AUTHOR'S NOTE: I never thought I could write a piece of fiction totalling 20k words. Passion & Perfection's Epic Proportions challenge of 2007 changed my mind on that score. I had such a blast writing Book One I decided to write Book Two of this story for the 2008 challenge. So, here's another 20k words of the Dream Weavers epic. Maybe, in the not too distant future, I might be tempted to go for the 60,000 and write Book Three, um, epic proportions 2009 maybe *g*
THANKS: As always my thanks go out to Ann for not only adding a few commas here and there but also for correcting the British speak coming out of my American characters. I make no apologies for keeping my British spellings at other times.
CHALLENGE: Submitted as part of the Epic Proportions challenge.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Dream Weavers: Book Two
By Debbie


December 13th 2006 (Wednesday)

The warm rays of early December sun began to shine through the half-open curtains. Ever since she could remember, Suzie Hofmeyer had left her curtains slightly parted, just for mornings like this. Refusing to open her eyes until absolutely necessary, she allowed her thoughts to once again meander to two days previous.

For over twenty years, she'd often woken to memories of her dream; two days ago, her dream had finally become reality. The second she lifted her head from spilled coffee grounds to lock eyes with Chris Walker, she'd known that this was the 'perfect' woman of her dreams.

She smiled; letting herself enjoy the beauty of the meeting and yet knowing that feeling of rightness would probably never be repeated. She sighed and opened her eyes.

Suzie was nothing if not a realist. Her life had been enough of a struggle for her to know that things didn't just happen in real life like they did in dreams. Everything in life had to be worked for, and Chris would not become her dream lover over night; in fact, she might always be just that, a dream lover.

And yet, in the back of Susie's mind, she remembered the words Lou had always instilled in her; that everything she did in her life was leading her towards that dream girl. It was something her lover had truly believed; that everything happened for a reason; even her early death, and if that meant that Suzie achieved her dream, then all was well and good.

She sighed again, whatever she believed, unless the other half of the dream couple had any inclination to the same end, it would never happen, and so far, there had been no signs that Chris wanted anything more than an occasional friendly telephone call.

Sunday had been their first and last face-to-face meeting with nary a call between the two women since. For Suzie, it was due to a fear of pushing too hard, too soon, and for Chris, she wasn't sure why communication had appeared to stop.

At last, Suzie's alarm clock rang out its steady rhythm, stopping her wandering thoughts; it really was time to get up and greet the day.

While sipping on her first cup of coffee of the day, Suzie heard her cell ringing and smiled when she saw her eldest son's name on the screen.

"Hey, Mom, thought I'd just see how things were going with you?"

"All good, thanks. What about you?"

She could hear the tiredness in Josh's voice as he spoke.

"I'm okay, Mom, but this bowling alley massacre is hard work, you know…" his voice stuttered, "… how could he, Mom, and so near Christmas. One little girl was just 12, Laurie's age, and her older sister, only 16… all their life to live… just out for a Sunday get-together, how…"

"I know, Son, I know. It's a fucked up world we live in, huh?"

She smiled sadly as she heard her son let out a choked laugh.

"Yeah, it is. You know something, you always make me smile, and that English twang on 'fuck' just does it for me."

Susie played some more on Louise's legacy. "Hey you, less of the language, okay."

Josh laughed a little more as he seemed to come out of his maudlin thoughts.

"Thanks, Mom; now tell me what's happening with you."

"I'm thinking we should get some Christmas decorations for the shop, what do you think?"

"Sounds good to me, it's about time we started thinking of Christmas. What are your plans for the day?"

"Oh, I haven't thought of that just yet. I thought it'd just be us three again."

"Would it be okay if I ask Maggie to come over, maybe after dinner?"

Suzie smiled at his nervousness. "Of course it's okay. If she's not with her family, she could join us for dinner as well, you know."

"Yeah, thanks Mom, I'll ask her. And what about you, are you inviting Chris and Laurie?"

Suzie's heart skipped a beat at the mention of her friend.

"Uh, I hadn't thought; why'd you say that?"

"Oh, I heard you two finally met up. Chris couldn't stop talking about you on Monday afternoon; I kinda thought you'd hit it off."

"Yeah, well, I, um… oh damn, look at the time. I've gotta get going, do you want a word with your brother? You could decide whether you're gonna invite you dad and his new lady friend over for the festivities, yes?"

"It's no good changing the subject, you know, but yeah, put Si on then. I'll catch up with you when this mess has died down a little, ok?"

Susie shouted to her younger son, said goodbye to Josh, and kissed Simon as he quickly appeared. Within minutes, she was on the road to her coffee shop.

She drove carefully, mindful of the early morning rush of office workers clambering to get a free parking space, made busier still by the influx of visitors coming to Vegas for a Christmas shopping spree mixed in with a trip to one of the seasonally decorated casinos. What did they call these shopping breaks, poker and baubles? Suzie laughed at her own silliness.

Louise had once told her about the short seasonal breaks her English relatives indulged in at this time of year, turkey and tinsel tours, and she's always wanted to come up with an American alternative. Maybe she'd put her worker's mind to the problem and come up with some novelty for the next couple of weeks at the coffee shop.

Thinking of Louise brought her mind back to Christine Walker and Josh's assertion that she too had been affected in some way by their first meeting. She decided then and there that after her day had finished she'd give the woman a call and invite her for a drink.

All thoughts of dream women and drink dates disappeared the minute she walked through the front door of Elliot's Place. She was amazed to see two large Christmas trees standing against the far wall, four or five large boxes of decorations stacked next to them, and three of her staff arguing about their intended destinations.

"Hey ya'll, what's going on?"

Jim, Hannah, and Mario spun around at once, all with big grins on their face. She smiled back at the trio, absently realizing that Jim wasn't due to be working this shift. It was Jim that answered her unasked question.

"Grace called me last night and asked if I could borrow a van to collect these two beauties from one of her contacts." He winked at his implied meaning, and Susie chuckled.

The woman in question bustled out from the kitchen area and immediately leapt into an explanation.

"Oh, hey Suzie, love; I hope you don't mind me jumping the gun a bit, but we need some Christmas cheer in this city, I think. And Gerald, you remember Gerald, right?"

Suzie nodded; of course, she did.

"Well, he offered me the trees free of charge, and the decorations are from when I worked at one of those big casinos out in the desert, and…"

Suzie grabbed the older woman up in a big hug; one, to shut her up, and two because she was overwhelmed with gratitude. It'd been her wish that her employees saw the shop as a family venture, and here was the proof of the pudding. These four grinning faces all eager to make her business venture just as much a festive success as it had already proven to be since opening.

She indicated the far corner of the seating area and swished her hand out towards the debating room as she ordered quietly. "There and back there, I think; if you three would do the honours, I'd like to share a thank you coffee with my friend here before the rush starts."

Taking Grace's arm, she began to lead her back towards the serving bar, only to be halted by Mario's excited cry. "Hey Suze, maybe we could leave the decorating of the debating room tree to some of the kids. We could put a few signs in the window offering a free children's drink with any adult's purchase, and then buy some plain baubles that they could decorate while the adults enjoy their coffee."

The nods of excitement that greeted his suggestion were the only sign Suzie needed to give her agreement. "That's a wonderful idea, Mario; could you and Hannah get that sorted today?"

At last, Suzie and Grace sat down to a freshly brewed cup of coffee. They shared a warm smile before Suzie broke their companionable silence. "So, are you alright; you sounded a little down earlier?"

"I'm fine, love; it's just this damn massacre, one of my old colleagues lost her grandaughter in the mess. She was 22 and just starting her life, you know. Why her? Why not someone like me who's had their life? It's just not fair."

Suzie held her voice; she knew that sometimes people just needed to let it all out. She also knew that Grace was not one for being maudlin for too long, so she just listened. But her ears pricked up at Grace's next words.

"I saw young Laurie's mom on the way in this morning, she looked absolutely exhausted. She was saying she's been assigned as the support officer for the family of the two young sisters killed together…"

"Yeah, Josh mentioned those girls earlier…"

"Hm, Chris said he's also been assigned to help her out. Did you know that?" Grace sighed as she saw Suzie shake her head. "It seems he's got special responsibility for the older girl's young boyfriend; he was standing right beside her and only survived because of the thickness of his sweater."

At that, Grace broke down in tears, and all Suzie could do was to hold on as the tears streamed down her face, too. She had no idea from the conversation this morning how closely involved her son was with the whole aftermath, but now his anger and his mood made all the more sense. Holding Grace tightly, she vowed to make time for her son very soon and was doubly sure that she needed to make good on her plans to phone Chris; it seemed the woman might be in need of some friendly company.

After a few minutes of shared crying, Grace sniffed loudly and wiped her nose on her sleeve, pulling back she grinned shyly. "Thanks for that, love; I feel better now, it's amazing what a good cry does for you, eh?"

Suzie smiled back; she did know the benefit of a good cry, but she also knew the benefit of a good friend, and, looking around at her younger employees, she knew she had those in spades.

Life was good.


December 14th 2006 (Thursday)

Cool air blew over sweat dampened skin, and Chris shivered uncontrollably. She glanced up to see that her bedroom window was open. She sighed remembering how hot she'd been the night before as she'd literally collapsed into bed. Her clock showed the time to be just past eleven in the morning; she'd slept solid for twelve hours, utterly exhausted.

Swinging her legs out of bed, she reached over to close the window and then lay back down, trying to relax. The past few days had been hell. Sometimes, she hated her police subsidiary role of being a support worker with bereaved families; especially like now when she was working with the parents of murdered children.

As always, it brought home to her just how precious her daughter was in her life. She allowed a smile to cross her face at the thought of seeing Laurie later that day. She finally had some time to herself; a second support worker had been assigned and had been willing to accompany the parents to a funeral home. Chris was taking the time to sleep and, hopefully, switch off all the pent up frustration within her.

She stared at the ceiling and tried to think of something other than the two young girls, lying side by side in the police department morgue, surprised when all she could see was a vision of Suzie Hofmeyer on Sunday evening. She smiled at the way Suzie had looked up at her, covered in coffee grounds, but with the most welcoming smile she had seen all that Sunday, if not in years. It was a smile she knew; it was a smile she'd missed, and yet, for the life of her she didn't know why.

Later, after dozing for another hour, she sat at her breakfast bar sipping on today's Advent tea. She wrinkled her nose at the unusual, delicate, aromatic taste with a hint of sweet lemon and reached for the packet. She read the note, written in the strong flourish of Suzie's penmanship, telling her all about this type of Chinese green tea made from Sencha leaves.

Once again, the tea refreshed her senses, and she felt ready to start her day. The decision made, she leaned over to switch on her telephone answer machine. Coming in late the night before, she'd seen its flashing light but decided to forgo her messages for sleep; now, she was ready to listen.

"Hey Mom, I hope you're okay. Aunt Jo's taking me shopping after school today. We're going to get Grammy and Grampa's present. And I'm going to look for something for Lizzie, Sam, Megan, and Gil. Hmm and maybe you..." Chris chuckled as her daughter laughed at her own words and then carried on rambling. "… I'll leave Aunt Jo's until you're with me. Oh, but you know what? I'm going to look for something real special for the Hofmeyer's… did I tell you Josh and Maggie are taking me climbing again?"

Suddenly, in the background, Chris heard her sister's voice shouting out and then her daughter hastily cutting off her call.

"Gotta go, Mom, I'll see you later tonight."

She smiled at her daughter's excitement, already looking forward to their evening together.

"Hey Chris, it's Josh. Just wanted to know how you were doing and to ask if we could get together at all; I need to debrief over this Mitchell case. Please."

Before clicking for the next message, Chris jotted down a quick reminder to invite Josh to lunch their next shift together.

The next voice brought a huge grin to her face; her dad rarely spoke on the telephone, preferring to leave the gossip to her mother. His voice proved that he understood her more than anyone; he knew that at times like this all she needed was love.

"Chris, Hon, just wanted to say how much I love you and how much I'm looking forward to seeing you over Christmas. And now I'll pass you to Mom…"

Her parents were staying at her sister's house for Christmas and, while waiting for her mom's voice, she made a mental note to organise hers and Laurie's timetable for the festivities.

"Chris, you are eating and sleeping properly, aren't you?"

Laughter bubbled up at her mother's immediate descent into practicalities; it was just like her mom to worry whether she was taking care of herself.

"Jo says you've been working all hours, and I'll bet that means junk food and thick coffee… okay Hon, going to go, love you, lots. Please call as soon as you can; we worry."

Chris smiled, already looking forward to reassuring her parents that she was doing okay, she spotted the tea advent calendar over by the phone and decided to tell her mom all about its contents and how, at least once a day, she had a proper hot drink. She knew her mom would just appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the calendar.

The next voice caused her heart to skip a beat, and her ears tuned in intently.

"Chris, it's Suzie. I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed finally meeting you in person. It was such a surprise and me covered in coffee and all; I'm not usually as clumsy as that, you know. Anyway, thanks for helping me clear up, at least we got a chance to chat. So, how's things? Grace tells me you're having a hard time with this massacre aftermath. You do know you can always come share a cuppa and a chat, don't you? I do like to talk, but I can listen too, um, says the woman who's talking non-stop into an answer machine. I'm nervous, I guess. What I'm really ringing for, is to see if you'd join me for a drink, um, let's say Friday night, please? Call me."

And with that, her answer machine clicked off. She leaned over and played Suzie's message three times more, marvelling at the hint of English coming through as she'd rambled on and warmed by the obvious concern.

She sank back against the breakfast bar and contemplated Suzie's words. Her mind was in turmoil; emotion warring with practicalities. She wanted to take Suzie up on her offer of a drink, and yet, she didn't. Something told her that saying yes would lead her to want more and, on the surface, she wasn't sure she was ready for more and all that entailed.

As always, Chris had a way of compartmentalizing all the facets of her life. So, putting all her thoughts and worries concerning Suzie to one side, she relaxed on the sofa with another cup of tea, a sappy black and white movie, and telephone calls to her loved ones. Before she knew it, the clock read five pm, and her eyes were beginning to drift closed again.

A door swinging open alerted her to her shattered peace; Laurie was home and carrying armfuls of shopping bags, all bearing designer labels and bold, brash writing. She called out in an excited voice that she had so much to share with her mom. She was followed at a more sedate pace by Chris's sister, who smiled towards Chris, and waved a few more bags in the air.

