posted June 2003
Breakfast at the restaurant was a good idea. Steph wasn't particularly fond of hotels and she usually became restless in generic rooms. She always felt observed and the small family owned hotels had a way of being too familiar and this hotel was no exception. And the owner, Margaret Redgrave' s daily question if they were to eat breakfast together with Kate Jordan confirmed that. For some reason, that was something Steph did not want to share with the entire town. Even if Mrs. Redgrave was a lovely woman and had done a terrific job creating a nice atmosphere over the place, Steph felt relieved when she and Jason walked out of the hotel.
”Good morning, Kate”, Steph said as she and Jason, for the fourth morning in a row, entered the restaurant around nine o'clock.
Kate, with her back at the door, was carefully preparing the coffee machine but the sound of her two guests caused a brief pause in her work. Unconsciously a soft smile painted her face.
”Good morning," Kate replied without looking at them. "How are my favorite breakfast-guests today?”
Steph heard Kate's smile in her tone. Steph wondered with fascination at the woman who every morning greeted them with the same smile.
”I don't now if we are in the same, positive, mood as you seem to be. To get a six year old sleepyhead up from bed doesn't amplify one's good mood,” she sighed. Steph reached over and ruffled Jason's hair lovingly.
Kate turned around and met them smilingly from behind the counter. ”Have a seat," she said and nodded towards a table by the window. "The bakery wasn't open today - don't ask why - so I have to see if there is something in the refrigerator.”
A sudden sting of guilt - or perhaps a feeling of inactivity - crossed Steph's mind. She put her jacket over the chair and walked up to Kate.
”Why don't I make breakfast today?” she suggested. ”You have done enough for us." The newspaper lay on the counter. Steph picked it up and handed it to the woman she was facing. "Sit down, read the paper." She smilingly tilted her head and said cunningly, "I will serve you your coffee."
Observing a brief hint of hesitation on Kate's face, Steph sensed this woman was not easy to persuade.
"I can make some of my famous scrambled eggs," she twinkled, eyeing her sheepishly. "At least they are famous in my family." The situation was getting ridiculous and Steph couldn't stop a faint but honest chuckle from erupting. "Well, Jason likes them,” she grinned.
Kate didn't respond. Her eyebrows quirked a bit taken aback by Steph's offer. The thought of someone else taking care of her in her own kitchen was surreal. The young woman hadn't given up though and eventually Kate had to laugh. ”How can I turn such an offer down?” She swept her arm towards the kitchen. ”Make yourself at home!”
With a cup of coffee in her hand, Kate had tried to read the paper but she couldn't let go of wondering if Steph really did know what she was doing in her kitchen? Her worry soon turned out to be unjustified.
”If I ever decide to start serving breakfast,” Kate said wiping the corner of her mouth with her thumb, “can I hire you?” She smiled and took another large bite before saying, ”These are one of the best scrambled eggs I ever had!”
Steph chuckled and wriggled a bit out of embarrassment. ”I believe you are exaggerating but I'm glad you liked them,” she responded with faint blush coloring her face.
Kate sighed and leaned back in the chair. With a satisfied look she addressed the breakfast companion.
”I don't think I've had a real morning meal for months." Steph looked at her and smirked, imagining a very content, purring cat.
"Orange juice, eggs, toast and pancakes. I could get used to this,” Kate stated with a lazy smile and let her eyes rest on Steph's light blue ones. They held each other's gaze for a few seconds until Kate let go and turned her attention to the black beverage in the mug.
Silence fell. Kate stirred the coffee with a spoon and watched the dark whirl of coffee. From the kitchen she heard giggling and more noise than she wanted to but she decided not to let it ruin her morning. After all - it was only Fabricio and Jason having a good time. As soon as Fabricio, tired and unshaved, had arrived to the restaurant, Jason had finished his meal in haste and run after him.
They better not ruin anything, Kate thought as the giggling turned to laughter. To get something else to pay attention to, she asked what they were up for today.
Steph, equipped with a mother's ability to relax by her son's playfulness, calmly took a sip of her coffee before replying. “I actually don't know,” she said and put the mug back on the table. It had been long since she felt she really didn't know what to do and a sense of emptiness came over her. Her look slowly traveled between the plats, across the table and up to Kate's eyes. “Being homeless isn't exactly something that challenges my creativity,” offering Kate a sad smile.
“Well,” Kate mused and brushed together the breadcrumbs on her side of the table. “It gives you time to do nothing but think.” She paused looking at the young woman and saw something like confusion in her eyes. “It's like,” she continued, searching for what she meant, “sitting in an airport waiting for your flight – that of course is delayed – and you have already read all the magazines. Only thing left to occupy you is what you carry in your mind.”
Steph smiled and looked out through the window. Her look followed a flock of seagulls circulating in the sky. They seemed happy as they easily floated on the winds and without any effort moved without getting anywhere.
“I guess I could pay some attention to my work,” she said turning her face away from the sky and met Kate's.
”Your work?” Kate wondered surprised quirking her eyebrows.
Steph smiled and realized Kate must have believed she didn't have a job.
”Which alternative had you decided?" Steph asked cunningly, "- that I was a vagabond, living on air and sunshine or that my pockets were lined with trust funds?”
Kate grinned and embarrassingly admitted she had thought of both scenarios but yet hadn't decided for either.
”Well, how can you know since we have never talked about it?”
Kate didn't respond so Steph straightened her self and continued.
”I have a PhD in astronomy," she said and took a bite from her toast. "The idé was that I should continue with my studies but," she took an extra breath before dolefully saying, "when my father died I lost motivation. I couldn't stand listening to professors or reading an article. Nevertheless write one. The whole academic world seemed senseless.”
She paused and took a sip of her coffee. The pause gave her a much needed moment to collect the grieving emotions that still ran through her body when she thought about her father. She put down her cup and looked restrained at Kate. ”Instead I have lived like a vagabond for three years now. Me, Voyager and, in the first place, Jason is all that matters.”
Kate looked with compassion at Steph. ”That is one variation I hadn't thought of,” she commented softly.
Steph smiled vaguely. ”Your assumption was correct though,” she stated and tried a smile. She was already trapped in her emotions though and needed a bit of time to get out of there. Smiling was just not enough.
The older woman sensed the struggle and faintly said, ”I'm sorry about your father." She paused for a beat. "He must have meant a great deal to you?”
Steph felt her heart begin to ache. ”More than I ever could have known,” she answered feeling her throat tighten. The memory from that time still haunted her and, even if she wanted, she had problems letting go.
”Perhaps we can talk about it some other time,” Steph begged and looked at the clear blue sky again. ”I don't want to think about it now. Not on a day like this.”
Kate tilted her head slightly to the right and wrinkled her eyebrows in sympathy. ”I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you.”
Steph turned her attention back to Kate. ”It's okay," she replied honestly. "I actually do want to tell you but not right now. Some other day.” She rested her eyes in Kate's before escaping to her, almost empty, glass of orange juice for a safety.
They sat in silence for a while. Steph collected her thoughts over the time that had passed since she left UCLA and research. She hadn't had the strength to deal with it again. She knew she had fled and hoped that time would heal all wounds. It was now obvious that it hadn't worked. She still felt the pain. It was time to take care of her life again. Time had caught up to her and she had to stop fleeing. When Jason would begin school they couldn't live like this. She felt downhearted.
”I have an old friend at Harvard,” Steph said pondering breaking the silence. “Maybe I should take a day and go see him? Just to get to a sense of atmosphere.”
“Sounds like a good idea.”
“Mm,” Steph hummed in response, “I actually don't know if I can call it work any more. I have been away for a long time and perhaps it's --,” she paused searching for what it was, “not for me anymore?”
Kate could feel the conflict radiating from Steph. For some reason though, she found Steph's way of reaching for an answer quite endearing. She lifted her mug and looking over the rim she said, “No harm in looking.”
“No,” Steph responded without being aware of how she had searched for confirmation. “I would need someone to look after Jason though,” she said absently as a hint of familiar excitement began to twirl inside her. The thought of doing something, revisiting the world she once left somehow awakened a slumbering curiosity.
”I can look after him!” Kate replied spontaneously. ”He can stay with me and Fabricio here at the restaurant.”
Steph woke up from her own thoughts. ”Kate you have a job to do. You don't want a six year old running around your legs.”
Kate crossed her arms and looked at Steph. ”Oh, I think I can handle the young man," she replied with a cocky voice. "We get along well, Fabricio adores him and Jason is used to be here.”
Steph wasn't so certain. Casting a brief glance at the kitchen door and listening to the giggling behind it she said, ”You know from your first encounter how he can be." She turned back to Kate. “Full speed ahead!”
Kate quirked her eyebrows and said in a cocky tone, "I am used to drunken old men, a little boy is nothing but a joy."
Right as she had said the words, Jason, screaming with laughter came charging through the kitchen doors. Both women jerked by the sudden loudness and turned their faces, only to see Jason covered in flour. Right behind him was Fabricio covered in the same white powder.
"I'll gonna get you," the chef said in a spooky voice and chuckled. Immediately, as he saw his boss's not-quite-so happy face, he stopped in his tracks. He grinned and rapidly headed back into the kitchen.
Jason giggled hysterically as he came up to his mother and Kate. Steph didn't know what to do. Jason had crossed the line yet she had difficult blaming him for having fun. She threw a quick glance at Kate and it was just in the same moment as Kate realized she should not be mad. Not when so much joy had been served to her for breakfast.
