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Giant candy canes twirled and gingerbread boys and girls danced around the tall evergreen, twinkling with multi-colored lights. Huge presents wrapped in sparkling paper and tied with puffy red bows littered the fluffy white covered ground. The luminescent, winter wonderland was nestled in the corner of the small indoor mall. Parents and children lined up thirty long, waiting for their turn to visit the jolly old elf. Some of the wide-eyed youngsters reviewed their lists with a parent or a sibling and some fidgeted and complained of the long wait. But one young boy was mesmerized with the toy train that zoomed in and around the big tree and festive gifts. He watched as the blue engine pulled the other cars over a little bridge and through the long tunnel. In one hand he clutched his favorite toy, a tiny stuffed bear and the other held onto his mothers coattail. His green eyes stayed glued to the racing train as the line inched forward. They would be the last visitors of the day as the closed sign was put up right behind them. His mother had told him why they were there, but he hadnt really paid attention. He was just glad they werent shopping, that was so boring.
Twenty minutes later and it would finally be their turn next. Someone ruffled his bright blonde hair and he looked up and smiled at his mother. She knelt down next to him and removed his heavy brown coat for his picture with Santa.
"Do you remember what you are going to ask for?" she asked as she straightened the collar of his green, button down shirt.
The little head bobbed. "Uh huh," he said. Then a small finger pointed to the display behind them. "I wish I could have one of those," he added in his little voice.
The woman chuckled to herself. It wasnt something he had wanted before, but after seeing his reaction to the cars clacking along the railroad tracks, she wasnt surprised. It was only twelve days until Christmas and she had already purchased all of his presents, including the one fairly expensive item, for which it had taken her months to save up. A small, bright blue bicycle with training wheels sat in the storage room of their apartment building, just waiting for the big day. Maybe I can still get him a train if we get that bonus check at work, she thought. This would be the first Christmas that he would really remember and Taylor Shafer wanted everything to be perfect for her son. Her job at the catering company just brought in enough money to keep them in their small apartment and provide food for the table. Taylor was no stranger to financial struggles. She had lived that way her whole life. She could just never seem to catch a break. But when her beautiful son came into her life, Taylor vowed to work day and night to make sure he had everything a child needed. The one thing he needed most was love and that she knew she could provide in a never-ending supply.
The blonde headed boy suddenly jumped when he heard the booming voice yell out with a string of ho, ho, hos.
"Guess its our turn." Taylor stood and started toward the red suited gentleman, but the child grabbed her and halted her movement. He then ducked behind her legs and buried his head. "Whats wrong Sweetie?" she asked. "Its just Santa. I thought you wanted to sit on his lap and tell him what you wanted for Christmas."
Taylor briefly caught the eyes of Mrs. Claus as the gift giving couple watched the scene. She bent down to talk to her distraught son. "Okay, you dont have to sit on his lap or even talk to him. But will you go over there and stand by him so I can have a picture?"
"No Mama, no! I dont want to!"
Taylor was definitely disappointed, but she certainly wasnt going to traumatize her son. She pulled him into her arms and hushed his fears. "Its okay Honey. You dont have to do it. Im sorry he scared you." She gently dried his falling tears with her long fingers.
Mrs. Clause watched with misty eyes at the tender parent and child moment. She bent over and whispered something into Santas ear and the hefty, crimson-clad man got up from his huge throne and slipped away behind the painted, wooden backdrop.
The small, plump woman with the gray bun on her head grabbed a red and green swirled sucker from the basket beside her and carefully approached the upset duo.
Taylor got a closer look at the soft, green eyes behind the tiny wire rimmed glasses perched on the button nose as the woman came near. They smiled at one another. Taylor had some idea of what she was trying to do.
The youngsters tear filled eyes looked up from his mothers shoulder when he heard the footsteps across the crunching fake snow.
"Hello," Mrs. Clause said softly, trying not to scare him any more.
Uncertain green eyes looked from the smiling stranger to his smiling mother. Finally he decided that the newcomer wasnt too bad. "Hello," he responded shyly as he was lowered to the ground.
Mrs. Clause twirled the small lollipop between her fingers asking his mother the unspoken question. Taylor nodded.
"Would you like to have this?" the gray haired woman asked.
His mouth watered at the delicious candy before him and he started to reach out for the treat, but pulled back. His head tipped way back to see his tall mothers face. "Can I Mama?" he asked.
He received permission, but was informed that it must wait until after dinner. He smiled coyly as he took the sweet and with just a tiny nudge from his mother he said, "Thank you."
