Country Mouse

By

Lois Cloarec Hart


My thanks as always to my wonderful betas — Betty, Carol, Glenda and Mom.  And to my partner, Day, who not only edits my writing, but inspires it, my deepest gratitude and love.  This one’s for you, mslb.

 

##

 

 “For heaven’s sake, Angela!  Turn around and quit staring at those women.  I don’t know what on earth you find so fascinating about them. Honestly, Mouse, you’d think you had no concept at all of how to behave properly in church.”

Angela reflected sadly that the nickname that had once sounded so affectionate on her partner’s lips, now sounded like an insult.  Then the music swelled and the processional began.  She pushed aside the growing disquiet over her personal troubles, and focused on the sacraments that always had the power to calm and console her.

When the service ended over an hour later, Angela followed quietly in Gretchen’s wake as her partner greeted members of the congregation.  She barely raised her eyes when the pastor took her hand and wished her a good week, mumbling what she hoped was an appropriate reply.

It didn’t surprise Angela when Gretchen abandoned her during the after-service refreshments in order to buttonhole a fellow realtor.  She was sure the only reason Gretchen even attended Sunday services was to network.  They rarely ever made it out to the car before her partner would begin to mock the sermon, the music, the pastor...even on one occasion, the grape juice used for Communion.  

For her part, Angela was long past the point where she tried to engage Gretchen in any spiritual message.  These days she was simply content to attend and absorb the balm that the familiar rituals offered.

Trudging over to the church kitchen, Angela accepted a glass of punch and took a couple of cookies.  Finding a chair along the wall, she munched on her snack as her gaze roamed around the room.  Gretchen was deep in conversation with several men on the far side of the room.  Her eyes drifted to the two women who had inadvertently precipitated her most recent chastisement.

Angela knew that Gretchen didn’t understand what it was about the elderly couple that fascinated her.  She was hard pressed to explain it herself.  Two years prior when Gretchen first took her to church, Angela hadn’t paid much attention to them, other than to mentally note they appeared to be the oldest members of the congregation.

It was only in the past several months, as her relationship with Gretchen had grown increasingly strained, that Angela found herself hungrily seeking them out each Sunday morning.  On the rare occasions the two women didn’t come to church, she found herself inwardly bemoaning their absence, and hoping that nothing had happened to them. 

The two appeared even older than her late grandmother, and her big brother Augie had always said Grandma Beebe was as ancient as Methuselah.  When Grandma Beebe died, Augie had predicted that their equally elderly Great-Uncle Randal would be the next to go.  Angela figured her brother couldn’t really have known that Uncle Randal would go off the road in a blinding rainstorm and hit an old oak head on.  It had not stopped Augie from claiming credit for his prognostic skills, though.

Initially, Angela had wondered if the two women were sisters.  They were both unusually tall for their generation, with short white hair.  But that’s where the physical similarities ended.  The one with glasses had plump cheeks, a softly rounded body, and a smile warm enough to melt butter.  The other woman, as lean as her partner was round, had sharply angular features and piercing blue eyes.  She also had a distinctly protective manner towards her companion. 

The way the thinner woman took her companion’s hand as they walked forward to receive Communion; the way she placed a sweater over the other’s shoulders when the air conditioning was turned too high; the way she carefully added precisely measured cream and sugar when fetching her partner’s coffee after services—all signalled love and devotion to Angela.  Lacking these qualities in her own relationship, she had become avid about seeking their reflection in others.

What warmed Angela’s heart most was that the love so clearly did not go one way.  The bespectacled woman accepted each gesture of her companion’s concern with an intimate smile that conveyed tender appreciation.  These two—seemingly long time partners—did not take each other for granted.

Suddenly Angela saw that both women were looking at her, one with a warmly amused smile and one with cautious assessment in sharp blue eyes.  Realizing she had been staring at them openly as she wool-gathered, she instantly dropped her gaze.  Staring at her feet, Angela didn’t see Gretchen approach until she felt a firm hand close around her arm.

“It’s time to go.  I’ll drop you at home first, but then I’ll be out for the rest of the day.  Have María make you some dinner.  I won’t be home until late.”

Angela spilled her punch as she hastily set it down before being hustled out.  Mortified by her clumsiness, she never lifted her eyes, and left unaware that her precipitous departure had been noted by at least two members of the congregation.

 

##

 

“It’s just a darned shame, Ruby!”

“I’m not disagreeing, Hazel, but I don’t see that there’s anything we can do about it.”

Smiling to herself, Ruby opened the sedan’s door for her indignant partner. Hazel, an inveterate saver of lost souls, had found a new crusade.  When Ruby got around to the driver’s seat, she wasn’t at all surprised to see Hazel furiously polishing her glasses.  Familiar with her lover’s idiosyncrasies, Ruby knew her companion was busily planning the opening salvo in her newest campaign.

“Sweetie, you know you can’t just barge into Gretchen Grissom’s multi-million dollar condo in the sky and rip that girl out of there.”

“I know.”  Hazel settled her spectacles back on her nose.  “Poor child probably doesn’t even realize how shabbily she’s being treated.”

Ruby put the car in gear and smoothly backed out of their parking spot.  “Oh, I don’t know about that, love.  For some while now, she’s been looking at us like we hold the keys to a feast she’s been barred from.  I suspect that living in loveless luxury has lost its appeal by now.”

“How many times have we seen Gretchen do this?”

“This?” Ruby tried to concentrate on both the oncoming traffic and her partner’s question.

“Yes, you know...seduce some beautiful innocent, get bored with her, and then toss her away like a used tissue in favour of her next conquest.  You mark my words, Ruby Gaines!  That child will be out on her keister by year’s end.”

“Sooner than that, unless I miss my guess.  Jerry told me a couple of weeks ago that Gretchen’s been tomcatting all over the city lately.”

Hazel snorted.  “Jerry is a gossipy old fool.”

Ruby merged smoothly into the interstate’s relatively light Sunday traffic.  “True, he’s Hedda Hopper incarnate, right down to the flamboyant hats, but he’s also usually pretty accurate.  You can be sure it won’t be long before Gretchen finds another victim and that little girl will be out the door with nothing but the clothes on her back.”

“You know the worst thing about Gretchen, Ruby?”

Ruby glanced at Hazel dryly.  “It’s a pretty long list to choose from, love.  Which particular nasty trait did you have in mind?”

“She makes these girls totally dependant on her—to the point of not even allowing them to work—then she abandons them so completely that they have nowhere to turn.  It’s evil, Ruby; it truly is.  We ought to get together as a community, and tar and feather her!”

Ruby laid her hand lightly on Hazel’s thigh, which was quivering with agitation.  “I’m pretty sure the law would frown on that, love. And though I agree her behaviour is cruel and callous in the extreme, I really don’t think there’s anything we can do about it.”

“Organize a lynch mob and storm the witch’s tower.  I’ll bring the rope!”

Ruby broke into laughter at her partner’s declaration.  “I do believe you would, Miss Hazel Barrow.  I do believe you would.”

 

##

 

Angela’s gaze flicked between the large, plasma TV and the art deco clock.  It was well after midnight as she waited in the sterile living room.  Gretchen had not telephoned since Angela had been unceremoniously dumped following church. 

Trying to ignore the sympathy reflected in the housekeeper’s compassionate eyes, Angela had said goodnight to María hours ago.  Right from the beginning, Angela understood that work came first with Gretchen, and that she was never to interfere or complain.

If only I at least came second.  Angela pondered where and when things had gone so wrong.  They had been deliriously happy at first...  Weren’t we?  Certainly if a relationship was judged by the fervency and frequency of lovemaking.  I’ll bet that’s not how those two women in church judge it.

Gretchen insisted that Angela not work.  She would support her young lover in a style befitting a princess.  Initially overwhelmed by the hustle and bustle of a big city, Angela had agreed.  She focused on trying to make the elegant condo a home, helping María with much of the cooking and cleaning.

Gretchen appeared to appreciate Angela’s efforts early on, and she was often lavished with gifts and trips to exotic locations.  But the time shared with her partner seemed to diminish.  Gretchen bowed out of their last vacation at the eleventh hour. Angela went to Cozumel for two weeks accompanied by María.  When the travellers arrived home, Gretchen barely acknowledged their return.

The life of unaccustomed opulence palled swiftly in the face of emotional abandonment.  By the end of their first year together, Angela began to petition to be allowed to work or attend school.  Every entreaty seemed to enrage Gretchen.  The realtor made it clear that she considered it an insult for Angela to imply that life was anything less than perfect under Gretchen’s roof.

Now, barely past their second anniversary, Angela had the uneasy sense that Gretchen had grown bored with her.  Angela often wished she had another decade of experience and knowledge, but Gretchen had plucked her from her small town life when she was nineteen.  She had little to offer in the company of her lover’s sophisticated friends.

Except as eye candy...

The bitter thought was interrupted by the sound of the front door opening, and Angela stood to greet Gretchen.  Much to her shock, her lover walked through the door with a pretty, young blonde on her arm. 

Stunned into silence, Angela nevertheless noticed the distinct flash of annoyance that crossed her lover’s face.  Turning, Gretchen whispered in her companion’s ear and motioned down the hallway towards the bedrooms.  Then, with pursed lips and narrowed eyes, she advanced into the living room, facing Angela across the back of the sofa.

“Gretchen?”

“I thought you’d be asleep by now.  I hadn’t intended to deal with this until morning.”

Angela blinked in astonishment at Gretchen’s accusatory tone.  Before she could say anything, the other woman burrowed into her oversized bag and came up with a folder, which she peremptorily extended to the young woman.  Angela automatically accepted it.

“I won’t be unkind about this.  You may stay the night—in the guest room, of course, but you’re to leave in the morning.  Preferably, before Moira and I arise.  You know how I hate a scene.”

“Guest room?  Leave?”

“Why are you being so obtuse?  Surely you knew this was coming.  I’ve tried to make it work.  Heaven only knows how hard I tried, but you simply wouldn’t make any effort to fit in, and I absolutely cannot tolerate you anymore.”

Angela felt her knees wobble as she tried to comprehend what Gretchen was telling her.

“You want me to leave?”

“Yes, of course.”  Gretchen gestured at the folder dangling from Angela’s nerveless fingers.  “There’s a bus ticket back to your home in there, plus some traveling money.  You’re welcome to take the things I’ve given you, but leave your key with María.”

“You want me to leave...”  Stupefied, Angela felt the desiccated shape of the words in her numbed soul.  “To leave...”

“Yeeeessss.”  Gretchen’s over-plucked eyebrows arched scornfully.  “I don’t see what’s so difficult to understand.  It’s a fairly simple concept.”

“You never said... You don’t love me anymore?”

“Oh, for God’s sake!  Do try not to be such a country mouse for just one moment.  Let’s just deal with this civilly and be done with it.”

“You loved me once.” 

Gretchen sighed deeply and stopped just short of rolling her eyes.  From the corner of her eye, Angela noted that Moira had returned, and was watching her humiliation from the shadow of the hallway.  Suddenly the full impact of what Gretchen had planned hit her.

“You’re going to sleep with her.  Were you going to kick me out of my bed, or were you planning to just work around me?”

“I’ll remind you that it’s my bed, as are the ones in the guest room and in María’s room, not to mention every other stick of furniture in my home.  Don’t be stupid!”

How many times had Gretchen warned her not to be stupid?  Angela had lost track a long time ago, but this time it was the tinder to her long-simmering and injured sense of fair play.  

Stiffening her spine and her knees, Angela summoned every mote of the dignity that had been eroded for months. “Give me ten minutes, and you can enjoy your...newest acquisition.”

As she marched past Gretchen and a shrinking Moira, Angela heard the shrill words flung after her.  “Damned right I will!  And you can bet I’ll have a helluva lot more fun with her than I ever had wi—”

The rest of Gretchen’s venomous diatribe was cut off as Angela slammed shut the door of the bedroom they had shared for two years. 

Ripping off her silk pyjamas and robe, Angela threw on an old pair of jeans and a hoodie her sister Louisa had given her.

Pulling clothes off hangers and out of drawers, she deliberately left behind anything that Gretchen had given her.  From the far corner of the walk-in closet, buried under a mound of Gretchen’s dirty clothes, she found the old canvas backpack she had left home with two years previous.

Angela stared at the Carolina Panthers ball cap, a gift from her little brother Duane.  Gretchen never allowed Angela to wear it, but she couldn’t bear to give it up.  It had lain, abandoned, for two years, along with the Swiss Army knife she had won off Augie when he was twelve and she was ten.

Using anger to fight the tears that threatened to fall, Angela stuffed as much into the backpack as it would hold.  Adding a few items from the en suite, she grabbed the folder Gretchen had contemptuously given her, and thrust it along with her wallet into the pockets of her jeans. 

She hesitated over the cell phone, caution warring with pride.  Gretchen had given it to her and paid for the service, and ultimately that fact won out.  Angela left it behind.

It wouldn’t matter.  There was no one she could call.  Angela had only ever used the phone for mandatory check-ins with Gretchen on the occasions when she went out of the condo alone, nothing else. 

Without a backward glance, Angela strode down the hall toward the front door.  She could hear the murmur of voices coming from the den, but she didn’t pause in her flight.  She didn’t even slow down when María’s door swung open and the dark-eyed housekeeper peered out blearily.

“Miss Angela?  What’s going on?  Where are you going?”

Angela shook her head.  Grabbing her pea coat and hiking boots from the closet, she walked out the front door, fighting the urge to slam it.  That would be childish...and she was sick to death of being treated like a child.

 

##

 

Angela had never in her life felt so filthy.  In five weeks the best she could manage was spit baths in public washrooms, using a T-shirt for a washcloth and towel.  Her long, dark hair, now greasy and lank, was tied back with a cord from her backpack.  The city’s grime was under her nails, behind her ears, and between her toes.  She was well beyond the point that she could pass as an ordinary resident of the city, carelessly going about her business.

Her business now consisted of stretching her diminishing funds for food, and finding a safe, concealed spot to sleep for a few hours each night.  As the hollows under her dark eyes expanded, and the smell of her unwashed body burgeoned, Angela had become invisible, except to other denizens of the homeless underworld.

Angela wished she was invisible to them, too.  They scared her.  Few had threatened her; many leered at her until she learned to keep her ball cap pulled low, her hoodie pulled forward over her long hair, and her body hunched over as shapelessly as possible.  One of her fellow unfortunates tried to rob her.  She repelled him with the Swiss Army knife that was always close at hand.  In these endless days and nights when simple subsistence was all that mattered, beauty, dreams, and ambitions fell to the wayside.  Few ever reached for them again.  Sex endured, but only as a survival tactic and with few attendant luxuries...like a bed. 

In her worst moments, Angela wondered if the time would come when she too would be forced into the furtive encounters she had seen others engage in.  Though she furiously rejected the possibility, she was acutely conscious of the sorry state of the contents of her wallet. 

She had tried to get work, but the lack of a home address tripped her up with every potential employer. 

Angela held on to the bus ticket for almost three weeks, holding the possibility of returning home, even in disgrace, as her escape clause.  Each night, she had taken it out of her pocket and held it.  But each night, the vivid memory of her father’s parting oaths caused her to put the ticket away.  

Calling Angela the devil’s spawn, her father had informed her that she was severed from her family for all time.

Finally, a week after pawning her watch and with only twenty seven cents left in her pocket, Angela had taken the ticket to the bus station to cash it in.

 

##

 

Standing in line with strangers who pointedly kept their distance from her, Angela looked wearily at the purchase date on the ticket.

October 13th.  So Gretchen had bought the unrestricted ticket three weeks before she threw Angela out.

