Disclaimers: None. If youíre still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what youíre getting into. If you donít have an open mind or if you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know. It wonít change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.

Authorís Notes: Just musing a little bit while I wait for my new technical beta to get caught up to me on the next Valiant story.

Blind Date

By D
AValiantHeart@cfl.rr.com

"No, Claire," the blonde woman pleaded over the phone even as she continued to put files away. "Please. Not tonight. You have no idea what McMaster threw at me today. Iím beat."

The red head on the other end of the phone hesitated. Only rarely had her friend pleaded exhaustion and usually with good reason. She and Mel had been best friends since they had been four years old and sheíd gone over to invite her shy neighbor to play. Theyíd gone through school together up to and including being college roommates. Only her engagement to Ryan had kept them from being roommates once theyíd graduated college, and now that she was a newlywed, Claire felt they were slipping away from each other. So despite Melís plea for mercy, she pressed forward.

"Please, Mel. Itís Friday night. Canít you take a few hours off for some fun? Címon," she cajoled. "We never see you anymore. All you do is work."

Mel shook her blonde head. She missed Claire, but understood well that her friend had another life and responsibilities away from her even though Ryan had gone out of his way to make sure Mel knew that she was part of the family too. In fact, most of his immediate family had made her feel welcome and she appreciated being included in things. Still, it wasnít that she begrudged Claire and Ryan the happiness theyíd found together. She rejoiced with them, but she was also just the tiniest bit jealous of what they shared. Mel had yet to find someone to share that with. Of course, dating might be a big step to fixing that situation, but.... The sound of Claireís voice got her attention again even as she grabbed another stack of files from her desk.

"Please, Mel. Iím asking you as a favor to a friend. Lark is in town and weíd like to take her out without her feeling like a third wheel."

"Lark? Whoís Lark?"

"Ryanís sister."

Mel paused in her filing, frowning. "Ryanís sister? Did I meet her at the wedding?" knowing it wasnít someone sheíd met at any of the family gatherings and trying to remember the scads of people sheíd been introduced to at the festive event. Ryan came from a large family and had and even bigger extended family. Mel had been a little overwhelmed by the sheer influx of people and though gracious to all and sundry couldnít have identified one from another at this point.

"No, she was overseas. The Army wouldnít let her come home," Claire replied with more than a hint of bitterness. "Mamaís having a big blowout tomorrow with the whole family, but we wanted a bit of quiet time with her tonight. She just got back this morning."

"Okay, so why do you need me there?" Mel asked reasonably. "If Ryan wants a chance to visit with his sister, why drag me into this?"

Claire blew out a breath and turned to her husband. "Here," she said, handing him the phone. "You explain it to her. I need to go pee."

Ryan looked at his wife, then the phone, then at Claire again before the sound of a voice on the other end reminded him that he was supposed to be convincing Mel to join them for dinner.

"Hello? Claire? Hello, are you still there??"

"Hey, Mel. Itís Ryan."

"Oh, hi, Ryan. Howíd you get stuck trying to convince me to go out tonight?"

Ryan scratched his head, trying to figure out the same thing. "Dumb luck?" he hazarded a guess, well pleased with himself when it drew a laugh from Mel. "Címon, Mel, please? Claire and Iíd like to take Lark out, but she wonít go if itís just the three of us. Just think of it as a blind date."

Claire cringed and smacked Ryan on the back of the head, knowing what Melís reaction was going to be to THAT particular suggestion. He flinched and glared at Claire, then flinched and pulled the phone from his ear when Melís screeching came across the line in decibel levels he felt she shouldnít be able to reach.

"Oh no! Nonononononono! There is no way I am going on a blind date!! Do you remember what happened the last time you guys set me up on a blind date?!?"

Ryan covered his head as Claire rained down blows on him until in a last bid for self-preservation, he handed her the phone and ran out into the living room, knowing Claire wouldnít follow with Mel on the line. Lark laughed, wondering what mischief had caused her brother to run out of his bedroom like the hounds of hell were on his heels. He grinned sheepishly and shrugged, unwilling to admit to anything out loud Ė yet. Instead, he went to the fridge and snagged two beers, handing one to his sister before taking a seat beside her.

Claire meanwhile was getting an earful of nonsensical words and phrases from the other end of the phone, waiting for Mel to take a break to breathe so she could jump in.

"Mel? Mel! MEL!! Shut up and listen a minute, will ya?" She waited again until all she could hear was the heavy breathing of her best friend trying to control the Scottish temper she was famous for. It burned hot and fast. Claire only hoped this would be one time it didnít burn long. She more than most knew just how long Mel could hold a grudge, and having never had that turned in her direction, she was quite content to keep her record intact.

"Good, now... listen. It is NOT a blind date, all right? This is you doing me a huge favor and making up a number so Lark doesnít feel like the odd man out. Think of it as a chance to make a new friend." Claire paused and lowered her voice. "Look, I know itís asking a lot, but she seems so lonely. Ryan says she was always something of a loner, but... this is, I dunno - different... something in her eyes." Claire sighed deeply remembering the oldness that even Larkís infectious smile couldnít hide Ė not that she smiled often. "Sheís only gonna be here a couple weeks. Weíd just like to show her a good time while sheís home." She paused, hearing the gears grinding in Melís head. "Please Mel. I think she could use another friend," leaving unspoken the sentiment, and so could you.

Mel hesitated, debating with herself internally for a long moment. On the one hand, sheíd been looking forward to a long hot bath and curling up with a good book. On the other, it wasnít like friends grew on trees, and she was honest enough to admit to herself, she was more than a little intrigued. Finally she blew out a breath.

"All right, Iíll go," she said, hearing Claire do a happy dance over the phone and chuckling at the mental images she got from that. "BUT," she continued sternly, and could hear the immediate change as her friend tried to resume a serious demeanor. "I am gonna go home and take a shower and change clothes first. Where can I meet yaíll?"

"Why donít we just swing by and pick you up?"

"Um, no. I donít wanna be stuck without a way to escape if things start to sour."

Claire blew out a disgusted breath. "Always the pessimist, huh?" remembering a time when that wasnít true. "Tell ya what Ė weíll meet you at your place in two hours. Then we can figure out the car arrangements, all right?"

Mel sighed. She really wasnít up to going out tonight, much less arguing with Claire. But sheíd already agreed, so.... She sighed again. "Fine, but donít be early please. Itíll be all I can do to get home and ready by then."

"All right, hon. Now, do you have a preference for dinner, or...?"

"No, not really. Just make it good, Claire. Itís been a long time since breakfast and Iím starving."

Auburn eyebrows flew into and equally red hairline. "You missed lunch?" shock clearly evident in her tone of voice.

Mel chuckled ironically. "I told you I was busy. Lemme go so I can get home and clean up. Iíll see you in a couple hours."

Thanks, babe! I owe you one!"

"Yeah, and donít think I wonít make you pay dearly for it," laughing. "Bye!"

"Brat!" Claire chuckled at the dial-tone, then replaced the phone on its base. Then she moved to the living room to get Lark and Ryanís input on the eveningís plans.

********

Mel looked at the clock as she fell in the door to her apartment. It had taken her a little longer to get home than sheíd expected, but she still had well over an hour to get ready. Long enough to take a bath, she thought with a smile. For the first time in a while she was glad for a lack of real life outside of work and her volunteering Ė the apartment was spotless to the point of looking like a model home.

She ran the hot water, feeling a sense of relaxation steal over her as its warmth permeated the chill that had settled over her. Mel stripped her clothing and sank into the water with a sigh of relief.

********

"He...wha...?" <sputter, sputter> "Gagh, hey... oh shit!"

"I knew it was a good idea for Ryan to drop me off, though I didnít expect to see you sleeping in the tub," Claire chuckled from the doorway. She pushed off and walked into the bathroom, kneeling down when she reached the side of the tub. "You all right, Mel?" Claire asked with sincere concern in her eyes and voice. She reached out and pushed dripping blonde hair out of her friendís eyes, noting for the first time the dark circles and lines of exhaustion in the drawn face. "Damn," she muttered. "You really are worn out, arenít ya babe? God, Iím sorry. Maybe we can put this off...."

Mel ran a wet hand over her face smiled tiredly. "No, no. Iím good. Just let me get out of this cold tub and into a hot shower."

Claire scooted out of the bathroom and called Ryan to let him know things were on track. She heard water running before she returned to lean on the counter. "I just called Ryan. He and Lark will meet us at Pandoraís in half an hour."

Mel rinsed off, then shut off the water before reaching for the towel sheíd flung over the door. She wrapped it around herself and stepped out, grabbing a second towel and wrapping her hair. It finally dawned on her that Claire was here and expected to go to the restaurant with her. She turned on her friend with a glare.

"Not that I donít appreciate it, because drowning was not on my list of things to do this weekend, but why exactly are you here? Didnít trust me?"

Claire swallowed the hurt Melís words caused, knowing the reason for them and accepting at least partial responsibility. "Actually, it was concern. I, um... I tried to call you to let you know where we were going, and you didnít answer the phone. After the third rather frantic call, Lark suggested Ryan bring me over to check on you."

Mel closed her eyes. "Sorry. I didnít mean to jump. Iím just a little nervous, I guess."

"And a lot tired," Claire added. "What is going on with you?"

"Mac signed several new authors in the past few months, and thereís a big push on my side to get them out into the stores for spring. He wants to start promoting and setting up book tours, and he canít until Iíve got the production work on track."

Mel stepped into her closet and slipped into her underwear before poking her head back out. "Did you say Pandoraís?"

"Yep. So are you behind, or...?"

