DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and all its characters are property of Shed Productions. I am using them for fun, not for profit.You may also notice a couple nods to BTVS; for those I offer props to Joss Whedon and Mutant Enemy. This story depicts a loving/sexual relationship between women. It is not suitable for anyone under age 18.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have also taken great liberties with the British Justice System.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To nandh4ever[at]gmail.com

Love, Loyalty and Friendship
By Christie


Part Eleven

Because only Helen's flat was decorated for Christmas, the women opted to stay in Maida Vale until the new year. Helen was concerned that that decision would disappoint Nikki but, in truth, the dark-haired woman was distancing herself from her terraced house; home had become wherever Helen was. Both women had come to think of their future shared domicile, a house for which they had yet to even begin looking, as their home.

Wednesday evening, after a long day at the shop, Nikki arrived home to Maida Vale to the delicious aroma of roast beef – her favourite - pervading the flat. A harried Helen came out to greet her. "Happy birthday, Sweetheart!" she effused. "Now, I know you didn't want a fuss made about your birthday, so I'm just throwin' together a little dinner for just the two of us."

Knowing Helen's prowess, rather lack thereof, in all things culinary, Nikki was touched at the effort to which she had gone. "Dun' smell like 'a little dinner', Darling," she accused. "How'd you manage to get it all prepared?"

The small Scot admitted honestly, "Took a halfie, got home at twelve thirty. Come on, do you want to have a change while I get you a drink?" Nikki went into the bedroom and exchanged her scruffs for a pair of grey wool trousers and a black, cashmere, v-neck jumper; she thought it only appropriate to dress for dinner after all the work Helen done. "Here, taste this," Helen insisted, holding out a spoonful of gravy for Nikki to try. "Does it need salt?"

"I think it's perfect... Like you." Nikki purred, leaning forward to try to get a kiss. She was rebuffed in favour of Helen turning the fire on under a pot of water.

"Nikki, just give me a minute then we'll settle in with our drinks, okay?" Helen was flustered wondering how in hell people around the world managed to time all the components of a big meal. A quick look at her notes and a cursory glance around the kitchen satisfied her that everything was progressing as it should be. She set two separate timers and announced that they could venture into the living room.

"Babes, you've gotta settle down. I mean, I appreciate all your hard work, but it's not worth it if it puts you into a state." Nikki had thought she was helping diffuse the situation, but her words had only served to throw petrol on the flame.

"Fine! I just wanted to make everything perfect for you, but if you don't even care..." Helen knew that, as difficult as Christmas was for her, birthdays were equally difficult for Nikki, this one especially because it marked the twenty year anniversary of being kicked out of her parents' house.

"'Course I care. I just care about you more. And I know you: everything will be perfect." Though she would never admit it, Nikki loved seeing Helen worked up; under most circumstances Helen was the picture of control and it was nice for Nikki, whose passions were always so near the surface, to see Helen's veneer crack occasionally. Still Nikki felt compelled to offer, "What can I do to help?"

"No, nothing, I've got it under control."

"I'm sure you do," Nikki agreed.

Tetchily Helen snapped, "What's that supposed to mean?"

Exasperated Nikki replied, "Dun' mean anything. Just, you're the most organised person I know, so I'm sure you've got it sorted." She took a breath. "Can we start over?" She raised her glass of whiskey with a splash of water; she had never been much of a whiskey drinker until she paid her visit to Helen's father and enjoyed his top shelf single malt. "Cheers."

Helen, feeling a perfect arse, dropped her eyes, chagrined. "I'm sorry, Sweetheart. Cheers. And happy birthday." She raised her own glass of vodka tonic and touched it to Nikki's glass. They each took a sip. Helen shifted closer to Nikki. "I mean, happy birthday." She drew Nikki into a deep kiss, her fingers entwined in her close-cropped dark locks. As their kiss became more wanton, Helen could not contain a visceral moan which only spurred Nikki on further. Just as her nimble fingers made a move to unbutton Helen's emerald green top, a first timer was heard from the kitchen. "That's for me," Helen sighed reluctantly.

