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 readers Phil and Mac 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.
Author’s Notes: Can I comment how nice it is to be back writing again after a hiatus that has lasted FOREVER?? Things in my life have been so ridiculously crazy in the last couple years thatI wasn’t sure I was going to have anything ready for Valentine’s Day this year when Steph asked me to participate, but this came in right at the wire. Just a little something for the Academy Invitational.
Some of the characters you might recognize from a couple other stories I wrote some time back. The other may never see the light of day.
What She Did For Love
“Whaddya want, Max? I’m busy,” Josie huffed with the usual biting undertone of bitterness and anger that always seemed to accompany her interactions with her ex-husband. When he didn’t respond immediately, she growled. “Goodbye, Max.” But before she could hang up on him, she heard Max take a shaky breath and then sigh. “Max?” her voice softer and uncertain.
“Josie, it’s Celeste.”
Josie closed her gray eyes and whispered a prayer. “Where is she?”
“We’re right outside. Let us in.”
Josie rushed to the front door and threw it open, not really surprised to see the younger woman strapped to a gurney and attached to an IV pole that held bags of fluid and blood. She waved the two medics inside, vaguely motioning them to the right room – it wasn’t the first time they’d brought someone to her and it wouldn’t be the last. But this was probably the most personal. She grabbed Max by the arm and drug him into the house, following the gurney and waiting for the medics to transfer her new patient to the bed and finish setting things up before they turned and left with only a nod of acknowledgment in her direction. Once they had gone and closed the door behind them, she turned fierce eyes to Max, who actually took a step away from both her and the bed in an effort to be closer to the door and his means of escape. She latched a firm hand around his arm and let her fingers bite into his flesh. He winced, but otherwise gave no reaction, holding her eyes with his own.
“Start talking,” she directed.
Max nodded. Josie deserved to know the truth... at least part of it... this time.
“So this is your fault,” Josie said flatly when Max finished his tale. “Once again, you sent someone out unprepared....”
“No!” Max interrupted harshly. “No,” he repeated a little more gently when he saw Celeste shift despite her unconscious state. “She wasn’t unprepared – neither was her team. These things happen sometimes, Josie! You KNOW that. It’s just a part of life!”
“No,” she demanded quietly. “You don’t get to use that argument with me... ever. Stop,” she commanded, holding up a hand when he opened his mouth to speak. “Don’t even bother, Max. Or have you forgotten I KNOW what a liar you are... and always have been? What’s her prognosis?” with an air of frustration and a tiny hint of defeat.
“She won’t lose her arm, but there will be months of recovery while she’s in therapy learning to use it again. Really, it could have been so much worse.”
“It always could be when you’re involved – it usually is.” She sighed resignedly. “Just go, Max. I’ll let you know if and when she’s ready to return to the field.”
“You don’t get to make that call, Josie.”
She met his eyes squarely. “Wanna bet?”
Max swallowed hard. It wasn’t often that Josie stood up to him like this, but when she did, it never boded well for him. They weren’t kidding when they talked about the woman behind the man being the power, and that was true for Josie and Max more than most... despite their divorce. He lowered his head to concede her point, then backed up to the door without a word. He opened it and stepped into the hallway before turning back just slightly. “If you need anything....”
“I’ve got the numbers. Go ruin someone else’s life for a while. You’ve done enough damage here.”
It hurt, because it was the truth, and it had cost him everything he held dear – his marriage; his son; a family that was proud of him and his accomplishments. All he had left was the job that had taken the rest away from him, and despite its power and prestige it had become like ashes in his mouth. But it was all he had, so he clung to it, and accepted the anger and bitterness and hatred from the woman he still loved as penance for the lies and deceit that had destroyed them. So he nodded his head without a word and exited her house as swiftly as he had arrived, and in mere moments, it was as though he had never been there... with the exception of the addition to the household.
Josie waited until she heard the door close softly behind Max’s departure before turning to the patient resting so soundly on the bed. Her eyes roved over the well-known features, noting bruises and exhaustion obvious even beneath bandages and unconsciousness.
“Oh, Les... what has he done to you now?” she wondered in a whisper, even as her mind turn back to the first time she had met the stunning young woman who now lay on a bed in her home recovering from a mission gone bad.
It had been almost a decade previous – she and Max had been on the outs for almost a year and were headed for divorce court when he stopped by the house with a youngster in tow that was barely old enough to be considered legal. Josie met them at the door with a raised eyebrow, but Max didn’t even slow down. He ushered the blonde inside ahead of him, easing by Josie without actually touching her. He wasn’t stupid – he knew he was pushing the bounds of propriety considering where they stood with one another, but he also knew Josie, despite her disdain for him, would never leave a kid flailing if she could help. He’d taken advantage of that particular character flaw before, and he would again... many more times.
Josie glared at him, then sighed and shut the door behind him, motioning them toward her office. Max was smart enough to allow her the position of power and he waited for her to take the seat behind the large desk before he seated the young woman, then took the seat beside her.
“What can I do for you, Max?” Josie asked neutrally, folding her hands neatly on the desk in front of her. Max wasn’t the hotshot director he would become in later years, but he was a star on the fast track for the directorship, and he had a keen eye for talent. Josie studied the young woman for a long moment, and had to wonder what had brought her to Max’s attention. She had the looks and demeanor of a model, but there was something in her gaze that gave lie to that particular judgment – something that made Josie believe the girl knew more of the world than anyone should at her age. She finished her perusal and turned her consideration back to Max, raising her eyebrow in question.
Max crossed his legs casually and clasped his hands in his lap before clearing her throat. “Josie, I’d like to introduce you to Celeste,” motioning to the young woman whose gaze had never left the older woman’s. “Celeste, this is Josie, and she’s going to be your very best friend for the next few months.”
“Excuse me?” Josie broke in without hesitation. “Don’t you think you should let me decide that?”
“C’mon, Josie – Celeste is in need of your expertise. She needs....” grinding to a halt when Josie held up her hand and glared.
“You know the way out, Max.”
“Go. Leave. Celeste and I will work this out between us or we won’t but you’ve overstayed your welcome. Goodbye,” she finished, holding his gaze until he realized she was serious. He rose and patted Celeste on the shoulder before leaving the room, closing the door almost silently. Josie waited, her eyes fastened on Celeste’s. She cocked an eyebrow and Celeste did the same, causing Josie to smirk. She held up a hand and Celeste just grinned, waiting for the denouement she knew was coming. Josie stood and moved from behind the desk, padding cat-like across the wood floor to the door. She stood unmoving for a long moment, then jerked it open, causing Max to nearly take a header back into the room. She glowered at him in derision. “Do I need to explain what will happen if you’re not out of my house and off this property within the next thirty seconds??” He shook his head rapidly. It wouldn’t do for someone of his stature and standing to admit it, but Josie scared him... just a little bit. “Good boy,” she replied condescendingly. “Then MOVE!!” she barked, watching him trip over himself to scurry out of her house. She waited until she heard his car start and move down the drive before she closed the door. “God, I hate that man,” she mumbled under her breath, then turned back to her unexpected guest.
Celeste had turned to watch the proceedings with interest and had covered her mouth with her hand to keep the mirth so obviously twinkling in her hazel green eyes from spilling forth from her lips. Josie shook her head and chuckled and Celeste took that as a sign to release the laughter she’d been holding in. It was a rolling laugh, so happy and joyful – very much unexpected from what Celeste had shown of herself so far. Josie smiled in response, and offered her hand to Celeste.
“C’mon. Let’s go into the kitchen and get some tea. Then you can tell me why you’re here.”
Celeste accepted the hand and rose, dropping the grip when she was on her feet. “Why didn’t you let Max tell you? It’s his idea, after all.” Her voice was husky and lightly musical. Josie smiled, then her expression turned sardonic.