Kate met Steph's look. "Full speed ahead," she repeated. "But I still think I will be able to handle him. God help me otherwise."
Steph hadn't been convinced before and now she most definitely wasn't. But after a short moment of consideration she shook her head and smiled. ”Remember that I warned you!”
Kate shone. ”I will never forget that,” she grinned. "Now, if you excuse me." Kate rose. "I have a chef to talk to."
“Stephanie! Come in.”
“Professor Collins. Thank you for seeing me.”
The man approached her with open arms. “Oh, Stephanie," he said wryly. "You and I have known each other too long to keep up with the titles." He eyed her, tilted his head as if he searched for understanding and gently said, "It's Jeff.”
He met her with natural warmth and she felt each nerve in her body relax. She had been unsettled about coming here for reasons both concerning her personal and professional self but now, as the friendly face met her, she decided to let this moment turn out to be what ever it was.
Jeff Collins, professor in astrophysics at Harvard University , was one of Steph's oldest acquaintances inside the world of science. The first time they met was at the Keck telescopes in Hawaii . Steph was there for her graduate student research and Jeff was visiting a fellow scientist he shared a project with.
The two had, despite difference in age and experience, found each other immediately. With the same devotion and focus on their respective work, they quickly came to share a great respect for one another. Jeff had, from the first moment he saw her, known that Steph would get far and he had encouraged her to move forward with her theses. When he found out that she had dropped out, he had been surprised. Then later they lost all contact. Jeff never found out why Steph dropped out and now, when he saw the blond woman, he felt this still might not the time to seek the answer.
Steph smiled embarrassingly at her formal manners. ”Jeff,” Steph corrected and embraced her old friend. ”It has been a long time.”
”Yes, it has,” Jeff replied and patted her back.
Steph really regretted loosing contact with him. Standing in his small, rather dark, office at Harvard she realized that she had missed him. She looked around noticing the thin and dusty curtains that blocked what little light got through the dirty windowpanes, his desk and bookshelves filled with books and papers, and the standard charts of stars and galaxies pinned on the walls. The room breathed years of knowledge, devotion and a large portion of phantasm. Jeff Collins' life was in this room.
”I am sorry I didn't stay in touch but somehow time just moved on and I with it," she said with a sincere tone and looked at the older man.
”It's okay,” Jeff replied patting her arm. ”I could have tried a little harder myself but,“ a beat of silence fell as he browsed her eyes, “somehow I assumed you wanted to be left alone.”
Jeff paused a while before he continued. ”How are you, dear friend?" He backed a few steps, looked at her and admitted, "I mean - look at you! You look fantastic and," he smirked peculiar, "that tan tells me that you haven't been inside a dark room, reading strange book all these years?”
Steph chuckled. ”I feel fine," she replied and stroke her hand through the hair. Without any consideration she said, "Jason and I have lived at sea for the last three years. I inherited my father's sailboat when he died and we have lived aboard Voyager ever since. The wind decided our life.”
Jeff looked at her in awe and stunned shook his head. ”You never cease to surprise me Stephanie,” he commented.
Fixing her eyes on a chart on the wall she cunningly replied, ”Maybe you are easy to surprise?” She turned back to him.
The man nodded with admission and grinned. ”Little Jason was quite a surprise when he was born. I guess he has grown up quite a bit by now?”
”He is six already and has become a pretty good sailor.” Steph smiled at the thought of her son.
Jeff gladly noticed the proud expression. ”It's amazing how they change you – children.”
”Indeed,” Steph responded half-dreaming. She couldn't imagine a life without Jason and, somehow, she couldn't remember how life was before he was born.
The formalities of greeting one another didn't seem to stop and Jeff, to get them out of the situation, grabbed his jacket from behind the door. ”Come on," he said and held open the door. "Let's go to the coffee shop on the other side of the street. Their blueberry muffins are a gift from the Gods,” he said when they left the office.
For more than an hour they sat at the coffee shop. Steph told Jeff about the day she had gotten the message about her father's death and how she, shortly after the funeral, had felt lost and needed to get away from everything. The death hadn't been unexpected. He had been ill for quite some time, and they all knew that he'd never make it, but when the end finally came, it had shocked Steph. She wasn't prepared for all the emotions, the loss. She had shared a special bond with her father and, without his support, Steph never would have been able to put as much energy and heart into science and research as she had.
”The answers are the easy part,” he used to say. ”The puzzle is to find the questions.” When he wasn't there to help her anymore, Steph lost the ability to find either of them.
Steph didn't know why she told Jeff about this. It wasn't her intention to do so but somehow it just felt right. When she still was involved in science, they had shared a phone- and email relationship and had, so far, only met five, six times face too face. And even if Jeff wasn't Steph's professor nor that they didn't research on the same exact topic they had always been able to back up one another. They used to sit for hours, discussing black holes or star-configurations over the phone. Sometimes, topics of a more private nature surfaced - Jeff's wife, the newborn grandchild, Steph's mother, Jason - anything. For some reason, Jeff had always been easy to talk to .
Maybe the fact that we rarely met in person was one reason, Steph pondered as she looked at the gray-haired man with the thick mustache in front of her. The brownish jacket and wine-red pullover he wore increased the soothing feeling she felt for the man.
”So,” she said and casually leaned back, looking straight at the man in front of her, ”here I am. Stranded in Port Baily and expecting to experience my coldest winter ever.”
Shaking his head slowly, Jeff playfully said, ”You have always been such a chicken about cold weather.”
Steph chuckled and nodded in agreement. ”I believe that the only way for me to survive is to find something that I can occupy my mind with.”
Jeff leaned forward. ”Why don't you come and join us here at Harvard?” He asked blunt with a muffled voice. ”If you want to – just ask and then we'll see what the answer will be.”
Steph looked down into the coffee-mug stirring her cappuccino. It was a totally unnecessary act but it gave her time to mobilize. Although she'd had the question floating inside her mind for a couple of days his asking caught her off guard. She hadn't come here without a reason, she was aware of that, but was going back to the academic world what she really wanted? Was that her reason for being here?
Jeff stated with a low but steady voice, ”What I remember is that you never were the one to beat around the bush." He smiled at memories of her straightforwardness. "Straight questions and answers is something I remember.”
Still stirring the cappuccino Steph knew he was right and she didn't like it. The fact was that she had become introverted, held the questions for herself and therefore unable to find where to look for the truth. She shivered by the mere thought but wasn't particularly surprised she had reached this dead end.
”Maybe I have been off field for too long?” She mused looking to face his attention.
”The first time I met you,” Jeff said leaning back, ”I had the opportunity to get familiar with your brilliance." He chuckled. "I was even jealous of UCLA and wished we here at Harvard could have had you.” He paused and smilingly remembered the fearless ambition the young woman had met him with.
”I would personally be happy if you would consider coming back - at least into science - wherever that would be,” he said honestly.
The question made Steph tense and she cringed in her chair. ”Thank you Jeff,” she replied, honestly but forced.
Going back to the university? She had always known that would happen or was that something she thought she had to believe? She wasn't sure but there was a glimpse of curiosity about going back. Something familiar now reawakened and although she wasn't certain she wanted to go this way curiosity was teasing her in that direction. Not for very long though. Hesitation soon took over again.
“I don't know if I can or want to do this anymore,” she said plainly in response to his offer.
“Can?” Jeff asked slightly surprised by the response and he curiously pondered what was going on inside the woman. She who was the only one he knew was as devoted to astronomy as he was.
Steph shrugged her shoulders and, in the same time, became irritated of her own incapability of being frank. She found that she really did not like this side of herself. She felt stranded in a void of irresolution and with no tools to search for the way out.
“Maybe I'm not capable of handling these things anymore,” she stated looking at a point behind her friend. She felt stupid about her behavior and was embarrassed about her unexpected lack of confidence. Steph forced her self to look the professor in the eyes.
“Maybe I'm so far behind I can't come back?”
Jeff looked smugly at her. “You mean your competence isn't sufficient?”
Steph closed her eyes for a moment, shrugged her shoulders again and said, “Perhaps.”
A young man passed by their table - a student of Jeff's - and he casually nodded at him. The man lit up at the recognition and Jeff noted that the student hesitated, as though wondering if he should stop to talk or not. Unfortunately he didn't something Jeff thought would have been good considering how his shyness prevented him from reaching the top of his class.
“You have what it takes to be a great scientist,” Jeff said in a calm, sincere voice and turned his attention back to one who was anything but shy. “You are fearless about how to get to the truth.”
Steph looked at him with skepticism not really sure what he meant or where he was heading.
“A lot of people fear losing their face in front of others,” Jeff continued seeing the question in Steph's look. ”Therefore they are hindered in their way of reaching what they are after. But you don't settle with just a simple answer. You have that need that every successful scientist must have – you have the urge to understand both the question and the answer – no matter what.”
He tried to see if she was keeping up with him before he stated, “If you don't understand the question you will never get to the answer.”
Steph recalled how she from the first day in school had asked and asked until the teacher almost got tired of her. Since the beginning she had never been shy about to asking questions about things she was supposed to understand but didn't. That ability had taken her far and she knew that. “You think I will catch up if there are things I don't get?” She asked in a tone that was more of a statement.
Jeff quirked his head and took a sip of coffee. “Yeah,” he said. “I have no doubt that you will do what ever it takes to get back on track.”
Steph nodded aware he knew her very well. “I suppose you're right,” she replied without enthusiasm drawing invisible circles with tip of her spoon. Even if she did get back on track she wasn't certain if that was good or bad at the moment. All she had heard sounded so definite and full of responsibility.
