By Fritz


The main characters in this story may seem familiar (OK, will seem familiar), but no copyright infringement was intended as to characters owned by anyone else. This was written with no expectation of profit. However, the story ideas and other characters are my own and cannot be used without permission.

Violence disclaimer: Only one little bit.

Hurt/angst disclaimer: This one could be a rough ride for the more sensitive types, so you are warned.

Language disclaimer: A few naughty words here and there - blame my mother, she taught 'em all to me.

Location disclaimer: The settings for this story are fictional, and any resemblances to actual locations are coincidental.

Sex disclaimer: Yep, there'll be some of that (how many of you would hit the back button if I said there wouldn't be?), and it will be the kind we love, consenting, between two adult people of the same gender. So if you find that offensive (what are you still doing here?) or it's illegal where you live, then don't stay here. The descriptions will not be graphic. It's not that my imagination isn't good (believe me, it's the only action I'm getting), but my ability to translate that imagination into written words is not so good. Besides, what if my mother finds out about this and reads it?

I'm very sensitive about criticism, but I won't know if this whole thing worked unless someone tells me, so I can be reached at

Finally, I want to dedicate this to the gifted bards of the Xenaverse, whose works I have spent the last few years enjoying. Without even knowing it, you have all encouraged me to express myself in a way I've always wanted to, but never had the courage to do.



It was mid-October, a time of year when the weather could be warm or cold, depending upon Mother Nature's mood. Today, or rather tonight, it was downright cold, and Erin pulled her thick wool cardigan around her chilled body as she stepped out onto the porch. The sun had long since set, and the sounds of night surrounded the house.

She looked out over the yard which was illuminated only by the lights on the outside of the house, one on either side of the door, and the floodlight on one corner that her brother insisted stay on all night long. "To keep burglars away," he had said, imagining nefarious characters lurking just beyond the safety of the light's glow. She had smiled at his suspicions (if not paranoia) and let him have his way. That was what running a business with your brother was all about: sometimes she got what she wanted and sometimes he got what he wanted. Differences of opinion inevitably arose between the equal partners. Perhaps it was the fact that they shared the same genes, the same blond, green-eyed looks, or the same upbringing, but each of them knew when an issue was crucial enough to the other to warrant backing down, thereby preventing a difference of opinion from becoming a nasty argument.

Their parents had owned and run the bed and breakfast first, and Erin Forester and her older brother Jack had worked in every facet of the operation, from cooking to maintenance to reservations to cleaning. When their mother died several years ago, there was no question that the two of them would continue with the place. The tourist crowd came to the small town of Blanchard's Ferry, where the Forest Inn was located, for several reasons. Chief among them was the large state park located just outside of town, offering hiking, camping and other such amenities. The town also benefitted from being a few hours' drive from several metropolitan areas, and people liked getting just that far away from the busy hustle of city life to enjoy time spent in the quiet and serene country atmosphere.

One of Erin's favorite pastimes was trying to figure out her guests. She was not an actively nosy person; asking a guest too many probing questions was sure to prevent repeat business. Her quests were passive ones - take the clues offered by the people themselves, their attitudes and words, and determine why they were where they were. With some guests, her imagination knew no bounds, and she enjoyed coming up with complete descriptions of their lives away from this place, families, friends and the like. On some level, she acknowledged that this was to brighten her own existence. She would not trade the quiet life she had for another, but, at times, in her heart of hearts, she yearned for something. . . something indefinable, and, seemingly, unattainable.

Her thoughts turned as her head did to the guest sitting out on the porch on this cold night. The woman was a regular at the inn, although Erin would not voice that label to her guest. This was the most challenging contestant in Erin's 'Figure Out the Guest' game. At first glance, her most striking feature was her height, at least six feet, evidenced now by the long legs stretched out, her boots resting against the top rail of the porch. Those legs and the rest of her body were lean, not overly muscled, but toned, as would befit someone who spent a good deal of her time hiking. Her first stay at the inn had been nearly two years ago, and Erin remembered the day clearly. As she walked into the front door, Erin, like most people, had first noticed the woman's height and long dark hair. However, as she rose to greet her new guest, Erin was faced with pale, blue eyes, almost ice cold in both hue and mood. The image of those eyes stayed with her for a long time. Now, she wished for daytime, as her guest turned towards Erin, if only to get one more glimpse of her eyes.

"Hey, Erin, how are you?" The woman pulled her legs back and moved to stand.

"Don't get up, Sawyer. You look far too comfortable out here, despite the weather."

"Yeah, I guess it's a bit cold," Sawyer said, as she shoved her hands back into the pockets of her jacket. "But you know how I love to sit out here at night."

True enough, Erin mused. Sawyer's visits were set to a structured time table, in both how often she came and what she did. Erin knew that about every six weeks, she could expect a call from Sawyer making a reservation. The woman would drive to Blanchard's Ferry on Friday evenings, usually arriving between 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. After check-in, she would settle in her room, always preferring Number 5 if it was available (and Erin did her best to make sure it was available, knowing her guest's preference). Early on Saturday morning, she was one of the first guests at breakfast, eating heartily to store up the energy she would expend during the day. Then, she would pack a lunch and other essentials and spend the rest of the day on one or the other of the preset hiking trails through the forests of the park. At night, after a solitary dinner at one of the restaurants in town, Sawyer invariably ended her day with an evening of quiet contemplation on the front porch. The process was repeated on Sunday, with the change of a morning hike rather than an all day one. She left early Sunday afternoon for the drive back to the city of Corinth. Erin convinced herself that the motivation for knowing the details of Sawyer's schedule was to be the best host she could be.

"Sorry I wasn't here yesterday to check you in," Erin said as she sat in the chair next to Sawyer's. Her brother made a point of telling Erin of the guest's reaction to being greeted by the older, not the younger, Forester sibling.

"I'm telling you, Erin, she was upset, real quiet, when I told her you weren't here," Jack said as they sat down to dinner earlier that evening.

"I think you're imaging things," Erin replied. "I can't imagine her being upset about that, or being rude."

"She wasn't rude, just disappointed. She bounced back when I said you'd be here today."

Erin worried that her brother, her very insightful brother, had read things in her comments and attitude towards this particular guest she would rather he did not know, or, God forbid, things that might lead him to play matchmaker. She looked him squarely in the eyes, finding only compassion and love reflected back at her.

"Well, maybe I'll see what's what later tonight."

It was that conversation which prompted her unusual trip to the front porch on this night. She was brought back to the present when she realized that Sawyer was responding to her statement.

"Jack said you had some things to do in Corinth."

"A travel agent I know has come up with the brilliant idea of selling package trips to our little slice of paradise here. She set up a sort of seminar with prospective customers, giving them information on the park, hikes, camping trips and what not. I went in last night to talk to her, spent the night and then went to the seminar this morning and, of course, expounded on the marvelous establishment we have here."

"I should have gone to provide a first person testimonial," Sawyer said.

"You probably would have done better than I did. I'm not very good talking with people I don't know."

"I'm sure you won all of them over. I predict reservations will go through the roof. Did it go well?"

Erin smiled at the compliment. "There were probably about twenty people there. The agent felt there was some interest, so we'll see."

"I'm surprised. It seems that you and Jack do a pretty steady business here. Do you need to do this type of thing?"

"We do alright," Erin said. "I guess there's just the fear the business we have might find someplace else to go. It's best to make sure the fish keep breeding in your pond."

