Summary: Claire Murray just relocated to Baton Rouge, La. After receiving one of the most coveted positions within her company. She would finally be able to begin her life anew leaving all the problems of the past in her hometown of Houston, Texas. Everything seemed perfect until one of her problems re-surfaced. Distance had not hindered her stalker.

Murky Waters

By: Robin Alexander

Copyrighted Material. All Rights Reserved

General disclaimer: This story depicts a loving and sexual relationship between two adult women. Profanity is minimal. Mild acts of violence.

Thanks and dedication to my Beta Reader Amy. Without whom this would have never been written.

I welcome all comments and questions. You may contact me at

Chapter 1

Brown eyes watched in rapt fascination as the towboat was lifted out of the water and put on dry dock. Fish of every shape and size rained down out of the big vessel and landed on the lift. Men filled buckets with the ones unlucky enough to make it back into the water. The site of the large vessel rising out of the water excited the little girl, and she jumped up and down squealing with delight.

"You like that my little one?" Said her father who watched her dance around the levee in delight. His only child loved the river and its boats as much as he did. This was their special time together. The only time he saw his normally sullen child happy and carefree, as one should be.

"Stay up here with uncle little one. I have to go down and take a quick look." He tousled the little girls hair and tweaked her nose before descending the levee. "Why can't I go down there with dad?" Uncle knelt down eye level with the little girl, and explained. "You are not dressed properly little one. Cut off shorts and tennis shoes are not allowed. Besides, its dangerous down there." Brown eyes looked at him full of fear. "Will daddy be ok?" Uncle regretted his choice of words. "Of course he will little one. I meant it is just not safe for beautiful little girls such as yourself." He poked her in the tummy causing her to giggle.

Uncle noticed the camera hanging around the little girls neck. "Still taking pictures like your mother little one?" The smile dropped from the little girls face, and she looked down at the camera hanging around her neck. "Yes sir. I wanted to take some of the tow boats."

Uncle put his fingertip underneath the chin of the little child and gently raised her eyes to meet his. "Little one, what is that sad face for?" Tears filled the innocent brown eyes, and spilled down small cheeks. "I don't think momma likes me much uncle." The little girl began to sob.

Uncle pulled her close and hugged her. His heart broke for the little one in his arms. He wished that he could take her home with him. He knew the truth in her statement, but would not hurt her more by agreeing. "She loves you little one, she is just not good at showing it." He did his best to soothe the heartbroken child.

"Hey? Look the sun is setting. I'll just bet that you can capture that light with your camera." He wiped her eyes and lead her further down the levee so she could get a clear shot of the Mississippi. He noticed a towboat making way up river. "Look there little one. Take a picture of that boat with the sun setting behind it.

A small shaft of sunlight found its way through the blinds, landing on a pair of closed eyes. Brow furrowed, she opened her eyes slowly painfully acknowledging that it was morning. Smacking her lips, she felt as though she had been chewing on the pillow all night, her mouth was so dry. Overindulgence in alcohol the night before made itself known as she turned her head to take in her surroundings.

She fingered the blonde locks splayed across her chest before untangling herself from arms and legs. She stood slowly, as her head began to pound. She picked up her clothes from the floor and began to dress hoping not to disturb the girl whose name she could not remember.

Without moving the blonde spoke softly. She was also regretting the copious consumption of alcohol the previous night. "I suppose you don't want to stay for breakfast. I know we agreed that this was only for one night, but I could at least make you a cup of coffee."

Running long fingers through her dark wavy hair, she sighed. "That's really not necessary. I don't think I could handle it right now." She pulled her shirt over her head, bent down and kissed the blonde on the cheek, and without saying a word, she left.

She opened the sunroof and all of the car windows, suddenly feeling claustrophobic. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes she started toward home. A feeling of melancholy settled over her as it always did after such nights. She remembered the girl she had spent the evening with. Her companionship was a welcome respite from the loneliness she felt deep inside. Most would see her actions as promiscuous, but what she had done the night before was not about sex. It was her desire to be surrounded by the warmth and affection of another human being. Sex was for the pleasure of her partner alone.

As always she made it clear up front that there would be no strings attached. She didn't want any unpleasant misunderstanding when morning came. She did not want to get attached to anyone, nor did she want anyone attached to her. She viewed love as just a fleeting emotion. For her it was never real, nor did it last for any decent length of time. She had come to the conclusion that she was incapable of loving anyone. Therefore, no one could really be capable of loving her. It was just a fleeting emotion.

The morning was sunny and bright and she was not ready to go home to a silent house. Instead she stopped at a convenience store and bought a soda and a pack of cigarettes. She drove around the lakes of the university. Still to early for the sunbathing and volleyball crowd, the small beach area was empty. Parking places were in abundance. Choosing a spot near a picnic area she parked and sat alone on one of the tables and stared out at the lake.

Enjoying the warm summer breeze blowing through her hair and across her skin, she rolled up her sleeves and basked in the simple pleasure. She could still smell the slight scent of the blondes perfume and smoke intermingled on her clothes. It reminded her of how they had danced together the night before. She remembered how good it felt to hold her close and feel the warmth of her body pressed so close to hers. As she lit a cigarette, she wondered if her partner had sensed her desperate need for someone just to be close to.

Mentally she acknowledged to herself that she had what most only dreamed of an excellent job, a beautiful home, and a nice car, all the material things that one desired in life. Still the feeling of loneliness gnawed at her soul like a disease. She was torn. One side of her desiring to have someone in her life to share these things with, and the other side of her that believed that would always be unattainable for her.

Having no desire to have friends she only had a few that had wormed their way into her heart. Still she did not confide in them with her feelings. Although, she sensed they knew by some of the comments they had made in the past, still she would not allow a soul to know what she had kept held beneath the surface. She always made it a point to lie to them about how happy she was.

To express her feelings, would give voice to them. Once she opened the floodgate they would all spill out. Leaving her vulnerable and feeling exposed. She was unsure if it was her pride or her self-preservation mechanism that prevented her from doing so. What ever it was kept her from opening up and then surely cracking up.

Not a naïve person she knew that life was not like the movies. Two people meet, fall in love, and that love would carry them through all difficulties in life. Eventually riding off into the sunset together. Such romantic notions made many a movie popular, but in reality it always took a lot more than a simple emotion such as love.

In her little cocoon she was safe from such difficulties. Nevertheless, the emptiness at times was unbearable. Those times she would go out to one of the bars searching for a companion for the evening, as she had done last night. For a few hours she would comfort herself by pretending she was with the love of her life, and all the emotion and desire would be poured into that person. As always the stark morning light would bring her back to reality and the dark feelings would return

Her silent ponderings were interrupted by the sound of a car pulling into the lot next to hers. She watched as a young woman and a little girl emerged from the parking lot. They both smiled and bid her good morning. She watched with interest the little girl clutching a bag of bread ran toward the waters edge. Ignoring her mother's plea's to wait for her. The woman caught up with her daughter and opened the bag.

They began tossing the pieces of bread into the water drawing the ducks closer for their morning meal. The little girl squealed and laughed as the hungry ducks drew closer. Her mother knelt by her side with her arm lovingly and protectively around the waist of the little girl. Neither of them noticed the dark haired woman wiping the tears from her eyes as she got into her car.

Chapter 2

At 7:30 am the morning heat was already sweltering in Baton Rouge. Claire fumbled nervously with the knobs of her air conditioner. Being a Houston native she was accustomed to the heat.

She was surprised however, that the rush hour traffic was equally as bad in Baton Rouge as it had been in Houston. Inching along on I-10 she was relieved that she had given herself plenty of time to get to her new job. Being late was not the first impression she wanted to make.

She maneuvered her Jeep Cherokee into the already crowded parking lot. With thirty minutes to spare she took time to study the exterior of the new office building that she would be working in. Four stories high, mostly glass over-looking the Mississippi river.

This was the home office of Valor Marine.

Claire had done her homework on her new employer, and was impressed by her findings. Valor was well established in the Marine Industry. The company specialized in river transportation of petrochemicals. A large percentage of the nations gasoline and chemical supplies were transported via barge and towboat. Many gas and oil manufacturers utilized Valor boats and barges to transport their products on the inland waterways throughout the country.

She lit up a cigarette and sipped her coffee. Claire had been a travel agent with the same agency for ten years. Suarez Travel specialized in dedicated corporate accounts. She was accustomed to working "on site" for many of their accounts. Her willingness to re-locate was always a feather in her cap. Finally, her diligence had paid off and she was awarded the coveted position as Travel Manager for Valor Marine.

In addition, to it being her first day, Claire had been invited to sit in on the Managers Meeting. She was especially nervous, because she would meet the entire managerial staff.

She extinguished her cigarette, took the last sip of her coffee, and took a deep breath to calm herself before making the trek through the intense heat.

Upon entering the building she could not help but be impressed with the décor. The lobby was all brass and glass. After being greeted by the receptionist, she sat down on one of the stylish leather couches. The glass table in front of her held several Marine Industry magazines, which she browsed through as she waited.

"Ms Murray?"

Claire stood and accepted the hand extended to her.

I am Ellen Comeaux. We spoke on the phone. It's a pleasure to finally meet you in person. Welcome to Valour.

Claire liked Ellen immediately. She had a firm handshake and she looked her directly in the eyes as she spoke. Being a good judge of character, she deemed Ellen to be a very sincere person. Her relaxed demeanor helped to make Claire feel a little more at ease.

Claire followed Ellen thru a maze of hallways decorated with pictures of towboats, and nautical emblems to a room referred to as the Galley. Which was a fully stocked kitchen, complete with all the comforts of a well stocked home. After getting a couple of cups of coffee they began their way to the conference room.

Alone on the elevator Ellen tried to help an obviously nervous Claire relax a little.

"After the morning meeting I will take you to your new office. That is…Ellen paused for effect. If you survive…"

Ellen laughed out loud at the horrific expression on Claire's face." Honey you have nothing to fear, but boredom. Should you be talented enough to sleep with your eyes open, try not to drool on the conference table. It gives me away every time."

Once they had reached the fourth floor, the elevator doors opened to reveal a large conference room that nearly dominated the entire floor. The back wall of the spacious room was made of glass over-looking the Mississippi River.

Happy with the fact that she and Ellen were first to arrive for the meeting, Claire made her way over to the glass. Watching as the early morning sun shone from the eastern sky making the murky Mississippi river shimmer like diamonds. She watched with interest boats of all types make their way up and down the river, the turbulent water churned in their wake.

Ellen joined her at the window. "Just to the north is our fleet. That's one of our boats tied off to the landing barge. After they are finished loading the barges at the refinery, they will head north to discharge the product at another facility. I imagine all this sounds very foreign to you, so I have arranged for one of our managers to take you on a tour tomorrow. We will have to get you some steel-toed boots and some safety gear.

Claire looked perplexed. "What kind of tour will I be taking to need all of that?"

Ellen laughed. "I think it would be a good idea for you to visit one of our vessels. You will need the proper safety gear to board it."

Claire grinned. "You mean I will be able to take a ride on one of the boats? Can I drive?"

Ellen laughed at her enthusiasm. "It looks like everyone is filing in. Lets go get a good seat. I don't want you to miss anything." Ellen chuckled at her own sarcasm.

The last person to enter the room was a very distinguished looking man. Claire figured him to be in his mid sixties. Father figure popped into her mind as she observed him. It was obvious he was highly respected by the people gathered in the room, and there was a warmth in his eyes when he regarded his employees, like a proud parent.

He moved to the head of the table and addressed the group. "Ladies and gentlemen we have someone new with us today. Please allow me to first introduce myself. I am Cameron Hughes the general manager of Valour Marine. It pleases me to welcome you aboard Miss Murray."

Claire nodded and thanked him.

"Claire Murray will be the new Travel Manager for Suarez travel. She will be replacing Rhonda Hudson. Who we all know is resigning to begin a family. Claire comes to us highly recommended, and I am happy to have her."

"Starting with Scott here on my right. I would like each manager to introduce his or herself and give a quick synopsis of what you do here. I hope that each one of you will take the time to help Claire feel welcome here, and help her with anything she may need."

Claire paid close attention to each name, hoping to at least commit a few to memory. One name stood out in her mind. Tristan Delacroix. Claire noticed her the minute she walked into the room. Tall and immaculately dressed. Long brown hair beautifully cascading down her shoulders. She exuded a confidence that Claire had always found irresistible in women. Claire smiled inward when she detected a slight Cajun accent as she listened to Tristans low smooth voice.

Tristan did not look like a woman who would be working for a towboat company. She looked more like an attorney with her manicured nails and business suit. For the remainder of the meeting Claire took every opportunity to study Tristan. Only when she found Tristans dark eyes on her did she make a point not to stare.

At the conclusion of the meeting, each member of the staff came by to greet her personally. When Tristan approached, Claire felt her pulse quicken. She was actually nervous about shaking the beautiful woman's hand.

"Ms Murray. It's a pleasure to meet you." Tristan stared into her eyes as she spoke, and took her hand. The simple gesture of a hand shake sent chills up Claires spine. "You have your work cut out for you. I have not been pleased with the performance of Suarez Travel. I hope you will be an improvement, or your employment here may not be very enjoyable."

With that, Tristan excused herself, and left the room. Leaving a very stunned and speechless Claire in her wake. Attempting to keep her cool, and regain her composure, Claire stared at the door Tristan had just passed through. "That is the most beautiful woman I have ever met, and she's a complete asshole." Claire mumbled under her breath.

Ellen patted her on the back supportively. "Claire we have to chat. I feel the need to explain what just happened. How about you and I take a ride down to the boot store and get you some acceptable footwear for your tour tomorrow.

Once in the car Ellen asked. "Do you smoke?"

"Yes I do." Claire replied with a grin.

"Great! Because if you didn't I was gonna suggest you start. This business will make you do something un-healthy. Since we can't drink on the job I decided to smoke. Good Lord knows I don't need to eat anymore than I do." Ellen laughed as she lit her cigarette.

"Ellen can I ask you something?" Ellen nodded at Claire keeping her eyes on the road. May I be very frank?" This time Ellen glanced from the road to her passenger.

"Of course."

Claire lit her cigarette, and blew out the smoke slowly. "Why on earth does Tristan have a hot pepper up her ass?"

Ellen burst out laughing at Claire's frankness. "I am truly sorry for her behavior Claire. Knowing Tristan, once she gets to know you she will apologize herself. She and Rhonda have gone head to head more than once. Rhonda has never really been dedicated to our account. She see's her department as simply a travel agency within our office."

The whole reason we have y'all in our office, is so you can become intimately involved with what we do. The more you know about us, the more you can do for us. Rhonda has gotten even worse since she became pregnant. Her head is simply not in the game.

Tristan's department is responsible for crewing all of our vessels. Unless business is slow, or they have mechanical failure our boats never stop. Therefore, in order to swap out crews, they have to hit a moving target. That's where you come in. Valour spends a large amount of money each year to make this happen. We need someone who can get us the best rates on all of our travel plans.

Tristan is really a great person to work with. She is very dedicated, and will work all the hours it takes to assure the job is done. As a manager she is very respected because she stands behind her people. She does not expect perfection, but she does expect those who work with her to strive for it. You will work more closely with her than you do your own people."

Claire didn't know whether to be excited about the prospect of working with miss pepper ass or not. However, she did enjoy her little shopping trip with Ellen and lunch at a little Mexican restaurant not far from the office. While eating chips and salsa. Ellen decided to warn Claire that Tristan was a very out and out lesbian. After the short choking spell on a chip Claire recovered nicely.

"Don't get me wrong Claire, I have no problem with that. Whatever floats your boat, but I thought I would give ya a little heads up since you will be working so closely with her." Claire debated on telling Ellen right then that she and Tristan had that in common, but at the last minute chickened out. She felt deep inside that she had started her new life out with a big fat lie hanging over her head. "It's no big deal to me Ellen. I have worked with gays before." She tried to look Ellen in the eye as she chatted on about it nonchalantly.

After lunch and half a pack of cigarettes later, they made their way back to the office. Ellen took Claire up to the third floor to her new office. They entered a large room, with waist high cubicles dividing it down the middle. The rear of the room was made up of three glass offices. Affording its occupants with a full few of the entire room that housed the cubicles, as well as the adjoining offices.

There were four people occupying the cubicles. Two were on the phone. The other two were diligently working at their computers. Each one glanced up at Claire and Ellen as they made their way to the glass offices. The largest of the three belonged to Tristan. The one next to hers was to be Claires, and the one on the other side of hers housed the travel agents.

"As you can see, you will be right next to your staff. And of course Tristan, who is probably still in meetings. This way you will be accessible to your people, and also the crew coordinators."

As Ellen chatted with one of the coordinators, Claire took a moment to peek into Tristans office. Obviously, Tristan appreciated order not one thing was out of place in her office. The oak bookshelves were neatly kept. There was a fish tank in the corner, and beautiful under sea photos framed and matted throughout the room. Tristan clearly loved the sea and its inhabitants.

Claire excused herself from Ellen for a moment and went to visit the travel agents. It was a relief to see Mike and Lauren's familiar faces; she had worked with them before. Both greeted her with warm hugs. "We have been looking forward to working with you again." Lauren said with a smile. " I'm sorry, but Rhonda decided to let Friday be her last day. I think she was avoiding Tristan. The two of them have been at each other throats. She did leave you a detailed report of her daily duties. I don't think you will have any problems picking up where she left off.

Claire frowned. "Tristan did tell me that she was disappointed in her performance this morning. I hope you both will work with me to improve our working relations. I would like to meet with you both later if time permits. This is something I want to tackle as soon as possible."

After Ellen helped familiarize Claire with her new office she left her alone to get started. Claire made it point first to look over Rhonda's filing system. Satisfied that everything was in order, she began customizing her computer to fit her work habits. Claire glanced up from her work as Tristan entered the work area and spoke with the crew coordinators before heading to her office. Tristan acknowledged her with a slight nod, and went on seemingly oblivious of her presence. Claire had hoped that maybe they could start off on a better footing, but Tristan did not appear interested in chatting.

Claire silently thanked whoever designed their offices to include glass walls. She stole a few glances as Tristian, entered her office and took off her jacket. She hung it neatly over the back of her chair, as she checked her voice mail. Claire noticed that the silk shirt fit Tristan as though it was tailored just for her, displaying her well-developed figure. She grinned thinking this would be a very pleasant distraction.

Claire got back to work. An hour had passed when she heard a soft knock on her already opened door. Looking up she noticed Tristan standing in the doorway. Claire appreciated her manners and invited her in. Tristan remained standing until Claire offered her a seat in one of the high backed leather chairs that occupied her office.

Tristan spoke first. " I only need a moment of your time. I have been designated as your tour guide for tomorrow." If Tristan took any pleasure in this task her face did not show it. "Ellen tells me you already have your boots. I will have the rest of your safety gear here tomorrow morning. You will need to wear a pair of jeans, and I brought you this."

She handed Claire a denim shirt with the Valour logo on the breast pocket. "You don't have to wear it if you don't want to. I thought it would make a nice welcome aboard gift."

Tristan went on, hoping to avoid the awkward silence. "You will need to be here for 0700 in the morning. I would like to start out at our fleet. One of our boats will be there, but will not remain for very long.

Claire smiled and tried to take advantage of the opportunity to talk to Tristan. "I really do want things here to work out. I am hoping while we are out tomorrow, you and I can discuss candidly the issues you had with Rhonda. I don't want to make the same mistakes. Valour is our customer, and it is in our best interest to make sure you get the work you expect."

Tristan looked at her thoughtfully before she spoke. "I appreciate that Claire. We have a lot to discuss." With that she politely excused herself and returned to her office. Claire sat back and expelled the breath that she had been holding the moment she stopped speaking. She was unsure of what the response would be after her little speech. As far as she could tell, she had scored a point for the travel team.

For the remainder of the afternoon, Claire met with Mike and Lauren. She nearly filled an entire notebook with the information she gleaned from the two agents. For the most part they felt that Rhonda had brought the problems on to herself. She was not very dedicated; her attendance was poor, as well as her attitude. Claire felt that she could improve on those problems very quickly.

Chapter 3

The drive home that afternoon, was the same as the drive in. Claire merged onto the interstate and came to a complete stop. Fortunately, she had been wise in choosing her apartment. She was only on the busy interstate for a few miles. Upon reaching her exit she would go one mile before she arrived at her complex.

She parked in her designated spot, gathered her things, and made her way up the stairs to her second story apartment. She had hated to leave Houston, but the cost of living was significantly cheaper in Baton Rouge. Which had afforded her one of the nicest places she had ever lived.

Walking into her two-bedroom apartment she breathed a sigh of relief. She was home. Gathering up her dirty laundry she was sure to include the shirt that Tristan had given her. She began making her dinner, which consisted of one pork chop, salad and a huge glass of white wine.

After dinner she started her laundry and took the entire bottle of wine into the bath with her. She was bent on relaxing and forgetting the stresses of her first day on the job. Two glasses of wine later Claire emerged feeling relaxed and refreshed.

One of the things Claire loved most about her new abode was the spiral staircase in the corner of the living room that lead up to a small loft. With its skylight, it would be a perfect place to put her potted plants. Ivy would be placed close to the banister, so the long vines could hang down over the living room.

She sighed. First things first she muttered and went into the spare room that would become her office. This was the last of her things to be sorted and put away. She took a healthy gulp of wine and began to tackle the piles of papers and folders occupying her desk.

Claire had positioned the desk to face the big bay window that graced both bedrooms of her apartment. She sat briefly in her chair and stared out the large window at the oaks that the apartments themselves had been built around. She appreciated that the builders had the forethought to leave the big majestic trees.

After her home computer was set up, she went about arranging things in her little sanctuary. This would be the only room she would smoke in. She tried to avoid having the rest of her home smelling like cigarettes, so this room would accommodate her vice.

She opened her window just a bit, and turned on the overhead fan. Leaning back in her chair she propped up her feet, lit her cig and basked in the fact that she had finally gotten the room how she wanted it. With everything squared away in here she could put her mind on other things. She opened the right hand drawer and took out a large brown envelope containing photographs. Claire took another sip of wine and stared at it. This was one thing that she hoped stayed back in Houston, and would not come to haunt her here.

She sat for a long time contemplating the envelope. After putting out her cigarette, she lit another and re-filled her wine glass. She took a stress relieving breath and opened the envelope. Slowly, she withdrew the pictures inside.

The first few were of her getting out of her Cherokee, and going into her old office in Houston. Others were of her and friends having dinner in a restaurant. There were even a few of her doing such mundane things such as grocery shopping and picking out a movie at the video store.

Claire felt cold chills run up her spine making her shiver. She never knew who the person was that took such an interest in her life. It was extremely unsettling to her to know that someone made it a point to follow her around capturing her on film.

What she found even more disturbing were the intimate photos taken of her while she was at home thru her open windows. For the first six months she received only photos, but when one was taken of her kissing a date goodnight the letters began, each one accusing her of being a slut. It made Claire ill to look at them.

She had suspected her ex girlfriend Lisa of sending them at first. The breakup between the two had been tumultuous. When Claire confronted Lisa with the pictures and letters, she had begged her to take them to the police. She still remembered the shocked look on Lisa's face, and her trembling hands as she looked at each photo and letter. Her persistent pleas for Claire to go to the police, made Claire strike her from the list of possible suspects.

Claire never did involve the police. She was more afraid of the scandal it would probably cause to have the police question everyone she came in contact with. She had reasoned that the letters were really not threatening, and by moving away she might escape her stalker. It was a decision she regretted, but now living in a different state she hoped that the situation had been resolved.

Later on as she lay in bed waiting for sleep to claim her, she found herself wondering about Tristan. She had no problem admitting to herself that she found her attractive, even though she was an asshole. Unfortunately, she couldn't resign herself to simply enjoy the visual attributes of the obnoxious woman she wanted to know more. She smiled to herself. "Maybe I am just a glutton for punishment."

The alarm went off much to early for Claire's liking. She slapped the snooze button a few times before she finally crawled out of bed. As she showered, she wondered what the day might hold for her. She was actually looking forward to going on a tour with Tristan.

After getting dressed she looked at her reflection in the full length bedroom mirror. She was pleased with the hair and make up, but she thought the steel-toed boots were a little butch. At least they were brown and matched her purse. She tucked her new Valour shirt into her jeans and was off to face the day.

Once Claire was on the road she relaxed and sipped her coffee while enjoying the first cigarette of the day. She merged into traffic on I-10 and came to a complete stop. Normally, traffic pissed her off and reduced her to a blithering idiot by the time she reached her destination. This morning however, it allowed her to relax and mentally prepare herself for the day.

After arriving at the office, she made a pit stop at the galley and got herself another coffee, and then made her way up to Tristan's office. The crew coordinators were already in the office when she arrived. She took the time to chat with them, and did her best to remember their names. She noticed that Tristan had her back to the room, while she worked on her computer.

Claire poked her head in her office, to let her know she had arrived. "Good morning Tristan, I just wanted to let you know I am ready when you are." Tristan turned to look at her and stared for a moment before saying. "Good morning "couillon." All four of the crew coordinators burst into a fit of laughter.

"What is so funny and what does couillon mean?" Claire could feel anger creeping up the back of her neck. The raucous laughter dropped to snickers. All of the crew coordinators looked to Tristan to explain. Claire stepped thru the doorway of her office and stared daggers at Tristan. "What does it mean Miss Delacroix?" Claire demanded angrily.

"It's a Cajun French word that means foolish or funny person." Tristan did not smile. Claire slammed the door to Tristan's office hard enough to make the walls shake. "I may not know a thing about the Cajun language, but I assure you I am not a fool! I am not so sure you can say the same."

Tristan's face turned cold, but she did not raise her voice. "Let me remind you Ms. Murray. I am still the customer, and you work for me."

"Well Ms. Delacroix although I do work at the company that provides a service for yours that does not mean I am any less human that you are. I would appreciate it, if you would lay off busting my chops every time I come in contact with you".