The thought that her erstwhile lover had callously planned her eviction long in advance lacked any power to sting.  It meant nothing to her now, except as the means to a few more dollars in her pocket. 

Gretchen rarely crossed her mind.  Angela thought that perhaps someday, when she was warm, well-fed, clean, and had a bed to lie down in every night, she would examine how she had fallen so low.  For now though, how just didn’t matter.

When she reached the head of the line, Angela hesitated.  She was only three hundred miles and seven hours from her tiny South Carolinian hometown, and she held the key in her hand. 

“Can I help you, Miss?”

Angela blinked at the clerk.  For an instant his image blurred into the contorted features of her enraged father, flecks of spittle pelting her as he screamed imprecations on her bowed head. 

“Miss...Miss, can I help you?  There are others waiting in line, you know.” 

Jarred into action by the impatience in the clerk’s voice, Angela slowly extended the ticket.  “I’d like...”  The sound of her own voice, scratchy from disuse startled her.  Clearing her throat, she tried again.  “I’d like to cash this in for a refund, please.”

Making a moue of disgust at the grimy folder, the clerk plucked it gingerly out of her hand.  “Are you the original purchaser?”

“Yes,” Angela lied, praying that Gretchen had paid in cash.  Having had her identity stolen once, the realtor was very careful where she used her credit cards. 

When the agent offered no objection as he tapped on his keyboard, Angela’s shoulders sagged in relief. 

“Sixty four dollars.”  The agent counted out the bills, being careful not to actually touch Angela’s hand.  “Next.”

Angela thrust the bills into the pocket of her now baggy jeans and hurried away.

 

##

 

Many days later, the sixty four dollars was almost gone. Angela accepted that the next logical step was the Union Mission, a homeless shelter.  She had resisted the idea of the shelter for weeks; it seemed like surrender.  Entering those doors meant conceding that she couldn’t look after herself, and would be the final blow to her battered pride.

Angela sat on her backpack and leaned against a cold concrete wall.  She was huddled in the dark beneath a rusty set of stairs, hands thrust under her armpits for warmth.  A light winter rain had begun to fall, but she had picked her spot well and stayed fairly dry. 

Wearily she tried to plan, but lately it seemed harder and harder to hold on to her thoughts and force them into some semblance of coherence. 

Finally, Angela gave up and allowed herself to drift into a comfortable fugue.  Thoughts floated in and out, circling in her mind like rain driven eddies around a manhole.  She wondered what day it was.  Time had quickly become irrelevant.  Since she pawned her watch, Angela’s only measure was the increasing shortness of the days, and the worsening of the weather.

A police siren wailed a block away.  Angela ignored it, inured to the night noises of the city.  It wasn’t the big sounds that signalled danger.  It was the small sounds.  Footsteps stealthily approaching her nightly hiding spot; a whispered entreaty from an alley’s shadow, offering a promise of short-lived oblivion in exchange for her purse or body; the sound of an icy wind beginning to rise—a gale that promised to drain her meagre warmth and freeze her soul. 

These were the sounds that still had the power to frighten her.

Pulling her hood further forward, Angela wrapped her arms around her bent knees and tucked her head down.  She didn’t dare sleep deeply, but she would rest until dawn.  Then she would make her way to the Mission—pride be damned.

 

##

 

Ruby grabbed the phone on the third ring.  “Hello?”

“Hazel?”

“No, it’s Ruby.  Hazel is tied up at the moment.  May I take a message?”  Ruby grinned to herself as she pictured her partner in the bathroom, trying to give their dog his annual pre-Christmas bath.

“It’s Essence Taylor, Ruby, down at the Union Mission.  I think that girl that Hazel’s been looking for just showed up.”

Instantly Ruby stiffened.  “Are you sure?”

“Well, I didn’t ask her name, but she sure fits Hazel’s description, and frankly we don’t get a lot of pretty young white girls here.  She don’ exactly blend with the crowd, if you know what I mean.”

“Is she okay?”  Seeing Hazel come out of the bathroom, her hands dripping with suds, Ruby motioned her over.  “Does she look alright?”

“Well, now, she looks about the same as mos’ of the chil’ren that end up here.  She’s thin and dirty and scairt of her own shadow.”

Ruby covered the phone’s receiver.  “It’s Essence at the Mission, love.  She thinks that Angela may be there.”

Hazel grabbed the phone.  “Essence, it’s Hazel.  Can you keep her until I get there?”

A dry chuckle sounded through the receiver.  “The way she’s shovelin’ the food in, I ’spect she’ll still be here.  Better hurry, though, jus’ in case.”

“Thanks!  I’ll be right there.”

Ruby took the phone back and hung it up.  We’ll be right there, love.  I’m going with you.”

“Alright, but hurry!  This is the first decent lead we’ve had in three weeks.”

“I know, I know.”  Ruby hurried after her partner, who only slowed long enough to grab a purse, coat, and keys as she wiped her soapy arms on her apron.  Ruby plucked the keys from Hazel’s grasp, just as their soap spattered spaniel, belying his advanced years, streaked by them.  “Hey, what about Andy?”

Hazel paused long enough to shake her head after the bath-phobic dog.  “Do not think for one moment that you’re getting out of it, Andy.  We’ll pick up where we left off when we get home!” 

With that, she burst out of the side door in the kitchen of the brick bungalow and headed for the garage behind the house, Ruby following quickly in her wake.  “Hurry up, Ruby!  We can’t lose her.” 

As Ruby scrambled into the car, her mind flashed back three weeks ago to when Hazel’s quest had begun...

 

##

 

Ruby stood chatting with several other members of their church while Hazel’s gaze swept the room.  This was the second Sunday she hadn’t seen Gretchen’s young partner.  The realtor herself was present, as always busily networking with the more influential of the congregation. 

Hazel was about to suggest to her partner that they confront Ms Grissom and demand information on the young woman, when she felt a hand pat her sleeve.

“Oh, hello, Pastor Brad.  Fine sermon today.”

“Thank you, Hazel.  If you have a moment, may I speak with you and Ruby?”

“Of course.”  Hazel caught her partner’s attention and the two of them followed the minister to his office, where a nervous Hispanic woman sat in a corner chair glancing anxiously at the door.

“She cannot see me, senor?”

The minister closed the door firmly and shook his head.  “No, María.  She doesn’t know you’re here.” 

Hazel and Ruby looked at each other in confusion.

Pastor Brad gestured for them to take seats.  “Ladies, this is Miss María Diaz.  She works for Gretchen Grissom, and she’s come to us for help.  Two weeks ago, Angela Keane, Ms Grissom’s former partner, was evicted from Ms Grissom’s home.”

Angela.  So now we have a name.  Hazel wasn’t at all surprised, but she listened closely, intent on not missing anything.

“Apparently Miss Diaz got worried a few days ago when she called Angela’s home in South Carolina, and she wasn’t there.”

“Miss Angela give me the number when she first come to live with Miss Gretchen.  She ask me to call her family if anything happen to her.”

Ruby leaned forward.  “Miss Diaz, do you have any reason to think something has happened to her, other than that she didn’t go home to South Carolina?  Couldn’t she be residing with friends?”

María shook her head emphatically.  “Miss Gretchen never let Miss Angela to have her own friends here.  Miss Angela not have any place to go if she not go home.  I only call because I worry she get home safe.”

Hazel felt her anger rising.  “María, did Gretchen throw Angela out without any resources?  No money or anything?”

“Usually, she give girls a bus ticket and a little money, but not much.  Miss Angela take only her backpack when she leave.”  María turned to the pastor.  “Padre, I think Miss Angela in bad trouble.”  She clutched her chest.  “I feel it here.”

Ruby interjected again.  “When you spoke to her family, what did they say?” 

“At first I talk to a girl.  She say Angela leave long time ago, and ask did I know where she was.  Before I can say, a man come on.  He very angry.  Tells me never to call again—that he has no daughter name Angela.  Then he hang up.”  María’s dark eyes filled with tears.  “I think Miss Angela cannot go home, so where is she?”

Pastor Brad turned to the older women.  “Hazel, I know you’ve done a lot of volunteer work with the homeless.  Do you have any contacts that might be able to help?  If Angela is indeed out on the street, perhaps someone has seen her or has an idea where she might be.”

Hazel nodded grimly.  “I know a few people; I’ll get right on it.”

Ruby laid a hand on her partner’s clenched fist.  “We’ll find her, Hazel.  I promise we will.”

“You two have been wonderful about helping young people in the past,” Pastor Brad said.  “If Angela has been cast out by both her family and Ms Grissom, this is another member of our community who could really use your help.”

“We’ll help, Pastor.  But first we have to find her.” 

Hazel seconded her partner’s declaration with a firm nod.

 

##

 

But they hadn’t found her, despite Hazel having been a veritable whirlwind of activity.  Even Ruby caught the sense of urgency and had chauffeured Hazel around the least desirable areas of the city at all hours as they looked for the missing girl. 

The two had discussed the possibility of appealing to Ruby’s granddaughtera junior lawyer in the district attorney’s office, who had good police connections.  However Hazel hadn’t pushed her partner into it.  She was keenly aware that Lianne Gaines, despite her devotion to her grandmother and Hazel, disapproved of their long time penchant for rescuing “strays.”  Hazel didn’t want Ruby to be a target for further criticism from her opinionated granddaughter.

 

##

 

Now, as they sped towards downtown on the crowded interstate, Hazel was glad they had located Angela without invoking Lianne’s help. 

Once at the Mission, they slipped in the back door and down the hallway to Essence’s office.

“’Bout time you got here,” Essence scolded the two women, as she rose and walked toward the door.  “That girl finally filled that empty pit of hers and was about to leave.  I sent Alex out to ask if she’d be interested in earning some food to take with her, and she jumped at it.  She’s helping clean up in the kitchen right now.  C’mon, we’ll go see her.”

“Wait.”

Essence stopped and looked at Hazel in surprise.

“Can you ask her to come back here instead, Essence?  I’d like to talk to her privately if I could.”

“Awright.  I’ll go see, but don’ blame me if she runs like a scairt kitty cat.  Looks to me like she’s coastin’ on her las’ nerve.” 

Essence left the office, and Ruby looked at Hazel curiously.  “What’s up, love?”

“If she has been on the street for the last five weeks, Ruby, then we don’t know what she’s gone through or what her current state of mind might be.  I think we stand a better chance of reaching her without any kind of audience.”

“That makes sense.”  Ruby settled into a worn wooden chair as Hazel paced nervously. 

When Angela entered the room with her head down, Hazel stifled a gasp at the girl’s appearance.

Angela’s head snapped up and she appeared about to bolt.  “I’m so sorry.  I was sent back to get—”  Then she froze and stared at the older women.

Hazel stepped forward, her hand outstretched, but she stopped moving as Angela stiffened.  Instead, she spoke, her voice soft and reassuring.  “I know we haven’t been formally introduced, dear, but I feel like I already know you.  My name is Hazel Barrow, and this is Ruby Gaines...my partner.”

Angela’s head turned and she gave Ruby a small nod.  Hazel saw shame on the girl’s pinched, smudged face.  She sensed that if she didn’t work quickly, this young woman would be out the door and off. 

“It’s Angela, isn’t it?”

Angela’s gaze returned to Hazel.  “How did you...”

“María.  She’s very worried about you.  She contacted our church and spoke with Pastor Brad.”  Hazel deliberately sat down, and saw Angela relax a bit. 

“María’s a good person.  I miss...”

Angela shook her head fiercely and Hazel could almost hear the interior dialogue.  She suspected the girl had resolutely put Gretchen, and everything attached to her, in the past.

“Angela, we’d like to speak with you for a moment, if we may.”

Angela cast a worried glance over her shoulder.  “I’m supposed to be working...”

Ruby spoke up.  “It’s alright, Angela.  Essence is an old friend of ours.  We asked her to let us know if you showed up here, and she called us this morning.”

“Why?”

Hazel gave Angela a gentle smile.  “Why what, dear?”

“Why did you want to know if I came here?”

“Because we’ve been looking for you ever since we learned what happened from María.  We want to help you.”

Angela appeared confused, as if the thought of anyone wanting to help her was a foreign concept.  She swayed and Ruby instantly stood, caught her arm and steered her into a chair.

“Here, have a seat while we talk this out.  It won’t do anyone any good if you hit the floor.”

Hazel smiled at Ruby’s gruffness.  It might fool those who had just met her; it had never fooled Hazel, not even for a moment.

Angela shook her head.  “What’s there to talk out?”

“Dear, are we correct in assuming that you have no place to stay?”  Hazel watched Angela closely, reading the gamut of emotions that crossed her thin face, as humiliation and pride and weariness battled for supremacy.  “If so, we would very much like to offer you a place in our home, for as long as you need to get on your feet.”

“In your home?”  Angela stared at Hazel, then up at Ruby.  “But why would you do that?”

Ruby interjected.  “It’s what she does.  Hazel has a soft spot a mile wide for youngsters that the rest of the world throws away.”

“Ruby,” Hazel chastised mildly.  “They’re not throwaways, just...temporarily displaced.  Like you, Angela.  Someone who maybe could use a hand up for a while.”

“You’ve done this before?”

Ruby snorted, but Hazel ignored her.  “Yes, dear.  We’ve been on call with the church and the LGBT Association for many years.  Sadly there have been far too many young men and women whose families have rejected them when they came out, though I do think that’s improving somewhat.”

Angela dropped her head and her shoulders slumped.  “You know?  That my dad...that I can’t go home again?”

“We surmised, dear.  María was very worried about you, so she called the number you gave her to ensure that you’d made it home safely.”

A bitter laugh signalled Angela’s understanding.  “Then I’m guessing that dear old dad filled her in that I am no longer numbered among his progeny.”

“She was given to understand that you weren’t there, nor likely to be there anytime soon,” Hazel agreed sadly.  “That’s when María went to Pastor Brad, and he called us in.”

Angela looked up, concern in her eyes.  “She didn’t get in trouble with Gr...with her boss, did she?”

Ruby’s voice was cold, her opinion of María’s boss clear in every syllable.  “You can rest assured that Gretchen Grissom does not know anything.  Pastor Brad, María, Hazel, and I are the only ones who are in on this, and no one else need ever know.”

“Well, Essence knows, love,” Hazel clarified with a smile.  “But, Angela, she’s not about to tell your former partner anything.  She has seen more young people in your straits than she can even remember—”

“That’s the truth!”  Essence’s voice boomed from the doorway.  She eyed Angela keenly.  “So, young lady, I hope you realize how lucky you are.  These two ladies are earthbound angels, and they’ll have you back on your feet quicker’n you can spit.  They done it for more los’ souls than I can count over the years, and they’re pr’pared to do it for you, too.  So whaddya say, girl?  Are you ready to go home with ’em?”

“I...”  At an apparent loss for words, Angela looked at Hazel helplessly.

“It’s alright, Angela.  We don’t have to speak of anything long-term right now.  For the moment, we have a warm bed with your name on it, and a place at our table if you’ll do us the honour of joining us for a bit.”

Angela plucked at her grimy hoodie.  “I’m so dirty.  I’m sorry...”

“Nothing a hot shower and lots of soap won’t take care of,” Ruby asserted firmly.  “Now, why don’t we get out of here and let Essence have her office back.”

“I need to get my stuff.  I left my backpack in the kitchen.”

“Got it right here, girl.”  Essence swung the backpack forward and dropped it in front of Angela.  “Maybe some day you’ll come back and help us out here.  A lot of Hazel and Ruby’s kids do.”

Angela nodded mutely as she clutched her backpack and allowed Ruby to shepherd her out of her office.

Hazel hung back, offering Essence a hug, which was enthusiastically returned. 

