Takes Two
by Elize

Part 3
posted  June 2003

 
 

 
 

16

Steph was back in Jeff Collins small, inspirational room at Harvard University . Quietly she watched Jeff, who silently scanned through her first draft of the lecture.

She continued to stumble into dark, lecture-point alleys on her way towards the lecture and eventually she came to the realization that she needed guidance. There were questions facing her all the time but she didn't know how to answer them. Was the text too long? Too short? Should she use more pictures? Was the information out of date? Even if she indeed had found the motivation and did enjoy the mind boggling she had to admit that she was out of shape. Three years of sunshine had put many non-constructive traces in her mind.

"Have I always been this unstructured?" She asked when Jeff made yet another note with his red marker in the margin. "I really can not recall that."

If there was one thing that Steph thought about herself, it would be that she was an perfectionist. Her focus was indeed a good thing and had, in a short time, taken her far. Now though, the professors pondering look confused her and made her insecure.

Jeff stroked his mustache with his left hand as he concentrated on the text. "Me neither," he mumbled and made yet another note in the margin of the paper.

Steph looked at him and anxiously tapped her fingers on her knee. "I was hoping for something more enthusiastic?" She timidly asked.

Jeff turned, looking at her with sarcasm. "Will you calm down, please?" He chuckled and shook his head. "Don't worry. This is very good. Some minor correction here and there it will be just fine."

Steph exhaled loudly before she, still uncertain, asked, "Do you think I still have it - the feeling?"

Jeff put down the stack of papers on his desk and put the cap back on the marker. "I have never doubted that," he said sincerely looking into her eyes. "Lets just give your knowledge some time to wake it up.” He patted her arm reassuringly. “And honestly Steph – I do believe you will do better now than you did before."

Nodding, Steph wondered how he could say that. Looking at the papers on the desk she said, ”You think?”

Jeff straightened himself in his chair. His spine popped and he sighed loudly as the stiffness released. Returning to her question, he said, “Yes, because you have grown,” he replied still grimacing. “Gotten yourself some perspective that you will be able to use when you hit rough spots.”

Steph turned toward him and gave him a pitiful look. ”Possibly. For me, the preparations have been fascinating but if it is enough to take me all the way --. I don't know that yet.”

”Well,” Jeff said and pushed himself out of the chair, ”with any kind of interest, you are on the right track. If you can get a hold of what it is you want, then the rest will be much easier.” He smiled and wiggling his thick mustache slightly. Watching Steph stand up he said warmly, ”Lets go and see if we can find that son of yours.”

Collecting her papers, Steph replied, ”Sounds like a good idea.” She picked up her black jacket from the back of the chair and put it on.

”I am glad you are here at Harvard,” she said smilingly when they walked through the door and in to the corridor, ”and not any of the other professors I have met during the years.”

Jeff chuckled. ”You know how to flatter an old man Steph but if I can get you back in to astronomy again – I will be happy.”

They walked slowly down the corridor. Jeff nodded at a couple of familiar students on their way. Steph felt inspired by the atmosphere. There was something in the air, the rooms, the hallways that made her smile. The students looked exactly like she had done once – hungry for knowledge. In an introverted way they reflected nothing but what the walls around them contained.

”So, how is life in Port Baily,” Jeff asked, looking at her out of the corner of his eye.

Still looking ahead as they walked, Stephanie gave thought to the question. Scenes of the town, the people and the quaintness of the town came like snapshots as she mused. After awhile she replied, ”Good actually. I never could have imagined I would enjoy a small town as much as I do Port Baily.” She turned to him. ”Usually I become restless after a few days,” she stated with a smirk. “But – yes – there is something there that I like."

He hummed. ”Well, it can be a little too intimate, although -.” He paused, pondering about how he actually felt. The answer was multifaceted. “I'm not much for that kind of life although I do like solitude. The ocean, endless as it disappears in the horizon, is a peaceful view and songs of seagulls can be … soothing.”

Steph looked at him with a faint, surprised smile. “Sounds like you actually would like Port Baily?”

“Hm. Maybe I would?”

”The people in Port Bailey do not seem to be bothered how I live my life,” she said calmly. ”So far, nobody has even questioned my way of raising Jason. You know, away from a so called normal life.”

They passed a group of students gathered around a laptop in the hallway. Steph caught a glimpse of a graph and assumed, from looks on their faces, that it told something interesting.

”Maybe I haven't paid attention,” she continued and met Jeff's eyes.

”My guess is you haven't tried to listen to what people say either,” Jeff commented and gave her a smug expression. The young woman's eyebrows arched in wonder. Still grinning, Jeff offered, ”As I recall, socializing is something I remember you weren't much for,” he said nudging her.

She could tell from the wiggling in his mustache that he was mocking her. she wagged her finger at him defending herself. ”I actually have found some good friends,” she stated proudly. ”And - I am even invited to a party.”

Jeff's eyebrows rose with a bit of surprise. He nodded reflectively. ”You haven't caught some young fellow's heart already, have you?”

A slightly overdone laugh burst from Steph. ”No, it is not quite that interesting. I was invited by Kate Jordan who owns the small restaurant we frequent. She has spoiled us with fine Italian food since we arrived,” she sighed aloud feeling satisfied and thankful.

”That sounds great,” Jeff replied and clapped his hand on his round belly. ”All of us should have a special restaurant to be spoiled by.”

”It is great,” Steph agreed. ”And we get along very well too and it feels,” she hesitated a hardly noticeable moment, ”nice to have her as a friend. It's been awhile.”

Steph couldn't get over how well they actually did get along. Their difference in age was 10 years, they seemed to have very different kinds of interests and background. Yet they had found each other immediately. Steph smiled to herself when she recalled the incident outside the store when Jason had crashed in to Kate. She hadn't become angry - maybe irritated but not angry. Her sincere worry for Jason still touched Steph and she pondered over how their relationship would have been if Kate had reacted with fury?

The first impression is usually the correct one, she thought as they rounded the corner and found Jason, playing Colin McRae race-game on a computer in a study area together with some of the departments male students.

Steph sneaked up behind him, bent down and whispered in to his ear, "I hope you've shown these guys who the champion is?"

Jason jumped in his chair, lost concentration and the car on the screen went straight in to a tree. "Aw, Mom!" He whined. "I almost won this race."

Steph winced having caused his loss. She straightened herself, looking at the screen. "I'm really sorry, Jason but we have to go," she said and stroke her hand over the blond boys head.

In lame protest he rose from the chair. "Okay," he whimpered out of disappointment.

Steph smiled at her son's sad face and turned to Jeff. "Thanks for your help Jeff," she said, looking at her friend with appreciation.

"You have done the job yourself Stephanie. But I'm glad to help and you are always welcome if you need anything else."

Steph firmly squeezed Jeff's outstretched hand and said, "I will call you."

 

Sitting on the commuter bus back to Port Baily, Steph and Jason casually observed life outside the window. White houses with well-cared yards, open fields and darkened forest slopes passed by. Steph felt relieved that Jeff had given his approval to her work and she was quite satisfied with what she had achieved. She had found some pretty interesting questions during this preparation and pondered over how she could develop them in to a broader context.

Some of them might fit in an essay , she thought as a clearing in the landscape took shape outside. Shortly after that the bus passed over a bridge where wild water streamed rapidly beneath it.

"Can we eat at Aunt Kate's when we get back?" Jason asked softly and snuggled into Steph left side.

She looked down at him, pulled him closer and asked, "Do you like eating there?" She ran her lips across the top of his head, smelling his scent and knowing of no other love greater.

The familiar touch of affection made the boy wriggled. "Yeah," he replied with a more mature tone of voice and he casually threw a glance out the window. He soon turned to his mother again and boyishly grinned. "I like the pasta and ice-cream."

Steph smiled and looked forward, aware that she couldn't compete with Kate's and Fabricio's cooking. Should that bother me, she thought hesitantly … t hat my son prefers someone else's food? She searched within her feelings but didn't find any hints of jealousy or chatter that she was a bad mother. Steph believed she had, under the circumstances, done everything for him. Perhaps it is something else? She mused.

She returned her focus to Jason and curiously asked, "Is that all you like?"

The boy shrugged his shoulders. "I like being in the restaurant. They're funny and make me laugh."

Steph nodded slightly and found that he was right. Kate and Fabricio did try to keep the mood high and did not let any bad mood influence their relationship. If they disagreed they yelled or if someone was sad they told the other. It was, from her point of view, a passionate relationship.

Kate had told her, "You can't cook if your emotions are faced inwards. That will make the food taste bitter. Love is the best spice and should be an ingredient in all kinds of food."

Steph smiled at a mental image of Kate and Fabricio arguing. Voices high and arms gesturing wildly. Kate - when she had made her decision - standing with her hands on her hips looking sharply at the tall dark man who tried to pin her down with his look. All that was so different from how Steph was and it hit her that her son might become something she was not. Emotionally she did hope Jason would solve his problems faster than she did. She knew she carried years of disappointment in her baggage, things she didn't know how to deal with.

