Takes Two
by Elize

Part 5
posted  Spetember 2003

 
 

 
 

23

When the summer guests left their coastal adventures and the colors of fall vanished, Port Baily shrunk like a one-week-old balloon after a birthday-party. It got lazy, sad in a way. Shortly though, life entered another dimension.

During the darker part of the year, Port Baily was one, long period of expectations, a time where minds planned for the following year. Could anything be done differently to get more people visiting their town? Maybe the annual street fair could include something else? Questions like that occupied the citizens of the small, New England town

For Kate this was a strange season as well. There always seemed to be something going on, yet nothing actually did happen. There were no surprises. No busses full of European tourists passing by, all of them – pronto - wanting a New England Clam Chowder. When the last bus passed by for the year, Kate erased the Chowder from the menu and stuck with her own Italian favorites.

Occasionally, engagements showed up on the horizon. Not any surprises but, never the less, still demanding preparations. Thanksgiving was a holiday Kate never stayed open for. It was about family gathering and even she used this day to see her relatives. New Years Eve was different though. Every year – ‘Tavern by he Sea' had been open for that special night of the year. It was by reservation only, big and a lot of work.

This year, Kate planned to have the restaurant open, but without any special arrangements. A couple of extra bottles of champagne were the only extras she had ordered from her wine distributor. Kelly and Ted were coming, as were Steph, Jason, and Jake Larry. People close to her and without any demands. Fabricio would work, but would also be a guest around the table. She wanted to keep it simple, as if she was at home.

That was what she had planned. However, as Mayor John Forsythe and his wife, Carol sat in front of her, she was sure the extra bottles of champagne wouldn't suffice. A bus full of Japanese tourists, every one taking snap shots of her with the latest digital camera would have been easier than what he asked for.

Smile Kate!

”I know it's a bit late, but do you think you can possibly work something out?” John Forsythe eyed her, concerned but pleading.

Kate's mind raced, searching for a way to handle the situation. Tapping her fingers against the table, she switched focus, back and forth, back and forth between John and Carol. ”10 guests you said?”

Carol nodded.

”And they all are potential investors in Port Baily?”

“Yes. And the 10 includes respective spouses or whatever they are,” John clarified.

Motionless, Kate looked out over the gray ocean. Seagulls glided high in the sky, looking like they could touch the rain-heavy clouds with the tip of their wings. The motionless wings carried the large birds up and down, far away and home again. It seemed so easy.

Turning her attention back to the waiting couple, Kate asked, ”Can I get back to you tomorrow? I need to make a few phone calls before I can commit to anything.”

John and Carol glanced at each other quickly, before he fervently replied,” Of course, Kate. I understand, but - please - give us an answer as soon as you possibly can.” He made a brief pause, took a sip of his now cold coffee, before casually continuing, "If you can't make it - tell us so we can look at other options.”

For a long time after their meeting, Kate pondered whether John had been aware of what he had said or if it just was a comment, blurted in stress? She had never turned him down and would probably not do so now either, but now it crossed her mind that she was nothing but a pawn in a game. Maybe not deliberately but still taken for granted. She loved her work - the restaurant was her life - but what happens when you abuse the one you love? When the reason for love can be questioned?

That day, Kate didn't know.

She walked John and Carol to the door. ”Don't worry,” she said, patting the Mayors shoulder. ”I'll come up with something. You just think about your business, and I'll care for mine. That has worked well so far and I think it will this time as well.”

Grinning, John looked at her. ”You're the best, Kate, and I always brag about your fantastic establishment. My guests can't wait to meet you.”

“I know you do,” she chuckled self-confident, waving them off. ”You better,” she hissed as the door closed behind them.

 

”What was that all about?” Fabricio curiously asked as Kate entered the kitchen.

Leaning back against the long bench along the wall and crossing her arms over her chest, Kate eyed Fabricio as he was chopping onions. ”That,” she grumped, ”was our private, New Years Eve saying: bye, bye.”

The chef stopped what he was doing and looked at her with the beginning of disappointment. ”What do you mean?”

”What I mean is, that the Mayor has invited 10 - prominent - guests for New Years Eve here, to ‘Tavern by the Sea'.”

It was like a slap in the face for Fabricio, snapping him out of a good mood. Slowly he put down the knife and let his head fall backwards. He sighed - loudly. Kate couldn't tell whether he was tired, upset or angry.

Time will tell , she thought, waiting for a reaction.

Fabricio looked down while taking a deep breath. ”I thought we were going to have a small party,” he said, his face strained, ”with friends. None of this business-commotion!”

Kate noticed the tired expression on his face. But it also seemed sad. She felt sorry for him and knew it wasn't fair of her to ask this of him. ”I'm sorry but what can I do?” she questioned. ”I can't turn him down.”

”Of course you can!” Fabricio spun off becoming angry.

Trying to calm him down him, she smiled. ”Yon know as well as I that if we say no to this, he will question us - professionally - every time there's going to be an event.” She sighed, realizing she shouldn't bother about what he thought. On the other hand - his position influences everything in Port Baily, and if she rejected him -. They had to stick together in Port Baily otherwise there would be nothing here to live for. At this moment though, she didn't want to be part of the obligations, only care for herself. She felt selfish.

”Let's just make this as simple as possible,” Kate suggested. “Charming simplicity. The big guys will find it very picturesque and think it is planned as being so.” She paused for a beat, eyeing her friend's still miserable expression.

”We'll need more folks to help serve,” he muttered not at all satisfied with Kate's answer.

”Yeah,” she agreed walking up to him. “I'll find someone.” She rolled up her sleeves and grabbed a knife. ”Give me an onion. I need to do something.”

 

24

"And here we are!"

Gently, Kate turned the Ford Explorer into the long narrow driveway of her sisters' house. It was still early - before noon – yet half of Thanksgiving Day was almost gone. Kate picked up Steph and Jason by the boat, and after a two-hour drive north, they reached their destination.

Gazing at the large colonial house, perfectly blending in among the maple-trees on the enormous garden, Steph spoke, "This isn't a house, Kate. It's a castle." From her place in the passenger seat she looked, in awe, as they drove closer.

Chuckling, Kate stopped the car. "Well, Rachel and Robert have chosen businesses that affords a little more hard cash every month than I," she explained.

The house's front door opened. Two children ran across the lawn, competing with one another to reach the guests first. The girl – 12 years old - paced first, but slowed, anticipating, down as she noticed the unfamiliar faces together with her aunt.

"Come here, Jennifer," Kate said playfully as she steps out of the car and stretches her back, "Give your aunt a big, big hug."

The dark haired girl grinned brightly, and increased her speed again right into her aunt's welcoming arms.

"This time you must have grown," Kate stated with an amused reflection, wryly looking at the girl.

Giggling, Jennifer hid her face into Kate's chest. "You say that every time," the girl whined, embarrassed.

Kate tenderly looked down at her, brushing her hands across the dark hair, saying, "Well, some times it has to be true."

The boy, with the same dark hair but four years younger, silently waited his turn behind Jennifer.

”Don't hide there, Josh,” Kate teased and let go of Jennifer. ”What's up?” she asked, easy-going.

Josh looked inquisitively at the blond boy and woman standing by the car before he turned to face her. ”I'm all right,” he responded casually.

While Kate was surrounded by the children Steph helped Jason out of the car and then unloaded the bags. Jason shyly hanged on to his mother but cast curious glances at the children with Kate.

Kate noticed the puzzled attention her niece paid Steph and Jason, who now quietly waited behind her. She turned to Jason and reached for his hand. ”This young man, is Jason and that,” she pointed at Steph, ”is Steph.”

Fascinated, Jennifer looked at the tall blond woman, dressed in black trousers and a big, brown wool turtleneck. Her hair hung loosely a few inches past her shoulders. Jennifer couldn't recall having seen anyone so perfect before. She is so pretty, the young girl thought as she met the woman's subdued smile.

 

”Josh.” Kate lowered her voice as they began to walk to the house. She slowed down a bit, letting the distance between them and the others increase. ”Jason is a couple of years younger than you,” she whispered, looking at Josh as the walked side by side, ”but I would be very happy if you could - you know - play with him. I know, for instance, that he's really good in playing computer games.”

Nodding, Josh looked at his aunt. ”Okay. Sure,” he replied casually. ”You think he might want to watch football later?”

”I don't know, but ask him,” Kate responded, putting her arm around the boy's shoulders. At the same time she saw her sister appear on the doorstep, joyfully waving at them.

Rachel, Kate's sister, hollered, ”Come on, Kate! Please, pick up some speed!”

“Oh, shush, Rachel.”

Steph carried a heavy bag over her shoulder. Kate had loaded the bag with some of her homemade cranberry sauce and other jars, filled with surprises she hadn't been able to resist making. Chuckling at Rachel's wittiness, Steph let Kate pass by her and then urged her forward.

With her arms wide open, Rachel captured Kate as she playfully stumbled into her. “How can you be so weary?” Rachel asked. “I don't see any bags hanging on your shoulder.”

“Oh,” Kate kissed her sister, “but I have been driving. Forever!”

Grinning Rachel shook her head. “You are pitiful,” she expressed turning her attention to Steph and Jason, standing behind Kate. Rachel elbowed her sister aside while she took two steps forward. “Steph, I hope?” she said reaching for Steph's hand. “Welcome!”

“Thank you for inviting us,” Steph responded as she gently squeezed Rachel's hand.

“Anyone who can stand my sister is welcome in this house,” Rachel went on. “Doesn't happen often, that you should know.” Chuckling, she let go of Steph and peeked down on Jason. “And you must be the boy Kate talks about all the time?”

A bit shy Jason smiled as he stepped forward. “I am Jason,” he said in a voice much more mature than his age.

Rachel smiled back. “Welcome, Jason.”

 

Inside the house, Steph put down the bag on the large kitchen island. Except for the obligatory ‘hello', she still hadn't added much to the chatter between Kate and Rachel. The sisters were alike although Rachel's hair was dyed in a fiery red color, which emphasized the youthful energy she had. Standing in the unfamiliar home, she politely smiled at their conversation but didn't really listen. She found it quite soothing.

Her mind wandered away to the last time she had celebrated Thanksgiving with her own family. Her mother and grandmother worked all day with the preparations and also tried to teach Steph something about traditions.

Allowing herself a moment to reflect, she remembered the mood had been rather cheerful in that day. Everybody relaxed and obligations were far away. Her father had tried to play ball with Jason outside, in the small, lush garden. Jason, still too young, mostly trotted away as the ball landed by his feet. Later, in the evening, her mother had gotten a call from the hospital, and in a hurry had left the rest of the family behind.

Steph still recalled the empty feeling her mother left behind; it was like she had taken the good mood the family had with her. The cheerful laughter vanished and everybody headed for his or her own business. Steph had been disappointed. Now, standing in Kate's sister's kitchen, she was somewhat consoled, remembering the good parts from that day, four years ago.

It was a great day, she thought feeling a lump grow in her throat. I hope I never forget that.

While Steph was cruising her thoughts, Rachel's told a story of how she had tried to impress the wife of one of Robert's colleagues from the bank, by making a soufflé for a casual dinner party.

“It was a disaster,” Rachel laughed looking from Steph to Kate. “I think I got a couple of gray hairs that day.”

