Disclaimers: None. All of the characters are mine (although two of them may bear uncanny physical resemblances to two others you might recognize).
Violence/Sex: Some (brief) violence. There is, ultimately, after YEARS of dedicated reading, consensual sex between two people who may bear uncanny resemblances to two… well… you get the point.
Warning: This story does involve a consensual loving and sexual relationship between two adult women. If this offends you, is illegal where you live, or if you are underage—please consider another story selection.
Dedication : To all of you who are brave enough (and persistent enough) to read this, my first work of fiction. Bear with me and forgive me for any significant grammatical or literary transgressions— Jericho and I are both works in progress.
Special Thanks : To my best pal, writing dominatrix (she looks really cute in that meter maid costume, but can never make change), and Beta-reader—the FAMOUS JLynn (who told me it didn't suck). So if you think it does , please tell her instead of me. You will find her works of fiction posted at this site, too.
If you decide that you like it, however, write me— I'd like to know what you think. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Copyright Ann McMan, November 2010. All rights reserved. This story, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced without the prior express permission of the author, except for the purpose of personal enjoyment, provided that all disclaimers remain intact.
Jericho is complete, but will be posted in ten parts.
Jericho Part VI
The Charlottesville-Albemarle Airport was large enough to be served by express carriers for both United and US Airways. Its busy, general aviation center was home to several corporate jet fleets and two charter services. Maddie and Syd made the short flight from Richmond in less than 25 minutes—and Maddie was able to park her Cessna at Landmark Aviation's FBO, and arrange for an on-site rental car. They removed their bags from the airplane and stowed them in the trunk of the rental car as a precaution—since Maddie had not arranged for hangar space, due to the short duration of their stopover.
Syd had never been to Charlottesville, and she was enthralled with its beauty. Nestled in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, Charlottesville was an inspiring mix of old-world refinement and new-world innovation. The lush geography of the region, with its soaring Blue Ridge Mountain views and temperate climate, made it a haven for artists and writers—and the rich, cultural life of the area remained one of its greatest attractions. The city itself had been named for Princess Sophia Charlotte of Strelitz, wife of King George III—and its roots in history were rich and multifaceted. The sprawling University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1825, dominated the life and the commerce of the area—and its full-time residents still referred, deferentially, to the former president as Mr. Jefferson . As she and Maddie drove past the imposing red brick, Classical-style pavilions that formed the heart of the university campus, Syd began to regret that their time in the captivating city would be so short. She resolved to return for a longer visit later in the spring.
In short order, they arrived at the massive UVA Medical Center complex, and after parking in a garage the size of a small city, Maddie led them through a maze of tunnels to an information kiosk located near one of the hospital's numerous entrances. Once she deciphered directions to the diabetes and endocrinology unit, she turned to face Syd.
“How about we find you a nice lounge or coffee shop to wait while I check in with Dr. Gibson about Jake and see if any family members are here?” She handed Syd the keys to the rental car. “If it looks like I'll be tied-up for more than an hour, you can take the car and see some sights. I'll give you a call when it looks like I can shake loose, and we can head back to the airport.”
Syd took the keys, but shook her head at Maddie's unselfish suggestion. “If it's all the same to you, I'd rather just tag along.” She looked around them at the towering hospital complex. “Frankly, I'm afraid that if we separate, I'll never see you again. I promise not to get in your way—you can deposit me in the waiting room of the unit and I'll be just fine until you're through.”
Maddie looked dubious. “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely. The only other building I've ever been in that was this big was the Atlanta Ikea—and it took a pack of bloodhounds to rescue me.” She gestured toward the map. “Unless you've got a convenient stash of breadcrumbs in your purse, I'm not letting you out of my sight.”
Maddie smiled at her. “Okay, then—let's go and see if we can find this unit.” She glanced at the kiosk map again, and rolled her eyes. “With any luck, we might just make it by nightfall.”
Fifteen minutes and four banks of elevators later, they entered a long hallway that terminated at a large pair of stainless-steel doors. A blue and orange sign announced the entrance to the endocrinology unit. Syd noticed a visitor's waiting room just to the right of the entrance, and she touched Maddie on the elbow and pointed toward it. “You'll find me right there , she said, with determination. “I've got a book with me—but if that fails, I can always amuse myself by pouring over ten-year-old copies of Guideposts magazine.”
Maddie eyes were twinkling as she nodded at her. Then she pushed through the double doors, and went in search of the nurse's station.
When Syd entered the small waiting room, she noticed three other people in various stages of somnolence, sprawled across chairs with garish upholstery. There was a large wall-mounted TV set on in the corner but, thankfully, the volume had been turned off. It appeared to be tuned to the FOX News Channel, so Syd was especially grateful for the quietude.
She sat down in the chair that was closest to the hallway, and pulled a well-worn paperback copy of Jane Eyre out of her bag. Finding her place, she recalled that poor Jane had been in a lot of trouble when she last put the book down. She had fled her post as governess at Thornfield Hall and was wandering the countryside in search of—what? Comfort? Safety? Succor? Certainly not happiness—she had left her chances at finding that behind when she ran from her mounting passion for Mr. Rochester.
Lost in her absorption with the story, Syd was surprised when she heard Maddie's low voice next to her ear. “I always thought that St. John Rivers was an arrogant prick.”
Syd looked up, startled to see Maddie kneeling next to her chair. Glancing quickly at her watch, she realized that it had been nearly an hour since they parted.
“Well,” she said, closing her book, “we can't all be as fortunate in our rescuers as I was.”
Maddie dramatically stood up to her full height. “Damn straight! I bet I could totally kick his ass in a tire-changing contest.”
“You'll get no argument from me there,” Syd smiled as she stowed her book back inside her purse. “How did it go?”
Maddie's expression changed as she sat down next to Syd. “Not well,” she answered, grimly. “Jake has slipped into diabetic coma—Dr. Gibson isn't very optimistic. I talked with the family—his wife and daughter were in his room when I went in to see him.”
“Oh, Maddie—I'm so sorry. How are they holding up?”
“About like you'd expect. They've called the other family members—Jake's son and granddaughter should be arriving later this afternoon.”
“God.” She searched the doctor's face. “What do you want to do?”
Maddie shook her head. “There's not much I can do, except wait with them. I think—if you don't mind—I'll run you down to Jericho, then pop back up here for the evening. I haven't known Jake for very long, but he was a patient of my father's for many years. I think they feel a real connection to me because of that, and it might be helpful for them to have a friendly face on hand while they wrestle through this. It shouldn't be long—tonight or tomorrow morning at the latest.”
Syd searched her face. “Maddie, don't be ridiculous. I can drive back to Jericho tomorrow, if need be. For tonight, why don't we just find a place to stay near the hospital?” She held up her bag. “Jane and I will be fine on our own—you do what you need to do.”
Maddie thought briefly about arguing with her, but knew it would be pointless. Instead, she took Syd's hand in hers and warmly squeezed it. “You're a real pal, know that?”
“Not at all…I'm selfishly completing my self-guided ‘Civil War Battlefields of Virginia' tour. After this trip, I only have 143 to go.”
Maddie laughed out loud. “Oh really? ” Her blue eyes were twinkling as she looked at her. “And what do you get for all that effort?”
“Well,” Syd said, standing up, “at the rate I'm going, it seems I get a ready-made excuse to spend a lot more time with you.”
Maddie got to her feet as well, and steered them toward the nearest elevator. “Silly girl—you don't need an excuse for that.”
They left the hospital intending to find a hotel for the night, but on their way to the parking deck, they heard a voice loudly call out, “Dr. Stevenson!” Both women turned around to see a tall, slender man with silver hair approaching. He wore a starched white coat with the name Arthur Leavitt, M.D. embroidered over the front pocket. He quickly closed the short distance between them, and swept a stunned Maddie up into a bear hug.
“Maddoe,” he gushed into her hair. “I thought that was you. What on earth are you doing in Charlottesville?” He stepped back, but continued to hold on to her elbows.
Maddie's face was glowing. “Uncle Art! It's wonderful to see you! I'm here checking on a patient.” She gestured to Syd. “Let me introduce you to my good friend—and one of Jericho's newest residents—Syd Murphy. Syd, this is Arthur Leavitt—a very close friend of my family.” The two shook hands warmly.
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Leavitt,” Syd said as they shook hands.
“Please—call me ‘Uncle Art.' Any friend of Maddoe's is family to me!”
Syd decided that she liked the tall man. “Okay—Uncle Art.” He grinned at her.
“Art and my dad went to UVA and med school together,” Maddie explained, proudly.
Art smiled warmly at Syd. “That was about a thousand years ago—when this one,” he gestured at Maddie, “was just a gleam in her daddy's eye.” He turned back to face Maddie. “So how are you? How are you finding life back in the sticks?”
“It's challenging.” Maddie glanced over at Syd. “But it has its compensations.”
Art looked back and forth between the two women. “So I see.”
