DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and all its characters are property of Shed Productions, a division of Shed Media Group, plc. The author implies no ownership of these characters, and they are used in the stories without permission solely for entertainment and not for profit. Similarly this applies to any copyrighted fictional characters either from literature, broadcast media or film.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To nikki.wade[at]ymail.com

A Year to Remember
By CrashxBurn


Chapter One


Helen shrugged her book bag off her shoulder and slid into a corner seat at the back of the room. The shuffling sound of papers being rustled and chairs sliding back filled the classroom as her fellow students rushed to take their seats before the bell rang. Helen placed her textbook neatly in front of her with her note paper and pen to one side, folding her hands and sighing quietly as she stared out the window, waiting for the lesson to begin. She had just turned sixteen the week before and was in the last half of her eleventh year, preparing to take her GCSEs so she could continue on to her A-levels in sixth form.

She and her father had moved to England in the summertime last year, only a month after her mother had died. Acclimatising to her new surroundings and peers in London had been a challenge, coupled by the expected depression that had befallen her. She and her mother had always been very close, sharing their secrets and moments of joy throughout her life, while her minister father had been distant and somewhat cold. Sometimes she wondered if he was capable of expressing any real human emotion. The only time she'd seen a glimmer of warmth in him was when he was with her mother, and she was gone now.

The last few years of her mother's life had been difficult on all of them. Her mother and father had had Helen late in life, and when she was born her mother was already suffering the effects of Parkinson's disease. Throughout her childhood she'd had to watch as her mother slowly lost control of her motor functions, until eventually she was bedridden and unable to take care of herself. Many an afternoon had been spent staying home toward the end, with Helen sitting by her mother's bedside and talking to her about anything and everything, cherishing the last of their time together even though her mother was helpless to respond, having already lost the ability to speak.

Helen was drawn out of her reverie by the opening and closing of the classroom door, something for which she was thankful. As she'd sat there ruminating on the last year and a half, her throat had constricted and unwelcome tears had pricked the backs of her eyes. She didn't need to have a breakdown in front of her classmates. Turning her attention to the front of the room, she was startled to find Karen Betts, the headmistress, standing next to a striking raven-haired woman who was at least a decade younger than the blonde, and who appeared to be not much older than the students in the room.

Karen cleared her throat and addressed the class with a warm smile, "I'd like you all to meet Nikki Wade. She's going to be your new English teacher for the remainder of the year."

A few surprised gasps echoed around the room and many a brow was raised in question. One bold girl near the front asked, "What happened to Mrs. Lowe?"

Karen raised a palm for silence and explained gently, "Mrs. Lowe was involved in a car accident on Saturday night. She's in a coma at the moment and will not be able to continue her position here for the time being. I'd like you all to treat Miss Wade with respect while we pray for her recovery."

Shocked mumbles and whispers travelled through the room as Karen gave Nikki an encouraging smile and patted her on the shoulder, saying something that sounded like, "They can be a rowdy bunch, but I'm sure you handle them. Good luck."

The blonde headmistress exited the room and Nikki moved toward the teacher's desk at the front of the room, setting down her briefcase before moving toward the chalkboard. She wrote her name in one corner of the board and turned to face the room with a smile. Helen and the other students studied her curiously as she cleared her throat, seemingly a tad nervous as she addressed the class.

"Hi… I'm sure this has come as a surprise to all of you, and I'm sorry to uproot you in the middle of the year, but hopefully we can pick up where Mrs. Lowe left off and make a success of it nonetheless. To begin, I thought I might tell you a bit about myself and then go around the room, have you all share your names and something about yourselves. Deal?"

Nikki raised her brows questioningly, a smile playing at the edges of her lips, and she received a few nods and murmurs in response. "Good… Okay, well, my name is Nikki Wade. I'm in my second year of teaching now, I'm twenty-four, and I grew up here in London. Last year I published a textbook for a local university but other than that my focus has been on teaching, not writing. Let's start at the back of the room." She pointed at Helen with a smile and asked, "What's your name?"

Helen fidgeted and tucked a strand of her shoulder-length brown hair behind her ear, uncomfortable with the sensation of everyone in the room turning to look at her. "Helen Stewart," she mumbled after clearing her throat. "I grew up in Scotland and moved here last year."

Everyone continued staring at her, clearly waiting to hear more, but she pursed her lips and stared pointedly down at her textbook. Most of her peers knew next to nothing about her and they were obviously curious, but she wasn't in the mood for sharing at the moment. She was usually quiet and reserved, and didn't much like talking about herself or her life. Nikki, for her part, was thrown for a loop when the quiet girl in the corner spoke in a soft Scottish accent. She mentally shook her head and told herself off before pointing to the next student, seeing clear as day that the Scottish lass was uncomfortable under such scrutiny.

By the end of the period, Nikki was confident she had most of her students' names memorised, having tried her best to call upon each one to answer questions during the interactive discussion. She'd used her copy of Resources for Teaching English: 14-16 to guide the class through section 4.3, where Mrs. Lowe had left off. This section of the book was focused on family and, little did Nikki know, Helen was finding it very difficult to work through. 4.3 included the short poem "Book Ends" by Tony Harrison, about a dead mother and dead wife.

Helen had felt herself beginning to choke as she'd read through the words in front of her, the lines blurring as her eyes filled with emotion. She'd held it back with a forceful yank, drawing upon her Scottish upbringing to keep a stiff upper lip when all she'd wanted to do was cry. Now, as she stood and gathered her things, she pushed those thoughts to the back of her mind. People her age milled about her as they headed for the door, one period left before the end of the school day.

"Helen, may I have a word please?"

The short brunette faltered mid-stride and turned enquiring green eyes to her new teacher, surprised by the request and curious in equal measure. She fiddled with the strap of her book bag, slung casually over one shoulder, as the last of her peers exited the room. Silence stretched between the pair as they looked at each other, and then Nikki spoke.

"I noticed during class that the poem upset you." At Helen's look of alarm, Nikki rushed to reassure her, "I don't think anyone else noticed, but I could tell it bothered you. Is your mother… is she…" Nikki couldn't bring herself to finish the end of the sentence, the depth of sorrow that had entered the Scot's gaze rendering her incapable of uttering the words.

Helen gave a mute nod and Nikki moved toward her desk, shuffling through a stack of papers she had to grade in a bid to buy herself time to think before she spoke again. Finally she looked up at her student and said softly, "If you ever need to talk, I'm here. I hear the school counsellor is a bit on the dippy side," she joked, a reference to the eccentric Di Barker, "so if you don't feel comfortable talking to her or your friends, I'm always willing to lend an ear."

Helen stared silently for a long moment as she processed the gesture of kindness made so unexpectedly by this virtual stranger. She looked down at her feet and said, nearly inaudibly, "I don't have any friends, but thank you." Then she turned and left the room, making her way toward World History, her last class of the day.

Nikki stood stock still as she watched the girl leave, staring sadly at the closed door in her wake. She'd known from first sight that Helen was painfully shy, but the reason behind her withdrawn demeanour hadn't been apparent until halfway through the class. For now she had done all she could, offering to listen if her student needed or wanted to talk, but she would cross her fingers and hope that the young woman made it through the rest of the year with success. She'd seen a glimmer of intelligence and promise in those startling green eyes, and it would be a terrible shame to watch it wasted.


Chapter Two

Helen was sitting in a toilet cubicle after her morning P.E. class, trying to clean the scrapes on her knees with a bit of tissue. It wasn't going well and she found herself getting frustrated, holding torn bloody scraps of toilet paper in her hands with a scowl on her face. It had been freezing cold outside that morning, so their teacher, Mark Waddle, had allowed the girls to stay inside and do a few rounds with a basketball before calling it quits.

Helen had been stubborn, though, and had wanted to go outside and play with the boys, preferring to run even in the cold to work out some of her tension. Running gave her a sense of freedom. Besides, the girls in her class were whiny wimps and being cooped up in the gym with them wasn't a pleasant experience.

Unfortunately, playing rugby with the boys had its disadvantages. She'd been running through the soggy grass in her trainers, thin shorts, and gym shirt, with a grey long-sleeved shirt beneath, when she'd stumbled over a rock on the field and had fallen, eating a large amount of grass and mud whilst scraping up her palms and knees.

The door to the changing room banged open and she heard the sound of shuffling feet as her classmates entered at the end of the lesson. She'd ducked out a few minutes early to tend to her battle wounds. She stayed put where she was and sighed dismally, debating for a split second on whether she should go and see the nurse. She hated having a fuss made over her.

"Oh my God," came the snobby voice of Natalie Buxton from the other side of the toilet cubicle. "Did you see Helen's arms earlier when we were changing? What a freak. No wonder she wears long sleeves all the time."

Helen could see feet from beneath the cubicle partition and knew that Natalie and her friends were likely preening themselves in the mirror, reapplying lip gloss and eyeliner and primping themselves to perfection. She glowered at the closed door and felt a bitterness seep through her. What right did Natalie have to talk about her that way? It was none of her sodding business.

Janine Nebeski piped up from Natalie's left, "Yeah, I know. It's so sad. I heard her mum died last year. That's probably why she does it."

Natalie sneered into the mirror and smoothed out her eyebrows critically. "Or maybe she's just a sad loser who wants attention."

Janine frowned and asked, confused, "Then why would she cover them up, Nat? That don't make any sense."

Natalie shrugged and repacked her makeup in her handbag, slipping it over her shoulder as she replied, "I don't know. I don't really care, either. She's not worth thinking about. Still, it might be fun to get a rise out of her."

The two blondes left then and Helen sat there, silently seething as she tore the wadded toilet paper in her hands into smithereens. 'Bitch,' Helen thought.

She rubbed her forearms self-consciously through her long-sleeved shirt and swallowed over the lump in her throat. She'd been cutting for almost six months now and it was getting pretty bad. She was finding it harder and harder to get through the day without the emotional release the physical pain brought her. As coping mechanisms went it wasn't a very healthy one, but it was all she knew to do.

She rolled up her left sleeve slowly and fingered the angry red marks across her arm, sniffling to keep her tears at bay. There was so much pain inside, clawing at her, begging to come out, desperate to destroy her for everyone to see. She'd kept it so carefully concealed, though. She'd been sure that no one would find out. Only now someone had, and it seemed that someone was hell bent on turning her into an object of mockery.

She fumbled around in the book bag at her feet and withdrew a slim razor blade from one of the side pockets. Wiping her tears away clumsily, she tore off a strip of toilet paper and folded it thrice. She set it on her knee and laid her wrist carefully upon it, a ghost of a smile curling the edges of her lips as she pressed the sharp metal against her skin, dragging it slowly to one side until a pool of crimson spilled forth, stark in contrast to the pale flesh of her wrist. She would be okay now, at least for another few hours.

She was walking down the hallway toward her afternoon English lesson, her fellow students ambling this way and that, some clumped together beside lockers and enjoying a quick chinwag between classes, when a voice stopped her from behind.

"Stewart!" Buxton called, grinning like a menace as she pushed off her own locker, her gaggle of friends turning to look at the petite Scot who'd frozen in her tracks.

Helen turned her head slowly, dread creeping in, and Natalie relished in seeing the frightened look on the shorter girl's face. "Do you think your mum would feel sorry for you?" the blonde asked.

Helen blinked slowly as she asked, "Sorry?"

Natalie smirked and folded her arms as she delivered the next blow. "If she could see you cutting yourself, do you think she would feel sorry for you?"

Helen clenched her fists into tight balls, fury welling up inside her. She fought the urge to strangle the scathing blonde with all her might, biting out a clipped response, "I don't think that's any of your business, so just leave me the hell alone."

She turned away and made it two more steps before freezing again on the spot, horrified as she saw her English teacher standing in the hallway. Nikki was looking at her with something akin to shock and pity in her brown eyes, and Helen forced down a scream that had been building in her throat. She pushed past the taller woman hurriedly and made her way into the classroom, not willing to take a chance on sticking around any longer.

The following lesson was entirely ridiculous in Helen's opinion. They were using food poems to vary the expanse of their writing skills and analysis, and the current focus was rice pudding. Helen felt she could've screamed again in frustration, longing for something more challenging and realistic to fill her mind. That itch was slowly returning, burning within her, and she could feel herself getting antsy where she sat.

When the bell rang, signalling the end of the period, Helen collected her things in record time and made a mad dash for the door, but Nikki had seen this coming and preempted her, repeating her words of a few weeks prior.

"Helen, may I have a word please?"

The Scot halted her footsteps in the centre of the room and stiffened perceptibly, eyeing up the slow trickle of exiting teenagers and wishing she was amongst them, anything to avoid standing here in this position. She knew what was coming. Never one to be disrespectful to those in authority, Helen surprised herself when she spoke.

"Don't bother. It's none of your business, either."

Nikki didn't look at all surprised by her response. Maybe she was a mind reader. The ebony-haired woman seated herself behind her desk and sighed quietly, staring at her student imploringly.

"I know you probably don't want to hear this, but you need help. Have you considered counselling?"

Helen scrunched up her face in disgust and spat contemptuously, "Counselling? Yeah, right, that's exactly what I need – someone to hear all my painful secrets and then tell me to pray about it. Well, let me tell you, Miss Wade, praying hasn't worked for me. And I'd appreciate it if you stayed out of my personal life."

Nikki shook her head sadly and replied quietly, "I'm sorry, really I am, but you know I can't do that. I'm in a position of trust here and I'm worried about you. Self-harm is not a healthy way of dealing with your issues. Aren't you afraid that one day you'll take it too far and accidentally kill yourself? Or is that your plan? Would you really rather be dead than alive?"

Nikki stood and sorted through the stack of student-written poems in front of her until she found the one by Helen. She pulled it from the pile and waved it about as she said, "You have a real talent for writing, you know? Even this silly, ridiculous poem about rice pudding has more potential in it than most of the students I've taught in the last two years. I don't want to see you waste it."

Helen glanced at the paper in her teacher's hand and frowned, pursing her lips as she thought about her response. Finally she allowed, "I love writing, I always have, but lately it doesn't seem to help me as much as it used to. When my mum started getting sicker, I started writing more and more, and for a while it helped me to vent and neutralise my anger. Now that she's gone, though, it just reminds me of her even more."

Nikki nodded her understanding and rounded the desk, coming to stand just in front of the Scot as she answered gently, "I know what it feels like to be lonely and afraid. I don't normally talk about my personal life with students, but I'm going to make an exception just this once, because I think you really need a friend right now more than you need a teacher."

The raven-haired woman parked her bum on top of one of the desks at the front of the room and folded her hands over her crossed knees. "When I was sixteen I was expelled from the boarding school I was attending. My parents were furious. They gave me an ultimatum I wasn't willing to accept and they kicked me out. My father shoved a few thousand quid at me and told me he never wanted to see me again. I was scared and alone and I didn't know where to go. I had to get a job fast just to survive. The guilt money he gave me only went so far for living expenses, and then I had my A-levels to consider. I had all these plans for what I was going to do with my life and suddenly it seemed like they might never come into being. But I worked hard and I studied hard, and I focused on what I wanted for my future. Eventually I got it and here I am now, but it wasn't easy. I know that's no comparison to what you're going through, but I hope in knowing this you might feel comfortable talking to me."

Helen had listened to her intently, surprised not only to find that this near stranger cared about her fate and well-being but also by how openly personal she was being. She moved to seat herself facing Nikki on top of an opposing desk, but the classroom door opened and students began flooding in. Helen shifted her book bag on her shoulder and looked down at the linoleum floor, a frown furrowing her brows as she mumbled, "Thanks for your concern, but I have to get to class."

Nikki raised herself from the desk quickly, smiling at the new batch of students entering the room before turning her attention to the retreating Scot. "Helen!" she called, causing the short brunette to pause momentarily near the door. "Please come back at the end of the day. I'd like to continue this discussion."

Helen glanced over her shoulder briefly and stood suspended in a moment of indecision. Finally she nodded, nearly imperceptibly, but a nod nonetheless. Then she left and Nikki set about starting her next lesson. Her mind was only half on it, though, as she mulled over what little she knew about her troubled pupil and tried to think of how she could help. She knew in this situation she should really be reporting her knowledge to the headmistress and calling Helen's father, but somehow she knew instinctively that that would only make matters worse. She thought about her own parents' reactions when she'd gotten in trouble at school and she knew it simply wasn't an option. She would have to get Helen to speak to her or seek counselling on her own.


Chapter Three

A light rap came at the classroom door at 4pm, fifteen minutes after the dismissal bell had rung. Nikki looked up with a welcoming smile as Helen popped her head into the room, followed gradually by her body. The Scot closed the door behind her nervously and approached Nikki's desk with hesitant shuffling footsteps.

Tucking a lock of stubborn hair behind her ear, Helen cleared her throat quietly and said, "You wanted me to come back, so here I am…"

Nikki nodded and gestured to the chair she'd pulled up to her desk in preparation for this very meeting. Helen seated herself silently and placed her book bag in her lap, using it as a subconscious shield and clutching it tightly. Nikki capped her pen and pushed the stack of papers she'd been marking to one side, clearing up the space directly in front of her so she could clasp her hands.

"I'm glad you came back," the taller woman started. "I was worried you might not." She took a breath to collect her thoughts and then added, "In this situation I'm required to report any knowledge I have of self-harm, but I haven't done so… yet." She put emphasis on the last word and looked pointedly into Helen's eyes, making herself clear as she explained, "I don't want to have to do that. I know firsthand how much damage it can cause to have people interfering with your personal issues, especially when it involves the anger of a parent. I need to know that you're going to try and get some help, though. Otherwise I won't have a choice. I won't stand back idly and watch you kill yourself, Helen."

The Scot averted her gaze quickly and stared at her knuckles, stark white now from how tightly she was gripping her bag. Finally she raised her eyes once more and nodded mutely. As Nikki arched her brows in an enquiring manner, Helen mumbled, "Okay. I'll talk… but only to you. And you have to promise me that if I agree to talk about it you won't tell anyone, especially not my father. He wouldn't understand. All he cares about is his work with the church."

Nikki couldn't hide her shock at hearing this and she questioned stupidly, "Your father works in a church?"

Helen nodded. "He's a minister."

The conversation came to a standstill then and both women shifted uncomfortably where they sat, until finally Nikki couldn't stand the silence and ploughed forward ungracefully, "How did your mother die?"

Helen's eyes flashed with sadness before she suppressed it and answered numbly, "Painfully. She had Parkinson's. She couldn't speak or walk at the end."

Nikki nodded instead of answering verbally, unsure what to say to that. Sorry sounded so terribly cliché in her head, so terribly inadequate that she couldn't bring herself to say it. She cleared her throat awkwardly and tried to convey her condolences with her eyes instead of words. Helen made a monumental effort to smile in appreciation, but it didn't quite reach her troubled green orbs. The sound of classroom doors opening and closing in the distance echoed around them and fading voices trailed off down the hallway, the last stragglers making their way out of the large school building.

To fill the space between them, Nikki asked the most pressing question in her mind. "Is that why you self-harm, because of your mother's death?"

Helen folded her arms self-consciously around her book bag, turning her wrists inward and scowling lightly with unease. She gave a small nod before murmuring, "Yeah… it blocks out the pain for a little while at a time. It never lasts, though… nothing does."

Nikki glanced at the folded forearms and let out a soft sigh, steeling herself for an angry retort before she asked, "Would you… show them to me?"

Helen's startled gaze pierced through Nikki's warm brown eyes, eyes that were filled with concern at the present. The Scot swallowed hard and her scowl deepened, transforming her features into an outward display of displeasure and hesitance. A sharply exhaled breath that sounded an awful lot like an angry huff was emitted before she reluctantly conceded, placing her book bag on the floor between her feet and rolling her sleeves up to her elbows.

Nikki rolled her chair forward and gently took the back of Helen's right wrist in her hands, staring down at the livid red cuts, some new and some old, with eyes that were filled with horror and dismay. "Jesus Christ," she muttered, shaking her head slowly as she tried to comprehend what she was seeing.

"How long have you been doing this?" she asked after a long pause, her voice low.

"About half a year now," Helen responded, equally as quiet.

Nikki traced an index finger along one of the oldest scars she could see. It was puffy and raised from the surrounding flesh, turning white now with age, unlike its pink and red counterparts, many of which were sunken into the skin. She couldn't stop herself from wondering why that was, why the scars varied so much in type and appearance. There appeared to be no rhyme or reason, no obvious pattern or single direction. The cuts seemed to be random and manic in design.

"I used to use sharp scissors. Now I use a single razor," Helen volunteered, before she could stop to filter the words or prevent them from coming out of her mouth. Her cheeks flushed in embarrassment and she pulled her arm away from her teacher's grasp.

Pulling her sleeves down to cover the evidence of her pain, something she'd never voluntarily shown anyone before, she gathered her bag and stood, looking down into the brown eyes that were studying her thoughtfully. They were big and round, filled with awe and unspoken questions, and they were so very close at the moment. She had a sudden longing to reach out and trace her fingers across Nikki's brows, to smooth out those small lines of worry. She stepped back as if she'd been burned and mumbled a hasty goodbye as she retreated from the room, readying herself for the long walk home.


Chapter Four

"Dad?" Helen called out as she stepped inside her front door. No answer.

'He must still be at the church,' she thought bitterly.

Sometimes it felt like he spent his whole life loving God instead of loving his family, what little of it he had left. She couldn't help feeling angry at God in that instant, as she was reminded of her father's near obsession with his faith. If he'd paid half that much attention to her when she was growing up, they would probably have a better relationship now. She'd certainly needed every single measure of love and support that had been absent since her mother's death.

Left to her own devices, she made herself a simple sandwich for dinner then went upstairs to start on her homework. She finished her trigonometry sets with some difficulty, math never having been her strong point, and then she breezed through her human anatomy reading, meticulously taking notes and highlighting important sections for the chapter test next week. Afterwards she was left with French and English. Nikki had assigned the class to write an essay about family, capping off the previous section of focus so they could move fully onto the next.

Helen found this to be downright difficult as she got out her paper and pen, staring down at the lined sheets with her forehead crinkled in concentration, her teeth biting into her lower lip as she began to grow frustrated with herself. What could she say? What was she willing to say? What did she feel comfortable enough to reveal to everyone? It wasn't out of the realm of possibility that Nikki might ask her students to swap stories for editing purposes, and Helen felt distinctly uneasy at the likelihood of such an intrusion into her thoughts and most private feelings.

Clenching her fingers tightly around the Biro in her hand, she closed her eyes and sighed heavily, warring within to lose control and let it all go for once, to release the heavy burden she'd kept strapped to her shoulders since last May. When she opened her eyes again she began to write, letting her emotions dictate the flow of her words instead of logic. It was cathartic, it was freeing, it was terrifying…

Family… So much can be said about family. It can be analysed and broken down into smaller pieces, but to understand family you have to look at the whole picture. Family isn't just one person or two and the way they interact with each other. It's the whole of your experiences or the lack thereof. It's all of the memories and the love, or the absence of love. When I think of family, I think of my mother, a kind and wonderful woman who always put others before herself, who was always ready to cheer me up with a smile or a laugh, and then I think of my father, someone who has always been more devoted to his faith and religion than he has to me and my mother. My family is broken and disjointed, but it's all the family I've ever known.

She continued writing without regard to how violently she was breaking down her protective walls, to how quickly those barriers were crumbling. When she was finished writing, she re-read her essay from start to finish and decided at once that she wouldn't be handing this in. It was too personal. It was too honest. She couldn't yet bring herself to share these secrets with anyone, especially not the immature teenagers with whom she was forced to learn side by side. They would make fun of her, belittle her feelings and her pain, drive the knife in a little harder.

Maybe, she conceded, she would be willing to let Nikki read it. Only Nikki. For some strange reason she couldn't quite fathom, the taller woman had really sparked something within her, blown the fuse and blasted away her initial hesitance. She'd found herself allowing the woman inside, to see where she dwelled and what pain resided there, to poke at her open wounds and give her the chance to ridicule. And yet she had done none of these things. She had simply cared. She had cared in such a way that was foreign to Helen, through eyes that held warmth she hadn't seen from anyone besides her mother.

She yearned to feel that warmth again, to spill her darkest thoughts and most painful recollections, to have a sounding board for her anguish, to have that sounding board echo back that everything would be okay. She grabbed a fresh sheet of paper and began jotting down a new essay, one that would meet the requirements of the assignment but would be entirely impersonal, cold and clinical, almost as though she were a psychologist seeking to write a textbook. It would defeat the purpose of the lesson, but perhaps that purpose had already been met. She'd finally allowed herself to open up, even though the door was only cracked at the moment. The rest would follow.

"Helen, may I have a word please?"

Helen spun on her heel with the tiniest grin and approached Nikki's desk.

"This is becoming a habit, Miss Wade. You know, for an English teacher, you have an awfully limited vocabulary," the Scot teased.

Nikki stood there silently, blinking in awe as she was given the first glimpse of Helen's sense of humour. That coupled with the playful grin on the young woman's face and she was lost to stupidity for a moment. Helen became a totally different person when she smiled, and Nikki wondered briefly how she would look, how she would sound, if she threw her head back and laughed.

Shaking herself, Nikki cleared her throat and remembered the reprimand that had been on the tip of her tongue. "I wanted to talk to you about the essay you wrote on family."

She plucked the graded essay off her desk and continued, "I had to give you top marks for content and structure, but I'm still disappointed."

Helen seemed thoroughly befuddled by this remark, so Nikki quickly elaborated, "There's no fire, no feeling. It was so… cold. If I didn't know any better, I would think you'd completely missed the point of the exercise."

Helen ducked her head to hide her embarrassment at being caught out. If that comment had come from anyone but Nikki she was sure she would be angry to the point of boiling. What was it about this woman that put her at ease?

She reached into her book bag and withdrew the original essay, having been debating with herself on handing it over all period, and she explained sheepishly, "I wrote this one first. I didn't hand it in because… because I was afraid someone other than you might read it."

Nikki took the stapled set of papers from the outstretched hand and vowed seriously, "If you don't want anyone else reading this, then I swear no one else will. You have my word."

Helen looked up from her shoelaces and smiled again, this time a smile that was bright and radiant as she murmured her thanks, and Nikki felt a shiver pass through her forearms, her heart beating just a little faster. 'That smile…' she thought. It was doing strange and inexplicable things to her.

The bell rang and jarred her out of her thoughts. Glancing at the round clock above the chalkboard, she said, "You'd best be going or you'll be late. Can you stop by again later?"

Helen glanced at the doorway as it opened and she found herself apologising, "Sorry, I have violin practice this afternoon. You can stop by if you want."

She immediately felt her cheeks flush hotly as she processed what she'd said. She mumbled, "Bye," and scurried out of the room at full speed, experiencing the humiliating urge to hide under a rock.

Nikki watched her student leave, fighting against the grain of the incoming crowd, and she shook her head once more, thinking with exasperation, 'Un-bloody-believable. What the hell is wrong with you, Wade? She's a student, for Christ's sake.'

At 4:15pm Nikki packed her things in her briefcase and headed for the music room behind the auditorium. As soon as she'd bypassed the corridor into the soundproof room, the merry notes of a violin danced into her ears.

She came to a full stop as she spotted Helen in the centre of the room, staring intently at the sheet music in front of her as her right hand gracefully manipulated the bow of her violin. Nikki had the urge to clap as the piece ended, but she refrained and remained still and silent as Helen readjusted, closing her eyes as she started a different, slower piece.

Nikki found her breath caught in her throat as she marvelled at the sight before her. Helen's face was peaceful and expressionless, but for the smallest of creases between her eyebrows, as the lilting, haunting chords filled the room. A few minutes later as the music faded out and the Scot opened her eyes, Nikki still stood there, dumbstruck and moved nearly to tears. That piece had been powerful in its chilling gloom and Nikki's heart ached for the girl who'd played it.