Tristan stood slowly, and walked around her desk to stand face to face with Claire. "I have to go to the warehouse, and get our hard hats." She handed Claire two life jackets. "Meet me in the back of the building, my truck is the red Ford F-150.

Tristan had switched gears, and it knocked Claire out of kilter. She stood there blinking for a moment before she took the life jackets from her. Tristan turned and walked out of the office. Leaving Claire to stare at her once again dumbfounded. To top it off she could not help but notice how nice Tristans butt looked in her jeans, and this pissed her off even more.

Claire found Tristan's truck, and it was unlocked. Even better, Tristan had left her keys in the ignition. She reached over and started the engine, and cranked the air up as high as it would go. The oppressive summer heat was already making its presence known. In addition she had been drinking hot coffee all morning. Truth be known her blood pressure was up a few notches as well, and she really just wanted to slap the shit out of the condescending Ms. Delacroix.

Claire stood just outside the open door of the truck to smoke and take advantage of the cool air coming from the cab. Claire had not heard Tristan's approach and was startled when she spoke. "Get in, you can smoke in the truck. Claire gave her a quick look, and flicked out the cigarette determined not to follow any orders she did not have to. She got in and put on her seatbelt, and watched as her tour guide did the same. She stared at Tristan, but said nothing until they had pulled out of the parking lot.

"What the hell is your problem with me Tristan?" We only met yesterday and you have managed to insult me twice. I understand you and Rhonda had some problems in your working relationship, but that's no reason to take it out on me! You haven't even given me a chance! Tristan glanced from the road at Claire. "You're right.

Again, Tristan had thrown her off. She was not expecting that response. For a moment it left her speechless, and when it looked as though Tristan was not going to say anything more it ignited her anger again. Claire played the card she hoped would get a response out of Tristan. Frankly, she really just wanted to piss her off.

You can turn this truck around now Tristan Delacroix and take my ass back to the office. I plan to go to Mr. Hughes and tell him no one in my position will be able to work for his company effectively, because you Tristan are not willing to work with us!

Claire internally debated if it was a wise move to play that card when Tristan pulled the truck safely off of the road, and took off her seat belt and turned to face her. There was no anger on her face. "Yesterday when I brought you the shirt I was trying to make peace. My behavior has been very unprofessional. I was frustrated with Rhonda and you bore the brunt of that. Actually, I am very happy that she has been replaced and am looking forward to working with you. I am truly sorry we started out this way, and I know it's my fault.

Incidentally my dad used to call me "couillon" when I was a kid. It was a nickname. I didn't mean anything by it

Claire just sat and stared at Tristan for a long time. She was still angry and wanted the difficult woman to rant and scream at her. What she got was an obvious heart felt apology and that even pissed her off more. "Apology accepted." Was all Claire could muster.

With that, Tristan pulled the truck back onto the road. After a mile or two she lit up a cigarette. "You are welcome to smoke in my truck. All I ask is that you flick the ashes out of the window. I don't like to use the ashtray."

Claire pulled out a cigarette and before she could pull out her lighter, Tristan reached over and lit it for her. They rode in silence all the way to the fleet. Neither knowing what to say. By the time they had made it to their destination all the anger had dissipated making things between them seem even more awkward.

Tristan navigated the truck up the steep levee. When they reached the top Claire got a birds eye view of the fleet. There was a landing barge anchored to the bank. She noticed a small building on the barge itself that Tristan explained was the fleet office. The fleet dispatchers were stationed in there on the top floor. Supplies and mail for the boats were stored in the lower part of the building.

Tristan was the first out of the truck. She walked around to the passenger side, and handed Claire a life vest. She put on her own jacket first, hoping Claire would mimic her actions and put on her vest. Claire wrestled with the straps and within minutes had the life jacket looking like a bear had mauled it.

Tristan could not help but snicker. "Would you like some help with that?" Claire surrendered the mess she had made looking a little sheepish. It took Tristan a few minutes to unscramble the straps, after which she held up the jacket and had Claire slip her arms through it. When Claire turned around to face her, Tristan hesitated a moment, reluctant to fasten the closure over Claire's ample breasts.

Tristan presented Claire with a hard hat. Her own was tucked under her arm. "We are supposed to wear these when we are on the landing barge, and also when we are on the barges that the boat pushes. I kind of fudge on the landing barge rule, because I hate to get hat hair. So if you agree to keep my secret I wont make you wear yours. Do we have a deal?" Claire quickly agreed. She could not figure out how to adjust the straps in the inside of it, and she certainly didn't want to have hat hair for the rest of the day.

They began to descend the levee toward the catwalk that would take them across a small portion of the turbulent Mississippi river to the landing barge. Before they could make it across the walk Tristan stopped dead in her tracks. She turned with an embarrassed smile to Claire. "Do you see that guy taking a piss off the side of the boat over there?"

"Oh Dear Lord in heaven yes! Aggghh that's just plain nasty! Don't they have toilets on the boats?"

Tristan laughed for a long time before she could respond. "Yes they do, but some guys just don't want to take the time. Its easier to go off the side of the boat. The reason I brought your attention to his raunchy little display is because he is the engineer for that boat. The engineers do most of the cooking, so when they invite us to lunch be sure to lie, and say your not hungry."

They continued down the catwalk to the landing barge, and went directly to the fleet office. Claire realized to work for Valour you had to like climbing, because everything seemed to have stairs. Slightly winded she entered the fleet office behind Tristan, rubbing her eyes to get them to adjust to the darker room from the stark sunlight outside.

She heard a deep voice call out to Tristan in a heavy Cajun accent. " Del a crow!" Where you been girl? I have been down here for two days and you just now come to see me. I cooked your favorite food yesterday hoping you would smell it and show up."

Hey Sam, its good to see you. I am sorry I missed you yesterday. Hughes had me attending meetings with a bunch of suit types. I would have much rather been down here, trust me." Tristan hugged him as she spoke.

Sam wiggled his eyebrows. "Did you wear a dress? Was it sexy?"

"No you little pervert. Tristan laughed. I wore that same old suit I always wear to bullshit like that. Now behave, I have someone I want you to meet."

Tristan stepped aside and let Sam get a view of Claire. He wiped his calloused hands off on his pants and held one out for Claire to shake. He looked at Claire like she was a lamb chop until Tristan gave him a small slap to the back of the head.

"Claire this is Sam he is the Captain of the Sarah Ann, which is the boat tied off to the landing barge." After the introductions were made Sam offered to show Claire around his boat. The old captain was genuinely delighted to be the one to escort the pretty blonde around the vessel.

Typical of the Louisiana summer the heat was already becoming intense. Tristan watched with interest as sweat beads broke out on Claire's lip, as she was lead from bow to stern. Sam took pleasure in showing Claire the outer decks of the vessel, seemingly unaffected by the heat. It wasn't until he glanced at the now profusely sweating blonde that he realized he should continue the remainder of the tour below deck.

Another set of eyes watched both of them as they descended the stairs to the lower deck. He waited for them to get out of ear-shot before he keyed up his hand held radio, and began to speak.

" Here's the stats. She's about five foot seven. I figure she weighs about a hundred and thirty pounds. She's built like a brick shithouse! Tits and ass for days! Blonde hair and I think the eyes are brown."

"Actually they are hazel." Tristan interrupted.

Slowly the informer turned around to face Tristan. His eyes opened wide, mouth agape. He began to stutter an explanation as Tristan's dark eyes bore into him. At five foot eight she towered over the short man.

Tristan spoke slowly. "Do you think it is appropriate to announce the physical characteristics of a vessel visitor over the radio to the entire crew? Furthermore do you think it is wise to tell a group of men that have been on a boat for thirty days that they have a woman built like a brick shithouse wandering the boat?"

He began to stammer. Tristan raised her hand to stop his babbling. Don't try and explain yourself. However, while our visitor remains on board I expect you and the rest of the crew to be gentlemen. Now get back on that radio and tell them what I have just told you."

She watched as the crewman lifted the radio and began to deliver her message. When she was satisfied they all understood, she went below deck to find Claire and Sam. Occassionally, she would glance over her shoulder to see the deckhand pretend he was hard at work. She could not help but giggle as she mentally agreed with the crewman. Claire was indeed built like a brick shithouse.

As Tristan descended the stairs to the lower deck she decided that she would not allow Claire to get out of her sight again while touring the boat. The men had always paid her respect because of her position, and more importantly they knew her father. She was a little concerned that Claire may not get the same treatment.

As she expected Sam was showing off the Captains quarters to his captive audience. He was proudly pointing out all of the state of the art equipment that his wife had gotten him for Christmas. Which included a DVD player, a seventeen inch TV and a stereo complete with a CD player. Tristan smirked as she thought his wife had no idea how many hours Sam would spend watching porn on her gifts.

When Claire looked as though she would pass out from shear boredom, Tristan interrupted. "Sam, Claire and I have to get back on the road. We have a schedule to keep today."

Sam looked disappointed. "Come on Tris, you have to have lunch with us."

Claire shot a nervous glance her way. The memory of the man doing the cooking and relieving himself off the side of the boat was still fresh in her mind. Tristan smiled and gave her a small nod.

"Alright Tris I will let you off the hook for lunch but y'all have to come see the wheelhouse."

The wheelhouse?" Claire asked curiously.

"Yeah, that's where I drive the boat from. It's the best place on the boat besides my quarters. Hey! I learned a new song on the old guitar, you gotta hear it. We can run up there now and I can play it for you."

Tristan spoke up. "I'll make a deal with you Sam. We will go see the wheelhouse but you have to promise not to play the guitar or worse, sing." Sam pretended to be heart broken. "Oh Tris you cut me deep on that one."

"You little liar." Tristan snorted.

Sam took the long way up to the wheelhouse. He took them through the huge engine room, where the sound was nearly deafening. All the while he pointed out things and gave explanations of what they were and their purpose. Claire watched his mouth move but did not have a clue what he was saying. To her relief they left the noisy room and went thru a little maze of hallways. She looked into the open bunkrooms as she passed. They reminded her of tiny dorm rooms.

Claire glared over her shoulder at Tristan as she was made to climb another two flights of stairs. Tristan simply smiled and shrugged. They passed thru another door and Claire found herself in a room resembling a miniature airport control tower.

The wheelhouse was on the very top deck, and surrounded by glass, affording the wheelman with a bird's eye view of the barge tow before him. Claire marveled at the bank of electronic equipment and fought the urge to push every button she could get her hand on. Sam insisted that Claire sit in the captain chair while he showed off all of his gadgets.

Tristan made herself comfortable on a little bench and watched Claire with great interest as Sam allowed her to push a few buttons. She resembled a child on Christmas morning. Grinning from ear to ear waiting for Sam to let her play with all the toys. Claire was obviously enjoying herself, and was not satisfied until she had explored every corner of the wheelhouse.

Tristan remembered the first time her dad brought her out to one of the boats. For a ten year old it was an adventure in wonderland. Her dad stayed close at her side knowing the dangers surrounding such vessels. Her fondest memory of that trip was the tour of the wheelhouse. At thirty-eight years old she could still remember clearly the face of the old silver haired captain who hoisted her up into the captain chair. Time spent with her dad on the boats was the most peaceful and happy times of her childhood. Watching Claire's enthusiasm for something that had always been so special, made her feel that same peaceful feeling that died with her dad.

Claire and Sam had become fast friends. She sat patiently as he played his guitar and sang a couple of his own songs. She even managed to keep a straight face when Tristan pretended to jump over board behind his back. It took a little work but Tristan finally managed to drag Claire from the wheelhouse and back on dry ground.

Tristan listened amused at Claire's excited chatter. She had many questions about life on the river that Tristan answered patiently. "Life on the river is similar to being on land. The boat stores function as little post offices. Boat personnel can pick up and send mail there. They shop at some of them for personal items. They even have fuel flats that meet up with the boats, so the boat can take on fuel. Their groceries are delivered, and their trash is even put off on such boats. It is a world unto itself out here."

After climbing back up the levee, both women were relieved when they made it to the truck. Fortunately, the A/C cooled the cab shortly after they had gotten back on the road. Clair blotted her face with a tissue trying to retain some of the make up she had put on that morning, although, the heat and humidity had done a number on her hair. No two hairs pointed the same direction.

"How do you feel about pizza for lunch?" Tristan asked as she sped down River Road.

"Sounds heavenly to me. An iced tea would hit the spot too."

"Great, I will take you to my most favorite pizza place in the whole world. You have to understand though. I only take my friends to this place, so we will have to get to know each other first. I will tell you about myself and then I will tell you what I know about you already. What do ya say?"

"Ummm ok I guess." Claire answered a little perplexed.

"I am thirty-eight years old. Not married, and no children, except for an orange tabby cat known as Ralph. My hobbies are anything to do with the water, camping, and believe it or not gardening. I'm a neat freak, which is probably why I am still single. My favorite food is Pizza. So there, now you know me.

Now let me tell you what I know about you. You are also a neat freak. You are not married, and have no children. Your hobby is shopping. I suppose your around thirty-five and you're a lesbian.

Claire sat listening to what Tristan had to say with a smirk on her face until, she got to the lesbian part. Her smirk disappeared, and her jaw gapped open.

"Why on earth would you assume that about me?"

Tristan laughed. "What?"

"That I am gay"

"I saw the gay pride flag on your sunglass case. I assume you do know that it's not just a pretty rainbow."

Claire was floored. She sat speechless. Tristan was laughing so hard she had to pull off the road. "Oh Claire, don't be upset. I didn't mean to make you mad, but your face was priceless."

"I'm not mad. I just didn't expect that at all. Don't sit there looking all smug either. I found out about you my first day."

"Don't tell me, let me guess. It was Ellen. She always feels the need to pass that little tidbit along to anyone that crosses her path. Quite frankly I think she's curious about what she is missing out on. She's a sweet person and I think she means well, but she sure is fascinated with my sex life."

"You certainly have a unique way of breaking the ice with someone Tristan Delacroix."

Claire said with mock indignation.

Tristan pulled the truck back onto the roadway and headed for her favorite pizza place. Both women were more at ease and began to talk candidly. They both came to realize that they enjoyed being in the others company.

Chapter 4

Tristan pulled the red F-150 into the crowded parking lot of the Pastime Lounge nestled under an interstate overpass. Claire looked at it a little skeptically.

"Tristan this does not look like a pizza parlor to me."

"That's because it's a lounge, and they serve the best pizza in Baton Rouge."

Clair reluctantly followed her into the old bar. Tristan went to the counter and began to order their lunch. As Tristan suggested, Claire went off to find an empty table. Shortly after Tristan appeared with two iced teas and took her seat.

"The pizza will be out shortly. Tristan said as she squeezed lemon into her tea.

Claire looked around the room. "This place is not so bad. Is this where you bring all of your women to impress them?"

Tristan laughed. "I have not been out on a date for so long I have forgotten how to impress anyone. With my work schedule, it is really hard to get involved. Many a relationship has died due to my sporadic schedule. I have just given up."

"I can relate to that well. I have moved so often due to my job." Claire sighed. "Although, it has gotten me the promotions I have desired, it has taken a toll on my love life."

Both sat in an awkward silence for a few minutes, until Claire changed the subject.

"So how did you get into this business in the first place?"

"My Dad was a port engineer for many years. He was one of the guys they called out when one of the boats had mechanical problems. When I was younger and before they got so stringent on safety I would go with him. I just fell in love with the river and the boats. When I got out of high school, much to the displeasure of my parents. I decided not to go to college and went to work for Valour. I have been here ever since. "

The counter called Tristans name and she excused herself to go and get their pizza. Claire watched her as she walked across the room. She could not help but notice that Tristan turned heads everywhere she went. What was amusing to Claire was that Tristan didn't even notice the attention paid to her. Not out of arrogance, but she was seemingly oblivious of how pretty she actually was.

After eating the best pizza Claire ever had the pleasure of tasting, she and Tristan slumped down in their chairs and lit up a cigarette. Claire wanted to know more about the beautiful woman that sat across from her. As she sat there the list of questions grew longer in her mind.

"Umm Tris? Do you mind if I ask you some more questions?" Hopefully, by using the pet name Sam had used she might be able to get her now quiet companion to open up again.

"I'm an open book. Ask me what you will". She smiled at Claire.

Claire paused and took a deep breath. "Ok first. Have you lived here all of your life? Do you have siblings? Do you have a good relationship with your parents? What is your favorite color? Do you have another favorite food aside from pizza? Why is your cat named Ralph? Would you be interested in showing me around the town sometime when we are both off work?"

Tristan just sat there with her eyes blinking trying to take in all the questions that had been thrown at her. She liked the last one the most, but decided to answer all in order.

"Yes I have lived here all of my life. No sibs. Dad passed away two years ago. Mom and I don't see eye to eye, and we rarely see each other. Blue is my favorite color. Mexican is tied with Italian. He is named Ralph because I thought it was a funny name for a cat. I would love to show you around, but that is something we need to seriously discuss."

Claire was a little taken back by the last answer. "Discuss?"

"Claire everyone knows about my sexual orientation. I have made no attempt to hide it. With us just working together the rumors will fly about us. If we do things together after work it will only add to the fire."

"I am sorry Tris I didn't think about it that way. I don't want to make things difficult for you. I was just enjoyed your company, and thought it would be fun…

Tristan interrupted. "I am not saying that I don't want to go at all. My concern is for you. Unless, I am wrong no one knows your gay. When we start to do things rumors will fly. I was just trying to prepare you for the onslaught. Frankly, I have been trying to think of a way to approach this subject with you but I didn't know quite how."

"I see." Claire breathed a sigh of relief. She hated rejection.

"Since rumors will fly anyway, let them think what they will. I am certainly not going to live my life in the shadows just because someone may talk about me. If their life is that dull that they have to entertain themselves with my business, then I feel sorry for them." Claire said.

Tristan leaned closer to the table. "I am glad to hear you feel that way. Now lets be clear on this, because I hate not knowing. Forgive my bluntness but will this be like a date or just friends?"

Claire laughed. "What do you want it to be?"

"I asked you first." Tristan shot back.

Claire decided to take the big chance. "Tristan I would really like to consider it a date. "

Tristan smiled. "Good now we have that settled. How about you let me make the plans since I am the local native?"

"Sounds good to me. I will leave it in your hands. What do you have planned for the rest of the day?"

Ellen suggested I take down toward New Orleans and show you some more of the barge fleets, but to be honest that is so boring. Why don't you come with me while I run a few errands for the office, and that should take us through the rest of the afternoon? If I have planned it right, we should get back to the office at the end of the business day. Avoiding having to go back into the office. How does that sound?"

"Perfect! One more thing though?"

Tristan finished off the last of her tea. "What would that be?"

"What night are you planning for our date? A girl has to know these things in advance. I may have to get an emergency pedicure or something." Claire said jokingly.

"Right now Friday seems like a long way off, but I think that will have to be it. Besides, that should give us plenty of time in advance in case we need to have an emergency pedicure, or have some sort of apparel conflict."

As promised, Tristan delivered Claire to her Jeep at five pm. She noticed an envelope clipped to Claire's windshield when she drove up. She glanced over at Claire who starred wide-eyed at her vehicle.

"Claire? Is something wrong?"

Claire glanced at her. Her face was pale, and her eyes were wide. She sat starring at Tristan for a moment before she could speak.

"Claire what is it? Your white as a sheet." Tristan was beginning to get worried. What could be in that envelope to elicit such a response?

Claire stammered a moment. "Its nothing. I just remembered there was something I was supposed to do."

Tristan was sure she was lying, but was afraid to push the issue.

"I'm fine really. I've got to go. I will see you tomorrow."

With that, she quickly jumped out of the parked truck and shut the door. Tristan watched as she pulled the envelope off of the windshield and got into her vehicle. Tristan noticed the troubled look on Claire's face as she climbed into her vehicle. She was unsure but she thought Claire might have been crying as she drove off.

Claire didn't look back as she pulled out of the parking lot. She was too stunned over her find that she could barely concentrate. She lit up a cigarette in an attempt to calm herself. When traffic came to a stop she debated opening the envelope. She stared at it for a long time, knowing what would be inside. Each time she reached for it the car in front of her would start to move, so she decided to wait till she got home.

Once inside her apartment she went straight to the room that served as her office and dropped the envelope on her desk. Then she closed every blind in her apartment. She had goose bumps from head to toe. Now more than ever she regretted not going to the police.

After pouring herself a glass of wine she went back into her office. Sitting at her desk she lit another cigarette, and sipped her wine till she felt calm enough to open the brown envelope. As she reached inside her heart sank as she felt the smooth picture paper. She pulled them out. A small typed note was clipped to the stack. It simply read, "You cannot hide from me." Claire shivered as she saw her own image walking into the Valor building. The second was taken of her getting out of her Jeep at home. The third was the most chilling. It was taken of her in the very room where she sat now. Nausea welled up inside of her when she realized the unknown photographer had been standing outside of her apartment.

Claire shuddered as she imagined a dark figure standing outside of her apartment watching and recording her actions. She bowed her blonde head and cried, out of fear and frustration. She wanted a new start, and the problems of the past to remain behind in Houston. If this person were willing to go to the trouble to follow her here, what else would they be capable of? She cursed her stupidity for not going to the police. She had no choice now.

Feeling utterly alone and confused. Claire drowned her sorrows in a bottle of wine. After making sure the door to the apartment was locked for the tenth time she laid down on the couch, too afraid to get into her bed. Maybe she would be too relaxed and not hear if someone tried to get in. Ultimately, she felt safer on the couch. She drifted in and out of sleep the entire night. Jumping at the least little noise, usually made by the icemaker or the air conditioner.

The wine that Claire consumed did not keep her from dreaming. Disconnected images filled her sleeping mind. Dark figures followed her every step, but when they drew close there was no face. She ran as fast as she could, but in her dream she was only moving in slow motion. When she awoke the same agonizing fear she felt in her nightmares clung to her as she dressed.

When Claire got out of her Jeep that morning, she could not help but be paranoid. Walking as fast as she could into the building, she glanced around nervously. Once inside she looked back through the tinted glass windows at the parking lot to see if anyone else was out there. To her dismay and her relief there was not a single soul in sight.

When she made it to the third floor offices she was relieved to see Tristan was already there. Even though they were only getting to know each other she felt comfortable in her presence. She silently debated whether she should confide in Tristan, and then thought better of it. They hadn't even gone out on there first date. She decided not to burden Tris with her problems until she knew where things would go between them.

Claire smiled at Tristan and went straight to her office. She put away her things and sipped her coffee as she waited for her computer to boot up. Today she would bury herself in her work, until she could work up the courage to call the police to see what could be done.

Tristan knocked softly on the open door. "Are you ok?"

Claire glanced up from her computer. "Sure. Why do you ask?"

"Well for one thing you were acting strange yesterday evening when we got to your car. First I thought you were afraid I was going to try and kiss you or something. This morning you have dark circles under your eyes and you look like someone who has the weight of the world on her shoulders."

Claire sighed and laughed a little. "Tristan it didn't cross my mind yesterday that you were going to kiss me, so don't worry. I just got some bad news is all, and if you will forgive me I am not quite ready to talk about it."

Tristan felt Claire wanted to be alone. "Forgive me then for intruding. I am here anytime you want to talk, no pressure. I will give you some time to relax before we begin with all the stuff we have to go over today."

"Tristan you were not intruding. I would do the same thing. Thank you for being there."

Tristan smiled and returned to her office.

Shortly after, Mike and Lauren arrived. Claire pulled herself out of her slump and got busy working with the agents going over spread sheets and generating the reports that Tristan needed. This alone took up their entire morning. Claire was so immersed in what she was doing she had not even realized that half the day had passed, until Tristan asked her to lunch.

Both agreed on a little deli about a block from the office. Tristan chose a spot in the in the far corner of the restaurant, so they would be able to talk with out everyone in the small deli being able to overhear. She kept the conversation light during the meal, in hopes that Claire would feel comfortable enough to tell her what was troubling her so. When Claire didn't volunteer any information, Tristan decided to broach the topic as gently as she knew how.

"Claire? Do you want to tell me what is bothering you now?" Are things moving too quickly with us? Are you regretting going out with me?"

Claire laughed. "Tris slow down honey. Right now you are the one bright spot in my life. I am really looking forward to our date, matter of fact that has been the one thing that has helped me hold it together. What is bothering me has nothing to do with you. I am just not ready to explain it at yet. I will tell you this though; just being around you is a comfort to me. Your willingness to listen means more to me than you know."

Tristan was relieved to find out she was not the problem. She didn't want to push Claire into telling her anything until she was ready. Still it bothered her that Claire could not confide in her. She could tell that it was taking its toll on her.

The next two days flew by quickly. Tristan spent a lot of time with Claire preparing her for the upcoming crew changes that would start soon. During crew change her department was extremely busy. Fortunately, for all involved crew change only lasted a week. Then things would quiet down until the next one started.

Much to Claire's delight Friday evening had finally arrived. Tris had told her to dress very casual, so she chose a short denim skirt, and a sleeveless cotton top. True to her word she had found the time to have a pedicure and she was pleased with the results. She checked her makeup three times before Tristan arrived to pick her up. She laughed at her own nervousness.

She was still in the mirror putting the last touches on her lipstick when she heard a knock at the door. Even though she saw Tristan everyday her heart leapt when she heard her knock. Claire peeked out through the blind first and then opened the door for her date.

Claire could not help but stare. Standing before her was the prettiest woman she ever had the pleasure of going out with. Tristan stood there smiling, dressed in a pair of neatly pressed kaki shorts, with a short-sleeved denim shirt tucked into them. Instead of her usual ponytail her long dark hair hung down her back blowing slightly in the gentle evening breeze. Claire felt herself trapped in the gaze of Tristan's beautiful brown eyes.

"Hey look we compliment each other with the denim." Tristan laughed. "Look I even got a pedicure since it seemed so important." She thrust out a foot covered in a brown leather sandal.

Claire laughed and invited her in. "I love this apartment Claire. Especially, the loft up there. I could fill that whole ledge with plants. Ralph would have a blast on that spiral staircase too."