Gently squeezing Jason shoulder Steph said, "I do not think we should go there tonight. My thinking is they are busy with the final touch for tomorrows party," she speculated regarding his question.

Jason sighed but when he thought about it, he didn't want to do anything else than go home. Closely he cuddled against his mother's warm body. He was tired and after only a few more minutes fell asleep.

 

17

"God! Fuck! Damn it!"

Surprised, Kate looked up from the papers she was reading in her office. Pinned on the wall in front of her was the sparkling picture Jason proudly gave to her the other day. The small boy had been a bit shy though - surprisingly. Kate had never seen him shy before. Although, what was on the picture wasn't perfectly clear, she could discern Tavern by the Sea overlooking the harbor and Voyager. In the windows of the restaurant were Kate, Fabricio and Vicky. Down onboard the boat, Steph and Jason stood, waving at them. The picture was charged with Jason's charming energy and looking at it made Kate feel …. special.

A grin fell over her face and then she connected the line of swearwords she was hearing from Fabricio in the kitchen.

"Something has obviously gone wrong," she muttered, pushing her self up from the chair. She was well aware that whatever had caused the outburst wasn't the least bit amusing but she couldn't help herself from entering the kitchen with a smug expression.

Some friends of Kate thought the kitchen was rather sterile with the white tile-clad floor and walls. Along the walls stood long benches, the refrigerator, the freezer and an oven in stainless steel. In the middle of the bright room was an island where the large gas stove stood like a throne in a castle.

"Does it have to look like a morgue?" Her mother skeptically had asked the first time she visited. "It's a work place," Kate had argued and hoped her Mother would have seen the simplicity in keeping it like this. It was easy to clean and would last forever.

What didn't seem to last forever though was Fabricio who, when Kate entered the kitchen, was leaning against the island with his head hanging down in frustration.

"Learned a few new phrases today," Kate said playfully and looked at him from behind. "It sure did sound good."

Slowly turning around, Fabricio's eyes met Kate's. She noted they were black with frustration and anger. "We can eat tiramisu every fucking day for a whole week," he hissed and pointed towards the three large pans.

Kate felt that she didn't like his attitude but decided it was best, for the moment, to let it pass. She couldn't afford having him charge out and not come back. Restrained she walked over to where he was pointing and looked down on something that was supposed to be a dessert. A soft cookie put in layers with a mixture of, among other things - mascarpone-cheese, cognac and espresso. After a couple of hours in the refrigerator it was suppose to have a firm shape and ready to be sliced in pieces. What Kate now saw before her looked like it had already been chewed.

Her eyebrows shot up. "Wow," she stated surprised. "Why does it look like this?" She honestly had never seen anything like it and her tone of surprise was real.

Fabricio turned to her with a look that could kill. "How the hell am I suppose to know that?" He burst. He bit his tongue, aware that he was close to crossing the line of what was acceptable – even for Kate. He slowly closed his eyes to collect his thoughts and tried to calm down.

"Why can't you serve canned fruit?” he whined with a restrained voice as he clasped his hands around the counter top. “Everybody else does." He pitifully looked at Kate, fully aware what her answer would be.

Kate could sense he was apologetic, but the timing was bad, really bad.

Gently she placed her hand on his arm, smiled and calmly replied, "Because we aren't everybody else. We can't afford to be that."

“You can't be that fucking poor?” he mumbled too loudly for Kate not to hear.

Kate was on the edge and snapped, “No need to be an ass! These things happen.”

She saw him sigh and could only imagine the thoughts going through his mind. She actually felt sorry for him.

"Throw that mess in the trashcan and I'll help you make new ones," she ordered taking her jacket off and rolling up her sleeves. “Canned fruit," she mumbled and grumped. "You must be crazy.”

 

It was almost nine o'clock when Kelly entered through the kitchen doors. Kate and Fabricio were just smearing the last layer of cream in the pans and ignored the sound of footsteps entering behind them.

"I can see the core-troops are gathered," Kelly stated with a smirk and stopped behind them, nonchalantly resting against one of the counters. "Although finding you here, my dear Kate, makes me suspect some kind of," she paused briefly, "panic situation."

Kate, too focused on her task, didn't look at her. "I have no idea what you're talking about," she replied with clinched teeth. "No mistakes are being made in my kitchen!"

Briefly Kelly's look passed over the trashcan and caught something that reminded her of vomit. She rolled her eyes but realized it was best to keep quite. "If you say so," she said holding her hands up in defense.

The last spoon of cream was scraped out of the bowl and, instead of applying it on the desserts Kate put the spoon in Fabricio's open mouth. They looked at each other and made a silent statement that they were done. Kate held open the door to the refrigerator as Fabricio put the pans inside.

"Good work," Kate whispered to Fabricio when the doors closed.

"So," she said loudly, turning to Kelly. In her heart she once again was grateful for having Fabricio with her. He was always a rock in situations like this even if he seemed to be going down at first. "How many are going to work serving this year?"

"Nine. Six have served before and three rookies. Jake Larry's son is coming home from college to help."

"He's a good kid," Kate commented holding open the door for the others as they left for the dining room.

Kelly and Fabrico walked over to one of the tables and sat down. Kate stopped by the counter and picked out a bottle of Talisker single malt whiskey and three glasses from the wooden cabinet on the wall. A small glass of single malt -served neat - was one of Kate's passions. A digression from her Italian love but something she wasn't able to resist. How a people with such a complete incompetence in cooking could create such a treasure, as whiskey was an amusing mystery for Kate. Yet she was grateful and after a hard day she enjoyed sitting down, listening to the silence and letting her thoughts wander away with a glass of the Scottish drink.

"We have all worked hard today and I do believe we're worth some of this," she said, pouring the amber colored beverage in the glasses. She sat down next to Fabricio and raised her glass to both of her friends.

"For hard work," she declared and relaxed, as now finally, everything was ready for the party.

"For hard work," the other two said and took a sip of the whiskey.

Fabricio sighed as the muscles in his body eased. He sat back, massaged his neck with his hand and tiredly asked, "Was it 75 guests?" He still felt a hint of irritation from having to do the desserts twice but now he gratefully let the alcohol help him calm down. He usually wasn't narrow-minded – at least he thought not - but occasionally it was just too much for him. Not even yelling at Kate helped those times.

"That's what I have calculated with," Kate replied casting an eye at her chef. "Let's hope the line of surprise guests is minimal.”

"That's a few more than last year, isn't it?" Kelly looked at Kate for an answer.

"Yeah, I think so," Kate answered. "But 60-80 people is what the room takes."

The party, for as long as Kate had taken care of the dinner, had been in the city hall. It was a red brick house from the middle of the 19 th century with large windows facing the surrounding park. The room itself was full of space - approximately 25 feet to the ceiling. Large windows occupied one side and four glass doors opened the room to the park outside. The first time Kate was part of the arrangements she had been doubtful about creating atmosphere in the room but she had, from the first moment accepted she had been wrong. When the sun - from its low horizon during autumn - shone through the windows, the hardwood floor sparkled and shadows of the trees played on the tables. When darkness fell, enormous crystal chandeliers lit the room. Outside, the park was lit up by outdoor light and the shadows moved out among the trees. Kate always liked the lights and could now not think of any other place that would be better.

Kelly took another sip of her whiskey and let it flush in her mouth before she directed a question to Kate.

"Ted and I are going there around six o'clock," she said. "You want us to pick you up on the way?"

Although the question wasn't at all strange Kate was oddly taken aback by it. Not so much the question but for her answer. Her hesitation had only lasted for a blink of an eye yet the damage was already done.

"I've actually invited Steph," she replied with forced casualty, " and I promised to take her."

An unnatural chuckle erupted and unconsciously her fingers silently started to tap against the tabletop. She forced them to stop and said playfully, “She says she doesn't want to go there herself. I think she is a bit shy.” Kate haplessly deflected the attention from herself.

Kelly knew what to think. She knew her friend and the strained casualness had not passed unnoticed. She smiled – more at Kate than with her - and with a slow voice said, "Well -- okay.”

Kate smiled and felt, for some odd reason, that she didn't want to talk about Steph. Instead she lifted her glass, nodded to the others and escaped into her whiskey.

Amazed, Kelly wondered where the sudden shortness had come from. A little devil on her shoulder screamed at her to find out and as usual Kelly went along. She didn't want Kate to get away with this too easily, so patiently she paid attention to her friend's every motion. When Kate let the strong liquid enter her mouth and was about to let it flow down her throat Kelly simply stated, "It sounds like you have a date my dear friend!"

The question took Kate completely by surprise and she couldn't avoid inhaling the whiskey in to her lungs. She coughed hard and her eyes filled with tears. Floating down her cheek, the tears painted black streaks of mascara along her face.

"Thanks Kelly," Kate managed to say when she, after many long seconds almost had regained her normal breathing. "Waited long for that one?"

Kelly grinned. "Not at all. Really great timing though, don't you think?"

