Chapter 17

Sam read the e-mail again.

Hi Samantha,
There's going to be an outdoor concert in Old Hyde Park Village on
Wednesday night. Do you want to go? It'll be right outside of where I
work. You could come a little early and we could eat at the Cactus Club.
They have really good hamburgers<g>.

Lisa walked into the study. "Any word from Tina?"

"Yeah, she asked me to a concert Wednesday night."

"Terrific! Things are moving right along, huh?"

Sam swiveled the chair around so she was facing her sister. "Yes."

"Are you going to go?"

"Of course! I wouldn't miss an opportunity to be with Tina. I find myself constantly daydreaming about her... I can't wait until we spend time together again."

"You're in love."

"Yes, and... umm... a little scared."

"Scared?" Lisa's voice took on a tone of concern. "Of her?"

"No, not at all. I'm afraid I'll do something to mess it up. I'm not sure what to say or do. I feel like a damn teenager."

Lisa chuckled. "Sounds like love all right."

"You're a BIG help." The blonde turned back toward the computer screen.

"Sam." Lisa came over and placed her hand on her sister's shoulder. "Just be yourself and follow your heart. You'll be fine."

"Thanks, Sis."


"Hello there." Vivian poked her head into Tina's office.


The boss came in and sat in a chair. "You look nice and tan. What have you been up to?"

"I went to the beach over the weekend."

Vivian held back a smile as she watched Tina fidget. "Alone?"

Tina sighed. She knew Vivian would get it out of her sooner or later, so it might as well be now. "I went to Lido Beach with Samantha." More fidgeting.

"You really like this Samantha, don't you?"

"Yes." Tina dropped her eyes to her desk, unable to hold Vivian's penetrating gaze.

Well, will wonders never cease? She's clearly nervous even talking about her. And that look in her eyes... this new friend has broken through Tina's tough exterior. Samantha must be very special. "Am I going to get to meet her?"

"I asked her to the concert Wednesday night." Tina quickly clicked open her mail program and saw that SamIAm had responded. "Let's see what she said." Smiling, she read the letter to herself. "Yes, she's coming."

"Good!" Vivian stood up. "I'll be sure to be here."

Tina looked at her boss in alarm. I know there would be no point in trying to talk you out of it.

"Don't even ask. There is NO way I'm going to miss this!" Vivian said as she strolled out of the office.

The accountant put her head in her hands. What am I getting myself into?


Sam followed the directions that Tina had given her and parked in the Hyde Park garage. She took the elevator to the street level, went out the glass doors that led to the sidewalk, and turned right. She said go past the Cactus Club and then it's about a block up the street. The musician walked past the restaurant and continued along until she saw a door with the words Exclusive Travel painted in gold lettering on it. She took a deep breath and went in.

A woman seated behind a desk just inside the door greeted her. "May I help you?"

"Yes, I'm here to see Tina Mellekas."

"You can sit right there," the receptionist indicated a couch to her left, "and... you are?"

"Samantha Whitwell."

"Thank you." The woman headed toward the offices in the back of the room.

Sam hummed along with the background music while she took in her surroundings. The travel agency was rectangular in shape, with a color scheme of gray, beige and a deep mauve. There were two desks, one of which belonged to the employee who had greeted Sam. The other one was currently unoccupied. The small waiting area where Sam was sitting had a couch and a pair of wingback chairs. There was a coffee table with magazines displayed on it in front of the couch. The walls were decorated with framed travel posters. Silk plants arranged around the room and soft lighting gave the place a relaxed, pleasant feeling. Very posh.

The receptionist came out of one of the offices with a petite, older woman dressed in a navy blue tailored skirt, matching blazer and a white, silk blouse. Her gray hair was stylishly fashioned and she carried herself with a stature and grace that suggested class. She was speaking as they approached the waiting area. "That will be all for today, Brenda."

"I'll see you tomorrow, then." The employee went to her desk, gathered her things, and left.

"Hello, Samantha." The older woman came over to Sam and extended her hand. "I'm Vivian Karanicholas."

Sam shook Vivian's hand. "It's nice to meet you."

"Tina is finishing up something for me. She'll be here in a few minutes. I'm sorry for the inconvenience."

"That's okay. I don't mind waiting."

Vivian sat in one of the chairs and regarded the woman across from her. The small blonde looked tense and sat stiffly with her hands folded in her lap. She was wearing a light green sweatshirt that brought out the green in her eyes. She wasn't wearing makeup and didn't appear to be in need of any, with her fresh-faced all-American look. Jeans and sneakers completed her outfit. Tina said she went to school with her... so she must be around 40... but she looks to be in her early thirties. A very attractive woman. "So... you've been spending quite a bit of time with Tina."

"Yes, I have."

"She's not an easy person to get to know."

"That's true." Sam smiled. "But very much worth the effort."

"I see. You like her a lot, then."


"I think she likes you, too."

"I... I'm hoping so with all my heart."

Hmmm... there's no pretense with this woman. She is open and honest and probably the best thing to come into Tina's life in a long time. "Be patient with her, Samantha. It takes her awhile to trust people."

"I know. She doesn't say much about herself at all. I am trying to wait and let her talk when she's ready."

Vivian nodded. "She'll appreciate that. And she WILL open up if you give her time. Meanwhile, I recommend that you pay more attention to what Tina does rather than what she says."

"What do you mean?" Sam asked, thrilled to receive advice from someone who was close to Tina.

"She lets her actions speak for themselves." Vivian leaned forward and lowered her voice. "For instance, in all the years Tina has worked for me, you're the first person she has ever invited here. That speaks volumes, wouldn't you say?"

Stunned, Sam sat silently for a moment. Finally, she answered softly, "Yes."

