For disclaimers, etc. see Chapter 1

© SRE 2005



by bsoiree

Chapter 8

Lonnie sat back in the chair, her long, slacks covered legs crossed, the leg on top bobbing impatiently. She watched her boss yell into the phone. This didn't look like it was going to be a pleasant way to start the day. He'd left a message on her desk to come into his office as soon as she got to work. She watched the vein in Bennie's temple stand out as he harangued someone on the other end over supplies that were late arriving. No, this was not going to be a happy meeting.

"You want coffee?" she mouthed, uncrossing her legs and leaning forward.

He curtly nodded his head and handed her a cup half filled with the cold mud-like beverage that passed for coffee in their office. She walked to the coffee room and dumped his old java in the sink, refilling the heavily stained cup with the dregs of the old brew. She tipped the large pot and just managed to fill a steaming cup for herself from what was left. It smelled burned. Just before seven in the morning. She decided it was yesterday's left over that had been cooking there all night. Oh, well.

Her eyes lifted as a young, svelte, good-looking woman with long, reddish-brown hair entered the room carrying a cup. The woman's eyes were blue and her softly subdued desert red nail polish on well manicured nails matched her lipstick. This woman had 'class' written all over her. Her crimson dress bore a designer label, Lonnie was sure. It certainly fit her like a glove. A beautifully fitted glove.

"Hey," the new hire smiled. Her eyes lit up when she spotted Lonnie.

"You're in early," Lonnie returned the smile, making sure she didn't let her eyes wander the woman's shape, although she was sure this lady's obvious attention to her appearance was specifically done to elicit just such a reaction from everyone. The salespeople were usually the last ones to arrive in the morning. The other workers would start swarming in within the next half hour. But here this woman was, the only other person on their floor besides Benny and Lonnie.

"Early riser," she grinned. "You must be, too."

"Yeah," Lonnie put Bennie's cup down and added a packet of sugar. Then deciding this caustic brew was so thick, old and bitter that it might require two packets of sweetening, she tore off the top of another packet and added it. "Plus, I'm management. It's expected." She stirred the mixture with a wooden stirrer, threw the trash in the garbage can and picked up her cup of black coffee in one hand with Bennie's sugar-spiked mix in the other.

"I've heard you almost single handedly keep this place running," the woman replied. There was admiration in her voice that caught Lonnie's attention. Lonnie was going to deny the claim, but the woman continued, "By the way, thank you for catching the errors on the Goldbank Jewelry Catalog. I hear you were the one that did the technical work." She tilted her head, "I brought that project in. The jewelry company loved how their catalog turned out."

"No problem," Lonnie lifted her brows. "That's my job." Although it wasn't her job so much any more. Now her main tasks involved training and supervising others.

But Benny had given it to Lonnie, insisting she set aside other jobs to get this one done. He wanted the best. It had to be done right, he'd told her.

All in all this contract had been a juicy bit of business that had been added to their lineup. Bennie had been thrilled. The sales staff had been nosing around the jewelry company for years trying to steal that order away from a well-known printing firm from back east. Then here comes this newcomer waltzing in to sweep the order up right from under their noses. It had been a considerable coup. "Ya done good," Lonnie added.

"Thanks," she moved closer to Lonnie then glanced down into the coffee cups. Her brow furrowed. "You're not really going to drink that, are you?" she asked, wrinkling her nose at the thick muddy brew.

Lonnie shrugged. Her blue eyes danced. "It's hot and wet...," she grinned nervously, "That's all that counts."

"Hot and wet is what counts?" the woman asked with a devilish look in her eye and a rakish lifting of one brow.

"Uh..." That hadn't been how Lonnie had meant it, and she could feel the heat of a blush rising on her neck. It caught her flat footed, "Uh...."

"I'll make a fresh pot," the young woman laughed. "You can scrape that mixture into the grease bins in the printing room," she leaned toward Lonnie with a loud whisper, "in case 'hot and wet' is what counts with the guys on that floor, too." She chuckled then put a hand on Lonnie's back just above her belt, lazily strutting around Lonnie's tall figure. It surprised the brunette. She froze, watching the woman out of the side of her eyes as she came around her other side to the empty coffee pot, her warm hand still sliding casually on Lonnie's blouse.

"Good grief! Doesn't anyone ever wash this pot?" the woman exclaimed, grabbing the empty pot and unplugging it.

Lonnie took a step away. "Naw. Where's the challenge in that?" She flashed an embarrassed smile and hurried from the room.

What firm muscles she has in her back, the saleswoman mused. That blue-eyed beauty works out. Gorgeous! Tall, dark and with a body to die for! And she blushes, even. "I'll bring you some fresh when it's ready," the woman called as Lonnie headed to Benny's office. Lonnie pretended not to hear.

Benny was off the phone when she returned. He grunted when she handed him his cup. He took a sip without making any acknowledgment of whether it was how he liked it or not. She sat and sipped the acidic mixture as she watched him.

"New hire's out there already," she said.

"Seven in the morning?" Bennie stretched to look out his door as far as he could. "Angelina Osborn. A real hottie," he added under his breath. Then he looked over to see her face. Lonnie hadn't liked that comment. "Forget I said that," he said hastily. He had to quit thinking of Lonnie as one of the guys. Course, he wouldn't have been free to make that comment to the guys, either. "Everybody's so furking touchy these days. It's gotten so one can't even appreciate a well turned ankle as they used to say."

"When did they used to say that?" Lonnie inquired. "Cripe, weren't ankles the rage in the 1800s? How old are you, Bennie?"

"Old enough to know better, I assume," he growled. She was the only one that ever gave him as good as she got. Everybody else was frightened of him. "So, what...I've gotta apologize to ya for noticing the obvious?"

"No. The idea is to not judge women by how they look, but by how well they do their jobs. The same way you judge men."

"Well, hell," he grumbled, "You're a furking beauty with a great ass and I never tell ya that. I just tell ya what a good job you do. So I'm doing that part right, huh?"

She knew he was trying to pull her chain. Lonnie just chuckled and shook her head. Changing times were still hard for people like Bennie. But at least he was trying. Of course, with the new rules he HAD to change or the company could be sued. And that was good. She knew he'd be likely to say things to her that he wouldn't breathe around anyone else. "It's how a woman does her job, Ben. That's what you have to concentrate on."

"Yeah, yeah. I get it. Anyway, that's Mizz Angelina Osborn. She's a Mizz. Hell of a saleswoman. Already brought in a top-of-the-line account. Got the boys in her department crappin' their drawers. They've been trying to capture this account forever. It's a big one."

"Uh huh. I know. You assigned me to the catalog. Remember?" Lonnie took another sip, "So, what's up? Why'd you want me to stop in here?"

Benny put down his cup and shuffled around in the mess on his desk. This was the month that he caught up on his files and it always left him cranky. Not that he wasn't naturally cranky anyway, in a sweet sort of way, Lonnie decided. He pulled out an envelope and tossed it to her side of the desk. "You're going on a trip."

"What?" Lonnie reached for the envelope. She made a clearing to put her cup down and extracted an airline ticket. "San Francisco? Why?" She read over the ticket. It was for a first-class seat. "Why am I flying first class to and from San Francisco?"

"Remember our printing sales catalog?" Benny asked. "The one you pulled out of the fire for me before Christmas? The one you had to make those changes to"

"Sure," Lonnie was puzzled. "What about it?"

"The California software company wants to pick your brains. Needs to find out how you were able to maneuver their software. It seems many of their customers are demanding the same kind of versatility that you were able to get. Their programers want to know exactly what printing companies want. And they want ideas specifically from you."

"Uh, okay." She sat staring at the ticket.

"They're putting you up at a first class hotel for the few days you're there...the kind that gives their customers those free, monogrammed, uh, what are they? Big sortta fluffy bathrobes."


"Yeah. That's it. See if you can get me one, okay? Heck, you'll be given an expense account, car, meals, entertainment, whatever you want. It's a first-class gig. Your schedule's there in the envelope. Read it and weep."

"Really? They're providing entertainment, too?" Lonnie began to dig in the envelope.

Benny looked at her with a chuckle. "No, I made that part up. What? Did you want a limo to go to some strip club or something?"

"Good grief, no!" Lonnie exclaimed. She pulled out the page with her schedule on it. "Oh, it's not in San Francisco proper. It's in the Silicon Valley."

"Right. That's why they've reserved a rental car for you."

Lonnie stared at the schedule, then mutely looked again at the ticket. She didn't move from her chair.

"So what? You want a helicopter connection to the town itself instead of driving? They'd probably do that. You could take cabs from the hotel."

"No. No, driving is fine." Still she sat staring at the information. "It's next week."

"Right. Flight out early Monday morning." Bennie watched her staring from the ticket to the schedule. "You come back Thursday."

"Uh," Lonnie looked worriedly from one item to the other.

"So get out of here. You know everything I know. We've got you covered while you're gone."

"Uh," Lonnie's brows furrowed. "Uh."

"For cripe's sakes, Lonnie, what? Ya oughtta be dancin' in the halls. They're sending you on a first class jaunt. What's wrong? Don't tell me you're afraid of flying?"

"No," Lonnie looked up at her old friend. "No. But, uh, can I maybe turn this ticket in for two coach seats? I don't want to go without Ruby."

Benny ran his meaty hand over his balding head. "You wanna take Ruby?"


"They're not gonna get it. It's not like she's a wife or anything."

"She's my partner."

"Yeah, well, this company's not likely to understand about that. Besides, I doubt that they even approve wives accompanying their husbands. They sure aren't going to want to pay for partners."

"I don't want to go without Ruby. They don't have to pay any more. Just make it two cheaper seats instead of one expensive one."

"What about the kid? Doesn't Ruby need to stay and look after the kid?"

"I want the baby to go, too." Lonnie glanced down at her schedule. "Maybe I can trade the hotel room for another airline ticket. My sister's family lives near there. We can stay with her."

"And give up the bathrobe?" Benny asked incredulously. Then he sighed heavily. "Lemme get this straight... you don't want their first class ticket, you want two coach seats instead..."

"Well, we'd be very happy with first class, of course, but we'd need two and a half seats. No, well, just two. We'll hold the baby..." Lonnie took a sip of her coffee. Gods, this brew is dreadful! Worse than usual. "But we'd be happy with coach if that's what they can do, as long as it's two seats."