“Thank you, Essence.  I don’t know what would’ve happened to her if you hadn’t called us.”

“Pah, that was the easy part, my friend.  Now the hard part’s up to you.”  She peered at Hazel intently.  “You sure you’re still up to this?  Been a couple of years since your last rescue, and as I recall, that boy didn’t ’xactly work out well.”

Hazel shook her head ruefully.  “No, Terrell wasn’t one of our success stories, but I like to think that maybe one of these days he’ll leave the streets behind.  And if he does, maybe it’ll be because we showed him there was another way to live.”

“That boy was a born hustler, from the day he draw’d his firs’ breath.”  Essence paused reflectively.  “Sometimes I think you got a lot more faith than good sense, Hazel, but I thank the good Lord that you do.  Lot of kids got a chance now that din’t have one b’fore, thanks to you and that stiff-necked partner of yours.”

“Hazel!  Are you coming?  What’s the hold up?”

Both women smiled at the sound of Ruby’s holler from down the hall.

“And speaking of my partner, I do believe that’s my cue to go.” 

They exchanged another quick hug, and Hazel left the office.

“I’m coming, Ruby.  Just hold your horses!”

 

##

 

Angela tilted her head, allowing the hot water to sluice the last of the tears off her face.  She had started crying when the car pulled into Hazel and Ruby’s garage, and no matter how hard she tried, she hadn’t been able to stop since.  It was as if Hazel’s warmth and Ruby’s gruff kindness had uncorked the emotions she had pickled in self-preservation for the past few months.

Her two saviours had diplomatically ignored her muffled weeping, merely showing her to the large bedroom and adjacent bath in the finished basement.  Hazel insisted on gathering all her clothes to wash, and offered her a clean, worn bathrobe and slippers to wear in the interim. 

Once in the shower, Angela shampooed and soaped three times, until the water that swirled around her feet finally ran clear.  It was the discovery of a new, disposable razor in the shower caddy that ultimately brought her tears to an end as she wielded it with glee.

Now Angela simply stood under the water, luxuriating in being clean and warm.  Then her conscience prodded her about using all the hot water in the house.  She reluctantly turned off the taps and stepped out of the stall where a thick, fluffy towel awaited her.

Drying off in front of the steamy mirror, she examined her hazy reflection critically.  Gretchen had insisted that Angela stay slim and fit, so she’d had little excess weight to begin with.  Now, she had none; her ribs, pelvic and collar bones were clearly visible.

God, I look like a half-starved cat—all black eyes and hair!

Angela took hold of a long, wet hank of hair that lay across her breast and twisted it.  An unwelcome memory of Gretchen running her hands through it in the throes of lovemaking flashed through her mind.  Gretchen had enjoyed the feel of Angela’s hair whispering across her naked body.  Suddenly, even though Angela had had long hair her entire life, she couldn’t stand the thought of leaving it that way a moment longer.

Throwing on the robe and slippers, Angela left the bathroom, and surveyed the well-lit basement.  Aside from her bedroom and bath, there was a small living area with colourful assortment of sofas and throw rugs, and bookcases lining the walls.  She could hear a washer or dryer running behind the wall next to the staircase.  From upstairs came the barking of a clearly unhappy dog.

Climbing the stairs, Angela peeked around the corner into the yellow and white kitchen.

Ruby was sitting on the tiled floor, holding a small, wet, squirming dog bundled in a towel as Hazel knelt stiffly in front of her and trimmed the dog’s nails.

“Now just stop that, Andy!  We’re not hurting you and I don’t know why you always put up such a fuss.”

Ruby grimaced at Hazel as she got a frantic tongue across her face.  “He puts up a fuss because he’s hoping to convince you never to do this to him again!  Frankly, I think we should’ve accepted Lianne’s offer to take on this chore.”

“Now, Ruby, you know that Andy is not Lianne’s biggest fan.”  Hazel cooed at the dog before lifting another paw.  “Not that it’s her fault, mind you.”

“No, it isn’t.  But I suppose getting your paw run over tends to prejudice you against the one responsible.  Though there’s no way Lianne could’ve seen him snoozing behind her car.”  Ruby took a firmer grip on the spaniel as Hazel finished her task.  “I do think it hurts her feelings when he runs for cover every time she comes in the house.”

“I know, and I feel badly for her.  She’s just like you, you know.  Pretends to be all tough and hard-nosed—”

“Hey, who’s pretending?”

Hazel chuckled at Ruby’s protest and leaned across Andy to give her partner a quick kiss.  “You are, my love.  You’re a much bigger mush than I am.”

Ruby grinned, but cut off her response as she noticed Angela watching them.  “Ah, our young guest has emerged.  C’mon in, Angela.  We’re just finishing Andy’s annual preening.”

Angela edged into the kitchen, clutching the edges of her robe together.  “It doesn’t sound like he enjoys it much.”

Hazel shook her head with a smile.  “No, Master Andrew definitely does not like any facet of doggie-grooming, which is why we restrict it to special occasions.”

“This is a special occasion?”

Glancing back at Angela, Hazel nodded.  “Quite aside from your arrival, which is indeed special, Christmas is just around the corner.  While we don’t insist that Andy wear silly antlers or anything, he too must sport his best bib and tucker for the big day.”

“Christmas...”  Grief clutched Angela’s heart as she thought of the gifts she had already bought and hidden for Gretchen and María.  She no longer tried to buy gifts for her family since they had been returned each time she had sent them.  But she had been gleefully anticipating Gretchen and María’s  expressions on Christmas morning.

Lost in misery, Angela didn’t notice that Andy had been allowed to make his getaway, and Hazel and Ruby had risen to their feet.  When a warm arm closed around her narrow shoulders, she flinched.

Hazel’s soft voice comforted her.  “I know it’s hard, dear.  This isn’t where you wanted to be...”

“But it is better than where you were.  So buck up there, girl.  Things are looking up, whether you know it or not.”

Ruby’s brisk reminder braced Angela, and she allowed Hazel to steer her towards the kitchen table.

“I know it’s not quite lunch time, but do you think you might find room for some soup and a sandwich?” Hazel’s question was superfluous as she had already begun to set three places at the table.

“Yes, please.  Can I help?”

Ruby laughed.  “One thing you’ll learn, Angela, is that Hazel rules the roost in here.  The kitchen is her sole and undisputed domain, which is a darned lucky thing for me, or I might’ve starved to death years ago.”  Hazel gave her a pointed glance.  “Aw, sorry, kid.  I didn’t mean anything by that.”

“No, that’s alright,” Angela assured Ruby with a shy glance.  “I have been pretty hungry at times.”

Ignoring her partner’s warning look, Ruby raked Angela’s face with an analytical gaze.  “Yeah, you don’t look like you’ve seen too many square meals in the last five weeks.  How did you manage out there, anyway?”

Hazel now glared outright at Ruby.  “Ruby Ellen Gaines!  You just keep your curiosity to yourself, and let the poor girl alone.”

Horrified that she might have caused a rift between the two women, Angela shrank back in her chair, only to have Ruby pat her hand reassuringly.

“Don’t pay her any mind, kid.  I’ve been on the receiving end of that woman’s tongue for almost fifty years and—”

There was a strangled noise from the stove where Hazel was stirring the soup.  Ruby’s face instantly reddened and Angela started to giggle.  By the time she had broken into an outright laugh, both Ruby and Hazel had joined in.  Even Andy ambled back into the kitchen to find out what all the commotion was about. 

This time the tears that filled Angela’s eyes were painless, and she dashed them away with a lighter heart.  Grinning at Ruby, she quipped, “No comment!” 

That set Ruby off again, and Angela chuckled as she saw the way Hazel shook her head at both of them with affectionate exasperation. 

The mood lightened, and the conversation shifted to casual topics.  By the time Angela had wolfed down a large bowl of soup and two grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, she was feeling a renewed sense of peace.

Nodding at Andy, who hovered hopefully near Hazel’s feet, Angela asked, “What kind of dog is he?”

Ruby snapped her fingers and Andy trotted over to have his tri-coloured fur ruffled.  “He’s half King Charles spaniel, but his mama was fooling around where she shouldn’t have been and we’re not really sure what the other half is.”

“Given the damage he wreaked on our yard in his puppy years, I vote that his daddy must’ve been a terrier,” Hazel declared, her smile belying her stern tone.

The object of their discussion abruptly took off running, his excited yelps resounding through the house.

Sighing, Ruby heaved herself to her feet.  “Mail’s here.”

A buzzer signalled from downstairs, and Hazel stood too.  “That sounds like your clothes are ready, dear.”

Angela trailed after Hazel down the stairs. She noticed how the elderly woman carefully used the handrail as she made her descent.  Ducking around her as Hazel entered the laundry room, Angela opened the dryer door and lifted out the warm clothes.

“Here, let me give you a hand with that, dear.”

“No, ma’am.  You don’t need to wait on me hand and foot.  I’m perfectly capable of folding a few clothes.”

Hazel smiled.  “Then I’ll keep you company, shall I?”

When they entered the basement bedroom, Hazel eased herself down on the bed and watched as Angela folded her clothes and put them away neatly.  “It looks like you’ve been well brought up, my dear.”

Angela nodded absently as she finished with her meagre belongings.  “My mom always said she had better things to do than pick up after us kids all day long, and Daddy would’ve had our heads if we didn’t mind.”  She stopped, her head bowed and her hands resting on the T-shirts she had just set in the small chest of drawers.

“Would you like to talk about it, Angela?” 

There was no pressure in Hazel’s voice, just a gentle invitation.  Suddenly Angela was crushed by the burden of the last two years.  She had borne the estrangement from her family stoically, in the belief that it was worth any sacrifice to spend a lifetime with the woman she loved.  Now, with the disastrous end to that relationship, all the sorrow of being parted permanently from the family she loved poured over her.

Sobs began to shake Angela’s body and she turned blindly to the woman who was barely more than a stranger to her.  Hazel opened her arms as Angela stumbled into them.

Allowing Angela to cry herself out without comment or question, Hazel simply rocked the young woman as she would have a grieving child. 

When the tears ended, and tissues had been dispensed, they started to talk.  At least Angela did.  Hazel sat quietly, listening without judgement as Angela poured out her anguished tale.

“...and when I look back on it all, I can see how unbelievably stupid I was, but I’d never met anyone as glamorous as Gretchen, you know?  When she chose me, I couldn’t believe it.  She teased me about being a country mouse right from the beginning, but that really was the way I felt.  I hadn’t even had the nerve to kiss another girl up to then, and then two days after I meet Gretchen, I end up in her bed?  I knew my family would be horrified.  I knew if I wanted to be with Gretchen I’d have to give them up, but it was like my Princess Charming had ridden into town, offering a life I’d never dreamed of.  I couldn’t even think straight when she was around.”

“So to speak,” Hazel teased lightly.

Angela huddled closer under Hazel’s comforting arm.  “The day I told my parents I was leaving and why...it was just so ugly.”  She shivered at the memory. “My dad was so mad at me that I thought he was going to have a stroke.”

“What about your mother?”

“She goes along with whatever Daddy says.  Always has.”  A sudden insight occurred to Angela.  “Just like I did with Gretchen.  Damn!  I never thought of that!  I treated Gretchen just like Mom treated Daddy...like we all treated Daddy.  His word was law, and you did not say no to him!”

She turned to face Hazel, amazement in her eyes.  “I never once crossed Gretchen.  Even when she threw me out, I just went like an obedient little lamb.”  Angela could feel the hardening of her resolve.  “Well, never again.  I will never, never be beholden to anyone, ever.  I’m never going to jump when someone calls, or toe the line someone else draws for me.”

“Good for you, dear, though you may want to temper that a little.  We all make compromises in the name of love.”

Angela shook her head vehemently at Hazel’s cautionary words.  “That won’t matter.  I’m never going to fall in love again.  Ever!”

“Mmm hmm.  How old are you, Angela?”

“I’ll be twenty one in a couple of months.”

“Then it may be a little soon to write off love forever, dear.”  Hazel held up her hand as Angela shook her head.  “But, leaving that aside, let’s deal with some practical matters.  You’ll need some more clothes.  How would it be if we do some shopping tomorrow?”  Interpreting Angela’s worried look, she assured her, “Don’t worry about money for the moment, dear.  We keep a small fund for our special projects, and we’re quite able to afford some basics.”

“Am I a...special project?”

Hazel stood, and firmly kissed the top of Angela’s head.  “That you are, my dear.  Very special.  Now, why don’t you see if you can get some sleep?  I suspect you haven’t had a lot of rest lately, and a nap will do you a world of good.”

Angela suddenly felt exhausted, and the thought of a nap was very appealing.  As Hazel walked towards the door, however, she called after her.  “Would it be okay to get a haircut tomorrow, too?  I promise I’ll pay you back as soon as I get a job.”

Hazel stood in the doorway and smiling at her, turned off the light.  “Of course, my dear.  Now get a good sleep.”

“Thank you!”

But the door had already closed, and Angela wearily shed her robe and slipped between the fresh-scented sheets.  From afar she could hear Andy barking again, but the awareness was transitory and she was quickly asleep.

 

##

 

Hazel entered the kitchen and saw Ruby seated at the table, an opened stack of mail and a fresh pot of tea in front of her.

Without asking, Ruby poured her partner a cup as Hazel wearily lowered herself into a chair.  “How bad was it, love?”

“As bad as their stories always are, Ruby.”  Hazel absently added sugar to her tea.  “Sometimes I think I’m getting too old to hear even one more tale of woe.”

She lifted tired eyes to her partner, and Ruby gently picked up Hazel’s hand and touched it to her lips.  “I know, love.  The endless ways we as a species find to be cruel to each other never fails to amaze me.”

Hazel’s fingers tightened around Ruby’s hand.  “But then there’s always this, isn’t there?  I can’t entirely lose faith in love and goodness when I have you in my life.”

“You’d never lose faith anyway, love.  You don’t have a cynical bone in you.” 

Soft as her partner’s words were, they sank deep into Hazel’s heart.  Ruby was the reason she could keep on doing this.  Ruby was her bulwark against the inevitable disappointments.  Practical, sensible, realistic Ruby, who grounded her and shielded her, always.  Who, without a word of recrimination, picked up the pieces and put them back together again when one of Hazel’s failures returned to the streets, or ended up in prison, or robbed them and ran. 

“How do you do it, Ruby?  Why do you put up with me and my missions?”

“Because I love you, silly old woman.”  They smiled at each other.  “And then there is always that tongue thing...”

Hazel snorted and slapped Ruby’s arm.  Ruby just laughed and picked up the teapot to refill her own cup.  “But back to business, love.  What did Angela have to say?”

“Well, apparently she met Gretchen at a local softball tournament.  The Wicked Witch of the South was pursuing some pretty young thing on a team that Angela’s team was playing.  Before the tournament was over, Gretchen had lured Angela into her bed and away from the only life she had ever known.  Her father, who is apparently right out of the Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell mould, runs his brood with an iron fist.  When Angela dared to cross him, he expelled her from the family.  He won’t allow her mother, sister or brothers to so much as write a letter or accept a phone call from her.”

“So she had no one but Gretchen.”

“Literally.  Just as we suspected, Gretchen kept her so isolated and dependant that María was her only friend.”

“Good Lord!”

“No kidding.  I guess Gretchen’s friends are so accustomed to seeing the parade of young lovelies through Gretchen’s life that most of them barely bothered to learn Angela’s name.  Apparently there were varying degrees of disbelief expressed when Angela lasted past their first anniversary.”

“About that tarring and feathering idea of yours...”

Hazel nodded grimly.  “Don’t tempt me, dear.  I’m not too old to pick up a bucket!”

Ruby grunted agreement, and the two women sat together in comfortable silence, lost in reflection.

