The Scream by Medora MacD


DEDICATION
To my fellow beta readers and editors, who know all too well that what horrifies one person is not necessarily that which sends another shrieking into the night.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
My deep gratitude to Steph and the Royal Academy of Bards formotivating me to stop beta reading long enough to write and post this,my second completed work of fanfiction. [You can read the first one later -- after you've read all the wonderful Halloween stories here.] And to Missy Good, for inspiring me to write in the first place and hosting the Academy in the second place.

Thanks, too, to Ann D, Maggie S and the BBs, for helping me watch my language. (Any errors which remain are either intentional or purely of my own contriving and should not be laid at their doors.)

Very special thanks go to my roomies at the Pasadena Convention -- who were treated to some truly scary snoring (or so I'm told). To my mother, sisters and friends for tolerating this strange hobby of mine. And to the incredible people in my household, who are subjected to all this, my demented sense of humor and much worse on a daily basis and love me just the same. Mostly. Thanks, guys. You're the best.

DISCLAIMERS
This is bigger than a bread box, ghouls and boos: a prologue and four whole chapters. (When I do manage to write, I write slowly and at length.) There are F/F relationships, F/M relationships, some salacious language, some homonyms and other naughty bits, and a profanity or two. Nothing that would embarrass my mom. I hope.

The poem contained herein is not my work (I wish!), but the work of Amy Lowell (1874-1925). For more, see http://www.sappho.com/poetry/historical/a_lowell.html

Finally, there is a Northfield, Minnesota, which is home to not one, but two fine liberal arts colleges, but any resemblance between its inhabitants and the characters in this story is purely coincidental.


PROLOGUE
Just how did she get herself into these scrapes, anyway? Shelley wondered. One minute she was engaging in innocuous banter about the biological advantages of fear and the next she was locked in furious, winner-take-all combat with a woman whose idea of the perfect vacation was jumping blindfolded off the Eiffel Tower.

Into a tank full of piranhas.

While juggling flaming torches.

She glanced nervously around the enormous walk-in closet that held her sister's "power suits" -- the silk and linen dress-for-success ones and the better-living-through-chemistry ones she wore while climbing mountains and shooting Class IV rapids. It also contained the collection of creepy costumes that Sophie delighted in donning at the drop of a witch's hat. Shelley gave an involuntary shudder, then stiffened her spine. The props illuminated by the light trickling in from the bedroom were frightful, to be sure, but they were not going to prevent her from maintaining her stakeout. Not while there was any hope of winning the bet.

How long would it take for another group of guests to wander into the bedroom? she wondered. And would her target be among them?

She wrapped her hand around the hilt of a plastic cutlass and poked absentmindedly at a skull that was smirking at her from one of the shelves and then at a top-of-the-line Stohlquist drysuit in mango yellow. Just the thing for staying warm, dry, and stylish while kayaking through rapids that can rip your head off. How in the world had her timid twin turned into an extreme sports enthusiast? She shook her head. And how had SHE, an academic noted for her civility and magnanimity (except when playing Scrabble), ended up rushing to defend her sister's honor? Again?!

It must be that older sister thing, she thought, damning once again the accident of birth that 28 -- no, almost exactly 29 -- years ago had positioned her to enter the world 15 minutes before Sophie and thereby condemned her to a lifetime of watching over her. She snorted. Not that Sophie had ever requested her guardianship. Or even required it. Her lips tightened. Until now, that is.

Nobody, no how, is going to "dis" my sister at her own party and get away with it! steamed Shelley. She carved a menacing squiggle in the air with the cutlass. I'll eviscerate her first.

Which would accomplish exactly nothing, she admitted a moment later. The woman looks like the type who could be drawn, quartered, and burnt at the stake without uttering as much as a whimper.

Which is more than you can say about me. She thumped her head gently against the wall.

When will I learn to keep my mouth shut?! She let her aching forehead come to rest on the cool plaster.

And how in hell am I going to get Althea Ashford to emit a blood-curdling shriek before the clock strikes twelve?

CHAPTER ONE
Shelley gave a last look around her living room to make sure she wasn't leaving behind something vital. Satin dress? Check. There'd be no time to change at the party, so she had it on. She'd have to remember to be careful not to wrinkle it when she changed gears. Kid gloves, satin slippers and matching reticule? She peered inside the Borders bag. Check, along with the present she'd made for Sophie, wrapped in the handmade paper she'd bought in Japan. Sorels? She wiggled her toes. Check. Parka? Check. Gloves? She patted the pockets of her coat, identifying the comforting bulk of her fleece mittens. Check.

"Time to go." Gathering the hem of her gown in one hand, she grabbed the bag with the other, bumped the door open and closed with an expert hip and waded to the Jeep, prepared again to do battle with the elements. Winter had arrived ahead of schedule this year, even for Minnesota.

Naturally.

She started the motor, popped Ann Reed's "Timing is Everything" into the CD player and waited for the car to warm, humming along and remembering Halloweens past.

Allhallows Eve had always been special in their household, thanks to a father and mother who viewed it as the premier event in the Olympics of parenting. This October 31, however, she had risen with an added sense of anticipation. Today she and Althea Ashford would finally meet!

The exhilaration had lasted for ten full minutes. That's how long it took to stretch, slide out of bed and pad over to the bedroom window to see whether Sonny and Cher, the neighborhood squirrels, had left anything in the birdfeeder for the cardinals. That was when she discovered the unexpected present from Mother Nature: a foot of snow. The heavy, slick, drag-your-car-into-a-ditch kind. A glance at the dull gray sky suggested there was plenty more where it had come from, too.

She'd groaned loud and long at the sight. Any other Saturday this would have been a signal to crawl back into bed and snuggle up with a good book or a pad of paper, a pen and a dictionary. Not today, though.

Because Sophie had made her pinky swear that she'd attend the party, come hell or high water.

And because she'd be damned if she'd give Ashford another chance to show her up.

A dozen or so times now Sophie had tried to introduce her to Althea. And a dozen or more times something had prevented Shelley from making an appearance. The first time it had been a flat tire, the next a bout of the flu. When Althea started speculating that Shelley was a figment of Sophie's imagination, her sister had tried bringing Althea to Shelley. They'd driven down to Northfield one lovely spring day -- paying a surprise visit in hopes of catching the Fates napping. Shelley, they discovered, was on a biology field trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, substituting for a colleague who'd broken a leg the day before.

Of course.

Shelley eyed the low wall of ice and snow the plows had deposited at the end of the driveway. No problem. I hope. She put the Jeep into reverse, grinding the gears slightly, and powered the car through the slippery mass. She steered into the skid that threatened to develop, slid to a stop, shifted into first and headed for the Faculty Club across town where her friend, Jude, was waiting. If he hadn't forgotten. Ah well, if he had, he could just spend another exciting evening in the fly fishing chat room. With or without him she was going to this party.

