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Nikki sat in the café staring at the blank white of the computer screen. The blinking cursor mocking her.

Fucking thing, Nikki thought. Why does it have to taunt me? Do its best to make me feel inadequ --

The bell on the café’s door chimed interrupting Nikki’s thoughts. She looked up, grateful for the distraction, and saw what she could only describe as one of the finest asses she’d ever seen clad in tight, form-fitting blue jeans. Nikki’s eyes traveled further up the woman’s back, skimming over the taut back muscles encased in a tight white t-shirt, and saw that she had lustrous dark brown hair. Nikki’s heretofore dormant imagination quickly roared to life as it conjured up images of her hands running through those tresses, grabbing handfuls, pulling back slightly so as to force the woman’s head back, leaving her neck exposed to Nikki‘s lips, tongue, and teeth…

“Ahem.”

The sound of a throat clearing tore Nikki out of her daydream. Her eyes slowly focused on a pair of breasts being restrained by white cotton. Nikki knew immediately to whom those breasts belonged; she almost whimpered.

“Up here.”

Nikki’s eyes rose reluctantly and were met by flashing green. Despite the woman’s obvious anger, Nikki smiled -- the front of the brunette was even better than the rear.

Helen pushed her sunglasses up on her head and glared down at the short-haired woman who had been ogling her for the better part of three minutes. As she met the woman’s brown eyes Helen couldn’t help but appreciate their depth, then the woman smiled nearly causing Helen to abandon her resolve. Rude? Yes, she thought. Sexy? Most definitely. Potential? Hardly, she concluded. Still, one could have fun…

“Have we had sex before?” Helen asked innocently, barely concealing her annoyance.

Nikki gaped, taken aback by the question. “I’m sorry?”

Helen leaned down so she was eye level with Nikki. “Well, it seemed to me by the way you were helping yourself that surely we had met before.”

Nikki’s mind reeled. She tried to grab for any coherent thought as Helen’s nearness and subtle perfume began to invade her senses. Suddenly, Helen smiled at her and Nikki abandoned the struggle. Jesus Christ! That smile…That Scottish accent... Nikki knew she was beginning to lose it.

Helen flashed Nikki that killer smile, placed a finger under Nikki’s chin, and shut her mouth for her.

“Nah,” Helen stated. “Something tells me that if we’d had sex I’d have remembered it.”

The chiming of the door signaled Helen’s exit and shook Nikki from her temporary paralysis.

 

***

 

The following day found Nikki back at the cafe sat at her usual table, laptop open, ever-present cup of coffee at hand. Her normal mood of relaxed contemplation still hadn’t made an appearance and she sat in her chair desperately gripping the sides of the laptop’s screen as if praying for an answer or inspiration. Yet no matter how she tried to force the issue Nikki knew she wouldn’t get a damn thing done that day; her mind constantly crept back to the infuriating and beautiful Scot who had given her a verbal slap upside the head. Serves you right for staring.

Nikki shook her head to clear it. She had to admit that while a part of her didn’t want the woman to show up again, a larger part of her was hoping for a chance at another confrontation. If there was one thing she loved it was getting the last word.

As Nikki was planning all the ways she would give the Scot her comeuppance her cell phone rang, shattering the peace of the café. Avoiding numerous dirty looks, Nikki stepped outside.

“Hiya, Trish,” she answered.

“Hi, Nik. Hope I’m not interrupting?” Trish ventured.

Nikki chuckled. “Oh, yes, earth-shattering work being done over here.”

“What?”

“Nothing,” Nikki said. “What can I do for you, Trish?”

“Well, I need to call in a favor, Nikki,” she began. “Mum’s ill, in hospital, and I can’t put off going anymore…”

Nikki groaned inwardly and lit a cigarette. She hadn’t known Trisha’s mother was even ill. In fact, Nikki couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a conversation with Trisha that consisted of more than a hello/goodbye as they passed each other at the club; one coming, one going.

Trisha continued, “I know that you wanted time off to write -- “

“Trish,” Nikki interrupted. “There’s no need to ask. Of course I’ll work for you. I’ve been getting fuck all done anyway. I could use a break from my break.”

They shared a laugh. Trisha sighed with relief.

“Thank you, Nikki. I’ll owe you one.”

“Yeah, yeah. Give my best to your mother -- I’ve always loved her, you know?”

Trish smiled and Nikki could hear it in her voice. “Yes, it was mutual, I can assure you. Listen, I hate to cut this short, but I need to run. There’s a private party on for tonight, but that’s about it, should be quiet.”

Nikki stubbed out her cigarette. “Okay, thanks. You better go… and take care, Trisha.”

Trisha. Nikki pocketed her phone as she smiled at the thought of her ex-partner. It gave her a sense of peace that they had been able to maintain their friendship after a rather contentious break-up. Not that they had really been angry with one another; they had found that their anger was directed mostly toward themselves for not having had the courage to admit that the love they shared had gradually disappeared. A secret, yet shared, self-loathing sought expression in petty fights and jealousies, quickly becoming the gorilla in the room neither of them wished to acknowledge.

Nikki finished gathering her things and headed for the door. She breathed a small sigh of relief that those times were long gone.

 

***

 

“Helen, I have just seen the most gorgeous creature!” Claire exclaimed as she stumbled back into the VIP lounge.

Helen caught her best friend’s arm, stopping her from careening into the lounge’s bar.

“Oh, is that all, Claire?” Helen laughed. “I’d thought you flushed yourself.”

Claire glared at Helen for a moment then promptly fell to pieces laughing.

“Seriously, though,” Claire caught her breath. “Tall, dark, emminently fuckable -- behind the bar downstairs."

"Emminently fuckable, huh?”

“Yes!” Claire giggled. “Even you would be swayed, Helen.”

Helen feigned hurt. “Seeing as it’s your birthday, friend, I’ll let that comment slide. I think the fact that you can even be impertinent at this stage means you haven’t had nearly enough to drink.”

Helen pushed Claire toward their friends crowded at the other end of the lounge. “Now, go join your neglected guests and I’ll get the drinks!”

Helen watched as Claire struggled to maintain her balance, faltering slightly as one of her heels made uneven contact with the floor. Claire righted herself and plopped down on a sofa. Helen gave a satisfied smile, two more rounds and we drag her out. Happy, happy birthday, Claire.

Slipping out of the VIP lounge, Helen decided that a trip to the ladies’ room would be wise before getting stuck in.

 

***

 

Colored by the heat of bodies grinding, the air in the club was thick and humid, seemingly pulsating with every thrum of the bass. Nikki stepped out from behind the bar and ran the back of her hand across her forehead. She smiled, a bit heady from the energy; she could’ve sworn that the lust and intoxication swirling about the place was palpable. Even though it was a Thursday, and Trish had promised a tame evening, the club was packed to the hilt.

Nikki moved confidently through the crowd on her way to the bathroom. She avoided a myriad of admiring and downright predatory stares, but rolled her hips in time to the music as she made her way just to give herself a quiet thrill. Not tonight, ladies. Still, one could have fun...

Her easygoing attitude soon met an abrupt end as she wandered through the bathroom door and locked eyes with the last person she expected to see.

"My, my, my," Nikki grinned. "All tarted up for a night on the town, I see."

Nikki broke Helen's glare and allowed her eyes to rove unabashedly down the length of Helen's fit body. She bit the inside of her cheek to try to stop her mouth from involuntarily dropping open.

Helen's blood-red dress fastened behind her neck and flowed down in a vee-shape, two separate strips widening to cover each of her breasts before cinching at her petite waist; the dress kept a tight line from the waist down and ended at mid-thigh. Nikki happily noted that the dress simply didn't allow for a bra. All I'd have to do is just push that flimsy material to the side..., she mused. Her eyes continued down Helen's slim, bare legs, taking in her delicate ankles, feet, and manicured toes in matching red strapped heels. When she managed to look back up at Helen she was greeted with blazing green eyes.

As soon as the strange woman spoke, Helen swallowed her surprise and quickly summoned anger. The nerve! Helen watched as Nikki's eyes roamed and took the opportunity to really look at her.

Despite her outrage at being looked over as if she were a piece of meat -- for the second time, she noted -- Helen found herself frighteningly attracted to the tall woman. Nikki's tall, athletic frame was clothed in a tight gunmetal-grey silk blouse which had its first four buttons undone, accentuating her full breasts and allowing a perfect view of her delicious, tan neck. Delicious, Helen? What the hell is wrong with you? Helen looked down at Nikki's impossibly long legs encased in matching grey pinstripe trousers and bit her lip. Wonder what it would feel like with those wrapped around my -- STOP IT! Helen raised her eyes just before Nikki did. She couldn't be sure anymore whether the anger she felt was solely for Nikki or her reaction to Nikki.

"Tarted up?" Helen retorted. "Clever."

Nikki shrugged and sidled past Helen to the sink. "Just call 'em like I see 'em."

Helen turned on a heel and faced Nikki's back. Their eyes connected in the mirror.

"Just what the hell is that supposed to mean?"

"Let's not state the obvious, darling," Nikki smirked. She looked down and began washing her hands, not so subtly dismissing Helen.

Helen ignored the hint and walked toward Nikki. "How dare you!"

Nikki laughed and moved for a towel, but Helen blocked her path.

"Here I am," Helen's voice steadily rose proportionately to her exasperation, her accent thickened, "my personal space now twice violated by your inability to keep your hormones in check, and you've got the nerve to call me names?"

Nikki stared at Helen, incredulous. "You've got to be kidding me, right? Violated your personal space? What with, my eyes? Clearly, you are disturbed!"

She side-stepped Helen and dried her hands. She found herself wishing that Helen would move away, walk out, because the amount of flesh she had exposed, her scent, and her angry Scottish lilt were turning Nikki on more than she anticipated. When it became apparent that Helen was going to stand her ground, Nikki quickly rounded on her, forcing Helen to take a step back.

Helen found herself trapped between Nikki's body and the counter; Nikki's breasts just centimeters from her own. When she looked back up into Nikki's eyes, she gasped, totally unprepared for the naked desire shimmering in the dark pools. To Helen, Nikki looked dangerously sexy; in that same instant, Helen knew she was wet.

"You want to know what I think?" Nikki asked, her voice low and husky. She didn't wait for an answer. "No, what I know? I know all this bluster really isn't for my benefit, but for yours."

Nikki gazed at Helen's mouth and traced her finger along Helen's bottom lip. Helen placed her palms on the edge of the counter, bracing for support.

"See, you're scared," Nikki continued. "You're attracted to me just as I am to you and it's got you scared as hell." Nikki licked her lips. "Why?"

Helen gave a small groan, but quickly recovered herself. "Oh, look, don't be ridicul --"

Nikki cut Helen off by leaning in and flicking her tongue against Helen's bottom lip. Helen groaned louder this time and crushed her mouth against Nikki's. Their mouths opened in unison and their tongues met halfway. Nikki pressed her body against Helen's and it felt like an electric shock. Helen wound her arms around Nikki's neck and ran her fingers through Nikki's hair, gently scraping the scalp with her fingernails as she went. Helen couldn't stop a shiver of arousal from snaking up her spine. Feeling Helen's response, Nikki ground her hips against Helen's and slipped her arms around Helen's waist.

Nikki shifted, never breaking the kiss, using her knee to separate Helen's legs. Helen whimpered from the welcome pressure and moved against Nikki's thigh. Nikki slid her palms over the front of Helen's dress and felt her hard nipples through the material. She lightly pinched them at the same time causing Helen to throw her head back.

"God!" Helen gasped.

Nikki seized the opportunity and ran her tongue from the base of Helen's throat to just beneath her chin before capturing her mouth in another searing kiss.

With shaking hands Helen began to unbutton Nikki's blouse. Her hands quickly worked their way inside the shirt and pressed up against Nikki's full breasts, the weight of them in her palms ratcheting up her arousal. She teased the nipples through the black lace and it was Nikki's turn to break the kiss.

"Yesss..." she hissed as Helen lapped the length of her tongue against Nikki's jugular vein.