"She's been busy, Sis; I hope your bank balance is pretty full."

The two women shared a knowing smirk; both women could see how much happier the young girl was compared to the other years since her father's death. As Laurie rushed upstairs to call her school friends, the two sisters swapped tales of their differing weeks over coffee and flapjack.

"Where'd you get the flapjack, it's absolutely yummy?"

"We stopped off at Elliot's Place; Laurie wanted to see what was happening over the weekend, and Grace gave them to us; said we all needed something sweet in our lives and to have them on her."

Chris couldn't stop herself asking if Suzie had been there.

"Yeah, she was busy helping some youngsters decorate a tree; I only got a wave of greeting. What about you, have you seen her recently?"

"Um, I stopped by Sunday night, but since then I've been so tied up with this casework, I've not had chance."

She looked up to see her sister wearing a smirk on her face.


"And when are you seeing her again? All I hear from Laurie is how wonderful Suzie is, how great Josh is, how friendly Grace is, how stupid Mario is, how much time you two spend on the phone to each other… " she winked, "… you know."

"Yeah, well, they're all friendly folks, and yeah, me and Suzie, we just seem to click, but…"

Jo sighed. "But what? Laurie's the happiest she's been in years, and you're the most relaxed I've known you in a while. Even with the stress of this case, you're still smiling, and from the look of you, still sleeping well. I think the Hofmeyer's are good for you."

She looked up and saw a worry frown cross Chris's face. "What's up?"

"I don't know, maybe I'm scared. Did you know Sunday was the first time I'd met Suzie face-to-face, and yet, when I did, it was as if I'd known her years, everything just seemed to fall in to place. It can't be right."

Jo laughed out loud. "Oh Chris, that's so you, over-analysing everything. Why don't you just go with the flow, like Tom always did, just for once in your life? You're friends, enjoy it, and, if anything else happens, it can only be good."

Her last few words were almost whispered, and Chris chose to ignore the meaning behind the words.

"Yes, well, she's invited me for a drink and a chat tomorrow night; I'm not sure I'm ready for a date yet."

"Chris! It's a drink and a chat, who says it's a date?"

Laurie re-emerging from the stairs stopped the sisters' conversation. As she left the two Walker women to their evening fun, Jo kissed Chris's cheek and whispered in her ear, "Give it a try, Sis."

Chris wasn't convinced.


December 15th 2006 (Friday)

The people skated round and round in circles, and Suzie allowed the gentle sound of wet swishes to lull her into a relaxed state of mind. All the worries that owning a business brought, all the motherly worries of two adult sons, and all the thoughts of the disturbing effect a certain blonde was having on her life drifted slowly, but surely, into the recesses of her mind. She sighed and then laughed as a small child was thrown over his father's shoulder just before his ass hit the cold, wet, icy floor.

She nodded towards the father and marvelled at how well he maintained his balance as he glided on the gleaming blade of his obviously new skates, despite having to alter his centre of gravity swiftly. It was all she could do to just traverse the ice in a steady safe manner.

Another laugh rippled up from her boots as she caught sight of Johnny McGovern leading his wife, Betty, gingerly across the ice. She'd been delighted when, the day before, Louise's old friend had called and invited her to join the couple for an impromptu ice date, prior to having lunch with Lou's old colleagues.

It was the perfect opportunity to reminisce about her lost lover with people that knew all of Louise; the good and the bad. And so far, she'd had a blast.

She skated towards the couple, surprised to find herself sitting hard on the ice, looking up at a bemused pair of faces.

"Hey you two! I think I've just about the got the hang of this lark again."

"Aye, it certainly looks like you have, love," was the sarcastic reply from a laughing Johnny.

His wife nudged him in the ribs and hissed, "Help the lady up off the floor, you daft sod."

Suzie grinned at the couple's banter; she'd missed this connection with Louise's friends from home. Grabbing the big man's hand, she made a mental vow to make more of an effort to maintain contact with this important group of people.

She linked her arm through Betty's on one side, and Johnny's on the other, and guided them out into the middle of the rink.

"Come on, let's enjoy ourselves, and then I'll introduce you to Grace's specialty, Irish coffee with a piece of Lou's recipe Dundee Cake."

Hours later, she sipped on a mug of lemon tea and watched the world go by. She'd had a glorious morning with her friends and a lovely lunchtime get-together with a few other guests, and now she was preparing herself to help out in the coffee shop for the rest of the day. Candida had asked if she could take the afternoon off as Caesar's Palace toy store had a delivery of Fast Talkin' Lightning McQueen being delivered at 4pm, and she was desperate to get one for her son's Christmas present. As always, Suzie couldn't resist the thoughts of a smiling boy on Christmas morning and had sent Candida off immediately with instructions to not leave the stores until she'd achieved her goal and then, most importantly, to make sure she took some photographs of his face as he opened his present.

Imagining the scene, she quickly finished her drink and went to relieve Grace behind the serving counter as she took a well-earned break. It was just coming up to 2pm, and the best of their lunchtime rush had passed.

For the next couple of hours, she served a steady stream of customers; sharing a little chat with some of her regulars, and some interesting encounters with some of the tourists. The lead up to Christmas was proving to be a fruitful time for the business with many of the shopping tourists using the coffee shop as a welcome place to rest their weary bodies before venturing out once again into the busy malls.

She looked over to a few children decorating their own special bauble for the two trees, ably cajoled to make a 'mess' by the effervescent mood of young Mario. She then glanced over her shoulder to see Mags making her next batch of Danish pastries alongside some more traditional Pecan pies. She smiled at the young woman who seemed to have her eldest son wrapped around her little finger. Suzie was pleased; she hadn't seen Josh as happy with his life since third grade when Mary-Sue Grainger had shared her bag of candy with him one lunchtime.

"Suzie, have you got a moment, please?" Hannah's voice and a gentle tap on her shoulder roused her from her reverie.

She turned to greet the young woman who'd become one of her many stars; a natural with people, Hannah was the member of staff many of her customers turned to when they just wanted an understanding ear.

"Hey, Hannah, you're early; your shift doesn't start until six."

"Yeah, but I wondered if we might have a chat… in private, please."

The shop was relatively calm, and Grace nodded that she had things under control, so Suzie guided Hannah into her small office at the rear of the shop. They took with them a teapot full of steaming Lady Grey tea. A delicate, fragrant variation on the more famous Earl Grey blend, it had long been Suzie's favourite afternoon drink of choice, especially when served in china cups and shared with a companion.

"So, how can I help?"

"It's my Grammy; she's very ill, and I don't know what to do."

Hannah's eyes filled with tears, and her voice hitched as she carried on.

"She's all I have left now, and it's just so hard, you know. I need to stay here and finish my studies, I just need to, but somebody needs to look after Grammy these days and… Jim says we could go over there, get a job, and he'd help, but…"

"What about your parents, hon?"

"They died when I was young; Grammy brought me and my brother up, I thought you knew that."

Suzie squeezed Hannah's hand; she hadn't known, but Hannah's wiser-than-her-year's attitude and her ability to chat with the older customers as if she knew them made a lot more sense now.

"I didn't know. So, come on, tell me the whole tale, from start to finish, huh?"

Hannah told Suzie the tale of her life from the time she'd moved into her Grandmother's care, through the years the older woman had supported her and her brother through school and on into adulthood, right up until the present.

"… and now she needs looking after, and I'm 240 miles away and Brian's travelling around Europe and…"

Suzie reached over and stayed Hannah's words again. "So, you need to take some time off to find your Grandmother a suitable retirement home and get her settled, and then you need to come back here and finish your studies."

Hannah laughed. "Oh yeah, and pigs might fly. Where am I going to find enough money to do all of that? Jim's folks have offered to help, but they have their own families to help along the way, and Jim's just there for me, you know, he can't help with money."

Suzie wasn't sure how her next words would be taken, but she was determined to make an offer; she liked Hannah, and she knew how hard it was to make ends meet at such a young age. Hell, she'd been married and had a child at Hannah's age. She didn't want that to happen again, not if she could help in any way; this young lady could be better than that, and she could help.

"What if I offered to give you some money, a loan if you like? You could negotiate with college to lay out a semester, find somewhere for Grammy, and then be back ready to start afresh next semester."

"Oh, Suzie, I couldn't do that; how could I ever afford to pay you back?"

"You could pay me back gradually, Hannah love. I'm sure you've heard that Louise left me enough to get by on, and this place is paying better than I ever dreamt possible and you're part of that success; let's just say I can afford it. You and Jim have helped me fulfil my dream, let me help with yours."

Hannah let out a small sob before reaching to hug Suzie. "If you're really sure; I think I'd like that very much."

Suzie chuckled. "Just don't go telling all the others. Don't get me wrong, if they have a need to ask, I'd help any of you in the same way, but not all at once, eh?"

Hannah's sobs subsided as she joined in with Suzie's laughter.

"Thank you so much, Suzie; I won't let you down, though you do know I'm going to have to leave you in the lurch for a while, don't you?"

"Yeah, I know, now get off and do some work; you can tell Jim the good news later, and we'll sort something out, all of us."

Hannah jumped up, hugged Suzie once more, and left to start work.

Suzie took a few minutes to reflect on her good fortune and how nice it was to be able to still share some of Louise's love for her with others.

Back out in the shop, she was surprised to find how exhausted she felt; it was lovely to interact with her friends and staff, but it didn't half take it out of her. She grinned ruefully, it could also be something to do with her morning skating, and the fact she hadn't had much physical exercise for many a month now, the coffee shop taking up all of her time; maybe in the new year, she'd assess her books and consider taking on more staff to allow her time to once more join the local gym.

Deep in thought, her gaze was caught by a glimpse of blonde hair flashing past. She looked at the wall clock and was stunned to find it had been all of ten hours since she'd last spared Chris Walker a thought; idly, she wondered if the woman had accepted her offer of dinner.

She strolled back into her office, pulled out her cell-phone, and noted there were six messages waiting for her. With a smile, she called her voice mail and listened intently.

Life could be disappointing.


December 16th 2006 (Saturday)

"Oh, your Mom's not coming in with you?"

Chris heard the resignation in the voice as she turned to wave goodbye to Laurie. Her eyes locked with Suzie's as she forced herself to wave and look happy. Suzie returned the smile, and her eyes, although she could see a hint of sadness lurking in their depths, Chris knew, that to anyone else they would only show a look of welcome.

Waving once more to Laurie, Chris turned on her heel with a sigh. She had a day off and needed to get on with some Christmas shopping, time was precious. She didn't have time to sit around Suzie's coffee shop all day, just enjoying the company as she knew she would; no, she had work to do. Chris laughed out loud. At least, that was what she was telling herself anyway.

The truth was she wanted nothing more than to stay at the coffee shop and learn all there was to know of the fascination that was Suzie Hofmeyer, but the reality was that she was scared shitless. Chris was scared that if she gave in to the pull of Suzie, it would all be too much too soon; all overpowering, all over much too quickly.

Out of the corner of her eye, Chris spotted a cab pulling next to the curb. It was four miles to Caesars Palace, and she quickly made the decision to ride there, and then take her time to slowly make her way back towards Elliot's Place later in the day. Chris needed the exercise, but not enough that she wanted to walk there and back on one of the busiest Saturdays of the year.

A couple of hours later, she'd had enough. Pulling out her cell, Chris called Warren to see if he was available to have coffee and a chat but, of course, he was working extra hours covering the massacre aftermath. While she was considering who else to call she received a message. Josh Hofmeyer of all people was hoping to meet up and debrief over his involvement in the support of the bereaved boyfriend.

Chris thought about ignoring the text, after all this was her day away from the pain and the heartbreak, but she liked Josh, and despite her reservations, there was no way she would forego one of Suzie's sons; she texted back, suggesting they meet at Café Bellagio in an hour.

Receiving a positive answer to her suggestion, she decided to pop into the Bellagio's Lobby shops to have a glance at the exquisite gifts, offered at equally extortionate prices, while she wiled away the extra hour. It wasn't often she got a chance to window shop in such high class stores, so she was going to enjoy.

Within the hour, Chris had made her way through the conservatory to the café and sat, waiting for Josh to arrive. She fingered a small John Hardy bag as she looked over the mulling crowds until, finally, she saw Josh waving as he weaved through the crowds towards her.

Her heart missed a beat as, for the first time, she noticed how his eyes shone in exactly the same way that his mother's did. Rising to greet the young man, Chris pushed her reaction to the back of her mind to be considered fully at a later time.

"Hey Josh, I've ordered us both a Caramel Macchiato, hope that's okay; it said it was the drink of the day."

"Hey Chris; that's fine…" Josh shook her hand warmly and sat in the chair across from his colleague. He indicated her bags. "… it looks like you've been busy."

"Yeah, I've managed to get a few things for Laurie, and Jo, and my parents. But there's still a way to go, I'll probably carry on a while longer after this chat. How's your shopping coming on?"

Josh laughed and then winked slyly. "Oh, you know, Mum does the family shopping, and now Mags is going to get her something from the both of us."

Chris noticed his pronunciation of the Anglicized version of mom. "A typical man, huh, leaves it to the women. So, you and Mags, it's getting pretty serious, pretty quickly, I'd say," she teased.

Josh blushed but didn't deny her words. "I like her, Chris; she makes me laugh, and she likes the same things I do. It's as if we've known each other since we were kids."

Chris smiled and nodded her head just as the waiter arrived with the coffees. Leaning back, she allowed him to serve the drinks while she considered Josh's words, painfully aware of how similar her reaction to his mother had been; it was if she had known Suzie forever. "You cherish that feeling, Josh; it's worth more than anything else on Earth. Just look how easy it is to lose it, just like that."

The smile dropped from his face at the words, and his eyes held a hurt Chris recognised. She reached over and held onto his hand. "It gets easier, you know."

Seeing the look of disbelief on his face, she gave a reassuring smile. "Oh, I know it sounds cliché, but it does, I promise you."

"I'm not sure I can do it long enough to find out, Chris. This last week has been one of the worst in my life. Spending time with Michael, talking him through the shooting, taking him to see Charlotte's body, and then the Mitchell's, it's been hell. But do you know what's worse? The fact I'm not sure I've helped him at all; how could I? I've never been through it."