Mel dropped her head momentarily before pulling her bra off and turning to a different area of the closet. Then she stuck her head back out the door, noticing for the first time the green sheath dress her friend wore.

"Do I wanna know why yaíll chose Pandoraís as opposed to something casual? And no, Iím not behind. Mac is just anxious and driving me nuts."

"I told you Ė we want to show Lark a good time and Pandoraís had great atmosphere for conversation."

Mel slipped into a teal sheath that complimented the one Claire had on and stepped out of her closet and walked back into the bathroom to apply the barest hints of make-up. Then she pulled the towel off her head and turned on the blow dryer, thankful her hair was pretty much brush and go.

At least... it *usually* was. Why it had to pick tonight to do creative things.... Finally, Claire took pity on her friend and in short order the two were ready and walking out the door.

"Brr," Claire commented, pulling her jacket tighter around her body. "What is with this freakazoid weather? It was warm this afternoon."

"Yeah, well itís downright chilly now. Címon, letís go have dinner. Iím starving."

Claire chuckled. "Iíll bet. You want a banana or something to tide you over?"

Mel turned her head briefly from the road to glance at her companion. "You have a banana?"

"Sure. I snagged a couple from your kitchen table before we left. Iím hungry too, and you know how long service generally takes there, especially on a Friday night. You know the only reason we snagged such a good reservation time is because Colm is the manager."

Mel smiled. "Canít you get Ryanís frat brother to speed up service for us then?" but accepting the banana anyway.

"I think he tells them to keep it slow so he can visit between courses."

Now Mel laughed. "Well if worse comes to worse, maybe he can talk to Lark."

"You really do expect the worst, donít you?" Claire asked, shaking her head sadly. "I remember a time when you would have enjoyed this as something new."

"I donít expect the worst from Lark. I mean... she and Ryan have the same parents, right? I just donít have high hopes for the situation itself. Címon, Claire. With my dating track record, would *you* expect much from a blind date? If I finish the evening with no major catastrophes, I will consider it a huge success."

Claire had nothing constructive to say, so she patted Melís hand that rested on the gearshift and turned her attention out the window for the remainder of the ride. Eventually, they pulled into the valet parking area.

"Do me a favor?" Claire asked as they waited for their turn.

"Sure," Mel readily agreed.

Just remember this is NOT a blind date. The rest should be easy."

Mel rolled her eyes, then nodded. "Fine. If it makes you feel better." Then they stepped out of the car and hurried into the restaurant.

********

"Címon bro," Lark said after a swallow of beer. "Why are you doing this? You know how I feel about blind dates. Besides," downing another swallow, "Iím only gonna be here a couple weeks."

"And?? Look, Lark, donít think of it as a blind date; think of it as a chance to make a new friend," wishing he had thought to have said that to Mel only moments before. Thinking of the pounding it would have saved him from his bride of six months. Larkís inelegant snort brought him back to his present day reality.

"A new friend?? Ryan, Iím not the type that makes friends, remember?"

"Yeah, well maybe itís time to change that," he had time to say before Claire came bouncing in to the living room, stealing his beer and taking a healthy swallow before handing it back to him.

"All righty. Everything is set with Mel. Now, where do we wanna go?"

"I thought Iíd call Colm and call in a favor," Ryan responded before Lark could draw a breath to protest.

"Oooh," Claireís brown eyes lit up. "Pandoraís?"

"Waitaminute," Lark broke in. "I donít mean to mess with this whole groove thing yaíllíve got going on, but I really donít think this is a good idea. I mean, címon. Iím only here for two weeks before I head back into the field. Iíd like a little time to just decompress without having to worry about entertaining someone I donít even know."

Claire sat down on the sofa, next to but not touching Lark, turning to face the sister-in-law she felt privileged to call friend. "Lark, can I be honest with you?"

Lark gave Claire a crooked smile and nodded. "Iíd prefer it, actually."

"I know youíre only gonna be here for a couple week and so does Mel. This isnít about entertaining one another and Iím not trying to set anyone up here except to put two lonely people in touch with each other. What happens after that is up to yaíll, but I think it could become a beautiful friendship if youíd let it. What could it hurt finding a new friend?"

Ryan sat quietly, knowing that whatever decision his sister made in the next few minutes would determine whether or not she and Mel had a chance of being friends... or anything else.

Claire kept her hands folded in her lap trying to keep from consciously clenching them as minutes passed in silence. Finally she heard Lark take a deep breath and blow it out again in a resigned huff.

"Fine. I can be sociable tonight, BUT," turning and pinning Claire with a baleful blue stare. "Donít expect anything out of this. I donít have the time or the inclination to pursue more than just a casual evening." Lark lifted a hand and rubbed her face, then closed her eyes and leaned her head back on the couch. "Tell me about her," she added almost indifferently. Claire and Ryan exchanged glances and then Claire proceeded to tell Lark about growing up with her best friend while Ryan went to make his phone call.

********

Now Lark and Ryan sat at the bar waiting for Claire and Mel to arrive. Neither of them were drinking Ė Ryan was the designated driver and Lark was simply too nervous. She hadnít met anyone new Ė male or female - in ages, except through her command, and that didnít count. She didnít have to be polite or socialize with any of the guys in her unit. And the few that she did socialize with outside of work had no expectations of her except to be one of the guys.

Be cool. Keep it casual. You can do this, Lark. Címon, breathe Ė in... out....

"You all right, Lark?" Ryan asked, his voice bringing her out of her brown study. "You look a little pale."

She tried to wipe her sweaty palms nonchalantly on her uniform skirt, hoping her brother wouldnít notice the nervous action. Which he did, of course, but before he could comment, something else caught his attention. He whistled low and deep in his throat.

Lark turned her head and felt the blood rush to her head at the sight. She wasnít sure what sheíd been expecting, but it damn sure wasnít what was approaching her through the crowd rather too quickly for her liking.

Great... Claire never mentioned she was gorgeous. Why do I suddenly feel like Iíve been set up and this really is a blind date? Lark stiffened unconsciously as the thought crossed her mind and she summoned up her cool and cordial military façade as the two women reached her and her brother.

Claire wondered about the flush of color in Larkís cheeks, but failed to notice the icy coolness in the blue eyes that took both her and Mel in a single, sweeping glance. She smiled brightly at her sister-in-law before gesturing to Mel.

"Lark, this is my very best friend in the whole world, Melody Theresa McKay. Mel, this is Lark...." pausing at the glare the soldier gave her. "Um, this is my sister-in-law Lark Kearney."

"Iím very happy to meet you," Mel said, extending her hand. The low, musical voice caught her attention, but Lark noticed the slight shaking in Melís hand and looked up to note the dark circles that underscored otherwise brilliant green eyes. She felt her frosty demeanor melt just the slightest bit, reading the uneasiness Mel felt over the situation theyíd been placed in.

"The pleasure is mine, Melody," Lark said as she accepted the proffered hand rigidly, still feeling awkward about the circumstances they found themselves in.

"Mel, please," the blonde woman answered instantly. "I know we donít really know each other, but Melody just reminds me of how completely non-musical I am." Mel gave Lark a small smile, and the taller womanís brow rose to meet her hairline.

"Imagine having the name of Lark and being able to sing like one."

Mel laughed softly, and Lark felt well-pleased with herself at hearing the sound. The evening was off to an interesting start.

********

Well, it had been interesting, if not entirely successful, Lark thought later as she settled into Claire and Ryanís guest room. Mama had been pretty understanding when Lark had backed up Ryanís argument that she stay with him and his new bride. Now the soldier had to wonder if sheíd been set-up all the way around. Not that I couldnít be interested, but still....

Most of the evening had had a slightly awkward pall cast over it. Almost as though the four of them were trying too hard to convince one another that it wasnít a date, blind or otherwise, for any of them. It might have succeeded if nervous self-consciousness hadnít been so prevalent every time she and Mel had traded glances.

On the other hand, theyíd managed some intriguing conversation when theyíd spoken even if she and Mel had taken opposite viewpoints on practically every single topic that had been discussed. It had been funny to watch Claire and Ryan try to keep up, right up to the last exchange.

"So youíre a doctor," Mel had commented as the waitress set their entrees in front of them. She gestured to the insignia Lark wore on her collar.

"Yes," Lark answered briefly. It was the first time either she or Mel had attempted to start a conversation. Up to that point, they had been making comments to Ryan and Claireís dialogues.

"But youíre also a soldier Ė sworn to protect and defend," put like a statement though the quirk of her eyebrow conveyed the hint of a question.

"Yes," Lark said again more slowly, wondering where this was going.

"Donít you find that to be something of an oxymoron? I mean seriously," Mel hurried on, seeing a fire light in the back of those blue eyes. "How can you uphold the Hippocratic Oath and be a true soldier? Doesnít one pledge negate the other?"

Lark stared hard into Melís eyes, looking for signs of mockery or derision. She got enough of that from people sheíd never even met. She sincerely hoped this wasnít going to be more of the same judgmental rhetoric she was constantly assaulted by. Mel had impressed her despite herself and Lark found herself not wanting to have that taken away.

What Lark did find, much to her surprise and honest disbelief, was a real desire to understand reflected back to her in those green eyes. Then she remembered Claireís earlier description of Mel Ė "She was always questioning, always pushing to learn more. She would have been a hell of a reporter, but she just doesnít write anymore." Claire had refused to say any more on the subject and Lark knew anything else would have to come from Mel herself.

Ryan had opened his mouth to answer Mel rather heatedly when both Claire and Lark laid a hand on his arm. He snapped his jaw shut and waited for Lark to speak, noting that neither Mel nor Lark had broken eye contact with one another.

