My thanks as always to my beta reader, Barbara Davies. Read her work on her site, The Writings of Barbara Davies.
The rest of the day passed slowly for Jo. She'd gone back to her house after leaving the small park in Whitechapel. She'd made herself a pot of tea and settled down to watch TV, something she rarely did. She couldn't quite bring herself to go down to the pub, which would be her normal course of action.
She went back into the kitchen, opening the fridge to see what Rosanna had bought her this week.
Her mother had employed Rosanna shortly after her parents had bought her the small house. Rosanna was the daughter of Marianna's cook at their London home. Jo's mother knew that her youngest daughter didn't know what a supermarket was, let alone what she should buy in it.
Rosanna bought food, and put it in the refrigerator and cupboards. Most of it she removed a couple of days later, untouched. But there was always food there should she need it.
So Jo peered into the fridge, amazed at the variety of things she found there. She also found bread in another cupboard and made herself a passable ham sandwich.
She switched on the TV and settle down to watch.
The rather droll TV fare and the warmth from the fire, coupled with the unsettled nights she'd been having, soon took their toll. Within minutes she was asleep.
There's nothing worse than falling asleep during the late morning then waking, thoroughly confused. Jo looked around, her eyes finding the illuminated clock on the VCR. It was 3.30pm.
She wondered what had woken her.
She sat up slowly, scrubbing her face with her hands, and putting her foot onto the plate with a half eaten sandwich on it.
"Dammit!" she cursed, leaning over the back of the sofa to the shelf, which held a box of tissues. "What do you want, Trixi?" she asked, wiping off the butter stuck to her heel, but never once looking at the woman sitting in the chair opposite her.
"Just wanted to see you," Trixi pouted. "Aren't you glad to see me?"
Jo sighed. "No, Trix. I thought I made myself clear." Jo threw the butter-covered tissue in the waste paper bin and took her cup and plate through to the kitchen. She found a dishwasher there, and put both the items into it.
Trixi had followed her into the kitchen and came up behind her, wrapping her arms about the tall woman's waist. She nuzzled Jo's neck, her hands moving up from her waist towards her breasts.
Jo turned in the blonde's embrace and found a hot mouth clamping itself on her own. She reached between them and found the blonde's hands, which were caressing her breasts through her sweatshirt. She forcefully pushed Trixi back, her hands taking a vice-like grip on the blonde's wrists. "I said no, Trix."
Dark brown eyes narrowed. "You got someone else to take care of you?" she asked, pulling her wrists from Jo's grasp.
Jo took a couple of steps back, her hands shaking, until she leaned against the counter top. She reached behind her to steady herself. "I no longer need what you can give me," she said steadily. If she could convince herself of the fact, she was sure she could convince Trixi.
The blonde took a couple of steps towards her, completely aware of the power she held over the beautiful woman. "Oh, but you do, Jojo." She reached up and hands traced Jo's clenched jaw. "Why so tense?" She pushed dark locks behind Jo's ear. "I can help you with that tension." She took a handful of dark hair and pulled Jo's head towards her, kissing her roughly and biting her bottom lip as she pulled back. She pushed Jo back as the tall woman put her hand to her mouth, staring dumbly at the blood she saw on her fingers. "Call me when you grow up, Jo. I'll be waiting."
When Jo looked up Trixi was gone. She heard the door slam, and then the sound of a car driving away. Almost in a daze she went downstairs to the security box by the front door and opened it. She changed the entry code, and tested it. Then she went back upstairs and poured herself another large drink.
In another part of London, in a derelict factory, a lone woman watched the small fire she'd built. She'd managed to build a small lean-to with a large piece of panelling. The snow drifted through the ruined roof and threatened the flickering flames.
Rocky fed some more of the wood she had found around and about the structure.
There were some more people there, too intent on their own survival in the sub-zero temperatures to worry about who else was about.
The blonde looked up, wondering if she had really just heard her name called.
"Rocky? Are you in here?"
Rocky stood, looking into the darkness at the hunched figure stumbling across the debris towards her. "Edna?" She met the old woman half way, helping her across the fallen walls and ceiling to her little patch of cleared floor. "What are you doing here? Why aren't you in the hostel?"
Edna eased herself onto the floor, warming her hands on Rocky's small fire.
"I wanted to talk to you," she said indignantly.
"You need to be inside tonight," said Rocky, plumping herself down beside her friend.
"So do you, Rocky."
Rocky looked away, finding the fire more interesting than her friend. "You know I can't go to those places."
"Well, if you're going to stay here, so am I."
"Edna," Rocky warned, giving her a sideways glance.
The old woman held her hands up. "They're keeping a place for me at the hostel. I have to be in before midnight." She nudged the grumpy blonde's arm. "Like Cinders."
Rocky turned her attention back to the fire. "So what do you want to talk about?"
Rocky shrugged. "Nothing to tell."
"Hey." Edna reached over with a gloved hand and turned the young woman's face towards her. "This is me you're talking to."
Rocky looked at the woman for long moments, wondering whether she could divulge the thoughts that had refused to leave her during the last couple of days.
"Tell me what you feel when you see her."