Chris knew he'd done a fine job. She'd heard from the Mitchell's themselves how wonderful the young police officer was that was helping their daughter's boyfriend in his hour of need, and Chris had glowed in the knowledge that she'd been right; Josh was going to make one of the best sort of officers, the sort that cared.

"You've been great, my friend. I know that you've been just what young Michael needed, and it doesn't matter you've never been through it yourself; you've lost someone you'd care about and that's enough to make you understand that the only important thing is to listen and to care. I know it's hard, Josh, but you can be one of the best. Just know that, okay."

Josh couldn't hold back the tears he'd held onto all week, and all Chris could do was stand, walk round the table, crouch down, and hold on. Her own tears of pent up frustration soaked through Josh's shirt; no matter how many times she was involved in these types of cases, it still hurt.

Eventually, the tears stopped, and he smiled shyly. "Thanks for that, Chris. It's right, you know; you do feel better after a good cry."

"Yes, you do, and while ever you need me to be a shoulder, Josh, I'm here."

Their cathartic chat over, they went their separate ways; Josh back to work and Chris back to shopping.

Trudging wearily through another shopping mall, her arms getting heavier and heavier with the weight, she decided another coffee was needed. Looking around the nearby buildings, Josh's words returned to her, 'it's as if we've known each other since we were kids'. She grinned, this really was ridiculous, all the avoiding and the worry; she wanted a coffee, she wanted a friend, and she had both waiting a few miles away. Chris strode off in a direction she knew well.

At last, or so it seemed, she stood in the doorway to Elliot's Place and saw, immediately, the two women that had been most in her thoughts the past few months, Suzie and Laurie. They were deep in conversation, heads bent towards each other, and both of them appeared to be sketching something on the table's surface.

Again, her heart jumped; it was a vision she knew.

She opened the door and entered quietly. Grace glanced up from the counter, and Chris put a finger to her lips as she nodded towards her daughter. Quietly leaving her bags in the view of Grace, she walked towards the oblivious pair, and reaching her daughter, she clasped her hands around Laurie's head and covered her eyes.

Chris couldn't be certain who looked the most pleased as two pairs of eyes spun around to stare at her; she could, however, be certain it was her daughter who squealed her delight.

"Mom, look what Suzie and I've been doing."

Chris chuckled and winked at Suzie. "Wow! That's long."

Laurie's tone was indignant. "Mom! It has to be, have you seen the size of the trees?" She flung her arm out to show Chris exactly what she meant.

"Hmm, I guess they do. Have you got room for a little 'un?"

Suzie stood to pull another chair across and smiled as Chris sat next to her daughter and gave her a hug. She placed her hand on Chris's shoulder and squeezed, needing the confirmation that she was indeed there. Satisfied that she was, Suzie motioned towards the coffee bar and said, "I'll put your bags in the back; they'll be safer there, and may I get you a coffee, or perhaps a tea?"

"Oh, coffee would be great, thank you. I think I had enough tea with that one you sent me this morning."

Suzie laughed. "Hm, sounds like there's a tale in there somewhere; give me a minute or two and you can tell me."

Coming back from the bar, Suzie couldn't help just staring for a few moments at the beautiful woman waiting for her. For some reason, it appeared Chris had had a change of mind, and this time she was going to let Chris set the pace to any development in their friendship.

She set the coffee down in front of Chris and joined in once again with the paper-chain making. "So, I take it you didn't like Pure Rooibus tea?"

"How'd you remember that?"

"Oh, I have a typed list in the office; I'm nothing if not organized."

Chris grinned. "Ah. I think this morning's tea must be an acquired taste for some; I can't say it was my favourite."

"Well, it's a natural source of antioxidants, so it's probably way too healthy for a morning brew."

The two women laughed together, and seeing Laurie roll her eyes, only made their laughter louder.

Three hours later, Laurie had left to drape the garlands around the tree with Tony who'd called in for some peace and quiet while his wife took his grandchildren to see Santa, and Chris was carefully telling Suzie about her and Josh's work with the Mitchell family, being sure not to betray any of Josh's confidences. Suzie's eyes filled with tears at the heartbreak she was hearing about, and Chris just enjoyed that feeling of empathy she'd missed of late.

Suddenly, she spotted the time. "Oh, Suzie, we're gonna have to get going; I've got my nephew coming over to stay the night. It's about time I allowed Jo and Ron to have some time together; they're always helping me out."

"Yeah, well, you deserve the help. If you ever need me to watch over Laurie other than here at the shop, it'd be a pleasure, you know."

Chris answered truthfully. "Yeah, I do know that."

The two women shared a knowing smile before Chris called Laurie over to get her things together. While Suzie fetched her bags, Chris shared a moment with Tony and Grace. She watched as Suzie glided back across the room towards them, enjoying the easy grace of the brunette.

Laurie hugged her friends from the shop, saying she would be back again before Christmas, and Chris was pleased when she, too, received hugs from the crowd. She let her hands rest lightly on Suzie's lower back as she whispered her thanks and a last goodnight, pleased beyond punch when she felt the slightest of shivers at her touch.

It was only as she pulled into her driveway that Chris realized Suzie had not reiterated her dinner invite. Her biggest surprise was how hurt she felt at the realization.

Life could be confusing.


December 17th 2006 (Sunday)

Suzie woke with a wide smile on her face; she'd been visited by her dream again, only this time she had a perfect view of her mystery woman, Chris Walker. She knew why she'd had the dream, fondly recalling her wonderful last few hours of Saturday when Chris had returned earlier than expected from her shopping trip and had immediately fallen into an easy companionship with Suzie.

And, she smiled again, her plan to not push Chris too quickly, too soon, may be about to start paying dividends. She could have sworn Chris's face held a real look of disappointment as she'd turned to wave a last goodbye; in fact, Chris's eyes, as they caught hers one last time, seemed to be saying, 'well, ask me again.'

She would, eventually.

Looking at the calendar, Suzie realized there was only one full week to Christmas Eve and all the festivities, and, if this last week had been anything to go by, there wouldn't be much time for personal preparations; it would be all hands on deck in the shop.

Sitting at her kitchen table, glancing at the newspaper with little concentration, she made some quick calculations. The coffee shop had been so successful through December she was willing to close up shop on Friday, the 22nd; she would also invite all her staff on a 'family' day out on the Saturday. Hopefully, they would all attend before going off to their personal devotions.

Of course, if things went okay over the next few days, Suzie planned on inviting the Walkers to the 'family' day, and maybe even to some part of the Hofmeyer's Christmas festivities. She tapped her fingers on the desk as if to say stop; here she was again thinking too far ahead and maybe jumping the gun. She would just have to wait it out and see.

Meanwhile, she checked the time once more; she had a few hours to do some much needed shopping before she was expected at the shop, so finishing her tea, she hurried to start her day.

Hours later, echoing the moves of Chris the day before, Suzie staggered into the coffee shop, weighed down with bags. She was, however, much happier. She had presents for almost everyone and had even arranged for her food to be delivered fresh late Saturday evening.

She'd also booked Josh's latest craze, the climbing wall at Gameworks for her Saturday staff party. Now all she had to do was invite everyone and their families to attend, and she was almost ready for the big day. Looking around the shop, Suzie could see that most of the tables were taken and that there were just a couple waiting in line to be served by Jim.

She walked behind the counter and touched his shoulder in passing, hearing Hannah's voice somewhere in the distance singing a children's carol accompanied by a few younger voices. Another smile lit up her face.

She sat down behind her desk and lifted the photograph of Louise into her hands. Lightly running her finger back and forth across Lou's cheek, she murmured her thanks for the life she now had; she couldn't remember ever smiling quite so much while at work. But she truly couldn't have picked a better work crew and a better place for her establishment, and now she had other things to look forward to as well. Life really was good.

Walking back into the serving area, Suzie smiled at her newest member of staff, Brad, a young man who had been one of Tony's regular visitors in the computer section, who one day had admitted he needed to raise some money quickly to fund an oversees trip. Of course, wanting to keep the lad who he knew to be an ex- gang member away from crime, Tony had suggested to Suzie that she might be able to utilize some extra holiday help leading up to Christmas. Suzie had agreed, and Brad had appeared every day since to help Mags in the kitchen. Surprisingly, he had turned out to be not only a great help with the menial tasks, but he'd also turned his hand rather expertly to pastry making.

She walked to stand by Jim's side and gently touched shoulders with him.

"Are you two okay?" she nodded over to the singing Hannah.

"Yes, thanks, Suzie. We're good." He turned to look at her and quickly gave her a hug, a red glow drifting up his neck in embarrassment. "Thank you for what you've done for Hannah, it means such a lot for Grammy to be safely cared for. My ma and da can't believe how generous you've been, and they really want to help, but…"

"I know, Jim; you tell your folks to hold onto their money, they never know when it might be needed." Suzie offered a reassuring smile. "Say, I've booked the Gameworks climbing wall for a staff party on Saturday, why don't you and Hannah bring your folks along? I'd like to meet them."

"Hmm, that sounds great, I'll ask them. What time?"

"I'll post something on the notice board later today, okay?"

Jim nodded as he turned back to another customer, and Suzie laughed at his eagerness to sell them one of his favourite English teas. He really was a guy after her heart.

Taking an order from the next in line, she hardly had time to think for the next hour or so as the lunchtime rush hit.

"Two of those Irish coffees, lass, and make 'em doubles."

Suzie looked up startled. "What are you two doing here on a Sunday?"

Harry and Bertha Green, two of her regular weekday customers never came in at a weekend; they were always too busy with their family and their church.

It was Bertha who answered. "Oh love, we had to get out of the house, and we both damn well need a large dose of Grace's magic whiskey."

"Now I know something's wrong, you never curse, never mind on a Sunday at that."

Bertha burst into tears at her teasing, and Harry just looked on worried. Suzie indicated to Hannah to take her place behind the bar, collected two Irish coffees and guided the Greens over to a spare table.

Once they were seated, she smiled towards Harry and took a hold of Bertha's hand. "Come on, tell me what's wrong, I've got all day."

As Harry told her all the sordid details of how they'd been burglarized while at church, of how they'd lost all their grandchildren's presents, and how they just couldn't afford to buy any more, Suzie's heart boiled with rage. How could anybody be so despicable this near to Christmas; it really was a mystery.

"… and now she won't go back into the house; it's why we're here. I've told her those cowards won't we back while we're there, but…"

"I'm just so scared, Suze. It feels as if all my life's been violated. And the police, they're so busy, they haven't time to spend with us, helping make things safe again. And how are we going to get the kids presents? What can we do? I have absolutely no idea what to do."

Suzie hugged the older woman to her, soothing Bertha as best she could. She, too, had no idea what might happen in this sort of case, but she had a good idea who would know what to do. She squeezed Bertha's hand and murmured, "You two drink your coffees in peace; I have an idea."

She went into her office, grabbed her cell, and called a number she knew by heart, pleased when it was answered almost immediately.

"Chris, I don't suppose you're free; I have a really large favour to ask of you."

Within half an hour, Chris and Laurie Walker were walking through the shop doorway. Suzie greeted them with a hug of thanks and indicated the older couple sitting quietly in the corner.

As Laurie ran across the room to surprise the couple with hugs and kisses, Suzie explained as much as she knew about the happenings of earlier that day. She then took Chris across to the couple.

"Harry, Bertha, this is Christine Walker, young Laurie's mum and a police officer who specializes in victim support, would you tell her all you've told me about this morning?"

The couple nodded their heads, and Harry, ever the gentleman, stood to pull a chair out for Chris to sit on. Suzie indicated the bar. "Can I get you all another coffee?"

Harry requested another Irish, Bertha her usual, and Chris surprised Suzie by asking for a pot of Lady Grey tea.

After providing the three with their drinks, Suzie escorted Laurie to the computer room where the young girl promptly joined in with a game of ten pin bowling on the newly installed Wii. Suzie watched the game for a few minutes and then, seeing that Laurie was settled, returned to the downstairs area to continue serving at the counter.

Every so often, she would glance across, amazed by the animated conversation that seemed to be flowing between her three friends, all the while entranced by the vision that was Chris. Once, their eyes met across the room, and it was as if everything was in its proper place, no lights flashing, no bells ringing, just complete normality. Suzie felt at home.

She watched as the three stood from the table, and Chris beckoned her across.

"Would you keep an eye on Laurie while I take Bertha and Harry home?"

Suzie smiled. "I think she's perfectly happy with the games upstairs, so yeah, you take care of my friends here… " She hugged Bertha and then, Harry, "… and then, you two, get yourself back in my shop as soon as you can; I need to see you before we close on Friday, okay?"

She waved them off before checking on Laurie and letting the rest of her crew know what was happening. She also took the time to prepare her flyer regarding the Christmas party and to let those on duty know the details personally. Of course, Laurie heard about the climbing wall and immediately invited herself.

Suzie ruffled her hair as she passed and muttered, "We'll have to see what your mum has to say about that, huh?"

"Oh, she'll be fine. We'd love to come."

"We'd love to come where?"

Once again, Chris surprised her daughter and Suzie with a sudden entrance, her words hiding behind a chuckle.

"Oh Mom, Suzie's holding a party for all her friends at the Gameworks climbing wall. I said we'd love to go, wouldn't we?"

Chris laughed again. "Well, are we actually invited is the first question?"

"Of course, you're invited. How could we have a party without our star debating girl?" Suzie grinned at Laurie and winked in collusion.

"In that case, how can I say no? I'm pretty sure I'm off that day, too; in fact, surprisingly, I've fallen for a week of leave days over the Christmas break, starting on Friday, so yeah… we'll both come."

Laurie whooped with joy and ran over towards Jim and Hannah to tell them her excited news.

Suzie looked at Chris intently, pleased when Chris's returned gaze never wavered, and knew the time was now.

"You were brilliant with the Greens; may I thank you properly for coming to their rescue with a dinner invitation?"

Chris smiled at the formality of the question, this time hesitating only briefly with her answer.

"Yes, on one condition…"

Suzie's immediate grin at the 'yes' faltered as she waited for the let-down.

"… we call it a date."

