Disclaimers, or lack of them: See Part 1
My thanks as always to my beta reader, Barbara Davies. Her work can be found on her page, Barbara Davies.
Jo was not familiar with the feeling of another body in her bed. True, she had entertained many women in that very spot, but they usually knew to slip out of the bed quietly when Jo turned over and presented them with her back.
She was comfortable in the knowledge that she always satisfied her guests, and she herself was rarely dissatisfied with her choice of partner for the evening.
So it didn't take much movement from the woman lying half on top of her to wake her from her pleasant slumber. The past few days had taken a lot out of her, however, and the heavy weight of sleep wouldn't immediately relinquish its grip.
"Jo?" The word pierced through the veil of sleep, and the pain behind the word nudged her out of its depths a little further.
"Mmm?" she mumbled, pulling the body closer, her foggy mind not hearing the gasp of pain as she did so.
"Jo," the voice said again. "It hurts."
She felt the body pull away, and heard the gasp that the movement induced. "'S okay," she said, and rolled over, nearly falling when the edge of the bed appeared before she expected.
She somehow managed to get to the bottom of the stairs, without fully opening her eyes. She found a glass and then the fridge. Up to that point she hadn't turned a light on in the house, and she squinted against the light the fridge produced when the door was opened. She poured a glass of orange juice, taking a sip herself before refilling it.
Then she collected the small pot of painkillers from the table and made her way back up the stairs. She stumbled through the bedroom, sitting on the edge of the bed beside the blonde.
Rocky felt a hand behind her, lifting her. She sat up, and felt a pill being pressed to her lips. Then she felt the cold rim of the glass, and it was tipped gently. She swallowed the juice and the pill and heard the glass set down on the bedside cabinet. Then she listened as Jo padded around the bottom of the bed and slipped under the covers beside her. She rolled over and resumed her position, using the taller woman's shoulder as a pillow. Rocky felt the long arm gently fold across her shoulders, and heard Jo's breathing immediately even out. A smile crossed the blonde's features, and she wondered at the fact that her new friend could do what she just did whilst apparently asleep.
They hadn't moved at all when Jo woke up next. The weight on her arm was comfortable, and she looked down at the face of the girl sharing her bed. She had a vague memory of being woken in the night, but the memory skittered away in the reality of the here and now.
Rocky was deeply asleep, not stirring even as Jo eased her arm from its place as the girl's pillow and slipped out of bed. With a long lingering glance at the sleeping girl, she made her way downstairs.
The phone began ringing as she sat on the sofa with a cup of tea she'd just made. She picked it up. "Yeah?" she said, as she placed the mug on the low coffee table.
"Really, dear," said her mother. "Is that the most appropriate way to answer the telephone?"
"For me? Yeah." Mother baiting is such an underestimated sport.
A loud sigh from the receiver.
"Was there something you wanted?" asked Jo.
"I was just wondering if you'd be flying up to Cumbria with your father and I?"
Jo closed her eyes, covering her face with her hand. "Um."
"I didn't catch that, dear. You know I'd prefer it if you would fly with us; I don't like you driving all the way up there."
"I'm not sure..."
"Not sure, dear? I would rather you got up there a little earlier than Christmas Eve. Last year you could barely stay awake during the service on Christmas morning."
"I'm not sure I can get there this year, Mother." Jo waited for the outburst she knew was about to come. It was a tradition passed down through the generations, and no member of the family had missed a Christmas at Collingford Manor in centuries. Even her sister would arrive from across the Atlantic rather than suffer the wrath of her mother.
"Joanna, I shall be there in half an hour." The voice was replaced by the dialling tone.
Joanna stared at the phone in her hand, and then placed it gently on the cradle. "How d'you forget about Christmas?" she whispered to herself.
It was actually twenty-three minutes before Jo's doorbell rang - a new record for her mother. She knew who it was by the insistent ringing, so she pressed the entry button and resumed her seat on the sofa, awaiting her fate.
Marianna Holbrook-Sutherland was pulling off her gloves as she entered the lounge. "Joanna dear, you look dreadful."
Jo stood and embraced her mother. "Thanks, Mother, love you too."
"First the episode in the gallery, and now I find you looking like you haven't slept for days. You really should take more care of yourself." She folded herself elegantly onto the armchair, regarding her daughter's slumped form. "Now, what's this about you not coming up to Collingford?"
"I have a problem here." Jo curled up on the sofa, hugging a cushion to her chest.
"And this problem can't be solved in little over a week?"
"I don't think so."
Marianna was being uncommonly reasonable, and it unnerved her daughter. "Can you tell me what the problem is?"