"Youre welcome," said Mrs. Clause. "What is your name?"
"Its nice to meet you Travis. Youre a very big boy, what are you eighteen, nineteen?"
He giggled. "No! Im almost four," he stated proudly, holding up four little fingers.
"Four!" The woman exaggerated her words to make the child feel very important. "Wow, Ive never met anyone who was almost four years old." The woman pointed over toward the tree. "I saw you looking at that train over there. How would you like to help me play with it for a few minutes?"
The crowds of shoppers hurried all around the little wonderland, attending to their own business, paying no attention to the trio. Christmas songs from traditional Crosby to bluesy Elvis to modern Streisand flowed not so smoothly through the staticky public address system. But all the bustle dwindled down to a flutter as Taylor Shafer watched her young son laughing and playing when just minutes before tears were rolling down his red, wind chafed cheeks. But the woman behind the St. Nicks spouse disguise had quickly returned him to his carefree world. Taylors smile grew wider as Traviss eyes did the same with each new discovery he made. The tall woman suddenly remembered the camera around her neck and quickly began capturing the Kodak moments.
For another fifteen minutes, Mrs. Claus worked her magic, playing with Travis and making him laugh. Taylor thought how unusual it was. He was always so leery of strangers and while that was a very good thing for his safety, it did sometimes hamper special occasions, as with Santa earlier. But he certainly wasnt afraid now. Somehow this woman had garnered his immediate trust.
After half a dozen flashes, the red clad woman took Travis by the hand and slowly led him over to Santas chair, talking to him all the while. She yawned and stretched her arms above her head. "Boy, Im a little tired," she said. "I need to sit down for a while." She took a seat in the big cushioned chair.
Traviss mother laughed silently as her sons new playmate was nearly swallowed up by its enormous size. The child was distracted, checking out the old fashioned rocking horse that sat next to the chair. He pretended to pat its wooden nose and giggled when it began moving.
"Would you come up here and sit on my lap?" Mrs. Claus cautiously asked.
He was a boy of few words. Traviss blonde head just nodded quickly and he climbed up with just a little help. She settled him onto her lap and reached around and gave him a quick hug. She whispered in his ear. "Look at Mama and smile."
With a quick flash of light, the tall woman held out her arms for her little boy. He scrambled off the big chair and was quickly scooped up and tickled around the neck with several snorting kisses.
Mrs. Claus misted over again at the sweet display of affection. She was a sucker for a mushy moment and didnt care if the whole world knew. The small woman walked over to the giggling pair and addressed the dark haired mother. "I know it wasnt exactly what you wanted, but I hope it was alright."
"It was perfect. Thank you." They smiled and their eyes held for several long seconds.
"You know," said the shorter woman, "I was just about to go and have some dinner. Would you two join me?" The invite might have been for both of them, but her gaze never left the pretty blue eyes.
Taylor finally looked over to her son and tickled his belly. "What do you say Travis, should we have dinner with the nice lady?"
Again he just nodded his answer.
Mrs. Clause grinned at the pair. "Good. Give me a few minutes to change and Ill be right back."
Taylor watched the other shoppers scurrying about the mall with their loaded down bags, glad that most of her shopping was done. It was not a task she enjoyed. Although she loved choosing things for her son, shopping was a chore best left to others like Ben. If it were possible, the man could spend a dozen hours at the mall, run home for a quick shower and return for a dozen more. He was an enigma among men.
After just a few minutes, the former Mrs. Claus came around the corner slinging a small purse over her shoulder and adjusting the gray, wool coat draped over her arm.
Taylor looked up and was instantly captivated. Of course she had known the woman wasnt really a senior citizen, but what she didnt imagine was that under that gray wig and plump suit was someone so young or so beautiful, with her short, golden hair and dancing, green eyes.
"Okay lets go." She laughed. "I guess I should introduce myself first," she said, holding out a delicate hand. "Im Corridan Sterling. But my friends call me Cori. And I have defiantly decided that you are my new friends."
The taller woman was still struck speechless. "Oh yes Im Taylor, Taylor Shafer."
"Well," said Cori, "lets eat. Im starved."
Taylor lowered Travis to the ground and took his hand as they set off down the mall. Halfway to their destination, Cori felt a little hand slip into hers. She looked down to see the boy smiling shyly. She grinned back and gave his hand a soft squeeze. Taylor had watched the simple exchange and it nearly brought tears to her eyes. She couldnt figure out for the life of her, why she felt like crying, albeit happy tears.
