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Time and Again

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Broadlea Education Committee

Broadlea

Nr. Charlottesville

Va.

22nd February 1935

 

Dear Miss Novak,

I am delighted to inform you that the committee has unanimously agreed your appointment to the role of schoolteacher at Broadlea Village School. We are confident that you will fulfil your duties with excellence, both in terms of academic achievement and moral guidance.

As the previous incumbent must leave the school within the next two weeks, I hope you will be able to begin work no later than 11 th March. Teaching materials will be provided for the first few weeks in order to allow you time to settle in and get to know the students.

Please confirm your willingness to take the role and your intended arrival date as soon as possible. I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Hubert A. Pitts

Chairman

 

With a huff and a hiss, the bus came to a halt and the doors jerked open. Allie ducked down the aisle and stepped off, gazing around at the city. So, this was Charlottesville, Virginia. Despite the crowded sidewalks it was nothing like Brooklyn. The buildings had a grand aspect, proud of their colonial past. The place looked prosperous and well groomed, as though the depression had hardly touched it. This early assessment did not hold true for the entire city, as she soon discovered. Collecting her suitcase Allie set off towards her lodgings, consulting a letter from her landlady to find her way. The streets and houses grew progressively shabbier and more run down until she reached the address she was looking for.

The street was unprepossessing but the house itself was freshly painted with a neat front yard and starched curtains in the windows. The sign board stated, “No vacancies” and Allie vehemently hoped that Mrs Wentworth had held her room for her. She stepped slowly up the porch stairs, her suitcase heavy and awkward against her leg, now strangely reluctant to take the final steps that would begin her new life and erase her old one.

She adjusted the collar of her jacket, marvelling at how warm it was here after her chilly start in Brooklyn just this morning, and rang the bell.  The door was opened by an imperious looking lady of late middle years.

“May I help you?” she asked, her expression indicating how unlikely a possibility it was that she would help this strange young woman who had appeared on her porch.

“I’m Allie Novak,” Allie said with a smile. “You must be Mrs Wentworth? What a pleasure to finally meet you.”

The woman’s expression softened a hint, mollified a little by her new lodger’s charm. She generally refused all boarders from New York on principle, but this young person’s references had been so exemplary that she had made an exception. She hoped she would not regret her generosity.

“Miss Novak, please come in.” She stepped back and swung the door wide grandly, as though to a royal residence or stately home. “Welcome to your new abode. I think you will find everything to your liking.”

Allie recognised the prideful look on Mrs Wentworth’s face and immediately knew that the way to get on the good side of her new landlady would be through praising the boarding house and all things connected to it. As Mrs Wentworth showed her around Allie exclaimed and admired everything that was pointed out to her. Soon Mrs Wentworth had a very self-satisfied smile on her face, and Allie knew that she had made a good first impression.

Upstairs Allie was shown to her room, a generous, light room with minimal furniture and a sickening peach coloured coverlet. Allie was just calculating how much it would cost to replace it when Mrs Wentworth broke into her thoughts.

“The bathroom is just down the hall. Dinner is at six o’clock: please be prompt. I will explain the rest of the house rules over dinner.” Abruptly she swept off down the stairs and Allie was left standing just inside the threshold of her new room. Suddenly aware of her weariness and the aching of her body, Allie was dragging her case to the bed when she heard the door to the next room open and some quiet footsteps on the landing. She sighed internally. One of the other residents no doubt, eager to find out who the new girl was. Allie pasted the smile back onto her face and turned to greet her fellow lodger.

She was faced with a tall woman in stockinged feet, a few years older than herself. As soon as Allie looked into her face she was disarmed. She had kind eyes and a gentle smile and Allie warmed to her instantly.

“Hi,” the woman said in such a quiet voice that Allie could hardly hear her. “Welcome to Thomasina Towers. I’m Maxine, the head of the escape committee.” She smiled broadly at Allie.

Allie gave a huff of laughter. “That bad, huh? I’m Allie Novak, new inmate.”

“Pleasure.”

They shook hands.

“I won’t bother you now Allie, as I’m sure you’d rather settle in …”

Allie surprised herself by saying, “Actually, it’s nice to see a friendly face. Won’t you come in and keep me company while I unpack?” She had a good feeling about Maxine, and God knows she could use a friend.

“Sure... “Maxine slid into the room and leant against the wall with her arms folded across her middle whilst Allie opened her case and began to put things away.

“So, why Thomasina Towers?” Allie asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, it’s just something one of the other girls came up with. Mrs Wentworth’s name is Mrs T. Wentworth, but no-one has managed to find out what the “T” stands for, so she decided it stood for Thomasina because it sounds rather grand, like the lady herself. And Towers because she runs this place like a high security prison.” Maxine began ticking items off on her fingers. “No gentlemen callers after seven o’clock ...” Allie averted her eyes to a worn spot on the rug, “... And then only in the communal sitting room never in our own rooms. Mealtimes strictly adhered to. No food or drink in the rooms. No personal items left in the bathroom … I’m sure she’ll give you the full list later.”

“It sounds like you know all about this place. Have you been living here long Maxine?”

“Only a few months. I moved here to take up a job as an operator at the telephone exchange.” Maxine regarded Allie thoughtfully. She was a pretty and cheerful young woman, but Maxine thought she could detect a sadness behind the facade and wondered if she should ask any questions of her own or respect Allie’s privacy. After a moment’s thought she lightly added, “What brings you here Allie? Charlottesville must be a backwater after New York.”

“How did you know I’m from New York?”

“Your voice. Plus, you don’t get stylish clothes like that round here!”

Allie looked down at herself. She hadn’t thought this outfit would stand out. She mustn’t stand out. She would have to choose more carefully tomorrow.

“I’ve got a new job too. School teacher at Broadlea.”

“School teacher eh? Mrs Wentworth must be delighted to have such an educated woman living in her select establishment.” Maxine teased.

“That’s me!” Allie countered. “Every landlady’s dream resident.”

“Broadlea is a fair step from here though.”

“I couldn’t find any place to stay in Broadlea, so I had to choose Charlottesville. This place isn’t cheap either …”

“I know! All the cheaper places are full. I checked and checked again.” Maxine paused. She wondered why a streetwise New York teacher would voluntarily relocate herself to a remote place like Broadlea. There must be a good reason, but it was too soon to ask what might be a very personal question. So, she just added, “You’ll be on the rural bus then, I guess?”

“Yes. It won’t be much fun. But it can’t be helped.” Allie smiled at Maxine and slipped her now empty case under the bed. “That’s me done.” Maxine admired her optimism.

“I’ll let you rest up before dinner. You can meet the rest of the girls then. See you down there.” A casual wave and she was gone, leaving Allie alone.

 

                *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *

 

The next morning, early, found Allie on the rural bus out to Broadlea village. She had woken early, apprehensive about her first day. She had dressed herself in a sober blue belted dress that she hoped said “respectable school marm”, put her hair up in a neat chignon and stepped out with confidence, determined to make a success of this new life. As the bus bumped along unpaved country roads she allowed her thoughts to stray back to dinner last evening.

Mrs Wentworth had introduced her fellow boarders to her. “Miss Novak, this is Miss Conway,” she indicated Maxine, “Miss Jenkins, and Miss Miles.”

“Hello,” Allie had said with a smile, glancing at them each in turn as she took her seat. Miss Jenkins was a mountain of a woman, with a similarly large voice. Could this account for why Maxine referred to her as Boomer? Miss Miles was slightly older than the others and seemed a little quiet and guarded. Boomer soon launched the conversation by asking Allie lots of questions and hardly waiting for her reply before telling Allie all about herself.

“Only been here six weeks me self. Got a job at the hardware store next block over. It’s goin’ great though. If I keep it up Mr Jackson – he’s the owner – says I’ll make assistant manager one day!”

“That’s wonderful Boomer! Can I call you Boomer, or …?” Allie hesitated.

“Well, me name’s Sue, but pretty much everyone calls me Boomer. So, go ahead.”

“Novak, that’s Polish isn’t it?” Miss Miles interrupted.

Allie didn’t like the sly look on her face and wondered if she wanted to make something of it. Nevertheless, she replied politely, “Yes it’s a Polish name. But please, all of you, call me Allie.”

Maxine smiled, thanking Allie silently for not taking offense and the meal progressed harmoniously enough until Boomer knocked over her glass. The water spread across the tablecloth and began to drip onto the floor. To Allie’s amazement the women scurried around in a kind of panic, mopping up the spillage in near silence, all the time casting anxious glances towards the door. By the time Mrs Wentworth reappeared the water had been soaked up and hardly showed against the white tablecloth.

As Mrs Wentworth began to clear the plates away Boomer leaped to her feet. “I’ll clear the table Mrs W. Why don’t you put your feet up for a bit.” Mrs Wentworth looked at her in surprise. “Very well. Thank you Susan,” and turned, exiting the room like a ship in full sail. Once she had gone they all helped to clear away and Boomer hung the tablecloth in the backyard to dry.

“Thanks girls!” Boomer gasped gratefully, “Thought I was a goner there!”

“Is Mrs Wentworth really so fierce?” Allie asked Maxine.

“She’s terribly protective over the furnishings and decor. I heard that one girl was made to leave after scratching an occasional table.”

“I’d better watch myself then!” After that Allie had taken herself off to bed, exhausted from a day containing so much novelty, but glad that she had begun to make friends among the other tenants.

 

                *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *             *

 

Looking out of the bus window as it rounded a corner and began to slow, she realised that she had arrived in Broadlea. Here was the Broadlea General Store which hosted the only bus stop in the village. The store was a large wooden structure with a few outlying buildings that could be stables or storage sheds. That and a gas station and a church made up as much of the village as Allie could currently see. The school, she knew, was a few minutes’ walk away. She turned her back on the store and set off up a narrow track in the direction of the school.

Her first sight of the school was through a gap in the trees. As she came closer she could see it was small. A single wooden room to accommodate the whole school. A dusty yard for recess, with a few shade trees, a porch with a clock and a bell, and a proud signboard made up the whole place. A small man who was pacing beside a car looked up as she came into view. Allie knew that this must be Mr Pitts from the Education Committee come to welcome her.  She steeled herself to be firm against any inroads he might try to make into her authority, whilst at the same time composing her face into a pleasant expression.

She need not have worried about Mr Pitts, she reflected later over a cup of coffee on the porch at Mrs Wentworth’s boarding house. He was not much interested in the curriculum, or the children, or her even, but just wanted to hand over the paperwork and the responsibility from the previous teacher and get on with his own business. That was a relief: that she could teach the children without the committee interfering at every step. If she did a good job she would probably get away with only minimal contact with the bureaucratic side of education.

Meeting her students today had reminded her of why she loved teaching. Some of them were bright, some cheeky, some funny, some determined, but all wonderful to Allie. Little packages of potential waiting to be unleashed on the world, and Allie was the one who got to help them. Already some of the children stood out. Jimmy Morris was going to be a handful. The Pitts twins, older than the others and more earnest, could be college candidates with the right guidance. Little Debbie Smith, smart and cheeky and serious by turns was sure to be the star of the class. She had already won Allie over: a spirited child of only seven years with a cascade of caramel curls and brown eyes that shone as though they reflected the light of every star ever born.

 

 

Chapter Text

“Mama, Mama!” Debbie came pounding up the porch steps, crashed through the screen door and skidded to a halt by the kitchen table, just as Bea was placing Debbie’s favourite cookies onto a plate.

“Right on time, as usual!” Bea exclaimed with a smile. She swore her daughter had a sixth sense in determining when she was taking something out of the oven. “Careful, they’re still hot.”

Debbie ignored her and took a big bite, then proceeded to spray crumbs everywhere in her excitement to relay the day’s big news.

“We’ve got a new teacher. She’s ever so nice and so pretty. Her name’s Miss Novak and she taught us all about rocks today and she read us a story this afternoon. It’s about a place called Tanglewood, and a boy called Perseus. Him and his mama get put into a chest and have to sail on the ocean …” Debbie chattered on and on between bites of cookie.

After a while Bea interjected, “Well you’ve certainly had an eventful day, but now you must clear up all these crumbs you’ve made, change your clothes and get to your chores.”

Debbie looked a little disappointed. “Yes Mama.”

“You can tell me more later,” Bea mitigated with a gentle look. No point in crushing the child’s spirit even if there was a lot to do around here. Debbie smiled, jumped up and ran off upstairs to get changed. Bea smiled ruefully. Debbie had forgotten about the crumbs, but Bea hadn’t the heart to scold her.

During supper Debbie did indeed tell Bea more. How Miss Novak was kind to Sophie when she was upset; how she didn’t get really angry with Jimmy even though he dropped his pencil about fifty times which always made Miss Cartwright send him to the corner ; how she had eyes so blue you wouldn’t believe it ; and how she was going to allow them to write whatever they wanted for tomorrow’s composition lesson. Bea was impressed. Debbie had always said how much she loved Miss Cartwright and how much she was going to miss her when she left. Now it seemed that she could barely remember her, so fully was she eclipsed by the wonderful Miss Novak.

To stop the flow Bea quickly jumped into the conversation. “Look at the time! Don’t you want to listen to Tarzan?”

“Sure Mama. I’ll warm up the set.” Debbie ran over to switch on the radio whilst Bea quickly cleared the table. The dishes could wait until Debbie was in bed. Bea settled in her easy chair next to the radio and Debbie sat in her usual place - Bea’s lap. “I wonder if Miss Novak likes Tarzan,” Debbie murmured. Bea rolled her eyes.

Debbie was yawning before the end of the episode, worn out from another full day. As soon as the show finished Bea sent her upstairs to get ready for bed. Bea was pretty much ready for bed herself having spent almost every moment of the day busy with chores: weeding the vegetable garden, cleaning the house and making sure that there would be enough food in the larder to last them. She was just about to go and make sure that Debbie had cleaned her teeth when she heard the creak of the porch steps. There was a shadow at the door.

              *      *         *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *                     *

By Friday afternoon Allie was starting to worry about Debbie Smith. Her sunny disposition had clouded over as the week went on and by this morning had become positively stormy. A wrong answer on a math quiz had prompted her eyes to fill with tears. When Sophie asked her if she was alright and tried to pass her a hanky it was as though the shutters had come down on her usually unguarded face. By the time Allie had asked her to switch seats with Jimmy, who was causing a ruckus, her stony expression was actually mutinous.

Suspecting trouble at home Allie called Debbie over to her at the end of the school day. “Debbie, the composition you wrote this week was very good. I would like to speak to your mother and father about how pleased I am with your work.” Debbie didn’t reply but looked down at the floor, arms crossed against her skinny body.

“It wasn’t that good,” she replied finally. “I think I could have done it better.”

“I disagree,” Allie said, peering at Debbie’s face, trying to get her to look at her. Debbie resolutely looked at the floor. “I think they would be very proud.” Debbie just shook her head vigorously. “Perhaps I could call by and show it to them?”

“No!” Debbie finally raised her head to look at Allie. There was something in her eyes that Allie couldn’t quite translate. Was it fear, or maybe defiance? Debbie's glare softened, perhaps detecting the shock on her teacher’s face. “They’re really busy,” she hedged. “I’ll tell them what you said though,” she offered.

“Alright Debbie. You can go now.” Debbie ran for the door and was gone before Allie could draw another breath. That was definitely not a normal reaction and now Allie was seriously worried. She decided to call on the Smiths on her way home.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *

It was only a short walk from the school to the Smith house. As Allie came out of the trees onto the dirt road she could see the house and its’ grounds situated pleasantly against the woodland backdrop. Drawing closer she could hear the unmistakable sound of a shovel against earth. A figure was working in a well-tended vegetable garden between the rows of immature plants. Drawing closer she could see the person was wearing a pair of oversized denim overalls cinched in at the waist with a belt and rolled up at the ankle. This practical garment was set off with a white singlet and a heavy pair of boots. The gardener was toiling in the afternoon heat and had pulled her hair away from her face with a turquoise headscarf, but Allie could still see a glorious mass of red curls which she swore were the exact colour of Virginia creeper in the fall.

Allie called out a greeting so as not to surprise her, sure that her approach had not yet been noticed. The woman looked up from her work and, as blue eyes met brown, Allie’s heart performed an almost painful somersault in her chest that stopped her breath and turned her tongue into a stone. She ought to say something, to say who she was and explain why she was there, but all she could do was look. The seconds streamed past while Allie examined the woman's face. It was a lesson in perfect geometry. The sharp angle of the jaw led to the almost concave plane of the face which was topped by the sensual curve of the cheek and over all was the acute arch of the eyebrow. The result was so arresting that an enormous effort was required for Allie to stop looking and lift her tongue to speak.

"Hello! I'm Allie Novak, Debbie's teacher. Would you be Mrs Smith?"

"That's me." Her voice was a purring contralto that seemed to resonate inside Allie's bones. Mrs Smith stepped forward and thrust one slim tanned arm towards her, offering her hand. "Is Debbie in trouble? Is that why you're here?" Allie smiled and shook her head. Preparing to answer, she managed to lift her arm to shake the other woman's hand. Mrs Smith appeared only then to notice that she was sweaty and filthy with dirt. "Oh, sorry. You'd better not." She looked down at herself seemingly in horror at her appearance and wiped her hand on the leg of her pants. "I'm not fit to be seen!" she murmured ruefully.

Allie vehemently disagreed, but responded only by saying, "I'm sorry to just show up like this, but I'm so impressed with Debbie that I wanted to come by and let you know." Allie was beginning to compose herself now, and as long as she didn't think about what her powerful reaction to this woman meant, she thought she could probably get through the conversation without making an utter fool of herself. She scrabbled through her bag and eventually found the composition Debbie had written. She smiled at Mrs Smith and waved it triumphantly, feeling that it gave her a legitimate reason to be here talking to her. "You must see this essay she wrote about your cat. It's so wonderful … the way she describes …"Allie trailed off. Mrs Smith was frowning. "Is something wrong?"

"No," she replied, smiling now. "Except that we don't have a cat. Let me see that …" Allie passed her the sheets of paper.

"A black cat, called Merriweather?" Allie clarified. "With a very shiny coat? And a talent for falling …"

Mrs Smith interrupted. "Other children might have imaginary friends. Debbie has imaginary pets."

Allie felt like a fool and it must have shown on her face. "Don't feel bad," said the other woman, smiling sympathetically. "You're not the first one to be taken in." At the sight of that smile Allie instantly felt better.

"Well, now I'm even more impressed by her writing. She has imagined it all very vividly!"

"Sounds like Debbie. I'm glad she's doing well at school and it's very kind of you to come over to tell me." This last was spoken a little haltingly as though she was not quite sure why she had come. Allie decided that this was the perfect moment to address the main reason she had come.

"Mrs Smith …"

"Please, call me Bea," Mrs Smith interjected, ducking her head. The name ricocheted around inside Allie's skull: Bea, Bea, Bea … Allie tried to silence it, to be professional. She took a breath.

"Bea. I couldn't help but notice, "Allie began cautiously, "that Debbie has seemed a little out of sorts the last few days. Is there anything wrong that you're aware of? Anything that would explain why she's tearful and frustrated … and angry ..."

The reaction from the redhead was shockingly sudden. A veil of hostility drew down over her previously friendly face. Her fists bunched by her sides. She leaned towards Allie, shoulders tense and spoke in an artificially steady voice. "You think I don't know how to look after my daughter?" The light in her eyes had changed from bemused to ferocious.

Allie stepped back in horror at the reaction she had elicited. "I'm not suggesting anything of the kind!" she protested. Damn! Now she had alienated her, and she would never listen to her concerns, maybe never speak to her again. Sorrow coursed through her and tears promised to follow. She shook her head. "I didn't mean to upset you. Please just think about it. Something is bothering her, I'm sure. Perhaps you can figure out what and help her. That's all I want."

Bea turned her head away slowly, seemingly keeping her temper with a great effort. Allie felt as though Bea could no longer bear to look at her.

"You'd better go," she growled finally. Allie nodded.

"I have to catch the bus anyway." She glanced at her watch without taking in what it showed.

Bea unclenched enough to point out a trail that ran around the side of the house. "That's the quickest way." Allie nodded her thanks and hastened away.

"Goodbye," she said quietly as she passed Bea, not daring to look up and see the expression on her face. Tears were very close now, and she couldn't bear to humiliate herself any further.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *            *

When Bea first became aware of the woman standing in her garden she could not, for a moment, reconcile the appearance of this glamourous stranger with the backdrop of bean and tomato plants amongst which she stood. The woman seemed similarly shocked by her appearance judging by the way she was staring. Bea stared back. What was this woman doing here? To say she looked out of place was an understatement: the chic dress, stockings and neat shoes belonged in a fashion plate not here in Broadlea. If a giraffe had wandered into her garden, she could not have been more surprised.

She was not surprised when the woman introduced herself as Debbie’s new teacher. Bea had lived in the area her whole life and would ordinarily recognise anyone who was likely to drop by the house. Besides, Debbie could not stop saying how pretty Miss Novak was and this woman fitted, no, surpassed , that description. She looked at her face for a while since Miss Novak seemed in no hurry to explain her visit. She really ought to be on the silver screen rather than at the chalkboard. She had the most amazing rounded cheeks that called out to be cupped in a palm, and her eyes - what colour could you call that? Undeniably blue, but not like any other blue eyes she had ever seen. Not baby blue, or powder blue. Maybe ice blue, but warm not cold … Bea roused herself from her reverie and held out her hand for a handshake.

"Is Debbie in trouble? Is that why you're here?" Bea suddenly realised how she must look: sweaty and filthy and wearing the outlandish get-up she customarily wore for gardening. Christ! What must she think of me? Horrified at the impression she must be making she tuned out from what the other woman was saying.

When she tuned back in the teacher was smiling at her and waving something Debbie had written about a cat. Bea soon understood what Debbie had done here. It was just like that time she told Liz that she had a pony: not so much lying as wishful thinking. Once Bea pointed out to Miss Novak that they didn’t have a cat she could see that she was embarrassed at her gullibility.

"Don't feel bad. You're not the first one to be taken in,” Bea told her. She smiled at her to try and lessen her embarrassment. The answering smile was dazzling, and Bea felt herself grinning harder in response, her whole self feeling lighter and happier. What was this? Why should a stranger be able to lift her like this? What was she even doing here? Surely she hadn’t made this visit just to compliment Debbie’s essay.

“I'm glad she's doing well at school and it's very kind of you to come over to tell me," Bea said, fishing for some kind of real reason. And she got it. Something was wrong with Debbie, she was saying, as though she knew her daughter’s moods better than her own mother. As though Bea didn’t worry enough about her, didn’t do everything she could to comfort and protect her. As though Bea was just letting Debbie be harmed. Her image of herself suddenly shifted, assaulted by this strangers’ view of her. I am that person, she realised . I ought to be able to protect Debbie, but I can’t. And then she was angry, so angry. She spoke angrily to the woman. She wanted to hurt someone or something.

When she had calmed down she could be grateful that Debbie hadn’t been around to witness her behaviour. She was off somewhere with Sophie climbing trees, catching frogs or whatever it was they were amusing themselves with at the moment. Then she was sorry that the teacher was gone. She had liked her, liked talking to her, liked looking at her … her mind veered away from that thought. She had felt connected for a few minutes. Maybe they could have been friends. But she had ruined that with her temper. She could feel that she had overreacted, that Miss Novak ( Allie , she reminded herself) was probably not accusing her of anything but was just concerned for Debbie. The only one accusing her was herself.

*           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *           *            *

“You were very quiet over dinner,” Maxine ventured, sitting down next to Allie. She had retreated to the front porch at Thomasina Towers, as had become her habit in the evenings, to give herself time to think things over. Today she had more than usual to consider. She knew what her reaction to Bea Smith meant. She had been there, or somewhere nearby, before, and it had ended in disaster. She had promised herself no more romantic attractions. That Bea was married and unavailable only made it more stupid and dangerous. And then there had been Bea’s hostility. It was painful to remember how she had looked and sounded in those few moments, and now Maxine’s sympathy was threatening to unravel her composure.

“Just … a lot happened today,” she replied, attempting to mask her emotions with an easy tone of voice.

“Oh yeah? Your students giving you a hard time?” Maxine asked with a gentle smile.

“No,” Allie exhaled loudly, “one of the mothers didn’t like something I said.” Her heart started pounding at her audacity in mentioning Bea to another person. Allie knew she shouldn’t be saying anything, but Maxine was just so easy to talk to. She was expecting Maxine to ask for more details, but she was silent, watching Allie expectantly to see if she wanted to say anything else. She really appreciated this about Maxine, that she was interested in people but not nosy.

“Bea Smith …” Allie found herself saying, looking up at the night sky, not seeing the knowing look on Maxine’s face.




Chapter Text

The next morning Bea and Debbie entered the Broadlea General Store hand in hand. It was their usual habit to visit the store on Saturday mornings to see their friends Liz and Sophie and to pick up any supplies they were short of. Elizabeth Birdsworth owned and ran the store which stocked all the items that the people of Broadlea were likely to need as well as many that they were unlikely to ever want. Sophie, her daughter, was three years older than Debbie but they were well suited as friends and they liked nothing more than to spend time together.

"Morning Liz!" Bea called out as they came through the door.

"Morning love!" Liz swept out from behind the counter to give Bea a hug. As Bea hugged her back, her expression gentled and a smile curled her lips. "Morning Debbie,” Liz continued, stroking the girls’ hair. “Sophie's in the back. Go on through." Debbie skipped off happily.

"It's quiet in here this morning," Bea observed. She was the only customer at the moment and Saturday was usually Liz's busiest day.

"I reckon you missed the rush. You're a little later than normal."

"Yeah. Debbie took ages to get ready. Woke up on the wrong side of the bed today …” Bea looked away. Liz just nodded in understanding. “I had to promise Debbie I would take her into Charlottesville today to play with her cousins, though I could do without spending the bus fare.”

“Not got the truck then?” Liz asked, although the look on her face suggested that she knew she hadn’t, and she knew the reason why.

“No. Harry took off in it yesterday morning. Can’t say when he’ll bring it back.”

“Hmm,” Liz replied with a meaningful look. Bea knew she was thinking that the loss of the truck would be a small price to pay if Harry could be gone permanently. Bea didn’t reply. She understood Liz’s opinion of Harry and she couldn’t disagree.

Seeing Bea's discomfort Liz changed the subject. "Sophie's been telling me all about the new teacher. I've seen her waiting for the bus, but I haven’t met her yet. Sophie's quite taken with her. How about you?"

"Yeah," Bea replied. She meant to say that she had met her, but it now she thought it might sound like she was taken with her. She blushed deeply and looked at her feet. "I … I met her … briefly yesterday …" she clarified. She risked a glance at Liz's face. Liz looked amused but managed not to tease Bea about it.

"She looked every inch the city girl," Liz continued, "but Sophie assures me that she's very kind and clever too."

"Debbie can't stop talking about her," Bea added, trying to calm her thumping heart.

"What did you make of her, love?" Liz asked, intrigued by Bea's flusteredness.

"She, uh, she seems very dedicated … and, um, perceptive. As long as the children respect her I think she'll be fine." Bea managed to croak out.