Kate frowned and coughed once more. Where the hell did she get that idea from? She grumped silently. Such nonsense!

 

Fabricio had sunken in to his own world, happy that the preparations were over, but the commotion had rapidly gotten his attention. He slowly captured the image of the tall blond woman and Kate arriving to the party together. O la la, he dreamed silently and couldn't help but find the image quite attractive. From his perspective, Kelly's question had been pretty interesting. Amused he began to see his boss' behavior towards the young woman in a different light.

He took a fast but steady sip of his drink and he turned to his employer.

"Is it a date?" He asked with a simple but curious tone.

Kate straightened herself and rapidly turned to Fabricio and then back again to Kelly.

"For crying out loud!" She didn't know if she was upset or if the situation was amusing. But her voice had assumed a higher tone than usual and she felt she was about to be cornered. Normally, she would have found a way to tackle her opponent and win the situation but now she just didn't know what to do. There just were no catchy responses.

"Can't I take a friend - who happens to be new in town - to a party without being accused of all sorts of things?"

"Of course you can," Kelly replied with control but a broad smile played inside her. "And no one is accusing you of anything." She bent her head so she would catch Kate's eyes. "It was just a question," she said gently.

Kate wrinkled her eyebrows and took a deep breath. "Of course it's not a date," she stated calmly but insistently looking from one to the other. She held on to their eyes for a few seconds to be sure they understood.

Amused by Kate's overreaction, Fabricio rested his head in the palm of his right hand. Eyeing his boss he pondered over what had been said. One thing hadn't been sorted out he realized.

"Does Steph know it's not a date?"

Kate faced him immediately. "Of course she does," she cried. "Why would she believe anything else?"

Fabricio held out his hands defensively. "Just wondered."

“Well stop wondering. Both of you!”

Kelly leaned back, stretched her legs and observed her friend. I'm sure going to keep an eye on you tomorrow, my dear Kate, she thought watching Kate's response. It hadn't been often that Kelly had seen Kate act like this but she certainly enjoyed the performance. Usually Kate was full of control, always having an answer for everything and interacting with new people in the most natural way. Something is different this time, she thought watching Kate serve another round.

 

18

Sitting on the edge of her bed, Steph carefully pulled the silk stockings up her legs. The stockings didn't do as she wanted but got twisted around her legs. Carefully, with quite an amount of irritation, she tried to get them in place without ripping the thin fabric.

Why did I agree to this? She sighed when the unfamiliar texture squeezed around her thighs.

Jason's head popped in through the door and whined. He interrupted her thoughts.

"Aren't you done yet," he accused. "I don't want to be the last one to get there!"

Steph rose from the bed and let the dark blue dress fall down her legs. A few inches above her knees it stopped. She looked in the narrow mirror in front of the bed and could confirm that the dress fit perfectly. A few days earlier - when trying it out in the expensive brand boutique in Boston - she hadn't been of the same opinion. The image that had met her in the dressing-room mirror had caused her to wriggle in discomfort. The figure made satin dress was not something she was used to and eventually she had asked the storekeeper for an opinion. By her almost ecstatic expression Steph had concluded the dress was okay.

Jason leaned against the doorframe and studied his mother's new appearance. "You look hot," he said bluntly.

Steph's eyebrows shot up to her hairline She slowly turned to face him and looked suspiciously at her son.

"Hot?" She questioned wondering who the boy in the doorway was.

"Yeah," Jason replied and grinned. "Fabricio says that Vicky is hot and when I asked what he meant, he said it meant beautiful." He paused for a beat. "But I think you are much more beautiful."

Steph didn't know how to respond. She shook her head with a faint motion and turned away from him. A slight hint of embarrassment came over her but also a sense of pride. The dressed up woman in the mirror looked back at her and Steph had to admit she did look good. She turned to face Jason again and smiled. "Thank you, Jason."

The young boy grinned at her. "Can we go now?"

Steph shot a last glance in the mirror. "Yes," she exhaled nervously and picked up the matching 3/4-length jacket, her new black shoes and coat. "Let us go."

She couldn't say she was overwhelmed about going. Feeling nervous about meeting all the people, small talk with people she did not know and – on top of all – being dressed in something that wasn't her. Not that she hadn't been to parties before - she had. During her entire childhood, dinner parties had been a frequent event but every time she had somehow felt neglected. Like she wasn't part of that world but lived on a different level. Everything that mattered happened over her head, discussions were not meant for her and words passed without her inclusion. Still she could feel the emptiness inside her from being alone in a room full of people. As she left the safety of her home she carried the emptiness with her, hoping she wouldn't have to bring it back.

 

19

Standing by the window, Kate observed mother and son leave their boat. She put on her coat in haste and threw a quick glance through the window again to see how far they'd come. When she couldn't see them she figured they were already on their way up the hill so she picked up her purse and hurried towards the door. Just as she locked the door she heard them coming round the corner.

"Hello there," Steph called as she saw her friend.

Kate turned around and faced the blond woman. She was taken aback by the perfectly made up face - the blue eyes looked more intense than ever, the cheekbones discretely colored and the mouth …. Kate couldn't take her eyes away from the deep red lips that formed the perfect mouth. She smiled with admiration at the young woman. The comments she had got from Kelly and Fabricio the day before had followed her through the night but now she couldn't even remember what it all had been about.

"Hello yourself," she said with a deeper voice than she recognized.

Steph felt her cheeks taking on a deeper shade of red. Kate's approving glance at her had made her heart beat faster and nervously she looked at her son instead.

Smiling, Kate did the same. "And you young man - are you ready for a night away from mom?"

"Yeah," he replied joyfully and made a quick turn to show Kate his yellow backpack. "I've been ready for hours. But I thought Mom never was going to be ready." He sighed aloud and looked at Steph.

Steph smirked at him and, still embarrassed shook her head.

Smiling at him Kate stated, "Then we better hurry."

She turned her attention back to Steph. "Shall we," she invited, holding out her arm hinting the direction. In her motion she suddenly got Jason's hand in her own.

"As a man I should lead you, " he stated, determined in taking both his mother's and Kate's hand.

Chuckling Kate looked at Steph. Steph was motherly eyeing her son but felt her friend's wonder. Turning her attention to Kate, she commented with an amused resignation, "He spends a lot of time with your chef."

"Oh," Kate responded, her mind still trying to connect what that could mean. She felt Jason begin to walk and she realized he did spend a lot of time with Fabricio. A dark thought of the macho, Italian descendent teaching the precious boy about manhood made her frown.

"It is okay," Steph argued, seeing Kate's pondering expression. She grinned. "It could have been worse."

Looking first down at the blond boy, who proudly escorted her and then at Steph, Kate mumbled, "I'm not so sure." The twinkling look Steph offered though was enough to cause a softening quirk in the corner of her mouth. With doubtful astonishment she continued, "Looks like there are some gentlemanly manners in Fabricio though."

 

They walked the few blocks to the daycare-center where Jason was to spend the night. Steph was not happy about leaving him and still not sure if she should pick him up on her way home or not.

"The kids love it," Mayor John Forsyth's wife Carol enthusiastically had told Steph when she had visited the center a couple of days earlier. "It's like a party for them as well - they play games, listen to stories, eat junk food." The woman had laughed heartily but Steph was only mildly convinced.

"Are you sure this will be okay?" She worriedly had asked Jason the night before.

The boy had sighed and impatiently told her, "Yes Mom. Don't worry."

As soon as they arrived at the day-care center, her fears proved to be nothing but Steph's own dark illusion. Only minutes after they arrived, two boys in Jason's own age came up to him and started to ask questions. Steph could only stand and look after him, feeling a bit abandoned as he ran off with them, to behind the area marked; ‘Grown ups - Keep out'.

Kate noticed her friend's sad eyes and placed a comforting hand on her arm.

"Don't worry Steph," she said soothingly. "My sisters kids are just the same - running away as fast as they can. But you know - they always come back when she calls for them."

Steph still looked after Jason. She yet had no given up the hope that he would return to her. "I guess I am the only one with fear of separation," she sighed sadly as she realized he would not be back. “I hope he doesn't get scared.”

Kate grasped Steph's arm more firmly and pulled her away from the stairs. "Come on now Steph," she said snuggling into her. "He's going to be just fine and you are going to enjoy yourself."

Looking down at the shorter woman Steph nodded. She took a deep breath. "You're right,” she stated and slowly exhaled. Ironically she added, “Let's go and be grown ups."

 

They walked arm in arm along the twilight streets. The sun was rapidly lowering towards the horizon and cast long shadows along its way. The once so colorful trees had lost their fiery crown and in the cold it was as though they now stretched their arms against the fading sun. Lawns and streets were covered in a thick quilt of still crisp leaves. Steph threw a quick glance at the smaller woman and noted Kate's extraordinarily happy face.

"You seem to be in a good mood," Steph commented as they walked up the narrow pathway to the city hall.

