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 VI
By Piranha


I'll stand by you – the Pretenders

Oh, why you look so sad? Tears are in your eyes, come on and come to me now. Don't be ashamed to cry, let me see you through cause I've seen the dark side too.

When the night falls on you, you don't know what to do, nothing you confess, could make me love you less. I'll stand by you, I'll stand by you, won't let nobody hurt you,I'll stand by you.

So, if you're mad get mad, don't hold it all inside , come on and talk to me now. And hey, what you got to hide? I get angry too, but I'm alot like you.

When you're standing at the crossroads, don't know which path to choose, let me come along, cause even if your wrong. I'll stand by you, I'll stand by you, won't let nobody hurt you, I'll stand by you.

Take me into your darkest hour and I'll never desert you. I'll stand by you. And when, when the night falls on you baby, you're feeling all alone, you won't be on your own, I'll stand by you. I'll stand by you. I'll stand by you, won't let nobody hurt you. I'll stand by you

Take me in into your darkest hour and I'll never desert you

I'll stand by you.

Though Trisha had kept hem informed of the warehouse renovations' progress – mostly by bringing around quotes and bills with exorbitant, dazzling figures, making Helen gasp with worry and incredulity as she realised just how much money Nikki had tied up in this deal – they both wanted to see for themselves. On a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, no other urgent matters needing their attention, they took a leisurely stroll down to the warehouse. The rather long walk from Helen's flat and all the window-shopping making them both hungry, they decided to grab a late lunch at one of the little bistros. They needed to check out the neighbourhood anyway and thought it would be a good way to meet some of the other shop owners.

As soon as the aging Italian patron learnt that they were the ones renovating the old warehouse and that they were planning on opening a couple of shops, he welcomed them both with open arms. Ordering another round of expresso and offering them a more than generous plate of tiramisu on the house, he pulled up a chair and started to regale them with stories about the old days when he first started up the bistro. His stories about how the street and the shops flourished in recent years confirming Trisha's belief that the neighbourhood was on the up, he wished them good luck and left them to it when new customers came in, giving them his undivided attention with the usual Italian flair.

The tiramisu home made and to die for, Helen licked her spoon clean before putting it on her plate. Holding her expresso in her hand, she said: "though I had my doubts in the beginning, especially once those hefty bills started coming in, Trisha was right, the warehouse is the perfect location for a small shopping gallery and she got it relatively cheap too considering. The neighbourhood is definitely on the up with all those wealthy stock brokers and business executives buying up all the big loft apartments and residential houses. They'll be willing to fork out an absolute fortune for the lofts as it's a prime location. The already established shops in the street drum up a big sleet of potential customers and the bistros ensure constant passage, inviting window shoppers in. Like Trisha said, it's a sure fire winner. We can't go wrong.

The idea of a shopping gallery has also an additional bonus, contrary to the other shops in the street, we'll even draw in customers on a rainy day. Maybe it would be a good idea to have a variety of shops in the gallery? I mean, you don't want another bookshop or boutique, do you? The direct competition would put a dampener on the profits…. If you choose a radically different kind of shop, let's say a perfume shop, you'd draw in the indecisive buyer. The husband who doesn't know what to buy his wife for their anniversary because he can't really remember the name of the perfume she likes, the grandson who hesitates between buying his gran a scarf or a book about knitting. You'd also attract the impulsive buyer, people who set out to buy a new blouse, but end up going home with a whole new wardrobe, a bottle of perfume and some books to read. The fact that we'd be serving them coffee will draw them in too, a lot of shoppers need a rest after an entire of perusing the best sales, they need to put their feet up for a while before going home, laden with bags. Are the other shops rented out already?"

Reaching out over the table to give Helen's hand a squeeze, Nikki smiled at Helen's enthusiasm and said: "see I told you that you had nothing to worry about, you're thinking like a true business woman already. In answer to your question, no we haven't rented out the flats yet. Not for a lack of offers though, as soon words was out that we were planning on converting the warehouse to a shopping gallery the offers flooded in. The main reason we haven't rented them out yet is that the shops aren't ready yet. We asked the builders to concentrate on the lofts before tackling the shops, simply because we want to start renting them out as soon as possible. They're more or less ready, they just need some finishing touches according to Trisha. We start screening potential renters next week and I was going to ask you if you could help me with those interviews? With your background in psychology, you're much better suited to sift out the problem cases."

When Helen nodded her assent, Nikki continued: "we still need to make some important decisions regarding the gallery, that's why I wanted you to come with me today, I need your input. We still need to figure out how many shops we'll have, which ones we'll keep for ourselves and like you said, we also need to ensure a mix of shops, so we need to interview candidates, evaluate the merit of their business plan, check their background, …."

"God, you and Trisha are worse than a bank," Helen guffawed, "I think I'd sooner get a business loan than a chance to rent one of your shops."

"Yeah, I suppose we're a bit strict," Nikki said, toying with her lighter, never looking Helen in the eye. "We just don't want them to go belly up after a few months, that would be bad for the other businesses. There's nothing more detrimental to a shop than an empty shop next to it. Not only is it bad for the image of the gallery, customers would start thinking we're close to bankruptcy too and start avoiding the gallery."