Rocky closed her eyes, picturing the tall elegance, the blue eyes. She felt a tingle on the back of her neck as the image was formed in her mind's eye. "Comfort," she said, simply. Her forehead creased into a frown. "Why is that?" She shook her head in wonder. "I don't know her."
Edna opened her mouth to disagree.
"Yeah, I know," said Rocky. "You tell me I already know her."
"How else can you explain the feelings you have?"
Rocky pulled her coat a little tighter around her cold body. "I can't; you know that."
"So... what do you want to do when you see her?"
Rocky turned towards Edna and smiled, then blushed. "I want to hold her. But something tells me I shouldn't. I've never thought about loving a woman, Edna. I've never thought about love, not since..."
"Go on." Edna had never pressed Rocky to tell of the circumstances that drove her to the hell that was her life now.
Rocky shook her head. "I can't, I'm sorry."
Edna patted the hand that was close to her own. "That's alright, sweetheart. Most of us out here have our secrets. One day you'll find someone you feel you can tell them to."
"I'm sorry, Edna." Tears now coursed down the strained face, and the old woman pulled Rocky into her arms. "She makes me feel again." Edna had to strain to hear the whispered voice. "And I'm scared that all the feelings will come back, the bad ones I've fought so long to forget."
"But if they do, she'll be strong enough to help you with them."
Rocky pulled herself out of the frail embrace. "How do you know that?"
"How did I know to be at Victoria Station the day you arrived in London? There are many things I know, Rocky. But I don't know why I know. Some call it a gift. I see in that woman a great strength, the same as I've always seen the beauty in your soul. Somehow, against many odds, she has found you." She wiped away the tears that were flowing unabated from green eyes. "She didn't know she was looking for you, but now her life won't be complete without you."
"I can't believe that." Rocky wiped her face with a dirty sleeve. "She's wealthy. She doesn't need me. She looks like she's never needed anything in her life."
"Up until a couple of days ago, she didn't. You, on the other hand, have always needed her. You just didn't have a face to picture in your dreams."
Rocky held her head in her hands. "I don't know what to do, Edna."
Edna put a bony finger beneath the blonde's chin. "You must do what your heart says is right. You must learn to feel again, to love again. Stop punishing yourself." Edna smiled, seeing the outraged look once again. "I know."
"No you don't!" Rocky stood, and stepped a few paces away. "You don't know. You don't know what he did. What he took from me." She walked back and towered over Edna. "I couldn't stop him." She collapsed to her knees next to the old woman, who gathered the weeping woman into her arms again.
"Sshh," Edna whispered. "Tomorrow, you will see Jo. Don't fight your feelings. You can't let the past rule your future. You must learn to trust again. You must learn to trust your heart, and the person who wants to hold your heart." She looked up through the ruined roof of the derelict factory, to see the moon peeking from behind the snow clouds. She would soon have to leave the girl she thought of as a daughter to the cold of the night. But for the moment she would stay, content in the knowledge that this beautiful soul she held in her arms was about to find her destiny.
Jo woke with a start, and discovered that spending the night on a sofa that was two feet shorter than you was not a good idea. Her left shoulder screamed at her, as did her neck. The fire was still on, and her mouth, as a consequence, was dry. She stumbled into the kitchen, pulling a carton of orange juice from the fridge, and grimaced as she bumped her wounded bottom lip as she drank directly from the carton.
She went back into the lounge and peered through the darkness at the clock on the mantelpiece. It was just after 5am. She'd been asleep on the sofa since the previous evening. The heating was still on, so she made her way upstairs to the bathroom and started the water running. A shower wouldn't do on this occasion, she needed a bath. She needed a long bath, with some of the Body Shop's very own aromatherapy oils added to it.
Well over an hour later she eased herself out of the bath and, pulling on her towelling robe, she went back down to the lounge, plumping herself down on the sofa just as the phone rang.
She started to reach for the noisy instrument, and suddenly realised just who would be calling her at such an early hour. Her hand shook as she picked up the phone, the sudden silence ringing in her ears.
"Hello?" She waited for what seemed like an eternity, listening to soft breathing. She knew who it was. "Rocky?"
"Are you alright, is anything wrong?"
"No, I'm fine... Did I wake you? I forgot how early it was."
"No, I've been up about an hour. How about you?"
"I've been up a while."
There was silence for a long moment.
"Jo, I need to see you."
Jo's mouth suddenly lost the ability to produce coherent sound. Instead she made a vague croaking noise, which caused her caller some alarm.
"I'm here," she said, after clearing her throat.
"There's a cafe, not far from the park. It's called Mario's. Can you meet me there?"
"Of course I can. When?"
"As soon as you like."
"I'll be there in half an hour."
"Ok, I'll be outside."
"Rocky..." Jo began, but pulled the phone away from her ear when she heard the dialling tone. Rocky had hung up.
She placed the handset gently back in its cradle and stared at it as if it was about to burst into flames. The she remembered she would need to dress before venturing out into the elements.
Jo found the cafe quite easily, and drove slowly past, trying to see in through the grubby window. She couldn't see Rocky, but quickly dismissed the fact and went in search of a parking space. With it being so early, she found a space relatively easily in a side street, not even having to pay a fee.
