"I told you when you hired me that I wouldn't do lap dances.""What you said was that you wouldn't lap dance for drunk, sweaty men. That is not a drunk, sweaty man. It's her twenty-first birthday and her buddies bought her a dance. They bought you. Either do your job or get the fuck out of my club."
She stared at the club's owner/manager in horrified disbelief. His hard, cruel face smirked at her in triumph as he waited for her decision. She wasn't sure what to do.
Rachel Quinn was a police officer working undercover as an exotic dancer in a 'Gentlemen's Club', though she had yet to meet any gentlemen there. The club was a hub in the local meth trade, but investigators were having no luck determining who was actually running the drugs out of the seedy dive or where they were getting the powerful drug. A Vice detective named Tom Dean had been working the club the last four months as a bouncer, but all he knew was that some of the dancers were being used as runners for deliveries. After four months with no solid leads, it was decided that they needed someone undercover as a dancer.
It was unusual for a patrol officer to be chosen for such an assignment. Rachel knew it wasn't because of her investigative skills. She had only been on the police force for two years and still had a lot to learn. No, she got this assignment because of how she looked.
Standing just over five-eight in her bare feet, Rachel was blessed with a slender, yet voluptuous body. At 26, Rachel had just the right amount of curve to her hips, a near perfect ass, and D-cup breasts that were still firm and shapely. She had the flawless olive skin tone and wildly curly black hair of her predominantly Italian ancestors, but her vivid green eyes were a gift from her Irish grandfather. While she knew it wasn't important in the grand scheme of things, Rachel knew she was attractive.
Rachel had been working at the club for a week and still started each shift bent over a toilet as she vomited up her pride and dignity. To go from traffic control and securing crime scenes to stripping for money was not an easy transition. Both were potentially dangerous, but in her real job, she was well trained and wore protective clothing and weapons. As an exotic dancer, she had taken a private two-day class on pole dancing and wore nothing more than a G-string and spiked heels.
To be part of an important investigation at this stage of her career was something of a coup. It had not been an easy decision and there was always a chance that she would be 'made' as a cop. Granted, the way she looked in her uniform with her hair pulled back in a tight braid was markedly different from walking around mostly naked with her long hair down, but it could happen.
Then there was the isolation she felt. The department had set her up in a studio apartment that had never seen better days and she had to stay away from her friends. Most of whom were cops. It was like she was suddenly living a completely different life.
The hardest part was the actual undercover work. Rachel liked her body but exposing herself like this made her feel depressed and dirty. She could see how some would find it liberating, but the damage to her self-respect wasn't worth it. Maybe it would be different if she was dancing exclusively for women, but she wasn't too sure about that.
Now the owner wanted her to give a lap dance to a young woman. The department would not penalize her in any way for refusing and being fired. It was one of the promises made to her when she accepted the assignment. She could quit and go home at any time, but if she did that, they would never forget, and she would always wonder if she had made the right choice. Her superiors knew she was a lesbian and Rachel felt that this was her chance to prove that her 'lifestyle' was not a hindrance to the job. A straight woman in her position would not be expected to violate her principles, but the Powers That Be would never really understand why a lesbian would consider dancing for another woman a violation of integrity.
Rachel felt trapped. She glanced at her backup, Tom. He looked grim, but his eyes were screaming 'yes'. The club owner, Gary Spears, looked smug. Her belly churning with fear and revulsion, Rachel turned to look at the table she was supposed to entertain. Specifically, the young, inebriated woman with a blush to rival a perfect pink rose. Rachel sighed internally.
At least she's cute. And she probably knows less about lap dancing than I do. I've seen it done and I had a bit of instruction. I just never expected to have to do it. She'll never know if I look like an idiot. Under different circumstances, I'd probably enjoy dancing for her. She's got just the right amount of butch femininity to get me...
Rachel stopped her internal monologue short. A decision had to be made. When it came right down to it, she knew she wasn't ready to walk out the door, which meant that she was going to do it. She glared at Gary with righteous indignation. "You know I need this job and you're deliberately manipulating our agreement."
"Yeah, yeah. Whatever."
"You have no idea how much I hate you right now."
"That's what all the girls say," he laughed snidely.
All of the dancers were rude and nasty to the man. Rachel knew it was the only protection they had while they were parading around nearly naked. It was in character for her to act the same way. "You're an asshole, Gary."
"Tell me something I don't know. Now get to work."
"Fuck you. I've never done this before. I need a few minutes to figure out what the hell I'm doing." Gary's abrupt grasp of her arm was painful, but Rachel kept that to herself. "Let go of me."
"Five minutes from now," he warned menacingly, "you'll be bumping and grinding on that little dyke or you'll be looking for another place to sling your tits. Got it?"
Knowing that she would have bruises later, Rachel yanked her arm from his grasp and turned away. She needed help and she needed it now. Moira was her first choice. They were not friendly, but she was always helpful with advice, usually for a price. Moira was delivering some drinks to several businessmen. Rachel caught her eye and indicated that she needed to talk. They met at the bar.
"I have to do a lap dance," she said without preamble.
"The girl at the table over there," she said with a nod of her head.
Moira turned to look. "She looks harmless enough and I've seen some of those guys at the table in here before. They know the rules."
"I don't have any idea how to even start. Any advice?"
Moira looked over at the girl again. "Well, she was drooling like a puppy during your set. There's no question that she finds you attractive. You shouldn't have any trouble."
Rachel almost growled in frustration. "Come on, Moira. I've only got a couple of minutes. Help me out here."
"Give me half?"
"You can have it all," Rachel said of the money she would make on the dance. "Just tell me what to do."
"Deal." Moira moved closer. "First of all..."
Stevie Marks was on overload. Not only was she surrounded by practically naked women, but she was also drunk. She had no idea what kind of alcohol was in a Pink Pussy, but it sure tasted good. It was hard to say how many of the fruity drinks she'd had. Each of the four guys at her table had bought at least one round, but she wasn't sure where they were in the second round. That made it somewhere between four and eight drinks. As this was the very first time Stevie had tried alcohol, she thought she was keeping up pretty well. Her body felt very strange, and her mind was fuzzy, but it felt kind of good.
It was funny though, that the more she drank, the thirstier she got. Lifting her drink, she tried to get the skinny straw in her mouth, but it kept moving. Watching a dancer on the stage mere feet away, she searched for the straw with her tongue. Stevie could tell that the blond was bored. Her dancing was lackadaisical and her expression dull.
But she was naked. There was that thin strip of material covering her hoohoo, of course, but it hardly made any difference. Stevie couldn't look away, though she wished the one with the long, dark, curly hair would come back out. She was hot.
"How ya doin, sport?"
Stevie dragged her eyes from the dancer to grin at her friend, Greg.
"Havin' trouble with your drink?"
Shaking her head, Stevie continued to search with her tongue and still couldn't find the elusive straw. Pulling back to focus, she saw it was gone. "Hey," she frowned in confusion. "Where'd it go?"
All four of her friends were laughing at her. It didn't matter. Her straw was lost. She looked around and found it sticking to her shirt. It took two tries, but she managed to get it back where it belonged. Taking another drink, she smiled. "I like Pink Pussy's."
They laughed even harder, and Stevie realized what she had said. "I didn't mean it like that."
"Sure, you didn't," Bobby howled.
Stevie laughed with her friends. This was the last place she ever expected to be on her twenty-first birthday, but she was having fun now that she had stopped being freaked out. Having been raised in a strict Mormon household, her family would have a stroke if they knew, but Stevie didn't care. Since she had been excommunicated from the church for being a lesbian, Stevie was finding that there was a whole new world out there she'd known nothing about.
Of course, she had no intention of telling her family about this little adventure. They were barely speaking to her as it was. Telling them about getting drunk and watching strippers would be more than they could take. Stevie went to her parents’ house on Sunday afternoons for lunch as often as she could, but it was always tense. If not for the secret acceptance of her little brother, Rory, Stevie would have stopped hoping for their tolerance. Still, she supposed that the fact they had not asked her to stop coming was a hopeful sign. Maybe someday they would accept her.
Stevie's whole life had been atypical. Gifted with a quicksilver intelligence, Stevie had graduated high school at fourteen. At seventeen, she graduated from college with a master’s degree in Information Technology. Using the money her grandparents had saved for her eighteenth birthday, she started her own company installing and servicing computer systems. She had two employees and while they weren't getting rich, they were doing well enough. At some point, Stevie intended to put some serious effort into making her company grow. For now, it was exactly what she wanted.
Stevie's real love was racing dirt bikes. Her family had always been avid about all-terrain vehicles. She had grown up riding quads, dirt bikes and go-carts. As she got older, she learned how to fix them and then started racing them. Her preference was motocross. She raced casually as a teenager, unable to devote as much time as she would have liked to it due to the demands of her schooling, but at nineteen she had begun racing professionally.
She was good. Being one of the few women in the sport and the best of those, Stevie had been approached by sponsors. As her racing improved, the sponsors began to compete for her favor. Stevie was not rich, but she owned her own home and had enough money to have a custom toy hauler and the best bikes. She wasn't doing too badly for being only twenty-one.
When Stevie had first started racing professionally, she did it alone. She had just recently been kicked out of the church, so her friends and family were stepping back, leaving her alone to fend for herself. She had been taking her racing bike to the tracks in the back of her pickup and if something broke, she was out of the race unless she had the tools and parts to fix it herself. She had almost given up on racing when Dusty and Greg had silently stepped in to fix her fuel line during a local race.
Stevie won that race and the two men had been with her ever since. They were older by a couple of years and they were good friends. Stevie paid for all of their travel expenses and whatever supplies they needed, but they worked for the joy of it, not for money. Neither of them was married and they spent a lot of time with Stevie. They teased her mercilessly about being a lesbian, but they were the first to defend her when it became an issue. Stevie wasn't sure what she would do without them.
The other two men keeping company with them tonight were Bobby and Aaron. Both were fellow racers and among the very few who had no problem racing against a woman who routinely kicked their butts. They were in it to have a little fun, make a little money and impress the ladies.
