DISCLAIMER: The majority of the characters belong to the series Bad Girls. I don't own them but I sure do like them, especially Helen Stewart and Nikki Wade. Bad Girls was created by Maureen Chadwick, Eileen Gallagher and Ann McManus. All characters from the series are the property of Shed Productions.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: The rest of the characters are mine. Please do not 'borrow' or use them without permission of the author. This story picks up immediately after Series 3, Chapter 16 "Coming Out".
THANK YOU: A very special 'thank you' to my extraordinary beta Steff for all your input and help.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
Helen Stewart lay perfectly still, mesmerized by the feeling of the chest rising and falling beneath her. Cradling her head against a broad shoulder, she listened to her partner's steady heartbeat, its rhythm echoing her own. Strong, soft arms encircled her and long firm legs were entwined with her own shorter ones.
Nikki too, was silent and content. Listening closely, all she could hear was Helen's warm breath. In the still of early evening, it seemed amplified, the only sound in the room.
Everything was still a bit unreal to Nikki. After almost four years in Larkhall she was used to days and nights of endless noise. While inside, all five senses had become heightened, part of her survival instinct she supposed, when she bothered to think about it. Her keener senses had certainly made for memorable interactions with Helen during that time. Nikki had relived each treasured memory focusing more on the good times than the bad -- when she thought she'd never see Helen again. Now there was no need to dwell on old memories; not when new ones were waiting to be made.
Helen lifted her head slightly, gazing in adoration at her partner. Nikki's eyes were closed but Helen doubted that she was asleep. The desire to touch Nikki was too strong. Helen began to gently trace a pattern along Nikki's cheekbone, lovingly caressing the beauty mark on her cheek. A smile started to play across the other woman's face at Helen's feather light caresses.
God how she loved this woman, Helen thought, sending up a silent 'thank you' to whatever forces were responsible for their present circumstances. Needing to voice her feelings, she began, "Nikki I " She didn't get a chance to finish before Nikki interrupted her.
"Shhh, Helen." Nikki opened her eyes slowly and Helen felt herself falling into the fathomless gaze. She gulped at the depth of emotions reflected in the brown orbs.
"It's okay Helen. You don't have to say it." Nikki spoke softly but firmly.
Helen was nonplussed. As had happened between them too many times to count, Helen sensed that Nikki knew exactly what she was thinking that their thoughts were as one. Mentally shaking her head at Nikki's intuition, Helen snuggled back against Nikki's shoulder. Nikki's hand lovingly stroked her back and she lost herself to its soothing touch, remembering how different things had been between them since the riot at the prison and how their current circumstances had been unimaginable just a week ago.
After leaving Larkhall and Nikki behind, Helen told herself firmly that she was starting over. New job prospects, new choices, new love, new life. What a load of shit. Who had she been trying to fool? It certainly hadn't been Thomas. After he'd confronted her and left her sitting alone in the restaurant, she'd finally acknowledged the truth. She didn't just 'care for Nikki' as she'd told the doctor. Helen was hopelessly and deeply in love and the intensity of her feelings terrified her.
She'd resigned as acting governor of Larkhall, not because of any threats by Jim Fenner to her career, but to protect Nikki's appeal. None of the arguments, the misunderstandings, the jealousy, the insecurities, not even the cruel words hurled at each other in anger and hurt had destroyed her deep love for Nikki. Every decision she'd made concerning the inmate had been guided by that love, even when Helen refused to acknowledge it.
Thank God I finally decided to be honest with myself. Helen mentally kicked herself for what would have undoubtedly been the biggest mistake of her life. What had ever made her think that she could walk away from Nikki and be happy?
"I love you Nikki," she whispered desperately needing to voice her feelings. Tightening her hold, Helen snuggled more closely to the warm body.
"Love you," Nikki replied automatically, lost in her own memories. When Helen left Larkhall after resigning, Nikki was devastated. She'd sat in her cell feeling more alone than at any point in her life. Helen had walked away again and wasn't coming back. 'You've got to forget about me and focus on your appeal,' she'd told Nikki, her Scottish accent thick with emotion. Realizing that she would probably never hear that enchanting lilt again, Nikki had put her head in her hands and cried for the loss of Helen; cried for her broken heart.
She knew that if her appeal was unsuccessful, she couldn't survive another ten years in prison without the presence of the feisty and beautiful Scot. Even her hopes of freedom dimmed without Helen. Although she'd promised to give Trisha another chance, her heart hadn't been in it. In a way, it had been more of a desire to return to her life before Larkhall, than any real wish on Nikki's part to start over with her former lover and business partner.
A few days later, sitting between Officers Fenner and Barker, Nikki had been in shock when the judge announced to the packed courtroom, "Nicola Wade, you are free to go." It had taken several minutes for the words to sink in, even after Di Barker had reinforced what the judge had just said with her own. "Nikki, you're free."
Nikki continued to stroke Helen's back as she recalled the roller coaster of emotions during that day the despair when Helen hadn't appeared at the courthouse, to be followed by hope when later that day, she had shown up at Chix, followed by sorrow when Helen had once again walked away, then pure joy when Nikki had raced after her and they'd talked on the street, Helen begging for another chance, confessing that she 'wanted a woman.'
Although promising to 'take things slowly,' they'd immediately fallen into each other's arms right there on the streets of Soho. They had kissed and caressed each other as if they had no intention of ever letting go, neither one giving a toss about possible observers.
Afterwards they had gone back into the club for a drink. Once inside, Nikki never left her side, tightly holding her hand as if to reassure herself that Helen wasn't going to suddenly disappear again. Almost the first person they'd encountered was Trisha. Helen and Trisha had seen one another a few times on visiting days at Larkhall, but this was the first time they'd formally met.
"I see you found her," were Trisha's first words to Nikki after she'd made the introductions.
"That I did." Nikki smiled lovingly at Helen. "I believe I promised you a drink. How about some champagne?"
"Sounds good." Helen's smile was so wide that she was positively beaming. She no longer had to hide her feelings for the former inmate. The bars that had been a barrier between them for far too long were gone. Her happiness shone out of her and her eyes were luminous with love whenever they rested on Nikki.
Trisha and Helen made polite conversation, each covertly studying the other, for a few moments. Both women were extremely curious about the other's role in Nikki's life.
Nikki and Trisha had shared nine years before their break-up. None of Helen's previous relationships had come anywhere close to that kind of longevity. Helen's insecurities surfaced. Can I make Nikki happy? Will we be good together? Will she be satisfied with me?
As if reading Helen's mind, Nikki leaned close. Lips brushing her ear, she whispered, "I'm so glad you're here Helen. You're the only woman I want." Her heart nearly stopped beating at the smile Helen sent her in return, her green eyes smoldering with barely concealed lust.
Yep, definitely a babe, Trisha thought, remembering her assessment of Helen the first time she'd seen her at Larkhall. I guess it's not too hard to see why Nik's crazy about her. It's pretty obvious that Helen feels the same way about Nikki.
The three women shared a champagne toast, both Helen and Trisha clinking glasses and wearing bright smiles, despite the undercurrents between them, before Nikki dragged Helen away to greet new arrivals. Helen was surprised at how comfortable she felt in her first time in a gay bar. Of course she liked meeting and talking to people. Although she was enjoying herself, gradually she noticed that Nikki seemed edgy and restless, not really relaxing, despite playing the part of a good hostess. She introduced Helen to various friends, accepted toasts, and occasionally shared a joke, but her smile never quite reached her eyes.
After about an hour, Helen convinced Nikki to let go of her long enough to use the loo. As she exited, she came face to face with Trisha. Recalling the challenging way the blonde had looked at her earlier when she'd sought Nikki out, Helen steeled herself for a confrontation. She wasn't surprised when Trisha spoke, but the woman's words knocked her for a loop.
"Helen, I think we both know Nik well enough to see that she's pretty well zonked with all that's happened today. You need to get her out of here."
Studying Trisha closely, Helen noticed her obvious concern for Nikki as well as a hint of regret lurking behind blue eyes and felt nothing but respect for a woman she had been prepared to dislike. Helen glanced across the room at the tall brunette. Although she appeared to be listening to a story from one of her friends, anyone as familiar with Nikki's body language as her former and current lovers were could see that she was struggling to cope.
