A Million Reasons
Jolie stayed long enough to change back into her jeans before heading down to see Constance so the ever-efficient woman could make some quick arrangements for her. Her second stop was to return to the room she was sharing with Claire. She wasn’t surprised when her partner didn’t put up a fight when she informed her she wanted to go home. Their flight was leaving in less than an hour thanks to the casino worker’s maneuvering and for Jolie it couldn’t be soon enough. They didn’t exchange a word all through the flight and or during cab ride home.
Finally back in their kitchen, they looked at each other and Claire thought it was up to her to clear the air between them. “Look, it’s done and we have to just forget it happened. I say we make a pact never to talk about it.”
The look on Jolie’s face was devoid of emotion. “I don’t need a pact, since I have no intention of ever talking to you about it.”
“If you need to talk about it I promise to listen, but I’d rather our friends not know what happened,” continued Claire as if she had chosen to ignore what Jolie had said.
Jolie’s laugh echoed in the open refrigerator when she reached in for a soft drink. “I see. It’s all right to sell your wife as long as your buddies don’t find out about it. How terribly butch of you, darling.”
“You can be mad at me all you want, Jolie, but this was as much your idea as it was mine.”
She released a sigh as she popped the can open and looked up at the woman she had shared five years of her life with. “You’re right, and we should just do what you said and forget about it.”
It was a promise they kept for a month. Their relationship was strained at first but with the passing days, it moved closer to what it had been in every area except the bedroom. As much as Claire wanted to push in that arena, she respected Jolie’s need for space.
At the beginning of April, Claire left the site of the sports bar that was being renovated for an early May opening, to ask Jolie out to lunch. It was the blonde’s birthday and with any luck today would be the beginning of getting back the old Jolie she’d lost on that ill-fated trip to Nevada.
The bell over the door of the blonde’s flower shop jingled to announce Claire’s arrival but there was no one behind the counter. With no one to stop her, Claire was able to walk into the back room to surprise Jolie. It was the far off look in the green eyes that set her off. The glazed look was not an uncommon sight around their house and Claire had gritted her teeth and taken it up to now, knowing what her wife was replaying in her head.
“Was she so fucking good that you can’t forget?” A bucket of Stargazer Lilies hit the back wall when Claire pushed it off the table. “I want to know.”
“Want to know what?” The glaze disappeared from Jolie’s green eyes as she pinned Clair with an intense look.
“Tell me what happened that night? Tell me what she gave you that I obviously can’t since you won’t let me within ten feet of you?”
Jolie moved to the flowers on the floor and tried to salvage what she could of the delicate blooms. “I thought we had a deal that we weren’t going to talk about it?”
“Forget the damn deal, I want to know.”
The bucket was kicked away from Jolie again and the action made her stand and turn her anger on Claire. “Don’t ever do that again.” She wiped the water the second blow had sprayed her with off her face. “I don’t give a damn what you want, Claire, I’m not going to talk to you about what happened with Becker so learn to live with it. It’s done and it’s over, so why dwell on it?”
“I don’t want to fucking dwell on it, but I’m sick of walking into rooms to find you mooning over someone who used you and kicked you back to the curb.”
Jolie opened her mouth to respond then closed it just as quick. “I won’t get pulled into this conversation. What happened was mutually agree to by all of us, and we’ll all have to live with it. That means all of us, Claire, so try and forget it happened, like you keep telling me to do.”
“I need to know, and I need to know now, what happened that night.”
“I need lots of things too, but I won’t get them just by wishing, so forget it.” She started throwing the ruined flowers away trying to put an end to their talk. “Like I said, why dwell on it?”
“Because we’ll never get past this if you don’t tell me.”
“Therein lies the problem then doesn’t it?”
“What do you mean?” Claire crossed her arms over her chest and tried to look intimidating.
“That I’m never going to feel comfortable telling you anything about that night because it has nothing to do with you and me.”
“As part of this couple it’s my right to know, so tell me. If you don’t, I’ll know that you have something to hide, and I’ll have no reason to stay.” She took a step closer and dropped her fists to her side. “If I always feel that way then how will we get past it?”
“If that’s the way you feel then get out, because we’ll never get past it. There’s nothing I can tell you to make you feel good about yourself, you just have to trust me on this one.” She started to clean up again until Claire’s hand came around her bicep and the taller woman pulled her to her feet. Jolie had never feared her but there was something new in Claire’s eyes that hadn’t been there before. The gray orbs were colored with an anger born of jealousy but the blonde was far from scared. “I said get out, we’re done here.”
The jingle of the bell as Claire slammed through the door gave Jolie’s tears permission to fall, and she cried for all the things that were missing in her life, and all the things she wanted to be different. Though she was upset, she managed to lock the front door and flip the open sign so she wouldn’t have to deal with anyone else. In the middle of her break down, the phone rang and she let the machine answer it, glad her assistant was out for the day. She cried harder when she heard the voice on the other end of the line. The voice was a very real reminder of what had started the longing in her heart for things that she would never have.
“Jolie, sorry I missed you, but I’d appreciate a call back when you get this. I received an interesting phone call today and I thought I’d share it with you. Actually I got it yesterday and spent some time thinking about whether to call you or not, but mistake or no I think you’d want to know.” Constance stood in her office and looked at the gardens outside her window. The receiver had been picked up about twenty times before she finally went through with the call. She almost passed out from relief when the machine picked up instead of the blonde. “Above all else, I hope you are doing well. Call me.”
The red blinking light started as soon as Constance hung up and Jolie looked at it through her tears for an hour before she stood up and washed her face. It was still early but she finished locking up and headed home, intent on lying down and going to sleep after her emotionally exhausting afternoon. She did exactly that, not waking up until six the next morning. When she opened her eyes, Jolie instinctively knew that Claire hadn’t come home, and after what had happened the day before, she wondered if she was ever coming home again. What surprised her the most was how little that thought concerned her.