The five of them were a close group and they had good times riding in the hills and 'cruising chicks'. Taking her out on her birthday had been Dusty's idea, but Aaron had been the one to choose the venue. When she realized where they were, Stevie had freaked. The four guys had dragged her into the dark club and virtually poured the first two drinks down her throat before she had begun to relax.
And then, she had come out on stage. It was hard to tell how tall the leggy brunette was, elevated by the stage as she had been, but Stevie had never seen a more beautiful woman. Her eyes had been riveted on the exotic dancer. She looked strong and delicate all at once. Everything about her had drawn Stevie, but the hair was her undoing. Black and tightly curled, it hung to the middle of the dancer's back. Stevie lusted after that hair. She wanted to run her fingers through it, breathe in the scent of it, and feel it caressing her skin.
She was pretty sure she hadn't breathed during the dance. When it was over and the dancer left the stage, Stevie was dizzy and confused. It took several minutes to clear her head enough to speak.
"I think she's drunk," Dusty grinned.
"Toasted," Bobby agreed.
"Yes," Stevie said with as much dignity as she could manage, "I am drunk. Maybe I'll go to hell, but I figure all of you will be there, too, so it can't be too bad."
Aaron laughed. "She's got a point."
"I'm a genius, you know." Stevie smiled and felt her eyes cross. Blinking to set them straight, she was only marginally aware of the hands on her shoulders, but she heard every word that was whispered into her ear.
"Happy birthday, baby."
Stevie turned her head to see who was talking to her and nearly lost an eye on a pebbled nipple. Mortified, she looked up into the greenest eyes she'd ever seen in the face she was hungering to see. It's her! Oh my gosh! Say something, you dork! "Uh..."
The dark-haired dancer winked. "I need you to sit on your hands, honey."
Stevie blinked again. "Huh?"
The dancer gently took Stevie's drink and set it on the small table. Stevie's eyes nearly bugged out of her head as incredible breasts brushed by her face. She could smell the dancer; sweat, smoke and a musky vanilla scent. It was intoxicating.
"Have you ever had a lap dance?"
It took a moment for Stevie to wrap her mind around the soft question. She licked her lips. She couldn't understand how her mouth could be so dry and her palms so damp. Stevie was wishing desperately that she wasn't so drunk. "I don't...know what that is."
The dancer smiled tenderly as she leaned close to whisper. "I'll tell you a secret. I've never done one before. Just relax, baby. I won't hurt you."
Stevie's heart was racing. Just having the sexy dancer close was making her skin burn.
"What's your name, honey?"
Stevie swallowed hard. "Um...Stevie."
"Sit on your hands, Stevie."
The guys were hooting, laughing and whistling as Stevie slipped her hands under her thighs. She didn't understand what was happening, but she would do anything this woman asked of her.
Stevie whimpered helplessly when the beautiful dancer straddled her lap and faced her. All of that naked skin was making her brain swell dangerously and her skin tingle. It was all she could do to keep her eyes on the woman's face. Perfect breasts were inches from her mouth, and she wanted to taste them. Warm hands were caressing her face and neck, long fingers combing through her hair. It felt absolutely incredible.
The dancer's body began to move against her, and Stevie closed her eyes, embarrassed at the fire raging out of control in her belly. "Help me," she moaned.
"It's okay, baby. Open your eyes. Open your eyes, Stevie."
Stevie looked into the green eyes and was lost. She shuddered as powerful sensations swept through her. Stevie gasped for air as her body shook. "What are you doing to me?"
"Making you feel good." The dancer ran her hands over Stevie's shoulders and up to cup her face. "Does this feel good?"
"Oh God...please...I feel..."
The dancer smiled with more confidence. "Just relax, baby. I'll take care of you."
Stevie cried out as one hand tangled in her hair and pulled her head back. The dancer's breasts were on her throat, the hard peaks teasing her pulse and the dance became more aggressive. The pressure inside of Stevie was growing and she strained with tension trying to contain it.
Uncertain what was happening to her, Stevie struggled for air and clarity, but neither was forthcoming. "Oh God," she groaned as she felt herself beginning to unravel. Her face was pulled forward into luscious breasts. Surrounded by that intriguing scent, feeling the beautiful body writhing against her, Stevie imploded.
The last thing Rachel expected to feel was arousal. Revulsion and degradation, yes; but not this sparkling desire. Her feelings only intensified as she watched Stevie approach orgasm. The young woman had the telltale pre-come blush, the gasping for air and the strong, healthy body trembling with tension. No one had ever responded to her so quickly or intensely.
It was beautiful and made her feel like the most powerful woman alive. Rachel intensified her motions as she watched the sweet face with fascination. She could see fear and surprise in the brown eyes as Stevie neared climax and Rachel suddenly wanted to protect her and keep her safe.
"Oh God," Stevie groaned.
Rachel pulled the young woman to her breast and held her close as she came. She wrapped her arms around the birthday girl as she shuddered and whimpered in bliss.
"Thank you, baby," Rachel crooned to the suddenly limp body. "You were lovely."
Rachel sat on the girl's lap and just held her for a few moments. She was aware of the laughing and joking around them and wanted to keep Stevie from it for a few moments. Besides, it felt so right to hold her.
When Stevie's breath began to calm, Rachel pulled back and looked into the stunned face. She couldn't think of a thing to say. Placing a hand on the young woman's face, Rachel looked deep into her eyes. She felt like she was searching for something, but she wasn't sure what. The brown eyes were addictive. She could feel them pulling at her soul and Rachel pulled back a little more. This was not the time or place.
Reluctantly, she stood up, feeling more naked than before. She needed to get away. Holding her chin up by pure willpower, she headed straight for the bathroom. Gary was leering at her and holding money out. "Give it to Moira," she said as she passed by.
The restroom was cold, and the prickling of her skin only accentuated the lingering arousal she felt. Rachel leaned back against the door and took deep breaths. She had to get it under control. The easiest thing to do was to get herself off, but it would leave her feeling too vulnerable and she still had an hour to go before she could leave.
Moving to the sink, she splashed cold water on her face. Straightening up, she looked at herself in the cracked mirror. Why had it felt so good? She had been so nervous until she'd looked into Stevie's eyes. Then it had all felt too right. Rachel closed her eyes. Stevie. It fit her. The face of a model, the body of an athlete and the innocent eyes of an angel. She was a little young, but under other circumstances, Rachel would have been interested in getting to know her better.
As things stood, it was impossible. Rachel could hardly afford to pursue anyone with her life on hold as it was. Besides, she'd just given the young woman a lap dance. That's what Stevie would always see her as. A stripper. Someone not worth getting involved with.
Rachel felt like she had just lost something. Maybe it was her innocence, what was left of it. She wanted to hit something. Bracing her hands on the edge of the sink, she dropped her head and focused on letting it go. She had a job to do and if she wasn't clear on that, bad things could happen. She'd done what she had to do to keep her cover. It was probably normal to get aroused giving a lap dance. It was a very sexual thing to do, after all. Her arousal should only be a concern if she had not felt anything.
When she left the restroom, she glanced over at Stevie's table. The four guys were still drinking and laughing, but Stevie was gone. Rachel wondered if she would be coming back, but she never did.
The cab reeked of perfume, sickly and sweet. Stevie tried pinching her nose shut and breathing through her mouth, but tasting that smell was even worse. Her gorge began to rise. "Pull over. Let me out."
The cabbie took one look in the rear-view mirror and swerved to the side of the street.
Stevie staggered out of the cab, aimed herself at a battered trash receptacle, and threw up. She had felt really good not that long ago, but now she felt terrible. Stevie retched until her stomach was empty and then she retched some more. She couldn't remember ever feeling so bad in her whole life and she cried for herself.
Finally, it seemed to be over. Stevie leaned her hip against the trash can for balance and pulled the hem of her t-shirt up to wipe her mouth. She felt empty and cold. Blinking her eyes into focus, she realized the cab was gone. It didn't make sense at first and she looked up and down the street for it. A wave of despair almost unhinged her knees and Stevie sobbed into her hand.
The church told her she was going to hell when they excommunicated her, but Stevie had never quite believed it. God would never send someone to hell for loving. She might not go to the same heaven as her family, but she wasn't going to be damned for time and all eternity because she was a lesbian. God just couldn't be that cruel.
But now, standing on a deserted street in the dark of night, Stevie wasn't so sure where she would end up. She had gotten drunk in a strip club and let a naked woman rub up against her, then ended up sick and stranded. It was hard to imagine ever finding herself in a lower place. Maybe she deserved to go to hell.
Stevie stumbled to the curb for lack of a better place to sit and dropped down to curl around her knees. The part that scared her most was the lap dance. It wasn't like Stevie had never had sex before, but she had never felt anything quite like that. It had been wonderful in a terrifying sort of way. What were the chances that she would ever feel like that again? Was she a bad person for so thoroughly enjoying what the dancer had done to her?
Stevie cried. The most amazing night of her life was the worst night of her life. Everything was all wrong.
It was club policy that the dancers be escorted to their cars after the club closed. Rachel doubted it was out of any real concern for their safety on Gary’s part. She suspected it was to avoid lawsuits if one of them was attacked. Whatever the reason, it was a good policy. Twice in the week she had been working at the club, Rachel had seen men waiting out back for the dancers to emerge.
Her back-up, Tom Dean, walked with Rachel to her car as the other dancers drove away. "You okay?" he asked gruffly.
"Yes. Are you going to put the lap dance in your report?"
"I have to."
Rachel gritted her teeth. Having HQ know was going to make things tough when dealing with them. The teasing would be brutal. "Do you report every time a dancer feels you up or you jerk off in the bathroom?"
Rachel turned to look up at the taller man. "It's not different. We do what we have to do to keep our covers intact. That's all it is."
"It's not the same," Tom said with a frown.
"Right. Keep telling yourself that."
"Look, don't for one minute think that you know what you're doing," he hissed. "So, you've managed not to get yourself killed for a week. Whoop-dee-fucking-doo. You're still no closer to getting us information we can use. I don't know why they think you can do what I couldn't do in four months. It's ridiculous."
"Thanks for the support," Rachel spat.
"Just get us something we can use," Tom growled. "Stop fucking around trying to be friendly and do your job."
"And how, exactly, do you suggest I do that? You're the expert here, Tom. Tell me what I'm supposed to say or do to make them trust me."