"So, I assume you'd prefer first class if that's approved?"

"Sure," Lonnie grinned. "Whatever."

"It will probably be coach," Bennie growled. "And you want no hotel?"


"You still want the car?"

"Yes." Lonnie took another sip. "Please."

"They aren't going to want to feed all of you."

"No, that's all right. We'll eat at my sister's."

"I don't get it. You could be tripping the light fantastic...all in first class style. Those kinda offers don't come around every day, ya know. Top eats. Top hotel. Rental car. First class plane ticket. The life of Riley."

"I don't want to go without Ruby."

"They're not sending you on vacation. They expect you to attend meetings. They'll expect to pick your brains."

"That's not a problem. Ruby will be at my sister's. I'll be attending all their meetings."

Benny stared at her then shook his head. "I sure as hell never thought you'd become such an old stick in the mud."

Lonnie laughed. "Yeah. It's great, huh?"

"It's a far stretch from a sex kitten trying to get into your drawers," he raised one brow.

"Uh, yeah. That it is." She couldn't help blushing a tad thinking of the scene Cheryl had raised the day she came into the office.

"Now she...I can say this, can't I? SHE was a hottie." His eyes twinkled. "Or did you want me to judge her on the job she did?"

"Leave it alone, Bennie," Lonnie warned.

"Yeah, right. That's what I thought. So, is that everything, your Highness?" Benny raised both brows at her.

Lonnie chuckled and handed him the ticket and schedule. "Uh, there's more, actually. We'd like to leave Sunday and come back the following Sunday. So I'll need the extra day off. Can you arrange that?"

"Get outta here," he growled. Then he muttered, "I'll see what I can do."

"Thanks, Ben. Appreciate it."

"This's costing me a bathrobe, ya know," he grumbled. "Those thick ones with the monogramed pockets."

Lonnie laughed and strolled out to her desk, still surprised. They were going to California! She reached for the phone, then changed her mind. She'd wait until Bennie gave her the go-ahead with the exact schedule changes before she told Ruby. Stars! They were going to California! She would need to call her sister.

A number of the secretaries had arrived and were putting their coats and purses away. She smiled at the group and pulled out her chair. Every available spot on her desk top had a standing, framed picture of baby Beth. Buried at the back was their family joining picture. In the middle, sitting in a cleared area, was a steaming cup of fresh, good-smelling coffee.

Lonnie looked around, but didn't see Ms. Angelina Osborn. "Ummm, fresh coffee." She put her old cup aside and sat down to get to work.


"Hey there," Ruby called from the kitchen where she was stirring a high-edged pan with stir-fry. Lonnie had just walked in from work and was hanging her coat in the closet. Ruby was in jeans and a tucked in button-down shirt that made it easy to nurse. She could get into her old clothes, though they were still more snug than she liked. Her face was wearing a wide smile and Lonnie was struck by how beautiful and vivacious the smile made the smaller woman. "I've got a surprise for you," the blonde grinned.

Lonnie walked into the kitchen, wrapped her arms around Ruby from behind and nuzzled her hair. "I've got a surprise for you, too," she breathed in the blonde's ear.

Ruby leaned back into the nuzzling and shut her eyes. "Mmmm, what's your surprise?" She turned in Lonnie's arms and pressed a kiss on the taller woman's lips. Their attention went to the kiss and suddenly Ruby pulled away. "The stir-fry!" She grabbed a potholder and pulled the smoking specialty pan off the fire. She gave it a stir, working to unstick some vegetables and small beef pieces from the sides. "I think it will be all right," she said with concern. "Just a little extra browning here and there."

"Smells great!" Lonnie consoled. She glanced at the table. It was already set. "I'll get the wine."

"Wine?" Ruby looked at her partner. Ruby didn't drink any kind of alcohol since she was nursing. So Lonnie didn't drink either. "Honey, you know I don't drink anything while I'm nursing."

"Juice then. To go with the stir fry." Blue eyes scanned the contents of the refrigerator shelves, stopping at the bottle of breast milk on the top shelf. The doctor had suggested using a pump, so Ruby was doing that. Passing over the half-finished bottle of cooking burgundy with a stopper in it, Lonnie took out the jar of juice instead.

That wine's supposed to be consumed at room temperature anyway, she thought, pushing the wine bottle back. She looked at the container of juice. It would work just as well. "So, what's your surprise?" Lonnie shut the frig door and moved to get some glasses.

"Nicole called me this morning," Ruby grinned proudly. "She's coming to visit."

"When?" Lonnie stopped in her tracks. She had their new plane tickets in her purse.

"Saturday morning. She and David need to be here Friday for something to do with his father's business. They're all playing golf at some country club. She's been playing pretty regularly, I guess. Anyway, she's hoping it doesn't rain. They have a business dinner Friday night that she thinks will go real late, so they're staying. Then they're driving home on Saturday morning. She wants to stop by here before they head back. Isn't that marvelous? She'll get to see Bethy."

Pfew! We're leaving for California the next day, on Sunday. This is perfect. "Yes, that's great!" The thought of keeping their address hidden from others flashed into her mind. "Just remind them that when they get back they can't tell anyone where we are."

"Yeah, I talked to her about that. She said it was no problem."

Ruby moved the steamed rice off the heat. "I can hardly wait. Oh, Lonnie, I'm so excited. I started cleaning house today. I want to deep clean everything, but I do still get tired easily. So I just try to keep at what I can. The baby and I took a little nap this afternoon, in fact. But I did wipe down all the furniture. And I vacuumed the drapes and deep dusted. Tomorrow I'll borrow the carpet cleaning machine from downstairs and do the rug. I even used Q-tips to clean the handles on the television set and the remote. That room will be CLEAN. I'll save the windows for last. Then we'll just need to vacuum and quick dust that morning before they get here."

"I'll do the windows for you after dinner, hon. You're really getting into good shape, but you need to not overdo. You sure you can do the rugs all right?" Lonnie knew the rug cleaning machine was never loaned out from downstairs. They charged for it. They'd add it to the maintenance bill. But that would be all right.

"Yes. If you'll do the windows, that would be such a godsend. I feel so much better. And I can do throws and things when we practice self-defense, but I'm just short enough that the constant stretching when I do the windows is a constant pull on different muscles. I'm sure I can do the rugs, though. That just takes time. I'll rest in between."

Lonnie's eyes went to the living room. The gas fireplace was lit, giving the sparkling room a warm feel. It had been thoroughly scrubbed down. "It's looking really nice."

"Mmm. It's getting there. Nicole was real excited. She wants to hold the baby. I told her she has my blonde hair and your blue eyes. She said that was a nice thing to have happen...that Bethy's eyes are blue like yours."

"Yes, it is." Lonnie ambled to the nursery door. She noticed that Bethy's bassinet had been rolled into that room, even though there was a crib already in the room. They hadn't used the crib at all yet, preferring the flexibility of the bassinet. But they did use the changing table all the time.

"I don't think it will rain, do you?" Ruby asked as she filled their plates with vegetable and beef stir fry, heavy on the vegetables, and a large pile of rice.

Lonnie turned momentarily from the nursery doorway back to the kitchen, "No. I think the forecast is for cold and clear."

"That's what I said. I said I didn't think it would rain. She said David's paid for her to take private lessons, and she is getting pretty good at the game, if she does say so herself."

"That's good."

Bethy was asleep, as she usually was when Lonnie got home. Lonnie listened to Ruby's excited conversation while she stared down at the infant. In so many ways their life was perfect. If only they could get the man who'd raped Ruby behind bars and eliminate his threat.

At least Ruby was showing less fear of the situation. The better the small blonde became at self defense skills, the more her fear became manageable.

Lonnie thought Ruby's skill level was very high, actually. Much higher than Ruby was convinced it was. Lonnie was much more confident that even if the wretched beast found them, he would not have as easy a time getting near Ruby as he might think he could. Anything could happen, of course, and that thought was terrifying. But she felt better knowing Ruby had the physical skills she did.

"Dinner's ready."


"I told Nicole that you're real tall and have beautiful black hair and Bethy probably won't have either of those traits, but she does have your fantastic blue eyes. I told her how gorgeous you are, and what a good mother you are and what perfect in-laws I have." Ruby knew she was babbling, but she was so excited. She couldn't seem to help it. Words just tumbled out.

Lonnie moved to the dining room table, a large grin on her face.

"I'm babbling, aren't I?" Ruby asked, settling into her chair and taking a sip of her water from the glass already at her setting on the table.

"Yes, but I think it's charming," Lonnie chuckled. She poured them each a flute of juice then handed one to Ruby. Ruby looked at the added wine glass. Maybe it was silly dirtying more glasses than they had to, but she found it made the dinner seem more festive somehow. She was glad Lonnie had thought of it. It was a wonderful little touch. She lifted the glass and looked at it. Funny how such a simple thing could make everything more fun.

"To us," Lonnie said, reaching her glass out. They clinked their wine glasses together. "You, me and Bethy."

"To us," Ruby replied. "Our family."

"And to our future as a family," Lonnie added. That brought a smile to the small blonde's face. They both took a sip, and looked with delight at each other. That was their shared vision...being a family together.

Then they began to eat. As always, the meal was excellent. For a minute they ate in silence, then green eyes lifted from Ruby's plate to Lonnie. "So, what's your surprise?"

"I talked to my sister today."

Ruby tilted her head. "You did? Tina called you at work? They're all right?"

"They're great," Lonnie took a bite and slowly chewed, enjoying the suspense she had raised. Ruby waited patiently. Lonnie swallowed. "And no, she didn't call. I called her."

"You did? Was there a special reason why? Or did you just miss her and want to talk to her?"

"I miss her, of course, but there was a special reason." Lonnie took another bite. She could feel Ruby's curiosity growing.

"A special reason? Lonnie...tell me. Why?"

A huge grin spread across Lonnie's face. Lonnie took a final chew and swallowed. "Well, I told her she was going to get to actually see our beautiful little daughter. And she was going to meet you in person."

Ruby's face went solemn and she sat back. Her voice was calm, controlled, "I don't understand. Did you invite them to come up here for a visit?" She looked to the side into the living room. "Uh, the house will be clean..."

"No." Lonnie couldn't hold the secret any longer. She leapt up and moved to the closet to grab her purse. She rustled around inside and pulled out an envelope.