It was going to happen this time, she reassured herself. Tonight at her sister's annual Halloween "spooktacular," she was finally going to meet the other important woman in Sophie's life, the publishing executive with whom Sophie had spent virtually every free moment since they met at a conference two years ago.

Shelley didn't think she'd have any trouble recognizing Althea. She'd seen more than enough photos of the bronzed woman with the burning blue eyes. Pictures of her snow boarding in Squaw Valley. Hang gliding in Oahu. Mugging for the camera in the crystal clear waters of the Caribbean. In most of those images Althea had had her arm draped affectionately over Sophie's shoulders.

It infuriated her, frankly. First of all, it just wasn't right for some stranger to be occupying so much of her sister's time. It wasn't fair, either -- since she was the one who fell for tall, tough and buff babes while Sophie pined for slim men with tender hearts and tortoise shell glasses!

Gods, how she'd laughed when she finally realized what was making her so damned mad. She was jealous because her straight sister had been spending so much time in the company of one of the Twin Cities' most intriguing and eligible lesbians. And a little hurt that her twin had managed so well without her last year while she was on sabbatical in Japan.

Well, what did I expect? she asked herself ruefully. She hit the turn signal and then settled back to wait for a break in the long line of cars inching its way toward downtown Northfield. We're not Siamese twins, after all. We were bound to develop separate lives at some point.

They'd been inseparable for so long, though. Part of it was that mystical twin "thing," she mused. The rest resulted from the way they'd leapfrogged ahead of their peers, leaving childhood friends behind as they graduated from high school at 15 and from college at 18. That's when their bond had begun to loosen -- when Sophie embarked upon her career in banking and she headed to the University of Wisconsin to get her Ph.D. While Sophie was busy becoming one of the hottest young execs in Minneapolis/St. Paul, she had been in Madison studying primatology with Dr. Williamson -- and discovering some very interesting things about sexual orientation, specifically her own.

"Thanks!"

Shelley knew he couldn't hear her, but she said it just the same, throwing a smile and a friendly wave to the driver who had slowed his semi to a crawl in order to offer her safe access to the road. She pulled out carefully and returned to her ruminations.

She had been thrilled when the college had decided to take a chance on a brand new, gay Ph.D. who was barely as old as most of its seniors. She hadn't dared hope that she'd find a tenure-track position in biology just 40 miles from her sister. She realized later that they'd have been better off if they had lived farther apart. They'd come to take each other for granted, regularly putting the demands of their careers ahead of chances to get together.

There was also the little matter of their sex lives.

They'd been making up for lost time in their mid-20s -- though Sophie, who had been more adventurous than she in this regard, didn't have half as much "catching up" to do, Shelley snorted.

Nor had she faced the same challenges in doing so, of course. The college had professed to be interested only in what Shelley did in her classroom and her labs. Still, until she was granted tenure, it had seemed wiser to continue her personal research into the mating rituals and techniques of homo lesbiana americansis at some distance from Northfield. As a result, her love life had been very discreet for the last seven years. She grimaced. So discreet as to be nearly nonexistent, as a matter of fact.

Well, that was then, she reminded herself, and this is now.

"Today I get to meet someone that Sophie likes well enough to spend hours and hours with."

And with a little luck, her heart whispered, that person would be someone with whom she would like to spend hours and hours, someone who would feel the same way about her. She brushed the thought away, afraid the unspoken wish would jinx the meeting that was to come.

"First things first," she muttered. "Just do it. Just get there."

Nothing's going to stop me this time, she vowed. Nope. Today's the day. I promised. Besides, it's going to be fun. Sophie said. She pressed harder on the accelerator, trying to speed up time. An ominous sound fell upon her ears, and a flash of red drew her eyes -- toward the railroad tracks that bisected the town.

"Augh!" The car in front of her stopped as the crossing arms descended. A freight train began crawling across the intersection. In the best of times, this enterprise could take five nail-biting minutes. Today, with the snow and ice, it was likely to take 15 minutes. Or more.

Yep. You betcha. Goes without saying.

Shoulda seen that one comin', she thought. A mile away. With effort, she stifled a scream of frustration. She put the Jeep in park, bowing to the inevitable, and started to count the boxcars as they passed.

She knew, somehow, that the record set years ago -- when she was late for teaching her first class -- was about to be broken.

CHAPTER TWO
Despite obstacles man-made and meteorological, she and Jude arrived at the party only 30 minutes after the festivities had begun. They found their hostess in the "parlor" of the turn-of-the-century mansion she was restoring on Summit Avenue. It had not been hard to spot her, despite the crowd. The self-confessed Halloween "nut" was dressed in a moldy concoction created by a friend in the special effects business. He had turned her into something he'd dubbed "Miss Havisham's Leftovers." The decaying, multi-layer wedding cake into which she had been transformed came complete with a wonderful array of bugs -- including a number that appeared to be moving.

Wonder what Jude thought of THAT? Shelley mused, recalling the stunned expression on her colleague's face when she'd introduced him a minute ago. She'd thought that the weedy biologist might be a good match for her sister, but had that look been one of delight or dismay? Or both?

"Happy birthday, 'Soapy,'" she grinned, settling for a peck on Sophie's cheek when it became clear her twin's costume wouldn't let her get close enough for the full body hug she craved.

"Back at ya, 'Smelly,'" her sister had replied with a matching grin, accepting the package Shelley held out to her. "You're a little early with the gift, though, aren't you?"

"You know me. I'll lose it for sure if I don't give it to you right away. Besides," she grew shy, "I wanted to give it to you now, when it was a little more private, instead of during the grand unveiling tomorrow." She glanced around, to see if anyone was watching.

Jude raised an eyebrow. "Should I ... ?"

His offer to give them some time together was interrupted by a gasp from Sophie, who'd pulled off the wrapping with her customary impatience.

"Gods, Shelley. It's beautiful. It's my favorite one, too." She hugged the frame to her chest. "Thank you. It's going on the mantel right now." She paused. "I am so damn proud to be your sister." Shelley flushed with embarrassment and pleasure. "You didn't have to, you know. Your just being here is present enough." She glanced around the room. "Now if only Althea were."

Shelley felt her brows lower and her expression darken.

"Don't worry!" Sophie interjected hurriedly, heading off the explosion that was building. "She called half an hour ago. She's coming! Even if she has to walk. Which is a distinct possibility, since the plane from Dallas was delayed by the weather and her car's been plowed in at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport Park 'N Fly. They're digging her out even as we speak."

"In the meantime," she turned to Jude, "could you do me a tremendous favor and bring me something to drink? I am positively parched, and there's no way this --" She gestured at her girth "-- is going to make it through that." She gestured toward the crowd clustered around the refreshment tables in the next room. "I'm guessing you could probably use some yourself, right? I know MY mouth always feels bone-dry after riding with Shelley." He choked back a laugh as Shelley feigned indignation at the familiar jibe about her driving.

