Disclaimers: This story is a work of fiction. The title, characters, and locations all belong to me. None of the towns used actually exist, although I did “borrow” pieces of real towns to make my own <g>. If the thought of two women loving each other gets your knickers in a twist, go find something else. Bits and pieces of this one have been kicking around on my hard drive for a couple of years – I’m hoping you’ll like it. Let me know, one way or the other at email@example.com . I’m also posting chapters on my chat list. Check out my website at www.CarrieLCarr.com for details. I’d like to dedicate this story to the one person who completes me – Jan, you are my heart and soul. Forever and always, my love.
Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Royal Academy of Bards, for hosting my stories, and for giving us all a great place to sit back and relax. You ladies are the best!
It took half an hour for Sam to come back to her senses after Janie left. She shook her head to clear it and went back into the bar. After a wave to Ray, she headed toward the back room, pointedly ignoring Sandra’s table.
Ray followed her into the kitchen. “Hey, you all right?”
“Yeah.” Sam started the hot water into one of the deep, stainless steel sinks. “Sorry about running out on you like that.” Once the sink was filled to her satisfaction, she filled the other with hot water as well. In one sink she added soap, the other a disinfectant solution.
“No problem. You lasted longer than I would have.” He looked over his shoulder at the main room, making sure no one went behind the bar. “It’s getting close to the end of summer, so I’ve decided to start closing up earlier during the week.”
Sam dipped her hands into the steaming water, not reacting to the heat. “Sounds like a good idea to me. There’s never many after ten, anyway.”
“True.” Ray leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms over his chest. “Listen, I’ve been thinking. You told me the other day you were going to stick around for a while, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Sam kept her eyes on the dishwater.
“Ever since you started singing, you’ve brought in more business, and I really appreciate it. I also appreciate you helping out around here.”
She shrugged. “Part of the deal, remember?”
“Yeah, well. What I’m trying to say is, I’d like to make it more official. Why don’t you stay after closing and fill out the paperwork? You’d get a steady check, plus all your tips.”
Sam finally turned to look at him. “You want me to work here full-time? As an employee?”
Ray grinned. “Why not? You’re already doing more than Fred, and he’s been here for five years. What do you say?”
“Do I get to wear one of those snazzy things?” she asked half-joking, referring to the dark blue tee shirt which bore the bar’s name over the left breast. The thought of finally belonging somewhere intrigued her. It would also supplement the small income she was getting from Betsy. Although the papers had been signed to make her a manager in the gym, she still refused to take much money from the older woman.
Sam wiped her hands on a towel and came over to shake his hand. “Sounds great. I might even quit sleeping in my car.” The running joke between the two of them was friendly, but she knew he was concerned about her welfare. It was one of the reasons she was glad she had a room above the gym.
“Even better.” He tilted his head toward the bar. “Guess I’d better get back to work. The papers are on my desk in the office.”
“Pretty sure of my answer, weren’t you?”
“Yup.” Ray jumped away when Sam tried to pop him with her towel. “Get them all filled out, and leave them on the desk.”
Sam laughed and went back to the dishes. Now if she could get her personal life to fall into place things would be perfect.
Janie was halfway home when she remembered she’d driven to the bar. She wasn’t quite ready to face Sam again so she continued on her way. Her mind wouldn’t give her any peace as she kept going over and over what happened in the alley.
They’d kissed. Or, more truthfully, she’d kissed Sam. She hurried up the stairs to her apartment while the implications set in. The only consolation was that Sam looked as surprised as she. “What was I thinking?” Janie opened her door and went inside, tossing her keys on the table.
“I wasn’t thinking. That’s the problem.” She went into the kitchen and took a bottle of beer from the refrigerator. After taking several swallows, she walked mechanically into the living room and sat on the sofa. She fingered her lips and swore they still tingled from touching Sam’s. “It was nice, though.”
She kicked off her shoes and curled her feet beneath her. The only light in the room was from a free-standing lamp in the corner, which she kept on all the time. She was so shocked by what she’d done that she hadn’t bothered to turn on any others.
Janie had no idea how long she sat there before she realized she was still holding the beer. Two-thirds full and now at room temperature, she scowled at the bottle and got off the couch. Her joints were stiff from sitting for so long, and she limped to the kitchen to dispose of the drink.
After washing her hands at the sink, Janie returned to the living room and looked at the clock. It was close to eleven. She had the irrational urge to go back to the bar and talk to Sam. She also wanted to explain why she had been a no-show on Monday.
Her mind made up, she grabbed her purse and left the loft. It was a nice night, and the walk would allow her time to organize her thoughts.
Without Sam singing, the bar cleared out early, and Ray took the opportunity to lock up at ten. He told Sam he’d post a sign announcing the new hours. There was no sense in being open so late during the week. Ten o’clock was perfect, because it allowed him a chance to get home and watch his guilty pleasure, reruns of Charlie’s Angels.
Sam finished sweeping the floor and put the broom away. She double-checked the restrooms while Ray closed out the cash register. They both completed their tasks at the same time and met at the front door.
Ray took a key from his pocket. “Since you’re an employee now, take this.”
“I don’t know.” Sam hesitated. “That’s a big responsibility.”
“I trust you.” He took her hand and placed the key on her palm, then closed her hand over it. “Besides, I know where you live,” he teased.
Sam tucked the key into the front pocket of her jeans. “Thanks, Ray. Guess I’ll see you tomorrow.” She followed him out the front and waited while he locked the door.
Ray looked around the quiet streets. “You going to the gym tonight?”
“Yeah. I want to tell Betsy the good news. I’ll even drive over there, if it’ll keep you from worrying so much.”
“It would, thanks.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “See in the morning, Sam.”
Sam laughed at his protective streak and headed down the alley. She was almost into the light when a heavy weight slammed into her back and knocked her face down on the ground.
“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?” A menacing voice asked.
She tried to get up, but the heavy foot between her shoulder blades didn’t allow her to move. “What are you talking about?”
“Coming into town, acting like you own the place,” the voice continued, seemingly not listening to her. “Flaunting your unnatural ways, not giving a damn who you bothered.”
“I don’t—” Sam’s breath was cut off when the foot stomped down hard.
“Shut up, bitch. It’s high time someone taught you a lesson in manners.”
The pressure eased, but before Sam could roll over, she was kicked in the ribs. Gasping for air, she made it onto her side. Her arms were wrapped around stomach. “What—” Another kick brought tears to her eyes.
“I saw everything, you know.” The assailant slammed his foot into her face, knocking her onto her back.
Sam struggled to see through the blood falling into her eyes. She could barely make out a shadow above her. “Why are you doing this?” she choked out.
“We don’t need your kind here. Everything was fine until you came along.” He picked her up by her shirt and punched her in the face. “You should have left her alone.” His fist smashed into her twice more then he threw her to the ground. “You filthy whore. Maybe if you couldn’t make any more money, you’d leave.” He kicked her right arm away from her body and stomped her hand with all his weight. “Get the fuck out of town, because next time I see you, I’ll kill you. And if you go to the cops, maybe I’ll teach little Jane a few things, too.”
Sam screamed at the blinding pain. She was unable to move as she was kicked again and again. His final words rang in her head as she mercifully lost consciousness at last.
Janie talked to herself as she walked, trying to come up with the right words. “Sam, I really like you.” She groaned. “No, too simple. Sam, I liked the kiss. No, too forward.” She kicked at a stone on the sidewalk. “Sam, I’d like to try and see where this could go. Good grief, how pathetic is that?”
A dark truck sped down the street, but Janie was too caught up in her private conversation to pay much attention. “Maybe I should start with an apology. Explain why I didn’t come by to see her Monday evening, and tell her why I was so bitchy on the phone.” She nodded. “Yes, that’ll work.” She noticed the parking spaces around the bar was empty as she walked up to the door.
It was locked, and no one answered when she knocked. “Well, that’s great.” She looked at her watch. It was a few minutes after eleven. Too early to close, at least she thought so. With a heavy sigh, she started down the alley to see if Sam was at her car.
Midway down the dark alley, Janie saw a form curled into a fetal position. Her heart caught in her throat and she ran the rest of the way. She fell to her knees next to the body. “Sam?” Cautiously she touched Sam’s shoulder. “Hey.”
Sam moaned in response. When Janie’s hand closed around her upper arm, she tried to get away. “No.” Her voice was rough and she gagged on the blood in her mouth.
“Shh. It’s only me.” Janie scooted to the other side of Sam in order to see her better. “Dear god. Who did this to you?” She dug into her purse and brought out a crumpled tissue. After only a couple of dabs, she could tell it was futile. There was too much blood. “I’m calling an ambulance.”
“No,” Sam pleaded. She struggled onto her back and cried out at the pain it caused.
Janie’s hands were shaking as she reached for her. “You need medical attention. I don’t—”
Sam cradled her right hand against her chest. “No money.”
“Honey, they have to treat you.” Janie noticed Sam’s hand. It was scraped and misshapen. “Oh, no.” She could tell it was broken, and she wondered how Sam would be able to support herself if she couldn’t play the piano, or any of the other odd jobs she did around town.
Sam tried to sit up. “Gotta get out of here.”
“You’re not going anywhere, except to a doctor.” Even as she argued, Janie helped Sam upright.
“Can’t. He’ll find me.” Sam coughed and spit a mouthful of blood to the side. “Shit.”
Janie heard the fear in Sam’s voice. “Who? Do you know who did this?”
Sam shook her head, closing her eyes at the pain the movement caused. “Couldn’t see, too dark.” She paused to catch her breath. As much as her swollen eyes would allow, she looked into Janie’s face. “He saw us.”
“Saw us? What do you—” The realization slapped Janie in the face like a physical blow. “He saw me kiss you? Is that why he did this?”
“Yeah, I think so.” Almost in slow motion, Sam got to her knees. “Jesus.” She bent forward with her arms around her torso. “Fuck, that hurts,” she ground out.
Janie eased her arm around Sam’s back. “Stay still. You could be bleeding internally.” When Sam struggled, she held her close. “Stop, please. If you won’t go to the hospital, at least let me take you home. I don’t want you to be alone.”
“Not safe.” But even as she spoke, Sam leaned against her. She was quickly losing the energy to argue.
“You’re coming with me, and that’s final. Will you be okay here while I run get my car?”
“Yeah.” Sam allowed Janie to help her lie back on the ground. Her eyes closed and the tension never left her features.
Janie stroked her cheek before getting up. “I’ll be right back.” Her footsteps echoed in the darkness as she ran.
In less than a minute, Janie maneuvered her car through the alley. She parked as close to Sam as she dared, leaving it idling while she hurried around and opened the passenger door. She knelt beside the injured woman. “Sam? Hey, come on. Let’s get you out of here.”
Sam gritted her teeth as Janie helped her rise to a sitting position. The pain was making her nauseous and she fought off a wave of vertigo as she struggled to her knees. “Fuck.”
“Dammit, Sam. Let me call an ambulance.” Janie staggered under Sam’s weight as she helped her into the car. “This is ridiculous.”
Remembering her assailant’s threats, Sam shook her head. “No.” She winced as the movement brought renewed agony to her battered body. “Drop me off at Betsy’s. I’ll be fine.”
Janie buckled Sam’s seatbelt and climbed behind the steering wheel. She slammed the car into reverse, grumbling under her breath. The gravel clattered beneath the wheels and she hurriedly backed from the alley. She slipped the car into gear and headed down the deserted street.
Less than a block away, Janie stopped at a traffic light. She took the opportunity to check on Sam, who was slumped against the door. She seemed to struggle for every breath, which frightened Janie. She made a quick u-turn toward the hospital.
Sam turned her head away from the window. “This isn’t the way to the gym.”
“I’m taking you to the hospital.” Janie stopped at the red light. She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel, anxious to be under way once again.
“No!” Sam tried to open the car door. “I can’t go to the hospital,” she gasped, almost falling out of the car.
“Sam!” Janie shoved the car into park and hurried around to the other side. She carefully lifted Sam back into the seat and closed the door. Once she was also buckled in, she turned to face Sam. “You need medical attention. Please let me take you to the emergency room.”
Tears leaked from Sam’s swollen eyes as she held her injured hand against her chest. “No, please. I can’t.”
Her empathy overruling her good sense, Janie turned right at the next street. “It’s going to be all right. No hospital, I promise.”
Sam woke and struggled to see through the slits her eyes had become. The room was dark and unfamiliar. She wondered where she was, before her senses came back and she remembered the earlier events. The only light came from a nearby doorway, and from what she could see, the bedroom was tastefully decorated. The bed was firm although the pillow top mattress kept it from being uncomfortable. Opposite the bed was a light oak entertainment unit, which housed a television and several additional components. Framed prints adorned the walls as well as personal pictures scattered about the room. On the nightstand was a single lamp and alarm clock. She tried to sit up but pain caused her to cry out.
“Hey, stay still.” Janie came out of the bathroom carrying a small basin. She cautiously sat on the side of the bed and placed a damp cloth across Sam’s brow. “How are you feeling?”
“Been better.” Sam closed her eyes again at the light touch. “What time is it?”
“Around three in the morning.” Janie’s hand stilled when Sam winced as the cloth touched a scrape on her left cheekbone. “Sorry.”
“How did I get here?”
Janie wiped at Sam’s face. She’d cleaned it earlier, but it was something to do to keep her hands busy. “You don’t remember?”
“I got you into my car and brought you.” Janie dabbed at a gash on Sam’s cheek that still slowly oozed blood. “Climbing the stairs was a little tough, though.” Her back still ached from having to bear most of Sam’s weight. She was heavier than she looked.
“I can’t stay here.”
“You’re not going anywhere.”
“It’s not safe,” Sam argued. She tried to raise her hand, but found it wrapped in a towel. “What—”
“I think it’s broken.” Janie didn’t need to be a doctor to know that much. “I wish you’d let me take you to the hospital.”
Janie sighed. “I’m sure they’ll let us work something out, financially. I have some money saved—”
“No!” Sam starting coughing, which caused waves of pain across her head and body.
