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By the time Nadine got home, the headache had become a toddler beating the insides of her skull with a wiffle ball bat. She pinched the bridge of her nose as she unlocked the front door and didn't see the black duffle bag sitting in her way. She kicked it, cursed and pushed it out of the way with her foot. As it fell over, a pile of sweaty baseball clothes tumbled out to the carpet. *Guess that answers if Kate is here or not,* she mused.
She stepped over the stinking pile and headed towards the back of the apartment. "Kate? You left your stuff in front of the door again!" There was no response, so she shut the door and dumped her own bag on the couch. She heard the shower as she undid her tie and her mind suddenly formed an image of Amy and Kate making out in the tiny stall.
*No, you know for a fact that stall is too cramped to have sex in,* she told herself. Still, she knocked on the bathroom door and hazarded a look inside. She saw Kate's familiar silhouette - thankfully *just* her - behind the smoked glass. "Hey, Kate. How was the game?"
"Good!" Kate said over the spray. "We creamed them." She pushed the door open and stuck her head out. "Amy wants me to sign up full time. I'm actually considering it."
"Awesome," Nadine said without much enthusiasm. "I'll be out here when you get out."
Nadine closed the door and went into the bedroom. She undressed amid the crowd of boxes, broken TVs, newspapers, magazines and other various things she hadn't unpacked after her move from college. She eyed the mess warily; she knew it was tinderbox, but the task of cleaning out was just so daunting... She sighed and turned her back to it. Out of sight, out of mind.
She pushed open the closet and grabbed a pair of blue jeans. As she was searching for a t-shirt, the bathroom door creaked open and Kate stepped into the hallway. She was wrapped in a towel, her skin glistening from the shower. She saw Nadine in the bedroom and stepped into the doorway. She raised her arms and hooked her fingers on the top of the doorframe. Nadine looked over, admiring the way the towel rose at her hips.
Kate's lips curled into a devious smile at the sight of Nadine in her underwear. "Well, damn," she said.
Nadine looked down at her boxer shorts and brassiere. "What?"
"I'm going to need another shower," Kate sighed. She dropped her hands from the doorframe and moved her hands to the knot of towel between her breasts. She loosened it and let the terrycloth drop to the floor. Nadine had time to admire her lovers lithe, toned body before Kate picked her up. She obediently wrapped her legs around Kate's waist and let herself be lowered to the floor. They kissed and Nadine felt Kate's hand on her belly and sliding lower. She unwound her legs and planted her feet on the floor, breaking the kiss as her underwear was slid down her legs.
*Okay, fine,* Nadine thought. One last boff. One last roll in the hay before we have the Fight. God knew Kate was good at it.
Relenting to Kate's assault - and the insistence of her own body that it was a Good Thing - Nadine spread her legs apart. Kate moved her lips to Nadine's neck and moved her hand between Nadine's legs. Nadine groaned and her eyes rolled back in her head; her neck was Kate's favorite sweet spot, mostly because she knew what it did to Nadine.
Kate's slender fingers moved between Nadine's thighs and began to stroke, caress and pinch the tender flesh. Nadine wondered, as she often did when Kate was fingering her, if Kate had ever studied piano; her fingers moved independent of one another, rising and falling, thrusting and stroking, seemingly playing out a song of which only Kate knew the tune.
Nadine unhooked her own bra and dropped it to the side, drawing Kate's attention to the new territory. She abandoned Nadine's neck and slid down, capturing one nipple with lips, teeth and tongue. She moved between Nadine's breasts, sucking, nibbling and licking around her nipples. Nadine whimpered and arched her back; Kate chuckled and slipped her free arm around Nadine's waist. She knew how much Nadine loved to have her breasts played with, knew how sensitive they were, and she used them like a secret weapon. They had once spent an entire night touching one another above the belt; Nadine had almost exploded from the orgasm she had when Kate finally went down on her.
The memory of that night, Kate's long fingers stroking her nipples for nearly an hour, was what pushed her over the edge.