Finally Hazel sighed.  “Well, all we can do is give her the best chance possible to rebuild her life.  I have a hunch young Angela won’t need much of a hand up to stand on her own two feet.  After the holidays, we’ll see if any of our friends has a job opening for her.  It’ll be a good start.”

“The holidays.”  Ruby winced.  “Lianne.”

“I know, dear, but she’ll just have to understand that the timing wasn’t of our choosing, or Angela’s for that matter.”

Ruby shook her head gloomily.  “Lianne’s not much in the understanding department when it comes to the holidays.  You know exactly what she’ll say.”

Hazel deepened her voice and assumed a disapproving tone.  “Holidays are for family.  I work hard all year and I don’t think it’s too much to ask that I get to enjoy Christmas without one of your ragamuffin strays hanging around!”

Ruby gave a wry laugh, but didn’t try to deny her partner’s very accurate mimicry.

 

##

 

Angela chewed on her pencil as she scanned the lengthy list of help wanted ads.  “I don’t know, Andy.  I’m not exactly qualified for much, according to these.”  She circled another ad, pursing her lips critically.  “At least I finished high school before I left home, but I’m not sure how far that will get me.”

She sighed and pushed back from the kitchen table.  Turning, Angela leaned down and cupped Andy’s head in her hands.  “Your mamas have been so good to me.  I have to pay them back, and the sooner, the better.”

Andy barked in agreement.

Angela grinned and ruffled his soft fur.  “I wonder when your mamas will be home.  I didn’t think they’d be this long.” 

After a few more moments of indulging the dog, Angela returned to her task.  Sections of newspapers were strewn across the kitchen table, and she had filled a notepad with names and numbers.

“Oh, here’s an interesting one, Andy.  The Women’s Medical Center is looking for general clerical help, and it’s an entry level position.”  She glanced down at Andy, who was now lying with his head resting on his paws.  “Beats working at Mickey D’s, doesn’t it?  Though it probably won’t pay much more than Mickey would.”

Suddenly the spaniel jumped to his feet with a yelp and dashed out of the kitchen.  Angela looked after him in astonishment.  “Andy, the mail’s already come.”  Then she heard the sound of the kitchen door being unlocked and a strange voice sounding from the stoop.

“Hey, Gran, it’s just me.  I’ve brought some—”

Angela found herself abruptly facing a woman standing at the open door with an armful of grocery bags. 

“Who are you, and what are you doing in my grandmothers’ house?”

Angela opened her mouth, but before she could utter a word, the stranger rolled her eyes.

“Oh, good Lord, they’re at it again.”  Shaking her head in disgust, the tawny-haired stranger set the groceries on the counter and turned to regard Angela as though she were something Andy had literally dragged in.  “So...where did they rescue you from?  The streets?  The mission?  Some dirty old pervert’s bed?”

Angela felt a slow burn ignite, but easily guessing the identity of the stranger, she forced herself to be civil.  “Your grandmother and Hazel—”

“They’re both my grandmothers!” Lianne’s dark blue eyes, height, slim build and angular features clearly showed her genetic inheritance from Ruby, but Angela wasn’t about to argue.  “Not that it’s any of your business.”

Taking a deep breath, Angela tried again.  “Your grandmothers are out.  I expect them back any moment.  My name is—”

“It doesn’t matter.”  Lianne deliberately turned her back and started unloading the groceries.  “No doubt you’ll take advantage of my grandmothers and be out of here long before I have any reason to know your name.”

“I’m not taking—”

“Are you eating their food?  Sleeping under their roof?  Causing them sleepless nights worrying about your future?”  Lianne turned back to face Angela, her eyes flashing with anger.  “They’re almost eighty, not that you’d care.  They’re not superwomen!  Every time they bring one of you...people home, it drains their energy and probably shortens their lives.  And frankly, not a damned one of you is worth it.”

Stiffly, Angela gathered up her newspapers and marched downstairs.  Moving on blind outrage, she entered her room, grabbed her backpack out of the closet and started stuffing her clothes into it.  She had almost finished when a voice sounded from behind her.

“Oh, for God’s sake, stop it!  You’re not leaving.”

Spinning around, Angela glared at Lianne.  “And you’re not telling me what to do!”

“Look, just stop with the melodramatics, will you?”

“Why?  I’ll be out of your grandmothers’ hair.  That’s what you want, isn’t it?  And I certainly don’t want to take advantage of them!”  Angela furiously kicked off her slippers and grabbed her boots out of the closet.  Sitting on the end of the bed, she thrust her feet into them.  Not even stopping to tie them, she picked up her backpack and headed for the door.

 “Look, I didn’t mean it...”

“Yes, you did.”

“Okay, I did.  But you can’t go.  Gran and Gram Hazel will have my head if you leave on my account.”

“I’m not leaving on your account; I’m leaving on theirs.  God knows I don’t want to be responsible for hurting those two wonderful people!”

Angela had reached the door, but Lianne blocked the way.  When Angela tried to bull her way past, Lianne pushed her back with a surprisingly strong grasp.

“Stop it!”

“Get out of my way!”

They stood nose to nose, both with eyes blazing and breath ragged.

“You can’t hold me here!  I’ll call the cops and tell them you’re kidnapping me against my will.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.”  Lianne released Angela and shook her head.  “You’re in Gran and Gram Hazel’s house.  Who do you think they’d charge?”

That pulled Angela up short, and she took a step back.

“Look, I’m...I’m sorry, okay?  Sometimes I have a short fuse, especially when it comes to Gran and Gram Hazel.”

Angela backed away warily.

“Can we please start again?”  Lianne extended her hand.  “My name is Lianne Gaines.”

Angela looked at the extended hand, then back at Lianne, who gave her a rueful smile. 

“Gran and Gram Hazel really would have my head if I drove you out of here, not to mention that they’d just go out looking for you and that would pretty much ruin Christmas for them.  So for their sake, will you please accept my apology?”

Angela tossed the backpack on the bed, but defiantly refused to shake Lianne’s hand.  “For their sake, not yours!”

Lianne’s hand dropped, and she nodded.  “Understood.  So what’s your name, anyway?”

Angela briefly considered not answering, but decided there was no point in being petty.  She had heard enough about this woman in the past three days to know that Lianne was very dear to her rescuers, and a huge part of their lives.  “Angela Keane.”

She turned away and picked up her backpack, silently putting her clothes back into the closet and cabinet.  Angela heard Lianne sigh, and then close the door.

Sinking down on the bed, Angela buried her face in her hands.  What the hell was all that?  Suddenly exhausted by the emotional outburst, she kicked off her boots and crawled further up on the bed, pulling the extra blanket up around her.  Still not fully recovered from her five week ordeal, her body quickly yielded.  She was asleep long before her door opened and the light was turned off.

 

##

 

“She’s sleeping like a baby,” Ruby reported as she rejoined her partner and granddaughter at the kitchen table.

“Let the poor girl sleep then.  If she doesn’t wake by dinner, I’ll save her a plate.”  Hazel turned to Lianne.  “So, my dear, we haven’t seen you in at least a week.  What have you been up to?”

Lianne gave her grandmothers a wry look.  “I think the question is more, what have you been up to?  I didn’t think you two were going to do this anymore, but then I come over and there’s this scruffy kid sitting at the kitchen table.”

“Oh, I don’t think she looks scruffy at all, dear.”  Hazel glanced up at Ruby with a smile.  “In fact, I think she looks quite fetching with her new haircut, don’t you, Ruby?”

“Yeah, the kid’s a looker.  Let’s just hope Gretchen doesn’t see her new ’do.  She might change her mind and take her back.”

“I don’t think Angela would go back, love.  I think she’s put Gretchen and everything she stood for in the past.”

“Excuse me.”  Lianne shot a pointed look at her grandmothers.  “You’re missing the point.  I’m pretty sure that after the Terrell fiasco, you promised me you wouldn’t do this again.”

“Actually, Lianne, you told us not to do it again,” Hazel corrected mildly.  “We never agreed to any such thing.”

Ruby nodded.  “She’s right, Lianne.  You weren’t exactly in listening mode at the time, so you just assumed we’d assented to your demands.  However, the last time I checked, we still get to make the decisions in our own home.”

Lianne growled in frustration and her grandmothers chuckled. 

“Cheer up, dear.  I think even you would agree this is a worthy cause.”  Hazel launched into a recital of Angela’s story, and by the time she was done, Lianne was shaking her head.  “So you see, this child had the astoundingly bad luck to fall in with Gretchen Grissom, and you know the trail of destruction that woman leaves in her wake!”

Lianne nodded grimly.  “I’d love to be able to pin statutory rape charges on her, but she’s always careful to wait until her targets are eighteen.  I don’t suppose Angela was underage, was she?”

“No, she had turned nineteen before they met,” Ruby answered.  “I don’t think she’s even twenty-one yet.”

“Next month, dear.  We’ll have to make sure we have a little celebration for her.”

“Gram Hazel, you think she’s going to be here that long?”

Hazel turned surprisingly stern eyes on her granddaughter.  “She will stay as long as she needs to, Lianne.  Whether that’s one month or one year, or even longer is not yet known, but we will not turn her out until we’re good and certain that she can manage on her own.”

Lianne glanced over at Ruby, whose eyes were twinkling.  “You should know better than to cross your Gram Hazel in this, Lianne.”

Lianne sighed.  “I do, but um, look, I kind of...well, I should probably tell you, because no doubt she will anyway, but we sort of had words when I first got here.”

“Words?  From Angela?”

Lianne flinched at the surprise in Hazel’s voice.  “Okay, so the words were more mine than hers.”  She squirmed.  “All right, they were all mine...”

“Oh, Lianne, what did you say to her?”  Hazel’s disappointment was evident in her voice.

“I just kind of...expressed my opinion.”

“You told her she was imposing on us, didn’t you?” 

          Lianne refused to meet Ruby’s sharp gaze.  “Damn it, girl!  That’s for us to say, and we aren’t saying it!  Angela is welcome in our home.”

Hazel laid a firm hand on Lianne’s arm.  “What did Angela say?”

“Well, it was more what she did...”

“What did she do?”  Ruby’s tone made it clear she wasn’t going to tolerate her granddaughter’s equivocation.

“She packed up her stuff and tried to leave.”  Lianne shook her head when her grandmothers groaned.  “No, it’s okay.  I talked her out of it.”

“Did you apologize?”  The question came simultaneously from both grandmothers.

“Yes!  Well, sort of.”  Lianne thought over her words, then said more firmly.  “Yes, I did apologize, and I urged her to stay.  I think she was fine.  She unpacked her stuff, anyway.”

“You should talk to her, Hazel.  Make sure that she knows Lianne wasn’t speaking for us.”

“I will, Ruby.  But I want to let her sleep first.  It’s really what she needs most.  Well, that and a solid month’s worth of groceries.”

Lianne tried to suppress her guilt as she listened to her grandmothers talk.  I’m only trying to protect them.  Why can’t they understand that?

“We know you’re only trying to protect us, dear.”

Lianne started at Hazel’s words, then shook her head in wry amusement.  Should’ve known.  They always know what I’m thinking.

“But you have to trust us.  We really do know what we’re doing.”

“I know.”  A thought occurred to Lianne.  “I guess that means she’ll be here for Christmas.”

Both grandmothers nodded firmly, and Lianne surrendered.

“Which reminds me, dear, since your parents are going to be in Key West this year, will you be bringing Jill over here for Christmas dinner?”

Lianne stood to gather her things.  “Jill and I split up two weeks ago, Gram Hazel.”  She held up a cautionary hand.  “And before you chew me out, let me just say it was her idea, not mine.  Now, I’m off.  I’ll give you a call tomorrow after you get home from church.” 

Ruby and Hazel watched Lianne leave by the side door.

“I really thought it might last this time, Ruby.”

Ruby shook her head.  “That girl of ours works too hard and plays too little, love.  I’m not surprised Jill walked out.  She probably couldn’t remember the last time Lianne took her out someplace for fun.”

Hazel linked her arm with Ruby’s and steered them out of the kitchen.  “You know what she’d say, though.”

“That she’s almost thirty, and she has to put in the hours now if she’s going to be considered for the big cases later on.”

“Yes, that’s our girl, Ruby.”

“It sure is, isn’t it?”

 

##

 

Lianne watched Angela as the young woman eagerly opened the birthday gift Ruby set before her.  I guess she’s okay.  At least she’s not expecting them to wait on her hand and foot. 

Quite to the contrary, Angela appeared to anticipate Ruby and Hazel’s every need.  It was clear that in the two months since Angela had joined the household, the three had bonded closely. Lianne felt a little jealous.  Surprising herself, she even felt an edge of resentment that Andy, too, clearly adored the young stranger.

Pretty bad when even the dog makes you feel like the odd man out.  Not that Angela lingered when Lianne came over.  In fact, she would usually vanish downstairs as quickly as good manners would allow. 

Initially, Lianne appreciated that during the Christmas holidays when she coveted her time with her grandmothers.  Now it simply galled.

What am I, chopped liver?  She can’t stop and talk for a bit?  It’s not like I’m going to bite her head off...again.  Lianne shook her head to dispel her thoughts, and addressed the birthday girl politely.

“So, Gram Hazel tells me your job is going well.”

Angela gave her a startled look.  “Um, yeah.  Pretty well, thanks.  I like the people at the Medical Center, and they’ve been very good to me.”

Hazel beamed at Angela.  “Linda told me that you’ve been a real treasure.  She said she can already leave you alone on the front desk, knowing you’ll handle things just fine.  I suspect there may well be a nice raise in the offing.”

“That’s good.  Then you’ll be able to afford your own apartment.”  Lianne flinched as both her grandmothers glared at her.  “What?  I just assumed—”

“You assumed right, of course.”  Angela finished opening her gift without looking up.  “I’ll get out of Hazel and Ruby’s way as quickly as I can.”

“Now don’t you give that a second thought,” Hazel said reassuringly.  “Ruby and I love having you here.”

Angela lifted her head, and Lianne was surprised to see her eyes filled with tears.  Oh, shit!  I didn’t mean to make her cry.  I only meant...

“I know, Hazel, and I love being here, but your granddaughter’s right—I do need to move on and pay my own way.”

“You already pay your own way, girl.”  Ruby patted Angela awkwardly on the back.  “Between what you chip in for groceries, and all the work you do around here, you’re more than pulling your own weight.  Hazel’s right.  Don’t you give it one moment of worry.  You just stay as long as you want to.”

One tear spilled over and ran down Angela’s face, but she tried to smile.  “Better not say that, Ruby.  You’ll have me down in that basement forever.”  Angela glanced quickly at Lianne.  “I’m just kidding.”

Damn! Damn! Damn!  Why couldn’t I keep my big mouth shut?  Lianne could feel the icy chill rolling off her grandmothers in her direction.  Searching for something to thaw the room, she blurted, “Hey, you’re twenty-one now.  You want to join me for a legal drink?”

Three sets of eyes stared at her as if she had grown a third head.  “No, seriously.  I’d really like to buy you a drink, and I promise I’ll have you home in plenty of time to get to work tomorrow with a clear head.”

Angela looked uncertainly at Hazel and Ruby, who glanced at each other.

“For crying out loud!  I’m not proposing that we knock over a bank or anything.  When you turn twenty-one, it’s just traditional to have a drink.”

Hazel gestured at the empty wine bottle that sat on the table along with the remains of their birthday feast.  But before she could speak, Lianne shook her head.  “No, Gram, it doesn’t count if she’s having it at home.”

Lianne looked over at Angela and realized she must have said something right, because the young woman’s features had softened.  Though she still looked wary, Angela nodded.

