DISCLAIMER: the characters don't belong to me, but to Shed. I'm just borrowing them for a while. After I'm done toying with them, I'll give them back in one piece, I promise *evil laugh* Please don't sue, all I have left in my wallet is a couple of Euro' s. Not worth the hassle.
SEQUEL: the story is going to be part of a series of one off sequels to Someone to Watch Over Me.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.

Haunting Memories X
By Piranha


Et si tu n'existais pas – Joe Dassin.


Et si tu n'existais pas,
Dis-moi pourquoi j'existerais.
Pour traîner dans un monde sans toi,
Sans espoir et sans regrets.
And if you weren't there
Tell me, why should I live?
I drag myself through a world without you
Without hope and without regrets

Et si tu n'existais pas,
J'essaierais d'inventer l'amour,
Comme un peintre qui voit sous ses doigts
Naître les couleurs du jour. Et qui n'en revient pas.

And if you didn't exist
Then I'd try to invent love
Just like a painter, under who's fingers
The beautiful colours of day are born, Never to return again

Et si tu n'existais pas,
Dis-moi pour qui j'existerais.
Des passantes endormies dans mes bras
Que je n'aimerais jamais.

And if you didn't exist
Tell me, for who would I live
passersby sleeping in my arms
People I'd never love

Et si tu n'existais pas,
Dis-moi comment j'existerais.
Je pourrais faire semblant d'être moi,
Mais je ne serais pas vrai.

And if you weren't there
Tell me, how would I live
I'd pretend tob e me
But I wouldn't be real

Et si tu n'existais pas,
Je ne serais qu'un point de plus
Dans ce monde qui vient et qui va,
Je me sentirais perdu,
J'aurais besoin de toi.

And if you weren't there
I think I would have found
the secret of life, the reason why
simply to create you
And to watch you

No matter how hard she tried to have a little lie in in the morning, Nikki always woke around six. Going to bed really late or making love to Helen all night long, no matter what she did, her eyes always blinked open at her usual hour. She didn't know why they had even bothered buying a new clock radio – Trisha had accidentally dropped the old one down the stairs, reducing it to smithereens – her internal clock was spookily accurate. Nikki supposed it was a remnant of Larkhall she still hadn't shaken off, she hadn't set foot in the wretched place for months. Although prisoners didn't have to get up that early of a morning – unlock wasn't until seven or seven thirty in the morning, depending on how lazy the screws were that particular day – she had trained herself to wake up at that ungodly hour. Not to be first in line for bath and breakfast when the guards finally decided to herd in the cattle, lumpy porridge really didn't tickle her taste buds to that extent, no she had a totally different reason for getting up that early. She simply didn't want to give Fenner the satisfaction of catching her semi undressed. She wouldn't put it past the slimy bastard to ogle the women through the little spy hole to get his rocks off.

She didn't really mind waking up early; at least it gave her a chance to cuddle up with Helen, a treat that meant the world to her. A bottle of really good wine £25, a beautiful bouquet of flowers £10, waking up in Helens arms…. Simply priceless. She loved basking in the warmth of her lover's embrace, it was an opportunity to just quietly be as nothing was expected of her, nothing really mattered as haunting memories and daunting worries were temporarily cast aside. She couldn't get enough of watching Helen sleep, she always looked so adoringly angelic and invariably snuggled closer as if sensing Nikki was watching her. Sometimes Nikki didn't know where she began and Helen ended, no matter how far apart they started, they always ended up totally wrapped around each other. They were both definitely cuddlers.

Today was different though, even combing her fingers though Helen's hair as her lover lay half on top of her didn't give her the peace of mind she so desperately craved. She was too pumped up, too wired to stay in bed, she had all this nervous energy coursing through her, aching for release and it was making her jittery. She always felt like this on important events and today was no different, the gallery opening had her stomach in a knot. She was absolutely dreading it, but at the same time, in a rather sadistic way, she was looking forward to it too. She felt like an expecting parent, anxiously awaiting the birth of her first baby. In a way she was a mother though, the bookstore truly was her and Helen's baby. They had loved and nurtured it, watching it grow and blossom under their very eyes. They had all kinds of plans for its future, getting lost in wishful thinking and wild daydreaming at times, but always having its best interests at heart. They had agonised over a name for weeks, really wanting it to be perfect… and now they'd finally see their baby born.