Claire noticed that Tristan was uncharacteristically chatty. She wondered if Tristan was as nervous as she was. She gave Tris a quick tour of her abode and then offered her a glass of wine.

" I better wait on the wine Claire. I'm on an empty stomach, and I am afraid it will go straight to my head. I don't like to drive like that. If you would like to have a glass before we go that would be fine with me."

Claire chuckled. "I think I will wait till we get to the restaurant too. Besides, I can hear your stomach growling from here."

"Fine Claire. Mock my hunger pains. I have not been able to eat a thing all day, because of tonight. I may faint right here in your living room."

Claire laughed at her antics. "Come on drama queen lets get going. I don't want you passing out and drooling on the new carpet."

In the parking lot Claire looked around for the red truck she had ridden before. Instead she followed Tristan over to a dark blue Mitsubishi 3000gt.

"Is this your car Tris?"

"Yep. The Ford is my company truck. I don't get to drive old blue around that often. She's got a few years on her, but she's still in great shape." Tristan opened the passenger side door and let Claire in.

"So Miss Delacroix where are we going tonight?" Claire asked playfully.

"Since we have our love of Mexican food in common. I figured I would take you to my favorite spot. They have wonderful food, and even better Margaritas. Then I figured we could go see a movie if your up to it."

"Sounds wonderful." Claire reached over and put her hand on Tristans and squeezed lightly. Tristan seemed a little surprised at the contact, but did not pull her hand away. For someone who had such a commanding presence as Tris did, it surprised Claire that she would be a little on the timid side.

There was a nice breeze blowing when they got to the restaurant, so they opted to sit out on the patio. One Margarita and a few chips later they were both relaxed and talking freely. When dinner arrived they both just picked at their plates already having had their fill of chips. Another round of drinks were ordered and both were getting downright goofy.

Tristan looked at Claire, with glassy eyes. "Um Claire? Were you really looking forward to seeing a movie tonight?"

"No not really is something wrong?"

"Tristan giggled," Well if we are going to one we will have to leave now, and I am afraid that I am a little too tipsy to drive."

Claire laughed at her glassy eyed companion. "I am really enjoying myself right here. We can switch to iced tea and give our brain cells a chance to catch up. Besides, it will give me a chance to get into the mind of Tristan Delocroix."

"Well if you were to get into my mind right now, you would find a lot of tequila and some lime juice. There are two sober brain cells in there searching for high ground. So what is it you want to know Claire Murray?" Tristan batted back playfully.

"Hmm let me think." Claire paused for a moment. "Ok got one. What is your biggest turn off?"

Tristan giggled again. "Why do you ask? Are you about to belch, or something?"

Her response had Claire giggling. "No you sick woman. Now answer the question."

Tristan sat starring into Claire's eyes with a silly grin on her face. Claire wondered if she was just thinking or was about to pass out. "Well?" Was Claire's impatient response.

"Arrogance is a turn off. People think I am arrogant, but really I am very shy. Its hard for me to strike up a conversation."

"I have a hard time seeing you as shy Tristan."

"Well I am. I will let you in on another little secret. I'm afraid of the dark too." This really had Claire laughing.

"Stop it! Tristan was laughing just as hard as Claire.

"Alright its my turn now." What turns you on?

Claire blushed a little, and looked across the table at Tristan who sat patiently waiting for her answer.

"Just about everything you do"

Tristan's mouth moved but no sound came out. It took her a minute to compose herself. "I can't think of any clever comebacks."

"Wow! I have rendered Tristan Delacroix speechless. Mark this day in history!"

Tristan laughed. "Mind if I ask you an extremely personal question?" Claire shook her head no as she sipped her drink. "This is an odd question, but I am curious. Why did your last long term relationship end?

Claire smirked. "Tristan Delacroix that was a smart question. You're trying to pick my brain while it is pickled with Tequila. The answer is simple, she cheated on me and broke my heart."

"She was a very foolish woman." Tristan slurred. "So tell me about this fool."

"I once read in a magazine that if someone tells you that they are not good to be involved with, heed their warning and run the other direction. She told me in the beginning that I probably didn't want to get involved with her, but I was only twenty-three at the time and very naïve. Anyway I plunged in full speed ahead.

Those three years were some of the most hurtful times of my life, but I did learn a lot. She was never happy with herself or anything that I did. Whenever I got a promotion or achieved something she would become jealous and berate me for it, instead of being happy for me. She seemed to be competing with me on everything. It was like having a competitive roommate instead of a lover."

Tristan could not help but interrupt. "She cheated on you? After hearing all that I don't think I would think less of you if you were the one that stepped out on her."

"Like I said, I was very naïve. I didn't understand her behavior. I spent nearly three years blaming myself for all of our problems. Then one day she admitted to me that she was having an affair, and thought I was supposed to be understanding about it. She actually had the audacity to think I should hang around in case things didn't work out with the new girl. Needless to say I dropped her ass like a hot rock and never looked back."

"Now its your turn Tristan. Claire said with a grin. "Tell me about your last long term relationship."

Tristan cast her a sideways glance. "You're going to be real disappointed, because there is not much to tell. I have not had the pleasure of a long-term relationship. The longest lasted only a few months, and she broke it off with me."

"Are you trying to tell me that you're a hit and run lover Tristan?" Claire tried to sound lighthearted but she could not help but be alarmed by Tristan's admission."

"Don't get the wrong idea Claire." Tristan said, seeing the tension on Claire's face. "I have not really dated a lot of women. My work schedule truly does put a cramp in my love life. The women I have dated did not take to kindly when I had to cancel dinner plans to get an injured man off of a boat."

Claire was relieved by her answer. She wanted more than a fling with Tristan. She was weary of the dating scene and was looking for something more substantial.

After a few more glasses of tea, Tristan felt clear headed again. They drove back to Claire's place, and Tristan accepted her invitation to stay for a little while. They sat on the sofa each with a glass of wine, and before long Tris began to feel the power of the grape.

"I cant have anymore if this Claire. Please take it away. I would bring it to the kitchen myself, but I seem to have lost some motor control."

"You are a light weight Tristan Delacroix!" Claire chided.

"Yes I am and proud of it. Thank you very mush…I mean much."

"I hope you have no pressing reasons to get home Tristan, because you are staying here with me tonight."

"I don't want to impose on you. How about you let me sleep it off on the couch?"

Tristan did not want Claire to think she was trying to work her way into her bed on the first date.

"Its no imposition at all. Now you have no excuse not to have more wine.

Tristan looked at Claire with a pair of very glassy eyes. "Are you trying to get me drunk and take advantage of me?" Then burst out into a fit of laughter.

"Woman! You are really drunk aren't you? I can't believe how easy it is to get you lit" Claire was genuinely amused.

"Lets go get you something to sleep in." Claire pulled Tristan to a standing position and led her to the bedroom. She made Tristan sit down on her bed while she dug in her dresser for a T-shirt and a pair of shorts. She turned to find Tristan lying across her bed.

"Hey? You feeling ok? Claire crawled onto the bed next to her.

"Yeah I am fine, but I think I am going to be hurting in the morning. I hope I haven't made too much of a fool of myself tonight. I have never really been able to drink that much."

"I have thoroughly enjoyed myself tonight Tristan. You have been wonderful company. To be honest I think you are absolutely adorable when you have a buzz."

Before she realized what she was doing, Claire leaned down to kiss Tristan. She let her lips brush softly across hers, for a moment. The kiss took on a life of it's own quickly becoming very passionate. Both women were breathing heavily when Tristan pulled away. "Claire I don't want this." Claire pulled back stunned and hurt.

"Wait! Tristan grabbed her arm. "That's not what I meant at all Claire. I have only two brains cells that are sober, and right now forming a sentence is a little tough. I think about you twenty-four hours a day. When we are together I have to resist the urge to touch you. I am not sure what you want from all of this but I want a relationship. You have become very special to me already, and I don't want to mess this up." Tristan sighed. "I don't want to be drunk the first time with you either." Then she hiccupped. "Sorry. Damn wine."

Claire stared at her thoughtfully for a moment. "Tristan I am sorry. I just got a little carried away. I agree we have only known each other for a little while and I am already crazy about you. You're absolutely right though, we shouldn't go too fast. I don't want this to just be about sex either."

Then your okay with waiting for a little while?" Tristan asked.

Claire ran her fingers thru Tristans hair. "Yes I am just fine with that. I only have one stipulation. I want you to sleep in here with me tonight. I promise not to attack you in your sleep. I want you close to me, and besides that sofa is not very comfortable."

Tristan started pulling back the covers on Claire's bed. "Good! I thought you would never ask. I will change clothes when you go into the bathroom. Now go get ready for bed. I think I only have about five minutes of cuddle time in me at the moment."

Claire laughed as she gathered her things and went into the bathroom. She was relieved things did not go any farther than they did. Like Tristan she wanted a relationship. She was already amazed at the depth of her feelings for the woman lying in her bed.

A few minutes later Claire emerged and climbed into bed next to Tristan. Tonight she would sleep better than she had in a long time, just having Tristan by her side made her feel safe. She curled up behind her burying her face in her hair, and reveling in the scent of it. Tristan was already sound asleep, her cuddle time clock had run out.

Chapter 5

Tristan woke up disoriented the next morning. It took her a minute to realize she was in Claire's bed. She looked over at the clock and saw it was already after ten in the morning. Claire was nowhere in sight, and the bedroom door was closed. Slowly Tristan crawled out of bed and walked gingerly out of the bedroom holding her head.

Claire glanced up from her perch on the couch. "Good morning sunshine, glad to see you finally joined the living."

Tristan groaned and made her way slowly over to Claire. She laid down and put her head in Claire's lap. "I can't remember a time when I felt so bad. No, wait a minute. One time when I was a kid I fell out of a tree and hit every branch on the way down. The way I feel right now is running a close second place to that."

Claire chuckled. "Let me make you some toast. Then I will give you something to take for your head. You should be feeling better in no time."

Tristan reluctantly agreed not wanting to be an imposition. "I hope I am not keeping you from anything you had planned to do today Claire. I feel terrible about all of this. I have gotten drunk on our first date and have probably made a complete ass out of myself."

Claire peeked out from the kitchen. "Well to be perfectly honest Tris, I can't think of a single thing I would rather be doing right now. Did you have anything planned for today?"

"No. I was just going to lay around the house and be a bum." Tristan said as she limped into the kitchen and sat at the table.

Claire brought her toast and a glass of tea. "I'm out of juice, besides I think the tea may be better for your stomach. After you have finished eating I will give you my secret hang over pills, and within the hour you will feel like your old self again.

"While you were sleeping I watched the news for a while. According to the forecast we will have thunderstorms for most of the day. Would you like to go rent some movies, and be bums together?"

Tristan found that idea much to her liking. "Sounds perfect to me but I have a few conditions. I would like to go home first and bathe. Then we will go rent some movies, pick up a few groceries, and go back to my place where I will cook you dinner. You will also need to pack a bag, because you will be staying with me tonight. Do we have a deal?"

Claire leaned over and kissed Tristan on the head. "I will go and pack my stuff. While I am doing that Miss Delacroix, you may want to wash your face. Your eye make up is all under your eyes and you make the cutest raccoon I have ever seen."

Tristan listened to Claire laugh all the way to her bedroom. Tristan buried her aching head in her hands. She had lamented about making one hell of a mess of their first date. It was then she noticed the secret hangover pills she laughed out loud when she realized they were actually Excedrin.

Just as Claire had promised, Tristan felt like a new woman within the hour of taking the "Secret hang over pills." By that after noon they had gotten the groceries, and made it back to Tristan's before the weather got bad.

Claire's eyes grew wide as they pulled off the highway onto a small gravel road leading up into the woods. Soon a clearing came into view. Revealing a well-manicured yard surrounding a large Acadian style house that backed up to a lake surrounded by cypress trees. Spanish moss swung lazily in the breeze making the place look like a picture from the old south.

"Lets get all of this stuff unloaded and I will give you a tour of the outside before the weather hits." Tristan said as she gathered up the groceries. Both women unloaded the car quickly, managing to get all of the groceries and Claire's bags in one trip. Tristan opened the back door and set everything just inside. She turned to Claire who was tiptoeing trying to get a peek inside.

"You can see the inside in a minute. I want you to see all of my handy work first. We are going to have to do this quickly though. With this wind picking up, the rain will be on us before we know it."

Tristan led Claire down a little cobble stone path leading from the back door to a wooden deck. Trellises that were completely covered in confederate jasmine bordered two sides of the deck. The deck itself over-looked the back yard and the lake on one side and butted up to the house on the other. Just to the right of the deck was a small herb garden, and beyond that was a well maintained vegetable garden.

Claire marveled at the maze of flowerbeds that were spaced throughout the yard. One of which held at least a dozen varieties of butterfly attracting plants. Butterflies were in great abundance around the beautifully maintained bed. Tristan had greatly reduced the area of her yard to be mowed by building flower beds divided by small gravel pathways. The centerpiece was a fountain feeding a small goldfish pond.

"I think I forgot to mention my other hobby. I love to grow things. In the last couple of years I have discovered that I have a green thumb. Every spring I find myself making new flower and vegetable gardens, but by late summer I am swearing I will never do it again."

Claire stood transfixed taking it all in. "Tristan this place is a little slice of heaven. If I lived here I would find a million ways to work from home."

Tristan nodded. "I am so glad you like it. I love it here. It gets a little lonely sometimes though."

Just as Tristan opened her mouth to say more, a small fuzzy bolt of cat lightening flew out of the nearby butterfly bushes. Tristan reached down and picked up the orange tiger stripped tabby cat. He gave her a few love nips, and two licks to the chin, and then began to purr.

"Claire I would like to introduce you to Ralph. He is my patrol cat. He patrols the perimeter of the property making sure all is well while I am away.

Claire laughed and scratched Ralph behind the ears. "So you have a watch cat instead of a watch dog. How does he alert you to trouble?

"Tristan stroked her protector lovingly. "He doesn't alert me unless it's too big for him to handle. That doesn't happen very often though. He's one bad little dude."

Claire found this funny. "What kind of security issues have you had out here?"

Tristan began to explain the incident that had earned him his title. Ralph looked at Claire as though he was insulted that she doubted his skill. He jumped down out of his owner's arms to further investigate the new intruder. He circled her sniffing her shoes, but shied away when she reached down to pet him.

"Earlier this spring I was planting the vegetables. I was really into what I was doing, not really paying much attention. Ralph ran up to me and started hissing. All the hair was standing on his back, head to tail. I thought he had gone crazy from the heat. I took a step back to go get him some water and I saw what all the commotion was about. Three feet from where I was standing was a snake about four feet long. I killed it with the shovel. If not for Ralph I may have been bitten. Hence the title "patrol cat."

Ralph circled Claire's feet staring up at her as his beloved owner gave the details of his heroism. His facial expressions conveying what he thought. " Yeah take that lady."

Claire could not help but find humor in the story of the great rescue but her laugh was cut short as the rain began in earnest. Tristan grabbed her by the hand and made a dash for the house. The orange tabby sped past them and waited at the back door for the slower bi-peds.

Once inside Tristan took Claire on a little tour of the interior of the house. The décor was simple but tastefully done. Claire thought it odd when they came to one of the bedroom doors that was locked. "Tristan do you have a roommate?" Claire asked in confusion.

"That is kind of a storage room." Tristan explained when she saw the bewildered look on her companions face. "I keep my dads belongings in there. I rarely ever go in. It reminds me too much of him, and I miss him all over again. I keep the lock on there in case my mother drops by. I would prefer she stay out of there."

Claire nodded her understanding. Even though she thought it strange that Tristan would have to go to so much trouble to keep her mother out. The tone in Tristan's voice when she spoke of her mother kept Claire from pressing any further. She trusted that Tristan would confide in her when she was ready.

"How about you and Ralph get acquainted while I get dinner started. I am going to make you one of my house specialties, and it takes a little while to cook. Once I get it underway we can start watching some of the movies we rented."

"Sounds great to me. Can I help you with anything?"

"No. Let me spoil you today Claire. I don't get the opportunity very often to spoil someone aside from Ralph, and he isn't nearly as cute as you are. Don't tell him I said that though. Would you like anything to drink?"

Claire declined the drink offer and made herself comfortable on the living room sofa. She picked up the TV remote and surfed the channels for something to keep her occupied. Nothing grabbed her attention and her thoughts went to the woman cooking her dinner. Her heart was warmed by the fact that Tristan wanted to spoil her. She felt contentment and a happiness she had not felt in a very long time.

Her mind wandered as she stared at nothing in particular on the television. Movement caught the corner of Claire's eye. She stared for a moment in that direction. Seeing nothing she resumed her channel surfing. A minute later an orange ball of fur came flying thru the air and pounced on the remote that she was idly swinging. Claire leapt up from the couch screaming at the top of her lungs before she realized that it was Ralph.

Tristan ran into the room. Dishtowel slung over one shoulder with a wooden cooking spoon prepared to do battle. The furry culprit fled the scene of the crime before she could see him. Tristan found a very dis-sheveled Claire standing in the middle of her living room.

"Are you okay? What happened? Tristan pulled Claire into her embrace.

"I'm fine. Your patrol cat pounced the TV remote. He scared me half to death. I haven't been around cats much. Do they always do stuff like that?"

Tristan laughed. "I am afraid so. That is kind of a cat's way of getting to know you. He's playing with you. If you dangle something in front of a feline it will pounce."

After dinner was left to simmer, Tristan joined Claire on the sofa. They spent the better part of the afternoon snuggled up together watching movies. Tristan served their dinner on the coffee table in front of the TV. Claire was delighted to see a home cooked meal. The spicy fare was right down her alley. She was even more delighted that Tristan could cook so well. This was an attribute that ranked very high with her.

"Oh my God! Tristan this is delicious! What is it?

Tristan blushed a little. "Sophisticated folks call it steak and gravy. We call it meat and gravy. We meaning, coon-asses."

"Coon what?" Claire laughed.

"You've never heard of a coon-ass? It's another name for Cajun. Its about the only time you can call us an ass, and not insult us." Tristan said, in a heavy Cajun accent.

"I can see now that I will have to invest in an Cajun French dictionary. Louisiana seems to be a world all its own. Do you speak Cajun French?"

Tristan shook her head. "I am ashamed to admit, that I know very little. My dad spoke it fluently. You would figure that I would have learned more than I did. My mother is not from here and did not favor the language. She swore my grandmother was always insulting her when she spoke it. The funny thing about it was, my grandmother was doing exactly that."

Claire seized the opportunity to ask about Tristan's mother. "I take it that you and your mom are not on good terms."

Tristan's face became solemn. "No we are not on good terms. We barely speak at all."

Tristan didn't offer any more information on the subject and got up to collect the plates from dinner. Claire jumped up and helped her bring the dishes to the kitchen. As Tristan began to rinse off the plates Claire wrapped her arms around her waist. She felt Tristan stiffen in her arms.

"I'm sorry Tris. Was that being too forward?"

"No not at all. I just get a little tense whenever I think about my mom. Its not you."

After the dishes were put away. Tristan and Claire settled in front of the TV once again to watch another movie. Both were cuddled together on the sofa enjoying the closeness, when the storm released its full fury and knocked the power out.

Tristan sighed. "So much for the movie. I'm glad we weren't at a pivotal point that would have really pissed me off.

Claire gave her a mischievous grin. "Do you know what we could here in the dark all alone?

Tristan gave her best innocent look. "Um knit?"

"That's not exactly what I had in mind. It involves you taking off your shirt. Don't worry; I will honor your request to wait. I just wanted to give you a back rub."

Tristan laughed. "You make me sound like a prude!"

After a while of playful banter, Claire finally coaxed Tristan out of her shirt. She spread a blanket down onto the floor, and had Tristan lay on her stomach. She straddled her hips and began to massage the soft flesh under her fingers. When she got to Tristan's bra strap she quickly opened it before her subject could refuse.

Claire marveled at the softness of Tristan's skin. She began to think this was really not a good idea for her. The skin under her fingertips made her crave more. Her attraction to Tristan grew more intense every time she looked at the dark eyed woman. Now with her hands on her warm skin it was becoming almost unbearable to resist a more intimate touch.

Tristan could not contain the groans that issued from her, while Claire's talented hands worked over her back. She was seriously regretting her declaration to wait. With each touch she debated taking advantage of the sensuous moment. All of her resolve faded away. Just as she had made up her mind to act upon her desires she felt a searing pain in her right foot.

"Oh my God!" Tristan cried out.

Claire knew she gave great back massages but she did not expect this sort of reaction. Tristan began to kick her feet and scream. Claire turned to see an orange fur ball firmly attached to Tristan's right foot.

"Let me go Ralph! You freaking insane cat!" As Claire moved off of Tristan, Ralph shot off to a safe hiding place. His attack had gotten the desired effect. The stranger was off of his beloved pet.

"I cannot believe that little fart bit me!" What on earth has gotten into him? Tristan rubbed her hands over her ankle, noticing she was bleeding.

"Has he ever done anything like that before?"

"Never! I don't know what has gotten into his fuzzy little butt. When I catch him I may have to beat it out of him!" Tristan hissed.

"We have to get these cuts cleaned up before any cat killings commence." Claire stood and pulled Tristan to her feet. They went into the bathroom where Tristan sat with her injured foot hanging over into the bathtub. Claire gently washed the blood away with soap and water. Then she applied some antibiotic ointment. Last but not least she put on a band-aid and kissed it for good measure.

It wasn't until Tristan felt the warmth of Claire's mouth that she fully realized she had initiated a kiss with the blonde sitting so close to her. The kiss deepened and she felt Claire's tongue responding to hers. Tristan was quickly loosing the battle with her good intentions. She wanted Claire more than she could remember wanting anyone else.

This time Claire pulled away from the kiss. "Tristan if we keep this up I am going to have a hard time stopping. Just like you, I want more from this relationship than just sex. I am only human though, and I am extremely attracted to you."

Tristan took Claire's hand into her own and kissed her fingertips. "I feel the same way. I cannot stand being so close to you without touching you. Come to bed with me Claire?"

Claire was too nervous to speak and simply nodded her head. With Claire's hand still in hers Tristan stood and lead her into the bedroom. Tristan pulled the covers down on the neatly made bed, and turned to face a very nervous and fidgeting Claire.

Tristan looked deep into her eyes. "Are you sure your ready for this Claire?"

"To be honest its all I have been able to think about for the last few days. Now that I am here I am so nervous. I'm shaking like a leaf."

Tristan pulled Claire closer. "I'm nervous too. You have become so special to me in such a short time that it is overwhelming."

Tristan traced the outline of Claire's lips with her fingertip before kissing her. Claire returned the gentle kiss, and felt as thought she was melting into Tristan. She ran her hands over Tristan's back and arms as they kissed. Reveling in her warmth.

Tristan undressed Claire with deliberate slowness. Kissing each inch of skin as it was revealed. As she knelt to pull off Claire's shorts, Claire pulled Tristan's shirt off over her head. When Tristan stood again Claire finished undressing her.

They climbed into the bed together and both moaned the minute their skin came in contact with one another. Tristan blazed a hot trial of kisses across Claire's neck to her ear where she began to nibble. The sensation and the feel of her warm breath made Claire squirm beneath her. Tristan pinned Claire's arms above her head and kissed her with such passion that Claire could not contain the groans that bubbled up within her.

Tristan lay on top of her slowly grinding into her as they kissed. The sounds that Claire made coupled with the friction of their bodies nearly brought her to ecstasy that moment. She released Claire's hands and began to shower her with kisses as she made her way down Claire's body. She paid special attention to each nipple circling them slowly with her tongue and lightly biting the tender flesh. Claire writhed beneath her whispering her name.

Tristan's heart began to pound even harder as she kissed her way down Claire's stomach. She resisted the urge to go straight to her destination, instead continued kissing the warm skin beneath her avoiding where Claire so obviously wanted her most. Tristan's breathing was as erratic as Claire's. She knew she would reach climax they same time Claire would.

She kissed her way around the patch of neatly groomed brown hair at the apex of Claire's thighs. Unable to resist any longer she ran her tongue over Claire. Claire shuddered and clutched the sheets. Tristan knew if Claire felt the same as she did that her lover would not last long. She ran her tongue slowly into Claire savoring her taste, avoiding the bundle of nerves she knew craved her attention most. She took her time exploring and tasting until Claire could stand it no longer. Slowly she ran her tongue up and circled the swollen spot that sent Claire over the edge. Claire's cries in turn sent Tristan right over with her.

Tristan laid her head on Claire's stomach, giving them both a moment to rest. Claire ran her fingers thru the dark hair splayed across her stomach. She felt the aftershocks of the orgasm for a long time before she could gather her strength again. Tristan began to kiss her way down again before Claire stopped her.

"Oh no you don't Tristan. Are you trying to kill me?" She pulled Tristan up to her and began to kiss her softly. Her hands began to wander over her lover's soft skin. Tristan pulled back from her touch.

"I am not finished with you yet, so you can quit trying to distract me." She said with mischievous smile. Tristan rolled over onto her back, pulling Claire on top of her and making her straddle her hips. She slid her hand down between them letting her fingers brush against where Claire was the most sensitive. Then slipping two of her fingers deep inside of Claire, she looked into her eyes.

"Move with me Claire. Slowly. I want to see your face." She let Claire set the pace, slowly moving her fingers in time with her hips. She watched Claire's face intently, which mirrored the ecstasy she felt inside. Claire opened her eyes slowly and starred into Tristan's. It was that moment when Tristan felt her begin to contract around her fingers. Claire closed her eyes again and Tristan watched her as she came for her.

Claire lay on top of Tristan for a while recovering from another powerful orgasm. It felt so perfect being with her like this. She knew at that moment that she did not want to ever be apart from this woman who made her feel so special.

Once her strength returned Claire began to kiss Tristan. Teasing her by letting her tongue graze her bottom lip but not slipping it into her mouth. She sucked Tristan's bottom lip as she ran her fingertips over her swollen nipples. Tristan moaned and bucked against her. Claire wasted no time. She slipped down and drew Tristan's right nipple into her mouth. She sucked and teased until she had Tristan panting.

