RETRIBUTION - Part 5
Susanne M. Beck (SwordnQuill)
Disclaimers: The characters in this novel are of my own creation. Thats right, this is an uber story. Its also a sequel to my novel, Redemption. You really will want to read that first before tackling this one. Some may bear a resemblance to characters we know and love who are owned by PacRen and Universal Studios.
Violence and Naughty Language Disclaimer: Yup, both. Not as much of either as in Redemption (Im saving that up for "Restitution"), but there is some of each here.
Subtext Disclaimer: Yup, theres that too. This piece deals with the love and physical expression of that love between two adult females. There are some graphic scenes located within this piece, but I have tried to make them as tasteful as possible so as to not offend anyones sensibilities. Let me know if Ive succeeded.
Dedication: There are so many people to thank for this effort. First is Candace, who once again was there to read this novel in its entirety all in little AIM blocks of 50 characters or less. Her nightly feedback was sorely needed and gratefully received. Thanks also to MaryD and Lunacy for providing much needed and invaluable beta assistance. And, finally, a huge debt thanks to the self-proclaimed "Quillies" for reading the beta version of this and giving insightful feedback as well as putting up with and calming a bards emotional roller-coaster of emotions. Thanks, guys!!
Feedback: As always, is most welcome. It not only makes this job of writing (which is really a love) much easier, it also makes me better at it. And that is my goal. To become the best writer I can be. If the spirit moves you, you may reach me atSwordnQuil@aol.com with any questions, concerns or comments.
Final Thought: Retribution is the second in what will eventually become a trilogy. Redemption, obviously, was first. Then Retribution, and finally Restitution. Thanks to everyone who gives up a little of their time to come along on this journey with me. I can only hope that Ill never let you down.
Final Disclaimer: As with Redemption, this story will be posted in blocks of thirty or so pages per night. It is fully completed, down to the last punctuation mark, so I wont leave you hanging. J Promise.
Thanksgiving came and went, and for it being my first one as a hostess, it went off pretty well, if I do say so myself. Ruby and Pop joined us at our table, and with Ices patient help, dinner went without a hitch, the freshly butchered turkey golden brown, succulent, and as good as Id ever remembered my mothers tasting.
And after dinner and desert were consumed, the conversation finished for the night, and our guests seen safely to their homes, we spent the rest of the evening giving thanks in a much more intimate and pleasurable way.
It was, I do believe, the best part of the day.
Christmas, then, was fast approaching, and after several tension-filled weeks, Pop finally came through on his promise and my gift was stored safely away at the bottom of my closet, a place Ice never looked, her own need for a private space prohibiting her from even thinking of looking into mine, even if I had minded, which I most certainly didnt.
On one evening, a week or so before the Holiday, I was sitting alone, reading a book and waiting for the sound of Ices footfall outside the cabin. Shed been away since before dawn, helping the Drew brothers repair some pipes which had frozen, then burst with the winters deep freeze. Shed called me once to let me know shed be late and not to wait dinner on her, and so I didnt, eating my own and keeping her portion warm inside the oven.
Then I smiled as I heard the crunch of the trucks tires on the neatly salted and cindered driveway. Getting up, I threw another log on the fire, bringing the heat up so Ice could warm herself after working in the cold for an entire day. Then I lit some candles for ambience and patiently waited for her to come into the house, fiddling a little with the Christmas decorations Id put up that afternoon as a way to pass time waiting for her to return home.
A knock on the door chased the pleasant thoughts from my mind and my heart-rate accelerated. No one visited this late at night. The only reason someone would have to knock would be to deliver bad news.
Stop thinking crazy, Angel. Ice probably misplaced her key or something. But that thought, in and of itself, was crazy. Ice never misplaced anything.
Ok, then maybe her hands are full and she needs help getting the door open.
Yeah, right. Since when has that ever happened?
When hell freezes over.
Shut up! Just shut up.
Biting the inside of my lip, I startled as the knock sounded again, more urgently this time. Feeling my breathing pick up its pace, I crossed the living room and opened the door that led onto the back porch, my eyes detecting nothing through the frost-glazed windows.
With a trembling hand, I tried to open the door, but the knob obstinately refused to turn. Once I realized it was locked, I quickly thumbed the release and tried again. It turned easily in my hand and I slowly pulled open the door, resisting the urge to close my eyes to whatever sight awaited me.
And what awaited me was something I would never have believed if I hadnt been standing there looking at it with my own two eyes.
The blood rushed straight down from my brain, leaving me breathless and faint, as I stared out at a person who could not be standing there. Could not. Yet there she was.
Corinne, her face wreathed in a breathtaking smile, stood before the threshold waiting to be let in.
"Oh. My. God."
Her grin broadened. "Not quite. Will I do in a pinch?"
Her outline became hazy through the film of my tears and I blindly reached out to her, engulfing her in a hug almost as tight as any Id given Ice, forgetting for a moment her advanced age and frail health.
"Corinne!" I blubbered in her ear, taking in the scent of her with a great, heaving gasp. "Where did you . . . ? How did you . . . ?"
After squeezing me back just as hard, Corinne pulled away, her own eyes suspiciously bright beneath the glare of her glasses. "Wouldnt you know? There I was, just minding my own business when out of nowhere comes this big gorgeous lunk of a woman who kidnaps me, throws me in some godawful truck not fit for man nor beast, and drives hell bent for leather through miles and miles of backwoods roads with me hanging on for dear life. The next thing I know, here I am."
Her eyes twinkled merrily as she leaned in close once again to whisper in my ear. "I think Im supposed to be your Christmas present. If I were you, Id ask for a refund."
Pulling away from me again, she stepped aside, treating me to a view of Ice, who stood beside the truck, her hands stuffed deep in her pockets, a half-embarrassed expression on her face.
I almost knocked Corinne over into the snow as I ran outside the door and leapt into Ices arms, arms which caught me and held me easily as I covered her face with grateful kisses. "Thank you," I whispered, too overcome to say anything else.
"Youre welcome, sweet Angel," she murmured into my hair. "Merry Christmas."
I laughed and cried and squeezed her so tightly that I think if she had been anyone other than who she was, I might have broken a rib or two.
A prudently cleared throat pulled me back to reality and I turned my head to see Corinne smirking at us both. "Touching as this reunion is, my dears, I dont think my future includes turning into a rather decrepit looking ice sculpture. So, if you wouldnt mind too terribly much . . . ."
Blushing in embarrassment, I loosened my hold around Ice at the same time she released me, placing me gently back on the ground. "God, Im so sorry, Corinne! Come on. Let me show you inside. Do you have any bags?"
"No worries," she said airily, flapping her hand behind her. "The charming valet will get them for me."
I laughed at the low growl emanating from the chest of said valet and grasped Corinnes hand, leading her into the house. Then I stopped. "Wait a minute. Arent you supposed to be in a wheelchair?"
Her eyes widened into the picture of perfect innocence. "That old thing?" Then she grinned. Evilly. "The doctor says Ive gotten much better. Must be all that free air Ive been taking in."
I looked at her. "Corinne. You didnt."
"Didnt what?" The woman was positively unrepentant.
"You know damn well what Im talking about. You didnt fake your disability just to get out of prison, did you?"
"And what if I had?" Her look was one of defiant challenge.
She had a point. Still . . . . "Did you?"
After a moment, she backed down. "No. Unfortunately, my disability, as you so politely call it, is quite real. I had a series of small strokes which did indeed manage to leave me confined to a wheelchair for a good little while. But you know how the press likes to blow things out of proportion, Angel. Confined is a bit too strong a word. I still use it on occasion if Im expected to walk a great distance or Ive been on my feet too long, but otherwise, it just sits in a corner gathering dust."
"Did you bring it with you?"
"Of course. Wouldnt leave home without it."
Another cleared throat interrupted me, and when I looked over my shoulder this time, I saw Ice carrying the aforementioned wheelchair, together with several huge and no-doubt heavy bags and looking more like a pack mule than my lover, and waiting none-too-patiently for us to move out of the doorway.
Laughing, I went back outside to divest Ice of some of her burden, groaning when I slung a couple of the bags over my shoulder, almost toppling into the snow with the weight of them. "Dear god, Corinne! What do you have in here? Rocks?"
She pinned me with her patented withering stare. "Never you mind, missy. A woman has to have some secrets, after all."
Laughing and shaking my head, I tottered back into the house, my back groaning under the weight of Corinnes bags. Ice followed me in, finally out of the cold, and together we walked into the guest bedroom, depositing the luggage onto the bed and stretching abused muscles. Corinne joined us there and looked around the room appreciatively. "Not bad, ladies. Not bad at all. A body could get used to a place like this."
I grinned happily, pleased with her stamp of approval. "Well, its yours for as long as you want it." Then I paused as a thought struck me, and scratched at the back of my neck. "Speaking of which, how long are you staying with us?"
Corinne looked at me, over to Ice, then back to me again. She frowned a little. "Um . . . perhaps you and your partner there might want to have a little talk. Ill just stay here and . . .freshen up a bit."
I looked to Ice, who gave a short nod and gestured the way out with a brief sweep of her arm. After a seconds pause, I left the room, followed by Ice, who closed the door gently behind her.
I rounded on her, hands on my hips. "Ok. Whats going on." Though Im sure I sounded angry, I really wasnt. Consciously, I softened my tone. "Is something wrong?"
"No. Nothings wrong." She spread her hands wide. "Its just that the invitations pretty open-ended."
I could feel my eyes narrowing. "What does that mean, exactly?" For a woman who turned blunt into an art-form, she could be quite ambiguous when she wanted to be.
Her eyes narrowed right back at me. "It means just what I said, Angel. As far as Im concerned, shes welcome to stay as long as she likes. I didnt put a specific time limit on it."