"You're right. It was my idea to stay. I didn't want to throw cold water on your celebration."
Sensing Helen's eyes on her Nikki glanced in her direction. Somewhat shocked to see the two of them together, she quickly joined them at the bar, the expression on her face one of concern.
"It's okay Nik. You don't need to separate us!" Trisha smiled as she approached. "We were just saying how wonderful it is to have you free at last. But I think you should go. You two haven't had much time alone," including Helen in her statement. "This lot'll go on celebrating for you. Why don't you ring me tomorrow? Perhaps you can both pop round for a chat and pick up some of your things?"
"Sure," Nikki looked to Helen for guidance. What was going to happen now?
Helen smiled at her. Her cheeks glowed with a champagne flush and Nikki was struck again by her beauty. "It's been an eventful day, Nikki. You must be exhausted. Why don't we go back to my place and relax?"
She passed one of her business cards to Trisha. "Here are my home and mobile numbers so you can reach us if you need to." Offering her a genuine smile, Helen said, "It was lovely to finally meet you."
"You too Helen," Trisha replied.
Nikki pulled Trisha into a tight embrace as they left, whispering, "thanks for everything. Love you," before releasing her. After a slight hesitation, Helen and Trisha also shared a quick hug, a silent, private understanding passing between them.
They were silent during the drive from Chix, both lost in their own thoughts. The sun was setting by the time they arrived at Helen's flat. Experiencing a sense of déjà vu as she followed the petite woman up the stairs, Nikki felt tears prick her eyes. She never thought she'd see this place again. Dumping her plastic bags of belongings in the hall she took Helen's hands in her own and looked deeply into her green eyes.
With feelings threatening to overwhelm her, Nikki tried to find the words to convey her gratitude to Helen. She got as far as "I meant it," and couldn't continue. She struggled not to break down, blinking back tears that welled up despite her best efforts to control them. Bloody hell! What in the hell is wrong with me?
"Meant what Nikki?" Helen took in Nikki's pale face, the dark circles under her eyes, and the obvious fact that she was close to an emotional collapse. "What is it sweetheart? What's the matter?"
Nikki bit her lip before responding, fighting to get her emotions under control. "I can't ever thank you enough, Helen. I meant what I said. You saved me; you saved my life." Nikki lowered her eyes, her voice barely above a whisper.
"Hey, come here." Helen pulled Nikki into her arms, remembering that despite her tough veneer, Nikki was the far more vulnerable of the two of them emotionally. "There's nothing to thank me for. My reasons for wanting you out of Larkhall weren't entirely altruistic. I'm just so grateful that everything has worked out."
Nikki clung to the petite Scotswoman, reveling in the shear joy of simply holding her without fear of discovery or recrimination. After a few minutes, she spoke again. "Are you sure about me staying here? We promised we'd take things slowly. I can always go somewhere else."
Helen tightened her hold. "Nikki, we can take things slowly with you here. I promise I won't pounce on you." She smiled, a tongue behind her teeth smile that sent Nikki's senses reeling. "Besides, I want you where I can keep an eye on you!" Helen's voice was determined; reminiscent of a certain wing governor. Even though they were now equals, Nikki was oddly comforted by the familiarity of Helen as her caretaker.
"Yes, Miss," she drawled insolently, smiling her first real smile since their snogging session outside the nightclub.
Helen regarded her with amusement. For a moment, Nikki sounded exactly like the difficult inmate she'd been when Helen had first encountered her. "Are you hungry? Can I get you something?"
As if on cue, Nikki's stomach growled loudly, causing both of them to chuckle. "Apparently I am," she quipped. "Could I have some tea?"
"Of course. I'll put the kettle on." Nikki followed her into the kitchen, enjoying the sight of Helen performing the simple domestic task.
"Why don't you make yourself more comfortable?" Helen suggested. "Perhaps you might find some music you like while I finish up here."
Nikki savored the idea of having choices again. "All right. I'll see what I can find."
After putting together a tray of tea and sandwiches, Helen carried them into the lounge. Soft jazz was coming from the CD player and Nikki's suit jacket was draped across a chair but there was no sign of Nikki herself. Helen wandered to the hallway. From the partially open bathroom door, she could hear what sounded like coughing from inside.
"Your tea's ready." Helen called through the door. When there was no reply she added, "Nikki, you all right?" Knocking before pushing open the door, Helen stepped inside, horrified to discover the dark-haired woman on her knees before the toilet.
Nikki's body, unused to alcohol, and stressed by events leading up to her appearance in court that morning, had cruelly turned on her. She'd barely made it to the loo before becoming violently ill.
Helen immediately went to her. "Och, sweetheart," Helen spoke softly, gently touching her back. "It's all just been too much for you, hasn't it? I'm so sorry I didn't realize " she trailed off helplessly, mentally kicking herself for not recognizing the signs despite her professional training.
"I just can't believe I'm really here," Nikki said, finally succumbing to tears, before vomiting again. Helen sat with her, holding and comforting her between bouts of sickness, until eventually all Nikki was bringing up was air. She struggled to her feet, damp hair plastered to a ghostly pale face, and staggered to the sink. "Helen, do you have a toothbrush I can use?"
"Somewhere." Rifling through several drawers, Helen managed to locate a new toothbrush still in its wrapper. Nikki, her hands shaking, brushed her teeth and drank a glass of water. When she finished, Nikki was horrified to discover that her body continued to betray her. She was chilled; shivering uncontrollably and unable to control her limbs. It took the combined efforts of both women to get her into the bedroom. Once there, Nikki collapsed heavily on the bed, pulling Helen down beside her.
"Can I get you anything?" Helen asked solicitously.
Nikki shook her head, suddenly too exhausted to formulate a sentence. Her promise to Helen down on the block years ago --I want to make love to you all night long sprang to mind. The irony of the situation was not lost on her. Here she was, finally alone with Helen in her bedroom, and she was so knackered that all she wanted to do was sleep for a week.
"Sorry about this Helen," Nikki said weakly
"Don't be daft. I'll just go " Helen began but Nikki grabbed her hand and prevented her from rising.
"Don't leave me. Please stay." Helen melted at the pleading brown eyes fixed on her and Nikki's woeful expression.
"I'm not going anywhere. I was just going to find something for you to sleep in." Helen explained.
"Darlin', don't worry about that. It's not like you haven't seen it all before." As she spoke, Nikki attempted to unbutton her shirt. "Bollocks!" she muttered in frustration when her shaking hands failed to cooperate with her brain's instructions.
"I wasn't thinking about modesty Nikki. Look at you. You're shivering and in shock. We need to warm you up." Helen spoke with concern, as Nikki struggled to take off her clothes.
Shaking her head at Nikki's all too familiar stubbornness, Helen stilled her fingers and helped her strip down to her knickers. Helen was shocked at Nikki's appearance; at how thin she had become since the last time they'd been together in this bedroom. She seemed frail somehow, her dark eyes larger than usual. Pain and guilt hit Helen like a train; she was the one responsible for the changes in Nikki.
Over Nikki's feeble protests, Helen convinced her to wear one of her own nightshirts, which although way too short for Nikki's lanky frame, would hopefully provide some much needed warmth.
"In you go," Helen directed, pulling back the covers. Nikki settled back in the large bed, almost groaning in pleasure at the fresh smell emanating from crisp white sheets. Helen disappeared into the bathroom, returning moments later in a pair of striped pajama bottoms and a knit top. Her eye-lids heavy with fatigue, Nikki admired the way the top clung to Helen's curves. Picturing Helen's full breasts hidden beneath the cotton knit, a smile played about Nikki's lips as she gave in and closed her eyes, too tired to put action to the prurient mental images.
"I'll be right back. Just need to turn out the lights and lock the front door." True to her word, Helen returned in mere minutes. Sliding under the duvet she could feel Nikki still shivering slightly. Scooting over until her body rested against Nikki's, Helen pulled her close, hoping that their combined body heat would stop the other woman's chills. Nikki relaxed against her, inhaling deeply.
"Mmm, you smell fantastic," Nikki mumbled sleepily, wrapping her arms around Helen and nuzzling her neck. They lay together quietly for a few minutes, Helen enjoying the weight of Nikki's head on her shoulder. Nikki was so quiet that Helen thought she had fallen asleep. She was therefore surprised to hear a chuckle from her bedmate.