She pushed her hands into the pockets of her short leather jacket, pleased that she was finally meeting Rocky in a place that hopefully wouldn't require thermal clothing. She stood outside the cafe, and looked up and down the street, seeing no sign of the blonde.
And then suddenly she was there.
"Good morning," said Rocky softly, dropping her bags onto the pavement beside Jo.
If Jo was startled, she hid it well. She bent and picked up one of Rocky's large bags. "You ready for breakfast?"
Jo didn't wait for an answer but headed into the dingy cafe, glancing back once to make sure the blonde was following her in.
Inside Mario's was almost as grubby as the outside, and it bore no comparison to the trendy Italian eateries that Jo frequented. In fact the name was the only Italian thing about the place. There were about a dozen small tables, just over half of them occupied. Most of the customers looked like early workers, truck drivers, and factory workers stopping off for breakfast on their way to their place of work. Jo took the bag to a table in the corner and placed it on one of the four plain wooden chairs that surrounded it. Rocky had followed her in and put the bag she was carrying on the floor beneath the table.
"What do you fancy then?" Jo asked, eyeing the menu, which was on a blackboard behind the counter. "Do you want the full breakfast?" She read the list: bacon, egg, fried bread, tomato, sausages. She turned to Rocky who was easing herself into one of the chairs.
"I'll just have some toast and some tea," Rocky said quietly.
Jo turned towards the seated woman, the tired voice suddenly becoming apparent to her.
"Hey, you ok?" she asked, sitting in the opposite chair, and ducking her head to see into the bowed face of the blonde.
"I'm fine, just tired," Rocky said, not looking up.
"Let me get you something substantial to eat. Just this once." She ducked her head again, reaching across and tapping the table just in front of Rocky. "Please?"
Rocky looked up, and once again revelled in the soft blue gaze. "Ok," her mouth said. Her brain, on the other hand, was trying to come to terms with the emotions that blue gaze evoked.
Jo's smile made Rocky's stomach clench, it was such a beautiful sight. And she knew that smile was for her and her alone. She wanted to see it again, she wanted to cause it again.
Rocky watched Jo as she stood and went to the counter to order their food.
"I'll have two of the breakfasts, please," she said to the man in the dirty white teeshirt behind the counter, and pulled out her small wallet from her back pocket of her jeans. "And two large teas as well." She handed him her credit card, which he peered at, his hand hovering over the cash register.
"No plastic," he said, crossing his arms.
"Really?" Jo peered at her card, and then back at the man. "How does one pay then?" she asked.
The man, a huge hairy man with bushy eyebrows and black moustache, looked at her with obvious amazement.
"Cash?" he said, shrugging his shoulders.
"Cash," repeated Jo flatly. She hadn't had any of that for years, since she was a teenager. Everything she paid for, she paid for with plastic. "I'll be right back." She went over to Rocky, who was gazing out of the window. "Don't move a muscle. Be back in a jiffy."
Jo sprinted across the road; she'd seen the bank earlier and just hoped she could remember the PIN number as she fed her card into the cash point. She got it right at the second attempt, and drew the notes from the machine, stuffing them into her back pocket.
Back in the cafe, she put two £10 notes on the counter for the man. He handed her one back and then gave her change and two mugs of tea. "I'll bring the food over when it's cooked."
Jo watched him walk into the back room and then returned to her table, absentmindedly looking back at the menu, trying to work out how much breakfast for two had cost her. "£6, that only cost £6?" she said as she placed the mug in front of Rocky.
The blonde chuckled. "Welcome to the real world, Jo," she said. "What do you usually pay for breakfast?"
"I don't usually have breakfast." Jo was spooning sugar into her tea, then she shoved the bowl across to Rocky who added some to hers.
Rocky was studying Jo intently, absently stirring the contents of her mug. "What happened?" she asked nodding towards the small cut on Jo's bottom lip.
Jo's hand flew to her mouth, feeling the small puncture there, and the slightly swollen lip. "I bit myself eating a pâté sandwich last night." She blushed, her first lie to Rocky and she felt as if she'd slapped the blonde woman.
Rocky seemed to accept the answer, and the blonde once again found the rapidly awakening sights and sounds of London beyond the cafe window fascinating.
Jo took a moment to study the blonde. Rocky had taken her hat off, and her gloves, but still wore the large, heavy coat. The coat appeared to be army surplus, as did the trousers and boots.
Jo decided that Rocky must cut her own hair, though she hadn't made a bad job of it. The blonde locks still fell into her eyes, and she would occasionally push it away, running her fingers across her eyebrows as she did so.
Although Jo knew Rocky to be about 20 years of age, she decided that she looked at least three years younger, and was amazed that the young woman had survived for the five years that Edna told her of, out on the streets. The hard facade that Rocky wanted to project was softened in the early morning light filtering through the dirty window. Now the girl just looked tired, and lost.
"I was surprised when you rang me," Jo said, unable to stand the silence any more.
Rocky closed her eyes. "I talked to Edna last night."
Two plates full of steaming food clattering onto their table made both women jump.
"Good grief!" said Jo, looking wide-eyed at the huge pile of food in front of her.
"Sauces?" asked the man.