Sophie took a closer look at the slender, sandy-haired scientist, then grinned a lazy Cheshire grin.

"May I recommend the Bitchin' Apple Cider, one part cinnamon schnapps and three parts cider? It's just the thing for anyone who likes to dip into things that are warm ... wet ..." she ran her tongue lightly over her upper lip, "and stimulating."

Shelley managed to restrain her laughter until her blushing friend was out of earshot. She hoped.

"By the gods, Sophie. You're shameless. Are you trying to lead that poor man into temptation?"

"That's for me to know and him to find out, Shelley." Sophie tried to look innocent, then gave it up with a laugh. "And I'm not shameless. I'm just ... open about what I like. You ought to try it some--"

Shelley drew a gloved finger across her throat, and her sister ceased what was, after all, a sermon her twin had heard dozens of times. "Don't worry," she said to Shelley a moment later. "He's a detective. He'll get to the bottom of things. Sooner or later."

Detecti--?

Shelley took a long look at her colleague as he wove his way back through the crowd, juggling three glasses of cider and muttering under his breath. She was so used to his appearance that she'd forgotten. Should she tell Sophie before he got back that the smoking jacket, tuxedo pants, house slippers and pipe were not a costume that he'd donned in homage to Sherlock Holmes? That they were, in fact, his everyday garb?

She quashed the thought. Few people took the time to discover the charming and considerate man beneath the eccentric dress. The nerdy entomologist deserved the chance to worm his way into her sister's heart.

Sophie deserves to be confounded now and then, she decided, as well as to be confounding. She could tell by the gleam in her sister's eye that she found Jude intriguing. And by Jude's furrowed brow that the feeling was mutual. He had the look on his face that he'd had at the opening reception this fall -- when he was trying to impress the new volleyball coach. Ouch. She could only hope this would go better than that effort had. Much better. She crossed her fingers as he handed Sophie her drink and delivered the line he'd been rehearsing as he approached.

"You've probably been told a million times, and it's true," he began. He stared earnestly at her as she took her first sip. "You really DO look good enough to eat."

The sisters choked simultaneously. Leaving Shelley to her own devices, Jude pounded vigorously on Sophie, whose cider had elected to enter her body by way of her respiratory system rather than her digestive one. As soon as their coughing subsided enough for him to be heard, he continued.

"Well, mostly, that is. This one is poisonous," he said, pointing to the colorful caterpillar in her hair. "And that one and that," he indicated two other insects, "taste kind of nutty, but they make me itch."

"Now these, on the other hand," he curved his long, elegant fingers over the bugs clinging to her icing-covered breasts, "these are considered delicacies all over the world."

He waited out another paroxysm of coughing.

"They're extremely nutritious, too."

Ignoring the strangled noises emerging from Shelley, he plucked a plastic bug from her sister's chest. "As you may know, 100 grams of cricket contain about 13 grams of protein and just 5.5 grams of fat. The same amount of ground beef has 21 grams of fat! I prefer them fried, myself, though other entomophagists enjoy them sautéed with..."

The impromptu lecture on edible insects continued long enough for Shelley to catch her breath -- though it took several moments more before she dared look at her twin. When she did, she discovered, to her relief, that Sophie was staring at Jude with undisguised fascination.

Let the wild rumpus begin! Shelley smiled. She took a sip of her drink and leaned back to watch, convinced this time that the Fates knew what they were doing.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

An hour later, Althea Ashford still had not made an appearance. On the other hand, her sister and Jude were continuing to hit it off famously. AND, for the first time in ages, Sophie had not been able to guess who she was impersonating. It was really going to frost her cake when she did, gloated Shelley. To her great delight, her sister had been reduced to begging for clues.

"My gosh, Sophie. Senility? So soon?" she answered in response to the first entreaty. "Or maybe you need glasses?" She waved her hand in front of her twin's glowering hazel eyes. "I'm Shelley, silly! I know it's been a while, sweetie, but ... Don't you recognize me?"

She relented after Sophie growled at her. "I'd never miss a party like this," she noted, adopting a more formal air. "Especially not one at which someone will be telling ghost stories. I had been thinking of coming as a mad scientist, actually. Then lightning struck, and I remembered the dress one of my students wore in 'Pride and Prejudice' several years ago. It's perfect, don't you think?"

She pirouetted prettily, conscious of the way the apricot satin Regency gown complemented her fair coloring and the way its high waist drew attention to one of her best assets -- well, two of them, actually. She'd left her blonde head bare, as befitted an unmarried lady, curling the hair at the temples and braiding the remainder of her flowing tresses behind in a circle. On her hands she wore a pair of wrist-length kid gloves -- to which she had added ink stains on the thumb and index finger of the right hand. Completing the ensemble was a gathered bag of apricot satin, out of which protruded a sheet of parchment. She had scrawled upon it the words "It was on a dreary night of November ..."

She could see the gears turning in her sister's head as she twisted the pieces of the puzzle this way and that and tried -- and failed -- to make them fall into place.

"Augh! Begone, you annoying bint! Make yourself useful and get the next round of cider, why don't you?" Sophie turned a 10,000-watt smile upon the man at her side. "And while you're gone, I'll wheedle the answer out of your charming friend here."

"Halp!" Jude pretended to run his finger inside the collar of his shirt.

"This is your chance, J-dude!" quipped Shelley. "Make the most of it!"

"Have no fear," he replied, his growing admiration for Sophie lending uncharacteristic verve to his response. He added a credible, though unpracticed leer. "This is one case where I intend to have my cake -- and eat it, too."

"You're prepared to drive a hard bargain, I trust?" Sophie riposted delightedly.

"La la la la la la. Can't hear a word you're saying!" Shelley covered her ears with her hands, feigning embarrassment at their antics, and scurried off to the refreshment tables. A few minutes later, as she waited in line, she contemplated the couple she'd left behind. They look good together, she thought. Better than good. Right somehow.

She hoped so, though the thought gave her a pang. It wasn't just Sophie having yet another important person in her life besides her. It was ...

Shelley shook her head ruefully. Knowledge can be a dangerous thing, she mused. In small quantities and in large. Even self-knowledge. She had learned a lot during her sabbatical the previous year about the deleterious effects of agri-chemicals on snow monkey reproduction. And about herself.

The long, cold, introspective nights in the mountains of southern Japan had put her in touch with a ... need, a longing for -- not completion, for she felt fairly complete, thank you very much, but for -- extension, amplification.

She wasn't enough of a romantic to believe that half of her was wandering around out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered and reclaimed. She did, however, believe that a thing could be greater than the sum of its parts.

The way the human body is much more than a collection of chemicals that can be purchased on the open market for $3.50, she mused. The way Mom and Pop together are a force of nature, instead of just two amiable kooks.

