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 IX
By Piranha


Eternal Flame – The Bangles.

Close your eyes, give me your hand, darling
Do you feel my heart beating, do you understand?
Do you feel the same, am I only dreaming?
Is this burning an eternal flame?

I believe it's meant to be, darling
I watch when you are sleeping, you belong to me
Do you feel the same, am I only dreaming
Or is this burning an eternal flame?

Say my name, sun shines through the rain
A whole life so lonely, and then you come and ease the pain
I don't want to lose this feeling

Say my name, sun shines through the rain
A whole life so lonely, and then you come and ease the pain
I don't want to lose this feeling

Close your eyes and give me your hand
Do you feel my heart beating, do you understand?
Do you feel the same, am I only dreaming
Or is this burning an eternal flame?

Is this burning an eternal flame?

An eternal flame?

(Close your eyes and give me your hand
Do you feel my heart beating, do you understand?
Do you feel the same, am I only dreaming
Or is this burning an eternal flame?)

Combing her fingers through her thick, unruly hair, making it stand even more on end and unknowingly leaving behind a greasy smear on her forehead, Nikki swung the door open and was left rooted to the ground. "William" she squeaked out surprised. Totally flabbergasted, Helen's father was the very last person she had expected to find on the doorstep, she just gawped at him, doing her best aquarium fish impression, while trying to take it all in. Though Helen's relationship with him had improved over the last couple of months, they had been calling each other regularly, they both agreed to take things slowly. They had a lot of bridges to mend, they needed to get to know each other again at a leisurely pace. Dropping in unexpectedly wasn't on the cards yet, it was still way too soon, so Nikki had no idea what he was doing here. Besides, while William began to accept Helen's relationship with Nikki, even talking to her on the phone on occasion, it was clear to Nikki that he was rather wary.

Taking a good look at William, for all intents and purposes her father in law, she found him fidgeting on the doorstep with a rather perplexed expression on his face and briefly wondered if he was the reason that Helen had acted so strangely earlier on. She immediately dismissed the idea though. Why would she need Claire's help in that case? It was far more likely that Helen didn't even know her dad was in town, so the question remained, what was William doing here? Realising that she had left him standing on the doorstep all this time, Nikki gave him a sheepish, apologetic smile and opening the door wider, she said: "good to see you William, come on in. Sorry to keep you standing there for so long, I was expecting someone else."

When she caught William staring at her, she realised that she wasn't exactly dressed to impress – a hobo impersonation wasn't exactly the best way to get into your father in law's good books – she quickly continued: "don't look at the mess, we're in the middle of moving house. You're actually lucky to catch me here, a couple of hours later and you would have found a totally empty and deserted flat. Helen isn't here I'm afraid, she went to get Claire. You know Claire, don't you? She's Helen's lawyer friend, they met at uni…." Realising that she was babbling, facing Helen's dad was more daunting than anything she had ever experienced, being thrown down the block was a cake walk in comparison, she took a deep breath of air and said in a much more calmly fashion: "where are my manners…. How are you William? Perhaps you'd like a drink? I only have soda though…"

Smirking at Nikki's nervous babbling, rather pleased that he still had the touch and at the same time relieved that he wasn't the only one feeling out of sorts, William replied: "I'm quite well, lass. I wouldn't mind a can of coke if you have one, it's sure hot outside."

Infinitely glad for something to do, Nikki walked to the kitchen, William hot on her trail. Opening the fridge, she got out two cans of coke and handed one to William. Popping the lid, she took a big gulp, her throat parched from nerves. When she caught William looking quite oddly at the can, she said: "sorry, no glasses I'm afraid. They're already packed up. Anyway, let's sit down." When the older man looked around the kitchen rather helplessly, she mumbled apologetically: "oh yes, that's right, no chairs. Erm well the window sill will have to do. Anyway, what are you doing here?" When she realised the rather accusing tone of her inquiry, she quickly added: "I mean, Helen didn't mention you coming down to London."

