Disclaimer One: These ladies belong to me, but the likeness of Xena and Gabrielle belong to Rob T, Universal, and whoever else.

Disclaimer Two: Subtext? Why yes, you know me! Sex? LOL didn't you have enough of that my last story? Anyway, this is a treat, and I'm sure you'll enjoy it. It'll pick up your spirits and even explore the meaning of this holiday.

Dedications: To Camille, who has been beside me, carried me through some tough times. Love you forever. To Sloane, again, hang in there. All will right itself. To Celine, give the little one a big smacker for me! To God, thank you for your grace and blessings.



Copyright© November 2000

Chapter I

The brunette hung up the phone with a muted slam and growl. She stared at the piece of equipment intensely and rubbed her temples, hoping beyond hope that it would explode into flames. When that didn't happen, she spun around in her chair to face the window. The weather more than fit her mood—cold, gloomy, and dark.

Today, would forever be stamped on her brain as the worst day of her life, the day before Thanksgiving. The day she lost everything. Turning back slightly, cobalt blue eyes scanned the room warily, taking in the large cherry oak desk, plush carpeting, leather chairs, and even the charcoal prints on the wall. It would all be gone in a few days. She ran deft fingers through sable locks and exhaled a painful breath. Holidays had never held meaning for her, and now, she just plain hated them. "Ba-Humbug works for Thanksgiving too, especially when you don't have anything to be thankful for," she mumbled to the quiet room.

In a few days, her dream and everything she had fought for would be taken over by the biggest chain of bookstores in America, Webster's. They didn't want her as manager. They didn't want her as consultant. They just wanted her gone. Humble Beginnings would be no more. She had given the bookstore that name because when she first started out there was nothing more than a few rickety shelves and folding chairs for reading. Now, she had one of the most frequented businesses on the block. That is, until Webster's moved in right next door.

Rachel Higgins laughed out loud when she thought about the conglomerate. She couldn't figure out why they were so popular. No one had the personal touch she did. Rae, as well as her staff, knew every customer by name and preference. All a customer got at Webster's was a blank stare from some snot nosed kid. It was one of life's great ironies.

The smile faded away and a feeling of listlessness entered her, shaking her to the bone. Rae stared out at trees covered in a thin blanket of snow. I can't believe this is happening. Maybe you were right, Dad. I'll never amount to anything. She balled her hands into fists and resisted the urge to shout out in indignation. A hot flush of anger covered her face and neck in a red wave. I have to fire them. God, they were counting on me, and I let them down. Some of them need this job, especially Terri

Rae's insides heated and melted with just the thought of the diminutive blonde. She had shown up six months ago at the beginning of summer with big green eyes and well worn clothes. While she had tried to impress Rae with her knowledge of literature, those green eyes pleaded with Rae to hire her. It was a strange contradiction to sound so sure and look so vulnerable. It intrigued the brunette to no end, and before her brain could kick in, her mouth went into overdrive and hired the blonde on the spot.

Rae smiled as she remembered Terri's squeal and the attempt to hug her. Atleast I get money from the sell, but all she gets is an unemployment check and the fun of looking for another job. I'm so sorry, Terri. Full lips formed into a grim line. The petite blonde had tried for weeks after she started to get her boss to say more than, "Good morning. This needs to be done. . ." But, Rae would have none of it even though jade eyes continued to beckon. Everything she touched turned to shit. Her father had even said so after her mom left all those years ago. So, Rae stayed away from Terri, far, far away. She denied her feelings of curiosity, squashed her need to return a smile, and choked on the admission that her day turned brighter each time she saw the blonde.

All of this didn't keep the petite woman from trying. The winning smile changed by degrees, as did the green in her eyes. Rae had learned to read it well. A slow, wide smile with glittering green meant that Terri had something to share. A crooked grin with scrunched nose and darkened eyes denoted the need to just talk, and talk she did. To keep her distance, Rae only responded with strategically placed grunts and nods, but it seemed to be enough for the blonde, mesmerizing her boss with the inflections in her voice. More times than not, Rae had discreetly watched as the blonde's full lips moved, wondering if the pink mouth would move with the same fervor over her body. The brunette admitted to herself long ago that there was an attraction, but she would never say it out loud, knowing it would all just turn to iron plated crap.

I don't want to hurt her anymore than I'm going to today. Even that admission took a lot out of the storeowner because it was indicative of her caring more than a little bit. Somehow in the past few months despite her preventing it, the blonde had gotten to her with the sweet smiles and incandescent chatter. Rae smoothed the dark hair away from her forehead. Blue eyes squinted in disgust. Well, Dad you always said I would be nothing. I think you got your wish. I have nobody and nothing. What does that make me?

"Now, I have to do what I do best, turn their lives into. . ." She didn't finish the thought, hearing the ringing of the entrance bell and the murmur of voices. One of their last customers just entered. The sudden pang of loss smothered her, making her wish she could share this with someone. Anyone. For once, she wanted to reach out but was afraid that she didn't know how. The dark head hung. Then, pillowed by her hands she laid her head on the desk, and like a shock of night, long, streaming black hair covered the scattered, stark white paper. No, she had nothing to be thankful for.

Chapter II

Terri Martin peered at the closed office door then turned to her co-worker and asked, "Did she seem subdued to you?"

Sweeping a strand of red hair behind her ear, Pat threw back her head and laughed. "Only you would be able to see that. I don't know her like that."

Blushing and trying to hide her face, Terri replied, "Well, I don't either," her tone was slightly indignant.