“Let me give you a proposal,” Jeff said and corrected himself in the chair. “I would like you to consider giving a lecture.” He saw the immediate hesitation in Steph's expression and he held up his hands to calm her. “Just 40 minutes on a subject you feel safe. There is no commitment in my offer just a possibility for you – not for me – to feel if this is something you want to do again.”
It was an overwhelmingly gracious offer. Steph wasn't sure whether Jeff had had this in his mind all the time but it really didn't matter. The offer was in any case very generous and she realized it meant a great deal to her that he was the one that had suggested it. He had always been there for her regarding her studies and the fact that he still was sent a pleasant shiver of gratitude through her body.
“That could be a way to sort out a lot of issues,” she mused looking at him.
Jeff smiled hoping his wish for her to come back wasn't too obvious. He sensed he needed to let her come to the conclusion without persuasion and calmly replied, “I think so too. It doesn't have to be anything else than just a way for you to learn what you need.”
For me to learn what I need, Steph repeated to her self. Yes, that is what it will be.
”Okay,” she said short and felt something inside her relax. She smirked and eyed him. “I would be stupid not to take your offer.”
Jeff grinned and playfully replied, “Yes, you would.”
Steph took a deep breath and chuckled nervously as she actually realized what was going to happen. “Well I have a lot of reading to do,” she said smiling at him and wiped her mouth with the paper napkin. “I don't think I have time to sit here any more.”
Jeff laughed and patted Steph's hand.
”I'm glad you called,” he stated in a soothing tone
”So am I,” Steph replied tenderly.
”Hey there! Gotten yourself a kid in the last couple of days?”
Kate looked up from her work behind the counter when Kelly Walker's familiar voice called out to her.
Kelly occasionally stopped by the restaurant on her way home from work to see how her friend was doing. She hadn't been there for a while now but that usually didn't matter. They were as close as Kelly thought she could be with anyone.
Kate and Kelly had known each other for as long as Kate could remember and if she had a best friend, Kelly would be the one.
Kelly was opposite to Kate - a genuine local. Born and raised in Port Baily with the atmosphere of the town loaded into her system by the breast-milk. Kate's parents owned a large summerhouse within walking distance from town and it was there Kate spent every summer from the day she was born. Kate has always loved Port Baily and not even her teenage years could keep her away from the coastal summer adventures. Eventually, Kate began to spend more and more time in Port Baily and when she planned the restaurant the small town by the ocean had been the only option for her.
Kelly was the kind of friend Kate wished everybody could have. They knew each other's good and bad sides and had seen each other in misery and joy. They shared moments that shaped life - first love, first break up, first hangover, and Kelly's first child. Always they were able to talk about everything, something was been an invaluable asset for them. Occasionally their honesty towards each other had hit some sensitive spots but the outcome of those occasions usually opened doors neither of them new existed before hand.
Kate hadn't been the kind of girl obsessed with marriage, but like most girls, marriage was a part of her dreams. The dream was fulfilled but when reality, six years ago, turned out to be something else than a girlhood fantasy Kelly had been there to support her. She had received most of Kate's anger and disappointment and had with a caring hand helped Kate to accept a new path in life.
The young, blond boy she saw attached to her friend's side was unfamiliar to Kelly but somehow the picture was … real.
”I bet that would please your mother,” Kelly said with a smile.
”I wonder just how pleased she would be if I showed up with a wild six year old on my arm?” Kate stated and tried to sound serious but the mental image of her parents expected surprise was quite amusing and the beginning of a grin played in the corner of her mouth. She looked at the boy who had returned to the small, brown sofa along the wall to read his comic book.
”This is the ideal child-situation." Kate smiled and threw a glance at Jason. "You borrow them for a day and return them in the evening.
Kate was actually pretty surprised over how well the day with Jason had gone. ”To be honest,” she turned her attention back to Kelly, “I do I think I'm a natural with kids. Could be a developing niche for the restaurant - Tavern by the Sea, food and daycare, ” she said and imagined the sign on the outer wall.
Kelly chuckled at Kate's rambling. ”I have personal experience of your babysitting skills and I'm not as convinced as you are,” she commented dryly
“Oh, come on,” Kate whined. “That was just one of many times I looked after your kids.”
Kelly eyed her friend with a smirk draped over her face. “You fell asleep and my boys were all over town.”
Kate sighed, fully aware that she had made a huge mistake that time, and surrendered. Neither Kelly nor her husband Ted had been amused by the time the came home and found Kate sleeping on the couch and the boys nowhere to be seen. “Yeah, yeah - whatever, “ she said evasively. Then she declared, “I have changed.”
Kelly looked at the boy who sat in his own world. He looked calm. Peaceful and nothing like her own wild ones. ”What have you done to him? He is too calm for his own good. Fed him grappa?”
Kate chuckled. ”Now that is quite an accusation!” She replied putting her hand against her hip. My calm senses have a soothing effect on children." She paused a beat before cheekily adding, "That and homemade ice-cream.”
”I knew you cheated!” Kelly grinned.
Smirking Kate held out her hand defending herself. "Everything is going as planned although I have to admit I became quite nervous when he suddenly was helping serve lunch."
Kelly laughed out loud imagining Kate's terrified expression when the small boy was adventuring in her restaurant. "What did you do?"
"Oh nothing," Kate continued with ease, throwing a glance at the blond boy on the couch, "he totally charmed old Mrs. Hunt so I couldn't be harsh on him. Had to ask Fabricio to think twice though," she grumped. "He doesn't stay adult around the kid."
"Well, you know how men are," Kelly sighed amused. "Like big children! My guess is he just found an equal."
Kate's thoughts wandered back to earlier during the day, when she, before lunch had entered the kitchen and found Jason sitting on the counter giggling at something Fabricio was doing.
"Look!" The boy had shouted with a child's innocent grin stretching form ear to ear. "Fabricio is making pasta that looks like you!"
Under his breath, Fabricio swore in Italian. Kate's face hardened and from behind him, Fabricio felt her scalding look as he rapidly destroyed all the evidence. Kate again heard Jason's giggling. Turning to him, she found Jason still grinning and totally unaware of the tense situation. Against her will, a smile began to play in the corner of her mouth as she turned on her heel and left the kitchen.
Men! She thought and sighed aloud. Over her shoulder, she announced to Fabricio, "We open in 30 minutes," as the doors to the kitchen swung close.
"Mm, seems like that," she mused as her mind returned to the present and Kelly's statement.
A half breath of pause followed before Kelly continued. ”I know I haven't seen you in a while but - whose kid is he?”
”Steph Harris's. She who owns the all mighty Hinckley sailboat,” she replied and rolled her eyes. She hadn't had one guest who hadn't commented on the boat. It was almost as though she was curious herself, in spite of her disinterest in boats. ”Jason is the very same child I knocked out on the street almost two weeks ago.”
”Oh right, I've heard of her and the boat. Maggie Redgrave, for instance, stopped by the store a couple of days ago and spread some gossip.” Kelly leaned against the counter and let her head rest against her hand.
”According to Maggie, Steph Harris is every middle-aged woman's nightmare,” she said keeping her voice low not wanting Jason to hear her.
”Really?” Kate replied, giving up her focus on the napkins she was folding, and looked at Kelly.
”Tall, long blond hair and all the curves in the right places,” Kelly whispered and straightened herself up a bit, hoping her own body could fit in to that description. The fact that she was 5'2'' undermined her effort.
”I'm not surprised Maggie said something like that,” Kate replied, sensing a hint of anger touch her tone of voice. ”She is suspicious about every woman who passes through the hotel doors. She should ask herself if she has any reason to feel threatened and, in that case why, instead of slandering other people for a change.”
The more Kate thought about it the more irritated she became and she noticed how she raised her voice. She took a deep, but discrete breath, and calmed down. ”Steph is a very sweet person and I strongly doubt she would want anything that Maggie possesses. Jason is her life right now and nothing else.”
Kate's short shift in temper was not lost on Kelly. She understood her though. Maggie Redgrave could, when she wanted to, be a real pain in the ass.
”So … how do you know Steph so well?” she asked curiously.
”Well - is an overstatement," Kate replied and turned her back against Kelly to prepare the espresso-machine, "but we have spent some time together. I guess you know about the boat being on repair, that they have to stay at the hotel during this time and have decided to remain here until spring?” She turned and looked at Kelly who nodded in admission. ”Well, I wanted to spare them the torture of Maggie's tasteless coffee and offered them to have breakfast here with me. They have been here every morning ever since.”
”How generous of you,” Kelly responded eyeing her friend.
”I am a generous woman, Kelly,” Kate replied seductively and placed a small cup of espresso in front of Kelly. ”You, of all people should know that by now.”
They looked at each other and smiled. Kelly shook her head and took a sip of the espresso. She grinned a bit when the bitter strong beverage filled her mouth.
”So, where is she now?” Kelly asked feeling the caffeine clear her senses.
”She has a meeting at Harvard,” Kate replied casually taking a sip her espresso. ”She's some kind of scientist and has friends there she wanted to get back in touch with.” Nonchalantly, she added, “My generous old self even lent her my car.” She them drained the last of the espresso.
”Well aren't you something?” Kelly responded and stood up to leave. She was well aware that inviting people into Kate's professional life was one of her characteristics but her personal space was usually a bit troublesome to penetrate. They had talked about this and Kate had excused herself with the need for privacy. She needed time for herself. Kelly had mixed feelings about this since it, especially lately, had led to a tendency of isolation. It was not that Kate did nothing or said no to everything, but Kelly had a nagging feeling that this is what might happen. But today Kelly couldn't find any traces that her friend was unhappy about the situation. On the contrary.
