(c) June-August 1999
E-Mail LZClotho at firstname.lastname@example.org
Melinda awakened to the early sounds of morning. Braying donkeys, clucking chickens, snorting pigs and a gaggle of geese, she thought, ticking the sounds off.
Then there was a quiet intermittent trickling sound. Her brow furrowed as she tried to identify whether it was inside or outside the Toval home. A glance at the window showed the early sunlight sparkling through a dew-covered window, but it was not raining.
She shifted the sheet on her shoulder and slowly rose up, scanning the room. Behind a screen she saw shadows shift and her tired brain realized why Janice was no longer in bed with her.
The trickling sound came again. A peace settled over Mel as she pulled herself from the bed along with the sheet, wrapping it snugly around her nude form. Brushing her hands through her hair, she walked to the screen.
Peering around the edge, her smile widened even more as she caught a glimpse of Janice's muscular arm curved over her tanned back, squeezing water and soap from a sponge. Wet blonde hair, darkened to a russet from the water, matted on her shoulders.
The archaeologist turned her head to push her hair aside and green eyes, the lush green of a grassy field back home, caught Melinda staring. "So, you're finally awake." Janice's voice was a soft burr.
Melinda offered to wash Janice's back as she entered the private area. "Good morning," she replied and took the sponge over Janice's back as the blonde flexed her arms and braced herself on the tub's sides half out of the water.
"Oh yeah, it is that," came Janice's answer as she reveled in the light scratching sensations that sparked her quieted senses. With a splash she rinsed and then rose to her feet. "Pass me a towel," she asked, turning around.
Having backed up so she wouldn't get wet, eyes fixed on her partner, and now distracted by the water trails falling from Janice's body, Melinda did not immediately register the request. Finally she mechanically reached for the towel flung over the screen's top. "Here." Stepping from the tub, Janice looked up at her. Mel backed up to let her pass. "Have you been up long?"
Janice considered if she should tell the brunette the truth. She seemed a little skittish this morning herself. Janice had stayed awake comforting Mel to sleep after their second rather explorative joining.
Much more than their bodies had joined though and for all the words she had used to tell Mel how she felt about their whirlwind attraction, there were dozens more inexpressible. It had grown from flashes of warmth, blossoming from little things, unconscious gestures really. From the ready acknowledgement of her hurt by the officious maitre'd in Macedonia to the silent understanding about Janice's claustrophobia. Then the warm spot would heat at times like Melinda's intervention with Bristol, holding the man at gunpoint without looking as shaky as she must have felt. She helped, and did it without putting Janice into a position less than independent.
It had turned to love when Melinda revealed that she, Janice, meant more than the Scrolls.
Never in her life had she been more important than that.
The revelation smacked her in the head and set her to reevaluating, which had kept her up, arms wrapped around Mel's shoulders and her chin resting in the woman's dark hair. Each breath filled her more deeply with awe at the scent of their love. And she grew a little afraid as time passed in silence too.
So the faintest beginning of the sunrise had driven her from bed to wash away the signs of her sleepless night before Mel could see.
She looked up now into Mel's patient gaze, realizing the silence had stretched on as the color changed from a light sky-blue to the warm interested sea-blue. With a faint smile, she finally said, "Just a little while. Long enough for a bath." She gestured. "Want to borrow it?"
Leaving Mel behind the screen, Janice listened to the sounds of the brunette stepping into the tub. She caught the deep quick intake of breath as Melinda sank into the cooled water with a slosh.
Expecting the Southerner to say something, to call her on her story, Janice had paused with her hands on the bedspread as she straightened it. But the sounds of splashing and quick movements followed instead. Then she heard Mel call, "Could I have a towel?"
Janice looked around and tucked her own towel in at the edge before snatching up a soft orange towel from a table near the door. She rounded the screen to find Melinda just standing, water sluicing off her hair and body. "Courtesy of Carmen," she quipped, shaking it out and passing it to the brunette.
Melinda said nothing as she took the offering. Toweling off her face she then pulled it across her chest and looked at Janice leaning against the wall. She opened her mouth but was interrupted by a knock at the door.
"Senoritas, I have a change of clothes for you."
Janice looked to Mel who said in a frank, low voice, "We have to come up with some way to properly repay this woman." Janice nodded and went to open the door.
The Spanish woman entered quickly when she saw Janice clad only in a towel and shut the door. "I brought a few more things so you have something to wear home."
Barely covered by her towel, since it stopped just at the top of her thighs, Melinda rounded the screen. "Senora Toval, here are the dresses we borrowed last night." She picked them up from the foot of the bed and brought them forward.
"No, please. We will purchase something--" Janice responded.
"I will not hear of it," Carmen insisted. "What little money you have cannot possibly obtain all that you need." She shook her head. "No. The dresses are yours. When would I wear them again?" She put her hands on her hips and stared both women down, despite her diminutive size and smile.
"Vega," Janice tried.
"My daughter prefers newer styles, more flash." Deciding that ended the discussion, Carmen pressed the clothes into Janice's hands.
"Give us your address at least so that we can return them?" Janice suggested.
She shook her head and turned, dismayed, toward the door.
Melinda thought quickly. "We'll come up with something else," she whispered to Janice. "Senora, please. Wait."
Carmen turned, her hand gripping the side of the door. "Si?"
"Muchas gracias, Senora," they said together. "We are poor guests to seem ungrateful," Melinda added.
"We're sorry," Janice concluded.
"Aiyee, this new independence. My daughter, she suffers it too," Carmen lamented with a dramatic flip of her hand. "It is hard, I know." She smiled and changed the subject. "There will be food when you come down."
Melinda quickly nodded. "We'll be right there."
"Dressed please," she clucked with a scandalized tone. "My sons are not eunuchs."
Stunned, Janice and Melinda did not laugh until after Carmen had swiftly let herself out and they both heard the door firmly click shut in the silence.
Stefano stood at the bottom of the stairs when Janice and Melinda came down for the meal. "Good morning," he greeted cheerfully.
Vega looked up from where she was finishing arranging a place at the table. "You missed a wonderful match," she gushed, running over to Janice's side.
Melinda caught the frown on Stefano's face as his gaze trailed over Janice who stepped down to the floor in front of him but was immediately caught up by his sister. "Good morning, Stefano."
He turned away from watching Vega and Janice and smiled at her. "You look well rested," he commented politely. Offering his hand, he took hers and gallantly kissed it, then shot a glance over his shoulder, and frowned again. When Melinda followed his gaze, she realized what was wrong.
Janice was in conversation with Vega as the two went into the kitchen, their backs toward the room. Mel looked back at Stefano to see him working up the words to ask a question. His face, boyishly smooth despite his 24 years, was partway between chagrin and disinterest as he struggled. They walked together to the table and he never managed to ask the question as Vega, Janice and Carmen pushed through the door in quick succession, carrying serving platters.
The smells of sausage, warm fresh bread, eggs and grape juice filled the air. The platters were set down on the table and it seemed the signal for chatter to begin among the Toval children.
Vega, sitting and serving herself from the eggs, looked across to where Melinda had settled and watched Janice claim the seat to her left. "Did you sleep well, Melinda?" Her mouth currently occupied with sipping from her mug of grape juice, Mel could only nod. "Sergio won his match last night. I'm sorry you could not see it."
"What did you do after the bullfight?" Janice interjected, while passing the bread to Stefano who had taken up the seat at her end of the table, between her and his mother. "Mel and I found the street musicians and dancing."
Stefano passed the bread platter on to his mother and mused, "Really? We headed there afterward, so Vega and Sergio could meet up again, and didn't see you."
Turning to Stefano, Melinda put her hand on the top of Janice's chairback, and responded, "We actually didn't stay long. We came back here after walking out toward the bluffs and watching the moonrise."
Disanto, nibbling on a sausage, put down his fork and asked, "So, did you like our fiesta?" His voice drew Melinda's gaze.
"What was it for anyway?" Janice asked, looking to each of the Tovals.
"Anniversary of our beginning," Vega supplied. "Two thousand years ago a pair of fishing families blew ashore here, wrecking their boats. So they settled, married locals and continued fishing."
"Do they teach the history in school here?"
Carmen nodded, but pointed out an altogether more fascinating reason. "We are directly descended from the first families."
"They must be ancestors of the entire area. Two thousand years is a lot of generations."
"You know a lot about history then?" Stefano asked now that Janice had spoken again.
"I hope I do. I'm an archaeologist. I specialize in Mediterranean cultures."
Melinda smiled and nodded. "Ancient Greece holds her attention right now."
Janice looked over and concurred. "In fact we just finished an excavation near Thermopylae."
Carmen, who had been sitting quietly, finally asked, "We never did ask what you do. Ancient history? And you, Melinda?"
"I read the texts, or carvings, found at the sites. I'm a translator."