"What?" Helen asked, wondering what Nikki found so amusing.
"Just thinking about Bodybag."
"What's made you think of her?" Helen was puzzled.
"You." Nikki lifted her head and looked affectionately at Helen.
Helen was dumbfounded. "How the bloody hell do I remind you of her?" Prison Officer Sylvia Hollamby, known as 'Bodybag' to Larkhall's inmates, was hardly one of Helen's favorite people.
Nikki grinned at the horrified expression on Helen's face. "Sorry. Didn't mean you personally, darling. I was just imagining her reaction to the two of us in bed together. I can almost picture the shocked look on her face right before her eyes popped out of her head."
Lovingly brushing back a lock of Nikki's hair from her eyes, Helen whispered, "I can think of far more pleasant images than Sylvia's before I go to sleep. Rest now, okay?"
Nikki nodded her assent before yawning and laying her head down again. Almost as soon as it touched her shoulder, Helen felt Nikki's body relax completely and her breathing became a slow, deep steady rhythm. Even though it was early evening, the tension and emotions of recent weeks had exacted a heavy toll on Helen. She too was mentally and physically exhausted, and it wasn't long before she fell asleep as well.
Helen was running much later for work than her usual five to ten minutes. She'd slept straight through her alarm. Still trying to get photographic proof that Fenner was working for Virginia O'Kane, she followed him until well past 2 a.m. before he gave her the slip. Grumpy from lack of sleep and extremely frustrated, she was nonetheless determined to force the bastard out of the prison service.
Helen realized that something was wrong the minute she entered the Larkhall gate. An ambulance was inside, lights flashing. Greeting the guard, she handed over her keys and signed in.
"What's going on, John?"
"One of the inmates was found stabbed in her cell. They don't think she's going to make it," the stocky man replied.
Fear gripped Helen. "Who was it?"
"One of the inmates on G Wing. Didn't get the name though."
Helen, her heart racing, went immediately to Nikki's cell. The door was wide open. Nikki was sprawled on the floor, her lifeless body lying in a large pool of blood. Standing above her Maxi Purvis was wearing a maniacal grin and twirling a knife round and round. Jim Fenner, leaning indolently against the wall, was just inside the door watching.
"That'll teach you to screw a screw, Wade," Purvis said, laughing at her sick joke.
Spotting Helen in the doorway, Fenner spoke. "It appears your girlfriend's met with an accident. Ma'am," he drawled, a familiar mocking gleam in his eyes.
"Nikki! Nooooooo..." Helen's anguished screams echoed off the walls. "Nikki. Nikki." She collapsed, curling into a ball, sobbing uncontrollably as grief encompassed her.
"Helen. Helen! Darling, wake up! You're having a nightmare." Gentle hands shook Helen's shoulders. Helen struggled awake, following the sound of the voice and leaving behind the terrifying images. When she opened her eyes, Nikki was leaning over her, her expression one of concern.
Helen clung tightly to her, silent tears streaming down her face. "Thank God you're all right!"
"Of course I am. Right as rain," Nikki soothed, stroking her hair tenderly. Helen was trembling and Nikki could feel her heart racing as if she'd just run a marathon. After a few minutes, the younger woman quieted.
"Sorry," Helen mumbled. Embarrassed, she attempted to pull away, but Nikki would have none of it. She tightened her hold on Helen.
"What you sorry for?" Nikki asked.
"I got your nightshirt all wet." Helen sniffled.
"Technically, you got your nightshirt all wet," Nikki said dryly, kissing her forehead, before leaning back against the pillows and cradling Helen in her arms. She continued stroking the soft hair.
"You want to tell me about it?" Nikki asked gently. This was met with a long period of silence and for a moment, Nikki thought Helen had fallen back to sleep.
"I was dreaming about you," came the eventual reply.
"I gathered. Didn't sound like either of us was having much fun though."
Helen took a deep breath. "We were at Larkhall. I was running late as usual." Nikki smiled at Helen's words. Helen's habitual tardiness apparently carried over to her subconscious.
"When I got there, I went to your cell. Maxi Purvis and Fenner were there. You were lying on the ground and they were both gloating." Helen shuddered involuntarily at the vivid images, still all too real for her liking. "Nikki, she killed you. Fenner told her that we were lovers and she killed you." Helen was crying harder now, large tears coursing down her cheeks. Nikki wiped them away, tightening her hold reassuringly.
"There was so much blood." Helen's voice trembled. "Much worse than with Fenner and Shell Dockley."
Nikki was confused. Dockely cutting Fenner was no dream. The man had nearly died.
Nikki's thoughts drifted back to the night of her escape; the night she and Helen had made love for the first time and Shell Dockely went after Fenner with a broken bottle. Nikki had wanted Helen to flee England; to go with her to San Francisco. Instead Helen tricked her into going back to Larkhall. She had been furious with Helen at the time, calling her a coward who cared more about her career than she did Nikki. She refused to understand Helen's point of view that they couldn't continue to sneak around and pursue a relationship while they remained prisoner and jailer that their feelings were too strong to remain a secret. Now, she realized Helen had been concerned about Nikki's safety if the truth about their relationship became common knowledge among the prison population.
She voiced her thoughts. "You were worried about that weren't you? That something bad might happen to me if anyone found out about us? That's why you said we had to end things until I got out."
"Of course I was! Oh Nikki, there was so much blood; so much violence." Nikki knew that Helen was no longer referring to the nightmare; she was back at Larkhall, inside Shell Dockley's cell the night of the escape.
"I wouldn't have wanted to live if something happened to you because of me." Helen looked up, her heart in her eyes; love and protectiveness shining forth.
Nikki's heart twisted at how she'd misjudged Helen. At the time, the only thing that made any sense to Nikki was running. In her mind it was the only option; the only way for the two of them to be together. Prison had a way of doing that to you, she realized now, of magnifying some things and minimizing others. All too often things became polarized. There was no sense of balance in prison.
"You were right to make me go back that night Helen," Nikki said softly. "I'm sorry I was such a prat about it. Thank God one of us was thinking straight."
Helen blinked quickly and swallowed hard. Between the nightmare and the memories it had evoked, her emotions were raw. She clung to Nikki, drawing both comfort and security from the other woman.
"Shh," Nikki whispered soothingly, her turn to care for Helen. "Everything's okay. We're together now. Let's go back to sleep." She rubbed Helen's back, continuing to murmur softly to the petite woman until she felt Helen completely relax and her breathing become even, indicating that she had fallen asleep again.
Nikki reveled in the comfortable bed for a few minutes, delighting in the feel of Helen in her arms and the knowledge that she was a free woman. Then, too tired to resist her body's need for rest, Nikki nodded off as well.
Nikki stirred, feeling the warmth of sunlight on her face, as she slowly opened her eyes. She was momentarily disoriented at the sight of walls the color of fresh butter framing a white door rather than a bilious shade of green. Nikki smiled as it all came back to her. Helen was spooned against her back and her warm breath tickled her neck. She'd fallen asleep with Helen in her arms but apparently they'd changed positions sometime during the night. Nikki shifted and sat up, propping herself up with her arm. Helen opened sleepy green eyes and reached up to stroke Nikki's face. Nikki kissed the palm and held it against her cheek.
"Mornin'," Helen drawled in her familiar Scottish brogue. She was flushed from sleep and her dark blonde hair, though tousled, fell softly, framing her face. Helen's face crinkled in a smile at the sight of Nikki, whose own short hair was sporting a distinct case of bed head, sticking up in all directions.
"God, what a gorgeous sight to wake up to," Nikki croaked, waggling her eyebrows suggestively and leaning over to kiss Helen. Helen made a small noise in the back of her throat, the same soft moan as the first time Nikki kissed her, and Nikki deepened the kiss, her senses aflame. Reluctantly, Helen pulled back and attempted to slow her suddenly ragged breathing.
"Thank you." Nikki wasn't sure if Helen was thanking her for her compliment or the kiss, until she continued. "I usually terrify myself first thing in the morning. The expression 'dragged through a hedge backwards' is very apt most days," Helen quipped.
