Angela chewed on her pencil as she scanned the lengthy list of help wanted ads. "I don't know, Andy. I'm not exactly qualified for much, according to these." She circled another ad, pursing her lips critically. "At least I finished high school before I left home, but I'm not sure how far that will get me."
She sighed and pushed back from the kitchen table. Turning, Angela leaned down and cupped Andy's head in her hands. "Your mamas have been so good to me. I have to pay them back, and the sooner, the better!"
Andy barked in agreement.
Angela grinned and ruffled his soft fur. "I wonder when your mamas will be home. I didn't think they'd be this long."
After a few more moments of indulging the dog, Angela returned to her task. Sections of newspapers were strewn across the kitchen table, and she had filled a notepad with names and numbers.
"Oh, here's an interesting one, Andy. The Women's Medical Center is looking for general clerical help, and it's an entry level position." She glanced down at Andy, who was now lying with his head resting on his paws. "Beats working at Mickey D's, doesn't it? Though it probably won't pay much more than Mickey would."
Suddenly the spaniel jumped to his feet with a yelp and dashed out of the kitchen. Angela looked after him in astonishment. "Andy, the mail's already come." Then she heard the sound of the kitchen door being unlocked and a strange voice sounding from the stoop.
"Hey, Gran, it's just me. I've brought some--"
Angela found herself abruptly facing a woman standing at the open door with an armful of grocery bags.
"Who are you, and what are you doing in my grandmothers' house?"
Angela opened her mouth, but before she could utter a word, the stranger rolled her eyes.
"Oh, good Lord, they're at it again." Shaking her head in disgust, the tawny-haired stranger set the groceries on the counter and turned to regard Angela as though she were something Andy had literally dragged in. "So...where did they rescue you from? The streets? The mission? Some dirty old pervert's bed?"
Angela felt a slow burn ignite, but easily guessing the identity of the stranger, she forced herself to be civil. "Your grandmother and Hazel--"
"They're both my grandmothers!" Lianne's dark blue eyes, height, slim build and angular features clearly showed her genetic inheritance from Ruby, but Angela wasn't about to argue. "Not that it's any of your business."
Taking a deep breath, Angela tried again. "Your grandmothers are out. I expect them back any moment. My name is--"
"It doesn't matter." Lianne deliberately turned her back and started unloading the groceries. "No doubt you'll take advantage of my grandmothers and be out of here long before I have any reason to know your name."
"I'm not taking--"
"Are you eating their food? Sleeping under their roof? Causing them sleepless nights worrying about your future?" Lianne turned back to face Angela, her eyes flashing with anger. "They're almost eighty, not that you'd care. They're not superwomen! Every time they bring one of you...people home, it drains their energy and probably shortens their lives. And frankly, not a damned one of you is worth it."
Stiffly, Angela gathered up her newspapers and marched downstairs. Moving on blind outrage, she entered her room, grabbed her backpack out of the closet and started stuffing her clothes into it. She had almost finished when a voice sounded from behind her.
"Oh, for God's sake, stop it! You're not leaving."
Spinning around, Angela glared at Lianne. "And you're not telling me what to do!"
"Look, just stop with the melodramatics, will you?"
"Why? I'll be out of your grandmothers' hair. That's what you want, isn't it? And I certainly don't want to take advantage of them!" Angela furiously kicked off her slippers and grabbed her boots out of the closet. Sitting on the end of the bed, she thrust her feet into them. Not even stopping to tie them, she picked up her backpack and headed for the door.
"Look, I didn't mean it..."
"Yes, you did."
"Okay, I did. But you can't go. Gran and Gram Hazel will have my head if you leave on my account."
"I'm not leaving on your account; I'm leaving on theirs. God knows I don't want to be responsible for hurting those two wonderful people!"
Angela had reached the door, but Lianne blocked the way. When Angela tried to bull her way past, Lianne pushed her back with a surprisingly strong grasp.
"Get out of my way!"
They stood nose to nose, both with eyes blazing and breath ragged.
"You can't hold me here! I'll call the cops and tell them you're kidnapping me against my will."
"Oh, for God's sake." Lianne released Angela and shook her head. "You're in Gran and Gram Hazel's house. Who do you think they'd charge?"
That pulled Angela up short, and she took a step back.
"Look, I'm...I'm sorry, okay? Sometimes I have a short fuse, especially when it comes to Gran and Gram Hazel."
Angela backed away warily.
"Can we please start again?" Lianne extended her hand. "My name is Lianne Gaines."
Angela looked at the extended hand, then back at Lianne, who gave her a rueful smile.
"Gran and Gram Hazel really would have my head if I drove you out of here, not to mention that they'd just go out looking for you and that would pretty much ruin Christmas for them. So for their sake, will you please accept my apology?"
Angela tossed the backpack on the bed, but defiantly refused to shake Lianne's hand. "For their sake, not yours!"
Lianne's hand dropped, and she nodded. "Understood. So what's your name, anyway?"
Angela briefly considered not answering, but decided there was no point in being petty. She had heard enough about this woman in the past three days to know that Lianne was very dear to her rescuers, and a huge part of their lives. "Angela Keane."
She turned away and picked up her backpack, silently putting her clothes back into the closet and cabinet. Angela heard Lianne sigh, and then close the door.
Sinking down on the bed, Angela buried her face in her hands. What the hell was all that? Suddenly exhausted by the emotional outburst, she kicked off her boots and crawled further up on the bed, pulling the extra blanket up around her. Still not fully recovered from her five week ordeal, her body quickly yielded. She was asleep long before her door opened and the light was turned off.
"She's sleeping like a baby," Ruby reported as she rejoined her partner and granddaughter at the kitchen table.
"Let the poor girl sleep then. If she doesn't wake by dinner, I'll save her a plate." Hazel turned to Lianne. "So, my dear, we haven't seen you in at least a week. What have you been up to?"
Lianne gave her grandmothers a wry look. "I think the question is more, what have you been up to? I didn't think you two were going to do this anymore, but then I come over and there's this scruffy kid sitting at the kitchen table."
"Oh, I don't think she looks scruffy at all, dear." Hazel glanced up at Ruby with a smile. "In fact, I think she looks quite fetching with her new haircut, don't you, Ruby?"
"Yeah, the kid's a looker. Let's just hope Gretchen doesn't see her new 'do. She might change her mind and take her back."
"I don't think Angela would go back, love. I think she's put Gretchen and everything she stood for in the past."
"Excuse me." Lianne shot a pointed look at her grandmothers. "You're missing the point. I'm pretty sure that after the Terrell fiasco, you promised me you wouldn't do this again."
"Actually, Lianne, you told us not to do it again," Hazel corrected mildly. "We never agreed to any such thing."
Ruby nodded. "She's right, Lianne. You weren't exactly in listening mode at the time, so you just assumed we'd assented to your demands. However, the last time I checked, we still get to make the decisions in our own home."
Lianne growled in frustration and her grandmothers chuckled.
"Cheer up, dear. I think even you would agree this is a worthy cause." Hazel launched into a recital of Angela's story, and by the time she was done, Lianne was shaking her head. "So you see, this child had the astoundingly bad luck to fall in with Gretchen Grissom, and you know the trail of destruction that woman leaves in her wake!"
Lianne nodded grimly. "I'd love to be able to pin statutory rape charges on her, but she's always careful to wait until her targets are eighteen. I don't suppose Angela was underage, was she?"
"No, she had turned nineteen before they met," Ruby answered. "I don't think she's even twenty-one yet."
"Next month, dear. We'll have to make sure we have a little celebration for her."
"Gram Hazel, you think she's going to be here that long?"
Hazel turned surprisingly stern eyes on her granddaughter. "She will stay as long as she needs to, Lianne. Whether that's one month or one year, or even longer is not yet known, but we will not turn her out until we're good and certain that she can manage on her own."
Lianne glanced over at Ruby, whose eyes were twinkling. "You should know better than to cross your Gram Hazel in this, Lianne."
Lianne sighed. "I do, but um, look, I kind of...well, I should probably tell you, because no doubt she will anyway, but we sort of had words when I first got here."
"Words? From Angela?"
Lianne flinched at the surprise in Hazel's voice. "Okay, so the words were more mine than hers." She squirmed. "All right, they were all mine..."
"Oh, Lianne, what did you say to her?" Hazel's disappointment was evident in her voice.
"I just kind of...expressed my opinion."
"You told her she was imposing on us, didn't you?"
Lianne refused to meet Ruby's sharp gaze. "Damn it, girl! That's for us to say, and we aren't saying it! Angela is welcome in our home."
Hazel laid a firm hand on Lianne's arm. "What did Angela say?"
"Well, it was more what she did..."
"What did she do?" Ruby's tone made it clear she wasn't going to tolerate her granddaughter's equivocation.
"She packed up her stuff and tried to leave." Lianne shook her head when her grandmothers groaned. "No, it's okay. I talked her out of it."
"Did you apologize?" The question came simultaneously from both grandmothers.
"Yes! Well, sort of." Lianne thought over her words, then said more firmly. "Yes, I did apologize, and I urged her to stay. I think she was fine. She unpacked her stuff, anyway."