"That's probably because she doesn't know," William admitted sheepishly. "I thought I'd surprise the two of you, but it looks like the surprise is on me. I had no idea you were moving today…. I mean, Helen mentioned that you bought a house together, but that it needed some work, so I just assumed…. Well, I simply assumed that it would take another couple of months. Anyway, I know it's the bookstore's opening next week and I wanted to come down to congratulate the two of you. I know that with your new business starting up, it would have been months before you found the time to come up to Scotland and well…. If Mohammed can't come to the mountain…..There's also something I need to talk to Helen about, you know get her advice on."

William's rather serious tone of voice immediately worrying her, Nikki put the can on the window sill and asked: "there's nothing wrong, is there? Is there anything I can help you with?"

"No, don't worry, nothing's wrong. It's just that…. These past couple of months, I did a lot of thinking, soul searching if you will…. And I came to the conclusion I'm not getting any younger. I always knew that I didn't have the fountain of youth, but the world is changing so fast these days, I don't think I can keep up with it anymore. Sometimes I do feel like a dinosaur, out of place and out of time. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm thinking about retiring. I know it's an awfully big step to take and that I should think long and hard about it, but …. What do you think?"

"Hell… erm sorry heck," Nikki said, having the grace to colour slightly at the poor choice of words," I don't know, it's a very personal decision to make. Why would you say you're superfluous?"

William stared at his hands for a while, deep in though, unsure how to answer such a loaded question because Nikki was spot on, he did feel superfluous. Desperately trying to find a way to voice the doubts plaguing him, he reasoned that he might as well take Nikki into confidence, maybe she could give him some advice or point him in the right direction? At the very least he'd have a listening ear and a burden shared is a burden halved. Nikki seemed like a sensible, intelligent woman to him, maybe she could give him the answers he needed? It was certainly worth a try…. Clearing his throat, he looked up and said: "I know that you're not really religious, so it might be a bit hard for you to understand my reasoning, but bare with me, okay?"

At Nikki's light nod, he took a deep breath of air and continued: "the Church has always been the main focus of my life, my one confidante, the only thing I could always fall back on when the whole world around me came crashing down. It was my dependable rock, it gave meaning, direction and purpose to my life. It was my life, it's as simple as that." Not noticing Nikki's scrunched eyebrows when she caught him talking in the past, William continued: "I come from a very religious family and ever since I was a wee lad, I always knew I was destined to become a minister. I can't really explain why, the desire simply was always there, I guess you could consider it a divine calling. I wanted to help people, share their happiness and sorrow, guide them spiritually, help them find peace with God and the world at the end of the day.

When I told my parents about my calling, they worked their fingers to the bone to make it happen. They sent me to the best schools, made sure I had tutors for the subjects I was failing, …. They truly understood that it was my life's dream. My mother said that the day I became a minister was the proudest day of her life. Don't get me wrong, they would have been just as proud if I told them I wanted to become a teacher or a carpenter, but their continued support meant a lot. I've been a minister for nearly forty years now and I can honestly say that I've loved every minute of it. Of course there have been hard times too, like when my wife died or when I became estranged from Helen, but my faith always pulled me through. It gave me answer when I was lost and didn't know what to do …"

William fell silent for a while, reordering his thoughts. Nikki realised it was important to let him say what was on his mind and didn't say anything, she waited patiently for him to continue: "I live in a tiny village, my life is interwoven with my parish on every level. I know them all by name, they're my friends, I know what worries them and what makes them happy. I baptise the children, marry the parents and bury the grandparents. I'm the youngest kids' football coach, I'm a member of the local jazz band and occasionally help out at the local theatre. I know my people and they know me. They come to me with their questions, problems and worries: when they've lost their job and don't know how to pay the mortgage, when they're terminally ill and mad at God, when they suspect their kid is on drugs, ….