Kelly gave her friend a bearlike hug said goodbye. Leaving the restaurant, she carried with her the feeling that something was about to change.
In the car, on her way back to Port Baily, Steph pondered over how she felt about returning to the academic world. The meeting with Jeff had awakened a feeling of enthusiasm in her. She could not deny that the thought of holding a lecture had developed a nervous sensation in her gut, but going back full time? She was not sure and the more she thought about it the more trapped she felt. The years away from it all didn't help her now, either. Those years had been so free from decisions and planned routes. Free from all that has to be done but full of freedom to do.
"Jeff has only offered one lecture, Steph. Nothing more," she mused to herself. "You are getting ahead of yourself."
But why do I feel this way? She silently asked herself. I have always wanted to work with astronomy and now -, she paused in her thoughts without finding a way to continue. Instead her mind opened up to what was around her. The road towards the ocean and Port Baily was strikingly beautiful. Surrounded by autumn colored leafs, the road snaked through the landscape. Resting from her thoughts Steph found a comforting rhythm and the scenic route made the drive pleasurable. Driving like this was, in a way, like sailing she realized. It offered time for reflection and if she didn't get stressed but let the ride take the necessary time, it was almost meditative. The surroundings intensified the feeling and a comparison to sitting in the traffic through LA, where frustration had radiated from every car, was impossible to do.
This is just so peaceful, Steph thought.
It was almost 7 p.m. when she parked the car in front of the restaurant. The meeting with Jeff had been far more relaxed than Steph had expected and time had run away. It was now dark and Steph hoped Kate wasn't irritated at her for being this late.
When entering the restaurant she, to her relief, saw that her worry had been unjustified. Since the restaurant was closed for the evening no one but Jason and Kate were there. They sat at one of the tables, face to face, eating and talked in low voices with one another. Kate said something that made Jason laugh loudly and Steph felt her heart beat jump for her son. For Steph he had such a captivating laugh and she hoped everybody else could know the joy he was.
”It looks like I am superfluous in this group,” Steph mused smilingly as she approached them.
Jason, who sat with his back against the outer door hadn't noticed her. The voice of his mother made him jump up from the chair.
”Mom! I thought you were never coming back,” he shouted and looked overwhelmingly happy to see his mother.
”Of course I was coming back, sweetie,” Steph replied touched by his emotions.
Kate smiled at them. “He is his mother faithful”, she mused with a mock-resigned tone and met Steph's gaze. ”I have worked very hard today, trying to win his entire heart but obviously -;” she paused and looked at the boy clinging to his mother. Playfully she continued. “I have failed.”
Steph returned her smile and sat down on the chair opposite Kate with Jason in her lap. ”I am sorry I am late. It took longer than I expected.”
Kate held up her hand to silence Steph. ”Nothing to worry about,” she said meaning it.
Steph ignored Kate's hand and continued, ”I hope he hasn't bothered you too much.”
”It went really well, Steph.” Kate interrupted calm. “You don't have to apologize. He hasn't run away, not torn the interior apart and he has eaten his vegetables without any complaints.”
Jason stuck his face just inches from Steph's and excitedly whispered, ”Fabricio made ice-cream! He made it all himself and I could eat as much as I wanted.” The young boy's face shone like the sun on a hot summer day.
Steph's eyebrows quirked and she repressed a twist in the corner of her mouth. ”Really?” she amused and turned to Kate. Kate wriggled in her chair and looked a bit embarrassed.
”He didn't have much. Just a small bowl. Besides - he's not as big as he thinks.” Kate tried to explain and was pretty certain that, with arguments like the last one, she would go far in life.
Steph couldn't do anything but laugh at Kate's overreaction. ”I hadn't expected anything else, Kate. You're not the first one who try to pick a few easy points with that method.” She moved Jason to the chair next to her and brushed her hand over his back. ”I would have done the same myself, ”she said and nudged Jason lovingly in the side. ”And he did eat his vegetables.”
”Every pea,” Kate replied proudly. A short pause entered before Kate quickly managed to lead the conversation away from herself.
”Did you get to meet the people you wanted to?”
”Yes,” Steph replied with a breath. She leaned back and stretched her long legs by the side of the table while brushing her fingers through her hair. It had been a long day and she realized just how tired she felt. She rested her eyes on the auburn-hair woman in front of her and summoned up the strength to talk about her day.
”I was offered a lecture by Jeff Collins. He's a professor at the department and a friend since way back.”
Kate observed her friend's weary posture and could read in the eyes that she was not as happy about this offer as one might believe. She picked up the fork on her plate and randomly began to shuffle the food around in slow motion.
“It doesn't seem to be a cheering crowd in this offer,” she said carefully not wanting to step into something Steph would find intruding.
Steph shrugged her shoulders not knowing what to say and where she stood. “I do not know what to do with it,” she replied. “There is so much involved in it and I'm not sure I'm ready for such a commitment.”
“Commitment?” Kate asked not certain what that had to do with one lecture.
Steph moved her eyes away from Kate to a place behind her as if this act alone could avoid the question. “It is a trial for me to see if the academic world is something I want to return to,” she responded after a brief moment for herself and bringing her eyes back to meet Kate's.
The struggle within the younger woman in front of her was so obvious that Kate hesitated to ask more. She put down her fork and corrected herself in the chair, posturing herself to listen and be alert.
“If you don't want to talk about it that's okay,” she said eventually. “But I will gladly listen if you need to.”
With eyebrows narrowed and hands nervously twisting together Steph was aware of that she had to, maybe even wanted to talk. This was getting to her and although she wasn't really prepared to admit that, she let the words out.
”I dropped out pretty abruptly and my connection to my former life has been sporadic,” she said with a faint voice. Unconsciously she began to fiddle with Jason's napkin searching for what to say but soon found, the truth was not in there.
”I put up rather high demands on myself,” she said with a wry smile at Kate, who's eyebrows made a brief jerk. ”Especially regarding my work. When my father died, chaos surfaced and disorder took over my life. I could not handle the situation and finally I fell from my own pedestal.” She fell silent and wondered when and how she had managed talk about it again? A brief glance at Jason made her realized the reason. It was he who had made her get up every morning.
Kate silently watched Steph. She wasn't certain if the young woman would tell more and silently she waited. What she had heard had been short and concise, actually too simplified to be everything. When she saw Steph's eyes begin to glaze over she turned around, grabbed a plate from one other table and placed it in front of Steph. ”Take some of the casserole. It's nothing fancy, just beans and salsiccia sausage.”
Steph looked down on the plate and the small pile of beans on it. ”Did you get Jason to eat beans?” She asked surprised and looked at Jason who smirked at her.
”You shouldn't underestimate the power of ice-cream,” Kate answered firmly winking her eye at the smiling boy before she again rose from the table and with fast strides she walked to the counter.
Jason nudged Steph in the side. "Can we go home now?" He asked in a tired and slightly bored tone. Steph turned and looked lovingly at him just as Kate returned with a freshly opened bottle of wine.
”Care for some wine?” she asked and filled Steph's glass without waiting for an answer.
”Thank you,” Steph said faintly and smiled at Kate. She looked back at Jason, caressed his cheek and said, "Soon." She saw the disappointment in his eyes.
"Why don't you go over to the couch and rest a while? We will go home soon."
The boy made an attempt to object but Steph's look was determined and slowly he left the table.
"Do you need to go?" Kate asked, sounding worried and threw a quick glance at Jason.
Steph felt a bit guilty about not taking him to bed but she convinced herself that she needed to sit for a while. She nodded slowly. "No, it is okay." She exhaled loudly, sat back in the chair and gently caressed the rim of her glass.
”A lecture,” Kate mused pouring wine in her own glass too. ”Not bad. I've heard that they don't let just anyone spread their words inside the sacred walls of Harvard.”
”Well, ”Steph responded faltering before the tone of appreciation. “I don't know. Maybe.” She picked up her fork and tasted the sausage as a way to hide from the statement. Sensational flavors of garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper swept away an old, sweet taste she had in her mouth.
She loaded her fork with more beans and before she put it in her mouth said, ”This tastes good."
Kate smiled self-consciously aware that it did taste good. The young woman in front of her ate in silence. Like someone who had been out of care for a long time she eagerly put each bean in her mouth. Kate wondered how long Steph had gone without someone to lean on. Perhaps even longer than she was on that boat. Kate felt her heart constrict a little. Suddenly she realized she cared a great deal for them both.
Stray, Kate thought and smiled to herself. Steph does not need to be taken care of. She argued internally. Yet she couldn't let go of the feelings she had.
”May I ask what kind of research you were doing?” She asked looking at Steph and, at the same time, brought the wineglass to her mouth.
Steph, who had realized how hungry she was, had filled her mouth again with the tender berlotti-beans. She chewed carefully before rinsing it down with some wine. I guess a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin is not enough to eat, she thought wiping off her mouth with her white napkin.
”I study something called extragalactic astronomy,” she replied casually seeing Kate's expression change from curiosity to wonder.
”Which means?” Kate asked, having no idea of what the woman across the table was talking about.
Steph smiled and tried to figure out how to explain. ”It is the study of other galaxies than the Milky Way. I focus on what is called starformation in starbursts, especially super star cluster formation.” She quickly realized that wasn't much of an explanation but she couldn't – at the moment - find any other way to describe it.