Trying to speak in gasping, impatient sobs, she reached down and grabbed Kate's wrist. She held it in place between her legs and squeezed her thighs tight around it. Kate knew the signs and kept her hand still as Nadine came. She kissed the gooseflesh as it rose on her breasts and arms. Nadine trembled one last time, closed her eyes behind her glasses and finally sagged down onto the carpet.
Kate stretched up and kissed Nadine's lips, softly and tenderly, and cupped her naked breast. "That was wonderful," she breathed. She trailed her hand down Nadine's chest, stroked her belly and then started to sit up. "Can I assume you'll thank me later?"
Nadine frowned and opened her eyes. Kathryn Price passing up instant gratification? She sat up on her elbows and watched as Kate stood up. "Why later?"
Kate gathered her towel and wiped her fingers on it. "Work. I have to cover tonight's Town Hall meeting." She stuck her tongue out and looked down to make sure her own thighs weren't wet before she looped the towel around her shoulders like a scarf. "I'm covering the City Beat this month, so... since I'm in town..." She shrugged and walked naked into the living room.
Nadine followed, also not bothering to cover up. She paused in the doorway and crossed her hands over her breasts. They were still sensitive and she resisted the urge to shudder as her arms brushed her erect nipples. "C-could I come with you?"
"To a Town Hall meeting?" Kate smirked. "Are you sure you can handle the excitement?"
Nadine shrugged. "Come on. It'll be like a date. It'll make up for not getting to the mainland this weekend."
"I'm not entirely sure you understand what a Town Hall meeting entails," Kate said. "But yeah, come along. You can make fun of Mayor Dugan with me."
Nadine grinned. "Great! Just give me a chance to get dressed."
"Okay," Kate said. She wrapped the towel around herself and headed for the door. "I have to run upstairs to change anyway."
When Kate was gone, Nadine went into the bathroom for a quick shower of her own. Her head was still throbbing, but the sex had actually helped take the edge off. She glanced at herself in the mirror and managed to smile at her reflection. Maybe she wouldn't have to have the confrontation about Amy and everything she felt was wrong in their relationship. Maybe tonight was actually the first step in actually becoming a couple.
If she'd bothered to take stock of the enemies in her path - the heat, the trauma of seeing her father, the anger she'd been nursing since seeing Kate and Amy together, the shame at her reaction to Miranda - she would have done the wise thing and ran to the couch where she could hide under the blankets until Monday.
The Town Hall was only a few blocks away, separated from her apartment building by a sea of restaurants. When Kate came back downstairs in slacks and a white blouse, Nadine suggested they walk rather than take Kate's car. The weather had decided to turn cold again, but it was still comfortable enough that they wouldn't need jackets and Kate agreed.
The street lights were glowing, the cool breeze of the harbor a balm after the unseasonably warm day they'd had. Nadine put her arm around Kate's without thinking and let herself be drawn into her lover's embrace. Their first date had ended with a moonlit walk and Nadine smiled at the memory. *Our first night together, I gave her a flower,* she thought.
*Nadine knelt down, plucked a purple-and-white peony from the flower bed, and carried it back to Kate. She stuck the flower into a buttonhole on Kate's shirt and it hung away from her chest, bobbing like a bizarre second head and Nadine laughed.
"Are you supposed to pluck those?" Kate asked as she gently touched the petals.
"It's okay, I know the caretaker."*
She put her chin on Kate's shoulder and heard her chuckle.
Kate squeezed Nadine's hand and bent down. She whispered, "All we need is a peony and everything will be perfect."
Nadine blinked and looked up at her. "I was *just* thinking that."
Kate smiled. She took a chance and, as they passed through a shadow between two street lights, she bent down and kissed Nadine's cheek. Nadine felt her face flush and pressed against Kate's side. She was glad that she'd held her tongue, glad Kate had seduced her before she could start the fight she had planned. This was exactly what she'd been aching for the past couple of months; a walk in the moonlight, a kiss on the cheek, just being close enough to smell Kate's shampoo and enjoying each other. Like a real couple.
They walked in silence for a while and Nadine finally couldn't hold it back anymore. "Is Amy gay?"
