It wasn't her fault she was late. Her last client had been overdue in picking up his dog after she had finished grooming her and her end-of-day schedule had been thrown off. Then there had been rush hour traffic to deal with, which, even in a mid-sized city like Edgewater, could try the patience of even the most virtuous. She pulled up to the chain link fence surrounding the auto yard just as an older, grizzled man began to drag the gate closed.
"Wait!" she cried. "Please! I'm just supposed to drop off my car."
"What's yer name?" he asked suspiciously.
"Hannah Reece. I was supposed to be here a half-hour ago, but my last client?"
"Pull up o'er there," he pointed towards the office with a growl. "I kin take yer keys, but I'm ina hurry."
Unsure if she was making a wise choice, but feeling committed to it already, Hannah drove to where he directed and locked up. She separated her car keys from her house keys as she walked back to the gate and handed them over. "Is there somewhere I can call a cab?"
He stuck her keys in his pocket and pointed down the street to a bar. Without another word he turned to lock the gate.
"Don't I need to do paperwork or something?"
"Work orders already started," he said. "We'll call ya when she's ready."
Hannah stood there in shock as he walked over to a pickup truck and drove away. The breeze created by his departure blew dirt into the air and made her cough. She looked wistfully through the fence to her car and wished she hadn't been so quick to leave it. With no closer alternatives, Hannah made her way down the street to The Sidewinder Bar. She had seen the bar too many times to count, but she had never actually been inside.
Bracing herself outside the door for what she was sure would be a bar straight out of a nightmare, Hannah took a deep breath and stepped into the cool dark. Her eyes adjusted quickly to an old-fashioned beer bar: clean but frazzled around the edges. It wasn't bad at all. Most of the faces at the bar turned to see who had let in the light and Hannah dropped her eyes in the hope it would make her invisible.
She hated herself for being a wimp, but she made her way unobtrusively to the bar and tried to catch the bartender's eye. He didn't appear to be busy, but he took his time.
"Do you have a payphone?"
"It's out of order," he replied.
"I need to call a cab." She fought the sound of desperation in her voice. "Where's the next closest one?"
He looked thoughtful, then said, "You'd have to go back up on H Street to the Mini Mart on the corner of Esplanade." Hannah knew he was describing a twenty-minute walk at best and her heart fell. "Or you can buy a drink," he grinned, "and I'll call you a cab."
She didn't find him at all amusing and if she hadn't needed a phone so bad, she would have been tempted to walk out. "Light beer," she ordered.
He turned away and Hannah made a face at his back. Laughter halfway down the bar drew her eyes and she was surprised to realize that she knew that face. Not the name, but the face was one she had seen at many gay and lesbian events over the years. She was very butch: so butch that Hannah had thought her a man for some time. They ran in very different circles and did not seem to have close friends in common. The woman was quite tall, very lean and far more muscular than any woman Hannah had ever seen before. Now that she had a chance to see her up close, she could see that it was only at a distance that she could be taken for a man. Her face was almost pretty in bone structure and she had an engaging smile. She also had striking blond hair that was cut very short and framed her face like a halo of light. Hannah felt strangely disappointed to see the cigarettes sitting in front of her.
"You're such a jerk," the mysterious butch told the bartender.
Hannah watched in surprise.
"Man's gotta make a living," he retorted.
"Well, you're the only man I know who can make a living on one beer." Sarcasm dripped from her voice. "Call the lady a cab, Pete. Make your mother proud."
The teasing started in earnest with the bartender getting the worst of it from the other patrons as well. Hannah was embarrassed by the fuss and made sure to say 'Thank You' when he set her beer in front of her. He didn't answer, but he took her money quick enough. His next move was to grab an old-fashioned rotary phone and plunk it down on the bar in front of the mystery dyke. "If you care so much," he grumbled, "you call her a cab."
There wasn't much Hannah could do but watch as the woman made the call. "Fifteen minutes," she called to Hannah as she hung up and leaned over the bar to put the phone back.
"Thanks." She felt like she should introduce herself or something, but the blond went back to watching the news on the small TV above the bar. Having had their fun, everyone went back to what they had been at when she first walked in. She drank her beer quietly and tried not to start another scene. She couldn't help but wonder about the woman. She assumed that she had stuck up for her because she recognized her. Whatever her reason, Hannah was grateful.
When the cab arrived, Hannah jumped up and covertly glanced at the blond woman just in time to catch a wink. She smiled involuntarily and ran out into the bright light to catch her ride.
"You're late!" Jay exclaimed as he leaned over to kiss her cheek. "And you've started drinking without us?"
"I have had the afternoon from hell," she sighed as she dropped onto his sofa. "I was supposed to drop my car off for its tune up at 4:30, but I couldn't get there till a few minutes after five because my last client decided to stop for pizza on his way home. The traffic was terrible, and I got there just as they were locking the gate. I can only hope that the Neanderthal who took my keys isn't the one who'll work on my car. Then I had to buy a beer in order to get a cab…" Hannah ran out of steam mid-sentence. "Suffice it to say I'm ready to be pampered. Where's Freddie?"
"He called a few minutes ago and should be here any second. He had a last-minute interview for the stylist position. What would you like to drink?"
Hannah asked for beer since she had already started down that road and let herself get comfortable. She and Jay had a long history having gone to the local high school together. Jay had been short, round, near-sighted and the butt of a million jokes. He and Hannah had been friends in part because she was inclined to fight for the underdog, but it was mostly that Jay had a sweetheart and a deadly wit. After graduation, Jay had ridden a partial scholarship straight into law school. Years later, he came home ten inches taller with the body of a young god, contacts, and a beautiful Latino lover on his arm. Hannah had not recognized him in the slightest and he took it as the greatest of compliments. Their friendship continued as if they had never been apart and his new lover, Freddie, instantly fit right in. Hannah loved his style: he was flashy, dramatic, and had a lovely accent that made his excellent command of English a joy to hear. He kept them both from being too serious and they took turns keeping his feet on the ground.
Jay worked as a partner in a small firm specializing in civil cases and estate planning. On occasion he represented people in criminal cases, but he was very picky about his clients. If he were not completely convinced that they were innocent of the crime, he wouldn't fight it in court. Having been an underdog, he was committed to defending and protecting them. He had helped Hannah on several occasions in arranging her grandmother's affairs and keeping her business dealings in order.
Freddie was the proud owner of Frederico's, the most successful beauty salon in the county. He had 8 styling stations, 3 manicurists, 4 tanning booths and one woman who did nothing but hair removal. He, himself, did only the rich, the famous, the difficult, and the few he called his compañeros. The rest of the time he played hostess. At different times he had considered adding tattoos and piercing to his available services, but he was a great believer in aura and worried that the residue of psychic pain would alter the ambiance he strove to achieve and business would suffer.
The two of them together were her best friends and she spent a great deal of time in their company, especially since her last lover had left town so abruptly six months before.
"I told you I had invited someone to dinner, didn't I?"
Hannah looked over the back of the couch and nodded to Jay. "Who is it?"
"The new office manager in the small claims division at the Courthouse. She's only been in town for about six weeks, and I don't think she knows anyone."
Hannah grinned at how obvious it all was. "How long did it take you to figure out she was family?"
"She asked me the second time we met," Jay shrugged. "I don't know her very well and Freddie's never met her so this is more in the way of an experiment than a blind date for you."
"But you did tell her I would be here?"
Jay half-nodded and half-shook his head. "More or less. I didn't want to commit you to anything, so I was rather vague."
Freddie breezed in just minutes later with his dark good looks. "Ola, pelliroja!" He stopped to kiss Hannah's cheek before sliding into his lover's arms for a kiss. "Ola, mi semental guapo."
One of the things Hannah admired most about the relationship her friends shared was how they said goodbye in the morning and welcome home at night. Regardless of their moods, or what was going on around them, the world took a backseat while they reestablished emotional intimacy. They did not seem to be aware of anything, or anybody, outside of their love for each other. She interrupted after a few minutes. "How did your interview go?" If she didn't remind them she was here, the welcome home could take forever and she didn't want to have to explain that to Jay's guest.
Freddie looked pleased with himself as he joined her on the couch and judging from the glassy look of Jay's eyes, he had every right to be. "Just another refugee from Quickie Cuts with far more imagination than skill. It would be better for everyone if she switched to cutting grass."
"You didn't tell her that, did you?" Sometimes Freddie was consumed by his own wit and inadvertently hurt people's feelings.
"Give me some credit," he sniffed. "I did mention landscaping once, but it was relevant. You need a trim," he said abruptly. "It's been weeks and it's not laying right around your face."
Hannah had a love/hate relationship with her hair. Everyone else loved her bright red hair. She hated it. Curling wildly was the only thing it was good at and she had grown up wishing for long, straight hair. Any color at all would do, even red-provided it was long and straight. Instead, she was stuck with a tangled mess. It was hard to brush and had a mind of its own.
Freddie's fingers were tugging and shaping at her temples. "You just need a little off right here."
"Maybe I can come in on Saturday."
The doorbell rang, and Freddie excitedly jumped up to get it. "Welcome! Welcome! You must be Jill."
Hannah stood up as the slender, attractive woman in her mid to late thirties came inside. She had a moment to study her as Jay came out of the kitchen to greet her. Yikes! She's pretty, but there's nothing girlish about her. She's definitely a woman. And that's the hair I've always wanted. It's hard to say if it's brown or blond, but it looks silky smooth. I never would have guessed she's a lesbian.
"Hannah," Jay said smoothly. "This is Jill Wilson. Jill, this is Hannah Reece. She owns her own very successful dog grooming business, and she has been our dear friend for many years."
"Hello, Jill." Hannah reached out and shook hands. Such lovely hands. Very feminine. "It's nice to meet you."
Jill smiled warmly. "Jay didn't mention how pretty you were."
"To tell the truth, I think all women look the same to him. It's a miracle he can tell us apart."
"I don't have to listen to this," Jay snorted. "Would you like something to drink, Jill?"
In minutes they were all seated in the living room, drinks in hand and getting to know each other.
"You're new here, aren't you?" Freddie asked.
"I moved here about two months ago from San Diego."
"Why here?" Hannah could feel herself beginning to hope that she would find an attraction to Jill.
"I have asthma and I had constant problems with it down there. I decided to find someplace a little more rural to live in hopes that my health would improve. This job was listed on a website and when I came up for the interview I looked around and decided that this was what I was looking for."
Hannah liked Jill's voice and her graceful movements. "Jay said that you're the office manager in the small claims division. How did you get into that line of work?"
"I have a Masters in Business Administration. In San Diego I was managing Public Relations for a large retail franchise, so this is a step down for me, but I'm hoping that with a little experience I'll be able to move up. Helping to run a city of this size could be very interesting." Jill grinned. "Maybe I'll even be Mayor someday."
Unsure where it was coming from, Hannah shrugged off the discomfort she felt and laughed along with everyone else.
"So, you're a dog groomer?" Jill asked.
"She's the best in town," Freddie said brightly.
"Really? How did you get started?"
Hannah explained. "I got into it by accident really. I started out as a hairdresser. This one day we had a walk-in whose little Yorkie had been butchered by her six-year-old son. She was desperate because she couldn't get an appointment with her regular groomer and she begged us to help her. No one else was willing to work on a dog, but he was so cute, and you could tell he was just humiliated by how he looked. So, I trimmed him up and he actually looked pretty good. After that I read some books and volunteered at the animal shelter on Saturdays, then got into a training class and got a certificate. I like it a lot better than hair styling. With a little help from my grandmother, I started my own business and here I am."
Jill looked fascinated. "Do you still volunteer at the shelter?"
Hannah shook her head. "They bring me two dogs every Monday morning and I do them for free. I just don't have the time or energy for more, but it helps the dogs find homes and it makes me feel good."
"Is the money good in your line of work?"
Hannah felt a little uneasy at the inquiry. "I'll probably never drive a new Corvette or vacation in the South of France, but I do pretty well."
Jill looked as if she had just realized the rudeness of her query. "I'm sorry. That was a really personal question."
Jay and Freddie were both watching her as if to see what she would do. "That's okay. The truth is, if it didn't pay enough, I'd be doing something else. Lucky for me, it does, and I really love the work. That's even more important to me."
"That's great," Jill said with enthusiasm. "There are people at work who have dogs. Maybe I can spread the word for you. What's the name of your business?"
It still made her want to laugh just saying it. "Doggie Styles." Jill looked a little disapproving and Hannah could feel the air in the room cool. "I know it's not PC, but my grandmother thought it up. She has an irreverent streak and I'm afraid I inherited it from her."
"It's a perfect name," Freddie laughed.
"When I came home after passing the bar exam, I looked Hannah up first thing. I pulled up to her house and saw that sign…" Jay chuckled. "I almost ran out and got myself a dog."
"It sounds like a sex club," Jill said with a slight smile. "Doesn't it ever cause you problems? I would think there would be people who take offense at the name."
"There are," Hannah admitted. "Mostly when I first opened. Every now and then I'll get a phone call from someone who has no sense of humor. I just hang up on them. The worst thing that happened was shortly after I opened for business. I was just opening for the day and a drug task force came busting in. Seems that someone called their hotline and swore that I was running a major drug ring out of my shop. They spent most of the day tearing my house apart and questioning me."
"If you started out as a hairdresser, did you work with Fred?"
"Who? Oh, Freddie!" Hannah almost started laughing. "No, we've never worked together."
"We should," Freddie inserted playfully. "We would have so much fun."
"We'd never get anything done," Hannah chuckled.
The conversation became a little less focused and in short time, dinner was served. Jill joined in freely and Hannah began to enjoy her presence. Jill had beautiful brown eyes and perfect skin. Her mouth was a little tight, but she had a graceful body; slender and feminine. Hannah's attraction was more a mental exercise at this point than anything else, but that was more than she had allowed herself to feel for some time. She knew that sometimes first impressions were more likely to be shaped by personal baggage than by the other person's manner and bearing. Maybe she should give Jill a chance. Maybe if they got to know each other a little better it could develop into a romance. At the very least, Hannah thought they might make good friends.
They played Trivial Pursuit after dinner and Jill won handily. She seemed to have a superior glint in her eye, but Hannah had to admit she had earned the right. Hannah, Jay and Freddie were no slouches when it came to trivia, so for Jill to beat them was a sure sign that she was quite intelligent. Hannah had to admit that in the same situation, she herself would have been doing a victory dance on the coffee table. By comparison, Jill was a model of self-restraint and sportsmanship.
A short time later, Jill took her leave and Hannah stood up to help clean up after their dinner.
"What did you think?" Freddie asked as soon as the front door closed.
Hannah shrugged as casually as she was able. "I liked her. She's smart and pretty, and she seems very nice."
Turning to look at the handsome Latino man, she raised her eyebrows. "What does that mean? Didn't you like her?"
His diffident response was quite unusual. "But?"
"I don't know," he said airily. "Just something..."
Hannah looked to Jay. "What about you?"
"I thought she was nice."
If both of them were hesitant, it meant something. But it just made Hannah feel defensive on Jill's behalf. "She was perfectly charming. And you must admit that she was very gracious about winning the game. It's hard to meet new people and I thought she handled herself very well."
"True," Jay conceded. "Should I tell her that you're interested in seeing her again?"
Hannah wondered if she had been manipulated into this very thing. Even if she was, she felt that she had to go through with it. "Sure. I'd like to get to know her better."
Freddie's eyebrows rose.
"What?" Hannah demanded.
"Nada," Freddie said quickly. "You are right. She was very nice. You could do a lot worse."
"Right." Now she was feeling a little frustrated and she didn't understand it. Hannah glanced at the clock. "You know, it's still early. I think I'll swing by and see Nana before I go home. Which one of you is going to loan me a car?"
Up until seven years prior, Hannah and her grandmother had shared the same house. It was an easy, comfortable relationship for them both. At sixty-seven years of age, arthritis finally made independent living impossible for her Nana. Hannah was more than willing to make any, and all, sacrifices necessary to keep her grandmother at home, but her Nana had other plans. With Jay's help, the house was transferred into Hannah's name with the stipulation that she would help pay the monthly fee for a room in a residential care home. Social Security paid most of it, but it cost more than that/ Technically, Hannah was not paying for the house, but the exchange of funds made accepting the gift more palatable.
A great deal of care went into choosing where Nana would live. The Murdock's were a very nice couple in their late forties who had six rooms available for residents. Mrs. Murdock was a registered nurse, and her husband was retired military. After meeting several times, Nana was accepted into their home. They charged a little more for the privilege of staying there, but the care they provided was the best. Nana was happy there, which was what Hannah thought most important.
After a few months, Nana mentioned in passing how difficult it was for the Murdock's to get time away for themselves and Hannah approached them with an offer. For a slight discount on the monthly fee, Hannah would come to the house early on Sunday mornings and cover for them until after lunch. This gave the Murdock's the freedom to go to church together and spend a little time alone. Over time, this expanded to include the occasional evening out and, sometimes, in the case of emergencies.
