Moonlight Serenade

S X Meagher


Pete Gray paced along a path that only he could see, oblivious to the nearly frenetic gaiety that surrounded him. His eyes occasionally left the narrow floorboards and darted to the counter in the far corner of the room, as he tried to keep an eye on his fiancée.

Fiancée, Pete thought with a visible grimace. I’ve been calling her my fiancée for five years now. If we don’t go through with this tonight, I don’t think I’ll be able to keep conning myself into believing she’ll ever marry me.

Through the large crowd, he saw her strawberry blonde hair bobbing along, as she tried to return to him while balancing a pair of bottles on a small tray.

"My gosh!" she said, her cheeks pink from the heat, "I never thought I’d get back here." She placed the tray on a nearby counter and handed him a cold Coke. "I’m going to have to get in line to get another one before this one’s even finished. Are all USO’s like this?" Sally looked up at the slightly taller man and flashed him a smile that made dissolved his pique dissolve in seconds. Her bright, clear blue eyes, pale pink complexion, and fair hair gave the woman a captivating look that the young Army private had fallen for the first time he saw her. "What’s that cute smile for?" Sally asked, seeing the sparkle in Pete’s eyes.

"I was just thinking about the first time I saw you," he said, his smile growing brighter. "I was so mad at my dad for uprooting us and forcing me to finish high school in Concord, but when I saw you in my first class, I knew that things in Concord would be just fine."

"Pretty confident fellow, weren’t you?" Sally asked, giving Pete a grin that made him want to kiss her right then and there.

"Yeah, I guess I was." He looked down at the floor, his agitation building again. "I’m not very confident now, Sally. I don’t know what’s going on in your mind." He waited a moment as he revealed something that had been troubling him for years. "I never do. I used to think I knew, but I don’t think I ever have." She looked up at him and gave him that smile once again, and he felt his resolve start to waver. But for once he stuck to his guns and pressed the issue. "The night’s almost over. Are we going to get married or not?"

Eyes darting, Sally giggled nervously, then placed her hand on his chest, her gentle touch calming the man. "Pete, you know I want to marry you. Why else would I have come all the way down here?" She laughed again, the musical tone now sounding relaxed and natural. "My parents are probably still fuming."

The young man let his mild temper flare a little. "Gosh, Sally, you’re almost twenty-three years old, your parents have to let you grow up someday."

"They don’t treat me like a child, Pete, but running off to New York at the drop of a hat to get married is a pretty big deal. I don’t blame them for being upset."

Pete looked at her for a few moments, the spoke as his cheeks started to turn pink. "They wouldn’t have been so surprised if you told them before this morning. I still can’t believe you waited so long. For gosh sakes, Sally, I’ve been asking you to marry me forever."

Again, the young woman stroked his chest, petting him like an anxious pup. "Pete, no one knows that better than I do. But we only decided to do this two weeks ago. You know how my parents are, honey. My mother doesn’t think it’s wise to have a rushed ceremony, especially one the family can’t attend. If she’d had two weeks to work on me I never would have had the nerve to come."

"That’s not my fault, either," Pete said, his anger showing again. "There wouldn’t have been a rush if we’d gotten married right out of high school."

"There was no possibility of that," Sally said, her eyes narrowing as some of her steely determination began to show. "My parents scrimped and saved their whole lives so that I could go away to college, and I wasn’t going to waste that opportunity."

"Lots of people in college are married," Pete said, still scowling.

"Yes, and lots of them get in the family way and never finish," Sally said. "I wasn’t going to be one of those girls."

Pete shrugged his shoulders and shook his head in frustration. Some of his dark brown hair fell across his forehead, and Sally reached up and urged it back into place, stroking his tanned face as she did so. "Don’t be angry with me, Pete. Please."

Shoving his hands into the pockets of his tan gabardine slacks caused his belted, olive drab uniform jacket to hike up. "How can I not be?" he asked petulantly. "I waited for four years, waiting around while you finished school. Then you had to work for a year. I don’t know why you had to work for a year, but you did."

"Pete, Pete, please try to understand." Sally stroked his arm, marveling at the muscle that basic training had added to his wiry frame. "I didn’t know how much many hours a day I’d have to work at the hospital, and I didn’t want to spend our first married year being away from you so much. I wanted to make sure I’d be able to concentrate on you, honey. Really." She gave him her most earnest look and he felt his head nodding, wanting to believe her. But the reality of their situation quickly soured his mood again.

"Well, look where we are now," he said, his lips pursed. "This is the first day we’ve had together in six weeks, and I’m being shipped out tomorrow."

"Sweetheart, we didn’t have any way of knowing that you’d be sent to Europe. I thought they’d want to keep you here because of all of your business experience. If I’d known that you were going to Europe I would have married you before you went to your training."

"Working in a stationery store isn’t the kind of experience they need at the Pentagon, Sally." He crossed his arms and dropped his chin, giving her an adorable pout.

"Oh, sweetie, it’s too late to argue about the past. Let’s think of the future."

"Okay." Pete fixed her with a steady look and said, "Our future will probably involve spending our first two or three years of marriage apart ... if we’re lucky." His lower lip started to tremble, his rare show of emotion surprising Sally thoroughly.

She wrapped her arms around him tightly and murmured, "Oh, sweetheart, I wish I hadn’t been so hard-headed about it. I really do. I’m so sorry, Petey."

"Not much we can do about it now," he said into her shoulder, the rayon of her dress soft against his cheek. "I wish I could have gotten a three day pass so we could have at least gotten married in New Hampshire. My parents are upset about this, too."

"I know," Sally soothed. "My mother called your mother as soon as I told her. They were both fit to be tied."

Pete chucked softly, thinking of the sparks that often flew when the two strong-willed women got together. "Did they have a fight?"

"A little one," Sally admitted. "Your mother said something about my dilly-dallying, and my mother got her back up about it. You know how they are."

Pulling back, Pete looked into his fiancée’s eyes, searching them for the truth. "Do you want to do this, Sally? Once my friend Rocco gets the car from his cousin we can be in Connecticut in under two hours." He tightened his grip on her shoulders and asked again, enunciating clearly, "Are you sure?"

The young woman took in a deep breath, then let it out, giving herself a few extra seconds to think. Her blue eyes blinked slowly and she said, "This isn’t how I’ve pictured it, Pete. Driving to Connecticut in a borrowed car, getting married in front of strangers, spending our wedding night in some cheap, roadside motel–"

"Uhm … about the motel," Pete said, looking mildly embarrassed. "We have to come right back to New York. Rocco can only get the car if his cousin drives. Apparently Rocco’s not the world’s best driver."

"Oh, great," Sally sighed. "So what does that mean? Do we have to find a hotel here?"

"That would be nice," he said, speaking quicker as her eyes narrowed. "But with two ships sailing tomorrow there isn’t a room available."

"How do you know that?" she asked.

"I talked with that woman over there," he said, pointing towards an older woman sitting at a desk. "She said that when the troop carriers sail a lot of friends and families come to the city to say good-bye. The only places available that we can afford are in flea bag hotels in bad neighborhoods. I can’t do that to you, Sally."

"So we have to spend our wedding night necking in the backseat of a car with an audience in the front seat." She shook her head briskly, trying to stop the tears from coming. "This is just like high school, Pete. I’ve never heard of anything less romantic."

"This isn’t my idea of heaven, either," Pete said. "But I want to be married to you, Sally. I want to know you’ll be waiting for me when I get home. If I get home."

"Oh, Petey!" Sally held him again, holding on just as tight as she could. "Please, please don’t talk like that! You have so much to live for!"

"But you’re all I want," he said, his voice quaking. "Just you, Sally."

"Pete, I want you, too," she insisted. "But if we get married this way all we’ll have a marriage license. No wedding night, no honeymoon …"

"I know, but it’s better than nothing. At least we’ll be able to … you know … as soon as I get home. That’ll give me the biggest incentive in the world to come home safely."

She looked up at him, her expression filled with sadness. She rested her head on his chest, her eyes welling up with tears. "I’m sorry, Pete. I’m sorry I’ve always said no. I know how much you wanted to. I wish–"

"No, Sally," he said, grasping her arms and holding her so that he could look into her eyes. "I wouldn’t respect a girl who would give in just because I pressured her. I wish we’d been married earlier, but I don’t regret that we didn’t …"

"Are you sure?" she asked, blinking tears from her eyes. "I can’t bear the thought of your having regrets about the things we didn’t do, Pete."

"No," he said, a brave smile on his handsome face. "I hear the guys talk about the women they’ve been with, and it makes it sound so cheap. I don’t want it to be like that with us, Sally. I want … I want it to be special. As special as you are."

"Oh, Pete, I love you so much." She raised stretched up and laced her hands around his neck, pulling his head down. They kissed for a long time, taking comfort in each other’s arms. Their kisses grew in intensity as Pete stumbled backwards, finding a stool, then he pulled Sally even closer. The restraint they always exercised in public, and usually exercised in private vanished. Pete ran his hands across the silky smoothness of the material that hugged Sally’s bottom, his breathing growing heavy and ragged. She responded with soft, inarticulate groans as he pulled her body hard against him, crushing her breasts into his chest. She felt him shiver roughly, and pulled back just enough to see the longing in his eyes. "I love you," she whispered again.

"Then marry me," he said, his voice forceful but quiet.

"Oh, God, I … I have to … I need something to drink, Pete. It’s so hot in here, and I’m feeling …"

"Shh … I’ll get you another Coke," he said. He tried to get up, but found himself temporarily unable to do so.

Taking pity on him, Sally patted his cheek, whispering, "I’ll go for the drinks."

"Thanks," he said, smiling shyly. "You’re a pip, sweetheart."

"I’ll be right back," she said, kissing him softly, then boldly letting the tip of her tongue trace his lips.

"No rush," he murmured weakly. "I wonder if I can be declared 4-F because of my inability to stand. Then we won’t have a thing to worry about."

"Your ship would be empty tomorrow if every guy with your condition were exempt," she teased, casting a glance around the room and taking in the throng of groping couples. She threaded her way through the crowd, and he stared after her, watching the delicious sway of her hips.

That night, the Manhattan USO was one of the most crowded places in all of the city. On any given night the place was filled with servicemen and young women, but before a troop carrier sailed the building was so full it strained at the walls. A juke box played loudly, and hundreds of people ringed the dance floor, watching the couples who tried to dance their cares away.

Next to the dance floor, the snack bar was the most popular spot. The sodas were free and cold, and it seemed as though half of New York was waiting in line. Sally resigned herself to a long wait, feeling more lightheaded and dizzy by the moment. The line had barely moved when Pete appeared and introduced Sally to the tall, dark- haired man who stood next to him. "Honey, this is Rocco. Rocco, this is my fiancée, Sally." Leaning in close so she could hear him clearly he said, "The car is a pretty good subway ride from here, so we’re gonna go get it now. Do you want to come with us?"