“Max would lie, cheat and steal if he thought it would further his career. Hell, he’d sell his own mother if he thought it would get him ahead. I figure you’ll be forthright... because if he brought you to me, he thinks you need some kind of teaching or guidance from me. You’re the only one who knows whether you want it,” she said as they crossed the threshold. A hand in front of her stopped Celeste from progressing further into the room. It was only when she looked up that she realized there was someone else in the kitchen with her back to the door. Josie moved swiftly, tapping the young girl on the shoulder, then stepping back as she swung around in surprise. Celeste’s eyes widened when the girl began speaking with her hands, signing faster than she could begin to understand.
Josie grabbed both of Becca’s hands, and tugged her over to stand in front of Celeste. She started speaking and signing simultaneously. “Celeste, please meet my daughter, Becca. Becca, this is Celeste. I imagine she’s going to be our guest here for a while.” She smiled when Becca cocked an eyebrow in question. “Your father brought her. I don’t know why yet.”
Becca held her mother’s eyes for a long moment before turning her gaze to Celeste, studying her intently. Then she began signing furiously, glancing at Josie occasionally to ensure Josie was interpreting for her.
“Becca says, ‘Hello Celeste. I’m Becca, and it’s nice to meet you. When you and Mama are done with business, come find me. We can do a puzzle together or something. You have pretty eyes. I hope you stay here a while’.”
Josie finished translating and turned to look at Celeste, whose eyes had not left her tween-aged daughter since she’d begun speaking directly to Celeste. Celeste raised her hands and slowly started to reply, fumbling along as she searched her memory for the words and signs she wanted to use. ‘Hi, Becca. It’s nice to meet you too. Doing a puzzle together sounds like fun. You’ll have to be patient with me, though. It’s been a long time since I learned sign language and almost as long since I had cause to use it. But I’m willing to try if you are.’
Becca’s eyes lit up in excitement, and she clapped her hands as she bounced in place. So few that met her knew how to speak to her right away, though most did learn pretty quickly... at least the important stuff. It would be wonderful to have someone she could communicate with without having to teach them how to do so first. She nodded enthusiastically. ‘I would like that very much. Ask Mama to show you the studio when you finish your grown-up business.’
‘I will,’ Celeste replied with a genuine smile, returning Becca’s wave as she skipped out the door. Then she looked back at Josie. “She’s lovely.”
“Thank you. I think so too. And you’re forever going to be her hero now – for knowing how to communicate with her without her needing to teach you first. You have someone in your family who is deaf?”
“No. It was an elective I took in school.”
“Interesting,” Josie murmured. “Not many places offer sign language as an elective choice.”
Celeste shrugged. “Military school does... at least mine did. It was useful during war games.”
“Is that why you stumble over ordinary vocabulary?” Josie asked with a hint of teasing in her voice.
“One reason, yes. The other is we had a lot of code and shortcuts woven into our speech. Not sure Becca is of an age to know about some of those things yet... or ever.”
“Are you? You can’t be much over eighteen... if that.”
“Over enough to be legal... mostly anyway.”
“And an ID to cover the rest?”
Eyes now almost completely green sparkled with laughter. “A lady never kisses and tells, Josie. I learned that lesson a long time ago,” eyes hardening, though her lips never lost their smile.
“Fair enough,” Josie agreed without missing a beat. She’d long since learned how to read the signs and unconscious tells, and she knew she’d stumbled on a sore spot. Maybe one day, this young woman would feel comfortable sharing more of her story, but for now.... “So tell me what brings you to my place, Celeste. What does Max want me to teach you? And why?”
When Celeste finished answering, Josie sat silently for a long moment, letting it all sink in. Finally, she took a deep breath and turned her attention to Celeste, holding her gaze with intense focus. “Are you sure this is what you want, Celeste? Are you certain you want to commit the rest of your life to lying to those who care about you and hiding important parts of yourself in the shadows?”
“I’m sure,” Celeste said with all the confidence of an eighteen-year-old who considered themselves world weary and experienced. “I can make a difference, Josie. I just need to learn how to maximize the skills I have.”
There was so much eagerness and hope shining in those green eyes that Josie closed her eyes to hide her grief at the innocence that would again be lost to Max’s machinations. She could do little but sigh and shake her head. “I really do hate that man,” she grumbled under her breath. Then she met those hopeful eyes squarely and nodded. “All right. I’ll give you the training you need. Be prepared to start first thing tomorrow.”
Celeste leaned forward impulsively and wrapped Josie in a hug. She froze at the initial contact, but relaxed after a moment, realizing Celeste posed no real threat to her. In her excitement, Celeste didn’t even notice Josie’s hesitation. “Thank you, Josie - thank you so much. You won’t be sorry... I promise.”
Josie eased out of Celeste’s clasp, stepping back to put a little space between them. She chuckled lightly, though her brown eyes held a distinctly wicked glint. “Oh, I know I won’t. Not sure I can say the same for you,” letting a little evil laughter escape when green eyes widened in apprehension. “If you want to find Becca, the studio is down the hall... last door on your left. I’ll call you girls when it’s time for dinner.”
Celeste knew the dismissal for what it was, and she nodded as she rose. “Call me if I can help in any way,” she said before she moved to the door. Then she paused at the threshold. “Of course, I’m an expert dishwasher too,” giving a wry smirk.
“I’ll bet you are,” Josie replied with a laugh. “Go on... I know where to find you if I need you, and Becca is really looking forward to spending time with you. Don’t let her interrogate you too much.”
“Yes ma’am,” Celeste answered with a jaunty little salute. Then she walked out of the room without a backwards glance.
It didn’t take Josie long to run the jaunty right out of Celeste’s vocabulary – literally run. Josie was a rancher by trade, and from before sun up until after sundown, Celeste worked like any other cowhand... only harder – because Josie expected more from her. She loaded and unloaded feed; she cut and baled hay; she ran with the horses – actually, she tried to run with them. She never could quite keep up, but it didn’t keep her from trying. She’d clued in pretty quickly that Josie was testing her while she was building her stamina. And Celeste felt she had something to prove because Josie never asked more than she was willing to do herself. So she did whatever tasks Josie set for her without complaint, though really, there was very little time for much of anything besides work and sleep... and the occasional meal. But even after a couple weeks, Celeste could feel a definite change in herself – an improvement in not only her stamina and strength, but also in her senses. She was aware of more, and the knowledge made her smile to herself in the dark in the moments before sleep took her after another long day in the fields.
As she adjusted and adapted to the work Josie demanded of her, Josie began to change her training, slowly introducing new concepts and techniques to what was gradually becoming a vast arsenal of tools. And yet for all their interaction, Josie remained an enigma to Celeste, and halfway through the summer, Celeste decided to change that.
She rolled her sleeves down after she and Becca finished the dishes, but instead of following Becca upstairs to ready herself for bed, Celeste instead walked the short distance down the hall to Josie’s office. She wasn’t surprised to find the door closed, but the lack of light was a little disconcerting. Still, she figured she had nothing to lose, and she knocked lightly on the door. She waited a moment, and when there was no response, she knocked again, even as she pushed the door open just slightly.
“Josie?” she queried, looking around the darkened room before she realized the French doors were open. She closed the door silently behind her before crossing the wood floor with carefully placed, soundless steps. She didn’t see or hear Josie come up behind her until she felt the heat of her body and the pressure of steel against her temple. She sagged in Josie’s embrace as she understood she just failed... whatever test had been set... until she felt Josie shake her head.
“No test this time, Celeste,” releasing the hold she had and slipping the safety on her gun before sliding it into her holster. “Just a series of unexpected circumstances.” She motioned Celeste in ahead of her before turning to lock the doors. “Is everything all right? Did you need something?”
