Cassie clutched her coffee cup, ignoring Kim for the moment. She should just come right out and tell her. Kim had probably guessed most of it anyway.
"Luke and I . . . know each other better than you think," she started.
"I gathered as much," Kim said dryly.
Cassie took a deep breath, then continued, planning to tell her best friend everything that had happened. "Weve had dinner a few times. And lunch," she added before turning around to face her. "And she bought the eagle in flight from me." When Kim would have spoken, Cassie raised her hand to stop her. She was afraid she wouldnt be able to get through it all. "The night of the storm, a few months back, I had a flat and she found me and took me to her house. I stayed the night with her."
"What?" Kim hissed.
"It was perfectly innocent," Cassie said. "I slept on the sofa. But it gave us a chance to get to know each other. The point is, we werent exactly strangers last night."
"And that gave her the right to attack you in the back room?"
Cassie stared at her friend, knowing Kim was more hurt than anything that Cassie had intentionally kept all of this from her.
"She didnt attack me. I went willingly, Kim," Cassie said quietly. "Ive denied it for years and lied to you along the way." Their eyes held for a long moment and Cassies slowly filled with tears. "But I never lied to myself. I just couldnt accept it. I wouldnt accept it."
"Im sorry. This is my fault," Kim stated. She pulled Cassie into a fierce hug. "I know Ive pushed you--"
"No! I always knew, Kim, I just didnt want it to be true, you know. You always said it was, but I didnt want it to be. There was never a man that I was attracted to . . . and I wouldnt dare allow a woman to get close. I was so scared."
"Then why now?" Kim nearly whispered. "Why Luke Winston?"
Images of Luke, pieces of conversation, her own thoughts and feelings flashing fleetingly through her mind, none stopping long enough for her to grasp them. How could she possibly explain this to Kim? She barely understood it herself.
"She touched something inside me," Cassie finally said. She turned away, again staring out the window, seeing nothing. "From the first moment I saw her that day at the café, I knew," she whispered. "I dont know how I knew, but I did. I didnt seek her out. She didnt seek me out. It just happened." Cassie shrugged, then gave a small laugh. "If I didnt know better, Id think a higher power was bringing us together."
But Kim didnt laugh. She turned Cassie around to face her.
"Im worried about you. Yes, Ive known all these years and I kept pushing you, thinking youd be happier if you could just accept this about yourself. But I also know from experience that you have to be ready to accept it. I was afraid you would never accept it, that you would end up spending your life alone, all because of some stupid shit you were brainwashed with as a kid. But I dont think Luke is the one for you."
"I know you dont like her, Kim, but you dont know her. Youve only been around her a couple of times and brief minutes at that."
"She just looks the type to--"
"But shes not. Shes extremely kind and thoughtful. Shes a nice person, Kim. And last night, in a strangers bedroom, I wanted her to make love to me," she barely whispered. She looked up to meet Kims eyes. "But she stopped. She stopped because she knows Im not ready. Up here, anyway," she added and tapped her head.
Kim stared at her for the longest, then finally nodded.
"Okay. So now what?"
It was Cassies turn to stare. Now what?
"I dont know. She knows everything about my father, about my upbringing."
"You told her?"
Cassie nodded. "She knows about some things that Ive never been able to tell even you."
"Cassie, you can tell me anything," Kim protested.
"You were too close. You already hated him."
Kim nodded. "Yes, I did. I do. Look what hes done to you," she said. "Why wont you see someone? A therapist could help you work through all of this," she suggested, not for the first time.
Cassie hugged her briefly. "I dont think I have that many years left," she said lightly. "And it would take a lot of years."
"Your father cant hurt you, Cass."
"I know that. He can only hurt me if I let him."
She walked to the sink and tossed out her long cold coffee. It wasnt so bad, she thought. If anyone, she knew that Kim would understand what she was going through.
"Were going to take it slow. At least, as slow as we can." She laughed. Last night, slow had not been in her vocabulary.
"But your hormones are in overdrive?" Kim supplied with just a hint of a smile.
"Off the scale to say the least."
Kim pulled her into another hug and they laughed, Cassie finally relaxing. It was a huge relief to have told Kim the truth. But now what? How much did Luke want from her? For that matter, how much could Cassie give? She had a lot of emotional baggage to sort through and she wondered if Luke would be able to deal with it, if Luke would even want to.
Cassie sat on the floor of her workshop, a piece of driftwood positioned between her parted legs as she studied it. She ran her hands lightly over the smooth surface, trying to find something in it, trying to see what it would become.
She sighed heavily, a corner of her mouth lifting in a half-smile. She could see nothing but Luke. With each stroke of her hands, she saw nothing but the strong, athletic shape of Lukes body, a body she longed to touch.
It surprised her how easily she could admit this now. She had spent all of her adult life convincing herself that she was attracted to no one. It had been easy, really. She was not attracted to men in the least, and for the longest, she would not even consider the possibility of a woman. But then Luke Winston had come into her life and disrupted everything, without really even trying.
In a sense, Cassie felt freed. The constricting blanket she had placed on her life, her feelings, had been burned. And the woman who had set flames to it was but a phone call away.
Cassie had not yet dared to call her though. Oh, but that didnt stop her from dreaming of Lukes touch. She woke during the night , her body damp with perspiration . . . and desire, her own hands touching herself where she longed for Luke to touch. It had only been two days. Two long days since she had confided in Kim. Two nights sleeping alone, dreaming of Lukes touch. She had awakened each morning with her body on fire, wet, a throbbing ache between her thighs, her pillow clutched tightly to her. And always the image of hands . . . dream hands . . . just leaving her.
Luke had not called and Cassie wondered, if she herself never attempted to make contact, if Luke would be the one to break down first and call. It wasnt that she didnt want to call her, didnt want to see her. She did. The truth was, she was scared. She wasnt strong enough to deny her feelings any longer.
The ringing of the phone startled her, disrupting her thoughts. She stood and reached for it nervously, afraid it would be Luke, hoping it would be Luke.
"Its me," Kim said. "Lisa said I should call you. Its been awhile since youve been over for dinner."
Cassie laughed. "New recipe, huh?"
"Eggplant," Kim said. "Dont make me do it alone."
Cassie laughed again. She needed a diversion, she knew.
"Good." Then her voice softened. "How are you, honey?"
"Have you called her?"
Kim knew not to press. "Come early and well catch up," she said.
Cassie left her workshop, the wood still untouched. Maybe tomorrow she would call Luke, she thought. Tonight she would escape in the company of her two closest friends.
While Lisa finished dinner, Cassie enjoyed looking at the paintings Kim had been doing, some completed, others just beginning.
"Ive gotten so involved with these, Ive had no inspiration for my usual seascapes," Kim explained.
"Maybe this is another phase in your career," Cassie said. "You cant continue to paint original seascapes without repeating some."
Kim looked at her for a moment. "Maybe youre right. But what about your work? Ive seen you do eagles over and over again, yet they all manage to be unique in some way."
"All my animals have their own personalities," Cassie offered. "I sometimes forget theyre only pieces of wood."
Lisa called them to dinner and Kim linked a casual arm through Cassies. "Lisas already planning Thanksgiving dinner," Kim said. "Humor her."
"Any reason for her to cook." They laughed, and it felt good to Cassie. This was familiar to her and she knew she needed something familiar now that her life was about to change completely.
"Ive been looking over these recipes for vegetable nut rolls," Lisa said as she scooped out generous helpings of the eggplant casserole for them. "A couple look promising."
"What was wrong with last years recipe?" Kim asked and she winked at Cassie and Cassie thought it was just like old times.
"We cant always use the same one," Lisa explained. "Cassie, you can bring that wonderful squash casserole that you made last year." Then she looked up. "You are planning to join us?"
"Of course," Cassie said easily. "Dont I always?"
"You havent heard from your father, have you?"
Cassie poured wine for them and carried all three glasses to the table. She gave Kim a blank stare.
"I cant remember the last time Ive talked to him. I guess it was early summer." Lately, he hadnt been far from her mind, though.
"This is great, hon," Kim said around a mouthful.
Lisa ruffled Kims hair as she walked past. She did the same to Cassie and they laughed.
"Im glad you came over," she told Cassie.
"Thanks." She picked up her wineglass instead of her fork.
"Has she called?"
Cassie met Lisas eyes, then glanced at Kim.
"No. And she wont. She left that up to me," Cassie said, downing the rest of her wine.
"She knows what youre going through, right?" Lisa got up for more wine. "I mean, obviously this is new to you."
Cassie was having a hard time discussing this with Kim and Lisa. They were her best friends, but still, she was embarrassed. After all the years of denying this part of herself, it was difficult to talk about it now.
"Yes, she knows. I think I may remind her of a previous relationship." Cassie took a swallow of wine before continuing. "She had an affair with a married woman for several years. Turned out, the woman was just playing with her, experimenting."
"And she thinks you might be doing the same?"
Cassie shrugged. "I wouldnt blame her if she did." In fact, the thought had crossed her mind several times and she wondered if maybe that was why Luke was giving her time. She knew had badly Luke had been hurt before.
"I think you need to call her," Lisa said. "If nothing else, you should explain."
"Explain what? That Im scared shitless by what Im feeling? I think she knows that."
"Honey, I know this is hard." Kim gave her hand a squeeze. "Weve all been there."
Cassie smiled, finally picking up her fork. "Lets just hope I dont run off and get married or something."
Kim laughed. "That was something, wasnt it? Talk about scared shitless."
"Did you even know what a lesbian was back then?" Lisa asked.
"Not until Jennifer explained to me why I wanted to touch her all the time."
"She was your first, right?"
Kim nodded. "Man, what a night. I had no idea what I was doing, I only knew I wanted to do it."
"How could you go and get married after that?"
"Lisa, you dont understand. I was completely alone. I didnt have anyone to turn to, except Cassie."
"And I wasnt a lot of help," Cassie added.
"It seemed the logical thing to do. I mean, all my life Id been told I was going to get married and have kids. There was never any mention of falling in love with a woman." Kim reached for the wine and refilled everyones glass, emptying the bottle.
"I was scared," Kim continued. "I went after the first guy I could find, just to prove I wasnt queer."
"More than one, if I recall," Cassie reminded her.
"Poor Richard. I practically roped him into the marriage, then made us both miserable for the next six months."
"Did he know about Jennifer?" Lisa asked.
"No. And I wish I hadnt told him at the end. We were both so young and it wasnt his fault, but Im sure it left a scar."
"No doubt," Cassie said. It was her turn to squeeze Kims hand. "But he was a . . . "
"A jerk," Kim finished for her. "I know. But what do you expect when youre twenty-one years old and you find out your wifes a lesbian?"
"But you and Jennifer didnt last long," Lisa reminded them both.
"No. Once I found out what was out there, I was like a kid in a candy store," Kim said with a laugh. Then she turned to Cassie with a grin. "And youre too old to act like that. But just remember, Lukes not the only one out there. I mean, youll meet lots of people. Dont assume that just because shes the one to make you accept this, that shes the only one, you know?"
"But you like her?" Lisa asked gently.
"Yes. I really like her."
Cassie swallowed the last of her wine and Lisa got up to open another bottle.
"You know, I really think you should call her."
Cassie smiled at them, wondering if they knew how they contradicted each other. Kim was overprotective, wanting her to find someone safe. Lisa was the romantic, pushing her to Luke because she could see the attraction.
"I dont think Kim likes her," Cassie said to Lisa. "She thinks Lukes too much for me."
"Honey, I just dont want her to take advantage of you," Kim said. "Youre so innocent," she said quietly. "I dont want you to get hurt."
Cassie nodded, accepting the new glass of wine from Lisa. Innocent, yes. But that didnt mean she didnt know what she wanted. And she wanted Luke in the worst way.
"Ive been afraid to see her," Cassie admitted. "Thats why I havent called her."
"Youre afraid to be alone with her?" Lisa guessed.
"Terrified," Cassie whispered.
It was nearly midnight, but Cassie was afraid if she waited until morning, she would lose her nerve again.
The phone was answered on the third ring.
There was a long pause.
"Are you okay?"
Lukes voice was heavy with sleep and Cassie bit her bottom lip, wishing she had waited until morning.
"Im sorry its so late," she said. "I just . . . why dont I call tomorrow?"
"No, its okay. Im glad you called."
Cassie heard Luke turning in her bed, heard the rustling of covers. She imagined Luke was sitting up, perhaps leaning back against her pillow. The sheet would have slipped to her waist . . .
Cassie cleared her throat, words spilling out before she could stop them.
"Luke? What do you sleep in?"
A low chuckle sent shivers across her body. She covered her eyes with her free hand, wondering if she could be any more suggestive.
"I sleep in my bed," came the quiet response. "You?"
"Funny. A sense of humor, even at midnight."
Luke laughed and Cassies embarrassment eased somewhat, although she still didnt have an answer to her question. Did she need an answer?
"I was wondering if you had plans tomorrow. I thought maybe we could get together for lunch or something," Cassie offered.
"Cant tomorrow. I was up late finishing some designs. Ive got to meet a client in Sacramento."
"Oh." Cassie tried not to sound disappointed. It was her own choice to wait four days to call. Luke had her own life, her own work and deadlines to meet. Did Cassie really think she had been sitting at home by the phone, waiting for Cassie to call?
"Why dont you come with me?" Luke suggested.
Cassie hesitated. She had work to do. She was already far behind her usual pace on the small carvings, the ones she would take to the Christmas Fair. And if she ever wanted to call Weldon Arnold, she would need at least three more eagles to show.
Lukes voice, still husky with sleep, whispered in her ear.
"Are you sure I wont be in the way?"
"Okay," Cassie agreed. She didnt know why she was hesitating anyway.
"Thanks. Ill pick you up about eight. Or is that too early?"
"No. But I better get to bed."
"Yes, you better do that."
Lukes low voice sent another shiver through her and Cassies mind raced, wishing she were crawling in beside Luke instead of her cold, lonely bed.
It was only then that she realized she had never slept with anyone, a lover, overnight. On the two occasions she had attempted to find solace with a man, the one time in college, then right before she moved here, she had fled quickly afterwards, wanting nothing more than to be alone. She had been too humiliated and disheartened the first time to even consider staying the night. The second time, with a man named Stephen, she simply could not stand his touch upon her and wanted to get as far away as possible.
It was after that night that she started wondering if it was only her fathers words haunting her or if there was another reason she didnt want the touch of a man.
She had no doubt now, knowing she would be perfectly content to sleep snuggled in Lukes arms, safe and warm. She closed her eyes, wondering if the next time she and Luke were together, would she be able to make her stop. Would she want to make her stop?
"You look very nice," Cassie said. She had debated over what to wear, finally settling on a newer pair of jeans and a long sleeved shirt. Luke, on the other hand, had shed her usual baggy jeans for a neatly pair of pressed black jeans and a deep maroon sweater.
"Thank you. My version of dressing up," Luke explained.
"Should I have . . .?"
"No, no, youre fine. Its just that Im meeting him at his office. Hes an attorney and therell be suits and ties and all."
They were quiet as they drove through town on their way to Santa Rosa and the Interstate. Finally Cassie reached over and squeezed Lukes arm.
"Im sorry I waited so long to call."
"I understand," Luke said and smiled. "Are you okay about the other night? I was afraid that it was too much, that you wouldnt want to see me for awhile."
"I told Kim," Cassie stated.
"You did? And how did she take it?"
Cassie laughed. "She wasnt really surprised. I mean, shes been telling me for years to look in the mirror. But she was worried about you. That you were forcing me into this, I think."
Luke nodded, then met Cassies eyes for a moment.
"Is that what you think?"
"No! Of course not. Its just that, for so many years, Ive denied this, at least to her. But I couldnt lie to myself any longer."
"Is it going to be hard to face people, friends? I mean to have professed to be straight and then suddenly show up with me?"
Cassie stared at the road for a long moment before answering.
"I dont really have a lot of friends. I know them, of course, but only because of Kim and Lisa. I wouldnt exactly call them good friends of mine. And no, I really could care less what they think."
"You know, I find that so hard to believe. Youre a very likable person, Cassie. Why havent you let anyone get close?"
"I guess it was just easier to keep my distance." Cassie shrugged. "I never really had a lot of friends anyway. You know, my father and all."
Luke reached over and captured Cassies hand and pulled it into her lap, holding it there as she drove. Cassie relaxed, giving into the gentle pressure as Lukes warm hand closed over hers.
"Im glad you let me in," Luke said quietly. "You could have just as easily run from this, too."
"No. I couldnt. Believe me, I tried."
Luke brought Cassies hand to her lips and kissed it gently before tucking it again in her lap.
"Actually, I tried, too."
"What do you mean?"
Luke smiled. "After the last time, I swore I would never get involved with anyone again. I didnt want to care about anyone like that again. Ive had a handful of lovers over the years, but it was nothing more than casual, really. But with you, I dont want it to be casual. I very much want to get to know you better. And that scares me a little," Luke admitted. "I almost didnt recover from the last time."
Cassie squeezed Lukes hand before speaking.
"I cant promise I wont hurt you, Luke. This is just all so new, Im . . .."
"Scared. I know."
Cassie nodded silently, wondering why she was scared. Physical intimacy was one thing, but after the other night, she knew once she was in Lukes arms, she would lose any inhibitions she may have. She suddenly blushed, remembering the way she had pulled Luke to her breast, shivering as she recalled the feel of Lukes warm mouth as it settled over her. No, that wasnt the problem.