"Let's go see if she's about done." Vivian led the visitor to the back of the room. She knocked on the door to her right and opened it.

"Tina? Your friend is here."

Sam followed Vivian into the small office.

Tina was focused on the monitor of her computer while typing rapidly on the keyboard. "I'll be right there."

Vivian cleared her throat and Tina turned toward the sound. "Oh! Hi, Samantha."

"Hi," Sam responded, tilting her head slightly to one side and grinning.

What's she grinning at? Argh! Tina pulled off her glasses and laid them on her desk. "Vivian, I'm sorry. I haven't finished yet."

"That's all right. It can wait until tomorrow."

"Are you positive? I can have it done in a few..."

"Don't worry about it. Tomorrow morning will be sufficient."

"Okay." Tina shut off her computer. She put her glasses in the case and then into her backpack.

Sam was watching Tina's every move. I never thought anybody could look so sexy in a pair of glasses... wow!

Vivian was observing Sam. She can't take her eyes off her. It's going to be very interesting to see what develops between these two. "Well, it's time for me to go home. It's been a long day. Tina, will you do me a favor and get my car for me?"

The dark-haired woman immediately stopped packing her things and looked at her boss. "Are you all right?"

"Yes, dear. I'm fine. I'm just a little tired and would appreciate not having to trek through the concert crowd to get to the garage tonight."

Slinging her backpack over one shoulder, Tina came around the desk. "Where are your keys?"

"Let me get them for you." Vivian collected her purse and briefcase from her office. She handed the keys to the accountant and the group walked to the front door.

"I'll be right back." Tina said and hurried outside.

Sam and Vivian stood quietly for a couple of minutes, looking through the window at the people going by.

Vivian, having decided that the couple could use a nudge in the right direction, broke the silence. "Her birthday is this week."


The older woman laughed. "Well, she certainly won't tell you. She usually gets in a very grumpy mood and stays in all weekend. I thought perhaps you could get her out of the house."

"Thanks for telling me. I'll most definitely give it a try." Sam began formulating a plan.

Vivian glanced at the blonde, who seemed to be lost in thought. She'll think of something, I bet. A white Mercedes pulled up in front of the office. "There she is." The boss opened the door and they went out onto the sidewalk.

"It was wonderful meeting you," Sam said sincerely.

"Likewise." Vivian's hazel eyes twinkled as she smiled at Sam. "I hope to see you again soon."

"Me, too." Sam smiled back at Vivian. "Bye."

Tina, who was holding the Mercedes door open for Vivian, watched as the women exchanged good-byes. They're acting awfully chummy. I wonder how long they chatted before they came into my office?

Vivian thanked Tina, got in her car, and drove off.

"Ready to get some dinner?" Tina asked Sam.

"Yes." I hope you put on your glasses to read the menu.

Tina locked up the office and they started walking the short distance to the restaurant.

"It's so pretty here." Sam looked at the small park in the center of the bustling shopping district. The sidewalks were red brick and there were benches scattered throughout the nicely landscaped grounds. A three-tiered fountain was positioned in the center of the park. Several large trees formed a canopy above the entire area.

"Yes. It is. The band will be set up right there in the park. The audience will sit around the fountain and on the benches. It's very nice." Tina stopped walking. "Here we are." She opened the door of the Cactus Club and they went in.

The women enjoyed a leisurely dinner. Sam was disappointed that Tina never even looked at the menu, stating that she knew it by heart because she ate there so often. Tina had the chicken fajita salad and Sam had a hamburger and fries. They talked about current events, good-naturedly debating things they had differing opinions about, but finding that they agreed on most issues.

Tina insisted on paying the bill and they left the restaurant.

Sam stopped just outside the door, gasping with delight at the scene before her.Darkness had fallen and the park was illuminated by thousands of tiny white lights strung through the trees. "It's beautiful."

Tina looked at Sam and saw the reflection of the lights in her eyes. "Yes, it is."

They meandered through the crowded park listening to the soft sounds of the jazz group that was performing. There was no available place to sit, so they wandered along the sidewalks and looked in the windows of the upscale shops. Sam led the way, excitedly exploring the area. She went into some of the stores and Tina trailed behind her. Sam's favorite was the Godiva chocolate store. Tina liked The Sharper Image, where they let the customers try out all the latest gadgets.

Turning down an alley, they came upon a small leather shop. Looking in the window, Sam saw briefcases, luggage and backpacks. "Is this where you got your backpack?"

"Yes, a few years ago."

"I like it." Sam reached out and touched the brown leather. "It's very... you."


"OH, LOOK!" Sam pointed at a store on the corner. "Ice cream!"

Tina rolled her eyes. I knew she'd find that.

"Let's get some... okay?" Sam was already on her way into the shop. She purchased two cones and handed one to her friend. "It won't kill you to have a little ice cream."

Tina grumbled but accepted the chocolate chip cone.

The women ambled across the street. They went up the stairs where they could stand on the second floor walkway and look down at the park. Leaning against the railing and eating their ice cream, they were quiet as they listened to the music.

This tastes really good. Though, I should NOT be eating it. Tina glimpsed at Sam next to her, seemingly engrossed in the music. She has that effect on me... I do things I might not normally do... but nice things... fun things. She's brought some happiness back into my life. I never expected that would happen to me.

The concert ended and the crowd began to thin as people headed for home. Tina and Sam had finished their ice cream and were resting their arms on the railing, watching the activity below.

"Can we go see the fountain?" Sam asked.


The women went down the steps and over to the fountain. Sam fished around in her pocket for some change. She took one of Tina's hands and placed a coin in it. "We should make a wish. Don't you think?"