"Not true," Nikki assured, pulling Helen back into her arms and nuzzling into the soft hair. She settled back against the headboard, pillowing Helen against her chest. "Do you have any idea how many times I fantasized about us waking up together?" she asked conversationally. "Drove me crazy, especially after the night we made love. Used to remember everything about that night how you felt; how you tasted; what you looked like; when you told me you loved me. It was all that kept me going some days. Nearly made me lose my mind other days."
Helen felt her heart lurch. "I know. Me too." She remembered all too well how bleak the days had been after Nikki's escape and coerced return to Larkhall. Helen had slept on the same sheets for almost a month until Nikki's fragrance was no longer there; cried herself to sleep many a night after consuming too much alcohol, and spent long hours working with her friend Claire Walker to ensure Nikki's successful appeal.
Pushing such thoughts away, she softly kissed Nikki's jawline. "Surely there were other ways to distract yourself."
"Well, when I couldn't take it anymore, Mary Palm and her five sisters always seemed do the trick." Nikki smiled enigmatically at her.
"Huh?" Helen asked, unfamiliar with Nikki's slang.
"I'll let you figure that one out for yourself Helen. Suffice to say, you still featured prominently," she said, wiggling her fingers suggestively. Nikki stifled a laugh at Helen's expression when the penny finally dropped.
"Jesus, Nikki!" she exclaimed, blushing furiously, thinking of similar activities in her own lonely bed.
"You must have woken most of the wing. You can be quite vocally expressive as I recall." Helen's eyes were as wide as saucers.
Nikki winked at her. "I was always very discreet Helen. When it got to the crucial moment, I'd just bite down hard on my pillow." She smiled cheekily at Helen before continuing, "I did wake Barbara up quite a few times though, come to think of it."
Nikki burst out laughing at the expression on Helen's face when finally, recognizing the mischievous twinkle in Nikki's eyes, she realized the former inmate was winding her up.
"You're impossible!" Helen said, whacking Nikki with a pillow. "I also take it that you're feeling better. I'm going to fix some breakfast. I'm starving and I bet you are too."
Ignoring Nikki's protests and extracting herself from a pair of arms eager to keep her in bed, Helen headed for the bathroom.
Nikki's stomach growled loudly and she realized that she was famished. She also felt sticky and unwashed. Sniffing suspiciously, she detected stale smoke from the bar and residual smells of cooked cabbage and overflowing bogs from Larkhall still clinging to her body. Gingerly, she climbed from the bed, grateful to see that control of her legs had returned after a good night's sleep. "Okay if I have a bath?" she called through the bathroom door.
Helen opened the door. "Of course. You don't need to ask Nikki. Help yourself. What's mine is yours."
"Care to join me?" Nikki asked, planting a soft kiss on Helen's lips. Helen could feel her body respond to Nikki, just as it always had. Her traitorous body was one of the main reasons she'd realized that she couldn't carry on with the inmate at Larkhall and expect to keep their relationship secret. Once they'd made love, all Helen had wanted was to do it again and again. Keeping temptation at arms length's had been her only method of coping. Recalling yesterday's promise to 'go dead slow,' she tried to ignore her growing arousal. Promising to return with tea and some biscuits to tide Nikki over until breakfast, she slipped away.
After using the loo, Nikki surveyed the array of assorted bottles of bath foams and shower gels on the ledge above the tub. Opening one of them, she inhaled a familiar scent of raspberries. It was a scent she associated with Helen and she poured several capfuls into the running water. While she waited for the tub to fill, she whistled softly under her breath. Catching sight of herself in the mirror above the sink, she burst out laughing. If anyone looked like they'd been dragged backwards through a hedge this morning it was Nikki.
Helen returned carrying a tray with two mugs of tea and a plate of biscuits. Nikki snatched one up immediately. "Chocolate digestives!" she exclaimed, a delighted expression on her face at the sight of the familiar treat. Holding it between her teeth, Nikki stripped and stepped into the bath, groaning in sheer pleasure, as she sank into the bubbles. After practically inhaling her biscuit, she looked up expectantly at Helen. "You are going to join me, aren't you?" Nikki still looked a little pale and there were dark smudges under her eyes, but she was definitely better than the night before.
"I don't think that's a good idea Nikki. Not if we're keeping to the 'taking things slow' plan," Helen replied. This was a familiar battle for Helen, the desire to touch Nikki whenever she was near. It was a battle that her body badly wanted her to lose. Being in bed with Nikki last night and again this morning had been bad enough. There was no way she could keep her hormones in check naked in a bathtub with the other woman.
Nikki shot her a soulful look. "Come on. I promise to be a good girl."
"What if I want you to be a bad girl?" Helen said the first thing that was on her mind without thought. As soon as the words left her mouth, she averted her eyes, blushing furiously. She set the biscuits on the ledge surrounding the bathtub and handed Nikki a mug of tea, trying to distract her with the task.
Nikki was momentarily startled at Helen's response. Then, a smile playing about her lips she said, "Okay, no bath together today." Her twinkling eyes and the emphasis on the word 'today', implied the promise of future joint baths. "How about just keeping me company? The bubbles will protect my modesty."
Unable to resist Nikki's puppy dog eyes and wheedling tone, Helen sighed and capitulated, settling down cross-legged on the floor next to the tub.
"What would you like to do today?" Helen asked, reaching for a biscuit and passing the plate to Nikki who helped herself to several.
"Don't care as long as we're together," Nikki replied, her mouth full. "I should to go by the club and pick up some of my things Trisha's stored for me. Stop by the bank. Maybe get a phone, do some shopping. That is, if you don't have somewhere else you need to be." Nikki's tone was questioning.
"Nowhere else." Helen was quick to reassure. "I have an interview on Monday, but my only immediate plans are to spend the next five days with you." Realizing that she might have assumed too much or moved too fast for Nikki, she added, "That is if you want me to."
Nikki smiled at her affectionately. "Don't be daft. Of course I do."
Despite the fact that Nikki and Helen had known each other for three years and Nikki was hopelessly in love with her, there were dozens of things they had yet to discover about one another. They'd made love, but never been on a date. They knew next to nothing about each other's families and friends. Nikki didn't even know how old Helen was.
Helen voiced what Nikki was thinking. "I'm looking forward to spending that time together Nikki, really getting to know you. There's so much I don't know about you and I want to know every bit of it."
"I want that too, Helen." Nikki said. "For example, didn't know you were a tea drinker. Never saw you with anything but coffee."
Helen laughed. "Spot on. I usually need a minimum two cups to function in the morning but I thought tea would be better for both of us today empty stomachs and all."
"Still taking care of me, eh?" Nikki chuckled, touched by the idea.
"For as long as you'll let me." Helen took a sip of tea. "Your turn to share, sweetheart."
Finishing their tea and biscuits they swapped snippets of information for a while, filling in little gaps, as they learned more about each other's likes and dislikes. Helen was surprised to discover that Nikki hadn't been a vegetarian until her incarceration. Nikki explained that she'd decided a vegetarian diet was the lesser of two evils in Larkhall, given the limited meal choices.
"So you do eat meat then?" Helen asked.
"Used to. Not a lot of red meat though; mostly fish and chicken. Not sure what my digestion will tolerate today, but I'm willing to take a chance for some bacon if you have it."
Noticing that the water temperature had cooled considerably while they'd been talking, Nikki began adding hot water to the tub. As she shifted to do so, her upper body surfaced from the bubbles. Helen was suddenly mesmerized by Nikki's breasts as the water cascaded off them - their soft fullness, the dark pink nipples and the darker skin around them.
She swallowed hard, fighting the mental image that had surfaced with Nikki's breasts -- licking the bath water off Nikki's body. With a supreme effort, Helen focused on domestic matters. "Why don't you finish up here and I'll fix some bacon and eggs for us. How does that sound?" she asked, getting to her feet.
Nikki's whole face lit up. "Brilliant!"
Over a hearty English breakfast Helen and Nikki finalized their plans for the day. Trisha had left a long message on Helen's phone and Nikki rang to let her know that they were heading out and would stop by the flat later.