Grabbing Nikki's hand to force her to look at her, Helen said: "hey, I didn't mean anything by it, I think it's a very sound idea to screen the other owners. I just couldn't believe how organised and meticulous you are when it comes to work, you're always so impulsive otherwise. You just seize the day, you don't really plan anything, you live from day to day. You don't pencil everything in like I do, analyse something to death before taking a chance. Of the two of us, I thought I was the control freak, that you were more of a 'laissez faire' person. I guess you just surprised me, that's all. Anyway, something completely different, how are you going to name the shop?"

Nikki sat back and thought about the question for a while. In all honesty, she hadn't even thought of that. Shrugging her shoulders, she said: "I don't know. I know Trisha's going to name her boutique Chixs 2, she already has a big name plate and everything, but …. I haven't got a clue. Why don't you choose?"

"Me?" Helen shrieked.

"Well yeah," Nikki said with an amused grin, "it's your shop too."

"I don't know," Helen said after a while, "I can't come up with anything either. I guess we'd better think about it for a little while longer, toss some ideas about?"

"Sure," Nikki replied, signalling the passing waiter she wanted the check. Telling him to keep the change, making him smile from ear to ear as she made his day with the huge tip she left, she held out her hand to Helen and said: "come on then, let's go check the warehouse, who knows …. Maybe inspiration will strike."

The key turning heavy in the padlock, Nikki pushed the wooden door open before turning the light on. Taking in the total disarray – heavy equipment, stacks of bricks, cans of paint and several bags of cement stood scattered around, the downstairs obviously used as a temporary storage space while the builders worked in the lofts – she held out her hand to the patiently waiting Helen and said: "mind your step, it's a bit cluttered down here. Don't let the state of the room disappoint you or cloud your judgement, like I said they still have to start down here. Before I take you to the upstairs, I'd like to show you what Trisha and I have in mind. You'll have to look past the mess and really use your imagination but …"

Guiding Helen, who was grateful that she was wearing an old pair of jeans and trainers, further in, Nikki talked about her and Trisha's vision, occasionally pointing to the weak and the strong points of the building. Nodding as she agreed with most of the plans, Helen said: "we either have to take one of the big shops by the entrance or the huge one at the back, otherwise we'd lose the direct sunlight. Though it means losing window shoppers from the street, I think the one at the back is the better choice. It's huge and we'll need a lot of space if we want a wide variety in books and a space for tables and chairs. It has huge windows and with that little glass roof in both corners we'd be ensured of lots of natural light. Besides, it backs out on the parking lot behind the building, making delivery very easy."

When Helen looked at her with an expectant, but also hesitant expression, Nikki answered: "my sentiments exactly. Trisha wants one of the front shops, she wants to attract the window shoppers in with a dazzling selection of clothes, so it's not a problem, this one's ours. "Giving Helen a small kiss on the lips, she continued: "what do you think? Should we make this a kiddies corner? You know, put down a couple of bean bags and some cushions to they have a place of their own where they can read or play while their parents peruse our books? Maybe we could also organise a weekly reading session? You know, read the best children's stories out loud with a squeaky voice or something….. And maybe over here we could put our coffee machine and some tables? We don't want the customers to sit at the shop window, they'd feel like goldfish in a bowl with all the others passing them by. Maybe a hard wooden floor, I think that would go with the old oak beams in the ceiling…. Or do you prefer the more modern look with lots of metal and glass?"

Wrapping her arm around Nikki's back, Helen replied: "let's worry about that later, the builders still have a long way to go in here, we still have some time before we make those decisions. Now, why don't you show me the lofts?"

"Okay," Nikki said enthusiastically, leading Helen back to the main entrance. Locking the heavy door behind them, she then opened a second door before proceeding Helen up the stairs. "As sunlight was a bit of a problem, we didn't want the lofts to be dark and grungy, we limited it to two loft apartments per floor. One's always facing the street, the other the parking lot. Of course that decreases the value a bit, but to compensate we made those back lofts a bit more luxurious. We have five apartments in total, the fifth one being a penthouse flat up in the roof. That one's actually a bit smaller, but it has a rooftop terrace and garden. We've converted Bob's old truck garage into three garages. We'll seal the parking lot with a wall and a gate as everyone and his dog uses it as his parking spot at the moment. We'll turn it into a private parking lot for us and the renters."

Opening the door of the first loft, she continued: "according to Trisha the lofts are almost ready, they just need some finishing touches. We went over budget, quite a bit actually…. But Trisha wanted them as luxurious as they could get now that new apartment block is being built one street over. She wants to beat them to it I suppose and draw in the more affluent renter. Anyway, she says we'll be able to demand a huge rent, so going over budget isn't really a big problem in the long run. Come on, let's take a look." Taking Helen's hand into her own, she lead her through the loft, amazed by the end result herself.

Taking it all in, the sunken bath, the fully equipped and state of the art kitchen, the huge fireplace in the lounge, Helen was lost for words. She couldn't believe how different the loft looked from the pictures she had seen only a month before. After a while she said: "you two certainly haven't spared any expense. Trisha's right, you'll be able to ask a huge rent". Touching the marble of the fireplace with a finger, she stood back in awe. "Who wouldn't want to live in a place like this?" she asked as a kind of afterthought, not really expecting an answer.