Kate let go of Steph's arm and turned to the blond woman. "You know what? I really do feel good tonight.” The smile on her face spoke for itself and Kate could feel her good mood radiate around her. With ease she took the two stairs into the City Hall in one leap. At the top, she turned to look down on Steph, declaring, “It is the most amazing thing to feel. I better hold on to it.” She winked and then spun around to walk into the building.

Steph's eyebrows arched as she amused followed Kate through the door. She couldn't help but embrace her friend's cheerfulness and feel its warmth throughout.

Shiny marble floors, sparkling chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and art deco styled sconces on the walls invited them in. Steph hadn't been in the city hall before and she was a little surprised by the beauty.

“This place is beautiful,” she said in admiration.

“Oh you know how it is out here in the country,” Kate responded smirking. “We invest all our money in one place. It is easier to keep track of them that way.” A hearty laugh erupted from her as she realized that was actually not far from the truth. In Port Baily only one more thing was more valuable and yet free – the ocean.

 

Kelly and Ted Walker had arrived only shortly before Kate and Steph did. They were just about to hang their coats in the coatroom when Kelly saw her friend and the tall blond woman enter. This must be Steph, she thought. Kelly couldn't avoid smiling as she observed Kate laughing with this woman. For Kelly, there had always been something intoxicating about Kate's laughter and whenever she heard it she knew she would have a good time.

Mocking the tone of a British subject, Kelly stated, "I'm pleased the hostess can allow herself to relax in such a joyful way," and gave Kate a playful hug.

"Oh please stop calling me that," Kate whined playfully while she got a quick kiss on her cheek from Ted. "I doubt Carol Forsythe likes to share that honor."

"Don't listen to her," Ted mused and backed off to get a better look at Kate. "You look gorgeous tonight."

Kate smiled. "Oh thank you Ted," she happily replied giving Kelly a smug glance.

Kelly shrugged and reached for her husband's hand. "Well, whatever. It's thanks to you we are going to have such a- " she paused searching for the right epithet, "magnificent night."

"Right, "Kate responded dryly and saw Kelly's look turn to Steph who was silently standing next to her.

Before Kate managed to say anything Kelly turned back to her and casually asked, "Are you going to introduce your friend or do we need to take care of the formalities ourselves?"

A faint blush colored Kate's cheeks and she admonished herself for making Steph wait. "I'm sorry." Calmly looking at Steph, she continued, "Steph Jordan - Kelly and Ted Walker."

Having heard about Kelly, almost since she got here, Steph found it quite amazing that they hadn't met before. Perhaps Jeff is right? She pondered. Perhaps I am not interested in getting to know folks? In the corner of her eye she saw Kate looking at her. Except for Kate, she added to her mental chat. The short, dark hair woman who was Kate's friend had an expressive face and she looked at Steph with the most curious eyes.

A friend of Kate's must be worth getting to know though, she thought before offering them a dazzling smile.

"So nice to finally meet you," Kelly admitted smiling as she met the blue and, by her opinion, rather chilly eyes. Yet there was something about the young woman that Kelly did find warm, though she could not pin-point what.

A few other couples approached the coatroom and everybody but Steph smiled and nodded at them.

Returning to Steph, Kelly asked curiously, "I do hope Kate has only said good things about me?"

Kate shook her head and rolled her eyes.

Steph relaxed into Kelly's wittiness. "Nothing you have to be embarrassed about has been said," she replied throwing a quick glance at Kate who grinned.

"Very good," Kelly stated playfully, giving Kate a knowing look.

"I am not easily embarrassed though," Steph filled in smugly, then turned to Kelly's tall, broad husband.

Both Ted and Kate chuckled

With a firm grip Ted squeezed Steph's hand. "Nice meeting you," he greeted her with a deep voice. "I have been looking forward to finally meeting the owner of the Hinckley . That boat doesn't pass unnoticed. She is very beautiful," he said with certain praise. Feeling his wife looking at him he turned to her in wonder. Kelly only shook her head and Ted turned back to Steph.

"Thank you," Steph replied proudly, giving Voyager a mental note of appreciation. Realizing more people than just Ted would be interested in her because of Voyager made her nervous though. "It certainly isn't the right boat if you want to make a discrete entrance,” she said looking first at Ted and then Kelly. “There was a bit of a crowd around us the first day."

Standing in between Steph and Kelly, Kate's mind slowly drifted away conversation. Her eyes discretely observed Steph and the dress she was wearing. Despite the matching jacket that fell over the young woman's hips, Kate could see how the dark blue satin dress enhanced the slim body. It was low, straight low-cut in the front and around her slender neck lay a necklace of pearls. Kate couldn't prevent a shy smile passing over her mouth as she looked away.

She is beautiful, she thought briefly.

"Let's go," Ted declared, anxious to get going. Boldly he offered Steph his arm and headed for the hall where the party already had begun.

"It certainly is a pretty dress she is wearing," Kelly whispered to Kate as they walked behind others.

"Very," Kate replied her eyes following the long legs in front of her.

"One might think that you'd never seen a dress before."

Kate made a quick glance in Kelly's direction not knowing what her friend was implying.

"You were ogling her, my dear friend," Kelly mused while nodding at familiar guests.

Kate slowed down. Upset she whispered firmly, "I certainly did not!"

"Did too," Kelly responded casually and kept going.

Kate frowned and whiffed her hand through her hair. "Well, it is a beautiful dress," she stated annoyed.

Kelly couldn't do anything but laugh. "I think you need some punch! I've heard that it's jam packed with alcohol-drenched fruit."

"You've mixed it?" Kate asked expectantly, shuffling Kelly's previous statement to the back of her mind.

"Absolutely!" Kelly's voice faded in the crowed as they both headed for the service table.

 

Out on the large portico the guests mingled, everybody with a glass of champagne punch lazily sitting in their hand. The sun had already left the party and spotlights, hiding among the trees lighted up the terrace.

As soon as they had served themselves their drinks, Steph and Ted caught up with Jake Larry. Jake was in a cheerful mood and Steph, amused, pondered whether he was on his second glass already. Shortly thereafter, both Mayor John Forsythe and Dr Richard Wilson joined them. Steph began to feel she was surrounded by way too much attention. But after more than a month, the people of Port Baily would finally get their answers on who the owner of the Hinckley was. At least now they would be able to ask questions.

Steph became a little nervous and took a large sip of her drink. Jake, who knew a whole lot about Steph and Jason, noticed the young woman's strained posture so he smiled gently and toasted her. He liked the young mother and son and as a guest of his harbor, he felt a bit protective. He took a half step closer to Steph. With a firm expression, he met the looks of the people Steph seemed to be avoiding.

Dr. Wilson, the very same one that had taken care of Jason after his collision with Kate, stood with his left hand in his pocket and his drink in his right. "You plan to stay with us after the winter?" He asked casually and took a sip of punch.

Turning her attention to the dark haired man, Steph replied in a steady tone, "I do not know yet. It depends on how - and if - I survive winter."

She smiled still feeling a bit shy over the attention but, with the help of her drink, she was more relaxed. " Jason should begin school soon, so we have to settle down somewhere."

"Well, Port Baily is not a bad alternative," Wilson stated smugly. “Good schools for instance.”

The rest of the group hummed in agreement.

"The ocean, Boston nearby and the beautiful neighborhoods," Wilson painted a picture, encouraged by the other's approval. "Could be much worse."

With a faint, unnatural cough, Mayor Forsythe added, "I can't see any reason why you shouldn't stay here." The blond woman seemed unsettled although an amused smile played in the corner of her mouth. "We can always use some new blood among us," he said full-spirited.

Yet, Steph smiled and for some reason she found the situation quite charming. That surprised even her. She knew herself well enough to be able to admit that she normally would have been very uncomfortable by this question.

She continued, "I have survived so far but - we'll see," she responded, while discretely looking from one attendant male to the other. The thought of staying in Port Baily for good had not yet hit her.

Why should I stay here? She silently asked herself. Laughter from a group of people behind Steph's back penetrated her thoughts and she lost the moment to find a possible answer.

"Perhaps we can trick you into joining the sailing-team," Ted suggested and cast a wry glance at her. "If you decide to stay, that is. We need an experienced helmsman when the Silver Cup regatta takes place in the beginning of June."

Steph couldn't avoid the girlish giggle from erupting in her throat.

"Racing?" she chuckled. "First of all - you have not seen me at the helm yet." Steph tried to stifle the giggle and was relieved when she succeeded.

The four men remained casual although they seemed to be charmed by the young woman's feminine disclosure. Curiously they looked at her, waiting for a clarification of the sudden loss of posture.

She regained herself before explaining her outburst, "I just got a sudden flash," she paused with a witty face, " of my latest appearance on the racing scene. I tend to take the position as helmsman a bit too serious … if you know what I mean."

All four men's eyebrows narrowed but their faces gaped of curiosity. "Did you push your crew too far?" Jake asked suspiciously, well aware of how easy that could be.

Steph grinned. "Push is not that far from the truth. My crew did not do as I told them and," she waved her hand, "it ended with my father flying over board."