Nikki shifted again, running her hand up Helen's thigh and under her dress. Helen bit down on Nikki's clavicle as she felt Nikki's fingers find their way under her now completely drenched thong. They moaned together at the sensation of Nikki's finger sliding between Helen's slick folds.

"Do you know how wet you are?" Nikki gasped.

Helen murmured incoherently into Nikki's neck then groaned as Nikki pulled out of the embrace. Helen's heavy-lidded eyes met Nikki's; they were both thoroughly drunk on each other.

Nikki removed her hand from under Helen's dress, much to Helen's dismay, and raised her fingers to her mouth. Helen's eyes widened as she watched Nikki slide each finger into her mouth, licking them clean. Unconsciously, Helen licked her lips in response.

Nikki's eyes drifted closed as she tasted Helen for the first time. I have got to have this woman, she thought. But not tonight. She opened her eyes and took in Helen's swollen lips and wide, green eyes. Nikki noted they had changed to a deeper shade of green and swore she felt something tugging at her stomach. She decided to ignore it.

Puzzled by Nikki's sudden thoughtful expression, Helen frowned.

"I concur. We haven't had sex before," Nikki calmly stated. "Because I definitely would've remembered the way you taste."

Nikki smiled smugly as she walked out of the bathroom and rebuttoned her blouse. Yet, somehow, she didn't feel as satisfied as she thought she should. Last word, indeed.

The slamming of the bathroom door brought Helen back to earth. As she struggled to make sense of what had just happened she discovered the bass from the music being played in the club was drumming through the walls, keeping time with the beat of her heart.

 

***

 

Helen woke in a cold sweat for the fifth night in a row. Lying in the darkened room, she took several deep breaths to try to get her breathing under control. Her mind calmed eventually and she became aware of the steady snore of the body next to her. She was, at once, both relieved and ashamed. True, it had been the fifth night she'd dreamt of the dark-haired stranger from the cafe and bar, but, still, she could find comfort in the fact that she hadn't cheated -- technically; and, as she was wont to do when she found herself in sticky situations, Helen remembered (no, clung to) the importance of details.

So, technically, zero penetration. There's one scrap of dignity and pride saved. The nagging realization that she had not been the one to halt the sexual encounter in the bar's bathroom, Helen quickly pushed aside. She reminded herself that the past was the past; no point in thinking of what might have happened if the woman hadn't broken contact. Helen gave a wry smile, thankful for, yet not oblivious to, her gift of rationalization. A weird one-off, that's what it was. Encounter categorized and filed away. Job done.

So why have you dreamed of her every night since?

Helen sighed heavily, turning on her side to study her bed partner's lean, muscular back. She ran a fingertip along the spine, following its length until it disappeared beneath the sheet. The body stirred and shifted forward onto its stomach. Lately, sex seemed more of a historical fact than a reality between them and Helen had hardly thought it mattered... until now. No, what mattered was love and she was in love with her partner. Wasn't she? Five years on and that counted for something. Didn't it? Helen decided that it did.

She slid her hand between her lover's legs and began to caress gently. The body stirred, reacting to Helen's ministrations. Helen increased her efforts. The body turned to her now fully alert. Helen's lover pulled their bodies close and Helen felt fingers between her legs, testing her readiness. The body was on top of her now, lips kissed her roughly and Helen screwed her eyes shut tight. She knew what was coming and had not failed to notice that it wasn't turning her on as it should have.

Shit, Helen thought. She had started this and now had to make good. As her lover's lips met her breasts Helen thought of the stranger, picturing it was the woman now touching her body. It worked like a charm; Helen grew wetter with every stroke of her lover's tongue across her nipples. Helen gasped when her lover entered her. She ran her hands through the dark hair of the body on top of her, imagining, willing, it to be the dark, short hair of her mystery woman. Helen moaned as she envisaged the woman taking her roughly, pumping in and out of her, making Helen hers as the body on top of her was now trying to do. That thought alone brought Helen to a quick, white-hot orgasm. Her body shivering and shaking, Helen wanted to call out the name of the stranger, but she had to settle for the only name she knew at the moment.

"Sean!"

Sean's body stiffened and grunted caught up in its own climax. He rolled of off Helen, his breath coming shallow and quick. Seeing that it was still dark outside, he allowed himself the luxury of slipping back to sleep, sure that Helen was about to do the same.

Helen placed her arm across her eyes, wanting to forget that she had just had her very first orgasm while having sex with Sean. The first without having to fake it in five years. Helen cringed, not wanting to consider the ramifications of that realization. The overwhelming need to wash Sean off her skin caused Helen to quietly remove herself from the bed. She stepped under the hot water and stood for a moment, letting the water cascade down her body, an instant salve. An image of her stranger standing under a shower with rivulets of water flowing down a nude, toned body popped into Helen’s mind unexpectedly. The subsequent rush of arousal caught Helen’s breath in her throat; she placed a hand on the cool tile to steady herself.

Christ. I don’t even know her name.

 

***

 

The clocked ticked over to 3:01 just in time for Nikki to make note of it. As a rule, she would aver that regret was not an emotion to which she subscribed; yet, over the past five sleepless nights, Nikki and regret had become fast friends.

“Regret and bloody insomnia,” Nikki complained aloud to no one.

Nikki took a deep breath and lay back on the bed, forcing herself to relax and clear her mind. The fragile peace, lasting all of thirty seconds, shattered when her mind started replaying her two highly memorable meetings with the Scottish beauty. Not for the first time Nikki kicked herself for walking away from the woman during their encounter in the bathroom. To say that she was surprised to see the Scot standing there in the bathroom of her and Trisha’s club would be a gross understatement. It wasn’t just that she was standing there; it was the who, what, when, where, why, and how of the whole scene. Considering what that woman was wearing I did well to recover, Nikki congratulated herself for a hollow victory.

Groaning, she shoved her head under a pillow. Why hadn’t she stayed, swallowed her pride, and gone along for the once-in-a-lifetime ride? The woman had been ready and willing and it would have been better than good, Nikki could tell that just by way they kissed. But, no, you had to make a bloody point... to a stranger, no less! Every way she looked at it, Nikki concluded that the brief semi-tryst was, ultimately, an exercise in futility. She knew she should write it off, let it go. She knew that she would most likely never see the woman again. At the very least, she knew she’d have a good story to tell.

Nikki shot up in bed and grabbed her laptop from the nearby chair. Waiting for the computer to boot up, Nikki smiled to herself. She would get something out of this mess after all. She’d write the mysterious Scot out of her system.

And make a few pounds in the process…

 

***

 

Nikki was sure it wasn't her. No, it was the office that was oppressively hot.

"You keep pacing like that and two things will happen: one, you're going to wear a hole in the floor -- which would be regrettable considering it's such a beautiful, expensive --"

"Trish...," Nikki growled.

Trisha grinned from her place on the sofa and readjusted her skirt before continuing. "Two, you'll give yourself a heart attack." She stood and stopped Nikki mid-stride. "And that would be regrettable considering all the people waiting downstairs."

Nikki stared back at Trisha, helpless and vaguely panicked. "It's too much. It's just a little book; a small story... inconsequential..."

Trisha laughed outright. "Nikki, please! It's your debut novel and it's receiving fantastic reviews. You've every right to celebrate. In fact, it's mandatory."

Nikki snorted derisively and studied the floor. Of all the scenarios she'd played out in her head revolving around the possible publication of her first novel, fear and hesitation upon the brink of success hadn't figured in. If she could think clearly for a moment she knew she could find the ridiculousness in being so dismissive of this occasion, of her book. My book. Published. Reviewed. Noted. Praised. Celebration. Shaking hands. Pats on the back. Jokes. Champagne. Nausea.

"Trisha, move. I'm going to be sick." Nikki pushed Trisha aside, stepped into the adjoining bathroom, and slammed the door.

Impervious to Nikki's retching, Trisha spoke to the door. "You deserve this, Nik. Your book is incredible."

Nikki put the toilet seat down and rested her head in her hands. She knew she had to stop delaying the inevitable; there was, after all, no way Trisha would let her sneak out the back exit. She knew she had to pull herself together and enjoy the night, her night. And, if she was honest with herself, she knew that part of this stalling was to avoid the possibility of seeing her" Despite the elation and pride swelling in her chest, Nikki had to admit she was vacillating between the hope and the despair of the mere possibility that Mystery Woman had read her novel, recognized Nikki from the book jacket, decided to make an appearance, and confess to Nikki that she had felt the same undeniable attraction.

Nikki quickly stifled a nervous giggle.

Trisha heard the slight laugh and fleetingly thought that Nikki may have just driven herself to a breakdown. "Nik? You okay?"

"Fine. Just give me a sec." Nikki stood and ran the tap. She cupped the cool water in her hand and brought it to her mouth, determined to rinse away the acrid tastes of paranoia and self-doubt. Idiotic, fanciful, romantic notions, Nikki. Great for a story; real life, not so much. Anyway, it's been over a year... She spat out the water forcefully, satisfied at the sound.

Regarding her reflection, Nikki felt resolute; seizing upon the feeling she swung open the bathroom door, taking Trisha aback.

Trisha smiled. "Ready then?"

Nikki kissed her ex on the cheek and offered her arm. "Absolutely."

 

***

 

Helen absentmindedly flipped through the magazines on Claire's coffee table. Just to stave off boredom, she concentrated on maintaining a low level of exasperation at the fact that her best friend was taking forever to get ready for their night out.

"Claire!" She called toward the hallway, "Tell me you didn't make me rush over here to wait while you preen at yourself in the mirror."

A nondescript thump and the distinct clink of perfume bottles preceded Claire's retort, "Surely you're not implying that you've never kept me waiting while you preen, Ms. Stewart?"

"Yeah, yeah, yeah..." Helen mumbled and slapped another magazine back onto the table. She picked up a book lying on the opposite side of the table and ran her hand over the cover. Exalt by Nikki Wade. Leafing through, Helen finally settled on a random page and read:

I knew a relationship was out of the question, but that knowledge, which would absolve us both of responsibility or obligation, did nothing to dull the ache that had settled in the pit of my stomach. No matter how I fought, the woman had left her mark, burned her essence through skin, tendon, muscle, bone, to finally settle in the marrow. The struggle to resist this invasion was wearing me down. And, in the end, the answer was simple. Surrender.

Though we were divided by miles, I knelt before her, helpless in the face of a love that came on without warning, obliterating pride and ego, and gave myself up. For you, I bear this exquisite pain. For you, I give up pretense. For you, I promise devotion though devotion will only fall short. For you --

"So, what do you think?" Claire's voice boomed as she breezed into the living room with a twirl.

Helen yelped and dropped the book. "Christ, Claire!"

Claire beamed. "It's the outfit, yeah? Irresistible, right?"

"You scared the shit out of me," Helen scowled. She stood and collected herself, smoothing out imaginary wrinkles. Silently, she cursed herself for getting wrapped up in the book and not paying attention.

Although she was admiring Claire's ensemble, Helen's mind drifted back to what she had read. Unexpectedly, disturbingly, she felt an irrational twinge of jealousy toward the woman who had inspired such adoration from the author of the book. She certainly never felt anything close to that level of love for Sean and she knew, with the same amount of certainty, that Sean didn't feel that for her. Anyway, that woman could very well be a fabrication; just the author's dream. She couldn't help but feel that that type of passion was relegated solely to storybooks. Jesus, Helen, rather cynical, eh?

Helen shook herself from her abstraction and smiled at Claire. "Beautiful yet again, Ms. Walker. Shall we?"

"Yes, we shall!" Claire exclaimed as she grabbed Helen's arm and hauled her to the front door.

As she was pushed over the threshold Helen spoke over her shoulder to Claire, "Where did you say we were headed?"

"Book release party-thingy," Claire explained. "The firm was asked to vet legalities and whatnot and everyone that worked on the project got an invite. So, here we go!"