Kate's own knowledge about the topic was equal to zero but her admiration for Steph grew as she listened to the blond woman. Linking her fingers together she rested her arms on the tabletop and leaned in, wanting to hear more, ”I'm impressed,” she declared in an honest voice. It was as though the young woman suddenly matured in front of her. ”Unfortunately I won't be able to contribute with something else than pep-talk," she chuckled. "The topic is well beyond my imagination.”
Steph smiled sadly. ”You are not the only one. This is not the science that gets the largest amount of funds and therefore is pretty unknown to the public. It is a rather narrow topic within astronomy.”
She paused a beat before raising her glass toward Kate. ”Regarding the pep-talk - that is mostly welcome and I most certainly need it.” Steph knew she had once been among the most promising scientists in the field of astronomy. Today, though she was no longer sure where she stood and with that in mind the uncomfortable feelings increased.
Kate noticed the insecurity in both Steph's voice and eyes.
”I hope you will find the passion for what you once had again, ” she said already trying to encourage her. ”I can only see to myself. Although this is something completely different, I would never be where I am today if I didn't have passion for what I do. This, ” she said sweeping her arm out over the room, ”is my life. In these walls and furniture is my soul. The day I feel it's a burden to come here - that day I will stay home.”
Vaguely smiling Steph eyed Kate and thought about what she had said. ”You are right,” she replied with a faint voice. ”I suppose one should create something you will need more than just knowledge.” She let her eyes glance from Kate to the room they sat in and then back to Kate again. ”You must have invested a large amount of passion into this place? It is obvious that you have administered the investment with great care.” She hung on for a split second eyeing Kate with amusing interest. ”I really like it.”
”Thank you,” Kate replied proudly and felt happiness radiate through her body. She was used to compliments but for some reason it meant a little more when it came from friends.
Their conversation had focused a lot around Steph and she, who usually wasn't much for peeking into other people's personal life, started to wonder who the woman in front of her was. She glanced at her while taking a sip of wine. Kate was dressed in a shining white silk-blouse. The first two buttons were undone and revealed the soft skin of her throat. Steph noticed, almost invisible, freckles on her skin and guessed more of them would appear when the sun was allowed to touch her. I hope she likes the sun, Steph thought.
"So," she said casually and put down her glass, "what is the story of Kate Jordan?"
"My story?" Kate replied slightly taken aback by the sudden question. Her story had been of no one's interest for many years and she had, to be frank, been glad not to think about it. At least parts of it. She gathered her thoughts under silence and, to let time pass without seeming odd, picked up a few beans with her fork. "Well,” and then she paused again. Looking up from her plate with beans on her fork ready to be eaten she said, “That one can be concluded in four important events; my trip to Italy , when I got married, when I opened the restaurant and, finally, when I got divorced." She ate the beans and waited for Steph pry a bit more.
"Short but precise," Steph replied not very surprised about anything but the divorce. For some reason she couldn't see Kate married. "Has the journey been as concise as it sounds?"
Kate gave her a wry smile, "Not quite. I've passed a couple of rough spots along the road." She finished her meal, pushed the plate aside and filled their glasses with some more wine.
"The extended version begins in the middle of the 80's when I went to Italy and learned the basics of the Italian cuisine. I was there for three years and those years formed the rest of my life."
Her mind returned to the cypress-clad hills around Florence . Every hill crowned with a house of stone and a mantle of grapevines and olives draped the slopes. She still remembered the fiery Signora Simoncini who had attacked her with rapid Italian as soon as she walked through her door. Kate couldn't do anything but use one of the few phrases she'd learned; non capisco. Eventually they had learned to communicate and after a couple of months, Kate spoke a pretty decent Italian.
She returned to the present and Steph, who with her arm casually resting on the chair next to her listened. "I try to visit once a year. Sometimes I make it, sometimes I don't."
Steph could see the past reflect in Kate's eyes and she saw happiness about that part of her life. "You've done something most people only dream about. It must have been a fantastic experience?" She commented curiously.
"Yeah, it sure was," Kate replied letting the words float on the memories before she continued.
"On the plane back to the States I sat next to a charming young man - Phil O'Connor. We had a hilarious trip; talked, laughed and listened.”
Steph smiled amused.
“When we arrived,” Kate continued, “we exchanged phone numbers and, to speed things up a bit, five years later we got married."
Steph observed a brief smile pass across Kate's face and a tenderness she hadn't seen before was, for a blink of an eye, so evident. There was something genuine about Kate in the way she revealed her emotions. Steph got an urge to reach out and touch her but felt it would be like reaching for the rainbow. She wouldn't find anything else but herself.
"Phil," Kate moved on, "had graduated from law school and worked at a firm in Boston . He helped me with the necessary papers and permissions before I could open the restaurant. He has a big part in my success," she said and remembered the day every paper was signed and the restaurant was hers. The happiness and anxiousness, never to be described in words, had made her able to defeat sleep, weariness and the rest of what life contained.
"Well, as you can understand something went wrong. Phil's enthusiasm for this, " she waved her hand around the room, "didn't last as long as we had planned. After five years of marriage we decided to go separate ways." She paused pondering as she massaged her right hand with the other one before continuing.
"We're still friends and he, and the new Mrs. O'Connor, usually pay a visit in the summer."
Steph, who hadn't made any comment for a while heard the irony in Kate's voice, cautiously commented, "The new-wife part sounded a bit bitter?"
She wriggled in her chair feeling slightly uncomfortable by the question. Not for Steph asking it but for the response she was going to give. "Actually no - but sure, even if Phil and I are friends and even if his wife is a great woman, he somehow symbolizes failure for me. Something I couldn't manage."
Steph eyed Kate. She was surprised by the sudden lack of confidence. For some reason she hadn't thought Kate would have any…flaws. Steph tilted her head a bit and said, "Perhaps you wouldn't have been here today if it hadn't been for him?"
"I know, I know," Kate responded and sighed. "It is not often I think about it in that way but occasionally when I do, it feels bad."
Steph leaned forward and put her hand on top of Kate's. "It is a part of who you are and without the bad parts of life you might have been somewhere else today.”
As soon as the words came out she mentally rolled her eyes. They were true but the sound of them had a bitter taste when she heard them coming from her own mouth. She was the one who had lived in the past for the last three years and still wasn't sure when the future was about to begin.
The bottle of wine was empty and Steph began to tire again. She didn't want to leave though so she pushed the night a bit further ahead. The atmosphere in the room was inviting, seductive and it made her feel home. The thought of going back to the hotel room was anything but welcoming.
They talked about Port Baily, the locals, the tourist-invasion in summer and what happened when the tourists left. It had already been obvious to Steph that this was not a place you could be anonymous in. She guessed she had been a topic for conversation and a reason for many of strolls in the harbor since the day they had arrived. To be a single woman and steer a large sailboat into the harbor in the middle of the night is not something that passed unnoticed. She had never lived in a small town and had therefore never been part of that kind of community. The gossiping interest in other people's life was one thing she didn't want to participate in. Too often had she had to answer questions about her life during these three years. That had been easy to ignore when they only had stayed for a few days but now, when they were stranded, they would have to be here for months. Suddenly she realized that she had hid from what went on outside the hull and actually didn't have a clue about how Port Baily really was.
Living here will most certainly be a new experience, she thought as she listened to Kate's enthusiastic propaganda for Port Baily.
Steph briefly glanced at her watch and found the other reasons for her tiredness.
"It has been a long day," she said and, without prolonging the moment, rose from her place by the table. "Thank you for looking after Jason, for lending me your car, for dinner and for the conversation." She stood close to Kate and invitingly put her hand on Kate's arm.
"I'm really glad for having the opportunity to get to know you, Kate,” she said with more honesty than she had intended. But it was true.
"Me too," Kate replied a bit touched. “For getting to know both of you," she said and looked at Jason who had fallen asleep on the couch.
Steph carefully collected Jason's things in his blue backpack, went over to the sleeping boy and easily lifted him in her arms.
"Will I see you for breakfast?" Kate asked hopefully as she held up the door for Steph.
Steph smiled, glad for having a friend who made her accidental stay easier. Actually it was becoming pretty enjoyable although she wouldn't admit that yet.
"I'm sure you will."
The event now taking place before her was something Steph always hated and tried to avoid as much as possible. She felt hopelessly out of control and, in nightmares, this was the worse case scenario. Barely breathing, she watched as the large truck gently maneuvered over the yard with Voyager hanging in, what Steph believed to be much too thin straps. With the asphalt only 5 feet under the keel, the large boat swung back and forth as it was transported back to its right element - the ocean.
Time had gone faster than Steph had anticipated but she was glad the time at the hotel was over. Both she and Jason had become restless after endless evenings in front of the TV and time without their own belongings. Steph had tried to figure out what was going to do about the lecture, how she was going to set it up but the environment hadn't helped her find the thread she was searching for. The winter on onboard would be chilly - Steph knew that but after all this time without Voyager she knew it would worth it.
"Easy! Easy!" Jake Larry directed the transport since Steph didn't trust her own judgement about this maneuver. It was hers and Jason's home and if something went wrong she would never be able to forgive herself. The thought of the straps breaking sent cold chills down her spine.
Jake was cool though and had done this a thousand times. "Okay! Lower her slowly now," he shouted to transport driver.
"You look a bit tense, Steph." From the restaurant Kate had noticed the activity down at the docks and thought this moment would be as good as any to study the beautiful boat everyone talked so about. With freshly percolated coffee in the thermos under her arm, she had succeeded in approaching them unnoticed.