They all laughed. "Well we surely need someone with the right spirit if we're going to beat the rich boys from town," John Forsythe stated amused, patting Steph on her shoulder. "Now - if you excuse me - I have a few more people to say hello to." He nodded briefly before turning his attention to another group on the porch.

Losing concentration of what the others were talking about, Steph let her eyes wander over the crowded terrace. She estimated there were around 50 people outside defying the chilly autumn evening outside. At the opposite side she noticed Kate and Fabricio in, what seemed to be, a familiar conversation with another man and woman Steph had never seen before.

To be frank - there were plenty of people Steph had never seen before. She observed how Kate heartily laughed and bent forward touching the man's arm. Steph tasted her drink without letting her eyes leave Kate. She admired how Kate was dressed. It was understated but a classy black skirt and jacket - Steph estimated it to be Armani - with a burgundy colored blouse underneath. The blouse collar casually wrapped over the jacket and hanging from her shoulder was an elegant black purse.

She must have done her hair today, Steph reflected. It looks different - more auburn than the last time I saw her. Nice. Aloud although faint, she mused, “Very nice.”

Suddenly Kate turned and instantly Steph's hideout in the crowd was revealed. Steph felt exposed, like she was being caught doing something wrong. Kate, who for a brief moment had turned serious, responded to Steph's gaze with a warm and intimate smile. Steph couldn't do anything but return the smile with the same affection. Shortly after she saw Kate break lose from her conversation and patiently move towards Steph and the men around her.

 

"I hope you haven't scared my guest off?" Kate had sneaked up between the doctor and Jake, letting her arms snake around their waists.

"Ah, I think we've behaved ourselves," Jake replied, looking at Wilson for agreement. The young doctor smiled slyly.

Shaking her head, Kate let go of the men and with one step was standing next to Steph. Confidently she leaned closer and smugly whispered, "They haven't been talking about the Silver Cup regatta - have they?"

Steph faced her friend with an enigmatic expression. "I don't think any of us know what you are insinuating Kate?"

Absorbed in her eyes, Kate noticed Steph was teasing her. She held onto the look for a few short seconds before she looked away, chuckling. Shaking her head slightly she looked up again and caught Ted, Jake and Wilson grinning, proud of their collusion.

Laughing at their predictability, she declared, "You gentlemen are absolutely hopeless," she chuckled.

Being a very small brother to Boston , the annual sailing competition was for Port Baily David's fight against Goliath. The first week in June, boats from along the coast gathered in Port Baily to fight for the Silver Cup. The chance to beat the well-equipped racers owned by wealthy men from Boston brought the small towns together. Port Baily had traditionally managed to give a good fight. They had even won five times in the regatta's 55-year-old history. The last couple of years they had run short though, not being able to stand up against the capital. A helmsman with new ideas could be their savior.

A bell rang with an annoying tone before Kate got the chance to give Steph a word of warning about the relationship between sailing and Port Baily. Instead everybody turned his or her attention to the origin of the sound.

"Ladies and gentlemen!" John Forsythe called in his role as the host. "Dinner is served and," he briefly turned to his wife who stood next to him, holding his hand, "we welcome you to the tables!"

When the crowd started to move against the doors, Kate gently got hold on Steph's left arm and placed it around her own.

"Shall we," she stated simply and delivered a confident smile.

Without hesitation Steph accepted Kate's arm. "Gladly," she replied and followed the smaller woman's lead.

In the corner of her eye Kate noticed Richard Wilson make a dubious movement before he turned around and headed for the doors. It struck Kate that he might wish to have escorted Steph. Might he have liked to escort Steph to the table? Unconsciously she held on to Steph a little more firmly. Not much but enough for Steph to squeeze back in response. Why? She didn't know.

Well, Kate thought as they walked across the grand room, he should have been a little more determined.

 

Two long tables dressed in white linen, white porcelain and silverware were waiting for everyone. Arrangements of yellow, red, green flowers and leafs crowned the tables in a sparkling contrast against the white background. The servers - sons and daughters of various guests were poised, ready for action, along the inner wall. Over their heads hung pictures of every mayor of Port Baily. The earlier pictures depicted serious looking men in black suits. The last picture was a portrait of John Forsythe, confidently smiling to his citizens.

"I do not understand," Maggie Redgrave frowned when she saw Kate and Steph coming through the doors, "why does she has to be here this evening?"

Charles Redgrave followed his wife's gaze and found the object of her irritation. He sighed unnoticeably. "Well, Kate must have invited her," the short, round man replied as he pulled out the chair for Maggie.

Maggie frowned again. "Well, she should know better.

Patiently waiting for his wife to take a seat, Charles looked around the room to see where people sat.

"Kate has no respect for those of us who have worked so hard to get this town to be what it is," she whispered loud enough for the woman across the table to hear her. The woman pursed her mouth and nodded in agreement. Looking at her husband for justification, Maggie graciously sat down.

Charles carefully pushed in her chair. "Whatever you say, darling," he replied uninterested. Personally, he was delighted to see Steph so well taken care of. Acknowledging Steph, he beamed at her and Kate as they passed by.

 

When they had delivered the food earlier during the day, Kate had asked one of the boys working to make sure that Steph was seated close to her. Kate had Ted on her right and Jake Larry on her left. This year she had gotten Wilson at the opposite side of the table. She had switched Kelly's place card one step and managed to get Steph on her diagonal left.

The switch did not go Kelly unnoticed since she was in charge of the preparations. She threw a quick glance at Kate who, in return, didn't pretended not to see her.

 

Chairs scraped against the hardwood floor as people sat down. Steph felt Richard Wilson push her chair under her as she sat down. She looked up and gratefully smiled at him.

Wilson was nervous. The first time he saw the blond woman he had thought she was absolutely stunning yet then he had been in a situation where he had had control. The young son had cried at first but Wilson recalled how Jason, after some persuasion with talk about bravery had calmed down. Now, with the same woman next to him, dressed in a beautiful blue dress he felt his hands begin to sweat.

"I've heard a rumor," Wilson said cautiously, facing Steph hoping for conversation, "that you work at Harvard?" A pause and he quickly filled in, "I normally don't listen to rumors but …," he smiled bashfully.

Steph met the young doctors green eyes and searching smile. "Well, your source is wrong," she corrected a little too seriously. She added a soft smile to assure the doctor that she did not mean, as it might have sounded. "I might. Though I am not yet certain if I will pursue my research."

"You're doing research?" Wilson asked, feeling the conversation head in a more relaxed direction. "May I ask in what subject?"

Steph hesitated, not sure she wanted to get involved in a discussion about something she had mixed feelings about. "Astronomy," she eventually declared without any further explanation.

Wilson raised his eyebrows and nodded with interest. "Fascinating," he replied. He noticed that Steph still didn't meet his attention fully. He tried again. "A lifetime commitment, I guess?"

No response came so Wilson added, "I mean - there are a lot of objects to study?"

There was a hint of irony in his statement or perhaps that was only in Steph's imagination. She had heard the question many times before and often with a superior tone attached to it. Her mother in particular was very gifted in devaluing astronomy to something only dreamers worked with.

In this case though, she was aware that the doctor didn't mean it like that. She swallowed her own bitterness and tried to find a quick answer to his question. She couldn't come up with something witty fast enough so she simply stated, "Yes."

Wilson noticed the sudden flinch in Steph's manner but didn't know what could have caused it. He didn't want to cause some awkwardness between them and made an attempt to correct his possible mistake.

"Have you had anything published?" he asked cautiously.

Steph found that she had no reason in creating a gap of silence between them. She collected herself before she responded. With a sincere attempt to build a bridge between them, she replied, "Yes, I was published in 'Science' four years ago. A stroke of pure luck," she declared and mentally stated it had been.

Wilson brightened. "I subscribe to 'Science'," he said enthusiastically. "Now I know what to do tomorrow … search for your issue!"

"Well, as long as you don't start to ask questions about it afterwards," Steph responded playfully, feeling she was beginning to relax into their conversation.

 

Large plates with different kinds of antipasti were placed at the tables and the conversations in the hall began to focus on what was served. Steph picked a small crostini with tapenade, some mozzarella with tomatoes and a few slices of the carpaccio. A few days ago she had the opportunity to taste the tapenade when Fabricio was making it. The salty purée of anchovies, olives, capers, garlic, thyme and so on didn't sound good nor did it look good but the taste was delicious.

"So what will I expect to find?" Wilson asked and put an olive in his mouth.

Steph turned to him with a wondering expression.

The doctor covered his mouth, "In 'Science', I mean," and smiled.

Steph found it amusing that he hadn't let go of her studies yet. "It is a short report about the use of the Keck telescope in Hawaii ," she stated to the curious man, who put a slice of the carpaccio in his mouth and nodded appreciatively. She continued. "My group used it to study extragalactic star formation with infrared images and spectroscopy."

Wilson 's approving nod decreased and finally came to halt. "I might have a few questions after I've read the article," he said and gave her a relinquished smile.

I wonder if she would like to come over some day, he pondered casually . It would be nice to talk to someone with a …more educated personality.