Suzie could only stare at Chris before letting out a joyous laugh as she nodded her head in acceptance.

Life was looking up.


December 18th 2006 (Monday)

Chris looked down at the beautiful young girl, nearly a woman, and yet now so far away, never allowed to reach adulthood and the beauty she would surely have become. She reached her hand inside the open casket and caressed the cheek, as always alarmed at the rubbery feeling instead of soft, warm skin. No matter how many times she stood in this exact same position, the feeling of hopelessness never left.

She turned and took a deep breath, determined not to shed a tear in front of the Mitchells, as she spent a few moments with the two girls cut down before their prime by some madman. Chris quietly crossed towards the other, smaller, coffin and looked down on Karyn Mitchell. This time the tear slid slowly down her cheek, it was so hard not to see Laurie in the face of Karyn. The two girls were born only months apart, and yet now, she hoped with all her heart, destined to die many years apart.

She, again, caressed a cheek and whispered up a sentiment for her own child's safety. Satisfied she could now be strong for the Mitchells, she turned, took a deep breath, and went to meet her charges.

"You can come through now." Chris walked over to squat in front of the grieving parents, holding their hands in comfort. "They both look beautiful."

Laura Mitchell started to sob, allowing her husband to voice the anger. "But we'll never get to see how truly beautiful they'd become, Chris, that bastard made sure of that."

"I know, I know, and I didn't mean to upset you, but you really do need to go and see them. It'll help you get there, I promise."

She knew, at the moment, her words would wash right over the angry, grieving parents, but hopefully in the future, they would be able to pull her words from their memories, and perhaps, offer some comfort.

"You know something, Chris…" Paul Mitchell may have been addressing Chris, but it was his wife's eyes he was staring into. "… all I ever wanted in life was a daughter; a daughter I could care for, cherish, and maybe, one day, see as happy with her lover as I've been with mine. And I couldn't do it; I just couldn't do it…"

He, too, broke down into heaving sobs. His wife grabbed hold, and the two shared a long, sad embrace. Gradually, Chris could make out Laura's words.

"You're a great father, hon; don't let some madman say otherwise. You couldn't be with them every minute of the day; it's not your fault, it's not. Come on, we have to be strong for the others; we can do this."

With those words the couple stood together and started to walk towards their daughters. Chris stood back and watched from the doorway. A watery smile made its way to her face; at least this couple knew how to communicate, with that behind them, and other children to cherish, hopefully they'd survive this horror.

Hours later, Chris was back at the station, finally writing some paperwork on her work of the last week. This was the part that she hated more than even the heartbreak; how could you write about emotions like those that occurred at the funeral home without falling into mush?

She looked at the faces of her colleagues, not surprised to see pale, ashen faces almost to a man. The last week had been horrendous for the whole police department from the officers on the street to the lab workers and admin staff as one, hate crimes like this one were the worst. At least, it appeared be drawing to a close; the CSIs would prove their case, the bastard would be behind bars for as long as the needle was being prepared, and the families would soon be allowed the peace to begin their long process of healing.

She glanced up at the clock and, for the first time today, a grin creased her face; there was exactly one hour to the end of her shift and exactly three hours to her first date with Suzie.

The day could only get better, couldn't it?

Her phone rang. She groaned inwardly and picked it up slowly.

"Walker? We need you downtown, right now. There's a jumper on the top of the Stratosphere; the officers on standby by are asking for you."

"Damn, Sir, I can't, not today, please." She knew she was whining, but she couldn't miss her date with Suzie, not after taking so long to make her decision, and certainly not after a day like today. Suddenly, she had an idea.

"I really need a break from this right now, Sir. If I can get someone who's going to be the best damn liaison officer you've ever had to attend in my place, would you excuse me?"

She could hear the doubt in her superior officer's voice. "Better than you, I don't think so. Who?"

"Officer Josh Hofmeyer, Sir. He will be the best, and I think he needs to try another 'talk down'; permission to ask, Sir?"

"If you really trust this guy, Walker, go for it. You do need a break; I bet Christmas can't come soon enough, huh?"

"No Sir, thank you, Sir, my love to your family." She chuckled inwardly at her obvious pampering to the boss.

He didn't hide his laughter at her attitude. "And to yours, Chris; especially Laurie. Goodbye."

Chris replaced the receiver and smiled to herself. It was handy having a man she respected as a boss, and even handier, that he respected her in return. She could only hope that her relationship with Josh had reached the same level; although, she knew she had a strong playing card to twist his arm, her date with his mother.

Once again she cradled the receiver to her ear, waiting for an answer.


"Oh, hey Jim; is Hofmeyer anywhere around?"

"Yes, I'll just fetch him for you, Chris."

As she waited, she thought about the night ahead, looking forward to actually looking into Suzie's eyes as they talked. Hopefully, the easy rapport of their telephone conversations would still be there. Her thoughts were interrupted by Josh's voice.

"Chris? What can I do for you?"

"You know you owe me a big, big favor? Well, I'm calling it in."

"I do, you are, what?" His intrigued voice crossed the airways.

"There's a jumper on top of the Stratosphere, and the officers on scene want a liaison officer to attend; I need you to be that guy. The boss thinks it would be a good idea for you to try another 'talk down'."

His incredulous voice interrupted her begging. "I just bet he does. What's all this about, Chris? You're the best damn officer for this kind of thing out there; I'm just some 'wet behind the ears' kid."

"Yeah, but you don't have a date with your mom in…" she checked the clock, "… exactly two and a half hours. I can't let her down again, Josh; I just can't. Besides, you can do this; I know you can."

"So that's it, huh? Pray on my love for mum?" Josh was touched by Chris's faith in him but focused on Chris's date with his mother instead.

"Come on, Josh, he'll have already jumped!"

"Okay, okay; but I think it's you that owes me this time. Oh, and Chris, give mum a big hug from me, won't you."

On the point of putting the receiver down Chris heard his teasing words and couldn't help the laugh that escaped. Sometimes, she really wasn't convinced that being friends with Suzie's son was the best thing she had ever done but, whatever happened in the future, she'd make it work, she liked him.

Making her way straight home, she took five minutes to finally sit down with today's advent tea, White tea. Unwrapping the small packet and draping the tea bag over the rim of her cup, she pondered just how many types of tea there were in the world.

"Penny for them, Mom?"

Chris looked up into the face of her daughter and smiled. "I was just wondering how many types of tea there were out there."

"Oh, I thought you were trying to decide what dress to wear tonight."

"Hardeharhar. No, not clothes, tea. I've heard of Green tea, but White tea, never. Did you know there was such a thing as White tea?"

Laurie laughed. "Actually, Mom, I did know. Jim told me about White tea when I was trying to outdo Mario in the debating room one day. It's a lighter alternative to Green tea, the bud and first leaf of the tea bush in Fujian province of China are picked to create a lovely light aromatic tea."

"Okay you clever clogs, why don't you come and help me choose that dress, huh?"

Walking into the bedroom, Chris looked back at Laurie, to see a look of puzzlement on her face. "What?"

"What's to choose, Mom? There's only one choice; your little black number. As far as I know, it's the only dress you've got."

Throwing the closet door open, Chris laughed out loud; of course, her daughter was correct.

The two Walker women chatted together happily while Chris dressed and swept her hair up into a simple nape knot. The smile on Suzie's face as Chris opened the door to her knock made Laurie laugh at her mother's needless worry that she was going for too simplistic a look. It was obvious, even to the young girl, that her mom's simple was enough to mesmerize the brunette.

Laurie waved them off as her mom reminded her that old Mrs. Groychek from across the road would be arriving in half hour. This half hour was her mother's compromise at allowing her a little more maturity at spending time on her own. Laurie was determined not to abuse her mother's trust, accepting that she wasn't yet quite old enough to be left home alone completely. In any case, tonight, she intended to use her mom's absence and Mrs. G's skill as a chef to prepare a surprise for both her mom and Suzie.

As Laurie and Mrs. Groychek worked wonders in Chris's kitchen, Chris and Suzie clicked face to face just as they had done protected by a telephone line.

"… so, says Simon, it's time to buy a camper and travel the wide open spaces of America."

Chris laughed at the look on her friend's face. "What?"

"All those years ago, when I was tied down with two young sons, I'd have given anything to have the option of buying a VW and just heading out into the wide blue yonder, but now…"

"Now what? Surely you don't begrudge your son the chance of following his dream?"

"But his dream was to be a CSI, to work towards that goal and become something. He should finish his course and…"

Chris interrupted; seeing immediately that Suzie was quite serious in her worry, "Oh, you're not that much of an old fogey that you can't see how this could help him be something, someone, that's different; what's your real worry?"

"Honestly? That he's going to abuse Lou's memory by dropping out of university and failing to fulfil his dream of being a CSI."

"But wasn't it you that told me her only wish was that each and everyone of you lived the life you wanted to live, and if, and maybe it's still only an if, this is the life Simon wants to live then maybe she'd be happy and content for him whatever."

Suzie smiled and nodded her head. "Yeah, I know you're right; and Lou would be happy for him. She'd have sat him down and talked it through from coast to coast probably, making sure she encouraged him to finish his studies too, and then she's have bought him the psychedelic colour scheme to go with the van, arranging to meet him at as many stops as she could. She loved to travel, loved to meet new people."

"There you go then; maybe in his way, this is more his tribute to Lou's memory than any settling for the norm."

"Hmm, maybe; I guess I need to talk it through some more with him."

She reached across the table and squeezed Chris's hand where it rested on the table top. "Thanks, Chris."

"What for?"

"For being my voice of reason; for being here; for…"

"I'm sorry to disturb you ladies, but it's getting kind of late here. Would you mind if we brought you the check over?" The waiter smiled apologetically.

In almost perfect synchronization, they both looked at their watches and gasped. Looking up, Chris caught Suzie's look of alarm and laughed in delight. "What's the matter, do you change into a pumpkin when the clock strikes midnight?"

"No; I was just worrying about Laurie."

"Oh, she'll be fine. I think she winds Mrs. Groychek around her little finger; they've probably fallen asleep watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or some such movie."

"You're kidding, right?"

"Um, yeah, I think so. Come on, let's leave Laurie to educate Mrs. G in the fine art of modern cinema and go get a nightcap at that bar across the street; it's not as if she has school anytime soon, is it?"

The truth of the matter was Chris didn't really want the day to end; what had started out as a bad day, had steadily improved. And now, this evening with Suzie was already one of the best she'd had.

Things were definitely getting better.


December 19th 2006 (Tuesday)

Suzie knelt on the floor, a roll of Scotch tape dangling from her mouth, a glass of sherry perched precariously in one hand, and Christmas songs playing on the radio as she reveled in one of her favourite activities of the week before Christmas: her wrapping presents ritual. Ever since she could remember, she'd loved the simple pleasure of choosing matching paper and gift-tags for each present bought and spending some quality time making sure each parcel looked just right. It didn't matter that half the gifts would just be torn asunder, as long as the music was playing, and she had a glass of sherry in one hand; she was happy.

This year, the ritual was even more pleasant as the events of the previous evening kept replaying in her head. She couldn't have stopped smiling if she tried. The radio blared out the ten o'clock news and another smile creased her face; had it really only been six hours since she'd dropped Chris off at her home?

After enjoying a nightcap in a nearby bar, the two women had not wanted to finish their evening and had retreated to a quiet all night diner for coffees and even more talk. Eventually, Chris insisted she must go home to allow Mrs. G the chance of having at least a few hours in her own bed and to get a little rest before today's thankfully late work shift. Reluctantly, Suzie had agreed.

As the evening played out once again in her head, she glanced at the growing pile of presents and laughed; everything looked ten times more beautiful than usual. Even the fact that they hadn't got around to arranging another date couldn't dampen her exhilaration with the night before.

She'd watched Chris climb out of the car, unable to take her eyes off her face as Chris had bent down to whisper her thanks for a wonderful evening and she, Suzie, hadn't been able to hold back her plea for it all to happen again, soon. Chris's answer had been to the point, 'Yes, we will.' Then she'd turned and walked away without a backward glance. And yet, the hint of absolute certainty in her voice made everything right in Suzie's great scheme of things to come.

Before she could replay it all again, her thoughts were disturbed by another body joining her on the floor. She looked across to see that Simon had arrived with a small pile of gifts to be wrapped, and he had somehow managed to top off her glass of sherry.

"Hey Mum; may I join the ritual this year? This is the start of Christmas, after all."

She grinned. "Yes, it is. Grab some paper and let's get going then."

Mother and son spent a while happily wrapping presents and just chatting about the coming festivities, about her date of the previous evening, about his father's burgeoning new relationship, and about his university course.

Suzie locked eyes with her son as he mentioned university, and he immediately read her thoughts.

"Mum, we need to talk."

Later, pondering the words they'd shared and sipping on her usual after sherry drink of strong black coffee, she spotted the pile of presents now looking comfortable under her tree. Her eyes immediately strayed to the small present she'd bought for Chris in the hope that they would be close enough by then to exchange gifts on the day itself. Last week, she believed it to be a forlorn hope; after last night, she was almost certain it would happen.

She stood, rinsed her cup, and shouted to Simon that she was leaving. Her hand on the door, the telephone began its slow, shrill tone. For a moment, she considered letting it go to the answering machine; then curiosity got the better of her.

The happy sound of Chris Walker's voice made her glad it had.

"Hey Suzie, I just wanted to say thank you for last night; I had a great time."

Suzie smiled; that was a good sign.

"So, did Mrs. G survive?"

"Yes, though I'm not sure my pantry did. It appears they spent the night cooking up some sort of surprise. When I got in, they were both curled up on the couch fast asleep. It was lovely to see my little one so peaceful in an older person's company. They looked so comfortable I just threw a quilt over them both and left them to it."

Suzie chuckled at the vision Chris's words had conjured in her mind. "And this morning?"

"Oh, they both had a stiff neck, but other than that, Laurie disappeared across the street to Mrs. G's, and I haven't seen her since; something's brewing."

"My tea, I hope?"

This time it was Chris who laughed out loud. "Ah, I've already had today's offering; peppermint tea. I must admit I've had it a few times before, one of the desk-clerks down at the station has it daily, claims it helps keep him regular."

Suzie laughed again.