"Yes, we should." All the times I've been right here in this park and I never thought to do this.

Both of them stood silently for a moment, thinking, before tossing their coins into the water.

"Ready to go?"

Sam nodded, still looking at the fountain.

Tina lightly put her hand on Sam's back as they started moving toward the garage. "Did you find the garage okay? What floor did you park on?"

"Yes, your directions were very good. I parked on the third floor."

They crossed the street and Tina opened the glass door to the elevator vestibule for the garage. They took the elevator up to the third level and walked to Sam's car.

Sam leaned her back against the Toyota's door and smiled at Tina. "Are you doing anything this weekend?" Please don't lie to me.

Tina suddenly found it difficult to look at Sam and dropped her gaze to her feet. "I... umm... I'm not sure yet..." Don't ask me to do anything... not THIS weekend.

"I have to work Friday night and during the day on Sunday, but maybe you could come over Saturday night?"

The dark-haired woman started shuffling her feet and Sam sensed a negative reply was on the way.She quickly continued, "How about we hang out at my place? We can watch the sunset, rent a video, and order a pizza."

Tina put her hands in her pockets and hunched her shoulders. "I... I was just going to stay in this weekend. Do some things around the house..."

Well, at least she's not lying... "Please?"Sam stepped closer so she could look into Tina's downcast face and saw blue eyes full of sorrow. Vivian wasn't kidding... you really don't like your birthday... and you have no intention of telling me about it either. Now Sam regretted having pushed the woman. "I'm sorry... I shouldn't have..."

Her next words were smothered as Tina pulled her into a hug.

"It's all right. I'm a little moody this week. If you can put up with that, I'll come over on Saturday. I can't promise to be great company, though."

"It's a deal." Oh, I LIKE it when you hug me.

Tina reluctantly let go of Sam. Just hugging you makes me feel so much better.

The blonde unlocked her car and got in the driver's seat. "How about around 6:00?"


"I had a really good time tonight. Thank you."

"You're welcome. Good night, Samantha."

Sam closed her door and started the car. As she drove out of the garage, she saw Tina standing, hands in her pockets, watching her leave.

I love you, Tina Mellekas.

Chapter 18

"Lisa?" Sam entered her sister's house through the back door.

"I'm in the laundry room."

Sam went into the small room off the kitchen. "Can I borrow your electric mixer?"

Lisa stopped sorting the mountain of clothes on the floor. "You want to use a MIXER? What for?"

"I'm going to make a cake."

"You?Make a cake?"

"Look, if you don't want to help, just say so." I'm in no mood to get teased about my lack of cooking skills, which will invariably lead to more teasing about my less-than-nutritious fast food diet.

"Of course I'll help." Uh oh... she's stressed out about something. "But why in the world do you want to make a cake?"

"It's for Tina's birthday. She's coming over tonight."

Well, that explains the stress factor. "Sam, I don't think trying to bake something for her is a good idea. I mean..."

"I want to do it. It's the thought... the effort... that's important. I already bought the cake mix and a can of frosting. How difficult can it be?"

"It's not hard. Let me get a load of clothes started. Why don't you bring the stuff over and we'll make it here?"

"Okay. Thanks, Lisa." Sam visibly relaxed.

"No problem, Sis."

Sam left to get the ingredients from her apartment.

Lisa put the first load of clothes into the washer. Geez...wanting to bake a cake...this is a first. No doubt about it... she's in love.


Tina shut off the television. The Florida State football team had won again and remained undefeated. They'll still be ranked #1 in the nation. She glanced at the clock on the mantle over the fireplace. I'd better get going. I'll have just enough time to stop and visit Steven before getting to Sam's.

Picking up her backpack on the way out the door, she rode the elevator down to the garage, got in her car, and pulled out onto Bayshore Boulevard. It's a beautiful day. Funny how I seem to be noticing things like that more lately. Must be the influence of a certain little blonde. Tina smiled. It's true. She has me thinking about sunsets and music and ... and green eyes. She sighed. Admit it. You like those eyes... you like HER...but...

We're friends. And that's how it should be. Nothing more.

Merging onto I-75, the BMW joined the flow of traffic moving south. A Rascals song came on the radio and Tina turned up the volume.

I've been lonely too long
I've been lonely too long
In the past they've come and gone
I feel like I can't go on without love
I've been lonely too long
I've been lonely too long

How come just about every song I hear now seems to have something to do with my life?

As I look back, I can see me lost and searching
Now I find that I can choose... I'm free
So funny I just have to laugh
All of my trouble... been torn in half

She sang along with the chorus and the next verse, too.

"To see me now...
Makes it worth the time I've waited
She was all I need to make me see... oh yeah
I keep hoping with all my might
Everything's gonna turn out right
I've been lonely too long...lonely so long"

Tina turned off the radio. Sheesh! That's enough of that! She rode the rest of the way to Sarasota in silence.


Sam used a butter knife to make little swirl patterns in the frosting on top of the cake. "It came out really well, didn't it?"

"Yes." Lisa smiled at her sister. "Are you going to put candles on it?"

"No. Well... maybe one." Somehow, I don't think Tina would appreciate having the entire cake ablaze with candles.

"Here." Lisa took a plastic cake container out of the cupboard. "Put it on this plate and then the cover snaps on top." She showed Sam how to do it. "And when you want to take the cover off, you pull the small tab on the side to release it."


"Anytime, Sam. What do you want to learn to make next? Spinach casserole?"

"Yuck! No way. This will be quite enough cooking for me for a while."

"I thought you might say that."

"I need to get going." Sam picked up the cake. "Wish me luck."

"Good luck. You'd better be over here tomorrow morning to tell me what happened."

"All right. I will."