"You should talk to her, Hazel. Make sure that she knows Lianne wasn't speaking for us."
"I will, Ruby. But I want to let her sleep first. It's really what she needs most. Well, that and a solid month's worth of groceries."
Lianne tried to suppress her guilt as she listened to her grandmothers talk. I'm only trying to protect them! Why can't they understand that?
"We know you're only trying to protect us, dear."
Lianne started at Hazel's words, then shook her head in wry amusement. Should've known. They always know what I'm thinking.
"But you have to trust us. We really do know what we're doing."
"I know." A thought occurred to Lianne. "I guess that means she'll be here for Christmas."
Both grandmothers nodded firmly, and Lianne surrendered.
"Which reminds me, dear, since your parents are going to be in Key West this year, will you be bringing Jill over here for Christmas dinner?"
Lianne stood to gather her things. "Jill and I split up two weeks ago, Gram Hazel." She held up a cautionary hand. "And before you chew me out, let me just say it was her idea, not mine. Now, I'm off. I'll give you a call tomorrow after you get home from church."
Ruby and Hazel watched Lianne leave by the side door.
"I really thought it might last this time, Ruby."
Ruby shook her head. "That girl of ours works too hard and plays too little, love. I'm not surprised Jill walked out. She probably couldn't remember the last time Lianne took her out someplace for fun."
Hazel linked her arm with Ruby's and steered them out of the kitchen. "You know what she'd say, though."
"That she's almost thirty, and she has to put in the hours now if she's going to be considered for the big cases later on."
"Yes, that's our girl, Ruby."
"It sure is, isn't it?"
Lianne watched Angela as the young woman eagerly opened the birthday gift Ruby set before her. I guess she's okay. At least she's not expecting them to wait on her hand and foot.
Quite to the contrary, Angela appeared to anticipate Ruby and Hazel's every need. It was clear that in the two months since Angela had joined the household, the three had bonded closely. Lianne felt a little jealous. Surprising herself, she even felt an edge of resentment that Andy, too, clearly adored the young stranger.
Pretty bad when even the dog makes you feel like the odd man out. Not that Angela lingered when Lianne came over. In fact, she would usually vanish downstairs as quickly as good manners would allow.
Initially, Lianne appreciated that during the Christmas holidays when she coveted her time with her grandmothers. Now it simply galled.
What am I, chopped liver? She can't stop and talk for a bit? It's not like I'm going to bite her head off...again. She shook her head to dispel her thoughts, and addressed the birthday girl politely.
"So, Gram Hazel tells me your job is going well."
Angela gave her a startled look. "Um, yeah. Pretty well, thanks. I like the people at the Medical Center, and they've been very good to me."
Hazel beamed at Angela. "Linda told me that you've been a real treasure. She said she can already leave you alone on the front desk, knowing you'll handle things just fine. I suspect there may well be a nice raise in the offing."
"That's good. Then you'll be able to afford your own apartment." Lianne flinched as both her grandmothers glared at her. "What? I just assumed--"
"You assumed right, of course." Angela finished opening her gift without looking up. "I'll get out of Hazel and Ruby's way as quickly as I can."
"Now don't you give that a second thought," Hazel said reassuringly. "Ruby and I love having you here."
Angela lifted her head, and Lianne was surprised to see her eyes filled with tears. Oh, shit! I didn't mean to make her cry. I only meant...
"I know, Hazel, and I love being here, but your granddaughter's right--I do need to move on and pay my own way."
"You already pay your own way, girl." Ruby patted Angela awkwardly on the back. "Between what you chip in for groceries, and all the work you do around here, you're more than pulling your own weight. Hazel's right. Don't you give it one moment of worry. You just stay as long as you want to."
One tear spilled over and ran down Angela's face, but she tried to smile. "Better not say that, Ruby. You'll have me down in that basement forever." Angela glanced quickly at Lianne. "I'm just kidding."
Damn! Damn! Damn! Why couldn't I keep my big mouth shut? Lianne could feel the icy chill rolling off her grandmothers in her direction. Searching for something to thaw the room, she blurted, "Hey, you're twenty-one now. You want to join me for a legal drink?"
Three sets of eyes stared at her as if she had grown a third head. "No, seriously. I'd really like to buy you a drink, and I promise I'll have you home in plenty of time to get to work tomorrow with a clear head."
Angela looked uncertainly at Hazel and Ruby, who glanced at each other.
"For crying out loud! I'm not proposing that we knock over a bank or anything. When you turn twenty-one, it's just traditional to have a drink."
Hazel gestured at the empty wine bottle that sat on the table along with the remains of their birthday feast. But before she could speak, Lianne shook her head. "No, Gram, it doesn't count if she's having it at home."
Lianne looked over at Angela and realized she must have said something right, because the young woman's features had softened. Though she still looked wary, Angela nodded.
"Alright. That sounds good, I guess. Just one, though." She looked at Hazel and Ruby. "Are you okay with that? You're welcome to come along, you know."
"Good heavens, no, dear. Ruby and I are too old to keep up with you youngsters. You just run along, and remember to lock up after yourself when you get home."
"Um, what should I wear?"
Lianne understood Angela's worried look. Though her wardrobe had improved, it was still limited. "I'm wearing what I've got on."
Angela's gaze trailed over Lianne's body and she felt an unexpected warmth. "Um, what you have in your hands would be good. And jeans are fine."
Angela looked at the new red pullover she was holding. "It's beautiful. Thank you so much, Ruby and Hazel. I really like it." Lifting it out of the box, she flashed Lianne a genuine smile. "Give me two minutes and I'll be ready."
She hurried to the top of the stairs, Andy at her heels. As the two disappeared down to the basement, Lianne became conscious that her grandmothers were eyeing her.
"Lianne..." Hazel's voice trailed off, but Lianne could see the concern in her eyes.
"You take care of her, hear?" Ruby instructed. "No keeping her out late or getting her in any kind of trouble."
Shocked, Lianne protested, "Geez, you'd think I was about to lead her into a den of iniquity the way you two are acting. I'm just taking her to the local women's bar for one drink."
"You know her story, dear. Just...be kind."
Her feelings wounded, Lianne stood up. "Look, I know she and I didn't get off on the right foot, but we get along okay now. I'll look out for her."
The sound of feet could be heard running up the steps. Angela appeared in the doorway and did a self-conscious twirl.
"Will this be okay?"
"You look lovely, Angela," Hazel assured her. "I just knew red would be your colour. It looks so good with your dark hair and eyes."
Angela gave her a delighted smile. "Thanks! Don't wait up. I'll be very quiet when I come in."
Lianne kissed her grandmothers goodbye and followed Angela out the side door, suddenly worried about their outing. Jesus! Maybe the women's bar wasn't the best idea. They're going to be all over her like bees to honey. What do I do if she wants to go home with someone? Gran and Gram Hazel will kill me!
Lianne was right. Heads turned as soon as they walked into the bar, and although she tried to project a "hand's off" to all interested parties, Lianne failed utterly to dissuade women from approaching Angela.
Her companion refused most of the proffered drinks, but she did accept invitations to dance. One suitor was particularly persistent.
The androgynous young butch, who clearly thought she was irresistible, was on her third dance with Angela when Lianne began to worry. Angela appeared to be soaking in the attention, and became more animated with each dance.
Currently the swaggering butch, with her low slung jeans and big belt buckle, had one hand behind Angela's neck and the other on her hip as they moved together to the loud music in a blatantly erotic fashion.
Jesus, why don't you get a room! Lianne blinked at her thought. Shit! I mean, don't get a room! Damnit, I'd better do something or they're going to find the nearest dark corner and do exactly what Gran and Gram are worried about.
The music ended, and before another song could begin, Lianne sprang to her feet and inserted herself between Angela and her swain.
"Hey, we were dancing here. D'ya mind?"
Lianne turned and fixed the young woman with her coldest courtroom stare. "Move along, junior. I believe the lady's next dance is with me."
Angela laughed, and put her arms around Lianne's shoulders as a slow song began. Grumbling to herself, the disgruntled suitor slunk off.
"Sorry about that," Lianne apologized. "I hope you don't mind me cutting in, but I feel like I'm the only one in the room who hasn't had a chance to dance with you."
"That's because you never asked me."
"No, you didn't."
"My mistake." Jesus, are we flirting? I know it's been a while, but that sure sounded like flirting to me. Uh oh, Gran and Gram would not be happy about that either...
Lianne could feel how stiffly she was holding herself, but Angela seemed oblivious to her dancing partner's unease. When the song ended and Lianne made to return to their table, Angela caught her hand.
"Another...please? It is my birthday, after all."
"Um, sure. Why not?" Why not? Because you're getting in over your head, you idiot!
One more dance turned into another and another. Lianne forgot the clock. She forgot to worry about her grandmothers' concerns. She forgot everything but how good it felt to dance with a beautiful woman in her arms. And when Angela shook her head when the arrogant butch tried to cut in, Lianne couldn't help a tiny smirk.