When she returned to the kitchen Helen was washing up the last of the breakfast dishes. Sunlight from the open window played with her blonde highlights and cast a golden halo around her face, emphasizing her green eyes. Nikki's heart caught in her throat at the sight.
Wrapping her arms around Helen's waist, she pulled her against her lanky body, nuzzling her neck. Helen took a deep breath, feeling her body respond to Nikki's closeness. They'd agreed to go slowly, but hadn't really talked about what that meant. Be patient, she admonished herself. Nikki needs time to adjust. Forcing herself to relax, Helen asked, "Ready to go?"
Nikki too, was finding Helen's nearness to be a distraction; her nipples were like bullets, and it took all her resolve to ignore the overwhelming urge to take Helen back to bed for the rest of the day. Resisting her hormones she gave Helen a squeeze and released her. "Anytime you are. Trisha's expecting us around 1400."
Smiling brightly, Helen turned around. Nikki had changed into a white vest, red jumper, trainers and sunwashed blue jeans that fit her trim body like a second skin. Levi Strauss must have had Nikki in mind when he invented denim, was Helen's first thought. She swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly dry, and cleared her throat before speaking. "Shouldn't we stop there before we hit the shops, so you can look through your things, see what you might need to buy?"
Nikki lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply before replying. "Trish is seldom up before noon. The club doesn't close until after one and it takes at least a couple of hours to clean up after. Besides, I don't have a lot there; mostly some books and personal things. I gave away most of my clothes. Didn't seem much point in keeping them." She spoke matter-of-factly, but a shadow crossed her face, giving Helen insight into the despair and hopelessness Nikki must have felt following her conviction and lengthy sentence.
The weather was unusually warm for London the last day of June and Helen opened the sunroof of her Peugeot to take advantage. They talked very little during the drive, both women living in the moment and simply enjoying each other's presence and the glorious day.
Driving along, Helen stole a look at the dark-haired woman beside her. Nikki was looking out the passenger window, reacquainting herself with the world outside Larkhall. After shuffling through several radio stations earlier, she'd finally settled on one and was now singing along to 'Like a Virgin', her head unconsciously bobbing along to the music.
Smiling to herself, Helen concentrated on driving, thinking back to the first time she'd seen Nikki Wade. It had been on the G Wing landing the morning after inmate Carol Byatt's miscarriage, her cries for help ignored by the guards during the night. Helen, then Wing Governor, had called a wing meeting hoping to defuse a tense situation. She'd been completely unprepared for the hostile reception she'd received, especially the anger directed at her by Nikki.
Nikki's outburst had triggered Helen's own temper and they'd had a highly charged confrontation in front of the entire wing, ending with Nikki being sent to the punishment block, but even then Helen had felt the strong pull between the two of them. Similar confrontations would occur again and again before Nikki was freed. Yet despite exchanges of angry words, jealousy, misunderstandings and accusations, that pull between them was always present refusing to be denied.
A warm hand slid gently up her thigh, and she glanced over again to find Nikki looking at her with such intensity that she was momentarily distracted from the traffic around them.
"Shit!" Helen jerked the wheel, narrowly avoiding hitting a blue Mercedes that had cut in front of their car. Furious, she hurled a torrent of abuse at the offending driver, using a rather colorful vocabulary of swear words that surprised Nikki in both their breadth and the vehemence with which they were delivered.
Nikki burst out laughing.
"What!" Helen snapped, her frustration spilling over to her passenger.
"Just adding this to the list of things I'm learning about you, darling," came the laughing reply. Nikki was secretly pleased to discover the effect that her slightest touch had on Helen.
"Well the bloody sod could have killed us!" Glancing over at the dancing brown eyes, Helen joined in Nikki's laughter. "You're not the only one with a temper you know," she finally said.
They parked Helen's car in the private lot behind Chix and set off on foot to run their errands. First stop was the bank, followed by trips to several shops where Nikki bought a few necessities, including a mobile phone. After stowing their purchases in the boot, Helen looked up at the taller woman, shading her eyes from the sun. "Now what?"
Nikki checked her watch. "It's still too early to drop in on Trisha. How about we take a walk?"
"Sounds good to me. Lead the way."
They set off at a brisk pace, Helen practically running to keep up with Nikki's long legs.
"Nikki, slow down," she begged.
Nikki stopped so suddenly that Helen literally ran into her back.
"Sorry babe," Nikki said, reaching out a steadying hand. "I didn't think." She slipped an arm around Helen's waist. "I guess I'll have to slow down if you're going to keep up with me, eh?"
"Yes, you will." Helen shot her an arch look. "Although after our shopping, I'm not too sure I can keep up with you."
Nikki had raced around most of the morning, going from store to store with the exuberance of a small child at Christmas. Her enthusiasm was infectious and Helen delighted in observing the whirlwind of activity. She'd seldom seen Nikki so light-hearted and carefree, smiling easily and frequently. She seemed to have recovered her equilibrium, to really understand and accept that she was a free woman.
Taking Helen's hand firmly Nikki resumed walking, this time at a much more leisurely pace. It was a beautiful day, the kind that made one glad to be alive. Fluffy white clouds floated lazily across a brilliant blue sky. The sun was shining brightly and Nikki loved the feel of it on her face as they walked along, hand-in-hand. Helen was sporting a baseball cap and sunglasses and Nikki thought she looked adorable. She seemed perfectly comfortable with her hand in Nikki's, matching her stride for stride, and chatting easily.
At Covent Garden, Nikki stopped in front of a display of flowers. Lighting a cigarette and wanting to know more about Helen's likes and dislikes, she asked, "See anything you like?"
Helen was enthralled with the colorful blossoms. "All of it actually. Everything's just beautiful," she replied, smiling broadly at the taller woman. Nikki's knees went suddenly weak. Helen's smile had always affected her emotionally. One of Helen's smiles was like a ray of sunlight; it bathed Nikki in warmth and generated tingling sensations in the pit of her stomach. During her time in Larkhall even the most fleeting of smiles from the petite Scot was enough to keep her going for days.
"Come on Helen," Nikki wheedled, wanting to buy her something. "What do you fancy?"
Helen thought for a moment. "Well, I've always like freesias."
"Good choice." Spying the perfect bouquet a few stalls away, Nikki touched Helen lightly on the shoulder. "Wait here will you? I'll be right back."
In moments she returned with a large arrangement of pink roses, freesia and alstromeria wrapped in tissue paper and tied with a multi-colored ribbon. Helen was enthralled with the heavenly bouquet. "Nikki, they're gorgeous!" She inhaled deeply, closing her eyes in appreciation of the sweet fragrance and smiling in delight. "Thank you."
"You're welcome." Nikki leaned down until she was eye level with the smaller woman. "But I have to tell you Helen, those flowers don't hold a candle to you. You're gorgeous. I'm totally in love with you." They both smiled, remembering an earlier time and place when Nikki had said those same words to Helen Stewart, Wing Governor.
"Me too, sweetheart." Helen spoke from her heart. Looking deeply into brown eyes, she felt an almost overwhelming need to kiss Nikki. Unconsciously she parted her lips and leaned towards the other woman. Sensing what Helen might do Nikki stepped back a bit, avoiding contact. She wanted that kiss every bit as much as Helen. However, fully aware of where they were and the knowledge that she was fast losing any control to end things with just a kiss, made her put on the brakes.
Helen looked a little startled when Nikki pulled away. Her green eyes flashed in annoyance and Nikki bit back a grin. "We can't keep snogging on the streets of London, Helen. I might get arrested again." Lowering her voice, she added, "However, if you're of the same mind later tonight, I'll accommodate your every wish." Her pupils were dilated, her voice sultry and seductive. It set Helen's blood racing.
Helen swallowed convulsively, her throat suddenly dry. "Promise?"
Nikki gave her a one-armed quick hug, dropping a chaste kiss above her ear as she whispered, "I promise."
From Covent Garden, they strolled leisurely, enjoying the day and each other's company, before finally ending up along the Thames. Spotting what looked like a giant Ferris wheel in the distance, Nikki asked, "Is there a carnival in town?"
Momentarily perplexed Helen glanced across the river, trying to determine what had prompted Nikki's question. On the south bank, opposite Big Ben she saw it. "Oh, that. That's the London Eye."