Syd felt a slow blush creep up her neck as Dr. Leavitt gave her an appraising once-over. He turned to address Maddie. “Are you two here for long? I'd love to see more of you and really get caught up.”
“Unfortunately, no. We really only intended to be here for an hour or two—but my patient is now in diabetic coma and is unlikely to last through the night. We thought we'd find a hotel room and head back to Jericho tomorrow.”
“A hotel? For tonight?” He looked dubious.
Maddie nodded. “Yeah.”
He sighed and shook his head. “You can kiss that idea goodbye, honey—this is alumni weekend at the university and there are about 12,000 drunken Cavaliers besieging the city. You won't find a room within spitting distance of Albemarle County tonight.”
Maddie expelled a long breath. “ Wah-hoo-wah ,” she muttered.
Art laughed at her. “Exactly.” He paused for a moment before continuing. “Well, as it happens, Uncle Arthur's Youth Hostel just might be able to accommodate you lovely young ladies for one evening. I have to work the graveyard shift tonight, anyway—so you'll have the place entirely to yourselves.” He raised a hand as Maddie opened her mouth to protest. “And don't even bother to say no. Your daddy would never forgive me if I let you stay elsewhere—and I would never forgive myself . ”
He pulled a key chain out of his pocket and unhooked a silver key. “Here you go, kiddo,” he said as he held it out to Maddie. “Do you remember how to find my place?”
Maddie glanced over at Syd in resignation, and sighed as she took the key. “I sure do. I don't know how to thank you for this—”
He cut her off. “Don't even go there. You go drop your things and give me a jingle in the ER when you get back to the hospital. I'll come and find you.” Turning his gaze to Syd, he smiled and held out his hand again. “It's been a real pleasure meeting you, Syd. I hope we'll get a better chance to chat over breakfast.”
He pulled Maddie into another quick hug. “The guest room bed is all made up—you should find everything you need.” As he turned away and headed toward the hospital entrance, he called over his shoulder, “Make yourselves at home!”
Syd stood, dumbly watching him depart. “Wow.” She raised her eyes to Maddie, who looked equally overwhelmed.
“You can say that again.” Maddie slowly shook her head. “See why he's chief of the ER here? He generally gets his way.”
Arthur Leavitt lived in an old Norcross Transfer Station warehouse that had been converted to luxury apartments about ten years ago. It was located in the heart of Charlottesville's historic distract, and was within walking distance of restaurants, galleries, and the city's downtown mall—which boasted dozens of high-end shops.
Leavitt's condo was on two levels, and had floor to ceiling windows that overlooked the city and its hazy, Blue Ridge Mountain backdrop. The view was dazzling.
Syd laid her garment bag across the back of a settee as she tried to take it all in. “God…I could get used to this.”
Maddie nodded as she walked toward the gourmet kitchen that was open to the main living area.
“Tell me about it.” She picked up the extra house key that hung on a peg by the phone and pocketed it, knowing she would need to return the original to its owner later when she went back to the hospital. She stood for a moment, leaning against a granite countertop. “I used to love it when dad and I came up here to visit—Art is a fabulous cook and a great storyteller. We'd stay up half the night, laughing and eating amazing meals that went on for hours.”
Syd smiled at her. “When did you see him last?”
“At dad's funeral.” She dropped her gaze. “It was a very difficult time—for all of us.”
They were quiet for a moment. “Then it's good you ran into him today.”
Maddie nodded slowly. “Yes, I guess it is.”
Syd walked toward a sideboard table that was filled with framed photographs. In one photo, a pretty, dark-haired child laughed from her perch on the shoulders of a tall man. His light-colored hair was wind-blown and his face looked open and happy. He was very handsome. They stood in front of a small airplane, and the little girl was wearing a pair of headphones that were sizes too large for her. Syd picked the picture up and studied it. “My god, Maddie—this is you , isn't it?”
Maddie waked over to stand just behind her. “Yep—in all my faded glory.” She squinted at the photo. “Looks like I was having a bad hair day.”
“Is this your father?”
Maddie's voice softened. “Yeah. That's him. This was taken on my seventh birthday—dad took me for my very first airplane ride. Uncle Art was there—and Celine, of course. I think she took this photo, in fact.”
“You were adorable.”
Maddie playfully bumped into her. “Whattaya mean I was adorable?”
Syd sighed and set the photo back into its place on the sideboard. “Forgive my oversight—I must have taken momentary leave of my senses.”
Maddie nodded with understanding. “I do tend to have that effect on women.”
Syd rolled her eyes and turned around to face her companion. “C'mon, Lothario—how about you show me the guest room so we can get our things out of Art's living room?”
“Of course. Follow me.” Maddie led Syd up a flight of open stairs to an expansive loft area that was at least half the size of the downstairs living space. It doubled as Art's home office and library, and its interior walls were lined with enormous, Craftsman-style bookcases. There were several colorful paintings—most were landscapes of the Shenandoah Valley region. Against the far wall, well away from the windows, stood a queen-sized platform bed.
Maddie looked at Syd shyly, and shrugged. “Here we go again.” Syd smiled at her. “Look, Syd…I'll bunk downstairs on the couch—who knows what time I'll get back in from the hospital tonight.”
Syd shook her blond head as she crossed the room. “Forget it, Stretch. You aren't going to sit up half the night and then come back here to try and cram that six-foot frame of yours onto a pint-sized love seat.” She pulled her book out of her bag and set it on the nightstand next to the bed. “Besides, Jane and I will sleep better if we know where you are.”
“How can I refuse an offer like that?”
“I can't imagine that you would even try.”
Maddie smiled and checked her watch. “It's just now 3:30—how about I run back over to the hospital for a bit, then come back by here and collect you around 6:00 for an early dinner?”
“That sounds great to me. Maybe we can finally have some time to talk about our evening with your mother.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “On the other hand—maybe I'll just sleep on a couple of chairs in that waiting room….”
“Nice try. You can't avoid the topic forever, you know.”
Syd crossed her arms.
“Okay, okay…we'll talk about it.”
Maddie gave her a crooked smile. “Do you want me to leave the car for you?”
Syd thought about that. “No—I don't think there's a thing I could need that I'd have to drive to find.”
Maddie handed her the extra house key. “Keep this so you can get back inside. I'll call you from the hospital if anything changes.” Syd nodded, and took the key. As Maddie was turning away, Syd grasped her forearm, and held onto it—stopping her from leaving. Maddie looked down at her with a confused expression.
Syd quickly stepped forward and kissed her softly on the cheek. “I think what you're doing for this family is wonderful—I'm glad I could be here with you.” She slowly released Maddie's arm and stepped back.
Maddie stood there for a moment without speaking, and then she gave Syd a small smile. “I'm glad you're here, too. See you in a bit.” She turned and walked down the stairs.
At 6:15, Syd's cell phone rang. It was Maddie.
“Syd? It's me. I'm sorry to be late—Jake died about 30 minutes ago. I've been here with the family. I just stepped out to call you.”
Syd's face fell. “Oh, god—I'm so sorry, Maddie.”
“I know.” There was a pause. “Look—I'll be here about another hour. Can you wait on me to eat?”
“Of course. Take your time—I'm not going anyplace.”
“Thanks. I'll see you soon.” She hung up.
Syd walked back out onto Art's patio and sat down facing the distant mountains. The sun was starting its slow descent—and the street below her hummed with energy, as pink and gold light reflected off a thousand windowpanes. Her heart went out to the Halsey family—and to Maddie, who she knew would not take the loss of a patient lightly. All in all, it had been an exhausting few days for the complex woman—and Syd was beginning to appreciate how difficult it was for Maddie to let her guard down. She held her emotions under tight regulation—and kept people at bay by wielding her extraordinary wit like a light saber. She guessed that the last thing Maddie would feel like doing tonight would be going back out in public—especially when going out meant fighting their way through the throngs of raucous university alumni who surely would be crowding every bar and bistro in the city. Absently, she watched a group of people on the street below laughing and carousing as they walked toward an outdoor café. Smiling, she picked up her cell phone and headed inside to find Art's telephone directory.
Maddie tapped on the door to Art's condo a few minutes before 7:30. As Syd opened the door, Maddie began to apologize for her lateness when she noticed that Syd was wearing faded jeans and a blue, oversized UVA sweatshirt. Her short, blond hair was tousled. She looked—adorable. Maddie drew her brows together as she looked her up and down. “When in Rome?” she asked, with exaggerated confusion.
Syd smiled. “No…I found the sweatshirt hanging in the guest room closet—I guess it's Art's version of the complimentary robe.” She pulled Maddie inside and closed the door. “You look like you're about ready to fall over.”
“I feel like it.”
“How are the Halseys?”
“Exhausted. In shock. They've gone home for the night.”
“How are you?”
Maddie's tired blue eyes met hers. “Glad to be here with you.”