"I … I think I need to cool off first," she said weakly.

"Don’t worry about it, sweetheart. We’ll go get it and come right back. It shouldn’t take us more than an hour or so. Will you be okay here by yourself?"

"Oh, sure," she said, trying to project a confident tone. "You boys run along. I’ll be waiting for you." Pete kissed her quickly and started to plunge through the crowd. Sally tried to fill her head with happy thoughts, but she kept thinking of driving to her wedding with two strange men in the car and began to feel sick again.

Pulled from her musings, she turned when she heard a woman’s voice, low and strong, admonish someone by saying, "If you don’t stay in line, you won’t get a soda. I told you that before, sailor, and I never forget a face. Now get in line with the other children and I won’t have to send you to the principal’s office."

Sally blinked at the speaker, her eyes growing wide. Goodness, she looks like she could take on a lot of these fellas in a bare-knuckle brawl. The woman in question was tall, taller than any of the women behind the counter, and topping most of the men in line by a few inches. But it wasn’t her height that attracted Sally’s attention — it was her presence. There was something so poised yet powerful about the woman that Sally made a mental note not to make her angry.

As the thought floated through her mind, the woman’s dark eyes landed on her, and Sally felt herself begin to fidget when she was compelled to return the look. She heard the deep voice say, "I’m due for my break. Can you girls handle these beasts?"

"Yeah, sure, Gina," the woman next to her said. "You’ve been here all day, kid. Take an hour for dinner."

"I just might do that," she said. Bending over, she snagged two cold Cokes and slipped out from behind the counter. Walking down the line she stopped right in front of Sally, saying, "You look like you’re about to faint, honey. Let’s step outside and get you a breath of stale air."

"Huh?" Sally blinked confusedly, looking into the dark, fathomless eyes.

"I said you don’t look so hot. I think it’s too warm in here for you. I got you a Coke," she said, extending the cool bottle. "Now let’s go out and drink it."

"Oh … uhm … I don’t know …"

"Trust me, toots. You’ll be face down in no time if you stay in line. Your soldier boy will forgive you."

"Uhm … all right," Sally said, casting a look through the crowd to see if she could find Pete before he left.

"Don’t trust him, huh?" Gina asked, chuckling softly.

"Of course I do!" Sally glared at the woman, amazed at her nerve. "We’re gonna get married … I think."

"Ohh … ‘married, I think’ is what every dame in here thinks she’s gettin’. If I heard that once, I heard it a thousand times."

"No, no, I really am," Sally said, trying to sound convincing.

"Whatever you say, hon. You’re the boss." Gina put a hand on the blonde’s shoulder and guided her out the door and down the rather steep steps. The heat made the evening nearly as oppressive as it had been inside, but and it was so humid and close that Sally actually felt worse. The pungent, acrid smells of the city wafted up to assault her, and she felt her knees begin to buckle. To Sally’s amazement, Gina wrapped one strong arm around her to stop her from falling, managing to hold both Cokes in the other hand. "Hold on there, honey," Gina soothed, depositing her charge onto the steps. Placing the Cokes beside Sally she quickly pushed the young woman’s head down until it rested between her knees. "Breathe normally," she ordered. "You’ll feel better in a minute."

After following instructions for a few moments, Sally began to struggle, muttering, "I’m a nurf."

"You’re a what?"

The blonde head lifted when Gina loosened her pressure. "I’m a nurse. I know how to take care of myself."

"Doesn’t look like it," Gina said, shaking her head and chuckling again. "You were almost ass over teakettle on those stairs."

"I was fine," Sally sniffed, miffed at the temerity of this stranger calling her professionalism into question. "I was just about to sit down."

"Uh huh. That’s what I meant." A mocking smile was still on Gina’s face, and Sally felt some of her normal feistiness come to the fore.

"Look, miss, I appreciate your thoughtfulness, but I’m quite able to take care of myself." She started to rise, but felt her vision cloud again and she quickly sat down. "Ugh." Sally put her head in her hands and took a deep breath. "I don’t feel well."

Gina sat down next to her, forcing the steady stream of people trying to enter to stay to the left to avoid hitting them. "Hey, we’re tryin’ to get in here," one of the young servicemen said. "Get off the steps!"

Gina fixed him with a lethal stare and Sally could nearly see the starch leave the young mans sails. The blonde laughed softly, saying, "Why are you wasting your time volunteering at the USO? With that look you could be a general."

"I’d rather eat nails," the brunette scoffed. "I don’t take orders, I give them."

"And just what do you do?" Sally asked, finding herself interested in exactly who this unusual woman was.

"I own a grocery store," the brunette said with a note of pride in her voice. "Well, I own it along with the rest of my family. It’s a nice place on Mulberry Street."

"Mulberry Street? I’m sorry, but I don’t know the city. This is my first time here."

"No! I thought you was from Queens," Gina said, laughing softly. "I don’t know where that accent is from, hon, but it ain’t from New York." Giving her a long, assessing look, Gina said, "I’m gonna bet it’s from New England."

Sally extended her hand and Gina did the same. "Sally Compton, Concord, New Hampshire."

"Gina Guerrieri, Little Italy."

Sally’s head tilted in question. "You’re from Italy?"

"Ahh … no," Gina said. "My parents are, but I was born here in New York. Little Italy is a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. It’s right next to Chinatown."

"Ohh," Sally said, nodding in comprehension. "I don’t know where either of those neighborhoods are, but they sound nice."

"Yeah, they are," Gina said. "I love New York, even though it can get a little hot and humid in the summer. You wouldn’t like it in August."

Eyes open wide, Sally gasped, "This isn’t bad?!?"

"Hell, no," Gina said, laughing. "I bet it’s not even eighty degrees tonight. It’ll get a lot worse than this. You should come back in late September or October. That’s when it’s really nice."

Shaking her head, Sally said, "I don’t think I’ll be coming back. Unless Pete is sent here on leave or something."

"Pete, huh?" Gina cocked her head. "Are you gonna get hitched soon?"

"Uhm … you could say that. We’re supposed to go to Connecticut tonight."

"Popular place," Gina said dryly. "The roads are packed the night before a ship sails."

"It’s the closest place to New York where you can get married without a waiting period," Sally said. "I guess it is pretty popular, what with the war going on and all."

"That’s what I hear." Gina reached into her pocket and took out a rumpled pack of cigarettes. Shaking the pack, she extended one to Sally. "Smoke?"

With the tiniest look of distaste, Sally said, "No, no thanks. I don’t smoke."

"I’m not surprised," the brunette said, a smile quirking at the corners of her lips. "I bet you don’t drink, either, do you."

Sally blushed mildly. "Uhm … no."

Gina lit her cigarette and blew out a thin, blue stream of smoke. Squinting, she gave Sally a long look and said, "Feel free to tell me to mind my own business, but why are you in such a hurry to get married? You in trouble?"

"Trouble?" The blonde thought for a moment, then blushed a bright pink. "Gosh, no!"

"Gosh?" Gina asked, rolling her eyes. "Are you old enough to get married? I think you have to be sixteen, ya know."

"Funny," Sally said. "I’ll have you know that I’m nearly twenty-three years old. I think that makes me legal in every state."

"Okay, I’ll give you that one. Now, why are you in a hurry to get hitched? Is old Pete shipping out soon?"

"Uhm … is tomorrow at 6:00 a.m. soon?"

"Yeah, that’s pretty soon," Gina said, rolling her eyes a little. "You uhm … don’t look like the type to run away from home to get married. Is your family gonna be there?"

"No," Sally said, looking glum. "I just made up my mind this morning."

"This morning!?! Are you nuts? I give more thought to what I’m gonna have for dinner. When did you meet the guy … yesterday?"

"No, of course not! I’ve known Pete since we were seniors in high school."

"And you just decided to get married today? What gives? Were you afraid you’d be the last people from your class to get hitched?"

Sally elbowed the brunette in the ribs. "We’ve been engaged for five years, smartie pants."

"Ooh … vicious," Gina said, laughing heartily. "You’ve got quite a mouth on you." Shaking her head the brunette said, "I hate to be a pest, but if you’ve been engaged for five years, why the rush? Why didn’t you kids get married in front of ma and pa and all of the other Concordians?"

"Uhm … I uh …" The blonde shrugged her shoulders and looked away. "I … I don’t know why we haven’t taken the leap yet."

"He’s been tough to land, huh?" Gina said, patting the smaller woman on the back. "Well, don’t worry about it. Now that he’s facing death he’s finally come around."

The blonde eyebrows rose and Sally snapped, "He’s been ready since we were seventeen! I’m the one who …" As she heard her voice make the admission the smaller woman grew quiet, then once again dropped her head into her hands. "I’ve got to get some air. This crowd is driving me mad."

"Come with me, kid." Gina took her hand and pulled her to her feet, then led her just a few yards down 43rd Street. They entered a coffee shop that was cooled by a number of efficient ceiling fans, and when the circulating air hit her moist skin Sally nearly cried with relief.

"I’ve never been so happy to be anywhere in my life," she sighed, dropping into a booth. "I can’t stay long, though. My fiancé went to borrow a car. He might be back soon."

"No, he won’t be," Gina said in a dismissive tone.

"I tell you, that he’s itching to get married," Sally insisted.

The brunette laughed, her head falling back slightly to allow the full, rich sound to escape. "That’s not what I meant, kid. Your boyfriend has to take the number one train from Times Square, then switch to the number eight bus. By the time he gets back here and finds a place to park, you could have had a five course dinner."

"What? How do you know where he’s going?"

"’Cause he’s going to get my car."

"Your car? You’re Rocco’s cousin?"

"Yep. One and the same."

Sally rested her head on her folded arms and let out a groan. "Great. So now I get to drive to Connecticut with a woman who knows I’m having second thoughts about getting married. That’s just great."

"Second thoughts? I don’t think you’ve had first thoughts," Gina said, smirking as her head shook.

"That’s not fair! You don’t know me at all!"

"Not yet I don’t." Gina checked her watch and said, "You’ve got a good hour to fill me in." She braced her chin on her fist and gave Sally a bright-eyed, terribly interested look. "Start anywhere you like."

Sally rolled her eyes and squirmed a bit in the booth, relieved when the waitress approached up. "What’ll you girls have?" she asked Sally with a very marked lack of enthusiasm.

"Do you have any lemonade?"

"Yeah." She made a note and turned. "What about you, hon?" she asked, her gaze growing more interested as she thoroughly regarded Gina.

With a smile blooming on her full lips, Gina titled her head and asked, "What do you recommend?"

"I’d recommend going someplace nice, but if ya can’t afford to, I’d tell ya to get a black and white malt. They’re not bad, and you look like you could stand to add a few pounds."