“Alright.  That sounds good, I guess.  Just one, though.”  She looked at Hazel and Ruby.  “Are you okay with that?  You’re welcome to come along, you know.”

“Good heavens, no, dear.  Ruby and I are too old to keep up with you youngsters.  You just run along, and remember to lock up after yourself when you get home.”

“Um, what should I wear?” 

Lianne understood Angela’s worried look.  Though her wardrobe had improved, it was still limited.  “I’m wearing what I’ve got on.” 

Angela’s gaze trailed over Lianne’s body and she felt an unexpected warmth.  “Um, what you have in your hands would be good.  And jeans are fine.”

Angela looked at the new red pullover she was holding.  “It’s beautiful.  Thank you so much, Ruby and Hazel.  I really like it.”  Lifting it out of the box, she flashed Lianne a genuine smile.  “Give me two minutes and I’ll be ready.”

She hurried to the top of the stairs, Andy at her heels.  As the two disappeared down to the basement, Lianne became conscious that her grandmothers were eyeing her.

“What?”

“Lianne...”  Hazel’s voice trailed off, but Lianne could see the concern in her eyes.

“You take care of her, hear?” Ruby instructed.  “No keeping her out late or getting her in any kind of trouble.”

Shocked, Lianne protested, “Geez, you’d think I was about to lead her into a den of iniquity the way you two are acting.  I’m just taking her to the local women’s bar for one drink.”

“You know her story, dear.  Just...be kind.”

Her feelings wounded, Lianne stood up.  “Look, I know she and I didn’t get off on the right foot, but we get along okay now.  I’ll look out for her.”

The sound of feet could be heard running up the steps.  Angela appeared in the doorway and did a self-conscious twirl.

“Will this be okay?”

“You look lovely, Angela,” Hazel assured her.  “I just knew red would be your colour.  It looks so good with your dark hair and eyes.”

Angela gave her a delighted smile.  “Thanks!  Don’t wait up.  I’ll be very quiet when I come in.”

Lianne kissed her grandmothers goodbye and followed Angela out the side door, suddenly worried about their outing.  Jesus! Maybe the women’s bar wasn’t the best idea.  They’re going to be all over her like bees to honey.  What do I do if she wants to go home with someone?  Gran and Gram Hazel will kill me.

 

##

 

Lianne was right.  Heads turned as soon as they walked into the bar, and although she tried to project a “hand’s off” to all interested parties, Lianne failed utterly to dissuade women from approaching Angela.

Her companion refused the proffered drinks, but she did accept invitations to dance.  One suitor was particularly persistent.

The androgynous young butch, who clearly thought she was irresistible, was on her third dance with Angela when Lianne began to worry.  Angela appeared to be soaking in the attention, and became more animated with each dance.

Currently the swaggering butch, with her low slung jeans and big belt buckle, had one hand behind Angela’s neck and the other on her hip as they moved together to the loud music in a blatantly erotic fashion.

Jesus, why don’t you get a room?  Lianne blinked at her thought.  Shit.  I mean, don’t get a room.  Damn it, I’d better do something or they’re going to find the nearest dark corner and do exactly what Gran and Gram are worried about.

The music ended, and before another song could begin, Lianne sprang to her feet and inserted herself between Angela and her swain.

“Hey, we were dancing here.  D’ya mind?”

Lianne turned and fixed the young woman with her coldest courtroom stare.  “Move along, junior.  I believe the lady’s next dance is with me.”

Angela laughed, and put her arms around Lianne’s shoulders as a slow song began.  Grumbling to herself, the disgruntled suitor slunk off.

“Sorry about that,” Lianne apologized.  “I hope you don’t mind me cutting in, but I feel like I’m the only one in the room who hasn’t had a chance to dance with you.”

 “That’s because you never asked me.”

“I didn’t?”

“No, you didn’t.”

“My mistake.” Jesus, are we flirting?  I know it’s been a while, but that sure sounded like flirting to me.  Uh oh, Gran and Gram would not be happy about that either...

Lianne could feel how stiffly she was holding herself, but Angela seemed oblivious to her dancing partner’s unease.  When the song ended and Lianne made to return to their table, Angela caught her hand.

“Another...please?  It is my birthday, after all.”

“Um, sure.  Why not?”  Why not?  Because you’re getting in over your head, you idiot.

One more dance turned into another and another.  Lianne forgot the clock.  She forgot to worry about her grandmothers’ concerns.  She forgot everything but how good it felt to dance with a beautiful woman in her arms.  And when Angela shook her head when the arrogant butch tried to cut in, Lianne couldn’t help a tiny smirk.

It was only when they announced last call that Lianne tried to tug Angela off the dance floor.  “Oh, shit.  I promised I’d have you home early.  We have to go.”

“One last dance.  It’s not really that late and tomorrow is Friday, so even if we’re tired at work, we’ll have the next two days off.”  Angela’s eyes were sparkling and Lianne found it impossible to refuse, even as she shook her head.

“I do believe you said ‘one last dance’ about two hours ago, Ms Keane.”

“Can you prove that, Counsellor?  It doesn’t look like you’re carrying a hidden recorder anywhere.”

Lianne blushed at the faux innocent look as Angela scanned the lack of hiding places in the lawyer’s tight jeans and tailored shirt.  Holy...!  Who the hell would’ve guessed this side of her?

Dry-mouthed, Lianne didn’t try to respond.  She simply allowed Angela to pull her back to the centre of the floor.  There, the distance that Lianne had conscientiously tried to maintain between them vanished, as Angela moulded herself to her partner’s body.   Unresisting, Lianne wrapped her arms around Angela as they swayed slowly to the music.

When the dance ended, Lianne lifted her head from where it had rested against Angela’s hair.  Over her dance partner’s shoulder, she saw the young butch grinning at her.  With a woman nestled under one arm, Angela’s former suitor gave Lianne a thumbs up and swaggered out of the bar.

She thinks...hell, she thinks we’re going to do what she’s obviously planning to do.

Suddenly Lianne realized that even though the music had stopped and the DJ was packing up, she was still standing with Angela in her arms.  Flustered, she abruptly broke away, startling her partner.

“Um, we’d better get going, Angela.”  Tapping her watch, Lianne added, “Gran’s a pretty light sleeper, and she’ll know you’re not home yet.”

Angela tilted her head curiously.  “And that’s a bad thing?”

“Maybe not for you, but it could well be for me.”  Lianne hastened back to their table to collect their things.  “I don’t want Gran and Gram Hazel looking for my head on a platter because I’ve led you astray.”

Angela accepted her jacket and shrugged into it.  “You haven’t led me astray.”

Maybe not, but right now I’d really like to, and they’re going to know.  They always know.  Damn, damn, damn.  Fumbling for her keys, Lianne felt a hand on her arm and looked up to find Angela regarding her seriously.

“I mean it, Lianne.  You haven’t led me astray and we haven’t done anything wrong.  If I’m tired tomorrow, it’s a small price to pay.  I haven’t had this much fun in...well, I’m not sure I’ve ever had this much fun.  I really enjoyed tonight.  Thank you for bringing me.”  She leaned forward and kissed Lianne lightly on the cheek, and turned to walk to the door.

Stunned, Lianne watched her stroll away.  Compared to the scrawny street rat Lianne had first encountered, Angela now looked sleek, healthy, and thoroughly desirable.

When Angela stopped at the door and looked back inquisitively, Lianne shook herself out of her paralysis and hurried to catch up.

 

##

 

“Shh, Andy.  Don’t wake your mamas.”  Angela smiled down at the spaniel who was looking up expectantly.  “And, no, it’s not breakfast time yet, either.  Just go back to bed.  That’s where I’m heading.”

She wasn’t surprised when Andy followed her downstairs.  He often chose sleeping beside her over his doggie bed in the kitchen.  Angela abbreviated her ablutions and, after lifting the mildly arthritic spaniel onto the bed, she slid between the sheets.  Andy laid his head on her thigh as she idly ran her hand through his fur.

“How does that song go, Andy?  You know—the one from that show your mamas watched last weekend?”

Hazel and Ruby were fervent fans of old musicals.  In the two months Angela lived with them, she too had come to enjoy them.

“Oh, I know...”  Angela started humming quietly and sang the lines that seemed so perfect for this evening.  “I could’ve danced all night...I could’ve danced all night, and still have begged for more...” 

She laughed softly and Andy raised his head.  “No, it’s okay.  Go to sleep, boy.  I was just thinking of Lianne’s reaction if I had begged for more.”  She’d have had a heart attack. 

Angela had never felt such a sense of...power.  She was well aware of the effect she’d had on some of the women at the bar, but the only reaction she cared about was Lianne’s.

Why?  She’s just Ruby and Hazel’s annoying granddaughter...isn’t she? 

Angela pondered that.  Initially it had just been a game, a vindication of sorts.  The drinks, the dances, the flirtations—each woman that had approached her had erased another bit of the detested country mouse stamp.  She knew that Gretchen would not have recognized her shy, diffident lover tonight, and she revelled in that knowledge.

But then she had caught a glimpse of Lianne’s face while she was dancing.  Angela was quite certain that Lianne had no idea how much her expression revealed.  Had the lawyer not cut in when she did, Angela was going to ask for a dance herself.  For the rest of the evening, she was exactly where she wanted to be...in Lianne’s arms.

When Lianne dropped her off, Angela had thought for a second that she would kiss her goodnight.  When Lianne did not, Angela couldn’t decide if she was relieved or disappointed. 

 

She’s bossy. 

                        She’s beautiful. 

She’s opinionated. 

                        She’s funny. 

She’s way too old. 

                        She’s much younger than Gretchen.

 

Groaning, Angela rolled over on her side.  Andy grumbled, then snuggled into the crook of her legs and fell back to sleep. 

This is stupid.  The last thing I need is to...get involved with anyone.  I’m just starting to get my life together.  And Ruby and Hazel’s granddaughter?  I owe them everything.  They’re not going to want Lianne to hook up with...with me.  It’s not like I have anything to offer except the clothes on my back, and most of those are gifts from Ruby and Hazel.

Having successfully depressed herself, Angela tried to convince her brain to shut down for—four hours?  Oh, great, I’ve got to get up in four hours.  I’m going to be a zombie at work.

With renewed determination, Angela tried to focus on nothing.  When that didn’t work, she reviewed her work schedule, considered the January crop of new TV shows, decided on a gift for Ruby’s March birthday, and finally, desperate, composed a lengthy grocery list for Saturday’s weekly shopping trip. 

But nothing could distract Angela from the way it felt to be in Lianne’s arms.  Ultimately, yielding, she allowed the memories ascendancy.  Sleep finally came as she dwelled on the look in Lianne’s eyes when Angela had leaned in to kiss her cheek.

 

##

 

A squirrel dashed across the pathway three feet in front of them.  Ruby looked down at Andy, who was placidly padding at their heels.  He barely sniffed when the squirrel crossed their route.

“He’s getting old, love.  There was a day he’d have been after that squirrel in a heartbeat.”

Hazel smiled, and linked her arm through Ruby’s.  “We’re all getting old, dear.”

Ruby patted her partner’s arm.  “True, but the lovely thing about getting old is that you become invisible too.  We couldn’t have done this when we were young without raising eyebrows.”

“Do you remember how paranoid we were when we first started living together?  So afraid that anyone would think we were anything but friends and roommates.”

“Mmm hmm.”  Ruby nodded, contemplatively staring into the distance.  “But we had good reason, didn’t we?  Remember Doris Green?  She was fired right out of the blue ’round about ’57, wasn’t it?”

“’59, dear.”

“Yeah, ’59.  That’s right.  No one would say why she was fired of course, but we all knew.”

Doris wasn’t exactly the most discreet person, and she paid the price.  I wonder where she ended up.  She sort of vanished altogether after that, didn’t she?”

“She sure did—not that any of us had the nerve to ask after her.  It’s nice that the kids today don’t have to be as scared as we always were.”

“Yes and no, Ruby.  Lianne certainly isn’t out at work.”

“Not officially, maybe.  But she and Jill had their boss and some of their colleagues over for dinner several times, so it’s not like it was a state secret or anything.”

“Lianne would laugh at the lengths we went to to hide back in the bad old days.”

Ruby smiled at Hazel.  “They weren’t all bad, were they?”

Hazel returned her smile.  “You know they weren’t, love.  Raising Dan, building a life together—I wouldn’t have had it any other way.  Of course you were quite the scarlet woman back then.  Shameful, shameful.”

“You tease, but I swear being divorced was almost as bad as being gay in those days.”

Hazel’s eyes twinkled. “No honourable man would look twice at you.”

“Damn good thing!”  Ruby stopped and faced Hazel.  “Because in an unbelievable stroke of good luck, the most honourable, most beautiful, most wonderful woman in the world fell in love with me, and the years since have been a pure blessing.”

Hazel loved it when Ruby used that particular voice.  She knew she was the only one privileged to hear it, and it had always had the power to make her knees tremble.  With a quick glance around to ensure they were alone, she leaned in and kissed her partner.

Chuckling as if they had just put one over on the world, they resumed their stroll in the warmth of the early spring day. 

“You know, Hazel, Lianne still thinks we’re crazy to take our constitutionals in a graveyard.”

“We’re not the only ones.  Angela mentioned that she often goes through here on her morning runs.  Besides, it’s just that Lianne doesn’t understand the allure—the peace and quiet, the lovely surroundings, the hundreds of stories told in the stones all around us.  It’s better than any park in the city.” 

Hazel raised her walking cane and pointed at one large monument off to their right.  “There’s one of my favourites now.  Charlotte A. Childress.  Born 1822, died 1879. Wife of Henry T. and mother to Agnes, James and John.  She stood foursquare to all the winds that blew.  Don’t you just love that inscription?  You can just picture Mrs. Charlotte A. Childress and the way she led her life from the inscription alone.”

“When it’s our turn, I want our inscriptions to make clear what we were to each other, Hazel.”

Hazel glanced up in surprise at Ruby’s serious tone.

“We’ve had to hide our love from almost everyone all our lives, Hazel. I want us to spend eternity under a stone that finally speaks our truth.”

“That’s fine with me, love.  I’m all for it, but we’d better talk to Lianne.  If it’s up to Dan, I’m not sure Eva will let him do that.”

Ruby gave a short laugh.  “Our daughter-in-law never ever did get all that comfortable with us, did she?”

“No, but to give her her due, she did allow us to be a big part of Lianne’s life.”

“I think that was more thanks to Dan than Eva.  But speaking of our granddaughter, is it my imagination, Hazel, or have we been seeing a lot more of her than we usually do?  It seems like she’s over at the house just about every night these days.”

“That’s true, she is.”  Hazel knew her voice must have given something away, because Ruby stopped and raised a quizzical eyebrow at her.

“Hazel, do you know something you’re not telling me?”

Hazel sighed.  This discussion was overdue, and now was as good a time as any.  She pointed to a nearby bench.  “Let’s have a seat, Ruby.”

“I’m not going to like this, am I?”

Andy wandered off to explore while the women took a seat.  “I’m not sure, Ruby.  I’ve been trying to decide what I think of it.”

“And the ‘it’ would be...?”

“Lianne and Angela.”

“Lianne and... You mean together?  As in hearts and flowers and all that?  They’re in love?”

“I’m not entirely sure that they’ve even accepted it, Ruby, but yes, things certainly do appear to be heading in that direction.”

“Huh.”  Ruby sat quietly for a few minutes.  “So are we for it, or agin it?”

“I don’t know, dear.  I worry so about both of them.  What Angela went through has to have left its mark.  You didn’t hear her when she was talking about Gretchen the first day she was with us.  I’m not sure she’s ready to make the compromises you have to make in a successful relationship.”