“You are so damned stubborn.” Janie hadn’t given up, but she had another idea. If Sam wouldn’t go to the doctor, she’d have one come to her. “I’m going to get you something to drink.” She left the cloth on Sam’s forehead and left the room. She grabbed her cell from her purse and went into the kitchen. A quick scroll through her phone book and she found the number she was looking for. She only hoped it wouldn’t backfire on her.
The phone rang twice before being answered by a sleepy voice. “Hello?”
“Ted? I’m terribly sorry for bothering you at this hour, but I could really use your help.”
“Are you all right, Janie?” Another voice could be heard in the background. “I don’t know, Sharon. Hold on.” He spoke to Janie. “Are you in trouble?”
Janie looked toward her bedroom. “Not me, but a friend. She’s been beaten pretty badly, and I’ve got her at my house.”
“Why at your house? If she’s injured, she should be in the emergency room.”
“I know, I’ve tried. But she’s scared the man who did this will find her.”
He could be heard getting dressed. “Have you called the police?”
“No, she wouldn’t let me do that, either.”
“Is she a criminal?”
Janie felt insulted at the question. “Of course not. She’s new in town and doesn’t trust many people.”
Ted said something else to his wife then returned to the conversation. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Thank you.” Janie shut her phone and paced around the kitchen. She was afraid of what Sam might say, once Ted showed up. What if she told him Janie kissed her? What would he think of Janie then? She quickly poured a glass of water from the pitcher she kept in the refrigerator and took it to the bedroom. She’d worry about Ted once he got there.
Two hours later, Dr. Richmond stepped out of Janie’s bedroom, carrying a small valise. He met Janie in the living room, where he’d banished her after he arrived.
“How is she?”
“Resting. I gave her some pretty strong stuff for the pain.” Ted sat on the end of the sofa. “You’re right. She’s extremely stubborn.”
Janie hovered nearby, torn between talking to him and checking on Sam. “But will she be all right?”
“She should be, barring any unforeseen complications. Her hand is a mess. From what I can tell, at least two of her ribs are broken. I put four stitches in her cheek, and three more over her eye. Although it’s swollen, I don’t believe her nose was actually broken. I know you said she was beaten, but why? She wouldn’t say.” He patted the couch. “Come on. I can tell you’re about to drop.”
She did as he asked, but stayed perched on the edge of her seat. Janie trusted Ted, but was still afraid of him knowing the truth. “She was jumped behind Danny’s after she got off work.”
“Was it because she’s gay?”
Janie almost fell off the couch. “How did you know?”
Ted sighed. “I may live in a small town, but I’m not naïve. This has hate-crime written all over it. You should call the police.”
“And tell them what? That someone took offense to a lesbian living in Piperton? Just what do you think they’d do about it? I’m sure a lot of them feel the same way.” Janie’s exhaustion only added to her disgust. She’d seen people she thought she knew show their true colors, and was ashamed to be associated with them. “I don’t want her to go through any more pain, physical or emotional.”
“You care for her.” It was a statement, not a question.
Janie lowered her eyes. “She’s my friend.”
“Then she’s very lucky.” Ted stood and picked up his bag. “Bring her into the office tomorrow. I want to run some x-rays and put a cast on her hand. And keep an eye out for blood in her urine. She’s got some nasty bruising on her back which concerns me.”
“Don’t worry about the fees. She told me she’d pay me even though I told her I was here as a favor to you. So I agreed to let her work off any bills once she’s back on her feet.” He lowered his voice. “Although I’m sure we’ll have a fight about the amount, I plan on keeping the charges to a minimum.”
She followed him to the door. “Thank you so much for coming. I don’t know what I would have done without you. And please apologize to Sharon for me. I’m going to owe you both for a very long time.”
Ted took her hand in his. “No need. It gives me a chance to brag that I still make house calls. Don’t worry about work, either. I’m sure they can survive without you for a few days.”
Once he was gone, Janie dragged her living room chair into the bedroom and placed it next to the bed. She didn’t want to leave Sam alone and sleeping on the bed was something she wasn’t ready for.
Sam’s thrashing about woke Janie at nine am. She was in the throes of a nightmare and Janie was afraid she would injure herself further. She kept talking in soothing tones until Sam settled down again.
Now fully awake, Janie went into the bathroom to clean up. She kept the door open to listen for Sam, and was drying off with a towel when she felt someone watching her.
Sam leaned against the door, clad only in her tee shirt and boxer shorts. She held her broken hand closely to her chest as she averted her eyes. “I’m sorry. I, um, have to go to the bathroom.”
“No, it’s okay.” Janie fought down her embarrassment and hurriedly wrapped a towel around her body. “Do you need any help?”
“I think I can manage.” Sam still couldn’t look at her. The image of Janie’s wet, naked body was seared into her mind forever. “I can wait until you get dressed, though.”
Janie took her robe from behind the door. She covered herself and tied it tightly. “No need.” She put her arm around Sam’s waist and helped her into the bathroom. “Call me when you’re ready to come back to bed. No arguments.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Sam stayed against the bathroom sink until the door closed behind Janie. She came out five minutes later, sweating and weak. Before she took more than a step, Janie was beside her.
“I thought I told you—”
Sam struggled to catch her breath. “I know, but I wanted to do it myself.” She allowed Janie to guide her to the bed. “Stupid, I know.”
“I’m glad you agree with me.” Janie fussed over her, trying to get the blankets straight. Once Sam was tucked in to her satisfaction, she took a good look at her. The bandage covering her cheek appeared clean, but her eyes were glassy. Janie touched her forehead and wasn’t surprised to feel heat. “You’re burning up.”
“Yeah. I don’t feel too great.” Sam started to relax until she remembered something. “I need to get out of here.”
“Why? Are you afraid?”
Sam tried to keep her eyes open. “I’m scared shitless.”
Janie felt like crying. In that sickening moment when she found Sam lying in the alley, she’d realized how much she meant to her. And now she wanted to leave. It wasn’t fair. “I can’t say that I blame you.”
“No, you don’t understand.” Sam tried to sit up, but her trip to the bathroom had worn her out. She fell back to the bed with a pained gasp. “It’s not about me. What if he decides to come after you next? I couldn’t bear that.”
“I’ve lived in this town my entire life. You said he talked about me, so I have to know him. No one I know would hurt me.” Janie stroked Sam’s cheek. “But maybe you’d be better off away from here.”
Sam relaxed at the gentle touch. “Is that what you want? For me to leave?”
“Then I’m staying. At least for now.” Her eyes opened as far as they could and she tried to focus on Janie.
Janie leaned down and pressed her lips to Sam’s, mindful of the bruising.
Once she moved away, Sam smiled as much as her split lip would allow. “You’re not going to run off again, are you?”
“No. I’m through running.” Janie meant it in more ways than one.
Doug rubbed his eyes with one hand as he walked into the shop. He’d overslept, and hoped he wouldn’t run into his father this morning. The last thing he wanted to do was fight about Janie, and he knew Reggie wouldn’t let the subject drop. He headed toward his office and was relieved when he saw that the room was empty. With a wide yawn, he set the Styrofoam coffee cup on the desk and dropped heavily into his chair. While sipping his coffee, Doug flipped through the spiral notebook he used to keep up with appointments.
Ten minutes later, Reggie shuffled into the room and plopped into his usual chair. Hung over from the previous evening, he snatched Doug’s coffee and took a deep pull, almost choking with the taste. “Damn, boy. Got enough sugar in that?”
Doug looked up from his planner. “Quit stealing it if you don’t like the way I make it, Pop.” He leaned back in his chair and stretched his arms over his head. “You’re dragging in later than usual.”
“So? Didn’t know I was punching a clock ‘round here.” Reggie coughed and reached into his shirt pocket for his cigarettes. He shook one out of the pack and lit it, inhaling with near reverence when the nicotine invaded his lungs.
His son scooted farther away from the desk and waved his hand in front of his face. “Do you have to do that in here?” When Reggie ignored him, Doug flipped on the air conditioner. “Ornery old fart.” He glared at Reggie. “Hey, what did you do to your hands?”
Reggie left the cigarette hanging from his lips and looked at his hands. Once he got home last night, Reggie drank until he passed out in his living room recliner. He woke up hung over and pissed off. He didn’t regret what he’d done, but he wasn’t going to brag about it. The dyke had gotten what she deserved. “I dunno. Probably skinned ‘em up when I was working on that piece of shit mower you picked up.” Doug paid next to nothing for non-working machines, then expected him to bring them back to life. The worst part was when Doug sold them, Reggie never saw any of the extra money. He hated working for his son. “Cheap bastard,” he grumbled under his breath.
“Nothin’.” Reggie got to his feet. “I got stuff to do.”
Doug watched him leave. He rolled his eyes and went back to the notebook. If it wasn’t for his mother, he’d have never hired the old man.
Sam gripped the arm of the wheelchair with her good hand. She hated feeling so weak. “This is bullshit. I can walk.”
“Too bad. Just sit there and enjoy the ride.” Janie wheeled her through the back door of the medical clinic. It was shortly after noon, and only Dr. Richmond and Tammy, his nurse, were in the office. Everyone else had gone to lunch.
Tammy met them in the hall. She was around the same age as Ted and had been his nurse since the clinic had opened. “You poor thing.” She took the chair away from Janie. “Let’s get you checked out. Janie, Dr. Richmond says you’re welcome to wait in his office.”
“But I thought she’d stay with me,” Sam argued, apprehensive about being around people she didn’t know.
“You’ll be fine, hon. I promise we won’t do any surgery without your consent.” When Sam stiffened, Tammy laughed. “Kidding.” She winked at Janie before guiding Sam into an open door at the end of the hall.
Still peeved at what she perceived to be a snub, Janie huffed and headed for Dr. Richmond’s office. She trusted him completely, but her concern for Sam overrode her other feelings.
His was a corner office, and had windows that looked out into the street on one side, and into the parking lot on another. Janie stared at the street, watching the cars and pedestrians go by. Her mind wandered while she waited. Now that she had acknowledged to herself her feelings for Sam, she wasn’t sure what to do next.
In what seemed like hours but was less than one, Dr. Richmond returned to his office. He carried a folder and sat in one of his guest chairs. “Sit down, Janie.”
She moved away from the window and perched on the edge of her chair. “How is she?”
“Sam’s very lucky. Two of her ribs are broken, but somehow she escaped internal injuries. She should heal fine.”
Janie heaved a sigh of relief. “What about her hand?”
“I’ve set it, but I wanted her to have it checked by an orthopedic surgeon. She refused, which didn’t surprise me.”
“Will she be able to use it again? She plays the piano beautifully.”
His eyes conveyed his understanding. Being a doctor, Ted knew all too well what it was like to rely on your hands for your livelihood. “I hope so, but I can’t make any guarantees.”
“Thank you. I know this was all a bit unorthodox, but I was at a loss as to what to do. Where is she?”
“Tammy’s helping her get dressed. Try to keep her still and quiet for a few days, if you can. Rest is the best thing for Sam right now.” He stood and was surprised when Janie got up and gave him a hug. “Don’t worry. She’s in good physical shape, which will go a long way in her healing.”
Janie released him and stepped back, embarrassed by her uncharacteristic actions. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“You already have, several times. Does she have a place to stay?”
“No, not really. Well, she has been staying at the gym over on Sycamore.” Janie’s eyes got wider and she covered her mouth with her hand. “Damn. I forgot about Betsy.”
Ted took her arm and escorted her out of the office. “Is that her, um, girlfriend?”
“No, Betsy is the owner of the gym. She’s old enough to be Sam’s mother.” Janie chuckled at what Betsy’s reaction would be when she found out someone thought she was dating Sam. “I’d forgotten all about her. She’s got to be frantic by now.”
“Would you like to use the phone in my office to call her?”
Janie shook her head. “I’ll use my cell. She’ll recognize the number.” She had her hand in her purse when Tammy came down the hall, pushing a quiet Sam in the wheelchair.
Tammy stopped near them. “Here you go.” She tapped Sam lightly on the shoulder. “Now you behave and don’t give Janie a hard time.”
Sam was too exhausted to argue. She held out her good hand to Ted. “Thanks again, Doc. As soon as I can, I’ll work out something with you, if that’s okay.”
He carefully shook her hand. “Take your time. I’m not going anywhere.” He gestured to the small paper bag that sat on her lap. “And take all your medicine, too.” Ted knew that Sam wouldn’t be able to pay for prescriptions, so he made sure he gave her samples of everything she’d need. “I’ll see you in a week to remove your stitches.”
With Tammy’s help, Janie got Sam buckled into the passenger seat of her car. They were stopped at a light so she took the opportunity to look at her. Sam’s head was resting against the seat and she appeared to be asleep. Although Ted had assured Janie to the contrary, she was worried for Sam. The light turned green and her cell phone rang. She fumbled in her purse, trying to answer before it woke Sam. “Hello?”
“Janie, this is Betsy. I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m trying to find Sam. Have you seen her?”
Janie kept her voice low. “I was going to call you when we got home. She’s with me.”
“Thank goodness. Like I said, I normally wouldn’t have called, but Ray at the bar was looking for her.”
“I’m sorry. I should have called sooner.” Janie pulled into a parking lot so she could talk. “Something happened last night, and—”
“Oh, honey. You don’t have to tell me a thing. You’re both consenting adults.” Betsy sounded embarrassed. “But you might tell Sam to contact Ray. I think he was expecting her this morning.”
“You think, that we, I mean,” Janie sputtered. “No, that’s not it at all. Maybe it would be better to talk in person. We’re about five minutes away. Could you meet us in the back?”
“Well, alrighty. I surely can.”
Janie promised to explain everything once they were there and closed her phone. She wasn’t looking forward to seeing Betsy, because she knew the older woman would be upset she hadn’t been notified before now.