Liz nodded, looking at Bea out of the corner of her eye. "That's good," she said faintly, her mind working.

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Saturday morning at Mrs Wentworth's found Allie in the sitting room with Boomer and Maxine. Boomer was writing a reply to a letter she had received from her cousin. Her sighing and groaning were letting Allie and Maxine know that it wasn’t going well.

"I can't send this!" She was in a state of despair. "She won't even be able to read it!" She threw the paper and pencil down on the table in a temper.

Allie looked up from the book she was reading. "I have pretty decent handwriting," she chimed in. "Why don't you dictate it to me and I'll write it down."

"You'd help me?"

"Of course."

"That's good of ya Allie." Boomer punched her lightly on the shoulder.

"What are friends for?" Allie replied. "How shall I start?"

"Um … 'Dear Franky'," she began.

"Oh, this is the Franky I've heard you mention?" Allie asked, beginning to write.

" Francesca . Yeah, she used to stay here too. She got me a place here but now she's gone off to study at a catering college." Boomer looked so downcast as she said this that Allie could tell that the big woman missed her cousin badly.

"She had your room in fact, Allie," Maxine interrupted. She lowered her voice. "It was Franky that came up with the ‘Thomasina Towers’ thing. She thought Mrs Wentworth was a ‘puffed up windbag’, but Franky ran rings round her , alright.”

Boomer began guffawing. “D’ya remember that time with the peach cobbler?”

“Shhh!” Maxine hissed. “She’ll hear you ...” but she was laughing too. At that moment Mrs Wentworth put her head around the door.

“Everything alright ladies?” she asked, looking suspicious at all the merriment. Allie managed to maintain a straight face.

“Just catching up with our correspondence,” she replied earnestly, holding up the paper and pencil as proof of their industriousness. Mrs Wentworth didn’t look entirely convinced but nodded and withdrew. Muffled laughter followed her all the way back to the kitchen.

       *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Allie turned her face up to the sun, appreciating the warmth. The city streets were busy, and the sidewalks crowded, but she enjoyed a leisurely stroll, looking in the shop windows and making a mental note of the street names, building up her map of the area, wondering if she would be able to find the library. Catching a glimpse of red hair her heart started pounding. “Bea” was the word that rang out inside her at the sight of that particular shade. She smothered the thought. “Don’t be an idiot. Can’t you think of anything else?” But she had thought of little else since yesterday.

The red head bobbed its way towards her. The person underneath that hair had an energetic and impatient gait, weaving their way through the pedestrian traffic. Allie narrowed her eyes. It was Bea, looking becoming in a deep green dress. Without a thought, she moved to intercept her. Only when Allie stepped into Bea's eye line and was recognised did she wonder if it was the wisest thing. Bea stopped abruptly, as though detained by an invisible barrier.

"Bea." She paused, attempting to determine if Bea would even speak to her. Was she still angry after their conversation yesterday?

"Allie … Miss Novak …" Bea looked away and sighed. Allie smiled involuntarily on hearing her name in Bea's mouth. Bea's mouth. Allie stared at her mouth and eventually turned her attention to her eyes. She saw doubt there and indecision. Bea seemed to be staring right through Allie, somewhere in the region of her midriff. Allie wondered if she should say something or wait for Bea to continue. After a few false starts and some furious blushing Bea continued. “I should apologise for yesterday. I overreacted and …”

“There’s really no need.” Allie smiled reassuringly into her face and managed to catch her eye momentarily. Something gleamed there for a second. “I shouldn’t have ambushed you with so sensitive a subject.”

When Bea replied, her voice was gruffer than ever. “Well you needn’t be so nice about it. Just take the apology, won’t you?”

“Apology accepted,” Allie replied pertly with a grin. “On one condition…”

“What would that be?” Bea asked with an eye roll and a hint of a smile.

Allie beamed. “That you accompany me into this tearoom, right here, and let me buy you a drink and a slice of cake.”

“Shouldn’t I be the one buying? Seeing as I’m supposed to be apologising?”

“But you’d be doing me a favour really,” Allie insisted, giving Bea her best sad face. “I know hardly anyone in Charlottesville, and this is my first weekend in town. I don’t want to spend the whole day alone.”

Bea appeared to hesitate, looking up and down the street anxiously. “Well, when you put it like that I can hardly refuse, can I?”

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

When Bea noticed Allie converging on her, her first thought was an impatient one. If she was going to go over it all again, about Debbie, she was not going to stand there and listen to it. Next moment she reproached herself for her knee-jerk reaction. When she allowed herself to think about yesterday she knew she ought to apologise: the poor woman was only doing her job after all. Bea took her in. She was smiling at her, so presumably would accept a friendly apology. Bea’s eyes travelled down Allie’s body to her tidy waist. Suddenly her mind was assailed by an image of her own hands placing themselves one on either side of Allie’s waist and drawing her towards her. She tossed the image away, but it wouldn’t stay away. Again it was there in her mind’s eye. Her arms gave an involuntary twitch. She dismissed the image again, but it returned as though it was caught in a crevice of her brain and destined to replay incessantly.

Belatedly realising that she had been staring for some time, Bea attempted to speak her apology. Her embarrassment at her own thoughts was making her incoherent, she knew. On top of that she was blushing again. Eventually she managed to get out an inadequate apology only for Allie to dismiss it. Her smile and her compassionate look were enough to make Bea’s throat close up and tears begin to form in her eyes. Bea couldn’t remember the last time she had felt someone’s kindness so keenly. Perhaps it had been when her mother was still alive, or her grandfather. So it was, thinking of those long ago loving faces, that Bea began to respond to Allie from her true self.

Following Allie in through the door to the tearoom, Bea had a moment of panic. She never went into places like this, her funds always being so low. If she had to actually pay for anything it would cause her to be short of cash until Harry turned up again. Allie must have sensed her anxiety because she turned round and gave her one of those smiles.

A waitress showed them to a table away from the window. As they sat down Allie passed Bea the menu. Bea tried to concentrate on the options but was distracted by Allie’s hands. They rested on the table in front of her and Bea couldn’t help but notice the long, slim fingers and the perfect shiny nails. She was painfully conscious of how her own hands contrasted: reddened skin dry and rough, nails torn and irregular. She flattened her hands under her thighs so that she wouldn’t have to look at them.

When the waitress came to take their order Bea chose almost randomly. “Tea and a slice of chocolate cake, please.” Bea never drank tea and didn’t know why she had ordered it.  Allie didn’t even look at the menu, her eyes resting on Bea instead.

“I’ll have the same.” Allie waited until the waitress had gone before making some small talk.

“Debbie not with you this morning?”

“I brought her over to my sister-in-law’s place to play with her cousins. Mary, my sister-in-law, is not that fond of me, but she loves Debbie. I said I had some errands to run downtown so I wouldn’t have her criticising me for two hours.”

“Is that your brother’s wife?”

“No, I’m an only child, like Debbie. Mary is Harry’s, my husbands’, sister.” She folded her lips together. She really didn’t want to talk about Harry. She felt so out of place in this smart tearoom and hardly knew how to explain to herself why she had agreed to come. Then the tea arrived. Allie poured for them both, adding milk from the tiny jug, passing the sugar, all elegantly and easily, while Bea could only stare at her cup and her slice of cake and wonder how she was ever going to get anything into her mouth without making a fool of herself.

“Tell me something,” Bea demanded, “… about yourself.”

Finally Allie removed her gaze from Bea and picked up her cup. After taking a sip she continued to stare at the liquid and began talking.

“My parents emigrated from Poland before the war. They settled in Greenpoint, which is in Brooklyn, and opened a grocery store. Both my brother, Lukas, and I were born here in America.”

As Allie talked Bea was able to relax enough to pick up her cup and drink, to pick up her fork and try the cake. When she looked up she watched Allie’s lips moving, noting how pink they were and how full. There was a beauty spot just above her lip on the left side. Bea watched it move as Allie spoke. How was it that she hadn’t noticed it before? Now she couldn’t take her eyes off it. Some might have considered such a mark as a flaw, but Bea could see that it only made Allie’s face more beautiful, more perfect.

Allie told her how determined her parents had been for her to have a college education.

“They must be very proud, now you’re a teacher.” Bea commented.

Allie just shrugged. “I think they were.” Past tense. Bea let it go, detecting something uncomfortable behind the words.

As Allie continued Bea became absorbed in what she was hearing and relaxed, forgetting where she was, focussed only on what Allie was telling her. When she next looked at Allie her eyes were back on her again, but this time Bea was able to meet them.

When Allie stopped talking for a while to eat her cake Bea surprised herself by offering up some information about her own life.

“The reason Debbie has been out of sorts … It’s probably because her father is not with us all the time. He comes and goes, and all the change is what makes Debbie unsettled.” A half-truth at best.

Allie nodded thoughtfully. Bea’s eyes skittered away. She knows …

“This last week … was he back, or gone?” Allie asked gently.

“Back …” Bea breathed. She cleared her throat. “He showed up Monday night after being away for weeks. Left again yesterday morning. If … if he stays gone for a while … you’ll see … Debbie will be her old self again.”

Allie nodded again, more firmly this time. Bea couldn’t believe she had told her so much. They barely knew each other and yet this was more than she had ever told anyone about hers’ and Debbie’s situation. She could be imagining it, but she thought she was breathing a tiny bit easier.       

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Allie could hardly believe it when Bea agreed to her spontaneous idea. She headed into the tearoom quickly before Bea could change her mind. Bea ordered tea and cake and Allie, who didn’t have her reading glasses with her, went along with it although she disliked tea herself. As she sat there she schooled herself: “Don’t upset her again. And don’t scare her off.” When her first nervy question was about Debbie she could have kicked herself, but Bea answered neutrally and didn’t seem to take it the wrong way this time. But once the subject of Harry came up Allie could see that Bea was becoming agitated. So, when Bea suggested she talk about herself she was happy to do so.

Deliberately not looking at Bea, in case her compulsive staring made her tense, she told her a little about herself and her family. She could feel Bea relax now that the attention was off her. Allie kept on staring into her cup and talking, but was able to shift her gaze enough to take in Bea’s hands as they lifted her cup and plied her fork. Her eyes were drawn to the gold band on the third finger of her left hand. If she stared at it hard enough, could she make it disappear? And Harry with it?

When Bea began to tell her, hesitantly, about her home life Allie listened carefully, sitting very still as if she was being approached by a shy wild animal who might startle away at any moment. Debbie was upset because her father was home. That told her a lot. Her heart clenched painfully at the thought of what might be going on in that house and of how long it might have been going on for. Allie reached out without thinking and grabbed Bea’s hand in hers, gave it a sympathetic squeeze and met her eyes. Bea allowed her hand to rest there, quivering gently like a terrified bird.

“You’re not alone in this Bea,” Allie said with emphasis.

Bea’s eyes clouded over again. “No. Debbie’s in it too,” she replied angrily, withdrawing her hand.

“That’s not what I meant …”

“I know what you meant, but you can’t help me Allie.” The rage was back. Bea glared at the tablecloth. “I’d better get back now. Mary will be wondering where I got to.”

“Please … don’t go away angry again,” Allie pleaded. Tears were in her eyes and in her voice.

Bea relented slightly. Enough to say, “This isn’t your fight Allie. Thanks for your concern. I appreciate it, I really do, but … Thanks for the tea.” She stood up and walked away without looking back.

Allie watched her go, thinking that Bea couldn’t just decide that. It was her fight too. She chose to make it her fight.

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Bea and Debbie walked slowly from the bus stop towards home. Debbie was swinging Bea’s hand and telling her all the things she had done with Benji and Caleb, her big boy cousins. Bea’s thoughts were still in a tearoom in Charlottesville. She recalled Allie taking her hand and the way every one of her hairs had stood on end at the contact, every inch of her skin and scalp prickling, electrified. She smiled and shook her head to herself. She didn’t know what that feeling meant but she had liked it and wanted to feel it again. Then that image in her mind: her hands on Allie’s waist pulling her near. Another image: Allie’s lips moving silently, her beauty mark flashing. Debbie stumbled and tugged on her arm bringing her back to herself.

“Did you get something to eat baby?” Bea asked. It was well past lunch. She hadn’t meant to be so gone so long.

“Yep. Aunty Mary fixed me a sandwich … but I’m still hungry!”

“Sure you are … Nearly home …” They rounded the corner of the house, and both sets of feet stopped dead. The truck was back.

 

Chapter Text

Allie made it to Thursday without giving in to her desire to see Bea again. There had been no improvement in Debbie’s mood, and she was worried about what that might mean for Bea. After school had finished for the day she sat at her desk and debated with herself whether to call in at the Smith house on her way to the bus stop. Would Bea welcome such a visit? Or would she think that Allie was interfering? After the way they had left things on Saturday she couldn’t be sure. Finally, she reasoned that she could use the trail past their house and if she saw Bea, she could explain that she was just passing by on her way home. It was a weak excuse, Allie knew, but days of thinking and worrying about Bea had worn down her self-control.

Approaching the house Allie could see Debbie heading towards the chicken pen with a small bucket. It looked like feeding the hens was one of her chores. She smiled to see the little girl ducking inside the enclosure and clucking to the birds in a conversational way. She didn’t immediately spot Bea until some sheets that were drying on the line billowed out and revealed her standing behind one of them. After so many days of not seeing her, Allie’s breath was taken away anew. Her red hair was tied back at the nape of her neck showing off her throat and jawline. Allie swallowed heavily, a familiar feeling gripping her belly. She’d felt like this before, but never this powerfully. The image of a face rose into her mind: a face formerly beloved but now gone. She dismissed the thought and headed over to Bea.

“Hi!” she called out, waving an arm in greeting. Bea looked over at her and gave a rueful half smile. Debbie cannonballed out of the chicken pen on an intercept course.

“Miss Novak!” she called excitedly. “What are you doing here?”

“Debbie. I was just heading for the bus, but thought I’d say hello as I was passing.”

“Miss Novak, this is my mama. Mama, this is Miss Novak, my teacher. Remember, I told you...”

“I could hardly forget could I Debbie?” Then to Allie, “A certain someone likes to fill me in on everything you say and do each day.” Allie could feel herself blushing at the thought of Bea listening to Debbie talk about her. “But as it happens Debbie, Miss Novak and I have already met.” Debbie looked disappointed. “But that introduction was very nicely done,” she added, stroking her daughter’s hair. Debbie and Bea smiled at each other. Allie was enjoying this, her first opportunity to see the Smith girls together. Their mutual love and dependency were clear, and Allie was heartened to see what a balm it must be for each of them to have the other.

Bea sent Debbie off to finish with the chickens. “I wasn’t sure if you would want to see me, after Saturday,” Allie confessed. 

“Well, since you’re here you can help me bring in these sheets,” Bea responded gruffly. Allie wondered if that sly glance meant that she was secretly pleased to see her. 

“Sure …”

Bea reached up to unpeg the nearest sheet but let out an involuntary gasp of pain. She couldn’t seem to reach up high enough and clasped her other hand to her ribs, her face pale.

“What’s wrong?” Allie asked, alarmed. Allie stepped towards her. Bea took a step back.

“It’s nothing. I just fell down the stairs the other day and bruised my ribs.” The look on her face showed that even Bea didn’t believe that Allie would believe that tale.

Allie gave her a flat look and Bea lowered her eyes like she’d been caught out. “Let me look,” Allie said stepping closer. Bea’s expression was mutinous. “Something might be broken …” Allie pleaded. 

“Nothing’s broken. It’s just a bad bruise,” Bea replied sharply.

“Just let me see, will you?!” The note of impatience in Allie’s voice seemed to make Bea’s resistance subside. She allowed Allie to tug her blouse free and lift it an inch or two. Just looking at the enormous mottled bruise made Allie’s own side twinge empathetically. “Oh Bea!” She met Bea’s eyes and all she saw there was shame. Was it shame that this had been done to her? Or shame that Allie was seeing it? Perhaps asking to look had only made things worse. Allie turned hot and cold alternately with anger and fear. She brushed her fingertips lightly over Bea’s ribs, watching the muscles twitch under her touch. “When exactly did this happen?” she asked.

“Um, Saturday,” Bea replied, looking off into the distance. Saturday. That was the day Allie had met Bea in town and encouraged her to stay for a drink. My God, she thought. Was this my fault? Did he do this because I kept her away from home longer than he liked? Her mouth dried up. She wanted to ask Bea if it was her fault, but Bea was looking at her as though she knew exactly what she was thinking. Bea shook her head slowly, side to side. 

“These things just happen,” she said, as though she was talking about someone falling down stairs. Allie nodded dumbly. “Better get these sheets in…” Allie stretched up and unpegged a sheet. Bea grabbed one end and they proceeded to fold it between them. Every new fold brought their hands into contact and their heads close together. They folded each sheet in silence. It felt to Allie as though they were enclosed in a bubble, just the two of them. She inhaled whenever Bea was close enough, to take in a scent that was equal parts clean sheet and Bea’s own spicy, earthy smell. By the time they were on the last sheet Allie’s head was swimming. Drawing close on the final fold Bea grabbed hold of Allie’s hands. “It’s good of you to drop by,” she whispered in an intense tone. “If you drop by again another day, check for the truck. If it’s here, keep walking.” Allie nodded. “Promise.” Bea met her eyes without flinching.

“I promise.” She didn’t pause to consider if she would be able to keep that promise. 

That night, as Allie got into bed, the scent of her own clean sheets lulled her to sleep with a smile on her face.

 

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On Friday afternoon Bea welcomed Debbie home from school as usual, and then spent the next twenty minutes unnecessarily sweeping the porch. Every so often she would look up in the direction that Allie would arrive from, if she were to pass by. She questioned herself about her eagerness to lay eyes upon the schoolteacher again, then mercilessly quashed the thought. She had no answers. She enjoyed seeing her and Harry had not been around since Saturday, so what was the harm?

When Allie did appear out of the trees Bea was still somehow surprised to see her, even though she had been looking out for her. Her heart leaped up, but she carried on sweeping as though nothing had happened. Bea didn’t call out to her or show any awareness of her until she reached the bottom porch step. Allie kept silent too and just looked at Bea and smiled as she so often did. Bea stopped sweeping and returned the smile. She didn’t know what to say. After a long half minute of staring and smiling Bea finally ventured a lame, “Hi.”

“Hi yourself,” Allie replied. “Where’s Debbie?” 

“Inside, drawing me a picture of the gorgon Medusa. You wouldn’t have anything to do with that would you?” Bea asked with a shy grin, knowing about the book Allie was reading to the class.

“She surely loves that story. You should see her face when I’m reading it. It’s like she’s right there in the adventure!”

“I feel like I’m right there at story time. She gives me the whole plot when she gets home.”

“I’m glad she’s enjoying it … I wanted to bring you this. I needed to call in at the pharmacy on my way home last night,” Allie looked down for a moment and Bea intuited that that was not entirely true. “And I noticed they had some of this … So, I picked up a tube … I thought it might help … with your bruises …” She gestured to Bea’s side and passed over a tube of ointment, looking worried, like she might be taking a liberty.

“Thanks,” Bea breathed, touched at the thought. It wasn’t often someone did something thoughtful for her. She took the tube and looked at it more closely. “Arnica …”

“Apply it twice a day, the pharmacist said. Shall I help you put some on now?”

“No!” Bea replied emphatically, remembering how her body had responded last time Allie had touched her there. “I’ll put it on later.” Allie just nodded, unperturbed and a little bit knowing. Bea surprised herself by being more amused than annoyed by Allie’s easy assumption that she could read Bea’s mind. Perhaps she could. And perhaps it was comforting to feel that someone cared enough to read between the lines on pages that had so far been left uncut.

Debbie came barrelling out of the door, handed a sheet of paper to Bea, and called, “C’mon Hector. C’mon boy!” patting her thigh in encouragement. She jumped off the steps and disappeared into the woods. Allie raised an eyebrow.

“The latest fictional pet,” Bea explained. “A hound named Hector. I wish she could have an actual pet but I don’t think I can feed any more mouths.”

Allie said, “Well, at least she has the chickens.” 

Bea scoffed. “Those chickens are not pets Allie!” 

“No, I suppose not,” she replied quietly, looking shamefaced.

“You’re such a city girl!” Bea told her fondly. Allie smiled blindingly, as though that was a wonderful compliment. 

Later that evening Bea surreptitiously applied the ointment to her bruises, thinking about Allie, wondering what if would have been like to allow her to touch her again, more thoroughly this time. Her heart rate picked up and a flush started up her neck. Stop it, she told herself. She was behaving like a moonstruck schoolgirl rather than an adult woman. And there was no chance of seeing Allie again now until at least Monday. Irritably, she tossed the tube of ointment into the drawer of her nightstand. She noticed a jar and drew it out. It was some hand lotion that Liz had given her for Christmas. She had forgotten all about it, but now seemed like the ideal time to make use of it. As she was smoothing it over her hands Debbie stuck her head round the door.

“What’s that Mama?” she asked, perching next to Bea on the bed.

“Just some hand lotion,” Bea replied, glad that she had managed to finish up with the arnica before Debbie had appeared.

“What’s it for?”

“It’s to make my hands softer. The washing and the gardening and all dries the skin out.”

“Smells nice. Can I have some?”

“Sure.” Bea rubbed a little onto her daughter’s hands, though of course her skin was already perfectly soft. Debbie sniffed her hands appreciatively. “What’s that one?” she asked, pointing to the tub on top of the nightstand.

“That’s cold cream. For my face … I guess you want to try that too?” Debbie nodded with a grin. Bea opened the jar and got a blob of cream on her finger, and then dabbed it right onto the tip of Debbie’s nose. Debbie gave a little squeal at the sensation. “You look so pretty Deb!” Bea teased. Before she knew it, Debbie had stuck her hand into the jar and smeared some on Bea’s nose, laughing. “Right, that does it!” Bea tipped her over onto the bed and tickled her thoroughly, growling whilst Debbie laughed and squealed with mock fear.

When they had worn themselves out with tickling and wrestling, they lay back on the pillows and watched the dusk begin to darken the room. Bea looked at her daughter’s profile, admiring the shape of her nose and the curve of her lips. What a gift this child was! She wanted it all for Debbie: success, love, happiness and, more than anything, an end to fear. For the first time Bea felt as though it might be within her own power to steer their lives into a better course. She hugged Debbie to her tightly. “C’mon baby, time for bed.”

 

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Over the coming weeks it became a habit for Allie to stop by every day on her way home from work. Harry’s truck remained absent and Allie noticed that Bea was nearly always busy at the front of the house as she arrived. Was this a coincidence, Allie wondered, or was Bea looking out for her? She had noticed some other small clues that maybe Bea liked her: the blushing, the difficulty in making eye contact, the teasing that Bea was starting to direct at her. And when Allie touched her, by accident or deliberately, it was difficult to imagine that the electricity that seemed to jump between them was all on one side.

But Allie still balked at making plain her true feelings for Bea out of fear of her reaction. Living here in a small village where life was dominated by the Baptist chapel Bea was likely to share the views of her God-fearing neighbours when it came to judging someone like her. Fear, scorn and disgust were to be anticipated. Pity was the best she could hope for. In New York Allie had been able to be “in the life” to a degree, but here it would be impossible. If she revealed herself to Bea and she was repulsed, Allie didn’t think she could stand it. She would have to leave Broadlea and would never see Bea again. Best to be cautious for now.

On one particular day Bea was hoeing between the rows of vegetables when Allie arrived. Once again, she was dressed in overalls and singlet like the first time Allie saw her. She stood and watched her for a minute, admiring her bare arms as she worked. At that moment Debbie crashed through the porch door and ran down the steps. She was wearing a red and white baseball uniform and carrying a bat under her arm.

“Hi Miss Novak. Wanna watch me bat?”

“Sure Debbie. I didn’t know you played baseball.”

“I’m just learning. Can you pitch to me?”

“Yes, okay,” Allie agreed walking over to her. “Where did you get the uniform?”

“It’s my cousin Caleb’s, but he grew out of it.”

Debbie picked herself a spot, shuffled her feet and swung the bat experimentally a time or two. Allie could see Bea watching them with amusement whilst pretending to carry on with the hoeing. She thought this was funny, did she? Well, watch this! Allie took a few steps back, palmed the ball into the mitt once or twice, then wound up, raised her left leg comically high, and gave Debbie an easy ball. Debbie swung hard and with a crack the ball sailed up and out into the long grass.

“Woo! Great hit Debbie!” Debbie looked shocked to have hit the ball so far, gave an enormous grin and ran off to fetch it. Allie turned to look at Bea who was doubled up with laughter between the beans, leaning on her hoe for support. “What’s so funny?” Allie asked innocently, knowing she must have made a curious sight pitching in such a heightened way and wearing her work clothes besides.

“Nothin’!” Bea gasped. “Great pitch Allie!” Allie just nodded with a serious expression on her face and spent the next ten minutes exaggerating her pitch more and more just to see Bea’s amusement.

“We could use a fielder over here,” Allie finally suggested. Bea dropped her hoe and came and joined the game. From the way she was running and jumping Allie could see that her injury must be pretty much healed. Allie’s heart felt light: there was no better way to spend her time than having fun with her two favourite people.

After a spectacular catch Bea called out: “Who’d like some lemonade?” Debbie readily abandoned the game at the promise of a cool drink. They sat on the porch and sipped their drinks. After a couple of minutes Debbie ran off to play on the swing that was strung from the branch of a tree not far from the house.

“Thanks for playing with her,” Bea said. “Where’d you learn to pitch like that?”

“I learned all my incredible baseball skills practising with my brother when we were kids.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it,” Bea chortled, tears of laughter welling up again.

“I’m glad you’re amused,” Allie replied in mock outrage. She was glad. She went on to tell her about Thomasina Towers and Mrs Wentworth’s terrible rissoles, just to make her laugh more. Making Bea laugh until she cried was her new favourite thing.

“I’d better go,” Allie finally said regretfully. “If I miss this next bus I won’t be back at the Towers for six.”

“Don’t want to miss out on the rissoles,” Bea quipped, her expression unreadable. Allie smiled sadly and headed off.

Allie made it back in time for dinner. Not rissoles, but chops that were more bone than anything, and some limp vegetables. Allie ate hungrily whilst the others stared and picked at their own food with little appetite.

“Pretty hungry there, Novak?” Linda Miles commented. Allie felt like she was trying to pick a fight, but nothing could rile her today, after her perfect afternoon with Bea and Debbie.

“Umm, yes. Pretty hungry,” she agreed amiably. Linda scowled but let her be. Maxine smiled at Allie, looking smug.

 

Chapter Text

Spring turned into summer and Harry stayed away. The vegetable garden flourished, as did Debbie. Allie visited every weekday and so Bea flourished too. Bea and Debbie took Allie to pick wild strawberries, they showed her their own special spot by the pond, Allie helped Debbie improve her batting and pitching. Bea’s fists unclenched for the first time in a long time. She could sometimes feel a smile darting across her face, and her heart unfurled a tiny bit. She wondered if this was what people meant when they said they were happy.