Kate didn't hesitate. "Mm-hmm."
"Yes, honey, I'm gay, too."
Nadine smirked. "No, I was going to ask if you were... attracted to her."
"Why would you ask that?"
*That's not a no,* Nadine thought. *Why couldn't you have just said no, you stupid reporter?* She shrugged, trying to hide her dismay. "The way you guys were acting today, I just thought... I don't know... and the stupid article. It was the same article you were doing when you and I started..."
Kate laughed. "Contrary to what you may believe, I don't use my job to pick up chicks." Nadine was glad it was dark so Kate couldn't see her blush. "I told you, I had a crush on you for ages." She stopped at the corner and turned to face Nadine. She stroked her cheek and said, "Don't worry. Amy and I are just friends. I think she's seeing some butch cop from the mainland or... something." She kissed the tip of Nadine's nose.
Nadine smiled and nodded towards Town Hall. "Come on. Let's go get bored to tears. And then we can stop at one of these foine 'stablishments and get some food in us."
"Foine?" Kate said.
"Is that a word in your world?"
Nadine chuckled and hugged Kate tighter.
The front doors of the Town Hall stood open, revealing the welcoming yellow glow within. They went up the stairs, unconsciously slipping away from one another to keep up the façade that they were 'just friends.' They took their seats near the middle of the room, on the aisle, and chatted with people nearby as the room filled up with stragglers.
Kate leaned forward to speak with someone from the newspaper and Nadine looked around the room. The meeting room was extremely quaint; it looked like someone's idea of a meeting hall from a century ago. Electric lanterns fashioned to look like gaslights ran the length of the walls to either side, filled with candle-shaped bulbs instead of true flames. Wood-carvings of people she assumed to be the island's first inhabitants hung between the sconces. She recognized Gabriel Sawyer, the man who had led the first expedition to the island and had a statue in the Memorial Park, but the rest were absolute strangers.
A man at the front of the room cleared his throat and the conversation began to die down. Kate leaned back into her seat and everyone faced forward. The front of the room was dominated with a stage that had hosted everything from school pageants to graduation. Two men in the familiar tan-and-black uniforms of the police department were seated at the far end. A fat, older man in a green suit was closer to the middle.
When the din of the crowd had died down, the older policeman stood and walked to the podium. His uniform was crisp, his badge and bald head both reflecting the light of the hall. He gripped the edge of the podium, looked down at the papers lying in front of him and cleared his throat. "I, uh..." The microphone whined feedback and he covered it with his hand. Offering only a slight grimace that spoke volumes about his irritation, he coughed into his hand and tried again.
"I'm Sheriff Cal Rucker. And, ah, of course you all know Mayor Jameson Dugan," he said, gesturing at the man in the ugly suit. Dugan half-rose from his seat and offered a slight wave. *Like he's a Presidential candidate or something,* Nadine thought. She glanced at Kate and saw the sly grin that meant she'd had the same thought. They smiled at one another, but said nothing out loud.
"Well, uh... I suppose we should start with new business. If anyone has anything they want to discuss, grievances to air, I'd like to invite you to come up to the microphone in the aisle..." He tightened and released his fingers on the edge of the podium for a few minutes as the room remained still. He smiled and said, "Well, folks, as much as I'd like to call it a night right now, I'm sure there's *something* you'd all like to talk about."
A few chuckles and then an older woman near the front stood up. Rucker saw her and smiled. "Hello, Mildred."
Mildred walked to the microphone, angled it down so it would catch her voice and said in a loud, clear voice, "I might's well speak up." She cleared her throat and said, "Is it true Fire Chief Bradley is going to retire at the end of the year?"
Rucker nodded. "Don has spoken to me about it briefly and yes, he's planning to step down at the end of... of December, I think it was." He adjusted some papers and nodded. "We're already looking for a replacement for him and have a couple of options from mainland fire departments. If we cannot find someone to take over by the time he leaves, Assistant Chief Wolfe will step in temporarily."
Mildred nodded and said, "Just find someone as good as Mr. Bradley. He helped rebuild my garage when it caught fire a few years back. Really nice fellow, really nice."