Rocky tore her eyes from the startled-looking woman opposite her. "Red and brown," she said with a chuckle.
Both women were silent for a while as they tucked into their breakfast. Jo was pleasantly surprised that the stuff was edible, and was also pleased to see Rocky attacking the meal with great enthusiasm.
"You said you spoke to Edna," Jo said, laying her fork down on her plate.
"Yes, I did." Rocky slowed her eating, looking up to see Jo leaning back in her chair, wiping her hands on a napkin. The dark-haired woman then pushed her half-empty plate to one side and leaned forward, her elbows on the table.
"Would you talk to me?" Jo asked, resting her chin on her linked hands.
Rocky looked up from her all but empty plate and carefully put her knife and fork down on it.
"I've been out here for just about five years," Rocky said, so quietly that Jo had to strain to hear her over the conversations of the other patrons in the cafe. "In the beginning I was lost. I wouldn't have survived long if it hadn't been for Edna and Tom."
"Tom?" asked Jo, taking a sip of tea, surprised that it tasted like tea.
"He died, about a year ago."
"I'm sorry," said Jo, not really knowing how close this Tom had been to Rocky.
The blonde shrugged. "A lot of people I've known since I've been out here have died. It happens."
Jo was quiet, wanting Rocky to continue.
"I arrived at Victoria Station on an autumn day. I wasn't really sure where I was going or what I was doing." She looked up to find blue eyes regarding her intently. "That's when I saw Edna."
"Why were you there alone, Rocky?" Jo immediately realised her mistake when the blonde stood abruptly and gathered her bags.
Jo cursed, realised she'd pushed too much too soon, and caused a couple of the other customers to jump as she pushed the chair back and followed the blonde out of the cafe.
"Rocky!" she called to the rapidly moving form. She jogged to catch up with the girl and positioned herself in front of her. "I'm sorry," she said, breathing hard. "I didn't mean to push."
Rocky's shoulders slumped, and her head bowed. "It's me," she mumbled. "Not you." Rocky sighed, and looked up into Jo's concerned face. "Thanks for the breakfast."
Jo shrugged. "You're welcome. Is there anything else I can do?"
A small smile crossed the blonde's face. "I'd like to see the countryside."
"You would?" Jo's face lit up, a hundred different locations flitting through her mind. "Anywhere in particular?"
"I don't know anywhere around here. I wouldn't want you to have to go too far."
"We could be in Scotland by this afternoon if you wanted," said Jo with enthusiasm.
Rocky chuckled, and Jo, deciding it was the most adorable sound she'd ever heard, followed suit.
"I think Scotland's a little far. Do you know anywhere nearer?"
Jo reached over and took one of Rocky's bags, and gestured in the direction they would need to go to find her car. "We can go to Epping Forest, it shouldn't take much more than an hour. How does that sound?"
"Sounds good," said Rocky. "I haven't been out of the city for over five years; it'll be good to see the countryside again."
"Come on then," said Jo, and hoped this would be just the beginning of a longer journey for them.
The two women arrived back at Jo's car, and the taller woman opened the vehicle using the remote on her key ring. Walking to the rear of the car, she opened the boot and stood to one side as Rocky put her bag in the back. She then threw in the one she had been carrying.
She walked around the Merc to the driver's side, and looked at the blonde over the roof of the car.
Rocky was standing looking at the silver-grey vehicle, her hand hovering over the door handle.
"You might want to take off your jacket," said Jo, and eased her long frame into the driver's seat.
Rocky still stood unmoving, and Jo leaned across and opened the passenger door. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Receiving no answer, she got out of the car and walked around the front, standing before the silent girl and ducking her head to better see the tense face. "What's wrong?"
Rocky shook her head. "I'm not sure. It's been a long time since I was in a car. I suppose that's it."
"Would you rather we didn't...?"
"No!" Jo took a step back at the exclamation. "No," Rocky repeated. "I really want to get away, just for a couple of hours."
"We can do that." Jo held her hand out. "Let me take your jacket."
Rocky hesitated for a moment, then began lowering the long zip on the ex-army jacket. She pulled it off her shoulders and handed it to her friend. She felt strangely exposed and wrapped her arms about herself before quickly opening the car door and sitting in the passenger seat.
Jo walked around the car, the large jacket folded over her arm. To her it was a small victory, getting through the first layer of the complex and beautiful young woman. She leaned into the back and put the jacket on the small rear seat, then settled in beside Rocky who was fastening her seat belt.
She glanced sideways at her travelling companion. Without the bulky jacket she looked much smaller. She was wearing a grey sweatshirt, which, she decided, was still the top layer of many others. The sweatshirt was cleaner than she thought it would be. The collar of a red check shirt poked out of the top of the sweatshirt. It was frayed and crumpled, but again looked clean.
"Right then, Epping," said Jo, starting the car and putting it into gear. She turned the heating on full and the CD player down low. "Is there anywhere else you'd like to go?" she asked, glancing to her left at the girl who was watching the passing cars.
Rocky shook her head, not looking across at Jo, who returned her attention to the road. Traffic was heavy now, and she picked her way through it carefully.
