Takes Two
by Elize

Part 7
posted  October 2003

 
 

 
 

36

It was two days before New Years Eve and Kate was almost done with her preparations. Wine was resting in the cellar, ingredients for appetizers and the buffet were filling up the fridge, and firecrackers were safely hidden in her office. Although it was almost impossible to find quality products between Christmas and New Year, Kate, with her fingertip sensitivity, had found everything she needed.

After the first gloomy days of waiting for Steph's return, Kate realized hard work was the best way to divert her thoughts. John and Carol Forsythe had stopped by one day and astonished by her efficiency they had praised her.

"What would we do without you?" Carol asked and clasped her hands together. "There doesn't seem to be any kind of situation you can't handle."

Kate had waved her off in response and offered them a dazzling smile. Inside she was not as confident. Her hard work had been a way to escape from her restless behavior but it was not as satisfying as it used to be.

 

At the end of the day, Kelly, Fabricio and Kate sat, like so many times before, and summed up the day with a simple meal and a bottle of wine. Plain pasta, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese was the plate of simplicity for tonight.

Well, I did a good job both with the party and occupying myself, Kate thought. As she relaxed she watched Fabricio who sat across the table. His dark hair was newly cut revealing gray spots over his ears. She smiled and briefly wondered if she was giving him the gray hair.

"I wonder what kind of people Forsythe has invited?" Kelly thought aloud.

Fabricio nodded. "Yeah," he filled in while looking through his glass of wine, admiring its color.

Kelly wiped her mouth with a napkin. "I mean, who is on a business trip over New Year?"

"Hopefully," Kate sighed and leaned back, "happy people. I have planned a cozy gathering with friends and for their own sake -- let's hope they're not stiff and snobbish."

Kelly grinned at Kate's weary expression. She raised her glass towards her friend in an attempt to cheer her up. "Here, here."

 

A car pulled up in front of the restaurant. Kate tilted her head to see who it was. Her heartbeat quickly increased when a tall, blond woman and a small boy stepped out from the car.

Why are they back today? H er thoughts ran. They're not supposed to be back until tomorrow!

Kelly noticed Kate's ogling and curiously turned around just as the door to the restaurant flew open and Jason stumbled in. Smirking, Kelly casually turned back to face her friend. Kate looked like she sat on needles, yet she didn't move. Chuckling, Kelly shook her head.

She whispered, "Get a grip, Sweetie. You have guests."

Although Kate heard what Kelly said and knew what was happening, she suddenly forgot every manner she'd been taught. When Steph strode through the door with two bags hanging over her shoulder, Kate figured someone should give her a hand. Steph looked exhausted yet Kate had never seen anyone so lovely. Paralyzed, she remained seated.

Jason was far from closed down though. “Aunt Kate!” he called with a smile stretching from ear to ear. Immediately, as he reached Kate, he crawled up in her lap. His action released Kate from her passiveness and she turned her attention to the happy boy.

"If I didn't know better," she said and kissed his winter-cold forehead," I might believe you've missed me?"

Jason grinned and put his arm around Kate's neck. "You should see my new glove," he prompted while looking at her with his eyes wide open. "It's awesome and I can catch much harder balls now."

Amused Kate looked the boy. "And that's good, I suppose?" she asked while brushing her hand through his hair.

Jason sighed. "Of course it is," he replied and slid down from her lap. "You should play baseball with me some day."

Kate watched the young boys excitement. “I don't know, young man. Seems difficult, if I may say so.”

“Easy,” Jason patted her knee. “I'll show you.”

Meanwhile, Steph exchanged Christmas greetings with Kelly and Fabricio. Since they arrived, Steph felt Kelly watching her with a somewhat sly expression. She knew Kelly had heard about them, having seen right through Kate. Steph tried not to be embarrassed but she felt naked standing in front of Kate's long time friend.

In the corner of her eye she saw her son sliding off Kate's lap. With a quick smile Steph slipped through Kelly's net and turned to face Kate. At the same moment Kate looked up and Steph immediately wondered if it wasn't better to be examined by Kelly.

Still seated, Kate tried to be coy but realized this action of discretion was not going well. I should say something, she thought suddenly feeling very calm but that was all.

Fascinated, Kelly looked at both women who seemed to be involved in a very bad mating ritual. She shook her head and rose from her chair.

"Come on, boys,” she said, looking at both Fabricio and Jason. “I have something I want to show you in the kitchen."

 

Both Kate and Steph watched the door close behind them and a few, nervous seconds followed as nothing happened. Kate finally managed to bring herself together and slowly stood up.

"Hi there," she whispered as she closed the distance between them. "I thought you weren't coming back until tomorrow," she said while reaching for Steph's hands. Their fingers entwined and Steph gently pulled Kate closer.

"Mother and I had a disagreement," Steph replied with a sad voice and looked down into Kate's eyes. "I felt I had to come home."

“What happened?” Kate was concerned.

Steph shrugged her shoulders. “I told Mother about us.” Steph looked away for a beat. “I don't know what happened but she didn't handle it well. It was odd.”

Hearing the pain in her voice, Kate let Steph take her time.

“I told her I was in love with a woman,” Steph continued, ”and she just went -- off. We never finished the conversation."

"I'm so sorry, Honey." Realizing how lucky she was, Kate sent her sister a thought of appreciation. Telling her had been so easy and Rachel was truly happy for her. She squeezed Steph's hand and said, "Do you think she'll get over it?"

"The strange thing is that we were getting closer," Steph said without answering Kate's question. "She has - or had - planned to sell the house to move closer to us."

Kate comfortingly caressed Steph's cheek with the back of her hand.

"I wasn't certain I wanted her here," Steph mumbled. "But when she responded like this it felt like I wasn't good enough -- again."

Kate took a deep breath. "You have to talk to her Steph," she said in a steady voice. " Don't let the opening in your relationship float away without trying to pull it back. Give her time but please try.” Steph slowly nodded. “You have such a beautiful heart,” Kate added, “and it shouldn't be pained like this."

Steph knew Kate was right but the last couple of days made her tired. She wouldn't let her newfound happiness and intriguing turn in life be diminished by her mother's lack of understanding.

Sliding her arms around Steph's waist, Kate made sure she felt safe and loved. “It was a wise decision of you to come home,” she whispered.

Steph softly brushed her nose through Kate's hair before tilting her face upward with the tip of her fingers. Leaning down, she let her lips gently taste the inviting mouth in front of her. At first searching and moderate but soon the kiss increased in intention.

Kate felt her knees weaken and head spin. With a deep growl she bit Steph's lower lip hard before letting go of the pleasures.

"You can't imagine how much I've missed you,” Kate breathed. “I can't believe it myself."

Closing her eyes, Steph casually caressed Kate's neck with one hand while the other lay around her waist. "I missed you, too," she responded.

Standing tightly together, shadowed in the faint light from the small lamps on the tables, they let the energy of emotions flow between them. Their heartbeats synchronized and their breath fell in to the same rhythm.

"I remember feeling like this after the big party in November," Kate mused. "When we said goodbye outside my place. We stood like this -- close." Recalling the moment sent a brief tremble through her body; again she could feel Steph's warm breath against her ear. "I slept really badly that night."

Steph smiled and hummed in agreement. "It was a tense moment but looking back, I think it was very wise of me to not follow you inside your apartment," she grinned. "I don't believe I was ready then."

Kate chuckled. "And you were ready last week?"

"No," Steph replied, the memory causing her cheeks to color. " I'm not that good in restraining myself. Not when my heart decides to take action."

"You really do follow your heart," Kate stated looking up into Steph's eyes. "When you think about it, it's pretty amazing. The calculating scientist, who uses a mathematical variable on particularly everything, follows the emotional rules in person."

Pondering, Steph eyed the other woman. "Do you think that's bad?" she asked, uncertain of her own insight.

Leaning forward, Kate gave Steph a quick peck. "I think it's perfect. You act with passion and determination whether you work or -, " she quickly kissed her again, "love."

Steph chuckled. “I've never seen myself as very passionate but I may have to revise my view of myself.” She smiled and thought about how lucky she was having ended up in Port Baily. She could have been sitting on a white, sandy beach, being fondled by the sun and turquoise water by now. Never would she have guessed being in a woman's arms could be better.

"What do you think Kelly is doing to the boys?" she asked and looked at the door behind Kate. "She has managed to keep them in there for an awfully long time."