Hannah continued to pay the same amount to her grandmother, but some of it now found its way into Nana's pocket. In truth, Hannah engineered the arrangement because it ensured that she still got to spend time with her grandmother. They sometimes did other things together as well, but Sunday mornings made Hannah feel as though she were giving back some of the care that her grandmother had given to her.
Nana was in bed reading James Patterson's latest novel when Hannah peeked into her room. "Hi."
Smiling broadly, Nana lay her book down and gestured for her to enter. "Well, hello, dear. What brings you by this evening?"
"Nothing. I just had dinner with Jay and Freddie. I thought I might have time to see you before I went home."
Nana patted the bed in invitation. "How are the boys doing?"
Hannah sat down with a smile. "Handsome as ever." She reached out to smooth her grandmother's gray hair. "Looks like it might be just about time to get Freddie to trim this up for you."
"Soon," Nana agreed. "Did you get that water heater fixed?"
"Yeah. It took two days for the guy to show up, but it was only an old wire. He was there all of ten minutes, but it works fine now."
Nana concentrated for a moment. "And your car?"
"I dropped it off after work." She shook her head in wry amusement. "You would have had a field day with the guy I gave the keys to. What a jerk. I just hope he's not the one who's going to work on it."
Frowning, Nana asked, "What did he do?"
"Nothing really. I was running a little late and he was kind of short with me. I ended up having to buy a beer in a bar down the street in order to call a cab. I seem to remember a lot more payphones when I was little. There don't seem to be as many of them around anymore."
Nana snorted in disgust. "It's those cell phones. Everyone's got a payphone in their pocket nowadays. Have you seen those new things that people wear on their ears?"
"I hate those things," she said with a scowl. "You can't tell if people are talking to you, to their phones, or to the voices in their heads. It used to be a lot easier to spot the crazies. Not anymore."
Hannah was grinning. She loved this old woman like mad. "I agree."
Nana's face relaxed and she smiled. "How about you, dear? How are you doing?"
"I'm okay." She hesitated a moment and decided to tell all. "I met a woman tonight at dinner."
"Well, she works at the Courthouse. She's a little bit older than me and she's pretty. Smart, too. Jay invited her to dinner because she's new to the area and she's like us."
"Do you like her?"
Hannah shrugged her shoulders. "I don't know yet. Kind of. It's a little soon to tell. I'm thinking of seeing her again. If nothing else, maybe we can be friends."
"That's nice, dear. What's her name?"
"It's a good name. I hope things work out. You deserve a nice girl to love."
"Thanks, Nana." Hannah sighed. "I only stopped by for a minute. I left work so fast today I didn't get a chance to clean up. I'd rather do it tonight than get up early tomorrow to do it, so I'd probably better get going."
"You're not walking," Nana said with concern.
"No. Freddie loaned me his car until mine is ready."
"All right then. You drive carefully and give Cricket kisses for me."
Hannah leaned over for a hug and a goodnight kiss. "I will, Nana."
Cricket was barking excitedly as Hannah unlocked the front door. He didn't like being left alone and was always a little hyper when she returned. As soon as she opened the door, he was jumping in front of her, anxiously trying to get the attention he wanted. Hannah laughed at his antics. "Easy, boy. I'm home. Just let me put my things down."
Locking the door behind her, she set her pocketbook on the entry table and tossed her sweater on the sofa. She caught Cricket on the next bounce and giggled as he kissed her face lavishly. "Yeah, I missed you, too."
Cricket was a five-year-old Welsh Terrier. As the runt of the litter, he was too small to be a show dog, but he was otherwise perfect to his breed. He might be almost three inches too short and six pounds too light, but to Hannah, he was exactly right. He had the personality in spades and vitality to spare. Most importantly, his love was pure and generous.
"I love you, too, buddy," she crooned as he began to calm. "Anything good on Animal Planet today? Did you leave me any little presents?"
It was rare that he had accidents anymore, but if left too long alone, he might feel justified in expressing his displeasure. Not today though. Hannah put him down when he began to wriggle, and he ran off to find a toy. Kicking off her shoes in favor of slippers, Hannah headed out to her shop.
Over time, she had learned that it paid off to keep her space as clean as she could during the day. It made final clean-up easier and made her shop look more professional. It only took her 40 minutes to have everything clean and stocked for the next day.
After a long bath, during which Cricket killed a stuffed duck, Hannah made sure the house was locked tight and went to bed. Cricket curled up on the pillow next to her with a sigh and Hannah ruffled his ears affectionately. Closing her eyes, she thought of Jill, remembering her eyes and her smile.
But, it was a muscular blond with a saucy wink that peeked in on her as she fell asleep.
"This would be a whole lot easier if I had three hands." The big dog's foot jerked away again. "Or a stun gun. Come on, Pookie. Only three more to go and it'll be all over."
Hannah used her weight to pin the dog more firmly and wrestled the paw into place. She suspected the big dog didn't really mind having her nails trimmed; she just liked the game. Just as Hannah would get the clippers in place, Pookie would yank her paw back. It was hard to get mad at the dog for the reflex, but it did get frustrating.
"My God. What kind of dog is that?"
Hannah glanced over her shoulder and smiled. "Hi, Jill. Give me a minute to finish this and then I can talk."
Determined to get this over with, Hannah put some muscle into it. Jay must have run straight to the Courthouse this morning, she thought with a mental sigh. I thought maybe she'd call or something. What the hell did he say to her?
Pookie got in three successful jerks on the last nail, but it was finally finished. Hannah patted her on the head and pushed her butt end off the table. "There you go, girl. On your feet now."
With slow, deliberate movements, Pookie dragged the rest of herself off the table and stood up. Hannah was pretty sure the big dog weighed more than she did. Scratching behind her ears, she said, "See now, that wasn't so bad. I don't know why you make such a big deal out of it. It's not like I ever hurt you, you big baby. Go on. Pick a spot and lay down till your dad gets here."
Pookie shook herself ponderously and wandered over by the storage closet. She dropped down on the over-sized pillow placed there for that purpose and let out a sigh.
Hannah turned to Jill with a smile. "So, hello."
Jill was still looking at the big dog. "What exactly is that?"
"Pookie's a bull mastiff mix."
Jill's elegant eyebrows rose. "Pookie?"
Hannah held her hands up with a laugh. "Don't blame me. I didn't name her."
Jill looked at the dog with uncertainty. "What is she mixed with?"
This got an odd look. "Dogs and bears are not genetically compatible for breeding."
Does she think I'm an idiot? "Tell that to Pookie."
Jill finally smiled. "You have a point." She looked Hannah up and down with approval. "How are you? I hope you don't mind that I dropped by."
"Not at all." Hannah grabbed a rag and spray disinfectant and swiped the table clean. "What brings you by today?"
"I came to see you. I had a very nice time last night and I was hoping we might be able to make a date to see each other again."
"Sure," Hannah said with a grin. "I'm free on Saturday night. Does that work for you?"
"Yes, it does. Do you like Mexican food?"
"Perfect. Shall I pick you up?"
Hannah grabbed a broom and nodded. "I'd like that."
"Okay then," Jill smiled with accomplishment. There was a moment of silence that threatened to become uncomfortable and then Jill straightened. "I'd best be getting back to work."
"Thanks for coming by Jill. I'll see you Saturday night."
When the door closed, Hannah let out a breath. "Okay. That was a little strange." She swept the floor briskly as she thought about it. Except for the odd look or comment, Jill seemed to be a perfectly nice woman. Hannah did like her, in a way, but there just didn't seem to be any spark between them. Still, she knew that sometimes feelings took a little longer to develop with some people. That must be the case here. Time would tell, she supposed.
She was running a little ahead of schedule, but that was always a good thing. Hannah opened a drying cage and let a small mixed breed dog out to stretch his legs. The terrier shook himself and went to investigate Pookie. Hannah always thought it funny that terriers didn't seem to know how small they were compared to other dogs. This was a trait Cricket had as well.
After a few minutes, she collected the mangy looking mutt and began the work of making him look like a real dog.
Freddie breezed in mid-afternoon. He showed up almost every day just to visit and Hannah appreciated it. Owners came and went, but it was nice to have an actual conversation with someone. Especially someone who didn't require her undivided attention. Freddie was helpful, too. He would occasionally answer the phone or give a dog a bath, which took some of the pressure off Hannah on her busier days.
"Hey, Freddie. How's it shakin'?"
"Pretty loose." He stopped to fuss over the Bichon she was trimming. "Aren't you the pretty one? I love these little powder puff dogs. Maybe I'll make Jay get me one."
"They require lots of love and attention," Hannah felt obligated to point out.
Freddie lost interest in a heartbeat. "Maybe not." Throwing himself into a chair, he studied Hannah with dark eyes. "Am I to understand that you have a date?"
Hannah straightened. "What did Jay do? Run right over there first thing this morning and tell her to ask me out?"
Expressive eyebrows rose in surprise. "Ooo. Testy much?" He waved off her answer with one graceful hand. "Actually, he did not. He called me a few minutes ago and said he had just seen her. Apparently, she had already taken the bull by the horns."
"That's one way to put it."
Freddie cocked his head to one side. "You don't want to go out with her?"
Hannah sighed. "That's not it. I don't know what's wrong with me. She came by the shop earlier and asked me out. She was very nice."
"But you don't feel...it."
"Not yet," she said with another sigh. "But I do like her. Kind of."
"I understand," he said knowingly. "She is very much yes-and-no at the same time. Maybe she will become a yes in time."
"I hope so. Maybe it's just that she's nervous about making new friends. I would be. I'll give it some time and see if she relaxes. Sometimes you just don't hit it off with people right away and later you become great friends."
Hannah let it go. Fussing now wasn't going to answer any questions. "Any luck with the stylist position?"
"Not yet. I have a few more interviews later this week."
They chatted about trivial things for a while and Freddie picked up the phone when it rang.
"Doggy Styles. How may I help you?"
He was quiet for a moment and then covered the receiver with his hand. "Your car is ready."
Hannah considered the rest of her day. "I can't make it before closing today. What time do they open in the morning?"
Freddie asked and covered the phone again. "Someone will be there at seven, but he says it will cost five dollars to store your car overnight." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I do not like this man."
Hannah knew exactly who he was talking about. "Can't be helped. Tell him I'll be in before seven-thirty."
Freddie relayed the information and hung up as if the phone had contracted a disease. "What an unpleasant fellow."
Hannah laughed. "You should see him in person. It only gets worse."
"Thank you, no. There is only so much a man of my taste and breeding should be required to endure."
Hannah laughed even harder.
After dropping Freddie's car off at his home the next morning, Hannah caught a ride to the auto shop with Jay. Leaving a kiss on his cheek for helping her out, she walked into the office and came face to face with the blond woman from the bar.
The smiling face was open and friendly, and Hannah smiled back in reflex. "Good morning," she responded. "I'm here to pick up my car."
"I know. I worked on it." Hannah breathed a sigh of relief which prompted a short laugh from the woman. "We get that a lot. I'm Kelly Lowell."
Hannah reached out to take the large, warm hand. "Hannah Reece. I didn't mean to be so obvious."
"That's all right. We don't let Merle work on the cars anymore. His tool of choice is a hammer. It's bad for business."
"Well, I appreciate that," Hannah grinned.
Kelly pulled a few papers from under the counter and lay them out. "Let me show you what I did."
Hannah moved closer to see the papers.
"You requested a tune up," Kelly said evenly. "Points, plugs, oil and filter changes, timing belt; that sort of thing."
"Okay. That's what we're going to charge you for. But I did a little more than that."
Hannah looked up nervously.
"Don't worry," Kelly said quickly. "It's just...I've seen you around. We're family, and family looks out for each other. I went over your car thoroughly. Changed some belts and hoses that were looking worn. Rotated the brakes and bled the lines. Recharged your AC. Checked your alignment. Changed the gasket on your oil pan. New air filters all around. Spark plugs. I cleaned the posts on the battery, but it’s solid. That’s all part of a good tune-up, but I checked everything I could get my hands on. Stuff that should be part of a good tune up. I do it all the time for family members."
Hannah could hardly believe what she was hearing. "But...shouldn't I at least owe you for parts or something?"
"Don't worry about it. I like to think of it as part of the advertising budget. Word-of-mouth is the best thing there is for drumming up new business, so if you're happy with the job I did, spread the word." She turned a piece of paper for Hannah to look at. "Your brakes are okay for now, but you're going to need to get some new parts in there in a couple of months. It's not something to worry about. Just be aware of it. This is an estimate of what it will cost when you decide to do it. Feel free to shop around for a better price. It won't hurt my feelings. And you need to pay attention to oil changes. I put one of those little stickers in the window that tells you when to come in. Changing the oil and checking the fluids is the number one thing you can do to prolong the life of your car. Other than that, it's in pretty good shape. Do you have any questions?"
Hannah shook her head in disbelief. "I don't think I've ever had a mechanic give me so much information. At least not that I could understand."
Kelly chuckled wryly. "All part of the service here at Edgewater Auto."
"Somehow I doubt that's true of your boss." Hannah grinned at the blush on the buff mechanic's face and pulled out her checkbook. Considering all that had been done for her car, it was a ridiculously low price to pay, but she wasn't going to argue the point.
Once the bill was settled and the paperwork taken care off, Hannah followed the tall woman out to her car. It had obviously been washed and waxed. She gave a look to Kelly that had the taller woman shuffling her feet. "It looks great. Thank you."
"Like I said, no problem."
"Well, I appreciate all you did, and I will spread the word."
Hannah unlocked the door and opened it. Tossing her pocketbook onto the passenger seat, she turned at the sound of a throat clearing.
"So." Kelly's hands were deep in her pockets and her shoulders were hunching in on herself. "I was wondering, if sometime, maybe we could go out for coffee. Or something. If you ever want to."
Hannah instantly felt bad because she knew she was going to say no and it seemed so heartless after what Kelly had done for her car.
"You can say no," Kelly added quickly, as if recognizing the inevitable rejection. "And don't think I did the extra stuff to your car to try to guilt you into it. I wouldn't do that."
"It's not that," Hannah said slowly. She could see that despite Kelly's physical strength and air of confidence that the asking had been hard. "I'm already seeing someone."
"Oh." Kelly seemed to deflate a bit, then straighten. It was as though she was back on solid ground. "I understand. In fact, I respect you for telling me. Some women date multiples until they decide to settle down. I've never really trusted women like that. I hope things work out for you. Really."
They might be so different that even a simple friendship would seem unlikely, but Hannah suddenly wished she had said yes. "If it doesn't, maybe you could ask me again sometime."
Kelly's smile made the morning seem even brighter. "I'll do that. And I'll work on my delivery. That was pretty pathetic."
Hannah had to laugh. "Well, it's not the worst I've ever heard."
"At least I have that thought to console myself with," Kelly teased. She took a business card from her breast pocket and wrote on the back. "If you ever have a problem with your car, just give me a call, okay?"
Hannah took the card and glanced at it before slipping it into her back pocket. "I will, thanks. And thanks for in the bar the other day."
Kelly waved it off. "That was nothing."
"It was something to me," Hannah insisted. "Thank you."
"You're welcome," Kelly said with a nod. "Like I said, we're family and we should look out for each other." Kelly's hands went back in her pockets and she began to back up. "I should let you go. I'll see you around."
Hannah was starting to like this woman. "If you do, say hi."
Another killer smile lit up the day. "Thanks, I will."
Hannah watched the tall butch walk away and realized she was staring at her butt. Shaking herself out of it, she got in her car and headed for work.
Hannah was in her robe trying to make sense out of her hair when the doorbell rang. She checked the clock on the way to the door and saw that she still had almost 40 minutes before her date. Peeking through the peephole, she saw Jill on the doorstep.
"Damn," she hissed before opening the door. "Hi, Jill. I didn't expect you until 6:30."
"I thought we agreed on 6," Jill frowned. "We have reservations at Los Taquieros at 6:30."
Hannah knew they had decided on 6:30 as a pick-up time, but it was too late to argue about it. "Just give me 15 minutes and I'll be ready."
A calculating look crossed Jill's face followed by a knowing grin. "I could always cancel our reservations."
Hannah played dumb. "It's not a problem. I'll be ready in a flash." She left Jill in the living room and closed the bedroom door. Unsure about Jill, she slowly locked it to hide the telltale click. She had originally decided to wear a dress, but Jill's look made her self-conscious. She pulled out what she thought of as her Jury Duty outfit and put it on. She hoped that it would send a message.
In less than ten minutes she was ready to go. She came out into the living room and found Jill rearranging photographs and candles on the coffee table. Two of the pictures were from the bookcase.
"Doesn't that look good?" Jill said proudly.