Ruby watched and tried to figure what Lonnie was up to. Lonnie handed the envelope to Ruby then sat back down and resumed eating. Ruby pulled the contents out of the envelope. "These...these are airline tickets." Saucer-shaped green eyes lifted to Lonnie's.


Ruby looked again. "This says "Sunday", she said. "This Sunday?"

"That's right."

Ruby pulled out the schedule. "It's for both of us. We're going to fly there on Sunday and come back the next Sunday." Her surprised face stared at Lonnie. "You're taking a week off work?"

"Sortta." Lonnie finished up her stir fry and finished off her juice. "We're going to California."

"How can we afford that?" Ruby's face was solemn.

"The software company is paying for it. They wanted me to fly down first class and stay at some fancy hotel so I could meet with them. But I got Bennie to change it so we all can go. So I'm only really taking one day off work. We'll stay at my sister's. She's looking forward to it. The company's providing a rental car. I can still go to the meetings, but you and Bethy can fly down with me and stay at the house. It should be a lot of fun. We can do stuff together in the evenings. And I only have meetings scheduled for three days. The rest of the time I'm free."

"Was your sister really looking forward to it?"

"She was real excited. She says the guest room is clean, and she hopes you won't be too bored during the days I'm at meetings. Both she and her husband work during the day and my, uh, our nephew goes to school then to a babysitter's. So you'll have to stay home alone with Bethy during those three days. But it shouldn't be any different from being here."

Ruby's face paled. "He thinks I'm in California, Lonnie." A flash of fear swept Ruby's face.

"No. He won't know where we are. He won't even know we've been down there. Besides, we can't let him control our lives, honey. We've talked about that already. You're well trained in self defense and I know karate. And, anyway, Nyri said he was in Idaho. She'd let us know if he wasn't."

"Yes, that's right. He's in Idaho. You'll call her before we go and make sure he's there?"

"Sure. So, you'll get to meet more of my family instead of just talking to them on the phone."

The frown slowly faded from Ruby's face replaced by uncertainty. Slowly her previous smile began to reappear. "I'll meet Tina and John. And little John Junior." Butterflies fluttered in her stomach at the thought of meeting more of Lonnie's family. What if they didn't like her? But she had talked to them on the phone and they'd been very friendly. And Lonnie's parents had certainly turned out to be wonderful. She was sure Lonnie's sister and family would turn out to be the same.

"Yep. You'll meet them all."

Ruby's mouth was opened and she gazed at Lonnie. "We're going to California? All three of us?" Ruby could hardly believe her ears. She had always wanted to go there, at least to visit.

"That's right. We're taking a family trip. On Sunday."

"Oh, Lonnie. I've always wanted to go to California. I've never been there." Excitement glowed in her eyes.

Lonnie poured herself a little more juice and raised her glass, motioning for Ruby to do the same. "To us, my dear. To us."

Ruby reached her glass across the table. They clinked glasses. "To us," she grinned. "The Shaeker family." Her second sip sealed the deal.


"I don't know. All these bills, Lonnie." Ruby's forehead was crinkled with worry lines. A few days had passed and more of the apartment had been steadily deep cleaned, although Lonnie was the one who did the windows, inside and out, doing a separate room each evening when she got home. Dinner was over this night and the dishes were in the dishwasher, which was running, the counters wiped clean. They sat at the dining room table going over the month's bills.

"Uh, yeah, I know there's a lot of them." Lonnie had intercepted Nyri's bill and had set it aside. Ruby had not seen it yet.

"Our part for the hospital bill is going down. At least we're making progress there." Ruby wrote out a check and signed it then handed it and the bill to Lonnie to look over before it was sealed to be sent. "But I had to take the co-pay for the doctor's visit out of the grocery money this month."

"We could borrow from the joining present the folks gave us."

"Lonnie! We both promised not to touch that. Remember? It has to be invested in order to accumulate or we won't ever have enough. College is so expensive. We have to think of the fund as a bill not a savings account. Removing principal is deadly." And not that easy to do." Lonnie's mother had explained that kind of account to Ruby. And now she understood how it worked. "In fact, we're supposed to be adding to it monthly, not using it. If we ever have a really really serious emergency, then we can consider falling back on the baby's college fund."

"All right. We have a little bit of savings. We can draw from that."

"It's pretty lean. I'm not sure there's enough. I'd hoped to build that up, like we planned." Ruby chewed her lip. Worried green eyes looked over at Lonnie. "I know the idea was to hold out something for savings each month no matter what. But there's nothing this month to hold out." She ran a hand through her hair. "Maybe I should get a job..."

"NO!" Lonnie could see the force of her reply had startled Ruby so she softened her voice. "No, honey. I make good money. We'll get by. We want the best for Bethy. That means you staying home. Nothing is better for her than that. Besides, we don't have a mortgage payment. That should make it a lot easier. We're better off than most people." But Lonnie had hoped they'd be able to save for Ruby to go back to school sometime, too. It didn't look like that could happen anytime soon.

"Mmm. Okay, I agree," Ruby sat back and sighed. "It is the best thing for Bethy. But I'm not sure how we'll pay all these. The heating bill was higher this month. And now we're going to California, too. I know most of the trip's paid for, but there will be expense money we'll need."

"How much do you think?" Lonnie asked. "Air fare is paid and the car and gas."

"We'll have to pay our share of food. And we'll probably want to take them out to dinner. Probably more than once. And if we go someplace..."

"A couple hundred dollars? Think we can get by with that for a week?"

"That sounds like so much, but I don't know. It might need to be more than that. What does it cost to feed five people dinner if we go out? And what does it cost to go to different attractions? What do you think?"

"Yeah, it'll take more." She wanted to suggest taking one of the credit cards, but decided against it. "We'll just have to take more than we think we'll need. We can put anything we don't spend back into savings when we get home. That way we'll be safe."

"Our savings aren't that big, honey. How will we pay for it?"

"Well, I was thinking that maybe I'd get another small loan at the credit union."

"Oh Lonny, another loan," Ruby worried.

"I know. But I think we'll need to. After all, how often will we get the chance to travel like this?"

"It is a fabulous opportunity."

"And what's the point in going if you don't get to visit all the places you've always wanted to see?"

"Yes, but to go so much further into debt..."

"We can handle it." Lonnie knew she had to show Ruby the bill from Nyri yet. She cleared her throat. "What I was thinking was that this month seems to be kind of out of the ordinary. I mean, we had Christmas to pay for, and we did that. The folks were here and that made some of the utilities higher. And a lot of these things have come up that we won't have come up again, like our share of the hospital bills. Once they're paid off, we won't have them again. Thank heavens we had insurance. It leaves us a much, much smaller amount we have to pay. Utilities will always vary. But we have to expect them to be high in the winter."

"Your mother said I should call them and see if they'll average our bill so we can pay about the same amount each month year round." Ruby saw Lonnie clench her jaw at the mention of Lonnie's mother giving any advice about their bills. It was a sore point with the tall beauty. "She knows these things, honey," Ruby added in her mother-in-law's defense.

"Yes, all right. Why don't you go ahead and call the utility companies?"

"Okay. That might help, if they'll do that. At least we can plan more easily. And the car expenses seem to be running about the same each month. We'll definitely have to put off the lube and oil till next month, though."

"Right," Lonnie agreed, although she tried to never put off the maintenance lube and oil she got every three months without fail. It had always seemed to keep her cars in very good shape and prevented larger problems. "Some of these bills are little niggling the $50 you owe Nicole. I'd like to have that paid. Then there's our safety. Nothing is more important than that."

"Our safety? What are you talking about?" Ruby sat back and stared at Lonnie.

"Uh, Nyri's bill. It's not terrible or anything. But, uh, it is a little higher than we'd planned for."

"It was more than the retainer?" Ruby sat forward.

"Yes. She does things to get results, honey, not to save money necessarily. I can't fault her on that." Lonnie pushed the envelope out. "She's good at getting results. Look how she already got us pictures of that creep."

"Let's see," Ruby said. Lonnie pushed the envelope to Ruby's side of the table.

Lonnie continued nervously, "She said the final bill might come to a few thousand. I know that sounds like a lot, but think of it this way. It's no more than what we're paying out for Cheryl's clothes on our first loan and will undoubtedly be less. And Nyri'll have that creep behind bars so he can't hurt you, or us or little Bethy..ever again. I'm confident of that. She'll stop him in his tracks."

Lonnie prayed her confidence was well placed. In her heart, she had full faith in her friend. It was the creep's abilities that was the big wild card, and so far he had proven himself to be very able. And he was hot on Ruby's trail.

Ruby looked up at Lonnie then opened the envelope. She pulled out Nyri's bill, looked at the amount, examined everything written, folded the paper again and put it back in the envelope. She said nothing. She pushed it aside. "All right. Get another loan. You're right. We just have to get past this lean time."

"I'll go by at noon tomorrow. I'll get an extra fifty dollars to put in an envelope so you can pay Nicole back when she comes. Students always need money. I know you said her fiance's rich, but I'm sure Nicole'll be pleased to get her money back."

"Yes. I don't want her to think we've taken advantage of her." Ruby finished writing out the other bills. They gathered the papers marked "Paid" with the amount paid and the date and put them back in the desk drawer. The envelopes to be mailed were placed on top of Lonnie's purse. Like clockwork Beth began fussing in her bassinet, then crying.

Lonnie was surprised that there had not been more reluctance on Ruby's part regarding Nyri's bill. She gave a silent sigh of relief.

"Hey, sweetie," Ruby called as she moved to the bassinet near the fireplace in the living room. "Is our baby daughter awake?" The baby's soft wails calmed. Large watery blue eyes looked back at her, the baby's tears lessening at the approach of her mother. Ruby reached in and picked up the fussing infant. "Ooomph. You're getting so big, Princess." She gently jiggled the infant on her shoulder till the crying stopped completely.

Lonnie could feel the muscles in her face stretching in the smile that the baby girl always wrenched from her. "Hey, precious," she called across the room to the little one. She watched the baby's big blue eyes move around seeming to follow her voice as her head bobbed above Ruby's shoulder. One fist went to her small mouth. "She's hungry all right."

"I was afraid she was maybe too lean, but the doctor was impressed with how well she was growing. She said breast fed babies can tend to be a little more lean. I swear, she's eating up a storm. Aren't you, pumpkin?"