Steph turned and gave her a strained smile. "That obvious?" She asked and quickly returned her focus to Voyager.
Kate patted Steph's arm in comfort. "You are not the first boat owner I've seen during my years in Port Baily. They have all had the same panicked look in their faces when it's time to put the boat back in the ocean," she stated and looked at the 42-foot boat now hanging over the water. It was a massive sight. The deep hull – painted in blue – seemed to darken the sky as the horizon vanished behind it.
"She is indeed large,” Kate mused in awe. “And for one person."
Jason immediately reminded her of his presence with a loud cough and Kate smiled at him. "Two people,” she corrected herself and put her arm around the boy, who had come up and leaned against the older woman.
Steph was too nervous for conversation but made a short comment, "They always look bigger when you see them from this point of view."
"Okay, Steph, time to lower her down. Something you want to see before she hits the water?" Jake had come over to them and nodded to Kate. Jake was the kind of person who never seemed to find any day too much to face. Nothing was impossible and every day and every person he met with an enthusiasm only the sun itself could compete with.
"Ah, you don't happen to have some of that famous coffee of yours with you?" He asked and slipped his arm around Kate's waist.
Kate chuckled. "Of course I've brought coffee. Hard working people shouldn't be without something warm," she stated playfully. By the look of Jake's face, she immediately realized his interpretation of warm was something other than the truth. She grinned at him.
"Sorry Jake. It's not Irish coffee this time." Kate, famous for all different sorts of coffee, had to admit that Irish coffee would have been more suitable for the situation. The sky was dressed in gray and a northern wind swept like a silk veil around them. It wasn't cold – not really – but the persistent change towards winter had a cold effect mentally.
Steph sighed loudly. The coffee discussion was more than she could stand. "Yes down with her," she ordered harsh. Both Kate and Jake turned to her in question. Steph looked at the faces in front of her. "I'm sorry but can't handle seeing her like that!" Steph cried.
The pressure on her heart fell when she saw the keel disappear into the sea-green water. She could almost hear Voyager sigh in comfort as she settled in her liquid mattress. With long strides Steph boarded the boat and threw the mooring lines to Jake. She brushed her hand over the boom and felt that she finally could relax.
"You said something about coffee," Steph grinned and looked at Kate. The smile on her face was one of the most honest smiles Kate ever had seen.
"Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen!" Steph called and danced in the cockpit. She was home.
Meanwhile in the small restaurant above the harbor, everything was as it used to be when the lunch guests had left. It was quite. The door flung open and Kelly came gliding in. "Hey Fabricio!” she called with a cheerful voice. “You don't happen to have Kate hiding in here somewhere?"
"Nope," Fabricio replied shortly. "She went out about an hour ago with her lover - the thermos - under her arm. Said something about heading to the docks, to watch as they put Miss Steph's boat back into the water. You can probably see them from the window," he said and nodded at the window closest to the harbor.
Kelly went to the window and, Fabricio was right, there she was. "Why is Kate watching this?" She asked and saw her friend down at the docks. "She doesn't even like boats," Kelly stated, doubtfully turning to look at Fabricio.
He shrugged his shoulders without giving the reason any thought. "She said she wanted to take a look at the boat and support Steph. It's important to her, I think."
"What is," Kelly wondered and looked with suspicious joy at him, "putting a boat in the ocean or being there with the thermos?"
He smiled and served her a large cup of cappuccino. "I don't have a good answer to that. Not yet," he said.
Kate and Jake had just left and Steph enjoyed the silence as she sat down by the navigation station. She stroked her hands over the varnished mahogany. The familiar surface caressed her back as if it spoke to her in relief. It is good to be home , she thought and felt her body relax. She switched the electric system on and immediately life returned with red lights sparkling against her. Smiling, she eased back and let herself be pulled into the calmness.
Jason had rushed into his cabin and was now playing with every toy he owned. He had been more restless than ever during these weeks, looming around her lost with all the space around him and none of it familiar. It wasn't a new thing to spend time ashore but the safety Voyager gave, as a home had been more important than Steph realized before. She had herself felt the same and not until now did she really understand the meaning of a home.
Today's event had, without question been mentally demanding. She was happy that Kate had joined them earlier. The older woman made her relax and she had enjoyed sharing the moment with her. Steph could hardly remember the last time she had anybody to talk to like she did with Kate. Sitting down and let hours run away, talking about herself, listening and getting to know someone.
To be honest, friends had never been a large part in Steph's life. In school she'd had brief friendships but not anyone she would call a best friend. It had never bothered her although she, on occasion, wondered why. Solitude was something she enjoyed and possibly valued more than friendship. At least that is what she told herself – both then and now. But was it the truth? She wasn't sure anymore.
The conversations she had had with Kate, a person with an enormous social ability, had awaken a curiosity within her. A curiosity that something was hiding within the social life that she hadn't been aware of before. It was in there and she'd seen glimpses of it. The curtain had been pulled back – just a little bit – and unmasked hints of what went on backstage. If she kept looking she might be able to find more but it would take more of her. Courage perhaps? She was certain that Kate could take her further along this road, if she just dared to follow her. Thinking about it, Steph found it quite strange that she had ended up like this. Her parents were both successful and were encircled with all kinds of people.
She had grown up in a family that was dedicated to medicine. Her mother was a prominent professor at Stanford Hospital & Clinics and her father had been a professor in immunology at a private company in San Francisco . Professor Ruth Harris's life focused on helping other people. She was always ready to go when someone needed her and Steph's image of her was from behind, on her way out the door.
She could have had the same picture of her father but some how she didn't. Although he too was away for long periods Steph always remembered him coming towards her. With a huge grin he held his arms open for her to fall into his embrace. She remembered how they used to sit on the porch in the evenings. It must have been so all the time she lived in her parent's house. She still felt how she tried to reach down to the wooden floor with her feet but her legs were too short to begin with. He used to hold his arm around her, listen to her when she told him about her day. Sometimes he asked a question sometimes he nodded and mumbled in acceptance. He listened to her. During all those years he encouraged her to find her own way, to look for her own life.
When she was ten years old he had taken her along on a business trip to NASA in Florida . He had been involved in a project where infected cells were to be studied in a weightless environment in space. Steph had joined a group of children to an exhibition where pictures of the universe had been displayed. This was the moment where Steph had found her special path in life. The pictures of stars, galaxies and nebulas had etched into her memory and from that moment the seed of fascination began to grow inside her.
Only one person questioned her revelation - her mother. Ruth Harris had always dreamt about Steph bringing the family's medical tradition further. Her dreams and Steph's own collided and was the cause for several fights between them. When Steph moved to Los Angeles and began her studies at UCLA her mother finally realized she had lost. Steph knew her mother was proud of her and even saved clips of articles she had written in a small box. Yet, she couldn't get over the feeling that her mother didn't look at astronomy as a science to respect. On days when everything had gone wrong, she had been prepared to agree with her. Magical results were rare in medicine but almost impossible in astronomy.
Steph felt how Voyager slowly began to rock. The wind had increased outside and she smiled.
"It is good to be home," she repeated to herself, smiling at the familiar sounds and motion caused by the wind.
It was one of those beautiful days when people tell each other that autumn isn't so bad after all. Sunny, rather warm for the season and the bright color palette was still represented in the trees although now fading towards a more brownish tone. It was a perfect day for shopping Kelly thought and was happy she had taken a day off from husband and children and replaced them with Kate and the city of Providence . Both women were in great, chatty moods and walked along the streets with bags hanging like bunches of grapes on their arms. At least around Kelly's arms. Kate had never been much for shopping and she never got the opportunity to improve when she had Kelly chasing like a starving tiger in and out of the shops. She couldn't really keep up with her and it wasn't, usually, until the last quarter she succeeded to fill some of the space in her closet.
"I can't understand why we don't do this more often, Kate."
They sat in a small café, rested their tired legs and drank a cup of espresso macchiato accompanied by a piece of carrot cake.
Kate suppressed a yawn. "Well, right now I'm prepared to agree with you," she responded while looking at a group of people passing by the window. Her feet ached from hours of walking and, discretely she kicked off her shoes and wiggled her toes under the table, "but if you ask me tomorrow, I'm sure I'm going to find a good excuse not to come along."
"You're lucky to have me," Kelly declared and tasted the cake. "Who knows what kind of outfits you would wear without me? If your profession required an uniform, I'm sure you gladly would use it." She smiled at her own joke and visualized Kate in trousers and a stiff jacket with pips on the chest, "You could be really sexy in uniform."
Kate pouted her mouth. "Can you imagine anything else, my dear friend?" She asked sarcastically.
Kelly smiled at her friend before turning her attention to an elderly couple entering the café. The man scanned the room looking for a place to sit and Kelly noticed the only seats available were the ones next to Kate and herself. Within seconds the couple approached them and Kelly sent a warm smile of acceptance at the gray-haired woman when she asked if the seats were free.
"Speaking of friends," Kelly said and returned her attention to Kate, "I have heard that you spend a great deal of time with the woman from the sea."
Kate had her mouth full. She covered it with her hand and said, "And?" She looked at Kelly, uncertain of what she was up to.
"And? It's - I don't know - unlike you to be interested in anything or anyone outside of the restaurant."
"Oh, come on Kelly," Kate protested throwing a quick glance at the elderly man who sat next to her. The man just looked at Kate and he smiled when their eyes met. Kate was already back with Kate though, saying, "My job is to please people. Socialize is my middle-name!"