"All right," Gina said, the corner of her mouth curling up. "A black and white it is."

"Comin’ right up," the woman said, turning on her heel and adding a little shimmy to her walk.

Sally looked after the woman with a slightly puzzled expression, then turned back to Gina. "Do you still want to hear my life story?"

"Yep. I’m all ears."

"Okay, since we have time to kill I guess I’ll give you the whole thing." She took in a breath and said, "As I told you, I met Pete in high school. He was my first serious boyfriend, and we’ve been together ever since. He wanted to get married right after high school, but my parents wanted me to go to college. They’re both teachers and they wanted me to have the same opportunities to advance myself as they had."

"Uh huh," Gina said, her dark eyes staring intently at the blonde.

"I got a scholarship to UNH and …" She saw the blank look on Gina’s face and added, "The University of New Hampshire."

"Got it," the brunette nodded.

"Pete and I didn’t get to see a lot of each other while I was in school, but I think I did the right thing. I got my degree in nursing and that should help us make a go of it in the long run."

"So, the school’s pretty far away from home, huh?"

"Uhm … yeah, it’s pretty far. It took me about an hour on the bus."

Eyes twinkling, Gina asked, "How often did you come home?"

Blithely, Sally replied, "Oh, the usual school holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter."

"I see. Did Pete go to school, too?"

"No, he didn’t have the money or the interest, so he went to work with his father and his two older brothers. They own the biggest stationery store in Concord," she said.

"Two older brothers, huh?" Gina commented. "Sounds like my family, minus four more kids."

Sally wrinkled her nose at her new friend, then continued, "So, I finished my degree and then I decided I had to work for at least a year to see how things went."

"What things were you worried about?" Gina asked, a grin settling on her full lips.

"Oh, I don’t know. I guess I was afraid that Pete would monopolize all of my free time. I was starting my first job and I wanted to make sure I got off to a good start."

"A good start, huh? Well, did you?"

"Did I what?"

"Get off to a good start?" Gina asked.

"Oh! I guess I did. I worked hard and the head nurse in my department seems to like me."

"So … now it’s time to fly the coop, huh? Get your own place and start cranking out kids."

"Well, that’s going to be hard to do with Pete away at the war," Sally reminded her. "We won’t even have a night together, since you and Rocco want to come back to New York. Pete says there aren’t any hotel rooms available here."

"Ahh … forgive me if I’m poking my nose where it doesn’t belong, but are you telling me you’re not going to get to … be alone tonight?"

Sally shook her head. "Pete says the only hotel rooms we can afford are in bad neighborhoods."

"I’d make time if my sweetheart was shipping out tomorrow, I’d sleep in Hitler’s bathroom if I had to. Hell, I’d skip the wedding and get right to the honeymoon!"

Sally blushed again, and narrowed her eyes. "I’m not that kind of girl, Gina. Marriage first, then the honeymoon."

"Hold it … hold it right there. Do you mean to tell me that you and Romeo haven’t …" She made a V with her fingers and brought them together to indicate closeness.

"No, we haven’t," Sally said rather prudishly. "There’s plenty of time for that after we’re married."

Gina’s head dropped back again and a full, earthy laugh erupted. Sally found herself staring, having never seen a lady behave in quite that way. "You kill me," Gina said. "You positively kill me."

"I suppose you lie down with any guy who asks?" Sally asked with more than a note of condemnation in her voice.

"For your information," Gina said, sliding her elbows across the table and leaning over as close as she could, "I’ve never lied down with any guy at all."

"Lain," Sally primly corrected primly.

"Sheesh! Okay, schoolmarm, I’ve never lain down with a guy." The waitress chose this that moment to approach the table, sliding a pair of tall glasses onto the Formica. She spared a wink for Gina, who was now blushing a bit herself.

Waiting until the waitress was out of earshot, Sally whispered, "So, you’re making fun of me, and you’ve never even had s-e-x."

Leaning back in the booth with a superior smile, Gina crossed her arms over her chest and said, "I didn’t say that. I said I’ve never had s-e-x with a m-a-n."

Blinking slowly, Sally asked, "What else is there?"

"Women, you dope. I have sex with women."

Sally sat motionless, stunned silence reigning over the booth. "You can do that?" she finally managed.

Gina stretched and let out a yawn, her long frame taking up the entire side of the booth. "Oh, yeah, trust me. You can do that. It’s pretty damned easy, as well as a hell of a lot of fun."

"I … I had no idea," Sally said, still in shock.

"No idea? The idea of women with women hasn’t hit New Hampshire?"

"It didn’t reach me in Concord, if it has," Sally admitted. "I mean, every town has a couple of prissy men that people whisper about, but I’ve never heard of women doing anything like that."

"Well, welcome to New York," Gina said, chuckling heartily. "Men with men, women with women, men with women, hell, cats lie down with dogs here."

Sally cocked her head, giving her new friend a wary glance.

"I’m kidding about the cats and dogs," she said. "I think."

Taking a long sip of her lemonade, Sally then sat back against the booth, seemingly deep in thought. "My father always said New York was a strange place. I bet he doesn’t know how right he was."

"Hey! I don’t like being called strange," Gina said, obviously hurt.

"Oh, gosh! I didn’t mean you. I just meant that it’s so … different here and it seems strange to me. I think you’re really nice, Gina. You don’t seem strange at all."

"All right," the brunette said, nodding her forgiveness. "So, if you’re over the shock of my wild life, let’s talk about you and Pete. I noticed that you didn’t marry him after high school because your education was more important than getting married. Then you didn’t marry him last year because you didn’t want him to take up all of your free time. Uhm … isn’t that what you’re supposed to want? Isn’t that why you marry someone?"

Sally’s head dropped and she sat very still for a few moments. "I suppose so," she said admitted quietly. "At least, that’s what my friends say, at least. They can’t wait to be with their boyfriends." She lifted her chin and said, "I’ve never been like that. I want to have my own life, Gina. I want what I want, and I don’t think I’ll be able to make my own decisions once I’m married. I was so happy when I was in college," she said wistfully. "I would have stayed for ten years if they’d have let me."

"Hmm …" the dark- haired woman mused. "You sure haven’t been in a hurry to get married so far. Why agree now?"

"I guess … I guess I thought it was the least I could do … for the war effort, and all."

"I must’ve missed that recruiting poster," Gina said. "I have a Victory Garden, and I treat my hose like they’re made outta gold, but I’d have to say no to Uncle Sam himself if he asked me to get married."

"You know what I mean," Sally said, waving her new friend off.

"I have no idea what you mean," Gina said. "How does marrying a guy help the war?"

"He’ll be so unhappy if I say no," Sally explained. "I don’t want him shipping off for Europe and going to fight if he’s all down in the dumps."

"Sally," Gina said, her voice growing serious and soft. "There’s nothing you can do to keep him safe. If you marry him, if you get pregnant tonight, if you go to church ten times a day. There is nothing — nothing you can do to bring him back safe and whole. Married guys get killed. Married guys with a young son and another baby on the way …" she said, her voice choking with tears. She lowered her head and cried softly while Sally reached across the table and gripped her hand.

"Your brother?" Sally asked.

"Yeah. My oldest brother Vito. He was killed six months ago in France. My sister-in-law, Angela works in the store with us. She had the baby a couple of weeks ago. Named him Vito Junior." She shook her head and wiped the tears from her eyes. "I can hardly call the baby by his name."

"Gina, I’m so sorry," Sally whispered. "I’m so very sorry."

"I am, too," the brunette said. "Vito loved his family like nobody’s business, and if he couldn’t keep himself safe, nobody can. It’s the luck of the draw, Sally,, and if Pete’s lucky, he’ll come home whether or not he’s married."

"I just thought that knowing I was waiting for him would make him happy," the younger woman said, a few tears rolling down her cheeks.

Gina reached for her hand and patted it gently. "I’m sure it would, kid, but what happens if you decide it’s not right for you? How will he feel if he gets home and you get divorced in a year or two?"

"I’d never get divorced!" Sally said. "Even if I wasn’t happy, I’d never do that to Pete!"

"Then wait for him to come home," Gina urged. "Spend the time he’s away trying to decide if this is what you really want. Marriage is a life sentence, Sally. Don’t do it unless there isn’t a doubt in your mind." She squeezed the younger woman’s hand and looked directly into her eyes. "You have a lot of doubts, don’t you?"

"Yes, yes, I do," she said. Her head bowed and she admitted, "I love Pete, but sometimes I think of him like a brother. But we … we kissed tonight at the USO and I felt some things I’ve never felt, and that gave me hope."


"Yes, hope that someday I’ll want him like he wants me. He loves me so much, Gina, and he … he really wants to be with me."

"I don’t think you can make yourself love someone, Sally, no matter how much you want to. And I’m sure you can’t make yourself want to sleep with a guy if it’s not in you."

"But what do I do?" the younger woman asked, her blue eyes wide.

"I think you tell Pete that you’ll wait for him, and then spend the time you’re apart trying to figure out what’s stopping you from loving him. Maybe being apart will give you the spark you’ve been missing. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, if you believe what you hear."

"Do you really think I should do that?" Sally asked. "That’s what my mother thinks, too."

"Sometimes mothers know best," Gina said. "My mom knows me better than anyone on earth."

"Does she know that you like … other girls?"

"Yeah, she does, but we don’t talk about it. She lets me know in other ways that she’s on my side, though. When my girlfriend broke up with me, my mom came over and hugged me for a long time. Then she kissed me and said, ‘She was never good enough for you, Gina.’"

"Wow, that’s really sweet," Sally said. "She must love you very much."

"She does. We have a very close family. Darned good thing since we’re breathing down each other’s necks all day long."

"Sounds like Pete’s family," Sally said. She shook her head and said, "I’ll never be able to face his mother if I don’t marry him. She’ll have all of Concord turned against me by the time I get home."

"That’s no reason to get married," Gina said sternly. "You can run away and join the circus if you have to, but getting married to please other people is just stupid."

Sally shrugged. "I wouldn’t be the first one to do it.," Sally shrugged.

"No, you sure wouldn’t," Gina agreed. "That’s why my girlfriend left me. She couldn’t stand to disappoint her parents, so she married some guy she barely knew. She’s so unhappy she’s ready to take rat poison, but her parents are pleased as punch." She shook her head, her face set in a resigned scowl. "She calls me all the time, but I won’t see her. She made her bed and I’m not gonna lie in it with her."

"Oh, Gina, I’m so sorry. You must have been devastated. How long were you together?"

"Five years," she said. "I still love Joanne, and she still loves me, but she could never grow up enough to make her own decisions. Now a guy she barely knows makes ‘em for her."

"That’s so sad," Sally sighed.

"It is, and that’s part of the reason I’m being so blunt with you. I don’t want you to make the same mistake."

Sally nodded, then looked at her watch. "We’d better get back. Pete and Rocco should be back soon."