Tom's mouth was a grim line.
"I've told them a dozen times that I need money," Rachel said quietly. Voices carried at night and they were trying to avoid being overheard. "They tell me to do more lap dances. That isn't going to happen. My career as a lap dancer is over. My other choice is to smoke ice with them, and I really don't want to do that. The last thing I need is to get hooked on meth. That leaves becoming friends with them as a way in. If you have a better idea, bring it on. If not, quit busting my chops."
Tom stomped back towards the club and Rachel took a shaky breath. She didn't trust Tom to look out for her. He resented her involvement and pushed her to be reckless to achieve results he hadn't been able to obtain himself. Rachel knew it would do no good to complain. Tom had many more years on the force, and it would be next to impossible to place another undercover officer into Tom's position within the club. She was stuck with him.
The car the department provided her (an older Crown Victoria) looked like crap, but it ran like a dream. Normally, Rachel listened to music while driving, but after a night in the club with its loud music and pulsing lights she had come to appreciate the quiet. Traffic at 2:30 in the morning was light and Rachel let her mind wander as she drove. The thought of stripping for four months or more was untenable. She needed to find a way to make the other dancers trust her sooner rather than later.
Running through the dancers in her mind, she thought Candy might be the key. Not only did the older woman seem to be the leader, but she also made Rachel's hackles rise. There was just something about her that screamed criminal intent. Candy was in her mid to late thirties and built like a cartoon character. She had an abnormally tiny waist, generous hips and tits out to Canada. No one did more lap dances than Candy. She was, by far, the most popular dancer of the patrons.
She was also rude, snide and sarcastic. When she wasn't lap dancing, she could usually be found hanging off Gary's arm, or propping up the bar. Candy never had to dance on the stage. She was definitely a person of interest in the investigation, but aside from some old prostitution convictions, she appeared to be clean. Rachel thought if she could ingratiate herself into Candy's good graces, she might be able to pick up some information.
Glancing out the passenger window, Rachel saw a figure sitting on the curb. A few seconds later, she realized who she'd seen. It was Stevie. She kept right on going, but a few blocks later, her cop instincts kicked in. This was not a good neighborhood. Especially for a young, drunken woman. Honor and duty compelled her to turn around and see what was going on.
Pulling up to the curb about twenty feet from the huddled form, Rachel left her headlights on as she got out to check on Stevie. It was standard procedure while out on patrol to illuminate the scene.
Stevie was crying. Rachel hesitated as her heart ached in sympathy. Moving to Stevie's side, she sat down and tentatively put a hand on her back.
"Leave me alone."
Rachel sighed. "I can't do that, Stevie. What are you doing here? Where are your friends?"
Stevie rubbed her face on her arms and turned away. "The cab left."
Rachel searched the street. "What do you mean?"
"Just go away."
It was tempting, but Rachel just couldn't do it. It wasn't right to leave Stevie here. "Can I call you another cab?"
Stevie lifted her head and wiped at her face with both hands, then looked directly at Rachel. Her face went slack in surprise. "It's you."
Rachel tried to smile. "Yeah. It's me. You can't stay here, Stevie. It's not safe."
Stevie's eyes filled with fresh tears. "Did it mean anything?"
"What you did. Did it mean anything?"
Rachel felt like a cad. She had been so concerned with what the lap dance meant to her that she had never considered how Stevie would feel about it. What should she say? Would it be best to be callous? Could she do that to someone while she was looking them in the eye?
Stevie looked away. "Never mind. I'm just drunk."
Rachel took a deep breath. "I've never done a lap dance before. I don't think I'll ever do another one. But...I'm glad it was with you."
Stevie searched Rachel's face. "Why?"
She had no answer for that. "Why don't you let me take you home? Where do you live?"
"The actor?" Rachel asked with a grin. She knew the street, but the joke was too easy to pass up.
"Off of Warren."
Apparently, Stevie was too drunk for jokes. "I know where it is. Come on. Let's get you home."
Stevie was none too steady on her feet and Rachel put an arm around the slender waist to keep her upright. The younger woman was a few inches taller, but she wasn't all that heavy. Rachel guided her to the passenger side of the Crown Vic and leaned her against the car. This wasn't what she had wanted to do after work, but it had to be done.
"Are you going to be sick?"
Stevie ran her hands through her hair on the second try. "Already was. And then the cab left me."
"You threw up in the cab?"
Stevie shook her head. "Got out to be sick and it left. Greg is gonna be mad. He paid the guy extra."
"It'll be okay, Stevie."
She got Stevie into the car and buckled up, then got in the car herself and started it up. "Tell me if you need to be sick again, Stevie. I won't leave you on the side of the road, but if you throw up in my car, I'll kick your ass."
Stevie's head lolled about as she giggled. Rachel grinned at her passenger as she put the car in gear and pulled away from the curb.
Nathan Lane was part of a modest neighborhood. The homes were reasonably well maintained, and Rachel knew that crime was lower than normal in this section of town. Most of what went down was petty stuff, but there were occasional incidences of domestic violence. All in all, it was pretty quiet. Rachel paused at the stop sign, unsure which way to go.
"Stevie? Which way?"
Looking around blearily, Stevie pointed to the left.
Stevie closed her eyes with a sigh. "The black truck. Pink stripe."
Rachel turned left. A few blocks down, she found a small house with a huge black pick-up in the driveway, a broad, pink stripe down the side of it. "Is this it? Stevie?"
There was no response, but beyond the truck was an enclosed trailer that was painted with the name, "Stevie Rae Marks". This had to be the right place. Rachel pulled up to the curb and shut off the engine. She reached over to shake her passenger.
"Don't you fall asleep, Stevie. I'm not carrying you inside. Wake up."
Stevie nodded and reached for the door handle. Rachel released Stevie's seatbelt and then her own. By the time she walked around to the passenger side of the vehicle, Stevie had her feet on the ground, but was still sitting in the car. "You're almost home. Think you can make it?"
Shaking her head, no, Stevie suddenly lurched from the car and leaned over her split rail fence. Rachel winced in sympathy at Stevie's dry heaves. She'd had her own share of evenings like that, and they were no fun. From the look of it, Stevie was in for a bitter morning.
Rachel folded her arms as she waited, her eyes scanning the quiet neighborhood. It was a natural instinct to do so given her true profession, but it was clear there were no threats. There was a stillness to the street that made the air seem cleaner and sharper. With no threats in sight, her eyes wandered to the painted trailer in Stevie's driveway and widened in surprise as she understood what she was looking at.
In addition to the name, there was a nicely detailed painting of a motocross rider in a mid-air flair. Visually compensating for the color distortion caused by the yellow streetlights, she could see pink highlights on the black bike and the riders' gear. Stevie raced Motocross. In pink?
Rachel grinned. She was willing to bet that pink did not go over well with the other racers. Not to mention the titanium ovaries Stevie had to possess to pull it off.
Still amused, she turned to look at the young woman just in time to see her stand up...and fall over like a mischievous God had reached out and pushed her. It was the last thing Rachel expected to see and it made her laugh.
"Darn it," Stevie grumbled from the sidewalk.
She knew she shouldn't be laughing, but Rachel couldn't help it. Her hand trying to hold back her merriment, she watched Stevie struggle to her hands and knees and then slide sideways to sit on her butt.
"Are you alright?"
Stevie blinked a few times, her whole body swaying like a mesmerized cobra. "I fell down."
"Yes, you did." Rachel reached out a hand. "Come on, kiddo. We've got to get you inside."
While getting Stevie vertical, Rachel discovered blood on one of Stevie's elbows. It was on Rachel's hand and she had a moment of mindless fear. Blood was a hazardous material. That fact had been drummed into her from the beginning of her academy training. Taking a deep breath, she carefully wiped her hand on Stevie's shirt. There was nothing she could do about it until she got inside. She would just have to hope for the best.
In spite of the wobbling, Stevie was easy to lead. Rachel guided her onto the porch and took a set of keys from uncoordinated hands. Opening the front door, she felt around for a light switch. Finding it, she flipped it on and took an assessing look at the room it revealed.
The house was neat and clean, but it was clear that Feng Shui was not spoken here. Nothing matched, but it looked comfortable enough. Kicking the door closed behind them, Rachel identified a short hallway and took a gamble that it was where they needed to go. "Is the bathroom this way?"
"On the left."
"Okay. Let's get that arm cleaned up."
Rachel maneuvered Stevie to the bathroom counter with the bleeding limb over the sink. Turning the water as hot as she could bear it, she scrubbed her hands thoroughly. That handled, she turned her attention to Stevie's injury. The young woman was missing a little more than an inch of skin and Rachel grimaced. "I'll bet that hurts."
Stevie twisted her arm to see it and shrugged. "It's nothing. Can't even feel it."
"You say that now. Do you have a first aid kit?"
Stevie kicked at the cabinet door beneath her and then lifted both feet straight out to give Rachel room to reach it.
It was a nice kit. Rachel was pretty sure minor surgery could be done with it in a pinch. With some relief, she found a pair of latex gloves and pulled them on. Having the protection gave her confidence. She started with a thorough rinsing of the injury.
"I don't think I like being drunk," Stevie sighed as she watched.
Rachel paused. "Do you need to throw up again?"
"Nah. Felt good at first, but now...I don't like it very much."
Rachel went back to work making sure there was no dirt or grit left in the open sore. "Is this the first time you've gotten drunk?"
"What's your name?"
It actually sounded more like Wuz yer naym, but she understood it. "Rachel."
"Hmmm, pretty. I like that name."
There was one last bit of dark in the midst of torn flesh that was being stubborn, and it held most of Rachel's attention. "Thanks."
"My name is Stevie."
"It's nice to meet you, Stevie."
When the last bit of whatever it was came out, Rachel used gauze to dry the area. Slathering an antibiotic ointment over it, she covered Stevie's elbow with another gauze pad and taped it securely.
"There you go. All done."
"You have the prettiest eyes I've ever seen."
Rachel peeled off the latex gloves and dropped them in the trash. "I bet you say that to all the girls."
Stevie frowned, her head bobbing in negation. "I stay away from them. They just want the glory. Not me."
Rachel had no idea what Stevie was talking about. She suspected that even Stevie didn't know what she was saying.