Syd took her arm and led her outside to the patio. “Well sit down and take a load off. I picked up a nice bottle of wine on my little outing, and have it all ready for you.”
Maddie sighed happily as she sank onto a chaise and stretched her long legs out in front of her.
“When I grow up, I wanna be a doctor just like you.”
Syd smiled as she poured her a big glass of Sculpterra Petite Sirah . “Why like me?”
Maddie took the glass from her. “Because you get to prescribe the fun stuff.”
Syd filled her own glass and clinked rims with Maddie. “Here's hoping.”
Maddie took a sip and slowly rolled her head back against the chaise. “Now that doesn't suck.”
“You know, this might be a mistake. I don't know if you'll be able to get me up out of this thing to go in search of food.”
Syd sat down on a chair opposite her. “Hmmm. A conundrum. What's a girl to do?”
Maddie looked at her helpfully. “Call the local hose, hook and ladder company?”
“Nah. Too dramatic. I have a better idea.”
Maddie looked intrigued. “You do?”
“Yep. It's called the hot bar at Whole Foods Market. Even as we speak, our dinner reposes in the warming drawer of Art's overpriced Viking range.”
A slow smile crept across Maddie's face. “Have I told you lately that I love you?”
Syd batted her eyes. “Flatterer.” She stood up. “Why don't you go change into some more comfortable clothes? I'll get our dinner ready.”
Maddie changed into a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans, and walked downstairs to explore Art's impressive CD collection until she found something she liked. Strains of Puccini filled the air as she walked back toward the kitchen area to join Syd.
Syd was lighting a couple of oil candles that were artfully placed at various locations around the kitchen. She cocked her head to the side. “Is that opera?”
Maddie shrugged. “Yeah. Is that okay?”
Syd scoffed at her. “You ask that of a violinist?”
Maddie bowed her head. “A momentary lapse, borne of exhaustion.”
Syd returned the lighter to its basket on the countertop. “What is this? Puccini?”
Maddie refilled their wine glasses. “Uh huh. La Rondine —one of my favorites.”
Syd narrowed her eyes in thought. “ La Rondine . That means The Swallow —right?”
Maddie was impressed. “You know, you really could make a fortune on Jeopardy .”
Syd laughed. “No—I remember this one. It has that gorgeous soprano aria with the piano.”
“The Canzone di Doretta ?”
“Yes! I once heard Renée Fleming sing that in recital with the Baltimore Symphony. My god—it nearly stopped my heart.”
Maddie smiled at her. “Well—it's supposed to, isn't it? The story of a young woman whose entire life is transformed by a single kiss—what's not swoon-worthy in that?”
They both were silent for a moment.
Syd belatedly turned away and walked to the Viking to retrieve their warm dinner plates.
Syd did a better-than credible job cobbling a gourmet meal together with her Whole Foods assortments. They dined on rare slices of beef tenderloin with Bernaise sauce, asparagus and saffron risotto, and an arugula salad with tangy mango dressing. They sat at Art's bistro-sized kitchen table, finding it more appealing than the massive glass-topped dining table that dominated nearly a quarter of the downstairs living space.
Maddie was in transports over the meal. “I still can't believe you did all of this—god…it's wonderful.”
Syd smiled at her. “I'm glad you think so—you're eating like it's your last meal.”
Maddie nodded. “Well, if you'll recall—I didn't get to enjoy much of my Rhône Valley tour last night.”
“I recall.” Syd paused. “Celine didn't seem to eat very much, either.”
Maddie met her eyes. “Yeah. Next time we decide to do something like that, we should just hit a furniture store and sit around an empty table—it'd be a lot cheaper.”
Syd handed Maddie another small slice of herbed foccacia. “Do you think there might actually be a next time—or was that suggestion just another opportunity for wit?”
Maddie regarded her with interest. “Trying to figure me out?”
“You might say that. And may I add that your instruction manual reads like a bad translation of Proust.”
Maddie considered this. “Are there any good translations of Proust?”
“My point, exactly.”
They both laughed.
Syd sat back and pushed her plate away. “Okay, Doctor—your number officially is up .”
Maddie looked at her quizzically. “Did I just fold space and end up in line at a bakery?”
“Not even close.”
Maddie smiled. “Do you think it's too cold to go sit outside on the patio?”
Syd stood up. “There's one way to find out.” She walked through the kitchen and blew out the oil candles.
They picked up their wine glasses and walked across the living room to the large atrium doors that led out to Art's veranda. It was a lovely evening—unusually warm for mid March. Maddie sighed contentedly as she reclaimed her earlier spot and sprawled across the chaise. Syd sat across from her in another chair, and pulled its companion ottoman over so she, too, could prop up her feet. The two stared at each other in the semi-darkness. Sounds of laughter drifted up from the street below.
“So,” Maddie's low voice seemed to float on the night air. “You wanted to talk about last night?”
She sighed. “I guess so. I mean—it was all pretty surreal. For most of the evening, Celine was like someone I didn't even recognize.”
“Strange,” Syd began. “I had the opposite reaction. To me, she seemed so much like you that I sometimes had a hard time telling you apart.”
She could feel Maddie's eyes on her, even though she couldn't see them distinctly. “What do you mean by that?” Her voice sounded wary.
“I mean—that apart from some pretty astonishing physical similarities—the two of you have more in common than I expected.”
“Like?” Maddie sounded uncertain about the direction the conversation was taking.
“Like the fact that you're both uncommonly intelligent, witty to the point of distraction—and charming—when you choose to be. And the fact that neither of you is satisfied with the current state of your relationship. That much was perfectly clear to me.”
“You got all of that out of one, four-course meal?” She chortled. “Move over, Dr. Phil.”
“For once, try to be serious. Think you can manage that…for me?”
Maddie expelled a long breath. “I'll try. This isn't easy for me.”
“I know, Stretch.”
They were silent for a few moments.
“Okay,” Maddie said with resignation. “I admit that maybe I'm not as immune to Celine as I postured.” She paused. “And I'll also admit that, yes—it does still chap my ass that she walked out on us without even a backwards glance… and that she has never tried to apologize, or explain her actions. Ever .”
Syd reached over and laid a comforting hand on Maddie's ankle. “Boy…when you finally decide to open up, you don't mess around—do you?”
Maddie shook her head slowly. “Nuh uh. Be careful what you wish for—there's no going back once you open Pandora's box.”
“That might be true—but as I recall, the best thing in Pandora's box was hope.”
Maddie snorted. “Sure—and you got to it right after you fought your way through a litany of evils that stretched from here to Athens,” she hesitated, “or Los Angeles.”
“Well maybe the two of you made some progress along that road last night.”
“I wouldn't count on it.”
“Someday, I'd like to see the list of things you would count on.”
It was a moment before Maddie spoke. Syd could hear the smile in her voice. “It's short. Only has three items.”
“Care to enlighten me?”
“Sure.” Maddie held up her fingers, and didactically ticked the items off. “Number one: My dog. Science has shown that there is nothing known to man more trustworthy than a Golden Retriever. Number two: My unwavering belief in the indefatigability and resilience of the human spirit. Number three: You.” She paused. “That last one is a recent addition.”
Syd was glad the darkness hid her blush.
“And you know, I don't think I'm alone in my assessment—Celine seemed pretty taken with you.”
“Oh, I don't know…I think she was more taken with the idea of me—as your girlfriend.”
“Hard to argue with her about that.”
Syd waved her hand in frustration. “Are you just trying to make me blush—or is this some new alternative energy scheme you're using to light up the night sky?”
Maddie laughed at her. “You asked for it, Goldilocks! It wasn't my idea to parade in there like Ellen and Portia!”
“Oh, yeah? Well you didn't seem to have any problems warming to the idea, did you?”
“Hey—I'm only human. If a great looking woman chooses to lay one on me—I'm certainly not gonna ignore it.”
“Well thank god you did—I'd hate to think I've lost my touch at the ripe old age of 34.”
“Trust me,” Syd demurred. “Your reputation remains intact.”
They fell silent again, but were kept company by the lively sounds emanating from the street below.
They remained outside until they finished their wine.
Maddie tried, unsuccessfully, to stifle a yawn.
“Tired?” Syd asked, gently.
“Yeah. It's been a tough couple of days.”
“I know. Why don't you go get ready for bed? I'll clear away our dishes.”
Maddie swung her legs around and sat up. “Normally, I'd argue with you—but I'm really about ready to nod off.”
Syd stood up. “Go on ahead—I'll be up shortly.”
When Syd climbed the stairs a few minutes later, Maddie had already changed into her sleepwear and was safely tucked away under the covers on the extreme right edge of the bed. Syd laughed at her ridiculous position. “Think you'll be safe all the way over there?”
Maddie raised a sleepy eyebrow. “I thought I'd give this bed a fighting chance at retaining its virtue. Maybe it will fare better than the one in Richmond.”