Pat sobered and looked down at her friend. Her words were soft, "Yeah, but I don't want to know her like that. You do." Brown bore into green, waiting for acknowledgement. Terri scrunched her brow and bit her lip. "Maybe I shouldn't have told you about that." But, I needed to tell someone. It was eating me up inside.

"You needed to tell someone, and we are friends right?"

The blonde nodded then answered amazed at Pat's ability to read her mind, "Right. It's just that it's hard, you know. I want to . . ."

"I know," Pat interrupted. "I see it every time I look at your face when she comes in."

Terri ducked her head to hide another flush and dug her hands into deep pockets, making her shoulders shrug. "Is it that obvious?"

Pat smiled slightly, "I know you and I see you almost everyday. It is to me." She paused. "Don't worry about it. I don't think she's none the wiser, but we'll talk about this more later if you want. I need to get started. Have some new orders to shelve."

Not saying anything, Terri watched as Pat made her way to a small stack of boxes. She sees me everyday too. Why doesn't she notice? How could she not? Probably thinks that I'm just grateful to her for the job. I was at first, and it looked like she needed a friend. It goes way beyond that now. Knowing the bookstore like the back of her hand, Terri was able to organize the counter without pulling her brain into the process. It left her free to ponder. Something was wrong, and she knew it. Something had been wrong for sometime. It wasn't like Rae told her the details. She could just. . . well, tell. Like the books she had come so adept at reading most of her life, Terri could read people. Rachel wasn't an open one, but the blonde had learned long ago to read between the lines.

She had learned that lesson well with her boss. It wasn't what she said because that was never much. It was all in the way the brunette held herself. One day she would come in with shoulders straight, her gait long and confident, and her eyes shining with some unknown enthusiasm. Right away, Terri knew that the day had started off good for Rae and would probably end like that. However, the past two weeks or so broad shoulders were slumped and a usually lithe body seemed crouched. Her eyes no longer had a sparkle but a subdued color about them, and lines of worry fanned out around her mouth and forehead. She knew it sounded like an obsession but it was simple observance by a woman in love. Terri had memorized every line, every crevice, and every look, long ago.

She pulled out the drawer to the cash register and started counting. How can I be in love with someone I don't know, who has never opened to me? She sighed and then almost laugh when the question almost answered itself. Because my heart said so.

Terri poured coffee and reflected on what led her here to this woman. The wistful smile turned into something somber. Everybody's friend. That's what she had always been known as throughout school and adult life. She had been everybody's friend, listening to problems, offering advice, giving money and time, and never asking for anything in return. After all, that's how her mom had raised her. No father. No sister and no brother. Until Martha Martin died, it was just the two of them with her mother teaching her to be helpful and responsible.

All good traits she had to admit, but it ended up being her downfall. Terri trusted one person too many with what little money she had saved and lost everything, including her pride. After working her way through school, she had a little money saved, but it was just enough to get an apartment and live on until she found a job. Only the apartment remained after giving up money to a smiling friend to invest. The so called friend invested the funds into himself. Fresh out of college and without a job, she was left with no means of support. It was all in all the best thing to every happen to her, leading her to search for a job, any job, leading her to Humble Beginnings and Rachel.

Terri sighed wistfully and did a quick scan of the entire store, looking for things awry. She smiled and noticed again for the umpteenth time that the store was so much like its owner, darkness and light. Dark brown and beige couches and chairs decorated the reading area, surrounding little tables sporting vases with fresh flowers. The walls were adorned with charcoal drawings, the painfully white paper sticking out around the heavy scratching of the black pencil.

There were rows and rows of books all at eye level, making them accessible to all customers. To top it off, were strategically placed posters near the bookshelves advertising the latest books and books on tape. Finishing her sweep, she looked back at the closed door and whispered, "Just open up to me that's all I ask. See me. I can give you everything you need."

Terri blew out a exasperated breath, disturbing shaggy blonde bangs and then pushed small hands through the short tresses to right them. I can't explain this. Why her and why now? I all but promised myself to never fall into that trap again, but is it a trap if she isn't a willing participant? Maybe it's because she's safe. Maybe it's because I suspect that she'll never respond to me. Maybe because I know it could never be. Terri mentally shook herself to break from the spell. "No time for this now. Not today, when she's so close." Mercifully, the entrance bell rung, and Terri grinned automatically at the woman who entered the store.

"Morning, Mrs. Needlemeyer. Through with the latest Nora Roberts already?"

The old woman chuckled, making still vibrant blue eyes twinkle. "When you get as old as I am that fantasy world gets mighty appealing."

Terri laughed with her. "Well, I don't know. It's the same for those of us who live alone." The blonde leaned over the counter, getting close to the other woman. "Let me tell you dating these days hardly compares to a good book."

The older blonde leaned back and snickered. "Pooh, not for a pretty little thing like you. Why the men. . ." Mrs. Needlemeyer looked closer when the younger woman frowned and looked away. ". . .the women should be falling all over you."

Terri's eyes widened. "How did. . ."

Mrs. Needlemeyer waved her hand in dismissal. "Don't get your bra in a twist. I know what's going on these days and more power to ya," she slammed her hand against the counter. "That's what I say."

Terri chuckled. "Good for you Mrs. Needlemeyer. Quite the progressive woman aren't you? How did you know?" The blonde cashier put her elbow on the counter and placed her chin in her hand. Blonde brows were at their peak with curiosity.