It was only when they announced last call that Lianne tried to tug Angela off the dance floor. "Oh, shit! I promised I'd have you home early. We have to go."
"One last dance. It's not really that late and tomorrow is Friday, so even if we're tired at work, we'll have the next two days off." Angela's eyes were sparkling and Lianne found it impossible to refuse, even as she shook her head.
"I do believe you said ‘one last dance' about two hours ago, Ms Keane."
"Can you prove that, Counsellor? It doesn't look like you're carrying a hidden recorder anywhere."
Lianne blushed at the faux innocent look as Angela scanned the lack of hiding places in the lawyer's tight jeans and tailored shirt. Holy...! Who the hell would've guessed this side of her?
Dry-mouthed, Lianne didn't try to respond. She simply allowed Angela to pull her back to the centre of the floor. There, the distance that Lianne had conscientiously tried to maintain between them vanished, as Angela moulded herself to her partner's body. Unresisting, Lianne wrapped her arms around Angela as they swayed slowly to the music.
When the dance ended, Lianne lifted her head from where it had rested against Angela's hair. Over her dance partner's shoulder, she saw the young butch grinning at her. With a woman nestled under one arm, Angela's former suitor gave Lianne a thumbs up and swaggered out of the bar.
She thinks...hell, she thinks we're going to do what she's obviously planning to do!
Suddenly Lianne realized that even though the music had stopped and the DJ was packing up, she was still standing with Angela in her arms. Flustered, she abruptly broke away, startling her partner.
"Um, we'd better get going, Angela." Tapping her watch, Lianne added, "Gran's a pretty light sleeper, and she'll know you're not home yet."
Angela tilted her head curiously. "And that's a bad thing?"
"Maybe not for you, but it could well be for me." Lianne hastened back to their table to collect their things. "I don't want Gran and Gram Hazel looking for my head on a platter because I've led you astray."
Angela accepted her jacket and shrugged into it. "You haven't led me astray."
Maybe not, but right now I'd really like to, and they're going to know. They always know! Damn, damn, damn! Fumbling for her keys, Lianne felt a hand on her arm and looked up to find Angela regarding her seriously.
"I mean it, Lianne. You haven't led me astray and we haven't done anything wrong. If I'm tired tomorrow, it's a small price to pay. I haven't had this much fun in...well, I'm not sure I've ever had this much fun. I really enjoyed tonight. Thank you for bringing me." She leaned forward and kissed Lianne lightly on the cheek, and turned to walk to the door.
Stunned, Lianne watched her stroll away. Compared to the scrawny street rat Lianne had first encountered, Angela now looked sleek, healthy, and thoroughly desirable.
When Angela stopped at the door and looked back inquisitively, Liane shook herself out of her paralysis and hurried to catch up.
"Shh, Andy. Don't wake your mamas." Angela smiled down at the spaniel who was looking up expectantly. "And, no, it's not breakfast time yet, either. Just go back to bed. That's where I'm heading."
She wasn't surprised when Andy followed her downstairs. He often chose sleeping beside her over his doggie bed in the kitchen. Angela abbreviated her ablutions and, after lifting the mildly arthritic spaniel onto the bed, she slid between the sheets. Andy laid his head on her thigh as she idly ran her hand through his fur.
"How does that song go, Andy? You know--the one from that show your mamas watched last weekend?"
Hazel and Ruby were fervent fans of old musicals. In the two months Angela lived with them, she too had come to enjoy them.
"Oh, I know..." Angela started humming quietly and sang the lines that seemed so perfect for this evening. "I could've danced all night...I could've danced all night, and still have begged for more..."
She laughed softly and Andy raised his head. "No, it's okay. Go to sleep, boy. I was just thinking of Lianne's reaction if I had begged for more." She'd have had a heart attack!
Angela had never felt such a sense of...power. She was well aware of the effect she'd had on some of the women at the bar, but the only reaction she cared about was Lianne's.
Why? She's just Ruby and Hazel's annoying granddaughter...isn't she?
Angela pondered that. Initially it had just been a game, a vindication of sorts. The drinks, the dances, the flirtations--each woman that had approached her had erased another bit of the detested country mouse stamp. She knew that Gretchen would not have recognized her shy, diffident lover tonight, and she revelled in that knowledge.
But then she had caught a glimpse of Lianne's face while she was dancing. Angela was quite certain that Lianne had no idea how much her expression revealed. Had the lawyer not cut in when she did, Angela was going to ask for a dance herself. For the rest of the evening, she was exactly where she wanted to be...in Lianne's arms.
When Lianne dropped her off, Angela had thought for a second that she would kiss her goodnight. When Lianne did not, Angela couldn't decide if she was relieved or disappointed.
She's way too old.
She's much younger than Gretchen.
Groaning, Angela rolled over on her side. Andy grumbled, then snuggled into the crook of her legs and fell back to sleep.
This is stupid! The last thing I need is to...get involved with anyone. I'm just starting to get my life together. And Ruby and Hazel's granddaughter? I owe them everything. They're not going to want Lianne to hook up with...with me. It's not like I have anything to offer except the clothes on my back, and most of those are gifts from Ruby and Hazel.
Having successfully depressed herself, Angela tried to convince her brain to shut down for--four hours? Oh, great, I've got to get up in four hours. I'm going to be a zombie at work.
With renewed determination, Angela tried to focus on nothing. When that didn't work, she reviewed her work schedule, considered the January crop of new TV shows, decided on a gift for Ruby's March birthday, and finally, desperate, composed a lengthy grocery list for Saturday's weekly shopping trip.
But nothing could distract Angela from the way it felt to be in Lianne's arms. Ultimately, yielding, she allowed the memories ascendancy. Sleep finally came as she dwelled on the look in Lianne's eyes when Angela had leaned in to kiss her cheek.
A squirrel dashed across the pathway three feet in front of them. Ruby looked down at Andy, who was placidly padding at their heels. He barely sniffed when the squirrel crossed their route.
"He's getting old, love. There was a day he'd have been after that squirrel in a heartbeat."
Hazel smiled, and linked her arm through Ruby's. "We're all getting old, dear."
Ruby patted her partner's arm. "True, but the lovely thing about getting old is that you become invisible too. We couldn't have done this when we were young without raising eyebrows."
"Do you remember how paranoid we were when we first started living together? So afraid that anyone would think we were anything but friends and roommates."
"Mmm hmm." Ruby nodded, contemplatively staring into the distance. "But we had good reason, didn't we? Remember Doris Green? She was fired right out of the blue 'round about '57, wasn't it?"
"Yeah, '59. That's right. No one would say why she was fired of course, but we all knew."
"Doris wasn't exactly the most discreet person, and she paid the price. I wonder where she ended up. She sort of vanished altogether after that, didn't she?"
"She sure did--not that any of us had the nerve to ask after her. It's nice that the kids today don't have to be as scared as we always were."
"Yes and no, Ruby. Lianne certainly isn't out at work."
"Not officially, maybe. But she and Jill had their boss and some of their colleagues over for dinner several times, so it's not like it was a state secret or anything."
"Lianne would laugh at the lengths we went to to hide back in the bad old days."
Ruby smiled at Hazel. "They weren't all bad, were they?"
Hazel returned her smile. "You know they weren't, love. Raising Dan, building a life together--I wouldn't have had it any other way. Of course you were quite the scarlet woman back then. Shameful, shameful."
"You tease, but I swear being divorced was almost as bad as being gay in those days."
Hazel's eyes twinkled. "No honourable man would look twice at you."
"Damn good thing!" Ruby stopped and faced Hazel. "Because in an unbelievable stroke of good luck, the most honourable, most beautiful, most wonderful woman in the world fell in love with me, and the years since have been a pure blessing."
Hazel loved it when Ruby used that particular voice. She knew she was the only one privileged to hear it, and it had always had the power to make her knees tremble. With a quick glance around to ensure they were alone, she leaned in and kissed her partner.
Chuckling as if they had just put one over on the world, they resumed their stroll in the warmth of the early spring day.
"You know, Hazel, Lianne still thinks we're crazy to take our constitutionals in a graveyard."
"We're not the only ones. Angela mentioned that she often goes through here on her morning runs. Besides, it's just that Lianne doesn't understand the allure--the peace and quiet, the lovely surroundings, the hundreds of stories told in the stones all around us. It's better than any park in the city."
Hazel raised her walking cane and pointed at one large monument off to their right. "There's one of my favourites now. Charlotte A. Childress. Born 1822, died 1879. Wife of Henry T. and mother to Agnes, James and John. She stood foursquare to all the winds that blew. Don't you just love that inscription? You can just picture Mrs. Charlotte A. Childress and the way she led her life from the inscription alone."
"When it's our turn, I want our inscriptions to make clear what we were to each other, Hazel."
Hazel glanced up in surprise at Ruby's serious tone.
"We've had to hide our love from almost everyone all our lives, Hazel. I want us to spend eternity under a stone that finally speaks our truth."
"That's fine with me, love. I'm all for it, but we'd better talk to Lianne. If it's up to Dan, I'm not sure Eva will let him do that."