Hannah could see that it did look better, but the fact that it had been done at all was disturbing. She knew that Jill was trying to be helpful, but she was afraid to open her mouth. A smile seemed to be all Jill needed.
"You look nice," Jill added. "Are you ready to go?"
"Yes." She felt like there were at least a dozen things she had forgotten, but she didn't have time to figure them out. "You be a good boy," she told Cricket on the way out. As soon as the door closed, he barked and Jill laughed.
"He sounds upset."
"He's confused," Hannah said in his defense. "I take him with me almost everywhere, so when I leave him home, he thinks he's in trouble."
"I appreciate that you didn't bring him. I'm kind of neurotic about my car." She unlocked the passenger door of her classic green Mustang and held it open. "It'll be a while before I'll be able to afford another car like this so I'm trying to keep this one in as good a condition as I can."
Hannah felt like her dog had just been criticized. It was tempting to criticize the car in return. It smelled old and the doors creaked, but she had to admit that it looked good. She hid a smile when Jill started the engine and it promptly died.
"It's rather spoiled," Jill explained as she restarted the car. "High performance cars like this require a lot of maintenance and I haven't found a mechanic I trust yet."
Hannah remembered Kelly explaining all the work she had done and wondered what she would have to say about Jill's car. "Have you looked into Edgewater Auto? I took my car there recently and they did a great job. In fact, there's a lesbian on staff there and she did all the work on mine."
"I'd rather find someone who specializes in restoring the classics, preferably a man. I find that they know more and do a better job." Jill grinned. "On cars, at any rate."
Hannah found this strange. "I usually feel like I've been overcharged by men."
"Really? I guess that's why it's so important to find the right mechanic."
Hannah saw no point in continuing this exchange. "You're probably right."
The conversation moved onto more neutral ground over dinner. Hannah was much more comfortable trading memories of good times and places visited. Jill had a knack for telling stories and she kept Hannah in stitches. Her special skill seemed to be mimicry. Hannah could almost see the people Jill spoke of just by the voice she used. When she spoke of meeting Jay for the first time and repeated their conversation, Hannah had gooseflesh at the accuracy in her portrayal of Jay's voice. She had his intonation and inflections down pat.
"How did you learn to copy people's voices?" she asked over her fried ice cream.
"I don't know," Jill admitted. "I guess I was just born with it. I've come to believe that everyone is born with a gift and this one is mine. I'm good with accents, too. I don't even have to work at it. If I talk to someone for a few minutes I can just do it."
"It's a great gift. I wish I had one."
"Everyone has a gift," Jill insisted. "Some people have obvious gifts like beauty or strength, and some have gifts that manifest through a talent or skill, like music or art. But I think most people have gifts that aren't so obvious. Sometimes those gifts are more like a curse."
"Like always making the wrong decisions," Jill shrugged. "There are a lot of people out there who just can't do anything right. I would have to work at it and so would you, but lots of folks don't."
"That doesn't sound like a gift anyone would want."
"True," Jill agreed with humor. "There are people out there who can put a fussy baby to sleep just by picking it up. Some people are completely unnoticeable, and others seem to be known by people they haven't even met yet. I've known people who never get lost, and I used to know a man who never forgot a name. I even met a woman once who always knew where north was. You could blindfold her and spin her in circles till she couldn't stand, but she could point north without hesitation. Some people know when they're being lied to and others can tell you outrageous lies and make you believe it."
"I've met a few of those," Hannah grinned.
"We all have," Jill laughed.
"So, what's my gift?"
"I don't know you well enough to say. You'd be a better judge of that than me."
Hannah tried to look at herself objectively but didn't see anything obvious. "I guess I have one of those obscure gifts. The only thing I can think of is that I've never been bitten by any of the dogs I groom."
"Is that a common occupational hazard?"
"It is for some," Hannah said. "Even the best dogs can react badly when they are stressed or scared. So far, I've been lucky. Tell me about San Diego? I've never been there."
Sunday morning after breakfast, Hannah sat out on the Murdock's deck with her grandmother to enjoy the sunshine. The other residents were playing cards, except for Mr. Blackney who was watching a baseball game.
"Is everything all right with you, dear?"
Hannah gave her grandmother a smile. "Yeah. I'm okay."
"You seem a little...off."
"To be honest, I'm a little tired. I haven't been sleeping well. I just can't seem to get my head to shut off at night. I spend hours just thinking about things."
"You get that from me."
Hannah chuckled. "Gee, thanks."
Nana reached out to pat Hannah's arm. "You're welcome, dear. Now, what is it that troubles you?"
Hannah sighed. "It doesn't seem to be any one thing. My brain just starts going and jumps from one thing to another until I feel like I'm going crazy."
"Hmm. Nothing bad is happening?"
"Oh, no. Nothing like that. This just happens to me now and then."
"Why don't you take a nap?"
"Why ever not? Even the Murdock's sleep. I'll wake you if there is need."
Hannah thought about it. What harm could be in it? As long as she stayed close to everyone, it shouldn't make any difference whether she was awake or not. "You'll wake me if anyone needs help?"
"Yes, honey. Now, close your eyes for a while and at least rest."
It didn't take long. Hannah fell asleep with the feel of her grandmother smoothing her unruly hair.
Hannah felt much better after her nap. She made lunch for the residents and stayed for a while to visit with the Murdock's after they got home from church. On the way home, she stopped at Riverside Park to let Cricket chase the ducks and spent a few minutes visiting with a guy she'd gone to school with. They had never been particularly close, but it was nice to visit.
At home, Hannah did a little house cleaning and then worked on the accounts for the shop. When she'd first started her business, balancing the books had intimidated her, but after taking a course at the Junior College, it came much easier to her. In fact, it was downright comforting now. She could see exactly where she was financially and it gave her peace of mind.
Making herself a tuna casserole for dinner, Hannah curled up on the couch with Cricket and mindlessly watched television until bedtime. Crawling between the covers, she knew that she wouldn't spend half the night fussing. At some point during the day, she had re-connected with herself. Hannah promised herself that she would try to do that more often.
The week started off uncomplicated. Freddie finally hired a woman to fill the station at the salon and he seemed a bit less frazzled in general. Of course, this did nothing to inhibit the overall flamboyance that was such an integral part of his charm. Jay was his usual calm and soothing self and Nana's doctor had her on a new medication that seemed to be helping with the pain and discomfort of her arthritis. Hannah's clients were on time and their dogs were well-behaved and cooperative. Everything was smooth as silk.
Until Wensday night.
After work, Hannah took Cricket with her to go grocery shopping. He had to wait in the car, but Hannah knew he'd rather wait for her there than stay at home. She parked in the shade of a tree and left the windows cracked for him. It wasn't hot in the evenings, but she knew well how car windows seemed to magnify the sun’s rays and she didn't want him to be uncomfortable.
She was running low on food stuffs, so Hannah took her time and stocked up. She liked shopping in general, but shopping for food was more of a chore for her than anything else. After loading everything in the trunk, Hannah slid into the driver's seat, gave Cricket a kiss and started the car.
At least, she tried to. There was a strange buzzing sound and then nothing. Shocked, she tried again, and the same thing happened.
Another try with the same result and Hannah lowered her forehead to the steering wheel. "This is not happening, damn it. Come on!"
It still wouldn't start. Hannah took a deep breath and looked at Cricket. "If this is your fault, I'm taking away all of your toys for a week."
Cricket looked at her and panted happily.
"That's right. Play dumb." She took another deep breath and tried to calm herself. "Okay. I can call the guys and they'll come get me, but that doesn't get my car home. Of course, getting it home doesn't mean it's fixed, but it's a place to start."
Hannah considered the situation for a moment and remembered the card Kelly had given her. She had tossed it in the glove box and Hannah decided it was only appropriate that she call her for help. Kelly must have missed something.
It took a few minutes to find the little square of paper, but when Hannah had it in hand, she went back to the store to use the payphone. "I need to get myself a cellphone," she grumbled as she put in her money and punched in the handwritten number on the back.
Hannah bit her lip and resigned herself. "Kelly?"
"This is Hannah."
"Well, hi." She sounded surprised. "How are you?"
Hannah sighed and leaned against the wall, one hand playing with the phone cord. "I'm doing pretty well, but I seem to have a problem."
Kelly's voice deepened. "What's wrong?"
"My car won't start."
"Uh oh. Where are you?"
"I'm at Larry's Food Mart. It's been running just fine, but I came out of the store and when I turned the key, nothing happened."
"All right. I can be there in ten minutes."
This was what she wanted, but Hannah couldn't help feeling bad for calling her out. It was almost as if she felt that the car not starting was her own fault. "You don't mind?"
"Absolutely not. I'm on my way out the door right now. Just hold tight, Hannah. I'll be right there, and I'll get it straightened out, okay?"
"Okay. Thanks, Kelly."
"No problem at all."
Hannah spent the whole ten minutes fussing about it. She felt bad for making Kelly come out even if it was kind of Kelly's fault. Well, she wasn't positive it was Kelly's fault, but it wasn't Hannah's fault either. She tried to start it again and it still sat there like a lump. It was frustrating that she'd spent the money to prevent problems like this and was now sitting there while ice cream melted in her trunk.
Then there was the fact that Kelly was coming. The woman had asked her out the last time they'd spoken, and Hannah still felt funny about turning her down. It was going to be awkward; she just knew it. If she was going to see her again, she didn't want it to be because she needed rescuing.
And there she was. Kelly was dressed in blue jeans and a yellow T-shirt that said, 'Come to the dark side - We have cookies'. The tall woman did not look at all put out about having to be there. Hannah slid out of her car and didn't know what to do with her hands. "I'm sorry about calling you."
Kelly smiled. "You shouldn't be. Looks like I missed something. Let's see what we can do to fix this." She put her hands on her hips and looked thoughtful. "Okay. Let's start with something simple. Try taking the transmission out of neutral and then putting it back in."
Hannah kept Cricket from getting out of the car with one hand as she got back in. Moving the shift lever out of park, she put it back in firmly.
"Now, try starting it."
Again, there was that strange sound and nothing.
Kelly grinned. "Got it." She moved to the front of the car, rubbed her hands together as if preparing to do magic and placed them on the hood. "Hang on," she warned with a cocky grin. Using her bulk, she pushed down on the car, bouncing it a few times. "Try it now."
To Hannah's utter astonishment, it started right up. She stuck her head out the window. "How did you do that?"
Kelly laughed and moved closer, one hip resting on Hannah's car. "The solenoid on your starter has a flat spot. See, there's this washer inside that sometimes gets a flat spot on one edge. When you shake the car, it moves that washer just enough that it will work."
Hannah was still stunned at how easily Kelly had corrected the problem. "Will it happen again? Can I get home?"
"Oh yeah. Once it starts, it's not a problem. You won't stall or anything. And if the car won't start next time, just bounce it a few times and it should start right up."
Hannah shook her head. "I can't believe you fixed it so fast."
Kelly blew on her knuckles and rubbed them on her shirt. "That's why I make the big bucks."
Hannah just had to laugh at the look on the mechanic's face.
Kelly leaned over to look in the window. "Who's your friend?"
Hannah let Cricket crawl up on her lap to stick his nose outside. "This is Cricket."
"Is he okay to pet?"
Hannah liked that Kelly asked first. Most people didn't. "Sure."
Letting him sniff her fingers first, Kelly scratched around his ears. "Hello, Cricket. You're pretty cute, aren't you?"
His little tail was vibrating like mad. Hannah rubbed his belly to make sure she was ready to grab him if he decided to make a break for it. "So, what do I owe you for coming out to rescue me?"
"Nothing," Kelly said firmly. "I was putting off coming to the store anyway, so you kind of did me a favor. I'll look around and see if I can find a rebuilt solenoid to replace yours. It only takes a few minutes to change one out. If this is the first time this has happened, yours isn't in bad shape, but it's annoying when it does happen."
"Well, I really appreciate you running out to help me like this."
"It's really not a problem, Hannah. You take care and I'll be in touch about a replacement. See you later, Cricket."
Hannah watched her walk away. Kelly was not at all the way she had assumed from her masculine appearance. She was...nice. Putting Cricket back in the passenger seat, she put on her seat belt and headed home.
Jill showed up unexpectedly at her shop the next day. Hannah felt a moments irritation about it. She would not dream of bothering Jill at work and was pretty sure that Jill would not put up with it if she did. Was it that Jill did not consider their jobs to be equally important? Whatever it was, she was here now, and Hannah resolved to be polite about it.
"You look very nice."
"Thank you." Jill brushed at the seat of the chair next to the coffee tray and sat down. "You look busy."
Hannah had two dogs in the dryer that she still had to comb out and she was almost done trimming a sweet little peek-a-poo bitch. She could not have her lunch until she got done with them. At best, she was looking at about fifteen minutes clear to eat. "It's been one of those days. How have you been?"
"Not bad. I had a problem with one of my people yesterday."
Hannah focused on her work, inserting appropriate noises in likely spots. Jill carried on as if she had Hannah's undivided attention. Finished with the trim, Hannah quickly combed out the last two dogs and cut their nails while Jill entertained herself with her story. She did pause twice as owners came to pick up their dogs, but then carried right on.
With twelve minutes to spare, Hannah took a container of yogurt from the shop fridge and began eating it. She had a mouthful when the front door opened, and Kelly stepped in.
Silence descended, and Hannah struggled not to choke. Swallowing, she smiled nervously. "Hi, Kelly. I didn't expect to see you so soon."
Kelly held up a small metal part with short wires hanging from it. "I got the part. I know you're too busy to talk, but I just wanted you to know it wasn't some hooligan out there messing with your car. I'll just switch the parts out and head back to work."
Hannah caught a glimpse of Jill's face and did not like the disapproving stare she saw there. "Um, Kelly, this is Jill Wilson. Jill, this is Kelly Lowell. She's a friend of mine," she added in defiance of Jill's attitude.
"My pleasure," Kelly said with a respectful nod of her head.
"Likewise," Jill said coolly.
This was too weird. Hannah glanced between the two women and made her choice. She stepped towards Kelly. "How much do I owe you for the part?"
"Nothing. See, one this was going in the trash, so I rebuilt it. I'll take yours and rebuild it, too. Then if someone needs it, I'll trade it for theirs."
It made an elegant sort of sense. "But, what about your time?"
Kelly shook her head and gave her a smile. "I don't charge my friends for little stuff like this. If it makes you more comfortable, call it a professional courtesy."
Hannah smiled back. "You're the best, Kelly. Thanks."
Kelly gave her a playful half-bow. "You're very welcome. Nice to meet you, Jill." She turned to leave, then stopped at the door. "By the way, there's a birthday party on Friday night at Mama's Pizzeria. It's for Janet Ellstrom. You know her, right?"
Hannah pictured the perky young woman. They were friendly at best. "Yeah."
"It's her big three-oh and it's an open party. Don't bring a present. You both are welcome to come. It should be fun."
Hannah looked to Jill and saw that she was interested. It looked like they had another date. "Sure. What time does it start?"
"Right about seven. The cake will be at eight or so. I'll see you both there?"
Hannah nodded. She watched through the glass door as Kelly went over to her car, popped the hood and began to work.
"How long have you been friends?"
Jill had come to stand beside her, but Hannah's gaze was fixed on Kelly's forearms. "Not very long."
"You never mentioned her."
Hannah shrugged. The tall woman's forearms rippled with muscle. Even the smallest movement in her hands produced a piston-like movement under her skin. "You and I haven't known each other all that long either."
"And I did mention her once. But you prefer male mechanics." Thinking of Janet's crowd, Hannah added, "There will be some very nice women at the party on Friday. You'll like them."
"Great. Should I pick you up at 6:45?"
Hannah considered insisting that she drive, but when it came right down to it, she just didn't care that much. "Sounds good."
Kelly was done. Pulling a blue rag from her back pocket, she wiped her hands, wiped off the car where she'd touched it and threw a mock salute in Hannah's direction. Hannah waved back and watched her leave. She would have to think of something nice to do for Kelly. The woman was beyond generous and a simple Thank You wasn't enough. Hannah decided to give it some thought.
"Well, I should be going," Jill said with a soft smile. "It was really nice to see you again."
"I'll see you on Friday."
"I'll be waiting." Hannah could see that Jill was waiting for something. She suspected it was a kiss, but she wasn't inclined to give her one. Hannah took another bite of yogurt and waved goodbye with her spoon.
Hannah had a total of two minutes to herself and then it was back to work.
"You can't go, Cricket." Hannah smiled at his alert expression but felt bad that he had to stay home. "I know you don't understand, but it's not personal. It's just too long for you to wait in the car." Zipping up her black slacks she added, "Especially Jill's car." Cricket's ears perked up at the word 'car' and she felt like a jerk.