”I've told you a thousand times, not to make a soufflé,” Kate chuckled, noticing Steph's distant expression. Her mouth smiled but Kate could tell, from the far away look that she wasn't really listening. Still chuckling, Kate went over to Steph and helped her pick out the jars and a couple of wine bottles from the bag.

”You okay?” Kate asked in a low voice, putting her hand on Steph's arm.

Steph nodded, feeling the slight yet firm touch sooth her. ”My mind just went for a ride,” she replied evenly, glancing at her friend from the corner of her eye.

”Bad memories?”

Steph hesitated briefly. ”Good ones.”

Caressing the arm with long, comforting strokes, Kate smiled. ”Perhaps you will share them me some day?”

”Perhaps I will.” Steph embraced Kate with a smile, gratified by her sentiment.

Caught up in the exchange, Kate felt an irritating flush creep up over her neck. Shaking her head and almost hoping it was a menopausal hot flash, she let go of the arm, grabbed a jar of cranberry sauce and strode back to her sister.

A tall, well-built man entered the kitchen. ”Robert!” Kate exclaimed. Robert used to have dark, thick hair but as tiny gray hairs started to appear, he one day, resolutely, shaved it off. Kate saw him and surprised, she was unable to avoid an erupting snicker.

Suspiciously he looked at her, waiting for her to say something more. ”What?” He asked seriously in response to her smile, keeping his sense of humor a bay.

”I'm sorry, Robert. I'm –.” She had to pause and force back the laughter bubbling inside her. Slowly she proceeded, “I'm not used to your new haircut.”

Instinctively stroking his hand over his smooth head, he suggestively asked, ”You want to touch it? Rachel does it all the time. She can't help herself.” He shot away a playful smile.

”Oh, yes I can!” Rachel protested, beaming at her husband, ”You just can't accept that you're turning 40 next year.”

Frowning, Robert scuffed over to his wife and gave her a kiss on her cheek. Looking sad and puppy-like, he begged, ”Will you still love me?”

Ignoring him as he wrapped his arms around her bear like, Rachel looked at Kate. ”Maybe I can sell him?”

Kate exchanged a quick look with Steph. Her friend seemed more relaxed and at ease being with her family. Without thinking about why, Kate winked her eye at Steph before she turned back to Rachel. Shaking her head, Kate seriously answered, ”I doubt it, but send him out in the garden - with Steph - and we'll get rid of him for a while. Besides – Steph is a real garden fanatic.”

Thrilled, Rachel faced Steph who rested her hand on the black marble top. ”Really?”

”Apparently,” Steph abruptly said. “Although, I wasn't aware of it myself.” With a cheeky expression, she looked at Kate then followed the bald man out the back door.

Fully aware that Kate wanted some time alone with her sister, Steph didn't mind. She didn't have any siblings of her own, but knew there could be close bonds between them - especially between sisters.

With a faraway expression, Kate observed Steph leaving the house. She suddenly felt very fortunate that the younger woman was in her life. It felt as if Steph and Jason fit in easily, though she didn't know why. When she turned around, her sister was uncorking a bottle of red wine. Casting a glance at her wristwatch, Kate looked accusingly at Rachel.

”I know, Kate: don't drink and drive,” Rachel prompted, noticing her sisters hesitant flinch, ”but if you have a glass now - as we put the dinner together - you will be fit to drive back home. You can drink water for the rest of the day.” She filled a glass with wine and handed it to her older sister.

Taking a sip of wine, Rachel casually added, ”So, tell me something about Steph.” She saw Kate try to stifle a smile. Her voice dripping with innuendo, she mused, "It was a cute little family entering our house today."

Having put herself to work, Kate rapidly began to peel the potatoes and shot a quick glance at her sister. "You know,” she commented, “'cute' is a word I heard earlier regarding us. Kids and kittens are cute but two grown women?" Kate reached for her glass and took a big swig of her wine.

"Exactly, what I've always believed," Rachel admitted as she began to chop the potatoes, "but you -,” she paused. “ I don't know. You're just acting differently. Girlish.” Rachel laughed, both at what she had said and the look she received from Kate. Rachel hummed, “You're funny when you're cute.”

"We've been here for one hour and you already have a psychoanalytic profile worked out?"

Kate always thought her sister being a psychiatrist was kind of ironic. Rachel was the wilder one of the two sisters, acting out in a more uncontrollable way. It had always seemed to Kate that Rachel was the one in need psychiatric help. During Rachel's time in school, Kate had been the target for many of her initial analyses. Back then, Kate had laughed at it but now with the awareness of what psychiatry really was Kate felt exposed.

Rachel grinned and gently nudged Kate in the side, saying, "Not often - but occasionally - you are like an open book."

Frowning, Kate was actually unable to disagree with her sister. She didn't feel like holding back her emotions, especially not the one's – whatever they were - she had towards the young mother and son. Steph was a really good friend and Jason - a sparkle in her life she hadn't had before. They both made her happy and why deny happiness?

Kate didn't have an answer to her own question and frankly, she believed she was doing what was right for the moment. If that meant being a cute little family – then so be it.

Returning from her thoughts, she watched Rachel work with the kitchen knife. "Will you please not handle it that way," she ordered, taking the vegetable from Rachel and put it down on the board. "You don't hold the potatoes in your hand while chopping."

Rachel giggled. "Déjà vu. I remember you saying the exact same words when I was 11 - or something."

"And you still haven't learned?” Kate sighed. “I'm older than you. You should listen to me."

Short, quick footsteps approached the kitchen. Both Kate and Rachel turned around as the door opened and met a concerned Jason entering.

"Where is Mom?"

Kate put down the knife, brushed her hands off on a towel and replied, "She's out in the garden. Is it something I can help you with?"

Looking down on his shoes, Jason mumbled, "My shoelace broke."

Kate smiled. "I think we can handle that problem without bothering your mother," she said and directed the boy to a chair by the table. She grabbed another chair for herself, placed it in front of Jason's and sat down. "Alright, give me your foot," she ordered. With Jason's foot in her lap she began to untie the laces.

"I think we have to go shopping, young man," she mused, looking at Jason's worn sneakers. She tied the knot securing the broken lace. "This will have to do for now."

"I had a rock in my shoe and had to take it off," Jason explained, looking at his foot in Kate's lap. "It broke when I tied it again."

Softly Kate replied, "It happens all the time. No big deal." She stared to thread the lace back again. "By the way - what are you guys doing?"

"Playing a hockey game on the computer," he stated flatly.

Kate had absolutely no idea what that would look like, but as long as the boys knew –. "Are you winning?" she asked, tying his shoelace.

"Josh is good, but we're equal,” Jason proudly grinned.

Rachel, still chopping potatoes turned around just to catch her sister looking at Jason lovingly. She knew Kate had a great relationship with Josh and Jennifer. They saw Kate as their cool aunt. The expression Rachel now saw exposed more devotion than she'd ever seen Kate have around children. Rachel made a mental note about what she saw - just because she could. Then she asked Jason, "Is Jennifer with you?"

Looking at the other woman, Jason returned, "No, I think she went out."

"Okay!" Kate patted his foot to mark that she was done.

Jason jumped off the chair and looked down on his shoe. "Thanks, Kate!" He beamed at her and then ran off.

"Your welcome," Kate responded as the boy disappeared from the kitchen.

Softly laughing, Rachel argued, "He's a real charmer.” She paused eyeing Kate knowingly, “and for him, you have fallen like rock to the bottom of the ocean."

Kate sighed, "Impossible to resist."

 

Steph, standing with Robert and Jennifer by the fenced border in the backyard, admired the magnificent two-story building. They had strolled around the house and garden, looked at trees, dead flowers and waved at a neighbor in the distance. It wasn't until they had reached the backside of the house that Steph could see that it was situated on top of a hill, with a magnificent view over fields and forests beyond.

Robert was a charming, playful man who easily led Steph into a casual conversation about the house, the weather and the surrounding area. It was nothing serious but small talk, which Steph enjoyed. Jennifer was still shy, but Robert teased her; lifted her up in his arms when she wasn't prepared and - as she cried of joy and embarrassment - revealed she was her father's girl. Steph smiled, recognizing herself at that age and bond she'd had with her father.

It was a cloudy, rather gray day, yet it wasn't hard to imagine the glory of colors that there must be when the trees turned in the fall. The mile wide view captured Steph and she let her eyes rest on the horizon before turning back to the house.

"The house is truly beautiful."

Robert mused, "And it's very big. If I hadn't inherited it, I don't think we would have lived in a house this big."

Gazing at him, Steph sincerely said, "I'm sorry about your parents."

"Oh, they're not dead," Robert urged. "I've inherited the house in advance because they believe they're too old to maintain it." He observed a minor confusion passing over Steph's face. "I was going to get it one day anyway, so they figured I could have it a bit earlier. They now live in a flat in Boston ."

"You don't sound overwhelmed," Steph remarked, noticing a sarcastic tone in his voice.

He dug his hands deep into the pockets of his pants and shrugged. "I love the house with all my heart and it's a privilege to own it," he looked at Steph, "but they didn't give me an option.” He paused, looking away. “Maybe we wanted to do something else - move to Florida or live a compact life in a studio in Boston ." He suddenly hesitated, feeling he might be a little too outspoken to this stranger next to him. What he just said was something he, only briefly uttered to Rachel. He collected his thoughts and offered a stilted smile.

"Thoughts only the fortunate one's can afford," he said, trying to cheer his mood. Looking at Jennifer, who had run off a bit, he smiled, "With Rachel's salary from the clinic and mine from the bank -." He faltered and looked at the house. “I shouldn't complain.”

Faintly smiling, Steph followed his gaze. Suddenly the walls seemed heavier, demanding attention. They seemed to heave under their own weight as if needing more air than the sky possibly could offer.

Slowly she offered, "When something becomes a burden it tends to drag everything else with it. I don't think it matters if it is something big - like a house - or something untouchable,” she paused for a beat before continuing, “like a habit you can't get rid of. Unfortunately, it is hard to let go of burdens.”

Robert gently nodded. “Often they are rooted so deep inside you they are difficult to find."

Steph looked down and kicked her foot on a dying straw of grass. When she left her academic life, her life among others she started to ignore every breeze inside her, telling her she was avoiding responsibility. Like a child in a sandbox crying over broken castles, she didn't listen to any advise. Her castle could be built up again, if she just had wanted to. She didn't. It took an accident to get her back in the sandbox again, to realize she'd become her own burden.

Not wanting to dig too deep in the obstacles of life, after all – it was Thanksgiving. Steph looked at Robert and encouragingly said, " It still is very a beautiful house." She shot a smile at him, aware that he might be uncomfortable in his revelation.

Jennifer came back to them and Steph smiled at the young girl. A bit shy, the girl enfolded her fathers left arm. "Do you think dinner's ready?" she asked.

Robert looked lovingly down on his daughter. "It's still a bit early but why don't we get back inside and bother them," he replied playfully, squeezing Jennifer's arm in the crock of his own. "Perhaps,” he nudged his daughters nose, “we can steal a bite of something? I'm sure Kate has made some cookies we can try."

The girl giggled softly. "Aunt Kate doesn't like it when we do that."

