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A HEALING TOUCH
Saturday morning found 10 women hanging out in a mostly empty parking lot. Two SUVs and a big 4-door pick-up idled nearby. Celia's midnight blue Cadillac looked distinctly out of place next to the other vehicles. Kaelin checked her watch, completely unaware of the glances she and Celia got, then she took a quick head count.
"Looks like we're all here, so let's get going. Brinn, we'll follow you since you've been there before. But first, a word of prayer."
As Kaelin prayed for their safety and gave thanks for the weather, Celia listened to her and watched her closely. For a moment, she had the feeling that Kaelin forgot they all were there with her as she spoke to God on their behalf.
When Kaelin closed her short prayer, there was a sudden flurry of motion as eight women disappeared into the truck and other SUV, leaving Kaelin and Celia standing alone. Kaelin looked at the other woman and shrugged.
"Leaves you and me in my Sportage."
"I think I can stand your company until we get there, but not a minute longer," Celia said with a smile, her hazel eyes twinkling.
"I'm terribly glad. Now get in, they're waiting."
The drive into Pennsylvania took just over 2 hours, so it was after 8:30 when they got off I-80. In another 15 minutes, they arrived at a half-full gravel lot with a sign that read "Kittatiny Canoes."
They sat in the car peering at the other women, all of whom were milling around the other two vehicles. Kaelin glanced at Celia. "Well, I'm nervous."
Celia grinned. "That makes two of us."
Cutting the engine, Kaelin smiled at Celia. "No sense in just sitting here. Let's go tackle that river!"
After registering, loading up the outfitter's van, and driving to the put-in point, the small group had a quick paddling lesson from their guide, then they got ready to take off.
Kaelin stepped around the side of the van to strip off her t-shirt and zip on her life jacket. She dropped the jacket on the ground and grabbed the hem of her shirt. When she pulled it off, though, it got hung up on her hair band, and being that it was on her head, she had a hard time untangling it.
"Here, let me," a soft voice said behind her.
Startled, Kaelin turned to see Celia standing very close to her. The other woman's hazel eyes burned into Kaelin's own gray ones. When Celia reached up to take the shirt, Kaelin dropped her hands. "Thank you," she said, her voice husky.
In a moment, the shirt was unstuck and Kaelin was slipping the jacket on over her black bathing suit and nylon shorts.
Celia turned and walked away as soon as she handed the shirt to Kaelin. Lost in thought, she pulled off her shirt and put on her life jacket over the red bathing suit she wore.
Several hours later, when they stopped for lunch and a break, the 10 women and their guide chatted while they ate. Once clean-up was accomplished, the guide offered to lead them to an overlook not far away. Kaelin declined, preferring to stay right where she was and let the younger women enjoy themselves without the company of their pastor.
"Good," Celia smiled. "I wasn't too keen on going, either."
As soon as the group was out of sight, Kaelin stood up. "Do you mind if I take a dip before they come back? I'm not very comfortable in just my suit in front of them. It's that whole pastor thing again." She laughed slightly. "Anyway, I don't know if they'd be all that comfortable seeing their pastor strutting around in a bathing suit."
"Go right ahead. When you get back, I think I'll go."
"It's a whole lot safer with two of us, so you should probably come with me."
"Let's go then," Celia agreed, standing up and stepping out of her shorts.
Kaelin felt the heat rise up her neck and wash over her face when she saw Celia clad only in her red suit. She turned away quickly and stepped out of her own shorts, then started down to the river. She plunged into the icy water, coming up gasping.
"Good grief! That's cold!" she yelped.
The women floated in the water, each in her own thoughts. Then Celia stood up.
"Okay, I'm really cold now, so I'm getting out."
"Right behind you," Kaelin called, flipping onto her stomach and swimming over to Celia. They both hustled out of the water and dropped onto a rock to dry off.
Kaelin made the mistake of looking over at Celia, and what she saw made her mouth go dry. The other woman's wet bathing suit enhanced every curve Celia had, and it accentuated the softness. Her nipples were hard from the cold water, and Kaelin's eyes were drawn there.
She scrambled to her feet. "I'll see you up there," she said, hastily striding up the path. When she got back to her dry bag, she grabbed her t-shirt and picked up her shorts, then she walked into the woods. She didn't go far, but she found a spot and put her clothes on over her suit and sat on a fallen log, bowing her head.
