Arm in arm, Jacie and Nina walked along the twisting path that followed the river. The breeze was cool, and Jacie shivered a little as she stuck her hand into her coat pocket. Theyd been talking and walking for so long that their noses were red, and the sun, still behind a heavy veil of clouds, was just beginning to sink over the horizon.
Starting to talk, really talk, had been both harder and easier than theyd both imagined. So much had happened over the years that it was hard to know where to begin. But theyd managed. The conversation was forced at times, and then, suddenly, in the form of a laugh or a smile or warm sentiment, some of that old familiarity would peek through, and things would feel easy between them in a way that they never experienced with any other person.
The discussion made Jacie frustrated and angry and Nina a little sad, serving to highlight everything theyd so foolishly let slip through their fingers.
Nina turned and looked at Jacie as they walked. "You know," she squeezed the arm wrapped around hers, "when I think of you, you always have that beautiful long hair."
Jacie shrugged, the ends of her hair brushing the bottom of her coat collar. "I havent worn it long since
Well, I cut it right after I left Missouri." She sighed and gazed at the river. "I needed a change."
Nina absorbed that silently and then released a long breath. "I guess I have this picture of you in my mind where youre permanently 18."
The corner of Jacies lips tugged downward. "Are you disappointed in the way I look now?" She blinked. Shed felt as though she was in the best shape of her life. But that didnt mean Nina would see it that way. "I know its been a long time. But"
Nina abruptly stopped, nearly yanking Jacie off her feet with the hasty movement. "Hell, no!" she gasped, steadying Jacie with her other hand. "Thats not what I meant."
"Im sure I dont look like I did in college," Jacie conceded, still scowling. "But God knows I was a skinny, gawky kid then."
Nina rolled her eyes. "Why is it that youve never understood how beautiful you are, Jacie?"
"Yeah," Jacie snorted. "Im a regular Miss America in blue jeans."
Nina gazed at her fondly, unable to stop herself from feeling a wellspring of emotion. She tucked a blowing strand of hair behind Jacies ear. When she realized what she was doing, she blushed and pulled her hand away and gently cleared her throat. "Time has been nothing but kind to you, and you know it. You were a pretty girl, but youre a stunning woman. Youve improved with time." A tiny smile. "And thats saying something."
A charmed smile lit Jacies face, which was still stained with dirt from her trek through the woods to find her friend. "Really?"
Nina chuckled and started to walk again. "Yeah, Pig Pen, really."
Leaves and twigs crunched under their feet as they followed the path that ran only a few feet from the rivers edge. They were quiet for a long time, enjoying the fresh air and the sounds of the wind in the trees.
"Well," Jacie finally said, trying to recall what theyd been discussing a few moments earlier, "you look just the way Ive pictured you in my head."
"Me and the ten pounds Ive put on over the years."
They were avoiding the one thing Jacie knew they needed to discuss. Still, she played along with the inane conversation a little longer, gathering her thoughts. She shrugged one shoulder. "You were always sort of skinny."
Nina smiled. "And Im starting to find gray in my hair."
Jacie pulled her hand from her pocket and took the opportunity to run her fingers through a few soft strands. "Its only one or two. And besides," she nodded to herself, "it looks good on you."
Nina met Jacies gaze and struggled not to fall into soft brown eyes. Suddenly, the thought of another moment of small talk was unbearable. "I want to kiss you or kill you or maybe both," she blurted, licking her lips nervously. "And its the not knowing which one thats killing me." She studied Jacies face, desperate to gauge her reaction to the shocking words.
Jacie blinked, astonished at Ninas courage. She stopped walking and cupped Ninas cheek, the chilled skin cooling her palm. "Holy shit, Nina."
She cringed, her bravado fading fast. "I know."
Jacie tried to gather her wits, which were as scattered as the leaves upon the ground. "Well, youve already kissed me and smacked me," she reminded her gently. "But if my opinion matters, the kiss was much nicer."
Nina looked away. "You broke my heart, Jacie," she admitted bitterly, saying out loud what shed repeated in her head so many times.
Jacie closed her eyes, her resentment building. "Yeah?" She could hear a note of hoarseness in her voice but forced herself to continue, opening her eyes and moving until Nina was forced to meet her gaze. "Well, you broke mine, too." She grabbed Ninas hand and pressed it to her chest as if Nina could somehow feel the damage shed inflicted.
Nina pulled her hand away. "I know what you think I did."
Jacies eyes flashed. "Think?"
"Yes, think." Now Ninas gaze was just as fiery as the one boring a hole right through her. "I was afraid and unsure, but I wasnt I mean, I didnt"
"Stop." Jacie suddenly turned her back on Nina. Shit. I will not cry. "You dont need to explain yourself to me. Whats done is done, and rehashing it isnt going to help either one of us." But that was a lie and she knew it.
"You were a coward!" Nina snapped, her frustration getting the best of her.
Jacie nodded slowly, her jaw and fists clenching. Nina watched as her back went ramrod straight.
"I guess I was a coward. But I think Ive paid for that."
Nina was startled by the ready admission, and it bled some of the steam from her voice. "Dont you see, Jacie? Youre not the only one whos paid. And youre wrong," she told her bluntly, grabbing Jacie by the shoulders and turning her around to face her.
Tears glistened in Jacies eyes, and Nina blinked away a few of her own. "Even if were never anything to each other again, I dont want this between us." She swallowed thickly. "We need to talk about what happened. I want to get on with my life. I need to do that."
Jacies knees felt weak. She didnt want to know the answer, and yet her heart demanded nothing less. "Does getting on with your life mean that theres no place in it for me?"
Nina scrubbed her face, honestly at a loss. "I Youve had my heart my whole life. Maybe for me to be happy, I need to take it back."
Jacies eyebrows rose. "Ive had your heart?"
Nina gave her a miserable nod. "Forever, you idiot."
Jacie blinked slowly, feeling as though she might shake apart from within. "Forever?" she croaked.
"Thats what I said." Nina smiled sadly. "And I should have told you 20 years ago. I fucked up, Jace. And Im so sorry."
Jacie felt sick. "I-I-I never knew." Her eyes were wide and glassy. "I mean I knew how I felt. But I didnt think you"
Nina couldnt maintain even a watery smile. "I know."
"Wow." Jacie rubbed sweaty palms together. "Just wow." Do it! Do it before its too late. "I hate to do this to you, Nina. But I have bad news."
Nina braced herself. At least Jacie hadnt outright laughed at how pathetic she was for harboring feelings all these years and not being able to move beyond them. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Jacie confirmed, her voice so gentle it was nearly carried away by the breeze. "You cant have your heart back." She shrugged helplessly and gave her the vulnerable look that had always made Nina want to stop whatever she was doing and give her a hug.
Incredulous, Nina just stared this time, her feet rooted in place.
"Sorry." Jacie waited, worrying when seconds ticked by and Nina said nothing. "Are you okay?" she finally asked.
"No!" Ninas body exploded into motion, and she began pacing "What do you mean, I cant have it back? Dont you see? I havent been able to think of anything but you these past few weeks. Im not sleeping. Im"
Jacie stepped forward and took Ninas hands in hers. "You were right. We need to deal with the past. I dont want it to hurt either of us anymore."
This, Nina decided, was what it felt like to have mental whiplash. But, even if it killed her, she resolved to put all her cards on the table today. "We dont have anything to lose, huh?" she joked wanly, knowing that wasnt true, at least for her.
"We have everything to lose," Jacie said seriously as she dropped one of Ninas hands and tugged her along with the other, hoping this path along the river was a long one. They were going to be here a while. "Were just doing it anyway."
Late Spring 1983
St. Louis, Missouri
It was just past eleven oclock when Jacie unlocked the front door and let herself inside the house she shared with her friends. She walked slowly over to the kitchen table and tossed her keys down, her head falling into her hands as she yawned. She heard the faint sounds of the television coming from the living room.
Gwen had moved out two months ago. And while Jacie had been under a financial strain before, now she felt as though she were drowning. Things had gone from bad to worse as each girl worked to pick up the slack left by Gwens absence. Tempers were unusually short, and during the last few weeks, the house had either been filled with angry raised voices or stony silence.