Kate snickered. "We better go and find out," she replied. "She could be ravishing the fridge which would not be good."

Before letting go of Steph, Kate looked steady at her. "I'm glad you're home," she said.

Steph let her lips brush over Kate's hand. "So am I."

 

37

The white, sandy beach in Port Baily was covered in snowdrifts. Strong winds had driven the snow together in mounds against banks and it all looked very uninviting. It was bitingly cold and, to herself, Steph admitted the stroll along the ocean this morning wasn't as pleasurable as she had thought it would be. Dressed in windproof jackets, scarves, hats and thick gloves, she and Jason walked hand in hand over the frozen sand while battling the wind.

They were on their way back to the harbor. Steph's mind wandered around, trying to find a way to tell Jason about her relationship with Kate. What it now meant. One side of her said it was unnecessary and would confuse him more than do him good; the other side said she had to protect him and prepare him for eventual questions. Questions he may not recognize. Steph always tried to treat him as an equal and from the day he was born they had shared life together. During their travels they talked about why some things went their way and others not, obstruction and clearance. To leave him out of one of the most important events in her life didn't feel right. She searched for answers to tackle this.

 

Jason looked up at his silent mother. "Do you think we can have hot chocolate with Kate when we get back?" he asked.

The sudden question brought Steph out from her thoughts. Smiling she replied, "I'm sure we can." She squeezed his shoulder, adding. "As much as we want and with marshmallows, too."

The boy's cold face lit up and he let go of Steph. "You know, Mum. I really like Kate." His voice was filled with an honesty Steph hadn't heard before.

"So do I," she replied after a beat of hesitation and pulled him back.

Jason booted away a small rock. "I know," he said and burst into a grin.

Steph felt a hint of nervousness creep inside her. She asked, "You do?"

"Yeah of course I do." He took Steph's hand again. "You smile more than I've ever seen and you -." A giggle erupted and he shyly looked away.

Steph felt the panic grow inside. What if he was awake? she screamed internally. Aloud, she argued, "What?" Playfully, she nudged him. "What?"

Jason bit back the giggles and turned to face her. "You are kind of silly around her and,” he wriggled and looked away, “you know - hold her hand and stuff."

Feeling her jaw land on the ground, Steph found herself speechless. Hold hands! And stuff! She tried to put the pieces of herself together. "I do not!" she cried in self-defense.

"Do, too!" Jason screamed, releasing himself from her grip and ran off. "Do too!" He laughed.

How did this happen she questioned looking after Jason's small body as he ran over the white ocean of sand and snow. Why have I been concerned about him ? He knows anyway!

Jason stopped and turned around, calling for her to hurry up. He was free from the agony, which troubled people as they grew up. Free from hatred and prejudice. Still, he hadn't faced the darkest side of humanity; Steph hoped it would take long before someone would rob his free spirit.

"He'll manage," she rationalized as she caught up to him. With a sudden, quick motion she grabbed him around his waist. She tickled him through the thick layers of jacket and sweaters while hissing. "I do not."

The boy laughed with everything he was worth and wrestled to get free. "Alright," he cried between laughter. "You don't!"

Steph stopped the playful torture and knelt before him as she straightened his clothes. "Is there anything you want to ask me?" she asked, tenderly looking into his eyes.

Jason exhaled, feeling his heartbeat slowing down. Smiling, he replied, "No, it's okay. I just want us to be happy."

Feeling the pressure around her heart deflate, Steph poked his stomach. "I have raised a very smart boy," she stated proudly and rose. "Let's go get that hot chocolate."

Continuing their stroll hand in hand, Steph wondered whether the wind had eased or not, for she didn't feel quite so cold anymore. She quickly glanced at Jason, seeing a big smile.

"What are you thinking of, young man?" she challenged.

With a grin painted all over his face, he replied, "You really are acting silly around her."

 

38

In the restaurant, Kate was cleaning up. Glass' were carefully polished and placed in straight rows on the shelves behind the counter, linen were folded and flatware was put in neat order. She carried out the monotonous task with pleasure, finding it relaxing and a retreat for daydreaming. The strong winds outside hammered against the windows, trying to get in. Kate listened to its failure; thankful she didn't have to go out.

In the kitchen, Fabricio banged around the pots and pans, performing the last clean up for this year. They had planned to make some sophisticated desert for tomorrow but Kate found herself fed up with cooking and didn't care if they took a short cut this time. She had prepared baked fruit with a spray of cognac and vanilla flavored mascarpone cheese as a topping - simple and seductively tasteful. Fabricio was grateful yet surprised.

"Christ," Kate said chuckling at his suspicion. "I feel it's time for us to enjoy ourselves. If someone has any objections, well feel free because I don't care."

The words did nothing but confuse Fabricio but he would be the last one to argue with her about this. "It good to see you this easy going and relaxed," he'd said with a smile before heading back to the kitchen.

Kate looked after him and wondered whether she had changed that much. In one way she could see she had; happiness had struck her. It was a nervous happiness though. All the new emotions were exhausting and, occasionally, she found herself having trouble concentrating.

I feel like a teenager, she thought when the urge for a deep breath was necessary to get rid of butterflies inside her.

Yet, inner strength was slowly building up. It was about to take over and beyond the nervousness she felt like she surfed on top of a never-ending wave. It took her far away from everything she'd ever experienced and gave her glimpses of herself she'd never known.

 

The front door suddenly swung open and Maggie Redgrave, dressed in a long fur coat and black hat, entered. Kate smiled politely but immediately wished she would leave again. Maggie had never been someone with whom Kate shared small talk, but lately she found the older woman even more disturbing.

Cloaked in hospitality, Kate greeted. "Maggie! What on earth are you doing out on a day like this? The cold breeze must have reached your soul by now?" She smiled at her own cleverness, thinking it possible Maggie's soul was already frozen even in the peak of summer heat.

"Well, it surely isn't a pleasure to be outside," Maggie replied and unbuttoned her coat. "I had some important business to take care of," she grimaced.

Kate gave her a pitiful smirk and grabbed a cup from the shelf behind. "Let me give you a nice, hot cup of coffee. That will bring you back."

"With a drop of whiskey?" Maggie grinned.

Kate's eyebrows shot up. "Some whiskey and you will forget all about winter," she added while turning to the coffee machine.

Maggie took off her coat and hung it over one of the high stools. With trouble she mounted another stool and then relaxed against the counter.

"I see Steph and Jason have returned," she said, her curiosity blatant.

Pouring a shot of whiskey in the cup, Kate briefly looked up. "Yes, they came back yesterday," she commented.

"Mm, I saw a cab pulling up on the street outside the restaurant but I couldn't really see who stepped out. I guessed was them."

"Maybe so," Kate said placing the cup in front of her. The woman was fishing for something, Kate could feel it, but she still hadn't thrown out the bait for her to catch. Curious, she waited for what it could be.

Maggie's cheeks flushed when the hot beverage hit her stomach. "Exactly what I needed," she said relaxing.

"Nothing like a cup of coffee," Kate acknowledged, “to conquer the winter chill.”

Silence stretched between them like a taunt rubber band. Kate knew it was coming. Then, Maggie, in a poor act of nonchalance, said, "You know, I can't understand how Steph can let poor Jason live down there. In that cold boat."

The words shot toward Kate's awareness and when they hit her, rage built up and she shot back. "What the hell is that suppose to mean?" she barked, verbally pinning Maggie down. Her reaction was unexpectedly harsh, Kate felt that but it was too late. She had swallowed the bait.

Quite taken aback, Maggie peered at Kate. "I just mean a boat can't be a suitable home for a child."

Pure instinct of protection - a feeling Kate really never had experienced before - surfaced. It didn't matter whether Maggie was right or wrong, she was not going to suggest to Kate Steph wasn't treating her son in the very best way. No one would. Voyager was perhaps not the best place at this time of the year but what was? Steph had equipped the boat in every possible way and no one who had been there could say it didn't work. No, Kate was not going to let Maggie get away with her insinuations.

 

Once, when Kate was 12 years old, she was caught smoking. Her father had been furious and yelled at her to tell who was behind this. In retrospect, Kate wondered why there had to be someone else involved? Why couldn't she be the one to blame? She hadn't been alone though; an older boy - a summer guest - had given her the cigarette. Kate had failed to hide the truth when her father's disappointment had hovered over her. Feeling like a quisling she thought about the event, her only time failing to stand up and take responsibility. But this wasn't her father. It was Maggie and Maggie was up to something. Kate retracted her claws -- a little.