Wilson sometimes wished he had more people to talk to about science, medicine, world issues; but most didn't seem to be very interested in doing so. At least he, now sitting next Steph, thought so.

"How do you come up with these delicious things?" Ted asked turning from his plate to Kate. "Can't you come home some day and fill up our freeze?"

Kate chuckled and leaned toward the overwhelmed Ted. "I told you not to marry her," she whispered loud enough to be overheard while makaing a playful nod at Kelly. "You will never get anything but deep-fried everything."

Turning his glance over to his suspicious looking wife, Ted slowly stated, "I have to admit you are right." He grinned at Kelly before turning back to face Kate. "But what a deep-fry it is then!"

"Oh, I bet," Kate replied and grinned.

Kelly gave them both a vicious look. ”Will you two stop whispering and please give me some of the bean salad”, she demanded in an unsuccessful attempt of being harsh.

 

Meanwhile, a few blocks from the biggest party of the year, another one was proceeding in high sprits. In the daycare center approximately 30 children of various ages played heartily together until one after the other sunk down against seductive pillows.

Jason had played with a couple of boys of his own age when he got there but soon, a group of older children got his attention. Instead of running around, he curiously stopped by the table they sat around.

"What are you doing?" he asked, looking at a red haired girl.

The girl paid no greater attention to him but focused on her task as she replied, "We're making our own tattoos."

Pondering over the answer Jason fell silent for a beat.

"How?" he asked eventually, looking at the pictures and crayons on the table.

The girl turned and faced him. She had freckles all over her face. Jason thought it looked funny but he didn't say anything about it.

"Grab a chair," the girl said, "and we'll show you."

"How old are you?" One of the boys asked Jason.

"Six," he replied casually while crawling up on his knees on the chair to see more.

The others looked at one another and started to giggle.

Jason faltered. "What?" he asked insecurely.

Still giggling, the girl with the freckles responded, "You're only a small kid."

Initially, Jason was perplexed, then with his mouth pursed together he stated, "So are you!"

The other children giggled again. "We're 10," the freckled girl replied, "but you're cool. You can hang here with us if you want to."

The possible conflict ended before even starting. One of the boys drew an ugly face on his pieces of paper. Curiously he threw brief glances at Jason.

"You're the one living on the sailboat … right?"

Focusing on the picture he was drawing Jason simply stated, "Yeah"

 

The roomy city hall was filled with people's joyful commotion. Everybody ate with a lustful appetite, wineglasses were raised in salutes and laughter was delivered in return. The large plates and bowls were sent around the tables, spoons and forks scraping against the porcelain. The young serving staff had their hands full and ran in haste between tables and the room behind the curtain where new plates waited to be carried out. Someone spilled a glass and a brief disappointing moan was heard. Within a few seconds a waiter walked with distinct strides towards the unhappy guest and soon the incident was forgotten.

Kate, who was fully occupied with Ted's declaration of love for her appetizers, noticed the friendly conversation between Steph and the young handsome doctor. Hiding her eavesdropping she looked down on her plate and made unnecessary rearrangement of the dishes in front of her. They talked about space and Wilson asked something Kate didn't understand. The answer came short. Directly after, Steph made a sudden shift of their conversation by asking about were he had gone to school.

Smiling to herself, Kate knew Steph didn't like to talk too much about herself. She recalled their own earlier moments of small talk and, sometimes, how personal conversations had been before she felt Steph relax, letting her in. Her young friend wasn't one who easily let strangers into her soul, and Kate was well aware that there were still parts she had yet to see.

When Wilson began talking, Kate looked up and caught Steph's eyes as they began to glaze over. Kate raised her wineglass at her friend, receiving a short, but welcoming, nod in return. I guess the doctor's story isn't that interesting, she thought as the dry wine bathed her mouth. I've seen that slightly bored expression before. She mentally clucked at her discovery.

 

Jake, who had been waiting for some kind of answers, brought Kate back to reality and the cheerful environment.

”I'm sorry,” Kate said and turned to face him. ”My mind was elsewhere.”

"Ah, my friend, always something new on your mind." Jake quickly looked deeply into Kate's eyes, trying to find what occupied her mind. He was very well used to the never ending source for new ideas and her impulsive actions for fulfilling them.

Their differences in age of almost 20 years allowed Jake the advantage of having known Kate since she took her first steps. The expression he saw now was familiar. He had witnessed the pondering look several times during those years and the one he now saw on her face was reflective. It was as if she was up to something but not yet ready to dive into.

"I wondered if you should visit your parents at Thanksgiving," he repeated.

Kate smiled and put down her fork, placed her hand on the older mans arm and looked seriously straight into his eyes. "Guess what? They're going on a cruise!" She chuckled. "To Venezuela !" she burst out forcefully and laughed.

Jake's eyebrows shot up. " Venezuela ," he replied surprisingly. "Why?"

Letting go of his arm, Kate shrugged her shoulders. "Have no idea? Maybe they just want to do something different?"

Jake nodded reflectively. "Well, if you don't have anything to do-," he said taking Kate's hand in his own, "you're always welcome at our place. Little Jake Jr. will be home, taking care of his old folks. There is always room for an extra plate."

Kate was touched. "You're too sweet Jake and I will remember your offer," she said smiling warmly at him. Taking advantage of the pause in the conversation, Kate loaded her fork with some mozzarella cheese and tomatoes. Wiping her mouth off with the white linen napkin, she turned to Jake again.

"I was actually not going home to them anyway," she stated smugly. "I had already made plans with my sister and her family but - thanks to non-existent Jordan family communication we never needed to tell my parents."

Jake chuckled. "Might have spared you from a possible argument?"

"I'm sure it did," Kate replied certainly.

 

Dinner went on with Pollo alla Diavolo - Devils Chicken - for the main course, served with a young Chianti. A few gasps were expressed around the tables when the pepper-strong flavors from the chicken hit their senses. Wineglasses were emptied in haste to neutralize the fire erupting inside their mouths. That caused an increasing traffic from the waiters and waitresses who had to uncork new bottles of wine in a rapid pace. The still feisty people had yet to pay attention to the small glass of water standing next to the wineglass, something that in the long run was recommended by Kate. On the other hand sprits were still being maintained at a high level. Another glass was spilled and this time, it fell to the floor. The sound of splitting glass caused a moment of silence but when an upset and embarrassed Maggie Redgrave' accused her husband, Charles, of clumsiness, it penetrated the silence and the crowd's cacophony quickly rolled over her criticism. After all, it was just Maggie.

A clinking clang suddenly chimed and heads slowly turned towards the mayor, now standing.

"Dear friends," he began in a steady voice. "Judging by my repeated efforts at getting your attention I guess you all are enjoying yourself." An admitting mumble spread through the hall before John Forsythe continued. "I'm not going to bore you with a long speech but - before dessert is served and the dance begins - I would like to direct our overwhelming gratitude to the woman we all have to thank for this lovely evening." He raised his glass and turned his focus in Kate's direction. "Kate Jordan - what would we have done without you? Thank you!"

People from both tables turned to Kate and cheered in joyful voices, "To Kate!"

Every year Kate got the same kind of attention and appreciation. It was moving, although she still did find it a bit embarrassing. She cringed and looked around to find someone who wasn't looking at her but it turned out to be impossible. When her eyes met Kelly's she realized that nowhere was comfort to be found and no one would give up before she stood and said something herself.

She took a deep breath and rose from her chair. With elegant posture - her left hand casually resting on her hip and the other one holding her glass of wine - she scanned the crowd. The guests eyed her with their full anticipation. Kate smiled in return.

In a loud and clear voice she said, "This is the fifth time I've had the honor of arranging this party and I'm beginning to question how long I can," she made a short pause and let the back of her left hand rest under her cheek, "keep satisfying you." Low cheers spread thought the room and she smiled before continuing. "But I can only state that this isn't the most choosy crowed and - if you don't tell me to stop - I'm sure we will meet again next year. Thank you and enjoy the rest of the evening."

Applause filled the room and Steph noticed a slight blush on Kate's cheek. She followed her friends motion as she sat down, hoping she would be able to catch Kate's attention without demanding it. Leaning back into her chair she focused on the woman on the other side of the table. Kate was giving Kelly a sarcastic but friendly comment. Steph didn't understand the intent since Wilson was saying something at the same time. She didn't get that either. Suddenly she got dizzy. The food, the wine, all the voices - it all forced itself up on her. She smiled at Wilson , still not knowing what he had said.

"Will you excuse me," she asked politely and rose. Wilson jerked and made an attempt to get up too but Steph stilled him with her hand. "

"Oh of course," Wilson stammered feeling a bit uneasy by her abrupt departure.

Kate looked over at Steph just as she stood and walked away. She faced Wilson with a questionable expression.

"Ladies room," he formed with soundless words.

Seeing the blue dress and the long legs leave the room caused an impatient feeling inside Kate. She looked at Kelly for distraction but her friend was in the middle of a discussion with Burt from the tourist information's office. Her mind returned to Steph and she eyed the entrance, hoping to see Steph return.