Much as she wanted to continue her engaging pursuit, Nikki would not be the one to risk ruining Helen's meal. "Hurry back," she urged thickly before deciding that an extra set of hands could hasten the process and following Helen into the kitchen. Nikki's hands turned out not to be very helpful, but they were busy; the statuesque woman stood behind Helen - who was adding bits of lard into hot Yorkshire pudding cups - with her arms wrapped around the smaller woman, hands taking liberties. Recognising the inherent dangers in what she was doing, she eventually backed off – reluctantly. Ten minutes later the Yorkies were in the oven with the potatoes and onions, the cauliflower was in the pot and the women were back in the living room. "Now, where were we?"

Dinner was as perfect as Helen could have hoped for. She could not take credit for the chocolate flake cake into which she had inserted a couple candles; that honour belonged to Dunn's Bakery, Nikki's favourite guilty pleasure. After dinner they ventured back into the living room with coffee. Nikki had been adamant that she did not want a gift, preferring to pour any extra monies into their new home and their trip to America. It was with some surprise and no small measure of frustration, then, that she greeted the gift box Helen presented her. Lifting the lid, her frustration turned to joy when she beheld its contents: two identical smaller blue boxes. Knowing immediately that the boxes contained their rings, Nikki reached for them. "But how? Yours wasn't to be ready 'til the middle of January."

"I spoke to your mate. Told her it was your birthday, gave her a few extra quid which I'm sure'll come in handy over Christmas, and Bob's your uncle." Helen seemed well pleased with herself. "But I don't know if we should just put them on. I mean, there should probably be a bit more ceremony than that. I've a few words I'd like to say, but I don't want to put you on the spot..."

"Brilliant thing about me, Babes: never at a loss for words. Sometimes my gob gets me into trouble, but I'll take my chances," Nikki smiled down at her partner.

Helen took Nikki's ring out of its box and looked at it thoughtfully before turning all of her attention to the woman she loved. Looking into deep amber eyes, Helen began, "Nikki, Sweetheart, it would be so easy to just tell you that I love you and slip this ring on your finger, but I need you to know how much loving you has changed my life. Even my gormless father noticed it. He pointed out how I'd never been happy after Mum died," she smiled up at Nikki, "until I met my new friend wi' the lad's name." The women shared a laugh. "You're the first person I've ever truly been in love with, the only one I'll ever be in love with, and I promise to spend the rest of my life doing whatever it takes to make you as happy as you've made me."

Nikki wiped a tear from her eye. "You already have," she began earnestly. "Helen, I've loved you since the moment we met, when you looked into my eyes and trusted me enough to drink that sodding tea." They laughed again. "I felt like I'd spent my entire life searching for you, that when I met you everything fell into place. I was whole for the first time in my life. I know we've had a rough go. I don't trust easily, but I entrust you with my heart. Take care of mine and I'll take care of yours." She waggled her eyebrows suggestively before growing serious again, examining Helen's ring. "'Dìlseachd Spèis'," she attempted the Scottish Gaelic with an abashed shrug at her pronunciation, "Love, Loyalty and Friendship: that's what I promise you for the rest of our lives. 'You are my true companion'," she finished citing the Marc Cohn lyric from the song they had appropriated as their own.

Helen had almost forgotten due to the emotions of the moment. She simply held out Nikki's ring, showing her the inscription inside its band. "November 3, 2000," the day they had decided upon as their anniversary, was etched into on one side. "True Companion," was on the other. The women looked at each other with all the love in their hearts suffusing their faces and finally exchanged rings. Impulsively Nikki asked, getting down on bended knee, "Helen Stewart, when Britain finally comes out of the Dark Ages and legalises it, will you marry me?"

Involuntarily comparing Nikki's impetuous proposal to Sean's of a year and a half previously, Helen knew Nikki's won out, both in style and in the response it elicited. "You know I will."

"Fantastic!" Nikki's face lit up. "Now help us up..." she groaned, getting off the floor, going to the HiFi and switching on a CD. Ronan Keating's Life Is a Rollercoaster blared out. Nikki laughed sheepishly, "Not the track I was looking for." She turned down the volume some and skipped to the next CD. As True Companion started up the women shared the first dance of the rest of their lives.