 

Kate's expression changed from rage to a smile. “You know Maggie, they do have heat on board,” she said patronizing. “You should watch your tongue before you start insinuating things you don't have the slightest knowledge of.”

She leaned forward and batted Maggie down with her look. "Is that clear?"

Maggie's eyes glistened and her face reddened. Avoiding Kate, she quickly drained the coffee almost choking as the hot liquid burned its way down her throat.

"I was just wondering," she stammered, sliding off the stool. "I didn't say there was anything wrong." She quickly put on her coat back on, looking at the defiant Kate. “She could have gotten a good deal at the hotel, for now.”

"She won't be interested, Maggie," Kate stated clearly. "But I'll tell her."

Standing in front of her, Maggie tried to leave without being totally crushed. "Well, good bye then," she said tersely. "And thanks for the coffee."

"Bye, bye," Kate sneered as Maggie walked towards the door.

 

Just as Maggie reached for the door handle, she found herself truly pinned. Jason entered with Steph closely behind. Steph greeted the hotel owner with a slight nod and pained smile.

"I really recommend you to stay inside," she shivered. "The chill is to the bone."

Maggie didn't return the smile but brusquely pushed her way through the door. "It certainly can't be as cold as it is in here."

With those words Maggie was gone, leaving Steph questioning in the doorway. She turned to Kate for an answer and for the first time she got a peek at a side of Kate she never seen before. Her eyes were black with anger and she was posturing like a fighter. It was defensive, for certain.

"What was that all about?" Steph asked curiously, walking towards her.

With a smug face, Kate eyed the door as if Maggie still was there. "We don't get along very well," she snipped. Turning to Steph she instantly softened. Gone was the warrior; back was the lover.

"And what can I do for such a sound and beautiful couple?"

Jason crawled up on one of the stools. “We want hot chocolate," he ordered.

Kate laughed. "Yes, sir," she replied.

"I don't think I've succeeded in teaching him polite manners," Steph said, scuffling around the counter to give Kate a quick peck on the cheek.

Surprised, Kate looked at her. "Well, thank you," she whispered.

"You're welcome," Steph replied, giving her another one.

Loudly sighing, Jason slid off the stool. Walking past them he declared, "You two are so lame. I'll ask Fabricio for some chocolate instead.”

 

39

"Will there be a lot of people?" Jason asked curiously as he walked with Steph up to Tavern-By The Sea and the New Year's Eve celebration.

"I don't know," Steph replied thoughtfully. "But I know Kelly's children will be there."

 

Steph couldn't recall the last New Years party she'd attended. It was such a peculiar night, full of expectations and joyful beliefs that change would come and it would be for the better. People dressed up to celebrate something they didn't know anything about - the future - and promising themselves and other's that this year would be the best in life. Was anybody anytime grateful for what had been? Couldn't this year be the model for the following ones?

Steph couldn't think of anyway she wanted to be different. Life had taken her on such a marvelous ride. Totally unprepared she had landed in a place she'd never would have considered. Rarely, she thought fate determined her life, this time, she wasn't so sure.

Life is like a jigsaw puzzle, she considered. Every piece of action would be a piece in that puzzle and finding the corners first will make the picture emerge much easier than if you randomly add one piece here and there.

Steph played with the thought: her one-night-stand resulting in Jason, the painful loss of her father. Was Kate one of the corners? She hoped not. Instead she wished Kate was part of the picture in the solved puzzle.

As they rounded the corner and reached the door, Steph continued playing with her thoughts. For the sake of stability, the puzzle of life should have only three corners, which means I'm only missing one piece. She gently squeezed her son's hand before reaching for the doorknob.

I will find the last piece - soon , she thought. Feeling quite pleased with herself, they entered.

 

Without any will of resistance, Kate felt her mouth burst into a smile when Steph and Jason entered. She could have asked them to come earlier but now she felt great satisfaction she hadn't. The moment they arrived was worth every minute of waiting. Politely, she excused herself and left Jake Larry and Richard Wilson alone by the appetizers.

"I don't think I can act as an appropriate hostess with you around," Kate whispered as she put her hand on Steph's arm and quickly gave her a tender kiss on the cheek. "Welcome."

Brightened by the welcome, Steph held Kate's gaze. "Thank you," she said. Lowering her voice, she added. "I've missed you."

At that moment Kate wanted to sweep the young woman off her feet and leave New Years to another day. It took some effort not to do so. In a faint voice she responded, "Likewise," and clung onto Steph.

"Please Kate!"

A playful tone penetrated their moment as Kelly slid up behind Kate's back. "This is a public party and you will have to let all your guests mingle." Turning to Steph, she pushed Kate away without hesitation.

"Good to see you, Steph. You are aware that I," she rolled her eyes, "am Kate's oldest and dearest friend, therefore have certain rights to know everything about her."

Steph chuckled at Kelly's lingering manners. Kelly had a bit of an abrupt way with people, making them embarrassed but it was warmhearted. People who knew her understood she would not do or say anything with the intention of hurting. Whether her friendly attitude towards Steph was only because of her relationship with Kate - only the future would tell.

Steph tilted her head and looked down on Kelly. "Do you really get to know everything?" she asked curiously in an attempt to play along with Kelly's waggishness.

"Usually, Dear." Kelly's spoke in a flamboyant tone . She then indicated Steph should take off her coat and helped Jason with his. Kelly quickly grabbed the coats and handed them over to Kate. Taking Steph by the arm she escorted her away from the entrance, leaving Kate holding the coats.

"Let me tell you a secret," Kelly whispered and leaned closer to Steph. "In you, Kate seems to have found the missing ingredient in her life.” She laughed at her own play of words. “When you find something valuable though, you might be afraid to use it." She lowed her voice yet another notch. "Show Kate that the spices of life should be used - just like the ones you have when cooking - otherwise they will dry up, grow old and tasteless."

Steph laughed. "Are you saying that Kate has trouble seizing the day?" she asked.

With a puckered mouth, Kelly shrugged her shoulders. "It's safer to use old ingredients," she said in confidence and threw a glance back at Kate. "You use the one you're familiar with because you know you won't fail." Kelly saw how Steph, amused, was trying to grasp to what she was saying. Stopping in her tracks, Kelly put her hand on Steph's arm and added, “I guess what I mean is, I hope Kate will take this opportunity to -,” she paused, ”to live a little.”

Smiling, Steph said, “You are a good friend, Kelly.”

A little embarrassed, Kelly grinned, “I know.”

Moving on, they stopped at Ted, Jake and Richard who were laughing with a glass of wine in their hand.

Richard Wilson smiled at Steph. "Nice seeing you again," he said and clasped her hand. "It's been a while."

The tall man was still tanned, looking like he could be on a poster for aftershave; he was an attractive man with a very good heart. "It sure has," she replied, returning his smile.

 

A couple of days after the wrap-up party, Richard had knocked on Voyager's hull searching for Steph. With a charming smile he stood on the pier with a copy of Science in one hand and a box of doughnuts in the other.

"I've read your article," he said as Steph stepped outside. "And there are a few things I don't get."

She had chuckled at his boyish excuse to see her and invited him on board. They talked about the article but found science in general was about all they had in common. Their conversation never went any further and they had not run into one another since. Steph couldn't say she'd thought about him, but seeing him now restored her belief he was someone she enjoyed talking to.

 

"I haven't seen nor heard about you for quite some time," she said, beaming at him.

Richard quickly grabbed a glass of red wine from the table behind him, offering it to Steph. "I've actually been out of town," he said.

Both Jake and Ted faltered in their own conversation and turned to him. Richard laughed out loud. "All right - I know it's not often I leave Port Baily," he grinned and nursed his wine then turned to Steph. "But it does happen." Richard was a genuine Port Baily native with little interest in going anywhere else. Dedicated to his job, he preferred to stay with the people who needed him.

"Have you noticed," Ted said playfully while looking at Jake, "that secrets are growing in this town?"

Jake nodded, smugly eyeing both Richard and Steph. "Yes," he replied suspiciously. "Indeed there are."