The solitude and reflection had convinced her that she was not meant to be alone. It had also transformed her poetry, elevating it from a hobby to a passion that she knew was going to last a lifetime. The result had been the most powerful work she'd ever done -- and the most revealing.

She'd shared the poems with Sophie, to let her know what was going on in her life and to get an honest reading on their quality. Sophie had passed them, in turn, to a former classmate who ran a small, but highly respected press. When he demanded to be allowed to print them, she talked him into a terrific deal -- and then called her sister and talked her into going along with it. Before Shelley knew it, Synergy had been published -- and was generating critical acclaim.

The most fulsome praise had come from Poetry Today, whose reviewer had said that Michelle E. Marks "had held her fingers to the pulsing heart of life itself and recorded its rhythms for the enlightenment of others."

Heh! Something was pulsing all right. But it's located a great deal south of the heart.

Stop that! She chastised herself for her flippancy. It was a defense, she knew. The Synergy poems had tapped into something very special, something she prayed would remain accessible to her for years to come. She knew she was afraid if she admitted how important that intuition was to her, to who she was, it would be taken from her.

That was also, she supposed, the secret reason she'd adopted their mother's maiden name for her pen name. Not to separate her work as a poet from her "serious" work in biology, but as a way of keeping the Fates from discovering that Michelle Marks and Associate Professor Shelley Solomon were one and the same and deciding that neither one deserved the riches that had been bestowed upon her.

"Uh. Sorry. Three, please."

She'd reached the head of the line without realizing it. Grabbing up the tumblers and slurping a heady inch off the top of one to keep it from spilling, she started making her way back through the congestion, pausing a time or two to speak with friends she met along the way.

She stopped short as she entered the parlor, the sixth sense that served her so well as a researcher alerting her to the fact that ... something ... had changed. The room had undergone a subtle transformation of some kind.

No. The people in it had. They had shifted slightly, like iron filings in the presence of a powerful magnet, drawn involuntarily toward ...

"Ahhh!" Shelley exhaled quietly.

Althea Ashford had arrived.

CHAPTER THREE
Or, to put it more precisely, Althea Ashford had arrived.

Shelley was sorry to have missed her entrance. She knew it must have been spectacular. Hell, she was spectacular, more than even Sophie's photographs had revealed. Her long ebony hair was pulled back tonight in a French twist that accentuated the sculpted planes of a face that it was only fair to call stunning. As for her costume ...!

Damn, but she looks good in black! thought Shelley, admiring the way the flickering flames caressed Althea's form as she chatted near the fireplace with her sister and Jude. The publishing executive was wearing the vampire costume made famous by Bela Lugosi -- but interpreted this evening in leather. The cape over her broad shoulders undulated with each wave of her expressive hands, but the tuxedo pants hugged every delicious, highly defined curve, as did the custom-fitted, high-collared white leather shirt she wore. Lordy lordy, Shelley drooled, what I wouldn't give to be that shirt -- or the woman who takes it off her tonight!

Gods, what is this? she thought in disbelief. I'm spiraling out of control, and I haven't met her yet, haven't even heard her speak!

Realizing that she had only a few moments before Sophie's radar pinged her and she would be summoned for "The Meeting," she slipped behind the cover of an enormous ficus, planted the drinks in the dirt at its base, and tried to still the racing of her heart. She managed only two or three deep breaths before she sensed Sophie's head beginning to turn her way. Resuming her journey back to her sister's side, she prayed the interlude had been sufficient to reduce the flush on her face to something that could be attributed to the warmth of the room.

It might have been, she thought later. Before she saw Althea lift a distinctive cherry frame from among the objects on the mantelpiece. Then all bets were off.

"Is this new, Sophie?" The voice was deep and rich, a lovely alto. The sound halted Shelley in her tracks. "It's exquisite!" She began to read the poem aloud, every phrase feeling to its author like a caress.

As I would free the white almond from the green husk
So I would strip your trappings off,
Beloved.
And fingering the smooth and polished kernel
I should see that in my hands glittered a gem beyond counting.*

The final words dropped into one of those silences that can mysteriously fall over a room. Althea let the hush that followed persist for a few more appreciative beats, then tugged at the collar of her costume. "Is it warm in here or is it just me?" There was a riff of sympathetic laughter as the others gathered in the parlor returned to their conversations.

"Seriously, Sophie, this is absolutely marvelous. Who's the author?"

"Michelle Marks," Sophie replied. She had sensed Shelley's approach, her twin knew, but was carefully avoiding looking in her direction as she answered.

"Are there more like this? Has she been published? She needs to be."

"There's a whole book full, as a matter of fact," responded Sophie. "One of your subsidiaries published it. I can get you an autographed copy, if you'd like; I happen to know the poet personally. She's only getting started, but I think she's going to be one of the great ones."

Shelley stared at Sophie, a warm glow enveloping her.

She hasn't told her about this, about my writing, she realized. As much time as they've spent together, all the confidences they've traded, as much as she's told her about me, Sophie hasn't shared this with her. She wanted more than ever to wrap her twin up in a bear hug. Because she knows how personal this is to me. And because Althea is her best friend, but I'm her sister and she loves me. Sophie's head turned toward her at last and she beamed her a smile that could have melted an iceberg. She received a matching one in return.

Althea missed the exchange. She was staring at the beautifully formed letters within the frame and running her fingers lightly over them. "Is she 'family'?" she asked quietly. She seemed confident of the response she would receive.

When Sophie said yes, indeed she was, she raised her head and fixed her friend with an intense gaze. "You'll introduce me some day?" It was a directive, really, not a question.

"I think that can be arranged," Sophie said, "though she's been pretty private thus far and tends to shun publicity. Don't you want to know if she's available first -- and what she looks like?"

"There's no need," said Althea. "Anyone who uses language this powerfully is beautiful to the core. I'd want to meet her if she were knock-kneed, toothless and 92." She turned her attention back to the poem, absorbing its words once more before gently setting the frame back on the mantel.

Sophie raised an inquiring eyebrow to Shelley, as if to say, "So. Was I right?"

Still reeling from the effect of Althea's praise, Shelley gave a quick nod, following up with a shake of the head when her twin cocked her head inquiringly in the direction of the poem. Althea had definite possibilities, but she wasn't ready to share something so revealing the very instant they met.

Speaking of which... She took a deep breath and stepped closer to Sophie and the woman who had haunted her dreams for the last few months.

Damn!

During the sisters' wordless communication, Maggie Ann Spooner had snared Althea's attention and pulled her aside to transact a spot of business. The literary agent had a remarkable eye for profitable prose -- and all the sensitivity and refinement of a pile driver. She appeared to be angling for inside information on a collection of lesbian short stories that Althea's company was scheduled to publish the following year.