"I think it's time for you to go to bed."
"I can do it."
Rachel stood back and watched as Stevie cautiously made her way. It took both hands and every surface, but Stevie made it into the bedroom without falling or breaking anything. Rachel had to shake her head over the room. There were Motocross posters on the walls, trophies on shelves, and one corner of the room was devoted to a computer. It was like being in the bedroom of a fourteen-year-old boy.
Stevie fell across the bed with a groan. Rachel sighed with impatience. This was taking longer and longer. Stevie was a nice enough kid, but Rachel just wanted to go home and take a shower. True, she could leave right now. Stevie was home safe and in relatively good health, but Rachel couldn't leave the responsibility half finished.
"Sit up, Stevie. Come on. There's blood on your shirt. You don't want to sleep in it all night, do you?"
Stevie was becoming increasingly dopey by the moment. Rachel took off Stevie's shoes and socks and then helped untangle her long arms from her t-shirt. Pulling back the covers on the bed, she pushed Stevie back onto the sheets. The jeans were a bit harder to remove, but she managed it and left them in a pile on the floor.
Stevie had a nice, fit body. There were a few small scars and a fairly large one on her side, but they did not detract from the overall picture. The granny panties and utilitarian bra, however, killed whatever enjoyment Rachel might have taken in the viewing. Covering Stevie up, Rachel brushed brown hair out of Stevie's blinking eyes. "Go to sleep. Next time, don't drink so much."
Rachel turned off the bedroom light as she left and nearly jumped out of her skin when she bumped into a man. She fell into a defensive posture on reflex.
The man's eyes opened wide. "You? What are you doing here?"
Rachel forced herself to relax as she recognized him as one of Stevie's guy friends from the club. She knew it looked bad that she was in Stevie's house. He deserved an explanation and it seemed likely that Rachel wasn't going anywhere until he got one. "I found her sitting on the curb on Market Street about a mile from the club and brought her home."
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. "She took a cab. I put her in it myself and paid the driver."
"You should get your money back," Rachel said as she folded her arms. "I think she had him stop so she could throw up and he ditched her. You must be Greg."
"She said you would be upset about it." Rachel glanced over her shoulder into the darkened room. "She took a tumble outside and banged up her elbow. I cleaned it up and put a bandage on it, but I can't promise it won't get infected."
"Why were you helping her?"
"She seems like a nice kid. I didn't want anything bad to happen to her."
Rachel could see the distrust in his eyes and realized that he might see her as acting out of character for a stripper. It aggravated her and it came out in her voice. "Look, I didn't steal anything. I picked her up, brought her home, bandaged her elbow and tucked her in bed. That's all. Her keys are on the table by the front door. I didn't have to do any of it, but I did. All I really want to do is go home and take a shower. Is that okay with you or do you plan on calling the cops on me for helping your friend?"
Greg considered it for a moment and stepped aside to let her pass. Rachel only got a few steps before he spoke.
Rachel turned to look at him. "What?"
He looked sincere and Rachel's mood lightened. "You're welcome."
"You gonna be okay getting home?"
Maybe he was a good guy. Most wouldn't have asked her that. "Yes."
Rachel left the house and got in her car. She quickly made note of the address and Stevie's vehicle plates. She added the plate number from what had to be Greg's vehicle. Moira said that he looked familiar. One never knew where a lead could come from. Every bit of information was valuable, even if only to eliminate possibilities. Stevie didn't seem like the type to get involved with running drugs, but better safe than sorry.
The sun on her face woke Stevie the next morning. The taste in her mouth was the most god-awful thing ever and her whole body was sore. Forcing herself to sit up, she looked down in confusion. She never wore her underwear to bed. Where were her pajamas?
A tug at her elbow as she bent her arm caught her attention. Seeing the bandage, it all came back to her: the club, the lap dance, being sick, hurting her arm...Rachel. Her belly twisted into a warm puddle at the memory. Completely unaware of the silly grin on her face, Stevie closed her eyes and remembered.
What a night! She could have done without getting so sick, but...wow! And to have it all topped off with Rachel taking care of her...
Stevie's eyes flew open. Rachel had been in her house. Was she still there? Stevie threw on her robe as she left the bedroom. A quick check of the house ended in dashed hope when all she found was Greg snoring on the sofa. She knew it was naive to have expected a virtual stranger to stay the night when it was not necessary, but Stevie was disappointed.
Sadly, there was nothing she could do about it. Odds were very high that she would never see Rachel again. Their lives did not intersect and a woman like Rachel would not be looking for someone like Stevie to have a relationship with. She would want someone older and more worldly. Besides which, Stevie had been nothing more than a job to the dancer. The fact that Rachel had seen her home and fixed her arm only meant that Rachel was a good person. Not to mention she was probably straight. Most women were.
Stevie shuffled to the bathroom. Being a grown-up was pretty cool most of the time, but every once in a while, it sucked road apples.
After taking a shower and scouring the inside of her mouth until the bad taste was gone, Stevie took a closer look at her elbow. It was a nice little patch of road rash, but not terribly deep. At least, there wasn't any bone showing. She put some more ointment on it but decided to leave it exposed to the air. She tended to heal rather fast.
Dressing in jeans and a t-shirt, Stevie straightened up the bathroom, made her bed and picked up the previous night’s clothing. Emptying the pockets onto her dresser, Stevie dropped the laundry off on top of the washer on her way to the kitchen. She was very hungry. Fixing a large bowl of cornflakes with sliced banana and a handful of butterscotch chips, she grabbed a bottle of orange juice and went out to sit on the front steps. This was her favorite place to eat breakfast. Not only did it feel like a decadent morning thing, but it also made her feel rather proud to be a homeowner. It was kind of like staking her claim in front of the whole neighborhood.
The lawn was looking a bit scruffy. Another week and she'd have to get it mowed. Looking two yards to her left, she saw that Mrs. Hennessy's lawn was looking pretty scruffy, too. Taking care of the yard had been Mr. Hennessy's bailiwick. With his recent passing, Stevie wondered how Mrs. Hennessy planned to handle it. She was far too old and frail to do it herself.
Stevie decided to take care of it herself. It wouldn't take much longer to do two yards and she had the time. She had not known the Hennessy's much beyond a friendly hello or two, but she felt for Mrs. Hennessy's loss. What must it be like to love for nearly fifty years and then suddenly be alone? It made her chest ache just thinking about it. Mowing the woman's lawn would not assuage the woman's grief, but if it would ease some of the burden of going on alone, Stevie would count it as time well spent.
Greg was still passed out and snoring when she went back inside. The way one of his arms was hanging off the sofa gave her an idea. Stevie considered it. Her older brother, Sam, had done it to her once, but she had been just a child at the time. She didn't know if it would work on an adult. Greg would kill her, but it was just too tempting to pass up.
It did not occur to her until darkness was spreading across the front of Greg's jeans that she was making him pee on her sofa. Stevie pulled the bowl of water away just as Greg jerked awake and staggered to his feet.
Stevie was frozen in place. She watched Greg's brain put it together.
"Ah, damn it!" he exclaimed. "Why'd you have to go and do that?"
Greg put both hands to his head with a groan. "And on a fuckin' hangover, too. Shit."
Stevie frowned. "You've got a hangover? But your car is out front. Did you drive drunk?"
Greg sighed and headed towards the bathroom. "Don't start with me, Stevie."
Anger made her confrontational. "Are you kidding? You drive drunk and I'm not supposed to give you heck over it? You know what? I'm not sorry I played that stupid trick on you. You deserved it. Where are you going?"
"To take a shower. I'm gonna need something to wear."
Stevie put the bowl down and stood up. "I don't think so, buddy. Take it on home."
Greg turned to look at her. "What?"
"You heard me. I said take it home. You're not showering here and I'm not giving you clothes. You know better than to drive drunk. You're lucky you aren't in jail or dead. If you think I'm going to make the morning-after easier on you, you can just forget it. Drive home in your pee jeans."
"What crawled up your ass and died?"
"Your brain," Stevie shot back. "I'm really mad at you, Greg. You need to leave."
He stood there for a minute, his jaw clenching, and then he stomped out the front door.
Stevie wanted to kick something. Greg had assured her that the ride situation for her birthday was under control. She had taken him at his word, and he had lied to her, risking himself and every other driver on the road. A couple of years before they met Greg had been arrested for driving drunk. He knew how stupid it was. The fact that he used her birthday to do something so dumb really ticked her off.
Maybe mowing lawns would allow her to work off some of her frustration.
Rachel dropped her laundry basket in front of the machines. She was a little early and her weekly contact was not yet here. Not that she expected much in the way of new intelligence. She had sent in the information she had on Stevie and Greg, but she was pretty sure nothing would come of it. The only positive benefit so far to these weekly meetings was that she got her laundry done.
She sorted her clothes and started the machines. Rachel chose a Sprite from the vending machine and took a seat along the back wall. She was tired. Her sleep was becoming increasingly restless the longer she was undercover. Rachel would never admit it to anyone else, but it was the constant fear that was her undoing.
There was the fear that she was in over her head and would end up dead; or that a mistake would cause someone else to end up dead. There was also the fear that she would fail in her mission and look like an idiot to her superiors. Combined with the emotional stress of stripping, it was starting to get to her.
The truth was Rachel didn't know what to do to further the case. She was hoping that something would happen; that the next step would somehow present itself and she could react in a way that would lead to more information. Making it happen seemed to be beyond her capabilities. Her mind just didn't work that way and the advice she got from headquarters was so vague it was useless.
Rachel put her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. This would be so much easier to handle if she got a day off once in a while. Having to be Rachel the stripper all the time only intensified her fears and inadequacies. A day off to be her true self would be a beautiful thing.
A bell tinkled as the door opened. Rachel opened one eye and saw her contact. Rhonda McIntyre was a property clerk for the department. She was chosen specifically for the fact that she was an unknown on the street. It helped that she looked like a bored soccer mom. Rachel sent a weak smile towards Rhonda and waited for her to get her laundry started.
"Hey," Rhonda said as she sat down.
"Are you doing okay?"
Rachel shrugged lightly. "Yep."
There was no one else in the laundromat so Rhonda made no effort to hide the envelope she carried. "They got a hit on someone."