The front door closed with an emphatic thud leaving the room bereft of life. The book lay on the floor between the coffee table and sofa where Helen had dropped it, the back cover open, revealing a beautiful, brooding photograph of Nikki Wade

 

***

 

She wove her way through the crowd, heading on a steady tack for her fourth flute of champagne. Allowing herself a moment as she deftly sidestepped random bodies offering congratulatory nods, Nikki sucked in a deep breath. The party wasn't so bad. Never mind the fact that she could count on two hands the exact amount of people she knew in the club and, as the hours wore on, was resisting the urge to wince whenever some friend-of-a-friend glad-handed her. Nikki smiled to herself as she recalled lyrics from a song which seemed to suit the situation perfectly:

The sycophantic slags all say,
"I knew him first and I knew him well!"

Finally reaching the bar, Nikki signaled to Trisha for her drink. Their eyes met, they grinned at each another, and Nikki mouthed a silent thank you. She blinked back unexpected tears and suspected Trisha had to do the same; the importance of this moment, the fulfillment of a dream for Nikki, was not lost on either woman. Once again, Nikki found herself grateful for Trisha's stable presence in her life, a slight lament for the fact that their relationship hadn't turned out to be "forever" echoed within her. So, a ghost of a relationship would be Nikki's companion in place of a real one. And, in spite of such mood-killing melancholy, Nikki laughed; her moment of introspection that much more poignant for the atmosphere of constant chatter and music. Amidst the revelry that could have gone on with or without her, Nikki had just made her own night -- appearance of Mystery Woman, or lack thereof, be damned.

Trisha slid the glass into Nikki's hand without a word while Nikki surveyed the sizable crowd. The champagne slipped easily down her throat, the feeling so undeniably luxurious and right that Nikki believed it an auspicious sign, for both the evening and the future. It's either that or simply the fact that it's alcohol, she smirked to herself, deciding that this would be her final drink of the night.

A nudge to her right side stopped Nikki's attempt to drain the last of her champagne. She turned and locked eyes with a beautiful redheaded woman who simply stared back, mouth agape. As they looked at one another Nikki felt that she must know the woman from somewhere. She rifled through recent experiences, people she had spoken to regarding her novel, her mind dense from alcohol. When it became obvious that the woman was incapable of speech, Nikki filled the void.

"I'm sorry, but do I know you from somewhere?" She kicked herself for sounding like a pick-up artist, but the question begged to be asked. Nikki plastered on a smile to hide her awkwardness.

At this the redhead recovered and returned the smile. "Yes, we met once before, actually." She offered her hand to Nikki and continued, "Claire Walker. I work at Clifford Chance. We did some legal work for your novel? Not to worry about it, though -- the meeting, that is. It was brief, at your publishers. We were coming out of a conference room as you were going in and polite introductions were made in the hall. End of story."

Nikki sighed with relief and shook Claire's hand. "Good. I was worried for a moment." She held up her glass. "Too much champagne. Speaking of which, can I get you a drink?"

"Is the champagne available to all or just the lady of the hour?"

Nikki reddened slightly at the flirtatious compliment. "Available to all, thank God!"

Claire laughed. "I'll have two, then." She craned her head around and searched the crowd. "I came in with my friend but seemed to have lost her on the way to the bar."

Nikki waved to Trisha and turned back to Claire. "Well, we'll wait here for her. Everyone ends up at the bar at some point." She quickly finished what was left of her own champagne and set the flute aside.

Once Trisha had made her way over, Nikki completed the introductions. "Also, if you wouldn't mind, we need two glasses of bubbly?"

"Nik, it's your night, you know. You don't have to ask, but merely demand," Trisha laughed. As she poured the golden liquid, Trisha wondered if there would be any incentive at all in the world that would cause Nikki to abandon the humility that contributed to her irresistibility. She handed the glasses over to Nikki, drawing a "thanks," and decided that there probably wasn't.

Nikki turned from the bar, attempting to hand Claire her glass when she heard it. After all this time she had thought it was her overwrought imagination... the timbre of that voice, the cadence of the words... warm, comforting, sexy... She would know it anywhere and, right now, it was coming from directly behind her.

"Claire! Finally! You owe me liquor for abandoning me to that throng of pricks in suits." Helen stood in front of a very amused Claire, hands planted on her hips.

"Already taken care of!" Claire nodded toward Nikki.

Helen tried to get another snarky comment out, but found her mouth frozen as she saw the object of her dreams and sleepless nights for the past year hand Claire a glass of champagne. The dark-haired woman turned to her, a bemused look playing across her face, brown eyes twinkling with what she could have sworn was a challenge, and presented another glass of champagne.

"Well," Claire began, "Allow me introduce you to the woman who facilitated that, as you so eloquently put it, 'throng of pricks in suits.' Helen, this is Nikki Wade. Nikki, please meet my best friend, Helen Stewart."

Helen felt her mouth go dry and a shiver slither up her spine when Nikki smiled suddenly and stunningly, held out the glass, and spoke softly. "For you."

 

***

 

Helen Stewart. Helen. Stewart. Nikki's mind reeled.

Their fingertips had brushed when Helen took the glass from her and, in that momentary touch, a world of possibilities had exploded in Nikki's mind even as the current one fell away. She couldn't begin to consider all the possibilities as the realization hit her again, the same relentless wave washing over her -- She is here. She is looking at me, seeing me as I am her. She feels it, this. She knew there was no mistaking the surprise and desire that had flickered in Helen's eyes when they had briefly touched. The distant hope that her Mystery Woman had thought about her just as much since their last meeting flared up inside of Nikki. Another drink was required -- immediately.

Helen swallowed the champagne in one go and decided that something decidedly stronger was needed for the occasion. Vodka sounded divine; a bottle, preferably, if only to drown out the words echoing in her head. For you. Nikki Wade. Her stranger now had a name. Nikki Wade. She wanted to speak it aloud, feel it roll off her tongue. Helen hadn't before thought that saying someone's name could be a sensual experience, but, seeing as she already had firsthand knowledge of Nikki's potential as a lover, Helen didn't want to discount it.

Helen forced herself to engage in the light conversation between Claire and Nikki. From what she could tell, Claire was asking questions about how it felt to have her first novel published, how she was enjoying the party, etc... All questions which Nikki was valiantly trying to entertain with interest, but which, Helen surmised, she had had to answer all night long.

As soon as the conversation hit its inevitable awkward lull, Nikki turned to get another drink, not realizing how far they had been pushed from the bar while talking... Well, as Claire had been talking while she and Helen had been avoiding eye contact. Nikki excused herself, indicating the bar with a flick of her head, but just as she stepped away, she felt a hand on her arm.

"Nikki, wait. I'll go with you." Helen raised her empty champagne glass and smiled, her tongue tucked in behind her teeth. The name had been spoken naturally and it had felt right to say it; Helen was simultaneously pleased and apprehensive. She felt Nikki shiver under her touch, igniting an arousal that had been confined to late nights and daydreams, but which roared to life as if their encounter in the bathroom of this same club had happened just the night before.

Then Nikki covered her hand with her own. The touch, rife with warmth and promise, caused Helen to sigh. Was it possible to be relaxed and intensely aroused at the same time? Sure, it is, you idiot. You've just never had the pleasure of feeling this way with Sean. Helen scolded herself and quickly pushed the thought of her boyfriend out of her head.

Nikki found a vacant spot at the bar and guided Helen to it, having shifted their position so her hand rested at the small of Helen's back. It was Helen's turn to shudder and Nikki grinned, enjoying her own surge of arousal, letting it settle in. She leaned forward and spoke near Helen's ear. "What are you having?"

Helen closed her eyes, her mouth opened slightly. "Vodka, straight up."

Nikki's husky chuckle settled in the depths of Helen's stomach. "Excellent suggestion."

Helen observed Nikki's interaction with the blonde woman behind the bar as she ordered their drinks. Again, a flash of jealousy crossed her mind, but she did her best to quash it. From what she could deduce, Nikki and the blonde were either having a relationship or had had one. Panic struck as it occurred to Helen that the woman about whom Nikki had written in her novel may be the blonde woman behind the bar. Jealousy unsuccessfully quashed. Jesus, Helen, what right have you to be jealous anyway? It's not as if you're seeing this Nikki. It's not as if you don't have a boyfriend waiting for you at home... Even that sounded lame to her ears.

Catching Trisha's raised eyebrow and glance in Helen's direction, Nikki was thankful for the fact that the bar was busy as it would prevent Trisha from asking too many questions. She had no answers herself, only a mystery that she was looking forward to unraveling. She handed Helen her shot, raising her own in a toast.

"To beautiful Scottish strangers and an auspicious evening."

Helen grinned. "To sexy, dark-haired mystery women and free alcohol." She slammed the shot back, mortified by what had just come out of her mouth. No matter how she put it to herself she couldn't deny her attraction to Nikki Wade and something had to be done about it. Helen set the shot glass on the bar and stared into it. Best to do this tonight and be done with it once and for all.

Nikki downed her shot and waited for Helen to meet her gaze. When she finally did, Nikki saw the want, the need. Helen radiated heat and Nikki knew where this was headed. She wanted to protest, wanted to say that this wasn't the way they should begin. But we've already begun this way. Somewhere in the distant reaches of her mind, Nikki could hear the tolling of the bell of grand mistakes and willed herself deaf.

Despite misgivings, Nikki held out her hand to Helen and nodded toward the stairs at the back of the club. Once their fingers entwined, Nikki started them on the only path she could.

 

***

 

It was fitting, she thought, that the woman of her dreams would be unattainable; fitting, and poetic, in a tragic sense. Nikki lit another cigarette and stared blankly at the wall opposite. The office now quiet and dark in contrast to the party downstairs; yet, she swore she could feel the anticipation, desperation, and, finally, longing still hanging in the air... along with the faintest trace of Helen's perfume. She took a deep drag and let her eyes drift closed as she exhaled, recent events rampaging helter-skelter through her mind as she gave in to the temptation of analysis.

Try as she might, Nikki couldn't find any satisfaction in the fact that Helen had thrown herself at her once the office door had been closed and locked. As much as she had tried to let her doubts go, Nikki found herself unable to reciprocate Helen's lust; something about its frantic nature rang untrue. Befuddled by Helen’s hot, insistent, deep kisses, Nikki wasn’t aware that she had been pushed up against the desk, her shirt unbuttoned and pulled from her pants, until she managed to tear her mouth from Helen’s in a bid to draw breath. Realizing just how fast things were moving along had given Nikki pause. Surprised to find herself reticent, Nikki shook her head as if to clear it and tried to find her voice.

“Helen,” she rasped.

Helen had begun kissing her way down Nikki’s neck, stopping to flick her tongue against the exposed collarbone before she murmured, “No talking now.”

Nikki had gulped when Helen’s mouth moved lower. She managed to lift her hands to either side of Helen’s face so she could gently lift it and look at her. “Please. We have to stop.”

The arousal in Helen’s deep green eyes had given way to confusion when she saw the seriousness etched across Nikki’s face. She took a step back suddenly, feeling exposed and embarrassed.

“I-I don’t understand,” Helen stated. “I got the distinct impression this was something you wanted, something we both want.”

She had struggled to find adequate words and an even tone with which to answer Helen, but she had ended up simply blurting out, “I don’t anymore.”

She had panicked when Helen turned from her, feeling the withdrawal begin. “Helen, please, that didn’t come out quite right. I simply meant that I don’t want a random, fumbling, quick encounter with you again.”

Helen had whipped her head back to glare at Nikki and gave a snort of disbelief. “Just what do you want then, Nikki?”

“More.”

“Meaning?”

Nikki attempted a smile. “Coffee? Lunch? Dinner? Dates, you know. We haven’t seen each other for a year, Helen, and, after what just happened and what has happened, I think it’s pretty safe to say that we have some chemistry, don’t you?”

Helen had stared back at her blankly, so she plowed on. “What I’m saying is I want to get to know you. I want to see where this,” she gestured at the space between them, “goes.”

Not without pain did Nikki remember the way Helen’s eyes had widened in disbelief, soon to be replaced with something inscrutable. Or the way Helen had begun to pace the room like a caged animal.

“No, Nikki, this just isn’t possible.” Helen turned to meet Nikki’s gaze. “I mean, I have a boyfriend -- a long-term relationship.” She laughed nervously, if not with a touch of hysteria. “I’m not even gay, Nikki!”

With that said, the floor seemed to drop from beneath Nikki’s feet. “What?” she whispered.