Lonnie chuckled at the faces the little one was making. Yes, she'd need a diaper change. What was new? It seemed they changed her about a hundred times a day. Ruby took the baby girl to the changing table in the nursery.

Lonnie pulled the living room drapes shut then took up the newspaper and sat on the couch. This room sparkled. They would not be practicing any self-defense moves until after their visitors had been here. Ruby had said they had to be careful to keep the place clean. So that really meant no practicing till after they got back from California. Ruby even had most of their laundry, ironing and packing done for their trip.

It was chilly outside, but the fireplace made the room cozy, more so once the drapes had been pulled. Lonnie read the headlines on the first page then began her perusal of the pages. She didn't seem to ever get enough time to keep up with what was going on in the world any more.

She thought about their bills. Most families had trouble making ends meet when both parents were working, and they were trying to do it with only one person working. But they weren't THAT far behind. It would be all right. They were doing fine.

Ruby came in with the baby and settled in the rocker. Lonnie glanced at her. Ruby was pleased to be able to get back into her pre-pregnancy clothes. But Ruby's college outfits were worn and their clothing allowance was scant to nonexistent. Still, in most ways, they were happier, more content, than either had ever been before. Aside, of course, from the ever-present worry regarding Ruby's rapist and what he was up to. Still, both loved being parents and little Beth was the center of their world. They were a family, and nothing could be more important to them than that.

"Ouch!" Ruby adjusted the baby. "Not quite so rough there, little one. Mommie's a little bit tender today." She leaned her face down to the infant. "I know my big girl's hungry." She adjusted her breast in the baby's mouth. "I'm glad she doesn't have teeth."

"Mmm." Lonnie read for a few more minutes, her eyes continually wandering to the mother and baby daughter in the rocking chair. "She kicked her bootie off again, hon. It's on the floor. Here, I can get it."

Lonnie got up, picked up the bootie and began to put it back on the infant. "Oooo, keep your little feeties warm, pumpkin. Such a good little kicker," she warbled to the baby. "Just like your Mommy. She's always kicking Mumsie at night. "Specially when she brings you into bed to feed you."

"I don't kick you, sweetheart."

"You do, but I love it."

Lonnie kissed Ruby on the forehead quickly then brought her attention back to the baby. "She's just so perfect, Ruby. We're so lucky."

"I know," Ruby's warm green eyes captured the tall woman's heart again as she looked up at her. "You both totally own my heart, you know," Ruby whispered.

"Yeah. I feel that way, too." Blue eyes left green and swept back to the infant, "Together we're going to surround our little girl with so much love."

"Yes we are." Ruby gazed at the infant and her features turned serious. "That's not to say we won't set limits and teach her manners and things. We don't want to raise a child that's spoiled rotten."

"Uh, no. Uh, I guess not." Lonnie blinked. She hadn't given that much thought.

Ruby looked up at Lonnie and slowly her mouth turned up into a knowing grin, "She's going to be able to twist you right around her little finger, isn't she?"

"Of course not," Lonnie replied, almost indignantly.

Ruby laughed. "Yes, she is. She'll probably do the same to me. But as long as we stick together on raising her, we'll be fine." Ruby tenderly smiled down on their tiny daughter. "I was thinking I'd put her in that sweet white know, the long one your Mom bought for her with the lace at the bottom. She's big enough to fit in it now. She'll just be angelic in it."

"She is a little angel. Aren't you, little pumpkin? You're just going to wow the world, baby girl," Lonnie got to her knees before the rocker and brought her face close to the child. "Wait till you meet Mommy's girl friend, Nicole. She's going to see what the fuss is all about. She'll see what a sweet little angel you are." Lonnie helped fold the baby blanket around the child's bootie covered feet and rose to her feet. The infant had her eyes closed, though, and was happily enjoying her meal.

"That's the truth," Ruby agreed. "And Nicole's fiancé, David, will be impressed with her, too. How could he help but be?"


Ruby didn't remember a whole lot about David. She'd seen him a couple times and met him once. He was a little less than average height, as she recalled. Five nine maybe and he was as bulky as a linebacker. She and Nicole had not found him very impressive at the time they'd first met him, she did remember that much. Which was why she was a little surprised Nicole had become engaged to him, of all the guys Nicole seemed to know.

She noticed a bit of reluctance even now in Nicole's speaking about him, like she was making excuses for him. He was very wealthy and wasn't noted for being particularly friendly. She remembered he'd acted like he was better than everybody else. Other than that all she could recall was that he was very proud of his boxing accomplishments. Whatever. Nicole seems happy enough now. And I'm sure he'll be taken in by our precious little girl, too.


"Oh, no," Ruby called frantically from the kitchen. Lonnie had just finished doing the last minute vacuuming in their apartment Saturday morning before their guests were to arrive. Ruby had dusted then bathed the baby and now had run into the kitchen with the towel-wrapped infant in her arms to turn on the coffee machine. "I didn't think of it before. What should we do? There's no milk. Nicole drinks milk in her coffee. She hates powdered creamer."

Though it was getting late, Lonnie hurriedly rolled the vacuum back to the closet. "Don't worry. I'll run and get some milk. Won't take long."

"Oh, good. Thanks, hon. Hurry, though, okay? Get two percent, if you can."

Ruby carried Beth to the nursery and placed the baby girl on the changing table. She heard the door shut as Lonnie hurried out. She took care of the wet diaper, wiped off her bottom and finished up by sprinkling baby powder on the little one's derriere. "Ohhh, you smell so good, sweetheart," Ruby cooed to her daughter. She fastened the clean diaper. "Now let's put you into the pretty new dress Grandma bought you. And some white booties to match. And then I'll feed you."

She pulled on the white dress as she kept up a stream of conversation with the tiny girl, who looked as though she were really trying to follow her mother's words. "Our apartment is spotless, sweetheart. Mommie's worked hard all week because her friend Nicole is coming to visit us. I want her to see it at its best. You'll like her, baby girl. She's a lot of fun. Your Momma hasn't seen her friend in so long." She slipped the booties on the little feet and pulled down the long dress. "Aren't you precious?"

By the time the desk buzzed, the baby was bathed, dressed and a little bow had been tied in her softly brushed hair at the top of her head. She had been fed and her eyes were a little heavy. Ruby answered the intercom then waited as their guests made their way up on the elevator.

The doorbell rang. Ruby opened the door and there stood her good friend Nicole. She looked different, better, more cosmopolitan than Ruby remembered. Nicole's stylish outfit looked as though it were made just for her and her hair style was more sophisticated.

"Nicole! Come on in." Ruby's smile was huge. She took a quick look behind her friend, but Nicole was alone.

Her college friend instantly wrapped her arms around Ruby and the baby in a quick hug. "Ohhh, this is the little one! Isn't she precious. Here let me hold her."

"Let me take your coat, first. We can put it in the bedroom. You came alone?"

Nicole's eyes flitted to Ruby then skipped off to the baby. "No, David had to move the car. I tried to tell him he had to park in the visitor's section, but he wouldn't listen. When we came inside, someone at the desk asked him to go back and move the car. He's not a happy camper. We'll just have to roll with the punches on that. So, give me the quick tour. Hurry, so I can hold this little angel."

Ruby watched Nicole looking around with appreciative eyes as they moved. They had the gas fireplace going, the clear, crisp day provided a marvelous view out their sparkling clean wall of windows and the room itself was spotless and cozy. "Wow! Really nice place!"

"We sure like it."

The two headed back toward the master bedroom, Nicole's eyes reluctantly leaving the tiny girl.

"Okay, this is the nursery. Lonnie's dad put up the nursery rhyme border." Ruby pointed to each room as they quickly passed. "This is the main bath." They hastened to the bedroom. "Just put your coat on the bed. This is the master bedroom. There's a master bath on the end. And each room has a balcony."

Their bedroom sparkled. "This is an amazing place, Ruby! Great art work." Nicole dropped her coat and settled herself on the bed next to it. "Here, let me hold her. She is so beautiful! What a precious dress!"

"Her grandparents got it for her. Here, put this cloth diaper on your shoulder, in case. Sometimes she spits up. She just ate." Ruby carefully transferred the wide-eyed infant to the stranger's arms then sat on the bed beside her friend. Bethy looked around uncertainly but did not cry.

"Grandparents? Oh, you mean your friend's parents."

"Yes. My inlaws. They got us most of the baby things."

"She's an angel, Ruby. And her name's Elizabeth?" Nicole cradled the kicking infant into her own arms and looked down on the baby with what could only be described as maternal longing.

"Yes. We call her Bethy." Ruby added softly, "She's our little miracle."

Nicole put her index finger out and Bethy wrapped her tiny fingers around it. "Oh, she's so precious. Isn't she wonderful?" It was impossible to miss the large diamond ring worn on Nicole's hand, but Ruby did not remark on it. Her eyes were completely captured by her small daughter instead.

"We think she's pretty special," Ruby grinned proudly.

"Your, uh, friend's not here?" Nicole flicked a glance at Ruby, but returned her eyes to little Beth.

"She ran to the store to get some milk for your coffee. I remembered that you like milk in yours."

"That's so sweet of you," Nicole said emphatically. She adjusted the baby onto her lap, keeping one hand under her head and neck, releasing the other to take Ruby's hand in her own to give it a soft squeeze. "It's been so long. Gads, did you ever think things would end up like this?"

"No," Ruby agreed. "Never. Things sure used to be different." She kept a sharp eye on her daughter as she squeezed her friend's hand in return. Then she added quickly, "Uh, considering everything, I've been extremely lucky."

"A beautiful daughter and a fabulous condo. I'd say you've done very well for yourself." Nicole withdrew her hand and returned both hands to lift the little one up in front of her, looking at her carefully, obviously enamored of the little girl. She brought the baby toward her, made a smily face for the infant and large blue eyes looked back at her with a small button nose crinkling ever so slightly. "Your Momma certainly did well, didn't she, little one?"

"And I have a great partner, too." Ruby did feel blessed. She watched as Nicole brought the infant carefully back into her arms and settled her into a comfortable, cradling hold. "Uh, you know, Nicky, we'd like to be sure no one else finds out where we live," Ruby reminded her friend. "That creep's still looking, you said."

A serious face turned to Ruby. "No problemo, Rube. Don't worry about it. David graduated last semester. He doesn't associate with anyone from school any more. He's only into business these days. And I'm sure not going to say a word to anyone. I don't want that creep near me, either." Her attention reverted back to the infant who had begun fussing a little. She lifted the baby to her shoulder and rubbed her back gently.