The problem was her father. She could never tell him, she knew. That would be the end of any relationship they may have. But was she prepared to hide this? To blatantly lie to him? For all she knew, he thought she was still seeing Paul, the last name she had mentioned to him.
"Lets dont worry about it now," Luke said. "Well have a good day. After my meeting, Ill take you to lunch. Then there are a couple of houses I want to show you."
"Ones that you designed?"
"Yes. One was years ago when I still worked for the company in San Francisco. The other was done just last year. Theres a vast difference."
"Good. Ive been curious as to what your designs are like. I mean, I love your house, but its so unique. I imagine thats one of a kind."
"Definitely. It took me forever to design. I must have changed it ten times before I was satisfied. I originally had the office area enclosed. It was the only area with walls, but I just didnt want to be closed in."
"Why dont you have a spare bedroom? Are you never expecting company?"
Luke grinned. "Well, there is a spare room, an apartment really. Its in my workout room."
Cassie punched her playfully on the arm.
"And I got the sofa?"
"Actually, I just wanted you in the house with me," Luke said shyly.
"Well, I thought it was a bit soon to ask you to share my bed, especially since you had just told me you werent gay."
They both laughed and Cassie was secretly pleased that even then, Luke was feeling the attraction between them, too.
"I think I would have attempted to swim home if youd suggested that."
"Yes, I know."
Cassie quickly leaned over between the seats and kissed Luke lightly on the cheek.
"Im so glad you came into my life," she said quietly
"Im happy to be here."
Their conversation turned to lighter matters and Cassie relaxed, glancing occasionally at their hands that remained entwined. In no time at all, they were crossing the Sacramento River and into the downtown area. Luke stopped at an office building within walking distance of the State Capitol and paused before parking.
"Youre welcome to come in with me or you can take the Lexus and explore a bit," Luke offered.
"Actually, I think I might wander over to the Capitol and look around. But I can walk from here."
"Okay. If you want, we can go to an art museum later. The Crocker is one of the best in the state."
"You dont have to entertain me, you know," Cassie said. "I just wanted to be with you today."
The warmth in Lukes smile touched Cassies heart and she was surprised when Luke leaned over and kissed her on the mouth.
"Thank you. After lunch we can decide."
Cassie nodded, having to restrain herself from wrapping her arms around Lukes shoulder and pulling her back for another kiss.
"Do you want me to come find you when Im through?" Luke asked.
"Or I can come back here. How long do you think youll be?"
"Not more than an hour, I hope." Luke glanced at her watch before guiding Cassie out of the parking garage with a light touch on her back. "There is a nice picnic area outside the Capitol. Lets meet there. Then we can walk down Capitol Avenue. Theres a really great Italian restaurant I think you would like."
Cassie agreed and watched Luke walk off, admiring her confident stride. She finally turned when she realized she was staring and she walked off, alone with her thoughts. And they were simply filled with Luke.
She walked, unseeing, through the halls of the Capitol, her shoes silent on the marble floors, staring absently at the paintings hung there. She couldnt seem to concentrate on anything, her thoughts continuously jumping back to Luke and the casual way she had kissed her. Suddenly her eyes widened.
"Oh my God," Cassie whispered. She put a hand to her chest and rubbed the spot over her heart slowly. She squeezed her eyes shut. "I think Im in love with her," she whispered again.
She looked around quickly, realizing she had spoken the words out loud. Panic set in and she found the nearest bench, sinking slowly down, wondering how on earth this could have happened. No, she told herself, Im not in love with her. We barely know each other. She bent her head, grabbing the bridge of her nose with her fingers and squeezing. Not in love.
She sat for a few minutes, taking deep breaths as she tried to calm herself. It was just all so new, she told herself. That was all. They would get to know each other, take things slowly and then see what happened. Yes. That was all.
She smiled. Im not in love with her, she thought. That would just be crazy.
An hour and ten minutes later, she saw Luke strolling across the lawn towards her. Her pulse quickened at the sight and she rolled her eyes but couldnt keep the silly grin off her face.
Luke sat down next to her at the picnic table and casually took her hand.
"Of course not. Have you been gone?" Cassie teased.
A lazy smile appeared and Cassie got lost in those dark eyes so close to her own. She dropped her glance to Lukes mouth, suddenly wishing they were alone.
"Cassie, dont look at me like that or Ill forget were out here in public," Luke threatened. "In Sacramento, no less!"
"I know. Im sorry." She took a deep breath and moved back from Luke just a little. "How did it go?"
"Good. He liked the design. He only made a few changes and that wont take me long to do."
"Do you contract out to build as well?" she asked.
"Sometimes. But usually closer to home. In this case, hes already got a builder."
Luke stood and pulled Cassie to her feet.
"Come on. If we hurry, we can beat the lunch crowd."
They walked out of Capitol Park and down Capitol Avenue, the sidewalk becoming more crowded as the noon hour approached. The Avenue was lined with small shops and restaurants and Luke stopped at one as the smell of Italian cooking drifted out to them.
"Smells good," Cassie said and her stomach agreed. She had skipped breakfast.
They only had to wait a few minutes before they were seated and they stared at each other across the candlelit table.
"This is nice," Cassie finally murmured.
Luke raised one eyebrow. "Romantic?"
"Yes," Cassie said, unable to pull her eyes from Luke. Desire settled over her slowly, enveloping her like a warm glove on a cold winters day.
"Cassie . . ." Luke warned.
"I want you," Cassie stated suddenly, without warning. Then, embarrassed, "Im sorry."
"God, dont be sorry."
She watched, fascinated, as the pulse in Lukes neck throbbed. Her thoughts of earlier surfaced. In love? Did she even know what it felt like? But as she drifted into those dark eyes that held her captive, she knew exactly what it felt like.
"Ladies, how are we today?"
Cassie was the first to break their intense stare and she looked away, again embarrassed. But it wasnt embarrassment that she saw in Lukes eyes at the interruption. It was regret.
"Were great, thank you," Luke said to their waiter who had materialized unnoticed.
"Good. Can I get you ladies a glass of wine before lunch?"
"Ill have apple cider, please. Cassie? Glass of wine?"
"Oh, apple cider is fine for me, too."
"Very good. A nice, hot loaf of bread will be right out."
When they were alone again, Cassie dared to meet Lukes eyes. But they were warm and smiling, the earlier intensity gone for now.
"You could have a glass of wine, you know. I dont mind."
Cassie shook her head. "I like apple cider just fine."
A loaf of steaming Italian bread was placed between them. Luke poured garlic-flavored olive oil in the small plates that were supplied and reached for the pepper mill, raising an eyebrow questioningly at Cassie.
During their meal, Luke told her about the house she was designing for the attorney and Cassie was thankful Luke had turned the conversation to less personal matters.
"Why did you become an architect?" Cassie asked.
Luke shrugged. "I always loved to draw as a kid. I actually thought Id be an artist," she said. "I just wasnt good enough. Neal is the one that suggested architecture."
"I really would love to see some of your paintings."
Luke laughed. "Probably not."
"They cant be that bad."
"Well, like I said before, if youre ever in my bedroom . . .."
Cassie blushed and Luke laughed again.
"Youre terrible, you know that?"
"Yes, just terrible," Luke agreed, but the smile remained.
The drive home was made in relative silence, one or the other occasionally attempting conversation. After lunch, Luke had taken her to the two homes she had designed, the first, an elaborate brick home not unlike most of its neighbors. The second, done only a few years ago, was a cedar home tucked between large trees. A three-tiered deck flowed on two sides, disappearing into a cluster of shrubs and trees separating it from the neighbors. Cassie loved the second home. She could see Lukes touch on it. She couldnt imagine the Luke she knew today having designed the first one.
The day had been pleasant, but now, as they headed back to Sebastopol, Cassie was unsure what was happening between them. Before they left Sacramento, Luke had leaned over and kissed Cassie. She had meant it to be brief, Cassie knew, but their desire stirred and Cassie had captured Lukes lips, her mouth opening, inviting more. With the console between them, their kisses grew ardent, demanding. Both were gasping for breath when Luke finally pulled away, her eyes so dark with desire Cassie went back for one more kiss. But Luke had stopped her, instead, taking her hand and bringing it to her lips.
Then she had driven away without a word and now Cassie wasnt sure what to make of it. Did Luke not want her anymore? No, Cassie didnt mistake the look in her eyes. It was positively smoldering. As her own was, no doubt.
"Whats wrong?" she asked.
It was only then she noticed the tight grip Luke had on the wheel as her eyes stared straight ahead.
But Cassie couldnt dismiss it that easily. She reached over and laid her hand on Lukes thigh and squeezed. Luke tensed and Cassie saw the way her breath caught.
"Please tell me."
Luke finally turned and met her eyes.
"I want to make love with you," she said quietly. "And every time I kiss you, its harder and harder to stop, to give you time."
"I didnt . . . I didnt want you to stop," Cassie whispered. Her hand relaxed and she rubbed the strong thigh beneath her fingers, feeling Luke tremble as she made her way up Lukes thigh, stopping only when she reached the crease in her jeans.
"Cassie, Im going to drive us right off the road if you dont stop," Luke warned.
But Cassie didnt stop. Her hand slid intimately between Lukes thighs, feeling the heat between her legs. She gasped as Luke squeezed her thighs together, capturing Cassies hand for a moment before opening them again.
"Jesus Christ, woman," Luke murmured.
Before Cassie knew what was happening, the Lexus pulled to a stop on the side of the road. Lukes eyes peered into hers for only a second, then her lips were there, covering her own, tongue demanding entry and Cassie opened gladly. Her heart was pounding so loudly in her ears, she didnt hear the traffic as it sped by them. Hands settled in Lukes dark hair and she groaned from the intensity of their kiss. She welcomed Lukes hands as they slid over her body, cupping her breasts, kneading gently as her thumbs raked over erect nipples. Cassie wanted to rip open her shirt, she wanted Lukes warm mouth on her but Lukes hands left her breasts, sliding past her waist.
Lukes mouth pulled away but Cassie guided her back, her moan mingling with Lukes as her tongue slipped inside Lukes mouth. Lukes hands slid to her thighs and Cassies legs parted, her hips arching of their own accord. When Lukes hand cupped her intimately, pressing the seam of her jeans against her aroused center, Cassie couldnt breathe. She leaned back against the seat, her chest heaving as if running. She felt her own wetness and she pressed against Lukes hand, all control lost.
Finally, Luke eased the pressure, her hands moving from between her legs to rest on her thighs. Light kisses replaced the fervent ones of earlier.
"Dont stop," Cassie nearly whimpered.
"Yes," Luke whispered.
Luke brushed the hair off Cassies forehead, then placed a light kiss there.
"Yes," Luke said again. "Our first time is not going to be in a car."
"Details," Cassie murmured and Luke smiled.
"Do you know how badly I want to touch you? I could feel how wet you are," Luke whispered.
Cassie closed her eyes, her chest still heaving.
Complete silence settled over them as they drove slowly through Sebastopol. Lukes hand played upon Cassies thigh, rubbing gently back and forth and Cassies eyes were closed as she rested her head against the cool leather seats. Occasionally her own hand would cover Lukes, then slide up her arm, only to stop again when she realized how involuntary her touch had become.
When they pulled into Cassies drive, her stomach rolled nervously. She wanted Luke to stay. But she wasnt certain Luke would.
In fact, Luke left the engine running and they looked hesitantly at each other.
"I better go."
"I want you to stay."
"Cassie . . .."
It was only then that Cassie realized they were both breathing hard. She never imagined that she would have to be the one to lead this, but she took Lukes hand and held it between both of hers.
"I want this," Cassie whispered. In fact, she was surprised at how sure she was.
Lukes mouth parted, but still she hesitated.
"Please. Dont make me beg you."
Luke closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them to Cassie.
"I wont stop this time. Im going to make love to you."
Cassies eyes softened and she reached out a hand to brush Lukes face.
"No. I dont want you to stop. I would take you into my bedroom, but Im kinda new at this," she murmured, getting a half-smile from Luke. "I wouldnt know where to begin."
Luke raised an eyebrow and this time Cassie was rewarded with that lazy smile she had grown to love. She didnt resist as Luke pulled her close and kissed her softly, but their kiss turned hungry. Luke pulled away first, her eyes once again questioning.
"Please come inside," Cassie said.
She didnt wait for an answer. She walked through the house and into her bedroom, turning to find Luke there. Cassie moved into her arms without speaking and they stood there, holding each other, feeling the rapid beating of each others hearts.
Then soft lips moved over her neck and Cassie sighed, her head falling back in surrender. She was conscious enough to realize she wasnt afraid of this, then all thoughts fled as those same soft lips captured hers.
"We can still wait, you know," Luke murmured against her lips. "I want you to be sure."
Cassie didnt answer with words. She stepped back and pulled her shirt out of her pants, unbuttoning it slowly, watching as Lukes eyes darkened even more. She tossed it aside, reaching behind her to unhook her bra but Luke stopped her, her own hands releasing the clasp and exposing her breasts. Lukes hands were on her, cupping her swollen breasts as her hot mouth covered Cassies. Cassies mouth opened, letting Luke inside, taking her tongue, swallowing the moan that followed.
Lukes lips left Cassies mouth, nipping at her neck and throat, moving with agonizing slowness to her breasts.
"Yes," Cassie murmured. Her hands dropped to Lukes waist, trying to reach under her sweater, wanting to touch her but they stopped when she felt Lukes tongue graze her nipple. Her breath held as Lukes mouth closed over one aching breast, sucking the nipple inside. Cassies head rolled back, eyes shut to the sensations ripping through her. "God, yes," she murmured again. Finally. She felt . . . complete. She felt as if all the questions of her life were being answered . . . by this woman. This woman was what had been missing in her life.
She felt Lukes hands leave her breast, slide expertly past her waist and cup her hips, bringing Cassie flush against her. Cassies thighs parted and the ache between her legs became nearly unbearable. Her hands reached for Luke, moving over strong shoulders, holding her near.
Lukes mouth left Cassies breast and she raised her head, their eyes locking together, both their chests heaving as if they had been running.
Cassies lips trembled and she murmured, "Touch me."
Their eyes never wavered as Lukes hand moved to the button on her jeans, releasing it and the zipper in one quick motion. Warm hands slid inside, under the waistband of her silk panties and pausing only once when they reached the soft triangle of hair. Their eyes still locked on each other as Luke moved again. Then Cassies breath caught as Lukes fingers slid into her wetness and Cassies eyes slammed shut as she tried to stifle the moan that escaped from her lips.
"Oh," she breathed. Her legs threatened to buckle as Luke pushed her jeans down, urging her to step out of them. Then they were on the bed, Luke still fully clothed as she settled her weight over Cassies naked form.
"Youre so beautiful," Luke whispered and captured her lips again. Her hands traveled over Cassies body, igniting fires where they landed
Oh God, God, Cassie thought as she felt Luke slide down her body, pausing only briefly at her breasts. When Lukes tongue wet a path across her stomach, Cassies hips arched when she realized her intention and her hands at Lukes shoulders urged her down farther. Yes. She wanted Lukes mouth on her where she needed her the most. The fire between her legs was too much, too much for her to bear. Luke buried her face at Cassies waist and Cassie held Luke to her for a moment, then gently pushed at her shoulders, telling Luke without words that it was okay, telling her that was what she wanted. All thought left her then as Luke kneeled before her and her hands parted Cassies thighs. When Lukes mouth touched her, Cassie screamed out her pleasure, unable to stop the sounds coming from her. She flung her head back, hands gripping Lukes shoulders as she tried to anchor herself, tried to hold on to her sanity.
"Oh, God," she breathed as Lukes tongue moved over her, into her. Then her thighs opened wider, her hands on Lukes head holding her there, pressing Luke harder against her. Lukes lips sucked at her, tongue driving her mad as she felt her orgasm build, felt the first tremors threaten. She didnt want this to end and her hands gripped Lukes shoulders harder as she tried to prolong her pleasure. But she couldnt stop the eruptions of her body, and her orgasm hit with such force, her hips lifted off the bed as her fingers dug into Lukes shoulders, and her breath hissed between her teeth, screaming once, twice her pleasure.
Her fingers relaxed their grip on Luke and her eyes squeezed shut as she tried to catch her breath. Lukes head rested on Cassies thigh, and Cassie could feel Lukes rapid breathing against her leg.
"That was the most incredible thing Ive ever experienced," Cassie finally murmured. "Come up here."
She pulled Luke to her, brushing the damp hair off her forehead. Her thumb touched Lukes lower lip as Luke sought her eyes.
"Im sorry," Luke finally whispered.
"Shhh, shhh . . . no." It was her turn to capture Lukes eyes. "I wanted you . . . needed you like that. Dont you say youre sorry."
"Are you okay? I shouldnt have . . .."
"Yes. Youre such a sweetheart, Luke, do you know that?"
Cassies eyes softened, and she leaned forward and kissed Luke lightly, tasting herself on Lukes lips, her desire flaming all over again. Her mouth went back for more, her tongue grazing Lukes teeth before slipping inside Lukes warm mouth. She felt surprisingly in control, and her hands had a will of their own as they boldly touched Lukes breasts for the first time, her thumbs rubbing over the taut nipples as they pressed against Lukes sweater.
Luke moaned into her mouth, and Cassie pushed her down on the bed, laying her naked body across Lukes still clothed one.
"Let me make love to you," Cassie whispered. Her eyes searched Lukes, trying to read them, seeing only desire as her mouth covered Lukes again. "Teach me."