Steph and Robert exchanged looks, reading one another's thoughts. "An even better reason," Steph declared.

They were just able to grab a cookie before Kate discovered the raid. Resolutely but gently Kate ordered Robert and Jennifer to leave. “Watch some football instead of creating a disturbance in the kitchen,” she argued.

They weren't exactly sorry for the dismissal and cheerfully satisfied with themselves, Robert and Jennifer left. Steph, however, was not so lucky. Kate gently took her by the arm and soon she found herself stuck with a pile of apples to be peeled for the apple-pie.

"If you do a good job," Rachel playfully whispered, "the commander might award you with an extra spoon of vanilla ice-cream on your pie." They both laughed as Kate glared at them with an in-command expression.

 

A couple of hours later they all sat around the table, the golden turkey placed like a crown jewel in the middle it. Plates were loaded with turkey, mashed potatoes and fresh cranberry sauce.

"Has Robert talked himself aboard Voyager yet?" Kate looked across the table, searched for eye contact with Steph.

Before Steph got a chance to answer, Robert objected with his mouth full of food. "You're ruining my tactics, Kate!" he whined but wasn't able hide a smile crackling his face. "I've planned to bring this issue up after the dessert - when she'd be tired to resist my plea."

Everybody, except the children, chuckled. Kate held up her hands in a defensive gesture. "I'm so sorry Robert," she replied, offering him a pitiful smile. "I will choose my words more carefully from now on."

Directing her attention to Robert, Steph simply waited for him to bring the issue back up. The bald man, poking his food with his fork, casually looked up and faced Steph smugly starring at him. He wasn't prepared. Taken aback he grinned guiltily at her.

”So,” he started, taking a deep breath, trying to sound cool, ”Kate told us you have a sailboat?”

Rachel couldn't hold back the laughter as Robert's spoke with a strained voice. Unfortunately, for Rachel, she had just taken a sip of wine and, by mistake, inhaled it into her lungs. An eruption of coughs followed, transforming the peaceful dinner into a loud ruckus.

Patronizing, Robert leaned toward Steph and - still trying to be cool - said,” You have to excuse my wife. She has a bit of a problem with the alcohol, but we won't let that bother us. As you were saying -.”

”About my boat,” Steph interrupted, throwing a worried glance at Rachel. Her face was red from exhaustion; tears made her eyes red and they glistened. Sighing, she wiped her napkin under her eyes to remove any of the eyeliner that possibly could have floated down her cheek.

Looking at his wife, Robert was certain she would survive and again, turned to Steph, ”Now about your boat. I've heard it's a big one?”

Steph nodded and loaded her fork with turkey. ”Yes, she's quite large - 42 feet,” she stated and put the food in her mouth.

”Wow,” Robert replied, his eyes wide open. ”Kate said it was big one, but I never guessed that big.”

Wiping off her mouth, Steph replied, ”I don't think Kate is the most reliable person when it comes to boats,” she gave Robert a grin before discretely glancing across at Kate, ”but she will learn.” She returned her attention to Robert. ”Kate has promised to join us on a cruise - before spring.”

Surprised, Rachel looked at her sister. ”You have what?”

Kate delicately faced her sister. ”I was actually hoping Steph would have forgotten about that by now, ” she replied, trying to avoid eye contact with Steph. Sensing her gaze however, she slowly turned to face Steph while continuing, ”But I guess I've underestimated her memory.” Her young friend smiled sweetly in response. Kate realized it could not possibly be dangerous to join Steph at sea. All she had to do was trust her, and that, she already did.

Jason and Josh sat in between Kate and Robert. Ignoring the conversation about the boat, the boy's held their own conversation about the game they had played, and would continue to play as soon as they'd eaten. They talked silently - almost whispering – as if planning an escape. Occasionally, boyish giggling erupted but after their parents looked at them, wondering what was going on, they returned to their own muffled world again. It was only by coincidence everybody around the table comprehended Josh's question. It was nothing particular about it, only one child's question to another.

”Don't you have a dad?”

Perhaps Jason didn't notice it because he never even flinched, but a strained, silence fell around the table. The gates to the children's world opened up to everybody.

Kate looked at Steph with concern. This was a question Kate had never asked Steph, feeling it was none of her business. If Steph wanted her to know, she would tell her, but yet that day hadn't come. When Josh's words filled the room, Kate wasn't sure if she wanted to hear the answer. It was as yet, still none of her business.

Uncomfortable, Steph wished she could act like she hadn't heard anything. She thought perhaps, if she talked really, really fast and really, really loud the question would disappear. But she knew that would be the worst reaction she possibly could have. Only the painful action of leaving Jason alone with his own choice on how to answer would do.

”Never freak out when he hurts himself or when you think he has,” Steph's mother had told her with a doctor's logic the day Jason was born. ”It will only scare him. Be calm and he will be as well.”

When Steph met Kate's worried eyes, she gave her a silent okay by merely and almost imperceptibly shaking her head.

Putting a large piece of meat on his fork, unaware of all the attention, Jason casually replied, ”Of course.”

”Where is he?” Josh asked curiously.

Jason had his mouth full. ”He's in California ,” he replied, chewing.

Pondering, Josh looked at his younger friend. ”But don't you want to see him?” he wondered.

That was one question too many for Robert. Gently patting Josh's shoulder, he ordered, ”That's enough, Josh. It is none of your business.”

Shrugging his shoulders, Josh let go. It wasn't that important to him. He took a sip of his Coke and instead let his mind wander about on how he should beat Jason in the game.

Inside, Jason felt scattered. His mother had told him about his father, but he never talked to anybody else about him. It felt different and he wasn't sure he liked the feeling. He let go of the fork and hid his hands in his lap. Suddenly another hand sneaked into his. He looked up and there she was, Kate and her gentle smile. He buried his hand in hers, feeling safe. Determinedly, he pulled her closer and whispered into her ear, ”I'm not so hungry anymore.”

Never having seen the boy this young before, Kate didn't really know what to do. Jason had always talked to her with such thoughtfulness, that Kate tended to look beyond the fact that he was a very young boy. With no experience with children she tried to comfort him with what she had to offer. ”Don't you want some apple-pie and ice-cream?” she asked tenderly.

Focusing on the glass in front of him, his eyebrows knitted in full concentration, Jason pondered the offer. Without looking at Kate he asked, ”Is it vanilla ice-cream?”

”Yes, and only because I know how much you like it."

Looking back to Kate, the boy stated, ”then I'll stay.”

Kate's heart ached for him and she felt a lump in her throat. Softly she caressed his blond hair before straightening herself up again, returning to her meal. Steph's faced her with a grateful expression as she looked up. Kate wasn't sure she had room for much more compassion, but she certainly could find a place for the boy's mother as well.

 

After the requisite cleaning of the dishes, a short walk and an indulgent nap, Kate and her guests were ready head home.

"I'm so glad you came," Rachel said as she gave Steph a firm hug. "I hope we'll meet again soon."

Stepping back, Steph replied, "I'm glad we were invited. It has been a terrific day," she accepted Kate's help with her jacket as she held it up behind her, "and you're very welcome - anytime - if you want to get out on the ocean. If you don't like the winter breeze, like Kate," she gave the older sister an amused look and got a frown in reply, "there's always room in spring."

"Don't promise too much," Robert said smugly, squeezing her hand. "We might be there tomorrow morning - at sunrise."

Steph's sneered. "I better set the alarm," she whined playfully.

More jackets were put on, bags were picked up from the floor and Kate said a long goodbye to her sister. Jason carried his yellow backpack on his back and, with Steph standing behind him; he politely thanked Rachel and Robert.

"Drive safely now," Rachel hollered when the trio walked towards the car, "and call when you get home, Kate."

Kate waved behind her, signaling she had heard Rachel.

"Dr. Jefferson," Robert mused, putting his arm around Rachel while observing Kate open the car door for Jason, "I know I'm no expert, and perhaps I'm in really deep water here but, I get a feeling your sister is in love."

Waving and smiling, Rachel watched the car slowly drive away. "You know, Dr. Freud," she replied, "I believe you have just given your first correct diagnosis.” She paused knowingly, her eyes squinting in ponder. “I wonder if my pig-headed sister will find it out, though?"

"Maybe you can give her a hint?" Robert suggested.

Rachel chuckled. "What? And risk my life?” She looked at the empty space left behind as Kate, Steph and Jason drove down the lane. “No - she'll figure it out. Some day."

 

25

"Does anyone have any other questions?”

Steph looked at the approximately 30 pair of eyes facing her in the auditorium of the Harvard Physics department. Her prepared part of the lecture had ended almost fifteen minutes ago but the questions just kept coming. It amused her that the student's imagination never seemed to end - something she was happy about. Not every question had been of the most academic nature, but still they were thoughtful. Standing with her hands clasped behind her back, she waited to see if anyone had anything else on his or her mind.

"Okay," she said when nothing further happened. " I want to thank you for your attention and, hopefully, we'll meet some other day. "

The audience slowly started to leave. Jeff Collins forced himself through the human current, trying to get down to her. She smiled at his restrained expression and his wiggling mustache, as he excused himself through the crowd. She liked his face. It was kind.

”Excuse me, Miss Harris?”

Steph turned around and faced a young red haired man, heavily blushing. ”Yes?” she beamed at him.

”Uh,” he stuttered, “I only wanted to thank you for the lecture.” His voice was low with a thick drawl. Steph reckoned if he didn't speak with a southern accent, no one did. She couldn't help but smile.

”It was an inspiration for me to listen to your approach on the topic,” he finished.

”Thank you. I'm happy to hear that.” She felt as if she could take the young, blushing man into a big hug just because he was sweet in his embarrassment and also because it really did mean a lot to hear the acknowledgment.

The man became Jeff's last obstacle on his way to Steph. Huffing and puffing, he finally stood before her.

”Already charming our young students:” He grinned watching the young man blend in among the other students.

Chuckling, Steph looked at the backs of people exiting the auditorium.

”Congratulation's Steph!” Jeff face shone with pride for the young woman. ”I was aware that you knew your subject, but this,” he swept with his arm against the large, white screen where she earlier had presented her PowerPoint presentation, ”was more than I had expected.” He put his arm around her shoulders, wistfully eyeing her. ”You had done some improvements from what you had shown me before. It came as quite a surprise.”

Steph chuckled, putting her arm around his waist. ”A girl has to have some secrets, Jeff,” she replied playfully. ”You should know that.”

He scratched his hair, responding, ”Yes, but I'm an old man and believe that people tell me everything.”

”Well, I made some phone calls,” she explained, letting go of him and sat down on the desk, stretching her long legs in front of her. ”I called David Night, at Keck for some inside information and the latest news. He was very helpful.”

She pondered over how good it had felt when she'd made that call. It was almost like she was back in the game again. All the nights she had spent in the astrophysics department in LA during on-line meetings with other researchers around the world; it was like being part of that again.

The excitement she felt when newly calculated results lay on her desk waiting for her; all the crazy people who were just like her - dedicated - everybody with their own story on how to find something revolutionizing. Sometimes they did and phones and mailboxes got overheated. The network of dedicated people was a secure place - like a family. Old stories and jargon, only comprehensible for people inside the family, were told over and over again. Like home, a place was always there, waiting for you if you decided to come back.