Lark set her utensils down and folded her hands neatly on the edge of the table. "No," she said calmly. "I donít. I am always fighting in one way or another Ė pain, disease, death. Sometimes the only way to eradicate a problem that is bent on destroying everything in its path is to eliminate it."

Mel had listened to the carefully chosen words and neutral tone, hearing the unspoken words just as plainly. She held Larkís gaze for a moment longer before her eyes moved back to her plate.

"Thank you," Mel had whispered so low that the soldier nearly missed them. Lark wondered what exactly she was being thanked for, but nodded her head in acceptance.

"Youíre welcome," sheíd replied and returned her gaze to her own plate, picking up her fork and resuming her meal. Lark felt Ryan relax and chuckled inwardly. She was fairly certain heíd gotten far more than heíd ever expected from this set-up.

Lark chuckled and reached for the light to switch it off. It had been an all right evening despite the awkwardness. She almost wished sheíd asked Mel to go to Mamaís tomorrow, then sighed as darkness fell. Nah, Iíve done enough socializing this trip. I am too tired to pursue anything, even if I wanted to... even if it was mutual... even if....

She fell asleep, not even realizing her thoughts followed her into her dreams.

********

It was the banging on the door that interrupted a perfectly wonderful, deep REM sleep. Mel sat up and rubbed her eyes, noting that her clock read nine-seventeen. Now who in the hell couldnít let her have a good sleep-in? she wondered crossly. Itís Saturday, for Chrissakes Ė the first Saturday sheíd taken off in two months. She had half a mind to stick her head under the pillow and ignore the pounding. Then she heard her name called and judging by the sound, figured sheíd better get up and see who it was before they tore her door down.

Mel tied on her robe and scrubbed her fingers through her hair, scowling at the picture she made in the mirror. Then the knocking sounded again.

"All right! All right! Hold your damn horses, will ya? Decent people were trying to sleep here, ya know!" She yanked open the door, then promptly shut it again.

Lark blinked beneath her sunglasses, her eyebrow popping up over the top at the unexpected picture Mel had presented to her. She raised her hand to knock more softly when the door suddenly opened again.

Mel slammed the door shut when she realized just *who* was on the other side... dropping her head on the casing when it took all of two seconds for her to remember just exactly how she looked. She sighed deeply. Good manners dictated that she not leave the woman standing there Ė though those same good manners said that a person never dropped by without calling first, especially on a Saturday morning. Then she ran her hands through her hair, sighed again and pulled the door open again Ė only to be met by Larkís clenched fist. Only the soldierís quick reaction kept Melís face from meeting her hand.

"Sorry," Lark muttered, not a little embarrassed. It was evident by the scowl on Melís face that she was an unexpected and not quite welcome guest. Lark mentally cursed and railed at Mama for sending her on such a foolís errand. But even as she watched, Melís expression clear, and though she didnít exactly smile, she was no longer frowning as she gestured for the warrior to enter her home.

"Sorry for...."

"Iím sorry I...."

They began to speak simultaneously and Mel motioned for Lark to go ahead. "Iím sorry," she mumbled, looking down at the ground to hide the smile that wanted to creep onto her face at the image Mel made. "Mama asked me... no, Mama TOLD me to come over here and fetch you for the big party the familyís having today. Claire was supposed to call ahead and let you know I was coming."

Mel scrubbed her hands through her hair, making it stand up a little bit more before blowing out a breath. "I appreciate it, Lark, but Iíd really rather not. This is the first Saturday Iíve had off in two months, and Iíve got so much to catch up on."

Lark glanced around at the spotless apartment and pulled her shades off to cock an eyebrow at Mel. Then she noted again the dark circles and tired eyes and sighed, chewing on an earpiece. "Look, could you call Mama and tell her that then, please? ĎCause sheíll have my hide if I come back without you."

Finally Mel looked up and directly into Larkís eyes. "Youíre serious?"

The soldier nodded emphatically. "Youíve seen her with her company manners on. You wait til she goes Mama on ya."

Melís eyes widened comically. "You really are serious."

"Oh yeah. So if you could call her, Iíll let you get back to bed... or whatever else you planned to do today." Lark had to smirk to herself. Theyíd probably had more conversation between them in five minutes than theyíd managed in the four hours theyíd been together the previous evening. Amazing what a near crisis could do for conversational skills.

Mel chuckled. "You mean to tell me the big, bad Army Doctor is afraid of her Mama?"

Lark drew herself up straight and let the fire blaze out of her eyes. "Who are you calling ARMY??"

Mel took an unconscious step backwards and Lark moved forward. Melís knees hit the sofa and she sat down somewhat unexpectedly, leaving Lark to close the distance between them until she towered over the blonde woman.

"Well, Claire said...."

"*I* am a United States Marine," she said forcefully, jamming a thumb in her chest.

Now Mel stood up, nose to collarbone and poked a finger into Lark. "How was I supposed to know?? Green is green is green in my book. You had on a green uniform. And Claire said you were Army."

Lark had a passing thought to wonder how green could be green to a woman whose eyes were the most amazing shade of that particular color she had ever seen. And where did THAT thought come from? she had time to wonder before she removed Melís finger from her chest and stepped back a pace.

"Iíll tell Mama you canít make it. Sorry to have troubled you."

Mel watched Lark walk out the door wondering exactly how the conversation had gone so wrong so quickly. She listened to the car door slam, then an engine started before the noise faded into the distance. Mel shook her head and moved back to her bedroom, leaving speculation on what had just occurred behind her as she settled into her bed for a little more shut eye.

********

"Mama, I told you Ė she was exhausted. I woke her up!" Lark nearly wailed. "SOMEONE," glaring in Claireís direction, "didnít call and let her know I was coming."

Claire shrugged. "I tried. You didnít take your cell with you so I could let you know she didnít answer."

Lark snorted. "Iím beginning to have my doubts as to whether or not the woman *has * a phone."

Mama and Claire exchanged glances, though neither commented. Instead Mama said to Lark, "Well, Iím sure you tried. At least she knows sheís welcome."

"Umm," Lark said noncommittally, glaring in Claireís direction again. "At least she knows I am a MARINE now."

Claire chuckled nervously. "Oh, heh heh... whoops! I um... I think I hear Ryan calling me. Gotta go." And she slid out of her chair and out the door before Mama could say a word.

"I worry about that one sometimes," she said, shaking her head. "But she loves your brother and has been very good for him." She gently stroked Larkís shoulder length hair, marveling at the red tincture so obvious in the dark locks after her daughterís extended service in the desert. Lark let her head fall forward, enjoying the extra attention.

"I worry about you too," Mama said softly, knowing Lark heard her by the subtle tension that crept into her shoulders and back. "But I am very proud of you, cariad. You do so much good," Mama said, and then stopped, though there was so much more she wanted to say. "Now, go outside and play with your brothers and cousins. It has been a while since we had all the family over and we need to make the most of it."

Lark smiled as she stood and leaned over to kiss Mamaís soft cheek. "Thanks, Mama."

Mama swatted her backside. "Go on now. And send your Daddy in here please."

"All righty," Lark said as she hurried out to join the already noisy clan out in the backyard gearing up to play some volleyball. It was shaping up to be a stellar day despite the rocky start sheíd had.

********

It was closer to one oíclock than noon when Mama rang the dinner bell and a cheer went up from the entire clan. Men whoíd been grilling transferred meat to large platters while the women went to help Mama move the multitude of covered dishes out to the long tables that had been set up in the back yard. It wasnít until they were seated around the long table that Lark noticed her and she almost bit her tongue through to keep from asking Mama when Mel had arrived and why sheíd come.

Mama spoke as though Lark had asked her questions aloud.

"Mel called shortly after you got back apologizing for sending you away like she had. She pled exhaustion for her lack of manners and asked if she was still welcome. I sent your Daddy after her."

Larkís brows furrowed. What lack of manners? Did I miss something in our exchange? Mamaís voice got her attention again.

"Sheís such a nice girl, but she always seems... hmmm... Iím not sure. Aloof, maybe, or possibly it should be considered lonely more than anything else. Sad perhaps." Mama shook her head again. "Itís hard to say. She puts on such a good front for folks, but Mama knows these things. That child is missing something in her life."

Lark chose not to comment, concentrating instead on filling her belly with all the good victuals that had been provided by the various family members. But her eyes became thoughtful, and Mama noticed more than once that the blue eyes strayed towards the far end of the table where Mel sat. Good, Mama thought to herself. It is time you see more than just the small world you function in, my daughter. It is time to see the wider world you live in.

As afternoon gave way to early evening, the energy level waned and the adults found themselves in scattered little groups talking about whatever came to mind. Laughter followed much of the discussion, and Mama smiled, pleased that the day had been mostly a success. She stepped out of the kitchen and held up her hands gratified when all eyes tracked to her and silence fell.

"Itís so nice to have Lark home, and I want to thank you all for coming over and welcoming her back." The family cheered and Lark, blushing, stood and acknowledged the noise. "However," Mama continued before Lark could resume her seat, "I believe my baby girl owes us a song for Claire and Ryanís wedding that she missed." Mama gave Lark a mock glare and planted her hands on her hips. "Whaddya say?"

The cheering redoubled itself and Lark glared at Mama, who grinned real big even as she shrugged her shoulders and lifted her hands in a well-known gesture of resignation. Lark looked around, finding good-natured amusement in most of the faces that returned her glance. But it was a pair of politely interested green eyes that made her drop her head and hold out her hand for the microphone she knew Mama had set up for the occasion.

"What am I singing?" she mumbled, hoping Ryan had chosen. Heíd at least choose something she knew and could sing without warm-up. If Mama chose, sheíd be as likely to end up singing Mass hymns as anything else.