Kelly wasn't certain where her statement had come from and Kate's response had not helped her on the way. She now hoped that Kate would have stepped in to some invisible trap. One that not even Kelly knew about.
She took a deep, soundless breath and said, "Well, my experience with you is that you don't spend time with a lot of people when you're free or its after closing time."
"She is not a lot of people, Kelly," Kate responded defensively. She looked direct at Kelly, trying to find some kind of hint of what she really wanted. She didn't find any.
"I know," Kelly said feeling she was about to paint herself into a corner, "I'm just worried for you."
"Worried for what?"
Kelly held both hands around the small cup and looked down at it. "It's probably nothing. Perhaps I'm jealous?"
Kate smiled and tried to make eye contact with her clearly embarrassed friend. "You don't have to be jealous, Kelly. You're my best friend and that will not change."
They sat in silence for a while and Kelly pondered about what she was worried for. Do I grudge her meeting other people than myself, she wondered? It's good for her, meeting other people than restaurant-guests and her staff. If Kate likes Steph she has to be nice. She looked at Kate whose focus was on a something outside the window. Kelly couldn't see what it was. I wonder if she misses being in a relationship? Maybe I should introduce her to some friends of Ted's?
To break the silence Kelly asked about her part of the arrangements regarding the yearly "Wrap-up-party".
Kate was observing an arguing couple on the other side of the street. The question brought her back to Kelly and her question of conscious. "Please do not ask," Kate replied and sighed, "I'm late this year."
Kelly looked at her and noticed a small wrinkle between Kate's eyes. "The invitations have already been sent out so you can't postpone it much longer," she said gently.
"I know Kelly. God - it feels like I haven't done half of what I'm suppose to do this year."
Kate sighed again and straightened herself in the chair letting air fill her lungs. "When did it become autumn anyway?"
Kelly smiled at her, recognizing Kate's mood when she began to feel stressed. Like she fell into a hole of weariness but down there found strength to take things to where she wanted. Although stress is – mostly - a bad thing Kelly had seen Kate do miracles in short time and it was fascinating to see.
"Exactly the same time as last year, dear," she mused cheeky, taking a bite of her cake.
"You're right, of course. It's two more weeks to go and I have millions of things to do. I haven't even ordered all the ingredients yet," she whined and raising her hands in surrender.
"Well, at least you know what to wear," Kelly said and simply nodded at the bag that hung at the back if Kate's chair. "Who knows what kind of rags you would wear if we hadn't solved that problem today?"
Kate's eyebrows arched. "My taste is not that bad!"
Kelly gave her friend a smug smile. "Not bad taste only lack of variation," she replied. "It's important that, on occasions like these, the hostess is as fresh as the fruits for the dessert."
Beginning to see where this was heading Kate frowned. "First of all it's the mayor who is the host and, the last time I checked, I wasn't his wife. Secondly, I don't like the idea that you believe that I'm not properly dressed."
"Look at it as a point of clarity," Kelly stated. "Now you're ready to impress your guests with your presence. And there can always be someone there who gets more impressed than the others."
Kate got the message and was not in the mood to be set up. "That is my mother talking," she said and felt a slight irritation creep in the center of her mind. "I'm not looking for romance. I am not interested and I certainly don't have the time."
Kelly heard the tone and saw the look on Kate's face. She had crossed the line. "I'm sorry," she said and reached for Kate's hand, "but I can't help that you are going to be the most beautiful person at the party."
Kate rolled her eyes and felt the irritation ease. "You're full of crap Kelly but, for some strange reason, I still love you."
The last couple of days autumn had more intimately sneaked up on Port Baily. The wind had increased, clouds hung heavily over the ocean and seemed to wait for the right moment to devour the entire coast. Steph hadn't paid much attention to it except that Voyager's rocking had increased. The mooring lines screeched when as the wind tried to take the boat on its own journey. It reminded her that Voyager would have to work hard to stay attached to the moorings. She made a mental note to check the lines carefully and, if necessary buy new ones.
After a slow start, Steph had finally managed to get some speed and focused in her preparations for the lecture. She had been afraid at first. The first days, when she sat in front of the still empty computer screen, she had felt like a child being separated from her parents at a big shopping mall. Now she wandered among books, notes and words that sounded like strangers. They had scared her. The world that surrounded her seemed so big and she feared that she never would be able to find her way back again. Somewhere deep down inside, flashes of familiar faces showed up though and they helped her find the way back to safety.
She sat deeply concentrated in front of her PC. The last day's texts and pictures were carefully put together into a presentation. In her left hand she held a blue mug containing tropical flavored tea. She actually thought the tropical ones were too sweet but the box had reminded her of palm-trees and white beaches so she hadn't been able to resist it. Stupid, she thought after taking a small sip of the flowery beverage, I need something much stronger than teabags to get a visual of the tropics.
A knocking sound in the hull and shouting voice brought her back to reality.
"Hallo! Anybody home?" A female voice shouted from the outside.
Jason, who sat in the sofa and played with his miniature cars, reacted at once and was quickly up on deck.
"Aunt Kate! What are you doing out and why are your hairs in such a mess?" The boy asked in an excited run-on manner.
Steph had just caught up with him and heard the questions being asked. With an amused grin she established that Kate's hair indeed was a mess and she understood why. The strong wind blowing against the shore and angry rain that had begun to fall did mess up everything.
"Come on board Kate," she said and grimaced when the cold raindrops hit her face. "This is not the kind of weather to be out in."
Kate was glad that they were home and boarded Voyager with help of the small wooden-stairs. A small piece of carpet lay on the deck between the stair and the cockpit. Kate knew, from personal experience, that she better walk on the carpet. Once, many years ago, she had climbed onboard a boat owned by a colleague of Phil's - without paying attention to the rug. When the small stone came lose from her sole, it became quite obvious who had caused the big marks on the teak-deck. Kate felt that was an experience she could live without.
"Have the lunch guests already left”" Steph asked when she helped Kate with the rain-soaked coat.
"I sneaked out," Kate answered and smiled. "I've been there 24 hours a day lately and, all of a sudden, I couldn't breath. It felt like the walls were falling in on me and I just had to get out of there."
Jason stood curiously next to Kate. He stood close, his hand almost touching her and with a childish fascination he followed their conversation.
Kate felt the young boy's eyes facing her. She turned slightly toward him tenderly brushing her hand through his blond hair. Jason giggled, happy about the attention. Kate casually watched Steph pick out a green mug from a small cupboard over the sink and a French press coffee maker from under it.
The small glass-carafe was, in Steph's opinion, genial when making coffee but awful to clean. She only used it at special occasion and having Kate Jordan for coffee was one of those occasions. Steph felt that she would like to make an impression on this woman. Why, she didn't know. It just felt right to do so.
"Well, you certainly did choose a great day for a walk,” Steph said ironically and pointed out the window. She put the mugs and coffee maker on the table and offered Kate a place to sit down. “I noticed the lights have been on until late at night lately. Your days must be long."
Kate looked her as she slid down on the couch. "Yes they have been," she sighed. "You should have come up and rescued me," she said witty.
"Did you want to be rescued?" Steph asked playfully and sat down at the other side of the table.
Kate processed the question for a beat and tasted the answer before she delivered it. "I dreamt about it," she said softly and gave Steph a warm smile. "Unfortunately dreams and reality are in two different worlds and what I want do and can do doesn't live in the same one. Not for the moment."
A short pause of silence fell. Steph looked into the blue eyes in front of her before she, in a steady voice said, "I'm really glad you came. It has been awhile."
Kate didn't respond at once but cautiously read Steph's expression. Steph appeared so young. Her face was fresh and vibrant, yet there was an air of age about her. Kate was interested to find what was under the surface.
"Yeah, I'm glad too,” she replied slowly, brushing her hands through her still wet hair. “I've been meaning to come for days, but you know - time. It's that damn - excuse the language - party I'm preparing for."
Jason was still excited about Kate visiting - like a guest although she was becoming quite familiar to him. Jason was much more spontaneous and open to other people than his mother. Not that this was something he was aware of, only that the feeling he felt when other was around made him happy.
As soon as the Kate and Steph had sat down the young boy had charged back to his cabin and full of commotion dug among paintings he had in a box. Enthusiastically he returned to the main salon and placed the small stack of paper in front of Kate.
"And what do you have here?" Kate asked and made room for the boy to sit next to her.
"Jason!" Steph said steady but yet gentle.
Hesitant Jason looked at his mother but Kate calmly said, "It's okay Steph. Let me see what this is."
Smiling, Kate looked at the pictures. The colors were bright - different shades of blue - and the strokes were wild.
"Did you do these?"
Jason nodded and pointed at a white spot in the middle of a blue one. "This is an island with palm trees and this," he pointed at a darker blue spot, "is Voyager."
Kate looked at the spots. She wasn't certain of where the boat was but she did try. She turned to Jason and said, "You are quite an artist young man. Perhaps you can make me one of Port Baily?"
The boy's eyebrows wrinkled for a beat. The task wasn't easy but suddenly he burst in to a big grin. "I'll start right away," he stated a bit seriously by the mission but his voice was high pitched and revealed excitement. He gathered the stack of paintings and easily slid off sofa.
"It will take a while," he said and quickly retired back to his cabin.
"I will wait," Kate replied and chuckled. Charmed, she watched him disappear in to his cabin. "He is such a sweet boy."
Steph smiled motherly. "Yes he is. Full of energy and enthusiasm." She pressed the coffee powder down to the bottom of the glass-pot and quietly thanked higher spirits for the son she had gotten. She felt she couldn't have been for fortunate.