Tristan wrapped her legs around Claire's in an attempt to hold her in place. "You can't control me Tris. I can kiss, and nibble wherever I please." She demonstrated by moving to the left nipple and treated it with the same care that she had lavished the other one. She could feel Tristan trembling under her touch. She began her decent down Tristan's body when Tristan clamped her legs tighter around her own preventing her from moving.

"Tris let me go." She kissed the skin just beneath her. " I have been dreaming of this since we met. I want to taste you."

Tristan slowly relaxed her legs letting Claire slide lower down her body. Claire had no intention of delaying one of the things she wanted most. She nestled her shoulders down between Tristan's thighs and tasted for the first time the woman who was stealing her heart. Tristan gasped at the touch, making Claire desire her more. Claire circled the sensitive bundle of nerves slowly enjoying the way it made Tristan's hips move. She wanted to be inside of Tristan when she came for her. Slowly she slid a finger inside and met resistance. Claire froze.

Tristan's voice was tempered with emotion. "Claire please don't stop. I want it to be you."

Claire was not prepared for this. It took her a moment to recover from the surprise. She continued to stroke Tristan with her tongue distracting her from the discomfort she knew was to come. She slid a second finger into Tristan's opening testing the membrane with her fingers. As the pace of Tristan's hips became more insistent she buried her fingers deep inside tearing through the soft membrane. Tristan cried out in pain and in surprise. Claire did not stop her movements and soon Tristan matched her pace again. She could feel Tristan tighten and begin to pulsate around her fingers. She did not still her movements until she felt Tristan's body go limp beneath her.

She moved up to lie next to Tristan. She could see the tears glistening on her lover's cheeks. She pulled her into her arms and before long both were sound to sleep.

Chapter 6

Tristan woke up and un-tangled herself from Claire. She spent a while admiring her sleeping lover before getting out of bed. She pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt before making her way to the kitchen to feed her tiny tiger and start the coffee pot.

She was relieved to see that the power had come back on during the night. She sleepily started the coffee to brew and then filled Ralph's bowl of food.

"I shouldn't even feed you after that stunt you pulled last night. She thrust her foot out at the cat dining on his morning meal. "Look what you did to me last night! I should ring your fuzzy little neck. If you weren't so cute things would be much different around here!"

Her tirade was interrupted by a knock on the door. Tristan's heart sank into her stomach. With everything going on last night she had forgotten about her ritual Sunday morning breakfast date. She opened the door to Cameron Hughes and his wife Lucy.

She hugged them both as they entered. They both exchanged glances as they appraised Tristan's apparel. "Why aren't you dressed yet Tris?" Lucy asked.

Tristan began to stammer. " Well I umm…" At that very moment Claire stumbled into the kitchen wearing Tristan's robe. Her eyes grew wide, and her mouth moved not making any sound. Tristan looked and Claire, and the couple with a sheepish grin.

"I am sorry Cam and Lucy I just forgot." Tristan said with a shrug.

Lucy seized upon the moment to make the girl she had come to accept as a daughter squirm. "Tris honey. We have had the same date for the past three years, what on earth have you been up to, that you would forget?"

Claire's face turned a crimson red. She could not even look Cameron in the eye. Tristan over-whelmed with the situation just began to laugh. Lucy held a straight face for as long as she could and the she fell into a fit of laughter.

Lucy patted Claire on the back as she made her way to the coffee pot. "Well Cam looks like there will be four of us for breakfast this morning."

Claire began to object. "Oh I don't want to intrude..." Before she could get another word out Cameron spoke up. "Nonsense Claire. We would love to have you, matter of fact we insist." Claire accepted the invitation as gracefully as she could under the circumstances.

"Tristan honey go get in the shower and let us have a cup of coffee with Claire." Lucy said as she grasped a very nervous looking Claire by the hand and led her to the table.

"Oh no! I m not leaving her alone with you two!" Tristan objected. This in turn made Claire even more nervous. "Do as I say missy." Lucy said with mock indignation.

After she was sure Tristan was in the shower Lucy began to speak to Claire. "Sweetie, I know you are embarrassed but don't be. Being your boss Cam here cannot discuss this with you but I sure can. We don't make our relationship with Tristan public knowledge. We don't want anyone at Valor to think she gets preferential treatment. She has earned her position with the company."

"Though she is not our flesh and blood, we consider her our baby. We love her very much. We were at the hospital the day she was born. Her father Mitchell grew up with Cam. Since her father died we have become her adopted parents in a manner of speaking. The reason I am telling you all of this is because we do not want her hurt. She has never brought anyone to her home, so you must be extremely special to her. If she does not mean the same to you, please let her down gently and quickly."

Claire suddenly realized that even though Tristan was not her daughter she had gotten her bluntness from Lucy. She looked Lucy directly in the eyes and chose her words carefully. "I feel exactly the same for Tris. I will not do anything to intentionally hurt her. I realize how this must look to you both. Especially, with me just starting with the company."

Lucy interrupted. "Darlin, Cam and I met at Valor. No need to explain that to us. Tris is our baby and we just want to protect her, even if it is not our place."

At this Cam interrupted. " I am sure we seem over-protective. After all she is a grown woman, but she has had a very rough life." Cam hesitated and looked at Lucy. Then they both looked down the hall to make sure the coast was clear.

"What Cam is trying to say is that Tris had a very tumultuous relationship with her mother. That woman has beaten her down all of her life. She has told her from the time she was a baby that no one would ever want her. Tristan is just now starting to get a sense of self worth." Cam reached over to calm his wife who was well on her way to a tirade.

"She told me that her relationship with her mother was terrible, but has not gone into detail. I have been afraid to push her. I can tell the wounds go very deep." Claire said with concern.

Lucy reached across the table and took Claire by the hand. "I believe you will be good for our girl. I didn't mean to pry, but she is very special to us."

As if on cue everyone at the table began talking about the weather when they heard Tristan coming down the hall. Tristan entered the kitchen with a suspicious look on her face. She got herself a cup of coffee and joined the group at the table.

Lucy focused her attention on Tristan. "What took you so long baby? Did you have to shave both of those long legs twice?

"As a matter of fact just once." Tristan shot back.

Claire excused herself from the table and went to bathe. After which the group went to breakfast at a little café a few miles from Tristan's place. The conversation was light, and Claire found herself enjoying the company of the older couple. She noticed that Tristan was at ease in their presence, and there was a sense of peace about her. Claire could tell that Tristan cared just as deeply for them as they did her.

Claire felt a sense of loss there among them. She had lost her parents and only sister in a car accident when she was only seventeen. A family atmosphere almost seemed foreign to her now. She pushed her feelings of melancholy aside determined to enjoy herself the rest of the morning with Tristan and her surrogate parents.

They spent the remainder of the day basking in the sun on Tristan's deck. Ralph would appear occasionally bringing his pet presents. The first of which was a half eaten grasshopper. Tristan fawned over him as though he had brought her a pot of gold. The ritual continued for most of the afternoon. Both women made a big deal of each dead bug he brought up, until he brought his last gift, which was a small grass snake.

It took Tristan a while to coax Claire down from her precarious perch on top of the patio table. "Look Claire its dead, I promise. Besides it was only a grass snake as disgusting as it is, its not a poisonous snake." Tristan could not help but laugh at the situation, which perturbed Claire even more. To top it all off Ralph was pissed off that he had not gotten the praise that he had become accustomed to when he brought his gifts.

"What in the hell is wrong with that cat? I mean, is he crazy? Why on earth would he bring a damn snake up here? Claire hissed through clenched teeth.

Tristan chuckled despite herself. "We have been out here long enough anyway your skin is starting to get a little red." She held out her arms and assisted Claire down off the table. They went inside, without poor Ralph.

After Claire had a few sips of iced tea, she began to calm down a bit. "Tristan I am sorry I got so upset out there. I cannot stand a snake." She shook in disgust. "My nerves have been a little on edge lately with the new job and all, I guess I just flew off the handle. Although I have to admit if her ever does that again I will jump on top of the closest thing I can find, which might just be you."

Tristan looked at her thoughtfully. "Sounds to me like you need a little break. I have to go up to St Francisville tomorrow to meet with one of the boats at the ferry landing to deliver some paperwork. We don't have crew change this week and your department will be slow except for a few reports that I am sure your agents can handle. Cam expects me to show you all aspects of our business so you will have a broader understanding of what we do, so we will kill two birds with one stone.

You can accompany me on the little trip, and visit another one of our boats. Then we will be free for the afternoon."

"Aside from it being a quaint and historical little town, St Francisville is home to one of the most notoriously haunted plantation homes. We could have lunch there and take a tour of the place. I hear it's really very spooky. So what do ya say? Want to see some ghosts?"

"As long as you don't plan on spending the night in any haunted house it sounds great to me. Um, do I have to wear those steel-toed boots? If so, I don't see us walking very far. The last time you made me wear those things my calves ached for a week and I had to get a pedicure to fix the damage to my toenails."

The next morning they climbed into Tristan's work truck and headed north to St Francisville. After they were out of Baton Rouge Claire started to pay more attention to the landscape. It was similar to Texas with all of the pine trees that lined the highway. Just before they got into the city limits of St. Francisville she noticed that the land became a little hillier. Old live oak trees lined the roadside. It seemed as though they were in a different world entirely.

Tristan broke her from her thoughts when she spoke. "Normally, the port managers do this kind of stuff but I love taking short road trips. It gets me out of the office for a while, and a chance to just think about things and enjoy being outside."

Claire looked at her for a moment. "What kind of things do you think about when you make these short trips?"

"I don't know really. It's just nice to let my mind roam free for a while. I purposely don't think about anything concerning work until I get to where I am going. Its kind of refreshing." Tristan said with a grin.

"Can I ask you something off the subject?" Claire glanced at her a little nervously.

"Sure. What's on your mind?

"I know you told me that you wanted a relationship. I am just curious about whether you intend to date anyone else, or just me exclusively?"

Tristan steered the truck down the steep ferry landing. Once she had the vehicle in park she turned to look at Claire. "I want to be very honest with you."

Claire felt her stomach tighten. She was afraid of the ominous tone in Tristan's voice. Up until that moment she thought she and Tristan were on the same page, now she was not so sure.

"I have never really been in a serious relationship. I have dated a few girls but only for a short time. I have never really committed myself to anyone, until now. I hope you feel the same way about this but I am not interested in seeing anyone else outside of us. For the first time in my life I have found in you the one I want to make a commitment to."

Claire hugged her and held her close for a moment. "I am so glad you feel that way. I was so afraid you were going to tell me that you still wanted to date other people. Once I find someone that I really like I have no desire to see anyone else, and I really like you. I grow fonder of you each minute I spend in your presence, and I would love to commit my self to you and this relationship."

Tristan drew back from Claire to kiss her, but just as their lips brushed together a loud horn startled them both. The Taylor Noel made its presence known. Tristan growled low in her throat at the captain for interrupting them.

Tristan made a call to the boat on her cell phone. She and the Captain talked a moment and decided it would be unsafe for she and Claire to try getting out to the boat since an early for had settled over the water. Tristan did not want to take a chance with Claire in the small launch boat referred to as a skiff.

Claire watched as they lowered a small boat into the water. The towboat itself was too large to come any closer to shore. She and Tristan walked to the waters edge to meet the deckhand who brought the small craft on shore. Tristan introduced Claire and gave him the paperwork they needed. They stood on shore and watched the skiff make its way back to the boat, and then be hoisted up onto the deck.

"Now the day is ours." Tristan grinned and led Claire back to the work truck. It is still a little early for the first tour. Why don't we take a little driving tour of the town, should you see anywhere you want to stop and look around just let me know.

As they drove Claire noticed a small graveyard next to an old church. It gave her the creeps the way it was surrounded by trees whose moss hung down over the old stone crypts. "Tristan why do they have all of those crypts above ground? It looks so creepy."

"When I was a little girl my dad told me it was because of the water table. Most all of the graveyards in New Orleans have above ground crypts because the city itself is below sea level. Whenever there is a flood the water table rises and pushes the soggy coffins up and out of the dirt. So they just started to put them on top of the ground in crypts."

This graveyard here was thought to be high enough above the water table. There is an old tale that one year we had real high waters on the Mississippi and the water table rose high enough to push the coffins buried here out of the ground. According to the stories I have heard the town folk here did not take to well to seeing the long dead back above ground."

Claire shuddered. "Can you imagine waking up and seeing something like that, or worse seeing it actually happen? It gives me the creeps just thinking about it. I can tell you right now, if I had seen something like that I would have shit a kitten. Hell maybe a whole litter!"

Tristan busted out laughing at Claire's colorful banter. Claire looked at her sideways. "What are you laughing at?"

"Shit a kitten?" Sheesh you Texans can come up with some stuff!" Tristan continued to laugh. Claire looked at her mockingly. "Texans huh? I leaned the shitting the kitten thingy from one of your crew coordinators, and I happen to know for a fact he is a local native of Louisiana.

They drove around admiring the town and bickering over which state was best. Neither really cared but they both enjoyed ribbing the other about what their states did and did not have. The playful banter came to a halt when they pulled through the iron gates of the Myrtles Plantation.

The day had become overcast and added to the eerie appeal of the Myrtles. Claire instantly began scanning the windows of the old house trying to catch a glimpse of ghostly activity. From just the brief history Tristan had given her on the ride up she already had a good case of the creeps.

They decided to have lunch since the next tour would not start for an hour or so. Tristan refused to have wine with her lunch, reminding Claire she was a lightweight and would not be able to drive home. In addition, she wanted all of her mental faculties in case they encountered anything strange. They both settled on iced tea.

"Do you believe in ghosts Tristan?" Claire asked with a smirk.

Tristan returned the smirk. "I have never seen a ghost myself, but I suppose that doesn't mean they don't exist. Frankly, I don't know what to make of all the things people have claimed to see. Maybe, they want to see something so bad that their mind plays tricks on them." Tristan shrugged her shoulders.

"What would you do right now if you looked out of that window, and saw a ghost?" Claire widened her eyes attempting to appear dramatic.

Tristan laughed. "I can assure you of two things if I saw a ghost right now. First, I would wet my pants. Second, I would run out of this place like I was on fire, and may God help the person that got between me and my car. You better hope that if that happens I have the presence of mind to grab you and take you with me!"

Claire roared with laughter. So much so that the other patrons turned to look at her. Tristan gave them her most charming smile and shrugged her shoulders as if to say she didn't know what Claire's problem was. She was still chuckling when their lunch was brought to the table. The waitress gave her an awkward glace before departing the table.

Tristan had gotten a case of the giggles as well. She did her best to control herself and asked Claire if she could compose herself long enough to eat. "Claire are you going to be alright? You still have tears in your eyes."

Claire choked a couple of times before she could speak. "I'm sorry but I just had a mental picture of you running out of here with wet pants and waving your arms like a mad woman. I bet you my next paycheck they would put that in their brochure!" The couple giggled all through lunch, with no regard for the amused glances thrown their way.

After lunch they stepped outside with a few others to smoke. They listened as some of the tourists talked excitedly about hopefully catching a glimpse of one of the famous ghosts known to haunt the house. Claire found herself drawn into the conversation and had learned all about Chloe the slave who was hanged there for poisoning two children and the wife of the master of the house. Someone, in the crowd mentioned that they had heard the poison was made from Oleander leaves from a popular flowering plant found in yards everywhere.

Tristan whispered into Claire's ear. "I have lots of Oleander growing around my place, so don't get any ideas missy."

The tour guide joined the group and began to call attention to the house. "The Myrtles Plantation was built in 1796, by General David Bradford, and carries the dubious distinction as being one of the most haunted plantation homes in America. According to legend the house is built on an ancient Indian burial ground. No less than ten murders have been committed here."

The guide drew their attention to the intricate ironwork that surrounded the veranda. Claire poked Tristan in the ribs causing her to jump. She giggled as Tristan spun around to glare at her. Claire raised both hands in the air. "I didn't do it. Are your pants still dry?" The antics started a whole new round of giggles from the both of them, despite the glances they received from the rest of the group.

Tristan paid more attention to the beautiful old Live Oaks and the grounds, while Claire looked up at each window hoping to get a glimpse of something or someone peering back. Occasionally, they would glace at one another and wink as the guide told stories of ghostly children wandering and playing on the grounds.

As they entered the foyer Claire and the rest of the group admired the three hundred fifty pound Baccarat crystal chandelier that graced the entrance. "Oh Tristan look how beautiful."

Tristan yawned. "What's the big deal? It's just like the one in our dining room." Tristan said a little louder than she intended to. The entire group turned around and looked at her, including Claire.

Tristan shrugged. "Wow tough room. It was a joke people." She and Claire burst into another fit of laughter. They decided to hang back from the group, since they were having such a hard time behaving.

Tour Pamphlet in hand they decided to conduct their own tour. "Tris, it says here that this grand piano plays by itself in the night until someone comes into the room. The ghost apparently plays the same chord over and over. Wouldn't that just piss you off at some point? I wonder if you requested something by Elton John, if it would give it a whirl?"

Their next point of interest was a portrait of a man that has been said to change facial expressions, and his eyes would follow a person around the room. Both women stared at the portrait intently waiting for something to happen.

"I think he is kind of smiling." Tristan declared after a moment of intense study.

"You do? I think he looks a little sad to me. I dare you to fart and see if his nose twitches." Claire said as she studied the portrait while walking backwards to see if the eyes moved.

Tristan scratched her head. "How old are we again? They both acknowledged that their humor was crass and juvenile which made them laugh all the more.

They meandered through the home admiring and commenting on various antique pieces. Both were equally impressed with the plaster ceiling medallions none of which were the same. Claire admired the antique furniture found in each of the rooms. Antiques did not impress Tristan but she followed the blonde dutifully as she roamed from room to room of the beautifully decorated old house.

Claire sensed that her partner was becoming bored with all the antiques and suggested they continue their exploration outside. She giggled at the pleased expression on Tristan's face. They went out into the courtyard where they found an empty table and sat down. Tristan sighed and propped up her feet in one of the empty chairs. Claire read over the tour pamphlet making sure she had not missed anything.

"Can I ask you something very personal?" Claire asked Tristan.

"Of course what do you want to know?"

Claire's faced colored a little, as she thought of a tactful way to pose her question. "Um okay…Well, I know you're an experienced lover, but what confuses me is how you have managed to maintain your virginity till now?" Claire looked at Tristan sheepishly.

Tristan smiled but did not look directly into Claire's eyes. "I was wondering when you were going to ask me about that. It's simple really. I have never met anyone that I wanted to give that part of myself to, until now. She looked up into Claire's eyes then.

"Tristan I know this is going to sound so corny, but I am truly honored. A little embarrassed by the topic Tristan changed the subject. "It looks like we may have rain soon. Would you like to walk around the grounds before we need to head home? Besides, I just saw a mosquito fly by carrying two passengers. They're huge out here!

Claire frowned. "I wish we had brought a camera with us. We might have captured a ghost on film."

"I'm not much for taking pictures. I always seem to forget to bring a camera with me, and when I do remember I get so into what I am looking at that I forget to take any pictures. "Matter of fact I don't even own a camera anymore." Tristan said ruefully.

The overcast day added to the ghostly aurora that surrounded the house. Tristan walked about the grounds commenting on different plants and trees. Claire walked beside her, but her eyes were drawn to the house. She had hoped to see something un-explainable, but had been disappointed thus far. She was staring up into the windows when she caught her foot on a tree root protruding from the ground. She stumbled forward and nearly fell to the ground before Tristan caught and steadied her.

In all the confusion they did not notice the man dressed in clothes that looked to be from the 1800s approaching them. "Careful Miss" Were the only words he spoke. He smiled and walked past them toward the house. When he was out of sight Tristan pulled Claire close and kissed her. "I have been waiting to do that all day."

Claire gave Tristan one of her most seductive looks. "Don't do that again, unless you want to be rolling around in the shrubs."

"As tempting as that may sound I cannot do it with ghosts watching. I am sure I will have performance anxiety. Besides, I am willing to wait for a nice big soft bed, or the kitchen table. I'm not that particular. Tristan said wiggling her brows suggestively.

"Well then we need to be going!" Claire grabbed Tristan by the arm and nearly dragged her to the parking lot. As they drove down the driveway back to Highway 61 they noticed the same man that had spoken to them earlier. He waved as they passed, and then seemed to vanish into the mist. Claire was not sure if she was seeing things or not. She stared at the spot where he had been as Tristan drove down the drive.

"Did you see that?" Claire exclaimed.

Tristan slowed to a stop. "See what? Did I run over a squirrel or something?

Claire stared out the window confused. "I thought I saw that guy we passed earlier. He was standing right over there, then he just disappeared."

"Funny Claire, real funny." They drove on, and to no avail Claire could not convince Tristan that she really did see the man disappear.

The old grounds keeper laughed hysterically at Claire's facial expression. He had been scaring the hell out of people for years pulling that stunt. He always looked forward to the fog rolling in late in the afternoon. Claire's shocked expression would have him laughing well into the night.

As they left the city limits of St. Francisville Claire drifted off to sleep, leaving Tristan alone with her thoughts. She glanced over at the sleeping blonde and wondered what it was about this woman that captured her so. She conjured feelings in her that she thought were impossible for her to have. Not only did she physically desire Claire, but also she hungered just to be in her presence. It occurred to her that she actually craved her company. Something she had never experienced before.

Love is fleeting played through her mind. What would happen to her if she gave this woman her heart, and she broke it? She was torn between the feelings of elation and fear. If Claire rejected her, Tristan wondered if she would be able to re-cover from such a blow.

Tristan lit up a cigarette and rolled down the window a little bit to ventilate the truck. She glanced quickly at Claire hoping that she had not woken her. Confirming that she was still asleep she stole another glance at her, and silently thought to herself. "What have you done to me Claire? I don't know if I should do this. You're the only woman I have ever met that has made me feel like a real person. Someone who could be loved."

Chapter 6

After a quick stop at Claire's place to pick up some clothes, they arrived at Tristan's house just before dark. Tristan was pleased that Claire enthusiastically agreed to stay with her another night. They ordered a pizza for dinner and relaxed in front of the TV for the better part of the evening. Ralph decided to be cordial for a change and curled up in the pit of Claire's stomach, all three of them spent the evening as couch potatoes.

The following day Tristan walked into Claire's office mid-morning. "Claire I have somewhere I have to be around lunch time. Would you like me to pick something up for you? Claire thought Tristan's behavior a little odd, since she didn't elaborate on where she was going. Since she had been at Valor they always had gone to lunch together.

Claire smiled. "No don't go to any trouble. I will order a sandwich or something; I am not really that hungry." Tristan nodded. "I'll be back soon. Call me on my cell phone if you change your mind."

Tristan knocked at the door of the two-story brick home of Cameron and Lucy Hughes. She didn't wait long before Lucy opened the door and invited her in. Walking in to the spacious gourmet kitchen she could smell the aroma of Lucy's famous chicken spaghetti. Tristan grinned; Lucy always cooked her favorites when she came to visit.

"Sit down sweetie I have already made a plate for you. Your iced tea is coming up." Lucy said as she filled the glass with ice.

The conversation was light as they ate. As usual, Tristan complimented Lucy on her culinary skills, at which Lucy would scoff and laugh. Tristan told her all about the trip to the Myrtles, and Lucy thought she recognized a gleam in her eyes that wasn't there before.

After lunch Lucy re-filled their tea glasses and invited Tristan out to the patio, because she knew Tris liked to smoke after she ate. She also had a feeling that something was up with her adopted daughter, because Lucy was always the one to invite Tristan over. This time Tristan had called her.

Tristan sat down at the wrought iron patio table, and lit her cigarette. Lucy sat across from her waiting for Tristan to open up and say what was one her mind. Tristan made small talk about the weather, toying with the cigarette in her hand. Lucy couldn't stand the suspense any longer.

"Tristan baby, what is going on in that head of yours? I know you like my cooking, but there is something on your mind and to be honest I will reach over this table and choke you if you don't tell me what it is right now." Lucy laughed and patted Tristan's hand across the table.

Tristan was quiet for a few minutes; she stared at the table hoping to find a way to express what she was feeling. "Lucy, I am so afraid of what is happening between me and Claire. I have never met anyone like her. Unlike so many I have dated, she makes me feel like she really cares for me. I am so afraid she will wake up one morning and decide she doesn't want to be with me, and I don't think my heart can take it. I am to the point that I want to break things off with her, out of fear that will happen." When she did look up at Lucy her eyes were rimmed with tears threatening to spill over.

Lucy reached over and took her hand. "Baby we all fear that coming into a relationship. There are no certainties in life or love. I will tell you this though. I think Claire really does care for you, and I think given a little time that will develop into love."

Tristan fought against the lump in her throat. "Lucy…" Tristan stammered a moment. "Why would she love me? Why would a woman like that want to stay with me?"

"Baby, why one earth would you even think that. You have a lot to offer her. The problem is, you don't see that in yourself. I know your mother did a lot to undermine your self-confidence. As long as I live I will never understand why she did that. Tristan you are a beautiful woman inside and out." Lucy's eyes welled with tears as she spoke. Her heart broke because of the pain radiating off the woman sitting before her.

Tristan broke down into sobs. "You and Cam have always been so supportive and loving. You've both told me that all of these years, but it is so hard for me to believe."

Lucy got up and went to Tristan's side of the table. She took her into her arms and held her till her tears subsided. "Tristan listen to me honey. There is no way to sugar coat this, I have to say it plainly. Your mother was a mean spirited woman. Frankly, I think she hated herself; therefore she couldn't really love anyone else."

"Tristan, Cam and I couldn't love you more if you were our own flesh and blood. We used to lay awake at night trying to figure out a way to keep you with us. That is why we came and got you for the weekend so often. We were so afraid of hurting Mitchell, because he loved you with all of his heart, but we always dreamed of taking you and running away."