The questions keeping getting more complicated and often I'm at a total loss. How do I help a mother, crying her eyes out because her thirteen year old son has been arrested? What do I say to a dad of a fifteen year old pregnant girl? Don't get me wrong, in the old days people came to me with all kinds of difficult questions too, but …. I don't know, there just aren't any easy solutions anymore. <Because it's the will of God> is no longer accepted as a standard answer. The world is changing so fast, I tried to adapt as best as I could, but nowadays I feel out of my depth. I don't think I'm cut out for it anymore, let someone younger take it on. And before you say it, it's not a burn out. It's more fundamental than that. Teh Church faces new dilemmas and challenges each day: women in the clergy, the role of women in general, homosexuality, AIDS, abortion, contraception, the attitude towards sexuality in general, declining membership, ….. Not only do I feel like I can't help my flock anymore, I also start to question some of the Church' stances.

"You're having a crisis of faith?" Nikki asked.

"Yes, no, … no, it's not that simple," William sighed. "How can I explain? I still believe in God and everything he stands for, I just don't think I can be a minister within the Church anymore, I'd find it hypocritical. How can I defend the Church when I'm beginning to doubt some of it's stances?"

"Has Helen's coming out to you anything to do with this?" Nikki asked.

William had expected this question as he had asked himself that often. Giving Nikki a small smile, he replied: "yes and no. Helen coming out to me certainly was a shock and it forced me to take a long and hard look at myself and the Church's opinion on homosexuality, but the doubts were already there. Her coming out merely acted as a catalyst. It made me think about the Church's rather rigid stance on some topics and suddenly I found myself at offs with the Church's viewpoints. How can I look at my own flesh and blood as an abomination? She's my daughter and I love her no matter what. The longer I thought about it, the more my other doubts began to resurface. How can I function within I structure I don't believe in anymore? I think the best thing for me to do is retire… I can still help people in another way, I don't have to be a member of the clergy for that."

Opening the back door to let a breeze in, Nikki let up another cigarette. "Don't tell Helen I smoked inside," she said, winking at William before turning serious again. "Though you are right that it's a bit hard for me to understand the religious angle to your problem, I do understand how you feel. The world you believed in for so long, everything you held true your whole life, is crumbling down. You feel lost, you don't know what or who to believe in anymore. It's like finding out that your whole belief structure is a sham, that your whole life has been a sham. I experienced it twice, first when I was sixteen and my parents kicked me out of the house without so much as a goodbye and then later when I was sentenced to prison.

Though I agree I deserved to be punished for what I did, my belief in a righteous and fair world was shattered. Not only because Gossard's crimes were swept under the carpet, but also because the judiciary was so obviously prejudiced and the simple fact that the police, who are supposed to fight criminals, were harbouring criminals themselves. My belief in the world and what society stood for, well …. It changed radically.

I can't tell you what to do, I don't know if retiring is the right option for you, that's a question only you can answer, but like I said, I do know what it feels like. Maybe you should talk to Helen about it? I mean, not only would she have a better understanding of the religious angle, she just went through the same ordeal herself… what with coming out and radically changing careers. But for what it's worth, I can bring you into contact with a friend of mine…. He's not a minister, but he does go to Church, maybe he can tell you how he reconciles his sexual orientation with the Church's views?"

"Yes, I'd like that and you're right, I should talk to Helen about it. I'm glad I told you too though," William said. "I mean, I guess it allows me to get to know you better…. You're my kin too now." Never even noticing that Nikki sat there stunned, he continued: "anyway, is there still something left to do here? I might as well make myself useful while I'm here."

"Uh, yeah," Nikki stammered, "I can't seem to disassemble the bed. Helen told me to leave it to the movers, but…."

"Okay then, lead the way," he said, jumping to his feet and following Nikki into the bedroom. "By the way, what did you mean that you're family kicked you out when you were sixteen?

Her expressive green eyes sparkling mischievously at her plans, Helen locked her car and walked to the restaurant with an extra spring in her step. Animated chattering bombarding her senses as soon as she came in and barely avoiding a full on collision with a passing waiter, she went to stand on tiptoe to look around the rather crowded room. Much to her surprise, she was running casually late again herself as usual, she noticed that Claire wasn't there yet. As a pimple faced waiter led her to a secluded table at the back, she absentmindedly wondered if adolescents looked younger than they used to as this particular waiter seemed barely old enough to shave. Surmising it was probably her getting more mature, she refused to call it getting old, she thanked the polite young man as he helped her with her coat and held back her chair. Telling him she's hold off ordering as she was waiting on a friend, she casually observed the other diners.