Stepping out from the corner of the room, Nikki announced her presence by whispering reverently, "That was gorgeous, Helen. Did you write it?"

The Scot looked at her with wide, shocked eyes, unaware heretofore that she'd had an audience, and Nikki's heart lurched violently in her chest. 'Why is this happening to me?' she railed desperately in her head.

Helen gave a mute nod in response and Nikki stepped closer, swallowing down the rising emotions in her throat before she spoke. "That really was gorgeous. Please don't be alarmed that I heard it. It was… magnifique."

A thought struck her and she blurted her next question before she had time to ponder it, "Do you play the piano?"

Helen shook her head slowly and said, "No," her mere whisper heightened in volume by the acoustically enhanced room. Nikki bit down on her tongue to keep her next query from spilling forth. She moved toward the piano at the side of the room and Helen watched on curiously as she gave the cover a loving caress.

"I haven't played for years," Nikki admitted, seating herself on the wooden bench and flexing her fingers, straightening her posture as she lifted the lid.

Trying her hand at playing from memory, Nikki closed her eyes and called upon one of her favourite pieces, Moonlight Sonata. Helen watched her teacher's hands moving across the keys with sheer awe. She'd loved music as long as she could remember and when she was little her mother had played this very piece for her, before she'd succumbed to lack of coordination as the disease strengthened its hold on her.

With tears of joy filling her eyes, Helen stood and moved toward the piano. She raised her violin into position and began playing along with Nikki. She'd read the sheet music to this song so many times it came as second nature. Nikki opened her eyes and nearly faltered mid-note, such was the extent of her surprise. She quickly refocused on the piano as Helen continued to coax her violin in sync, creating a sweet harmony that surrounded and engulfed them with its beauty.

When the last strings played to completion, Nikki and Helen stared at each other in wonder. It felt like some kind of magic was hanging in the air. A lone tear slid down Helen's cheek and Nikki reached up without thinking to wipe it away. Their eyes stayed locked as her thumb brushed against the salty skin. Then, realising she was lingering longer than necessary, Nikki quickly drew her hand away, clenching her jaw as she chastised herself.

What was developing between them, what had been slowly brewing beneath the surface for the last three weeks, was altogether confounding for the raven-haired woman. She had the sense to recognise what it was, but internally she was raging against it. This was wrong. It had to be. There was no other option; she simply couldn't go there.

Breaking the thick silence that had stretched between them, Helen dropped her eyes and said, "I should be getting home. Thank you… for playing that. I know you won't understand the significance to me, but it was lovely. It's very close to my heart."

Feeling as though she was in danger of rambling, Helen moved away from the piano and packed her violin carefully into its case. Nikki stood slowly and lowered the black lid before asking on impulse, "Where do you live?"

Helen glanced up at her curiously as she answered, "About a thirty-minute walk from here."

Nikki found another question tumbling past her lips without any forethought, "Can I give you a lift?" This lack of cognizant control was beginning to become a habit.

Kicking herself as the Scot's brows raised in amusement, she quickly fumbled for a logical explanation. "It's cold… outside."

Helen suppressed a hearty chuckle, the effort required in doing so knocking her for six. It had been a very long time since she'd wanted to laugh. "Okay."

Nikki nodded and repeated pointlessly, "Okay."

Green eyes danced with merriment as the taller woman collected her briefcase, and Helen followed her teacher out of the building with a smile in her heart.


Chapter Five

The second week in March was dizzying and hectic for students and teachers alike. On Friday night the school was putting on a musical concert, in which Helen had earned herself a notable violin solo, and on Saturday there was a science fair scheduled. Helen arrived at 8:45am and exited her father's station wagon with a muted, "See you later."

He brought her to school every morning but in the afternoon he was always busy at the local church, so she was left to find her own means of transportation. Since the first time Nikki had given her a ride home it had become a commonplace occurrence. The cold weather was the excuse they used but they both knew it was because they wanted to spend more time together. A mystifying bond had emerged between them and Helen had found herself smiling more and more lately.

During the three afternoons a week when she had music practice, Nikki would join her and they would invariably end up playing something together before the end of the session. If Helen were to be honest, she was in love with Nikki's piano playing. Or maybe she was just in love with Nikki. That thought had startled her on more than one occasion in the last week, as it frequently clouded her waking mind. She'd also had a dream, that very first night after they'd played Moonlight Sonata together, but in her dream they were making music with their bodies.

Helen was, quite frankly, disturbed by the images that had come to fill her conscience. They were unnervingly vivid and sensational. She'd woken sweaty and breathing rapidly, her body quivering on the shy side of release. She'd buried her face in her hands as her skin had burned with desire and shame. Having had her father's strong beliefs instilled in her from birth, she couldn't bring herself to take the matter into her own hands. So she'd whipped off the duvet and turned on the ceiling fan, lying there with her eyes squeezed shut until she'd returned to slumber.

Fighting her way through the crowd of students, Helen found her locker and deposited her books before heading off to morning registration, the daily fifteen-minute period before classes officially began. She was seated well before the first bell of the day rang at 8:50. Afterwards she forced herself to stay awake through trigonometry before going to physical education. It had started raining cats and dogs outside so Mr. Waddle ordered the girls to stay inside and play a friendly game of dodge ball, while the boys were forced to go outside and play football in the rain and mud.

Helen sat dismally in the bleachers as a few of the more athletic girls in her class took to playing the game. Most of the others were also seated on the sidelines, fear of breaking a nail rendering them absolutely useless to any kind of sport. Helen had her own reasons for not participating that had very little to do with vanity. Thoughts of her mother were interspersed with thoughts of Nikki and she hadn't yet discovered a way to block them out. Her arms were sore and itchy, her eyes felt dead as she stared unseeingly, lost to the world in her melancholy. She barely noticed as the class ended. She went through the motions of changing and walking to next period like an automaton.

Human anatomy passed in an unfocused blur. She hadn't bothered trying to take notes as she'd sat there, only half hearing the lecture the teacher was giving on the digestive system. She was hanging on by a thread. She went to her music lesson and felt like a puppet having its strings pulled as the class played Vivaldi's "Winter", unable to engage and connect to the music as she normally would.

When the piece was finished, Pat Kerrigan nodded and said to her students, "That was excellent, but I want more feeling from the violins. Helen, I can tell you've been practising your solo, but try and engage with the music a bit more."

The lesson continued in that manner until lunch time. Helen packed her violin away and found her feet moving on autopilot toward Nikki's classroom. When she arrived, the last students were just trickling out and Nikki was seated at her desk, a sandwich and a stack of papers in front of her. Helen took a moment to observe her teacher in silence before quietly clearing her throat.

Nikki looked up in surprise and a smile crossed her lips as she said, "Helen! I wasn't expecting you." The taller woman frowned slightly as she studied the Scot, noticing that she seemed weary and withdrawn. "What's the matter?"

Helen shrugged off the question and said evasively, "I was hoping you could help me with something. Do you always eat in here?"

Nikki's frown deepened with concern as she recognised the delay tactic for what it was. "Usually. What can I help you with?"

Helen looked away from those questioning brown eyes as she replied, "You know I have a violin solo on Friday night. Well, I'm just having trouble connecting with the music. I thought if you played it with me I could get a fresh perspective."

Her cheeks began to burn with embarrassment as she explained further, "It always feels different when I play something with you." She stopped short of revealing just how passionate she got about music in Nikki's presence.

The taller woman flushed with equal embarrassment as a similar response echoed in her chest. "Yeah… okay, sure, no problem."

Helen smiled gratefully then turned to leave, but stopped and turned back when Nikki asked, "How are you doing?"

Biting her lip, the Scot mumbled unconvincingly, "Okay."

She left then and spent her lunch period in the library before heading to her afternoon French class. Then it was English and she purposely avoided lingering at the end, then history where she buried her mind in learning about the Mycenaean Age in Ancient Greece.

Nikki made her way to the music room at the usual time and found Helen sitting by the piano, sheet music out in front of her and violin at the ready. Nikki seated herself with a quiet greeting and smiled as she realised that Helen had fished out piano sheet music for her as well. They began to play and the music flowed naturally between them, as if they were always meant to be playing this duet. After the first run-through, Helen paused and looked at Nikki long and hard, the beginning of a question on the tip of her tongue.

"Would you… teach me to play piano?"

Helen ducked her head as she awaited a response, already berating herself for asking. She was taking up enough of her teacher's free time as it was. How could she expect to encroach upon more of it?

"I can if you like."

Helen raised her eyes and smiled a shy smile in thanks. Nikki slid down the bench and patted the space beside her. Helen rose from her chair and carefully laid her violin down before joining her. They spent half an hour going through the range of notes, with Nikki teaching her how to read them on the sheet music and where to place her hands. More than once she guided the Scot's fingers into place on the keys and a warmth spread between them.

Finally Helen said, "Okay, I think I've got it. Should we try and play together now?"

Nikki nodded in the affirmative and they began. The piece wasn't the easiest for a beginner and more than once Nikki had to make corrections, but Helen was a quick study and her fingers were delicate and nimble from playing the violin. The first time they managed to play the piece through together without interruption, Helen turned to Nikki and grabbed her hands without thinking.

"We did it! That was fantastic!"

She found herself laughing for the first time in over a year and her eyes twinkled with delight. Nikki stared at her with open awe and admiration until the sound died on the Scot's lips. Realising what she'd done, Helen hastily released Nikki's hands from her grip and stood from the bench. Nikki watched her with avid curiosity and pride.

"You should laugh more often, Helen. It suits you."

Helen's face fell notably at that and she hurried to pack up her violin. Nikki frowned and enquired, "Helen, talk to me, what's wrong?"

Facing away from those penetrating eyes and gathering her composure, Helen mumbled, "Nothing. I'm fine."

Nikki stood and persisted, "Then why don't I believe you?" She reached for Helen's wrist as she moved to walk away, and she instantly regretted it when she saw the flash of pain on the girl's face. She let go immediately and apologised, "Christ, I'm sorry, I didn't think…"

Helen stood frozen on the spot with wide, fearful eyes as Nikki gently tugged up the loose sleeve of her peasant-style blouse. Nikki's concern morphed into anger when she saw the series of fresh cuts, deeper than before. Her eyes were filled with fury as she released the Scot's arm.

"Why didn't you come and talk to me?" she asked with exasperation and outrage.

"I don't know," Helen answered, while her mind whispered viciously, 'Liar. You do know.'

Nikki shook her head in dismay but not another word was spoken as they exited the building. Helen was grateful for the silent reprieve and lack of lecture as she sat in her teacher's car. When they pulled up in front of Helen's modest two-story house, the Scot unbuckled her seat belt and grabbed her book bag and case from the floorboard.

"I'm sorry I disappointed you, Nikki, but thank you for this afternoon."

The name slipped between her lips before she had a chance to withhold it, and she glanced at the taller woman with mortification written on her face. Nikki appeared to be struggling with something and then reached a decision, offering a reassuring smile to the nervous brunette beside her.

"It's okay. How about when we're not at school you can call me Nikki, and when we are you can call me Miss Wade?"

Helen nodded graciously and returned a sad smile before alighting from the vehicle, entering her house without a backward glance. From just inside, with her back pressed against the front door and her violin case at her feet, she heard Nikki's car pull off down the street and she sighed quietly, confused and frustrated.

Friday came in the blink of an eye and by 7pm she was sitting on stage in front of the auditorium, surrounded by her fellow music students and preparing to play Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Her father had actually managed to come home in time to bring her and was now sitting in the audience, but it wasn't him that she sought out as her eyes scanned the sea of faces, butterflies catapulting violently in her stomach. She was looking for Nikki.

She finally spotted her sitting next to a few other teachers on the far left side toward the front of the room. When Nikki smiled and gave her a small wave, Helen felt her heart lurch upward and lodge in her throat, beating impossibly fast and doing nothing to settle her nerves. She found a spot at the back of the room that was devoid of people and stared at it resolutely as Conductor Kerrigan raised her arms and signalled the beginning of the concert.

Forty-five minutes later the concert came to an end and the curtains were drawn to the sound of roaring applause. No matter how she tried, Helen couldn't wipe the smile off her face as pride surged through her. The performance had gone off without a hitch and she felt oddly free in that moment. As she packed up her violin and sheet music, she sent a prayer of thanks up to her mother, sure that she'd been watching over her and was responsible for her success.

She milled out with her peers to find her father and received a simple, "Well done," from him. She hadn't been holding her breath for anything more. Her eyes met Nikki's from across the room and she shot the taller woman a heart-melting smile as she left.

Saturday morning dawned bright and early and the waking sun saw Helen padding downstairs for a cup of coffee. She had it in mind that she would stop by the school in a few hours to see Larkhall's annual science fair. It was something to fill her morning and it had to be better than sitting around the house moping. She wondered more than idly if Nikki would be there. She supposed she would. She'd heard that all of the teachers would be attending; it was tradition.

She made herself a simple breakfast of toast and blueberry jam and sipped coffee until she was fully awake. She then went back upstairs and changed out her blue pyjamas with fluffy white sheep for jeans and a cream coloured cashmere sweater. She pulled her shoulder-length hair back in a clip then jotted a short note to her father, leaving it on the kitchen table for him to find.

She spent over an hour walking in Regent's Park, reciting French lessons in her head. She recalled Nikki's compliment of the other week – "It was… magnifique." – and suddenly it occurred to her that her teacher might speak French. She sighed softly and wrapped her arms protectively around herself as she imagined Nikki speaking it with her. On some level she was aware that this was more than a fleeting fancy or passing attraction, and that her feelings were steadily getting out of hand.

She hadn't a clue how to remedy the situation, though, so she seated herself on a nearby bench and watched the morning dog walkers until her wristwatch told her it was time to head to the science fair. She arrived at the stone front steps of Larkhall Secondary and stared up at the old Victorian architecture for a moment before entering. These walls and halls held thousands of memories but sometimes they felt downright bleak and oppressive. She made her way to the gymnasium where the display tables and 'exhibits' were set up. Because she was taking human anatomy this year and the class wasn't required to participate in the fair, nothing of her creation was to be found here.

She was quickly entranced by erupting volcanoes, homemade roller coasters, and indoor lightning. One of the sixth form engineering students had even created a small robot. She walked through rows of tables lined with tri-fold cardboard presentations on photosynthesis, electricity, and molecular structure and decomposition. She stopped to watch as a girl from her trig class dropped a lit match into a glass jar filled with less than an inch of water, and then placed a rubber glove over the top with the fingers hanging down into the jar.

As the fingers were pulled upward a cloud of fog appeared in the jar, then disappeared as the glove was returned to its previous position. Helen was so absorbed by the disappearing act that she didn't notice Nikki standing behind her until she received a small tap on the shoulder.

Smiling immediately, Helen asked, "Isn't that fascinating?" referring to the fog once again visible in the jar.

Nikki chuckled lightly and nodded in agreement, then said, "Yeah, but I think my favourite is the pressure volcano."

They walked around for a while and talked about the various exhibits, finding that easy camaraderie between them once again. Then Helen stopped and asked, "So, what do you normally do on Saturday?"

Surprised by the random question, Nikki took a moment to respond. "Well, I suppose I normally have a small lie-in then read the morning paper while I eat breakfast. I go for a short run then I grade papers until lunch time. I usually cook lunch for myself, but I occasionally go out to eat if a friend invites me, and then I spend my afternoon reading. Sometimes in the evening I go to see a new film at the cinema. What do you do?"

Helen smiled wistfully and commented, "That sounds really peaceful. I usually stay home, reading or doing homework, practising my violin or watching something on the telly. I don't have much of a life outside school."

Nikki stopped walking abruptly and pursed her lips in thought, then she grinned as she came to some sort of conclusion in her head. She discreetly nudged Helen's lower back with her fingertips and said, "Come on, let's get out of here. I've an idea for how we can spend the afternoon."

Intrigued and excited by the prospect of breaking the cycle of her mundane existence, Helen eagerly followed Nikki's lead out of the school, nearly laughing as they reached the faculty car park and Nikki hopped in her car, as giddy as a child in a candy shop. Helen got in on the passenger's side and thought to ask where they were going, but judging from Nikki's mood she figured it must be a surprise and wouldn't get an answer anyway.

The brief notion that this might be dangerous flitted across her mind, not because she didn't trust Nikki but because she wasn't sure she trusted herself. Her impulse control had been sorely lacking of late. With an internal sigh of resignation, she buckled up and stared out the window as they pulled out of the car park. Whatever was in store, she would just have to control herself.


Chapter Six

At first Helen thought Nikki was taking her home as they drove through Marylebone, but before long they'd bypassed her area and were entering Regent's Park, obtaining paid parking on the southwest side. After exiting the car, Nikki eagerly led Helen along the pathway on the side of the boating lake, making an attempt at casual conversation as they walked.

"I thought we could get something to eat and hire a pedalo for the lake."

Helen, being relatively new to the area and somewhat of a recluse, had been to the park a few times since she'd moved from Scotland to England but hadn't done extensive exploring.

"Great! Where are we eating?"

Nikki pointed up ahead of them and said, "The Boathouse Café. I'm suddenly in the mood for pizza and ice cream. Will that suit?"

Helen nodded and chuckled quietly at her teacher, who seemed to be well in touch with her inner child and had the enthusiasm of a teenager in a woman's body. Her expression grew pensive as she pondered that notion, unknowingly mirroring Nikki's own thoughts on the matter. When the idea had come to her back at the school, she'd been searching for a way to cheer Helen up, to shake up her routine and show her a good time. She wanted the Scot to realise that it was possible to be happy again, that there was more to life than books and studying and staying at home.

As they reached the charming indoor/outdoor café, Nikki opened the door and held it for Helen out of habit, allowing the Scot to proceed into the small establishment before her. They only took a minute to agree on pepperoni and pineapple before finding a table outside that faced the boating lake. As they sat down, Nikki stared intently across the wooden table at her lunch companion, a course of conversation already formulating in her mind.

"Would you tell me about your mum?" Nikki asked, knowing it was a difficult subject but something that Helen needed to talk about if she was going to grieve properly and move on.

Helen fiddled with a napkin nervously then began to speak after a moment of hesitation, "She was a wonderful woman. She called me her miracle child. She and my dad tried to have kids for years after they were married. They even went to see a doctor and she went through fertility treatments. Nothing worked. She got pregnant with me when she was forty-four, so they had me a little later in life than they expected. She was already starting to suffer from Parkinson's when I was born, but it didn't get really bad until I was eleven. That's when she lost the ability to walk."

Helen took a deep breath to steady herself as tears welled up in her eyes. "Before that it was just little things. She loved to play piano and she loved gardening, but it got harder and harder for her each year as she lost her coordination. I think she would've liked you."

Helen's sad smile transformed into one of mortification as she realised she'd said that last part out loud. Across the table Nikki was looking decidedly embarrassed and uncomfortable, so Helen quickly carried on as if she'd never said it, "She loved anything green and she collected turquoise jewellery. Her favourite flowers were daisies. Her favourite movies were Gone with the Wind and Seabiscuit."

Their pizza arrived and Helen immediately clammed up as the waitress asked if they needed anything else. Helen shook her head mutely and glued her eyes to the tabletop to hide the tears that had filled them. She busied one hand with her glass of Coke and the other with picking at a slice of pizza. After Nikki thanked the waitress and she moved on to another table, Helen finally raised her eyes to look at her raven-haired companion, who, in this moment, felt like the only person she could talk to, the only one who understood her and saw past the overwhelming pain.

Nikki smiled awkwardly and said, "I can't pretend I know what you're going through, Helen, but know that I'll always be here to listen. I care about what happens to you." As she finished speaking, her mind piped up and reminded her, 'I care more than I should.'

Helen awarded her with a dazzling watery smile and said with heartfelt gratitude, "Thank you, Nikki."

The taller woman nodded her head and tried to break the tension between them, "Let's eat. I've got my eye on that marshmallow cheesecake."

Helen laughed then and it was music to Nikki's ears as they began to eat their pizza. When they were sufficiently fed and watered, and after they argued over Nikki paying the bill, they rented a pedalo boat and spent a very pleasant thirty minutes pedalling around the lake, watching the swans fishing and talking about anything but their feelings for each other. Nikki mentioned an upcoming writing contest the school would be participating in and Helen expressed more than idle interest, admitting that she'd been secretly working on something for months now.

When questioned further on the mystery writing project, Helen remained intentionally elusory and would only tell Nikki to be patient; all would be revealed in time. Curiosity un-sated, Nikki was nonetheless amused by the Scot's playful evasiveness and forwent any additional interrogation on the matter. After returning the boat, Nikki turned to Helen with a hint of indecision on her face. They were both having such a splendid time and it was only half past eleven. Neither seemed eager to cut the outing short as they stood there and stared at one another, hair tousled, eyes sparkling, and cheeks wind-whipped in the morning cold.

"Have you been to the zoo?" Nikki blurted, then immediately called herself a twat. Helen lived in walking distance of the park. Of course she would have been to the zoo on the other side.

"No… I haven't," Helen admitted quietly, rather embarrassed by the fact as Nikki's eyes widened with disbelief.

"Come on then. We're going," the taller woman dictated decisively, reaching out for Helen's hand on instinct.

The Scot stared at the offered hand as though it was going to bite her and Nikki flustered as she realised how overly familiar she was inadvertently being, but as she went to drop it she felt smaller fingers lace through hers. Unable to speak intelligibly at that very moment, she squeezed Helen's hand and started walking down the paved pathway once more. The fresh air and singing birds would normally have garnered her appreciation, but her mind was awhirl with conflict and confusion.

Each step they took in tandem reverberated through her being and compounded the knowledge that they were skirting along very perilous territory. Nikki was no fool. She knew what she felt for Helen, knew she was attracted to her, and knew that it was wrong. If they were in almost any other situation it wouldn't matter. Sixteen was the age of consent, after all, but she was in a position of trust here. She couldn't bring herself to knowingly abuse that trust and take advantage of her student, no matter how wonderful their linked hands felt or how exhilarating it was to fantasise about a different reality, an alternate set of circumstances in which they would be allowed to love each other.

Letting go of Helen's hand was the hardest thing she'd had to do in a long time, but she did so as much to preserve her sanity as her morality. When she glanced sideways to gauge the Scot's emotional state, the wisdom and understanding she saw in those gorgeous green eyes shook her to her core. Helen may only be sixteen, but her life experience entitled her to a maturity that went beyond her physical years. As passion blended with the knowledge in those eyes, Nikki nearly tripped over her feet and looked away hurriedly, grateful they were fast approaching the zoo entrance as it would provide light-hearted and much-needed distraction.

Helen's favourite part, hands down, was the penguin beach. She'd enjoyed the gorillas, the lions, and the tigers, and had stared in open-mouthed awe at the aquarium, but as they entered the underground viewing area and watched the black and white birds diving through the water, her sense of joy skyrocketed and reached its peak. She grabbed Nikki's hand excitedly as she pointed through the glass, giggling like a child. The taller woman gazed upon this display of joy with a profundity of affection that plucked painfully at her heartstrings.

By two o'clock they'd seen all they wanted to see and done everything they wanted to do, so they were left sitting in Nikki's Volvo with an awkward silence between them, both reluctant to acknowledge the end of their time together.

"I suppose I should be getting you home now," Nikki said after a time, toying with the radio dial even though the volume was muted.

"Yeah, I suppose so," Helen agreed disagreeably, a sigh escaping her lips that said more than words.

Nikki shifted the silver S80 into reverse and attempted to run interference on the gloomy atmosphere that was settling around them, "I bought a piano earlier this week. It's supposed to be delivered today at four."

Helen's eyebrows shot up in interest and she pivoted halfway in her seat to look at the driver, a smile in her voice as she professed, "I'd love to try and play it with you. Is it new or used?"

Nikki could only spare Helen a flickering glance as she pulled into the flow of traffic. "I got it used but it's in pristine condition." As an afterthought that was never meant to be verbalised, she unconsciously added, "I'd love for you to play it with me."

Helen's smile widened and she tucked her tongue up behind her teeth, an action that surely would've caused a five-car pileup if Nikki hadn't been steadfastly concentrating on the road ahead. "That's it settled then. You might as well take me back to yours."

Nikki swallowed hard as a throb sounded firmly between her legs in response. She afforded herself a moment to study the young woman beside her, trying to work out if the double entendre had been intentional, and she ended up slamming on her brakes at a red light she hadn't noticed.

"Bloody hell," she swore under her breath, ignoring Helen's quizzical expression and mumbling lamely as the light turned green, "I'm not sure."

"Why not?" Helen enquired, an irritated frown taking residence on her forehead.

"Because I don't make a habit of taking students home with me," Nikki explained, her frustration evident in her weary tone.

"I thought we were meant to be friends. That's what you said to me," Helen reminded, obviously hurt now. Her upset mixed with indignation as she added, "Besides, it's not like I'm asking you to take me to bed. I just like playing music with you."

Both women blushed as they warred with the unbidden thoughts that statement had conjured. Nikki's mind cruelly taunted her that she was losing control and that she needed to regain it, to keep her wayward imaginings at bay. In a bid to do so and to appear normal and unaffected, she put on her indicator and veered left at the next intersection, taking them away from Helen's house in the direction of her flat in Canary Wharf. Helen kept her smile to herself as she turned up the volume on the radio and found an easy listening station.

As the soothing vocals and instrumental work of Ani DiFranco filled the air, Helen relaxed back in her seat and made no attempt to initiate any further dialogue between them. Forty-two minutes later they arrived at their destination, a large multi-storey residential development on Hertsmere Road.

Helen turned wide eyes to Nikki and asked, "You live here? How on earth do you afford it on a teaching salary?"

Nikki had to suppress a grin as she parked her Volvo and looked out the windscreen at the rather upscale building in which her two-bedroom flat was located. "My great aunt Hilda left a small fortune to me in her will. She never married and never had any children, so she always doted on me when I was a child. My father never liked me being around her very much, thought it might give me bad ideas, and he was furious when he found out at the funeral, but there was nothing he could do about it."

"Bad ideas?" Helen asked, having lost the plot.

This time Nikki's grin made itself known on her face as she answered, "She was a lesbian. When I told my dear mum and dad that I was as well, their natural reaction was to blame her. I had just turned nineteen when she died and that was the first time I'd seen my parents in three years. I haven't seen them since."

"How did she die?" Helen probed, finding herself suddenly overwhelmed by morbid curiosity.

"Lung cancer. She was a life-long smoker."

Helen glanced down at the pack of fags in the centre console with a raised eyebrow. "I see you got that from her as well. Let me guess, you're also secretly into punk rock?"

Nikki snorted and soon her face was crumpled in laughter. It proved to be infectious as she asked, "How did you guess?" and Helen joined in the amusement. After a time, Nikki calmed herself and scolded Helen playfully, "I did not become a lesbian because of my aunt. It's not catching, you know. It's just who I am."

Helen pursed her lips in displeasure as she posited, "My father would disagree with you. I would stop just short of calling him a religious zealot. He's got the Bible so far up his arse I'm surprised he can still walk."

Nikki's eyes widened in shock as she stared at the angry, indignant brunette beside her. "Helen!" she finally spluttered, meaning to chastise the teenager but failing to carry through.

Helen shrugged nonchalantly and defended herself, "He goes around like a robot, quoting scripture as if it's going to change the world, let alone the sad reality of our lives."

Nikki softened with understanding and queried perceptively, "He's never been the emotional type, has he?"

Helen shook her head no. "I think he thinks it's a display of weakness to show someone you care about them."

"I can relate to that," Nikki put forth. "My father is a retired Commodore of the Royal Navy, so he's always had this stoic, stiff upper lip thing going, very regimental and not at all sentimental," she conveyed aptly, continuing with, "My mother was the same way, but for a different reason. She was born with a silver spoon in her mouth and married off young to a respectable upper class man of whom her parents approved. She cares more about wealth, reputation, and socialite parties than she does about family. She did what was expected of her, of course: got married, popped out 2.4 kids, raised them to be as snobby as her, and now spends her afternoons at fancy luncheons with a martini in hand."