Janice looked up briefly and shared a quick smile with Melinda. "This was actually our first joint excavation."
"Have you been to many places?" Vega asked.
"I have been to a few. Greece, Turkey, Romania, Italy, Bulgaria. I have a few plans laid for a trip to the Caspian Sea, Western China, and India later. My research takes me all over."
"The troubles in Germany, France and Belgium must make traveling to some of these places difficult," Disanto pointed out, then dug back into his plate.
"Yes, it has made a few changes to our plans." She looked at Carmen. "Is Spain under occupation anywhere?"
The older woman paused and shook her head. "Not yet. We had a few Spanish on the occasional sunken ship, but nothing has been directed against Spain." She picked up her juice mug and sipped briefly. "So we remain safe, for now."
"I hope it continues that you miss Hitler's attention," Janice replied sincerely.
Vega looked to her mother, silently indicating her empty plate. When Carmen nodded, she stood and cleared her plate. Before she walked away, she asked Janice, "Have you met any Nazis on your trips?"
Melinda and Janice thought about that a moment. "No, I don't think we have. We've met a few people with unusual... agendas, but I don't think we've met any Nazis. Why?"
"Because I read about them, and want to know more. They are nationalists, right?"
"For Germany. Hitler says--" Janice paused in a way to indicate she didn't always put much stock in Hitler's propaganda. "He says that he wants all Germans united under Germany's flag."
"The Spanish aren't Germans, so we are likely safe," Stefano supposed.
Janice put a hand on his shoulder, which he studied with interest while she spoke. "I hope you're right. But I don't know."
The conversation trailed to silence on that sour note and Janice pulled her hand from Stefano's shoulder. Returning her attention to her own food, she finished, but when she started to her feet, she felt a gentle hand lightly press on her right thigh. Glancing at Melinda, she caught the slightest shake of the dark head.
Immediately she stilled and reached for the grape juice. "I think I'll have another glass."
Stefano quickly intercepted her hands as he had been starting to his feet as well, and poured the juice. "Anything else?" he asked, his eyes lingering on Janice, but then reluctantly he passed his gaze over the others at the table.
Carmen smiled at him. "I think it's time for the table to clear. There is work to be done around this house," she said finally, pushing to her own feet with a soft scrape of the chair's legs. To Melinda and Janice she said, "You may sit for a while. When you are ready, Stefano will take you to the airport."
"How far?" Janice asked.
"An hour. Not much. Your plane was likely headed to this one anyway, so you will be getting back on the path to home." She paused, with the sausage tray in one hand and the egg platter, both empty, in each hand. "Where's home?"
Janice looked to Melinda who answered, "I live in North Carolina. It's on the eastern coast of the United States."
Carmen nodded. "Is it a nice place?"
"North Carolina? Well, yes, it's very nice. My family has a farm--" Janice interrupted Mel with a chuckle that made her pause. "A big farm there."
Vega asked, "Does it get cold?"
"Yes. We get lots of snow every year. We usually get the first just after Thanksgiving."
Disanto questioned, "Thanksgiving?"
Melinda smiled. "It's our festival of founding," she replied simply. "Late November."
Disanto came out of the kitchen and went to the back door, picking up a pair of gloves. "We need more firewood," he told his mother. "The woodbin's nearly empty."
Janice pulled Melinda into the kitchen as Carmen followed. "We'll help with the dishes, Senora Toval. It's the least we can do."
"We want to."
Stefano and Vega remarked that the task would go quickly with the four of them working, and Carmen retreated. "I have sewing to do."
"Where should we leave our things?" Melinda asked.
"Keep them," she reminded them. "You have need of the clothes."
"But--" Janice protested, tying an apron around her waist so the dress was protected.
"No, please. Accept them," Stefano insisted for his mother. "It has been some time since we had guests who shared so much of themselves."
Melinda and Janice began sorting the dishes on the sideboard and filling the sink with soapy water, and Vega stood ready to rinse while Stefano found a towel for drying. Vega changed the subject to Sergio's performance at the bullfight, much to Melinda's chagrin.
Janice leaned on the window of the small passenger car watching the Spanish countryside pass. The little vehicle ate up the miles. Her instincts were awakening again, after the brief respite, and she found herself nervously watching the road behind them.
At this hour they were not traveling the roads alone, though traffic was not heavy. Several other vehicles had left town with them and gradually, as the miles passed and businesses were identified, they peeled off going to their respective jobs. The whole situation seemed perfectly normal. Like any day in the States.
Somehow though she guessed the States would be a very different place. Particularly North Carolina. She looked over her shoulder at Melinda in the backseat.
She wondered again what sort of daily routine Melinda had left behind to travel to Macedonia. She wondered how she would fit into it when the brunette brought her to her home.
Not ever admitting it to Mel, Janice was not entirely sure she could fit in, but the will to try was there. Because Mel had asked her to. The brunette seemed relaxed as she too studied the countryside. She peppered the driver, Stefano, with questions from time to time.
"Where does that go?" she asked about a dirt road that wound its way toward the top of a hill.
"Factory," he said. "Those of us who don't work a farm, or shop in town work at one of three big factories in the area." Politely Janice turned and watched him as he spoke. His voice became a little more animated as he continued. "That one bottles milk." He glanced over his shoulder at Melinda and smiled. "Mama sometimes sells our excess milk supply to them. Most of the time though she simply passes it around town."
Melinda smiled back. "Your mother is very kind-hearted. It still bothers me that she would not accept payment for our stay."
"You were not the usual tourists," he pointed out.
"No, but still..."
"Mama never takes from those in need."
Janice considered the pocketful of money both she and Melinda had since they had split up Mel's remaining funds to assure that each of them had something should the trip separate them. "We could have paid her. It is only that we lost our luggage."
Stefano sighed. "It is the principle of the thing with Mama."
Janice thought about their goodbyes with Carmen, Vega and Disanto. Carmen had tried to press on them each two more dresses, other than the ones they finally gave in and were wearing. She had also turned away all their offers of money. Repeatedly. But she kept smiling. At no point did the Spanish woman ever get angry. She just finally ushered them toward the door and then the car.
Vega had been filled with considerable disappointment at their departure, displayed only as a young teenaged woman could. With a delicate pout and pleading eyes. Janice remembered the embrace of the young woman and telling her that Sergio was very lucky, and she had better remind him of that from time to time. The young woman's response had been a laugh and a stronger hug.
Stefano's voice interrupted her memories. "I sometimes wonder what would be different had Father lived. But she's made a good life for all of us."
Janice interjected, "Which brings up a question I have."
"How is it you and Disanto haven't married and moved on to your own families?"
Stefano shrugged and returned his eyes to the road a long moment before turning back to answer her. "My brother feels responsible. So do I really, but with Dis it is different. I remain because I haven't really found a woman I want as wife. Dis... Well, Dis says that's the reason. I'm not so sure he doesn't just want to take care of Mama."
Janice thought about that. Disanto had spent considerable time standing quietly. His eyes followed Melinda from person to person as the brunette was passed along for good byes. He had shaken Janice's hand but kept his eyes on Mel, the archaeologist remembered. When the brunette walked up to say goodbye, he looked a little startled, then took her offered hand.
She remembered the softly exchanged words. Melinda offered, "Thank you for your hospitality, Disanto Toval y Sandevallos."
"It... has been a considerable pleasure to have met you, Miss Pappas," he replied.
"Melinda please. We are friends."
He seemed a little surprised to hear that, but when Melinda lifted her chin that little bit to meet his gaze and smiled, his own smile became stronger and Janice realized that Disanto had been perhaps falling in love with Melinda. "Friend. Would you consider staying on a while."
"I really must get home to my family."
Disanto had looked about to frown, but then nodded slowly and dropped Melinda's hand slowly. He tried to hide it but Janice realized he was definitely disappointed.
She didn't blame him. She glanced over her shoulder seeing Mel leaning against the window, eyes half-closed. Aside from her physical attraction to the brunette, Janice found herself attracted by the woman's intelligence, quick wit, and soft smiles. Any man would want her, she told herself.
Melinda's hand stole softly across the back of the front seat, and Janice brought hers up to meet it. The gesture floored her with the realization that instead, she, Janice Covington, had her. Her eyes widened. Mel's smile was soft and her blue eyes were bright with emotion.
Slowly she her hand slipped from Mel's touch and Janice turned back to study the passing miles.
Melinda watched the front seat through half-lidded eyes, and occasionally the outside passing scenery. Stefano glanced at Janice from time to time and then would shake his head slightly and return to driving. A faint smile touched her lips at the third time he did that. The young Spaniard was definitely taken with Janice and having a hard time acknowledging to himself that she was really leaving.
It warmed Melinda to realize that the blonde was leaving with her. For a while, on the beach, after realizing the Scrolls had been lost, she was not certain Janice would continue on to the States with her.