Ruby gave a short laugh. "Our daughter-in-law never ever did get all that comfortable with us, did she?"
"No, but to give her her due, she did allow us to be a big part of Lianne's life."
"I think that was more thanks to Dan than Eva. But speaking of our granddaughter, is it my imagination, Hazel, or have we been seeing a lot more of her than we usually do? It seems like she's over at the house just about every night these days."
"That's true, she is." Hazel knew her voice must have given something away, because Ruby stopped and raised a quizzical eyebrow at her.
"Hazel, do you know something you're not telling me?"
Hazel sighed. This discussion was overdue, and now was as good a time as any. She pointed to a nearby bench. "Let's have a seat, Ruby."
"I'm not going to like this, am I?"
Andy wandered off to explore while the women took a seat. "I'm not sure, Ruby. I've been trying to decide what I think of it."
"And the ‘it' would be...?"
"Lianne and Angela."
"Lianne and... You mean together? As in hearts and flowers and all that? They're in love?"
"I'm not entirely sure that they've even accepted it, Ruby, but yes, things certainly do appear to be heading in that direction."
"Huh." Ruby sat quietly for a few minutes. "So are we for it, or agin it?"
"I don't know, dear. I worry so about both of them. What Angela went through has to have left its mark. You didn't hear her when she was talking about Gretchen the first day she was with us. I'm not sure she's ready to make the compromises you have to make in a successful relationship."
"Well, she is young, but she's also pretty mature for her age. She's no flibbertigibbet, that's for sure."
"I know, Ruby, but I also worry about Lianne. She's so much like you were."
"Smart, successful, good lookin'?"
Hazel squeezed Ruby's arm and joined her in a chuckle. "Yes, dear, all that and more--driven, oblivious, stubborn."
"Huh, I must've been quite a handful. But you managed alright, Hazel, and I think Angela would too."
"Well, unquestionably the Gaines women are worth the trouble."
"Trouble? Trouble?" Ruby melodramatically puffed out her chest. "We're not trouble...we're just...a challenge."
Hazel leaned against her. "Of the best kind, dear. Of the very best kind."
Ruby took Hazel's hand and they watched Andy sniffing at several tombstones. Finally Ruby broke their comfortable silence.
"So, I still don't know if we want the kids to get together or not. I know we don't want either of them to get hurt..."
"I've seen the way they look at each other when they think no one will notice. I don't think it's up to us, Ruby. Those girls are head over heels, and all we can do is step aside and let nature take its course."
"Okay, so we're in favour then?"
"How can we not be in favour of love, Ruby?" Hazel sat up abruptly. "In fact, maybe we can help speed the process along a little."
"We can?" Ruby looked at her suspiciously. "Hazel...what are you up to?"
"Bear with me, dear. I've been watching the girls, and the dance they're doing is making me dizzy. The pull between them is obvious. But it seems to me that every time one of them works up the nerve to make a move, the other bolts in the opposite direction."
"And you're going to fix that how?"
"Well, I was thinking that you have your birthday coming up in a couple of weeks, which would make an excellent excuse for me to take you away on a romantic getaway."
"I'm all for that, but how does that help Lianne and Angela get together?"
Hazel grinned. "Leave the details to me, love."
Ruby shook her head affectionately. "And you say I'm trouble?"
"Wow, Hazel! You've really gone all out tonight." Angela surveyed the elaborate table setting for two with flowers, crystal, fine china and heavy white linens. A bottle of wine rested in an ice bucket on the side table, tapered candles were ready to be lit, and delicious scents wafted from the kitchen.
"Well, it's not every day someone turns eighty." Hazel looked at the table with satisfaction, and patted Angela's arm. "I sure appreciate you helping me out, dear. I'm not sure I could've pulled it all together on my own."
"It was my pleasure, Hazel. And don't worry. As soon as Lianne gets back with Ruby, she and I will disappear for a couple of hours so you can have your romantic dinner together."
"But don't be gone too long. We need to be out at the airport by eight thirty."
"No problem. When does your flight leave?"
"I believe it's ten thirty. I'll just double check." Hazel bustled over to the cabinet. "I hid the tickets in here behind the silver so Ruby wouldn't see them."
"I think this is just the most incredibly romantic idea. Are you sure she has no idea at all?"
Hazel slid open the drawer and reached towards the back. "Not a bit. She knows we're having a special dinner, but thanks to you hiding our packed bags in your room, she has no clue that I'm taking her away for the weekend."
"Charleston is such a beautiful city. You're going to love it."
Hazel heard the wistfulness in the words, and her voice softened. "It's not too far from your hometown, is it, dear? You must have gone there often."
"Now and then, yeah. It was less than two hours from...my home."
Hazel gave Angela a sympathetic look, then opened the tickets. "Ah, here we are. Yes, Delta non-stop to Charleston, leaving at... Oh no!"
Angela's head jerked up. "What's the matter?"
"I'm sure I booked the ten thirty flight, but these are for eight thirty five!" Hazel looked up at the grandfather clock. "Oh, no, no, no! We need to go now!"
Angela jumped for the phone. "Don't worry! I'll call Lianne on her cell and get her to come right back with Ruby. Then I'll grab the suitcases and bring them up. You just go get ready. We'll have you out there in lots of time."
"But the dinner...my lovely dinner..." Hazel looked at the table sadly. "I worked so hard." A look of determination came over her face. "Angela, promise me you and Lianne will enjoy every last bit of it, or my weekend will be ruined!"
"I promise, now go get ready!" Angela turned her attention to the phone. "Lianne, you've got to get Ruby back right away. Hazel got tonight's departure time wrong. They've got to be out to the airport now!" She listened a moment, then nodded. "Great! We'll be out front waiting for you."
With a smile on her lips, Hazel slipped out of the room. Phase one complete.
Angela and Lianne waved one last time as Ruby and Hazel passed through the security gate. With a mutual sigh, they turned away and headed for the exit.
"I swear I've never driven so fast in my life. I thought Gran was going to have a heart attack, and I couldn't even tell her why we were rushing back to the house. I'm sure she thought something was wrong with Gram Hazel and I just wasn't telling her."
"But wasn't it all worth it to see the look on Ruby's face when Hazel announced her plans."
Lianne laughed in delight. "It was, wasn't it? I couldn't tell who was more thrilled: Gram Hazel for successfully pulling off the surprise, or Gran at the idea of a romantic getaway with her best girl."
"They're so darned cute together."
Lianne put out an arm to stop Angela from entering the crosswalk in front of an oncoming car. "They really are. I hope their weekend is everything they want it to be."
With the car past, they stepped out and crossed to the parking ramp.
"I hope that you're hungry, because Hazel made a feast and it's up to us to do justice to it."
"Mmm, one of Gram Hazel's special dinners. Beats the hamburgers we were going to have."
They arrived back at the house to find Andy in the kitchen, sniffing the air hungrily.
"Oh, no you don't, mister!" Angela chastised the spaniel. "Your mama didn't spend all those hours cooking to feed your belly. This is people food, and darned special people food, too." She turned to Lianne, who was leaning against the door frame watching her. "Why don't you go wash up and I'll get things on the table."
"I can help."
Angela shook her head. "No, that's alright. I took a half-day off to help Hazel with the preparations, so I know what's where. Allow me the honour of serving."
Lianne straightened, a look of amazement on her face. "Gram Hazel let you help out in her kitchen? Has the world as we know it ended?"
Angela laughed and tossed an oven mitt at the other woman. Lianne caught it deftly and threw it back. "About two weeks ago, Hazel said it was time she started passing along her culinary secrets. She said you're about as useless as Ruby in the kitchen, so since she didn't want to take her secrets to the grave, it was up to me to be her apprentice. She's been teaching me, and it's a lot of fun."
"Huh. Imagine that."
"You sound exactly like Ruby, too. Now go get washed up. The first course is only five minutes away from being ready."
Lianne trotted away, and Angela looked down at the ever-hopeful Andy. "It's a good thing your mama Hazel had everything worked out to the last minute, or her Beef Wellington would've been toast by now. Now scoot. I've got a feast to serve."
Ruby looked around at their room in delight. "This is incredible, Hazel. Are you sure we can afford it? This isn't exactly our usual Motel 6."
"The room and the car are Dan and Eva's contribution to your birthday weekend, love. Just relax and enjoy."
Bouncing on the luxuriously thick duvet, Ruby flung herself back on the profusion of pillows. "Oh, my heavens! I feel like I'm resting on a cloud."
Hazel gave her an indulgent smile as she continued to unpack their things. "I'm glad you like. We've got three nights to enjoy it."
"We can do that later, Hazel." Ruby opened her arms hopefully. "Join me?"
"Gladly." Hazel set down their toiletries and snuggled next to her partner on the bed. "Happy Birthday, dear."
"It truly is. Thank you." Ruby bestowed a light kiss on Hazel's white hair, and tightened her arms. "So, do you think your plotting has been successful?"
Hazel glanced across Ruby at the bedside table. "Well, if all has gone according to plan, the girls should be just about on dessert by now. After that, it's up to them."
"And Mother Nature."