She and Nina and Audrey had argued bitterly that morning over whose turn it was to clean the shower. Nina had taken Audreys side against her, and though shed come to realize theyd been right, it had still hurt to have the person who was always in her corner stand up for someone else.
Nina wandered into the kitchen wearing a T-shirt that fell mid-thigh and a pair of ratty, fuzzy slippers. Her face was pink from a fresh scrubbing, showing off a spattering of freckles that covered her nose and cheeks. Her sandy hair was wet from a recent shower. "Hey, you." She smiled tiredly. "I thought I heard the door."
Jacie was silent for a moment, then said, "I guess this means youre talking to me?" Both young women had been afraid to give voice to what they'd been feeling for months. And though they'd come close a dozen times, they'd yet to even kiss, their fear of the unknown just enough to hold them back and make them crazy.
Nina winced internally. Things had gotten out of hand that morning, and shed said a few things for no purpose other than to hurt Jacie. She wasnt proud of that fact, and she moved quickly now to smooth over what she knew was a bad case of hurt feelings.
"Id like to be talking to you, Jacie." She let her embarrassment show on her face. "Im so sorry about this morning. Ive been Well " Ive been wanting to find out if your lips are as soft as they look and not known how to deal with it, and so I took it out on you? She mentally rolled her eyes. Yeah, best friends always love to hear that youre lusting after them. "Ive been sort of stressed lately."
She lifted her eyebrows in entreaty. "Forgive me," she said softly. "Please?"
Jacie wanted more of an explanation, but the look on Ninas face was so sad and hopeful that she couldnt hold out for more than a few seconds. "Yeah." She gave her a warm smile. "You know I do." Slapping the table with the palms of her hands, she leaned forward. "Ill even go clean the bathroom right now." She took a step forward only to have Nina reach out and grab her arm.
"I already did it."
"What?" she exploded, her hands shaping frustrated fists. "You werent supposed to do that!" Now she felt even worse than she had that morning when Audrey had pointed out rather tersely that just because she worked nights didnt mean they had to do her chores. "Im not a slacker."
"Of course youre not. Relax," Nina urged gently. "I had the time. So no big deal." She tilted her head towards the kitchen table. "Sit and talk with me for a minute? I cant sleep."
Jacie was dead on her feet and quite sure shed be asleep before her head hit the pillow. "Sure." As she sat, she couldnt help but admire Ninas slender, but curvy form through the thin nightshirt she wore.
Nina took her place across from Jacie at the small Formica table, noting curiously that Jacies gaze was following her every move. She looked down at her T-shirt, wondering if shed spilled something on herself. "What are you staring at?" She plucked at the white cotton.
Caught looking, Jacie picked up the keys shed tossed on the table earlier and twisted them nervously in her hands as she searched for an excuse. Any excuse. Coming up empty, she said, "Umm You look nice is all." She smiled weakly and held her breath, her heartbeat thundering in her ears. Then she let out a relieved chuckle when Nina gave her a somewhat embarrassed smile back.
Nina squirmed a little in her chair, swallowing hard and squeezing her thighs together when she realized that she was pleasantly aroused by Jacies attention. God.
Though their feelings had gone unspoken, things between the two of them had slowly been changing over the past few months. They no longer made excuses to spend time together, simply accepting that being together made them happier than being with anyone else. Frequent, lingering touches skirted the edge of chaste. And sometimes, when Jacie looked into Ninas eyes for too long, she grew tongue-tied or completely forgot what she was saying.
That Nina loved Jacie was not in doubt. Shed come to acknowledge that the girlish crush on her best friend had evolved into something much deeper and much more adult. The heady feelings left her breathless, and the thick blanket of attraction that clung to them at times lent even the most innocent exchanges a hint of sexual tension.
"Are you okay?" Jacie asked, concerned with the deer-in-the-headlights look on Ninas face. Shed seen that look quite a few times lately.
"Fine." Nina nodded quickly, her mouth going dry. "F-fine."
Jacie gave her a doubtful look. "If you say so." Her focus shifted to the swinging door that led to the living room. "Katy home yet?"
Nina snorted softly, glad to have the attention off her for the time being "Does she even live here anymore?"
Jacie shrugged. "Good question. She spends so much time at her new boyfriends apartment, I figure that any day now, shell tell us theyre moving in together. And Ill be royally screwed."
Nina nodded miserably, well aware that would mean moving out of the house or taking on strangers as roommates, something she was loath to do.
"I wonder if shes even bothering to go to class. I think all they do is make-out 24 hours a day."
"She told me she wouldnt be home tonight." Nina shrugged. "But she is going to class even if she sleeps through half of it. I" She glanced up, and got a good look at the dark circles under her friends eyes. "Jacie," she sighed softly. "Speaking of sleeping, you look beat." Her forehead wrinkled with worry, and she reached out, tracing Jacies cheekbone, which seemed to have gained more prominence in the past week or so. "Have you eaten yet?"
Jacie leaned back in her chair and laid her hand over her concave belly. "Do six slices of lime and a bowl full of cherries swiped from the bar count?"
"No," Nina said seriously. "They dont." She stood up and moved to the kitchen counter. "What do you want to"
"I dont have anything here." Jacie frowned, mentally calculating the meager tips shed earned that night. They were needed for her portion of the electric bill, which was due any day now. "I need to go to the store." The girls bought their own food, sharing only a few staples that it didnt pay to buy individually. Her shelf had been depressingly bare all week long.
Nina peered into Jacies section of the cupboard, seeing only a can of tomato sauce and a half-empty box of toothpicks. She waved a dismissive hand. "I got paid yesterday and went to the market. I have plenty to share."
"Its no problem."
"Yes, it is."
A sigh. "It doesnt have to be."
"Jacie." Said in the same warning tone. "Just let me do this. Youre making a big deal out of nothing."
Jacie pushed out of her chair and turned around to face Nina. "I dont want your food," she ground out. The last thing she wanted was charity from Nina. "Not only am I not a slacker, Im not a mooch, either."
Taken aback by Jacies anger, Nina felt her own temper rise. This was ridiculous. "I dont care what you want, " she shot back. "You need to eat because you look like shit."
Jacies face turned crimson. "Mind your own business, Nina. Im not hungry. I had a big breakfast." Just then, her stomach growled, and Jacie closed her eyes. "Great," she murmured disgustedly.
Nina rubbed her temples. "Its nearly midnight; you need something, Jacie. Youre on your feet all night. Why are you being so stubborn?" With short, jerky movements, Nina began pulling out cans from her shelf. "Tuna?" She smacked it down on the countertop. "Tomato soup?" Smack. "Or deviled ham?" Smack! She reached inside, grabbing the last of her cans.
Aware that things were spinning out of control, but unable to stop herself, Jacie grabbed the can from Ninas hands and slammed it on the countertop. "I dont want your damned food."
"Deviled ham, it is," Nina snarled, yanking open the drawer and searching for a can opener. When she found it, she set about opening the can at breakneck speed, mumbling all the while. "You dont eat, you dont sleep, all you do is work." She slammed the can opener down. "Youre killing yourself."
"Why have you suddenly gone nuts?" Jacie gestured wildly. "I know when I need to eat. Stop babying me."
"Then stop acting like a baby and let me help you."
Jacie sneered, knowing that Nina was partially right but unable to stop herself from egging on the argument. "Youre Youre going to wake up Audrey." She nodded a little, impressed with her new line of attack. "Yeah, thats what youre going to do."
"A herd of tap dancing elephants marching through your bedroom couldnt wake up Audrey, and you know it."
"If that fuckin can of ham was all that was between me dying a slow death from hunger or living to a hundred I still wouldnt eat it," Jacie spat, reaching for the can only to have Nina pull it away just in time.
Nina grabbed the can opener again and resumed twisting, having trouble with the second half and cursing under her breath as she worked.
"Oh," she was shaking, "youll eat the damn ham yes, you will. Because Ill stuff it down your stupid throat if you dont."
Jacie lunged for Ninas hand and managed to grab the half-opened can. Teeth bared ferally, she lifted her arm to throw it.
Ninas eyes bugged, and she gasped. "Dont you dare!"
Jacie stopped cold, gaping when Nina took the opportunity to snatch the can back.
"Ha!" Nina laughed triumphantly, perspiration making her skin glow.
"Give me back the damned can," Jacie warned, her voice raspy and low as she moved forward a step.