She remembered the heart-pounding fear she had experienced, chasing the blonde down the beach. She rubbed at her eyes to hide the renewing tears at the memory of collapsing on the sand and screaming for Janice to stop. Please. Don't leave.
Mel's cheeks heated slightly as she remembered how she had convinced Janice to stay with her. She had never considered herself needy, but when it came to thoughts of returning to North Carolina, she needed to know Jan would be at her side.
The structures of the airport began to loom into view, and she straightened her shoulders, sitting up. "Won't be long now," she commented.
Stefano looked at the airport and straightened his own shoulders, turning the wheel onto the road that led around the field toward the passenger area.
They had no bags to check, so Janice put on her one piece of salvaged attire, her leather jacket, inside the pockets of which, Melinda knew, was the pieces of chakram. It looked very out of place over the soft green straight skirt dress Janice wore. Feeling her heart jump when Janice's eyes caught hers, Melinda absorbed the contradictions of beautiful woman and rough and tumble readiness and fell more in love.
Stefano offered Janice one arm and Melinda accepted the other. Inside they checked with the flights and found one destined for New York leaving in about an hour. "Or there's one tomorrow headed for Washington," Janice pointed out.
"Do you wish to stay another night with us?" Stefano asked, looking at Janice.
Melinda clearly saw the hope in his eyes and wondered what Janice would say. She caught the blonde's gaze but said nothing, letting her choose.
"I'd rather leave today," Janice said finally. "We have a lot to do once we get there."
Which was not entirely true, but the fact it was said warmed Melinda's heart. She started to reach for Janice's hand and stopped herself, looking to Stefano instead.
Stefano was deflated though he tried valiantly to hide it. "All right. I will wait with you."
"Thank you," Melinda said to him as Janice separately went to arrange for their seats. His eyes followed the blonde. Melinda changed the subject. "Stefano, I would like to still find a way to repay your family."
"It is really not necessary," he replied.
Hoping to find a way to help the family through Stefano's infatuation with Janice, Melinda thought fast. She borrowed a flight list and pencil from the ticket counter and wrote her address on the back. "Perhaps we can repay it this way then." She pressed the paper and several bills into his hand. When he had identified the money and the address, he looked up in surprise. "Don't say no," she added. "America is a fascinating place."
The terminal was busy, but not crowded. About one hundred other people were moving around between ticket windows, chairs, and doors from the parking lot, arranging flights, changing plans, or resigning themselves to lengthy stays as some of the rarer destinations weren't coming up for several days. Common departures were to Casablanca, Cairo, London, Paris, Stockholm and New York. Less frequent were flights to Istanbul, Rome, and Rio De Janeiro. Among the crowd were families, businessmen, even a few emigrants, seeking new opportunities and dragging bags of their belongings. Melinda saw one family and wondered about their story. The eight-year-old girl carried a worn blanket over her shoulders and clutched it closed with one hand while her other held tightly to a small magazine. Melinda could see fashion plates and realized the family was headed to America. Perhaps the girl would go to school, and work in a clothing factory, sewing clothes and adding to the family income. Melinda looked to the mother. A bit worn around the edges, it was still clear that the older woman looked forward to the trip. Behind the disheveled look of long travel, there was a gleam in her brown eyes as she walked up to a flyer on the wall, carrying the family's youngest child, a boy of two, in her arms.
The brunette turned around and found Stefan hovering over Janice, chattering aimlessly at her about this and that. His questions were not intimate, just curious, but Melinda felt a spurt of... jealousy?--could it be? She walked across the space, nudging around the crowds and tapped him on the shoulder.
Melinda pointed out to Stefan the same display and asked for a coffee, pressing a few coins into his hand. "Janice and I need to sit for a few minutes," she said quickly. She watched him go and then turned back to find Janice had already moved off again.Taking a deep breath and sighing since all she wanted to do in this crowd was hold Janice, she pushed politely through and scanned the small area of seats. Ah, there.
Just now sitting down in chairs near the double doors marked "To Planes," Janice leaned back and looked around. "Certainly isn't New York," she commented, as Melinda settled, crossing her ankles demurely and sitting up carefully.
"You've been to New York?" Melinda asked quietly.
Janice rolled her eyes with a laugh. "My grandmother insisted at least once a year. Shopping."
Leaning back and beginning to slide a hand around the back of Janice's chair as she leaned close to speak softly in the din, Melinda was startled when she caught movement just off Janice's shoulder.
Two coffees were pressed at them. She backed up, took one and acknowledged the younger Spanish man with a nod. "Thanks," Janice said, looking up at him. "I needed this."
"I'm glad you will like it." Stefano leaned against a wall, crossing his arms over his chest. "New York is nice?"
"Some people think so. Personally, I think it's a can for human sardines. Just suck 'em in and eat 'em up." The Spaniard looked puzzled. "I just mean that living there is crowded, dirty, and not very pleasant."
He looked at the money in his pocket, cupping it and looking at Melinda. "This is where you want us to come?"
The brunette shook her head. "I live in North Carolina. About four hundred miles to the south. Less city, more country. More like here, I suppose," she mused.
Janice had seen Stefano's gesture in his pocket, and now the conversation sank in. "You're coming with us?"
Stefano shook his head. "Miss Melinda, she gave us the money to come if we wanted to. I'm going home and discuss it with the family."
"You won't let your mother say no to the money, please?" Mel insisted. "If you think she won't take it, or won't want to use it, you find a way to save it someplace."
"I'll try to do as you ask."
Melinda could only nod. "I know you will."
"Besides," interjected Janice, touching Stefano's wrist to catch his attention, "if the war comes here--No, no," she countered the shake of his head. "If the war comes here, you'll need good currency."
"You have been through many wars?" he questioned with a slightly nervous sounding laugh.
Janice nodded sagely. "I have been caught in the middle of revolutions. In the end, Stefano, it isn't the man standing, but the man standing with capital that wins in the end."
Surprised by Janice's sanguine advice, Melinda watched the blonde drop her hand from Stefano's wrist, caught the look of adoration shining from the Spaniard's eyes and sighed. Trying to be nice was very difficult sometimes.
A thick-bodied man in shirtsleeves and a hastily windsored tie stepped up to the doors and pushed them open. "The flight to New York is now boarding. New York is now boarding."
A small collection of people rose from their seats. Janice and Melinda among them, stood and Stefano stepped back, shoving his hands in his pants pockets. "Stefano, remember what we said," Janice offered, stepping into the crowd behind Melinda.
"I won't forget you," he promised. Janice, catching his voice, briefly turned and waved. "Until we meet again," he called to her, waving back.
Nodding, she turned back and disappeared into the crowd. Melinda shrugged at Stefano and disappeared after her.
Catching up to Janice at the ticket point, she thrust her own ticket in at the same time as Janice's. "Hey, almost left me behind," she murmured into the blonde's near ear.
"Sorry about that," came the reply. "I'm just ready to get going again, I guess."
"Stefano getting to you?"
"No, not really that... I'm just..." Her voice trailed off. Melinda's smile quirked up on the right side of her lips. "Okay, yeah, I guess he was getting to me."
"He adores you," Mel shrugged trying to make it appear she had little concern about it and not quite succeeding. Janice still caught the tension in her partner's blue eyes.
"He's nice enough and all that, but he'll forget about me in time." Janice paused as she tucked away both their papers into her jacket's inner pocket and gestured for Mel to precede her onto the tarmac. Janice quickly turned her frown into a smile at the stewardess greeting the passengers at the plane's doorway. She leaned close to the brunette as they entered. "But I'm interested in you, and that's going to be too much competition for him," she said with a smile that turned to a chuckle at Melinda's raised eyebrow.
"Really." The blonde shook her head. "Mel, you're one in a million." The comment made Mel blush and Janice teased her about that as they settled into a pair of seats over the port wing. "If you're embarrassed now, what are you doing to do when I can't help myself and kiss you accidentally in public?" She waited until Mel had settled in her seat and then leaned across the bit of space separating them and planted a tender kiss on the brunette's lips.
Their gazes locked and with a soft exhalation, Melinda fainted.
Pulling back, Janice smiled tenderly and adjusted the brunette's position to a more comfortable one and then sat back. She held Mel's hand and quietly rubbed the back of it with her thumb until blue eyes gradually opened and she smiled. "That answers that question."
Melinda's skin took on a pink flush once again. Quietly she said, "You enjoyed that."
Janice looked taken aback with shock for all of two seconds before she nodded and said, "Oh, I definitely enjoyed that."
"You won't do that to me at home, will you?"
"Only if I think you want me to," she assured her with a smile. "What better way to get you out of a bad situation now and again than to have your knees go weak?"
Shaking her head but then laying it against the blonde's shoulder, Melinda acknowledged the pleasure that suggestion gave her.
Around them, other passengers stowed their baggage and settled into the seats. An expectant air of quiet flowed through the plane. Everyone looked forward toward the crew cockpit and then out the windows.