Syd smiled to herself as she picked up her pajamas and headed for the bathroom. When she emerged, she thought Maddie was already asleep. Quietly, she turned off the light and climbed into the bed, being careful not to disturb the woman beside her. After a few minutes, she heard Maddie sigh.
“This'll never work.”
Syd turned her head to look at the doctor's profile, dimly outlined against the darker wall behind them. “What do you mean?” she asked, quietly.
“I'm trying too hard to keep vigilant over here: I'll never get to sleep at this rate.” She started to get up. “I think I should just go crash on the sofa.”
Syd put out a restraining hand. “No way. You're exhausted.” She pushed Maddie back down and, without ceremony, rolled over to stretch out half on top of her. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” she murmured.
Maddie was stunned. “What are you doing ?”
“Saving us each from a sleepless night. Don't worry,” she smiled against Maddie's neck, “we'll have lots of time to regret this when we get back to Jericho.”
Maddie slowly let out the breath she had been holding, and wrapped her arms around the smaller woman. “Speak for yourself, blondie.”
They both were sound asleep in minutes.
Lizzy Mayes had done a more than credible job holding down the fort at the clinic while Maddie was in Richmond—and during her unexpected detour to Charlottesville. For two years now, Maddie had worked in Jericho with little more than an occasional weekend off. Now, with the addition of a licensed nurse practitioner to her staff, she was allowing herself to grow giddy at the prospect of actually being able to take a vacation.
On Monday after their last appointments, Lizzy brought Maddie up to speed about the long weekend while they relaxed over coffee in Maddie's office.
“So Louise Halsey's hip is a lot worse—and I completely agree with your suggestion that she's a candidate for replacement surgery. She could barely walk when she came in here on Friday.” She smiled. “I told her that if she'd been a horse on my daddy's farm, he'd have shot her by now.”
Maddie laughed. “Now there's a novel approach. How'd she react?”
“It sure got her attention. I thought her husband was gonna drop his teeth into his spit cup.”
“Lizzy, if you can succeed in getting that woman to see a surgeon, I'll…” she looked around the room in search of some kind of premium to offer up, and settled on a small bronze trophy that sat on a shelf behind her desk. “I'll give you this coveted award from last year's Kiwanis 10K Fun-Run.” Maddie held it out to her.
Lizzy rolled her eyes. “Gee. Thanks. ” She took the hideous statuette and turned it over in her hands. “Gosh. First place.” She looked up at Maddie with exaggerated wonder. “There's a shocker.”
“Oh, shut up. It was hardly a competitive field—most of the other contestants were in wheel chairs.”
“I just bet.” Lizzy sat the trophy down on the desk. She leaned back in her chair and regarded the doctor quietly for a moment, tapping the side of her coffee mug in agitation.
“What is it?” Maddie asked.
“How…what do you know about Beau Pitzer?”
“What do you mean?” Maddie was curious. “In what sense?”
Lizzy shook her red head. “In any sense. He came by on Saturday morning while I was here by myself, making notes on the patients we had seen on Friday. I let him in because he said he had hurt his hand working on his truck—but he really seemed fine.” She scoffed. “Well— fine is maybe a relative term.” She met Maddie's eyes. “I don't know—something about him just really creeps me out. I felt the same way last week when I met him for the first time at the library.”
Maddie narrowed her eyes in concern. “Did he do or say anything inappropriate?”
“Not exactly. It's more just a feeling I have, you know?”
“Phoebe seemed unnerved by the way he was behaving around Syd—I wondered if she had ever mentioned anything about that to you.”
Maddie raised her eyebrows. “Syd? No—she's never mentioned anything to me about that. What did Phoebe say?”
Lizzy shrugged. “I dunno—just that she was concerned about how he was looking at her. And she seemed to think that he was spending a lot of time hanging around the library.” She paused. “I don't want to be unfair—there was just something unnerving about him.”
“I can understand that. He's had some difficulties in the past.”
Maddie nodded. “Yes. I can't say that I'm very happy about him showing up here on a Saturday like that—not when he knows the clinic is closed.” She was thoughtful. “Do you think I should talk with him?”
Lizzy was surprised. “You'd do that?”
The doctor's blue eyes were unwavering. “In a heartbeat.”
Lizzy shook her head. “No—no, I think it's okay for now. I just wanted to mention it to you—as much for Syd's sake as my own. I thought you should be aware of it.”
It occurred to Maddie to wonder why Lizzy assumed that she had such a proprietary interest in Syd's affairs—but she was too concerned about the content of her observations to worry about the style of her delivery. She resolved to check out the substance of Lizzy's—and Phoebe's—observations with Syd later that evening when she left the clinic.
It had been a busy day in the library. When Roma Jean showed up to work that afternoon, she had prepared Syd for an onslaught of after-school activity. Spring break was only a week away, and mid-term deadlines were looming at the high school. Starting at 2:30, the tiny branch had quickly filled-up with teenagers, all hell-bent on completing their frenzied research for papers on topics that ranged from Shakespeare to climate change. One enterprising (and, by Syd's definition, confused) patron, even had a thesis that sought to relate Shakespeare to climate change—and helping him run down credible sources for that project was not an enviable task.
The study tables in the library were filled with students, and Syd was grateful that her nemesis—the photocopier—was cooperating for once. The machine had been running more or less continuously since 3:00. The mechanical sound of its scanning carriage rolling back and forth filled the air like a monotonous soundtrack—playing at a steady, low-volume behind the chatter and laughter that filled the facility.
By 6:00, activity had slowed to a crawl as the teens left to head for home or other evening commitments. Syd was on her way back to the circulation desk to relieve Roma Jean, who needed to leave to meet Jessie and some other band friends for dinner at Pizza Hut. She heard the branch phone ring, and Roma Jean's programmed “Jericho Public Library” response, before there was a thud and the sound of books toppling to the floor. Rounding the corner in concern, Syd saw Roma Jean on her knees, hastily trying to stack a scattered pile of returned books, and brandishing the telephone receiver like a hot poker. She blushed when she saw Syd, and meekly held the phone up toward her.
“I dropped it—I'm sorry.” She lowered her eyes. “It's for you.” She stood up and hastily set the stack of books down on top of the desk and ducked past Syd as she handed her the phone. “Bye, Miss Murphy. See you on Wednesday.”
Shaking her head, Syd lifted the phone to her ear. “Hello—this is Syd.”
“Well, hey there.” It was Maddie. “You know, it occurs to me that someone could make a fortune studying the peculiar gravitational characteristics of our public library.”
Syd smiled. “Meaning?”
“Meaning that things always seem to be falling around there.”
“Uh huh. I could point out that this phenomenon only seems to occur when you're around—so I think you'd make a better research subject.”
Maddie laughed. “Nobody would pay good money to study my sorry ass.”
“Is this why you called me?” Syd asked, sweetly. “To engage in a lively debate about the merits of your ass?”
“Hmmm. No. But hearing your thoughts on the subject would provide me with a certain amount of vicarious enjoyment.”
“I'm sorry. If you want me to talk dirty to you, you'll have to call back after 6:30—the library is still open right now, and I can't tie up this line.”
Maddie sighed. “So close—and yet so far away.”
Syd laughed. “You are such a nut-job. What's going on?”
“Nothing much. I suddenly realized that I had gone almost an entire day without talking to you.” She paused. “I didn't like it.”
“I know what you mean. It's hard to get back into this daily grind. You'd think we had been away a lot longer than three days.”
“You got that right.”
Syd could hear wind noise in the background. “Where are you?”
“In my car.”
“Oh.” She suddenly felt disappointed. “On your way home?”
“Noooooooo…on my way to Wytheville to pick up some MRI results at the hospital. I thought I'd grab dinner over there, and wondered if you'd like to join me? And I completely understand if you feel that you need an evening by yourself.”
“Think I'm tired of you?”
“Well, let's just say I didn't want to make any assumptions.”
“Hmmm.” She glanced at her watch. “I suppose I could endure your company for another evening. Do you want to pick me up here? I'll be closing up in about ten minutes.”
“Works for me! See you in ten minutes.” Maddie hung up, and Syd smiled to herself as she began to prepare the library for closing.
An hour later, the two women were seated in a booth at McGinty's Pub, sipping on Pellegrino and talking about their first days back at work. Syd noted with irony that they were seated in the same booth she had shared with Jeff during their ill-fated conversation several months ago. She was relieved to see that their plucky server “Randi” was nowhere in sight.
Maddie relaxed against the padded backrest and stretched her long legs out beneath the table.
“If I kick you, just let me know and I'll move my legs.”
Syd raised her eyebrow. “No way. You kick me—and I'll kick you back .”
Maddie pretended to pout. “That's not very sporting.”
“Well, neither is kicking me.”
“You do understand that I wouldn't be doing this on purpose?”