Watching other people was one of her favourite pastimes; she always wondered who they were, where they were from and what their life story was. She considered it fun figuring out how they all related to each other. Half the time people didn't even realise how much information they divulged in their body language; the thoughtless placing of a hand or the leaning closer to a dinner companion told her so much. When Claire kept her waiting longer than expected, she ordered a white wine from a passing waiter and went back to her observing.

Absentmindedly nibbling on a breadstick to quell the first pangs of hunger, she nearly choked when her wandering eye suddenly fell on Thomas. She didn't even have time to think about a possible reaction as it was clear he had spotted her too. He said something to his companion before getting up and slowly strolling over, forcing Helen to take a big gulp of wine to calm her nerves and muster up courage for the upcoming confrontation. "Thomas," she near squeaked, inwardly chastising herself for her pathetic behaviour. In a much more steady voice, she was once again in control of her emotions, she continued: "what a surprise."

"Helen," he said rather solemnly, an unreadable expression on his face. His hands resting on the back of the empty chair opposite her, he said: "how are you?"

"I'm fine. How about you?" she countered, determined to play it cool. After all, he was the one to come over, so it was up to him to make conversation.

"Me? I'm okay, I'm okay," Thomas answered before falling silent. He had berated himself so often for leaving her like that, without even giving her a chance to explain, he had wanted to call her so often, he even had a whole speech ready, only to hang up at the last moment. Now she was really, he didn't know what to say to her. Realising that Helen would never volunteer any information, that it was up to him to keep the conversation flowing, he rather hesitantly asked, knowing he was putting his heart on the line again: "and how is Nikki? I presume you're together now?"

"Yes, we are and she's fine too," Helen replied, smiling brightly, not realising that she was breaking Thomas' heart all over again. HE had never seen her so happy, she had never looked so radiant, so utterly relaxed and content with herself when she was with him. Setting her free had been hard, excruciating even, but he now knew it had been the right thing to do. Suddenly realising that Helen was still talking, he focused on her again: "….we bought a house together, we're actually moving in today and the bookstore opens next week."

<Helen always seemed so dedicated to her career,> he thought, <the ultimate career woman. I just assumed she'd go for another job within prison services.> "You're opening a bookstore with Nikki," he asked. "Well… talk about a career change! I mean, it's the very last thing I thought you'd be doing."

"Well, I love books…" Helen started rather defensively, only to be interrupted by Thomas: "hey, I didn't mean anything by it, as long as you're happy, that's the main thing."

"I am, very happy," she said, giving him a beaming smile. "How about you? What do you do now? I heard through the grapevine that you're no longer working for prison services either."

"After you resigned, the prospect of working with the likes of Fenner… well, it didn't too appealing. I'm currently working with youth offenders. A new organisation, we try to keep first time offenders on the straight on narrow. It's hard work, bur very rewarding," he said.

"I'm sure it is," Helen politely replied.

"Don't you think you'll miss it?" he asked. "I mean, you loved being a governor. It gave you the power and the opportunity to help the women on the wing. Won't you miss that?'

"I won't miss the backstabbing, political mind games and the old boys network," she replied rather cynically. "I've come to realise that there are various ways to achieve change, you don't necessarily have to do it from within the prison service. Both Nikki and I feel very strongly about prison reform, we already help out at Monica Lindsay's half way house and we're checking out some other organisations, but …. I won't make it a full time job anymore, I've come to realise that I was letting it take over my life, a mistake I won't make again. Yes, I want to make a change, but not at all costs, Nikki comes first."

"You really have changed," he stammered, rather stupefied.

"Yes, I have," she stated confidently, "and I have you to thank for that. Your walking out was the best thing that could have happened to me, you forced me to take a long and hard look at myself, my life and the choices that I had made. I realised that you were right, I wasn't being honest with myself. I'm sorry for leading you on, I didn't mean to, I honestly liked you, but we would never have worked out, I realise that now. I was running away again, from myself and from my heart. So I guess I should thank you."