Soon the hungry trio was entering the festive restaurant, a place called The Pear Tree. Although quite crowded because it was prime dinnertime, they did manage to get a small three-sided booth in the back. Taylor perused the childrens menu, picking out a meal for her son before deciding on a fish dinner for herself. She was careful to check the prices before ordering, not wanting to take advantage of her new friends generosity. Again, Taylor pondered how she could consider someone she had known such a short time and hadnt even said a dozen words to, a friend. But it was true.
Travis busied himself coloring on the paper menu that had been placed before him. Taylor watched with a smile as Cori practically devoured the plastic coated menu in her hands. Cori always had terrible time deciding which meal to order, they all looked and sounded so delicious. With a last debate, she finally decided on the sirloin smothered in mushrooms and melted Monterey Jack cheese.
They engaged in small talk as they waited for the meals to be prepared. They both discovered that they were born and had lived their whole lives in Minneapolis. Even more surprising was the fact that they had, at one time, lived just a few blocks from each other and had attended the same school for two years until Coris parents had moved again.
Taylor spoke of her estrangement with her parents, but didnt elaborate as to the reason why. She smoothed her sons fair hair. "Travis is the only family I have, except for my best friend Ben." She sighed. "Its hard being a single parent." She addressed her son. "But youre worth it, aint ya?"
He grinned and nodded, even though he didnt understand what she meant.
Cori took a sip of her coke. "I know what you mean about being a single parent," she said. "My daughter is four months old. But I am very lucky that she has two grandparents that are just crazy about her. Thats where she is tonight. They totally supported my decision to have a baby on my own. I dont know that I could have gone through with it without them."
All through the meal they continued to discover more things about one another. Their questions flowed free and easily, neither one feeling inhibited or intrusive. Cori found out that Taylor worked at a company called Exclusive Catering and Party Prep. But Taylor quickly held up a hand. "Dont let the catering part fool you though, I dont do the fancy cooking. Im more in the prep department. I set up the chairs and tables, dance floors, small stages and sound systems, tents in the summer. And sometimes I tend bar."
Cori was genuinely interested. "I bet its busy, especially this time of year?"
"Oh yeah. But thats a good thing because it allows me to get some much-needed overtime. I could have worked tonight " Taylors eyes drifted over to her son and softened. "but we needed to spend some time together."
Cori gave a small groan at herself. "And Ive intruded. Im so sorry."
The dark head snapped back. "No! Not at all! Please dont worry. Really, I thank you for what you did back there. That was very special." She paused a moment as theyre eyes held once again. The blue eyes finally broke away, a bit flustered. "And its been really nice talking to you. Outside of work I dont get much adult companionship. So, tell me about you."
The blonde spoke fondly of her career as a portrait photographer, again imparting how lucky she was to have her studio attached to her house so she could still spend plenty of time with her baby. "So what do you like to do in your spare time?" Cori asked, wanting to know much more about her new friend.
"I havent had any spare time since Travis came along. When work is slow I try to pick up part time jobs to fill in the money gap. They usually involve odd hours. Luckily I have a very reliable and flexible child care provider." Taylor twirled the ice in her nearly empty glass and frowned. "But I may be losing her soon. Her husband may be transferred. Im not sure what well do then."
An idea germinated in Coris head, but she figured it was just a little to soon to spring the idea.
Taylor leaned over and covered Travis with his coat. He had scooted down and fallen asleep on the red padded bench, his half eaten lollipop still clutched in his hand.
The smaller womans forehead wrinkled with remorse. "Ive kept you out too late, havent I?"
"No, not at all. Dont worry about him. He can sleep anywhere, anytime. I only wish I was that free to be able to do that." She lifted her glass. "To childhood," she said. Cori agreed and tipped her glass to meet Taylors. The tall woman smiled warmly. "Really though, I have had fun tonight Cori."
The blonde detected just a touch of shyness behind that smile and was greatly endeared to this womans charms. "So have I. How about we have some more fun tomorrow night? Would you like to go see a movie with me?"
"They still making those?" joked Taylor. "Truthfully, that would be nice, but I am a little short on money, especially this time of year. But thanks for asking."
"Actually I have two free passes. A customer gave them to me and its no fun to go alone. Theyve been setting on my desk at home for three weeks." She saw the blue eyes hesitate again. "I can even offer some free baby-sitting, if you would trust my parents."
Taylor really wanted to see Cori again, whether it was a romantic date or not. On that subject, she just couldnt quite make up her mind as to Coris preferences. "I would they really want to sit for a baby and a three year old?"