Port Baily was, after all, a small town and like any other small town people had a pretty keen eye for what was going on. Although Steph was becoming more and more a resident, she was still a newcomer and the gossip about what she was doing floated around. For Jake and Ted, her relationship to Kate was pretty obvious. Kelly had told Ted about their relationship and Ted had talked to Jake. It was gossip between good friends, harmless but refreshing. What Richard was up to was different though. No one expected anything else from him than being just -- Richard.

 

Suddenly the door opened and the buzz from people entering caused everybody to turn and see who was coming. It was Mayor John Forsythe, and his party. Kate, chatting with Fabricio and Kelly, broke away to greet them.

"John! Carol! Welcome," she said with a smile well worthy a ballroom dance contestant.

“Thank you for letting us join you,” John said and, as if produced by magic, offered a bottle of fine malt whiskey from behind his back.

“Oh, John,” Kate couldn't help but smile as she recognized one of her old favorite brand – a twelve year old Ardbeg. “You didn't have to.”

John smiled. “Well, the rumor is you like this particular one.”

“I do indeed although it has been a while.” She eyed him curiously. “Who told you?”

Turning around, John offered space for one of his guests. “This man.”

Stunned, Kate saw a broad, Italian man plow through the crowed. His eyes were sparkling and looked exactly like they had the last time she saw him almost 20 years ago.

“Massimo Albertini!”

The man laughed, stepped forward and gave Kate a hug so big she almost disappeared in his arms. “Little Signorina Jordan .”

The rest of the people in the room mumbled, wondering who the man large, dark bearded man was. No one had ever seen him before and how did he know Kate? Questions were bubbling.

Massimo Albertini took a step back, grasped her hand and eyed Kate from head to toe. “You look as young and beautiful as the last time we met.”

“Oh right. “ Kate blushed. “I was only a kid back then.”

“And full of life.”

Kate nodded. “Very much so, “ she agreed. Taking a step closer, she tugged onto his jacket. “So, what are you doing here, Massimo? And why with John?” She, too, was full of questions.

“Excuse me,” John Forsythe stepped in saying, “You two will have time to talk later. Now, I would like for us all to sit and get a taste of this evening.”

Taken aback by the mayor's candor, Kate wondered who he was to tell her whom she could talk to in her restaurant. She held on to any comments though and nodded toward the corner. “You're right, John. Why don't you all sit over to there,” she waved her hand, “and I'll get you something to drink.”

As John and his big party walked away, Kate put her hand on Massimo's arm stopping him. “Hang on a minute.” She turned to Steph's direction and waved her over.

“Steph, I want you to meet my mentor, my favorite chef, Massimo Albertini.”

Steph smiled and squeezed the man's hand. “Nice to meet you.”

Kate continued, “Massimo, this is Steph Harris my -.” Suddenly Kate had a mind melt. She looked at Massimo; felt her mouth move but noting came out of it.

My what? Her mind stumbled. My girlfriend? Ew! My friend? My partner? Kate panicked. My sex-kitten?

Steph and Massimo looked at her, waiting. Steph was pretty certain of what was going on and actually found the situation quite amusing. Seeing Kate lose her confidence, Massimo was curious at first, but soon he put two and two together.

“Pleasure to meet you, Miss Harris.” He broke into a polite smile. “I think you and I will get a chance to talk more later but for now,“ he blinked, “I think I better get over to my party and you, “ he turned his attention to Kate, “take care of your girlfriend.”

Howling with laughter, he walked away, leaving Kate speechless.

“Kate?” Steph prompted, laying her hand on Kate's shoulder.

“I made a fool of myself, didn't I?” She turned pitifully to Steph.

“Totally.”

 

Dinner was a buffet of cold and warm dishes leaving everyone to eat and drink at their own pace. It allowed Fabricio the freedom of participating around the table and spending time with his date, just like everybody else. The party was as Kate wanted it to be: relaxed where even the staff could sit down without the stress of responsibilities. If something was missing, anyone could go out in the kitchen and get it. Just like home.

"Kate!" The Mayor waved to get her attention. "Come and join us, please."

Kate, who just had served her plate, hesitated. She threw a quick glance first at Forsythe, then at her seat next to Steph. Steph looked up and observed the conflict in her eyes. Smiling, she indicated to her it was all right. Kate wasn't particularly interested in Forsythe, but she did want to know what Massimo was up to and didn't know if she would get the time afterward to find out. Allowing the curtain of politeness to fall in place, she headed off to the Mayors table.

"Kate, sit with us for a moment," Forsythe said pointing at a chair. "These ladies and gentlemen," he exclaimed proudly, ”will take Port Baily into the future."

A polite but somewhat forced chuckle came from the group of men and women around the table. "I think the mayor exaggerates the importance of our presence," Massimo said, sitting next to her. “But there is some truth in what he says.”

A man with a round face, red hair and who seemed to have spent far too many nights around heart wrenching business deals broke in. “Miss Jordan , my name is Thomas Calloway, CEO for Calloway Investments.”

Kate reached over taking his offered hand. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Calloway.”

The man nodded. “My partners and I are here to invest in something you will no doubt be interested in.”

Calloway went on like he was sitting in a business meeting: serious and pragmatic. He seemed to be in his late fifties but it was hard to tell how many additional years he'd lost due to over-work and stress. From his delivery, Kate figured it was many years.

She maintained her polite composure, listening as he talked.

"There seem to be several conditions around here," Calloway continued seemingly oblivious to all surrounding him, "securing future progress and quality." He then smiled, revealing a row of perfectly white teeth, before taking a bite of a small bruschetta with eggplant.

Kate took a sip of red wine and reminded, "Well, as long as John keeps the spirits high around here we're all happy."

Mr. Calloway cleared his throat and threw a glance at his fellow companions. "First of all," he said in a clear voice. "I want to - on behalf of all of us - thank you for letting us to join you on this special night, Miss Jordan . We hadn't planned on staying but in business there isn't always room for," he looked at the others for support but found none, "sacred events and holidays. You have certainly managed to make us forget about the need for our loved ones."

Kate looked from Calloway to Massimo. She couldn't stop an ironic smirk from passing across her face. "Now, that was a big speech about the simple thing in life called hospitality, but thank you."

Forsythe smiled brightly from his place and casually nudged the woman next to him, one of Mr. Calloway's financial advisers. "I told you this is a place for friends."

Casually, Massimo leaned closer to Kate. “Some people never get to the point.”

“Seems like it's going to be Easter before I get to know why you are all here,” Kate mumbled.

Finally Calloway spoke up. “Let me get to the point, Miss Jordan .”

“Please.”

She saw Forsythe cringe in his chair but ignored him. Even if she was very happy to see Massimo again, she still wanted to have her cozy New Year's Eve back.

“After a lot of research we have found Port Baily to be the very best location for a new culinary institute.”

Unable to hide her surprise, Kate's eyebrows arched. “Go on.”

“We are planning to open next fall. A completely new building overlooking the ocean will be built. Everything top notch: facilities, equipment and most importantly – teachers.” Calloway paused, observing how Kate leaned forward.

“We would like you to be part of the staff.” He waited then as they all did to see how the woman, whom the mayor had lauded would respond.

Kate didn't know what to say. Her life circled around Tavern By the Sea and she had never thought about it being any different. When Steph stranded on the shores, she felt her solid foundation rock a bit. Steph made her see that life contained more than work, something different than just pleasing Port Baily's hungry souls. She started to think about herself.

An academy with people sharing her passion for food sang like a chorus of angels to her heart. She looked at Massimo.

He responded before she managed to ask. “I didn't know you where here at first, but when I found out I knew Port Baily would be the best place. I've never had a student as dedicated as you, Kate.”

“Will you work here?” Kate asked.

Massimo nodded. “Yes, but I want you to set everything up and be the local anchor.” He paused to let her digest.

“I don't know what to say,” Kate stumbled.

“Academia di Cucina, my dear Kate. You will meet the best chefs there are and the one's who will be. Passion.”

Kate gulped down the words with wine. One side of her wanted to scream “yes!” here and now, and the other just wanted to cuddle in bed, wishing this offer never had been made. It would mean a lot of work and devotion, but yet so interesting, so much fun.

She looked at Calloway; his puffy face and his neck strangled by his collar. “I am honored,” she began, “but I need some time to think about this.”

She looked over to where Steph was seated at the other table. They were all laughing and Kate curiously wondered what it was about. Gently pushing her chair back, she said, “I think I need to join my other guests for a while but, “she stood up, “let's talk more tomorrow. Afternoon.”