I hope nothing's wrong, she thought and felt a twinge of insecurity pass through her gut. Maybe she's going home? Her thoughts paused. Nah, why should she?

After a fast consideration she decided to go check on Steph. Not that she thought Steph needed to be checked on but because she didn't want to speculate any longer whether Steph was leaving or not. Making a quick glance at her watch, she figured Steph must have been gone for … 30 seconds. She looked at Wilson again and pushed back her chair.

"I think that might be a good idea as well," she whispered as she rose.

 

The ladies room was down the hall, in the lobby. With fast strides Kate walked through the dusky corridor. Her heals clattered against the marble floor and she became very aware of her own presence. When she reached the door she took an unconscious extra breath before entering.

Steph stood with her hands under the cold water, pouring out from the tap. Her eyes were focusing on the image of her self in the mirror. The quite moment and refreshing chill from the water eased her sudden drowsiness. When she heard clatter approaching the ladies-room, she collected her self and prepared to face the company. An unexpected smile crossed her mind when she saw Kate enter through the door.

Kate felt how she eased when she found the young woman inside the bright ladies room.

"Are you alright?" she asked warmly, letting her hip lean against the cold bench along the wall.

Steph straightened herself, turned the water off and corrected the already perfect hair before facing Kate. "I guess I'm not used to the crowd," she said and gave her friend a tired smile.

Kate let silence speak for a brief moment before she in a low voice asked, "Do you want to leave?" She noticed a slight hesitation from Steph and took a step forward, putting her hand on Steph's arm.

"We can go and get a cup of coffee at my place instead, if you'd like." Kate suggested impulsively. Immediately she realized that her suggestion wouldn't work. It was expected of her to remain at least until dessert was eaten. A few steps on the dance-floor were also something she usually participated with enthusiasm in. She faltered and eyed her young friend. The face was still perfectly made, the hair too but the eyes did seem weary. Steph's sudden change made her put the regulations aside and if she wanted to leave, Kate would go with her.

Although tempting, Steph was fully aware that Kate had obligations and she didn't want to be the reason for an unnecessary early departure. She looked in the mirror again and took a deep breath, pushing the tiredness away.

"That would give them something to talk about," Steph said and delivered a resurrecting smile via the mirror. "I'm not going anywhere. Just needed some space." She looked at the auburn hair woman and watched Kate's expression turn from concern to a relief.

"If you're ready we can go back in there," Steph said assuring, nodding in the direction of the hall.

It reminded Kate that she should use the facility while she was there. "I'm just going to --." She pointed at the row of booths.

" I will wait outside," Steph responded politely.

 

Kelly had seen both Steph and Kate leave the room. Now she, standing behind her chair, saw them return. They came to a halt just as they had entered the hall and Kelly saw how Kate put her hand over Steph's and said something. Steph returned the gesture with a smile.

The guests had left their places and now stretched their legs while balancing a plate of dessert in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other. In the mean time the tables were rearranged and a three-man band had slowly started to play an instrumental version of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean". Kelly casually walked towards the two women.

"Gee, Kate I was beginning to wonder if you had left?"

Turning to her friend, Kate wondered what the fuss was about. Before she had come up with an answer Steph made a confession, "I do think I'm the one to blame."

"Really?" Both Kelly and Kate replied.

Steph smiled smugly and explained, "I needed some … background information about Charles Redgrave's relationship to alcohol."

Kelly sniggered and didn't believe a word the young woman said but without hesitation she let it be. Instead she leaned closer to them and whispered. "Well, while you were away Maggie also dropped a glass."

 

Slowly, the three women walked to the large table by the wall, under the portraits of Mayors. On the table desserts and coffee was served together with an optional choice of cognac, sherry or grappa. Kate wasn't in the mood for the Tiramisu - she felt like she'd had enough of it yesterday - and only took one cup of black coffee and one glass of the white grappa.

"It looks like we're going to get a rerun of last years feverish night," Kate said joyfully while observing the first trembling steps on the dance-floor. She dampened her lips in the strong Italian spirits and eyed the couples moving to the rhythm in front of her. "I see even Ted has put on the right pair of shoes for this evening."

Kelly turned around and found her husband stiffly attempting to lead a woman across the dance-floor. "I should put a warning sign around his neck," Kelly sighed, shaking her head. "Poor woman."

Steph could do nothing but agree with Kelly - Ted Walker was no dancer. Without thinking about it her thoughts formed to words and she mused, "Indeed."

Both Kate and Kelly chuckled at the unexpected comment but nodded in agreement.

"Excuse me," a voice suddenly said.

All three women looked away from Ted's dance-performance and faced Wilson 's dark kind eyes.

Wilson smiled at them. "I couldn't avoid hearing some pretty judgmental comments here but I'm not afraid." He turned to face Steph. "May I have the next dance," he asked boldly.

Steph made a barely noticeable nod, threw a glance at Kate and Kelly and smugly whispered, "A very brave man." She turned her attention to Wilson . "If you can meet the critical audience, I will gladly have the next dance."

Kate and Kelly watched the young couple enter the dance floor and as the music began, they saw twirls and steps as though the dancers had been partners for years. Kate was a bit surprised that Steph was such good dancer. For some reason, she couldn't picture Steph as a prom queen - although she most certainly had the looks for one. But a dancer? Someone must have taught her.

She seems to have unknown qualities to bring out when necessary , Kate thought as she watched Steph graciously dance across the shiny floor.

"Pretty couple," Kelly stated, noticing Kate's pondering look.

Kate didn't respond but kept gazing at the couple. She continued to watch as Wilson lead Steph over the hardwood floor with his hand gently around her waist. Steph was smiling and she seemed to be happy. Kate let go of them for a brief moment. Looking down into her now empty grappa glass, she tried to find solace from something she yet couldn't form into thoughts. When she looked up again she met Steph's eyes and - although only a blink of an eye could have passed - Kate got absorbed in the mesmerizing blue color.

"Pretty girl," Kelly tried again, hoping for a response this time.

Kate was slowly brought out of her thought. Smiling, she turned to her friend, who promptly refilled her empty glass. "If I didn't know better I would have guessed they had met before," she said with an unsuccessful attempt of sounding casual. "They certainly are a good match.”

Kelly could tell something was bothering her friend. Kate's usually quick-witted replies and delightful manners weren't present this evening. Instead it seemed like something was occupying her mind. Something that didn't let go of her. Kelly's mouth pursed as she wondered about this.

The blond woman on the dance-floor was a fresh breeze in Kate's life, Kelly could sense that, and she had seen it on her friend's face, but how much was yet to be revealed. Whatever it was, Kelly hoped her friend soon would find out about, but she was also well aware that Kate's stubborn nature would hold out for as long as possible.

"Kate, dear, what's wrong?" she asked, putting her hand around Kate's waist and casually glancing at the growing crowd on the dance-floor. "You don't seem particularly sharp tonight."

Kate sighed and knew Kelly was right - she didn't feel up for a party anymore. She cast a quick glance at Steph and Wilson again before turning to Kelly. "I don't know what it is," she replied in a weary tone. "

Maybe I'm just tired?"

"I'll let you dance with Ted, that will cheer you up," Kelly offered.

Kate laughed and shook her head. "I didn't say I wanted to kill myself!"

The music stopped and the dancers nodded to one another as they cleared the floor before returning to the spectators ground. Steph had enjoyed the dance, which actually surprised her. She couldn't remember the last time she had danced but reckoned it must have been at one of her parents' parties. Dancing with her father had been something she remembered as joyful. The slow dance with the young doctor had been a pleasant reminder of that.

"That certainly wasn't the first time you danced," Kelly appreciatively commented when Steph returned to them.

Wilson had escorted her back and thanked Steph for the dance, hinting he might come back for another. "Ladies," he said and left them.

"I have made a few moves before," Steph replied, trying to understate the attention. "It was a long time ago though but I still have it." She looked at Kate who seemed a bit distant.

"Are you okay?" She modestly asked the older woman.

Kate tried to let go of the nagging feeling inside her but it didn't want to leave. "I think I might have overworked or something. Feels like I wont last much longer this evening."

With her eyebrows stitched together, Kate tried to shake her bad mood off.

Steph could fully understand the feeling. Having put so much time into something that, when it was time for payoff, it just wasn't fun anymore. She sensed that Kate would want to leave soon and she didn't want to end up alone at the party.

"Does the offer about coffee still stand?" she asked faintly.

The question energized Kate's mood and she cast a quick glance at her wristwatch. It was only 11 o'clock. Way too early to leave , she thought, battling between what was expected of her and what she wanted.

A bar had been set up and the guests wandered between that, a few athletic moves on the dance floor and the breeze of fresh air out on the porch. The room was filled with plenty of potential for a good evening. Steph's questions still hung loose and Kate had to make a fast decision.

"Let's go and have a large gin and tonic first," she mused, giving up to her official conscience. "I need to get rid of the raw grappa taste in my mouth. And then," Kate said in a begrudging, low voice, "I will have to get a dance with our host."