"I wouldn't," Nikki answered truthfully. "This is the kind of place my parents would have wanted, the kind of place my brother no doubt has, simply to show of his wealth and success. I wouldn't want to live like that, a place like this ….. it's just so sterile and superficial. Luxury means nothing to me, I did without all those years cooped up in that poxy cell in Larkhall. I wouldn't be able to breathe in here, no matter how luxurious or big the loft is. It's the people that make a house a home. I like your flat, simply because it's you. It reflects the kind of person that you are and a place like this…. It's not who you are, it's not who we are….

Besides, it doesn't have a garden. I like having a garden, somewhere to dig around and get my hands dirty, where we can have a barbeque with friends or simply enjoy an outdoor breakfast while we watch the sun come up …. We need a garden, especially if we're going to have children. Children need room to play and they sure as hell couldn't do that in here, it's a freaking palace, they'd be too scared to move. No, if we ever move, I'd much rather have a house like Alice's. Not now of course, money's a bit too tight at the moment, but someday."

"Children? Plural?" Helen asked, zooming in on that titbit of information, amazed that Nikki had given their future so much thought.

"Well yeah," Nikki mumbled somewhat embarrassed at being caught out, "though I had an older brother, the age gap between us was just too big. I felt like an only child and you know how lonely that gets. I want my children to be able to play with each other."

"You've given this a lot of thought," Helen smiled warmly.

"Well no, not really, it's not like I have everything planned out already, I just thought about it a couple of times, that's all," Nikki said, still embarrassed.

Nikki making long term plans for them not freaking her out or scaring her off like it had done with Sean, but on the contrary making her heart beat faster in the knowledge that Nikki trusted her completely again, Helen felt a hot surge of love rush through her. Nikki's obvious embarrassment at being caught out only making Helen want her even more, she wrapped her arms around Nikki's neck and kissed her hungrily. Their passion soon spiralling out of control, they frantically started pulling at each other's clothes. In a very René Russo like move, they'd watched a repeat of 'lethal weapon III' a couple of days ago, Helen dropped Nikki to the floor before pouncing on her.

Her heartbeat returning to normal, taking gasping breaths to compose herself, Nikki pulled Helen closer and pressed a light kiss on her forehead. Stretching out, she groaned: "god, I'm getting too old for this, I can't feel my bum anymore. This floor is damn hard."

"My poor baby," Helen cooed, lifting her head from Nikki's shoulder to give her a soothing kiss. Pulling back, she gave her a teasing wink and whispered: "but it was fun, wasn't it?"

"That it was," Nikki replied with a wicked smile, pulling Helen close again.

"Nikki? Helen? Are you two upstairs?" Trisha's voice echoed through the building.

"Shit," Nikki cursed, beginning a frantic search for her clothes. "Yeah, we'll be right down, hang on," she yelled, hopping on one leg as she tried to pull her jeans on. Looking over to Helen to see she was just as desperately trying to get dressed, she pulled her T-shirt on and sprinted downstairs before Trisha had the bright idea to come looking for them. She was out the door so fast that Helen didn't have the time to warn her that she had her shirt on inside out. "So, what are you doing here?" Nikki asked, slightly panting as she caught up with Trisha on the bottom of the stairs.

"I came to see the builders' progress," Trisha said, biting her lip to keep herself from laughing at Nikki's dishevelled state. Though Nikki was desperately trying to hide it, she knew exactly what she and Helen had been up to. "What about you?"

"Oh, we just wanted to see the progress, that's all, we haven't been here that long ourselves," Nikki said nonchalantly, desperately hoping she wouldn't be betrayed by a treacherous blush.

Trisha just burst out laughing at that, wondering why Nikki had even come up with such a blatant lie. She had never been any good at lying convincingly and the evidence of their quickie was so clearly visible: her T-shirt, the freshly fucked look on Nikki's face, …. The flabbergasted look on Nikki's face her undoing, Trisha started to laugh even harder, tears running down her face.

Cool as a cucumber, all evidence of their quickie gone, Helen stepped beside Nikki and as put her arm around her, she whispered, quite loudly in fact: "you've got your T-shirt on inside out sweetheart," making Nikki groan and hide her face with embarrassment. Giggling at Nikki's flushed face, she turned to Trisha and said: "how about a drink? I think we deserve one." When Trisha just nodded, still laughing too hard to say anything, Helen said to Nikki: "you'll lock up, won't you sweetheart? We'll just be in the little bistro next door… Oh and you'd better put your T-shirt on the right way, you look kind of silly right now." Both of them giggling at that, Helen and Trisha left the warehouse, leaving a scowling Nikki to plot her revenge.

Sitting at the kitchen table a couple of days later, enjoying the breakfast Nikki had made them, Helen was caught up in the cadence of her thoughts, absentmindedly chewing on a buttered piece of toast. Their moving in together had gone so much smoother than she had originally anticipated. Though she only had her rather dreadful experience with Sean to go on, she thought it would have been much harder with uneasy compromises and hurt feelings on both their parts.