Looking down at her black shoes, Steph felt relaxed. Maybe the forced stop in Port Baily was exactly what I needed, she pondered letting herself be satisfied of what she had achieved today. To slow down and -. What? She wondered. Be taken cared of?

Silently she frowned, not agreeing with her inner self, yet she was well aware that Kate's attention had spoiled her.

What about Jason? Maybe he likes being taken care of? He seems to find the more settled life comforting. It struck her that he had developed something she, herself, had never searched for - friendship. Children he had met at the wrap-up-party now invited him to play ball and they came down to the harbor to talk with him.

It's strange how the pieces can fall into their right places without anyone paying attention to it.

”Well,” Jeff said, slowly nodding in agreement, “that phone call was worth every nickel.”

Standing up, Steph smoothed her black trousers and black jacket. The gray turtleneck underneath had been hot during the first nervous minute, but now that the lecture was over and the approaching winter-chill crept down the stairs, she was glad she had it on.

Jeff looked at her in a moment of quiet. It occurred to his baser character that the tall blond woman would be the most beautiful woman at Harvard. ”During the lecture, I noticed a satisfied smile on your face. I haven't seen that on you before,” he commented, watching Steph gather her things. ”In fact, I don't think I've seen anyone that happy in this room before.”

Steph looked up. ”Really?” She was surprised. ”It was actually a tactical move,” she said and straightened up, her laptop now in its case hanging over her shoulder. ”Kate told me to smile. She said it was the smartest and easiest way to promote yourself.”

”She is right. What a smart woman.”

Steph looked at him and paused, letting her mind wander toward no special destination. ”Yes, she is,” she echoed. Her face draped in mindless pondering, she added, ”She certainly is.”

”By the way, “ Jeff spoke, “I just spoke with Professor Lucas before she left.” He saw Steph flinch at the name and grinned at her. “You never saw her?”

“No.”

“Well, she is good at that – hiding in the dark, observing.” Looking at Steph, Jeff continued, “She would like to speak with you before you leave today. I figure that's a good sign, Steph.”

Picking up her coat from a chair standing by the wall, Steph filled in, ”Let's hope so.”

With coat in hand, she slowly walked towards the exit. “The only thing is that the semester is almost over and what can I do in only one semester?”

Aware that she wanted to escape winter by teaching, Jeff also knew that Professor Lucas wanted Steph for a much longer time than the spring term. It was that or nothing. He hadn't told Steph this, not wanting her to be pressured. If she was ready, she was. If not -. Well, there was nothing more he could do.

”Let's see what she has to say,” he answered, holding the door open for her. “Let's see.”

 

26

Carefully, Jason took his first steps in his new, brown leather boots. He was unaccustomed to the hard, stiff leather and would have preferred his old sneakers.

”Are they not comfortable?” Kate asked, noticing his wiggling steps.

Looking down on the shoes, Jason mumbled, “There're okay. I'm just not used to them.”

Holding open the door, Kate let him out from the shoe shop. ”It will take a couple of days before they get soft and comfy,” she explained. ”At least they're warm. Your thin sneakers wouldn't do for many more days. The forecast says it's going to snow shortly.”

Steph left Jason at her apartment early in the morning and took Kate's car into Boston . Steph felt not a little envious as she left them, sitting at the round table in Kate's kitchen eating breakfast. Jason, too occupied with his pancakes had barely looked at Steph as she left.

Since Thanksgiving, Kate decided they would stop by the shoe shop and buy new laces for him. Now, as they left the store, the old shoes were in the bag - with new laces - and the new pair of winter boots were on his feet.

”You think Mom's going to like them?” Jason took Kate's hand as they walked along the sidewalk toward the restaurant.

Kate wasn't sure how Steph would react. It was a bit presumptuous of her to buy the boots. As though Kate might not think Steph took care of her son in a proper way. That was as far from the truth as it could be, however. I will find a way to convince her that I was just doing her a favor, she thought.

Squeezing the boy's hand, she replied, ”I'm sure she's going to love them.”

”Kate!”

The sudden call caused both Jason and Kate to halt and turn around to see who was hailing her. The smiling expression coming towards them belonged to someone Kate lately had begun to feel more and more annoyed with. She didn't know why, but there was something.

Maggie Redgrave paced up to them, an exaggerated smile painted her face.

”Kate, you are just the one I'm looking for,” she stated loud and lively.

Kate took half a step forward, leaving Jason slightly behind her and adjusted her woolen scarf to keep the breeze out, preparing herself for what was sure to be Maggie's one-way conversation.

”Hello Jason,” Maggie said, momentarily looking at the young boy. ”You out doing some shopping?” she asked, directing the question to Kate and ignoring Jason.

Grabbing Jason by the hand, Kate smiled politely. ”Yes,” she replied, hoping she didn't have to explain for what.

It was an unanswered wish. Maggie, bluntly asked, “Find anything?”

”Shoes for Jason.” Kate didn't feel like lying.

Looking down at Jason's feet, Maggie nodded in approval and said, ”Well, one can't walk around in sandals the year around in this part of the country.” Maggie clucked, thinking she'd said something funny.

Kate smirked and Jason - he wasn't listening. Instead he lazily glanced at a man walking a dog across the street.

A minor pause entered the conversation before Maggie's chirpy voice started in again. ”I wanted to ask you if you have prepared anything for New Year's Eve?”

Something told Kate there was more to the question than just curiosity. After all – it was Maggie.

”Well, ” she said slowly, ”we're holding the doors open, as you already must know.”

“Yes, of course,” Maggie replied shortly, her mood turning south. ”What I was wondering is, if you've heard anything about the Mayor and his guests?”

”Oh, yes!” Kate's response fervent, hiding the fact that she wasn't at all enthusiastic about it.

John's question had annoyed her for days and she had worked hard, trying to pull it together. Just recently, she had found everything she needed for a decent New Year's Eve party. They would be able to take care of the Mayor's important guests, but Kate was still irritated she had to.

Extending her answer, she spoke, ”John and Carol stopped by last week and wondered if it was okay if they brought some special guests over for New Year. I have to admit I was a bit taken aback at first, but after a few minutes,” she lied, ”I couldn't see any problems with what he asked for.”

Kate saw Maggie's face and realized this was something Maggie didn't know about. ”Will they be staying at your hotel?” She sensed that this was what troubled the nosey, competitive woman.

Tense, but without losing face, Maggie forced a casual reply. ”No, they are not. They need to be at the airport early in the morning and wanted to stay at a hotel there.” Strained, she smiled. “I recommended that, actually.”

”Of course,” Kate replied unconvinced. Personally, she would have preferred they ate by the airport too. Just let it go, Kate, she thought, feeling Jason's restlessness wriggle in her hand.

”We need to get going,” she excused and smiled. ”It's almost lunch and Fabricio has been alone far too long. You know how that can be.”

”Of course,” Maggie replied, glancing at her wristwatch. Looking at Jason she added, ”Take care Jason, and tell your mother you are more than welcome if it gets too cold in that boat.”

”Yes, Mrs. Redgrave,” Jason replied politely.

Maggie grinned. “Unless,” she cast a glance at Kate, “ you already have a room at Kate's?”

Without waiting for a response, Maggie nodded and walked away quite self-assured. Kate took a deep breath, feeling anger swell inside her. She couldn't point out what it was, more than the fact that woman was just a big pain in the ass. One day, Kate growled silently, I won't keep my mouth shut!

 

While Kate and Jason hand-in-hand walked along Main Street towards the restaurant, snowflakes began to fall from the sky. They softly landed on the concrete, one after the other until they built a thin, thin quilt.

”Aunt Kate,” Jason said with concern.

”Yes, sweetie,” she replied, feeling a snowflake hit her eyelashes. Unconsciously, she blinked the cold, wetness away.

”I don't want to stay at the hotel again,” Jason mumbled. ”Do you think it really will be too cold to stay on board Voyager all winter?”

Meeting the blue, troubled eyes, she comfortingly squeezed his hand. ”I don't know. We have to ask your mother about that but,” she let go of his hand and put her arm around the boy's shoulder. ”If you can't - we'll figure something out, so you don't have to stay at Maggie's.” She looked down at him and smiled. Still troubled, the young face met her smile.

”I wish we could stay with you,” he stated bluntly.

Imagining Jason sitting at her table every morning was appealing. That's a nice picture, Kate thought when, suddenly, a mental picture of Steph dressed in a satin robe, entering the kitchen, came to mind. She saw Steph sit down, the robe opening over her legs exposing soft, white skin. That's a nice picture too¸ Kate muttered feeling suddenly very hot. She shook her head to get the image out of her mind. Focusing on Jason again, she gave him a light nudge.

”You just want my pancakes,” she teased, ”but that's okay. You're more than welcome.”

 

27

Walking out from the United Airlines office, Steph entered the busy sidewalk in downtown Boston carrying two round-trip tickets to San Francisco . It was with mixed feelings she had purchased them for the upcoming Christmas holiday. First of all - holidays had never been sacred in the Harris family. There had always been something preventing the family-gatherings from running smoothly and - as Steph had moved to LA, she had chosen to visit her parents on other occasions instead. The expectations didn't decorate the house and there was no reason to be disappointed if someone had to leave. Secondly - she didn't feel she had a connection to San Francisco any more.

Since Jason's birth she had visited her parents for Christmas every year, mostly because of Jason. It seemed as though her mother had prepared a special room in her heart for Jason, and Steph hoped her mother and son would have a better relationship then they had. But it was during the last three years Steph had found it even more difficult, as too much in the house reminded her of the loss of her father. Somehow though, she hoped this year would be different. Steph felt relaxed, more connected to people, and she wished she and Jason would get a little piece of traditional family life. As long as her mother could stay away from the hospital, Steph thought it would be alright.

It also seemed as though her mother was aware of her daughter's feelings and didn't want her to be uncomfortable in her house.

"You don't have to come Stephanie," she had told her as they talked on the phone a couple of weeks ago. "Why don't I come and visit you instead?"

It wasn't often they talked but this time her mother had something hidden in her tone of voice. Steph didn't know what it was and she wasn't prepared for her offer. So she quickly told her she wanted to go to San Francisco - for Jason's sake. Afterwards, when they'd hung up, briefly thought had crossed her mind. It might be a good idea for her mother to visit Port Baily. But Steph let it go as quickly as she had thought it.

 

As she walked along the sidewalk, the tickets in hand, she easily blended in among the other pedestrians. She realized that she actually enjoyed the crowded streets. For the first time in years, she found herself not recoiling from the stressed, big city temper and instead found it quite fascinating. People entered her life from everywhere. Smiling, she walked on thinking about how this had all come to be.

The dark-gray sky above the skyscrapers hung dangerously over the city. The weather forecast had warned of snow. Unconsciously, Steph took a deep breath, expecting to find the smell of snow, but nothing except the exhaust of city buses and cars filled her senses.

However, her eyes did take in a familiar bald man walking towards her. She smiled recognizing Robert, Kate's brother in law.

The familiar, blond woman rose tall above the others on the sidewalk. At least Robert thought so as he saw her from a distance.

"Steph!" Robert greeted in a rush, smiling widely. "How are you? You look great? What are you doing here?"