Helen noticeably gulped. “I won’t date you. I can’t.”

“What was all this then? What was all that in the cafe? In the bathroom a year ago -- a bathroom, I might add, in a fucking gay club?” Nikki hadn't been able to conceal the hurt and anger in her voice. “You make a habit of seducing lesbians, Helen? Fun and games?”

Green eyes flashed then darkened. “Nikki, please! You’re hardly one to accuse me of acting alone in the seduction!”

Nikki refused to acknowledge Helen’s point. She looked down and noticed the state she was in for the first time. With nothing to say Nikki began buttoning her shirt, painfully aware that it had hung open during their exchange. Her mind raced; she couldn’t fathom how she had gotten it all so wrong. Surely the signs were there from Helen. Surely she hadn’t misread them. Boyfriend. Straight. No chance. Nikki racked her brain for any clues whatsoever. How could you have gotten so emotionally involved? As the last button had slid into place, the truly appalling nature of the situation dawned on her.

“It’s all a lie.” Nikki stared down at her hands as if studying them for answers or guidance, forgetting Helen’s presence in the room.

“What’s a lie?” Helen’s question shattered the uneasy silence.

Nikki looked at Helen then, as if she was a ghost. “A lie... the story... you...” Her voice had been sad, but tinged with a kind of wonder. “I’ve written a fairytale.”

Nikki stubbed out her cigarette then quickly lit another. How could I have been so stupid? In hindsight, the problem seemed suddenly clear and she cursed herself upon the realization. At which point she couldn’t be sure, but she had managed to transpose her real Mystery Woman, Helen, with the Mystery Woman of her novel. You’re a victim of your own imagination, Wade. She smiled ruefully at the irony.

She reached for the bottle of Jack Daniels stashed in the bottom drawer of the desk and took a swig. She smirked as she recalled the way Helen had finally just slipped from the office, leaving her lost to her thoughts. Probably thinks you’re a complete nutter, Wade. And she has every reason to. Nikki vowed that she would contact Helen the next day to apologize for her strange behavior -- well, her behavior, period.

After polishing off the whiskey, but before slipping into unconsciousness, she finally admitted to herself that she wanted Helen Stewart in her life, even if it simply meant as a friend. Mercifully, sleep claimed her before she had a chance to wonder about her reasoning

 

***

 

Helen stood, frozen, oblivious to the other customers trying to make their way through the front doors of the bookshop, her eyes transfixed on a subway-size poster of the woman who had haunted nearly all of her conscious, not to mention unconscious, thought for the better part of the past week.

The placard advertised that Nikki was a local author due to be in for a book signing in a month's time. She lives nearby? Helen felt both blessed and cursed that she had never run into Nikki before last year considering she had lived in the area for going on seven years. Panic bubbled up inside of Helen. If Nikki turns into a local celebrity I'll never escape her. She'll be everywhere. Feeling stupid and irrational, she forced her anxiety back and studied Nikki's picture.

Grudgingly, she admitted the photo used for the poster was exquisite. Why does giving even a millimeter feel like capitulation? Nikki had her head bowed slightly, a few locks of jet-black hair fell upon her forehead, while she was looking directly into the camera through thick, long lashes; her lips, moist and shiny, were slightly parted. Helen swore she saw a glint of provocation in Nikki's now impossibly huge, brown eyes, a glimpse of "come on, I dare you." A shiver of arousal coursed through Helen, her nipples hardening underneath the thin blouse and fitted pea coat she was wearing. She marveled that merely a photograph of this woman could make her feel wanton.

She's already everywhere.

A rough jostle from a passerby jolted Helen from her reverie. She tucked her hair behind her ear and stepped into the shop.

 

***

 

I closed my eyes, incapable, and unwilling, to stop the unadulterated passion that was pouring from her body into mine. We writhed against one another, gasps colliding between mouths and tongues. Feeling her skin upon my skin for the first time was nothing short of humbling. In the face of such beauty, egotistical notions faded, mere afterthoughts, meager props taken up by lost souls who fancied play-acting at life.

I entered her slowly, savoring her warmth. Our eyes locked as we moved in effortless unison. I studied her intently, every shudder, half-lidded gaze, and heated moan. She whispered that she wanted it slow and deep and I had no choice but to oblige. She wove her hands through the hair at the nape of my neck, slightly tugging every time I thrust into her. Skin-on-skin would never be enough --

"Hels!"

Helen jumped at the slamming of the front door. She marked her place and shut the book, looking up to greet Sean as he entered the room, muddy boots and all. She frowned, annoyed at his mess and at being interrupted from reading Nikki's novel.

"Sean, your boots?"

"Huh?" Sean looked down at the mess he'd trudged into the living room and tried on his best boyish smile. "I'll clean it later, babe. Now, more importantly, what's for dinner?"

Helen sighed. "I'm not hungry so you'll have to fend for yourself." She grabbed the book and gave him a quick peck on his cheek. "I'm off for a bath, then bed. 'Night."

Sean stood in the center of the room, coat still in hand, listening to Helen's footsteps fade as she climbed the stairs. He wondered if it was something he'd said; then again, she had been a bit distant the past couple of weeks, if not longer. Sitting on the corner of the coffee table, he removed his boots, careful to avoid any more mud coming off. He turned his mind to his take-out options since he didn't want to think about how empty the room felt without Helen in it.

Upstairs, Helen settled into the warmth of the lavender and chamomile scented bathwater. She had lit several candles which cast a lambent glow on the wall next to the claw-footed tub. The light alternated between vivid and hazy, its pattern subject to the steam emanating from the tub. Breathing in deeply, Helen rolled her neck and shoulders, releasing the tension that had burrowed there. Her eyes drifted closed as her head sank back against the edge of the porcelain-enameled bath, a welcome lassitude settled into her bones.

Of their own volition, Helen's thoughts sought, and found, Nikki Wade. What was the use in fighting if that's where they always ended up anyway? She allowed herself to wonder what it would be like to have Nikki here with her now, sitting opposite in the water, sharing this moment. Distinctly, she pictured Nikki's smooth lips, moistened by the humidity swirling around them, twitching just before curling into a smile at something she'd said, a smile that Nikki would produce only for her. Helen would run her fingertips along Nikki's as both of their hands rested on the sides of bath. At the touch, Nikki's smile would fade. She would look on with some satisfaction as Nikki's pupils dilated, giving her a good indication of what she was in for. Before she'd have time to contemplate all the ways she'd pleasure Nikki, the distance between them would have disappeared, eaten up by Nikki's gliding movements as she brought her body into contact with Helen's...

The ringing of the doorbell drew Helen back to the present. She listened for a moment then heard the front door shut. She figured Sean had ordered in. Adjusting so she could sit upright in the water she wiped her hands on a nearby towel before picking up Nikki's book to continue reading. She paused after she found her marked page as the thought struck her that in all the times she and Sean had managed to take a bath together the experiences had been uncomfortable -- awkward, at best. They would jockey for position and, inevitably, Sean's erection would cut short any chance of quality relaxation time. Helen chuckled at the absurdity of the situation, but soon felt herself flush as she recalled her fantasy of sharing a bath with Nikki. You’ve already made your position clear, now just let it go.

With some effort, she pushed both Nikki and Sean from her mind, and resumed reading. She had made a promise to herself earlier that day when she bought Exalt that she would finish it before the night was over.

Why does every page read feel like a step farther away from sanity?

 

***

 

Not more than three miles away, on that very same night, Nikki struggled to find sleep. She hadn’t contacted Helen to make amends like she promised herself she would. No, Nikki decided that the entire interlude should be left as it was: a fleeting moment that existed somewhere well out of the space/time continuum. Yet, there was that nagging feeling of guilt and of some thing left undone. She wanted to trick herself into believing that it was the untidiness of the situation that was making her feel restless. Perhaps she should send flowers? A simple arrangement smacking of friendship and goodwill with a small note included to thank Helen for attending the release party. Tidy.

Unbeknownst to Nikki, not more than three miles away, Helen read the last lines of Nikki’s novel, but found she was reluctant to close the book. At last count, she had read them over five times.

Her green eyes shone then; our love suddenly, fantastically alive and reciprocal. “You are what I want,” she stated simply.

The tears in her eyes mirrored my own. My adoration felt as if it was bursting from every pore, my body a poor, corporal conduit for this energy that strained to soar. She brushed her fingertips over my quivering lips and whispered, “I know.”

Helen burst into tears. She read and re-read; the only thing running through her mind was Nikki’s quiet, broken voice from that night in the office. A lie... the story... you... Nikki’s eyes distant, pained, and unseeing. I’ve written a fairytale.

Sat on the sofa in her living room, Helen knew that she would be able to recall this moment for the rest of her life. For it was the moment she grasped that somehow, some way, she had profoundly fallen in love with Nikki Wade.

 

***

 

What was it about him this morning? Did he always eat his toast that way, crumbs everywhere except for the plate resting on the table directly beneath his mouth? That mouth which now sipped at his coffee instigating a wet slurping noise which reverberated in her skull. She couldn't help but stare at him with barely concealed disdain. When had it all gone wrong?

Naturally, the possibility that Nikki could be just as messy an eater popped into Helen's mind. She considered it and, much to her horror, thought that she might actually find it endearing. Too easily, she slipped into a fantasy of sitting across the table from Nikki and reaching across to gently remove a bit of butter that had settled on Nikki's bottom lip. Their idle morning chatter would come to an abrupt halt as she ran her finger over Nikki's lip and, just as she would start to pull her hand back, Nikki would grab it, deftly licking the butter off her fingertip. Across the table Sean became a blur as Helen's eyes dilated; she shook her head to clear her vision and chastised herself for having Nikki Wade on the brain. She continued to look on as Sean gnawed his toast, deciding that Nikki was probably too neat a person to eat in such a way. Neat... yet passionate...

"Hel?"

Bits of crumb fell from the corners of his mouth as he spoke her name. He looked at her quizzically, trying to read the look on her face.

Helen did her best to stuff down the annoyance that was threatening to rip free of her throat. She smiled, raised an eyebrow. "Hmm?"

"What?"

"What what?" Helen asked, bordering on exasperation.

Sean gave his best crooked smile. "What are you looking at me like that for?"

"Can't I just look at you?" Helen sidestepped.

"Well, sure..." he trailed off and studied her.

Helen tried not to wince under his steady gaze. "But?"

He blinked and took his plate to the sink, leaving behind his dusting of crumbs much to Helen's chagrin.

"But, something tells me that wasn't a look of loving amusement." He leant back against the counter and crossed his arms loosely.

Helen stood, aware of the intimidating stance he had assumed. "I was just watching you eat, Sean, like I've done a million times before." She stepped toward the door, but his hand on her arm stopped her. She looked down at it, then back up at him, but he didn't withdraw.

"What's going on, Helen?" Sean pushed, his tone low.

"Nothing's wrong. I'm off to shower." Helen looked down at his hand. "If you'll kindly let me."

He stared at her for a moment, eyes narrowed. "You've not been right for weeks now -- months, perhaps. I can tell you think I haven’t noticed." He attempted a smile. “I may be a gardener, but I’m not that thick. So, are you going to tell me what‘s going on with you?"

Helen wanted to curse to the heavens. Why did he have to look so goddamn sincere and earnest? She patted the hand that was still on her arm and smiled sadly. It wouldn’t do to just lie to him, not after all this time; she owed him more than that. The conversation, however, would have to wait until later as she was already running late.

Feeling guilty, Helen opted for a bit of the truth. “Thanks for your concern. I actually would like to talk to you, but I can’t just now. I’m late, so could you let me go?”

Sean released his grip on her arm and watched her walk from the kitchen. The impersonal nature of her parting words grated on his nerves. Well aware of Helen’s habit of avoidance he promised himself that they would talk that evening, even if it killed him.

 

***

 

It was with great relief that Helen walked into her office at half past nine later that morning. Away from the oppressive atmosphere of her flat and Sean, Helen could lose herself in work -- that barely contained maelstrom that was heading her very own public relations firm. She had started it after leaving the prestigious London-based Wilder-Coram PR firm with her life's savings up until that point and her personal assistant, Barbara, in tow. Now, five years on, Helen was pleased that her dedication and hours of lost sleep resulted in a career in which she could choose to represent who and what she wished; therefore, it was no coincidence that Helen's company, Chroma:Limited, specialized in representing artists, from painters and photographers to writers and architecture/design firms.

