Disclaimers: None. There is nothing to disclaim in this here story because the characters and story are mine. If you don’t have an open mind or if you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know. It won’t change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.
Thanks: To my fabulous beta team who regularly go above and beyond picking up all the dropped letters that Pink & Fluffy the typing fingers are so fond of forgetting. They make my writing and your reading experience a much more pleasant one than it would have been otherwise. Their contribution to making this a better read is much appreciated.
Author’s Notes: I wasn’t sure I was going to have anything ready for Valentine’s Day this year, but this came in right at the wire. Just a little something for the holiday.
The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is in effect.
Out of the Zone
He was halfway down the staircase when he heard the slap of skin against skin. He took the remaining steps in a single leap, slipping and sliding across the polished wood floor before skidding to a stop when he reached the doorjamb leading to the kitchen. Then he froze and watched the tableau in progress play out to its logical, nasty conclusion.
“All right! That’s enough!” the older woman roared as she stood unmoving and unyielding over her smaller counterpart. “Let me spell this out for you, you ungrateful, selfish little....” She broke off and took a deep breath when she saw the kernel of hurt hidden behind the anger and disdain so apparent in the dark brown eyes glaring at her. “I get that you’re not here of your own free will; this wasn’t my choice either. Despite that, no one here is your servant or your slave so a little common courtesy will go a lot further than making threats or demands. But I do want to make one thing crystal clear so there are no misunderstandings. I don’t care who wants you here! If you ever, ever raise a hand to my child again, all bets are off. And your tarnished reputation as ‘America’s Sweetheart’ will be the least of your worries. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”
“Release me at once!” the younger woman insisted with a growl, jerking her arm in an ineffectual effort to free it from Josie’s grasp. Though it wasn’t at all painful, it was inflexible and it caused her a mild sense of panic that simply fueled her anger.
“Do. I. Make. Myself. PERFECTLY. Clear??”
“Yes!” hissed in a low tone. “Now....” But before she could ground out her demand for release once more, the older woman freed her arm causing Julianna to stumble backwards. Josie reached a hand out to catch her, but Julianna shifted out of reach. She glared at her antagonist, but she couldn’t find even a flicker of emotion in Josie’s expression. “Expect a phone call,” she snarled though her eyes shined with unshed tears.
Josie’s eyes were lit with concern, but Julianna’s anger blinded her to the compassion there. So Josie allowed a wry smirk to twist her lips as she shook her head. She couldn’t let Julianna get the upper hand... not until she knew what was really going on. “You first, Sweetheart,” she replied. Then she watched as Julianna pushed past Gideon before running up the stairs and slamming the door behind her. She gave Gideon a look and shook her head again, then turned back to the nearly adult child who had sat silently through the entire exchange. *Are you all right, Becca?* she signed. Becca nodded her head and gave her mother a smile.
*Yes, Mama,* she replied with fast, efficient motions. She glanced back at Gideon before returning her attention to her mother. *I’ll be in the studio if you need me. Come get me when it’s time to start dinner.* Becca gave her mother a brief hug and kiss before escaping the confines of the kitchen. Gideon stopped her with a hand on her arm as she crossed the threshold and she looked her question at him.
*Thanks, Becca,* he signed. *I’m sorry about....*
Becca shook her head. *You don’t have to be sorry, Gid. Something is bothering Julianna; something is causing her pain and it makes her lash out. Even I can see it. Maybe she can find the answers she’s looking for here... assuming she and Mama don’t kill each other first,* she signed with a small smirk.
Gideon chuckled and nodded as he leaned down to hug her. Then he jerked his head and she continued on her way to the studio. He watched her progress until she disappeared, then he turned back to the kitchen to find the older woman watching him with an intrigued expression. He cleared his throat. “Aunt Josie? Can we talk?”
They moved from the kitchen to the study where Gideon immediately leaned down and lit the wood that was already laid in the fireplace. He nodded his assent to Josie when she held up a bottle. She poured each of them a healthy draught and passed him a tumbler before she took a seat beside him in the second chair facing the flames. It was silent for a while as they sipped their whisky and absorbed the warmth and comfort the fire provided. Eventually though, Gideon cleared his throat and turned his head slightly so he could observe Josie without staring at her. Then he opened his mouth to speak, but Josie beat him to the punch.
“Would you like to explain to me what exactly is going on before I call your uncle and ream him a new one for insisting I allow that young woman into my house??”
“What did he tell you?”
Josie gave Gideon a sardonic look. “This is your uncle. What do you think he told me?” she snorted. “He said you and a friend needed some peace and quiet for a couple weeks to recoup from the stress of training.” Josie shook her head. “Now I remember why he’s my ex and not my husband anymore.”
Gideon frowned. “I thought things between you were amiable. As much as they can be after an eighteen-year marriage ends in divorce I mean.”
Josie sighed. “They are for the most part. But I’m still going to kill him for this. I’m not going to have some bratty prima donna....”
She halted her speech when Gideon held up a hand. “I’m sorry, Aunt Jo. I thought you knew....” He shook his head and released a slow, frustrated breath. “She needs this, Aunt Josie. Not just the peace and privacy, but some stability and understanding.”
“Then you better help me to understand, Son, because we started off on the wrong foot. She’s already on the wrong side of the ledger with me for raising her hand to Becca.”
Gideon scratched the back of his neck. “Yeah. I’ll... I’ll talk her. Um... do you... are you involved with any social media? I know you keep up with my skating career, but do you follow anything else?”
Josie scowled and turned to regard him thoughtfully. “Not really. I know she’s your pairs partner but otherwise....” She shrugged. “I’m sorry, Honey. You know sports aren’t really my thing, and since you bounce back and forth between hockey and figure skating....” She shrugged again. “Your uncle makes sure I know when you’ll be on so Becca and I can watch, but that’s about the extent of my social media skills.”
Gideon chuckled and shook his head. “Aunt Jo, you crack me up. Is there a reason you’re so resistant to join that particular aspect of this century?”
“Yes!” she affirmed heartily. “It offends my sensibilities!! All that text speak and deliberate, lazy misspelling – it makes me crazy!! So I stay away from it and my sanity stays intact for the most part.”
Now Gideon laughed out loud. “Fair enough,” he agreed. “But Uncle Max should have given you a little more preparation. It would have at least given you a little warning to everything that’s going on.” He sighed and rose from his seat, liberating her glass and heading to the bar. Only when he’d refilled them both and returned to his place in front of the fire did he resume speaking. “Do you know what a gay beard is?”
She raised an eyebrow at him and gave him a smirk. “Just because I object to poor grammar and spelling does not mean I’m ignorant to the world around me, Gideon. Are you her beard or is she yours? Or is it mutually beneficial?”