"Now don't laugh; he's pretty serious, says the wife makes him drink it every afternoon, and he's never had a problem with you know what."

"Actually, I have no idea what he's talking about but whatever floats his boat," teased Suzie.

The easy banter they continued to share warmed Suzie. There didn't seem to be any deterioration in their compatibility; no obvious hiccough in their friendship after venturing on a date. They were just comfortable.

"Hey Chris, I'm sorry to cut this short, but I really must get into the shop. I promised Tony I'd relieve him this afternoon while he takes the grandkids shopping. How about coming round for coffee when you've finished?"

"I can't, Suzie."


Her exclamation must have shown her surprise, her disappointment, because Chris rambled on apologetically; trying to make it all right again.

"I'm not blowing you off again; I'm not. There really is nothing I'd like more, you know, but I must spend some time with Laurie getting prepared for Christmas."

"We could do it together, all of us."

"No; I really think we need to do this on our own, but I'll see you soon; I promise."

There was the certainty again. Suzie sighed and shrugged her shoulders. She really would have to get used to waiting. "Okay, take care then. Later."

"Yeah, later."

The later couldn't come soon enough for Suzie. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't get thoughts of Chris out of her head. She couldn't get rid of the notion that, despite Chris's reassurances, she'd been blown off once again. It didn't help that for once they were having a quiet time in the shop, and she had too much time to think.

When Chris's close friend Warren Bright called her across to join him for a chat, she was more than ready for the distraction. He'd come in with a work colleague an hour before and asked how the date had gone; grinning when she'd admitted it had been wonderful. Then he'd disappeared into the computer lounge to work on his latest article with the help of his colleague. Now, it seemed, he was free to gossip.

She flopped into the seat opposite with a weary sigh. "Your friend's gone, huh?"

"Yeah, he's taken the article back to the copy editor; we had a deadline to meet, but it's okay now. I'm free to chat. So, tell me, if you had such a great night, why the long face?"

Suzie smiled sadly. She hadn't realised just how transparent her feelings were.

"Oh Warren, we really did have a great time. All the easy talking we'd done over the telephone just transferred itself into the face to face setting; we were just so comfortable together. I know it sounds cliché, but we were so in tune we were finishing each other's sentences."

Warren laughed a little; he knew how much that sort of thing would freak his friend out if she let it. He thought Chris'd got over the worry, but maybe she wasn't quite there yet. He made a mental note to make sure he found time to take her somewhere private, sometime very soon. He tuned back into Suzie's words just in time to hear her say, "… it was as if we'd known each other for years."

"Maybe you have."

Suzie looked up sharply. "What do you mean?"

"I mean 'maybe you have'; ask her about her dream. It'll all make sense one day."

"Maybe I will if she ever goes out with me again."

"What do you mean; of course, she'll go out with you again." He wanted to add 'it's in her life', but knew his theories of predestination and fate were not understood, never mind believed in, by the majority of people. Since his survival at the time of Tom Walker's too early death, he'd come to believe more and more that everything happened for a reason, and he really did believe that Suzie was meant to happen to Chris. But that wasn't what Suzie wanted to hear right now, so he toned down his response.

"She's just scared."


He touched her hand. "Yes, she's scared that this will all be too strong, too soon. You do know she's never had a real relationship other than Tom; they met at school and, until his death, had been each other's only love. Give her time, Suzie; she'll get there. Don't worry; she'll get there."

Something in his words and his touch brought the positive feeling back; he knew Chris better than anybody else, and if he said she would get there, Suzie was convinced she would.

She could look forward with hope.


December 20th 2006 (Wednesday)

Chris stood ironing her work shirts, occasionally glancing over towards her daughter watching some mindless show on the television.

She swept the iron backwards and forwards, pressing down as hard as she dared. She prided herself on her carefully creased shirts, but there was another reason for her diligence with the iron; normally, the to and fro, mindless action of the sweeping iron acted as a mind cleaner.

Ironing had always allowed her to clear her mind of all the job's turmoil. Today, however, the maelstrom of thoughts roaming around in her head just increased in intensity. All she could think of was Suzie and how she, Chris, had, once again, pulled back from the feeling of inevitability.

Her mind was full of reasons why the friendship, because that's all she could call it right now, should be treasured and nurtured, counteracting with reasons why she should resist the pull and do what she had been doing for the last seven years, managing alone.

She sighed as another problem pushed itself to the front of her thoughts; Laurie. She knew the girl got on well with Suzie; in fact, Suzie had been a calming, helping influence on the blossoming young woman over the past months, ensuring she knuckled down to her studies and built up her skills in the debating corner. If anything, Suzie was as much Laurie's friend as she was Chris's friend.

But how would Laurie react if her mom were to date Suzie, and if things developed as her heart was telling her it would, how would she react if the two women were to become more than just friends?

She looked over towards Laurie, staring as if it would allow her to read her daughter's mind. Maybe, now was the time to talk.


The girl looked up at her mom and frowned. She grunted in response, trying to indicate she was too busy to talk, but Chris was determined.

"We need to talk. I need to talk to you about Suzie. What do you..."

"Stop right there…"

Chris's eyes popped open in surprise when Laurie spun around to glare at her mom; especially, when she continued her words.

"… if you're going to ask me if it's okay for you to date Suzie then don't bother."

Laurie must have seen the incredulous look on Chris's face as she softened her tone and added, "It's really none of my business, Mom."

"Of course it's your business; you matter to me."

""Look, if you want to go out with Suzie, then do; if you don't, then don't. It's what you want, not what…"


Laurie raised her voice slightly again. "There is no 'but'. I love you, you love me, and neither of those things are going to change whatever happens."

She glanced back towards the television and then to her mom again. "Oh, and this has nothing to do with me wanting to watch this program; it really is up to you."

With those words, she turned back to her program and left Chris to ponder; it was up to her. She looked down at her perfectly ironed shirt; she had to make the decision where to go next in her life. She'd known that was the case really, but having family made things different, didn't it? She'd had to ask.

A smile crossed her face at Laurie's quietly muttered voice in the background. "Anyway, I like Suzie."

Chris chuckled; it was just like her daughter to eventually get to the heart of the matter. She was so much like her father in that respect. Chris always needed to think things through; Tom just went with the flow. If he wanted something; he would go for it and think later. Laurie was the same. As far as she was concerned, if her mom wanted to date Suzie, she should just do it.

She carefully placed her shirt on its hanger and bent to collect another, placing it over the ironing board, before continuing with the mindless to and fro.

Eventually, her work was disturbed by the ringing of her telephone. Thankful for a break, she flicked the kettle on to boil as she passed on the way to answer the call.

"Hey Chris; it's Josh."

Chris smiled to hear the caller's voice. "What can I do for you?"

She was pretty sure her answer had been open and welcoming, but even then, she was surprised to hear the hint of laughter in his voice as he teased. "Now don't worry I'm not here to get the scoop on the date, I think mum's smile was proof enough of how that went; I just thought I'd update you on the jumper situation."

She'd already heard from the officers that had been on the roof with Josh and the suicidal young man how successful he'd been, but she was pleased he'd thought to call and let her know personally.

"Go on; how'd it go?"

"Good, good. When I got there, he was sitting on the edge threatening to drop over. Gradually, I managed to sit down next to him and began to talk. Not that I like talking, you know."

Chris laughed.

"Anyway, we got to just talking about families and everything. I told him about Mum, about Simon, and a little about Mags and how that was developing. I even told him about the debating contest Laurie and I took part in and how we're going to do something in the spring, too. After a while, he started to respond and tell me his story, and, the plain crux of the matter was he'd just taken too long making decisions in his life. Whenever he decided to try something new; he was too late."

"How'd you mean?"

"Oh, like recently he'd fallen in love with an older woman and her with him by all accounts. He'd thought she was too old and that he'd be ridiculed by family and friends and had told her there was no way they could ever be together. And then, after talking it through with his father, he'd realized how wrong he was, too late; she'd left for the other side of the world."


"The last straw?"

"Yeah, I guess that's what I mean."

"He was playing roulette and knew thirteen would turn lucky soon enough. He was waiting until game thirteen to play on the thirteen; guess what game the thirteen fell lucky?"

Chris sighed, knowing the answer without thinking. "I guess it was in twelve."

"Yeah, anyways, we talked and talked, and I got to talking about Louise, and how she'd always said there was no time like the present and, all of a sudden, he jumped up – damn, Chris, I nearly fell off the roof at that point – he jumped up and said 'I'm catching the plane to Australia as of tomorrow, I've no money, no job, but maybe, just maybe, my love is enough'."

"Oh Josh, it sounds like you did a wonderful job. Let's hope he's made that decision early enough this time. So… how're you? How's things in that head of yours; feeling any more settled again?"

"Yeah, I think I am. After talking to Bill on that roof, I've realised that Louise was right; there really is no time like the present, if you leave it too late, the chance is gone. So…"

He hesitated, obviously a little self-conscious. Chris encouraged him to continue.

"So… I've applied to The Crimes Against Youth and Family Bureau; I really think I can make a difference there, you know."

"That's great news. You do know I'd be willing to endorse your application, right?

"Yes, I do, but this time, Chris, I think I'd like to try on my own. I can't have people thinking I'm Officer Walker's pet boy, now can I?"

His words were quiet and a little shaky as if he thought he would upset the woman that had supported him so much during the past twelve months. In truth, the smile that graced Chris's face was huge, she couldn't have been more proud of Josh at that minute if he'd been her own son.

Chris allowed a laugh to cross the airwaves, hoping he could tell she was proud of his decision.

A few moments later, after checking that she would see him at the climbing party, the two friends disconnected their call.

Chris turned back towards her ironing, his words ringing in her head, 'really is no time like the present, if you leave it too late the chance is gone'. With another sigh, she walked towards her kettle, ready to make the cup of tea she'd promised herself, when her husband's words from just before they'd decided to try for a child echoed in her thoughts, ' if we don't do it now, Chris, it'll be too late.'

Too late. She turned away from the kettle, picked up the phone once more, and dialled her favourite number.

Suzie's voice answered within moments.

"I'm sorry I was such an ass yesterday; if the offer's still open, I wondered if we could go out for a drink later tonight. Laurie has a sleepover at a friend's, and I've got a short administrative shift until 8pm; maybe we could meet at the Spring Valley Pub at nine?"

Suzie jumped in quickly to say yes before Chris could stumble over more apologies.

And so it was, that at 9.15pm, Chris placed two pints of Guinness down on the table and dropped wearily into the seat opposite a grinning Suzie.

Suzie looked around the bar, seeing an assortment of clientele, some still in business suits, some in casual wear, some couples, some groups, but all apparently enjoying themselves. She touched her glass to Chris's and asked a burning question. "So, why here?"

"Oh, it's within easy walking distance of my place, and it's owned by two cool, laid back dudes who treat the customers like people."

"Two laid back dudes, huh?" Suzie teased.

"Hmm, that's what comes of having a teenager in the house. Anyway, as you can taste… " Chris indicated the white moustache on Suzie's upper lip and reached across to wipe it off. Her actions, surprising and unexpected to both herself and Suzie, caused each woman to catch her breath.

Trying to hide her unease, Chris quickly continued her spiel. "Um, yeah, as you can taste, they've got a good tap selection, reasonable prices, and good people.  What more can you ask for?  Oh yeah, karaoke on Friday nights!"

Suzie laughed at her words. "I don't think we'll be doing that very soon – um, will we?"

The confusing moment immediately forgotten, Chris teased. "Oh, I think that it'd be quite a good idea in the future; I bet you could do a mean 'My Way'."

"So… there's going to be a future is there?" Her words were teasing, but her meaning was clear.

Chris felt a blush cross her features as she mumbled her answer. "Yeah, I hope so."

"That's what Warren said would happen."

Suzie's mention of her best friend stunned Chris, and she raised her eyebrows in a question.

"I had coffee with him yesterday. He and a colleague came in to finish an article in peace and quiet; afterwards, he stayed back for a chat. I hope you don't mind, but I asked him why you'd blown me off yesterday."

"I didn't blow you off." Chris's retort was immediate.

"I know that now, but yesterday, I thought I'd done something wrong, and… anyway, Warren put me straight on a few things, said he knew why you were feeling a little scared about this…" she indicated the air between the two of them.

Chris nodded in acknowledgment and then chuckled at thoughts of her friend chatting with her potential girlfriend, wondering how he had rationalised her behaviour. "He did, did he? What amazing theory did he have for my, um, let's call it cowardice?" Whatever he'd said, she would be calling him as soon as she could to admonish him about his attempt at matchmaking.

"He said I had to ask you about your dream."

Suzie's answer surprised her; she looked up to lock eyes with Suzie, seeing the look of interest in her earnest gaze.

She hadn't considered her dream for years.


December 21st 2006 (Thursday)

Suzie woke with a start to the sound of a distant telephone. She rolled over with a happy sigh as someone answered, immediately falling back into the blissful half-aware state that everybody loved.

"I'm sure she won't mind, Laurie. Maybe I'll see you later, too; we need to start thinking about our next debate."

Her son's words and his loud burst of laughter roused her into alertness.

"Yeah, after Christmas, you're right, Kiddo."

It appeared she might be getting a visitor sometime later in the day. And, if Laurie was visiting, it hopefully meant Chris would be visiting, too. She rested back to await her son's news. Sure enough, a few moments later, Josh's head appeared around the door.

"Are you awake, Mum?"

Her yes brought him further into the room, and she was pleased when he carried with him a steaming mug of tea. He leaned over and kissed her cheek before launching into his tale of the telephone call.

"Come on, Mum, you need to get up. That was Laurie, her friend's not feeling well, and Chris has suggested she ask you if she might spend the day at the coffee shop. Chris will then pick her up when she goes home, somewhere around 6pm. I said it would be okay; if there's a problem you've to ring Chris, and she'll contact Jo, but Jo's collecting their parents from the airport, so…"

"I get the picture, Son. Of course, it's okay for Laurie to visit; I like having her around, you know that."

"Yeah, I do; especially if it means Chris is in the picture, too."

"Oy!" Suzie swiped her son's shoulder in mock irritation. He snickered, which automatically made Suzie think of all the times she'd spent with her eldest son as he'd been growing up and she'd been struggling as a single mom. She marveled at how the times had changed. Suddenly, a thought hit her.