"David won't say anything to his friends, will he?" Ruby asked.

Nicole looked into the mirror above the chest and saw herself rubbing the baby's back. She gave herself a soft smile and continued to rub, adding a series of gentle pats. "Do you have a bubble, little one?" She glanced at Ruby, "What friends? David didn't really have any friends at school. He only has business associates now, and he's not going to say anything to them. You don't have to worry."

"Okay." Ruby looked carefully at her friend, but Nicole didn't return the look.

There was a tiny burp from the little girl bringing a chuckle from both women. "Uh, oh. She's drooling, or did she spit up?"

"Whoops. Maybe a little spit up. Not much. Keep her there on your shoulder. I'll get it." Ruby hopped off the bed and got a damp wash rag from the bathroom. She gently wiped the baby's mouth, causing Bethy to squirm around and make a sound much like a squeally gurgle. Ruby dabbed at the cloth diaper on Nicole's shoulder. "She didn't get your shirt and it didn't go through."

"Wouldn't have mattered if it did. It's washable." Nicole brought the infant back down, cradling her in her arms. Large blue baby eyes gazed up at the stranger, completely captivating Nicole.

Ruby sat on the bed again, turning a little more toward her friend. "So, what's everyone up to these days?"

"The girls at school, you mean?" Nicole was not even aware of her grin, the one adults often get without even knowing it when staring at babies. Bethy wrinkled her face a little bit, but had quit fussing.


"Same as always, I guess. Nosy Leah's still there. She's as snotty as ever. She still doesn't have a steady boyfriend. I can't think of any guy that'd want to date her more than once, frankly. She's such a twit. I never could stand her. It really galls her that I got engaged and she can't even get a date. Oh, and Tiffany got engaged at Christmas. Remember her? She was on the first floor."

"Um, I think so. Nice girl. Long, long straight brown hair, uh, very graciously endowed?" Ruby fluttered her hands around her own bust.

Nicole laughed. "That's the one. Gods, remember how jealous we all were?"

"I guess," Ruby grinned. She had never been all that envious but she remembered Nicole talking about her.

"She and I had a chance to have a long talk one afternoon. She told me she's always been so self-conscious about being so big. She said one day she might even have surgery to reduce her size. I couldn't believe it. I told her we were all envious. She said it was fine if you wanted to pose for Playboy or something, but she didn't. She's really kind of shy. And they, uh, bother her."


"Yes. Isn't it strange how everyone has such different views of things?"

"Yes." Ruby's face lost her grin. She remembered the despicable view everyone took of her after her attack. She could never forget how unfair it had been.

Nicole didn't seem to notice Ruby's change of humor. Her full attention was on the infant in her arms. "Everyone's getting tired of studying, of course. Final year and all. But the finish line's in view. Most everybody's looking forward to graduation." Nicole threw a startled glance at Ruby. "Uh, are you going to finish up someday, do you think?"

Ruby licked her lips. "Yes. Lonnie's encouraged me to go back to school as soon as Bethy is a little older." And when we can afford it.

"That's good. I know how much you liked your studies. So, are you going back to work?"

"No. Lonnie wants me to stay home with Beth. We both agree that children are better off with a parent more than a babysitter if a family can afford it at all."

"Your Lonnie sounds like quite a person."

"Oh, she is, Nicole. She really is."

Nicole lowered her face shaking it close to the baby, nearly getting her hair close enough for little fingers to grasp. "You're a charmer, little Fufu girl," Nicole said softly to Bethy, giving her face a last shake. Large blue baby eyes stared in confusion at the shaking face, a baby frown momentarily on her face.

Nicole sat back up and let her eyes move around the room then brought them back to the bed. She put out a hand and patted the spread. "Is this where you...." She wiggled her brows.

Ruby cast a look such as those she'd often given Nicole when they had private talks as roommates in the dorm at school. "Nicoooolllle," she said primly.

"Well, you know I have to ask. Is it? Is this where you...mmm mmm mmm mmm mmm?"

Ruby laughed. "Yes. This is where we sleep."

"Come on, Ruby. You know what I'm asking. How is it? What's it like? You can tell ME. C'mon. Give. I'll tell you what it's like with David."

"I don't want to know that about David."

"Oh, c'mon. Give."

"It's everything I've ever dreamed of and more," Ruby replied modestly, glancing at her ring.

Nicole's eyes followed, taking in Ruby's simple gold band. She kept herself from looking at her own ornate, large-stoned engagement ring. "Really?"

"Oh, yes."

"Better than Raleigh?"

This was so typical of Nicole. She loved to talk about sex. And she liked to shock Ruby, if she could. So the more personal the conversation, the better Nicole liked it.

"Different from Raleigh," Ruby replied. "For one thing, I'm very much in love with Lonnie and I don't think I ever was in love with Raleigh. So comparing them is not fair to Raleigh. I'm very happy. Everything is...wonderful. It's hard to explain. It's just...wonderful."

Nicole was quiet for a minute. "He's married, you know."


Nicole nodded.

"I'm glad. But how do you know?" Ruby asked. Maybe Nicole had made further contact with Ruby's brother, Bobby Lee. Wouldn't that be wonderful?

"You know that little Butcher's Hollow kind of newspaper you always used to get from your hometown? It kept coming to the dorm after you left. It's quit now. But there was an article in one of those. It told about the wedding. I...wasn't sure you'd want to know. He didn't waste much time, if you ask me. But then, you jumped right into the same kind of thing, didn't you?"

Ruby didn't disagree.

"They, uh, had a complete rundown including everyone in the wedding party and what everybody wore and what was served at the reception. You know how gossipy little hometown newspapers can be. And, uh, your brother was his best man."

"Bobby Lee?"

"No, your other brother."

"Oh. Danny. That doesn't surprise me." She felt disappointed that it hadn't been a loosening of restraints felt by Bobby Lee that had provided Nicole with the information. "It doesn't surprise me that Raleigh married right away, either. He was the kind of guy that wanted to settle down and raise a family. He was always very impatient and unhappy that I made him wait."

"Well, he was older. I never did like him much."

"I remember."

Nicole chuckled. "You know, they talk about how guys never want to get married and women can't wait to trap them," Nicole blew a tiny breath of air toward Bethy's face. The baby closed her eyes then opened them again when Nicole leaned down to press a quick kiss on her forehead. "Frankly, Rube, I think it's the other way around. There was Raleigh wanting you to marry him then up and marrying someone else the minute you two break up. And David is constantly pressuring me to marry him, the sooner the better in his mind."

"So have you picked a date?"

"After graduation and not a minute before." Nicole knew she'd get no juicy sex information from Ruby, but she couldn't help trying, "So, tell me, what's your, uh, friend like?"

"My partner? She's beautiful, fun, loving, interesting. Course, I'm prejudiced. You'll get to meet her pretty soon. She's really a neat person. And her parents are wonderful, too. They stayed here with us before the baby was born. And her mother stayed a few weeks after to help. Here..." Ruby hopped up and got a picture off the chest of the four of them at their joining ceremony. "See. This was our joining ceremony. That's Lonnie." She pointed.

Nicole kept both hands on the baby as she ran her eyes over the picture. "Wow! That's your friend?"

"My partner, yes."

"She's beautiful!"

"I think so."

"Oh, look at you in that red robe, Rube! You look so cute! Heavens, you got huge, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I got very big. I had to stay in bed the last month or so. They were afraid Bethy'd come way too early. She was early, but not that early." She reached out to adjust the bow in Bethy's hair. "There were problems after she was born. She was in neonatal special care for a short while. And they had to do emergency surgery on me...because of the attack. Scar tissue."

"Crimony! But you're both all right now?" Nicole's face paled with concern.

"Yes. Oops, she's kicked off a bootie again. Let me get it." Ruby reached down and got the bootie from the rug and placed it back on the baby's foot.

"I wish I could have been there for you." Nicole said softly. Then the smile reappeared on her face. It was obvious that she enjoyed having an infant in her arms. Ruby wondered if she'd have to wrestle her friend to get her baby back. Nicole was entranced. "There's not a whole lot of hair to attach that bow to, is there little Fufu girl?" Nicole asked the baby.


"Yes. That's what I'm going to call her. The sweet little Fufu girl."

Ruby laughed. "Actually, Bethy's got quite a lot of hair for such a young little pumpkin. It's just so light you can't see all of it." Ruby gently touched the bow on the baby's head and sat back. "Remember Delta's baby, when she brought it to the dorm? She had to tape that little girl's bow on her head. The poor baby was nearly bald."

Nicole laughed. "Ouch, imagine taking it off, poor thing. I remember that. You're right. Many babies start out with little hair." The baby made some gurgling noises and they both looked at her. "Look at those beautiful blue eyes."

"Just like Lonnie's," Ruby didn't remember grinning so much. It was so good to see Nicole again.

"Doesn't she ever cry?" Nicole looked over in question.

Ruby put her hand on Nicole's arm. "Careful what you wish for, my friend," she warned. She removed her hand. "Actually, she does cry when she's hungry. But, mostly, she doesn't cry a lot. The doctor says we're very fortunate. Some babies are extremely colicky. Oh, look, Bethy likes you, Nicole." The tiny girl was reaching up toward Nicole, a smile on her face. "See, she's smiling. She just started doing that. Gosh, you look good with a baby in your arms. Maybe next year at this time you'll have your own on the way.." Ruby wiggled her brows.

"No," Nicole replied softly.

"Okay, a little later than that, then. After all, you'll want to start on your house full right away."

"No." Nicole did not look up.

It surprised Ruby. They'd often talked about how they both wanted large families. And obviously Nicole was very taken with babies. "But you still want children, right?"

"Not right away." Nicole stiffened. There was a sadness in her voice that Ruby instantly picked up. Something was not right with her old friend. But from the bristling in her friend's body language, somehow Ruby didn't feel free to ask.

"So tell me about David."

Nicole looked over hastily, "Oh. Well, I'm hoping he won't be in a funk when he comes up. Be prepared, okay? He can be sweet when he wants to be, but he can be a real pain when he's annoyed. You know how guys can be. Don't take offense if he's grumpy, okay? Sometimes he says things he doesn't mean." She licked her lips nervously then put her attention back on Beth. "Hey, little Fufu girl," she said to the baby. "You look a lot like your Momma with your light colored hair. She does look like you, Rube."