"That's an interesting way to put it. Always best to plan ahead, you're right. I can promise you, though, this customer won't be going anywhere else anytime soon. I'm thinking I might even visit more often."

Erin was surprised at both the tone and content of her guest's words. Normally, Sawyer was reservedly friendly, if that's a proper term to use, Erin thought. Their interaction to date had been brief conversations at check-in and check-out and quick hellos over breakfasts in the dining room. While Sawyer was never rude, and usually quite complimentary of the services provided at the inn, such comments always came in response to questions of "How was everything?" and were never freely offered. Any further questions beyond that one were politely brushed off. Erin felt that there was a shift in Sawyer's mood tonight, and she was bound and determined to enjoy it, especially the idea of visiting more often.

"You've never said, but I imagine there are other places you go to hike?"

Sawyer put her feet back up on the porch rail, seeming to settle in for the talk. "There are a few other spots I've tried, but the hikes here are the ones I enjoy the most. Maybe I'm just boring, but I even like doing the same ones over again. The scenery changes, from spring to summer to fall, even into winter, if it's not too cold, and even from year to year. So I don't feel like it's the same walk over and over again."

OK, Erin thought, that's more information in one statement than she's given up in the entire time I've known her. I want to keep this going, but if I push, she could close off again. She tried to keep her tone light. "What is it about here that so appeals to you?"

"I suppose it's the woods. I grew up on the Gulf Coast, all beaches, sand and surf. Flat land as far as you could see, with little shade from the sun. So, when I finally discovered forests, where a whole bunch of trees lived together, I was hooked."

Erin laughed. "Never saw trees before, huh?"

"Well, not where so many of them were together. Now, I can't stand going to the beach."

A cool breeze blew over the porch, and Erin shivered. Sawyer sat upright at the movement and said, "It's cold out here, I didn't mean to keep you out in it."

"Yes, it is cold, but I'd love to continue the conversation inside. How about some hot chocolate to end your day? I've got an in with the owners, and I know where the best stuff is stashed."

Sawyer turned her head to look over the yard, and Erin was afraid she had pushed the other woman too far. After an interminable wait, Sawyer glanced back with a slight grin on her face.

"Sure, that sounds good."

The two women went into the house, heading for the kitchen. Erin set up the milk and chocolate, refusing Sawyer's offer of help. Once the hot chocolate was poured into mugs, Sawyer pulled a chair out from the table in order to sit down, but was interrupted by Erin.

"Listen, it's a lot more comfortable in the back than in those old kitchen chairs. Come on."

Erin boldly moved toward a closed door at the back of the kitchen, opening it and going through. She entered a hallway, and, as she reached another doorway, she heard Sawyer speak and knew she was following.

"I've never been back here before."

"Guests don't usually come back here. Jack and I added on to this section several years ago. His room is down there," Erin said, pointing towards a closed door at the end of the hall.

"You grew up here, right?" Sawyer asked, as the blonde opened her door and entered. Erin was a bit nervous, given the company and the pride she took in the one area that was truly her own. The room was large, as it served as her bedroom, living room, study and various other uses. The decor was subtle, with delicate fabrics and light colors. A full sized bed with an oak headboard was up against one wall, and two oak chests sat against perpendicular walls. The other side of the room held an oak desk, complete with computer system, as well as a love seat and two chairs. Erin sat on the love seat and indicated her guest should sit in the arm chair.

"Yes, my parents bought this place before I was born," Erin said. Her nervousness manifested itself in a compulsion to tell the family story. "My parents married late in life. Dad was already in his 50s and Mom was in her mid-30s. They tried to have kids for a few years, then had given up. By that time, Dad had retired. Mom had some family that had lived in Blanchard's Ferry many years back, and they moved here with the idea of settling down. But once they were here, Dad saw this place was for sale. I think he was finding retirement a little boring, if you ask me. So they bought it, fixed it up and ran it. The new life must have agreed with them, because Mom found out she was pregnant with Jack within just a few months. Then, before he was six months old, they learned I was on the way."

"Amazing, from quiet retirement to two kids about a year apart."

"They were both up to it. And Jack and I were expected to pull our weight from early on. My earliest memories are cleaning bathrooms and changing sheets."

"It sounds as if there were violations of child labor laws here."

Erin was pleased that her life story was not boring the woman or forcing her to flee the room. "No, I know we don't fit the mold of most other children and teenagers, but Jack and I always loved working here. And it was just something that had to be done." Her voice trailed off on this last statement. Her guest seemed to realize the need for a breath and said nothing, waiting for Erin to continue.

"As I said, Dad was already retired when they moved here. One of the reasons for early retirement was his health, specifically his heart. God knows, he gave this place and his family everything he could over the years, but, there was only so much he could give. His heart finally gave out, and he died when I was seven years old."

"I'm so sorry, Erin."

The words were spoken so sincerely, so sweetly, that Erin had to smile. "Thanks, but it was a long time ago. And I like to think about the good times that we had. Jack says Dad waited so long to have kids that he just overflowed with love for us when we finally got here. He never had a harsh word for us, always told us he loved us and was proud of us. Although we had a short time with him, the time was full and rich."

"That's a great way to look at it."

"So, then it was Mom and Jack and I running the place. This back part of the house was really no more than two small bedrooms and a bathroom. As Jack and I got older, it was increasingly difficult to share a room. Teenage boys, even teenage boys you love, can be a pain in the ass. We just kept getting on each other's nerves for the littlest things. After one particularly dreadful fight in front of a couple of guests, Mom told us we had to work it out or sleep outside. Given that it was raining at the time, Jack and I worked it out. We came up with the plan for this addition, keeping the bedroom that Mom had and adding two more and another bathroom. We made our rooms a little larger, realizing it could and should be more than just a bedroom. Once we each had our own space, the conflict disappeared."

"Your room is beautiful, a very comfortable space. So it's just Jack and you now?"

"Yes, my mother died about five years ago. She was determined that we both go to college, see the rest of the world, so to speak, so we did. But after school, Jack came back here, and I did the same. It just seemed the right thing to do. We have a couple of part-timers who help out with cooking, cleaning and the rest during our busy times."

"And you live here all year round? Don't you ever go anywhere else?"

"No, we close up for a couple of weeks in February, when business has always been slowest. Jack usually takes a trip then, but I stay here, take care of various things. This year, I'm planning on redoing a couple of the rooms, including yours."

"Hey, don't change it much, I like it the way it is."

"Maybe I'll have to get some input from you before I make any decisions."

"What about Christmas and other holidays? Do you stay here then?"

"We are open on Christmas, I'll have you know. Just after Mom died, I took a call from a woman who lives in Corinth. She and her husband had just lost their only child and were trying to find a new and quiet place to spend Christmas. I told her we normally closed that week, but her story just got to me, you know? So they came down here for a few days, and Jack and I celebrated Christmas with them. They were a little younger than Mom had been, and their son, the one who died, had been my age. It just clicked, I guess. They were having their first Christmas without their son, and we were having our first without our mother. We helped each other through. It meant the world to me when she called after they had gone home and said they wanted to make this an annual tradition. So we always spend Christmas here with the Christiansons."

Erin glanced over to Sawyer. The look of desolation on the other woman's face took her breath away. Well, I think you've depressed her enough, she thought.