Part Twelve

Despite Connie's insistent invitation to come to Christmas in Pinner, Nikki, thinking that might be too difficult for Helen, graciously declined, suggesting that they would, however, likely be available the following year. Nikki wanted her first Christmas with Helen to be just the two of them. She had promised Helen she would never have to pretend to be enjoying the holiday and had no desire to thrust her into a scenario where she might have to. Not knowing herself what her emotional response to Christmas might be, Helen appreciated Nikki's discretion. Helen was, in fact, worried that she would begin to feel pressured to embrace the season because of all of Nikki's efforts. When Helen awoke late Christmas morning, however, after a bit of a lie in – Nikki had kept her up very late the night before – it was to the familiar smells and sounds of her childhood: a spluttering turkey making a mess in the oven and, if she was not mistaken, cranberries popping on the hob. A quick trip to the toilet and she joined Nikki in the kitchen.

"Shit!" Nikki exclaimed as cranberry juice spattered on her dressing gown.

"Should've used a bigger pot," Helen suggested, a good thirty minutes too late.

Biting back a sarcastic reply, Nikki said simply, "You think they'd put that in the bloody recipe! Can you hand me one? I'll transfer everything over before my dressing gown's completely binned."

"That would be a shame," Helen grinned. She was not a fan of Nikki's dressing gown, found it hideous in the extreme. She handed Nikki a larger saucepan before fixing herself a cup of coffee and refilling Nikki's cup. "Can I help?"

Nikki had done her best to leave Helen out of the preparations, but did not realise that bursting cranberries were very much like living entities which needed to be watched over constantly. "Could you grate me a tablespoon of orange zest and chuck it in the pot?" Helen did so and then set about cleaning the too-small pot. Ten minutes later the cranberry sauce was done, much to Nikki's relief. "Good morning," she finally sighed, wrapping her arms around Helen and leaning down for a kiss.

Wrists crossed behind Nikki's neck, effectively trapping the taller woman in place, Helen asked, "What time'd you get up?"

Nikki shrugged, "Half six, I think." Seeing Helen's incredulous reaction, she explained, "I wasn't sure how you were feeling about having a traditional Christmas dinner, didn't want you to have to cook on top of that, so I got up early to prepare everything." Helen looked around the kitchen and saw that, yes, everything looked ready to go: the dressing was made and all the vegetables were in their pots. The swede was even already cooked and ready to be reheated in the microwave oven when the time came. "But, look, I'll chuck it all out and we can order a takeaway, pretend it's any other day. Whatever you want, Darling." Nikki's earnestness was unmistakeable.

"I know you would, even after everything you've done, but it's not any other day. It's Christmas. And you're right. We need to reclaim it, both of us." While it was true that the Christmas season was difficult for Helen, it was hardly less so for Nikki who had found herself out of her parents' house five days before Christmas when she was only sixteen. As young twenty-somethings, Trisha had helped Nikki through the worst of it, but the season was still hard on her. Ironically the thing which had made it better for Nikki was trying to make it better for Helen. "Merry Christmas, Sweetheart."

"Merry Christmas. C'mon, then. Let's go see if Father Christmas came." The two women carried their coffees to the living room where they discovered filled Christmas stockings and several presents under the tree amid the wind-up toys. Most of the gifts were from Martin and his family and these they opened straight away in case the Pinner Wades decided to ring them up early. The most touching among these was an offer of manpower. The family had volunteered to help Nikki and Helen with their move in once they found their new home. Helen's father had sent her a cheque. He had enjoyed Nikki's company so much, however, that he had sent along a gift for her, a bottle of the same single malt he had shared with her in Morningside. Not knowing how to reach her he had sent it in care of Helen. Eventually the women had nothing left to open but their gifts from each other. They had made a pact to not overspend, again preferring to save money for their upcoming trip and their new home.

"Though if I'd known we were going to have free labour..." Helen mused, handing Nikki her present. Her gift wrapping skills had not improved, Nikki noticed, looking at the messy parcel. Deliberately taking her time in an effort to drive Helen mad, Nikki eased the sellotape off the wrapping paper covering what was obviously a book. Finally she unveiled her present, discovering a vintage hardcover edition of Catcher in the Rye. It was in mint condition.

All flippancy cast aside Nikki could scarcely speak. "Oh, Helen," she finally managed weakly, gingerly opening the front cover. The publishing date was 1951 she saw.