“Well, she is young, but she’s also pretty mature for her age.  She’s no flibbertigibbet, that’s for sure.”

“I know, Ruby, but I also worry about Lianne.  She’s so much like you were.”

“Smart, successful, good lookin’?”

Hazel squeezed Ruby’s arm and joined her in a chuckle.  “Yes, dear, all that and more—driven, oblivious, stubborn.”

“Huh, I must’ve been quite a handful.  But you managed alright, Hazel, and I think Angela would too.”

“Well, unquestionably the Gaines women are worth the trouble.”

“Trouble?  Trouble?”  Ruby melodramatically puffed out her chest.  “We’re not trouble...we’re just...a challenge.”

Hazel leaned against her.  “Of the best kind, dear.  Of the very best kind.”

Ruby took Hazel’s hand and they watched Andy sniffing at several tombstones.  Finally Ruby broke their comfortable silence.

“So, I still don’t know if we want the kids to get together or not.  I know we don’t want either of them to get hurt...”

“I’ve seen the way they look at each other when they think no one will notice.  I don’t think it’s up to us, Ruby.  Those girls are head over heels, and all we can do is step aside and let nature take its course.”

“Okay, so we’re in favour then?”

“How can we not be in favour of love, Ruby?”  Hazel sat up abruptly.  “In fact, maybe we can help speed the process along a little.”

“We can?”  Ruby looked at her suspiciously.  “Hazel...what are you up to?”

“Bear with me, dear.  I’ve been watching the girls, and the dance they’re doing is making me dizzy.  The pull between them is obvious.  But it seems to me that every time one of them works up the nerve to make a move, the other bolts in the opposite direction.”

“And you’re going to fix that how?”

“Well, I was thinking that you have your birthday coming up in a couple of weeks, which would make an excellent excuse for me to take you away on a romantic getaway.”

“I’m all for that, but how does that help Lianne and Angela get together?”

Hazel grinned.  “Leave the details to me, love.”

Ruby shook her head affectionately.  “And you say I’m trouble?”

 

##

 

“Wow, Hazel!  You’ve really gone all out tonight.”  Angela surveyed the elaborate table setting for two with flowers, crystal, fine china and heavy white linens.  A bottle of wine rested in an ice bucket on the side table, tapered candles were ready to be lit, and delicious scents wafted from the kitchen.

“Well, it’s not every day someone turns eighty.”  Hazel looked at the table with satisfaction, and patted Angela’s arm.  “I sure appreciate you helping me out, dear.  I’m not sure I could’ve pulled it all together on my own.”

“It was my pleasure, Hazel.  And don’t worry.  As soon as Lianne gets back with Ruby, she and I will disappear for a couple of hours so you can have your romantic dinner together.”

“But don’t be gone too long.  We need to be out at the airport by eight thirty.”

“No problem.  When does your flight leave?”

“I believe it’s ten thirty.  I’ll just double check.”  Hazel bustled over to the cabinet.  “I hid the tickets in here behind the silver so Ruby wouldn’t see them.”

“I think this is just the most incredibly romantic idea.  Are you sure she has no idea at all?”

Hazel slid open the drawer and reached towards the back.  “Not a bit.  She knows we’re having a special dinner, but thanks to you hiding our packed bags in your room, she has no clue that I’m taking her away for the weekend.”

Charleston is such a beautiful city.  You’re going to love it.”

Hazel heard the wistfulness in the words, and her voice softened.  “It’s not too far from your hometown, is it, dear?  You must have gone there often.”

“Now and then, yeah.  It was less than two hours from...my home.”

Hazel gave Angela a sympathetic look, then opened the tickets.  “Ah, here we are.  Yes, Delta non-stop to Charleston, leaving at...  Oh no!”

Angela’s head jerked up.  “What’s the matter?”

“I’m sure I booked the ten thirty flight, but these are for eight thirty five!”  Hazel looked up at the grandfather clock.  “Oh, no, no, no!  We need to go now!”

Angela jumped for the phone.  “Don’t worry!  I’ll call Lianne on her cell and get her to come right back with Ruby.  Then I’ll grab the suitcases and bring them up.  You just go get ready.  We’ll have you out there in lots of time.”

“But the dinner...my lovely dinner...”  Hazel looked at the table sadly.  “I worked so hard.”  A look of determination came over her face.  “Angela, promise me you and Lianne will enjoy every last bit of it, or my weekend will be ruined!”

“I promise, now go get ready.”  Angela turned her attention to the phone.  “Lianne, you’ve got to get Ruby back right away.  Hazel got tonight’s departure time wrong.  They’ve got to be out to the airport now.”  She listened a moment, then nodded.  “Great.  We’ll be out front waiting for you.”

With a smile on her lips, Hazel slipped out of the room.  Phase one complete.

 

##

 

Angela and Lianne waved one last time as Ruby and Hazel passed through the security gate.  With a mutual sigh, they turned away and headed for the exit.

“I swear I’ve never driven so fast in my life.  I thought Gran was going to have a heart attack, and I couldn’t even tell her why we were rushing back to the house.  I’m sure she thought something was wrong with Gram Hazel and I just wasn’t telling her.”

“But wasn’t it all worth it to see the look on Ruby’s face when Hazel announced her plans.”

Lianne laughed in delight.  “It was, wasn’t it?  I couldn’t tell who was more thrilled: Gram Hazel for successfully pulling off the surprise, or Gran at the idea of a romantic getaway with her best girl.”

“They’re so darned cute together.”

Lianne put out an arm to stop Angela from entering the crosswalk in front of an oncoming car.  “They really are.  I hope their weekend is everything they want it to be.”

With the car past, they stepped out and crossed to the parking ramp.

“I hope that you’re hungry, because Hazel made a feast and it’s up to us to do justice to it.”

“Mmm, one of Gram Hazel’s special dinners.  Beats the hamburgers we were going to have.”

They arrived back at the house to find Andy in the kitchen, sniffing the air hungrily.

“Oh, no you don’t, mister!”  Angela chastised the spaniel.  “Your mama didn’t spend all those hours cooking to feed your belly.  This is people food, and darned special people food, too.”  She turned to Lianne, who was leaning against the door frame watching her.  “Why don’t you go wash up and I’ll get things on the table.”

“I can help.”

Angela shook her head.  “No, that’s alright.  I took a half-day off to help Hazel with the preparations, so I know what’s where.  Allow me the honour of serving.”

Lianne straightened, a look of amazement on her face.  “Gram Hazel let you help out in her kitchen?  Has the world as we know it ended?”

Angela laughed and tossed an oven mitt at the other woman.  Lianne caught it deftly and threw it back.  “About two weeks ago, Hazel said it was time she started passing along her culinary secrets.  She said you’re about as useless as Ruby in the kitchen, so since she didn’t want to take her secrets to the grave, it was up to me to be her apprentice.  She’s been teaching me, and it’s a lot of fun.”

“Huh.  Imagine that.”

“You sound exactly like Ruby, too.  Now go get washed up.  The first course is only five minutes away from being ready.”

Lianne trotted away, and Angela looked down at the ever-hopeful Andy.  “It’s a good thing your mama Hazel had everything worked out to the last minute, or her Beef Wellington would’ve been toast by now.  Now scoot.  I’ve got a feast to serve.”

 

##

 

Ruby looked around at their room in delight.  “This is incredible, Hazel.  Are you sure we can afford it?  This isn’t exactly our usual Motel 6.”

“The room and the car are Dan and Eva’s contribution to your birthday weekend, love.  Just relax and enjoy.”

Bouncing on the luxuriously thick duvet, Ruby flung herself back on the profusion of pillows.  “Oh, my heavens!  I feel like I’m resting on a cloud.”

Hazel gave her an indulgent smile as she continued to unpack their things.  “I’m glad you like.  We’ve got three nights to enjoy it.”

“We can do that later, Hazel.”  Ruby opened her arms hopefully.  Join me?”

“Gladly.”  Hazel set down their toiletries and snuggled next to her partner on the bed.  “Happy Birthday, dear.”

“It truly is.  Thank you.”  Ruby bestowed a light kiss on Hazel’s white hair, and tightened her arms.  “So, do you think your plotting has been successful?”

Hazel glanced across Ruby at the bedside table.  “Well, if all has gone according to plan, the girls should be just about on dessert by now.  After that, it’s up to them.”

“And Mother Nature.”

A tired but satisfied chuckle signalled Hazel’s agreement.  “And Mother Nature...long may she reign.”

“So aside from enjoying this fabulous bed, what plans did you have for the next few days, Hazel?”

“Well, I thought we’d play tourist—see the sights, take a carriage ride, walk on the beach, eat at this wonderful restaurant I’ve read about.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“You’ve had something on your mind, Hazel.  What’s up, love of my life?”

“You know me far too well.”

Ruby laughed at Hazel’s half-hearted grumble.  “I should, after all these years.  So spill the beans, my love.  I know you didn’t pick Charleston out of thin air.  What devious plan have you been hatching?”

“Well, I was thinking that we’re not too far from Laurenton.  Less than two hours, in fact.”

“Angela’s home town.”  Ruby’s voice was amused.

“Yes.  And since we’re so close, and have a rental car...”

“Why don’t we drop in and scope out the lay of the land.”

“Exactly.”  Hazel squeezed Ruby’s ribs.  “I knew you’d understand.”

“Actually I’ve been wondering when you’d decide to contact her family.  I’m surprised it took you this long.”

“Oh, you.”

Ruby’s voice took on a serious note.  “From what you’ve told me though, love, I think we need to step carefully.  Angela’s daddy doesn’t exactly sound like a welcoming sort.”

“Well, I didn’t think we’d don our rainbow sashes and march up to his door hand in hand.”

“No?”

“No, silly.  I thought we’d present ourselves as concerned members of our church.  We happened to be in the area and wanted to make enquiries after the well being of one of our young congregants—”

“Without mentioning that we belong to one of the largest gay congregations in the country...”

“True, I may neglect to mention that, but then I am getting forgetful in my old age.”

Ruby snickered.  She was well aware that her memory wasn’t what it had once been, but Hazel’s razor sharp retention was legendary in their circle of family and friends.

“Hopefully we’ll get to talk to Angela’s mother alone.  Angela mentioned that her father’s business is open on Saturdays, so with any luck, he’ll be at work tomorrow.”

“And if he’s not?”

“Then we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Ruby heard the determination in Hazel’s voice and grinned.  Mr. Keane, prepare to meet your match.

 

##

 

“Oh, my Lord, that was absolutely fabulous.”  Lianne leaned back in her chair with a small groan.  “I swear I couldn’t eat another bite.”

“Hazel certainly outdid herself.  It’s a shame that they didn’t get to enjoy it.”

Lianne winked at Angela.  “I’m sure they’re perfectly content where they are, but how about we take them out to dinner when they come home, just to make up for missing this.”

“That sounds good to me.”  Angela picked up the wine bottle and topped off both their glasses.  “Want to take these outside?”

“That sounds like an excellent idea.”

Angela snuffed the candles and followed Lianne out to the screen porch.  It was her favourite room in the house.  The small bungalow sat on almost three quarters an acre of land.  Towering Georgia pines, wisteria, and thick underbrush formed the property line on the garage side, while eight foot high privacy hedges surrounded the rest of the yard. 

Ruby believed firmly that the more of the yard she put into garden, the less grass she would have to mow.  Over the decades, she had converted most of the huge backyard into gardens that would’ve done a seventeenth century French monarch proud. 

The screen porch, with its own profusion of plants and a bubbling fountain, felt like a natural extension of the gardens it overlooked.  Normally the two women took the white wooden rockers, but tonight, without hesitation, they chose to sit together on the double swing. 

Having left the interior and porch lights off, their only illumination came from the moon and the decorative lights, which lined the stone pathways that wound through the gardens.

It was enough.  Angela didn’t have to see Lianne clearly to be keenly aware of the woman by her side. 

The hand holding her wine trembled and Angela clasped the glass with both hands.  The night was charged with an unfamiliar energy, and the longer they sat, rocking gently and wordlessly, the more restless she felt.

I should go for a run later.  Burn off some of this food...and energy.  But Angela knew the last thing she wanted was to leave Lianne’s side.

“It’s odd...”

Angela started at the sound of Lianne’s voice.  “What is?”

“Gram Hazel getting the times wrong on the flight.  It’s very unlike her.”  Lianne’s voice was thoughtful.  “If it were Gran, I’d understand it.  Some days I swear she’d forget her head if it wasn’t attached, but Gram Hazel making a mistake...very strange.”

“Maybe she just had a lot on her mind getting everything arranged for Ruby’s birthday surprise.”

“I suppose.”  Lianne didn’t sound convinced.

Angela gave it some thought, more to distract herself from Lianne’s proximity than out of any actual concern for Hazel’s mistake.  Then something occurred to her.  “Although...you know what is strange?”

Lianne turned her head.  “What?”

Angela held up the wine glass, swirling the dark red liquid.  “Ruby doesn’t like red wine.”

Lianne jerked upright, setting the swing into wild motion.  “Oh my God, that’s right!  I didn’t think about it because Gram always has red for me when she’s making beef, but of course Gran never drinks anything but white.”

“And if Hazel were setting this dinner up just for her and Ruby...”

“She’d only serve white wine.”

“You don’t think...”

“That Gram Hazel and Gran are two devious old women?  Oh yeah, I most certainly do.”  Lianne had a huge grin on her face.

At that moment, Andy started whining and scratching at the door to the screen porch.  Angela stood up, looking at Lianne apologetically.  “I’m sorry.  I really have to let him out.  These days when he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go.”

“I’ll come with you.” 

Setting her wine aside, Angela let the impatient spaniel out of the living room and opened the porch door to the yard.  While Andy hurried off, Angela found herself following Lianne into the garden.  As they strolled slowly down the pathway, Angela thought about Hazel and Ruby’s deception.

Is it possible?  Are they really playing matchmaker?  They don’t mind...they actually want us together?  Lianne...with me? 

What seemed highly unlikely now seemed entirely plausible.  Angela bemusedly recalled all the times over the last couple of weeks that Ruby and Hazel had gone to bed early when Lianne was visiting, leaving the two of them alone together.

Their potential objection had been the strongest factor in Angela resisting her growing feelings for Lianne.  Now, with that factor apparently not an obstacle, Angela allowed herself to imagine possibilities. 

But does Lianne want this?  She didn’t seem upset with her grandmothers.  I think she’s feeling this too...isn’t she?

Suddenly, she had to know.  “Lianne...”

Lianne stopped and faced Angela.

“Are you...angry about what Hazel did?”

“No.”

“Do you think they were setting us up?”

“Yes.”

“And you’re okay with that?  You don’t mind?”

Lianne took a step towards Angela.  “Mind?  That they’ve given me a chance to finally say what I’ve been feeling?  Angela, I’ve been wracking my brain about what to do.”  Lianne settled her hands gently on Angela’s arms.  “You have to know that I’m crazy about you, but I know what you went through, too.  I don’t want to push you into anything you’re not ready for.”

Angela laughed softly.  “Not ready?  That was never the problem.”

“Then...?”

“Your grandmothers saved my life, Lianne.  I mean they literally saved me.  If they hadn’t come looking for me, if they hadn’t taken me in when they did, I don’t know what I’d be doing by now to survive.  I know how much you love Ruby and Hazel, but I’m not sure if you understand that there’s absolutely nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for them.  If they walked up this path right now and told me they didn’t want me getting involved with their granddaughter, I’d walk away in a heartbeat, even though that’s the last thing in the world I want.”

“It is?” Lianne’s voice was hopeful, but tentative.

“God, yes.  But Lianne, I need you to understand.  I gave up my family for love, and it ended up with me living like a rat on the streets.”