"What are you doing here anyway? I thought you'd bought a, what were your words, a spacious bachelor pad in the very heart of swinging Vegas?"

"Yeah, yeah; but when your baby brother challenges you to a game of squash followed by coffee and a chat, and then he proceeds to twist his ankle, you kinda have to make sure he gets home alright."

Suzie looked shocked. "Is he okay?"

"He's fine. I think he'll have a sore ankle this morning, but he'll be good."

Josh looked at his mom, and his faced turned serious. "He's happy, you know?" seeing her nod he added, "And he's a good kid, mum; he'll do the right thing eventually."

Suzie nodded again; she did know that. "Yeah, he will be fine, and so will we."

They shared a hug. "So, tell me, how's Laurie getting to the coffee shop?"

"Oh, her friend's mom is going to drop her off around 11 o'clock, so you can take your time with that cuppa and spend a few minutes daydreaming about you know who."

Once again she mock punched his shoulder. "Go on with you; get out of here while I enjoy my time."

For once in her life, she listened to her son's advice and let her mind think about Chris and their impromptu date of last night. It had been a lovely surprise when Chris had called to invite her for a drink and even more of a surprise when Chris had wiped the froth from her top lip. The action had sent a tingle of electricity shooting down to her toes, and she was sure Chris had had the same reaction. Yet, despite that, the action had been so simple and instinctual, it had been right.

And then Chris's shy insistence that there would be more times, more dates, had pushed Suzie into asking the question Warren had prompted during their earlier chat; the question that he thought would prove his theory of why Chris was so scared to just see where this feeling of inevitability led to.

Chris had looked shocked at the direct question but had, thought Suzie, haltingly and bravely explained about her dream. She described in vivid detail the dark haired, brown eyed woman that had haunted her dreams since being old enough to remember. She admitted that meeting her husband had stopped the physical search for its reality, but also admitted that the dreams had never really stopped.

Then, staring into Suzie's eyes, she'd been honest enough to add that thoughts of her dream turning into reality scared her to death, and yet, she'd never really stopped her searching; like Warren, she'd come to believe that everything happened for a reason, and if the dream meant what Chris thought it meant, then there wasn't really very much she could do about it in the long run.

Suzie hadn't told Chris that she, too, had a dream foretelling the developing relationship; had been too scared to frighten Chris off again just as she was beginning to accept the inevitable truth that this was meant to be.

Allowing her mind's eye to revisit her own long-standing dream, she was pretty certain that Lou had been right, that the blonde in her dream was her fate. She'd recognized Chris as her dream woman the minute Chris had crossed the coffee shop floor just ten days previously, and with that recognition had come the acceptance that whatever had happened through this past year, and whatever happened on into the coming year, was just her life panning out as it had always meant to do.

Sure that things were beginning to happen in the right order, Suzie made her way into the shop, making plans to invite Chris and Laurie to her home for Christmas dinner. She was sure they'd already have plans, but she wanted to make sure they both knew they were wanted in her home life.

As she approached the shop, she could see Laurie and an unknown woman walking towards her. Laurie waved and pointed her out to the stranger. They all met at the shop doorway.

"Mrs. C, this is Suzie Hofmeyer, the owner of Elliot's Place, and my friend." Laurie indicated the shop behind her as Suzie shook the woman's hand. "Suzie, this is Mrs. Connolly, Lizzie's mom; you know my best friend, Lizzie, this is her mom."

"I'm pleased to meet you, Suzie. Laurie never stops talking about you and the gang at the coffee shop. I believe you took care of my daughter one day in the summer when she was helping Laurie with her debating, I never thanked you then, I'm thanking you now."

Suzie could barely remember the girl, but she accepted the thanks and smiled at Laurie.

"And thanks for taking Laurie now, Lizzie's decided to be sickly again, so it means a lot that you can help out. I just hate letting Chris down with childcare; she's always so helpful to me. Anyway, I must let you get on. I'm sure you must be busy at this time of year. Maybe I can pop in and have a coffee after Christmas sometime. Bye Laurie. Bye Suzie." And with that, Mrs. Connolly left Suzie and Laurie staring in her wake.

Suzie winked at Laurie. "Phew, I bet you don't get a sore throat when you stay at Lizzie's house."

Laurie chuckled, understanding the joke immediately. "No, only earache. Thanks for being my saviour."

"You're very welcome, young lady; now, come on, let's go and see what the gang is up to."

Three hours later, after Laurie had finished wiping the floor with all-comers to the Wii Olympics set up by Candida, and after Suzie had convinced Chris that an evening meal at her place was the best remedy for a busy last day at work, Suzie and Laurie were making their way back out to Henderson.

Exiting off South Green Valley Parkway, Suzie turned onto Donlon Court and smiled at the look of awe on Laurie's face. She knew that Chris owned a lovely 4-bedroom home in Spring Valley, had even seen the outside of her family house, but wasn't afraid to admit that her own place, albeit still only 4-bedroom, dwarfed Laurie's home.

As she turned into her driveway, she indicated the small remote control on her dashboard and nodded for Laurie to press the open switch. Laurie gasped in amazement as the garage doors opened wide.

Suzie took her inside and gave her the guided tour before ending up seated in front of her large wall-mounted HDTV screen, eating cookies. Surprisingly, Laurie wasn't interested in the TV screen; she couldn't keep her eyes off the view through Suzie's French windows.

"Do you want to go outside and look over the pool?"

"Can I?"

"Yes, of course you can, you just put one foot in front of the other, and push the door open."

"Hardeharhar, you sound like mom."

Suzie grinned as she watched Laurie do exactly what she'd said, inordinately pleased at Laurie's loud squeals of pleasure; for some reason, she needed Laurie to be impressed with her home. Outside, Laurie's voice rambled in her excitement.

"Oh, Suzie, this is amazing. Is that a spa in the corner? You should see our pool; it's so old it's all cracked and broken down. Mom says it would take her three weekends of overtime to even get a quote on the work. She's absolutely going to love this. You should invite her over… " and then, with a smirk, she added, "… she looks gorgeous in a bikini."

Suzie spun around to see the look of glee in Laurie's eyes, almost as blue as her mother's and with the same depth of emotion. She sighed in exasperation. Sometimes she wasn't sure that becoming friends with Chris's daughter first was the best thing she'd ever done, but whatever happened, she'd make it work; Chris would be worth it.

As if summoned by both their thoughts, a knock sounded at the door. Suzie opened the door to find a smiling Chris standing on her threshold.

"Hey, you're early. Come on through."

"Hmm, one of the guys came in early, said I deserved some time with my daughter, and told me to go. Who am I to argue with an offer like that? So, here I am."

Chris looked up to spy the daughter in question hurtling towards her. "Mom, come and look at this; you'll be amazed. I was…" Laurie tugged on her mom's arm, pulling her towards the French windows.

"Whoa, whoa, young lady, let me at least say hello to Suzie."

"Oh mom, kiss her already and come on."

Suzie laughed a happy laugh, covering up the two women's instant embarrassment; kissing was something they hadn't shared – yet.

"Show your mom the rest of downstairs, too, Laurie. I'll just start preparing something to eat." Turning to Chris she asked, "Do you want a drink?"

"Coffee would be great, thank you." Indicating the house, Chris asked, "You sure?"

"Yes, go on; I'll be in the kitchen."

Suzie listened to the sounds of the Walker women walking around her home as she began preparing a light snack. For the first time since Louise had gone and the boys had grown away from the place, her home really felt like a home.

After a while, Chris joined her in the kitchen, and the unmistakable sound of Jamie Lynn Spears indicated that Zoey 101 was just starting, meaning Laurie would be busy for a few minutes at least.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"Yeah, the coffee's just about ready. Mugs are in that cupboard there, knock yourself out."

Chris poured the coffees and then stood with her mug, sipping slowly, and just watched Suzie work. Suzie could feel the weight of Chris's gaze and turned to stare back.

"What? Have I got a stain on my pants?"

Chris chuckled. "No; I'm just enjoying the view."

The blush that crept up her face warmed Suzie enough to spur her into taking a chance.

"I've been thinking; would you and Laurie care to join me and the boys for Christmas dinner?"


December 22nd 2006 (Friday)

The temperature was slightly higher than a normal December day, and Chris could vaguely see the hint of a heat haze over the desert sands spreading for miles before her. The more she looked, the more she was convinced she was imagining things. She chuckled to herself; it was just like her to look for something that wasn't there. It was as if she'd been looking for problems in what was developing with Suzie; after last night, she was almost certain there was nothing to worry about.


She already knew that she and Suzie complemented each other in many ways; she knew that Laurie was happy with the situation; and she knew that life hadn't been as good as this for many a month, so why did she still tremble a little at the thoughts of what tomorrow might bring?

If there was one thing Officer Walker prided herself on, it was that she held no fear, whatever the situation. Mrs. Christine Walker, however, was a different kettle of fish altogether.

The more she spent time with Suzie though, the more comfortable she felt with the future. Another of those chuckles, that had become all the more frequent since her interactions with the Hofmeyers, bubbled up from her chest. Comfortable – that word just kept popping up every time she considered the past ten days, indeed the past five months since her very first shared conversation with Suzie.

Like last night, after eating a light salad around the large kitchen table, they'd just sat chatting about life and everything. Laurie had been in the background watching television, and suddenly, Simon had appeared in the kitchen. He'd introduced his friend to his mom, and then said they were off again but would see them both at the climbing party. He hadn't bothered introducing himself to Chris; it was as if she was a regular fixture in his mom's kitchen. He'd just leaned over, given his mom a hug, waved a simple good bye to Laurie, and then brushed his hand over Chris's shoulder as he'd passed by.

Everything was normal, everything was comfortable.

"I'd give more than a penny for some of those thoughts, hon."

Startled, Chris turned quickly to find the kind face of her father smiling back at her. Giving him a big hug, she gave her apologies.

"Sorry, Dad, I was just having five minutes thinking time."

He laughed. "Five minutes? You've been out here for half an hour now. Aren't you getting a little chilly?"

"Dad, it must be all of 60 degrees."

"Yeah, but that's chilly for out here, isn't it?" Gordon Dunn wrapped his arms around his eldest daughter, squeezing as hard as he could. It wasn't often he got to spend personal time with either of his girls these days; so times like now were precious. "So, are you gonna tell your old dad what it is that's gotten you so thoughtful?"

"Oh, it's nothing really."

"So, it's nothing to do with this Suzie woman I keep hearing so much about, huh?" Chris could hear the teasing tone in her father's voice. She smiled and tapped the edge of her nose.

"Ah, but, hon, I never get a chance to chat with you these days; it's always you and Mom that do the honours. How about letting me in on this secret first; that'd be one in the eye for your Mom, huh?"

This time it was Chris that let her laughter ring out. "Dad! It's not a competition, you know"

His wink and smile told her more than his words ever could; he really was just concerned. She dragged him over towards Jo's garden seat and pulled him down to sit by her side.

After telling him the condensed version of her relationship so far with the coffee shop owner, she trusted him with her fears. She adored her mom and shared everything she could possibly could with her, but it was her father's counsel she trusted above all others.

"Dad, may I ask you something?" Seeing his nod she continued, "This thing with Suzie, it's driving me insane. It just feels so inevitable; since the minute I first laid eyes on her – hell, from the first time we just spoke to each other – I've felt as if there's been a magnet pulling us together. The only time I've had a feeling anywhere like this one; it was when I first met Tom…"

Her dad stopped her outpouring with a hand on her arm. He waited until her eyes locked with his own and then said, "And that didn't work out too badly, did it?"

Chris's eyes popped wide; trust her dad to be so to the point. She'd never considered it like that.

"Well, no, but now there's Laurie, and there's Suzie's boys to think of too."

Again he stayed her words. "And they're unhappy, I take it?" He knew damn well that Laurie wasn't unhappy with the situation; he'd already had his Grandfatherly chat with his grandaughter.

"No, Dad, but…"

"Chris, there is no but about all of this, you know? Only the 'buts' you make. I remember Tom saying the day he signed up for that damn drug squad role, he said, 'Pops, life is what we make it; nobody else can do the job, and if this is the job I was meant to do, then I'm damn well just gonna go with the flow and do it well."

He smiled shyly. "Um, well it was something like that. What he meant, and what he believed, was that life happened whatever you did or didn't do, so you might as well just get on and do it right. Chris, if your heart, your head, your soul, whatever, tells you that this is right, just get on and do it. But, my girl, for everyone's sake you'd better do it right, 'cos we all care so damn much about you, we'd kill you if you didn't."

Once again happy laughter bubbled in Chris's chest. "Oh, Dad, I wouldn't expect anything less. Thank you for being there for me, I'll try my best to do this right, I promise."

He hugged her tight again and took her hand in his, pulling her up into a standing position. "I know you will, hon, I know you will. Now, come on inside and let's tell your mom the good news, huh?"

Later, sitting at home, waiting for Suzie to arrive for their prearranged 'girl's movie night,' she remembered her mom, and her dad's obvious pleasure as she'd told them about Suzie and her world. They'd both been fascinated by the story behind the Advent tea calendar and were keen to share one of the traditional brews. Chris had promised to bring over some Lady Grey for their tasting, probably on Christmas Day when the family was getting together for the traditional meal.

As she'd left, her mom had whispered that not only were they keen to sample the tea but also to sample Suzie's company. Although chatting with her dad had helped her come to some critical decisions, the thought of sharing Suzie with her family still brought a bead of sweat to her forehead.

Whatever happened from now on in, Chris was going to take each step in stride and not spare any of her own feelings. Every relationship, no matter how right it appeared, needed work to make it actually happen. Today, she'd made the decision to work at any relationship that developed with Suzie. She knew there'd still be bad days, knew there'd be days when it all felt too much, but at least now, she was giving it a chance.

"Hey Chris, Laurie let me in; I guess you didn't hear the door."

Chris jumped up as Suzie's voice interrupted her thoughts. The smile that broke on both of their faces was genuine. "Come in, come in, I missed you."

The words that slipped from Chris's lips were just as genuine and true. Suzie smiled and dipped her head in acknowledgment before admitting quietly, "Yeah, me too."

Chris indicated the sofa she'd been sitting on. "Do you want a drink? Tea, coffee, something stronger?"