Taking the check, Gina pulled her wallet from her purse, saying, "I’ll get this one. Depending on what you do, it’ll be a wedding or an independence present."

* * *

The pair walked back into the USO, the crowd having not thinned in the hour they’d were been gone. "We’ll never find them," Sally said.

"Sure we will." Gina went to the soda counter and pulled out a case full of bottles. She climbed up onto it and scouted all around the room, looking down at Sally to say, "No sign of ‘em. They’re probably stuck in traffic." Gina jumped down and guided Sally to the least crowded corner of the room, but a bevy of servicemen hunted them down immediately. After the sixth forlorn man was sent away Gina said, "Let’s dance. With any luck, no one will cut in."

Sally laughed and followed the tall woman to the dance floor. Gina put on her most menacing look and rested one hand lightly on Sally’s hip while holding their clasped hands aloft. There were quite a few pairs of women dancing since there was always a shortage of willing male partners. The band broke into one of Sally’s favorite songs, and she nestled close as Gina smoothly led her through the steps. "I always want to dance to this number, but Pete won’t come anywhere near a dance floor," she said.

"I don’t know why guys can’t figure out that women love to dance," Gina said, chuckling softly. "They’d do so much better with the ladies if they’d just take a couple of lessons and quit standing on the sidelines. There must be two hundred guys drooling at us like wolves, but not one of ‘em has the guts to ask us to dance."

"I wonder why?" Sally asked absently, feeling very fluid and graceful under Gina’s lead. "You’re a very good partner."

"Thanks," the brunette said. "It’s a nice way for me to meet women, too." She looked down to gauge Sally’s reaction, pleased when her glance was met with a smile.

"I can’t imagine you have too much trouble finding a date. I saw the way the waitress was flirting with you. I didn’t catch on at first, but after you told me about your … life, I noticed it."

"She wasn’t my type," Gina said. "Besides, I’ve been pretty leery of getting involved with anyone ever since Joanne and I broke up. I think I’m a little battle scarred."

"I’ve never had my heart broken," Sally said. "It must be awful."

"Yeah, it sure as hell stings. I don’t like to date much, to tell you the truth. I’m a relationship kind of girl. When I meet someone I want to be with, I really want to be with her. Why keep looking when you find what you want?"

"I guess I’m the same way," Sally said. "But that must be pretty obvious, since Pete’s been my only real boyfriend."

"Maybe this isn’t the time to bring it up, but have you ever considered that Pete just isn’t the right guy for you? Maybe that’s why you’re not ready to marry."

"No, I don’t thing so," Sally said. "I’ve never met a man I like more than Pete. He’s everything I’ve ever said I wanted, Gina, really."

"I believe you, Sally. But you have to admit you haven’t seen much of the world. Maybe you need to get out and meet a different kind of guy. Heck, maybe you’re a big city kinda girl."

Sally gave her an embarrassed smile and said, "You’re gonna laugh, but I considered joining the WACS or the WAVES. They need all the nurses they can get, but my family and Pete talked me out of it. They all think it’s far too dangerous."

"Sometimes you have to take a few risks to make life worth living," Gina said.

As the song finished, Sally stood still and then gave the taller woman a wide grin. "This is really my favorite song. I love ‘Moonlight Serenade. I could listen to this song for hours.’"

Gina grinned back. "Me too.," Gina grinned back. She slid her hand around to the younger woman’s back and pulled her body a little closer. "Let’s show ’‘em what we’ve got, okay?"

Sally held on tight and let the music and Gina’s strong, yet supple body glide her around the floor. They moved beautifully together, thigh pressing against thigh, Gina’s breasts barely resting atop Sally’s; their bodies so close that each could feel the other’s heartbeat. Sally leaned into the larger woman, feeling safe and protected and calmer than she had in days. Dreamily, she followed her graceful steps, wishing the music would never end.

Abruptly, two loud voices broke the spell and Sally felt Pete’s hand squeeze her shoulder. "We’re back."

With her eyes darting from Gina to Pete, Sally gulped and steeled her courage. Grabbing Pete by the hand, she led him to the quietest corner of the room. "Pete," she began, but before she could get out another word he said, "Sally, I’m so sorry, but we don’t have a car. Rocco was speeding and when the police stopped us he didn’t have a valid license. They impounded Gina’s car."

He looked like he was about to cry, and Sally felt her whole body flood with relief. "Oh, sweetheart, how horrible! Are you all right?"

"Yeah, sure I’m all right. But we can’t get married, honey. We’ve been knocking our heads together for the last hour, but we can’t think of another way to get there. The last train to Connecticut has already left, and I don’t have enough money for a cab. We’re sunk."

Sally looked up at him, seeing the deep disappointment in his eyes. "We could pool our money and get a hotel room," she offered, as much to her own surprise as Pete’s. "I can’t bear to see you so disappointed."

"Sweetheart! You’d really do that for me?"

"Of course I would," she soothed, hoping that she could find the courage to do so.

"You’re the most wonderful girl in the world, Sally, but I could never do that to you. No decent fella would ever try to sneak a girl like you into a hotel room. You deserve the whole magilla, honey, and when I get back that’s just what you’re gonna get. We’ll have a big wedding in Concord with both of our families and all of our friends. Just like you’ve always dreamed of." He pulled her to himself and hugged her fiercely. "It means so much to me that you’ve finally said yes, that it hardly matters when we get married. I want to make sure our wedding is everything you’ve ever wanted."

"Oh, Pete, I don’t know how I ever got so lucky."

He kissed her, and to her horror she felt the old sisterly feelings return. She wanted the kiss to end, so she put her arms around him and held him tightly, burying her face in the wool of his jacket.

Gina and Rocco approached and it was obvious that Rocco had been given a lengthy lecture. "Apologize," Gina demanded.

The man gave Sally a sheepish look and said, "I’m really, really sorry. I swear I was just trying to get back in time for you to make it to Connecticut."

"That’s okay, Rocco. It could happen to anyone. It’ll all work out all right in the end."

"Do you have any place to stay tonight?" Gina asked.

"Uhm … no, I don’t," Sally said. "Neither does Pete."

"I can take Pete to my house," Rocco offered. "I’ll sleep on the floor and he can have my bed. It’s the least I can do."

"You’re welcome to come home with me, Sally," Gina offered.

Sally looked to Pete and he nodded. "I guess that’s best for both of us. It’s almost 11, and that’s when they close here."

The band stopped playing and someone made the announcement that it was closing time. The crowd began to file out, the couple being buffeted by the moving throng. Gina and Rocco stayed in place alongside the pair, discretely waiting for the couple to join the crowd. "I can’t bear to leave you," Pete said, looking at Sally with a depth of sadness she had never seen in his eyes.

"Let’s go outside so we can have a few minutes alone," Sally

suggested. "It’s not much, but it’s all we have."

The tried to find a quiet corner, but there wasn’t an inch of unoccupied space on 42nd Street. Gina and Rocco were trying to stay in the background, but they were clearly visible in Sally’s peripheral vision. Swallowing her discomfort, she hugged Pete and tilted her chin, waiting for his kiss.

The ferocity of Pete’s embrace caught Sally by surprise. They were in the middle of one of the busiest streets in the world, yet he was kissing her with an abandon that he’d never shown when they were alone. The depth of his need finally became clear to her and her heart ached with sorrow over how little his fervid kisses affected her. She noticed the crowd and each person passing by, she saw Gina and Rocco, she saw the neon signs garishly illuminating the street. Worst of all, she saw the desire in Pete's eyes and she couldn't avoid the fact that all she felt was love, not lust.

After an interminable length of time, Pete backed away, his eyes glazed over. "We have to stop," he panted, "or we won’t be able to."

Sally wished with all of her heart that she could echo his feelings, but instead she gave him a small smile and nodded. "I suppose we might as well get going."

The foursome left the building together, and but when they reached the Times Square subway they had to split up. "We have to take different train lines," Gina explained.

Sally looked up at Pete and froze. "I … I can’t believe we have to say good-bye," she said, her tears starting to flow. "I’m gonna miss you so much."

Pete held her tight. "I love you, Sally. Even though we didn’t get married tonight, you’ve made me the happiest man on earth. I love you with all my heart, and I promise that I’ll be as careful as I can be."

Through her tears she managed to say, "I love you, Pete. Please come home safe and sound."

He kissed her again and then pulled himself from her grip when Rocco signaled that their train had arrived. "I love you!" he called out as he hopped aboard the subway car.

Sally leaned against Gina, sobbing so hard that she felt sick to her stomach. The taller woman wrapped an arm around her and let her cry herself out, never rushing her. She just held on and offered what small comfort she could.

Several minutes passed, and they were very long minutes for Gina. Seeing the happy young couples running for trains, many of the men in uniform made her think of her brother Vito. By the time Sally started to pull away Gina was in tears and Sally immediately tightened her hold on the other woman, glad that she could partially repay some of the kindnesses she had been shown.

After another few moments, Gina stood tall and wiped her eyes on a crisply ironed handkerchief that she pulled from her purse. Then she dabbed at Sally’s eyes, shaking her head and saying, "People are going to think we’re awfully upset that we didn’t make that last train."

Looking up at her with a few tears still welling up, Sally said, "Wouldn’t it be nice if that were the least of our troubles?"

"Sure would," Gina agreed. She tucked an arm around Sally’s waist and said, "We’ve got a little walk to get to our train line. Ready?"

The younger woman looked around. "I’ve been in such a daze that I haven’t had a minute to be terrified of this place! How do you know where to go? I’ve never seen so many people in such a hurry in all my life!"

"This is Saturday night, honey. This is a crawl compared to Monday morning. That’s when it’s really a madhouse."

"Are you serious?" Sally was staring at her new friend with amazement.

"Yeah, of course. There’s a couple of million people running around this island every day, and in reality Manhattan isn’t all that large. Hell, you could walk across it in an hour if you kept a good pace."

Sally gave her a nearly blank look, then Gina saw a few sparks of life flicker in the bright blue eyes. "You know, there’s something exciting about this place. There’s an electricity in the air that you can almost feel in the air."

With a smile that grew to luminous proportions Gina said, "You aren’t the first to mention that, but I’m damned glad to hear it." Tightening her grip, she guided Sally through the maze of the Times Square station, managing to arrive on the proper platform a few minutes later.

"I asked you before, but this time I want an answer," Sally said. "How do you know where to go?"

Laughing, Gina said, "It’s not that hard, especially if you’ve been riding the subway all your life. Every line has either a letter or a number that identifies it. Our train is a one or a two. It eventually goes to Brooklyn, but it stops in the Village on the way."

"The Village?"

"Yeah, I live in Greenwich Village."

"Really?" Sally’s face was filled with excitement. "I’ve read about Greenwich Village. It has a lot of history, doesn’t it?"