Rachel's eyes widened. "Stevie? I don't believe it."
"Not her. Read the report."
Rachel tore open the envelope hastily and unfolded the papers it contained. First was information about Stevie. Apparently, Stevie was some sort of genius. She had graduated from college at seventeen with a degree in computers and now owned a computer repair and system installation business. Rachel knew of it but had never frequented the establishment. The report also stated that she raced Motocross professionally and owned her own home. The analysis at the bottom of the page rated Stevie's involvement in running drugs as very slight. It was true that she traveled for racing, which would be convenient, but she appeared to be clean.
Greg Tolman was more interesting, but only because his past was a bit more colorful. Twice he had been arrested for possession of a controlled substance, but that had been as a very young adult. No drug involvement was indicated since those incidences. Except for a DUI three years earlier, he was clean as well. He worked in a warehouse as a forklift driver. The analysis listed him as an unlikely, yet still potential person of interest.
The next page was dedicated to one Dustin Farraday. Rachel recognized his picture as one of the men with Stevie the previous evening. While Mr. Farraday's own record was innocuous, he had an uncle and two cousins serving time in state prison for trafficking meth. This made him very interesting indeed.
The last page was a recommendation that she attempt to establish a friendship with Stevie and her friends for the purpose of gathering information on their viability as suspects. Reference was made to the lap dance as a way to justify contact and Rachel winced. Tom must have reported the dance at the first opportunity.
Rachel bit off a curse. Rhonda was a nice woman, but she would report everything Rachel said and did. Any displayed displeasure over her orders would be reported. Nothing good could come of it.
"I didn't expect anything this quickly."
"Apparently the girl is a big deal," Rhonda said with rolled eyes. "Most of the men knew who she was right away. She's been written up in racing magazines and everything. Her friends are her mechanics, so their names are common knowledge."
Rachel read the papers again and then handed them back to Rhonda. It was safer if she didn't have such information anywhere near her. In the movies, things like that tended to get found at the worst possible moment.
Rhonda was grinning. "Heard about the lap dance."
Rachel folded her arms and looked steadily at her contact. "You think it's amusing?"
"I just wish I had been there to see it."
Tears of rage came to Rachel's eyes. "How dare you. I expect to be treated like a piece of meat at the club. What I did not expect was to be treated like that by my co-workers. Do you think it was easy? Do you think that I am unaffected by what I had to do? How dare you come here and mock..."
The ability to speak was drowned out by the urge to scream and cry. It took all of Rachel's willpower to limit her response to tears.
"I'm sorry," Rhonda said softly. "You're right."
"Fuck you," Rachel choked. "Fuck all of you."
Locking herself in the bathroom, Rachel sat down on the toilet and cried. She had never in her life felt so alone. She faced the risk of assault, injury, and even death at the club and her fellow officers thought it was funny. Did no one understand how hard this was for her? Was there no one she could turn to?
Her clothes were in the dryer when she came out. Rachel sat down beside Rhonda without looking at her.
"I know," she said shortly.
"I couldn't do it," Rhonda said after several minutes of silence. "What you're doing...I could not do it. I'm so insulated from this sort of thing. Doing laundry like this is as close as I've ever gotten to field work. I never stopped to think about what it is you're actually having to do."
Rachel was even more tired than before. Resting her head against the wall, she closed her eyes and wished she could sleep.
"Listen, Rachel. If you need anything, let me know. I'm not sure how much help I can be, but I'll try."
"Thanks," Rachel whispered.
"You look tired."
"You have no idea."
"Sleep if you can. I'll finish your laundry and wake you when it's done."
Rachel opened her eyes to look at her contact. She found genuine remorse in the woman's face and nodded. "I appreciate that."
Rhonda smiled tremulously. "I really am sorry."
"It's okay, Rhonda. I understand."
It was a short nap but refreshing. Rachel did what she could to ease the tension between them before loading her clothes into her car. Her first stop was at a Starbuck's for coffee. While she waited, she decided that the sooner she tried to establish contact with Stevie the better. If she went now, she could still pass it off as concern for Stevie's well-being. It might be more difficult to explain why she was dropping by later on.
The truck was gone when Rachel pulled up to Stevie's house. She was pretty sure that meant Stevie wasn't home, but she went up to knock on the door anyway. She'd come this far and was unwilling to just give up. As she expected, there was no answer. Rachel considered her options. Maybe she could leave a note. At the very least it would leave the door open for future contact.
Intending to return to the car in search of a scrap of paper, Rachel hesitated as an old woman turned up the walk. She was carrying a plate covered by a dish towel.
Rachel smiled out of reflex. "Hi." She felt funny being caught on Stevie's porch. "It doesn't look like Stevie is home."
"I know," the old woman said. "I'm just dropping this off."
The dishtowel was lifted enough to show a pie with a lattice crust. "Peach pie," the old woman said bashfully. "Picked the peaches myself from my tree. It's still warm from the oven."
Rachel obediently leaned over to smell it and promptly moaned in pleasure. "Wow. That smells wonderful."
Smiling, the old woman carefully set the pie on the welcome mat and straightened the towel. "Are you one of Stevie's friends?"
"No. Well, maybe a little. I hope so." She was unprepared for the question and felt foolish for stumbling over the answer.
"Me, too," the woman grinned.
Rachel relaxed. "We just met last night. I'm Rachel, by the way. I came by to say hi and find out how she's doing today. She turned twenty-one yesterday and tied one on last night."
"Ahh. To be young again. Not that I would do it over, mind you. Just about the time you really get comfortable with yourself, you figure out that you're old." She looked up at Rachel with a twinkle in her eye. "My name is Leona Hennessy and I have another peach pie cooling on the kitchen counter. May I offer you a slice?"
"Thank you, but..."
"Please. I've been ordered by my doctors not to eat round pieces of pie. They're afraid I'll go into a coma. If you have a slice it won't be round anymore."
Rachel pictured Leona eating a whole pie by herself and had to chuckle. Pie would taste really good right now and maybe she could learn a little about Stevie in the process. "Well, I'd hate to be responsible for you going into a coma."
Rachel followed Leona to a home two doors down. It didn't look that much different from any of the other homes in the neighborhood. Leona stopped in the middle of the walk.
"I went out this morning to see my daughter and when I came home, the yard had been trimmed." Tears filled Leona's eyes, but she kept talking. "My husband took care of the yard. I'm afraid I've let it go since he...passed."
Rachel felt a brief pain in her chest. "I'm sorry."
Leona took a deep breath and stood up straighter. "No matter. I thought for a minute that it was him, but I knew better. I had to ask the neighbors who did it. The least I could do was make her a pie."
Rachel wasn't quite clear on what she was being told. "Stevie cut your grass?"
"I don't know. Wasn't that sweet?"
"It is," Rachel said absently. If she weren't mistaken, Stevie had voluntarily cut the grass for no reason. If not for no reason, then for reasons of her own. What they could be Rachel had no idea. "How well do you know Stevie?"
"Hardly at all. Come on inside while the pie is still warm."
It was, bar none, the best pie Rachel had ever eaten. It all but melted in her mouth and she savored every moment of that first bite. "Oh, Leona. This is the best pie I've ever had."
Pride shone in the old woman's eyes. "Thank you. The more you eat the happier my doctors will be."
The second bite was even better than the first. Rachel discovered a hunger inside that she hadn't felt in weeks. "Oh my God," she murmured between bites. "Why aren't you famous?"
Leona laughed softly. "It's the peaches. When you pick them ripe from the source it's hard to make a bad pie. I make a mean apple, too."
Rachel focused on Leona hopefully. "Is that an invitation?"
Leona was quite beautiful when she smiled like that. "It can be."
Rachel did a victory dance on her chair and dove back into her pie. She was more than happy to take a second slice when it was offered. Her belly was pleasantly stuffed by the time she finished. Sitting back in her chair with a satisfied sigh, she grinned at Leona. "My tummy thanks you."
"Good. If you don't mind me saying so, you're a little thin. You need to eat more."
"I know. It's just that I started a new job not long ago and it's taking a lot out of me. I'm down about fifteen pounds."
"That's a lot of weight to lose in a short time. No job is worth sacrificing your health. What is it that you do?"
"I'm a cocktail waitress at a club downtown." It wasn't a complete lie. "It's harder than I thought it would be."
Leona nodded. "I worked as a waitress for a number of years. Of course, that was a long time ago, but it is hard work. Unless you've done it, you just can't know how hard. I know it's none of my business, but you have to take care of yourself or it will only get harder."
Rachel rubbed her full belly with a grin. "That pie was a good start."
Leona pointed at her with mock severity. "You can't live on pie."
"Are you sure? Not even your pie?"
"Don't make me spank you."
Rachel laughed openly. "Yes, ma'am."
"That's better. Would you like some tea?"
"I would, yes."
Leona reached over to squeeze Rachel's arm before getting up from the table. Rachel understood instantly that Leona was lonely. It struck her as sad that such a charming and friendly woman would be lonely. Of course, her husband had died, presumably recently. He had probably been a large part of her daily life and now he was gone. How did one fill up that kind of emptiness?
Rachel's heart ached for Leona's loss. She didn't have to know anything about what kind of man the husband had been. The loss was clear now that she recognized it. In that moment she understood Stevie's reasons for cutting the grass. Stevie lived in the neighborhood. She had likely seen Mr. Hennessy taking care of the yard. She had recognized the loss, too, and had tried to do something to alleviate it. Something that might be hard for Leona to handle on her own.
Stevie was definitely not part of the ice trade. Rachel was certain of it. She was equally certain that Stevie would not knowingly associate with people who were. Rachel would do as ordered, but she knew this was a dead end. Stevie was a good person.
"So," Rachel said to fill the silence, "what do you know about Stevie?"
"Well, knowing her name is easy considering that trailer," Leona smiled, "but we've never really spoken beyond saying hello when she moved into the neighborhood."
"How long ago was that?"
"Hmm...maybe a year? Paul...that's my husband...was sure that her house would turn into party central, but it never did. She's awfully young, you know. It was a reasonable expectation."
"I can see that."
"She keeps her yard neat, and I've seen her being helpful from time to time with others. I just never expected to be on the receiving end of it."