The old woman giggled like a school girl then pointed up at her face. "These old eyes seen more than what's in front of them, and I've been here too many times in the past few months not to notice the way you look at the boss lady."

Oh, Christ! Does everyone know except her?! Green eyes opened wide in surprise and her mouth dropped into her hand. The flush was hard and leaned toward a deep purple. She didn't have the courage to look away. The cat was out of the bag, and she had been tired of holding him in, in the first place. Her only response was a croaked, "Ah, I see."

Mrs. Needlemeyer nodded, "Mmm-hmm. Why don't you just go for it? Things can't get any worse than they already are."

Terri took a step back from the desk and poured the older woman some coffee, hiding her face and confusing emotions as she did so. You read my mind. I want so much to ask her over for Thanksgiving, but would it be too much too soon? It's just that it's been so lonely, and I miss spending the holidays with someone I love. I am so thankful to have Rachel, even from afar. "Maybe. I don't know, but I guess we'll see sooner or later. Now, how about I hook you up with the new Patricia Cornwell?"

The older blonde smiled cryptically, knowing a subject change when she heard one. "Lead on. You're the expert."

Chapter III

The sound of laughter pushed Rachel toward the door. She could recognize the intonations anywhere. It was Terri. She's never made that sound for me. A shaft of jealousy stabbed her linked to the person who could cause such emotion in the blonde. She opened the door and instantly berated herself. Rae gave a smile and wave to Mrs. Needlemeyer. She would miss seeing the older woman's face but felt herself frowning as the old woman leaned over the counter and whisper something to Terri.

Terri heard the door open, and her breath whooshed out as if on cue. She watched stiffly as the older blonde's blue eyes peered over her shoulders. "Well, speak of the devil!" Mrs. Needlemeyer whispered. Terri swallowed and glared into eyes that twinkled with mischief.

Rae made her way to the counter, keeping the smile plastered on her face. It faltered slightly at the feel of heat glancing off her shoulder. It made her want to cuddle into it. Now, that's never happened before. She glanced at the blonde from the corner of her eye, noticing the stiffness of her posture. Before her body had a chance to protest, her hand had clamped over a shoulder. Terri jumped as if burned but stood her ground. Rae squeezed the shoulder under her hand. It felt so natural to do this, so right. Her smile turned genuine. "Morning, Mrs. N, come to throw yourself into another one?"

The woman nodded, "Like I told this one that's all some of us have." Mrs. Neddlemeyer looked pointedly at Terri. Terri looked from one woman to the other until her vision settled on a chiseled profile. Her breath left again when blue eyes turned to search hers, and under the brunette's touch, her shoulder and points below burned with a measure of icy cold and searing heat. "Um, I-I was just about to get the new Pat Cornwell for her." Green eyes studied the face before her. God, look at her so beautiful and so lonely. I know she is. I can feel it, just like me.

Rachel looked down into eyes that beckoned her for the millionth time. She swallowed hard and tried vehemently to squash down the part of her that wanted to answer-- the part that wanted to prove her father wrong. Long fingers itched to caress the skin not too far from her hand. She wanted to yank her hand away from the temptation, but vulnerability got the best of her, causing her to do neither. Where is all of this coming from? Instead, Rae whispered softly, "You go do that."

Terri waited until she was sure the older woman was following before turning away. Her body felt suddenly bereft, as if it lost a lifeline. Breath heaved in her chest, and she turned to glare at the snickering Mrs. Needlemeyer as they got to the stacks. "Please, don't. . ."

"Somebody needs to child if you won't do it for yourself. It hurts. I know, but it can be made better. Take a chance. You might be surprised."

The words reverberated and echoed through her head. They stopped at the new releases, and Terri turned to find an uninterrupted view of the counter. I can't keep on like this. I feel like something is gonna break loose. Maybe she's right. She pulled the book out and handed it to the older woman. "I-I need to give it some thought."

"You do just that."

Rachel could feel eyes on her, but it was fear that kept her from looking up. Why am I acting like this? It must be the thing with the business that's making me all confused. But, what is this ache I get when I think about not seeing her again? Unable to stop it, she glanced upward only to be captured by moss green. She sucked in a breath as her heart thudded against her chest. It would be so easy just to open up to her. She wants it, and today I need it. I need someone. I need her.

Somewhere deep inside someone laughed at her, and he sounded, strangely, like her father. "You can't keep anything. You can't need anyone because no one needs you. Never did. You're useless." Rachel wanted to tell him to shut up, but the strength she needed just didn't come. Lowering her head, she drew back into herself.

When Mrs. Needlemeyer came over, she rang up the other woman's purchase with a wisp of a fake smile. The store was quiet again. Rae glanced to the side to see Terri pretending to reshelf, but she couldn't be sure--anything to keep herself away from the fire. A somber mood settled over her like a cold, wet blanket, making it hard to breathe, but it needed to be done. She should have done it when she knew a take over was inevitable, but it was too late for what if's.

Rae raised her voice slightly, wanting to get through to both two women and and their stock boy, "Hey guys? Can all of you come over here for a minute? I need to talk to you."

She watched with sad eyes as her two cashiers and stock boy made their way front and center all with eager looks on their faces. Her gaze found its way over to the petite blonde, who turned away quickly when they made eye contact. Rae gazed for a long minute, need an anchor.

She walked from behind the counter to stand in front of them. Not knowing to do with her hands, she joined them and kept them in front of her. "Guys, I know I should have told you this when I knew it would come to this, but I guess part of me wouldn't face up to it. I'll understand your anger." Blowing out a breath, she decided to just let it out.