"Actually… " Suzie indicated the kitchen, "… Laurie said I had to get you to show me around while she made us a surprise. Said she'd give us a shout when it's ready."

"Oh, she did, did she? Well, you're welcome to have a look around or maybe we could just sit down and have a chat; there'll be plenty of days to show you the house."

Chris's words brought another grin to Suzie's face, and she pointed towards the sofa. "Shall we?"

Dropping onto the couch, they each turned their bodies so they were facing each other. Chris brought Suzie up to speed on her activities of the day, admitting her parents' interest in tasting the tea, and received an immediate invite to bring them to the coffee shop during the week after Christmas.

"Oh, that reminds me; I've been thinking about Christmas Day and your gracious invitation; would it be okay if we arranged to meet up on the Tuesday instead?"

A look of disappointment crossing Suzie's face wasn't missed by Chris, and she bit her lip at her hesitancy in asking to meet up Christmas evening. She sighed inwardly; after all her earlier pledges of going with the flow, she'd still managed to hold back again.

Suzie choked back on her disappointment by saying, "That sounds wonderful, Chris. Just know the invite for Christmas Day is open all day. You could even bring your folks over anytime, as you know my house is plenty big enough and the boys would love the extra company. When Louise was with us at Christmas, we always had large parties as many of her business colleagues used to come over in the evenings. The boys became experts at charades."

"What's charades?" came Laurie's voice as she wandered in from the kitchen carrying two large glasses of eggnog.

Chris's voice beat Suzie's answer to the question. "Laurie! Where'd you learn to make eggnog? Is it the real stuff?"

"Mom! It's the non-alcoholic version; Suzie's driving, you know? And, if you must know, Mrs. G used to be one of the chefs at The Bellagio; she's a whizz with all things food and drink."

"Ah, okay; that's alright then. I suppose that's why my pantry was so empty after the other night?"

Laurie grinned evilly. "Ah no, that was because of my other surprise. So, before I go and get that, what's charades?"

Suzie had been mesmerized by the mom/daughter interaction, and it took her a few moments to catch on that she was supposed to answer the question. "Um, charades is a European parlour game in which you have to "act out" a phrase without speaking, while the other members of your team try to guess what the phrase is. The idea is to use physical rather than verbal language to convey the meaning, and it sure can get a little exciting, if you see what I mean?"

The two older women shared a smile as Laurie looked at Suzie as if she were speaking a foreign language.

"Whatever… I won't be a minute; I've got a surprise for you both."

A few moments later, she came walking through with two small plates, on top of which sat a piece of some type of bread. Giving each woman a plate Laurie said, "This is home-made Stollen, especially for my favourite ladies. Merry Christmas."

Suzie was the first to react. "Oh my, Stollen. Where did you hear about Stollen? And how did you make this on your own?"

Blushing as her mom gave her a hug and a sloppy kiss, she turned to answer. "Well, Mags told me all about the tradition behind it, but it was Mrs. Groychek who told me how to make it. And while you two were out enjoying yourself, she helped me make this special kind. It's a sweeter version of the original with a roll of marzipan running through the core. Mrs. G says it's her family's traditional treat to enjoy with a glass of eggnog, while watching 'It's a Wonderful Life' with those you care about."

As the two women watched Laurie intently, she wandered over to the television and cued up the beginning of said movie. "Voila," she muttered as she swept her arm out to indicate the contents of the room before leaving to collect her own plate of cake.

Chris couldn't help the tears coming to her eyes, pleased beyond measure to also see wetness in Suzie's eyes as well. She waited until Laurie returned before tasting her treat. "Wow, Laurie, this is wonderful. You knew marzipan was one of my favourites, didn't you?"

Laurie nodded. "Yes, that's one of the reasons I decided to give it a go."

"It's lovely, Laurie; thank you for letting me be a part of this treat, too," Suzie murmured, inwardly thrilled to be included in this loving gesture.

"Of course, you're a part of this, you're family. Now shush, both of you, the movie's beginning."

By the time, Zuzu Bailey excitedly muttered 'Look, Daddy! Teacher says, every time a bell rings, an Angel gets his wings,' Chris had her head resting on Suzie's shoulder and Laurie was snuggled into her other side, fast asleep.

Gently extracting herself from her blankets, Chris rose to switch off the TV. Turning back to Suzie, she whispered, "It's late; did you want to stay the night? I have a lovely big guest-room; you'd be more than welcome."

"Thanks for the offer, but no, I told Simon I'd be back to give him a lift to the party." Getting up from the sofa, she leaned over to give Laurie a kiss, and then locked eyes with Chris. "Maybe next time."

Watching Suzie throw on her jacket, Chris whispered, "It's a date." And then, followed Suzie to the door.

At the door, Suzie turned around with a happy look plastered all over her face. "Thank Laurie for a lovely evening, won't you? And thank you, too." As she said the words, she leaned forward to hug Chris, who was in the process of turning to check on Laurie. The cheek-kiss Suzie had intended to share landed just to the side of Chris's lips.

In surprise at the contact, Chris reared back awkwardly, stunned to see Suzie walking away as if nothing had happened. At her car, Suzie turned to shout, "I'll see you tomorrow at the climbing party?"

Chris was satisfied to hear the slight tremble in Suzie's voice; it appeared the near-miss-kiss had affected her, too.

"Pick us up on your way in?"

Chris smiled as Suzie acknowledged the request with a nod and then watched until Suzie's car rounded the corner into St. John's Boulevard. With a breathless sigh, she leaned back against the doorframe, touching her fingers to her lips.

She'd known their first kiss would be strong, but after that touch, she had an idea it'd be too strong.


December 23rd 2006 (Saturday)

Seventy five feet up in the air, reasonably petrified, Suzie wasn't quite sure she was seeing what she thought she was seeing: Chris talking with Simon, Mario apparently arguing manically with his normally so calm boyfriend, the Greens playing air hockey with two youngsters, and, her ex, Robert, escorting some blonde woman towards the bar.

"Josh, I'm not sure I'm going to be able to get down from here; the whole damn room is spinning around. You…"

It was the youthful voice of Laurie Walker that interrupted her whining. "Suzie, Suzie, calm down; take a deep breath and look at me."

Suzie looked down towards the sound of the voice, surprised to see the 12 year-old just a foot to her right. Focusing on Laurie, she smiled. "Hey!"

"See, it's only a few feet down. Just concentrate on us, and it's an exhilarating feeling, I promise you."

Her heart still trembling, she looked across to see her son and Mags smiling back at her. Their faces were flushed, and she could see they, too, were taking deep breaths – maybe this feeling was actually normal.

"Is it normal to feel as if there's no oxygen to breathe up here?"

The three friends at the top of the wall with Suzie all laughed happily.

Mags shouted out over the clamour. "Of course, Suze, you've just climbed seventy odd feet without stopping, what do you expect?"

Josh grinned slyly and added his two cents, "And at your age Mum, that's quite an achievement."

If she hadn't been clinging tightly to her rope, she'd have swiped him in mock annoyance. Instead, she had to use her mom voice. "Just wait until you want something, Joshua Hofmeyer."

Laurie and Mags both did a double take at his given name, mouthing 'Joshua' to each other and snickering into their hands.

Suzie smiled and now, a good deal more calm, took a few minutes to look down over the watching crowd. Sure enough, her eyes immediately fastened on the blonde hair of Chris chatting animatedly with her youngest son. As if drawn by Suzie's stare, Chris swung her eyes upwards and locked on Suzie; she tugged on Simon's arm to point out his mom's position, and the two on the ground waved in acknowledgement.

The four climbers all raised their hands in greeting.

"So… how do we get down from here?" muttered Suzie, once again a little scared of what was to come.

"Well, you see that guy down there holding your rope?" Josh waited for his mom to nod. "When you're ready, you have to indicate to him, and he'll guide you, just like he explained before we climbed up here."

Suzie smirked at her son's irritated words; she'd been listening really and was only teasing. "You mean I have to rappel all the way down there? Well, I'll have you know I'm an expert."

Josh laughed out loud. "You an expert? Yeah, pull the other one."

His mom tapped her nose, muttered 'Just watch…', tugged on her rope and indicated down with her free hand, and then just threw herself backwards, expertly manoeuvring herself to the floor. Once at the bottom, she gave a very discrete but definite finger to her son and waited.

As soon as Josh reached the floor, he threw his arms around his mom and hugged her tight. "That was amazing, mum, where'd you learn to do that?"

"Now that'd be telling, son; let's just say we had a few outdoor training camps at high school and leave it at that." She chuckled at his look of disbelief. "I'd pretty much forgotten all about it until you practically threw down that challenge."

Moments later, she received hugs from Mags and Laurie as they too successfully made their descent. The group enjoyed a good laugh as they all made their way across towards Chris and Simon.

Chris stood as they approached, opening her arms out wide for Laurie to lean in and give her a hug. "That was amazing, hon. I can see you've listened to Josh and Mags." She smiled at the young couple who'd moved over to sit down beside Simon, and then pulled Suzie into a spontaneous hug. "And your descent had to be the crowning glory; where'd you learn to do that?"

Before Suzie could enlighten Chris, Josh shouted out, "At high school, would you believe?"

"At high school, huh? Sure wish I'd gone to a school like that; all we were allowed to try was a high dive at the swimming pool, and that was only once we'd swum a mile!"

The youngsters of the group laughed at Chris's words while the two older women shared a knowing smile.

"Who wants a drink?" Simon called out. "Geoff's already gone to the bar… " he looked at his watch and frowned, "… but that was twenty minutes ago; I think I'll go rescue him. So, drinks?"

As the climbers gave their orders, Chris asked of Suzie, "Geoff?"

"You know the guy that was at my place on Thursday; Simon's friend."

"Oh yeah, a lot's happened since then to dull the brain cells, I'd forgotten. Come on, let's sit down and watch the next group start their climb."

Sitting down next to each other, Suzie looked over to the wall and pointed. "Is that Sam just setting off?"

Chris followed the line of Suzie's pointing finger and spotted her nephew, starting on one of the beginner's climbs, being cajoled and encouraged by Mario and Mark. "Yep, that's Sam. The guys offered to take him for a short lesson and then an easy climb; looks like they've succeeded."

Suzie indicated Mario and his boyfriend. "Were they arguing while I was on top of that tower?"

"Yeah, I think they were. I couldn't quite hear what it was all about, but it got pretty heated at one point and then, nothing, just perfect calm and all lovey-dovey as usual," answered Chris with a shrug.

"Lovey-dovey?" teased Suzie.

"Yeah, you know what I mean; they're just the perfect couple."

"Hmm, maybe they're not; I'll have to keep my eye on Mario, see if he needs any help."

Chris chuckled. "Ah, going all Mama Suzie, huh?" She smiled as Suzie ducked her head shyly.

Before Suzie could respond to the good natured teasing, an excited voice called her name. She looked up to see Hannah and Jim arriving with an older couple.

"Oh, it appears Jim's brought his folks along; will you excuse me a minute?"

Chris stood at the same time as Suzie, squeezing her hand in the process. "Yes, of course; I think I'll go and watch Sam for a while so I can tell his mom how well he's done."

Suzie looked down at their joined hands. She wasn't sure what had brought about the change, but after Chris had left her place on Thursday night, she'd become much more open and demonstrative, thinking nothing of touching a hand, stroking a forearm, or resting a hand on Suzie's knee. She shrugged; she couldn't care less why, she was just going to enjoy the physical contact.

They parted to go their separate ways, and Suzie immediately missed the warmth.

She grinned towards her young employees and the older couple standing shyly at their side.

"Mom, Dad, this is Suzie Hofmeyer, my boss and owner of Elliot's Place. Suzie, this is my dad, George, and my mom, Andrea."

Shaking hands, Suzie greeted the older couple enthusiastically. She blushed when the woman gave her a hug and whispered her thanks for Suzie's help with Hannah's predicament with her grandmother. Once the awkward moment was over and Suzie had claimed no thanks were needed, she was pleasantly surprised to learn George had actually come into contact with Louise Elliot at one of his company's charity evenings.

"Oh my, that's amazing. You know something; I think I attended that Gala evening, too." Suzie laughed in real pleasure. "I think I was sitting in the back row, wondering if I'd made the right decision to accept a date with this dynamo of a woman." Indicating the room and her wealth of friends, happy and carefree together, she added a little quieter, "Now, I know I did."

George smiled in return and indicated his son and Hannah. "And I know that you did, too." Looking around the room, he spotted another older couple playing air hockey with a group of excited youngsters.

"I always thought you were supposed to play that game in singles."

Suzie followed his line of sight, shocked to see Harry and Bertha Green dodging around each other at one end of the slim hockey table, taking turns playing their shot. The speed of the game meant that more shots were missed than were hit, but the older couple and the kids were having a riot of a time. George's question interrupted her fascination of the game.

"Is that Harry Green and his wife making fools of themselves?" There was no malice in his words.

"Yeah, that's right. Do you know them?"

It was Andrea who answered the question. "Hmm, they lived just around the corner from us when we first came to Vegas; Bertha used to baby-sit for Jim while we enjoyed a few nights out."

Jim looked shocked; he'd seen the couple on their regular jaunts to the coffee shop and hadn't put two and two together. "Come on, let's go and introduce ourselves. I can't believe I didn't recognize them. I used to love playing with their youngest; what was his name?"

Suzie heard Jim's mom answer 'Michael' as they disappeared over to the games' section.

She spun on her heel, trying to find Chris in the growing crowd. Expecting to find her at the climbing wall, she was surprised to see that Sam had obviously finished his climb, and the two had moved on. She spotted Mario and Mark cozying up in the corner and was pleased to see their argument appeared to be over.

Suddenly, a warm hand came to rest on her backside. She twisted around to come face to face with a smiling Chris and her ex-husband, Robert. Suzie looked down to see Chris's fingers creeping into her back pocket and all thoughts of Robert disappeared. She locked eyes with Chris, hoping she could read just what effect the touch was having on Suzie's senses. The evil twinkle in Chris's eye and the way she slowly licked her top lip before speaking told her Chris saw everything. Luckily, Chris's words acted like a cold sponge on her heated mind and she turned to acknowledge Robert.