Of course there had been some teething problems in the beginning, resulting in slammed doors and moody sulks – they were both too temperamental not to have those – but those little squabbles never lasted long. A warm smile graced her face as she thought back to last week's little episode; they had gotten into a little tiff about something totally absurd, so absurd that Helen couldn't even remember what it had been about. Nikki had been monumentally annoyed with her though and had stormed out of the house in the pouring rain, slamming the door behind her, not even thinking about grabbing her coat or her keys.

About an hour later the doorbell had rung and Helen had opened the door to a dripping wet Nikki holding out a big bouquet of red roses out to her. The apologetic puppy dog look on her face Helen's undoing - she could never stay mad at Nikki for very long anyway, a little secret she'd never divulge - she had simply pulled her into the house and kissed her senseless, not to mention the earth shattering way they had made up in the bathroom once she got Nikki out of her soaked clothes. Like Claire had said, they were quite a tempestuous couple, but Helen supposed that was half the fun, at least it would never get boring.

Remembering the passionate way they always made up, Helen felt her cheeks flush with renewed desire and knew she had to think of something else before she took Nikki right there on the kitchen table. Taking another sip of her by now lukewarm coffee, she looked over to Nikki and felt her heart swell with undulating love and pride. "Tell me something Nikki," she said, desperately trying to suppress her more libidinous thoughts, "what kind of forbidden, daring stuff did you get up to in Larkhall?"

"Huh? What?" Nikki asked distractedly, looking up from the newspaper she had been reading, an adorable frown on her face.

"I'm sure you and the other inmates got up to a lot of crazy stunts while you were in Larkhall, stuff the prison guards or I never even knew about. I mean, I know that when the Julies were decidedly broody, they tried to con a man into giving them some sperm in the visitors' room, using a yoghurt pot. Karen had me in stitches when she told me that one, I couldn't eat yoghurt for weeks without bursting into giggles. I guess I'm just curious to know if you were ever involved in stunts like that," Helen explained with a smile.

"Me involved in a half haired plan of the Julies? Are you sure you want to know?" Nikki asked doubtfully. "It might piss you off to know some of the stuff I got up to, you being the ex governor and all."

"Yes, I'm sure …. I mean, I know I was a stickler to the rules while we were both in Larkhall, but I want to leave all that behind me. I want to turn over a new leaf so to speak, be more carefree. How do I explain this…..? I was part of the system for so long and though I knew it had flaws, I believed in it. I thought I could make changes from within, I really believed that I could help those women…. I kept running into a brick wall though, with Fenner and Stubberfield and the old boys' network….. I know how heavy the system weighed on us, how I hid behind it when things became too rough, I know how much I hurt you with the rules and regulations …. I guess I want to know if it wasn't all that bad, if you have some fond memories of the place too? If you and the other inmates found ways around the system, just to make the sentence a little lighter to bare," Helen said.

Grabbing Helen's hand and giving it a tiny squeeze, Nikki replied: "don't ever think like that, darling. I know things were difficult between us in Larkhall at times, but those were just the circumstances. Don't beat yourself up about it, even if you occasionally played the power card, deep down I always knew you had my best interest at heart, even if I didn't want to admit that rationally. You were the best screw I ever had in that place… in more ways than one," she added, giving Helen a sly wink before turning serious again.

"You were the only one who cared, you were very good at your job and you did make a difference, don't let anyone ever convince you otherwise. You put your heart and soul into your job and you gave the inmates, you gave me everything and I'll always be grateful for that …… I do have fond memories of Larkhall, especially of all the times we kissed, but I guess you already knew that. You want to hear a few funny anecdotes, you want to know what I really got up to behind your back… Erm, let me see, well I grew some pot in the prison garden for a while."

At Helen's indignant "Nikki", she had to laugh. With a big grin curling around her lips, she said: "well you did ask, darling. Bodybag never found out, I told her it was a tomato plant with a spot of blight when she came sniffing around and she was foolish enough to believe me too. God, that woman was incompetent, how she ever got accepted in the Prison Service in the first place still amazes me. She's as qualified as a porcupine in a balloon factory. And then her eternal moaning about her Bobby! She used to do my head in.

Anyway, the only one who recognised it as marihuana was Barbara." When Nikki spotted Helen's flabbergasted look, she continued: "yeah, that's what I thought at the time too. Barbara might have come over as miss Middle England, but she wasn't…. trust me on that one. Anyway, I got rid of the lot when you told me to keep my nose clean for the appeal. I mulched it and gave it to Sondra to help with her headaches, well that is until Chrystal buggered that one up.

What else? Well, we made Chateau Larkhall once, our very own brew, another hair brained idea of the Julies. It was a joint effort, I contributed the watering can and after I pointed it out to the Julies that taking turns in hugging the can would never kick start fermentation, I was put in charge of that too.

"Do you mean to say that when Fenner searched your shed, accusing you of having a still in there, he was actually right?" Helen asked aghast.