It was just over half an hour later. Jo had made her way onto the A11 and then onto the A104 more commonly known as the Epping New Road. Some time during the journey she had noticed Rocky's head bobbing as the blonde fought the pull of sleep. When eventually the tousled fair head fell forward, Jo steered the car off the road into a lay-by and eased the girl against the seat back. She pressed a button on the centre console between the seats and the back of the passenger seat reclined slightly. Making sure that Rocky was still safely secured within her seatbelt, she reached down for the handbrake, only to find that the blonde's hand had slipped off her lap and onto the handbrake lever.
Jo picked Rocky's small hand up, turning it over in her own and gently rubbing her thumb against the palm. There was a small amount of dirt beneath the fingernails, but the palm was soft and the fingers closed gently around her own.
It took a great effort for Jo to place the sleeping woman's hand back in Rocky's lap. Looking into the peaceful face, she smiled gently and once again put the car into gear.
Jo was watching two workmen enjoying a cup of tea whilst waiting for the lights to change to green. The traffic lights were temporary; some distance back she had passed a sign apologising for the delay due to `essential works`. She glanced to her left, a gentle smile forming on her lips as she took in the features of the sleeping girl. She looked so young. The hand that Jo had placed back in her lap was now curled just beneath her chin, the other hand covering it. It almost looked as if she was trying to cover herself, trying to protect herself, even in sleep.
The lights changed to green and Jo pulled away. Immediately after the lights she saw a sign indicating the route to take for a picnic area. The small road took her deeper into the forest, the bare trees blocking out what little there was of the dull daylight. There had been a gentle fall of snow as Jo was driving, but now that had stopped, though the clouds still threatened.
She pulled into the small car park for the picnic area, and, as she expected, it was empty. She left the engine running, knowing how quickly the car would get cold without the benefit of the heater. And she also wanted to take the opportunity to study the woman sleeping so peacefully next to her.
Not so peacefully, she decided, as Rocky began to mumble in her sleep. The blonde head rocked from side to side, her forehead creasing in her growing alarm. "No." The word seemed torn from Rocky's throat.
"Hey." Jo laid a gentle hand on Rocky's arm. Instead of soothing the girl, however, Rocky lurched away from the touch. She threw herself against the restricting seat belt, her legs coming up and catching the underside of the front console.
"No!" Again the agonising cry tore itself from her lips. She flailed her arms, catching Jo across the bridge of her nose, and struggling against the hands that attempted to calm her.
"Rocky!" cried Jo, an edge of panic in her voice.
Green eyes snapped open, and Jo saw firsthand the panic and terror in them. "Don't touch me!" Rocky screamed. "I can't..." Blue eyes, wide with fear, brought her back to the present from the terrifying place sleep had taken her.
Jo held her hands up, so that the blonde could see them. Then she slowly lowered them to the steering wheel, watching as Rocky brought shaking hands to her face. "Oh God." Her voice was muffled behind her hands, but Jo heard the pain in it and slowly reached down to release the seatbelt that strained as Rocky leaned forward. Jo also pushed the button to bring the back of the girl's seat to the upright position.
"I fell asleep," Rocky said, pushing dishevelled hair back from her face, and wiping away tears that had flowed suddenly.
"It's warm in here." Jo's hands slipped from the steering wheel to her thighs. She wanted nothing more than to reach for the distressed girl and pull her into an embrace. Instead she balled her hands into fists and watched as Rocky struggled with the aftermath of the dream.
Rocky nodded, dropping her head onto her chest, feeling more tired now than before she fell asleep. Then she raised her head and looked around. "Where are we?"
"Epping Forest. It's quiet, no-one else about." Jo couldn't take her eyes from the girl, who was about managing to get her breathing under control again. "Are you alright?"
"Yeah, sorry." Rocky gave her a weak smile. "Shall we take a look around?"
Jo leaned forward and shut off the engine, then reached in the back and dragged Rocky's jacket across the back of the seats, depositing it in her lap. "You'll be glad you took this off now - it's going to be cold out there."
Rocky took the jacket from her and then stepped out into the cold before putting it on. She looked around her. "It's so peaceful." Her voice was almost a whisper, maybe in reverence to the almost church-like silence around them.
"My nanny used to bring me here when I was a child," said Jo as she shrugged on her own jacket, pulling up the collar against the cold. She activated the door lock and the alarm and then joined Rocky as they headed for one of the dirt paths that led into the woods.
"You had a nanny?" said the blonde as she fell into step alongside the taller woman.
"Yeah, her name was Catherine. She was nanny to all of us."
Rocky pulled on her two pairs of gloves, and then pulled her hat out of a large pocket, jamming it onto her head. "How many of you are there?"
"I have a sister and a brother, both older than me." She bit her bottom lip, then asked: "What about you?"
Rocky's step didn't slow, but she kept her head down, watching her boots as they scuffed through the fallen leaves. "I don't have any brothers or sisters."
Jo looked down at the tense profile. "Sometimes I wished I didn't. Being the youngest, I was picked on by both of them."
"What did your parents do?" asked Rocky quietly. "They must have been busy to have a nanny."
"Not busy really," admitted Jo. "It was just the done thing."
Rocky stopped. "Jo, I know your parents are wealthy; what exactly do they do?"
