand, Townsend threaded her fingers with Hennessey's. "Knowing that you care for me - even if it's just a little, is enough for me. That alone gives me something to live for."

"Oh, Townsend, you've got so much to live for. Don't pin your future on one person. Not any person - me or anyone else. If you don't love yourself, you can't possibly love another."

"Hennessey," she said, gazing into her eyes, "will you write to me this fall? I don't know why, but when you say things like that, it sinks in. Somehow I hear you - in a way I've never heard another person."

"I promise I'll write," she said. "And I won't critique your style."

"That's a promise you'll never be able to keep, chief. Now, let me get this breakfast down so we can get out of this dump."

* * * * * * * * * * *

On the last full week of class, Hennessey stood in front of her students and said, "I'm very pleased to announce that The Scroll has decided to publish not one, but two pieces by members of this class. They've chosen to publish both of the pieces that we entered: Amy's poem, and Townsend's short essay. Let's hear it for them!" The rest of the class stood along with Hennessey and applauded for the blushing young women, then each of them gave the pair a hug.

"I know you all know the pieces as well as you know your own names," Hennessey teased, "since we've been critiquing them for the last two weeks, but it will still thrill you when you see them in print - trust me."

They spent the rest of the class critiquing the papers of the girls who'd chosen not to enter the competition. The dialogue was fast and furious, as it had been for the last month.

The girls had become a cohesive team, offering help and support to each other - and Hennessey had been very pleased to find that Townsend had gone out of her way to help one girl who was still struggling a little. Finding Townsend acting as a leader both surprised and delighted Hennessey, and she realized she was gazing at the woman with an incredibly goofy look on her face.

Townsend gave her a smile, then signaled the other girls. They all walked up to the front of the room, where Townsend held out a small, neatly wrapped box. "We've all enjoyed this class so much that we wanted you to know that each and every one of us wants to be teacher's pet," she said, her eyes twinkling merrily.

"Aw you guys didn't have to do this." Hennessey was obviously delighted, but she tried to maintain her professionalism. "It's really not necessary to give me a gift. I'm very well paid "

"Will you just open it and stop wasting time?" Townsend said.

Grinning sheepishly, Hennessey did so, opening the box to reveal a gold chain with a tiny, perfectly formed golden apple. "A permanent apple for our favorite teacher," Townsend said, charmed by the stray tears that rolled down the brunette's cheeks.

* * * * * * * * * * *

At the end of class, the girls were all still chatting, unable to keep the excitement from their voices. "It's a big day for you, Ms Bartley," Hennessey said as they walked out. "Getting a piece published in The Scroll, and getting your sixty day chip tonight."

"Can we go somewhere to celebrate?" Townsend asked. "If you give me my charge cards back, I could take you to the best restaurant on Hilton Head."

"You can have your charge cards and your money back," Hennessey said. "But I can't let you take me to dinner. I can't cross those kinds of lines, Townsend."

"Okay," she said quietly, thinking of another way to spend time together. "How about an ice cream?"

"All right. I'll buy."

"My father's going to think I've been in isolation," Townsend said. "I've never gone more than two days without charging something."

"I've never charged anything in my life," Hennessey said. "My gramma always said credit was the devil's work."

"Wow." Townsend shook her head. "Just wow."

* * * * * * * * * * *

On Friday, Hennessey spent most of the morning saying goodbye to the girls from her bungalow as well as her writing students. Townsend was the last to leave, having decided to stay at an inn in Charleston to be able to spend a few extra hours alone with Hennessey before her morning flight. "Is there any way I can convince you to come stay with me tonight?" she asked, when they were alone in the bungalow.

"No, Townsend. It's just not possible."

"But you're not my teacher any longer, and you're not my house leader. Damn it, Hennessey, we're barely a year apart, so it can't be the age difference!"

"Only chronologically," Hennessey said. "There's a very, very big gap between us, Townsend. Call it experience, call it maturity, hell call it sobriety. But we're not equals. I care for you - I swear I do - but I can't be with you. It was just three months ago that I was practically turning you over my knee for a spanking. That's not how equals behave, baby. I've worked far too long on my own issues to be in a relationship with someone where I have to be the adult and they get to be the child. I can't do that again. I just can't." She started to cry, and soon found herself wrapped in Townsend's warm embrace.

"Can we be friends?" the soft voice asked.

"Yes, we can be friends. We can always be friends. I promise." Hennessey lifted her head and placed a remarkably soft kiss on Townsend's cheek. "You're my very good friend."

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Are you sure you can't give me a ride as far as your house? It's on the way to Charleston, isn't it?"

"No, I can't give you a ride, and yes, it's on the way. We need to say goodbye here, sweet pea. It's best this way." The airport limo pulled up and Hennessey hoisted her friend's bag into the rear of the van. "I'll write to you as soon as I get an e-mail address at school."

"Not until then? That's weeks from now!"

"I don't have e-mail at home, Townsend. I don't have a computer."

The younger girl blinked at her, then shook her head. "Can I write to you - snail mail? I'm I'm worried about staying sober without you to talk to."

"Of course you can write to me." She took the piece of paper that Townsend handed her and wrote down her address. "Write to me every day at the same time. Make it like an appointment, okay? And whenever you feel stressed - go to a meeting. They've got them 24 hours a day in a big city like Boston. You've got to start relying on the meetings to get you through this."

"I know. Can I call you?"

"Oh, Townsend, I just don't think that's a good idea. We wouldn't have any privacy, and my family would want to know what was going on."

"Can you call me?"

"No. I can't afford long distance calls. I'm sorry, but I can't."

"I don't think I can do this without you," the young blonde whispered, trying to stem the tears.

"I know that you can. I have complete confidence in you, Townsend." She opened the van door and urged her to get in, then closed the door, waving as the van pulled away, struggling mightily to avoid crying. That's the closest I've come in years to having a complete co-dependent melt down. That girl could be the best and the worst thing to ever happen to me.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Once Hennessey was settled at Harvard, she and Townsend started writing to each other every day. Within a short time, they were writing twice, then three times a day; and by the end of September they acted as though they were roommates - a few hundred miles apart.

Surprisingly, something began to happen as the weeks passed. Slowly, but surely, Hennessey's role began to change from mentor to friend. Townsend needed less and less of her reassurance, now relying on the sponsor she had managed to click with in AA. They spent more of their time just sharing the events of their lives and getting to know each other better as equals. Hennessey was incredibly busy, but finding just a few minutes to dash off a sentence or two to her friend kept her grounded. She found herself gravely disappointed when she went to her room and failed to see her mail icon - but always, before another hour had passed, Townsend would check in with some short, but funny reflection, and all was well with the world once again.

By the beginning of November, the wheedling and begging had begun. Townsend was bound and determined to have Hennessey spend Thanksgiving with her in Boston, but no matter how much she begged, the dark-haired woman would not budge, even though she was going to be in Boston alone over the holiday. "It's too soon, Townsend. I have to maintain some boundaries with you. If I give in to staying at your home, I know the next issue will be sleeping with you - and that's not going to happen."

"For the time being, you mean."

Hennessey sighed, "Yes, for the time being."

"Okay," Townsend said. "As long as I know that it's still in the realm of the possible, I can live with that."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Hennessey turned on her computer on the day after Thanksgiving and found one of the most welcome e-mails she'd ever seen. "I got in! I'm going to college in Boston, baby! Sooner or later - you're gonna be mine!"

I'm already yours, Hennessey sighed. I just can't admit to it while you're still struggling with your sobriety.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Two weeks before Christmas break was set to begin, Hennessey screwed up her courage and wrote an e-mail to Townsend:

"Hi,

I've been thinking a lot about the little dance we've been doing, and I've decided that I've been far too coy. I know you care for me, Townsend - okay, I'll say it for you - I know you love me. But you don't know me - or, better said, you don't know all of me. You only know the woman I let people see. So, I've decided that it's time to let you see the real me. If you can manage it, I'd like you to come home with me for Christmas. You don't have to come for the whole time - I know your parents will want you home for the actual day, but whatever time you can manage would be just great.

We're from very different backgrounds, Townsend, and while I don't think you're shallow - you might feel differently about me when you see where I'm from. I'll always be a working class girl from the deep South, and when I graduate I want - no, I need - to go back there. I like Boston just fine - but it's not home. I need my home, Townsend, and if you want to love me, you'll have to accept that. So, come with me to Beaufort, baby. Let me show you the South Carolina that I love - so that you can decide if the whole package appeals to you as much as the pieces that I've let you see.

Hennessey"

The e-mail response time was no more than 10 minutes. "I spoke with my mother, and told her that I'd met a wonderful woman from South Carolina and that I was in love. I said I'd like to go to her home for the entire winter break, and she said that was just lovely. I'm all yours, my little palmetto bug. You just give me the dates, and the airline, and we're there."

* * * * * * * * * * *

A few days before they were scheduled to depart, Hennessey dropped another bomb on her friend. "If we're going to travel together, I want to meet your family. I'm 18 now, Townsend, but you're still technically a minor. I want your family to know who I am, and that you and I won't be sleeping together on this trip. I want them to know that I respect you."

Townsend couldn't resist. E-mail was not enough; she had to speak to Hennessey about this one. Dialing her room she blurted out, "Are you mad? My mother didn't bat an eye when she found out that I was exchanging sexual favors for liquor! I've been arrested six times, Hennessey, six times! Do you honestly think she cares about my virtue at this point?"

There was silence on the line for a few moments. Finally, Hennessey spoke softly. "I care, Townsend. I care about your virtue, and every other part of you. I'm going to treat you with the respect you deserve until you begin to demand it for yourself. Now, you work out the logistics, but if I don't get to at least speak to one of your parents, you aren't going with me. That's final!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Townsend ran down the hallway, nearly knocking a startled young woman onto her ass. "Sorry!" she yelled, not slowing a bit. She rapped on the door so sharply that her hand ached, but so intent was she on the goal fixed firmly in her mind, that she was oblivious to the pain. The door opened and Hennessey finally was standing in front of her, the slow, sexy smile lighting up her face in a way that made Townsend's knees buckle. She fell forward, landing in the taller woman's embrace.