After a shower, she stopped at the coffee shop near her shop and bought herself a cheese Danish. It wasn’t on her diet, but it didn’t really matter to her today as she took a huge bite. “Happy belated birthday to me,” she mumbled around a mouthful of treat. Another huge piece went into her mouth as she turned the corner. Jolie could now see why Becker ate the things in big bites. They were sinfully good. She almost choked on the third bite when in the pursuit of digging through her purse for her keys, she ran into a nun standing outside her shop. “I’m so saw we,” she mumbled around the pastry in her mouth.
“No need to apologize, dear, it’s the robes. They freak people out when they aren’t expecting us,” teased the woman. “I’m beginning to think I need to take up eating those things,” she pointed to the pastry in Jolie’s hand and smiled. “No one I know seems to eat them in small bites.”
Jolie almost choked she swallowed so quickly but she didn’t want to be rude. “I’m sorry for running into you. Are you all right? Would you like to come in?”
They walked in together and Jolie walked around turning on lights, waving towards a seat near the counter. “You have a lovely shop, dear. I can tell by the plants in here, this is more than just a business to you.”
“Thank you, Sister, I appreciate praise from what I’m guessing is another flower lover.” She took a seat across the counter and rested her chin on her palm. “Are you sure you’re all right? Can I get you anything?”
“I’m fine, stop worrying. I was actually window shopping while I was waiting to see you.”
Jolie nodded and smiled. “Is there something special you needed today?”
“Actually a mutual friend recommended you and I thought I’d stop by and talk to you about a project I’m working on.”
“Constance said she called you yesterday but wasn’t able to reach you. I guess I should ask before I go on and make a fool of myself by being in the wrong place. You are Jolie Clement right?”
The blinking red light made Jolie feel guilty. She had felt like such road kill the day before and the last thing she had wanted to do was call Constance, but now she wished she had. “That would be me all right, but I don’t understand how I can help you?”
“Have you ever heard of the Ladybug Ball?”
“I’d have to be smoking some of these flowers not to have heard of that. I’ve never attended but I hear it’s quite the grand affair, with the extra-added bonus of raising lots of money for a really good cause. It’s in about six weeks if I remember correctly.”
Amused green eyes appraised the young woman as the nun mirrored Jolie’s posture. “You remember correctly and we’re looking forward to a bigger and better year. Every year the event grows more than seems possible but we don’t ever complain because the money raised goes to the children at St. Genevieve’s. We’re hoping to finish the addition to the girl’s dorm with the proceeds from this year’s event.”
There were a few lines on the woman’s face, but Jolie had to smile at the energy that radiated off her as she spoke. It was impossible to miss her enthusiasm for the people she served. "Are you roaming the streets looking for volunteers?”
“I’m sorry, I get carried away sometimes. Let me start at the beginning. I’m Sister Ruth Peters and I actually need a florist.”
“You’re Becker’s Sister Ruth?”
Ruth clapped her hands together and laughed. “You know my rascal?”
“Sort of…did she…I mean,” Jolie temporarily lost the ability to talk at the thought of Becker again, much less thinking about Ruth finding out how they met and spent time together. “I’m sorry. Did she ask you to come here?”
“Becker usually sees to every detail every year, but this year she’s been a little busy, so like I said before, it was her friend Constance who recommended you. It’s all right to say no, sweetie. Despite what you’ve been told, us nuns really can’t damn you to hell no matter what.”
In that one tease, Jolie was able to see a little of Becker and the sense of humor she had shown much too seldom in their time together. “No, ma’am, I wouldn’t dream of saying no. Becker told me about the rulers you carry around and I’m fond of my knuckles just the way they are, thank you.”
“This outfit was good for that, but it’s murder in the summer. I sure don’t miss having to wear it everyday.”
“Attending a costume party today?”
“I attended a mass for the Bishop’s birthday this morning so the dress uniform was called for. Thanks to Becker, we don’t have to bow and scrape before the Diocese like we used to, but sometimes duty calls.”
The day before may have been murder on her emotional well being, but something told Jolie this was the second chance she was looking for. She took a deep breath and opened the drawer in front of her. It was full of the pads she used to jot down ideas and Jolie was willing to give this woman her time and best effort. “What part of the event would you like us to work on?” If anything, the publicity from the affiliation would be helpful.
“We want you to do all the flowers, Miss Clement. No sense in breaking it up into small jobs and dealing with more people than I have to.” Ruth misunderstood the look on the young woman’s face and charged on ahead. “If you think I’m expecting you to donate all the work and materials, I’m not cruel enough to ask you to do that. I’m just here to ask for your friendly nun discount and your commitment to work with me.”
“I’d love to, Sister.”
The rest of that first visit had revolved around the themes the organizers had come up with and Jolie offering Ruth her opinions. When they were done, the florist had a pad full of ideas and a starting point. From then on Jolie threw herself into the project and came up with a slew of new designs to show Ruth for their next meeting. A few days later, she didn’t even look up from the kitchen table, and the designs that covered it, when Wendy came by to pick up some of Claire’s things. Jolie figured if Claire wanted to talk to her, she didn’t need a middleman to do it.
The closer the event got, the farther apart she and Claire became, only speaking when it was necessary to withdraw funds from their still joint accounts. Now that money wasn’t a factor in fixing everything in their lives, it was their life together that was fractured beyond repair. For Jolie the best gift she had received in just about forever was the friendship Ruth offered so readily. It was with her help that she made a decision too long in coming.
It was Monday afternoon and Jolie put on a fresh pot of coffee as she waited for Ruth. After she’d agreed to help her with the Ladybug Ball, they had made a standing date on Monday afternoons to discuss all the things Jolie was responsible for. No matter how much she wanted to bring it up, the one topic they had never touched on was Becker.