Both Massimo and Calloway stood up. The Mayor didn't catch what was happening and remained seated. Calloway threw him a scolding glance before saying, “Of course, Miss Jordan .”

Kate gave Massimo a final friendly pat on his shoulder then walked to her friends at the other table.

 

“Well now, look what the cat dragged in!” Kelly alerted. Kate, carrying her plate of food and a bottle of wine, came up behind Steph. "I was just thinking about sending someone over to rescue you," Kelly speculated in a low voice.

Kate put down her things, briefly caressed Steph's back then sat down on her right side. "Oh, it wasn't that bad although it was getting quite serious."

Distracted by Mr. Calloway's offer, Kate filled her glass with wine. Her mind surfed away to the planned academy; filling the kitchen with nice stoves, pots and pans; a library would be needed and a wine cellar. She could involve local fisher men who could teach the students about fishing cod, lobsters and oysters; which season gave the best quality. The possibilities were endless and Kate was tickled.

“Are you okay?” Steph's voice penetrated Kate's mind.

“Yes,” she breathed. “I was thinking about what Forsythe's troop was talking about.” She paused and put her hand over Steph's. “I'll tell you later.” Smiling, Kate softly squeezed Steph's hand while looking into her eyes. Feeling her heart beat in a gently rhythm, Kate felt very grateful; her work was taking unexpected interesting turns and then there was Steph -. Looking at her, Kate realized there where no words for the love she felt.

Leaning closer to Steph, she whispered, “Have I told you how beautiful you are?”

Steph chuckled and looked at Kate. “Not today.”

Shaking her head, Kate stated, “Shouldn't be a day without you hearing that.”

 

The evening continued beyond thoughts and talk about the future. Instead they remained within the spectrum of daily life, from excitement through seriousness towards happiness. Kelly and Ted replaced the main dishes on the buffet with dessert, coffee and cognac.

Fabricio calmly leaned back into his chair and observed them doing the job he usually did, finding New Years Eve among these friends most satisfying. One of the terrace doors was open and a fresh breeze circled through the room. Calloway and Massimo were standing in the doorframe, smoking a cigar while involved in a conversation with Kate. Fabricio guessed they had found something amusing to talk about as the men suddenly burst into hearty laughter.

She certainly knows how to bring out the best of people , he thought and at the same time observed Steph discretely, but not invisibly, place her hand on Kate's back.

"I guess she has every reason in the world to be in a good mood," he said to himself. Grinning, he put his arm around his date. The glow between Kate and Steph had not passed Fabricio unnoticed, but it wasn't until lately he understood the nature of their relationship. Thinking about it, Kate had given him some slack lately and if Steph was the reason – well, Fabricio was not the one finding anything wrong with their relationship.

 

The longer the night progressed, the more boldly the touches between Kate and Steph became. A caress on the cheek, closely standing together, a brief catch of hands or glimpses captured over the crowed. Most people wouldn't see it but the friends around them, curious but without daring to confront them, noticed the attraction.

For Richard Wilson, who hadn't been around them particularly much, the closeness between the women was viewed with mixed emotions. Steph intrigued him from the moment she entered his clinic with the injured Jason in her arms. Later, after the wrap-up party some people told him they were a beautiful couple and Steph was someone he should look after. Somehow though he found Steph out of his reach, like they played on different fields. He felt friendship was all what they had in common and now he could see the reason why. A tinge of jealousy passed through him as he watched Kate place her arm around Steph's waist. Quickly, he moved on and over to the conversation between Ted and the Mayor.

Kelly was not tiptoeing around her friend's new way of life, quite the opposite. She took every opportunity to tease Kate. After loads of wine, it became even more fun.

Sneaking up behind Kate and Steph shortly before midnight, she said, "Don't you think this party vibrates of lust?"

Startled, Kate twirled around to face Kelly. "For heaven sake, Kelly," she squeaked, feeling her face burn. "Will you show some tact? I don't think we have to tell everybody."

Kelly chuckled and put her hand on Kate's arm. "Sweetie, you really should have thought about that before this evening began,” she suggested. “It's pretty obvious and I don't think there is a soul in this room who missed a thing."

Beginning to object, Kate felt Steph's fingers softly caressing the inside of her wrist, luring her away from concentration. Steph smiled at her and Kate wished for nothing but being held in her arms, kissed by her lips. Kelly was right.

Kate swallowed hard and turned back to Kelly, "Well." Her voice was strained. "Someone will have to give you something to talk about tomorrow."

"That's my girl," Kelly replied, pinching her cheek. "But if anyone gives you a hard time, let me know so I can come and defend you.”

Steph chuckled at the friend's playful exchange; Kate felt like a teenager being caught at a first kiss. “Yes, Mom,” she replied, trying to stay serious but failed.

 

Time moved on and suddenly the imagined magic at midnight was upon them. Everybody moved out on the terrace and just as the year went from one to another. Fireworks enlightened the sky and "oh's" and "ah's " intoned among the audience. Jake and Ted sneaked away earlier and with childish joy now let the sky burst with raining stars.

"Happy New Year," Kate whispered into Steph's ear as she embraced her. "I hope your year has been as satisfying as mine has?"

Steph inhaled Kate's scent and smiled. "Much better than I ever thought possible," she replied softly and eased back a bit so she could see her face. Reflections of raining stars sparkled in her dark blue eyes. Steph smiled and passionately nudged across Kate's mouth with her lips. The faint moan escaped was enough for her to realize she had to stop.

She pulled Kate closer and breathed into her ear, “"Stay with me tonight."

Kate trembled, hearing the words. Taking a deep breath she looked at Steph. "Can we go now?" she asked with a playful but wishful tone.

With a quick kiss on top of Kate's head, Steph let her go. "I wish but I don't think it's appropriate," she replied softly, aware Kate had to stay until everybody had left.

"Mom!" Jason's exciting shout made them remember they weren't alone. Both turned to see what he wanted.

"Mom, did you see the explosions? Ted let me light one!"

Not certain she liked what she just heard, Steph's eyes furrowed. But when faced with her son's obvious joy and excitement, the fears ran off. Lifting him up, she compassionately looked into his shiny eyes.

"They were really beautiful and perhaps," she softly brushed her nose against his, "they made you tired?"

The boy cringed and wriggled to get down again. "No way!" He looked at both his mother and Kate. Then he declared, "I'm never going to bed."

 

40

A couple of hours later, in the first hours of the New Year, they were back on board Voyager, and Steph was helping Jason put on his pajamas. His confident declaration about never sleeping lasted for about half an hour and when it was time to go home, he whined saying he wanted to stay on the couch.

"You think you can sleep now?" Steph asked with a soft voice tucking him in and pulling up the extra blanket to keep him warm.

Jason, half asleep, nodded. "Yeah," he replied letting out a deep yawn. He felt his mother's hand gently brush through his hair and he opened his eyes.

"Is Kate still here?"

Steph smiled. "Yes, she is."

Closing his eyes again, Jason cuddled the pillow and mumbled, "Tell her good night."

"I will."

Steph switched off the lights over his bed. "Sweet dreams," she whispered. The boy did not respond and Steph figured he already was in the land of dreams.

 

In the salon, Kate was scanning the books on the shelf above the couch. The titles flashed by and if anyone had asked what kind of books were there, she would not remember. Nervous, her senses on the edge, she tried to shut out any thoughts of how the night might proceed. But randomly, the provocative image of Steph kissing her, touching her came into mind; she had to take a deep breath to get rid of the tension.

She heard the quiet snick of Jason's door closing and then the gentle steps of Steph returning. Kate swallowed.

"Are you tired?" Steph asked softly, resting her hands on Kate's shoulders.

Kate's body was winding down and hesitating she listened to it. "The truth?"

Steph chuckled. "Yeah," she responded and whiffed her nose through Kate's hair.

Leaning into the embrace, Kate felt her body relax. "I do believe I'm tired," she whispered. "A little."

Steph searched for Kate's hand, found it and ushered her around. Looking into her eyes, she said, "You know, there is a cure for that." It was awfully late and Steph was also feeling tired. Knowing Kate, she assumed last week had gone full speed and now finally found peace to relax. Steph was glad to be able to give her this.

“Have you slept at all this week?”

Mellow, Kate purred, “It happened.”

Cupping Kate's face, Steph planted a gentle peck on her nose then said, “Let's get to bed then."