Jo looked at her mother warily. "I have a friend who is unwell, and I'd like to stay with her while she recovers." Jo expected her mother to laugh at her, much the same as Trixi had.
"Is this person here?"
"Um, yes, she's...." Jo jumped to her feet as Marianna stood. "Where are you going?"
The slightly shorter woman made her way purposefully out of the lounge and glanced in the kitchen. She turned back to her daughter. "I want to meet this person who is obviously more important to you than your family."
Jo stood on the bottom stair and blocked her mother's path to the bedrooms. "She's sleeping, I'd rather you didn't wake her."
"Exhausted is she?" Marianna took a step forward. "Joanna, step aside please."
Jo bowed her head and allowed her mother to climb the stairs. "It's not what you think," she said quietly, and looked up as her mother turned on the stairs to regard her daughter.
Marianna nodded slightly and resumed climbing, stopping outside the partially opened door of Jo's bedroom.
Jo caught up with her mother and pushed ahead of her, the light from the open doorway illuminating the still-dark room. She looked up from the sleeping form to see her mother standing at the bottom of the bed. Jo put a finger to her own lips when she saw her mother was about to say something. So Marianna walked around to stand beside her daughter.
"What happened to her?" asked the older woman.
"She fell. Hurt her shoulder." Jo was smoothing away hair from Rocky's eyes and her hand was captured by a smaller one and pulled towards the sleeping woman's chest. Jo looked at her mother, and gently pulled her hand out of Rocky's grasp.
"She looks very young, Jo."
Jo sighed. "Yes, she is."
"Would she not be better with her own family?" Marianna asked as she approached the head of the bed, pushing between Jo and the sleeping girl.
Jo watched in fascination as her mother leaned over the slumbering form and mirrored her own actions, smoothing soft blonde hair away from where it had fallen once again to tangle with long eyelashes.
"She has no family; her parents were killed some time ago."
Marianna took a deep breath and then grasped hold of her daughter's arm and pulled her from the room. Once outside she quietly closed the door. "Your friend Beatrice called me this morning."
Jo crossed her arms - a defensive gesture. "Trixi? She called you?"
"Yes she did. She tells me you have taken a vagrant into your home." Marianna held her hand up as Jo opened her mouth to object to the description. "Wait." She watched her daughter lean back against the wall, her features guarded. "Someone in your position, of your background, has to be especially careful in the company they keep. I want to know that you are satisfied that the girl in there, in your bed, is all she claims to be."
"She doesn't claim to be anything. She didn't want to come back here; it was only when she got injured and was physically incapable of staying on the streets that she agreed to come home with me." Jo's tone was defensive and a little confrontational.
"And then into your bed?" Marianna raised an eyebrow in question.
"It's not how it looks."
Two identical sets of blue eyes bored into one another.
"Jo?" Both women were startled by the voice that drifted from the bedroom. Jo was first to move, followed by her mother.
Rocky was blinking up at the two women standing beside the bed. She thought she must have suffered a head wound at some time, seeing the double image in the dim light.
"Jo?" She tried to sit up, and Jo helped her, putting the extra pillows from the bed behind her to cushion her back against the headboard.
Jo stood at the head of the bed beside Rocky while her mother sat on the edge of the bed. "Hello, dear. I'm Joanna's mother."
Rocky reached out with a shaky hand taking the one offered to her. "Hello."
"Joanna tells me you had a mishap."
Rocky looked up at her friend, who nodded slightly. "Um, yes. I had a fall."
Marianna reached out and put a gentle hand beneath Rocky's hair, feeling her forehead. "Are you taking medication?"
"I'm... um, taking some painkillers."
Jo's mother nodded, and turned to her daughter. "She should be eating if she's taking any type of painkiller."
"We've eaten," said Jo defensively. "We had an omelette."
"Jo cooked it," said Rocky, looking up at her friend adoringly. "It was very nice."
"My daughter doesn't cook, dear. No wonder you're not looking well." She turned slightly towards Jo. "Joanna, get me the phone please." Jo looked from her mother to her friend. "Run along, dear. This poor child requires food, and I doubt you have anything in your refrigerator that would produce the kind of meal I have in mind." Jo still made no attempt to leave. "Your friend is quite safe with me."
Jo slowly left the room, and Marianna turned back to the girl in the bed. "Has my daughter been looking after you?" she asked. "It would appear that she has made you very comfortable." She patted the bed to emphasise what she was referring to.
"She's been wonderful. I still have a hard time believing I'm here."
"Oh yes, I understand you are homeless. Is that a temporary situation?"
"Is everything alright in here?" asked Jo, as she reappeared a little out of breath and handed her mother the cordless phone.