He huffed. “Maybe I should start at the beginning.”
“That’s usually the best place.”
“Okay, do you know why Julianna is ‘America’s Sweetheart’?”
“I want you to assume I know absolutely nothing of this entire situation. Tell me the story like you’d tell it then.”
Gideon drew a deep breath, then began telling his story.
She was the smallest of her class, and that was saying something when you realized they were all four- and five-year-old girls. But she was determined to do everything everyone else did, size notwithstanding. And so began her gymnastics career.
“Wait – she started doing gymnastics at the age of four?”
“She did. Aunt Jo, Julianna is ‘America’s Sweetheart’ because she’s competed in every Olympic Games since she turned sixteen – summer and winter. And she’s medaled at least once in each of them even if it was just as part of a team.”
“I didn’t realize....”
“Yeah, she’s been doing this all her life. In ten years she’s been to six Olympic Games, and she has four bronze medals, a silver and a gold medal to show for it.”
“So two bronze and a silver with you and two bronze and a gold in gymnastics?”
“Yes. Coupled with the fact that she’s entirely photogenic, is brash and outspoken, has a personality all out of proportion to her size and until recently happy and accessible to the press and public – that’s why she’s ‘America’s Sweetheart’.”
“So what happened to change all that, Gideon? Because the young woman in my kitchen earlier is not happy or accessible. She’s angry and hurt and....” She tapered off as he held up a hand.
“Let me tell it. I want you to know the whole story.”
Tori was only a few months older than Julianna, but she was one of the bigger kids in the class as well as being one of the shyest. So naturally Julianna gravitated right to her. And they became best friends. Until they were twelve years old, every day after school and all day on Saturdays they spent time in the gym becoming gymnasts. Then within a matter of weeks, things changed. They were separated and lost contact with one another for almost six years.
Gideon raised an eyebrow at her. “What makes you think I know?”
Josie smirked. “Because you wanted me to know the whole story. And details are important if you want to know the whole story.”
“You’re right. And I know this is an important detail because it plays into what happens later.”
“By the time they were ten years old, training had become a lot more serious. They were Olympic hopefuls and that required dedication.”
“So wait... when did Julianna do her skate training?”
Gideon smiled sadly and shook his head. “In the morning and on Sundays. She was home schooled to maximize her practice time and ensure she still got the rest she needed to participate.”
“Why the hell would her parents...?” winding down when he shook his head.
“No. This was all Julianna. She begged and pleaded and cajoled to do both.”
Josie wiped a hand over her face. “My God. All right. So what happened to the other girl... Tori?”
“Between the ages of eleven and twelve, Tori shot up. She went from being five foot three inches tall to almost five foot eight... much too tall for a competing gymnast. But she begged to remain in the program so she and Julianna could still hang out.”
“Her folks said no?”
Gideon shook his head. “No, her parents were all right with it and the coach was ambivalent about it as long as they paid to keep her enrolled in lessons. She actually acted as Julianna’s spotter.”
“Sounds like the coach was taking unfair advantage.”
“Maybe,” Gideon shrugged. “But Tori didn’t care as long as she and Julianna could spend the time together and Tori’s folks just wanted her to be happy.” He sighed. “Her brother was ten years older than her and though he doted on her when they were together, she spent a majority of her time alone when she wasn’t in gymnastics. They were just thrilled to have her interacting with other people.”
“So what happened when they turned twelve?”
“Tori’s dad got a job overseas, and Julianna started attending different camps to strengthen her gymnastics prowess as well as her skating skills. And somehow they lost each other in all the shuffling. Part of that responsibility falls squarely on Julianna’s parents. Her time was so limited they refused to allow her computer access or a phone for fear it would distract her from her training. And when Tori didn’t hear back from her for months, she quit trying.”
Josie pinched the bridge of her nose. “Good grief. So how did they reconnect?”
Gideon chuckled. “You’re jumping the gun a little, Aunt J. Let me tell you how I met Julianna first.”
I was seventeen when I was first introduced to Julianna. Gloria was my partner at the time and she was having a diva fit when Julianna and one or two other girls were brought into the facility. Coach was so frustrated with Gloria and her attitude that he pulled Julianna onto the ice and explained what he wanted; Julianna demonstrated flawlessly which naturally pissed Gloria off, but it also motivated her to stop bitching and get back to work.
“I take it there is no love lost between Gloria and Julianna?”
Gideon snickered. “Not then there wasn’t. It certainly didn’t help that Julianna had a huge crush on me then. That kinda drove Gloria crazy. Because even though we were never a couple, we were partners, and she especially didn’t like the upstart of a kid hanging around all the time mouthing off and offering critiques on every little thing we did on the ice.”
“What about now?” Gideon frowned in confusion. “How does Gloria feel about Julianna now? How does she feel about the fact that you’re linked romantically with her regardless of what the truth really is?”
Gideon shrugged. “They’ll never be friends, Aunt Jo. There’s just too much bad history between them. But I don’t think Gloria really cares either. She and her husband are very happy... expecting their first child in about three months. And she’s busy with her clothing line.”
“So no issues between them then?”
“Nothing that applies to this story. When Julianna and I were paired up, Gloria was already moving out of competitive skating. But those first couple years....” He shook his head. “Honestly I was glad when Julianna sole focus wasn’t skating. It would have gotten unbearable; it was miserable enough until she outgrew her crush. That’s when we started becoming friends.”
“Even though you were a grown man and she was still a kid?”
“Yeah. She became like my little sister. I heard all kinds of things I’m not sure I ever needed to know, but Jules needed a confidante and I was the most available choice. And when she turned fourteen and she set her sights on participating in the Winter Olympics when she turned sixteen, I was the only choice.”
“So what happened?”
Gloria decided to pursue options outside the skating arena – partly due to Julianna’s continued presence – but mostly because she had met the man who would eventually become her husband and she simply didn’t want to spend all her time practicing with me. And since Jules and I got along so well, Coach decided to try us together.
Julianna had already decided to focus on skating for two years to prepare for the Winter Olympics; then she would turn her attention solely to gymnastics for two years to participate in the summer Olympics. It was something that had only rarely been done before and everyone scoffed at her for thinking she could excel in either, but she was determined to be an athlete who participated and medaled in both Summer and Winter Games. She did minimal training in the ‘off’ discipline to keep the muscles in shape and aware of their purpose, but otherwise she was pretty single-minded in her determination to achieve the goals she’d set for herself.
It was truly something to watch.