Cori laughed out loud. "Are you kidding? They love kids. Theyre just counting the days until Kylie is old enough to play with." Those green eyes took on a slightly more serious gaze. "They couldnt have any more children after me and I know they really missed that. I think that played just a little part in my decision to have a child at this early time in my life instead of waiting until I got married."
Taylors heart sank in her chest with Coris final words. Oh well, I can still use another good friend.
Cori brightened. "So how about it, you on for a movie tomorrow night? We can share a popcorn."
Taylor knew she couldnt resist that smile. "Okay, sounds fun."
"Great!" Coris cherubic face took on a decided childlike quality when she asked, "How about we share a dessert now? I try to be good and watch the sweets when Im alone. But since I now have a partner in crime I wont feel so bad."
Taylor just grinned and shook her head as she handed the wide-eyed woman the dessert menu.
After their little trip to chocolate heaven, Cori paid the bill and left a generous tip as Taylor picked up her son and wrangled the still sleeping child into his coat and hat. Cori laughed at the humorous predicament and lent a hand with a sleeve and a zipper.
"See, I told you he could sleep through anything." Taylor leaned the thirty pound child against her shoulder and slung her backpack over her other arm as she followed Cori out.
Taylor insisted on walking the small blonde to her car, not trusting the darkened parking lot, hoping two women with a child would be a less desirable target for any lurking hooligans.
Arriving at the green Chevy Tracker, Cori unlocked the door and slid into the drivers seat. She turned on the engine and the heat sprang to life, quickly filling the small interior. "At least let me drive you over to your car," she implored. Taylor had told her that she had to park in one of the smaller back lots.
If not for her son, she might have refused, but she walked around the front of the purring car and got in, reveling in the warmth.
In a short matter of minutes, they had arrived behind Taylors old faded out Ford. It had seen better days, but it still got her back and forth to work and thats all that mattered to her.
"Ill see you tomorrow night then Cori." Taylor hoped she would remember to remove Coris business card from the pocket of her jeans before she tossed them in the wash. After that short thought, Taylor felt a kiss placed on her cheek.
"Night Taylor. Night Travis," she whispered to the snoozing child.
Taylor was still stunned at the small gesture of affection and was once again confused as she got out of the car, climbed into hers and buckled Travis into his car seat.
With just a few sputters, the automobile gruffly roared to life as Taylor gave a short shake of her head. Adding a small sigh, she quickly decided that thats exactly what it was, just a friendly gesture of affection. She was just thanking me. For what? Taylor thought it over for just a few seconds. For walking her to her car thats it. I mean, she said she wants to get married one day. It couldnt have been anything else. Easing out of the parking spot she lamented over the fact that she had not had a date since Travis was born. Even before that, dating had not been a top priority with her. She had gone out from time to time with some very nice women during her short stay in college, but nothing ever escalated into a serious relationship. Thats it, she finally decided. She just wants a friend. She leaned to look toward the back seat. Plus, she was bewitched by my best little guy. I can certainly understand that.
Snow was piled three inches thick on the sills of the window, but the little red headed girl who sat near it was much more interested in the cocoa colored bear she had just been given. The two year old giggled and hugged the stuffed animal to her chest as the bright light flashed.
"Okay Honey, now look up here and smile." Cori clicked the shutter again then looked to the childs mother for her approval as she finished the photo set. December was one of Coris busiest months, with everybody wanting Christmas pictures of their little darlings. Young children werent the only subjects though. There were entire families some consisting of four or five older children, some multi-generational families and parents with grown children. There had even been a handful of twenty and thirty-something couples wanting a 2001 holiday remembrance.
Once Cori had finished with the necessary paperwork, the mother and child walked out of her studio hand in hand. She raised the fake, snow covered window backdrop and turned off the two bright, white lights. Cori then walked through a nearby door, which connected to her house, to check on her own little girl. Her next appointment wasnt for half an hour and she intended to spend every minute of that time with Kylie, even if it was just to rock her or tell her a story.
Fifteen minutes later, just as Cori quietly closed the door to her daughters room the phone rang. She grabbed the small cell clipped to her belt. "Hello."
"Hello, its Taylor Shafer."
"Of course it is," Cori said cheerfully. "I recognized your voice right away."
"Oh well I didnt want to bother you, I just thought Id see if you still wanted to go to that movie tonight."
Cori stepped into her kitchen and grabbed a small bottle of juice from the fridge. "Absolutely!" she answered. "Ive been looking forward to it all day."
"Me too," the dark haired woman admitted, almost shyly.
"The movie starts at seven, could you be here about six?"