"Fixing cars mostly. If someone has a hood up, she always seems to end up involved. I know she helped the Wilsons with their computer one time, and she helped Mrs. Zamora put her fence back up after some kids drove over it. She just kind of shows up with a grin and ends up helping. You just don't expect that from young people anymore. Not to imply that you…"
Rachel waved it off. "I know what you mean. I'm not that much older than Stevie, but I understand. I was pretty self-involved and oblivious at her age. I hope I'm better now, but it sounds like Stevie is something special."
Leona laughed out loud. "She can be a devil, too. Don't be thinking she's a saint."
"I sense a story," Rachel grinned.
"Well, I don't know the whole tale, but I can tell you it was quite shocking to see her being chased down the street by a man with a knife sticking out of his chest."
Leona kept chuckling as she poured hot water in two cups. "As I understand it, she glued a knife hilt to his chest while he slept. I can only imagine how he must have felt to wake up and see that."
Rachel giggled helplessly at the image. What a brutal joke to play! She found herself wishing she'd been there to see it.
"There have been a couple of windows broken when she gets the neighbor kids to play ball in the street, but she always pays to fix them so I'm not sure if that can be called devilish. More of an inconvenience, I suppose."
Leona brought the tea to the table. "Sugar?"
"No, thanks. This is perfect." It was too hot to drink, and it was still steeping, but it had a nice fruity scent. "What kind is it? It smells really good."
"Red Zinger. It's one of my favorites."
"I've seen it in the store, but I've never tried it before."
"It's good cold, too. I keep a pitcher in the fridge in the summer. The nice thing about it is that it really doesn't need sugar. It has a natural sweetness to it. From the rose hips, I think."
Rachel cautiously licked her spoon and got a small taste. "Mmm. That is good."
"Are you always this easy?"
Rachel folded her arms and leaned back, a smile on her lips. "No. Are you always this nice?"
"No." Leona mimicked Rachel's pose, minus the smile. "Am I ever going to see you again?"
The bluntness of the question took Rachel by surprise. Her first thought was no, but then she considered it. Was there any reason not to see her again? Did her friends have to conform to an age category? She really liked Leona. She felt comfortable in her presence. It would be silly to pass up a friend, right? Age should not be a consideration. There were plenty of things they could do together.
Rachel leaned forward to rest her arms on the table. "I would like to see you again. What kind of things do you like to do for fun?"
"How do you feel about going to yard sales?"
A wide smile broke out on Rachel's face. "I love yard sales."
Relaxed and dirty from riding in the hills with her little brother, Rory, Stevie sang along to the radio as she drove home. She'd needed the adrenaline rush after fighting with Greg that morning. She was still upset with his decision to drive drunk, but she knew that they would make up later. After she chewed on him some more about it, of course. She wasn't about to tolerate such reckless behavior by her crew.
Stevie didn't think anything of the Crown Vic in front of her house. People parked where they could. As long as they didn't block her driveway it made no difference to her. Muscling both dirt bikes out of the back of her truck, Stevie put them in the garage to clean later. Usually, Rory would have stayed to help, but he had a date later and needed time to get ready.
When she found the pie, she knew immediately who it was from. She had not expected it, but it only made sense. She lifted it to her nose and smiled. Stevie knew what she was having for dinner. Dropping the pie off in the kitchen, she turned on the TV to a repeat broadcast of a Supercross race. She watched for a few minutes and then headed for the shower.
After getting cleaned up, Stevie put on a pair of board shorts and a muscle tee. Slipping her feet into ragged sneakers, she grabbed her keys and left the house. She would go get her mail from the box down the street and then stop by Mrs. Hennessy's place to say thanks for the pie. Maybe she could get a feel for anything else Mrs. Hennessy needed help with while she was there. She had some free time on Sunday morning.
Stevie had quite a bit of mail. Most of it was junk mail, but it was better than getting no mail at all. She briefly sorted through the stack and found a bill for her cell phone. She also had the latest issue of Computer Edge Magazine and under that, a key. Stevie used the key to open one of the larger mailboxes. Inside was a large green and white envelope. Checking the address, she confirmed that it was from her agent's office. She got one of these envelopes about once a month. Inside would be fan mail.
Stevie liked the fan mail. Now that her agent had the hateful letters sorted out and kept on file, Stevie got to enjoy all the good ones. Answering them was time consuming, but it was kind of fun to read good things about yourself from people you'd never met.
Tucking her mail up under her arm, Stevie crossed back over the street and headed for the Hennessy place. She waved to a few faces she saw in windows and got smiles and waves in return. For the most part, she had really nice neighbors. Stevie felt pretty lucky to live in such a good neighborhood. People were always helping each other and stopping to talk. There were a couple of people who kept to themselves, but that was okay, too.
Stevie knocked on Mrs. Hennessy's door and took a step back. At five foot ten, she was taller than most people and had noticed that sometimes they acted uncomfortable when she stood too close. Mrs. Hennessy was on the small side, so Stevie took another half step back for good measure.
The front door opened, and a big smile bloomed on Mrs. Hennessy's face. "Stevie!"
Grinning at her reception she said, "Hello, Mrs. Hennessy. Would I be wrong in assuming that you left a pie on my front porch?"
"Nope. That would be me."
"Well, I have to say that it smells really good. Thank you very much."
"You more than earned it, Stevie. Thank you for taking care of the lawn."
"It was no trouble. I didn't feel comfortable inviting myself into your backyard, but if it needs cutting too, I've got some time tomorrow morning."
"Aren't you just the sweetest thing?"
Stevie blushed and looked down at her shoes.
"Come on in, Stevie. I've got a friend of yours stashed in the kitchen."
Stevie was confused. "A friend of mine?"
"That's what she says."
She had no idea who it could be. Especially if it was a woman. Curious, Stevie followed obediently. She was switching her mail from one arm to the other when she saw Rachel and it all went flying. Stevie tried to catch the letters, but her efforts only made it worse. Rachel's laughter brought a blush to Stevie's face. "I'm not usually so clumsy," she mumbled as she bent to collect the mess.
"Sorry," Rachel said as she bent to assist. "I couldn't help myself. It just looked so funny."
All of the mail found its way to the kitchen table before Stevie looked at Rachel. "I didn't expect to see you again," she said softly.
"Did you want to?"
"Oh yeah. It's just...the context is all off."
There was hope and uncertainty in Rachel's eyes. "Maybe we could make a new context?"
Mrs. Hennessy interrupted before Stevie could respond. "Would you like a cup of tea, Stevie?"
"Oh, no thank you," Stevie declined as she stood up. "I'm not fond of the taste of hot water."
The two women looked at Stevie as though she had lost her mind. "Honey," Mrs. Hennessy said slowly, "water is water."
"Bread is bread, but it sure tastes different when you toast it."
Rachel and Mrs. Hennessy looked at each other. "Let's test that theory," Rachel suggested.
Stevie found herself shuttled into a chair at the oak dining table while the teakettle was brought back to a boil. A tall glass of some kind of fruit punch over ice was set in front of her. Stevie tasted it, surprised at how good it was without being too sweet. "What is this?"
"Red Zinger tea," Rachel provided. "Do you like it?"
"A lot," Stevie said with enthusiasm. "It's really good. Does it have caffeine?"
"No. It's an herbal tea."
Stevie relaxed. Caffeine affected her strongly and she tried to stay away from it. She would have drunk the tea regardless just to be polite, but knowing it was caffeine-free enabled her to enjoy it.
Watching the two women perform the water tasting was hilarious. Stevie managed not to laugh, but she couldn't prevent her smile. They were so serious about it. They went back and forth from hot to cold, concentrating on each sip.
"Well," Mrs. Hennessy finally said, "I think she's right. It's subtle, but there is a difference."
"In texture, too," Rachel added. "Maybe it's just the way hot and cold act on the lining of the throat, but they feel different."
"I agree, but I like how the hot water feels more than the cold."
"It depends on my mood, I suppose. And the temperature, of course. Nothing beats ice cold water on a hot day or a warm drink on a cold one."
Rachel stared thoughtfully at Stevie. "Does this mean that you don't drink coffee?"
Stevie shook her head. "I don't really like coffee. It's too bitter."
Stevie shrugged helplessly. "Sorry."
Rachel put a hand to her chest in apparent shock. "No hot chocolate?"
"I like chocolate milk," Stevie offered. "Does that count?"
"What about soup?" Mrs. Hennessy asked.
Stevie considered it. "Sometimes, I guess, but I prefer cream soups. Chowders are good and I love split pea soup."
"With ham hocks?"
"Is there a better way?"
Rachel mimed sticking a finger down her throat.
Stevie laughed. "I take it you don't like split pea soup?"
"Well, to be honest, I've never had it, but it looks like something you'd find in a sick baby's diaper."
"No, it doesn't."
"Yes, it does."
Stevie rolled her eyes. "Whatever you say."
"Baby shit," Rachel said firmly.
"Language, dear," Mrs. Hennessy said primly.
"Sorry." Rachel leaned over to whisper loudly to Stevie. "Gotta watch the language. She's old and has delicate sensibilities."
Mrs. Hennessy reached over to lightly smack Rachel on the back of the head. "Smartass."
Stevie had to laugh at the look of chagrin on Rachel's face. Was this the same woman from last night? She'd been nice the night before, but nothing like this. Stevie was enchanted.
"I can't even hit her back," Rachel grumbled, "because that's elder abuse."
"Go ahead," Mrs. Hennessy laughed. "Stevie will protect me, won't you dear?"
"Thank you, honey."
Rachel scowled, but her eyes were twinkling. "Now I know where your priorities lie."
"It's all about self-preservation," Stevie admitted. "My mama would have my hide if I did otherwise."
"Do you always do what your mother tells you?"
Stevie's smile faltered. "That's not always possible."
An awkward silence circled the table. Mrs. Hennessy broke it by reaching for Stevie's computer magazine. "Do you know much about computers? I've been thinking about getting one, but I can barely operate the television remote."
Grateful for the subject change, Stevie said, "Computers are easier than remote controls if they're set up properly. I can help you with that. In fact, I've got a basic model you can borrow while you learn. Once you get the hang of it and decide what you need from a computer, I can hook you up. I'll even give you a nice discount."