“She would do gymnastics as her warm-up for two hours every morning and for an hour as her cool down every evening. And she did it on her own. I mean I was there as her spotter, but she had no coach while her focus was on skating. Everything she did was her alone.”
“When did she have time to do anything else?”
Gideon shook his head. “There wasn’t much. I think the most she slept was about six hours a night. You’ll notice that while we’re here. Even when she has the opportunity to rest, she doesn’t really have the capacity to understand how to do it.”
Josie shook her head. “Is it worth it?”
Gideon shrugged. “She seems to think so. Or she did until we were put into a relationship.”
“Yeah... about that. Can I ask why that happened? I know it’s been a long, ugly road for gay marriage to find acceptance in the mainstream, but it’s not like most people care these days. Half the states and most first world countries have mandated it.”
Gideon blew out a breath. “That’s part of the problem. Half the states do support it, but that means that half still don’t. And while most people don’t care, ambivalence isn’t necessarily a good thing. The world is still run by extremists – whether they be dirty, old men or die hard religious fascists. The dirty old men see it affecting their bottom line and the diehard religious fanatics see it as the end of the world. And even though I wouldn’t classify Jules as a religious fanatic, she is a practicing Catholic. Did you know she had an audience with the Pope?”
“Um hmm. He asked to meet her after our first Olympics. He found out she was a good Catholic girl and granted her an audience of almost an hour.”
“Why do I get the feeling that just made things worse?”
“Because you’re a brilliant individual, Aunt Josie. Of course I wouldn’t know how it affected her until much, much later. As soon as we stepped off the medals podium, Jules headed south to resume her gymnastics training and I went to play hockey for a little while. Jules and I kept in touch sporadically... mostly when she had five minutes to send me an email. But otherwise I didn’t see her until I went to support her during the Summer Games.”
“That’s when Tori came back into her life, correct?”
“Sorta,” Gideon hedged. “That’s where they met up again for the first time in six years. But there was a lot of hurt feelings and teenage angst and anger they needed to work out before they were back in one another’s lives again. It is where they found one another again though.”
I saw her in the stands of the gymnastics arena with the other athletes the first time Julianna took the floor in competition. Of course I didn’t know who she was then or who she was to Jules. What caught my attention was how striking she was; and how her focus remained on Julianna. Her eyes never left Jules the entire time she was on the floor. It didn’t matter what the event was. Those eyes never strayed from Julianna. So I knew I had to meet her.
“What did you think of her?”
“Tori?” wincing at the eye roll he got for asking the obvious. “My very first thought was about how beautiful she was. My first impression though was that she was quite shy and intelligent. I knew she was somehow connected to Julianna in some way because she never let her eyes stray from the pit area where the gymnasts were seated between events.”
“Did you ask her about it?”
Gideon smiled. “I introduced myself first. Then I asked about it.”
“And what did she tell you?”
“That once she’d believed in soulmates and she was trying now to discover the truth.”
Josie’s eyebrows flew into her hairline and she blinked slowly. “What was your response?”
“I asked her to dinner.”
“Mr. Thorpe, I hardly know you. And despite the tradition among the athletes here, I really don’t do that casual hook-up kind of thing.”
My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. It took me a minute to gather my bearings and she was smirking at me by the time I snapped my mouth shut. “Nonononononononono,” I rushed out, holding up my hands in surrender. “You misunderstand. I really am asking you to dinner - *just* dinner. Julianna is my pairs figure skating partner; she’s like my little sister. I think we should probably talk.”
Tori sighed and reluctantly nodded her head. “All right. But we keep this between us for now. I’ll leave your name at the guardhouse. See you at eight?” I nodded and she was gone, but not without a final glance at where the competitors had been.
“Dinner proved out my theory. Victoria Bell was shy and intelligent and completely charming.”
“Waitaminute – Victoria Bell is Tori?”
Gideon frowned. “Of course, Aunt Jo. I thought you knew that.”
“How would I know that, Gideon? She’s been Tori since the beginning of your story. But at least things are starting to make a little more sense now. She’s the beach volleyball player, isn’t she? The one who had all those interviews after the Games were over last summer?”
“Yeah, she is. And she’s actually really good, but unlike Jules, it’s not her whole life. Certainly not the be all and end all of things.”
Josie nodded. “So I guess she told you about her and Julianna having grown up together and being friends?”
“Not to start with and not completely willingly. But eventually I did get all of the story out of her. And she got my promise to let her handle things in her own way and time.”
“And how did that work out?”
“Not bad actually.”
When the gymnastics were over Tori marched right up to Jules and opened her arms for a hug. Jules stared at her in disbelief for what seemed like forever though it couldn’t have been more than ten seconds. Then she gave Tori a genuine smile and with a little squeal jumped into her embrace. That lasted for minutes – long enough for the rest of Julianna’s teammates to come over to be introduced.
Unfortunately that circumstance reminded them of their separation and just how long they’d been apart, and they both understood that they were going to need time and privacy to work things out. And Julianna and I were headed out the next day to come back to skating camp to start training for the next Winter Olympics. But they made sure to exchange every possible avenue of contact information including mine and Tori’s before they said goodbye.”
“I take it they stayed in touch this time.”
“Oh yes. And for the first time since I’d met her, Julianna actually relaxed and seemed to be enjoying life. It was like Tori was a missing piece and knowing she was there meant Jules could really live.”
Josie nodded. “Okay. I’m with you so far. So what happened to put you and Julianna into a public pseudo-relationship?”
Gideon sighed. “Yeah… this is where things get complicated.”
Tori came to our skate training camp as soon as her part in the Summer Games was over. It’s the first and only time Jules actually called out of practice. They spent the whole day behind closed doors hashing everything out and reacquainting themselves again. Not completely of course, but they made a decent start. And after that it got easier. They stayed in contact regularly and used every method available to them. Tori even came to visit a few times, but she made sure to only be around for the gymnastic workouts and in the evenings so it didn’t interfere with practice again.
When Julianna’s focus shifted back to gymnastics it was a little easier. Tori knew a number of the people involved in that discipline and she was accepted as a part of the group. And Jules actually went out to visit Tori on the beach a few times. No one thought that much about it. After all, they were friends long before either of them became Olympians and it was only natural that they support each other’s passions now. No one understands the time and dedication it takes to be an Olympic athlete better than another Olympic athlete, right? Their handholding was put down to their differences in height. It made it easier to keep up with one another if they were walking with each other. And their tendency to sit close together was because it was the easiest way to have a private conversation.
And honestly they weren’t together in public that much that wasn’t an official sanctioned event. Once in a very great while they would visit one another, but those visits usually remained private just due to their brief nature. So no one thought twice about them. Then we come to the Olympic Games last summer. And somehow everything changed.