Celeste smiled, though it was still a little shaky around the edges. “Everything’s fine... really. I just... I thought we could have a drink – maybe talk a little bit. I realized tonight that you seem to have a dossier on me, and I know almost nothing about you. I wanted to change that.”
“Why?” The question took her by surprise, and her eyes widened in surprise even as her jaw dropped enough to part her lips. Josie let her hang for a moment before she chuckled, then took her by the arm and led her over to the darkened fireplace. It only took a minute for the flames to come to life, and Josie gestured Celeste to a seat before stepping behind the bar. She didn’t speak, but in a moment, she returned carrying two tumblers. Celeste accepted hers with a smile, then took a sip, glad it was only a sip when the first taste of alcohol hit her taste buds. It was all she could do not to choke and sputter.
Josie took a seat, eyes focused on the flames in front of her, slowly sipping her whiskey sour and breathing slowly to keep from laughing out loud at Celeste’s effort to contain her reaction to the slight amount of alcohol she’d put into her drink.
“So did I not work you hard enough today, Celeste?” Josie asked with a small smile when she was about halfway through her drink. “You’re usually sound asleep by now,” chuckling lightly when her words were followed by a yawn from Celeste. Hazel eyes glared briefly before she yawned again.
“Thanks for reminding me, Josie,” covering her mouth with her hand.
“So what couldn’t wait until morning?”
Celeste shook her head. “It’s nothing like that. I told you – I just want to get to know you.”
“Why?” Josie asked again, frankly. “I’m not that interesting, and honestly, I’m old enough to be your mother.” She paused fleetingly, considering her options before she continued. “I had a son your age,” she confessed quietly. “He died almost a year ago, trying to be like his father. Max was so sure he could teach him better – that he could keep him safe.... It was the last straw for our marriage. It’s the closest I ever came to killing him. I still think about it sometimes... on bad days. So, you see... you don’t really want to know me. I’m not that interesting.”
“On the contrary,” Celeste countered. “I think you’re a beautiful, fascinating woman. I could spend a lifetime trying to know you, and I still don’t think I’d uncover all there is to know about you, Josie.”
Josie closed her eyes, and released a deep breath, letting her chin drop to her chest. Despite Celeste’s youth, she recognized the timber in her husky voice and the look in her smoky eyes. She wasn’t going to let Celeste nurse any sort of infatuation – that benefitted no one. “No, Celeste. You are a beautiful, passionate young woman, and I won’t let you waste your time and energy harboring a crush on a broken down old war horse like me. You deserve so much more – you deserve the world. And I’m really not worth it.”
Celeste rose from her chair and knelt at Josie’s feet. “I don’t want the world. I want to know you. And I think I deserve the chance.”
Josie tucked a lock of blonde hair behind Celeste’s ear. “Maybe one day – after you been out into the world and seen what it has to offer. When you’ve had the chance to live and experience and be the woman you are meant to be.” She smiled softly and cupped a tender hand around a smooth cheek. “You’re meant for great things, Les.”
“So you’re saying one day I may have a chance?”
Josie shook her head, knowing there was nothing she could do or say at this juncture that would change Celeste’s mind about anything... especially something like this. It didn’t matter what she said – Celeste was going to hear what she wanted to hear and do what she wanted to do. She shrugged and shook her head again. “Sure – maybe one day.”
“I’m not going to give up,” Celeste replied fiercely.
Josie gave her a sad smile. “I wouldn’t expect anything less from you. You really are an amazing young woman, and one day I’ll be able to say I knew you when.”
“And until then, maybe we can learn to be friends… not just teacher and student or mentor and apprentice. One can never have too many friends, right? Or allies?”
“Especially in this business,” Josie conceded. “So we’ll work on that friends thing. You know I’ll always be your ally, but just pray to God it never comes down to the point where you need me to be one. Because that’ll mean I’ve been sent in to save your proverbial ass, and that’s never a good day for anyone. ”
“All right,” Celeste sighed deeply, then stood and proffered her hand. “I’m sorry about your son,” changing the subject to lighten the tension in the room. “Maybe some day you can tell me about him?”
“Perhaps,” Josie agreed before throwing back the last of her drink. She dropped Celeste’s hand and moved to the fireplace, shutting it off, then gesturing towards the door. “But for now it’s time to say goodnight. We’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
Celeste rolled her eyes. “We always do.”
Then they headed upstairs and bid one another goodnight before going to opposite ends of the hallway to go to bed. But it was a while before either of them fell asleep.
Celeste groaned in her unconscious state, and the sound brought Josie back from the past and into the very real present. She turned her attention back to the young woman before her, noting she was still not cognizant of anything around her and wondering how long she could expect her to remain in that state. She supposed it was a blessing in disguise – after all, Celeste was mostly unaware of the pain and agony her injuries would cause once she was fully awake and aware. Josie let her eyes roam over the bruised and marred features again, shaking her head at the damage done during another mission gone wrong. She wondered if Celeste was ready to give up The Life – if her injuries would force such a circumstance. And she wondered what it would mean for them now. It had been a number of years since that first real conversation between them, and they were both very different women than they had been then. They were well and truly friends – the best kind of friends – the kind of friends who could walk away from a conversation and pick it up again months later without missing a beat.
Josie let herself look at Celeste again, studying her carefully. There were marks and bruises, but there was also poise and dignity. Celeste had matured and grown in so many ways... and far beyond the experience of so many of her peers. She had aged beautifully, while Josie just felt like she had gotten older.
But none of that really mattered right now... not in the real scheme of things. There were so many things now that needed to be done - that Celeste would have to learn to cope with or overcome or move beyond. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it might be the last. Josie let her mind turn back to those days when it had been the first time – the first time that Celeste had learned the difference in those circumstances. That wanting didn’t mean needing, and needing didn’t mean getting. And how she’d convinced Josie to give her a chance anyway.
That first conversation changed a lot of their daily interaction, and yet not much changed between them. Josie still ran Celeste hard for fourteen hours every day, and Celeste managed to rise to each challenge put in front of her... eventually. The one thing that did change was their evenings. Every night after the dishes were washed, Celeste would slip down the hallway to Josie’s office and the two of them would share a drink – usually coffee... occasionally alcohol – and a bit of conversation. Sometimes it was light – like why things were done a certain way or what Celeste was learning. They shared a few laughs over some of those as apparently Celeste was not always learning what Josie believed herself to be teaching. Still, it kept them honest. Other nights, the talk was a little heavier... a little more personal... a little more real. Those nights generally involved alcohol – at least on Josie’s part – and didn’t last very long. But it allowed them to interact with one another as adults, and slowly allowed them to see the people behind the masks of teacher and student.
As the summer drew to a close, life on the ranch became even more hectic. There was much to accomplish before truly cold weather set in, and Josie was at the heart of getting things done. And in the middle of the maelstrom, Celeste was making preparations to head off to college. More and more their conversations were about her choices and opportunities. Max had laid out a course of action he expected Celeste to follow, but she confided her desire to look beyond the options with which he had provided her.
“So do it,” Josie advised with a shrug as she dropped into her chair carefully. Hot coffee did have a tendency to burn, after all. “Despite what Max wants you to think, you’re your own person, Les. You need to do what is best for you. This is what Max thinks is best.”
“You don’t think he knows? What is best, I mean.”
Josie snorted indelicately. “You’ve heard me bitch and complain about Max since you got here. Do you really think I’d ever think he’d know best... about anything?? He got my son killed with that thinking!” she continued angrily, sloshing hot coffee over her hand as she tried to make her point. “Shit!!!” setting the coffee down quickly and flinging her hand out in an effort to shake the scalding droplets from her skin. Celeste reached up and caught her by her fingertips, tugging gently.