"Well, I'd like to say it was my pleasure, but…."he said rather awkwardly. Noticing someone walking towards the table and Helen giving her a small wave, he continued: "well, I've kept you long enough. It was good to have seen you again Helen. Have a good life." Giving both Helen and Claire a smile, he walked off.

"You too Thomas," Helen replied.

"Thomas?" Claire mouthed surprised as she took off her coat, but Helen waved her off as Thomas was still within earshot. Turning around, ostensibly to drape her coat over the back of her chair, Claire noticed Thomas was sitting down at his own table again, engrossed in a conversation with his companion, so she quickly took her seat. "So what is he doing here?" she whispered conspiratorially

"Having lunch like everyone else I suppose," Helen commented dryly, which earned her an annoyed rolling of eyes by Claire. "I nearly choked on a breadstick when I spotted him," Helen admitted, "but I think we managed to clear the air in the end. To be honest, looking back on it, I don't know what I saw in him in the first place. I mean, sure he's witty, intelligent and caring, but there was always something missing…."

"Like a second X chromosome?" Claire remarked.

"Yes, that might be it," Helen laughed. "Anyway, what kept you? It's not like you to be so late, you're always so annoyingly on time otherwise."

"No, I'm not, you just think that because you're always running chronically late," Claire replied.

"Yeah, whatever," Helen shrugged, "so why are you so late?"

"Well, I was just about to leave the office when the big boss came in. She said he was impressed by the way I handled my last cases, Nikki's being one of them. It appears I'm in the running for a promotion. Before I knew it, she had thrown a thick manila folder on my desk, ordering me to familiarise myself with it by Friday. I couldn't help myself, I started leafing through it, totally losing track of time, sorry," Claire said.

"That's okay," Helen replied. "So… a promotion, huh?"

"Well yeah, maybe…. It depends on how well I do with this new case. I need to do all the background stuff, while she takes it to Court. Guess I'll have my first pop quiz on Friday, we'll have our first strategy meeting then," Claire informed her.

"Will you have enough time to prepare?" Helen asked. "I mean, you don't have to feel obliged to help this afternoon if you need to prepare that new case."

"Nah, don't worry about it, I'll just take it home with me," Claire waved her off, "it's not like I have anything better to do with my evenings now Alex is gone."

"How are you coping with the break up?" Helen asked rather bluntly, realising Claire would hate pussyfooting around the subject.

"Erm… do you mind if we order first?" she asked. When Helen threw her a stern look, she continued: "I'm not stalling you, I promise I'll tell you all about it, it's just … I'm starving."

When the waiter pushed a tray, laden with culinary delights, towards their table and asked if they cared for dessert, Helen, knowing what a sweet tooth Claire could be, worriedly looked at her watch before asking: "Claire, would you mind if we skipped dessert for once? It's just that we still need to run a little errand before we head over to my new place and we're running a bit late as it is."

Though the plate of assorted dessert was really making her mouth water, especially when she spotted the tiramisu lurking on the second shelve of the tray, Helen's pleading look and worried glances at her lunch all through lunch hadn't escaped her attention, so Claire, albeit reluctantly, replied "no, that's just fine" before turning towards the waiter and adding "could I have the check, please?"

"What are you doing? You know damned well that lunch is on me," Helen berated her.

"Don't throw me that stern look, you know it doesn't work on me," Claire laughed. "Lunch is my treat, my way of celebrating new beginnings: your new house of my Alex free life. What do we still need to do anyway?" she asked, ruffling through her purse. "I thought Nikki was taking care of the last minute details?"

"She is," Helen confirmed before continuing: "I want to surprise Nikki and I need your help with that, I want to …" She stopped short when the waiter came to collect the bill, not wanting to reveal anything of her plans in front of a pimple faced young brat.

"Well, don't keep me in suspense, you want to….", Claire encouraged her.