Lisa watched her sister carefully climb the stairs to the apartment, holding the cake with both hands.I don't know how Tina will be able to resist you.


Tina knelt in front of her brother's headstone and looked at the epitaph with profound sadness. She kissed her fingertips and touched his name.

Hi, Stevie.

It's that time again. Another birthday... hard to believe, isn't it?

She sat down and leaned against the headstone.

Forty-four. I never imagined I'd be this old.

Never thought I'd be an only child, either.

I guess one never knows where life is going to take them...

Or when life will be taken from them.

I'm on my way to Samantha's. She's wonderful and we've kind of become friends. I think I'm finally starting to put my life back together... I know you'd be happy about that. It's been... strange... having someone to care about again. It's a little scary... but worth it.

Samantha is definitely worth it.


Sam rushed around the apartment one last time, making sure everything was just right. I'm a nervous wreck about this. How am I going to broach the subject of her birthday without her getting mad? Should I give her the cake or not? Maybe the cake wasn't such a good idea. I have a feeling this is going to go either very well or very badly. I need to be careful tonight. She warned me that she might be in a bad mood.

Picking up the novel she was currently reading, Sam went outside and sat on the steps to wait for Tina. Ten minutes later, she was so absorbed in the story that she didn't hear the BMW pull in the driveway. The sound of the car door closing caused her to look up from the book. Tina was standing at the bottom of the stairs, dressed in black jeans and a light blue denim shirt with a button-down collar.

The musician's breath caught. She's so beautiful. I don't know how much longer I can wait before I tell her how I feel. "Hi."

"Hi." Tina started up the steps.

Sam stood and found herself at eye level with her tall friend who had stopped two stairs below her. That shirt is the same blue as her eyes... and I love button-down collars... It will be my favorite shirt...

"What are you reading?"

The blonde managed to stop staring at Tina long enough to glance at the title, which she suddenly seemed unable to recall. "Oh... um... it's called Tropical Storm. A friend of mine got it for me for my birthday. I'm only just now getting around to reading it."

"I think I've heard of it on the Internet. May I see it?"

Sam handed her the novel before turning to open the door of the apartment.

Tina looked at the front and back cover as she followed Sam inside. They both took a seat on the couch.

"Yes." Tina laid the book on the coffee table. "I've heard of this online."

Hmm... that's interesting. "Would you like something to drink?"



"That sounds good."

Sam went into the kitchen and got two beers from the refrigerator. She came back to the living room holding the bottles. "Would you like a glass?"

"No, the bottle is fine."

Sam handed one of the beers to Tina. "Let's go sit out on the balcony."


The women walked through the bedroom and onto the balcony.

"There you go." Sam pointed at the lounge chair to the right.

Sam settled into the other chair. So far, so good. When I look at her from this side, I get to see that gray streak. I love that...

"You were right." Tina looked out in the distance where the sun was already descending toward the tops of the trees. "The view here is fantastic."

Yes, it is... With considerable effort, Sam directed her attention toward the sunset. "Yes, it is."

The women sipped their beers and watched the sunset in silence.

As the sun disappeared behind the trees, Sam sat up, preparing to light some candles. She looked over and saw that Tina had her eyes closed and was breathing deeply.

She fell asleep! Sam lay back down, turned on her side, and propped herself up on one elbow. Taking advantage of the opportunity, she gazed intently at the woman next to her. Tina had both hands resting across her torso. I love her hands... big... and strong looking. One leg was stretched out straight but the other one was bent and pointed off to the right. Her head also was tilted slightly to the right. I want to kiss those gray hairs just above your temple... and...

A dog barked and Tina's eyes fluttered open. Momentarily disoriented, she looked to her right and then her left... and into the very green eyes of a smiling Samantha Whitwell.

"Hi... I think you fell asleep for a few minutes." And you don't snore... you get bonus points for that...

"Oh? I'm sorry." Fell asleep? Here?

"It's all right. I've done that more than once." Sam sensed that her friend was slightly embarrassed and decided to change the subject. "How about I light a few candles and we'll order the pizza? Are you hungry?"

"Okay." Tina rubbed her eyes. "Yes."

Tina watched as Sam lit several candles around the patio.

"So, what kind of pizza do you like?" Sam asked.

"Anything will be fine."

"Oh, no... you won't get away with that this time. You like pizza, don't you?"


"What's your favorite kind?"


"Just cheese you mean?"


"Great! That's my favorite, too." Hooray... a food item in common! Sam went inside to order the pizza.

Tina looked around. The flickering candles and the view of the emerging stars created a nice atmosphere. There was a slight breeze that made being outside quite comfortable. This is really pleasant. I can see why she likes it so much.

"The pizza is ordered." Sam entered the patio and returned to her seat. She lay on her side again so she could see Tina. "I enjoyed meeting Vivian the other day. She seems like a terrific person."

"Yes, she is."

"How did you end up working for her?"

Tina looked out at the stars as she answered. "Well, I had resigned from my job at the accounting firm after the accident. I moved to Tampa, in the Hyde Park area, so I would be close to Tampa General Hospital. I had rehab therapy there for my back every day for a few months and then several times a week after that." Tina paused, seemingly mulling over what more she should say. "I tried to walk as much as possible... it was really the only exercise I could do at that time. Anyway, one morning I was walking around Hyde Park Village and I saw a help wanted sign in a travel agency's window. It was closed... I guess it must have been on a weekend... but there was a woman inside, so I knocked on the door and she let me in."

"It was Vivian?"

"Yes." Tina grinned. "She didn't know what to make of me... limping in and asking for the job... but she hired me."

"It seems to have worked out well for both of you."

"Yes, it has."