Tristan looked at Lucy incredulously for a moment. "I honestly had no idea you and Cam felt that way. Don't get me wrong I knew you loved me, but I always thought it was because of your loyalty to my dad. I don't mean any disrespect by that, but I know how close you were with him."

Lucy pulled Tristan back into her arms. "Baby we spent time with you because we loved you as though were our daughter and still so. I still have all of your pictures throughout your school years, and when you graduated high school, we could not have been prouder. We love you Tristan just because you are you."

Tristan hugged Lucy back. Finally accepting in her heart that someone aside from her dad truly loved her. The tears began anew.

Lucy chose her words carefully. "Tris honey you have kept a lot bottled inside. I have never pushed you to talk about your mother, but I think its time you let it all out. I know you have harbored a lot of guilt and pain, and unless you let it go, it will continue to affect you all of your life. If it is not dealt with it could very well cause you problems in your relationship with Claire."

Tristan held on to Lucy a little longer before she spoke. "If I am going to talk about this I will need to smoke it makes me a nervous wreck."

Lucy returned to her seat, but pulled it a little closer to Tristan. She waited patiently for Tristan to calm her nerves enough to speak. She looked at the woman across from her and felt her stomach tie in knots; deep in her heart she dreaded what she was about to hear. She silently wished Cam had been there for both of them.

Tristan lit a cigarette and sipped her tea. "I no have pleasant memories of my mom. I used to cry in my room when dad left to go out on work trips; I hated to be alone with her. When he was away from home I stayed in my room or outside for as long as I could."

"When she would call me into dinner I would run in and wash my hands and face. Then I would sit at the table praying that I would not spill or drop anything. One time I accidentally knocked over my milk. She slapped me hard enough across the face to knock me out of my chair. She did not hit me very often but when she did it made a lasting impression on my memory as well as my skin. Her words however, were more painful than any slaps she could deliver."

Lucy did not want to start crying again, but the far off look and pained expression in Tristan's eyes broke her heart into pieces. She watched her hands shake as she lifted her cigarette. Lucy could not fathom how traumatic it must have been for a small child to endure through so much. She swallowed the lump in her throat as Tristan went on.

"I was such a tomboy. I loved climbing trees, and building clubhouses. She would usually find me with a group of friends and she would make a spectacle out of me. She would ridicule and berate me in front of all those kids and then drag me in the house. I was so humiliated that I stopped seeking out other kids to play with.

"Whenever we went somewhere she would complain the whole time that I looked like an orphan even though she chose the clothes I wore. I was told every day of my life that I would never amount to anything, and if she ever had the chance to do it over again she would have never had me."

"When I was in my teens and my body began to fill out she was especially harsh. We went to the home of a friend of hers. She had a son my age, and he invited me to shoot pool with him in the game room. During our game he began to come on to me. I didn't entertain his advances, there was nothing appealing about him at all. I suppose he got tired of being put off, when he pushed me up against the table and kissed me."

"Of course my mom and her snooty friend came into the room at that moment. His mother told us that he had pulled that stunt before with another girl. She apologized profusely for his behavior, and assured my mother he would be dealt with.

When we got into the car my mother demanded to know what I had done to provoke him. She never gave me the benefit of the doubt, she was certain that I had enticed him, even after his mother told her that he had done the very same thing to someone else. She told me that she would not have a slut living under her roof."

"Lucy I could go on for hours telling you what it was like to live with her. You know yourself she didn't even attend my high school graduation. To be honest I am glad she didn't, that was one day I just didn't want to be humiliated on."

Tristan felt true anger rise up within her toward her mother for the first time in her life. "How can a child have self-esteem when their own mother hates them? The only thing that kept me from killing myself was knowing that it would bring her satisfaction."

"Oh God Tristan, I knew she was hard on you but I had no idea. Honey you have to believe if I had any idea it was that bad I would have taken you, damn the consequences. How could Mitchell have let this go on?" Lucy asked in tears.

"Dad knew she was rough one me, but she saved most of her hatefulness for the times he was on the road with work. She behaved herself when he was home, but she released her fury on me when he left. The times she did haul off and hit me she made sure I kept the marks covered. I was just too afraid to tell dad, because of what she might do to me when he went on his next trip."

This time it was Lucy who needed comforting. Tristan gathered her up in her arms and held her till they had both stopped crying. They spent the better part of the afternoon together. Tristan poured her heart out that day, for the first time in her life. Instead of feeling vulnerable and weak she felt like a new woman. Someone she trusted was there for her and supported her. Perhaps now she could start the healing process.

Chapter 7

The afternoon had gotten away from Tristan and Lucy. Tristan realized that Cam would be home soon. There was no way she could hide the fact that she had been crying, and she did not want him to see her that way. Lucy assured her that she would not tell Cam what they had discussed until Tristan was ready for him to know.

Lucy hugged and kissed Tristan before she left. "Sweetie, as long as I live I will be here for you, and so will Cam. We love you very much. In my eyes you are my daughter, and nothing will ever change that." Tristan smiled and kissed Lucy quickly goodbye and left before she started crying again.

When Tristan arrived home, Claire pulled in behind her. Tristan was still collecting her things when Claire walked up to the truck. "I was wondering if you would like to have dinner with me tonight…" Her voice trailed off when she got a look at Tristan's face.

"Oh God Tristan what has happened? Are you ok?" Claire said as she pulled her into her arms. Tristan made no attempt to explain. She welcomed Claire's embrace and allowed herself to be held.

Claire took her the keys from Tristan and opened the door. She led Tristan into the house where she took her into her arms again. "Tristan, are you alright baby?"

" I know I look like crap but I really am alright. I spent the afternoon with Lucy. We discussed some things about my childhood and it really upset me, but I feel better that I got it off my chest. Please forgive me but I am not emotionally up to rehashing any of it."

"That's ok I understand. Would you prefer to be alone tonight or would you like some company other than Ralph. Claire said with a smile.

"I would love it if you stayed with me again tonight. I don't feel very much like going out though. You mind if I cook for us instead?" Tristan said

"I have to run home and get some more clothes for tomorrow. While I am out, I will pick up dinner. You will open a bottle of wine, and go soak in the bath till I get back. If I return to find you still in these clothes, there is gonna be trouble missy!"

Tristan smiled and kissed Claire. "Yes ma'am! I only have one request." Claire raised a brow inquisitively. "I would like Chinese. Either cashew chicken or sesame kitten with fried rice." Tristan said as she made her way to the bathroom.

Claire laughed. "You better hope Ralph didn't hear that kitten comment, or you may be missing some more skin tonight."

When Claire returned she fixed their plates and had them on the living room coffee table when Tristan emerged from her bath. She had opened a bottle of white wine, hoping that the drink would relax Tristan. She was determined to comfort her obviously emotionally drained lover.

Tristan took a few bites of her dinner before speaking. "What did I miss at work this afternoon?"

"Nothing at all really, it was very uneventful. I spent most of the day renewing hotel accounts to assure that Valor would get the best rates. The crew coordinators seemed to be having a quiet day as well. They only requested two rental cars for some crew swaps and that was it. The afternoon was really boring. I think I would have enjoyed the down time, but Mike set up camp in my office the latter part of the day."

Tristan glanced up from her plate. She did not like the way Mike stared at Claire; she felt her hackles rise at the mention of his name. "So, what did he want? Was he hitting you up for a raise already?"

"He was hitting on me alright, but it was not for a raise. He asked me out."

Tristan set down her fork and looked at Claire. "I cannot believe he did that. He must have a brass set of balls to ask his boss out."

Claire laughed. "I shot him down with a quickness. I told him I was seeing someone, and I was not interested. He got a little indignant, and wanted to know how I had gotten involved with someone so quickly in a town where I knew no one. I simply told him it was none of his business. It amazes me how arrogant some people can be."

Even though Tristan knew Claire had no interest in Mike it made her stomach turn. She was unaccustomed to the intense feelings of jealously it caused her. She did not like the idea of someone trying to compete for Claire's affections.

Tristan changed the subject not wanting to discuss the topic any longer. "I have to do some work on the travel budget tomorrow. I was supposed to have done it today. I will need you to run some reports for me first thing tomorrow morning so I can get a look at the numbers and make sure we are still on track."

Claire sensed that the discussion of Mike had made Tristan a little edgy, so she welcomed the change in conversation. "I will have them on your desk first thing in the morning. If it is slow for me tomorrow I will be happy to assist you. Maybe we could split the boats in half and work the numbers that way."

For the remainder of the evening they sat quietly in front of the TV. Tristan laid her head down in Claire's lap. She ran her fingers through the dark locks soothing her partner. With the wine and Claire's attentions Tristan relaxed and drifted off to sleep. Claire woke her after a while and they went to bed. Claire held Tristan for a while before she drifted off to sleep.

The next day at work Tristan paid close attention to Mike. She felt the hair on her neck rise every time he found a reason to go into her office. Claire was of course professional, but it grated on Tristan whenever she smiled at Mike. Tristan mentally assured herself that Claire was not entertaining him but simply doing her job.

Tristan spent remainder of the workday verifying that her department was still in line with the budget. Claire worked closely with her going over the numbers and double-checking her figures. Friday afternoon they both breathed a sigh of relief when Tristan emailed her findings to accounting.

At lunch that afternoon they decided they would spend the weekend at Tristan's place relaxing. Tristan promised to teach Claire how to fish in the lake behind her house. Both were looking forward to spending some alone time with each other. Tristan's secluded property was the perfect place to do just that.

Claire wondered if Tristan would be ready to confide in her about her childhood. She knew that whatever it was had to be extremely painful for Tristan. Claire almost dreaded the conversation because she knew she would lose all emotional control if Tristan broke down.

Saturday morning Tristan was up just after sunrise. Ralph was fed and the coffee was brewing when she woke Claire. "Tristan why one earth are you up already? Its Saturday for goodness sake!"

"The fish bite best in the morning. Your fishing lesson isn't going to be any fun if you don't get a bite. Now get up." Tristan poked Claire in the ribs till she couldn't stand it any longer. Claire ran to the bathroom fussing the whole time and refusing to come in contact with any bait.

After breakfast they went down to the waters edge, dragging two lawn chairs behind them. Once they had picked a shady spot, Tristan began to prepare the rod and reels. She stuck her hand down in the cricket can and found the perfect specimen for catching a bream known as a perch by non-cajuns.

"Ewww Tristan do you have to put the hook through his little back like that?" Claire thought the little insect was too gross to touch, but she felt bad about the way he was speared on to the hook.

Tristan stood up. "Now watch me Claire, it's all in the wrist." Tristan flicked her wrist and released the line. The little orange bobber landed about fifteen feet out into the water. She handed the pole to Claire. "Watch the orange bobber. If it gets pulled under, pull back and then start reeling. Claire took the pole and kept her eyes locked on the orange float.

Tristan baited her line and cast it out as well. She glanced over at Claire who was admiring the pretty multi-colored lures in the tackle box. Her float was nowhere in sight.

"Claire? Where is your float?" Tristan asked.

Claire looked at the spot she last saw the float and it was gone. "Oh." She exclaimed. She jerked the rod back nearly knocking herself out in the process. She reeled as fast as she could until she saw the small fish breaking the waters surface.

"Okay what do I do now?" She asked Tristan excitedly.

"Keep reeling him in. When he gets close to the bank, grab the line with your hand, set the reel down and grab the fish by the bottom lip. Then you can take the hook out of his mouth." Tristan said.

Claire froze. "You want me to touch it?"

Tristan laughed. "Of course girl, they don't bite. Just be mindful of the fins."

"Tristan Delacroix! I am so NOT touching that fish!" Claire exclaimed.

Tristan grumbled "sissy" under her breath as she put her own rod down and helped Claire with her first catch. She grabbed Claire's line and guided the fish over to them. She gently put her thumb in the fish's mouth and took the hook out. She then held it up for Claire to see.

"That's close enough Tristan. Don't touch me with that thing or I will freak out on you." Claire warned as she backed up.

"Baby! You don't mind touching them when we eat them! Now be a big girl and come get your fish." Tristan said jokingly.

"Are we going to eat him? He looks like he is just a baby." Claire said with a sad expression.

Tristan decided to quit tormenting the fish and Claire and tossed it back into the water. "No my love, we will not eat him he is way too small. "Now put a cricket on your hook and catch our dinner."

Claire glanced at her empty hook and then at the cricket can, then back at Tristan. "Tris my love…" She began with a sly smile. "You look so sexy when you bait my hook. How about you bend over again and get another cricket and put it on my hook as only you can." She batted her eyes for an added bonus.

Tristan laughed at her antics." Oh Claire my love, you are dealing with the wrong sex with that tactic. I am not a man, so you can stop trying to stroke my ego."

"Fine then. I will get my own cricket." Claire marched up to the can and thrust her hand in without a moment's hesitation. As she tried to catch the next victim, another used her arm as an escape route to freedom. Claire jumped up and flailed around like she was on fire. Slinging the escapee into the grass.

Tristan didn't even try to disguise her laughter. Claire glared at her and then began to laugh at herself. Tristan baited her hook for her for the rest of the morning. Between the two of them they caught enough fish for a decent dinner. Tristan of course would be the unlucky person to clean the catch.

She pulled a small table over to the waters edge and began the messy task. Ralph stood nearby waiting patiently for the delicious morsels that he knew his pet would throw him. Claire brought her an iced tea and stood by to watch as Tristan performed the tedious task.

Bored with just standing around Claire decided to entertain herself by teasing Tristan, who could not defend herself with her hands full of fish guts. Claire nibbled her ears and neck as Tristan tried to keep her mind on her work.

They were both laughing and did not hear the approach of an uninvited visitor making her way across the lawn. "Tristan! What the hell are you doing?" Mallory Delacroix shouted as she stormed across the lawn. Tristan and Claire both looked up in surprise as the woman launched into a tirade.

"Your sick lifestyle should be kept behind closed doors, not out in the open for everyone to see. I am so ashamed of you. If your father were still alive he would disown you on the spot!"

Tristan calmly looked at Claire and said. "Claire this is my mother Mallory Delacroix.

Mother this is Claire Murray. Now that we have the introductions out of the way, let me respond to your accusations. My lifestyle is none of your business. If I chose to make love to this woman in the middle of my front yard, that too is none of your business. Most importantly, if my dad was still alive he would never disown me, because unlike you he loved me regardless of what I did."

Mallory opened her mouth to speak, but Tristan cut her off. "Not another word mother. I am very calm at the moment, but if you make the mistake of trying to push anymore of my buttons you will not like the result." She accentuated her point by stabbing the fish-cleaning knife into the table.

Mallory Delacroix stared at her daughter in disbelief before she turned and stormed off. Tristan and Claire watched her leave without saying a word. When Tristan heard her car start and leave she turned to Claire. "I knew the day you met her would not be pleasant, but I never figured it would have turned out like that."

"Tris, I hope you don't feel bad about what just happened. I think you handled yourself well. I don't know the whole story about her, but in my opinion you went very easy on her. Are you alright?"

Tristan leaned over and kissed Claire gently on the lips. "I will tell you all about her, but not today. I have to finish cleaning our dinner, and then get myself cleaned up. I want this weekend to be nothing but pleasant, so we will go on with our day as planned."

Aside from the interruption of Mallory Delacroix the weekend went as exactly as they hoped. They spent Saturday outdoors, and in the cool of the evening they fried the mornings catch out on the deck. Sunday they kept the traditional breakfast date with Cam and Lucy, after which they napped and watched movies.

Chapter 8

For several months Claire and Tristan were inseparable. Some nights they would spend at Claire's apartment. Most of the time however was spent at Tristan's house. Claire was relieved that she had not received any more of the mysterious packages. She had still not reported them to the police. She would put that off as long as she could. Since so much time had lapsed she hoped that the unknown photographer had just given up.

Claire's presence had improved the work environment at the office as well. She took special care in mending the problems that Rhonda had created. Even Cameron Hughes noticed the harmonious relationship between Travel and Crew Coordination. No one person was more affected than Tristan. Her stress level had dropped to a minimum, and the department flourished as a result.

The only fly in the ointment was Mike. He continued to flirt with Claire, and brought Tristan's blood to a boil when he sent her flowers once. Causing the first fight between them as lovers. Tristan felt his behavior was inappropriate, since Claire had already made it clear she was not interested. Claire maintained that he was her employee, and therefore her problem to deal with. They called a truce, but there was an underlying current of tension regarding the situation.

One Friday afternoon as Tristan was walking Claire out to her car she noticed a brown envelope on her windshield. Claire stopped dead in her tracks. She stared at the envelope with a look of pure dread displaying on her face.

"Claire, don't you think we should discuss this now?"

Claire looked at Tristan dumbfounded. "Yes I think we should." Her hands shook as she reached up to retrieve the package.

"Tristan, do you mind if we park my Jeep in the back and I ride home with you?"

Tristan readily agreed seeing the expression on Claire's face. "Lets go to my house tonight. I will cook you dinner, serve you wine in a hot bath and when you are relaxed we will talk about this." She pointed indicating the envelope.

The ride home was very quiet. Claire did not say a word. Tristan figured she was not up to talking so they drove in silence. She watched as Claire smoked one cigarette after another.

After dinner Tristan filled the large garden tub in the master bath with hot water. She dropped some bath salts in the water to make it even more relaxing. She lit a few candles, and dimmed the lights. She left a bottle of red wine and two glasses on the ledge of the tub and then went to find Claire.

She found her sitting on the couch still clutching the un-opened envelope. Tristan sat down next to her and pulled her close. "Claire, what inside that envelope has you so upset?" Claire stared at her absently for a moment and then handed it to Tristan.

"Lets go out into the sunroom. I think we could both use a cigarette." Tristan said as she took Claire's hand.

Claire nodded and followed Tristan to the sunroom. She sat next to Tristan on the wicker sofa. Tristan lit both cigarettes, and began to open the envelope. Claire watched as Tristan pulled two photos out of the package. There was no note this time.

Claire shuddered; she knew that the pictures would be of her and Tristan. She was afraid of how her lover would react to seeing them. Now that they were in this together. The stakes had gotten even higher.

Tristan glanced at Claire and studied the photos. Both were taken at the little Mexican restaurant they went to on their first date. The photos were taken at an odd angle as if the photographer had difficulty capturing them. Who ever took the pictures was in very close proximity to them both.

Tristan's face held an odd expression. "Who sent these?

Claire could not contain the tears that had threatened to fall. "Tristan, I have no idea. I have been getting them for a while now, even when I was living in Houston. For the life of me I cannot figure out why anyone would do this to me."

"This has been going on that long? Have you gone to the police?"

"No. Claire said dejectedly. At first I didn't want the scrutiny of my personal life. I suppose I was in denial. I hoped it would just go away."

Tristan looked around at all the windows in the sunroom and decided that it would be better if they went inside. She took Claire by the hand and led her to the bathroom. As Claire undressed she added more hot water, and after undressing climbed in herself.

Once she had Claire wrapped in her arms she broached the subject again. "Claire honey, you have no suspects at all? Maybe an ex-lover?

Claire sniffed back the tears. I confronted my most recent ex. I am certain it is not her. I have searched my mind for anyone I thought could be remotely responsible and have come up with zip."

"Did you say this started while you were in Houston?

"Yes. The envelopes started coming about six months ago. Since I have been living here I have gotten two. This person knows where I live and where I go."

Tristan poured Claire a glass of wine, and one for herself also. "Claire? Did you know Mike and Lauren before you got here?

Claire thought for a minute. "I have worked with Lauren a couple of times when she was a floater. I have worked with Mike also on a couple of accounts."

"Did either of them live in Houston at the same time you did?

"I know that Lauren lived in Beaumont for a while. Mike lived in Houston until he got the job here. I know you suspect Mike, but I can hardly believe he would be capable of such behavior."

Tristan sighed. "I don't want to accuse anyone, but they are both the most likely suspects in my mind. Especially Mike."

Claire drank half of her glass and Tristan topped it off for her. The wine was beginning to take a relaxing effect on Claire. She leaned back into Tristan feeling comforted by her closeness.

"I suppose that stands to reason, but I cannot imagine why either of those two would do something like that to me. I would hate to go to the police and have them investigated. Can you imagine the scandal that would cause? Especially, if they were proven innocent."

Tristan thought for a minute. "I understand your reservations about going to the police. Either way I will support you in your decision. However, should this person begin to threaten you we will have to involve the police."

"I just need a little time to make up my mind on that Tristan. I am so thankful I have you in my life now. It's such a comfort to have your support. Claire turned in Tristan's arms to face her. I don't know if you're ready to hear this or not. I have tried so hard to convey it to you without words, but I have to tell you that I love you very much."

With hands covered in suds Tristan caressed Claire's face, giving her a little bubble beard. "I love you too Claire. Now that I have you I wont let you go. You're stuck with me for life."

The conversation continued into the bedroom, where both women expressed their feelings for one another. Both were pleasantly exhausted and on the verge of sleep when Claire noticed something in Tristan's bedroom that she had not paid much attention too.

A picture hung on the wall. Beautifully framed and matted. Thru sleepy eyes Claire could tell it was of a towboat on the Mississippi. The boat itself just a shadow silhouetted by the setting sun. She was about to ask Tristan about it but found her sound to sleep. Claire turned off the bedside lamp and wondered why the picture made her feel so strange.

The next morning Tristan left early to finish up some reports in the office. Claire opted to stay at Tristan's to catch up on their laundry. She had argued that since she nearly lived there she should help out with the household chores.

Claire and Tristan rarely set the house alarm when they were home together. However, when Tristan left she set it, so she would feel better about leaving Claire alone. Claire was knee deep in laundry when she heard the shrill sound that the system gave right before the alarm itself went off.

Startled, Claire first figured that Tristan must have forgotten something and returned home. Before she entered the kitchen the alarm was disarmed. Relief flooded Claire. It had to be Tristan. When she rounded the corner however she was shocked to see the person standing there was not her lover.

Standing before her was Mallory Delacroix. "Where is Tristan?" She demanded

"She is out right now, and I would appreciate it, if you will tell me why you are here." Claire's tone was equally severe.

"You have no right to question me girl. I think you need to gather your things and leave right now. My daughter does not need to be spending her time with trash such as you!"

"You know nothing about me, but I know all about you Mallory. You're a sick and evil woman and you have no right to refer to Tristan as your daughter, because you never have been a mother to her." Claire shot back enraged.

To Claire's relief Tristan walked into the house.

"Hello mother. I thought that was your car I passed on the road. Is there something you wanted?" Tristan asked amicably

"Do I have to have a reason to visit my only daughter?" The woman snapped.

"You have never just dropped in to see me before, hell you have never seen the rest of my house so the question still stands. What do you want?"

"I have something to discuss with you, but I will come back later when you do not have company." She put emphasis on the word company.

"Claire will be living with me from now on, so if you have something on your mind lets discuss it now."

The older woman narrowed her eyes. "You are going to let that slut live here with you? She spat.

You hateful bitch! How dare you come into my house and try to dictate who I can have live here!" Tristan shouted. "Get out, and never come back here Mallory. You will never be welcome in my house again. All my life I have tolerated your abuse, but you will not treat her that way. Get out now before I physically throw you out!"

"I am your mother whether you like it or not and you will not lay a hand on me!" Mallory hissed, now inches from Tristan's face.

Claire gently placed her hand on Tristan's shoulder and spoke softly. "Tristan don't let her make you do something you may always feel guilty for."

Mallory was quickly coming to the realization that her grown daughter meant to do her harm. She took a step back and looked at Claire. "I blame you for her behavior. She has never treated me with such disrespect. When you're gone she will have no one to run to but me!"

Claire stepped in front of Tristan. "You are the reason for her behavior, and I will tell you something else. Long after your gone I will still be here. I suggest you leave right now, because if I whip your ass I wont regret it." Without another word Mallory Delacroix turned and walked out.

"Are you okay?" Claire asked as she wrapped her arms around Tristan's waist. "Yes I am alright, better than I have been in a very long time. Tomorrow I will arrange to have my locks changed. Then I will reset the alarm code. I meant it when I said she is not welcome back here. I have suffered enough because of her."

"Have things always been this bad with your mother?"

Tristan sighed. "My dad and I were always very close. I suppose mom felt left out. On the other hand she never made an attempt to spend time with me. I hated to be alone with her. I have always felt like she hated me. When Lucy and I talked the other day I admitted for the first time the things I had to endure living with that woman."

"Why would a mother hate her own daughter?" Claire asked saddened by the thought.

Tristan sat down at the kitchen table where Claire joined her. "My mom and dad met in college. She got pregnant soon after they started dating. They had to get married. Mom was forced to drop out of school to take care of me. My dad dropped out too, and went to diesel mechanic school. He and Cam grew up together, and Cam got him on in the Marine industry".

"My mom was always one of those who wanted to be in the upper crust of society. I kind of put a cramp in her aspirations. I was a tomboy when I was growing up. She hated the fact that I spent most of my time climbing trees and playing in the dirt. She wanted a prim and proper little lady that she could show off to her friends. In short I was just not what she wanted."

Claire's heart broke inside for Tristan. She could tell by the tone of her lovers voice and the sullen expression on her face that she bore deep emotional scars. She sat listening intently, and softly rubbed Tristan's back as she spoke.

"When my dad died I was crushed. I tried to develop a relationship with my mom, but she was as distant as ever. Somehow she found out that I was dating a woman. She confronted me and I told her the truth. We got into a terrible fight. She told me she hated me, which confirmed what I have always felt. We have barely spoken since."

Claire's eyes filled with tears. Just hearing about it broke her heart. She could only imagine the pain Tristan had endured. She wondered if the emotional wounds would ever be healed.

Tristan turned to her and smiled. "How about we get off of this somber topic and talk about something else?"

Claire wiped her face. "Um okay. What exactly did you mean when you told your mother that I would be living here from now on?"

Tristan turned toward Claire and took her hand. "Claire I would love it if you will move in with me. This is probably a little too soon for you, but I hope you will consider it. Just think you will be doubling your wardrobe". Tristan laughed nervously.

"Well I do have a lease to consider. Otherwise I would love to move in with you. How about we make the best of it. I will stay here with you and move some of my things, but I will still have my place when we need a little time apart. At least till the lease is up."