Today, she’d had time to stop at the bakery and buy some of the scones Ruth liked and she was arranging them on a plate when a very relaxed looking nun walked in. As she had mentioned on their first meeting, Ruth rarely wore her habit, and like Jolie, was partial to jeans and tennis shoes if she could get away with it. Her hair was pulled back, and though touched by some gray, still retained much of the blonde Becker had described to her when she told her about the day Ruth taught her to dance.
“What?” asked Ruth when Jolie started laughing.
“I just find it humorous that you wear jeans and Becker won’t be caught dead in them.”
“That’s because Becker is a stick in the mud and I’m not.” Ruth put her bag down and rubbed her hands together in anticipation of eating a scone. The brief mention of Becker’s name wasn’t much but it was the entrée she needed to get to the conversation she was dying to have. “Tell me a story, Jolie.”
“What would you like to hear?”
“Tell me why my rascal looks like someone stole the light from her heart when I see her every week? I know you know each other, but you, well neither of you, talks about the other when you’re with me.” She pointed the corner of the scone at the young blonde and stopped the protest before it formed. “And before you think of telling me you don’t know what I mean, I should tell you I lied about the whole damning thing. Nuns are given special compensation, when we take our vows, to send you straight to hell. You don’t get to pass go and collect two hundred dollars. You go straight to hell if you think about lying.”
After she stopped laughing, Jolie told her the whole story. When she finished they were both in tears and not from laughing. “I wake up now and I really don’t know what I want, but I do think I’ve come to one decision.”
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want, but I do want you to do something for me.”
As if she were tired of crying, Jolie impatiently wiped her face and nodded. “I can’t promise too much these days but I’ll try.”
“Go back to Claire, Jolie, and finish what you started. If you don’t, you’ll be waking up and not knowing what you want for a long time to come. You made promises to her and it’s time to resolve those.”
She nodded again and the tears started again. Knowing something was right and doing it sometimes were vastly different. Ruth’s advice was sound but the thought of physically going about it was making Jolie ill. However, the nun was right. There was no way she could move forward without mending the broken pieces in her heart, that started with Claire and what they had shared together.
“It’s going to be all right, sweetheart, I’ll help you through this if you want me to and together we’ll make it out all right, you’ll see,” Ruth promised as she held Jolie and rubbed her back.
“I’ll hold you to that.”
It had been so long since they’d seen each other so Jolie just stood in the back of the crowded room and looked at the woman sitting on the floor doing something she obviously loved. In an unguarded moment, Jolie was able to see so much of the person Becker Gaudet tried to hide from the world as the tall woman looked down to answer a question from one of the little girls sitting on her lap.
“Just like clock work,” said Ruth when she walked up and bumped shoulders with the woman who was almost exactly her height. “No matter what she has going on, she’s here every Friday night reading until she gets them all to go to sleep.”
“There are so many of them,” Jolie pointed to the small children in the room sitting as close as possible to the giant with the stack of books.
“It’s sad, but at one time orphans were defined by someone like Becker. They were abandoned, not by circumstance but by fate. Sadly that isn’t the case anymore. A lot of these little ones are here because their folks aren’t very nice people, but because of Becker and the charitable events she organizes for us, we don’t have to turn anyone away anymore.” Ruth put her arm around Jolie’s waist and studied her face. Gone were the shadows that had haunted it since the day they’d met and the green eyes looked like they had found peace. “Want to talk about it?”
“Once the ball is over would you mind if we still kept our Monday afternoon dates?”
“I’d love that. Other than the occasional bingo game, us nuns don’t get out much, so we appreciate the invitations even when it’s just for free therapy sessions.”
“Good, then I can tell you I’d love to talk about it, only there’s one talk I have to have first so you don’t get gypped out of the whole story. And it gives me time to run and buy a couch for my office since you’re willing to fix me.” With a deep breath, Jolie kissed Ruth’s forehead and stepped further into the room so Becker could see her. A welcome laugh escaped when the woman who had haunted her dreams dropped the book at the sight of her.
“Hi guys. My name is Jolie and I brought something Sister Ruth told me you’d like a lot.”
A sea of young faces turned and looked up at her expectantly, and as if being prompted, all of them asked, “What?”
The other nuns who lived and worked with Ruth came in carrying homemade cookies and trays of milk. The bribe worked, making them forget about storytelling hour for a bit and leaving the reader looking like she was about to bolt.
“Know something?” asked Jolie. She offered her hand to help Becker off the floor not really needing a verbal response. “I got asked out on a date this year for Valentine’s Day, and as wonderful as the date was, I find myself a little ticked off.”
“Whatever for?” Becker didn’t let go of her hand and followed the blonde out to the courtyard at the center of the compound.
“I was swept off my feet by the most wonderful woman and then she sort of dumped me.” When they stopped, Jolie stepped in front of her and took hold of Becker’s other hand. “I have to know right now if I have any chance of that happening again.”
“Call me selfish, but I’d like to go with the being swept off my feet part. We may have started under the most bizarre of circumstances but I want to try, and see where we end up because I know I wasn’t the only one who felt something after that kiss.”
The small hands in hers weren’t the smoothest Becker had ever held but Jolie worked with flowers and thorny stems all day long so there was always some knick or cut to be dealt with, but to Becker it didn’t matter. It was the woman’s heart she was interested in and from what she knew about the petite blonde it was beautiful. Jolie’s hands were one of the many things Becker had thought about since the day they had spent together. The short twenty-four hours was too little time, and for Becker, magnified all the things she didn’t know about the blonde.
“I didn’t really dump you, you do realize this right?” Becker pulled her a little closer and let go of one of the small hands so she could touch Jolie’s face. “It’s just that, at a million dollars a day, I’d be broke in no time.”