<To hell with it>, Helen thought. "I want to propose to Nikki today and I need your help in finding her just the perfect ring," she stated proudly, leaving both Claire and the waiter staring at her in utter shock, though they had different reasons for it. Sending the stunned waiter away with a stern glare, Helen said: "well…. Don't just sit there, say something."

"I don't know what to say," Claire stammered weakly," are you sure?"

Helen took offence to that. Pinning her friend down with a piercing stare, she said through clenched teeth: "what do you mean, am I sure? Of course I'm sure. You don't seem to approve of the idea though. Why? IS it because Nikki was in prison? Because she's a woman?"

Grabbing Helen's hand and giving it a firm squeeze to catch Helen's attention before she went on a full blown rant in front of the by now only half filled restaurant, Claire quickly said: "no, no, no, you know I don't think like that, you know how I feel about you and Nikki, I think you're perfectly matched. It's just that …. Well, I never thought you'd be the one popping the question."

Her cheeks still flushed, her heart still hammering in her chest, Helen's anger and indignation only slowly deflated. "Why?" she finally asked.

"I don't know, I just always assumed that, out of the two of you, Nikki would be the one to ask," Claire stammered nervously.

The way Claire was avoiding looking her in the eye making her suspicious, Helen crossed her arms over her chest and with narrowed eyes and scrunched eyebrows, she asked: "again why?"

Feeling cornered and moreover, now realising how stupid her initial assumption had been, Claire fidgeted on her chair. Wrangling the napkin between her hands, she turned beet red with embarrassment. Never looking up, she confessed in a small voice: "I don't know, I just always assumed that was Nikki's job…. You being so womanly,…"

"Claire! That's the biggest load of crap I've ever heard!" Helen said quite loudly, forcing several people to stare at their table and making Claire, if possible, squirm even more. Keeping her voice down, she continued: "what an incredibly bigoted and sexist thing to say! You of all people! I don't believe in gay stereotypes, we're just Helen and Nikki….. who cares if I'm the one to ask. You're saying that you'd never have asked Alex?"

"Well, that's different," Claire stated lamely, knowing she was losing this battle and badly.

"And exactly how is it different?" Helen asked incredulously.

"Okay, okay, I see your point," Claire said. "Sorry….. So you want to ask Nikki to marry you? Why?"

"Why?" Helen repeated. "Because I love her and I can't imagine my life without her. Because my life only really began when I met her. Because she's the other half of my soul. Because I want to grow old with her and because, whenever I look into her eyes, I can see my unborn children…."

"I know why you want to marry her," Claire laughed. "What I meant was, why do you want to be the one to ask her?"

"What difference does that make?" Helen asked.

"None whatsoever, I'm just curious," Claire explained.

"Well, throughout our relationship, Nikki has always been the one to make big romantic gestures. You said it yourself, I snatched the last of the incurable romantics. She leaves me tiny love letters, she serenades me, she dances with me on really romantic music,…. I just wanted to make a romantic gesture too, I want to show her I really love her. I want to show her once and for all that I'm totally committed to our relationship and asking her to be mine forever, is the best way to go about it," Helen explained. "So …. Are you going to help me?"

"Of course I am," Claire said with a smile before turning practical, "do you know her ring size though?"

"Yeah, I took one of her rings with me," Helen said. "She'll never notice it's missing. Her jewellery box is somewhere on the bottom of those zillion boxes."

Groaning loudly Nikki put the heavy wooden pirate's chest to the ground, regretting telling Trisha she'd manage carrying the damn thing up the stairs on her own. Absentmindedly wiping the sweat from her forehead, she looked up when she heard the movers stumbling through the door. Telling them where to put the huge cupboard, never even noticing William scurrying out of the way in fear of being decapitated by the dangerously swaying oak cupboard, she leaned against the wall and closed her eyes for a minute. She had forgotten how stressful moving could be; everywhere in the house you could hear banging noises and people pottering about. Opening her eyes again, she was almost startled to find William sitting there, assembling the bed while softly humming a tune. Crouching down beside him, she handed him another bolt and asked: "tell me William, where are you staying? You never mentioned."