There was a smattering of applause as Mildred returned to her seat. Rucker was smiling and nodded, "Yes, ma'am, old Don went above and beyond. We shouldn't be surprised it finally took something out of him." He waited until Mildred had made it back to her seat before he scanned the room. "Anyone else? Grievances, questions... comments..."
A woman stood up at the far right of the room. She tightened her blazer and sidled her way down the row of chairs towards the aisle. Kate muttered, "Oh, God, not her." She looked at Nadine with weary acceptance. "You may get entertained after all..."
Nadine glanced at Kate and then watched as the slender woman approached the microphone. She wore a business suit that had never seen a wrinkle and her hair was pulled back in a tight bun without a single strand out of place. A pair of small eyeglasses hung on the edge of her nose and seemed to threaten to fall with each step of her fine Italian shoes.
She marched to the microphone and spun on her heel like a general addressing her troops. Kate groaned and, from the look on Rucker's face he was familiar with her as well. He rested his chin on his left fist and looked at her with patient acceptance. "Hello, Eleanor. What's the problem this week?"
Eleanor Nelson ignored the tone of his voice and held her prepared statement out with one hand. She cleared her throat and said, "Thank you, Sheriff Rucker. I have come before this meeting to request that a certain 'novel' be taken off the shelves of our hallowed December Harbor Public Library. The book is entitled *Sparks of Love,* and it was written by a woman named Francesca Harland. This book depicts a... homosexual relationship as normal."
Rucker sighed and straightened his back. "Now, Eleanor, someone else tried to remove that book from the library last month. The librarians read it and they decided there is nothing explicit in the book, no graphic love scenes or even strong language. It's a love story."
"It is a *lesbian* love story, Sheriff Rucker." She said 'lesbian' with the same venom most people reserve for necrophilia and child pornography. She turned to address the crowd and said, "This book is listed in the card catalogue under the 'romance' title and can be checked out by any age group."
"That's not exactly--"
She interrupted him with another prepared argument. "The children of this town do not need such prurient filth in their library. The children of this town..."
Nadine closed her eyes. She didn't literally feel a snap; it was more of a sagging. Like the weight of the day had finally broken a dam in her mind and her mouth was caught in the flow. She had read *Sparks of Love* and thought it was a gorgeous love story. It had made her cry. She owned her own copy and reread it as often as she could. Without even meaning to, she spoke aloud. "Oh, please."
Kate glanced at her and Nadine saw a brief 'what are you doing?' look on her face before she looked away. Sheriff Rucker, grateful for any distraction from Eleanor Nelson's rant, turned and scanned the crowd. He seemed to have a general idea of where the voice had come from, but couldn't pinpoint it. "Did someone have something to add?"
A tiny voice in the back of her mind told her to stay quiet. To sit still, let it pass, make a quiet - and anonymous - complaint to the library if the book was removed from the shelves.
If she hadn't spent the entire day battling the heat and a headache, she might have listened to the voice. If she hadn't had the confrontation with her father, if the whole situation with Kate hadn't been weighing on her mind all day, if and if and if. If she'd realized what it would lead to, maybe she would have had the wherewithal to keep quiet.
Instead, she gripped the back of the folding chair in front of her and pushed herself to her feet. While everyone else in the room turned to look at her, Kate tried as hard as she could to melt into her own metal folding chair. Nadine spoke directly to Eleanor. "Books don't make you gay, lady."
Rucker cleared his throat to get Nadine's attention and said, "I'm sorry, I don't recognize you. Your name would be...?"
"I'm Nadine Butler."
His eyes widened slightly. "The Pixie?" He smiled and slapped his palm on the podium. "Boy, you know, I-I listen to your show all the time."
"Thank you," she said perfunctorily. She turned to face Eleanor Nelson once more. "I've read *Sparks of Love* a couple of times and it's a beautiful book. Keeping it out of the library is close-minded and, and stupid. You don't have a problem with Stephen King books being on the shelves. Dismemberments, graphically bloody murders, talk about a reason to censor them. But I don't campaign to hide those books, I just don't read them. Banning books is the height of ignorance. I mean, think of what we'd be missing if *Huckleberry Finn* had been banned because some old fogie thought it was racist. Some of the greatest books of all time have been banned at one time or another."