Barbara looked up from her desk as Helen entered and thought again how her boss always seemed to look harried lately. Maternal instincts kicked in for the older woman and she wished Helen would allow her to help in some way, but she knew that hell would most likely freeze over before Helen revealed anything related to her personal life to a work colleague. So, instead, she smiled at Helen and vowed to make her day go as smooth as possible.

"Good morning, Barbara," Helen smiled back.

"Yes, it is, and not just for me judging by the flowers I just put in your office." Barbara nodded toward the door.

 Helen spared Barbara a bewildered look as she stepped into her office. It was likely from Sean, either as an attempt to compel her to speak to him tonight or as an apology for their strange exchange this morning. One step in and Helen froze; instantly, she knew the flowers were not from Sean. There, sat on the edge of her desk, was, unequivocally, the most resplendent arrangement of flowers she had ever seen in her life: in a large, clear cylindrical vase a tall green cymbidium orchid stem was accented by three calla lilies of varying heights strategically placed, the bottom of the vase itself lined with lush ti leaves. The overall effect, it seemed to Helen, was that the lilies were celebrating the presence of the orchid, reaching up to sing its praises, or its arrival. The arrangement was dazzling in both its simplicity and its modernity.

Helen approached her desk as if in a daze. She absently ran her finger along the delicate edge of one of lilies that was still wrapped somewhat tightly, fresh and yet to fully bloom. Nestled among the green petals of the orchid sat a small cream-colored envelope bearing her name in bold, black script. She plucked the envelope from its place and caressed the fine linen stationery. Carefully sliding it open, she removed the note and read:

Helen, just a token to thank you for attending the book release party. My apologies for any misunderstanding. Sincerely, Nikki Wade.

The cold, impersonal nature of the note wounded Helen. it was such a stark contrast to the calm and warmth of the flowers. She turned and saw Barbara in the doorway, poorly trying to disguise her curiosity.

"Barbara, would you get me the number of a club called Chix, please?"

Barbara's eyebrows rose. "Chix?"

Helen smiled at her assistant's shock. "Chix, Barbara."

 

***

 

The phone began ringing as Nikki was halfway up the stairs to the office. "Shit," she muttered and scrambled the rest of the way up.

She managed to unlock the door, drop her bag, and pick up the phone in record time. "Chix," she gasped, out of breath.

"Hello, is this Nikki Wade?"

Nikki took a deep breath to try and regulate her breathing. hearing this particular voice on the other end of the line, however, made it difficult. "Helen, hi. I take you got the flowers?"

"I did. They're... gorgeous, Nikki, thank you. I haven't caught you at a bad time have I?"

"No, no," Nikki replied. She struggled not to let the way Helen said gorgeous go to her head. "Just walked in, well, ran really, as the phone was ringing. Anyway, I'm pleased you like the arrangement."

"Indeed, I do," Helen said. Then, much to both Nikki's and Helen's surprise, Helen blurted, "I insist that you let me take you to lunch as a thank you."

For a moment, Nikki said nothing. She didn't breathe. Was Helen entirely sure what she was asking? Were the flowers not quite friendly, but too suggestive? It's only lunch, you fool. It's what friends do. They have normal, harmless, innocent lunches...

Nikki recovered. "All right, lunch. Where'd you have in mind?"

She thought she heard the slightest sigh of relief before Helen answered, "I was thinking Jardin. One o'clock?"

"One sounds perfect." Nikki smiled at Helen's taste in restaurants. "I'll see you then. Bye, Helen."

"See you soon, Nikki." Helen rang off.

Excitement coursed through Nikki even as she tried to remind herself it was simply lunch; a thank you lunch at that. She could be friends with Helen, she thought. She would be friends with Helen. She repeated that in her head as she set about getting ready to do the club's invoices for the past week.

Half an hour later, she was desperately trying to sink her mind into paperwork and figures, desperately trying to block out how hollow the word "friends" was beginning to sound the more it played on a loop in her brain.

 

***

 

For what seemed like the millionth time Nikki checked her watch: 1:10. For the millionth time she looked across the bustling dining room toward the door and still found no Helen. Sure and steady, annoyance crept its way up her spine. Nikki took a breath and sat back, surely there had to be a plausible explanation. Traffic. Business call. Insert lame excuse here. She exhaled slowly, calming herself; it wouldn’t do to be belligerent on their first date. Lunch date. As friends. God, even she was getting sick of herself. Knowing wine would soothe her nerves, she looked up to signal for the waiter and saw Helen walk through the door.

Seeing Helen in the full light of midday for the first time was nothing short of a revelation to Nikki. How she had ever thought in her right mind that she could be friends with this woman completely escaped her. She took the opportunity to study Helen as she scanned the restaurant, an almost anxious look on her face. She noticed Helen wore a navy blue skirt suit and it dawned on her that she had no idea what Helen did for a living; a businesswoman for sure, but what kind? It was achingly apparent that there was so much she didn’t know, yet longed to know. Far as she was concerned, though, this look suited Helen, transformed her countenance into one undoubtedly powerful and stunningly attractive. Nikki mused that if she ever had to face Helen across a negotiating table she would be persuaded to sign over her soul. She took in Helen’s slightly flushed face and thought that she must have been rushing. Any annoyance or anger dissipated without a second thought. She wondered what other occasions might cause Helen to flush in such a way, but steered her thoughts back to appropriate. Nikki stood and just as she raised her hand to wave Helen over, Helen spotted her.

There were a few occasions when Helen cursed her innate ability to run late for anything and everything and this was one of them. As soon as she stepped inside the door to Jardin, she began looking for Nikki; after just one pass over the dining room she saw Nikki standing at a table off to the right. Their eyes locked and Helen forgot to breathe. Ignoring everyone in the restaurant, Helen looked at Nikki unabashed. From beneath a crisp, white button-up blouse, with sleeves rolled to mid-forearm, Nikki’s tan skin simply glowed. Helen followed the line of buttons down and found the blouse tucked neatly into khaki-colored linen trousers. On the whole, Nikki was casually elegant and undeniably sexy. She met Nikki‘s eyes again, sure that Nikki could see the desire seeping out of her pores, and realized that she didn’t care if Nikki saw clear through her. She didn‘t care if everybody in the restaurant saw through her.

This woman is gorgeous. This woman wants me. And I want her.

At that, Helen grinned widely, enough to make her face ache, and wound her way past other tables toward Nikki.

Nikki couldn’t help but return Helen’s grin, but she quickly dismissed the look of blatant desire she saw in Helen’s eyes; she had to be imagining things.

They gave each other an awkward hug once Helen reached the table.

“I think you’ll find that I’m perpetually late,” Helen began, “so I beg your forgiveness, Nikki, seeing as I asked you here.”

“What’s a little tardiness between friends?” Nikki replied.

Helen hid her apprehension at the word “friends,” but knew that the last time she had spoken to Nikki she hadn’t left much room for there to ever be anything but friendship between them. How was it possible that so much could change in a week’s time?

“You haven’t ordered, have you?” Helen asked.

Nikki shook her head. “I was about to order a glass of wine when I saw you come in.”

The waiter appeared at the table before Helen had a chance to reply. Since they both felt the inherent tension of the situation they quickly agreed on a bottle of wine to share. After the waiter stepped away silence descended, heavy and awkward. They studied their menus and looked everywhere but at each other.

Helen cleared her throat and ventured, “I was surprised to reach you at the club. How is it you’re still working there with your book out?”

The waiter reappeared and poured their wine. Sensing that if they let the waiter get away it might well be another half hour before they could order, they got the formalities out of the way.

Nikki sipped her wine. “Well, there’s not much doing with the book at the moment. I’ve done some interviews and I have a few in-store signings coming up, but, beyond that, life is as it was before the book was published. So, I do the books at the club or tend bar, fill in wherever needed. I’m told there may be some more publicity to do once the book is released in America, but I haven’t heard anymore than that.”

Helen nodded. “I was at the bookstore just yesterday and saw the promo poster. Beautiful photograph.”

“Necessary evil, I suppose.” Nikki blushed. “Did you buy anything good?”

“This book you may have heard of,” Helen smiled. “Called Exalt something or other...”

Nikki choked on her wine and began coughing. “Sorry,” she rasped, “wrong tube.”

Helen chuckled, then became concerned when Nikki couldn’t stop coughing. Nikki grabbed for her glass of water and wiped at the tears in her eyes. Embarrassed by her reaction and subsequent coughing fit, Nikki closed her eyes and concentrated on sipping her water. Once recovered, she blinked away her remaining tears and found Helen looking at her bemusedly.

“You all right?” Helen asked.

Nikki nodded. “Yeah, er, that was the last thing I expected you to say.” She took another sip of her wine trying to stall herself from asking the next question; it was futile. “Have you started it yet?”

“Started it and finished it.” Helen gulped her wine.

“Didn’t you say you just bought it yesterday?”

“I did,” Helen said, boldly meeting Nikki’s gaze.

A new level of tension materialized between them at Helen's admission. 

Who could say how much time passed as Nikki tried to assimilate Helen’s statement? The overwhelming need to understand that that statement meant something more than just the two words spoken came upon Nikki like an inevitable tide. The equally overwhelming need to fight her initial urge quickly followed on its heels. This battle waged within Nikki and, all the while, Helen held her gaze, unwavering.

The waiter set their plates in front of them, but they took no notice.

Nikki breached the silence, her voice low and serious. “That’s quite flattering, Helen. Did you find it one of those reads that you can’t possibly put down or one of those that you feel must finish as fast as possible to spare a further moment of your time?”

Picking up her wine and settling back in her seat, Helen let the question hang in the air between them for a moment. She matched Nikki’s tone so there could be no mistaking her reply. “I found it enthralling. But...”

Nikki sat forward not caring to hide her anticipation.

“More importantly, I found it promising.” She took another sip of wine, savoring the subtle fruit of the sauvignon blanc they were sharing. She could tell, judging by the series of emotions running across Nikki’s face, that she had been heard loud and clear.

“You do realize what you just said,” Nikki confirmed.

“Oh, yes.”

Nikki eased back and smirked. “What happened to boyfriends and long-term relationships?”

Expecting that question, Helen took it in stride. “I couldn’t say. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m on unfamiliar terrain.”

“’Unfamiliar terrain?‘ That’s borderline euphemism, Helen. Talk to me. Honestly,” Nikki urged.

Helen swallowed the remainder of her wine, set the glass down, and leaned forward, elbows on the table. “I feel something for you, Nikki, which I haven’t felt for anyone else before... ever. These feelings overwhelm my sensibilities and have deprived me of sleep for a year.”

Nikki gulped, disbelieving what she was hearing from Helen’s mouth, on a Monday afternoon, in the middle of a crowded restaurant. To say the moment was surreal was putting it mildly.

“I know what I said to you the other night in your office,” Helen went on, “and I can only apologize for the way it sounded. I was scared and shaken, not thinking clearly.” She shook her head. “Jesus, now it just sounds like excuse after excuse... But, please, you have to believe me when I say that I, too, want to see where this goes.”

Helen finished and held her breath. She had put it out there and she could only sit there, open and defenseless; admittedly, what Nikki said now, how she reacted, meant everything.

Nikki closed her eyes, feeling cautiously triumphant at Helen’s admission. It was a strange and unique sense of validation that her instincts regarding Helen’s feelings hadn’t been errant. She had to fight hard to quell the urge to grab Helen up in her arms and reassure her that, although the circumstance may be new for Helen, she would be there for her. She fought against the compulsion to abandon reason and her own emotional safety to get caught up in Helen, finally and totally.

She opened her eyes and looked at Helen, really looked at her. Despite the apprehension that was rolling off of her in waves, she was still the most beautiful creature Nikki had ever seen. Finally, she spoke, “Helen, I want you. Totally, completely -- not by half-measures.”