She tried to tell herself that she didnt know what she was doing, that she had no idea how to please a woman, but her hands wouldnt wait. They pulled Lukes sweater over her head in one motion then eagerly touched soft, smooth skin. Lukes exquisite body unfolded before her, Lukes muscled frame surprisingly soft to her touch. With a groan, her mouth found Lukes breast, and her tongue danced over the swollen nipple before sucking it into her mouth.
Her body knew exactly what to do, even if she didnt, and her hands cupped Lukes small breasts, holding them for her greedy mouth as Lukes hands in her hair held her there.
Desire burned inside of Cassie and she fumbled with Lukes jeans, but the buttons refused to cooperate. She sat up, her mouth leaving Lukes breast, Lukes whimper sweet music to her ears.
"Please," Cassie begged. "Help me with these."
Lukes smile was gentle as she slowly unbuttoned her jeans, but Cassies eager hands pushed Lukes aside, and she shoved the jeans down Lukes legs, thin cotton briefs now her only barrier. She bit her lip and swallowed, wanting to tell Luke that she was scared, that she didnt know what to do. But Lukes eyes were closed, her hands moving to Cassies face, urging her mouth back to Lukes breast.
While Cassies mouth feasted, her hands moved over Lukes body, loving the way her velvet skin felt to her touch. Her hands moved down Lukes thighs then slowly back up again. She wanted so badly to touch Luke that her hands trembled when they touched soft cotton. Her lips moved back to Lukes mouth, groaning when Lukes tongue met her own. Then Lukes hands moved over her back, cupped her hips and brought Cassie intimately against her, the thin cotton barrier the only thing separating them. Cassies hips surged against Luke, straining to touch her and their hips and pelvis rocked together and Cassie felt wetness flood her again. Without thinking, her hand moved between them, slipping past the offending barrier, her fingers sinking into warm wetness.
"Oh, Luke," she groaned. She couldnt have imagined this feeling, the wetness surrounding her fingers, hips rising up to meet her hand, warm flesh enveloping her, holding her captive. Her fingers moved through the wetness with ease, then, at Lukes urging, her fingers slipped inside, delving deep, meeting Lukes rising hips, Cassies eyes half-opened as she watched pleasure transform Lukes face.
Then Luke gently pulled Cassie from inside her, pressing Cassies fingers against her, showing her the rhythm she needed as Cassie stroked her. Lukes hands left her, fists digging into the bedspread and Cassies mouth covered her breast again as her fingers stroked Luke faster until Lukes hips surged up to meet her, and she heard her name gasped from Lukes lips again and again.
"Cassie, Jesus," Luke breathed, and she gathered Cassie to her.
Cassie felt Lukes heart pounding beneath her ear and she closed her eyes, hoping she had given Luke pleasure.
"Ive wanted you for so long," Cassie murmured. "I had no idea it would feel this way."
Her last conscious thought before an exhausted sleep claimed her was Lukes lazy hand moving between her thighs . . . and her own mouth still at Lukes breast.
Cassie woke slowly, disorientated. She was sleeping at the foot of the bed, the sheets and comforter a tangled mess on the floor. She sat up then, and a contented, exhausted smile warmed her. Every muscle in her body screamed as she rolled over, and she closed her eyes again, wanting to savor her night with Luke for a little longer. Her body quivered as she thought of Lukes fingers touching her, moving over her . . . and in her. They had done incredibly intimate things with one another last night but Cassie felt none of the embarrassment that she had anticipated. She rolled onto her side and replayed the scenes from last night.
"Am I doing this right?"
Now she blushed as she remembered her uncertain question to Luke as her hands had spread Lukes legs. And she blushed again as she remembered Lukes mouth on her body, Lukes lips and tongue taking her as she ripped the sheets from the bed.
"Jesus," she murmured, and she squeezed her legs tight. She was ready. She wanted Luke again.
Then she sat up. Where was Luke? The house was too quiet. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and sighed, her body protesting. When she rubbed her face with her hands, Lukes scent assailed her and she brought her fingers to her nose and she felt weak all over again. She wanted her mouth on Luke. She wanted to taste her . . . she had wanted it last night but she had not dared. She had felt clumsy, foolish, wanton. But now, the desire was too strong. She licked her lips, imagining Luke under her mouth, imagining her wetness and she groaned again.
She had nothing to compare this want and need to. Perhaps it was just all these years of pent-up desires finally surfacing. She had a lot of time to make up for.
She reached for her robe and saw her clothes neatly folded on the chair beside the bed. Luke was gone, she knew. Her clothes had been where she had left it. In a forgotten heap by the bed.
In the kitchen, she saw the note. She was afraid to go to it, and she stood staring at the table for the longest time. It was good-bye, she knew. She was to have just one night. In her mind, she saw how inadequate she must have been. Luke had run. Cassie thought, perhaps foolishly, that Luke had enjoyed their lovemaking, that Luke had been . . . satisfied.
She wrapped her arms across her chest, then made herself walk to the table. The first sentence stilled her nerves a bit as she let out a sigh of relief.
"I didnt want to leave your arms this morning, Cass," Luke had written. "Last night was so incredible for me, I hope it was for you, too. I thought you might need some time to yourself. I wont force things. Call me when youre ready. And if you change your mind, Ill understand."
Cassie closed her eyes, clutching the note to her. Change my mind? God, after last night, was there any doubt? It was far too late for Cassie to change her mind. She read the note again, wondering if the last sentence was hard for Luke to write.
She made coffee in a daze, her mind never wandering far from last night. She didnt know how she was supposed to feel this morning, and she couldnt seem to concentrate on anything. The scenes in her mind were like a motion picture, and she continued to rewind every one, over and over again.
She should be exhausted but she felt very much alive. And happy, she noted, as she smiled to herself. She felt . . . free. Finally.
She took a steaming cup of coffee and filled the bath, then slipped into the hot, bubbly water, and it enveloped her skin much like Lukes hands had done. A lazy smile covered her face, and shutting her eyes, she allowed Lukes hands to roam over her again.
Cassie could feel the change in herself. She wondered if it would show.
But she no longer cared, she realized. This newfound sense of freedom that she felt wasnt going to be easy to hide. Luke had set her spirit free and all Cassie felt like doing now was embracing her happiness, embracing her new life.
Her body tingled as she toweled off and her breasts ached. She wanted to go to Luke right now, she wanted to be in her arms, she wanted . . . to make love with her again.
She felt nearly insatiable and she pulled on the first pair of jeans she found. She slipped an old sweatshirt on, shoved her sockless feet into her Nikes, and grabbed her keys.
She didnt stop to wonder if Luke would want to see her now, if Luke was even home. The only thing on her mind was having Lukes naked body in her arms.
As she stood by Lukes door, she realized she was trembling. She could hardly contain this want, this need, this burning desire to feel Lukes touch upon her, to have her own hands on Lukes body.
Luke answered her urgent knock quickly. Their eyes locked and held, and Cassies chest heaved as relief . . . and desire flooded Lukes dark eyes.
Lukes hair was still damp from her shower and her T-shirt hid nothing as Cassies eyes roamed over her body, locking on the erect nipples straining against Lukes shirt.
Cassie opened her mouth to speak, but there were no words to convey what she was feeling. Instead, she went to Luke, trembling arms sliding over strong shoulders. Lukes hands at her waist drew her closer. Their kiss was bruising, demanding, and Luke pinned her against the door.
Her body pressed hard against Luke and her tongue shoved wildly into Lukes hot mouth. Luke cupped Cassies hips and pulled her intimately against her, causing Cassie to groan loudly. Visions of last night flashed before her and Cassie grew weak when Luke sucked her tongue deeper into her mouth.
Cassie shoved a knee between Lukes thighs, much like Luke had done to her that night of the party, her mouth covering Lukes breast, her tongue stroking the nipple through Lukes shirt.
"Bedroom," Luke murmured against her ear. "Now."
Cassie nodded, then lifted her arms as Luke pulled the sweatshirt over her head, dropping it unceremoniously on the floor. Lukes eyes, then hands found her breasts and Cassie was certain they would never make the bedroom. Then Luke collected herself and took Cassies hand, pulling her towards the stairs.
They stopped half-way up and Cassie slid her hands under Lukes T-shirt, moving over firm, warm skin. Her mouth would have gone to Lukes breast again, but Luke captured her lips instead, kissing her so thoroughly Cassie felt her legs threaten to buckle.
"Bedroom," Luke said again.
At Cassies urgent request, Luke turned and their eyes met, holding for a long moment, then identical smiles touched their lips followed by quiet laughter.
"Hurry, huh?" Luke teased.
Cassie nodded, only slightly embarrassed. She was far too aroused to be concerned with her lack of composure. She wanted to make love to Luke. She wanted her in the worst way.
Lukes mistake was stopping at the doorway to her bedroom and kissing Cassie. Cassie could take no more. Her body was on fire and she pressed against Luke, hands sliding up her arms and over strong shoulders, pinning Luke against the wall. Then, in one swift motion, her hands yanked Lukes sweatpants down and she touched warm flesh. Her mouth went to Lukes breast, unmindful of her T-shirt. Then she moved to Lukes mouth, wet and hard, and her hands slipped quickly inside white cotton and she grasped firm buttocks in both hands and squeezed. Her hands wouldnt still and Cassie swallowed Lukes moan as her fingers slid quickly into Lukes wetness.
Cassie held Luke against the wall as her leg nudged Lukes thighs farther apart. Their tongues battled as Cassies fingers delved deep inside Luke, pulling out slowly, only to dive back, deeper this time, meeting each thrust of Lukes hips.
Cassies mouth again went back to Lukes breast, her shirt wet from Cassies tongue, and Cassies lips closed over an erect peak. Lukes hips thrust wildly against her hand, and her shoulders felt bruised as Luke gripped her hard, holding Cassie to her breast.
Lukes sharp gasps for breath thrilled Cassie and her hand moved faster, plunging into Luke until she felt the first tremors shake Lukes body. Lukes hips surged once more against Cassie and her cry was short and quick.
Cassie kept her fingers inside Luke and their eyes held, then Lukes mouth was soft on Cassies as she slowly withdrew her wet fingers.
"Only in my dreams did I imagine this," Cassie murmured against Lukes mouth.
"Youre a very quick learner," Luke teased.
Lukes hands slid up Cassies body, warm fingers closing over her breasts and Cassie surrendered to Lukes demanding tongue as their mouths met yet again. Her knees felt weak and she didnt protest when Luke pulled her to the carpet. Cassie guided Luke to her breast, holding her there as Lukes wet mouth covered her. Her legs locked around Lukes thigh and she arched into her, the ache between her legs nearly unbearable.
Lukes hand cupped her intimately, the seam of her jeans pressing into her, arousing her even more. She wanted to feel Lukes fingers on her, inside of her.
"Luke . . . please." Cassie unbuttoned her jeans and took Lukes hand, shoving it quickly between her legs. She moaned loudly, her head thrashing when Luke moved through her wetness, slipping easily inside her.
Cassie kicked at her jeans, shoving them down around her knees. Luke spread Cassies thighs even farther, and as her fingers moved in and out of her wetness, Luke bent down, her tongue licking at her intimately, joining her fingers as she sought to drive Cassie over the edge.
"Dear God!" Cassies hips writhed beneath Luke and she was blinded by the explosion that shook her body. Too soon. The scream tore from her and she shuddered as tears streamed from her eyes.
"Luke." The word was barely a whisper and she gathered Luke in her arms.
Cassie lay there, her eyes still shut, and she let Luke kiss her tears away.
"Its just too much," Cassie finally whispered.
Cassie opened her eyes and found Lukes.
"The way you make me feel. Like Im going to explode."
Luke kissed her hard. "I want you to explode."
Cassie rolled over, her weight now resting on Luke.
"Why is this T-shirt still on?"
She straddled Lukes legs and pulled her into a sitting position, tugging the shirt over her head. Her breath caught at the sight of Lukes perfect breasts and she raised her eyes to Lukes.
"I dont think . . . I can get enough of you."
Their eyes held as Cassies hands moved over Lukes breasts, her fingers raking across taut nipples. Then she pulled her eyes away and pushed Luke back, her mouth covering one breast and she feasted as if it were the first time. Against her tongue, the nipple swelled even more and she sucked at it hungrily. She felt Lukes hips move against her and she shuddered.
Cassies jeans were still tangled around one foot and Lukes sweatpants were only shoved down to her knees. Cassie kicked the offending jeans away and her hands peeled Lukes sweats off. Cassie again straddled Luke and knelt over her, their eyes locking as Cassies hands moved over Lukes smooth skin, teasing her breasts before moving lower.
"I want . . . my mouth on you," Cassie whispered hoarsely.
She felt Luke tremble beneath her hands and as their eyes held, Cassie licked her lips, causing Luke to tremble even more.
"I dont know what to do," she admitted.
"Yes, you do."
She knelt between Lukes legs, her hands gently spreading Lukes thighs. Cassie moaned when she saw her, glistening wet and ready for her. She looked up again, but Luke's eyes were closed, her lips parted.
Cassie groaned in anticipation as Lukes scent drifted to her, then Lukes hands were there, gently urging her down, and she was nearly embarrassed by the sound that came from deep inside as her mouth settled over Luke. Her tongue moved through Lukes wetness, tasting another woman for the first time, and Cassie felt her own wetness flood her again.
Cassie stretched out full length on the floor and her arms wrapped around Lukes hips, pulling her more firmly against her mouth as if she had done this a thousand times before.
"Oh, God, Cassie . . . dont stop," Luke begged.
Cassie had no intention of stopping. Her tongue delved into her again, entering her, then her mouth closed over her swollen clit, sucking her hard into her mouth and Lukes hips moved against her. Cassie held Luke tight, sucking harder until Luke gasped, her hips raised off the floor despite Cassies effort to hold her there.
Cassie reluctantly pulled her mouth away, resting her cheek on Lukes smooth abdomen. She closed her eyes and listened as Lukes ragged breathing slowed, then she slid up next to Luke, one leg still pinning Luke beneath her.
Cassie nodded at the whispered question. "I didnt want to stop," she said shyly. "I wanted you like that last night."
"Why didnt you?"
"I was afraid I wouldnt know what to do. I was afraid it wouldnt be enough."
"I wanted you to be satisfied," she said shyly.
Luke let out a heavy sigh. "Oh, sweetheart, youre a beautiful lover. I know all of this is new to you, but you have nothing to worry about." Then she grinned. "You know, I do have a bed."
They were standing together, silently touching, gently stroking each other, exploring soft skin beneath their fingers. Cassies breathing felt labored and she let her eyes travel lazily over Lukes body, finally meeting those dark, passion-filled eyes that locked with hers.
"Youre so beautiful," Cassie murmured. "I love touching you."
If possible, Lukes eyes turned darker still, and she reached out a trembling hand to softly caress Cassies face.
"You make me feel beautiful. I love the way you look at me."
Cassie turned and captured Lukes hand, pressing her lips into her palm, wetting it with her tongue. At Lukes soft moan, she brought the hand to her breast, watching as Lukes fingers closed over her. Then Lukes lips were there, claiming hers with a passion that ignited the flame in Cassies soul.
Their eyes locked.
"Do you have any idea what you do to me?"
Cassies whispered question echoed in the room and Lukes eyes softened. "And you have no idea what you do to me."
Cassie sunk onto the bed, pulling Luke after her, drawing her weight on top of her, loving the feel of Luke settling between her legs. There was no more time for words and their mouths met gently, softly, then with a hunger neither cared to suppress.
"Do you have to get going right away?"
Luke was adding spinach to the onions and mushrooms already sautéing and Cassie had just started the pasta.
"What do you mean?"
"Do you have work to do or can you spend the day?" Luke asked.
Cassie chuckled. "I always have work to do but Id love to spend the day with you."
"I thought maybe we could drive to Bodega Bay," Luke offered. "Maybe do a little hiking."
"Look for driftwood?" Cassie countered.
"And look for driftwood. It would almost be like working."
Cassie walked behind Luke, casually touching her as she peered into the pan. "Smells good. Im starving."
"I wonder why?" Luke teased.
Cassie blushed crimson and moved away, but Luke reached out and stopped her. "It was the best morning of my life," Luke said seriously.
"Mine, too," Cassie whispered.
Their passion of earlier was, for the time being, satiated, and their kiss was gentle, unhurried.
"I just dont want you to leave," Luke confessed.
A relieved smile crept onto Cassies face as long arms pulled her close. She nestled her face against Lukes shoulder, wrapping her arms around Lukes waist and she sighed contentedly as lazy hands traced circles on her back.
"Im not going anywhere."
She felt Luke kiss the top of her head and the arms around Lukes waist squeezed in reflex. As Luke pulled away and went back to the stove, Cassie quietly fumbled with the feelings trying to explode inside her. In love? Definitely.
Her cheeks flushed at her silent admission. Not that she had a lot of experience in the matter, but what she was feeling was certainly foreign to her. Maybe she was simply confusing her bodys physical reaction to Luke, assuming she was in love with her.
She looked up, startled. "Hmm?"
"Pasta," Luke prompted.
They finished preparing lunch, mostly in silence. Cassie thought that perhaps Luke was lost in her own thoughts. She must be wondering about Cassies intentions, too. For that matter, Cassie wondered just how far Lukes feelings had gone.
"Weldon Arnold called me, by the way."
Cassie made room for Luke at the bar, accepting the plate piled high with pasta and vegetables.