Jo had walked a couple of steps ahead of Rocky when the blonde stopped, and she turned to face her, wondering if telling Rocky who exactly she was would have an effect on their friendship. "My father is Lord Collingford."
"Christ. Then you are ...?" Rocky plunged her hands further into her pockets, her head cocked to one side regarding the uncomfortable-looking woman standing on the muddy path ahead of her.
"My title is Lady Joanna Holbrook-Sutherland. I rarely use it though."
"It is a mouthful," said Rocky, and resumed her walk along the woodland path.
"So it doesn't bother you?" asked Jo, falling into step alongside the blonde.
"No, should it?" Rocky thought for a moment. "My being a vagrant should bother you more."
"Don't call yourself that."
"Why? It's what I am."
"You are homeless. Not a vagrant."
"A vagrant is homeless."
Jo sighed. "Yeah, but the word paints pictures of drunks sitting around a fire. I can't see you doing that."
"I have done," said Rocky. "Sometimes, when things get really bad out there, I take a drink or three."
"Why are you out there, Rocky?"
Green eyes found hers, and Jo watched as a hundred different emotions played across the pale face. For a long moment Jo thought that Rocky was going to ignore her, and again she wondered if she'd pushed too much too early.
"I wanted to disappear. I didn't have the strength to be where I was, I couldn't fight. So I decided to disappear." Rocky continued walking along the muddy path, her eyes fixed on the ground a few feet ahead of her. "I knew I could lose myself in London. And I did. I've never claimed a penny in benefit; as far as anyone is concerned, I'm dead."
The last word made Jo shiver, but she put it down to the dipping temperature rather than the emotionless way in which Rocky spoke the word.
"I can't imagine how you manage without money." Jo raised her hands to her mouth and blew on them, cursing the fact that she didn't have gloves.
"There are plenty of organisations that help people like me. Salvation Army, Christians, Buddhists, all sorts. I can get a hot meal at least once a day. And when my clothes become too threadbare I can get replacements."
"And if you become ill?"
"I don't. I've only had a couple of colds since I've been out here. I've been lucky. Edna gets me some of the things I need." She chuckled. "I think the folks at the Sally Army still wonder what a woman of her age needs tampons for."
Jo chuckled with her, but it faded quickly.
"Would you let me help you?"
Rocky sighed. "I still don't understand why, Jo. What brought you to Whitechapel?"
"Edna says something about destiny." Jo took a step towards the blonde. "Do you feel anything at all?" Jo had listened to Rocky's brief description of her life, and found she needed to find a way to get Rocky out of the cold, and into her life.
Rocky's head dropped, unable to hold the taller woman's gaze.
"You do, don't you?" said Jo.
The blonde head nodded. "I don't understand it. And it scares me."
Jo reached out putting a hand on each of Rocky's shoulders. "What is there to be afraid of?"
"I've learned to live with nothing, and not to want anything. Now I want something, and if..." She drew in a deep shuddering breath, unable, for the moment, to continue.
"What do you want, Rocky?" Jo lifted the pale face, now wet with tears.
Rocky's eyes were closed, tears forcing themselves from between tightly closed eyelids. "I want you." Her voice broke and her head fell forward onto Jo's chest as the dark woman pulled her close.
Jo was lost for words. She held on tight to the sobbing woman in her arms, resting her chin on the top of Rocky's hat-covered head.
"I can't believe I'm crying again," sniffled Rocky, leaning heavily into Jo. Her arms tentatively wound around Jo's waist, and found a certain comfort. It was the same feeling she got from her dreams, the dreams that were always chased away by the nightmares. "I cried last night as well."
Jo pulled away slightly, looking down at the shorter woman. "You did? Why was that?"
Rocky wiped a sleeve across her face. "I was talking to Edna." She looked up, a slightly embarrassed smile across her face. "About you."
"Really?" said Jo, and turned them both so that they were making their way down the path once more. She kept an arm around the blonde's shoulders as they walked, needing for the time being to have some contact with Rocky.
Rocky leaned into Jo as they walked. "Edna seems to think you're some kind of knight in shining armour, come to save me."
"And what do you think?"
"I don't know what to think. I want..." Rocky chuckled. "There I go breaking my rules again." She rubbed her face vigorously with her hands. "I want to believe you. But like you said. You're a lady. Why do you want to help me?"
Jo squeezed the shoulders of the girl walking alongside her. "I've dreamed about you too. In the dream you turned away from me. I was devastated. I felt so lost. So I decided if I did find you, I wouldn't let you walk away, because I couldn't stand to feel like that again."
"Do you believe in dreams?" asked Rocky, her head now leaning heavily against the solid body beside her.
"I do now. Now I've met you, held you, I know I need to be with you."
Rocky stopped suddenly, and Jo turned to face her again. "Is something wrong?" asked Jo.
"There's something I need to do too," said Rocky. She reached up and grabbed the small collar of Jo's jacket, pulling the taller woman down. As Jo's lips approached hers she stopped pulling, giving the dark woman every opportunity to pull out if she wished.
But Jo had no intention of pulling back. She was drawn to the full lips that beckoned her and nothing was going to stop her forward momentum. She closed her eyes as their lips met, bringing her hands up to cup cold cheeks, feeling small hands leave her collar and rest on her hips.