Nikki saw tears welling in Helen’s eyes and cursed the difficulty of the situation. She wondered if she would regret not just taking Helen as she was, boyfriend or not. She didn’t want to think about what that said about her, ultimately, so she pushed the thought from her mind. Breaking from Helen’s gaze, she looked down at her untouched food and felt a pang of guilt. Sensing that there really wasn’t much more she could or wanted to say, she stood and Helen followed her lead.

“Nikki?”

Nikki embraced Helen tightly, then pulled back to look at her. “Thank you for lunch, Helen.”

All Helen could do was nod dumbly. What was happening?

Nikki hugged her again, and longer. She whispered into Helen’s ear, “If what you feel is true then you can’t live a lie.”

Helen didn’t remember Nikki leaving. She didn’t remember paying the bill at the restaurant, didn’t remember the journey back to her office and she couldn’t possibly tell you what she worked on for the rest of the afternoon. The one thing she could say with any certainty was that being held by Nikki, in the middle of the dining room in Jardin, surrounded by strangers, was the closest she had ever come to feeling home.

 

***

 

She sliced through the water with the precision of a surgeon's knife, effortlessly eating up the meters in the Olympic-size pool with each smooth stroke. She willed her mind to empty as she focused the rhythm of her breathing: one stroke, two strokes, breathe; repeat. Soon entranced by the sound of muffled splashes and steady gasps of breath, she turned her mind to releasing the taut aches she'd carried in her muscles since lunch that afternoon. Small waves rippled away from her body as she skimmed across the water looking for the entire world as if she'd been born to do this very thing. Anyone watching from afar would have sworn she was a machine such was the exactitude with which she swam each length.

Arriving at the gym to find the pool gloriously vacant, a rare occurrence for a Monday evening, she had decided that a swim might be just what she needed before heading to the club. Expectedly, she had driven herself crazy the rest of that afternoon trying to decide whether or not what she had said to Helen was the right thing, had obsessed into distraction thinking of the way Helen had felt in her arms. In fact, several times while speaking on the phone with her publicist she had drifted off remembering the discipline it had taken to walk away from Helen, the fortitude required putting one foot in front of the other, not looking back, had shocked her. Just before she had dove into the pool she'd decided what a fruitless endeavor it was to continually underestimate the depth of her feelings for Helen.

An hour later, having swam twice the number of usual laps, Nikki left the gym feeling relaxed and peaceful, doubts and misgivings left behind to flounder in the pool’s clear, chlorinated water.

 

***

 

Well, this is new and different, Helen thought sardonically while she climbed the steps to the door of her flat. Never imagined coming home could feel like a stroll to the gallows.

Her key turned in the lock and a yelp followed by a steady stream of curses hit her ears. Unfazed, she set her bag down in the entry and leisurely made her way through to the kitchen. Judging by the smell of burnt food now wafting through the flat Sean had decided to cook for her. Whatever dread she’d felt as she made her way home was now multiplied.

Helen poked her head through the kitchen door and spied Sean staring despondently at a blackened casserole dish. She couldn’t tell what he had been trying to cook; the charred, gelatinous mess could have been anything by that point.

“Hiya,” Helen offered.

Sean yelped again, startled. “Christ, Helen! You can’t sneak up on people like that!”

Helen stepped into the kitchen and saw that it was in complete disarray: bits of pasta strewn on the counter, bits of vegetables in the sink and on the table. She couldn’t help thinking that he cooked in much the same way that he ate. And, on any other night, that fact might have been amusing.

“What’s for dinner, then?” Helen asked.

Sean shot her a glare and threw the towel that was on his shoulder into the sink. “Sure, take the piss.”

He turned his back to her, resting the heels of his hands on the sink. Helen, in no mood to pander to his petulance, headed for the phone. Smelling the food, albeit burnt, had made her realize she was starving, and the sooner they ate, the sooner they could speak.

“Right,” she said, pulling the menus from the drawer under the phone, “takeaway it is. What would you like?”

Later, kitchen cleaned and Thai takeaway devoured, they sat next to each other on the sofa, each feeling uncomfortable, to be sure, but for entirely different reasons. Sean looked over at Helen, studying her profile illuminated by the glow from the television; although she hadn’t noticed him staring yet, he knew she wasn’t interested in the program. Finally, she turned to look at him, cocking an eyebrow. It seemed a challenging glance to him, but he dismissed that thought as quickly as it came.

“Look,” Sean began, “Helen, sorry about dinner. I thought I’d do something nice, you know, after this morning. I wanted it to be special.”

Helen nodded and gave him a small smile. “It’s okay. I know you meant well.”

Gaining courage from the fact that she wasn’t upset, he continued, “Special, not just ‘cause of our little disagreement or whatever what it was, but special because there’s something important I’ve got to ask you.”

Helen furrowed her brow and watched him fidget. What on earth could be so important that he had to turn all weird to ask...? And then it hit her.

“Well, we -- we’ve been together for awhile now,” he stammered, “and, seeing as we get on so well, I... I think we should get married.”

Helen simply sat there, mouth agape. Had the man even been in the same relationship with her for the past year?

Before she could get a word in he dug the hole deeper. “I think we’d be happy--content, even. I can see us having children.” Sean looked her square in the eyes and smiled. “I think you’d make a wonderful mother, Helen.”

Helen shot up off the sofa, temper flaring. “Whoa, whoa, whoa, Sean. Children? We’ve never even discussed kids. Not once!”

Sean stood and stared at her as if she were from another planet. “Helen, calm down. There’s no reason to get so upset. Frankly, I thought you’d be happy about this, about children! Long-term couples get married, babe. It‘s normal, expected.”

Helen paced the floor and shook her head back and forth disbelieving that the night had taken such a terrifying turn. A proposal had been the last thing she was expecting. Well, really, what had she been expecting in the first place? Talk of children? This had to stop. This had to stop now.

She stopped pacing, but kept her back to Sean. He stepped up to her and placed his hands on her shoulders, a vain attempt at comfort which she shrugged off.

Turning, she said, “Sean, I can’t marry you.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I’m not in love with you.”

He stumbled back as if he’d been slapped. “I don’t understand. Where did this come from? Since when?”

Helen clasped her hands and shrugged. “You said it yourself this morning that I haven’t been right for months. As for where it came from... well, a bolt from the blue.”

She watched as the hurt on his face transformed to anger. He straightened his back and stood rigid. “I’m to take it there’s someone else, then?”

Tears welled in her eyes and she clamped her lips shut in a bleak line. All she could do was nod. Sean came toward her then, his eyes wide and desperate.

“Helen, please, please, don’t do this,” he pleaded. “Six years we’ve had, surely that trumps anything. We’re good companions, which counts for something!”

“I don’t want just companionship, Sean! I want true love and passion. A love which consumes me absolutely. One which I’m helpless against. I want passion that has to be restrained because it’s fierce, magnificent, and powerful --”

Sean laughed bitterly. “You’ve just described lust, Helen. Lust is common and deceptive. As for all-consuming 'true love,' that’s one for fairytales, darling.”

 

***

 

Helen walked into Chix surprised to find a wall-to-wall crowd on a Monday night. The energy was electric and a contact high was inevitable. She allowed herself a smile and thanked whomever that at least some mirth could be found, and had, somewhere that night.

Having spotted Nikki tending bar, she masterfully wove between heated bodies to get to her in record time. As she neared the area she overheard the woman sitting on the stool in front of Nikki flirting shamelessly. Amused, Helen decided to hang back for bit to see how the situation would unfold. Unbeknownst to Helen, Trisha had spotted her as she neared the bar and, having recognized Helen as the woman that was with Nikki at the release party, Trisha made her way over. Engrossed in the blonde woman’s clichéd banter, Helen wasn’t aware of Trisha’s arrival.

“She’s been at it for over an hour now,” Trisha spoke from behind Helen.

Helen turned, confused.

Trisha chuckled and stuck out her hand. “I’m Trisha, co-owner of Chix. I saw you speaking with Nikki the night of the party, but didn’t get a chance to introduce myself.”

Helen recognized Trisha as the woman who had given Nikki their drinks so she grinned and shook her hand.

Trisha indicated the blonde with a flick of her head. “Like I said, she’s been chatting up Nikki for an hour.”

“Really,” Helen replied, looking over at the woman.

“I expect it’s driving Nikki crazy,” Trisha laughed.

Helen laughed as well, but did notice that Nikki’s face was strained. She watched as Nikki would move a few steps to serve other customers, but the blonde would keep on, undeterred.

Helen looked back at Trisha and winked. “Guess I better save her, then.”

With that, Helen sat on the empty stool next to the woman and patiently waited for Nikki to notice her. Meanwhile, the blonde kept falling flat.

“Been waiting ages to get close you,” the blonde purred.

Nikki nodded absently and turned to get another customer’s order.

The woman was all confidence. “Nobody will believe it when I tell them I took you home tonight.”

That made Nikki look up. She stared back at the woman’s smirking face and sneered, “I’m not a foregone conclusion.”

Helen bit back a laugh. Perhaps Nikki didn’t need rescuing after all. Still...

“Bartender?” Helen inquired innocently.

On hearing Helen’s voice, Nikki’s eyes darted left. If she was shocked to see Helen she didn’t show it; however, the heat between them was instantaneous.

“It’s Nikki. What can I get for you?”

Helen lowered her voice and, in the sultriest tone she could summon, replied, “Vodka, neat.”

From the corner of her eye, Helen caught the blonde woman’s glare, but she never took her eyes off Nikki.

“Right away.” Nikki grinned openly, perhaps predatorily.

As Nikki turned to reach for the vodka Helen could have sworn she saw her shiver. Self-satisfied, she watched Nikki pour her shot with a flourish and furthered the ruse.

“Tonight’s my first time here. My compliments to the owner, this is a fabulous club.”

Nikki slid the shot glass in front of Helen and leaned toward her. “Welcome, then. First drink’s on the house.”

Helen blushed, and then raised her glass to Nikki before downing the alcohol. Placing the glass back down Helen turned to look at the blonde who may as well have been shooting daggers from her eyes.

Helen smiled and asked Nikki, “When’s your break? Fancy keeping a stranger company?”

“Excuse me,” the blond interrupted. “Nikki’s with me.”

Helen raised an eyebrow. She looked to Nikki and purred again, “Nikki, I’d like another of the same, please.” Helen regarded the blonde. “What’s your name?”

“Caroline,” came the stiff reply.

Helen turned and looked Nikki up and down. She noticed that Nikki’s face was flushed and that her nipples were straining against the tightly fit material of the blue shirt she was wearing. Briefly, Helen wondered how much longer they would be able to avoid having sex. She understood that her need for Nikki was great and growing exponentially. Would it be a case of who would give in first? Once her eyes met Nikki’s again there was no denying that they were equally turned on by this game, that she would have to take the initial step was implicit. Who was Nikki that she had the ability to make her feel both powerful and vulnerable in equal measure?

Casting her gaze back to Caroline, Helen smiled sweetly. “Well, Caroline, I don’t see your name written anywhere...”

At that point, as Nikki slid the second shot to her, Helen grabbed the collar of Nikki’s shirt, hauled her half over the bar, and kissed her long and hard. Caroline was momentarily forgotten as Helen savored the taste of Nikki. Lost in the feeling of Nikki's tongue sliding and entwining with her own, Helen didn't hear the random calls and applause from surrounding patrons. As suddenly as she'd started the kiss, Helen ended it and let Nikki go. Dumbstruck, Nikki grabbed hold of the bar to steady herself.

Helen lovingly ran her fingertips along Nikki’s lips, turned to Caroline, and, with a grin that was positively dangerous, added, “However, I think that says ‘Helen,’ quite clearly, don’t you?”

Not long after Caroline slunk away from the bar, drink firmly grasped in hand, Nikki and Helen burst into the upstairs office laughing so hard they were crying.

“Jesus Christ, Helen,” Nikki wheezed, “that was unbelievable! Her face was priceless!”

Helen clung to the edge of the desk, doubled over, gasping. “Shut up! I have to stop laughing! I can’t breathe!”