Mrs. Hennessy looked confused and uncertain what to ask to make things clear.
"I own a little repair shop in the strip mall on Arrowhead Drive," Stevie explained. "It won't be any problem at all."
"I think I've seen it," Rachel interjected. "Isn't it called...Optimal Computing Diagnostics? Or something like that?"
Stevie was pleased that Rachel knew of her business. "That's right."
"You named your business OCD?"
Stevie laughed. "It wasn't intentional, I assure you."
"Goodness," Mrs. Hennessy breathed. "So young and a business owner."
"I've been very lucky," Stevie explained. "If not for my paternal grandparents, I'd probably be working at Geek Squad. My grandparents started savings accounts for us when we were born, and we get them when we turn eighteen. My younger brother will get his next spring. I used mine to set up the shop. My older brother kind of wasted his."
"On what?" Mrs. Hennessy asked. "If I may be so bold as to ask."
"Some of it on his mission and the rest on a Porsche." Stevie shook her head ruefully. "I thought my dad was going to have an aneurism when he found out."
It was Rachel's turn to look confused. "What was his mission?"
Stevie realized that they wouldn't know. "He went on a two-year mission to Germany for the Mormon Church."
Rachel's eyes widened. "You're a Mormon?"
"I'm not," Stevie said evenly, "but the rest of my family is."
"You know," Mrs. Hennessy interrupted. "I've got something in the shed you might be able to use for parts or something."
Grateful for yet another change of topic, Stevie followed the old woman into the backyard. It definitely needed trimming, but it was a really nice yard. The fruit trees gave it a lot of shade and there were flower beds along the fence. Back in one corner was an aluminum shed and Stevie trailed behind Mrs. Hennessy in that direction. One of the doors seemed to be sticking, so Stevie reached out to do it for her neighbor.
A shiny red lawnmower sat in the middle of the floor. There were two gas cans and a variety of fertilizers, weed killers and gardening tools in one corner. The rest of the shed was filled with cardboard boxes.
"You're welcome to use this mower," Mrs. Hennessy said as she began looking at the shelves. "My husband kept it in tip top shape."
It would be a lot easier than dragging her own second-hand mower down the street and into the backyard. "Thanks, I will. I'll take good care of it. Although...I don't know anything about all these fertilizers and stuff. I hope I don't kill your grass."
"Don't worry about that stuff," Mrs. Hennessy said absently, her eyes searching for a specific box. "I never thought the lawn needed it. It was his hobby, so I kept my mouth shut, but for as hard as he worked on it, it doesn't look any better than anyone else's yard." Her hands wandered over several boxes in the far corner, then stopped on one. "I think this is it. I'm afraid you'll have to get it out for me. I'm just not as strong as I used to be."
It required moving three other boxes before Stevie could pull it out. It was a large box and awkward to handle, but not so heavy as to be unmanageable. Setting it to the side, she put the other boxes back in place. Lifting the box again, Stevie carried it outside and set it down.
"Open it," Mrs. Hennessy encouraged.
Stevie kind of shrugged at a curious Rachel before tearing off the old tape and lifting the flaps. It took her a moment to process what she was seeing. "Oh, wow."
It was an Atari 2600 with games. A lot of games. The deck was in the original box and the neatly arranged games were all in their original packaging. Some of them appeared to still be in the original shrink wrap.
"Wow," she repeated. "Does it work?"
"It did when we stored it away, but that was a long time ago. I know it's pretty simple compared to computers now, but I thought there might be parts in it you could use for..."
"Mrs. Hennessy," Stevie interrupted with urgency. "If this works, it's worth some money. Even if it doesn't, the games alone are worth money. Besides, I can fix the deck if I have to. I don't know how much this is worth...I'd have to look into it..." Stevie looked up at her neighbor. "I don't think you should just give this away. I'll bet you could make some money from this."
"How about a trade? That box for a computer? Is it worth that much?"
Stevie considered it. She wanted the game system in the worst way. A trade sounded ideal. Her concern was that the system and games were worth more than the kind of computer Mrs. Hennessy would be comfortable using. "I'll tell you what. I'll trade you, but I'm going to find out how much this is worth first. If it's worth more than the computer I give you, we'll work something out. I won't cheat you."
Mrs. Hennessy smiled. "Well then, I think we have a deal."
"Sweet." Stevie looked at Rachel in her excitement. "It's an Atari."
Rachel was smiling. "That's great."
Stevie could see that Rachel didn't get it. "This is classic. They made these way before I was even born. It's really the first generation of video games for home use. It's got all the great arcade games from back then. I mean...Look at this! Pac Man, Donkey Kong, Asteroids, Mouse Trap, Wizard of Wor...this is awesome!"
On impulse, Stevie stood up and hugged Mrs. Hennessy. "Thanks, Mrs. Hennessey. I'll do right by you, I swear."
Mrs. Hennessy patted Stevie's back. "I just hope it works. I'd hate to have you get all excited and then be disappointed."
"I'll make it work," Stevie promised. "Besides, the deck is the easy part. It's the games I'm so excited about. If they're still good, we're in business."
"Yes, well, I imagine you'll want to take it home so you can tinker with it. Take Rachel with you. She came to see you, after all. Not me."
"I had a great time," Rachel said as she moved in for her own hug. "I'll pick you up tomorrow morning at seven."
"I'll have coffee ready."
They stopped in the kitchen where Stevie added her mail to the contents of the box. In a few minutes, Stevie was walking down the street, Rachel at her side and her tongue tied in knots. It had been much easier to know what to say with Mrs. Hennessy around. Now she couldn't think of a thing to talk about. She narrowly avoided jumping out of her skin at a warm touch on her injured elbow.
"This looks dirty again."
There was no way Stevie could look for herself. "I went riding today. I thought I cleaned it in the shower."
"I can clean it if you want."
Stevie opened her mouth to decline and then changed her mind. "That would be great. Thanks."
"I mean for last night, too. Bringing me home and taking care of me. You didn't have to do that."
"I would have felt bad if something had happened to you because I ignored you. I'm just not that kind of person."
"Lucky for me," Stevie grinned. She nodded at her front door. "It's not locked."
Following Rachel inside, Stevie put the box down on the coffee table and turned off the television. There was plenty of time to deal with the Atari later.
"That looks different," Rachel said of the sofa. "What happened?"
The center cushion was missing. The cover had been laundered and was lying over the back of the sofa, but the actual foam cushion was gone. "Uh...I tried an experiment."
"Didn't work, huh?"
"Oh, it worked just fine," Stevie admitted. "I neglected to consider the consequences. I'm going to replace the cushion as soon as I figure out where to find one."
"Try an upholstery store. Better yet, try a fabric store. A lot of them sell foam and it might be cheaper."
"Good idea," Stevie nodded as she filed the information away.
Rachel lifted her eyebrows. "Your elbow?"
Stevie put the first aid kit on the bathroom counter before taking her seat of the night before. She seriously doubted that her elbow was a problem. If it was going to get infected, it would already be infected. But she was afraid that Rachel would leave if she didn't let her play nurse.
Stevie tried not to be obvious about staring as Rachel began to clean the injury, but Rachel was just so darn pretty. It made Stevie wonder. "Why are you here?"
"I came by to make sure that you were okay. You were pretty wasted last night."
It was silent for a minute and Rachel glanced up. "What?"
"I didn't say anything."
"I could hear you thinking."
Stevie had to smile. That was something her mother said frequently. "Well, I'm assuming that this isn't something you do for all your drunk customers. Why me?"
Rachel shrugged. "You're not like most of the customers. Any of them, actually. I just wanted to be sure."
It just didn't seem like the whole story to Stevie. "And...?" she prompted.
Rachel shot her a look, sighed, and went back to cleaning. "You weren't home. I met Leona when she..."
"Leona? Mrs. Hennessy?"
"Oh, right. Go on."
"Anyway, she invited me in for pie...it's delicious, by the way...and we got carried away talking. Then you showed up."
Stevie used her other hand to gesture that Rachel should continue.
"Fine," Rachel grumbled. "You're kind of cute and you seem interesting. You race motorcycles. You own a business. You might look like a kid, but you're not. I'm curious, okay?"
Stevie was trying not to smile and failing miserably. "You think I'm cute?"
"For a dork, sure."
"Geek," Stevie corrected. "I'm a geek."
"And a jock."
A warm bubble of happiness was threatening to make Stevie whoop and holler. "It's the knees, right?"
"That's what I thought," Stevie said seriously. "My knees drive girls crazy."
Rachel took a good look at the knees in question. "I don't know if they're all that, but they are a sight cuter than your underwear."
The heat from Stevie's blush made her sweat. "Um..."
It was Rachel's turn to laugh. "Easy, girl. I totally behaved myself."
"Well, I guess it's fair. I mean, I saw...and you...um..."
Rachel squeezed Stevie's hand with an understanding smile. "I know. It's kind of awkward." Her smile dimmed. "I guess I was hoping..."
"What?" Stevie asked gently.
Rachel bit at her lip before answering. "I hang out a little with the other women at the club. We have coffee and, sometimes, we'll go eat after work, but they just seem so...desperate. Suspicious. Angry. I don't want to get like that. I thought, maybe, if we could be friends...You're just so normal and sweet."
"You know what I mean."
"Yeah, I do. But if you ever want to put in a good word with my parents, I'd appreciate it."
Rachel's hands stilled. "I would think they are very proud of you."
"Hardly." Stevie took a deep breath. "They're disappointed in me because I'm a lesbian."
The disbelief on Rachel's face made Stevie dizzy with relief. She'd been terrified that Rachel would pull back once she knew. Just because she'd done a lap dance for Stevie didn't mean she was gay, too. "Yeah. Their disappointment kind of overshadows anything else I do."
There was surprise in Rachel's eyes. "So, you've gotten to where you are on your own. Even more impressive."
"I've been very lucky."
"So you claim. I think it's more than that."
Stevie didn't know what to say to that. She watched silently as Rachel used antiseptic and re-bandaged her arm. "Thanks."
Rachel took off the glove she'd worn and dropped it in the trash. She turned on the water in the sink and washed her hands. "How long did it take for you to accept your sexuality? You know, from the moment you began to wonder until you decided it was a good thing?"