Turning, Hannah opened her closet. "What do you think?" She tossed over her shoulder. "Sweater, blouse or T-shirt?" Cricket's head cocked to one side. "Blouse? Good choice." Hannah flipped through her clothes discounting this one due to color, that one because it was too heavy, another because she didn't want to risk dripping pizza sauce on it and settled on a sleeveless blue that she knew set off her eyes. Kelly flashed through her mind and she grimaced.
"I'm in enough trouble with women as it is," she growled at herself. "The last thing I need is a hard case butch in the mix." Cricket barked and she had to laugh. "Thank you, sir, for your kind support."
Summer sandals and some casual jewelry completed her outfit just as her doorbell rang. Cricket raced to the living room and scratched at the door. Pushing Cricket gently to the side with her foot, Hannah opened the door to Jill's smile. "You look great!" Jill had on a tooled brown leather vest that caught her eye.
"So do you," Jill grinned. "I'm a little early. I hope that's okay."
"Sure. Make yourself at home. I only need a minute and I'll be ready." Hannah touched up her hair and face then stopped to study her reflection in the mirror. "It'll have to do," she said skeptically. Kelly's lanky form dashed through her mind's eye again and she shook her head to clear it. "Focus, girl. Focus."
Jill was sitting on the edge of the couch trying to entice Cricket onto her lap when she returned to the living room. "I don't think he likes me," Jill said with a sigh.
"He's just upset that he can't come with us." Hannah wondered though. Cricket was usually hungry for affection. She wondered if it was his own opinion he was expressing or if he was just picking up on her own uncertainty. "I'm ready."
Jill stood with her keys in hand, while Hannah picked up the remote and turned the TV on to Animal Planet. She had forgotten the last time they went out and still felt bad about it.
"You be a good boy," she said to Cricket.
"You're leaving the TV on for the dog?" Jill asked with surprise.
"Of course." Hannah glanced at Jill in time to see the tail end of a supercilious look. "Dogs are pack animals. They need the pack. If he can't come with us, the least thing I can do is make him feel not so alone."
Jill held up her hands. "That makes sense. I was just surprised."
"Haven't you ever had a dog?" Hannah reached for her purse and coat.
"We always had a dog when I was growing up." Jill opened the front door and stepped outside. "But they were rarely ever let in the house."
"What's the point of having a dog if it's not part of the family?" Hannah locked the door behind them. "I feel sorry for dogs that never get to go inside, especially if they're the only dog. It must be a horribly lonely existence."
"Some dogs belong outside."
Hannah opened the passenger door and looked over the roof at Jill. "I guess we'll have to agree to disagree."
"You're definitely a dog person," Jill laughed as she got into the car. "How do you feel about cats?"
Hannah closed her door and pulled on her seat belt. "I'm not fond of cats. I don't know if it's that I'm mildly allergic to them or that they're so antisocial."
"Well, that's how they are around me."
"I like cats." Jill started up the motor and put the car in gear. "I like that they take care of themselves and aren't constantly begging for your attention. Cats appreciate space."
Hannah took a calming breath. "Do you have any cats?"
"Four. How allergic to them are you?"
"As long as I don't pet them or hug them it's not too bad, but it's like having hay fever all the time."
Hannah relaxed into her seat and let Jill take care of the driving.
Mama's Pizzeria was warm and smelled divine. There looked to be about forty lesbians scattered about and Hannah smiled to see that she knew so many of them, even if only in passing. This might be fun, she thought. Janet, the birthday girl, was standing by the jukebox and Hannah made her way over with Jill in tow.
"Happy Birthday!" She said with a hug.
"Thanks!" Janet returned the hug and looked Jill over. "Introduce me to your date."
"This is Jill Wilson," she stepped to the side to allow Jill room. "Jill, this is Janet Ellstrom."
"Happy Birthday," Jill said as she extended her hand.
"You must be new. I've never seen you before."
Jill shrugged. "I've only been in Edgewater for three months. Kelly invited us to your party."
Hannah slowly backed away as Janet began grilling Jill for personal information and made her way to the table where the cake was displayed. The giant 30 painted on the cake in icing made her smile. A wicker basket sat next to it with a sign requesting donations to pay for dinner and Hannah dropped twenty-five dollars into it.
Her next stop was the counter where she bought herself a beer. She considered buying one for Jill, but felt that she had already paid for her dinner and enough was enough. Women were playing pool and pinball and the Trapshoot screen was going, though she couldn't identify straight away who was playing.
Hannah wandered over to the pool table with her beer and was greeted by Alyson and Toni. With half her mind on the conversation she looked around, but she couldn't see Kelly. Jill was in the middle of a small group and gave a small wave when she saw Hannah looking.
Feeling obligated, Hannah made her way back to Jill just in time for the pizzas and they found a table to sit at.
"I'm having a great time," Jill grinned. "Everyone seems so nice."
Hannah looked around the room before answering. "They are all nice. This is a good group."
"I don't see Kelly though. Why would she invite us if she wasn't going to come?" Jill held up a hand. "Not that I mind."
Hannah blinked in surprise. "You don't like her?"
"It's not that I don't like her," Jill said thoughtfully. "But she's awfully butch and I've heard some things."
Hannah felt a tickle of anger at Jill's words and chagrin that she had once felt the same way about someone she barely knew and who had been nothing but helpful and polite to her. "What have you heard?"
"Something about a restraining order. And someone else said they heard she was stone."
"Stone butch." Jill waved her pizza as if conjuring something out of the air.
"I don't know what that means."
Jill's voice lowered. "She does everything in bed. She doesn't allow her lovers to make love to her."
Hannah tried to put that image together with the image of Kelly. "I can't believe someone would say that about her."
"I'm just saying what I've heard," Jill said defensively. "Maybe it's true and maybe it's not. I'm new here."
"What do people say about me?" Hannah could feel her shoulders tensing up and tried to keep it out of her voice.
Jill looked nervous. "Jay and Freddie think you're adorable and sweet." A tentative smile came forth. "I have to agree with them."
"I know what Jay and Freddie think. What else have you heard?"
Jill put down her pizza and used a napkin to wipe her mouth. "Are we having a fight? Because I don't think this is a good place for it."
Hannah set her chin and waited.
Jill finally sighed and leaned forward. "I heard someone say that you were hard to get to know. Kind of stuffy. And people wonder why you threw Brenda out. One day you looked like a lifetime couple and the next she was gone. If she hadn't given notice at her job they'd be wondering if she was buried in your backyard."
Hannah closed her eyes and took three careful breaths. Opening her eyes, she admitted, "Maybe I am hard to get to know. I'm very selective about my friends. But I didn't throw Brenda out. She left."
Jill opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted.
"Can I have everybody's attention?" Janet's best friend, Andrea, was standing on a chair with her arms in the air and Hannah turned gratefully from Jill to watch her. "First of all, thanks to all of you for coming. And a special thanks to Mama's Pizzeria for letting us take over the place."
Hannah joined in the loud cheers and applause, laughing when the staff took a bow in unison.
"I'd also like to thank Ricci, Mary and Barb for decorating this afternoon." More cheers and some catcalls. "A huge thanks from me personally for your generosity in helping to pay for dinner. I was going to have to make up the difference if you all didn't come through." Hannah laughed at the look of relief on Andrea's face. "If there are no objections, the money left over will be donated in Janet's name to the local food bank."
All around the room women were nodding approval as they clapped.
"I didn't pay," Jill hissed.
"I took care of it," Hannah whispered back.
"For those of you who are drinking tonight, we have some volunteers to drive you home. Will our designated drivers please stand up?"
Three women stood to a huge round of applause.
"I thought we had 4 drivers," Andrea said.
A woman Hannah didn't know spoke up. "Kelly's one of us."
"Oh, right." Andrea had a big smile. "I guess that brings us to our surprise entertainment." Anticipation filled the room and Hannah wondered what was going to happen. Andrea pointed to the jukebox and the woman who stood guard on it turned to push buttons. "We have a special treat tonight in honor of Janet's birthday. It is my great pleasure to introduce to you…The Superlatives!"
Six drag queens swished into the room. Each one wore a sequined floor length gown, all in a different color of the rainbow. White opera gloves and a bouffant wig straight out of the Fifties finished their costumes. They were so outrageously camp and so thoroughly enjoying themselves that Hannah burst out laughing with the rest of the room. Already in step, they smoothly went into a choreographed dance when 'It's My Party and I'll Cry If I Want To' came out of the speakers.
Hannah slid out of the booth and began clapping along with everyone else. She recognized Andrew and Lee in orange and blue and she thought the green might be Alan. Of them all, yellow was easily the most beautiful. Hannah glanced over at Janet and saw that she was laughing so hard that tears had come to her eyes.
When the song ended the applause was deafening. Hannah hooted her appreciation along with everyone else. Andrea had a camera and began taking pictures of the group of men with Janet and anyone else who wanted a turn. Still laughing, Hannah sat down and finished off her beer.
"Do you know them?" Jill asked.
"Some of them." Hannah named the ones she knew. "I don't recognize the other ones. The yellow one sure is pretty, don't you think?"
"You don't recognize her, do you?"
"Her?" Hannah started to disagree, but the look on Jill's face made her turn to take a second look. At first, she couldn't see it, but then she saw her in profile and knew. "Oh my God! It's Kelly!"
She let her eyes travel over the long sequined dress, noting how well it showed off Kelly's figure. Looking back up to Kelly's face she breathed, "Wow!" Kelly was looking right at her and Hannah saw her blush before she turned away. "I don't believe it."
"Couldn't you tell?" Jill did not look amused.
"I just assumed they were all men. I didn't look any closer than that." Hannah laughed at herself. "That'll teach me to make assumptions about people."
"Do you want another beer?"
"Sure." Hannah reached into her purse for money and Jill stopped her.
"You paid for the pizza. I'll get the beer."
Hannah smiled at her in thanks. She felt better about Jill now that she had demonstrated a willingness to reciprocate. Hannah promised herself to try harder to give Jill the benefit of the doubt.
Jill came back, and they finished eating. Hannah excused herself to go to the bathroom after finishing her second beer. As she opened the door, she heard a heartfelt "Nuts!" from one of the stalls.
"Hello?" She asked.
"Who is it?" Asked a familiar voice.
Hannah smiled. "Kelly? It's Hannah."
"Double nuts." Kelly muttered.
"I can't get out of this dress."
"Do you want some help?" Hannah waited in silence for a response. "Is there someone I can get for you?"
"I'm embarrassed," Kelly said quietly.
"Why? You look fabulous."
"I look like a drag queen."
Hannah choked back a laugh. "I thought that was the idea. Let me in and I'll give you a hand."
The stall opened, and Hannah slipped inside. Kelly re-locked the door and turned around. "This is Robert's dress. He's a lot bigger than I am through the chest and shoulders and Eric had to pin it smaller to fit."
Hannah reached up and investigated the zipper and safety pin arrangement. "Which one is Eric?"
"Zach. Thanks for helping with this. Robert would have killed me if I tore his dress."
"Can you crouch down a little? I can't see what I'm doing." All of the pins were on the inside and it took Hannah only a moment to get the first one undone once she could see. "I didn't recognize you at first. Do you do this sort of thing often?" Kelly's well-developed back was warm against the back of Hannah's fingers.
"Not likely. If Robert wasn't off visiting his family in Florida, I wouldn't have done it this time."
"I'm glad I got to see it then." Hannah's awareness of Kelly became more acute the further down her back she got. "How long did it take to get this on?"
"About an hour. Of course," Kelly sniggered, "almost half of that was Lee saying 'Lord, what I could do if I had those tits.'"
Hannah forgot herself and laughed out loud. Kelly turned with one arm holding the dress protectively against her chest and a smile as wide as Texas. "Thanks, Hannah. You're a lifesaver."
Hannah suddenly became aware that she was in a bathroom stall with a woman she didn't want to like as much as she was starting to. "You've helped me, too." She held out the safety pins and Kelly took them from her hand. "I should get back out there."
"Did you come in here for a reason?"
Hannah grinned and reached for the lock. "Two beers, and thanks for reminding me." She let herself out and into the neighboring stall.
"Where's Cricket?" Kelly asked through the separating wall.
"Home. I don't think Jill likes to have him in her car."
"But he's so adorable. How could anyone not?" Kelly paused. "Sorry. It's none of my business."
"Do you think it's silly to leave the TV on for a dog?" Hannah held her breath and wondered why.
"No. Animal Planet?"
Hannah smiled in relief. "Of course."
"It would be cruel to leave him with nothing to listen to. Dogs are people, too."
"Do you have a dog?"
"No." Kelly's voice was quiet and the rustle of clothing stopped momentarily. "I had a dog, but she died last year. I'm not at a place where I can talk about it yet."
Hannah stopped at the sink to wash her hands and watched Kelly come out of the stall in her usual jeans and a T-shirt that said, 'Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History'. The wig was gone, and her blonde hair looked like trampled grass. She had to chuckle at the garish makeup.
The bathroom door burst open. "Kelly!" Andrea laughingly punched Kelly's arm. "You were great! If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it! You better hurry up. We're going to light the cake." Andrea suddenly realized there was another person in the room and pasted on a not very convincing smile. "Hi, Hannah. Are you having a good time?"
Hannah felt like she had been found rifling through someone's purse. "Very." With what dignity she could muster she tossed her paper towel in the garbage and went back to her table.
"Are you alright?" Jill asked. "I was about to come looking for you."
"There was a line." This was such a common thing when women gathered that Hannah knew it would be believed. For some reason she didn't want Jill, or anyone else, to know about her conversation with Kelly. It seemed too personal for that. "Did I miss anything?"
"No, but it looks like they're getting ready to light the candles on Janet's cake."
"That was a fun party," Jill said in the car.
Hannah didn't feel like talking. She was feeling a slight buzz and it was making her tired. "I'm glad you liked it. Did you make any new friends?"
"A few, I think. It's hard to say after only one meeting. I thought Andrea was particularly nice."
Hannah made noises in the appropriate places while Jill talked of her evening but couldn't get interested in what she was hearing. She was anxious to get home to Cricket and she wanted time to think. The entire evening had messed with her neatly ordered expectations and she needed to reorganize.
Jill walked her to her door and when Jill's hands came to her face she sighed. Too late she realized her sigh could be taken for surrender and Jill was kissing her deeply. Remembering her promise to give Jill the benefit of the doubt Hannah not only allowed it but tried to return it. She could feel her body responding, but more as a reflex than an outpouring of emotion. Her lack of emotion made her afraid and she pulled back.
"What's wrong?" Jill asked breathlessly.
"I can't," Hannah managed.
"Why not?" Concern etched Jill's features.
Hannah wasn't prepared to tell the truth. "I'm drunk and I don't feel so good."
Jill pulled her close for a hug and Hannah felt like crying. She held her briefly, then disengaged and unlocked her door. "Thanks for everything, Jill."
"I'll see you later?"
"Yes." With the door closed behind her, Hannah scooped Cricket off the floor and let him kiss her face. "Did you miss mama? Because mama sure missed you."
Cricket squirmed in excitement and Hannah's guilt over having made him stay home alone yet again piled itself onto her already mixed-up feelings. Keeping him tucked under her arm she went to the refrigerator and found the baby carrots. Hannah used her teeth to break them into small pieces and fed them to Cricket with baby talk and kisses.
With Cricket and her guilt mollified, Hannah changed out of her party outfit and into her favorite flannel pajamas. After brushing her teeth and settling under the covers, she began to ruminate.
Why don't I have feelings for Jill? If I had to write down everything I wanted in a woman Jill would fit 90 percent of it. She's exactly what I'm looking for and I don't feel anything for her. In fact, I think she annoys me. Why is that? It can't be that she has cats. I always thought chemistry played less a part in romance than people think but maybe I was wrong. Maybe our pheromones are incompatible. But if that's true, then why does she seem to be attracted to me? I like Jill just fine, but I don't think we can ever be more than friends. When she kissed me…that was so strange. I don't think I've ever felt so empty. But why would my body respond like that? It was so creepy! I don't think I can stand it if she kisses me again.
Hannah rolled over and let Cricket settle in against her back. So, people think Brenda's buried in the back yard, eh? Funny that I didn't know she had given notice at work. It's also funny that her friends haven't put the word out why she left. Maybe they don't know! Am I the only one who knows why she left? Is it possible that Brenda kept her intentions secret from everyone? Not just me? Maybe she's embarrassed. I would be if I left a long-term relationship to be with someone I met online. No matter how many times I go over it, I just can't see any indications that she was unhappy. True, we were far past the wild, passionate stage of our relationship, but I thought we were building something that would last a lifetime. Our lovemaking was still exciting-at least for me it was. I still miss her sometimes. I miss snuggling up to her at night; she was always so warm. And I miss cooking for her and knowing she was on her way home. I don't miss how she left her clothes all over the house, but everybody's got faults. You just have to live with them.