“I’d never let that happen again.”

“I know you’re not Gretchen, but I’ll never forget how that felt—how desperate and terrified I was, how I was on the verge of doing things that I can’t even bear to remember.  I don’t think I could handle it if I lost Ruby and Hazel’s friendship—if they were against us being together.  So maybe you want to keep looking.  Find someone who can commit to you without qualification.”  Angela looked away sadly.  “Find someone who doesn’t come with all this baggage.” 

Lianne cupped Angela’s face gently. “Angela, none of us come without baggage.  Yours is just a little more intense.  Falling in love means ignoring the baggage and taking a leap of faith.”

“Falling in love?”  Angela felt her heart accelerate with anticipation.  “Is that what we’re doing?”

Lianne smiled and lowered her head until she was a breath away from Angela’s lips.  “I can only speak for myself, but yes, I have most definitely fallen in love with you.”

Then, much to Angela’s joy and relief, Lianne kissed her.  They didn’t stop kissing until Andy started butting his head against their legs.

 Angela glanced down with a smile.  “Get used to it, Andy.  I think you just lost your place in my bed.” 

“Yeah?”  Lianne trailed her fingers lightly over Angela’s cheeks.  “Is that an invitation, Ms Keane?”

Angela took Lianne’s hand and pressed it to her lips.  Eyes glistening, even in the muted light, she nodded.  “Yes...it is.”

“You’re sure.  We don’t have to—”

“I’m sure.”  God, I’m so sure.  “Stay with me tonight?”

“Upstairs, or down?”  Lianne backed away in the direction of the house, holding Angela’s hands and drawing her along.

 “I don’t know what the bed in your childhood room is like, but I do know the bed in my room is very, very comfortable.”

“Comfortable is good.”

“Very, very good.”

“Not that I plan on letting you sleep much.”

Angela laughed aloud at Lianne’s cocky tone.  “Oh, is that right?  Pretty sure of yourself, aren’t you?”

“Mmm, I’ve just been storing up a lot of fantasies about you and me, and a lot of energy resisting them...”

“I know what you mean...ever since that night you took me to the bar.”  Lianne had been a constant figure in Angela’s nightly fantasies, too.

They had reached the end of the path. Lianne turned and took Angela’s hand as they walked towards the house.  “The night a certain someone turned my life upside down and inside out.”  She stopped outside the screen porch door and drew Angela into her arms.  Lowering her head for a kiss, she whispered, “Remind me to thank you for that.”

“Mmm, count on it.”

They walked unhurriedly through the living room, stopping at the cluttered dining room table for only an instant.

“Okay, but no telling Gram Hazel we left it such a mess.”

“I won’t tell her, if you don’t.  Besides, I have a hunch Hazel wouldn’t mind all that much.”

“You know, I believe you’re right.” 

When Andy made to follow them, Angela pointed to his doggie bed.  “I was serious, Andy.  You’re sleeping up here tonight.”

The spaniel gave her a disappointed look and slunk over to his bed.

Lianne chuckled.  “And I thought I was in his bad graces before.”

Angela marvelled at the lack of urgency as they descended the stairs to her room.  It all feels so natural...so absolutely right...so different from...  But she resolutely pushed that thought aside.  Gretchen had no place in her life and definitely no place in this night.

When they entered her bedroom, Angela bent to switch on the small bedside lamp.  As she stood, she felt arms encircle her and Lianne’s gentle kisses on her neck.  She tilted her head forward and bathed in the unfamiliar sensation of being surrounded by love.

Angela turned slowly to face Lianne.  Her breath caught at the sheer joy and disbelief in her lover’s eyes.  Lianne looked like she had been given the greatest gift in the world, one she had never even dared hope for, and was afraid to open. 

Suddenly Angela sensed that she must take the initiative—that despite Lianne’s bravado and outward confidence, Angela’s past haunted Lianne too.  Something told Angela that her lover would be afraid of hurting her, afraid of inadvertently stirring up spectres of the past.  It would be up to Angela to lead both of them past the shadows of Gretchen and her time on the streets.

Angela slowly undressed her lover, trailing her fingers delicately over unveiled flesh.  Her eyes saw Lianne’s heightened colour, her ears caught the sound of her lover’s ragged breathing, and her hands felt the shivers that rippled through the tall, lean body. 

When Lianne stood naked before her, Angela stepped back to let her leisurely gaze appreciate the loveliness before her.  It was only when she saw a wordless “please” form on her lover’s lips that she smiled and pulled back the covers.

Lianne slipped between the sheets just as something caught Angela’s attention, and she laughed aloud.  Lianne looked at her curiously.

“Sweetheart, if we had any further doubts about your grandmothers’ opinion of us being together...”

Lianne cocked her head in confusion.  “What do you mean?”

“Your Gram Hazel, what’s her laundry schedule always been?”

“Um, sheets and towels on Mondays and everything else on Thursdays, why?”

“Because today is Friday, and someone put clean sheets on my bed while I was at work.”

Lianne convulsed in laughter as Angela quickly threw off her clothes and joined her lover in bed.

“Those two!”

“They certainly are something,” Angela agreed, as her hand slid the sheet slowly back to reveal Lianne’s breasts.  Lowering her head, she murmured, “But I really think it’s time we focused on just us, don’t you?”

“God, yes!”

 

##

 

Ruby signed the bill with a flourish, setting it aside for the waiter.  Picking up her coffee, she smiled across the table at Hazel.  “That was wonderful, wasn’t it?”

“It may well have been the best breakfast I’ve ever had, dear.  And what a beautiful day to go for a drive.”

Ruby grinned.  “Still set on that, are you, love?”

Hazel nodded seriously.  “I think we have to try, Ruby.  Perhaps we can reason with Angela’s mother.  We all love Angela and want the best for her.  If we can speak to the mother without the father’s influence, we may at least be able to put Angela back in touch with some of her family.”

“Even if she can’t go home again.”

“After this weekend, she may not wish to go home again, dear, but I would like her to at least have the option of visiting now and again.”

Ruby laughed aloud.  “So you’re pretty sure your plan worked, are you?”

“Let’s just say I’d be willing to place a large wager that phases two and three were successfully implemented last night.”

 “Well, then, let’s get this part of our adventure underway.  Ready to go?”

“Ready, aye, ready, Cap’n.”

The drive to Laurenton flew by, and Ruby soon turned off the highway towards the small town.  “So how do you propose we find the Keane household, Hazel?”

Hazel dug in her purse and pulled out a sheet of paper.  “I have Angela’s home address—I told her it was just in case of emergencies.  When I was working at the Mission last week, I asked Essence to get me directions.  She went on the computer and printed this out.  It looks fairly simple.  You’re looking for the first turn to the right after you get through town.  It’s called Ashford Road.  About five miles down it, we should find the Keane residence.  Angela told me they’ve got a cow for a mailbox, so I suspect we’ll be able to find it without too much trouble.”

“A cow?”

“Yes, dear, a cow.  I assume not a real one.”

“Huh.  A cow...”  Ruby shook her head and drove slowly through the town with its three stoplights.  “Hey, there’s Keane Used Autos.  Do you suppose that’s Angela’s father’s place?”

“It might be, dear.”  Hazel peered at the lot, noting two men in animated conversation over a car with its hood up.  “Perhaps that’s the formidable Mr. Keane himself.”

“Could be, but I have no intention of stopping to ask.”  Ruby glanced over at Hazel, who had pulled off her glasses and was industriously polishing them.  “Are you nervous?”

“A little.”  Hazel punctuated her confession with a final flourish on her lenses.  “I can’t fathom a mother giving up on her child completely.  But as far as I know, no one in the family has made any effort to even check up on Angela’s well being.”

“Are you going to tell Angela about this?”

“That depends on how it turns out, dear.  I’ll not do anything to cause her further pain.  If they reject her again...well, no need to burden her any further.”

Ruby reached the turn-off to the gravelled Ashford Road.  The mailbox was a distinctive marker: the resin black and white cow stood four feet tall on the edge of the Keane property.

Turning into the long driveway, Ruby noted that a pick-up truck and small car were parked in front of the large detached garage.  A yellow lab ran towards their vehicle, barking loudly.  A woman came out on the front stoop, drying her hands on her apron, with a teenaged girl close behind her.

Ruby pulled to a stop next to the truck and the two women got out.  Ruby was careful not to touch Hazel as they walked towards the house.  She didn’t even offer her arm as she normally would have over the uneven ground. 

“Mrs. Keane?”

The woman squinted curiously at Hazel.  “Yes?”

“I do hope we’re not intruding.  My name is Hazel Barrow, and this is my friend, Ruby Gaines.”

“This is my daughter, Louisa.”  The woman nodded her head at a young man who came around the corner of the house.  “And that’s my boy, Duane.  What can we do for you ladies?  I hope you’re not trying to sell us anything, because we’re not buying.”

“No, ma’am, we’re not selling anything.  We had to be in Charleston this weekend, and our pastor asked us to do him a favour.”

The woman relaxed visibly at the mention of a pastor.  “You’re probably looking for my husband then, but Floyd is working today.  You’re welcome to leave him a message if you want.”

Hazel had arrived at the bottom of the stairs.  “Actually, Mrs. Keane, the message was for you.  We were to tell you that your daughter, Angela—”

The woman’s hand flew to her mouth, the girl gasped, and the young man stared at them.  Hazel continued smoothly.

“—is just fine.  She ran into some difficulties a few months back, but is healthy, and has a good job now.  If you want her address and number, I have them—”

Louisa stepped around her mother. “Angela’s alright?  You’ve seen her—you’ve seen my sister?”

“Just before we left Atlanta, yes.  She looked well, and seems fairly contented.”  Hazel glanced at her companion.  “Wouldn’t you agree, Ruby?”

Ruby nodded solemnly, her eyes never leaving the scenario playing out on the stoop.  The girl was leaning eagerly towards them, but the woman had gone white and was visibly shaking. 

Hazel reached into her purse and pulled out a piece of the hotel stationery on which she had written their home address and phone number.  “Our pastor has taken an interest in Angela’s welfare—she’s such a dear young person—and he wanted us to facilitate a reunion between you, if you’re interested.”

That galvanized the woman.  “You have to leave!  Floyd will be home for lunch any moment, and you have to be gone!”  She looked fearfully down the road towards town.

Mom!  It’s Angela.  This may be our only chance to find her.  Daddy doesn’t have to know.  Duane, tell her!”

Her brother nodded.  “We wouldn’t tell Daddy, Mom.  I swear we wouldn’t.”

“No!  Your father has spoken.  Angela is no longer...”  The woman’s voice trailed off in a sob.  Pointing at the driveway, she insisted in a strangled voice, “Go, please.  You have to go now!”  Shepherding her protesting daughter ahead of her, Mrs. Keane vanished into the house.

Quickly Duane stepped forward and plucked the paper out of Hazel’s hand.  Looking at it, he asked, “Is this the hotel where you’re staying?”

Before Hazel could answer, Duane’s head jerked up.  A large red car could be seen speeding down the road in a cloud of dust.  “Shit!  That’s Daddy.  You have to go, now!”

Reacting to the panic in his voice, Ruby placed a firm hand on Hazel’s back and directed her back to their car.  As they passed Duane, Hazel unrolled her window.  “We’re in room 1407, and we’ll be there until Monday.  Your sister is living with us.  She’s fine, and she loves you all very much.”

Ruby jerked the wheel to the right to avoid the oncoming vehicle.  “Jerk!”  She saw the man frowning at her as they passed, but she ignored him.  The drive back to Charleston was uneventful, though much quieter than the drive out had been.

Hazel finally broke her pensive silence as they approached the city.  “What evil has that man wrought on his family?”

Ruby snorted.  “You can bet he’d say that Angela is the only evil in the Keane family.  No wonder she didn’t feel she could go home when Gretchen threw her out.”

“That poor girl.  Oh, Ruby, we can’t tell her about this.  It would break her heart to know they still reject her.”

“Not all of them.  Looked to me like her siblings were eager for contact.”

“Too cowed to defy their father, though.  No, I think Angela only has us now.”

Ruby reached across the seats and took Hazel’s hand.  “But she does have us, love.”

Hazel mustered a wan smile.  “And hopefully Lianne, too.”

“You bet.  When my Hazel concocts a plan, watch out!  Those two didn’t stand a chance.  Why I’ll bet they’re already planning to run away to Canada to get married.”  Ruby knew her humour was weak, but she couldn’t bear to see her generally effervescent partner so glum.  “C’mon now, love.  We’ve still got over two days of fun.  Don’t let that tyrant ruin our romantic getaway.”

Hazel’s chin lifted defiantly.  “You’re right.  We came here to celebrate your birthday, and celebrate we will.  How about a carriage ride this afternoon?”

 

##

 

Lianne arched her back and stretched.  She groaned with pleasure as her muscles straightened.  The blankets beside her popped up, and Angela’s smiling face, framed in the sheets, looked out at her. 

“Good morning, Lianne.”

“Mmm, good morning, gorgeous.”

Angela laughed at the endearment and slid over on top of her.  Lianne wriggled in delight, loving the sensation of skin against skin.  Closing her arms around her lover, she purred, “Wasn’t this where we left off last night?”

“I think you mean this morning.”  Angela feathered small kisses over Lianne’s chest.  “Did you even hear Andy scratching at our door four hours ago?”

“Were we asleep four hours ago?”

“One of us was.  One of us got up to let the dog out and feed him breakfast.”

“Hmm, then one of us has definitely earned a reward.”  Lianne rolled Angela over, but the bedside clock caught her eye.  “Good Lord!  Is it really noon?”

Angela’s hands cupped Lianne’s head, and gently reclaimed her attention.  “It is, and I do believe there was talk of a reward?”

Laughing, Lianne let her head drop onto Angela’s breast.  “I think there’s a lot more than talk in the air, darling.  How about a shower and some food?”

Angela countered.  “How about a bath together in your grandmothers’ Jacuzzi, and something to eat?”

“And we need to clean up that mess we left on the dining room table, too.”

“Right...but we do have until Monday evening before they get home.”

“True, and it’s not like we have any other commitments this weekend...do we?” 

“No, not as far as I know.  The only commitment I’ve got is to our mutual and repeated pleasure.”

Lianne raised her head to beam at her lover’s mischievous face.  “Have I ever mentioned that I love the way you set your priorities?”

“Have I mentioned recently that I love you?”

“Not since I woke up, no.”  Lianne ran a tender finger along Angela’s hairline.  How did you become so dear to me so fast?

“How very inconsiderate of me...”  Angela caught Lianne’s finger and sucked it slowly into her mouth.  “About those chores...?”

“They’ll wait.”

 

##

 

The elevator door slid open and Ruby and Hazel stepped out on the fourteenth floor.  They stopped in surprise when they saw a young, dark-haired man sitting on the floor next to their door.  He scrambled to his feet as they approached.

“Excuse me, ma’am.  Are you Miss Barrow and Miss Gaines?”

Ruby nodded, stepping slightly ahead of Hazel.  “We are.  I’m Ruby Gaines and this is Hazel Barrow.  And you are?”

“August Keane, ma’am.”

Ruby relaxed as Hazel stepped forward with outstretched hand.  “You’re Augie—Angela’s older brother.  She’s told us a lot about you.”

Augie shook Hazel’s hand, then offered his to Ruby.  “Yes, ma’am.  I live here in Charleston; my brother Duane called to tell me what happened.”

“Are they alright?  Did your father give them any trouble over our visit?” Hazel asked with concern.

Augie’s face darkened at the mention of his father.  “No, ma’am.  They just told Daddy that you two ladies were lost and stopped to ask for directions.”