Stevie thought about it. "Four or five years, I guess."
"Maybe you ought to give your folks the same amount of time to accept it. It's only fair, if you think about it."
Stevie's thoughts on the matter shifted. "You're right. I never thought about it like that."
"My parents had a rough time with it, too, but they came around."
Stevie's eyes felt like they were going to pop out. "You're a lesbian, too?"
"You didn't know?"
Stevie shook her head. "I don't have gaydar yet."
"Such a newbie," Rachel teased.
"Gotta start somewhere," Stevie responded.
"Lift your legs."
Stevie held her legs up as Rachel put the kit away. "Do you like it?"
"Not really, but sometimes you've got to do things you don't like."
"I thought that applied more to cleaning the toilet than to exotic dancing."
"For most people I think that's true." Rachel folded her arms and leaned back against the wall. "I'm not going to do it much longer, but for right now, I'm doing what I need to do."
Stevie didn't understand. Not at all. But she didn't think she would get away with pushing Rachel on it. For now, it was just something she had to accept. Rachel seemed reasonably intelligent and there had to be better options out there for her. If she was stripping for money, there had to be a good reason. "Well, I know it's really none of my business, but if you ever need help, all you have to do is ask."
Rachel cocked her head pensively. "There is one thing."
"Don't come to the club anymore."
Stevie started to ask why, but then she thought she understood. "You don't want me to watch you work."
"That's part of it," Rachel said slowly.
Rachel's perfect teeth bit at her bottom lip. "Have you ever heard the saying- 'When you look into the abyss, the abyss looks into you'?"
"Nietzsche. I get it. You don't want me to be changed by what goes on there."
Stevie thought it over. "I don't like being told that I can't do things, but if it would make you uncomfortable to have me there that's reason enough for me to stay away. I won't go to the club unless you invite me."
Rachel relaxed and her face looked lighter. "Thanks, Stevie. I appreciate it."
"No problem." Stevie pushed herself off the counter. "Can I offer you something to drink? I've got juice, sodas and beer."
"A beer sounds pretty good."
"I have a rule though. If you drink one beer, you have to stay for an hour after you finish drinking it. Two beers, two hours. Three and you're spending the night."
Rachel raised an eyebrow. "Do you catch many women with that rule?"
"No...I didn't mean...I wouldn't..."
"I'm just teasing you," Rachel laughed. "It's a good rule. I have to work tonight so I'll have just one beer."
"Okay." Stevie headed for the kitchen. "Glass or bottle?"
There were two beers left in the fridge. Stevie grabbed one and twisted the cap off. Tossing the cap, she took it into the living room. "Here you go. Sit wherever you like."
Rachel took the rocking chair and Stevie sat down on the couch. Kicking off her sneakers, she put her feet up on the coffee table. "So, you just met Mrs. Hennessey today?"
"Yep. She's pretty cool. Did you know that she was Miss Rhubarb when she was young?"
"No," Stevie said with mock surprise.
"It's true. She has four children. Her oldest son is a colonel in the Army and is stationed in Afghanistan."
"Really? I had no idea."
"It gets more interesting." Rachel kicked off her own shoes and pink-toed socks joined Stevie's bare feet on the low table. "Her next oldest son died of AIDS in the late eighties."
Stevie's heart ached. "That's so sad. He was gay?"
"She thinks so, but he never told them one way or the other. Her husband was pretty rigid about that sort of thing. She regrets that he never felt safe in telling them and that he died without them near."
"That's got to be tough."
"Her daughter lives here in town," Rachel continued on. "She's on the recovery end of having breast cancer. They had to do a double mastectomy and then chemo. She's doing pretty well, but it's a long road. Leona goes over most mornings and cleans house for her. Now, according to Leona, her youngest son is gallivanting around the world."
"Gallivanting," Stevie repeated just to feel the unusual word on her tongue. She knew the word, of course, but she was pretty sure she’d never actually said it out loud before.
"He's a deck hand for hire in the South Pacific. Sailing ships mostly."
"That sounds pretty cool to me."
"She thinks he's shiftless and lazy because he doesn't have a reliable income, but he's happy and that's what she really cares about. We're going to yard sales in the morning. Would you like to come?"
The unexpected shift in the conversation made Stevie hesitate. "Uh...no thanks. I've got a lawn to mow and then lunch at my folks' place. I go every Sunday that I can."
"Let me guess. You don't like yard sales."
"Not so much," Stevie admitted.
"It's just that they're watching you while you dig around in their junk. It always makes me feel like a jerk if I don't buy anything."
"Ah." Rachel glanced around the room. "I was sure that was where you got your furniture. It's in good shape, but I didn't think you bought it new."
"I didn't. I got almost everything on Craigslist. It's like an online yard sale, but there's no pressure. You can find everything there. I paid fifty bucks for the couch, but the coffee table and your chair were free. The only thing I bought new was my bed. And kitchen stuff, but I got most of that at the dollar store."
Rachel was smiling. "You really are cute."
"Nah, I'm not cute," Stevie objected.
"Yeah, you are. Get used to it." Rachel took a long drink of her beer. "You're not drinking?"
"Nope. I'm not going there again." Stevie laced her fingers behind her head and snuggled deeper into the couch. "I have plenty of fun without it. It was a good experience, but I didn't much like how it made me feel so out of control. Not to mention being sick. That was not a good time."
"You really aren't going to drink anymore?"
"Is it a Mormon thing?"
"I'm not a Mormon."
"But your family is."
Stevie knew she would have to explain sooner or later. Better now than later. "I was a Mormon. I was raised in the church, but they kicked me out when I was eighteen."
Stevie couldn't help grinning. It was such a cliche. "They caught me kissing the Bishop's daughter."
Rachel started to smile. "For real?"
"Oh yeah, but she started it. I was just finishing it up."
"And they kicked you both out for that?"
"Only me. Becky told them I tempted her into it. All the crying and histrionics pretty much convinced them. I was surprised, but I decided right then that I wasn't going to lie to them. They counseled me for weeks, but I just kept telling them that I was gay. It felt good to stand up for myself in the face of all that opposition. Of course, being excommunicated was no picnic. That was really hard. Especially on my family."
"I can't even imagine," Rachel said softly. "What happened to Becky?"
"They married her off a few months later. She's got a couple of kids now. Right after I moved in here, she dropped by to say hello. She wanted to secretly pick up where we left off."
"What a bitch."
Stevie shrugged. "I was never in love with her. I think she betrayed herself more than she betrayed me. I feel sorry for her. She's not happy. Getting kicked out of the church was hard, but not as hard as it would be to live her life. I made the right choice."
"How old are you again?"
Taking it as a compliment, Stevie laughed.
"So, how did you get into computers?"
"I love computers. Always have. So, when I got into college, that's what I majored in. After I graduated, I started my business and here I am."
Rachel had a furrow between her eyebrows. "You must have graduated early. Your business has been there a couple of years."
Stevie was a little embarrassed to talk about it because it felt like bragging, but Rachel would find out soon enough if she hung around. It was better to tell her the details now than wait for her to find out on her own. "I got my master’s when I was seventeen."
The furrow disappeared as Rachel's eyes widened. "Seventeen?"
"My folks took me out of public school when I was seven. I picked things up so fast that I was bored in class and was causing problems. I thought it was because I was a problem child until I got older. My Mom home-schooled me. I graduated high school at fourteen. I got my AA from the community college when I was fifteen. Then I went to the University and got my degree in Information Technology. I started putting my business plan together when I got kicked out of the church and started my company when I was nineteen."
"I've been lucky."
"You keep saying that."
"Because it's true. What about you?"
Rachel shook her head with a sigh and set her chair to rocking. "Catholic school."
"What was that like?"
"Just like public school with side orders of guilt and eternal damnation."
Rachel's dry delivery made Stevie laugh.
"After that," Rachel continued, "I got a job and started supporting myself. I worked in a bookstore for a while and did some time at Starbuck's. If you ever change your mind about coffee, I can make you whatever you want. I would have liked going to college, but that didn't work out."
Stevie was burning with questions. It was hard to dole them out one at a time. "What did you want to be?"
"A lawyer, maybe. Or a paralegal." Rachel took another drink of beer. "Sometimes things don't work out quite like you expect."
"Do you have any brothers and sisters?"
Rachel made a face. "I have an older sister. She was fourteen when I was born. By the time I was really starting to be aware of what was going on around me, she was married. She's kind of a snob. We've never really gotten along, but I've got a younger brother who's pretty sweet."
"How old are you?"
"Have you ever ridden a dirt bike?"
"Would you like to learn?"
Rachel laughed. "Not right this minute, but...maybe."
"Cool," Stevie grinned. "By the way, where's Rhubarb? I've never heard of it."
Rachel was in the middle of taking a drink and she snorted, her hands trying to keep from making a mess. Stevie jumped up and went to the kitchen for paper towels. She knew she'd made a mistake of some sort, but she didn't know how. Rachel was laughing softly when she came back, and Stevie set the towels down on the coffee table.
"Sorry about that," Rachel apologized. She was still chuckling to herself as she wiped up the spilled beer.
"It's just...rhubarb is a vegetable."
Stevie was still drawing a blank. "A vegetable."
"Not that I know much about it myself," Rachel continued. "I think I've seen it though. Looked kind of like a reddish celery. I know that you can mix it with strawberries and make a pie."
"Well, now I feel like an idiot."
Rachel's eyes were warm and bright. "Don't feel bad. On the upside, you made me spew beer. How embarrassing is that?"
Stevie relaxed. "Good point."
Rachel sat back in her chair, her eyes studying Stevie. "Do you get a lot of fan mail?"
"I'm not sure what a lot is," Stevie said, grateful they were on a subject she knew something about. "I get a package like that about once a month. Sometimes more during the season."
"Could I read one? I've never met anyone before who gets fan mail."
Most of her fan mail was from guys who had questions about her bikes or racing strategies. Stevie thought they would be pretty boring to Rachel, but sometimes she got ones that made her laugh. She reached for the thick envelope, hoping there was something in there this month that would make Rachel laugh again. It was a wonderful sound and make Stevie's skin tingle.
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