She sighed but felt pretty good about her decision although the optional coffee with Steph indeed had teased her senses. Looking at the blond woman, she met a soft smile and a faint, understanding nod.

Although, Kelly realized that Kate should be tired, she didn't want her to leave right away. The night was still young and this occasion only happened once a year. "A wise choice," Kelly interjected. "The Mayor might get cranky if he doesn't get a dance with you."

Steph, who's tiredness had faded away with the dance, clasped her hands behind her back and simply stated, "Let us proceed to the bar then!"

 

By the evening's end, both Kate and Steph had managed to drink a gin and tonic, a dry martini and struggle with Ted on the dance-floor. During that time Charles Redgrave's success became complete when he, after a few whiskeys too many, fell with Carol Forsythe during a fast jig. Maggie Redgrave, after gathering him up, left shortly afterwards.

"I should have brought an extra sweater with me," Steph mumbled. Automatically, she stepped closer to Kate. "The wind really is crisp tonight."

Reflexively Kate put her arm around Steph's waist closing the distance between them. "You can borrow one from me when we get there," she offered as she tried to shelter Steph from the wind.

"Thank you. I think I might have to do that."

They walked in silence, enjoying the calm streets, the soothing streetlights and the sleeping windows that faced the streets. One shop - selling house-wares - still had the Halloween display in the window. Soon tacky Santa's, angels and lights would invade every window in an attempt to flirt with people's holiday weaknesses.

"What are your plans for the upcoming holidays," Kate asked curiously pulling Steph closer as she felt her shiver.

Steph hadn't really thought about that and it struck her that she might give her mother a call some day. Leaning into Kate and digging her hands deeper into her own pockets she said, "We usually go to San Francisco for Christmas and I guess that is where we are going this year as well." An unnoticeable pause followed. "For Thanksgiving - I don't know. Nothing special I assume."

Nodding absently, Kate had no response. Her thoughts were no longer accessible, nor sensible. Why? She didn't know. However, her feelings were signaling loud and clear yet, somehow, she couldn't translate them. She didn't feel discomfort, however, something was just there - something waiting to be noticed … something changing in her. Despite this internal confusion, she did obey the intuition to make an offer that could cause Steph to spend more time with her. So - as they turned from Main Street onto her own street Kate timidly, uncertainly, spoke.

"If you want to, you can join me and my sisters family at Thanksgiving." She felt an odd but brave turmoil pass through her body.

They had just reached Kate's building and stopped.

Steph let go of Kate's arm and faced the older woman. "Oh, you do not have to do that," she replied softly. "I don't want to intrude or anything."

"Nonsense," Kate commented and looked soothingly at the young face. "You're never going to be an intruder. I would like to have you and Jason there." She saw the blond woman look down on the sidewalk. Her foot made small circles around an invisible spot and Kate couldn't help but wonder what was going on in her mind.

With a quirked smile she added a faint, "Please."

Hearing the plea in Kate's voice was comforting yet surreal for Steph. That someone like Kate would … beg for her company? Steph went from looking at the concrete sidewalk to the red brick, two-story building behind Kate. White borders framing the windows created depth and character to the house that was Kate's home.

Home …, Steph pondered and, at the same time felt a peaceful ray of joy spread through her veins. She looked away as though searching for something. When her gaze eventually returned to Kate, Steph had a self-deprecating smile.

"I was merely stopping in for repairs. Now I have friends. Jason is making his own friends. Kate, I lived by the day. By the moment if need be. And now…” her voice faded and her expression turned sad.

Not having expected this moment of questioning, Kate instinctively closed the distance and did what her heart told her to do - embraced the stoic yet vulnerable woman. Her voice mellow and soothing, she whispered, "You have become …," Kate paused, not knowing how to express herself. "A very special person to me." She felt a nervous tingle in her stomach when she felt Steph ease into their embrace. Slowly, she entered a space where everything was calm and peaceful. Even Kate felt how she became relaxed by her own action.

Gently caressing Steph's back, she continued, "I don't know why - but you are very important to me, Steph," her voice deep, soothing. She faltered, wondering where her words were taking her. Daring to take yet another step she whispered, "You have a … special place in my heart."

Seldom in Steph's life had anyone said she was important to them. Not for personal reasons, not for just being there. And certainly no one since her father died. Somehow, without noticing it, this woman, with whom Steph really had little in common, had also become important to her. Perhaps their differences weren't as big as they seemed?

With closed eyes Steph felt the scent of Kate's hair, her perfume, her warmth. She took a deep breath, inhaled the moment and let herself be swept in to the wave of belonging.

You are not alone anymore , her unconscious whispered safely deep inside her. With the chill of the night surrounding her, the child she once was smiled and let go of the emptiness she always had felt.

Smiling Steph pulled Kate closer to her. "You are very special to me as well, Kate," she whispered into her ear. "Thank you for being the one you are."

Kate caught her breath when the warmth of Steph's voice touched her ear. A sensual sensation passed through her body and she closed her eyes, letting the moment live for as long as possible. Her arms snaked around the slender waist and she felt how Steph pressed a bit harder to get her closer. Kate dug her nose into the base of Steph's soft neck and inhaled the warm, slightly perfumed fragrance.

They remained in each other's embrace, wondering at this new friendship and the rarity it was for both of them. For how long they stood on the sidewalk outside Kate's apartment was unclear. Probably not for as long at it felt, yet not as long as they both wished for. Steph was the first one to ease the grip. She stepped back holding Kate's hands in front of her and shyly smiled. Looking down at the slender hands she slowly said, "I should get going." She looked at Kate allowing a beat of silence to pass.

"Rain check on the coffee?" She asked and let go of Kate's hands.

A shudder of disappointment crossed Kate's mind. "You don't want to come in?" She asked, trying to hide any emotions. Still feeling their closeness, she didn't quite succeed though.

Looking again at the building Steph pondered. Although she would have loved to enter Kate's home, she didn't want to spoil the satisfaction she now experienced. The experience from what she already had gotten.

"I feel …," she turned back to Kate, "relieved. It has been a great evening and you -," She smiled and dug her hands deep in to her own pockets, "are an amazing woman Kate Jordan."

Kate frowned in embarrassment and suddenly felt very young.

Taking a small step back Steph offered, "I already look forward to seeing you again," tilting her head slightly.

Kate nodded slowly, fixating on a point on Steph's right, not quite able to face the young woman's eyes. "Drop by the restaurant tomorrow."

Struggling she looked up, meeting Steph's eyes and managed a grin. "Leftovers," she clarified.

Steph quirked her eyebrow and nodded slightly in acceptance, "Can't wait." A beat followed before she continued. "Good night, Kate."

A pause entered where Kate could hear every heartbeat pass by. She whispered, "Good night."

Smiling Steph turned around and with long strides walked away.

"Hey!" Kate called.

Steph quickly turned around.

"Don't you want to borrow a sweater!"

A brief pause fell and then Steph smiled shaking her head commenting, "I'm not cold anymore."

 

Kate stood a few minutes on the sidewalk and didn't head inside until Steph was long gone around the corner. If she had been at the restaurant, she would have been able to watch Steph all the way back to the boat. But as her home was off the harbor by a block, Kate had to be satisfied with only the quickly fading sounds of her footsteps.

Once inside, Kate uncharacteristically let her coat drop to the floor. Her mind skipped over many thoughts, none of them in order or sense. Familiarity led her through the dark apartment in to the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of water from the large pitcher in the fridge and headed back to the living room. She sat down in the couch, kicked off her shoes, put her feet on the table and just sat there, looking at the dark shadows.

But only moments later, she was up again and heading for the bathroom. She opened the small cabinet over the white porcelain sink and grabbed one Aspirin from the bottle. Pill in hand, she went back to the couch and sat down again. Leaning back into the soft cushions she let her head rest but her eyes remained open. The lights from a car outside danced on the ceiling and her eyes followed them until they were gone. She sat still content to focus on the ceiling. It was as though her mind was like an empty space, undefined and uncharted. She stood there, in the middle and where-ever she decided to go, nothing was found.

I forgot to give Fabricio credits for dinner , it suddenly echoed in the space.

Kate sighed, lifted her head from the cushion and tried ridiculously to levitate the glass of water, hoping for it to move with the power of her thoughts. But no powers were available. Another sigh and she sat straight up. She grabbed the glass and looked at the white pill that was hiding inside the palm of her hand. Quickly she put the pill in her mouth and swallowed it with the entire glass of water. The cold beverage, hitting her stomach caused a minor burp to erupt.

For Christ sake , Kate thought, mad at her self. You are too old to still be up. Get to bed and put this day behind you. Hopeful flashes of tomorrow appeared in her mind - leftovers. Yes, there is a tomorrow.

With one last sigh she rose heavily from the soft couch, leaving the empty glass on the table.

I wonder if the glass will leave a damp mark on the table top , she pondered without really caring as she entered the dark bedroom.

*****

 
 
Continue to Part 4
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