"You love David, right?" Ruby had picked up the reluctance in Nicole's voice and had to pursue it.

"Oh, sure. My folks are really impressed with him. He sponsored my Dad so they could join the country club. And he's paying for my golfing lessons. He says a lot of business is done on the golf course, so he's deducting my lessons from his taxes or something. I don't know. He says if we get married this year, he can claim them. After graduation, of course. He wants me to quit school and marry him, like I said, but that isn't going to happen. I'm holding firm. I will graduate first."

That determination was more like her old friend. "Good for you, Nicky. Gee, country clubs, no less. It must be nice rubbing elbows with the upper crust," Ruby grinned.

"Well, I try not to know too much about the money stuff..." Nicole returned her own grin, "except how to spend it. I'm keeping the pedal to the metal in that area. I fully expect to earn myself a master's degree in that field when all is said and done."

It surprised Ruby. When did spending money become important to Nicole? Ruby wasn't sure the friend she used to know would ever have been enthralled with money at all. She had been into partying and having a good time. That was very true. But wealth had never seemed that important. Ruby set that idea aside. "Somehow I never thought you'd be interested in golf."

"Well, I sort of have to be. But it's fun. I'm having a wonderful time."

"I'm glad. Your outfit is really nice." Nicole was wearing a tailored sporting outfit such as might be found in any daytime country club dining room. Her long coat that she'd placed on the bed matched the trim on her tailored polo top and was exactly the same color as her long stylish pants.

"Thanks. My folks are making sure that I'm dressing to meet David's expectations. It's kind of a financial stretch for them, but they're doing it. David picked this out for me at one of the exclusive golfing shops and had it fitted for me. But my folks paid for it. David has really good taste. It does fit nicely."

"It sure does. You look very..." Ruby grinned, "high toned."

Nicole pursed her lips. "I'm a high-toned, lady, I'll have you know," she said haughtily.

Then they both laughed. Ruby put her arm around Nicole and they touched heads as they'd often done in the past.

"I missed you, small fry," Nicole said softly.

"I missed you, too, Nicole," Ruby agreed. She didn't mention how hurt she'd been when Nicole stopped writing or calling her. She had felt completely abandoned by her old friend. Ruby's situation had been dire, she'd been alone, pregnant in an unfamiliar city. Once she'd actually made contact with Nicole again and listened to the pressures her friend had been living under, mostly because of Ruby's parents, Ruby understood on one level how Nicole could have just cut off their friendship without a word. But she had never really comprehended it on another. She pushed all hurt aside now. Those days were gone. They were different people now, although this was more what her old friend had been like.

The buzzer rang and Ruby hopped off the bed. "It's the desk. Must be David."

Nicole's smile faded. She sprang to her feet, a touch of fear in her eyes. "Quick, go answer it. He's already going to be pissed." She followed Ruby to the front door, the baby secured in her arms. "Please understand if he's cranky. He doesn't mean anything by it. Don't take offense, okay? Just roll with the punches."

That was a familiar phrase Ruby was used to her dear friend using. That and "Rock On" had been Nicole's favorites, though maybe her days of saying "Rock On" were now over. She didn't get the impression that Nicole and David spent much time partying. Ruby nodded and called down an okay, and they waited by the door for David to arrive.

A frowning, no-neck burly man stood outside the condo door when Ruby opened it. Ruby thought he looked a little better without the beard she'd remembered that he'd tried to grow when they were all in school together. Now he looked like a college version of a wiseguy in a very expensive pinstriped silk suit and a camel cashmere overcoat. "David, how nice to see you again," Ruby smiled. "C'mon in. I see you decided against keeping your beard."

He looked at her, and it was obvious that he couldn't remember her. But her friendliness took him by surprise, like he should have known her. He moved like an auteur of privilege into the apartment. He continued without speaking toward the window wall in the living room and looked out while the two women followed him. "Hmpf," he finally muttered, scanning the view. He pointed to the woods, "They should cut that down and put in visitor parking. It would be more convenient. They could have visitors come in from the back there."

Ruby looked with surprise at the woods. She loved those woods. A parking lot would certainly not be an improvement. She offered to take his coat, but he mumbled that they wouldn't be there that long. Then he shot a truculent look at Nicole, who stood quietly holding the baby.

"I think I remember you now," he said curtly to Ruby. "You know, you need to tell the people downstairs that they should move the visitor's parking closer to the front doors. It's ridiculous to have guests have to park so far away."

"Oh, uh, I'll mention it to them," Ruby replied.

"You do that!" he added angrily. "Better places don't make their guests park half a world away. I already told them that. But you follow up with it. After all, if they want this place to look less like low-cost housing, they'd better change their parking designations."

The door opened and Lonnie rushed in. "Hi, everybody," she called cheerfully to the group standing in the living room. She tossed her keys into the bowl. "I'll put this in the fridge and be right out." All eyes, particularly David's, followed her as she hurried in large strides through the dining area into the kitchen. His scowl deepened.

The baby fussed a little and Nicole jiggled her gently. "Her name's Elizabeth, David." Nicole adjusted the infant in her arms and looked down on the baby with a soft smile. "Isn't she precious?"

"Forget it, Nicky," David snarled. "I already told ya, I don't want any brats. We aren't having any. So don't even think about it."

"Don't your parents want grandchildren?" Ruby asked him. "Most parents do." He didn't reply. He certainly was crabby. She flicked a few glances at him as he glared at Nicole then Ruby smiled sweetly at her daughter. "We call her Bethy."

Lonnie stepped out of the far end of the kitchen and all eyes turned to her. "She's named for my mother," Lonnie supplied, "Who is very proud of her beautiful granddaughter. And, of course, it's my middle name, too."

That gave David pause. He rarely listened to Nicole's babbling, especially about her friends, but he remembered that she'd told him their names, and he remembered that their last names were the same. But they certainly didn't look like sisters. They were as opposite as night and day.

Lonnie's dark hair fell below her shoulders, setting off the vibrance of her blue eyes. The resonant blue of her silk shirt contrasted nicely with her black turtleneck underneath. Both were tucked into black cotton trousers that hugged her slim hips. Her short dark hiking boots showing beneath rounded off her outfit. She was very impressive, her eyes particularly garnering much attention, her clothes accenting her very long-legged, toned figure.

Nicole looked at her like she was good enough to eat, and Ruby felt an uncomfortable shot of jealousy. Oh no, Nicole, she's taken! She was working hard to get her figure back, and she intended to keep the love of her life's attention in every way possible. Her friend swept her approving eyes slowly over Lonnie's frame as the tall woman moved around the furniture toward the fireplace to join them in the living room.

Nicole's appreciation had not escaped David's scrutiny. He threw his fiancé a vile, contemptuous look then scowled at Lonnie. "Ya goin' hiking?" he asked her with a scoffing laugh as he pointed at her boots. "Is that what that's all about? Or did you dress in the dark this morning?" He chuckled at what he considered a joke, unfazed by the fact that no one else was laughing.

"David," Nicole breathed in a shocked, barely audible whisper.

He heard it and it seemed to egg him on. A look of dark distaste crossed his face, and he shifted his head with an aire of superiority keeping his attention on Lonnie, "Or are you short on knowledge of women's fashion? You need to find yourself a good man to give you advice on how to dress so you don't have these fashion faux pas. Take Nicky there. She used to run around looking like common riffraff. Guys know what they like. So I'll give you a hint, you're pretty enough but you'll never get yourself a man in those."

Then his eye caught her wedding band and it took him aback a little. He had seen the small blonde's ring. And the rings looked very much alike. Somehow he didn't think the two were each married to one of two brothers with the same last name. Nor did they seem the type to lie about their status. He did not like the conclusion that left. Supreme detestation welled up within him, supplementing the annoyance he already felt.

Lonnie kept herself from chuckling. She looked at the pleading in Ruby's eyes and gentled her thoughts. "Actually, Ruby and I are both ready to begin training to climb Mt. Hood this summer. So, yes, we will be doing a lot of hiking in preparation. As I'm sure you know, one should always make sure their boots are broken in ahead of time. I'm happy to report that these boots, in fact, are very comfy." She stopped and raised a foot, showing off her boot. "You should get yourself a pair." Lonnie quirked a grin. She could read the growing cloud of insolence surrounding David and decided he was definitely not used to being challenged in any way.

To make matters worse, it was obvious that at six feet Lonnie stood taller than the five foot nine inch, well-dressed beefy man standing between Nicole and Ruby. Next to Ruby, he seemed quite tall. Even next to Nicole, who was taller than Ruby, his height seemed prominent. But with Lonnie close, it put things into a different perspective. It was equally obvious that he placed some kind of measure of manliness on height. All of which deepened his hostility adding to his loathing. His lip curled.

Ruby smiled nervously. "This is Lonnie," she said proudly by way of introduction. Lonnie smiled, leaned forward and offered her hand to shake theirs. "Lonnie, this is Nicole.."

"Hi, Lonnie," Nicole smiled, her voice perhaps a little too welcoming. She moved the baby to her shoulder, holding her there with one hand. She took Lonnie's hand with the other and held it a touch too long.

Ruby kept a smile on her face to keep from frowning at her friend. Lonnie quickly turned to David, who stood on the other side of Ruby. He did not offer his hand and Lonnie dropped hers.

"This is David," Ruby added as politely as she could, uncomfortable with the heavy tension in the room.

Lonnie nodded. "David," she said pleasantly in greeting, before stepping back beside Ruby. She watched Nicole move their sleepy daughter to cradle her again in her arms. "Welcome to our home."

David looked the two over with a nasty sneer. The look he shot Lonnie was not unfamiliar to her, and she tensed at it. She recognized his emotion right away. Disgust. "What are you, some kind of queers or something? Is that what's going on here?" He shot a look at Nicole. "Better watch out, Nicky, people will talk."

"David, stop that," Nicole said softly.

It happened so quickly that no one had time to react. David's hand flew out and swatted Nicole on the back of the head. It wasn't a hard swat, but it forced Nicole to stumble slightly out of her place. "Don't tell me what I can do," he growled.