"Hey, here I am rattling off the story of my life, and I'm only keeping you awake. I always say that if your life really does flash before your eyes when you think you're dying, then I'm sure to go from sheer boredom."

Sawyer laughed, a rich, hearty sound to Erin's ears. "No, I think it makes for a great story. One of those 'life gives you the good to go with the bad and everything balances out' type of things."

"So," Erin said, thinking this perfect segue to learning more about her guest, "what do you normally do for Christmas?"

Sawyer placed her cup on a side table, keeping her glance away from her host. "I usually just work, nothing special."

Whoops, not a good topic to pick, Erin. Afraid of losing their tenuous connection, she switched to what she hoped was a safer topic. "What do you do for a living anyway?

Sawyer turned her face back towards Erin. "I'm a lawyer. I do mostly estate work, you know, wills and such. I'm with a mid-sized firm in the city."

"Do you like it?"

"It's very cut and dried, very 9 to 5. Every now and then, something will come up to challenge me, a question on interpreting a will or the like. But it's basically the same thing day in and day out. I guess that sounds boring, but I like it."

"Earns you enough to enjoy the rest of life, huh?"

Sawyer smiled at the other woman's insight. "You got it."

"Can I ask you a question?"

"I don't do a lot of trial work, so maybe I'm out of practice, but haven't you been asking questions?"

"Good point," Erin said. She hesitated, fearful of the reaction her planned question would have.

Sawyer sensed the hesitation. "Sorry, you can go ahead."

Erin formed her thoughts into the best possible question she could. "I've noticed you always come here by yourself. Is there any . . . I mean, is there a reason for that?"

A look passed over Sawyer's face. If called to task, Erin would have to label the look as pure resignation. Then, Sawyer abruptly stood from the chair.

"Yes, there's a reason, but I don't feel like going into it." She glanced quickly at her watch. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize how late it was. I need to get some rest for my hike tomorrow."

"Of course, I'm sorry to have kept you up," Erin said as she rose from the couch.

"No problem, I'll see myself out." Sawyer walked to the door and hesitated with her hand on the knob.

Erin took a chance and said, "I'm sorry, Sawyer."

Sawyer never looked back, opening and walking through the door, mumbling, "Good night, Erin."

After the door closed, Erin slumped back down onto the couch. "Good one, Forester," she said. "You really know how to charm them. Whatever happened to not prying into the affairs of the guests?"

She rubbed her face in frustration, realizing just how ironic it was that she used the word 'affair' in the same thought with this particular guest.

* * * * * * *

The next morning, Erin woke up earlier than usual, her thoughts swirling around the time spent with Sawyer. Those thoughts were mainly ones of frustration, feeling she had made a dent in getting to know the other woman, but had pushed too hard to get there, taken one step forward, but fallen two steps back. More like twenty steps back, she thought ruefully.

Stepping into the kitchen, she realized that she had several minutes before the guests would be in the dining room expecting breakfast. With a few rare moments to herself, she started the coffee brewing, snagging a cup for herself before the cycle was complete. She sat at the kitchen table, still contemplating the previous night.

She heard someone walking through the dining room and looked up to the door, expecting her brother to walk through. Instead, as the door swung open, she saw Sawyer.

She felt a moment of anxiety, her imagination quickly forming the worst scenarios for this situation. She's leaving early, she's going to tell me she's not coming back, she can't stay at a place with a nosy owner, she's telling all her friends to avoid the place, and the worst of all, I'm never going to see her again.

As Sawyer moved into the room, and the worst thoughts finished spinning in Erin's mind, she noticed the expression on the other woman's face was not one of anger or loathing. It was, rather, one of contriteness.

"Can I talk to you?"

Erin was too stunned to answer the question verbally and motioned to one of the chairs, indicating that the woman should sit down. Sawyer did so.

"I usually pride myself on being an adult, and I wasn't last night. I was a complete jerk for acting the way I did, and I'm really sorry."

Erin was surprised at the comment, but realized a response was required. "No, no, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pried."

Sawyer gave her a warm smile. "You always do that, I bet. Take the blame when it's the other person's fault. Just trust me here, I acted like an ass, and I'm apologizing. Just nod or in some other way indicate your acceptance of the apology, if you're willing to accept it."

Erin felt she could not handle too many more shocks this early in the morning. Usually, it annoyed her when someone showed insight into her character, but from Sawyer it felt somewhat comforting. Unsure of her ability to speak without embarrassing herself, she nodded.

"Thanks," Sawyer said.

Erin's instincts as a host finally kicked in and she offered Sawyer a cup of coffee, an offer which Sawyer accepted. Erin poured the coffee, handed it to the tall woman and returned to her chair. They sat for several moments, each seemingly engrossed in the taste and smell of her coffee.

Finally, Sawyer looked down into her cup as she spoke. "You asked me a question, and I'd like to answer it."

At that moment, the sounds of conversation arose out in the dining room. Erin looked at her watch, noticing the time had come for her guests to expect breakfast.

"I would love to have this conversation," she said, "but I have to get breakfast started."

"No problem," Sawyer said as she rose from her chair, and Erin noticed the same look of resignation that had been on her face last night. That look, more than anything else, prompted her to take a chance like none she had ever taken before in her life.

"Listen, are you going on your hike this morning?"

"Yeah, I'll go after breakfast."

"Then you'll head back to the city?"

Sawyer nodded.

The noise level increased in the dining room, and Erin knew her window of opportunity was quickly closing. "Can I convince you to change your schedule a bit, maybe do something other than hiking this morning?"

Sawyer looked puzzled. "Change in what way?"

"Do you like horses?"

"As friends, as dinner, as life long companions?"

Erin grinned broadly, very much liking the lighter mood now apparent between the two of them. "Sorry, I mean to ride, do you like to ride horses?"

Sawyer shrugged. "Haven't done it in a while, but I guess I do."

"Would you like to go riding instead of going on your hike this morning?"

At that moment, Erin's brother opened the kitchen door, poking his head into the room. "Erin, the natives are getting restless. Or rather the non-natives who just visit here. Oh, sorry, Sawyer, good morning."

"Good morning, Jack. I'm afraid I'm the one who's kept the cook from her duties. I'll leave her to it."

Erin's mood deflated, knowing another of her questions would not get an answer. Sawyer pulled the door open all the way, and Jack moved into the kitchen to get out of her way. As she moved through the door, she turned back to Erin. "I'll wait until you're done with everyone's breakfast, and then we'll follow through on your idea, okay?"

Trying very hard to remain calm, especially in front of her brother, Erin nodded to the woman, who then left the room.

Jack gave her a pointed look. "Do I get to know about this idea, huh?"

"No time, Jack. Remember the non-natives?"

* * * * * * *

"You're sure you have the time for this?"

Erin glanced back at the woman riding the big mare behind her smaller gelding. It was a sunny day, a bit warmer than yesterday, but with just enough of a cool breeze to make the ride comfortable. They were traveling on a well used horse trail in the park. This was one of the few facilities of the state park that Erin used, since the man who ran the stables was someone she and Jack had grown up with, and he trusted her enough to be on her own without a guide.

"Yes, I'm sure. Sunday mornings after breakfast tend to be a down time. We don't need to rush getting the rooms cleaned since all of the guests are checking out today."