Steph burst into laughter at his barrage of questions, realizing he was a man easy to like. "Do you always go on like that?" she asked between chuckles.

Grimacing playfully, Robert replied, "Only when I meet someone who catches up with me." He asked, "So what's going on?"

Taking a deep breath, Steph burst, "I have just gotten myself a job." She felt a proud twist in the corner of her mouth.

"Really, where?"

“Harvard.”

Shaking his head in response, he beamed at her. "You must feel proud of yourself!"

Someone was trying to park a car across the street. With Robert's words still ringing in her mind, Steph's saw the driver fail. She wondered if she'd ever seen herself as proud? When Jason was born perhaps? No, it was him she was proud of, not her. The car sat on the street for a few seconds, the driver gauging the distance then slowly drove away.

While slowly turning back to Robert, she said, "Proud is a big word, but it certainly feels good. I can't say I was prepared for this," she paused, searching for her feelings, "satisfaction."

Steph recalled her prior meeting with Professor Cornelia Lucas. She described her as a woman with a great amount of dignity and respect. Steph felt 20 years old when she stepped into the large office and met the older gray haired woman, whose glasses casually rested on her nose. With a firm grip the professor shook her hand, looked her straight in the eyes and said, “That was an excellent lecture, Miss Harris. Very well performed.” Then she blossomed into a smile, embracing Steph with confidence.

They talked for an hour. Professor Lucas had been honest, saying that she had intended not to let Steph into Harvard without a contract for at least two years. But for some reason, she changed her mind and agreed to let Steph return to the academic world in stages. They agreed Steph would get access to the department throughout the spring semester under the condition that she gives two lectures a week. Consequently Steph would only be paid part time. Later in spring they would meet again and see where Steph stood on the matter of being appointed to the department full-time.

Robert patted her arm lightly. "Sounds rough but I think you got more than most would. You have every reason in the world to be satisfied with yourself." Having heard endless stories about the perfection and discipline there, Robert knew Steph was lucky.

A short pause fell between them. Robert pursed his lips together; the playful expression disappeared.

"Listen, Steph," he said, brushing his hand over his well-shaved chin. "I want to apologize for Josh's question about Jason's father." Having felt bad for it since Josh had brought it up, he had intended to call her but, somehow, it didn't feel right to bring up on the phone.

Kindly smiling, Steph said, "It's okay. We talked about it when we got home and he was all right. Kate took good care of him at the table and I think that helped him a lot."

Exhaling in relief, Robert nodded. "Good, I'm glad to hear that. Kate did show some unexpected qualities there," he mused.

"Jason adores her," Steph replied frankly, "and I don't think she had to work very hard at it."

Robert recalled Kate gazing at Steph and Jason, and also the affectionate touches exchanged between them. Both he and Rachel were convinced that something was going on although, not yet brought to daylight. "Kate is pretty protective about you two," he stated confidently.

"Protective?" Steph sensed the man was fishing for something.

"Yeah, you know," he chuckled, realizing he was on thin ice, "taking care of you. I've known Kate for a long time but it's something," he hesitated when Steph's eyebrows narrowed but the hint of a smirk gave him courage, "uhm - clan-building about her."

Steph couldn't hold back and heartily laughed at Robert's lingering explanation.

Clan-building , she thought, imagining Kate dressed in kilt, sitting on top of a cliff, over looking a loch in the Scottish highlands. Proudly looking out over the dark loch and the surrounding mountains, she guarded her grateful clan peacefully resting behind the thick walls of her castle.

"Clan-building? You are a man of great words Robert."

Robert sensed he shouldn't say much more but Steph's laughter provoked him. "I better shut up before I make a complete fool of myself," he stammered and nervously moved his body back and forth. "If Rachel was here, she would hit me."

"And if Kate was here?"

Shivering, Robert scanned the sidewalk. "You see that gum?" He pointed at a gray spot - the size of a quarter - in the sidewalk. “The one that has been stepped on by 100, 000 feet?”

"Yeah," Steph reluctantly replied.

"That's me - if Kate was here," the bald man stated cryptically, his eyes wide open and a nervous but child-like twist playing in the corner of his mouth.

Bursting into laugh, Steph declared, "You are crazy, Robert.”

Robert grinned and cast an eye at his watch. "Oops, got to run," he cheerfully stated, tapping his watch. "Why don't we forget about the clan," he sheepishly murmured. "The chief of my clan is waiting at home, and if I'm not there in time," he rolled his eyes and whistled. "Gum on the sidewalk!" He grinned and gave her a quick hug then scurried off. Over his shoulder he called, “Let's get together for lunch next time you're in the city!”

 

Steph never got a chance to respond but resumed her walk to the car. Is Kate protective ? A small grin teased her mouth. She recalled Kate inviting them for breakfast when they stayed at the hotel and the countless number of dinners. Kate's looking after Jason without hesitation, inviting them to Thanksgiving. The list was long. Kate had helped her a lot - more than anyone ever before.

The temperature in the big city had begun to fall and she wanted to get back to Port Baily.

It's time to give something back , she considered increasing her speed as she neared the blue Explorer.

 

28

Sitting by a table in the restaurant, Kate glared at the clear-blue sky and snow-clad ground outside the restaurant window. A light breeze made the ocean glitter in the sun. It wasn't cold - something she had been especially happy about when she walked to the restaurant a few hours ago – and the thin layer of snow on top of the harbor office roof below her was melting. She was well aware though that the warmth was only temporary. Winter held them all in its grip now.

Kate felt detached from the world outside. I should take a walk after lunch , she thought, taking a sip of her coffee as she checked the invoices that had arrived with the morning mail. The sound of the outer door opening interrupted her. Looking up, she saw Steph and Jason enter.

"Some folks have the luxury of enjoying this beautiful day," she stated, looking at them with envy. They were obviously dressed for outdoor activities: Steph wore her yellow sailing jacket and a pair of rather worn blue jeans. Jason was a younger copy, except his jacket was red and a fleece hat casually sat on his head.

Darting towards her, Jason excitedly shouted, "And you are too!"

"I am?" Kate replied suspiciously.

"Yeah! You're going to sail with us today!" The boy was energized.

With eyes wide open and her eyebrows now nudging her hairline, Kate looked at Steph. "I am what?" she stammered.

Unzipping her jacket - feeling this could take a while - Steph casually smirked. "Well, as you said yourself - it's a beautiful day."

Kate rose from her chair and smoothed her dark, blue skirt. "As you can see I am not dressed for that kind of adventure today. But thank you for your offer." She smiled and was relieved to have found an excuse.

"Clothes," Steph stated, "will not be a problem. You will borrow some of mine. And," she determinedly raised her finger, "don't say they won't fit."

A few long, silent seconds fell across the room. Kate pondered what else she could come up with as an excuse. Steph stood before her, implacable and charming in her request. Mermaids, Kate fussed silently, are walking among us. Lately, she definitely felt more drawn to the shoreline. But unlike sailors of old perhaps she would be launching from it, not crashing on its rocks - or would she? Brushing her hair back with her fingers, Kate collected herself.

"I really do have work to do."

"Not today!" Fabricio had been eavesdropping from the kitchen, and now he stuttered through the door into the dining area. As on cue, he added, "I have everything under control, so there is nothing for you to worry about."

Scanning, first Fabricio then Steph, she hissed a whiny response "Is this some kind of conspiracy?"

Victory in sight, Jason had already gotten Kate's coat from her office. Handing it to his mom, Steph turned to help Kate put it on. "No, it's my way of showing you appreciation and thank you for every thing you've done for us."

Kate turned around. She knew she was beaten. Defeat was already being written about regarding her defense. Turning around she found herself just inches from Steph.

Steph's smile widened. She couldn't help it. Kate looked pitiful.

"What's wrong with flowers?" Kate brooded.

Smugly, Steph asked, "And a candlelight dinner perhaps?" Her voice was mellow and arrogantly she took time to look down on Kate before stepping back from her.

Taken aback by Steph's – command - Kate's eyes widened. The behavior was unlike Steph yet not. It was a straightforwardness that could conquer obstacles, taking her to where she wanted to go. In her hesitation, Kate studied the young face. She was drawn into Steph's eyes, captured in her wants. Barely noticeable, a smile in the corner of Steph's mouth played with her. Surrendering, Kate let out a deep growl and turned away.

"I hope - for your own sake, Fabricio - that you have my thermos ready?" Kate barked not willing to let on that she had already surrendered.

Casually, Fabricio held up the steel-thermos he had held hidden behind his back. The triumphant smile he bore as he handed her the thermos irritated Kate beyond belief, but she bit back her comments.

Instead, to Fabricio she curtly said in a lowered voice, "My will is in the top drawer in my bedroom." To which, Fabricio howled with laughter as he returned to the kitchen.

 

Enthusiastically, Jason ran ahead and was already on his distance down the hill towards the harbor, when Steph and Kate entered the street.

"You do know,” Kate said as they walked the short walk to Voyager, “that the white powder on the ground, is snow? People ski when it's winter – they do not sail."

Laughing, Steph took Kate by her arm. "As long as there isn't ice on the ocean," she replied, beaming at the glittering ocean in front of them, "sailing will always be an option. You will love it, Kate. A pair of trousers, a thick sweater and you will be ready," she paused, admiring the view for a beat, "for magic."

Amused Kate nodded. "You really do love this," she stated.

"It's my life," Steph replied in a more sincere voice than anticipated.

Kate glanced toward Steph, seeing the young woman's love for the ocean written on her face. She pulled Steph closer, musing, "Then I shall too."

 

Voyager's broad hull plowed through the deep-blue water as Steph gently steered out between the piers. The sound of the engines low, vibrating sound cut though the soothing voice of the ocean. As soon as they were in safe distance from land and the strong current close to shore, Steph turned the bow against the wind and let the large sails out. With the engine turned off, she gently fell off, letting the wind fill the sails. Voyager softly dipped before she accelerated through the water. Steph adjusted the mainsail a few degrees. The reduced pressure on the main decreased the sudden tilt.

Kate hadn't said much during the initial maneuvers. When they had walked onboard, Kate had been directed down below deck to change her clothes. On top of the bed, in Steph's small but comfortable cabin, was a pair of jeans, a fleece sweater and a red Gore-Tex jacket. Kate sat down on the bed, slowly looked around, curiously but discretely searching for any unexpected secrets hidden in Steph's private quarters. Not surprisingly, nothing scandalous was visible. A gray T-shirt laid folded on top of a built-in bench; on a shelf sat an alarm clock and a copy of a mystery novel - that was all.

The trousers were several inches too long as were the sleeves of the jacket, Kate could easily hide her hands from the cold. In the pocket of the jacket she found a pair of gloves and a wool hat. Once dressed, she rolled the pants legs up and cuffed the jacket sleeves. She smiled as she looked at herself in the mirror.

Hello there sailor! Giggling, she left the cabin.

 

Now, sitting on the right – starboard – side in the cockpit, Kate concentrated looking forward, feeling the slow, rocking motion of the boat as they sailed away from Port Baily.

"Are you cold?" Steph asked, casting a glance at Kate. Gently she steered Voyager through the water the coastline at a safe distance to their left.