She seems fairly talkative... maybe I can get a little more information. "You didn't like the firm you worked for... is that why you resigned?"

There was a long silence and Sam was just about to talk about something else when Tina answered.

"I didn't feel like I belonged there."

Sam thought carefully before commenting. "Everybody needs to feel like they belong somewhere... you feel that now, don't you? That you belong with Vivian's company?"


"Good... I'm glad." And we belong together...I know that for sure. Sam plunged ahead. "Vivian and I talked a little when I was there on Wednesday."

Tina turned her head and looked at Sam. "I figured that."

"She cares about you a lot."

"I know."

"She told me..." The blonde hesitated, unsure of whether to go on.

Tina could see that Sam was worried about whatever it was she wanted to say.I can't believe Vivian would've told her anything bad... "What did she tell you?"

The gentle tone of the question convinced Sam it would be all right to finish the sentence and the words tumbled out in a rush. "She told me your birthday was this week."

Tina sighed. Oh, I'll get you for this, Vivian. "Yes, that's true."

"She also said you don't like your birthday."

"I don't," came the brusque reply.

"I'm sorry... maybe I shouldn't have said anything."

"It's just that I... this..." Tina's words became choked with emotion and she stopped speaking.

Sam waited, correct in her assumption that, given time, the woman would continue when she was ready.

"This... is a... difficult time of year for me." Though, it's been easier this year... with you around. "Steven... died ... right before his birthday. Every year, on my birthday, I am reminded of all the birthdays he never had... he'll never have..."

So, you don't think you should celebrate yours. Sam's eyes filled with tears. Two lives were lost that day... but maybe we can get yours back again. Sliding off the side of her chair, she squeezed her small frame into the empty space on Tina's left and curled up next to her. And then she cried.

What's going on here? Tina wrapped her arms around the sniffling woman. "Why are you crying?"

"The whole thing is such a ...tragedy."

"Yes... it is."

"Do you ever cry about it?"

"All the time, Samantha," Tina spoke in barely above a whisper, "on the inside."

They lay there quietly and eventually their breathing settled into the same slow pattern. The sound of the doorbell startled both of them.

"That must be the pizza." Sam didn't want to move. I like it right where I am. Loud knocking reverberated through the apartment. The blonde sat up and ran her fingers through her hair. "I'll be back in a minute." She rushed to answer the door.

Tina was struggling to process everything that was going on. Her body was warm from having the younger woman lying against her. But that felt...nice. And...her crying like that... for Steven... for me... I've never met anyone like her.

"Tina?" Sam came to the doorway of the balcony. "Do you want to eat out here or in the house?"

"Let's go inside. Okay?" Tina got up from the chair and stretched.

"Okay." Sam led the way to the kitchen. She opened the pizza box and looked inside. "This looks GOOD!" She got plates out of a cabinet above the counter and put two slices of pizza on each one. "What would you like to drink?"

"Water will be fine. Let me get it." Tina reached for the handle of the refrigerator.

"NO!" Sam quickly grabbed the handle. "I'll get it. Would you take the food into the living room for me?"

"Sure." Tina took the plates into the other room and placed them on the coffee table. She's rather territorial about that refrigerator. What's that all about?

Sam opened the refrigerator and got a bottle of water and a diet soda. The cake was sitting on the top shelf in plain view. Whew... that was close. She shut off the kitchen light and went around the corner to the living area with the drinks. "What kind of movie would you like to see?" She set the water and soda on coasters. "I rented a sci-fi one and a comedy."

"Let's go with the comedy."

"Have you ever seen Sister Act?" Sam took the video out of the case and inserted it into the VCR.

"Hmm... it sounds vaguely familiar."

"It's the one where Whoopie Goldberg plays a Las Vegas lounge singer who hides out in a convent. She ends up conducting the choir." Sam joined Tina on the couch. "It's very funny." She took one of the plates, laid it on her lap, slipped off her sneakers and plopped her feet on the coffee table in front of her. She smiled at Tina. "It's okay... go ahead."

Tina did the same.

The women ate their pizza, laughed at the movie, and sang along with most of the songs.

"Did you like it?" Sam pressed the remote control to rewind the tape.

"Yeah, it was good." Tina began putting her sneakers on.

You can't leave yet! "Umm... I kind of made something special for dessert."

"Dessert? I don't usually have dessert..."

"Well... this is a special occasion... and I made it myself." The last words were stated especially proudly.

Tina couldn't say no to that. "Okay."

"Great! You wait right here." Sam went into the kitchen. She took the cake out of the refrigerator and put it on the counter. She pulled on the tab to release the top. What the heck? Sam tried it again. The top refused to budge. She wrestled with the container and almost lost the whole thing off the counter. "Damn!"

"Is everything all right in there?"

"Yes." Sam tried to make her voice sound unconcerned. "I'll be there in a minute." Relax... pull on the little tab... She tried again and the top came off. YES! She stuck one candle in the center of the cake and lit it.

Tina looked up at the musician as she came into the room. A birthday cake?

Sam placed the cake on the table and sat on the couch. She took one of Tina's hands in her own. "Please don't be angry with me."

"I'm certainly surprised... but not angry." When was the last time I had a birthday cake? "Thank you."

"You're welcome." She likes it! "I'd sing to you but I thought that might be a bit much."

"I like it when you sing."

My goodness! She's a real softie underneath it all. Sam kept hold of Tina's hand and positioned herself so she could look directly at the dark-haired woman. She sang the birthday song all the way through, never breaking the eye contact.

At the conclusion of the song, Tina stared down at their linked hands. She did not speak.

"Are you going to blow out the candle?" Sam asked.

"Oh! Yes."

"I'll get the forks and plates." Sam hustled into the kitchen.