Nodding slowly, I crossed my arms over my chest. "Something tells me this could turn in to more than just a visit."
She smiled. "Only if thats what we all want it to be, Angel. Im only speaking for myself here. You were worried about how shed get on after prison. In truth, so was I, though I know Donita and I know shed take the best care of Corinne she could." Turning away, she walked over to one of the chairs in the library and sat down, her hands clasped and hanging loosely between her knees. When she looked up at me, her face was as sincere as Id ever seen it. "Your life isnt the only one Corinne has saved, Angel. And I think maybe I want to give something back to her too."
Her head bowed and, unable to help myself even if I had wanted to, I walked over to the chair and perched carefully on one arm, sliding an arm around her shoulders and hugging her to me. It seemed quite obvious to me that something more than the current conversation was bothering her. "You wanna talk about it?"
After a moment, her head lifted and she quirked a small smile at me. "Maybe later."
Which meant, of course, that the subject was as closed as it could possibly get. For now.
I smiled to lighten the load. "Alright. You know where I live."
She butted me playfully with her head. "I know alright."
"So, shall we pay the piper for making her wait so long in that bedroom?"
Ice snorted. "Wait, my ass. Shes heard every word weve been saying."
The door eased open and Corinnes perfectly coifed head poked out, her smile broad and knowing. "Was there ever any doubt?"
Laughing, I jumped up from the arm of Ices chair and escorted our guest over to the couch. "Youre incorrigible, Corinne."
"Mmm. So a lover or two has said in their time, yes."
Damnit! She did it again! Even after so long apart, that blasted woman still had the power to make me blush harder and more deeply than anyone save Ice. A change of subject was definitely in order. "Would you like some tea? Food? Anything?"
"No food, thank you. Ms. Tall, Dark and Mute over there somehow managed to dig up her manners from whatever grave shed buried them in and got some food on the hoof on the way in. Though I think Im still picking gristle from what few remain of my real teeth."
I looked over at Ice, who simply rolled her eyes and went back to the book shed been reading the night before; something by Elliot, I believe, though she went through them so quickly it was difficult to be sure from one hour to the next.
"How about some tea, then?" I asked Corinne.
"That would be lovely."
"Ill get it," Ice said, coming to her feet and laying the book down on one of the tables. "You two just . . .catch up or something."
Laying a hand on her arm as she passed by, I pulled her to a stop. "Ive got your dinner in the oven if youre still hungry."
She smiled and kissed my hair. "Great. Be back in a bit."
And with that, she was gone, leaving us both to stare after her.
"You have done that woman a world of good, Angel," Corinne remarked finally, softly.
"Freedom did that Corinne. I just helped it along a little, thats all."
Smiling at me with infinite fondness, she tugged my hand, getting me to sit beside her and engulfing me in a wonderful hug. "Nonsense, sweetheart. You tended a soul that was sickly and dying. You made it strong and full of life again. No one and nothing else can take credit for that, Angel. That woman in there is the way she is now because of you. Never sell yourself short on that. It doesnt become you."
Sometimes prayers you didnt even know you had are answered with such sweet simplicity that your heart swells in your chest and fills you with a warmth that even the sunniest spring day could never rival.
For me, this was one of those times. I allowed myself the comfort of an embrace Id missed far more than Id even admitted to myself, letting her love and kindness flow over me, soothing insecurities that I didnt realize I possessed.
Then I straightened up, drying my tears with the back of my hand and gave Corinne a watery smile. "So," I began after clearing my throat, "tell me how you really got here."
Laughing, she leaned her head against the back of the couch and grasped one of my hands, pulling it into her lap and holding it closely between both of her own. "That, my dear Angel, is a story and a half." Behind the thick lenses of her glasses, her gaze turned inward. "The Bog changed a great deal after you left it, Angel. The warden whod replaced that idiot Morrison was forced to step down after some scandal or other, and the next one was hand-chosen by the governor himself, it being close to elections and all, dont you know."
She laughed, but it was a bitter sound. "Hes a good man, as far as wardens go, I suppose. What is it they used to say? Strict, but fair. He fired most of the guards, though. Said their attitudes werent in keeping with the welfare of the prisoners or some such blather." She waved a hand. "I didnt bother keeping up with the rest of his reformers lingo after that."
"What about Sandra?" I asked in a hesitant voice. The head guard had been a very special person in my life during those long, cold and sometimes bitter years in prison.
"He showed some smarts by keeping her on. If nothing else, she has the respect of the inmates and he cant afford to be without that link to the animals in his cages." She shifted slightly on the couch, adjusting the glasses as they rested on her nose. "In any event, not all the changes were visible ones. I suppose you could say that the Bog lost its spirit."
And here, she turned to me, her smile sad, but loving. "One it never knew it had."
I was tempted to throw in some offhand comment, but her previous gentle rebuke against selling myself short made me hold my tongue, though in no way have I ever felt that I gave that place any type of spirit at all.
Smiling slightly, she continued. "Id seemed to have misplaced my own sense of spirit somewhere along the line as well. When I first began to feel unwell, I chalked it up to a healthy dose of convicts depression and let it go at that." She shrugged. "Didnt seem much point in doing otherwise."
I could feel the tears, hot and wet, as they rolled down my face, blurring my vision of her as she recited her tale with all the dispassion of a woman reading a faintly interesting newspaper article.
"Dont cry, Angel," she said, using much the same tone Ice did when making that same request. "The story does have a happy ending, after all."
"I know," I said, snifflingsomething I hated to do, by the way. "I just wish I could have been there with you. For you."
"Im just as glad that you werent," she replied, gripping my arm with a strong hand. "I would have never wanted you to see me like that, Angel. Never."
"But . . . ."
"No. Do not blame yourself. Those strokes would have come whether youd been there or not."
"But, maybe . . . ."
"Stop." She laid a gentle finger across my lips, halting my words, her eyes stern. "No more."
After a moment, I nodded and she removed her finger. "Good. Now, where was I?" Then she smiled. "Ahh. Finally. I thought perhaps youd gone to China to fetch the leaves yourself."
Slightly startled, I looked up to see Ice standing next to me, two mugs of tea in her hands and a concerned expression on her face. Coming to my feet, I took the mugs from her hands, put them on the table, and hugged her to me to allay whatever fears her expression was revealing. The arms that encircled me in return were hesitant at first, but when I simply squeezed harder, their grip around me tightened and I smiled, the last of my tears drying on the fabric of her shirt. "Im alright."
She pulled away, staring at me with intent. "You sure?"
Smiling more broadly, I nodded. "Yeah. It just hit me hard for a minute there. Im ok now."
After looking at both of us for a very long moment, Ice finally released me completely and walked over to the library, sitting down and picking up her book once again.
Reclaiming my spot on the couch, I picked up my mug, handed Corinne hers, and together we sipped our tea in silence, listening to the crackle of the fires flames.
After several quiet moments had passed, Corinne resumed her tale. "One morning, I awoke to discover I couldnt move much on the left side of my body. I tried to call for help, but found I couldnt speak well, either." Then she laughed. "I suppose it was one of the first times in my life that I was actually happy I was in prison. Once Id missed headcount, the guards came looking for me, and the next thing I knew, I was taking a nice ambulance ride to the county hospital."
She took another sip of tea, then continued. "The doctors couldnt do much for me. Apparently Id had several strokes in quick succession over the past several days, the last one being the biggest. They gave me some medication they said might help and arranged for me to be transferred to a Rehabilitation Hospital to learn how to walk, talk, and care for myself again."
Her face became stony. "The warden forbade it. He demanded they discharge me and send me back to prison without therapy. To their credit, the doctors put up a good fight, but in the end, the warden won out. They put me in a wheelchair, and off I went, back to the Bog."
"Jesus," I breathed, beyond incensed at the insensitivity of the warden. "I thought you said he was fair!"
"He is fair, Angel. Im a murderer, remember. The Black Widow. He didnt want to have the taxpayers up in arms over my rehabilitation." She shrugged. "Just the way of the world."
I sat up straight on the couch, seeing red. "It shouldnt be, damnit! Everyone deserves the right to be treated like a human being!"
Throwing back her head, Corinne laughed. "Theres that fire Ive been waiting for!"
"Its not funny, Corinne," I replied indignantly.
"Of course it is, Angel! Its wonderful! Do you know how long Ive waited to hear your blazing tones of righteous indignation? I swear, thats what kept me going through all this."
Still angry, I crossed my arms, flinching away as she reached up to pinch my cheek, something she knew I detested with a passion, and so, of course, did at every available opportunity.
I couldnt stay angry with her for long, though, and with a final scowl, I relaxed back against the couch once again, grabbing my mug and downing the rest of my tea as I waited for her to continue, resolving not to give her still more fodder by losing my temper again.
"In any event," she finally relented, "I found myself back in the Bog much worse for the wear. I only thank the goddess that Im right handed and could still do some things for myself, else I likely would have thought up a way to get myself killed just to end the indignities." She smiled to take the sting from her words. "Critter was a great deal of help to me, as were Pony and Sonny and some of the others. They spent long hours trying to encourage me, in their own special ways, to follow the exercise plan the doctors had managed to slip into my bag when I left the hospital, but Im afraid I was quite cross with them all. Like I said before, there didnt seem to be much point in it."
"So what happened?" I asked, looking at a woman who was as far from a crippled invalid as I could possibly imagine.
She grinned. "Ah, at last, an easy question. One day, while I was in the library feeling quite sorry for myself, Pony came in and without so much as a how-do-you-do, promptly wheeled me into the common room, one of the few places to escape the wrath of the wardens redecoration scheme. She parked me in front of the television and turned the volume up full-bore, as if Id gone deaf as well as paralyzed."