The only shadow over this new reality was the money problem. With Harry gone so long there was no cash in the house. Bea had managed to sell some of her early produce, but that might cause difficulty later in the year when they would miss the preserves she usually put up. Liz had gladly extended her credit at the store although it nearly broke Bea to ask her. Bea prayed that Harry was still paying the mortgage. What would they do if he wasn’t? She resolutely turned her mind away from that desperate thought. For now they had a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. It would have to suffice.

Thursday was a sweltering day. By afternoon dark clouds were gathering presaging a summer storm. Bea stood on the porch looking at the sky. Some rain would be good for the garden but if it was a very heavy downpour it might crush the more tender plants. But there was nothing she could do about that. She turned back inside. She would make some of Debbie’s favourite cookies for when she got home. Perhaps Allie would like one …

The sky got darker still as Bea baked. Eventually she could see Debbie’s small form dashing along the trail just as the first few heavy drops splattered onto the dry ground.

“Hi Mama! I beat the rain!”

Bea could smell the tang of the coming deluge on the air. The wind was gusting hard now. Thunder sounded and then the rain abruptly intensified into a deafening cascade. They stepped out onto the porch to watch the storm play out. Debbie was hanging onto the porch rail and jumping up and down with excitement. Bea found it exhilarating too. The hairs on her arms all lifted up and an involuntary smile spread across her face. She almost forgot to worry about the garden. But Allie … surely, she wouldn’t come over in this weather? She would either wait for the rain to stop or go directly to the bus stop. Despite her certainty she still found her eyes straying to the tree line, just in case.

The rain continued to fall steadily. It had lost its initial intensity but would be enough to keep any sensible person inside until it had stopped. After a few minutes Bea had to accept that there would be no Allie today. She turned to Debbie. “Want a cookie Deb?” Debbie ran inside without even answering: that question only ever had one answer after all. Bea was about to follow her when her eye caught some movement on the path. A figure was hurrying towards the house, hair plastered to her head, mangled umbrella in one hand, sliding in the mud. Allie! She must be mad … Bea grabbed her coat and set out to meet her, the coat held over her head for protection. Despite the coat her legs and feet were almost instantly soaked. Her wet slacks clung coldly to her legs and her shoes filled with water. Bea ignored the sensation and concentrated on reaching Allie without slipping over.

Grabbing Allie’s arm to steady her she lifted the coat so it would cover them both. As they progressed back towards the house Bea slipped her arm around Allie’s back and grasped her waist so that she could more easily keep them both under cover. The cotton of Allie’s dress was soaked through and freezing cold, but Bea could feel Allie’s body heat against her palm in a most distracting way. Allie was sliding all around in her city shoes so that Bea had a tough time keeping her on her feet. And then, above the sound of the pounding rain, Bea could hear Allie start to laugh. Bea stared at her in consternation. What was wrong with her?

Reaching the steps Bea propelled her inside as quickly as she could. It seemed very quiet inside the house after the noise of the rain. Allie stood there dripping and laughing, grasping her elbows with her hands, shaking with the cold. A violent shiver ran through her. She must be freezing, Bea realised.

“Debbie! Grab me a towel. And get the blanket off the bottom of my bed!”

Debbie paused in surprise, a cookie poised near her lips, at the spectacle of her teacher standing in her house soaked through. “Yes ma’am!” She raced off up the stairs.

Seeing Allie shivering with cold and apparently hysterical, Bea acted without thinking. Placing one hand on either side of her waist she drew Allie to her, pressed herself against her, and then put her arms around her. Allie stopped laughing, shivered for a few more seconds, and then relaxed against Bea, absorbing her body heat. Allie smelled of rain on parched earth after a long dry spell. Bea soaked her in, tightening her hold. “Christ Allie. What were you thinking?” she murmured.

Allie put her lips close to Bea’s ear. “Of you,” she whispered. Her words and her hot breath on her ear set Bea to shivering in her turn. Her knees were feeling a bit loose and her heart beat kind of irregular. Breathing seemed more difficult than usual. She was holding Allie just as she had imagined doing not long after they first met. The reality of it surpassed anything she could have expected. Wherever their bodies met Bea’s skin thrilled and gooseflesh erupted. Hearing Debbie pounding back down the stairs Bea drew away, glassy-eyed and disconcerted. Debbie was exclaiming about how wet Allie was and, oh no what had happened to her umbrella … Bea tuned her out and wrapped the towel around Allie. Wordlessly she led her over to the kitchen and sat her down on a chair next to the stove. She rubbed gently at her hair while Allie just eyed her dumbly.

“We’d better get you out of these wet things.” Bea finally broke the silence. “Take off your stockings and I’ll put them to dry.” Allie’s eyes gleamed and an impish smile took over her face. Looking Bea in the eye she reached up under the hem of her dress to unfasten her stockings. Bea was treated to a view of one long, creamy-skinned leg at a time as Allie removed her stockings. Bea flushed and broke out into a sweat. She swallowed with difficulty then stood up abruptly and turned on her heel. “Get out of your dress too,” she said hoarsely over her shoulder. “Debbie and I will find you something to put on. C’mon Deb …” She stalked off up the stairs, leaving Allie to it, trailing whatever scraps of dignity she had left behind her.

        *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Once Debbie had dumped a dress of Bea’s in her lap, that same dark green dress Bea had worn the time that they had taken tea in Charlottesville, and run back upstairs, Allie reflected that maybe she had gone a bit too far. Getting caught in the chilly rain after the heat of the day seemed to have scrambled her brain. That and feeling Bea’s arms around her. And now Bea had run away and was apparently hiding upstairs. She sighed and peeled off her damp dress. Her under things were wet too. She took them off and dried herself with the towel, marvelling at the fact that she was standing naked in Bea’s kitchen.

She pulled the dress on and managed to fasten most of the eyelets. Putting her wet clothes to dry over the backs of a couple of chairs she sank back down feeling suddenly drained and weak. She could hear tentative footsteps on the stairs and then Bea poked her head around the corner. “Don’t worry, I’m not naked!” Allie sang out. Allie could see Bea’s blush from where she sat.

“How are you feeling now?” Bea asked her.

“Fine. I’m warming up nicely.” Bea came over and looked into her face. She looked concerned.

“Come sit on the couch and I’ll make you a cup of coffee. That’ll help chase the chill away.” With one hand she grasped Allie’s upper arm and led her over to the couch. She did feel a bit peculiar still and was glad to sink down into the soft fabric. Bea astonished her by crouching down, grabbing her feet and swinging her legs up onto the couch. She then proceeded to cover her with a soft red blanket and tucked it round her. “Just rest there. I’ll be back in a moment.” Allie watched her head back to the kitchen. When had someone last looked after her like this? She couldn’t remember. It was usually her consoling crying children and mopping bloody knees. To be coddled like this felt unfamiliar.

The whole downstairs of Bea’s house was open plan so Allie was free to watch Bea as she moved about the kitchen, added more fuel to the stove and prepared the coffee. Bea was wearing a pair of charcoal grey slacks that Allie had not seen before. They were wide legged but the way they fitted Bea around the hips and behind made Allie stare, look away, and stare some more. The sweater she wore looked handknitted. It was round necked and a little too small. The waistband finished at her hips and the sleeves left inches of her slim wrists uncovered. It was also kind of tight across the chest, Allie couldn’t help but notice. It was dark teal, or maybe petrol blue, a colour that made a dramatic contrast with Bea’s red curls.

This was the first time Allie had actually been inside Bea’s house. The warm weather had meant that all their other meetings had taken place either outside or on the porch. It was cosily furnished and well lived in. The rugs and soft furnishings were faded, and the paintwork needed refreshing, but Allie loved the Bea-ness of it. Pots of seedlings covered the kitchen windowsill, a clutter of dirty bowls and baking equipment covered half of the kitchen table whilst the other half was taken up with sheets of paper and a scattering of Debbie’s crayons, some of which had rolled onto the floor.

“Why is there a shovel in your kitchen?” Allie asked with a grin.

“Huh?” Bea swivelled round. She looked at the shovel leaning up against the wall near the stove. “Oh. It has a loose handle. I keep meaning to fix it.” Bea headed over to her with a cup in her hand. “Here,” she offered it to Allie. “Hope it’s not too strong.”

“Looks perfect,” Allie said, taking it from her and cupping her hands around it for the warmth.

“You should have a cookie,” Debbie said entering the room. “They always make me feel better.” Debbie sat herself down on the rug and began setting up a tea party for a teddy bear and a knitted creature that might have been a rabbit, or maybe a kangaroo.

“She’s right,” Bea said, heading back to the kitchen. “The sugar will help with the shock, or whatever that was …” Bea brought her over a homemade cookie on a plate and settled it on Allie’s lap.

Allie took a bite. It was chewy but with crunchy sweet nuggets studded throughout it. “Oh my God! That’s wonderful. What is it?”

Bea smiled, looking pleased. “Family recipe. We call them honeycomb cookies.”

“I think this might be the best thing I ever tasted.” The combination of the hot bitter coffee and the sugary cookie were working together nicely to revive Allie.

“Wait till you try her applesauce cake!” Debbie chimed in.

“Oh yeah?” Allie asked, cocking an eyebrow at Bea.

“That cake is for special occasions only … but maybe I’ll make it for you sometime,” she said, her expression promising something that Allie couldn’t interpret.

Bea was looking at Allie much more directly than usual, her eyes darting away less often. She huffed a breath out of her nostrils and seemed to come to a decision. She walked over to the couch, lifted Allie’s feet and sat down, replacing them in her lap. She covered them over with the blanket to keep them warm. But then, to Allie’s amazement and delight, her hands also disappeared under the blanket. Bea cupped first one foot and then the other between her palms, warming them. She stroked and rubbed until Allie’s feet felt pink and warm. Allie didn’t know where to look and was acutely aware of her lack of underwear. Debbie was right there only feet away and Allie was in danger of swooning from Bea’s ministrations. Her face was hot, and her pulse was thundering away in her throat, loud enough, she was sure, for the whole room to hear.

Bea looked over at Allie. “That’s better. You seem to have some colour back in your face now,” she smirked. Allie’s mouth gaped in surprise. She was doing this on purpose! This was payback for her stunt with the stockings! The knowledge that Bea was aware of the effect she was having on her only stirred her up more. Allie had assumed Bea disliked emotional and physical closeness because she so often placed herself at a careful remove, but here she was demonstrating that she wasn’t so withdrawn after all. Well, they said still waters ran deep, didn’t they?

Bea seemed to take pity on her and brought her hands out from under the blanket. Allie relaxed a little, though she missed the contact, settling back into the cushions and closing her eyes. This might just be her happiest moment ever, she reflected. Cosy on a couch, wrapped in this soft Bea-smelling blanket, the coffee, the cookie, Debbie babbling to her toys in the background, her feet in Bea’s lap. And Bea had touched her. Really touched her! Deliberately. Sensually. It was almost too good to be true.

Allie opened her eyes to check it was all real and saw Bea as though for the first time, again. Her beauty, her solidity, her cleverness. How would she ever be able to explain to her what she saw when she looked at her? Words were great. Allie loved words, but they couldn’t get close to what she wanted to say. So instead she told Bea, inanely, “I like that sweater.” Bea smiled sadly.

“My mama made it for me, when I was still a girl.” She ran her hands pensively over the sleeves. “I wear it when I want to feel close to her.”

“What happened?” Allie asked gently. Bea had never mentioned her mother before.

There was a long pause. “She died. Influenza. Years ago.” Bea gazed at Debbie. “I wish Debbie could have known her. Those cookies,” she gestured to the kitchen, “are the same ones she used to make for me. And I loved them just like Debbie does.” She smiled bravely but tears had bubbled up and her mouth and voice trembled.

“Oh Bea,” Allie sat up and scooted down the couch so she could take her in her arms. Bea accepted the embrace and even leant into Allie apparently accepting the comfort she offered.

“My daddy died when I was so little, I don’t think I even remember him,” she continued. “Quarry accident. So, it was just me and Mama and Grandpa and Grandma. That’s who raised me.” A tiny smile. “My grandpa was wonderful. A real mountain man. He knew the names of all the plants and birds and roamed all over the Blue Ridge as a young man. He taught me so much.” Bea’s eyes were unfocused now, seemingly lost in the memories.

“What about your grandma? What was she like?” Allie asked.

“She was as tough as they come. Not an easy woman, but hardworking and God-fearing. She loved me though. Just had a hard time showing it.” Allie nodded thinking about how some of those traits might have come down the generations. “God, we were poor. By the time mama got ill the house was just about falling down. Grandpa had died the year before and Grandma was getting frail. So, after mama died, I hung in there long enough to finish school, like I promised her, and then took the lifeline that Harry was offering.” She glanced at Debbie and lowered her voice. “He had a good job at the quarry. We got married. Got a mortgage on this place. Me and Grandma, we moved in.” She gestured helplessly. “How can I regret it, when I had no other choice?” She looked at Allie as though begging for forgiveness.

“You did what you had to do,” Allie told her softly, gripping her hand. She was appalled by the situation Bea had found herself trapped in. A young woman alone with an elderly grandparent to care for and no means of financial support, compelled to marry just to prevent destitution. Probably it had happened to thousands of girls and women over the years, but it was worse than ever now. The depression meant that whatever few jobs were available would never be given to a woman when there were so many men unemployed. The only reason Allie had her job was thanks to her college degree. She hated to think what she would be doing now if it weren’t for that.

Bea took in a breath, visibly preparing herself to continue. “I thought it would be alright. Harry wasn’t a bad husband at first, whilst Grandma was alive, and Debbie was a baby.” She glanced at Debbie again, checking she was absorbed in her game. “I never loved him,” she whispered. "And I don't think he ever loved me either. He just wanted to acquire me. Wanted to be able to look at me and know that I was his ." Bea’s expression was bleak. Allie thought she knew how much courage and effort it took Bea to open up like this. She also knew there was more to be said and tears that ought to be falling, but Bea would not yet allow herself to appear weak in front of Allie, and certainly not in front of Debbie.

“I need some fresh air,” Allie announced to the room. She stood and draped the blanket around her shoulders. “Debbie, your mama’s just coming with me onto the porch - to look after me.” Bea looked surprised but Debbie just nodded and poured some more imaginary tea. Allie linked her arm through Bea’s and led her outside. The rain had slackened to an ordinary shower and the sky looked brighter. Allie guided Bea to the porch swing, settled herself next to her and grabbed her hand. “Tell me the rest,” she pleaded. Bea shook her head and sucked in her bottom lip, looking just like Debbie when she didn’t want to cooperate. “You can tell me anything. You won’t scare me off, I promise.” Bea looked away. “You’re doing so well. I feel really privileged that you’ve told me so much, but I’m ready to hear the rest … if you’re ready to tell me.” Allie couldn’t think what more to say, so she shut up and waited.

Bea looked at her lap and said nothing for a long time. Then she closed her eyes and ground it out. “The first time he hit me I was so surprised I didn’t do anything.” Allie held her breath. “I’d never been hit before. Punishments at home had always been extra chores or learning Bible verses. I was shocked. I just took it and afterwards he apologised and said it would never happen again.” She made a disparaging sound. “I believed him. Anyone can lose their temper, right?” She looked at Allie. Allie nodded, gazing directly into Bea’s anguished brown eyes, trying to buoy her up with just a look. “When it happened again, he told me it was my fault. That I made him so angry he couldn’t help it. I believed that too, for a while.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Allie couldn’t help but interject, stroking her hand.

“I know. I figured that out after a few months. And then I started fighting back. But that only made it worse because he was bigger and stronger than me. And it seemed to give him permission to beat me harder.”

“Oh Bea! I’m so sorry.” Allie took the blanket from around herself and arranged it over Bea who had gone very pale.

“He never did it in front of Debbie. He would always send her upstairs or out to play, but I’d have to be a fool to think she didn’t know what was going on. After that I would go as limp as possible and just let him do it and get it over with as quickly and quietly as possible, hoping that Debbie wouldn’t know.” This last revelation seemed to be the hardest. She was trembling and her voice was thick. She managed to strangle out one more sentence. “That’s the worst thing: that I couldn’t protect my baby …” And then the tears would not be held back any longer. She sobbed and Allie took her in her arms and rocked her, tears silently running down her face.

        *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Bea sat at the kitchen table nursing a cup of coffee, exhausted. Debbie was in bed and now she could reflect on everything that had happened today. She thought about Allie, no doubt back at the boarding house by now, maybe taking off her borrowed dress and getting into bed. Bea had given her that dress so that she could have something dry to wear, and then had dampened it with her tears. Not that Allie had minded. She had let her cry herself dry and, although she felt wrung out, Bea had to admit she was relieved to have told someone. Allie didn't seem surprised by any of it, seemed to have guessed most of it. Maybe she wasn’t as good at hiding her feelings as she had thought.

Not that she wanted to hide anything from Allie anymore. That was the other big revelation of the day: Bea had allowed herself to understand what her feelings for Allie meant, and she had shown Allie that she understood them and welcomed them. Deciding that she was going to act had been terrifying, but touching Allie like that had been easy, natural. Watching Allie’s reactions to her hands on her bare feet had been like watching a silent movie: first the surprise - Bea was not usually so bold; then the arousal - the flush, the darkening eyes, the quickening breath; then the shock as she realised that Bea was purposeful in her actions - pleasure, amusement and maybe a little bit of pride. Curious to Bea was that watching Allie’s pleasure gave her so much pleasure.

Not long after Bea had cried herself out Allie had had to rush off to get back before dinner. Bea had wanted her to stay but didn’t know how to articulate it, so in the end said nothing. Allie looked like she wanted to say something too but just gave her a brief hug and left. The rain had stopped, and the sun had come out again making everything steam. Bea watched Allie disappear down the track, pieces of clothing trailing from her bag.

Then Bea had chores to do. Washing up the baking things, checking on the state of the garden, making supper. Debbie had watched her closely. When Bea asked her what she was staring at Debbie told her, “You seem so happy mama!” and Bea had realised she had been singing and smiling and maybe even dancing a little.

“Come and dance with me!” Bea called to her. She switched on the radio, found a station with music and she and Debbie polkaed and shimmied around the kitchen, singing and laughing and preparing supper all at the same time. Bea’s silly dance steps had made Debbie laugh so hard she got the hiccups, which wouldn’t go away for a full twenty minutes. Then suppertime, story time and bedtime. And now Bea should stop smiling into her cup and go to bed herself.

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Allie had arrived back at Thomasina Towers with only a few minutes to spare. Maxine was on the front porch apparently watching out for her. “There you are! I thought you weren’t going to make it. You seem to be getting later every night …” Maxine looked at her closer. “What happened?”

“What do you mean?” Allie asked, wondering if Maxine could tell what had happened between her and Bea just by looking at her.

“You look all bedraggled. No offence …”

Allie laughed. “I got caught in that rainstorm. Soaked through …” she gestured apologetically at herself.

“Where’d you get that dress? That’s not one of yours.” Maxine’s interest seemed to have been piqued.

“A friend leant it to me. Mine was wet through …”

Maxine looked closer still, seemingly taking in the fact that she was not wearing any stockings or foundation garments. “This friend … it wouldn’t be the Bea you mentioned to me before would it?” Maxine asked quietly. Allie was shocked that Maxine had made this leap of intuition. She knew her friend was perceptive, but if Maxine could work it out then other people might be able to too. Her horror must have shown on her face, because Maxine quickly said, “Don’t answer. I shouldn’t pry, and I won’t tell anyone … but … I’m happy you’ve found someone who makes you glow like that.” Allie blushed but didn’t say anything. She couldn’t think of what to say without giving more away than she already had, so she settled for sending Maxine a grateful smile. “Here,” Maxine said, pulling a hip flask from her pocket. “Have a nip of this - to celebrate. Or to numb your taste buds before dinner!”

Allie took it and gave a cautious sniff. “Moonshine? Where’d you get this?” She took a sip. Revolting, but warming.

“A certain someone ... who might be showing an interest,” Maxine replied archly.

“Really? Who?” Allie asked in delight.

“Well, if you won’t tell, why should I ... ?” But she was smiling, and her eyes were sparkling. “You’re not the only one with a secret.”


Chapter Text

Friday was inching by for Bea. All she could think about was Allie. She couldn’t get anything much done and looking at the clock every few minutes wasn’t helping. She would start in on a job and then the next thing she knew she had slowed to a standstill, caught in a reverie. She could remember the exact look on Allie’s face as she sat on that chair next to the stove … and then her mind was away, imagining what might have happened. What if she had knelt down in front of her and put her hands in her damp hair and pulled her in for a kiss? Her nerves were thrilling just at the idea of touching her lips to Allie’s. What would it be actually like to kiss her? The thought of it was overwhelming for the moment.

She flung the dishtowel aside. She was so distracted and restless. Perhaps some fresh air would help. She had a sudden inspiration and ran upstairs to get her pencils and notebook. She would hike up to the grove. It was peaceful there. She could sit on her favourite rock and look out at the view, and if the spirit took her, she would draw. She hadn’t drawn anything for months but suddenly her fingers twitched with the desire to put marks down on paper. It would calm her mind too, she decided … if she could still draw worth a damn. Pulling on her sturdiest boots, she set off almost at a run.

* * * * * * * * * * *

“Jimmy Morris. Come here please,” Allie said firmly, giving him her best stern look. He came up to her desk meekly enough, just like the other two times. “I have had to write your name on the blackboard twice today Jimmy. What happens if I have to write it for a third time?” He looked at her boldly.

“Dunno Miss.” Allie gave an internal sigh. He did know. They all knew the school rules from day one.

“If I have to write your name three times in one day, you will have to stay in at recess and do extra work.” He didn’t look concerned. “Is that what you want?”

“No Miss.” No hint of remorse.

“Well, if you flick one more thing across the classroom, that’s exactly what will happen. Now, return to your seat.”

Allie rarely lost her temper in class, not even with Jimmy who would be a trial to any teacher, but today her impatience was making it more than usually difficult. All she could think about was the end of the day, when she would at last be able to see Bea again. It had been so hard to leave her yesterday. Bea had seemed tired after she had told her about Harry, but the tears had dried up, and she was able to smile again before too long. Allie had wanted to kiss her so badly when she said goodbye, but had restrained herself, feeling that Bea had probably had enough new experiences for one day. But today? All bets were off.

And then all the way home she had thought about her, clutching that borrowed dress to her, enjoying the knowledge that it had been against Bea’s skin and was now against hers. Back in Charlottesville, she had stopped by a store and picked up a bag of good coffee to take with her the next day. She was sure Bea must be struggling for money and a little coffee went a long way in making life easier. She had that coffee in her bag now. If only she could get through the next few hours.

“Now it’s time for the spelling test,” Allie announced. A collective groan went up from the class. Allie felt like joining in.

* * * * * * * * * * *

As usual, the peace and beauty of the natural world had worked its spell on Bea, and she was feeling buoyant and lucky to live among the mountains and woods of the Blue Ridge. Her hike up to the grove had helped her feel less restless and she had managed some detailed drawings of a clump of violets with which she was more than half-happy. Heading home, Bea thought she would call in at the store to see Liz. Hank, the hired man, was at the gas pump filling up for a customer. Bea stopped to say hello and then went inside.

It was pleasantly cool and dim inside the store. Liz was arranging tins of peas into a pyramid on the end of the long counter. “Bea! What do you think? Is this display going to entice folks to buy more peas?”

“Oh definitely!” she nodded vigorously, laughing. Liz looked hurt, momentarily. “Just spoofing, Liz. They’ll be flying off the shelves.”

“Hmm … What’s got you in such a good mood?”

“Oh, I’ve just been up to the grove. It’s such a lovely day. The birds were all singing fit to bust and everything smells so fresh after all that rain yesterday.” Bea knew she was probably coming across as some kind of lunatic she was so full of smiles and enthusiasm. But she hardly cared. It was a beautiful day and Allie would be here soon, making it the only kind of day she cared for.

“Yeah? It’s not like you to give yourself a day off.” Liz said thoughtfully. “It’s good. You should do it more often if it makes you happy.”

“Well maybe I will Liz. Can’t hang around the house all the time.” Although that was her usual orbit. If she spent too much time away from the house and Harry noticed, there were repercussions. But Harry hadn’t been back for weeks and Bea was getting used to him being gone. Allie provided such an excellent distraction she hardly considered him these days, except as a past misery to be put aside. She looked up to find Liz watching her appraisingly.

“What’s going on with you, Bea? You seem different lately.”

Bea’s heart began pounding at the irrational thought that her feelings for Allie could somehow be divined. She shrugged, feigning coolness. “Harry’s not been around these past few weeks. Maybe he’s finally moved on.”

“Yeah? Wouldn’t that be something!”

 

* * * * * * * * * * *

Allie headed along the trail as quickly as she could without tripping or stumbling into a rabbit hole. She had lingered at her desk just long enough to let all the children disperse. She checked the windows, tidied the classroom, locked the doors, and she was away on winged feet. Heart pumping fast from the walk, or maybe the anticipation, she came out of the trees and saw the house. It took another half a dozen steps for her brain to catch up with what her eyes had already registered. Her heart faltered for a moment, and then raced away again, twice as fast as before. A dusty truck was parked outside the house.

She stopped abruptly, throat dry, eyes wild. Cursing herself for a fool, she flung her hand over her mouth to stifle a cry. Despite yesterday’s conversation with Bea, she had almost forgotten that Harry was a threat that could rematerialize at any time. He had been gone so many weeks that she had naively thought that maybe that was it, he wouldn’t be back anymore. Yet here he was. Allie didn’t know what to do and turned herself around on the path several times, indecision debilitating her. She had promised Bea that if she saw the truck she would just walk by. But how could she? How could she leave Bea and Debbie to face him alone?

She went closer to the house. She would walk by, she decided, and see if she could hear or see anything. She tried to look natural, as though she was just someone walking by, in case Harry was looking out of the window. When she got near enough, she slowed a little and squinted through the screen door. Was that …? Yes, there was Bea, moving about in the kitchen. She couldn’t see Harry or Debbie, but the ordinariness of Bea’s activity convinced her that all was well for the moment. She rounded the corner of the house, feeling relieved. But almost as soon as Bea was out of sight, her anxiety returned.

She stopped again and looked around. She wondered if there was somewhere she could watch the house without being visible. Maybe those bushes over by the tree where Debbie had her swing. She worked her way over there slowly, keeping to the cover of foliage or shadow whenever she could. Pushing between the branches of the shrubs she crouched down, manoeuvring herself until she had a view of the door. Then she watched and waited.

Every so often, she would see Bea’s figure cross her eye line. Once, she paused and seemed to be looking out, and then disappeared again. Then Debbie came out and fed the chickens. She seemed fine but did not linger today. The drapes in one of the upstairs windows were closed and Allie suspected Harry was in there sleeping. Allie's legs were stiff, and she longed to stretch, but she forced herself to be still. She glanced at her watch. It was getting on, but there was no way she was leaving. She pondered what she should do. Making a decision, she backed out of the shrub and skirted round the house keeping out of sight in the trees. She re-joined the track and headed on to Broadlea.