"Hey Suze, look who I found over by the climbing wall; he says that he knows you from way back when."

Suzie hugged Robert and chuckled. "Yeah; you could say that. What are you doing here? I thought you weren't getting in until Christmas Day?"

"We weren't, but Donna managed to get another few days off work, and Josh said we could stay over at his place, so…" His returning girlfriend stopped his explanation as introductions to Suzie had to be made. Donna handed a drink to Chris and then one to Suzie. "A glass of OJ; I hope that's okay? Chris said you would be ready for a drink after all the talking you've been doing."

The group of four adults smiled, and Suzie nodded her head in acknowledgement. "Yeah, I never knew that running a coffee shop could be such thirsty work. So, Robert, have you seen the boys yet? They're all here somewhere; Josh and Mags, and Simon and Geoff. Wanna go look?"

The parents wandered off to find their sons, leaving the two girlfriends to chat about work and their respective families. Much later, when Suzie and Robert returned they were surprised to find Chris and Donna still deep in conversation.

Suzie watched the chatting women for a moment and spared a glance around the packed area, amazed to see that the majority of people were her friends, and equally astounded, to see that every single one of her different friends appeared to be interacting with each other. She grinned; life probably couldn't get a whole lot better than this.

A hand touching hers gently with a shy question reminded her that good could always get better. She glanced down to see the questioner was Chris's nephew, Sam.

"Suzie, Mom's just sent me a text. She's asked me to invite you for coffee and pie tomorrow afternoon." He then blushed and added words Suzie guessed were his own. "I think she wants you to meet Grammy and Grandpa; I heard her saying to Aunt Chris she had to invite her girlfriend for Christmas. That's you, isn't it?"

Suzie looked up and locked eyes with an interested Chris, before bending down to hug Sam. "Yeah, that's me, and I'd love to come meet your grandparents. Will you tell your mom 'yes' for me?"

He laughed as he turned back towards the small group of children he'd been playing with. "You can tell her yourself; she also suggested you drop me off on the way home."

Suzie shouted after him, "Oh, she did, did she?"

At last, taking the seat beside Chris, they shared a happy smile.

Chatting together, they managed to stay in the same place for another couple of hours, with friends coming and going to spend their own special time with Suzie, the boss, Suzie, the mom, or just Suzie, the friend. All the while Suzie marvelled at the growing change in her relationship with Chris. What had appeared to be strained on Chris's part only a few days previously, now appeared to be openly accepted and acted upon.

Gradually, the group began to disperse back to their own families and devotions, and the day slowly wended to an end. Suzie finally escorted Sam back to his parents, and then Chris and Laurie back to their home.

Despite the change in Chris's attitude, Suzie had promised herself she would still take things slow; she didn't want to scare Chris away when everything was beginning to flow so smoothly. After today, she really believed, despite Chris's earlier words, that the two Walker women would spend some of Christmas Day at Suzie's home. That day would be the perfect day to share their first real kiss.

As so, tonight, she walked Chris and Laurie to the door and immediately said her goodnights.

"I'll see you at Jo's place tomorrow afternoon? And then, maybe, I could drive you both home, and we could share Christmas Eve together."

Chris smiled and nodded her head. "That sounds like a plan. Thanks for a great day today; we had a blast."

"It was my pleasure, I can assure you." With those words, she leant forward and, this time quite deliberately, kissed Chris gently on the corner of the mouth. "I'll see you tomorrow."

Later, like Chris the night before, Suzie pondered the brute strength of such a gentle touch.


December 24th 2006 (Sunday)

Chris woke slowly from a deep, peaceful sleep. Downstairs she could hear Laurie watching the television, and she smiled as she heard the beautifully sung words of Tom's favourite carol. It seemed Laurie was actually watching the Christmas Eve service. Quickly jumping out of bed, she went to join her daughter.

This year, she intended to enjoy every single moment of the festive period. It had been years since she'd had the full holiday off work, and she wasn't going to miss a second. Of course, this year, she had the added pleasure of looking forward to spending more time with Suzie and her family.

Chris still hadn't quite made her mind up whether Christmas day featured in those plans; she did need to spend time with her parents after all. However, she would be seeing them for an extra time today, and she'd had another invite to the Hofmeyer's house to reinforce Suzie's wish. So, maybe, she'd make up her mind before the day was out.

Plopping down onto the sofa, she hugged her daughter to her side and curled up to watch the Christmas service, while remembering her conversation with Simon yesterday.

"Hey, Chris? I wanted to thank you for whatever you said to Mum; she's supporting my decision to drop out of college for a while, to drive the length and breadth of America… " Simon grinned cheekily at Chris as he added, "… and maybe Europe."

"Hey, I only convinced her to let you drive across America; she'll kill you if you go any further."

Simon laughed at Chris's words. "Yeah, I know she will. Anyway, whatever you said, it worked, so thanks."

"No problem. Just make sure you spend your time wisely, huh? There's so much to see and so much to miss in this wonderful land of ours; make sure you get it right."

"I will, and Chris…" Surprisingly he'd reached across and pulled her into an awkward teenage boy type of hug. "… Thank you for taking a chance on Mum; she hasn't been this happy since we lost Louise. If you don't realize, that means a lot."

Even now, his words brought a lump to her throat. Yesterday, she'd struggled to hold the tears in as he'd gone on to add. "Please join us on Christmas Day; Dad will be there with his new lady, and you and Laurie coming would just make it feel like the start of something good."

She hadn't had chance to answer his plea as the climbers had chosen that moment to return, and Simon had disappeared to help his friend buy a round of drinks.

Chris glanced down at her daughter. "That was an amazing climb yesterday; do you always go as high as that?"

Laurie looked up with a proud grin on her face. "Nah, the climbing club has much smaller walls, so that was the highest by far. Mind you, it was easy, Mom."

"Hmm, I just bet it was." Chris's voice showed her disbelief.

"It was, Mom, the foot holes were all very close together. At the club, we have walls where the actual degree of difficulty is ten times worse than the height of Game Zone's climb."

"I believe you, really; many wouldn't, but that's what Moms do. So… why don't we get ourselves ready and go visit Warren, Lila and the girls? You can tell him all about the climb, too, huh?"

A short time later, Warren Bright opened the door to find a grinning Chris and Laurie Walker laden down with armfuls of gifts. He called back over his shoulder. "Kids, it's Aunt Chris and Laurie here to see you."

Chris smiled. "Actually, we're here to see you, too, you big goofball; now come on and take some of these presents so we can say hello properly."

The big man did as he was told; carrying the gifts into the den where his kids preceded to grab the presents excitedly, squashing and prodding them with loud shouts of glee. They all kneeled in front of the tree, making sure each gift was placed in the correct pile.

"Hey girls, why don't you take Laurie to see the new addition to our family?"

"New addition?" Laurie's voice enquired.

"We have a puppy; Mommy and Daddy said no, and then they said yes, and then they said no, and then we went to Grandma's and well…" Chris and Warren shared a smile as the children's voices drifted into the distance, the adults forgotten.

"So, you finally gave in to Lila's wishes?" Chris knew that Warren's wife had wanted to get her children a puppy, but Warren had balked at the idea.

"Yeah, well, when you've got three excited women all in one house, it kinda gets a bit wearing, you know?"

"What gets a bit wearing?"

Chris jumped up to wrap her arms around Lila Bright in greeting, laughing at Warren's hangdog answer. "Three women, that's what?"

Lila smiled at him. "You love it. And you know it. So, tell me Chris, how are things with you? I've been hearing so much about you of late, it's interesting."

Chris looked pointedly at Warren, a look of feigned anger heading his way. "I bet you know more about me than me, living with the devious matchmaker over there."

He jumped from the floor and quickly left the room. "And with those words, Warren heads into the kitchen to make his specialty eggnog, leaving two women to discuss love and romance."

Lila threw a cushion after her husband and then turned to Chris. The two women shared a laugh and then began to chat animatedly.

"So, tell me all about the wonderful Suzie?" Warren asked, returning with three mugs of his famous eggnog.

"Oh, Warren, I've just regaled Lila with all the latest tales, you'll have to get the story from her later." Warren and Lila changed places chatting with Chris as Lila excused herself for a moment to spend quality time with her children and her godchild.

He smiled, knowing full well his wife would tell him everything later in the day. "Okay, so you tell me how good it is; and be honest with me, huh?"

"It's perfect, just perfect."

Warren looked at his friend, surprised. "That's all you have to say? My, my, what is the world coming to; Christine Walker has no doubts. You don't, do you?"

"Oh, I still have plenty of doubts, but compared to the rightness, they hold no torch. I finally took the advice of an expert on my husband… " She watched Warren's smile of recognition and teased, "… my dad."

At Warren's chuckle, she reached up to caress his cheek in thanks. "Seriously, I took the words of two very wise men to heart and listened to the words of Tom. Life's too short to waste a moment; it's better to just go with the flow and see where it takes you."

Hugging Chris, her friend whispered. "Straight into the arms of someone who cares, huh?"

Sitting back in her chair, Chris recalled Warren's words of earlier as she watched Suzie interacting with her parents. She kept quiet, not wanting to alert them to her presence; instead, wanting to watch, undisturbed, how they reacted to this woman that already meant so much.

Her father asked pointedly, "So, what's this you've got me drinking?"

"That, Sir, is Lady Grey tea, a much, lighter alternative to the more common Earl Grey. You should be able to pull out a subtle hint of citrus flavour."

Lena smiled and nodded. "Hmm, I can taste orange and maybe lemon too, but there's another taste hovering underneath, I believe."

Her husband looked at his wife as if she'd gone off her rocker; all he could taste was tea. Suzie chuckled. "You might be getting a hint of Bergamot; though I'm told it's so similar to orange it's hard to detect. You have a fine palate, Mrs. Dunn."

"Oh please, Suzie, it's Lena, and that fool is Gordon. I recently took up wine tasting back home, so I'm getting used to using the different areas of my tongue."

"So…" Gordon Dunn interrupted his wife. Chris smiled to herself; she knew that he knew if he didn't ask his question quickly, he'd never get a word in edgeways. "… How is it you know so much about tea?"

Chris watched Suzie carefully, knowing that her answer had to include Louise somewhere.

"Oh, Louise, my late partner, was English. She'd been brought up on Yorkshire tea, and as she grew into adulthood, realized there were so many different types of tea, she just took it on board as an interest. When her business got too much for her; she not only had the pleasure of a quiet drink to take her mind off things, but also the pleasure of increasing her knowledge on her favourite brew." She let out an ironic laugh. "I guess you could say it was her obsession."

Chris's parents listened to Suzie with interest; they knew she owned a coffee shop, but that was about all.

"So, her interest in tea led to her opening the coffee shop with you?"

Lena's question obviously confused Suzie for a moment, and Chris watched to see how she reacted.

"No, no, I see what you mean now. Um, no, Louise was my, how would you say it, um, life partner until she died nearly two years ago. It was her legacy that allowed me to realize my dream, the coffee shop."

"Oh Suzie…" Chris watched her mom reach over and cradle Suzie's hand; pleased at her reaction. "… I didn't know. I hope my question didn't upset you? You must miss her dearly."

Suzie blinked back wetness and spotted Chris standing in the doorframe, watching her intently. "I do; every single day, but just lately, things have gotten a whole lot better." She turned and held her hand out, drawing Chris into the room. "… A whole lot better, thank you."

Gordon's hoarse laughter broke the subdued atmosphere. "Aye, Trouble here, has that kind of effect on people."

Chris hugged her father and then her mother, before sitting at the table to join the three in tasting the gentle afternoon tea.

Later, with Laurie already in bed dreaming of her visit from Santa, although, she'd refused to acknowledge that fact as they'd bid her goodnight, Chris and Suzie looked back on the easy way Chris's parents had accepted Suzie's new place in her life.

"I love your Mom and Dad, they make a wonderful couple. I bet you had a ball growing up."

"Yeah, we were always close as a family. I think when Jo and I both moved away Mom and Dad considered coming with us, but they had so many friends back home they decided to stay put. All in all, I think it's worked out well. We never ever get tired of meeting up with each other; enjoying our time as if it's the first time. What about your family?"

Chris suddenly realised she'd never heard Suzie mention family other than those belonging to her two exes, Louise and Robert.

"Oh, I lost my parents when the boys were young. We hadn't really been that close since my 'too early' marriage as they called it. And then when I ran off with Ray, they were even more upset, and we drifted further apart. Not that I wasn't upset when they died within months of each other, I was; it was just, despite their anger at the wedding, they did like Robert, and I'd blown it…"

Chris butted in, intrigued. "Ray? Who's he?"

Suzie grinned sheepishly. "He was the very big mistake in between falling out with Robert, meeting Louise, and making friends with Rob again, best forgotten."

"In that case, I'll forget him, too. You make me and Tom sound like the boring couple I guess we were."

Chris jumped in her seat when Suzie grabbed hold of her hand and squeezed it tightly. "Don't say that, Chris. When you find somebody to love, you damn well better grab a hold and never let go. It's all over too soon, sometimes. You and I both know that."

They locked eyes with each other, the meaning behind their gaze obvious; the moment becoming charged with emotion. It was Chris that managed to find the words that spoke the truth. "I think I've finally worked that one out."

Their eyes remained locked, and the moment built. Chris smiled inwardly; she'd noticed that Suzie was deliberately going slowly with the developing relationship, but this moment demanded something to make it right, and she knew exactly what it needed. Leaning forward, she pulled Suzie into the kiss they'd both been waiting for.

Long moments later, Suzie pulled away from the kiss and stood slowly. "I think I'd better be going home; there is so much to look forward to, I can't wait."

Both women knew she wasn't only talking about Christmas, and suddenly, Chris knew the simple fact of it all; she wanted to spend time with Suzie, and that was all that mattered.

"Yeah, if the invite's still open, we'll be with you about 4 o'clock."

"Of course, the invite's still open. I'll be waiting." Suzie held her hand out towards Chris. "Now, come and walk me to the door, we need to practice our goodnights a little more."

Suzie pulled Chris to her and held her close. At the door, they turned towards each other once more to share a kiss of today, tomorrow, and maybe something more.

It was a kiss they'd never experienced before, and yet, a kiss they knew; it wasn't too strong, it was just right.

The End

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