"I say, Aletha," she said, overlooking the wince that crossed the tall woman's face at the mispronunciation, "ya know yet if you're going to invite Nancy to contribute to that anthology you been working on? Don't worry, I won't tell her one way or another who you're going to be talking to. We'll just keep it between you and I."

"Well, Margaret," Althea ground out, "just between you and me" (she stressed the altered pronoun lightly, Shelley noticed -- though Maggie Ann appeared oblivious to the correction), "we have not decided to whom we'll be going for stories. I have to say, however, that Nancy's failure to deliver the last story for which we contracted is not going to weigh in her favor."

"Ah, give her a break, Al. She fell in love." The grimace on Althea's face registered this time; Spooner decided it was time to cut her losses. "Well, it's a shirty dame. I mean, a dirty shame. But -- she's made her bed, right? Now she's gotta lay in it." She took another pull on the bottle of Corona she was holding.

"Lay what?" Shelley heard Althea mutter. "Bricks?"

The caustic crack surprised her into an unladylike snort that turned Althea back in their direction. Whoops! She struggled to get her face under control before... Too late! She felt her blush return as Althea's eyes measured her.

"Countess Dracula, I don't believe you've had the honor of meeting my 'big' sister, Shelley," Sophie interjected smoothly.

"Bigger -- and better," grinned Shelley, stretching to show off the half inch she had on her 5'3" sister -- and mentally thanking her for giving her a way to lighten the moment.

"And older!" retorted Sophie affectionately.

"And wiser," responded Shelley.

"With more diplomas, certainly," her twin conceded. "But more sense?"

"Enough sense to stay off sheer cliffs and out of raging rivers," retorted Shelley.

Althea watched the interplay with twinkling eyes, then held out a tanned hand, clasped Shelley's gloved one and bent over it gallantly. "We meet at last, madam. But I was expecting someone in denim and flannel, not a vision of Regency loveliness."

"Indeed, I do rely exclusively on the fashions of Levi Strauss during the work week," Shelley replied. "This old thing is what I loll about in on the weekends." She grinned. "It's a pleasure to meet you, too, Countess. I have to confess: you're not exactly as I had envisioned you, either. Will you satisfy a point of scientific curiosity for me?"

"If I can."

Shelley glanced at the fingers that were still holding hers so gently. "It's just ... I was wondering. How does a vampire get a tan?" she asked. She ran a thumb over the back of Althea's bronzed hand, exulting at the quiver that her touch generated.

"From the brilliance of the ladies with whom she spends her evenings, no doubt," Althea replied, regaining her composure after flushing briefly. She released Shelley's hand after pressing her lips lightly to the back of the glove which covered it.

A wonderful, wild energy surged through the biologist, further weakening her hold on what was left of her rationality. Is it fate, she wondered dazedly, or pheromones? Aw, who the hell cares!

She stared at Althea's full, red lips, imagining how they would have felt pressed against the skin of her hand. A deep reflexive breath filled her lungs to capacity. She felt her nostrils flare -- and saw the response mirrored on Althea's marvelous strong face.

Gods, she realized after several breathless moments, it's my turn to talk.

She searched desperately for something to say, something clever or at least coherent. Before she could get all her synapses in a row, however, Maggie Ann interrupted again.

"Speakin' a vampires, you oughta see what they've done with the McMillin Mansion up the street." Althea's jaw tightened at the intrusion, but she turned politely toward the agent. "They did a... a... gooder" -- she hiccupped -- "job even than last year. Even before today's snow their 'creepy castle' raised more than $150,000 for the Nature Conservancy." She belched. "Creepy is right. I tell ya, it scared the crap outta me. There's a groaning mummy pops up as you enter the attic -- sheesh, I like to wet myself I was so afraid. They've really, really surmounted themselves."

The moment Maggie Ann paused for air, Shelley was ready with a remark she hoped would recapture Althea's attention.

"Fear is a healthy thing, actually, a survival instinct ... " Shelley commented, her body tingling as Althea's blue eyes turned back her way.

"Many people believe, as FDR put it, that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.' In point of fact, fear is something common to all sentient life. It keeps people, well, the sane ones, at least," she shot an exasperated look at her daredevil sister, "from prancing about on dangerous mountain peaks. It also keeps us one step ahead of those things that go chomp in the night.

"Being scared prepares you to fight or take flight. Your heart rate increases to pump more blood to your muscles and brain, your lungs breathe faster to supply your body with oxygen, your pupils get larger to see better, and your digestive system slows down so you can concentrate on more important things, like getting out of the situation in one piece."

"And the screaming?" Althea asked, a smile crinkling the corner of her mouth.

"What screaming?" responded Shelley, confused.

"Shrieking at the top of your lungs -- where does that come in?" Althea asked, with great seriousness.

A jerky motion drew Shelley's eye to Sophie, who, she saw, was beginning to splutter indignantly. Jude placed a reassuring hand on the banker's back, afraid perhaps that she was experiencing another coughing fit. More and more heads turned toward them as the sound persisted.

"Screaming's also a fairly common phenomenon," Shelley answered slowly, watching Sophie's agitation continuing to build. "The best defense is a good offense, after all, and if you can scare off the thing that's threatening you..." She broke off. Sophie, still speechless, was shaking now.

"Say, what's going on here?" she said, looking at Althea accusingly.

The tall, dark woman broke into a deep laugh. "Nothing really. Just something that happened when we were climbing in Peru last year. My stout-hearted pal here got spooked by a mouse that crept into her tent. Her shrieks deafened everyone for miles around. Probably caused an avalanche or two as well."

"The guides started calling her 'La Sirena,'" Althea teased, watching Sophie's face turn a new shade of red -- and overlooking entirely the signs that Mount St. Solomon was about to erupt and bury her in boiling vitriol.

The guests around them didn't miss the indicators, however. They edged back from the scene, hoping they'd be far enough away when the explosion came to ...

"How dare you?! How DARE you!" Before Althea could draw another breath, Shelley had backed her against the fireplace and was jabbing an angry forefinger into her sternum.

"I suppose you've never panicked, Ms. Big Brass Ones? You've never screamed at the top of your lungs?"

"Er, actually. I mean, no," said Althea, embarrassed by the attention Shelley was drawing to them.

"Bullshit! "

"Watch your mouth -- and no, I haven't!" retorted Althea, angered by Shelley's intemperate language and her indictment.

"You're too cool, I suppose? Too controlled?" snarled Shelley. "Too freaking together to be shocked or surprised or scared like every other being on the planet?"

"I didn't say that," Althea said icily. "I just said I don't go running around shrieking like some sissy."

That does it!

"You will tonight," Shelley promised grimly.

"What?"

"You'll scream bloody murder. Before midnight. I'm going to see to it personally," vowed Shelley, fixing Althea with an implacable stare. She gave a terse nod to her startled sister and Jude and stalked off, what was left of her mind already working on ways to crack Althea Ashford's unnatural composure.