"I am sure," Eleanor huffed, "that you are not comparing this... smut... to Mark Twain?"
"It's not smut, you dense woman," Nadine snapped. Rucker recoiled a bit before hiding a smile behind his palm. "It's a beautifully-written love story. Maybe if you'd had some love in your life, you'd recognize the difference."
Rucker coughed into his hand and had to turn around for a moment before he composed himself.
Nadine continued. "Reading books like this didn't make *me* gay. Books like that made me feel like I wasn't such a freak. It showed me there were other people going through the same thing I was. Taking this book out of the library would be the worst thing you could do. You'd be alienating teenagers, kids who are starting to feel different. They need books like this to let them know they aren't alone."
She looked around and realized she'd taken over the whole meeting. People were staring at her and she could feel her ears burning. She cleared her throat and smiled apologetically to Rucker. "Sorry." She smoothed the front of her trousers and took her seat again. She glanced at Kate and saw a look of sheer terror on her face. Nadine shook her head and faced forward again. "Nadine," Kate hissed.
"I had to say it," she hissed back.
"Nadine, you just came out."
Nadine blinked. She shook her head slowly and whispered, "What? No. Just because I read a book doesn't mean..." It hit her in the face like a backhanded slap. Every muscle in her face went slack and her eyes threatened the overlap her glasses. She slowly turned and realized everyone in the room was still staring at her. Not because of her rant, but because of one little fact she'd dropped into the middle of it without even thinking. Even the Sheriff looked dumbstruck.
She covered her face with both hands and sank down in her chair. "Oh, shit," she groaned through her fingers.
Rucker managed to get the meeting back on track without too much trouble. Nadine slipped from her seat and hurried to the door at the back of the room. She felt every eye on her, heard whispers as she passed. She tucked her hands under her arms, ducked her head and rushed out into the rapidly cooling night.
She stopped at the sidewalk and paced nervously between the cars parked at the curb. She paused and looked down at the harbor, barely visible past the police station. Sailboats were coming in to dock for the night, bobbing and weaving on the surface of the water. Behind her, the door of the hall swung open and closed like a whisper. She didn't turn to see who had joined her, but she smelled Kate's perfume a moment later.
"What the hell did I just do?" she whispered.
Kate walked around and faced Nadine. Her eyes were still wide and shocked, her lips trying to form words against an uncooperative tongue. Finally, she turned and looked at the harbor with her. The sun still offered a little bit of light, but the moon was already hanging low in the sky, flat and dull. Nadine chewed her bottom lip and said, "How many people do you suppose were in there?"
Kate turned around. "I don't think that matters, Dean." Nadine was so struck by the nickname that it took her a moment to remember that Kate was the one who had actually started using it. Miranda hadn't picked it up until about a year ago. Kate continued speaking. "There were about thirty people in there. Including Eleanor Nelson. It doesn't matter how many people are in there, by tomorrow it'll be all over the island."
Nadine made a low mewling sound at the back of her throat.
"It's not a disaster," Kate said. "You can still salvage it. Just say you were trying to prove a point."
Kate shrugged. "I don't know... 'This proves *anyone* could be gay! I might have been telling the truth, ha ha.' Something like that. I don't know, Nadine. I'm just saying that it's not the end of the world."
"I can't go back in there, Kate." She looked out at the harbor again and shook her head. "I-I'm... I'm just going to go home."
"Okay," Kate said. "But... Dean... the article..."
It took her a moment to realize what Kate was talking about. She frowned and then looked down at the notepad in Kate's hand. "The article," she whispered. "You're going to... report on what happened?"
"I'd have to, Dean. You think I could get away with ignoring something like that?"
"You would... do that to me?"
Kate stepped forward and reached for Nadine's arm. Nadine twisted away from her. Kate sighed. "I'm saying don't make me do it. If I leave it out, everyone in there will start to wonder what *I* have to hide."