Ninas nostrils flared. She was breathing heavily and knew her voice would be husky before she even spoke. "If you want it so bad, why dont you just take it, Jacie?" she challenged, lifting an eyebrow. She was shocked by her own brazenness but determined not to show it.
The young women glared at each other, panting softly, their faces flushed with anger and something else. Their gazes held, locked for what seemed a lifetime, before something inside Jacie snapped. She surged forward, closing the tiny distance between them in a heartbeat. She grabbed Ninas face in her hands and pulled her forward, crushing their lips together in a searing, desperate kiss.
Nina moaned into the kiss and returned it wholeheartedly, possessively wrapping her arms around Jacie and plastering their bodies together so tightly that she could feel Jacies heartbeat through her nightshirt.
Tongues clashed and moans were swallowed for what seemed a lifetime before a dazed Jacie pulled back just enough to begin to softly nibble the edges of Ninas lips.
"Jacie," Nina breathed, her eyes still closed as she melted into Jacies touch. When ardent lips began working their way down her neck, Nina wasnt sure her legs would hold her. "Jac"
Sensing Ninas dilemma, Jacie gently maneuvered her against the kitchen cabinets. "Better?" she murmured.
"Mmm ." Nina wound her hands in Jacies thick hair, something shed wanted to do since they were in junior high school. Then, to her surprise, Jacie deepened the kiss and used one hand to tease the soft skin of her inner thigh. "God," she mumbled a few moments later, her head spinning. "Where did you learn to do that?"
Jacie chuckled softly, delighting in the silken texture of Ninas lips and skin. "Do you really want to know?"
Nina ran her hands down Jacies arms, her stomach tightening when she noticed that Jacies nipples were now visible through her black silk blouse. She bit off a groan. "No, I guess I dont," she said absently, her hand drifting up to where her eyes were riveted.
Not to be left out, Jacie reached up and cupped one of Ninas breasts, and this time, Nina couldnt be quiet. She let out a slow, sexy hiss than nearly dropped Jacie to her knees.
"Is this what you want?" Jacie asked quickly, praying that she was right. She hugged her closer. "Us, like this?"
Nina closed her eyes. "Yes," she said, unable to deny the truth. She swallowed hard and did her best to collect herself. She was so aroused that she felt a little out of control. When she opened her eyes, she looked directly into Jacies brown eyes, her gaze sizzling. "I dont want to stop." Her words set off another blistering bout of kissing and mutual petting that continued as Jacie guided her out of the kitchen and into Ninas bedroom, kissing her senseless along the way.
Ninas bedroom was dark, and the sound of the door latching behind them barely registered over their labored breathing. Jacie knew which of the two twin beds in the room was Nina's, and it was only seconds before Nina was engulfed in soft fabric, Jacies hot body coming to rest alongside.
Close together, facing each other in the wan light, they smiled nervously at each other. Moonbeams poured through the window, making Jacies dark eyes appear almost otherworldly and casting Nina in mysterious shadows.
The air between them crackled. Jacie had seen enough movies to know that this was where they were supposed to say something, to declare their true love and swear theyd never let crossing this line hurt their friendship. The words, she felt certain, shouldnt be so hard to say. But her tongue felt heavy in her mouth. To be rejected by Nina now? When she was close to what shed dreamed of for so long? Her mind violently recoiled at the mere possibility.
They said in unison.
"You first," Nina urged, her hands starting to roam over Jacies body of their own free will.
Jacie swallowed dryly, her desire ratcheting up with amazing speed. "What are y-you doing?" she said absently, her mind on the fabulous sensations Ninas fingers were teasing from her.
Nina let out a deep breath. "Whatever I want." She unbuttoned one button on Jacies blouse and slid her shaking hand inside to touch hot skin. "Youre so soft." She sighed, easily losing herself in the moment. "I knew you would be." She glanced up from her task and innocently asked, "Am I doing something wrong?"
Jacie would have laughed if there had been enough blood left in her brain to form an appropriate response to the ridiculous question. As it was, every drop she had was headed southward. Furiously, she shook her head no.
Nina bit her bottom lip at the soft sigh Jacie made when her fingertips skimmed the curve of her friends breast. "I," she had to stop and shake her head, the emotion of the moment stealing her words. "I dont know what to say." A warm hand cupped her cheek.
"You dont have to say anything."
"I" But Ninas words were lost in another incendiary kiss. And soon Jacie had her aroused to the point of no return. In a fuzzy part of her mind, she was glad that Jacie had steered them into the bedroom, because as out of her head as she was at this very moment, shed have made love to Jacie on the kitchen table.
Frantic hands peeled away Jacies black slacks and silk blouse, not slowing until they reached a bra and panties. Nina swallowed hard. When she saw all that was in front of her, a moment of uncertainty assailed her. "I dont know what to do." She gave Jacie a worried look.
"Its okay," Jacie said, easing Ninas nightshirt over her head. The sight of her friend naked sent a rush of heated blood to her center, and she started to throb. She smiled devilishly. "Ill help."
Ninas eyes twinkled. "Youre generous to a fault, Jacie."
Jacie laughed, glad that the humor seemed to cut through some of the tension. She kissed Ninas chin softly. "Arent I just?"
Clothes were shed and soon moist heated skin was sliding together. Smoothly, Jacies fingers trailed across Ninas stomach, then through soft sandy hair and into her wetness.
Nina gasped, not expecting the intensity of the sensation.
Jacies hand froze. Terrified, she said, "I'm sorry. I didnt mean"
"Jace," Nina whispered softly, laying her hand over the one that rested between her legs and giving a tender squeeze. "I was just surprised." She tried to convey with her eyes all the love she felt as she admired how the moonlight danced across Jacies skin. With her hand, she urged Jacie to continue what she was doing, seeing the glint of white teeth in response to her actions.
Jacie stroked her slowly, using the tips of her fingers and her tongue to bring her as much pleasure as she possibly could. She was by no means an expert at what she was doing, and it took several fumbling but sweet tries to establish a rhythm that seemed to work for them both.
It took Nina a long time to climax. But when she did, she felt as though she might fracture in two, spasms wracking her entire body, and she sought to pull Jacie deeper inside her. "Jesus." With a trembling hand, she clutched the head suckling her breast. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, her thundering heart nearly drowning out the sounds of the languid moans and soft sighs that caressed her senses every bit as much as Jacies hands and mouth.
Jacie nuzzled the curve of Ninas breast and grinned. She nipped at the tender skin gently, causing Ninas entire body to jump. "I love you, Nina," she whispered, kissing her way up Ninas salty throat and finding eager lips anxious to greet her.
"You mean everything to me," Nina murmured, tasting herself on Jacies soft lips. "Everything. And I"
Jacie plunged her tongue into her mouth and kissed her senseless, grinding her center against Ninas and causing the other woman to writhe beneath her.
Jacie slid a hand up between their bodies and pinched one of Ninas hard nipples, causing her back to arch and a throaty growl to explode from her chest. "Yes? You were about to say something," Jacie said innocently, thrilling at Ninas reaction to her touch.
"I-I" Ninas mind went blank amidst the myriad of overpowering sensations. "I forget," she admitted, capturing Jacies upper lip with her teeth and giving it a playful tug.
Jacie chuckled and promised, "Itll come back to you." She lifted her head slightly so they could see each others faces. Then she smiled such a hopeful, beautiful smile that Nina fell in love with her, right then in that very moment, all over again. Her heart ached from the sweetness of it.
"I want to touch you the way you touched me," Nina breathed, invigorated by her orgasm, but a little shaken by Jacies open display of devotion. She ran her fingers down Jacies cheek, capturing a drop of perspiration on her fingertip and then popping the digit into her mouth.
Jacies belly clenched, and she bit back a moan. Shed already had an orgasm, just tasting Nina, and was beginning to wonder whether watching the other woman would give her a stroke. When Nina lifted her eyebrows meaningfully, Jacie snapped out of her reverie and rolled off her and onto her side, taking a spot next to Nina.
Nina smiled at the change in positions, which placed Jacie squarely in the moonlight and allowed her a full view of her nude body. "You are so beautiful, Jacie." Her eyes landed on a thin scar that ran from the outside of Jacies elbow and about a third of the way down her forearm. Another failed world record attempt. She traced it lovingly, thinking it didnt detract one bit from Jacies beauty.