"Not the most graceful girl in Boston, are ya?" she drawled, her breath against Townsend's cheek making her shiver.

The blonde gathered her wits and regained her balance, standing under her own power, then threw her arms around Hennessey's neck, tugging her down to return the kiss that had been burning her lips for months.

"Unh-uh, sweet pea." Hennessey used her leverage to stand up tall, keeping her mouth away from the smaller, but fiercely determined woman. "We don't greet each other that way. We're friends, remember?"

"Hennessey! We're certainly more than friends! We're meeting each other's families, for God's sake!"

"We're courting," the brunette declared. "If, after an acceptable time period, we decide that we love each other - then, and only then, do we kiss."

"Is this 2001, or 1901? Jesus, Hennessey, you act like we're Mormons!"

"Having a little decorum isn't a bad thing, Townsend. Having a relationship with each other is a goal - just like any other goal - this is big stuff, pal, and it's something we both have to work to achieve."

"Seems like I'm the one doing all the work," Townsend grumbled, shuffling over to pick up Hennessey's small bag.

As Townsend walked past, the taller woman wrapped her in a tight embrace and squeezed her fiercely. Blue eyes bored into her captive like lasers as she said, "I have to struggle with all of my might to keep my hands off you, Townsend Bartley. I want you more than a possum wants grapes; and if I thought it was the right time, we'd be rolling around in that bed like a couple of rabid muskrats. Don't you dare tell me you're doing all the work." She grasped the back of Townsend's head and pulled it towards her, kissing her forehead, then both cheeks. "If I allow myself to fall in love with you, it's going to be for the rest of my life. I can wait until we're both able to make that choice."

Townsend gazed up at her, a blank look on her face. "You're the only person in my life to have ever rendered me speechless."

* * * * * * * * * * *

They walked down to the car hand in hand, Hennessey allowing that courting couples were allowed to do so. To Hennessey's surprise, a driver got out and held the back door for them, then took Hennessey's bag and stored it in the trunk.

"Mom, this is Hennessey Boudreaux. Hennessey, this is my mother, Miranda Bartley."

Hennessey put on her most winning smile, then leaned forward, reaching for the beautifully manicured, baby-soft hand. "Very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Bartley." She had rehearsed the meeting several times, and had decided not to mention the woman's celebrity. She didn't care for her books, and she didn't want to fawn over her just because she was famous.

"The pleasure is mine, Hennessey. I'm very pleased to meet the young woman who has so captured my daughter's heart."

"She's captured mine as well, Mrs. Bartley," Hennessey admitted, blushing adorably.

"Well, tell me about yourself, Hennessey," Mrs. Bartley asked as the car glided down the road. "Townsend tells me you're from Beaufort. I've been there many, many times. It's one of the loveliest cities in the Southeast in my opinion."

"Oh, it is that, Mrs. Bartley."

"But, it's a rather small town, isn't it?"

"Yes, ma'am, about 10,000 people in Beaufort proper."

"Do you know the Kingsleys?"

"No, ma'am."

"How about the Hutchinson's? They run the newspaper, I believe."

"No, ma'am, I haven't made their acquaintance."

"Mom, do we have to go through your Filofax?" Townsend asked, getting peeved.

"I just thought we might have some mutual acquaintances," Miranda explained.

Hennessey cleared her throat. "Mrs. Bartley, I'm quite sure you and I wouldn't know the same people. I've heard of the families you've mentioned, but my family doesn't live in one of the big mansions in Beaufort. We're just working class people trying to get by."

"Oh!" Her eyes widened, and she said, "I'm sorry, Hennessey. I I just assumed with your going to Harvard and all "

"Full scholarship, Mrs. Bartley. I've worked since I was twelve years old to buy myself some nice clothes and have a few luxuries, but we're dirt poor. I'm afraid Townsend is going to be quite surprised at just how poor we are."

She felt her hand being tenderly squeezed. "I don't care if you live in tents and go dumpster diving for dinner. You're the best catch in the whole South. You don't need a dime to enhance your worth."

"Hennessey, you've helped my daughter make some changes in the past six months that a legion of psychiatrists, psychologists, medical doctors and acupuncturists haven't been able to accomplish. Just keeping Townsend out of jail for six months is more than I'd hoped for."

The young woman looked at her friend, her eyes blazing. "Oh, she's capable of so much more, Mrs. Bartley. I'm already very, very proud of her, but someday she's going to accomplish things that will make her very proud of herself. That will be the happiest day of my life."

* * * * * * * * * * *

As they neared the airport, Hennessey cleared her throat and gave Miranda the message that she was determined to impart. "I care for your daughter very much, but until we make a commitment to each other, we're not going to be physically intimate. You don't have to worry about her, Mrs. Bartley. I'll treat her with the respect she deserves."

The older woman's mouth opened, then snapped shut, then opened again, but no words came out.

"We're courting, Mom," Townsend sniffed. "I'm reclaiming my chastity." She gave Hennessey's hand a squeeze, then added a wicked smile. "That part is all her idea, by the way. I think chastity is highly overrated."

* * * * * * * * * * *

When they were in the air, Townsend noticed that Hennessey grew more and more quiet the farther they traveled. "You're nervous, aren't you."

"Yeah. Li'l bit. I'm worried about what you'll think of them and vice versa."

"Tell me how you want me to act," Townsend asked. "I can be any way you want me to be."

"I want you to be yourself - up to a point that is. I just know that my family is very distrustful of outsiders - particularly ones with money. It's gonna take them a while to warm up to you."

"Who do they think I am - to you, I mean. Do they know I'm madly in love with you?"

"Ahh no," Hennessey said, shaking her head. "I thought we'd ease into this. On this trip they can get used to the fact that you're a Yankee and you have money. Next time, we can let them know you're not Catholic. Then we can spring the fact that you're a lesbian. Finally, years from now, we can tell them that I'm one, too. Then, after my grandparents are both dead, we can tell my daddy that we're lesbians together."

"Hennessey, at the rate we're going, by the time we're lesbians together everyone in your family will be dead - of old age!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

Since it was a workday, Hennessey's father wasn't available to pick them up. After a great deal of negotiation, they agreed on renting a car. They chose the smallest, cheapest model available, but for the two weeks they'd be in South Carolina the total was $150.00. Hennessey gulped when she saw the figure, but she insisted on paying for it - since Townsend was her guest. "I've told you before, baby, guests don't pay for things when they visit. We Boudreauxs are poor as church mice, but we've got enough pride to blanket the county."

"I'm beginning to get that impression," Townsend said, trying to wedge her suitcase into the smallest car ever manufactured.

Shortly after leaving Charleston airport, the city disappeared, replaced with some of the most unspoiled, time-forgotten space that Townsend had ever seen. "This is the low country," Hennessey said, fondly. She rolled her window down part way and demanded, "Fill your lungs with the smells, baby. They're divine."

Townsend did as she had been directed, but she wasn't sure about the divine part. The smells were similar to the ones she'd noticed on Hilton Head, but there was something indefinable, and very earthy and primal, about the scents that floated into the window. Shifting in her seat, Townsend took a moment to observe her friend. "You know, I don't think I've ever seen you look happier. You truly love it here, don't you?"

"I do," Hennessey said wistfully. "The low Country's in my bones, Townsend. Boudreauxs have been here since 1755, and even though the welcoming party was a little frosty, it's our home."

"Why weren't you welcome? I thought settlers were always welcome back then. Heck, there wasn't even a United States then, was there?"

"No, there was no United States, per se. Each colony had a government, of course. The South Carolinians didn't cotton to a bunch of French-speaking rabble-rousers, though. We'd already been expelled from Canada, and many of the colonies were bound and determined to keep us out. It was pretty stupid, really. We would have been a big help in the Revolutionary War, but we were always viewed with suspicion. The folks in South Carolina thought we'd side with the Indians, so they did their best to stick us back on boats and send us packing."

"You're ancestors were French?"

"Of course, baby. Did you think Boudreaux was Irish or Swedish?"

"I guess I never thought about it."

"We're Cajuns, baby." Townsend noticed that the farther down the road they traveled, the thicker her friend's accent got, and the normal twinkle in her eyes had become a low, flickering flame. "You've got yourself a Rajun' Cajun, sweet pea. Sure you can handle me?"

"I I actually, I'm not sure about that," she admitted, feeling that Hennessey's powerful personality was about to suck all of the oxygen out of the car.

"We're a rough bunch, Townsend. Spicy food, wild music and wilder women."

"Gulp!"

* * * * * * * * * * *

They drove on in silence, Hennessey giving her friend time to absorb the landscape, the smells and the simple beauty of the low country. They arrived in Beaufort just after 2, and Townsend was suitably impressed with the lovely little town. "My God, Hennessey, it looks like something out of Gone With The Wind!"

"Yeah, I suppose it does," she nodded. "At least this part of town does. We've got a ways to go, yet." To give her a feel for the place, Hennessey drove along Bay Street, pointing out some of the grandest mansions, then meandered up and down the narrow, magnolia-lined streets in the center of town. "Nice, isn't it?"

"Very! It reminds me just a little bit of Nantucket, to be honest. Narrow streets, historic, beautifully restored homes, a bustling, seacoast town."

"I've never been to Nantucket. Maybe you can take me one day."

"I'll take you anywhere you want to go, Hennessey. How would you like to sneak away with me to our home on Martha's Vineyard over spring break?"

"We'll see, sugar pie. First, I have to see how well you behave yourself. I'm not gonna play with you if you can't keep your hands to yourself. You're still a minor."

"Hey! I meant to tell you something, smarty-pants. I looked up the age of consent for sex, and it's 14 in South Carolina!"

"You're not a South Carolinian. You're a Massachusettser, or whatever y'all call yourselves."