Knowing her eternal tossing and turning would only disturb Helen, Nikki gently detangled herself from her lover's octopus style embrace and reached for her robe. Normally she would have rushed through the house in a mad, frantic dash, banging all the doors and cupboards as she scurried around, loudly singing along with the stereo on full blast, but …. She knew better by now. A pissed off Helen Stewart wasn't on to tangle with on the best of days, but facing the wrath of a cranky and sleep deprived Helen Stewart before her first cup of coffee was sheer suicidal! With two Stewarts in the house at the moment, the chances of getting out of the battle unscathed were slim to non-existant and with odds like that, even Nikki didn't want to place a bet.

Swinging her legs over the side of the bed, she stretched out lazily before shrugging her robe on. Yawning widely as she rubbed her eyes, she padded around the bedroom on her Garfield slippers, a house warming gift by Trisha that had Helen in stitches every time. Opening the French windows, she went to stand on the little balcony overlooking the garden. Leaning against the wall, she shivered lightly in the early morning chill and pulled the robe tighter around her. With a contented smile on her face, she watched the world slowly come to life. She loved watching the sun rise, it always calmed her, and it let her know that everything would be alright in the end. The beautiful simplicity and serenity of nature left her in awe, making her realise how tiny and insignificant her problems really were in the bigger scheme of things. She had really missed watching the sunrise whilst in Larkhall, her poxy cell being on the wrong side, but watching rush in first thing in the morning had been a more than worthy substitute.

The sun, a big orange angry ball of fire, rising over the rooftops and painting the once ink black sky in a beautiful tapestry of light colours. Nikki felt a warm invigorating sense of calm invade her being once again. The fresh smell of morning dew, a sole bird in a nearby tree tweeting his early morning serenade, the sun tickling her face with the promise of a hot summer day…. It made her smile and realise that a brand new day had begun. Taking a deep breath of air, really feeling it fill all her senses, she stepped back into the bedroom, leaving the window slightly ajar to allow a cool breeze in. The wind toying with the curtains, intermittently bathing the room in shadow and light, she walked the short distance to the bed. Not wanting to break the spell just yet, she knelt beside it and watched Helen sleep. Her soft murmurs, at times bordering on a light snore though Helen would vehemently deny it, making Nikki smile, she reached out a hand and with trembling fingers she lovingly caressed Helen's cheek, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear. When Helen stirred and pulled Nikki's pillow closer, really snuggling into it, mumbling something incomprehensible, Nikki gave her a light peck on the forehead before pulling the covers higher over her sleeping lover and quietly leaving the room.

Not wanting to wake up the still slumbering Stewarts, knowing just how hazardous that would be for her continued wellbeing, she slowly and carefully made her way down the stairs, almost taking a tumble whilst trying to avoid the creaky third step. Heaving a small sigh of relief when she reached the hallway without making a ruckus, she combed her fingers through her hair to flatten it a bit before opening the front door. Not wanting to flash her geriatric neighbour again, she really thought his eyes were going to pop out when her robe accidentally fell open a bit the other day, she pulled the robe really tight before bending down and grabbing the newspaper. Looking up when the sunlight was reflected in a pair of binoculars, she smirked when she caught her neighbour's disappointed expression and gave him a tiny wave, laughing merrily when the curtains closed with a hard yank.

Folding the paper open as she walked through the house on automatic pilot, she shook her head in dismay at the headlines. Too annoyed with another ludicrous governmental decision, she didn't mind where she was going and let out an ear piercing yelp when she stubbed her toe against one of the last remaining boxes. Clamping her hand over her mouth to muffle the string of expletives, she hopped to the kitchen with tears in her eyes, precariously holding on to the rather tattered newspaper. Throwing the paper on the table, she sank down on a chair and wriggled her toes. Knowing she'd be black and blue in a couple of hours – that or she'd have the foot of a Yeti – she sighed deeply and hobbled over to the kitchen counter, realising that high heels were definitely out of the question today. The coffee machine soon gurgling and hissing, she searched the drawer for her cigarettes and lighter. Closing the drawer again with a decided thud, she leaned against the counter and lit her cigarette, closing her eyes in unadulterated joy as she inhaled that first drag.