"Sure. I get off at five today. Thats plenty of time to stop by my place, get changed and pick up Travis." Taylor hesitated before asking again. "Cori, are you sure your parents wont mind watching him tonight?"
The photographer did a quick glance at the clock on the wall as she spoke. "Taylor, believe me they are thrilled with the idea, especially Dad. He cant wait to play your son. Theyre all going to have fun."
Taylor was spurred on by the unbridled enthusiasm in the voice on the phone. "Okay! I guess Ill see you tonight. Bye."
Cori grinned at the thought of her timid new friend. "Bye."
* * * *
Taylor reached in to unbuckle the car seat. "Are you going to be good for Mr. And Mrs. Sterling tonight?" she asked the three year old.
"Yes Mama," Travis said as his booted feet hit the ground.
Taylor tugged his black, knit hat down over his ears and raised the zipper to his chin. "Good boy," she praised and took his hand. They hurried up the long walkway wanting to get out of the cold, but still took time to enjoy the holiday lights twinkling along the rooftop and the waving Santa greeting them from the front window. The charming two-story house was modest in size and covered in tan and brown stonework with dark shutters flanking each big window. A large screened in porch waited for their entrance with several electric candles flickering along the ledges, brightening the evening dim.
Travis hopped up the three big steps. "Mama," he said.
Taylor knocked on the door below the green wreath that hung there. "What Honey?"
"Who are Mist and Mist Sterwing?"
Taylor opened her mouth to answer just as the door opened. Her lips remained agape as she took in the vision standing there.
Cori was backlit by a blinking Christmas tree and the glow of a fire, but her snug fitting black jeans, red turtleneck and black suede vest were clearly seen by the very interested blue eyes.
Taylors jaw snapped shut audibly as she was afraid to be caught staring, but knowing that it was already too late. "I ah " Her stuttering didnt lend itself to hiding her embarrassment either.
The petite woman bit back a silly grin in favor of a sweet half smile.
"Hi Cori," said Travis, unintentionally deflecting the attention from his mother.
The blonde grinned openly at the wide-eyed boy. "Hi Sweetheart. Come on in."
Travis took the invitation to heart and barreled right in, dragging his mother behind him. They stepped into a beautifully decorated room with a blue patterned sofa and matching loveseat perched in front of the stone fireplace. A tall entertainment center sat against the far wall, holding a large television and a stereo system. A smaller cabinet nearby held dozens of videos and music CDs. Cori was somewhat of a movie buff and she owned many black and white classics as well as modern blockbusters.
Cori dropped to the childs level when an older couple entered the living room. "Travis," she said, "this is my Mom and Dad. Theyre going to take care of you tonight."
"Hello Travis," said the slender, brown haired man. "Are you ready to have some fun?"
The boy nodded enthusiastically as Cori made further introductions. "Taylor this is my mother Barbara and my father Ken. Known to their friends as Ken and Barbie," she teased.
Barbara grimaced playfully. "Not to the friends who still want to remain on our Christmas list."
Cori stepped from the room letting her parents take over the hosting.
Taylor pulled off her thin glove before extending her hand to the older, but otherwise carbon copy of Cori. "Hello Mrs. Sterling. Thank you for looking after my son tonight."
"Its our pleasure Taylor. Please call me Barbara."
The tall woman held out a couple of small, brightly illustrated boxes. "Heres a couple of his favorite videos if he gets bored. Hes very well behaved, you shouldnt have any problems."
"Im sure we wont dear. Hes adorable by the way."
"Thank you." Taylor watched with a grin as Travis was already on the floor playing with Mr. Sterling. There were a dozen or so large, white dominoes with colored dots scattered about the gray carpet and she could here Coris father explaining the games instructions to her son. The blonde headed boy nodded as he listened with rapt attention to the gentle voice.
Cori walked in just a few seconds later with a yawning bundle in her arms. "And this is Kylie Marie," she stated proudly.
Taylor moved forward to get a good look at the baby who was dressed in a lavender one-piece pajama. She had to smile as the big blue, green eyes drifted toward the sound of her voice and a little fist flailed in her direction. "Cori, shes beautiful. She looks just like you." Taylor squirmed at the realization of what she just said, but she didnt let her face reflect her discomfort. "Travis, come over for a minute."
Cori sat on the sofa as the little feet scurried over.
"Look at the little baby." His mother instructed.
The child had a baby doll at home, but this was his first encounter with a real live infant. He looked at the unmoving object quizzically until Kylie twisted in her mothers grasp and squeaked. Travis smiled gleefully and looked up at his mother. "Mama, the baby moved!"