Steph's cabin was small for one person and almost claustrophobic for two. Trying not to tip Kate over, Steph dug a sweater out from the closet and handed it to her.

"Winter," she said wryly. "It tends to get a bit nippy down here – especially in the mornings. I wouldn't want you to freeze."

Kate looked at the sweater in her hand. It was gray, the fabric soft. As she watched it though, she knew a soft sweater was not what she wanted. She brushed her hand over it then put it down on the bed.

In one small step, Kate closed the distance between them. "Is there not another way to stay warm?" she asked in a low voice letting her fingers drift across Steph's stomach.

Not really surprised but still taken aback by Kate's initiative, Steph inhaled. Looking down on the shorter woman she saw Kate's eyes darken, her mouth slightly open yet she smiled. She looked different. Coy perhaps. Trying to play along, Steph answered, "I don't know."

“Hm,” Kate hummed feeling certain there was a better way. Tilting her head, she slowly trailed around the buttons of the blouse: from Steph's stomach, up between her breasts and then to the top of her chest. The dark, blue silk blouse Steph wore was thin, and Kate could feel every curve hidden underneath. It was alluring.

The gentle touch spread goose bumps across Steph's back and up her neck. To steady herself, she had to place her hands on Kate's hips. She added, "I don't think I've tried any other way."

“Hm.” Kate heard Steph's voice failing her. Ballsy, she teased around the top button of the blouse, nudged it until it suddenly opened.

“Oh!” She was pleased with what she could do and even more so when she felt Steph tighten the grip around her hips. Looking Steph straight in the eyes, she playfully unbuttoned another one. Kate saw Steph's swallow, her face tense. A proud smile flashed across Kate's lips by the reaction she caused.

Since the night Steph had taken the step from friendship to passionate love, Kate had been moonstruck. The days after she could still feel Steph's hands on her body and although she tried not to think about it, her body longed for more. While Steph was gone she had relived the experience in the shelter of her own bed, but it was never the same. She wanted to feel Steph. Now, she would and all her confidence suddenly flushed away.

Taking a deep breath then slowly exhaling, Kate managed to regain her composure. "Do you think it's too late to find out if there is another way?" she asked teasingly as her fingertips zigzagged across Steph's breast.

Steph moaned in pleasure but chuckled saying, “I don't know.” Feeling Kate's playful hands, hearing the teasing in her voice was relieving; love was not only passion, it was joy as well.

Kate's hand came to rest between her breasts. Peeking at her, Steph saw her gazing at her body; her face draped in lust. Steph felt her heart race.

Wanting to look at Steph forever, feel in charge as she never felt before; a subtle pulse suddenly sneaked into Kate's senses. At first she couldn't tell what it was but soon she realized it was Steph's heart beating against her hand. The rhythm was forced as if it wanted to go somewhere. Restless. Yes, she had her right where she wanted -- in her hand. Kate closed her eyes for a second then, with little motion, gently cupped Steph's breast in her hand.

Steph felt her stomach contract in passion. Standing with her back against the closet, she moved one hand to clasp onto Kate's shoulder, the other one remaining on her hip. She felt dizzy and closed her eyes.

Kate could sense Steph's chest heave under her hand and her nipples perk behind the silky fabric. The thin, fine blouse suddenly seemed too heavy for Steph to bear. At least Kate thought so. With a tone deeper than she recognized in herself, Kate suggested, "I think we can remove the blouse."

Steph didn't know what to do. Grasping harder onto Kate's shoulder, she nodded in response.

Her hands trembled and Kate forced herself to slow down. One button after another, she opened the blouse. Steph leaned her head back against the closet door and Kate felt the top of her head being caressed by her exaggerated breath. Looking up, she saw Steph's neck invitingly exposed. Unable to resist the temptation, Kate leaned forward and gently placed teasing kisses from her ear and down to her pulse point. Steph's pulse pounded rapidly against her lips, reminding her about the life she had in her hand.

“I hope you're not a vampire,” Steph whispered, trailing her hand up behind Kate's neck.

Kate smiled. “I might become one,” she grinned and nuzzled her neck.

The playfulness quickly blew away as Kate returned to unbuttoning the blouse. Entranced, she saw more and more of Steph's body becoming uncloaked: the upper part of her chest was more tanned; there was a small mole just below her right breast; the muscular stomach.

"Beautiful,” Kate whispered having her dreams come true.

With her eyes closed, Steph felt cool air whiff across her exposed skin. She shivered. But as Kate's hands whisked the blouse off her shoulders, the air all of a sudden became hot.

“So beautiful," Kate repeated as if being in a world of her own. Her hands trembling followed her eyes, mapping every visible part of her body. Amazed by the wonders, she smiled.

Submitting to this exploration, Steph was having difficulty staying calm. Parts of her wanted to let it move quicker but the feeling of being fettered by Kate's attention was electrifying. But when Kate softly enfolded her nipple with her mouth, breathed through the fabric of her bra, Steph could not hold back any longer.

As if being released from chains, Steph twirled around, took Kate with her and fell down on the bed with Kate on top of her. Her hands dug into Kate's hair while their lips met in hungry passion. Steph heard Kate breath heavily, heard her moan as their tongues fervently tumbled with one another. Feeling like she had waited forever, Steph pulled up Kate's skirt as much as she could. When Kate's thigh slid in between her legs, Steph thought she was going to completely lose her mind.

Kate heard the zipper of her skirt being pulled down and felt Steph's fumbling hands try to tug the skirt down. No longer in charge of her wits and not wanting to lose any more time, Kate quickly stood up to help her. Without letting go of Steph's hungry gaze, Kate finished unzipping; then she faltered for a split second before letting the skirt fall to the floor.

Seeing Steph lay half naked on the bed, her arms slightly bent above her head and her hair spread over the pillow, Kate began to slowly unbutton her blouse. Steph's eyes widened. Without a word being said between them, Kate removed all her clothes and finally stood fully naked before her. Sobering for a beat, a tremble of shyness passed through her and she wondered if she was going too far.

Steph slowly sat up. Taking a moment, she let her eyes trail across Kate's body before reaching out and with her fingers feather-lightly stroke across her stomach, over her hips, down her thigh. Feeling Kate shiver, she looked up. Steph's eyes filled up with tears as she saw Kate's precious face. She whispered, “I love you.”

A moment of placidity entered the cabin. Filled with emotions, Kate pulled the young woman's head against her stomach, brushed her hands through her hair. “And I love you, Steph.”

Feeling Steph taking a deep breath then smile, Kate nudged under her chin. Steph looked up at her and Kate thought if love could be shown, there it was; depicted in the normally ice-blue eyes love sparkled against her.

Steph smiled. It all was so new yet it felt so right.

With a slight notion, Kate pulled Steph up on her feet and without fumbling unclasped her bra. Mesmerized, she eyed the softness, the shape. So y oung, Kate thought. Carefully, she reached out feeling the heaviness rest in her hands. "They're perfect," she mused. Smiling, they looked at one another.

"I didn't know breasts could be this perfect,” Kate added in playful tone allowing the tension to ease, the moment to be prolonged.

A little embarrassed, Steph chuckled then leaned forward for a quick kiss. Immediately as their lips met, fervent arousal arose from its temporally rest.

Steph quickly undressed and falling together against the bed, their kisses increased in passion yet a gentleness held them back from rushing ahead. Time was present in abundance and they allowed themselves to really feel.

Lying in a tight embrace, Kate slid up on top of Steph; with Steph's hands grazing her back, Kate nuzzled along Steph's lips, swept across her jaw then down her neck. Steph eased her grip around Kate's back, opening up for Kate to moved down her chest. Afraid to misinterpret, Kate looked at Steph. Her eyes were closed, her head relaxingly sunken into the pillow. Roused by her trust, gently Kate continued her exploration.

 

Their passionate dance lasted the few hours remaining of the night. Slowly they began to learn each other's moves, sounds and apprehension. Sleep finally took over as passion ebbed into a needed rest.

Kate, her head cradled Steph's shoulder, felt how dreams brought her away over the shiny ocean and into a land where everything looked different from what she was used to. People sat along a sandy path talking and they waved at her as she walked by. With a brief hesitation, she stopped.

"Where am I?" she asked a man who seemed to have lived forever but never touched by the obstacles of life.

The man chuckled before looking up. "Have a look around and tell me what you see," he said in a steady but playful tone.