With a roar, the plane engines spun to life. The motors sputtered loudly, then settled into a drone right outside their window. The plane shuddered and started moving forward.
Janice closed her eyes and felt Melinda's hand fold around hers when the plane began to pick up speed. Finally she felt the slight feeling of drop when the plane lifted from the earth and started to climb.
"Next stop, New York," Melinda whispered in her ear. "You want to go shopping when we get there?"
Looking at her with a perplexed expression, Janice wryly replied, "No, of course not. I want to show up on your family's doorstep in a borrowed dress, water-rotted boots and a leather jacket smelling of sea salt."
Melinda chuckled. "Okay. I'll arrange for the money wire from the airport when we land."
"You don't have to do that."
Shaking her head, Melinda's hand slipped over hers again. "I want to. If it wasn't for me, you wouldn't be here."
"If you hadn't come, Melinda. I wouldn't want to be here. Now," she admitted, grasping the woman's upper arm. "Now, there is no place I'd rather be."
Nodding her chin firmly, Janice replied, "Seriously."
"Well, um... I think I'd better let you know that our pilot is on this flight."
Janice lifted her head and frowned. "Of course there's a pilot on the flight. How else--?"
"No. The pilot from Casablanca."
"Flying this plane?"
Melinda shook her head and made a motion with her hand for Janice to keep her voice down. "No," she clarified in a whisper. "He's a passenger on this flight." Janice scanned the nearby seats. "No... toward the back of the plane. About six rows." Janice turned her head to peer around the seats. Melinda's hand grasped her shoulder and pulled her back.
"Well looks like we all get to settle in for a long flight."
"You don't want to do something about it?"
"What can I do? We're about to fly out over the Atlantic for ten hours. I don't leave planes in the middle of the ocean." Janice shook her head. "Besides what would he do? We don't have anything, remember?" She sat back and thought about that. "Speaking of... I wonder what he might want with us? We honestly don't have anything any more. It all went down with the plane."
Melinda fell silent. "I suppose he might be returning home himself."
Janice realized that did not make her feel any better. Resolutely she folded her arms across her chest, feeling the solid form of the chakram pieces and grasped Melinda's hand under her arm. "Well, let's take advantage of the trip and catch a few hours sleep," she suggested, patting her shoulder. "Rest up." She closed her eyes and then shook her head, patting her blonde locks. "I miss my hat," she complained softly.
The remark made Mel chuckle. Gazing out the window, she studied the low clouds passing outside. Dropping her head back into the padded seat, she let the warm feeling of Janice's hand in hers seep through her body, relaxing it. It was a long way to New York, she finally acknowledged. Janice was right. What could they do... what could he do... on a plane over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
The small view through their window was beginning to leave Janice feeling cramped. The flight had started easily enough, both Melinda and herself napping. But now, two hours into the flight, she could see the end of France's northern coastline and the beginning of the Atlantic Ocean.
Her stomach churned. She contemplated that food was planned for the flight in another hour. In the meantime, without their bags, and without belongings of any kind, she didn't even have a decent book to read. Sighing she admitted to boredom. The feeling was not a pleasant one for her, so used to constant activity over the last few weeks. She turned to Mel to possibly get the brunette to talk, to take her mind off the situation, and instead found the linguist breathing quietly and easily, deep asleep.
Brushing lightly at the other woman's hair, Janice resigned herself to having to find her own entertainment. It wasn't like she couldn't. She'd traveled alone for almost a year after her father's death, and before that spent a lot of time entertaining herself unless her grandmother decided her presence was required at a society function. Well, a little small talk might not hurt, she thought. Standing, she stretched and nodded politely at several heads that turned her way. "Buenas Dias," she offered to one Spanish couple patting their sleeping toddler in the seat opposite.
"Buenas Dias, Senorita," the father replied, nodding to his wife. In Spanish he introduced himself and his wife, the Minteguezes.
"Janice Covington," she introduced in return. "Are you emigrating?"
"Yes. My brother-in-law, he has a business in a town called..." He paused a moment, checking his memory and considering his pronunciation before continuing. "The Bronx. We are joining him there and will go into business together."
"Have you visited before?" Janice asked.
"No. They visited last year and suggested we join them." His dark eyes gleamed with the promise and visions his brother-in-law obviously had described for him. "It sounds very wonderful."
Janice shrugged. "I'm from Philadelphia myself. But New York is full... of a lot of opportunities."
"You have lived in the United States a long time?" The wife spoke up quietly as her child shifted in his sleep and she returned to patting him. He did not go back to sleep and instead sat up groggily and rubbed his eyes. Owlishly he looked up to Janice and grinned. "Bella senorita," he gushed and waved at her, causing the blonde to smile. He then waved his arms at her. "Hug," he demanded in a simple tone.
Senora Minteguez nodded when Janice raised a questioning brow, so she gamely reached over and swung the boy into her arms, accepting a hug.
Wow. She pulled back, staring into innocent dark brown eyes and felt him pushing his small fingers through her hair. "Hello. What's your name?"
"Mig'el," he answered proudly.
"Hi Miguel," she replied. "I'm Janice. Are you enjoying your trip?"
"Thankfully he sleeps most of the time," Senora Minteguez commented. Janice nodded at her in understanding.
"I haven't been back in the last few years, but I was born there, yes."
Senor Minteguez glanced over his shoulder. "How is it you and she aren't traveling with anyone?"
"We are. We're traveling together," Janice replied, glancing back toward Mel and seeing her still quietly asleep.
"What my husband means to ask. Is there no man traveling with you? Your husband, or hers, perhaps?"
Janice stood slowly and shook her head, nonplussed by the question. "We don't have husbands."
"Did your husbands die in Europe, or ..."
"Neither of us has been married."
The Minteguezes studied Melinda and then Janice more carefully. "Ah, your fathers... Interesting. We had heard of the richness of Americans... They must have given you a trip to Europe as a present."
Janice's brow furrowed, rapidly finding it hard to continue conversing, but she shook her head and passed Miguel back to his mother, where the boy accepted a treat from a bag and settled quietly eating, observing the adults with owlish eyes. "No, actually my father is dead. He died in Europe. I'm an archaeologist, and Miss Pappas is my assistant."
"You are scholars?" Minteguez did not bother to hide his surprise. "I would have thought... Women can... Amazing." He finally stumbled to a halt and shook his head in disbelief. "America is very different."
Janice nodded and looked up again to check on Melinda. The brunette was still sleeping, but it was other passengers that caught her attention. "Excuse me," she politely withdrew from the Minteguezes.
Walking quickly down the aisle, she put a firm hand on a male shoulder. She demanded tightly, "That's my seat."
The dark haired man looked up from his position leaning close to Melinda's head and shook off Janice's hand, saying nothing. She put her hand on his shoulder again and gripped firmly. He stood. She braced herself for a confrontation and felt the adrenalin kick her heart rate up. "What do you want here?"
"Would you, and your companion, considering joining me during the meal?" he asked quickly. "I'd like to talk," he added as she moved forward a menacing step.
She shifted her hand so it wrapped around his elbow and tugged. There was no question she could drag him. What she was hoping was he had no desire to make a scene and would follow her when asked, "All right. We'll talk. Not here." She gestured with her other hand toward the back of the plane.
He took a long moment to decide, but then nodded imperceptibly. Taking that as a yes, Janice led the way back to the rear of the plane where a few empty seats would give them a small amount of privacy.
Janice put herself in the only defensible position, standing in the aisle with him at the back of the plane. If anything went wrong she could very quickly put distance between them. She adjusted her jacket, wishing again that her gun had survived her Mediterranean swim.
The motion put him on his guard and warily he studied her, keeping his hands very obviously away from his own coat and pockets.
She considered for a moment stuffing her hand in her pocket and like a six-year-old pretending she had a weapon. Shaking her head at herself, she figured he was unlikely to fall for it anyway. So she dusted a frustrated hand through her blonde locks, and then pointed her finger at him. She began very calm and quiet. "All right, you've got my attention. Talk. You could start with your name," she barely breathed the words.
"Martins. I'm here for your protection."
"Bullshit," she cursed shortly, still keeping her voice low, but there was no mistaking the menace. "You dropped our plane into the damn sea!"
"Your plane?! Your-- I'll have you know that plane was mine. I didn't plan to lose it either! It was supposed to be a simple escort job. And it blew up in my face." He breathed deeply. "Blew up my plane."
"Escort mission? What was the ship carrying?"
"Who gives a damn? Germans fired on it, so I fired back. Simple as that. I was escorting you." He murmured, "I was supposed to make sure you got safely on a plane to the States."
Janice had a flash of insight. "Blane!" The Moroccan cafe's owner had to have something to do with this.
"Yes, damn it. When you lost the papers, I called him. He changed the mission. 'Stay with them,' he said. 'Make sure they make it onto a plane.'"