Putting her walkman on, her good foot tapping along with the beat, she poured herself a cup of coffee, her mouth watering at the divine aroma of her rather expensive Columbian blend. The paper rolled up in her robe pocket, she hobbled over to the back door, careful to avoid spilling scorching hot coffee all over herself. Sinking down on the nearest patio chair, she put the mug on the table and spread the newspaper open, all the while puffing on her cigarette. Totally engrossed in the editorial, she reached for her mug and took a big gulp, almost burning her tongue. Coughing and spluttering as it went down the wrong way, getting trapped in the cords of her walkman as she tried to wipe the tears from her eyes, she didn't notice William coming into the garden and jumped up when he patted her on the back, making her spray coffee all over him.

A loud yelp followed by muffled cursing rousing him from slumber, William blinked a couple of times before finally opening his eyes. Yawning widely, he rolled over to look at the clock, the early time letting him know that it was Nikki downstairs. Realising that he'd never be able to fall asleep again – even when she thought she was being quiet, Nikki made enough noise to raise the dead; he really didn't know how Helen could sleep through all that racket, then again, it was his daughter they were talking about, she'd even sleep through a canon going off beside her – he grabbed his robe and got out of bed. If he was honest, it wasn't really the noise that made him restless, but rather the gallery opening. He was probably more nervous about it than his daughter. In a sleepy daze, he stumbled down the stairs, the third step creaking loudly as he stepped on it. Spotting Nikki in the garden enjoying the morning sun, he poured himself a cup of coffee before joining her.

Never even noticing her earplugs, only hearing her cough and splutter like a miner with emphysema, he rushed out to pat her on the back, only to be showered with coffee as she jumped up in fright. Yanking the earplugs out, Nikki apologised profusely, her face beet red with embarrassment, but William waved it off. Dabbing his face with his sleeve, he laughingly said: "well, I'm certainly awake now". As both settled down in the chairs, the early morning sun just warm enough to chase away the chill, William stole the sport section from the table and began to read the off season football transfers, making Nikki grin at his occasional grunts of approval. Knowing that no conversation was needed right now or indeed even wanted - William was just like Helen, he only became sociable and talkative after his first cup of coffee – Nikki resumed her reading up on current affairs.

As he really couldn't be bothered to fetch his pipe, William folded up his paper before reaching over and pinching one of Nikki's cigarettes. Lowering her paper long enough to give him a conspiratorial wink, Nikki lit her own cigarette before handing him her lighter. As he fumbled with the lighter – to William's consternation the breeze kept blowing the flame out – he just knew that Nikki was sitting there smirking behind her newspaper. Finally managing to light his fag, he took a long and satisfying drag before leaning back with closed eyes. The sun bathing him in a shower of warmth, the birds tweeting in the nearby trees, busy bees buzzing around him…. The tranquil serenity of early morning filled him with peace and joy. He certainly understood why Nikki escaped to her garden every opportunity she got. Looking over to Nikki, seeing the twinkle in her eyes and the barely suppressed laughter as she read the cartoons, he thought about the fickleness and unpredictability of fate and the sometimes intangibility of true happiness.

All he wanted for Helen, all he had ever wanted, was for her to be happy. True happiness was something everybody craved for, but not many achieved. He wouldn't deny that he had always envisioned her happily married with 2.4 kids, a dog and a white picket fence, but Helen never did what he expected, nor should she really. He could make all the plans he wanted for her, ultimately it was her life to lead, not his. As a father all he could do was set her on her way and hope for the best, the rest was up to her. Despite the sometimes surprising byroads Helen took on her life's journey, when he thought about it, she was right there where he had wanted, wished for and hoped for her to be: settled down with a loving partner in a beautiful home. So what if her partner was a woman? Nikki and Helen were engaged to be married, they already had the white picket fence and he wouldn't be all that surprised if they'd have a puppy tearing up Nikki's precious garden in a couple of months. Maybe even 2.4 kids wasn't a that farfetched idea either? The prospect of grandchildren intrigued him, the very idea of having the chance to spoil a little girl with Helen's eyes or a little boy with Nikki's unruly hair filled his heart with joy.