Ryan moved to the karaoke machine and inserted a disc before he mumbled in Larkís ear. Her head fell again and she muttered, "Iím gonna kill you later." Ryan just flashed her a grin and moved back to Claireís side, extending a hand to her and leading her to the swiftly cleared makeshift dance area.

Lark closed her eyes as the introduction played focusing on breathing. When she opened them her eyes were on a picture only she could see and her voice rang out clear and true. Slowly, as the song progressed, more and more couples joined the bride and groom on the dance Ďfloorí until almost everyone was dancing. As the song ended, Lark came back to her surroundings, absently noting that Mel sat a little apart from the festivities with an odd look on her face. Lark placed the mic down before stepping off the stage to loud applause.

She accepted the adulation of her family and friends graciously. Then Mama pulled her aside talking softly, but gesturing wildly. Lark tried to argue, shaking her dark head emphatically, but it was clear by the slump of her shoulders that Mama won her point.

Lark slowly made her way around the yard as music continued to play and folks continued to dance. She stopped and spoke to everyone until she reached Mel.

"Um... Mama asked me to drive you home when youíre ready, so just let me know."

"We can leave now, unless you wanna stay," Mel offered, feeling as uncomfortable as Lark looked.

Lark shook her head. "Nope. I think itís probably safer to leave now. It only goes downhill from here... especially when Colin and Cedric get enough beer in them to think they can sing. It ainít pretty." She gave a crooked smile.

Mel returned the expression tremulously, appreciating the effort Lark was making given their earlier encounter. "Thatís okay, then. Iíd prefer to leave with the sound of your song in my ears if you donít mind. You really do sing like a songbird." Then they both blushed Ė Mel at her boldness and Lark at the compliment.

"Sorry, I...."

"No," Lark cut in. "That was nice, thanks." She motioned the blonde woman to walk in front of her. "Címon, before we canít get out of here."

The ride back to Melís apartment was silent and though still a little awkward it wasnít completely unpleasant. They arrived at Melís door and Lark made a move to get out when Mel stopped her. "Itís okay, Lark. I got it, but, um... thanks for the ride home."

"Welcome," Lark replied.

"I um... Iím sorry for this morning," Mel said softly. "Iím not sure what...."

"No, it wasnít your fault. You had no way of knowing.... Look, weíre square, all right?"

Mel nodded. "Thanks," she said.

Lark watched as Mel slid from the car and waited until she was inside before pulling away and heading towards Ryan and Claireís. She found herself wishing for her bike, loving the feeling of freedom it gave her. Sheíd *almost* chosen it to drive Mel home, then decided they werenít nearly familiar enough to ride together so intimately.

The house was dark and quiet, and Lark was thankful for the peace. The day had been good, but it had also been emotionally draining on several levels, and she was glad to have the house to herself for however long it lasted. She dropped into bed, intending to spend a little time thinking, but fell asleep almost as soon as her head touched her pillow.

********

Monday came around too quickly for Mel. Sheíd pushed all day Sunday to do her catch-up work and went in to work more tired than sheíd left on Friday, and the day proceeded to go downhill from there. It was a true indication of the week to come.

By Thursday, everything came to a head, and Mel made her way to McMasterís office without prelude.

"Mel?"

"Mac, Iíve gotta get out of here for a while before I kill someone." She rubbed her forehead. "God, it must be a full moon or something because I have had every conceivable thing that could, go wrong and a few inconceivable as well. I mean really... how much common sense does it take to know that the glue flow has to be consistent to the paper flow?"

Macís eye grew wide, horrified at the mere thought of the mess that Mel had just described. Though his name was on the office door, he knew it was her knowledge and drive that kept the production end running. He took a closer look, realizing that she was pushing the brink of exhaustion.

Mac leaned back in his chair, regarding her for a long moment before he spoke. "Mel, take a long weekend, will ya? Take the rest of today and tomorrow and go do something fun. Hell, go sleep for the next few days if itíll help. I canít have you running yourself into the ground." He held up his hand when she would have interrupted. "Weíre doing all right. I mean it... I donít want to see you here until Monday morning."

Melís shoulders dropped, a tacit acknowledgment of the relief she felt at Macís pronouncement. She nodded her head and rubbed her eyes. "All right. Thanks, Mac."

It was so nice to see sunshine that Mel immediately felt her spirits lift. She picked up a burger and fries from the local burger joint then went to the nearby park to sit outside and enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. Mel ate slowly letting her eyes wander around in appreciation of the day and feeling the stresses of her job roll off her back.

When she was done, she threw her trash away and leaned back on the bench, closing her eyes and simply absorbing the positive energy she felt flowing all around her. The skin at the back of her neck tingled seconds before a soft voice addressed her.

"May I join you?"

Mel jumped and her eyes popped open to see fairly amused blue ones gazing back at her. "Jesus, you scared the shit outta me!" An eyebrow rose and one side of Larkís mouth tipped up in a crooked smile. Mel found herself responding to the charm in that smile and motioned to the bench. "Please."

"Thanks," Lark said. She sat back and mimicked Melís posture, crossing her arms over her chest and her legs at the ankles. Then she leaned her head back and closed her eyes, soaking in the sunlight she was sitting in.

Mel cocked her head slightly, a little confused, then shrugged her shoulders and returned to simply being. How long they sat there, Mel didnít know, but it was finally Larkís voice that broke the spell.

"So, what brings you out here in the middle of the day? Everything all right?"

Mel slit her eyes open and cut them in Larkís direction. She wasnít sure what she expected, but Lark was sitting in the same position Ė head back and eyes closed. Mel resumed hers not noticing Larkís movement that brought her facing Mel and watching the shifts in her expression.

Mel gave a wry chuckle. "Mac gave me some time off before I went postal." She turned her head and opened her eyes, jumping a little at the regard she found in the blue eyes watching her. "Jesus! How do you do that?"

"Do what?" but she gave Mel a knowing smirk.

Mel slapped Larkís thigh then jerked her hand back self-consciously. "You know what! Sneaking up on a person; moving without a sound."

Lark laughed. "Lots of practice." She turned her attention back to the park, trying to make Mel feel more comfortable. "So should I be concerned youíre gonna go postal?"

Mel took a long moment to look at Lark, seeing a myriad of emotions flicker across her face. Lark turned to look at her again with a smirk and Melís lips twitched before she closed her eyes again.

"Nope," she drawled. "Just being out here has given me a new outlook."

"Does the same thing for me."

It was quiet again for a time after that, both women content with the silence. Finally, Lark turned to Mel. "You need a ride home?"

"No, thanks. Iíve got my car," she said pointing to the parking lot. "But I appreciate the offer," giving Lark a genuine smile.

Lark returned the smile and nodded. "All right then. Iím gonna head out then. I promised Mama Iíd stop by. I think she has more doís for me."

They stood up simultaneously and walked back towards the parking lot. Mel chuckled at Larkís words. "Does she save them up for ya?"

Lark gave a self-depreciative laugh. "I think so. I really think she believes if Iím not busy every minute Iím home, Iíll run screaming back to the Corps."

"Sheís kept you busy all week then, I take it."

"Well, sheís tried. Iíve managed to take the bike out a time or too before she could catch me," gesturing to the Harley sitting next to Melís car.

"Niiiice," Mel drawled.

Lark shrugged. "Sheís my one true vanity."

An awkward silence fell then until the reached their respective modes of transportation.

"Um... look," Lark said after theyíd been staring uneasily at one another for some minutes. "Would you maybe like to go out this weekend? See a movie... or something?"

"I... I think that would be, um... nice. Yes," Mel continued more confidently. "Iíd like that."

Lark smiled, a real smile that lit up her whole face. "Good, good. You, uh... you wanna give me your phone number? I mean, I could ask Claire, but Iíd never hear the end of it."

"Neither would I," Mel smiled ruefully. "Yeah, here," reaching into her car and pulling a sheet of paper from a folder, then scratching her name and number on it before folding it into Larkís hand. It was on the tip of her tongue to invite Lark over for dinner when she decided to see how the first real date went first. She figured thereíd be time enough if the movies went well.

"Tomorrow afternoon, maybe? We could see a matinee and then go to dinner somewhere?"

"Sounds good, Lark," Mel replied, opening her door and slipping inside.

"Yeah, it does, doesnít it?" Lark mumbled, not realizing Mel heard her. In a louder voice she said, "Can I call you tonight, then?"

Mel smiled. "Iíll look forward to it."

Lark closed the car door and stepped over to her bike, straddling it before sliding the helmet onto her head. "So will I," she said with a hidden smile as she waved back to Mel as she pulled out of the lot. She watched the blonde woman drive off before cranking the bike up and heading it towards Mamaís. The rest of her leave was suddenly looking up. She just might have to thank her meddling brother for that blind non-date.

********

The movie was a cheesy murder mystery, just goofy enough to be enjoyable and it gave them plenty of fodder to argue about over dinner.

"Aw, címon. Donít tell me you didnít have it figured out at the beginning."

"Well it could have been the butler, ya know. The butler ALWAYS does it."

"No way. There were too many clues...." And so the conversation went as they became a little more comfortable with one another though neither delved too deep.

When dinner came to an end, Mel drove them back to her apartment. Lark had come over on her bike, and they had mutually decided to take Melís car, though the rain was as much a contributing factor to that decision as anything else. They walked to Melís door together and stood on the small porch.

"Would you like to come in?" Mel invited shyly, immediately let down when Larkís dark head shook in a negative response.

"I should probably get home while the rainís let up. It sounds ridiculous, but even with me staying nearby at Ryan and Claireís, I swear Mama worries more about me riding my bike in the rain than she does about me being part of the military... even in a war zone."

Mel gave Lark a smile. "Somehow I doubt that. I imagine Mama worries about you, no matter what."