Hannah reached out for another pillow, pulled it under the blankets and hugged it. A soft smile came to her lips as The Superlatives danced through her mind. Their long white gloves stood out in her memory, twisting and waving in time to the music. She pictured Kelly in step with the men and giggled. I wish I could have seen them teaching her the moves. I'll bet that was funny. I still can't believe that she would take part in it. I never would have bet on seeing her in a dress, especially that dress. But she was great! Kelly Lowell: auto mechanic, designated driver and drag queen. And she's a dog lover. I can still feel her skin on my hand if I think about it. Her skin was so soft, but there was steel underneath. I wonder if she works out or if it's just a consequence of the work she does. She's been awfully nice to me: all of the extra work she did on my car and coming here to replace that part. I wonder if she's like that with everyone. She must be. She volunteered to be a designated driver and she was helping to clean up at the pizza parlor when Jill and I left. It probably doesn't mean anything. She did ask me out that once, but that doesn't have to mean anything either. What was it Jill said she heard? That Kelly was Stone? I wonder if that's true. It seems like such a strange rumor, but it's got a name so it must be more common than I know. What would that be like: having a lover who attended to your needs and never let you give in return? Half of what's so wonderful about making love is pleasuring your partner. I can't imagine someone wanting to be that way. There must be a good reason if it's true.
I'm less inclined to think that the restraining order means anything. With a little creativity I could probably get a restraining order against myself. Maybe she's the one who has an order against someone else.
I wonder what kind of dog she had.
It was hours before an exhausted Hannah was able to stop musing and fall asleep.
Freddie breezed in the door just as Hannah let Keisha, a 7-year-old Husky, out of the drying cage.
"Ola, Pelirroja!" He sang out.
"You're just in time," she said with relief. "Help me get this girl up on the table." Freddie scooped Keisha up in his arms and set her down as Hannah slipped the short leash above the table around her neck. "Thanks."
"You look terrible," Freddie observed.
"Thanks. I really needed to hear that."
"Are you coming down with something?"
Hannah grabbed the appropriate brush and began combing. "I couldn't sleep last night."
Freddie smiled slyly. "Any particular reason why?"
"Fretting mostly. Nothing as fun as what you're suggesting."
"What were you fretting about?"
Freddie dropped into the chair at her desk with a sigh. "Tell Freddie all about it."
Hannah lifted Keisha's muzzle and worked through the thick fur on her chest. "Do me a favor and make me some coffee? I'm not going to make it if I don't get some caffeine and you still make the best coffee in the world."
Freddie reached for the coffeepot and stepped into the house to get water. It was the exact same water that she had in the shop, but he insisted on 'clean' water. "So," he called from down the hall, "were you fretting about all women or one particular woman?"
"Just the ones I know," Hannah called back. She waited for him to come back with the water before continuing. "Did you know that people are this close to thinking that Brenda is buried in the back yard?"
Freddie gave her a melodramatic look and started measuring coffee. "Maybe we should put up a marker just to make things interesting. We could have a memorial service and wear black. Say the word and I'll arrange everything."
Hannah stopped brushing in the middle of the Husky's back and smiled at her dear friend. "Maybe The Superlatives could sing a dirge."
"Oh my God!" Freddie gasped. "I heard they were at Janet's party last night. How were they?"
"Amazing," Hannah emphasized. "You have got to see them. They were totally decked out in the whole Fifties thing and the choreography was perfect."
"I thought Robert was out of town."
"He was…is. They filled his spot with Kelly."
"Lowell. She works at the auto place down on North Street."
"She?" Freddie looked horrified. "A woman wore Robert's dress?" After starting the coffee maker, he plopped back down in the chair. "He's going to have a stroke."
"I totally thought she was a guy until after they sang. He would have been proud, I think. Besides, another one of the group--Eric, I think she said--was the one who pinned her into it, so if anyone gets in trouble it should be him."
"Oh," Freddie waved a hand negligently, "if Eric let her than it was probably okay."
"How come you're not in the group? It sounds like something you'd love."
Freddie studied his nails. "Creative differences."
Hannah glanced over to see Freddie studiously ignoring her. "And that means?"
"They wanted me to wear orange. Me!" Freddie wrinkled his nose. "I look hideous in orange."
Hannah struggled not to laugh. "Then you did the right thing."
"You know that they're going to do an hour at the benefit next month?"
"Which one?" Hannah tossed the brush on the table and picked up the nail clippers.
"The Vet's Hall on the 18th." Freddie grinned. "Are you and Jill going to go?"
Hannah concentrated on holding Keisha's foot steady as she trimmed her claws and hoped the question would go away. Unfortunately, Freddie was not one to be denied.
"Is it not working out with you two?" He pressed.
"I don't think so," she admitted.
Freddie stood and began scratching behind Keisha's ears. "Well, she was a long shot, but we had hopes."
"I did, too. She seems to be everything I'm looking for, but there's just no spark." Hannah shrugged. "At least not on my end."
"How did she take it?"
"We haven't talked about it yet. That was part of what kept me up all night."
"You don't need me to tell you to do it soon. The last thing you need is a sexually frustrated dyke claiming that you strung her along." Freddie looked at his watch. "I've got a wash and set on Mrs. Pain-in-my-Backside Baumeister in ten, so I've got to run. Will you come to dinner tonight?"
"I'm sleeping tonight. How about tomorrow?"
"I'll tell Jay." Freddie made kissing noises at Keisha and blew one at Hannah before leaving in a rush.
"He sure livens the place up, doesn't he?" Hannah asked the dog. Keisha gave a mighty shake and Hannah let her down off the table. She let her strut for a moment before putting her in a cage to wait for her owner, then poured herself a cup of Freddie's coffee and pulled her next dog out of the other dryer.
Hannah kicked off her shoes and lay back on the lounge chair. "Are you sure you don't want any help?" Jay was tending the grill and Freddie lounged beside her.
"You two work on your feet all day," Jay pointed out. "I spend most of the day on my ass."
Freddie whispered behind his hand, "He just likes to be looked at. Compliment something once in a while and he'll do anything you want."
Jay adjusted his glasses contemptuously and lowered the lid on the grill. "What would you like to drink, Hannah? We've got fresh strawberries if you'd like a daiquiri."
Feeling completely spoiled Hannah nodded and watched him walk inside. Cricket followed him like toilet paper stuck on your shoe. The evening sun had just gone behind some trees, but it was still very comfortably warm. Hannah let the back of her chair back another notch and settled back with a sigh. "How's that new woman working out?"
"Linda?" Freddie asked. "She has solid skills and she's good with people, but I think it'll be a while before she comes to appreciate the perks of working for a fairy. She's trying really hard to be enthusiastic in her tolerance. Once she relaxes, I think she'll be a keeper."
"I assume you're swishing for all you're worth?"
"But, of course!" Freddie laughed. "You know, if you ever decide you've had enough with grooming dogs, I'll build you a station and you can come to work with me. We would have so much fun! Just think of it!"
"Thanks for the offer, Freddie, but I've been away from cutting hair for too long. If I went back to people now, they'd have to order their styles by breed."
Freddie laughed heartily then jerked to a stop and sat up. "Wait a minute. What if we put in an area for you to do dogs? We could do owner and pet at the same time."
Hannah could see Freddie getting overexcited about his new idea. "The only drawback I can see is that owners get distressed over how their dogs feel about being groomed. They don't like to see Spot fighting to get away and me having to hold them down. Plus, the dogs are less manageable when the owners are watching."
Freddie sagged back into his chair dejectedly.
"It's not a bad idea though." Hannah did think it was an interesting idea, but she wasn't prepared to give up working out of her garage just yet. "I think we should keep it in mind and see what develops."
"It would be fun though, wouldn't it?"
"Working with you would be a blast and you know it." Freddie's smile told her that he felt better.
"Three daiquiris on the way," she heard Jay call out.
He held out a tray and Hannah took a drink from it. "Thanks, Jay." Cricket jumped into her lap to see if she had food then jumped down and ran off to chase dragonflies.
"What's this Freddie told me about a Memorial Service for Brenda?"
Hannah smiled before taking a drink. "I heard some rumors. It seems that Brenda kept secrets from everyone. I think we're the only ones who know that she ran off to meet her Internet lover. Apparently, people have been wondering if I have her buried in the back yard."
Jay grinned wickedly. "As your lawyer I'm bound by attorney/client privilege. You can tell me the truth."
"What about Freddie?" Hannah laughed.
"What would I do without you guys?"
Jay reached out and ruffled her hair before getting up to see if the grill was ready for cooking. "You said rumors, as in plural. What else did you hear?"
"That I'm hard to get to know. Do you think that's true? Am I stuffy?"
"No!" Both men echoed each other. Freddie reached over and took her hand. "It only takes one person to start a rumor. Obviously, this is a person not worthy of your notice and anything that she says should be treated as drivel. Just ignore it."
"I have to agree," Jay said. "Certainly, I think you are choosy about who you allow to be friends with you, but that's simply good common sense. After all, you chose us and that shows remarkable good taste."
"Oh!" Freddie said suddenly. "Speaking of good taste, Hannah got to see Robert's group at Janet's birthday party."
Jay looked over his shoulder with a frown. "I thought Robert was in Florida."
"He is," Freddie giggled. "Eric put a woman in his dress. What was her name, Hannah?"
Jay's face registered surprise, then his lawyer mask slipped into place. Hannah sat up to see him better.
"Do you know her?"
"I've met her, yes." Jay's tone was careful.
"I know that look," Freddie said. "I'll bet she is, or was, a client."
Hannah sat back and tried to look blasé. "She seems nice. Last Wensday night I was at the store and my car wouldn't start. I gave her a call and she came right out and helped me get it going again. Then she came to my house on Thursday during her lunch and replaced the solenoid without asking for anything."
"Why would she do that?" Freddie looked confused.
"She works at Edgewater Auto. Remember I took my car there for a checkup not long ago? She's the one who worked on it. I guess she felt like she missed something, and she was making up for it. She called it a professional courtesy." Hannah kept Jay in the corner of her eye. She knew he would never betray a confidence and she hoped to catch a clue to Kelly's character from his expression. "She actually did a very good job taking Robert's place. I never would have pictured her doing something like that."
Jay tried to hide a smile, but his eyes were sparkling with mirth. "Is she going to perform with them at the benefit next month?"
"I don't think so. I only spoke with her briefly, but I got the strong impression it was a one-time thing." Jay and Freddie both stared at her with measuring looks. "What?"
"Just thinking," Jay said as he turned to the grill and began laying out the ribs.
Hannah looked over at Freddie who was very carefully picking imaginary lint from his shorts. "What? Have I got something on my teeth?"
"On your sleeve, Pelirroja," Freddie said cryptically.
It took her a moment to understand that they were assuming that she had an interest in Kelly. She opened her mouth to object and couldn't. She wasn't sure exactly what her interest in Kelly might be, but if she was honest with herself, she knew that there was something going on. Covering her embarrassment for a moment she finished her drink. "Maybe," she finally admitted. "I need to find out more about her before I decide. It would help if you would give me your opinion, Jay."
"I don't know her on a personal basis," he hedged.
"Then what's your professional opinion of her character?"
Jay stared at her for a second and Hannah could see that he was thinking it over. "I respect her. I think she is probably a fine person."
"High praise," Freddie nodded. "What does she look like?"
"Butch," Hannah confessed.
"Butcher than me?" Freddie asked.
"Than I," Jay corrected patiently.
Freddie gasped. "She's butcher than Jay?"
"By an order of magnitude," Hannah giggled at the dismay on his face.
Freddie drew back thoughtfully. "Oh my," he said slowly, "I'll bet she looked good in Robert's dress."
Their laughter set Cricket to barking.
Hannah set the brake on her grandmother's wheelchair in the shade some distance from the park pavilion so the sound system wouldn't be so overwhelming. The Friday night Concerts in the Park were one of their favorite summer activities and tonight had a Caribbean Folk music group. The music wasn't set to begin for another 20 minutes, but Nana enjoyed seeing people even more than she looked forward to the music.
"Is this okay?"
"Perfect, dear. My, what a beautiful day this has turned out to be."
"Do you want me to take Cricket?" Hannah had other things to get from the car and sometimes her grandmother was too weary to handle the little dog.
"No, he's a little gentleman today. We'll be here when you get back."
Hannah patted her shoulder and went back to the car. It would be cooler later and while she would find it enjoyable, Nana would be chilled. Filling her arms with blankets and bottles of water she made her way back through the gathering crowd and spread a blanket on the grass beside the wheelchair. It only took a moment to arrange everything, and Hannah lay back using another blanket as a pillow. Cricket licked her face and Hannah rough housed with him for a spell.
"Hannah, dear," Nana said. "What was the name of that girl you're seeing?"
"Jill, but I don't think things are going to work out between us."
"That's too bad. She sounded so nice."
"She is nice, but I just don't feel anything but friendly with her. I'll have to keep on looking."
"I'm sorry to hear that." Nana was quiet for a time. "Have you heard anything about Brenda?"
Hannah sat up and leaned back against the wheelchair so they could talk more quietly. "Nothing. As far as I know she hasn't contacted anyone. I am still shocked at how quickly that happened. Everything was just fine the evening before. I go over and over it in my mind and I still can't see any warning signs." Nana's hand brushed through her hair and Hannah closed her eyes.
"Is her leaving like that stopping you from having feelings for Jill?"
"I don't think so."
"Well, don't stop looking, dear. There's someone special for you out there and I can't wait for you to meet her."
"I love you, too, Nana."
The microphone on the pavilion squealed and then the emcee was thanking everyone for coming out and mentioning the local businesses that were sponsoring the summer concert series. The band was introduced and soon the park was filled with the stylized sounds of the islands. Right away people got up to dance in front of the pavilion and Hannah watched them happily. Cricket was at the end of his leash begging to be let loose so he could play with the toddler on the next blanket and Hannah could feel the vibration of her grandmother's hand on the wheelchair arm keeping time with the music. Except for the fact that she didn't have a lover nearby she was perfectly happy.
Every once in a while, someone she knew would happen by and she would wave if they didn't stop or visit with them briefly before they went on their way. At the intermission she got up and wrapped Nana in blankets. She was just settling one around Nana's shoulders when she heard a familiar voice.
Hannah looked up in surprise to find Kelly's attention fixed on her grandmother. She looked at Nana to see her reaction and found her squinting in Kelly's direction.
"Do I know you, dear?"
Kelly went to one knee and placed her hand on the arm of the wheelchair. "You used to, but it's been nearly 20 years. I look a lot different now, I'm sure."
Nana adjusted her glasses and peered closely at Kelly. "I'm sorry, but you don't look familiar. Tell me your name and maybe that will jog my memory."
"It's Kelly Lowell, Mrs. Archer."
"Oh, my!" Nana lifted a fragile hand to her mouth and then reached out to rub Kelly's short blond hair. "What have you done to your hair?"
Kelly reached up and brushed Nana's silver hair back over her ear with a grin. "What have you done with yours?"
Hannah couldn't help but smile at the cackle her grandmother let out, but she felt very confused. "You two know each other?"
"Hello, Hannah." Cricket yipped at Kelly's knee and she picked him up to let him kiss her. "Mrs. Archer and I used to have long talks."
"You remember, Hannah. I used to watch you practice tennis every day and Kelly here kept me company."
Hannah searched through her memory. She seemed to remember Nana always sitting with someone in the bleachers, but she just couldn't put a face to her.
"What happened to you, Kelly? What have you been doing? How's your family?"
Kelly sat down on the grass with crossed legs and deposited Cricket in her lap. "Well, I survived high school, just like you said I would, and then I was in the Army for 4 years."
"The Army?" Nana's hands tightened in her lap.
"Dad said it was either college or the military. I don't think he thought any of us girls would actually choose the military over college, but I always was contrary. You know that."
Nana cackled again, and Hannah dropped to her knees where she could see Kelly clearly. She could not have been more dumbfounded.
"They taught me to shoot a gun, make a bed and do what I was told," Kelly continued, "and then they put me in the motor pool, and I learned about engines. Mostly cars and trucks. I didn't get to work on the fun stuff like tanks and personnel carriers. When I got out, I stayed down in New Mexico for a while, but then I got to missing home, so I came back here about 7 years ago and I've been working down at Edgewater Auto since then. What have you been doing?"
"Getting' old, honey! Getting' old." Nana's laughter was contagious. "What ever happened to your sister, the older one that was dating that football player? I used to worry about her something terrible."
"Sophia went off to college and discovered an accountant. She's a teacher up in Idaho now and they have 3 kids almost grown. She's very happy."