Turning to face Nikki, he asked: "how do you see the future, Nikki? I know Helen asked you to marry her and believe me, that is a huge step for her, she usually shies away from commitment. I suppose that's partly my fault…. Anyway, it's obvious to me that you both love each other very much and I'm thrilled to welcome you into the Stewart clan. I like you, you've got spunk, you're the only one I can see my daughter grow old with. I always knew it wouldn't work out with her other beaus…. I mean, take that Sean for instance, what a first class wimp! After meeting him the first time I understood why Helen had become such a workaholic. Imagine coming home to that whiny dweeb every day!" Shivering lightly at the thought, he continued: "I'm sure that you've noticed that Helen can sometimes be a bit domineering. She needs someone who challenges her on that, who challenges her in general, who loves her bossy side but doesn't always give into it. Sean was a spineless wimp, prepared to sacrifice his own ideas for the sake of compromise and that's something Helen can't accept. She doesn't want a doormat… Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that I think you're perfectly suited, I'm proud to call you my daughter…. But what about children? I mean… ever since she was a wee lass, Helen has always wanted children. At least two, she said, as one is none. I suppose that's because she grew up an only child, but anyway… how do you feel about children?"

Oddly touched by William's blessing and his covert way of looking out for Helen's best interests, Nikki smiled and put down her paper. She thought about her answer for a while, but then decided that honesty was the best policy, William had spoken from the heart too after all. Clearing her throat, she said: "I'll be totally honest with you, William. Though I absolutely adore children, until very recently I never contemplated having any of my own. I always thought I'd be a horrible parent… I mean, I've told you about my childhood and I guess I was afraid that somehow I'd turn into my mother, something I wouldn't wish on anyone. Children should be loved and cherished, not used to enhance one's social status. They're a life long commitment, not something to be stored away in a cupboard, only to be dusted off when friends drop by."

The bitterness she still felt about her upbringing, seeping through her statement, she continued: "I was raised by a whole battery of nannies before being whisked off to a posh boarding school. For a very long time I thought Louise, our maid, was my mother, as she always seemed happy when my brother and I came home for the holidays. My parents were cold and distant towards us, I think my mother showed her horse more love and affection than she ever did us. Anyway, I always thought I'd turn into my parents, it's in my genes after all. However long my gran talked into me, I couldn't be persuaded from the notion. It didn't really matter anyway…. I was with Trisha at the time and somehow I could never envision her as the mother of my children. Not so much because we were too busy trying to build up a business or the fact the she's not really the maternal type, but it's like I instinctively knew that she wasn't the one. Don't get me wrong, I loved Trisha to bits and I always will, but she's not my soul mate, something I didn't understand until I met Helen.

While I was in Larkhall, I had a lot of time to think. Being in prison is not only an incarceration of the body, it's also an incarceration of the mind. The only things they can't take away from you are your inner thoughts, but being cooped up in a closed space…. The only thing you think of is yourself and how you got yourself into that predicament in the first place. I did a lot of soul searching, especially after I fell in love with Helen. I doubted I was worth her love, I wondered if I had the right to rock her world so completely, I wanted to know what she saw in me, I contemplated how our future would look. All this procrastination led to some important conclusions though; no matter what the future will bring, I know I'm not my parents. I also realised that Helen is the only one I can see myself have children with. She's the only one who touches my heart, body and soul, she's my other half…. There's nothing in the world that I'd rather want than to have Helen's baby. We talked about it and children are definitely in our future, we just want to build up the business first. Actually, we bought Trisha out because this house is perfect for children: it has a huge garden, it's a quiet neighbourhood and the park is nearby."