"Wrong again. The age of consent is sixteen in Massachusetts."

"Nope. I looked it up, too, and for you it's 18."

"What?"

"It's illegal to have sex with a woman under 18 in Massachusetts if she's a virgin." She gave Townsend a quick glance and said, "You've reclaimed your chastity, remember? That makes you a virgin, Townsend. You've gotta read the fine print, baby."

Rolling her eyes, the blonde fumed, "You are the most infuriating woman!"

"Same thing I said about you for the first two months I knew you. Turnabout is fair play, honey pie."

* * * * * * * * * * *

It seemed they'd left civilization behind quite some time before, and Townsend was beginning to wonder if the car would make it over the rutted out dirt road. She saw a sign that read, "Boudreaux's Shrimp Shack", and at her raised eyebrow, Hennessey nodded. "The family business."

"Are we going there or to your home?"

"Just about the same thing, Townsend. I hope you like the smell of shrimp."

They reached a fork in the road, and through the dust Townsend saw another sign for the restaurant with an arrow pointing to the left. But Hennessey turned to the right, and after another 100 yards she pulled up to a very, very, very modest home.

The place was two stories, but the top floor wasn't perfectly lined up with the bottom. Trying to think back to her earth sciences class, Townsend wracked her brain, trying to recall if South Carolina experienced earthquakes. The place could have used a coat of paint - thirty years ago - but there were curtains in the windows and the few sparse patches of grass were neatly mowed. Small, well-kept flower beds bracketed the front stairs, and a stately magnolia tree stood right in the middle of the front yard. Looking at the place, Hennessey gave her a crooked smile and said, "Too poor to paint, too proud to whitewash."

Townsend cocked her head, but Hennessey waved it off. "Old expression my gramma uses. It about sums us up, though." She got out, and Townsend followed suit. As she did, she was nearly knocked off her feet by the smell of - something. "Fish." Hennessey said, shrugging her shoulders. "By tomorrow you won't be able to smell it. With any luck," she added.

They each carried their own bags, and when Hennessey opened the door, Townsend asked, "It's not locked?"

Hennessey kicked it shut with her foot and twitched her head in the direction of the door. "No lock on it," she indicated. "Gramma always says if someone's poor enough to rob us, they surely must need what we have more than we do."

"Interesting perspective," Townsend nodded. She looked around the simple space, trying not to be too obvious. A well-worn sofa, a recliner covered with some form of man-made material with a poor patch job on the seat, a small table on each end of the sofa, and a pair of mismatched lamps. That was it - not another hint of decoration or adornment in the room.

"Remind you of your home?" Hennessey asked, her voice a little tight.

"Hey, knock it off." Townsend stood in front of her friend and gazed into her shifting eyes. "Don't you dare be ashamed of where you come from. Believe me, Hennessey, if my family had started out from the same place yours had, we'd have starved to death. There's no honor in having money - especially when you've been given most of it."

The taller woman sat down on the sofa, plucking at the threadbare arm. "I've never been away from home for this long," she said softly. "I think I forgot how little we have. I walk around Cambridge and I see the row houses selling for 2 million dollars, and the baby stores with $300 dresses for infants, and I forget."

"Look, pal," Townsend said, sitting next to her and trying to not flinch when a spring pinched her ass. "You were born to teenagers - drunken teenagers, I might add. Through nothing but hard work and perseverance, you've managed to attend the most prestigious school in the country. I, on the other hand, was born into old money - then had my mother have the great good luck of making millions off pretty poorly written books - just because she appeals to the romantic notions of housewives at the checkout counter of the grocery store. And yet, with all of this wealth and privilege, I've just barely gotten accepted to one of the worst four year colleges in the Boston area - and I found out that was only because my father promised a sizeable gift to upgrade the sports facilities. You have nothing to be ashamed of, Hennessey. I do."

"I'm sorry," Hennessey whispered. "I don't normally feel sorry for myself. It's just a lot to take in after the ivy-covered walls of Harvard."

Townsend cuddled up next to her and said, "I always feel better when I get a hug. How about you."

"Yeah, I guess I do, too." They held each other for a long time, both of them soaking up the affection with equal greed. "I'm about to fall out from hunger," the brunette murmured. "Wanna go meet the family?"

"Sure. Will they be at the restaurant?"

"Shack, honey. It's called a shack for a reason."

They set off down the dirt road, the smell getting stronger as they drew near. "Uhm I don't want to ask you to lie, but if Gramma asks, I'm gonna say you're a friend from Boston. If she knows how we met, she'll be madder than a hornet, and you don't want that, babe."

"I don't mind lying, Hennessey, but why would she be mad?"

"She doesn't think I should associate with the girls who can afford to attend the Academy. She dislikes rich Southern girls much more than rich Northern girls. I guarantee she'll be much friendlier if she thinks we're classmates."

"Well, I've always wanted to go to Harvard. Now's my chance."

* * * * * * * * * * *

They walked to the rickety-looking building sitting alongside an equally haphazard looking dock. "Here we are, sweet pea. I hope you don't have a shellfish allergy." Hennessey threw open the screen door and yelled into the empty restaurant, "The baby girl's back from the big city!"

"Hennessey, you get in here, you scalawag!"

Grinning widely, Hennessey led Townsend into the kitchen, a small space reeking of grease and fish. "Gramma!" she called out, and dashed the few feet to wrap the older woman in a bear hug. When she stepped back, Townsend watched with delight as Hennessey's grandmother went over her body like she'd just been in an accident and was checking for damage. Reddened, rough hands trailed down her arms, tickled her waist, and slid down her legs, finally landing on her butt. "Sit down and eat something, child! You're skin and bones."

Ignoring the teasing, Hennessey said, "Gramma, I want you to meet my friend, Townsend Bartley."

"Pleased to meet you," the older woman said, a decided note of formality coloring her voice. "Welcome to South Carolina, Townsend. Have you been here before?"

"Oh, just on vacation. I'm from Boston, and don't have much chance to come down the coast."

"Well, I hope you enjoy your visit." She grabbed a bowl and filled it with a rich looking fish stew. "You need to put on a little weight, too, Townsend. Go sit down and start to work on this. I'll send Hennessey out with something more substantial in a minute."

Realizing she was being dismissed, Townsend gave the older woman a warm smile and did as she was told. As soon as they were alone, Hennessey looked around and noted a decided lack of fish in the kitchen. At this time of the day her grandfather was usually furiously peeling shrimp for the dinner crowd, but he was nowhere in sight, and his truck was missing, also. "Daddy didn't have a good day?"

"Didn't come home last night," her grandmother said, shaking her head. "Your granddaddy just went out to try to buy more fish. We had a hellacious crowd at lunch."

"Can I help, Gramma?"

"No, honey, you just go sit with your friend. There's nothing to do here until your granddaddy gets back. I just hope he doesn't have to go to the grocery store. At those prices we might as well shut down for the night."

"I'm sorry about Daddy, Gramma," Hennessey said quietly.

"I'm the one responsible for the boy," the older woman said. "It's not your fault he can't pass a bar without drinkin' it dry."

"I know, Gramma, but I'm still sorry." The older woman hugged her again, and Hennessey smelled the reassuring scents of grease, shrimp, spices and sweat that had permeated her skin and clothes. "Let me grab a bowl of soup, before I faint." She ladled a healthy portion for herself and went out to sit next to Townsend at a white-painted picnic table.

"This is the best damned seafood chowder I've ever tasted, and believe me, I've tasted a lot of it."

"Thanks. Tell Gramma. She won't accept a compliment to save her life, but she remembers every person who doesn't give her one." Taking a big bite, Hennessey sighed with pleasure. "Damn, she's a fine cook. I sure as heck can't find a decent seafood chowder in Boston - and I've looked."

"It's the spices," Townsend decided. "This has much more gusto than anything I get at home."

"Yeah, I guess that's it. I've got to load up while we're down here. This has to last me until summer."

They were still eating when a tall, thin, rugged, weathered man entered through front door. "Granddaddy!" Hennessey jumped up and ran to him, hugging him with one arm while she removed some of his bags with her other. "How was the catch?"

"Just fine, Baby Girl. Thibodaux's still had some shrimp, and they had enough frozen crab to last us for tomorrow. Saved me trawling all over the damned ocean. Now all I've got to do is clean 'em."

"No way, Granddaddy. I'm gonna teach my friend how to clean shrimp. I guess we'd best start right now."

He gave her a smile that melted Townsend's heart, so reminiscent was it of Hennessey's. She got up and approached the man. "Hi, I'm Townsend."

"Hey, there, Townsend. Welcome to the shack. Glad to have ya."

"Thanks Mr. Boudreaux. I'm glad to be here."

"You girls are dressed awful nice to be cleanin' shrimp. You'd best go change."

"Be right back," Hennessey called out, already dashing out the door, Townsend hot on her heels.

Townsend hadn't brought her shrimp cleaning clothes, so they ran up to Hennessey's room to find suitable attire. The room was extremely orderly, with Hennessey's few personal articles placed just so on her white painted dresser. Her bed was small - so small that Townsend wondered how it contained her long body. "You're not cold, are you, Townsend?"

"No, it's lovely here," she said. "It must be 70 degrees. Why?"

"I think my shorts will fit you best, but I can find something else if you're cold."

"No, that's fine." She waited while Hennessey opened a drawer, revealing at least ten pairs of shorts - each pair one of the chalk colored ones from the Academy.

"I think I still have the ones I got when I was a freshman in high school," Hennessey said, reaching into the bottom of the drawer. "Yeah, here they are." She handed them over, then went to another drawer and pulled out a T-shirt extolling Habitat for Humanity. "This one's old, too, so it shouldn't be too huge on you."

"Did you work on one of these projects?"

"Uh-huh. There was a project way out in the sticks when I was a sophomore in high school. Damn, the people out there were poor!"

Townsend tried to hide the look that was trying to jump onto her face. How much poorer could you be than this? That thought was followed closely by, This isn't the sticks?