"Well?" I asked when she paused. I looked over at Ice who, though she appeared engrossed in her reading, I could tell was listening as intently as I was.
"It was the local news and a reporter was standing in front of the governors mansion. In back of her were all these people shouting and waving banners. Most of the banners said Free Corinne or Prisoners are Humans Too and other slogans of that nature. I was quite stunned, as Im sure youd suppose."
I just nodded, keeping to myself the fact that, were I in her position, Id most probably be a good deal more than stunned to see people protesting on my behalf no matter what the reasons.
"When the view switched back to the reporter," Corinne continued, "I saw a very familiar face standing next to her."
"A certain lawyer we all know and love."
"Donita?" I was shocked, and yet I wasnt. Somewhere deep inside, I knew Donita had an important part to play.
"The very same."
"I didnt know she was your lawyer."
"Either did I." This was said with a significant glance in Ices direction, who, prudently, I thought, chose to keep her nose buried in her book.
When she saw that my partner wasnt going to raise to the bait, she turned her attention back on me. "She played the part of the virtuous well, standing on her soapbox and explaining my condition in the bleakest terms possible, describing how Id been denied, in her terms, even the most basic of health care; how I sat paralyzed in my wheelchair, unable to tend to even the most basic of my needs, at the mercy of uncaring guards and prisoners. She was so good that even I found myself feeling some small sympathy for this woman behind bars; a woman, I thought, not very much like me at all."
She stretched a bit, then settled back against the couch once again, draining the last dregs of her tea from the mug and setting it down on the end table. I kept silent, rapt with attention in her tale. "She also put forth more salient, less emotional, points. Like how I was the oldest female inmate in the nation. How I had already served almost twice the prison time that the average male offender with an equal or greater sentence served before release. How, with my current disability, I would be unable to speak for myself when the time for my next parole hearing came." Corinne smiled fondly. "She put her points forth so well that I think that, if a petition for my immediate release had been there right then, even the reporter would have dropped her microphone to sign it."
"I dont doubt that for a minute. Donitas very . . .passionate . . .about her work."
"And about other things as well, if memory serves," Corinne shot back, eyeing Ice yet again.
This time, the collected works of Elliot lowered and blue eyes glittered with a look that would have fused metal. I think even my fillings felt the assault.
Unrepentant, Corinne simply stared right back over the tops of her glasses, her lips curved in a smile that was evil incarnate. Though the heat in the room seemed to rise several degrees, I shivered, as if a goose had toddled across my grave and decided to build a nest there.
"Can we get back to the story please?" I finally interjected to stop the battle of wills which was quickly escalating into a full-scale war, even without a word being said on either side.
"Fine," Corinne finally replied, turning to me and folding her hands primly on her lap.
I breathed a silent sigh of relief.
"When the spot was over and the news moved on to more worthy issues, the television was turned off and I was wheeled back into the library by three Amazons with passions of their own. Once there, I was locked into place, and then told in no uncertain terms that if so many total strangers were willing to fight for me, Id damn well better start fighting for myself. Or else. The else part of the equation, of course, wasnt spelled out, but I was led to believe that the consequences of my refusal would be very dire indeed."
"So you told them to go to hell."
She grinned again. "Perhaps a bit more garbled than that, but essentially, yes. Even gave them directions if they were so inclined to take my suggestion."
Shaking my head, I couldnt help but laugh. The strokes might have weakened Corinnes body, but it was glaringly evident that her mind, as well as her spirit, were still very much intact. "Obviously you must have listened at some point, though," I observed, looking at her apparently intact body.
She shrugged. "There may be no fool like an old fool, but I do manage to come to my senses eventually."
T.S. Eliot snorted. Or at least his book did.
"Thats quite enough out of you, missy," Corinne said in the general direction of Ice, her nose lifted to quite a regal angle. "Dont think that your lover here knows so much about you that she wouldnt be surprised by some of the more sordid tales of you I have stored away."
Casting Corinne her most droll look, Ice closed her book, placed it back on the bookshelf, and stood, slowly stretching the kinks out of her body caused by a hard days work. I felt my mouth go dry at the sight, as it almost always did, even after so many years together.
Walking over to us, she placed a kiss on my forehead and one on Corinnes proffered cheek, then threaded long fingers through her hair and shook it out before bidding us both a quiet goodnight.
After her long, lithe body disappeared up the stairs, Corinne and I let out twin sighs, as if we were a couple of school-girls whod just seen the high school quarterback stroll by on campus.
I turned to look at her, swallowing against the dryness in my throat. "Tea?" I croaked.
"Tea," she returned.
We talked well into the night. Corinne continued her tale, picking it up from where she left the Bog for the first time in forty five years.
"I was quite overwhelmed. Youll remember that I was incarcerated sometime after the war. Things were different then. Simpler. Smaller. When I left prison, it didnt only feel like I was entering a new country. It felt as if I was entering a new world. For a minute there, just a minute, I wanted to just forget everything and go back inside to a place I knew."
I found myself nodding in empathy, knowing exactly what she had gone through, having had the same reaction myself, though not on so grand a scale, to be sure. If five years had changed the outside world so much, how much more could nine times that many?
She then went on to explain where shed gone once out of prison. Donita had offered to put her up. Her lover, a singer of some small renown, was out on tour and the house was more than large enough to accommodate them both for as long as Corinne felt the need to stay.
"I took her up on the offer. Though I made it clear that the arrangement wasnt by far a permanent one. As temporary lodgings went, however, it was quite fine. I was up and walking by then, and the grounds were quite large, and secluded as well, so I built up my strength by taking long, solitary walks, still marveling in the freedom to do as I wished, when I wished."
I nodded in commiseration with that as well, remembering well my own first forays into a world without bars, without fences; a world whose only constrictions were the ones I myself placed upon it.
"Then one evening, shortly after my release, a quite delicious young man appeared quite unexpectedly on the doorstep." She grinned, touching her hair. "And me, without my makeup."
Laughing, I gently slapped her arm, then shifted to a more comfortable position on the couch, various parts of my anatomy beginning to voice their displeasure over remaining dormant for such a long stretch of time.
As if taking a hint I wasnt aware I was projecting, she sped up her story, quickly telling me that, though she initially had reservations about the handsomeand she made it a point to state that word quite a few times, as if Id missed it the first time, and the second, and thirdstranger, they were soon laid to rest by Donitas apparently complete acceptance of the man.
And any doubts which might have been left to linger in her mind were irrevocably erased when he handed her an item he said came from a friend. Reaching into her purse, she then handed me the same item and I sat staring at it, stunned.
It was the picture of Ice and her family.
The only one she had.
"Who gave you this?" I asked, trailing a gentle finger over the forever-frozen figure of Ice as a child.
"He said his name was Andre."
My guess confirmed, I nodded, still looking at the picture in my hand. The very fact that it made it back to me safely showed me how much trust Ice had placed in both Andre and Corinne. I spared a second to wonder briefly just who Andre was to Ice, beyond a friend and contact. They had seemed comfortable with each other the one time Id seen them together. Was he, like Donita, another lover? Ice had never mentioned a liking for what my father called outdoor plumbing, but then again, Id never really asked, so I couldnt be sure one way or the other.
That thought bothered me more than I wanted to admit.
Showing once again her disquieting propensity to read my thoughts, Corinne clamped a gentle hand around my wrist. "Worry not, sweet Angel. Andre is a friend to Ice, nothing more."
Flushing at having been read so easily, I looked up at her. "How do you know?" It wasnt asked in defense, but rather with curiosity.
She laughed lightly, squeezing my wrist. "Well, aside from the fact that hes as gay as my old dads hatband, dont you think Ice would have mentioned if anything more had gone on between them? After all, she was quite up front about her former relationship with your lawyer."
I smiled with more relief than perhaps I should have shown, but the revelation did make me feel better. I said as much to Corinne, who returned my smile knowingly. Then she returned to other matters.
"Donita excused herself, and I led Andre to the living-room, where we sat and shared tea as he talked, in a roundabout way, about my getting away from it all and how nice certain parts of Canada were this time of year." She snorted. "For Eskimos, perhaps, but I didnt debate the point with him. He had piqued my interest in a most pleasant way, and it wasnt just the body he was hiding under those rugged clothes either."
She looked at me again, her eyes filled with sadness. "You see, I didnt know where you had gone, Angel. For the first time in my life in the Bog, all my questions were met with silence. Andre was Ices contact with Donita, but under strict orders from the tall, dark and deadly one, he was forbidden to reveal any locations whatsoever. And that included yours."
"To keep her from knowing too much, right?" I guessed, well knowing how Ices mind worked in such instances. "Dont ask, dont tell?"
"Exactly. Even with lawyer-client privilege, Ice didnt want to put Donita in a position untenable to her. I didnt even know if shed managed to find you after youd been released, though I imagined she did. She loved you much too much to let you go so easily." She smiled sadly. "It was the fantasy of the two of you, striding off into the proverbial sunset together, that got me through many a depression-filled night in the Bog, Angel."
Turning my wrist, I grasped her hand in mine, gently stroking the smooth skin with the tips of my fingers. "Im sorry you had to go through that, Corinne." Tears, those damnable emotional weathervanes, came to my eyes once again, and this time, I let them fall. "I thought about you all the time. Wondered how you were doing, what you were thinking. How you were coping. I missed you so much."
"The feeling is very mutual, Angel. There wasnt a day that went by in that hell-bound place that I didnt think of you and pray that youd found your happiness." Lifting her free hand, she gently brushed away my tears, then cupped my cheek. Drawing her face to mine, she tenderly kissed my lips, then pulled away, a loving smile on her face. "You taught an old woman how to love again, Angel. And for that, youll always be in my heart."
Smiling back at her, I covered her hand with my own, nuzzling into her palm and enjoying the closeness, too long absent, between us.