Helen cringed and lamented on Nikki's behalf, "That's terrible!" Then a thought occurred and she had to ask, "So, you have siblings?"

"Just one, an older sister named Rose. The last time I saw her was at my sixteenth birthday party. She was twenty and engaged to some prestigious barrister. Our father loved the idea and Rose loved the money. She didn't even bother coming to the funeral."

A glance at the clock on the dashboard told her they'd been talking for over twenty minutes now, so she raised her brows and asked, "Shall we?" nodding her head toward the apartment building. "We've got just over half an hour before the delivery men are due. I can make some tea and give you a tour while we wait."

They exited the vehicle and made their way into the building, passing the concierge desk on the ground floor and taking the lift to the third. As they stepped out of the elevator and walked down the hall, Nikki fiddling with her key ring and Helen trailing a step behind, a preposterous notion occurred to the Scot.

"Um, Nikki," she began as the taller woman unlocked her door, "how are you going to get a piano up here?"

Nikki flipped the light switch just inside the door and paused halfway through removing her coat as Helen's question registered. "Oh, shit," she concluded succinctly, groaning as Helen nodded and concurred, "Shit, indeed."

An hour later, Nikki was sweaty and exhausted but extremely pleased as she sat on her sofa beside Helen, guzzling a glass of ice water as she looked at the grand piano in the corner of her expansive lounge. It looked right at home on the light maple flooring with a large bay window directly beside it. Even with the four delivery men she'd hired, she'd still had to pitch in herself and beg her neighbour to help carry the 600lb piano up the stairwell. She'd realised quite quickly that the lift simply wasn't large enough.

As she finished her water and set her empty glass on the dark oak coffee table, she reclined into the sofa and lolled her head sideways on the tan cushion to look at Helen, a relieved smile playing across her lips.

"Thank Christ that's over with," Nikki summarised emphatically, earning her a throaty chuckle from her amused companion. Helen, being the wee thing that she was, hadn't been expected to help in any way. It may well have spelled disaster if she had.

"Aye, but now it's here and you can play it whenever you want. You won't need to spend your afternoons in the music room with me anymore." Helen's smile dropped away as she fully considered this, wondering if it was a prediction born of truth or fear.

Nikki sat up and said gently, "Hey, don't think like that. I come to the music room because I like spending time with you and I love the way we play together. It has nothing to do with convenience."

Her words were so sincere that Helen felt her heart swell in her chest, growing ten times larger as she gazed into those warm and reassuring pools of chocolate cinnamon. "I love it, too," she admitted on a breath, so close to altering a word that she could almost taste it on her tongue.

Electricity crackled between them then, their eyes locked in a silence that spoke volumes. The tension was palpable, dangerous, delicious. Helen shifted herself slowly, gradually narrowing the distance between them, and though Nikki had ample opportunity to move away, to prevent the inevitable from happening, she found herself frozen in place, her palms sweaty and her heart beating in her throat. The moment their lips met, a brief, fleeting touch, feather light, she was sure there was an actual spark on contact. She was equally sure she'd just found the other half of herself in Helen Stewart, something she hadn't known was missing.

Their mouths came together again in a fraction of a second, firmer now but undemanding as they relished the feel of each other. Fingertips ghosting along her jaw line and curling behind her ear caused Nikki to sigh against Helen's lips in pure, unfettered bliss, but when the Scot brushed her lower lip with the tip of her tongue and she heard the answering groan, a deep, desperate, throaty sound that sent chills and static tingles down the taller woman's spine, reality reasserted its claim on her mind and she pulled back abruptly, breaking the contact as she stared through horror filled eyes and barely dared to breathe. 'What have I done?'

Helen couldn't recall a time in her life when she'd ever felt more humiliated as she heard Nikki whisper regretfully, "We can't. You know we can't. This isn't right, Helen."

The Scot stood with tears brimming in her eyes, tears she was at a loss to understand, and she answered raggedly, "I'm sorry… I… shouldn't have done that. I'll go."

She turned to leave and Nikki snapped to her senses, standing and saying, "I'll drive you home."

"No!" Helen replied firmly, turning back halfway as she insisted, "I'll call a taxi. I'm really sorry, Nikki."

She left then, not giving the other woman a chance to respond, and got to the pavement outside the front of the building before she collapsed, slumping against the wall and crying her eyes out for the first time since her mother had died. She was almost always on the brink of tears these days, but she seldom let them fall and she never let them fall in such abundance. She wasn't only crying because she was embarrassed by her actions. That would have been easy enough to dismiss. She was crying because a revelation had occurred during that kiss, and that was enough to change everything she knew about herself.

She'd thought it was only curiosity and that it would go away once satisfied. She'd tricked herself into believing that her burgeoning feelings of love for Nikki only existed because Nikki seemed to care about her when no one else gave a toss. Now she knew she'd been wrong, horribly, monumentally wrong. She was more than curious and she was definitely in love with Nikki, and it was real and powerful and all-consuming, and therefore terrifying. But equally as terrifying was the realisation that she couldn't have Nikki, not in the way she wanted or needed, and it was out of her control to change anything.

She made a decision then to cut off her feelings and ignore them in the hope they would disappear, because her brick wall had just crumbled, her only support system gone because of a life-altering, illicit kiss. She would just have to be stronger, colder, and she would make it through this in one piece. She pulled herself together quickly and used her mobile to call a cab company, reeling off the address from the side of the building and then waiting in determined silence. She would be okay.


Chapter Seven

Nikki sat with her head in her hands for a long time after Helen left. Struggling with guilt was a new concept entirely for her. She'd always been proud of who she was and who she was attracted to, even when her parents had disowned her eight years ago. Her great aunt had taught her that other people's prejudices had more to do with them than her and to not let anyone else define who she was with unkind words. Now, though, she was ashamed. For the first time in her life she knew it was wrong to love someone, or at least to act on that love.

As she sat and continued to think about it, her mind filled with fear and worry for Helen. The young woman was going through a horrible ordeal and was in a fragile emotional state as it was. She was afraid of how this perceived rejection might weigh on the teenager's mind and what actions she may feel forced to take. The thought of Helen harming herself further because of what had happened between them nearly made Nikki physically ill. She cursed herself for not getting Helen's mobile number to check on her and strongly considered stopping by her house.

That would bring about a slew of questions, though, if Mr. Stewart answered the door. She didn't want to betray Helen's confidence in such a grievous way and risk alienating her further. This would simply have to wait. In the meantime, she did something she hadn't done since she was a child. She prayed. The enormity of the moment didn't bypass her and she soon found herself moved to tears.

Helen spent Saturday night in her bathroom with a razor blade in hand, taking out her frustrations on her unsuspecting flesh. At one point she scared herself rigid with the depth to which she'd opened her skin. It was the first glimpse of possibility, as she sat on the cold tiled floor trying to staunch the bleeding, of what might happen if she really lost control. It was a sobering thought but it made her dizzy. For all of her wishing, she wasn't ready to die.

She awoke on Saturday morning, her back and neck stiff and her limbs cold from sleeping on the bathroom floor. The flannel she'd used the night before was clenched loosely in one first and dried blood was caked haphazardly across her arms. She winced as she sat up slowly and tried to stretch her aching body. She reached over to turn on the shower tap then stood to remove her clothes, dismayed to find flecks of blood dotting the thighs of her favourite jeans. They would have to be thrown away now.

After twenty minutes of punishing herself with needle pricks of near-scalding water, she dragged herself from the shower and wandered into her attached bedroom to dress her sore, weary body. She reluctantly pulled on her Sunday best, a long-sleeved black dress that fell just below her knees and had a very modest neckline, knowing as she looked at her bedside clock that her father would be knocking on her door any minute now to drag her to church. She'd long ago grown tired of fighting him on the issue and now went through the motions like a willing slave.

At half past eleven that morning, thirty minutes into the Sunday service, Helen couldn't refrain from scoffing and rolling her eyes. She'd spent the last ten minutes listening to her father preach about why God put rainbows in the sky for mankind and what each colour represented in regards to His Holiness, and now Reverend Stewart was going on about how rainbows have been perverted by the devil. With all of the anger she possessed toward her father, herself, and God, she simply couldn't contain herself.

While her father had always taught her that homosexuals were agents of sin, persuaded to do the work of the devil, her mother had been a kinder, gentler soul. She'd taught Helen that love came in all kinds of different packaging and, though others may not understand it and may well fear it for that reason, a person simply had no control over who their heart loved. This conflict in her upbringing had often been a source of relative confusion for young Helen, but now, with her latest self-revelation in mind, she knew that her mother had been correct.

She could not control the fact that she loved Nikki. She could only control what she did about it. She ignored the scolding and curious looks she received from her fellow church goers, in response to her rude noises of indignation, and proceeded to tune out the last half hour of the sermon.

Later in the day she once again left her house for a walk through Regents Park. This was an activity she found herself becoming quite fond of – it gave her time and peace to think – but the downside was that it now reminded her of Nikki. After spending a good hour or so wandering through Queen Mary's Garden, she came across a group of boys from Larkhall partaking in a friendly game of football in one of the fields. The ball came careening towards her as she stopped to watch and she caught it deftly with both hands.

One of the players, a boy of average height with average looks and floppy brown hair, came running off the grass to collect it with an apologetic smile. "Sorry about that. My mate doesn't know how to kick apparently."

Helen shrugged and handed the ball over, replying simply, "Don't worry about it."

He studied her for a moment after taking the ball back, trying to place how he knew her, and then recognition lit up his face. He tucked the ball under one arm and stuck his free hand forward as he said, "Sean Parr. You go to Larkhall, don't you?"

Surprised that he'd recognised her, Helen had to check herself to stop staring and shake the offered hand, mumbling, "Helen Stewart. Yes, I do."

For a brief second it seemed as though Sean might go cross-eyed with glee at hearing her speak, but he caught himself quickly and pasted on a winning smile. "You could stay and watch? I mean, we could get an ice cream or something afterward, if you want?"

Helen watched his near fumbled attempt at asking her out through a lens that made the world look surreal. She could slip into that role, be a typical girl with a typical boyfriend and without a care in the world, without a single deeper thought than the clothes she would wear each day. It would be so easy…

"Sure," she finally agreed, putting on her very best fake smile as she tucked a lock of hair behind her right ear. "It's a date."

Giddy wouldn't have been an adequate word to describe Sean in that moment. He bounced on the balls of his feet and stopped just short of clapping his hands together before running off like a hyped up testosterone fairy. She shook her head as she watched him receive manly claps on the back from his schoolmates before the game reconvened. She found a dry spot of grass to park her bum near a large tree and she sighed miserably, already questioning her sanity in going along with this ruse.

Monday morning saw Helen exiting her father's car after yet another journey of stony silence, but this one had also been fraught with an air of disappointment from the elder Stewart. When Helen had come home unusually late the night before, having spent several hours listening to Sean gab on like a teenage girl, they'd come awfully close to having an actual row. Part of Helen wished he had shouted at her; some kind of emotion, some sign he was still human, would be better than nothing, better than silence.

As she made her way to morning registration, she counted her blessings that she only shared P.E. and World History with Sean. He didn't half know how to talk her ear off. By Wednesday she'd learned to tune him out for the most part while appearing as if she was listening. He took to walking her to classes with his arm loosely draped across her shoulders and she let him because, even though she didn't enjoy those moments of togetherness, she loved the appearance of normality. She also loved that he drove her home in the afternoons because it gave her a valid excuse to avoid Nikki. The one time in the last three days when her English teacher had managed to get her on her own to enquire about her well-being, Helen had brushed her off coldly and made a hasty retreat.

The raven-haired woman let her be after that and Helen steadfastly ignored the dull, growing ache in her chest whenever she saw the woman, resigned to the fact that she'd made this bed for herself and would now have to lie in it. The rest of March flew by in the blink of an eye and April saw the insurmountable distance span even wider between Helen and Nikki, almost to the point where both wondered if their minds were playing tricks on them, if it had all been some illustrious hallucination.

The writing contest arrived and Helen reluctantly made her submission, honestly believing it would be overlooked and wouldn't matter. At the end of the month, though, when the winner was revealed and the £100 prize was given out, Helen was stunned to find her name on the cheque and certificate. As she shook Nikki's hand and smiled falsely for the customary camera shot, a warmth flooded through her fingertips and immersed the whole of her being, momentarily lifting the dark moodiness that had been plaguing her recently.

When the photographer departed, leaving student and teacher alone in the empty classroom, Nikki smiled genuinely and offered her congratulations, "Well done, Helen. I have to say it was brilliant."

Feeling vulnerable and exposed in the face of such praise, Helen shrugged and tried to brush it off. "It was nothing, just a few scribbles."

"Nonsense!" Nikki retorted, exasperated now. "I hear rumours that someone's going to get in touch with you about buying the rights to your script. They want to make it into a movie. Does that sound like nothing to you?"

Helen's eyes widened comically as she tried to imagine her movie script becoming a reality, but a big part of her didn't want to believe it was possible, that she was actually capable of such success. She laughed then and replied mockingly, "Next you're gonna tell me you believe in the Tooth Fairy. It's a nice idea but it doesn't actually work like that."

Without giving Nikki a chance to respond, she turned on her heel and left, going out to the student section of the car park to find Sean. He, at least, would be pleased by this news, even if she wasn't entirely pleased herself.

"I don't think this is working anymore, is it?"

"Sorry?" Helen looked at Sean as though he'd suddenly sprouted a second head, thinking frantically, 'Not now… Please not now.'

"Well, it isn't," Sean concluded lamely. "Come on, Hels, it was a good bit of fun but we both know it wasn't meant to be serious."

Helen felt her whole world swiftly crashing down around her and tears flooded her eyes like a tidal wave. "Sod you, Sean!" she screamed in the middle of the car park, causing several nearby students to stop and stare. It was a Friday afternoon in the beginning of May when he decided to make this announcement.

She felt herself pushed to the brink of desperation and could only react with anger. She'd given him everything she could give; her time, her company, her body. All she hadn't been able to give was her love.

Sean, misunderstanding the reason for her fury, unsuccessfully tried to appease her, "Look, if you want to keep something casual going on the side, I won't say no. I'll admit it's been great between us."

He waggled his brows and grinned boyishly, thinking he was onto a winning idea, but that only served to rankle her further. She stepped close to him and whispered in a low, deadly tone, "I would rather die than let you touch me again. Go find some other poor lass to take advantage of, because if you ever come near me again I'll make sure you can't even fuck yourself."

He swallowed fearfully and tried to take a step back, but his path of escape was blocked by his shiny green sports car. Satisfied that he understood her perfectly, Helen retreated from his personal space and began the tiresome walk home. What she wouldn't give to go back in time right now…

Helen leaned against the doorframe of her father's study and chewed her lower lip, her stomach churning with nervousness as she observed him unnoticed. As usual, he had his nose buried in the Bible and was scrawling notes for a sermon. She couldn't help wondering how he never got tired of reading and reciting scripture; he'd dedicated most of his life to religion to the exclusion of everything else. She knew she had to speak to him and she knew he wouldn't be pleased with what she had to say, but this had to be done.

She cleared her throat and waited to speak until he looked up at her, an irritated frown creasing his brows at being interrupted. "Da… I need to talk to you about something."

The seriousness in her voice finally prompted him to abandon what he was doing and give his daughter his full attention. He rose from his desk chair and motioned stiffly toward the sofa by the fireplace. She sat down awkwardly and silence stretched uncomfortably between them for a long moment.

"What can I do for you, Helen?"

A bitter and humourless chuckle bubbled up Helen's throat and spilled from her lips. What a predictable, emotionless question that was – typical Reverend Stewart.

"Do for me?" Helen asked incredulously. "I'm not one of your damn parishioners, Da!"

"Helen!" her father barked, outraged in equal parts by her swearing, her contemptuous tone, and the underlying implication in her statement; that he viewed her as no more than a stranger seeking guidance.

Of course he loved his daughter, but he'd been raised to believe that verbalising that love was unnecessary. He'd never been the type to get all soppy and talk about his feelings, not even when he'd fallen in love with Catherine. The only two times in his life that he'd cried had been the day his daughter was born and the day his wife died, and he'd done both in private.

Father and daughter stared at one another unhappily until Helen was forced to look away, mumbling, "I have something important to tell you, but I'm not sure how."

"No one's giving you a hard time at that school, are they? You've been keeping your grades up."

"No," Helen sighed, "it's nothing to do with school, though I may have to study at home next year."

Mr. Stewart frowned deeply at this and asked, "Whatever for?"

"Because," Helen addressed her shoelaces, "I don't think I'll be welcome to attend for much longer." She knew she was being a chicken, but this was difficult.

"Are you in some sort of trouble? I haven't heard anything from the school." He was desperately trying to work out her coded statement and failing miserably to do so. She might as well be speaking in riddles.

"I suppose you could say that. I'm… I'm…" She finished the last part of her sentence in such a mere whisper that he nearly missed it, but the expression of guilt and shame on her face confirmed he hadn't misheard her.

The following minutes were some of the very worst of her life. Insults were hurled relentlessly in her direction until she was reduced to tears, and the grand finale had her father telling her she was no daughter of his and she wasn't welcome in his house. An hour later she was standing outside the front door with three suitcases and nowhere to go.

Nikki was just pulling a perfect five-cheese lasagne out of the oven when she heard a knock on her front door. Frowning as she glanced at the oven clock, wondering who would be knocking her up unannounced at 7pm, she put down her oven mitts and moved to answer. She was glad she hadn't carried her dinner with her as it surely would've ended up on the floor, such was her shock at who she encountered.

"Helen! What are you doing here?" It was then that she noticed the Scot's face was streaked with dried tears and the suitcases sitting behind her in the hallway. "Come in," she immediately offered, stepping aside.

Helen shuffled in quietly, lugging her baggage with her, and followed Nikki to the kitchen at her behest. When offered a cup of hot tea and a plate of fresh lasagne, Helen mutely shook her head in the negative, but her stomach piped up with a rumble and Nikki ordered her to sit down at the kitchen table. She did so reluctantly but before long she'd cleared away two platefuls.

Nikki smirked across the table and teased, "Hungry?"

Helen nodded and wiped her mouth on a napkin before saying, "Thanks. I didn't know where else to go."

Nikki set her fork aside and folded her hands in front of her. "Will you please tell me what happened?"

The Scot met her gaze for a brief moment before lowering her eyes. "My father kicked me out." She didn't have to glance up to know that Nikki was now sporting a quizzical scowl, so she bit the bullet and explained, "I told him I'm pregnant."

The silence that followed was so intense Helen was convinced she could hear crickets chirping outside the kitchen window. She stood hastily and said, "Thanks for dinner. I'll go."

Nikki scraped her chair back from the table and beseeched, "Please don't do that. You're welcome to stay here for as long as you need. You just surprised me."

Helen took a moment to process this, standing perfectly still with her hands clenched at her sides, then she let out a breath and admitted in a whisper, "It's okay. It surprised me too."

Nikki collected their plates and silverware and deposited them in the sink before saying decisively, "I'll make up the guest room for you. Then you can have a bath and get some sleep. We can figure out the rest in the morning."

Helen wrapped her arms around her middle as the taller woman moved off to do as she'd said, and not long after Helen was sinking into a nice, warm bath, closing her eyes and trying to empty her mind to keep her tears and stress at bay. If ever there was a year of her life to go down in the record books as being the worst, this was it.


Chapter Eight

Nikki was careful not to wake Helen on Saturday morning as she began her weekend routine, knowing the teenager would likely need all the sleep she could get. She ate a quick and healthy breakfast of toast and yogurt with granola and fresh fruit, poring over the morning paper as she did so, then she changed into jogging shorts and a light vest for her daily run. When she got back to her apartment she was greeted by the distinct and worrisome sound of retching coming from the loo.

She detoured to the linen closet and grabbed a clean hand cloth before going to investigate. She knocked gently on the bathroom door but received no other reply than continued vomiting, so she turned the handle and found it thankfully unlocked. She winced as she saw Helen kneeling in front of the toilet in her pyjamas. Running the sink tap as cold as she could, she wet the hand cloth and moved to hold Helen's hair out of her face, gently applying the cloth to her forehead.

When Helen's body calmed itself, she moved away from Nikki's soothing touch and mumbled an apology, feeling more than a little embarrassed and confused. Her mother hadn't lived long enough to talk to her about the ins and outs of pregnancy and her father had certainly never broached the subject. Nikki wrapped a comforting arm around her shoulders and said, "It's okay, Helen. This is perfectly normal in the beginning. Have you been to see a doctor?"

Helen shook her head no and whispered, "I only figured it out yesterday. Then Sean broke up with me."

Nikki scowled furiously and asked, "That prawn split up with you after you told him? The little bastard!"

Helen shook her head again and explained, "No… he didn't give me a chance to tell him, and now I'm glad I didn't. He wouldn't want anything to do with the baby. I was just an easy shag to him."

Nikki held back the growl in her throat and tried desperately to emanate an air of tranquility, knowing her anger wouldn't serve to help the situation. "Let's see if we can't get you in to see a doctor first thing Monday, yeah? A good friend of mine is an obstetrician and she might even agree to see you sooner."

Helen agreed quietly, knowing it was the responsible course of action to take, and Nikki asked, "What are you going to do about school next year?"

"I don't know," Helen whispered pitifully. "I thought about studying at home, but now I don't have a home."

Nikki squeezed her shoulder and said, "Right, one thing at a time then. I'll run you a bath so you can get cleaned up, then I'll go and phone Sheree."

"Hi, Trish… I was hoping to speak to Sheree… that would be great, thanks."

Twenty minutes later, Helen wandered into the kitchen to find hot tea and fresh toast waiting for her. She plopped down at the table with a winning smile and swooned, "You're an angel, Nikki. I don't know what I'd do without ye."

The taller woman smiled back and said, "Good thing you won't have to find out. Now eat up. Sheree said she'd open later especially to see you. She doesn't do that for just any patient."

Helen picked at her toast, munching and swallowing a bite. "You must be good friends then."

The implication was clear and Nikki laughed, waving her hand at the ridiculousness. "She's ten years older than me and she's dating my ex from uni. Friends is all we are."

A moment of seriousness ensued as Helen paused and asked, "Does it bother you that we're eight years apart?"

Nikki swallowed around a mouthful of Earl Grey and admitted, "A bit, yeah, but what bothers me more than that is my being your teacher. It can't happen again, Helen."

The Scot pushed her plate away and stood from the table with a thoughtful frown. "I know… but you won't be my teacher for much longer, Nikki."

"Well, everything looks normal so far. I'd say you're about five weeks along," Dr. Sheree Lowell smiled and pointed to part of the screen. "You can just make out where the baby's spinal cord is starting to develop."

Helen fidgeted, slightly uncomfortable and wishing she was far enough along to have a proper ultrasound. Instead she had a large wand shoved up her vagina and she didn't like it one little bit. While not the most pleasant sensation, the majority of her discomfort stemmed from embarrassment.

"It's so tiny," Nikki commented, staring at the somewhat blurry black and white image on the screen. "I can't even see anything but that little blob."

"Tiny, yes, but this little guy or girl is actually developing at a rapid rate, which is perfectly normal I assure you. Babies have to grow fast or we'd be pregnant for years," Sheree explained.

"Like elephants," Helen mused, remembering something a science teacher had once told her. "When can I find out the sex?"

"I won't be able to give you a clear reading until 18 weeks at least, but we can book you in for that ultrasound if you like."

Helen nodded and admitted sheepishly, "At least then it'll be a proper ultrasound, right? I'm not eager to repeat this."

Sheree chuckled gently and Nikki looked across the ceiling, vainly trying to mask her own embarrassment. Her unwitting saviour came in the form of Dr. Lowell asking her to step out of the room to give Helen some privacy.

'Thank Christ,' Nikki thought, making her way to the car park to have a fag while she waited. Helen joined her a while later toting a paper bag and wearing a smile. The doctor had done her best to answer her questions and walk her through everything to soothe her anxiety.

"What's in the bag?" Nikki joked, quickly stamping out her lit cigarette on the tarmac.

"Prenatal vitamins," Helen replied with a shrug.

Nikki nodded and moved to open the passenger side door for Helen, earning her a small scowl from the Scot. Once they were buckled in and the engine was running, Helen took to staring at Nikki quizzically.

"What?" the taller woman asked after a beat.

Helen looked away and muttered, "Nothing… I was just thinking this situation can't be easy for you. I doubt you have a pregnant student showing up on your doorstep every day of the week."

Nikki subconsciously tightened her grip on the steering wheel. "No… you're the only student who's ever shown up on my doorstep period, Helen."

The teenager pursed her lips thoughtfully and reached forward to turn on the car radio, tuning in to a local news station for the duration of the ride.

That evening, over a dinner of roast chicken and vegetables, Helen decided to reveal her latest decision. "Nikki, I've been thinking about what I need to do in the next few months. For starters I have my exams coming up. But there's also the issue of money. All I have is what I've been saving from my allowance the last few years, and my father made it clear he wasn't willing to give me any when he kicked me out, so I've decided to look for a part-time job where I can work evenings and weekends until school ends in July."

Nikki considered this as she chewed a bite of chicken. After swallowing she said, "I think that's really sensible. But you want to make sure you don't stress yourself out by putting too much on your plate at once."

Helen sighed miserably, "It's not as though I really have a choice now, is it?"

Nikki hadn't a clue how to respond to that so she remained silent until they were finished eating. As she stood to do the washing up she suggested, "You can use my laptop to look for a job online if you want, or I can drive you a few places tomorrow to pick up applications."

"Thanks, Nikki. I really do appreciate this and I'll try to be out of your hair as quickly as possible. I've no doubt you'd be sacked if the school found out we were living together."

Nikki turned and leaned against the sink with a small frown. "It definitely wouldn't look good, but I've gotten the impression that Karen's a reasonable woman and she'd probably understand if I explained it to her. Besides, I'm more worried about your well-being than my job. I can't in good conscience send you away with nowhere to go and no one to help you."

Helen bit her lower lip and cursed the tears forming in her eyes. The rapid mood swings that came with pregnancy were already beginning to affect her. Nikki saw what was happening and warred with the option of comforting or not comforting, fearing if she let herself be close to Helen again one or both of them would make a terrible mistake.

Deciding against the risk, she pushed off the sink and said, "I'll just go and get the laptop for you."

She set it up on the kitchen table quickly and left Helen to it as she washed the dirty dishes by hand, neglecting her dishwasher in favour of keeping herself occupied. If every day of Helen living with her was going to be as up and down and emotional as this, she had several long and trying months ahead of her.

On Sunday Helen filled out an application for Sainsbury's Limehouse Local on Commercial Street and on Monday morning, during the fifteen-minute break in classes, Nikki knocked on Karen's office door. Fifteen minutes later she left feeling much less tense than she had since Friday night. The headmistress had given her a severe reprimand and warning that the situation better be as above board as she claimed, along with demanding a sit-down with Helen after school that very day, but she still had a job and she was thankful for her boss's leniency.

"Helen!" Nikki trotted down the hallway to catch up with Helen outside her fourth period human anatomy class.

The Scot paused at the door and Nikki waited for a few students to shuffle past before requesting, "Can you spare a few minutes on your lunch hour? There's something I need to discuss with you."

"Sure. I'll see you later, Miss Wade." Then Helen went into the classroom and Nikki headed back to hers.

Lunch couldn't have come soon enough for either of them, Nikki because she was eager to share the good news and Helen because she was growing anxious about what her teacher had to say. It was with immense relief that Helen left Nikki's classroom at a quarter to one and made her way to the cafeteria. Something was finally going right for a change. Now she only had to worry about possible rumours that might spring up from her petty, vicious-minded peers in regards to them arriving together at school every morning. As long as the faculty didn't believe them, however, they were in the clear.