"Not a first edition, though, I'm afraid. A little too rich for my blood, but it's a first Book Club edition," she explained.

Thinking back to their first night out – to the Catcher in the Rye pub - two years previously, Nikki was touched and delighted by Helen's tribute to it. She started to worry that her gift for Helen would fail to match up. Nevertheless, she sighed sincerely, "It's perfect, Darling," and leaned in for a quick kiss. She apprehensively handed Helen an envelope hoping her gift would be well-received. Helen tore open the envelope to find a brochure for self-defence classes. She looked to Nikki inquisitively. "Not very sexy, I know, but ever since Fenner," Nikki almost spat the name, "assaulted you, I've been cross with myself for not having been able to protect you. This is me now trying to do just that, so no one can hurt you again. Ever."

Though she likely ought to have, Helen had not realised the ongoing impact that Fenner's attack on her had had on Nikki. Of course a woman like Nikki, champion of the defenceless, would have been hugely affected at not being able to protect someone she loved. It was that need to protect which had got her arrested in the first place, after all, for killing the police officer who was trying to rape Trisha. Understanding the motivations behind Nikki's gift, Helen accepted it graciously. "I'd still like to see him strung up by the balls," she admitted absently. Regaining her focus she asked, "Will I need to book myself in?"

"No, I've signed you up. Thursday nights, while I'm volunteering. Starts January fourth, runs for ten weeks," Nikki informed her.

Helen thought about it. "Hmm, then I can come home and show you what I've learnt, put you in a sleeper hold or a bear hug?"

"Maybe it is a sexy gift..." The women shared another kiss which Nikki broke off. "Wait. I've something else." She went to the tree and found a small, lightweight gift which she handed to Helen.

"What is it?"

Nikki sighed. "Just open it and you'll find out, yeah?" Helen ripped the wrapping paper off and uncovered two cigarette packets. More confusion clouded her face. "My last two packets," Nikki explained. "You can mete them out to me over the next week, but I'm quitting. January first."

Thrilled with this second gift, as Nikki knew she would be – she had been giving Nikki a rough go about her smoking since day one – Helen's face lit up. "Oh, Babes, that's brilliant," she said softly. "What made you decide?"

Having been an enthusiastic smoker for over twenty years, Nikki's insides were churning at the thought of quitting, but she refused to let Helen see that. "A lot of things, really: this rattly cough, you, but I think the final straw was meeting the kids; you can't be the cool auntie and smoke," she offered simply with a shrug. "But give us one now, will you?" Helen obliged with none of the snide comments which usually punctuated Nikki's smoking. In fact she topped up their coffees and threw on her coat, venturing outside into the frigid air with her gorgeous partner. "Gotta warn you, though, it's not going to be pretty. I could turn more arsey than usual." Nikki had quit once before, six weeks before Gossard. It was no surprise when she started up again in the wake of that upheaval.

"I'll overlook it... for a wee time anyway, but it's not a licence to be a stroppy cow," Helen warned playfully. "'Course if you do get out of hand, I could always use my new self-defence moves to discipline you," she leered suggestively. Nikki quickly stubbed out her half-smoked cigarette and pulled Helen back inside the flat, the two women making a beeline for the bedroom.

They had their dinner at two o'clock and it was a surprising success, much to Nikki's relief. The turkey was moist, the veg perfect and the pudding decadent. By the time they made their way back to the living room, both were feeling very full and lazy. "We're merging yours and mine anyway," Helen reflected cryptically, lying in the crook of Nikki's arm on the couch, "so we could just throw all the dishes in the bin. I'm sure we'll still have more than we need." Nikki placed a kiss on top of Helen's head. The smaller woman turned over to look at her partner, the woman she loved so much she thought her heart would surely burst. "Sweetheart, I can't begin to tell you what a wonderful Christmas this has been. Everything you did for me..." Helen was on the verge of tears.

"Shhh, Darling," Nikki soothed, rubbing Helen's back. "It's not half of what you've given me. Anything to help you through the season..."

"Oh, you've done more than just that, don't you see? You've given me my mum back. I can finally think of her without it hurting, remember the good not just the loss. Och, I wish you'd known her."