Half an hour later, Betsy didn’t disappoint. They stood behind the gym, and Betsy had already fussed over Sam. They left her in the car while they talked, and it didn’t take her any time at all to fall back to sleep.
“I wish you would have called me, Janie. I would have been over there in a flash. It couldn’t have been easy for you to take care of her alone. It must have been hell for you.”
“You’re right, it was one of the worst things I’ve ever been through. And I would have called you, if I hadn’t been so focused on Sam. I’m sorry.” Everything finally caught up to Janie and she began to cry.
Betsy pulled Janie to her. “There, there. You did a fine job. I wouldn’t have been much help anyway, not with this bum back I’ve got.” She rubbed Janie’s back and held her while she cried. “That’s right. Let it out,” she encouraged.
Janie finally stepped back and wiped her face. “Thanks. It’s been a rough day.”
“Quite all right. I can see you’re worn out. Why not help me get her up to her room? Then you can run home and get some rest.”
“No, it’s okay. I only wanted to come by and let you know what happened, and maybe pick up a few of Sam’s things.”
Betsy wouldn’t be deterred. “Sam can stay with me. She’s already got a room here, and I can get Pamela to help with the gym, so I can keep an eye on her.”
“No, I insist. You have to work and I’ll bet you haven’t gotten any rest. And I’m sure your place is a bit small for two, right?”
Janie couldn’t come up with one good reason why Sam shouldn’t convalesce at Betsy’s. But she could think of a million more why she wanted her there. “No, actually it’s fine. My boss has given me some time off, so it won’t be a problem at all.” And she couldn’t stand the thought of not seeing Sam. She felt responsible for her injuries. If she hadn’t kissed her, she never would’ve gotten hurt. Even if only to herself, she had to admit there was more to it. Sam was important to her.
They were both silent, each studying the other. Betsy had the look of someone who knew more than she was letting on. She finally glanced over Janie’s shoulder at Sam, who was dozing in the front seat of her car. “Are you really okay with this?”
“More than okay. I promise to take good care of her.”
“I know you will.” Betsy gave her a hug. “I’ll run upstairs and gather up some of her things.” She paused before going into the building. “You be sure and take care of you, too. And be careful. I don’t trust whoever did this not to try something else.”
Janie felt the same way. She’d be looking over her shoulder for a long time to come. But if they tried to hurt Sam again, they’d have a fight on their hands.
For the next couple of days, Sam spent most of her time in bed. The medication Dr. Richmond had given her kept her too sleepy to do much else. She’d only wake long enough to eat, take more medicine and make the occasional trip to the bathroom. By Saturday, she was feeling more like herself.
Janie brought a glass of water into the bedroom. “You need to take your meds.” She handed the drink to Sam, along with two pills. “Go on, I can see you’re hurting.”
“I’m tired of being drugged up all the time.” Sam placed the tablets on the nightstand. It was true she still ached all over, but she wanted to stay awake and talk to Janie. She patted the bed. “Come on. I’ll survive.”
“I don’t know. I have a lot of things to do, and—”
“And the world won’t stop turning if you slow down and take a break. Even as doped up as I’ve been, I know you’ve been going non-stop for days.” Sam held out her left hand. “Please?”
Unable to resist, Janie took her hand and sat gingerly on the edge of the bed. “You do look like you’re feeling better.”
Sam gave her a crooked smile. “Yeah, and I have you to thank for it.” She rubbed the top of Janie’s hand with her thumb. “If I haven’t said it before, thank you. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t come along.” She brought Janie’s hand up and kissed her knuckles.
Janie blushed and lowered her eyes. The feel of Sam’s lips on her skin caused a pleasant tingle in the pit of her stomach. She pulled her hand free. “I’ve got some things I need to do.”
“Wait, please. I need to know something. The other night, in the alley. Why did you kiss me?”
It wasn’t a subject Janie wanted to delve into, especially sitting this close to Sam. “I don’t know.”
“That’s not an answer.”
Janie abruptly stood. “It’s the only answer I have. Don’t you think I haven’t asked myself the same thing?” She took several steps back and crossed her arms over her body. “Don’t you know I feel responsible for what happened to you? If I hadn’t kissed you, you wouldn’t be lying there right now.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“Yes, it is. He saw us, saw me,” Janie choked back a sob, “saw me kiss you. We both know it’s what set him off.”
Sam struggled to sit up. She held her broken hand against her stomach and swung her legs off the bed. “You were just faster. Believe me, I was about to do the same thing to you.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve wanted to kiss you for days.” Sam got to her feet and walked slowly to Janie.
“You had?” Janie couldn’t seem to form any coherent sentences, especially with the way Sam was looking at her. She stood frozen as Sam began to stroke her cheek with her fingertips.
“Mmm-hmm.” Leaning closer, Sam brushed her lips against Janie’s. For a moment, she was afraid she’d gone too far, until she felt Janie return the kiss. She put her left hand on Janie’s hip and tugged until their bodies touched.
Janie moaned when Sam deepened the kiss, until she felt her nipples tighten in response. Horrified, she jerked away. “Oh, god.”
Sam saw the panic in Janie’s eyes. She was beginning to tire of the mixed signals she was being sent and lashed out in anger. “Go ahead, take off again. Are you that afraid of being alone with me?”
“I’m not afraid.” But even as she said it, Janie backed away. “I just remembered we needed a few things from the store.”
“Yeah, right.” Sam brushed her hand angrily through her hair, and sucked in a pained breath when she grazed a sore spot.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. Just go.” Sam stormed into the bathroom and slammed the door.
Janie was so angry she wanted to scream. Instead, she stomped into the living room and picked up her purse. “I’ll be back soon,” she yelled, before jerking the front door closed with as much strength as she could muster.
She knew the car didn’t deserve her ire, but Janie pounded the steering wheel anyway. “I’ve never met anyone who was so pigheaded and stubborn.” She whacked the wheel again, startled when the horn blew. “Dammit!”
Before she had a chance to think about where she was going, Janie pulled into the parking lot next to the gym. She considered leaving, but she needed someone to talk to. Maybe Betsy could help her sort through her feelings. She opened the door to the gym, and when Betsy turned to look at her, Janie almost changed her mind and left.
“Hello there. Come on in.” Betsy stepped around the desk and gave the younger woman a hug. “How’s Sam? She getting around more?”
Janie blushed, remembering just how well Sam was getting around. “Uh, yeah. She’s doing better.”
“Good.” Betsy noticed how Janie wouldn’t meet her gaze. “And how are you doing? Is something wrong?”
Wasn’t that the million dollar question? Janie looked around at the women milling about. “Do you have a minute? I could really use someone to talk to.”
“Certainly.” Betsy kept her arm around Janie and led her toward the back. “Let’s go into my office, so we can have some privacy.” She closed the door behind them and motioned toward the sofa. “Make yourself comfortable. Do you want something to drink?”
“No, thank you.” Janie sat on one end of the couch, while Betsy took the other. “I’m not sure why I’m here.”
Betsy was silent, but her face wore a friendly expression.
“She’s driving me crazy. One minute things are going along just fine, and the next we’re fighting.”
“What are you fighting about?”
Janie looked embarrassed. “It’s kind of hard to say.”
Betsy nodded knowingly. “Ah. I see.”
“Excuse me?” Janie squeaked. “S…s…sexual—” She couldn’t finish.
“Tension. My lord, woman. When the two of you are together, it’s so thick you could cut it with a knife.”
Janie covered her face with her hands. “That’s impossible. No.”
“Oh, yeah. Big time.”
Could it be true? Janie knew she felt things. One touch from Sam and parts of her body came alive that she didn’t know existed. She looked at Betsy. “I’m scared, Betsy. I’m thirty-seven years old. Isn’t it a little late to be feeling like this?”
“When I’m around Sam, I feel like an inexperienced kid. I kissed her,” she blurted out.
If it surprised Betsy, she didn’t show it. “Oh? When?”
“That night.” Janie didn’t need to elaborate on what night. “I’m the reason she got hurt. That man, the one who beat her, told Sam he saw us.” She looked at her lap, where her fingers twined nervously. “She could have died because of me.”
“No.” Betsy covered Janie’s hands with one of her own. “Some sick son of a bitch attacked Sam. We both know what kind of town this is. A woman like her was bound to stir someone up, sooner or later.”
“But it was her friendship with me that drew attention to her.”
Betsy chuckled. “Hon, have you looked at Sam? She draws plenty of attention to herself without anyone else’s help.” She squeezed Janie’s hand. “Don’t take the world’s responsibilities on your shoulders. If bigots are intent on causing trouble, nothing anyone says or does will stop them.”
“I still feel like she’d be better off if we weren’t friends.” Just saying the words brought a lump to Janie’s throat. The mere thought of losing Sam make her feel sick.
“What does Sam say?”
“I don’t know. We really haven’t talked about it.”
“Uh-huh.” Betsy let go of her hand and leaned back. “Don’t you think she should have a say in who she wants to be friends with?” She decided to bring the conversation back to something she was curious about. “Why did you kiss her?”
“Um.” Janie’s face reddened. “I’m not sure.”
“I think you are.” Betsy’s smile was gentle. “You’d feel better if you talked about it.”
Janie sighed. “Maybe.” She paused to sort out her thoughts. “I know this sounds so crazy. But I feel like she understands me more than anyone ever has. She doesn’t judge me, or try to force me to do things I don’t want to. And she’s so… I don’t know how to explain it. Gallant, I think.” Janie laughed at the thought. It was humorous that Sam was more chivalrous than the majority of the men in Piperton. “She’s always treated me like I was special. And I don’t think it’s sexual. I mean, she doesn’t act like she’s being nice to me just to get me into bed.”
“No, I can’t see Sam playing games, especially sexual ones. Could you ever be interested in her that way?”
“I don’t know.” Janie decided to be truthful. “Actually, I do. Sometimes she just looks at me, or touches me, and my insides ignite.” She blushed. “But I’m not sure I could ever do anything about it.”
Betsy took Janie’s hand again and looked into her eyes. “Well, you need to think long and hard about what you want from Sam. We both know that under that ‘I don’t give a damn attitude’, she’s extremely vulnerable. The last thing she needs is to become a failed experiment.”
“I wouldn’t do that to her,” Janie promised. “She already means too much to me.” Now all she had to do was decide if that was enough.
Bored, Sam slowly wandered around the apartment. Her entire body ached, but she was tired of lying around in bed. Janie had been gone for over two hours, and Sam felt horrible for the way she acted toward her. Yes, she could feel something between them. And Janie had kissed her back. But could she lay her heart out again? The last time almost killed her, emotionally. And she hadn’t cared for Nora half as much as she already did for Janie.
She walked into the kitchen and peered into the refrigerator. Nothing appealed to her, so she went back to the living room and sat on the sofa. She spent almost two full minutes there before getting up to pace the room. She took the opportunity to again look at the pictures scattered about. The one that intrigued her most was of Janie as a teen. She was wearing a graduation cap and gown, and stood between a man and a woman. The man wore a security uniform and stood with one arm gripped tightly around Janie’s shoulders. The woman, Janie’s grandmother, looked at Janie with love. But it was Janie’s expression that bothered Sam. On what should have been a happy occasion, her eyes were dull and there was a resigned look on her face. Sam wished she could go back in time and bring a smile to the younger Janie’s face. She realized what she was thinking and laughed at herself. She’d probably been ten or eleven at the time the photo was taken.
The rattling of the front doorknob caused Sam to turn away from the photo. Janie came in, juggling several grocery sacks. Sam hobbled toward her. “Let me help you.”
Janie’s head jerked up as she kicked the door closed. She seemed surprised to see Sam. “You’re dressed?”
“As much as I can be.” Sam winced as she took one of the bags from Janie. Her ribs didn’t appreciate the effort, but she could tell Janie did. “Thanks for the sweats.” It had taken her ten minutes to pull the gray pants on, but she hadn’t felt comfortable walking around in her underwear, even though they were boxers.
“You can thank Betsy for those. She hoped they wouldn’t be too large.” Janie hurried to the kitchen and placed the bags on the counter. “I meant to ask you, why do you wear men’s underwear? Or is that none of my business?”
Sam started taking items from the sack and setting them on the counter. “No, it’s okay. I only wear them because I sleep in my car so much. They cover more than regular underwear.”
“Oh. Right.” Janie blushed, thinking about how Sam would look in women’s briefs. Her body was lean, yet had just enough curves to be attractive. “That makes sense.”
They worked together to put away the foodstuffs, and were soon back in the living room. Janie waited until Sam sat on one end of the sofa, before taking her own seat on the other end. “You’re looking tired.”
“Yeah, I guess I am, a little. I never knew getting clothes on would be such hard work.” A dull pain throbbed between Sam’s shoulder blades and she shifted to get more comfortable. The move made her ribs ache and she bit back a groan.
Janie saw the pain on Sam’s face. “You need to go back to bed.”
“I’m fine.” Sam didn’t want to argue with Janie again. “I’m sorry for this morning.”
Janie scooted closer. “Me too.” She took Sam’s left hand in hers. She felt the need to explain why she left in such a hurry. “It wasn’t you I was afraid of, it was me.”
“What do you mean?”
She only hoped what she said would make sense. “I’m feeling things for you I’ve never felt before, and it scares me.”
“Why?” Sam squeezed Janie’s hand in encouragement. “What kind of things?”
Janie was unable to meet Sam’s eyes, instead focusing on their linked hands. “You know. Things.” She sighed. “I’ve always thought there was something wrong with me. Doug did, too.”
“What does he have to do with this?”
“He always said I was frigid, and I thought he was right. Sex never did anything for me.” Janie took a shaky breath and raised her head. “But when you kiss me, I feel,” she bit her lip. “Alive.”
Sam felt a surge of hope at Janie’s admission. “Then why are you scared?”
“Because I’ve always been told what was ‘normal’ and what was ‘right’. And two women, well, that was always, most definitely, not right.”
“I see.” Sam’s heart shattered into a million pieces. She tried to keep it from showing on her face. “Can,” she cleared her throat, “can we still be friends?”