___________________________ * Aubade by Amy Lowell

 

CHAPTER FOUR
Gods! I am never going to get Ashford to scream before midnight at this rate! fumed Shelley, doing another circuit of the walk-in closet. I've been lurking here for nearly an hour! How effing long is it going to take for more people to come through? she agonized.

She peeked out the door at the clock on the bedside table: 9:59. Damn! In an hour Sophie would start the horror story competition in the parlor. She was not just expected to participate; she was always the final contestant. The tradition was so engrained that last year she had even sent a tale she'd written in Japan for a proxy to read.

Double damn! She was running out of time -- as well as ideas. Her first two attempts, admittedly uninspired ones, had been abject failures. The infernal woman had just shrugged and stepped aside when the huge, hairy tarantula had swept out of the dark at her face. For that I tore the house apart looking for fishing line?! And she'd merely "eep"ed when Shelley managed to drip a glob of icy goo down the high collar of the Dracula costume she was wearing.

Third time's the charm, she reassured herself. Just wait till I leap out of this closet at her waving this cutlass.

More like 'three strikes, you're out,'" the left side of her brain opined. (1) She's already proved she's on guard for anything you might throw at her, including yourself. (2) You've only got two hours left on your silly challenge. And (3) you're going to be standing here till the cows come home because ...

Shelley groaned, finally recognizing the magnitude of her miscalculation.

... because Althea has absolutely no reason to be visiting Sophie's bedroom! Argh!

Unlike most of the other guests, Althea had been to the house many times during the renovations. She'd even helped Sophie wallpaper the adjoining bathroom. There was no way she'd join the curiosity-seekers touring the place unless she were looking to show off her handiwork.

Damn and blast! It was becoming crystal clear that taking on the Ice Queen this way had been an error of titanic proportions.

She slid down the wall, pulled her knees to her chest and rested her aching head upon them. Think, Shelley, think! No way are you going to defeat this ... this amazon using strictly physical means. That's not your style, anyway. Remember what Mom told you. "Use your words, sweetie, not your fists."

Use my words. But how? To win the challenge? Or to call it off?

She considered the notion of conceding. It didn't sit right, even though she was beginning to think she had overreacted a tad. She had to admit it -- she'd been overwrought even before that leather outfit of Althea's had short-circuited her endocrine system.

Still, Ashford had practically asked for it the way she was yanking Sophie's chain and in front of all her guests. What a jerk! she thought, anger -- and deep disappointment -- resurfacing as she recalled the scene in the parlor two hours earlier.

Might have known she'd have a fatal flaw. She gave a heartfelt sigh. Guess it's true what they say about things that look too good to be true...

Well, where there was one flaw there was bound to be another, she decided. A psychological chink, if not a physical one. There had to be something that got under Ashford's skin; she just had to discover what it was. One thing for certain, she wasn't likely to find it here. No answers in the closet, she thought, with a wry smile. Not for me anyway.

Shelley rose slowly to her feet, straightening her gown. Her hand was on the closet door, ready to swing it open, when voices alerted her that someone was coming.

Figures.

She was in no mood to engage in more party prattle until she had determined what she wanted to do with Althea. What I want to do about Althea, she corrected. What I want to do with her I already know -- or my body does -- and there's no way that's happening. Not unless I fling my principles to the four winds or some freaking miracle occurs. She sank back to the closet floor, hoping the guests' inspection tour would be a short one.

"Wow! Check out the paint job in here. What's that -- basil green? Tres chic!"

"I'll tell you what's chic, 'Martha.' Babs and Brenda, the luscious ladies we were talking to before you took it in your head to go walkabout. Hurry up, or someone else will bewitch them before we get back."

"Relax, Ali, there's lots of talent here tonight. Plenty to go around. What's in here, I wonder?" Shelley heard the sound of the shower curtain being pulled back. "Oh, yeah. A Jacuzzi! And big enough to accommodate a ménage á trois! Speaking of which -- Althea's looking fine tonight, isn't she?"

"In your dreams, slag! She's got rules about that sort of thing -- about everything, for that matter -- anyway, no affairs at the office. You don't rise from the lowly rank of copyeditor to editor-in-chief by snogging tarts like you in the file room."

"Bitch!" The retort was delivered affectionately and without rancor, as the speaker pulled the shower curtain back into place.

"Didn't Sophie's sister light into her something fierce, though? Looked like a Jack Russell terrier taking on a pit bull."

Great, groaned Shelley. Just effing great! Shoot me now!

"Althea didn't look particularly fazed. Lord knows she runs into that kind of thing on a daily basis at work, though more often than not she's on the giving end and not the receiving." Shelley heard a drawer open.

"What are you doing!? C'mon, Melanie. Don't go poking around in people's nightstands. It isn't polite."

"No, but it IS incredibly informative. I think of it as a kind of low tech market research. Check these out -- In Search of Excellence, an oldie but goodie by Tom Peters and The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. Right next to two Harlequins: Hard to Handle and The Fire Within. What an intriguing mix!"

"You can learn a lot about people from the books they have beside their beds," she continued matter-of-factly. "Ashford, for instance."

"You didn't!"

"I did! During that training session she hosted at her place last week. Let me tell you, she's got some v-e-r-r-r-y interesting reading habits!"

"Do tell."

"The Joy of Lesbian Sex, of course, bookmarked at page 212 and wouldn't I love to have her train me on the particulars of THAT maneuver someday!"

"As if! What else?"

"The best lesbian fiction coming out of the Xenaverse, of course: Tropical Storm, Madam President, Destiny's Crossing, Tiopa ki Lakota, The Sunne in Gold ... Oh yeah, and a printout of book three of I Found My Heart in San Francisco. You know, the 'honeymoon' opus? I swear, the Amazon Bookstore Coop in Minneapolis must have an easy chair with her name on it. She's got to be their #1 customer!"

"What can I say? Our Althea may be anal about apostrophes, but she's got great taste."

Shelley had to agree; she had most of the same books herself.

"I saved the best for last, though." Melanie's voice dropped and became more secretive. "It's the kinkiest, too."

Despite her distaste for the way this obnoxious busybody had invaded the privacy of both Althea and her sister, Shelley found herself leaning toward the closet door and holding her breath so she wouldn't miss a single word.

"There was a book there that has obviously gotten more use than any other," drawled Melanie. "A book that's been read over and over. That's full of tiny yellow Post-it note flags that enable her to flip immediately to the juiciest bits."

"That's our Althea," her friend agreed. "The epitome of efficiency, even when she's reading one handed! C'mon, spill! What's the book?"

"I'll give you some hints. It's red and black. It's got more than 900 pages. It's so popular that it's been in print since the turn of the century. And ... you've got a copy on your desk!"

"No! The Chicago Manual of Style? In her nightstand?"

"Along with an editing pen!" Melanie laughed. "I bet half those books have little red proofreading marks in the margins! C'mon. I've seen all I need to see here. Bodacious babes await!"