They rode for almost two hours, one or the other only occasionally making a comment on the sights and sounds around them. Finally, Erin pulled off the trail through a barely navigable break in the trees. She carefully led her horse, with Sawyer's following close behind, through an area of trees and bushes seemingly growing on top of one another. There was just enough of a pathway for the horses to follow. Finally, they broke out of the growth to see a small clearing next to a quietly running stream. Erin pulled her horse to a stop and dismounted. Sawyer remained on the mare, looking around in awe.

"This is a beautiful spot," she said.

"Yeah, I found it several years ago. I like to come out here as often as I can when the weather's good."

Erin removed her backpack and started taking out the food and other items in preparation for their picnic.

"I wondered what you had in there," Sawyer said as she dismounted and tied her horse's reins to a nearby tree. She moved over to do the same with Erin's horse.

Erin spread a blanket on the ground near the stream and sat down. "I've got a couple of cans of Coke or some water if you'd rather," she said, as she opened a small insulated bag holding the drinks.

"I'll have Coke, thanks." Sawyer took the can, sitting down on the blanket next to Erin who handed her a sandwich and took one for herself. Sawyer bit into the sandwich and moaned with pleasure.

"I didn't think I could be hungry after that fabulous breakfast, but this is fantastic. Who knew chicken salad could be so good?"

Erin laughed at her companion's attitude. "Old family recipe. You know, you don't have to keep lavishing me with praise. I accepted your apology already."

"Hey, all that praise is deserved," Sawyer said around a mouthful of food. She swallowed and continued. "This spot is beautiful, which is really due to nature, not you, the breakfast was great, due to you, and this sandwich is great, due to you unless you want to tell me that Jack is handy in the kitchen."

"Jack's culinary skills begin and end at making wonderful toast. He can microwave up a storm, though, so long as the directions aren't too complicated."

"Poor Jack, here we are berating him, and he's not here to defend himself."

And I'm glad he's not, Erin thought. "What are brothers for if not to berate?" The obvious follow-up question formed in her mind, but she paused, afraid that asking it would be prying and set off another reaction like the one Sawyer had last night. She looked down, concentrating on her sandwich.

Sawyer noticed her discomfort and clearly knew its source. "I don't have any brothers. I have two younger sisters, though."

Erin was pleased the other woman was apparently ready to share details of her life today. After all, didn't she say she wanted to answer my question? Isn't that why we're out together today?

Again, Sawyer seemed to read her mind. "You asked why I come here alone. I guess I've been on my own for a long time, I'm just used to it. But there were always things I wanted to do that I didn't because I thought you should have someone to share them with. Things like traveling, buying a house, starting a family. Besides, I got involved in work and making a career for myself. Then, two years ago, when I turned 40. . ."

"You are not 42 years old!"

"Oh, yes, I am," Sawyer answered, just as vehement in her response as Erin had been in her statement.

"You do not look 42," Erin said, glancing up and down Sawyer's long frame.

"No, blame hard work and good genes. How old are you?"

"I'm 27."

"You are not 27 years old!"

Erin had to laugh at her companion's playfulness. She assumed a mock pose, tossing her long blonde hair over one shoulder. "Yes, I am. I'm blessed with this baby face that has always made me look younger than I am."

Sawyer shook her head. "Oh no, I thought you were much older."

Erin reached out and swatted Sawyer's arm. Boy, she thought, I'm enjoying this good mood she's in. I just knew there was a sense of fun under that shell. Hope this keeps up. "Thanks a lot, Methuselah. Weren't you telling a story?"

"Weren't you the one who interrupted? Anyway, I turned 40 and realized that if I kept waiting around to find someone to do things with, then the things weren't going to get done. So I started doing stuff I'd always wanted to do, but put off, like taking trips. And I started hiking. I've always worked out, kept in good shape, but it seemed as if it were just for the sake of doing it. I decided to put those efforts to good use, and hiking seemed a fun way to do that. I also bought a house, a small one but just the right size for me. Now, I haven't done anything about starting a family, and I think I'm getting too old, but you never know."

Erin absorbed the information she was given, learning as much from Sawyer's tone as from her words themselves. She realized that the other woman spoke without rancor, simply accepting the fact of being alone. At least I got an answer to the question behind my question. She tried her best to prevent any pity from coloring her next comment. "It seems as if you would feel lonely doing stuff on your own, but you make it sound like it's not lonely."

Sawyer shrugged and answered, "Well, it's not totally lonely. I get to a place on my own, but there are usually plenty of people to meet when I get where I'm going. If I'm lucky, some of those people actually turn out to be interesting. Like here." As she made the last comment, she grinned at her companion.

Erin smiled at the compliment. "The best fish are always in the most hidden spot."

"I've noticed you have a seemingly endless supply of fish sayings. Do you spend all of your free time reading 'The Philosophy of Anglers' or something?"

"I guess they come from my parents," Erin replied. "Dad was, well, to call him an avid fisherman would not do justice to the word 'avid.' He roped Mom in while they were still dating. For Jack and me it was fish or cut bait, so to speak. Jack now rivals Dad in that particular obsession. The family that fishes together. . ."

"Ends up wet, cold and smelling like fish together," Sawyer said, replacing the cliche with her own variation.

Their conversation continued down several paths over the next hour or so, as they shared more of the food Erin had packed for the picnic. Erin found herself relaxing more and more with the older woman. There was a certain comfort to the pace of their talk, not rushing to get to know one another, but rather spending time to savor each piece of information the other would share.

Finally, and with great reluctance, Sawyer announced that they should get back since she had to be home by the evening. As Erin packed the blanket and the remnants of their picnic, Sawyer reached into her pocket and produced a card which she handed to Erin.

"It's my number and e-mail address at work. I've also written my home and cell numbers on the back. I saw the computer in your room and assumed you might have access to the Web."

"Yes, I love e-mail," Erin said as she took the card. "It's really the only chance I have to keep up with some of my friends." She noticed the handwriting on the flip side of the card and tucked it into her pocket, inwardly pleased. She had been concerned about seeing Sawyer again, since the woman's next visit would likely be her last until the spring. This was an indication that Sawyer wanted further contact, apart from just as guest and host, but was also something more. She must have written this out before we left this morning, before we had this wonderful day. So she was already thinking about us talking more.

As they mounted their horses for the ride back, Erin said, "I'll give you my e-mail address before you leave."

"No worry, you can send me one this week, and it'll have your address."

This week? Erin thought. It's gonna take all my willpower not to sit down and send you one before you drive out of town!


November 3 to


Thanks for your e-mail. It provided a welcome distraction from my usual e-mails which consist of work-related messages and jokes. Sometimes, I think that e-mail just exists to spread really tasteless humor. One colleague of mine sends me all sorts of crap that I don't think she looks at before she forwards it to me because some of the stuff is very offensive. That, or she thinks I've got a sense of humor. (Ask the people I work with, I don't).

Back to the coal mines so I can earn enough money to go hiking.


November 23 to


Your call really made my day. I am disappointed that you won't be able to take the usual trip for your last hike of the year, but I do understand the commitments of work. You might not believe this, but not all of our guests are kind enough to call and let us know that they won't need a reservation.

Jack has begun planning his February trip. He's planning a drive to Texas and Mexico. Heard of some great fishing down there, so he's going to check it out. As you know, I'll be here painting and wallpapering and all of those other tasks one really expects one's brother to take care of. But then, not everyone is blessed with my brother, just me.

Hey, what are you doing for Christmas?