Birds came flying in over the shores and landed in the lush trees behind them, the sun slowly rose in the already sparkling ocean and a woman - familiar with blond hair - walked on the sandy beach.

"Mom!"

Kate, dizzy from the lack of sleep and a bit disoriented, distantly heard the call. Slowly opening her eyes, she saw Steph looking at her.

"Seems like night is over," Steph whispered, offering a faint smile. "You better hold on because a storm is approaching."

Kate never got time to react.

"Mom!" Jason's swung the door open and fearlessly threw himself over Steph while she took cover under the blanket. "I'm hungry!"

It wasn't until then he saw Kate lying in bed with his mom. A slight, confused expression flashed across his face but just as quickly, a smile broke out.

"Kate can make breakfast!" he cried and stretched his arms to the ceiling. "Yes!" Satisfied with his conclusion, he jumped off bed and retreated as fast as he had invaded.

Kate looked at the opened door. "What just happened?" she asked, turning to Steph.

Steph smiled smugly, leaned over and gave her a loving kiss. "You have just won first prize - making breakfast." Her tone was playful.

Sinking back into her pillow, Kate moaned. "I woke up in hell," she whined. "I want to go back to my dream, to its sandy beach."

Steph smiled at the sleepy woman. "I love you," she whispered, cuddling closer to Kate. Nuzzling her ear, she breathed, “Two eggs, runny, please.” Giggling, Steph leaned back without seeing the pillow coming at her.

 

41

Port Baily was deeply embraced by winter and life seemed far away. Winds whipped the shores, snow stormed in from the ocean from time to time and people huddled behind closed doors, waiting for better times to come.

For Jason, Steph and Kate though life blossomed. Jason started school after New Year, Steph began her job at Harvard and Kate was involved in the creation of the Culinary Academy .

Every morning they separated having slept either on board Voyager or in Kate's apartment. Kate had suggested they could stay at her place, at least during the winter months, but Steph was not keen on abandoning her home during these conditions. She felt as if she had an obligation to the ship that had been her savoir through a rough time in her life.

Instead of an expected settling of their lives, they were now pretty scattered; no one knowing where they actually lived, where their clothes were, where they belonged. It was a crazy time. Both Steph and Kate knew they had to come up with a way to solve their living situation, but for now, with all new things going on, they just had to deal with it.

 

Storming in through the restaurant doors, Kate brushed the snow off her shoulders and shouted, “Fabricio!” With rapid strides she crossed the room, tossed her coat on a stool then walked behind the counter.

“Fabricio!” Her voice was energetic as was her motion with which she poured herself a cup of coffee.

The door from the kitchen swung up. “What?” Fabricio questioned with irritation. He was in the middle of preparing the next days lunch and was not in the mood for it taking any longer than necessary.

The chef's temperament was well known to Kate and she simply ignored his wishes by signaling for him to sit down. Fabricio made an attempt to complain but Kate didn't listen. “Sit down. Just for a while.” She placed a cup of strong, Colombian coffee in front of him.

“I just have to tell you about the meeting I've had with Massimo and Mr. Calloway.”

Fabricio looked at her while taking a sip of the coffee. Something told him he wouldn't get home as soon as he hoped. He had seen her excited before but not like this. The Culinary Academy was taking shape much faster than any one had expected and Kate was like a storm over open sea, blowing through not letting anything stop her. Fabricio got daily reports about the progress and it never ceased to amaze him how much Kate managed to accomplish. He was fully occupied with Tavern By The Sea but in contrast, Kate managed to squeeze in even more into her already busy schedule.

Without letting Fabricio add any comments, Kate started. “We're going to have interns!” She laughed as if she never thought of anything better before. “Interns, Fabricio!”

Looking suspiciously at her, he said, “So?”

Kate chuckled. “Don't you see? It will integrate Tavern By The Sea into the Academy. We will get new ideas, new angles.” She put her hand on his arm. “It will give us a fresh perspective of our daily work.”

Thinking about what she said, Fabricio recalled when he started working with Kate. He had been young, green and lacked the real confidence a chef would need. Although he argued with her, it took him many years before he finally could say his suggestions really worked. Working in this intimate restaurant together with Kate had created a very solid foundation for him. Now, he could stand up for himself and he knew every young chef should get that opportunity.

He looked at her, smiled and said, “It sounds like a great idea.”

“Yes, doesn't it?”

Kate explained what they planned. For next fall, sixteen students would be picked out and for the following three years they would learn everything a chef possibly could learn. They would not only learn about the actual cooking, but how to choose the best ingredients and where they come from. It was important, in Kate's opinion, for a chef to know all about the material they work with.

“When everything is rolling, there should be forty-eight students – sixteen in each class.”

Fabricio nodded. “That's a lot of people. You'll need to get more restaurants in the area involved unless you want to have them stacked up on top of one another in this kitchen.”

Thoughtfully eyeing her friend, it struck her this could be even bigger than she first had believed. “We might have to expand,” she blurted looking out through the window. It would soon be dark and snow still fell, as it had all day, with full intensity.

Expanding would mean a lot of work, Kate knew that but the challenge tickled her. There was something special about starting something new, to start all over again. She remembered the feeling when she opened Tavern By The Sea: the rush and energy she had felt was euphoric. But somewhere, a bleak memory of stress, long days and sleepless nights submerged. Although it had been her best time in life, it hadn't been painless.

She looked at Fabricio. No one but him would have coped with me during the first years . She chuckled inside, remembering the number of times they had argued about recipes. What kind of cabbage should be used in the ribolitta? Should there be lemon, vinegar or neither of it for the tomato bruschetta? Doors slammed, tempers were hot but in some mysterious way their disagreements had brought them to this great place they were in today.

 

Kate was still thinking about the past, when the door opened and Kelly entered with Jason by her hand.

“Jason!” Kate sprung up, her heart beating uncontrollably.

As soon as she saw him, she remembered: she was to pick him up from school. That was more than one hour ago.

“Oh my God, Jason! I am so sorry!” She cast a quick look of apology to Kelly. Her friend did not look happy; as a matter of fact, she seemed furious.

Jason looked freezing cold; his cheeks were red and his eyes glistened. Squatting in front of him, Kate embraced him while whispering, “I'm sorry. Follow Fabricio to the kitchen and he'll give you some hot chocolate and pasta.” She brushed her hand across his chin. “I'm so sorry, Jason.”

The boy nodded. “It's okay,” he whispered in a sad voice and wriggled out from her hold. “I'll be in the kitchen.”

Watching as he left, Kate felt her body tremble. It was like someone had punched her in the stomach or worse: like she just had seen her life sink. She was sick of herself.

“I hope I never have to experience this again,” Kelly said in a stern voice.

Kate turned around; her eyes were filled with tears. “I don't know how this happened,” she breathed.

Having seen Kate eight years ago, when Tavern By The Sea opened, she knew how this happened: Kate got so occupied with her own business, she forgot about the people around her. Eight years ago she lost her husband, now she was being given another chance. The question was whether she had learned anything during those years.

Kelly reached out and took Kate into an embrace. Feeling Kate slump with guilt against her shoulder, she whispered, “You and Steph need to start thinking about your combined futures, Kate. This is a new life for Jason, too, but he doesn't have the choices you have.”

She felt Kate nod. Kelly added, “Talk to her, tell her what happened and you'll work this out together.”

At that moment, Kate was prepared to leave everything. Just so she could keep her family together. “I wasn't thinking,” she said sniveling.

Taking a step back, Kelly reprimanded, “Yes you were, but not about the important things. You can't be forgetting your child at school!”

My child? Kate thought her defenses coming up. “I didn't mean for this to happen,” Kate started to justify her actions, or rather the lack there of.

Kelly sternly looked at her. “It must never happen again!”

Seeing the seriousness in Kelly, Kate surrendered. “I'm sorry. It won't happen again.”

“Don't apologize to me.” Kelly responded and laid her hand on Kate's shoulder. “Tell Jason.”

 

42

Steph sat in her small office at Harvard looking out through the window and tried to let her mind rest. A thick layer of snow persistently added up on the large tree outside. Steph silently wondered what the point was; the snow was fighting a hopeless fight against the upcoming spring and in Steph's opinion, it could stop now. She knew though, it would take some months before the pure, green leaves would sprout.