Nicole moved sideways a couple steps away from him, moving between the coffee table and the couch, transferring the baby in her arms as far from him as possible. Lonnie's fists clenched and she began to move in response, but Ruby stepped to keep Lonnie from nearing David. Her hand came back to keep Lonnie behind her as she faced David.

"Don't you hit Nicole, and don't you dare go near our baby! I don't care how mad you are that you had to park far away. It doesn't give you the right.." There was fire in Ruby's eyes, if David had been wise enough to notice it.

However, he did not. "Don't talk to me about rights!" David replied. "What I do is none of your business," He swept his gaze dismissively over Ruby then narrowed his eyes toward Nicole, completely ignoring Lonnie who was blocked by both Ruby and the coffee table. Nicole looked back with fear in her eyes.

"What you do in my home, is my business," Ruby continued defiantly, standing her ground.

David looked back at the small woman with surprise then added a snort of total disbelief. The courage of this little blonde-haired woman standing up to him raised her in his opinion. Ruby could see that in his eyes.

"Ruby, let me take care of this!" Frustrated, Lonnie again moved to deal with the man, but Ruby continued blocking her way.

"No, Lonnie. He'll stop now. I'm sure it was a momentary lapse. I'm sure he's really a gentleman at heart." She had serious doubts about that, however. "He was just angry because they made him move the car." Suddenly she wondered if she didn't sound like Nicole, making excuses for this repugnant man.

She could see that Nicole had moved the baby another step toward the fireplace, out of David's reach. And he was no longer moving toward her. She hoped he was rethinking his actions. Her baby was safe. And she could see how mortified her dear friend was. She wasn't sure what to do exactly. But she turned pleading green eyes to Lonnie behind her, keeping her in place. These were her guests. And Nicole had said he'd be grumpy. She hadn't said he'd hit her, though. She hardly thought that was what Nicole meant by "Roll with the punches." She heaved a sigh. Hopefully it was out of his system and politeness would triumph. "It's all right."

David did, indeed, stop his movements. However, he was deriving joy from the discomfort he'd created, and had not at all given up his malevolent disposition. "So that's your bastard," he said nastily, enjoying the horror flickering across Ruby's face. "Who'd ya fuck to end up with a baby? Or do you fuck everyone? Do I get in line somewhere?"

That was it! Lonnie'd had more than enough. There was no way she was going to allow this man this kind of behavior in their home or around Ruby and the baby no matter whose friend he was. She would kick his ass and move him out...permanently!

"Stop it, David!" a shocked Nicole said loudly. "Ruby's my friend. That's enough! Just stop it!" Following Ruby's lead, Nicole had cranked her courage to its fullest to say that as firmly as she did. It momentarily surprised him.

Then everything happened at once. He took a threatening step toward Nicole, his hand raised. But Ruby partially blocked him. This time it was not the blonde's intent to block Lonnie, but in effect she did. She had simply meant to keep him from Nicole and the baby. Lonnie was dancing around trying to move past Ruby, but David was also moving to get to Nicole and she couldn't get by the small blonde and the furniture fast enough to actually reach him.

David grabbed Ruby's wrist. "Get out of the way, lesbian whore," he growled. He squeezed his hold so tightly that Ruby sucked in a breath in pain.

All niceties were definitely gone. Lonnie glanced over at Nicole, "Get the baby out of here," she demanded. Nicole moved with little Bethy past the fireplace and kitchen to the hall entrance near the nursery.

For the short time that Lonnie's head was turned giving Nicole instructions, Ruby's training automatically whipped into gear. In an instant the small blonde had dropped, twisted, and wrenched away from a startled David's grip. Then she'd used a hold on his arm, his slightly off balance pose and her hip to flip him over backwards, where he hit the floor with a heavy thud, shooting the rocking chair into the entertainment center with a clatter and overturning the coffee table. The furniture noise and the thud of his body hitting was followed by the back of David's head hitting directly on the floor with a 'whop,' temporarily stunning him.

Ruby's pepper spray was whipped out in an instant and aimed at the dazed man's face as the blonde stood spread-legged beside his prostrate form in the close opening between the end of the couch and the corner of the closet wall. Fire still danced in Ruby's eyes.

The small blonde glanced over to see Nicole holding Bethy in the hallway just beyond the kitchen, frozen, staring openmouthed at David stretched out on the floor in the living room pathway that led to the condo entrance. Ruby hesitated. Did she dare use the spray?

"No spray!" Lonnie called. "No. The baby! No spray." Lonnie saw David's hand reach out to grab Ruby's ankle, planning, she was sure, to do the small blonde serious damage. After all, more than just his ego had been assailed this time. Lonnie swiftly grabbed Ruby and tried to lift her to the side out of his way, but David already had a firm grip on Ruby's ankle that he now twisted. Ruby called out in pain.

Quickly Lonnie's foot swung out around the blonde, her heavy boot catching David just under his chin. The "crack" echoed throughout the room. David instantly went slack, out cold, his meaty fist dropping to the floor off Ruby's ankle. Lonnie lifted Ruby out of his grip over the tipped coffee table to the center of the room, both taking a quick glimpse at the baby, still held safely in Nicole's arms in the hallway. Lonnie held the small blonde in her arms. "Are you all right, honey? Is your leg all right?"

"I'm all right," Ruby looked down at her foot. She shakily pulled up the jeans on her leg. The ankle area was red and swelling slightly. It was obviously going to bruise.

"Is it broken, do you think?"

"No. I'm sure it isn't." She stepped on her foot gingerly. "No, it's all right." She looked down. "But he's bleeding, Lonnie."

They both looked to see blood oozing out of the unconscious man's mouth.

Lonnie flew into action. She grabbed a clean dishtowel from a kitchen drawer and dropped beside him in the small space, using her fingers to carefully pry open his mouth. She turned his head to the side so that he wouldn't choke on the blood. "Call down for help," she demanded.

Ruby rushed to the intercom and rang the front desk. Then she rushed back, "What is it?" she asked Lonnie. "What's wrong with him?"

"Looks like he bit his tongue," Lonnie replied. She carefully pressed the clean towel on the blood source, moping up what she could from his mouth with the rest of the towel to keep him from choking. "And it's my guess he has a broken jaw."

David began to moan, then rolled more to his side. His hand went to his jaw. He coughed and spit blood on the rug, nearby wall and over his suit and coat, moving with difficulty as he became more aware of his surroundings. It was obvious as he came to that he did not intend to stay down.

"For cripe sakes, stay down!" Lonnie pressed him down. "Use that cloth to stop the blood. You bit your tongue. We don't know what else might be wrong with you." She turned to a very concerned Ruby. "Usually this kind of wound doesn't bleed a long time. Although, I guess it could. We'd better get him to an emergency room right away."

His hand stayed on the towel, pressing it against his tongue. "-on't -ouch me, bitch," he growled through the cloth, trying to shake the cobwebs from his mind. The doorbell rang and Ruby let in Rob from the front desk.

"My gosh, what's happened?" the startled man asked.

Ruby quickly explained, showed him the marks on her arm where David had grabbed her and the one on her ankle while Rob stared from her to the bleeding man on the floor.

"How did he get there?" His eyes went to Lonnie. "Did you..."

"No, Ruby tossed him down," Lonnie replied staying crouched near the injured man, trying to judge his injuries without touching him.

Rob looked at Ruby with disbelief. "Ruby did?"

"That's right. And I kicked him when he tried to grab her. Caught him under the chin. I think his jaw's broken."

"Do we need to call the police?" Rob asked, stepping closer to the downed man. Ruby rushed to Nicole in the hall near the nursery to retrieve baby Bethy.

"NO!" David managed to shout around the towel in his mouth. He forced his way into a sitting position, leaving blood marks from his hand on the corner of the closet wall. "Aa-hi-dent! Tripped. Fell." He flicked his head toward Lonnie and Ruby, "Don't -elieve 'em. Ay -ad nothin' ta do -ith it." He spit out more blood on the rug then pressed the towel back against his tongue. "All an ah-hi-dent." He moved his legs to get them under himself. "I'm goin'. C'-on, Nichole."

"Please don't call the police," Nicole whispered to Ruby. "Please. He'll never live it down if anyone hears that it was two women that did this to him. That's about the worst thing that could ever happen to him. Please. There's no telling what he'd do if that information got out. His father rides him mercilessly as it is. He'd make his life miserable, if he knew. Please."

"Don't stay with him, Nicole," Ruby pleaded. "He's not the man for you. Please, you deserve so much better. Get away from him."

"He needs me, Rube. You wouldn't understand."

"No. I don't understand. He's going to hurt you, Nicky. Please don't stay with him."

"I'll be all right. He doesn't hurt me. Not really. You know me. I wouldn't lie to you. Just don't call the police. You don't know what his father is like."

"He's going to have to tell his father something," Ruby said, looking back at the man. "Lonnie says he's bitten his tongue and she thinks his jaw is broken. He needs to go to the emergency room."

"I'll take him. Don't worry. It's all right. Really. He's looked worse than this after some of his fights."

"Oh, Nicole. Leave him. Walk away. He's going to hurt you."

"No. He won't hurt me. Not really. He swats me sometimes, that's all. He never really hurts me. You know how I didn't like Raleigh when you were going with him. This is like that."

"No it isn't. Raleigh never, ever would have thought of hitting me, Nicole."

"Well, you've seen David at his absolute worst. If you saw him when he was being sweet, you'd like him."

"I don't think so,..."

"Okay, Rube. He said some horrible things. Unforgivable things. He was angry. He didn't mean them. But he won't hurt me. I know how worried you are about someone finding out where you live. You can leave your mind at rest. You don't have to worry about David. He won't ever admit being here or knowing you or anything. And he sure won't want anyone to find you. You could tell them what really happened after all. Especially since you have a witness." She nodded toward Rob. "If I know David, he'll convince everyone that he fell. Or that he was attacked by a gang of huge ruffians that he ended up beating to a pulp. He'll want me to lie for him, so I know he won't hurt me. I can hold that over him. Please. Don't worry about me. And don't call the police."

"Stay down!" Lonnie growled with annoyance to David. She looked around the room for the phone. It had been knocked off the table in the event. "You're injured. We'll get you an ambulance."

"-o ta -ell. No ambulance!" Both Rob and Lonnie reached for the struggling man to try to force him down, but they were unable to subdue the burly man. David struggled to his feet despite them. Lonnie could feel how muscular this man actually was. Both quit trying and stepped away. David stood swaying for a minute, the bloody towel pressed on his tongue. The front of his suit and coat a mess. Then he put his blood smeared hand on the wall for balance.