"The London Eye. British Airways opened it last year. It was part of the millennium celebration," Helen explained. "Officially it's the tallest structure in London. They say you can see the whole city from the top."
Nikki was intrigued. "Care to go for a ride?"
Helen glanced at her watch. "I doubt if we have enough time. The queues are always long. It's very popular with the tourists. Besides, isn't Tricia expecting us?"
Nikki looked at her own watch, dismayed at how late it had got. "You're right. We probably should start back."
She made no move to retrace their steps however. Instead, she leaned down and in until their noses almost touched. "I seem to recall making you a promise once. To show you a good time after I got out."
"Aye, that you did," Helen replied flirtatiously, her eyes dancing. "What have you got in mind?"
Nikki rubbed her nose against Helen's. "How about a night on the town? We could dress up, take a ride on the Eye and then have a leisurely dinner at a posh restaurant. What do you say?"
"You mean like a date?" Helen was enchanted at the idea.
"Exactly. Our first date Helen."
The smile behind the teeth appeared, taking Nikki's breath away. "I'd love it."
Trisha and Nikki's flat was on the top floor of the building housing Chix. Helen nearly gasped aloud when Trisha opened the front door, revealing a spacious loft the length and width of the building. Arched floor to ceiling windows filled one of the walls. The loft had maple hardwood floors, exposed bricks and timber beams supporting the ceiling. Kitchen, sitting and dining areas flowed into each other as part of an open floor plan. A set of stairs at the north end of the room led to an enclosed area above the kitchen Helen speculated that the bedroom and bath were on the floor above.
The loft was furnished with a mix of antiques and contemporary furniture. Recalling a conversation she'd had with Nikki about her business when Nikki told her that the club was 'doing well', Helen realized that if this flat was an example of 'doing well' she and Nikki had markedly different ideas of the meaning of that term.
"There's somebody here to see you," Trisha said to Nikki as they followed her into the loft.
Helen caught a glimpse of two men, both in their early forties, seated next to each other on a large slate gray leather sofa. They scrambled to their feet as the women entered. The taller of the pair had wavy ebony hair and brown eyes, the exact color of melted chocolate. He was easily a foot taller than Helen's 5'4". His companion was shorter by three inches with hair the shade of caramel and vivid green eyes. Both men were matinee idol gorgeous.
Nikki's face broke into a broad grin at the sight of the visitors. "What are you two doing 'ere?"
In two strides, the dark-haired man had crossed the room and pulled Nikki into a tight embrace, lifting her off her feet in the process. Nikki buried her face in his neck and closed her eyes, delighting in the feel of strong arms and corded muscles.
When they eventually parted, Nikki seamlessly moved from his arms to those of the shorter man. Affection and intimacy flowed between them, as it had been between Nikki ebony-hair. Helen was extremely curious about their identities and their relationship to Nikki. Clearly they were close friends, or perhaps relatives.
"I can't believe it," Nikki said as she and caramel-hair separated. "Trish said you were in Costa Brava."
"We flew in this morning," ebony-hair said. "I'm presenting at a banking conference day after tomorrow." He turned reproachful eyes on Nikki. "It would have been nice to hear about your release in person rather than finding out about it on the news."
Nikki was astounded to learn that she was news in Spain.
"Why didn't you let us know about the appeal? If we'd known we would have come back in time to be in court yesterday." Caramel-hair turned to Trisha who was watching the reunion with a pleased expression.
"Ask Nik," came the reply.
Two pair of eyes turned expectantly towards Nikki who blushed furiously with the attention focused on her. She shrugged. "I didn't want to interrupt your holiday in case things didn't work out."
"Daft cow," caramel-hair said without rancor, punching her in the arm. "You're a tad bit more important than a holiday in Spain." He grinned at her, flashing perfect white teeth. "It's good to see you Nikki."
"Who's this then?" asked ebony-hair, catching sight of Helen for the first time.
"Christ! Sorry, darling didn't mean to ignore you." Nikki held out a hand, inviting Helen to join her. When she crossed the room to Nikki's side, Nikki slipped an arm around her shoulders, pulling her close.
"Helen, these are two of my oldest and best mates." She gestured to ebony-hair. "Stephen Fontaine," and, turning to the man on her left, "and his partner, James Chamberlain." Smiling down at Helen, her gaze possessive, she completed the introductions. "This is Helen Stewart, my partner."
Stunned momentarily at the way Nikki introduced her to her friends but also secretly pleased, Helen smiled and shook hands with the couple. For a fleeting moment, Helen reflected that women everywhere would be devastated to discover that these two men were gay. They were two of the most gorgeous specimens she'd ever seen in her life. Then, smiling to herself as she adjusted her thinking, she wondered if a man would ever think similar thoughts about her and Nikki.
Neither man appeared surprised to see Nikki with another woman. Trisha must have filled them in before she and Helen arrived.
The things Nikki wanted were in boxes in the club storeroom. James helped her carry them to Helen's car. When they returned to the loft, Helen and Stephen were in the kitchen with Trisha who was putting out fruit, cheeses and savory biscuits.
"How about a glass of wine?" Trisha offered, uncorking a bottle of red.
Nikki and Helen exchanged glances, Helen conveying to Nikki with a look that it was up to her.
"Sure. We can stay for one." Nikki replied.
They stayed for over an hour. Helen and Nikki's friends got along like a house afire. James and Helen quickly discovered a shared love for Robert Burns and when Stephen not so innocently remarked that he preferred Sir Walter Scott, battle was joined. Nikki nibbled, and drank her wine, content just to observe the three of them. She loved watching Helen's green eyes flash passionately; her accent getting stronger as she and Stephen debated which writer was Scotland's more famous son.
It was surreal being back in the flat, Nikki thought. She and Trish had been in the early stages of renovation at the time of Nikki's arrest. The last time she'd been here the walls for the upper level had just been completed and the maple floors newly restored.
Now, although Trisha had decorated the loft they way they'd discussed, nothing about it felt like home to Nikki. She'd experienced a similar feeling the day before at the club. Like she'd been dropped suddenly into a life that no longer fit her. She examined her feelings she wasn't angry or sad. There was no deep sense of loss. The exact opposite in fact she felt liberated; excited to explore a new life with Helen. Idly she wondered whether she and Trisha could work together again. Hell, she wondered if she even wanted to.
She voiced her concerns to Trisha a few minutes later. The two of them had stepped out onto the terrace for a smoke and a quiet word, leaving the others inside.
"Give it time, Nik. It's only been a day. I don't expect you to jump right back in." The blonde took a long drag of her fag.
"I thought you quit." Nikki commented.
"I did. Lasted about six months. When Joan and I broke things off I started again." Too late, Trisha remembered that Nikki hadn't wanted to know anything about the woman Trisha had taken up with while Nikki was in prison.
Nikki continued as if her former lover hadn't spoken. "I'm not sure I want to jump back in Trish. It was great being at Chix yesterday but I don't really have any desire to be there every day." The crowd, much smaller than those on a typical week-end, had almost been too much for Nikki. She'd felt claustrophobic and uncomfortable.
"It seems more like your business than mine anyway. Just like this place." She spoke matter-of-factly, no trace of sadness in her tone.
"That sounds pretty final Nik. Is this because of what's happened between us?" Trisha had hoped for reconciliation with Nikki, but after seeing her with Helen and realizing that was not going to happen, she'd still assumed that they would continue in business together.
Nikki squeezed the hand resting beside hers on the railing, wordlessly communicating comfort and support. "Of course not." She exhaled a plume of smoke toward the sky. Thoughtfully, her eyes remained fixed on the slow moving clouds above for a few moments.
Flicking her cig to the concrete below, she considered her next words. "Trish, I told you I'll always love you and I meant it. I want us to stay friends even if we're no longer business partners." She studied her folded hands, trying to express her feelings. "It's just that I'm not the same person I was before Larkhall." And I'm not sure I'll ever be that person again.
Trisha sighed heavily. "I'm sorry Nik. If I could go back and change everything about that night I would. I never should have gone into the office alone with Gossard." They'd never talked about what happened; never had the opportunity. Initially, Nikki's arrest and trial had been a major distraction for them both but eventually Trisha sought professional help. It had taken her months to come to terms with the aftermath of the attempted rape and murder. Now, not for the first time, she wondered how Nikki had coped.