Walking rapidly, she approached the general store. She had not yet been inside, fearing that it might remind her too much of her parent’s store back home. She need not have worried. The Broadlea store was much more rustic. It sold all the usual food and household materials that she expected. Additionally, one wall bristled with farm tools, coils of fencing wire and other hardware. Then there was a post office window, a telephone and, strangely, a pool table.

“Good afternoon,” the shop assistant said. “Miss Novak, isn’t it? How can I help you?” The woman was short and a little dumpy with blonde hair and a kind expression.

“Hello …” Allie replied, wondering how the woman knew her name.

“Sorry love. I’m Elizabeth Birdsworth, Sophie’s mother.”

Now Allie remembered Bea saying that Sophie’s mother was the store’s owner. “Of course, Mrs Birdsworth. How nice to meet you,” Allie replied smoothly, doing her best to seem professional despite her agitation and the fact that she probably looked like she had been dragged through a bush, which was so nearly the case. Hoping to cut off any long conversation Allie quickly added, “Could I use your telephone?”

“Of course, love. Help yourself.” Mrs Birdsworth gestured to the telephone. Allie picked up the earpiece and cranked the handle. The operator came on the line. “Charlottesville 2545 please,” Allie said, and was put through to Mrs Wentworth’s boarding house.

“Mrs Wentworth speaking,” came her landlady’s precise voice.

“Hello Mrs Wentworth. This is Allie Novak. I’m very sorry about the late notice, but I’m afraid I won’t be back for dinner tonight.” Allie spoke coolly, masking her agitation.

“Oh dear. Is anything the matter?” Allie had an excuse prepared.

“One of my students is sick, and I’m going to wait here for the doctor. The mother is really very worried and shouldn’t be left alone just now …”

“You know I won’t be able to give you any rebate on your rent for missed meals, don’t you?” Mrs Wentworth pointed out.

“Of course. I wouldn’t expect …”

“What time will you be back? Because I lock the front door at ten o’clock precisely.”

“That’s fine Mrs Wentworth. If I’m not back by then you may assume I’ve made other arrangements.” Allie replied with some asperity. “Goodbye.” She hung up. “What do I owe you?” she asked Mrs Birdsworth, fishing for her purse, hands shaking in her haste.

“That’s just a dime,” she replied.

“I’ll take some crackers and a bottle of soda, too,” Allie said. “Do you have a washroom I could use?”

Mrs Birdsworth hesitated. “Not as such, but you can use ours. It’s just through here ...”

“Oh no. I wouldn’t want to put you out.”

“It’s alright. Come on through.” Mrs Birdsworth showed her through a tastefully decorated living room to a bathroom beyond. Allie was more than grateful. Her plan was to watch over Bea and Debbie for as long as was necessary, so a bathroom break now might mean less difficulty later.

When Allie was washing her hands, she glanced at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was partly undone and there were a couple of leaves caught in there. Wonderful! Just the sort of first impression she liked to make on parents. Luckily, Elizabeth Birdsworth didn’t seem like the judgemental type. She tidied herself up as best she could and headed back into the store. Mrs Birdsworth rang up her purchases on the register, opened her soda bottle for her, and Allie left as quickly as politeness would allow, eager to regain her vantage point and be reassured that the situation at the Smith house remained peaceful.

She ate some of the crackers as she hurried along and drank the soda, knowing that this was all the dinner she was likely to get today. At least now Mrs Wentworth wouldn’t be telephoning the Sheriff when she didn’t arrive home this evening. She had thought about calling the Sheriff herself, but what could she tell him? My friend’s husband has come home and he’s having a nap in his own bed? She would just be thought a crazy woman. She’d have to deal with this herself. Arriving back at the house she once more squirmed into her hiding place and resumed her vigil.

Dusk fell, the lights went on in the house, and all remained quiet. Allie was starting to believe that nothing would happen. That Harry would spend the night and be off again in the morning. The night deepened. It was dark like no dark Allie had known before. No streetlights, no sounds of traffic or neighbours, only the occasional rustle of some unseen creature that she prayed was something harmless like a deer, not a bear. Allie still heard and saw nothing from the house. Perhaps she should get closer. Now it was dark no one would see her. She backed out of the bush. It was becoming chilly. She had a thin cardigan in her bag, which she put on, though it didn’t help much. Her whole body was stiff as she ghosted towards the house. The downstairs lights were still on, though it must be late by now. If she could get onto the porch, she could peep through the window and hope to see Bea. She eased her foot onto the first of the porch steps, keeping to the side, where the wood was less likely to creak. Holding her breath, she transferred her weight gingerly. No sound. She stepped again. A tiny creak. She paused but there was no reaction from inside. Gaining the top step, she moved onto her hands and knees and crawled soundlessly until she was under the window. She placed her hands on the sill and slowly lifted herself until her eyes were above the level of the frame.

At first, all she could see was the living room and the kitchen behind that. Everything looked much the same as yesterday. Maybe a bit tidier. Then she moved her head to take in another angle and she could see the couch with a figure stretched out on it, covered with a blanket. Was it Bea? Yes, she could see her hair spread out in a fan around her head. She looked fine and seemed to be sleeping peacefully. She must be staying downstairs to keep out of Harry’s way. Allie sank down onto the wooden planks of the porch feeling tearful and weak with relief. She curled up on the unforgiving boards. This would be her bed for the night: she could creep away early in the morning before anyone saw her. The porch floor was cold and hard but knowing that Bea was safe and only a few feet away meant that it was as good as a comfortable bed. She slept.

A sound awakened her, fear making her surge to her feet instantly. Voices, raised voices. She looked in through the window, no longer caring if she was seen. Bea was retreating around the kitchen table pursued by a man. He was leaning forward aggressively, shaking a notebook in her face. Abruptly he dropped it and delivered a powerful backhander to her face that propelled her into the wall. Allie gave an involuntary cry and raced to the door. It was unlocked and she had rushed into the living room before she knew it, powered by adrenaline. Both Harry and Bea stared at her in astonishment.

“Who the hell are you?” Harry ground out, at the same time that Bea said, “Allie?” Bea looked astonished, then ashamed, then regretful, all in the time it took Allie to take in her pallor and the blood that coursed from her nose, dripping unheeded on the floor. Harry headed over to Allie and grabbed her by the arm, dragging her towards the door. “Get out of my house!” Allie used all her weight to resist him, but she was still being moved against her will.

“Get off me!” she protested. “I’m Miss Novak, Debbie’s teacher, and I’m here to make you leave your wife alone,” she asserted, trying not to be cowed by the hard, unfeeling expression in his eyes. He really was very ordinary looking, Allie told herself, as a way of fortifying herself against the rage she could see in him. You wouldn’t pick him out in the street as someone who liked to beat his wife.

“My wife, my house, none of your business,” he explained through tightened teeth. “Now get out …” and she was moving towards the door again, unable to stop herself.

“What do you think your friends and neighbours will think of you when I tell them what I’ve seen tonight?” she taunted him. “Harry Smith is such a coward he likes to beat on women!” A glimmer of doubt passed across his face and he paused in his efforts to remove her. “What do you care what I do?” he asked.

“Debbie is my student,” Allie replied. She clamped her lips together to prevent herself from saying anything more.

“Oh yes, Debbie’s mentioned you. Seems like she’s got a bit of a crush on you …,” he said nastily. Allie’s eyes betrayed her. She looked at Bea. She didn’t mean to, but she did. Bea looked at the ceiling in despair, blinking. Harry’s face hardened. He understood what he’d seen in Allie’s face. Pretty perceptive for such a jerk. He looked at Bea. “Debbie’s not the only one with a crush, huh?”

“It’s not what you think Harry,” Bea said desperately, coming towards him.

“Looks to me that’s exactly what it is.” He grabbed Allie tighter and pulled her to him, leering at her. “Fucking tom, sniffing round my wife when I’m not here!” Bea paled further. She grabbed at him, pulling at his arm.

“C’mon Harry. Let her go. We can sort this out … just the two of us,” Bea pleaded. For a moment, it seemed as though Harry would listen to her, but then his face contorted in disgust. He pushed Allie to the ground and held her there, a knee in her back and his hand on the back of her neck pushing her face into the floor.

“How far’s it gone? Huh?” Allie concentrated on trying to breathe. Bea didn’t say anything. Allie could see her clenching and unclenching her hands, rocking from foot to foot as though preparing to do something. Allie couldn’t move her head to shake it and tried to send her a “no” message with her eyes. But Bea was looking at Harry now. “When I think of you around my wife it disgusts me!” He was working himself into a rage, working himself up to hurt her more. He squeezed the back of her neck harder. “Even your eyes on her are an affront to God …,” he continued. Grasping her neck, he pulled it back and thumped her forehead into the floor. Allie cried out, her vision dimming for a moment, her ears ringing. Then his fist glanced off her ear. Then a blow to her shoulder.

Afterwards, Allie would remember the sight of Bea’s face looming over Harry’s shoulder. It was contorted with rage, teeth bared, eyes blazing, curls bristling. Her arms swung, a metal object came into view, there was a terrible sound and then Harry’s grip was gone from her neck as he slumped over, half on top of her, half on the floor.

Chapter Text

The dawn light began to filter into Bea's bedroom as she lay on her bed staring dry eyed at the ceiling. She heard the front door open and close quietly and got up to watch from the window as Allie made her way round the side of the house and headed for Broadlea and the bus. She looked up once, her eyes examining the house, searching for her. Bea drew back. She couldn't bear for Allie to even look at her right now. Allie’s face was pale, save for the bruise on her forehead, her eyes red rimmed with dark shadows of fatigue beneath them. Even her brilliant blue irises looked a little dimmer than usual. Bea's stomach churned with guilt. She reproached herself for bringing Allie to this point, for entangling her in this mess, for almost getting her killed.

If only Allie had done as she had promised. If only she had kept walking none of this would have happened. Bea would have taken the usual abuse; Harry would have been satisfied and left them alone again. Instead, Allie had undertaken this ridiculous scheme of watching the house … And now look at what had happened … And Allie had seen her at her worst. She had lost control completely. Done and said things that couldn’t be undone or unsaid. Her temper had always been hot. Allie had seen flashes of it before, but Bea knew there was no coming back from this. She knew she had hurt her. But Allie had hurt her too. She shook her head sadly, tears starting. It wasn’t fair: this happiness had been too short lived. She threw herself on her bed and muffled her sobs with her pillow. Eventually she fell into a light sleep.

* * * * * * * * * * *

 The early bus back to Charlottesville was empty and Allie was grateful for the privacy. Her mind was playing over the scenes of the previous night. The things she had said … Allie groaned to herself. It had been necessary, but she had seen the expression on Bea’s face. Unforgivable. And Bea was furious at her intervention. She had wanted to hold Allie to her promise. Allie had tried to explain how impossible it was that she could have just left Bea to face Harry on her own, but Bea was fixated. She had promised, that was what she kept on repeating. Allie had promised . Bea had been livid and had whisper-shouted at her on the porch interminably about that promise. Yes, she had promised, but why couldn’t Bea see that she had broken that promise for her sake?

Debbie had slept through all the chaos of the night. Bea had cracked Harry over the head with that shovel and, moving tigerishly fast, run up the stairs two at a time to check on the little girl, leaving Allie to crawl out from under him as best she could. Apparently, Debbie was fast asleep and spread-eagled on her bed as if she had fallen from the sky. All the rest of the talk that night had been conducted in low voices despite the anger and upset they felt. All their footsteps as quiet as they could make them, as they tidied up, cleared away, wiped up the blood, made the house look like nothing had happened. But something had happened and now they just had to live with it.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Bea was wandering around the house, unable to think about anything other than the events of the previous night. Debbie had divined her mood and had been alternately tiptoeing around her and trying to cheer her up. This wasn't good enough, Bea decided. She had wanted to protect Debbie from upsets not create new ones. She must do something to shake it off and she really couldn't face their usual Saturday morning visit with Liz and Sophie.

"How about we go down to the pond Debbie? We could take our bathing suits."

"Yes please Mama!" Debbie rejoiced. Bea gathered together the things they would need and packed a picnic. Swimming always made Debbie extra hungry.

The water of the pond was mild and green, with just enough sunlight permeating the leaves of the elms to make the basin seem private and magical. Debbie splashed around and jumped in countless times, trying to make the biggest splash she could. Bea watched on, pleased that she was enjoying herself, happy that she had not asked where Harry was this morning.

The cool water did its work on Bea. Her hot blood was tempered and her mind began to dissipate the frantic ferment that had occupied it since last night. The notion gradually came to her that she might have been too hard on Allie. Allie’s interference may have been ill considered, but everything she had done had been from an authentic desire to help and protect her and Debbie. Allie must have been hurt and frightened by Harry’s attack, but she kept her head and said and did what had to be said and done to end the nightmare. And instead of comforting her and thanking her, Bea had behaved as though she was the cause of the trouble. Bea gripped her forehead in frustration and sighed. Her head had got all mixed up again and she had blamed the wrong person. Poor brave Allie! She deserved better, though it hardly mattered now. That bridge had not only been burned, it had turned to ash and been blown away by the wind.

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Slumped on the porch seat at Thomasina Towers, Allie was wondering if it had all come to an end. She prayed that it had not. Harry was gone. Bea and Debbie could get on with their lives, but would she now not be a part of it? If she weren’t so tired, she would cry. The pulse in her head was hammering and her shoulders and back ached like nothing she had known before. She just needed someone to unlock the door so she could go to bed, but this early on a Saturday no one was around yet.

She tried to consider things from Bea’s position. It would be a big adjustment for her to accept that Harry wouldn’t be coming around anymore, terrorising her, hurting her and upsetting Debbie. She had lived all of her adult life with that fear hanging over her. Once something like that was gone, did it mean that sunlight immediately flooded in to replace it? Allie thought not, as much as she wished it to be so. Allie wanted so badly to be Bea’s sunlight … On the other hand, when she had come here to start anew she had promised herself a life free of romantic drama. Look at how that had turned out! If the situation hadn’t been so dire, it would be funny. Perhaps if Bea could no longer stand the sight of her she would get her wish. Now she really did feel like crying.

Hearing the rattle of the door handle, she looked up. The door opened and Maxine peered out. Seeing Allie, her face fell. She must look even worse than she realised.

“Rough night?” Maxine asked sympathetically. It was more than Allie could bear. Her face crumpled and tears immediately followed. Maxine swiftly quit the house and, sitting down next to her, folded her in her arms. “Oh, hon …” Allie sobbed whilst Maxine rocked her and made comforting sounds. “It’s not so bad … Everything will be alright …” Once Allie had recovered herself a little Maxine gave her an examining look. “What happened to your head?” she asked, gingerly touching the purpling lump.

“Oh, insect bite,” Allie replied tearfully.

… Some insect … ” Maxine replied with a sceptical look. “Come on. Come inside. You can tell me all about it later. For now, what do you need most? Breakfast? A hot bath?”

“Just sleep,” Allie sighed. Maxine nodded and led her inside.

She awoke several hours later feeling less tired but no less sad. The house was quiet. At this time on a Saturday, everybody was probably out making the most of the weekend: it would be a good time for a soak in the bath. She headed down the hall only for Maxine’s door to fly open. “You’re up! Feeling better?” Allie nodded and gave a faint smile. Maxine looked at her towel and wash things. “I’ll draw a bath for you,” she said, emerging from her room.

“It’s okay,” Allie replied. “I can do it …”

“You’re moving like an old woman,” Maxine noted. “Let me help you …”

“I’m just a bit achy,” Allie said.

“More than a bit I reckon.” She preceded Allie into the bathroom and set about running the faucets and organising everything. Allie decided it was futile to object. “I’ll leave you to relax for a bit now. When you’re done come to my room and I’ll see what I can do to make that bruise - sorry, insect bite - less noticeable.” She smiled kindly and left. Allie sank gratefully into the hot water and closed her eyes.

Forty minutes later, she hauled herself out. Her muscles had definitely eased up some and she was able to dress more easily than she had undressed. Heading back down the hall she tapped softly at Maxine’s door. “You look much better now. Come in …” she grabbed Allie’s forearm and drew her into the room. “By my calculations you must have missed out on at least three meals. When was the last time you ate anything?” She steered Allie to the bed and made her sit down.

“I had a few crackers yesterday evening but nothing since,” Allie confessed.

“Here, eat this. It’ll tide you over until dinner,” Maxine said, producing a candy bar. Allie nibbled at a corner and then ate the whole thing, surprised that she had such an appetite. Maxine looked on approvingly. “Now, I have some make-up that I think will disguise this nicely,” she said, lifting Allie’s hair to get a better look at her forehead. “And then I think we can arrange your hair over it for added camouflage.” She rummaged in a draw, finding the things she needed. “And whilst I do that, why don’t you tell me what happened.” Allie’s eyes immediately filled with tears again. She sighed and began.

After Allie had explained everything and shed a few more tears Maxine said, "So, she's angry with you?" Allie nodded, welling up again. "Allie, honey, don't you think you're overreacting?"

Allie looked at her with astonishment. "What do you mean?"

"It was a big night for her. For you too, but she's been living with this for a long time. You've only been here for a few weeks. You took the situation out of her hands and forced her to act. That’s gotta be hard to take. She probably feels like she should have taken the initiative … years ago. Plus, from what you've told me, she has feelings for you and to see you at the mercy of that bastard must have scared her and probably made her feel guilty. "

"I don't see why she should feel guilty," Allie grumbled. 

"Because if it wasn't for her you wouldn't have been at such risk." Maxine smiled. "I think deep down you already know all this but I can understand why you're upset. A first argument with a new lover is always going to be difficult." Allie blushed. 

"It's not like that. We … we haven't even kissed," she mumbled, looking at her hands.

"Yet … right?" Maxine said gently, catching Allie's eye.

"We never will now,” Allie protested.

"Allie … you just need to give her time to think about everything that's happened. Time to calm down. Sounds like she has a bit of a temper…?"

"Um. I suppose she is the fiery redhead type," Allie replied with a rueful grin.  

"You should have known better than to fall for a redhead," Maxine teased. 

"I didn't mean to fall for her. I couldn’t have helped it if I’d tried." Allie sighed and met Maxine's eyes. "You really think she'll forgive me?"

"Of course. Given your feelings, what you did was only natural. And once it hits her how much better off she is now she'll be thanking you." Allie smiled for the first time in a while. “There, look in the mirror. You can hardly see it now. But if anyone asks, don’t try to convince them it’s an insect bite.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

A bleak but calm mood had settled over Bea by the next morning. After a difficult night, during which she had gone over everything that had happened and mercilessly examined her own feelings, and berated herself for several hours, she had finally conceded that descending into a spiral of self-recrimination was not helpful. She had little hope that Allie would forgive her but she knew she had to try. If her nights’ musings had taught her anything, it was that this hollowed out feeling could not be borne for even another day. It was time to fix this, if she could.

First, however, there were some things she had to do for Debbie. Breakfast and then church. They didn’t attend church very often; just often enough to satisfy the neighbours, but this Sunday was a special one. Sophie had been invited to sing a solo and Debbie wanted to be there to watch her friend’s triumph. But once that was done, she would do her best to make this right.

When they reached the church there was a gathering of people waiting to go inside. Bea diffidently approached her neighbours, greeting each one and trying to make cheerful small talk. They wound their way over to Liz and Sophie.

“Morning love,” Liz greeted her with a smile and a hug. She held her at arm’s length and examined her. “You look like hell,” she added mildly.

“Thanks Liz! Don’t hold back will you,” Bea replied, slightly affronted. “I just didn’t sleep well last night.”

Liz nodded. “Looks like you haven’t slept for a week,” she said without malice. “Where were you yesterday? We thought you might drop by …”

“Oh, just busy … “ Bea said, at the same time that Debbie piped up: “We went swimming in the pond!” Bea looked at her feet.

“Oh right,” Liz said, apparently amused by Bea’s discomfiture.

“So, Sophie,” Bea quickly put in, “are you looking forward to singing this morning?” Sophie nodded, but looked a little pale. Debbie took her hand.

“Let’s go inside Sophie. We should sit right at the front,” Debbie said leading her away. Bea and Liz watched them go in silence.

“So ... I met your Miss Novak on Friday night,” Liz began. Bea’s heart seized up for a moment. Your Miss Novak? Why would she say that? Bea’s heart then set up an irregular hammering as she thought about Friday night. “She dropped into the store to use the telephone.” Bea couldn’t speak but managed what she hoped was a neutral nod. “She seemed really nice, I have to say. Very polite, but a bit on edge …” Was it Bea’s imagination or was Liz looking at her with a question in her eyes.

“On edge?” Bea managed to croak out.

“Yeah … “ Liz mused. Bea didn’t know what to say. Allie had gone to the store after seeing Harry’s truck, so no wonder she was on edge. Bea kept silent until Liz said, “Perhaps she’s just the nervous type.”

“We’d better go in,” Bea said, seeing that most of the congregation had already gone inside the church. As they walked Bea steeled herself to ask, “After church would it be alright if I came and used the telephone? I know it’s Sunday and you’re officially closed …”

“Of course. Use it whenever you like,” Liz replied with a smile. If she wondered whom Bea might want to call, she didn’t ask.

After the service was over, they congratulated Sophie, who was visibly relieved that her ordeal was behind her, and the girls ran off to play in Sophie’s bedroom. Liz unlocked the door to the store so that Bea could use the telephone and retreated to the kitchen to make some coffee. Bea stared at the telephone for a few moments, trying to calm herself and think what she wanted to say to Allie.

* * * * * * * * * * *

That same Sunday morning Mrs Wentworth had taken herself off to church to be followed by lunch at her sister’s. Maxine insisted that a still distressed Allie should come for a walk with her to clear her head. That left Linda and Boomer with the house to themselves. They played cards in the sitting room for a while, an occupation that Mrs Wentworth would surely have disapproved of had she been there. Linda eventually threw down her cards. 

“Gee, Boomer, I’m bored. What can we do?” she asked petulantly.

“Don’t you wanna play cards no more?” Boomer’s forehead creased in puzzlement.

“There must be something more exciting to do around here …” Linda mused.

Boomer thought for a moment. “I know where Maxi keeps her moonshine?” she offered.

“Great!” and Linda was on her feet and trotting up the stairs.

“Maybe we didn’t oughta,” Boomer hedged, following her.

 "Of course we should! Now, show me where it is.”

* * * * * * * * * * * 

Bea listened to the telephone ringing out at the other end. It was taking a very long time for anyone to answer it. Eventually the ringing stopped and a voice came on the line. “Thomasina Towers?” followed by the sound of giggling. Bea frowned. Surely, no one actually called the boarding house that?

“Um, hello? Could I speak to Allie Novak please?” Bea’s voice shook a little. She tried to calm her breath knowing that in a moment she would be speaking to Allie.

“Who? Who do you want?” More giggling. Bea was getting a bit annoyed now.

“Allie Novak please,” she said firmly.

“There’s no one here of that name …” a gale of laughter. Bea sighed. Had the lunatics taken over the asylum?

“That is Mrs Wentworth’s boarding house isn’t it?” she asked tartly. There was a guffaw and then the line went dead. Bea went through the operator and had her try again in case she had connected her to the wrong number. The telephone rang and rang. This time no one picked up. Bea replaced the earpiece with dismay. She leaned her forehead against the wall, tears of frustration threatening. She slammed her palm into the wooden panelling of the wall with exasperation, fuming that people could be joking around when she needed to get through to Allie.

Liz appeared with a cup of coffee in her hand. “What’s up love?” Her face was creased with concern.

“They hung up! And I need to talk to her … “ Bea was tugging at her hair, clearly about to succumb to one of her occasional rages. Liz put the cup down and placed a calming hand on her arm.

“This is about Miss Novak, isn’t it?” she said smoothly. Bea’s face dropped. 

“Why do you say that?” Bea asked, sharply, adrenaline surging.

“Don’t be mad, but Debbie has mentioned to me that she’s been spending a fair amount of time with you. So I … put two and two together after seeing you going around like you’re walking on air.” Liz looked at her so tenderly that Bea knew she understood and accepted her feelings for Allie. If she couldn’t drop her guard with Liz, then whom could she be honest with? “I think it’s really wonderful,” Liz went on, “that you’ve got someone who makes you happy at last. I know lots of people would think it’s wrong. But I’m not one of them.” She drew Bea into a hug.

“Thanks Liz,” Bea sniffled, accepting the embrace. 

“So, what’s going on? Why do you need to speak to her so badly?”

Bea drew back and sighed. “I said some really horrible things. I need to apologise … I can’t bear to think of her dwelling on what I said, being upset and blaming herself. I need to sort this out.”

“And it can’t wait until tomorrow?”

Bea shook her head firmly. “I need to get to Charlottesville. I don’t have the truck and there are no buses today … Could I borrow your delivery truck?” She asked suddenly.

Liz shook her head. “Sorry, but Hank has it. He’s helping his brother move some lumber.” Bea’s face fell. Liz pondered for a few moments. “There’s one other option, but I doubt you’ll like it.”

“What is it? I’ll try anything,” Bea asserted without hesitation.

Chapter Text

Liz led Bea out to the shed next to the store and swung open the heavy door. Sunlight shone through the cracks in the walls, illuminating the dust motes hanging in the air. Every part of the interior was packed with tools, equipment and surplus stock. Liz entered and drew back a stained tarpaulin that was draped over something towards one side of the shed, to reveal a battered looking motorcycle with sidecar attached. Liz looked at Bea with her eyebrows raised.  

“That old thing?” Bea asked incredulously. “Does it still go?”

Liz shrugged. “You’d have to try it. Hank used it a few months back and it went then.” Bea walked over to it and gave it a sceptical look. The tyres needed some air, it would probably need some oil, and who knows what else. She squatted down next to it.

“Better see what I can do, then …”

“Hank left some of his work clothes here,” she indicated some dirty garments hanging from a nail. “You’d better change, otherwise you’ll ruin your Sunday best.” Bea grimaced at the grimy jeans and plaid shirt but grabbed them and headed back inside to change.

After an hour of tinkering and much cursing, Bea managed to start the engine. She put air in the tyres and wheeled it over to the gas pump to fill up the tank. Liz had found a pair of goggles and a brown leather motorcyclist’s helmet that fitted snugly over Bea’s hair once she had tied it into a knot at the back of her head. A pair of Hank’s boots were secured around her ankles with string to complete the outfit. Bea looked down at herself in consternation.

“If she sees me like this, she’ll probably run a mile,” she said, pathetically.  

Liz smiled. “Perhaps she’ll be impressed with all the effort you’ve gone to.”

Bea scoffed. “You’re sure you okay to look after Debbie?”

“Of course! Her and Sophie will have a lovely time. Don’t worry … and ride that thing carefully. It’s been a while.” Bea nodded and positioned the goggles over her eyes. “Oh and why don’t you take these?” She handed Bea a large brown paper bag and a rolled-up blanket. “It’s just some sandwiches and so on. Perhaps you can persuade Miss Novak to have a picnic with you …” The word romantic was not uttered, but the twinkle in Liz’s eyes brought it instantly to Bea’s mind.

“What have I done to deserve a friend like you?” Bea asked earnestly, wrapping her arms around Liz and squeezing. She placed the bag and blanket in the foot well of the sidecar. “And for God’s sake call her Allie! Miss Novak just reminds me that she’s my daughter’s teacher.”  