Janie heard, rather than saw, the pain Sam tried so valiantly to hide. “I hope so.” She slid closer and cupped Sam’s face with her hands. “But I want more.” She pressed her lips to Sam’s, tasting salty tears. Whose, she wasn’t sure, because they were both crying. The only thing that mattered was conveying her feelings to Sam.
The tender kiss patched Sam’s wounded heart. Although painful, she pulled Janie into her lap as they continued to explore each other. Unable to breathe too deeply, she finally had to stop for air. “Damn,” she wheezed, as Janie continued to cover her lips and face with gentle kisses. “You’re good at that.” Frigid was not a word she’d use to describe Janie. The passion she invoked left Sam trembling with desire. But her heavily beating heart caused her head to pound. “Baby, stop.”
“Don’t want to,” Janie murmured, her lips trying to cover as much of Sam’s neck as possible. “You taste so good.”
The words shot a jolt of desire to Sam’s stomach, and lower. “Janie, hold on. We can’t—” her words were taken away as Janie claimed her mouth once more. For a moment, Sam didn’t think about the consequences, until she moved wrong and a fierce pain knifed through her ribs. “Ow.”
Janie froze. She’d forgotten all about Sam’s injuries. “Oh, honey. I forgot. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s okay. I’m fine.” Sam closed her eyes for a moment and took several shallow breaths. “But I think we’d better slow down for a while.”
As much as she hated to admit it, Janie knew Sam was right. “Okay.” She kissed the tip of Sam’s nose. “For now.” She was content to rest her head against Sam’s and quietly absorb the new feelings that the contact brought.
By Tuesday, Sam realized she was going to have to leave the apartment. As much as she enjoyed spending time with Janie, she knew it was only a matter of time before their heavy make out sessions escalated into something more. Neither one of them was ready for such a drastic step. She also feared the longer she stayed, the easier it would be for her assailant to find out where she was. Sam’s greatest fear was for Janie’s safety.
The perfect opportunity to discuss their living arrangement came after lunch. Janie got into an argument with Andrea about when she’d be returning to work.
“No, I told you before, that Dr. Richmond said I could take as long as I needed. I haven’t used my vacation days for this year.” Janie gave Sam an apologetic smile, before going to the bedroom to finish the call. She closed the door and raised her voice. “Look, Andrea. I really don’t give a damn what you want. I’ll be back at work when I’m ready, and not a minute sooner.” She pulled the phone away from her ear, even as the other woman continued to rave. “I’m hanging up now. Have a nice day.” She disconnected the call and stuffed the cell into the back pocket of her jeans.
Sam raised her eyes from the magazine she had been reading when Janie came back into the room. “Everything all right?”
“Yes. Just the office manager being her usually charming self.” Janie sat next to Sam on the sofa. “How are you doing?” She used the motion of moving Sam’s bangs from her eyes to check for fever.
“I’m okay.” Sam brushed Janie’s hand away. “I’m doing a lot better. In fact, it would probably be a good idea for me to go back to Betsy’s.”
Janie felt her heart speed up. “Why? Don’t you like it here?”
Sam held Janie’s hand close to her chest. “That’s not the point. You need to be able to sleep in your own bed so you can go back to work.”
“I’ve been doing fine on the sofa.” Janie pulled her hand back and stood. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Have I done something to upset you?”
“Of course not.” Sam slowly got to her feet and reached out for Janie, who backed away. “Hey.” She continued to move toward the other woman, until Janie was standing against the wall by the kitchen. Sam cautiously touched Janie’s cheek with her good hand. “I didn’t mean to upset you, but I can’t stay here indefinitely.”
Janie leaned into the touch and closed her eyes. “I know, it’s just that—” Her argument died when Sam’s lips pressed against hers. She moaned and placed her hands on Sam’s hips to draw her closer. When Sam started to nip the skin on her throat, Janie tipped her head back to allow her better access. Her body felt on fire, and she was barely aware of Sam unbuttoning her top. A warm hand squeezed her breast and she realized how far they’d gone. “Sam, wait.”
“Janie—” Sam started to lift Janie’s breast from her bra when she heard her. She blinked and stumbled back, fear and shame crossing her features. “Oh, my god. I’m so sorry.” She exhaled heavily and shook her head. “See? I can’t control myself around you.”
Closing her shirt, Janie couldn’t help but smile. “I’m not complaining, Sam.”
“I know. But this is exactly the reason why I should go.” Sam impatiently ran her left hand through her hair. “I don’t think either one of us is ready to go any further right now.” Her grin was sheepish. “God knows I want to, but—”
“It’s okay.” Janie laughed. “How about you sit and relax, and I’ll get your stuff packed up.”
Betsy watched as Janie fussed over Sam, who was lying on the bed in the guestroom. She wanted to laugh at the expression on the younger woman’s face. Sam looked totally disgusted, as Janie raised the comforter and tucked it beneath Sam’s chin.
“I’m not totally incapacitated, you know,” Sam grumbled. But secretly she enjoyed the attention.
Janie smirked. “I know.” She leaned over and whispered in Sam’s ear, “That’s why you’re staying here now, remember?”
“Nice blush you’re sporting there, kid,” Betsy teased. “I think I’ll give you two a little privacy. Janie, come into the kitchen when you’re done.” She closed the door, still chuckling to herself.
Sam hooked her good hand behind Janie’s neck and slowly pulled her closer. “It’s going to be weird, not seeing you when I wake up.” Their lips touched, and she was pleasantly surprised when Janie deepened the kiss.
They spent a few minutes reconnecting, before Janie reluctantly pulled away. “I’ll come by and see you after work tomorrow, I promise.” She exhaled heavily in an attempt to calm her racing heart.
“Yes, mom.” But the drive over had worn Sam down, and she was glad she was lying down. “Do me a favor?”
Sam held out her good hand until Janie took it. “Don’t go out after dark. I know you like walking to and from work sometimes, but play it safe, please?”
“I really don’t think—” Janie didn’t believe she was in any danger, but the pleading tone swayed her. “All right. You’ve got my cell number if you need anything?”
“Yeah.” Sam squeezed Janie’s fingers. “Don’t worry. I’m sure Betsy will keep me in line.”
The more she thought about it, the less Janie liked leaving Sam. She knew Betsy was more than capable of tending to Sam’s needs. But now that she’d taken that first step, Janie was anxious to see where their relationship could lead. She thought about what had happened earlier, in her living room. Maybe a little space was a good idea. She kissed Sam’s forehead. “Get some rest.”
“All right.” Sam closed her eyes, and was asleep before Janie closed the door.
Janie stood beside the closed door for a moment. She took a deep breath and headed toward the kitchen.
Betsy handed Janie a mug of coffee after she joined her at the table. She studied the younger woman closely. “Had a rough go of it, huh?”
“You could say that.” Janie sipped her coffee. She felt uncomfortable as the silence grew. “Is something wrong?”
“No, not wrong.” Betsy paused to get her thoughts in order. “We haven’t known each other long, but I hope you know you can talk to me, if you need to.”
The cup in front of her was much easier for Janie to concentrate on. She’d never been one to speak freely with just anyone, except for Lucille. A small smile touched her lips when she thought about her grandmother. She had an idea that Lucille and Betsy could be very good friends, even considering the age difference. She raised her head. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sam told me that you practically pulled her in off the street. Why would you do that? I mean, you had to have known she wasn’t from around here.”
The older woman chuckled. “That’s true. She definitely stood out amongst the dried up old rednecks I’d seen.” She became serious. “I saw something in her eyes. She reminded me so much of someone I once knew.”
They both sat quietly, each absorbed in their own thoughts. Janie found it hard to believe that anyone in Piperton could be so trusting. She’d certainly be raised to fear anyone different, especially after her mother had ran away with the traveling evangelist. Her curiosity got the best of her. “Who?”
Betsy sighed. “You know, Sam asked me the same thing. I lied and told her she reminded me of myself, because I didn’t want her to be afraid. Now, after what’s happened to her, I wish I’d told the truth.” She paused, the ticking of the kitchen clock seemed amplified in the small room. “My Jack had an older sister, Kathleen. She’d ended up right here in Piperton, teaching high school history.”
“Really? I had Mr. Graham for history. I don’t recall—”
“No, you wouldn’t. She passed away in seventy-one. Her death was the reason Jack and I came here.” Betsy poured more coffee into her cup, even though it was over half-full.
Janie placed her hand on Betsy’s forearm. “I’m sorry. Was she ill?”
Shaking her head, Betsy blinked away a tear. “No.” She took a deep cleansing breath and sat up straighter. “She and Jack spoke frequently. She’d told him about falling in love with a fellow teacher. The problem was, her lover was another woman. And married.”
“Here? In Piperton?”
“Yes. They’d made plans to run away together, from what Kathleen told Jack. We were living in New Mexico at the time, and offered to put them up. But before they could leave, Kathleen was killed in a hit and run accident.” Betsy wrapped her hands around the coffee mug, as if trying to draw strength from its warmth. “After the funeral, Jack spoke to the police. They were ready to chock it up to a drunk driver, but he never believed that. We went back to Santa Fe, packed up our stuff, and moved here. He was bound and determined to find out what really happened to her, but we never did.”
“What about the other woman?”
Betsy shook her head. “I don’t know. She never came forward.” She shrugged. “We hadn’t expected her to, anyway. Poor thing was probably terrified.”
“I suppose. But still.” Janie thought about Betsy’s story. “Do you think Sam’s attack could be related to what happened to Kathleen?”
“No. Heavens, that happened over thirty years ago. The only reason I mentioned it was because it just shows how intolerant this place is.” The guilt ate away at Betsy’s heart. “I should have warned Sam to be more careful.”
Janie gripped Betsy’s hand and squeezed. “You know, a wise person once told me that Sam was the type of person to draw attention to herself all on her own. I wonder where I heard that before?”
Betsy laughed. “Throwing my own words back at me, eh? Guess I deserve it.” She sobered quickly. “Seriously, though. As much as Sam stands out, you don’t. Please be extra special careful. This whole mess scares the living daylights out of me.”
“Me, too. And don’t worry. I’ll watch my back.” But even as she said it, Janie wondered how far she’d have to go to protect herself.
Janie watched the minute hand of the clock edge closer to the twelve. Even though it was Thursday, it seemed as if she’d been stuck at work much longer. When the moment arrived, she took her purse from the bottom desk drawer and stood. Five o’clock couldn’t have come soon enough. She pushed her chair under the desk and was out the front door before anyone noticed.
Within five minutes, Janie parked her car two spaces away from the gym’s front entrance and hurried inside. She stood in the doorway and looked around. Seeing Betsy at her usual place behind the front counter, Janie waved. “Hi.”
“Hello there, yourself.” Betsy gestured for Janie to join her. “Are you here for class?”
“No, I didn’t think—”
Betsy laughed at the befuddled look on Janie’s face. “I’m only messing with you. You’re right, that class isn’t tonight. Run upstairs. Maybe you can get gloomy Gus out of her mood.”
“Is she all right?”
“She’s a grumpy pain in the butt, that’s what she is. But I think you’re just what the doctor ordered.” Betsy made a shooing motion with her hands. “Go on.”
Janie looked around carefully before heading for the back door. The three women using the exercise equipment were too engrossed in their work outs to notice her. “Thanks.” In no time she scaled the stairs and stepped into Betsy’s living room, where she saw a disgruntled Sam slouched on the couch. “Hi.”
Sam’s face instantly brightened. “Hey.” She started to get up but was stopped when Janie crossed the room and dropped beside her. “Is it after five already?”
“Yes, finally.” Janie kissed her lightly on the cheek. “How are you doing?”
“A lot better in the last minute,” Sam admitted, placing her arm around Janie’s shoulders and bringing her closer. “I’ve been bored out of my mind today. But things are definitely looking up.” She closed her eyes when Janie’s hand cupped the back of her head and their lips met.
They spent the next few minutes kissing and touching, until Janie slowly pulled away and rested her forehead against Sam’s. Her eyes were still closed as she willed her heart to slow. “I needed that.”
“Me too.” Sam raised her head slightly and kissed the tip of Janie’s nose. “Need more?”
Janie laughed. “Always.” She snuggled against Sam’s chest and enjoyed the warmth. “I never thought I’d feel like this.”
“Like how?” Sam used her good hand to stroke Janie’s arm.
“That if I don’t see you, or touch you, I’ll cease to exist.”
Sam’s eyes widened at Janie’s heartfelt words. They had become closer during the past week, but this was the first time Janie had ever spoken about her feelings. “You know, when I found out my car was history, I almost booked the next bus ticket out of town.”
“What changed your mind?”
“You.” Sam’s fingertips traced up Janie’s arm and cupped her cheek. “Even with all the misunderstandings we had there was something about you that I couldn’t get out of my mind.” She pulled Janie to her, their lips meeting. Unable to get enough, Sam’s lips traveled down Janie’s throat, causing the other woman to moan. She felt hands tangle in her hair, and it took all her strength to keep from tossing Janie onto her back. She pulled away slightly, breathing heavily. “Baby, we need to slow down.”
“I know.” Janie lowered her hands. She counted to ten in hopes of catching her breath. “It was nice, though.” She played with the frayed edge of Sam’s cutoff shorts, then her fingers moved lower to stroke the smooth thigh. Her fingers were grasped. “What?”
“You’re killing me,” Sam ground out, her jaw clenched.
“I’m sorry, did I hurt you?”
Sam closed her eyes and swallowed. “Not like you think. It’s just—”
“Oh.” Janie blushed. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Sam threaded their fingers together and held Janie’s hand in her lap.
Janie turned and brushed her free hand across Sam’s jaw. “I can’t seem to stop touching you.”
“I’m never going to complain about that.” Sam turned her head and kissed the inside of Janie’s wrist.
“Oh, god.” With her heart pounding, Janie scooted closer and hooked her leg over Sam’s. She leaned forward and reached beneath Sam’s tee shirt as she kissed her hungrily.