"What happened wasn't your fault. You know that. Gossard was an animal." Her tone was flat. "I'd do it again under the same circumstances." Nikki smiled reassuringly at her.
Mollified by Nikki's statement, Trisha returned the smile. Striving to keep her tone light, she said, "Whatever you decide to do about Chix the flat all of it, will be okay with me. We'll work it out."
Smiling her thanks, Nikki looked off in the distance, absorbing the sights and sounds of the neighborhood. Even though the air smelled suspiciously like car exhaust and she could hear the sounds of dustbin lids clanking together from the alley below, Nikki could not remember the last time she'd been so content with her world.
"Guess I'd better have a quick word with Stephen though; see how I'm fixed before I do anything drastic," Nikki said.
Stephen was an investment banker. He'd been assisting Nikki with her capitol ever since she'd had more than two quid to invest. When she'd gone inside she'd given him power of attorney to handle her financial matters. Although she'd been pleasantly surprised at the balance of her bank account the bulk of her investments were in stocks and funds.
"Did somebody mention my name?" Stephen suddenly materialized. "Trisha, Nigel called from downstairs. Apparently there's a salesman you need to deal with. Some confusion over beer delivery."
"Bollocks! Don't leave until I get back." Trisha admonished, setting off.
Leaning against the wall, Stephen crossed his arms, taking in the sight of Nikki and noticing the changes four years had wrought in her appearance. "It's marvelous to see you, Nikki. It's been way too long." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "We never understood why you wouldn't let us visit you in Larkhall."
Refusing to allow visits from friends had been Nikki's coping mechanism. It helped her deal not only with her loss of freedom but also with everything she was deprived of on the outside. Trisha, Monica Lindsey, and Helen on one occasion, had been Nikki's only visitors except for her solicitor.
"I had my reasons." Recognizing from her tone that the subject was not open to discussion, he elected not to pursue it.
Stephen shook his head in resigned disapproval as Nikki lit another fag. "I see you still have that disgusting habit. Maybe Helen can break you of it."
Nikki laughed. "I'd do just about anything for Helen but I don't know if even she can motivate me to quit smoking."
He glanced through the French doors to where their partners were chatting like old friends. "It's strange, you and Trisha not being together anymore."
Nikki shot him a challenging look, as if daring him to say something derogatory about Helen.
"Don't get me wrong, Nikki. I like Helen. So does James. We both thoroughly approve. And from what I've seen of her so far, I have the feeling that she's more than a match for you." His eyes were teasing.
Nikki grinned at him. "Wanker!" she said affectionately. "Watch out Steph, she's quite capable of knocking you down a peg or two if need be."
"I believe you." He took a sip of his wine. "We're dying to hear more about how you two got together. Trisha's explanation was cryptic, to say the least. Was Helen really the Governor of the prison?"
Nikki smirked, while somehow managing at the same time to look sheepish. "Yeah."
"Christ, Nikki, you don't do things by half do you?" Stephen was intrigued. "How about you and Helen joining James and me for dinner tonight and filling us in? We have reservations at one of London's trendiest restaurants."
"Sorry, mate. We're having our first official date tonight. You and James tagging along as chaperones is hardly what I have in mind."
Stephen's eyebrows shot up. "First date?"
"Well despite what you might think, Her Majesty's prison system isn't keen on promoting relationships between screws and inmates." Nikki's voice dripped sarcasm. "It's not like I could take her out for dinner or anything."
Stephen chuckled. "Point taken. But don't think you're getting off the hook. We're here for a few days before we head back to Spain. Where can we reach you you staying with Helen?"
"Temporarily." She stubbed out the fag. "I need to find a place. Can't stay here for obvious reasons."
He blinked, startled, but recovered quickly.
"It's not that I don't want to be with Helen," she explained. "I'm crazy about her. It's just I need a place of my own for a while got to get used to being self-sufficient again. And neither one of us wants to jump into anything too fast."
She reached for his glass and took a sip of wine. "So tell me. What can I afford?"
He laughed. "I wondered when you'd get around to asking me about your finances."
Helen studied Nikki out of the corner of her eye as their taxi navigated its way through London's early evening traffic. She'd been very mysterious after their return from Trisha's, completely taking charge of their date and resisting all of Helen's attempts to wheedle any information from her.
"Trust me, darling. I promise you a night to remember," Nikki had told her after getting Helen's promise to pack something for overnight and leave everything else to Nikki. The 'something', a red silk nightie, now rested in Helen's oversize bag along with a few other essentials.
Nikki was rigged out in one of her new trouser suits, a summer wool in a rich shade of plum. Beneath the single-breasted jacket she wore a red silk blouse. Unlike the suit she'd worn to court which was slightly too large, the tailored lines of the Versace suit sculpted her body perfectly. Her only jewelry was her watch and the pinkie ring she always wore on her right hand.
At Nikki's suggestion that they dress for dinner, Helen had chosen a tropical floral print of pink and green. The dress was strapless, hugging her breasts snugly and flaring at the waist to a full skirt. A pink Pashmina silk shawl was draped about her shoulders to ward off the evening's chill. Diamond stud earrings and a diamond drop necklace completed the outfit. She looked and smelled fantastic Nikki thought, as she caught a whiff of Helen's perfume.
Nikki's heart raced. Suddenly she was very aware of the younger woman's nearness, of the narrow strip of cloth that barely covered Helen's breasts, the bronze shoulders, and the shapely legs, ankles crossed daintily. Instead of the sensible shoes Helen typically wore, tonight she was in a pair of two inch sandals the exact shade of pink of the dress and shawl. The design, a series of criss-crossed leather straps, was reminiscent of footwear for a Greek or Roman goddess. Helen of Troy, perhaps. Nikki smiled at the thought. As far as Nikki Wade was concerned, the woman next to her was a goddess; Nikki's goddess.
Her musings were interrupted by what sounded like bagpipes coming from Helen's bag.
"That's my mobile. I'm expecting a call about the interview Monday. I better get it," Helen said apologetically.
"Helen, it's Monica." Monica Lindsey had been an inmate at Larkhall when Helen was Wing Governor. The two women developed a healthy respect for each other during that time which had blossomed into a deep friendship following Monica's release. It had begun when Monica enlisted her former governor's help with her halfway house project 'Clean Slate', and the two started spending a considerable amount of time together.
Truth be told, during that time Monica had grown to love Helen like a daughter and occasionally acted as a surrogate. Helen's own mother had been dead nearly twenty years and her relationship with her father, a Presbyterian minister, she characterized as 'complicated' whenever the subject came up.
Nikki's interest was piqued upon learning the identity of Helen's caller. Scooting closer she unabashedly eavesdropped on Helen's end of the conversation, waiting impatiently for the call to end so that she could quiz her about it.
"I hope I haven't caught you at an inconvenient time," Monica was saying in her cultured tones.
Helen hid a smile. "Not at all," she said, trying to ignore Nikki's nearness and what it was doing to her pulse rate. "What can I do for you?"
"Well two things actually. I'm sorry to call you last minute but I'm not going to be able to make our tea this Sunday. My niece has just delivered a new baby and I'm off to Cornwall on Saturday to check out the latest family addition. I was hoping that we could make it another time. Maybe one evening after you get off work?"
Damn! With everything that had transpired with Nikki in the last 24 hours, Helen had completely forgotten about her plans with Monica.
"Not a problem. Actually I have quite a bit of free time at the moment so any day you name should work. I'll fill you in on details when I see you."
"Well then what about lunch tomorrow?" Monica suggested.
"Lunch tomorrow sounds lovely." Helen glanced at Nikki, wondering if she should check with her before making plans, then decided not to bother. Helen was positive that Nikki would jump at the chance to see the older woman. She and Monica Lindsey had been fast friends during the time Monica was inside.
"What was the other reason you called?" Helen asked.
"Nikki Wade. I saw her interview on the telly yesterday and I want to get in touch with her. I was hoping that you might know how I could contact her."
Helen glanced over at Nikki who was fidgeting in the seat beside her. "Actually I do." Looking questionately at Nikki, she covered the phone with her hand and said in a low voice, "She's looking for you. Do you want to talk to her?"