Smiling, Kate shook her head. "No, I have been properly dressed for this”. She grinned and added, “I didn't know I was this short though,” and held out her handless arms.

Playfully quirking her mouth, Steph hummed, “A bit – perhaps -,” without looking at Kate.

“Oh, you!” Kate grinned, gently kicking Steph's foot. She turned just to see Jason, comfortably moving from the cockpit, across the deck and then casually sitting down, leaning against the mast.

A little nervous about seeing him up there, Kate turned back to Steph. "He moves pretty casually on the boat."

Tenderly glancing at her son, who sat with his arms around his knees, Steph mused, "It's practically all he knows. I think he enjoys the ocean as much as I do," she added and looked at Kate. "At least I hope so."

Kate responded with a smile. "He has quite a different relationship to sailing than I have. I think he will nurture it. " She cast a quick glance at Jason who, with his eyes closed sat relaxed against the mast." I mean - look at him, he is so at home in this environment and - home is always home."

"But it will end now," Steph stated with a sad expression. "Work, school - everything I have avoided is catching up with us."

"You seemed really happy when you came back from Boston and had the job," Kate reminded as her body relaxed as Voyager's soft motion brought them along the coastline.

"I am happy about the job, Kate."

Steph made a slight trim of the genoa-sheet with her left hand; the speed increased half a knot. Satisfied, she smiled before turning to Kate. She continued, "I'm actually quite excited about it and looking forward to starting over again, but that doesn't stop me from being sad about leaving this." She looked up along the white mainsail - all the way to the top of the mast and down again.

Pensively she added, "I don't think I'll ever leave her."

Leaning her head backwards, Kate looked up at the clear, blue sky. Taking a deep breath, her lungs filled with the crisp, cold air. Slowly, she exhaled. It was refreshing.

"You should keep her as long as you want."

Steph faintly smiled in response to her friend who rested against the gunwale. Kate, still facing the sky above, seemed relaxed as if she was actually enjoying the cruise. Steph hoped she did. The wheel softly vibrated in her hands as the wind and the ocean tried to fight back against Voyager's force forward. Gently, Steph rode up and down the waves - fell off, headed up. Steph enjoyed the rhythm she had and the pace they kept. It was a good day. She glanced at Kate who just looked at her and softly laughed in the wind. Everything was good.

There was something about Kate that made Steph just smile. Emotions inside her took charge in a way she wasn't used to. She'd only actually known her for a few months, but in this moment it was as though she had known her forever. Now she relaxed, here in her boat – in her home – and seemed happy about it.

Yes, it is a good day, Steph thought.

Kate kept looking at Steph, seeing her head down a thoughtful road. Something she likes must be there, Kate assumed recognizing a pleased expression on her face.

“What are you thinking about? “ Kate's question a few minutes later was filled with curiosity.

For Steph, the question came from out of nowhere and she wasn't able to shield herself. Knowing that Kate was part of her thoughts made her cheeks burn, and she was trapped in something that actually was no big deal. Steph cracked a big smile while briefly looking away from Kate. Taking a deep breath she collected herself and turned to face her friend again. Still grinning, she stuttered, “I was thinking about you.”

“Oh, really?” Unaware, Kate sat up and in childlike fashion placed her hands under her, and began swinging her legs. Steph thought her obvious comfort charming. “Good thoughts, I hope?”

Steph delayed her response for a beat as she searched for what she felt. “I was just -,” she paused again, glancing at the ocean behind Kate while fiddling with the words that came up in her mind. “I am very happy you are here with me today.” Still sitting on her hands, Kate leaned back against the gunwale. Steph continued. “That's what I was thinking about – how good it feels to have you aboard.”

The young woman's words embraced Kate's heart in cotton. There was honesty in what she said that was more than just politeness. She, too, was enjoying this cruise, and for more reasons than the view of water. She enjoyed the view of the skipper as well, and to be vulnerable - as she was out here on the ocean - in Steph's safe hands. It was a new experience, being out of control and trusting someone like this. Thrilled Kate looked up at Steph.

“Thank you for wanting me to come,” she said. “I'm sorry for having been hard to persuade.”

Steph shook her head. “It was nothing. You had a bad experience and that can't be ignored. I'm just glad you're here now.”

Kate held onto her reply as she gazed at Steph's hand embracing the wheel. Nodding she said, “Yes, so am I.”

Holding the wheel with one hand, Steph whiffed away a strand of hair from her face and noticed Kate eying the wheel. She asked, "Do you want to steer?"

A surprising, alarmed laugh burst from Kate. "Are you crazy?" Kate commented as a hysterical grin stretched across her face. "No thanks! But I can serve us something hot to drink." Kate remembered her thermos waiting in the galley.

 

"Jason!" Steph called as Kate returned from the galley with one thermos coffee and one with hot tea. "Get over here and have some tea!"

The boy lithely jumped down into the cockpit. "Is it tropical flavored?" he asked as he sat down on Kate's left side.

Kate smelled the aroma before she gave the mug to Jason. "Smells like it," she replied, giving the mug to Jason and sliding her arm around the boy's shoulders.

Putting Voyager into autopilot, Steph sat down next to Jason. She grabbed the stainless steel mug Kate offered her and stretched out her legs against the cockpit console. The still snow-white shores silently faced them as they passed by, with nothing but a flock of waterfowl joining them this day.

It struck Kate that she'd never seen the shore from this perspective before. Not at this time of the year. Sitting in Steph's clothes cuddling with the small boy next to her made her feel alive. The air, the snow, the ocean, Voyager; a situation most would frown about but almost magic to experience. Kate felt very special. Lucky.

"Look!" Kate suddenly signaled, pointing at land. "Do you see the white house? The one between the large trees?"

Steph and Jason straightened up and followed Kate's pointing direction. "Yes," both curiously responded, seeing a small, wooden house clinging to the edge of the shore.

"That's were I grew up," Kate stated, gazing at the house she had loved for as long as she could remember.

She could still recall how her heart ached when her parents told her that they were selling the property. Kate was a newly wed, had no money and was totally occupied with her own life. She hadn't spent one night in the house in two years, and wasn't aware of how much the house had meant to her; not until she learned that it would be lost for her. Since it was sold, she had passed below it a couple of times when walking along the beach. It was a rare habit though and it still bothered her that she hadn't been able to buy it.

Seeing Kate's eyes fill with a touch of sadness, Steph imagined that the house overlooking the ocean kept a vast amount of childhood secrets and memories in regards to her friend. She wondered what Kate was like as a child. How did she look? What did she do? Did she sit on the lawn late at night, talking with a friend while the moon played on the ocean? Perhaps it was a boyfriend? The last thought caused a sudden sting of jealousy inside Steph and briefly her eyebrows stitched together. But as she saw the house her thoughts calmed again. A romantic place.

Looking at Kate, Steph voiced, "I can understand why you loved it. It looks inviting and the view must be magnificent."

Nodding Kate replied, "It's almost a religious experience, sitting on the porch and seeing the sunrise on the horizon. You would love it." She reached over and gently swept stray hairs off Steph's shoulder. With her hand remaining on Steph, Kate added, "It's as close to the sea as you can come, without being on a boat."

Thoughtfully, Steph viewed the white house again. She imagined herself, sitting in a rocking chair on the porch, gazing out over the never-ending horizon, Kate sitting next to her. Jason would be sitting on the grass, as always, waiting for the evening star to slowly emerge in the darkening sky.

I could get used to that, she thought as they slowly left the house behind. A rocking chair is almost like a boat and the ocean looks the same from a distance – almost.

Steph returned from her daydream. Kate's hand still rested on her shoulder and although her hand was cold, Steph experienced warmth. Taking a deep breath, she stood up. "I think we should turn around here." Scanning the surrounding sea she suggested, “We can go outside the island over there." She pointed at a tree-clad island approximately one mile away. "It will be dark before we get back but not too late."

 

Four hours after their launch, darkness did meet them before they returned to Port Baily. The streetlights greeted them as they slowly entered between the piers – the same way they'd left. Jason stood on the bow, ready to jump ashore with the docking lines in his hands.

"Don't slip on the quay," Steph called warningly. "It can be icy!"

Steph noticed Kate looked worried as she stood in the center of the cockpit. She said, "I always let him help, but sometimes even I get nervous," she said in a low voice while steadily handling the 42-foot boat against the mooring.

"You must have nerves of steel," Kate mumbled, watching the adept Jason.

Steph put the engine in reverse so the aft would not glide away from land. "Okay, Jason!" she called. "You can jump now!"

With a competent touch Steph safely docked.

"If you were to go down below," she suggested to Kate, "you'll find a bottle of Macallan whisky waiting for us on the shelf above the sofa. Warm us up a bit. I'm going fix things up here first and then I'll be down."

The suggestion pleased Kate. "I'm beginning to like this more and more," she replied playfully and pranced directly down below. A fan sent warm air into the salon and Kate slipped out of her jacket as she felt her body temperature rise.

 

Within minutes, Steph and Jason came below deck. While Steph helped Jason take off his jacket, she declared, "The best part of outdoor activities is when you get back home and get something good to eat and drink."

Sitting on the soft sofa with two glasses and the bottle of whiskey in front of her, Kate watched Steph take off her own jacket and hat. The blond hair was a mess, but after a few strokes of her fingers through the strands, it looked good again.

"I have seen plenty of sailors at the restaurant and they sure know how to eat. The sea makes people hungry. That I know," Kate spoke, stretching her arms over her head.

“Can I go and play my new Gameboy before dinner?” Jason tugged onto Steph's arm, pleadingly looking at her.

He seemed tired, his eyes shiny and his face red. Steph easily lifted him up and kissed his tired eyes. “Don't fall asleep in there,” she said, hinting at his cabin.

The boy swung his head while saying, “No, Mom,” and then grinned.

Steph playfully stared at him before kissing his nose. “I don't believe you,” she reflected, letting him down. “For a half an hour - before dinner is ready.”

When Jason was gone, Steph filled up the glasses and, still standing, raised her own glass. "Thank you for joining us," she saluted Kate. "I hope it wasn't as bad as you feared?"

"On the contrary," Kate replied softly, taking a small sip of the drink. The alcohol burned her lips and she felt the heat spread through her body. "It has been a perfect day, Steph. I wish you had been the one who introduced sailing to me. Then I could have seen the beauty of it so much earlier."

"It's not too late." Carefully she moistened her lips in the amber beverage. "You can come along whenever you'd like."

Putting her glass down on the table, Steph walked over to the galley. "Since this day serves as a ‘pay back' I will serve dinner as well. I figured, Italian wouldn't be a good option but I hope Thai-food will be satisfying?"

"Mm. Something hot?"

"Let's hope so." Over her shoulder, Steph held onto Kate's look for a brief but inviting moment. Kate's eyes glistened in the dim light, her face red from the day outdoors, her hair a little mussed. Just a little.

Steph found a word for what she saw, a word she hadn't connected Kate with: cute. God, Steph, she thought mentally shaking her head. What is wrong with you? Still watching Kate she knew. I don't want her to leave.