"Yeah, Dockley was the little birdie that whispered that one into his ear," Nikki said, still a bit miffed, "though that didn't stop her from drinking it later. He practically tore my shed apart, but he couldn't find it. The stupid bastard didn't think to look in the compost heap, the only place warm enough for fermentation to begin." Shaking her head at the stupidity of Fenner, she suddenly began to laugh. "Bodybag nearly caught us though. Julie and I were in the shed preparing the booze while the other Julie stood lookout. Anyway, even old Bodybag got a bit suspicious when she noticed Julie mopping the lawn. I mean, what was she thinking, mopping the lawn?" The dramatic rolling of her eyes making Helen snigger, she continued: "we barely had enough warning from Julie. I knew we had to draw Bodybag's attention away by shocking her to death so I told Julie to get her shirt off."

"You propositioned one of the Julies?" Helen asked, biting her lip to prevent her from laughing, imagining the whole slapstick scene play out.

"Well yeah, we pretended to be copping a feel," Nikki said, a bit defensively as Helen was mocking her brilliant plan. "It worked too, Bodybag didn't even notice what we were really up to, going into a rant about raving lesbians and that she should put us on rapport."

"Did she? I can't remember reading a rapport like that," Helen said, racking her brain.

"You know Bodybag, she was too lazy, she hated filling in paperwork. We just promised to never do it again and that was the end to it," Nikki explained. "Anyway, making booze wasn't even the most outrageous thing I ever did in there."

"It wasn't?" Helen asked, her eyes going big at the thought. She was glad she hadn't found out these things when she was still the governor. She couldn't believe the things that went on right under her nose without her even knowing about it.

"Well, you know what prison's like, you're deprived of pretty much everything. One time Yvonne was horny as hell, really desperate for a shag, so I suggested she turn her attention to someone on the inside. She said it wasn't her scene though, said she'd rather shag Fenner before turning lezzie. Can't really see the appeal myself, the man always reminded me of a slippery eel, but anyway …. She needed a man and she needed a quick, meaningless fuck, so I arranged one for her. She had the shag of her life apparently, she walked around with a stupid grin on her face for a fortnight."

"How in hell did you manage that?" Helen asked totally flabbergasted.

Smiling brightly, Nikki replied: "a mate of mine runs a male escort service, so I told Yvonne to hire herself a new lawyer. You get a private room for a meeting with your lawyer."

Not knowing is she should be shocked or amused, Helen said: "you mean to say that Sylvia was right in her suspicions when she barged in?"

"Yeah," Nikki laughed, "her timing was just off again as usual, that was the one real lawyer Yvonne met." Looking at the clock, she continued: "anyway, if we're going to have a garden party later on, I'd better go to Trisha's and pick up that tent, they said it' might rain later on." Bending down to give Helen a sweet kiss, she added: "see you later."

"Don't be too long," Helen said, bringing her empty cup and saucer to the sink, "I have plans for you later."

"Oh, you do, do you?" Nikki said, waggling her eyebrows.

"Oh shut up, you perv," Helen admonished her, "I meant you helping me with the cooking and the cleaning."

"You know I love it when you're bossy," Nikki said from the doorway, ducking just in time as Helen slung a wet dishcloth her way.

About an hour later Nikki came back in with a wicked grin on her face. Dumping the heavy satchel she was carrying on the living room floor, annoying Helen to no end as she had just finished cleaning it, she twirled Helen around and gave her a big, sloppy kiss. Helen's annoyance melting like snow before the sun, she wrapped her arms around Nikki's neck and asked: "what are you so happy about?"

Her smile turning even bigger, Nikki replied: "well, you know how Trisha's been acting really weird the last couple of days and how she shocked us both by asking if she could bring a date over later on? I've been racking my brain trying to figure out who it could be and now I know! I saw her with my own eyes, well that's not really true, I saw her feet scampering up the stairs, but I recognised her car outside….."

"Well, don't keep me in suspense," Helen said, "who is it?"

"Tracy," Nikki stated with glee.

"Ha, I knew it," Helen mumbled, happy that her suspicions were right.

"What do you mean, you knew it? How could you have known? Trisha's been amazingly tight lipped about the identity of her new lover. And if you knew, why didn't you tell me? You let me go through a whole list of people," Nikki whined.

"Oh come on Nikki, you must have been blind not to have seen the way Tracy looks at Trisha, there's electricity in the air every time the two of them are together in the same room. Tracy's head over heels in love with Trisha and probably has been for some time now," Helen simply said in a rather mocking tone of voice.

"Do you think Trisha feels the same?" Nikki asked.

"I don't know, that's a question you have to ask her. What did she say when you confronted her?" Helen asked.

"I didn't," Nikki replied, "the way Tracy ran up the stairs, I figured they didn't want me to know just yet. Don't know why though, we'll know by tonight anyway."

"Hmmm, that's true," Helen said, giving Nikki a small kiss before letting go of her. "You know, maybe they don't feel comfortable with going public just yet, maybe they just want to keep it between themselves for another couple of hours? Or maybe they just get a big kick out of all the secrecy? You know when we first got together, back in Larkhall…. The fact that we had to keep our relationship a secret was hard, but exhilarating at the same time."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Nikki smiled. "Every glance, every touch, every kiss just means so much more. One kiss from you got me through a whole day, a whole week even. Anyway, good luck to them, they deserve to be happy. I'm glad that Trisha found someone else."