“Whoa, excuse me!” Betsy’s voice caused them to break apart. She stood in the doorway, blushing almost as deeply as the two women on the sofa. “Maybe I should go back downstairs.”
Janie climbed off Sam, but didn’t move far. She straightened her top and gave Betsy a friendly smile. “Don’t be silly. We were just, uh, visiting.”
“Looks more like you were visiting her tonsils,” Betsy quipped.
“Ah, geez.” Sam rubbed her face with one hand. “You’re evil.”
Betsy laughed. “I’m going to go figure out something for dinner. Janie, you’re staying, aren’t you?”
“No, that’s all right. You don’t have to—”
“I know I don’t. But it’s as easy to cook for three as it is two.” Betsy headed for the kitchen. “You two keep visiting.”
Once they were alone again, Janie fell back against Sam. “We’ve got to be more careful.”
Sam wrapped an arm around Janie’s waist and buried her nose in her hair. “I think what we really need to do is find someplace more private.”
“How about my place?”
Janie turned to face her. “Why not?”
“It’s not safe. What if he sees me there?” Sam suppressed a shudder. She still heard the menacing voice in her sleep every night. “I can’t risk you. It’s bad enough that you come here.”
“Are you saying you don’t want me to come here anymore?” Janie’s earlier elation began to weigh heavily in her stomach. “That we can’t be together?” Her eyes started to burn.
“No, nothing like that.” Sam hugged Janie to her and kissed her neck. “I’m just terrified that something’s going to happen to you.”
Janie tilted her head so Sam could have better access. “It won’t. But I see what you mean.” She sighed heavily as Sam’s lips nipped at her earlobe. “I’ll only come over here on days I’m going to work out.”
“Okay. And, to keep myself from going crazy missing you, I’m planning on going back to work at Danny’s tomorrow. I’m hoping Ray has something for me to do.” Sam sucked the earlobe between her teeth and nibbled gently, causing Janie to squirm.
“Ah, Sam, I—” Janie took Sam’s good hand and placed it on her breast. “I need—”
Betsy’s voice called from the kitchen. “You two better cool it in there. Dinner will be ready soon.”
Sam felt as if a cold bucket of water was dumped on her head. “Damn.” She rested her forehead on Janie’s shoulder. “This is worse than living with my grandmother.”
“She’s a good chaperone, that’s for sure.” Janie exhaled and leaned her head against Sam’s. “There’s a park not far from the square, and it’s usually deserted after dark.”
“Oh? What are you suggesting, Ms. Clarke? A secret rendezvous?”
Janie nodded. “There are picnic tables scattered among the trees on the south side of the lake. Well, actually, it’s more like a pond. But we could meet there.” She turned so they were looking eye to eye. “It’s safe, I promise.” She ran a finger down Sam’s face. “And very private.”
“Maybe not that private, but at least we can spend some time together without being interrupted.” Janie kissed her slowly before pulling away. “Call me tomorrow after you talk to Ray, and we’ll figure out when we can meet, all right?”
“Sure. Now, come here.” They kissed again, until Betsy hollered vague threats about ice water. Breaking apart, they laughed and got up from the sofa.
The next morning, Sam was dressed and ready to go. She enjoyed Betsy’s company but was tired of doing nothing. After breakfast, Sam struggled into her jeans and work shirt from the bar. She moved slowly down the stairs until she was at the front counter of the gym.
Betsy looked up from the magazine she had been reading and frowned. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m going crazy up there. I thought I’d run by the bar and see if Ray needed any help.” Sam adjusted the sling her broken hand rested in. She hated wearing it, but it was the only way to keep the swelling down.
“And just what do you think you’re going to do?” Tired of watching Sam struggle, Betsy stood from the stool she’d been perched on and straightened the strap that went behind her neck. “Silly kid.”
Sam slapped her hand away. “Stop that. I can clean tables and take drink orders.”
“You don’t plan on driving over there, do you?”
“No. I’ll walk. It’s not that far.” Although it would be even faster to cut through the alleys, Sam had no intention of doing so. She was still nervous about going back, but wasn’t going to share her feelings with Betsy, who already worried too much.
Betsy grabbed her keys from beneath the counter. “Oh no you don’t. If you’re that determined to do this, I’ll take you.”
“Come on, Betsy. I’ll be fine. And you can’t leave the gym in the middle of the day.”
“Watch me.” Betsy scribbled a few words on a piece of paper and taped it to the counter. “I used to do it all the time before you came along.” She took the small metal box where she kept money and locked it in her bottom desk drawer. After locking her office, she limped toward the back of the gym. “Well? Are you coming or not?”
Sam sighed and followed. “Yes, ma’am.”
Ray had his back to the door when he heard it open. “Sorry, we’re not open yet,” he called over his shoulder. Heavy steps coming closer caused him to turn around. “I said, we’re—” his words cut off when he saw Sam’s face. “Holy hell, Sam. You look like shit.” He had been aware of her injuries, having talked to Sam on the phone several times. But hearing about it and seeing it were two different things.
“Thanks a lot, Ray.” Sam was embarrassed by the scrutiny. Betsy had stopped by the doctor’s office on the way over so that she could have her stitches removed, and Sam hated how the red scars stood out on her face. “I thought I’d come in and see if there was anything I could do around here. I can’t play for a while, but I was getting bored at home.”
He filled a couple of glasses with ice water and motioned for her to sit at the bar. “Don’t worry about it. I can always use some help. You mind clearing tables?”
“No, not a bit.” She raised her cast away from her body. “As soon as I can get rid of this damned sling, I can take care of the floors and stuff, too.”
“Ever worked behind a bar? It’s not hard, at least around here. All you have to do is pour a few shots, open beer bottles and fill mugs with draft.”
She twisted her glass around, making patterns with the pool of condensation. “Can’t say that I have. What’s your plan?”
“If you could come in, set things up and work until about four or five during the week, I’d be forever in your debt.”
“What about Fred?”
Ray shook his head. “Asshole walked out a couple of days ago and never came back. I’ve been working opening to close ever since, except on the weekends. Tracy opens then.” The part-time worker and college student had been a godsend, but she wasn’t available during the week, since she had to commute to a nearby town to attend the junior college.
“Damn, Ray. I’m sorry. You should have called me.” Sam shifted on the barstool, trying to find a more comfortable position.
“Nah, it’s not that big of a deal, especially since we’re closing earlier now. But it would be nice to sleep in for a change,” he hinted.
Sam’s laughter echoed in the quiet bar. “Subtle, buddy. But yeah, I can handle the early stuff. What all do I need to do?”
He walked around the bar. “Come on. I’ll show you. It’s pretty easy.”
Within an hour, Sam learned enough to handle the day shift at the bar. Since they didn’t open for business until two, she didn’t see any reason why Ray needed to stay. “Why don’t you go home and take a nap? I think I can take care of things here.”
Ray headed for the door. “You don’t have to tell me twice. See you about five-thirty, if that’s okay.”
“Sure.” Once the door closed, Sam leaned against the bar and looked around the room. She was filled with a sense of accomplishment, proud to have the responsibility she had run from for so long.
As much as she wanted to call Danny’s and see if Sam were working, Janie decided to use her lunch break to have a quick visit with her grandmother. She’d talked to Lucille several times on the phone, but hadn’t seen her since before Sam had gotten hurt. She walked down the familiar hallway and exchanged greetings with several staff members before tapping on her grandmother’s open door.
Lucille spun her electric wheelchair around and grinned. “Hello there, stranger. Come give me a hug.”
After they embraced, Janie sat on the edge of Lucille’s bed. “Are you getting enough sleep? You look a little tired.”
“Please. That’s all they want us to do in this place. I get more than my share. How’s your friend? Is she doing better?”
Janie blushed when she thought about the kisses she and Sam shared the previous evening. She was definitely feeling better. “Uh, yes. As a matter of fact, Sam has gone back to work at the bar.”
Lucille noticed the change in her granddaughter. Janie no longer appeared sad and afraid of her own shadow. If anything, she glowed. “I’m glad she’s doing so well. Didn’t you tell me she was a singer?”
“Yes, among other things. Although I doubt she’ll be able to sing for a while, since she can’t play the piano until the cast comes off her hand.” Thinking about the sexy timbre in Sam’s voice, Janie felt a warmth spread through her.
“That’s a shame. You look a little flushed, dear. Are you feeling okay?”
Janie’s eyes widened and her face turned a deeper shade of red. “Um, well, I—”
Lucille wheeled closer and covered Janie’s hands with her own. “You know, the last time I saw you this flustered was when you were in junior high. I believe his name was Larry, or something like that.”
“Gary Lane,” Janie murmured, looking at their joined hands. “He’d asked me to the Halloween dance.”
“That’s right. So I’m figuring it must be a young fellow that has you so riled. Are you back with Doug?”
Janie couldn’t believe she was having this conversation with her grandmother. “God, no.”
“Oh, damn.” Janie tore her hands away from Lucille’s and covered her face. “It’s not like that, Nana.”
The older woman inhaled slowly, as if to gather her strength for the revelation she knew was coming. “It’s all right, child.”
Janie raised her head. “I’m scared.”
“Everything.” Tears fell from Janie’s eyes and she lowered her gaze again. “Why now?” Her voice dropped lower. “Why her?”
Lucille tried to keep her tone light. “So, when do I get to meet this woman who’s stolen your heart? That’s what this is all about, isn’t it?”
Janie covered her face again as she began to cry softly. Her greatest fear was of losing Lucille, who’d been the only person she could count on throughout her life. But she couldn’t deny what was in her heart.
“Janie?” Lucille squeezed Janie’s knee. “Honey,” her voice softened, as if trying to calm a frightened child. “The only thing that matters to me is that you’re happy. Please don’t cry.” Her gentle words had the opposite effect, as Janie sobbed harder. She turned her chair sideways until she was against the bed and tugged her granddaughter to her shoulder. “Sssh. Everything’s going to be fine, I promise.”
Raucous laughter from the three tables shoved together caused Sam to wince. It seemed the entire lawn mowing workforce had turned up at Danny’s. She checked the clock behind the bar. The men had showed up at four, and it was now only ten minutes after five. She lost count of how many pitchers of beer she’d filled for the rowdy men. She reached for another as Doug came to the bar.
“Hey, we need another refill.” He placed the empty pitcher on the counter. He’d lost the coin toss and it was his first time to pay for a round. “Shit! What happened to you?”
Sam wanted to spit out a nasty retort, but held her tongue. “Someone didn’t like me being here, I guess.” She traded his empty pitcher for a full one, and scooped the ten-dollar bill off the bar. She watched his face as he digested her remark, wondering if he had anything to do with whoever beat her.
Doug took the change she gave him and stuff a dollar into the tip jar. “Well, I guess that sucked.” He returned to his co-workers, not giving Sam another glance.
Several more men came in and joined the group. Sam automatically filled two more of the plastic containers with draft beer and carried both with one hand to the tables. “Here you go, fellas.” She accepted the wad of cash from a dirty hand and thanked them for the extra. “Let me know if you need anything else.” As she was leaving, a cold chill went down her back as she heard the voice from her nightmares. She quickly turned, but with the heavy smoke and boisterous chatter she was unable to tell who had spoken.
Sam returned to her position behind the bar. She kept staring at the group of men, hoping to figure out who her assailant could be. The slam of the back door caused her to jump and she reached beneath the bar and grasped the wooden baseball bat that was kept for security. She released it when Ray came out of the back room.
“Wow, looks like a busy afternoon,” he remarked, joining her. As he got closer, he noticed how pale Sam had become. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” She turned so that she wasn’t facing the large group of men. “What do you know about those guys?”
Ray shrugged. “Not a whole lot. They all work together, but I guess you figured that out by their matching shirts. Why?”
“No particular reason. Just curious.” She watched as Doug and an older man got into a lively discussion. She couldn’t hear them over the din the others made, but whatever was going on, Doug didn’t seem very happy.
Doug stood and scooted his chair away from the table. “Fine, I’ll go! Whatever it takes to get you off my ass.” He followed the older man from the bar, cursing the entire way.
Several more of the men pushed away from the tables and started to leave. It was as if once their leader was gone they no longer had a reason to stay.
Sam waited until they cleared the door before gathering a wet towel and a tray. Ray’s hand on her arm stopped her. “What?”
“I’ll take care of that. Why don’t you go on home, and I’ll let you open tomorrow?”
She placed the tray on the bar. “You sure?”
“Yeah. Tracy’s coming in around seven. She’ll help me take care of the tables.” Ray took the towel out of her hand and lightly shoved her. “Go on. I’m sure you’ve got better things to do than hang around here.”
“Great. Hey, is it okay if I use the phone in the office before I go?” At Ray’s nod, Sam weaved through the tables and headed for the back room. She stepped into the office and closed the door behind her, taking a seat beside the old wooden desk. She dialed a number from memory, anxiously twirling the cord around her finger as she waited for an answer.
“Hey, Janie. This is Sam. What’s up?” Sam rolled her eyes at her own nervous attempt to sound cool.
“Hi. I was just changing out of my work clothes. How was your first day back?”
The implications of Janie’s words hit Sam hard. “You’re getting undressed?” The thought of a scantily clad Janie caused her breath to quicken. “What are you wearing?” She whacked her forehead with the handset of the phone. Idiot! Quit sounding like an obscene phone call. “I, uh, well,” she stammered.
“Actually, I was standing here in front of my closet, trying to figure out what to put on.” Janie couldn’t help but laugh when her comment was met with silence. “What was that sound? Did you drop the phone?”
Sam rubbed her head where she had thumped herself with the phone. “No, must be the connection.” She took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Work was okay. I’m taking the day shift behind the bar for the time being.”
“That’s great.” A rustling of cloth, and Janie continued. “There. I’ve got my jeans on. Hold on while I slip on a blouse.”
Closing her eyes, Sam imagined Janie in only jeans and her bra. The vision certainly wasn’t helping to calm her down. “Maybe I should call back.”