Larkís head dropped and she gave an exaggerated sigh. "Youíre probably right. I know I get blamed for most of her gray hair in spite of the fact that I have two older brothers and one twin."

"You have a twin?"

"Yeah, Ryan and I are fraternal twins." Lark cocked her head to one side. "Couldnít you tell?"

Mel shook her head. "No. I mean yaíll look like brother and sister, but...." The rumble of thunder cut her off and she looked up at the sky. "Iíd better let you get home before it starts up again. Will you call me when you get there, so I know you got home okay?"

"Yeah. Hey, if the weather clears up tomorrow, the family is supposed to take over one of the pavilions at the beach. Wanna come?"

"I donít...."

"Please." She blew out a breath. "This is so hard," Lark muttered sotto voce, though Mel heard her and smiled to herself. "I, um... look, I had a really good time today, and Iíd like to do it again if youíre willing. Just a chance to get to know you better Ė maybe become friends? I figured you might be more comfortable if there were other folks around, ya know... not feel as pressured or something. Never mind. I sound like an idiot."

Lark turned and took a single step back towards her bike, then found her hand clasped in a warm grip. She looked down at their joined hands then up into Melís face and cocked an eyebrow in question.

"Youíre not an idiot. This *is* hard. I... I had a nice time today too and um, if you donít think your family would mind sharing you a little more, Iíd like to come to the beach." At her last word, the bottom dropped out of the sky and rain started falling in torrents. "Of course, the beach is an outside chance right now. Sure you donít wanna come in?"

"Iím all at sixes and sevens over what I want right now." Lark blew out a breath and her bangs puffed out momentarily before falling back into place. Mel smiled gently, understanding all too well the frustration Lark was experiencing.

"Tell ya what," she said, unlocking her door and pushing it open slightly before extending her hand. Larkís came up to meet it automatically and Mel placed her keys into the outstretched palm then folded Larkís fingers around them. "Take my car. You can bring it back when you come pick me up tomorrow, all right? Please," she continued, seeing Larkís hesitation. "Iíll feel better about you driving back to Claire and Ryanís."

Lark swallowed and nodded. "All right. Thanks. Um... what time should I pick you up in to morning?"

"Whenever is fine. Nine? Ten?

"Iíll shoot for nine-thirty, howís that?"

"Sounds good, Lark." Mel leaned forward and brushed her lips on the brunetteís cheek, wondering where her courage came from, but enjoying the moment for what it was. "See ya in the morning." Then she stepped inside her apartment and closed the door behind her.

"Please donít let me be wrong about this," she said before moving away from the door.

Lark stood stock still for a long moment before shaking herself out of her reverie and sprinting for Melís car. She got in and slammed the door shut, starting the motor and gripping the steering wheel tight. "Please donít let me be wrong about this," she said softly before putting the car in gear and heading for Claire and Ryanís.

********

The banging on the door drew her from a deep, soundless sleep, and a look at the clock got a glare before her mind registered the time.

"Oh shit!"

Mel scrambled from the bed and into her robe, sparing a resigned look at her reflection before stumbling to the door. She jerked the door open to see a sheepish looking Lark staring back at her.

"Guess Iím a little early, huh?" she asked, scuffing her feet on the concrete and trying her damnedest not to smile at the adorable sleep-rumpled picture Mel made.

Mel ran her hands through her hair, causing it to stand up just a little more. "No," blowing out an exasperated breath. "I overslept. Can you give me a few minutes to grab a shower? Iíll put the coffee on."

"Take your time," Lark assured her, waving her in the direction of the bathroom. "Itís not like weíre on a schedule."

"Thanks, Lark. Iíll be quick. Oh, and make yourself at home. The coffee wonít take a minute and youíre welcome to a cup."

Lark just smiled and made shooing motions. Mel blushed and nodded, aware she was babbling to cover her embarrassment for oversleeping and only making it worse. "Iím just gonna...." pointing towards the bathroom.

Lark nodded with a smile and decided to take Mel up on the invitation to make herself at home. She walked slowly around the room, acquainting herself a little more with the woman who was well on her way to becoming a friend to Lark.

It was personable, but scrupulously neat. There was a nice entertainment area in the living room with a scattering of pictures, and a small selection of books on the tables. But it was the dining room that caught Larkís attention.

The small dining area had been converted into an office area and had books, legal pads and manuscripts everywhere. Lark wandered over and noted that many of the manuscripts were hand-written and the legal pads were filled with handwriting as well. She wondered if they were Melís, remembering Claireís comment about her being a writer. Her curiosity almost got the best of her, but she stopped, knowing how she would feel about prying if the situation were reversed. With a little luck, sheíll share with me, thinking of the secrets she would need to share eventually if anything was to come of their acquaintanceship Ė even if it was only friendship.

The computer had an almost unused look and it occurred to Lark how unusual that was in this day and age. Another mystery, she thought and moved on to the kitchen when she heard the coffee finish brewing.

Mel stepped out from her bedroom a scant few minutes later to find Lark stretched out in her recliner reading one of the books sheíd found on the end table. Mel took a minute to appreciate the picture in front of her. Long, tanned legs, cut-off shorts, a gray T-shirt that clearly stated MARINES across the front of a well-rounded chest, long neck, piercing blue eyes that were gazing right at her with a hint of amusement reflected in them.

"Oh shit," Mel muttered, feeling the blush creep up her cheeks.

"So, do I pass muster?" lips twitching in a grin.

"Um, yeah, yeah. Ya do. Um, just let me grab a cup of coffee and weíll go."

"Okay. You look cute yourself," noting Melís own cut-offs and a sleeveless cotton button-up that was tied at her waist, just hinting at what was hidden beneath.

"Thanks. So did you wear the shirt for me?" Mel asked seriously, though her eyes held more than a hint of teasing.

"Huh? Oh, no. Most of my stuff says Marines on it somewhere. I stole one of Ryanís oxfordís yesterday," she continued before Mel could ask the obvious question.

"What is it with you and the Army anyway?" Mel felt Lark stiffen and wished she could withdraw the question. "Iím sorry," she said quietly, laying a hand on the strong forearm. "You donít have to tell me if it makes you uncomfortable."

Mel felt Lark take a deep breath and release it before some of the tension went out of the muscles beneath her fingertips. Lark turned and gave her a crooked half-smile that didnít quite reach her eyes. "Thanks," she said. "Um, you ready to go?"

Mel took a deep breath, trying not to feel hurt by Larkís obvious unwillingness to share, and then chided herself silently. You havenít been particularly forthcoming either, Melody Theresa. Cut the woman some slack; itís not like youíre good friends or anything. "Yeah," is what she said aloud. "Lemme go grab a towel and some sunscreen." She flashed Lark a smile - a little forced but she doubted Lark would be able to tell the difference. "Not all of us have a built in tan factor, ya know."

Lark let her eyes run the length of Melís body, noting the toned arms and legs that were visible to her gaze and trying to remove the awkward pall she could feel between them again with a hint of teasing. "I dunno. You donít seem to be lacking."

Mel blushed. "Compared to my normal tan, trust me... be right back."

It was when they were in the car and well on their way that Lark stepped into it, her curiosity overcoming her natural caution. "So, Claire tells me youíre a writer," she started conversationally. "What do you write? Could I perhaps...."

"I donít write," Mel cut in flatly. "Claire was mistaken."

"But...." Lark started, thinking of all the manuscripts and legal pads sheíd seen in Melís office alcove and wondering what the mystery really was. Then she got a look at the expression on Melís face. "Sorry," she said. "I must have misunderstood."

"Yeah, I guess you did, but no harm, right?" The self-conscious silence that filled the car was its own answer. They went another few miles before Mel spoke. "Look, this just isnít working. Maybe you should just take me home."

Lark pulled off the road and turned to face Mel, wanting to see her answers as well as hear them.

"Is that what you want?"

"I donít know. I just... I donít like this feeling."

"I said I was sorry."

"I know. Itís not that. I um... I donít do dating very well, mostly for this reason. It gets uncomfortable pretty quickly for me."

It was on the tip of Larkís tongue to ask why... to demand an answer so sheíd know who to go beat up for.... Wait just a damn minute. When did I become this womanís champion?

She took Melís hand in her own. "Melody?" That brought startled green eyes up to hers. Lark gave her a deprecating grin. "I really like your full name; do you mind?"

Mel shook her head. "I like the way it sounds when you say it," with a shy grin.

"All right, good. Look, Iíll be honest with you. I donít do dating well either. Most people are put off by me for any number of reasons. Can we put aside the dating thing and just do things as friends? I think if we take the Ďdatingí angle out of the equation and concentrate on being friends, weíd do better. I mean maybe something will come of this and maybe it wonít, but either way, Iíd like to get to know you better, to have you in my life as a friend."

"Iíd like that," Mel responded honestly. "Just be patient with me, please. There are some things...."

Lark gently squeezed the hands she still held. "I think itís safe to say there are those kinds of things for both of us," she said wryly. "Letís just take it one day at a time."

"I can do that. And Iíll try to keep in mind that weíre still learning and sharing."

"Me too," Lark agreed. "Now, are we okay? You still want me to take you home or are you up to my family at the beach?"

"You think theyíd let me play volleyball?"

"Darliní, you can be on my team," Lark said rakishly, wiggling her eyebrows in tandem.

"Well, what are we waiting for, pokey?" smacking the dashboard for emphasis. "Címon. Get the lead out!"

Lark laughed and pulled back onto the highway. Both women felt infinitely better about themselves and each other. The day was definitely looking up.

********

"God, I am beat," Mel said, flopping onto the couch hours later. "I think Iím also sunburned," pulling aside one side of both shirt and swimsuit.