Jacies gaze followed Ninas. She frowned. "Damn, was I ever a dufus."
"Nuh uh," Nina corrected as she bent to trace the scar with her tongue. "You kicked ass and took names, Jacie," she said, her faith unwavering. "You still do." She sighed dreamily. "Every inch of my body is still on fire from the way you touched me."
Jacies nostrils flared, and she sucked in a breath, ready to pounce on Nina, but a firm hand placed flat at the top of her chest stopped her.
"My turn," Nina said simply. She pulled away a little and waited, knowing deep down that not a single one of her wants would be denied. Not when it came to loving Jacie.
For a few seconds a silent battle of wills raged. Jacie felt as though she could devour Nina and never stop. She still hadnt learned all the secret places that she liked to be touched and the tiny things that drove her insane. Well, she had already learned a few of those. But as tempting as it was to persuade Nina to allow herself to be ravished all night, a larger part of her craved Ninas touch. She needed the other woman in an elemental way, like air or water. Then she looked into hungry blue-green eyes and felt Ninas gentle persistence win the war.
Nina sensed it; the second victory was hers and a heady sense of power sang through her veins. With more courage than she knew she had, she boldly stroked and kissed Jacie everywhere she had a mind to, nipping at the tender skin of Jacies throat with careful teeth. Jacie was moaning with abandon. And when her hand finally found its way between Jacies legs, the other womans enthusiastic squirming threatened to topple them from the twin bed.
Suddenly, Jacies hand covered Ninas and she pushed Ninas fingers inside her. Whimpering, her eyes rolled back in her head. "Yes," she hissed.
"Like this?" Nina increased the speed of her strokes, and Jacie could only nod furiously. Nina didn't have time to be worried that she couldn't satisfy her lover. It only took a few strokes for Jacie to climax, eyes wide open, mouth parted, chest heaving.
The moment was a profound one for Nina, and unexpected tears stung her eyes. Shed never seen, let alone been a part of, something so stunningly beautiful. "Thank you," she whispered, hugging Jacie tightly, possessively, as if daring anyone to take away what she cherished most.
Jacie smiled like a Cheshire cat, contented and satisfied. "I think I should be thanking you."
They laid plastered together for a long time with Jacie tracing idle patterns on Ninas thigh. A tiny part of Jacies mind was worried that shed shared too much of herself, opened herself for too much hurt. And yet, with Nina so close, it was impossible to feel anything but confident about the future.
Nina realized how much time had passed when she saw Jacie yawn. She grinned affectionately at Jacies veiled attempt to fight sleep. Still, while her body felt sluggish and sated, her mind was racing. "Jace?" she started uncertainly.
"Yeah?" Jacie tugged up the tangled comforter and settled it over them both as she closed her eyes and snuggled closer to Nina. She took one of Ninas hands and twined their fingers together.
Nina had never felt so wonderful and so terrified in her entire life. The realization of what theyd shared tonight, what theyd always shared, and the inescapable truth about herself was already beginning to seep into her thoughts. What did this mean for her? Was she a lesbian? How could she not be? That she loved Jacie and wanted to be with her, there was no doubt, but did she want everything that went with loving a woman? Did she have a choice? She didnt even know any lesbians well, except for Jacie. Or was Jacie as confused as she was?
"Mmm Did you say somethin?" Jacies voice was slightly slurred.
She swallowed hard and pushed the fear from her mind. Nothing could hurt her while she was in Jacies arms, the rest she would worry about tomorrow. "Nothing, Jacie." She kissed her on the mouth, lingering there and happily melting into Jacies warm embrace. "Good night."
Jacie smiled into the darkness, her heart bursting. Life, she decided, couldnt get any better than this. "Good night."
Jacie fell asleep quickly.
But for Nina, sleep wasnt so easy to find.
The Next Morning .
A very pregnant Gwen stood outside the girls house, the early morning sun warming her skin and easing the chill left by the spring breeze. She lifted her hand to knock, then thought better of it. It was only half past six, and depending on who had to work, one or more of her friends would still be in bed.
She slid the key shed kept into the lock and carefully opened the door. Gwen tried to scoot inside quickly, but her belly prevented her from sneaking around the partially opened door. She rolled her eyes at herself, grunting a little as she unstuck herself from between the door and the frame and padded inside.
The house was dark and quiet, and she frowned, knowing shed probably be waiting a while before anyone was up. She hadnt seen Katys car out front, but that wasnt unusual, and most likely there was someone still tucked in bed that she could talk into treating to a breakfast.
She glanced around the kitchen with a sense of nostalgia that surprised her. While Malcolm was everything shed hoped for, kind and loving, living in the Langtree family home left a lot to be desired. It was a beautiful mansion in one of the city's most respected neighborhoods, but sometimes it felt like a prison. Gwen had dropped out of college and was busy memorizing the endless dos and donts of what it took to be a member of a prestigious family. Shed already been introduced to the mayors wife, she was wearing designer clothes, and her new coif, though woefully out of style for her age group, was at least done at the most exclusive beauty parlor in the city. The scent of old money was all around her. But for some reason, it wasnt quite sticking to her. At least not yet.
The kitchen countertop had several cans haphazardly scattered across it. "Weird." She placed them back in the cupboard, guessing their owner based on the contents and whether they were a generic brand, which Jacie tended to avoid as a matter of taste, but Nina and the cousins embraced. Next, Gwen added grounds and water to the coffee maker on the counter, enjoying the pungent scent of the beans with unconcealed excitement. While she had continued to speak to the young women of the Mayflower Club on the phone, this was the first time shed been back to their house in nearly two months. Her face colored with shame when it occurred to her that she hadnt invited any of the girls to her new home.
Pulling the chair out a ridiculous distance from the table, she sat down with a sigh. Malcolms mother, whom Gwen suspected had trained Nazis on discipline in her youth, had done her best to impress on her that she needed to make new friends, the sort that were befitting of someone of her new stature family people, not single, middle-class, college students without connections or clout. Just thinking about it left a sour taste in her mouth. It was the reason she was here so early. She could visit and be home before anyone noticed she was gone. The Langtree estate, except for a few longtime servants, was dead until at least 9 a.m., and this way she could avoid the reproachful looks she was sure to receive when asked where shed gone.
Then she thought of the surprise she had in store for Nina that very night, and a broad smile transformed her slightly puffy face. The history major had agreed to meet her and Malcolm for dinner at a posh restaurant downtown. Moreover, the night promised to be one that could change both their lives. Mrs. Langtree would see that there was no reason Gwen couldnt bring her friends with her into a better life, instead of leaving them by the wayside.
The water stopped draining through the beans and Gwen looked at the pot longingly, willing it to magically fly off the counter and land directly in front of her. As if in answer, the coffee maker belched at Gwen. "Fine," she groused, getting up.
Then she heard it. A creaking door and whispers.
"Someones up!" she thrilled, temporarily forgetting about the coffee. She crept to the swinging doors that separated the living room from the kitchen and was surprised to see Jacie standing in Ninas doorway, disheveled and clearly angry. Nina was in her nightshirt and Jacie was wearing her work uniform. Not wanting to interrupt, she peeked over the swinging bar doors, waiting until whatever argument they were having was over.
"Dammit, Jacie, why are you making this into a fight?" Nina asked, her voice quivering.
Jacies back stiffened. "It is a fight. You kicked me out of your bed!"
Gwens mouth dropped open.
"Keep your voice down, " Nina whispered harshly. "I didnt kick you out of anywhere. Not really. Its just that Audrey could wake up at any time. And shell wonder where you are. Or Katy could come home. I cant lock her out of her own room."
"Would it be so horrible if they knew about us?" Jacie sighed, suddenly sounding weary. "Im so tired of hiding this part of myself," she reached out and grazed Ninas cheek with the tips of her fingers, "from my friends." She paused and licked her lips, tension making her head pound. "The only reason Ive hidden it at all was because I was worried about how youd react. The others will learn to live with it."
Wide eyed, Gwen leaned forward a little, riveted on the scene playing out only a few feet from her, even as she felt a twinge of guilt for eavesdropping.
"You make this sound like it isnt that big a deal." Nina sniffed. "But it is a big deal. Really, really big." She couldnt look Jacie in the eye, and she wrapped her arms around herself.