Take care, Erin

December 2 to

E -

Sorry to take so long to answer your latest. It seems there are always several pieces of work I should finish out before the end of the year, and now is the time of year I usually spend deciding what can and what can't get done. "Prioritizing" - such a new millennium kind of word.

Christmas - it just won't be the same this year. Seems we've got a small pest problem in the building. I don't really think it's a problem, I mean the little mice are so nice to talk to during the day or late at night. (I enjoy making new friends and have named a few of them, but I digress. ) I guess it is a problem when they decide to come out and greet the clients in the middle of a very important meeting (although I've never seen old Mrs. Shields move so quickly before). So the owners are setting traps or having the building fumigated or whatever they do to kill the poor things over the holidays. The office is officially shut down for a week. Everyone here is pleased to have a week off with pay, except the die hard workaholics like me and . . . well, me. So, I guess I'll be forced to relocate my files and paperwork to home and continue my usual Yuletide tradition.

Anyway, Christmas just won't be the same without my little mouse friends.

December 3 to

Could you get any more pathetic? I would never dream of separating you from your mouse friends (it sounds as if the exterminators will be doing that) but think on this one. Jack and I would like to invite you to spend Christmas here. I think I told you that we have a couple who always comes here for the week. I checked with Mrs. Christianson and she says "The more the merrier!" (She's very cheery in a non-abrasive way, if you know what I mean.)

So think about it, huh?

Fondly, Erin

"Thank you for calling the Forest Inn, this is Erin, how can I help you?"

"Hey, it's Sawyer Bennett. Have I ever told you yours is one of the best phone greetings I've ever heard?"

"Sawyer, how are you? And no, you've never told me that."

"Well, it is. Smooth delivery, just welcoming enough without being obnoxious and, of course, there is the whole 'offer of help' thing."

"I can see you've made a real study of this."

"Oh, yes, I've spent a great deal of time being greeted on the phone. These days, frankly, I'm glad when a person and not a machine answers. Can't stand the 'press 1 if you want to talk to so and so, press 2 for other options' thing. I always want to ask which number to press if I want to kill the person who invented the system."

"You know, that's so great about talking to you. We go from discussing phone greetings to you committing homicide. I just never know where the conversation will go next."

"Let me take it back to my reason for calling. I appreciate the invitation, Erin, but . . ."

"Let me take over by saying 'but' is not a word you can use in this conversation."

"I mean it, I don't want to impose. . ."

"And you won't be imposing."

"You and the Christiansons have this standing tradition. . . "

"Which you will fit into nicely."

There was silence on the line. Then Erin heard a very quiet voice say, "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. Jack's sure, the Christiansons are sure. The only one left unsure is you. What can I say that will push you from unsuredom to suredom?"

"I don't think suredom is a word, let alone unsuredom."

"It's not a word, Sawyer, it's a state of mind. We really want you to be here."

"Can I have my usual room?"

"Of course you can."

"Can I pay for my usual room?"

"Of course you can't. I'm inviting you, not pushing a package tour on you."

"I still think I should pay. The Christiansons pay, don't they?"

"Yes, they do, but I don't want you to. Sawyer, I'm inviting you to be a guest in my home, not a guest in my bed and breakfast. I can't charge you."

"I see it your way. OK, I'll be there."

Erin made a monumental effort to contain her enthusiasm, barely doing so. "Great, you can get here whenever you want, a couple of days before Christmas if you want." As far as I'm concerned, you can get here tomorrow and that won't be soon enough for me.

"Let me check my schedule and I'll let you know. Tell me something about the Christiansons."

"They're nice people, why?"

"I like to be prepared, you know, have conversation topics mapped out, avoid any conflict. You know, like are they Coke people or Pepsi people? If they're Pepsi people, tell me now, 'cause I already know I won't like them."

God, could you be any more adorable? Erin thought. Why do you keep this so buried? And how can I make sure you stay this way around me? "Fortunately, one of my jobs is to see to it they are well fed and well. . .what would the word be? I don't want to say 'well drunk' since that would have bad connotations. Anyway, they are mostly coffee people. They drink the stuff all day long."

"Alright! My kind of people. But really, give me some areas of common interest."

"Well, they do a lot of traveling, and I know you like that. I think Mrs. Christianson told me they were planning a trip to New Zealand next fall."

"Perfect, that's one spot I've always wanted to go to and haven't. That gives me an opening subject. We'll have to wing it from there. Thanks, Erin."

"You're welcome. I wouldn't want you to be at a loss for conversation."

"Yeah, thanks for that, but also thanks for the invitation." Sawyer paused for a moment. Erin was about to speak, but heard the quiet voice return. "It's been a long time since I've looked forward to the holidays, and now I can. Thanks to you."

A warmth filled Erin's heart at the sentiment shared by the other woman. I'm getting through, I just know I am. I hope this leads us where I want it to.

* * * * * * *

"A little higher."

That was greeted with a mild grumble.

"No, not that high."

More grumbling.

"Now it's too close to the other one. Over to the left a little."

More, deeper and louder grumbling.

"Good. . ."

A sigh of satisfaction was followed by the movement of a foot stepping down off the ladder.

". . . but now you have to move that one."

An explosion. "Which one? Higher, lower, to the left, to the right, too many, too few, too much red in this spot, not enough in that spot. Orders, orders, orders. Why don't you come over and do this yourself?"

"Because, Jack, I was blessed with the gift of style and you were blessed with the gifts of height and longer arms. Even with the ladder, I can't reach as high as you can. And if I leave you here to arrange things, the ornaments would be on the tree in one big circle, all at the same level."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

The bickering between the siblings was a tradition, and Erin spared a thought back to the Christmases of their youth. Their mother acted as referee then, letting the children bicker for a time, then using their aggravation with each other as an effective counter-point to the true meaning of Christmas. And we fell for it every time, Erin thought, feeling a twinge of loss at the reminiscing, missing her mother and father as she always did this time of year. However, unlike other years, she found her sorrow offset this year by hope and expectation. Those feelings had flowed around and through her since Sawyer had agreed to spend Christmas at the inn. Jack noticed her elated mood and commented on it once, unerringly knowing the reason behind it. It pleased him to no end to see his sister so happy, and he did not engage in their usual teasing, at least not on that subject.

"Move the ornament, Jack. Please."

"Which one? I don't know, being style-impaired and all."

"The gold carousel horse. How can you not see it's in the wrong place now?"

"Well, wise, stylish one, what is the right place for it?"

"To the right, just a bit."

Jack grumbled again, but complied with his sister's request.

"Thank you, Scrooge."

"Hey, if those ghosts had done to Scrooge what you do to me every Christmas, he'd have gone running off into the night, and never wanted to hear the word 'Christmas' again, Tiny Tim or no Tiny Tim."

The sound of a car pulling into the drive interrupted their banter. "Well, thank you anyway, Tiny Jack," Erin said, as she moved to the front door to welcome their guests.

"I'm not sure I like the implications in that name," Jack mumbled as she left the room.

* * * * * * *

Sawyer pulled into the drive of the inn a little after 10:00 p.m. So much for getting here early, she thought grimly. A demanding client, learning at the annual office Christmas party she was leaving town, insisted on meeting with her to iron out details on a new will prior to the end of the year. Although she assured the man that she would be back in town before New Year's Eve, his attitude of 'no time like the present' won out. After all, he's paying the bill. And wait 'til he sees the one for this work. They managed to find a couple of attorneys still in the office to witness the will, although almost everyone had cleared out after the party. The client then tried to convince Sawyer to join him for a drink to celebrate the holidays. I've never been so glad to have plans in my whole life. She rushed home to finish packing and wrapping gifts, tossed everything into her car, and left for Blanchard's Ferry.