“C’mon,” dragging her to the bar sink. “It’s not ice, but at least the water’s downright chilly,” she added as she pulled Josie’s hand under the flowing water.
“I really do hate that man,” Josie grumbled.
“You must have loved him once. You did have two beautiful children together after all.”
“Maybe once,” Josie conceded. “But it was a very, very long time ago. And he has long since lost his appeal to me.”
“And yet you continue to help him – to train agents he’s hand-picked. I know I’m not the first. Max introduced me to Kurt and Marissa and Latoya.”
“You’re right – you’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Because I won’t let him do to anyone else what he did to me... and to my son.”
“You do realize how egotistical that makes you sound, don’t you?”
“Is it egotistical if it’s the truth?” Josie asked as she pulled her hand from Celeste’s and removed it from the water. “I know I’m not perfect, Les... far from it. But I also know my business. My ‘ego’, as you call it, helps keep you kids alive. And that’s what’s important to me – not fame or fortune or position or power. My job is to teach you how to stay alive, and so far, I’ve been pretty damn good at it.” She turned off the water and picked up a bar towel, drying her hand cautiously before throwing the towel in Celeste’s direction. “Lock the door on your way out,” she added before she crossed the threshold and headed upstairs. Celeste remained in the darkened room for a long time before she finally followed Josie and went to her own bedroom for the few remaining hours of darkness she had left to sleep.
Celeste didn’t really sleep that night, and for a change was the first one up in the household... even before the birds were awake. She yawned widely as she lightly tripped down the stairs, grateful beyond measure for her years at military school and the stealth abilities she has acquired there sneaking out on a regular basis. It was child’s play to get into the kitchen quietly and start the coffee – the biscuits and sausage were a little harder to manage. But she did, and had everything almost ready by the time Josie and Becca came down the stairs.
Becca’s grin was big and infectious, and she bounced around excitedly as she signed to Celeste. ‘This is awesome, Les. And it’s a huge milestone for you,’ giggling when a look of confusion crossed Celeste’s countenance. She didn’t explain further, but instead took a seat at the table. Celeste turned hazel eyes toward Josie and cocked an eyebrow. Josie smirked.
“One of the ‘untaught’ lessons. You have to be able and willing to take care of those around you, no matter how you feel about the task or the persons you’re performing it for. Kind of like ‘no one left behind’, but several steps beyond.”
“I just figured since I was up first....”
“Yes, but you didn’t have to fix for everyone. A selfish individual – a soloist – would have simply prepared their own and left the rest to fend for themselves. A team player fixes for everyone... even if they prepare what they like best.”
“Or what they know how to cook.”
“That too,” with a small smile. “Thank you, Les.”
Celeste shrugged. “I was glad to do it. I don’t actually mind cooking. I’m just not very good at it. Not much practice, you know.”
Josie helped her move things to the table, then beckoned her to sit with them. “We’ll see if we can change that for your last few days here. You need to know more than how to pull biscuits from the freezer of grill cheese with an iron.” Celeste looked at her aghast and Josie chuckled. “Trust me – that’s the best of the lot as far as college cooking goes... unless you’re going to Johnson & Wales or whatever.”
“Yeah... pretty sure my skills there would probably burn the school down.”
“Oh yeah – that’d be a hell of a story to tell the insurance adjuster.”
“Or the Dean of Students.”
Becca laughed, able to read their lips easily. ‘You two are so funny.’
Josie looked at her daughter balefully and glared. ‘You take that back,’ she signed. ‘I’ve never been funny a day in your life.’
Becca laughed again, loud and raucously. ‘Have you met you?’ she sassed, scrambling away when Josie lunged at her with an evil glint in her eyes. She glanced up at the clock, then snuck back in just long enough to snatch up her biscuit. ‘Gotta go,’ she signed. ‘Marcie’s mom is picking me up in about ten minutes and I need to go get my stuff.’
Josie turned to Celeste and muttered, “Excuse us a moment,” then she rose and led Becca from the room. It was only a few minutes before she and Becca entered the kitchen again so Becca could say goodbye. Then she was gone, and Josie returned to her seat. “Honestly, that girl is going to be the death of me. I have got to find a way to harness that energy and sell it. I could retire.”
Celeste’s laughter rang out across the room and Josie turned a questioning look in her direction. “Oh God, Josie. We can’t keep up with you now. What would we do if you had Becca’s energy? You’d kill us all.”
“Nah. We might actually get a day off now and then.”
Celeste raised an eyebrow. “And do what? I’ve never seen you do anything that wasn’t related to ranch work except on Sundays. And your Sundays are almost as bad as the rest of the week.”
“Maybe,” Josie shrugged. “But I find peace in church that I can’t find anywhere else... including the fields. I can hear God there – sometimes I need that.”
Celeste cocked her head. “Is that why you won’t let there be something between us? Because of God?”
Josie frowned and sighed. “No, Les. I told you why – I was honest about that. I don’t think God is that petty. Besides, we’re friends now, right?”
“Even after last night?”
“Even after last night. Friends are allowed to argue and disagree.”
“I’m sorry I said what I did.”
“I know. And it’s okay. Les, I’m not perfect. You need to understand that. But you also have to know that I’m doing my very best to keep you and the other kids Max brings to me alive. It has nothing to do with my ego, and everything to do with giving you all the best chance I know how.”
“I know. I just....”
Josie smiled sadly. “You’re still so young, Celeste. That is why I want you to go out and live. You haven’t really had that opportunity yet.”
“It won’t change anything.”
“Maybe,” Josie conceded. “But maybe it will. And that’s okay. I need you to understand and accept that. It’s okay if things do change, all right? Because we will always be friends.”
“Do you promise?”
“Yep,” said without hesitation. “And I will keep reminding you until you believe it.”
“It may take a while.”
“We have as long as we need. Now, c’mon. We’ve got chores to do.”
Celeste huffed and rolled her eyes, but smiled good-naturedly and followed Josie out the door.
The next few days passed swiftly, and it was time for Celeste to leave so she could get to school before classes started. Max wasn’t entirely happy with the situation. For one thing, she had delayed leaving until the last possible minute, even though he knew she had completed the course Josie had laid out for her. For another, she had chosen her own path of study, only taking some of the courses he’d recommended, and not all. He sensed Josie’s fine hand in that decision, but he couldn’t convince Celeste otherwise. Still, she would be well away from Josie’s influence once she left the ranch, and Max had found most of the other candidates he’d recruited more receptive to his methods once they were back in the ‘real world’. He expected Celeste would come around soon enough.
He knocked on the door, waiting for Josie to invite him in. She’d changed the locks as soon as they’d separated, and only once had he tried to pick the lock. He’d nearly shit himself when he heard the gun cock behind him... especially when he realized that she knew who he was and had pulled the gun anyway. He thought briefly about getting it away from her, but he knew it was a fifty-fifty proposition of her actually shooting him... or him accidentally shooting her. He’d learned his lesson, and never tried it again. Now he waited for her to admit him... or at least open the door.
He wasn’t surprised when the door opened, but he was more than a little taken aback by the woman facing him. Celeste stood in front of him, dressed like a model. His eyebrows jumped into his hairline. “Isn’t that just a little... ostentatious... for a new college freshman? What happened to keeping things on the down low?”
“Why should I? This is my job, Max. And I have a shoot to go to before my first class on Monday.”
“Margie is handling the details. That’s how this business works.”
“You’ll get used to it. Trust me – it’s best that I be seen out and about as the famous face I am. No one will notice me when I’m not ‘Celeste’.” She turned and looked behind her, then glanced down at her luggage. “Take my bags and wait for me at the car, all right? I’ll be right out.” She turned and made her way to the kitchen before Max could reply. It took him a minute to realize he’d been thoroughly handled, and he fleetingly wondered what other tricks she’d learned from Josie. Then he went and did her bidding. Celeste was obviously going to need a different tack to bring her into the fold.