A tired but satisfied chuckle signalled Hazel's agreement. "And Mother Nature...long may she reign."
"So aside from enjoying this fabulous bed, what plans did you have for the next few days, Hazel?"
"Well, I thought we'd play tourist--see the sights, take a carriage ride, walk on the beach, eat at this wonderful restaurant I've read about."
"You've had something on your mind, Hazel. What's up, love of my life?"
"You know me far too well."
Ruby laughed at Hazel's half-hearted grumble. "I should, after all these years. So spill the beans, my love. I know you didn't pick Charleston out of thin air. What devious plan have you been hatching?"
"Well, I was thinking that we're not too far from Laurenton. Less than two hours, in fact."
"Angela's home town." Ruby's voice was amused.
"Yes. And since we're so close, and have a rental car..."
"Why don't we drop in and scope out the lay of the land."
"Exactly!" Hazel squeezed Ruby's ribs. "I knew you'd understand."
"Actually I've been wondering when you'd decide to contact her family. I'm surprised it took you this long."
Ruby's voice took on a serious note. "From what you've told me though, love, I think we need to step carefully. Angela's daddy doesn't exactly sound like a welcoming sort."
"Well, I didn't think we'd don our rainbow sashes and march up to his door hand in hand."
"No, silly. I thought we'd present ourselves as concerned members of our church. We happened to be in the area and wanted to make enquiries after the well being of one of our young congregants--"
"Without mentioning that we belong to one of the largest gay congregations in the country..."
"True, I may neglect to mention that, but then I am getting forgetful in my old age."
Ruby snickered. She was well aware that her memory wasn't what it had once been, but Hazel's razor sharp retention was legendary in their circle of family and friends.
"Hopefully we'll get to talk to Angela's mother alone. Angela mentioned that her father's business is open on Saturdays, so with any luck, he'll be at work tomorrow."
"And if he's not?"
"Then we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."
Ruby heard the determination in Hazel's voice and grinned. Mr. Keane, prepare to meet your match.
"Oh, my Lord, that was absolutely fabulous!" Lianne leaned back in her chair with a small groan. "I swear I couldn't eat another bite."
"Hazel certainly outdid herself. It's a shame that they didn't get to enjoy it."
Lianne winked at Angela. "I'm sure they're perfectly content where they are, but how about we take them out to dinner when they come home, just to make up for missing this."
"That sounds good to me." Angela picked up the wine bottle and topped off both their glasses. "Want to take these outside?"
"That sounds like an excellent idea."
Angela snuffed the candles and followed Lianne out to the screen porch. It was her favourite room in the house. The small bungalow sat on almost three quarters an acre of land. Towering Georgia pines, wisteria, and thick underbrush formed the property line on the garage side, while eight foot high privacy hedges surrounded the rest of the yard.
Ruby believed firmly that the more of the yard she put into garden, the less grass she would have to mow. Over the decades, she had converted most of the huge backyard into gardens that would've done a seventeenth century French monarch proud.
The screen porch, with its own profusion of plants and a bubbling fountain, felt like a natural extension of the gardens it overlooked. Normally the two women took the white wooden rockers, but tonight, without hesitation, they chose to sit together on the double swing.
Having left the interior and porch lights off, their only illumination came from the moon and the decorative lights, which lined the stone pathways that wound through the gardens.
It was enough. Angela didn't have to see Lianne clearly to be keenly aware of the woman by her side.
The hand holding her wine trembled and Angela clasped the glass with both hands. The night was charged with an unfamiliar energy, and the longer they sat, rocking gently and wordlessly, the more restless she felt.
I should go for a run later. Burn off some of this food...and energy. But Angela knew the last thing she wanted was to leave Lianne's side.
Angela started at the sound of Lianne's voice. "What is?"
"Gram Hazel getting the times wrong on the flight. It's very unlike her." Lianne's voice was thoughtful. "If it were Gran, I'd understand it. Some days I swear she'd forget her head if it wasn't attached, but Gram Hazel making a mistake...very strange."
"Maybe she just had a lot on her mind getting everything arranged for Ruby's birthday surprise."
"I suppose." Lianne didn't sound convinced.
Angela gave it some thought, more to distract herself from Lianne's proximity than out of any actual concern for Hazel's mistake. Then something occurred to her. "Although...you know what is strange?"
Lianne turned her head. "What?"
Angela held up the wine glass, swirling the dark red liquid. "Ruby doesn't like red wine."
Lianne jerked upright, setting the swing into wild motion. "Oh my God, that's right! I didn't think about it because Gram always has red for me when she's making beef, but of course Gran never drinks anything but white."
"And if Hazel were setting this dinner up just for her and Ruby..."
"She'd only served white wine."
"You don't think..."
"That Gram Hazel and Gran are two devious old women? Oh yeah, I most certainly do!" Lianne had a huge grin on her face.
At that moment, Andy started whining and scratching at the door to the screen porch. Angela stood up, looking at Lianne apologetically. "I'm sorry. I really have to let him out. These days when he's ready to go, he's ready to go."
"I'll come with you."
Setting her wine aside, Angela let the impatient spaniel out of the living room and opened the porch door to the yard. While Andy hurried off, Angela found herself following Lianne into the garden. As they strolled slowly down the pathway, Angela thought about Hazel and Ruby's deception.
Is it possible? Are they really playing matchmaker? They don't mind...they actually want us together? Lianne...with me?
What seemed highly unlikely now seemed entirely plausible. Angela bemusedly recalled all the times over the last couple of weeks that Ruby and Hazel had gone to bed early when Lianne was visiting, leaving the two of them alone together.
Their potential objection had been the strongest factor in Angela resisting her growing feelings for Lianne. Now, with that factor apparently not an obstacle, Angela allowed herself to imagine possibilities.
But does Lianne want this? She didn't seem upset with her grandmothers. I think she's feeling this too...isn't she?
Suddenly, she had to know. "Lianne..."
Lianne stopped and faced Angela.
"Are you...angry about what Hazel did?"
"Do you think they were setting us up?"
"And you're okay with that? You don't mind?"
Lianne took a step towards Angela. "Mind? That they've given me a chance to finally say what I've been feeling? Angela, I've been wracking my brain about what to do." Lianne settled her hands gently on Angela's arms. "You have to know that I'm crazy about you, but I know what you went through, too. I don't want to push you into anything you're not ready for."
Angela laughed softly. "Not ready? That was never the problem."
"Your grandmothers saved my life, Lianne. I mean they literally saved me. If they hadn't come looking for me, if they hadn't taken me in when they did, I don't know what I'd be doing by now to survive. I know how much you love Ruby and Hazel, but I'm not sure if you understand that there's absolutely nothing in the world I wouldn't do for them. If they walked up this path right now and told me they didn't want me getting involved with their granddaughter, I'd walk away in a heartbeat, even though that's the last thing in the world I want."
"It is?" Lianne's voice was hopeful, but tentative.
"God, yes! But Lianne, I need you to understand. I gave up my family for love, and it ended up with me living like a rat on the streets."
"I'd never let that happen again!"
"I know you're not Gretchen, but I'll never forget how that felt--how desperate and terrified I was, how I was on the verge of doing things that I can't even bear to remember. I don't think I could handle it if I lost Ruby and Hazel's friendship--if they were against us being together. So maybe you want to keep looking. Find someone who can commit to you without qualification." Angela looked away sadly. "Find someone who doesn't come with all this baggage."
Lianne cupped Angela's face gently. "Angela, none of us come without baggage. Yours is just a little more intense. Falling in love means ignoring the baggage and taking a leap of faith."
"Falling in love?" Angela felt her heart accelerate with anticipation. "Is that what we're doing?"
Lianne smiled and lowered her head until she was a breath away from Angela's lips. "I can only speak for myself, but yes, I have most definitely fallen in love with you."
Then, much to Angela's joy and relief, Lianne kissed her. They didn't stop kissing until Andy started butting his head against their legs.
Angela glanced down with a smile. "Get used to it, Andy. I think you just lost your place in my bed."
"Yeah?" Lianne trailed her fingers lightly over Angela's cheeks. "Is that an invitation, Ms Keane?"
Angela took Lianne's hand and pressed it to her lips. Eyes glistening, even in the muted light, she nodded. "Yes...it is."
"You're sure. We don't have to--"
"I'm sure." God, I'm so sure! "Stay with me tonight?"
"Upstairs, or down?" Lianne backed away in the direction of the house, holding Angela's hands and drawing her along.
"I don't know what the bed in your childhood room is like, but I do know the bed in my room is very, very comfortable."
"Comfortable is good."
"Very, very good."
"Not that I plan on letting you sleep much."
Angela laughed aloud at Lianne's cocky tone. "Oh, is that right? Pretty sure of yourself, aren't you?"
"Mmm, I've just been storing up a lot of fantasies about you and me, and a lot of energy resisting them..."
"I know what you mean...ever since that night you took me to the bar." Lianne had been a constant figure in Angela's nightly fantasies, too.