As she stepped out of her car and grabbed her bags, she noted the lights shining through the windows of the front parlor. Hopefully, the others were still awake.

Even before she opened the front door, she could hear cheery Christmas music reverberating from inside. She smiled as she went in, now able to hear animated conversation from the parlor. Dropping her bags inside the door, she took off her jacket and hung it on the rack in the front hall. She took a moment to enjoy the sensations. This is what Christmas should be. This is what I've been missing out on. Then she stepped around the wall into the parlor.

"Hey, Sawyer, didn't hear you drive up!"

Jack boisterously walked over and, for a moment, she thought he would barrel into her for a hug. He stopped short, though, and reached out to shake her hand in greeting. Sawyer took a moment to look at Jack, noting how much he looked like his sister, who sat in a chair to the side of the couch. They had the same blond hair and green eyes and a similar facial structure. The only real difference was Jack's bulk and his height, which Sawyer thought to be just a couple of inches taller than her own six feet. I guess there are a few other differences, she thought.

"Come on, let me introduce you." Jack literally pulled her over to the couch by the hand he still clasped. An older man and woman sat there, and both were standing up to meet her.

"Please don't get up, I'm sorry I'm so late."

The man stood, while the woman sat back down. He looked to be in his late 60s, was just a tad shorter than Sawyer and had thick, iron gray hair. He held out his hand, and Sawyer was able to shake it now that Jack had released hers.

"Harry Christianson, nice to meet you."

Sawyer instantly recognized the full name. The Christiansons were well known in the social scene in Corinth. They were 'rather well off,' as one of her partners would say, having made their fortune in warehousing. Sawyer did not travel in those particular social circles and, therefore, had never met the couple. "Sawyer Bennett, nice to meet you, too."

Turning to the woman, Mr. Christianson said, "This is my wife, Alison." Mrs. Christianson remained seated on the couch and held a small hand out to the other woman. She looked to be younger than her husband. The term 'elegantly casual' popped into Sawyer's mind as the perfect way to describe her. Her blonde hair, with just a few noticeable gray strands, was immaculately coifed, and her makeup was understated, yet effective.

Sawyer clasped her hand, as well. "Mrs. Christianson, I appreciate your kindness in letting me crash your party here."

The woman bubbled with laughter. "Nonsense, as I told Erin, the more, the merrier! And please, we're Harry and Alison, none of this 'Mrs. Christianson' stuff. When Erin told me you usually worked over Christmas, I told her we just couldn't allow that!"

"I apologize for being late, it was actually a client who kept me at the office later than I had planned."

"Yeah, sure, a client. Just having trouble letting go of that Christmas tradition, huh?"

Sawyer grinned at the teasing tone in her friend's voice, and turned to greet Erin. "I had already chained myself to my desk, in my usual fashion, but strangely enough, I was liberated by several very small hands and pushed to the elevator. The last thing I heard as I left was something along the lines of 'It is a far better thing I do than I have ever done. . .'"

"Do mice have hands?"

"Okay, several small feet. They just didn't want me to go down with the ship, even from the twenty-fifth floor."

"I hope you at least told them goodbye."

Jack looked back and forth between the two women. "Do I want to know what this is about?"

Erin laughed and patted her brother on the arm. "Sorry, Jack, old joke. Let me help Sawyer get settled and we'll be back down."

The two walked out into the hallway, ignorant of the looks they were getting from both Alison Christianson and Jack.

As they stepped into the hall, Sawyer leaned down to whisper to her host, "I see what you mean about her being 'cheery', but in a good way." Erin reached down for Sawyer's bags, only to be stopped by the other woman. "No, I'm not a paying guest, remember? I carry my own bags."

"I can at least help, can't I?"

"Nope, I'm the bellboy today. That's the way this trip works, okay?"

Erin felt a swell of emotion at just having the tall woman close. She lifted up on her toes and placed a kiss on Sawyer's cheek. "Okay. Merry Christmas, Sawyer. I'm really glad you're here." Then she turned to lead the woman upstairs.

* * * * * * *

Christmas morning found the group sitting in the parlor, with Jack popping back and forth between the tree and his guests, being the self-appointed gift distributor.

It had not occurred to Erin to tell Sawyer not to bring gifts, and she chastised herself for this. I mean, how can she get gifts for people she doesn't even know? She and Jack had spent a trying time, once they decided they should each get a gift for Sawyer, on exactly what the gift should be. However, she did not expect the older woman to reciprocate.

Nevertheless, Harry Christianson was happily leafing through a brand new guide to traveling through New Zealand. Sawyer shyly indicated Erin's mention of their upcoming trip and told them, in her opinion, this particular company issued the best travel guides. Sawyer clearly remembered their conversation at the clearing about fishing, because Jack was the proud owner of a brand new state-of-the-art casting reel. Erin reached out to rub her fingers over the chestnut suede of her new jacket which, amazingly enough, was a perfect fit.

She didn't have to do all of this, but she did. And she did well, too. But I think she did it for herself, too. Erin had seen the look of pleasure that came over Sawyer's face when each of her gifts was opened and truly enjoyed by the recipient.

She had remembered to tell Alison not to worry about a gift for the additional guest, but knew that would be a vain and useless act. The Christiansons always went too far in their gift giving to Erin and Jack, and so she was not surprised to see that they had given Sawyer a beautiful set of Waterman pens. The woman had seemed genuinely surprised and pleased at the gift, indicating she was probably one of the few lawyers at her firm who still used a pen and did not write everything on computer.

Erin noticed the time and quietly rose from her seat to go to the kitchen. The plan was to have the Christmas feast in the middle of the day, leaving the afternoon for resting, watching football and other activities. As she started removing items from the refrigerator to start cooking, she looked up to see Alison entering the kitchen.

"Alison, you come in here every year, offering to help, and you know I never let you do more than put the butter on the table."

The older woman laughed. "Old habits die hard. My mother would be appalled if I didn't at least offer to help."

"I thought your parents had passed on."

"As if that would stop my mother from keeping her eagle-eye out for me!" Alison sat down on one of the kitchen chairs. "She always made sure I kept my feet on the ground. I can still hear her now, 'I don't care if you do have more money than God, young lady,' even though I was almost 50 at the time, 'that's no excuse to forget how you were raised!' She paused for a moment, her expression becoming almost dreamy. "I feel her close by, especially at this time of year. Do you know what I mean?"

Erin smiled at her friend and thought of her own parents. "Yes, I know." The fact that no more needed to be said was a testament to the bond that had grown in such a short time between these two women. Both looked at each other, knowing the feelings running through the other.

Alison was the first to break the silence. "Since you won't let me help, I guess I'll just sit here and entertain you."

Erin turned and continued her preparation work, mentally counting off the seconds until the question that she knew Alison would ask was spoken. She got to eight before the other woman spoke.

"Sawyer seems like a very nice woman. How long have you known her?"

Okay, not exactly the question I expected, but she's being cagy, leading up to the good stuff. "She's been coming here about two years now."

"You know I don't like to play the 'do you know who I know' game, but, in talking to her, it seems we have some mutual acquaintances." Alison was being outwardly cool, but, inwardly, she was itching to get back to the city to make inquiries concerning the lawyer. And that itch would be unbearable if she got the answers she expected to her questions to Erin.