With that, she climbed onto the cycle, started the engine and rode cautiously away. Liz watched her go. “Allie,” she murmured to herself, and nodded with satisfaction.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Returning to Thomasina Towers after their walk Allie and Maxine found the house in an uproar. Linda and Boomer were bouncing on the chairs in the sitting room and singing at the tops of their voices. “ She’s a Latin from Manhattan …,” crooned Linda, whilst Boomer tunelessly added, “ She can take her tambourine and whack it …

“What’s going on?” Maxine shouted. “If Mrs Wentworth catches you on her furniture you’ll be out of here before you know what hit you!”

“Hey Maxi! Come and join us!” Boomer called, bouncing up and down.

Though she does a rumba for us, And she calls herself Dolores ,” Linda sang on. Maxine grabbed Boomer’s hand and tried to get her to come down, but she shook her off and continued bouncing round in a circle.

“What’s wrong with them?” Maxine appealed to Allie.  Allie belatedly noticed the empty bottle lying on the rug. She picked it up and showed it to Maxine.

“They’re drunk!” she declared. 

“Hey, that was mine … Boomer! How could you?” Boomer had the grace to look a little shamefaced. She stilled her motion for a moment.

“Sorry Maxi,” she muttered. Meanwhile Linda had stopped bouncing and hurried from the room. She looked a little green and Allie guessed she was heading for the bathroom.

“Alright, party’s over,” Maxine intoned. “Boomer help me tidy this place up. Mrs Wentworth must find it exactly as she left it.” Allie and Maxine set to whilst Boomer dejectedly picked up a cushion and held it to her chest.

“I’m really sorry Maxine. There might be a bit of a mess in the kitchen too.” She sat down abruptly, buried her head in the cushion and closed her eyes.

“Hey, don’t go to sleep Boomer! Is there anything else we should know about? Boomer …” The big woman picked up her head and gazed blearily at Maxine.

“Someone telephoned … for Allie.” Allie’s head whipped round.

“Who was it? Who called for me?” she demanded. No reply. “Boomer … Boomer …” She knelt in front of her and gave her shoulders a vigorous shake. She was asleep or maybe unconscious. Allie looked up at Maxine with a wretched expression.  

“Think it was her?” Maxine asked.

Allie nodded. “I can’t think who else would be calling me. Damn … I’ll go see if Linda is any more sensible.” She stalked out of the room and up the stairs. She found Linda sitting on the bathroom floor looking pale. “What’s this I hear about a telephone call for me?” she asked brusquely. Linda looked at her defiantly and just shrugged.

“Not much to tell.” She closed her mouth and looked disinclined to elaborate.

“Who was it? What did you say to them?” Allie asked, starting to lose her temper.

“I just said you weren’t here. And they didn’t leave a name.” Allie couldn’t judge if this was truthful or not.  

“Was it a man or a woman?”

“A woman …” Allie’s heart immediately started pounding. “… So not your fancy man, at any rate,” she sneered.

Allie swallowed her annoyance as best she could. “Did she leave a message?” she asked, trying to mask the hope in her voice.

Linda shook her head. “No message,” she said, and turned her face to the toilet bowl again. Allie left the room as quickly as she could.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

The last time Bea had ridden this motorcycle had been when Hank had been ill and Liz’s truck had been waiting on a spare part. There had been deliveries that couldn’t wait and Harry had been away on one of his periodic absences, so hadn’t been able to prevent her from helping her friend. It had been during that week that Bea had learned a modicum of motor mechanics in order to keep the damned contraption on the road. It hadn’t been too difficult to learn to ride, as the sidecar gave it a lot of stability. Now the knack of riding it was coming back to her and she sped up, breaking free of restraint. The wind of her motion beat the loose sleeves of Hank’s shirt against her arms and dust from the country roads stuck to her damp face. She smiled grimly. It felt good to be on the move and heading towards Allie. 

Soon she was entering the outskirts of Charlottesville. She had a pretty good idea of where the boarding house was, but there were a couple of residential streets that could be the correct one. She would need to check them out. She slowed her momentum and cruised past the houses, looking for the one Allie had described. Nothing on this street. She would have to try the next one over.  

Ultimately, it was the “No vacancies” sign that caught her eye. She slowed further and the immaculate state of the building let her know that this was the right place. It was just as Allie had described it. She pulled the motorcycle over and turned off the engine. And then she just sat there, as though fixed to the seat, unable to dismount. Apprehension had calcified her joints. I’m here to apologise, she told herself. To win her back. But what words might achieve that end she was unable to say. She consulted her internal dictionary, but fear seemed to have erased every word. She would just have to go up there, knock on the door and hope that something helpful came out when she opened her mouth.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       * 

Maxine had managed to wake Boomer and between them Allie and Maxine handled her up the stairs and into bed. Linda had disappeared, presumably to her room. The remaining two residents swept through the whole house tidying and restoring everything that had been set awry by their drunken counterparts. When the mess had been conquered and there was still no sign of Mrs Wentworth, they withdrew to Allie’s room to talk things over.

“I can’t believe Boomer did that. Went into my room and took something …,” Maxine complained.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Linda put her up to it.” Allie had never really warmed to Linda Miles and didn’t trust her, whereas Boomer had a kind heart but was easily influenced.

“You think?” Maxine asked. Allie nodded. “I’ll be having words with her later,” Maxine growled.

“If it was Bea on the telephone,” Allie pondered, her thoughts dominated by the missed call, “she would most likely have called from Broadlea General Store. Perhaps I could call back and see if she’s still there.”

“You know Mrs Wentworth doesn’t allow outgoing calls.”  

“I could go find a payphone …”

“Come and look at this,” Maxine said. She had wandered over to Allie’s window and was staring out. Allie came and stood beside her. There was a motorcyclist sitting on his bike outside the house. “Do you think he’s looking for someone at this address?” Maxine asked. Just then, the motorcyclist dismounted and removed his goggles and helmet, revealing a sculpted feminine face and a mess of red curls. Maxine gasped. "Is that her?" she asked. But Allie had gone, and all the reply Maxine got was the patter of her feet on the stairs.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Bea walked heavily up the path, still frantically scrambling through her thoughts for an opening remark. She heard the front door swing open and looked up to find Allie already standing there waiting for her. Had she always looked this good? Today she was unapproachable in a calf-length lemon dress with a snug waist, and what could only be described as a fitted bodice. Bea's feet stopped of their own accord. That shade of yellow emphasised the blonde of Allie’s hair, contrasted dazzlingly with her eyes and brought out a golden glow in her skin. And that fitted bodice drew Bea’s eyes like nothing had before. The perfect swell and curve of … that part of Allie's body … made her want something that her mind insistently slid around. She was staring, of course, she realised, and probably blushing. She almost turned around and left right then, except that she noticed that Allie was looking at her just as fixedly. Move your feet, idiot, she told herself. But it was Allie who came down the steps towards her.

“What’s wrong? Is Debbie alright?” Allie asked, her brows drawn together. Bea nodded. Allie drew a little closer to look in her face. If Allie was angry or upset with her, it didn’t show. All Bea saw in her eyes was sympathy and concern. That look was enough to crack Bea’s heart wide open. Tears welled up and an inarticulate sound issued from her throat, partially disguised with a cough. She was making a fool of herself. Allie stepped right up to her, took her hand and squeezed it, forcing a tear to drip from Bea's downturned face onto the dirt by her foot. Looking around Allie said, “We can’t do this here.” Bea blurily followed her gaze and saw a woman standing watching from an upstairs window.

Bea gestured to the motorcycle and sidecar. “I … I know a place,” she managed to utter. “That’s if … I’ll understand if …” Allie looked unsure. Time to step up to the plate, Bea told herself. She took a deep breath and now words were forming even though it was impossible to meet Allie's eyes while she spoke. "I know I spoke to you harshly the other night … I would really like to talk to you about it properly and … apologise . I wouldn't blame you if you decided to have nothing more to do with me ..." Bea's voice had become quieter and hoarser as she went on and eventually faded away completely as she reached this unpalatable conclusion.

Allie nodded. "Okay. Let's go." Bea released the breath she had been holding.

"You'd better put these on." She handed Allie the helmet and goggles.

"Really?" Allie quirked her eyebrows at Bea.

“Best to be safe,” Bea confirmed. Allie crammed the helmet over her hair and Bea helped her adjust the strap of the goggles. The final effect was so endearing that Bea’s lips curved into a smile despite her dread of the upcoming conversation.

“You’d better not be laughing at me Bea Smith,” Allie threatened, as Bea helped her into the sidecar.

Bea shook her head. “I wouldn’t dare.”

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

The ride was noisy and bone jarring. They were getting some curious looks from passers-by, so it was fortunate that they soon left the city and headed up a steep country lane. Bea negotiated the acute bends deftly, Allie gripping on to the sidecar to keep from being flung about. They emerged from the shade of a stand of tall trees into a sunlit meadow. Bea pulled the motorcycle over by an outcropping of rocks and cut the engine.

Allie listened to the ticking of the cooling engine for a moment and took a moment to surreptitiously admire the way Bea looked astride the motorcycle's saddle. “What is this place?” she asked.

“Local beauty spot,” Bea replied. “Come on, I’ll show you.” She swung herself off the bike and came around to hand Allie out of the sidecar. She grabbed a bag, stuffed a rolled blanket under her arm and led the way around the rocks. Hemmed in by stone and stunted trees was a perfect grassy dell, studded with wildflowers and bathed in dappled sunlight. Bea led her over to one particular spot and pointed. Framed by the branches of the trees a view opened up. Woodland and mountain shown to their very best advantage complete with blue skies and downy clouds.

Allie stared for a minute. “It’s beautiful,” she said, “… and private.” Bea nodded and occupied herself with laying out the blanket. Allie sat down but Bea moved to stand and stare out at the view, her back to Allie. Whatever Bea had to say would not be easy for her and Allie accepted that this might not be a face-to-face conversation. Allie left her to compose her thoughts and took the time to study her. She appeared to be wearing someone else’s clothes: everything was much too big for her. The shoulder seams of the shirt reached part way down her arms; the cuffs hid all of her hands except the tips of her fingers. The shirt was tucked into a pair of loose jeans, which were held up by a belt tied in a knot. The pants were turned up several times and Allie could see that the enormous boots were tied on with string. Bea had clearly had an unusual morning.  

Bea began to speak. Allie let her get it all out without interruption. How she was sorry, how she wished she had behaved differently, how scared she had been. She apologised for her temper. Told her how it had always been her weakness. Said she had blamed Allie at the time, but now she didn’t blame her at all and knew that if she put herself in Allie’s position, she would have done the same thing, if she could have found the courage. All this was told stoically with her face averted, restlessly shifting her weight from side to side, hands clenching and unclenching. “I was so afraid,” she said finally, “seeing him holding you down and hurting you. For the first time I faced a fear greater than my fear of him, and that allowed me to break his control over me. That was the only reason I was able to pick up that shovel … God, I’ve been so pathetic, and weak …” The resilience seemed to go out of her then and she crumpled into a crouch and hid her face in her hands, shoulders shaking with suppressed sobs.

Allie walked round to face her. Kneeling down she placed her hands on her hair and stroked it soothingly. “Bea. It’s alright.” The sobs intensified. Allie tried to peel her hands away from her face, but Bea resisted. So Allie settled down next to her, shoulder to shoulder, and talked. “You know, the worst thing about all that you’ve told me is that you wouldn’t defy Harry for your own sake but only for mine. Do you really think so little of yourself?” Allie paused, not really expecting Bea to answer but allowing a gap in case she could. “I wish you could have got free of him some other way. But things happened the way they happened, and it’s done. We should forgive ourselves and each other.” Bea still didn’t reply or remove her hands, but the sobs were quieter now, and Allie thought she was listening. “I should do some apologising too. I broke my promise and I said things I know hurt you. I have as many flaws as you or anyone else …” Bea made an incredulous sound through her tears. “It’s true. I’m weak and I’m sometimes dishonest. And I care too much about what other people think of me.” 

Bea removed her hands and turned her reddened eyes to Allie’s. “After Friday,” she said in a sodden voice, “you’ll never convince me that you’re weak.” She swiped at her wet face with her cuff.

“Let me,” Allie said gently, pushing Bea’s hand away. She cupped Bea’s face in her two hands and used her thumbs to wipe the tears away, all the while looking at Bea so tenderly that she threatened to undo all her good work right there. “You look tired,” she noted.

Bea nodded. “I couldn’t sleep ‘cause I thought you might never speak to me again.”

“Come and lie down on the blanket for a minute.” Bea allowed Allie to lead her over and she lay down on her side watching Allie arrange herself next to her. Bea cushioned her head on her folded arm and sighed out a shaky breath. Allie watched her relax little by little.

“I like that dress,” Bea commented, out of the blue, fighting sleep.

“Yeah?” Allie smiled.

“... Colour suits you. Sunny yellow. It … it fits you just right …” For a moment Allie was puzzled until she noticed the direction of Bea’s gaze. She laughed softly and felt herself blush.

“Thank you,” she said, quietly, because Bea’s eyes were closing.

When she was sure that Bea was sleeping, she loosened the string and removed the overly large boots. Bea’s bare feet were narrow and elegant but looked sore in places from where the boots had chafed. Allie took her time inventorying every part of her, from her messy curls to the dust and tears on her face; past the black oil on her fingertips right down to those vulnerable looking toes.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

When Bea opened her eyes, Allie was right there, looking at her. 

"Hey," she husked.  

"Hey." A smile.  

"How long have I been asleep?”  

A shrug. "An hour? Not long enough."

A stretch. "It feels like a whole different day. Did you sleep?" Allie shook her head. Bea stared at her forehead. She reached out, without hesitation for once, and ran a finger lightly over the lump there. "I'm so sorry this happened …"

"Don't Bea. No more of that. Only one person caused this lump, and it wasn't you."

Bea nodded.  "And it wasn't you either." She sat up. "Hungry?"

"Sure …" Bea reached for the bag and unloaded sandwiches, apples, sodas and two hard-boiled eggs. "You made us a picnic?" Allie asked incredulously. 

"Actually, Liz did. And we have her to thank for the transport as well." They ate hungrily whilst Bea filled Allie in on everything that had happened. They chatted about Debbie and Sophie, church, Bea’s mechanical skills. Inconsequential matters, but a relief from all the Harry related horror. Allie told Bea why she’d had such a strange telephone conversation with Linda Miles. Bea laughed, but then grew serious. “Liz could see what a state I was in when I couldn’t get through to you. She said she’d figured out that it was you making me giddy these last few weeks.”

"And she's okay with it?"

“I think this picnic is her giving us her blessing,” Bea chuckled.

“Did you tell her what happened with Harry?”

Bea shook her head. "I was pretty impatient to get over here and see you." She smiled, but Allie looked troubled. "What's wrong?"

"I told Maxine everything," she admitted. "Don't be mad. She guessed about us, but I was so upset on Saturday that the whole story came out."

Bea felt her stomach drop. "What must she think of us? Do you trust her to keep it to herself?" Allie nodded. "Then I guess I trust her too. And I'm glad you had someone to turn to." Bea passed her an apple and took the opportunity to stroke a reassuring finger over the back of her hand. 

"Your ring! You took it off?" Allie stared at the pale line on Bea's finger.

"Yeah. I figure I'm going to sell it. It should cover a month of the mortgage and I can pay Liz what I owe her if there’s any left."

"And then what?"

"I need to get a job." They both knew that was not going to be easy. 

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Allie wished they could stay forever on this blanket in their own private world, but it was Sunday afternoon and she had some preparation to do for the week’s lessons.

“What time do you think it is?” she asked Bea.

Bea looked at the sky. “About four, I guess.” She threw down the blade of grass she had been rolling between her fingers. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you have to get back.” Allie nodded regretfully. Bea groaned.

“Going to miss me?” Allie asked playfully.

“Actually, I was just thinking that I have to put those god-awful boots back on,” Bea quipped, but her expression gave her away. Allie gave her shoulder a shove and met her eyes with a very frank look. Bea jumped to her feet as if she’d been stung and started gathering things together. Allie helped her fold the blanket. It seemed like the bold Bea of a few days ago had taken a step back. It was to be expected, Allie supposed. All Allie wanted to do at this moment was to back Bea up against a tree and kiss her thoroughly. But she would be patient.

“Allie …” Bea had caught her staring at her. “I know,” Bea said, abashed. “I look like a scarecrow.” She was looking down at her clothes.

“That’s not what I was thinking,” Allie told her, stepping over to her. “I kind of like it, actually. But there’s one adjustment I would make …” she asked permission with her eyes. Bea looked nervous but nodded. Allie reached out and took Bea’s hand in both of hers. She unbuttoned her shirt cuff and turned it over and over until it reached above Bea’s elbow. Then she repeated the process with the other sleeve. “That’s better,” she said silkily, meeting her eyes. “Now I can see your sexy arms,” and she ran the backs of her fingers gently up the insides of Bea’s forearms. Bea trembled at the touch and let out a gasp. Heat swept through Allie at this response, but she was being patient, so she just smiled at Bea, picked up the blanket and headed back towards the motorcycle.

Bea set her down on the corner of the street. Allie thought it likely that Mrs Wentworth would be back by now, and she would be horrified to see one of her girls being dropped off by a motorcyclist. Allie handed back the goggles and helmet. “Bea,” she started doubtfully. “Do you think we can trust him?"  

Bea shook her head. “But maybe we can trust his self-interest.” Allie nodded and firmed her lips. She laid her hand briefly on Bea’s shoulder and then walked away.

Chapter Text

When Allie burst through the door, Bea could not at first comprehend what she was seeing. Allie and Harry in the same time and place: it was not possible for these two people to co-exist. Harry was part of her old world and Allie belonged to a new, better universe that she had been rocketing towards ever since they first met. But she was here and Bea knew that she must have seen the latest blow that Harry had bestowed upon her. She hadn’t wanted Allie to see her this way, as a punching bag, a battered wife, a victim. But shame would have to wait, because Harry was looking at Allie and there was nothing good that could come of that.  

Do something. Harry had hold of Allie now. He was dragging her away. Move. They were shouting at each other. Bea was horrified by what she was seeing but still somehow unable to act. Stop him. Then Allie was looking at Bea and Bea was looking at Allie. It was all there, written plainly on Allie’s face for anyone with the wit to read it. Longing. Bea glanced at Harry and saw the understanding wash across his face followed closely by a wave of humiliation. Danger. Bea knew from experience that humiliation brought out the worst, blackest violence. Finally she could move. She grabbed his arm, she pleaded with him, but he was beyond reaching now and he had Allie pinned to the floor.  

Casting around for something to help her, her eyes alighted on that old loose handled shovel leaning against the kitchen wall. Her hands were curled around the wooden shaft almost before she knew it. Dread sank through her as she lifted it above her head, but the resultant downward swing seemed almost like an inevitability. The sound the blade made against Harry’s skull reverberated for a moment, he slumped over, and all was silent.

Time stopped. Bea’s eyes were locked on the two figures on the floor. What had she done? Why were they so still? Then Allie moved weakly and the spell was broken. Debbie. That terrible sound must have disturbed her, surely, even if all the shouting hadn’t. Bea cast aside the shovel and took the stairs two at a time. Reaching Debbie’s room, she tried to quiet her hoarse breath and eased the door open. In the dim light, she could see her baby girl sprawled on the bed as usual, like a cloud had shed an angel. Her limbs were still, her chest rising and falling slowly and evenly. She closed the door again. Gently, gently. Thinking about what awaited her downstairs; tears crowded her eyes. Face it. 

Allie had got herself out from under Harry and was standing with her back pressed against the wall, arms folded across her middle. She was staring. At Harry or through Harry, Bea couldn't tell.  

"Allie." No response. Bea reached out and took hold of her elbow until her eyes refocused on her. "You alright?"

She nodded. "Debbie?"

"Sleeping. Spread-eagled like she fell from the sky …"

"Is he ...?" Allie glanced at Harry with dread. Bea looked over at him. There was no sign of movement and she felt a queasy reluctance to get closer to him, to find out if she had made a murderer of herself. She was steeling herself to move when Allie took a pace forward and knelt down next to him. She peered at him intently for a minute. 

"He's breathing," she reported. Bea let out a sigh. At first, she felt relief that she hadn't killed him; but the next moment she was frustrated by his continued existence. "There's quite a bit of blood," Allie said. Bea went over to look. His scalp was cut and had bled profusely and a lump was forming, but Bea had a horrible feeling that he would be all right. He might only be unconscious for a few minutes. If there was ever a time to be decisive it was now.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

"Help me drag him out onto the porch," Bea commanded. Allie looked at her questioningly. "When he comes round I don't want him in the house." They each took hold of one ankle and dragged him to the door and out onto the porch. Bea fetched the shovel and took that outside too. Then she got a rag and wet it with cold water. She held it against the lump on Harry's head for a minute. Allie watched a pinkish puddle form on the floor. "Hold this against his head” When she didn’t move she whisper shouted, “Allie!" She startled. "Do it! It’ll help with the swelling. I’m not going to jail for killing this bastard unless I have to." Allie didn't want to touch him, but forced herself to take the rag and hold it against his head. Bea rummaged around in the kitchen and found the front door key. Holding it up she said to Allie, "In or out?" When Allie just looked bewildered, she explained. "Once I lock that door it's staying locked for Debbie's safety. So, in or out?" Allie gave it no thought.   

"Out." Bea nodded and locked the door. She tucked the key inside her shoe and hefted the shovel, pointing it in Harry’s direction.

“Now we wait,” she told Allie. “When he comes round, he’ll be as mad as hell but he’s not getting back inside that house. Not tonight or any night.” Allie could only nod. Bea had made the decision and now it was her job to back her up and make sure it could be carried through.

They waited in a tense silence. A few minutes later, he began to stir and moan. Allie drew away from him nervously. When he managed to open his eyes, Bea made sure he could see the shovel. “See this Harry? This means you are never bothering Debbie or me again. I want you to take the truck and go …” Harry blinked groggily. Even through his pain and bewilderment, he managed a sneer. Then he was gasping and struggling to his feet.  

“I’m happy to go Bea. For now. But you’re my wife . And Debbie is my daughter , so I’ll be back. You can’t keep that shovel to hand all the time.” Hatred blazed in his eyes as he tentatively explored the wound on his head, wincing. “And next time I’m gonna make you pay for what you did tonight.” Allie watched Bea weighing the shovel in her hands. She knew she had to step in before Bea felt compelled to resort to violence again.  

“You’d better promise never ... never to come here again,” Allie began falteringly.  

“Oh yeah? And why’s that, little girl ?”  

“Because if you don’t, I’ll tell everyone what you are: a cowardly wife beater.” Allie spat, heart galloping wildly.   

Harry looked not at all daunted. “And I’ll tell everyone what you are: a dirty little sexual invert lusting after my wife.”

Allie was only momentarily taken aback. “That would be just as damning for you as for me. What kind of a man are you that his wife looks to another woman for satisfaction? You’d be a laughing stock.” Now it was Allie’s turn to sneer. Harry's face purpled with fury.   

“But if people find out that you, the oh so prim school teacher, are a pervert you’ll lose your job and have to move away and leave your precious love behind,” Harry pronounced this with satisfaction. His ace in the hole. 

It took Allie every ounce of resolution she could muster to deliver her reply. This had better work, she thought. “You don’t think I love her , do you? This is just what I do . Have my fun while I can, and when the husband finds out … Well, I just move on to a new town. You’d be surprised how many wives there are with unsatisfactory husbands …” She conveyed this as airily as she could, not daring to look at Bea for fear of revealing the truth. And for fear of witnessing her pain. But she saw Harry’s eyes go to Bea and she saw his eyes light up at her reaction. It was paradoxical, but she had hoped Bea would react with hurt. It was essential that he see it and believe it. It was what he wanted, after all: for her to hurt. Would he be satisfied and leave?

He looked undecided. He was glancing between the two of them, trying to work out what to believe. Allie took a breath and turned to Bea, determined to look at her but not see her, for to see her would unravel her resolve. Despite that, the change in her face was impossible to ignore. It was as though Allie’s words had eclipsed the lustre that had animated it. Allie fought to keep her face neutral, to not crumble at the sight. She thought there was probably no coming back from this for her and Bea, but a least Bea and Debbie would be safe. “Sorry Bea,” she said lightly. “I hope you didn’t think I was sticking around. It’s not my style y’see.” Bea paled and her eyes filled. Harry smiled, satisfied.  

And yet.

“So, what do I get out of this?” he pondered.

“What do you mean?” Allie asked. Bea was silent and rigidly still.

“Seems to me, I leave behind my wife, my child, my house … What’s in it for me?” Allie’s thoughts were suddenly veering off on a new tack.

“Well, maybe I could add a little sweetener … for Debbie’s sake. I’ve gotten fond of her and God knows she deserves better than you.”  

“Keep talking …”  

“I have some savings. What would it take to make you move away and stay away?” His eyes slid to the side slyly.  

“Let me see. The starting again, the loss of my family, having to find work, all the money I’ve paid off on the house … Must be several thousand dollars of inconvenience right there.”

Allie scoffed. “Don’t forget about the outstanding money you owe on the house. That’s a liability more than anything, times being what they are. Plus …” Allie had an idea she wanted to float. “ … It’s a great opportunity to start a new life with that lady friend of yours.” Allie had long ago concluded that Harry must have another woman and that she was the cause of his lengthy absences from his family. Now the look on Harry’s face told her that she had hit on something.

“Five thousand dollars.” Harry stated.

Allie laughed. “I don’t have that kind of money! Nobody does … How about five hundred.”

He shook his head. “Can’t start again and give my pretty lady what she deserves on that kind of money.” He glanced at Bea to make sure his barb had struck home. Allie didn’t dare look at her: she was bargaining for her life and it wouldn’t do to be distracted.

“A thousand then,” Allie countered. “And that’s as high as I can go.”

Harry sucked his lip as though calculating. Then he shook his head. “Nah, not worth my while.” He waited to see what she would say. When she was silent, he started to walk away. “See you in a day or two Bea …”

“Fifteen hundred then,” Allie said, desperately. Harry stopped.

“You must be awfully fond of that little girl of mine,” he grinned, looking at Bea. Seems she hadn’t fooled him after all. But now his greed was roused maybe it wouldn’t matter.

“Fifteen hundred,” Allie stated. “You sign the house over to Bea, quit your job, leave town and never see your wife or daughter again.”

Allie watched the thoughts flit across his face as he appraised this offer. He was off somewhere in his imagination for a moment with this other woman, the inconvenience of his wife and child behind him. It was what he had wanted, perhaps, for a long time. He was tempted, Allie could tell. She just hoped the sum was enough. He looked at Bea and started to nod, consideringly. “Well, alrighty! We got a deal! I reckon I got the better end of it. Fifteen hundred dollars for that !” he laughed, his voice laced with contempt. Now Allie was the one who wanted to kill him.

“Bea?” Allie said. Bea had been looking off to one side and had kept silent through the whole negotiation. Now she glanced up at Harry and nodded. Allie continued. “So, when you get settled write to Bea and let us know where to wire the money.”