The meeting with Karen was a bit awkward but went smoothly enough. Helen confirmed the circumstances that had brought her to live with her teacher and the headmistress let it be. Soon Helen and Nikki were back home, waiting on a curry to arrive while the Scot revised for her GCSEs, now only a week away.

Just as they were tucking into their food, sitting cross-legged on large floor cushions by the sofa, Helen's mobile rang and she fished it out of her jeans pocket. Not recognising the number on the screen, she frowned curiously as she answered the call.

"Hello? … This is she. May I ask who's calling?" Helen's face suddenly transformed into one of surprised delight and she put on her best business tone as the conversation continued. "Certainly, that sounds great. When did you have in mind? … Okay, I'll be there. Thanks."

She rang off with a grin and suppressed a happy squeal as she said, "That was the manager at Sainsbury's. He wants me to come in for an interview Saturday morning."

"That's excellent news!" Nikki enthused, beaming. "It would seem you've finally got a bit of good luck coming your way."

Helen tucked her tongue behind her teeth and playfully pointed her fork at the taller woman. "Careful you don't jinx it for me."

Nikki chuckled and drew a cross over her heart, smiling as they resumed eating their dinner.


Chapter Nine

Two Weeks Later

Nikki came in from her Saturday morning run to find Helen sitting at the kitchen table, looking adorably sleep rumpled with a half-eaten bagel and cup of coffee in front of her. She went to pour herself a mug and grab some trail mix before sitting down across the table from the grumpy Scot.

"Morning, Sunshine," the taller woman teased with a wink. Helen merely grumbled in response and took a hearty swig of her coffee. Nikki's eyes crinkled in amusement as she popped a handful of nuts and raisins into her mouth.

After a moment she asked seriously, "All joking aside, how are you doing?"

Helen set her mug down, cupping it in both hands, and sighed. "Tired, but I'm glad the week is over. I felt like pulling my hair out by Wednesday. It didn't help that I worked three late nights."

Nikki hummed sympathetically and attempted a positive outlook, "Well at least your exams are finished and you'll have the results in August. Do you have to work today?"

Helen rubbed her temples as she nodded then mumbled, "I hope these long hours are going to pay up. I have tomorrow off, though. Do you want to do something?"

Nikki contemplated her weekend workload for a moment, papers she'd brought home with her to mark, then smiled and gave in. "Sure. Why not? If I put myself to the grinder I can have my grading finished by this evening."

An hour later Helen was showered and dressed for work, so Nikki grabbed her car keys and off they went. When she returned to her flat she went straight to her desk and pulled out the stack of essays from her tenth year students, her eleventh year pupils having received a hefty break due to GCSEs.

All was pretty much smooth sailing from that point, the only regular roadblocks being Helen's increasingly emotional outbursts. In fact, nothing notable happened until mid-June. Helen had just arrived at her English class on a Thursday afternoon when she was greeted by a thousand-watt smile from her teacher and a hearty handshake from a well-dressed gentleman in a business suit.

"I'm very pleased to meet you, Helen. Miss Wade's been telling me all about your talent. The name's Jim Fenner and I work for Peccadillo Pictures. We're very interested in your script."

Helen felt like all of the air had gone out of the room and she turned wide eyes to Nikki, mindless of the curious stares of her peers. "You knew about this?" the Scot asked dazedly.

Nikki shrugged with a guilty smile and said, "I wanted to surprise you."

Jim cut in with a smarmy grin, "I'm always pleased to be the bearer of good news. Now, from my understanding, Miss Betts has given us permission to use the teacher's lounge to discuss things. Shall we?"

Helen questioned Nikki with a glance and received a reassuring nod in response, so she smiled at Jim and turned to lead the way as the bell rang. At four o'clock she met up with Nikki in the car park, wearing a dazzling smile as she rushed forward and gave the taller woman a tight hug. Nikki returned the embrace for only a short moment before pulling away, conscious of where they were.

"I'm assuming it went well, then?" the raven-haired woman asked as she opened the driver's side to climb in.

As Helen buckled herself in she enthused, "It went brilliantly. He wants to meet up again on Sunday to introduce me to a director and draw up a contract."

"Fantastic," Nikki concurred, putting the car in gear.

On Sunday afternoon Nikki pulled her Volvo up to the address Helen had been given, and almost simultaneously their jaws dropped open.

"I had no idea the independent film industry paid so well," Nikki mused, still staring agape at the white-walled mansion in front of them.

"Neither did I," Helen agreed. "But if this film is a success it means I won't have to work at a supermarket anymore."

They shared a small chuckle as Nikki rolled down her window to press the intercom button on the security panel. A disembodied voice echoed through the metal speaker, asking her to state her name and purpose.

"Uh… Helen Stewart is here to see Jim Fenner."

A buzzing sound was heard and then the large wrought iron gate in front of them began to slide open. It was like an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous as they pulled into the circular red brick drive and parked up next to a flashy Porsche. They were greeted at the front door by Jim and led through the massive marbled foyer to an even larger library on the right hand side, floored and walled with warm pine and containing plush throw rugs, an unlit fireplace, a cushy suede sofa, and dozens of bookcases along the walls.

"You have a lovely home," Helen complimented, but Jim waved a hand and corrected quickly, "Nah, this place isn't mine."

From the doorway behind them came another male voice, "It's mine actually. Thomas Waugh, director," the man introduced, extending his hand toward Helen as she spun on her heels.

"Oh, sorry…" Helen flushed lightly at her mistake, immediately accepting the offered hand. "Helen Stewart. Your house is gorgeous, Mr. Waugh."

Thomas smiled, already taking a liking to the short Scottish lass. "That's all right, and no need for formalities here. You can call me Tom."

"Okay, Tom," Helen acceded, subconsciously tucking her tongue up behind her teeth in a move that caused all other occupants of the room to stare.

After introducing himself politely to Nikki, Thomas gestured to the large oak table in the centre of the room and said, "Let's have a seat and we can begin."

They took their seats and Helen noticed a large stack of paper sitting in the middle of the table. Thomas pulled it toward him and started, "The Duchess of Dalkeith… I love the title you chose and I love the story. What inspired you to write it?"

Helen folded her hands in her lap and looked down, unprepared for that question. She would answer it honestly, though. "When I was younger my mother used to tell me these elaborate stories. She loved reading Victorian fiction novels and so I started to read them too. I grew to love them but after a while I felt like something was missing. The hero always got the girl, but the stories were pretty much the same."

She paused and looked up, finding three sets of eyes riveted to her, hanging on to every word. She cleared her throat and continued, "Last year I started to notice a change in myself, something that scared me. I didn't understand it and I didn't want to accept it. Then my mother died. Writing this gave me a sort of coping mechanism for what I was feeling. I honestly never expected it to turn out so well."

Nikki stared at Helen with overwhelming pride at such a brave admission. She wanted to hug her or give her a squeeze of the hand, but she refrained in present company. She thought fleetingly that it was probably for the best. Each and every touch added a new layer of complication between them. Helen would only be her student for another month, but now there was more standing in the way.

While Nikki looked proud and Thomas looked fascinated, Jim appeared uncomfortable with this latest information. He made an awkward noise in his throat and put on a great show of checking his wristwatch. "Blimey, I didn't realise it was getting to that time already. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to leave you in Thomas's capable hands."

Thomas was puzzled by this sudden need for departure, knowing his friend didn't have any pressing engagements to attend to, but he nodded slowly and said, "Okay… Have a good day, Jim. Don't forget lunch next Saturday."

Jim waved a hand and replied, "Written in stone, mate. Have a nice afternoon, ladies."

The very picture of a gentleman, he turned to leave, but not before flitting one last glance over to Helen. Nikki observed this silently, as did Thomas, and the pieces began to fall into place. Thomas tried to play off his worry with an attempt at humour, "I think you've got him smitten with you."

Helen clearly hadn't considered this and squirmed uneasily where she sat, now experiencing a major case of the heebie jeebies. Nikki glared across the table and spat, "Well I hope he doesn't think he's in with a chance. She's sixteen and he must be in his early forties, for Christ's sake!"

The raven-haired woman was seething and would have happily continued her rant at Jim's expense had Helen not reached over and placed a hand gently on her forearm, giving it a squeeze that said 'don't worry'. Nikki nodded almost imperceptibly and tried to relax while Thomas shuffled some papers and segued directly into, "Let's get started on the contract."

Helen smiled as the cool blue rippling water played against her fingertips, her eyes closed and her body lotioned against the hot rays of the afternoon sun. The towel beneath her was warm from the large flagstones that lined the pool and she hummed in contentment. It was mid-July, the day after the school year had officially drawn to a close, and she had a rare and much appreciated Saturday off work. Jim and Thomas were currently undertaking the arduous task of casting for her film but she couldn't let go of her insecurity that it would all fall apart, so for the time being she was holding on to her employment at the supermarket.

The sliding glass door on the back patio opened and closed. Helen sat up slowly and pried open her sleepy lids, smiling lazily as she spotted Nikki walking towards her in denim cut-offs and a black vest. Sitting down beside her on the oversized beach towel and slipping off her sandals to dip her toes in the water, Nikki explained, "Sheree and Trisha went to get something for dinner."

Looking up at the cerulean sky with its puffy white clouds, Nikki squinted her eyes against the blinding sun and remarked, "You've been out here for a while now. You'll turn into a lobster if you're not careful. Are you sure you don't want to come inside for a bit?"

Helen shook her head and hummed again. "No… I haven't had a good sunbathing session in a long time. I'd like to make the most of it before I get any bigger and can't wear a bikini without feeling fat."

Nikki stared at the young woman incredulously and demanded, "You're joking! Helen, you're absolutely tiny. I can't even tell you're three months along." The taller woman shifted her gaze to the Scot's abdomen and allowed herself a moment to stare appreciatively at the smooth golden skin, only a very small bump giving any indication of Helen's condition. "Besides," she added, looking away, "you'll be pregnant, not fat. There's a difference."

Helen arched one perfectly sculpted eyebrow sceptically then decided to drop it, temporarily conceding defeat to Nikki's logic. "How long before they get back?" She attempted to make the question sound as nonchalant as possible, belying the fact that she was already doing rapid mental calculations.

"Probably about an hour at least. Sheree said they were going after takeout in London and traffic is pretty manic today." Nikki wiggled her toes in the water until a movement in the corner of her eye distracted her. She turned wide, startled eyes to the smaller woman, who was now peeling her untied white bikini top from her chest.

"What… what are you… doing?" Nikki stammered as Helen stood and repeated the action on her matching string-tie bottoms.

"What does it look like?" Helen teased, aware that her ex-teacher was now staring at her nude form. This was the first time she'd revealed herself in Nikki's presence and she was undeniably nervous, but a rush of excitement filled her nonetheless. She turned toward the water and dived gracefully in, not awaiting a response.

When she bobbed up for air, her eyes twinkling with delight and her dark hair plastered to her bare shoulder blades, she laughed and beckoned Nikki to join her. "Come on in, the water feels amazing!"

Nikki shook her head in equal parts amusement and dismay, her mind overwhelmed by the responsibilities of yesterday that were warring with the freedom of today. Seeing the taller woman's hesitation, the Scot teased, "Chicken!"

"Name calling is not very nice," Nikki chided, settling on a compromise as she removed her cut-offs and vest but kept her black bikini in place. Instead of diving straight into the deep end she took to the diving board, bouncing it experimentally beneath her feet and raising her arms above her head. She surprised herself by executing a perfect dive, something which had been ingrained in her early years by a swimming coach.

When she resurfaced she was met with a playful wolf whistle and found herself laughing from exhilaration and joy. "I haven't done that in years," she admitted as Helen swam closer.

"Must be like riding a bike," the Scot concluded, treading water less than a metre from the ebony-haired woman.

Nikki's eyes were drawn like magnets to follow the course of a water droplet at the hollow of Helen's neck. Then she met hungry green eyes, all playfulness gone, and was entranced by their gaze. Words of protest died on her lips as Helen closed the space between them, keeping herself afloat with powerful legs as small, strong hands found Nikki's waist beneath the water. Skin against skin with liquid ripples encasing them, their lips finally came together without constraint.


Chapter Ten

"Helen, please, don't be like this," Nikki pleaded as the Scot angrily gathered up her bikini from the poolside and put it on, back turned and water droplets coursing down her skin.

Though Nikki couldn't see it, she knew somehow that Helen was sporting a thunderous expression on that pretty face. Reaching for the arm nearest to her, the taller woman gently tugged until Helen spun around to face her, jaw clenched and fire dancing in her eyes.

"Let's talk about this," Nikki tried again, keeping her voice calm and low.

"There is nothing to talk about," Helen hissed, snatching her arm away and heading for the house. Nikki was faster, though, and beat her to the punch, maneouvering her body in between the fuming Scot and the sliding glass door. "Get out of my way, Nikki!"

Standing her ground was a difficult feat in that moment because all she wanted to do was grab the shorter woman to her and kiss her senseless. She looked absolutely glorious when she was angry. That would defeat the purpose of talking about it, however.

"You know it was the right thing, Helen. I'm sorry I've upset you, but I'm just not comfortable going there yet. Surely you can try and understand that? All I'm asking is that we wait until you turn seventeen. That's not so long, is it?"

"Och, no, seven months isn't long at all," Helen retorted sarcastically, moving her hands to her hips as her face remained defiant. "Do you know what, Nikki? Sod you! First it's because I'm one of your students, which I understood strangely enough. Now it's my age. I'm perfectly legal to consent so what is your problem?"

Narrowing her eyes, the shorter woman stepped backward and stared her ex-teacher down for a long moment. Finally her shoulders dropped and the anger fled from her green eyes, replaced quickly by sadness as she asked, "It's because I'm pregnant, isn't it? You don't find me attractive anymore?"

Dismayed at once that this thought could ever cross Helen's mind as a plausible explanation, Nikki moved away from the door and pulled the shorter woman into her arms. "No! No, Helen, that's not it at all," she insisted firmly, squeezing the younger woman tightly and tucking her chin over the top of her head.

They stood that way for a moment, breathing together and clinging to one another, neither one wanting to let go, until Nikki continued hoarsely, her voice choked up with emotion, "Don't you know how gorgeous you are? How precious? I would do anything in this world to protect you, even if that means protecting you from myself. You're only sixteen, sweetheart. Don't you think we have all the time in the world for taking the next step?"

Blinking furiously against the tide of tears flooding her eyes, Helen shook her head and buried her face further into Nikki's neck. "I don't know," she admitted in a whisper. "I do know that I love you and that I want to be loved by you. Please, Nikki, make me feel loved, even just this once."

Trembling from head to toe as she held this miniature goddess in her arms, Nikki could only swallow forcefully and blink as she tried to sort her thoughts and clear her mind. This decision wasn't one to be made lightly and she felt that deciding now would be rash, but her heart was pounding wildly and her body was vibrating with want. Then she felt the dampness of tears against her neck and all logic was lost to the yearning of her heart.

Pulling away only a fraction, the ebony-haired woman began to pepper hot kisses along the column of Helen's throat, teasing the sensitive skin with her tongue and lips as her hands moved up to untie the back of the white bikini top. "I do love you, Helen," she whispered as the top fell to the ground.

Christmas Eve

A gentle knocking drew Nikki from her reverie and she tore her sightless eyes away from staring at the ceiling. "Nikki?" came a whisper from the other side of the bedroom door. "Can I come in?"

Sitting up and reaching over to turn on the bedside lamp, the taller woman answered, "Of course," pulling back the other side of the duvet for Helen to climb in.

Less than a minute later they were settled in, Helen curled up against Nikki's side with one of the taller woman's arms draped around her pregnant middle. She was due in just over a month and looked about ready to burst, but Nikki still insisted frequently that she was absolutely gorgeous, even more so now because she seemed to glow like the sun.

It had become somewhat commonplace for the Scot to come to bed with Nikki, though nothing more intimate than cuddling had occurred between them since July. The raven-haired woman had made a promise to herself that day that it would be the only time she gave in until Helen's seventeenth birthday, regardless of the fact that technically they hadn't done anything wrong.

"What's the matter, darling?" she questioned softly, rubbing her palm gently against Helen's shoulder.

A shrug preceded a mumbled, "Couldn't sleep. I wanted you holding me."

Nikki closed her eyes and sighed heavily, turning inward to hold the young woman closer still. She knew the feeling. She hated herself a lot of the time for refraining from further intimacy, knowing only too well how deeply the feelings of love ran between them. She had no doubt whatsoever that Helen was her soul mate, an idea she had previously scoffed at in past relationships. This was it for her, though, and she honestly believed she was doing the right thing. They could wait and then they would have the rest of their lives together if she had any say in the matter.

Attempting to make light conversation, Nikki smiled and said, "I bet you're glad filming is finished. It got pretty manic there for a while. Honestly, the hours they expect you to work in the entertainment industry."

A low chuckle answered from the Scot and then she burrowed herself under Nikki's chin. Closing her eyes momentarily, she breathed out slowly with a smile then gently kissed the collarbone in her reach. A small shudder worked its way through the taller woman's frame and her grip tightened subconsciously on Helen's shoulder.

"What am I getting for Christmas?" Helen teased, pressing her cheek against the area she'd kissed and worming a hand up under Nikki's sleep vest.

Distracted by the feel of fingertips ghosting across her abdomen, it took the raven-haired woman a moment to collect her thoughts enough to reply. "You'll just have to wait and find out, won't you?"

Pouting with all her might, Helen turned her face up and complained, "Not fair."

Brown eyes were drawn helplessly toward the pouting lips and she moved in without thinking to kiss them, lingering for a long moment and relishing the feel of Helen's mouth beneath hers. It was heaven, and it wasn't forbidden in her mind. Before long she had to pull herself away with great effort as a hand tangled through her raven hair and a tongue darted out, seeking entrance. While she wanted desperately to allow this moment to escalate, she feared she would hate herself even more if she broke her resolve again.

Both women sighed with evident frustration and lay there in silence until Helen's breathing evened out in indication she was asleep. Disentangling herself carefully from the smaller woman's octopus-like grip, Nikki climbed out of bed and padded out of the room to start putting presents under the tree. When the last present was laid out she made her way back to bed and settled in with a smile, pulling Helen into her arms and allowing sleep to claim her.

The following morning she awoke to a loud squeal of glee coming from the other room. Blinking her eyes and raising her hands to rub away sleep, a smile crept onto Nikki's face as she put herself in motion and got out of bed. She wandered down the hall and found Helen sitting cross-legged in front of the Christmas tree, grinning like a small child as she surveyed the piles of brightly-wrapped presents.

Standing quickly, the Scot practically tackled the taller woman in a hug as she said, "Oh, Nikki, this is wonderful! I can't believe you did all this."

Heart melting from the honest joy and appreciation on the smaller woman's face, Nikki dropped a kiss to her lips and avowed, "You deserve it. Come on then, start unwrapping to your heart's content." She gave Helen's arse a quick smack and then moved to grab a rubbish bag from the kitchen, knowing soon enough her living room floor would be covered in torn paper and ribbons.


Chapter Eleven


Sitting at her desk one late Saturday night, grading a new stack of papers from her fifth form students, Nikki was startled by Helen bursting into the room with a panicked look on her face. Immediately dropping what she was doing, the raven-haired teacher stood from her desk and rushed toward her ex-pupil. "Helen, what is it? Are you all right?"

Helen stared for a long moment with wide green eyes before finally mumbling breathlessly, "My water just broke."

Even drawing upon the very dregs of her self-control to remain cool, calm, and collected, Nikki found herself bursting to the seams with panic. "Shit… shit…"

Helen arched an eyebrow sceptically but it quickly fell as she clutched her stomach, a look of pain and helplessness consuming her face, a low moan of complaint escaping her lips. That was enough to kick the taller woman's mind back into gear as she rushed into the Scot's bedroom and collected the hospital bag they'd prepared at the beginning of the month. She gently bustled Helen toward the door and paused only long enough to instruct her to put on her shoes and coat as she grabbed the car keys.

The journey to the hospital was a blur of pain and fear, and when they pulled up at the entrance to the A&E department Nikki could've dropped to her knees and thanked the heavens they'd made it there in one piece. Once Helen was safely through the glass doors and waddling toward the nurses' reception desk, Nikki put the Volvo back in gear and snagged the very first parking space she could find. A few short minutes later they were reunited and the taller woman found her hand being crushed by a teary-eyed Scot as a nurse wheeled the pregnant woman up to the maternity ward.

By the time they reached the ward Helen was begging for pain relief, but a quick inspection denied her that pleasantry on the grounds that she wasn't far enough dilated. They would have to wait until her contractions were closer to give her an epidural. Nikki quickly discovered that the pain of labour wasn't something she ever wanted to experience personally, her fingers numb by the time Helen underwent the procedure. Then it was another waiting game as the contractions continued, until finally she reached 10cm and was carted off to a delivery room with Nikki at her side.

"Nikki," the Scot complained, clenching her hand once more as she was instructed to start pushing.

Nikki could only stand there and stare in a sort of horrified awe as she saw the pain and exhaustion wash over the smaller woman's face, still in discomfort despite the epidural. Weren't these bloody things supposed to prevent pain? Wasn't that the whole point? Frustrated and feeling helpless to ease the discomfort, the ebony-haired teacher could only murmur words of comfort and encouragement, not even allowing herself to wince as language of a very insulting nature was hurled her way.

An amount of time later that Nikki couldn't have kept track of if she'd tried, the first cries of a newborn pierced the air and Helen collapsed back against the pillows, drenched with sweat and on the brink of sinking into unconsciousness, though in Nikki's eyes she had never looked so beautiful. She felt in a daze as the doctor tried to hand her a pair of sterilised scissors to cut the umbilical cord, her feet shuffling on autopilot and her hand shaking slightly as she moved to complete the task. Moments later she was handing over a crying bundle covered in blood to a very sleepy Scot with a beaming smile on her face.

"She's beautiful," Helen murmured, her eyes filled with tears of joy as her daughter curled a tiny hand around her index finger.

Nikki stared down at the pair with matching watery eyes and reached out a hand to gently stroke the back of Helen's head. "She's going to be a heartbreaker, I can already tell, just like her mother."

The moment was broken all too soon as a nurse collected the baby and took her off for the standard tests and to be cleaned up. As the doctor began to stitch Helen up, Nikki stood back a way and surveyed the room to give the Scot some privacy. As she did so her mind wandered off and she was struck by the realisation that Helen would be seventeen in just over two weeks. Everything was bound to change then, the uncertain relationship between them sure to morph into something new and free of previous obstacles. However, she imagined that getting alone time would now be quite difficult indeed.

The return of the nurse brought her out of her deep reverie and she found herself breathing a sigh of relief as they were informed that Helen had a healthy baby girl, six pounds and seven ounces. Once Helen was thoroughly checked over and any post-birth complication was ruled out, she was moved to a cubicle with heavy curtains, a cot for the baby positioned directly next to her bed. The noise of crying babies permeated the air and caused an immediate sense of unease within the overprotective Englishwoman. Helen would need to get rest as soon as the baby fed, and this was no place for resting.

Gritting her teeth and trying to kerb her frustration, Nikki began to pace with her fists balled at her sides. "This is bloody ridiculous. How are you supposed to get any peace and quiet here?"

Helen glanced up from where the nurse, Mary, was showing her how to breastfeed and she let loose a small sigh. "It's okay, Nikki," she responded tiredly.

One look at the exhausted Scot had Nikki shaking her head and protesting, "No it bloody well isn't. You're completely knackered, Helen." Redirecting her attention to the nurse, the taller woman frowned and asked, "Can't you move her somewhere quieter, give her a single room?"

Mary seemed to be weighing up her words carefully before she responded, years of working as a nurse giving her an inkling that a storm was likely brewing and that the wrong answer might set the fiery raven-haired woman off. "It's not hospital procedure, but… she is quite young and her body does need to recover. I can ask the ward sister to have her moved but I can't make any promises."

Nikki set her jaw and nodded curtly, holding her tongue to keep from lashing out. She knew it wouldn't be down to this woman and it would be immensely unfair to take out her frustration on the nurse who so far seemed to be taking good care of Helen. "Please do," she answered, relaxing her shoulders and pulling up a chair to the other side of the bed from the cot.

The baby quickly settled in at Helen's right breast and Mary left the room to do as she'd been asked. The Scot smiled tiredly but happily and reached out her free hand for Nikki's. "You didn't have to do that, but thank you."

Nikki shook her head with a loving smile and gave Helen's hand a squeeze. "Nonsense. I want you to be comfortable."

No more words were spoken between them as they continued to hold hands and the baby suckled away merrily. Once she'd finished her feed Nikki gently tucked her into her cot as Helen's eyelids drooped and she dropped off into a heavy sleep, the smile never leaving her lips as her protector watched over her and her child.

Two Weeks Later

Nikki came in from her food shop and spotted Helen reclining on the sofa with her baby fast asleep in her arms. Her footsteps faltered and her heart melted as she took a moment to stare with a soppy smile on her face. The weight of the shopping bags reminded her of the task at hand and she moved quickly to deposit them in the kitchen. When she returned she sat down at the end of the sofa, taking one of Helen's feet in her hands and rubbing it as she gazed upon mother and child.

Careful to speak quietly, so as not to wake the infant, she asked, "All right?"

Helen nodded contently and gently freed one of her hands to crook her finger toward the other woman. Grinning like a fool, Nikki rose once more and moved to plant a soft kiss on the Scot's lips. A sigh passed between them before they parted and Nikki once again took up her place at Helen's feet.

Busying her hands with a relaxing foot massage, the raven-haired woman reminded softly, "Tomorrow's your birthday, darling. Are you sure you don't want to do anything special?"

Shaking her head resolutely, the new mother answered, "I'm sure. I just want to spend the day with you and my daughter. I don't think I have the energy to get up to much anyway. This little one's been keeping me up all hours."

Since her return from the hospital, Helen and the baby had moved into Nikki's room and the teacher had taken it upon herself to alternate shifts in the night. She'd taken some time off work to help care for the baby and more often than not she found herself just as exhausted as her ex-student.

"I know what you mean. She's a handful."

"Hmmm," Helen hummed in agreement, smiling as Nikki gave her feet a final rub and moved to stand.

"I'll just make us some dinner."

She turned to leave and was stopped in her tracks as Helen said, "Thank you, Nikki… for everything."

Turning back, she was about to brush off the thanks as being unnecessary when the breath was stolen from her lungs by the look in those green eyes. They spoke of love and emotion so deep that words wouldn't be enough to express it. Nodding silently, Nikki smiled weakly and continued on her way, her mind running a mile a minute as her heart beat furiously in her chest.

Dinner was a simple affair and then they lounged on the sofa with the telly playing on low volume as the baby took a nap. It was a short moment of relaxation and it was cherished by both as they snuggled into one another and stared unseeingly at the colours on the screen. The next day was an equally quiet affair and the most exciting thing that happened was Helen blowing out the candles on the birthday cake Nikki had baked for her.

As she closed her eyes to make her wish, her heart ached with pain and she sent up a prayer to God. 'Please watch over Nikki and my baby in the coming years. I know they won't be easy. Please help her to understand that I love them both very much.'

That night, after doing plenty of research, Nikki finally allowed Helen to make love to her without any fear or worry. Though she couldn't reciprocate to the same extent because of the risks in the aftermath of childbirth, she managed to bring the Scot pleasure by way of gentle touching. All the while she bore it in mind that in a few months she would be able to love her properly, something that had been long awaited by the both of them. As they fell asleep in each other's arms, they exchanged whispers of love and dreams of a future together danced in Nikki's mind.