It felt like it had been years since Jolie had laughed but the joke made her fall against Becker and laugh until she felt tears rolling down her cheeks. This felt so right and after the past couple of days she’d endured, it was like finding a warm blanket and a fire in the middle of an ice storm.
“I missed you, Beck, and I came by tonight to ask you out on a date.”
Fingers roughened by oilfield work wiped away Jolie’s tears and Becker thought they were both people who wore their work on their skin for the world to see, but what was in their hearts very few were privileged to know. “I’d love nothing better than to say yes, but if I have you, I want to be the only one to have you. Call me selfish but I don’t think I could share you with anyone else, nor would I want to be the other woman.”
“Claire and I haven’t been together for awhile now,” she pressed her fingers against Becker’s lips to keep her silent. “It wasn’t your fault and it wasn’t the night we spent together. I’ve thought about this a lot and I think if our relationship had been strong enough, both of us would have told you to go to hell when you made the offer. The fact that she encouraged me to do it and I accepted, well, it made me rethink things like where I wanted to be and who I wanted to be with.”
“But will you hold my offer against me?”
“I thought about that as well. Maybe you won’t agree with what I did but a couple of days ago I met with Claire and we went over what we’ve done with the money so far and what each of us would get if we decided to split it down the middle and walk away.” Jolie spotted a bench not far from them and pulled Becker along with her. This was going to take time and she wanted to do it right.
“Did she agree to that?”
A small nod was followed by a long stretch of silence. No matter their problems and all the reasons that had driven them apart, Jolie had shared five years with Claire and it hurt that the woman would’ve jumped so eagerly to get out of the commitment she’d made. “With very little difficulty. I think what helped me was you putting the money in my name. According to my attorney, there really wasn’t anything legally binding to make me share it.”
“So Claire got her bar, and a healthy cash settlement and you got a lot of grief I’m guessing, if your eyes are telling me anything.” The green orbs were shiny with tears and Becker felt there was a lot Jolie wasn’t telling her.
“How is it you can read me so well in so short a time and she couldn’t?”
“Because I did something I feel Claire stopped doing a long time ago.” Becker moved closer to her and put her arm around Jolie’s shoulders. “And it isn’t your fault that happened. I’ve met plenty of people who are guilty of this.”
“They either stop looking or they’re looking but never at what’s right in front of them. The horizon is something you should study every once in awhile, but when you focus on nothing else, then the people and things right in front of you blur and get lost.” She kissed the top of the blonde head tucked under her chin and gave flight to the courage Ruth had instilled in her so long before. “I saw you standing next to a man made lake and I found a million reasons to look, and given time I’ll find millions more to keep looking.”
The words washed away any pain Jolie had left and she released it in a cascade of tears. “Promise me something?”
“Promise me you’ll tell me stuff like that occasionally even if we don’t end up together.”
The arm around Jolie’s shoulders tightened and Becker kissed the side of her head this time. “Why in the world wouldn’t we end up together?”
“I saw the way that girl was looking at you in there, Ms. Gaudet.” Jolie was referring to another young and very attractive young woman who stood close to her at the back of the room when she had arrived. It was hard to miss the clear look of adoration on the brunette’s face when she too looked at Becker as she read. “Even if you like her half as much as she likes you, the two of you must be blissfully happy.” It was Becker’s turn to laugh until she cried. With no effort, she lifted Jolie off the wooden surface and onto her lap. “What’s so damned funny?”
Jolie happily wiped Becker’s face clean and accepted a brief kiss as thanks. “When I turned eighteen and had to leave here and had to go out and find a job, I promised Ruth I’d come back one day and help with what I could. Eventually I was able to not only help but found I had some influence. I petitioned the Diocese and Ruth was put in charge when the wicked witch of the west retired.”
“Becker,” Ruth’s voice came out of the darkness.
“Stop eavesdropping, old woman, and get back inside.”
“Then stop speaking ill of the dead before I turn you over my knee.” The two women heard a door open and the laughter of children spilled out.
“I thought you told me it was a sin to tell a lie?” asked Becker as she wiggled her brows at Jolie, the question meant for a still listening Ruth.
“And I also told you I’d never take after you with a big ruler,” came the quick response.
“I’m sorry you never got to know your parents but I do thank the heavens Ruth came into your life,” said Jolie sincerely. “We’ve spent a lot of time together recently and I can see why you love her so much.”
“Thank you, but let me finish my story. It took some doing on my part but I finally got them to agree and, when Ruth took this place over, I brought a crew over here and we stayed for about three months. We painted and added some color along with toys and books. Growing up here wasn’t horrible, but it was like a prison with the stark walls and plain everything.”
The murals in the room where the children had been listening to Becker read and the garden they were sitting in didn’t resemble a prison to Jolie. “You did a good job then because this place is great, from the little I’ve seen.”
“The last thing I insisted she clean out of here were the habits. I remember walking home as a kid and seeing some of the other kids’ moms waiting outside and none of them looked like a penguin having a bad day, so I asked Ruth to drag her sisters into the twenty first century.”
Jolie wrapped a curl around her finger and smiled. “Thanks for telling me that story, but I’m not sure why you did.”
“I told you that story because you think I’m dating some girl you saw earlier. That nice young lady looks at everyone like she loves them because she’s a nun, not because she wants me to take her to a school dance.”
“If I asked you really nicely, would you take me to a school dance?”
Their teasing came to an end when they looked at one another and saw the two people who had bid each other farewell in a beautiful room above a sea of neon lights even though they didn’t want to. Only now, there was nowhere they had to rush off to and no one was waiting once they arrived.
“Can you see me as someone in your life?” Jolie stayed on Becker’s lap and put her hands on the woman’s shoulders.
“The important question is – can you see yourself in my life?” asked Becker in return.
“I can’t see myself any other way.”