“I hope I can trust you little girl . Because if the funds aren’t forthcoming I’ll be right back.”

“I know it,” Allie replied. “You’ll get your money, but not until you’re far away.”

“One last condition …” He wagged his finger at them both. “Don’t you be flauntin’ your disgusting deviance in front of the neighbours. Keep it to yourselves. I don’t want anyone thinking that’s got anything to do with me.” Allie just nodded wearily.

He seemed reluctant to go, now the talking was over. Then he came right up to Bea as though he might kiss her. She flinched and he laughed.

“Bye darlin’!” And he swaggered to the truck, threw it into reverse and drove away.

As Allie watched the headlights bounce away down the road she wondered what she had done. Harry was alive and gone, that much was true, but would Bea hate her for the things she had said?

She looked at Bea and took a step towards her. “How could you?” Bea demanded, furiously, still looking away.

“I got rid of him, didn’t I? You know I didn’t mean any of that don’t you?” Allie pleaded.

“You bought me off of him!”

“No! I just did what I had to ...  to get rid of him,” Allie replied desperately. Bought her ? Is that really how it seemed?

“That was an auction . All those years ago I sold myself to Harry for food and shelter for me and Grandma, and now you’ve bought me off him.” Then more quietly, “When will I ever just belong to myself?”

Allie was stunned. “There’s no obligation Bea! I just want you free of him …”  

“Do you even have the money?” Bea asked. Allie nodded. “How’d you get all that? It must be a year’s earnings …”  

“More than.” Allie wondered how much to tell her. “Someone left me some money in their will.” 

Bea shook her head. “You should have just let me finish him,” she said with finality.

“Bea! You could have ended up in jail! And then what would have happened to Debbie?”

“Shhh. Keep your voice down. I wouldn’t have had to hit him at all if you had kept your promise and kept walking …”

“How could I just leave you on your own with him? He might have killed you!"  

“It wouldn’t have gone that far.”  

“You don’t know that … “

The argument span on endlessly. Allie was exhausted and finally sat down, letting Bea berate her until she ran out of words. At last, Bea took the key out of her shoe and went inside. She began tidying up and Allie followed her in and helped. When everything was back to normal, Allie gestured to the shovel. Bea picked it up. “I guess I’ll put this in the shed for now.” She was gone for a few minutes. Allie was so tired and sad she lay down on the couch and wrapped herself in Bea’s blanket. It was soft and it surrounded her with Bea’s comforting spicy scent. When Bea came back in she said, “Why don’t you use Grandma’s old room? At least there’s a proper bed in there.” She gestured to a door next to the kitchen.  

Allie shook her head. “I’ll be alright here.” Bea nodded, looking like she didn’t know what to say. “Don’t worry,” Allie added. “I’ll leave first thing in the morning.” Bea looked at her feet and compressed her lips.

“Probably best,” she muttered, and disappeared upstairs, leaving Allie to sob on the couch for what remained of the night, until dawn’s light released her.

Chapter Text

The next week brought a gradual normalisation of sorts. Allie’s visits continued almost as though nothing had happened, but Bea could feel a slight restraint between them that had not been there previously. She wanted them to be like they were before. Would time smooth things over? Or would everything between them be permanently muddied by Harry and the deal they had struck with him? Patience was required, but patience was hardly a long suit of hers.

She was awaiting word from the bank to confirm that the mortgage and deeds had been transferred by Harry. She was also waiting for Harry himself to write and demand the money. She knew that these things might take more than a few days, but she could not help but be impatient for the arrangements to be behind her. In the meantime, she occupied herself by expanding the vegetable garden. Breaking new ground was hard work and left little room in her head for worrying and overthinking. 

Looking up from her work, she saw Allie and Debbie coming down the trail together. This was a new development. Allie now had Debbie wait for her whilst she locked up the school and then they walked to the house together. Bea wondered if Allie was worried that Harry might still be around. Did she think he might try to take Debbie away with him? Bea considered it unlikely. Harry had never been a devoted father, being more annoyed than enamoured by his daughter’s antics. But Bea did not discourage the arrangement. She saw the two of them together, chatting and smiling, and knew the time they spent together was good for them both.

Bea noticed that Allie was lugging a bag and an armful of books. She drove her shovel into the ground, so it would stand upright, and set off to meet them. Debbie was talking away and Allie was listening and nodding. The sunlight was glancing off Allie’s hair making it brighter than ever and the skirt of her blue dress was swaying with the action of her hips as she walked. Bea couldn’t help but smile, nor could she take her eyes off her. The moment Allie noticed her, and her eyes locked onto Bea’s a jolt of energy was delivered somewhere inside Bea's body. A jolt of energy that thrilled up and down her whole body and settled in the pit of her stomach. Bea didn’t know what to call this response that she had to Allie, but she felt it every time, and had begun to welcome it.

With her heart clamouring and her chest tight, she continued up the track, looking away shyly as Allie's smile grew broader. Debbie belatedly noticed her mother and ran to her, throwing her arms affectionately around her.

"Mama! Did you bake some cookies?" 

Bea placed her hands on Debbie's shoulders. "Is that all you ever think about?" she asked with a mocking frown. 

"No!" she denied vehemently, squinting her eyes and scrunching up her nose. "… But did you?"

"Not today. But there's a fresh baked loaf and some of those cherry preserves you like so much …"

"Mm …" Debbie's eyes went distant in anticipation. By this time Allie had caught up to them and Bea reached out and took the heavy bag from her shoulder. Allie was looking at Bea very attentively, and with an expression that she couldn't interpret.

"What?" Bea asked.

"Nothing. I just like these little things you do for me." Bea shrugged it off but couldn't keep her lips from curling up at the corners. "What about you, Bea?"

"Hmm?"

"Is there anything I can do for you ?" Allie gave her a different kind of look. A look that promised something. Bea's mind went there, just for a moment. She thought of Allie's face close to hers. She thought of Allie's full pink lips pressing against hers.

Her pulse was beating hard in her throat so that she struggled to swallow. "I … I'm fine," she choked out. Because she couldn't ask for that . Allie just nodded appraisingly and smiled in the exact way she had that day when she had said the word sexy . Bea was sure she had never heard anyone say that word before, but when Allie smiled at her in that certain way, she almost felt like she knew what it meant.


        *          * *          * * *          * * * *

Allie watched Bea cut a thick slice of bread for Debbie. She fetched a jug of milk from the icebox and left Debbie plastering preserves onto her bread while she made some coffee. Allie noticed the newspaper on the kitchen table, open to the situations vacant.

"Any luck?" she asked Bea, indicating the page. Bea shook her head.

"They all ask for some kind of experience, which I don't have," she said dispiritedly.

"It's early days, though," Allie interjected. "Something will turn up. I've asked Maxine and Boomer to let me know if they hear of anything."

"Thanks. I think I'll go to Charlottesville tomorrow to sell my ring. Maybe I'll ask at a few places. Just in case."

"Good idea. Maybe you should try cafés and restaurants. You're obviously a great cook."

"Worth a try I guess." Bea's expression was resigned, but she smiled bravely and poured Allie a cup of coffee. 

"That reminds me …" Allie rummaged in her bag. "I meant to give you this the other day." She pulled out the package of coffee she had chosen for her. Bea opened the bag and inhaled the scent of the beans.

"Mm. Smells amazing! Thanks … but you don't have to bring me things you know."

"Well, I'm always drinking your coffee, so it's only fair."

"Yeah, but …” Bea looked embarrassed. 

"What is it?" Allie asked, taking her hand and gently squeezing her fingers. Bea hesitated and looked everywhere except at Allie. Allie waited her out. Bea glanced at Debbie, but she seemed oblivious, sticky cherries all round her mouth.

"You're already out of pocket to the tune of fifteen hundred dollars because of me," she said in a low tone. "I hate that …"

"Bea," Allie interrupted. "I know this sounds crazy, but I was never going to use that money. I never wanted it and I'm glad it will soon be gone. If I was more organised, I would have already given it to a soup kitchen or something." Bea stared at her in consternation. Allie looked over at Debbie. "I'll explain some other time," she said, as though it was something she didn't want to say in front of a child. The truth was that it was a subject she couldn't face talking about in front of anyone, not even Bea. Especially not Bea, at least not yet. Allie looked away, feeling terrible. Bea seemed to notice her unease and grabbed her hand. Allie stroked her palm, feeling soothed by the contact. She flipped Bea’s hand over. "Your poor hand!" she exclaimed, fingering the ragged edges of a burst blister on her palm just below her middle finger.

"Too much digging," Bea said lightly. 

"It looks sore. Maybe I should bring you some gloves next time." Bea just looked at her, eyes shining, apparently enjoying the attention. Allie was just considering if it would be wise to act on the impulse, she had to bring Bea’s injured palm up to her mouth for a kiss, when Debbie turned her sticky face towards them.

“Why have you been digging so much Mama?”

Bea reclaimed her hand shyly. “I’m going to sow some more vegetables. Some for us and some to sell or trade.”

“Can we grow pumpkins?” Debbie asked with an excited little wriggle.

“I don’t see why not …”

“Pumpkin pie every week!” Debbie exclaimed. Bea rolled her eyes and laughed.

         *          * *          * * *          * * * *

The next day when Bea climbed off the bus outside the Broadlea General Store, she was more than a little glum. True, she had in her purse more money than she ever remembered seeing before. But that money was already spoken for, and after traipsing around shops and businesses failing to find any kind of work, she had no prospects of getting any more.

Liz had apparently seen her getting off the bus and was beckoning to her through the window. Bea opened the door into the cool, dim interior, listening out for the familiar jangle of the bell. Liz was just finishing serving a customer. The woman turned around.

"Good afternoon Mrs Smith," she said with a polite smile.

"Mrs Stewart," Bea responded. Vera Stewart was one of her near neighbours, but despite that Bea felt as though she hardly knew her, as the woman didn't pay calls any more than Bea herself did. She had a pleasant, though somewhat bland, face, alleviated by large expressive eyes. Her hair was scraped back severely, and Bea had noticed that her face sometimes assumed a disapproving or sour aspect. But Bea was inclined to be friendly towards her, wondering if she might be lonely or sad rather than disagreeable.

"How are you today?" Bea asked.

"Very well thank you. I'm just buying the ingredients for a special supper for my husband." Bea nodded and smiled. She remembered Vera's husband. A handsome, somewhat younger, man with a glib way with words. Bea had not taken to him.

"Special occasion?" Bea asked out of politeness.

Vera nodded and smiled smugly. "Our second wedding anniversary."

"Well, congratulations," Bea replied as brightly as she could. She feigned interest in Liz's display of canned peas, allowing Mrs Stewart to finish her transaction and leave with a nod. 

Liz waited until Vera was clear of the store before saying to Bea, “That poor woman. Going to all that trouble for that no-good husband of hers.”

“I suppose people have often said the same thing about me,” Bea observed mildly.

“Not in this store they haven’t,” Liz replied fiercely. “Anyway, it’s common knowledge that Jake Stewart is like a tom cat, roaming all around the county …”

“Did you just call me in here to tell me about the Stewarts?” Bea interrupted, disliking gossip. 

“No, of course not love. You’ve got some mail.” Liz disappeared behind the post office window to find it. Bea was expecting it to be from the bank, but instead it was something addressed to Harry. She put it in her purse to look at later. “I take it everything is going alright now?” Liz asked with a slightly nervous smile. “I saw Miss Novak, I mean Allie, waiting for the bus yesterday. If that smile had been any wider it would’ve split her face in two!”

Bea blushed. It was difficult to get used to the notion that someone else knew about her intensely private circumstances. “Yeah … thanks Liz … for everything you did on Sunday. It really helped.”

“That’s all right. It’s time you felt some happiness … but what are you going to do about Harry?” Bea sighed. No one else was in the store and the girls were still at school, so it seemed like the perfect time to fill Liz in on what had happened on Friday night. With much hesitation, she related the whole story.

Liz looked shocked but satisfied. “He finally got what was coming to him when you whacked him with that shovel. I’m glad you’re rid of him. And poor Allie! Is she okay?”

“I think so. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but she’s a force to be reckoned with,” Bea responded, not without a hint of pride. “You can’t tell anyone about what happened. And you can’t let on about Allie and me either. You know that, right?” Bea pleaded.

“Of course. I wouldn't say a word. But people might start to wonder who's put that smile on her face.

"We'll just have to be careful. But I couldn't bear for her to hide that smile …" Bea said, cheeks pinking. Liz chuckled.

Bea headed back to the house feeling more exhausted and heavy legged with every step. Trailing around the streets had worn her out and left her feeling a little hopeless. Turning the corner of the trail, she saw Allie sitting on the porch. It must be later than she had realised. Bea, feeling suddenly energised, stalked nearer, taking the opportunity to admire her whilst she was unaware of being observed. Allie was sitting with the top half of her body in the shade and had pulled a chair round to rest her feet on. Her shoes lay on the floor with her stockings puddled on top of them. Her bottom half was in the sun and she had pulled her skirt up to mid-thigh to enjoy the feeling of the sunlight on her legs. Her eyes were closed, her head thrown back, her arms hanging loosely, a cat-cream smile turning up her lips.

Bea stared. Allie’s legs really were extraordinary. She thought back to the day of the rainstorm when Allie had teased her by taking off her stockings. Ever since then she had been unable to suppress a fascination for those legs, a desire to see them again, long and bare like now. She swallowed thickly, stepped closer, stared some more. Two more steps would take her up the porch steps to a position where she could put out a hand and caress that soft pale skin. Her hand twitched. She wanted to, but she didn’t dare. Instead, she switched her gaze to Allie’s face and took in the perfection of it. The beauty spot above her lip, the arch of her brows, the way her dark lashes lay against the fair skin of her cheek. Beautiful girl.

Allie’s eyes fluttered open and her startling blue irises immediately fixed on Bea. She smiled lazily and stretched.

“Mm,” she murmured, as if in reply. I didn’t say that aloud did I? Bea thought in a panic. “You’re back. How’d it go?”

Bea grimaced. “No luck. Where’s Debbie?”

“Inside. Probably emptying out your larder,” Allie replied. “I made myself comfortable. Hope you don’t mind,” she said stretching again.

“Not at all. You look content. Like a cat lying in the sun.” Allie lifted her feet down so that Bea could sit.

“You look done in. Stay here and I’ll get you a cold drink.” She headed inside, brushing her fingers against Bea’s arm as she passed, and smiling at her over her shoulder in a way that accelerated Bea’s heart rate dangerously. Bea opened her purse to check on the money she had received from selling her ring and noticed the letter that Liz had given to her, addressed to Harry. What could this be? she wondered, tearing into the envelope.

         *          * *          * * *          * * * *

When Allie returned with a glass of lemonade from the icebox Bea was leaning against the porch rail looking frail. Allie was immediately at her elbow.

“What’s the matter?” she demanded. Bea gave her a broken look and handed her a sheet of paper. Allie hastily read it. It was a letter from the quarry informing Harry that as his absenteeism had not improved, even after an official warning, he should now consider himself dismissed from his post.

“What’s he playing at?” Bea asked. “This is dated yesterday: days after he was supposed to have quit.”

“You think he’s still around?” Allie asked, unable to stop herself from scanning the area around the house.

Bea shrugged. “I don’t know … but if he didn’t quit his job, maybe he didn’t sign the house over either.” She sighed deeply. “I’d better go to the bank tomorrow. See what’s going on.”

“I’ll come with you,” Allie quickly put in. Suddenly she didn’t like the idea of Bea being alone.

Bea smiled. “No, you won’t. Tomorrow’s Friday so you’ll be at work.” Allie glared in frustration. “It’s fine.” Bea gently slipped her fingers in between Allie’s and smoothed her thumb over Allie’s fingertips, apparently not minding the chalk dust, gentle brown eyes on hers all the while. Allie’s heart overflowed. Bea usually had some difficulty in meeting her eyes and showing affection freely. That she had courageously overcome that to offer Allie reassurance meant everything to her.

“Bea …” I love you. The words were in her mouth, bubbling up from her heart, ready for speaking. But just then all she could think of was what had happened the last time she had said those words. “… Just, be careful,” she said instead.

         *          * *          * * *          * * * *

The next morning Bea entered the bank with trepidation. Harry had always dealt with all their financial affairs, so a meeting like this was beyond her experience. She was damp handed with nerves as she approached the receptionist. When the woman found out that she didn’t have an appointment she looked down her nose at Bea and told her that she would have to wait until Mr Lapton was free to speak with her. Bea sat down in the waiting area feeling discomfited, her purse in her lap, trying to look as though she did this kind of thing all the time.

When finally she was shown into Mr. Lapton’s office she found him to be a friendly gentleman with a courteous manner. He wore old-fashioned grey side-whiskers, small gold-rimmed spectacles and a watch chain across his vest. After he had assured himself that she was comfortable and had fussed around asking if she would like a refreshment and enquiring if she was well, he eventually turned business-like.

“What can I do for you this morning Mrs Smith?”

Although Bea had practiced what she wanted to say to the bank manager, she still felt uneasy in giving him even the scant personal details that she was forced to. She explained that she and Harry had decided to separate and that he had said that he would come to the bank and make the house over in her name.

"As I have not heard from you, I thought I had better come and check that everything is proceeding as it should."

Mr Lapton sighed. "I'm sorry to say that I have not heard from your husband. In fact, I am intending to write to him in the next day or two to remind him of the consequences of missing a payment."

Bea startled. "He missed a payment?" Mr Lapton nodded. "Are you sure?" Bea asked, her mind whirling.

"I have the file right here. See for yourself," and he turned the pages round so that Bea could see the schedule of payments.

Bea was shocked but noted that the amount could be covered by what she had received for her wedding ring. "I can pay that immediately," Bea told him. "I don't want to incur any penalties for late payment."

Mr Lapton looked at her appraisingly. "You can certainly pay the instalment today, but I must advise you that the property remains in your husband's name."

"Can we transfer it to my name, or, or put it in our joint names?" Bea asked desperately. "I have our marriage certificate here." She began looking in her purse.

"Not without your husband coming into the bank and signing the relevant paperwork. If you could get him to make an appointment …"

“That might not be possible,” Bea told him. She stared at her hands for a few moments. Mr Lapton was silent, perhaps giving her time to compose herself. “If I continue to make the payments on time, all will be well?” she asked finally.

“For the time being. But you will have no security, as Mr Smith would be within his rights to sell or let the property without your permission. I really have to advise you to see an attorney and get your name on the deeds.”

Bea nodded. She understood what he was saying, though she could not see how it could be accomplished. She didn’t know where Harry was, and when he did get in touch, how could she compel him to sign the house over to her if he had changed his mind? In addition, as she still had not found any paid employment, she could see no way that she could make the next mortgage payment on time. But she simply had to hold onto the house. It was Debbie’s home, and, in any case, they had nowhere else to go.

Chapter Text

"As soon as I see Mama, I’m going to tell her!” Debbie said excitedly.

“I’m sure she’ll be really proud of you,” Allie replied, her eyes scanning the vegetable garden and porch for Bea. No sign of her, so perhaps she was not back from Charlottesville yet. Allie had been anxious all day, wondering what was going on with Harry. Debbie flew down the trail ahead of her and rushed into the house. As Allie approached, she could hear her excited voice telling Bea her news.

“… best score for the whole term. So, I’ll be getting a certificate …” she was bouncing up and down as she spoke, and Bea was smiling at her.

“Hold still a moment Debbie. Tell me again, I missed the first part,” Bea said patiently, pulling her daughter onto her lap.

“I got the most spellings right the whole term, Mama! So, I’m the best speller!” Bea looked at Allie for confirmation. She looked worn out, Allie thought as she came over to mother and daughter. She couldn’t resist briefly laying a hand on Bea’s shoulder and was gratified to feel some of the tension leave her at her touch.

“We’re having a prize giving next week, as it’s the last week of school. Debbie outperformed everyone in the spelling tests so, yes, I will be presenting her with a certificate of achievement!” Allie announced.

Bea looked a little teary. She kissed Debbie’s cheek. “Well done. I saw how hard you worked to learn all those words, so you deserve that certificate.” Debbie nodded happily, accepting the compliment easily.

“Is it alright if I take Hector out to play?” Debbie asked.

“What about your chores?”

“Can I do them later Mama? Please? I’m too excited to do chores just now.”

“Alright. Go run it off,” Bea allowed. “But change your clothes first!” she called after her. Debbie ran off up the stairs. Allie sat down beside Bea at the table.

“I’m almost afraid to ask what you found out,” Allie began. “How about I make coffee first?”

“That would be wonderful,” Bea smiled. “I’ve only been back a few minutes myself.” Allie busied herself filling the pot and lighting the stove, whilst Bea sat at the table, apparently lost in thought. After a couple of minutes Debbie came back down the stairs barefoot and in her old clothes and ran out of the front door calling to Hector to come. Allie had to smile. That imaginary dog could not be more real to Debbie.

“Shall we have this on the porch?” Allie asked, once the coffee was ready. Bea nodded and when they went outside Bea sat at one end of the swing seat, so Allie took that as an invitation and sat beside her. It wasn’t a wide seat and so it meant that their thighs lay alongside each other, lightly touching. Allie was intoxicated by this arrangement, but quickly sobered as Bea told her what she had learned at the bank.

“Do you think Harry still expects to get the money, even though he’s not done what he said he would?” Allie asked.

“I don’t know,” Bea replied. “And I don’t know what else we can do, other than wait to hear from him.”

“Do you have any idea who …“ she began hesitantly, before coming to a halt, not knowing if asking her question would hurt Bea.

“Who the woman is?” Bea asked. She shook her head. “I’ve known there must be someone, or several someones, for a long time. But I don’t know who.”

“I was just thinking that if you knew who she was we could check if he was at her place.” After a moment's thought Allie asked, "What about his sister? Might she know how to find him?" Bea nodded absently, her mind clearly elsewhere.

“You know, all this about Harry being in trouble at work and behind with the mortgage. It makes more sense now; how eager he was to accept your offer. He knew he would probably lose his job and maybe he has debts he wants to leave behind.” They drank their coffee in silence for a while, Bea’s eyes following Debbie as she ran around at a little distance from the house, Allie’s eyes resting on Bea’s face. “While I was in town, I took the opportunity to ask around about work, but no dice. I’m gonna have to sell some tools, or furniture or something. The next payment is due in a week. I have much less time than I thought …” Bea mused, almost to herself.

Allie turned herself towards Bea. “I’ve been thinking about this,” she began eagerly, “and I hope you won’t think it’s a terrible idea …” Suddenly feeling shy to make the suggestion that had been in her mind for a few days Allie looked at her lap uncertainly, falling silent.

“What is it?” Bea asked, noticing Allie’s sudden reticence. “Say what you’re thinking, Allie. All ideas are good ideas at this point.”

“I was thinking …” she said, slowly at first, and then more quickly as she warmed to her theme, “that I’m spending money every week, on my board at Mrs Wentworth’s … That money, well, if I stayed here and paid you board instead of her, that would really help you … it might even cover the mortgage payments. And it would help me too because I wouldn’t have to pay all that bus fare, and spend all that time travelling, and I wouldn’t have to eat her terrible food ...” And I would be with you . Allie faded out. Looking at Bea’s face, she couldn’t tell what she thought of the idea. There was a long silence.

“And this would be a purely financial arrangement, would it?” Bea grated out eventually, looking off into the distance.

“God, no! Not on my part,” Allie said hastily. “I don’t expect anything of you, Bea. But … I would love to be with you more of the time. I want you to be happy. And I want you to know that being around you makes me happy. But I wouldn't place any expectations on you … on this … if you thought maybe ...” She sighed. “I’m not explaining this very well am I?”

Bea finally looked at her. “No, you're not,” she said dryly, and smiled. “How about this? You like me. God knows why,” she added with a shake of her head. “And I like you,” she said quickly, before Allie could interrupt. She blushed and picked up Allie’s hand. “I would love it if you moved in here. Being around you does make me happy. I don’t know what’s going to become of us. I don’t know if I have anything to offer you, but …”

“Is that a yes?” Allie asked, gripping Bea’s hand tightly, her eyes prickling.

“Don’t you even want to see your room first?” Bea smiled at her impetuosity.

“Not really.” Allie replied, looking into Bea’s smiling eyes, her own brimming with delight.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

“I’ll take it,” Allie said with a giggle. “I love it!” 

Bea shook her head. “It’s filthy and full of junk. Needs a coat of paint …”

“Don’t bother. We’ll just give it a clean. Fresh sheets, air it out ...” They were standing just inside the doorway of grandma’s old bedroom. It was a small room just behind the kitchen, with a window to the back of the house. It housed an old dark wooden bedstead and matching nightstand, a looming wardrobe and various objects from around the house that seemed to have migrated here: a lamp, a pile of clothes, a wooden box full of odds and ends. Bea could smell the mustiness and see how grimy everything was, but Allie seemed enamoured of it. “Can I move in straight away? I don't think I have to give Mrs Wentworth any notice.” Bea nodded, amused by her enthusiasm. “I have hardly any belongings. I can be unpacked in ten minutes.” Her face turned serious. “You have to check Debbie is okay with this first, though.”

“Allie, I’m not going to consult a seven-year-old!”

“Normally I would agree. But, because I’m her teacher … it could be really awkward for her. I mean, we can’t expect her to carry on calling me Miss Novak at home, can we?”

“I don’t see why not.” Allie looked dissatisfied. “Look, I’ll talk to her right now. Get some ground rules set up …” She started for the door, but Allie grabbed her arm. Bea gave her a questioning look.

“What if she doesn’t want me here? What if she thinks I'm coming between you?” Allie whispered fearfully.

“Don’t be crazy. I’m the only person round here who likes you more than Debbie.” Bea’s heart was pounding at her own boldness. Since the moment Allie had first suggested moving in here, she had known that, now the idea was in her head, nothing less would do. She reached up with both hands and stroked Allie's hair, fixing her eyes on Allie's, anxious to reassure. Tangling her fingers in Allie's hair, she gripped the sides of her head to emphasise her point. Her eyes strayed to Allie's lips. "You're good for Debbie. Since the first day she met you she couldn't stop talking about you. She loves that you join in with everything we do. You add to her happiness, you really do." Allie still looked uncertain. Bea removed her hands reluctantly. "I'm going to call her in and ask her about it." She headed out the door. "Wait here."

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *      

Allie leaned against the doorframe, catching her breath. For a moment she had thought that Bea was going to kiss her, and she was still reeling. She could hear Bea hollering for Debbie and the clatter of the door as she came in.

"I'll do my chores now Mama."

"In a minute. Come sit by me." Allie could picture them snuggled upside by side on the couch, Bea's arm around her daughter. "So, I have to ask you something and I want you to answer truthfully."

"Am I in trouble Mama?" Debbie asked warily. Allie smiled, imagining the expression on Debbie's face.

"No. Why, what have you done?" Bea teased. Debbie gave a small squeal, from which Allie intuited that Bea was tickling her. After a moment Bea continued. "So, how would you feel about it if Miss Novak came and stayed here with us? Remember, say what you really feel."