"We did--as you could see--so why are you still following us?" she retorted, forcing her voice low again.
He pulled her close and kissed her soundly, making it appear they were perhaps having a lovers quarrel. Harshly his whisper his her ears. "Because they're following you now. And your friend."
"Nazis?" Stunned, she pushed at his chest only lightly when she pulled back to watch his eyes as he answered with a tight nod.
His lips twitched in memory of their brief touch. "I can't afford to have them know who I am, but our cause also can't let you die. What was in those papers is still in your head. And in hers. The Nazis can get it, or we can get you to Washington in one piece."
He looked past her at something or someone toward the front of the plane. She didn't dare take her eyes off him. "Now that you've drawn attention to us, better go along with me to get us out of the spotlight."
"I--?" she sputtered. "You were the one taking my seat. Getting too close to my friend." She poked him in the chest. He looked chagrined. "You wanted me to come after you. You had to know I wouldn't just stand there."
She was having a little trouble concentrating. Not that his kisses had been any competition for Melinda's. No. Only that she seemed to be falling into the trap once more. Believing, when maybe she really shouldn't.
He nodded again. "There are two spies on this plane ready to jump you when you get off."
"Why didn't you simply detain them in Europe?" Scanning his face, she tried to pick up the slight twitches of a falsehood, or a nervous reaction. But there was nothing. He was agitated though. She could tell that from the flexing of his hands and the constant adjustments he made to his posture.
"On the plane they can't contact anyone else."
She shook her head now. "I can't believe I'm saying this, but, as you point out, I have little choice." She took a deep breath. "Gunfire would be unwise, so... what's your plan?"
"Pose as my wife, trying to leave me while we were vacationing."
Already shaking her head again, Janice interrupted. "Won't fly. I've already been overheard telling an emigrating family that both Mel and I are unattached."
He frowned, then brightened. "Get ready to slap my face," he murmured.
"What?" She barely got the word out before he leaned forward again, grasped her shoulders this time and crushed her smaller body into his, kissing her hard.
She fought and freed herself. The crack of her fist into his jaw sent him flying backward into the rear wall as the sounds echoed through the suddenly hushed and still passengers.
"Don't you ever touch me again!" she uttered, her voice overflowing with contempt.
He rubbed his jaw and successfully hid a chuckle. Then he moaned loudly, "Don't leave me, mi amore."
Exhibiting a glorious display of high dudgeon, cheeks aflame, shoulders back and chin up, Janice turned on her heel and moved back up the aisle to her now vacant seat next to Melinda. She scanned the faces that watched her sit and rubbed her sore hand, well hidden in her lap.
The Minteguezes were the last faces she glanced away from. The wife nodded quietly and the husband shook his head. Well, they must have bought the abandoned lover bit Martins played.
It wasn't until her breathing calmed that she felt amused eyes watching her. Looking across her shoulder, Janice caught sleep-faded blue eyes, almost transparent in the low cabin light, half-open and watching her.
"Amused?" she asked quietly. Blue eyes twinkled then the brunette straightened her back a bit and blinked quickly to wake herself fully. Janice's laughter started silent in her chest until it bubbled out softly when Melinda took her reddened hand into her own and gently began massaging the abused bones and muscles.
"Did you at least find out his name?" the whispered reply came back.
"Martins," she replied and closed her eyes as the brunette's touch, sent shivers coursing over her spine. It was easy to focus only on their point of contact, the fingertips sliding easily over one another, and she let herself drift, just a bit.
One brief moment she opened her eyes and caught, for just a moment, a pair of eyes focused on her from eight rows away, toward the front of the plane. Light hair and narrowed eyes framed a rounded jaw. He turned away quickly. Janice wanted to sink through the floor.
A Nazi spy. Reflexively her fingers closed over Melinda's now, and she drew her head around to meet curious blue eyes. Pitching her voice so that it only carried to Melinda's ear, she murmured, "Nazis."
An eyebrow went up. A remarkably tame reaction, Janice thought. Her own first reaction had been quite close to panic though she tamped it down with effort. When Melinda responded, it was amazing that she could even speak. "Well, guess that's what they can do... even in the middle of the Atlantic."
The stewardesses appeared at the front of the plane. Separating, Janice and Melinda settled back to accept the light dinner.
With one green eye, Janice kept the blonde man in the corner of her sight. With the other, she found Melinda's hand between their seats, and grasped it both to give, and receive, reassurance.
The excited child's voice stirred Melinda from sleep. Soon the entire plane filled witht he hum of excitement. Words filled the air and children clamored for looks out the windows.
The plane slowly banked left through the clouds. Brushing her hair out of her face, Mel watched the land appearing as the cloud cover parted. The Mahattan skyline slipped away and the harbor itself came into view. She stood, careful of the still sleeping Janice as she moved from their seats.
"Liberte," someone murmured nearby, awe filling the deep male voice. Melinda turned to see an older man, aged well into his retiring years, with weathered features and broad shoulders curved slightly inward. Looking back out, she first caught the edge of the torch, arcing into the sky.
An ocean liner tracked along the painted orange path of the reflected setting sun.
She had never been this close anything that big. The effect took her breath away. She pressed a hand to the glass and sighed. Home.
A small hand tugged on her arm. She looked down into the uplifted round face of a young girl, dark hair trailing down her back, clothed in traditional Spanish dress. "Read?" she asked. "Please?"
Focusing again on the statue, she saw what had caught the girl's attention. Words in English she did not understand but wanted to know. And as she read, Melinda felt the hopes of millions who had crossed the Atlantic.
"The New Colossus*
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world wide-welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. " Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" "
She looked down at the girl and realized in the awe shining back from that face, that though the words seemed only partially understood, her own emotions as she read had conveyed something special.
And the rest of the plane had heard too. She looked up, blue eyes panning the still occupants, meeting quiet gazes, blue eyes, brown, gray and finally, settling on a pair of green eyes just off her right shoulder. A soft hand slid against her back.
"That was really beautiful, Mel." Janice glanced though at the faces and added, "Can you translate that to Spanish? I think they'll get it a little more."
With a thoughtful expression, the linguist recited the poem in Spanish, amazingly giving it another cadence and quality just as hauntingly beautiful as the original. Janice shook her head at the skill she knew it took to accomplish that, and brushed Melinda's arm.
The plane's occupants now understood, and the rendered words caused a few tears. Of joy. Of pride. Of hope. Of apprehension.
"Please have a seat, ladies and gentlemen. We are on approach to La Guardia airport, the New York area's newest transportation center. Mayor La Guardia and the citizens of New York City welcome you to the United States of America." The pilot's voice interrupted the still tableau and people slowly scattered, returning to their seats.
Those near the port windows continued to watch, until the New York skyline obscured the view of the harbor... Even so, the torch could be seen still, cast golden by the rays of the setting sun.
The lamp beside the golden door.
The final words of the poem flitted again across her mind as Janice settled back down and Melinda's strong grip steadied her nerves as the plane arced down toward the runway, and the lights illuminated the plane's path with a ghostly light.
The darkness already crept on the airport, hidden behind the taller buildings that made up the city's skyline. In the plume from the wheels touching down, Janice could see soft drifts of snow which had been pushed from the runway.
Winter was early, just a little.
"What's wrong?" Melinda asked softly, still clasping her hand.
"We missed the first snowfall." Melinda face took on a quizzical expression. "Look?" She pointed out the drifts.
Melinda shrugged. "First snow hasn't fallen yet where we're going though," she reminded Janice. "It comes a little later to the Carolinas." She lowered her forehead against the blonde's. "Unless you don't want to head there," she said slowly, letting the tiny kernel of doubt resurface for a long breathless moment.
Janice rubbed Melinda's cheek, where a small muscle had started ticking in fear. "I'll be there for you," she promised.
The plane rolled to a stop and passengers started moving to retrieve coats removed while the plane was in the air. Men and women shrugged into threadbare coats and helped children to adjust small blankets on their shoulders.
Melinda and Janice stood and realized, other than Janice's coat they didn't have anything warm enough to wear in the wintery temperatures. The blonde shifted the coat onto Mel's shoulders, like a cape. "Here, you take it," she suggested.
"I couldn't," Melinda denied, trying to pass it back, but Janice's firm hand held it in place. "Let's at least share." She pulled Janice against her, fitting the smaller woman into her shoulder and positioning the coat so it fell partly across the shorter woman's back.
Then suddenly Janice was not there beside her any longer. Melinda looked up to see the blonde fitting her fist beneath a man's jaw with a quick uppercut.
She saw the man's body fall back, arms spread. In one hand a knife started slipping from his grip. She kicked out, causing his hand to slam into the back of a seat and the knife went flying through the air to skitter noisily against the plane's windows.