* * * * * * * * * * *

After an hour of instruction, Townsend felt capable of shelling shrimp with her eyes closed. She also firmly believed that she'd smell like shrimp for the rest of her life, and might possibly never eat another one. But Hennessey was in her element, talking more than Townsend had ever heard, sitting on the edge of the dock, chattering about nothing at all. She would occasionally launch into a short song, usually about fishing or drinking, her voice surprisingly melodic.

"You've been holding out on me, Hennessey. I had no idea you had such a beautiful voice."

"Oh." She looked a little embarrassed, then said, "I only sing when I'm really happy. I didn't even realize I was doing it."

"Well, you were, and you can sing for me anytime, baby. Did you sing in school, or at church?"

"Huh-uh. Just for myself. It's too personal to do on command."

"I'll never command you, Hennessey, and if you ever sing for me I'll just enjoy it."

"Deal," she said, grinning toothily.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Townsend didn't have to test her newly-acquired fear of shrimp. Hennessey had a taste for a crab sandwich, so her grandmother defrosted just enough crab for the two of them. The young women sat on stools in the kitchen and watched as Mrs. Boudreaux chopped the crab into tiny bits, then mixed it with seasoned breadcrumbs, red peppers and plenty of garlic. Just before she formed it into patties, she added just a sprinkle of a black powder. At Townsend's raised eyebrow, Hennessey said, "Cajun spices. Even I don't have any idea what's in it." Mrs. Boudreaux tossed the crab patties in the deep fat fryer, and in a few moments they were ready. Hennessey scooped them out and put them on the freshly toasted, chewy buns, slathered with spicy tarter sauce. "Good Lord, this is the best sandwich I've ever eaten," Townsend said, her mouth nearly full. "I could live on that chowder and this."

"Oh, that's nothin'," Mrs. Boudreaux scoffed. "I can cook something that'd curl your toes, girl, but I don't have time for that kinda thing anymore."

"I think my toes are curling," Townsend insisted. "Really."

A tiny grin twitched at the older woman's lips. "You two just eat your supper. I've got work to do; I can't stand around here gabbing all night."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Mrs. Boudreaux steadfastly refused Hennessey's offer to stay at the restaurant and help with the dinner crowd. "We run this place every other week of the year, child, what makes you think we need you now?"

"Okay, Gramma," Hennessey said, kissing her cheek. "We'll go into town and see what trouble we can get into."

"Have fun, now," she said, "but not too much."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Once they got back to the house, Hennessey said, "You know what? I don't really feel like doing much. Uhm I looked up a few things on the Internet before we came and found there was an AA meeting at 7 not too far from here. Wanna go?"

"Uhm yeah. I thought I could go without for a few days, but my sponsor says that's the first step off the mountain. Let's do it. There'll be plenty of time to do all there is to do around here."

"Honey, we could do all there is to do in a long weekend. I'm not here for excitement. I'm here to be myself."

"And I'm here to learn more about your sweet self - so I'd say we're in synch."

Hennessey showed Townsend how to wash her hands while holding a stainless steel spoon, helping to remove the worst of the shrimp odor from her skin. Once they were cleaned up they took off, and when they reached the church auditorium Hennessey sat quietly next to Townsend, beaming with pride at the self-assured young woman who told her story with such easy grace. Townsend was the youngest person in the room by at least twenty years, and she probably had more money on her than the other 20 people combined, but she fit in, in a way that frankly amazed Hennessey. Several people wanted to chat with Townsend after the meeting, and Hennessey grabbed a chair and just watched her. The blonde was unfailingly polite, even to the men who looked like they just wanted some attention from a pretty young woman. Finally, the church hall was cleared and Townsend winked at her companion. "Did ya have fun, baby girl?"

Hennessey stood and gazed at her for so long that Townsend grew a little uncomfortable under her stare. "Ya know, I really did. Seeing the woman you've become in just a few short months just takes my breath away, Townsend."

"Enough to sleep with me tonight?"

"One track mind," Hennessey said, grinning. "Some day, it's gonna be put up or shut up time, big talker."

"Baby, this is the longest I've gone without sex since I was 14. You'd better believe I can put up out any old way you wanna do it."

"Well, I haven't had sex since I was born. So I'll either be spectacularly good, or spectacularly bad at it."

"I have my suspicions," Townsend drawled, in a reasonably good imitation of Hennessey's accent. "I think you're gonna be my Rajun Cajun."

* * * * * * * * * * *

When they arrived back home it was nearly nine. "I'm gonna go help clean up," Hennessey decided. "They'll get home earlier that way."

"Hey, I've got an idea. Why don't we both do it? They can sit down and talk to us - like we did while your gramma cooked."

Hennessey stopped in her tracks and stared at her friend. "You'd really do that?"

"Of course! Your grandparents have been working all day. Jeez, Hennessey, how old are they?"

"Uhm they're really not all that old. Gramma's only 55, and Granddaddy will be 59 in January. They're just tired," she said. "I I have a dream, Townsend. I dream about making enough money so that they can retire and enjoy life a little bit. My granddaddy served in Viet Nam, and since he got home, he hasn't left the county. I don't think my gramma has ever been outside of South Carolina. All they do is work."

"Hennessey, if that's your dream, then I know you'll make it happen. And I'll help you in any way I can."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Later that night, after another round of trying to remove the smell of seafood from her body, Townsend emerged from the bathroom to find Hennessey putting her mattress onto the floor. "What's going on here, chief?"

"You're the guest, so you get to choose. Either the mattress on the floor, or the box spring. Try 'em both."

"Let's trade off. I'll take the floor tonight, then tomorrow you can have it."

"A logical solution. Good job!" Hennessey pulled a blanket over herself, and fluffed her pillow. "You know what I'm gonna do when I start to make a little money?"

"No, what?"

"I'm gonna buy myself a damned bed that's long enough for my body. My feet have been hanging off the end of this thing since I was fourteen!"

"It's almost too short for me," Townsend chuckled. "I have a fantastic bed on the Vineyard. Maybe you'll get to see it or sleep in it sometime. Like oh, I don't know spring break?"

"You've got two weeks worth of good behavior to get through before we discuss that again, pal. Let's see how things go. I've obviously got to be in charge of my virtue as well as yours."

"How about a tiny, itsy, bitsy goodnight kiss? You gave your gramma and granddaddy one."

"We're kin," Hennessey said. "But seeing the smile on Gramma's face when we cleaned the whole kitchen is worth a lot to me, so I'll give you a teeny, tiny kiss." She leaned over and placed a quick kiss on the top of Townsend's head. "Thanks for everything. This has been one of the nicest days I've had in months."

"Me, too," Townsend smiled. "And I can hardly smell the fish anymore. You were right, as usual."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Hennessey's grandparents insisted that the girls go off and do something fun, so the brunette decided she wanted to take Townsend to her favorite place in Beaufort County. The day was a little cooler than the previous one had been, and they dressed in turtlenecks and sweaters, along with jeans. They stopped at a local diner and had a fantastic breakfast, with Townsend wondering why any of the locals were thin. "Is everything fried down here?" she asked, watching Hennessey eat fried cornmeal mush drenched in maple syrup.

"Unh-uh. Some things are made up entirely of sugar, and we don't usually fry that - although there are exceptions."

"I'm gonna gain ten pounds in two weeks, Hennessey."

"You might," she agreed. "But you'll enjoy every minute of it."

* * * * * * * * * * *

They drove to the ACE Wildlife Preserve, with Hennessey going on and on about how the land came to be set aside, and how many acres it covered. She was a font of knowledge on the subject, and by the time they reached the land, Townsend felt like she could teach a course on it, as well.

They got out of the car and walked for a long while, hands loosely linked, neither speaking. "This is what the low country was like just 150 years ago," Hennessey said. "Hardwoods, pine forests, swampland - just pure natural beauty as far as the eye could see. All sorts of wildlife - alligators, herons, bald eagles you name it. But once it was discovered that Sea Island cotton grew well here, hundreds of thousands of acres were cleared to plant the crop. The cotton crop made a lot of landowners very, very wealthy - it helped to build a lot of the mansions we saw down on Bay Street. But when the market went bust, all we were left with was a screwed up ecosystem and a lot of cleared land. Damn, some of those trees were hundreds of years old - gone like that!" She snapped her fingers, while shaking her head.

"Conservation means a lot to you, doesn't it?" Townsend asked.

"Yeah, it does, but like most things in the South, I have decidedly mixed feelings about it."

"Meaning?"

"Meaning my family makes their living by fishing, and has done so for well over a hundred years. Fishermen fight tooth and nail to escape prohibitions and conservation measures, even though without conservation these waters will be fished out within a generation." She shook her head sadly. "Like the big fight that's gone on for years about the sea turtle. Shrimpers are the biggest culprits, Townsend. I'm sure my father and grandfather have personally been responsible for unintentionally killing hundreds, maybe thousands of sea turtles by catching them in the shrimp nets. They're on the verge of extinction in some areas, and there's a simple gadget, called a turtle extruder device that's pretty effective at keeping them out of the nets. But the shrimp industry has been fighting on every front to avoid using them. On one hand it makes me crazy, but on the other hand, my family depends on shrimp to stay alive. I think it's fairly obvious that we're small time, and the margin we operate on is razor thin. Reducing our catch just ten percent could put my grandparents on welfare." She laughed bitterly and added, "Knowing my grandparents, they'd starve before they'd go on government assistance, and I mean that literally."

Townsend had nothing to say to her friend's emotion-filled tirade. She just clenched her hand a little tighter, and walked with her - trying to see Hennessey's beloved homeland through her eyes.

* * * * * * * * * * *

They walked for almost two hours without a word being exchanged. "This reminds me of the walks I used to go on with my granddaddy. We hardly ever said a word, but just holding his big, rough hand was reassuring to me in a way I can't explain."

"Hey, I've only been here one day. My hands can't be that rough, yet."