After a moment, she pulled her hand away, laughing slightly. "Enough of this mutual admiration society, Angel, lest your lover find us kissing in the living-room like a couple of school-girls and decide my head would look best as a bookend."
I laughed. "Oh yeah. I can see that happening."
"You never know. It could. And Id best not stick around to find out." She stretched. "I believe the rest of this story is best left for another day. Its late and that wonderful bed is calling me."
"Dont you dare, Corinne! You have to finish the story! You cant leave me hanging like this!"
She threw that evil grin at me. "You must have me confused with someone else, Angel. I would never leave you hanging, my dear."
Ah, what wealth I would give to have a face that knew how to hide a blush. Since I didnt, however, I resolved to bear her teasing by ignoring it. Verbally, at least.
Corinne laughed, charmed. "Not to worry, Angel. The story will still be here in the morning. Im not going anywhere. Unless you tell me to, of course."
I pretended to think about that for a moment. Then grinned, standing and helping her to her feet. "Nah. I think well keep you around for awhile." Wrapping her in a heartfelt hug, I kissed her cheek. "Goodnight, Corinne. Thanks for the story. And thanks for being here. Youre one of the best Christmas presents Ive ever had."
She wrapped me in her living and precious warmth for a long moment, then pulled away, a crooked smile on her face belying the suspicious brightness of her eyes. "Enough of this now, or the next thing you know, the Hallmark people will be pounding on our door and suing for copyright infringement."
"A fate worse than death," I agreed, kissing her once more on the cheek before she batted me away. "Goodnight, my friend."
"And a good night to you as well, sweetheart." Then she winked. "Dont do anything I wouldnt."
I felt my own evil grin surface. "Oh Corinne, I do things youve never even dreamed."
For one of the first times since Id known her, I caught the great wordsmith speechless.
I basked in the moment.
Which, of course, ended fifty-nine seconds too soon.
She eyed me brazenly from head to toe, her gaze roaming intently over every inch of my body. A slow smile broke out over her face. "Oh, I dont know about that, Angel. My dreams can be quite inventive."
Then like a general who leaves the battlefield after the last shot has been fired, assured of his easy victory, Corinne walked away, waving casually over her shoulder.
I couldnt help but laugh.
It was good to have her home.
After placing the mugs in the kitchen to be dealt with later and conducting my nighttime ritual, I ascended the steps to the bedroom, stopping at the top to take in the picture of Ice, her body sculpted in fractured moonlight. She lay on her back, her hands clasped behind her head, and I could tell by the even rise and fall of her gloriously naked breasts that she wasnt asleep.
Stripping off my own clothing quickly and quietly, I joined her on our bed, propping myself up on one elbow and gently stroking the bangs from her forehead. "Cant sleep?"
"Just thinking," she burred in a low tone.
I didnt really expect an answer, and so wasnt surprised when I didnt get one. Continuing to gently stroke her brow, I watched her eyes dart from one shadow to another on the ceiling, seeming to read them as a Turkish fortune-teller reads coffee grounds.
"Corinne alright?" she asked after a long moment.
I laughed softly. "Yup. All tucked away and dreaming whatever dreams her evil mind conjures up when its not busy thinking up ways to poke holes in someone with her rapier wit."
Intense blue eyes drilled into mine. "Did she hurt you?"
I snorted. "Me? Nah. I can handle the likes of her." Still chuckling, I ruffled her disheveled bangs. "After all, Ive had a lot of practice over the years."
Her eyes turned back to their study of the ceiling again and the silence stretched out between us, its weight palpable. Though seemingly relaxed, I could feel the coiled tension in the body lying next to me. Something was bothering her, that much was obvious. But what, among the dozens, if not hundreds, of possibilities could it be?
Not one, usually, for beating around low, hedge-like growths, I simply asked the first question that came to mind. "Are you worried that Corinne might have been followed?"
"Andres very good at his job."
While that didnt answer my question exactly, it did serve to bring up another. "Who is Andre, by the way? Ive been meaning to ask you that for awhile now."
"A restaurateur," she replied after a moment, not moving her gaze from its study of the ceiling.
"Ah," I nodded, as if that explained everything. "And that gives him the skills to make sure Corinne wasnt followed how?" I laughed. "Good at hiding from angry customers when the steaks slightly overcooked, is he?"
And that, not surprisingly, rated me another non-answer. Despite our time together and the level of trust which had developed between us, there are still very large parts of Ices life which are walled off to me, even to this day.
Id be lying if I said that that doesnt bother me a little. Well, more than a little. But if patience is a virtue, then after living with Ice for as long as I have, Im the most virtuous woman alive.
Well seeing the bright neon roadblock preventing me from merging onto that particular lane of conversation, I decided a slight detour was in order. I paused for a second, ordering the question precisely in my mind, knowing that if I didnt word it correctly, Id be flush up against yet another logjam.
Taking a deep breath, I dove in with both feet. "When you told me earlier that my life wasnt the only one Corinne had saved, were you talking about yourself?"
After a long moment, I could feel the brief nod of her head under my hand. Encouraged, I decided to take things just a bit further, drowning in curiosity as I was. "Could you . . .tell me a little bit about what you meant?" I asked finally, treading very carefully. "I dont know very much about your first time in prison, beyond what little Corinne told me, and Id kinda like to know how it was for you then. If its not too hard for you to talk about," I added, giving her an out if she needed it.
"There really isnt that much to talk about," she said finally, after a very long span of silence. "I went in, did my time, and got released. Nothing very remarkable."
I could have let it go at that, and perhaps I should have. Her body was sending me very distinct signals relating to the prudence of allowing slumbering canines to rest undisturbed. Still, for all those signals, I couldnt let it go. She knew so much about my life while I knew so little about hers. And though I knew thered probably never be a time when those two states would equal out, I wasnt about to withdraw my foot from a door partly opened.
"Share?" I asked simply, softly as I could. "Please?"
Her breasts rose, then fell beneath the weight of an exhaled sigh. "I was very young and very tired. The trial had taken what little strength I still had left, and by the time that prison door closed behind me," she raised a hand briefly, then let it fall on the blanket, "there wasnt anything."
I let the silence draw out for a moment before resuming my gentle, and careful, prodding. "Corinne said you just wanted to do your time quietly."
Her eyes tracked to mine briefly before slipping away once again. "Did she? I dont remember telling her that." She shook her head. "What I do remember is being . . .numb. Everything just sorta came down on me and I couldnt feel anything." She shrugged. "And I really didnt care if I never felt anything again."
"How did she save your life?" I asked, still finding it hard to wrap my mind around that thought. Even at her weakest, my mind still insisted on picturing Ice as a woman of uncommon strength and will, never needing someone else to do what she was supremely qualified to do for herself; save her own life.
"As I said," she resumed after a small pause, "I didnt care about anything anymore. And when the predators came, I didnt bother fighting them. Just let them do what they wanted to me." She laughed bitterly, a choked sound caught in her throat.
I couldnt muffle the gasp that came from my own throat, much as I wanted to. Suddenly, I was very sorry I had pushed her into telling this particular tale. I wanted to tell her, beg her, to stop, but like a motorist drawn to the sight of a grisly car wreck, I couldnt.
She turned again to look at me, sensing my distress. She smiled slightly, softly, though there was still that touch of old anger in her eyes. "Dont be upset, Angel. After all, it wasnt anything different than what Id had people pay me to do before. Better in some ways, really. As long as I cooperated, I was pretty much left alone when they were through taking their pleasures from me."
In many ways, her dispassionate tone made things just that much worse, as if her heart and soul were so cold and dead that even the tale of her savage raping at the hands of strangers was of little more consequence to her than a dog passing by on the sidewalk.
But still, the tense, coiled energy of her body belied the casually spoken words, and I knew beyond the slightest shadow of a doubt that this poison within her had been too-long festering and needed to come out before it again released its toxins on a soul not fully mended.
I lay still and near, close enough to touch, but keeping my hands, and my words, to myself, knowing that if I interrupted this self-revelation with even so much as the slightest breath of a whisper, the story would be ended then and there, buried so deep it would never see the light of day again.
"One day, the leader of one of the other gangs caught sight of me and decided she wanted a sample of what I was offering to the others. She dragged me from my cell just as a member of the first gang was coming in to grab an afternoon snack." The bitter smile flashed briefly again. "There was a bit of a tussle over exactly whose bitch I was, and after it was over, I became the new trophy of the leader of the rival gang."
"Why didnt you fight!?" I demanded, my anger spilling over, not caring if I never heard the ending to the sordid tale. "Why didnt you stand up for yourself? Why did you just let them do that to you? Didnt you even care?" It wasnt just simple anger I was feeling. It was rage. Clear and uncomplicated and utter rage. I could feel my teeth grinding against one another with the power of it.
Simple. Stark. Brutal.
"Why?" I whispered through my anguished, and angry, tears.
"Why not? They were only getting a body, after all." She turned her head so it faced away from me. "My soul was already dead."
My anger vanished as if it had never been, leaving only a bone deep ache behind. "And Corinne?" I whispered because I had to know.
"Id met her briefly when I was first locked up. She tried to convince me to fight them. Tried to tell me that I was worth more than being someones whore." She laughed. "I didnt listen, though. Being a whore was something I knew, and if it gave me the oblivion I wanted, it didnt seem a bad tradeoff. So I basically told her where she could stick her advice. Even offered to put it there for her."
The laugh came again, though this time it held more awe than bitterness. "She told me to go right on ahead and do it. At least it would show her that I still had some spirit left in me."
"You didnt listen to her though, did you." I asked, already knowing the answer.
"Nope. At the time, I was too wrapped up in my own misery to recognize the hand she was holding out to me. So I left her standing there and went back to the life Id chosen to live."