"You are?" Helen asked, not really sure how she should take that.

"Yeah, sometimes I felt guilty about being so happy with you when I thought about Trisha all alone in that cold, empty home. I know she dumped me when I needed her the most, but that doesn't mean I don't love her. I'll always love her, I'm just not in love with her anymore. She'll always be one of my best friends. I want her to be happy, as happy as I am with you," Nikki said, hoping she had explained it properly.

When she noticed Nikki's worried frown, Helen gently rubbed her cheek and said: "I know exactly what you mean and hat's so incredibly sweet of you. You may act all tough, deep down you're an incurable romantic."

Turning beet red with embarrassment, she didn't really like it when people called her soppy, Nikki mumbled: "anyway, I'd better go outside, this tent isn't going to erect itself." Grabbing the heavy bag, she all but ran outside, leaving Helen to shake her head, smiling at Nikki's odd quirks and little eccentricities before turning on the vacuum again.

She had just finished mopping the hallway when the postman came. Sighing as it meant tiptoeing over the still wet floor, she bent down to grab the envelopes, groaning loudly as she spotted another couple of bills. Frowning as she glanced at the big brown paper, she resolutely walked to the kitchen, forgetting all about the still wet floor. Opening the back door, she popped her head outside and asked: "Nikki? Did you change lawyers?"

Looking up from her crouched position on the lawn, hammer in hand, Nikki said: "no. Why?" She got up as Helen walked over and handed her the envelope. Ripping it open with a finger, making Helen inwardly cringe as they had a perfectly good opener inside, she skim read the letter, tears springing into her eyes.

"What is it, sweetheart? What's the matter?" Helen asked, wrapping her arm around Nikki's waist. Nikki couldn't answer her, emotions constricting her throat, so she stuffed the letter into Helen's hands for her to read. "We're in Alice's will," Helen blurted out incredulously. "We need to go see her lawyer newt week." Understanding Nikki's tears, she was only slowly getting over Alice's death and was now confronted with it again, she wrapped her in a tight hug, whispering: "let it all out, you know I'm here for you," softly rubbing Nikki's back.

Getting over her initial shock, Nikki broke out of the embrace and wiping her tears away, she said: "I don't understand ….. Alice always said she'd leave everything to charity, why would she leave something to me?"

"You know how much she loved you Nikki. Maybe she left you her CD-collection or something? It was something you both enjoyed," Helen said.

"Yeah, that's got to be it," Nikki replied with a watery smile. "Guess we'll find out next week."

Opening a window, setting it slightly ajar to let a soft breeze in, Nikki sat down on the window sill and pulled her a box of matches out of her back pocket. Lighting her cigarette, inhaling deeply as the first rush of nicotine coursed through her, she turned to Helen and said: "I don't like that last couple we interviewed. What a tosser he was, droning on and on about what a corporate big shot he is up in the City, he nearly put me to sleep with that whiny voice of his. Not that his wife was any better, mind you with her smart remarks and faux posh accent. I'm willing to bet you an hundred quid that she's the daughter of a binman from Clapham. Did you see how she traced the mantelpiece with a finger to check for dust? She really made my blood boil. They're definitely out."

"Nikki, you can't dismiss the Walters just because you don't like them," Helen admonished her with a stern voice. "Though I'll admit that they're a bit stuck up and I certainly wouldn't want them as my neighbours, the ultimate question we have to ask is whether or not they'd make good tenants and you know as well as I do they would. They'd always pay their rent on time and they'd look after the loft."

"I don't care," Nikki replied in a huff. "We agreed that we could both have one veto, well I'm calling in mine, the Walters are out." Stubbing out her cigarette, she went to stand beside Helen and asked: "how many candidates do we still have to interview? I'm getting hungry."

Checking the papers on the table, Helen said: "just one more couple, the … erm, well I can't really make out their name, Tracy's handwriting is really illegible. Anyway, what do you fancy for tea then? Should we go out for dinner or would you rather have some take away?"

"How about we just go to Luigi's next door? His mother promised me an extra plate of tiramisu if we popped in tonight. She was just making it when I went down for coffee the last time," Nikki said, licking her lips in anticipation.

"That sounds heavenly," Helen said. "What is it with you and older women anyway? They seem to fawn all over you for some reason…. You do realise that the butcher's wife is half in love with you too?"

"No, she's not," Nikki laughed. Wrapping her arms around Helen, she quite teasingly added: "it's all part of my natural charm, baby. What can I say? Women want me!"

Nikki sly wink and overly exaggerated seductive tone making her laugh too, Helen replied: "yeah, yeah, yeah,… as long as I'm the only woman you want."

Her lips hovering over Helen's, Nikki whispered: "you are and you always will be." She placed a chaste kiss on Helen's waiting lips before saying: "don't you know I'd rather have one kiss of your lips and one touch of your hand than live an eternity without? Because of you, my world is whole, love now resides in my heart. My love for you grows stronger everyday, I'll always be yours. Face it Stewart, you're stuck with me forever."