"No, your hands aren't rough, baby. They're about the softest things I've ever felt in my life."

Snaking an arm around Hennessey's waist, the blonde teased, "I've got a few softer spots. One day you'll get to feel them."

"One day," Hennessey said. "That's the key."

* * * * * * * * * * *

On the way back home, Hennessey grew quiet, not talking for quite a few minutes. This was not the same easy silence they had shared on the walk; Hennessey was obviously troubled. "What's going on in that pretty head?" Townsend asked her.

"Mmm I was thinking that I should go visit my mother. I mean, it is Christmas and all."

"That's okay, baby. You do what you have to do." Reaching over to pat her leg, she said, "I'd be happy to go with you - but only if you want me to."

"Would you really? It's never pleasant, Townsend. She usually winds up screaming at me or crying, and I always end up in tears."

"I'm very good at drying tears," Townsend assured her. "At least, I think I am. Wanna try me out?"

Hennessey gave her a half-smile, and nodded. "Let's give it a whirl."

* * * * * * * * * * *

They headed out to the "bad side of town" as Hennessey put it, and Townsend wasn't able to dispute her claim. Hennessey's family was poor but proud, but these people had lost even their pride - probably generations before. The level of poverty was shocking to Townsend, who thought she'd seen poverty in the rough parts of Boston. But this was a whole new animal for her. And when this sort of back-breaking poverty was so close to the playgrounds of the very, very wealthy, it just made it all the more poignant.

They passed a grocery store that looked like it was gonna be the last one they saw for a while, so Townsend made a suggestion. "Why don't we stop and buy your mom some food, honey? You say she always asks for money - why not beat her to the punch with a gift?"

Hennessey nodded. "That's a good idea, sweet pea. I think I've got about $15 on me. That'll buy her a decent meal."

Once inside the store, Hennessey shopped carefully, trying to make her funds last. "Is there anything special we could get her? Kinda like a present?" Townsend asked.

"Well, I hate to contribute to her demise, but she does love to smoke. I could probably buy her some cigarettes." She shrugged. "If I bought her anything decent, she'd return it and buy liquor. At least she loves cigarettes as much as booze."

"Let me buy her some, baby. Just as a little Christmas present from her future daughter-in-law."

"You know, I don't think I go more than five minutes at a time without smiling when I'm with you. You're very good for me, Townsend. Very good, indeed."

Townsend was more persuasive than she knew, and Hennessey allowed her to buy, not only two cartons of cigarettes, but a canned ham, some cans of tuna, peanut butter, jelly and a few boxes of crackers. At the checkout counter, Hennessey asked, "If I decide I don't want some of these things, can I bring them back?"

"Why on earth would you want to do that?" the clerk asked.

"I don't know. I just might not be in the mood for ham later on."

"No, honey, you can't return food unless there's something wrong with it - and we check."

"Fine." Hennessey gave her a warm smile. "That's just fine."

Townsend had added a roll of wrapping paper and a roll of tape, and they spent a few minutes wrapping the cigarettes on the trunk of the car. The blonde then produced a card that Hennessey hadn't seen her buy. It was a syrupy, sappy card that sang the praises of motherhood, and when Hennessey's eyes widened, Townsend said quietly, "Even though she'll know it's not true, it might make her feel better to think that there's a chance you feel this way about her."

Wiping the tears from her eyes with the back of her hand, Hennessey signed the card with the gold-toned pen that Townsend supplied. "Keep your eyes on your wallet, and that pen," she advised, her mouth set in a grim line. "She's tried to take my wallet from my pocket while she's hugging me."

They got in the car and drove the rest of the way in silence, Townsend unable to think of a comforting rejoinder to Hennessey's comment.

* * * * * * * * * * *

"Well, here we are. The great trailer burial ground." With wide eyes, Townsend looked around. Most of the trailers looked like they'd been damaged in some way, or had been discarded by their previous owners. It wasn't exactly a trailer park - more like an eclectic assemblage of the battered homes without much rhyme or reason.

"Do they have electricity?" Townsend asked.

"Yeah. They have hook-ups - when they pay the bill. Half the time my mamma's place is in the dark. Thank God there's a portable toilet over at the edge of the lot. Knowing her, she'd go right in the middle of the rug when the water was turned off."

"Damn, we should have bought her some bottled water!"

Turning off the car, Hennessey sat quietly for a few moments, then leaned over and kissed Townsend's forehead tenderly. She wrapped her in a hug and held on tight for a surprisingly long time. "I never thought anyone would understand," she whispered. "I've always worried that the guy I fell for would run for the hills when he met my family. And here you, one of the wealthiest people I've ever met, not only understand - you want to make her life better. Thank you, Townsend. Thank you so much."

"I do understand," the blonde murmured. "I also understand that I could have ended up in her shoes if a certain blue-eyed girl hadn't helped me climb out of the hole I was in. You understood me," she said. "No one ever had."

Hennessey released her, then got out of the car, carrying the majority of the bags. As she trotted alongside, Townsend asked, "Should we keep our story straight, that we're friends from Harvard?"

"Doesn't matter. She won't even remember we were here."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Much to her surprise, when Hennessey knocked on the door, her mother answered almost immediately, and upon quick inspection, appeared to be sober. "Hi, Mamma," she said, giving her a tight smile. "Just came by to wish you a merry Christmas."

"Hennessey! Get your self in here, girl!" They entered the ramshackle trailer, and Townsend now understood what the term "dirt poor" meant. The place was ghastly, and smelled absolutely awful, but Hennessey's mother was fully dressed and sober, so she counted her blessings.

"Mamma, this is my very good friend, Townsend. Townsend, this is my mother, Maribelle Pikes."

"Pleased to meet you," the woman said. Townsend parroted a reply, too taken aback by the woman's appearance to say more. If Maribelle had been placed in a lineup with an African American, a Japanese, and an Inuit; and Townsend was charged with picking out Hennessey's mother, Maribelle would have been her last choice - even if the others were men. There was not one hint, not one iota of resemblance between the women, and Townsend wondered if Hennessey could have been switched at birth. Maribelle was no more than five foot six, and as Hennessey had warned, she was dangerously underweight. Her hair was an odd, lackluster mousy brown, curly in spots, and wavy in others, and downright sparse in various places. Her eyes were close in color to her hair, and were as flat and lifeless as a doll's. With skin that looked as though it hadn't been exposed to the sun in years, blue veins were luridly visible, making Townsend a little sick to her stomach. But when Maribelle showed her teeth, the young woman almost lost it. Crooked, yellowed, a few noticeably missing, Maribelle had the look of a woman who'd lived on the streets - although with her pale skin, she must have only come out at night.

"We brought you a few things for the holidays, Mamma. I know times are a little tight right now."

"Oh, my, they surely are," she agreed, her accent much stronger than Hennessey's. "I was just down at the county office this morning - just got back not a lick before you showed up. I told that man I needed an increase, but they don't listen. They never listen, you know."

"I'm sure they don't, Mamma. Well, I know you like to have a little food in the house, so we bought you some things that'll last for a bit. Is your power on?" She looked pointedly at a lit candle, which provided the only illumination in the dim trailer.

"Why, of course it is, honey. Why wouldn't it be?"

"Oh, you never know. Anyway, I bought you a turkey and some potatoes. Since tomorrow's Christmas Eve, I thought you might like to make a nice dinner for you and " She pursed her lips, trying to think of the latest man her mother had mentioned.

"Kenneth, honey. Well, that's very, very nice of you. I'm sure Kenneth would love a good meal." She went to the bags and started to paw through them. "Now, if I just had a little holiday cheer, you know, maybe some eggnog "

"I'm sorry, Mamma," Hennessey said, actually sounding as though she were. "I didn't have enough money for anything extra." She extended the wrapped package and the card, and said, "But we did buy you a present. It's not much, but "

The paper was off the package before Hennessey could complete her sentence. "Boy, do I need these," Maribelle said, sounding genuinely pleased. "Thanks for thinking of your Mamma, baby." Townsend noticed that the woman didn't even give a thought to opening the card, and she tried to avoid looking into Hennessey's eyes, unwilling to see the hurt that she knew would be there.

"Well, I guess we'll be off, Mamma. We're gonna go help with dinner at the shack."

"You can stay and visit for a while if you want," she said, the invitation decidedly unenthusiastic.

"No, I know you're busy. I'll let ya go."

"You stop in and say hello again, all right? I hardly see you at all anymore. Where you been keeping yourself?"

"I'm away at college, Mamma," she said softly, and Townsend made the critical error of meeting her friend's eyes. She nearly burst into tears, but she knew she had to be strong for Hennessey, so she held them in.

"Oh, that's right. Where do you go again, baby?"

"Boston," she said, not wasting the breath to explain exactly where Harvard was.

"That's right. You go to Boston." She started to walk them to the door, cocking her head to ask, "How do you pay for a plane ticket all the way to Boston, baby?"

Unable to witness another moment of this torture, Townsend twitched her head in the direction of the car and walked down the gravel path, trying to give her friend some privacy. She turned and watched the scene, seeing Hennessey's hands go to her back pockets as she rocked on her heels, a nervous habit. The dark head shook, softly at first, then more vigorously. Finally, she tossed a hand in the air in a poor attempt at a wave, and stalked away. Maribelle started to come after her, but when Hennessey heard her, she wheeled around and shouted, "Don't you dare ask her for money! Don't you dare!" She turned and started to jog, grabbing Townsend's hand as she flew by. They ran until they reached the car, then Hennessey jumped in and peeled out so quickly that Townsend almost didn't get her leg in. As soon as they reached the dirt road that led to the place, Hennessey turned off the car and leaned against the steering wheel, crying so piteously that Townsend was unable to hold her own emotions in any longer. Eventually, they came together and held each other, their tears dropping onto each other's shoulders.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As they made their way back to the house, Townsend said, "We may as well get all of the upsetting topics out at once. I noticed your father didn't come home last night again. Is that something you're worried about, too, baby?"