Getting up from his chair, William answered: "you're absolutely right, it's a beautiful house, perfect for raising a couple of children. And don't worry, you'll make an excellent mother if you ask me. Now I'd better get myself ready before Helen wakes up and hogs the bathroom again. I don't know what she does in there, but it always takes her over an hour to get ready."

Smirking at the verity of that statement, Nikki waved him off before grabbing her mug. Taking a sip, she pulled a face at the ghastly taste of ice cold coffee and rushed inside to spit it in the sink. Rinsing her mug, she pulled the orange juice from the fridge before settling down on the patio again.

Giving her dad a kiss as she passed him on the stairs, not even noticing his amused smirk as she could hardly suppress a wide yawn, Helen made her way to the kitchen in a sleepy haze. Coffee the only thing on her mind right now, she took her mug from the sink and filled it right up to the rim. Yawning widely, she took the milk out of the fridge before leaning back against the counter. She held the mug in both hands, savouring the rich aroma before taking her first sip. Slowly feeling herself come to life again, she sipped from her coffee like it was the gods' nectar. Her mood picking up as she felt almost human again, she rinsed her mug in the sink. Only then did she remember why she came downstairs in the first place. Spotting Nikki in the garden, the first place she looked, she knew her fiancée's habits well enough by now, and she went to join her. Not even contemplating sitting down on one of the chairs, she plopped herself down on Nikki's lap, curling her arms around her rather startled lover's neck. She pulled Nikki close and planted a kiss on her lips before leaning back with a satisfied smile. "Good morning," she purred, curling herself in a more comfortable position.

"Morning," Nikki replied with a smile as she wrapped her arms around Helen, "How did you sleep?"

Putting her head on Nikki's shoulder as she snuggled even closer, her breath tickling Nikki's ear, Helen said: "I slept like a baby, I didn't even hear you get up. I only noticed you were gone when I woke up hugging and kissing your pillow. What are you doing up so early anyway? You know how much I love waking up in your arms… didn't you sleep well?"

"No, not really," Nikki answered, "I was too restless to stay in bed. I guess I'm a bit nervous about this afternoon. I didn't want to wake you, so I came downstairs. I tried to be quiet."

"My poor baby," Helen cooed, giving Nikki a kiss in her neck as she rubbed her cheek. "You know…. We don't have to be there until three… Why don't we go back to bed for a while?"

Shaking her head, Nikki said rather dejectedly: "what's the point? I wouldn't be able to sleep anyway…."

Sliding her hand into Nikki's robe, slowly dragging her nail over Nikki's nipple, Helen slid her tongue over Nikki's earlobe before husking: "who said anything about sleeping?"

Trembling slightly, Nikki stammered: "what? But…. But what about your father?"

Knowing she'd won the plea, Nikki could never resist her for too long; Helen got of Nikki's lap and held out her hand invitingly. A seductive smile curling around her lips, she replied: "he's meeting your friend this morning, remember? He'll be out most of the morning; we'll have the house to ourselves for a change. Why don't we make the most of it? Besides, what better way to commemorate our joining the professional world?"

They really couldn't have wished or hoped for a better day for the gallery opening: after a rather miserable and rainy week, the warm summer sun was drawing people out, inviting young and not so young lovers to take a romantic stroll through the park hand in hand and inviting families to take a casual, leisurely walk down the high street, occasionally stopping at the stalls to browse through the various products on offer. Young mothers were pushing their buggies past shop windows, patiently searching for that one item that would send their husbands' heart racing, whether it be a string or a bikini. Businessmen readily fled their offices, loosening their constricting ties and shrugging off their stifling jackets. Tourists happily threw themselves into the entrancing atmosphere of the buzzing high street, enjoying the carefree side of London. A small crowd gathered around a young busker, applauding as he played strangely fitting jazz songs on his saxophone, some elderly couples even taking advantage of the car free road to dance with their loved ones. A joyous, cheerful mood reverberated through the high street, children's elated laughter at the wild antics of a street clown filling the air with shared happiness. A carefree attitude ran through the neighbourhood, the last minute leaflets William and Claire were handing out on the busy brassary terraces were read with interest and curious anticipation.