"Webster's is looking to expand, and we have been steadily losing business since they arrived. I can't keep the store afloat anymore. This past year has been hell, and I'll be lucky to break even. They made me an offer, and with it I should come out even. Unfortunately, this means that Humble Beginnings is no more. The sell will be finalized within a week, and I would be more than happy to give all of you recommendations to get jobs with Webster's if that's what you want to do." Tapering off, she stared into their faces trying to gage their reactions. Johnny's head hung, but he mumbled, "But, I don't want to work for people like that, Rae. It'll be like working for a fast food place or something."

Rachel almost chuckled. Smart kid. "I know, and I'm sorry. If there was something I could do, to keep you all here, I would. Brenda's Nook isn't far from here. If you want to work for another small place like that, I could give her a call, okay?"

His brown head raised with a smile. "Thanks, ‘ppreciate it."

Rachel glanced over at Pat, seeing that her expression was an unreadable mask. She chewed on the inside of her lip before speaking, "I told you that you have the right to be angry at me."

Pat raised her hand immediately signaling her to stop. "It's not you I'm mad at. I hate big business. You know I do because all they ever do is make the little people disappear almost like they never existed. That's what is wrong with this country . . ." she shook her head in disgust. "Add my name to that list when you call Brenda. I'm gonna miss this place." Resigned, she looked around as if it was the last time.

Finally, ice blue rested on the blonde, and she was taken back by what she saw there, profound sadness. It was as if Terri had lost her best friend. Rae took a step forward before she realized what she was doing. "Terri, you okay?"

Terri wanted to scream that she wasn't. Her heart hurt. Everything hurt. So this is it? This is how it ends? With a whimper---with me being the whimp. All that time I squandered. Well, I should thankful that I had it at all to look at her, study her, and fall in love with her, all so it can be taken away from me by some suits. It's not fair! It's not, but God, I am thankful that you allowed me to feel this even if it was for a little while. There had to be a reason for it. Biting her bottom lip and clenching her hands into fists, she gazed into her boss' eyes. What must she be feeling? She's losing her livelihood. "Are you. . . are you okay?"

Rae stared back at the blonde in confusion and awe. She's losing her job and she asks me how I'm doing? Who are you? Rachel couldn't help herself. She smiled, brilliantly. The selfless act caused a bolt of warmth to start from her toes and work its way up. Cocking her head to the side and suddenly feeling shy, her hands went into the pockets of her slacks. Her voice was soft, reverent, "No, but given time I will be. I just want to make sure that you're. . .you guys are okay." Rae amended, suddenly realizing that they weren't alone.

Terri's heart slammed against her chest, and she tried to hide suddenly shallow breaths. She had seen everything in that smile, everything, and suddenly she wanted to take the chance to grasp it. Her bottom lip came free, allowing her to grin back, glowingly. Flustered, she replied, "Uh, I'll be okay. Brenda's." She watched the dark head nod as if she understood the babble she had just spouted. Something's changed with her. Maybe this is my chance.

Still feeling shy, sheepish and exposed, Rachel decided that a quick exit was in order before she really did something odd. "I'll go make the calls now. I know this is hard on all of you with it being the holidays, but there will be severance pay. I'm also sure that Brenda will have no problem taking you all on. She's expanding too as you know." With one last long look at the blonde and as gracefully as she could, Rachel turned and walked briskly back to her office.

Three pairs of eyes watched the door shut. Then, two pairs turned to stare at the blonde, who kept her gaze on the closed door. Feeling their gazes on her, Terri glanced at them then backed away a little in surprise. Amusement shined in their eyes and in their crooked smiles. "What?" She asked breathlessly.

Johnny shook his head and answered before walking away, "Bout freakin' time."

Pat chuckled as they watched him go. The redhead turned back to her friend, "He's right you know. Go for it."

Terri glared at her. It seemed as though she was doing a lot of that this morning. "I thought you said no one else knew?" Her tone was sarcastic but light.

Pat shrugged as her smile spread. "I lied. You'd have to be dead not to have noticed."

Green eyes turned to slits, but she couldn't prevent the grin that lit her features. Giddiness bubbled in her, making her hyper. There should have been fear of rejection. There should have been just plain old fear, but somehow that had all melted away with that smile. "Well, I'm going in there. . ." She held up a finger and pointed accusingly, "Not because you want me to, but because I want to."

Pat held up her hands in mock protest. "Heyyy! Don't let me push you or anything." She paused and whispered under her breath, "God forbid. Who would want that?"

Jade eyes slitted even more. "l'll pretend that I didn't hear that." Without another word, the finger dropped and its owner headed toward the closed door, toward everything.

Rachel sat heavily on top of her desk. Okay, I'm not even going to pretend I don't know what happened out there. It was so easy just to show her. . .that I cared, and it didn't hurt at all.

Yeah, but you'll hurt her.

Rae swallowed hard, trying to take the voice with the bile that rose into her throat. She picked up the phone with nervous hands and made the phone call she promised. Still sitting in front and on top her desk, she let thoughts of the blonde return. I never knew that someone could be like that, putting others before themselves. It feels good to know someone did that for me. Hell, it feels good because SHE did it for me. Oh, Terri, you make it seem so easy. A knock at the door broke her reverie.

"Come in!"