"No, not really. He's a pretty good-looking guy. It's not uncommon for him to pick up a woman and shack up with her for a few days. Eventually, she'll get sick of his act and throw him out. I can't imagine he's not impotent," she said, with no emotion in her voice. "I'm not an authority or anything, but I'd think that most women that picked up a good-looking, fairly charming man would be disappointed when he couldn't perform."

"Do you think of him as your father?" Townsend asked. "I don't mean that like it sounds, baby," she added when Hennessey gave her a stunned look. "I just wondered if he seemed more like an uncle or a much older brother."

"Oh. Well, I guess in a way that's what he seems like. It was always like my grandparents had two kids - only I needed less watching over."

"He does know you're coming home, doesn't he?"

"Oh, sure. He's still got a pretty good memory. He's not nearly as bad as my mother is. He's always been more of a binge kinda guy. He could be perfectly fine for months at a time, but something would set him off. My guess is that my coming home did the trick this time."

"But why ?"

"He's a pretty smart guy, Townsend, he had a lot of promise in school. Gramma says there was talk of him getting a scholarship to U.S.C. But he knocked up my mother, and around here you do the right thing and marry the girl. That destroyed any chance he had at a better life. He started working with Granddaddy, and that's all she wrote. He didn't love my mother - hell, I don't think he even liked her. She wasn't even his girlfriend to hear Gramma talk. But you know how guys are - they hear about a loose girl and they all want a pop at her."

"I know; I was that girl," the blonde said quietly, making Hennessey want to bite her tongue for saying such an insensitive thing.

"I'm sorry, sweet pea. I know you've made some of the same mistakes my mamma did. I just thank God that you stopped when you did."

"I do, too, Hennessey, believe me, I do, too."

* * * * * * * * * * *

They were once again forbidden from helping with the dinner crowd, so they sat in the restaurant, hanging out at a table in the rear, just watching the other customers and chatting when something struck one of them.

"We just have time to make the meeting, honey. Ready to go?"

"I think I had a meeting already today, Hennessey. Seeing your mother strengthened my resolve to stay sober more than a dozen meetings."

"All right. I'm a little sick of seeing the effects of alcohol myself."

When there was a lull in the crowd, Hennessey went into the kitchen and came out with a big platter of fried shrimp and hush puppies, watching with delight while Townsend once more sang the praises of Chez Boudreaux.

Around 8:30, a very tall, ruggedly handsome, black-haired man came shuffling into the restaurant. "Hennessey, your father's here," Townsend said quietly.

The young woman turned around and got up, going over to offer a tentative hug. The man returned it awkwardly, then walked over to meet Townsend. "Daddy, this is my good friend, Townsend. Townsend, this is my father, Dawayne."

Townsend stood and extended her hand, shaking the large, rough, callused one that Dawayne offered. "It's nice to meet you."

"Same here," he said, smiling gently. He actually looked a little sheepish and more than a little shy, and Townsend could see why women would be drawn to him. He had retained his good looks, his constant exposure to sun making him look tan and healthy, even if he wasn't. "Mamma and Daddy in the kitchen?"

"Sure are."

"Gonna see if I can scare up some supper. I'll be right back."

He left, with Townsend looking after him as he walked. "Gosh, you look just like him, honey."

"Yeah. I guess I do. When I was little, I used to hear about some child or another being born and no one knowing who the daddy was. I used to dream that no one knew who my mother was - that I belonged to just my daddy."

"So, he's been pretty consistent with you?"

"No, nothing like that. He's completely unreliable. But when he was home he was always pleasant and quiet. He acted like he knew he should be a better father - he at least has some remorse."

"He doesn't drink at home?"

"No, no, no! There isn't a drop of alcohol in the house. Never was, never will be. My granddaddy had a habit when he came home from the war, and my gramma put a stop to that immediately. They say you can't force someone to stop drinking, but Gramma did. I don't know how she did it, but he hasn't had a drop since oh 1970 or so."

"I guess there's an exception to every rule," Townsend said, smiling.

"That's Gramma. She's an exception to a lot of rules."

* * * * * * * * * * *

After the kitchen was cleaned, both women were wrung out. When Hennessey came out of the bathroom, Townsend was lying on the box spring, just as they had agreed.

When Hennessey was settled, the blonde turned to her and asked, "You know, in all this time I've never asked you who you were named for. Is Hennessey a family name?"

"Not hardly."

"Uhm wanna tell me?"

"Yeah I guess. Uhm my mother had rather romantic notions when she was a girl. She'd been trying to think of a name for me while she was pregnant, and she wanted it to be something classy. She wasn't having much success, and my daddy was no help at all. So, on the day she gave birth, they were traveling down some country road on the way to the county hospital - where they could have me for free." She gave Townsend a tight smile and continued. "They came upon a billboard for Hennessey brandy Heck, I think it's still standing, whoever owns it obviously forgot about it. Anyway, it was a picture of a man and woman, toasting each other with brandy snifters. The man had on a tuxedo, and the woman was in an evening gown, with her hair all done up. Apparently, my mamma thought that was about the classiest thing she'd ever seen. Daddy didn't have any objection, so Hennessey it was - whether I was a girl or a boy."

The story was vaguely humorous, but it was also so deeply poignant that Townsend felt incredibly sad. Sad for the young woman who dreamed of a life far beyond her station; sad for the baby named after the substance which would destroy her relationship with her mother; and sad for the shame she could hear in Hennessey's voice.

"You know what?" Townsend asked, softly. "I'm feeling a little raw. Could I impose on you for a friendly, definitely non-sexual hug?"

"How about a cuddle?" Hennessey climbed onto the box spring and folded her long body up behind her friend. Both women sighed as their bodies molded together, and after a long while Hennessey heard herself say, "Did I promise this was a non-sexual cuddle, or did you?"

"That was me," Townsend giggled. "You're free to do as you please, sweetness."

"I'd like to kiss the back of your neck, then get onto that mattress before my hormones change my mind for me." She lifted Townsend's pale hair and tenderly brushed her lips against the soft, smooth skin. "Delicious." Climbing off, Hennessey lay quietly for a moment then said, "Wanna know a secret?"

"Sure."

"At camp, when I pulled that spider from your hair, I found myself having the fleeting thought that I'd like to kiss your neck. I pulled your hair away, and your neck looked so tasty and sweet That was the first time I'd ever felt that way. It scared me."

"I still remember how cool and gentle your hands were. I should have been frightened to have a big spider crawling on me, but once you touched me I knew I was safe."

"Can you sleep on your tummy?"

"Huh?"

"If you can sleep on your tummy, you could dangle an arm down, and we could hold hands while we sleep. Does that sound like a good idea?"

Townsend rolled over onto her belly and dropped her arm, smiling when Hennessey grasped it and then placed a gentle kiss on her pulse point. She held the warm hand in both of her own, and murmured, "I feel safe when I hold your hand. Safe, and warm and secure. Like nothing can hurt me."

* * * * * * * * * * *

Hennessey had big plans for Christmas Eve. She was bustling around the house by the time Townsend came downstairs, and the blonde cocked her head and asked, "Are we going somewhere?"

"We most certainly are!" A pile of gear was blocking the front door, and Townsend looked from it to her friend. "We're going to the beach to have a big-ass picnic. You're gonna love it."

"Well, I'm sure I will. What should I bring?"

"Warm clothes and a hearty appetite," the brunette said, grinning.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After stopping at the local seafood purveyor - since Hennessey was loath to dig into her family's meager catch, they drove to a completely deserted beach on one of the islands that made up Beaufort County. Sitting on the blanket that Hennessey had brought, Townsend watched, laughing, as her friend tried to fight the brisk wind and keep a rather poor quality box kite up in the air. The kite was made of paper, and after struggling for nearly a half hour, the exhausted woman ran back to the blanket and collapsed. "Damn, that was hard work! No wonder you don't see many people with kites."

"You did very well for yourself," Townsend assured her. "You can give it another try if the wind dies down."

"Don't think that's gonna happen," Hennessey said, surveying the sky. "Actually, I'm a little chilly. How about a fire?"

"Oh, don't look to me for help. I was a Campfire Girl drop out."

"Didn't like the uniform?"

"No, it wasn't that. Too much structure," she said, wrinkling up her nose.

"Couldn't follow orders even as a little girl, huh?"

"Nope. I'm positively docile now compared to how I was then. I've always been a trouble-maker."

"That's part of your appeal," Hennessey told her honestly. "That's what gives you the fire in your personality. I hope you never lose that."

"Much to my surprise, being sober hasn't changed my personality. It's let it emerge. That's been a nice thing to discover."

"I couldn't agree more, Townsend. When we first met, you were so angry that I only saw tiny little snippets of your personality. I feel like I've just started to know you since you've been sober."

"I've just started to know myself," she agreed. "Now, show me how to start a fire, hot stuff. It's never too late to be a Campfire Girl."

* * * * * * * * * * *

They didn't do much during their time on the beach, but neither woman minded. Mostly they talked, and watched the surf, and talked some more. Hennessey was being very affectionate, and was now leaning against a huge piece of wood she'd managed to find. Getting settled, she pulled Townsend against her, letting the smaller woman nestle between her long legs. "Comfortable?" she asked, her lips close to her friend's ear.

"Deliciously."

"Warm enough?"

"I am now. A nice, big fire, a nice, big girlfriend. What more could a woman want?"

"I think I'll order up the nice big fire with a slightly smaller girlfriend. I like having you fit against me like this."

"Agreed. Let's stay just like we are - right here - forever."

"Oh, no, baby, we can't miss a meal!" She pulled the cooler over and took out a big plastic bag filled with oysters and clams. "How about a little lunch?"

"Mmm I love oysters. Are they local?"

"Not very, but they're delicious. Wanna shuck?" She said this with a decidedly sexy voice, her breath warm against Townsend's chilled ear.

"I'm not even gonna nibble on that one, Hennessey. You're just trying to incite me, now."