Jacie swallowed so thickly that Gwen heard it. "How can you say I dont think this is a big deal? I told you that I loved you! Do you think that was easy?"
"I dont know what to think!" Nina exploded, doing her best to keep the volume of her voice down, but failing. "I dont know what to feel. I dont think Im gay. Im not attracted to anyone but you. Not men or women." She ran a hand through her disorderly hair. "Im unsure of myself right now. I need a little time to think without your pressuring me is all."
Stung, Jacie said, "You didnt seem very unsure of yourself last night."
"Do we have to do this here?" Worried eyes glanced around the room, and then Nina reached out for Jacies hand. "Im sorry if I hurt your feelings this morning, Jacie. I overreacted." She wiggled the fingers of her outstretched hand invitingly. "Come back to bed and lets talk."
"But then somebody might find out about us," Jacie sneered, refusing to take Ninas hand.
Gwen bit her lower lip so hard she tasted blood.
Ninas hands shaped into fists. "You are so stubborn!" She covered her face with her hands, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "I want to be with you, Jacie. But Im afraid."
The words had a profound effect on Jacie, and she felt a lump grow in her throat. Shed had years to deal with her attraction to women her attraction to Nina. Shed dreamed of having her as a lover. Of making a life with her. This wasnt the way things were supposed to go! Last night had changed her whole life, and they were supposed to wake up happily in each other's arms. Nina wasnt supposed to have doubts about her sexuality. She was supposed to profess her undying love, and then they would fight the world and its prejudice together, needing only the others approval. They would get their own apartment, finish school, get good jobs, and be a real couple. They would travel, and unlike her own parents, they would share each others interests and want to spend time together. Hell, maybe theyd even get a dog.
But when faced with eyes dilated from fear, not arousal, Jacie felt more than foolish. Her dream was childish and unrealistic, and she knew it. Still, it was hers.
She schooled herself in patience; fearing that Nina might decide she didnt want to continue their relationship was making her queasy. All traces of anger disappeared from Jacies face. "Itll be okay." She stepped forward to try and pull Nina into her arms. Though, to her dismay, Nina stopped her.
"Not here, Jacie." Her eyes strayed to the front door. "Come back into the room."
Rejected again, Jacie said, "I was going to give you a hug, Nina. Ive done it a million times in front of everyone we know. Even lesbians can give hugs that arent sexual!"
Nina winced inwardly. "Im sorry." She started to cry. "I dont want to h-hurt you. I lov"
"Save it," Jacie snapped, her hurt and frustration getting the best of her. "Please," she paused and let out a shaky breath. "We can talk after youve had time to think with me out of your hair. My very presence seems to pressure you. And if Im not too close then maybe youll forget how horribly wrong it was for us to sleep together."
Nina lifted her chin. "It wasnt wrong," she insisted, her voice suddenly frantic. "I never said that. I-I" Helplessly, she started to cry again.
Jacie felt her own tears prick the back of her eyes. "You didnt have to." Devastated, she stomped across the small living room and disappeared into her bedroom, her shoes clutched to her chest.
Ninas sobs intensified, and she retreated to her room, locking the door behind her.
Gwen thought she might wet herself. Numbly, she walked back to the table and sat down with a thump, feeling irrationally betrayed. "How could they do something so stupid? How could Jacie keep that secret from us?" she murmured. "I had a right to know I was living with a lesbian. I should have had a right to choose whether I wanted to do that!"
Suddenly, she looked around the room, realizing that she was talking to herself. How could she have been fooled? Then she closed her eyes as a million shared glances between Nina and Jacie came into focus. "No." She shook her head frantically. A sliver of fear worked its way into her chest. If her mother-in-law ever found out about them, let alone her own parents or even Malcolm, she could never see them again. The Langtrees didnt associate with gay people. They didnt even talk to Democrats!
She could already feel the friendship shed been fighting to maintain start to slip through her hands. How could Jacie and Nina have done something so reckless? How could they expect to find husbands who would marry them now?
"Okay, slow down," she told herself. "This isnt who they are." They dated boys. They kissed boys. They liked boys. Shed personally seen Greg Parsons tongue halfway down Ninas throat last summer! Even though Jacie hadnt had a boyfriend in the last couple of years, shed been the first among them to date. They couldnt be gay.
Nina had come out and said she wasnt, hadnt she? Jacie, she was confused is all. Her parents had a horrible, lifeless marriage. Maybe she didnt know a man and a woman could truly be happy together, the way she and Malcolm were. Yes, that had to be it. Jacies confusion was bleeding over onto Nina. After all, they were best friends. It was bound to affect them both.
Desperately, Gwens mind latched onto that train of thought. She couldnt lose them as friends, and she wouldnt abandon them when they needed her.
Now the only question was, what could she do?
It was mid-afternoon when Jacie finally emerged from her bedroom to find Katy and Audrey sitting on the couch, eating Lucky Charms dry out of the box and watching "Wheel of Fortune." Both were barefooted and wearing T-shirts and ratty jeans their weekend lounging clothes.
Jacie was tired and depressed and flopped down on the couch between Audrey and Katy, who both scooted over a little to make room, their gazes still riveted on the TV screen. In the process, she knocked over the half-eaten box of cereal.
Unconcerned, Katy began eating the cereal directly off the sofa. "George Washington!" she shouted, dry bits of cereal exploding from her mouth as she pointed at the television excitedly.
"Ha. Youre such a dweeb," Audrey laughed. The cousins loved game shows, and each tried to outdo the other when it came to answering the questions. "The second word only has six letters."
Katy counted the illuminated tiles. "Oh, yeah. Shit." Her arm shot out again, and she pointed at the screen. "Andrew Jackson!" she yelled, absently reaching between the couch cushions for more cereal. "That has to be it."
Audrey rolled her eyes at her cousin. Then she noticed Jacies glum expression and suddenly remembered something Nina had asked her to do that morning. "Hey, Jacie," she greeted, reaching over Katy to grab the notepad they always kept by the phone.
"Hey," Jacie answered dully, her eyes straying to Ninas door. I need to apologize. I freaked out for nothing. All she wanted was a little time to get used to things, and I had to go and be a bitch.
"I have three messages for you this morning. Nina said you decided to sleep in for once."
"Good for you," Katy murmured, as she watched the show. "Youve seemed stressed out lately."
Jacie ignored the comment, knowing it was true but unwilling to admit that she was working too much. The strain of being crazy about Nina but being too chickenshit to do anything about it had taken her to the breaking point. "Ninas not home?" Jacie asked, trying her best to sound casual as she picked at the couch cushion.
"She went to the laundromat," Katy said, relaxing now that it was a commercial.
Audrey passed over the messages.
The first was in Ninas handwriting and told Jacie that her mother needed a ride to church for the afternoon service. At it often was, her car was in the shop and her mother expected Jacie to find a way to help her. The second message, written in Katys dark scrawl, was from her boss Jacie needed to be at work an hour early tonight. "Crap." She didnt want to go to work or go to pick up her mother. She wanted to wait for Nina and beg her forgiveness. She shuffled the papers again and then glanced back up at Audrey. "You said three messages?"
Unexpectedly, Audrey pulled Jacie into a big hug. "Nina said to give you this from her," she squeezed a little harder, "and to tell you everything would be okay."
Stunned, Jacie could only swallow, relief washing over her in great waves.
"That must have been some fight you guys had," Katy commented, her eyes narrowing as a thought struck her. "Nobody ever hugs me."
"Aww." Audrey lunged for her skinny cousin and quickly pinned her in a massive bear hug, squeezing the air out of her lungs. "Ill hug you."
Katy gasped and wiggled frantically to squirm free from Audreys strong arms, laughing and wheezing the entire time. "Gee." Another gasp. "Thanks."
"Welcome," Audrey said. "Pennsylvania!" She shouted, pointing at a beaming Vanna White, who was rapidly turning over letters.
"Shit!" Katy groused, grabbing the cereal box and stuffing her face for comfort.
Jacie stood up, visibly happier. "Katy, can I borrow your car for a couple of hours?" She hoped she had enough change in her coat pocket for a gallon of gas.
The blonde gestured toward a key rack by the door, her attention once again riveted on the television. "I filled it up last night."