Nikki collapsed on the leather sofa opposite the desk, gripping her sides. Gradually, Helen recovered enough to make her way over to sofa and drop down next to Nikki. Just as they’d wiped their eyes and regained control of their breathing, they sighed simultaneously which caused another fit of giggles.

“Make it stop!” Nikki howled.

Eventually, their laughter died down and they sat quietly, contentedly, basking in the euphoric haze that descends after an intense laughing bout. Nikki shifted her head along the back of the sofa so she could see Helen clearly. “I didn’t expect to see you tonight.”

Helen scooted closer to Nikki and settled into the crook of her arm. She reached up and gently wiped the remains of her lipstick from Nikki’s mouth. Sobered, Nikki took hold of Helen’s hand and pressed light kisses along her fingertips.

“Why are you here?” she asked quietly.

Helen fluctuated between looking into Nikki’s eyes and watching Nikki’s lips as they caressed her fingers. Her mouth went dry. “I’ve broken it off with Sean."

 

***

 

A not so subtle kick to the back of her seat jerked Nikki awake. She yawned and mentally thanked the bored, obnoxious six-year-old sitting behind her; the jolt had pulled her out of a haunting nightmare in which she was flying to the States alone, Helen having left her stood, bereft, in her office after she refused to come along.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent to JFK International Airport." The practiced dulcet tones of the flight attendant cooed through the plane's cabin. "We ask that you return your seats and trays to their upright positions. Thank you and welcome to New York City."

Nikki's bloodshot eyes snapped open -- the nightmare a reality after all.

After what seemed like a lifetime, but which was merely a couple of hours, Nikki stepped into her hotel room. Her suitcase and bag fell of their own accord before she flopped, face down, onto the bed. She wanted to block out the world seeing as it only saw fit to tempt her with happiness lately, tempt her to relax and hope and dream only to sneak back when she wasn’t looking and slap her ass. Perhaps it had been too brash to ask Helen to accompany her on the week-long promotional jaunt to New York and Los Angeles in support of her book‘s release stateside. Was it possible to be renowned for impetuosity?

It was true that Helen had been in a sensitive frame of mind; the dissolution of a six-year relationship certainly not dismissed in passing. Nonetheless, she was tired of having to govern her feelings around Helen, tired of guarding words down to the tone, tired of guarding actions down to the look. When she’d asked Helen to come with her it was with altruistic intentions and the fact that she’d had to watch Helen’s ease mutate into suspicion may as well have been a knife in her back. She turned over onto her back and laughed to try to stop herself crying. Splendid. I’ve moved onto hyperbole.

Slowly she got to her feet, trudged to the mini-bar, and threw all the tiny liquor bottles onto the bed behind her. She slammed the bar’s door shut decisively. If tragic hyperbole was to be the order of the evening who was she to disobey the gods?

 

***

 

"Now I've really fucked things up, Claire."

Claire stared back at her best friend in stunned silence. She had never seen Helen in such a hopeless, troubled way: a way in which she seemed to be barely grasping onto sanity. Helen's eyes were red, her cheeks tear-stained, her mouth the frozen grimace of a suppressed sob. Claire moved from her chair opposite Helen so she could wrap her arms around her.

"Helen, you need to calm down. You're not making any sense. I'm following you up until Sean storms out of the flat. And, by the way, thank God you finally saw the light there," Claire said as she stroked Helen's back.

Helen shot her a "you're not helping things" look.

She sniffled, took a deep breath, and started again. "He stormed out, breaking my grandmother's vase in the process--"

"The Harrach?" Claire interrupted, appalled.

Helen nodded and Claire let out a groan of both lament and frustration.

"I know. I can't even begin to think about that yet." Helen hiccupped. "I didn't want to stay here after the argument, so I went for a walk. It's not surprising, really, that I ended up at Nikki's club. I found her at the bar being hit on by some pretty, but disgusting, blonde woman and, as I was feeling reckless, I all but peed on Nikki's leg to stake my claim."

Claire half-snorted and half-laughed. "Wish I'd been there to see that. You're always doing the exciting bits when I'm not around."

"Yeah, well, I'll do my best to wait for your audience the next time I'm tempted to stick my foot in it," Helen deadpanned.

"Oh, come off it," Claire said. "What happened after you demonstrated your best lady-like behavior?"

Sighing, Helen shifted restlessly. "We went to Nikki's office and... it was... I told her that I'd broken up with Sean. Claire, you should've seen the look on her face, her eyes! She has the most expressive eyes of anyone I've ever known, such a deep, rich brown -- a complex sepia, rather. Anyway, she was elated, disbelieving. She tried to suppress what she was feeling, but I could tell she was pleased."

The surge of love and humility-tinged pleasure she had felt upon seeing Nikki so pleased by something she had done was a detail Helen wished to keep to herself. She wanted to cherish it, guard it, as a perfect moment in time just in case she never saw Nikki again.

"I hate to say that it's sounding divine, but it's sounding divine. What the hell happened?"

Helen stood and began pacing, her hands traded off between pushing her hair back behind her ears and resting on her forehead as if to keep her brain from falling out. "Very quietly, like the sound of her own voice would have shattered her, she asked what it meant now that I'd left Sean. I told her it meant I couldn't live a lie. I told her it meant we'd have the freedom to nurture what was beginning between us."

Confused, Claire raised her hand for Helen to stop. "That's a bit fast, Helen. I mean, you just met her at the party, didn’t you?”

Reluctantly, Helen shook her head.

"All right, then. Spill it," Claire demanded.

Wilted under Claire's concentrated stare, Helen sank back into her chair and explained some more. She described her encounters with Nikki from the cafe right up to the book party and with each new revelation Claire’s mild shock escalated to near paralysis. She stared open-mouthed at her friend while Helen’s mind drifted back to the first day she had seen Nikki. She remembered the scandalized look on Nikki's face after she spoke to her in the cafe. God! How had she been so brazen? Moreover, where was that courage now?

Claire drank the rest of her half glass of wine then poured another. She went to put the bottle down but thought better of it and topped up Helen's glass.

She cleared her throat, looked at Helen. "This is a bit much to take in all at once. How come you never said anything before?"

Helen shrugged. "At first it seemed like nothing; I mean, something I could handle, you know? Then, at the party, everything I'd kept bottled up blew right open. Every day since that night has been a struggle to get the lid back on; or return to some sort of even keel."

"Helen. Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps you're not meant to have the lid on at all?"

An almost imperceptible nod.

Claire continued, "Well, considering the state you're in, something must've happened after you told her you wanted to be with her?"

"She asked me to go away with her for a week, this week," Helen winced as she spoke. "She said it would be perfect as I'd probably want time away from the whole Sean debacle. She was so sweet, Claire, so caring. And, I panicked."

"How do you mean?"

"Froze up. Shut down. Who the hell knows why, but all my thoughts turned suspicious. 'Why would she want to get me to go on a trip? Isn't it too soon? What does it mean? Commitment?'" Helen wrung her hands. "Nikki saw every fleeting doubt flicker across my face. She likened it to betrayal -- which it was. I'm a fool."

Claire placed a hand on Helen's to stop her from wearing the skin off. "She's never given you any cause to mistrust her, has she?"

"God, no! That's just the thing. This mess is all a result of my irrational need to repress shit. Now that she’s gone for the week who knows if I’ll ever see her again. I wouldn't blame her if she never wanted to set eyes on me again."

Helen drank her wine in one go. She and Claire simply sat and stared at one another, processing.

Eventually, Claire asked, "Did she say she never wanted to see you again?"

"No, not in so many words. She said that she'd be back in a week and I'd know where to find her, but that I should think twice before going to the trouble." Helen sniffled, fresh tears springing to her eyes.

"See, it's not all hopeless; she wasn't explicit!" Claire smacked her hand on the table. "This might be the best possible circumstance."

Helen looked at Claire as if she had sprouted another head.

"Before you go protesting, just listen." Claire eased forward in her chair, shoulders hunched. "The situation is now in your control, Helen. Haven't you felt powerless all along? Whether you actually were or not is immaterial -- it's how you felt! But now, Nikki's leaving it up to you. It's perfect, don't you see? All you have to decide is if you really want Nikki or not."

Helen wasted not a millisecond's thought on the answer to that question.

 

***

 

If she had to fake one more smile and pretend to care about someone else’s piss-poor love life, exciting or lackluster night, fucking dead cat, or insert-common-boring-problem here, someone was going to die. She served up yet another alcoholic concoction that a customer had devised at home, and had now foisted upon her to make to impossibly high standards. Couldn’t people just drink a pint? Although she’d only been tending bar for an hour, Nikki was fed up; she threw her towel into the bin and went in search of Trisha.

She soon found her immersed in paperwork at the desk in the office. Hesitant, Nikki hovered in the doorway. She was beginning to hate this room. It reminded her of Helen and failing, failing with Helen, and that was too much to bear. Then, just as depression verged on eating her alive, anger elbowed its way in and she bristled at the fact that she’d been home for two days and there still wasn’t word one from Helen.

“Stop hovering, Nikki; either come in or get out.” Trisha spoke, not looking up from her papers.

Nikki smiled. “One's liable to think you’re a mother with eyes like that in the back of your head.”

Trisha looked up at Nikki, her brow furrowed, and a shadow played across her face. Nikki stepped forward, concerned, but Trisha smiled and any trace of shadow disappeared.

“What are you doing up here? Thought you were itching to get back in the ‘trenches?’” Trisha asked.

Nikki shrugged. “Yeah, well, people were getting on my nerves.”

“People or person?”

“Trisha...” Nikki warned.

Trisha threw down her pen and pushed her chair back from the desk. “Why don’t you just go to her, Nikki? Use those considerable powers of persuasion you’ve got at your disposal and convince her. Better yet, why not tell her you’re in love with her?”

Nikki stared back at her ex-girlfriend, hands planted on her hips. “Glad you see it all so easily, Trish. However, here, outside your head, it’s a bit more complicated.”

“That’s bullshit, Nikki,” Trisha stated. “It is quite clear you’re in love with this woman. It’s like a stench you walk around with. You can’t get it off you, babe, no matter how hard you try.”

Trisha’s heart broke for Nikki as she watched her face fall, defeated.

“Give it one more chance, Nik. Just go see her,” Trish practically pleaded.

“I don’t even have her address,” Nikki said forlornly.

Trisha slid open the top drawer of the desk and withdrew a slip of paper. “Ah, but I do.”

“You what?”

Grinning, Trisha handed the paper over to Nikki, who held the scrap as if it were the Holy Grail. “Helen’s got a good friend, a rather attractive friend, who stopped by a couple of times while you were gone. She gave that to me the other night and mentioned that I might need it. I don’t know how she knew and I don’t want to; it’s quite exciting thinking of her as a mystery.”

“Claire?” Nikki asked.

Trisha grinned. “The very one.”

Nikki stood and made her way to the door. “Next time you see her thank her for me, will you?”

Still grinning, Trisha nodded.

Blissfully unaware that any of this was happening, Helen leaned over her bathroom counter and colored her lips perfectly with lipstick. She walked through to her bedroom and checked herself once more in the built-in mirror on the outside of her wardrobe. her eyes traveled over the satiny black, backless dress she had purchased the day before, thrilled with the way the fabric clung to her hips and the way it hit mid-thigh -- just long enough to conceal the suspenders she was wearing. Farther down her eyes moved, she felt confident wearing the black stiletto heels she had decided on, especially since they accentuated the graceful slopes of her calf muscles.

All in all, Helen felt satisfied that Nikki wouldn’t know what hit her tonight.

 

***

 

Nikki deftly pulled her car into an empty space, turned off the engine, and sat. The only sound disturbing the stillness was the gentle pinging of the engine as it cooled. She shut her eyes tight, swallowed the unusually large lump in her throat, and got out of the car. She moved quickly so as not to loose her nerve.

When she was halfway up the steps, Helen's door opened abruptly and she froze. Nikki prepared to speak, but found she wasn't able to form words to save her life. Helen stood in the doorway, the light from the hallway behind her spilling out onto the top of her head and onto her shoulders, illuminating her like an apparition. She was dressed to the nines, bag in hand, most likely heading for a night out by Nikki's estimation. Consequently, Nikki's mind wandered for a split second: should she have shown up unannounced? She never considered that Helen might already have plans. Fuck it, she decided. Those plans will wait.