“This is where you and the whole gay beard thing come into play isn’t it?”
“Yep. And for the record, Julianna is not my beard. I may not be thrilled with the idea of marriage, but I’m very happy being a heterosexual man.”
“And this beard thing doesn’t interfere with that?”
“Aunt Josie, if you’re discreet enough you can get around any number of obstacles to reach your objective.”
“I’m sure Julianna and Tori believed the same thing.”
Gideon shook his head. “No. They didn’t think about things at all. They were too busy feeling.”
“So what happened?”
Gideon sighed. “I don’t know what triggered it. I was only around for the fallout. As far as I can tell it was mostly speculation; it still is at this point though the rumors have naturally died down since I entered the picture as Jules significant other. You have to understand, Aunt Jo – Julianna is a public figure; sports and competition are all Julianna’s ever known and she’s used to being in the spotlight. It’s all she has. When she retires from athletics, her goal is to shift into entertainment... television or movies.”
“I think I see where this is going.”
“I’m sure you do... just not all of it. I don’t know who started it or how it grew out of control, but one day Jules and Tori were hanging out at the Games holding hands and the next Tori was gone. I don’t know if they had a fight, but I do know Jules got a personal call from her agent and someone whom I believe was from the Church.”
“You think they told her to get rid of all appearance of impropriety? Namely her relationship with Tori?”
“I’m fairly certain they did because I was brought in shortly thereafter and informed of our supposedly budding romance.”
“Did you fight it?”
Gideon shrugged. “No. It’s good for business and the endorsement deals are really lucrative.”
Josie pinched the brow of her nose. “You’re a real jackass sometimes, Gideon. Did you and Julianna at least discuss things?”
Gideon glared at being called a jackass, but his expression softened when he realized Josie was truly concerned. “Of course, Aunt J. We sat down and talked out the whole thing – deciding how we wanted to play our roles; what perks were involved; what the ground rules were and what our responsibilities were to the situation and each other.”
“I see. And how does she feel about you cheating on her? Or is she doing the same with Tori?”
Gideon rubbed his hand over his chin. “It’s not technically cheating, Aunt Jo. We’re not really dating. I’m helping Jules maintain an image until she can establish herself as a viable celebrity talent. She knows about the women I sleep with; she’s usually part of my cover when I do so.”
“And her and Tori?”
He shook his head. “To my knowledge they haven’t spoken since the day Tori left.”
Before Josie could open her mouth, a voice cut in from the doorway. “What the fuck is going on here?? Who the hell do you think you are, Gideon??”
“Jules....” Gideon rose from his chair and took a step in her direction only to freeze in place when Julianna held up her hands and shook her head no.
“No, Gideon! It’s none of her business!! How dare you!!”
“He dared because I asked,” Josie broke in quietly. “I needed to know what would make someone billed as ‘America’s Sweetheart’ change to such an extent that not only is the press complaining, but would cause you to raise your hand to a deaf child.”
Julianna covered her face. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize she was deaf. I thought she was ignoring me.”
“And that was why you raised your hand.”
“I was only going to grab her shoulder and shake her,” holding up a hand to cut off Josie before she could comment. “I’ll apologize. However,” she continued, her voice turning hard, “that doesn’t excuse either of you from discussing my business... business that has nothing to do with you.”
“That’s not completely true,” Gideon protested. “Besides, Aunt Jo might be able to help.”
Julianna snorted. “Unless she can change the way Tori and the rest of the world thinks, I sincerely doubt it.” She shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. What’s done is done.”
“What’s done can always be undone, Julianna.”
Julianna glared. “Really??” she oozed sarcastically. “So you can just magically bring Tori back into my life without taking away everything else??” She grunted her contempt. “If you can do that you’re more powerful than God.”
Josie met Gideon’s eyes and he took the hint, pouring Julianna a drink and seating her in his chair before walking out of the room. Josie heard him fetch Becca and head into the kitchen to start dinner before she tuned back to Julianna.
“So Tori walked away from you without a fight?”
“I really don’t want to talk about this, Ms….”
“Please call me Josie or Jo, Julianna. If you’re going to be living in my house for the next few weeks, we need to lose the formality.”
Julianna studied Josie for several long moments before finally nodding her head reluctantly. “All right. You have to call me Jules then. Julianna is the professional.”
“Acceptable, Jules. And I understand your hesitance to talk about you and Tori. But if you do decide to get things off your chest, I will hold whatever you share with me in complete confidence. It’s one reason Max sent you here.”
“I... thank you, Jo. I doubt I’ll ever share but... well, just thank you. And I’ll talk to your daughter. I didn’t intend to hit her.”
“Fair enough,” Josie agreed. There was a loud crash in the kitchen. “Oh boy! I think I better go see what’s going on in there before they destroy my kitchen.” Another smaller crash. “And apparently the rest of the house as well. Excuse me.”
Julianna nodded and waved a hand and Josie rushed out of the room. Julianna remained still, eyes absently watching the flames dance as she swirled the liquid in her glass. She let her mind go back months – to the visit from her agent and the church official that had sent her world spinning off its axis.
They hadn’t been doing anything really. Tori had been seated on the bed with Julianna’s head in her lap, gently threading her fingers through the dark hair as she lightly scratched her scalp. A pleasant hum emanated from deep in Julianna’s chest, indicating her contentment with her situation. A knock brought them out of their brown study but before either young woman could move the door opened to admit Alice and a man neither Tori nor Julianna recognized. His collar was impossible to mistake however and Julianna felt the flinch run through Tori’s frame before she could stop it.
What followed was a very forthright and life-altering conversation. It was explained to them both just exactly how things were going to happen and why Tori was no longer allowed to be part of Julianna’s life. That while Tori had her writing and her college degree to fall back on when her Olympic career was over, Julianna needed her name and reputation to get ahead. She had the Church’s blessing and support, but if she and Tori continued on their present path, that backing would disappear. It was up to her of course but.... The sentence had ended with a shrug, but the meaning and implication was clear.
Julianna didn’t respond and after a moment it became clear she wasn’t going to. Alice gave her an apologetic look as she rose and moved to the door. The man just held her eyes for a moment and left without a word. Alice closed the door softly behind her.
For a moment silence reigned in the room, then Tori shifted and moved out from under Julianna. She looked around the room as she raked her hands through her hair, trying to find a measure of calm as she searched the room for the things she needed to take with her. When Julianna realized her intentions she jumped from the bed and caught Tori’s hand in hers.
“What are you doing?”