Fastening the bolt with remarkable ease, William replied: "I don't know, I hadn't really thought about it. Coming down to London was a spur of the moment decision, I didn't have time to make arrangements. I suppose I'll book into a hotel or something."

"Nonsense, there's no need to fork out money on a hotel when we have a spare room. You're more than welcome to stay here. I know the place is a bit of a mess right now, but we also have a little studio on the second floor. We'd just have to change the bed there. What do you say?"

"Well …. If you're sure," he said.

"Of course I'm sure," Nikki smiled. "I'll bring your bags up and change the linen then." Trotting down the stairs, flattening herself against the wall and really sucking in her breath as Trisha and Tracy rushed past her with Helen's desk, she went in search of William's bags. Finally locating them in the living room behind a stack of boxes, she was just about to grab them when the front door opened.

"Nikki? Where are you?" Helen bellowed, her voice booming through the house, making everyone stop and look at her. She was unaware of their stares however and she continued her journey through the house like a woman on a mission, almost knocking Nikki flat on her back when she bumped into her quite forcefully. "Ah, there you are," she said with a huge smile plastered on her face. "I need to ask you something." Suddenly aware of everyone's stares, she grabbed Nikki's sleeve and added: "not here though, let's go outside."

Shaking her head at Helen's continued odd behaviour, Nikki squeaked: "outside? It's pissing down outside."

"That doesn't matter," Helen replied as she all but dragged Nikki to the middle of the lawn. She made her lover stand right in front of her, almost making her slip in a little puddle of mud forming at her feet. Looking up to Nikki, she was suddenly at a loss for words. The warm brown eyes, tinted with curiosity mesmerising her, the soft lips she ached to kiss, the unruly black hair she so desperately wanted to touch. As Nikki stood there, patiently waiting for Helen to speak, her clothes getting drenched in the torrential downpour, Helen thought she had never seen Nikki more lovely. Fascinated by a tiny water drop meandering its way down Nikki's collarbone, Helen inched a little closer.

Looking up into Nikki's soulful eyes, she husked: "I dragged you out here for a reason….. I really need to ask you something before I lose my nerve. I know I get tongue tied talking about my feelings and that I'm not really good at all that romantic stuff, frankly I suck at it big time, but …. I want you to know how I feel about you, so I bought you something." Rummaging through her pocket, she took out a little velvet box. Opening it with trembling fingers, she revealed a silver Celtic ring. Taking a shuddering breath, she said: "I love you Nikki, more than anything in the world. Will you marry me?" Knowing what a private and closed off person Helen really was and how much it took for her to give Nikki that kind of control over her emotions, effectively handing her the final key to her heart, Nikki was speechless for a moment. Misinterpreting Nikki's silence, Helen quickly said: "it's an engagement ring. If you don't like it or you think it's too soon, that's okay. I understand. I just wanted to let you know how I feel and …."

Sliding the ring around her finger, Nikki stopped Helen's nervous rambling with a kiss and said: "I love it and I love you, of course I'll marry you."

"Really?" Helen asked, still a bit unsure. When Nikki nodded and smiled brightly, Helen's last worries melted away and with a goofy expression on her face, she jumped into Nikki's arms, kissing her all over, making her tumble and fall flat on her back on the muddy lawn. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Nikki thought it was so unlike Helen to solemnly declare her love and commitment in the middle of their garden in the pouring rain, but then all coherent thought evaporated as Helen pulled her closer and started kissing her again.

They were still kissing, rain pelting down and making them soaked, when the back door opened. A definitely amused William called out: "congratulations you two, but don't you think you'd better get inside? You look like two drowned rats!" Her father's voice snapping her out of her dreamlike state, Helen's head snapped up and she first looked towards the house, where everyone stood watching them with cheesy smiles on their faces and then towards Nikki. "Oh yeah," Nikki squeaked out, "I forgot to mention that. Your father dropped by, he's staying over for a couple of days. Surprise!" Helen groaned loudly and hid her face in Nikki's neck in embarrassment, especially as everyone started giggling.

The End

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