As their voices trailed away down the hallway, Shelley put two and two together -- and got an diabolical answer. She knew well the book to which they were referring; she had a well-thumbed copy of CMoS in her own library. Hers, however, only had a few key sections dog-eared, not dozens.

Add to that the pained look that had appeared on Althea's face when Maggie Ann was murdering the English language and ...

Shelley took another look at the clock, an evil grin stealing over her countenance at the figures on the digital readout. Plenty of time! Trotting over to the desk in the corner of the room, she located a pen, pulled the piece of parchment out of her bag and began to write.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

She made it back to the parlor with minutes to spare. She saw Sophie heave a sign of profound relief as she arrived. Responding to her frantic wave, she made her way through the gathering crowd. "I know," she said, cutting Sophie off before she could speak. "I overreacted."

"Again," Sophie added, happy to see that the worst of Shelley's pique seemed to have passed. "It was a joke, 'Smelly.' A jest between friends. Kind of like my digs about your driving. You seemed to be hitting it off incredibly well. Don't let this misunderstanding ruin that."

"So ... you think we ought to kiss and make up?" Shelley grinned.

Sophie looked pleased at the prospect, but wisely limited herself to "Whatever you're going to do, do it fast. The story telling starts in two minutes." She shooed Shelley toward Althea. She was once more under siege by Maggie Ann, who'd backed her into a corner by the fireplace. Ooh, better and better, Shelley thought, watching Althea's jaw grow tighter with each turn of the screwy dame's discourse.

The agent seemed to be extolling the virtues of a writer she'd discovered on the Internet. "Lord love a duck! You would NOT believe the incredibly descriptive phrases she's invented for -- you know -- doing 'it'! They're slicker than ... than a red hot love pocket!"

Shelley tried to look appropriately penitent as she approached the duo. Althea stiffened anyway. "Excuse me, Maggie Ann," she said quietly. "I need a quick word with Althea before the festivities start." While the agent tried in vain to overhear, she gently grasped the editor's elbow, turned her toward the mantel and quietly spoke her piece.

"Sophie tells me I need to let bygones be bygones. That you were just teasing and I blew things totally out of proportion. Maybe after this is over, we can get together and have a less ... mercurial conversation?"

"I'd like that," said Althea, accepting the hand that Shelley held out to her, but warily. "I'm sorry that I --" The rest of what she started to say was drowned out by the rapping of something metallic against a glass.

"Okay, everybody," Sophie declared. "Time to start. Find a seat." Shelley sank gracefully to the floor, gesturing for Althea to join her. The editor demurred. "I don't want to crowd you," she said. "I'll just lean against the mantel here."

Trying to control the high ground, eh? thought Shelley. She sank back against the solidity of the marble that surrounded the fireplace. Despite her apparent overture of peace, Althea still evidently anticipated a last-minute attack of some sort. She was continuing to be very much on her guard. Wise woman, the blonde thought, hiding a smile and biding her time.

"There's nothing like a really good horror story," Sophie said, after everyone was settled "and they've been written by some of the best: Edgar Allen Poe, whose Telltale Heart gave me nightmares for years. Washington Irving, author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Not to mention the creator of Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft ..."

Shelley treasured the thunderstruck look that appeared on Sophie's face as the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. When she turned an unbelieving expression her way, she responded with a half bow, trying -- unsuccessfully -- not to look too smug.

"As I was saying," Sophie pulled herself back on track, "they've been written by the best, including the creator of Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley" -- she pointed admiringly at her twin -- "who penned her classic tale at a house party in Switzerland in response to a challenge from Lord Byron."

"We don't expect the same level of accomplishment here tonight -- though we wouldn't be surprised. This company includes some of the most creative minds in the Twin Cities and they've learned" -- she gave them a mock ferocious glare -- "that this is NOT the place to trot out hoary stories that they first heard at Camp Gitcheegumee. Let the will-o-the-wisps in the ballroom dance their cares away. WE are here to have our spines tingled, our hairs raised and our bones chilled."

At her signal, Jude dimmed the lights in the room, leaving it illuminated primarily by the eerily dancing flames of the fireplace and the phalanx of candles that lined its mantel. Sophie reached into a bowl, pulled out a slip of paper and opened it.

"Jim ..."

A man with an impressive handlebar mustache rose to his feet. The crowd shifted uneasily. In the blaze of his eyes, they could see armies advancing on their village. Shelley grinned in anticipation. The contest was off to its usual great start.

It stayed at that high level, too, one creepy story following on the heels of another, casting a spooky spell over the guests, who grew edgier and edgier as the evening progressed. Althea seemed to have fallen prey to the tension as well, though it was making her quiet rather than jumpy. Her leather-clad legs, the only part of her that Shelley could see without openly gaping, were so rigid that they could have been carved from stone.

Bing bing bing-bing. Bing bing bing bing. Bing bing bing-bing.

The grandfather clock rang three-quarters of the way through the Westminster Chimes, alerting the crowd that only 15 minutes remained before the start of the witching hour. As the echoes died away, Sophie nodded at her twin. Shelley rose slowly to her feet and drew a piece of paper from her bag. The audience quieted immediately, bracing for the presentation that invariably capped the evening's creepy entertainment.

"The chilling opus I'm going to share with you this year is the work of one of my students, a brilliant young scientist who may some day help us develop a vaccine for AIDS. She also aspires to be an author. Knowing how much I love and respect the written word, she asked if she could do an independent study with me this fall that combined biomedicine and writing. I agreed. This is a -- diversion -- she wrote for me as a Halloween present. After hearing it, I'm sure you'll agree -- her way with words truly defies description. This one of the scariest things I have ever read."

She gave the audience a moment to get into the mood again and then began:

It was a dreary night of November when I first administered to the needs of the residents of Mosiman's Pet Motel. I did it at my grandmother's bequest, of course. The director of the local ASCPA, she had been looking for several years for a way to take a closer look at this unusual facility. Although the clientele consisted primarily of furry family retainers, rumors rebounded that the "guests" also included the subjects of an underground genetics-modification operation.

Two or three twitches from Althea during the introduction told her she was on the right track. She continued, infusing the recitation with all the drama she could muster.

It was not the ideal situation into which to send an untested agent, and I had accepted the assignation with trepidation. Granny tried to inseminate herself into the staff of the pet motel first, actually, but the owners seemed to have a pendant for hiring intransigent workers, mostly in their teens. They seemed to think that our brains were too hormone-ridden to little note or long remember things like dogs with six legs or cats with crania the size of cantaloupes.

The audience was growing restless, she saw. Cindy, Lori and Fran looked particularly unsettled at the prosaic plot that was unfolding -- and the rhetorical miscues that were accompanying it. She froze them in place before their disquiet could tip her hand, a gimlet glare alerting them to mind their p's and q's and leave hers alone.