Becker pulled her forward and kissed her in a way that held nothing of what she felt back. It had been a hellish span of time since she’d felt her heart dropping faster than the elevator at the Bellagio the night she’d left Jolie behind. In the end, the pain had been her own fault.
Ruth had done everything she could think to do to convince Becker to at least call Jolie and tell the blonde how she felt. By then, Ruth knew what had happened between Jolie and Claire, but felt it was betraying the young woman’s confidence to go behind her back to inform Becker.
“I’ve missed you so much,” Becker confessed as they pulled apart. “There’s so much I want to know about you because, in that little time we spent together, you’ve done something to me, Jolie, that’s made it impossible to forget you.”
The fact she was this close to Becker again and there was nothing holding her back made Jolie want to pinch both of them to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. “Some things are best left unexplained, but I know what you mean. I just want you to know, it wasn’t the money, or the day you gave me, that brought me here to you.”
Having grown up with only Ruth to care for her and make her feel loved, Becker had become a person who always questioned people’s feelings toward her. Once she’d built her company and having enough money was no longer an issue, devotion had not been a hard thing to come by. The problem was it always came with a price. To have someone admit the money wasn’t an issue had always made her defenses go up.
“Then what did?”
It was impossible to miss the guarded look in the blue eyes, but it only made Jolie smile. “It was how I felt after that night with you. What I mean is, how I felt about myself. You gave me back a little of what I thought I had to let go of because I wanted to share my life with someone else.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” In all honesty, Becker had no idea what Jolie was talking about. She had lived her life with only a few people she felt comfortable calling friends but no one she could say she loved with all her heart in such a way that she would sacrifice anything for them.
“When Claire and I first got together, it was the first time I wanted to or could see myself waking up next to someone for years to come. Because I wanted that, I was willing to do or give things I wasn’t completely comfortable doing or giving.” She kissed Becker again for a long time to keep her from saying anything to cut in. “I know you have plenty to say on the subject, but let me finish.” The reprimand came with another soft kiss and a smile. “I see now that if someone truly loves you, they want you to change because it makes you a better person, not because of what they’ll gain from the change themselves.”
“And Claire wanted to gain something from the experience?”
“Honey, you know what Claire wanted to gain from the experience.” She tugged playfully on a lock of Becker’s hair that had spilled over the tall woman’s collar. “You on the other hand just wanted to spend time with me to show me what a spectacular person I am. Well unless you lied.”
“I didn’t lie, especially about how spectacular you are. You’re a beautiful woman, Jolie, so much so that I haven’t been able to forget you.”
“Then how fortunate for me.” Jolie reached down for one of Becker’s hands and pulled it to her chest. “I’m not saying this’ll be easy, but it isn’t impossible if you want to try. That’s all I’m asking.”
“I’ve missed you enough to give you whatever you like. If it’s a date then the answer is yes.”
They broke apart from the soft kiss when they heard clapping coming from the covered walkway that circled the courtyard they were sitting in. Jolie was the first to start laughing as she fell against Becker’s chest, loving the way the strong arms came around her automatically when she did.
“Fabulous, you both came to your senses and can lose those pathetic frowns, and as much as you’re enjoying the night air out here, there are a bunch of kids in there that want to hear a story.” Ruth clapped her hands together and stepped out where they both could see her.
“I feel like I’m fourteen and my mother just caught us necking,” whispered Jolie. She squeezed the fingers that had entwined with hers and gladly followed Becker when she stood up and started towards the large comfortable playroom.
“Get used to it. She lives for moments when she gets to embarrass you about something.”
“Why do you think so?”
Becker looked to see where Ruth was standing before answering since she wanted to speak loud enough for her to hear. “I think it’s the whole celibacy thing. It makes them crazy.”
The blonde really did start laughing when the older woman took off after Becker like she intended to do serious harm. When the chase ended not too far from her, Jolie’s eyes misted over again at the tight hug Ruth gave Becker. She was treated to one as well before going back in to listen while Becker finished her reading.
Two sets of green eyes looked on as the tall woman was once again surrounded by children. “I have to tell you, Jolie, don’t ever let anyone try to convince you prayer doesn’t work.”
Jolie’s eyes never left Becker but she did squint a bit when she didn’t understand the question. “I’m sure in your profession it’s important but what does that have to do with me?”
“I met Becker when she had just turned twelve and from that day on I prayed that she would someday find the one person who would carefully pick up the pieces of that fractured heart and lovingly put them back together. It might have taken years but my prayers have been answered because here you are.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Life will never come with assurance for anything, sweetheart, but I do know my rascal and what lengths she goes to when it’s someone she cares about. The way she looks at you, Jolie, should be assurance enough for you, and assurance to me that my prayers have been answered.”
“Now just start praying that it all works out.”
Jolie walked through the house one more time checking to make sure everything was still in place before Becker arrived. There was no way she could recreate anything close to the date Becker had planned for Valentine’s Day, so she decided to do what she could to make this one memorable.
There was a shrimp stew simmering on the stove and a large bowl of potato salad in the refrigerator. It wasn’t fancy but it was one of the meals her grandmother had taught her to cook and Jolie had always considered it comfort food. As busy as Becker was, the blonde figured it had been awhile since anyone had prepared a home cooked meal for her.
“With any luck, I’ll be doing it a lot more often after tonight,” she told her reflection as she made one final check of her outfit. Her last surprise was sitting on the coffee table in the living room and she hoped Becker liked it. Oscar had been more than helpful when she called for sizes. At first, she didn’t know what to make of all the laughing but he assured her that she was the only one in the world who could make Becker bend on the subject.