A blonde head poked its way in. Terri opened the door a little wider, and mumbled, "Um, hi." Stepping in a little further, she smiled inwardly as courage stayed with her. The office suddenly felt small, hot, and alive with a soft, spicy scent that was all Rachel. Terri closed the door and walked right into all of it, wallowing in it. There was no turning back now. Their gazes caught and held. Breath rattled in her chest as did her heart, but she had gotten used to that reaction months ago. Terri smiled tentatively. "Uh, I wanted to talk to you if that's okay?" Feeling bold and not waiting for an answer, the blonde sauntered forward until she was barely a foot way.

Rachel held onto the bottom of the desk with a white knuckled grip The same heat as before surrounded her. How could someone that small give off so much energy? Rae thought about it for a minute before epiphany hit. Maybe it was the energy they put off together. Her insides prickled with warmth. The fuzzy feeling went everywhere surrounding her heart last. It scared her. It exhilarated her, and it beckoned her all at the same time. She got lost in green eyes that were again in contradiction with her words. While she asked to talk, her eyes spoke of great warmth, of cuddling, of touching, and of a myriad of other things.

Rae blinked, feeling the butterflies playing tag in her stomach, and she blinked again when she realized she didn't know what to say. Blue eyes peered down at the phone on her desk. "Oh, um, I called Brenda, and she said there was a place for you guys whenever you want it."

Terri nodded, but she wasn't concerned about herself, at least not that way. She took a step closer and whispered, "But there's no place for you."

Rachel swallowed. She should have felt crowded, but she felt lacking somehow, instead. Is this how she is? Has it always been this way? Beautiful. The dark head canted to the side and an eyebrow rose. She had to know. "Have you always been like this? Thinking of others before yourself?"

She's talking to me. Really talking to me! On the inside, Terri danced. On the outside, she displayed a mysterious grin and answered, "It's a blessing and a curse." The blonde took another step almost invading the other woman's breathing space. "Now, are you going to answer my question? What about you?"

She's quick. Of course, I always knew she would be. Rae hung her head and crossed her arms, properly chastised. Then, she looked up with a self-depreciating smirk, "I'm losing everything. It's going to take a while to get used to. This. . .starting all over, I don't know if it's for me though." Her voice was small, lost. Why am I telling her this? A different little voice answered, "Because you need to. Because you want to, and because you have to." Rachel looked deep into green expecting to see pity, but there was none, only understanding. She knows what it's like to feel this. Why didn't I see it?

Terri wanted to reach out so badly that it hurt, but she wanted to see it in her eyes first, the acknowledgement of emotion, of feeling, of them. "I know it's tough, but I'm here if you want me to be. That is, if you . . .um, need me. I know we've never, but. . ." Terri peered into blue that held such need and sadness that it made her breath catch. She took another step forward. "Rachel. . ." Her name was a whisper, a benediction, a blessing.

Rachel wanted to run. Fear took hold, and her father's voice whistled in her head. But, the sound of her name from the blonde's lips was heaven, salvation, and strength all rolled into one. Green eyes pleaded with her, and this time she listened. This time, she gathered the courage to silence her father's voice, and in one ragged whisper, she husked, "Yes."

A splash of bright color filled the blonde's world illuminating it with the colors of joy and relief. She wanted to throw her arms around the brunette but figured that would be too much too soon. Why is today different? Why is it the day she finally let me in? I know she needs something to hold onto, and I'm glad it will be me.

The blonde's smile was full and bright. Her heart stopped and started again when the smile was returned. ‘I love you and have been waiting for you,' she wanted to say, but Terri settled for, "If you're free after work, you can come to my place. Help me cook for tomorrow, and we can talk. Can you come for Thanksgiving too? It's been a long time since I had someone over. I cook mainly in memory of my mom and to show thanks for what I have."

After all these months, Rachel wanted to devour every kernel of knowledge about this woman, and today was a perfect time to start. "Would love to come over, but I don't know about tomorrow. Isn't it blasphemy to celebrate things you don't believe in? I don't have anything to be thankful or grateful for. I'm losing everything. I have. . ."

Terri wanted to grab and shake the much taller woman to wake her up to what was standing right in front of her. Instead, she interrupted, "You have a friend. You have me. Isn't that something?"

Rae hung her head in silence. Do I? I guess the question should be can I hang onto her. I don't want to get my hopes up. She added cryptically, "If you say so, but yes I'll be there."

A little worried by the tone of defeat in her boss' voice she responded, "I do say so, but it's a start."

They both jumped at the ringing of the phone. Needing to sit down in her own chair suddenly, Rae got up to make her way around the desk, but Terri had moved so close that their bodies brushed as she tried to walk by. She stopped mid-stride when a frission of awareness pushed its way into her body. Rae turned and heard a harsh intake of breath. She couldn't be sure who's it was, but she heard it nonetheless.

Looking down into the blonde's face, her heart pulsed along with her belly at what she saw. Pink lips were slightly parted, moist, and the blonde's breath was audible and shallow. But, it was the flush and the message in her eyes that caused the store owner's stomach to tighten in pleasurable knots. Green eyes were centered on her lips and lit with a fire Rachel had never seen. They stood toe-to-toe and breast-to-breast. Blue eyes closed, and the urge to kiss moist pink lips was overwhelming, compellingly so. Her body shook on the inside with the need. All the while, the phone continued to ring as if it had just started.

It was ignored.

Large hands hanging at the brunette's side balled into fists to keep from reaching out and touching what wasn't hers. She almost gasped at the sight of a pink tongue re-wetting full lips.

While it wasn't the sound of the phone that broke the spell, its abrupt halt did. Rae tore her eyes away with some difficulty and looked toward the phone. "Um, I'd better see who that was." Her voice was hoarse, thick.