“Giving you your chance” Tori replied softly. “I can’t be the reason you don’t succeed. I couldn’t live with you resenting me for keeping you from the greatness you deserve to have.”
“So what? You’re just going to walk out and leave me alone? Without even discussing it with me first?”
“There’s nothing to discuss, Jules,” Tori answered as she gathered up her few things. “I love you too much to stay.” She pulled Julianna to her, kissing her hard and deep in an effort to memorize her. Tori blinked rapidly when they separated, willing the tears away. “I love you, Julianna. I always will.” Then she turned and left without another word. Julianna curled up on the bed and waited for Tori to return so they could talk. Only she didn’t. She heard two days later that Tori had left immediately after her medal ceremony. The following week, she and Gideon had come to an arrangement.
It wasn’t that the agreement with Gideon was ridiculous, Julianna acknowledged to herself as her mind returned to its present surroundings. It was actually quite beneficial to both of them. They were invited to more public events and always had a date with which to attend. They had attracted a number of good sponsors and endorsements. And they almost always had someone to hang out with and do things with. No – what truly pissed her off was the fact that she’d been maneuvered into this position. That and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter to Tori.
Not only had they not spoken since the day Tori walked out of her room, but Tori had been seen out and about holding hands with another woman. Granted it was her volleyball partner and one of her best friends, but no one was making a big deal of that. What Julianna was most angry about was that if Tori had just talked to her that day, Julianna would never have chosen this path. She would have chosen Tori. Despite what everyone else thought, as much as she wanted to do television or movies it wasn’t the be all and end all for her no matter what anyone else thought. There were still a lot of things she could do – things she found interesting and intriguing. The biggest problem is she wasn’t really sure how to get out of this completely fubared situation.
She was already ruining her image as ‘America’s Sweetheart’. The stress and anger she felt manifested itself in a number of ugly ways, but mostly it made her a surly, temperamental diva. And everyone had noticed the change. What was surprising was that as of yet no one had put together the timing to figure out why the change had happened.
A tap on her shoulder made her jerk her eyes away from the fireplace and into the clear blue ones of Josie’s teenaged daughter. She arched an eyebrow when Becca extended a hand, smiling when the girl rolled her eyes. She accepted the invitation and stood, then tugged Becca to a stop when she would have led her from the study. Becca cocked and eyebrow at her and Julianna motioned to the desk. They walked over together and Julianna found a pen a paper, scribbling for a minute before she allowed Becca to see.
*I’m sorry*, the note read. *Can you teach me to sign so I can apologize to you properly?*
Becca grinned and nodded, then tugged on their still linked hands. Julianna offered her a brief squeeze, then followed her into the kitchen.
The next week was a time of adjustment for everyone but with everyone making an effort it made for a much more pleasant experience than their initial introduction would have indicated. Then a phone call from Max to Josie brought a little urgency to the situation.
“Hi, Honey!” Max greeted cheerfully knowing it would make Josie crazy and snickering when she growled at him.
“Don’t you ‘Hi Honey’ me, Maxwell Middleton. What do you want?”
“Why do you assume I want something every time I call, Josie?”
“Because you do?” She sighed. “Max, seriously – what do you want?”
He cleared his throat. “How are things going?”
She glared even though he couldn’t see it; she knew he could hear her displeasure. “Things are fine now. But next time you decide to send me someone that needs help like that, you’d be wise to send me the details in advance. We almost had an incident before I even got the story.”
“She’s talked to you then?”
“No, Max,” Josie huffed. “Gideon did. Why? What’s your interest in all this?”
“I owe a friend a favor and you’re my best chance to make this right.”
“I hate you, you know.”
“I know. And you’ve got good reason,” he sighed. “But this is less about me and more about fixing a problem that should never have been an issue in the first place.”
“What exactly do you want me to do, Max? Julianna is beginning to relax here, but I’m not going to force a confidence. And I can’t fix this anyway. It’s between her and Tori and from what I can discover they’re not even friends anymore.”
“If I can get Tori to you do you think...?”
“Assuming that you can get her here of her own free will, if you send Tori to me one of two things is going to happen, Max. Either Julianna will leave and things will stay unresolved. Or there will be one hell of a blowout. And even then you’ve only got a fifty/fifty shot at real resolution.”
“Well she and Liora will be there tomorrow. So you handle it how you see fit.”
“Gotta go, Josie. Bye.”
“But Max....” Her words were met with a dial tone and she glared at the phone before sighing in resignation. And things had been going so well. “I really hate that man.”
Josie leaned against the doorjamb of the kitchen watching Becca try to correct Julianna’s signing while Gideon looked on and laughed. She smiled. It was good to see them interacting so comfortably together; she hated that she was going to have to break up the good dynamic in the room. But Julianna deserved to know so Josie pushed off the doorframe and cleared her throat. All eyes swung in her direction and she met Julianna’s brown ones squarely.
“Julianna, could I speak with you a moment?” Julianna tilted her head, the seriousness in Josie’s tone sending a chill up her spine. It was the use of her full name that alerted her to the fact that there was a problem though. She hadn’t been called by it since her first night in Josie’s home. With a nod she rose and walked towards Josie. Becca and Gideon gave Josie a wave and headed to the mudroom to bundle up before going outdoors. Julianna’s brow crooked in question.
“Do they know...?”
Josie shook her head and offered a slight smile. “No, but they’re not stupid either. They’re trying to give us a little privacy.”
“Do they need to?”
“Yeah, probably.” Josie sighed and padded to the refrigerator. “Do you want something to drink? I’m not offering alcohol because I want you to be fully cognizant of what I’m telling you. If you want it after that... well, you know where it is.”
“You’re not really helping here, Josie. What’s going on?”
Josie took two bottles of water from the shelf and passed one to Julianna. Then she motioned them back to the table and took a seat, waiting for Julianna to do the same before she took a deep breath and started talking. “I just got a phone call from Max. Tori will be here tomorrow.”
Silence. Then, “Excuse me?”
Josie shook her head. “It’s not you I need to excuse and if I get my hands on him, I’m going to need an alibi,” Josie muttered. She looked back at Julianna, noting the look of stunned shock still prevalent in her expression. “I don’t have any details. Max just called me and told me Tori and her volleyball partner Liora will be here tomorrow. I don’t know whose idea it was or what the hell they were thinking, but I do know you don’t deserve to be blindsided by it.”
Julianna swallowed hard a couple times before she tried to speak and even then her voice was low and raspy. “What am I supposed to do?”
Josie shrugged. “That’s totally your call, Hon. You can stay here and talk to her; you can stay here and avoid her; or you can leave.”