Erin found herself in a giving mood, no doubt brought on by the Christmas season, and decided to cut to the chase. "We're just friends, Alison."

"Of course, dear."

"I mean it. I don't even know if she's . . ."

"It's not as if she's wearing a sign or anything. Although she does look as if she could ride a motorcycle, and that's a dead giveaway, isn't it? Does she have a motorcycle?"

Erin had to laugh at Alison's coy way of playing with stereotypes. "I really don't know, our conversations haven't gotten as far as topics on personal transportation." There was a significant pause in the conversation, then Erin continued. "I have seen the car she drives, of course."

"Of course, dear."

Erin turned back to look at the older woman, barely holding back the grin forming on her face. "It's a Boxster. Have you seen it?"

"Yes, dear, I have."

The grin started to bloom now. "Navy blue, too! I love Boxsters, you know." Erin was a model of restrained enthusiasm over this point.

"Yes, I know."

"I really love Boxsters. That's hitting too close to home, to drive my dream car."

As Erin turned back to the counter, Alison felt a sense of satisfaction. With just a few words and expressions from the younger woman, most of her questions had been answered. The only questions that remained concerned the woman in the other room.

* * * * * * *

Dinner was an almost giddy affair. The group sat at one of the large round tables in the dining room. Erin had very subtly placed Sawyer at the seat next to hers. She was pleased that the lawyer made a real effort to join in on the cheerful and often colorful conversation. Sawyer and Alison discovered many shared favorite spots in Corinth, and the women had made tentative plans to get together after the holidays.

Once dessert was finished, Jack and Harry were deep in a conversation about the Internet, with the older man getting the younger's opinion on issues concerning his business' new website. Jack considered himself a web expert, all self-taught, and he extolled the virtues of cyber communications. Erin tried to hold back, but could not resist the opportunity to tease her brother on this issue. He opened himself up for this one.

"Yes, Jack, tell us about how wonderful it is to meet people online."

Jack paled somewhat and turned to give his sister a pleading look. "Um, I think we've spent enough time on that topic. Hey, Sawyer, who's your pick in the playoffs this week?"

Alison, having spent enough time with the siblings to know something juicy was afoot, would not let Jack out of this one. "Jack, what have you been doing? Spending too much time in those chat rooms?"

Erin let out a true guffaw at that comment, and Jack's face became even paler. It was clear this was a subject she wanted to talk about just as much as Jack did not want it discussed. "Funny you should mention that, Alison," she said.

Jack bowed to the inevitable. "My sister is dying for you all to know of my embarrassment, so I might as well tell you. Last year, I met a woman through a chat room."

"I think the chat room is '', or something," Erin said.

"No, it actually dealt with a TV show I watch . . ."

Sawyer was enjoying this now. "Which show?"

"That's not important, what's important is we got to know each other, so to speak, and found we had a lot in common. I mean, you can really learn a lot about someone in a short time though e-mails and such."

"Yeah, you can learn a lot but not some of the important things," Erin interjected.

"You started this, are you going to let me finish?"

Erin motioned her fingers across her mouth, figuratively zipping her lips shut.

"So this woman and I. . ."

Now Harry interrupted. "What was her name?"

"She told me her name was Delilah." This was met with quiet chuckles throughout the room. Jack continued unfazed. "We spend a few months communicating, chatting and e-mails first, then a few phone calls, then, when I took my vacation in February, we decided to meet face to face. She lives in California."

"Ooo, I could have told you she was bad news," Harry said.

"So I went out there. . ."

"And she turned out to be a dog," Sawyer said.

Erin swatted her napkin against Sawyer's arm. "Could you try to be a little less sexist? I mean, it's not as if Jack would only be interested if she were a fox."

"Hey, I'm far more interested in personality than in looks." Jack's comment was met with an exaggerated coughing fit from his sister. "And she was not a dog. On the contrary, she was quite beautiful."

"She was hot, that's what you said when you got back."

Jack shook his head. "Yeah, she was, and that made it all the more tragic."

The pause for dramatic effect had the intended effect, as Sawyer impatiently said, "What, made what tragic?"

"She was married! And had three kids to boot."

Alison was shocked. "Jack, dear, how could you not know that?"

"She never told me! We spent all this time discussing our lives, I told her about my family and the inn and all, and she never bothered to mention her husband and kids. The kicker is, she didn't think it would be a problem. When she picked me up at the airport, we went to her place, and, happy as you please, she walked me in and introduced me to the hubby. It seemed they had an 'open marriage' and did this sort of thing all the time! She was just modernizing the game by reaching out over the web for more playmates."

"And her name wasn't Delilah," Harry guessed.

"No, it was Cynthia."

"What did you do?"

"He quickly found another place to stay and called me for sympathy," Erin interjected.

"Which you didn't give me," Jack said.

"Which you didn't deserve," his sister responded.

"It wasn't my fault! This from the woman whose last date was with Rhonda, the auto mechanic!"

The room grew silent, with a tension slowly rising. Erin glared at her brother, whose face blanched as he realized what he had said. He noticed that Sawyer had dropped her gaze to her empty plate and seemed to be avoiding looking at anyone else at the table. Suddenly, she stood up, picking up her plate and Harry's and announcing, "I'll start clean up duty, it's the least I can do after this delicious meal." With that, she went into the kitchen.

"God, I'm sorry, Erin, I thought. . . I thought she knew."

With the reaction, or lack of reaction, from Sawyer, Erin's sense of self-deprecation took over. I thought she knew, too. But then, I never told her. What was I thinking? If this is her response to confirmation that I'm gay, there's no way she can be, too. She took pity on her brother. "Don't worry about it, Jack." Erin stood from the table and left the room, headed for the parlor.

"Jack, I'm feeling very maternal towards you right now," Alison said.

"That's nice, Alison," he responded.

"No, it's not. I want to smack you on the side of the head and send you to your room."

Jack flinched and looked to Harry for support. The older man just smirked and turned away, leaving Jack feeling very alone.

* * * * * * *

Jack, Harry and Alison pitched in on cleaning up with Sawyer. The lawyer remained quiet while the work was done, moving back and forth between the dining room and the kitchen bringing the dishes and glasses to the sink. Jack stood at the sink washing dishes, with Harry drying. Sawyer had been out of the room for a few minutes, when she returned and came over to the sink.

"Jack, have you seen your sister? I can't find her in the house. Did she come through here to go to the back?"

"No, Sawyer, I haven't seen her."

The woman let out a deep breath and scratched her head. "Any ideas where she might be?"

Alison stood up from the table and took the younger woman by the arm. "Let's go look, shall we, dear?" The two women left the kitchen and walked towards the front hall. Alison pointed towards the coat rack. "Her jacket's gone."

Sawyer looked up to see that the new jacket she had given to Erin, which had been hanging at the end of the coat rack, was gone. "I guess she went outside, huh?"

Alison removed the lawyer's jacket from the rack and handed it to her. "I guess it does."

With a smile to the older woman, Sawyer put on her jacket and opened the door to go outside. She walked all the way around the house, finally spotting Erin sitting in a hammock slung between two trees. As Sawyer approached, the younger woman looked up at her.

"I keep telling Jack that we need to put this thing away during winter, but he never does it. I could do it myself, but it would cross the very definite boundaries of our tasks around here."