Broken from her own trance, Terri nodded then turned, if only to gain some kind of composure. She had never been so close before, and when the brunette had stepped toward her, her body screamed in delight and demanded attention---attention she wanted so much to give it. So much that she ached. So close and yet so far. It was true in this case. Terri looked back over her shoulder to see her boss sitting behind her desk. "I'll see you out front in a few hours." Her voice was just as husky. She closed the door silently behind her, leaving her boss to think about the fire that she had just jumped into.

Terri wanted to lean against the door but looked up to find Pat finishing ringing up a customer. So instead, she swallowed, cleared her throat, and walked toward her friend.

Pat smiled at the customer as he walked away. She then turned to the blonde with a grin that had transformed into pure curiosity. "Well, how did it go?" The redhead all but jumped with excitement.

Terri ducked her head, trying to hide the grin and the flush, but Pat saw it all and whooped in celebration. "I knew I! I knew it! See what happens when you take a chance?"

"We'll see," was her only answer.

Chapter IV

They walked deep into the small apartment. Terri turned in the dark and murmured, "Stay here," as she found the light switch by hard. She turned and glanced back at the brunette, "It's not much, but it's cozy. I like it." While taking their coats and scarves and hanging them on the back of the door, green eyes scanned the apartment, going in the same direction as blue.

Rachel was silent as she did her study and her thoughts were a jumbled mess. What am I doing? I want to be here entirely too much. Am I using her just to make myself feel better? She mentally shook her head. No, I'm not that type of person. What is it about her that draws me to her? After all these months, I have yet to figure it out. She seems so genuine, but I know it's not a ploy. It's who she is honest, forthright, and friendly. Maybe I need some of that. Maybe I just need her.

Chewing on this thought, she took the apartment in. The black couch was stacked with light colored throw pillows, and the chair and love seat had old fashioned afghans, of pinks, blues, and sown in shapes of flowers, thrown over the back. It was like something from another age. She walked over and fingered them. They fit the blonde somehow, old-fashioned.

Terri watched through hopeful eyes. "Uhm, my mom passed those down to me. They used to be my great grandmother's."

Rachel looked up and their gazes zeroed in. Blue eyes were unfathomable, and their owner murmured, "Beautiful."

Terri ducked her head to hide the flush. With the way the storeowner was looking at her, she couldn't be sure what she was referring to. A slow heat began to burn from the inside out, lifting her and warming her.

After a moment more of wallowing in the gaze, Rae turned away more than a little flustered. She was notorious for never losing her cool in front of people, but with this woman, she had done it several times already. Why would tonight be any different. She began to take in the room again. She peered shortly at the low glass coffee table, noting the People, Time, and Newsweek, magazines. Her eyes found the walls, which were bare except for a few pictures of the blonde with another woman that looked hauntingly like her. Rae pointed at them. "Your mom?" Her voice was tentative but needy. She wanted to know so much, having already missed a lot.

Terri nodded and smiled wistfully. "Yeah, she was great even after my Dad left. She died when I was 18. Breast cancer. I think she fought it as long as she could, just enough to see me graduate. She passed a month before I went to college." Terri took a moment, remembering fondly, the smiles, laughter, the hugs and kisses.

Feeling like she was intruding, Rae whispered, "I'm sorry." She was about to move to another topic, when the blonde raised her hand and began speaking again.

Her voice was full of reverence, "It's okay. I've learned to live with it. Besides, I know she's still with me. I feel her sometimes when I'm sleeping or when I wrap up in one of those." She pointed at the afghan.

The brunette looked up a little shocked. She could tell from the cashier's face. She meant that. She believed that, and it charmed her to no end. It made her want to share her own horror stories. So this is what it feels like to open up. I haven't even said a word yet, and I feel lighter. Feeling a little ashamed but wanting to share, the brunette's head ducked, and she talked while staring at the carpet. Sable hair fell around her face, and her voice was small. "You're lucky. I missed out on my mom. She left when I was ten, and I was stuck with my Dad, who blamed me for her leaving. He told me everyday how I scared her away and how I was nothing. I got to the point where I believed him."

The heat that she had been feeling all day surrounded her, and she looked up to see the blonde standing within arms length, right in front of her with green eyes boring into her. Her body stiffened, afraid to feel a thing but wanting so much to.

The pain in her boss' voice grabbed Terri, pulled her, and urged her toward the other woman. So much pain and so much emptiness. She has so much, but she just doesn't see. The urge to touch her was strong, almost insurmountable Terri allowed the compulsion to grow and swell until her hand took on a mind of its own. Soft fingertips found purchase under the storeowner's chin. Terri absorbed the touch.

It seemed like she had been waiting an eternity for this reward, and now that she had it, there would be no squandering. With the ball of her thumb she rubbed the point of Rachel's chin, enjoying the play of smooth skin over bone. She was so soft, and her skin was so hot that it burned her hand. Still, she didn't turn away. Her heart strummed like a well-played violin, and warmth pooled in her body like a slow burn. She reveled in it. This is what I've been waiting for. This is what I can give thanks for, this moment and this woman. She has to know what a beautiful and strong person she is. She has to know.

"But, look at you. You proved him wrong. Look at what you've become. Look at what you have. . ."

The feeling of drowning in green was welcomed, but those words brought her back. Blue eyes closed, and her face contorted with pain. "That's just it. He was right. I'm a failure." Terri's touch had been like coming home. It settled her for a moment anyway. Her eyes snapped open when fingers grasped her chin. She peered into snapping green, alight with emotion. She feels this way for me, about me. I didn't think anybody could. I didn't think anybody would ever fight for me. It felt so good, and it gave her hope.