"The gang leader whod won me decided to put on a show for her friends, so she dragged me into the laundry room where she could have her audience. Shed just ripped my uniform off and was getting down to business when Corinne walked in, a broom in her hand. She told me that if I was too stupid to fight for myself, then shed do the fighting for me."
She shook her head in amazement over the memories. "She was a tough old broad even back then. Took out nearly half the watchers before someone got in a lucky shot and stole her weapon from her. She didnt give an inch though. Not one single inch. They jumped her, punching and kicking her, and she just stared at me, daring me to just lie there while they beat her bloody."
She looked up at the ceiling again, running a hand over her face. "God, her eyes. I can still remember them, burning into me, never showing any of the pain I knew she was feeling. She didnt blink, not once. Not even when one of them kicked her in the gut and made her lose her lunch. And when I heard her ribs break, something in me snapped. Something raw. Dark. Angry. Something I thought Id lost when I woke up in the hospital after the shootings."
I could see the tears sparkle in her eyes, but there was a savage joy in there as well. And pride. For Corinne. For herself. "I threw those idiots off of me and got up, half naked and all angry. I walked up to the biggest one and punched her so hard that I thought my hand had broken. And I kept on punching, and kicking, and gouging, until the only person left standing was Corinne. I grabbed her and hightailed us both out of there as fast as we could go." She shook her head again, black hair fanning over her face, partially obscuring it from my view. "It didnt help any, of course. We both got solitary for a month. It was the shortest month Id ever done, before or since."
Brushing her hair from her face, she turned to face me once again. "So you see, Angel, Corinne did save my life, in a manner of speaking. She gave me a reason to fight. She gave me a reason to live." She grasped my hand tightly and held it to her chest, letting me feel the passion in the mighty heart which beat there. "And if giving up a little privacy enables her to live out the rest of her life in comfort and love, then thats a very small a price to pay for giving me my soul back. Ill be forever in her debt."
She wound down then, like a toy soldier whose spring given out. She lay there looking at me, her eyes asking me to hear her words, to understand the message they imparted to me, and to simply accept without judging the path shed chosen to travel so long ago.
And because I knew she needed to be strong, perhaps more at that moment than at any other, I laid myself down beside her, resting my head on her shoulder and wrapping one arm around her waist, showing my love and support without smothering her in it.
And when her arms finally came around me, one gently cupping the back of my head, I knew that somehow, God had blessed me with the ability to do the right thing, even if just this once.
I prayed, fervently as I knew how, never to be without that ability again.
I nearly shocked the starch out of Corinne when I saw her the next morning, giving her a hug that would have popped her eyeballs had they not been so firmly attached to her skull. The bemused look on her face as she pulled away said it all, but all she got in return was another hug, and a laugh from me.
Let her chew on that for awhile, I thought, leaving her to stare dumbfounded after me as I made my way toward the kitchen and some much needed coffee.
Ice was long gone by the time we sat down to a breakfast of eggs, coffee and toast in the dining room, and over an after-breakfast mug of tea, Corinne told me the rest of her tale.
It seems that to throw off any suspicion there might have been, Andre decided to take Corinne a wee bit south of Canada.
Mexico, to be exact.
To hear Corinne tell it, they spent two weeks of fun in the sun, ogling half-naked, tanned bodies as they paraded their wares up and down the beaches; she, the women; Andre, the men.. Then, after doing whatever checks men like Andre do to make sure the coast is clear, they hopped aboard another plane, bypassed the United States entirely, and landed in Canada. She entered the country legally, requesting, and being granted, a tourist visa with the possible option of applying for landed immigrant status sometime in the future.
I was surprised at that. As far as I knew, Canada was pretty much like any other country when it came to immigration laws. If you were young, able-bodied, willing to work, and didnt have anything in your background which made it likely that you would plant bombs on schoolbuses or office buildings, you stood a chance of being welcomed.
Corinne, however, was elderly, frail, of an age where advancing medical costs would eat up a very large budget very quickly, and had a prison record that would make any immigration official worth his salt sit up and whistlebefore he personally escorted her to the first plane headed for points south.
When I expressed my disbelief, she responded with a wicked grin and pushed over a document that contained her financial statement in all its multi-zeroed glory.
The coffee in my mouth sprayed halfway across the room.
"Seven million dollars?"
"And change, yes," she replied, wearing the mask of the eternally smug and loving every minute of it.
"Seven million dollars?"
Clicking her tongue at me, she reached up and placed a hand on my forehead, the way you would do if you were testing a child for fever. "Poor dear," her eyes alight with wicked compassion, "are you coming down with something? Perhaps a trip to the doctor is in order this morning?"
Scowling, I batted her hands away the dollar amount still repeating itself in my head like a jukebox record which had developed an unfortunate scratch.
"Relax, Angel. Its not as if Im taking afternoon tea with the Rockefellers, you know." Then she grinned. "Besides, you should be happy. Its all yours when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil."
I looked up at her. "I cant accept this, Corinne."
Her smile became hard. "Whyever not, Angel? Afraid to sully your hands with a little ill-gotten gain?" Her teeth flashed. "Blood money not good enough for you?"
"Thats enough, Corinne," I snapped, rising to my feet. "I dont deserve that from you."
After a long moment of intense silence, she finally backed down, the smile slipping from her face. "Youre right. You dont. Im sorry." A plea then came to both eyes and voice. "Wont you please sit back down, Angel? Forgive an old woman her foolishness?" She paused for just a heartbeat, then whispered, "Please."
A moment later, my anger receding but not yet gone, I sat back down, placing my hands flat on the table. I looked at her expectantly, using a raised-eyebrow expression that Id only recently begun to truly master.
Reaching into her purse, she pulled out another document, which she carefully unfolded and slid across the table to me. I looked down at it, tracing the dollar amount displayed with my finger. It made the amount on the original statement look almost like pocket-change. Another document was then laid atop the first and I scanned it quickly, then read more carefully as the contents finally wove their way into my brain.
The paper I was reading was a receipt of sorts, which detailed the final disposition of the vast fortune on the document beneath. One half was used to set up a fund to help surviving family members whose loved ones had been killed in a violent crime. A quarter, and I smiled when I read this, went into a fund that helped feed, clothe, house and educate teens living on the streets. And the last quarter went into what was termed the "Fallen Angels" fund, to provide free legal counsel and representation for women who, like I, had been tried and/or convicted of killing their husbands as a result of domestic abuse.
I looked up at her, my eyes wide. "What . . . ?"
"Thats the money I made from killing my husbands. Every last cent of it."
"But you said . . . ."
"I know what I said, Angel," she interrupted, tossing my argument away with a careless flick of her hand. "But things change. And sometimes, if theyre lucky, people do as well." She smiled a little; one that was loving, a touch shy, and totally endearing. "In any event, sitting paralyzed in a wheelchair does give one quite a bit of time for quiet reflection. And while any remorse I might have had over the killing of my husbands had long ago turned to dust, the thought of living high on the money left behind somehow lost the allure it had previously given me." Snorting, she shook her head. "Never grow old, Angel. It makes you soft in all the wrong places."
Though the door was wide open and an entire army of people pled with me to step through it, I wisely refrained from any comment I might have made to her observation. The sparkle in her eye praised my restraint, though I was sure she had already thought up at least one hundred witty, and cutting, retorts.
Reaching out almost primly, she plucked the document that had started this whole conversation and held it up to the light. "This is what became of the sock money Id earned working at the few menial jobs Id managed to find before and in between husbands. When I knew the arrest was coming, I gave it, along with the other money, to an accountant friend of mine. And as you can plainly see, she had quite a way with numbers." Her eyes sparkled again with wicked wit. "Among other things."
I just grinned and rolled my eyes. God, Id missed her.
"And it is yours, Angel. Yours and Ices, of course. To do with as you wish. You could use it to line the fireplace, for all I care. You just need to accept it." She smiled. "After all, Im not going to be around forever and Id like to know that I had some small part in making your lives, if not easier, at least a bit more interesting."
I winced. "If I agree to think about it, can we get off the topic of death? Its not something I really want to talk about right now."
"Death happens to us all, Angel."
"I know that, Corinne," I replied, a bit more sternly than I had intended, the images of my lover too near death raising their heads in Technicolor glory. "Id just like to stop having it threaten to visit quite so often."
She nodded at me, eyes bright with compassion. Then she turned to look out the large window. "Very well, sweet Angel. Its a beautiful day, even for winter. Lets let death take care of itself while we embrace life, hmm?"
I couldnt help grinning. "Youre on."
After the breakfast dishes were dried and put away, and we had showered and dressed, we decidedor rather Corinne decided; I was just along for the ride at this pointthat a little sightseeing was in order.
Though the temperature outside was beyond bitter, the sun was out and the walks clear of ice and slush. Feeling just a touch of cabin fever myself, even so early in the season, I found myself not really minding the prospect of losing the feeling in my fingers and toes.
After donning layers of winter gear (and in this, Corinne came supremely prepared) we headed out into the cold and toward our first stop of the day, which was, of course, Rubys house.
Id called her prior, asking if she was available to meet a friend of mine who was visiting for the holidays, and she invited us over happily, seemingly excited at the prospect of meeting someone new. I found myself smiling at her excitement, picturing a wonderful meeting between two women I held dear; two women who, because they were of an age, would have a great deal in common and just might become the best of friends.
I couldnt have been more wrong.
The beaming smile Ruby bestowed on us when she opened the door faded just a touch when her eyes took in the swaddled figure standing beside me. I could feel Corinne stiffen as Ruby backed away, inviting us in.
What the hell is going on here?
After setting our coats to warm and dry near the fire, we ventured into the kitchen, where Ruby bade us sit while she fixed coffee and a plate of fresh-made cookies that smelled heavenly and tasted even better.