Jacies face relaxed into a full smile. "Stand up, Audrey."
Audreys eyebrows jumped. "Huh?"
Jacie tapped her foot impatiently. "Just do it, okay?"
Reluctantly, she did and then let out a surprised whoop when Jacie wrapped her arms around her and hugged her so completely that she lifted her feet from the ground, her curly locks bouncing in all directions. "You give that to Nina and tell her Ill be back later."
"Musta been some fight," Katy repeated absently, her fingers finding the toy surprise in the cereal. She examined it from the corner of her eye. "Cool! A glow-in-the-dark four leaf clover ring." She slid it on her pinky and wiggled the digit happily.
Audrey looked down at the ring. "Cool," she agreed. Then her gaze sharpened. "Isnt it my turn for the toy?"
"Fuck, no," Katy said tartly, making a fist to protect her booty.
And then they were grappling for the ring.
Utterly accustomed to the mayhem, Jacie headed for the door, grabbing a sweatshirt from the coat closet along the way. She could feel it bubbling up inside her. Her luck was changing.
The drive to Hazelwood wasnt a particularly long one, but it wasnt one that Jacie made very often. As she pulled into her parents driveway, she waved at one of her neighbors who was mowing his lawn. The sight of the freshly cut grass caused a twinge of guilt; she hadnt been home since Christmas.
Her fathers car was parked on the other side of the driveway. Jacie shut her car door in disgust. This wouldnt be the first time her dad had refused to drive or to let her mother use his car.
When she opened the front door, she was greeted by the heavy, greasy smell of fried chicken and gravy. Her stomach rumbled in appreciation. "Hi, Mom," she called out, rounding the corner into the living room. "Im" she stopped when she saw Gwen sitting in a recliner across from her parents, who were seated stiffly on the sofa. "What are you doing here?" Then the fancy car shed seen parked across the street made sense. It was Malcolms.
Gwen drew in a deep breath and laid her hands across her bulging belly, doing her best to calm her raging nerves. "I needed to come by and talk to your parents, Jacie."
Jacie just looked at her. "You did?"
Gwen wrung her hands together. "I"
Jacies mother, a tall woman with thick, turquoise eye shadow that perfectly matched the color of the curtains in her kitchen, shot off the coach and glared at her daughter. "Tell me that something so disgusting isnt true," she demanded, her chin quivering dramatically.
Gwens and Jacies eyes widened at the exact same second.
Confused, Jacie turned to her father. His square jaw was clenched hard; his dark eyes unreadable as he gazed quietly back at her. "Does anyone want to tell me whats going on?" she said, shifting uneasily from one foot to the other.
Jacies mother, never one to mince words, got right to the point. "Your friend Gwen tells us that youre a " she paused as her entire body shuddered in revulsion, "homosexual."
Jacies jaw dropped and she gave Gwen a stunned blink.
"But of course, I told her that couldnt be true," Grace Priest continued nervously, her voice wavering, doubt clouding her eyes. The middle-aged woman fingered the heavy cross she wore around her neck. "Im waiting, Jacie Ann."
Jacie felt as though shed been kicked in the chest. A million thoughts roared through her head, each one more confusing and upsetting than the last. How had Gwen known? How could she betray her this way? And worst of all, had Gwen done the same thing with Ninas parents?
"Jacie?" her mother prompted.
The young womans heart began to race. She had imagined this moment many times, and now that it was here, she took another look at her parents guarded faces and realized it was going to be worse than shed even pictured. "I-I-I-"
"Just great." Jackson Priest bowed his head; Jacies lack of an instant denial the same as an admission in his eyes. He glanced up at Jacie, his green eyes glinting with disappointment and anger. "Girl, what are you thinking? Whats wrong with you?"
Jacies mother gaped at her husband. "Jack, she didnt answer yet." She pointed at him, her hand shaking. "She did not answer! Dont you put words in her mouth!" She made an emphatic gesture towards Jacie. "Tell him. Tell him youre not like that!"
"Ma" Jacie had to stop and swallow. She covered her face with her hands. This isnt how she wanted things to go. They were already beginning to spin out of control.
Mrs. Priest took a step closer to her daughter. "Answer me, Jacie Ann!"
"Yes!" Jacie blurted loudly, the words hitting her parents like stinging blows. "Okay?" She lowered her voice, her tone defiant. "I am like that. I always have been and I always will be."
Jackson scrubbed his face, his hands rubbing over a heavy layer of stubble that he let accumulate every weekend. "You do realize what youve done, dont you? This isnt something anyone can ever know about. Im sure your friend Gwen wont say a word."
He pinned Gwen with a lethal look and her head bobbed dutifully.
Jackson nodded. "Have you thought about what decent man would ever want to marry you after this? Or have a family with you?"
"Jesus, Dad, the entire point of being a lesbian is that I dont want a man," Jacie said hotly. "I"
The sound of Grace slapping Jacie hard in the face woke Gwen from her horror-induced stupor. She gasped and jumped to feet as quickly as her protruding belly would allow. Without regard for herself, she stepped between Jacie and Grace, who were glaring at each other like two prize fighters about to square off. "Mrs. Priest! Stop!" Her gaze flickered to Jacie who was rubbing her face but didnt look half as shocked as she herself felt. In that instant, she knew that Jacie wasnt surprised, and that this had to have happened before. A sliver of doubt about what she was doing wrapped around Gwens heart and squeezed like an icy fist.
Grace simply spoke around Gwen as though the young woman wasnt even there. "How could you do that to us, Jacie? To yourself? To God?"
Tears formed in Jacies eyes, but through sheer force of will she refused to let them fall. Her cheek hurt but the pain in her heart was far worse. She suddenly sounded very tired, feeling as though the entire world was ganging up on her. "Im not doing anything to anyone. I havent hurt anyone. And I havent done anything wrong." Jacie began to think she might be the only person in Missouri who truly believed that, though, with Gwen doing something so hurtful and Ninas confusing behavior that morning, despite her reassurances to the contrary.
Grace blinked. "You cant know what youre saying. Listen to yourself! Youre not only admitting to fornication, but to some bizarre form of unnatural fornication. Your actions reflect on us all. How can you be so selfish as to only think of yourself? What about me and your father?"
Jacie tamped down the urge to roll her eyes. "Everythings not about you, Mom."
Graces eyebrows rose. "It isnt? Do you really think you can do any sick thing that you please and that people here wont find out about it?" She fanned her face as though warding off a case of the vaporssomething shed never actually gotten, though she acted as if she required smelling salts on a daily basis. "What will Pastor Douglas say? What about the men at your fathers office and our friends? He has to work with the people in this town to make a living! Now theyll pity us." Her eyes widened as a terrible thought made her sick. "No, not just pity, blame us for what youve become!"
"Mrs. Priest," Gwen interrupted desperately, her voice an octave higher than normal, "we were talking about counseling for Jacie before she got here. Remember? I told you about the brochures Id seen for family therapy?"
"You were talking about counseling," Grace pointed out crabbily. "Doctors cant fix a persons morals, can they? But maybe prayer and"
"This has nothing to do with prayer. I dont need to be fixed!" Jacie roared, blood pounding through her veins so hard she felt lightheaded. "Nothing is wrong with me!" She gave her father a pleading look, her eyes begging him to understand and make things better for her instead of worse. "Please, Dad."
A quiet sigh. "Jacies right, Grace."
Three sets of stunned eyes stared at Jackson Priest in shock.
"Prayer isnt the answer." God, he was sick of his wifes obsession with religion. "Jacies sick. She needs a doctor."
"Oh, Jesus," Jacie moaned, her hopes disappearing like a wisp of smoke.
"She needs the Lord in her heart," Grace corrected firmly. "She never did listen when I took her to church. You said it didnt matter. But now look!"
"Bullshit," Jack said bluntly, his lips twisting into a snarl. "It isnt my fault that she couldnt stand going to that place anymore than I can."
"I dont want a doctor or a preacher," Jacie broke in, her gaze straying to the door as she longed for escape.
Grace shook her head woefully. "We never should have supported you going to that school. You dont even want to change and God only helps those who help themselves. Somehow that college has put these sinful ideas into your head or maybe youve got some new friends we dont know about."
Jacie shook her head. "There is nobody to blame. So you can stop looking. This is me, and youre going to have to learn to live with it."