"Yeah, I guess it does," Gina admitted. "The main reason I like it is because it’s close to my family, but not too close to my family. They have to call before they waste the time taking the cross-town bus. If I still lived in Little Italy, they’d pop in any time they wanted to."

"So you have your own place?" Sally asked, looking a little suspicious.

"Yeah, sure. I’m an adult, and I had to prove that to my parents by getting my own apartment. They didn’t like it, but I needed my independence."

"Gosh, I can’t imagine what that must be like," Sally said somewhat dreamily.

"What, having your own place?"

Quickly shaking her head, Sally said, "No, having your independence."

With a frighteningly loud screech of metal on metal, the train pulled up to the platform and Gina urged Sally into a seat. The car was crowded, and since Sally had taken the last available spot, Gina stood and held on to a strap above Sally’s head. "Is it safe to stand up?" Sally asked, eyes wide.

"Yeah, it’s fine. I do it all the time."

The blonde tried to believe her new friend, but just in case, she reached out and held on to the hem of her skirt, Gina looking down at her thoughtful but futile gesture with an indulgent smile.

* * *

They got off the train at Christopher Street and Gina laid out their options. "We can use our transfers and take the number eight bus, or we can walk."

"How far is it?" Sally asked.

"It's close, only six short blocks."

"Let’s walk then," Sally said. "I want to see more of this place. Things go by too fast on a bus."

They began to walk towards the Hudson River, with Gina pointing out every building and street of any significance whatsoever. After Sally had peppered her with dozens of questions, the taller woman said, "You seem to have been bitten by the New York bug."


"Yeah. People either love Manhattan or they hate it. It’s a hard city to be ambivalent about."

Sally looked at her with astonishment. "How could you hate it here? It’s absolutely fascinating!"

"That’s what I think," Gina said, "but you yourself said that your father told you it was strange here."

"Yes, he did," Sally said. "He’s had to come here for some conventions, and every time he swears he won’t come back. He acts like the city is filled with nothing but con artists and loose women."

"We have our fair share of both," Gina said, smiling. "But we also have a lot of people who are just as nice and wholesome as the purest New Hampshirian."

"I’m sure that’s true," Sally agreed. "You’re one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, so it must be true."

"Thanks," Gina said, a little embarrassed by the comment. They walked along in silence for another block, turning onto a quiet, tree-lined, cobble stoned street. Elaborately turned wrought iron light posts gave the picturesque street a warm, golden glow, and Sally gasped in delight.

"What a lovely place!"

"Thanks," Gina said. "Welcome to Weehawken Street."

"That’s the cutest name I’ve ever heard," Sally decided with such authority that Gina didn’t dare contradict her.

Reaching a dark red brick building with painted white window frames Gina said, "Here she is. I hope you don’t mind a walk-up."

Sally looked at the eight stone steps leading up to wooden double doors and said, "No, I don’t mind."

After climbing negotiating the steep stoop, they entered a small vestibule and began to climb. By the time they reached the fifth floor, Sally realized she did, in fact, mind a walk up apartment. She was about to cry for mercy, while Gina’s long legs let her glide up the stairs effortlessly. Gasping for air, Sally practically fell into the apartment when Gina opened the door. She immediately sank into an upholstered chair, trying to catch her breath before she realized there was barely an extra molecule of air in the place.

Gina walked over and opened both front windows, then turned on a fan, but that did little to help. The apartment was hot and stuffy in a way that Sally had not imagined possible, and the look on her face must have telegraphed her distress.

"I’m sorry it’s so hot in here," Gina said. "I think the neighborhood is safe enough, but I always close it up tight when I leave. There’s a fire escape right outside my windows and I don’t want to invite a cat burglar in. I promise the place will cool down within a half hour."

"Half an hour?" Sally panted. "I’ll never make it."

"Come on," Gina said. "I’ve got some summer pajamas you can put on. That’ll help." She walked over to a chest built into the wall and pulled out a pair of baby doll pajamas. Handing them to Sally she said, "I don’t think I’ve ever worn these. My mother thinks I’m still a teenager, and she tries to get me to dress like I did when I was one."

"These will be big, but they’re cute," Sally said, admiring the lightweight cotton print.

"The bathroom is right there," Gina said, pointing to one of two doorways.

"Thanks. I’ll be right back." Sally went into the pink and black tiled room, smiling at the homey touches that Gina had added. There were small, framed photographs on the walls, and a basket of guest towels and decorative soaps artistically arranged. Cute, she thought to herself. Not at all what I expected. Her curiosity got the best of her and she snuck a peek into the medicine cabinet, rather dismayed to find the usual assortment of headache remedies, Band-Aids and other mundane bromides. The room was sparkling clean and as neat as a pin though, and that impressed Sally a great deal. After she had changed she went back into the living room. "I feel better already," she said, smiling.

"I knew you would," Gina said. "Here’s a cold glass of lemonade. That should help, too." Gina held up a bundle of cloth and said, "I’m gonna put on my pajamas too, don’t go away."

"Go right ahead," Sally said. Taking a sip of the drink she added, "This is delicious!"

"Thanks. I made it myself, with lemons from our market. We have the best produce in the city." The tall woman gave her friend a quick wink, then went to change.

While she was gone, Sally looked around the tidy, but small, orderly place. It looked like Gina had lived there for a while, mainly because of the decorative flourishes that graced the walls. Nothing was out of place, and it was clear that she had tried to get as much into the living space as she could, without making it look overstuffed.

Sally walked over to the bookcases and looked idly at the titles, surprised that many of them were written in Italian. One shelf of English language books dealt exclusively with wine, while another was nothing but cookbooks. Sally noted that quite a few books dealt with the history of New York as well as of Liguria, and she guessed that must be a city in Italy.

Gina emerged and found her new friend looking over her small library. "Anything look good?" she asked.

"Oh! I hope you don’t mind," Sally said. Cocking her head, she asked, "Do you like to read?"

"Yeah, a whole lot," Gina said. "My family makes fun of me for it, but I’ve been a bookworm since I was a kid. My mom’s parents are barely literate, Sally. I’ve been given so many opportunities just because I was born in America. I feel like I need to use the gifts I’ve been given."

The tall woman walked across the room to put her clothing away and Sally looked at her with increasing curiosity. Such an enigma, she thought. She seems so rough and tough, but she’s really a neat little bookworm. Gosh, I’d love to have someone to talk about books with. Pete acts like his brain will burst if he reads more than the sports page.

Gina went into the kitchen and reappeared with a bowl filled with ice cubes. While she moved across the room Sally took a good look at her outfit. She was wearing traditional men’s summer pajamas — striped top and shorts — but she had removed the sleeves from the top. She had done so carefully, and the seams had been neatly sewn, but it still looked rather odd. "I made these myself," she said, with a note of hesitation in her voice. "Do they look funny?"

"No, not at all," Sally lied. "They seem very practical."

"Yeah, they are," the brunette agreed. "I’m a pretty practical person, and I like to wear as little as possible in the summer. I can’t stand to wear nightgowns, though. I always get tangled up in ‘em. This seemed like the best solution."

Sally turned her attention back to the books. "Do you speak Italian?"

"Oh, sure. My parents were born in Italy, and my grandparents are still there. We speak Italian at home and at the store most of the time."

"Do you ever visit your grandparents?"

"Yeah, I do. Not very often, of course, and not since the war started." Her brow furrowed with worry and she softly said, "I pray every night that the fighting doesn’t reach them."

"You poor thing," Sally said. "You’ve really had a bad year, haven’t you."

Gina sheepishly scratched her head, looking strangely childlike as she did so. "I guess I have," she admitted. "I just hope it gets better rather than worse."

"I hope so, too," Sally said, impulsively giving her a quick, impulsive hug.

Gina didn’t lift her arms, she just stood there, rigid and stiff. When Sally released her the larger woman gave her a forced-looking smile. "Want to see my favorite place in all of New York?" she asked, her voice pitched a little high.

"Uhm … dressed like this?"

"Sure. No one will see us." Gina led the way into the kitchen. She unlocked and opened the back door, then began to climb a ladder that extended up through the roof that covered the back landing. Sally gamely followed her and stopped in amazement when her head peeked out into the space. To her surprise, Gina had transformed the rooftop into a beautiful garden, complete with cut barrels filled with lush green plants, a few garden benches, and a small café table and two chairs. "This is my heaven," the taller woman said proudly.

Sally climbed the rest of the way and stood on the roof, surveying all that surrounded her. "I’m stunned," she murmured.

"In case you didn’t guess from my books, I’m crazy about wine. Both of my grandfathers are vintners, and I’ve got the bug. I’m trying a few things with some cuttings that I got the last time I visited, and I think some of them are going to be great."

"You’re growing grapes?" Sally asked, fingering some of the curly tendrils that cascaded down from the robust plants.

"Yep. I use the basement of the store to actually make the wine, but the grapes seem to love it here. They think they’re in Liguria," she said, chuckling mildly.

"Is that where your family is from?"

"Uh huh. One of the most beautiful places in the world. Every time I visit I’m tempted to stay, but I’m always glad when I get back home."

"Things must have been very bad for your parents to have to leave," Sally said. "We read about the horrible conditions of the Italian immigrants when I was in school."

Gina started to giggle, making herself look young and girlish. "We didn’t come over here on coffin ships," she said. "My parents are from the Italian Riviera, Sally. My grandparents’ live about an hour from Portofino."

"I don’t–"

"Trust me," Gina said. "It’s a very nice place. But my father was the fifth son, and he didn’t want to spend his life working for his older brothers. My mother and father were dating at the time and he talked her into moving to the United States right before the First World War."

"Oh! I just assumed–"

"Yeah, I know, all Italians are poor immigrants from Sicily, and most of us are connected to the mob."

"I didn’t think that!" the blonde said. But a long look from Gina made her admit the truth. "I guess I did think that."

"I understand," Gina said. "That’s the impression that most people have. And it’s true that most Italians here in the Northeast are descended from Sicilians. There’s nothing in the world wrong with Sicily, by the way, but it’s not the only region in Italy."

"I’d love to know more about Italy," Sally said. "I feel like such a dope!"

"Don’t worry about it," Gina said. "I don’t know a thing about New Hampshire. I probably couldn’t find it on a map."

"I bet you know more about New Hampshire than I know about grapes or wine," Sally said. "This is all so beautiful, Gina! It’s a work of art."

"Thank you," she said quietly. "I love it here so much that I’m pretty protective of it. I have to trust a girl before I’ll let her see my secret place."

"I’m so glad that you decided to trust me," Sally said, her smile beaming in the moonlight.

"I trusted you by the time I handed you the Coke," the taller woman teased. "Now I’m going to get a glass of Vermentino. Would you like more lemonade?"

"No, I want some wine, if that’s what Verma whatever is."