Nikki pointed out, "She's part of you so, in a sense, I do. Everything good and generous I know you got from her. And these gorgeous eyes." Nikki placed a kiss on each eyelid. "But your stubbornness, that you got from your dad. And your big baps, 'course." Nikki waggled her eyebrows and reached out for one of the breasts in question, eliciting a slap from the feisty Scot.

"That's enough, cheeky sod. Can I just say 'thank you'? Is that too much to ask?"

"Of course you can say it, but it's unnecessary. But, by the same token, thank you for a happy Christmas, Darling." The women shared a lingering kiss before Nikki broke away. Lying back, pulling Helen down with her, she closed her eyes. "Now, I'll pay you a thousand quid to clean the kitchen."


Part Thirteen

Early in the new year was a very busy time for Helen as she worked at getting her new initiative off the ground. The more time she spent at HMP Holloway, the more she recognised Larkhall's shortcomings. Holloway was very progressive, concerned not only with the impact that imprisonment had on the inmates, but the impact for their families as well, especially inmates' children. She was very impressed with PACT, the Prison Advice and Care Trust, a charity working at Holloway which offered guidance for people affected by imprisonment, providing practical and emotional support to inmates and their families. Further, PACT was running a family-friendly visitors' centre – a bright, separate building just inside the walls of Holloway offering advice and information for people visiting a prisoner – as well as a play services area for children at the back of the visitors' hall; children were encouraged to take pens, paper and puzzles from the play services area over to where their families were. Having fully come to grips with how avant-garde the prison was, it became blindingly obvious to Helen just how far behind Larkhall was lagging. She hoped that she and her new initiative for training officers working with young – aged eighteen to twenty-one - and juvenile – aged fifteen to seventeen - offenders would continue the forward momentum.

Though Helen had worked her entire career in the Prison Service with female prisoners, this new initiative would see her travelling to all fifteen of the dedicated Young Offender Institutions to get a gauge of what reforms were most urgently required. While she herself held a master's degree in the psychology of Group Processes and Intergroup Dynamics, Helen knew that she would need a team to help her create and implement her initiative. She thought a social worker familiar with child services, a child psychologist and a specialist in substance abuse would effectively round out her squad. Because she had no real budget with which to work, she needed to recruit these people from within the Prison Service. Understanding his strengths, integrity and genuine desire to improve prison life, she considered putting in a call in to Thomas Waugh to try to entice him into the group. Because of Helen's recent romantic history with the Larkhall SMO, she wanted to discuss approaching him with Nikki first. Nikki, whose jealousy had once almost driven a permanent wedge between the two women, was feeling surprisingly secure in their relationship and agreed almost at once. After she had got over her spate of nicotine-deprived tetchiness, that is.

Knowing how much she had hurt him, it was a nervous Helen who rang the good doctor up. "Doctor Waugh," he answered professionally from his Larkhall office.

Tentatively Helen began, "Hiya, Thomas, it's-"

"Helen," he interrupted, knowing he would recognise her lilting Scot's accent until the end of time, "it's been a while. How are you?"

Hearing the sincere caring in his voice, she admitted, "I've never been better. How're you?"

Although it was only a couple months previously that Thomas believed Helen to be the woman with whom he would spend his life, he was happy to know that her life was finally on track; it had been he, after all, who had recognised that she was hiding from herself, forced her to acknowledge it. "I'm doing quite well, Helen. The women in here keep me busy, a little too busy some days, but... What can I do for you?" he could not stop himself asking, his curiosity at her unexpected phone call having got the better of him.

"I need your help with a project for the Home Office. Any way we could go for a drink?" Without getting into specifics, Helen made it clear that her interest was strictly professional. They made a date for later in the week.

Because sitting idle made her desire to smoke more pronounced, Nikki was grateful to be busy at the shop owing to many of her staff choosing the month of January for their holidays, forcing Nikki to spend more time on the floor. She simply shook her head when she thought about Alex taking a week's holiday in Seychelles with Trisha. Their relationship seemed not to have cooled in the least, much to Nikki's dismay. At half past eleven that Tuesday morning the jittery Potting Shed owner fielded a phone call which she had been anxiously awaiting for a couple weeks; her final surprise for Helen was ready to be collected from Dianne, the photo centre manager at Snappy Snaps. And just in time for Helen's birthday on Friday.