“Her running away is what got us into this mess in the first place.” Julianna took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, keeping her eyes focused on the table for a long moment. “All right, Josie. Thank you for telling me.”
Josie nodded. “Do you know what you’re going to do?”
“Talk to her. It’s the only way to resolve this.” Then she turned and headed upstairs to her room.
Josie looked around her empty kitchen, sighing before she stood to begin dinner preparations. “I really, really hate that man.”
It was very early when the doorbell rang the following morning – so early that Josie suspected Tori and Liora had stayed in the tiny hotel in the center of the small town. Gideon was downstairs, but he was the only person besides Josie to have ventured out of their room yet. He and Josie exchanged glances, then he took the spatula out of her hand and nudged her towards the front door. He wanted to stay as far out of the coming storm as could be managed. Josie rolled her eyes but relinquished her hold on the utensil and headed to the front door, hoping to keep her new guests from waking the rest of the household.
She was a little surprised when she opened the door. Not by the two women standing there – she like the rest of the free world recognized them from the Olympic games. More it was the fact that one seemed to be supporting the other. Josie met Liora’s eyes first – mostly because they were facing her. Liora sighed and shook her head, rubbing the arms of the woman she held.
“Tori... hey, c’mon. You don’t want to be rude and our hostess is standing in an open door without a jacket.”
Tori’s jerked her head from Liora’s shoulder and straightened even as she wiped the tears from her eyes. “My apologies,” she offered quietly. “I’m Victoria Bell and this is my friend Liora Gomez. Max Middleton sent us?”
Josie nodded. “I’m Josie Lords. I’ve been expecting you. Please come in.” They followed her into the warmth of the house, sighing in relief when she closed the door behind her. “If you’ll leave your bags here, I’ll show you where to put them shortly. Gideon and I were just about to have breakfast. Would you like to join us?”
They shrugged out of their coats and left them on top of their luggage, then followed Josie into the kitchen. Tori took a shuddering breath before she greeted Gideon. “Hello Gideon. It’s been a while. You remember my friend Liora?”
“Of course. Hi, Tori... Liora. How do you like your eggs?” It only took a couple minutes and they were seated around the table. The room was filled with uncomfortable silence. Finally Liora threw her toast back on her plate and looked around the table.
“Well this is certainly awkward.” She glanced at Josie. “Do you know why we’re here?”
“Everyone does. I let them know as soon as Max called me yesterday.”
“Is she still here?” Tori asked in a whisper.
“She is. But you’d be wise to let her come to you. She’s still very angry and deeply hurt.”
“But she stayed,” giving a small incredulous smile.
“She did. Because she needs resolution. It doesn’t mean it’s going to go in your favor.” Josie held up a hand when Liora would have cut in. “I don’t want you going into this blindly, Tori. It’s a fifty/fifty prop at best. The one thing you have going for you is that she still feels for you. What that feeling is....” She shrugged.
“I know I screwed up. I only wanted... want... what’s best for her. But it wasn’t my decision alone. I see that now. I only hope she’ll actually hear what I have to say.”
“Just make sure you listen to her as well.”
The house was silent and apparently empty when Julianna finally left her room that morning. It wasn’t that she knew Tori had arrived and was stalling; she’d slept through the doorbell. It was simply that she was preparing herself for what was coming. She was hoping to have breakfast and talk to Gideon before things got crazy so she was less than pleased when she crossed into the kitchen to find Tori sitting at the table with her hands folded neatly on the top and her eyes studying the wood grain intently. She glanced up at Julianna briefly when she entered the room, then dropped her gaze again. She would wait until Julianna indicated her readiness to talk.
After her initial hesitation, Julianna strode confidently into the room and over to the fridge. Removing the items she needed for her protein smoothie, she moved to the counter and mixed it up with quick, practiced motions. Only when she had downed several large swallows did she allow herself to look at the woman who sat perfectly still waiting to be acknowledged.
“Why are you here, Tori?”
Tori lifted her head and let green eyes meet brown and Julianna was hard-pressed to keep her gasp silent. She recognized the pain reflected in those green eyes. She saw it every time she looked in the mirror. Tori opened her mouth, then snapped it shut and cleared her throat before speaking in a voice almost quiet enough to be mistaken as a whisper.
“I was wrong,” she replied. She shook her head to keep the tears from spilling and refocused her gaze on her locked hands. “I thought I was doing what was best for you, but I was wrong. It’s not best for you; it’s not best for me; and it’s certainly not best for us.”
“And I should have talked to you about it instead of making an arbitrary decision for both of us.”
“Why did you?” Julianna finally asked. “Why did you just decide instead of talking to me? Why did you decide we weren’t worth it?”
Tori’s head snapped up and she looked at Julianna in horror. “Oh Baby... no! You’re worth anything... everything to me. But I didn’t want to be the reason you lost your dreams.” She looked down again. “I didn’t want you to hate me.”
Julianna’s forehead furrowed as she frown. “Why didn’t you just talk to me?”
Tori but her bottom lip for a long moment and she glanced at Julianna before looking past her and out the window. “Because I thought I knew best. I know what you want to do with your life when you give up competitive sports and I know what your religion means to you. I mean you still attend Mass and go to confession when you can. And I heard what Alice and that priest said. I didn’t want to be the reason you lost any of that. But I was wrong... so, so wrong. Our separation has nearly killed me and I’ve seen what it’s done to you as well. I’m pretty sure Alice meant for you to stay ‘America’s Sweetheart’ without me in the picture.”
Julianna nodded slowly. “I know she did. I’ve gotten that lecture several times in the last few months. I finally told Alice to fuck off.”
Blonde brows hiked into Tori’s hairline. “Did you really?”
“Um hmm.” Julianna finished the last of her smoothie and turned to the sink to rinse out her glass. She kept her back to Tori and let her eyes follow Becca and Liora as they ganged up on Gideon in a snowball fight. “You know,” she finally said quietly without turning around. “If you’d just asked me, I would have chosen us.”
“And now?” Tori’s voice trembled.
Julianna shook her head. “I don’t know. I just.... Excuse me. I need to....” It wasn’t quite a run as she left the kitchen, but it was close. Tori remained at the table and let the tears spill down her face.
“Can we talk?” Liora asked as she removed her gloves and shimmied out of her heavy coat. She draped the coat over a wingback chair and placed her gloves near the fire to dry. Then she stuck her hands in her pockets and waited for permission to get more comfortable.