She felt hands along her back and lunged backward, startled, knocking herself and whoever had touched her to the ground in the aisle. Rolling onto her stomach she punched out and saw the heel of her hand strike someone in the middle of the throat.
A gagging sound was the only thing that followed her to her feet. "Janice!" she yelled for the blonde.
Turning, she found the archaeologist in a tangle of arms and legs, fists and knees flying against a blonde man, his hat having skittered away during the fight.
"Mel! Move!" Janice effectively used her voice to disorient the attacker, and Melinda watched his eyes roll back in his head. She grabbed Janice's arm in that moment and using the seatbacks, dragged them both off the plane, along the more awkward route.
At the door of the plane, Melinda noticed everyone else gone and looked back to see the man who accosted her beginning to stand. She realized he was the pilot from the plane. What had Janice discovered was his name? Oh yes. Martins. Well, the man would have a headache to stop one of the big Ringling Brothers circus elephants.
Closer, the other who Janice took on, barely moved, groaning as he struggled ineffectively to roll from his back to his stomach and rise. His obstruction of the aisle prevented Martins from following too quickly.
She doubted he would have anything nice to say anyway, and looked to Janice. The blonde's hair was mussed, but her color was high. She had enjoyed the fight, Melinda realized. She took a deep breath herself and acknowledged her own adrenalin rush from the incident.
"Let's go," Janice tugged on her arm and the women, knees shaking, stumbled down the stairs and ran across to the safety of the busy terminal.
La Guardia, in all its newness, still carried within the smell of fresh paint, and Melinda scanned the open space for the exit. "We'll have to catch a cab," she admitted.
"Let's take the subway." Janice shook her head.
"Why on earth would you want to do that?" Melinda asked as they attained the street outside.
"Because I've never done it," she said simply. "Haven't you ever done something just because?"
"Yeah, flying out of here and into Macedonia comes immediately to mind," Melinda replied with an easy smile. "All right, we'll take the subway."
They started scanning the signs, looking for the proper direction.
Another of the lone travelers from their flight stepped up to the curb beside them. "Where are you going?" he asked in broken English, with a heavy Italian accent.
"Downtown," Melinda answered.
"Do you know how to get to Broadway?"
She then took in his attire and realized the young man was an aspiring performer, in his skin-tight clothes and thin shoes.
Janice finally pointed to a sign that indicated "To Trains." "You probably should go downtown as well."
The trio, with the women side by side and the awestruck Italian trailing as he looked at the sights and absorbed the sounds, walked across the open area and then onto the beginning of streets leading toward an isolated station building near the edge of the airport's property.
Cabs, cars and buses, streamed away from the airport, into a growing mass of swarming life affectionately called "The Big Apple."
Glancing at Janice, who was taking in the sights with eyes almost as big as the Italian, Melinda smiled. She looked ready to take a huge bite of the place. The thought made her chuckle and then her stomach rumbled.
"Let's find something to eat," she said suddenly as her stomach made a noise right next to Janice's chest, the vibration, though subtle, still made the blonde laugh.
They entered the darker building housing the entrance to the subway and fished coins to pay the boarding fare before walking onto the platform and into a train just about to pull away from the station.
The Italian young man settled to a bench and Melinda politely asked his name. "Bertoli," he replied.
"Your first time in America, Bertoli?" Janice asked.
"Yes." He fidgeted. "I did not want to become a grape farmer."
Janice nodded. "Enjoy it," she said. Then she settled against the middle pole with her back and looked at Melinda who settled on the opposite bench. "I'm going to," she murmured for the brunette's ears only.
Melinda spotted a bank as she and Janice stepped out onto 6th Avenue. Promising Janice she would return quickly, the brunette disappeared. Temporarily abandoned Janice leaned against the white stone wall, her arms crossed over her chest, as she watched the people hurrying past.
The posture gave her a look of indolence as she scanned faces. Without her hat she could not continue to observe someone if they looked in her direction. Hanging her head, she rubbed her hair absently.
The battered fedora, now adrift somewhere in the Mediterranean, had been her father's. It had not been a deathbed gift either. To her it had been a living, breathing thing that represented her father's life, his work, and in his giving it to her when she first arrived, having scuttled away from her college studies, a mark of his love and acceptance that she wanted to follow him, instead of the life his former mother-in-law had seen as more fitting.
Studying the slice of sky visible amid the building tops, Janice painted the scene again in her mind's eye. It had been a British dig, about six miles or so from the ruins of Stonehenge. The sun was setting on a long day in the remains of a Celtic camp alongside a group from the Cambridge Ancient History department.
She had heard of the dig through her own collegiate contacts since she was studying pre-history culture and archaeology in a summer program at Cambridge. Upset that her father had not written her of his plans, she had immediately requested a transfer from her dig assignment on the other side of the country. Ready to go in with a full head of steam, she instead blustered to a halt when the stocky dirty man, his blonde hair dusted with gray, only looked at her, smiled and pulled her into a bone-crunching bear hug.
"Jan, m'girl. Oh baby, Jan. It is you, darlin'. Gods be praised. How'd you find me?"
"It wasn't easy," she murmured, caught in his muscular grip, and surrounded by the heart-warming smells of rich soil and clay and honest sweat. Something her grandmother would not have any idea about, Janice was certain.
Tears coursed over his cheeks when he took a moment to pull back and study her face. "God, you look more like your mother every day."
"I do not. Everyone swears I'm the spitting image of the great Harry Covington." As if to punctuate her point she slapped her knee and spit clear fifteen feet pinging a tin sample collection bin.
"Well with aim like that you ain't doin' too bad an imitation, I'll tell ya." He slapped her back and the next thing she felt was a warm band settling over her ponytailed hair. He had swept his brown felt hat, the one he wore in all the pictures he had sent her over the years off his very own head.
And put it on her own.
Janice blinked, feeling the tears gather in the corner of her eyes and caught the few stars of the night visible over the bright New York skyline. It wasn't like this on a dig. Clear night skies filled with stars. No city lights for leagues in any direction.
That night she and her father had laid outside on the ground, catching up. Idly they made shapes in the night sky far into the early hours.
A warm hand touched her shoulder. Canting her gaze around she looked up into crystal blue eyes. "Hey there," she said, working her throat around the lump she had not quite yet cleared.
"So where do you want to eat?"
"Let's just get something from a coffee shop." She gestured toward a little corner place where the open sign in the window beckoned.
Nodding easily, Melinda followed. "I've got enough for us to get a bus or train to Collier County. Which would you prefer?"
Realizing as they ordered from the reed-thin waitress that they had not eaten anything substantial since leaving Carmen Toval's home, the women found themselves ordering more than drink. A platter of eggs and a platter of half sandwiches soon joined the coffee carafe. Melinda ordered a refreshing glass of cold grapefruit juice and Janice sipped on a tall glass of milk.
"Tomorrow night then, huh?"
Janice chewed quietly on the last bite of her sandwich considering her words carefully. For all that they had traveled together the last two weeks, and even in the last few days had become physically close, she was unsure about just gallivanting up to Melinda's home. She asked quietly, "So, tell me about this home? Who am I likely to meet? What sort of place is it?"
"Beaufort Oaks is a Antebellum plantation, non-working, but I've spent the last few years restoring some of its older areas, returning them to an approximation of their original appearance."
She paused to eat, a little astonished she was quite so hungry. She would have to moderate her appetite quickly or suffer the disapproving looks from her mother. "Originally it was a crop plantation. Soybeans, cotton, peaches, that sort of thing. Then the bottom fell out of the cotton industry somewhere just after the war. Cotton was scaled back and a stables built. Now Beaufort Oaks boasts horses. Thoroughbreds at first, but now it's quarter horses for hunter competitions and casual riding."
"Sounds really like a nice place."
Melinda straightened her shoulders and finished her grapefruit juice before continuing. "It's home. No matter what schools they sent me off to. No matter the dozens of times my father took us with him on his lecture tours--family vacations he called them though we never did much other than wait around for him to finish a lecture--we always came back to Beaufort Oaks. To the same room I've slept in for almost thirty years. To the same staff people, the same stables, land, horses..." She trailed off having watched Janice's expression grow more somber with each passing word. "You probably don't like staying in one place very long."
"You're right. I don't. Staying in one place always meant being under my grandmother's thumb. And I hated that. Absolutely hated it." Janice sat back, stirring her milk with an idle finger before pulling it to her lips and taking a long draught. "I'm sorry. I don't mean to be taking that out on you."
"So you'll still come with me to Beaufort?" The brunette canted as Janice tilted her head in quiet thought. "I thought we were..." Her voice trailed off as she considered that perhaps Janice felt trapped, between Mel's desires and her own because of the fact that they made love. "I can... I can say no commitments. I did not expect..."
The blonde looked up, green gaze drifting in blue. The realization hit her that Melinda was scared about "I didn't expect to fall in love, either, Mel. But it's not the commitment. I... It's just strange for me to consider staying in one place after four years going anywhere and everywhere... at a whim."