Tina wiped her eyes with her shirtsleeve. Geez... get a grip, T.

Sam made Tina follow birthday tradition and cut the cake. The women enjoyed their dessert which, Tina assured Sam, was very good... all three times that she asked.

Tina put her empty plate on the table. "Thanks for... everything." She started to stand up.

"Wait... please."

The guest sat back on the couch. "Yes?"

"I... I know it wasn't easy for you come over here tonight. I feel very special that you'd let me share in even a small part of your birthday."

That's because you ARE very special... don't you know that? "I'm glad I came."

"Me, too."Sam moved closer to Tina. "I want to tell you something before you leave." She looked deep into the eyes of the woman she loved. "I'm so happy that you were born. Whether you believe it or not, the world is a better place with you in it... MY world is a better place with you in it." She leaned forward and lightly brushed her lips against Tina's. "Happy Birthday."

Chapter 19

"You KISSED her?" Lisa refilled Sam's coffee cup.

"Well, it was only a LITTLE kiss..." But she has the softest lips...

"What did Tina do?" Lisa sat down at the kitchen table across from her sister.

"She didn't do anything. She thanked me for inviting her over and we said good night."

"That's it?"

"Yes. That's it."

"Did she like her present?"

"I forgot to give it to her. I think I'll take it to the travel agency tomorrow."

"You forgot?" Lisa asked, surprised. "You were so excited about that present..."

"With everything else happening..."

"Why? What ELSE happened last night?"

"Nothing, really... we just talked." Sam shrugged her shoulders.

This is not like you, Sam. You usually talk non-stop about every detail of the evening. "Getting Tina Mellekas to talk is a major accomplishment."

"She's very nice." VERY nice... and those blue eyes...

Lisa saw her sister start to daydream. "Ahem..."


"You have to work today?"

"Oh, yeah. I need to get ready." Sam gulped down the rest of her coffee.

"You're playing at the Art Festival?"

"Yes, a morning and afternoon performance."

"Maybe I'll bring the boys by later. Want me to bring some lunch?"

"That would be great." Sam got up and put her cup in the sink. "I'm SO happy."

"I can see that. Go on, get ready for work." Lisa waved her sibling out of the kitchen.


Tina pulled open the door to Exclusive Travel and used her foot to hold it ajar, as she quickly returned both hands to the cardboard coffee tray she was carrying.

"Good morning, Brenda." Tina greeted the receptionist and placed a styrofoam cup on her desk.

"Coffee? For me?"

"Yes." Tina headed back toward her office.

"Thanks!" Brenda called out to the retreating form of her co-worker. SHE in a good mood... and on a Monday no less!

Shortly thereafter, Vivian arrived. Entering her office, she saw a cup of coffee and a small white bag on her desk. Peeking into the bag, she recognized her favorite pastry from the bakery shop around the corner.

"Good morning."

Vivian looked up to see Tina standing in her doorway. "Good morning. What's all this?"

"Just thought I'd thank you properly for being so friendly to Samantha when she was here. I understand you two had quite a little chat."

"Oh." Vivian sat down and removed the plastic cover from the coffee. "Now, Tina..."


"You were finishing up that project for me and..."

"Vivian... it's okay."

"It is?"

"Yes. I went over to Samantha's Saturday night and it was... nice."

"I'm glad to hear that." The boss took a bite of her pastry. "Mmm... this is scrumptious!"

"Well... I guess I should get back to work."



"For what it's worth, I think Samantha is good for you. Give it a chance. Don't run."

She knows me so well. "I... I'll try." But fighting that instinct won't be easy.

"Good!" Vivian smiled. "And thanks for my breakfast."

Tina smiled back. "You're welcome." She returned to her office, still smiling.


Brenda hung up the phone and jotted down the message. The front door opened and she looked up to see who it was. The receptionist recognized the woman who had been in last week to see Tina. "Hello."


"You're here to see Ms. Mellekas?"

"No. I just wanted to drop something off for her."

"Are you sure you don't want me to tell her you're here?"

"That's not necessary. If you'd give this to her for me, I'd appreciate it." Sam handed Brenda a paper grocery bag.

"No problem. I'll take care of it for you."

"Thanks." Sam turned and slipped out the door.

Brenda carried the package back to her co-worker's office. "Tina?"


"Someone was just here and she asked me to give this to you."

"What?" Tina took the bag and set it on her desk.

"It's from that woman who was here last week."

Samantha? "Where is she?"

"She asked me to give this to you and then she left."

She left?"Thanks."

This is highly unusual. Brenda returned to the reception area. I wonder what it is?

Tina immediately went back to work on the report she needed to complete. She typed a few words on the keyboard before stealing a quick glimpse at the bag. Just open it, T... you know you can't wait to see what's in there. Curious, Tina unfolded the top and peered inside. She pulled out a small gift bag with birthday decorations all over it. Tina fished through the tissue paper and took out a gray plastic box. Hmmm... What's this? She opened the box and smiled. It's from Samantha all right. She looked into the grocery bag again and saw a card and a large object wrapped in tin foil. Taking out the card, she removed it from the envelope. The front showed two little girls, holding hands, standing on the seashore and looking out at the horizon. Inside, Samantha had written a note.

I forgot to give you this the other night.
Everybody should get at least one present
for their birthday, don't you think?
Thanks for coming over on Saturday.
I really had a good time.
Happy Birthday!
P.S. I sent some cake for you.
P.P.S. You'd better eat it, too.

Tina sat there staring at the card. What am I going to do with you?

Vivian came into the daydreaming accountant's office. "Hello?"

"Oh!" Tina was jarred out of her reverie. "Hi."

The boss grinned at the sight of the gift bag on the desk. "What's going on?"