"Yes, it’s wine," Gina said. "Are you sure? You told me you don’t drink."

"Tonight calls for a drink," Sally decided. "It’s not every day I declare at least a little bit of my independence."

"Coming right up," the brunette said, a warm smile on her lips.

Gina returned a few minutes later to find Sally leaning against the waist high ledge that surrounded the place. "Having fun?" she asked quietly, placing a pair of wine glasses on the smooth, flat concrete.

Sally turned and regarded her seriously. "I should be having one of the worst nights of my life, but I’m enjoying myself tremendously," she said. "I feel horribly guilty about that, but I really am having a nice time."

"Life’s too short to feel guilt," Gina said, her voice strong and sure. "I learned a long time ago that you do the best you can. You apologize when you hurt someone, you try to right the wrongs you’ve committed, but you can’t feel guilty when you think you’ve done the right thing." She grasped Sally’s arms and turned her so they faced each other. "Do you think you did the right thing?"

Sally didn’t hesitate. "Yes. I know I did."

Gina handed her one of the glasses. "Then there’s no reason not to feel just fine." She took her own glass and clinked it with against her friend’s visitor’s. "To peace, and to the safety of all those we love."

Taking a small sip, Sally let the unfamiliar liquid sit on her tongue for a moment, then swallowed, feeling its gentle warmth as it slid down her throat. Her head cocked, and she looked up at Gina in surprise. "This is good," she said. Taking another sip, she wrinkled her nose and said, "Actually, it’s delicious."

"My grandfather Guerrieri made this," Gina declared. "He’s a very good winemaker. I don’t mean to brag, but this is a great wine and one of the classics of our region. Very light and crisp, but with a soft finish." Gina swirled the wine, then took a hearty sniff, her nose deep in the glass. She took a sip, and Sally could see her moving the liquid around in her mouth, then opening her mouth and taking in a breath before she swallowed., "Mmm …" Gina closed her eyes and thought for a moment. "Almond, pears and a little bit of fruit. Can you taste the fruit on your tongue?"

"Gosh, I don’t think so," Sally said, trying hard and failing to come up with anything at all on her tongue. "But it’s good!"

"I guess that’s all that really matters, isn’t it?" Gina asked. "Let’s have a seat and drink a toast to my grandfather for making a good wine."

They sat on the ledge and looked down the silent street, each of them lost in her own thoughts for a few minutes. "This has been the most amazing day of my life," Sally said quietly. "I made the biggest decision of my life, then reneged on it, then got away without Pete knowing that I was backing out."

Gina cocked her head and said, "We didn’t have any time to talk once the boys came back. Had you made up your mind? Were you going to back out?"

Sally’s head nodded as she began to speak, "Yes, I was. I thought about what you said, and you were right, Gina. If I loved Pete like I say I do, I would have married him long ago. I do love him, but I love him more like a brother than a husband. He deserves a wife, not someone who flinches when he touches her."

Gina was silent, she just nodded in agreement and stared down the street again. A few more minutes passed, an occasional door closed, and a few quiet voices could be heard from somewhere up the block, but everything sounded so muffled from their rooftop that Sally felt as if they were on their own little island. "I’ve never felt so peaceful," she said, her voice nearly a whisper.

"I start to feel calm as soon as I come up here," Gina said. "No matter how stressful a day I have, the pressure in my chest starts to ease when my head pokes out of that stairway."

"Gosh, I’d love to have a place like this," Sally murmured. "Sometimes my work can be a little overwhelming and I’d love to have a little nook where I could be alone."

"Maybe you’ll have one," Gina said, giving Sally a shy look. Both women turned toward the street again, neither speaking for a long while.

A faint throat clearing caused Gina to look at the blonde. Sally wasn’t looking back at her, she was staring straight ahead. "How did you know you wanted to … be with other girls?"quietly

The taller woman had expected the question, and she gave the only answer she’d ever been able to come up with. "I can’t really say, Sally. I’ve always felt this way. It’s the only way I know."

"Doesn’t it bother you that most people would–"

"Like to see people like me locked up?" Gina asked, laughing derisively. "Of course it does. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t right for me. Only I know what’s best for me, and there isn’t a person on heaven or earth who knows me better than I know myself. I am who I am, Sally, and I don’t really care why I’m this way. I’m happy with who I am, and that’s all that matters."

"Gosh, I wish I felt that way," Sally said softly. "I guess I’ve always tried to please my parents and Pete first. It never really struck me that I had to please myself, too."

"You do," Gina said, now staring down the street herself. "If there’s one gift I can give you, it would be that," she said. "You have to get to know yourself, then live your life as you please."

"But how can I do that?" the younger woman asked plaintively. "I live with my parents, and they expect me to do things their way. We eat when and what they want, we listen to the radio programs my father likes, we subscribe to the magazines he likes. Heck, we even have to like the Red Sox, even though I’ve always secretly rooted for the Yankees."

Gina chuckled softly, "A fellow Yankee fan, huh?"

"Yeah, but don’t tell anyone in New Hampshire I told you," Sally said, giving her a wink.

"My lips are sealed." Gina twisted her lips as though she were buttoning them, making Sally giggle.

"Look, Gina, I know your advice is good, but how do I actually do any of it? My life isn’t significantly different than it was when I was in the eighth grade, and I’m almost twenty-three! My parents will never let me live an independent life."

Her brow furrowed and Gina looked directly into Sally’s eyes. "You can’t ask for independence," she said firmly. "You have to take it. Sometimes you have to fight for it."

"I’d be the talk of Concord if I moved out," Sally said. "My father is the principal of Concord High. Everyone in town knows him, Gina. Every time I leave the house I have dozens of spies just waiting for me to do something wrong so they can rat on me."

Waiting a beat to offer a suggestion, Gina said, "Maybe Concord isn’t the best place for you."

Sally was silent for a few moments, letting the thought sink in. "I’ve never, ever seriously considered leaving," she said, her voice soft and wistful.

"Have you thought about it, even if you weren’t being serious?" Gina asked.

Sally considered her answer, and after a moment’s hesitation she decided to trust Gina. "Yes. I’ve dreamed about it," she admitted. "I go to the library sometimes and read The New Yorker. I read the reviews of plays and things that are happening in New York, and I dream about living here one day. But it’s always felt like a childish dream."

"That’s not a childish dream," Gina said. "That’s a wish. You can make your own wishes come true if they mean enough to you."

"Can I?" Sally asked quietly. "Can I really?"

Once again Gina didn’t face her. She continued to stare down the quiet street. "You can," she said. Her voice, while still soft, gained intensity. "You must."

Not quite knowing what she was going to do, and not at all sure of why she was doing it, Sally reached over and rested her hand on Gina’s cheek. She took a breath, leaned in and kissed the full, pink lips, feeling almost no response from the larger woman. Pulling back in confusion, Sally gasped, "I’m so sorry! I don’t know why I did that!"

Gina looked at her for a moment, her expression and demeanor remarkably calm. She blinked slowly, then said, "I don’t believe you."

"What?" Sally stood upright and stared at the woman.

"I said I don’t believe you. When a girl like you kisses someone, she knows why."

Frustrated and embarrassed, Sally turned her back and walked to the where bench where she delicately sat down. She was quiet for a moment, then said, "I wanted to kiss you, Gina. I’m not sure why, other than because I feel so drawn to you. I’ve … never felt like this about a woman," she said, looking down at the ground.

There was a moment or two of dead silence, then Gina said, "I don’t believe that either."

Sally didn’t respond immediately. She forced nearly fatal embarrassment aside and made herself think for a few moments. To her surprise, she had to admit something to Gina, and to herself. "I have had a few … dreams about some women," she said quietly.

"Uh huh." Gina looked at her and waited for more.

"I can’t talk about them," Sally said. "I … I’m too embarrassed." Feeling a few hot tears on her cheeks, she dropped her head and let and could feel a few hot tears on her cheater body curl into a near fetal position and she moved away from Gina while she cried piteously.

Gina sat down on the bench, but didn’t touch or speak to the shaken woman for a long while, letting Sally struggle with her emotions on her own. Finally, when the sobs slowed and then stopped, she said, "You’re not the first girl to feel this way, Sally. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and it’s not something that’s gonna kill ya."

"Easy for you to say," Sally mumbled.

"No it’s not," Gina said, her voice rising a bit. "It’s not easy for me at all. I’ve talked to dozens of girls who feel just like you do. Hell, I feel just like you do. It’s not the worst thing in the world, unless you let it be."

Looking at her with a tremendous sadness in her eyes, Sally asked, "Does this mean I’m like you?"

"Thanks," Gina snapped, getting up from the bench to move to the wall. Leaning over a bit, she pulled a cigarette out of the pack she’d brought and lit it.

Sally waited a moment, slightly afraid of the taller woman when she looked so angry. She got up when Gina’s shoulders lost some of their tension, and she tentatively approached her. "I’m sorry," she said softly. "I didn’t mean that to sound like it did."

"How did you mean it to sound?" Gina asked, her voice hard.

"I don’t know.," Sally said. She stood next to Gina and looked down the street, watching a young couple enter an apartment building. "This is all so new and confusing for me," Sally said. "I’ve barely let myself think about women, much less kiss one." She turned and rubbed the bridge of her nose with her fingers. "I’m very sorry I kissed you, Gina. I don’t know why, but I thought you might be interested in me … like that."

"I am," Gina said, touching Sally’s shoulder and turning her back around. She looked into her eyes and said, "I saw how you looked at me at the USO, and I thought you might be interested in me."

"What? When did I look at you?"

"When you were in line. Every time I spoke, you were staring at me;, and when I looked at you, you blushed like a schoolgirl. I thought you were blushing because I’d caught you staring."

Sally shook her head, wishing a hole would open up so she could crawl into it. "I guess I was staring," she said, "but just because you’re so … distinctive. I’ve never seen a woman as tall as you are or as confident. Yeah, that’s it," she said, as if the description she had been looking for had finally become clear to her. "You’re very, very confident."

"I saw something else in your stare," Gina said, "and given what you did a few minutes ago, I don’t think I was wrong."

Covering her face with her hands, Sally said, "I don’t know what I was thinking. I still don’t, Gina. I’ve never been so confused. It’s like my entire world has turned upside down in the space of a few hours." She gingerly put her hand on Gina’s arm. "I don’t know why I need this so badly, but I’d give anything in the world if you’d just hold me."

Gina hesitated a moment, her conscience self-preservation telling her to never get close to a confused straight girl again. But there was something so honest, so sincere about Sally’s request that she couldn’t turn her down. She stubbed out her cigarette and opened her arms, feeling something in her heart open up when her arms folded around the soft curves of Sally’s body. "How’s this?" she asked, a slight catch in her voice.