After setting the mugs and plate down, she stood next to her chair, eyeing me expectantly, if a bit strangely. After a moment, I caught on, and gave her my brightest grin. "Ruby, Id like you to meet a dear friend of mine, Corinne . . . ." And there I trailed off, blindsided by my first major hurdle of the day.
Ruby, if youll remember, read the same paper I did. Introducing Corinne by her full name was inviting trouble I wasnt prepared to deal with. My neighbor was still in the dark as to the true circumstances of my coming to Canada. And more than anything else, I wanted her to remain that way for as long as possible. It wasnt that I didnt trust Ruby; far from it. It was just that the less information she had, the less, or so I hoped, she would be hurt in the long run.
Not that I was inviting that sort of trouble, mind you. But, in the words of the immortal Boy Scouts, its always best to be prepared.
I only wished Id remembered that particular motto prior to setting out for Rubys house that morning.
Corinne, however, master politician that she was, covered my slight stumble as smooth as oil over lard, grasping Rubys outstretched hand and giving it a firm shake, her smile genuine as it could be. For those who didnt know her as well as I did.
"Corinne LaPointe, at your service."
Ruby returned the handshake, and the smile. "Welcome to my home, Corinne. It is alright if I call you Corinne, isnt it?"
"Only if you allow me the same pleasure."
I could see Ruby visibly relax as she released Corinnes hand and sat down at the table with us. "Corinne it is, then," she said, toasting her with a mug of coffee. Her eyes gained a speculative look. "Tyler tells me youve known one another a good long while."
Damn. Id forgotten that Ruby knew me as Tyler. I found myself sitting very still, not daring to turn my head even the slightest inch, lest I detect whatever expression was on Corinnes face. An expression which I was sure would not be even one iota to my liking.
And, of course, I was right on that count.
My friends voice oozed charm and hidden laughter. "A good long while indeed, Ruby. Why, when I first saw her, I thought Now theres a girl who can turn the world on with her smile."
Then an isolated chuckle, sounding much like the lone backfire of a car with a bad muffler.
Then another chuckle, followed by another, until both of my so-called friends were just about fainting with laughter at my expense.
I felt my head turn slowly to my right, my eyebrows contracting as I shot my nearly convulsive friend my darkest of looks. Corinne returned my look with a twinkling, mischievous one of her own and subtly mouthed sorry, before she turned back to Ruby and started the laughter train rolling down the tracks all over again.
But with that single gesture, I felt what anger Id had drain away, realizing Corinnes joke for what it was, a successful attempt to lighten the tense atmosphere and set a suspicious Ruby at ease. So I gave a few calculated grumbles for show, and patiently waited until the last of their laughter died out, leaving a much more comfortable silence in its wake.
Oh yes, Corrine was good. She was very good.
Then she proceeded to prove just how good she really was by continuing with a story she was weaving out of whole cloth as she went along. "Yes, Tyler and I have known one another for quite awhile, as shes told you. I was a teacher in the school where shed come after earning her degree. In fact, she took over my class as I was set to retire. The children fell in love with her the moment they saw her." She smiled again, this one most definitely genuine. "We all did. She was an Angel come to earth. A very needed brightness in an otherwise dark and sad world."
Ruby smiled slightly at that. "Ahh. So thats where she got her charming nickname."
"Indeed it was. One of my students came up to us after Id introduced heryou know how charming first-graders can beand asked her if she was an angel." She grinned. "And from that moment on, she was known as Ms. Angel to everyone."
It was one of the few times in my life when I was actually glad of my ability to blush. Corinne was depending on my reactions to prove the veracity of her story, and I didnt let her down, blushing for all I was worth.
Apparently charmed, Ruby smiled and visibly relaxed her ramrod straight posture, actually allowing her shoulders to touch the back of the chair upon which she was sitting.
Inwardly sighing with relief, I relaxed as well, letting myself become completely absorbed within the web Corinne was spinning. If I had held any lingering doubts about exactly what the womans capacity was for getting people to believe exactly what she wanted them to, they vanished into the mist on that sunny winters day.
Though that realization probably should have given me pause, and might have had I been any younger or more innocent in the ways of my friend, but instead it gave me a sort of guilty thrill, like the thrill a young child gets when she does something she knows shes not supposed to, and gets away with it.
The rest of the afternoon passed quickly by, and at the end of it, goodbyes were made with more warmth than the hellos had been.
Still, for Corinnes undeniable charm and Rubys gentle warmth, there seemed to be a barrier between them that didnt show any signs of coming down. Puzzled by that, I mentioned it to Ice after Corinne was tucked safely away, dreaming whatever naughty little dreams that steel trap of a mind conjured up.
Ice had laughed and enfolded me in her warm embrace. "Sounds simple enough to me."
Pulling away slightly, I fixed her with a stare. "It does, huh? Care to share, oh Wise One?" Then I laughed and lowered my chin down until it rested in the sweet valley between her breasts. "Or shall I beat you senseless with my fists of steel."
Her eyes widened in mock horror before ruffling my hair and settling me more comfortably atop her. "Theyre jealous."
"Jealous?! Of what?!"
"Each other. Theyre playing a little game of tug-o-war and you just happen to be the rope."
I looked at her, disbelieving. "You wanna tell me how you came up with that one?"
Her lips pursed slightly as she shrugged. "Easy. Theyre two women who fulfill much the same role in your life. Mother figure. Confidant. Comfort-giver. And they both know it." She shrugged again. "And if I had to guess, Id say each one is afraid youre going to become too close with the other and leave the remaining one out of your life altogether."
"Maybe. Doesnt make it any less true for them, though."
I thought about that for a moment, quite unsettled. Then I looked up again. "Theres a flaw in your theory."
Her eyebrow raised. "Oh?"
I grinned. "Yup."
"And that might be . . . ."
"You." Rolling off of her warm, strong body, I adopted my best scholarly pose. "You see, my dear Ice, if one were to follow your theory through to its logical conclusion, whatever little jealousy they might have between themselves would be vastly overshadowed by the jealousy they would have for you. You are, after all, number one in my heart, among other places."
"Perhaps," she admitted, "though theres a flaw in your theory."
I could feel my eyebrow rumple. "Yeah? Whats that?"
Her smile was slow and sexy. "Im not exactly the mothering type."
Laughing, I rolled back on top of her, slipping a leg between her slightly spread thighs, pleased by her immediate, and wonderful, response. "Thank God for that," I said in a voice which was suspiciously husky. "I cant imagine doing what weve been doing for the last two hours with my mother."
Chuckling softly, she melded our bodies together and proceeded to spend the next two hours reinforcing that idea.
And in that theory, there were no flaws at all.
If Corinne and Ruby rubbed against one another like two dogs going after the same boneand Id finally come to the realization that Ice was right on that score--, Corinne and Pop, when they first met, gave the impression of age-old friends reuniting after just a few moments apart.
I stood by and watched in open-mouthed awe as the normally reticent Pop actually spoke in complete sentences to Corinne, playing the part of the perfect gentleman and escorting her into his station for some coffee, which was always warming on the hotplate near the cash register.
"Youre gonna catch flies if youre not careful," Ice said, materializing beside me and wiping her greasy hands off on an oil stained rag.
"I just cant believe it," I replied, leaning easily into her warmth. "Its like . . .its like . . .I dont know what its like. I mean, Id hoped theyd hit it off, but . . .wow."
She grunted as she leaned against me, peering with narrowed eyes into the interior of the station. "He does seem quite taken with her."
"Ill say. I dont think Ive seen him talk that long to anyone."
Tossing the rag back into the garage, Ice blew on her hands to warm them, then stuffed them deep into the pockets of her jacket. "Yeah, well dont go planning the wedding just yet, Angel. Corinnes still a little too taken with the ladies, and I dont think Pops the type who likes to share." She turned to look at me, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "And I really dont wanna have to hide the arsenic."
The grin in her eyes made it to her lips, and she reached out to ruffle my hair. "Relax, Angel. Its okay to joke about these things sometimes."
"I know, but . . .Jesus! I swear, I dont know what gets into you sometimes."
She responded by taking in a deep breath, then letting it out gustily. "Fresh air and sunshine, sweet Angel. Fresh air and sunshine."
And with that, she walked back into the garage, leaving me to stare after her, bemused and grinning all at the same time.
And then it was Christmas Eve.
Cold enough to freeze a crones anatomy in her brass brassier, the night sky shown bright with stars hanging so low it was almost as if I could reach up and grab one to keep.
Leaving Corinne to take over the kitchen (and it should be noted that the aforementioned was a demand of hers and not a request of ours) Ice and I set off in search of a Christmas tree.
Simply walking into town and purchasing one of the many which stood, like wooden soldiers, on vacant lots was out of the question, of course. No, we actually had to search for and find our very own tree, one grown especially for us, willing to give up its life to make our holiday more festive.
I suppose I shouldnt sound so sarcastic about it, since it was my suggestion, after all.
Borrowing an old, but sturdy, nine-foot toboggan and a saw from Ruby, we walked into a section of the woods which had suffered, several years before, a lightening-spawned forest fire which had burned away much of the old growth and left room for new life to flourish.
After a great deal of critical fault-finding by me and a greater deal of eye rolling by Ice, we finally found the perfect tree; one that was lush, bursting with that wonderful evergreen color and scent, and large enough without being too large. Framing it from afar with my hands like some psychotic photographer trying for the perfect shot, I pictured it standing next to the fireplace, bedecked with garland and trinkets, with a plethora of gaily wrapped presents underneath, and promptly announced my approval.
"Youre sure," Ice replied, lifting the saw yet again and brandishing it in a way which let me know that if I wasnt, I stood a good chance of being a good two feet shorter than I already was in the very near future.
"Positive," I announced with a nod of finality.