"I see." Melinda dropped her eyes. "Europe will be out of the question for a while. What other research sites do you have?"
"I don't know. I'll have to check my father's notes." She paused and said in a slow "reminding herself of the painful truth" sort of voice, "but they're all gone now." She dropped her head into her hands.
"I have an entire houseful of notes my father kept," Melinda pointed out.
The blonde looked up, "Notes? Your father? What?"
"I told you. My father's notes. I wondered what most of them were about, but your father's name shows up frequently, so perhaps..." She shrugged, not sure she needed to finish.
She did not have to. Janice's back straightened and she concluded, "They were correspondents. Collaborating already." Janice's voice filled with an excitement that put an ebullient smile on her features. "It will take a lot of cross-referencing since we no longer have my father's side of things," she cautioned.
"I know," Mel replied.
"Months of work."
"At least," the brunette countered. "There is a huge study. And two libraries."
Janice turned the idea over in her mind. "I'll have to find some place to teach. No Covington ever sponged off of anyone."
Melinda nodded. "You... could have your own wing at Beaufort, to settle in... for the long nights of... reading."
"Original texts will have to be dug up."
"The libraries probably have it. If not, UNC has an extensive Mediterranean bequest."
"I'll need a translator." Janice pressed a hand over Mel's on the table.
"Are you asking me?"
"Know any other translators?"
"About four dozen," she answered quietly.
"Okay, let me be more specific. Do you know any translators who are descended from the subject of study? And who I'm madly in love with?"
Melinda's smile was slow. "So you'll stay?"
"You've just given me another adventure, Mel. How could I say no?" Janice stood, gesturing at the table and put several bills under her now empty milk glass.
Melinda stood and met Janice's gaze quietly. "Thank you." She reached for and captured the shorter woman's hand in her own and tugged the blonde against her, lifting the woman's chin so she could look down into green eyes swirling with untold depths. Lightly she pressed her lips to Janice's. "I'll try to keep it interesting," she promised.
Janice voiced the comment that had been on both their minds off and on the last few days. "Interesting could be used to describe our trip getting here."
"If one were given to understatement," Melinda added wryly.
"Rather than stay here, why don't we catch the last train out," Janice suggested, intoxicated by the scents swirling around her from Melinda so close.
Walking out of the shop and standing with Janice in the cool breeze of the night, Melinda asked, "You're sure about this?"
Janice kissed her. "Mel, where's the station?"
Melinda's nose twitched from the fumes of the train engine. The last train of the day was already grinding its wheels, the tracks humming from the vibrations as it left the station. The roar of the wheels echoed in the cavernous building as she and Janice hurried across the platform.
The conductor was just lifting himself to the last step when he turned and spotted the blonde and brunette moving quickly, waving their hastily purchased tickets. "Come on then," he gestured.
They came within a few feet of the moving train and in tandem despite their size difference, took a last leap for the stepladder on the back of the train. Two pairs of hands wrapped around the guide rails and the brunette snatched for a bouquet of flowers that fell away. The blonde grabbed her flailing hand instead and hauled them both to safety on the tiny rear porch. Panting lightly they handed over their tickets.
He read, "Collier County?" Drawing his clipper he marked the two tickets and handed them back. "Sleeper car's two up. Follow me." He secured the chain link over the small opening and then led the way into the train.
Melinda started forward with Janice but then paused, groaned and grabbed her knee, preventing it from buckling. Janice wrapped her hand around her upper arm and waited for her to look up. "What happened?"
"Twisted my ankle I think," she admitted wryly.
"Okay, hang on to me." She shook her head as they moved along more slowly together. "Guess something had to go wrong, huh?"
The dining car was empty as they quickly moved through. Melinda took a deep breath as she put her foot down gingerly. "Hopefully it's over," she sighed.
The conductor, already at the break between the next car, caught their attention. "Here's a cabin for you, ladies." The tinkle of keys preceded the door's dull click as the lock was released. He swung the narrow door inward when they approached. "You'll hear the call for the Collier station around eight."
"Thanks." Janice tipped him and then helped Mel inside. Letting the brunette go, she turned and closed the door. When she turned back she found Mel had lowered onto the narrow bench along one side. "Let me see that ankle," she suggested even as the linguist bent over working off the buckle of her heeled shoes. Pushing her own hands past Melinda's she finished the task and then prodded her arch and ankle. Melinda sharply drew her breath. "Swelling already," she confirmed.
Mel pulled her foot from Janice's grasp and slid back. "Thanks. Just get me a cold cloth, I'll be fine in a few minutes."
Janice eyed the injury dubiously but did as asked, standing and pulling down the bed before she ran cold water over a wash cloth and passed it over. Mel took it in silence, wrapping it around her ankle.
Watching the brunette in pain, Janice castigated herself for having made them late. She pulled off her leather jacket and set it over a hook next to the door. She bent forward and kissed Mel's cheek in a silent gesture of apology. "You want the bed?"
Reaching over, Mel held Janice's head close as she returned the kiss. "I know you had other ideas tonight," she said quietly.
"Oh. Hey, well... We'll have a chance for some private time once we get to Beaufort Oaks, right?" Reminded of her desire for the brunette, Janice felt her body senses heighten. Melinda's scent surrounded her. She felt a sensation not unlike an itch that needed scratching but was out of reach. She brushed her hand over Melinda's forehead and lingered, tracing the brunette's face. "Go to sleep."
"I'm not really tired," Mel replied, stroking her hand over Janice's cheek. She moved to the side and gestured. "Join me?"
Shaking her head, Janice pressed her lips into the palm. "Mel," she breathed. "I can't."
"Jan," came the reply. "It's just a sprained ankle."
The blonde felt her resolve failing. She looked into blue eyes warm with love. "It's not a good time." She rubbed Mel's thigh tenderly. "I feel a little guilty about all this."
"Why? I landed wrong."
"If I hadn't stopped to get you the flowers, we wouldn't have been late."
"I liked the flowers."
"Still," Janice argued softly.
"Janice." The brunette's voice suggested disappointment.
"Yes?" the blonde answered warily.
"Please don't blame yourself any more."
"How do you know what I'm thinking?" Green eyes searched blue wondering how in such a short time Mel could understand her so well.
The brunette shrugged. "I don't. But I know how I feel."
"That I love you. You don't deserve blame for anything."
"You're pretty forgiving."
"An affliction I enjoy suffering, I'm sure."
Janice chuckled as she settled on the seat next to Melinda. The other woman's larger hand wrapped around hers and squeezed firmly. "Thanks."
"I had a good time, Janice. Please believe that."
"Yes, I did. Thugs, spies, double-crosses and all." Janice laughed. "But it wouldn't have been anything without you."
Janice swallowed. "All right. Now you get some sleep. In the morning you have to introduce me to your family."
"Oh. Right." Melinda laid back on the small bunk, rolling onto her side in order to fit in the small space. "Almost forgot." She harumphed and closed her eyes. "I wish," she mumbled.
Janice chuckled and patted the brunette's shoulder. Watching her breathing even out, the blonde waited until Mel was asleep before moving away and leaving the small cabin.
She was almost to the door leading to the next car when it crashed inward and two men rushed headlong into the narrow corridor.
The lead man, in a dark suit and tie fell over her in his haste. She recognized the American pilot Martins as he rolled and finally stumbled back to his feet.
"Hey!" she caught his attention for a split moment.
The second man she recognized as the blond from the plane. He charged upon them, crashing into both and tumbling them to the floor of the car in a heap.
She grabbed Martins's leg and the blond man's arm. "What the hell are you doing here?" she demanded. A gun waved in her face and she stopped thinking. Striking out with a powerful fist she nailed the blond in the chin.
His head snapped back and she grabbed the gun at the same time. Kicking herself free, she was off-balance when Martins's hands joined the struggle. For a terrifying split second she lost track of the weapon's orientation.
Crack! The explosive force of the weapon's discharge threw her free of the kicking and punching men. They all became very still for a long breathless moment.
Then Janice gasped as Martins flung himself onto his back, holding the barrel of the gun in his hand. The blond fell back against a cabin door with a loud thud.
Dazed, they all looked up as several doors along the corridor opened. A young man in red print pajama bottoms was closest.
The blond man on the floor leaped to his feet and stumbled off, pushing past several gawkers. Janice grabbed for him but missed, instead finding Martins collapsing. "Stop him!" Martins yelled. She and the other passenger caught him before he could fall completely over and lowered him more gently. "Damn!" he cursed. His labored breathing swallowed up the word as he finished. "Warn you," he muttered.
Janice then found the reason why Martins was so weak. Blood spread across his lower chest and its sticky warmth coated her hands quickly. His hands slid over hers, bringing her gaze up to his face.