Celeste entered the kitchen, placing a light hand on Becca’s shoulder, catching her when she gripped her in a bear hug. After a moment, she loosened her hold, and stepped back just enough to sign. ‘I’m going to miss you so much, Celeste. It’s been so great having you here – nice to have someone to talk to that understands me without me having to teach them first. I’m really glad you came here. You’ll stay in touch, yes?’
‘Yes,’ Celeste signed back. ‘You’re too amazing to not to keep in touch with. You’ll let me know how everything is going? How you and Josie are doing?’
‘I will. I know you like her.’
‘Does that upset you?’ not bothering to deny the truth to one who had witnessed her actions.
‘Only if you hurt her.’ Becca pulled back a little more and put her fists up, taking a few mock jabs before she started signing again. ‘I might have to challenge you to a duel or something if you hurt her, and I’m pretty sure you could kick my butt, so don’t do anything stupid, okay? I like you.”
Celeste laughed aloud and wrapped an arm around Becca’s shoulders so she could pull her close. She kissed the top of her head soundly and squeezed until Becca started laughing at her antics and pushing her away.
‘Mama’s in her study,’ she offered. ‘Better say your goodbyes quick. I’ll go stall Daddy.’ She kissed Celeste’s cheek, and dashed out of the kitchen. Celeste waited until she heard the front door close behind her before she turned her attention toward the office. She took a deep breath, and then another before she felt her heart rate settle, and only then did she allow her footsteps to take her down the hall to the solid wood door currently closed against her. She knocked lightly, then opened the door slowly, fully cognizant of what had happened the last and only time she had tried that tactic before. Her head had just cleared the doorway when she heard Josie’s voice.
“C’mon in, Les. Time’s a’wastin’ and we both know what a patient man Max is.” Celeste snorted and pushed the door open, not at all surprised to see Josie sitting in front of the fireplace. She crossed the room and stood in front of Josie, extending a hand and waiting for her to accept it. Josie rose and held Celeste in her arms for a long moment before she pulled out of the embrace and stepped back a pace to look her up and down. After a moment, she nodded her approval. “You look beautiful. How did Max take it?” motioning to her model look.
“Oh, I have a feeling I’ll be hearing about this for a while,” Celeste said with a shrug. “But I know how this business works. Max will adjust.”
Josie chuckled. “I wish I could see that. It’s been a long time since anyone schooled him.”
“Let me guess – you were the last?”
“The first; the last; the only until today.” She shook her head and laughed again. “Oh, to be a fly on the wall for the next few years.”
“I promise to keep you in the loop,” Celeste responded with a hint of tears in her eyes, even as she looked at her watch. She knew she was cutting it close, but.... “Come give me one last hug. I’ve got to go. I can handle Max, but Margie will kick my ass if I’m late to this shoot.”
Josie reached up, locking her arms around Celeste’s neck. Celeste wrapped her arms around Josie’s waist and pulled them tightly together, relishing the warmth they created. When she felt Josie begin to ease from her grasp, she held on just a little tighter and bent her head.
“Something to remember me by,” she whispered, then pressed a firm, chaste kiss to Josie’s lips. Before Josie could react in any way, she released her hold and headed for the door. She paused a moment and expelled a deep breath. “Bye, Josie. I’ll see you when I see you.” Then she left without a backwards glance.
Josie watched her go. Then she turned and walked out the French doors. She still had a ranch to run.
It wasn’t the last time they saw one another. On the contrary – Celeste came ‘home’ whenever she had breaks in school, and she didn’t have some kind of modeling gig scheduled. Sometimes, she took a break anyway – whether it was scheduled or not. And every time she returned, Josie put her through her paces – to keep her on her toes and subtlely remind her of what hard work really was. Celeste never complained, but went straight to work, happy to find that each time was a little easier than the last. Her agent Margie wasn’t nearly as happy, as every time Celeste returned, she was a little more muscular and tanned than she had been before. But the people hiring Celeste seemed to love her new look, so Margie kept her thoughts mostly to herself.
As for Josie, she was always happy to welcome Celeste back. Each visit made them better friends, and Celeste never pressed for more beyond a chaste, goodbye kiss, many of which were merely a brush of lips against a smooth cheek. And so time passed.
Josie knew through her own sources, as well as Celeste, (and occasionally Max) much of what was going on in Celeste’s life when she was away from the ranch. She knew when she was out on assignments; how well she was doing in school; when and where her photo shoots were; her dalliances; and she knew when she fell in love... or fell in love again as was the case.
It made her a little melancholy, but at the same time she was happy for Celeste. More than anything, Josie wanted the younger woman to find happiness – to counteract the hint of sadness she had seen resonating in her green eyes. And for a while she was happy... until a mission brought it all crashing down around her.
Josie never got all the details, but when all was said and done, the mission was deemed a success. A bad man was dead and another was behind bars for the rest of his natural life. And Celeste and Chandler were no longer a couple. And this time, there was little hope for reconciliation.
This time, instead of returning home to the ranch, Celeste had thrown herself into her work. And between her modeling and her missions, had been going non-stop for a while. It made her careless; it made her reckless; it made her unsafe. It was the reason she was lying unconscious in Josie’s guest room and the reason Josie was sitting by her bedside praying for a full recovery. Because despite everything – despite what she knew to be the truth – she felt a little guilty and somewhat responsible for what had happened. Because maybe if she’d given in when Celeste had first asked, maybe they wouldn’t be here now.
And maybe she’d resent the hell out of you for squandering her youth instead of letting her live her own life! Her subconscious responded. Because while she did love you – still does – she was never in love with you... not the way she’s in love with Chandler still. Besides, you weren’t in love with her... you still aren’t. But I could! She argued. I could be if I tried. She lifted a hand to clutch her hair, trying to drown out the voices fighting for dominance, but before she could pull too hard, she felt the lightest squeeze on the hand holding Celeste’s good hand.
“Stop thinking so hard,” came the mumbled words before she groaned loudly. “Oh, God... it hurts,” gritting her teeth and tightening her grip as she became more cognizant of the pain. Josie reached over with her free hand and opened the morphine drip, feeling Celeste’s hold lighten as the drug started to take effect.
“Uh huh,” giving her a slightly goofy smile. “And stop thinking so hard. The vibrations woke me up and I’m not sure I can handle this just yet, ‘kay? I’m gonna go back to sleep now. Not your fault, Jos... none of this. You were right,” Celeste muttered, then fell back into a deep sleep.
Josie leaned forward and brushed a kiss over her forehead before prying her hand out of Celeste’s clutch. “Get some rest, Les. It’s gonna be a long, uphill battle this time, and I’m not sure you’re ready to make this trip.”
Then she turned and left the room, door open and monitor in hand. It was time to call for reinforcements, and to get the details about what really happened. Because Josie knew Max, and he’d never been known for his ability to tell the truth.
“I really hate that man.” She opened her office door and set to work.
It took several days before the pain was under control enough that Celeste felt able to cope without morphine or any of the lesser narcotics Max had left behind for her. She was still taking over-the-counter pain reliever, but at least those didn’t knock her out or make her feel stupid and slow. She still cradled her injured limb close to her body, but knew the time was quickly coming when Josie was going to make her start using it. She dreaded that day, as it was going to be unhappiness for everyone… all the way around, but mostly for her and Josie. Her because... well, pain had never really been her thing. Josie because she was the closest available target and pain tended to make people lash out.
Still, as she had learned at an early age – the quickest way is straight through. So she sat up slowly and eased herself from the bed, standing in place for a long moment to collect her bearings. She pushed messy blonde hair from her face and wrapped her good arm around the bad protectively, then she shuffled down the hallway toward the kitchen.