Unable to take the time to prepare a meal which she could deem worthy of a celebration of the birth of her beautiful partner, Nikki, sparing no expense, secured them a table at The Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea. Following their shared entree of lobster ravioli, Nikki had the John Dory and Helen the Cornish lamb. Both were exquisite but paled in comparison to the bitter chocolate cylinder with ginger mousse on which they splurged for dessert.

Feeling well sated the women headed back to Maida Vale. Nikki made them some coffee which they carried into the living room. "You'll never believe," she began, "I may have sold the house."

Nikki was right. Helen was stunned. "But we've not even spoken to the estate agent yet."

"Tony, my captor," Nikki laughed, referencing the man who had been in charge of monitoring her electronic tag, "popped into the shop today. He'd been in the area looking at houses, finally going to get out of his mum's basement in Clerkenwell. We got to talking. He came 'round to see the house, liked it. He's going to talk to his bank Monday to pre-qualify for a mortgage. We need to fix a price."

"Oh, Nikki, that's brilliant," Helen enthused. "Then we can start looking for a house straight away." She reflected further, "You don't think it's odd? Selling to someone you know?"

The taller woman thought about it. "It's not as though were best mates, dunno if I even talked to him more than a half a dozen times. 'Course he was responsible for our first night together," she smiled and waggled her eyebrows, reflecting back on the night she broke her curfew just to be with Helen. "Just…" she thought, as though it had not been the single most defining night of their relationship. "Anyway, we'll see how much of a loan he qualifies for, if he can even afford the house 'til then it's all pie in the sky stuff. I've something much more substantial to think about: your birthday." Nikki grinned playfully at her partner.

Shaking her head, Helen protested, "No, Nikki. I thought we weren't meant to be overspending."

"And that would be a concern if I had. I can be penny-wise too, y'know. I live with a Scotswoman, turned me into a mean old cow." Nikki smiled playfully, giving Helen a quick kiss. "C'mon, open it up." She handed Helen a small parcel wrapped neatly in birthday paper.

Tearing off the paper impatiently Helen discovered a disc with a computer generated label – a caption which read, "Portrait of a Lady." She looked at Nikki quizzically. "What is it?"

"Let's put it in the DVD and you'll find out." They did exactly that and were taken on a pictorial journey through Helen's life from the day she was born through the recent Christmas spent with Nikki. Her mother featured prominently in the early shots. Photos faded in and out set to an eclectic musical medley: Doris Day's Que Sera Sera, Jann Arden's Good Mother, Bob Carlisle's Butterfly Kisses and Lee Ann Womack's I Hope You Dance. Nikki's friend from the photo centre had done a superb job with the photos Nikki had chosen and it looked beautiful. Both women had tears in their eyes as it concluded. "I've made albums out of reprints of the photos. They're in the kitchen. We can look through them later. And I had a copy of the DVD made for your dad as well," Nikki informed Helen even as she was pulling the birthday girl into a tight embrace.

"He'll love it as much as I do, I'm sure. Thank you, Sweetheart." She paused nervously. "I suppose we can bring it to him next weekend. You do still want to drive up with me?"

"Want?" Nikki scoffed. "But of course I'm going. Who knows, he could surprise us." Nikki was not about to hold her breath. Having taken a good look at the Potting Shed schedule, she realised that the coming weekend was the only one for which she would be fully staffed until mid February and she and Helen had decided to take advantage of her only available Saturday off to go to see Helen's father in Morningside. Helen was finally happy for the first time since she was a child and she knew it was time to tell her father why. To say she was nervous scarcely touched upon her emotional state; she was hardly sleeping at the thought but felt better – as she did in most areas of her life – knowing Nikki would be right by her side.

Nikki stood to get them some more coffee – decaffeinated, owing to Helen's sleep troubles. When she returned she presented Helen with the second half of her gift, a framed photo of the two of them – enlarged to seven by five - which had been taken at Chix the night of Nikki's emancipation. The joy of that night was effectively captured on both of their faces. "I can't wait to find a place to hang this in the new house. Can we start looking on Sunday?" They proceeded to discuss all they were looking for in a new home, a compromise of sorts, but the best of both of their current domiciles. Once they had their list together – Helen was enthusiastic about lists – the petite Scot made a plan to phone the estate agent they had chosen, based on friends' recommendations, early the following morning. The women eventually took a quick look through the photo albums Nikki had had made, both dreaming about adding new images to it over the course of the following fifty or so years, before making their way to bed.