“What do you want, Liora?” Julianna asked resignedly. She kept her eyes focused on the flames. Liora took that as consent and dropped onto the hearth and sighed in relief as the warmth of the fire began to soak into her bones. It was freezing outside and she and Gideon and Becca had been outdoors for over two hours playing before Josie called them all back inside. She’d explained to them where Tori and Julianna were and Gideon had asked for a chance to talk to Tori. Liora didn’t object. She had some things to say to Julianna. So here she was trying to unfreeze her brain so she could maybe help her best friend get her girl back.
“She loves you, you know.”
“I know, Liora. That almost makes this whole situation worse. She loves me – just not enough to stand beside me and fight for us.”
“That’s one way to look at it I suppose,” Liora conceded. “But try to see it from her point of view, Jules. She was trying, however misguided, to keep from putting you in a position from having to choose.”
“Because she didn’t believe in us enough to think I would choose us.”
“Because you gave her no reason to think she was the most important thing in your world,” Liora snapped. “I heard a lot of your conversations remember. They were all about your reputation and responsibility as ‘America’s Sweetheart’; your dreams to take Hollywood by storm; the endorsement deals you were getting because of your image. At no time did you talk about being public with her. You kept everything with her on the down low as much as you could.”
“And the minute it looked like it might go public, she ran!”
“For you!!” Liora hissed though she never raised her voice. “She left for you because she thought it’s what you wanted!!” She slapped her hands on her thighs and jumped up from her place in front of the fire. “You know what? Nevermind. If I try talking to you about this anymore, I’m just gonna get pissed off and belt you one good one to knock some sense in that thick, stubborn head of yours.” Liora shook her head. “Maybe she’s better off without you. I know a lot of people that won’t try to keep her hidden and then blame her for trying to protect them.”
Liora snorted and shook her head. “She’s my best friend. It’s my privilege to be there for her.” Black eyes met stormy brown. “But if I wasn’t happily straight and in a long-term relationship and she had eyes for anyone but you... yeah, Jules. I’d be with her in a fucking heartbeat.” She stomped out of the room and headed to the kitchen, hoping Gideon had better luck with Tori.
“So how long are you supposed to be here?” Josie asked when she, Gideon, Becca and Liora sat down to eat lunch. Liora shrugged.
“Max didn’t give us a time frame. He just sent us here to straighten things out.” She paused. “Actually he sent Tor; I’m just here for moral support.”
Josie gave her a droll look. “Let me guess - those were his exact instructions.”
“God, I really hate that man,” Josie grumbled causing Gideon to chuckle and Becca to smirk. It was an oft-repeated refrain through a better part of her childhood though at least it had lost its bite since the divorce became final. “Do you have any idea why he’s doing this?”
“He didn’t tell you?”
“Only that he was doing a favor for a friend.” Josie cut her eyes at Liora. “I try not to talk to him too much. It’s bad for my stress level.” She stopped speaking when Becca started signing rapidly, then laughed out loud before translating for Liora. “Becca says the only reason he’s still breathing is because I would be the first suspect if he died a suspicious death.” Everyone at the table laughed at this pronouncement. A throat clearing at the door caused them to stop and turn their attention collectively to Julianna.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” she apologized. “But does anyone know where Tori is?”
Josie glanced at Liora who nodded her head. “I gave her directions to the sledding hill. She left about fifteen minutes ago.”
“Thanks, Josie.” She paused. “You too, Liora. I may not have wanted to hear it, but....”
“I know and you’re welcome. Do you want me to come with you?”
Julianna shook her head. “I need to do this alone.”
Liora nodded. “We’ll be here.”
“Yeah,” Gideon agreed. “What she said.”
“Thanks guys. Wish me luck.” Becca signed and Julianna smiled. Then she bundled up and headed out to find Tori.
“I should have known I’d find you here,” Julianna said softly, not wanting to disturb the peace surrounding Tori. She was actually sitting under the tree at the top of the hill looking out at the whiteness beyond. She didn’t even start when she’d heard Julianna’s voice as though she’d been expecting her. “You always did prefer the comfort and privacy of solitude. Would you rather I go?” A sad smile twitched her lips but Tori refused to look away from the vast expanse of snow.
“No,” she answered hoarsely. “Say what you need to, Jules.”
“May I sit?” indicating the thermal blanket Tori was seated on. When the blonde head nodded, Julianna dropped down beside her and turned her face in the same direction Tori was looking. The view wasn’t that fascinating really, but it served to give Tori a little privacy and Julianna a little distance. They sat in silence for a while and Tori was content to let it be. She’d done the best she knew how; it was in Julianna’s court now. When she spoke again, the sound of Julianna’s voice took Tori by surprise. But it was the words Julianna offered that stopped her breathing. “I owe you an apology. I was so busy looking at my side of things that I didn’t stop to think of yours. Liora was more than happy to kick me in the ass figuratively speaking. Pretty sure she’d have been glad to do it for real if she’d been given half a chance. But she made me realize how selfish and ungrateful I’ve been, and I’d like the chance to try and change that.”
“What....” Tori cleared her throat to remove the squeakiness of her voice. “What exactly are you proposing?”
“I know... I know we can’t undo what’s been done and it’s going to take some time to get over all the hurt and anger and frustration that’s built up between us in the last few months. But I’d like the chance to do right by you. To go out and be who we are regardless of who’s looking; to be the people we are in private in public as well. I don’t mean we go all crazy and share everything we are in private, but.... Tori, I’m tired of pretending. I shouldn’t have to hide the most important part my life.”
Tori sucked in an unexpected gasp and turned to face Julianna. “I’m the most important thing in your life?”
Julianna nodded. “I’m sorry I ever let you think otherwise.”
“But what about...?”
Julianna covered Tori’s lips with her fingers and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll figure something out. I do need to talk to Gideon though. Even though he was basically maneuvered into this situation, he’s been a gentleman and a true sport about it. I can’t just....”
Tori took Julianna’s hands from her mouth and smiled gently. “We’ll talk to him and work something out. He shouldn’t have to bear the responsibility of my mistake in judgment.”
“Or my selfishness.”
“So now what?” Tori asked, not releasing the hand she still held.
“I think we live - take things day by day; focus on what’s best for us; talk about everything.” Julianna sighed. “I know we missed Valentine’s Day this year.”
“You hate Valentine’s Day.”
Julianna smirked. “I do. But not having you there to grumble and complain to just made me miss it more.”
“You are a seriously disturbed individual. You know that?”
“Yeah, but I’m yours.”
“Are you? Mine I mean?”
“Always, Victoria. For as long as you’ll have me.”
“Is that a proposal?”
Julianna bit her lip. “I suppose it could be interpreted as one, but I’d like the opportunity to romance you a little.” She smirked when the blonde eyebrow jerked up in intrigue. “I would like to propose that once the situation with Gideon is settled, we celebrate our own version of Valentine’s Day.”