Inside the gallery however, they had no idea a small crowd was already forming, patiently waiting for the doors to open. Tension was running high, with only thirty minutes to the official opening, they were all feeling the strain… well, that is almost all of them. Frantically running around to get everything ready on time, they put the finishing touches on their already immaculate shops, continuously finding some minute detail that had escaped their attention before. They didn't even have time to catch their breath or calm their shattered nerves, the adrenaline rush spurring them on to keep going. As time ran out, simple demands became barked commands, replies became acerbic and tempers frayed. Hired waiters, already running late due to a traffic jam, hurried in with heavy carton boxes, the champagne flutes clinking against each other in haste. The red carpet was hoovered a final time, just to make sure the last speck of dust was cleared while Tracy gave the sound system a final check up by singing 'Blue Moon' totally out of key, much to the annoyance of the others. Not only was she worse than a hoarse cat in heat, the catchy tune got stuck in their heads, making them hum along involuntarily.

Trisha circled the little water fountain, built in the middle of the gallery on Nikki's insistence, mumbling incoherently as she rehearsed her speech for the umpteenth time. As her high heels clicked on the limestone floor, she continued her eternal pacing, forcing the hurried waiters to detour to avoid a full speed collision. Not even looking up from her rather tattered paper as another waiter jostled her (giving her a body check a professional hockey player would have been proud of), she cursed Nikki's name under her breath. Why did she let Nikki sweet talk her into holding the inaugural speech? Sure she was one of the gallery owners, but Nikki could just have easily taken on this daunting task. She knew it was mostly her own fault though, she had let her vanity get the better of her once again. She had fallen hook, line and sinker for Nikki's intricately woven trap, secretly tickled pink when they had all sung her praises as an orator, a falsely grinning Nikki leading the troops. She was still miffed that Tracy, her lover who was supposed to be on her side, had joined the traitors. Looking up as Tracy finished murdering the timeless song, she shot her a poisonous look, already plotting her revenge.

Happy with the quality of sound (being tone deaf ran in her family), Tracy put the microphone down and walked over to Michael, an acquaintance who was a journalist. Truth be told, he worked for the local rag, but publicity was publicity in Nikki and Trisha's eyes. Treating him like the guest of honour, she handed him a glass of champagne, smiling sweetly as she answered all of his questions. Immensely pleased when he walked off to check out the shops for himself, she had forgotten what a prat he could be sometimes, she returned to the boutique. As she looked around the shelves filled with her own designs, a warm sense of pride invaded her, but at the same time she suddenly realised that this was her defining moment: her career in fashion would start or stop right here and that thought sent her heart racing, her throat constricted with nerves. With trembling hands she adjusted a skirt on a mannequin, sending a silent prayer to whatever god was willing to listen.

Jill, keeper of the little esoteric shop in the corner of the gallery, hung up the last of her dream catchers above the door before checking if her bell worked …. again. Helen had been pretty sceptical about the rather enigmatic and eccentric woman at first, highly doubting she'd be able to build up a successful business. She was so absentminded most of the time, detached from reality as she embraced life with a carefree and casual attitude, shocking Helen with her bohemian lifestyle. Getting to know her better over the last couple of weeks, having several interesting conversations with her, ranging from the medicinal value of herbs and plants (where admittedly Nikki had done most of the talking) to the impact of the dead sea scrolls on modern day theology (a conversation that had turned into a titillating discussion once her father had joined them), she had adjusted her original view of the petite redhead.

Nikki and Trisha had been right, the vague and dreamy pose had been mostly a front, behind those blue eyes lay a shrewd business woman. Once again Helen had realised that she shouldn't judge on first impressions; sure Jill looked every bit of the modern day witch with her wild and sprinkly hair, extravagant clothes and abundant penchants, but she knew exactly what she wanted and just how to achieve it, having the necessary uni degrees to back her plans up. Giving her shop a final approving nod, Jill looked over to Samuel, who held the shop next door open. Laughing as she saw him struggle with a recalcitrant hoover, the damn thing just wouldn't switch off, she told him the Tarot cards predicted today to be a huge success before disappearing into her shop, leaving behind a rather befuddled looking Samuel.