Caught in Steph's glance, Kate was the first one to break eye contact. With Steph standing up, her gaze capturing Kate from above, she felt exposed. It wasn't often someone cooked for her, took care of her, and she didn't really know how to handle the situation. It made her nervous. Somewhere though, deep inside she knew Steph was the one making her nervous; her eyes, her honesty, her beauty. To escape her tickling consciousness, which was nagging for attention, Kate began to study the text on the bottle in front of her. "Macallan," she read aloud. "It's is a fine whisky."

The Scottish name reminded Steph of Robert's comment regarding Kate clan-building. Chuckling to herself, she started to chop an onion.

"Is it that funny to cook Thai?" Kate smiled at Steph who slowly worked with the knife in the minimal kitchen. Pots and bowls were neatly stacked together, no dirty dishes piling up around the cook; space was minimal but efficiently used.

"I was just thinking of something Robert told me the other day when we ran into each other in Boston ." She chuckled again.

"Why does this make me nervous?" Kate asked feeling a little apprehensive. "Robert has more imagination than he possibly can handle."

Kate had heard the most amazing stories from Robert and she always questioned whether he was serious or not. Robert was smart but hid it well and many people had been fooled by his playful manners. Often though - behind the jokes and pranks - a serious tone was disguised in his phrases. Occasionally, Kate found him irritating, but somehow she always just figured it was she having a bad day. His way demanded a sharp audience something not always available. But he was a great man, especially for her sister who needed someone that challenged her.

Steph perched on the opposite end of the sofa, aware of Kate's worry. "Well," she slowly began.

"Oh, this is bad," Kate muttered.

"He believes you are very protective -," Steph continued, observing Kate's eyebrows drastically narrow, "of Jason and me. He had an idea that you were building a clan." She nodded at the bottle. " Like a true Macallan."

Kate's saw her own startled reflection in Steph's eyes.

Am I protective? she thought. Yes, but isn't that good? They don't seem to mind and I certainly don't. I like taking care of them. I guess it does seem like a family.

Briefly, Kate looked down before saying, "Does it bother you?"

Steph had thought Kate would react differently, joking instead of responding with sincere concern. The question made her nervous. Not in a bad way but alluringly. She smiled to herself before replying.

"No." She looked Kate straight in the eye. "Not at all."

"Good," Kate whispered. She felt her face warm from the crisp air she'd been exposed to, but also from slight embarrassment over Robert's comment. For a flash of a moment, Kate wondered what her sister, the psychologist, had seen in her. Pushing her thoughts aside, she mocked in a Scottish accent, "Because I don't like trouble in my clan."

She bit back a grin, trying to remain serious but Steph had already noticed it and gave Kate a smirk.

"As your humble servant," Steph said as she rose, "I say - dinner is ready."

 

Jason yawned himself through dinner and excused himself as soon as he had eaten the red chicken curry.

"Good night, Jason," Kate whispered into his ear when he sleepy hugged her good night. She looked at him as he stumbled into his cabin.

"He is such a sweet child," she mused as he closed his door behind him.

Grateful, Steph smiled, gazing into the candlelight flame on the table. With a nagging feeling creeping inside her she took a deep breath and said what she had been thinking about for a while, "I want to tell you about Jason's father." She looked up and faced Kate's startled expression.

"You don't have to do that," Kate whispered.

Steph shook her head in a slow motion. "Jason loves you with all his heart and," she paused searching for the right words, "you have shown him great compassion. I have noticed that he means a great deal to you and I think it's only fair to tell you. Especially after Thanksgiving."

Nodding, Kate calmly smiled. "He was a little upset at first but we sorted it out pretty well," she casually explained, recalling Jason's hidden feelings. He had seemed smaller, younger than she was used to and it had reminded her that he was just a young boy. All the time they'd spent together, she still hadn't seen him cry – except for their very first encounter outside the vegetable store. He seemed to be so adult for his age, never whining about things he couldn't get or wouldn't have to do. “He is a very brave boy,” Kate said in a low voice as she fingered her wine glass. “I dearly love him, I have to admit that.”

Not many would say that about someone else's child, Steph was aware of that. Yet hearing Kate say she did was not a surprise to Steph. She had seen them together, heard them both talk about one another, and nothing in that had revealed anything but deep care.

“I know you love him, and nothing can make me more happy than hearing you say that.” She was moved and felt her eyes tear. Kate's hand reached for hers, their fingers entwining across the table. Embarrassed by her emotions, Steph chuckled as she brushed her finger across her eyelids.

Taking a deep breath, Steph began, "It's actually not anything particularly strange about his father and why he is the father.” She faltered for a beat then carried on "He does live in California . At least he did the last time I heard from him - five years ago."

Steph could still recall the day the pregnancy test had flashed positive. A shiver passed through her body and she felt her blood pressure drop to nothing as she'd looked at the blue stick. The word ‘positive' took another meaning that day, and in her confusion she turned to her mother, not knowing what else to do.

She recalled the conversation with her mother as if it had just happened. "What about the father?" Ruth Harris pensively asked. "Where is he?"

Steph had told her the truth - he was not interested in a child and Steph was not interested in him. Her mother had shook her head and disappointed looked at her daughter.

"Then you are alone in this Steph," her mother stated harshly. "Your father and I will always welcome you and your child to our home, but - remember - you are the mother and it will be you,” she'd emphasized, “who rears the child."

The judgmental words echoed in Steph's mind for a long time thereafter, but when Jason was born Steph knew what her mother had meant. She was the guardian of this fragile boy. He was her responsibility.

The passionate encounter resulting in Jason had been brief and cloaked in a thick mist of alcohol. It was a party at campus; he had flirted with her and Steph had let herself be swept over. It had been so very unlike her and during the following months of morning sickness she cursed herself for being so stupid.

Now across the table from Kate, she risked acceptance again. "I tried to call it a mistake," Steph added softly, “but how can I say that the most precious thing in my life was a mistake?"

Leaning over the table, Kate grabbed both Steph hands. "I don't think you should. Jason is a beautiful child with a heart greater than most." She caressed the soft hands with her fingers, briefly looking down at them.

"Just like his mother."

Steph felt the heat in her cheeks. She tenderly said, “You're too good for me," and enfolded Kate's hands.

"Maybe, we're good for each other?"

While Kate's words sunk in, Steph felt the timid thrumming of her heart, but nevertheless felt very safe.

 

The moment was pleasant, though for some reason, it made Steph nervous, so she excused herself to check on Jason. Peeking inside the door, she found him sleeping soundly. His little face was lit by the moonlight shining through the gap in his curtain. No , she reiterated. Not a mistake, but a gift.

Silently, she closed the door and returned to the salon.

"He's completely knocked out." She casually leaned against the wall and looked at Kate, who finished the dishes. "The fresh air has worn him out."

Gleaming, Kate spoke without looking at Steph, "All my life I have warned people that it is not healthy to overdose on sea breezes. It's better to stay up all night, drinking wine with good company."

Steph chuckled. "Yeah," she drawled, hiding from the faint light over the sink. "That sounds awfully healthy."

While Kate finished, Steph took in Kate's profile - the sharp line of her jaw, the lean neck, her mouth pursed in concentration as she rinsed the thin wine glasses with water. Still dressed in the jeans and the blue fleece jacket, with cheeks flushed and hair mussed, Steph saw Kate in a different perspective. Gone was the restaurant owner, the spotless clothing and impeccable hostess. She appeared far more relaxed and familiar than Steph ever had seen her. Layers of correctness and know-how had been peeled off, exposing Kate as someone Steph could fully connect to. For Steph it was perfection.

Steph closed her eyes and let her senses smell the atmosphere: heat, damp clothes, lime from the dinner and a slight whiff of perfume. As she opened her eyes again a satisfied smiled played across her mouth. The smile straighten out quickly though as Kate's slender hands gently picked up the delicate wineglasses, and as if she was waiting for something, she carefully circled the rim of the glass with the tip of her finger. Mesmerized Steph followed the motion.

"Are you going to show me where you want these?" Kate playfully asked, noticing Steph's dreamy eyes. “Or are you just going to stand there?”

Steph flinched and straightened up. "Sure," she hummed, realizing Kate had been watching her as well. She quickly took the one step over to where Kate stood and reached up over her from behind. "They're in this cabinet." As she carefully took the glasses from Kate, her fingers softly brushed across Kate's hand.

Spontaneously, as if she'd done something wrong, Steph apologized. “I'm sorry.”

The touch tickled Kate's skin. With a quick motion, she scratched her hand while a bit embarrassed responding, “It's okay.”

In the faint light Kate watched how Steph carefully closed the wooden cabinet door after having put the glasses inside. Lightly, she rested her hands against the lip of the sink, anticipating Steph to step back. But a few long seconds passed and no such thing happened. Deep down inside Kate, intuition's alarm went off. A few more seconds passed, the tickling on her hand returned and the alarm chimed louder. Kate thought about moving away, release herself from her position between the counter and Steph's warm body. Maybe make a joke about it. But it was not a joke.

Instead, in that moment, the world suddenly shrank, as it appeared no larger than a phone booth. Steph had only intended to help Kate with the glasses but somehow, in that one leap, everything changed. Right there in the large, dim sailboat they went from one moment to another; took one step so short no one could notice it, yet it closed a gap in their lives that neither had recognized.

With a feather-light touch Steph swept her hand against Kate's hip, shivering feeling the hardness of her bone and the softness of her thigh. Kate's heart leaped into her throat and she swallowed hard while her hands automatically closed around the sink's edge, grasping onto to the counter. Slowly, Steph trailed Kate's contour until she reached her waist. Kate reeled from the sensation , uncertain as to why it was happening but too enticed to stop it. Unconsciously she leaned back, closing the already minimal distance between them.

Steph didn't know why she hadn't stepped away. Maybe it was the alcohol in combination with fresh air that blurred her mind. Maybe the comfortable atmosphere unearthed the years of buried desire. Or maybe she just did what she wanted to now. It did not matter, for her hand as though with a will of its own, had taken the first steps toward something Steph had not even considered. Or had she?

Her right hand was steadily placed on Kate's waist. Closing her eyes, Steph let the tip of her nose brush against the top of Kate's head. A faint fragrance of seawater and candlelight filled her. Intoxicated by the moment, she slipped her arm around Kate. The woman tensed in reaction and Steph heard the subtle hitch in her breathing, but also noticed how she leaned into her. Desire surfaced and rapidly began to take over.

Kate's knuckles had whitened from her grip on the counter. She eased the grip for a brief moment, only to increase it again as she felt Steph's other hand slowly beginning to meander up along her arm. Kate closed her eyes, incapable of focusing on anything else.

With burning fingertips Steph reached Kate's neck, halted for a heartbeat as if searching for where to go. In slow, tense circles she scouted across the neck, finding sensitive spots here and there. Through the blur in her mind, she could hear Kate's breath deepen.

Kate, so absorbed in the moment, let loose of the counter, let herself loose and surrendered. Tilting her head, she exposed herself to the gentle massage that caused every nerve inside her to moan with pleasure.

Feeling her hands tremble, Steph nestled into the soft auburn hair and paused. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to steady herself. Slowly exhaling, her breath trickled across Kate's ear. Kate shivered by the tenderness, the moment of recollection and hot breeze flowing across her. With Kate's reaction, Steph gently brushed her lips over an offered ear lobe. Kate's world started spinning.