“Uh huh.” Syd ducked her head to see the doctor's long legs extended diagonally across the cramped space beneath their table. She was instantly reminded of Saturday night, and the cab ride after their emotionally charged dinner with Celine. She quickly sat back up and looked into her companion's amused blue eyes, trying hard not to blush. Maddie's legs were becoming too much of a leitmotif to suit her. In fact, it wasn't just her legs: Maddie's sheer physicality was becoming too much of a distraction—especially after the events of the weekend. As they continued to stare at one another, she wondered whether Maddie shared any of her consternation about the confusing turns their relationship had taken over the long weekend. She knew that she didn't yet feel confident enough to ask.
Maddie's low voice broke the silence. “Something on your mind?”
Syd shrugged. “Not really. Why do you ask?”
“I dunno—you seem distracted. Edgy, even.”
“A little. Yeah.”
Syd looked around the restaurant. It was surprisingly busy for a Monday night. She could see that several of the bar TV sets were tuned to the same basketball game. The NCAA Tournament was in full swing, and Virginia Tech had managed to stay alive through the first two rounds. Syd was fairly certain that, wherever he was, her brother Tom was staked-out in front of a TV. She looked back at Maddie, who was regarding her with a curious expression.
“Are you really a basketball fan?”
Maddie didn't seem surprised by the irrelevant question. She glanced over at the bank of TVs that hung at various angles around the bar area. “Sometimes. I don't get to watch many of the games, though. And Stanford is really better-known for the strength of its women's basketball program.”
“I forgot about that.” She smiled. “I bet you have to keep a low profile whenever they play Carolina or Tennessee.”
Maddie laughed. “Oh, honey—you have no idea. I usually have to hide my diploma during March Madness.”
Maddie's casual use of the endearment caused a thrill to race across her body—and Syd was annoyed by the involuntary response. The doctor was just being relaxed and friendly, and Syd was overreacting to everything. She knew that the only difference between her behavior and Roma Jean's was the fact that she hadn't knocked anything over—yet.
She resolved to make another attempt at safe conversation.
“So—was your first day back at work as busy as mine was?”
Maddie shook her heat. “Surprisingly, no. Lizzy managed everything without incident. I don't think they missed me at all.”
“Well, I doubt that's the case.” She smiled at her. “But it is good news that you can be confident about Lizzy's ability to manage things while you're away. Maybe that means you might actually be able to take some time off now and then.”
Maddie lifted her glass of Pellegrino. “A-men to that, sister.”
Their server arrived to deposit the two large chicken salad platters they'd ordered. Each was garnished with fresh fruit and a spiced muffin. Syd dug into hers immediately.
“Did you miss lunch?” Maddie asked with amusement.
“Um hmmm.” Syd swallowed. “It's term paper time—I pretty much went full-tilt boogie all afternoon.”
“Lots of patrons?” Maddie asked, picking up her fork.
“Yeah—the place was crawling with them. I wouldn't have been able to manage without Roma Jean.”
“Beau Pitzer around?”
Syd broke off a bite-sized piece of her muffin. “Beau? Yeah—he was there this morning to look over the online job postings. Why do you ask?”
Maddie's response seemed guarded. “Lizzy said something about him that concerned me. Something about how much he was hanging around the library—she said that Phoebe had noticed it. And then Beau showed up at the clinic on Saturday morning while it was closed and Lizzy was there alone. She found his demeanor to be pretty—creepy.”
Syd set her fork down. “Wait a minute. Lizzy and Phoebe were discussing how much Beau was coming into the library?”
Syd was bothered by the admission, and had difficulty disguising it. “I don't see why they'd have any particular concerns about that. It's a public place—he has a right to be there.” She slowly shook her head. “I'm not sure how much I like hearing that I'm a topic of conversation in this way.”
Maddie leaned forward. “Hold on—it's not like that at all.”
Syd crossed her arms. “It isn't? Okay, then tell me what it is like.”
Maddie seemed confused by her agitation. “Look—I don't see why you're so bent out of shape about this. Beau is a known-quantity and, like it or not, he's got a less-than-admirable track record around here. It's reasonable for them to be concerned about you.”
“I'm not a novice at this, Maddie—give me some credit. Maybe you all need to remember the meaning of the ‘public' part of public library. I don't get to pick and choose who gets to use our services—and I sure won't deny access to someone just because your new Florence Nightingale thinks he's creepy .”
Maddie sat back and held out a hand, palm-first. “Okay. Let's dial this back a little bit.” She waited until Syd assumed a less defensive posture. “I'm tempted to ask you why you're so angry—but I don't think I will. Not right now, anyway.” She hesitated a moment before continuing, and seemed to choose her words carefully. “I never meant to offend you, and I certainly never meant to suggest that you wouldn't have the sense or the wherewithal to manage Beau if his behavior ever did become a problem. Lizzy felt that his behavior toward her was vaguely threatening on Saturday. Based on what Phoebe shared with her previously, she was worried about you. That was it.”
Syd chewed the inside of her cheek. “So why didn't Lizzy just talk with me herself? Why did she tell you?”
Maddie shrugged. “I don't know the answer to that. I have to admit that I asked myself the same question.” She met Syd's eyes. “Is that what you're angry about? The fact that she talked to me about this, instead of you?”
Syd felt her face grow hot. She knew it would be pointless to try to deny the truth: her blush would give her away. She lowered her eyes and stared at the tabletop. “Yeah. I guess so.”
When Maddie spoke again, her voice was soft. “Why does that offend you?”
Syd shook her head. “Because I'm not a child . Jeff was exactly the same way—always trying to legislate everything for me—never trusting me to make my own determinations about anything .” She looked up and met Maddie's eyes. “I'm not a piece of property, and I don't need to be protected or taken care of.”
Maddie seemed to bite back her initial response, and sat quietly for a few moments. Finally, she gave Syd a small smile. “Okay. I'll try to unhitch the steamroller that's tethered to my ass.”
Syd was unable to suppress a laugh at that, and she felt some of the tension leave her body. “So, we're back to discussing your ass?”
Maddie made an elaborate show of twisting around to try and examine her derriere. “So it seems.” She sighed dramatically and sat back up. “One way or another, things always come back to my butt. It's a curse.”
“I don't know about that.” Syd gave her an appraising look. “There are worse places to end up.”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “Oh, that remark deserves a drum roll and cymbals.”
Syd picked up her fork and speared a cherry tomato. “So does your butt.”
“If I didn't know better, I'd say you were flirting with me.”
“Didn't we just establish that you don't always know better?” She popped the tomato into her mouth.
Maddie looked a bit shell-shocked. “Did I miss a few lines of dialogue here?”
“Having some trouble keeping up?”
“Apparently.” She sat back and stared at Syd in amazement. “You go from zero, to pissed-off to—whatever this is—in, like, ten seconds.” She slowly shook her head. “What are we talking about, exactly?”
Syd relented as she met the doctor's confused blue eyes. “I'm sorry. I'm just toying with you—probably trying to get even.” She reached across the table and rested her hand on top of Maddie's. “I didn't really mean anything by it. I'm just being a brat.” She squeezed her hand. “Forgive me?”
Maddie sighed. “You were just kidding?”
Maddie held her gaze. “Bummer.”
They sat in silence for a moment, and then Syd belatedly withdrew her hand.
“So,” Maddie cleared her throat. “You're not mad any more?”
“Good. So I can ask you something?”
“What is it?” Syd eyed her with suspicion.
Embarrassed, Syd raised a hand to her forehead.
Maddie chuckled. “Where in the hell did that come from?”
“God, I'm sorry.” She lowered her hand. “I guess I was jealous.”
Maddie looked surprised. “Of Lizzy?”
Syd shrugged. “Yeah.”
“Why on earth would you be jealous of Lizzy?”
Syd waved her hand in frustration. “Maybe because you seemed to value her perspective more than mine? I don't know…it's not rational. I can't explain it in a way that will make sense to either of us.”
“But you don't dislike her?”
“Lizzy?” Maddie nodded. “God, no! I like her a lot —I'm thrilled that she's working with you—honest.” She shook her head. “I'm such an idiot.”
“Well, I wouldn't say that—but I'm glad you don't dislike Lizzy.”
“You really do value her, don't you?”
“Yes, I do—but not as much as I value you.”
Syd was embarrassed. “It's not a contest.”
“No, it isn't.” Maddie held her gaze. “And, Syd?”
“It won't ever be.”
Syd lowered her eyes. Her heart was now hammering so hard she was certain that Maddie could hear it over the din in the bar. “Maybe I was,” she said quietly.
“Maybe you were what?”
“Maybe I was flirting with you.”
When she finally had the courage to raise her eyes, she saw Maddie looking back at her with a stunned expression. Before either of them could speak, their server arrived to deposit their check. He noticed their untouched salads with surprise.
“Is your food alright?” he asked with concern.
Maddie looked up at him. “It's fine—we're just taking our time.”
“Do you want a couple of to-go boxes?” he asked.
Maddie looked over at Syd. She shook her head. “No, we're fine. Turns out we weren't as hungry as we thought we were.” Maddie handed him her credit card and he smiled before walking off.