Lark flinched at the difference in color. "Oh yeah. Ouch! Youíd better go soak that out before it gets worse. Do you have some aloe gel and some lavender oil?"

"Aloe gel, yes; lavender oil, no."

"All right. Iíll see if I can find some. If you put the aloe on for a day or so, itíll pull out the heat and then you can use the lavender to turn it to tan without peeling of ten layers of skin first.

"Really? Is that why you always smell faintly of lavender?"

"Part of the reason, yep." She noticed what I smell like? "I will warn you it is overwhelmingly powerful to begin with. And you wonít wanna put on any perfume or bath spray. The alcohol base will just make things worse, especially the vanilla you seem fond of. That one is a double whammy."

Mel grinned as she blushed. "Well, at least I wonít have to reek of onion or garlic." She cringed when she shifted and the material scraped across her tender skin.

"Look, Iím gonna go so you can get in the tub. Can I... would you like to do something tomorrow?"

"Would you let me cook for you?"

"Iíd like that. Can I pick something up, or...?"

"Tell ya what Ė why donít you come by about ten-thirty and weíll see what we can find. If we donít like our choices, weíll go pick out something together."

"Sounds like a plan."

"Thanks, Lark... for being patient with me. I had a really good time today."

"So did I, Melody," leaning down and brushing her cheek with her lips this time. "Thanks. Iíll see ya tomorrow." And she was out the door before Mel could move, starting her bike and donning her helmet before pulling away in a riot of noise.

Mel shook her head bemusedly and moved towards the bathroom, easing out of her clothes absently as she reviewed the day. It had been a good one, and it gave her hope for more of the same in the near future, deliberately putting Larkís soon return to duty out of her mind.

********

The banging on the door woke Mel from a deep REM sleep and brought her sitting upright in the bed glaring in the direction of the door. She stumbled from the bed and stomped to the door, jerking it open Ė to find Claire grinning back at her.

"What the hell is wrong with you??" Mel growled at her. "Do you know what time it is??"

Claire looked down at her well-dressed self before giving Mel a smirk. "Some of us have already been to early morning mass. So yeah, I know what time it is," she answered, pushing past Mel into her apartment and taking a seat on the couch. "Now, spill it," Claire continued, kicking her shoes off and curling up comfortably. "Ow, looks like that hurts," motioning to the pink skin.

Mel dropped onto the sofa beside Claire, then scrubbed her face before cutting a look in Claireís direction. "You woke me out of a sound sleep way before my alarm was set, and I havenít had coffee yet. You wanna speak in slow small sentences I can manage to understand this early?"

Claire laughed and leaned forward to clutch Melís face between her hands. Then she kissed her friendís forehead. "I love you, ya know."

Mel smiled. "I know. I wouldnít have let you in this early otherwise."

Claire laughed. "Go on and get your shower. Iíll have your coffee ready by the time you get done."

Mel groaned and fell over into Claireís lap with a hiss as her tender skin was roughly rubbed. "Guess this means Iím not going back to bed, huh?"

"Ooh... you catch on quick." She ran her fingers through the short blonde hair, careful not to pull the tangles. Then she patted Mel on the butt. "Now move it. You got stuff to share."

Mel rolled from the couch and glared at Claire who merely chuckled in response. Then Mel padded off towards the bathroom, mumbling and grumbling under her breath all the way.

"You better watch that mouth," Claire mock threatened, hearing a giggle in response. "I know where the octagon soap is in this house, missy and I know how to use it." A pause, then she yelled over the running water she could hear coming from the bathroom. "I HEARD THAT!" Then with her own chuckle, she got up and moved into the kitchen.

********

"Claire, I understand what youíre asking. Do you understand there is nothing for me to share? Lark and I are friends... not even that yet. Weíre two people trying to get to know one another, looking for common ground to see if we can BE friends."

"And?"

"And nothing, Claire. Thereís nothing to say yet."

"You mean you have been out with this woman two or three times in the last week and nothing has happened that you can, want, are *dying* to share with your very best friend," she finished flatly.

Mel reached over and patted Claireís leg. "That is exactly what Iím telling you." A knock on the door stopped anything further she might have said. "Now," Mel continued as she rose. "Time for you to go."

Claire narrowed her eyes but stood up and grabbed her purse. "Donít think this is over. Iím not gonna let you off that easily." She opened the door and ushered her sister-in-law in as she stepped out. "Hello, Lark. Iíll talk to you later. By the way guys," she added, closing the door, only to immediately reopen it. "Try to stay out of trouble, wouldja? Iím not gonna be the one to explain it to Mama," laughing when Lark slammed the door in her face.

Mel and Lark looked at one another dazed for a long moment before breaking into laughter simultaneously. "Well, that was a hell of an ice breaker. Lemme guess, she dragged you out of bed this morning."

"Uh huh. She doesnít know how close she came to dying."

"Sure she does," Lark answered with a smile. "She just likes living on the edge. Oh, speaking of...." Lark reached into her pocket and withdrew a small vial. "Your lavender oil. Howís the burn?"

"Ow. I thought I had on enough sunscreen, but apparently I thought wrong." She slapped her forehead. "Where are my manners?" she mumbled. "Would you like some coffee?"

"Iíd love some, thanks."

"Címon in the kitchen. I just made a pot. Have a seat." Mel reached into the cabinet and pulled out a cup, filling it before she set it in front of Lark. "You take anything in yours?"

"Nope. Black works fine for me. I had to learn to drink it that way in the Corps. Iíve wound up in too many duty stations that didnít have sugar or creamer. And God knows lifer juice is about all that keeps me going some days even though I know it is just as likely to kill me, given the brew some of the guys make and call coffee."

Mel laughed. "That bad?"

"Well, I can honestly say I had a spoon stand up on its own more than once." Mel cringed in reflex. "Exactly," Lark chuckled. "Makes me appreciate the good stuff. And this is good stuff," she said, raising her cup. "Thanks."

"Youíre very welcome." Silence fell for a few moments while they concentrated on drinking their coffee, but for the first time, it wasnít awkward. It was in fact comfortable enough that Mel almost hated to break it. "Would you like to take a walk? Thereís a butcher, a baker and a produce place about a block away. Maybe we could go see what looks good for lunch."

"What, no candlestick maker?" asked with a teasing grin.

"Oh yeah," Mel replied with a straight face. "But she doesnít open on Sunday."

Lark laughed. "Touche!" She stood up and held out a hand to help Mel up. She was glad when Mel accepted it and held on for a moment more than necessary before releasing it.

"Lemme grab my wallet and keys and we can go."

The day was beautiful, and the company beyond charming, and more than one head turned to catch a second glimpse of the two women walking together down the street. If asked, no one would have been able to pinpoint a reason for the second look. Whether it was the picture they made together Ė that of walking yin and yang Ė or the happiness they shared in their conversation, or simply that they were two, young attractive women, all along their route people turned to look twice. Not that Lark and Mel noticed. They were still busy feeling their way through acceptable topics of conversation.

Already Mel had learned that pretty much anything military was okay as long as it did not involve the Army in any way. But anything about the Marines, or Larkís duty stations - within reason, of course Ė or her job as a doctor were all open to discussion and debate. Lark, on the other hand, had discovered that while not a majority stockholder, Mel was a part owner in the publishing house she worked for. And that almost any aspect of writing and publishing was an open topic as long as it was not Melís writing or lack thereof they were talking about.

So they passed the day pleasantly, and Lark managed to wrangle an invitation to tour the publishing house out of Mel before she left.

"Are you sure you need to leave now?" Mel asked and glanced away with some embarrassment. "I mean... itís early."

"Iím trying to do the right thing by you so you can get some rest. I know you didnít get to sleep in this weekend and itís mostly my fault. I thought you might want to try and catch up from this side for a change. Might actually work better that way," said with a deprecating smile and got a shy grin in return. "Besides, I definitely see you Wednesday if not before, right? So you can give me my tour."

"And maybe again before you leave?"

"Definitely again before I leave."

The leave-taking was still a little awkward Ė each desiring something neither felt comfortable enough to ask for or instigate. Instead, they looked at one another for a long moment and moved as one to gently brush lips across cheeks before pulling away with matching blushes.

"Thank you for having me over, Melody. Itís been a long time since I had this nice a day with a friend."

Mel smiled now, big and genuine and it made Lark smile in reflex. "Me too, Lark. Iím glad you came."

With a squeeze of their clasped hands, Lark turned and made her way to her bike. She looked back to see Mel standing in the doorway. She waved after she started her bike, ginning at the wave she got in return then heading her bike towards the open road. She wasnít ready to share anything with anyone... especially nosey family.

 

 

On Tuesday, Mel got a call from the office. The production house was running much smoother this week Ė whether due to the passing of the full moon or Macís warning them about any more screw-ups or her threat to go postal on the next Ďdamned fool idiot who thought stupid was amusingí. Whatever the case, Mel was in a much better if still hectic frame of mind when the call came.

"Mac, Iím up to my eyeballs. Can this wait until later?"

"No, Mel. I need you up here five minutes ago. Itís urgent, and it wonít take long. I promise."

Mel sighed. She was really pushing hard to have a nice tour ready for Lark the following day, and this just.... But it wasnít like Mac to make up emergencies or pull her away from work unless it was necessary. "All right. Give me a minute to wash my hands and Iíll be right there."

Her heart stopped when she stepped into Macís office. Mac greeted her, then walked out, closing the door to give them a bit of privacy. There in the window, her ramrod straight back to the room stood Lark in her green Class A uniform. Now, knowing the difference, Mel could see all the nuances and insignia that designated Lark as a Marine and not an Army soldier. Mel looked at her watch, wondering if she slipped into a time warp and missed a day or something, but it still said Tuesday on the dial.