The kiss was brief, but none the less monumental. Jo pulled back and looked down into glassy green eyes.
"Thank you," Rocky whispered. "But I need to ask you something, Jo."
"What?" Jo's breath warmed Rocky's chin as she leaned in and kissed chilled lips again.
"I really need a loo."
Jo laughed and pulled the small blonde into an affectionate embrace. "Let's go find one then, and hope we don't freeze to the seat."
The two women made their way along the woodland path once more, the taller one inordinately pleased when the smaller reached out a small hand and curled it around her own.
They followed the green signs, and before long found a small building which housed a cafe, behind which were the toilets.
"I need..." Rocky pulled her hand from her tall companion's and pointed towards the new-looking building.
Jo stuffed her hands in her pockets. It had been so peaceful, walking in a comfortable silence with the small blonde. Now she felt the drop in temperature even more as the warm hand left hers.
She gestured towards the cafe with a nod of her head. "I'll go and order some hot drinks."
Rocky looked hesitant for a moment, shuffling from foot to foot. The she took a couple of steps back towards Jo, stood on tip toes and gave her a peck on the cheek.
"Thanks," she whispered, and was gone.
Jo watched her go, delighting in the smile Rocky bestowed on her as she glanced back at her. The grin was still firmly on her face as she entered the empty cafe.
Behind the counter an elderly woman looked up from wiping down the counter top.
"Hello, dear." She wiped her hands on some paper towels, which she threw away, and made her way to the end of the counter where Jo was perusing the cakes.
"It's a cold day to be out and about," the woman said. "Are you having a hot drink?"
"Yes, thank you. Tea for two, I think."
"I'll make you a nice big pot, dear." She shuffled off, collecting the things she needed.
"And a selection of cakes, please."
"Go and sit down, dear. I'll bring them to your table."
There were only three tables in the cafe. There were more outside on the small deck, but in the present weather the chairs were stacked in a corner, and the tables unused.
Jo looked outside, and saw Rocky. The girl had walked back around the front, she was holding her hat in her hands and staring into the cafe.
Jo beckoned her in, but she stood hesitantly on the wooden deck.
The waitress placed a tray with a pot of tea, milk, and sugar on the table. "Is your friend coming in?" she asked, following Jo's gaze.
"I'll get her." Jo stood and pushed through the cafe door, the cold stinging her face as she left the warmth of the room.
"Come on, I have tea and cakes." She glanced back inside to see the cakes delivered to her table.
"Is it alright?" Rocky asked.
"Is what alright?"
"I... I'm not sure. I'm not..." She looked down at her clothing and then at the cafe.
Jo took her hands, and pulled her in through the doorway. "I've got you tea and cakes."
The waitress looked up to see the oddly matched couple entering the cafe. If she thought anything of the smaller woman's appearance she didn't mention it, nor did it show on her face. "If you want anything, just shout," she said, and moved back behind the counter.
Jo pulled out a chair for Rocky, who slipped out of her jacket. "You should take your jacket off," she told Jo. "You won't feel the benefit of it when we go back out otherwise."
Jo did as she was told and draped her jacket across the back of her chair. "Shall I pour?" asked Jo, turning the cups the right way up before stirring the tea in the pot to make sure it was strong enough.
Rocky watched Jo as she poured the tea, wondering briefly what this beautiful, obviously desirable woman was doing on a cold winter's day, pouring tea in a deserted cafe in the middle of a deserted wood for a vagrant.
She chuckled to herself, shaking her head lightly.
"What?" asked Jo, her smiling face showing her enjoyment at once again seeing her friend smile.
"Nothing," said Rocky, taking the offered cup, and adding milk and sugar to it. "Tell me about your childhood."
And Jo did. Telling her about her early years, the boarding school. The scandals at University before she eventually gave up on it. How she lived off her parents, and how she found a picture in a gallery which completely turned her life around.
They were there a couple of hours. For a while the elderly waitress joined them, delighting them with her tales of strange customers and her work in the canteen of one of the police stations in the city. Never once did she make any comment about Rocky's appearance, and she laughed with the pair of them, occasionally reaching across to squeeze Rocky's hand.
Jo left a large tip for the woman when they eventually made their way back out into the cold of the afternoon. They took a leisurely walk back to the car, and it was growing dark as they reached it once again,
As Jo fastened her seat belt she saw a flake of snow hit the windscreen, then another.
"It's snowing," she said to Rocky as the blonde buckled herself in.
Rocky said nothing, and settled back in the seat. She watched the snow fall through the glow from one of the streetlights that ringed the small car park.
"Rocky..." Jo began.
"I know what you're going to say, Jo. Please don't."
"I'm scared for you." Jo's eyes were closed, her head hung low, her hands gripped the steering wheel.
"Don't be," Rocky whispered. "I'll be fine."
"Look, just tonight. I have a spare room."
"No. I'm sorry." She reached across, laying a gentle hand on Jo's forearm, rock hard as she grasped the steering wheel. "I've had a wonderful day with you, Jo. I don't want to fight with you now."