There was a short silence, during which Allie's heart plummeted. Then Debbie gave a gasp. " Really ? Could she really ?"

"Do you like the idea?" Bea asked.

"Of course, Mama! I was worrying that we wouldn't see her all summer long …" Allie rested her forehead against the doorframe. She was worried and I had no idea, she reproached herself. I should have anticipated it, with the way Harry has come and gone through her whole childhood.

"You were worried?" Bea's words echoed Allie's thoughts. "I wish you had told me. There's no way we were going all summer without her."

"Can I go and feed the chickens now?"

"Hold on baby girl. How do you think you will get on with having Miss Novak as your teacher and living here too? Will it be strange for you?"

"Home is home and school is school. I just keep them apart in my head." Allie knew exactly why she would do such a thing.

"So do you think you could manage to call her Miss Novak at school and only call her by her first name at home?"

"Of course. I don't tell people at school about things at home. I never talked to anyone about Daddy." Allie stifled a gasp. When Bea replied, her voice was strangled by the tears she was trying to hold back.

"I'm sorry baby. That must have been hard." Allie fought the temptation to go to Bea and comfort her. "Your daddy has gone away now. I don't think he'll be coming back." There was a brief silence that Allie's mind filled with a hug and a kiss.

"Don't cry Mama. Are you sad he's gone?"

"No," Bea quavered. "I'm just sad you couldn't have had a better daddy."

"It's okay," Debbie insisted. "I have you. And now I have Miss Novak too."

After another, longer silence, Bea called out to Allie. When she emerged into the living room Allie could see that Bea was wiping tears from her face. Debbie looked concerned for her mother but was dry eyed.

"Are you really coming to live with us?" She asked eagerly. Allie nodded mutely, not trusting her voice. She squeezed in next to Debbie and managed to put her arms around them both. "We're going to have a fun summer," Debbie enthused. "We can go swimming. We can go and picnic in the glade. Ooh, and we can play lots of baseball …"

"Well hold on Debbie. Allie probably has some plans of her own."

"Actually, that all sounds wonderful," Allie said, finally finding her voice.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *      

"So, if you speak to Mrs Wentworth tonight, I'll telephone you tomorrow to make sure everything is okay. That gives you Sunday to pack. If you bring your things with you to work on Monday morning, Debbie and I can meet you off the bus."

"Monday it is."

"Are you sure you can manage …"

"It's just one case, Bea."

"I know. Sorry. I just … "

"Stop worrying. I'm not going to change my mind. The room is fine. You're going to be the best landlady ever."

"Right …"

"Speak to you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow. Shall we walk down to the bus with you?"

"Better not."

"I could carry your bag …"

"You know what they say about absence."

"It's a pain in the ass?"

"Ha! Speak to you tomorrow."

"Alright. Bye then.”

"Bye beautiful,” Allie added. 

Bea felt herself blush. Allie turned back and placed the gentlest of kisses on the apex of Bea's cheek. With her blood thundering in her ears Bea sketched a goodbye wave as Allie backed away with a smirk. Then she sank weakly onto a chair, chastising herself for behaving like a lovesick girl.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Mrs Wentworth wasn't all that pleased when Allie, searching her out in the kitchen, told her that she would be leaving. Miss Novak had been a clean, quiet boarder who always paid on time and never complained about the food, unlike some people. However, she rarely had difficulty finding new boarders, so she would just have to hope that the next girl was also suitable.

Allie went to Maxine's room to let her know she would be leaving. She would truly miss Maxine. She couldn't think of a better person to have as a friend and hoped that they could keep their friendship up after Allie had moved out.

Maxine's door was partially open. "Knock knock," Allie called out before poking her head round the door.

"Hey there! Come on in."

"Hi Maxine. I … I just dropped in to let you know my news."

"Sounds serious. What's up?"

"I've just arranged with Bea that I'm going to board with her from now on. So …"

"You're moving in with her?" Maxine interrupted. "Quick work hon!" She threw her a wink.

"It's not exactly that … She can't keep up the house payments without some kind of income." Allie hesitated.

"But judging by the look on your face you're hoping to get a bit closer to her than you are with your current landlady?"

"Am I so transparent?" Allie lamented.

"Only to me hon." She drew Allie into an embrace. "So, you'll be leaving us. I'm gonna miss you!"

"Me too Maxi. But we'll still see each other. Right?"

"Right."

Come Saturday breakfast everyone knew about Allie's imminent departure. Boomer looked particularly miserable. Allie took her to one side.

"What's the matter Boomer? You're not going to miss me, are you?'

"Nah! Nothin' like that. It's just … first Frankie goes, then you. Why can't things just stay the same?'

"I don't know Boomer. I'll still come around from time to time. But you could maybe do me a favour?"

"Yeah? What's that?" Boomer asked, brightening a little.

"I need something from the hardware store. Maybe you could show me around? Help me choose something?"

"Sure Allie. What is it you need? We got pretty much everything …" the big woman enthused.

During this conversation Maxine had sidled up. "Mind if I tag along?" She asked.

Allie looked at her in surprise. "It's just the hardware store Maxi."

"Still. You won't be here much longer, so perhaps we could all go together."

"Of course! Let me just get my purse."

Jackson's Hardware was an impressive looking place, filled with every type of tool Allie had ever heard of and quite a few she couldn't name. Rows of small boxes lined the shelves against one wall. Looking closer Allie could see that they contained nails, screws and washers of all different sizes. Boomer breezed past a display of shovels, calling out to her boss. "Mr Jackson! Mr Jackson!" A handsome dark haired man of around forty years appeared from a back room. When he saw who it was, he broke into a smile, and his wide-set eyes lit up.

"Boomer! What are you doing here on a Saturday?"

"My friend Allie wanted me to bring her over to look at the work gloves," Boomer gushed.

Mr Jackson looked at her. "You must be the young teacher that Boomer's been telling me about." He held out his hand to shake. "I'm Will Jackson. Feel free to look around. The gloves are over in the back corner." Allie started off in the direction he had indicated. "Miss Conway," she could hear him continue. "What a pleasure to see you again." Allie couldn't catch Maxine's reply, but something about the tone of her voice made Allie turn around and stare. Was that a simper ? They were grinning at each other and Mr Jackson still had hold of her hand. Allie smiled to herself. So, this was Maxine's secret admirer! Maxine would get some teasing later!

She managed to find a pair of gloves that she thought would be small enough for Bea. When she took them up to the counter to pay Mr Jackson insisted on giving her a small discount. "Any friend if Boomer's is a friend of mine," he said. He was looking at Maxine as he said this. Any friend of Boomer's. Yeah , right . Allie and Boomer headed over to the door, but Maxine and Mr Jackson were engrossed in each other.

"I'll catch you up!" Maxine called out to them.

Once on the street Allie turned to Boomer. "So, Maxi and your boss, hey?"

"Whadya mean?" Boomer asked blankly.

 "Did you not just see them? They can't take their eyes off each other!"

"Maxi and Mr J?' Boomer was incredulous.

Allie sighed. "Are you blind? Yes! Maxi and Mr J. How long has this been going on?"

Boomer shrugged. "Dunno. I introduced them weeks ago …"

"He's a good man, right?" Allie asked.

"Mr J's the best," Boomer confirmed without hesitation. 

*       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Liz opened her drapes on Monday morning to find two figures loitering outside her store. Bea was pacing and Debbie was bouncing up and down on the spot. What are they doing? Liz wondered.

Opening the door, she called out, "Bea, did you need something? We're not open yet, but if there's something you need …"

"Morning Liz! No there's nothing we need, thanks." Bea continued her pacing, looking down the road expectantly.

"What are you doing?" Liz asked, coming out of the store and looking down the road in the same direction as Bea.

"Waiting for the bus. Here she comes, Debbie!" The bus had just come into sight. Bea had positioned herself right at the stop, looking in the bus windows as it drew closer. Liz could pinpoint the exact moment Bea spotted Allie by the transformation of her face. All trace of anxiety was erased as a smile spread over her features. As Allie stepped off the bus, Bea was right there, taking the suitcase out of her hand, Debbie jostling her elbow.

It looked like her friend was starting off on a new phase of her life. Liz was happy for her but wondered if Allie moving in met Bea's idea of 'being careful'.

 

Chapter Text

Allie had been distracted all day. Knowing that this afternoon, when she went to Bea's house, that instead of a brief visit, she had the whole evening with her was putting her mind in turmoil. Her subconscious was conjuring up image after image: Bea standing on the porch looking out for them; Bea eating supper at the kitchen table; Bea leaving the bathroom in her nightwear. What kind of nightwear? Allie wondered. She pictured her in a lacy nightgown, then pyjamas, maybe a nightshirt … Allie mentally shook herself. What was the matter with her? She was at work and her students needed her attention. It was the last week of school and they were already skittish with anticipation of the long summer vacation. On the other hand, it was the last week of school and maybe she could allow them some leeway. "Alright everyone. Please put down your pencils. For the last hour of the day we will take our books outside and read in the shade." There was a muffled cheer and a clatter of chairs as the class got their things together.

The last hour went quickly now. The younger children gathered around Allie and told her about what they were reading, whilst the older ones went off into huddles at more of a distance. Some were reading, but some seemed to be chatting. Allie allowed it for once, glancing at her watch and waiting for the moment when she could dismiss the class. Once they were gone Debbie helped her tidy up and then they were off down the track towards home.

Allie was disappointed that Bea was not on the porch or in the garden looking out for them as she nearly always was. Stepping up to the door, she was suddenly apprehensive about the change they were making. What if Bea found it difficult having someone else in the house? It was nearly the summer vacation and Allie would be around a great deal. She didn't want to get under Bea's feet: she was always so busy. Debbie had rushed through the door and Allie followed more slowly.

"Mama!" Debbie called out. Bea emerged from the room that was to be Allie's.

"You're back. I didn't realise the time …" Bea looked flushed and excited as she welcomed Debbie home with a hug and met Allie's eyes shyly. "Want to see?" Allie nodded and Bea led the way into the room, Debbie crowding in too. Allie was amazed by how good the room looked now. Bea had transformed it since Friday. Every surface was now thoroughly clean, and the room smelled fresh. A faded rug lay next to the bed, bright curtains at the window, a small vase of wildflowers on the nightstand. Bea had put fresh white sheets on the bed and draped it with her red blanket.

Allie broke into a surprised smile. "I can't believe it's the same room," she told Bea. "Thank you. I love it, but you should have waited, and I could have helped you."

"Don't be silly. Debbie helped …" Bea attempted to shrug it off, but Allie could see how pleased she was with her response.

“Thank you, Debbie," she told the little girl. "You could have given me a clue."

"It was a surprise," Debbie replied.

"And your blanket, Bea. You shouldn't have put that in here." But Allie loved having it. It reminded her of the day of the rainstorm, when Bea had wrapped her in it. It spoke of the intimacy they had shared that day and filled her with anticipation.

"It's too warm for either of us to need a blanket, but I thought it brightened the place up." Bea looked down and away and Allie wondered if the blanket held the same associations for her. "Anyway, we should let you unpack." Bea gestured to the suitcase standing ready by the bed.

"Won't take me long," Allie replied, unable to stop smiling, feeling welcome and wanted in her new home.

          *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Bea had been busy and excited all day. Preparing for Allie's arrival had taken up every moment and every thought. Now she was here, and Bea could hardly believe it. She was momentarily at a loss for what to do next now that Allie was unpacking, but Debbie was hovering near the kitchen table.

"Hungry Deb?"

Once Debbie was satisfied and ready to handle her chores Bea took the opportunity to have a wash and get changed. She wouldn't usually change before supper but today was a special day and deserved special consideration. She put on the grey slacks that she loved to wear and found a short-sleeved blouse that would do. She brushed out her hair and tied it back at the base of her neck. Scrutinising herself in the mirror she could only conclude that at least she looked less sweaty and flushed than before.

She had done all the preparation she could for supper, and as it was too early to start cooking, she thought she would put some coffee on for Allie. Coming down the stairs she found her already sitting at the kitchen table.

"Told you it wouldn't take me long to unpack."

"I guess you'll have to buy some more clothes before winter. Nothing you have can possibly be warm enough." In response Allie smiled brilliantly, as only she could.

"Now you've got me imagining winter here - all snug with you and Debbie." She sighed contentedly.

"Coffee?" Bea asked, her head full of the image of the three of them around the fire, snow on the ground outside.

"Mm. What can I do to help?" Allie asked, jumping up.

"Nothing. Just sit there."

"I hope you're not going to treat me like a guest Bea. I just want …" To be part of the family.

"This is your first day. Let me spoil you a bit. There's plenty of time to get stuck in later." Allie held her hands up in surrender and sat back down. "How was your day?" So, Allie told her about her slow school day whilst Bea listened, made the coffee and marvelled that something so ordinary could be so wonderful.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Allie had been sent out to sit on the porch, Bea complaining that she was distracting her from cooking.

"What am I doing?" Allie had protested.

"You're watching me." Allie merely shrugged. She couldn't deny it. Her eyes just followed Bea. It wasn't possible to stop. Especially since Bea had put on those grey pants that fitted her so nicely. "Unless you want me to burn everything you'd better vamoose." So, Allie had reluctantly withdrawn to watch Debbie turning cartwheels in the front yard.

After a few minutes, Debbie ran over. "Did you see me? Can you do a cartwheel?"

Allie looked doubtful. "I used to be able to, when I was a girl."

"Come on Miss Novak, come and try!"

"Remember, you can call me Allie at home Debbie."

Debbie giggled. "Allie," she said experimentally, "come and do cartwheels with me!" Allie looked at her expectant face and shucked off her shoes.

"Let's see if I've still got it." Allie surprised herself by turning several successful cartwheels before Bea came out onto the porch to call them in for supper and caught Allie with her skirt tucked into her underwear, hands in the air, preparing to throw herself into another turn. Bea looked so delighted and amused that Allie didn't even feel embarrassed.

Coming inside Allie was assailed by a melange of appetising smells. After hastily washing her hands, she was ushered into a seat by Bea. "Dig in. Hope you like it."

"Smells amazing. What is it?"

"We've got trout, potatoes, green beans … Debbie ... Pass that to Allie …" Soon everyone's plates were loaded, and they dug in. The potatoes were tiny and sweet. Bea had griddled them so that they were crispy and salty too. Allie almost groaned as she savoured them. The fish was oily and fresh and served with some unfamiliar tart berries. The combination was explosive.

"This is delicious, Bea. I've never eaten such a good meal." Bea smiled and blushed.

"It's a favourite from my childhood. Grandpa loved to go fishing. Knowing that Grandma would be mad at him for being away all day he would pick wild gooseberries on his way home. She never could resist them. Turns out that trout and gooseberries complement each other. Just like they did."

Allie was touched that Bea would go to so much trouble to make her a meal to welcome her. And one that held so much meaning.

"Thank you for making it. You went to a lot of trouble." She told Bea, sincerely. "So, you've been fishing and picking berries today. What else?" Allie was listening, she really was, but mostly she was feasting her eyes on Bea as she ate and moved around fetching things. The blouse she wore was jade green cotton sprinkled all over with tiny white dots like constellations. It had a small, rounded collar, and the cuffs fastened tightly around Bea's upper arms, making them look slimmer and stronger than ever. It was tucked firmly into those well-fitted pants, and the outfit was finished off with a pair of tatty Keds.

Allie was staring at the triangle of flesh revealed at the open collar, imagining laying her cheek against it. It would be soft and smooth. Bea's scent would be strong there, and if she could just undo one more button, she might get a glimpse of the paler skin …

"Allie."

"Hm?"

"I was just asking if you wanted some dessert, but maybe you're too tired."

"I'm not tired," she smiled.

"Your eyes had glazed over."

"I was just daydreaming …" Her expression must have given Bea a clue as to what she had been daydreaming about because Bea blushed deeply and turned away.

"I made applesauce cake, if you would like a piece." 

"I thought that was just for special occasions?" Allie commented over Debbie's cheers. Bea shrugged and smiled. She brought three large slices of cake to the table along with a bowl of thick cream.

"This is a special occasion," Debbie commented artlessly. "Because you're here now." And she plied her spoon enthusiastically, unaware of how much her words had touched Allie. Allie looked at Bea. Her face held a tender expression that showed Allie that she knew exactly how she felt. To keep her composure, she took a mouthful of cake and cream. The cake was spicy and moist, the cream cold and heavy.

"Um. Delicious," she managed to murmur around her mouthful. Debbie nodded and kept spooning.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Despite her objections, Allie was helping Bea clean up after supper. Which meant that Debbie was helping too, as she couldn't bear not to participate in the unusually festive atmosphere in the kitchen. She was clearly tired and overexcited, saying Allie's name over and over for the novelty of it, and putting things away in the wrong places just for fun. Bea's eyes met Allie's over Debbie's head. They smiled ruefully at one another. 

"Right Debbie. Time for bed." Bea intoned. 

"But I haven't finished yet," she protested.

"I'll finish off, Debbie." Allie told her.

"But you don't know where anything belongs!"

"I'll figure it out. Off you go." But Debbie's eyes had filled with tears. "I'll still be here in the morning," Allie added. 

"Promise?"

"I promise." She stroked the little girl's hair. "Get a good night's sleep. See you in the morning."

"Night."

"Come on," Bea told her. "If you get ready quickly, I'll read to you for a while." Debbie scampered up the stairs ahead of her.

Once Debbie was snuggled into bed Bea slid in next to her and opened the book. They had read this tale many times before but Debbie never tired of it. Tonight, Bea related the exciting episode of Jack and the porcupine. " Smiling at the child's eagerness, and willing to please him, I made a somewhat awkward bundle of the porcupine, wrapping it in several folds of cloth, and added it to the donkey's load ," she read. She kissed her daughter's soft cheek. "That's all for tonight." Debbie groaned but didn't dispute the decision. She turned on her side and settled down to sleep.

Bea turned out the light and was creeping towards the door when Debbie murmured sleepily, " It's more fun with three, isn't it Mama?"

Bea smiled. "Goodnight baby."

Going back down the stairs Bea found that Allie had finished clearing up from supper and was now sitting at the table, bent over a textbook. As she came into the room, words of thanks ready on her lips, Allie raised her head to look at her, and Bea lost any idea of what she had been going to say. Between Allie's delightfully tousled hair and her full lips there now perched a pair of round tortoiseshell spectacles. Never having seen them before, Bea was astonished at the effect they had. How could it be that something so ordinary and, well, ugly on most people, could actually make a beautiful woman even more beautiful? Could it be that the lenses magnified Allie's eyes? Or was it that this tiny token of the imperfection in Allie's vision amplified the perfection of her face?

Whatever it was, Bea stood, immobile, and stared, as though she had been blind her whole life until this moment. Her heart was speeding along; her eyes so wide they almost ached; her body reacting to Allie's presence like never before. She swallowed but still said nothing. Allie was starting to frown.

"Bea? Are you alright?" Bea just gasped and tore her eyes away. Allie was on her feet and coming towards her. "Whatever's the matter?" Bea looked at her again. A trembling started up in her spine and her whole body felt ready to sink down to the floor. Her breath was coming in irregular gasps, her fingers reaching out towards Allie of their own accord.

"Allie," she managed to strangle out, as she reached for her. "Please …" Even as she said that word, she didn't know what it was she was pleading for. But Allie seemed to know. Her expression softened and her arms circled Bea, steadying her and holding her close.

"You're trembling," Allie commented. Bea hesitantly raised her eyes to Allie's. She saw tenderness there, but also something else. The bright blue irises now contained a dark flame, flaring up as their eyes met. Allie reached up as if to remove her glasses.

"No … Leave them …" Bea husked. Allie smiled the private smile that was just for them, and cupped Bea's face with her hand, leaning in. Bea now knew what it was she wanted and she welcomed Allie's lips onto her own. The first touch was very gentle. So soft, Bea marvelled. The second was firmer. A delicate pull from Allie's mouth caused tendrils of sensation to unfurl along Bea's nerves, blooming in every part of her body. An inarticulate sound was drawn from her throat. She shuddered a breath into Allie's mouth as their lips met the third time, the tip of Allie's tongue brushing the underside of her top lip, creating a wave of pleasure that almost capsized her. But Allie held her steady.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Allie was sitting at the kitchen table preparing some algebra problems for her more able students, when Bea came back downstairs. She looked up from the page to find Bea frozen and staring, a stricken look on her face. Her first thought was that she had fallen ill, and Allie came to her feet quickly, thinking she might faint.

Reaching Bea's side, she took in her heaving breath, her flush, her wide eyes. Recognizing the symptoms, she felt an answering reaction from her own body and quickly wrapped her arms about Bea. She was quivering in her embrace, her lips parted slightly in anticipation. Allie would not keep her waiting. She went to remove her reading glasses, but Bea wouldn't let her. She likes the glasses, Allie rejoiced, some corner of her mind amused by this detail.

Slowly, carefully, she touched her lips to Bea's, her heart beating a joyful tattoo. At last . The sensation of homecoming was profound. She kissed her again and her whole body vibrated like a struck gong. She had known it would be like this, and yet she still reeled with the force of her sensations. Bea was trembling and shuddering in response and Allie could not have resisted kissing her again if she had wanted to. Bea melted against her. Allie held her tightly, feeling their hearts galloping in unison. Eventually Bea's joints solidified again. She rested her hands on Allie's hips and looked her in the face.

"How'd you do that?" she asked, looking sincerely puzzled.

"Do what?" Allie replied gently, staring into her eyes.

"You kissed me and I … I felt it everywhere. Fingers, toes, even the ends of my hair. I swear it."

Allie smiled. "That just means we're doing it right. You made my glasses steam up. Another good sign."

"I didn't know a kiss could be like that. When Harry kissed me, I … I just felt nothing."

"Oh darling. He was wrong for you in every way."

"I feel like I've just woken up. That there's a whole world I wasn't aware of." She looked shocked at the idea.

"And I want to be the one to explore it with you." Allie examined her face. "Feel okay?"

"Better than okay," she sighed out with a small smile. "You'd better take these off," she reached up to remove Allie's glasses. "Before I … go all strange again."

"I might wear them all the time, now I know the effect they have on you." Bea seemed to have steadied herself. "Come and sit on the couch with me," Allie suggested.

Allie sat down and drew Bea close to her, soothing the last of the trembling away with gentle hands. Bea leant into her, relaxing and breathing evenly. Allie could tell she was tired; had noticed before that after any situation where Bea's emotional walls were breached, her recovery strategy was to sleep. She really ought to let her get to bed, but for a few moments she selfishly wanted to enjoy this new feeling: Bea Smith resting calmly in her arms, her lips still tingling from their kisses.

"Allie?"

"Yes?"

"Do you think that we could maybe… you know… kiss some more?"

Allie threw her head back and laughed. "I was just about to suggest you get some sleep. You seem pretty tired."

"Just one more.”

“Like I told Debbie, I’ll still be here in the morning.”

“I know. A goodnight kiss…"

"You've convinced me." Allie turned towards her and waited. Bea smiled and closed the distance between them, holding Allie's head between her hands. As their mouths met, Allie closed her eyes and let the rush of pleasure sweep through her.

 

Chapter Text

Allie awoke and remembered where she was. She smiled, stretched, and flexed her toes with pleasure. She was in her new bedroom in Bea's house and Bea was just upstairs in her own room. Or maybe not. Judging from the sounds she could hear she was the last one still in bed. Getting up, she hastily dressed and came out of her room. Bea was slicing bread at the kitchen table and Debbie was bringing a jug of milk over from the icebox.

Bea glanced over at her with a smile that was full of last night. "Morning sleepyhead." Debbie looked up and grinned, gambolling over to give Allie a hug.

"Morning Allie. We can walk to school together today," she announced.

"I guess we can. I'll need us to leave a bit earlier than you usually do to get set up before the other students arrive."

"That's okay. I've already collected the eggs, polished my shoes and got my books ready." Allie nodded dumbly. How long had they been awake?

"I'll just …" she gestured at the stairs. Bea nodded.

"Breakfast in ten minutes," she told her. Ten minutes! Allie hastened up the stairs to the bathroom.

When she came back down Bea was standing at the stove. "How would you like your eggs?" Seeing that she was making scrambled for Debbie, she chose scrambled too.

"What can I do?" She asked.

"Everything is ready apart from the eggs. Just sit down. Help yourself to coffee."

"You should have woken me. I could have helped with all this," Allie complained, feeling humiliated by her uselessness.

"Don't be silly. This is our normal weekday routine. One extra mouth is no trouble."

"I should have set my alarm clock. I just knew I would have more time than before, so I didn't bother." Bea came over to serve up her eggs, brushing against her as she did so.

"So you'll set it tomorrow. If you want to. Now, stop fretting and eat." Bea placed her hand on her shoulder and Allie instantly felt comforted. She ate her eggs, stealing regular glances at Bea, wondering what she was thinking about what happened last night. She seemed cheerful and unembarrassed, untroubled and well rested. Allie herself had slept solidly. After, that is, a few minutes of turning and winding in her sheets, reliving those precious kisses.

 She finished up her food and was just about to help clear up the table when Bea intervened.

"Allie, I just need to show you how to work the catch on your wardrobe."

"The catch is f …"

"It can be a little tricky. I'll show you the knack. Debbie, run up and brush your teeth." And she led the way to Allie's room. Once inside she executed a neat pirouette to face Allie and reached behind her to close the door. Her face was lit up, a smile flickering across it as she excitedly lifted herself onto her toes and back down, her glance touching Allie's and then fluttering away. Her resemblance to Debbie was so strong in that moment that Allie smiled to herself.

"So what's up with this catch then?" Allie asked, knowingly.

"What catch?" Bea asked breathily. In an instant she was up on her toes again, drawing Allie to her and pressing their mouths together. Allie's body reacted with a sudden inward convulsion of pleasure. She leaned into Bea, passion taking over for a moment, before she remembered that she was taking things slowly. She gently drew back, catching her breath. "I couldn't let you leave me all day without a kiss," Bea rasped.

"Bea," Allie murmured, overcome with the tenderness she felt. She held Bea against her and lovingly kissed her lips, her cheeks, her eyelids, her nose, before returning to her mouth. Then Bea was shaking again and Allie found herself leaning against the door for support, her arms still circled around Bea's waist. "I guess there's no point in asking you how you feel about last night," Allie commented dryly. 

"I dreamed about you," Bea confessed, reaching up to tuck a lock of Allie's hair behind her ear. "I can't remember the details, but when I woke up I felt … I don't know what. But all I could think about was doing this." She touched tentative fingers to Allie's lips before pressing her mouth to them firmly and holding it there for a long moment, taking Allie's bottom lip between hers. Allie was breathing hard by the time Bea released her.

"You're one hell of a kisser," Allie told her. Bea's face flushed to match the pinkness that was already working its way up from her chest to her throat. Allie leaned in and buried her nose in Bea's hair and neck. "You smell so good," she groaned. "Please tell me I don't have to go to work today." Bea held her tighter.

"I don't have any reason to leave this room. We could just stay like this and kiss all day." Bea agreed.

"Except any moment now Debbie's going to be banging on that door, asking us what we're doing …"

"Damn!" Bea straightened herself up. "How do I look?"