Ten minutes later, she strolled back to find everyone zipping up and getting ready to leave.
"You weren't going to leave without me, were you?" she called to the group, an easy grin on her face.
"No, we were going to send out a search party," Brinn called back.
Kaelin walked to her life jacket and slid her arms into it, leaving her t-shirt on. Celia came to stand next to her.
"Why did you leave like that?" she asked, her voice just above a whisper. She studied Kaelin's face, watching a blush slowly creep across her features.
Kaelin took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Can we talk later?" She paused and looked past Celia to the women heading to the rafts. "I don't think this is the right time. Okay?"
Celia nodded. "But we will talk about it?"
On the way home later that day, the group stopped at a rest area for dinner. They all sat at several adjacent tables and talked and laughed as they ate. Kaelin was delighted that Celia fit in with the group. Looking around, she smiled as she studied the other women.
There was big, steady Brinn, very much a vertebrae in the backbone of the church, and her tiny, petite partner Sarah. Across the table were Diane and Toni, who were just starting a committed relationship together. The four young women were all good friends, but none of them were dating anyone at the moment.
Then gray eyes fell on the woman down the table. Celia was just bringing a cup of coffee to her lips when she caught Kaelin's gaze. The cup stalled as they just looked at each other. A slight smile crossed Kaelin's lips, then she looked away, her attention drawn by a question from Sarah.
It was getting dark when they left the rest area. They had all agreed to go their separate ways from there because all of the drivers knew the way home.
"Can we talk now?" Celia asked, turning to look at the other woman's profile.
"I left because I had to, Celia," Kaelin admitted without preamble.
"Why did you have to leave?" Celia saw Kaelin's jaw clench and her hand tighten on the wheel.
"I'm having a hard time fighting an attraction to you," Kaelin said softly. Her eyes never left the road, but she was acutely aware of the woman beside her.
"I see. Tell me what you're feeling…"
"I'm feeling out of my league. Clueless. Like I'm going slightly crazy. And don't do the therapist thing with me, please," she warned, holding up a hand.
"Okay, I won't."
Kaelin blew out a frustrated breath. "I'm sorry. How about we just drop the subject?"
The rest of the drive was made in silence, neither woman taking the chance on talking. When they drove into the dark parking lot, Kaelin pulled into the spot next to the Cadillac. Celia unbuckled her seatbelt, but instead of getting out, she slid closer to Kaelin.
"Kaelin," she murmured, unbuckling her seat belt, as well. "Look at me, please." When the other woman turned toward her, Celia brought her hands up to cup Kaelin's face. She leaned in and touched her lips to Kaelin's.
There were no fireworks, no raging infernos, no great tidal waves of emotion. What there was, was a small, slow flame, but one that would burn steadily for a long time if given the opportunity.
When they pulled apart, Celia gently brushed a finger down Kaelin's cheek. "Good night, Kaelin."
Kaelin stayed where she was until Celia pulled out of the parking lot, then she got out and walked across the street to her house. She sat on the couch, leaning her head back.
"What do I do?" she wondered.
***** ***** *****
Late the following morning, Kaelin was just finishing hanging her vestments in her small office just off the altar. Her cell rang and she grabbed it off the desk, sitting in the chair behind her desk.
"Hi, Kaelin. It's Celia. Are you busy?"
Kaelin sat in the chair. "No. I was just finishing up here."
"Are you doing anything this afternoon?"
"Not today, no."
"Will you have lunch with me?"
There was a pause, Kaelin wondering if it was wise, then she agreed, a tiny feeling inside letting her know it was the right thing to do.
They decided to meet at a small diner near the hospital. Kaelin sat in her SUV until Celia arrived, then they walked into the diner together. A waitress took them to a booth by one of the big windows and took their order. They exchanged pleasantries while they ate, but both of them could feel the tension.
When the plates were cleared and coffee had arrived, Celia cleared her throat and stared out the window. "Whatever this is that's happening between us, Kaelin, I like it. And I'd like to see where it goes."