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Helen drawled before kissing Nikki hungrily, restating her claim. Springing apart when they heard someone coming up the stairs, they retook their seats just when a very smartly dressed woman stepped into the room. "I'm so sorry I'm late," the woman said, enthusiastically shaking their hands. "You must be Nicola and Helen? I'm Samantha, but everybody just calls me Sam. A real pleasure to meet you both."

Seeing Nikki's eyes go wide as saucers, Helen knew the woman had definitely made a good first impression on her lover. She had to admit the woman was absolutely stunning, she had given her an appreciating once over herself and though she know that Nikki loved her and only her, the little green monster inside Helen roared its ugly head again and she had to force herself to remain polite. "A real pleasure to meet you too Sam," she said. Erm … I was under the impression that your husband would be joining us too?"

"Yes, he just rang to say that he's running a bit late, he was held up in court. We can already start though, if you want. Jack won't mind," Samantha said.

"Oh well … why don't I show you around the loft then?" Helen asked. Guiding Sam through the apartment, pointing out the different features and answering all of Sam's questions, Helen let go of her initial dislike. Sam was outgoing, intelligent and very easy to talk to. Chatting animatedly, she guided her back to the lounge, where Nikki sat waiting. Turning to Nikki, she asked: "Nikki, why don't you pop downstairs and get us all some coffee while we wait for Samantha's husband to arrive? Oh and tell Theresa that I'm looking forward to her tiramisu." Telling Samantha to take a seat, she asked: "so, what does you husband do?"

"Oh, Jack's a lawyer, mostly corporate law, he handles company take overs and mergers, all incredibly boring, but don't tell him I said so. He loves it though and I suppose that's the main thing, Samantha replied with a smile, her eyes twinkling as she thought of her husband."

"What do you do?" Helen then asked.

"Well, I did library studies at uni, but I'm currently helping out at a day care centre. Jack would rather have me staying at home all day, be a housewife, but I don't want that, I feel I need to do something and I love children, so the choice was real easy," Samantha said. Just then they heard someone coming up the stairs and she added: "Ah, that must be Jack. Jack, I want you to meet Helen, she represents the proprietor. Nicola went downstairs to fetch us all some coffee. Anyway, I really like this loft, Jack. It's the one I always wanted."

Listening to his wife with a contented smile curling around his lips, Jack turned to Helen and said: "pleasure to meet you," as he shook her hand.

"Likewise," Helen mumbled distractedly. There was something awfully familiar about Jack, she just couldn't quite figure out what it was. Where had she seen him before? Was he a friend of Sean's? No, that couldn't be, they didn't quite move in the same circles. Had she met him at Claire's then? No, that couldn't be either, though Claire was a lawyer, her firm was specialised in penal law. Scrunching her eyebrows in confusion, she racked her brain, but in the end she had to ask: "have we met before?"

"I don't think so, no," Jack replied with an amused smile on his face as he went to stand beside his wife. "I get that a lot though, I guess I just have one of those faces. Sorry I'm a bit late, I got held up in court."

"That's quite alright," Helen said gracefully, ruffling through her papers to see if they shed some more light on Jack's identity. Finding no extra clues, she looked up as she heard Nikki ascend the stairs. As she watched Nikki come in with a tray of coffees, the penny quickly dropped, their resemblance was uncanny. Nikki and Jack just stared at one another, Nikki's face white as a sheet as once again she was faced with a haunting memory of her past. Putting the tray with lattes down on the table, she adamantly refused to let Jack get to her though. Refusing to let him get the upper hand she looked him defiantly in the eye, her mouth set in a provocative smirk.

His face contorted with anger as Nikki refused to acknowledge his (perceived) superiority, Jack sneered spitefully: "so Nicola, took a tumble from the corporate ladder, did you? From managing a scrummy nightclub to being somebody's dogsbody…. Not exactly the glamorous business career you always dreamt of, is it? Just look at you… you're pathethic."

Looking from Nikki to Jack, not knowing what was going on, this hateful side of Jack something she had never witnessed before, Samantha stammered confused: "Jack, why are you saying all these things? How do you know Nicola?" When Jack didn't answer, in fact he seemed to have forgotten she was even in the room, Samantha turned to Nikki, who simply told her that she was his sister. "What?" Samantha blurted out, totally flabbergasted. "But…. That can't be…. Jack's an only child.

When she looked at Jack to confirm this, he didn't even notice. All he could see was Nikki and her defiant attitude. She should be afraid of him, dammit. She should be cowering in fear right now, he was the successful one, he was the one that had made it big. He had it all, a good job, lots of money, a beautiful wife,…. She had nothing, was nothing…. But still there she was, his childhood demon. The only one who had always seen right through him, the only one who knew what a big coward he really was.

Yet again she had found a way to mess up his life. Why couldn't she stay in the past where she belonged? Now, he would have to explain this to Samantha, who just wouldn't understand….. He didn't even understand the complexity of his feelings towards his sisters himself. He just knew he hated her with every fibre of his being, she was everything he always hoped to be, but never was…. Once again he realised what an utter failure he was and anger seeped into him. OOO, that dyke would pay for this.