Syd knew that her emotions were all over the map, and that she was rapidly digging herself deeper into a hole she couldn't climb out of. But part of her didn't care anymore. She was tired of trying to pretend that nothing was happening. It was dishonest and it wasn't fair to Maddie—who just seemed confused by her erratic behavior.
“I guess I owe you an explanation for that,” she said.
“You don't owe me anything,” Maddie replied. “But I'd like to understand what's got you so rattled.”
Syd looked down at her hands and the napkin she had twisted into a knot. She slowly smoothed the fabric out across her lap, then folded it and placed it on top of the table. “Want to get out of here?”
Maddie nodded. “Let me get my credit card back, and we'll leave. Any place in particular you want to go?”
Syd dumbly shook her head. She saw their waiter approaching from the bar area.
“Okay,” Maddie said. “We'll figure something out.”
Maddie drove them back toward Jericho and impulsively turned off the highway at a public boat landing near the river. Syd had been mostly silent on the drive, but looked over at Maddie when they made the turn-off for the river.
“Should I be worried?” she asked. “This looks pretty desolate.”
“Well, you once said that we needed to have more conversations in the dark—and at least this will be more private than the restaurant.”
Maddie parked the Jeep near a couple of picnic tables. She reached behind their seats and picked up a long-handled flashlight. “And if you feel threatened, you can always hit me with this.” She handed it to Syd.
Syd took it from her. “I don't want to hit you.”
“That's comforting to hear. I was beginning to wonder.”
“Think it's warm enough to sit outside?”
“C'mon—let's try it. I have a blanket we can sit on.”
Syd smiled. “The infamous blanket. Tell me—do you just cruise this river road looking for wayward women to rescue?”
Maddie raised an eyebrow. “ Wayward is not a term I would apply to you—but then, the night is young.”
“You didn't answer my question.”
“I know. You don't expect me to give up all my secrets, do you?”
Syd shrugged. “Why not? I seem poised to surrender most of mine.”
They were silent for a moment. Maddie unclipped her seatbelt. “In that case, we'll definitely need the blanket.”
Syd followed suit and opened her door. “Wiseass.”
They got out and walked over to a table near the water's edge. Maddie spread the blanket out on the weathered top boards so they could sit facing the river with their feet resting on the bench. The night air was cool but not cold, and there was a gentle breeze blowing toward them from the opposite bank. The moon was nearly full, and its white light made random patterns on the inky surface of the water as it slowly drifted by. Maddie could see a pyramid of fresh-looking cigarette butts on the ground near the base of their table—clearly, they weren't the first people to sit there that evening.
Syd's voice broke the silence. “So, when did you know?”
Maddie glanced over at her. “When did I know what?”
Syd was looking out across the river. “When did you know that you were gay?”
“Oh.” Maddie felt her heart rate quicken. “God. I don't know. In high school, maybe? I had a decidedly un-platonic attachment to my track coach. I thought at first that maybe it was just because my relationship with Celine was so crappy—but that's not what it was. By the time I went to college, I was pretty sure that the normal dating scene wasn't really for me.”
“But you dated boys?”
“Oh, yeah. I gave ‘em the old college try.” She laughed. “Quite a few of them, in fact. I didn't actually date another girl until my senior year at Stanford.” She looked over at Syd again. “I guess you'd call me a late bloomer.”
Syd snorted. “You call that late? What were you—19?”
“More like 20. And remember that my primary point of reference for embracing my sexuality was David. So, yeah—20 seemed late.”
“David came out early?”
Maddie looked at her with disbelief. “You're kidding me, right? I'm pretty certain he emerged from the womb belting out Judy Garland tunes.”
Syd smiled and playfully bumped Maddie's shoulder. They sat in silence for another minute. Off in the distance, they could hear the whinny of an Eastern Screech Owl. Maddie anxiously wondered where Syd was headed with this train of thought. Given her recent yo-yo like behavior, she wasn't sure she'd find out any time soon.
Syd's voice broke the silence between them again. “Michael said that it didn't change anything.”
Maddie was confused. “What didn't change anything?”
“Being gay. He told me that it didn't change anything about who you are. He said that it's all pretty simple—and that once you figure it out, you either decide to accept it or not.”
Maddie felt her pulse beginning to race again. “Is that what he said?”
“Care to tell me why he told you this?” she asked, softly.
Syd finally turned to face her. “Why do you think?”
Maddie stared at her mutely. Syd's expression was unreadable. Her question hung in the air between them. Maddie knew she had to say something, but any response that came to mind seemed too charged with meaning. She felt more petrified than excited. She was tired of hiding—but she was also afraid of revealing too much. She slowly shook her head.
“I really have no idea.”
Syd tilted her head to the side as she continued to regard her. “You don't?”
“Okay.” She leaned forward, closing the distance between them. “Then maybe this will help explain it.”
Maddie was stunned when Syd's lips pressed against hers. She sat there rigidly with her eyes wide open, but as Syd continued the contact, she slowly relaxed into the embrace, raising her hands to rest on the smaller woman's arms. She was careful not to push her away or pull her closer. As the pressure of Syd's lips against hers became more determined, she felt lightheaded—tightening her handhold simply to hold herself upright. When Syd finally backed away, they both were breathing unevenly. Syd's eyes looked glassy. She leaned forward again—and this time, Maddie met her halfway. Syd moaned and parted her lips as they surged together. Maddie gasped and tugged her closer when she felt the first tentative touch of Syd's tongue on hers. The contact was electric—the kiss becoming deeper and more consuming as they explored each other. Syd's hands were now on Maddie's face, pulling her even closer as they continued to kiss.
Finally, they broke apart—each taking rapid breaths as they gazed through the darkness at one another.
When she could find her voice, Maddie whispered. “Yeah—that helped.”
Syd leaned forward to rest her head against Maddie's shoulder. “I thought it might.”
Maddie held her in silence for few moments. “I guess this means we're actually going to have that chat about Richmond?”
She felt Syd smile against her neck. “I tried to tell you that you couldn't avoid it forever.”
“Well you sure found one hell of a persuasive way to get your wish.”
Syd sat back and met her eyes. “I just couldn't hide it any more. It was ridiculous —to keep pretending that nothing was happening…that this wasn't happening.” She raised her hands and held Maddie's face between her warm palms. “I couldn't keep lying to you—or to myself.”
Maddie turned her head and kissed the inside of Syd's hand. “I know. I know.” She let out a slow breath. “What now?”
Syd gazed at her in wonder. “You're asking me this question? My god—you're the expert. I have no idea.”
Maddie smiled at her. “Well, I'd be lying if I didn't say that one or two things occur to me immediately—but I'm really more concerned about you and your comfort level with all of this.”
Syd laughed nervously. “I really appreciate that. In all honesty, I'm not sure about anything right now.” She slowly ran the fingers of her right hand across Maddie's lips. “Well—that's not entirely true. I'm pretty sure about one thing: that's the second best kiss I've ever had.”
“The second best?” Maddie raised an eyebrow. “When was the first?”
“Outside Celine's hotel in Richmond.”
“Oh.” Maddie smiled shyly. “Yeah. Me, too.”
Syd looked incredulous. “You, too?”
“Of course. Do you think I'm a block of wood, or something?”
Syd leaned back and looked her up and down. “No…I can honestly say that nothing about you resembles a block of wood.”
“Is that a compliment?”
Maddie smiled smugly. “Cool.”
“God.” Syd shook her head. “What am I doing?”
“You mean besides freaking both of us out?”
“I don't know, Syd. And I won't know until you do—so I think we need to take our time and not rush into anything you may not be ready for.”
“What are you ready for?”
Maddie hesitated. “I'm ready for whatever you want to give me.” She looked down at their tangle of hands. “I guess it's pretty obvious that I'm attracted to you. Even though I've tried—I don't think I've done the best job trying to conceal that.”
“What if I don't want you to conceal it?”
Maddie smiled at her. “Well, that's kind of a moot point now, isn't it? But as much as I want this, I think we need to take it slow so you can be sure about your own feelings.”
Syd leaned into her and Maddie wrapped her in both arms. “God—thank you for that. I'm so confused.”
“I know you are. It's okay. This isn't a race—you don't have to hurry. We don't have to hurry.”
Syd tightened her arms around the taller woman. “Michael said the same thing.”
“Yeah.” She turned her face into Maddie's neck and took a slow, deep breath. “God—you smell so good .”
Maddie closed her eyes and let the sensation wash over her. “Right back atcha.”
Syd lifted her head and met Maddie's eyes. “Can we kiss some more? Before we start all the reality checks?”
Maddie brushed her lips across Syd's and felt the unmistakable hitch in her breathing. “Before, during, and after—if you want.” They kissed again, slower this time.
When they separated, Syd whispered breathlessly, “I want.”