"Wonderful," Sally murmured. The blonde’s face was nestled between Gina’s breasts, and after a moment, she turned her head so that her cheek lay against the larger woman’s heart. "Your heart’s beating so fast. Are you all right?"

"Sure. I uhm … smoke too much. Nasty habit."

"You should stop," Sally said. "No matter what they say, it can’t be good for you."

"I didn’t smoke when Joanne and I were together," Gina said. "She didn’t like the way I smelled. But since she left …"

"Maybe you need someone to care about you and remind you to take care of your health," Sally said. She let her arms tighten and nuzzled her cheek against Gina’s breast.

"I’ve got a mother," Gina said flatly. "One’s enough."

Stung by what she felt was a rebuke, Sally released her hold and stepped back, trying not to cry. "Sorry," she mumbled, walking retreating a few steps before Gina pulled her to a stop.

The tall woman stood behind her and asked, "What’s wrong? What did I do?"

Sniffling, Sally said, "Nothing. I just had a thought about how nice it would be to care for you. But I can understand that you don’t want that."

Gina slid her arms around the smaller woman, linking them under her breasts and giving her a good squeeze. "I do want that. I want that more than I wanna admit." She bent her head and kissed the soft whiteness of Sally’s neck, her stomach doing flips when her lips touched the lightly scented skin.

Sally turned in her embrace and rested her head against Gina’s chest again. "You do want me?" she asked in a tremulous voice.

"Of course I do. You’re a swell girl, Sally. I’d give anything to have a girlfriend like you."

"Hold me," Sally murmured, tears starting to sting her eyes. "Just hold me."

Gina wrapped her arms tightly around the blonde, feeling some of her defenses melt as her body once again experienced the feel and the scent and the warmth of a woman. Slowly, Gina began to move, and soon the pair was dancing in the soft glow of the moon. Softly humming the song they had danced to earlier in the evening, each woman clung to the other like a lifeline.

The minutes passed like seconds, and after a very long time Gina said, "I’d love to be with you, Sally. Will you think about moving here?"

The dream-like quality of the evening was shattered. Sally felt all of her normal fears return with a vengeance. Thoroughly confused, she asked, "But how could we do that? My parents would never let me move to New York. I’d have to quit my job!"

"Remember what I said about having to make your own decisions?" Gina asked.

"Yes, of course I do, but it’s a lot harder to think about actually doing it!" Her eyes were wide with fear, and Gina tried to be reassuring.

"There are plenty of nursing jobs in New York, Sally. You could have a job in no time, and even if you had a hard time getting started I could support you until something came along."

Blinking, the blonde asked, "You’d do that? For me?"

"Yes, I would. There were people who helped me when I was first going out with girls. I’d love to help you like I was helped."

Sally sat down again, her head spinning. "This is so much to think about," she said. "I couldn’t just stay here, Gina. I’d have to go home and talk to my parents, and talk to my supervisor at work. I’d have to give proper notice at the hospital, and–"

"Shh," Gina said, her large, warm hand resting on Sally’s leg. "We can work out anything if we want to."

"That’s easier said than done," Sally said, her voice high and shaking. "I … I have a life in New Hampshire, Gina. I can’t disappoint people just to please myself. People depend on me!"

Giving the young woman a penetrating stare, Gina asked, "Are you ready to risk what you have to risk to be with me?"

Sally got up and walked back to the wall. She was shaking so hard that she felt chilled despite the intense heat. "I want to, Gina. I really want to." With a frustrated sigh she dropped her head, letting it dangle a little to relieve some of the stress in her shoulders.

Gina didn’t make a sound for a few moments, waiting for Sally to offer a few encouraging words. When none came she tried to hide her hurt and put on a businesslike voice. "You’re right. It’s too hard. There are too many difficulties. It would never work out." She laughed softly, though the laugh sounded sad, and said, "It’s a nice dream, though. It’s nice to have a dream to keep you goin’ on a lonely night."

Sally turned and gave her a hopeful look. "Maybe it doesn’t have to just be just a dream. Maybe I can have a talk with my parents. There’s a chance, a small change, that they might let me move. Maybe Rocco could talk to Pete about how nice it is to live in New York, and I could get Pete on my side, too. My parents will let me do almost anything if Pete says it’s all right."

Struggling to hold in a scream of rage, Gina patted the smaller woman on the shoulder and said, "That’s a good idea. You can write to me and let me know how it’s going." She stretched and said, "It’s getting late, and I’m sure you’ll want to take the early bus home to New Hampshire. You’ve got a lot of people to talk to."

"Ugh … don’t remind me," Sally said, feeling some of her dread and anxiety start to fade. "I’m so worried about the things Mrs. Gray is going to say about me. Luckily, it wasn’t possible for Pete and me to get married, so I might escape with a few shreds of my reputation intact."

"I hope so," Gina said. She started for the stairs, saying, "I’ll go down first in case you trip." She did so, waiting patiently for Sally to descend.

Once inside, Gina opened a pair of doors that Sally had assumed led to the bedroom, but a full sized bed appeared. "Uhm … what’s that?" Sally asked.

"My Murphy bed," Gina said. She lowered the frame to the floor, and revealed a neatly made bed, complete with three pillows. "I, uhm … can sleep on the floor if you’d like."

"I assumed you had a bedroom and that I could sleep out here in the living room."

"No, I can’t afford a one bedroom. I’m sorry, Sally. I really will sleep on the floor."

"No, don’t be silly. I should sleep on the floor; I’m the one who’s putting you out."

"You aren’t putting me out, Sally, and I don’t mind sharing my bed with you. But if you want to sleep on the floor, be my guest."

The blonde looked from Gina’s dark eyes to the hard, wooden floor and asked, "You really don’t mind?"

"No, I don’t mind. I slept with my sister Toni until I moved out of my parents’s apartment. I’m used to company." Gina nodded her head in the direction of the bathroom. "There’s a new toothbrush in the basket with the guest towel and soap. Why don’t you get ready for bed."

"Okay." Sally went into the room and started to brush her teeth, her mind fully occupied with how she would explain the events of the weekend to her parents. She passed Gina on her way to the bed, nearly running into the substantial woman. "Oh, sorry," she mumbled. "My mind’s going a mile a minute."

"S’okay." Gina disappeared into the bathroom and spent a few minutes preparing for bed, then returned to find Sally lying on her back, eyes focused on the ceiling.

"Do you think I should reveal my reservations about Pete first, and then wait a few weeks to talk about moving to New York?"

Sighing, Gina said, "I don’t know your parents. You’ll have to play it by ear." She rolled onto her right side, hugging the edge of the bed. "Let’s get to sleep, okay? I’m bushed."

"All right," Sally said. She rolled over, too, staring at Gina’s broad shoulders for a few minutes. Thoughts of Pete and his parents and of Concord’s town gossips filled her head for a long while. Every time she started to calm down another thought raced through her head, sending her heart into overdrive again. Time and again she let her eyes drift to Gina’s back, somehow reassured by the slow, steady cadence of her breathing.

After a while she realized that she wasn't thinking about her parents, or Pete’s parents or Pete anymore. The only thing occupying her mind was the all-encompassing desire to touch the olive skin that peeked out from the sleeveless top. Without allowing her brain to stop her, she reached out and started to draw her fingertips down Gina’s long back, amazed at how the skin was stretched over taut muscle.

"What are you doing?" Gina mumbled, slightly perturbed by having her sleep disturbed.

A very quiet, slightly wavering voice answered. "I’m not sure. I only know that I can’t stop." Gina didn’t respond to that, so Sally kept touching her lightly, running her fingers from her neck down to her waist. When the brunette didn’t complain, Sally expanded her territory and started to touch every part of the muscular back, finally getting up the nerve to go a little lower.

After a few minutes of this gentle massage, Gina murmured in an indistinct voice, "You’d better stop."

Sally scooted across the bed and leaned over the brunette. "Don’t you like it?" she asked, looking wounded.

"I like it too much," Gina said, quirking a half-smile at the younger woman. "I don’t think very clearly when I’m hot."

"Should I aim the fan at you?" Sally asked guilelessly.

With a smile lighting up her whole face, Gina said, "Not that kinda hot. If you keep touching me, I’m gonna want to have sex with you, and that’s a bad idea."

"Oh." Sally rolled away and faced the wall, not saying a word for a few minutes. She could hear the clock on the wall ticking, Gina’s rapid breathing, the water dripping from the faucet in the bathroom. Suddenly, she rolled over again, grasped Gina by the shoulder, and pulled her onto her back. "Why?" she demanded.

"Why what?"

"Why is it a bad idea to want to have sex with me?"

"What a grownup," Gina said, chuckling wryly. "Couple of hours ago you had to spell it."

"I’m serious," Sally said, her brow furrowed. "Why is it a bad idea?"

Gina lifted raised herself onto her arm and looked at the blonde for a moment. "Are you kidding me or what?"

"No, I’m not kidding. Why would I kid about this?"

"Oh, so you’re just crazy, huh? I’m supposed to have sex with a girl who was one speeding ticket away from being married right now. A girl who’s making plans to have her fiancé talk to her parents so she can move to New York. A girl who has to go to a library to read a magazine she likes. A girl who has to root for the fuckin’ Red Sox, of all teams! You are a god damned lunatic, Miss Compton, and if you touch me one more time, I’m going to sleep in the bathroom!"

Sally’s eyes filled with tears and she said, "My mother always says that if a boy curses around me, it means he doesn’t respect me. Don’t you respect me, Gina?"

"Oh, for fuck’s sake!" Gina got up and started pacing, her dark head shaking the whole time.

"No one’s ever said that word in front of me," Sally mumbled, "except in the emergency room."

Gina turned and faced the younger woman, her arms akimbo. "Look, toots, if I didn’t respect you, your panties would be off and your legs would be in the air. I respect you plenty, but you’re driving me nuts!"

Patting the bed, Sally said soothingly, "Please come back to bed, Gina. I promise I’ll won’t try not to drive you nuts any more."

The dark- haired woman blew out a frustrated breath, then reluctantly got back into the bed. "Can we please go to sleep?" she asked. "This has been the craziest night of my life."

"Yes, we can," Sally said. "I’m sorry for being such a pest."

"You’re not a pest," Gina said. "You’re just confused, but I’m not gonna let you confuse me, too. Now turn off that brain and go to sleep!"

"All right," Sally said, her voice very quiet.

The emotional tumult of the evening must have worn Gina out, for she was sound asleep within five minutes. Sally watched her in the dark, memorizing the inky strands of her hair, the strong line of her shoulders, the narrowing of her waist, and the abrupt mounds of her bottom. She wanted to touch her so badly that her whole body ached, but she knew that Gina didn’t want that, so she controlled herself. She heard the clock ticking the minutes away, and noted with shock that it was after 2:00 a.m.

Gina rolled onto her back, giving the blonde vast new territory to study. With only the dim streetlights and the glow of the moon, she set about memorizing her topic subject with the intensity of a scholar.