Ruby used their key card to open the door.  “Would you like to come in, young man?  I imagine you have a lot of questions.”

“Yes, ma’am, I would.”  He seized a crumpled envelope out of his back pocket.  “And I wrote Ange a letter, if you’d please take it to her.”

Before Hazel could say anything, Ruby interjected.  “It depends.”

Augie’s face fell.  “On what?”

“On whether you were kind or hateful in your letter.  Angela’s been hurt enough, and we won’t allow any of you to hurt her anymore.”

Augie appeared shocked.  “Oh, no, ma’am, I’d never hurt Ange.”

“You didn’t stop your father from throwing her out.  She ended up homeless—dirty and starving—because of that man...”  Ruby knew she wasn’t being entirely fair, but the encounter with Angela’s family had shaken her more than she was ready to admit.

Augie looked like someone had punched him in the gut. “Homeless?  On the streets.  But she left with that rich woman.  How could that happen?”

Hazel frowned at Ruby and put an arm around the stricken young man, leading him to a chair.  “That woman was a wicked predator.  She turned Angela out with barely the clothes on her back a few months ago.  And Augie, we know you couldn’t have stopped your father from doing what he did.”

“Maybe I could’ve, but I didn’t even get a chance to try.  I was here in Charleston when it all happened.  Ange was long gone by the time Duane finally found me to tell me.”  Augie hung his head.  “I was partying with friends all that weekend while my little sister...while my father...”

“Shhh, Augie.  It’s not your fault,” Hazel soothed.  “All that matters now is that you still consider Angela your sister.”

Augie’s head jerked up.  “Of course I do!  Look, I don’t really know what Ange is doing, or how she ended up the way she is—”

“A lesbian—a woman in love with another woman.”  Ruby’s stern voice pulled no punches and Augie flinched.

“Yeah, well...what you said and all.”  Augie looked at Ruby defiantly. The resemblance to Angela was clear.  “But she’s my sister, and I love her.  And I ain’t cuttin’ her loose just because my old man says to.  I just didn’t know how to get hold of her ’til now.”

Hazel dragged a chair over in front of Augie and sat down.  “Augie, we’ll take your letter to Angela.  We’ll let her know how she can get in touch with you, too, if you give us your address here in Charleston.”

Augie extended the envelope to Hazel.  “I put it all in the letter.  I swear I didn’t say anything mean, ma’am.  You can read it first, if you want.”

“No, dear, it’s Angela’s mail.  She can share it with us if she wishes, but it’s for her eyes only.”  Hazel accepted the letter and tucked it into her purse.

Relief was clear on Augie’s face.  “Thanks.  So, are you like her foster mamas or something.”

Hazel chuckled.  “Or something, dear.”

Ruby elaborated on her partner’s response. “We’ve worked with gay and lesbian youth for a lot of years.  Angela came to our attention because she attended our church.  When she went missing under troubling circumstances, we looked for her.  It took us a few weeks, but we found her, and she’s been living with us ever since.”

A look of dread formed on Augie’s face.  “Where did you find her?  Was she...I mean, did she get into trouble?  Was she into drugs or in jail, or...?”

“No, we found her at a Union Mission run by a friend of ours,” Hazel reassured him.  “But Augie, we don’t know all the details of what happened to her, and we don’t need to know.  She survived, and that’s the only thing that matters.  Your sister is a truly impressive young woman and a joy to have around.  We couldn’t be more pleased that she’s come into our life, and we cherish her as if she were our own granddaughter.”

Which she may well become, depending on what those kids have been up to this weekend.  Ruby’s eyes twinkled at the thought, and she relaxed.  This kid seems okay.  Seems to have escaped becoming his father’s clone, anyway.

“I’m glad she’s got you,” Augie said sincerely.  His eyes flashed to the room’s only bed.  “So are you two, um,...”

“Lesbians?  Partners?”  Ruby almost laughed aloud as the young man blushed a bright scarlet.  “Yes to both.  Hazel and I will have been together fifty years this year.”

“Fifty?”  Augie’s jaw dropped.  “Wow!”

“Yes, we’re that old,” Ruby confirmed dryly.

Hazel chuckled and gave her partner a knowing glance before returning her attention to their guest.  “So now that we’ve got that out of the way, dear, are there any questions you want to ask us about your sister?”

Augie appeared lost in thought, and the two women saw him shake his head and mutter to himself several times before he finally looked up at them again.  “I guess the only thing I really want to know is if she’s happy.  I mean, from meeting you, I figure she’s okay that way, you know.  She’s eating good and sleeping good, right?”

Ruby and Hazel nodded in unison.

“Okay, so...does she miss us?  Does she ever talk about us?  You said that she’s not with the woman she left with…is she with someone else now?”

Hazel leaned forward and patted Augie’s knee.  “She’s never stopped missing you and your siblings and your mother.  She talks about you often, and always with great fondness.  In fact, she told me recently that you still owed her ten dollars that she’d loaned you.”

Augie broke out in laughter and took his wallet from his back pocket.  Opening it, he retrieved a ten.  “Can I borrow a pen?”

Ruby pointed at the pen on the desk next to where he sat. Augie wrote something on the bill before handing it to Hazel.  “Could you give this to her?  And tell her I want a receipt, too.”

Hazel added the bill to her purse next to Augie’s letter.  “I promise you I’ll give both of these to her the moment I see her.  They’ll be picking us up in the airport on Monday evening—”

“They?” 

“Angela and our granddaughter, Lianne.”

“Oh.  So she hasn’t got a...girlfriend or anything?”

Ruby grinned as she saw the amusement in Hazel’s eyes. 

“Well, dear, I can’t exactly say for sure.”

Augie gave Hazel a puzzled look.  “Huh?”

“Let’s just say that you should stand by for further developments, as will we.”

Angela’s brother now looked totally confused, so Ruby took pity on him.

“She and Lianne are in love.  We’re just not sure if they’ve...done anything about it yet.”

“Oh.  Ohhhhhhh...  Gotcha.”

“I’m sure Angela will fill you in on all this when she calls you.”

Augie shot Hazel a hopeful look.  “You’ll have her call me?”

“I suspect that once she hears you want her to, dear, nothing in the world would stand in her way.  Oh my, no, don’t cry, dear.”  Hazel rooted through her purse and came up with a tissue.  She handed it to Augie, who blotted his eyes and noisily blew his nose.

Ruby caught Hazel’s glance and with a big grin, gave her a triumphant thumbs up.  Way to go, my love.  Our Angela’s going to get at least part of her family back, and it’s all due to you.  

 

##

 

Ruby and Hazel nodded their thanks as a dreadlocked young man held back the crowd and allowed them to get off the airport shuttle train first. 

“Thank you, dear.” Hazel addressed the young gentleman.  Then she took Ruby’s arm for the short walk to the escalator.  “My, isn’t it good to be home?”

“Yes, it is, though it was a fabulous weekend.  Thank you all over again.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had a better birthday celebration.”

“Oh, Ruby.  The year you turned thirty five was a pretty good one.” 

“Oh yeah.  How could I forget that?”

“And the year you turned fifty?  And sixty?  What about those?”

“Lord, yes.  After that sixtieth shindig you threw, I didn’t think I’d live to see seventy.”

The women were laughing as they stepped off the escalator onto the Arrivals level.  Ruby was the first to see Lianne and Angela waiting.

“There they are, love.”

Hazel looked over and smiled happily.  Leaning into Ruby, she whispered, “It worked.”

Ruby looked at her in amazement.  “How on earth can you be sure?”

Hazel only had time to murmur, “Body language” before the younger women approached them with open arms.  Hugs and kisses were exchanged, and Lianne directed them to the nearby seating area.

“Angela and I will get your bags.  You two just wait here and we’ll be back in a few minutes.”

Ruby opened her mouth, but before she could protest that they were perfectly capable of getting their own bags, Hazel tugged her over to the waiting area.  Once seated, they watched Lianne and Angela at the luggage carousel. 

After a few minutes, Ruby understood.  “They can’t stop touching each other.”

Hazel nodded.  “Exactly.  They’re well within each other’s personal space, and they can barely tear their eyes off each other long enough to check for our suitcases.”

Ruby put her hand out in mock formality. “Congratulations, Professor Barrow.  I do believe you’ve done it.”

Hazel shook her partner’s hand with a grin.  “Oh no, dear.  I do believe they’ve done it!”

Lianne and Angela returned with the suitcases to find their grandmothers convulsed with laughter and wiping tears from their eyes.  Exchanging baffled glances, they shepherded the older women out to the car.  Ruby and Hazel were still giggling when the car entered the interstate northbound. 

 “So, do I take it you two had a good time?” Liane asked as she merged smoothly with the traffic.

“Fabulous.”

“Couldn’t be better,” Hazel agreed.  “Oh, and Angela, we have wonderful news for you.”

Angela glanced at Lianne.  “We have some news for you, too.”

“You’re in love.  You’re together.  The sex is fabulous.  You couldn’t be happier.  Old news,” Ruby teased, but then dodged as Lianne aimed a backwards swipe at her knee.

“Gran!” 

Hazel nodded agreeably.  “Youngsters always think they’re the first to discover the power of Eros.”  She linked hands with Ruby and the two beamed at each other.  “They don’t really understand that the journey they’ve just begun has been traveled since time immemorial.”

Ruby leaned over and deposited a kiss on Hazel’s lips.  “Couldn’t have said it better, my love.”

“Gran, you two are the most conniving...”

“And tricky...”

“And devious...did we mention devious?”

“I do believe they did mention devious, didn’t they, Ruby?”

“I think you’re right, Hazel.  I’m quite sure I heard devious, so they must’ve mentioned it.”

A mock groan resounded from the two in the front seats, and Ruby and Hazel sat back in satisfaction.  Their work was done. 

Angela looked back at them with an affectionate smile.  “So, if you already know our news—and heaven only knows why that would surprise us—what’s your news?”

Hazel opened her purse, dug out the envelope, and handed it to Angela.  “We had a lovely chat with your brother, Augie, and he gave us this to give to you.”

“You saw Augie?  You...you talked to him?  Oh, my God.  Did you see the others, too?”  Angela’s words came out in a rush as she seized the letter Hazel offered her and ripped it open.

Lianne turned on the overhead light.  As Angela’s head ducked to read the letter, Hazel saw her granddaughter mouth, “thank you” in the rear view mirror. 

“We saw your mother and siblings, but only passed your father on the road.  We never stopped to talk to him.”

Mom...is she okay?”

Hazel hesitated, unsure of how to answer without hurting Angela, but she appeared to understand.

“No, it’s okay.  Mom would never cross Daddy, and I doubt that Daddy will ever accept me as their daughter again.” 

Hazel noted that the pain that had been in Angela’s voice when she spoke of her family was muted.  “We did find out that Louisa, Duane, and Augie miss you terribly, and all want you back in their lives, dear.”

Angela held up the pages as she twisted towards the back seat.  “That’s what Augie writes.   He doesn’t care what Daddy says, that as far as he’s concerned, I’m his little sister for all time, and if I don’t call him the moment I get this, he’s going to come to Atlanta and tickle me into a coma.”  She laughed even as the tears flowed.  “That’s what he always said when we were kids and he wanted his own way.”

Hazel extracted the ten dollar bill and handed it to Angela.  “He also gave me this to give to you.  It’s the ten—”

“—he owes me.”  Angela laughed as she took it from Hazel.  She looked at the writing on the note and shook her head in gleeful amusement.  “He says I’ll have to collect the interest on the loan from him in person.”

Lianne unclipped her cell phone and handed it to Angela.  “Call him.”

“Oh no, I’ll wait until we get home.  I don’t want to use up your minutes.”

Lianne looked at Angela.  “Sweetheart, call him now, and talk as long as you want.  The minutes don’t matter one damn bit.”

Ruby and Hazel looked at each other with knowing delight as Angela punched in the numbers, checking them against the letter that lay on her lap. 

“Augie?  Whaddya mean I’ve got to come collect the interest in person?  You owe me at least two more dollars, big brother!”

And as Angela erupted in a combination of laughter and sobs, Hazel felt her own eyes fill with tears.  She looked at Ruby, and noticed a suspicious brightness in her love’s eyes.  In the driver’s seat, Lianne was quietly blowing her nose.

Just one more step, my dear ones.  Just one more step.

 

##

 

Epilogue:

 

Angela tugged on her shirt nervously.  “Do I look okay?”

Lianne, walking quietly at her side, nodded.  “You look wonderful, sweetheart, as always.”

Like an advance guard, Hazel and Ruby marched determinedly just ahead of them as they merged with the others entering the sanctuary.

What am I doing?  This is a mistake.  I can’t face her; I can’t.  Apprehension sickened Angela and her steps slowed.  Lianne immediately pulled her off to the side.

“Angela, you don’t need to do this.  We can turn around and leave right now.”

Angela looked up at the church steeple, then at Ruby and Hazel where they stood just inside the glass doors.  She knew they wouldn’t rebuke her—that they would understand if she simply couldn’t find it in herself to face Gretchen again.  But the memory of Hazel’s gentle urgings filled her mind.

 

“Angela, Easter services are next weekend.  Do you think you and Lianne might join Ruby and me?  We’d love to have you, and Pastor Brad is always asking after you.  He’d be thrilled to see you again.”

When Angela couldn’t find an answer, Hazel continued.  “You can’t let her have this power over you, dear.  What she did to you—what you once felt for her—that’s all in the past.  She is nothing to you now, and you are so much more without her.”

“More?”  Angela heard her voice croak with fear.

Hazel nodded solemnly.  “More in all aspects that matter—love, maturity, kindness, even spiritual growth.  She will never know any of these things as she wallows in the mire of greed and lust and cruelty.  But until you confront her, she won’t realize that you won—that you emerged from her wretched grasp with soul and integrity intact.  More importantly, you won’t really believe that you’ve won.  Your memory has built her into an omnipotent ogre, but in reality she is merely a woman.”

Angela sat down abruptly on a kitchen chair.  “What would I need to do if I do go?”

“You need do nothing but reclaim the spot that is rightfully yours beside your family in your church.  Don’t let her take any more from you than she already has, dear.  You have a glorious future, but until you banish the tiny, lingering shadow that overhangs your heart, you won’t be free to embrace it...to embrace Lianne as fully as you’re entitled to.

 

Angela licked her dry lips.  Hazel hadn’t pushed it any further, but it was as if she had read Angela’s inner heart.  Though she couldn’t remember ever being happier in her life, Angela knew a small part of her still held back, still feared an absolute commitment to Lianne and their life together.

Lianne had been talking recently of moving in together, but Angela clung to her basement room like a security blanket.  As patient as her lover was, Angela knew Lianne didn’t understand.

Apparently Hazel did.  And now, as her gaze flicked between the three women who meant so much to her, Angela made a choice.  Raising her chin determinedly, she took Lianne’s hand.  “Let’s go in.  We don’t want to miss the processional.”

When they walked by Gretchen, Angela took a good, hard look.  She didn’t see the one-time Princess Charming who had whisked her away from Laurenton;  nor the domineering partner she once held in awe; nor the two-timing ex-lover who had ordered her out on the streets. All she saw was a heavily made up, middle-aged woman who looked ridiculous sitting with her arm possessively around the girl next to her.  It wasn’t even the same girl Gretchen brought home the night she had evicted Angela.

Shaking her head with amusement, Angela met Hazel’s eyes and they exchanged understanding smiles as they entered their row.

Ignoring the way Gretchen’s eyes widened in shock at the sight of her, Angela leaned into Lianne and whispered, “About moving in with you...”

 “Yes?”

 “Most definitely, yes.”


 
© Lois Cloarec Hart