"That plan sounds perfect to me. Ralph is going to be so excited when I tell him!"

Claire gave her a funny look. "That little fuzzy bastard has eaten two of my socks, and one of my bras is unrecognizable. I don't think he will be happy at all with the new living arrangements. Tristan, I really think that cat hates me. I swear he flipped me off the other day."

Chapter 8

Tristan decided to spend the remainder of the weekend relaxing with Claire. She had put off finishing her weekly reports till Monday. She regretted that decision when her alarm went off at 0430 that morning. She looked over at Claire who was sleeping peacefully and did not have the heart to wake her up. She let her sleep in since she did not have to go in till 0800.

Claire awoke later when she heard a sound in the room. She was aware that Tristan had already left. She could sense she was not alone. She lay very still hoping against hope she was wrong. She barely opened her eyes and scanned what she could see of the room without moving. Every muscle in her body screamed in protest. She tensed when her eyes met his. Both waited for the other to make the first move. She reasoned in her head that if she sprung up first she would at least have the element of surprise on her side.

His pupils began to dilate. She knew he had the same thought. As he jumped into action she sat straight up. His tooth caught her across the bridge of the nose. Claire fell back onto the bed in pain. As she lay there with tears streaming from her eyes she saw him prance across the room. His little orange tail held high in victory. The score was cat one, Claire zero. His victory would be a hollow one, because today Claire would toss his favorite catnip toy down the garbage disposal.

Tristan noticed the small cut on the bridge of Claire's nose immediately when she arrived at work. "What happened to your nose? Are you okay?"

Claire frowned. "Ralph happened to my nose. I was lying in bed this morning and he decided to act as my alarm clock. He pounced on my face and bit my damn nose!"

Tristan tried her best not to laugh and add insult to injury. She comforted Claire as best she could under the circumstances. However, she quickly returned to her office where she could be heard laughing hysterically.

The events of the morning did distract Claire for a while, but before long her thoughts went back to Lauren and Mike. She watched them working thru the glass walls of her office. She could not fathom how either of them could be a stalker. She took into account that she didn't really didn't know much about them personally. She figured and that anyone could work next to a person for years and not really know them.

"I've been starring at them all morning too." Tristan said as she walked into the room. I was tempted to go thru their desks when I was alone in here."

"What did you hope to find?"

Tristan furrowed her brow. "I don't know really, maybe something that would solve the mystery.

Claire sighed and sat back in her chair. "I am going to drive myself insane trying to figure out who is doing this."

"Sweetie, you need a break. Why don't we go away for the weekend?" We could go to the beach in Gulf Shores. Cam has a condo there. I am sure he will let me have it for the weekend. We can just go there and relax."

Claire nearly purred. "That sounds heavenly"

"Great! Leave all the planning to me. We will discuss all of the details over lunch."

Friday could not come soon enough for the both of them. They had both taken the day off to make a long weekend. Claire put the last of their things in the car and joined Tristan on the deck. Where she was giving Lucy the new alarm code and feeding instructions for Ralph.

Lucy smiled at Claire. "Hi sweetie. Tristan tells me that Ralph has been a pill lately. I am going to leave my water gun here for you when you get back. When he gets out of line with me I pop that fuzzy ass with a blast of water and it straightens him right up."

Once they were on their way out of town Claire began to relax and enjoy the trip. She glanced over at Tristan who was the picture of relaxation. Her long hair was in a ponytail protruding from the back of a baseball cap. She had kicked off her tennis shoes and had one foot tucked underneath her thigh. She was sporting an LSU t-shirt complimented by a pair of purple gym shorts. Claire thought at that moment that she had never seen her look more lovely.

Tristan glanced from the road to Claire. "What are you thinking about?"

"I was thinking about how adorable you look." Claire said with a wink.

Tristan laughed. "I hope you weren't looking forward to dressing up for anything, because this is the dress code for the weekend. I plan for us to be bums the whole time. Our biggest decision should be what to eat and which bathing suit to wear."

"You have a deal on that. I might not want to go home after a weekend like this." Claire rubbed Tristan's neck as she spoke.

"Tris, I have been meaning to ask you about something. There is a picture of a towboat taken at sunset in your bedroom. Did you take that picture?"

Tristan looked at Claire for a moment with an odd expression on her face. Her voice took on a dream like tone when she spoke. "Actually my mother took that picture years ago. It used to hang in my dads office. My mother has become a very popular photographer in the last few years. She has done a few wildlife features in local magazines."

Claire stared at Tristan with a blank expression for a moment. Her mind was a jumble of thoughts. It took her a moment to reason things out. She quickly came to the conclusion that Tristan's mother was not a likely suspect. Although, it was a little disturbing that she was a photographer and Tristan failed to mention that fact.

Tristan was the first to speak. "You suspect my mother don't you?" There was no malice in her voice.

"Actually it did cross my mind when you said she was a photographer, but that just wouldn't make any sense. I was getting the photos in Houston before I moved here, and I have never met your mother. I hope you're not upset that it crossed my mind."

Tristan reached over and took Claire's hand. "No I am not upset with you. It crossed my mind as well. I had not even thought about it until you mentioned that picture.

They rode in silence for a while both deep in their own thoughts. Tristan fought the tears that threatened to spill from her eyes. Remorse filled her heart because she had lied to her love. In addition, the feelings she had repressed for so long wanted to rise to the surface. The memory of the day that photo was taken, being the catalyst.

Memories of that day had not been skewed with the passage of time. She could still remember running down the levee with "Uncle." The light was perfect when she snapped that picture. She took many pictures that day waiting for her father to finish his work with the boat in dry dock. It was a perfect afternoon spent with those who truly loved her.

She sat watching the sunset next to the man she would refer to as Cam later in her life. With his arm draped over her shoulders he told her of the humorous antics of his Cajun grandmother. Tristan burrowed closer to uncle Cam, he was just like her dad. He made her feel loved. Unfortunately, for the ten year old all of her happy feelings would desert her when she returned home.

Tristan chattered excitedly about her adventures with uncle, with her dad on the ride home. Her dad never seemed to tire of hearing her stories, and was content to listen as she relayed the afternoon events. "I took a bunch of pictures dad, do you think mom would develop them for me?" The child looked expectantly for an answer.

Mitchell, Tristan's father sat silent for a moment. "I am not sure sweetie, she may be busy with her work when we get home. Why don't you let me ask her about it?"

When they arrived at the modest Delacroix home, Tristan became quiet and sullen once more. Mitchell grieved for the way his wife treated their only daughter. The change in Tristan's behavior when she was around her mother had not escaped his attention. He had attempted to reason with his wife to no avail, she was a hard woman and any suggestions made to her about her child were always taken as an insult. Mitchell did what he could do to keep peace in the household, but he feared what affect it might have on his daughter later in life.

Mallory Delacroix was setting the table when they walked in. Instead of a hug and kiss for either of them, she went about her tasks and suggested they wash up for dinner. Mitchell complimented his wife on dinner as he always did, as they ate. Tristan as usual did not say a word at the table, but sat listening to the conversations between her parents.

When he had finished most of his meal Mitchell patted his wife on the hand and asked her about developing Tristan's film. "Mallory, Tristan took a lot of pictures down at the work site of the boat we put on dry dock today. I would like to see what she captured on film, would you mind developing them when you get a chance?"

Mallory looked up at her husband. "If you wanted photos of the boat why didn't you have an adult take them? I am sure that whatever Tristan took will not be suitable for what you are looking for. You will be lucky if she was able to get a shot of anything that would be useful to you."

Mitchell chose his words carefully, hoping not to spark his wife's hateful temper. "I would like to see what Tristan captured. She may have taken after you, and has an eye for photography. Who knows, your daughter may follow in your foot steps and become a photographer."

"Mallory set her fork down and pushed her plate back. She looked over at her daughter who refused to meet her eyes. "Like I said before if you were hoping to get some decent photos you should have had them taken by an adult. I see no reason to waste my time and effort on developing something taken by a child."

Tears formed in Tristan's big brown eyes, but she refused to look at her mother and give the hateful woman the satisfaction of knowing she had hurt her. When she was confident that she had her emotions under control, Tristan asked to be excused from the table. She brought her plate to the sink and went to take a shower. Only then did she allow her tears to flow freely.

Chapter 9

An agreement was made that they would not discuss the issue of the stalker while they were on their trip. Instead the conversation moved to food. By the time they exited the interstate onto the highway leading to Gulf Shores they were famished. About twenty minutes down the highway they came upon a restaurant that looked interesting to Claire.

She called Tristan's attention to a restaurant called "Lamberts" The sign boasted. "Home of the throwed roll."

"Claire I am not sure I want to eat in a place where they throw the food."

"Come on Tris, be a sport." Claire admonished.

The atmosphere of the restaurant was casual and relaxed. The cuisine was mainly southern home cooking and this appealed to both women. After they had placed their order with the waiter they sipped iced tea and ate the rolls that Claire had bravely caught until their plates arrived heaped with food. The staff walked around the dining room with hot pots of side items, and ladled huge helpings to anyone that was interested.

The food was wonderful. Claire thoroughly enjoyed it. Tristan was enjoying her meal too, until she was knocked in the head by a rouge roll. That seemed to put a damper on her dining experience.

Their next stop was the outlet mall, where Claire discovered Tristan's weakness for purses. Five purses, two ice cream cones later they were back on the road. Claire was impressed with the small town of Gulf Shores. There were plenty of tourists but not

So many that it was overwhelming.

Late that afternoon they arrived at the condo. After they unpacked they both agreed that they were still too full from their late lunch to consider dinner. Instead they opted for a sunset walk down the beach. When they came to a picnic pavilion they decided to sit and talk. Except for an occasional beach stroller they were alone.

Tristan chose one of the picnic tables in the corner of the pavilion. The large beams obscured them from sight. She began to kiss and nibble Claire's ears and neck when Claire stopped her. "Tristan! Are you nuts?" Someone is going to see us out here. Not to mention I have some nut running around snapping off pictures of me."

"You have a good point. I am sorry Claire. I wasn't thinking. Sometimes when I am around you I get a little carried away. Besides, this atmosphere is so romantic. I feel frisky." Tristan wiggled her eyebrows up and down.

Claire pulled Tristan close and nuzzled her neck. "Nothing to apologize for my love. We can continue what you started when we get back to the condo. Matter of fact we can spend the entire weekend doing that if you want to."

Tristan gave her a mischievous grin. They made their way back down the beach, walking a little faster than before. Most of the hike back was spent in the surf where they kicked water and sand all over each other. When they did eventually make it back to the condo they were both soaking wet and covered in sand.

Tristan gave Claire a very seductive look. "Why don't we conserve some water and shower together. That way we wont get sand all over the place. I assure you my intentions are entirely innocent." Tristan wiggled her eyebrows waiting for a response.

Tristan's jaw dropped when she got Claire's answer. Without saying a word she stripped off every piece of clothing and dropped it at Tristan's feet. Then she ran upstairs. Tristan listened to her laughing all the way to the bathroom.

Tristan joined Claire in the shower as she was shampooing her hair. She stood back and watched the water and suds cascade down Claire's shapely body. The beauty of her lover never ceased to amaze her. To Tristan, Claire was as pretty within as she was on the outside.

Tristan made no effort to resist the temptation of touching her lover's slick body. She soaped her hands and ran them lovingly over Claire. Watching as her body responded to her touch. Claire in turn did the same for her. Once they were free of soap and sand they continued to explore one another's bodies with their hands and mouths.

Tristan turned Claire to the wall and began to kiss her way down her spine. Claire gripped the slick wall attempting to hold her self up despite her weak knees. Tristan continued to blaze a trail of kisses down the back of each thigh and across Claire's firm buttocks until she had showered the entire back of her body with kisses and nibbles.

"Claire there is so much I want to do to you." Tristan whispered hotly in her ear as she ran her nails lightly over Claire's backside. Tristan smiled as she felt Claire's body trembling against her. "Claire tell me that I can do anything I want to you." Claire simply nodded her in agreement. Not satisfied with the answer, Tristan pushed a little further. "Tell me that I can do with your body anything I please Claire." Tristan pinched her nipples to accentuate the point.

Claire laid her head back on Tristan's shoulder as her body shuddered from her touch. "Yes the answer is yes. You can do anything you want with me Tristan. I trust you completely. Tristan turned Claire around and looked her in the eyes. "I will never make you do anything your not comfortable with my love."

Tristan kissed and nibbled her neck igniting a fire in Claire that the now cool water could not suppress. They kissed passionately as Tristan lightly ran her fingertips down Claire's body. She teased her, by barely brushing against the sensitive bundle of nerves. Claire responded by weaving her hands thru Tristan's wet hair and pulling her closer. Tristan slid two fingers into her; the strokes were fast and hard. Claire dug her nails into Tristan's back. When her legs grew weak she wrapped her arms around Tristan's neck. When she knew Claire was close Tristan stopped and pulled away.

Claire kept her arms around her, begging for her to continue. "Sweetie I am not finished with you, but I do plan to make you beg." Tristan said with a smirk.

Tristan turned the water off and stepped out of the shower. She smiled at Claire as she toweled off. Then she did the same for Claire. Tristan took her lover by the hand and led her to the bedroom. She stood behind Claire kissing her neck and fondling her breasts. Claire nearly went to her knees when Tristan pinched her nipples and whispered in her ear all the things she planned to do to her. Fortunately, the condo next to them was unoccupied, or they would have heard Tristan's name screamed repeatedly.

The following morning the lovers awoke to a very messy bedroom. The blankets were all over the floor, the clock was knocked off the bedside table, and Tristan was certain she had swallowed one of Claire's earrings.

"Oh Tristan look what you did to this room!" Claire said as she sat up.

"Its not like I was alone miss innocent. Besides you had your tongue in my…"

Tristan was interrupted when she was hit in the face with a pillow.

Tristan sighed. "I wish this place had room service. I am too lazy to go down stairs for food. We could spend the whole day in this bed and that would be fine with me. Of course we wouldn't get any sun, and we would have to explain why we don't have tans."

Claire's stomach growled at the mention of food. "Lets go grab breakfast somewhere quick and then go to the beach. Then we can explore Gulf Shores, and have lunch at one of the places on the beach."

Tristan smirked. "When you say explore I am sure you mean shopping. I bet you will drag me to everyone of those shell shops you pointed out on the way in. Claire laughed.

"You know me so well baby. Get up and get dressed. I am starving!"

Chapter 10

They decided to eat breakfast at a little place called Hazel's Nook. The little restaurant was bustling with locals and tourists. Her diet put on the back burner; Tristan loaded her plate up at the buffet. Claire opted for an omelet prepared with all of her favorites. They enjoyed their breakfast in the relaxed southern home-style atmosphere.

Afterwards Tristan took Claire on a tour of the Gulf State Park. Tristan had camped at the campground for years. They drove thru the scenic park that stretched for a few miles down the Gulf. When Claire noticed a warning sign that read. "Do not feed or molest the alligators."

"Who the hell would want to feed an alligator, much less molest one?"

Tristan laughed. " Claire don't you find them sexy? I often fantasize about taking one to dinner. Looking across the table at those big eyes, and stroking that green skin. It just makes me hot thinking about it."

Claire shook her head. "Tristan I love you very much, but honey you have one sick sense of humor. Guess that's why I love you so."

After finding a parking spot, they began the trek down one of the public piers, to the beach. They picked a spot close to the waters edge away from the rest of the sunbathers. Once they got everything set they way they wanted it, both women were sweating profusely. Tristan was the first to jump into the emerald colored water, with Claire close on her heels.

Feeling refreshed they returned to their spot on the sand and relaxed in the chairs they had brought with them. They watched as children splashed in the surf, and dug in the sand along the beach. One child in particular caught their attention. He looked to be only two or three. His little head was full of light blonde hair. He sat shirtless in a little hole he had dug with his plastic shovel.

A wave wash up on the shore and filled his spot up with water. He giggled and laughed and splashed in the water. He jumped up excitedly and proclaimed. "Mom I farted in the water hole and it made bubbles." He ran toward his embarrassed mother singing his discovery at the top of his lungs.

Claire and Tristan could not help but laugh at his antics. "Tris, have you ever thought about having kids?"

"It crosses my mind every now and then. How about you?"

Claire nodded. "I think about it all the time. Even the mundane things like cooking dinner for them or helping with homework. I think children are wonderful."

Tristan gave Claire a big grin. "If by some miracle I manage to get you pregnant I will be happy to let you do the cooking and homework. I will do the fun stuff like building tree houses and softball. Of course we will have plenty of time to do all of that stuff. We will be the richest women in the world, and be immortalized in every scientific journal on the planet."

"Who says I have to be the one to carry our children? What if I get you pregnant?" Claire said smugly.

"Okay let's get back to reality. Neither of us is able to impregnate the other. So that brings up the issue of a sperm donor. I personally think I am allergic to sperm because it makes me sick to think about it. Therefore it will have to be you Claire."

Claire laughed uncontrollably at Tristan's supposed allergy to sperm. The conversation however made Claire more excited about her life with Tristan. For the first time she had met someone that she believed she would have a future with.

Claire laid back in her chair reveling in the soft sea breeze that blew in off the water. Pondering a life with Tristan. She pictured in her mind them having and raising children together. Having a family life once again filled her with a peace she had not known for a very long time.

They basked in the sun for hours talking and planning. When they returned to Baton Rouge, Claire would move a few things into Tristan's house. They would begin to build a life with one another.

When Tristan's stomach began to growl they decided to go in search of a place to have lunch. They decided on Hooter's that had an open deck that welcomed wet bathing suits. They ate their fill of hot wings and fries as they relaxed enjoying the shade of the deck.

Claire gazed at Tristan while she sipped her tea and stared out at the coastline. In this light she looked so different than from the first day they met. Tristan looked happy, especially in this environment. Claire made a promise to herself then, that when they encountered any problems in their life together that this place would be their safe haven. They would come here to work out their difficulties.

"Claire, have you ever been snorkeling?" The question broke Claire from her ponderings. "I have always wanted to try it, but never really knew anyone that could teach me. Why? Do you know how?"

Tristan smiled. "There is a place up the road from here near Orange Beach. I have been there a few times. Not much to see underwater but it is fun to collect shells near the jetties. I have my gear in the back of the car, would you like to give it a try?"

Claire enthusiastically agreed, and they were on the road to Orange Beach in a matter of minutes. The dark tinted windows of Tristan's car shielded them from the hot sun outside. Claire looked her skin over and decided that she would need another coat of sunscreen, which would be a good job for Tris. Unlike, Tristan's tanned skin she was on the fair complexioned side, and would be red as a beet without her sunscreen.

"If you want to see where we will be snorkeling look out over the water when we go over this bridge." Tristan said as she drove. Claire looked out over the blue-green water. The entire area was alive with activity. She could see the little divers flags floating on the surface. The beach area itself was peppered with bodies basking in the sun.

Once Tristan had found a spot to park in the crowded parking lot they unloaded the gear from the back of the car. Tristan threw a netted bag over her shoulder that contained masks and snorkels. For good measure she threw a couple bottles of water inside knowing they would get thirsty quickly.

Tristan led Claire down a sandy path to the waters edge. "This is where a lot of dive companies conduct their classes. The water is so clear here. Lets go around the point to the jetties; the waves wash up shells that get caught along the rocks. That's where I find the most interesting stuff." Tristan said as she led Claire along.

When they came to the spot Tristan thought was best, she set the gear bag down and began applying the de-fogger to the masks. Once the task was completed she and Claire waded out into the water about waist deep.

"Dip down into the water and slick your hair back, that way the mask wont get hung up in your hair." Claire did as Tristan requested. When she stood Tristan helped her with the mask. She adjusted the snorkel, until it was in a comfortable position for Claire to use.

"Snorkeling is very simple. You float on the surface of the water; the air in your lungs will keep you buoyant. When you see something you want to collect you tuck your body and kick with your legs to the bottom. You can clear you snorkel by turning your head down and blowing the air out of your lungs before you break the surface. This will clear the water out of the snorkel without having to lift your face out of the water.

While you're snorkeling water will invariably find its way into your mask. To keep from pulling it on and off your face the easiest way to clear it is to press on the top of it breaking the seal a little and blowing with your nose. The pressure will force the water out of your mask."

When she finished speaking Tristan noticed the puzzled look on Claire's face. "You really expect me to remember all of that? I will be lucky if I don't get choked the first minute I put my face in the water." Claire said as she chuckled.

"Um ok, well just remember this. Don't swim took close to the jetties or the waves may push you into them, they are covered with sharp barnacles. Also, don't stick your hands in any holes in the rocks. Whatever is living in there may not take too kindly to the invasion of its home." Tristan said with a smile.

After a few tries Claire caught on quickly. She swam along side Tristan who pointed out different things as they went by. As they approached the jetties they both began to see small groups of silver colored fish. Claire marveled as they bravely swam right up to her mask, but darted away when she tried to touch them.

Tristan studied the floor of the warm Gulf for shells. She dived down and collected a few specimens, finding them broken she let them fall back to the sandy bottom. Claire watched her from the surface, still not feeling very confident with abilities. Instead she would tap Tristan on the leg and point to things she found interesting. She was especially wary of the jetties, which were a big pile of slimy rocks covered in barnacles.

After about an hour they had gathered a nice collection of shells. Tristan was careful to not take any that had a living creature inside. She and Claire were wading back to the beach when Tristan noticed that Claire's back and legs were getting a little red, not to mention the portion of Claire's bottom that her swimsuit did not cover.

"Claire I think we need to get out of the sun. Your entire back side is getting red."

They gathered their things and began the long walk around the point. Neither spoke much, being a little tired from their adventure. Tristan's long legs and stride kept a much faster pace than Claire could keep up with, so she stayed a step or two behind. She admired Tristan's backside as she walked, the two-piece swimsuit accented some of the tall brunette's attributes.

Claire mused to herself, regarding Tristan's sense of modesty. When they were not in the water or lying on the lawn chairs, Tristan kept her wrap around her waist. However, on their trek back to the car the heat was too intense to bother with the wrap.

Claire admired her lovers muscular and tanned back as she walked. Her eyes trailed down to Tristan's rear end, and settled there for most of the walk. The sight was having an affect on Claire that could not be blamed on the hot weather. Her desire was kindled further by the memory of the former night, when she had dug her nails into those firm cheeks.

When they finally made it to the vehicle both drank an entire bottle of water each. Tristan took another couple of bottles out and they both took an impromptu bath to wash the salt water from their skin. After they had dried themselves sufficiently they climbed into the car that Tristan had wisely started to cool when they had first arrived.

Claire put her hand on Tristan's when she reached for the gearshift. "Tris don't pull out yet, let's just sit here for a few minutes." Tristan glanced at Claire.

"What's on your mind? Is there something else you want to do? You know, you really can't go back out into the sun today, you're a lot redder than you realize."

"That's not exactly what I had on my mind Tris." Claire said with a grin as she reached over and ran her fingertips up Tristan's thigh.

Tristan's eyebrow arched in surprise. "Weren't you the one who fussed at me last night about public displays of affection?"

"Yes, but we were outside in the open, now we are in a vehicle with tinted windows." Claire continued to run her fingers up Tristan's thigh, locking her eyes with her as she did. Grinning as she felt her lovers body reacting to her touch.

"Tris recline that seat, close your eyes and forget that anyone else is out here but us." Claire purred as she ran her fingertips under the thin material separating her from her goal.

"This parking lot is full of people, what if we get caught?" Tristan said nervously as she looked around.

"That's part of the thrill." Claire said in a seductive tone.

It only took Claire a second to realize that Tristan's body was not opposed the idea. "Tris, your body is betraying your sensibilities. Relax and let me do what I will. I promise you will not be disappointed."

Tristan did as she was asked, and reclined her seat. She spread her legs a little wider giving Claire the room to move the way she needed to. Tristan looked around for anyone that might be coming near the car.

"Close your eyes and relax. If I see anyone coming near I will let you know. The only thing I want you to concentrate on is what you feel." Claire said as she slid two fingers on each side of the little of bundle of nerves. She massaged gently and slowly avoiding direct pressure to the sensitive spot.

"Claire this may take a while, I can't help but be a little nervous."

"I am in no hurry, the longer the better." Claire said as she continued to massage the tender area. She watched as the muscles began to tense in Tristan's legs and stomach. Magnificent. Claire thought to herself, as her lover's body became taunt as a bowstring, displaying her muscle tone.

Tristan's breathing became erratic, as she gripped the sides of her seat. Claire had completely forsaken her duty as look out. She could not keep her eyes off of Tristan, as she brought her closer to ecstasy. Moment's later Tristan's breath caught in her throat, Claire watched as her body stilled a minute before she cried out her name.

"You are beautiful baby. I love you so much." Claire whispered as she watched Tristan struggle to get her breathing back under control.

As a double bonus for Claire's afternoon, she was allowed to drive Tristan's car back to the condo. The activities of the day had proved to be a little too strenuous on Tristan's legs, and she was not quite up to working the clutch. Claire wore a proud smile as she drove her exhausted lover in her sports car down the strip.

Chapter 11

After a nap and just as Tristan had guessed they spent the remainder of the afternoon, going from one shell shop to the other. At one in particular they found beautiful replica of a lighthouse, and decided it would look perfect on the fireplace mantle of the home they would share together. The two of them made their way back to the condo, where they would spend the last night of a perfect weekend together.

Tristan noticed that Claire kept wincing and pulling at her shirt collar. She also turned the air conditioner down a notch in the car. "Claire, how about we just pick up something and bring it back to the condo. I don't know if I am up to going anywhere else tonight." Claire readily agreed, confirming Tristan's suspicions.

Tristan pulled into a convenience store. "I am going to get something to drink and something for that sunburn of yours." She closed the car door before Claire could utter a word. When she got back in she was laughing.

Claire tugged at her collar again. "How did you know I was burned?