The next morning she awoke to the cries of a baby and she blinked herself awake quickly, startled when she found the sheets next to her cold and unoccupied. Soft slivers of morning light filtered through the curtains and allowed her to see that Helen wasn't in the room. Dragging herself out of bed, she picked up the infant and rocked her gently as she went to find the Scot. It was unusual for Helen to be awake this early and her mind filled with worry. She searched the flat high and low and still found no sign of her. Wondering if she'd gone out for some reason, she grabbed her mobile and rang up Helen's number. It went straight to voicemail and the taller woman let out a breath of frustration.

Making her way into the kitchen, she felt dread creep into her stomach as her heart plummeted out of her chest. There was a single white envelope on the kitchen table with her name on it. Holding the baby gently and making as many soothing sounds as she could, she used her other hand to open it with shaking fingers. All too soon her eyes were swimming with tears and the scrawled words on the page became too blurred to read, though she had already read them through twice. The first time she'd been struck numb with disbelief. The second time she'd felt something in her break and she couldn't contain the wail of agony from bubbling up her throat.

Dearest Nikki,

I know my sudden absence will come as a shock to you. Before you read this I need to tell you that I love you and my daughter very much and I never want to bring you any pain. I'm sorry for not telling you sooner, but I only decided last night that I was going to leave. I'm sure this will seem cowardly and horrible to you, but I think it's best for everyone involved. You were right when you told me that I'm so young to have all these responsibilities. I'm barely a woman myself and I don't know how to raise a child while I still have so many issues of my own. You've healed me more than you can imagine, but I need more time to get my life sorted. I need time to grow up. I know that you'll look after Grace as if she were your own. Please don't be angry with me for doing this. I will be back someday and I sincerely hope that I'll receive a warm welcome and be allowed to be part of your life. That's all I want… a life with you and my daughter. I've enclosed a cheque that should cover her expenses for the next year, and after that I'll send more if I'm not ready to return. I've also had the paperwork drawn up for you to become her legal guardian. All you need to do is sign it. Remember, no matter what happens, I love you and I'll miss you very much.



Chapter Twelve


Nikki had Grace tucked snugly into a carry cot on the chair beside her as she sat in Sheree's back garden, enjoying the burgeoning warmth and fresh air of springtime. She broke from her faraway thoughts and forced on a smile as her friend returned from the kitchen with two glasses of iced lemonade. They sat together in complete silence for a long while, sipping at their beverages as the slight breeze rustled through the trees lining the yard.

Finally Sheree leaned forward and asked quietly over the sleeping baby, "So… have you heard from Helen yet?"

A pained expression took up residence on Nikki's face and lingered there as she swallowed a mouthful of her drink. "No, I haven't," she answered just as quietly, her tone sombre and resigned.

Sheree placed a hand over hers on the glass tabletop and nodded sympathetically. She'd been the first person Nikki had contacted after Helen's disappearance. Immediately after getting the tear-filled phone call she'd rushed over to the teacher's flat and had tried her very best to console the broken, weeping woman and the crying infant. Nothing had worked and after a few hours she'd left. While she understood Helen's point of view in the matter and even agreed with her choice to an extent, having seen other young mothers go through similar situations in her line of work, she couldn't help feeling worried about the family of three.

She'd initially feared that her raven-haired friend would fall into a deep depression and would be unable to care for the child now under her guardianship, but time had proven that to be an unfounded worry. Nikki was wonderful with Grace and put her before anything and everyone else, loving her as if she were her own daughter. Just as she was reminiscing over these worries and reliefs, Grace began to wake in her small cot and stir under the nest of blankets. Nikki immediately scooped her up with a smile, all other things forgotten as she fumbled with the nappy bag at her feet.

"I think she wants a feed," Nikki concluded after giving the baby a nappy change. She produced a bottle of formula and was about to ask Sheree to warm it in the microwave when the other woman preempted her with a smile.

"Don't worry, I've got it." She stood and took the bottle as Nikki continued to rock the baby in her arms.

Once fed to her little heart's desire and contented to play with a variety of soft toys and rattles clipped on to her cot, Grace fell quiet apart from a few coos and giggles. The two adults watched over her fondly for a moment before returning to their previous conversation. Nikki scooted to the edge of her chair and cupped both hands around her glass, her fingers toying with the condensation as she tried to organise her thoughts.

A long sigh acted as a prelude to her spoken decision on the matter, "I think she might have made the right decision in the long run. It kills me a little every day that she's not here, and I worry about what will happen for Grace if she doesn't come back soon, but I understand why she left. In the letter she left she begged me not to be angry with her and at first I really wanted to be. But," she sighed again, "I can't find it in my heart to wish her ill. I just hope she finds what she's looking for out there and comes back before it's too late for her to have a proper relationship with Grace."

Sheree was momentarily stunned by this statement, never ceasing to be amazed by Nikki's selflessness and understanding when it came to the absent Scot. Her heart swelled with pride, though, and she found herself smiling in approval as she said, "I think that's a fair way to look at it. I'm glad you haven't gone the other way. I was worried to begin that you would."

Nikki nodded and ran a hand through her hair. "Yeah… so was I." Deciding a change of subject was in order, she looked around with a small frown and asked, "So where's Trish? I haven't seen her or heard from her in a while. Did you two have a falling out?"

Now it was the doctor's turn to wince and look uncomfortable. "You could say that… We split up, two weeks ago actually. I didn't mention it because I've been holding onto some ridiculous hope that she'll come walking back in and say she made a mistake. She just threw two years away to go running off to New Zealand. Apparently she got offered a part in a new series that's due to start filming over there."

Nikki arched both brows in disbelief and shook her head slowly, muttering, "Bloody hell. I guess we've both got shit luck with women lately."

Silence ensued then as each woman got lost in her thoughts until it was time for lunch, at which point they moved inside to have simple sandwiches and neither subject was broached again that day.

New Zealand

Helen stared at the pages spread out before her on the mahogany desk in her study. She was supposed to be looking over the script for next week's pilot episode and making any last minute changes she deemed necessary, but her mind was thousands of miles away with the woman and child she'd left behind in England. She'd boarded a plane only days after her decision to leave, having received a handsome invitation from a producer over here to write for a new drama series set in the Victorian era – her personal favourite and specialty.

Now she was set up in a large house paid for by the film company and she'd never felt more lonely in her life. Surrounded by the best of everything and some of the most famous names in the industry, instead of excitement she felt numbness. A month ago, as casting was getting underway, she'd remembered a conversation of long ago with Trisha Harris. The blonde had expressed interest in acting and had been involved in a few small local productions, but she'd yet to strike it big. Helen had pondered over this for a while before deciding to put her name forward for an audition on one of the main characters of the show.

Two weeks ago the blonde had arrived and nailed it, so Helen had invited her to come and stay in one of the many lavish extra bedrooms she had in the house. It was far too big for one person and she'd decided she could use the company. That even had proved useless in lifting the cloud of depression that had fallen around her heart. Trisha was funny and intelligent, but she wasn't Nikki and she couldn't fill the ache of missing her daughter. A revelation from the previous day was also weighing on her mind and causing her to feel insurmountable guilt.

When she'd invited Trisha over she'd been under the impression that Sheree would be coming with the blonde actress, or at the very least that they would maintain a long distance relationship while filming was underway. Two weeks after the other woman had moved in she hadn't heard one word about her partner, so she'd asked and had been told quite bluntly that the blonde had walked out on the relationship after a big row over her decision to leave.

Growling quietly in frustration, the Scot stood and pushed back from the desk, abandoning her script in favour of a glass of red wine. Less than a year away from the legal drinking age, she'd been surprised and pleased when Trisha had moved in and stocked the kitchen with alcohol of all sorts. Never having been a particularly rebellious teenager, Helen wasn't well acquainted with alcohol and only indulged herself scarcely, never allowing herself to get drunk. A few nights she'd sat in the lounge with a glass of wine and a good book spread open on her lap, the pages going unread and ignored as she wallowed in her thoughts.

Reaching the kitchen, she retrieved a glass from the cupboard and rooted around in the fridge for an already open bottle. After pouring a moderate measure of the full-bodied ruby liquid, she parked her bum on a stool at the island and sipped it slowly. Not long after she was roused from yet another daydream session by the sound of the front door opening and closing. Trisha entered moments later with a bright smile and freshly manicured nails.

Helen grabbed the hand being held out to her as the blonde sat beside her and arched a brow appreciatively. "Nice," she commented succinctly.

Sensing that the Scot wasn't in the best of moods, Trisha propped an elbow on the tiled island top and tilted her head to one side. "You've been thinking about Nik again, haven't you?"

It was posed as a question but they both knew it was more of a statement. Helen nodded silently and took another swallow of the wine. Brows furrowed in disapproval, the slender blonde hummed and then sat quietly for a moment in concentration. Her face brightened after a time and she exclaimed, "I know just how to cheer you up. Cass invited me to a party in a few hours. Why don't you come, too? I know she wouldn't mind."

Appearing even more sceptical than usual at this suggestion, Helen shook her head definitively and posited, "I don't think that's a good idea. I'm not in the mood to socialise. But thank you anyway."

Not one to give up easily once her mind was made up, Trisha smacked a palm lightly on the tiles and insisted excitedly, "Exactly! That's the point of going. You need to get out and meet people, have a good time and take your mind off things. It'll be good for you."

Unconvinced, Helen sighed deeply and was about to protest further when she spotted the expression of sheer determination on Trisha's face. Not in the mood for an argument either, her shoulders slumped and she gave in with a frown. "Fine, I'll go."

"Great! I'm going to start getting ready. Cass lives almost an hour away and I don't want to be late." Stopping only to deposit a kiss on the Scot's forehead, Trisha fled the room with a new bounce in her step and minutes later the shower could be heard running upstairs.

Downing the rest of her wine in one go, Helen dropped her head into her hands and groaned. "Christ, what have I gotten myself into?"

Two and a half hours later Trisha pulled the leased silver convertible she'd acquired into a long winding driveway packed with all sorts of flashy cars. The pair exited the vehicle and made their way to the front door, Trisha sporting a form-fitting blue cocktail dress and Helen wearing a pair of tight black jeans with a sparkly silver halter-neck top. They were greeted almost immediately by a beaming blue-eyed blonde who was even thinner than Trisha. The pair embraced briefly then Helen found herself swept into a hug as well.

Chuckling from nervousness, Helen returned it awkwardly and said, "Hiya, Cass… nice to see you again."

They were swept inside quickly and their host informed them that she'd arranged one of the guest rooms for them to stay in overnight if they got too pissed to drive home. Helen thought this an unlikely scenario but thanked her nonetheless. Three hours later her resolve not to get drunk had been hurled out the window and for the first time in her life she was gloriously smashed. She'd started the evening with a beer and had kept mostly to herself, but before long Trisha had dragged her around and introduced her to people.

Her determination to be antisocial waned quickly at that point as she found the crowd to be friendly and boisterous, near and complete strangers quickly welcoming her into their social circle and regalling her with endless tales of ridiculous exploits. Her beer was abandoned for a string of mixed drinks and then, happily tipsy, she partook in a miniature drinking contest involving shots of tequila. Having such a low alcohol tolerance, she lost miserably but didn't mind one bit as she wobbled around and danced to the loud music playing through the house.


The Scot spun clumsily and grinned as she saw Trisha weaving her way around other partiers to get to her. "Hiya!" she exclaimed, grabbing the blonde's hand and shouting over the music, "Dance with me!"

The pair got their groove on for a few fast-paced songs until Helen's bladder announced her body's need for the loo. Giggling and holding tight to Trisha's hand, she stumbled her way to the downstairs toilet and quickly relieved herself, the blonde checking her makeup in the mirror to give her a modicum of privacy. After that they danced and drank a while longer until the Scot began to feel sleepy from the copious amount of alcohol she'd ingested. Trisha searched for Cass and enquired which room they could sleep in whilst Helen tiredly propped herself up against the stairwell.

Navigating the stairs was a challenge as they each had to lean against one another, but eventually they found the correct room and locked themselves inside, Trisha having the sense and experience to know that they wouldn't want drunken couples to mistake it as a place for a quick romp while they were trying to sleep. Collapsing on the bed fully clothed, Helen struggled with getting her trousers undone after kicking off her heels. Once down to her knickers she burrowed under the duvet and closed her eyes.

The bed dipped beside her as Trisha crawled in and she mumbled, "Thanks for showing me a good time." A feeling of unbelievable loneliness loomed over her suddenly and she rolled onto her side, facing the blonde as she pried her eyes open.

Trisha raised her head slightly from the pillow and slurred, "No problem. You needed it."

Helen nodded and quickly regretted it as the world span around her in a dizzying whirl of colour. The blonde stared at her dazedly for a moment then closed the distance between them and pressed a long but chaste kiss to the Scot's lips. Then she fumbled with the bedside lamp and shrouded the room in darkness. Soon after they were out for the count and dreams of Nikki swam through Helen's unconscious mind. At least while awake she'd finally managed to forget.


Chapter Thirteen


"Are you sure she'll be okay? She's due for another feed in an hour, and she needs Mr. Snugglesworth when she goes down for her nap. Your sister won't forget, will she? Maybe I ought to call her and make sure."

By this point Nikki was working herself into a right state of anxiety, so Sheree grabbed her by both shoulders and waited until she finally made eye contact.

"Nik, you're worrying yourself sick. I realise this is the first time you've left her in someone else's care for this long, but my sister will take excellent care of her. She has three children of her own, remember? I think she's more than qualified to look after a baby."

There was a moment of silence between them before Sheree scrunched up her face and asked incredulously, "You named her stuffed bear Mr. Snugglesworth?!"

Nikki let out a breath she'd been holding and followed it with a light chuckle. "Yeah… I thought it was fitting. And you're right, I'm probably worrying over nothing. Let's go inside before I find more things to dwell on and have a full-blown panic attack."

Giving Nikki an encouraging pat on the back, Sheree nodded with a smile and turned to lead the way. They showed their tickets at the door of the theatre and were soon shuffling between aisles to find seating for the upcoming show. Not having heard a peep from Helen since she'd left so abruptly, Nikki had been shocked one day when Sheree had phoned her up and told her to look in the newspaper. Sure enough there was a section announcing the titles to be shown in that year's British Independent Film Festival, and The Duchess of Dalkeith had made the list.

At first the raven-haired woman had resolutely refused to go, claiming falsely that she didn't care to see it and then making endless excuses as to why she wouldn't be able to attend even if she wanted to, which she certainly didn't. A week later her bravado had crumbled and she'd phoned the doctor back to ask if she wouldn't mind accompanying her to the festival, as well as enquiring whether she had any suggestions for a babysitter. Now they were here and she was sorely tempted to turn around and flee, but her friend's gentle yet insistent hand on her forearm strengthened her and pushed her forward as they found a section of vacant chairs.

There was a steady stream of quiet chatter and hushed whispers around them until the lights dimmed and the large cinema screen came to life. Nikki released a breath she hadn't known she was holding and tried her damndest to relax, exerting all of her energy into switching her focus from the worries of motherhood to the film beginning before her eyes. It wasn't long before she was utterly absorbed in the tale playing out, the storyline crafted with masterful artistry and the adaptation by the actors a refreshing take on a classic timeline. Overall it was very well done, and by the end there wasn't a single person in the audience who wasn't applauding as the credits rolled on the screen.

A gentle pressure on her shoulder brought Nikki back to the present and she blinked in her surroundings as the lights came up to full brightness once more, people shuffling this way and that through the rows of chairs and talking animatedly about what they'd just seen.

"Somewhere pleasant?" Sheree cocked her head and stared down at the disoriented woman still seated.

"Pardon?" Brown eyes stared up at her friend with evident confusion.

The doctor chuckled lightly before elaborating, "In your head. You weren't exactly present the last few minutes."

"Oh, right…" The taller woman flushed lightly in embarrassment at being caught out and fumbled for an explanation, "I guess I get a bit… lost sometimes. I was just thinking about Helen."

A tone of bitter sadness resonated through every syllable and Sheree's bright blue eyes softened with understanding. Reaching out a hand to her distraught friend, she pulled the ebony-haired woman to her feet and suggested, "Let's get a drink."

Nikki nodded wordlessly in assent and followed the slight frame of the older redhead out of the theatre and into the crowd. A drink sounded heavenly to her muddled brain.

A few hours later and a few more drinks than she'd intended to have, Nikki was in no fit state to drive home or look after a child, a fact which filled her drunken mind with copious amounts of shame and despair. As the pair of friends navigated their way from the pub and through the streets of London to the nearest taxi rank, Sheree phoned her sister with a quick explanation and an apology, as well as a request to keep Grace for a few more hours while Nikki sobered up at her house. Being the kind and understanding woman that she was, Joyce didn't hesitate in acquiescing and sent through well wishes to the miserable teacher stumbling drunkenly along the pavement.

Once a taxi was procured and they were seated safely in the back, Nikki lolled her head across the seat and mumbled, "Helen bloody Stewart… s'all her fault. Why'd she leave? We woulda made it work, I know we would."

Sheree turned halfway toward her friend as the driver glanced up in the rearview mirror. "I know it's difficult, sweetie, but Helen had her reasons. I also know this is a particularly hard time for you, but I have every confidence that you'll get through it and be stronger for it. She said she was coming back and if you love her then you have to trust her."

Nikki gave a morose nod of acceptance and a slight wine edged into her next statement. "I do love her. I'm just miserable without her. And Grace needs her mum."

A slight hiccup followed this declaration and Sheree couldn't think of an adequate response, her own mind slightly hazy from alcohol, so she wrapped an arm around Nikki's shoulders and simply held her close for the duration of the journey. Upon arrival at her house, the doctor had to practically drag her friend inside before dumping her unceremoniously on the sofa in the lounge, Nikki's tall and lanky frame proving a challenge for the shorter woman. As sleepy brown eyes fluttered shut and the younger woman's breathing evened out, signalling she was out of consciousness for the time being, the redhead wandered through to the kitchen and poured herself a single glass of wine while she had a good think.

New Zealand

Helen smoothed out her knee-length black dress and gave herself a critical look in the full-length mirror as she grumbled unhappily to the blonde beside her, "I can't believe I've agreed to this. The last time I went out with you was a total disaster, or have you forgotten?"

Trisha sent a frown sideways as she inserted a silver hoop earring and fussed over her shiny blonde hair. "This is different, though. We're going to a posh restaurant, not a party, and I seriously doubt they'll be willing to serve you alcohol."

Giving her lipstick a last touch-up, the blonde beamed in the mirror and concluded, "So cheer up! This means a lot to Cass. Anyway, I thought you liked her."

An eye-roll was Helen's response as she began applying a moderate amount of mascara. Finally she said, "I do like her. That's not the point. I just don't see what this has to do with me."

Trisha emitted an exasperated sigh and threw up her hands in resignation. "I suppose it has nothing to do with you besides the fact that she considers you a friend. They both have a lot of respect for you and your writing, you know. Without you the show wouldn't be what it is, and we're all very grateful for the way it's turning out. So could you please try and show some enthusiasm and support?"

Now it was Helen's turn to sigh and she begrudgingly had to admit that her friend had a point. There was no logical reason she couldn't make more of an effort with the people who were supposed to be her friends. A night out at a restaurant was marginally better than sitting in this big empty house and moping, so she would go and she would smile, even if it was forced. She nodded and answered decisively, "You're right. I'll make more of an effort."

Checking the fancy silver watch adorning her wrist, the blonde clapped her hands and declared, "Okay! It's time."

Punctuality had never been one of Helen's strong suits and she was finding herself more and more grateful of late for Trisha's immaculate time-keeping skills. If it weren't for the blonde now living with her, she was sure she would've missed many an important meeting and deadline by now. Capping her mascara and giving her reflection one final inspection, she smiled and said, "I'm ready."

Half an hour later they were led through the restaurant by a waiter in a waistcoat and seated across the table from Cassie Tyler and Roisin Connor. Helen settled nervously into her chair and rested her thin clutch-purse in her lap, gracing her friends with as warm a smile as she could muster. Pleasantries were exchanged, courses were ordered, and menus were discarded, then the talk of the group moved on to a discussion of politics and gossip throughout the entertainment industry. Helen chipped in when absolutely necessary and paid enough attention to respond if a question was posed to her, but other than that she was mostly silent.

Between the starter and the main course Roisin turned her kind blue eyes to the quiet Scot and asked in her lilting Irish accent, "So, Helen, are you seeing anyone?"

The diminutive teenager nearly choked on a sip of her ice water and quickly dabbed at her chin with a white linen napkin. "Um… it's complicated," she responded simply and quietly, her eyes downcast at the tablecloth as she fidgeted under the curious stares of her coworkers.

While Cassie and Trisha were both actresses for the show she was writing, Roisin was still a near mystery to Helen. All she knew was from what her housemate had told her and that didn't add up to very much. She knew that the Irishwoman was older and divorced, that her career of choice was working at a bank in London but that she was here for a short stay to visit Cassie, and that the pair had been dating for just over a year.

The table fell into silence for a moment as everyone could sense the awkward tension arising in the Scot as a result of the friendly probing into her personal life. Then Trisha, true to character, changed the subject swiftly and smoothly and raised the mood once more to a comfortable level, inciting laughter and jokes from the happy couple while Helen did her best to hide her discomfort at the painful reminder of Nikki. How she missed her at moments like these. She was more determined than ever to get her head sorted out and return as soon as possible, but that would have to wait until filming was finished. She'd signed a contract and now she would have to see it through.


Chapter Fourteen

The second week in September saw a drastic change in Nikki's schedule as she put Grace in a daytime nursery programme and returned to work. Parting from the seven-month-old was harder than she'd ever expected and her days had been fraught with waves of anxiety, that could only be settled by having the little girl back in her arms each afternoon. On this particular Wednesday evening she'd had a simple meal of chicken and vegetables for herself after feeding the baby, and now they were cuddled up on the sofa as Nikki began to read Dr. Seuss.

"That Sam-I-am, that Sam-I-am! I do not like that Sam-I-am. Do you like green eggs and ham? I do not like them Sam-I-am. I do not like green eggs and ham," she read from the page, affecting all sorts of silly to serious expressions as she did so.

Grace giggled happily and curled against her chest with a smile, so she continued, "Would you like them, here or there? I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-am."

The ringing of her mobile prevented her from reading further and she set the book aside with an irritable frown, shifting Grace slightly to fish it out of her jeans pocket and answering with a brisk, "Hello?"

There was a long pause so, frustrated, she repeated herself with a tone of severe impatience. She was about to hang up and end the silence when a quiet, slurred voice emitted from the other party. "Nikki?"

That one word was like a punch to the gut and robbed her lungs of all the oxygen they possessed. In the same instance her eyes widened and began to fill with tears. "Helen? Is that you?"

A hiccup that sounded much like a sob came through the phone and then the line went dead. Nikki, heart racing and pulse pounding in her ears, pulled the device away from her ear and quickly searched for the number in her recent call list. To her utter dismay it was blocked and she threw the phone angrily to the other side of the room, wincing as the plastic made contact with a wall. The loud sound startled Grace into a fit of tears and Nikki shook herself out of her misery to give the small girl a cuddle, whispering apologies and holding her tight.

Once the crying stopped and the baby was in a relative state of calm again, the ebony-haired woman wiped the tears from her eyes and did her best to continue reading, cursing the trembling quality of her voice all the while. "Would you like them in a house? Would you like them with a mouse? I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam-I-am."

New Zealand

Helen slumped to the floor, her mobile clutched in one hand with a vice-like grip and tears streaming steadily down her cheeks. Her whole body shook with silent sobs as she closed her eyes and leaned against the side of the king-size bed in the guest room. Tonight had been an absolute disaster. Keeping in the spirit of her resolution to make more of an effort with her newfound friends, she'd spent the last few months being dragged to restaurants and social get-togethers. At heart she still struggled and raged against the concept of doing anything besides mourning what she'd given up, but outwardly she'd become a damn good actress.

She was always ready with a smile and a laugh to greet any one of the people who now named her friend, though most of them barely ever crossed her mind for more than a second at a time. Trisha was an exemption to this and she couldn't put into words how thankful she was for the blonde's ongoing company and support through this difficult time, but there was still so much missing, still a gaping hole that the other woman couldn't fill. She wasn't Nikki. She never would be. Then there was the matter of Grace, the small life she'd carried within her for nine months and now hadn't seen for seven. There was an almost unbearable ache inside that threatened to overwhelm her several times a day.

She longed to hold her daughter in her arms and see her laugh, see her smile, see what she looked like as she was growing up. Keeping herself busy and surrounded by people usually served to be an adequate distraction, so she'd agreed to come to this party tonight and had fully intended on having a good time, anything to keep her thoughts away from treacherous territory. She'd laughed and joked and had a bevy load to drink, but as she'd stumbled her way up to Cassie's guest room for the second time, her mind had refused to let the matter lie. She'd called Nikki with the intention of telling her she was coming home next month, as filming was almost finished and her contract would be fulfilled, but hearing the pained emotion in her lover's voice had been too much to bear.

How could she have been so stupid to believe she could just waltz back into Nikki's life, and Grace's life, after everything she'd put them through? She'd caused so much pain and had left a heavy burden behind for her lover to deal with. How would it be fair to just walk back into her life like nothing had happened? She knew rationally that it would be best dealt with sooner rather than later, but her head was still a mess, her emotions were running high, and she was running scared. Taking the coward's way out was easier than facing up to her demons. She made a split-second decision then to ask the director if he knew anyone looking for a writer, as the show they were doing now wasn't set to be renewed for another year.

Just as she was considering where her job might take her, a quiet knock sounded on the door of the guest room. Startled out of her reverie and unsure who it might be, Helen stiffened and wiped her cheeks roughly. "Who is it?" she called, making her voice as steady as she could.

"It's Trish," came a muffled reply from the other side of the door.

Helen scrambled to her feet and rushed to the door, fiddling with the lock clumsily in her haste to see a familiar and comforting face. As the blonde entered she could see immediately that Helen had been crying, her eyes puffy and watery even in the low light provided by the bedside lamp.

"Oh, sweetheart," the blonde cooed, pulling the shorter woman into her arms and squeezing her tight. "What's got you so upset?"

Helen choked down another series of sobs and mumbled brokenly, "I called Nikki."

Trisha stepped back immediately, her blue eyes widening as she grabbed on to both of the Scot's shoulders. "Oh! How, um… How did that go?" As soon as the words came out she started berating herself. Obviously it hadn't gone well or Helen wouldn't be in such a state.

Hanging her head to hide her shame, the Scot shook her head and said, "I… I don't know. I sort of… hung up on her."

"Oh no," Trisha murmured sympathetically, pulling Helen back into her arms and rubbing her back gently. After a moment she maneouvred the smaller woman toward the bed and sat her down, sitting closely enough to keep an arm wrapped around her trembling shoulders.

"I was going to tell her I decided to go back to London after filming finished, but now I don't think I will," Helen explained miserably.

Worry creased the blonde's features and she bit her cheek to keep from asking why not, as that would likely only upset the Scot further. Instead she went with, "Where will you go if you don't return to London?"

Shrugging despondently, Helen took a deep breath before answering, "I'm going to ask Jeff if he has any director friends who are in need of a writer, see where that takes me. I think anywhere would be better than…"

Silence filled the room then, only broken by the thumping of loud music creeping through the floorboards from downstairs, until Trisha forced on a bright smile and attempted a positive outlook. "Well, you don't have to go alone if you don't want to. I wrecked my relationship as well so I'm at a bit of a loose end. Fancy some company on your next adventure?"

Helen returned a weak smile and only took a second to think it over before nodding in the affirmative. It would be nice not to be alone. They stared at each other for a long moment and understanding passed between them, seconds before Trisha cupped Helen's face in both hands and brought their lips together in a soft meeting of flesh against flesh. Both of them knew it felt wrong in a way, that they were betraying their hearts and that they would never be in love with each other, but just for a while it might be a balm for their wounds, a temporary fix for their shared loneliness.


"Christ, it's like being back in the UK!" Trisha exclaimed, wrapping her leather coat around her middle more tightly as her teeth chattered.