“No, I’m done.”
“Ah. Okay.” Sam turned in the chair to check the thermostat by the door, wondering if Ray had turned the heater on. “Are you going to go visit your grandmother this evening?”
“No, I went at lunch today.” Janie quieted. “We talked about us.”
“Us? As in, you and me?” Sam wished she could see Janie’s face. “What brought that up?” When she didn’t get an answer, she started to panic. “Janie? Baby? Are you okay?”
Janie sniffled. “I’ll be okay. Nana was great, actually.”
“Really? Then why are you crying?”
“I’m not,” Janie lied. “Hold on.”
Sam could faintly hear Janie blow her nose. She tapped her fingers nervously on the battered desk.
“Sorry.” Janie cleared her throat. “What are you doing tonight? I’d love to see you.”
“I think that can be arranged. Want to try the park tonight? As soon as it’s dark?”
“That would be wonderful,” Janie sighed. “Directly behind the old dock there’s a picnic area. Around eight?”
“All right. See you then.” Janie was the first to hang up.
Sam stared at the wall as a wave of anticipation flowed through her. She placed the handset on the phone and leaned back in the beat up leather office chair. Now if she could just figure out what to do with herself for the next couple of hours.
The small frame house where he grew up felt more confining than usual to Doug. He sat silently in the same chair where he’d taken his meals for the last thirty-four years, while his parents bickered back and forth. They’d been at each other’s throats for as long as he could remember. More than once Doug wondered why they ever married to begin with. He wiped a piece of bread across his plate before stuffing it in his mouth. The quicker he finished, the sooner he’d be able to leave. He almost choked when his father slammed a hand on the table, causing the dishes to rattle.
“Goddamn it, Sue. Do you have to harp at me non-stop?”
Sue brushed her gray hair away from her face. The neat bun she’d put it in at the beginning of the day had come loose, adding to her frazzled appearance. “All I asked was if you’d paid the water bill today. You told me you would drop it off on your way to work. And if you weren’t such a nasty drunk, you’d be able to have a normal conversation.” She gave her son an apologetic smile. “Honey, when are you going to bring Janie over again? It’s been ages since I’ve seen her.”
“I’m not, Ma. We’re not seeing each other any more.” Doug took another helping of scalloped potatoes. He’d try to stay longer, for his mother’s sake.
“When did this happen?” Sue turned to her husband. “Did you know about this? Why didn’t you say anything?”
Reggie drained the first of the three beers he had near his plate. “Wasn’t any of your damned business, woman. Besides, it’s only temporary.”
“You’re wrong, Pop. We’re not getting back together.” Doug shoved a forkful of potatoes into his mouth. “Jus’ drop it.”
“Bullshit! You don’t have the balls to do what needs to be done. Swallow your damned pride and beg the girl to take you back,” Reggie demanded, popping the top on his next beer.
Doug dropped his fork. “Back off, old man. I ain’t interested in Janie no more. She’s changed.”
“Well, unchange her! What about your deal with Harvey? Are you just gonna go back on that? Be a man, for a change.” Reggie pointed a grease-stained finger at his wife. “This is all your fault! If you hadn’t coddled him when he was a boy, his girlfriend would have never turned queer.”
Almost spitting his tea out, Doug forced himself to swallow. “What do you mean? Janie ain’t no dyke. We’ve fu—” he glanced at his mother. “Sorry, Ma. I mean, had relations.”
“That’s all right, hon.” Sue glared at her husband. “Leave him alone, Reggie. And quit spreading rumors about Janie.”
“Ain’t a rumor. I’ve seen, I mean, why else would she leave Doug?” Reggie belched. He picked up an empty can and waved it at Sue. “And don’t tell me what to do, you damned ol’ cow.”
Doug stretched across the table and took the empty from his father. “Pop, cool it.” He crumbled the can and tossed it in the trash. It was time to change the subject. “How’d school go today, Ma?”
“About the same, I suppose. It’s getting harder and harder to get today’s students motivated. Principal Weston told me he heard the school board is considering dropping my art classes altogether in the fall, if things don’t pick up.”
“But you’ve been at the high school for over thirty years! How could they do that to you?” Doug took the napkin he had tucked under his chin and wiped his face. “What would you do?”
Sue shook her head. “I’m not sure, son. But maybe it’s time for me to retire.”
Reggie snorted. “Well, that’s fucking great. Then you’d be around here all the time. But I guess it’s just as well. That damned place has always been a breeding ground for freaks.” He drained his beer. “You just want to sit around the house all day and watch TV.”
“You may be surprised at what I’ll do when I stop teaching,” Sue snapped. She began to remove the dishes from the table. “And I sure as hell don’t want to spend my golden years cooped up in this dump with you.”
“Well, fuck you!” Reggie snarled. He got up from the table, beer in hand. “I need some air.” Without another word, Reggie stomped through the house and out the front door.
Sue set the dishes down and patted Doug on the shoulder. “That was one of our better dinners, wasn’t it?”
The park was dark and deserted when Janie arrived. She hurried past the old dock. Very few ever ventured to the far side of the small lake anymore. It was well-removed from the new picnic area, which boasted wooden tables and free-standing barbeque grills. The chipped concrete picnic table beneath the trees had lost one of the accompanying benches and it was almost invisible from the road.
She pulled up short when she saw the table. There was a folded blanket padding the bench and a checkered paper tablecloth covered the surface of the table. A small battery-powered lantern in the center cast a warm glow and a square basket rested on one corner. “Oh, my.”
Sam stood next to the table looking slightly embarrassed. She held her good arm out to her side and shrugged. “I thought it would be nice to have dinner together without worrying about who saw us.”
“You’re so sweet.” Janie stepped into her arms and tucked her face against Sam’s neck. The clean scent of soap mixed with Sam’s own natural scent was intoxicating. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” Sam trembled when Janie’s lips touched her neck below her ear. The light kiss sent her libido into overdrive and she had to step away before she tore Janie’s clothes off and took her right there on the ground. “You look great.”
Janie held the dark green skirt out slightly and ducked her head. The foam-colored sleeveless top hugged her body, and it was brighter than most of the clothes in her closet. She’d decided to change from her jeans, hoping for this reaction from Sam. “Really? I, I bought it for you.”
“Then I’m a very lucky person.” Sam led Janie to the bench. “I’m afraid this was the best I could do.” She waited until Janie was seated before taking her place next to her. In order to see her better, Sam straddled the bench. “You deserve a nice restaurant, not a picnic in the middle of the evening.”
“This is perfect. Show me what’s in the basket.” Before her eyes, a marvelous meal appeared. She watched as Sam removed plastic containers and situated them on the table. Inside was spaghetti, breadsticks and even a tossed salad. “Wow.”
It was Sam’s turn to blush. “I’m not much of a cook, but I figured I wouldn’t poison you with something this easy.” She’d used the kitchen at the bar, and had to make enough for Ray in order to appease him.
“I’m sure it’s wonderful.”
They spent the meal in silence, although they both peeked at each other when they thought the other wasn’t looking. Once they’d finished, Janie sighed in contentment. “This was the best spaghetti I’d ever eaten. Did you do something special to it?”
Sam packed away the dirty dishes. “Thanks. Yeah, I added a touch of brown sugar to the sauce, like my grandmother used to do. I’m glad you liked it.” She sat again and smiled when Janie edged closer.
“Thank you.” Janie leaned over and gave Sam a kiss to show her gratitude. She surprised herself with her own boldness. Even though it was dark, there was still an element of danger involved. She deepened the kiss, exploring Sam’s mouth in earnest.
When Sam felt Janie thread her fingers through her hair she pulled her even closer, until Janie straddled the bench. Her hands began to slide up and down along the outside of Janie’s thighs as they continued to kiss.
Janie gasped and tilted her head back while Sam explored her throat. The touch along her skin felt like fire. “God, Sam. That feels so good.”
Sam moved her hands around to cup Janie’s rear. In response, Janie’s legs went around Sam’s waist, which enflamed her further.
“Oh, Sam. That feels so good. But, we shouldn’t, we can’t—”
Her words brought Sam to where they were. “Damn. I know this isn’t the right place—” She was surprised when Janie kissed her again, this time even more urgently. All thought left her and she squeezed Janie’s rear again.
Janie moaned. “Don’t.”
Sam removed her hands. “I’m sorry.” The breath was knocked from her when Janie hugged her tightly.
“No, don’t you dare stop.” She kissed her harder. “I swear, if you don’t touch me soon, I’ll explode.”
“It’s late and there’s no one else here. I need you, Sam.”
Sam couldn’t argue. She wanted Janie so much it hurt. She moved one hand to the inside of Janie’s thighs.
“Yessss,” Janie hissed. “Touch me.” The sound of rustling leaves caused her to almost slide off the bench. “What was that?”
Sam scooted away and got to her feet. “Let me go check it out.”
The rustling got closer. Janie stood behind Sam. “No, please. Stay.” When a dark blur broke through the brush, she screamed.
The gray rabbit raced around the pair, never slowing down.
Janie dropped her head onto Sam’s back and exhaled heavily. “Well, that killed the mood.”
Sam turned and put her arms around Janie. “Yeah. And it makes it very clear we need to find someplace safer to be together. That could have just as easily been a person.” She left a light kiss on Janie’s lips. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“That’s all right.” With her arms around Sam’s neck, Janie returned the kiss with fervor. Her pulse quickened as she felt a strong hand caress her backside. “Come home with me.”
“Let’s go back to my place.” Spinning away from Sam, she started folding the tablecloth.
Within ten minutes, everything was put away in the trunk of Janie’s car. Sam climbed into the passenger seat. “Are you sure about this?”
“Definitely.” Janie started the car and backed out of the parking space. She held out her right hand and Sam grasped it. “I hope you don’t have any plans for the weekend.”
Sam flushed. “I guess I do now.”
They were almost to Janie’s apartment when her phone rang. “Damn it. Who could that be?” She released Sam’s hand and dug the device from her purse. “Hello?”
“Janie? I’ve been knocking on your door for five minutes. Is everything okay?” Sandra’s voice cracked.
“Sandra? What’s going on?” Janie wheeled the car to the side of the street and parked. “What are you doing at my apartment?”
Sam sighed and pointed at her door. They weren’t far from the gym. “Should I leave?” she mouthed.
Janie shook her head. “What was that, Sandra? I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you.”
“I came home tonight and they had a notice on my apartment door. Something about fumigating for termites. Can I stay with you until Sunday?”
“Uh, well,” Janie glanced at Sam. She ached to touch the younger woman. “The place is a mess. What about your boyfriend?”
“Terry?” The name came from Sandra in a half-sob. “I don’t think his wife would approve.”
“He’s married? Oh, honey, I’m so sorry.” Janie realized her weekend plans had just changed drastically, and not in a good way. “Look, I’ll be home in about ten minutes, okay? Just hang in there.” She exchanged goodbyes with her friend and tossed the cell into her purse. With a heavy heart, she clasped Sam’s hand again. “I’m sorry. But she needs me.”
Sam gave what she hoped was an understanding smile. “I heard. Rotten timing, huh?”
“The worst.” Janie unbuckled her seatbelt and slid closer to Sam, ignoring the discomfort of the bucket seats. She caressed her face and leaned close to gently kiss her. When they pulled apart, she reluctantly returned to the driver’s seat. “Let me take you home.”
“Nah.” Sam opened her car door. “I think I could use a little cooling down.” Closing the door, she ducked into the open window. “I’ll be working days at the bar, so maybe we can get together some evening.”
“I hope so. Please be careful.”
Sam winked. Her only consolation was she could tell Janie was as bad off as herself. “You too.” She walked down the sidewalk, not looking back.
By Tuesday, Janie had all she could take of Sandra. Her friend’s overnight stay turned into an unwanted slumber party, the end no where in sight. She had come home after work and found Sandra stretched out on the sofa, dirty dishes covering the coffee and end tables. “Didn’t you go to work today?”
“Yeah, but it was slow, so they sent me home.” Sandra was a sales clerk at a discount store, and her work hours depended on the amount of customers they had. “Hey, do you want to go out tonight? I’ve been bored silly around here today.”
Janie moved a pair of jeans from a chair to the floor and sat. “You could have always gone home and cleaned. Didn’t you tell me it was safe to go back to your apartment yesterday?”
“Well, yes. But I’m trying to get the landlord to pay for a cleaning service. You should see the place. There’s a layer of film over everything!” Sandra pulled a cigarette from the case. “I wish you’d let me smoke in here. It’s such a pain to go downstairs and outside.”
“No way. I’d never get the smell out of the furniture.” Janie had grown up living with a smoker, and vowed to herself to never allow it in her own home. “And I already have plans for tonight. I’ve got an aerobics class at seven.”
Sandra got off the couch and straightened her blouse. “Since when? You’ve never been interested in things like that. Come on, go change into something more casual and we’ll hit Danny’s. Maybe that singer will be there.”
Not thinking about what she was saying, Janie stood as well. “No, she’s working the day shift for a while. And she can’t play because of her hand.”
“What? Since when were you the expert on the comings and goings of the bar? And it sounds like you’ve become pretty friendly with that woman.”
Sandra’s superior attitude angered Janie. “Am I not allowed to have other friends?” She started gathering the dirty dishes. When her arms were full, she headed toward the kitchen, with Sandra on her heels.
“Friends? I thought you said you only shared a table at Fern’s with that woman. Now you’re telling me she’s your friend?”
Janie spun away from the sink and rested her hands on her hips. “Sam’s a very sweet person, and a good friend to have. She’s done nothing to anyone around here, yet all she gets is grief. So I wish you’d just lay off her.”
“Whoa, calm down.” Sandra backed up a step. “I didn’t mean anything by it. It just seemed kinda strange, you talking about her like that.”
Before Janie could answer, her cell phone rang. She rushed to the living room and took it out of her purse. “Hello?”
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Harvey ranted. “I thought I told you to make up with Doug.”