"Where can it go?" Kaelin asked. Then she began to tell her story, her voice much softer this time. "Be patient and listen, okay? In college, my best friend Jimmy and I were heavy partiers, and we played lots of sexual games with a lot of people, both men and women. He got AIDS and died in our senior year. At his funeral, the priest had no idea who Jimmy was, and he condemned him, more or less, for being gay.
"I know now that God was already calling me, telling me what I was supposed to do. But when I got back to school, I partied more, drank more, slept around more until it all got to be too much. One night, after waking up in bed with two people I had never seen before, I couldn't handle it anymore."
Kaelin looked Celia straight in the eye. "I tried to commit suicide. Thankfully, that didn't go right, and I decided it was time to do what I had to do. So I got cleaned up, and here I am almost 20 years later with a master's degree in counseling and a Doctor of Divinity, pastoring a church that I started." She took a sip of coffee and looked out the window. "I won't go against my church or against my God. I won't play those games again. I can't."
"I don't want to play games, either, Kaelin. I want to try to have a relationship with you, to see if there's anything solid there, see if we can make this work. We won't go anywhere either one of us can't, but I'd like to give this a try."
"It's been 20 years since I've dated," Kaelin said with a small laugh, "so I may not be any good at it. But, if I'm perfectly honest with myself and with you, I'd like to see, too."
Smiling, Celia laid a hand on top of Kaelin's. "Thank you."
They made plans to get together that week, but life had other things in store.
Monday morning, Kaelin called to tell Celia she had a funeral to prepare for and had to cancel. After 3 days of phone tag, Celia began to get worried. Thursday afternoon, when Kaelin missed their work meeting, she called the emergency room to see if Morgan was working. When a positive answer came back, Celia told Robin she'd be right back and headed downstairs. At the nurses' desk, she asked for Morgan and was told she was in the break room.
"What's going on with Kaelin?" she demanded, shoving the door open with a vengeance. "Have you heard from her?"
"I know you're not talking to me like that, Dr. Doom," Morgan snapped, turning from the coffee pot.
"Cut the crap, Morgan. Why haven't I heard from Kaelin?"
Hearing the genuine worry in the other woman's voice, Morgan dropped the attitude. She nodded toward the coffee pot. "Grab a cup and sit down." When both women were seated, Morgan told Celia what she knew. "Sunday night two of her parishioners were killed in a car accident, and Monday afternoon one of the elderly men had a heart attack and died. Kaelin's had to do a funeral yesterday, one today, and another tomorrow. We're all worried about her. Really worried. When I saw her at last night's funeral dinner, she was… not Kaely." Morgan caught her lip between her teeth for a moment. "This may be too much for her, for anyone, but she'll never ask for help."
Celia stood and dumped her untouched cup in the trash. "Thanks, Morgan."
"Take care of my sister, Celia. I know you two are seeing each other, Kaelin told me, but she's special to a lot of people," Morgan warned, deadly serious.
It was close to 9 when Celia drove into the church lot that night. She was hoping to find Kaelin at her office because she wasn't answering her home phone. When she saw a light on in a low side window of the church, Celia knew she found her.
She knocked on the door that said "PASTOR'S STUDY" and waited until Kaelin opened it.
"Hi," Kaelin said, stepping out of the office. "I was just going home for a minute. You can walk with me, if you'd like."
Celia walked across the street with Kaelin, noting how quiet she was. She followed her into the living room and looked around while Kaelin went into her office.
A single lamp glowed by an armchair, and a small couch was in front of a TV. The furniture was well-used, but well-cared for.
When Kaelin came back into the room, Celia was alarmed at how tired and haunted she looked.
"Come here," Celia urged, opening her arms.
Celia nodded. "Yes. Come here," she whispered.
"Celia, I can't. I'm barely holding on now. No," Kaelin repeated, her voice breaking on the last word.
"Damn it, Celia, I feel like I'm drowning as it is! I can't fight you and this both!"
"You don't have to fight anything, sweetheart."
Kaelin closed her eyes, and when she opened them, the look she gave Celia went straight to her heart. "Help me," she whimpered.
"Oh, yes, sweetheart," Celia soothed as she stepped closer and wrapped her arms around Kaelin. "I'm right here…"
The tears that Kaelin had kept at bay for the past several days broke through the barrier when she accepted the comfort and support Celia offered. She cried for the families of the dead, she cried for Lena and Danni, and, for the first time in many years, she cried for herself.