His twenty year grudge returning with a vengeance, anger bubbling up, he boomed: "you're not my sister! How dare you call yourself a Wade, you ceased to be a Wade the day our parents threw you out, quite rightfully so too. You disgraced the family name with your perverted behaviour." A vein throbbing on his forehead, his face red with animosity, he went to stand right in front of Nikki. When she refused to be intimidated by his presence and stood her ground, an amused smirk tugging at her lips, he saw red.

Stabbing Nikki in the chest to emphasise his words, he screamed: "you're nothing but a filthy dyke and a murderer to boot. I bet you didn't put that on your resume when you applied for this job, did you? Your boss over there doesn't know you murdered an innocent police officer in cold blood, does she? I can't believe the Courts ever let you go… they should have locked you up and thrown away the keys. You're nothing but a piece of scum. If your boss has any sense, she fires you on the spot, you can't be trusted. If you don't force yourself on her, you'll slice her open with a bottle, your favourite modus operandi. She'll never have any peace of mind as long as you're around. You're nothing but a homicidal dyke and I'll personally see to it that you're destroyed."

Helen was amazed that Nikki remained eerily calm during Jack's hateful outburst, the diatribe had mad her blood boil and normally she was the more even tempered one of them both. When she noticed Nikki clenching her jaw tight, her hands clenched into fists so hard that the knuckles turned white, Helen knew she had to intervene before Nikki did something stupid. Though she had an almighty urge herself to punch Jack's lights out, she calmly went to stand in between them, forcing Jack to take a few steps back. Raising herself to her full height, a glint of steel in her eyes, she said in her sternest governor's voice: "just who the hell do you think you are?"

Feeling all her hackles rise, Helen just looked at him, her nostrils flaring and her eyes spewing fire. You could hear a pin drop in the room, everybody waiting to see what the clearly unbelievably angry Helen would say next. Helen, fuming over the indignant remarks, was just about to launch a full blown verbal attack when Nikki put a steadying hand on her shoulder and whispered: "don't, you're playing into his hands. He's not worth it, babe. In the bigger scheme of life, His bigoted opinion hardly matters, does it sweetheart?"

Sweetheart?" Jack spat out. "Don't tell me she has you in her evil clutches already? You're even more stupid than I thought. Her kind doesn't know what love is, she's only using you, don't you see?"

Her eyes shooting daggers, actually making Jack take another few steps back as he realised that he had angered a very dangerous beast, Helen said in a voice of steel: "the wisest decision I ever made was allowing Nikki into my life. She's the sweetest, gentlest person I ever met and I love her with all my heart. With every little thing she says or does, I feel cherished and loved and never will I allow a pompous, bigoted, homophobic bastard like you tell me otherwise. Oh and get your facts straight before you go around accusing people. One, Gossard wasn't an innocent police officer, he raped at least one of his female colleagues and was attempting to rape and strangle Trisha when Nikki intervened. Nikki did what any normal human being would have done, she defended the one she loved. She saved Trisha's life that night. If you can't understand that, then you're the one who doesn't know what true love is. I feel sorry for your wife in that case.

Two, never in her life has Nikki managed a scrummy nightclub, she's the owner of London's biggest and most successful lesbian nightclubs and she did it all on her own, which is more than can be said of you. She didn't have mommy and daddy paying her university course. Three, I have never and will never be afraid of Nikki. It's you who should be afraid, barging in here and spouting threats. What kind of crap lawyer are you if you don't know that's against the law? I'll be sure to contact my lawyer later tonight."

"You're nothing but a pair of dykes," he sneered, using his anger to try and hide his fear. "I'll contact the proprietor and get you both fired."

"You're looking at the owner Jack," Nikki said with glee. "Now, get the hell out before I call the cops and have you thrown out." Turning towards Samantha, she said in a much gentler tone of voice: "it was a real pleasure to meet you Samanthaand I have nothing against you personally, actually I think you're great, but I'm sure you'll understand that your candidature for the loft won't be retained."

Grabbing Samantha by the hand, Jack all but dragged her outside, slamming the door on his way out, all the way muttering about 'stupid dykes and how he'd get back at them'. "Are you okay?" Helen asked.

Looking at Helen, Nikki said: "yeah, I'm fine. Thanks for coming to my defence, but it wasn't really necessary. I learnt a long time ago that just staring Jack in the eye, saying nothing, drives him up the wall. I heard all his insults before, they never change. I don't even feel hurt by them anymore. I don't know…. I guess he just doesn't matter to me anymore. I feel sorry for Samantha though, to live with my brother. I guess everyone has their own crosses to bear."

"How could he do that to you though?" Helen asked. "You're his sister… I mean, I don't have brothers or sisters, but surely you're supposed to love them, they're part of you… No matter what they say or do, no matter how many arguments you have, they're still kin. I don't understand."

"I don't understand either, but I guess he's as brainwashed as my parents were, to him only the outside perspective matters, he's a very shallow man. Anyway, let's not think about my brother anymore, he's part of my past and I'd like him to stay there. I'm still hungry. How about we head down to Luigi's?" Nikki asked.

The End

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