"Everything's fine, dear." Marianna took the phone from her daughter and dialled a number from memory. "Sandor, darling. I need a delivery... For three... No, at Joanna's. You have the address? I trust your judgement, darling... Sounds delightful... And a good wine? Fabulous. Bye." Marianna ended the call and turned to her daughter. "We have an hour and a half, which will be a little after one. Perhaps we can all go downstairs, and you two can tell me exactly what has been going on the last few days."
It was a couple of hours later that Marianna watched in fascination as her daughter cut up some of the food on her friend's plate, as they sat at the small table in the kitchen. She took in the look of shy adoration on the blonde's face and the look of patient concern on her daughter's.
"Rocky is an unusual name, dear." Mariana sat back, pushing her plate away and refilling her glass with the wine that had arrived with the meal.
"It's a nickname." The blonde remembered the raised eyebrows when she had told Jo's mother what her name was. "It's the only name I've known for the past five years."
"Is that how you prefer to be known here?" Marianna asked.
Rocky regarded the food on her plate. "My name is Michelle." She looked up. "You may call me that if you want."
"Michelle is a beautiful name," she said with a smile.
Rocky blushed. "Thank you."
She turned to her daughter. "So, Joanna." Her smile faded; so did her daughter's. "I'm assuming that you won't be travelling to Collingford for Christmas."
"I won't, I'm sorry." Jo held her mother's gaze, hoping she wouldn't cause a scene in front of the blonde.
"I can't say I'm not disappointed. This will be the first year the whole family has not been in attendance." Marianna stood, and extended her hand towards Rocky. "Michelle, it's been a pleasure to meet you."
Rocky took the hand, shaking it gently. "Thank you for the meal."
"It was rather enjoyable. Sandor never disappoints." She went from the kitchen to the hall, picking up her coat and shrugging into it. Jo had followed her out.
"Thank you for understanding." Jo helped her mother into her coat, settling it on shoulders as broad as her own.
Marianna turned back to face her. "I want you to bring her up to Collingford...." She held her hands up as Jo began to protest. "Not for Christmas. Bring her up in a couple of months; I'll arrange to be there. I have something I want you to see. It belonged to my great grandmother's sister. I've always kept it; my mother brought it with her when she married your grandfather. She gave it to me some years ago. I do believe you are ready to have it now."
"I don't understand."
"You will." She embraced her daughter. "Now, I must go. I have an interior decorator to meet."
Jo shook her head. "You're redecorating the London home again?"
Marianna laughed. "Of course, dear. It's been over a year."
She walked her mother to the door, and watched as the chauffeur opened the door and allowed her to slide into the back.
She gave a brief wave as the car pulled away and then was gone, leaving a bemused daughter looking at the empty courtyard, with large flakes of snow gently falling to cover the ground.
When Jo went back upstairs she found Rocky piling the plates into the dishwasher. "Hey, let me do that." She eased the blonde back into the chair, and finished the job for her.
"Your mother is nice," said Rocky simply.
"Yeah, scary, isn't it?"
"Why d'you say that?"
Jo sat in one of the chairs again. "She's never accepted any excuse for not making it to Collingford for Christmas. I've driven up there through blizzards to make it before now." She chuckled. "Rather that than face the wrath of my mother."
"So what was the difference this time?"
Jo reached across and took Rocky's free hand. "You, I think. I don't really know why." Jo took a deep breath. "She wants us both to go up there after Christmas."
Rocky gently pulled her hand from Jo's. "Jo, I can't, I...."
"It'll be alright; you'll be with me."
"I don't mean that. As soon as my arm is better, I'll be leaving."
"But, I thought...." Jo looked down at the tabletop, her stomach clenching, her temples beginning to throb.
"I can't live off you, Jo. And there's nothing I can do." She looked at the bowed head. "What you've done for me has been wonderful, but I can't stay."
"I want you to," said Jo, her voice breaking. She looked up, tears pooling in her eyes. "Will you promise me something?"
"Will you stay with me over Christmas?"
"Of course. You've chosen me over your family." Rocky looked puzzled.
"Good." Jo looked relieved. "That's good."
"But then, in the New Year, I'm going back."
Jo nodded tightly. No way, she decided, absolutely no way. And she had a couple of weeks to change the blonde's mind.
They sat together on the sofa later that evening, watching the television and talking about past Christmases. Rocky seemed to enjoy telling her new friend about her past now. The memories she kept locked away now washed over her, and Jo smiled as she watched Rocky animatedly tell her of the yearly ritual of buying a Christmas tree.
"And they always let me choose it. So, of course, I always chose the largest one I could."
"D'you want to get a tree now?" Jo said suddenly.
Rocky was taken aback. "Now? It's late."
"It's only just after 7. We could get one somewhere I'm sure." Jo was up and making her way to the door. "Come on."