She looked at her watch when the doorbell echoed through the house, noticing Becker was five minutes early. In the dating world that usually meant desperate, but in Jolie’s case, she took it as a good sign that the tall woman was anxious to see her. A week had passed since their conversation at St. Genevieve’s and while they hadn’t seen each other since, Becker had called everyday in between her meetings in Houston. If there had been any doubt the businesswoman only thought of her on occasion, Jolie received another call every night to see how things were going and just to talk.
“Hey,” Jolie leaned against the door after offering the greeting. She was sure Becker was somewhere behind the very large bouquet of Stargazer Lilies hovering at the entrance to the house but Jolie wasn’t sure.
“I know you’re probably sick of flowers when you get home, but I found these in your yard and I couldn’t resist.”
“Ah, I can call my neighbor back and tell him to cancel the call to the police,” Jolie teased back. “Thank you.” She accepted the flowers and the kiss Becker offered before waving her into the house. “Make yourself at home while I find something to put these in.”
The house smelled wonderful and Becker took her time looking around the room before taking a seat on the comfortable looking sofa. The room wasn’t large or opulent, but it felt warm and inviting, much like Jolie did when Becker was in her company. She picked up a framed picture from the side table and studied the large gathering of people like she always did these kinds of pictures. There was a longing in Becker’s soul for the feeling of belonging to a family like the little blonde girl sitting in the front bottom of the shot, surrounded by what looked to be everyone she was related to.
“That was taken at my Great Granny Clement’s ninetieth birthday party,” explained Jolie as she took the cushion next to Becker.
Becker accepted the glass she was being offered and listened as Jolie pointed out and named everyone in the picture. Her brows spiked a little when she tasted her favorite brand of vodka. “How many siblings does that make again?” They had talked about this during the week but the number Jolie had given had to be wrong.
“I’m one of thirteen.” She put her glass down and tugged on Becker’s jacket. Jolie understood she had come straight from the airport but tonight wasn’t about trying to impress each other. “This has to come off.”
“Aren’t you going to feed me before you try to start undressing me?”
“The only way you’re getting fed tonight is to start shedding some of this stuff, hotshot, so get going.” The jacket came off and Jolie threw it over the back of the sofa onto the floor. “Since you bought me something, I thought I’d return the favor.” Jolie picked up the box and handed it over.
“You didn’t have to do this.” The way Becker was looking at her belied her statement.
A smile that could light the Vegas strip took over Jolie’s face when she saw the excitement reflected on Becker’s face and in her eyes. “You’re right, I didn’t have to. I wanted to. Go on, open it.”
A second after being given permission, Becker ripped through the paper and had to laugh when she found a pair of jeans in the box along with a t-shirt. “Are you trying to tell me something, Jolie?”
“That you’re a stuffed shirt, Gaudet, so go change or no stew for you.” A slim finger tapped the end of Becker’s nose along with the teasing remark.
“My shoes don’t exactly go with this outfit,” Becker pointed out. That excuse didn’t work either and a little while later, she was sitting in the kitchen eating a wonderful meal in her new clothes, and bare feet.
“Do you like it?” Jolie had her feet resting on top of Becker’s to keep them off the cool floor. There hadn’t been much talk after she put a bowl of food and a beer in front of Becker.
“I’m sorry, this is wonderful.” Putting her spoon down, Becker reached across the table for the blonde’s hand. Despite their limited time together she felt very taken care of. “You did a wonderful job and I’m an idiot for not pointing it out before now.”
“You’re not an idiot. Now if you were sitting here not eating and not talking we’d have a problem.”
Becker reviewed all the small things that had highlighted the night so far. Her drink of choice to start, a nice dinner that included her favorite beer and the new clothes she was wearing. Jolie had done her homework to provide all the things she liked and had done so in a way that Becker hadn’t noticed until that moment.
“I am an idiot, so don’t argue with me.” Becker slid out of her chair and onto her knees on the floor next to Jolie. “All the stuff you did tonight, it makes me feel like you want me here.”
“I do,” Jolie turned a little in her seat so her body would be facing Becker.
“That doesn’t happen often just because. Before we go any further with this, I think you should know I don’t trust easily.”
Jolie pulled her forward and kissed her until she felt the tall body relax against hers and Becker’s hands come around her waist. “I want you to do something for me.” The blue eyes looked dazed as Becker nodded. “Don’t feel like you have to trust me. In fact I don’t want you to feel anything, just accept what I do for what it is.” She joined her hands behind Becker’s neck and rested their foreheads together. “And what I want to do for you is to show you how much I want you in my life. With time I know that’ll be something you not only come to trust, it’ll be something you just know in here.” One small hand moved down until Jolie’s palm was pressed flat over Becker’s heart.
The meal was finished with their chairs pulled a little closer together and new openness both of them found refreshing. New relationships were usually about stumbling out of the starting blocks and working to the point where you felt comfortable enough to let the other person see you for who you were. That wasn’t the case for either of them. Their short time together wasn’t a factor since a bet had left them with the insight into a part of the other’s heart that could be used to move forward.
“Thank you again for all this,” said Becker as she stood near the door when their night was coming to an end.
“Want to do it all over again tomorrow night?”
“I’ll do whatever you want to spend more time with you, don’t worry about that.” She had to laugh as her suit and shoes were handed to her in a plastic grocery bag. “But before I miss out on the opportunity I wanted to ask you something.”
“Would you consider going with me to the Ladybug Ball?”
Jolie moved closer and put her hands on Becker’s shoulders. “How much is it worth to you for me to say yes?” The speed in which the walls came up in Becker’s eyes almost made Jolie take a step back and she wanted to take back the comment when the tall woman flinched as she reached for her. To back down now and give Becker the space she was silently asking for was to admit failure in Jolie’s mind so she reached out and put her hands on her shoulders. “Honey, I was kidding. I’m sorry if you don’t know that sometimes my mouth overtakes my brain and I say some incredibly stupid stuff.”
“It’s all right.”