Tristan giggled. "Because you have spent the evening looking like you were at war with your clothes. I suspect you have a little fever too, which of course accompanies good sunburn. I spend a lot of time in the yard, so my skin gets a gradual tan, however the part of my ass that was peeking out of my swimsuit today is now on fire."

Claire sighed. "I wanted a replay of last night, but my skin will not allow such tonight. I wasn't even going to tell you about it, hoping to tough it out."

As they passed through the door of the condo Claire began to shed her clothes. Tristan went to the kitchen and placed the cheeseburgers and fries they had picked up on the way, onto plates. She had all of the food and drinks on the coffee table in front of the television when Claire joined her. Tristan was pleasantly surprised that Claire had decided to dress in her birthday suit for dinner.

"Where are your clothes?" Tristan asked.

Claire grimaced. "I tried to put on something that wouldn't rub my skin but I didn't have any luck. Everything rubs my skin even your robe, I tried it too."

Tristan giggled. "After we eat you will take something for the fever, then I will rub you down with aloe gel. If you're a really good girl, then I will let you rub my sunburned buns.

After dinner Tristan cleaned and put away the dishes. Upon returning to the living room she found Claire holding a blanket against the parts of her body that were only mildly sunburned. "I know I rubbed you down with sunscreen twice, how did this happen?" Tristan asked as she took the blanket from Claire and spread it out on the floor.

"Tris look at me. My skin is so fair I am nearly pink."

Claire laid down her stomach on the blanket Tristan had spread out for her as she was directed. Tristan sat on her knees next to her, afraid to straddle her because of all the red skin. She poured the gel into her hands and gently spread it across Claire's hot skin.

"Aw look at you. You look like a little lobster." Tristan chided. "Now you will always be my little lobster."

Claire rose up on her elbows and turned to look at Tristan. "How would you like to be on the business end of a lobster claw missy?"

They spent their last night in Gulf Shores sitting together wrapped in a blanket on the balcony of the condo watching the moonlight flicker off the water. Tristan made sure that Claire had plenty of wine to help her relax and hopefully sleep.

The next day around noon they had finished loading the car and started for home. Claire felt a little melancholy about leaving a place that she found such solace. She comforted herself knowing she would return one day with Tristan by her side.

Four hours later they breathed a sigh of relief when they pulled into the driveway of what would be their home together. They were met at the door by a very excited orange tabby cat. Lying on the counter was a water gun; next to it was Lucy's note that everything went fine while they were gone. When Tristan picked the gun up to look at it, the orange ball of fur shot off like a lightening bold. Obviously, Lucy had been keeping Ralph in line.

Later on when Tristan was cooking dinner, Claire did the laundry. She liked the fact that they compromised on the household chores. She was really beginning to feel at home there. Once she had more of her stuff there then she would really feel more like it was her place as well as Tristan's.

Chapter 12

Monday came all too soon for the both of them. Neither was looking forward to going back to work. They would begin crew change on the boats this week, and that meant they would be busy making travel arrangements for all the boats in the fleet. Tristan went in a little earlier than Claire so that she could meet with the crew coordinators.

Claire arrived an hour behind her and stopped in the galley for coffee before going up to the third floor. Linda who worked in accounting greeted her. For some reason Claire felt uncomfortable around the woman, but couldn't quiet put her finger on why.

Linda spoke first. "How was your weekend Claire?

"It was wonderful. Tristan and I went to Gulf Shores. We had such a great time I didn't want to come back."

Linda moved a little closer to Claire and lowered her voice. "I would watch her if I were you Claire. You do know that she is a lesbian don't you?"

Claire felt her hackles rise. "What does that have to do with anything Linda?"

"Look don't get angry with me. I'm just trying to help you. If you keep hanging around with her people will start to talk, and you will have the same sick reputation as she does."

"Sick?" You think someone is sick because they don't have the same sexual orientation as you?" Claire was becoming angrier by the second and she refused to keep her voice down.

"It's a perversion Claire. God hates homosexuals, and if you spend time around them you might just end up suffering his wrath with them."

"Are you threatening me Linda?"

Before Linda could respond their conversation was interrupted. A silver headed woman had been sitting in the corner of the kitchen eating her breakfast un-noticed. Her soft features were full of warmth, but when she spoke her eyes bore holes into Linda.

"Excuse me Linda, but I am very familiar with the Bible and I m curious to know where it says that God hates homosexuals?"

"Linda thought for a moment before she answered. It says it in the story about Sodom and Gomorrah."

"I am familiar with Sodom and Gomorrah, but I have not found anything that said God hates people. It does say that he hates sin, and the people in those cities were committing all sorts of sins. However, I am still curious as to where you have found it to say that Gods hates homosexuals?"

The older woman continued. "Since you are quoting what you say is the Bible, can you tell me what Christ himself said about sin?

When Linda failed to answer the woman began again. "The Bible says all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Translated it means we have all goofed up. Not one of us is without blemish, including you Linda. I would suggest you study the Bible a little more intently before you preach any more sermons. If you continue to twist His words to suit your liking you may find yourself suffering His wrath."

Linda's face had already turned beat red; she turned and stamped out of the galley. The older woman smiled at Claire. Claire could see warmth and compassion ran deep in this woman because it displayed on her face as she spoke to her.

"Claire God does not hate anyone. Don't ever let anyone make you believe that. He loves each one of us, and we all have a purpose for being here. Give Him a chance and He will show you what yours is. Sometimes He puts you in the path of just one person and you and that person are changed forever."

"I was changed forever when my nephew committed suicide. He was gay. According to the note he left, he had struggled with it for years. When he finally decided to confide in his brother the secret spread through the family like wildfire. My sister became enraged."

The older woman paused for a moment gathering her emotions. "I was never really sure why my sister reacted they way she did. If she were worried about his eternal soul, I would have thought she would have handled things differently. Deep down inside I admitted to my self that she was simply embarrassed."

The woman sighed. "Bless his poor heart. His last words were scribbled on a piece of paper. He said that if God hated him, what hope did he have. He blew his brains out, and put an end to his twenty-three year life. Had someone stepped in and told him the truth he might still have been with us today."

Claire was at a loss for words, as tears glistened in her eyes. "Thank you for sharing that with me. I will never forget it."

The older woman patted Claire on the shoulder and left the room. Claire was so intent in listening to what she had to say that she neglected to get her name. She was glad the woman spoke up when she did or Linda may have found herself suffering Claire's wrath.

When Claire made it up to the third floor office the phones were ringing off the hook. The crew coordinators were answering calls and sending their particular requests for travel arrangements via email to Claire's department. Her meeting in the galley had caused her to run a little late. She went into her office and quickly got set up to help her agents.

Claire glanced into Tristan's office thru the glass wall that separated them. She was busy on the phone and was typing on her computer. As she waited for her own computer to boot up she continued to watch Tristan answer one phone line after the other. She was catching the over flow from the crew coordinators. Claire appreciated that Tristan worked with her people, and shared their load when they were busy. Ellen was right when she said Tristan was an excellent boss.

Since it was so busy the days passed quickly for Claire that week. By Friday she and Tristan both were looking forward to a quiet weekend at home. Tristan escorted Claire out to her Jeep, just in case there were any unexpected surprises. To Claire's relief there was no ominous envelope waiting on her. Tristan theorized that if it was Mike or Lauren they had been too busy this week to do anything but work. Claire listened to her reasoning and her suspicion of her co-workers deepened.

Chapter 13

The following months yielded no envelopes for Claire. She and Tristan both breathed a sigh of relief. For the most part they believed that whomever had been tormenting Claire had simply moved on. Life for both was peaceful. Until the night Mike confronted Claire in the parking lot after work.

Tristan had been sent to one of the boats and would not be returning until later that night. Claire walked out into the deserted parking lot, after leaving work a little later than she had planned. When she arrived at her Jeep she found Mike leaning up against the drivers side door preventing her from getting in to her vehicle. Claire felt her chest tighten upon finding him there and glanced around hoping to see if anyone else was nearby.

Claire cleared her throat and tried to sound casual as she spoke. "Mike what are you still doing here?"

He glared at her for a moment before answering. "Is it true Claire?"

"Is what true? What are you talking about?"

"Is it true that you are the new conquest of the bitch we work for?" Mike spat.

"Frankly, it is none of your business who I see and I will thank you not to refer to her in that manner Mike." Claire said as she shakily stood her ground.

"Claire you could do so much better than that. She has a reputation for screwing anything that will move. I cannot believe you would lower yourself to by having anything to do with her."

"I am not going to stand here and justify anything for you Mike. My private life does not concern you in the least. You need to keep your nose out of the rumor mill and more on your job. Now if you don't mind I would like to go home now." Claire said in hopes that he would step aside.

Mike's feet were firmly rooted in the spot where he stood. He stared at Claire with an amused expression on his face. "So she is the someone you have been involved with." He said in an accusing tone. "You let me send you flowers and spend countless hours fawning over you and you give it up to that sorry ass bitch."

Claire was acutely aware that the situation was spiraling out of control. She looked around again to see if anyone was nearby before she spoke. "Mike I was honest with you when you asked me out and I told you I was involved with someone. You chose to pursue me after that, despite what you may think I did not lead you on. Now please step away from my car."

"Fine Claire!" Mike hissed through clenched teeth. "You're a lot smarter than I gave you credit for. Screwing the boss is a good way to secure your position with the company." He stepped away from her door and watched Claire fumble nervously with her keys. Once inside she locked the doors and looked back at Mike who still stood next to her Jeep staring daggers at her.

Claire sped out of the parking lot with Mike looking on after her. Her hands were shaking so much she could barely hold the steering wheel. She drove toward Tristan's house in a state of confusion. The thought occurred to her that Mike might be following her so she chose another route to give her time to decide what to do. Going home alone was certainly not an option.

She picked up her cell phone and called Tristan. She took a deep breath as Tristan answered to calm herself. "Hey Tris do you know what time you will be home? "

"I am almost there, is something wrong? You sound upset.

"Tris, I don't know what to do." Claire said as she started to cry. Mike was waiting for me when I got to my car this afternoon. He said some things that were really upsetting.

I think he's the one that has been sending the pictures."

"Okay just calm down. Tristan said trying to remain calm. "Where are you?"

"I am on the interstate not far from the turn off to your house. Oh Tris, what if he is following me?"

"Listen to me Claire. Don't divert, come straight to me I will stay on the phone with you till you get here. I'm pulling into the driveway now."

"Tris I am so scared. He was so angry with me. Apparently, he knows now that I am seeing you and he was pissed. He thinks I lead him on." Claire cried into the phone.

"Baby did he threaten you? Tristan asked trying to keep her anger from her voice.

"No he was angry that I was seeing you, and accused me of securing my position with Valor by sleeping with my boss."

"Just come home to me Claire. We will call the police and tonight we are calling someone at Suarez I want someone in our office Monday. He will no longer be on our account and if I have my way, he will be in the un-employment line."

While Tristan was speaking she could see the headlights of Claire's Jeep coming up her driveway. She met Claire at the door and took her into her arms. She rubbed Claire's back in an attempt to comfort the crying woman in her arms.

"Come with me Claire we are going inside. She gently took Claire's hand and led her to the house. Once inside she had Claire sit down at the kitchen table while she poured her a glass of wine. Normally, Tristan did not smoke anywhere in her house but the sunroom. Tonight however, she brought an ashtray to the kitchen table and asked Claire to recount what happened with Mike.

Claire was hesitant to repeat what Mike had said about Tristan, but she knew she could not leave out any details. Remembering the conversation nearly word for word she told Tristan everything that was said. She watched nervously as Tristan's neck and face flushed with anger.

"Tristan I don't want to upset you further, but I don't think we have anything to take to the police. He didn't threaten me. He simply confronted me about my relationship with you. We have no proof it is him sending me those pictures other than his behavior."

Claire could not help but be a little surprised when Tristan agreed that it was probably still too early to involve the police. She fully expected Tristan to explode and demand to call them right then. Tristan would not relent about calling Suarez though. Claire sat next to her nervously listening to the conversation that Tristan had with her superiors. They quickly agreed to send the manager of the division, assuring Tristan that he would be there first thing Monday morning.

After hanging up the phone Tristan gently cradled Claire's tear stained face in her hands. "Claire I need to call Cam, he needs to know about this." Claire's eyes grew wide.

"How much are you going to tell him? I don't want him or Lucy to know anything about the photos Tristan. This whole thing is way too humiliating. What if word of this gets out to the rest of the company?"

"If you don't want me to say anything about the pictures I won't, but I do have an obligation to tell Cam about the incident that took place today. He needs to be in on the meeting with Suarez on Monday." Tristan said trying to be reassuring.

"I agree he needs to be involved, but I am not ready to tell them anything about our suspicions regarding Mike."

Tristan sighed. "Fine, we will only tell him about what happened tonight. Should you receive any more little packages we will have to seriously reconsider. I'm sure he is going to be very angry with us after Monday and I don't want any repercussions as a result."

Claire listened again as Tristan spoke with Cam. She had to remind him repeatedly that Claire was indeed all right, and that Mike never laid a hand on or threatened her. After Tristan finished speaking with Cam she encouraged Claire to try and eat. It was a few hours later before she could get her to relax and nibble a sandwich.

That night as Tristan slept, Claire curled up close to her. Feeling her warmth and closeness made her feel secure. Even with Tristan near, the house alarm set, and the patrol cat lying at their feet. Claire stared into the darkness for hours before sleep claimed her.

When Tristan awoke the following morning she laid next to Claire looking at the tense lines across her face. She knew that Claire had not slept much. She was keenly aware that Claire had been restless for most of the night. She slipped out of the bed leaving Claire to sleep as long as she could.

Tristan padded sleepily into the kitchen followed by a very hungry orange feline. After she got the coffee going she filled Ralph's bowl and watched as he ate. When the coffee had brewed she poured herself a cup and went into the sunroom with Ralph close on her heels.

She sat quietly on one of the wicker chairs and sipped her coffee while smoking a cigarette. She watched as the smoke rose and thought that when things calmed down she and Claire would really have to consider giving up the habit. Right now was not the time though. It calmed her nerves as she stared out of the windows surrounding the room. She wondered how much more could the love of her life take before she simply cracked from the pressure of it all.

Ralph stirred and let out a soft meow, when Claire walked into the room clutching her own cup of coffee. She sat in the chair opposite of Tristan and smiled weakly as she lit her own cigarette. Tristan could not help but notice the dark circles beneath her lovers eyes.

"Baby, why are you up so early? I know you barely slept last night." Tristan asked gently.

"I don't know really. I just couldn't sleep after you got up. Besides, I didn't want to sleep the whole day away. My alone time with you is pretty limited and I want to take advantage of it when I can." Claire said as she smiled at Tristan.

"I have been sitting here thinking about what we could do today." Tristan said before taking a sip of her coffee. "I think I have come up with the perfect idea. We will shower and dress then go out for breakfast. After which, we will indulge in your favorite hobby."

Claire smirked. "What exactly are you thinking is my favorite hobby?

"Shopping." Tristan replied and Claire laughed. "We can go out to the outlet mall and see if there is anything there you cant live without. Then I thought we could go to the mall and maybe pick out a new comforter for our bed. You know, something that represents both of our tastes. I'm thinking that might make you feel a little more at home here."

Claire reached over and placed her hand on top of Tristan's. "My love you couldn't make me anymore home here, than you already have. Its your presence that makes this place feel like my home."

Ralph decided to include himself in the conversation, by coughing up a hairball next to Claire's feet. Claire swore he did it because their sweet conversation sickened him. He watched as his pet cleaned up the mess, and listened to her grumbling.

After they successfully drained the coffee pot, and had shared a shower that left them both content and happy. They set out for the outlet mall. Claire decided she felt like doing the driving so they took her Jeep. She watched Tristan out of the corner of her eye as Tristan squirmed to get comfortable in the passengers seat.

"You don't like being chaffered do you dear?" Claire grinned. Tristan glanced over at her and smirked. "I suppose it's a control issue. I like to be the one in the drivers seat, but don't worry about me over here." She squirmed a little more as she slid the seat back making more room for her long legs.

Claire merged onto the interstate and shot off like a rocket. She drove like she was in the Indy 500. When she came up behind a slower car in the left lane she began to grumble. "It's the long slender peddle to the right, step on it chuckle head!" When the car did finally move over into the left lane Claire pulled along side of them man and glared at him. "I just wanted to catch a glimpse of a total moron." She growled.

Claire honey? You doing all right all right over there? You seem a little tense today? Tristan said as she hung on for dear life.

"Nope I'm fine. I always drive like this. When you drive in Houston traffic it tends to make you a little aggressive." Claire said keeping her eyes glued to the road.

Tristan reached over and took Claire's hand into her own. "What is going on in that beautiful head of yours? You know you can tell me anything." Claire glanced over at her and said. "Its nothing love I am okay really."

Tristan continued to study her profile in silence. Claire glanced back over and sighed. "I am just doubting my decision to not involve the police with the pictures. What if they were able to lift a print or something? Then I would know it was Mike for sure and all of this would be over."

Claire honey, if Mike has half a brain he probably used gloves when he handled those prints. I think you made the right decision. Even though he is a complete asshole, he may not be the one harassing you. I think if it is him, you will probably get more pictures after we meet Monday."

Claire sighed again. "I am just so tired of living like this. Until last night, I thought this was all over, but now I feel like it is all hanging over my head again. I dread having to face him Monday morning."

Tristan lifted Claire's hand to her mouth and kissed it gently. "You will only have to face him Monday. He will not be coming back to work at Valor. After our meeting he will be escorted off the premises and will not be welcome back."

Claire's tension seemed to ease as the day went on. She was especially excited about the new comforter they had bought for their bed. Of course, the change called for new drapes and a few other items to coordinate the new look. She was glad that they brought her Jeep, because it was stuffed full from their shopping adventure.

She laughed to herself remembering Tristan's excitement when they left the outlet mall for the regular mall. Tristan made a beeline for the small pretzel stand near the food court. Claire watched in amusement as Tristan nearly inhaled one of the soft pretzels. Her eyes fluttered shut as she took the last bite. Claire thought Tristan would need a cigarette and a nap after the way she enjoyed the snack.

They decided to have dinner at one of the many seafood restaurants that peppered Louisiana. Claire marveled at Tristan's appetite, as she consumed nearly an entire seafood platter by herself. Claire thoroughly enjoyed her platter of fried catfish and fries, as well as the hushpuppies that were continually brought to the table. For desert they dined on cheesecake and coffee till they both felt they would explode.

After arriving home they were too miserable to simply sit in front of the TV, so they began to launder the new linens, and decorate the bedroom with their purchases. Tristan presented Ralph with a new cat bed in hopes he would take to sleeping in it instead of hogging their bed.

He circled giving it a few sniffs. Claire noticed that he looked like he was scowling. In fact he was. If his pet thought for one minute he would sleep in that monstrosity instead of her bed she was dead wrong. Though it might prove useful for storing his belongings. He still mourned the loss of his beloved catnip toy that had mysteriously disappeared one day.

"Tristan why did you buy him that? He doesn't look too pleased with it." Claire said with a laugh.

"I was hoping he would sleep in it instead of on the new comforter. He nearly ruined my last one making his biscuits."

"Claire looked at Tristan with a quizzical expression. "Making biscuits?"

"Yeah you know when he flexes his claws back and forth. It looks like he is kneading dough, so I call it making biscuits."

Claire laughed and kissed Tristan as she went to get the new linens from the dryer. Tristan looked down at Ralph who was staring back up at her with an indignant expression on his little orange face. "Come on try it at least once you little fuzzy bastard" Tristan said as she tried to stuff him into the bed. Ralph squirmed from her grasp and went off to contemplate his revenge.

Claire and Tristan made the bed together and stood back to admire how it changed the appearance of the entire room. "I think we should christen the new sheets." Claire said with a wink. "I feel the need to mark my new territory."

Tristan cast her a sideways glance. "Mark your territory huh. If you plan on peeing a circle around this bed Claire Murray I will beat you in your ass."

Tristan chased her into the bathroom, where they decided to share another shower. Just as Claire had desired they christened the new sheets by making love till the early hours of the morning. Claire lay with her head on Tristan's shoulder after they were both completely sated.

Contented Tristan sighed. "Claire you know we are going to have to do something's differently from now on." Claire rose up on one elbow and looked at her lover questioningly. "I mean we both ate a ton of fried food tonight, which is not healthy at all. Plus we both smoke. We are going to have to start taking better care of ourselves, especially if we are going to bring children into this world."

Claire stared at Tristan completely surprised. Tristan was totally unaware of the fact that what she had just uttered touched Claire to her very core. Claire stared at her a moment and said "I love you Tristan with all my heart." She laid her head back down onto Tristan's shoulder as she heard her words echoed back, and then drifted off into a peaceful sleep.

Sunday morning bright and early Cam and Lucy arrived for their long-standing breakfast date. They were pleasantly surprised to see that they would be eating in that rainy morning. Both Claire and Tristan had risen early, and due to the weather decided to cook breakfast instead of going out.

Cam hated to bring up the issue with Mike during their time together, but he felt it necessary to get the unpleasant things out of the way first. "Claire I have been thinking a lot about this thing with Mike. I agree totally with Tristan, because of his conduct and his unwillingness to accept the fact that you are not interested in doing anything with him outside of work it would be best if he moved along. Tomorrow morning I want both you and Tristan to come to my office first before going up stairs. I think it is best we meet with the with the Suarez division manager in my office first."

With this agreed upon they spent the rest of the morning enjoying each other's company. Claire had been completely accepted into their little inner circle, and she felt as though she was part of a family again. She watched the love of her life intently as she spoke with Cam and Lucy. Claire was amazed at all the wonderful things this woman had brought into her life.

Chapter 14

Monday morning came much sooner than Claire had desired. She held Tristan's hand and fidgeted nervously as they rode to work together. She never had like being the center of controversy and she felt like her presence alone had caused all of the problems they were now facing. Tristan seemed to sense what Claire was thinking and re-assured her that Mike had brought this on himself. It was simply not her fault.

Upon entering Cam's office they were greeted by Eugene Thompson. Claire had only met him once before. After all of the greetings and coffee cups were filled they sat down to discuss the situation at hand. Eugene asked Claire to recount the events of Friday night and also the occurrences leading up to that night.

After Claire had explained everything in detail she sat quietly as Eugene made notes. After a few more minutes of silence, which seemed like an eternity to Claire and Tristan the manager began to speak. "I agree his behavior was totally inappropriate, but I think with a transfer and a letter of reprimand he will understand the seriousness of his actions."

Tristan could not hide her anger. "So what you are saying is, you plan to slap him on the hand and make him someone else's problem?"

"Miss Delacroix with all due respect I don't believe we should end this mans career for his lack of judgment on this matter."

Tristan was about to retort when she was interrupted by Cam. Mr. Thompson from what I have heard here today I believe Mike has some problems. I cannot force you to fire him, but I do not expect to ever see him anywhere near here after today. Furthermore, he is not to have any contact with Miss Murray at all. No emails, phone calls or any sort of correspondence whatsoever."

Eugene was about to say something when Cam cut him off. "Claire has become a very respected member of our team. If you cannot protect her from people like Mike we will. Let me make it plain and simple. I will not do business with Suarez and I will keep one of your best employees and make her a member of my staff. Do I make myself clear?

Eugene paled at the thought of losing such a lucrative contract. "I assure you Mr. Hughes we will make sure that Mike has not contact with Claire or anyone associated with Valor. We appreciate your business and we will do whatever we can within reason to make sure you are satisfied…"

It was Tristan who interrupted then. "If you are finished with the ass kissing, I would like that piece of crap taking up my office space removed now."

Ever the professional Cam shot Tristan a look. Then tried very hard not to burst out laughing at the incredulous look Eugene was giving Tristan. She stared back directly into his eyes till he had to look away.

"If everyone is ready I think we need to bring Mike in here and have a chat with him." Cam said as he lifted the phone to call Mike himself. Everyone nodded in agreement as Claire felt her stomach twist into tighter knots.

"Mike walked into the office as though he was fully expecting to be called in. Tristan felt her hackles rise as she wondered if Eugene had prepared Mike for their meeting. Mike took a seat next to Eugene and glared at Claire.

When it looked as though Eugene was floundering for words, Mike decided to speak up. "So have y'all decided my fate yet?" He said with a sneer. "If you're expecting an apology from me you're not going to get it. I'm sure the game playing little bitch over there has convinced you all that I am a monster, so lets get on with this bullshit meeting."

Tristan lurched forward but Claire grabbed her arm and pulled her back down into the chair. "You watch your mouth little man or you may just find my fist in it you piece of shit." Tristan hissed through clenched teeth."

Cam rose from his position behind his desk and stood directly between Tristan and Mike.

"Mr. Thompson I think it is quite obvious the caliber of person you have here. Unless you can convince me this minute that he will be severely dealt with. I will reconsider my contract with your company. Also, I would like the name of your superior before you leave this office."

Eugene Thompson glanced at Mike and then looked away quickly before speaking. "Mike your fired." His statement lacked conviction, and he stared down at his notebook obviously in fear.

Cam opened his door and allowed two security men to enter his office. "These gentlemen will escort you upstairs for your belongings and then to your car. Should you decided to act like a bigger fool than you already have, then I will call the police and have you arrested."

Mike stood up and walked toward the door. He looked down at Tristan and Claire who were still seated. "Looks like you have won this round you little dyke, but you know the saying every dog has his day."

Cam placed his hands on Tristan's shoulders and guided her back down into her chair. Cam looked back over at the security guards. "Get the dog out of here before he gets hurt!" He then turned to Eugene who was still seated jotting on his notepad. "Mr. Thompson get your things and get out of here. You make me sick to look at you." Eugene quickly gathered his things and left.

Cam knelt down in front of Claire and Tristan. "I want you both to stay in here for a little while until he leaves. Tristan, you need to calm down before you do something you will regret. He is a piece of shit he has more than proven that. He is not worth you doing anything that will get you into trouble."

He glanced over at Claire who sat quietly looking somewhat in shock. He looked back at Tristan and patted her shoulders. "Tris you need to focus on Claire. She looks like she needs you right now. I will leave you both alone now, and make sure we don't have anymore problems." He walked out closing the door behind him.