"Lark?"

Lark turned from the window, eyes the only striking color in an otherwise militarily colored landscape. Then she smiled crookedly at Mel, and the officer demeanor disappeared to leave only the friend Mel knew as Lark in her place.

"I came to say goodbye."

"G-good... bu... why?" looking up at her with confusion clearly written across her face, and she couldnít stop the pang of hurt that swept through her eyes. "Did I... did...?"

"Shh... no, God!" She took Melís hands in her own, chafing them lightly. "My unit has been redeployed and I have to go. Itís my job to set up the field hospital. Otherwise... you still own me a tour, remember? I wanna see how this place works. Who knows... maybe Iíll find time to write a book one of these days. Itíll be nice to know someone in the business, so to speak."

Lark felt Mel stiffen slightly before she relaxed. "Melody?"

"Sorry, bad memory. Of course youíll have an in, and Iíll give you your tour next trip, all right?"

"And maybe share the memory?"

She shrugged. "Maybe. Itís not real pretty."

"Doesnít have to be," Lark said softly. "If you can share or I can help, well... thatís what friends do for each other, right? Listen and sympathize. Offer to help when they can and offer to hold hands when they canít. And beat the shit outta them as needs it."

That got a small laugh before Mel looked down at their clasped hands. "Will you do the same for me, so I can offer the same to you?" Knowing there were still so many secrets between them to share.

Lark nudged her chin up with their linked hands. "Iíd... Iíd like to try."

"Good," Mel said with a real smile, though there was a hint of tears in her eyes. "So when will you be home again so we can pick up this friendship where weíre having to leave off?"

"They wonít give me a timeframe on this... I already asked. But usually weíre looking at six months to a year."

"A YEAR?!?"

"Yeah." Lark dropped the hands she held and turned back towards the window. "I was wondering... would you mind maybe... do you think....?" breaking off. This was where things always broke down Ė if they ever even got to this stage.

Mel walked up behind her and placed a hand on Larkís arm, taking a huge first step for herself in the movement and feeling infinitely better for it when the gesture wasnít immediately rebuffed. "What, Lark? What can I do?"

Lark felt Mel shaking in fear? Trepidation? Anxiety? She wondered what had happened to make Mel lose her self-assurance in this personal aspect of her life. She was glad sheíd been witness to Melís courage when take that crucial first step.

Lark took a deep breath and hoped, knowing this reaching out was just as critical for her. "Would you write to me? Maybe just a note now and then? I mean, I donít wanna ask...."

Mel smiled. "How Ďbout if I write you every week? I imagine I can find something to run on about, even if itís just a description of my otherwise routine, going postal day."

Lark chuckled, a mixture of relief and genuine mirth. "Iíd like that. Especially since I have visuals to go with it Ė what with having interrupted your sleep twice and all."

Mel slapped her arm. "Be nice to me," she growled. Then she looked up as Lark turned to face her once more. "You are gonna write back, right?"

"Oh yeah," Lark agreed instantly. "Thatís half the fun. Here," she said, reaching into her jacket pocket. "I wrote it down, just in case. Mama and Claire both made sure I had yours," she added impishly.

Melís eyes grew big. "Waiaminute... youíre gonna go off and leave me here to face them and their inquisition alone!!! Can you fit me into your bag? Please? Iím small, and wouldnít eat much." Mel thought about that statement a moment when Lark merely cocked her eyebrow. "Well, I could adjust to eating less, maybe. Just please, PLEASE donít leave me here alone with them!"

Lark burst into laughter. Mel feigned righteous indignation for all of ten seconds until Larkís infectious laughter caused her to start giggling as well.

"Fine then!" she muttered with mock-anger when their chuckles slowed to a reasonable level. "Be that way. Go off and leave me here *all alone* to deal with them," still grumbling. Then she turned to Lark with her hands on her hips, not seeing the swiftly hidden hurt. "Can I at least get a hug to bolster up my courage here?" taking another tentative step and noting only the bright smile it got her in return.

"I think I can manage that."

"You think, Marine? Hmph... you better know... especially since this has to last me God only knows how long."

They moved as one then, Lark resting her hands lightly on Melís hips while Melís hands came to lie on Larkís shoulders. They looked at one another then, smiling shyly before allowing their hands to clasp and their bodies to come into full-length contact. They held on tightly for long moments, gently rocking back and forth and taking comfort in a way neither had really expected so soon in their friendship.

They moved back slightly, looking into one anotherís eyes again. "Iím glad you came into my life, Lark Kearney. I need a friend like you."

"Likewise, Melody Theresa McKay. That works both ways, ya know."

Mel shook her head. "I didnít, but I was hoping."

"It does," Lark assured and they embraced again, before....

"OW!" glaring down into sparking green eyes. "Hey, whaddya hit me for?" rubbing her shoulder.

"Why is it you know my full name and I donít know yours? Hmm?"

"Because Claire spilled the beans with yours and knows better than to share mine."

"Not fair!!"

Larkís laugh was tinged with sadness, but it was still a laugh. "Lifeís not sometimes, ya know. But you can guess and if you get it right, I promise Iíll let you know."

"And if I donít?"

"Well, itíll keep our discussions lively on my trips home now, wonít it?"

Mel smiled, though her expression quickly turned melancholy as Lark pulled her in for one more hug.

"Donít forget to write to me, okay?"

"I wonít. You either."

Lark brushed her lips over Melís forehead and walked to the door. "See ya in the funny papers," she said and was gone.

********

A year came and went. A year in which Mel and Lark exchanged letters and email and the occasional, odd phone call.

Mel watched and listened through Larkís ups and downs on her tour of duty, though the Marine was far less forthcoming with some things than Mel would have hoped for. Still she was learning, and she found Lark to be a friend she was glad to have in her life, even at a distance of ten thousand miles.

For her part, Lark enjoyed Melís take on life and the anecdotes she sent along faithfully. Slowly she too was learning more about the woman she was proud to call friend.

For each of them, the bits and pieces that found their way into their long distance communications were building a gradual picture of one another and laying the foundation for a solid friendship.

It was a year they spent changing... and changing one another. There were times when Lark would disappear and be out of touch for weeks at a time. Mel worried and wondered and prayed. There were times when Mel told of this one or that one expressing a personal interest in her. Lark worried and wondered and prayed.

Finally, the time for deployment was drawing to a close and Lark was ready to return to the States. They wouldnít be in the same home town, but at least theyíd be close enough to see one another occasionally, and that was something she was definitely looking forward to. Sheíd felt a subtle change in the tone of Melís letters of late and Lark was anxious to see how the time had changed her friend. She knew what it had done for her.

Mel was anxious as well for any number of reasons, and Claire was only making things worse. Being five months pregnant was making Claire hormonal and Mel was just frustrating her completely. The frustration was returned to Mel in spades to the point that she was ready to send her best friend to the moon for hovering over her like a hen with a single chick. And though she knew the prying was mostly done out of genuine concern, Mel was having issues enough of her own trying to sort out her feelings without adding Claireís prodding into the mix.

"Címon, Mel. Youíve been writing each other for a year. Youíve gotta have some idea...."

"LOOK, Claire! Lark is my friend, all right. Now drop it."

And Claire did, after a long talk with Mama. "There will come a time," Mama said, "maybe sooner, maybe later. But eventually things will come full circle and they will see what we already know."

********

Things settled into something of a routine for Lark and Mel. They took turns visiting one weekend a month. One month would be at Larkís; the following would be at Melís. As friends, theyíd found they had a lot in common and enjoyed spending time together now that they were close enough together to see and do some of the things theyíd talked about.

Lark sang occasionally for Mel and under much coaxing. Mel wrote the sporadic poem for Lark. Still continuing to share, but always they walked a careful edge Ė afraid or unwilling to take the step that would ultimately make or break their friendship.

The closest they came was about eight months after Lark arrived back in the States. They caught a couple guys checking them out while they were at dinner together, and the conversation naturally flowed that way Ė though it was like picking at an open sore for both of them.

"So, whaddya think?"

Lark turned and looked as casually as she could manage. "No way. Not my type. They just donít have it for me."

Mel chuckled, something she realized she and Lark did a lot together. "Me either."

"How Ďbout the others?" waiting for Mel to give her a version of the raised eyebrow look. "You know... the ones you told me about," waiting, hoping.

Mel shrugged. "What about them? It was weird and uncomfortable, honestly. I didnít like it. I didnít like the way it made me feel."

Lark felt a slight tension relax in her shoulders but she continued to poke. "You felt that way about us... about me once too."

Mel shook her head. "No, that was different. You were new... an unknown. These were people I knew... had known growing up, and all of a sudden they want to date me." She shook her head again and shrugged her shoulders. "Too weird. Nothing clicked."

Mel paused a long moment before asking her own prodding question. "What about you?"

Lark shrugged in turn. "What about me? I long since gave up having someone in every port. Itís just not my thing anymore."

Mel swallowed and took a deep breath before pushing the envelope a little more. "So, um... what is your thing?"

"Hmm... someone who talks to me and shares with me. Someone who knows my faults and loves me anyway. Someone who trusts me with their secrets and safeguards my own carefully. Someone who likes walks on the beach and azaleas in spring and tiramisu," Lark finished with an impish grin, trying to stop the blush she felt crawling up her cheeks at the look in Melís eyes. She cleared her throat. "You?" she asked, watching Melís eyes drop in confusion.

"Um... Iíd like someone encourages me without pushing and lets me support them equally. Someone who accepts me for what I am and loves me anyway. Someone who knows whatís in my heart and allows me to see whatís in theirs. Someone who likes my cooking and the smell of fresh cut grass and crème brulee," Mel finished with a bashful smile.