Helen snickered as she glanced sideways at the tall blonde, their yellow taxi pulling off down the street behind them and the imposing figure of the Carlton looming in front of them. "Welcome to New York," the Scot quipped. "I hope you have lots of warm clothes."

The blonde frowned in exasperation and hooked her arm through Helen's, tugging her toward the entrance of the monstrous building as she replied chirpily, "No, not really, but I'm always up for a shopping spree!"

Twenty minutes later they arrived at their very own penthouse suite, booked in advance and paid for in full by the film studio – a perk Helen was really coming to love. Her conversation with Jeff had gone surprisingly well and he'd agreed to put feelers out to all of his friends in the industry, claiming that anyone would be lucky to work with the Scot and benefit from her writing. Now, just over a month later, filming had wrapped up in New Zealand and the odd duo were set to begin their next adventure in the Big Apple.

"Jesus fucking Christ," Trisha squealed as she entered the room and got her first proper look at their accommodations for the next few months. "This is fucking paradise!"

Helen raised both brows and smiled at the blushing bellhop as he deposited their luggage by the door of the suite. Rooting around in her handbag and withdrawing her purse, she tipped the young man handsomely and sent him off with an award-winning smile after assuring him that they didn't need anything else for the time being. Once he was gone she turned to her friend and tsked playfully.

"That's some pretty colourful language, Miss Harris."

The blonde spun to face her incredulously and spread both arms out wide. "Helen!!! Look at this place for Christ's sake! I thought I'd been in a nice hotel before, but this really takes the fucking biscuit, don't you think?"

Chuckling now and unable to find a disagreement, the Scot nodded and began lugging two of her three suitcases toward where she assumed the bedroom was. She found herself frozen in the spot as soon as she reached the doorway and a loud gasp emitted from her lips. "Trish! Get your arse in here now and have a look at this!"

Abandoning her bags in favour of checking out the king-size bed, she jumped on it back first and bounced a few times, grinning wildly as she fingered the plush, furry throw blanket on top of the duvet. The blonde appeared almost instantly and squealed again in delight, copying Helen's movements as she deposited herself beside the short brunette.

"You're right, Trish… This is fucking paradise," she summed up succinctly.

Suddenly a thought occurred and the blonde shot up like a rocket. "I need to see the en suite and then I need to check out the mini bar."

Helen followed her excitable friend to the en suite and was definitely pleased by the size of the tub provided, but she thought to voice a word of caution to the exuberant blonde as they made their way toward the mini bar, "Remember that we can't get too pissed. We have to meet with Giorgio tomorrow and the rest of the producers."

Trisha mocked drawing a cross over her heart then grabbed two miniature bottles of vodka and two glass tumblers from behind the bar, emptying each squarely and sliding one over to Helen. Raising the glass in the air, the blonde wore a bright smile as she offered a toast, "To a new adventure in New York City."

Helen clinked their glasses together and mumbled, "Cheers," before downing her drink in one. It would certainly be an experience, that was for sure.


Chapter Fifteen


With two weeks left until Christmas, Helen found her mind wandering with a terrifying frequency to the life she'd left behind in London. For the last month she'd been in New York she'd exhausted all of her energy into staying occupied for every possible second, but as her least favourite time of year grew closer it was becoming harder to stay focused and positive, even the novel she'd started writing not proving enough of a distraction from the constant twinge she felt pulling at her heartstrings.

It was late on a Sunday evening and Trisha had gone out with some friends, Helen politely declining in favour of staying in by herself. The silence seemed overwhelming, pressing in on her from all sides as she was left to her own devices. The twenty-six-year-old blonde had been good company in the last eight months and their friendship continued grow stronger by the day, as the taller, vivacious woman constantly challenged her sullen moods and drew her out of her shell. As she sat curled up one end of the long, plush sofa in the Broadway Diva Suite that had become her new home, she began to regret her decision not to accompany Trisha for the night out.

As always when she had nothing to do but think, her mind rapidly became plagued by worrisome thoughts. How was Nikki getting on without her? Did she miss her? Did she still love her? Would she be able to forgive her for leaving so suddenly? And then there was Grace. Her daughter was growing more each day and she hadn't a clue what she looked like now. Would she be back in time to see her first steps, hear her first words? Would the little girl even recognise her own mother when she returned? Pulling one of the cushy velvet pillows into her lap, she hugged it tightly as her eyes moistened with grief and regret. Surely this couldn't be the path she'd chosen so hastily?

But how could she go back now? There was so much water under the bridge and deep within there was a fear gnawing at her, a fear that she would be met with hate and contempt, that she wouldn't be welcomed by her own family. She'd already lost her mother at a young age and now she'd abandoned the two most important people in her life. The full weight of her decisions crashed down on her in a moment of clarity and she collapsed into herself, tears pouring hot down her cheeks as she hugged the pillow for dear life, sending up a prayer that everything would work out for the best. Even of that she was sceptical; she'd abandoned her faith when her mother had died and now she was certain that God wouldn't want to grant her any favours. She'd never felt so alone in all her life.


Glancing over for the fifth time in ten minutes to check on Grace, ensuring that she was content with her toys and the Baby Beethoven DVD playing out on the television, a smile crossed Nikki's face before she turned her attention back to Sheree. The doctor raised an amused brow at her ebony-haired friend and took a sip of her water before getting back on track with the conversation.

"Like I was saying, you need more of a social life, Nik. You spend all your time either at work or at home and I can tell you're getting depressed. Don't you think it might be good for you to have a night out every once in a while?"

Nikki looked ready to protest straightaway, so Sheree raised a hand and ploughed forward, "I'm not suggesting you go and get pissed every week. That would be irresponsible. I'm merely suggesting you make some friends, single mothers like yourself to spend time with. What about the mothers of the kids in Grace's nursery?"

The taller woman contemplated this in silence for a moment and gave a slight shrug of her shoulders, unable to find a good reason to protest. She tapped her fingers on the tabletop and said quietly, "I know you're probably right, and Grace loves spending time with the other kids… I just haven't been in the mood for much company lately."

The doctor waited patiently for eye contact then sympathised in a soothing tone, "I know you haven't, and that's totally understandable, but there comes a time when you have to let go and move on. Have you considered dating?"

That, apparently, was the wrong thing to suggest. Nikki's brown eyes burned with disbelief and the beginnings of anger as her head snapped upward. "What?!?" she asked in a low voice, gritting her teeth and reminding herself that there was a child not far away. She needed to try and keep her famous temper in check. "How that thought could even cross your mind is beyond me," she added, shaking her head now in disgust as she reached for her glass of water.

All too used to the Wade temper and unwilling to relent until she made her point, Sheree leaned back in her chair and pinned her friend with a challenging stare. "Why not?" she asked simply, but before Nikki could give a reply she started speaking again. "I'm not trying to come across as harsh, but Helen left you. She left you alone with her daughter and you don't know when she's coming back. She had her reasons and I know you still love her, that you've forgiven her even, but you're not in a relationship, Nik. You told me yourself that things were complicated between you and that you hadn't even begun to date properly when she left. So, as far as I can see, there's nothing holding you back."

Nikki was so completely flabbergasted by this approach, something she hadn't even considered – for in her heart she'd always felt like they were together, that she remained utterly silent for a long while, staring at the doctor as if she'd grown two heads. A long, heavy sigh broke the quiet and she dropped her gaze to the wooden grain of her kitchen table. "I know we're not together," she finally said, her voice carrying a defeatist tone, "But that doesn't mean I'm ready to start seeing anyone else. Please, just leave it. When I'm ready you'll be the first to know."

Satisfied with the compromise, the redhead nodded and tried her hand at lighthearted teasing, "I should bloody hope so… I know at least ten single women who would kill for a date with you."

Nikki's lips quirked up in a show of appreciation for what her friend was trying to do, but the smile never quite reached her sad brown eyes. With the heavy stuff out of the way, Sheree quickly moved the conversation along to Christmas plans, extending an invitation from her sister for Nikki and Grace to join them all on Christmas day. It only took a moment for the teacher to agree and soon after Sheree announced she had to get going, leaving Nikki to play with the little girl she now considered her daughter.

Christmas morning

The sound of an alarm clock pierced through Nikki's consciousness and dragged her rudely from her land of slumber. She slapped out at it with her palm as she cracked her eyelids open to greet the start of a new day. Soft light filtered in through the curtains as the sun began its slow ascent above the horizon and the raven-haired woman spent a few minutes with her face buried in her pillow, only forcing herself fully awake when she remembered what day it was. Crawling out from under her duvet in her pyjama bottoms and t-shirt, she checked on Grace – who was stirring slightly in her crib from the disturbance of the alarm – and sang her quickly back to sleep before grabbing her robe from the back of the door.

Padding her way into the kitchen in her cozy house slippers, the tiled flooring much too cold in the wintertime to be walking around with bare feet, she put on a pot of coffee and plonked herself down at the kitchen table, rubbing the sleep from her eyes as she waited for her caffeine fix. Twenty minutes later she set down her half-drunk mug of the steaming brew and walked over to the Christmas tree in the corner of the lounge. She'd only put it up the week before and she'd had to make do with an artificial one, the adjustable branches and stem allowing her to get it high enough off the ground for Grace not to tamper with the ornaments and hurt herself.

Surveying the mass of brightly-coloured presents underneath, she wrapped her arms around her middle and swallowed over the lump of emotion in her throat, tears pricking the backs of her eyes as she thought miserably that this wasn't how the little girl's first Christmas should be. She should have her real mother here, not just a stand-in mother, even though Nikki loved her just as much as if she'd given birth herself. Coming to a decision which had been roiling around in her mind for the last five days, she made her way back to the master bedroom and withdrew two wrapped boxes from the floor of her closet. She'd received them in the post the previous week and had been debating on whether or not to put them under the tree with the rest.

After nestling them in amongst their varied counterparts, she finished off her coffee and poured another mug before going to wake Grace. The eleven-month-old was, as always, eager and pleasant to wake in the morning, greeting Nikki with a smile and a cuddle as she carried the child out to the kitchen, settling her into her high chair for a breakfast of yogurt and chopped fresh fruit. After getting her cleaned up and changed, Nikki brought her into the lounge and sat cross-legged on the floor within reaching distance of the many presents.

Grace's face lit up as her green eyes struggled to take in everything, her excitement clear as Nikki pulled forward a large box wrapped in shiny purple paper. The toddler bounced and screeched happily as they began to unwrap it together, and before long the flooring of the lounge was covered with torn paper, ribbons, and bows. Reaching for one of the two presents she'd received from Helen, Nikki bit down hard on her lower lip and forced herself to stay composed.

"This one's from your mummy Helen. I wonder what she's sent for you?" Nikki spoke out loud, keeping her voice light and happy so as not to upset the little girl. She'd spent many a night talking to the child about her birth mother and showing her the few pictures she had of the Scot. "Mummy, mummy, mummy," Grace rambled with a smile, causing Nikki's heart to swell and clench with pride and sorrow in equal measure. When the gift was revealed to be an oversized stuffed bear, it's artificial fur of the softest quality, Nikki's eyes welled up with tears and no amount of trying could contain them.

As Grace began to play with it, not a care in the world, the raven-haired woman wiped discreetly at her cheeks and pulled the final present forward, which turned out to be a wonderfully elaborate handmade dollhouse, with a note attached explaining it was for when Grace was a bit older. Cursing the Scot mentally for being absent on such an important day, yet also thanking her for making the effort despite the distance, Nikki stood and carefully moved the dollhouse to a safe location. Afterward she began the lengthy task of tidying up the mess in the lounge while Grace played with her many new toys. A glance at the clock told her she had a few hours left before they had to leave for Joyce's house, so she settled back in with her daughter and tried not to think of the woman she was missing, or the fact that she hadn't given a return address.

New York

Where Christmas had been a relatively quiet affair for Nikki and Grace, the same couldn't be said for Helen and Trisha. They'd slept late into the morning after a night of partying and woken with hangovers pounding in their sculls. After hot showers and enough coffee to give an elephant a heart attack, the pair had exchanged a handful of gag gifts – as per their agreement, before going out to meet with some friends. Lunch had evolved into an invitation to another party and by the middle of the evening they were once again pissed off their faces at a posh house on the upper East side of Manhattan.

It was only when Trisha found Helen vomiting and crying in the downstairs loo that she realised her friend was in trouble. Being an avid partier herself, she hadn't seen the signs developing and hadn't noticed that Helen had been drinking more and more lately. As she struggled to take care of the small Scot she also came to realise that this was her fault. She'd been the one to drag Helen out to so many parties, not giving a thought to the unhealthy pattern or the consequences. Muttering an endless string of apologies to the drunk diminutive woman, she half-carried her out of the bathroom once her stomach had settled, chasing down the owner of the house to ask for a taxi. Fifteen minutes later they were in the backseat and Helen was slumped against her side, half-unconscious by the time they reached the hotel.

Through the car ride over and the process of getting Helen back to their room without making too much of a scene, Trisha swore to herself she would put an end to this. She'd created this mess and she would damn well fix it. Once the Scot was safely tucked into bed, she rooted around in the smaller woman's handbag until she found what she was looking for. Sequestering herself in a plush chair on the other side of the suite, she searched through the contact list until she found the number she was looking for.

When she heard a groggy sleep-filled voice answer on the other end, she breathed a short sigh of relief and spoke with a sense of urgency, "Nikki, it's Trisha. Please don't hang up…"


Chapter Sixteen

Blinking the sleep out of her eyes and shooting a glance over to the illuminated face of her bedside clock, Nikki struggled to get the cogs in her mind working properly, sure she'd just imagined the voice on the other end of the line. She'd only just managed to get back to sleep an hour ago after Grace had woken her, and so she was in a fuzzy, hazy, half-dreaming state when her mobile started ringing. She'd yanked it off the charger without opening her eyes and had grumbled a near unintelligible response into the mouthpiece, only to be thrown further into confusion by the identity of her late night caller.

"Trish?" she finally managed to splutter, waking now as incredulity took hold.

"Yeah, Nik, it's me… I um… I think you need to know something."

The nervous quality of the blonde's voice had alarm bells ringing in Nikki's head as she sat up swiftly and swung her legs over the edge of the bed, sliding her feet into her slippers and heading toward the bedroom door. This sounded like it was going to be a serious call and, in the event that it turned out to be unpleasant and got her riled, she didn't want to chance waking Grace with a raised voice. As she navigated her way through the darkness of her flat toward the kitchen, she allowed a frown to settle between her brows and enquired worriedly, "What is it? What's happened?"

A million questions were piling up on top of one another and she wasn't sure how to go about asking them all, so she plopped herself down and instead waited silently for a response. But the response she got was the last one she expected.

"It's Helen, she-"

"Helen?!?" came the shouted, disbelieving response, cutting the blonde off mid-sentence. "What the bloody hell do you mean, Trish?"

She was about to carry on when her ex interjected, "I'm living with her." That stunned Nikki into a silence so thick that all she could hear was the blood pounding in her ears. Sensing that she now had the taller woman's attention completely, Trisha continued as calmly as she could, "I'm sure Sheree told you about our fight and that I'd moved to New Zealand last year. What neither of you know is that Helen invited me. She got a job writing for a producer there and asked me if I wanted to audition for a part in the show."

More silence ensued so the actress pressed forward, "I started living with her there and when the contract was up she moved here, to New York, and I came with her. We've been here for a month now but things are starting to get worse. I'm really worried about her, Nik."

By now Nikki's jaw was hanging loose as she stared blankly at the wall across from her, only scant rays of moonlight providing any illumination in the thickness of night. Her mind was muddled and it felt like wading through molasses as she tried to grasp onto all this new information being hurled her way. Helen had been in New Zealand? Helen had invited Trisha there to live with her? Now they were in New York? It was a hell of a lot to take in at once and she found only more questions to the vague answers she'd received.

Finally she came to her senses and asked the most pressing question at the forefront of her thoughts, unable to conceal the hint of concern in her tone, "What's getting worse? Has… has something happened to her?"

Her heart was beating like that of a frightened rabbit as she inhaled sharply and held her breath, fearing the answer she might be given. What if something terrible had happened to Helen? She was both relieved and upset when Trisha replied, "No, no, nothing like that. It's just… I think she's got a bit of a drink problem."

"A drink problem?!" Nikki exploded, aghast and furious all at once. "And how exactly did that happen, Trisha? She isn't old enough to drink."

A shameful sigh could be heard down the line and Nikki could imagine Trisha cowering at the other end, already having deduced who had given the teenager access to alcohol. "It was just supposed to be a bit of fun, you know? I invited her out to a party to take her mind off… things," there was an awkward pause as they both reflected silently on what that meant, "and then one party turned into two, and so on. It's just gotten a bit out of hand and I don't know how to help her."

Scowling deeply and pinching the bridge of her nose to keep from shouting, Nikki let out an angry puff of breath and growled, "Well you'd better figure out something, Trish. She's supposed to be getting herself sorted, not going out and getting pissed when she's only seventeen. You should know better, for Christ's sake!"

Realising that her continued berating wasn't going to help the situation in the slightest, she took a series of slow, deep breaths and counted to twenty in her head. When she felt sufficiently calm enough to carry on a semi-regular conversation, she posed her next question, "So how do I come into this?"

"Ah," Trisha mumbled, "that, well… um… I thought perhaps if she got the chance to see you and Grace it might help. She's in a lot of pain, Nik. She regrets what she did and she doesn't know how to fix it. I shouldn't be breaking her confidence in telling you any of this, but I really am worried about her."

If Nikki had thought she couldn't be any more surprised than she already was, she was sorely mistaken. At a complete loss for words, all she could manage was a high-pitched, "What?!"

"Think about it," Trisha insisted urgently, eager for a simple solution to the problem. "It would be good for her to try and work things out, and if she won't take matters into her own hands and would rather get pissed to try and forget, then someone else has to do it for her. Believe it or not, I actually care a great deal for her and she's become a close friend. I don't want to see her entire life ruined over a few stupid mistakes."

"You are asking a hell of a lot from me, Trish," was the eventual response, the taller woman's voice tired and somewhat resigned now. "You can't begin to imagine how much she hurt me when she left, even though I do understand why she did it. I've spent every day since wishing I could turn back time or that she'll come walking through the door like nothing happened, but that's not reality. That's fantasy, plain and simple. And how you expect me to fly out there in the middle of the school year, after having to take the last half of last year off work to take care of Grace, I don't understand," Nikki finished with a huff, desperately displeased with the situation at hand.

She would do anything in her power to help Helen, even after everything the Scot had put her through, and that most definitely included taking more time off work, but first she wanted to impress upon her ex the seriousness of the request and the complexity of the situation. A long pause filled the space of the conversation until an excited noise sounded from the blonde. "I've got it! What if I somehow got her to come over there?"

Nikki's immediate reaction was that Trisha hadn't thought this through at all before ringing her. She pulled back the phone to stare at it for a moment, as though it would give her some insight into her ex's mind, but then she returned it to her ear and asked sceptically, "And how do you plan to do that? Say, Helen, fancy taking a holiday? Then get her to the airport and tell her, 'By the way, we're going to London'? You're mad if you think she'll agree to that."

"Oh, right…" Another pause. "But, that might work actually."

At this point Nikki could only shake her head in wonder, the whole conversation feeling surreal in the first place. "Right," she agreed doubtfully. "And what if it doesn't?"

"Then you'll just have to find some way of coming over here," the stubborn blonde persisted.

The sound of crying brought a halt to the conversation as Nikki realised it was coming from her bedroom. Switching immediately back into mothering mode, the taller woman cut the call short. "Look, Trish, I have to go. I think Grace has had another nightmare. Call me when you figure something out."

Without even bothering to say goodbye properly, she pressed the end button on her mobile and hurried into the bedroom, scooping her daughter out of the cot and holding her close. "Shhh… It's okay, sweetheart. It was just a bad dream."

She settled the both of them into her bed and held the girl close until the tears stopped and she fell back into a peaceful sleep. Long afterward Nikki stayed awake, staring up at the ceiling and wishing that it was just a bad dream.


Trisha spent the better part of two weeks encountering a solid brick wall where the Scot was concerned. The day after the phone call, once Helen recovered from the mother of all hangovers, the blonde had gently suggested that they ease up on the drinking for a while. When asked in a tone of incredulousness why on earth they would want to do that, she'd floundered for an explanation about hating the morning-after effects. Although her head had recently felt like it was being split in two with an axe, the wilful Scot had declined the offer and made a beeline for the mini bar. Two days later she'd broached the subject again, this time suggesting they give up alcohol altogether. Her prohibition-style approach went down about as well as sending a lamb into a lion's den, Helen's usually soft green eyes sparking up with instant outrage.

The row that had followed the actress's continued insistence had left an imprint on her, to such an extent that she immediately stowed the subject in a mental file labelled 'Do Not Open'. That would just be another of the many things Nikki would have to deal with. In retrospect she realised that it was incredibly unfair to ask so much of the raven-haired woman, but really there was no one else she could think of who would be able to get through to Helen. Nikki was her last chance at driving the young woman away from the path she was currently embarking upon, which she knew ended in a slippery slope and a hard crash.

After realising that Plan A was firmly out the window and bouncing down the drive, she'd switched tactics to trying to convince Helen to go on holiday with her. A further covert phone conversation with Nikki had allowed her time to brainstorm new ideas and they'd settled upon a few that might just work. She soon came to realise the shortcomings of Plan B, however, when she considered the process involved in getting on an airplane. There would be no way to dupe Helen into getting on a plane to London without the Scot knowing where they were headed first.

So that left Plan C and Plan D. All she had to do was get the writer to agree… That would be the tricky part, she assumed, and then it would be smooth sailing. Amazingly enough, Helen didn't even bat an eyelash between hearing Trisha's proposal of a holiday and saying yes to it. Pleased beyond words that she hadn't met resistance, the blonde had slunk off to phone her counterpart in conspiracy before booking two tickets. Plan C was officially underway.


Chapter Seventeen

One Week Later

Helen's eyes widened dramatically as she entered her home away from home for the next week – one of the luxurious Hibiscus Royal Suites at the Half Moon Resort in Montego Bay. Her first glance upon entering was filled with a discovery of pleasing colours and handcrafted plantation-style furnishings, just the kind of environment she needed to unwind and take her mind off things. She'd been knocked for six but beyond thrilled when Trisha had suggested a week-long getaway in Jamaica, and it honestly couldn't have come at a better time. Tomorrow was her daughter's first birthday and if she stopped to dwell on her absence she feared she would cease to function.

She'd sent off a card with money earlier in the week so Nikki could buy her an adequate present, along with plenty of extra for living expenses, saddened by the fact that she knew so little about what her daughter liked and needed. For at least the next seven days she was determined not to think about it, for her heart longed to return to the loving arms of her family – if they would still have her, but her mind told her that she'd left it too late. And so the vicious circle continued, an eternal war raging near constantly and threatening to undo her completely. Once in a blue moon she was struck by how unfair it was that she'd been dealt this hand so early in life, but mostly she knew and was forced to accept responsibility for her part in creating it.

An overexcited blonde nudging past her, with far more luggage than necessary for a week-long holiday, brought her out of her admiring daze of the room before her. Grabbing up her own bags, one in each hand, she followed Trisha's lead through the suite, gasping aloud as she saw one of the two marvelous bedrooms. The blonde turned to face her with a squeal and began to rant about how wonderfully extravagant the place was, before dropping her suitcases unceremoniously at the foot of the bed and bouncing off to explore the rest of the suite. Once satisfied that they'd explored every nook and cranny, the duo left the room to grab a bite to eat at The Seagrape Terrace, boasted to be one of Jamaica's finest restaurants for Caribbean dining.

They spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the beach and the widely varied facilities of the resort, which offered golf, scuba diving, horseback riding, and everything between. The moment Helen clapped eyes on the equestrian centre she swore to herself she would ride a horse along the beach before week's end. It was something she'd always dreamed of doing but had never had the opportunity. There was something to be said for having money to throw away, even if the cost was ultimately higher than anything a large bank account could fix.

That evening after a mouthwatering dinner at La Baguette, they returned to the suite and showered before pouring themselves into bed, the excitement of the day having conspired with jetlag to drain them of their energy. As she closed her eyes and drifted to sleep, she played over and over in her mind that this was paradise and she would damn well enjoy it, regardless of the pain.

The very next morning Helen awoke early for breakfast then made good on her promise to herself. A bit disappointed that Trisha had opted out of the horse riding, she nonetheless continued on her own with a little extra pep in her step. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Trisha was running around like a madwoman to get things sorted for Plan C, which involved having a cot dragged up to the suite for Grace to sleep in and leaving a room key and note full of instructions at the front desk for Nikki to collect when she arrived. Her initial ill-planned scheme had now morphed into a full-blown plan and she was determined to see it through to the letter.

The next two hours were spent at Helen's side, towing the Scot around the resort to keep her away from the room by any means necessary. It was when she suggested they check out the squash court that Helen became suspicious and rounded on the blonde with a sceptically raised brow. "What on earth has gotten into you? You don't play squash?" Seeing the taller woman falter nervously, she narrowed her eyes and asked, "What's going on?"

Trisha laughed, a bit too obviously, and forced a nonchalant shrug. "Oh, nothing… Just thought we could try something different. We are on holiday after all. If we can't try new things here then where can we?"

Still not entirely satisfied with the explanation, for Trisha looked far too much like she was on the verge of fidgeting, Helen nonetheless dismissed it and put it down to a little too much sun exposure. "That's all fine and well, but I'm not really in the mood to play right now. I think I'd like a shower actually."

As she turned away and began making her way up the beach, her intended destination clear, she was surprised to find a hand grabbing her arm and a panicky voice shouting, "No!" Realising her mistake, Trisha quickly dropped her hand and put on a thousand-watt smile, covering with, "I mean, why don't we get something to eat first? I'm starving."

Cocking her head to one side and studying the other woman like she'd grown two heads, the Scot stayed silent for a long moment. Finally she decided it wasn't worth arguing about and shrugged in agreement, her stomach piping up with a well-timed rumble and confirming the decision. As she walked slightly ahead of her roommate she failed to notice the blonde checking her wristwatch and the subsequent expression of alarm that flitted across her face.

Fifteen minutes later they were back at The Seagrape Terrace – Trisha had insisted on it specifically and Helen hadn't found a reason to complain, their meal there the day before having been well received by both women, and soon they were seated at a table large enough for four, something which didn't go unnoticed by the Scot as she peered around them and noted several tables for two that were available. Pushing her piqued curiosity to one side as she glanced at her menu, she was thoroughly startled when the waiter returned, having only just left them moments before, and announced that the rest of their party had arrived.

Feeling sure the man must be mistaken, Helen looked up with a ready correction on the tip of her tongue, but the sight that greeted her just over his shoulder stole the words from her mouth and left her speechless, staring in a wide-eyed mixture of wonder and bewilderment. Her eyes locked effortlessly on pools of chocolate cinnamon and for nearly a full minute she forgot how to breathe. Then something happened that completely shattered her emotional control: the little dark-haired girl in Nikki's arms looked straight at her and said, "Mummy!"

It was only when the waiter excused himself with a polite, albeit obviously embarrassed cough, that she realised she had tears coursing down her cheeks. Still unable to speak, she pushed back from her chair and rushed forward with a sob, gathering both Nikki and her daughter in a tight embrace, afraid to let go and find out she'd dreamt the whole thing. The moment was unmercifully brief as Grace began to squirm, pinned as she was between two adults and eager to be set down. Stepping back immediately and assuming an air of awkwardness, Helen wiped at her cheeks and ducked her head, mumbling a quick apology as she tried to compose herself.

The waiter returned with a high chair and Nikki deposited the green-eyed girl, who was growing to look more and more like her mother with each passing day, before raising her eyes to Helen once more and saying simply, "Hello."