"About me?" Cassie inquired. She hadnt given him a thought in days.
Luke nodded. "Some guy from Lake Tahoe is going to call you. Wants four pieces, if youve got them."
"Four? Sight unseen?"
"Im sure he trusts Weldon. And Weldon wanted to know if youd considered his offer of Union Square?"
Cassie finally picked up her fork, her hand slightly shaking. So, four pieces just like that. Her nerves got the better of her and she put her fork down again.
"Im not sure Im ready for this," she admitted.
"What do you mean? You dont have four finished?"
Cassie nodded slowly. "Yes, I have seven completely finished, four others that still need some work. I mean, mentally, I dont think Im prepared for this," she said vaguely.
"Are you afraid of success . . . or failure?" Luke asked gently.
Cassie sighed, knowing Luke had hit on the truth. "Its one thing to display my carvings at county fairs. People come by and look and if they like something enough, theyll buy it. If not, I wait for the next person."
"Displaying your work in a gallery is different how?"
"People that go to Union Square can afford my work. If they dont buy it, it means they dont like it."
"Ah," Luke nodded. "And at the fair, if they dont buy it, you can blame it on the price?"
Cassie grinned. "Silly, I know. But it works for me."
Luke put her own fork down and squeezed Cassies hand. "There are a lot of wealthy people around that would never dream of having me design a home for them. I dont take that to mean they dislike what I do, just that they dont like it for themselves. Sleek lines and steel beams arent my style. And people who have homes like that wouldnt be interested in displaying one of your wood carvings, either."
"Thanks. I know youre right. This is just so sudden and unexpected," Cassie explained.
"I really wish you would give it a try, but its your decision." Then she shrugged. "Youre doing quite well the way things are anyway."
"Thanks to you. And Mr. Arnold," she added. "Im going to send four to Lake Tahoe. I can start with that. Then, maybe in the spring, if I have enough pieces, Ill let Mr. Arnold make a few calls, if thats still an option."
"And thank you for the encouragement. It means a lot to me."
Luke leaned over and kissed her. "Youve got great talent. I just want you to be rewarded for it."
An hour later, they were headed for Bodega Bay. This late on a Sunday afternoon, it wouldnt be crowded and Cassie looked forward to walking with Luke on the rocky shore. If they were lucky, they might see whales that were still migrating. Then she grinned. If they were really lucky, she might find a prized piece of driftwood.
"Why are you smiling?" Luke asked.
"I was picturing finding an awesome piece of driftwood and having you there to carry it back for me," she teased.
"Cheap labor, huh?"
"Ill make it worth your while," Cassie promised and was rewarded with a quick kiss from Luke.
But they had no such luck with driftwood. They passed several hikers on the trail and twice Cassie wanted to accost them for the wood they carried and she watched with envy as they walked out of sight.
"Are you coveting their wood?" Luke asked as Cassie looked longingly after the hikers.
Cassie laughed good-naturedly and agreed. "Especially that last one. With the curve on it, I think I could have done another beaver similar to the one Weldon bought."
"Maybe well find something for you."
But the wood had been picked over and Cassie was content to just enjoy her walk with Luke, although she did manage to find a few smaller pieces that she thought she could do something with. She was having a hard time dismissing her small carvings. She told Luke as much.
"Cassie, your art is as much a pleasure for you as it is a business. You shouldnt give something up just because it wont make you as much money."
"I thought that I could stop and just do the large carvings, but I dont think I can," Cassie admitted. "The small ones dont take nearly as long and its almost therapy for me, you know. The large ones are work, but I love the finished product. The small ones are almost a hobby."
"At least you can sell your hobby, but I know what you mean about therapy. If I didnt take time to paint . . . or attempt to paint," she clarified. "I might very well take up drinking again. Sometimes, dealing with designs and demanding clients all day takes its toll."
"I wish you would let me see some of your paintings," Cassie said.
Lukes word was firm and Cassie wondered at her hesitation but she didnt press.
"Theyre not very good," Luke finally said. "But I do get enjoyment from doing them."
"I understand." Cassie also knew that artists were their own worst critics. They might not be commercial quality, but Cassie doubted they were as bad as Luke made them out to be.
It was only later, after a light dinner of salad and leftover pasta that Luke finally brought up the subject of their relationship. Cassie had secretly been dreading it. She didnt know what Luke wanted and she was afraid of how quickly she was falling.
But as they sat together in companionable silence on Lukes sofa, their hands linked, Luke finally brought it up.
"Are you okay with everything?"
"Do I look like Im not?"
"What about in here?" Luke asked, lightly tapping Cassies head.
"Surprisingly, I feel great. I mean, I was so scared of what I was feeling, I was scared that I couldnt run from it. Every time I came near you . . .."
"I wanted you," Cassie admitted. "But I kept hearing my fathers voice, I kept hearing his words. I could see it as if it were yesterday, him holding his bible over Kim, quoting from it, warning her of her fate."
Cassie brought Lukes hand to her mouth and kissed it lightly. "None of that matters. That night of the party, what I really wanted you to do was throw me down on the bed and rip my clothes off," Cassie admitted shyly.
"I thought, maybe, that I had pushed too much, gone too far," Luke confessed. "I came home, took a giant bowl of ice cream with me and sat in the Jacuzzi for two hours, cursing myself. I didnt want to scare you. But I thought that once you were alone and had time to think about things, that you would hate yourself for what we did, for what we almost did."
Cassie nodded in understanding. "And then I didnt call you."
"Yes. And I couldnt bring myself to call. I was determined to let you make the decision."
"The real reason I didnt call was . . . I was afraid to be alone with you. I knew how much I wanted you. Im thirty-three years old and here I was, trying to fight feelings that I had never had before."
"How long have you known that you were gay?"
"I started considering the possibility the last time I slept with a man," Cassie admitted.
"How long ago was that?" Luke asked quietly.
Cassie shrugged. "Six, seven years ago."
Luke squeezed her hand. "Im sorry. So many years of pretending," Luke said.
"Yes. I could never, ever acknowledge an attraction to a woman," she said. "I wouldnt let a woman get close. I was too scared." She shrugged. "Besides, I was introduced around here as Kims straight friend. Ive always been teased that Im just the honorary lesbian in the group."
"And guys?" Luke prodded.
"I dated occasionally. A few kisses, nothing more." She turned to Luke. "I didnt have any desire for sex. None." Cassie leaned over and kissed Luke on the mouth. "Then I saw you on the sidewalk that day, and I knew my life would never be the same. I knew that day, when you turned around and caught me staring, that I wanted you . . . sexually. I knew that at that very moment. I just couldnt accept it. And when I met you, feelings that I didnt even know were inside of me came out, and I couldnt handle it."
"What if I hadnt rescued you in the storm? We might never have become friends."
"You thought I was gay," Cassie reminded her.
Luke laughed. "You were!"
"Yes, but I wasnt nearly ready to admit it to anyone. Certainly not to you. I mean, you were the one causing me all this stress."
Their eyes were gentle on each other and Luke brought Cassies hand to her lips and kissed it.
"I didnt mean to cause you stress. I just couldnt stay away from you. I want to be with you. I want us to get to know each other better. But I dont know what you want."
Cassie held her gaze, seeing uncertainty in her eyes. She wondered how a beautiful, strong woman like Luke could be insecure.
"Now that Ive been with a woman, you think I might want to go out and sample the local gals? Make up for lost time?" Cassie asked lightly.
"Do you?" Luke asked weakly.
"Havent you heard a word Ive said?" She kissed Luke softly on the lips, then whispered, "Theres only you." She smiled, her lips still pressed firmly against Luke. "I feel like Ive been waiting for you my whole life."
Cassie drove home in a bit of a daze, her mind wandering back to the two days she had spent with Luke. She had come home only briefly on Sunday, to shower and change into clean clothes. Then she had gone back to Lukes and they spent a lazy day exploring Lukes meadow and woods, then lounging on her deck, talking and sharing stories as if they were old friends. When the rain chased them indoors, they cooked an early dinner, far too much for the two of them, but they both found they enjoyed cooking together. They had gone to bed early, but they hardly slept, neither had wanted to. Now, the steady rain of the day before gave way to brilliant sunshine and she fumbled in her backpack, looking for sunglasses.
Once again, her mind went back to the incredibly intimate night they had spent together. Her stomach rolled when she thought of them together and all they had done. Her lips were tender and swollen, and she thought that her passion was sated, but just the thought of making love with Luke brought back all of the heat and desire of last night and she felt her nipples harden and strain against the T-shirt she was wearing, Lukes T-shirt. Then she laughed. She looked a sight, she knew. They could not find her panties this morning, so she did without. And in her rush to get to Luke the day before, she had not bothered with a bra. Now her breasts were swollen, taut, still aching for Lukes hands and mouth. Even as she had left Luke this morning, Lukes hands were still touching her, her mouth still calling her.
And Cassie hadnt wanted to leave, but Luke had to make a trip to the city and Cassie needed to work. She felt inspired, thank goodness. She had decided to do the Christmas Fair after all, if only to bring the handful of smaller carvings that usually sold so well during the holidays. She shrugged. And the seal. Maybe someone would take a liking to her. The Christmas Fair kicked off the week after Thanksgiving and was opened every Saturday until Christmas. Because the costs of the booths were higher than the outdoor fairs, she and Kim always shared one, although she doubted she would have enough inventory to last that long.
The thought of telling Kim everything that had happened the last few days made her blush. Kim would want to know details. Every detail. She only hoped she wouldnt tease her too much. Especially on Thanksgiving, as she had invited Luke to share dinner with them. She knew Kim and Lisa wouldnt mind.
She drove into the driveway, her thoughts alternating between working and Lukes exquisite body when she slammed on her brakes.
"Oh . . . my . . . God!" Her pulse accelerated and her palms turned damp with nervousness. Shit!
There was her father, leaning against his old Ford, arms folded across his chest as he waited for her.
"Fuck! Shit!" She stopped her van next to his car and took a deep breath. What in the world was he doing here? And now, of all times.
"Well, Cassandra, I see you do still live here."
She slammed her door shut and it took all of her courage to face him. He was an intimidating man, well over six feet tall. His hair had turned steel gray but his eyes were still the same piercing blue that she remembered from her childhood.
"Hello, Father. What are you doing here?"
"It is Thanksgiving," he said pointedly.
She looked bewildered, wondering if her day and night with Luke had taken her around the clock more than once. "Its . . . Monday," she finally stammered.
"So it is." Then he frowned, his eyes piercing hers. "And where have you been?" he demanded.
"At a friends," she said quietly. How dare he? How dare he show up here . . . at her house . . . and demand answers to her whereabouts?
"I called you all day yesterday. And late last night," he added. "I arrived here very early this morning. I was worried about you. Its been awhile since Ive heard from you."
She swallowed with difficulty and averted her eyes. Once again, she was twelve and she stood to suffer the wrath of her father. It was very obvious that she wore no bra, and she resisted the urge to cover herself.
"Girl, you best not be living in sin!" he boomed. "I raised you better." His finger shook at her and she wondered why she was allowing him his say. "Now, out with it. What kind of man keeps a young girl out all night?"
She summoned all her courage and squared her shoulders, finally meeting his eyes. "Im not a child. Im a thirty-three year old woman and I dont answer to you anymore."
"Nonsense! Im still your father and you are still my responsibility. When you take a husband, then he can watch over you."
His voice was raised, his finger shaking at her, and she couldnt take it another second.
"I am not your responsibility and I dont need someone to watch over me! I have been on my own, supporting myself since the day I moved out of your house. Jesus Christ! You cant come here . . .. "
"Dont speak to me like that! Ill not have it!" his voice boomed.
Cassie lowered her eyes, surprised at her outburst. "This is my home," she said quietly. "We havent seen each other in two years. Must we start out with a fight?"
When he didnt answer, she asked, "Are you staying through Thanksgiving?"
"It is a time for family," he said, and his voice had calmed, too. "As you said, its been two years. I thought we could spend some time together. Im not getting any younger, you know. I waited for your invitation, but you never called. And when I couldnt reach you, I thought something was wrong. Apparently . . .. "
"Dont start," she warned, cutting him off. She would not allow him to place guilt on her again. Jesus, what a way to spoil a perfectly wonderful day.
"Do you need help with your bag?" she offered.
"I can manage."
He lifted his worn suitcase from the trunk, then followed her to the house. "I dont want you to go to any trouble. I thought we could take in Thanksgiving dinner at one of the cafes in town."
"I already have plans . . . with Kim and Lisa," she said. And Luke. God, wouldnt this be fun.
"Kim? You still havent come to your senses, girl?"
She kept her back to him as she opened the front door. "Kim is my best friend."
"Shes a sinner," he spat.
"Shes a lesbian," Cassie corrected, surprised how easily the word came out of her mouth.
"Ill not have you use that word in my presence!" his voice resounded.
She turned back to face him, her face red. "Why must you always come here and start a fight? Cant we have a normal father-daughter conversation for once?"
"Im trying to save you, girl!"
"Well, Ill take my chances, thanks," she murmured.
"Dont let her bring you down, Cassandra," he continued.
"Whatever." She rubbed her temples. It was hard for her to believe that only an hour ago, she was still in Lukes arms.
Her father grabbed her arm and spun her around, towering over her as if she was a child again.
"She will suffer eternal damnation! Do not doubt my words. She is nothing but trouble."
Cassie opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again. What could she say to him? That Kim wasnt the only one in danger?
"Please," she begged. "I dont want to argue with you. If you plan to stay through Thanksgiving, I wont have this conversation with you." Then she straightened her shoulders. "If not, you can go right back to the city."
Her father released her arm, finally. "I pray for you," he whispered.
"Thanks," she said sarcastically. "That means a lot." She wanted a cigarette.
Instead, she busied herself making coffee, cursing her weakness when it came to her father. She wasnt a child, for Christs sake. And it wasnt as if she relied on him for support, emotional or otherwise. But a small part of her resisted severing that last tie between them. He was the only family she had.
"You havent called me since summer."
She stiffened, but refused to turn to face him. Their last phone conversation had ended in an argument.
"Ive been busy," she said vaguely.
"Oh, yes. With your art."
Cassies eyes flashed. It was as if he enjoyed sparring with her over her chosen profession. She turned to face him, her eyes still shimmering with anger.
"It pays the bills."
"I dont know why you wont just get a real job."
"A real job, Father?"
"A respectable job."
Cassie managed to bring a quick smile to her face. "I am quite respected in my field, thanks. And Ive long given up hope that you might someday be proud of me."
She brushed past him, satisfied to see that her words had hit their mark. The bridge between them had grown too large. She realized she no longer cared if she hurt him. It was like he was a stranger to her now.
It wasnt until she was standing under the hot spray of her shower that she allowed her thoughts to go to Luke. She shivered when she remembered Lukes hands and mouth on her and her own nearly insatiable desire to touch Luke.
And again she was angry with her father. How was she to explain to Luke that she couldnt see her tonight? Luke would never understand Cassies fear of her father.
Well, she would have to deal with it soon enough. Luke was going to call her when she got back from the city. She planned to come over to Cassies and they were going to cook a meal together. And after that, they would be in each others arms and Cassie blushed when she thought of all she hoped to be learning in Lukes arms.
She was angry with her father, but a part of her wondered if she had a right to be. He was getting older and he was the only family she had. And it was Thanksgiving. She could make the sacrifice for a few days.
He did look older, she thought. And tired. She quickly calculated his age at sixty-six, but he looked years older than that.
When she went back into the living room, he was seated in her recliner, eyes closed and she thought that he was sleeping. His voice startled her when he spoke.
"I dont want to keep you from anything."
"I was just going to go out to my workshop," she said.
"Ive been admiring the squirrel you have here."
Again he surprised her. The small squirrel was perched on the table next to her recliner and by her own admission, it wasnt very good. But it was one of her earliest attempts, one she had done when she was still in college and it had become special to her. A reminder of her innocence, perhaps. Or how far shed come as an artist.
"Youre welcome to come out to my workshop and look around," she offered, clearly surprising him as well as herself.
They made the walk in silence, Cassie wracking her brain for a neutral topic, but nothing came. She was secretly pleased as his eyes widened when he saw her work and she realized that this was the first time he had seen any of her carvings.
He walked slowly to one of the eagles, his hand tentatively reaching out to touch, then he stopped.
"Its okay to touch them," she said with a smile. "They wont bite."
"My God, it looks so real," he murmured. His eyes lifted to Cassies and she saw sadness there. "I never realized."
"That you were this . . . talented."
She swallowed the lump in her throat with difficulty. Despite everything that was between them, it meant so much to her to hear him utter those words, words she never would have believed he was capable of saying to her.
"What would this cost?"
He literally gasped and she grinned at the look on his face.
"I had no idea."
He cleared his throat and moved away from the eagle, quietly inspecting the other pieces she had before moving to the shelves that housed her smaller carvings. He gingerly picked up another squirrel and turned it over in his hands.
"You have a lot of squirrels," he said quietly.
She shrugged. Shed never thought about it really. Eagles, sure. They were her trademark, but as she surveyed the shelf, she noticed that she indeed did have a number of squirrels, all in different poses, with different expressions.
"Your mother loved squirrels," he said softly.
She felt her heart tighten. It was the first time he had mentioned her since she was a child.
"She used to feed them in the backyard," he continued. "You would sit on her lap and laugh as they ventured close. I remember the first time one ate out of your hand. You were barely four and I was so afraid it would bite you, but she kept insisting you would be fine."