"Umm... Samantha dropped off a birthday present for me."

"Where is she?"

"I don't know. She left it with Brenda. I didn't even see her."

"Well, she can't be far, can she? If she was just here?"

"Right." Tina stood and picked up the plastic box. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

Vivian watched Tina practically fly out the door. That's the spirit... this might work out yet!


Tina exited Exclusive Travel and looked in both directions before turning left. She continually scanned the busy shopping district as she walked swiftly toward the parking garage. There she is. Crossing the street, Tina went in the park and sat next to Sam, who was sitting on a bench near the fountain. "Hi."


"Umm... I got my present." Tina opened the gray box. "How did you know I needed a watch?"

"You kept looking at your wrist. I figured you must have had one and it broke or something."

"And you thought this watch was... me?"

Sam laughed. "Actually, I thought it might remind you of ME."

"You're right. It will." Tina took the Mickey Mouse watch out of the box.

"Here. Let me help you." Sam took the watch, unhooked the brown leather watchband, and wrapped it around her friend's left wrist. She buckled it on the appropriate notch so it wasn't too tight or too loose. "How's that?"

Tina extended her arm and looked down at her wrist. Mickey was posed in the center of the watch, waving. The gold hands on the large dial were easily visible. Hey! I can see what time it is! "It's perfect."

"I'm glad you like it. I was a little worried that you'd be upset because I got you a present. That's why I just dropped it off."

"I'm not upset, but you really shouldn't have bought me anything." Even though I love it.

"It's not much and I wanted to do it."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

The women sat in silence for a few minutes.

"Would you like to come over to my place for dinner this week?" Tina asked.

"Yes." I want to be with you every minute of every day.

"I can make something. What would you like?"

"You cook?"

"Yes. What would you like?"

She cooks! MORE bonus points."I don't like a whole lot of things. I have kind of a boring diet. Pizza, chicken, hamburgers and spaghetti... that's about it."

"How about spaghetti and meatballs?" Tina suggested.

"That would be wonderful... umm... but..."


"Are you going to put anything in it? I mean like mushrooms or peppers?"

"I take it you don't like those?"

"No. I'm sorry."

"It's okay. I can make it plain."

"You can?" Sam's face brightened.

Tina chuckled. "Of course I can. How about Wednesday night? 7:00?"

"That sounds great."

Tina stood up. "I need to get back to work. Thank you so much for my present. I really do like it."

"I should be going, too."

"All right then, I'll see you Wednesday."

"Bye." Sam watched her friend leave the park. I can't wait to see you again.

Tina walked back to Exclusive Travel deep in thought.Wednesday night... we need to talk.

Chapter 20

Sam stepped into Tina's condo and inhaled deeply. "It smells GOOD in here!"

"It's Grandma Mellekas' spaghetti sauce."

Sam trailed behind Tina into the kitchen. She watched as the cook checked the contents of a large pot on the stove.

Tina took a spoon out of a drawer. "C'mere." She dipped the spoon into the potand then held it out to Sam. "Try it."

Sam blew on the steaming sauce before tasting it. "YUM! That IS good."

"Would you like something to drink? Beer?" Tina opened the refrigerator. "I have wine if you prefer that."

"Beer is fine. I've never been into fancy wines and drinks."

"Me neither." Tina handed Sam a bottle of beer and gestured toward a stool at the counter. "Have a seat."

"Thanks." Sam sat down. "Do you actually LIKE cooking?"

"Yes." Tina put a hefty portion of spaghetti into a pot of boiling water.

"How did you learn?" Sam put her elbows on the counter and rested her chin on her hands, thoroughly enjoying watching Tina moving about the kitchen. And she's wearing the watch I gave her.

"Well, when I was very young and my mom first had to start working, Grandma Mellekas took care of Steven and me. She would let me ‘help' her cook. I can remember being in that kitchen for hours at a time, talking about everything under the sun with Nana... that's what we called her."

Sam smiled at the thought of Tina as a little girl, chattering to her grandmother.

"I'm sure I was underfoot and no real help at all, but she was always kind to me. If we weren't cooking, I asked her constantly to read to me, and she did.Story after story she read, about all sorts of things and places. And then I'd ask her question after question... which she patiently answered. She was a wonderful woman." Tina paused, absently stirring the spaghetti. "I guess she felt terrible that our dad had left and she wanted to try to make it up to us."

"Or maybe she just loved you very, very much." Sam added.

Silence settled over the kitchen as Tina made a large bowl of salad. "I don't imagine you want salad, do you?"

"Umm... no, thanks."

Tina took a small bowl out of a cupboard and transferred some salad into it. She placed plastic wrap over the top of the large bowl and put it in the refrigerator.

"So, you learned most of your recipes from your grandmother?"

"Yes. Later, when I got older, I had to do all the cooking. I would make meals for Steven and myself and I also had to have dinner waiting for my mom when she got home from work. I wasn't too crazy about cooking THEN."

Sam laughed. "I guess not."

Tina leaned against the counter near the stove where she could keep an eye on the food. "You don't like cooking at all?"

"No. It's too much trouble and mess. If I can't pop it in the microwave or pick it up at a drive thru... it's not on my menu."

Tina shook her head. "It's a wonder you're so healthy."

"Well, truthfully, I've been spoiled. Being the youngest, I got away with a bit more than Lisa. She learned all the domestic type things and I guess that pleased my mom enough that she didn't pressure me TOO much about it. Lisa still makes extra of the foods I like and gives it to me. She's a great sister."

"Yes, she is." Tina poured the spaghetti into a strainer. "We're just about ready.Would you carry the bread and salad in?"