"Like you've just been ravished," Allie teased. Bea gave her a light thump on the shoulder. "You look beautiful. A little pink … but beautiful."

"Allie! You're not helping!" Bea complained, having turned a deeper shade of pink from the compliment. Allie laughed.

"You'd better go. I need to get my school things together … and you need to cool off. Beautiful ." Bea tried to look annoyed, but the spark in her eyes gave her away. Allie stole one last kiss from her before she slipped out of the room.

Having gathered all her books and papers for the day ahead, Allie came out of her room to find Debbie waiting for her, books and lunch bag in hand. "Ready?" Allie asked. 

"Yup. Let's go! Bye Mama," Debbie called already halfway out the door. Allie trailed behind.

"Allie!" Bea called. "You forgot this." She held out a brown paper bag. Allie looked at it in wonder. 

"You made me a lunch?" She asked, disbelief in her voice. Bea nodded and put it into her hand. "You didn't have to do that."

"What were you going to do come lunchtime?" Bea asked her. 

"I don't know. I hadn't thought about it."

"Good job one of us did," Bea responded with an eye roll. 

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Left alone in the house Bea felt adrift and purposeless in a quite unfamiliar way. She had a mental list of things that needed doing but, for once, couldn't decide which was highest priority. She roamed around the house, desultorily tidying things away before electing to clean the bathroom. Once she had made a start, she felt better. There's nothing to bring one down to earth like scrubbing a toilet.

A minute later, her mind had wandered away again. She had caught sight of Allie's toothbrush nestling in amongst Debbie's and her own. She sat on the edge of the bathtub contemplating how much her life had changed since Allie had walked into her garden a few weeks ago. She couldn't think of a time when she had ever felt so hopeful, and yet the unknowns were endless and disturbing. What did it make her, this passion she felt for Allie? An unnatural woman? Manish, perverted, sinful? Was it right for Debbie to be around someone like her? Would it ruin Debbie's chances for a happy marriage and children of her own? And the consequences if people found out about them. She groaned internally. They would be shunned. Allie would lose her job and they would have to leave their home and move away.

Home . That was what they were building here. A home, a household, a family. More than anything, that's what the sight of the three toothbrushes together in the glass represented. How could she think that that closeness could harm Debbie? How could what she felt for Allie possibly be wrong? She knew wrong. Had lived wrong. Harry was wrong. Harry had not been good for Debbie, but it was evident that Allie was. If only the rest of the world would leave them alone they could be happy and safe.

But maybe she was getting ahead of herself. Allie had not said what she wanted for the future. Maybe this was not a long time thing for her. After all, what could it be that she saw in Bea? An ordinary housewife with a bad marriage, a child and no prospects. Allie was beautiful, smart, a qualified teacher with a career. She deserved better. Bea had nothing to offer her. And maybe Allie wanted marriage and children for herself one day … Imagining that almost brought Bea to tears. If it were best for Allie, would she be able to let her go?

Bea stood up. She recognised that she was getting herself into one of those cyclical thought patterns that would inevitably bring on a rage. Time to get out for a walk. She would take her notepad and make some sketches. She could be home again by lunchtime and still get some jobs done this afternoon.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

This might be the best morning of teaching I've ever done, Allie thought. She was so euphoric over how things were going with Bea that she had felt energised and extra motivated all morning. The Pitts twins had lapped up that algebra; the younger students finally seemed to understand those time problems they had been struggling with; and even Jimmy had been engrossed with the math questions she had given him, probably because they all dealt with buying candy and marbles.

Now she was sitting at her desk to eat her lunch. Her students had gone outside to eat at the benches and run off their excess energy and Allie was left in peace to eat and think about Bea. That she had sought her out this morning and shown her that, not only did she not regret what had happened last night, but she enthusiastically wanted more, made Allie supremely glad. The step back that Bea had taken after that terrible night with Harry had now become a step forwards. They still had a way to go and many things stood in their way, but Allie felt wholly optimistic about the future.

Opening her lunch bag, Allie found a sandwich and a slice of last nights’ applesauce cake wrapped in wax paper. If possible, it tasted even better than it had the night before. Just as she was finishing up, she noticed a scrap of paper nestling at the bottom of the bag. Drawing it out she found it was a small sketch, obviously done in haste, of an out-stretched cat. Underneath, a caption had been added: “Allie-cat lying in the sun.” Allie’s eyes filled up. What a precious thing for Bea to have done for her. She stared at it, smoothing her fingers over the lines, imagining Bea making this for her. It was such a perfect little drawing, capturing the spirit of the animal in just a few lines, but with a couple of hints about the face that made it resemble Allie. She had not known that Bea could draw, but was not surprised. Just looking at her hands, she had been able to tell how capable and dextrous they would be. But that was a thought for another time.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Bea waited behind an ancient white ash, her shoulder blades pressing into its rough bark. She wasn’t sure what the time was, but she felt happier waiting here than pacing the porch or bending over her seed drills. Her back was aching and not just from gardening. Her time of the month had come around which meant backache, stomach cramps and tiredness. Also the infernal sanitary belt.

Hearing footfalls, she stepped away from the tree trunk. Sure enough, Debbie and Allie came past the tree and she fell into step beside them. “Carry your bag, Miss?” she growled, causing Allie to jump like a startled deer. Debbie laughed.

"Mama!"

“Bea!” Allie remonstrated. “You scared me half to death.”

“Sorry,” Bea said through her smile, a little too delighted at Allie’s flushed cheeks to be truly sorry. Already the heaviness had dropped away from her limbs and stomach and the fluttery, happy feeling had started up again. She took the bag from Allie and accepted the strap of books Debbie thrust at her without complaint, too distracted by Allie to make her carry them herself. Debbie was already fifty yards ahead in any case. “How was your day?” Bea asked.

“Marvellous,” Allie told her. When Bea raised a sceptical eyebrow, she continued quietly. “You make me so happy. Today sailed by like a dream.” She stepped in front of Bea, stopping her, and put a hand on her chest, her fingers brushing over her collarbone. She came closer until there was only a fingers width between them. Heart pounding, Bea breathed her in. Watermelon . That was what Allie smelled of, watermelon . “I wanted to thank you,” Allie whispered. “For the drawing you left in my lunch bag. It was gorgeous and it made my day.” Bea was blushing hard and smiling like a lunatic. “I didn’t know you were an artist … on top of all your other talents,” she added suggestively, breathing hotly on Bea’s cheek.

Bea swallowed heavily. “Not here,” she pleaded. Allie grinned smugly.

"How was your day, my love?" Allie asked as they continued to stroll towards home. Bea looked at her out of the corners of her eyes. My love. Did Allie have any clue how that made her heart leap up?

"It was … okay." Bea replied. Allie was looking at her closely. Bea maintained her silence, not sure she had the energy to relate all the thoughts and doubts her mind had entertained today. "I missed you."

"Perhaps you could show me how much, later," Allie breathed, smiling. "And maybe you'll feel like telling me what's really bothering you too," she added, meeting Bea's eyes fearlessly and seriously. How could she do that? Bea wondered. How could she face all the messy emotional stuff head on? Some days Bea would almost rather flay off her own skin than confront her feelings. Allie had a courage she couldn't ever hope to match.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Allie was watching Bea move about the kitchen. When she stopped to rub her palm against her belly and breathe out a sigh, Allie recognised how she was feeling.

“Why don’t you sit down for a bit and let me do that,” she suggested, coming over to her.

“It’s fine,” Bea replied.

“You’re not fine. Want me to get you some aspirin? Or a hot water bottle?” Allie asked, looking pointedly at Bea’s stomach.

Bea laid her head to one side and gave Allie a look. “Do you think I usually take aspirin and put my feet up?” she asked her.

“No. I think you usually ignore it and carry on.” Allie replied.

Bea gave a satisfied nod. “Well there you go then.” So stubborn.

“But you don’t need to do that now, because I’m here and I can help you out when you don’t feel so great.” Allie looked at her patiently. Bea carried on getting pans out of the cupboard as though she hadn’t spoken. Allie waited.

“You’re looking at me again,” Bea accused her, finally.

“Always,” Allie responded. She went over to her and stilled her busy hands by holding her wrists. She stroked the skin there until Bea looked at her. “I know you’re used to being queen of your domain … but let me do something for you once in a while. Think of me. Think how much I would like to do something for you … and let me.” The fight went out of her then and Allie was able to steer her into a chair. “Sit there. Where do you keep the aspirin and what are we having for supper?”

“Bathroom,” she said shortly. “Chicken and potatoes.”

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Bea was sitting on her hands. It was the only way she could watch Allie in the kitchen without intervening.

“I could peel those while I’m sitting here,” Bea said, nodding at the potatoes Allie was massacring. Allie gave her a look, apparently checking to see if she was being critical. Bea kept her face neutral. “I feel much better now I’ve taken those aspirin,” she insisted. Allie handed over the knife.

“Go on then. I’ll admit I’m a bit out of practice,” she grinned. She watched Bea’s expert peeling for a few moments. “I don’t think I’ll ever be as fast as that. Those glorious hands of yours. So capable, I bet they could do anything. Oh, that reminds me …” She disappeared into her room, leaving Bea looking at her rough, scarred hands, wondering what Allie could find to admire in them. She returned with an envelope and a small brown paper package. “I meant to give these to you last night, but I got distracted. In the nicest possible way …” Bea’s body surged with an echo of the pleasure she had felt last night and she shifted in her seat, feeling suddenly hot. Had Allie noticed? Of course she had. Would these blushes ever stop giving her away?

“What’s this?” Bea asked as Allie put the envelope into her hand.

“My board money. You need to get down to the bank and pay that off against the mortgage.” Bea nodded. She felt horrible, taking Allie’s money, even though she recognised the necessity of it. “This is just a little something,” Allie breezed on, “to make your life a bit easier.” She handed her the package.

“What is it?” Bea asked suspiciously.

“Well, the idea is that you open the paper and then you find out,” Allie said with a straight face. Bea slowly untied the string. A gift outside of the Christmas season was an unfamiliar idea to her. “It’s supposed to be pleasant, getting a gift,” Allie complained. “You look like you think I gift wrapped a rattlesnake.”

“Sorry,” Bea replied. “I’m a bit out of practice …” she smiled at Allie, whose eyes now filled up.

“I’ll have to see what I can do about that.”

“Don’t you dare,” Bea replied vehemently. Unfurling the paper, she found a pair of thick work gloves. She smiled to herself. A totally practical present. Allie knew her so well already.

“Try them on,” Allie encouraged her. Bea slipped her hand inside and flexed her fingers.

“Perfect.” She looked Allie right in the eye. “Thank you for thinking of it.”

“You’re welcome,” Allie replied, looking pleased with herself. “Can’t have you getting any more blisters.” She reached out and took Bea’s hand, rubbing her thumb over the almost healed blister. Looking her in the eyes, she added, “I have plans for these hands of yours.”

Bea blushed.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

To Allie’s amazement, supper was edible. Maybe better than edible judging by the way Debbie demolished her plateful. Bea was eating with a healthy appetite too. Perhaps it did her good to eat something that she hadn’t cooked herself once in a while. It was possible that Allie would be some use around here after all. She might know nothing about growing food, catching fish or chopping wood, but she could learn. And she would learn because she wanted Bea be able to rely on someone other than herself. She admired Bea’s work ethic, but she needed a little time to herself, to reflect or pursue her interests.

So it was that, after supper, after an episode of Tarzan , after Debbie’s bedtime, Allie planned to raise the subject of what Bea had been brooding on today. Her eyes, however, insisted on straying to Bea's lips. She studied the dark rose colour, the way they pursed and relaxed as her thoughts came and went, the occasional downturn that betrayed, not sadness, but determination.

Bea looked up and caught her staring. She walked over to Allie and took her hand, leading her over to the couch. She sat down and pulled her into her lap with such an intense look in her eyes that Allie found it impossible to speak. Bea touched her lips to Allie’s neck drawing a whimper from her. Allie could hear Bea breathing hard as she kissed up her throat to her jaw. She drew her head back to look at Allie, her eyes half closed. Holding her head between her hands, she ran her thumb over and over the beauty spot above Allie's lip. She leaned in and kissed it again and again, like she couldn't get enough, and Allie knew that this was something else that Bea liked about her. At the thought of that, Allie felt her pulse beating sharply between her legs. Then Bea's mouth was on hers fully and all thought was obliterated.

Chapter Text

The next day at school Allie was kicking herself for not speaking to Bea about what had been bothering her. As soon as Bea had laid that kiss on her, Allie’s mind had ceased to function and they had spent the whole evening necking on the couch, getting progressively hotter and more worked up until Bea pulled away. Allie knew that she had reached her limits for the time being. Bea had gone off to bed, exhausted. Allie went to bed too, but sleep was hard to come by. And it wasn't just that every nerve ending was alight. Bea was fretting about something: Harry or Debbie, herself, money worries. There were plenty of things that could be exercising her. She was determined that she wouldn't let this evening go the same way. Any doubts and fears that Bea had should not be allowed to fester and ruin what they were building. 

All during supper, and after, Bea was casting glances at Allie that left her in no doubt about her intentions for the evening. So, whilst Bea was reading to Debbie, Allie made them some cocoa and took the cups out onto the porch to wait for Bea. This way, she reasoned, they could be close, side by side on the porch seat, but Bea could express herself to the darkening trees instead of having to look at Allie. That would be easier on her. If she could even get her to say anything.

She heard Bea come down the stairs and then pause. "Out here," Allie called to her. Bea appeared in the doorway. 

"What are you doing outside?" Bea asked, looking a little put out. 

"It's a lovely evening. I made cocoa," she replied. Bea just looked at her. "Sit with me," Allie said in a coaxing tone.

"But … I thought we could … you know …"

"I want to talk to you a bit first," Allie said, with a smile. "And then, I promise, we can kiss until we're dizzy if you like." Bea blushed.

"God Allie! You make me sound like some kind of maniac," Bea protested. Allie shook her head and grabbed hold of her arm, tugging her into the seat beside her and resting her hand on Bea's thigh.

"I want it just as much as you, you idiot. Trust me, that couch is going to be begging for mercy if I get my way." Bea answered Allie's smile with one of her own. "But I know there's all sorts of stuff going on in your head." She tapped her on the temple with one finger. "All sorts of things that we haven't talked about. Things we both need to ask … or tell." Allie's heart sped up at the thought of what she wanted to tell. Did she dare say it? She handed Bea a cup of cocoa and let her sip in peace for a while.

Bea was looking straight ahead and keeping her silence. Allie knew it was up to her to initiate the conversation. "So … yesterday. I got the feeling you were worrying about something …" Bea looked into her cup. Her lips were tense and pursed. "Is it Debbie? Are you worried about Debbie?" Allie knew that this was a likelihood as Debbie would always be foremost in Bea's mind.

"Partly …" Bea conceded after a pause.

"Tell me," Allie said quietly.

"It's just … what if this …" Bea wagged her finger from side to side to indicate the two of them. "What if it's bad for her … having a mother who's not normal."

"You're perfectly normal Bea," Allie insisted. "The world tries to tell us we're not, because people are afraid of what might happen if everyone, particularly women, could choose how to live and love. They think the world as they know it would fall apart." She let that sink in for a minute. "And as for its effect on Debbie … Well, I think she's going to be better off with a mother who's happy than one that's miserable." Allie paused. "You are happy, aren't you?" Bea smiled in a way that left no doubt and Allie's heart skipped into a faster tempo.

Bea was nodding. "It is better for her without Harry here, and better that I'm happy. But then I thought about her future. How will she ever know how to choose a husband? Maybe she'll be confused and think Harry is the only kind of husband there is."

"Debbie will grow up and fall in love with someone. That's how she'll choose a husband. Nothing you or I do will influence that. My parents will attest to that. How they wish that their good example could have changed how I turned out." Allie's bitter tone made Bea finally look at her.

"What happened?"

Allie sighed, not sure how deep into her past troubles to go. "They heard rumours that I was involved with a woman. And when my mama asked me about it … I didn't deny it." Allie glanced at Bea to see how she was taking it, but she was looking away. "They don't want anything to do with me anymore. They say it's because the Bible says what I do is wrong, but I think it's really because it's bad for their reputation and therefore bad for business." Allie’s voice had thickened as she related this and Bea grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze.

“That’s horrible. I’m sorry. What about your brother?”

“I don’t really know what he thinks. He’s younger, and in line to take over the business. I don’t blame him for not taking them on.” They were silent for a minute. “In New York,” Allie ventured, “people like us make their own families. Their parents reject them, and they build families out of their friends and lovers, open minded neighbours and colleagues.” Allie swallowed hard. “We could be like that … if you wanted. Us and Debbie. Maxine and Liz.” She risked a glance at Bea. She still wouldn’t look at her, but her eyes were shiny with unshed tears. “Bea …”

Bea finally turned to her, her lips working. “You’d want that? With me?” Tears tracked down her face as she spoke.

“Yes,” Allie replied urgently. “More than anything. I should have said something before. I thought it might be too soon … And here you’ve been getting upset about it … I’m so sorry.”

“It was just yesterday … I realised I was thinking about us as though we had a long term future, and then … what you said to Harry came into my head … about moving on … and even though I know you only said it to get rid of him, I realised, I have no idea if that’s true …”

“It’s not true Bea. There’s nowhere else I want to be. If you’ll have me … Don’t cry …” She reached out to wipe away Bea’s tears.

“They’re happy tears,” Bea insisted with a thick voice. “I’d love to make a family with you. But I want to be fair to you. I know I’m not nearly good enough for you.”

“That’s nonsense,” Allie interrupted, but Bea continued as if she had not spoken.

“You could have anyone. I’ve made a mess of my life, and probably Debbie’s too. I don’t want to mess yours up as well. And what if you want to get married and have children of your own one day? I couldn’t ask you to forgo that …” Allie laughed. “What? Don’t laugh!”

“I’m sorry. I’m not laughing at you. That’s something else I should have told you. It’s always been women for me. When I was a little girl, I liked other girls, and when I became a woman, I liked other women. The idea of marriage and children is one I have never entertained. If I was going to marry someone … well, it would be you every time.” Allie stroked her face, sorely wanting to kiss her.

Bea smiled. “Two women getting married. Can you imagine?” Allie shook her head. Should she tell her now? It was implied in what she had just said, but would it help Bea to hear the words?

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

"There's something else I need to tell you." Bea saw the fear on Allie's face.

"Whatever it is, you can tell me." She did her best to meet Allie's gaze squarely and without flinching. Allie was always so good at getting her to open up and listening when she did. She wanted to be able to do that in return. Allie's lips were trembling, and her eyes were fixed on Bea's as if to a lifeline. Bea held her hand, keeping very still and steady. "It's okay beautiful girl. Just say it."

Allie's face pinked up fetchingly. She huffed out a breath. "I just wanted to tell you ... that I love you. That I'm in love with you." She looked down at her lap as though she couldn't bear to see Bea's reaction. Bea felt herself brim up with joy at Allie's words. She wanted to smile and shout out a laugh, but Allie still looked so serious and worried.

"Thank you," she said earnestly. "Thank you for telling me." Allie finally looked at her and Bea let forth the smile that Allie's words had generated. Allie's face was transformed as her own smile beamed out.

"Is it too much? I don't want you to be …"

"Of course not," Bea interrupted. "I love that you said it. I love you." When had that happened? She didn't know, couldn't have articulated it until this minute. But it was true.

"Please don't say it if you don't mean it …"

"I wouldn't. I do mean it." She looked at Allie intently, willing her to see it in her eyes. Allie smiled and her gaze shifted to Bea's lips. She leaned toward her. Bea was anticipating the touch of her lips when she heard an engine drawing near and sprang to her feet just as a truck pulled up in front of the house. Fear surged through her.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Allie knew exactly what Bea was thinking, but the man who jumped out of the truck was not Harry. She could see Bea's hands shaking as she approached the visitor and hear the residual fear in her voice as she called out a friendly greeting.

"Hank. You're not still making deliveries, surely?"

"Bea. A letter came for, uh," he glanced at the envelope in his hand, "Miss Novak. Liz said you'd been waiting on it, so I thought I'd drop it round on my way home." He smiled at Allie from behind Bea.

"Oh. Uh, Hank. This is Allie Novak. Allie, this is Hank Johnson, Liz's right hand." Bea's voice had returned to normal now and she was smiling as she made the introduction. Allie got up as he came up the steps to shake her hand.

"Pleasure to meet you," she said. He was a slim but ropily muscled man of indeterminate age. He had a long face that looked rather sad, Allie reflected, until he smiled, and then you could see how handsome he was. He had dark skin and hair, but his eyes were an unusual light green, peppered with specks of brown and gold. "We were just having some cocoa Hank. Please join us."

"Oh, no. Thank you, but I have to be getting home. Here's your letter Miss."

Allie took it from him. "Thank you. But please call me Allie." Hank smiled at her.

"Garden's looking good Bea," he commented, turning back to the truck.

"Yep. How're your hogs coming along?"

"Fat as butter. You up for the usual arrangement, come fall?"

"Absolutely. Thanks for bringing the mail." Hank just nodded, climbed into the truck, and was away. They watched the truck disappear. Allie could see Bea’s body sag a little as the adrenaline began to subside. She crossed her arms across her chest and dipped her head, scuffing her shoe in the dirt, her back to Allie.

When she made no further move, Allie called, “Come inside Bea.” Her head shot up as though she’d just woken suddenly, and she slowly placed one foot in front of the other, coming up the porch steps. Allie held the screen door open for her and as soon as they were inside, she wrapped her arms around her very firmly. Bea was stiff in her embrace. “It’s okay. It wasn’t him,” she murmured, rocking her slightly. After a few moments Bea sighed and began to relax.

“As soon as I saw that truck … my body reacted before I even had time to think,” Bea admitted, her voice filled with shame.

“Of course it did. It’s only natural. But he’s not here and you’re safe.” Allie would happily have stayed holding Bea like that all evening, but Bea drew away.

“The letter. Is it from him?”

“I don’t know. I don’t recognise the handwriting.” Allie held up the envelope so that Bea could see it. She shook her head. Allie ripped open the envelope and glanced at the letter. “It’s from Maxine. Why hasn’t Harry written?”

Bea shrugged. “I don’t know. I can’t help but worry about what this silence means. I have to go into Charlottesville tomorrow. To the bank. I’ll call in on Mary and see if she’s heard from him.” She paused. “What’s Maxine say in her letter?”

“I’ll read it later. I’d rather carry on from where we left off,” Allie smiled.

Bea grimaced. “Hank kind of spoiled the moment,” she replied with a shaky laugh. She headed into the kitchen and began rinsing cups that were already clean and straightening jars that were already straight. She had gone to her safe place, Allie knew. Any minute now she would start yawning.

“Yeah. That was a close one. Can you imagine if Hank had caught us kissing? So, perhaps we should make a rule. No kissing on the porch.”

Bea nodded. “We have to be more careful,” she agreed.

“Kissing in the house is okay though …” Allie said suggestively. But Bea was still a long way from her, processing her reaction to Hank’s arrival. She was moving around the kitchen automatically, her eyes glazed, her thoughts goodness knows where. She would be back, Allie knew, given time. She went and sat on the couch and picked up a newspaper that was laying on a table. Finding her glasses, she glanced at the date. Two days old. She switched on the lamp, sat down and started reading.

After a few minutes she became aware that Bea had stopped moving about. She looked up to find Bea frozen, leaning against the sink, staring blankly out of the window. Allie cleared her throat. “It says in the paper that the depression might be easing at last,” she announced. Bea turned to look at her, her eyes beginning to focus. Allie rustled the pages, hitched up her skirt a little and recrossed her legs, slowly , and made a show of adjusting her glasses. She started silently counting to ten, and before she got to six Bea was sitting next to her, looking slightly annoyed.

“Do you always get your own way?” she asked accusingly, but with a particular purr to her voice that made Allie’s heart accelerate.

“As much as possible,” Allie replied, reaching for her hand. She brought it up to her lips and kissed the palm lingeringly.

“Mm,” Bea said. Allie kept a hold of Bea’s hand and held it against her cheek, pressing her face into it, her breath quickening.

“Allie cat,” Bea murmured fondly. Allie smiled. How she loved that name.

She raised her shining eyes to Bea’s. “I love you.” Bea smiled widely. “Kiss me, damn you,” Allie insisted impatiently. Bea laughed and kissed her.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

Bea stifled a yawn. She was as happy as she’d ever been. She didn’t want to move, and yet if she lay here much longer, she’d surely fall asleep. Allie stirred against her. Her head lay on Bea’s chest, her hair tickling her face. Their feet were tangled together, and Bea was relishing the sensation of the full length of Allie’s body being pressed against hers. She smoothed Allie’s hair back from her face and kissed her forehead. “Allie cat, are you falling asleep?”

“Maybe … I love it when you call me that.” She pulled Bea closer, pushing her nose into Bea's neck and made no move to go to bed.

“Do you remember? Last week? When I came home, and you were sunning yourself on the porch?”

“Mm.” Sleepily.

“I thought you looked just like a cat. So content with something as simple as a patch of sunshine.”

“That drawing you did was lovely. Do you have any others I could see?” It was an innocent question, but it threw Bea back to a darker time. She must have stiffened, because Allie raised her head and looked at her with concern.

“Bea. What’s wrong?”

“I always had to hide my notebook with my drawings in it.” She forced herself to continue. “Harry hated me drawing. Said it was a waste of time. If he found it he would rip it up and then …” She stopped. Anger and fear closed her throat.

“Then he would beat you,” Allie finished for her. Bea nodded. She disentangled herself from Allie and stood up. "It's okay,” Allie continued, sitting up. “You can say it now. It's never going to happen again." Bea found that Allie's calm announcement unaccountably angered her.

"You don't know that Allie," she snapped. "We don't know where he is or what he's up to." She stalked away into the kitchen, glaring at Allie's reflection in the now dark window. "He could reappear any day …"

"If you really think that, maybe we should get in touch with the sheriff," Allie reasoned.

"I don't know what to think!" Bea couldn't explain why she was suddenly so angry, and with Allie of all people.

"I think seeing that truck tonight scared you badly. You thought he was gone and then it seemed like he wasn't." Allie was being so calm. It was infuriating, but Bea could see the sense in what she said. "The situation hasn't changed since this morning. It's just your view of it that has changed." Bea hung her head. She had so much to be thankful for since Allie appeared in her life. Why must her past ambush her like this? Or was she just fundamentally incapable of being happy? Her hot temper, her insecurities, her actual physical fear all combined on a night like tonight to make her a horrible person to be around.

“I’d better just go to bed,” she told Allie despondently.

Allie nodded. “You’re tired, I know. But don’t go away mad at me. Please. I couldn’t bear that.” A wave of shame overtook Bea. She was so unworthy of this sweet woman. Her throat was full of tears so that she couldn’t speak, but she turned to Allie and opened her arms, hoping that this gesture would say everything that she was unable to voice. Allie walked into her embrace without hesitation and rested there.

         *       *       *       *       *       *       *       *

In the morning Allie awoke to find that a notebook had been pushed under her door during the night.