Cassie felt tears well in her eyes as she tried desperately to remember her mother and her lost childhood. She wanted to ask a thousand questions but he suddenly turned and hurried from the shop. She didnt stop him. Instead, she picked up the squirrel he had been holding and clutched it to her. She closed her eyes, trying to picture herself as a child, sitting on her mothers lap. She wondered if she looked like her mother. She certainly didnt resemble him. Only the eyes, she corrected. She had his blue eyes.
The ringing of the phone shook her out of her resolve.
"Where have you been?" Kim demanded.
Cassie sighed. "Ill start by saying Ive been with Luke and end by saying my fathers here."
"Good God! Are you joking? Whats he doing there?" Then a pause. "Luke? Youve seen her?"
"Yes. But its far too much for the phone and now hes here for Thanksgiving."
"I take it this is unexpected? What happened with Luke?"
Cassie managed a laugh. "I went with her to Sacramento on Friday. Ive been at her house all weekend." Then she lowered her voice. "He came into my workshop, Kim. He actually mentioned her."
"No," Cassie hissed. "My mother."
Silence on the other end, then, "No shit?"
"No shit," Cassie murmured.
"Whats up with that?"
Cassie rolled her eyes. Kim could be so difficult sometimes. "Ive got a major problem here. Lukes supposed to come over tonight. Not only that, I invited her for Thanksgiving dinner."
"But thats great, Cass."
Cassie again rolled her eyes. "My father?"
Again silence. "I see. Well, youve got a problem all right."
"Youre a big help."
"I would give you my opinion, but I doubt youd like it."
"Go about my life and he can take it or leave?" she guessed.
"Pretty much. Its not like youre on good terms with him, Cass."
"But hes still . . .."
"Your father," Kim finished for her.
"Hes the only family I have."
"Maybe the only blood family, but hardly your only family."
Cassie realized she had hurt Kims feelings and Lukes words came back to her. Sometimes friends were better than family.
"I love you, Kim," Cassie said softly.
"I love you, too."
They both cleared their throats at the same time and Cassie chuckled. "So, are you up to seeing him? For Thanksgiving dinner, I mean?"
"Of course. But I wont promise Ill behave. If he starts on me . . ." she warned.
"I dont expect you to be anything less than who you are, Kim. Hes the guest, not you."
"Okay." She sighed, then Cassie heard her amused chuckle. "Are you going to tell me about Luke now or make me wait?"
"Oh, I think Ill make you wait."
"Dont do this to me, Cassie. Ive waited thirteen years for this moment."
"Have you, now?" Cassie teased. "Well, at least you know you were right. By the way, it was fabulous," she added before hanging up.
Cassie realized she was pacing. She had already had most of a bottle of Chardonnay and still Luke had not called. She glanced at the kitchen clock again and feared Luke would just show up, expecting to surprise her.
Oh, it would be a surprise, all right.
Her father was in the living room, reading, waiting on dinner. She had a rice and bean casserole in the oven, hoping he wouldnt comment on her diet. It was something he had never understood and Cassie doubted he ever would.
She nearly dropped her wineglass when the phone rang, yanking it up on the first ring.
"Hi. Waiting on me?"
Despite the anxiety she was feeling over her father, that voice warmed her to her very soul.
"Are you running late?"
"Yes. I just want to shower. Ill be there in a few minutes," Luke said.
"Well, if youre tired, we can do dinner another night," Cassie offered lamely.
"Im not tired," Luke stated. "Its still early enough for dinner, isnt it?"
"Oh, sure. I just didnt want you to have to rush over here, I mean, youve been driving all day and all."
Luke was silent for a moment and Cassie could picture her raised eyebrow. "Whats wrong?" she asked quietly.
"Oh, Luke. My father is here," Cassie whispered. "He was already here when I
got home this morning."
"I see. And youd rather he didnt meet me?"
Cassie heard the hurt that Luke tried to hide and she realized she was being utterly ridiculous. She was no longer a teenager trying to please her father. She was a grown woman, used to being on her own and there was no logical reason that she couldnt have Luke over to dinner like theyd planned.
"Im sorry. Of course I want him to meet you. I was having a moment of panic, Im afraid."
"No, Im being unfair and very selfish," Luke said. "I understand if youre not ready to spring this on him."
Cassie swallowed. Spring it on him? She still had a hard time believing it herself. She wasnt nearly ready to confront her father with this. She wasnt sure she ever would be.
"I do want you to come over, Luke. But dont expect . . .."
"A kiss when I get there?" Luke finished for her.
"I know you dont understand. How could you? Your own mother brought you out, but this is different. I know him and what he would say and trust me, you dont want to be around for that."
"Okay, then lets dont do it. This is obviously upsetting you, Cass. Enjoy the evening with your father and well talk tomorrow and just see what happens."
She was hurt, Cassie could tell. But this was for the best. Cassie just couldnt handle a scene with her father in front of Luke.
"Thanksgiving is still on, right?" Cassie asked.
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. Luke, just give me time to adjust to him being here. Please?"
"I missed you today," Luke said quietly.
"Me, too. I was looking forward to this evening with you."
"Well, there will be plenty of other evenings. Ive got some work I can do anyway."
Cassie sighed, not liking the tone of their conversation. It was not at all how she pictured the evening. "Im sorry," she whispered.
"Its okay, Cass. I understand. I really do. Well talk later, okay?"
She hung up slowly and sighed yet again. Kim was right. She owed her father nothing. She should just go on about her life and not worry about his reaction. But she found she couldnt. She refilled her wineglass and stood staring out the window as dusk approached.
"So, people actually pay four thousand dollars for those carvings?" her father asked over dinner. He was on his second helping of her casserole and she was genuinely pleased.
"Yes. Actually, I sold a rather large one awhile back, an eagle with a six foot wingspan, for twelve thousand."
He nearly spit his food out and she laughed.
"That was pretty much my reaction, too," she admitted.
"I guess youre not hurting for money, then."
She hesitated before answering. "I do okay. Im not exactly a rich woman, but these last few months have been good." Since Luke walked into your life, she told herself silently and she allowed a small smile to cross her face.
"I always worried that youd be just scraping by, peddling your stuff on the streets just to pay your bills," he said quietly.
"You never took the time to find out," she countered. "You never showed even the slightest interest in my carvings."
He raised his eyes to hers and she was surprised at the sadness there. She was so used to seeing disappointment . . . and contempt in them when he looked at her.
"I was a lousy father to you."
She opened her mouth to protest, but her throat closed completely. It was true. It was also the very last thing she expected to ever hear him say.
"I just wanted to protect you, to teach you what was right."
She couldnt stop the bitter laugh that followed. "Protect me? From what? Life?"
She stood quickly and took her unfinished plate to the sink. She stared out at the darkness, totally unprepared for the turn their conversation had taken. She was used to his chastising, to his preaching, to his belittling her.
"I grew up not knowing anything about the real world. Frankly, Im surprised I was able to make it through college without going totally crazy. You always painted this picture of good and evil, but you never allowed for the gray area in-between." She turned back to face him, gathering her courage before continuing. "Do you have any idea how it was to grow up alone, without being allowed to have friends, without being allowed to even go to the movies, or to the prom, or any of the other normal things kids do?"
"I was just trying to protect you," he said again. "Had you stayed with me, gotten more involved in my church, you would see . . .."
"That was your life. That was what you chose to do with it," she said. "I just wanted to be a kid. A normal kid."
"You wanted for nothing," he reminded her.
"I wanted friends," she countered. "But you were too afraid I might find out there was a life out there besides our little church community."
"I always hoped you would marry a nice man from the church, yes."
"How? You never let me date."
"You were too young," he said, his voice becoming hard.
"Eighteen is not too young. But you wouldnt even let me go to the prom alone. You insisted on taking us and picking us up."
"I didnt know what else to do. You werent ready to go out alone."
"Because you never allowed me the chance to learn," she said quietly. "Dont you see? You never trusted me. You never trusted me to make the right decision on my own."
"I allowed you to go to a public college," he reminded her.
"Only because I threatened to leave home."
"And look where that has gotten you," he spat. "Living out here, alone. No husband, no children. There were plenty of nice men in the church who would have gladly taken you in."
"Taken me in?"
"Given you children. Made you a proper wife."
"Do you even hear what youre saying?" she asked. "What makes you think I wanted any of those men?"
"They would have made good husbands, a good home for you."
She laughed. "I have a home here. I have a life here."
"Is that enough? Dont you want a family?"
She shook her head. "Im happy here. I have great friends and they can be better than family sometimes," she said, echoing Lukes words.
"Its not the same and you know it."
She sighed, wondering where this conversation would take them. "Kim is the best friend I could ever hope to have. She is always here when I need her, no matter what. I cant say that for family."
"Kim," he spat. "She was always the one to put these foolish thoughts into your head. If you had never met her, imagine what your life could be like."
"Yes. I shudder to think of it," she said sarcastically.
"Cassandra! Shes brought you down. Shes the reason you moved out here so far from your home, your family."
Cassie was surprised she could actually laugh at his statement. "She didnt bring me down. She brought me up. Dont you see? She showed me that there was this whole world out here," she said, spreading her arms. "A world I never even knew existed."
"Yes! A world of deviants and perverts."
She stared at him, waiting for one of the bible quotes she knew was sure to follow. She was not disappointed.
"As Paul wrote to the Romans, Men abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received the due penalty for their perversion."
"Oh, excuse me. And who was Paul?" she asked sarcastically. "Oh, right, he was the one who said women should not teach, should not speak in church, should not even cut their hair. We do follow all of his teachings, dont we?"
"It is not for you to question, child. Perversion is perversion, plain and simple. The Bible is very clear," he insisted. "And you were taught better than to associate with those people. Perhaps you need to spend a little more time in church and get reacquainted with Gods word."
"Thank you, Reverend Parker," she said with a hint of sarcasm. "And here I thought I was having a discussion with my father."
She left without waiting for his reply and childishly slammed her bedroom door. It would never change between them, she realized, until she stood up to him and demanded that he treat her as an individual and an adult. Instead of the child he apparently still thought she was. Of course, running off and slamming the door hadnt helped her image any, she admitted with a humorless smile.
But did it matter? Did she really think she would ever win his acceptance, professionally or otherwise? No.
She was sitting on the floor of her workshop, the wood pulled between her thighs, carefully using a palm knife to carve around the hawks head. This one had its beak open and Cassie could almost hear the scream of the Red-tailed hawks that soar so effortlessly over her farm. The piece of wood was too small for an eagle but it had the look of a bird of prey and she decided on a hawk, a Red-tailed hawk with spread tail and all. The tail was all but finished, but the head still wasnt to her liking.
That was how her father found her, spread-legged on the floor. She glanced up to meet his eyes, then went back to her wood. They had not spoken since the night before when shed finally ventured out to give him a blanket and pillow for the sofa.
"I wanted to apologize for yesterday," he started.
She nodded, but didnt speak. She would let him have his say.
"You were right. I keep forgetting that youre all grown up, capable of making your own decisions and choices now."
"Thank you. I hope you mean that," she said sincerely.
"Just so you understand that I dont necessarily agree with your choices."
"You dont have to. My life here isnt a reflection on you."
"No. But there are still members of the church that remember you and ask about you. I have a difficult time coming up with excuses for your absence."
She allowed a small smile. "You mean, you lie to them, Reverend?"
She was surprised that he smiled, too. "I may have stretched the truth a bit," he admitted.
"Surely you havent said Im married with four kids or something."
He didnt respond and she was afraid to know what hed been telling people. But it really didnt matter to her. It was very unlikely she would ever see any of them again.
"Is there something I can do? Fix lunch?" he offered.
"I wont subject you to tofu. How about we drive into town?"
"Maybe get a burger?" he asked hopefully.
"And maybe get a burger," she agreed. "Give me about a half hour."
After he left, she realized that this was the most they had talked in years and the first time they had talked of anything personal. She wondered what was going on with him. Something had to have triggered his sudden need to see her. Last Thanksgiving, they had not even spoken on the phone, much less seen each other.
On the drive into town, she broached the subject of Thanksgiving dinner. He had never met Lisa and Cassie couldnt remember a time when she had mentioned her name. And then there was Luke. She didnt want him to think that it would just be Kim there. And honestly, she was afraid he was planning a preaching session.
"Dinner on Thanksgiving is at Kims," she said. "Its become a tradition since I moved here."
"If youre worried Ill cause a scene, you can put your mind at rest. She is past saving."
She let out a heavy sigh, one he didnt miss, but she held her tongue. "Kim lives with someone. Lisa. And therell be another friend there. Luke." Just saying her name out loud caused Cassie to flush. She had not allowed her thoughts to go to Luke much and they had not spoken. She decided she would call her tonight, after she was settled for bed.
"Luke? Is he someone youre seeing?"
Cassie nearly drove off the road and she coughed several times in panic. He?
"Actually, Luke is a woman friend. She bought a couple of my pieces awhile back. Shes from the city and didnt have plans so we invited her to join us," she said in a rush.
"Is she . . . like Kim?" he finally asked.
"You know perfectly well what I mean," he snapped.
She nodded. "Yes. Yes she is. Is that going to be a problem?"
"Why you insist on hanging out with those people, Ill never know. Thick as thieves, I tell you! And you expect me to have dinner with them?"
"Theyre just people. And if you think you cant handle it, Ill recommend a good restaurant in town. You may prefer dinner alone instead of eating with those people."
"Cassandra, why? Dont you think people talk? They see you with them, dont you think theyll assume youre one of them, too?"
She laughed. "Its not like anybody cares, you know."
"Well they should care," he said, his voice deepening as if about to launch into a Sunday sermon. "Its sinful. Down right perverted!"
She refused to take the bait and get into an argument she could not win. "Old Towne is supposed to have a great Thanksgiving meal." Then she lowered her voice. "I refuse to let you ruin my Thanksgiving. Who I choose to spend it with is not your concern. You can either join us or eat alone," she threatened. But despite her brave words, her heart pounded nervously in her chest.
"Ill think about it," he said, not giving in easily.
Cassie was disappointed later when Lukes machine picked up. She left only a brief message, telling her she could call later if she wanted. She did add a quick "I miss you" before hanging up, though.
She laid in bed for hours as sleep eluded her. She had hoped Luke would call and she wondered if she had gone into the city or if she was out with someone.
She pushed the sudden stab of jealousy aside. Luke could go out if she wanted. It wasnt like they had a commitment or anything. Did they? She wondered what Luke really thought about Cassies inability to deal with her father. Luke had been out so long, was openly gay with friends and family alike, probably out professionally, as well. Cassie didnt think Luke was the type to hide who she was from anyone. Maybe Luke had decided Thanksgiving dinner with Cassies father would be too much for her. Maybe she had already made other plans.
But surely she would have called if she had. Wouldnt she? Cassie rolled over and punched at her pillow, mad at herself for being so weak when it came to her father. Was she willing to sacrifice her relationship with Luke to please a man she hardly spoke to, much less spent time with?
And how would Luke treat her at dinner? As a friend she hardly knew or as a lover?
A lover. The word caused all sorts of sensations in Cassie and she realized just how much shed missed Luke. The three nights they had spent together were still very vivid in her mind. Had she ever felt safer, sleeping with Lukes strong arms wrapped around her, holding her? Oh, and how Luke could snuggle. Cassie would never have thought that such an intimidating woman could turn into such a softie. She smiled, remembering how it felt to be loved by Luke, whose touch was as soft and gentle on her as a summer kiss.
She suddenly grabbed her pillow and held it to her, trying to ease the ache that hit her. Only in her dreams did she imagine a lover like Luke. Now that shed found her, she admitted that she wasnt willing to let her go so easily. No matter what the cost.
Cassie picked up the phone and shoved it between her shoulder and chin as she carved the hawks eye.
Cassie nearly dropped the knife as Lukes voice purred in her ear.
"Hey." She clutched the phone tighter. "Oh, God, I miss you," she said, uttering the first words in her mind.
Luke chuckled. "Do you? I never would have imagined. My phone hasnt been ringing off the hook."
Cassie moved away from the hawk and sat with her back against the wall, knees drawn to her chest. She unconsciously picked at the wood chips clinging to her sweat pants. She had not talked to Luke since their brief phone conversation Monday evening. Here it was, Wednesday afternoon and all sorts of thoughts had been running through Cassies mind. She had nearly convinced herself that Luke had run, that Luke couldnt handle being second in someones life again. And it was sobering to acknowledge that she had put her father ahead of Luke. For that matter, she had put her father ahead of herself, too. She had simply abandoned the new life she was starting and reverted back to being the good little daughter, trying to please her father, knowing she never would.
"Can I . . . can I see you?" Cassie asked. "I need to see you," she added slowly.
"Whats wrong?" Luke asked immediately.
"Nothing. Everything," she whispered. She felt tears form. She couldnt shake the feeling that she was losing Luke, that she was letting her slip away all because of this damn pretense for her fathers sake.
"Luke, dont give up on me," she whispered.
"Sweetheart, Im not giving up on you. You said you needed some time."
"All the time in the world wont change anything. I really need to see you."
"You want to come over?" Luke offered.
"Yes. Do you mind?"
"Mind? Cassie, I want to see you just as much."
Cassie felt needy, clingy. Two words she would never have used to describe herself in the past. She was used to being alone, used to handling her father by herself. Now, she had someone to lean on, someone to talk to about her fears.
"Thank you. Ill be there in a few minutes."
"Okay. And please dont thank me. Im being totally selfish when I say I want to see you."