The whole group laughed at the wonderment in his voice. Taylor nuzzled her sons head. "Yeah Honey. Shes not like your baby at home. Shes real. You were that little just a few years ago."
Travis gave her another silly look before asking cautiously, "Can I touch her?"
Taylor deferred to Cori for an answer. "Sure you can Sweetie."
"Just be very gentle," Taylor added.
Very slowly he reached out and stroked the back of her tiny hand as the adults smiled fondly. It was very obvious that they all loved little ones.
"Shes soft," he observed. "And warm."
Cori was falling madly in love with this incredible little fellow as she watched him interact with her daughter. She gently took his hand. "Here watch this." Cori held his forefinger close to Kylies hand and as expected she took hold. She also chose that moment to smile for the first time since her appearance.
Travis nearly exploded with joy. "Mama, shes holding my finger! She likes me!"
Taylor was on the verge of tears wishing, shed had a camera. "Of course she does Honey." She looked up just in time to see Mr. Sterling lower the camcorder from his face. The precious moment had been preserved and she sent him a silent thank you.
"I guess we should go if we want to make the movie on time," said Taylor as she eased her sons finger from the babys grasp. She gave Travis one last hug. "Bye, Sweetheart. Have fun."
Cori handed the baby to her Mom, slipped on her heavy, wool coat and followed her new friend out to the car. A blast of cold wind hit her as they neared the sidewalk, which was covered in thin layer of mushy, white flakes. "Brrrr." She shivered and buried her face in the back of Taylors coat as the taller woman bent over to unlock the car. "Sometimes I really wish I lived in Florida," Cori said through chattering teeth.
The small body that clung to Taylors back felt amazingly comfortable. She had a quick flash of lying in front of a roaring fire with the naked flesh of that small, but curvaceous body spooned up against her equally naked flesh. Damn, I feel like some hormonal teenager, she thought silently. Ive never felt like this before. Why now? Why with her? "Yeah, but the cold has its advantages sometime," she mumbled, but failed to elaborate further as Cori slid into the seat. Taylor rounded the front of the car, sighing at what could never be.
* * * *
Thankfully, the concession line at the theater was short and they quickly took their large bucket of popcorn and made it to their seats just as the coming previews flashed across the huge, white screen. Taylor removed her coat and laid it in the empty seat next to her, suddenly remembering something. She fished around in the garments deep pocket and came out with two small, wrapped bundles. She leaned toward the blonde head. "Here, I got something for you." She handed over the tidbits. "To go with your popcorn."
Even in the dimmed room, Cori caught sight of the silver wrapped chocolates. "Oh wow! I love these. Thanks."
"I pilfered them from work," whispered the dark haired woman. "Someone brought in a big bowl of candy and I saved the last of these for you. Theyre one of my favorites." Taylor smiled. "Glad I made the right choice." Cori offered to share those too, but Taylor declined. She just enjoyed the sight of her friend savoring the sweet treats.
All through the movie they laughed at the hilarity on the screen as they munched on the buttery kernels. At one point, out of the corner of her eye, Taylor saw Cori forgo her napkin and lick the extra slippery substance from her fingers. Taylor squirmed in her seat and groaned internally at the unintentional torture.
Cori dumped the empty container into the proper trash receptacle on their way out of the multi-plex. She pulled her coat tight again as they hit the chilled air. "How about getting something warm to drink?" she asked as they approached the car. "I know of great place to go."
The hour was still fairly early and Taylor decided to take advantage of the night out since it might be her last for some time. And she was dreading having to depart from the lovely company. "Sure. Sounds like it will hit the spot. Where to?"
Taylor recognized the address and in just five minutes or so they were pulling into the parking lot of a place called Izzies Palace. Cori led their way into the subtly designed establishment, where a fully decorated tree greeted them with holiday cheer. The blonde settled her coat onto the brass coat tree and Taylor did the same.
"Cori," shouted a stout woman with an auburn crew cut, who stood behind the padded bar. "Long time no see."
The photographer made her way over to greet the woman. "Hi Bobbi," she said as a hug was bestowed on her.
"How is that cute kid of yours?" Bobbi asked.
"Getting cuter everyday, if do say so myself. This is my friend Taylor."
Bobbi stuck out a friendly hand. "Isabella Roberta Watkins. But Cori can tell you that nobody dares call me anything but Bobbi. Welcome. Any friend of Coris is bound to become a regular customer."
Taylor laughed at the unusual greeting. "Thank you Bobbi."
Cori chucked the woman with an elbow. "Cant say that anymore Bobbi." She smiled up at the tall woman by her side. "But perhaps you might be seeing me in here now and again."