“No it’s not. I hurt your feelings and made you doubt why we’re here, so it’s not all right. I would love to go to Ruth’s event with you, but it will cost you one thing.”
The fact Becker hadn’t moved away from her gave Jolie courage. “I’ll go with you if you promise to dance with me.”
The blonde’s answer broke the barriers Becker had erected around her heart and she gave into the feelings Jolie had awakened. “It’s a date then,” murmured Becker, her lips so close to Jolie’s the blonde felt them move when she answered.
As the night of the ball grew closer, Jolie’s nerves got worse. She had been working overtime to get her part of the job done, leaving no time to actually plan on getting herself together. The panic really didn’t set in until Ruth explained how formal an occasion it was, something she should’ve realized herself when she and her assistant placed arrangements on the auction tables. The items available weren’t on display yet, but the cards set out with descriptions weren’t things you found at events where people with slim pockets would be attending. Aside from the dress Becker had given her in Las Vegas, Jolie was at a loss as to what to wear.
“What time do you want me here tomorrow?” asked Bridget. The young redhead was finishing floral school in the fall and planned to keep working with Jolie once she graduated.
Jolie’s face became a little distorted looking when she reached up and pulled her hair in frustration. The extra help she had hired to help them with the project had fallen through and they had been working long hours in an effort not to let Ruth down. “I hate to ask you to come in at the crack of dawn again tomorrow but we have a truckload of flowers arriving in the morning and we have to get them ready for the table centerpieces.” They had been at the shop since eight and there was still a lot to do before Jolie could think of going home.
“Why don’t you let me stay and help you tonight?” She turned her head when she heard someone knocking on the front door. “Expecting someone?” It was now after nine and the sun had long since set.
“The loony farm people to cart me away for agreeing to do this without hiring extra help,” guessed Jolie.
“If it’s them, they can’t have you just yet,” teased Bridget. “I’m not unloading all that stuff by myself tomorrow while you take it easy in a padded cell.” She followed Jolie to the front in case her boss needed her help in getting rid of whoever it was.
“There’s no way in hell,” said Jolie in a voice that belied what she was seeing. She almost ran to open the locked door and let the visitor in.
“Hello,” the woman held out a card and smile. “My name is Constance and I’m here to see if you need anything.”
Ignoring the card, Jolie pulled her in, shut the door and gave her a hug. Becker had told her their mutual friend was coming in as she always did for Ruth’s fundraiser and was anxious to see Jolie again. “It’s great to see you.”
“Not as great as it is to see you, my friend, especially after my long talk with Becker. Congratulations on that end by the way, but we’ll have plenty of time to talk about that later. I really was serious about coming over to help.”
“Unless you flew down here with the Bellagio’s gardening staff, I’m afraid our visit will have to wait until this thing is done.” Jolie turned around and pointed to a tremendous amount of buckets full of flowers behind them.
“Ah, so it’s casino services you’re in need of huh?” Constance moved back to the door and opened it. “It’s a good thing for you I happen to work in that area of the casino isn’t it?”
Jolie recognized the uniforms the four men and three women were wearing and wanted to cry from the relief. It wasn’t the whole staff but more than enough of the casino’s floral department to make the next day a cinch. “Oh my God, Constance, you’re a lifesaver,” said the blonde as she hugged her friend again.
The bell over the door jingled again and Constance smiled over Jolie’s head. “Just like the night we met and I was of assistance, I’d love to take the credit, but a little birdie told me you needed help.”
Jolie did cry when she turned and saw Becker standing in her doorway wearing the pair of jeans she had gotten for her. The tall woman was still wearing a dress shirt, but the denim was a sure sign Jolie was making progress in making a difference in Becker’s life. How much she had missed Becker spoke volumes of how much she was changing the blonde’s outlook.
The last three days had taken the tall woman to Washington DC to lobby for some legislation her industry was interested in. For the florist, the separation couldn’t have come at a worse time. “I missed you so much and thank you for doing this for me.” Everyone in the room found something to look at when the two welcomed each other with a very long kiss.
“I like doing stuff for you so there’s no need to thank me.” She started walking Jolie to the door and to the waiting car outside. “Right now there’s a need for you to go home and get some rest.”
“But Becker nothing. These people are here to help you and you’re going to let them,” she put her fingers under the blonde’s chin to encourage Jolie to raise her head. “Let me take you home, okay?”
“I’ll stay and show them around if you want,” offered Bridget.
Oscar gave her a hug as well when he helped her into the back of the car once Jolie gave in. There were bags of Chinese food on the seat next to him so there was no reason for any of them to go out again for the evening. Jolie was so tired she never asked why he unloaded Constance’s luggage at her house when he dropped them off, and smiled when Jolie just pointed to a room where he could put them.
They shared the food and Oscar waited in the car as Becker said her goodnights. In the weeks his boss had been seeing the young woman, Oscar had come to really care about the petite blonde. In her, he saw another ally in keeping Becker happy, asking nothing in return but to be cared about.
“I’ll call you in the morning,” Becker promised before lowering her head for another kiss.
“You could stay and just look across the pillow if you want to talk to me.” They had shared plenty of meals, telephone conversations, and kisses but they hadn’t gone beyond that, leaving them both frustrated.
“Do you want me to stay?”
It was the first time Jolie thought Becker would do anything she asked, and the one time she had a houseguest for the evening. “Life just sucks sometimes doesn’t it?” She whispered the question into Becker’s chest.
“I want you to stay more than anything in the world, but I don’t want our first night together to be a night we both are aware of Constance being right across the hall from us.” She kissed the bit of skin she could get to from the gap between the buttons on Becker’s shirt. “So wouldn’t you agree with me that sometimes life just sucks?”
“That it does, darlin’.” Becker laughed when Jolie stepped up and stood on her feet. “But my philosophy is that things that suck must eventually stop.”