Cassie smiled. "Well, thank you for that, too."
She found her father in the living room, asleep in the chair. He had a book opened, his fingers still curled around it on his lap. The Bible. Of course, she thought. Did he read anything else?
She quickly changed into jeans, debating whether to wake him or just leave a note. She decided a note would be easier. She would deal with his questions when she got back.
But as she walked to the kitchen, she heard him call to her.
"I didnt mean to wake you," she said when she went back. "Im going over to a friends for a little while. Ill be back before dinner," she explained.
"Yes. I do have a few of them, you know."
He only nodded.
"Well, Ill be fine here. Ive got a good book to read."
"Yes, I saw."
"Dont know if youve read it lately. Want me to leave it for you? Im sure there are some chapters in here that youve forgotten."
She narrowed her eyes, wanting to let it go, as she would have in the past. Instead, she remembered with clarity the nights he would lock her in his study, dinner untouched on the table, all because she couldnt memorize a two-page chapter.
"No thanks. There were too many nights you fed me that book instead of dinner. I think Ive had my fill."
"Cassandra! That was for your own good. You had an example to set for the other children in Sunday school. Do you know how embarrassing it was for me to have my own daughter unable to recite a passage?"
"My own good? You locked me in your study!"
"And a lot of good it did! Look at you. Throwing your life away up here, cavorting with sinners!"
"Stop it!" she yelled, finally losing her composure. "What you think means nothing to me. Do you realize that? Stop wasting your breath. This is my life. Not yours."
"Cassandra . . .."
"No. I dont want to talk about it anymore. Like I said, Im going to a friends house. Ill be back in time for dinner," she said again.
Cassie turned and left without another word, but she was shaking with anger. She never intended to get into a screaming match with him.
The drive to Lukes was made quickly. She simply needed to be with her. Her hands were still tight on the steering wheel when she stopped and she tried to make herself relax but her hands were still shaking.
The door opened before she could knock. Lukes smile faded when she looked at Cassie and Cassie moved into her arms without a word, just needing to be held.
"Whats wrong?" Luke whispered into her ear.
Cassie shook her head, her face still buried against Lukes warm skin. She tightened her grip around Lukes waist and let the anger seep out of her.
"Tell me," Luke prompted.
Cassie finally pulled away and Luke bent and lightly touched her lips with her own.
Cassie attempted a smile but it faded quickly.
"My father is just being himself, I guess. We had a small, heated discussion right before I left," she said.
Luke drew her inside and led her to the sofa.
Luke went into the kitchen and came back with two glasses of apple cider and settled next to Cassie.
"Now, tell me whats made you so upset. You were white as a sheet when you got here."
"Im just so angry with him, Luke. Im angry that hes here, Im angry because of the words he says to me. Im angry at myself for allowing him to talk to me the way he does. And Im angry that Ive allowed him to come between us."
Luke captured her hand and brought it to her lips, lightly kissing her.
"Hes not come between us, Cassie. Not as far as Im concerned, anyway. However you choose to deal with him, thats your business. Ill still be here."
"I dont like myself right now. I hate how Ive bowed to him, I hate how Ive put my life on hold because of him. Luke, he made some comment about me reading the Bible and I reminded him of the times he used to lock me in his study." She raised eyes full of tears to Lukes and let them fall. "It didnt even phase him. He said it was for my own good, that he couldnt have his own daughter unable to recite a verse." She let Luke pull her into her arms and she let her tears fall. "Can you believe he said that?"
"No. No I cant," Luke murmured.
"I dont know if I can take another day like this. Ive listened to sarcastic comments about Kim, about the perverts that live up here, about my lack of religious conviction, my lack of a husband and children, my art. Im so frustrated, I just want to scream."
"Tell him how he makes you feel."
"Its not that easy. He has an answer for everything. Not that it would matter to him how I feel. Like I said, it didnt bother him in the least that locking me in his study was upsetting to me."
"Cassie, Im not exactly an expert in this, but youre letting him control you. You are the only one that can make him stop. I cant even begin to understand this. You live your life separate from him, you hardly see him or talk to him, yet he comes here and takes over your life again, and you let him. Why?"
"Ive always been alone. Ive never had anyone. And a part of me is afraid that if I stand up to him, hell disappear and then Ill have no one. No family at all."
"I would think being alone would be better than this hell he brings to you. And youre not alone. You have me. You have Kim."
"Do I have you?" Cassie whispered.
"If you want me."
Cassie let her breath out slowly and smiled.
"I think I want you."
"The casserole is in the oven," she told Kim.
"How is he?" she whispered.
"I dont think he can hear you through the phone, Kim."
"Well, Im nervous as hell that hes coming, if that matters," she said.
"If its any consolation, I think hes nervous, too. Hes either out preparing his sermon or hes trying to convince himself that he wont be tarnished by spending time with you people," she said as lightly as she could.
"Very funny. Im glad you can find humor in all of this. What does Luke think about it?"
"She doesnt understand why I allow him to come here and take over, I guess," Cassie answered honestly. "I saw her yesterday and we talked some. I was nearing a breakdown, I think."
"Is she still coming?"
"I hope so." It was Cassies turn to whisper. "Im sure she is." Actually, they had not even mentioned Thanksgiving dinner.
"Well whats up? Did she freak because your father was there?"
"Actually, I freaked," Cassie admitted. "I cancelled any plans we had. Yesterday was the first time Ive really talked to her." She could picture Kims expression and she closed her eyes to the image and shook her head. "Dont start with me," she said quietly.
"I havent said a word."
"No, but you want to," Cassie accused.
"Well, you could always see what Davids doing today," she said sarcastically. "Im sure the Reverend would love his Republican ass."
"You simply amaze me. First of all, I dont even know whats going on with you and Luke, but I can imagine. Its not like youve filled me in."
"Its not like Ive had a chance." Cassie rubbed her temple with her free hand, wishing Kim would save the lecture for later, but knowing she wouldnt.
"Okay. Let me just run it by you. Stop me anytime."
"Like I could," Cassie murmured.
"Im thinking that since you rode with her to Sacramento and spent the weekend at her place . . . well, you know, youre no longer a virgin."
"Kim!" Cassie hissed.
"And you spent the next few days together enjoying each other."
"Will you stop?"
"And then dear old dad shows up and you revert back to sainthood and blow Luke off for your father."
"Youre being totally unfair here."
"Am I wrong?" Kim demanded.
"I didnt blow her off," Cassie insisted. "I explained to her that I couldnt deal with him and her at the same time. She understood."
"And have you dealt with him? Or just cowered to him?"
"Kim, please," Cassie pleaded. "Itll be over soon. Hes leaving first thing tomorrow."
"Until the next time. Im sorry, but I dont know how you could jeopardize something like this because of him. What are you afraid of?"
"I honestly dont know," she said. "I guess a part of me still holds out hope that he will come around and we can have a normal relationship. And if he finds out about Luke, I know that will be the end. Ill never see him again."
"Cassie, you dont even like the man."
"I know," she whispered. "But hes still my father. And theres no one else."
Kim was silent for the longest, then Cassie heard a weary sigh. "Okay. Im sorry. Im trying to understand. I forget that my parents didnt speak to me for two years."
"But they came around," Cassie reminded her.
"Do you honestly think your father could ever accept you as a lesbian?"
"Honestly? No. Never."
"Well, I guess you have to decide between them, then. Because I dont think Luke would take a back seat to him for very long."
No. Cassie didnt think Luke would. She was much too proud to pretend. But despite her breakdown yesterday, she still wasnt willing to tell her father everything. He would be gone soon and she could get back to her life. And hopefully, she would go another two years before she had to face this again.
"Please be nice," Cassie said for the third time.
"Will you quit worrying? Ill save my preaching for Sunday morning," he said. "Where people will listen," he added.
They were a little early but Cassie found all she was doing at her own house was pacing, and she thought she could do that just as well at Kims. When she turned onto their street, her heart suddenly jumped into her throat. Lukes black Lexus was parked next to Lisas car. She came.
It was with shaky legs that she walked to their door. She had an uneasy feeling and knew in her heart that her father would not be able to hold his tongue for long. It would just all be too much for him. She glanced at him, noting the tight set of his jaw, the frown creasing his forehead.
"Theyre really nice people. I wish youd give them a chance."
"Dont try to sell them to me, Cassandra. I know sinners when I see them."
"Stop it right now or Ill give you the keys and you can go find a place in town to eat."
"Ill never understand you, child. Your choice of friends simply amazes me."
She stood at the door, about to knock, when she heard the sound of voices and laughter inside. If life were fair, she would already be inside, joining them, standing next to Luke, perhaps holding hands or Luke would have an arm casually draped over her shoulders. It was with a heavy heart that she reached up to knock. It was then she noticed the familiar CD playing. She wondered if Kim had chosen Melissa Etheridge just to piss off her father. Well, it would be a fine start to the day.
It was Lisa who answered her knock and she stood there awkwardly for only a moment before flashing a charming smile.
"Come in, please. You must be Mr. Parker."
"Reverend," he corrected and Cassie rolled her eyes.
"Of course," Lisa said and Cassie didnt miss the amusement in her eyes. "Im Lisa Meyers."
For a moment, Cassie thought her father would refuse Lisas offered hand, but he shook it briefly with a curt nod.
Lisa turned to Cassie and winked. "Hey, Cass. Happy Thanksgiving."
Cassie accepted her hug stiffly, conscious of her fathers eyes on them.
"Happy Thanksgiving. It smells great in here."
"It does, doesnt it? Kim has been slaving over the turkey all morning."
"How much slaving does a tofu turkey take?" Cassie asked lightly.
"None. Thats my point."
They both laughed and again Cassie wished her father had not chosen this particular holiday to come back into her life. Movement in the living room caused her to look up and she met Lukes eyes across the room. The familiar sight of her caused Cassies heart to race and she had a difficult time catching her breath. It felt like weeks had passed since she had seen her, since she had been in her arms and she allowed her eyes to feast, if only for a second. Luke looked very pretty in her burgundy sweater and tan pants. Then Luke gave her that lazy smile she loved and walked over.
"Hello. Im Luke Winston," she said without even a hint of nervousness.
Their handshake was firm and fast and it was only then that Cassie realized just how tall Luke really was. And confident. Her father would never be able to tower over Luke. Or intimidate her, Cassie thought.
"Happy Thanksgiving, Cassie."
Cassie felt her body melting into Lukes hug and she realized just how much she had missed her the last few days. The short hour she spent with her yesterday was not nearly enough to squelch her desire. It was Luke who pulled away first and Cassie couldnt meet her eyes . . . or her fathers.
"Well, Mr. Parker, so good to see you again."
Kims voice dripped with sarcasm and Cassie knew she intentionally tried to provoke him. Mr.?
But her father didnt correct her as he had done Lisa.
"Kimberly. We meet again."
"Yes. Happy Thanksgiving."
He gave a humorless smile before speaking. "Im surprised you actually celebrate this holiday."
"Why does that surprise you? I have a lot to be thankful for. A nice home, someone to share it with, great friends and a career I love. I couldnt be happier with my life."
"Well, enjoy this life, at least."
Kim opened her mouth to counter, but Cassie intervened, like she always had. Even before he found out that Kim was gay, they always found something to spar about.
"I love the flowers, Kim," Cassie said, linking arms with her and drawing her into the living room. "Everything looks great."
"Im going to snap," Kim whispered.
"No youre not," Cassie whispered back. "Dont let him get to you."
"Hes already gotten to me and he hasnt been here five minutes."
"Tell me about the turkey," Cassie said as she glanced over her shoulder at the others.
Kim forgot about her father for a moment and launched into a description of the basting technique.
"Paul gave me a recipe for a garlic and butter sauce that he bastes with. It smells really good, doesnt it?"
"It smells great." Then she lowered her voice. "Love your choice of music, by the way."
Kim grinned. "If I thought he knew who the Indigo Girls were, Id have them on, too."
"Must you provoke him?"
"Yes. I must."
Cassie accepted a glass of wine from Lisa and was surprised when she produced a cider for Luke.
At Cassies questioning glance, Luke said, "I brought my own."
Her father was seated in the living room, searching for a football game on TV and Cassie relaxed for the first time since they arrived.
"Ive missed you," she said quietly. "Yesterday was just so stressful and theres so much I want to talk to you about. To thank you."
Lukes eyes dropped to Cassies lips for a moment, then captured her blue ones. "If I didnt know how badly you just needed to talk yesterday, I would have hauled you up to my bedroom." She motioned to her father with a toss of her head. "Dont think Im going to let him chase me off."
Cassie blushed. "Maybe we should have skipped the talk. It seems like its been forever since . . .."
"Yes, I know."
Their eyes held for a long moment and the rest of the room faded as if it were only the two of them there. Cassie longed to go into her arms. The stress of the last few days was weighing heavy on her and she wanted to dump that burden. She knew by the look in Lukes eyes that she would gladly accept it. And it was at that very moment, as she stared into Lukes eyes, that she realized how quickly love had come and captured her heart completely.
Luke finally broke the spell and looked towards her father. "How was it last night?"
"Bearable," she said. "But probably because we didnt really talk. Dinner was quiet and quick."
"Thats good." Then her voice lowered, her words for Cassies ears only. "Can we spend the weekend together?"
"I would really, really love that."
"Ill warn you now, I doubt Ill let you out of the bed."
Cassie blushed scarlet but the look in Lukes eyes was completely serious. She wondered who would be keeping whom in bed.
"Youre absolutely adorable when you blush."
Lisa chose that moment to walk up and refill Cassies glass and Cassie only briefly glanced at her, unable to keep her eyes from Luke for long.
Lisa cleared her throat and nudged Cassie with her elbow. "Youre doing a great job of hiding your feelings, kid."
Cassie turned red from head to toe and realized just how close she and Luke were standing. She took a nervous step backward and rolled her eyes at Lisa. "Thanks a lot," she murmured.
"I think its really cute, but your father may have a stroke," she said with a chuckle.
"I think Ill join him for football, anyway," Luke said. "Let me know if I can help with dinner."
"Is it that obvious?" Cassie asked Lisa when Luke was out of earshot.
"Its that obvious, sweetie. Have you told her?"
"Told her what?"
"That youre in love with her."
Cassie started to deny her accusation, but didnt. It was true, after all. Shed known for sometime. She just wasnt sure she wanted to say it out loud. And when she did, she wanted Luke to be the first to hear it. Then she frowned. What if Luke didnt want to hear it? What if this was moving too fast for Luke? Oh, God, what if Luke only wanted a physical relationship with her?
"Whats wrong?" Lisa asked, obviously seeing the many questions reflected in Cassies eyes.
"I think Im over my head here," Cassie admitted. "We havent talked about anything. I dont know what Luke wants, how she feels."
Lisa squeezed her arm and grinned. "Honey, that woman absolutely adores you. Shes not any better than you at hiding her feelings." Then she lowered her voice. "The way you two were looking at each other, I was afraid you would make a break for the bedroom. Thats why I thought I should interrupt." She motioned to her father, who was engaged in conversation with Luke, apparently about the game. "He was watching you, too."
Cassie groaned. Why did it have to be so hard? Why was she still looking for and craving his acceptance? She wished she could be strong like Kim, who had told her parents immediately. They spent two years estranged, but now they accepted Lisa into the family without question. But she knew that her father would never, under any circumstance, accept Luke as Cassies partner.
"Dont worry about it, Cass. Just get through the day and send him back home. Then you can get your life back to normal."
"Im just so tired, Lisa. Im tired of trying to win his acceptance. And what happens the next time I see him? What if Luke and I do make a life together? Do I go on pretending that were just friends? Is that fair to her?"
"You have to decide whats fair and whats most important to you."
Cassie glanced at her father and Luke sitting on the sofa together. Her father was nearly a stranger to her but her eyes warmed as she watched Luke. She was surprised at how quickly Luke had become important to her, had become so necessary in her life. And she didnt think she was willing to give that up.
"Hey you two, help me set the table," Kim called.
"Come on. Itll give you something to do," Lisa said.
Cassie followed, only glancing once in the direction of Luke and her father, both still absorbed in the football game. She thought that, under different circumstances, Luke and her father might actually get along. And it made her sad to realize that day would never come.
"How are you holding up?" Kim asked.
"Im okay," Cassie said. "This hardly seems like our normal Thanksgiving, though."
"No," Kim agreed. "We should all be in the kitchen drinking wine and cooking."
Cassie smiled. "Or smelling the cooking, anyway."
She followed Kim around the table, carefully arranging the silverware. Only two times a year did they set such a formal table. Kim had a beautiful fall flower arrangement in the center and her grandmothers crystal candleholders on either side.
As if reading her thoughts, Kim said, "I wonder why we only use the china during the holidays?"
"Thats what makes it special."
"Yeah. But it seems a waste."
Cassie laughed. "The way you like to throw things in the dishwasher, they wouldnt last through the year."
"By the way, we had a nice visit with Luke before you got here."
Cassie glanced up. "And I thought we would be early. What time did she get here?"
"Nearly an hour before you. Why didnt you tell us she doesnt drink?"
Cassie shrugged. "It just never came up, I guess."
"Well, shes really nice. I know, at first, I thought she wasnt right for you," Kim said.
"Yes. She was just too experienced for me," Cassie said, repeating Kims earlier words.
"With her looks and that body, I expected her to be conceited, pretentious and stuck on herself. But shes so unassuming and modest, almost. Shes sweet."