Something sounding suspiciously like "Its about goddamn time" came floating back to me as Ice turned away and began to clear the snowpack from around the base of the tree Id selected.
"Wait!" I interrupted just as she had put blade to bark.
Saw blade and white teeth glittered in the light of a half moon, but I did my best to ignore them both as I walked one more time around the tree, viewing it from all possible angles save, of course, from above. "Just making sure."
More words, intelligible but quite unrepeatable, floated up from the base of the tree as I completed my appraisal. "Alright. Go for it. Just make sure you cut off those branches near the bottom there. They look like theyre dying."
"Are you sure you wouldnt like to do this your self, my dear?" came a silken purr. "After all, I wouldnt want to ruin your perfect tree with my ineffective bumbling."
"Oh no," I replied airily, waving off her sarcasm-laced concern. "You can do it. I know how much you love working up a sweat."
Before I could even think to move, I was lifted in strong arms and tossed a good distance to land in a deep pile of snow. Laughing and sputtering and trying to dig mounds of the cold, wet stuff out of places it had no business being, I watched as the tree Id picked finally surrendered to the might of my lovers sharp saw and strong muscles. By the time Id regained my footing, both saw and tree were safely stored aboard the toboggan and Ice was looking down at me, an incurably smug expression on her face.
Did I mention something about paybacks?
The gathering wed arranged was in full swing by the time we arrived back at the cabin, tree in tow. Laughter and the muted tones of Christmas carols could be heard just outside the door. The porch windows were fogged from the warmth within and I could see surreal shapes seemingly float in and out of the mist on the other side of the glass.
Then the door opened and John Drew, Toms brother, came out to greet us, bedecked in a festive, if rather pornographic, holiday sweater. After enduring good-natured teasing over my need to assess every damn tree in the whole damn country, we finally went inside, the three of us carrying the tree over the threshold and into the living-room, where Ice had built a stand for it.
After the tree was up and suitably ooh-ed and ahh-ed over, we began to decorate it with the popcorn and cranberries Corinne had supplied.
Or, should I say, we tried to decorate it. Attempting to thread a tiny needle through a tinier cranberry while under the influence of a couple of cups of Corinnes one-hundred-eighty proof eggnog became an exercise in futility rather quickly.
Ruby, whose blood-pressure medication forbade more than one cup of the stuff, primly took over threading duty while the rest of us, save Ice whos never been much for imbibing, became progressively giddier.
Then Corinne set out a feast fit for royalty and we all followed our noses and grumbling bellies to the table like children after a day of hard play. Ice sat at one end of the table, Corinne at the other, and our guestsPop, Ruby, the Drew brothers and their wives, and a smattering of others who wed become friendly withinterspersed in between. It wouldnt be stretching the truth any to say that that Christmas Eve dinner was the best Ive ever eaten, before or since. Corinne is an outstanding cook, and forty five years in prison hadnt diminished her talent one bit, for which we were all profoundly grateful.
Pleasantly stuffed and more than half-drunk, we finished decorating the tree while Ice and Corinne, over my staunch, if slightly slurred, objections, set about cleaning the mound of dirty dishes wed left behind.
The evening passed slowly, as wonderful evenings sometimes will, in a warm and friendly haze that Id often dreamed about as a child when Christmas Eve seemed to be nothing more than simply another day in my life.
As it drew to a close, Ice appointed herself the task of making sure all of our guests found their way safely home. Corinne and I stayed behind to tidy up what little mess there was, and then she went off to the comfort of her own bed while I stayed awake, awaiting my lovers return.
I was feeling many things during that short wait, but pain definitely wasnt one of them. Corinnes eggnog could have loosened the limbs of a marble statue.
Ice returned quietly as I was staring into the flames of the fire, fascinated, in my gently drunken way, by the myriad of colors displayed. I wobbled over to greet her and she held me tightly, then kissed me in front of the tree it had taken so long for us to find.
And then, to put a perfect cap to a perfect evening, we made long, slow love on the thick rug in front of the blazing fire and I fell into a blissful sleep in the arms of the woman I loved more than anyone or anything in the world.
And as Christmas Eve gradually gave way to Christmas Day, yet another dream had come true.
Christmas morning dawned cold and blustery with more than a hint of snow in the air.
I awoke to a throbbing head and a stomach that was most definitely protesting my overindulgence of the night before. Rolling to my side, I pulled the covers up over my shoulder before realizing that where I had awoken was not the place Id fallen asleep the night before.
Reaching out with my free hand while my eyes were still closed, I wasnt surprised to find Ice already up and about, though the sheets were still warm from her body, so I guessed that she hadnt been gone for very long.
Pulling her pillow toward me blindly, I burrowed my head into it, happily inhaling her scent as my sleepy body began to lose its hold on consciousness once again.
I had just begun to drift back off when the sound of Ices footfall on the top of the steps caused me to come fully awake. This time, my eyes deigned to open and I took in her sleep-tousled beauty, my hangover seeming to recede as a flush of welcoming warmth quickly took its place. She stood there in a loosely belted robe with nothing else beneath, the V in the robe providing a tantalizing glimpse of the creamy flesh it covered. A tray was easily held in her large hands, bearing what I hoped was some strong black coffee and an entire bottle of aspirin.
"Hello there, gorgeous. You lookin for me?" I asked in what I hoped was a sultry tone, but which was probably, in reality, a pale imitation, given the conflicting messages my abused body was giving me.
It got a smile out of her, though, and she crossed to the bed, setting the tray down on the bedside table next to the clock. "Howre ya feelin?" she asked, laying a cool hand on my fevered brow, sending my body into yet another bout of sensory overload.
"A minute ago? Like an entire family of cats had used me for a litter box. Now?" I grinned goofily. "Juuuuust fine."
Smiling crookedly and shaking her head, she climbed back into bed and sat with her back against the headboard, gathering me into her arms and resting me against her chest. Then, reaching one long arm out, she grabbed the coffee and held the steaming mug to my lips. "Drink this. It should make you feel better."
And so I did, contentedly sipping the strong coffee and swallowing the handful of aspirin Ice gave me. Then I relaxed back against her, absorbing the warmth of her body into mine, her very presence a better hangover remedy than all the coffee and aspirin in the world ever had a hope of being. When her hand came up to gently stroke my hair, my headache vanished as if it had never been.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Sure." Her deep, melodious voice rumbled up from her chest, against which my ear was pressed.
"Howd I wind up here? The last thing I remember, I fell asleep downstairs in front of the fire."
Her chuckle burred pleasantly into my ear. "Well, it was either carry you up here or risk Corinne waking up and wanting to join in on the festivities. I figured the first course of action was the wisest."
"Mmmm," I agreed, nuzzling my cheek against the smooth skin of her chest while one hand toyed idly with the belt on her robe. Then a thought struck me and I smiled. "Did Santa come?"
"Yup. And from the looks of things, his reindeer were much happier when they took off again."
I felt myself tensing just a little. "I thought we agreed not to go overboard this year."
Ice continued to stroke my hair, unconcerned. "Apparently, someone forgot to fill Ms. Moneybags in on the rules."
"Oh, she did, alright."
At that moment, Corinnes slightly off-key humming floated up to us from the living room, along with the gentle tinkle of silverware and porcelain. "Oh my, look at all these presents. Since no one else seems to be around, they must all be for me. How lucky!"
Smothering my laugh against Ices chest, I hugged her tight to me before releasing her and pushing myself up to sit on my own. "Sounds like our cue."
Ice rolled off the bed, coming to her feet and gently helping me climb out as well. Then she twirled my robe over my shoulders and belted it securely across my belly, straightening out the edges so they lay flat against my skin. "Ready?"
"Almost." Reaching out, I opened her belt, resettled her robe so that it completely covered all pertinent parts, then belted it securely. "There."
An eyebrow was raised at me.
"Hey! Shes already had a stroke. Do you want to give her a heart attack too?"
"I hardly think I have anything she hasnt seen before, Angel."
"Maybe not," I agreed, "but its the way what you have is put together. One look, and shed be in intensive care for sure."
Rolling her eyes, Ice grabbed my hand, and together, we walked down the stairs to see what Santa, in the guise of a little old librarian from Pittsburgh, had left for us.
Corinne outdid herself with the breakfast she served as we sat on the floor like children opening piles of gaily wrapped presents. And she further outdid herself with both the quantity and quality of the gifts shed purchased for us. I felt a moments discomfort over this, but a quick look from her convinced me to gracefully accept them as an expression of her love and caring.
Mounds of much needed clothing turned quickly into mountains. Sheets, blankets and comforters guaranteed wed never sleep on the same set twice. We received enough cookware to stock the finest restaurant, enough cleaning supplies to sanitize an entire hotel and enough books to fill the shelves of a good-sized library.
There were other, more . . .private . . .gifts as well, but if its all the same to you, Ill keep the identity of those to myself, thank you. Suffice it to say that my face, when I viewed these gifts in all their glory, would have far surpassed Rudolphs red nose in brightness.
After giving Corinne her presents from us, Ice and I exchanged our own gifts. Because money was still very much an objectwe were determined that we would repay every cent of the material charges that went toward the building of our homewed agreed to keep Christmas simple that year.
So we exchanged the few practical gifts wed bought for one another, and then Ice handed me a small box wrapped in simple gold foil. The look on her face, almost shy, told me this was a special gift.
I took it into my hands, testing its weight. It was quite heavy for its small size and I hadnt the faintest glimmer of a clue what lay inside. I looked up, questioningly, but her expression betrayed nothing.
Slowly, I opened the wrapping to reveal a plain white box about the length and breadth of my hand. Prying the cover off, I gently nudged away the tissue paper covering the object, then stared inside, my breath temporarily taken away.
Inside lay a beautifully carved wooden horse.