Tristan reached over and took Claire's hand into hers. "Are you okay Claire?"

Claire sat silent for a moment before looking over at Tristan. "I thought you were going to jump up and whip his ass." Claire said with a giggle.

Tristan couldn't help but chuckle. "I thought I was too. I didn't know who to hit first, Mike or his spineless boss. All in all I think it went as well as could be expected."

Neither could help laughing. Both were relieved that Mike would be out of their day-to-day life. Both were a little unnerved by what repercussions this might cause. Tristan would make it a point to make sure that Claire would not leave the building without an escort when Tristan couldn't do it herself.

Cam had made a few phone calls to Suarez who quickly agreed to send a replacement for Mike and also assured him that Eugene Thompson would be reassigned as well. Tristan was pleased to find a portly woman in her mid fifties sitting in Mike's old desk the following day. In the coming months life went back to normal. Claire was convinced that Mike had come to his senses and decided to let things drop. She never heard from him again, nor did she receive any more photos. She was happy that she could go one living life as normal, and she would no longer have to live her life in fear.

Claire had moved most of her belongings into Tristan's house. Very little of her furniture remained in her apartment. Their house began to feel like a home for both of them. Even though they shared the master bedroom, Tristan had set aside one room just for Claire to do with what she wanted.

One Saturday afternoon Tristan went out into the yard to clean the flowerbeds of the plants that had died due to an early October frost. Claire spent time in her room setting up her home computer and sorting out her belongings. She came across the box that contained all of the pictures given to her by the stalker. She debated throwing them away but thought better of it. Should she have any more problems she would need them to take to the police.

She wanted to store them in a safe place, and remembered how Tristan had kept her storage room under lock and key. She reasoned that the locked room would be the perfect place to store such. She walked into the kitchen and got Tristan's key ring off the hook where she always kept it.

Walking back through the house she caught a glimpse of her lover working in the yard. Tristan was absorbed in her work, down on her hands and knees. She pruned shrubs and pulled the dead plants out of the beds. After which she applied a new layer of mulch.

Claire smiled as she watched Tristan doing one of the things she truly loved. Ralph ran around the yard around her pouncing on insects dislodged from their homes as Tristan worked. Claire felt so happy and peaceful in her surroundings.

With her box at her feet Claire fumbled with the keys until she found the right one. When she stepped into the room the mustiness of it assaulted her sinuses. She made a mental note to air it out. Along the far wall were plastic storage bins full of all sorts of equipment she recognized from her tour of one the towboats. She figured they were the belongings of Tristan's dad.

Claire noticed something out of place in the dusty room. In the corner sat a workstation, complete with a computer, printer and scanner. Claire brought her box over to the desk and sat down. She felt a strange foreboding as she stared at the equipment. Slowly she opened one of the hutch doors. Her eyes widened as she looked at the contents inside.

She picked up a camera no larger than an ink pin and studied it. Dumbstruck by all of the digital camera equipment she pulled out each piece. Tristan had never mentioned being a photographer as well. Claire wondered if perhaps she had been storing the equipment for her mother. She remembered Tristan saying when they were at the Myrtles that she didn't even own a camera. Why would she lie? Claire wondered.

Sitting on the corner of the table was one of Tristan's purses. It struck her as odd that Tristan would leave a purse in this room. She picked up the purse and noticed something strange on the strap. Close inspection reveled something that nearly made Claire's heart stop. A small digital camera no bigger than a pager was clipped to the strap.

Claire's heart began to pound when she remembered that the purse she held in her hands was the one Tristan carried on their first date to the Mexican restaurant. She began to dig frantically through the contents on the table. Her hands shook when she found a clear plastic storage box. When she opened the lid tears of anguish slipped down her cheeks. There inside were the same exact pictures she had been receiving over the past few months. Now she knew for sure why Tristan kept this room under lock and key. She walked on trembling legs from the room. She had to get out of the house.

She nearly fainted when she rounded the corner and came face to face with Tristan. The look on Tristan's face confirmed her worst fears. Claire backed up a step from her stalker.

"Claire? What were you doing in that room? Claire flinched when she noticed that Tristan still carried the pruning shears that she had been working with.

"All this time I have been living a nightmare and it was you. Claire's voice was barely a whisper. Her eyes were glued to the shears in Tristan's hand.

Tristan noticed her gaze and dropped them on the floor. She approached Claire slowly as though she were a wild animal let loose from a cage. "Claire let me explain."

Fear turned to anger for Claire. She lunged at Tristan beating her in the chest, sending her backwards down the hallway and into the living room. Claire was hysterical screaming as she backed Tristan nearly into the sunroom.

"Make me understand Tristan! Make me understand how you could do something like this to someone you profess to love! How the hell could you do this to me?"

Tristan's voice was low and calm. "Claire calm down and just hear me out."

Anger surged through Claire's veins and she shoved Tristan hard into the door facing off the sunroom. Tristan reacted out of shock and pain. She slapped Claire hard enough across the face the impact of the hit slung Claire's face to the side. When Claire faced her again, Tristan could see a thin trickle of blood coming from her lip.

Tristan brought shaking hands to her face. "Oh my God Claire! I am so sorry." Tristan took a step back in horror. She sat down on one of the wicker chairs in the sunroom and buried her face in her hands.

Claire stood in the doorway. Her facial features obscured by her hair, clinging to the blood and tears on her face. "Why Tristan tell me why." She demanded.

"A year ago Valor sent me to Houston to assist in the renegotiation of our travel contract. Since I would be working so closely with the travel department, I accompanied Ellen to the meetings with Suarez. It was obvious to me when you got here that you did not remember me but I remembered you."

"During our stay at the Suarez home office I noticed you. From the minute I saw you I was consumed. I was too afraid to approach you, so I took every chance I could to just catch a glimpse. When I returned home I couldn't get you off of my mind. The following weekend I returned to Houston. I sat outside of your office till you left for the day. I followed you home."

"I would drive to Houston on my weekends, and take pictures. I could look at them when I got home and I didn't feel so separated from you. I honestly thought that pictures would be the only thing I would ever have of you. I never dreamed that someone so beautiful would want to be involved with someone like me."

Claire was spellbound listening as Tristan made her confession. It was like a bad dream that she was sure she would wake up from soon. She was overwhelmed to the point she felt she would pass out at any moment.

Tristan continued. Her voice was monotone as if she were reading a newspaper article. "I know it seems strange but I started to send the pictures to you because it made me feel as though I had a connection to you in some way."

"I was so happy when I learned that you lived alone. I felt a glimmer of hope. Then I saw you go out with that girl and kiss her goodnight. I was so heart broken, so jealous. That is why I sent you the note. I was hoping you wouldn't see her again."

"During the negotiations at Suarez, I had developed a rapport with your superiors. All it took was one call and they honored my request to have you come to Valor. I tried to force Rhonda out to make a spot for you. As it happened things worked out perfect with her getting pregnant."

"We got off to such a rocky start. I felt like I had alienated you, so I continued to take your picture. In some strange way I felt it bound us together. After our first date went so well I stopped taking your picture. I was so afraid you would find out somehow, so I tried to divert suspicion to the travel agents. Tristan stood up and walked slowly toward Claire. "Sweetie I know none of this makes sense to you. I am so sorry. Please forgive me."

She reached out to Claire, hoping she would accept her apology. Something in Claire snapped. Fear and anger boiled up within her. In a rage she slammed her hands into Tristan's chest. The unexpected blow sent Tristan tumbling backward into the French doors. The doors gave way in a shower of glass sending Tristan down onto the deck.

Claire felt numb from head to toe. She walked to the doorway and looked at Tristan's unconscious form sprawled out across the deck. Tristan's breath rose up in little puffs of steam above her in the cold air, confirming she was still alive. Her arm lay at odd angle; Claire knew that it was broken.

Claire stood over Tristan for what seemed like hours; in reality it was only a few minutes. Thoughts ran thru her mind like a tape recorder replaying the conversations from the past year. She remembered what Cam and Lucy had told her about Tristan's childhood. She remembered the conversation with the silver headed woman in the kitchen one morning. "Sometimes God puts you in the path of someone and your lives are changed forever."

Claire looked at the woman lying before her, and made the decision that would forever change her life. She picked up the phone and dialed 911. She went through the house and made a few adjustments. Then she went back to sit at Tristan's side and waited.

As Tristan awoke she felt a dull aching pain in her head. She felt nauseated when she tried to turn toward the sounds in the room. Her right arm felt heavy, and it ached even more so than her head. As her vision came into focus she noticed Claire standing next to the bed, and then she realized she was in a hospital room.

Claire looked down at her and spoke quickly. "When they realize you are awake the police will want to question you, so listen very carefully to me Tristan. If you do not agree to what I have to say then I will tell them the truth and you will go to jail. Are you with me so far?"

Tristan tried to nod her head, but a sharp pain prevented her from doing so. She tried to speak but her throat was too dry to utter one word. Claire gave her a sip of water.

"I understand Claire." She croaked.

"You probably don't remember but I shoved you thru the French doors of the sunroom. You sustained a broken arm, a mild concussion, and several deep cuts that required suturing."

"To avoid you being arrested I lied to the police. Before they arrived I punched out one of the windowpanes in the back door to make it look as though someone broke in. I told the officers that a man was in the house when we got home. We both fought with him, and he knocked you through the doors before escaping. You will need to cooberate this story Tristan."

"Now here is the part I want you to pay special attention to. I love you Tristan. I kind of understand why you did what you did, but you need some help. I want you to see a therapist and I will stand beside you and help anyway I can. Should you fail to honor this Tristan I will go to the police for your sake and mine. So, what I need to know now is will you agree to this?"

Tears streamed down Tristan's face. "I will do anything you ask of me Claire. I swear it. Please don't leave me." Tristan's body trembled with her sobs.

Claire waited patiently for Tristan to fall back to sleep. She called Cam and Lucy and just as she figured they were adamant about coming up to the hospital. Claire met them at the door to Tristan's room.

"Like I explained on the phone she is not seriously hurt. They are keeping her for observations because of the concussion, and she will be released first thing in the morning. She's sleeping right now, both of you are welcome to go in and see her, but afterward I would like to speak to you alone."

Cam and Lucy exchanged glances for a moment and then went into the room. Standing on opposite sides of the bed the both felt of Tristan's skin, just to assure themselves that she was indeed all right. Claire gave them a run down on Tristan's injuries and relayed what the doctor had said. Both Cam and Lucy visibly relaxed. Once Lucy was confidant that Tristan would fully re-cover she began to question what happened.

Claire glanced at Cam. "Would you mind staying with Tristan while Lucy accompanies me downstairs to smoke. My nerves are at the breaking point and I just need to relax a minute before I rehash the events of the evening."

Lucy wrapped her arm around Claire and led her out the door. Claire was comforted by the motherly touch. She wondered how Lucy would feel after she told her that she had been the one who inflicted her adopted daughter with such injuries. They rode in silence down the elevator to the ground floor. Lucy guided Claire over to a bench just outside the emergency room door.

They sat quietly for a few minutes as Claire smoked her cigarette and gathered her thoughts. She could not stop the flow of tears that rained from her eyes. Lucy pulled her close and stroked her back in an attempt to comfort her.

Claire sighed. "Lucy I am sorry, but I have lied to you and Cam both. There was no break in. I shoved Tristan through the French doors. I lied to the police to cover what actually happened."

Lucy recoiled at the things she heard. "Then what the hell happened?

Claire looked at her through tear stained eyes. "Lucy there is so much to explain. I don't know where to start."

"Start from the beginning." Lucy replied as calm as she could.

Claire took a deep breath. "When I lived in Houston I began to receive pictures taken of me, by an anonymous photographer. Sometimes a typed note would accompany them, accusing me of being a slut. I never did go to the police. When I was offered the Valor job I jumped at the chance to leave Houston.

Not long after I arrived here the photos started coming again. Still I never involved the police. I confided in Tristan. We began to suspect Mike and Lauren the travel agents. After a while the photos just stopped coming. I thought that ugly chapter of my life was over.

Yesterday, I decided to store those pictures in the room that Tristan keeps under lock and key. I got her key ring and let myself in. I found a lot of very expensive digital camera equipment in there, and among those camera's I found copies of the exact pictures I had been receiving."

Lucy shook her head as though she did not comprehend. "What are you saying? That Tristan is a stalker? Claire that just does not make sense! How can you be saying these things?"

"Because, Tristan admitted to it Lucy! She told me in great detail how she did it! She even photographed us both on our first date using a lapel camera! She has some major problems upstairs!"

"Oh my God." Lucy started to cry as the truth began to sink in. I just can't believe this."

Claire tentatively reached over and patted Lucy on the shoulder. "Lucy, Tristan needs some help. I told her I would not tell the police anything if she would agree to see a therapist. I will stand by her and help her anyway I can. Not having her in my life is something I cannot even fathom. Believe it or not I truly do love her."

When she started toward me I just freaked out and I shoved her back. I didn't mean to hurt her. You have to believe I would never do anything like that intentionally. I was just so over-whelmed and shocked."

Lucy pointed to the pack of cigarettes. "You mind if I have one of those? I need something to calm my nerves before I tell all this to Cam."

Claire handed her a cigarette and lit if for her. Lucy inhaled the smoke and exhaled slowly with a little cough. She looked at Claire. "So what are you going to do?"

Claire shrugged. "I think we need a little time apart. I may stay at my apartment for a little while till we get things sorted out. I love her so much, but on the same hand I am a little fearful. There is a side to her I know nothing about. All those months a faceless monster terrified me. To suddenly find out that it was the woman whom I love and have committed myself to is more than shocking. I don't even know how to cope with all of this."

"Claire, I am not making excuses for her behavior, because I know she knows the difference between wrong and right. I am just trying to understand why she would do something like this. What was going on in that head of hers?"

Claire lit another cigarette. "I suppose it has something to do with the way her mother treated her. She said something's tonight that have made me wonder about that. She made the comment that she thought I would never be interested in someone like her. I think her self esteem has been completely undermined by whatever took place when she was young."

Lucy swiped another cigarette. "Claire you do realize that you are the first real relationship she has had. She has dated a few girls, but nothing has ever developed beyond a few dates. Frankly, I think it was just sex. The girls would call for her but she would avoid them. She never got attached to anyone for any length of time before you."

After a few more cigarettes the women made their way back upstairs to Tristan's room. When they walked through the door they could hear Tristan's sobs before they got into the room. Cam held her gently in his arms, her face buried in his chest. When he looked up at Lucy and Claire his eyes were filled with tears as well.

Due to Tristan's injuries Cam and Lucy insisted that she stay with them for a while. Claire returned to Tristan's house and oversaw the repairs made to the doors and windows. Claire called to check on Tristan each day, but Lucy explained that Tristan was so ashamed of her behavior that she was barely speaking to anyone.

Tristan did honor her word and had Lucy help her find a therapist. The only time she left the sanctuary of Cam and Lucy's was to go to her appointments. Claire did her best to stay out of the way and let Tristan heal physically and emotionally. She could not help but wonder if things would be normal between them again.

When she could stand it no longer Claire found herself on the Hughes doorstep one afternoon. Lucy greeted her warmly and invited her in. "Lucy is there any chance that Tristan will see me?" Claire asked, the emotion obvious in her voice.

"Sweetie she really hasn't had too much to say to Cam and I. She won't eat unless I take her meals into her room, even then she merely picks at the food. I have been very concerned for her. To be honest I don't know if it would be a good idea for you to see her right now." Lucy patted Claire on the hand trying to comfort the emotionally distraught woman.

"I miss her so much Lucy" Claire sobbed. "She is shutting me out and I can't take it. I know she is ashamed of her actions but I have already forgiven her. I made a commitment to her and I will keep it." Claire wiped the tears than ran down her cheeks. "She has become my whole world."

Lucy wrapped Claire up in her arms. "Claire honey, give her a little time. She is in a very fragile state right now. I believe given a little time Tristan will come to terms with what she has done. Give the therapist a little time to work with her, she may very well need you to attend some of the appointments with her."

Claire sniffed and wiped her face again. "Oh Lucy I miss her so much. You don't know how hard it is to resist the temptation to run into her room and take her into my arms. You are right though, I suppose I do need to give her some time."

"Off the subject how are you and that little orange menace Ralph getting along?" Claire laughed." Well he still refuses to sleep in the cat bed that Tristan got him. The high side is that he is storing in there all the stuff he steals. I have found two socks and a bra in there, although, neither of which vaguely resemble what they originally were. I know he misses Tris too; he seems a little confused by her absence."

Feeling comforted by her chat with Lucy, Claire returned to their empty feeling home. She fed Ralph and actually enjoyed playing with him and his mouse on a string. The only good thing about her separation from Tristan was she and Ralph had begun to get along a little better.

After dinner she settled down on the sofa to watch TV. Shortly after Ralph joined her and crawled up into a little ball in her lap. He seemed to sense her pain and loneliness. He allowed her to pet him and before long he was purring contentedly. Both Claire and Ralph drifted off to sleep in each other's company.

Lucy opened the door to Tristan's room after knocking. After receiving no response she could not simply walk away, she was more worried about Tristan than she would admit. Deep in her heart she knew that Tristan would not harm herself, but she wasn't taking any chances with her at this point.

As she entered the darkened room, she could make out Tristan's long form lying across the bed. "I am fine Lucy." Tristan's voice startled her. Can I skip dinner tonight I'm really not hungry?" Tristan said without turning to face her.

"My love, you are not passing up anymore meals." Lucy said as she sat on the bed and stroked Tristan's hair lovingly. "You had a visitor today. Claire came by, but I told her that you weren't quite up to seeing anyone yet. She misses you very much, and wants you to come home soon."

"Why on earth would she want to see me? If she has half a brain she would put in for a transfer and run like hell. I don't deserve her." Tristan said with no emotion in her voice.

"Tristan you have to quit beating yourself up over this. She has forgiven you, and wants you to come home. I know it is hard for you to believe, but she truly misses you. Her love for you has not dwindled one bit."

"I am too ashamed to face her. Lucy I was there! I saw what I did to her, and I don't think I can ever forgive myself. I have put her through so much this past year. I have lied and deceived her while she has been nothing but good to me. How will she ever be able to trust me again?" Tristan said as tears began to form in her eyes.

Tris, she wants to work this out, and in time she will trust you again if you let her." Lucy debated silently if she should go a little further with their conversation. "Baby the way Mallory raised you it is no wonder you could think that Claire could simply walk away. Claire is committed to you and loves you very much. She is willing to give you a chance, wont you give her one?"

Tristan lay silent for a while before she spoke again. "I miss her too. I just don't know if I am ready to face her yet."

"Well you are going to face my meatloaf in the kitchen." Lucy said as she tugged Tristan's hand. "Tonight you will come down to the kitchen and have dinner with me and Cam. I have made your beloved chocolate cheesecake for desert. Then we can sit out on the patio and talk till the cows come home."

Tristan looked up into Lucy's eyes. Even in the dark room Lucy could see the tears streaking her adopted daughters face. Tristan's voice trembled with emotion as she spoke. "I love you so much Lucy, you and Cam have been so wonderful to me. You know in my heart you were and always will be my real mom.

Both Lucy and Tristan walked into the kitchen with tear stained faces. Cam tried to appear as though everything was normal though his heart secretly broke for

Tristan. He had never seen her look so broken. As they ate dinner her brought her up to date on all the happenings at the office, watching her face intently as he spoke. Uncharacteristically, of Tristan she did not seem remotely interested.

After desert he sent his two favorite women out to the patio, while he cleaned the kitchen. Occasionally, he would glance outside and watched them as they talked. Tristan's eyes were downcast the entire time. He wanted so badly to run out there and take her into his arms, but resisted the urge thinking at this point it might do more harm than good.

Chapter 15

The following morning Claire woke up feeling stiff from sleeping on the couch. Ralph looked at her expectantly till she realized that he wanted his breakfast. She followed him into the kitchen and filled his bowl, and then put the coffee on to brew. Claire ran a hand through her disheveled blonde locks. "What will I do with my Saturday, aside from sitting around feeling sorry for myself?" She asked no one in particular.

With coffee and cigarettes in hand she went into the sunroom. She stretched out on the wicker love seat, lit her cigarette and sipped her coffee. Ralph came in and made himself comfortable in her lap once again. It was then she noticed that Tristan had left one of her old sweatshirts lying on a chair. She pressed the shirt to her face reveling in the scent and began to cry for the woman who had stolen her heart.

When she felt she couldn't cry any longer Claire got up and took a shower. She spent a long time just letting the water beat into her stiff shoulders and neck. Feeling a little better after bathing Claire slipped into her favorite pair of old jeans, and one Tristan's sweatshirts. Returning to the kitchen for more coffee she met Ralph who seemed to really be enjoying himself with a small stick of some sort.

As Claire poured her coffee she tried to remember where she had seen one of those sticks before. When the memory hit her she nearly dropped the coffee pot. "Oh my God Ralph spit that out!" She ran to the startled cat and snatched the stick from his mouth. With her other hand she snatched the orange tabby up and ran to the phone.

"Lucy, we have a problem. I found Ralph chewing on one of those and poison sticks. Who is his veterinarian? Claire stammered into the phone.

Claire raced to the Vets office while Ralph pawed at the latch of his cat carrier. He growled a low growl not liking being in the car. Claire assumed that the ant poison had upset his stomach; because a mile from their destination he passed gas and Claire nearly ran off the road trying to get the windows down. Only then did he seem to relax and enjoy the ride.

Claire paced up and down the tiny waiting room at the vets office, while the doctor examined Ralph. Minutes later the she was shocked to see Cam, Lucy and Tristan walk into the building. Claire could not take her eyes off of Tristan. She was shocked to see how pale she was, and couldn't help notice the fact that Tristan had lost quite a bit of weight.

Tristan's eyes never met hers as she explained how she had found the cat playing and gnawing on the poisonous stick. "The doctor wants to take a look at him and maybe run some tests. That's all I really know for now." Claire said as she wrung her hands nervously.

Tristan kept her eyes cast down as she informed everyone that she was going to wait outside so she could smoke. Lucy assured her that she would come and get her as soon as the doctor came out. Claire watched as she went outside and then looked to Lucy with pleading eyes.

Lucy sighed. "Go to her sweetie, but I have to tell you I have no idea how she is going to act.

Claire stepped outside and hesitated a moment wondering how she should best approach Tristan. She took a deep breath and hoped her gamble would work. She approached cautiously lighting a cigarette of her own; she would need something to calm her nerves.

"So I guess were even now." Claire said with cockiness.

Tristan only turned slightly at the sound of her voice. "Even?" She questioned.

"I poisoned your cat. I figured it would be the only way I could get you to face me. I didn't want to kill him; I just wanted to make him a little sick. I was sure you would come running as soon as you heard."

Claire watched as Tristan slowly turned to face her. Tristan studied her closely as though trying to determine if she was really telling the truth. Claire did her best to remain calm under the scrutiny.

"I don't believe you Claire." Tristan said calmly

"Its true Tristan. I had to see you and I would have done most anything to make that happen." Claire said defiantly.

Tristan let out laugh for the first time in two weeks. "You are such a poor liar" Before she could say anything else her breath was knocked out of her as Claire latched on to her in a fierce hug.

"You come home to me Tristan or I swear I will shave that cat and die his ass blue." Claire said as she wept into Tristan's shoulders. Tristan marveled at how good it felt to have her in her arms again. She could barely let her go when Lucy poked her head out of the door and called for them to come in.

Claire looked at Tristan a little shyly and held out her hand. Tristan took it and allowed Claire to lead her inside. The Vet explained that it would be the same routine. He would keep him overnight to just to monitor him. Judging from the condition of the stick he did not think Ralph got too much of the poison in his system.

Claire look confused. "Same routine?" She asked looking at Tristan.

Tristan grinned. "This is the third time the little fart has pulled this stunt. I thought I had managed to get all of the stakes but he manages to find one every now and then."

Claire's face turned red. She looked at Tristan sheepishly. "So I take it your not buying the story I told you in the parking lot?"

Tristan smiled back. "Like I said, you're a poor liar, which is a very good thing. I am glad you were there though. Who knows what could have happened if he would have chewed more of that poison."

"Miss Delacroix." The Vet interrupted. I have another emergency case. I will call you at home and let you know when you can pick him up." He turned abruptly and went to tend his patient.

Tristan looked at Claire. "I suppose if he is going to call me at home I should be there to take the call." She watched as relief flooded Claire's face. Both Cam and Lucy exchanged happy glances.

Tristan was relatively quiet on the ride home, which in turn made Claire very nervous. She chatted away about how well the repairs to their home went. The last few minutes of their trip home were made in an uncomfortable silence.

Tristan walked into her home as if she had never lived there. Claire decided to take the bull by the horns and led her to the sofa so they could talk things out. After a little prodding Tristan opened up and poured her heart out to Claire, most of the night was spent in tears for both of them. Sometime in the early hours of morning they went to bed. Claire burrowed up against Tristan being extra careful of her arm that still remained in a cast.

The following morning Cam and Lucy showed up for their Sunday morning breakfast date. They went to the little café up the street, and the banter between the two couples returned to normal. This was especially pleasing to Claire, because it was simply a small step toward a happy life shared with Tristan.


Tristan wiggled her fingers and stretched her arm as she commented on how strange it felt to have her arm free of the cast. Claire glanced over at her as she drove her home from the orthopedist. The woman sitting next to her had changed so much in the last few months.

Claire had witnessed her break down in the sessions with the therapist while she relayed the events of her childhood. She marveled at how Tristan was able to function on a daily basis growing up in such an abusive atmosphere.

She had grown to love Tristan even more during those meetings with the therapist, and to Tristan's surprise, Claire gained a new respect for her. Each time they met with the doctor it confirmed Claire's decision to stand by Tristan.

They had good days and bad, but with each problem they encountered the couple grew stronger as a result. In time the scars that both women bore would heal. Cementing their relationship forever.

The End

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