They spent the better part of an hour sitting by the river, but they didn't do much talking. When the growling of Syd's stomach grew louder than any of the other ambient night noises, it became clear to them that they needed to make progress toward home. It was a weeknight, and they both had early mornings ahead. When they arrived back at the library, Syd insisted that Maddie accompany her inside long enough to eat a quick sandwich before heading back to her farm. Maddie expressed initial reluctance at this idea, thinking that it probably wasn't the best idea for the two of them to be alone in Syd's apartment—but Syd told her they both were big girls, and should be able to handle it.
“Big girls,” Maddie said, looking her over. “Therein lies the problem.”
Syd swatted her on the arm. “Quit looking at me like I'm some kind of appetizer.”
Maddie raised an ironic eyebrow.
Syd blushed. “Oh, good god—let's just get inside .”
Once they were upstairs in the tiny apartment, Syd set about raiding her refrigerator to see what kind of makeshift meal she could pull together. Maddie took off her jacket and nervously paced around the living room.
“Maddie—will you please light someplace? You're buzzing around like a gnat.” Syd walked back to the fridge. “How about a glass of wine? Will that settle you down?”
Maddie sighed and dropped down onto the sofa. “I don't think a lobotomy would settle me down right now.” She sat tapping her fingers against the edge of the sofa cushion.
Syd laughed. “Is that a ‘yes' or a ‘no' to the wine?” She held up the bottle.
“Oh—that's a ‘yes.' A big one.”
“Coming right up.” Syd poured her a generous glass and walked over to hand it to her. When Maddie reached up to take the glass, their eyes met. Mistake number one , Syd thought, as she felt an undeniable surge of arousal. Maddie's blue eyes were hypnotic. Syd bypassed her outstretched hand and set the glass down on the end table. Maddie had taken hold of her free hand and was gently pulling her down. Syd gave in to the pressure and bent forward at the waist to kiss her. Mistake number two . An innocent peck quickly became two, then three—each kiss slightly longer in duration. Before she had time to consider what she was doing, Syd had straddled Maddie's lap and they were kissing deeply. Short-circuiting mistake number three, before it could become mistake number four, Maddie pulled back. She was breathing heavily.
“See why I told you this was a bad idea?” she husked.
Syd leaned forward and slowly trailed her lips along Maddie's hairline. “You did?” She continued to kiss her, making steady progress around the side of her face. “Tell me again why this is bad?' she asked, her breath hot against Maddie's ear.
Maddie moaned, but somehow managed to dislodge her earlobe from Syd's mouth.
“Because it's too fast .” She gently maneuvered Syd so that she slid off her lap and sat down on the cushion beside her—but she kept hold of both of her hands. “As much as I want this—as much as I want you right now—I want us to do this right , Syd.”
Syd tilted her head as she regarded her. “Were we about to do it wrong ?”
Maddie laughed nervously. “Well—maybe not that part.”
Syd smiled at her shyly. Her heart rate was beginning to resume a normal rhythm. “How can you be so strong?”
Maddie sighed. “Trust me—I'm hanging on by a thread here. It's only because I want this so much—want you so much—that I want us to take our time and be sure it's right. I've made too many mistakes in the past—and I don't want that to happen with you.” She leaned forward and kissed Syd softly on the forehead. “It's too important. This time, it's too important.”
Syd nodded. “Okay. I understand.” She sat back against the cushion and absently ran her thumb around in circles across the back of Maddie's hand. “But it has to be a good sign, right?”
“What has to be a good sign?”
Syd met her eyes. “Maddie, I was just about ready to tear your clothes off. I think that must mean that I've made some progress in my journey of self-discovery.”
Maddie let out a long, slow breath. “You're really trying to kill me, aren't you?”
Syd leaned forward until their faces were centimeters apart. “No—I think I want to keep you alive a little while longer.” She gave her as innocent a peck as she could manage, and sat back with determination. Then she stood up and reached out a hand. “Come on—let's make something to eat. We can sit on opposite sides of the table if we need to.”
Maddie stood up and snagged her wine glass off the end table. “Maybe we should've brought the flashlight inside with us.”
“Why?” Syd teased. “Planning on losing something in the dark?”
Maddie rolled her eyes. “No—but you certainly seem determined to.”
“I've always been a fast learner.”
“I'm beginning to realize that.”
Syd stopped and leaned slightly toward her, but Maddie took a step back. She sighed. “The table?”
Maddie nodded. “ Opposite sides.”
“I never knew you were so strict.”
“You have no idea.”
“You know, there are about a hundred quick responses I could make to that revelation—but most of them involve items from the Babeland catalog.” Syd began ferrying sandwich items from the counter to her small kitchen table.
When Maddie looked at her in surprise, Syd laughed. “Yes—we have David to thank for that. It appears that I've been added to their mailing list. It's the birthday gift that keeps on giving.”
“You can say that again.” She looked thoughtful. “In fact, I'm fairly certain there are a couple of items in their inventory guaranteed to make you say that again—and again .”
Maddie shook her head. “You're really starting to scare me. I don't know whether I should ravish you—or run like hell.”
“Do I get a vote?”
Maddie deliberated for a moment, then nodded.
They stared at each other. It occurred to Syd that they spent a lot of time staring at each other.
Maddie finally spoke. “Okay, I won't. But you have to help me with this, Syd. I can't be strong for both of us.”
Maddie's blue eyes reflected the intensity of her plea. Syd sat down opposite her and gripped the sides of the table with both hands. “Okay. I'm sorry. I'll try .” She sighed deeply and bit her bottom lip. “If I promise you that I won't get up or move my hands, will you let me kiss you again?”
Maddie gave her a small smile. “Could I stop you?”
Syd's voice was a whisper. “If you really wanted to.”
“I don't want to.”
“Well, thank god.” Syd leaned across the table and Maddie met her halfway. They exchanged a short succession of kisses that started innocently enough, but rapidly progressed to passionate when Maddie parted her lips and Syd felt the first, fleeting touch of her tongue. Then all bets were off as Syd began devouring her mouth—still tightly gripping the edges of the table. Their lips and tongues were their only points of contact as they touched, teased, and twisted together in an elaborate pantomime of what their bodies wanted. It was all too heady—too intense. She knew they had to stop—that she was losing control. But she had never felt anything like this before—this rush of heat and arousal that overwhelmed her senses, and laid waste to her better judgment. Maddie was intoxicating, and Syd licked and probed at her mouth like a crazed addict who was finally getting her first real fix.
In a desperate fit of self-control, she tore her mouth away and tipped her head back, taking urgent breaths. Maddie immediately shifted her attention to her throat—and began kissing her way down toward her collarbone.
“Stop,” Syd gasped. “Oh, god—we have to stop .”
Maddie dropped her forehead to Syd's shoulder. She was breathing deeply, too. “I know. I'm sorry.”
“It was my fault.”
“No. Not this time.” She sat up and pushed back onto her chair. “I think I should leave.”
Syd looked at her anxiously. “I don't want you to leave.”
“Trust me—I don't want to leave, either. But I think I need to.” She gave her a crooked smile. “We can talk tomorrow.”
Syd dropped her chin to her chest. “Okay—I know you're right.” She raised her eyes to Maddie's. Let me at least make you a sandwich for the road—it won't take a second.”
Maddie nodded her assent, and Syd quickly pulled the items together and wrapped them up in a small bag. Maddie stood up shakily and pulled on her leather jacket. Syd walked with her to the door and handed her the paper bag. Maddie took the bag, and then pulled her into a warm hug. They stood there by the door for a full minute, tightly wrapped-up in each other's arms. Neither of them spoke. Then Maddie pulled back, kissed Syd lightly on the forehead, and turned to walk quickly down the stairs. Syd stood rooted to the spot feeling dazed and lightheaded as she listened to Maddie's retreating footsteps. When she heard the street door open and close, she turned back into her small apartment, wondering if she had any more Cheetos.
Maddie wasn't sure how she made the drive back to her farm. Her mind was in a daze, and her body was on overload from too much stimulation. She had already been drifting in a state of angst and confusion from the events of the weekend—and, tonight, Syd's revelation had slammed the gears of their blossoming relationship into some kind of hyper-drive. It was exhilarating and stultifying in nearly equal measure. She needed time to take it all in and to make sense of it—and she needed to find a way to calm herself down so she could think clearly.
She entered her house and quickly fixed Pete's dinner, then carried it and her sandwich out to the front porch. She knew she wasn't likely to get much sleep, so she decided to take advantage of the warmer evening and settle down in one of the big Adirondack chairs that overlooked the pond. Pete inhaled his bowl of food and promptly passed out at her feet. Maddie watched him with envy, wishing she could be so lucky. She had poured herself another glass of wine, and sat sipping it as she tried to talk herself into a state of calm she did not feel.
There was no denying that she was happy—even euphoric—over the amazing turn their relationship had taken. She had been beating back her romantic feelings for Syd for so long now that it felt illicit and unnatural to acknowledge them—much less act on them. Even after the events of this evening, there was a part of her that felt guilty to be indulging her thoughts so freely. But Syd had effectively blown all of those best intentions wide open with one simple kiss.