They had reached the end of the path. Lianne turned and took Angela's hand as they walked towards the house. "The night a certain someone turned my life upside down and inside out." She stopped outside the screen porch door and drew Angela into her arms. Lowering her head for a kiss, she whispered, "Remind me to thank you for that."
"Mmm, count on it."
They walked unhurriedly through the living room, stopping at the cluttered dining room table for only an instant.
"Okay, but no telling Gram Hazel we left it such a mess."
"I won't tell her, if you don't. Besides, I have a hunch Hazel wouldn't mind all that much."
"You know, I believe you're right."
When Andy made to follow them, Angela pointed to his doggie bed. "I was serious, Andy. You're sleeping up here tonight."
The spaniel gave her a disappointed look and slunk over to his bed.
Lianne chuckled. "And I thought I was in his bad graces before!"
Angela marvelled at the lack of urgency as they descended the stairs to her room. It all feels so natural...so absolutely right...so different from... But she resolutely pushed that thought aside. Gretchen had no place in her life and definitely no place in this night.
When they entered her bedroom, Angela bent to switch on the small bedside lamp. As she stood, she felt arms encircle her and Lianne's gentle kisses on her neck. She tilted her head forward and bathed in the unfamiliar sensation of being surrounded by love.
Angela turned slowly to face Lianne. Her breath caught at the sheer joy and disbelief in her lover's eyes. Lianne looked like she had been given the greatest gift in the world, one she had never even dared hope for, and was afraid to open.
Suddenly Angela sensed that she must take the initiative--that despite Lianne's bravado and outward confidence, Angela's past haunted Lianne too. Something told Angela that her lover would be afraid of hurting her, afraid of inadvertently stirring up spectres of the past. It would be up to Angela to lead both of them past the shadows of Gretchen and her time on the streets.
Angela slowly undressed her lover, trailing her fingers delicately over unveiled flesh. Her eyes saw Lianne's heightened colour, her ears caught the sound of her lover's ragged breathing, and her hands felt the shivers that rippled through the tall, lean body.
When Lianne stood naked before her, Angela stepped back to let her leisurely gaze appreciate the loveliness before her. It was only when she saw a wordless "please" form on her lover's lips that she smiled and pulled back the covers.
Lianne slipped between the sheets just as something caught Angela's attention, and she laughed aloud. Lianne looked at her curiously.
"Sweetheart, if we had any further doubts about your grandmothers' opinion of us being together..."
Lianne cocked her head in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"Your Gram Hazel, what's her laundry schedule always been?"
"Um, sheets and towels on Mondays and everything else on Thursdays, why?"
"Because today is Friday, and someone put clean sheets on my bed while I was at work."
Lianne convulsed in laughter as Angela quickly threw off her clothes and joined her lover in bed.
"They certainly are something," Angela agreed, as her hand slid the sheet slowly back to reveal Lianne's breasts. Lowering her head, she murmured, "But I really think it's time we focused on just us, don't you?"
Ruby signed the bill with a flourish, setting it aside for the waiter. Picking up her coffee, she smiled across the table at Hazel. "That was wonderful, wasn't it?"
"It may well have been the best breakfast I've ever had, dear. And what a beautiful day to go for a drive."
Ruby grinned. "Still set on that, are you, love?"
Hazel nodded seriously. "I think we have to try, Ruby. Perhaps we can reason with Angela's mother. We all love Angela and want the best for her. If we can speak to the mother without the father's influence, we may at least be able to put Angela back in touch with some of her family."
"Even if she can't go home again."
"After this weekend, she may not wish to go home again, dear, but I would like her to at least have the option of visiting now and again."
Ruby laughed aloud. "So you're pretty sure your plan worked, are you?"
"Let's just say I'd be willing to place a large wager that phases two and three were successfully implemented last night."
"Well, then, let's get this part of our adventure underway. Ready to go?"
"Ready, aye, ready, Cap'n!"
The drive to Laurenton flew by, and Ruby soon turned off the highway towards the small town. "So how do you propose we find the Keane household, Hazel?"
Hazel dug in her purse and pulled out a sheet of paper. "I have Angela's home address--I told her it was just in case of emergencies. When I was working at the Mission last week, I asked Essence to get me directions. She went on the computer and printed this out. It looks fairly simple. You're looking for the first turn to the right after you get through town. It's called Ashford Road. About five miles down it, we should find the Keane residence. Angela told me they've got a cow for a mailbox, so I suspect we'll be able to find it without too much trouble."
"Yes, dear, a cow. I assume not a real one."
"Huh. A cow..." Ruby shook her head and drove slowly through the town with its three stoplights. "Hey, there's Keane Used Autos. Do you suppose that's Angela's father's place?"
"It might be, dear." Hazel peered at the lot, noting two men in animated conversation over a car with its hood up. "Perhaps that's the formidable Mr. Keane himself."
"Could be, but I have no intention of stopping to ask." Ruby glanced over at Hazel, who had pulled off her glasses and was industriously polishing them. "Are you nervous?"
"A little." Hazel punctuated her confession with a final flourish on her lenses. "I can't fathom a mother giving up on her child completely. But as far as I know, no one in the family has made any effort to even check up on Angela's well being."
"Are you going to tell Angela about this?"
"That depends on how it turns out, dear. I'll not do anything to cause her further pain. If they reject her again...well, no need to burden her any further."
Ruby reached the turn-off to the gravelled Ashford Road. The mailbox was a distinctive marker: the resin black and white cow stood four feet tall on the edge of the Keane property.
Turning into the long driveway, Ruby noted that a pick-up truck and small car were parked in front of the large detached garage. A yellow lab ran towards their vehicle, barking loudly. A woman came out on the front stoop, drying her hands on her apron, with a teenaged girl close behind her.
Ruby pulled to a stop next to the truck and the two women got out. Ruby was careful not to touch Hazel as they walked towards the house. She didn't even offer her arm as she normally would have over the uneven ground.
The woman squinted curiously at Hazel. "Yes?"
"I do hope we're not intruding. My name is Hazel Barrow, and this is my friend, Ruby Gaines."
"This is my daughter, Louisa." The woman nodded her head at a young man who came around the corner of the house. "And that's my boy, Duane. What can we do for you ladies? I hope you're not trying to sell us anything, because we're not buying."
"No, ma'am, we're not selling anything. We had to be in Charleston this weekend, and our pastor asked us to do him a favour."
The woman relaxed visibly at the mention of a pastor. "You're probably looking for my husband then, but Floyd is working today. You're welcome to leave him a message if you want."
Hazel had arrived at the bottom of the stairs. "Actually, Mrs. Keane, the message was for you. We were to tell you that your daughter, Angela--"
The woman's hand flew to her mouth, the girl gasped, and the young man stared at them. Hazel continued smoothly.
"--is just fine. She ran into some difficulties a few months back, but is healthy, and has a good job now. If you want her address and number, I have them--"
Louisa stepped around her mother. "Angela's alright? You've seen her--you've seen my sister?"
"Just before we left Atlanta, yes. She looked well, and seems fairly contented." Hazel glanced at her companion. "Wouldn't you agree, Ruby?"
Ruby nodded solemnly, her eyes never leaving the scenario playing out on the stoop. The girl was leaning eagerly towards them, but the woman had gone white and was visibly shaking.
Hazel reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of the hotel stationery on which she had written their home address and phone number. "Our pastor has taken an interest in Angela's welfare--she's such a dear young person--and he wanted us to facilitate a reunion between you, if you're interested."
That galvanized the woman. "You have to leave! Floyd will be home for lunch any moment, and you have to be gone!" She looked fearfully down the road towards town.
"Mom! It's Angela. This may be our only chance to find her. Daddy doesn't have to know. Duane, tell her!"
Her brother nodded. "We wouldn't tell Daddy, Mom. I swear we wouldn't."
"No! Your father has spoken. Angela is no longer..." The woman's voice trailed off in a sob. Pointing at the driveway, she insisted in a strangled voice, "Go, please. You have to go now!" Shepherding her protesting daughter ahead of her, Mrs. Keane vanished into the house.
Quickly Duane stepped forward and plucked the paper out of Hazel's hand. Looking at it, he asked, "Is this the hotel where you're staying?"
Before Hazel could answer, Duane's head jerked up. A large red car could be seen speeding down the road in a cloud of dust. "Shit! That's Daddy. You have to go, now!"
Reacting to the panic in his voice, Ruby placed a firm hand on Hazel's back and directed her back to their car. As they passed Duane, Hazel unrolled her window. "We're in room 1407, and we'll be there until Monday. Your sister is living with us. She's fine, and she loves you all very much."
Ruby jerked the wheel to the right to avoid the oncoming vehicle. "Jerk!" She saw the man frowning at her as they passed, but she ignored him. The drive back to Charleston was uneventful, though much quieter than the drive out had been.
Hazel finally broke her pensive silence as they approached the city. "What evil has that man wrought on his family?"
Ruby snorted. "You can bet he'd say that Angela is the only evil in the Keane family. No wonder she didn't feel she could go home when Gretchen threw her out."
"That poor girl. Oh, Ruby, we can't tell her about this. It would break her heart to know they still reject her."