“When it comes to you, let’s hope that’s not true.” Jolie did laugh this time when her teasing colored Becker’s ears with the adorable blush she liked to call the St. Genevieve effect from Becker’s upbringing. “I’m sorry.”
“No, I doubt highly that you’re sorry, Miss Jolie. But I’m crazy about you so don’t worry about it.” Becker kissed her forehead and opened the door. “Get some sleep and I’ll call you in the morning.”
Jolie sighed and leaned against the now locked front door as she heard the engine starting. She turned and faced the woman standing at the back end of the foyer clapping her hands, and smiled. “Good for you, Jolie. I’ve known Becker for a couple of years and I’ve never seen her look this happy.” Constance cocked her head to the side and laughed at the lovesick expression on the blonde’s face. “Or in jeans for that matter. However you managed it, I’m glad. I think she’s needed someone like you in her life for a long time.”
“I want to believe that with all that I am, but sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever truly fit in Becker’s life.”
“Why would you think that?”
They retired to the sofa and put up their feet as all of Jolie’s insecurities came pouring out. There was one thing the blonde had never had a lot of, and it was money. Being one of thirteen children, her parents had done the best they could and they were happy but never really able to afford the nicer things that life had to offer. That upbringing had shaped her attitude about money, something Claire had never come to appreciate.
“Can I offer you some advice?” Constance reached over and put her hand on Jolie’s knee.
“I would love some.”
“Always be honest with her about your feelings, and never fear she’ll turn you away because of them. Becker’s and your beginnings may be different in circumstance but they are very similar in station. She’ll know where you’re coming from, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for you at her side. Don’t punish the both of you because she has means now, in much more abundance than you’ll ever have.”
“I took a million dollars from her for a date.”
“You did, but it was she who offered, not you who asked. She is also well aware of the circumstance you found yourself in when you had to accept, and the fact Claire was pushing you along. No one is holding you responsible for her actions, and they were her actions, Jolie.” The brunette looked Jolie in the eye and tried to gauge if the woman was lying. “Do you not want a chance with her?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then what’s this about?”
A rambling explanation came pouring out of Jolie and her confessor listened with a very understanding disposition. Constance’s job was fixing things on a daily basis so people were happy, and all Jolie’s worries were about things. As long as the concerns didn’t stem from the fundamentals that made up the feelings between two people, everything was fixable.
She let Jolie finish before she smiled as she stood up and offered the blonde a hand up. “I understand why you’re worried but you don’t need to be.” They started down the hall towards the house’s bedrooms so Constance could put her charge to bed. “I just need to know one thing.”
“Do you love her?”
For someone usually sure of herself, Jolie opened and shut her mouth a few times before any words to answer that question formed in her head. It wasn’t as if she hadn’t thought of what her feelings were for Becker, she just hadn’t had the courage to attach words to what was in her heart.
“Are you sure or are you telling me what you think I want to hear because she’s my friend?”
“Not that I have to justify my feelings to you, but Becker is the first person I’ve ever been with who only wants me. In the beginning of our relationship Claire was forever chasing this level of success she thought would make her matter, even though I’d have been happy with just her attention. I kept telling her that, but the chase for the golden ring never stopped. In Las Vegas Claire thought the Gaudet money would buy our future, but for me, it’s almost a guarantee Becker only sees me. Anything else she can buy. Unlike my ex, Becker doesn’t see me as some asset to be bought or sold on a whim.”
“In a way she’s already bought you,” Constance reminded Jolie of her earlier statement.
“You can’t tell me you’re as simplistic a thinker as Claire can you?”
Constance spread her hands out and smiled. “What? You think that for a big payday, I think you slept with her?”
Constance’s hair pulled free from where she had it pinned when she shook her head. “I’d be willing to bet you the same million you didn’t.”
Jolie nodded and laughed. “What makes you so sure?” She pointed her thumb in the direction of the front door. “Is it your belief in her or in me?”
“Let me put it this way. If Becker were someone who would pay a hefty price tag for a whore, then she would have stayed tonight and bedded her with little or no feelings for what I would have thought.”
The blonde head nodded again as if agreeing with the logic. “So it was her you believe in?”
“Let me finish.” Constance reached in, clicked on the light to the guestroom, and took a seat on the bed. “If it was a whore she’d bought, you would have let her with little or no feelings for what I would have thought.”
The carpet felt soft and warm against Jolie’s toes as she buried them in the pile. “So where does that leave us?”
“It leaves us at the end of a very long day, Jolie, knowing what we both knew at the beginning.”
Green eyes pinned Constance in place and almost begged for an answer. “And that is?”
“That you’ve found love in the unlikeliest of places and it’s found you. I may have time on my side as far as knowing Becker, but I can honestly say, you’re the one person besides Ruth and Oscar who know her and who she really is. Don’t squander that.”
“And the rest?”
“The rest is so easy you’ll kick yourself for worrying about it.” She watched as Jolie went into the bathroom to check to make sure there were fresh towels for the morning. “Trust me. The rest is the easiest part.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because in a way Claire was right.”
Of all the answers Constance could have given her, that was the last one Jolie expected and it made her laugh. “How do you figure?”
“You did meet your fairy godmother in Las Vegas, only it wasn’t Becker Gaudet.” Constance stood and bowed. “That would be me and I work in cities outside Vegas if you were wondering, so trust me, the rest is easy. It’s the reason I asked Oscar to bring in my bags. I’m going to help you with the easy stuff, Ms. Clement.”
“If you’re my fairy godmother, what does that make Becker?”
“She, my dear, is that dashing young princess your mother always told you about in bedtime stories, who’s coming to take you to the ball. And tomorrow night, she’s going to be the envy of everyone there once they get a load of her date.”
Return to the Valentine Stories
Return to the Academy