Hannah leaned back on her hands and watched Kelly with her grandmother and her dog. The music started again and the two of them continued to talk about Kelly's family and her experiences in the military. Cricket lay sprawled belly up in her lap, sound asleep, and Kelly scratched him gently without pause as she talked. The longer she listened and watched Kelly's face the more Hannah felt drawn to her. She was wearing stone washed denim jeans, high top athletic shoes and a green T-shirt printed with the words 'Nice Rack' over a picture of pool balls ready for break. Hannah couldn't help but notice that Kelly did, indeed, appear to have a 'nice rack'. She also had flawless skin and a beautiful mouth. Why didn't I notice that before?
"What about you?" Nana asked finally. "Have you started a family?"
"My interests lie in another direction," Kelly said carefully.
Nana only hesitated a moment. "Do you have a sweetheart then?"
"No, ma'am." Kelly smiled. "Not currently."
"Well, then," Nana said brightly. "Have you met my granddaughter?"
Hannah was horrified that her grandmother was trying to set her up. "Nana!"
"Yes, ma'am, I have."
Kelly's quiet sincerity caught her attention and Hannah gaped at her stupidly.
"She's available you know," Nana said with satisfaction.
"Grandma! You're embarrassing me!" Hannah wanted to disappear.
"My mother does this to me, too," Kelly chuckled. "How often do they let you out of your cage, Mrs. Archer?"
Nana thought this was too funny.
"We try to do something at least once a week," Hannah put in. She didn't want Kelly to think she wasn't taking care of her grandmother properly.
Kelly looked over her shoulder. "It looks like the concert is over. I hope I didn't ruin it for you with all my jabber." She lifted Cricket and hugged him briefly under her chin before setting him on the ground. "Can I help you get your things back to your car?"
Hannah started to object, but her grandmother latched onto Kelly like a lifeline, directing her in the gathering and folding of blankets. What took Hannah both arms to carry, Kelly tucked up under one and held Cricket's leash as well. Feeling awkward she released the brake on Nana's chair and led the way back to her car.
"If you aren't busy on Wednesday night," Kelly offered with her head down, "I'm playing pool out at Sam's Hide Out on Mesquite Drive. I made the semifinals in the annual women's tourney and I'd like it if you could come and watch. Not that you have to or anything," she added quickly. "But if you get bored and don't have other plans it would be nice to see you there."
"I'll think about it," Hannah said. "What time?"
"The first match starts at 7:30. I didn't think I'd make it this far in the tournament so it's pretty exciting for me."
Hannah could tell that her grandmother was hanging on every word and that she would get no peace unless she agreed to go. "I'll try to be there."
"You're welcome to come, too, Mrs. Archer."
"No, dear," Nana said. "That's past my bedtime. You girls will do fine without me."
Hannah opened the trunk of the car and Kelly placed the blankets inside. "Does she need help to get in the car?" Kelly whispered.
"No," Hannah said. "But thanks for carrying everything. You saved me a trip."
Kelly said her good-byes and sauntered away. Hannah watched her easy stride and the way her body centered itself over her slim hips, finding it surprisingly erotic. Nana cleared her throat and Hannah guiltily jumped to open the passenger door and hold her chair in place.
"That was a nice surprise," Nana said as she carefully levered herself to her feet. "She was such a nice girl."
Hannah always held her breath in fear when her grandmother was on her feet. Age, arthritis and a lifetime of waitressing had left her racked with pain and a fall at this stage in her life could be life threatening. How she withstood the constant agony with such a cheerful demeanor was a mystery to Hannah, but she hoped that if she ever found herself in a similar physical state, she would be able to maintain her own sense of humor and dignity.
"I'm surprised that you knew Kelly," she admitted as she drove.
"Well, I don't remember her. I remember now that one year you always seemed to be sitting with someone, but I never actually met her."
Nana looked thoughtful. "Come to think of it, I'm not sure that she ever stayed long enough to meet you. She came every day though. One day we just struck up a conversation and became friends. She was such a sweet child. Did I tell you that she used to bring me flowers?"
Hannah shook her head. "What did you two talk about?"
"I can't remember that far back," Nana snorted.
Hannah kept Kelly in the back of her mind as she took her grandmother back to her home and got her settled for the night. When she arrived home sometime later and played her messages there was one from Jill and Hannah knew from the flutter of nerves she felt that it was time to end it.
She called Jill immediately and made arrangements for lunch the next day then went in search of her high school yearbooks.
Hannah's father was an infrequent visitor in her childhood and stopped coming around entirely when she was nine. She never knew if he had died, been incarcerated or had found a better supplier. Her mother was the black-market pharmacist in the low-income apartment complex they lived in. On paper they lived on Welfare, but the fact was that her mother did a thriving business selling drugs. Hannah was rarely the recipient of any of those funds, but at least her mother always kept food in the house. Many of Hannah's neighbors didn't have even that.
She spent much of her childhood in her bedroom dreaming of a better life and staying out of her mother's way. Aside from getting whacked in the back of the head every time her mother noticed her, Hannah didn't feel as though she were abused. True, she was ignored and pushed aside, but over time she came to prefer it. She knew early on that as much as she might love her mother, she didn't like her at all. But she absolutely loathed the people who came to buy drugs. They frightened her. If they weren't desperate, they were pretending to be friendly: sometimes too friendly. More than once Hannah had found herself backed into a corner by a customer eager to sample her. To her mother's credit, they were promptly thrown out and told to never return. Hannah was always punished for costing her mother a good client, but the few times this happened, all she could feel was loved. Her mother had saved her, and she would never forget it.
Halfway through her freshman year, her mother was arrested in a raid. Unsure what was going to happen to her, Hannah requested a lawyer. Having been raised in an anti-law household, Hannah saw the police as the enemy and refused to speak. They insinuated that she could be placed in a juvenile detention facility until her 18th birthday as an accessory to her mother's crime, but Hannah experienced a moment of uncommon assertiveness and called them Nazi's. Her lawyer stepped in and put an end to the interrogation.
Under the suspicious eye of a police officer, Hannah was allowed to go home and pack her belongings. Not having suitcases, she made do with a cardboard box and two plastic garbage bags. Carrying her things in this fashion with her neighbors watching was a humiliating experience and she swore that when she was allowed to control her own life, nothing like it would ever be necessary again.
After spending the night in a temporary foster home, Hannah called her lawyer and requested the chance to see her mother one more time. It was a wrenching encounter. As soon as she picked up the heavy black phone her mother began grilling her through the thick glass about what she had told the police. Hannah protested her innocence, reassuring her mother that she had kept quiet. When she had calmed somewhat, Hannah asked, "What's going to happen to me?"
"I've got more important things to worry about," her mother said. "I expect they'll put you in foster care."
To hear her life discounted by the one person who was supposed to care the most was devastating. "I don't want to be in foster care."
"And I don't want to be in jail," her mother spat angrily. "You can't always have what you want."
Tears threatened, and Hannah fought them viciously; unwilling to allow her mother to see her cry. "Isn't there anyone who can take me?"
Her mother's eyes narrowed and then she suddenly laughed unpleasantly. "My mother always wanted you. If she's still alive maybe she'll take you in."
Hannah had grown up believing she had no living relatives, but she was scrabbling for a lifeline and until she was a little more secure, any handhold would do. "What's her phone number?"
"Hell, I don't know. She lives up north in Edgewater. Her name is Dorothy Archer." With that her mother slammed her phone down and left without a backward glance.
Hannah asked her lawyer to locate and call her grandmother. She would have done it herself, but she couldn't bear to be rejected twice in one day. To her relief and apprehension, her grandmother swore she'd be there before day's end. With her plastic bags and cardboard box shoved under a bench she waited at Child Protective Services for a grandmother she had neither seen nor known about.
With 45 minutes left before closing, Hannah saw a wiry older woman whose red hair was going gray run into the lobby and begin searching faces. Knowing in her gut that this woman was looking for her, Hannah slowly got to her feet just as the woman caught sight of her and broke into a tearful smile. She held her ground nervously as the woman approached, hoping a hug wasn't expected; but also hoping that she wouldn't have a choice.
"Oh, Hannah," her grandmother said as she briefly enclosed her in her arms. "I've been looking forward to this for 14 years. I would know you anywhere." She reached into her pocket for a photograph and said, "Look!"
Hannah took the old, worn picture and studied it. A younger version of the woman before her stood in a hospital holding a newborn with curly red hair. "Is that me?"
"Taken the day you were born," her grandmother said proudly. "That was the last time I saw you."
Her grandmother laughed. "What say we take care of business and then I'll tell you anything you want to know over dinner."
They were required to appear before a judge the next day, so Hannah and her grandmother stayed in a motel and spent most of the evening talking and getting to know one another. Hannah found herself hoping that the judge would let her go to live in Edgewater.
The next day was a whirlwind of activity. Her grandmother had a knack for making people speak plainly and do now what didn't need to be put off till tomorrow. Hannah was included in every discussion and her grandmother made sure she knew what was going on. By late afternoon her mother had signed over her parental rights to her grandmother, the judge agreed to let Hannah go with her grandmother, school records were sent to Edgewater, her scant medical records were sent to a physician up north and she was given a chance to say goodbye to her best friend.
When everything had been taken care of and they got in the car to make the five hour drive, her grandmother turned to her and said, "I don't know what your life has been like, Hannah, but I promise that it will be better from now on. When we get home, we'll negotiate house rules so we'll know what we can expect of each other. Think about what you want, and we'll work it out. Deal?"
"Okay." She still had doubts; after all, this was the woman who had raised her own mother, but if it turned out half as good as it sounded, she would be better off than she had been.
Time had proven to Hannah that her grandmother had been telling the truth. Rules were negotiated and they lived together very easily after a brief adjustment period. Her mother had remained in prison until Hannah was a young adult, but she had never tried to contact Hannah upon her release. Hannah was pleased with that.
Hannah sat on her bed amongst her high school memorabilia and remembered how quickly she had blended in with her classmates and her community. She had made numerous friends, attended parties and participated in sports.
That first summer she had asked about getting a job and her grandmother had convinced her own boss to hire Hannah as a dishwasher. The work had been hard, especially as small as she had been, but the paychecks were very rewarding. She used the money to buy her school clothes, school pictures and a tennis racket.
Looking at the pictures of her old friends, most of whom were still in the area but were now involved with their families, brought back fond memories. It wasn't until she reached her senior yearbook that she found Kelly's picture in the freshman roster.
With the aid of a magnifying glass she studied the brown-haired, pudgy face. It was impossible to reconcile the tall, strong, blond woman she knew now with this nondescript teenager. Maybe the mouth looked the same, but she was otherwise unrecognizable. Hannah certainly couldn't remember her as anyone she had ever seen during tennis practice.
Under Kelly's name it said, 'Junior Varsity Swim Team'. She flipped through the pages and found the team photos. Kelly stood with a grim face, her arms crossed over her breasts, in the front row. She was, by far, the smallest swimmer on the team and Hannah was surprised to see another photo of Kelly on the same page accepting a trophy. The caption stated that she had set a regional Junior Varsity record in the 400-meter freestyle, taking nearly 6 seconds off the old record.
"I'll be damned!" Hannah shook her head in amazement.
Hannah arrived at the restaurant early and waited anxiously for Jill to arrive. She hated what she was about to do and selfishly hoped that it was what Jill wanted, too. They had only been dating a couple of weeks so she couldn't be all that attached as yet. Hannah ordered herbal tea in hopes that it would calm her stomach and Jill arrived at the same time.
"Hi!" Jill said as she slid into the booth. "You look great. How was the concert last night? I wish I could have gone with you. I still haven't met your grandmother and you speak so highly of her, but I had already promised to watch the kid across the hall while his mother?"
Hannah sat there with her mouth open as Jill rambled on. It was some time before she stopped for a breath. "The concert was nice, my grandmother is doing well and I'm glad you had so much fun with little Billy," she quickly squeezed into the breech.
"Sorry," Jill laughed. "I think I had a little too much coffee this morning."
The waitress came and they placed their orders, then caught up on what they had done during the week. Hannah felt worse with each passing minute. She picked at her lunch and tried to act as though nothing was wrong.
Jill finally stopped with a French fry between her fingers. "You seem kind of…antsy. Is something the matter?"
Hannah put down her fork and tried to relax. "I need to talk to you about something."
"What is it?"
Hannah hunted for a place to start. "If I were to write down the things I most want in a companion, you would meet more of them than anyone I've met in a long time."
Jill froze uncertainly. "Why doesn't that make you look happy?"
"I've been trying to understand how you can seem so perfect and yet I haven't developed any romantic feelings for you."
Jill picked up a napkin and wiped her mouth before speaking. "Are you dumping me?"
Hannah wrung her hands under the table. "I'm redefining the direction of our relationship."
"You're dumping me." Jill's voice was flat and her expression cold.
"I like you, Jill. You're smart and fun and I like hanging out with you. I hope we can be friends, but as much as I've wanted it, I just don't feel a spark."
A hint of desperation shone out of Jill's eyes. "Was it something I said or something I did?"
Hannah's heart went out to her. "No, Jill. It wasn't you."
"I can't believe this." Jill looked ready to cry. "Is it someone else and you just don't want to hurt my feelings?"
"You're a good woman and I don't want to hurt your feelings, but I think I knew right away that I wasn't going to fall in love with you."
"Why did you kiss me?"
"You're everything I thought I was looking for and I wanted to be in love. I hoped kissing you would kick start my emotions. I'm sorry."
Jill stared out the window at the parking lot for several minutes and Hannah waited quietly. The only feeling worse than having to dump someone who deserves to be loved was to be the one who was dumped. She hoped that she was not hurting Jill needlessly with her manner or her words. Hannah wondered if there was a self-help book somewhere that told you how to end a relationship so both parties felt good about it. If there were, she hadn't seen it.
"You never answered my question," Jill eventually said. "Is there someone else?"
"No," Hannah said slowly. Mindful of future complications if she sidestepped the truth, she took a deep breath and chose her words carefully. "There's an awareness of someone else, but I don't know if it will develop into anything. I'm not even sure I want to find out for sure."
"Who is she?"
Hannah kept her face expressionless and her gaze open but waited in silence for a long moment. "I really hope we can be friends, Jill. If you need time…"
"Don't patronize me," Jill said harshly.
"I'm just trying to be considerate," Hannah said. "I'm trying not to hurt you."
Jill leaned over the table intently, tears in the corners of her eyes. "Then why did you pick such a public place for this little scene?"
Hannah understood in a blink that Jill needed her to be the bad guy. The least she could do was to fit the part. "Because it's easier on me."
Jill wiped away a tear with a short laugh. "I didn't expect you to tell the truth." Shaking her head sharply, Jill gathered her things. "I have feelings for you, Hannah, and I don't know if I want to be just friends. I feel a little angry and hurt and I don't think I want to stay and talk about it."
"I'm sorry, Jill."
Jill nodded without meeting her eyes. "I'm going to stomp out now and stick you with the bill."
Wanting to introduce some levity, Hannah grinned. "Do you want to order anything to go first?"
A ghost of a smile flickered across Jill's face and Hannah watched her gracefully leave before dropping her head into her hands with a sigh. "I hope I did the right thing," she whispered to herself.
Hannah was keenly aware of the time as she settled her grandmother back into her room after their walk on Wednesday evening. She knew that if she left now, she would arrive at the Hide Out with a few minutes to spare before Kelly started playing, but she fought her rising anticipation. Cricket lay curled up on the bed pillows, but his eyes never left her. Her grandmother was talking about the flowers they had seen on their walk and gardens she'd had in years past, but Hannah was only vaguely aware. She wondered if Kelly were looking around the bar for her and if she would be disappointed that she wasn't there.
"What's gotten into you, girl?"
"Huh?" Hannah turned to see her grandmother's smile. "I'm sorry, Nana. I'm just a little excited, but I was listening. You were talking about violets as ground cover."
"That was ten minutes ago. What's got you in such a dither?"
Hannah pulled a chair over and sat down. "I'm going to watch Kelly play pool later."
Her grandmother looked over at the clock. "I thought she said it started at 7:30?"
"Then what are you still doing here?"
Hannah crossed her legs and sat back. "Didn't you ever make Grandpa wait for you so you wouldn't appear too eager?"
After a moment's pause, Nana started to laugh. "It's like that, is it?"
"I mean, I've seen her around for years and never had any feelings for her, but all of a sudden she makes me weak in the knees. I don't understand it."
"No one understands love, honey. You either feel it or you don't."
"She's totally wrong for me, Nana."
Her grandmother looked genuinely surprised. "Why?"
"She's so…tall. And she's butch." Hannah pulled the scrunchy out of her hair and began to rearrange her curls. "It sounds so stupid when I say it out loud."
"It should. I thought you knew better than to judge people by their appearances. The face people show the world isn't the one they hide inside."
"I know, Nana."
"She didn't look butch to me," her grandmother said thoughtfully. "She looked strong."
"She is strong." Hannah remembered the muscles in Kelly's forearms dancing as she changed the solenoid in her car.
"Her clothes looked comfortable to me."
"I suppose so," Hannah agreed.