Jo shook her head, drawing in an unsteady breath. Wordlessly she reached down and started the engine. She took one more look at the blonde beside her, trying valiantly to mirror the smile she was receiving, then drove out of the car park and headed back to London.
The snow was falling heavily when she reached Whitechapel some three-and-a-half hours later. She had taken the long route back and deliberately got stuck in heavy traffic.
She parked the car, but left the engine running.
Rocky had once again fallen asleep, and Jo placed a hand on her shoulder, gently nudging her awake.
"Wow, must be the heater. I'm not used to it," said Rocky as she looked around, working out that she was back in Whitechapel.
She reached across and took Jo's left hand in her own. "I've had a great time today."
Jo looked down at their linked hands. "I really hate this." She looked up into green eyes barely visible in the street light filtering through the windscreen, which was rapidly being covered in snow.
Rocky leaned across and kissed the dark woman lightly on the lips and then pulled back. She turned to open the car door and found herself pulled back and turned again. Jo's arms were almost crushing in their need to gather the small blonde up, and hold her tightly.
She didn't resist the embrace, rather she sank into it, allowing herself the luxury of letting go, if only briefly. She laid her head on the tall woman's breast, hearing the rapidly beating heart and knowing that she caused the thundering that she heard there.
Putting a hand on Jo's chest, she pushed back. Sitting up again, she looked into the distraught face of her new friend. "I'll see you tomorrow."
Jo opened her mouth to speak, an objection obviously about to be voiced. Rocky raised her hand. "We both need time to come to terms with this."
"I don't." Jo knew she was pleading.
"I do. I have a lot of things to think about." She patted Jo's hand, and opened the car door. Snow blew in and she quickly reached into the back seat and pulled out her jacket. She put it on as she ran around the front of the car to Jo's side. "No, don't get out," she said as she saw Jo opening her door.
Jo shut the door and pushed the button to lower the window. She waited while Rocky retrieved her bags from the boot and then returned, bending at the waist to speak to the sitting woman.
"Tomorrow then?" said Rocky, having to raise her voice over the sound of the wind and the traffic.
Jo nodded, not trusting her voice.
Rocky gave her a smile, and leaned in, giving her another peck on the cheek.
And then she was gone. Disappearing into what was rapidly turning into a blizzard with frightening ease.
Jo leaned her head back against the headrest. "Heaven help me," she said to herself.
Rocky slung her bag over her shoulder and made her way into the factory which had been something like a home to her for the past year or so. Her little lean-to was still there, but she'd need something extra tonight because of the severe weather. She put her bags down beneath the panelling and went in search of something to give her some extra protection against the high winds.
As she picked her way across the debris strewn floor, she thought back to her day with Jo. A smile found its way to her face, and she chuckled to herself, remembering one particularly funny story Jo had told. She was glad that the elderly waitress had left them at that point, not knowing what she would have thought about twelve naked young women in a boarding school swimming pool at midnight. Jo's excuse that they were practising synchronised swimming routines fell on deaf ears, and Jo was off to her fourth school in as many years.
The fact that Rocky had survived the past five or so years on the streets bore testament to her vigilance when it came to her own safety. So maybe it was the fact that she'd just spent a day unlike any other since she'd arrived in London that caused her alertness to slip.
She was almost upon the five men before she heard their lowered voices. Their two cars were parked at the rear of the derelict building, the boot of one raised. Five faces turned to regard her as she turned the corner, and in the headlights of the two cars she saw their faces turn towards her.
In the hands of one of the men was a large package, and Rocky's eyes flitted to it before returning to his face.
She realised immediately that she had stumbled on some sort of drug deal, and spun quickly, darting back into the shell of the decimated building.
She heard the men behind her, their angry shouts loud in the empty building, and flew across the debris, her lightness making easy work of the obstacles in her way. She was further into the body of the factory than she'd ever been, and in parts the floor groaned beneath her feet. She flattened herself against a wall, and listened.
She smiled as she heard their howls of outrage as they stumbled on the remains of the factory floor, and listened to their mumbles of: "It's just some tramp, probably too drunk to know what was going on." They breathed heavily in the cold air, the snow drifting through what was left of the roof onto their heads.
She heard the men stand for a while, listening for any movement. Then they shuffled out of the building.
Rocky waited until she heard the car doors slam and the cars drive away. Waiting a few moments more, she made her way cautiously out of her hiding place.
She'd taken only a few steps when she felt the floor beneath her feet shift, and then she was twisting in thin air and bracing herself for the impact as the floor gave way.
In another part of the factory two old men heard a cry, and then silence. They returned to searching for wood for their fire.
Jo went back into the bathroom, testing the water that was pouring into the tub. She'd had the ridiculously huge tub put in last year, even having to have the floor reinforced to accommodate it. She'd added her aromatherapy oils to the water, and had poured herself a large drink.
She threw her clothes onto the floor of the bathroom and eased her long frame into the water.
Relaxing back against the tub she reached out and grasped her glass, almost dropping it into the bath.
"Oh, bliss," she hissed, and, with a smile on her face, thought back to the wonderful day she'd just spent. Only one thing spoilt the day, of course. The small blonde of her musings wasn't sharing the experience with her now.
"Soon," she said to herself. "Very soon."
To be continued....
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