She was glad Josie was alone. She was embarrassed by her appearance, but she couldn’t maintain her sanity lying in that bed one more day. Josie turned at the whisper of sound as Celeste crossed into the kitchen, and she opened her arms even as her eyes shown with tears. Celeste stepped gingerly into the embrace and held on tightly for long minutes. She had missed this – had missed this woman – with an intensity she hadn’t even noticed until just now. She let the tears slide down her face as she settled into the feeling of home. Josie just held her and let her cry.
After a few minutes. Celeste stepped back and wiped the remaining tears from her face. Then she gave Josie a weak smile. “Sorry. It’s just so good to be home... to be here with you... again. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.”
Josie smiled. “We’ve missed you too – everyone has – but me most of all, I think. It’s good to have you home. Now, first I think you need a shower. I mean, no offense, but....”
“... but I offend. I know; I’m making my own eyes water. I’m just not sure I can manage without help. I think I can probably bathe myself, but getting undressed is a little more problematic. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to get this wet,” hitching up her arm slightly, before freezing and hissing out a pained breath. “OW.”
“Well, c’mon in the bathroom,” taking Celeste’s good hand and leading her back to the guest room that always served as the sick room. Josie pushed the curtain aside, and gestured to the built-in seat. “That will make it easier for you to bathe – less likelihood of falling down if you’re already sitting.” She leaned back to meet green eyes. “Do you trust me?”
“All right. Step into the enclosure,” assisting her over the small lip of the shower. “Have a seat; I’ll be right back,” making sure Celeste was seated comfortably before turning to the linen closet. Celeste closed her eyes and focused on her breathing, leaning her head against the wall. She’d never realized how draining sitting could be. She could hear Josie moving around, but was simply too tired to care. In another moment, a light touch on her good hand brought her sleepily awake. Josie was staring at her in concern. Celeste grimaced slightly.
“You’re too good to me, Jos.”
“Not possible, Les. Now c’mon,” as she eased Celeste’s clothes from her body. “I’ve got your towels warming. Let’s get you undressed so you can shower, and I’ll put some clean sheets on your bed. Then we’ll see about getting you something to eat that doesn’t taste like IV fluid or glucose.”
“Can I brush my teeth first?” asked almost breathlessly. All the effort was depleting her reserves rapidly.
“If you’d like,” wrapping the injury as well as she could, then returning Celeste to the shower seat. “Call me when you’re done and I’ll get your back.” Josie turned on the water. “I’ll make it a little warmer than luke, but not as hot as you prefer. We want you to be able to walk out of the shower as well.”
“You won’t go far?”
“Just into the bedroom,” Josie assured. ‘I’ll leave the door open so I can hear you.” She handed Celeste a washcloth and started the shower running. “Take the time you need.”
“Thank you, Josie,” Celeste whispered. “You don’t know how much....”
“Yeah, I do. Be careful now, all right?”
Josie had the bed stripped and remade and was sitting on the counter when Celeste was ready for her help again. It took a few more minutes and a lot of finagling, but eventually, Celeste was clean and dried and dressed.
“Oh my God,” she wheezed when she was finally seated at the kitchen table. She held her head in her hand and had her eyes closed and she concentrated on getting her breathing under control. “Remind me to never do something like this again.”
Josie’s eyebrows went to the top of her hairline. “Did you do this on purpose then?”
Celeste opened her eyes enough to glare at Josie briefly before shutting them again. “Are you crazy?? Of course not!” She huffed. “It was my fault though... not yours.” She opened her eyes again and gave Josie a lazy smile. “I know you’ve tried to make this somehow your responsibility, and it’s not... not in any way. You were right... about so many things.”
“I’m still sorry this happened to you, Les. This wasn’t exactly what I mean when I told you about getting life experience.”
Celeste offered a sad smile. “I know. But aren’t the lessons we learn the best the ones the cost us the dearest?” She snorted softly. “At least you never lied to me.”
“Is that what caused this?” Josie asked as she set a plate of food in front of Celeste. “Someone lied to you?”
“If I promise to tell you sometime, can I not answer that question right now?”
“Les, you never have to answer or share anything you’re not comfortable with. You know that. But please don’t think that injury is going to get you out of doing your share around here either. I’ll give you a few days to work out the kinks, but then...? Oh, and Becca will be home for Spring Break in another week or two. Best if you’re able to at least talk to her when she gets here.”
“No pressure or anything, Josie,” she replied wryly as she slowly put food in her mouth. “This is really good. I’ve missed your cooking.”
“Then I expect to see you eating regular meals while you’re here. You’ve lost too much weight recently. And everyone knows cowhands have to eat hearty to keep up.”
“Yeah, models don’t have that luxury.”
“Good thing you’re not a model when you’re here then, huh?” Josie grinned. Celeste just chuckled and ducked her head, focusing her attention on the food Josie had provided. It really was good to be home again.
The next couple of weeks were agonizing for Celeste. She spent most of her waking hours doing some kind of therapy on her arm. She added a number of inventive curse words to her vocabulary, much to Josie’s delight and entertainment. But when Becca arrived home for Spring Break, Celeste had made enough progress to do basic sign language.
Becca, for her part, was overjoyed to see Celeste again, and ran into her arms... until she felt the unconscious flinch. She pulled back and saw pain flash across pale features, and understood what her mother had been trying to tell her. She leaned forward and kissed the smooth cheek in apology. ‘I’m sorry, Les. I didn’t even think....”
‘It’s all right, Bec. I’m happy to see you too,’ opening her arm and waiting for Becca to step into a side hug. They held on to one another for a long time before Becca finally released her hold and stepped back to meet hazel eyes.
‘How are you doing... really?’
Celeste shrugged carefully. ‘I’ve been better, but I’ve certainly been worse. It gets a little easier every day.’
‘Good... I’m glad. Sorry it took this for you to come home again, though.’
‘Me too. But some things you can only learn to truly appreciate when you don’t have them anymore.’ She looked around the ranch house slowly. ‘I think I’m gonna stay a while.”
Becca nodded. ‘I think that’s a good idea. It’ll be good for you. She narrowed her eyes and studied Celeste closely, causing Celeste to return the scrutiny. ‘You look tired. Mama can fix that.’
Celeste laughed aloud and Becca crooked an eyebrow at her. ‘Bec, no one works me harder than your Mama.’
“Yes, but you get an honest night’s sleep from an honest day’s work too,” Josie replied out loud as she signed for Becca’s benefit. “I don’t recall you having all that much issue with insomnia when you’ve been here.”
Celeste snorted. “Insomnia wouldn’t dare.”
“Probably not,” Josie joked. “Ya’ll come on into the kitchen. It’s time to get dinner ready.”
‘But I just got home!” Becca complained with a smile.
‘No rest for the wicked, Daughter!’ Josie smirked. Then they trekked together into the kitchen to begin dinner preparations.
Becca’s Spring Break passed in a whirlwind of activity and laughter, and it was only after she headed back to school that Celeste felt like she could take a deep breath. She and Josie were sitting in the office – scotch for Celeste, rum punch for Josie – watching the flames crackle in the fireplace. “I’ve missed this,” she confessed. It was the first time they had resumed their ritual since Max had brought her back to the ranch. “It’s like the one time a day I can relax and just be.”
Josie nodded. “Same,” she responded. ‘Even without you and Becca here, I don’t always have a moment to do this. And you girls run me ragged,” making a face and causing Celeste to smirk. “How are you doing?”
Celeste shrugged. “Better. It was good to have Becca home again, and to hear about her new beau. Do you think it’s serious?”
Josie shrugged. “I think it will be if Becca lets it. He’s a nice young man – Max and I both like him.”