"I'll shuck myself, then," the larger woman teased. She had to scoot back a little to operate, but Townsend praised her efforts, adding a bit of the tangy cocktail sauce to each of the mollusks as she held the shell to her lips and let the meat slide down her throat.

"Damn, these are fine! So far I haven't found one thing about South Carolina that I don't like," the blonde decided.

"Let's hear you say that if we come in the summer. We don't have screens on the house," warned Hennessey. "The mosquitoes feel like they're gonna pick you up and carry you out the window."

"Honey, I can take care of myself. I might have to sleep in mosquito netting, but I can manage. If you're in the immediate vicinity, all of my needs will be met."

* * * * * * * * * * *

They'd been cuddling for hours, neither woman willing to move - the gentle hugging so reassuring to both of them. "I've been thinking about something you said yesterday," Hennessey said. "You don't have to talk about this if it upsets you, but I wondered about the comment you made about being the girl that the boys all wanted to date."

"Fuck, honey. They didn't want to date me. Why waste ten bucks on a movie ticket and popcorn if you don't have to?"

"I uhm I don't even pretend to know much about this but why were you sleeping with boys? I got the impression you've always thought you were gay."

"I don't know what I was. I guess I was just lonely. I was left alone a lot with just an employee to watch me. And when I was a freshman in high school, I started to mature - physically, at least. The boys in school started to show some interest in me - something that had never happened before. Just the year before I'd looked like a little kid - but now they were treating me like a woman. I didn't have good boundaries; I guess I never have. I uhm had sex with the first boy who asked. I didn't care for it at all, Hennessey. Not at all. But almost immediately everyone wanted to go out with me. I just wanted the attention, I guess. If I had to fuck a guy to get the attention - well, that started to seem like it was just the price of admission."

"You poor thing," Hennessey soothed, tightening her hold around her waist.

"No, that's not true. I got what I deserved." She was quiet for a moment, then said, "Hennessey, I need to tell you something, but I've been petrified to do it. I I'm afraid you'll lose what little respect you have for me."

"Sweet pea, I have a tremendous amount of respect for you. You can tell me anything; I won't judge you, I promise."

Hennessey could hear her swallow, then, in a very quiet voice Townsend said, "I got pregnant."

"Oh, baby, I'm so sorry," Hennessey murmured.

"I told my mother on a Monday morning, and that afternoon I had an abortion. I didn't even know where we were going when she picked me up from school. I found myself in a doctor's office, and before I knew it they had given me a shot of something. When I woke up, it was gone." Her voice was flat and lifeless, the trauma obviously still fresh in her mind.

"Is that when you started drinking?" Hennessey asked softly, still holding her tightly.

Townsend leaned her head back against the taller woman's shoulder and looked at the fluffy clouds in the Carolina blue sky. "I I guess it is. I don't remember drinking or doing drugs before then. I wow, that's weird."

"Sweetheart, you were violated. The boys who had sex with you violated you, and your mother violated you by not letting you have a voice in what became of the baby. I'm not saying that having an abortion was the wrong choice for you, but you didn't get to make that choice. No matter how young you were, it was still your body, Townsend. It was your baby."

"Do you hate me for killing it?" she asked, tears streaking down her face.

"No, of course not. I could never hate you, Townsend. I'm sure your mother did what she thought was best for you. I know you've been in therapy; have you talked about this?"

"No," she mumbled. "I've always been too embarrassed to admit to it. You're the first person I've ever told."

"Look, Townsend, I want you to find someone that you can talk to about this when you get back to Vermont. You need to get your feelings about this out, with someone safe."

"Okay," she said softly. "I've been tormented about it ever since I've fallen in love with you."

"Really? Why do you think that is?"

"Mmm 'cause I think of what it would be like to have a baby with you, and then I think that I already had my chance - and I destroyed it. I worry that I won't ever have another opportunity, that I don't deserve one."

"Yes, you do, baby. You deserve another chance. You were in a tough situation, Townsend. You may have fared better by having the child and giving it up for adoption, but that's no easy decision, either. God knows that you were too young to raise it yourself, and it's clear that your mother didn't consider raising it for you. All of your choices were bad, baby. You did the best you could. Now you have to learn how to let go of the guilt."

"That's always the hardest part," the young woman murmured.

* * * * * * * * * * *

After having another little snack, they lay down on the blanket, spooning with each other, Townsend's head resting on Hennessey's arm. "This is divine," Hennessey murmured. "I had no idea it could feel this good to just hold someone."

"Hennessey?" the blonde asked hesitantly. " Uhm you said something last night and it was the first time you'd ever really said anything like that "

"What is it, baby?"

"Uhm you said you were feeling sexual about me. Was that true?"

"Yeah, that was true," she quietly admitted. "I've had the clamps on my sexuality for so long that it caught me by surprise when it happened. I definitely felt something - and it was decidedly sexual."

"How do you feel about this, honey? I mean, you told me just four months ago that you were heterosexual. Is this a lot to absorb?"

"Mmm not as much as I would have thought. It's odd, Townsend, but I really mean it when I say that I just closed off my sexuality. I tried never to think about it. I just went to school, and studied my ass off, and worked in the shack every spare moment I had. It's true that if you stay busy enough you don't really have time to think about sex. Most nights I'd be so tired that I'd fall asleep before I even got my teeth brushed."

"Most nights?" Townsend asked, a slight tease in her voice.

"Yes, sweet pea, most nights. Every once in a while I'd get the urge, and it just wouldn't go away until I took care of it."

"Did you fantasize about boys when you touched yourself?"

"No, but I also didn't fantasize about girls. I just felt how good it felt to touch myself like that. It was very soothing."

"Do you have orgasms?" Townsend asked, intensely curious.

"Yes, honey. Everything works down there. I'll be able to answer the call when the time comes."

"So do you think you're a lesbian?"

"Oh probably. I guess we'll find out someday, huh?"

Townsend turned her head, seeing the teasing smile. "I'll pop you one if I spend all this time with you only to find that you don't care for it."

"Oh, I think I'll care for it." She cuddled up a little tighter and said, "The last few times I've touched myself I found myself dreaming about an adorable blonde woman, with the prettiest green eyes I've ever seen. The last time it wasn't so soothing - it was very, very exciting."

"Ooo, baby, you're making me shiver. Don't even talk like that. I want you so bad my teeth hurt."

Hennessey gave Townsend a squeeze. "Patience, baby. This is a long-term goal. We've got to work for it to make it what we both need."

* * * * * * * * * * *

It was nearly dark when Hennessey stirred from the light doze she'd fallen into. She was still wrapped tight against Townsend, and she lay still for a few minutes, just feeling the connection that continued to grow between them.

Speaking softly, she asked, "Ready for some dinner, baby?"

"Mmm " Townsend stretched languidly, rubbing her butt against Hennessey's lap for a moment, making the larger woman's heartbeat pick up. "Yeah, I could eat. What are we having?"

"Low Country boil," the brunette said with glee. "A Christmas Eve tradition."

"Honey, should we go home and have this with your grandparents? I mean, don't we have to go to church or something?"

"Lord, no! We celebrate Christmas tomorrow, honey. We'll have a nice, big, deep-fried turkey."

Townsend gripped her arms tightly, turning to stare at her. "You're kidding."

"Uhn-uh," she said, looking entirely serious. "We always fry our turkey. It's fantastic." Hennessey had a look of such intense pleasure on her face that Townsend decided to believe her.

"Well, what about church?" Townsend asked again. "I don't wanna upset your gramma."

"We're staunch Catholics, Townsend, but none of us have seen the inside of a church, save for funerals and weddings, since I was born."

"Well, that's a religious practice I can live with. I guess I'll be Catholic, too."

* * * * * * * * * * *

The fire was just about perfect, and Hennessey began to assemble all of her ingredients. "Sausage?" Townsend asked.

"Yep. Andoullie. Nice and spicy. You'll love it." She tossed the sausage and some new potatoes into the big kettle which she had filled with water that they'd lugged with them. Then she added cayenne pepper, cloves, garlic, a couple of bay leaves, the ever-present Tabasco, and some Old Bay seasoning.

"Hey! We use this in New England for clam bakes."

"We use it for almost everything. One more thing we have in common." They sat quietly watching the gentle surf and the crackling fire. Hennessey was a very laid-back cook, not bothering to even check the food for a good, long time. She wriggled out of Townsend's embrace after a while and tested the potatoes, pronouncing them perfect. She then added some cut up squid and some of the ubiquitous shrimp. "Gramma wouldn't approve of the squid," she admitted, "but this isn't crab season, and I need something with a little bit of chew to it."

"Oh, are there local crabs here?"

"Honey, I could regale you with stories about crab until the cows come home. This is definitely crab country. This is where we should come for spring break - soft shell season is my favorite time of the year."

"Spring break, huh? Sounds like I'm beginning to convince you." Townsend wiggled her eyebrows, making Hennessey chuckle.

"You've been very well behaved so far, sweet pea. Although I do find myself touching you much more than I had planned."

"I think that's okay for couples when they're courting," Townsend decided. "It's a nice way to get to know each other's bodies without getting into too much trouble."

"Well, I think we should limit it to when we're fully clothed. Snuggling up against you when you only had on your pajamas was too dangerous for me. It was all I could do to not reach around and touch your breast."

"I hate to say this, but I wouldn't have stopped you, honey. I have no willpower at all."

"That's the most ridiculous statement I've ever heard out of you," Hennessey said. "What on earth are you using other than willpower to stop drinking or smoking, or having sex. Come on, baby, give yourself a little credit."

"Okay," she said softly. "I'll try."

Hennessey leaned over the bubbling stew and sniffed approvingly. "Damn, I wish we had some corn, but I won't buy that frozen stuff they sell in the winter. This is a whole 'nother experience with fresh crab and corn on the cob. But, I still think you'll like it."

She ladled out a healthy portion, putting it into just one big bowl. "I thought we could share." She filled the spoon and blew on it a little to cool it down, then eased it into Townsend's mouth.