She had just hung up the phone. Kate told her she forgot to pick Jason up from school and now felt miserable. A sting of disappointment passed through Steph, blaming Kate for not taking responsibility but she quickly realized this was her own fault. Now, as she glanced at the world outside the window, she tried to figure out how she had ended up in this situation. It was troublesome.

How could I have done this? she asked herself. Why am I doing this?

 

Her day was doomed already from the beginning. She was late to work and she forgot her notes on onboard Voyager; before lunch a phone call from her mother had drained her and now this. Suddenly, she felt very tired. Resting her elbow against the armrest, she pressed her fingers against her eyelids, trying to get rid of the headache that slowly was building up.

“Mother,” she mumbled, shaking her head. “I'm becoming my Mother.”

Steph's and Ruth's disagreement from Christmas was still blistering their conversation and neither of them had found a way out from their locked-up position.

During an earlier phone call, Steph had, without major objections, listened as Ruth went on about Steph's life and how she wanted them to be closer to her. Her argumentation went in circles making no sense to what she wanted.

“Mother, why don't you just come visit,” Steph sighed.

Ruth frowned. “I don't know what difference that would make,” she responded shortly. “You have distanced yourself more than ever and I don't know you anymore."

Steph challenged. "But Mother, I am exactly the same as I've always been. The problem is that you have never known me."

"Oh no, young lady," Ruth voiced. "Don't you blame me!"

"I'm not blaming you for anything." Steph heard her voice picking up. After a silent beat she suggested, "Fly here and we can all get together?"

Ruth chuckled. "Not now, Stephanie."

 

Watching the snowflakes fall, she concluded she truly did not understand. Not her mother's behavior or why she was sitting here in Boston while Jason was being forgotten about.

"How come such a young woman looks so sad?"

The voice yanked Steph from her thoughts.

"Jeff." She tried a smile while she waved him into the room.

As he slowly sank down into the chair on the opposite side of the desk, Steph explained, "I was just letting my mind walk a few miles around campus."

The older man chuckled. "You have quickly figured out that inside these hallowed walls it's the mind that needs exercise."

"Mm." Steph could do nothing but agree. Harvard was indeed a place for thinkers, especially on a cold day like this.

Jeff smiled soothingly while he read his friend's troubled face. Adjusting the sleeves on his jacket, he asked, "Is there anything an old man like me can do to cheer you up?" He saw Steph's jaws tighten. "Or, perhaps, you need someone to just listen?"

Steph smiled faintly, not certain she wanted to bother her friend with her personal problems. She was aware though, she could use a friend outside Port Baily, someone other than Kate to talk to. The life she was living now was overwhelming: sedentary and a relationship. It was so different from what she was used to and some days the emotions - happy ones, hesitant ones, or fearful ones - made her wonder if this way of living really was the truth.

Perhaps I'll wake up someday, still drifting over endless waters.

Day's like those, when she felt tied up by having to go to work or sat waiting for Kate to get home from her doings, were rare but today it certainly made her wonder.

Pushing her chair back against the window, she let her feet rest on the bottom drawer. She said. "I'm in love." She couldn't help but smile as a surprised Jeff looked back at her. "Deeply in love," she added.

Jeff took off his glasses and methodically polished them across his shirt. "Well," he grinned. "I thought you were looking awfully cheerful. But I - naively - believed it was the job that made you glow."

He silently observed her smile fade into a thoughtful expression. That Steph found love made him happy, but what it had to do with the cloud hanging over her head confused him.

"It was a while ago since I went through that," he paused searching for the correct words, "libidinous phase of life. But what I recall is that trouble was not on my mind."

Steph could do nothing but grin. "I have always had this," she waved her hand probingly, "complex relationship to my mother. When I told her I finally had found someone to share my life with she didn't understand."

"Why?"

Faltering for a moment, Steph took a deep breath then answered, "Maybe because I'm in love with a woman?"

Jeff looked even more surprised now. The mustache wriggled about in a way Steph had never seen before. Smiling, Steph could tell he was thinking and let him do so. A few seconds later, a playful quirk sparkled in his eyes.

"Love has never been invited to the halls of science because it takes us on turns we cannot predict," he hinted with a broad smile. "I think that has a certain charm.”

Steph chuckled and suddenly felt a bit better. "Yeah, you're probably right," she responded. She agreed it was fascinating how such an abstract emotion, beyond any kind of laws, could change lives whether it was wanted or not. The saying “ being taken by storm ” was indeed correct -- even for her.

"Is it the woman from the restaurant?" he asked curiously. "Kate?"

Steph looked back at him, "Yes, it is." She felt a little touched he remembered her although she wasn't surprised.

Jeff straightened in his chair and put his glasses back on the tip of his nose. "I'm quite a good listener and usually I enjoy it. I guess your mother doesn't listen particularly well?"

Shrugging her shoulders, Steph sighed. "I don't know what she does. I know most parent's aren't overjoyed about hearing their children are gay but this is something else." She fell silent, recalling her mother always on the run, always going somewhere and taking everybody under her protection; everybody but Steph.

"She was actually thinking about moving here," she stated casually. "But it seems like she's had a change of heart."

Jeff looked at her in surprise. "Why don't you tell me the entire story," he suggested and pulled out the chair next to him and swung his feet onto the seat, “ From the beginning.”

Steph smiled embarrassed. "Don't you have more important things to do?" she wondered, picking up a pen from the desk to play with.

"Most certainly not," he replied in a hearty tone.

 

Without interruption, Jeff listened to Steph reflecting on the life she had with her mother - or rather the lack of it. Feelings of alienation and questions what she'd done wrong, why she is sidestepped. Being the daughter of Dr. Ruth Harris was something totally different than being one of her patients; she felt like she came in the second room. At least she always had thought so, but now, when hearing her own voice it sounded wrong.

Am I being selfish? she thought in a brief pause of her monologue. How is she any different than I?

Steph realized she also had walked away without listening. But in her belief that parents should do anything for their children - be with them, care for them, nurse them - she was blind to the fact that each life was different.

Her mother was busy, she had always been busy, but that didn't mean she did not miss her family. When something happened at the hospital and Ruth left the family during holidays, Steph had felt abandoned, but what made her believe her mother didn't feel the same? For the first time, Steph understood Ruth must have. She could only look at herself and how she missed Jason, nevertheless; here she was, sitting at work while Jason was being forgotten at school.

Life is multi-faceted and the true way to live was found everywhere. Steph realized she had no right to judge her mother.

"Maybe I should tell her I miss her," she mused, looking at Jeff's focused expression. "Too much pride makes us angry."

Jeff nodded slowly. "Peace has never been easy to achieve and pride is its worst enemy," he stated. "Being bitter will do neither of you any good and I think you are the strong one in this circumstance.” He saw Steph start to question. “I mean -- look at you!" He smiled admiring.

"You're strong in your love. You listen to your heart and follow the advice it gives you."

Pondering, Steph mused, "If we get around this then my life will be complete. That's how I feel."

Jeff agreed. "Regarding Kate," he said within a breath. "I think it's good ol' fashion jealousy."

"Jealousy?"

Jeff stood up. "As odd as this may seem, there should only be one woman in your life, Steph." He smirked. "And that is your mother. But now you have replaced her. Perhaps Ruth feels she is no longer needed."

Steph frowned. "But I do need her."

Jeff smiled warmly. "Don't tell me -- tell her."

 

Sitting in the car on her way back, Steph's mind was still working on her personal problems. She hadn't been able to let go of neither her mother's bitter voice nor Jeff's soothing tones. Jeff was right though -- she had to talk to Ruth. Past grievances had to be buried if Steph was to move forward. She had to finish her old fights to be able to sort out the problems laying ahead. To be able to plan her life with Kate, she could not have old, unsolved disputes in her baggage.

"I will call her tomorrow," she said to herself. "I'll plead if I have to."

She grinned feeling pleased of her decision. The drive suddenly became more pleasant and the scenery more striking. She glanced at the fields and the groves of trees being displayed in the shadows of the fading day outside the car window. Smiling, she gave herself time to enjoy it. Casually, she rested her elbow against the car window, her chin in the palm of her hand and hummed a familiar tune.

In an instant, from out of the dusky light, from out of nowhere, she found dark, glistening eyes staring at her. Fate was about to take them both on another path of life. Instinctively she hit the brakes but the outcome was inevitable. Screaming, Steph tried to jerk the heavy Explorer away from the large animal. Breaks screeched and somewhere in the chaos everything became bright.

*****

 
 
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