Rob looked at Lonnie. "He doesn't want an ambulance. We can't hold him. He needs to get to the hospital. Maybe I should help him out."

"Good idea, Rob," Lonnie agreed. "And he's not to come back here again, ever."

"Yeah!" Rob nodded his agreement. "No kidding."

Lonnie looked where the two women were standing with the baby, "I'll have Nicole bring around the car. She can take him to the emergency room."

"Nichole!" David demanded. His jaw hurt tremendously. "Move yer ass!"

Lonnie moved quickly to where the two women were standing with the baby. "Rob's going to help him out. He needs to get to an emergency room right away. Rob'll tell you the best way to go."

"I'm so sorry this happened," Nicole apologized to Lonnie. "He's not always like this. He isn't." She called nervously to David, "I'll get my coat and get the car, David."

"Hurry up!"

"One thing, Nicole," Lonnie looked at Rob helping the obnoxious man to the door, "I won't be responsible for what happens if he ever tries to set foot in this building again," she warned. "I don't want him near Ruby or our daughter ever again."

"He won't be. He won't come back. I promise."

Ruby held sleepy little Beth tight against her chest and stared at Lonnie. Lonnie added, "Understand, you're always welcome here. You're Ruby's friend. But not him. Please rethink this whole fiancé thing with him. There's lots of really nice guys out there. You don't need to tie yourself down to someone like him. Please. We both care what happens to you."

Nichole gazed into Lonnie's eyes. What was it about this woman? She could easily fall for her. No wonder Ruby was so happy. "I'll think about it."

"I hope you'll do more than think about it," Lonnie put her arm around Ruby and the baby. "You both all right, hon?"

"Yes," Ruby smiled up and leaned into the hold. "We're fine."

Nicole rushed to the bedroom and returned putting on her coat. Rob and David had already left the apartment and were headed toward the elevator.

"Goodbye little Fufu," Nicole pressed a quick kiss to Beth's forehead. Lonnie stepped aside. "Be a good girl. Love you, Rube," She gave Ruby a quick hug and smiled at Lonnie. "I'm so sorry..."

"I love you, too, Nicky," Ruby entreated.

Nicole rushed to the door.

"Nicole!" Ruby called, rushing behind her friend. She picked up an envelope from the dining room table. "Here. I almost forgot."

"What's this?" Nicole asked, breathlessly taking the envelope with her name on it from Ruby's outstretched hand.

"It's the fifty dollars you loaned me. I can never thank you enough for helping me out that way."

"Just forgive David, all right? He can be very sweet. Really. But, I don't think he'll want to see you again, to tell you the truth. You and I will talk, though. I promise. We'll talk." She gave a quick flick of her head with a quirk to her mouth in a half grin, "I'm sure David'll always think of you as the small bombshell that exploded on him. I know you have a hot temper, Rube, but I'd never have thought you could send a man like David sprawling like you did. It sure surprised me. You're an amazing woman, my dear little friend."

"So are you, Nicole. You deserve the best. Please think about other guys. I'm sure there's someone really nice out there just right for you. Someone who wants a large family and who'll love you."

"David loves me. Don't worry about me, Rube. I'm fine. Take good care of your family." She gave Ruby a quick peck on the lips and rushed out the door.

The silence was deafening when the door shut. Lonnie gazed at the blood on the rug and wall then sighed. "Jeesh, I'll wash that off and get the machine from downstairs to clean the rug." She moved the rocker back into place, set the coffee table upright and replaced the phone then looked at Ruby who stood staring at the door, lost in thought. Her words became more soft and gentle, "Are you all right, honey?"

Green eyes swung to Lonnie. "She won't leave him. I hope and pray she does, but she won't."

"Why, do you think? How could she possibly stay? He's a jerk."

Ruby jiggled the newly fussing baby and thought. "If I had to guess, I'd say because she thinks his money is some kind of consolation for her having to get engaged when she doesn't really want to in the first place."

"That man may have money, but it comes with abuse. Can't she see that?"

"Her folks are having to scrimp to buy her clothes to meet David's expectations. I think maybe she sees that as comeuppance since they're the ones forcing her to marry. Marrying is the price she's having to pay to get her degree. I don't know. I don't think she's doing any of it consciously. This is just my guess. And as for David, I think she thinks that she somehow deserves the abuse."

"That's sick! NO one deserves abuse. Does that make sense to you?"

"No. It frightens me. But I'm afraid in some screwed up way it makes sense to her."

Lonnie moved over and put her arm around Ruby and the baby again. "I'm so sorry it turned out like it did. I know how much you looked forward to this visit."

"Yes," Ruby said forlornly. She snuggled into Lonnie's shoulder. Then she had a thought and decided it was funny what kinds of things popped into one's mind after an emotional turmoil. "Silver lining I guess, the house IS clean except those blood spots." Then she added with a faint smile, "I did get to talk to Nicole for a while. That was kinda neat. It was like old times. She adored Bethy. I wasn't sure she'd give her back." She smiled down at the tiny girl who was fighting sleep, snuggled in her arms. "And she was impressed with everything else." Green orbs lifted to Lonnie. Including you! You more than anything, maybe.

Ruby leaned even closer in the embrace. "And mostly I'm glad that I found out what kind of a man this David is. I suspected but I really didn't understand. Maybe I can convince Nicole to leave him, if I keep at it."

"Yes, you'll need to keep after her. You're a very good friend, Ruby. She's lucky to have you."

"I will keep after her. And I learned something else this morning..."

"What's that, hon?"

"I learned that I can handle a man like David if I have to. He had a tight hold on me, Lonnie. Real tight. A lot tighter hold than you've ever put on me when we practiced." She looked at the reddened hand-shaped bruise forming on her wrist. "And he's a lot bigger and stronger than that creep that...attacked me."

"I was impressed with how muscular he really was when Rob and I tried to keep him down. You're right. He's done a lot of training. That man is strong!"

"Nicole said he was a boxer."

Lonnie quirked a proud grin. "You were very impressive, my little tiger."

"Well," Ruby smiled shyly, "The only mistake I made was that I didn't get away in time. I'll have to work on that. The first rule is to get away."

"That's right, honey. But you really caught him by surprise with those moves. Heck, you caught everybody by surprise. We all stood around with our mouths open. Course, you probably wouldn't have that going for you, if you had to deal with him again. He'd know what you're capable of and try to guard against it. But this time, you sure used his ignorance against him. It was textbook beautiful!"

Ruby paused. "It happened so fast! I couldn't believe it myself. I just did what we'd practiced. And it worked! And don't worry, I don't plan to EVER meet up with him again. What a jerk...and a bully. I wish Nicole would just get away from him."

"Me, too."

"You know, here I've been so frightened by that creep looking for me. He might try and harm us, that's true. But by golly, Lonny, if I can handle David, I can handle him! He's not nearly as husky and strong as David."

No, Lonnie thought, but he's smarter than David ever thought of being. That creep knows how to work the system. And that makes him extremely dangerous. No telling how many horrible things he's done and gotten away with, how many women he's attacked. Still, I'm glad you've got more confidence in yourself regarding him.

"I really don't need to be afraid all the time," Ruby continued. I CAN protect myself and Bethy, too. And I will, if I have to! I don't want to give up one more minute of my life to that creep. From here on out, I refuse to be afraid of him."

"Good on ya! We'll be cautious, honey, both of us. We'll be prepared, but not afraid. I don't want to say I told you so, Ruby, but you do have some very impressive skills, hon."

"Yes, I guess I do. Ruby the tiger!" She chortled to herself. Again the baby began to fuss. "Okay, sweetheart, let me change your didee." She gave the baby a sniff. "Phew! You're a little stinker, darlin'. Did that bad man scare the you-know-what out of you?" She brushed a hand gently across the baby's forehead, "I hope you weren't scared, little Princess. We would never have let him hurt you."

Lonnie's brow furrowed, "That's a fact."

"She's all right, I think, hon." Green eyes looked over at Lonnie then turned back to the infant, "Then we'll see about feeding you, baby girl. Although, it is a little early. Maybe we'll both take a quick nap instead. You sure charmed Mommy's friend, Nicole. I wasn't sure she'd give you back to your Mommy. And you've been such a good little girl through all this excitement. Don't worry. Nobody's going to mess with you, pumpkin, or they'll have to deal with me and your Mumsy, too."

Lonnie washed down the smears on the walls then put some paper towels on the rug's blood spots and stepped on them to soak up the extra. "When she's changed, let me get a picture to send to the folks. Mom will love seeing her in the new dress they bought her."

"Okay," Ruby called back with tired cheerfulness. "I'll have to look for her bow. It's missing. Oh, since we're leaving tomorrow, why don't you take the milk you bought to Mrs. Nelson or Mrs. McHenry and see if either can use it. It'll just turn sour in the fridge while we're gone. And you can take them the cinnamon rolls, too. Save some for in the morning before we go to the airport, though. Can you turn off the coffee?"

"Sure." Lonnie flicked off the coffee maker and listened to Ruby in the nursery talking to the baby. The coffee was freshly brewed and ready to serve. It smelled deliciously full-flavored and comforting. She'd pour herself a cup before she poured the rest into a container to reheat in the morning when she got up. She'd wash the pot and coffee machine and that would be done.

"You want a cup of 'your coffee'?" Lonnie called.

"Uh, yeah. That sounds good. Put the tea kettle on for me, will you?"

Ruby had taken to occasionally drinking a hot, non-caffeinated, non-coffee substitute she generously called "my coffee," but she didn't actually drink the real thing. Not while she was nursing.

At the moment, however, Lonnie decided that as for her, she personally couldn't pass up a good, strong, hot cup of this high octane joe. Northwest coffee was the best in the world as far as she was concerned, and if she ever needed a cup, it was now. She'd put on the water for Ruby's drink and get out two cups. Maybe they'd have one of the cinnamon rolls Ruby had baked for their guests, too. What the heck! They looked delicious. No guests meant more for her.

She heard Ruby's continued conversation with Beth. Ruby. My sweet darlin' tiger. I've created a monster, Lonnie grinned. A little, blond haired tiger that'll rip your leg off, if you don't watch out. And I couldn't be prouder if I tried.


Continued in Chapter 9

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