"Do you like crunchy foods?"
The shift in the conversation threw Hannah off for a moment, as she knew it was meant to. She wondered what point her grandmother was preparing to make. "Yes, I do."
"Some people don't."
Hannah played the game. "I wonder why?"
"Some folks are just too lazy to chew their food, but others have sensitive teeth. They may not even be aware that they have sensitive teeth, but over time they gradually eliminate crunchy foods from their diets."
"I wonder if folks who always dress for comfort are like the ones with sensitive teeth. Maybe their bodies are just more sensitive than most folks are. Now, it could be they're just lazy, but maybe not."
Hannah was surprised at the insight, especially in relation to Kelly. She also had to wonder if her grandmother was speaking with inside information gleaned from those talks years ago. "Hmm," she said thoughtfully. "That's fascinating." Hannah tried to fit this idea in with the rumor that Kelly was stone. They couldn't both be true, unless she had tired of 'crunchy' lovers. Hannah laughed out loud.
"I've got to go, Nana. If I make her wait too long, she may not be there."
"Say hi to Kelly for me."
Hannah dropped a kiss on her forehead, called Cricket and ran for the car.
Hannah's heartbeat roared in her ears and she downed half of her drink in an effort to quiet it. The resulting loosening of her body was quite pleasurable, and she smiled. Feeling reckless, she signaled for another drink and finished off the first.
Kelly walked slowly around the table, chalking her stick, and Hannah watched her closely. The table was studied carefully and when Kelly made her decisions she moved confidently into position. Hannah couldn't help but notice the grace and power in Kelly's hands and body. Each stroke was gently, but firmly executed. When she did finally miss a shot, she appeared to be pleased with the placement of the cue ball and Hannah fathomed that it was what she intended.
The next woman to the table was sharp and bullish in the way she played. It looked as though she thought that if she hit the balls hard enough, they would have to go in. Hannah smiled when the second one didn't. Kelly came back to the table and quickly ended the game. Hannah clapped with everyone else.
Listening to the chatter in the bar as the balls were gathered up and arranged, she learned that the first player to four wins would go on to the finals. She watched Kelly pick up a bottle of water and drink before slowly turning to survey the room. Knowing that Kelly would spot her soon, Hannah explored the feeling of excitement that flooded her and left her feeling defenseless. When Kelly's eyes found her, she could feel a burning blush creeping up her throat and her vision narrowed to a tunnel that excluded the rest of the bar.
Yikes! I barely know this woman and one glance from her makes me feel happy. If I had ever felt even the tiniest part of this with Jill? Kelly's attention was pulled away by the game and Hannah felt her vision snap back to normal. She clutched the bar until her balance returned.
Kelly's poise fragmented, and she lost Game #5. Hannah saw her become indecisive and graceless and wondered if Kelly had seen something in her face that had upset her. As her opponent readied for the break in Game #6, Kelly caught her eye with a shrug and a smile. Hannah smiled back encouragingly as Kelly tapped a man for a cigarette. He offered a light and Kelly shook her head.
Hannah wondered what she was doing as she stuck it in her mouth and turned back to the game. She could see that Kelly was drawing air through it now and then and Hannah didn't think it offered the same effects if it wasn't lit, but her game immediately improved. She had to work for it, but she took her fourth game and the bar cheered her.
Kelly tucked the unsmoked cigarette behind her ear and took her stick apart before putting it in a case. Hannah finished her third drink and considered before ordering another one. Two other women moved towards the table and Kelly picked up her things. Hannah waited anxiously as Kelly made her way through the room to her side.
"Thanks." Kelly set her case on the bar and asked the bartender for another bottle of water, then asked him to hold her case behind the bar. "So," she said as she turned back to Hannah, "I expected to see Jill here with you."
"I don't recall you inviting me to bring her."
"I didn't, but I still expected to see her with you."
"We're not dating anymore." Hannah watched Kelly carefully and while her face didn't change, Hannah could feel her satisfaction.
"Whose idea was that?"
"Mine," Hannah admitted. Wanting to change the subject, she indicated the pool table with a nod of her head. "Will you be playing the winner of this game in the final?"
"Yes, and unless she breaks an arm, the one with the flowery vest is going to win."
"You sound pretty sure."
Kelly grinned. "I'm positive. And I predict she'll beat me, too."
"Well, that's no way to think. She'll beat you for sure if you believe she will."
Kelly laughed. "That's Elizabeth Flynn. She's the best player in this part of the state. She only plays in tournaments, so this is a great opportunity for me to see how good I really am. If I can win two games off of her, I'll be thrilled and if I only win one, I'll still go home happy."
"She's that good?"
"Shouldn't you be studying her game or something?"
Kelly kept her eyes on Hannah as she took a drink of her water. "Or something sounds better. Do you want to take a short walk?"
Cricket came to mind and she suggested that they let him run around for a bit. They ended up slowly pacing the alley beside the bar while Cricket ran around sniffing everything.
"You look really nice," Hannah ventured. The tall woman was wearing Dockers and a pink Polo shirt. The clothes fit her very well, but Hannah noticed that the sleeves were a little tight.
Kelly ducked her head before responding. "I'm scared to death I'm going to get smudged. I seem to attract grease and dirt no matter what I do."
"I have a similar problem with hair and lint."
Kelly laughed. "I wonder if it means anything that I chose a profession that puts me in touch with grease and dirt and you ended up grooming dogs."
Hannah grinned and found herself with nothing to say. The silence was uncomfortable mainly because the only thing she wanted to talk about was her growing attraction, but she was afraid to bring it up. Glancing at Kelly from the corner of her eye she spotted the cigarette behind her ear. "So, what's the deal with the cigarette?"
Kelly reached up and took it from her ear, rolling it gently between her fingertips as she spoke. "I'm trying to quit and sometimes it helps just to have it in my mouth. I'm down to five a day and I'm only allowed one more today, so I'd like to put it off for as long as possible. I really needed one earlier and just having this was enough to get me centered."
"I wondered what happened. You looked so confident and in control one minute and the next you weren't."
Kelly returned the cigarette to its spot and grinned down at Hannah. "Seeing you at the bar really threw me off."
"Me?" Hannah was secretly pleased. "Maybe I should leave if I'm going to disrupt your game."
"I'd rather see you than win."
Hannah returned Kelly's bold gaze with a shy smile. "That's a sweet thing to say, but I'd like to see you win, too."
Kelly pushed her hands deep in her pockets with a shrug. "I'll do my best."
The alcohol in Hannah's system made her audacious. She watched herself reach out and run her hand slowly down the inside of Kelly's forearm. She felt the same softness over steel she remembered from the pizza parlor, but the skin seemed thinner here. Maybe it was that here she could feel tendons and ligaments. Individual muscles tensed and relaxed under her fingertips and Hannah tugged to pull Kelly's hand free of her slacks so she could study it. Kelly's hand was much larger than her own and seemed to be made almost entirely of sinew and bone. The skin was dry and callused, and her nails were short and square.
She could hear Kelly but couldn't look up. "I don't remember you from high school," she blurted out.
"Well, that's disappointing, but not unexpected," Kelly said quietly. "I was a nerd."
Hannah raised the strong hand to her face and closed her eyes. "I found you in my yearbook. I saw the swim team photos, but I don't remember you." She held the palm of Kelly's hand to her cheek, aware of each finger and where it lay.
"That's okay." Kelly's voice was deeper, more resonant. "I was a freshman, and you were a senior. That's how high school is."
"I've seen you at events over the years: dances and dinners. I didn't even know your name." Kelly's thumb traced her eyebrow and Hannah caught her breath.
"None of that matters. I don't care about the past. I care about now."
A clatter in the alley startled them both and they turned to see Cricket playing with a discarded plastic drink bottle. He threw it up in the air and chased it with his nose, making a terrible ruckus. Hannah drew Kelly's hand from her face and laced their fingers together. They continued walking after Cricket.
"Have I ever, in all that time, been disrespectful or rude to you?" Hannah asked.
"I asked you out once and you said no," Kelly grinned. "It was horrible. I cried all night."
"Please tell me you didn't," Hannah begged.
"All right, so I didn't cry." Kelly squeezed her hand gently. "Actually, we did meet once, a long time ago."
"Is this a good story?" She looked up to see Kelly smiling fondly.
"I started out my high school career by cutting orientation, so on the first day of school I was trying to find my classes by using the map they mail you in the registration packet. I got turned around on the stairs and was completely lost between 2nd and 3rd period. I was supposed to be in English, but I was wandering around by the sciences and you stopped to help me."
"Are you sure it was me?"
"Positive. Anyway, you threw my map away saying it would make me a target for the upperclassmen and explained how the different subjects were divided up and separated by the structure of the school. You walked me to my class, and you didn't make me feel stupid. I never got lost again, but later that same day I saw another freshman getting teased over that same map."
"I don't remember any of that." Hannah felt bad and somehow guilty.
"Hey, you're supposed to feel good about yourself after hearing that story. It was the nicest thing anyone did for me in high school and I wouldn't trade the memory of it for anything. I knew that you didn't know who I was. At the time I didn't think I was worth remembering. I was a mess: I was struggling to understand why I felt so different and so alone. I didn't fit in my skin or in the world. I'm glad you don't remember me. I wrote horrible poetry and wore hideous clothes. I wasn't much fun to know until I realized I was gay and decided that it was a good thing."
Hannah watched Kelly lift their hands and kiss the back of her hand. She could feel the brief pressure of those lips like a shock throughout her whole body.
"Your grandmother was a lifeline for me. She listened to my poetry and my angst and made me feel not so stupid and ugly."
"How did you know she was my grandmother?"
"I didn't at first. I started out just going to watch you practice."
Kelly was quiet for a long moment. "Because you were nice to me once and I thought you were…cute."
Hannah grinned at Kelly's discomfort. "Did you have a crush on me?"
"You're going to tease me about this, aren't you?"
"Nobody ever had a crush on me before," Hannah giggled. "I think it's sweet."
"You know, I'm not fourteen anymore," Kelly warned.
"True," Hannah flirted. "But somewhere inside this handsome exterior is a fourteen-year-old girl who has a crush on me, and I'll tease her if I want."
A huge grin split Kelly's face. "You think I'm handsome?"
"Do you still think I'm cute?"
They stood, daring each other with their eyes, until a door opened and the noise of the bar intruded.
"Hey, Kelly!" A man's voice called out.
"They're looking for you in here. Liz took Rhonda four nothing' and you're up in ten minutes."
"Thanks, Brian. I'll be right in."
Hannah noticed that Kelly had placed her body between her and the door. Whether it was to hide her or protect her she didn't know, but she realized it didn't matter. It was a sweet and chivalrous thing to do.
"You can go in and I'll take Cricket back to the car," Hannah offered.
"You shouldn't be outside alone."
"Don't be silly. I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself." Hannah turned and snapped her fingers and Cricket came running, his leash trailing on the ground.
"Okay," Kelly said. "But if you're not inside by the time the game starts, I'm coming looking for you."
"I'll be there," Hannah promised as she picked up Cricket's leash.
She turned back at the question in Kelly's voice.
"How about a kiss for luck?"
Hannah tried to sound normal, but her knees were knocking. "I'll kiss you if you win."
"You don't understand how unlikely that is," Kelly protested.
Hannah stepped closer and ran a finger over her lips. "How bad do you want it?"
"Bad," Kelly breathed, her gaze intense.
Hannah started walking backwards. "I'll be rooting for you."
Kelly's eyes found her the instant she reentered the bar and Hannah wished she had kissed her when she had the chance. The people who remained to watch the final were clustered around the table, so Hannah had a better choice of bar seats and she chose one closer to the action. A woman her own age, but rounder of figure and rosier of feature was talking animatedly to Kelly and from their demeanor they were friends. Hannah wondered what they were saying and wished she could hear. It made her jealous to see someone else making Kelly smile.
She ordered another drink while listening with half an ear to the woman who introduced the players and explained that since Kelly's opponent had fewer losses during the tournament, she was allowed to choose who would break. No one seemed surprised that Liz chose to do the honors herself, but surprise was evident in the crowd when nothing went in.
Hannah watched Kelly's bearing change as she walked slowly around the table. She looks like a predator…or the arrow readied for flight. Hannah held her breath as Kelly's long form bent over the table. She wondered if Kelly was aware of anything but the game. Taking her time and never lifting her eyes from the balls, Kelly sank one shot after the other. Hannah cheered as the eight ball fell into its pocket.
Kelly unleashed a powerful stroke to break the formation on the second game and two balls, a stripe and a solid, went in. Kelly considered the table for some time before choosing the stripes. Carefully planning each shot Kelly again cleared the table and the crowd began to talk about the possibility of an upset. But on the break for the third game, all of the balls remained on the table.
Kelly stood stoically to the side and waited as Liz began to play. Where Kelly seemed focused and resolute at the table, Liz seemed poised and delicate. There was an elegance to her playing that had to come from supreme self-assurance. With every ball that slid into its pocket, Hannah disliked her more. Arrogance seemed to emanate from her, and Hannah felt it as a judgment on everyone in the bar, but especially on Kelly's ability.
Feeling more than a little drunk, Hannah grabbed a napkin off the bar and wrote on it carefully so the paper wouldn't tear. Searching through her purse she found some lip-gloss and, with her back to the game, applied it to her lips and pressed a kiss on the napkin under the words 'For Luck'. She leaned over and asked the nearest man to pass it to Kelly, then watched it pass from hand to hand around the room. It found its way into Kelly's hand at the same time that Liz won her first game. While everyone else was clapping and Liz was coolly ignoring their applause, Kelly opened the napkin and chuckled. The timing was perfect, and Hannah was pleased to see that Liz was discomfited by it.
Kelly looked straight at Hannah and slipped the napkin inside her shirt next to her heart before resuming her pose with a lighter expression. Tickled with herself, Hannah relaxed against the bar and just enjoyed watching Kelly's long body in action.
Control over the table began to shift more frequently now as Liz won 2 more games and Kelly tied it at 3 each. Early in the seventh game, Liz surged ahead and showed signs of clearing the table when she banked her last solid a little too sharply and had to relinquish control. Kelly smoothly took over and in short order was sighting on the 8-ball. Hannah began to sweat as the tension peaked. Kelly gently stroked the cue ball, and it nudged the eight into the side pocket. Hannah felt a surge of elation, then dread as the cue ball rolled just a little too forcefully down the table, hovered on the brink, then fell into the corner pocket.
"You guys are looking at this all wrong," Kelly interrupted.
Hannah sat across from Kelly with several other very disappointed people around the table. An argument was underway as to whether Liz had won, or Kelly had lost. The only name she remembered was that of the woman who had been talking to Kelly prior to the match. Kelly had introduced her as Cantina and named her as Best Friend.
Kelly had her cigarette between her fingers, but it was still unlit. "You're right that Liz didn't take the win from me. I gave it to her by celebrating just a moment too soon. Liz wins as often as she does because she has the mental discipline it takes to stay focused until the trophy is in hand." She lifted the second-place trophy before locking gazes with Hannah. "I started thinking about what I was going to win before I won it and that loss of concentration took it away from me."
The trophy was set down and Kelly folded her arms on the table. "What you fail to realize was that I played the best pool of my life tonight and for a moment, I had her. Never in a million years did I think I could win but look at what happened. Not only did I give her the match; I ran the table two games in a row! I've never done that before."
"You were brilliant!" Cantina patted her on the shoulder.
Kelly smiled at her. "I was. I admit it."
Hannah joined in the laughter and teasing. She was quite drunk now and a little uncomfortable with so many new people. She waited until the others were concentrating on each other and carefully made her way to the bar.
"Do you have aspirin?" she asked when the bartender came.
"Better make it three, and some coffee." Hannah took a deep breath, but it didn't clear her head at all. She felt someone's arm against her own and swung her head to see Kelly grinning at her. "What?"
"You're really wasted, aren't you?"
Hannah leaned back to see her better and almost fell off her stool. Kelly caught her around the waist and steadied her. "Yes," she stated as clearly as she could. "I am very drunk. I have not been drunk in a very long time. Have I embarrassed myself?"
"Not yet," Kelly laughed. "There's still time though."
"Don't let me look stupid in front of your friends," Hannah begged. "Promise me?" Kelly's hand ran down her back and left a trail of heat.
"I promise." Kelly held her hand out. "Give me your car keys and I'll go get Cricket while you finish your coffee."
"Oh no," Hannah moaned as she dug in her pocket. "I forgot about Cricket. I'm a bad mother."
"You're not a bad mother, Hannah. Stay here and I'll be right back."
Hannah had just swallowed the aspirin when a hand clamped on her shoulder and Cantina sat down next to her.
"Hey, are you all right?"
Hannah hung her head as if in shame. "Nothing a baseball bat and a good night's sleep won't fix."
"Where did Kelly go?"