The blonde head shook displacing a few short strands. "No. No! Look what you did. You went to college. You built a business from its first legs up. You did this, despite what he told you. It's not your fault about Webster's. What they're doing is just a fact of life in today's business world. You should be proud of what you had. People talked about your store. It was unlike anybody else's. The warmth there. . .I new I wanted to work there the minute I walked in." Terri searched her boss' eyes and her face for belief. Please believe this, feel this. Please, for me.

Blue eyes widened. She had never thought of it that way. In all of these years, she had never seen it. She had done it long ago, proved him wrong. She had proved him to be the flawed one, but part of her would never let go. It took a little blonde woman to see that. "I-I didn't know. . . never saw it that way. I. . . thank you."

Terri smiled full out, and it got bigger when the favor was returned. "That's what friends do. Real ones anyway." Suddenly, she realized their closeness and snatched her hand away. Embarrassed she mumbled, "Um, we can order pizza or something else to eat. There's beer in the fridge. We can get started with the cooking after dinner." She backed away and turned looking for a subject change. "The rest of the apartment is back there. It's just the bathroom and bedroom. Their right next door to each other." Terri pointed down the hall with a shaky finger and sauntered over to a small endtable to pick up a stack of menus that were sitting by the phone.

" ***********

They agreed on pepperoni from Domino's and sat at the small dining room table, near the kitchen, eating and sipping cold beer. Something nagged at Rae, and with each swig of beer she peered at the blonde trying to figure out what it was. It hit her. "What did you mean real ones?"

Terri took a bite of pizza and wiped her face with a napkin. She smiled sadly. "Remember when I said blessing and a curse? My curse is that I'm too friendly, and people like to take advantage of that. It's been a long time since I had sincere friends. There's Pat, and now, I would like to think you are. It hasn't been a fun ride for me as far as that goes, but I don't know any other way to be. It's how I was raised, but I guess that's a value no one cherishes anymore."

Rachel leaned back in her chair, surprised and slightly angry. " I don't understand people sometimes." A thought made her eyes widen. "Um, I'm not trying to take advantage. I mean I know that I've never really opened up like this to you, but I haven't to anyone. So. . .I don't really know what that means, but I'm not taking advantage."

Terri nodded, smiled, and raised her hand. "I know you're not. I know you're not that type of person, but I do have a question. Why today? I've been wanting us. . ." She searched for words that she hoped wouldn't be too revealing. "To be like this for months. Friends, I mean." Please God, don't let this be a one night thing.

Rachel peered at the blonde, searching for answers. She had revealed so much tonight, so much of what she had been holding in for years. Yes, why now? Why today? Why her? The answer became clear, and Rae didn't hesitate to give it. It was too late to back out now. She wanted to give as well as receive. The entire wall had crumbled. "I always have. You know, wanted to talk to you get to know you, but I was scared. I didn't want to be a failure at that too. Does that make sense? After all that's happened, I just couldn't walk away anymore." But, I watched you. I know every smile, every look, and I know what almost every body movement means. I know a lot already.

Terri nodded, feeling overwhelmed and slightly mute. All this time, she had wanted to know me, all this time, and I never knew. Finding her voice again, she added, "I think I understand, and I'm glad you couldn't. . . walk away, I mean." There was silence again, as Terri nibbled on a piece of crust, but she broke it. "So, what are you going to do with the money from the sell?"

Rachel shook her head and smiled ruefully. "There is none. Been losing money all year, and I should just break even. I do have some saved though. It will give me time to weigh my options and figure out what I'm going to do. Books are what I'm into. I don't want to do anything else. Given some time, hopefully, I'll come up with something."

"You will." Her voice was strong and full of confidence. Terri looked down at the now cold pizza. "If you're finished, we need to get started in the kitchen. I'm doing a turkey, some stuffing, green bean casserole, and candied sweet potatoes. I hope that's okay?" Her eyes were hopeful.

Rachel grinned. "It's more than okay. I've never really had a Thanksgiving dinner. I'll just follow your lead."

The blonde rose from her chair, leaving the pizza box and bottles on the table for now. She remembered something that she had meant to ask. "Um, can you cook?"

Rae chuckled, "Fine time to ask, isn't it?" Darkened green stared at her, catching unawares. "What?"

Knowing she had been caught staring, Terri had no choice but to face up to it. "You laughed. I haven't heard that in a long time. It was nice." Truth be known, at the sound of the chuckle a bolt of joy shot through her with the knowledge that she had been the cause. She smiled sweetly and made her way into the kitchen, suddenly afraid of what else that would come out of her mouth.

Rachel watched her go. With a few words, she had been knocked for a loop. "She's been paying attention all this time." Feeling a little giddy, she followed the blonde into the kitchen. Rae smiled as the blonde head turned her way. "Yes, I can cook a little just tell me what you need me to do."

Returning the smile, Terri reached in the cupboard for the cutting board and handed it to her boss. She opened the drawer and gave her a knife. "There's celery and stuff in the fridge. Could you chop it up for me? I'll wash and dry the turkey, but I'm going to need help putting it in the over once it's seasoned. It's a twenty pounder."

A dark brow shot up. "Sure, but why so much?"

The flush covered the blonde's neck and face beautifully. "Um, it'll be gone in a week. I eat. . . a lot."