Sawyer stood in front of Erin and did not join her in sitting on the hammock, although there was plenty of room. This fact was not lost on the younger woman, and her mind spun with the possible ramifications.

The lack of conversation gnawed at Erin's guts, and she felt the need to fill it, knowing how inane her words would be in advance. "I'm sorry, I should have. . ."

"We keep doing this, don't we?"

Erin was confused. "Doing what?"

"You apologize when it's something I should apologize for," Sawyer said as she finally sat down next to Erin on the hammock.

The gesture sent a bit of warmth to Erin's heart, but confusion was still dominant. "What do you have to apologize for?"

"My reaction. I suppose you think I'm a raging homophobe, but I swear I'm not. It just took me by surprise."

" I should have told you, especially before I invited you here."

"No, you shouldn't have. It's private and none of my business."

But I want it to be your business, you idiot, Erin thought. I was so sure about her, I can't believe I was wrong. Maybe there's some denial going on here. That's it, Forester, make a hopeless situation even more pathetic. She's not, so get over it.

"Is Rhonda the woman who works at the station near the interstate?"

Erin was lost in her thoughts, and it took a moment for Sawyer's question to register. "Yes, she works there. Why?"

"She's . . . I mean, she's. . ."

"She's a nice person, a little quiet, but very nice."

"And very big. She's taller than me and wider than a . . ."

"Hey, watch it."

"I'm just trying to picture you and Rhonda together. Talk about opposites."

"You have no idea. When I came back home after college, I realized that there was not much to chose from in the pool of available dates. In fact, it was pretty much Rhonda and me. We had gone to school together, were never really friends, but knew all of the same people. Some of those well meaning mutual acquaintances convinced Rhonda to ask me out."

"Let me guess, the tractor pull was in town."

"I think you have a few preconceived notions about mechanics."

"I have nothing against mechanics. Remember, I own a German car. I treat my mechanic, Franz, very well."

Erin continued with her story. "We went out for a very nice dinner, but things were somewhat strained. We tried to talk about mutual friends, but she knew everything I knew. We couldn't share the usual stories of where we came from because we had grown up in the same town. We had nothing in common, other than our sexual preference. And it just wasn't enough. Just because I like women doesn't mean I like all women. I think that she was as happy as I was when the date was over."

"So she's not stalking you like a lovesick puppy?"

"God, no!"

"Good, I wouldn't want to be on her bad side, being a friend of yours, if something happens to my car while I'm here. And speaking of my car. . ." Sawyer pulled her keys out of her jacket pocket. "Wanna go for a ride?"

Erin jumped up from the hammock. "God, you don't know how long I've wanted you to ask me. I love Boxsters. I really love Boxsters."

"Like I didn't know, Erin. The model you gave me will look great in my office. Also, you've taken to drooling when you walk by my car. Which I notice you do very often."

"I do not! Drool, that is. Maybe swoon a bit. And I do walk by it every now and then."

Sawyer let out a hearty laugh as she ran for the car, with Erin close behind.

* * * * * * *

"I wish you didn't have to go so soon, dear."

"I wish I could stay, Alison, but I do have some work to finish before the end of the year."

"Well, you have our number, so we expect a call after the first of the year."

"I'll call, I promise." Sawyer was surprised to find that she was eager to see the Christiansons again. Harry had talked to the lawyer about taking a look at their wills, so there was a business reason for meeting. And my partners won't mind having them as clients, she thought. However, she found herself wanting to spend time with the couple for personal, not professional reasons. Here's a wild idea, they're just nice people.

Alison hesitated a moment, then reached out to Sawyer for a hug. The lawyer awkwardly returned the hug and then released the woman. She was relieved when Harry merely held out his hand for a shake.

"And you promised to show me your gym. I really haven't been happy with mine since the new management took over," he said.

"Will do, Harry. I think you'll like this place. The views of the aerobics class alone should give you a good workout."

Alison playfully wagged her finger at Sawyer. "Don't encourage him, dear."

"Darling, sweetie, you know you're my girl," Harry said, as he put his arm around his wife's shoulders, leading her out of the front hall. He looked back over her head and winked at Sawyer as he continued addressing Alison. "Now, if you want to go with me and wear one of those little outfits, I won't complain."

Alison's response to that comment fell somewhere between a choke and a snort as the couple went into the parlor, leaving the Forester siblings and Sawyer in the hall. "I'm glad you could join us. Take care, Sawyer," Jack said, as he clasped her hand. "Happy New Year."

"Happy New Year, Jack. Thanks for everything."

Jack opened the door, and the two women walked outside to the car which was already loaded with the lawyer's bags. Sawyer used the remote to unlock the doors, then turned to Erin.

"'Thanks' is just inadequate, Erin. This has been my best Christmas in I don't know how long."

"You mean this was more fun than working?"

"Hard to believe, but yes."

Erin shoved her hands in her pockets, looked down and stubbed the ground with the toe of her boot. "We liked having you here. I thought, or at least I hoped, you and Alison and Harry would get along. Seems like you've found some new friends, huh? You even rank a 'dear' from Alison."

"Why do I think that she calls everybody 'dear'?"

"Nope, she doesn't call Harry 'dear,' and it took her a couple of trips to call Jack and me 'dear.'"

"I guess I've made it then."

"Yep." Erin continued grinding her toe into the dirt of the drive. She was reluctant to let the older woman leave since no return trip had been planned. Sawyer usually did not come to the inn for hiking trips in the cold weather of winter. Struggling to put words to an idea that had been rumbling in her head for a while, she finally realized the form of her request would be irrelevant if the opportunity to make it slipped by.

She glanced up to see that Sawyer was seemingly just as fascinated with digging her toe into the ground as Erin was. At this rate, we'll have to bring in new dirt because we've dug clean through the drive. The lull in conversation prompted Erin to speak.

"You usually don't . . ."

"Listen, Erin, . . ."

The women laughed as they spoke on top of one another. "You go first," Erin said.

"No, you."

"We'll stand here all day deferring to each other. What were you going to say?"

Sawyer leaned her hip against the door of her car. "I thought I might change my usual pattern and visit sometime in January or February. Would it be okay if I did?"

"Sure, that would be fine." That would be fantastic, wonderful, and lots of other things. You just read my mind.

"I want to make sure not to come during the time you close up, so let me know when is good. You can e-mail me or call or whatever."

The almost shy tone of the lawyer's voice caught the other woman by surprise. It's now or never, Forester. You keep taking chances with her, and, so far, they've paid off. Let's go for broke. "Why don't you come during that time? It would be nice to have some company, rather than be here on my own."

"You gonna let me pay this time?"

"No, I'll put you to work. Don't forget, I plan on doing some redecorating then."

"That's right, I remember. Will it mess you up if I'm here?"

"Absolutely not. Will it bother you to do some painting and other stuff?"

"Nope, not a bit. Are you sure?"

"You and this unsuredom," Erin teased. She bumped Sawyer's boot with her own. "We close up during the second and third weeks of February. Call me and let me know when you can come."

"Okay. Take care." Sawyer turned and reached for the door handle. She hesitated for a moment, then turned back to the younger woman. Reaching out, she pulled Erin towards her in a warm hug. "Thank you so much, Erin."

Barely succeeding at holding her emotions in check, Erin pulled her hands from her pockets and put her arms around the other woman's waist. "Merry Christmas, Sawyer."


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