Cassie laughed and glanced toward Luke. Sweet? She certainly was that, although she never would have thought to describe a nearly six-foot tall woman with lean muscle covering her frame that way. Looks could be deceiving and she knew first-hand how sweet and gentle Luke could be.
"I think shes pretty hooked on you, Cass."
"Oh, like you dont know," Kim teased.
"Im pretty hooked on her, too," Cassie admitted.
"Im glad you found someone, Cassie. You deserve to have someone like Luke in your life."
But did Luke deserve to have someone like Cassie, with all the emotional baggage that came with her?
Cassie and Kim exchanged glances as her father finished his Thanksgiving prayer before the meal. He only slightly stumbled over his words as he mentioned the joy of having good friends. At last, he lifted his head and addressed Kim.
"Would you like me to carve the . . . turkey?"
The tofu turkey sat proudly before him and Cassie didnt miss his wry expression. No doubt he had never heard of tofu turkey, much less seen one.
"Probably should let me," Kim said. "They can be a bit tricky."
Cassie let out a heavy sigh as silence settled over the table as they passed around the dishes. She stole a glance at Luke, but she seemed perfectly at ease. Earlier, Cassie had gone into the living room, intending to rescue Luke from her father, but it appeared it was her father who needed rescuing. Luke was chatting away with him and he seemed very uncomfortable in her presence. No doubt he was having a hard time disliking Luke. It was one thing to label faceless people as "deviants and perverts" but quite another to be sitting on a sofa, conversing and watching football with one of them.
"Everything looks wonderful. Lisa, you must be quite a cook," Luke complimented.
"Thanks for bringing the bread," Lisa said. "Ive never actually known anyone who could really bake homemade bread."
"I learned it years ago from my Aunt Susan," she said, her eyes twinkling as she looked at Cassie. "She and Aunt Darlene taught the whole family to cook."
Cassie had a moment of panic, hoping Luke wouldnt describe life in the commune. She could only imagine how her father would react to that.
"Did you come from a big family?" her father asked and Cassie rolled her eyes. He had to ask.
"Not immediate family, no. I was the only child. But I had a large, extended family growing up," Luke said and left it at that, much to Cassies relief.
"Do you still see them?" Kim asked.
"Not as often. We have a reunion every year and I try to make that, but holidays are pretty scattered."
"Your parents are still married?"
"No. They never married but theyre still together."
Cassie silently cursed her father for asking and held her breath as Luke answered.
"No. They were never much for the establishment. I always thought they might someday, if only for the tax breaks and what have you, but they never even brought it up."
"How odd," he said.
But Luke laughed. "Yes, but youd have to know them to understand."
"And are you an . . . artist, too?"
Cassie thought it was time to put a stop to this line of questioning, but Luke seemed to be enjoying herself. Certainly Kim and Lisa seemed amused at the conversation.
"I should be so lucky," she said. "These ladies have tremendous talent but my drawing tends to be a little more technical. Im an architect," she said.
Her father seemed genuinely surprised, Cassie noted. In his eyes, Luke was the only one with a real job. She wondered if his forced dislike of Luke was wavering.
Cassie watched him struggle with his first bite of the turkey and nearly laughed out loud. It was an acquired taste and she met Kims laughing eyes across from her. His expression was much more neutral on the vegetable roll, which to her, tasted just like the dressing she remembered from childhood.
The rest of the meal passed in silence, except for an occasional stray comment about the food. She was thankful when Lisa brought out another bottle of wine. She needed something to relax as the tension had built to an almost unbearable level. For the hundredth time, she regretted her fathers presence. She thought back to last year, when the guests had been Lisas brother and his two children and she missed the conversation and laughter that normally accompanied the meals with her friends.
"You were awfully quiet," Kim said later when they were clearing the table.
"I didnt know what to say. God, I wish he wasnt here," Cassie admitted.
"I know, but we survived."
"Survived, yeah, but it was hardly enjoyable."
"Not quite what I envisioned our Thanksgiving to be like, no. But at least he didnt launch into a sermon."
Cassie sighed. "Thank God. But we havent had a chance to talk or visit like normal and it shouldnt be this way," she complained.
"Honey, it is this way when you cant be yourself. Cassie, youre allowing him to dictate how you act. Thats not his fault, its yours," Kim said bluntly.
Their eyes locked for a moment and Cassie wanted to be angry, but it was the truth. She was the one choosing to act differently because her father was here. And shed hardly spoken to Luke except for the brief exchange when shed first gotten there. Now Luke and Lisa were both in the living room with her father and Cassie was very aware of the silence in the room.
"He cant even bring himself to carry on a conversation with them."
"No, he cant. Hes not even trying," Kim said. "Its like hes made up his mind that he wont like them, no matter what."
"Exactly." But what could she do about it?
"Look, lets just get through it. Well finish the wine and you can take him home. Tomorrow is another day."
They piled the plates on the counter and Kim busied herself putting the leftovers away while Cassie started washing.
"Why dont you go out and save them," Cassie suggested. "Ill finish up in here."
"Id rather do dishes," Kim said.
"You hate doing dishes. Go on," Cassie urged. "Make conversation."
"You owe me," Kim said as she walked out.
Cassie tried to remember a time when shed felt as depressed as she did now and couldnt. The beginning of the week had been so promising. She had probably spent the best two days of her life with Luke and she had so been looking forward to the holiday and sharing that time with Luke and her friends. She wanted Kim and Lisa to get to know Luke. She knew they would like her. She envisioned the four of them spending many good times together. Cassie had been the tag-along with them for so long, the fifth wheel, and she had looked forward to having someone of her own so that Kim and Lisa didnt feel the need to constantly entertain her and include her in everything. With Luke, she could have a partner, someone to share secret glances with, much like Kim and Lisa did. But not tonight, she conceded. Not as long as her father was here.
When the kitchen door opened, she expected Kim. But Luke stood there, her weight shifted slighted on one leg, empty wineglass in her hand. Their eyes locked and Cassie very nearly dropped the plate in her hand.
"An excuse," Luke said.
She finally moved, walking slowly toward Cassie, never breaking eye contact.
"This has been the longest day of my life," Luke said when she stopped just inches from Cassie.
"Mine, too," Cassie agreed. "Im so sorry."
"Its a little strained out there," she said. "Weve all tried talking to him."
Cassie dried her hands on the towel then tossed it on the counter with a sigh.
"This was a mistake. I should have just taken him into town for a meal and been done with it. It was stupid of me to think that he might actually like everyone if he spent time around here. Instead, Ive ruined Thanksgiving for everyone else."
"Cassie, his hatred is very deep. You cant change someone who believes the way he does. Hes been teaching for years that were nothing but a bunch of sinners."
"But its so unfair. How can I make him see that?"
"You cant, honey."
Cassie was taken aback by the sincerity of the endearment and her heart melted. She took the empty glass from Luke and blindly set it on the counter, moving into her arms without thinking.
"Hold me," she whispered.
Lukes strong arms folded around her, pulling her close and she nestled her head against Lukes soft sweater, finally finding peace.
"God, Ive missed this," Luke murmured into her ear.
Cassies arms tightened around Lukes waist and she pressed her face into the softness of Lukes neck.
"I wanted this day to be special for us," Cassie finally admitted.
"Sweetheart, it has been special. Just you inviting me here, despite your father, means so much to me."
"Weve hardly had a chance to talk, Luke. Its like were strangers."
Luke pulled back and cupped Cassies face with both hands. "Well have time. I understand your need to keep a distance with your father. Youre not ready to tell him."
"But I hate this," Cassie said. "I just wanted to be with you today."
Luke smiled. "Well, well shoot for this weekend, huh?"
Cassie reached up and touched Lukes face. "You really are a very sweet woman, you know that?"
"Yeah. Sweet," Cassie whispered and she locked eyes with Luke, watching as they turned dark with desire.
"Ive missed you," Luke whispered as she lowered her mouth to Cassies.
Cassie didnt hesitate as her mouth opened to Luke, accepting her kiss without a second thought. Their bodies molded together, pressing intimately against each other as they lost themselves in their desire.
Cassies tongue found its way into Lukes warm mouth, swallowing Lukes moan along with her own and she pressed her body closer still, her thighs tight against Lukes lean form. She let their passion rage and neither heard the door open or the gasp that followed.
"Good God in heaven!" he bellowed. "Take your hands off of my daughter!" he demanded.
Cassie pulled away blindly, her eyes wide as she looked at the angry face of her father.
"Cassandra! What has she done to you?"
"Its not . . . like it looks," she stammered, hating herself for being so weak. She felt Luke move away from her and the quick glance between them was enough for Cassies heart to break. Lukes eyes were begging Cassie to tell him the truth.
"It looked like this pervert was forcing herself on you," he spat.
"Of course not! Dont be ridiculous."
Cassie was only slightly aware of Kim and Lisa standing in the doorway, silently watching the exchange.
Luke faced her father, her shoulders square.
"Im sorry, this is my fault, although I take offense to being called a pervert. You know nothing about me or my life."
"I know your kind and you will all suffer Gods wrath, but youre not taking my daughter with you. She will be saved."
His voice had changed, deep and threatening, and Cassie was taken back to her childhood when she would sit in the first row at church, frightened more by the sound of his voice than the words he spoke. But she shook herself. She wasnt a little girl anymore.
Then the moment seemed to unfold before her in slow motion. Her fathers face was red with anger but Lukes had turned passive, easily dismissing his words. Cassie found all eyes on her and she knew, in that moment, that she would have to make a life decision. Right now. There would be no more skirting the issue, no turning back. She could either try to make a life with Luke, a life without her father in it, or she could try to rebuild the relationship with her father, a relationship that could never include Luke.
Cassie turned to meet Lukes eyes, seeing love and understanding crowding out the hurt.
"Im sorry," Luke murmured.
She started to turn, but Cassie grabbed her arm, letting her fingers slide down to entwine with Lukes.
"No, Luke. Im sorry."
"Child, what are you doing?"
Her fathers voice shook her but Lukes hand tightened, giving her the strength she needed.
She raised her head high and met her fathers angry stare.
"Im not a child. Luke is much more than a friend to me, Father. Ill not have you speak to her that way."
"Youre sick. You dont know what youre saying."
"I know exactly what Im saying. Luke and I are . . .." She turned to Luke for help, stumbling over the words.
"Luke and I are lovers."
His gasp became a growl and he clutched at his chest.
"My God, look what theyve done to you." Then he turned on Kim, pointing angrily at her. "You! This is all your fault. You should be locked away somewhere."
Cassie grabbed his arm. "No, Father, this is not Kims fault."
He turned quickly and slapped her hard across the face, causing her to stumble back into Lukes arms. She stared at him in disbelief. He had never once struck her but seeing the rage in his eyes now, she had no doubt he would do it again.
Luke stepped between them, a dangerous glint in her eyes as she faced him.
"Dont you ever hit her again." When he would have spoken, Luke raised her hand and pointed at him. "No, you listen to me. Cassie is one of the kindest, gentlest people Ive ever met. She wouldnt dream of hurting another living thing. Now that Ive met you, its a wonder she has any spirit left. Its not Kims fault. Its not my fault. Its not even Cassies fault. She is who she is. Its as simple as that."
They all stood in stunned silence, but he found his voice first.
"You will all rot in Hell," he spat.
"For what? For loving someone?" Luke asked. "You are so filled with hate, if I were you, Id be worrying about my own soul."
He looked as if he wanted to strike Luke, but she stood her ground. Instead, he turned to Cassie.
"Cassandra, you will come home with me this instant. We can get you help. You can still be saved."
Cassie finally found her voice. "No. This is who I am. And I feel like I have been saved."
"Then you are no longer a daughter of mine. Youll have no family now."
Kim spoke for the first time. "When have you ever treated her like a daughter? Cassies tried to please you her entire life but what did she get from you in return? A father who despised her? A father who wouldnt even let her contact her own mother?"
He gasped at her words and his cold stare caused Kim to take a step backward, but she didnt lower her eyes. Cassie wondered if anyone had ever spoken to him like Luke and Kim just had.
They all stood there in stunned silence, looking from one to the other, questions lingering in everyones eyes.
"It is certainly none of your business. And I will not discuss this here," he said, his voice quieting. He glanced at Cassie briefly. "I think Id like you to take me back now."
Cassie had never seen him this resigned before. His voice was quiet, submissive almost, and she very nearly felt very sorry for him, but she wasnt willing to give in. She may have lost him, but that was his choice. Like Luke said, his hatred was very deep.
"Okay. Ill take you back."
"Ill be waiting outside. I dont want to spend another minute in this house of sin."
He left them standing in the kitchen and their eyes went from one to the other slowly. It was Kim who finally broke the tension.
"Id say that went pretty well. At least no ones in the hospital."
Cassies relieved chuckle turned into an outright laugh.
"I love you guys," she said. "Thanks for sticking up for me." She took Lukes hand and pulled her into a hug. "This probably isnt the perfect time, but I think Im in love with you," she whispered into her ear.
She pulled away before Luke could comment, mostly out of fear of what her reaction would be. Luke stood silently, stunned, as Cassie hugged both Kim and Lisa.
"Are you sure youre going to be okay with him?" Kim asked.
"Ill be fine. I doubt hes going to lock me in his trunk and haul me to the nearest mental hospital."
"But maybe Luke should go with you," Lisa suggested. "Just in case things get ugly."
"Ill be fine," Cassie said. "I think it would be worse if Luke were there."
"Id feel better if youd let me come."
Cassie met Lukes eyes and she trembled at all she saw there. She walked over to her and kissed her softly on the mouth.
"Thank you. But I need to be able to do this. Ive spent too many years cowering to him. If he decides he wants nothing to do with me after this, then thats his choice. Ive got my own life to live."
She let her eyes linger on Lukes, memorizing them, drawing strength from the love she saw there.
The ride home was made in complete silence and Cassie glanced several times in his direction, but his gaze was focused only on the road. Twice she opened her mouth to speak only to close it again. She could not find the words to begin and she thought it might be safer in the comfort of her own home.
When she pulled to a stop, they both sat there for a moment, then he opened the door and got out, slamming it just a little too hard, she noticed. She halfway expected him to pack his things and leave right then, but he was waiting for her in the living room.
"Ive been thinking maybe youre doing this to punish me in some way," he started.
"I know you cant possibly understand this. You wont even allow yourself to try."
"Understand? Its unnatural," he hissed.
"Do you think I wanted this?" she asked. "Dont you think I fought these desires?"
"The Devils temptation."
"No. Thats what you taught me to believe, but no."
"It is against Gods will," he stated.
"How can you say that? For the first time in my life I feel something for someone. All these years, Ive dated men but I was never attracted to them. But because of your teachings, I would never consider that it was because I was attracted to women. Because you taught me it was wrong."
"It is wrong," he insisted.
"You would rather I spend my life alone? Miserable, like you?"
"It would be better than the Hell youve invited."
Cassie paced across the floor, wondering how she could explain to him how she was feeling, wondering if it would even do any good.
"Ive fallen in love for the first time. Im thirty-three years old and Ive never known such joy before. Luke makes me feel things I always thought were for others to have, not me. Am I to deny myself these wonderful feelings because you say theyre not Gods way? Are you saying its Gods way that I feel miserable and depressed and alone again? This happiness Im feeling surely is a gift from God."
"Shes a woman! Have you no shame?"
"Shame? For what? For loving someone?" She walked to him, desperately wanting him to understand. "Dont you see? For the first time in my life, I feel complete. Im sorry that some man couldnt make me feel this. But Ive accepted who I am and what I am. Im not going to run from this, no matter what you say. And if you feel like you dont want me in your life, just because of this, then thats your choice. If you cant accept this about me, if you cant accept Luke in my life, then theres no point in us even trying to maintain some sort of relationship."
He stared at her for the longest time then let out a heavy breath. He closed his eyes briefly, as if fighting with himself.
"I cant accept this," he stated quietly.
"So be it," Cassie said.
"Your mother left us for a woman," he finally murmured. "And I tried my whole life to protect you from that."
"What?" His words were like a blow to her, so unexpected. She sunk down onto the sofa without looking, dazed beyond belief. Her mother? A lesbian?
"Thats why you hate so?" she whispered.
"Your mother was an . . . artist, too. She painted, started taking classes. Thats where she met her."
So much made sense to Cassie now. Just a few words from him and she understood a lifetime of hate. His hatred of gays. His hatred of artists. His position in the church just gave him an excuse for his preaching when all along it had been so very personal for him.
"Im sorry. I can only imagine your hurt," she said quietly. "But you had no right to keep me from her. She was still my mother."
"I didnt want her to poison you with her beliefs."
"Instead, you poisoned me with yours," she said before she could stop herself.
"You never had any contact with her at all, yet you turned out exactly like she did."
"Where is she?" Cassie whispered. "What happened to her?"
She didnt expect him to answer. She wasnt sure he even knew. She watched as conflicting emotions crossed his face and he abruptly turned and left, leaving the front door standing open.
When he returned, he had a bundle in his hands, an assortment of letters bound by rubber bands.
"The last one came about five years ago. From Seattle. Then Saturday, I got another one."
He silently handed them over to her and with shaking hands she took them. Tears flooded her eyes as she flipped through the envelopes, all unopened, all addressed to her.
All these years, her mother had been writing to her. And getting nothing in return. Cassie let out a great sob and brought the letters to her chest. Her mother hadnt forgotten about her after all.
He frowned, shaking his head, not knowing what to say.