The dark brows and eyelashes mesmerized her for a good half hour, with Sally wishing she had enough light to study each individual lash. They were so dark, so long and beautifully curved, but she had to satisfy herself with imagining how they framed the lovely dark brown eyes, and how they blinked slowly when Gina was troubled by something. Are Pete’s eyes gray or hazel? Realizing that she couldn’t recall, Sally had to admit that she’d never, not in five years, spent this much time studying Pete. You spent lots of time trying to avoid looking at him, she had to admit. Didn’t you ever stop to think about what a bad sign that was?

The next hour was split between focusing intently on the way Gina’s chest moved when she breathed, and trying to decide how many ways her parents could kill her for declaring her independence.

At around 3:30, a revelation hit her like a bolt of lightning. Her parents couldn’t kill her! All they could do was lecture her. And to her knowledge, no one had ever died from a lecture. She was over twenty-one and her parents only had as much hold on her as she allowed them to have.

She was so excited about this discovery that she wanted to wake Gina to tell her, but she knew her breakthrough wouldn’t be greeted with much enthusiasm. Instead, she rested her head on her hand and tried to figure out what two girls could do together, amazing herself with the possibilities she was able to conjure up.

Just before 4:00, she slipped out of bed and went into the kitchen, where she found a pen and a pad of paper. It only took her a few minutes to write the message she had spent the last half hour composing mentally, and as soon as she was finished, she went back to bed.

When the sun crept into the living room window, Gina’s eyes opened, and she gasped in surprise when she saw Sally staring at her. "Jesus!" She sat upright, pushing her hair from her eyes and shaking her head to remove some of the cobwebs. "How long have you been staring at me?"

"All night," she said. "I’ve been busy."

"Busy doing what?" Gina asked warily.

"Thinking about my life. Thinking about my family. Thinking about you. Mostly about you," she admitted.

"What about me?"

"Mmm … mostly about what your mouth will taste like when you finally kiss me. But lots of other things, too. I let my imagination go wild, and believe me, I surprised myself!"

"Uhm … me, too," Gina said. She grasped the sheet and pulled it to herself, looking slightly afraid. "Have you finally lost what little sanity you had?"

"No, no!" Sally got to her knees, so excited that she began to speak as quickly as an auctioneer. "I’m finally sane! I’m almost twenty-three years old, and I’ve just this very night decided to start to act like a woman! Not like a little girl who lets everyone tell her what to do and how to act. I’m a woman, damn it, and I’m going to start acting like one!"

"You just cussed!" Gina said, her eyes saucering. "You cussed!"

Sally merely giggled. "I guess I did." She looked down at herself and said, "I’m still alive and well, so I guess God doesn’t smite those who take his name in vain. Another revelation!"

Gina edged out of the bed, taking the sheet with her. "I’m gonna go to the bathroom, and when I get back, I’m gonna look for a straight-jacket" She nearly ran for the bathroom, and Sally heard her friend bolt the lock.

"Big baby," she said, laughing heartily.

When Gina emerged, hair combed and face washed, Sally said, "Stop in the kitchen and pick up the paper I left on the table, okay?"

"Can I get some orange juice, too?" Gina asked.

"Sure. Bring a big glass,. I’m parched."

Gina did as she was told, returning to the room with a large glass of juice and a piece of paper. "If you get up, I can make the bed."

"No, no, you just come right here," Sally said. "I’m not ready to get up, and neither are you."

"I’m not?"

"No, you’re not," Sally informed her. "Now hand me the paper."

The brunette handed it over and sat down gingerly on the bed. Sally cleared her throat and read the contents of the note.

"Dear Mother/ Father STOP

Pete and I did not marry STOP

I’ve decided to stay in New York STOP

,I’ve met a woman who needs a roommate STOP"

She looked at Gina and said, "I can’t tell them everything at once. They only need to know the facts right now."

"My address is …"

Turning to Gina, she said, "You’ll have to tell me your exact address.

I don’t have a phone STOP

I’m quitting my job STOP

You may send my clothes or give them to the war effort STOP

I love you all, but I need to grow up STOP

Your loving daughter, Sally STOP"

She peeked over the paper and asked, "Well, how did I do?"

"Are you honestly going to send that?" Gina gaped.

"Yes, as soon as I take care of some business," she said.

"Now what?"

"This," Sally said, reaching over to take the glass from the larger woman’s hand and place it on the floor. She leaned in close--so close she could finally see those lovely, individual eyelashes. "I’m not crazy, I’m not a child, and I do know what I want. I want to kiss you, Gina. May I?"

"Uhm … sure, I guess," she said, looking terribly confused.

Sally cocked her head just a little to reach Gina’s beautiful lips. "I’ve wanted to do this since the moment I saw you," she whispered. She wrapped her arms around the broad shoulders and pressed her mouth against Gina’s, letting out a purr of delight when her kiss was met returned with complete equal enthusiasm. "That’s more like it," she said dreamily. "That’s how I’ve always wanted to be kissed."

Gina took the opportunity to encircle Sally with her long arms and tug her down to the bed. They gazed into each other’s eyes for a few moments before the dark woman said, "I can do much better than that," and spent the next long while proving it.

"I should have reserved judgment until I had a better wider sampling," Sally murmured when Gina let her come up for air. "That’s how I’ve always wanted to be kissed."

"Don’t be in such a rush," Gina insisted. "There’s all kinds of ways we can kiss each other, and I’m sure no one in Concord knows about a couple of ‘em‘."

Sally looked her right in the eyes and said, "Show me. Show me everything you know."

"Everything?" Gina asked, one eyebrow raised in question.

"Everything," Sally said. "I want your hands to be the first ones to ever touch my bare skin. I want to give myself to you, Gina. Only you."

Gina looked at her for a long moment, her dark eyes filled with intensity. "Are you sure, Sally? Are you positive?"

"Yes. I’ve never been surer of anything in my life. I want to wake up next to you for the rest of my life, Gina Guerrieri. I want to be your …" She looked into the most beautiful dark eyes she’d ever seen and asked, "What will I be?"

"My love," Gina said, placing a whisper soft kiss upon her moist lips. "You’ll be my love."

* * *

The attendant walked into the activity room and approached the woman on duty. "Hi, I’m Gloria. I just transferred over from the main hospital. Mrs. Johnston said you’d show me around and introduce me to the patients before you signed out."

"Oh, okay. I’m Janice, by the way." Janice inclined her head to at the sprightly, but elderly woman moving gracefully across the floor, dancing with an unseen partner. "I was just watching Mrs. Gray to make sure she doesn’t fall and break a hip. She dances for hours a day and half of the time her eyes are closed."

"Uhm … there’s no music," Gloria said. "Is she … delusional?"

"Delusional?" Janice asked. "No, she’s not delusional."

"Does she communicate at all?" Gloria asked. "It’s kinda creepy to watch her dance like this."

Janice gave the woman a perturbed look. "She’s not creepy. She’s … confused. It could happen to any of us, you know. She worked as a nurse here at the main hospital for forty years. She developed Alzheimer’s a couple of years ago, and it’s been a pretty rapid decline. I didn’t know her, but Mrs. Johnston said she was a top flight nurse."

"She was," a soft, sad voice said from behind the women.

"Oh, hi, Mr. Gray," Janice said, fervently hoping the old man had not heard their entire conversation. "This is Gloria; she’s going to be filling in for me while I’m on vacation. I was just telling her about your wife."

Pete shook his head, the little hair he had left shining white in the sunlight. "I hope you give her a good report," he said. "I know it’s hard to believe, but she was as sharp as a tack just two years ago. Now she doesn’t even recognize me. It breaks my heart," he said, as his voice started to quake.

"That’s so sad," Gloria said. "But she doesn’t seem unhappy." She looked at the woman for a few moments, forcing herself to really see her. "You know, I’ve never seen a woman look more content."

He nodded. "She is happy. She’s thinking of a very happy night. It took me a while, but it finally dawned on me that she’s thinking about the night we got married."

"You must have danced for hours at your wedding," Gloria said, rather charmed by the sweet old man.

"Well, no, she’s got things a little mixed up in her head," he admitted. He started to tell the tale, but caught himself. "Do you girls have time to hear this? I know you’re busy."

"I’ve always got time for you, Mr. Gray," Janice said. "You’re my favorite."

The old man laughed softly, and shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I’ll make it short," he promised. "We got married the night before I shipped off to Europe during World War II. Boy, that was a night! I had less than a day in New York, and Sally was able to come down from New Hampshire, but we couldn’t get married because there was a waiting period. In Connecticut we could get married immediately, so my friend Rocco borrowed a car to get us there. But poor Rocco was speeding and got a ticket. He didn’t have a license, and the car was impounded. Sally and I thought we were sunk. We said good-bye and I went to Rocco’s while Sally went to stay the night with his cousin."

"Gosh, Mrs. Gray must have been upset," Janice said. "No woman likes to have her wedding plans ruined."

"Oh, Sally was such a trooper," he recalled. "She didn’t put up a fuss at all. But Rocco felt so bad, he was up half the night trying to find another way for us to get married. Turns out that New York only had a twenty-four hour waiting period, and Sally had been in town so long that the period was just about over. Rocco’s father knew some people who knew some people, and they found a judge who agreed to marry us. Rocco and I showed up at Rocco’s cousin’s house at 4:00 a.m.!" He laughed heartily at his recollection. "Tired as she was, Sally was sitting at the kitchen table writing a letter! We snuck up on her by coming up the back stairs and she was as surprised as I’ve ever seen a woman. When I asked her what she was doing, she said she was writing to me. I hadn’t even left town, but she was already writing to me. Have you ever heard of such a sweet woman? Boy, it was a close shave, but we made it just in time. We’d been married about ten minutes when I had to get on that ship. Rocco and I stood at the railing and waved until our arms nearly fell off," he said. "I can still see my sweetheart standing there with Rocco’s cousin, Gina. The poor thing cried like her heart had been broken in half." He shook his head and added, "The men had to do the fighting, but I think the war was as hard on the women as it was on us."

"It must have been," Gloria agreed.

"It’s so darned sad," Pete said, watching his wife sway to the music she heard in her head. "I have nearly sixty years of happy memories, but Sally’s stuck in the past. She’ll never remember how happy we were for all those years, but at least she remembers the night we married. That gives me some solace," he said, watching Sally’s mouth curve into a warm smile.

"I love you, Gina," she said, just loudly enough for the group to hear. "I’ll always love you."

"She says the name Gina," Pete told the women, "but she barely knew that girl. After we were married, she never saw her or heard from her again, so I know it’s just a little mix- up upstairs. I know that my Sally is thinking about me. Just like she always did," he said, a peaceful, contented smile on his weathered, wrinkled face.


The End

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