"Not all of them. Looked to me like her siblings were eager for contact."
"Too cowed to defy their father, though. No, I think Angela only has us now."
Ruby reached across the seats and took Hazel's hand. "But she does have us, love."
Hazel mustered a wan smile. "And hopefully Lianne, too."
"You bet. When my Hazel concocts a plan, watch out! Those two didn't stand a chance. Why I'll bet they're already planning to run away to Canada to get married!" Ruby knew her humour was weak, but she couldn't bear to see her generally effervescent partner so glum. "C'mon now, love. We've still got over two days of fun. Don't let that tyrant ruin our romantic getaway."
Hazel's chin lifted defiantly. "You're right. We came here to celebrate your birthday, and celebrate we will. How about a carriage ride this afternoon?"
Lianne arched her back and stretched. She groaned with pleasure as her muscles straightened. The blankets beside her popped up, and Angela's smiling face, framed in the sheets, looked out at her.
"Good morning, Lianne."
"Mmm, good morning, gorgeous."
Angela laughed at the endearment and slid over on top of her. Lianne wriggled in delight, loving the sensation of skin against skin. Closing her arms around her lover, she purred, "Wasn't this where we left off last night?"
"I think you mean this morning." Angela feathered small kisses over Lianne's chest. "Did you even hear Andy scratching at our door four hours ago?"
"Were we asleep four hours ago?"
"One of us was. One of us got up to let the dog out and feed him breakfast."
"Hmm, then one of us has definitely earned a reward." Lianne rolled Angela over, but the bedside clock caught her eye. "Good Lord! Is it really noon?"
Angela's hands cupped Lianne's head, and gently reclaimed her attention. "It is, and I do believe there was talk of a reward?"
Laughing, Lianne let her head drop onto Angela's breast. "I think there's a lot more than talk in the air, darling. How about a shower and some food?"
Angela countered. "How about a bath together in your grandmothers' Jacuzzi, and something to eat?"
"And we need to clean up that mess we left on the dining room table, too."
"Right...but we do have until Monday evening before they get home."
"True, and it's not like we have any other commitments this weekend...do we?"
"No, not as far as I know. The only commitment I've got is to our mutual and repeated pleasure."
Lianne raised her head to beam at her lover's mischievous face. "Have I ever mentioned that I love the way you set your priorities?"
"Have I mentioned recently that I love you?"
"Not since I woke up, no." Lianne ran a tender finger along Angela's hairline. How did you become so dear to me so fast?
"How very inconsiderate of me..." Angela caught Lianne's finger and sucked it slowly into her mouth. "About those chores...?"
The elevator door slid open and Ruby and Hazel stepped out on the fourteenth floor. They stopped in surprise when they saw a young, dark-haired man sitting on the floor next to their door. He scrambled to his feet as they approached.
"Excuse me, ma'am. Are you Miss Barrow and Miss Gaines?"
Ruby nodded, stepping slightly ahead of Hazel. "We are. I'm Ruby Gaines and this is Hazel Barrow. And you are?"
"August Keane, ma'am."
Ruby relaxed as Hazel stepped forward with outstretched hand. "You're Augie--Angela's older brother. She's told us a lot about you."
Augie shook Hazel's hand, then offered his to Ruby. "Yes, ma'am. I live here in Charleston; my brother Duane called to tell me what happened."
"Are they alright? Did your father give them any trouble over our visit?" Hazel asked with concern.
Augie's face darkened at the mention of his father. "No, ma'am. They just told Daddy that you two ladies were lost and stopped to ask for directions."
Ruby used their key card to open the door. "Would you like to come in, young man? I imagine you have a lot of questions."
"Yes, ma'am, I would." He seized a crumpled envelope out of his back pocket. "And I wrote Ange a letter, if you'd please take it to her."
Before Hazel could say anything, Ruby interjected. "It depends."
Augie's face fell. "On what?"
"On whether you were kind or hateful in your letter. Angela's been hurt enough, and we won't allow any of you to hurt her anymore."
Augie appeared shocked. "Oh, no, ma'am, I'd never hurt Ange."
"You didn't stop your father from throwing her out. She ended up homeless--dirty and starving--because of that man..." Ruby knew she wasn't being entirely fair, but the encounter with Angela's family had shaken her more than she was ready to admit.
Augie looked like someone had punched him in the gut. "Homeless? On the streets. But she left with that rich woman. How could that happen?"
Hazel frowned at Ruby and put an arm around the stricken young man, leading him to a chair. "That woman was a wicked predator. She turned Angela out with barely the clothes on her back a few months ago. And Augie, we know you couldn't have stopped your father from doing what he did."
"Maybe I could've, but I didn't even get a chance to try. I was here in Charleston when it all happened. Ange was long gone by the time Duane finally found me to tell me." Augie hung his head. "I was partying with friends all that weekend while my little sister...while my father..."
"Shhh, Augie. It's not your fault," Hazel soothed. "All that matters now is that you still consider Angela your sister."
Augie's head jerked up. "Of course I do! Look, I don't really know what Ange is doing, or how she ended up the way she is--"
"A lesbian--a woman in love with another woman." Ruby stern voice pulled no punches and Augie flinched.
"Yeah, well...what you said and all." Augie looked at Ruby defiantly. The resemblance to Angela was clear. "But she's my sister, and I love her. And I ain't cuttin' her loose just because my old man says to. I just didn't know how to get hold of her 'til now."
Hazel dragged a chair over in front of Augie and sat down. "Augie, we'll take your letter to Angela. We'll let her know how she can get in touch with you, too, if you give us your address here in Charleston."
Augie extended the envelope to Hazel. "I put it all in the letter. I swear I didn't say anything mean, ma'am. You can read it first, if you want."
"No, dear, it's Angela's mail. She can share it with us if she wishes, but it's for her eyes only." Hazel accepted the letter and tucked it into her purse.
Relief was clear on Augie's face. "Thanks! So, are you like her foster mamas or something."
Hazel chuckled. "Or something, dear."
Ruby elaborated on her partner's response. "We've worked with gay and lesbian youth for a lot of years. Angela came to our attention because she attended our church. When she went missing under troubling circumstances, we looked for her. It took us a few weeks, but we found her, and she's been living with us ever since."
A look of dread formed on Augie's face. "Where did you find her? Was she...I mean, did she get into trouble? Was she into drugs or in jail, or...?"
"No, we found her at a Union Mission run by a friend of ours," Hazel reassured him. "But Augie, we don't know all the details of what happened to her, and we don't need to know. She survived, and that's the only thing that matters. Your sister is a truly impressive young woman and a joy to have around. We couldn't be more pleased that she's come into our life, and we cherish her as if she were our own granddaughter."
Which she may well become, depending on what those kids have been up to this weekend! Ruby's eyes twinkled at the thought, and she relaxed. This kid seems okay. Seems to have escaped becoming his father's clone, anyway.
"I'm glad she's got you," Augie said sincerely. His eyes flashed to the room's only bed. "So are you two, um,..."
"Lesbians? Partners?" Ruby almost laughed aloud as the young man blushed a bright scarlet. "Yes to both. Hazel and I will have been together fifty years this year."
"Fifty?" Augie's jaw dropped. "Wow!"
"Yes, we're that old," Ruby confirmed dryly.
Hazel chuckled and gave her partner a knowing glance before returning her attention to their guest. "So now that we've got that out of the way, dear, are there any questions you want to ask us about your sister?"
Augie appeared lost in thought, and the two women saw him shake his head and mutter to himself several times before he finally looked up at them again. "I guess the only thing I really want to know is if she's happy. I mean, from meeting you, I figure she's okay that way, you know. She's eating good and sleeping good, right?"
Ruby and Hazel nodded in unison.
"Okay, so...does she miss us? Does she ever talk about us? You said that she's not with the woman she left with…is she with someone else now?"
Hazel leaned forward and patted Augie's knee. "She's never stopped missing you and your siblings and your mother. She talks about you often, and always with great fondness. In fact, she told me recently that you still owed her ten dollars that she'd loaned you."
Augie broke out in laughter and took his wallet from his back pocket. Opening it, he retrieved a ten. "Can I borrow a pen?"
Ruby pointed at the pen on the desk next to where he sat. Augie wrote something on the bill before handing it to Hazel. "Could you give this to her? And tell her I want a receipt, too."
Hazel added the bill to her purse next to Augie's letter. "I promise you I'll give both of these to her the moment I see her. They'll be picking us up in the airport on Monday evening--"
"Angela and our granddaughter, Lianne."
"Oh. So she hasn't got a...girlfriend or anything?"
Ruby grinned as she saw the amusement in Hazel's eyes.
"Well, dear, I can't exactly say for sure."
Augie gave Hazel a puzzled look. "Huh?"
"Let's just say that you should stand by for further developments, as will we."
Angela's brother now looked totally confused, so Ruby took pity on him.
"She and Lianne are in love. We're just not sure if they've...done anything about it yet."
"Oh. Ohhhhhhh... Gotcha."
"I'm sure Angela will fill you in on all this when she calls you."