Janie dropped into the nearest chair and closed her eyes. The last person she wanted to talk to was her father. “We’ve been over this before, Harvey. I have no interest in Doug, so just drop it.”
“Like hell I will. You’ll do as I say, girl. Or I’ll—”
“Or you’ll what? Don’t you dare threaten me.” Years of being bullied had festered until Janie felt a burning hatred for the man who’d done nothing but belittle her throughout her entire life. “Until you’re ready to talk to me in a civilized manner, don’t bother calling. Goodbye, Harvey.” Janie disconnected the call and tossed the phone onto the coffee table. “Asshole.”
Sandra’s eyes were wide from where she stood in the doorway of the kitchen. “Wow. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I’d have never believed it. You’ve changed.”
“What? No, I haven’t.” Janie stood and returned to the kitchen. At the sink, she started running water.
Sandra sidled up beside her. “Yes, you have. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad thing. Well overdue, if you want to know the truth. First your hair and clothes, and now this kick-ass attitude.” She bumped hips with Janie. “I like it. Now scoot over tough stuff, and let me take care of these dishes. Don’t want you going off on me next.”
The gym was full of women, yet the only one Sam saw was Janie. Standing next to Betsy at the welcome counter, Sam released a heavy sigh.
“If you keep staring at her like that, she’s going to burst into flames,” Betsy teased, speaking low so as not to be overheard by anyone else. She took the towel that Sam was using to wipe the counter. “Give me that. You’re wearing a hole in the wood.”
Sam’s face turned a deep red. “Sorry.” Her fingers tapped out a nervous beat while she forced herself to look away from the aerobics class. “Maybe I should go put a load of towels in to wash.”
“You did that five minutes ago.”
“Damn.” The upbeat music which drove the aerobics class was giving Sam a headache. At least that’s what she told herself. It had nothing to do with the fact that Sandra had accompanied Janie to the gym. Sam sent some decidedly unfriendly thoughts toward the blonde. She hadn’t been alone with Janie since Friday evening and her mood continued to deteriorate. “I think I’ll go upstairs,” she announced to Betsy. “That is, if you don’t need me for anything.”
Betsy decided to have mercy on the younger woman. “I guess I’ll survive down here without you moping around.”
“I wasn’t moping.” Sam spared a final glance at the class before she left. She bumped into the doorframe when the entire aerobics class bent at the waist. Ignoring Betsy’s laughter, she closed the door and stomped up the stairs.
Ten minutes later, the class broke up. Janie hung back from the women who trekked to the locker room, instead stopping at the counter where Betsy was perched on a stool. Wiping her face and neck with a towel, Janie leaned against the counter. “Pamela runs a tough class,” she shared, as the last of her group left the room. She exhaled heavily. “Where’s Sam?”
“Upstairs.” Betsy’s smile widened at the look that crossed Janie’s face. “Why don’t you run up there and see her?”
Janie’s face fell. “I wish I could. But Sandra’s with me. That might be a little hard to explain.”
Betsy tapped the counter with a pen while she considered Janie’s dilemma. “Okay. How about this? You go get changed, and then both you and your friend come up for dinner. We’ll order pizza or something.”
“That sounds wonderful. Thank you!” Janie patted Betsy’s hand and jogged to the locker room.
“Guess I’d better let Sam know about our dinner guests.” Betsy hurried to the office, where the newly installed intercom was located. She dropped into her leather chair and used the intercom button to buzz upstairs.
It took Sam less than thirty seconds to answer. “Betsy? Is everything okay down there?”
“Fine, kiddo. Listen, I’ve invited a couple of ladies to dinner tonight. Would you like to call in a couple of pizzas from Aces? You know what I like.”
“Um, sure. But who—” Sam’s voice stopped in mid sentence. “You didn’t.”
Betsy laughed before pressing the button again. “I sure did. Now get busy. We’ll be up in a few.” She ignored the cursing that came out of the small box. It was always fun to keep Sam off balance. Betsy considered it a great hobby. “Beats collecting stamps.” She laughed again, as she returned to the front counter.
Dinner was an uncomfortable affair, at least as far as Sam was concerned. She struggled to keep from staring at Janie, whose damp hair from her shower curled attractively around her face. She tried to tune out Sandra, who was chattering non-stop about her last boyfriend.
“Imagine my surprise when I called his house and his wife answered the phone!” Sandra exclaimed. “I was so humiliated!”
“I’m sure his wife wasn’t too thrilled, either,” Sam mumbled. “Ouch!” She reached beneath the table and rubbed her leg where Janie’s foot had connected with her shin. “What?”
Janie’s glare spoke volumes. “Be nice,” she mouthed silently. She viciously stabbed her salad with a fork before bringing it to her mouth.
Sandra kept cutting her eyes at Sam and then back to her plate. “Um, Sam? Can I ask you a question?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Sam saw Janie’s frown and moved her leg before she was kicked again. She grinned and resisted the urge to stick out her tongue.
“What made you the way you are?” Sandra waved her hand. “You know, gay? Did you have a bad experience with a man?”
Sam bristled, but was quickly calmed by the loving look bestowed upon her by Janie. “No. I’ve never had a ‘bad’ experience with a man. I’ve always been a lesbian. I can’t remember ever not being the way I am.”
“Really?” Sandra propped her elbow on the table and rested her chin in her open hand. “What does your family think about it? Is that why you travel around?”
Janie quickly interrupted. “I don’t think that’s any of our business.” She knew family was a sensitive subject for Sam.
“No, it’s all right.” Sam dropped the pizza crust she’d nibbled on. “I don’t have any family, Sandra. But when my grandmother was alive, she didn’t have a problem with my sexuality.”
“I’m sorry,” Sandra offered. Without thinking, she put her hand on top of Sam’s. “Really, I am.”
Sam managed a smile for the other woman. “Thanks.” As much as she had enjoyed spending time with Janie, Sam was ready for the evening to come to an end. She stood and took her paper plate to the trash can. “Does anyone want any dessert? I think we have some ice cream in the freezer.”
Janie followed suit and was soon standing beside Sam, peeking into the freezer with her. The half-gallon of chocolate fudge didn’t appear to have been opened. “Um, ice cream sounds good. But I’m more of a vanilla person, myself. Want to run to the store with me?” She turned to Betsy and Sandra, who were still eating. “Do you mind?”
Betsy’s understanding grin belied her innocent comment. “You know, I think I’d like some strawberry, myself. Are you sure you two don’t mind fetching some?”
“Not a bit.” Sam slammed the freezer shut. “Sandra, any requests?”
The blonde shook her head as she chewed a mouthful of pizza. She quickly swallowed. “Nope. I’m easy.” She pointed her finger at Janie, who stifled a giggle. “No comments from you, smarty pants.”
Janie grabbed her purse. “I wouldn’t dream of it. Come on, Sam. I’ll drive.” She grabbed Sam’s arm and dragged her from the room.
They were halfway down the stairs when Sam stopped. “Hold on.” She waited until Janie turned then put her unbroken hand behind Janie’s neck. “I’ve wanted to do this all night.” Her lips pressed against Janie’s, and she almost tumbled back when her hips were grabbed and the kiss deepened.
With her libido on overdrive, Janie gently pressed Sam to a seated position on the stairs. She straddled her hips and pressed closer. When they finally broke apart to breathe, she rested her forehead against Sam’s. “This isn’t getting us to the ice cream very fast, is it?”
“No, not really.” Sam brushed her lips along Janie’s throat. “But infinitely more satisfying.”
“Oh, god.” Janie tilted her head back to allow Sam easier access. Her eyes closed as the warm mouth moved closer to her pulse point. “We shouldn’t—”
“Sssh.” Sam sucked tenderly on Janie’s neck. “Just a few more minutes,” she pleaded. Her hand slid beneath Janie’s tee shirt and cupped her breast. “You feel so good.”
Janie gasped at the sensation before regretfully moving back. “You’re not making this any easier.”
“Good.” But Sam removed her hand from Janie’s top. She brushed the hair away from Janie’s eyes and kissed her quickly on the nose. “We’d better get that ice cream, huh?”
“I suppose.” Janie got to her feet and helped Sam up. “Sandra’s moving home tomorrow, whether she likes it or not. I’ve got plans for you.”
Sam almost stumbled down the stairs at the hunger in Janie’s tone. “I can’t wait.”
Unfortunately, Sandra didn’t move home immediately. She was determined to have her apartment manager pay for the cleaning of her home. Janie and Sam couldn’t find the privacy they wanted, making Janie short-tempered at work. On Thursday morning, things quickly got out of control.
Andrea tossed another stack of files onto Janie’s desk. “Hey, Janice. Looks like you’re getting behind, again.” She settled her abundant ass on the edge of the desk. “I don’t know what your problem is, but you need to get busy.”
“Janie,” Janie corrected quietly.
“My name is Janie. I’ve been telling you for years, but you don’t seem to listen. Now please move.”
The redhead picked up a small picture frame and glanced at it. “Wow. Your mom sure was old looking in this.”
Janie snatched the photograph out of Andrea’s hand. “That’s my grandmother,” she grumbled. When Andrea made no effort to move, Janie saw red. “I said, get-off-my-desk!” Each word was louder, until her voice echoed in the room. She shoved Andrea, who wasn’t able to catch herself in time and ended up on the floor.
“What the hell is your major malfunction?” Andrea stood and dusted off her tight blue dress. “You’ll regret this, Janet.”
“Janie!” With a growl, Janie picked up her stapler and was about to throw it at Andrea.
Dr. Richmond poked his head into the room. “What is going on in here?” He stared at Janie, whose face was bright red. “Is there a problem?”
Andrea pointed at Janie. “Ask her! All I did was bring in some files, and she practically attacked me.” She fluffed her hair and brushed by the doctor. “I’m going to lunch.” Over her shoulder she added, “I want those files entered before you go home today, Janie.” She gave the other woman a wicked grin before leaving the room.
“Argh!” Janie slammed the stapler onto the desk.
Ted Richmond sat in the visitor’s chair. “Rough morning?”
“No, I’m sorry.” Janie exhaled heavily and brushed the hair away from her eyes. “I shouldn’t let her get to me like that.” Unable to look him in the eye, she took great care in straightening the papers on her desk. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“I feel like I should be asking that of you.” Ted propped his right ankle on his left knee. “How’s your friend, Sam? Tammy said she’d come in last Friday to have her stitches removed, although I didn’t get a chance to see her.”
Janie finally smiled. “She’s great. Although I haven’t seen her much lately, either.” Her face slowly changed into a frown. “I’m sorry about that scene with Andrea. She seems to push the wrong buttons with me.”
Ted got to his feet. “Don’t worry about it. If she wasn’t Dr. Pelletier’s niece, I doubt she’d even work here.” He paused at the door. “If you ever need anyone to talk to, my door is always open.”
“Thanks, Ted. I appreciate it.” Janie opened up the program on her computer and started typing in the data in the first file. The office was slowly transferring all the paperwork to a database, and she feared it was only a matter of years before she’d be out of a job. The only comforting thought was that if there weren’t as many office workers, they wouldn’t need a manager, either. She hoped she’d get a chance to see Andrea in the unemployment line. She picked up the phone, needing to hear a friendly voice.
“Danny’s, Sam speaking.”
“Hi.” Janie lowered her voice and kept her eyes on the door, afraid of being caught.
“Hey, beautiful. What’s up?”
“Nothing, really. I was just thinking about you.” The sexy growl on the other end of the phone caused Janie to blush. “Stop that.”
Sam laughed. “Sorry. So, what are you doing for lunch? We don’t open until two, so it’s kinda lonely in here, if you get my drift.”
“Oh, really? Well, I suppose I could bring you something to eat. I can be there a little after eleven, if that’s okay.”
“That would be perfect. But you don’t have to bring me lunch, I can just nibble on you.”
Janie flushed. “Would you behave? I still have to work, you know.” But she couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “I’ll see you in a little while.” They flirted for another minute, and then she hung up the phone. She looked forward to lunch.
Sam whistled a tune as she wiped down tables. She was no longer wearing the sling, but the cast that went almost to her elbow still kept her from doing as much as she wanted. She hated leaving the dishes for Ray, although he claimed not to care. Sam glanced at her watch. She had unlocked the front door ten minutes ago. At the sound of the front door opening, she left the towel and rushed to meet Janie. “Hey.”
Janie stopped inside the door to allow her eyes to adjust to the room. She laughed as Sam scooped her up and swung her around. “You nut, stop! You’re going to hurt yourself.”
“Nah, you don’t weigh anything.” But Sam lowered her to the ground and kissed her. “I’ve missed you.” She took the bag of food from Janie’s hand and held it by her side.
Her heart pounding from the unexpected ride, Janie returned the kiss with fervor. She linked her arms around Sam’s neck as her body melded against the younger woman’s. When Sam broke the embrace, she gave her a questioning look.
“Let me lock the door, so we won’t be disturbed.” Sam relocked the door and led Janie to a nearby table, where she placed the bag of food. She pulled out a chair for Janie, then brought another one close for herself.
It wasn’t long before Janie moved from her chair to Sam’s lap. “Is this okay?”
“Perfect.” Sam put her arms around Janie to keep her from falling.
Janie looked into her eyes and saw the love shining back at her. “I can’t believe this.”
“This.” Janie ran her finger across Sam’s cheek. “No one’s ever looked at me the way you do, Sam.”
Sam smiled shyly. “I know it’s probably too soon to say this, but I lo—” Sam’s lips were covered with Janie’s finger.
“Shh.” Janie shook her head. “I don’t think I’m ready to hear that.” There were too many unresolved issues to worry about, without hearing Sam bare her heart. Janie replaced her finger with her mouth and kissed Sam deeply.
They finally got around to eating the sandwiches Janie had brought, and were feeding each other potato chips when Janie noticed the time. “Damn! I’ve got to get back.” She gathered her trash.
“Don’t worry, Janie. I’ll take care of all this.” Sam followed her to the door and unlocked it. “I think you need to lobby for a longer lunch hour.”