Nikki hesitated. They hadn't discussed how they were going to share the news that they were now a couple. Circumstances had dictated that their relationship be kept secret for so long, that neither woman had really adjusted yet to the fact that the clandestine part of their lives was now behind them.
"Are you okay with that?"
Helen nodded affirmatively. "I'd like to tell her the details together though, if that's okay with you." Removing her hand where it had been covering the phone, Helen said, "You're in luck Monica. Nikki's right here and anxious to talk to you."
Nikki accepted the phone, her face curving into a broad smile.
"Nikki!" Monica's delight was evident in her voice. "What a spot of luck finding you with Helen. How are you?"
Taking Helen's hand in hers, their fingers entwining, Nikki said, "Bloody marvelous. I feel like I've won the lottery." She dropped a gentle kiss on Helen's knuckles before continuing, "I'm still trying to get acclimatized but it seems to be getting a little easier today."
"You'll get used to it." Monica spoke from experience. Since leaving Larkhall, she'd established two halfway houses and now spent her time working with women leaving the prison system helping them to adjust to life on the outside. The first, Spencer's House, in honor of her son, was attached to Monica's own home. The second, Peter's House, established with funds from Barbara Hunt and named in honor of her late husband, had recently opened.
"I want to see you Nikki. Are you staying with Trisha?"
"No. Actually, Monica I haven't settled my living arrangements yet. I do have a mobile though where you can reach me." Pulling her new phone out of her coat pocket she read off the number and Monica repeated it back to make sure she had taken it down correctly.
"If you need a place to stay Nikki, you're more than welcome to come here for as long as you'd like. My living quarters are separate from the halfway house and there's a guest bedroom waiting for you."
Nikki was touched at her friend's thoughtfulness. "Thank you. I'll keep that in mind." Noticing that the taxi had left the motorway and was threading its way through the streets of London, Nikki hastened to wrap up the call. "Listen, I couldn't help overhearing you and Helen making plans for lunch tomorrow. Would you mind if I tagged along?"
"Not at all. I'd absolutely love it!" If Monica was surprised at the suggestion, it wasn't obvious from her voice.
After a brief side conversation with Helen, Nikki suggested a time and place for their lunch and rang off with a contented sigh. Returning Helen's mobile to her, she noticed the younger woman regarding her with a look of unbridled amusement.
"You do know that when Monica really thinks about this conversation she's going to be consumed with curiosity. By tomorrow she'll have a hundred questions for us." Helen's tone was teasing, no trace of concern in her voice.
"You worried about how she'll take the news?" Nikki was still insecure about Helen's recent coming out as a lesbian and how she was dealing with it.
"Not at all," came the reply. "Although I imagine her first reaction will be shock. You and I didn't exactly project harmony and cooperation during the time she was at Larkhall."
In fact, Helen and Nikki's relationship had been highly charged and at times combative, with Nikki fighting against authority and badgering Helen to admit her feelings for her. In the ensuing two years, Helen had mentioned Nikki only briefly and in general terms in any conversations with the older woman.
"Honestly, I think Monica's going to be very happy for us," Helen said, squeezing the hand still resting in hers. Tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she added, "Although I do expect her to grill me satisfy herself that I'm good enough for you. She adores you, Nikki."
You good enough for me oh Helen, I'm the one who isn't good enough for you. Nikki studied Helen's delicate features for a moment. "Sounds like you two have got close."
"Yes we have. We discovered that we have quite a bit in common." Leaning in she whispered conspiratorially, "I think you're pretty adorable too." Then, with a tongue behind teeth smile she added cheekily, "When I'm not thinking you're exasperating."
Helen Stewart lit up a room simply by being in it, and tonight was no exception. Several times during the evening, Nikki noticed both men and women diners direct admiring glances their way. Helen seemed oblivious and Nikki was thrilled to have the undivided attention of, in her opinion, the most beautiful woman in the room.
Helen studied her companion in the flickering candlelight. The light softened Nikki's features, hardened while inside by the resentment and bitterness that at times threatened to consume her. Tonight though, she was relaxed, smiling frequently and often. While they ate, she regaled Helen with wild stories about James and Stephen and her early years in London.
They'd returned to the Thames and the London Eye to begin their evening. Nikki could hardly wait to board the 'flight' and even sharing their pod with a dozen Japanese tourists didn't dampen her enthusiasm. She wandered around, exclaiming at the familiar London sights until she suddenly realized that Helen seemed to have vanished. Turning around, she'd discovered the smaller woman seated on the bench in the center of the pod. Her attempts to get Helen to join her met with no success. Their struggle of wills could easily have ended in an argument if Helen hadn't finally admitted that she was terrified of heights and that she'd only gone on the ride to please Nikki. Nikki was staggered. After all, it hadn't been that long ago that Helen had climbed onto the roof of the prison to rescue Zandra Plackett's baby. Her admiration for her lover grew tenfold, and she spent the rest of the journey sitting at Helen's side and holding her hand, reassuring her until the ride was over.
From the Eye, they'd gone to Zafferano Restaurant in Knightsbridge. Wanting to impress Helen, Nikki had wheedled James and Stephen out of their month-old dinner reservation. They'd dined on asparagus risotto and lobster ravioli for a starter, followed by pan-fried sea bass with sun dried tomato crust, both served with Italian wines. Now they were indulging in chocolate sorbet with passion fruit lace cookies.
Watching Helen across the table, Nikki was amazed at the quantity of food the diminutive woman had put away. Her capacity seemed to defy the laws of nature and she ate as if each bite was a sensual experience. Popping a piece of cookie in her mouth, Helen closed her eyes and moaned in appreciation at the flavors exploding on her tongue.
Mid-chew Helen felt Nikki's eyes on her.
"What? Have I got something on my face?" She dabbed at the corner of her mouth with a napkin.
Nikki's face crinkled into a smile. "No. You're fine. I'm just glad you're enjoying the meal."
"Well there'd definitely be something wrong with me if I wasn't," Helen joked. Reaching across the table, she took Nikki's hand and gave it a squeeze. "I still can't believe you got us in here. You're amazing." She'd wanted to try the popular restaurant for months but available reservations were scarcer than hen's teeth.
Their white-haired waiter, an Italian to whom English was a second language, appeared at the table. "More coffee, ladies?" He spoke in English this time, although he and Nikki had conversed in his native language most of the evening.
Helen had been gobsmacked when after first consulting her on her preferences, Nikki ordered their entire meal in flawless Italian.
At Helen's incredulous look, Nikki had shrugged, saying simply, "my mother's family comes from Italy and with my dad's naval career we traveled a lot. I also speak French, Spanish and some Mandarin Chinese if you're curious."
In those two sentences Helen learned more about Nikki's family than in the previous three years. Although she'd discovered that Nikki's parents had kicked her out of their house a few weeks before her seventeenth birthday, all her attempts to get the other woman to share further information with her were fruitless. Usually the 'no trespassing' signals appeared whenever anyone tried to talk to Nikki about her family, her voice taking on a brusque tone followed by an abrupt shift in subject.
Helen indicated to the waiter that she'd like more coffee. Nikki switched to tea. Helen studied the dark-haired woman over the rim of the china cup as she took a sip. She was mesmerized by the unbelievably long eyelashes that framed Nikki's brown eyes, her sculpted cheekbones, stubborn chin and the crooked little smile that she was wearing as she returned Helen's careful scrutiny. God she's gorgeous.
"See something you like, Miss?" Nikki asked cheekily.
"Most definitely," came the husky reply and Nikki's breath caught in her throat. Helen's eyes were narrowed seductively and she was looking at Nikki in the same covetous way that she had ogled the chocolate dessert before completely devouring it. Picturing Helen's tongue lapping up the sorbet, Nikki's new suit suddenly seemed a size too small and much too warm for the room.
"Would you like some more coffee?" Nikki asked.
"Thank you, no."
"Want to go clubbing?" Nikki offered.
"Not really," Helen replied, hurt at the question. In the past Nikki had relentlessly sought out opportunities for the two of them to be alone. Now when there were no obstacles in their way, being alone with Helen seemed to be the last thing on her mind.
Suppressing a smile at Helen's irritated expression, Nikki signaled for the bill. "Ready to go then?"
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