Augie shot Hazel a hopeful look. "You'll have her call me?"
"I suspect that once she hears you want her to, dear, nothing in the world would stand in her way. Oh my, no, don't cry, dear." Hazel rooted through her purse and came up with a tissue. She handed it to Augie, who blotted his eyes and noisily blew his nose.
Ruby caught Hazel's glance and with a big grin, gave her a triumphant thumbs up. Way to go, my love. Our Angela's going to get at least part of her family back, and it's all due to you.
Ruby and Hazel nodded their thanks as a dreadlocked young man held back the crowd and allowed them to get off the airport shuttle train first.
"Thank you, dear." Hazel addressed the young gentleman. Then she took Ruby's arm for the short walk to the escalator. "My, isn't it good to be home?"
"Yes, it is, though it was a fabulous weekend. Thank you all over again. I don't know that I've ever had a better birthday celebration."
"Oh, Ruby. The year you turned thirty five was a pretty good one."
"Oh yeah! How could I forget that?"
"And the year you turned fifty? And sixty? What about those?"
"Lord, yes! After that sixtieth shindig you threw, I didn't think I'd live to see seventy!"
The women were laughing as they stepped off the escalator onto the Arrivals level. Ruby was the first to see Lianne and Angela waiting.
"There they are, love."
Hazel looked over and smiled happily. Leaning into Ruby, she whispered, "It worked!"
Ruby looked at her in amazement. "How on earth can you be sure?"
Hazel only had time to murmur, "Body language" before the younger women approached them with open arms. Hugs and kisses were exchanged, and Lianne directed them to the nearby seating area.
"Angela and I will get your bags. You two just wait here and we'll be back in a few minutes."
Ruby opened her mouth, but before she could protest that they were perfectly capable of getting their own bags, Hazel tugged her over to the waiting area. Once seated, they watched Lianne and Angela at the luggage carousel.
After a few minutes, Ruby understood. "They can't stop touching each other."
Hazel nodded. "Exactly. They're well within each other's personal space, and they can barely tear their eyes off each other long enough to check for our suitcases."
Ruby put her hand out in mock formality. "Congratulations, Professor Barrow. I do believe you've done it."
Hazel shook her partner's hand with a grin. "Oh no, dear. I do believe they've done it!"
Lianne and Angela returned with the suitcases to find their grandmothers convulsed with laughter and wiping tears from their eyes. Exchanging baffled glances, they shepherded the older women out to the car. Ruby and Hazel were still giggling when the car entered the interstate northbound.
"So, do I take it you two had a good time?" Liane asked as she merged smoothly with the traffic.
"Couldn't be better," Hazel agreed. "Oh, and Angela, we have wonderful news for you."
Angela glanced at Lianne. "We have some news for you, too."
"You're in love. You're together. The sex is fabulous. You couldn't be happier. Old news," Ruby teased, but then dodged as Lianne aimed a backwards swipe at her knee.
Hazel nodded agreeably. "Youngsters always think they're the first to discover the power of Eros." She linked hands with Ruby and the two beamed at each other. "They don't really understand that the journey they've just begun has been traveled since time immemorial."
Ruby leaned over and deposited a kiss on Hazel's lips. "Couldn't have said it better, my love."
"Gran, you two are the most conniving..."
"And devious...did we mention devious?"
"I do believe they did mention devious, didn't they, Ruby?"
"I think you're right, Hazel. I'm quite sure I heard devious, so they must've mentioned it."
A mock groan resounded from the two in the front seats, and Ruby and Hazel sat back in satisfaction. Their work was done.
Angela looked back at them with an affectionate smile. "So, if you already know our news--and heaven only knows why that would surprise us--what's your news?"
Hazel opened her purse, dug out the envelope, and handed it to Angela. "We had a lovely chat with your brother, Augie, and he gave us this to give to you."
"You saw Augie? You...you talked to him? Oh, my God! Did you see the others, too?" Angela's words came out in a rush as she seized the letter Hazel offered her and ripped it open.
Lianne turned on the overhead light. As Angela's head ducked to read the letter, Hazel saw her granddaughter mouth, "thank you" in the rear view mirror.
"We saw your mother and siblings, but only passed your father on the road. We never stopped to talk to him."
"Mom...is she okay?"
Hazel hesitated, unsure of how to answer without hurting Angela, but she appeared to understand.
"No, it's okay. Mom would never cross Daddy, and I doubt that Daddy will ever accept me as their daughter again."
Hazel noted that the pain that had been in Angela's voice when she spoke of her family was muted. "We did find out that Louisa, Duane, and Augie miss you terribly, and all want you back in their lives, dear."
Angela held up the pages as she twisted towards the back seat. "That's what Augie writes. He doesn't care what Daddy says, that as far as he's concerned, I'm his little sister for all time, and if I don't call him the moment I get this, he's going to come to Atlanta and tickle me into a coma." She laughed even as the tears flowed. "That's what he always said when we were kids and he wanted his own way."
Hazel extracted the ten dollar bill and handed it to Angela. "He also gave me this to give to you. It's the ten--"
"--he owes me." Angela laughed as she took it from Hazel. She looked at the writing on the note and shook her head in gleeful amusement. "He says I'll have to collect the interest on the loan from him in person."
Lianne unclipped her cell phone and handed it to Angela. "Call him."
"Oh no, I'll wait until we get home. I don't want to use up your minutes."
Lianne looked at Angela. "Sweetheart, call him now, and talk as long as you want. The minutes don't matter one damn bit."
Ruby and Hazel looked at each other with knowing delight as Angela punched in the numbers, checking them against the letter that lay on her lap.
"Augie? Whaddya mean I've got to come collect the interest in person? You owe me at least two more dollars, big brother!"
And as Angela erupted in a combination of laughter and sobs, Hazel felt her own eyes fill with tears. She looked at Ruby, and noticed a suspicious brightness in her love's eyes. In the driver's seat, Lianne was quietly blowing her nose.
Just one more step, my dear ones. Just one more step.
Angela tugged on her shirt nervously. "Do I look okay?"
Lianne, walking quietly at her side, nodded. "You look wonderful, sweetheart, as always."
Like an advance guard, Hazel and Ruby marched determinedly just ahead of them as they merged with the others entering the sanctuary.
What am I doing? This is a mistake. I can't face her; I can't! Apprehension sickened Angela and her steps slowed. Lianne immediately pulled her off to the side.
"Angela, you don't need to do this. We can turn around and leave right now."
Angela looked up at the church steeple, then at Ruby and Hazel where they stood just inside the glass doors. She knew they wouldn't rebuke her--that they would understand if she simply couldn't find it in herself to face Gretchen again. But the memory of Hazel's gentle urgings filled her mind.
"Angela, Easter services are next weekend. Do you think you and Lianne might join Ruby and me? We'd love to have you, and Pastor Brad is always asking after you. He'd be thrilled to see you again."
When Angela couldn't find an answer, Hazel continued. "You can't let her have this power over you, dear. What she did to you--what you once felt for her--that's all in the past. She is nothing to you now, and you are so much more without her."
"More?" Angela heard her voice croak with fear.
Hazel nodded solemnly. "More in all aspects that matter--love, maturity, kindness, even spiritual growth. She will never know any of these things as she wallows in the mire of greed and lust and cruelty. But until you confront her, she won't realize that you won--that you emerged from her wretched grasp with soul and integrity intact. More importantly, you won't really believe that you've won. Your memory has built her into an omnipotent ogre, but in reality she is merely a woman."
Angela sat down abruptly on a kitchen chair. "What would I need to do if I do go?"
"You need do nothing but reclaim the spot that is rightfully yours beside your family in your church. Don't let her take any more from you than she already has, dear. You have a glorious future, but until you banish the tiny, lingering shadow that overhangs your heart, you won't be free to embrace it...to embrace Lianne as fully as you're entitled to.
Angela licked her dry lips. Hazel hadn't pushed it any further, but it was as if she had read Angela's inner heart. Though she couldn't remember ever being happier in her life, Angela knew a small part of her still held back, still feared an absolute commitment to Lianne and their life together.
Lianne had been talking recently of moving in together, but Angela clung to her basement room like a security blanket. As patient as her lover was, Angela knew Lianne didn't understand.
Apparently Hazel did. And now, as her gaze flicked between the three women who meant so much to her, Angela made a choice. Raising her chin determinedly, she took Lianne's hand. "Let's go in. We don't want to miss the processional."
When they walked by Gretchen, Angela took a good, hard look. She didn't see the one-time Princess Charming who had whisked her away from Laurenton; nor the domineering partner she once held in awe; nor the two-timing ex-lover who had ordered her out on the streets. All she saw was a heavily made up, middle-aged woman who looked ridiculous sitting with her arm possessively around the girl next to her. It wasn't even the same girl Gretchen brought home the night she had evicted Angela.
Shaking her head with amusement, Angela met Hazel's eyes and they exchanged understanding smiles as they entered their row.
Ignoring the way Gretchen's eyes widened in shock at the sight of her, Angela leaned into Lianne and whispered, "About moving in with you..."
"Most definitely, yes."
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