"To get my dog. He's been locked in the car since before the final. I forgot he was out there and now I feel like a bad mom."
"It's only been about an hour and a half. He'll be fine."
Hannah watched her as she ordered another beer. "Can I ask you a question?" At her nod she continued. "Is Cantina really your name?"
"Sort of. My little brother got confused when he was small, and it just stuck. We think he heard my friends asking, 'Can Tina come out and play?' Or 'Can Tina come over to my house?' And he got it in his head that Cantina was my name."
Hannah laughed. "It's kind of cute. Is that what I should call you?"
"All my friends call me Cantina. I always feel like I'm in trouble when folks call me Tina, but whatever you're comfortable with is fine by me."
"I like Cantina."
Lifting her beer Cantina took a long swallow. "Do you have a nickname?"
"Not really." Hannah suddenly pictured Freddie. "I have a friend named Freddie who calls me Pelirroja."
"Ooh! That's pretty. It sounds Spanish."
"I'm never sure with Freddie. He claims to be part Mexican but sometimes he makes up words. He says it means 'red headed girl'."
"Pelirroja." Cantina rolled the name around with her tongue. "I like it."
Hannah took a drink of her coffee. "Have you known Kelly for a long time?"
"Hmm," Cantina thought for a moment. "Six or seven years, I guess. We were housemates for a while when she moved here from New Mexico. You knew that she was in New Mexico for a while, right? She answered my ad in the paper for a roommate and we lived together for about a year and a half until I got married and had my twins. We've been friends ever since."
"You want to see pictures?" Cantina asked hopefully.
Hannah nodded and let her pull out a handful of photos featuring two beautiful and completely identical little girls. The bartender freshened up her coffee on his way by and she smiled and laughed as Cantina talked about her babies. Kelly came back after a bit wearing a jacket and Hannah grinned at seeing Cricket's happy little face peeking out. She kept an ear on Cantina's children and watched as Kelly discreetly showed Cricket to her other friends.
"They look a lot like you," Hannah said when Cantina wound down. "They have your beautiful skin, too."
"Thanks. I never really wanted kids until I held them in my arms for the first time, but now I can't imagine living without them. Do you have children?"
"Ever want any?"
"I've got Cricket."
Cantina looked confused. "Cricket?"
"My dog. He's currently hiding in Kelly's jacket." She pointed to where Kelly sat. "He's all the child I need or want. And the added bonus is that he'll never be a teenager."
Cantina groaned. "Please don't remind me. I was a horrible teenager and my mother cursed me. She can't wait for the two of them to drive me crazy as payback for how I treated her."
"Maybe they'll balance each other out," Hannah suggested. Though she was still very drunk she could feel that she had stopped getting more intoxicated. She felt hopeful that her morning wouldn't be too bad.
Kelly came over a few minutes later and recommended that she let her drive her home. Hannah offered to call a cab, but Kelly declined. They said goodbye and everyone congratulated Kelly again on a well-played game.
The ride home was quiet, and Cricket stood on her lap to stare out the front window. Kelly walked her to the front door and pulled Hannah's keys out of her jacket before unerringly choosing the correct key and unlocking her house. Hannah leaned against the doorjamb and watched her.
"Do you want to come in?" She asked hopefully.
"Not tonight, I think," Kelly replied as she handed the keys over. "What time do you start work tomorrow?"
Hannah struggled to remember as Cricket ran around the front yard checking his territory. "I'm pretty sure my first appointment is at 8:00. I'll open the shop at 7:45."
"I'll bring your car back on my way to work then." Kelly put her hands in her jacket pockets and stepped back. "Are you going to be all right tonight?"
Hannah felt a hint of panic when she saw Kelly beginning to leave. "Aren't you going to kiss me?"
Kelly shook her head. "I didn't win, remember?"
"You won second," Hannah said quickly. "Besides, I didn't mean it to be taken liberally…literally," she corrected. Kelly took another step back and Hannah followed.
"Very tempting," Kelly persisted, "but I want to be sure you'll remember being kissed."
Hannah couldn't believe what she was hearing. "You're really not going to kiss me?"
"I'm really not," Kelly grinned.
Anger flashed through Hannah. "You're getting even with me, aren't you? You're upset that I didn't kiss you when you asked and now you're getting even! Can you see how incredibly petty you're being?"
Kelly kept grinning. "I'm not getting even, Hannah."
"You don't want to kiss me? Fine! I don't want to kiss you either!"
"Yes, you do."
Hannah gaped for an instant. "You don't know half what you think you do. I do not need you standing on my property telling me what I want. What the hell was I thinking going after a butch dyke? I must be crazy!" The grin on Kelly's face was infuriating and Hannah stomped into her house to get away from it. Slamming the door was almost as satisfying as the scream of frustration she let out.
Hannah took a deep breath and heard a scratching on the door followed by a tiny voice.
"Please mommy? Let me come in?"
I forgot Cricket again and she's laughing at me, I just know it. Hannah yanked open the door to see her beloved dog held in front of Kelly's laughing face. She gently took Cricket, making sure Kelly saw her scowl before slamming the door again.
"I'll see you in the morning," Kelly called through the door.
"Don't bother!" Hannah screeched back.
"Lock your door, Hannah."
Hannah locked her door and stomped her feet.
With the coffee done brewing and only a slight feeling of queasiness to mark last night's overindulgence, Hannah unlocked the front door and sat down in her chair to drink the first of what she estimated would be several cups of black coffee. Cricket jumped into her lap and she gave him a carrot from the treat jar. He immediately settled down and began to chew it up.
With a quiet couple of minutes in front of her she turned her thoughts to the previous evening. She had been furious when Kelly had declined to kiss her and this morning, she felt foolish and pitiful.
Did she think I was toying with her in the alley? Was I teasing her? I remember feeling a little scared and I thought I was being clever. Too clever by half as it turns out. Maybe she was following some code of conduct she learned in the military. She didn't win, after all. No, that can't be it. Maybe she doesn't like drunks and now I've blown it by turning into a lush. Thank God I quit drinking before I got sick. She probably thinks I have a drinking problem and I'll never see her again.
Why did I have to call her a butch dyke? I can't believe I was so rude. Nana would wash my mouth out with soap if she knew. I swear I'm never drinking again. Ever. I mean it!
If only I hadn't gotten scared. She wanted me to kiss her, and I wanted it, too, but the closer she gets to me the harder it is to breathe, and I panicked. If only I could live that moment over again, I swear I'd?
The front door opened and Rooter, a Jack Russell/Poodle mix, pranced in followed by his owner, Blair. Shunting her thoughts out of the way, Hannah put her coffee cup down and reached for the excited dog.
"Well, good morning, Rooter! It's good to see you, too." She looked up at Blair. "Hey! Do you want some coffee?"
"I was hoping you'd ask," he said and reached for the pot. "I didn't have time for a cup at home. What is it with kids and losing their shoes?"
"You're asking the wrong person, Blair. I don't do kids." Hannah lifted Rooter to the trimming table. "What are we going to do with you today, Rooty Toot?"
"If you've got time, he needs his feet trimmed and his belly shaved."
Hannah quickly ran her hands over the dog. "Maybe a little off around his face and ears?"
"I guess so. The wife is going to pick him up, okay?"
Blair thanked her for the coffee and hustled out the door. Rooter started to shake, as per usual. He had been coming in every two weeks for several years for a shampoo and whatever trimming he needed so he was resigned to the inevitable, but the idea of a bath always made him jittery. Hannah transferred him quickly to the bathing sink and started in on him.
She was towel drying him when she heard the bell over the door. Glancing over her shoulder she saw Kelly standing just inside the door with a red rose.
"Are you still mad at me?"
"Oh Kelly, I'm so sorry." She kept a hand on Rooter so he wouldn't jump out. "I was so rude to you last night."
"Rude?" Kelly looked genuinely perplexed.
Hannah wrapped Rooter in a towel and moved him to a drying cage. "I called you a butch dyke and?"
"I am a butch dyke," Kelly smiled.
"You were nothing but nice to me and I teased you and called you names. I feel like such a jerk."
"I brought you a flower."
Hannah felt like her confession was slipping out of her grasp. "Well, thank you, it's lovely, but I'm trying to apologize."
"For being a jerk last night."
"You weren't a jerk," Kelly said as she laid the flower on the desk and started looking around. "You were a brat."
Hannah thought her eyes would pop. "What?"
"This is a nice place. Can I have a cup of coffee?"
Before she could respond Kelly had picked up a Styrofoam cup and was filling it. Hannah watched her doctor it with creamer and sugar. When she could speak, she asked, "What did you call me?"
"A brat." Kelly leaned against the desk and crossed her feet.
"You come to my place of business, call me a brat and help yourself to my coffee and…and…" Hannah sputtered helplessly.
Kelly smiled. "You wanted to kiss me so bad that you literally threw a fit when I said no. It was the first time in my life that I was happy someone was mad at me." Kelly looked at her watch and set her coffee down.
Hannah's surprise was so complete that she didn't even try to evade Kelly's hands. In a flash, she was astride Kelly's crossed legs, Kelly's breath hot on her lips.
"I don't have much time before the cab gets here so I'm going to kiss you now," Kelly whispered. "Will you remember this?"
Unable to breathe, Hannah nodded. Her eyes closed as Kelly's mouth gently sampled her own. There was nothing butch about Kelly's lips. They were warm and soft and full, and she tasted of corn flakes. Between kisses, Hannah could smell the clean scent of soap and cool skin. She put a hand to Kelly's hair and was surprised at how soft it was. She had assumed that it was bristly because it was so short.
All too soon, Kelly was releasing her. She lifted her fingers to Kelly's moist lips in wonder. "Wow."
"Are you still mad at me?" Kelly asked.
"Maybe later when I've had time to think about it," Hannah said quietly.
"Will you have dinner with me on Friday?"
"Of course." Hannah seemed to have no volition left.
Hannah nodded absently; her eyes still locked on Kelly's mouth.
Kelly stopped at the door. "Hannah?"
She looked up into Kelly's serious eyes. "Yes?"
"The next time we kiss it will be because you initiate it. Just because I look butch doesn't mean I want to be in charge of everything. Okay?"
Clarity came slowly and brought a smile along. "Don't forget your coffee." She handed the cup over while making sure their fingers touched. "Thanks for bringing my car home."
As the door closed Hannah began to wonder how Kelly had gotten the car started without the keys. She quickly opened it and called after her, "Hey! How did you get my car home?"
"Trade secret," Kelly laughed as she got into the cab.
Hannah waved and watched her drive off. She couldn't decide whether to dance or hug herself, so she did both.
"…And then she kissed me," Hannah said into the phone.
"And?" Jay asked.
Hannah snuggled deeper into the couch and pulled the lap blanket up to her chin. "And then she left."
"Getting details out of you is like pulling teeth," Jay teased. "How was the kiss?"
Hannah could hear Freddie in the background. "What kiss?"
"Kelly kissed Hannah and she won't say anything about it," Jay explained.
"She tasted like corn flakes," Hannah offered.
"Yeah. Kind of sweet and wholesome."
Jay laughed, and Hannah knew he had his hand over the phone by the muffled sound of it. "Sweet and wholesome, she says."
The phone sounded juggled, and Freddie's voice came on the line. "You sound like a Cheerio's commercial. We want to know if she made your toes curl up and smoke come out of your ears."
Hannah laughed. "It was very nice, Freddie. But it takes a little more than a single kiss to make my toes curl up."
"Women!" Freddie snorted. "Why do you have to make things so difficult? Either it was exciting, or it wasn't!"
"It was exciting," Hannah laughed, "but don't try to pretend that you're an expert on women. Reading Cosmo doesn't make you an authority."
Freddie snorted. "I'll bet I've been with more women than you have."
"And more men, too."
"She's calling me a tramp, Jay." Freddie's voice lowered. "How many men have you been with?"
"But, how do you know for sure if you don't try everything?"
"Don't be silly, Fred. It's not about sex, it's about love."
"One kiss and you're in love?"
"I didn't say that," she protested.
"You most certainly did. Here, talk to Jay."
Hannah gave a big sigh. "How do you put up with him, Jay?"
"He makes my toes curl up," Jay laughed.
Hannah was ready 45 minutes before Kelly was due to arrive and she fidgeted nervously the entire time. Am I dressed okay? What if she shows up in jeans and here I am in a dress? I hope she doesn't try to take me bowling because I'm really not dressed for it. I should have asked her what to wear but she had just gotten through kissing me and I couldn't remember my own name. And when should I kiss her? Should I do it right away or should I wait for the right moment? What if there is no right moment? Maybe I should change into higher heels. No, I don't want to look like I'm trying to be taller and besides, I'd probably twist an ankle and look like a dork.
Hannah caught herself chewing off a nail and ran to the bathroom to file it even, then started fussing over her hair. She worried that her dress was too nice and then that it wasn't nice enough.
With five minutes left she went to the front door and looked through the peephole. It afforded her a view of the street and she watched as Kelly's Chevy pulled up. Hannah began to relax as she watched Kelly check her watch, her hair, her collar and her teeth before checking her watch again. She looks as nervous as I feel!
When Kelly finally got out of the car, Hannah smiled at her black slacks and vest with long-sleeve blue shirt, noting that her clothes made her seem even slimmer and taller than usual. She decided that she liked it. As she approached the door, Hannah could see a slim gold chain around her long neck and she carried a small bouquet of wildflowers. Kelly stood at the door and checked her watch again before knocking.
Even though Hannah had seen it coming she still jumped, and it made her laugh. Hiding behind the door, she opened it.
"What's so funny?"
"Nothing," she giggled. "It's too embarrassing."
Kelly bent over to pet Cricket. "What's she laughing about, boy? Anything I should know about? Something between my teeth maybe?"
"No," Hannah admitted. "I was watching you through the thing" she pointed to the peephole "and when you knocked it made me jump."
Kelly straightened. "You look very nice."
Hannah blushed with pleasure. "Thanks. I wasn't sure what to wear. We didn't talk about what we were going to do, and I was afraid it would be bowling or something, in which case this dress would be totally inappropriate. But, on the other hand, if we were going to?"
She made herself stop talking and looked into Kelly's face.
"These are for you."
Hannah reached out and took the proffered flowers. "Thank you, Kelly, but I don't have anything for you. I don't even know what you like."
"I like you," Kelly said with emphasis.
Unsure how to respond to that and maintain her dignity, Hannah took her flowers to the kitchen. She pulled a vase from under the sink and filled it with water. "I like your clothes," she called to the living room. "You look great in black." She dropped the wildflowers into the water and fluffed them.
Kelly spoke from only a few feet away. "This is okay then? I didn't want to embarrass you by being too butch."
Hannah shook her head and put the flowers on the dining table while she thought about what Kelly's words implied. She didn't want Kelly to be ashamed of being butch or worrying that she didn't like it. Maybe she had never been interested in a butch woman before, but she was now, and she didn't want Kelly to change only to try to please her. After a moment to organize her thoughts she pulled a chair out from the table and held it for Kelly.
"Do we have time to sit for a minute?"
Hannah pulled another chair out to face her and sat down. When Kelly sat down in front of her, Hannah took one of her hands and turned it over to undo the cuff. She spoke as she neatly rolled the sleeve up. "I'm not embarrassed by you, Kelly. At first, I was nervous with you because…well, I guess because you're different than anyone else I've dated." Hannah stopped rolling just short of Kelly's elbow and straightened it carefully before starting the other one. "I'm finding out that I like how you look. It makes me feel?" she glanced up quickly then down again, "breathless."
After making sure that the rolled cuffs were even Hannah took one of Kelly's hands in hers and ran a hand over the muscled forearm. "I like your arms and hands. I like being able to see them. When you fixed that thing in my car, I couldn't take my eyes off them. Do you mind wearing your sleeves like this?"
Kelly cleared her throat. "I prefer it actually."
Hannah smiled. "By the way, where are we eating tonight?"
"We have a table on the terrace at the Park View Lounge for 7:30."
Hannah stood up but didn't let go of her hand. "We'd better go."
"We have a few minutes," Kelly said.
Hannah looked down into her eyes and knew with complete certainty that Kelly was waiting to be kissed. She also knew that Kelly would not say or do anything else to encourage her. She could not remember ever feeling quite so vulnerable as she now did. With her free hand she tentatively stroked her fingers over Kelly's face and down her throat, then leaned over and softly kissed her. She pulled back to see Kelly's eyes closed in concentration and impulsively sat in her lap. With both hands she pulled Kelly's mouth to her own and teased her lips open. As her tongue darted into the sweet taste of her, Kelly's arms came around her and held her tight. The kiss became increasingly enthusiastic, and Kelly was the one to break it with a gasp.
Hannah relaxed into the strength of the arms around her and buried her face in Kelly's neck. "That was nice."
"More than nice," Kelly muttered. "I'd really like it if we could do that again later."
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