The hair on the back of her fathers neck lifted. "This is my house and I dont have to learn anything. Im not the one whos doing disgusting things, now am I?"
Jacies back stiffened. "You didnt even flinch when Mom just hit me in face." She touched her own red cheek. "Thats pretty disgusting from my point of view."
Jackson's face colored, but it was from anger, not embarrassment. "I wont spend a dime of my hard-earned money to support some perverted lifestyle."
"Youve never supported me."
Gwens gaze flew between Jacie and her father. "What does she mean?" she said finally, the tension in the room so thick she felt like she couldnt breathe.
Jacie almost didnt answer, but things had gone this far and now there was no turning back. "That means he wont continue to give me that entire 35 dollars a month he chips in towards my tuition. Even though he knows itll mean I have to drop out of school." She was speaking to Gwen but looking into her fathers eyes the entire time.
From the corner of her eye, Jacie saw Gwens mouth drop open; she snorted softly at her surprise. "And he only does that because one of his co-workers asked if sending me to college was setting the family back. He was too embarrassed to say nothing."
"I work hard for that money, you ungrateful brat!" Jack shot back, a vein in his forehead beginning to show.
"Mom gives five times that to the church every month. And I dont see that fat preacher working two jobs or skipping any meals the way I do."
"Jacie Ann Priest, how dare you!" Grace screeched, trying to step around Gwen to get to her daughter.
Jacie stepped away from Gwen and moved to stand toe-to-toe with her mother. Her voice was low and controlled, rage flickering in her eyes. "Dont think Im going to let you hit me again."
Gwen began to panic. "What is going on here?" she whispered to herself. Jacies mother and father were devout people. Devout people wouldnt refuse to help their child when she was in need!
Grace glared at the young woman she couldnt believe she had given birth to. "The church is doing the Lords work and fighting against the kind of smut youre living, young lady. Be thankful that thats where this familys money goes. It doesnt seem that the money we send you has been doing any good for anybody. We raised you to be normal. Not something else."
Jack let out a heavy sigh. He hadnt moved from his spot on the sofa during the entire discussion. "Get out of my house, Jacie Ann, and dont come back until youve given up this disgusting notion of yours."
"That will be never," Jacie said bluntly, his words digging deeper than she wanted to show.
Jack nodded slowly. "Then thats your choice."
Jacie plastered a grim smile onto her face, but Gwen caught the slight quiver of her lower lip. "No problem, Dad." She didnt even look at her mother or Gwen as she stormed from the room.
Gwen ran a trembling hand through her hair. Then she whirled around and looked at Jacies parents as though they were aliens. "I thought you were going to help her! I only told you so that you could help her!"
"You heard her," Grace answered stiffly. "She doesnt want our help." She turned and gazed out of the window with unseeing eyes. "Shes never wanted anything from us at all."
"I cant imagine why," Gwen muttered as she hurried after Jacie, her waddling gate making true speed all but impossible. She made it outside just in time to see Jacie peeling out of the driveway. "Jacie," she called loudly, waving her arms and running towards the car. Not listening, the auburn-haired girl floored the gas pedal without sparing a desperate Gwen the slightest glance.
"Slow down! Youre going to kill yourself!" But she was already looking at Katys cars taillights. In her haste, Gwen fumbled with the car keys, letting out a rare curse when they dropped in her lap as she tried to fit them into the ignition. "Oh, God. Oh, God."
After a lifetime of living nearby, she knew which streets Jacie would take to exit the neighborhood and after getting lucky and making a few stoplights that Jacie missed, the beat up car was finally the one directly in front of her. Gwen laid on her horn, wincing when Jacie merely lifted her hand from the steering wheel and flipped her the bird.
At the next corner, Gwen used the full power of her BMW and shot around Jacie. Gritting her teeth, she swerved into Jacies lane, cutting her off and forcing Jacie to shoot into the parking lot of a local convenience store to avoid ramming into the back of the beamer.
Livid, Jacie flew out of her car and stalked over to Gwen, who was trying to pry herself out from behind the steering wheel. "Are you insane?" Jacie screeched at the top of her voice. "Have you forgotten that youre pregnant?"
Gwen shot her a tart look as she finally made it out of the car. "Does that even look possible to you?"
"You pious meddling bitch."
Gwen held her tongue, because at that moment, she completely agreed with Jacie. "Im sorry," she finally whispered, looking away. Then she shut the car door and had to force herself to meet Jacies searing gaze.
"Do you even know what youve done?" Jacie slammed her hand down on the hood of the car, the sound echoing in the nearly empty parking lot. "Im going to have to quit school. I cant work any more damn hours. Im already drowning and one of my best friends threw me a big-ass rock to hold onto!" She slammed her hand down again, this time denting the metal. "Argh! If you werent pregnant, I wouldKickYourAss!"
Gwen gulped hard. Jacie was deadly serious. "I didnt think that would happen. I-I-I had no idea. I just wanted to help you. I swear it, Jacie."
"And did you help Nina this way today?" Jacies gaze sharpened. "Because if you did I"
"No! Of course I didnt." She looked hurt that Jacie would even think such a thing. "Ninas not gay. I heard her say so. I wouldnt tell her parents because shes not the one who needs help. She was just experimenting or something." Her face took on a sympathetic expression. "Its you that needs help."
"You dont know what youre talking about when it comes to Nina." Jacies mind flashed to the night before and her heart skipped a beat. She relaxed a little, relieved beyond measure that Gwen hadnt done something so hurtful to Nina at this confusing juncture in her life. Things were scary enough as it was. "What makes you think I need or want your help, Gwen?" She arched one slender eyebrow. "I know what I am and even if I could change, which I cant, I wouldnt want to."
Gwen just stared. "That cant be true."
"It is true. I came to terms with who I was a long time ago."
Gwen crossed her arms over her unusually full chest. "If you werent ashamed of it, you wouldnt have kept it a secret."
That shut Jacie up for several seconds. She squirmed a little, uncomfortably aware that on some level that was probably true, at least at one time. "I didnt tell you because I was afraid of how youd react. Afraid it would ruin our friendship." Her face turned to granite. "I guess I shouldnt have worried."
"Im still your friend."
Jacie was surprised at how much this hurt. "No way, Gwen," she said thickly. "After everything weve been through. After everything this year " She didnt need to mention the hours of comfort and support shed freely given her friend after her rape.
Gwens face colored with shame.
A look of pure disgust twisted Jacies attractive features. "You stabbed me in the back."
Gwen shook her head. "I know you think that now. But someday youll see. I told your parents for your sake. For all our sakes."
Jacie groaned, already tired of this conversation. Ever fiber of her being told her that she needed to go to Nina, to talk about last night, and to make absolutely certain that they were on solid ground. Not to mention the fact that she craved sinking into her arms and letting Nina sooth away some of this profound hurt. She turned and started to walk away, stopping when Gwens shaky voice rang out in the parking lot.
"Im not wrong about Nina. I know you love her, and she loves you. Just not that way." Gwens stomach was in knots. She knew the carefully chosen words would further wound her already injured friend, but a little hurt now was better than a lifetime of misery, wasnt it?
Jacie turned around, fists clenched, the cool wind sending the pungent odor of diesel fuel back to Gwen and tossing Jacies thick hair into her face. "She does love me."
Gwen steeled herself, ruthlessly ignoring the little voice in her head that told her to stop and think about what she was about to do. "Shes not gay."
"Shut up and leave and leave me alone." She turned towards Katys car again, not willing to allow Gwen to see the damage her words had done. She needed to see Nina now.
"I can prove it." She gasped when Jacie froze for a split second, then spun around on her heels and stalked back to her, putting them face to face.
"You dont know what the fuck youre talking about. Youre lying!" she spat, her words slurred by anger.
Gwen shook her head, trying to retain control of her badly stressed bladder. "Tonight shes going on a double date with Malcolm and me and his cousin Victor. If she loved you in a romantic way, I mean, would she be willing to date a man?"
Jacie paled. "Shes what?"
"A double date. Thats why I was at the house this morning and why I heard you two talking." She licked her lips nervously. "I was there to talk about tonight." A partial truth.
"I dont believe you." No way, her mind screamed. Nina wouldnt do that. Never. Even if last night was the first time theyd slept together, things had been slowly intensifying between them for months.