His mouth agape, he never knew when Jill was being serious, he blinked a couple of times at the (to him) rather absurd statement before turning around and carrying the vacuum back to the storage space. When Trisha and Tracy had described Samuel to Helen for the first time, they had called him an obsessive compulsive freak, a poor little rich kid with impeccable manners and an exquisite taste in clothing, but who alas wouldn't know how to have fun if his life depended on it. Their depictions of his odd little quirks and eccentricities had been so colourful and vivid that Helen thought they were surely exaggerating. To her big surprise they weren't. Samuel, a widowed father of two, whose shop specialised in wine and foreign beer, was still to crack a smile in her presence. The stiff upper lip well and truly in place, he steered right clear of jovial banter and joint nights out. Though she had to admit he was a bit of a bore, she thought him to be a perfect addition to their weird, but wonderful family.

Walking back to his shop, wiping an invisible speck of dust off his three piece suit, he nodded to the passing Isabelle. Adjusting his tie in front of the back room mirror, making sure he was the epitome of class and sophistication, he took out his pocket watch. Cursing under his breath (using the most polite expletives possible of course), he carried the last box of wine to the shop and hurriedly started stacking the shelves. Taking a plain white handkerchief to dab his forehead, he went to stand behind the counter, looking at a photograph of his children to calm his nerves.

Double checking the oven temperature, Fiona slid a new batch of pastries in before wiping her floured hands on a towel and walking over to her sister Isabelle. Accepting the crispy white apron held out to her, she looked at her sister with a big smile on her face. Giving her an impromptu hug, she realised that at last they were realising their childhood dream. Both fed up with being home alone all of the time, their husbands had busy careers in the City, they had guilt tripped them into lending them enough cash to turn their baking hobby into a career. Pleased with how the bakery looked, they quickly gave the tables a final wipe down before walking towards the little fountain where Trisha was to hold her speech.

Their rather expensive Italian coffee machine gurgling and hissing, the divine aroma of freshly brewed coffee permeating the bookstore, even making Trisha look up from her eternal pacing with a look of longing on her face, Nikki gave the counter a final wipe down before straightening the plastic bags. Pouring two strong espressos, she hesitated for a moment, but then quickly took a sip of hers, humming with delight. She might have had to fight Helen tooth and nail over the Marzocco espresso machine, but it was definitely worth every penny. Whether she made herself a cappuccino or an espresso, she visited caffeine Nirvana every single time.

Walking towards the back room, she put her already finished cup in the dishwasher, longingly looking at Helen's. Deciding she just couldn't do it, stealing her much deserved coffee from right under her nose, she joined her on the stairs outside. The sun too inviting for them to ignore, they had decided to enjoy their last moments before the mad rush began in peace, taking refuge to the back of the gallery. Having taken care of last minute details the day before – they had wanted to escape Helen's dad for a while, who just always seemed to be there, hovering around, spoiling their moments of intimacy – the nervous hysterics and doubts the others were succumbing to were totally passing them by. Even Nikki's early morning jitters had vanished, she felt completely relaxed now. <Spending an incredible morning in bed with Helen tends to do that>, she mused, her lips curling in a rather lecherous grin.

Pushing the back door open, squinting her eyes at the direct sunlight, she quickly handed Helen her cup before settling down beside her on the first step, hardly an inch of space between them. Helen immediately put her hand on her thigh, softly rubbing up and down in an unconscious move, making Nikki sigh in contentment. Lacing their fingers together, Nikki realised that no words were needed right now. Simply being together was enough to enjoy to moment and appreciate it for what it was, the start of yet another phase in their life. Hearing Trisha's distant shout 'that it was time, so they'd better get their butts in here', she gave Helen's hand a tiny squeeze. Helping her up, she asked: "are you ready for this?" Helen just nodded, her green eyes sparkling brightly with excitement at their newest adventure. Their hands firmly linked together, Nikki gave her a quick kiss before leading her back into the gallery…. into future unknown.

The End

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