"Sure!" Sam jumped off the stool and picked up Tina's salad and a large basket of bread. She took the items into the dining room, put them on the table and returned to the kitchen.

Tina was heaping generous amounts of spaghetti on both plates. "You want meatballs, right?"


"Okay." Tina used a ladle to add the sauce and meatballs. "Here." She handed Sam a plate and picked up the other one. Both women walked carefully into the dining room.

After setting her plate down, Tina went over to the wall switch and dimmed the lights to the chandelier that hung above the table. She grabbed their unfinished beers from the kitchen before returning and sitting across from Sam. "Do you have everything you need?"

Sam looked at her friend, the woman she was absolutely in love with. "Yes, everything I need is right here."

I am NOT what you need... but we'll discuss that later. "Okay. Well, dig in."

"This is REALLY good." Sam commented after they had eaten quietly for a few minutes.

"I'm glad you like it." Tina was amused at the gusto with which Sam ate her meal. When she likes something... she REALLY likes it. Hmm... that's the problem, isn't it?

"Seeing as you work for a travel agency, have you had the opportunity to travel a lot?"

"Yes. Part of the deal I made when Vivian hired me was that I could travel whenever I wanted."

"Wow." Sam buttered another piece of bread. "That seems like a pretty good deal."

"It was compensation for what she considered a low salary."

"Where have you gone?" Sam asked, genuinely interested.

"Oh, lots of places. All over Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South America..."

"Wow. I've never even been out of the United States."

"It was okay, seeing all those countries, but the U.S. is still the best." It's home.

"But it sounds so... romantic... traveling all over the world."

"Nah." Tina shrugged. "At the time, I just wanted to get away."

"Oh." You must have been so hurt and lost. I wish I'd been there for you. "Where was your favorite place? I mean, of everywhere you visited?"

"Hmm..." Tina thought for a moment. "I think I'd have to say New Zealand. It's a beautiful country. It's one of the few places that I would go to again, if the opportunity came up."

"Do you still travel a lot?" Sam was fascinated with the details of Tina's life that she was finding out.

"No. I guess I've had enough for a while." And it never changed anything. When I got back from trips, my brother was still dead... and my life was still in shambles... "I haven't traveled much in the last couple of years."

"Well, I'm sure glad you're here instead of gallivanting all over the globe."

Tina looked across the table at the smiling blonde. Guess it's about time we had that talk. She laid her empty salad bowl and utensils on her plate. "I'm stuffed."

"Me, too." Sam agreed, having completely cleaned her plate, as well as finishing off most of the bread.

"Let me rinse these dishes." Tina stood up.

"I'll help. It's the least I can do." Sam took her plate and headed for the kitchen.

The women took care of the dishes before getting another beer and settling on the couch in the living room.

"Thanks for dinner. It was very good."

"You're welcome."

Several moments of silence followed and Sam noticed that Tina suddenly seemed nervous, fidgeting with her beer bottle.

"I think we need to talk." Tina took a sip of beer. "I... umm..." Geez, T. What are you going to say?

"Talk?" Uh oh... something is wrong. "About what?"

Tina looked all around the room before focusing once again on Sam. "I... I can't... be what you want me to be."

"I don't want you to be anything but yourself." Well, I wanted to know how she feels and I guess I'm going to find out.

"You seem to have some vision of me... I'm not sure I understand it." But I know I can't live up to it.

Sam took a long swallow of her beer. "I'm not exactly clear about what you're trying to tell me." Although, so far, I don't like it.

"At your house... you... kissed me."

"Yes. I'm sorry... well, I'm not sorry I kissed you..." Sam smiled at the memory of that kiss. "I mean... I'm sorry if it made you uncomfortable." Time to put your cards on the table, Whitwell. "I can't help how I feel about you."

"I care about you a lot, Samantha. As a matter of fact, you're the first person I've really cared about in a long time." Tina paused and collected her thoughts. "I just don't think we should take this... us... in that direction."

Sam took a deep breath. Ask her... just ask her. "Is it because I'm a woman?"


No? Sam closed her eyes for a few seconds and thought about what THAT meant... and it wasn't good. "I see... it's okay that I'm a woman. I'm just not the woman you want?" I didn't expect that. Sam's eyes filled with tears as she looked at Tina."I should have known. You're so beautiful... you can probably have anybody you want... why in the world would you choose ..."

"I HAVE had anyone I wanted." Tina interrupted. "Is that the kind of woman YOU want?"

"I want you. That's what I know. And I know it with all my heart."

Tina stood and paced back and forth before moving to the large glass windows and looking out at the water. "I... let's just say, I'm not very good at relationships."

Sam got up and walked over to Tina. "Please, don't shut me out."

Tina turned and looked down at her friend.I'll hurt you. Don't let me break your heart.

Sam saw blue eyes that were so troubled and sad that she started to cry. "Don't do this."

Tina was having a hard time controlling her emotions. We need to get this over with... I can't stand seeing her upset... and knowing I caused it. "It would be for the best."

"I know you really don't believe that." Sam wiped the tears from her eyes, stood at her full 5 feet 4 inches, and defiantly looked up at Tina. "Tell me you don't want me."

Tina stared at the feisty little blonde. "What?" Confusion clouded her eyes.

"If you can honestly tell me you don't want me..." Sam saw she had Tina unbalanced for a moment and took advantage. She stepped forward and grabbed the front of Tina's shirt. Pulling her down, she kissed her... and this time, her intent was clear.

Tina could have stopped it... could have easily removed Sam's hand from her shirt... but she didn't. She let the woman kiss her... and what a kiss... soft and sweet... and... Tina responded.

Sam let go of the shirt and slipped her arms around Tina's neck, never breaking the kiss. She wants me.

Continued in Part 5

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