The second brow joined the first. “You do realize that could take a few months, right? It’s not fair to just jerk this situation right out from under him and I know there are contracts that require you to be together.”
“I know, but Gideon will be willing to help with ending our sham relationship and we’ll start taking care of the contracts in the morning. That time will allow us to rebuild our friendship and our life together.”
“So Valentine’s Day in late spring or early summer then?”
“As soon as we can manage it, Baby.”
“Give us a kiss to seal the deal, then no more until things between you and Gideon are resolved. I’m not going to be ‘the other woman’ or the reason behind your breakup.”
“Talk about motivation,” Julianna muttered. “You don’t have to worry about it. I wouldn’t let you be blamed for it for any reason.” The kiss was slow and passionate and lasted until they were left gasping for air. They leaned their foreheads together and breathed one another in. Then without warning, Julianna pulled away and rose from the blanket. She extended her hand towards Tori who accepted with alacrity and more than a hint of confusion. “C’mon,” Julianna demanded. “We’ve got things to do. I’ve missed you too much to dilly dally around wasting time, and I want more of those kisses soon.”
Tori’s grin was bright enough to light up the sky and she snatched the blanket of the ground before Julianna pulled her along as they ran back to the house. The sound of their laughter echoed across the grounds and brought smiles to those that waited for their return.
It was a beautiful mid-summer’s day, but you never would have known it by the ambiance that was present in the room. The windows had been frosted and the air conditioner was blowing full throttle to accommodate the heat roaring from the fireplace. The large screen television currently hosted a still picture of a winter wonderland and soft music rolled around the space from discretely placed speakers. A knock on the door caused the brunette to jump before smoothing her hands over her red dress. She took a deep breath and walked slowly to the door, then she stood frozen when she opened the door. Her blonde counterpart wore a deep green sheath, bringing out the color in her eyes and highlighting the red strands in her hair.
“You look amazing,” she said on an exhale, getting a genuine grin before the eyes dropped shyly. Tori bit her lip and offered Julianna the rose she held.
“You’re exquisite,” she replied, glancing up from beneath her lashes.
Julianna accepted the flower and brought it to her nose briefly before reaching a hand out to Tori. “Won’t you come in?”
Tori took the proffered hand, then blinked in startlement when she was pulled into Julianna’s body. “Well hello there,” she said as she bent her head to take possession of Julianna;s full lips. “Dance with me,” she commanded when they separated and Julianna was happy to comply.
It had been a long, hard road to get to this place. Gideon had been supportive and they had worked out a timetable for their ‘breakup’ that suited everyone even if Julianna did complain about it taking too long. Still she wasn’t willing to risk her friendship with Gideon for a quicker resolution. They would need every minute to get things squared away with the least amount of damage to all of them.
The sponsors weren’t quite as thrilled with their separation but most of them just kind of shrugged and agreed that as long as they did their promotion work together like the contracts stipulated, there was little they could do about the reality of their personal lives.
The Church had pulled its endorsement of ‘Americas Sweetheart’, but America seemed to fall in love with her all over again when Julianna settled back into her former good humor. Most people didn’t even blink when she announced her relationship with Tori and she in fact remained a sought after commodity by the corporate world as well as the entertainment field.
Now it was finally time to fulfill the promise she’d made on that snowy hill all those months ago.
Their dancing was slow and was more focused on kissing and touching than form and movement. Julianna tried to direct them to the pallet she had created in front of the fireplace, but Tori resisted. Julianna broke their kiss and looked her question; Tori smiled bashfully and glanced down at the floor before bringing her eyes back to brown that had darkened almost to black.
“I’d like to make love to you in our bed first.” She gave a wicked grin. “Then we can have sex all over the apartment – anywhere and any way you’d like.”
Julianna laughed. “How is it you can be entirely romantic and charming, then as horny and insatiable as a teenaged boy in the same sentence?”
“I’m gifted?” Tori asked coyly, then chuckled when Julianna laughed again as she tugged Tori closer to her.
“Show me,” she growled.
Tori took possession of Julianna’s mouth, plundering with abandon and moaning when Julianna fought back for dominance. They shuffled slowly in the direction of the bedroom, shivering as they left the warmth of the roaring fire behind them. The chill gave them shudders that made them giggle, breaking the kiss again. They took a moment to simply look at one another, their eyes sharing truths their lips would eventually echo with both touch and words.
“I love you, you know,” Tori whispered as her eyes roamed Julianna’s face, smiling at the blush and genuine happiness her words brought to Julianna’s countenance.
“I know. Not as much as I love you of course, but....” Her words broke into a high-pitched squeal when Tori lifted her up and tossed her on the bed. “Oof!” she added when Tori landed on top of her which in turn became a moan as their lips reconnected and Tori’s hands began to wander up and down her torso. “God, Baby – don’t tease.”
Tori smiled. “This isn’t teasing, Sweetheart. This is taking my time. The teasing will come later.” Then her hands were occupied with divesting them of their clothing and creating their own fire to counteract the frigid temperature in the room.
The fire was still roaring when they exited the bedroom room much later. The candles had burned down to mere flickers and the sparkling wine had been consumed with much giggling and spillage that of course required special cleaning with an extremely personal touch. The finger foods Julianna had prepared were now crumbs on the platter and they were comfortably ensconced in the nest of pillows and blankets in front of the fireplace.
“I kind of like Valentine’s Day,” Tori whispered into Julianna’s breastbone, her lips nuzzling the soft skin beneath her and smiling when Julianna wiggled as she shifted to get away from the tickling sensation.
“Even in the middle of summer?” Julianna asked as she wove her finger into short blonde hair and tugged until she brought Tori up to meet her lips.
“Especially then,” Tori replied on an uneven breath as they separated. “It’s just about us then.”
“I like that too. I like things being about us. I like there being an us.” She glanced down at their intertwined bodies and she reached up under a pillow. “I like it so much I’d like to make it a permanent arrangement.” She opened the box she held. “Marry me?”
Tori froze in surprise as she gazed at the ring, then lifted her eyes to see the love she felt reflected in deep brown eyes. Green eyes watered, but her smile was brilliant. “Yes, Sweetheart. Yes! Yes!! YES!!!”
Julianna slid the ring onto Tori’s finger. “God I love Valentine’s Day,” she mumbled before allowing her fingers to caress Tori’s body. She made an odd mental note to call Josie and Gideon to tell them the news... much, much later. Then she let herself focus on Tori alone and everything else went to the wayside. But she would always be thankful for the day she decided to step out of the zone and be the woman she really was. It had given her life, love and completion. And that was everything.
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