"What kind of party are you are preparing for?" she asked pouring the coffee into the mugs, giving Kate one.
"The mayor and the yacht club invites around 80 people every year to something called a wrap-up-party. It's to celebrate the end of summer and to thank the tourists who have spent all their money in Port Baily."
"It's a nice gesture towards the people that make Port Baily what it is, isn't it?"
"Sure. The only problem is that I always take care of what all those people are going to eat and this year I have misjudge time more than ever." Kate let her hands embrace the mug before she slowly lifted it to her mouth and tasted. Not bad , she thought briefly.
"So, I've had the phone attached to my ear for the last couple of days. It's a choosy crowd in this town so I can't do a rerun of the menu." She smiled and whispered, "Although I would like to."
Steph gazed at the woman on the other side of the table. "I have a strong feeling that it will be a success," she said. "I doubt you will ever serve something you're not satisfied with."
Relaxed, Steph sat back against the soft cushions of the sofa, enjoying Kate's performance to make her feel sorry for her. Casually she brushed away a spot of dirt from the edge of the table before she looked up and met Kate's eyes. "I can't help you but you're always welcome if you need a break. You can come over whenever you want."
Kate comfortably stretched her arm over the back of the sofa. "Thank you."
She sat in the corner of the sofa and had an overview of the main part of the boat. A U-shaped galley was situated just to the right of the entrance and was followed by a narrow entrance to an aft saloon. Reddish mahogany panels, combined with small lamps on the walls gave the interior a warm and soothing atmosphere. A bookshelf, loaded with books, to the left of her and a miniature car on the floor emphasized the feeling that this was indeed a home. A place where people live a life like everyone else.
Steph looked at Kate, intrigued over how good friends they had become.
Do we have anything in common, she thought questioning herself and why she spent time with the older woman. Suddenly she felt a need to do something together with her. Invite her to share something that was of her and Jason. They had seen Kate's life – the restaurant, Port Baily and the people living here but she had barely given anything away of herself.
"Listen Kate,” she said with a slight hint of hesitation. “If you want a real break from work - an opportunity to relax - you're most welcome to join Jason and me on a short cruise some day." Steph saw Kate's wandering eyes halt at something on the floor and her look remained there, frozen in the moment. "We were out a few days ago," Steph continued sensing that the response of her offer wasn't going to be what she'd hoped for, "and it was incredible. It's so different this time of the year - no powerboats, no people at the island and beaches. It's just peace and quiet."
"And cold and windy," Kate filled in clumsy. "Don't forget that."
"We're not going out if the weather is bad," Steph replied slightly disappointed by the response. Searching for a better way of expressing what she meant she found that she wanted to show Kate this important part of her life. Somehow that was important to her.
"You don't have to but the ocean is a very special place to me and I want to share it with you." She could tell from Kate's strained expression that she was far from convinced yet and realized that a change of tactics would be necessary.
With the most tempting voice she could find within herself she said, "You don't even have to think about food and cooking since it's an all included trip."
Kate burst in to a smile and felt the walls around her fall before the young woman's blue eyes and begging voice. How is it possible to resist someone like that, she thought?
"I have a bad experience," she began to explain. "I used to sail with my father when I was a child and, for some reason, he thought it was fun to tilt the boat as much as possible even if he knew it scared me." She looked down at her hands and remembered her father's laughter. He was such a great sailor. He had full control of what he did and he had been fully aware of that. But he had used that knowledge in a wrong way, with no understanding that not everybody trusted him as he did himself. Kate had been one of them and over the years she had avoided the close encounters with the ocean as much as possible. Now she was fully satisfied with experience the ocean with solid ground under her feet. There she could enjoy the beauty.
"Trust me when I say that I promise to keep her as upright as possible," Steph said with a sincere voice. “It does not have to be like that.”
Kate looked in to the blue eyes and replied with a low voice, "I know it doesn't have to and I do trust you."
"So you will join us?"
Kate was still very hesitant but a short "Yes," slipped away from her mouth. She saw the young woman ease in front of her.
I do trust her , she thought and it reminded her of what Kelly had said the other day. That she was worried for Kate and her friendship with Steph . Maybe it is because Steph is new in town and Kelly not knowing her, she thought. Do I know her? She looked at Steph who casually sat in front of her. Her head was slightly tilted to the left, her hair done in a light ponytail. A few hairs had escaped and now fell against her cheek. Around the still tanned, neck lays a thin chain of gold holding a small diamond against the depression at the base of her neck. Kate felt a sudden rush of desire to touch it, slowly letting her fingertips circulate the sharp rock that rested against the soft skin. She smiled, softly, imagining it was only for herself and not apparent to Steph.
"But," Kate held up her finger, "you better prepare yourself for a demanding crewman.”
"I will," Steph replied amused by the comment and the look Kate had had as her thoughts had wandered. She had looked so distant but yet so close and Steph was a little curious about what had been going on in her friend's mind. She let it rest though happy Kate had accepted her invitation.
"So-," Kate said and felt she had to get away from the sailing topic. Although she had accepted the invitation she still wasn't convinced she was going to do it. She had found it very difficult saying no to Steph though. She didn't want to disappoint her young friend yet she wasn't convinced she wouldn't. The future would reveal that.
"Now that you know how my work is progressing; how is the preparation for the lecture going?"
Steph began to fiddle with her mug and nodded smilingly. "It is moving forward," she replied slowly but grinning. "It was difficult getting started but I believe I have found a acceptable pace."
"Acceptable? That's an odd choice of words," Kate noted, noticing Steph's look getting more serious.
"Yes, I think I will call it acceptable," Steph replied pondering. "Three years off has had its price - not just in loss of income. And I have to admit that I was a bit more sharp back then."
Kate chuckled. "Have you forgotten the basic algebra?"
Steph grinned and relaxed by the ease in their conversation. "Something like that. It's tons of papers, schematics, calculations etc to work through. I have to,” she paused searching for a way to express herself, “update my knowledge. I cannot risk showing up with old news."
"Does it bother you?" Kate wondered sensing that Steph disguised her feelings in the shadows.
Steph looked Kate in the eyes and shrugged her shoulders. "I guess so," she replied. "It is not that I don't understand. It is just all clear to me that I never can stop feeding my mind if I want to stay in the game."
Nodding her head slowly, listening to what Steph said Kate playfully commented, "I'm glad that cooking doesn't develop in the same way. A pasta Bolognese is always the same but still comes in a never ending variations.” She grinned and lowered her voice. “Depends of who is in the kitchen."
"A great science," Steph mused.
Their coffee was finished and Kate knew she had to get back and do something useful. Professionally useful. Personally she believed sitting here, in the big blue boat, talking to Steph was much more useful. She leaned in to the comfortable sofa and felt more relaxed than she had in a long time. The contrast between the warm, comfy salon and the whining wind outside was striking. She didn't feel like leaving and a quick glance at Steph made her see the reason for her not wanting to leave. The company of the young, blond woman was refreshing and she didn't want their conversation to end.
"Listen," she said abruptly, "why don't you come to the party? It would be a great opportunity for you to meet some people."
Steph was not much for partying and hesitated. "I don't know. I cannot leave Jason alone for that long."
"An even better reason," Kate responded and felt excited. "The guests who have kids organize a common babysitter and there are special activities from them and so on. It would be a chance for Jason to meet other children."
Steph felt how she was pulled over the fence by Kate's enthusiastic eyes. With mild reluctance she thought, It is give and take, I presume .
"Any particular dress-code," she asked carefully.
A happy smile came over Kate's face. "No jeans or gala-dress. Everything in between is ok."
Pondering Steph asked, "Are you going to work during the event?"
"Oh no," Kate bursts. "My job is done as soon as the food leaves my kitchen. I'm just going to mingle and observe that no one frowns at the dishes."
"Then, maybe I can walk with you there," Steph asked and realized at the same moment the words came out that Kate might have other plans for the evening. "Unless you're not booked already," she quickly filled in.
Kate chuckled. "I'd love to be escorted, Steph. No one else seems to dare."
Suddenly Kate became nervous. Like a stubborn younger sibling, always questioning what you're doing, a thought had begun to force itself on her. She treated the thought the same way that she had with her sister's questions - with ignorance. She had no intention in letting the thought form into a question. Picturing herself walking with Steph to the biggest party in Port Baily made her happy but at the same time made her weak. There was something forbidden in the picture and it knocked on the door, anxious to get in. She ignored the sudden pain it caused in the back of her head and instead prepared to leave the comfort.
Kate was on her way home and Steph followed her up on the deck. "It's almost a week till the party and I hope I will see you before then?" She stepped carefully on the small rug, down the stairs and landed on the pier.
"We will come up for dinner some day. I am getting bored of my own food and Jason misses your beans."
Kate smiled letting her eyes wander over the white deck before they casually met Steph's. The young woman had her red jacket on and the blond hair made a sharp contrast against it.
"Have a good evening, Steph," she said after a beat of silence had rested between them.
Steph remained on deck and looked after Kate as she walked up the small, but steep, hill towards the street and the world above. "Why are you doing this to me?” The question was a thought that shaped itself to words and the cold breeze let them fly towards Kate. She saw the woman disappear behind the crest. A brief wind of emptiness passing by caused her to shiver. She had no answer to the question and let it hang like a sail flapping against the wind.
"Mom?" Jason called from below. The moment was lost as though the sail filled up with wind and took her away from her thoughts. Steph threw one last glance over to the harbor and the roaring sea before she went back inside.
Continue to Part 3