Shaking her head dumbly, her mental faculties still not in full working order, the Scot could only muster a single word in the form of a question, "How?"

A slight cough sounded from behind the standing pair and Helen turned her head to face Trisha, who was now wearing a look that was somewhere between contrite and pleased as she raised her hand guiltily in the air. "Ah, that would be down to me."

With so many emotions ripping through her at once, Helen decided it would be best to sit down before her legs gave way. She also concluded that she would deal with the matter of Trisha's interference later. For now she had more pressing things to attend to, like her beautiful daughter, who was desperately trying to reach anything she could on the table in front of her, and her one-time lover whom she'd hurt so badly. Sinking slowly down into her chair and still in a state of relative confusion, she blinked up at Nikki questioningly until the taller woman took a seat beside her.

The waiter returned seconds later with a polite smile and asked for their drink orders, apparently having been hovering at a safe distance until the possibility of drama and high-running emotions passed. Trisha broke the silence with an order of ice water and lemon, Nikki requesting a children's menu and set of crayons, Helen mumbling that water was also fine, and soon after they were back to reading their menus studiously, a thick haze of awkward tension shrouding them until the blonde sighed in exasperation and exclaimed, "For Christ's sake, you two are acting like we're at a sodding funeral. Can't you at least talk about the weather? The bloody silence is doing my head in!"

Feeling appropriately chastised, Nikki bit the bullet and shifted sideways to stare at the diminutive brunette who'd haunted her thoughts and dreams for the better part of a year now. "So, Helen, what have you been up to lately?"

There weren't enough words in the world for how awkward the atmosphere became in that moment. Bristling as her eyes flitted from Nikki to Trisha, then to Grace and back again, the Scot bit down a sarcastic retort and answered tersely, "This and that. How about you?"

Hearing the slight edge of hardness that had entered Helen's tone, Nikki was also tempted to reply unkindly. But, remembering that this was supposed to be a time for mending old wounds and that Helen's daughter was in their company, she forced on a smile and ploughed forward with the conversation. "Well, I returned to teaching last September. I had to beg Karen for the time off to come here after taking five months last year."

What she refrained from adding to that statement said more than words ever could, and Helen felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment and undeniable shame. This was her fault. She'd made the decision to leave and not stay in contact, and now she was behaving as though Nikki was to blame. Immediately humbled by the realisation, she drew her gaze over to her daughter, now scribbling happily and sloppily away at the menu before her, and her eyes filled once more with emotion. She took a good long look at what she'd left behind and the dam broke swiftly inside her. When she finally tore her watery stare away from her oblivious daughter, she could scarcely see through the flood of her tears.

"I'm so sorry," she whispered, then covered her face with her hands as she stood from the table and fled. The last thing she wanted to do was have a mental breakdown in the middle of paradise.


Chapter Eighteen

Finding an abandoned stretch of beach after half-walking, half-running for ten minutes, Helen sank down gratefully on the warm sand. Removing her sandals and digging her toes into it, she pulled her knees to her chest and buried her tearstained face from the sun's bright rays. She had no grasp on how long she'd stayed that way before she felt the gentle warmth of a hand on her shoulder. In any almost any other situation she would've been startled and wary, but somehow she knew it was Nikki without looking up. The smell of the taller woman's crisp cologne only confirmed this, carried as it was on the very slight breeze.

When the comfortable silence began to grow uncomfortable, Helen lifted her head and sniffled, drying the last of the wetness from her cheeks before looking sideways at her beach companion. Her green eyes sparkled bright with confusion and conflict as she voiced her quandary, "Why did you come after me, Nikki?"

The taller woman sighed softly and moved to sit beside her, close enough to touch but not making contact. It was understood by the both of them that her query held more than one meaning, referencing both the overseas trip and the aftermath of the embarrassing restaurant display. "Because… I was worried about you."

Always having believed that honesty was the best policy, Nikki couldn't find it in herself to lie. "Trisha told me that you've been drinking a lot lately. I had to try something, anything, to fix this mess if you weren't willing to. And," she took a breath to collect her courage, "I don't like seeing you upset. Even after everything you've put me through, I hate to see you in pain."

Helen took a moment to absorb the heartfelt answer and crushed down another wave of emotion that was threatening to consume her. Christ, she really was a walking disaster today. A thought occurred to her out of the blue and she blurted, only half joking, "Is Trisha okay looking after Grace?"

This brought the first hint of amusement to Nikki's eyes that she'd witnessed in a very long time. "Believe it or not, I think Trish will be just fine with her. Underneath that loud and brash exterior there's a kind, loving woman who will make a fantastic mother one day."

Appeased for the time being, Helen held Nikki's eyes in an unwavering stare as she changed topic. "I meant it, you know… I really I am sorry for what I did, how I left you without any notice. I'm sorry you had to take care of my daughter for a year while I've been off getting pissed around the world." Biting down hard on her lower lip to the point of pain, the Scot added almost inaudibly, "It's been so difficult living with what I did. I was such a coward and I wanted to forget."

Expecting to see loathing or at least the smallest amount of disgust revealed in those wondrous brown orbs, she was once again shocked to find only warmth and understanding. Before she knew what was happening, an arm had wrapped around her shoulders and was pulling her close, a hand stroking through her shoulder-length hair as the Englishwoman whispered soothingly, "It's okay, Helen. We all make mistakes. Some are a lot worse than others granted, but what's important is that we learn from them. It's what makes us human."

Drawing back slightly and cupping the Scot's chin in her hand, Nikki added seriously, "I won't pretend it was easy in the slightest, or that I didn't sometimes curse you for leaving, but I forgave you a long time ago and I don't think I could ever hate you. I…" Clamping her mouth shut firmly, she dropped her hand and averted her eyes, so close to revealing more than she wanted to at this moment in time. What would happen if she laid her heart bare again? Would Helen mend the broken pieces with her or stomp all over them?

Helen, for her part, felt hope skyrocketing inside at Nikki's near slip. Even after so little time together and so long apart, she could read the emotion in the taller woman's face, try as she might to veil it. Reaching up between their bodies, so close now that she could feel the warmth radiating from Nikki's slender frame, she cupped the curve of the taller woman's jaw and waited for eye contact. "You don't have to say it. I understand. And I can't tell you how blown away I am by your kindness. I don't know that I'll ever understand that. But I am grateful."

A nod was her only response for a long while as they re-familiarised themselves within a gaze, then the distance between them began to close and Helen knew it was now or never. If things were ever going to be fixed between them then she had to come clean. Pulling back to avoid the inevitable contact was the second hardest thing she'd ever done, but she felt immeasurably proud of herself for doing it. "Wait… There's something you need to know."

Unable to withstand the questioning scrutiny and fleck of insecurity in the eyes she so loved, she dropped her line of sight to the waves licking at the sandy beach, steeling herself for her next admission. "Last year, on the night that I called you and hung up, I slept with Trisha."

In one fell swoop all of the air was knocked out of Nikki's lungs. That had been the very last thing she'd expected to hear. Too stunned to speak, she moved out of the half-embrace and stood with a speed that surprised even her, her haste to put distance between them more than evident as she turned and walked away without a word. She needed time to think this over, to try and understand. If she stayed now her only reaction would be anger.

Watching the lithe figure of her lover moving further and further away, Helen groaned in despair and muttered self-loathingly, "Shit…"

Half an hour later the Scot made her way back to the restaurant, partly surprised and partly relieved to find Trisha still sitting at the table, eating her meal alone with a look of concentration on her face. Sinking down across from the blonde with a miserable sigh, Helen picked up her discarded glass of water from earlier, amazed that it hadn't been taken from the table, and drank it all in one go. Trisha stared at her with a speculative frown before swallowing a bite of her chicken and plunging straight into an enquiry. "What the hell did you say to her, Helen? She looked absolutely devastated when she came to get Grace."

Closing her eyes and dropping her head into her hands, the brunette rubbed at her temples and debated whether or not she was willing to have this discussion. Thinking that the day couldn't possibly get any worse, she looked up and replied honestly, "I told her what happened between us last year."

The mouthful of water in Trisha's mouth found its way across the table as the blonde ejected it with force. "You WHAT?!" she screeched, drawing every pair of eyes within hearing distance toward their table.

"Trish!" Helen hissed between gritted teeth, sending a false smile toward the other patrons in the outdoor dining area. Turning her attention back to the flabbergasted blonde, the Scot defended herself with haste, "It was the right thing to do. If we have any chance of fixing what's broken then she needs to know all the facts. I'm tired of running scared and hiding, and I'm not going to lie to her. If she can't… understand, or at least forgive me… then that's her decision to make, but she'll make it fully informed."

Trisha continued to stare well after Helen had finished speaking and finally the brunette huffed irritably, "What?!"

The blonde shook her head and looked down at her half-eaten plate. "You just really surprised me. I think that's the most mature decision you've made since I met you. If I were in your shoes, I don't know that I'd have the courage to do the same."

Understanding washed over the Scot's face and she allowed the smallest of smiles to cross her lips. "I think you would. You're a better person than you give yourself credit for. Remember that. Oh, and since you're so keen to interfere with my personal life, perhaps you should take a page out of your own book and phone Sheree. Just think about it."

With that said she stood from the table, withdrawing a few bank notes from her pocket and leaving them on the table for the poor, harried waiter who'd had the misfortune of being assigned their section. Leaving Trisha to stew in contemplation, Helen made her way toward the closest of the 54 freshwater pools the resort had on offer, thanking her lucky stars she'd put on a bikini under her clothing that morning. A trip up to the room was not a viable option right now.

It wasn't until late that evening that Nikki and Helen had a chance to speak again, both of them thoroughly wrapped up in their thoughts and trying to find a workable solution. Helen's mother had always told her to never let the sun go down on a bad feeling, though, and so she made her way to the second bedroom after a quick shower and a change of clothes. Knocking lightly in case Grace was asleep, she waited patiently for the door to open and tried her best to smile when it did. "Hi," she started, only to stop again as nervousness took hold.

A closer inspection of the teacher's face told the Scot that she was exhausted, though whether it was physical or emotional she couldn't be sure. It was probably a combination of both. "Hi," the ebony-haired woman answered softly, her eyes revealing pain and indecision as she stared at the shorter woman.

"Um… Can I come in? I thought we could talk, if you want to, that is. I mean, we don't have to if you're not ready." Realising she was beginning to ramble, she shut her mouth and cast her gaze down to the plush carpeting.

"I was just about to read Grace to sleep, but… you can do it if you'd like. I think it would make a nice change for her."

The unexpected offer hit Helen like a ton of bricks and it was all she could do not to burst into tears for the fourth time that day. Taking a shuddery breath and exhaling it slowly, the prospect of doing something as simple as reading a bedtime story to her daughter both thrilling and terrifying her, she nodded and smiled a smile that was genuine. "Yeah, I'd really like that. Thank you, Nikki."

The taller woman stepped aside to allow her entrance and Helen's heart melted in her chest as she saw Grace lying on the large canopy bed, clearly waiting for her story to begin. Spying a book on the very end of the bed, Helen walked over to it and picked it up with a bright smile. "Dr. Seuss! I loved these books when I was a kid."

Nikki raised her brows with a tiny grin and quipped, "She's more like you than you know." As the Scot moved to sit on the mattress beside her daughter, Nikki asked uncertainly, "Do you want me to leave for a bit?"

Looking up from the sleepy, smiling girl beside her, Helen shook her head firmly and gestured to the other side of the bed. "No… Please stay…"

There was only a slight hesitation before the raven-haired teacher took her place on the other side of the bed, half-cuddling into Grace as Helen opened the book and began to read. "Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches had none upon thars. Those stars weren't so big. They were really so small, you might think such a thing wouldn't matter at all."

"But, because they had stars, all the Star-Belly Sneetches would brag, "We're the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches.'' With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they'd snort, "We'll have nothing to do with the Plain-Belly sort!" And whenever they met some, when they were out walking, they'd hike right on past them without even talking…"

Both Nikki and Grace were instantly mesmerised by the lilting sound of Helen's voice, two pairs of eyes transfixed upon the Scot intently. While Nikki wasn't quite ready to deal with the fact that the love of her life had slept with her ex-girlfriend, she knew they were making a good start. And just as Grace's eyes began to slip shut, the land of sleep cradling her in its welcoming arms, Helen dropped a soft kiss on the little girl's head and whispered, "Happy birthday, Grace. Dream sweet, my angel." It was, without a doubt, the most perfect and heart-wrenching sight Nikki had ever seen.


Chapter Nineteen

Two days later

After that first night of being reunited and tucking Grace in together, things had settled into a comfortable routine between Helen and Nikki. Trisha had made her excuses that she had plenty she wanted to do, claiming she didn't think they would be interested, but both knew it was the blonde's way of giving them time to talk through their issues and for Helen to become reacquainted with her daughter. So, bearing that in mind, they'd taken Grace to explore the beach and had managed to hold light, pleasant conversation while the little girl played in the sand. It was when she went down for her afternoon nap that they finally managed to get into the nitty gritty, discussing in more detail what each of them had been doing for the last year and what they would have to do in the future to fix their situation.

The following day had gone much the same and now they were sitting together on the beach, two hours before Nikki had to leave to catch her flight – having only been granted a four-day reprieve from work by Karen. As they stared out at the gentle waves in the distance, Nikki admitted her hopes and dreams aloud to the Scot beside her, "I want you to come home, Helen. I want us to find a way of making this work."

Stealing a sideways glance at the smaller woman, who was now peering through her lashes with wide, surprised eyes, the raven-haired woman continued, "I can't lie to you and say that I'm okay with what happened between you and Trisha." She paused thoughtfully before pushing forward, "But I've spent some time thinking about it and I know that I can forgive you in time. While it really hurts me, I have to consider the way things were between us. They were… complicated… when you left, and before that we never sat down and talked about a relationship properly. Would you have done it if we were together?"

That was the question she'd been wanting to ask for two days now, the answer she needed to hear to solidify her decision. She saw Helen hesitate and held her breath without realising. The Scot pursed her lips in contemplation and finally said, "No, I don't think I would have. All the same, I hate that it happened in the first place, and I'm really sorry, Nikki."

The taller woman nodded and brought her knees to her chest, wrapping her arms loosely around them. Studying her profile for a moment and feeling her heart pick up its pace, enthralled as always by the beauty Nikki possessed, Helen asked quietly, "What about you? Did you… date anyone?"

The ebony-haired woman dropped her gaze to her knees and clenched her toes tightly in the sand, her voice full of sadness as she answered, "No, I didn't. I wasn't ready to let you go."

A terrible ache grew in Helen's chest and, without thinking, she gently grabbed one of Nikki's shoulders, hurrying to explain her point of view. "Och, I wasn't letting you go either. I was in pain and I handled it badly. I didn't think about what I was doing until it was too late. It was stupid, Nikki, but I didn't do it to hurt you and I never stopped loving you."

There, she'd finally said it out loud. It was the first outright admission of love between them since their surprise reunion. Brown eyes flew up to meet green and trapped Helen in a searching gaze. Lowering her guard against every scrap of logic in her mind, Nikki smiled weakly and replied shakily, "I never stopped loving you either. I do love you, Helen."

Eyes filling with tears and throat clamping down with emotion, Helen reached for one of Nikki's hands and returned the sentiment. "I love you, too, so much."

Throwing caution to the wind as their hearts galloped with fear and excitement, they leaned in at the same time and their lips met in a firm, searching caress. Shifting her position to get closer, Nikki brought her hands up to the back of Helen's head and tangled her fingers through the silky brown strands, sighing with contentment and pleasure as the Scot deepened the kiss, opening her mouth to draw her tongue against Nikki's lower lip. A moan echoed between them and as they broke apart for air, they rested their foreheads together with their eyes closed.

A moment later Helen opened hers to see renewed hesitation in the brown orbs before her, so she brushed her fingertips along a cheekbone and reassured the other woman, "We'll take things slowly. And as soon as my contract is finished in New York I'll take the first flight home."

Smiling gratefully, Nikki stood and wiped the sand off her legs before extending a hand to the Scot, pulling her to her feet and wrapping an arm around her waist as they made their way back to the room. The sight that greeted them when they got there was one that caused both women to chuckle loudly. Trisha had Grace in her lap and was attempting to feed her a bowl of yogurt, but somehow the contents seemed to be more in the blonde's hair than in the little girl's mouth. Helen pressed a hand to her lips to stifle a laugh while Nikki moved toward the pair and relieved Trisha of her feeding duty. The blonde thanked her with a look and mumbled something about getting a shower as she left the room.

All too soon they were at the airport, tearful goodbyes being shared as they promised to keep in touch. A quick kiss followed and Helen had a chance to hold Grace, whispering to the little girl that she loved her before handing her back. Nikki gave a last smile then turned away and walked toward the security checkpoint, the child in her arms smiling back over her shoulder at Helen and Trisha. It was only when she felt the blonde's hand rubbing soothing circles on her back that the Scot realised she had tears streaming down her face. Wiping at them quickly and composing herself, so as not to make a scene, she smiled sadly and watched her daughter and lover a moment longer before suggesting they return to the resort.

At the end of the week the writer and the actress returned to their ridiculously posh penthouse in Manhattan, both having enjoyed the mini-vacation and ready to get on with their lives. It was over dinner their first night back that Trisha announced she was ready to go back to London. Having not found a major part during her stay in New York, her continued presence more for Helen's benefit than her own, she'd decided to take the Scot's advice and return to fix things with Sheree. While Helen was delighted at the prospect and only wished the best for the blonde, she knew the coming months would be more difficult without her company.

"I'm going to miss you, Trish," the Scot said affectionately over her plate of pasta, "but I'm sure you're doing the right thing."

A worried expression flitted over the actress's face and she asked suddenly, "Are you going to be okay? I can stay a while longer…" She hadn't factored Helen's drinking problem into her decision and, now that she thought of it, she was reluctant to leave the seventeen-year-old by herself.

A reassuring smile graced Helen's lips as she reached across the table to squeeze one of Trisha's hands. "Hey, don't worry about me. I should be fine. Things are looking up again. Besides, once you're gone I won't be able to refill the mini bar."

Though the last part was said in jest, they both breathed a little easier at the prospect. Resuming their meal in comfortable silence, they both pondered over what the next few months might be like and what the future had in store for them.

The month of February proved to be a difficult transition for everyone. Helen was alone now and missing her daughter near-constantly, the bond they'd established in Jamaica only strengthening the hurt of separation. She buried herself in writing, surpassing her deadlines in hopes of being allowed to leave early. If she could get the scripts finished and approved for all the remaining episodes, then she was sure the producer would let her off the hook by the end of March. Trisha was settled back down in London, having rented a flat near the house she'd shared with Sheree, but so far she'd yet to work up the nerve to phone the gorgeous doctor. She'd even begged Helen to keep quiet about her return if she spoke to Nikki, wanting to ensure that Sheree found out from her first.

Nikki was up to her eyeballs in work and spent all her free time with Grace, wishing Helen was there as the little girl was showing signs of taking her first unaided steps. The day it happened was a Saturday, five days after Helen's eighteenth birthday. She'd fed Grace her breakfast and then they'd moved into the lounge to play, the little girl happily moving her toy firetruck across the wooden flooring and making noises. When it accidentally moved beyond her reach, she stood up with an expression of concentration and took a few stumbling steps toward it.

Nikki was so overcome by pride and emotion that she couldn't speak for a moment, but after a pause she clapped her hands together and praised the toddler, who was now seated again and playing away. Not willing to let the moment pass untested, she moved to her feet and got Grace's attention, holding her arms out and encouraging the girl to come to her. Green eyes studied her sceptically so Nikki repeated herself in a gentle voice, the eventual result being a series of careful steps until she was in the taller woman's arms.

Unaware that she was crying as she knelt down on her knees, embracing her daughter as tightly as she dared, she was shocked when the little girl wiped at one of her cheeks and asked sadly, her words a bit garbled, "Mummy Nikki?"

The sable-haired woman finished the job of drying her cheeks and assured the girl with a smile, "I'm okay, sweetheart. I'm just so proud of you. Your mummy Helen will be so pleased."

With that thought in mind, she sent Grace back to play with her toys and went to fetch her mobile. Glad that she and Helen had decided to swap contact details, she quickly shot off a text to the Scot.

Can you spare a few minutes to Skype? I need to show you something.

Her phone vibrated a minute later and she read the response with an eagerness that had her heart racing.

Yeah, of course. What is it?

Typing back quickly, a smile crossed her face and she went to retrieve her laptop from the bedroom.

It's a surprise… Just be patient. Going to log on now. Talk to you soon. N xx

She got her computer up and running on the kitchen table just as her phone alerted her to a new text message.

Okay. You've got me curious now. Speak soon. H xx

Grinning like a fool, Nikki glanced over at Grace then proceeded to log onto Skype, her entire body humming with nervous anticipation. When she saw Helen's status change to online, she wasted no time in pressing Video Call. Seconds later the Scot's face appeared on her screen, smiling at her with both eyebrows raised.

"Hiya," Helen chirped. "So, what's this big surprise?"

"Hello," Nikki answered, still grinning. "Wait right there."

She got up from her chair and walked into the lounge, kneeling beside Grace and saying quietly, "I've got your mummy Helen in the kitchen and I know she'd like to see you. Do you want to come say hi?"

The little girl perked up at Helen's name and grabbed onto Nikki's outstretched hand with a smile. After helping Grace to stand up and walk the first few steps, she gently let go and kept a careful eye on the little girl as they entered the kitchen, Helen's surprised face filling the entire screen of the laptop. When they reached the table she hoisted Grace up onto the chair in front of the laptop and stood behind her with a grin.

"Oh my God," the Scot whispered, pressing a hand to her mouth as fat tears of happiness rolled down her face. "Oh my God," she repeated, shaking her head in wonder. Dropping her hand quickly, her face broke out in a wide smile as she spoke through the camera to her daughter, "That was great, sweetheart! I'm so proud of you."

Beaming at the bright screen in front of her, Grace reached out a hand to touch Helen's face and exclaimed, "Mummy!" Then, adopting another look of concentration, the little girl scrunched up her nose and attempted to sound out Helen's name, bringing further tears to her mother's eyes.

Nikki sensed that this was a good time to interject and save Helen from having to reply, seeing that she was overwhelmed with emotion. "She just started walking today, shortly before I texted you. I thought you'd want to see."

Helen nodded vigorously and rubbed at her face with an embarrassed chuckle. "Yes, it was lovely. Thank you, Nikki." Regaining her composure with some difficulty, the brunette asked, "Has she still been having the nightmares?"

Nikki nodded from over the little girl's shoulder and replied, "Yeah, but they seem to be getting fewer and farther between."

Enthralled by the moving picture of her mother on the screen and the sound of Helen's voice, Grace paid little attention to the conversation at hand, not that she would've understood much of it anyway. Helen noticed her daughter staring and smiled even brighter. Unsure what to say that would be comprehensible to the limited vocabulary of a one-year-old, she decided to ask Nikki.

"Does she speak often?"

"She rambles a lot, but mostly it sounds like gibberish. She's got the word 'mummy' down and she's getting better at saying 'Nikki'. I think her favourite word is 'food' though."

At the mention of said word, Grace craned her head around to look at the Englishwoman and shouted, "Food!"

Both adults chuckled heartily as the little girl looked back and forth between them, clearly confused as to what was so amusing. Sighing softly, Helen tilted her head to one side and gushed, "She's so precious, Nikki. I can't believe I made something so beautiful. And you've done such an amazing job with her."

Nikki ducked her head bashfully and mumbled, "It was nothing, really… I love her to bits and she's a joy to spend time with."

Grace's boredom with the conversation became obvious when she reached forward and started pressing the illuminated keys on the laptop, causing Nikki a mild sense of alarm that her poor computer wouldn't be able to handle such exploration. Gently plucking the girl out of the chair, she looked apologetically at Helen and said, "I think it's time to get this one back to her toys. I fear what might happen to my laptop otherwise."

Helen nodded her understanding and said, "I love you, Grace. Be good, sweetheart." Pausing a moment, the Scot added softly, "I love you, too, Nikki. Take care."

The ebony-haired woman returned the sentiment seconds before the call ended, grinning at the wriggling child in her arms as she walked back to the lounge and deposited her amongst the mess of toys. This was turning out to be a very memorable and enjoyable Saturday.


Chapter Twenty


Bone-tired from writing nonstop yet unable to sleep on the noisy airplane, the sounds of conversation and irritable children filling the coach cabin and filtering through to first class, Helen readjusted in her oversized seat for the umpteenth time and checked the silver watch on her wrist. Five hours down and two more to go. Allowing the smallest sigh of frustration to pass her lips, she refocused her eyes on the novel she was reading. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club wasn't in the realm of her normal genre, but of late she'd felt like branching out from romance novels to something more satirical. Only having started it when she'd stepped on the plane, she already found herself captivated by the writing of a young Charles Dickens.

Had she not spent years with her nose buried in period pieces, she would've found the language exceedingly difficult to decipher, the differences of old and modern English immediately apparent. Still, it was an enjoyable read once she wrapped her mind around the vocabulary. An hour later she was approached by a flight attendant asking if she needed anything to drink. After ordering a water distractedly, she turned her eyes back to the book and immersed herself once more. Twenty-five minutes later she was frustrated once again and glaring at the illuminated seatbelt sign, her bladder barking instructions at her that she couldn't follow. Hoping that they landed on schedule and didn't have a delay, she grumbled under her breath and crossed her legs.

Forty minutes later she was cursing the pilot for his somewhat bumpy landing and eagerly unfastening the safety belt in her lap. Thank Christ that was over. As soon as they received the all clear she was on her feet, overjoyed that she'd managed to snag an aisle seat in first class and that she didn't have to fight a bunch of people to grab her hand luggage from the overhead compartment. Walking as quickly as her short legs would carry her without breaking into a full-on run, she exited the aircraft with haste and hurried through the terminal to the nearest loo. As she washed her hands and checked her reflection in the mirror, she realised with dismay that she had bags under her eyes from all the late nights she'd spent writing. Quickly fumbling in her handbag for her foundation, she attempted to fix her face with little success.

Eventually forced to give up on her task, another glance at her watch telling her that Nikki would be wondering where she was if she didn't get a move on, she gathered her things and left to find the dark-haired woman who'd stolen her heart. The moment she spotted the ebony-coloured mop of hair bobbing above the crowd in the arrivals area, a smile broke out on her face and she quickened her steps, her heart beating a touch faster as their eyes connected. In no time at all they were in each other's arms, holding on for dear life as they breathed each other in. When they pulled back wearing matching grins, Helen cocked her head to one side and sighed.

"I missed you, Nikki."

Cupping the smaller woman's face in both hands, Nikki pressed a soft kiss to her lips and whispered, "I missed you, too. Welcome home, Helen."

Jostled out of the tender moment by other excited people passing them by, Helen chuckled and grabbed up her carry-on. "Who's looking after Grace?"

"Ah, that," Nikki replied, looking altogether sheepish as they began to walk toward the luggage retrieval area. "Well, I thought three airport experiences in as many months might be a bit much for her, so I asked Sheree and then Joyce. They were both busy so I had to beg someone else."

At Helen's raised eyebrow and sideways glance, the taller woman revealed, "Um… You remember Karen, don't you?"

The Scot stopped in her tracks with a startled expression and almost screeched, "Karen as in Karen Betts? As in my old headmistress and your boss?"

"That's the one," Nikki nodded, pressing a hand to Helen's lower back and urging her to continue walking, people around them having turned to stare at her outburst.

Unsure what to say for a moment, Helen shook her head and kept walking, one foot in front of the other on autopilot. Finally she thought to ask, "Does she know?"

Arriving at their destination, Nikki stopped and waited beside the petite brunette as the luggage carousel went round and round. "She does. When you left last year and I took time off work, I had to explain everything to her. She wasn't pleased, as you can imagine, but she's got a good heart and she was understanding. When I got back from Jamaica we went for a drink and the week after she came over to meet Grace. I think she's smitten, honestly."