Gwen grabbed the sleeve of Jacies sweatshirt and dragged her over to a nearby phone booth. "Give me a dime," she demanded, holding out her hand.
Jacie looked at her upturned palm, experiencing whiplash at Gwens apparent, sudden change of subjects. "Huh?"
"Just do it." She lifted her hand higher.
In confusion, Jacie dug through the pocket of her jeans and produced a handful of change. She handed the entire pile to Gwen. "What are you?"
"Shh." Gwen put the phone to her ear and began to dial, waiting impatiently for someone to pick up. "Victor Langtree, please."
Jacies stomach dropped.
"Hi, Victor, this is Gwen." She pulled Jacie closer to the phone. "I called just to make sure everything is set for tonight."
Despite herself, Jacie pressed her head to Gwens, feeling soft hair brush against her cheek as she listened in on the conversation.
Victor droned on for a moment about how excited he was and how he intended to sweep Nina off her feet before Gwen cut him off mid-sentence. "Thats great, Victor. You can come by the house at seven, okay? Im looking forward to it, too. See you then. Bye."
Jacie moved away slowly, taking a few steps before she began to pace. "That that doesnt mean a damn thing." A flicker of doubt shone in her eyes. "You could have gotten Malcolms cousin to lie." Sweat began to gather at the back of her collar. "Nina never mentioned she was going on a date." God, her mind choked, hating the way that sounded more than she could express. "Not once."
"You need to face the truth." Her friend clearly wasnt convinced yet. Gwen bit her bottom lip and went for broke. At worst she could talk her way out of what she was about to do. At best Jacie would be convinced that there was no point in going ahead with her crazy idea of being a homosexual. Nina was clearly a temptation for her and with the temptation removed maybe shed see how ridiculous she was acting and go back to normal. "Here." Gwen slid another dime into the phones coin slot, her palm and fingers so moist that she nearly dropped it. Then she said a prayer as she shot well over a line from which she knew there was no return.
Audrey picked up the ringing phone. "Hello?"
"Hi. So, are you all ready for tonight?"
"What?" Audrey took the phone away from her ear and looked at it. "Hi, Gwen. We dont have anything going on tonight, do we?"
Gwen turned to Jacie and looked her right in the eye as she spoke. "Nina, I hope youre going to wear something sexy so that Victor gets a good look at your figure."
Jacie forgot how to breathe as her insides began to shake.
"I am not Nina, you dork." Audrey twisted the phone cord around her little finger as she spoke. "And I cant believe you finally got her to go on that double date with you." She chuckled. Gwen was determined to find them all the men of her dreams. The richer and more handsome the better. Unless, of course, they were richer or more handsome than Malcolm. "Heres Nina." She handed the phone to the young woman as she walked by.
Gwen had to force her hands to stop trembling. She let out a relieved breath and extended her arm to grab Jacie to pull her over to listen. Jacie was standing a few feet away and actually dug in her heels when Gwen tried to pull her closer.
"Hello," Nina answered, perching on the corner of the sofa and reluctantly pulling her nose from a good book.
"So are you ready for our date tonight?" Gwen repeated with Jacie now listening in.
"You bet," Nina answered cheerfully. "I cant wait."
Jacie felt as though a ton of bricks had been dropped on her head. This cant be happening. Not after last night. Not after everything. "Ni-nina?"
Gwens eyes bugged out and she tried to pull the phone away but Jacies grasp was firm.
"Jacie?" Ninas eyebrows lifted. "Where are you?"
"Youre um " Jacie could hardly talk and she thought she might throw up. "Youre going out on a date tonight?"
"Well, yeah. Its been planned for a while." She frowned, not liking the tremulous sound of Jacies normally vibrant voice. "Youll be at work while Im out, right? But, hey, I really think we should talk before I leave." Her tone went serious. "Theres something I need to tell you and it cant wait."
Nina hadnt told Jacie she loved her yet, and the omission had been haunting her since that morning. The happy words wanted to explode from her and she nearly did it right there on the phone, but Audrey was standing only a few feet away and she wanted some privacy when she made it clear to Jacie just how much she meant to her. Shed searched her soul that morning, and while she was still more than a little afraid, she was certain that she and Jacie could work through anything so long as they did it together.
Shes going to break up with me? Jacie closed her eyes. "No. No. No!" Violently, she jerked the phone from Gwens hand, causing Gwen to scream out in surprise as she slammed the phone hard into its cradle, hanging up. "Shit."
Tears welled up in Gwens eyes at the utterly devastated look on Jacies face. "Jacie."
"No," she said in voice so low that Gwen barely heard her. She rested her forehead against the phone. Why was her world collapsing on her? Tears streamed freely down her cheeks.
Gwen blinked. "Youre," she swallowed, "youre crying?" She shook her head. "But you dont cry. I-Ive seen you break your arm in three places and not shed a single tear."
Jacie didnt even hear Gwen as her own thoughts raged. Last night was a lie? Every touch. Every kiss. Every sweet word. All of it. But Nina wouldnt do that! Her mind recoiled at the mere thought of the person she loved most in the world, the one she trusted above all others, using her. And yet, Nina had admitted as much, hadnt she? She was keeping a date with some guy. It was like knives were slicing up her insides and she tasted bile.
Unable to contain the hurt and fury building up inside her, brown eyes flew open and Jacie grabbed the phone's handpiece and began repeatedly slamming it against the phone booth, the pain it caused her palm and fingers not even registering as jagged bits of plastic flew everywhere. "It! Was! Not! A! Lie!"
In a panic, Gwen screamed. Jacies meltdown was a hundred times worse than shed expected and it scared her to the core.
When there wasnt enough phone left in her hand to smash, Jacie let it drop and leaned against the phone booth. She wanted to die. Her back to the glass, her knees gave out and she slid down until her bottom hit the dirty floor and she began to openly sob.
Astonished, Gwen didnt know what to say. "You really love her?" She finally asked, her breath coming fast as the true amount of damage shed just done to Jacie began to hit home. "Not just some crush or friendship? But really love?"
Jacie wrapped her arms around herself in mute comfort. "Always," was all she could get out between sobs.
"Oh, God. The way I love Malcolm?" Gwen couldnt conceive it could be true. Not between two women. "But, Jacie," she gently said with one hundred percent sincerity, "thats not even possible, is it?"
Jacie didnt bother to answer. She was about to throw up, and talking to Gwen was the last thing she wanted. "Get the hell away from me," she spat, her face contorted in pain.
Awkwardly, Gwen got down on one knee, not at all sure that she could get back up from that position. "Itll be okay," the words tumbled out so quickly she could barely understand them herself. "I want to help you. I love you like a sister! You wont have to quit school. Ill" Her mind raced for a solution. "Ill give you the money that your parents were giving you." Malcolm would understand and if he didnt, she would sell the car hed just bought her. She reached out for one of Jacies hands, but Jacie knocked hers away
Bleakly, and with bloodshot eyes, Jacie glanced up at Gwens desperate face.
For a split second Gwen thought she might tell Jacie everything. That shed tricked her. That Nina didnt even know that Victor was coming to dinner tonight. However, indecision caused her to hold her tongue.
"Hey, whats going on?" Wearing a dingy green apron, a skinny clerk with a buzz haircut and a cigarette perched between his lips came out of the convenience store. "What are you girls doing?" He glanced at what was left at the phone: a black chunk of hard plastic that swung from the silver cord in the breeze. "My phone!" He began to hurry towards them.
"Cmon, Jacie." Gwen hoisted herself to her feet and reached out for her friend. "We need to go. He might call the police. Hurry!"
Mutely, Jacie allowed Gwen to help her up and guide her over to the BMW. Then when they were a few feet from the car, she bolted for Katys car, the ignition roaring to life after a few faltering tries.
"Jacie!" Gwen screamed after her, her eyes wide with fear. "Stop! Please!"
Through a haze of tears, Jacie navigated around the BMW and did a speeding U-turn in the parking lot, shooting over the curb and onto a dirt road that ran behind the store. A cloud of dust erupted behind her.
"Jacie!" Gwen tried again.
Falling apart at the seams, and with another surge of gasoline and the stench of burning rubber, Jacie Priest drove out of all their lives.
And never came back.
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