Now, in order for you to appreciate the enormity of this seemingly simple gift, I find the need to backtrack just a little.
Well, more like a lot. Back to my childhood, to be exact.
When I was growing up, I had an Aunt, Rose, whom I worshipped. There was a strong bond between us and though I didnt see her often, she was always in my thoughts and in my heart. She was married to an Army Captain and moved from place to place very frequently. Most of those places were overseas. Every time they were stationed somewhere new, she would send me a little gift what was unique to the country they were living in.
In hardly any time at all, my room was full to bursting with gifts from all over the world; dolls, carved animals, clocks, books, all manner of assorted trinkets.
One year, when they were stationed more or less permanently in Germany, a year that had been a very hard one for me in terms of my steadily souring relationship with my parents, she sent me a beautifully carved wooden horse, his saddle and bridle brightly painted in the style of the Bavarian artisans.
Inside was a little note, penned in her hand, which I have to this day.
I know things have been hard with your parents. I wish I was there to help see you through the rough times. Know always that youre in my thoughts and prayers.
Since I cant be there in person, Im sending you Alwin. My friends here call him a dreaming spirit and hes a good friend to have around.
When things in your life arent going so good, just hold him close, close your eyes, and dream of faraway lands where all your troubles are gone. Let him take you there and hell always protect you.
One day, I know, those dreams will become a reality for you and youll find a place where you are cherished and loved as much as I cherish and love you.
Until then, please accept Alwin as a token of my love and keep him close to your heart as you are in mine.
From that day forward, Alwin never left my sight. He was with me when I woke up in the morning, when I went to school (my schoolmates took to calling me Linus briefly), when I played, and when I went to bed at night.
Rose was right. He was a good friend. He was never angry with me. He never talked down to me. He never ignored me. He listened to my troubles, and to my joys, without ever once belittling me.
He might not have licked my face or wagged his tail, but then I didnt have to clean up after him or feed him, so that was a pretty even trade, as far as I was concerned.
And then one day, in a fit of rage over a transgression I can no longer remember, my father took a hammer to that horse, making me watch as he pounded it into splinters, and then into dust, taking my dreams with it as he did so.
I was heartbroken as only a young girl who has lost her best friend can possibly be and retreated from the room in tears, refusing to speak to my father, or to my mother whod watched the incident without once trying to stop him, for an entire month.
It was the one thing Ive never forgiven him for, not even to this day when his body is nothing more than dust in the ground and forgiveness means no more than the letters its formed from.
And Im not sure I ever will.
Id mentioned Alwin briefly in passing to Ice when I saw a similar horse in a store window we were passing one day, though I never told her what happened to him, nor exactly what he meant to me as a young girl.
Yet she must have picked up something from my wistful tone of voice, because before me that Christmas morning lay an exact replica of that long destroyed wooden horse, right down to the brightly painted saddle and bridle and the inquisitive look on his face.
With slightly trembling fingers, I plucked the horse out of its nest of tissue paper and held it up for closer inspection. It was absolutely perfect in every single detail.
"Where did you get this?" I breathed, Pop and his ability to find just about anything for anybody immediately coming to mind.
"Actually, I carved it," she replied, her face slightly flushed with the admission.
"But how . . . ?"
"I thought there was a little more to the story then you were letting on, so I spoke to Ruby about it one day. She was more than happy to fill me in on the details. Shes got a damn good memory." She chuckled. "Anyway, after she filled me in on all the pertinent details, I went to work." She peered at the horse for a moment, then at me, a question in her eyes. "Was I close?"
"Close?! My God, Ice, its perfect! There isnt one single difference between this and the one I had as a child!" Looking over the horse yet again, I realized that my words were completely true. It was perfect.
She smiled, a relaxed, genuine, beautiful one that reached into her eyes and beyond. "Im glad. Ruby told me how much that horse had meant to you. And how your father destroyed it." The smile slipped from her face. "Again, Im just glad that bastards dead, because Id take great pleasure in killing him for what he put you through."
"Ice . . . ."
Waving off my concern, she continued. "In any event, I just wanted to give something back to you that had been taken from you." The smile returned. "Youre not a little girl anymore, but you can always use another friend."
Grinning right back at her, tears shining in my eyes, I reached over and hugged her tightly to me, realizing that the words my aunt had written so long ago had finally come true. My dreams did become reality, and with them, I found a place where I was cherished and loved.
Thank you, Rose.
After a long moment, I pulled away and reached under the tree, retrieving the gift Id placed there the night before while Ice was escorting our guests back to their homes. "Here. This is for you."
She looked at me questioningly for a moment as she accepted the gift, its size and shape immediately giving away its contents. Unwrapping the paper Id put on for festivities sake, she pulled out my gift, a record in a jacket that was devoid of any artistry, as I had requested from Pop.
I smiled. "Go ahead. Put it on."
Rising gracefully to her feet, she walked over to the sound system and removed the dust cover from the turn table, carefully removing the album from its protective jacket and placing it on the spindle. Turning the system on, she carefully moved the arm over and set the needle down in the first groove, then stepped back, head cocked intently.
When the first strands of music swelled out into the room, I saw her body stiffen to statue-like rigidity. Her face paled, and I wondered if I had just made a horrible mistake.
Then a voice, more beautiful than any nightingales joined with the music and I saw her chest hitch once, convulsively, before it settled down again. Her eyes, a brilliant blue, slipped closed as the music continued to swell from the speakers.
"Dear God," Corinne whispered beside me, her hand coming up to her chest. "Is that Ecaterina DuPrie? I absolutely adore her work!"
Living with Ice for as long as I had, I knew my opera singers. I smiled, not taking my eyes off my raptly listening partner. "I didnt know you were such a connoisseur, Corinne. Thats exactly who it is."
Corinne laughed softly. "Figures youd know. What a wonderful gift! To have anything by Ms. DuPrie is a treasure indeed. It must have taken you ages to find."
"It wasnt as hard as you might think," I whispered back, still watching Ice.
The first stanza of the aria had ended, and when the second stanza began, I saw her chest hitch again, but this time, when the Prima Donnas voice sounded clear and beautiful, Ice lifted her own voice to the heavens, matching the singer note for note.
I felt a chill go down my spine.
Apparently, I wasnt the only one. "My god in heaven, that is absolutely uncanny! I never knew she could sing so beautifully!"
I led my proud smile say it all.
"Its like hearing a voice from beyond the grave," Corinne murmured, almost reverently. "Ice sounds exactly like her!"
"Ecaterina DuPrie is her mother."
Corinnes brief slump against my side finally took my gaze from my partner. "Are you alright?"
"Never tease an old woman, Angel," she growled. "Our hearts cant take it."
"Im not teasing, Corinne. I thought you knew."
She looked at me, eyes wide. "Knew? How in the world could I know something like that?" She peered more closely at Ice, as if truly seeing her for the first time. "Though perhaps I should have guessed. They do bear some striking similarities."
Before I could reply, the aria ended and one of those similaritiesfrom what Ice had told memade its appearance felt when my lover opened her eyes. Her expression seemed rather dazed, as if shed been dealt a hard blow and was only now beginning to shake it off. Her hand moved in a dream-like fashion toward the sound system, removing the needle from the record before another song could begin.
Then her expression cleared and her eyes drilled into mine.
Unable to keep from obeying the unvoiced command, I found myself rising to my feet, my gaze trapped helplessly within the surreal magnetism of hers.
After a long moment that seemed to span an eternity in which entire galaxies were born, lived out their lives, and died in brilliant blazes of glory, I felt, as much as saw, her step toward me, and saw, as much as felt, her body crush itself against mine, the entire length of her trembling. Her face, flushed and hot, pressed itself against the curve of my neck and I felt the gentle rain of tears scald a sweet brand upon my skin.
"Thank you," she whispered once, and then again, and then again, until it became a mantra, a prayer, a benediction.
Holding her tight to me, I reached up one hand to stoke her hair and her back, awed and humbled beyond measure at the gift Ice was giving me at that moment; that one unguarded moment where all barriers were down and only one thing was left standing.
Only the sound of Corinne moving away to give us our privacy broke the timeless lock of our embrace. Ice pulled away, but instead of hiding her tears, she seemed to bear them proudly, her carriage erect and her gaze unswerving. "Its alright, Corinne," she said in a voice which was still husky. "You dont have to leave."
Smiling slightly as Corinne took an uncertain step forward, she held open her arms and welcomed our friend into her embrace, enfolding her tenderly and placing a kiss upon her cheek.
When the gentle hug ended, Ice turned back to me. "How?" she asked simply.
I grinned. "You can thank Pop for the legwork. I gave him my request and he ran with it."
She took in a deep breath, then let it out slowly. "I will." She then shook her head in amazement. "I havent heard that voice in fifteen years. I didnt realize how much I missed it. Until now." The look in her eyes was incredibly tender and I fought hard against my own tears resurfacing.
Then a thought struck me, and I sobered. "The . . .um . . .last two tracks on the other side are from Werther."
She nodded in understanding. "I might wait awhile to listen to them."
I realized immediately what she meant and I knew that I wouldnt be hearing those particular songs for a good long while, if ever. Ice would need to be alone to deal with the feelings dredged up by that music and it was a privacy I would willingly grant her. I nodded, smiling.
"Thank you," she said again, her voice soft.
"Youre welcome." And then I intentionally echoed her words. "I just wanted to give something back to you that had been taken from you." And unspoken but still heard between us: the sound of your mothers voice.
It was a Christmas I would always remember.
Authors brief note: Ive been having some trouble with my emails over the last couple of days, so if anyone has written me and hasnt received a response yet, please be patient with me and Ill write back as soon as I possibly can. And for those who havent written me yet, what are ya waiting for? <g>
To Be Continued - Part 6
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