She couldn't look at Sophie, who would, she knew, be staring at her dumbfounded. She didn't dare look directly at Althea, either ... but she had to know. The twitching had stopped. Had she figured out what Shelley was up to or... ? She suppressed a triumphant smile when a sideways glance at the arm resting on the mantelpiece revealed that it now terminated in a white-knuckled fist.

Time to up the ante. After a few more paragraphs of uninspired and derivative drivel, she turned to the rigid woman next to her with a quiet request.

"I'm sorry -- I left my reading glasses at home tonight. Can you decipher this part for me?

Forced by the public plea into helping Shelley, Althea reluctantly accepted the parchment and began to read the text inscribed there.

As the whimpering of the monkey increased in volume, the situation became more ...

Althea paled, then forced herself to continue.

... the situation became disparate. Growing a little boulder...

She winced.

I opened the cage in which she was imprisoned and reached toward her. An enormous ...

She swallowed convulsively.

An enormous shutter ripped through her body, and she howled piteously.

The editor was reading more quickly now and breathing through her mouth, as if shielding herself from a stench that nobody else noticed. Finally hazarding a look at her sister, Shelley found dawning comprehension, then sneaking admiration and a subtle thumbs-up of encouragement.

I cared not a wit that the guard must thus have been alerted to my presents. Eliding discovery was a mute point. Whatever it's cost to me personally, I was determined to put an end to this ... rain of terror.

Althea brusquely thrust the manuscript back at Shelley. "Here," she said through clenched teeth. "You should be able to decipher it from this point."

"Thanks so much," Shelley murmured. Unerringly finding her place in the composition, she marched on without missing a beat. Floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee, she hit her opponent with a series of horribly mixed metaphors, an outrageously split infinitive, and a dangling participle. She followed with a paragraph of relative rectitude, hoping to lull the editor into a false sense of security, then whipped a couple of extremely sneaky shifts in tense at her. They registered on no one else, but Althea's head snapped back as if impacted by a 2 x 4.

Time to put her out of her misery, Shelley thought, taking pity on the agonized editor. Sensing that victory was nearly within her grasp, she steeled her resolve and unleashed another flurry of jabs, softening Althea up for a final now-or-never roundhouse punch. She prayed that it would have the power to do what needed to be done.

We almost didn't make it. Panicking as the sounds of our pursuers drew ever closer, the engine flooded when I tried to start the pickup. I was under no allusion that I could outrun them, especially while carrying the chimp. Filling the cab with the nauseating smell of gas, I tried again. Nothing.

Praying the guards that were chasing us were couch potatoes, my shaking fingers waited a few minutes, then turned the key again. Happily, the engine caught that time and we teared down the rutted road.

Our trails were not yet over, however. While driving at high speed down the highway that led to the city, two deer leaped in front of the truck and ...

"Stop it!" screamed Althea. She appealed frantically to her friend. "Make her stop, Soph! Please! I can't take any more!"

In the shocked silence that followed her outburst, Shelley watched the tall, dark woman realize that she had just shrieked like a banshee -- and in front of a horde of open-mouthed witnesses. Althea turned back to the blonde and gave her an incredulous look.

"Gotcha."

Before Shelley could say another word, Althea turned her back to the crowd, laid her head upon the mantel and covered it with her arms, her body shaking convulsively.

Ohmigawd, what have I done? Shelley agonized, realizing suddenly that she may have gone too far.

What haven't you done, dork? You've humiliated her in front of her best friend and reduced her to tears in front of some of the most important people in the Twin Cities. Nicely done!

Thinking to shield her from the eyes of inquisitive onlookers, Shelley stepped closer. She put a hand on the quivering, caped back. "Althea, I ..." The dark head lifted abruptly, the expression on its countenance stopping her words in her throat.

"Zeus!" gasped the editor when she finally stopped wheezing and caught her breath. "I haven't laughed so hard -- or screamed that loud! -- in years. Holy moley, Shelley, that was just plain cruel. I mean: 'An enormous shutter ripped through her body?' You don't pull your punches, do you?"

Before Shelley could respond, the clock began chiming twelve and the crowd in the parlor began toasting the twins and singing a horrifyingly off-key version of "Happy Birthday." Sophie swept up to them as the salute ended and the guests started wending their way to the ballroom.

"You owe me birthday kisses," she said. "Both of you. I'll collect later, after I slip out of this cake and into something that's a little more accessible -- and more suitable for dancing. Jude's volunteered to help 'de-frost' me," she added conspiratorially. "Start warming up those lips. Practice on each other if you like. We'll be back in ten minutes or so."

"So soon?" asked Shelley archly.

To her surprise, Sophie flushed and stared at where her toes might have been visible if not for the cake platter around her middle. "Yeah," she said, reddening further. "He seems like a really sweet guy, but kind of skittish, so I was thinking I'd take a page from your book, Shelley, and take it a bit slower this ..."

Raising her head at the sound of delighted laughter, she discovered that it was emanating from her best friend as well as her ebullient sibling.

"Oh... oh, YOU!" she spluttered briefly, before breaking into a broad grin herself. "Yuck it up while you can, smart asses. It will be your turn soon enough." Zinging this parting shot at them, she sailed majestically in the direction of Jude, who was waiting patiently in the hallway.

"I haven't the foggiest notion what she's ..." Shelley began in an embarrassed tone.

"Ignore her ravings, my dear," replied Althea coolly. "She's a fruit cake. Everybody knows it."

The unintended pun triggered another round of laughter. When it ended, Althea seized the initiative. Putting her hand over her heart, she bowed deeply in Shelley's direction.

"You did it: you beat me fair and square. There's only one problem. We never agreed what your prize would be if you succeeded, did we? Have any ideas?"

"As a matter of fact, I thought maybe -- if you weren't too busy or..."

Taking a deep breath, Shelley decided it was time to take a page from Sophie's book. She adopted a more direct approach.

"Can I interest you in some cross country skiing next weekend?" She looped her arm through that of the taller woman and began leading her toward the dancing in the other room. "I was hoping that maybe you'd like to spend the day with me at the family cabin in Trollhaugen," she continued. "It's not the peaks of Peru, but the scenery's some of the best Wisconsin has to offer. And after dinner ..."

"Yessss?" said Althea in a low growl. "After dinner ... what?"

The husky sound sent chills up and down Shelley's spine.

"After dinner ... I thought we could discuss the proper use of the ellipsis in works of fiction. Or maybe ... capitalization questions encountered in the course of publishing free verse?"

Althea drew in a deep breath, her nostrils flaring at the blatant way Shelley was pandering to her obsession. "And then?"

"Why then, my gorgeous grammarian ..."

Shelley paused seductively.

"Then, Althea Ashford, I'm going to give you until the clock strikes twelve -- to find some way to make ME scream!"

THE END

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