The red headed woman slipped back behind the bar and brushed a white towel across the highly polished surface. "Let me know what youd like and Ill bring it over to you."
Cori debated just a second. "Herbal tea I think." Coffee was Taylors choice.
"Comin right up," said Bobbi as the duo headed off for a corner table.
"I need the ladies," Cori said, leaving Taylor to study the room.
Lit candles adorned every one of the dozen or so tables, giving off the scents of vanilla and cinnamon. The soft carpet felt odd beneath her feet, knowing that she was in a bar. She had been in a few of the liquor selling establishments during her time in college, but none nearly as nice as this. Delightful art prints hung along the walls along with frosted mirrors and more mood lighting in the form of wall sconces. The room was rather quiet except for the soothing Christmas tunes coming from the wall mounted speakers and the far away chatter of the other nine patrons, whom she suddenly realized were all women. A dark, sculpted eyebrow slowly lifted to the raven hairline.
With a smile, Bobbi delivered the hot beverages and fresh cream. "Let me know if you need anything else," she said with a ghostly wink.
Cori arrived just a second later. She rubbed her hands together expectantly. "Ooh that smells good." Taking her seat, she noticed Taylor seemed kind of distant as she stirred the sugar into her coffee. "Is something wrong Taylor?"
There were a few more clanky stirs before she responded. "This, ah " She nodded to the rest of the room. " this place is a ?"
"Gay bar." Cori finished the thought, then frowned sadly. "Does it make you uncomfortable to be here Taylor? I thought you knew I was "
The dark haired woman gave a small, lopsided grin as she continued to stare at the table. Inside she was thrilled and a big lump of happiness chased around her system, renewing the havoc on her hormones. "No, Im not uncomfortable," she confirmed quietly. Taylor finally looked up into the sea green eyes and her smile widened. "Im very glad." She shrugged a shoulder. "I was just I was getting mixed signals."
Cori blushed. "Oh. Here I thought I was being too over bearing."
They both laughed softly and Taylor reached over to take the smaller hand in hers. She rubbed her thumb over the soft skin and watched the flickering flame dance in those emerald eyes. "Im very, very glad," she reiterated.
They spent the next few minutes quietly sipping their soothing drinks and just taking in the new aspect of their blossoming relationship.
"So tell me, whats the story of you and this place?" asked Taylor.
"Not much of a story really. I used to hang around here quite a bit during my later college years." She went on to tell how she studied journalism intending to become a photojournalist. But as graduation neared, the thought of running around the world didnt appeal to her much anymore. Instead she took a job at a large photography studio. "After a couple of years photographing all those babies my maternal instincts kicked into high gear. I knew being a single parent would be a challenge, but I had no prospects at a lasting relationship." Cori gave a twisted facial expression to back up her point. "I would have had to work twice as hard to raise a child alone and I didnt want to be just a part time parent. So I resigned myself to wait, but that didnt stop the ache to hold a child in my arms. Things changed two years ago. I came into a modest inheritance from my grandfather. Im not rich by any means, but it did allow me open my own studio at home and not have a lot of financial worries. I got pregnant after the second try and the rest is history."
Taylor was mesmerized by the beautiful blondes voice. So much so that she didnt even realize when it had stopped. But the next, slightly gruff, voice caused her to jump.
"Can I get you ladies a refill? Sorry, didnt mean to startle you."
"Thats okay. I was " Taylor winked at Cori. " involved."
Bobbi gave a knowing grin, happy for her old friend. "I see. Have a good night ladies."
"Bobbi," Cori said before the owner got away. "Can we have one of the apple cream cheese dumplings and two spoons?"
"You got it."
Cori turned back to her new friend and took a sip of her refreshed tea. "So now its your turn. Whats the tale of Taylor Shafer? What is your middle name by the way? I want to know everything about you."
"Ann. And like my middle name the rest is rather boring."
"Mine was boring too, but I still want to know. I mean if you want to tell me."
Taylor had smiled again like she had been doing since they arrived. She was sure she was the epitome of the grinning fool. But she didnt care. She was a happy fool. Shed spent so much energy on what Travis needed that she had unselfishly neglected her own needs. She was lonely very lonely, but until now she had never realized it. Even if she had, there was never time. Again, even if there was, she wasnt sure if she would have actively sought out a possible partner. It just wasnt a priority. But meeting Cori had been so right. And being with Cori was incredibly comfortable. In an imperfect world, at the moment everything in her world seemed perfect. And she was going to savor it for as long as it would last.