"Take this," he breathed, pushing the gun into her hands. "You'll need it."
"Hey, lady. What's going on? Do you know this man?"
"Sort of," she answered, distracted, studying the gun in her palm and the pale drawn face of Martins on the floor. She demanded, "How'd he find us?"
"Bank," he answered. "I tried to stop him." He made a motion with his shoulders vaguely like a shrug and finished. "Trailed him to the train station."
"But he didn't know we were on it. It was a last minute decision."
"Was going to beat you--home," Martins breathed his last word--and his last breath, dying in Janice's grip.
"Oh my god." Janice looked toward the voice to see Melinda sagging against the window as she took in the sight of the dead man and obviously his words.
Janice only wondered if there were any more on board. She turned the weapon in her hand in a useful grip and looked around, getting to her feet. "I'm going to get the conductor," she announced. "Come on, Mel." She grabbed the woman's hand and reached into their cabin for her coat before running in the same direction the blond man had disappeared.
"Where do you think he went?"
Even though Melinda had posed her question in a low whisper, Janice made a quick shushing motion with her hand.
They were peering into the window of the next sleeping car. The shadows were deep and the scene quiet. If he was in there, he had gone into one of the cabins.. possibly an occupied one. That thought: of others being endangered, prodded Melinda into action.
"Come on, Janice," she urged, reaching for the door-pull.
"What do you think--?"
"Janice, he's in there. Someone's going to get hurt if we don't get him out. Now, let's go." Blue eyes glittered with determination.
The blonde nodded in agreement. "All right. I'm first." She reached past Mel and grabbed the door handle herself, pushing inward slowly. Their steps were the only sound as they entered.
Melinda kept her palm on Janice's waist as she moved along with her eyes on the space where the cabin doors met the floor. Dark. Dark. Dark. She stopped. A dull light showed under the next door. She wrapped her fist into the fabric of Janice's dress, bringing the blonde to a quick, silent halt.
Meeting the woman's eyes Melinda jerked her gaze down toward the suspect cabin door. Janice glanced down. Swiftly she brought the gun up, gesturing for Melinda to get back.
Something moved on the other side of the door. Janice moved the handle and then kicked the door panel inward. It slammed and bounced off the inside wall and she leaped forward, gun leading.
The light from an electric lamp spilled through the room, illuminating a wide-eyed couple on the fold-out bed.
The man pushed an anxious hand through golden hair as he pulled the covers to the woman's shoulders. "What is this?" he demanded.
Janice felt her cheeks heat, and lowered the gun. Backing up she offered a curt, "Sorry," just before Melinda pulled the door shut. She glanced up at Mel to exchange a thought when they heard another door click.
Jumping around, Mel led the way and they resumed pursuit, following the sounds into the next car. She let Janice through the door first and for a moment they stood in the space between the cars. The rattle of the train wheels on the track drowned out the possibility of any conversation. Gesturing, Janice reached for the door handle.
She felt the shower of glass on her hand before she finished opening the door. A sharp pain traveled over her side from hip to mid-chest. Falling forward into the corridor, she relied on instinct to sight back along the bullet's path and fired her gun. "Mel!" she screamed for the brunette she could see falling in after her. Had she been hit as well?
Now in the quieter space of the car, they both clearly heard a shot ricochet over their heads. Janice followed the sound back and aimed before squeezing off another round.
A groan reached her and praying she had made the right judgement, she clambered to her feet. Weapon level, she moved down the corridor, feeling Melinda breathing on her left shoulder. "All right. Whoever you are, stand up. Now." She could just make out the shape of a man bent double in the shadows. She pointed the gun at it. "Don't do anything suddenly." She cocked the gun loudly. "Or you'll suddenly be doing nothing."
A pair of dark blue eyes came out of the darkness as he swiveled his head toward her.
A crackling announcement broke through the broadcast system. "Next stop, District of Columbia, North terminal. D.C. North next stop."
The train lurched as the engines were slowed and reversed. Janice went off-balance. He grabbed for the gun but she held onto it as Mel tumbled over them both. The thought that the brunette had not been that close behind her made her look up to check on Melinda.
The brunette's feet landed squarely in the blond man's chest. Janice fell back as the gun came free. She blinked and opened her eyes to see Melinda in silhouette pull back a fist and slam it into the man's face.
But he was physically stronger than the tall brunette and in quick succession, though Janice tried to grab his feet, he had thrown Mel off, flipped the brunette on her back and reared back to punch her in the face. A string of epithets fell from his lips.
The force of the shot Janice fired threw him back into the wall. Howling in pain, he leapt over Mel's prone body and grabbed for the door.
Falling through the opening as she reached it, the blond man tumbled onto the step between cars. Janice held the door against the rush of air, witnessing his tumble from the tracks leading up to the D.C. station platform.
Strong arms wrapped around her and pulled her back inside the train car. She rolled over Mel's body and sprawled against the wall.
The blonde looked up from her crouch as she tried to catch her breath. She watched Mel waver and asked with concern. "Mel? Are you all right?" Trying to take a deep breath she felt a searing pain in her right side.
Mel's arms were around her as she collapsed; her brain finally overloaded in acknowledging the pain. Darkness fell to two points of concerned blue. "It's all right," came the softest assurance she had ever heard.
The sunrise appeared by the time Melinda felt assured enough by her first aid measures to step back from tending Janice. She had hauled the smaller woman into her arms and staggered back under what energy she was surprised to find. Melinda realized Janice's right side had been badly scored by the bullet only once she had removed the blonde's coat and dress. But thanks to the chakram pieces--Mel could see the scoring as the bullet skittered along the metal instead of digging into Janice's hip--the injury was considerably less severe than it could have been. She had just lost a lot of blood in the excitement.
Mel had just settled back, resting her head on her upraised knees and crossed arms when she heard the call for Collier station.
Time flies when you're having fun, she thought and sighed. She leaned over and jostled Janice's bare shoulder half hidden beneath the sheet.
Green eyes opened then a cautious hand cupped a no doubt throbbing temple. "Hi," Melinda offered when Janice looked toward her.
"Where are we?" Janice's gaze moved over the room.
"Just pulling into Collier station."
Janice got a good look at Mel in that moment. She checked a bloodstain. "Oh good, that's mine, not yours."
Mel looked down. "I didn't have anything else to wipe my hands."
"Well, let's get moving. Train won't stop forever." Janice groaned as she pushed up and slid, with Mel's help, from the bed.
"Neither will Mother," Melinda added.
"She's the one you called to pick us up?" Janice stiffly donned her dress again.
"She was the only one who answered the phone and I didn't have much time. So I just told her when we should be arriving and where we were at the time." Mel tucked an arm around Janice and guided the blonde down the corridor and off the train.
The platform was busy when they stepped down, but Janice still hoped to spot Mrs. Pappas before they were noticed. She was not lucky enough.
"Melinda Chelle Pappas, it's about time you showed up. Not a word for a month and then out of the blue! I raised you with better manners than that."
Turning carefully, Melinda guided Janice with a soft touch.
"And what in the good Lord's name happened to your clothes? Where did you find that horrid dress?"
Melinda sighed. She wasn't up for this right now. Not with Janice weakening in her grip every minute. But she waited, holding the blonde more firmly with each passing second.
Janice happened to think the dress, dirty or not, was quite attractive on Mel. "Sorry for the short notice, Mrs. Pappas, but getting back to the States proved a little troublesome."
Curled brown locks swished away from the face of a woman in her mid-fifties. Gray-blue eyes left her daughter to focus on her.
"Who are you?" The question was simple but Janice sensed judgement in the tone.
"Covington," Janice replied, not extending her hand since Melinda had her arms firmly gripped about mid-bicep. "Your daughter came out to my dig in Macedonia."
If it was possible for a look to be physical like a smack to the jaw, then Mrs. Pappas used it just then. Janice frowned as the woman looked back to her daughter. "Still chasing dreams, I see..." She shrugged, schooled her expression and turned her back. "Well then... let's get you back to the house and... into something more... clean."
Mel put a hand on Janice's shoulder and called her mother's attention back. "Mother, this is Janice and she'll be staying with us a while. I'd appreciate a hot bath before I get dressed down in front of her."
Janice caught shock on Mel's mother's face just before the woman's chin dropped, the sharp look vanished and she asked more gently, "Do you have any bags?"
Mel answered, "No."
"All right. Let's go home then," Mrs. Pappas turned to Janice as she spoke. "I'll have a guest room prepared as soon as we get back."
"Thank you," Janice replied.
Blue and green eyes met then shied away from one another. Three women moved quietly toward the station doors. Once outside, Melinda, holding Janice up gingerly, leaned close and whispered, "Home at last."
"I can't wait to see it."
The morning sunlight caught them both in its glow as they walked to a well-apportioned Chevrolet sedan parked at the curb. The dark-skinned driver in cap and gloves held the rear door for them.