"We can't go like this." Rocky spread her good arm and looked down at her baggy clothing. And then up at Jo, who was equally relaxed in sweats and a tee shirt.
"I'll get you a jacket. It's going to be crazy out there this close to Christmas; no-one will take any notice."
Jo reached a hand out, and Rocky felt the hair on the back of her head prickle as a feeling of déjà vu swept across her. She lost herself in the blue gaze and was suddenly enfolded in long arms, her head resting against Jo's chest.
Rocky heard Jo's voice as it rumbled through her chest next to her ear. "Yeah, must be the painkillers."
"Let's go then; maybe some fresh air will do you good."
So half an hour later they found themselves trying to find a parking space in their local B&Q DIY store.
The place was packed. And Jo was right; no one took any notice of the two bizarrely dressed women, especially the one in the huge army boots and oversize leather jacket.
"Let's see what they have left," said Jo, and made her way through the throng towards the decorations. They still had plenty of everything, unlike years before when they would run out of decorations a couple of weeks before Christmas.
Jo started grabbing handfuls of everything. She got a few large strands of each colour of tinsel, draping it around Rocky's shoulders. The she started grabbing boxes of coloured balls of different colours. She realised she couldn't carry everything and so went in search of a shopping trolley.
Rocky waited patiently, covered in tinsel until Jo returned. She gave a sheepish smile to two small children who stared at her.
At last Jo reappeared, pushing a trolley ahead of her which had a mind of its own. Her boxes of decorations were already inside it, and she unwrapped the blonde from the tinsel and placed that in as well. "We need ceiling decorations," said Jo, and disappeared again.
Rocky wandered over to a set of shelves, and found some small decorations. There were table decorations and a garland to go on the front door.
"Put them in the basket," Jo said, peering over her shoulder, and then was gone again.
Rocky placed them in the basket and then wandered to the next set of shelves. There was a nativity scene there, all boxed up.
Jo was at her shoulder again. "Do you want to get that?"
Rocky turned to her. "We weren't a particularly religious family, but we always had one of these." She looked back at the box. "I used to set it up. It always sat on a small table."
Jo reached past her and took the box, setting it in the basket. "And you will this year too," she said quietly. "Come on, let's go and find a tree"
They had to go outside, to the garden centre, to find a tree, and then they were disappointed. The few sorry bushes that were left were in such a sad state that even the low prices couldn't persuade them to buy one. So they decided on a six-foot artificial tree, one of the more lifelike examples.
It was two women with glowing faces that arrived back at Jo's house over an hour later, and unloaded their packages.
"I can't believe this," said Rocky, looking at the decorations spread across the floor.
"I've never done this here; don't really know why not." She sat cross-legged beside the blonde. "Never had anyone to share it with before, I suppose."
Rocky raised a hand to her shoulder.
"Is it hurting?" asked Jo, standing and going to the kitchen. She returned a moment later with the pain pills, handing the blonde a couple.
"Just a nagging pain. I'll just take one, I think." She swallowed the juice. "Can we put this up now?"
Jo chuckled. "Of course we can. I'll get a chair from the kitchen."
With Rocky's expert guidance, and as much help as she could give one-handed, they had the decorations up in a couple of hours.
"Turn the lights off," said Rocky as she sat on the sofa.
Jo did so, leaving them in the glow from the tree lights and the fire.
"It's beautiful," said Jo as she settled on the sofa next to the blonde. Then she turned to her companion. "But then, so are you." She put an arm around Rocky's shoulders and gently pulled the smaller woman against her.
"I'm so happy," Rocky whispered.
"Good. I want you to be happy." She bent and kissed the blonde head. "I want you always to be happy."
Rocky was quiet for a moment. "I didn't think I'd ever be happy again, after my parents died."
"No, please don't be." Rocky pulled away, looking up at the beautiful profile in the dim light. "You've done so much for me, and I still don't know why."
"It makes me happy too. Maybe that's why. A picture in a gallery - that's all you were to me for a while. But now the reality is so much more than I could have dreamed of. Please, Rocky," she cupped soft cheeks in her hands, looking into misty green eyes. "Believe that there is something that drew me to you. I don't know why, or how. I'm just thankful that you're here." She leaned forward and brushed her lips against even softer ones. "Please don't leave me."
"You want me to stay?"
"More than anything."
Rocky smiled, the most beautiful thing Jo had ever seen.
"Then I'll stay."
Rocky's smile was mirrored, and she found herself pulled into a loving embrace, sinking into a security she hadn't known for many years.
And as she revelled in that security she knew it was time to unload the demons that still haunted her. It was time to tell Jo the rest of her story.
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