Still in a state of relative shock that her ex-headmistress was looking after her one-year-old daughter, Helen focused her eyes on the carousel and remained silent for a while. Eventually a smile curled up her lips and she posited, "How could she not be? My daughter's a charmer."

"Just like her mum," Nikki teased.

Blushing lightly at the compliment, Helen was about to reply when she spotted the first of her three suitcases. Snatching it up quickly, she set it to one side then turned to look at her companion with loving eyes. "I think she got some of it from you as well."

Laughing quietly from embarrassment, the raven-haired woman shook her head as Helen grabbed up another suitcase. Soon they had all three in possession and were headed for the short stay parking area, bantering easily as they found Nikki's Volvo and crammed the luggage in the backseat and boot. An hour and a half of fighting traffic found them safely back at Nikki's flat in Canary Wharf. A quick elevator ride later they were officially home, Helen still rolling the idea around in her head to get used to it. This was her home now, with Nikki and her daughter. It felt wonderful to be back again. After letting themselves in and depositing the luggage by the door, Nikki led Helen through to the lounge and found Karen sitting cross-legged while Grace occupied herself with her toys.

The blonde looked up at them with a surprised smile and quickly stood to her feet. "Ah, Nikki, you're back. And Helen… It's, um, nice to see you again." The smile on Karen's face threatened to falter for a second and everyone could feel the tension in the room.

Clearing her throat, Helen pasted on a matching smile and greeted, "Ms. Betts… It's been a while."

Nikki looked between them slowly with a sense of mounting curiosity, not quite sure how this was going to play out, and was therefore startled when Karen laughed quietly and insisted, "Call me Karen. Formalities seem a bit pointless now."

"Right," Helen nodded, turning her gaze to her distracted daughter and feeling a tug at her heartstrings. "Thank you for looking after her. I really appreciate it."

"Oh, not at all," the blonde shrugged, retrieving her handbag from the kitchen table. "I'll just, uh, leave you to get reacquainted."

Smiling gratefully, Helen made herself at home on the floor and scooped the little green-eyed girl up in a hug. Nikki took it upon herself to walk Karen out and when they reached the door she blurted, "We really are grateful. I know it was last minute. Would you like to come over for dinner sometime?"

Karen was clearly teetering on the edge of indecision as her eyebrows raised toward her hairline. Hearing the sound of laughter from the lounge caused her to waver and she smiled warmly. "Sure, why not? It'll give me a chance to catch up with the little one again. She's a really lovely girl, Nikki. You should be very proud of yourself."

"Thanks. Have a safe trip and I'll see you on Monday."

Nikki held open the door with a genuine smile and the blonde nodded once more before taking her leave. After locking up behind her, the Englishwoman pressed her back to the doorframe and allowed herself to grin stupidly for a moment. Words couldn't express how happy she was to have Helen home where she belonged. They still had things to work through and trust to rebuild, but they had an advantage: they both loved each other and wanted to fix the relationship. That was more than a lot of people had.

"I'm just not sure, Nik. I mean, I know you haven't had an easy time of things with Helen, but at least she had a better reason for leaving. She was young and scared. Trish is a grown woman and I thought what we had was important to her. She should've made an effort to work things out long before now," Sheree insisted, pausing for a sip of lemonade as they sat in her backyard. "Nipping back into town after a year of gallivanting around the world and asking me to go out for coffee isn't going to cut it."

Nikki ducked her head with a thoughtful frown and traced a finger through the condensation on her glass. "I know, and don't think I disagree with you, entirely that is, but if what you had was so great and you still love her, then don't you think you owe her another chance? She's made her choice to come back here and abandon her dream so she can be with you. Surely that's worth something?"

The redhead sighed sadly and kept her gaze downcast at the ice cubes floating in her glass. "It is worth something… I'm just not sure it's enough."

Reaching over to touch the doctor's arm, Nikki gave a gentle squeeze and reassured softly, "Just give it time and keep an open mind. Go for another coffee with her and see how things go. Helen was talking about inviting her around for dinner next week. Why don't you come as well? That way you two can get reacquainted without the pressure of being alone together. Think about it, yeah?"

Sheree raised her blue eyes and graced the taller woman with a weak smile, a half-nod and a sip of her drink her only response. She would take her friend's advice and think about it, but she wasn't willing to commit to anything yet. The last time she'd committed to something she'd had her heart shattered into a million tiny pieces. Trisha Harris was, without a doubt, the love of her life and there was nothing in the world that would make her happier than being with the blonde, but she didn't know if she was ready to trust her again. Only time would tell.

"Hey! Come on in, you lazy arses, the water's great!"

Helen's shout caused both women at the table to look up, chuckling simultaneously at the Scot's grinning face. Always having loved being in the water, when Nikki suggested they pop by Sheree's for a short visit, the writer was only too happy to agree, eagerly stating that she wanted to take Grace for a dip in the shallow end. Now she was standing just beyond the steps with her feet firmly planted on the bottom of the pool, her daughter giggling and splashing away happily in her arms.

Cocking her head toward her gleeful lover, the teacher raised her brows and asked, "How about it?"

Sheree smiled and waved a hand, content to stay where she was for the time being. "I'm good, thanks, but you go ahead. Have some family bonding time."

Dropping a kiss on the redhead's cheek, Nikki stood with a grin and stripped down to her bikini, wasting no time in joining mother and baby in the comfortable water. The Trisha conversation could wait for now. There would be plenty of time to play matchmaker later.


Chapter Twenty-One


The sound of silverware scraping against ceramic plates filled the silence of the kitchen as Trisha, Sheree, Karen, Nikki, and Helen dug into a homemade chicken curry, the raven-haired woman's masterful culinary skills proving themselves second to none. This dinner had been arranged with the intent of mending bridges, but so far the rift only seemed to be growing wider between the doctor and the actress, who, upon her return to London, had decided to stick with local theatre work, a healthy bank account from her time abroad providing the cushion needed to live comfortably and be selective about her work.

Karen also appeared to be more quiet than usual as she tucked into her food, the headmistress unused to being so relaxed in the company of one of her old students, not to mention the fact that she was dining at the house of her employee. Still, as long as she maintained a professional relationship with Nikki when they were at work, then there would be no harm in other association with the teacher. It was Helen she found it more difficult to speak to. But, knowing that the young woman had gone through hell in the last few years, she'd arrived at the flat with the intention of making an effort.

The Scot seemed preoccupied, however, in avoiding the awkwardness at the table by concentrating on feeding Grace, who was far more interested in making a mess of her meal than paying attention to the problems of adult life. Nikki reached for her wine glass as she looked around the table and thought helplessly that this was turning into a disaster. She would prefer shouting to this sheer and utter silence. "So," she started, her tone light and conversational, "how's the food?"

Five pairs of eyes turned toward the sound of her voice and everyone other than Grace spoke at once, mumbling that it was delicious. Rolling her eyes at the ridiculousness of the situation, the ebony-haired teacher set her fork down and sighed. "Well, this is going bloody fantastic," she remarked sarcastically.

Helen shot her a guilty glance then swept her gaze over everyone else at the table, realising she should probably be making more of an effort to speak to her guests. "Trish, how's your theatre work going? Find anything interesting?"

The blonde ducked her head as she wiped her mouth with a paper napkin, before glancing nervously at the redhead beside her. "Maybe. I'm auditioning next week for a part in Fatal Attraction. One of the actresses is having some sort of personal crisis and is leaving the show. What about you? How's your new book coming along?"

"It's good," Helen nodded, pausing to take a bite of her food. After washing it down with a sip of wine she continued, "I hope to have it finished by the end of July." Turning her attention to Sheree she asked, "How's work going? Any interesting stories to tell?"

The doctor paused mid-bite, looking like a deer caught in headlights, and lowered her fork slowly to her plate. "Just the usual really," she hedged, then forced on a smile as she elaborated, "Lots of pregnant women coming in, panicking about their condition. There was one woman, though, who came to see me last week after giving birth a month ago. She'd started bleeding and thought she was haemorrhaging from a complication, so I advised her to go the A&E department. She called me three hours later and told me she'd started her period."

Helen and Karen immediately started laughing at this, both having experienced the joys and downfalls of child labour and its aftereffects. "Been there, done that," Karen interjected, raising her hand with a guilty smile.

The Scot glanced affectionately at the blonde for the first time that evening and agreed, "Aye… I had a mini panic attack when I got my first period after having Grace. I wish I'd known how heavy it was going to be. I ended up researching it online, thank God, so I didn't embarrass myself with a hospital visit."

The table fell into a moment of comfortable silence as the women resumed eating. Then, out of the blue, Nikki cleared her throat and announced, "Helen and I are thinking of buying a house."

Helen, who was busy wiping chicken and sweet potato off her daughter's chin, looked up quickly at the mention of her name. A bright smile crossed her face and she nodded affirmatively. "Yeah, we're going to start looking when the school year ends. I think something in the suburbs would be nice. I want Grace to grow up around other kids her age with access to a real garden and a local park."

Karen adopted a thoughtful expression before piping up, "You might consider somewhere in Hatch End. One of my neighbours down the street mentioned to me the other day that she's thinking of selling. Her oldest is off to university at the end of the summer and she wants to move somewhere smaller now that it's just her. I can talk to her if you like, see if she'd be willing to cut you a deal."

Nikki and Helen exchanged a glance and then smiled in unison. Nikki was the first to speak, "Yeah, that sounds nice. We'd definitely be willing to take a look at it if she agrees, though I don't think price will be an issue. I've got my inheritance and Helen has her fat paycheques from writing."

The blonde headmistress smiled, pleased she could be of help. "That's settled then. I'll pop round tomorrow and see what she thinks."

The meal carried on in much the same way for the next half hour, conversation flowing a bit more freely now that the ice had melted, and once all appetites were sated the adults sat around for a bit of chatter and red wine. Sheree and Karen had both driven over so they paid attention to their alcohol consumption, but Trisha had taken a taxi and happily drank her weight in wine to deal with the awkwardness she still felt in regards to Sheree. She'd finally worked up the nerve to ask the doctor out for coffee last month, but things hadn't gone well and she'd nearly given up hope.

Reminding herself that she'd created this mess and she would have to fix it, she'd persisted until the redhead had agreed to have another coffee with her. That had been last week and they hadn't spoken since, the doctor having made it clear she needed more time to think and reach a decision. Now they'd hardly uttered two words to one another in the hour they'd been here. Enough was enough, damn it. Tuning out the conversation going on between Karen and Nikki, Trisha turned sideways on her chair and pinned the love of her life with a determined stare.

"Can we go outside and talk for a moment? Please?" Her blue eyes begged for forgiveness and opportunity, and after a minute or so of quiet contemplation Sheree nodded in agreement.

Ignoring the giddy expressions on their friends' faces, the pair stood from the table and made their way out of the flat, stopping to grab their jackets from the stand by the door. It wasn't freezing outside, but it certainly wasn't warm either. Making their way to the ground floor in the lift, silence reigned between them until they were outside on the pavement. Pulling a packet of cigarettes and lighter from her coat pocket, Trisha was quick to light up and inhale greedily on the soothing nicotine.

Sheree stood off to the side with her arms wrapped around her middle and eyed the cigarette with distaste. "Still smoking then… Those things'll kill you, you know," she commented unhappily.

The blonde released a steady stream of smoke and tapped on the end of the fag, frowning as she watched a bit of ash fall to the pavement. "I didn't know you still cared." The words were out of her mouth before she had time to filter them and she immediately winced with regret. 'Smooth, Harris, real smooth,' she berated herself.

An exaggerated huff sounded from her left and the doctor replied, "Of course I still care, Trish. I just… it's… complicated. I don't know if I can trust you anymore. You threw away everything we had without once stopping to think about my feelings. We could've made something work if you'd been willing to try!"

Appropriately chastised, Trisha stomped out her cigarette under the heel of her boot and turned to face the redhead. "I was willing to try," she admitted quietly, "I just thought I'd pissed you off to the point where you wouldn't want to."

Exasperated and hurt once again, Sheree shook her head and insisted, "You should've had more faith in me, in us. Please tell Nikki and Helen goodnight for me and thank you for dinner." Without waiting for a response, she turned and walked quickly in the direction of her car, her mind awhirl with conflict as she wondered if she should turn back and continue the conversation.

Anger won out, though, and she kept on going, leaving a distraught and teary-eyed blonde behind her. Trisha hugged herself tightly and cursed her decisions for the millionth time before going back inside to spend some time with her friends. Upon reentering the flat, however, she found herself so disheartened by the conclusion of the heart-to-heart with her ex that she couldn't bear to be amidst the smiling faces and laughter that greeted her. She quickly relayed the message she'd been given and made her excuses, discreetly wiping tears from the corners of her eyes as she phoned up a taxi.

Seeing the state of the blonde she considered a dear friend, Helen excused herself from the dinner table and pulled Trisha into the lounge as Nikki and Karen entertained a food-covered Grace. "It didn't go well, then?" she asked gently, rubbing a hand up and down the blonde's back.

Trisha shook her head miserably and clenched her jaw to stop it quivering. "No… She said I should've had more faith in her and walked away. What have I done, Helen? Do you think she'll ever forgive me?"

Her veneer cracked in an almighty whoosh and she found herself ensconced in two strong arms as a soft Scottish accent whispered soothing words into her hair, her body shaking with grief as tears slid down her cheeks. They remained that way for a few minutes until Trisha pulled away, not wanting to make a scene on an evening that was meant to be pleasant. She composed herself quickly and thanked the Scot, using her best skills as an actress to reassure the smaller woman that she was okay. Not fooled in the slightest, Helen nonetheless respected the blonde's need for personal space and walked her to the door.

Soon after Karen left as well and the emotionally drained hosts carried their daughter to her bedroom, the very same one that Helen had initially occupied when she'd moved in with her teacher. Lying down together on the guest bed with Grace sandwiched between them, they alternated turns in reading her a bedtime story before tucking her into her cot. As the little girl slipped into slumber the happy couple stood together in the doorway, watching her for a long while before turning off the light and leaving her in peace. Exhausted from an evening filled with tension, Nikki and Helen retired to the lounge to have a cuddle in front of the television, both thankful that they'd managed to work out their own issues and weren't in the same situation as their friends.


Having received confirmation from Karen that her neighbour was willing to sell to them, Helen and Nikki made an appointment to see the house for the last week in June. The school year was winding to a close and the raven-haired teacher was less bogged down by grading now that final exams were underway, so they decided on a Saturday morning when Joyce was available to babysit Grace. They arrived at the address in Royston Grove just before ten and parked up behind the homeowner's car. Their first glance at the front of the house had them both smiling widely; it looked absolutely perfect.

Making their way to the front door hand-in-hand, they took a breath in unison as Nikki rang the doorbell. Moments later it was answered by a smiling brunette woman who was even shorter than Helen and appeared to be in her early fifties. Releasing Helen's hand, she extended her own with a friendly smile and said, "Hi, I'm Nikki Wade and this is my partner, Helen Stewart. You must be Mrs. Haas."

The older woman grasped her hand warmly and nodded, giving her hand a little pat as she said, "That I am, dear, but please call me Anika. Mrs. Haas is my mother."

The younger couple chuckled lightly and stepped inside upon invitation, surveying the foyer with clear interest and already taking a liking to the place. "This is a lovely home," Helen gushed, eager to explore the rest.

"It's given me a lot of happy memories," Anika agreed, "but my husband died last year of cancer and my children are off to start their own lives, so it's a bit too roomy to potter around in by myself." Turning on her heel to begin the tour, the German woman revealed conversationally, "Karen told me the two of you have a daughter. I don't mean to blow my own trumpet, but I think this place will be perfect for you. One of the upstairs bedrooms is still painted from when my Aimee was a little girl. Anyway, I'll start by showing you the kitchen…"

Half an hour later the trio was seated at a table in the back garden. Anika had kindly offered to make some tea after the tour and now they were enjoying it whilst listening to her life story. Her parents had moved from Germany to the UK when she was a child and several wise business investments had secured her financial future. After finishing school she'd married an architect and they'd set up a home together. She showed them pictures of her three children and Helen found herself tearing up slightly as she talked about her husband's death the previous year.

When Anika finished speaking with a faraway look on her face, Nikki took the opportunity to compliment the house once more and put forward eagerly, "We really do love this place. How soon are you planning to move out?"

The German woman smiled indulgently and hummed thoughtfully. "As soon as possible, I imagine. When would you like to move in?"

Exchanging a glance with her partner, Helen smiled and said, "The end of next month would be ideal. Money isn't an issue, so name your price," she teased.

Twenty minutes later they left with plans to return in two weeks to meet with a real estate agent and sign the contract. Things were moving swiftly and both women couldn't have been more pleased with the progress they'd made. And, to make matters even better, Trisha and Sheree had managed to reconcile their differences and were planning to move back in together the following week. Helen wasn't sure if things could get any better than this.


"I think that's the last one," Helen puffed, setting down another box in the downstairs lounge before wiping the sweat from her brow and clutching a stitch in her side. "I never realised we had so much stuff," she moaned, sinking onto the sofa and tipping her head back.

Nikki observed her with an amused smile and abandoned her unpacking to sit beside the Scot, wrapping an arm around her slender shoulders and pulling her close. Helen sighed and relaxed happily into the embrace, resting her cheek on Nikki's collarbone as she surveyed the mess of boxes around them. Tilting her head upward with a small pout, she was rewarded with a series of soft kisses and heard herself moan against the taller woman's lips. Before they could get carried away, bearing in mind that they still had hours of unpacking to do and that their daughter was only a few feet away, happily occupied with her oversized Legos, the pair separated with a soft, mutual chuckle.

"Behave," Nikki teased. "We're nowhere near done for the day."

Helen pouted again in an exaggerated way and murmured, "I knowww, but I can't help wanting you. It's been too long," she whispered, kissing Nikki again before reluctantly shifting into a standing position. They'd been so preoccupied with packing for the last week that they'd hardly had any alone time, only a single hurried fumble providing any release in the last five days.

Standing and moving toward one of the many boxes containing knick knacks for the lounge, framed photos, and other memorabilia, the ebony-haired teacher raised her brows playfully and promised, "Later."

Helen grumbled good-naturedly at her partner then took a moment to study the construction project Grace was working on, amusement filling her face at the little girl's effort. She dropped a kiss on her daughter's head before going into the kitchen to make a start on putting away the dishes and cooking utensils, knowing this had to be a priority unless they planned on ordering takeout for the foreseeable future. Hours later the kitchen was sorted and Helen was thanking her lucky stars that Anika had let them keep the majority of the furniture, saving them from having to go on a massive shopping spree at Ikea.

Wandering into the lounge with a glass of ice water and a cold beer for Nikki, a gasp escaped her lips as she saw the progress the taller woman had made. The piano in the corner was now in full view, no longer obscured by tall piles of boxes, and the area around the sofa had been cleared so they could relax that evening and watch a spot of television to unwind. The ringing of the doorbell preempted Helen's glance at the clock on the wall and she cursed quietly. Time had certainly flown by and she realised with horror that it was already gone six, the time they'd arranged to have Trisha and Sheree come over.

She handed Nikki her beer and set her glass of water on a coaster on the coffee table, wiping her hands on her jeans as she asked, "Could you get that please? I'm going to get changed and wake Grace up for dinner." The little girl had gone down for a nap an hour ago and would soon be waking anyway. Nikki nodded and gave the Scot a kiss on the cheek before navigating her way to the foyer to greet their guests.

As Nikki opened the door she was greeted by two smiling faces. Sheree pulled her in for a quick hug then handed over a bottle of red wine. "Thank you. I was going to make some spaghetti for dinner so this will be perfect." She hugged Trisha next and was surprised when the blonde pulled a wrapped box from behind her back. "What's this?" Nikki asked, refraining from her natural instinct to shake it as she grinned curiously.

"A housewarming present," the blonde answered, in a tone that said it was obvious.

"Right," the taller woman replied, chuckling as she led her two friends through to the kitchen.

She set down the box and began rooting around in the drawers for a corkscrew. She found it next to the fridge and shook her head in amazement at how organised everything was, knowing within a week everything would be cluttered. That Helen had managed to put things away this neatly in the first place was a miracle. She opened the wine and set about pouring each woman a glass just as Helen entered the room, dressed in casual jeans and a light green sweater, Grace clutching her hand with sleepy eyes.

Upon spotting the blonde and the redhead, the little girl released Helen's hand and rushed forward to give each woman a hug. "Aunt Shree!" she squealed, the words unclear but recognizable. The redhead squeezed her affectionately with a beaming smile and cooed, "Hello, beautiful. You're getting so big!" Then it was Trisha's turn and she was awarded with a sloppy kiss to the cheek, making her heart melt instantly.

Soon Grace was settled on Trisha's lap while Nikki made a start on dinner, Helen helping out where she could but largely avoiding the cooking process. When the food was ready the Scot topped up their wine glasses and offered happily, "You guys are welcome to stay in one of the guest rooms if you like. We haven't done any decorating yet but there's a bed."

Trisha raised her glass over Grace's head and exclaimed, "Here, here! We don't have any other plans tonight. What do you think, babe?"

Sheree smirked at her girlfriend's enthusiasm and shrugged agreeably. "It sounds fine to me. But I suppose we'll be roped into helping tomorrow morning."

"Oh, definitely," Helen grinned, tucking her tongue up behind her teeth as she placed a plate of spaghetti in front of each woman. She collected Grace and moved her into her high chair, covering her with a large bib in preparation for the mess that would inevitably follow. She'd cut up all the noodles and put a plastic fork on the miniature plate, but she knew it would likely go unused. Settling in beside her own partner, Helen smiled brightly as Nikki said, "Okay, everyone, let's eat!"

The meal that followed was full of laughter and warmth, and when all of the dishes were loaded into the dishwasher they went into the lounge to chat while Helen gave Grace a bath, more spaghetti in her hair than in her stomach, as expected. Afterward the little girl alternated between scribbling sloppily in her colouring books and assembling unrecognisable structures with her Lego blocks, the adults in the room watching her fondly as they carried on with their lighthearted conversation.

Not long afterward the eighteen-month-old was ready to go to sleep and Helen and Nikki were surprised as Trisha begged for the privilege to read to her and tuck her in. Grinning at one another inanely, the couple agreed quickly and the blonde scooped the girl up and took her upstairs. Leaning into one another happily on the long sofa, Helen and Nikki turned their eyes toward Sheree with matching expressions.

"So," Nikki started, a teasing edge to her voice, "Can we expect to hear the pitter patter of tiny feet soon? She certainly seems keen."

The doctor nearly choked on a sip of her wine and wiped her chin with a glare toward the couple. Her expression softened just as quickly and she looked down at her lap. "I don't know, honestly. We haven't talked about it…" Shrugging, she took another swallow of the red liquid and concluded, "Time will tell. I'm just pleased we've managed to fix things between us. I can't believe I was so pigheaded about it."

Helen smiled with affection and understanding as she sank further into Nikki's side. "Hey, it's okay. You had your reasons and what matters is that you guys are back together and making a go of it. Everything else will happen when you're both ready."

The redhead nodded and raised her glass with a proud smile. "Here's to the future."

"To the future," Helen and Nikki chorused, sipping their wine and sharing a soppy grin.

This was how they wanted to spend the rest of their lives: building happy memories with the friends who'd quickly become their family. Later that night they went upstairs hand-in-hand and quietly made love, rediscovering each other slowly and well into the middle of the morning. When they finally drifted off toward sleep they exchanged whispers of love and promises of a life together, clinging tightly to one another as the sound of Grace's gentle breathing resonated from the monitor on the bedside table.



One Year Later


"Helen, you're going to be late for your own party!" Nikki shouted up the stairs, chuckling to herself about her girlfriend's timekeeping skills.

Less than a minute later the Scot appeared on the top step, smiling guiltily as she put in the last of her earrings. "Okay, okay, just let me grab my purse," she said, blowing a kiss to the taller woman before disappearing again.

Three minutes later they were in the backseat of a taxi, on the way to the posh restaurant where they were meeting their friends. Joyce had agreed to keep Grace overnight for them so they could go and celebrate Helen's success. She'd found out in April that her first novel had made the shortlist for the Walter Scott Prize, and a week ago she'd been named the winner, much to her delight and bewilderment. Nikki had literally had to hold her up to keep her from collapsing with shock when she'd found out.

Tonight they were going to start with a fancy dinner and then hit the clubs, something they hadn't been able to do in a very long time. In fact, Helen had only been out dancing once since she'd returned to London, and that had been on the night of her official one-year anniversary with Nikki. She trusted Joyce completely to watch after her daughter and keep her safe, so tonight she was going to go wild and let her hair down. It was about bloody time.


Helen hummed along to the upbeat vocals of Lady Gaga, doing a little jig as she rinsed the conditioner out of her hair. Trisha had been right on the money when she'd gotten them an iPod speaker for the shower as their housewarming gift. A year later it was still in frequent use. Once satisfied that her hair was as clean and moisturized as it was going to get, she shut off the flow of water and grabbed the fluffy towel on the other side of the curtain.

After drying herself off she inspected her image in the mirror, smiling in approval at the brown locks dripping onto her breasts. She'd decided to grow it out last year and now it was well past her shoulders, something which Nikki seemed to be enjoying more by the day. She always had a pervy comment ready about loving the feel of it brushing across her skin, which never failed to make Helen flush with excitement.

Chuckling to herself at the fond remembrance, she finished squeezing the water out of her hair and forwent any attempt at blow drying it. Damp would have to do for now. Changing into a comfy pair of pyjamas and checking the clock on the bedside table, she was pleased to find she hadn't yet missed the evening news. It was a sort of ritual she'd fallen into to watch it with Nikki. She made her way downstairs to be greeted with a smile and a kiss, and then she settled into the taller woman's arms as the newscast began.

She was only half paying attention through most of it, more interested in the strong arms holding her, but then a sentence caught her attention and she was undeniably hooked, bolting upright as her jaw dropped open.

"…In other news, Queen Elizabeth II gave her royal stamp of approval to the same-sex marriage bill earlier today. While it's merely a formality, it was the last step needed to legalise same-sex marriage in both civil partnerships and religious ceremonies. Same-sex couples are expected to be married as early as next summer…"

Hardly able to believe her ears, Nikki wished she'd thought to record the news programme that evening and could press rewind. Turning wide eyes to the woman next to her, she breathed disbelievingly, "Bloody hell…"

Helen nodded wordlessly, still staring at the TV screen in shock. When she finally turned her gaze to that of her lover, her eyes were filled with tears of joy. "Oh my God, Nikki… Do you know what this means?!"

The taller woman's face broke out in a wide grin and she tossed the remote aside blindly, reaching for her girlfriend and pressing her down into the cushions of the sofa. "It means we can get married," she murmured between kisses. Easing up with an even brighter smile, she instructed the Scot sternly, "Stay here a moment."

With her pulse racing and excitement lodged in her throat, the raven-haired teacher scrambled upstairs as quickly as her long legs would take her. She'd been waiting for this moment since the bill had been introduced earlier that year, and she'd been hiding away a ring since that time in hope it would be passed. After finding the little box sequestered in the back of the wardrobe, she hurried back downstairs and knelt before the sofa, hands shaking and heart clenching with nervousness as she began to speak.

"The last three years are ones I'll always remember. While some of the time was unpleasant, more of it was good, and that's all down to you. I can't believe how much is happened in such a short amount of time, but we wouldn't be here today if it hadn't. I'm ready to spend the rest of my life making more memorable years with you. You'll make me the happiest woman in the world if you agree to become my wife."

Smiling brightly through the tears in her eyes, Helen grabbed Nikki by the front of her shirt and pulled her in for a bruising kiss, whispering emotionally against her lips, "I do."

The End

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