Celia guided Kaelin to the couch, and when they sat, she pulled her into a tight hug. She didn't say anything, she just held Kaelin and let her cry. They stayed like that for many long minutes.
"I'm tired," Kaelin finally whispered raggedly. "And I need a tissue."
"Hang on," Celia said, scooting to the end of the couch and retrieving the tissue box from the end table. She settled back next to Kaelin and handed her the box. She put her arms around her again, and when she felt Kaelin stiffen, she held tighter. "Please don't pull away, Kaelin," she pleaded. "Please don't."
Kaelin turned in Celia's arms to look at her. She smiled a watery smile. "I'm a mess, Celia. I'm going to go splash some water on my face and blow my nose, and then I'm going to come back her and kiss you," she ended in a whisper.
Celia's heart swelled when she saw Kaelin's eyes sparkling with unshed tears and surrounded by wet, spiky lashes. "You're not a mess," she corrected. "You're beautiful."
Kaelin cupped Celia's face gently. She searched hazel eyes that were filled with a sweet emotion. "Thank you." She got up and went into the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
While she waited, Celia grabbed a tissue and wiped her own eyes. When Kaelin came back, Celia smiled and held out her arms.
Instead of sitting on the couch, though, Kaelin kneeled in front of Celia and took her face in her hands again. Slowly, so slowly, she brought her lips to Celia's soft ones.
The kiss they shared was one of giving and warmth, and deep affection. When they parted, the two women held each other.
"This has been the worst week I've had in all the years I've been a pastor," Kaelin mused. "I won't apologize for crying, Celia, because I needed to. I needed you. Thank you for coming here."
"I had to find you, Kaelin. I realized last night that I really hated not seeing you and being able to talk to you. I needed you as much as you needed me. I couldn't not come."
Kaelin took a deep breath. "I need a vacation in the worst way. I want to pitch my tent someplace where nobody can find me for a week or so. Wouldn't that be wonderful?"
"I'd find you again," Celia murmured, stroking Kaelin's long hair.
Kaelin closed her eyes and leaned into Celia's hand. "Mmm, that feels incredible. If I'm not careful, I'm going to fall asleep." The words were punctuated by a yawn and a chuckle. "See?"
"When was the last good night's sleep you had, Kaely?" Celia asked, unconsciously using the nickname for her that Morgan used. She was concerned because the woman looked exhausted and frail. She wondered when Kaelin's last good meal was, too.
"Friday night," Kaelin responded. "One week ago tomorrow."
"Why not Saturday? That rafting thing is rough."
"Uh, yeah. You kissed me, remember?" Kaelin teased, a sparkle coming back into her eyes. "It really wasn't conducive to sleep."
"So, you're saying that if I kiss you right now, you won't be able to sleep tonight?"
Kaelin looked at Celia and smiled. "I'm willing to find out."
This kiss was deeper, more sensual, but no less heartfelt than the others. Celia touched her tongue to Kaelin's lips and they parted for her, Kaelin's tongue drawing Celia in. Kaelin buried her hands in Celia's hair as she tasted her sweetness and warmth. Celia purred softly and leaned into Kaelin, then her hand brushed the underside of Kaelin's breast, causing the other woman to gasp and pull away.
"Dear God, I'm not strong enough for this," she whispered huskily. Then she got up and stepped away from Celia, her back to the woman on the couch. "You have to go, Celia. I'm not strong enough right now to stop this, to stop us. I want you, I need you too much. Please. You have to go."
Celia smiled gently and went to stand behind Kaelin. "I understand," she said, resting her chin on the other woman's shoulder. "I'll go. For both of us."
Kaelin reached up and put a hand on Celia's head. "Thank you. I'll walk you across the street, and I'll call you tomorrow, okay?" When she turned, she turned right into Celia's arms.
"I'm going to give you a good night kiss, and then I'm leaving. You stay here and just watch from the porch."
Instead of answering, Kaelin brought her lips to Celia's, and then she took Celia's hand. She led her to the door and walked out on the front porch. She smiled tremulously at Celia and squeezed her hand. "By the way? I'd ask you to pitch a tent with me. Good night, Celia."
Celia laid a gentle hand on Kaelin's cheek and smiled back. Then she stepped off the porch and walked to her car.
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