"Oh. My," she breathed faintly, leaning deeper into Steph's caressing hand.

Kate's heart thrummed against Steph's hand as she tightened the embrace and fervently took Kate's ear lobe in her mouth. She let her lips taste before she lightly bit around the golden earring dangling from her ear. Kate made a faltering attempt to back away, but caught in her own craving remained in Steph's firm clasp.

Steph's hands were damp in desire but something else was flashing through her mind. Like a stroboscope, thoughts began to shoot against her, confusing her.

What am I doing?

Steph became scared of the unknown shouting at her, calling for her to move on but not telling of the consequences. For a beat she found something to hold onto, a moment above the emotional chaos. With her lips still nestled against Kate's soft ear, trembling she breathed, "Is this a mistake?"

The question brought Kate back to a world that was surreal. She began to believe she was dreaming, that the storming emotions were a reflection of her day at sea. She pursed her eyes hard together before slowly opening them again, hoping to blink away any illusions. The soft lips let go of her ear lobe and gently moved across her neck. The hot air against her skin was making her shiver. She was terrified.

Kate felt her own wave of arousal approaching, threatening her control. The undertow was strong, and in spite of her wish to get back to the surface it puller her deeper and deeper. Her conscious world vanished as her heart took her to a place she had never been before. She let go of the counter, dropped her hand for a faltering moment then reached behind her for Steph's hips. Searching, her hands timidly brushed across the jean clad hips and thighs, cautious yet anxious to experience what Steph's hands had felt. Feeling Steph's damp breathe against her neck Kate turned around to face what her heart had already seen.

The once familiar ice-blue eyes now seemed almost black; far from off-putting, they drew her into shadows of uncertainty

Steph rested her hands on Kate's hips, gently but far from controlled. Standing face to face with the woman she already knew, was like being naked in a room full of people judging her for following her heart.

Kate slowly turned her focus downward. Her eyes alone touched the strong but soft body. With awakened sensibilities she noted the female curves, gentle and defined. She wanted to reach out and feel where her eyes had been. But her hands shook in time with her racing heart. Willing her hands to still, she apprehensively caressed the young face.

So soft , she thought, her fingers traced small circles across Steph's cheek, her chin and finally, her lips. A gift.

Then looking once again into her eyes, Kate, slowly put her arms around Steph's waist.

“No, this is not a mistake.” Her voice was soft but deep with conviction.

Steph's eyes, only inches from her own, moistened and Kate thought she'd never seen anything so beautiful. Her look moved away, finding Steph's mouth slightly opened. Nervously, Steph bit her lower lip, being on hold for what may come. With her focus on Steph's mouth, Kate leaned forward and carefully met her lips with her own.

Closing her eyes, Steph let the sensation take over. Lips gently swept across hers, gently testing what lay before them. Kate's hands dug deep into her hair, her tongue curiously trailing along Steph's lips and slowly but persistent finding its way.

Soon Kate was captured in a deep kiss, sweeping away what was left of her defenses. Steph eagerly pulled Kate closer, deepening the kiss. Kate's hands searched under Steph's sweater and shirt finding soft, burning skin responsive to her touch.

Kate stopped being the woman she once thought she was and found the one she had never dared to know, the one she never knew existed. Passion – wild, frightening and out of reach for those who don't dare to feel.

A northern wind picked up outside embracing Port Baily in a deep chill. This went unnoticed by the two women inside Voyager. In the salon of the ship, the heat was motivation. Resentfully, Steph broke away from the kiss and watched Kate with hungry eyes before she quickly pulled off her sweater.

Seeing the sweater fall to the floor, Kate, with a primal reaction quickly moistened her lips. Cravingly gazing Steph, her own body screamed for attention, for Steph's hands to return.

Dressed only in a thin shirt Steph swept her hand across Kate's face. With only a subtle look begging for permission, she unzipped the fleece jacket, her eyes watchful for what would be revealed. Gently she stroked the jacket off Kate's shoulders, then delicately made her way in under the shirt. As she first touched Kate's skin, Steph could barely breath. Trembling with feather light fingertips she explored Kate's stomach, and up along her back.

Steadily gripping onto Steph's shirt, Kate met her gaze. She felt her lower lip tremble, frenzied of what will come – of what she wanted to happen. When Steph's hand lingering danced up across her stomach then teasingly found her breasts Kate couldn't help herself. Her head fell back, exposing her neck while a deep moan escaped her mouth. Steph caught the moment and trailed along the line of her jaw with her mouth, her tongue sensitively drinking the fragrance of Kate's skin.

From this moment, what was left of control flamed away. Hands touched skin and skin touched hands. Kate didn't know who was who and she didn't care. Still standing up, her back against the counter, Steph cravenly roamed her body. Aroused, frustrated and completely out of her mind, Kate let her hand slip in between Steph's legs searching for any way to ease the needs inside her. Hearing Steph moan, feeling her heat – damp and hot – against her hand, didn't help at all.

She should have known.

Desperately, Kate grabbed Steph's hand and feverishly ushered it down. Steph opened her eyes directly looking into Kate's while her hand gently was placed inside Kate's unbuttoned jeans. Both women moaned by the touch, both for different reasons.

In her hand, only separated by thin, thin fabric, lay life so precious Steph didn't know how she possibly could treasure it enough. She felt her eyes fill with tears. A great responsibility was given to her and she wished, oh she wished, she had known where to take it.

Sensing the sudden qualm Kate cupped Steph's face, kissed first her eyes then her mouth.

Their mouths impatiently picked up chasing one another, getting hold of the passion that flowed between them. Steph let her finger linger the waistband to Kate's underwear, her senses picking up every flinch, every sound that could tell she was going the wrong way. She heard nothing of such.

Steph's slow gentle trail was making Kate crazy. Holding one arm around Steph's neck, the other one stressfully balancing against the counter, she arched her hips closer and spread her legs as much as she could still standing up. When Steph, with a long stroke, finally slid in between Kate's folds, she found reaction larger than either of them ever expected. After that, nothing else mattered anymore.

Kate groaned but was instantly hushed by a flaming kiss. Somewhere, deep, deep inside Kate's mind, she recalled Jason, sleeping only a few feet away. The thought didn't stay for long. Her blood rushed, she was getting dizzy. Couldn't breath, could not think. How much of Steph could she take? Kate's instincts painfully wanted more and couldn't get enough. She desperately made Steph go faster. After a prolonged tease around her opening Kate reached the edge and fell over.

She fell hard and the beginning of a cry slipped out before she managed to muffle it against the base of Steph's neck. Shivering and with weak legs, she held onto Steph as a short sob erupted from her throat and she felt tears fill her eyes.

Steph breathed heavily - both from exhaustion and excitement – while the aftermath pulsating caressed her fingers. As wet tears hit her neck, she slowly woke up from the surreal state of being. Swallowing hard, she carefully pulled back her hand, leaving the treasure vulnerable and unprotected.

With a husky voice Steph whispered, "Are you okay?"

Kate nodded but a loud sob slipped out, and tears trickled town her cheeks.

Caught by compassion, Steph let both her arms enfold the smaller woman. Concerned she whispered, "Are you sure?"

Kate wiped her nose with the back of her hand and took a deep breath. "I'm just -. I don't know," she replied softly, feeling exposed. "I think I need to sit down."

"Of course," Steph said trying to sound controlled. She saw Kate embarrassed looking down on her open pants. "Let me help you with that," she said quickly and with trembling hands began to button them. Her fumbling fingers couldn't manage the buttons though and shyly she stopped, saying in a low voice, "I can't -."

Realizing Steph was nervous about everything, Kate found pieces of herself and soothingly placed her hands around the worried face. Tenderly she kissed the trembling lips.

"Come and sit with me," she whiffed, closing her pants. "I need someone to lean on."

 

Snuggling together on the sofa, their hands gently entwined. "I think you just have paid back - with interest,” Kate mused with a faint smile.

Steph eased at the playful tone and softly brushed her lips against the top of Kate's head. "I thought you liked dessert?"

Kate chuckled, "Oh, I do!" She placed a feather-light kiss in the palm of Steph's hand. "Trust me!"

Minuets passed. They sat closely together without saying anything or doing anything. Kate closed her eyes and her mind sailed away without any specific destination. She cuddled against Steph's warm body taking pleasure of every breath she gave.

Confused Steph tried to find an explanation, understand what just had happened, but found nothing but emptiness. Unable to concentrate and with nervous shivers passing through her body she felt sick. She took a deep breath, trying to relax.

"You want to talk about it?" Her voice – low and trembling - whiffed against Kate's ear.

Opening her eyes, Kate let reality return. She tasted the question for a beat before replying. "No," she purred, squeezing the hand she held. "Can we talk about it some other day? She closed her eyes again and deeply inhaled. "I just want to let it be."

Not knowing if she liked the answer or not, Steph faintly said, "Be - as long as you like."

Slowly the spell broke. Kate felt she was extremely tired yet pretty certain sleep wouldn't come easily. "I need to go home," she said drowsily and without enthusiasm.

Tenderly caressing Kate's shoulder, Steph carefully mused," You don't have to go."

A snippet of a twist passed through Kate's stomach. She would like to stay, sleep with this beautiful woman and wake up with her in the morning, but yet not. It was going too fast, she didn't recognizes herself, yet she couldn't get back to their magical moment soon enough. Kate smiled.

“I know I don't have to leave and believe me when I say that I would like to stay,” she gently brushed her fingers across Steph's hand, “but I think it will be too much for me right now.”

Kate felt a pinch in Steph breathing. With a playful tone she added, “You know, now I owe you something. If we continue like this there will always be a reason for pay back.”

Steph giggled. “I prefer not to think about what kind of pay back that would be,” she responded, feeling the tension lighten up. She knew Kate was right and she understood that she was confused. If she, herself, thought about what had happened – .Yes, it was indeed puzzling.

"Will it be awkward if we come up for lunch tomorrow?" Steph asked.

Kate slowly rose from the sofa, pulling Steph with her. "It will never be awkward when you are around," she stated with a smile, bringing both Steph's hands to her mouth, gently kissing them. An embarrassed smile passed across her face.

"You should wash your hands," she playfully groaned.

"I don't think I will," Steph replied smug, her eyes dusky.

"I will pretend I didn't hear that and go home for a cold - very cold - shower," she said self –consciously, giving Steph a lopsided smile.

 

Steph escorted Kate back ashore. Outside, snow had begun to fall. Kate bent her head back, letting the cold, wet flakes fall over her face.

"It really is winter now."

Steph wrapped her jacket tighter around her body and dug her hands deep into the pockets, trying to stay warm "I don't like winter," she replied, feeling her teeth begin to clapper.

A devilish grin came over Kate. "I think this winter might have some potential, though." Kate wrapped Steph in her arms.

"I believe you're right." Steph smiled, playfully rubbing her nose against Kate's.

Steph was cold, as was Kate but neither said anything and an awkward silence fell around them.

Taking a deep breath, Steph gave Kate a quick kiss. The heat that just had cooled off momentarily flamed again, but reality was way too present for it to survive.

Steph let go of Kate, and with a smile she whispered, "Sweet dreams."

Gleaming, Kate replied, "You, too."

*****

 
 
Continue to Part 6
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