“That kind of defeats the whole ‘lunch hour’ part of the thing, doesn’t it?” Janie sidled closer. She placed a soft kiss on Sam’s lips. “What do you have planned for tonight?”
Sam cupped the side of Janie’s face and kissed her slowly. “You tell me.”
“I’m so tempted to call out sick for the rest of the day.”
“I could always tie you up and hold you hostage in the back room,” Sam offered.
Janie laughed and hugged her. “Don’t tempt me.”
“I guess I’ll let you go, if I can see you tonight.” Sam nipped her on the nose.
“One way or another, we’ll see each,” Janie promised. She gave Sam one more quick kiss and backed out into the sunlight. “I wonder if Sandra’s at work today. Because if she isn’t, she’d better be cleaning her damned apartment.” She took her cell phone out of her purse and hit the speed dial, growling when Sandra’s phone went directly to voice mail. “Sandra, this is Janie. Call me as soon as you get this message, okay? Bye.” She hustled back to work, hoping she wouldn’t have another showdown with Andrea.
After being relieved by Ray, Sam hurried home to get cleaned up. She wasn’t sure what Janie had in mind for the evening, but she was determined to be ready for whatever came up. She waved to Betsy as she headed for the stairs.
“Hold on there, speedy. Where’s the fire?” Betsy asked.
“I was just going up to get a shower.” Sam tapped her foot while she stood in place. “Anything else I can do for you?”
Betsy laughed. “Actually, I do need to talk to you about something, when you have the time.”
Sam stopped tapping and leaned against the counter. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
“Good god, kid. Why does everything have to be life and death around you? I said I wanted to talk, not write my will.” Betsy walked around the counter and led Sam to the office. “Let’s go someplace where it’s quiet.”
At Betsy’s insistence, Sam closed the door behind them and sat on the sofa next to the older woman. “Okay. I’m here, you’re here. Now what is it that you want to talk about?” Sam’s hand shook where it rested on her leg, until Betsy took it in her own.
“I swear, you worry more than an old woman.”
“And I’ll turn into one before you get to the point,” Sam countered.
Betsy slapped her leg. “All right, fine. I got a phone call from a friend of mine, and I was wondering if you’d mind watching the gym while I took a couple of weeks off to see her.”
“That’s all?” Sam fell back against the sofa and exhaled. “I was worried that something was wrong with you. I’ll call Ray and see what I can work out with him.”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Pamela already said she’d be glad to handle things while you’re at the bar. I just need you to keep an eye on things, overall. Like making the bank deposits and keeping everything in order. Pretty much what you’re doing all ready.”
Sam laughed. “I see. How long will you be gone?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A couple weeks, probably. I haven’t had a vacation in over twenty years. Think you can handle it?”
“Sure. You’ve done so much for me, Betsy. I’d love to be able to do something for you.” Sam leaned into the older woman and gave her a one-armed hug. “Take as long as you need, the gym will still be here when you get back.”
Betsy felt a surge of affection for Sam. “Of that I have no doubt. Now, you want to tell me what’s going on with you and Janie?”
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t try to bullshit a bullshitter, Sam. The heat you two put off while you’re in the same room is unbelievable. How’s things going?”
Sam’s face turned red. “Better than I could have hoped, although I think I almost blew it today.”
“Why? What did you do?”
Sam’s answer was unintelligible.
“Excuse me? What was that?”
“IalmosttoldherIlovedher,” Sam rushed out.
Betsy had to think about it for a moment to realize what Sam said. “Do you?”
The older woman slapped Sam on the leg. “Love her, you big goof.”
Lowering her eyes, Sam nodded. “Yeah. I mean, I know it’s too soon, but she makes me feel things I’ve never felt before.” She turned her head and looked Betsy in the eye. “I do love her, Betsy. Is that wrong?”
“Hell no, kid. That’s the rightest thing I’ve heard in a long time. How do you think she feels about you?”
“I’m not positive, but I think she feels the same. I mean, she hasn’t come out and said it, or anything. But I can see it in her eyes.”
Betsy patted Sam on the shoulder. “Good. That’s the way it should be.” She backed away slightly. “You smell like smoke. I think you’d better get upstairs and take a shower.”
Sam laughed. “No kidding.” She stood and bent to kiss Betsy on the head. “Thanks for listening, Betsy. I love you.”
“I love you too, you crazy kid.” Betsy swatted her on the rear. “Now go on upstairs and get cleaned up. I figure you’ve probably got a hot date tonight.” She laughed at Sam’s wink, before the younger woman left the office. “Crazy kid.”
Not ready to face her friend if she was home, Janie went to the gym from work. On her way, she stopped at The Wicked Wok, the local Chinese restaurant, and picked up enough food for Sam, Betsy and herself. She’d called Betsy before she left work and offered to bring dinner, which was met with excitement from the older woman. Janie parked behind the gym and headed up the stairs, balancing the take-out bags with her purse.
Sam was stretched out on the sofa, half-asleep, when she heard footsteps coming up the stairway. She yawned and checked her watch. “Too early for Betsy,” she muttered, sitting up.
“You’re right about that.” Janie stepped into the living room and lifted the bags full of food. “Hungry?”
“Depends on if you’re part of the menu.” Sam rose from the sofa and took the take-out from Janie. She gave her a quick kiss on the lips. “It’s great to see you.”
Janie followed her into the kitchen and set her purse next to her usual chair at the table. She’d started spending more time here than she did at home. “I missed you, too.” She watched as Sam started removing the food from the sacks and spread it out on the table. “Want me to grab some plates?”
“That would be great.” Sam almost dropped a carton of rice when Janie ran her hand across her rear on her way to the pantry. “Whoa!”
“Problem?” Janie inquired playfully.
Sam exhaled quickly. “Uh, nope. Everything’s fine. I guess I should buzz Betsy downstairs and tell her dinner’s ready.”
“No need.” Janie melded her body against Sam’s back and put the paper plates on the table. “I called her before I left work, and she said we should start without her.”
“Really?” Sam turned and put her arms around Janie. “And what exactly should we be starting?” She grinned before nibbling on Janie’s neck.
Janie moaned at the sensation and tilted her head back. “Mmm. Whatever you want.”
“That’s what I was hoping you’d say.” Sam’s mouth burned a path down Janie’s throat. “You taste so good.”
Feeling her knees go weak, Janie leaned against the table, causing it to scoot noisily. Her hands threaded through Sam’s hair, silently urging her on. Several buttons on her blouse mysteriously opened, but before she could feel a draft, Sam’s lips heated her breast. “Yes.”
The buzzing of the intercom almost caused Sam to knock Janie over. “Dammit!” She backed away and blinked several times to get her brain to function. “I’m going to kill Betsy,” she growled. She watched as Janie shakily rebuttoned her blouse. “Hold that thought.”
Janie couldn’t help but laugh at the look on Sam’s face. She was certain hers wasn’t much better. “It’s probably for the best, anyway.”
Sam poked the outgoing button on the intercom. “What’s up?”
“Looks like I’m going to be stuck down here for a while. Would you mind bringing me a plate of food? I can smell it all the way down here.”
“Likely story,” Sam teased, while Janie loaded a plate for Betsy. “Delivery will cost you extra.”
“Put it on my tab,” Betsy quipped. “And hurry up! You two can mess around after I’m fed.”
Sam blushed and laughed. “I don’t know how she does it,” she told Janie, before pressing the button. “All right, old woman. I’ll be right down.”
“Good! Oh, and Sam?”
“Don’t forget to bring me a coke.”
Sam watched Janie as she removed a cola from the refrigerator. “Have I ever?”
“Yes.” Betsy laughed before she released the intercom.
Before Sam could take the plate, Janie held out her hand. “There’s no sense in you having to juggle everything. Let me take it.”
“Are you sure?” At Janie’s nod, Sam turned over the soda. “I think she’s just being ornery while she can, since she plans on leaving Sunday morning.”
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” Janie kissed Sam’s cheek. “Be right back.”
Sam watched the sway of Janie’s hips as she left the kitchen. Once she was alone, she went to the sink and splashed cold water on her face. “It’s going to be a long night,” she sighed.
Her prophesy came true, although in a better way than Sam could have anticipated. She and Janie ended up helping Betsy close and clean the gym. Once they finished, the three of them sat at the kitchen table and played cards.
Betsy slapped a card onto a pile and cheered. “I’m out!” She stared gleefully at the handful of cards Sam still held. “Looks like I caught you good, this time.”
“Again.” Sam silently counted the points she held. “I thought you said you were rusty playing Canasta.”
“Guess I limbered up.” Betsy exchanged grins with Janie. “Didn’t seem to hurt you as much.”
Janie shook her head. “The way you’ve been playing, I didn’t trust you. And it looks like I was right.” She quickly totaled her cards and gave the number to Sam, who was the scorekeeper.
Sam wrote down her total, and added up the columns. “You stomped us, Betsy. Thank goodness we weren’t playing for money.” She gathered the cards and placed them in the box they came from, before yawning deeply.
“Teach you to beg for a rematch.” Betsy glanced at the kitchen clock. “Good lord, it’s almost two in the morning. Janie, hon, maybe you should bunk down here for the night. I’d hate for you to be out on the streets this late.”
“I don’t live that far away, really. I should just go home.”
The look on Betsy’s face brooked no argument. “Humor an old woman. Please stay.”
“That’s a good idea. But not on that lumpy couch. You can sleep with me,” Sam offered, before realizing how it sounded. Her face grew deep red. “Just sleep, I swear!”
Betsy laughed at her discomfort. “Don’t worry, Janie. Your virtue is safe with Miss Prude over there. I’ve never seen anyone so skitterish about sex before.”
“Betsy!” Sam covered her face. “Do we have to discuss this now?”
Sam’s embarrassment only caused the other two women to laugh louder. She got up from the table. “Yuck it up, you two. I’m going to bed.” She stopped in the doorway and winked at Janie. “Coming?”
“I’ll be right there.” Janie waited until Sam left before turning to Betsy. “Are you sure it’s all right?”
“Please! We’re all adults, here. And I know damned good and well Sam won’t do anything, especially as long as I’m around.” Betsy stood and leaned closer to Janie. “Of course, I’ll be leaving Saturday afternoon, if you catch my drift.”
Janie’s face turned beet red. “Oh, god. I can’t believe you said that.”
Betsy patted her on the back. “Calm down, woman. I only thought you’d enjoy the chance to spend some quality time together, without anyone else interfering.”
“I do, really. But are you sure you want to leave so soon?”
“I’d have left tonight, if I thought I’d have everything ready. I’m long overdue for a vacation, and I haven’t seen my friends in years.” Betsy gave her a hug. “But you two take care of each other while I’m gone, you hear? And be careful.”
Janie returned the embrace eagerly. “We will. And you be careful, too. It’s a long drive.”
“Only about eight hours. But I’ll most likely split it up into two days. Do a little sight-seeing, while I’m at it. Now go on to bed, and I’ll see you both bright and early tomorrow.”
Janie took her time heading for Sam’s bedroom. She studied the photographs that adored the hallway, picking a younger Betsy out of many of them. The one that brought an ache to her heart had to be the last picture taken of Betsy and her husband, Jack. He appeared to be several years older, but it was easy to see the happiness on both their faces. She took a deep breath and continued toward the bedroom. She stood in the door and watched as Sam searched through a dresser drawer. “Hi.”
Sam turned, holding a pair of shorts and a tee shirt in her hand. “Hey.” She waved the clothing. “Thought I’d dig up something for you to wear to bed.”
“That’s sweet of you, thanks.” Janie held out her hand for the clothes, her face warming when she realized it was a pair of Sam’s boxers. “I guess I’ll run get changed.” She quickly escaped to the bathroom.
While she waited, Sam put clean sheets on the bed and changed into her own sleepwear. The threadbare black tee shirt had faded to a charcoal gray and the cartoon boxers had been a gift from Betsy. She played with the hem of the shorts while she sat on the edge of the bed.
Janie came out of the bathroom, her face still damp from scrubbing. She stepped into the bedroom and smiled shyly at Sam. “All yours, if you want it.”
“Thanks.” Sam gestured toward the bed. “Won’t take me but a second. Pick either side, I’m flexible.” She slipped by Janie and exchanged words with Betsy in the hall, before going into the bathroom and closing the door.
Betsy peeked in the bedroom and saw Janie staring at the queen-sized bed. “You know, it’s more comfortable if you sleep on the bed,” she teased.
Janie spun around, startled. “You scared me.”
“Sorry, that wasn’t my intention.”
“I know, that’s okay. But I have no idea what I’m doing here.” Janie sat on the edge of the bed, grateful when Betsy joined her.
“Well, I bet between the two of you, you’ll figure it out soon enough.” Betsy put her arm around Janie’s shoulders. “I may have been teasing before, but it’s true. Sam will most likely take her cue from you. She doesn’t have it in her to be very aggressive. You have nothing to worry about.”
Janie leaned into her, glad for the comfort. “I’m not worried about that,” she whispered. “But what does worry me is if I’ll be what she needs. I don’t want to hurt Sam.”
The same thing had crossed Betsy’s mind. “If you’re worried about hurting her, she’s in safe hands.” She stood and touched Janie’s cheek. “I think you both are. Now get some sleep.”
The bathroom door opened, and Sam came into the bedroom. The hug she received from Betsy wasn’t unwelcome, but she did appear confused after the older woman left. She looked at Janie. “What was that all about?”
“Nothing.” Janie scooted to the opposite side of the bed and crawled under the covers.
Sam turned out the light and joined her. Within seconds, she felt Janie snuggle close. “Um, Janie?”
“Shh.” Janie put her head on Sam’s shoulder and her arm across her stomach. She kissed her on the cheek. “Goodnight, Sam.”
“Goodnight.” Sam smiled into the darkness and put her good arm around Janie’s shoulders. Sleep came quickly for them both.
To be continued in Part IV
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