“Damn – I never thought I’d hear you two agree about anything.”
“Because we mostly don’t. But our problems with each other are not allowed to interfere in our daughter’s life. We both want what’s best for her, and Aaron seems to be that. However, it will ultimately be Becca’s choice to make. He will have our blessing if it gets to that point.”
“You don’t think it will?”
“As I said – if that’s what Becca wants. I think she just wants to be sure about me.”
Celeste frowned and propped her head up on her good hand. “What do you mean?”
Josie sighed. “Austin was the man of the family for most of Becca’s growing up years – because Max was always off saving the world. I think Max told him it was his responsibility to look out for his sister and me, but regardless of why, from the time he was about twelve or so, Austin saw himself as the responsible man of the house. He did odd jobs around the neighborhood, though I never took the money he made. He took on a lot of the chores around the house and barns. He rode with the boys as often as he could. I tried to get him to just be a kid, but....” Josie shook her head. “He was determined to be the man his daddy wanted him to be.” She sighed. “When he died.... You know, the last time I checked, I was a fully capable grown woman. Even when Max and I were on more than friendly terms, I did for myself. I was born and raised here – ranching has always been in my blood, and Mama and Daddy expected all us kids to do our share, you know? I’ve always been able to outwork just about anyone around here. So why my children think I need to be mollycoddled...??” She blew out an impatient breath and glared at Celeste.
Green eyes widened in response and she took a deep breath before blowing it out slowing as she collected her thoughts. Finally – “Can I say something and you won’t get mad?”
“I guess that depends on what you say, doesn’t it?”
“Please, Josie. I know you’re not going to like it, but I need you to not get mad at me.” Josie regarded her for a moment, then nodded her agreement. “I think it was the only way Max knew to show you he loved you, and kids learn by example, right? His father told Austin to look out for you – you look out for others by doing for them... by taking care of and providing for them. Your boy did what his father asked by watching you and following your example. His sister did the same by watching him.”
Josie narrowed her eyes and thought about it. “So I’m right. Becca wants to be sure I’m taken care of. I’m keeping my daughter from finding her own happiness because she thinks she’s supposed to take care of me.”
“I don’t think you’re keeping Becca from finding happiness – I think she’s decided what that is and when she’s ready, she’ll claim it. The fact that she wants to make sure you’re taken care of as well just goes to her upbringing. It’s not a bad thing, Jos, and it’s not wrong. Just make sure she knows you’re happy and want what’s best for her.”
Josie cut her eyes in Celeste’s direction, but didn’t turn and face her directly. “You’re a pretty smart cookie. So how did you end up nearly losing an arm? You’re better than that, Les.”
Celeste was silent for several minutes, but Josie didn’t move nor did she repeat the question. She sighed and closed her eyes as she took a healthy swallow of scotch. “Yes, but stupid can happen to anybody on a bad day, and I’ve been having a lot of bad days recently.” Josie remained silent and finally Celeste was compelled to speak again. “What do you know about Chandler Marx?”
Josie shook her head. “Only what you care to share with me.”
Celeste didn’t quite believe her – EVERYONE had heard of Chandler Marx, and she knew the resources Josie was capable of harnessing at any given moment, but she also understood what Josie was trying to do. And despite everything, Celeste was always grateful for Josie’s discretion. She opened her eyes and focused on the flames, then sucked in a deep breath and started to speak.
“I know you’ve heard of Chandler Marx – everyone’s heard of her. The child star prodigy with the voice of an angel... and like so many other child stars, she got into trouble when she hit her teenage years. You name it, she probably did it – or was at least accused of doing it by association.” She closed her eyes and let the memories wash over her, bringing the slightest hint of a smile to her lips. “I met Chandler when I was seventeen... the summer before my senior year of high school. And it was amazing. She was so different from the way the media portrayed her. She still had the big, amazing voice, but she herself was nothing like I expected her to be. She was quiet... almost shy... a little awkward; she was kind and funny and....”
“And you fell in love with her.”
Celeste’s eyes popped open and she snapped her head to Josie when she heard the whispered words. She nodded and turned back to the fire. “I did... with all the intensity of a seventeen-year-old. I invested everything I had in her, and for a while – for a blink in time – it was fantastic. We were so good together, and then one day... she was just... gone. No explanation, no goodbye – just... gone. It nearly destroyed me. As melodramatic as it sounds, it really did push me into a spiral.” She turned to back to Josie. “I was lucky – I had a guardian angel looking out for me. I’ll have to introduce you one day.”
“To your guardian angel?”
Celeste nodded. “Dawson’s a good man. You’d like him.” She chuckled at Josie’s raised eyebrow. “Not trying to set you up – he’s been married to the same lovely woman for over twenty years, though I’ve never had the pleasure.” She shook her head at Josie’s expression. “It’s complicated. Maybe I’ll explain it one day.”
Josie just sat quietly. She knew what complicated equated in the business. She motioned for Celeste to continue her story. Celeste lost her wistful smile and swallowed hard before she turned her attention back to the fireplace.
“Several months ago, Chandler came back into my orbit. As a model, I tend to meet the movers and shakers – it’s one reason it makes such a great cover. No one questions my right to be anywhere.” Josie nodded – she knew the drill. “So when Max put me into this assignment.... You have to understand – what I did was necessary, but I never expected....”
“I never met her dad – hell, I never knew his name, but was pretty confident that Chandler’s father was a scumbag of some degree from the things she let slip when we were kids. I didn’t know if he was mafia or a kingpin or what, but it was clear to me that he was never a standup guy. Jos, he was even worse than I could have dreamed. He had his hands in a little bit of everything illegal... including child slavery and sex trading. So imagine my surprise when, after I’m put into his circle, I find Chandler again. She was dating his right-hand man, though anyone with two brain cells and half an eye could see she was with him because Daddy told her to be. Apparently, he was her minder as well as her security. I know she was as surprised to see me as I was to see her.”
She shuddered, her breath shallow as she swallowed back the tears she could feel clawing at her throat.
“She didn’t know why I was really there, of course. How could she? I’m very good at what I do, and I couldn’t share the truth with her – she was tied to both of my targets. It didn’t stop me from falling in love with her again... especially when she explained the truth of what had happened before. Her father had heard rumors of her with a woman and he brought her home and ‘schooled’ her in the way her life was going to go. Family and tradition and appearances, you know,” her voice sneering. “And I wanted so much to believe her. It meant she still loved me.” She gave a shaky, sad laugh. “You were right, you know. I did need to go out and experience life. If nothing else, it made me appreciate what I had – made me understand how amazing you really are... letting me grow up on my own terms.” She took a deep draught of scotch. “I don’t think Chandler ever had that opportunity.”
Josie finally turned and eased the glass from Celeste’s hand before cradling it between her own. “Tell me the rest.”
“Not much to tell. When Chandler discovered I lied to her about who and what I really was, she had a come apart. When she realized I was the reason her old man was dead and her boyfriend was in jail, she walked out without looking back. I haven’t seen or heard from her since.”
“And you threw yourself into work like a crazy person.”
“Pretty much, yes.”
“Do you still love her?”
“I think part of me always will,” Celeste replied honestly. “But that doesn’t mean I feel less for you, Josie. Please don’t think that.”
Josie smiled softly. “Les, there are many kinds love, and if we’re lucky, we experience a multitude of them in our lifetime. You don’t need to apologize or explain – just appreciate the fact that you have so much love in your life... past and present. Besides, she was your first. I still remember my first love with as much fondness as I do melancholy.”
Celeste chuckled and pulled her hand from Josie’s clasp so she could wipe the wetness from her face. “So not Max then,” asked with a watery smile.