Upon seeing Nikki on her doorstep, Helen's feet turned leaden. A million thoughts appeared and disappeared, mere flashes. How had Nikki found her flat? Would the news be good or bad? Did it really even matter? God help her, Nikki was beautiful...

While Helen debated these things transiently, Nikki climbed the last of the steps and stood dead in front of her, close enough only to have to lower her head a little to meet Helen's lips. And lower her head she did, softly touching Helen's lips with her own; the first touch light, the second heavier, the third full on and desperate. And the world around them disappeared.

Their mouths never parting, Helen grabbed Nikki and pulled her into the flat. Nikki slammed the door shut with her foot then Helen pushed her back against it, knocking the breath from her body. Nikki gasped and leaned her head back. Still latched onto the lapels of Nikki's shirt and shaking, Helen buried her face in Nikki's neck, alternately grazing her teeth along Nikki's throat and licking the slightly red trails left behind. Feeling Helen's trembling, Nikki wrapped her arms around Helen's waist and ran her hands along the silky material of the dress, over the swell of Helen's ass, and pulled her body flush with her own. Helen whimpered.

Helen looked up at Nikki, eyes wild, and moved to capture another kiss, but Nikki teasingly pulled back. They stared at each other for a moment, Nikki's smug grin meeting Helen's sexy glower, the sexual tension thick and tightly drawn; their labored breathing punctuated a silence neither of them wished to break. Nikki's defiance amplified Helen's arousal, so, playing along with the standoff, Helen took a step back, but her glare, and her step, faltered. She recovered and noticed Nikki's amused confusion, so she guided one of Nikki's hands under her dress then slowly up, and up, along her inner thigh.

Not quite at the apex of Helen's thighs, Nikki's hand glided into the warm wetness that had already seeped through Helen's underwear. She groaned as her eyes fluttered shut, her need for Helen skyrocketed into a realm beyond comprehension. She gazed down through lowered lashes into Helen's shimmering green eyes and felt, on an elemental, atomic level, her need, and her love, requited.

Betraying the fevered blood coursing in her veins, she lazily watched as Helen pulled her blouse free from her trousers and, excruciatingly slowly, unbuttoned the length of it. Once the material parted revealing Nikki's slim, defined torso, Helen ran her hands from the collarbones down over Nikki's lace-encased breasts, gently scraping her nails over stiff nipples. Nikki's breathing stopped then sped up and Helen gazed on in awe of the effect she was having on the enticing form in front of her. Encouraged, she caressed Nikki's breasts with the palms of her hands, teasing the nipples to a painful hardness. She bent down and, through the lace, scraped a nipple with her teeth eliciting a sharp gasp from Nikki, who, in return, cupped Helen's mound roughly. Involuntarily, Helen's hips began to move against Nikki’s hand and she licked at the nipple before standing up again to gesture at the stairs behind her with a flick of her head.

By unspoken agreement, they took turns undressing one another at the foot of Helen’s expansive bed. Nikki had smiled upon seeing it, appreciating Helen’s taste in quality creature comforts. This appreciation became a wicked delight when Helen turned to expose the dress’s clasp to her and she saw, as she dropped kisses along Helen’s bare shoulders, their reflection in the built-in mirror of Helen’s wardrobe. Distracted, Nikki studied the reflection and discovered that the entire room, indeed the bed, was clearly visible. Mystified as to why Nikki had stopped moving, Helen opened her eyes. Their eyes met briefly in the mirror before Helen turned to face Nikki; well, tried to turn, but Nikki held her in place by her hips. Helen began to protest, but the words died on her lips when she caught the daring glint in Nikki’s eyes -- the very same tempting glint from the promotional photograph outside the bookshop. Her heart leapt into her throat and, in that instant, she knew she would give all of herself for Nikki’s pleasure.

Helen took a small step forward out of Nikki’s embrace and toward the mirror. Her gaze unwavering, she reached back, unclasped the dress at her neck, and let it fall away. Now she stood, clad only in black underwear, suspenders, stockings, and heels. In the soft light that filtered through the windows from the street, she saw Nikki’s lips part, her tongue darting out to wet them, and the subtle dilation of Nikki’s pupils. Nikki took a step toward Helen, but Helen shook her head.

Keenly, achingly, Nikki watched Helen finish undressing. She bit her lip when Helen bent over to remove her stockings, then bit it again, hard enough to draw a bit of blood, when Helen removed her remaining clothing. She caught Helen peering at her expectantly in the mirror so she hurriedly undressed. While an experienced lover, Nikki had never done something like this before and, judging by her reaction, Helen hadn’t either. She pushed back threatening tears as she considered the meaning of Helen’s display, the trust. Thus, it was with complete devotion that she matched Helen’s openness.

Her resolve to let Helen lead nearly crumbled when Helen began massaging her own breasts. Unconsciously, she mimicked Helen’s movements on her own body, but ceased after a stern shake of Helen’s head. Nikki continued observing from behind Helen until Helen’s hand disappeared between her legs and reappeared again wet and glistening. Mad from suspense and the throbbing in her clit, Nikki strode to Helen, turned her around and gave her a bruising kiss. Their lips, tongues, and teeth fought, acquiesced, and fought again before they pulled back from each other, gasping.

Finally, in a hoarse, intense whisper, Helen spoke. “I want you, Nikki. I need you.”

Nikki smiled provocatively and walked Helen backward to the foot of the bed. They fell onto it together and Nikki settled between Helen’s legs.

Her mouth hovering over a hard, pebbled nipple, Nikki said, “Oh, it’s beyond need by now, Helen.” Then she took into her mouth as much of Helen’s breast as she could, her tongue flicking an insistent rhythm against the nipple.

Helen cried out and arched her back, her mind suddenly, blissfully blank as pleasure rippled through her then came to rest in her clit. Nikki lapped at her breasts wildly before she licked and kissed her way down to where Helen needed her most. Without hesitation, Nikki dipped her tongue inside Helen once, twice, and then slid up to suck Helen’s clit into her mouth.

Lost to any rational thought whatsoever, Helen could only wind her fingers in Nikki’s hair, gasp Nikki’s name, and look on in fascination. In the short time with Nikki this evening, her sex life had already improved a thousand fold; remarkably, convincing Sean to go down on her hand been like pulling teeth, and, rather predictably, the only position he preferred was missionary.

Sean faded into obscurity with another flick of Nikki’s skilled tongue. Helen’s body tensed, her vision blurred, and she called out the name she’d been dying to call out for the past year.

“Nikki!”

After one last swipe of her tongue, Nikki moved back up Helen's body, sliding up her skin as she went. Their mouths met and Helen groaned as she sucked on Nikki's tongue; her own taste and scent combined with Nikki's only intensified the aftershocks pulsating through her body.

"You taste even better than I remember," Nikki said huskily.

Helen combed her fingers through Nikki's hair and stared at her new lover at a complete loss, for she was not yet sated; in fact, her first orgasm with Nikki seemed to have opened Pandora's Box. She ran a single finger over Nikki's lips and Nikki caught it between her teeth before sucking it into her mouth, the sensation like a bow being pulled taut within Helen from clit to fingertip.

Helen spoke low. "Baby, I need to feel you inside me."

Nikki released Helen's finger. "Turn over on your stomach, facing the mirror."

A shiver of excitement ran through Helen as she obeyed. Nikki trailed her tongue along Helen's spine from her tailbone up to the back of her neck. At the same time, she guided her hand over the cleft of Helen's ass and circled Helen's slick, warm opening with two of her fingers. Instinctively, Helen spread her legs farther apart and began grinding her hips into the mattress.

"Move up onto your knees and look in that mirror. I want to watch you while you watch us," Nikki breathed into Helen's ear.

Helen's arousal shifted shape, vivified. She had never imagined that such a state existed, of being acutely aware of every inch of her skin, nerves humming, or that she'd identify a need within her that was pure carnality. She wanted Nikki to take her just as much she wanted to take Nikki, possess her totally.

She eased up onto her knees and raised her head so she could see the mirror fully. Helen watched as Nikki settled behind her, the anticipation palpable. Their eyes locked and Nikki entered Helen with in one smooth, swift stroke.

Helen sucked in a breath then exhaled a drawn out, hoarse, "Fuck..."

Simultaneously, they closed their eyes, adapting to the new sensation. Nikki withdrew then entered again with three fingers causing Helen to moan and push back against her hand. In the mirror, they watched each other, disbelief mixed with intense arousal... and awe.

Feeling Nikki wanting to speed up, Helen whispered, "Slow, Nikki. Slow and deep. I want to feel all of you."

A surge of desire hit Nikki so strongly that she nearly fainted. Every urge within her wanted to do the exact opposite of slow and deep and ravage Helen with a fierceness that startled her. In order to quell those impulses she concentrated on the inescapable rhythm of her fingers languorously sliding out of Helen's tight warmth, then thrusting back inside deeper, and deeper, still. The touch wasn't gentle, but profound.

Nikki smoothed her free hand up Helen's back, trailing through the slick sheen of sweat that had settled there. She bent over Helen's back and whispered in her ear. "Look how beautiful you are, Helen. How stunning as I move in and out of you. You've no idea how good you feel."

"Jesus, Nikki!" Helen breathed.

Reaching beneath Helen, Nikki caressed her breasts, tweaking the nipples, making Helen writhe back against her hand, picking up the pace. Nikki moved farther down and teased Helen's clit in time with their tempo. Overcome watching Helen buck wildly as she neared abandonment, Nikki feverishly rocked her hips against Helen, her exposed clit sliding on the supple skin of Helen's ass. She was fascinated by how their bodies effortlessly communicated with each other. She noticed, too, that Helen was controlling their pace which turned her on even more.

Nikki held her arm firm and encouraged Helen. "Take what you want, baby."

Helen groaned and dropped her head; she was so close. She chanted Nikki's name like a mantra until she heard Nikki's gasping voice again, next to her ear.

"Helen, look at me."

Helen turned toward Nikki's voice and their lips met in a rough kiss. They were forced apart as Helen grabbed Nikki's wrist and came, crying out, her fiery green gaze never leaving Nikki's. Overwhelmed, Nikki soon followed, tears spilling from her eyes uncontrollably.

Soon, they fell back against the pillows, Helen holding onto Nikki as they both caught their breath. Nikki quieted as Helen soothed her, pushing her damp hair back off her forehead, pressing light kisses on her nose, cheeks, chin, and lips. Feeling raw and exposed, Nikki grabbed the sheet and pulled it over them. Paranoia, irrational and powerful, crept into her mind: what would she do if Helen regretted this? She knew that would be the final blow from which she may never recover. Before she had a chance to question Helen, she drifted to sleep, thoroughly exhausted.

 

***

 

The bedroom glowed an ethereal grey-blue as the approaching dawn peeked through the windows. Nikki woke, momentarily disoriented, until she caught Helen's scent and smiled. She felt Helen's body still molded to her own, so she sighed, relieved.

"What kind of sigh was that?" Helen asked softly.

Nikki jumped and looked over to find Helen's amused stare. "God, I thought you were sleeping."

"I was. Though, I woke up a few minutes ago to find this gorgeous woman in my bed," Helen murmured. The lazy circles she was tracing on Nikki's stomach moved lower.

Nikki squirmed. "Does this mean you're not regretting last night?"

Helen's hand froze, her expression turned serious. "I won't ever regret a single minute I spend with you, Nikki. I'm in love with you. You are what I want."

Perhaps later she'd be able to wrap her head around what had happened since she'd arrived at Helen's the previous night. Maybe a bit of distance would help her understand the breadth of love that was expanding in her chest and throughout her body. As it was, she could only tremble, a sob of happiness threatening to break free of her quivering lips.

Helen felt her own cheeks moisten as she sensed the myriad of emotions that rushed headlong through Nikki, saw as they danced over her ever-expressive face. She knew Nikki was struggling to find the right words, not realizing that she already had. Helen brushed a finger over Nikki's lips to still her. There would be time enough for talking.

"I know," Helen said. "I know."

 

The End