"I want to tell you," Taylor said. "Everything up until college was pretty typical. Everything after that is not, but still not that interesting. Anyway, my parents had no money to send me to school and I didnt have any scholarships and didnt qualify for any loans. So even at eighteen I decided to stay living at home and get a full time job so I could save up and go to college part time and work part time after a couple of years. I got the job at the catering place and that worked out pretty well. I started college at twenty- two, studying computers. I got good grades and everything went well for more than a year." She paused, considering how to proceed. "I guess I should go back and tell you about Ben. Weve been friends since high school. He was kind of an outcast because he made no secret that he was gay and so we sort of clicked. Hes a struggling artist, but his time will come because he is extremely talented." Taylor took a long sip of her cooling coffee as the desert arrived. She studied it carefully. "That looks interesting," she commented. The rolled up pastry was stuffed with a cream cheese, a baked apple filling and dusted with a cinnamon sugar coating. Beside that sat two huge scoops of vanilla ice cream and all were drizzled in caramel. One bite sent her taste buds soaring into rapturous space.
Together, they made quick work of the delicious confection. "Were getting pretty good at this sharing thing huh?" said Cori.
"Its easy to share with someone special. Okay where was I?"
"Oh yeah. Although Ben was pretty sure he was gay, he toyed with the idea of exploring his sexuality. He met this pretty blonde several years ago and decided that he was attracted to her. He was totally honest with her and they started seeing one another. But after a month they both mutually decided that the relationship just wasnt right for either of them. About a month after they stopped seeing one another she came to him and told him she was pregnant, even though they had taken all the necessary precautions. She knew abortion wasnt right for her, but she didnt want to be a mother either; she wanted a career. She decided to give the baby up for adoption. One day I went to Bens apartment and found him crying. I had never, in all the years Id know him, seen him cry. Not when he was ostracized or beaten up never. He told me that he already loved the child that he hadnt even seen yet. He wanted so much to be a part of its life, but he wasnt in any position to be a parent either."
Cori watched Taylors saddened eyes as she told the heart-wrenching story. She jumped ahead anticipating what her friend was about to say.
"I had always loved children and hoped to one day have them. So I asked them if I could adopt the child. I was adopted so I didnt have to think to hard about it. I just knew this situation had presented itself to me for a reason." She finally smiled. "It was a good arrangement. Travis loves his uncle Ben and they spend a lot of time together." Taylor took a deep breath. "I dropped out of college and went back to a full time job, using the rest of the money I had saved for the adoption fees. Ben helps out financially whenever he can. We live in a two-bedroom apartment and I work nine hours a day. But I have never, for even a second, regretted that decision. My son is the most important thing in my life."
Cori took hold of Taylors hand. "I think thats a very extraordinary story. And I think you are a very special person."
* * * *
Taylor and Cori walked hand in hand up the walk of Coris house. They stepped into the screened in porch out of the biting wind, which had escalated. Cori hugged the taller woman and snuggled into the fur around her coats collar, noticing the many worn through spots. Taylor always sacrificed when it came to her son. During the last winter, she had bought the best, warmest coat she could find for Travis, while she purchased hers at a second hand store.
"I really like spending time with you Taylor." Cori pulled away and smiled up at the six-foot woman. "I really like you."
"The feeling is very mutual. I know this is happening really fast, but "
"You are becoming really important to me. I just thank you for coming into our lives."
They closed the distance between them. Cori whispered Taylors earlier sentiments. "The feeling is very mutual." Their lips met gently and they shared one slow, but loving kiss and then a few more brief, but sweet kisses. They both still tasted of cinnamon and apples. Their insides warmed considerably, making the air around them like a summer day as they parted and hugged again.
Cori and Taylor stepped into the darkened living room to find her parents cuddled together on the couch, snoozing in front of the television. Taylor whispered into the nearby ear. "Now thats cute."
The dark-haired woman gathered her sleeping son from his spot on the love seat. Much the same as the night before, she wrestled him into his coat and gloves while he snored away. Cori met her at the door and they had another quick kiss. Taylor immediately looked over her friends shoulder for the parents.
Cori giggled softly. "Its okay, they know."
Taylor breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. Ill call you tomorrow. Goodnight."
"Goodnight." The small blonde turned to find the older couple smiling at her.
"She seems very nice Dear. Its good to see you happy."
"I am happy Mom." Cori continued her thoughts privately. I dont know what it is about her, but I feel a connection to her like no one Ive ever known before. Shes something special and were going to build something special. Its right this time. I know it.
More to come.