"All these years, I thought she had deserted me. I thought she never tried to contact me. Do you know how hard it was for a child, then a teenager, to live with the thought that her mother didnt want to know her?" Cassies sobs shook her body. "How could you do that to a child?"
"At first, you were too young," he explained. "Then later, we never talked about her. I wasnt sure you even remembered her. By the time you were a teenager, it just never seemed to be the right time. And I was scared," he said.
"Scared of what?"
"Scared that you would leave me. I was afraid of what the letters said. I was afraid she would ask you to come to her and subject you to her perverted lifestyle."
He moved away from her when she didnt reply. "I know, after everything thats happened, you probably dont care one way or the other if Im in your life or not. I guess I always feared this day would come. I knew, with you hanging out with Kim and her kind, that she would influence you. And I knew that one day, I was going to have to give you those letters."
"First of all, my sexuality is not an issue to discuss. It wasnt a choice I made to get back at you, as you seem to think. In fact, because of you, I fought this for so long. But like I said, Luke makes me happy. And if you want to make me choose between the two of you, youre going to lose, so its really your decision."
He turned his back to her for a moment, as if collecting himself. "I cannot, as a good Christian, accept this. I dont know that I can ever accept it. In my eyes, what youre doing is wrong. A sin. And honestly, I dont know what you could possibly have with this woman."
"Have? You mean sexually?" Cassie asked.
"I dont even want to think about that, Cassandra. No, I mean, what do you hope to have with her? What kind of life?"
"I guess I dont understand. A relationship is a relationship, regardless of the sex of the partners. I guess I want what Kim and Lisa have. A home together, a life together."
"And why cant you have that with a man, Cassandra? Why must you go against God?"
She let out a heavy sigh, not knowing how to make him understand. "Its not just sexual, although that is a big part of it. I just connect with Luke, on all levels. Emotionally, she gives me what I need. And if things dont work out with Luke, I still wouldnt want a life with a man."
"All these years, Ive tried to think of what I did wrong with your mother. If it was something I did to make her change? She never asked for much, but when she did, I gave it to her. She seemed to enjoy the life we had in the church. But I think back, she didnt have many friends. When we would have couples over for dinner, she was always distant with them. Polite, but distant. I think she would have rather been in the kitchen taking care of you than entertaining with me."
Cassie felt his need to tell her what happened all those years ago, his version anyway, so she let him talk, not wanting to interrupt with her own thoughts on what had happened.
"She always sketched. It was the one thing she seemed to find genuine joy in. When she asked if she could take a class to learn to paint, I agreed without hesitation. I felt she was getting restless. I thought she needed something of her own, something other than the church and the friendships we had established there. I saw the change in her right away. She would pack you up along with all of her painting stuff and go to a park or to the Bay, often coming home just in time to start dinner." He cleared his throat before continuing. "And thats when she stopped being interested in me. It was as if she couldnt stand my touch anymore. I had no idea what was going on with her. She wouldnt talk to me. I found her many times in the backyard, holding you and crying."
Cassie could imagine the turmoil a young mother and wife would be going through nearly thirty years ago, with no one to help her, no support groups. No one for her to talk to about it. Except maybe the woman she had met. The woman she had left them for.
"I remember so clearly the day she told me. She said she had met someone, said that she had fallen in love. She said she was going to leave and take you with her. It was such a shock, so totally unexpected. Divorce was not something that happened often back then, and certainly not in our church. My first thought was how it would look to the members of the church. My second thought was that she was taking you with her, to have some other man raise you. I pleaded with her, I threatened her, begged her to give us another chance. Then she told me it wasnt a man. She didnt understand it anymore than I did, but she was in love with this woman and she didnt want me anymore."
Cassie heard the agony in his voice, even after all these years. And it dawned on her that hed had no one to talk to either. He couldnt very well have gone to one of his friends or anyone from his church. No one could have sympathized or understood. He would have been condemned right along with her mother. He had suffered through it all alone.
"I told her to get out. To go live her perverted life, if she wanted, but there was no way she was taking my daughter with her. No way she was going to expose you to that kind of life."
"Im sorry," Cassie whispered. She had no words to console him and she wished with all her heart that he would have had the courage to tell her all this years ago.
His shoulders sagged, but his voice hardened.
"She left with nothing but her clothes. I wouldnt even let her take your baby pictures. I watched from the window and . . . that woman picked her up on the corner. I never saw her again. But I had saved you. Or so I thought."
Cassie could imagine his hurt back then, watching as his wife walked out of his life for good. She could also imagine the grief a young mother would be feeling, walking away from a safe, secure life . . . her child, all for the sake of love. She understood, at that very moment, the power of love. But that understanding did nothing to take away her own hurt.
"Im only telling you this because I thought you deserved to know. Perhaps it might explain my actions when you were a child. Apparently, her influence was too strong, even at your young age."
"I deserved to know all of this years ago."
"You have the letters. Im sure anything you need to know will be answered there."
"Why did you keep them?"
"I honestly dont know."
His eyes flashed at her. "I have nothing to feel guilty about. Im not the one that willingly left behind a spouse and child for a life of sin." He began throwing his few things into the suitcase.
"But youre leaving now?" she asked.
"Yes. I am going back to my church. And I will pray for you. But I will never accept this. If you choose to destroy your life, Ill not be a part of it."
Cassie nodded. She knew it would come to this and strangely, she didnt feel sad. She felt relieved. He would no longer be there to criticize her, to belittle her. She could live her life in happiness and not worry about offending him or disappointing him. It was truly her life now.
"I hope youre happy now."
Cassie laughed. "No you dont. You want me to be miserable, like youve been. Ive wasted enough years of my life trying to please you. Now, Im going to please myself."
"Well, its your choice not to have your own father in your life. You have to live with that."
"No, no. Youre not laying that guilt on me. Its your choice."
"Dont you see? You leave me no other choice."
"As you wish," Cassie whispered.
Cassie sat quietly on her patio, the pre-dawn light just beginning to hint of the sunrise soon to come. She pulled the blanket closer around her to ward off the morning chill and closed her eyes. She didnt know how many hours she had been sitting out here, replaying scenes from the previous day, and scenes from her childhood.
Her father had simply driven off without another word and Cassie had sunk into her chair, listening to the sounds of his car fading as he drove out of her life. The emptiness that she expected never came. And it was with a sense of guilt that she felt relief.
She had called Kim. Luke had already left so she waited a few minutes before calling her house. Luke had wanted to come over, but Cassie needed some time alone and she hoped Luke understood.
She had stared at the bundle of letters for the longest time, wondering why she was hesitating opening them. It was just too much for one day, she decided. But she couldnt sleep. She finally crawled out of bed and poured a glass of wine, taking it with her to the patio. Thunderstorms were flashing in the distance and she could smell the rain. Now, hours later, the empty bottle of wine was a silent sentry next to her chair as she dozed.
Cassie was slightly nervous as she drove to Lukes. Their brief conversation on the phone last night had not touched on the "I think Im in love with you" statement that Cassie had blurted out. She had been so preoccupied with her father that she hadnt even thought about her admission of love to Luke.
But now, alone, they would have time to talk. Luke would want to know what had happened with her father, yes, but they had their own issues to discuss. She wondered if Luke would bring up Cassies whispered statement to her. Maybe Luke would dismiss it as just a fleeting emotion brought on by the stress of the night. She shook her head, no. Perhaps the stress of the evening had caused her to blurt it out like she had, but it was no fleeting emotion. Cassie felt it deep in her soul. Luke was the one she had been waiting for all of her life.
The door opened before Cassie could knock. Luke stood there in her T-shirt and ever-present faded jeans, bare feet sticking out. Then the lazy smile Cassie loved transformed her face as their eyes held.
Cassies eyes slid closed at the soft endearment and she went into Lukes waiting arms, wrapping her own securely around Lukes waist and burying her face into Lukes neck. Strong arms held her as Cassie relaxed in Lukes warmth, feeling calmness settle over her. Gentle lips kissed her head and she sighed, breathing in Lukes scent.
"Are you okay?" Luke finally whispered.
Cassie nodded. "I just need you to hold me for a minute."
"Ive got you, for as long as you like."
Yes, youve got me. For the rest of my life, I hope. She gave Luke a squeeze before pulling out of her arms.
Lukes kiss was gentle, unhurried, hiding the passion that Cassie saw simmering in her eyes.
"Do you want to talk?"
Cassie met her eyes. Talk?
"Just for a minute. Then I want to be in your arms."
Lukes hand found hers and their fingers entwined, then Luke pulled Cassie after her, slowly mounting the stairs to the loft.
They laid down sideways on the bed, both fully clothed. Cassie curled up at Lukes side, slipping one arm over her waist and resting her head on Lukes breast, sighing contently.
Luke waited patiently for Cassie to speak, simply stroking her back with a lazy hand.
"I found out why my father has so much hatred," she started. "My mother left him for another woman, an artist."
Lukes hand stilled.
"Jesus. No wonder," she said quietly. "So much makes sense now. I was really afraid he was going to convince you to run from me, from this. That once he got you alone . . .."
"No, Luke. I told him not to make me choose between the two of you, because he would lose. I got a few things off of my chest before he left," she said.
"Im not. I can finally see him for what he is. A pathetic, lonely old man filled with hate. And I know that its his choice. But he shed some light about my mother and he gave me a bunch of letters that shed been sending all these years."
"Youre kidding. Why did he have them?"
"I dont know why he kept them. He wouldnt say. I dont know why he had them in his car, either. Maybe he couldnt bare to have them in his house."
"What did they say?" Luke asked.
Cassies hand traced circles on Lukes shirt, finally slipping underneath to meet warm skin.
"I havent opened them yet."
Luke seemed to understand her hesitation. Cassie felt lips kiss the top of her head and felt Lukes arm tighten around her.
"Theres plenty of time for that. Youve had a lot happen in the last few days."
"Yes," Cassie murmured, letting her hand slid dangerously close to Lukes bare breasts. She smiled as she felt Lukes sharp intake of breath at her touch.
"Listen, this might not be the best time, but I really need to talk about us. I dont know how far you can or want to take this. But I know that I want to spend every day with you. I want us to get to know each other better. I think we have something special here, Cassie. At least, thats how I feel."
"I feel it too." She reached up and touched Lukes mouth with a finger, lightly rubbing her lips. "I meant what I said yesterday. I know its sudden and you probably think its much too soon to feel that way, but . . .."
"Too soon?" Luke captured her hand and softly kissed it. "I fell in love with you months ago," she whispered.
"Oh, honey. I was so afraid it was just me, that it was too much too soon."
Luke pulled Cassie on top of her, finding her mouth, kissing her passionately, possessively. "I couldnt sleep last night at all. I kept hearing your words over and over again, until I was certain I had only imagined them."
"No, you didnt imagine anything. I am so in love with you." Cassie pressed her hips intimately against Luke, feeling the now familiar sensations rock her body. "I never thought I could feel this way for someone."
Lukes hands cupped her hips, sliding over rounded buttocks to press Cassie closer against her. Their kiss was slow, lips touching lips, then tongues reacquainting themselves until their passion wouldnt allow a leisurely pace. Cassie moaned when Luke rolled them over and settled her weight on Cassie. Cassies hands slid under Lukes T-shirt, finally cupping the breasts that had been tempting her earlier.
"I love you," Luke whispered into her mouth before her tongue drove out all thought.
The stress of the last few days washed away as Cassie closed her mind to everything except Luke and the hands now molding her body. She didnt protest when Luke sat up and pulled first her own, then Cassies shirt off and tossed them on the floor. Cassies hands cupped small, firm breasts, then guided Luke over her, her mouth hungry as she feasted. She trembled as the nipple swelled in her mouth and she let her tongue lick the rounded bud until Luke pressed her breast harder against Cassies mouth and she opened again, sucking more of Luke inside.
"Yes, harder," Luke murmured.
Cassie moaned too, as her fingers rubbed Lukes other breast before turning her attention back to Lukes mouth, taking the offered tongue inside. Her legs parted and Luke settled between them, jeans hindering their desire to be close and Luke rolled away in frustration, quickly shedding her jeans before tackling Cassies. Cassie kicked them away impatiently and pulled Luke down to her naked body, sighing contentedly as she wrapped arms and legs around Luke.
"I cant get close enough," Luke whispered into her ear.
"I know. I want you inside me."
Their eyes held, then Luke shifted her weight slightly, allowing room for her hand to move between them. Her touch was soft on Cassies heated flesh, but Cassie wanted her to hurry. Her hips surged up to meet Lukes hand, but Lukes hand continued down her thigh, gently caressing, teasing.
"Please," Cassie begged.
Luke smiled against her mouth, rubbing her tongue seductively across Cassies lips. "Always in a hurry, arent you."
Cassie growled deep in her throat, then rolled them over. She straddled Lukes thigh, rubbing her wetness against Luke, pressing her throbbing center hard against Luke.
"Oh, Cassie," Luke whispered and she cupped Cassies hips and held her.
"Do you feel me? Do you feel how wet I am?"
Cassie lowered her mouth to Lukes breast, her tongue raking lightly over the swollen tip before taking it inside. Luke groaned and grasped Cassies head, holding her there, pressing Cassies mouth harder against her.
Cassie used her knee to urge Lukes legs farther apart, then she settled between them, lowering herself until they touched. Luke arched into her, hips rocking against hips as they strained to touch, to get as close as possible.
"Please, go inside me," Luke whispered hoarsely.
Cassie lifted slightly and slid her hand between them, moaning loudly as the silky wetness enveloped her fingers. She easily slipped two fingers inside Luke, feeling Lukes muscles close around her. With her hips, she drove herself deeper inside Luke, only to pull out slowly before pushing in again. Her hips set the pace as she pulled in and out of Luke and she lost herself in the sensation of being inside her. Lukes hips rose to meet each thrust and Cassie rocked against her, faster and faster, until she felt Lukes contractions against her fingers, heard the guttural sounds Luke couldnt suppress. She let go then, let her own orgasm overtake her and they cried out in unison at their mutual pleasure.
Cassie lay limp upon Luke, her fingers still within her wetness. Perspiration dripped from her damp skin as she tried to catch her breath.
"Okay?" Luke murmured.
Cassie smiled. "Perfect."
She felt Lukes arms fold around her and she snuggled deeper, gently nuzzling Lukes neck, too spent to go any farther.
Cassie felt herself slipping into a peaceful sleep as Lukes hands slowly caressed her back, relaxing her totally.
Cassie settled on the steps of Lukes deck with her coffee. The sun was barely over the horizon and the morning air was cool, but Cassie wanted to savor this time alone. She had slipped out of Lukes arms, leaving her lover sleeping peacefully in bed. They had finally fell into an exhausted sleep in the early morning hours. They talked a lot, had taken time for a light lunch and a late dinner, but mostly had spent their time loving each other. Cassie blushed when she remembered begging Luke to skip dinner and make love to her yet again. By the time they finally made it downstairs, Cassie was ravenous.
She sighed contentedly, wondering how her life could have changed so quickly. If anyone had told her three months ago that she would be madly in love with a woman . . . and that same woman madly in love with her, she would have laughed and dismissed the comment with the ease she had dismissed Kim all these years. And if that same person would have told her that she would finally stand up to her father, Cassie would have told them to seek therapy quickly. But not only had that happened, the real possibility existed of finally contacting her mother.
She glanced at the letters beside her. That is, if she could find the courage to open them and seek her out.
She shivered slightly and sipped from her coffee, absently watching the storm clouds forming, moving in from the Pacific. It would rain soon, she knew. She could smell it in the air.
She was still sitting on the steps when Luke came out nearly an hour later, two cups of coffee in her hand. Cassie turned at the sound of her footsteps and their eyes locked.
Lukes voice was quiet and in that one word, Cassie heard the love of her life calling. Lukes eyes were full of concern and compassion . . . and love. Mostly love. Cassie knew then that nothing else really mattered.
"Hey yourself." Cassie scooted over to make room for her. Luke folded her long frame next to Cassie and handed her the hot cup of coffee. Cassie bumped Lukes shoulder playfully and was rewarded with that smile she loved so.
"Perfect," Cassie said. "Absolutely perfect."
Luke nodded and they both sipped from their coffee, eyes still locked.
"You have the letters out. Are you ready to open them?"
Cassie shook her head. "Not just yet. But soon."
"Going to rain today," Luke stated.
"Maybe we could put on a pot of chili, have a fire," Luke suggested.
"Like that first time?"
Luke smiled. "Just like that first time. But you wont be sleeping on the sofa tonight."
"No. I dont ever want to sleep on the sofa again."
Lukes eyes turned serious. "I know this is sudden, but Id really like to try to have a life with you. I want us to live together. I want us to be together every night."
Cassie gripped Lukes hand hard. "I want to be with you, too. And its not too sudden. I dont have any doubts about how I feel. Ive waited so many years to find you, I dont want to wait any longer."
Luke smiled with relief and kissed Cassie gently on the lips.
"I want to be here for you, whatever you need. When you open the letters, I want to share that with you. If you decide to contact your mother, I want to be right beside you. If you decide to have a showing at Union Square, I want to be there supporting you."
Cassie blinked the tears away and circled Lukes shoulders with one arm, laying her head against her. She had finally found her rock. The partner and companion she was certain she would never find.
"I love you," Cassie whispered.
"I love you back."
They sat that way, quietly, until the first raindrops chased them inside. Cassie casually tossed the bundle of letters on the sofa. Maybe later, with a fire going and chili simmering . . . and Luke by her side, she would open them. Maybe.