Rachel let out another bark of laughter. "You're kidding! Where on earth do you put it?" Blue eyes scanned the blonde's slight frame.

She smiled big, happy to hear the laugh again. It was hearty and rich with tone. "Don't know. High metabolism I guess."

They puttered around the kitchen in companionable silence. Until, Terri exclaimed, "Okay, I preheated the oven and seasoned the turkey. I think it's ready to go in. Will you help me?"

Rachel turned around just in time to see the blonde's arms shake under the weight of the bird and metal pan. She held her load precariously over the counter. Galvanized into action, Rae moved toward the blonde. Wrapping her arms and hands around the cashier's from the back. She procured a good grip on the roasting pan before it went crashing to the floor. "Whoa, I got it." The body pressed against her front stiffened then shivered, and the brunette noticed the blonde's suddenly ragged breath. She bent her head, hoping to get a glimpse of her face, but ended with her nose buried in blonde hair that smelled of the sunshine they hadn't had since early October.

Rae closed her eyes, and her nostrils flared as she breathed in the scent. The body before her fit perfectly into her own, and she felt every curve pressed against her. The attraction that she had fought so hard not to acknowledge let itself be known with a scream. The pan clattered to the counter. That gave her all the leeway she needed. Large hands wrapped around a slim waist and pulled the blonde into her, impossibly tighter. Rae's blood turned to liquid fire at the sound of a tiny whimper, and she knew that Terri felt it too. But for how long? How long had she wanted this? Deft hands contracted around the blonde's waist, and nipples hardened and scraped against the cashier's back, making their owner gasp and her breathing turn short and shallow. Hooded blue eyes stared down at the exposed flesh of Terri's neck, seeing the pulse beat rapidly at the base. She longed to tongue it, taste it, and suck it. The kitchen was alive with the click on and off of the oven and raspy breathing.

Terri's insides heated and turned to mush. The feel of the woman she had wanted for so long against her made her head spin, her heart hurt, and her body ache with need. Electric pulses burned through her, searing her skin and making it feel too tight, too warm, and so hungry for touch. She resisted the urge to turn around, not wanting to break the fragile connection. Instead, her own shaking hands found purchase on top of larger ones, holding them there.

Rachel continued to stare at bared flesh with a watering mouth. The sudden relaxation of the blonde against her was all the encouragement she needed. Her mouth opened and closed over the sensitive flesh right below Terri's ear. She sucked on the skin with a moan. Terri's breath increased in audibility, and she murmured hotly, "God! Rachel. . ." A small, strong arm lifted and wrapped around the brunette's head guiding her and pulling her in, and her own hands found a new home under full breasts. The taste of her was exquisite, and Rae knew she was already addicted. Her body screamed for more tastes and more textures, and she eagerly gave it what it wanted.

She ached to kiss pink lips. Tearing her mouth away, she spun Terri around to face her. The storeowner looked down into the flushed face and hooded eyes, and she saw something there that took her breath away but calmed raging passion at the same time. Something she had longed to see in her father's face. Something she barely remembered seeing in her mother's. Something she really had never seen and that's why she was able to recognize it. Love. She gazed at Terri in complete awe. Long trembling fingers traced lips, cheekbones, and brows for the first time with such gentleness and reverence that Terri knew that she had been found out. She turned away, afraid of rejection.

Rae stopped her. "No, look at me." Their gazes met and held. Her voice was full of wonder. "You love me. How long?"

Refusing to hide anymore, Terri answered meekly, "Seems like forever. I tried. . ." Her voice trailed off, and she shook her head, so full of emotion.

Rachel shushed her, and not knowing what else to do, she cupped warm flushed cheeks and leaned forward. Their lips brushed tentatively, gently, savoring the taste and the moment. Rae nipped and lifted. The blonde tasted of hope, life, and need. She continuously went back for more. Her heart contracted when Terri cried out, and the feel of hot tears splashing her face made her whole again. All this time, everything was right in front of her, and she never saw it.

So long she had waited. It had seemed like a lifetime, and for just a few moments, Terri's whole being was centered on the kiss. She felt herself being reborn. That's why she cried. She cried for the old Terri--the tentative one that had her ability to take chances beaten out of her by disillusionment. She saw the new one. The one open to love, open to chances, open to happiness. This day a few hours from Thanksgiving would be firmly imprinted on her brain. Nothing could best it, and nothing would come to mean more.

Rachel's insides shook. She loves me. Someone loves me. She pulled back slowly and peered into darkened green. Falling. She could feel herself falling, and she didn't want to stop. Is this what falling in love feels like? Suddenly, Rachel Higgins knew what it was to be grateful, to be thankful. She had lost one of her most prized material possessions and gained everything she was sure that she couldn't have. Feeling a light on inside that was never on before, she smiled at the blonde and reached behind her to open the oven door. Pushing Terri to the side slightly, Rae picked up the turkey with a grunt and put it in the oven. She turned to the cashier and reached out a hand.

Her smile turned into a crooked grin as the small hand found its way into hers. She took a step forward and peered down at an expression she had come to know well, Terri, biting her bottom lip and scrunching her brow. She smoothed out the wrinkles on the blonde's forehead with a finger and traced a full, swollen bottom lip with her thumb, freeing the flesh from white teeth. "I've always wanted to do that." The blonde head ducked to hide a blush. Rae chuckled and pulled her out of the kitchen. "C'mon, we have a lot to talk about."

Well, I hoped you enjoyed my little foray into mushiness.   Let me know what you think at Minerva

Return to Main Page