"Out me to protect your own closet," Nadine scoffed.
"Go back in there!" Kate hissed. "Fix this while you still can! Before Eleanor Nelson can..."
"Stop! Eleanor Nelson could tell, what, twenty people? Maybe? You're sitting here admitting that you're going to put it in print. How many people will see *that*, Kate? You can blame Eleanor Nelson all you want; you're the one who is going to bury me."
A small plane went overhead and both of them looked up to follow its flight path, grateful for the distraction. It descended towards the small airport outside of town, but Nadine kept her eyes on the sky. She watched as tiny pinpricks of light began to appear in the velvet of the sky, as the moon's companions finally decided to come out and play. Her nostrils flared as she took a deep breath and looked back at Kate. "I'm going home."
Nadine turned around and started to walk away.
Kate, unable to just let her leave, called after her, "Can I come over later?"
"No," Nadine said without turning.
Kate watched until Nadine was around the corner before she went back into the town hall. No one looked up as she entered, just as they hadn't paid attention to her exit. After Nadine was out of their midst, they seemed to forget all about the commotion that had occurred just a few moments before.
She settled down to continue her notes and crossed her fingers. Maybe Nadine's slip wouldn't be as bad as she thought.
Nadine walked home slowly, letting the realization of what she'd done sink in. After all these years, she had come out of the fiercely protected closet with the slip of the tongue. She glanced into the windows of restaurants she passed, paused to watch a flock of birds fly across the darkening sky and watched as an old man hosed off the sidewalk in front of his convenience store. She walked past her apartment building to Spring Street and stood on the corner.
People drove by, a few of them waved and she always waved back. She couldn't shake the feeling that it was her last night as a free woman. If Kate was right, before long she would be the subject of stares and hushed conversation. She might as well enjoy her town while she could.
She walked towards the harbor, once again unconsciously retracing the path she and Kate had walked after their first date. She stuck her hands into her pockets and wandered for another half hour, taking in the sights, smelling the breeze of the water. It was her town, where she was born and probably where she would die. Unless she was forced out of town. She'd heard of it happening; towns where people hadn't actually run a person out, but they'd made it a very unfriendly place to stay.
Before long, she realized that the night had gotten colder and regretted not taking a coat to the meeting. When a cold gust blew across her body and right through her blouse, she finally turned to go home. Her legs ached, but the pain occupied her mind from thoughts of the future.
She left the lights off as she went into her apartment. She sat in front of the window and looked through the blinds at her little garden. The flower buds were covered with bags to protect them from the cold, but they hadn't been doing too hot to begin with. She had been thinking about trying a new fertilizer to see if that revitalized them any, but she had to wonder if it was her own hand that needed the change. Hadn't she read somewhere that flowers responded to the mood of their tender? If so, the poor little plants had never stood a chance.
The past few years, she'd been feeling the weight of being in the closet. She hated it, and not just because it caused her to commit to horrific work commitments just because she was 'single.' She lived in the public eye, so anything kept private should have been cherished. And yet it ate away at her. Now, it was out there. It was in the open, people knew.
And then there was her actual relationship with Kate. It had been a decent enough relationship over the years, but now she was aching for something more... just something *more.* At least the idea of talking with Kate about their relationship didn't seem so overwhelming now. If her outburst in the meeting had been like tearing off a band-aid, then talking things out with Kate would be like the sting of antiseptic. A little painful, but necessary.
She closed her blinds and undressed for bed, sitting on the couch for a long time in the dark. She heard Kate come home and slip silently up the stairs. It was the oddest sensation, hearing Kate up there and not saying hello. Not banging on the roof with a broom or sticking her head out the door to say "Come on down. Hang out for a while."
She followed Kate's footsteps against the floor. There were two light little bumps; she must have taken off her shoes, and then Kate went towards the bedroom. After a minute or two with no further movement, Nadine assumed her girlfriend had gone to sleep. "Sleep well, Katie," she whispered to the darkness around her. She stretched out on the couch, pulled her quilt over her head and closed her eyes.
To Be Continued in Chapter Five
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