"Good God, I haven't had anything that good since yesterday! You're as good a cook as your gramma, Hennessey."

"Nah. She's got me beat by a mile, but I do have a certain talent," she admitted. "I'm guessing that I have many skills, baby, some of which even I don't know about yet."

They shared the stew, along with some crusty hard rolls that Hennessey had picked up, both eating more than was wise. "I'm as full as a tick," Hennessey moaned. "I might have to unzip my jeans."

"Need some help?" Townsend wiggled her eyebrows, flirting shamelessly.

"I think I'd better stay buttoned up. At this point, I think your willpower is greater than mine." She stretched out on the blanket and looked up at the stars. "I think I feel so relaxed when I'm home that all of my emotions are close to the surface - including the naughty ones."

"There's nothing naughty about the way I feel about you, Hennessey. My feelings for you are almost - sacred." She lay down next to her friend and tucked an arm around her waist, while she rested her head on her shoulder.

"I uhm have a Christmas present for you," Hennessey said softly.

"Hey! No fair! You made me promise not to buy you anything."

"Well, it's for you - but in the future. I'm gonna keep it for a while."

"That's an odd definition of a present, but go on," Townsend said, smiling warmly.

Sticking her hand in her pocket, Hennessey pulled out a thin gold chain, with a small, gold disk attached to it. It was too dark for Townsend to see it well, and Hennessey wasn't ready to let go of it, so the smaller woman waited patiently.

"I've given this a lot of thought, Townsend, and one thing I know is that it's always a mistake to get into a relationship before you've had a year of sobriety. That's a precept that's proven to be true for a lot of people, baby, and I'm not going to test the theory. Not with you. You're too precious to me to risk having this blow up in our faces."

"But we are in a relationship, Hennessey. How can you deny that?"

"It puts a whole different dimension to it when we add physical intimacy, Townsend. Right now we're very good friends, who care for each other deeply and are trying to learn as much as we can about each other. I truly think we need to keep it right here until you've been sober for a year."

"But that's six more months," she said, her eyes growing wide.

"Yes, it is, and I know that seems like a long time, but it really isn't, baby. We've known each other for six months now, and the time has gone by in a flash. We can do this, I know we can. When you've been sober for a year, we can start to move forward, if you want to, that is."

"Start to move forward ? What does that mean?"

"Well, I'm gonna be back at the Academy, and I have a feeling you might like to come back, too. I won't feel comfortable having sex with you if you're a student - even if you're not my student."

"What if I were an employee? We'd be equals then, wouldn't we?"

"Well, yeah, but what would you do? I know you have promise, baby, but MaryAnn would never hire you to teach without some experience."

"I don't care what I'd do, Hennessey. I'll work in the kitchen, I'll clean the bungalows. Hell, I'll just sit in your room all day, waiting for you to come home. No one has to know I'm there. I'll be your secret stowaway."

"Well, that would give me something to look forward to," Hennessey said with a smile, "but that's not how I conduct myself, baby. I'll have to tell MaryAnn the whole story and see if she even wants me back."

"She'll want you back. She's crazy for you and so am I. I'll do anything to be with you, Hennessey - anything."

"I'll speak with MaryAnn. I was going to go see her before I go back anyway. Maybe she'll have a creative way around this."

"You're such a good teacher, Hennessey, maybe you could teach two classes, and not work as a house leader."

The brunette thought about that for a while, "You know that might work. I got $750 a week to teach, and $250 to be a house leader. Damn, if I could make $1500 a week I'd be able to start putting money away for graduate school."

"And we could live off of the compound," Townsend suggested. "I could easily afford to rent us an apartment or a townhouse."

"Wait wait hold on. There's a lot to cover here, baby. Let's take it one step at a time. I'll talk to MaryAnn about teaching two classes - and tell her about my lifestyle enhancements."

"I like being an enhancement," Townsend said.

"So," Hennessey said, "all we have to agree on is that we don't go any further until you've had a year of sobriety." She turned her head and looked deeply into Townsend's eyes. "It will be hard for you, baby, but I know that eventually you'll get sober and stay sober. I just want you to understand that I'll be patient with you - even if you have a slip. Eventually, you'll be able to stay on the path - I believe in you."

Townsend hugged her tight, squeezing her until Hennessey let out a yelp. "It feels so wonderful to have your trust."

"You do." She held out the chain and placed it in Townsend's hand. "This is a one year chip. I don't want to put pressure on you, so I'm not going to give it to you, yet. I'm going to keep it to remind myself of what we're working towards. We'll get there, Townsend, and when we do, I'll put that necklace on you, and kiss your sweet neck. Then, I'll kiss a few other things I've been dying to put my lips on."

"Oh, damn, why can't the days move faster?" the blonde sighed.

"No, we need this time, baby. We both need it to grow up some more. You need to work on your sobriety and keep your grades up, and I need to work on letting my libido come out and play a little more. It's time to start letting my body feel pleasure - so I'm ready for you when you're ready for me."

"Do you love me, Hennessey?" the blonde asked softly. She was hovering just above her friend, watching the faint moonlight reflected in her eyes.

"I do. I love you, Townsend, with all my heart."

"I love you, too, sweetheart." She placed her head on her friend's chest and held on tight, feeling Hennessey's rapidly beating heart against her cheek. "You told me before that once we were sure we were in love that we could start to kiss. Is that still true?"

"Uhm " The heartbeat picked up even quicker as the woman struggled with her thoughts. "I don't think I can kiss you and not want to go further, baby. I just don't think I'm that strong. But I want to - God, do I want to."

"Well, it's Christmas, and you're the best present I've ever received. Maybe we should celebrate that with just one kiss. One kiss to carry us until June."

"Until you have a year's sobriety," Hennessey reminded her. "Don't be too fixated on the day - that's an easy way to lose the path, baby. You really do have to take it one day at a time."

"Okay, you're right. Why don't we kiss to celebrate Christmas and our love."

"Just one?"

"Yeah, just one, but it's gotta be a good one. No cheating like you usually do, with those little pecks on the forehead. I need a real kiss to last me until I have a year of sobriety - whenever that may be."

"Good girl," Hennessey beamed. "Okay, I guess this is a pretty momentous occasion. Want me to start, or would you rather lead?"

"You start. You need the practice."

Smiling, Hennessey pinched her firmly on the waist, then turned onto her side, taking Townsend with her. She paused over her for just a moment, then blinked slowly and whispered, "I love you, Townsend." Leaning in just an inch, she pressed her lips to the incredibly soft skin, moaning a little when her mouth opened to Townsend's probing tongue. Townsend rolled her onto her back, then pressed their bodies together, needing to feel her flesh compress against Hennessey's. The kiss went on and on, with Townsend's hands going to Hennessey's hair to hold her still.

Hennessey's hands roamed up and down the smaller woman's back, pausing to cup her ass just briefly, then giving it a squeeze. All the while, the kiss continued, their tongues darting and swirling in each other's mouths. Hennessey's heart was beating so hard she was sure it would burst, but she could feel an equally wild beat from her partner, and somehow that reassured her. Finally, and with great reluctance, Hennessey began to pull away, her libido on the verge of pushing her rational mind aside. But Townsend held on tenaciously, slipping a leg between Hennessey's thighs and pressing against her, making the brunette groan loudly. Those long legs compressed against Townsend and Hennessey shifted her hips gently, purring as she did so. Knowing that they were on the verge of combusting, Townsend gathered her wits and severed the kiss, panting softly as they broke apart.

"My, God! Is it always like that?" Hennessey gasped.

"No, no. It's never been like that for me. That was magical."

"How can I be so hot on such a cool night? I feel like taking my clothes off and jumping into the ocean."

"That's called sexual excitement, honey. Get used to it, 'cause I plan on feeding you a steady diet of it for the rest of your life."

"Thank God we go to school in different states," Hennessey moaned. "Now that I've felt that, I could never keep my hands off of you for six more months." She grasped the hem of her sweater and fanned it up and down, trying to get some cool air on her heated skin. "Uhm just for the record, do most kisses involve a knee to the groin? I mean I didn't mind, but I wanna be prepared next time."

Townsend rolled on top of her, getting very used to the sensation. Her eyes were twinkling when she asked, "How would you prepare?"

Chuckling, Hennessey said, "I have no earthly idea. But I'm beginning to understand how people get carried away - even when they're just kissing."

"That was some kiss," Townsend sighed. "Absolutely the best one I've ever had. How about you?"

"Yeah, I'd have to agree. Much, much better than Gramma and Granddaddy ever give me," she said, her eyes twinkling.

Sitting up and staring at her, Townsend gasped, "You've never kissed anyone?"

"Just you, sweetheart. And this is the first one that counts, since the other one was a dying woman's last request."

"Secret?" Townsend asked, grinning impishly.

"Sure."

"When the horse kicked me I knew my skull wasn't fractured. I'd had a concussion before, and it felt just like that. I knew the blood wasn't coming from my ear, either. I could feel it pouring out of the cut and dripping into my ear."

"Why you little faker! I was so worried I was sick!"

"I'm sorry, honey, I just didn't think I'd ever have another chance. And I just had to kiss those pink lips. From the first day I saw you, I knew you were the woman for me - I just didn't think you'd ever realize it."

"I realize it now," Hennessey said, beaming a grin. "And I've never been happier. Merry Christmas, Townsend."

"Merry Christmas, Hennessey." She leaned forward and tried for another kiss, but Hennessey was on to her tricks, and she turned her head at the last second, presenting her cheek.

"No more kisses until this necklace is settled right between those cute little collar bones. I love you enough to say no to you, Townsend."

"You know," the blonde said thoughtfully, "I think that's the greatest present I've ever received. Saying no to someone can be a bigger gift than saying yes. Thank you, Hennessey. Thank you for loving me enough to do what's right - rather than what's easy. That's the best Christmas gift I've ever received.

The End

 

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