Lark smiled. "Well, at least weíre both pretty clear on what we want."

"Yep... had lots of time to think about it."

That was as close as they got then, and the flow of the conversation changed Ė mostly because they were bent on making a hasty exit after a scene with the two gentlemen who were determined to join them. They laughed all the way back to Mamaís, and the rest of their dialogue was put to the wayside.

Then for the next three or four months, things kept cropping up, making getting together next to impossible. Both women were becoming cranky and unbearable.

Finally, Mama had had enough, and she gave her blessing to Ryan and the boys to set Lark up on another blind date.

********

"Ryan! Lay off me, all right?? I have two whole weeks here where I donít have any responsibilities or duties. I am damn sure not gonna start out my leave going out on a blind date! Iím happy with my life the way it is. Leave me alone!"

It was sheer frustration as much as anything else talking and Ryan knew it. For months Lark and Mel had been dancing around one another, never making much progress on any front except that of friendship. Not that friendship was a bad thing under any circumstance - but it was apparent to everyone who knew them that they were already so much more.

"Lark, this is Mamaís doing. Best you go along with it for now and get it over with. ĎCause Iím sure as hell not gonna be explaining why you didnít show up for this!"

Lark groaned. This wasnít how she envisioned this leave going. Mel had been supposed to have met her at the airport, but that got changed at the last minute because if some sort of Mac screw-up, Mel had told her. Lark had been disappointed. Sheíd hoped to finally be able to talk to Mel about things, and now this.

"FINE!" she ground out as though chewing glass. "But this is it. I donít want *anything else* planned without my express written consent first, got it??"

"I got it! I got it!" A drew a deep breath, knowing his next statement was going to draw more fire. "Weíre going to Pandoraís, by the way."

Her head dropped. "Goddamn it, Ryan. You couldnít just leave it alone, could ya?"

"I told you - this is all Mamaís doing. We are just soldiers in her arm... um... marines in her corps." Larkís grimace at his metaphor became a reluctant smile, knowing her motherís gift for familial machinations.

"Nice save there, bro. Whoís got the munchkin tonight if you and Claire are doubling with me and my so-called date?"

"Mama... who else? Now," he said nodding at her uniform. "You gonna wear that tonight?"

Lark glared at him. "Not like I have much choice. I donít have any other dress clothes here."

"íKay, weíre supposed to meet Carrie at the restaurant in a couple hours if you wanna, I dunno, rest or grab a shower or something."

"It all sounds good. You still know how to do laundry?" Ryan nodded. "Good. Iíd like a clean shirt and my skirt will need pressing please. Wake me twenty minutes before time to leave, will ya?" He nodded again, dumbfounded by the ease sheíd just suckered him into taking care of her uniform. If it hadnít been for the fact that Claire and Mama would kill him for messing this up, and Lark after the fact, heíd get her but good. As it was, he was stuck with laundry duty, and he groaned when her shirt came flying in his direction.

********

"Címon, Claire. I really donít have the time or inclination for this. Do you have any idea what Mac threw at me today?? I missed picking Lark up from the airport and Iím not even sure she made it into town yet. Iíll be lucky to see her the entire time sheís here given what he put on my plate today." Claire couldnít see Mel, but she could hear the tears of frustration and exhaustion lurking behind her eyes and in her voice. And she knew very well what Mac had thrown at Mel Ė Mama had arranged it.

"Please Mel. Just this once... for me. This really would be a favor for your very best friend. Mama told me to ask you specifically."

"Mama?? Larkís Mama? Why would she care one way or another about me? Or who goes out on this blind date with you?"

"Thatís not fair, Mel. You know she cares about you. As for the rest, well... mostly we just do what Mama says without asking. We all live much happier lives that way."

Mel chuckled wearily. "Iíll bet you do. Two stipulations."

"All right."

"One: you never EVER ask me to do this for you ever again Ė REGARDLESS."

"Done. And the second?"

"We make it an early night."

"Hon, weíll make it as short as you want - within the confines of decency."

Mel sighed. She really didnít want to, but something in Claireís voice.... "All right. When and where?"

"Seven-thirty at Pandoraís. That was Mamaís choice," Claire added when she heard Mel groan.

"You owe me so big for this."

********

"Hey."

"Hey yourself," Mel responded, glad to hear Larkís voice and wondering at the weariness behind the tone. "How are ya?"

"Tired. I missed you picking me up,"

"Me too. Sorry...."

"Not your fault, Melody, though I can see having a serious talk with Mac is gonna be in my near future." Mel chuckled lightly. She had a feeling Mac didnít know what he was in for and almost felt sorry for him Ė ALMOST. "However," Lark continued, "Mama has commanded my presence tonight, so can we plan to get together in the morning?"

Mel thought of the work Mac had given her and weighed it against the fact that she hadnít seen Lark in four months. The hell with it, she thought. Itís not like he can fire me. "Absolutely," Mel agreed.

Lark smiled in response, hearing the grin in Melís voice. "Good. I promise not to show up too early."

"Yeah, right. Since when?"

Lark laughed. "Truce! So Iíll see you in the morning?"

"You betcha. I... Iím glad youíre home."

"Me too, Melody. I lo... um, look forward to tomorrow. Gotta go."

********

Lark and Ryan sat at the bar in Pandoraís waiting for Claire and Larkís blind date to show up for dinner. Neither of them was drinking Ė Ryan was the designated driver and Lark had no desire to make herself sick. Just thinking of being here with anyone besides Mel was making her stomach twist uncomfortably, and though she was planning to cut the evening as short as she could manage, she wanted to make it through long enough that Mama wouldnít do this again.

"Oh wow!"

Ryanís word made Larkís head snap up and turn towards the door. She felt the blood rush to her head and her jaw drop open, and she blinked her eyes to keep them from rolling out of her head. She wasnít sure what sheíd been expecting, but it damn sure wasnít what was approaching her through the crowd.

Mel looked up as she and Claire crossed the threshold and would have stumbled if not for her friendís hand on her arm. "You set us up," she hissed, glaring at Claire out of the corner of her eyes.

"Nope. Mama did. We were just her willing pawns," Claire replied, then stopped when she realized Mel was no only no longer listening Ė she was no longer beside her. Claire just smiled and moved forward, not wanting to miss the payoff.

"You set us up," Lark hissed at Ryan, glaring at him out of the corner of her eyes.

"Nope. Mama did. We just followed her directions." Then Ryan stopped talking, because Lark was no longer beside him.

The world narrowed its focus when Lark and Melody reached each other. They stood gazing at one another wordlessly, their eyes exchanging the promises their hearts had been making for quite some time. They smiled simultaneously and Mel reached out a hand to Lark.

"Hi, my name is Melody McKay, and Iím your blind date for the evening."

"Hello, Melody McKay," accepting Melís hand. Iím your blind date Lark Kearney. Would you like to join me for dinner?"

Mel felt laughter bubbling up in an overflow of joy. "Iíd love to," she said seriously. "I think we have a lot to talk about."

Lark squeezed the hand she held. "I know we do."

********

Itís been almost twenty years since that first blind date, and eighteen since the last. That second blind date was a real eye opener for both of us and what happened that night....

"Whatcha writing, darliní?" Lark asked through a yawn while allowing her hands to tease the expanse of bare skin within her reach.

Mel set her keyboard aside and slid back down into Larkís arms, nuzzling into her neck when Lark rolled over onto her back.

"Just writing about us."

"Oh really," Lark said speculatively as she shifted to lean up on her elbow and used her other hand to trace the skin of Melís collarbone and pulse point. She smiled as Mel fought to keep her eyes open at the touch. "What about us?" letting her hand drift down to the two full breasts.

"Hmm... oh God, baby."

"You seem awfully anxious this morning," leaning down to nip playfully where here hands had just been caressing. "You writing smut now?" moving from one side to another in a seemingly random pattern while letting her hands move lower to slowly torment.

Mel cracked open an eye and would have glared had not Lark made her whimper at that precise moment. "If I... God... if I say... yes, baby... oh... will you st-t-top... teeeeasing me?"

Lark lifted her head up from her self-appointed task. "Nope. I wanna read it first," licking her lips. "Maybe I could pick up some pointers."

Mel moved so swiftly, Lark never did figure out how she ended up on the bottom of the pile. Then she was in a position that she really didnít care. "Love now, read later," was all Mel said, then they both applied themselves wholeheartedly to the pleasure of loving one another completely.

********

"So you wrote about our blind date, huh?" Lark asked a great deal while later. They were tangled together in the sheets, still damp from their recent lovemaking and Mel had pulled her laptop up to rest between them.

"Yeah. I didnít write about everything, though. Our secrets are still private between us and your middle name is still a mystery as far as the readers are concerned."

"Are you putting this in your next short story collection? I know youíve got a deadline."

Mel shook her head. "I dunno. This one is really personal for me. Maybe Iíll keep it between us and flesh it out. Itís not like Mac can fuss too much if Iím a little late with this anthology. Heís still trying to catch up with all the other stories Iíve written."

Lark laughed. "So true. Iím so proud of you." She leaned in for a kiss.

"And I of you, Dr. Kearney. Whaddya say we go out tonight?"

"Blind date to Pandoraís?"

"Naturally. What better way to celebrate the anniversary of first one? Will you sing for me?"

"Sure." She smiled, loving the look it got her in return. "No one would believe all the wonderful things that came from a simple blind date."

"Doesnít matter what anyone else believes. All that matters is what we know, and what we share between us. Everyone should be lucky enough to have our kind of blind date."

THE END

03/05

 


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