“Oh, God – no. His name was Jason, and he was so... dreamy,” her expression causing Celeste to giggle. Josie put on an affronted countenance. “I’ll have you know that is a perfectly acceptable expression,” causing Celeste to laugh even harder. “Well, I can see how much I’m appreciated here,” she scoffed, crossing her arms over her chest and sticking her nose up in the air. Celeste slid out of her chair and knelt at Josie’s feet.
“So much, Josie... never doubt that,” she said seriously.
Josie turned and looked at her, eyes softening. She cupped Celeste’s face in her palm. “I know, Sweetie. I’m luckier than most. So what are you going to do now?”
“I dunno. I told Max I needed some time off. He didn’t take it very well.”
Josie snorted. “He never does. What about the modeling?”
Celeste lifted her sling, wincing with the motion before lowering it again gently. “They know I’m out for a while. They think it was a stalker. It’s not beyond the realm of possibilities, unfortunately.”
“I know. We’ve eliminated a few of them.”
“We... you... who...? Excuse me?”
Josie laughed. “We take care of our own, Les. Now c’mon – it’s late and we got a lot of work to do tomorrow.”
Celeste smirked. “We always do,” easing to her feet to keep from falling over. She offered her hand to Josie. “You know, you’re always saying that to me.”
“That we’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow?” Josie said with a smirk as she accepted the hand held out to her. Celeste tightened her grip slightly.
“That too. But mostly, I was talking about you always telling me to come on. You should know by now that I will always follow you.”
Josie didn’t answer but tugged on their joined hands, leading Celeste to her room. “Goodnight, Les,” she offered before releasing her grip and turning away to make her way up the stairs to her own room.
The next few months ran along a similar vein. Celeste continued therapy on her arm and gradually reintegrated herself into the work routine of the ranch, though she was still not at full capacity. Josie took on training a new kid for Max, and Celeste marveled at her patience and tenacity. She could remember how grueling the work had been when she’d been training - she’d never realized how exhausting Josie’s training was for Josie. She’d always made it look so easy.
But regardless of how the day had gone, they still shared their evenings in the office once the new kid was in bed asleep. No pressure, no agenda – just time spent together. Most nights they shared conversation, talking about everything – the people that meant something to them; their pasts and histories; the state of the world; politics and religion; hopes; dreams; fears. So they grew closer even though their physical relationship was less than what it had been before Chandler had re-emerged in Celeste’s life more than a year previously.
It wasn’t like she was a shadow between them – more that Celeste felt she needed to prove her devotion to Josie. Meanwhile, Josie was content to enjoy Celeste’s company and the peace. She had feelers out – she had a reasonable idea of how things would eventually play out. Imagine her surprise when things went a little differently than she expected.
‘Mama? Are you all right?’ Becca signed. They were out in the honeybee meadow collecting flowers for Becca’s wedding later that afternoon. They were careful not to take too many of one kind, and to leave the bees to their work. But Becca had wanted her wedding to be as homey as possible, so they were using the ranch as a location, and the flowers of her childhood for bouquets. Aaron, Celeste and Max were in charge of cleaning and preparing the barn for the nuptials, allowing Josie and Becca a little time alone.
‘Just tired, Baby Girl. Are you happy?’
‘Excited. A little scared,’ Becca admitted. ‘But Aaron’s a good man, and I love him.’
‘I know you do. You’ll be so good together. Just don’t make me wait forever for grandkids, all right?” signed with a smile and a distinct twinkle in her eyes. Becca’s eyes widened and her jaw dropped in scandalous outrage.
Josie laughed out loud and she caught Becca’s hands between her own and pulled them together so she could kiss Becca’s forehead. ‘Just be happy, Baby Girl,’ she signed.
‘You too, Mama. I know you’re not in love with her, but I think you and Celeste could be happy together if you’d allow it. Take a chance on her. She loves you.’
‘I know she does, and I love her. I’m just not sure it’s enough.’
‘Maybe you should talk to her. She has some say in this too, you know.’
‘Maybe,’ Josie shrugged. ‘Now come on. Let’s go get you married.’
They were sharing a dance during the reception, and Celeste tilted her head down slightly to meet Josie’s brown eyes. “I talked to Becca earlier,” feeling Josie stiffen slightly in her embrace, ignoring it and holding her just a little tighter. “I think she’s right, Jos. We could be happy together if you’d let us. Won’t you let us try?”
“Les, you’re not anymore in love with me than I am with you. Can you look me in the eye and tell me that loving and caring for one another would be enough?”
Celeste drew them to a stop on the dance floor, causing everyone else to go around them. But she didn’t care – she was too focused on making her point. “Josie, we’re already best friends, and we already love one another. I think committing to one another and adding the physical aspect to our intimacy will only strengthen our relationship. I’ve always been attracted to you – you know that, and I told you that I wouldn’t give up. Why shouldn’t we choose to be happy together?”
“And you don’t think becoming lovers will mess up the dynamic we already share?”
“I think it will make it better,” hazel holding brown with a passionate intensity. “C’mon, Josie. Choose me – choose us. I promise you it will be the best decision you ever make.”
Josie let herself study those hazel green eyes, reading the honesty and intent in them. After a moment, she urged Celeste’s head down until their lips were a millimeter apart. “All right,” she whispered, her breath ghosting over Celeste’s lips. “Let’s take that chance... together.”
Celeste didn’t hesitate, but closed the gap and let their lips meet. Josie wrapped her hands in the short, blonde hair and tugged her closer when a warm tongue brushed over her bottom lip. Then all they knew was each other for long minutes. They didn’t hear the applause, nor see Becca signing excitedly to her father and new husband. ‘It’s about time!’
Max gave her a pained smile, and turned away.
The chairs in front of the fireplace had been replaced by a comfortable love seat, and Celeste sighed in exhaustion as she dropped down gracelessly next to Josie and curled into her warmth. She smiled and closed her eyes in contentment when she felt Josie wrap a secure arm around her and brush a kiss over the top of her head. She snuggled down until she could tuck her head under Josie’s chin and finally felt herself relax.
“You all right?” Josie asked as she handed her a cup of homemade hot chocolate. “I’m not real crazy about you going out on this shoot next week. You’ve been awfully tired a lot recently. Besides,” said with more than a hint of a pout, “you’re going to miss our first Valentines Day together.”
“I know, and I’m not thrilled about that little fact myself. But I made some arrangements for us to celebrate tomorrow night.” She paused and sat up enough so she could meet Josie’s eyes, her own sparkling with happiness and delight. “Besides, this is gonna be the last shoot for a while,” grinning when Josie cocked an eyebrow at her. Celeste giggled. “The procedure worked, Jos... we’re pregnant.”
Josie’s eyes widened. “We’re... really? Are you sure?? I mean.....” She pulled Celeste tighter to her and embraced her as gently as she could manage. “I love you, ya know.”
“I know, Baby. I love you too and I’ve never been happier. Thank you for taking a chance on us.”
“Best chance I ever took – best choice I ever made. And wait til Becca hears she’s going to be an older sister.” Josie laughed and Celeste giggled as Josie stood and tugged her to her feet. “C’mon, Little Mama – we need to put you to bed. You need all the rest you can get.”
“Josie,” Celeste whined. “It’s barely even dark. I can’t go to sleep this early.”
“Who said anything about sleep?” Josie asked, waggling her eyebrows. “I think your news calls for a little celebration. You can sleep in late tomorrow. Now, c’mon!”
“Where you lead, I’ll always follow – you already know that. Now take me to bed, Lover. We’ve got a lot of celebrating to do.”
”Ah, the suffering... the things we do for love,“ Josie joked as they left the office, kissing and teasing one another. The sound of giggling and squealing followed them down the hall and up the stairs, before the door closed behind them, leaving the house quiet once more.