She smiled to herself. Simple was hardly an accurate way to describe it. She was still woozy from the after-effects of their intimate contact—woozy, and incredibly turned-on. My god—the woman can kiss. I don't know how I got out of there without taking her to bed. God knows—I wanted to .
She knew that a big part of her immediate agitation derived from their truncated physical interaction. They both wanted more—that much was clear. The depth of Syd's passion surprised her. It was clear that once she decided to embrace her attraction to another woman, she was going to be relentless in her exploration of it. Maddie closed her eyes as she relived the sensation of Syd's mouth moving against hers. The determined touch of her lips. Her tongue. Jesus.
She'd gone too long without this kind of contact—that much was clear. But even allowing for her recent dearth of sexual interaction, she'd never experienced the kind of total sensory explosion she'd had tonight with Syd. Not even with Gina, with whom she'd had her longest and most sexually charged relationship.
She was in love with Syd. She knew that. She loved her—and she found her desirable beyond imagining. It was only her steadfast belief that there was no possibility of a future with Syd that had prevented her from dwelling too much on how deeply she was attracted to her. Now? Now all of that had flown right out the window, and Maddie was left dazed and adrift in a sea of new possibilities.
She knew that to stand any chance at all of making something lasting out of their fledgling romance, they would have to slow it down. But how? Against her own better judgment, Syd seemed determined to throw caution to the wind and dive right in. And Maddie, who knew too well the hazards of moving so fast, worried about finding the best way rein things in—while still giving Syd the freedom she needed to explore her feelings.
She took a deep breath and stared out across the dark expanse of lawn that sloped down toward the pond. It is beautiful here. Syd was right about that . For too long, she had held her own emotions at bay—afraid to let her guard down. Afraid to be hurt again. Afraid to be vulnerable. Afraid to risk embracing what she wanted because her fear of losing it was greater than her need for happiness. Until now.
Seeing Celine in Richmond brought all of that back full-circle—that persistent undercurrent of loss and betrayal. There still were too many unanswered questions—with no promise of resolution. Why was Celine so cold and so distant? Why, after all these years, did she even care? And the truth was that she did care. It did matter to her. The pain of her mother's pointed disregard was like a barb in her side, and no amount of distance or passage of time could dislodge it. She'd lived with it for so long that it had warped her developmentally—bent her psyche into a flawed and twisted shape; leading her to hedge every bet in every relationship she'd ever had. Always she withheld herself. Always she kept the deepest parts of who she was boxed-up and stashed conveniently by the nearest exit—ready for flight.
Flight. What a metaphor that was for the passion she shared with her father. They had the same drive to escape and soar above it all. Everything was simpler from 10,000 feet. A landscape that blocked and confounded you on the ground was transformed when viewed from the air. The terrain below fell into geometric patterns that made sense—you understood how to relate to it and how to navigate across it. It wasn't personal, and it couldn't hurt you or trip you up. You could leave it behind, before it left you.
In the distance, she saw some deer slowly making their way toward the pond. At her feet, Pete was snoring softly, and she hoped he wouldn't wake up and chase them away. She wondered sometimes why he bothered: the deer always came back. This drive to push nature back and defend the sacred boundaries of your existence was an ageless contest. But nature always persevered. Nature had time and patience on its side. Nature could wait you out. Slowly, as the years passed and you grew too old or too tired or too infirm to struggle, the deer would come back—closer, more plentiful, and less timid than before. In the end, human aspirations would wither and die along with the corporeal bodies that once contained them—and nature would have its way.
She shook her head and tried to clear it from fixing too much on these deeper and more distressing channels of thought. She wanted to be less fatalistic. She wanted to find a way to let whatever happened with Syd unfold at its own pace—and develop into whatever it would be without the burden of being frontloaded with the angst of her previous failures. Above all else, she wanted a shot at a future with Syd, and the best way to let that happen would be to break from the patterns that defined her other relationships. She was determined to do this—even it meant denying herself the joy of indulging in the intimacy she knew Syd was poised to seek. It was too important to her to succeed. This time, she wanted it to be right —wanted it to last.
She was jolted from her reverie when Pete sat up with a start, hearing movement near the pond. In a flash, he was off the porch, barking and running full out toward the now retreating deer. Maddie could see the flash of their white tails as they leapt over the fence that ran alongside her lane.
Nature, it seemed, would have to wait a bit longer.
On the table next to her chair, her cell phone vibrated. Absently, she picked it up.
“This is Stevenson.”
“Doctor, I need your help.” It was Syd.
She smiled and shifted lower into her chair. “You do?”
“Oh, I do .”
“Well, I have been known to make house calls.”
“I know…and that would be the problem.”
“Care to explain what you mean?”
“The kind of house call I have in mind would only make my condition worse .”
Maddie sighed. “Yeah—I think I know what you mean.”
“So,” Syd's tone was didactic. “You're the scientist—what do we do about this situation?”
“If I knew the answer to that, I'd be a very rich woman who wouldn't be sitting outside in the cold— alone —nursing a facial tic.”
Syd laughed. “So much for all those ‘many skills' you like to brag about.”
“Yeah, well there are just some things that aren't knowable.”
“Really?” Syd asked sweetly. “Then how do you know that?”
Maddie groaned. “Remind me never to have philosophical discussions with you.”
“Because you always kick my ass.”
“Oh, we're back to your ass already? That happened in record time.”
Maddie tapped her index finger against the back of the phone. “Did you call just to make me crazy?”
“No,” Syd said softly. “I called to tell you that thinking about you is making me crazy.”
Maddie didn't trust herself to respond to that. Silence stretched out between them.
“Are you still there?” Syd asked.
“Was that the wrong thing for me to say?”
Maddie shook her head. “No. No it wasn't wrong at all.”
“Why'd you get so quiet, then?”
“Because it's taking every ounce of restraint I have not to jump in my car and roar back over there.”
She heard Syd exhale. “I know. I've been walking around here with my car keys in my hand for the last half hour. I'm a mess , Maddie. It's pathetic. I've never been like this before.”
Maddie felt dizzy. “You haven't?”
“No. Not like this.” She paused. “I want you so much—more than I've ever wanted anyone. It's terrifying.”
“When it doesn't feel terrifying— that's when we can do something about it.”
She heard the deep sigh on the other end of the line. “I know you're right. I'm sorry.” She paused again. When she continued, her voice seemed tentative. “Is this is hard for you, too.”
Maddie closed her eyes. “Do you really not know the answer to that?”
“I guess I just needed to hear you say it again.”
“Yes.” Her voice was barely above a whisper. “Yes, it's hard for me. Yes, I'm crazy with wanting you. Yes, I've kicked myself a thousand times for leaving you tonight. Yes, I want nothing more than to have you in my arms right now. Yes , Syd—yes to everything .”
It was Syd's turn to fall silent.
After a few moments, Maddie spoke again. “Are you still there?”
“What's left of me is still here.”
“What do you mean?” Maddie was afraid that she'd said too much.
“I think I…I just….” She sighed. “I think—I think that's the first time I've ever had an orgasm without being touched.”
Maddie made a strangled sound that was somewhere between a gasp and a moan.
“God, I'm sorry. I guess that was beyond inappropriate.”
Maddie was consumed with the desire to tell Syd that she loved her—but she knew it was too soon. “No. Don't apologize. How could that be inappropriate?”
Syd gave a nervous laugh. “I don't know. Something about you makes me want to tell the truth. I don't want to hide anything from you—even if it's embarrassing or too self-revealing. Is that crazy?”
Maddie was incredulous. “No, it's not crazy.” She hesitated. “Maybe you can teach me how to do the same thing.”
“Do you need help with that?”
“God, yes. I need all the help you can give me. I don't want to muck this up, Syd. I want it to work—I want a future with you.”
“Then let's figure it out together. I trust you, Maddie. I know you would never hurt me.”
Maddie felt her eyes well with tears. “Not intentionally.”
“That's good, then. That's enough for now. I'm not going anyplace—I won't run from you. We have time to see if this is right—to see where it takes us. I realized tonight that this is a trip I'm ready to take—with you.”
I love you. The three little words that would simplify and complicate everything hung on the end of her tongue. She bit them back. “I'm glad. I want that, too—more than anything.” She wiped a hand across her eyes. “I won't run from you, either. I promise .”
“Will you do me a favor?” Syd asked, shyly.
“Of course. What is it?”
“Will you call me ‘honey' again? I really liked that.”
Maddie felt her heart surge up into her throat. “Goodnight, honey. Sweet dreams.”
“ God —thank you. Goodnight.” Syd hung up.
Maddie sat with the phone pressed to her ear for a full minute, as she waited for her pulse rate to return to normal. Sweet dreams, indeed. Maybe there even were a few left for her.
Continued in Part VII
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