Part Fourteen

Saturday morning while Nikki was at the Potting Shed Helen contacted the estate agent, Deb Hutchens, about seeing some houses. Helen gave her all the specifics she and Nikki had discussed and made an appointment to view some properties the following day. She was feeling optimistic. After five hours spent with Deb on the Sunday afternoon looking at houses which were out of their price range, too far out of the city, in need of too much work or too dark and closed in, Helen and Nikki's optimism had waned somewhat. Undaunted, they made arrangements to meet with Deb again on Tuesday evening. They crossed their fingers that they would be hearing from Tony before that.

Tony did ring Nikki Monday immediately following his meeting at the bank and it was with good news; he had been approved for a mortgage which was, in fact, higher than he expected. He asked if he could view the house again. Shortly after work that day he met with Nikki and Helen in Crouch End. "Hiya, Nik," he began when he saw her, "cheers for givin' me another look 'round."

"Pleasure," Nikki assured him. "Tony, this is my partner, Helen Stewart."

Briefly surprised that Nikki had brought Helen along, it took Tony a moment to recover his manners. He finally held out his hand. "Sorry, Tony Russo. Good to meet ya."

Londoners were suffering through a bit of a cold snap and, as the trio had no interest in milling about in the falling sleet, they quickly scurried into the terraced house, out of the elements. Nikki had been able to stop by the house at lunchtime to light some lamps in her effort to make the house seem as welcoming as possible. She had built a fire in the fireplace as well; all that was needed was to set a match to it. While she did that, Helen popped the kettle on. "Cup of tea, Tony? Or a coffee?" she asked their potential purchaser.

"Sure, tea'd be great." While Helen made up a pot, Nikki took Tony on his second tour of the house, going into greater detail of the Edwardian house, focusing first on the period features then on upgrades that had been made to the windows, wiring and plumbing. "Yeah, a period house with all the mod cons, eh, Nik?"

"Best of everything: kitchen and the loos were all renovated about five years ago, but it's still got a lot of character. I'll miss it," she admitted softly. "Worth it, though, to start fresh with Helen. I'm sure we'll find our perfect place." Not wanting to pressurise Tony, she nonetheless suggested, "Just like maybe you have."

They descended back to the ground floor. "Yeah, I think maybe I 'ave. But there's summink else I wanna discuss with you. I ain't never been good with decoratin' or wotsit. I like your style, Nik, and 'm wonderin' if you'd consider sellin' it furnished? It'd be reflected in the offer, 'course."

This came as a bit of a bolt out of the blue for Nikki and she was unsure how to respond. Helen, quicker on her feet, came to the rescue. "Now, you'll understand if we can't make a snap decision about that, right, Tony? Could you give us some time to think about it?"

"Sure. 'Course. Not somethin' you'd even considered, yeah? Look, you girls give the house a good goin' over, see if there's anythin' you can't part with, make a list. Mean time, I'll 'ave a chat with a mate o' mine who'll write up an offer. I'll 'ave 'im do up two, one furnished, one not. Then we can muck about with it after you've got your list together. Sound all right?"

"We've not even discussed a price with you, Tony. D'you have a number in mind? You know what houses around here are selling for? 'Cause we don't want to waste your time if we're not on the same page," Nikki assured him. Without hesitation Tony tossed out the number he considered fair market value for purchasing the house furnished. Trying to mask her surprise at what she felt was a more than generous figure, Nikki nodded. "Great. Talk to your mate and we'll meet up again in, what, a week's time? Give Helen and me chance to mull things over?" she suggested, managing to maintain her composure, appearing ambivalent. The group stood and made their way to the front door, saying their goodbyes. Tony drove away leaving two stunned women behind. "Could he be serious? That's sixty thousand more than we'd even considered at the outside. Though he's probably been living rent-free at his mum's for at least ten years, I suppose, got himself a nice little nest egg," she shrugged.

"You're considering it, then? Selling your furnishings?" Helen queried.

"There's a couple things I'd want to keep, but yeah, why not? We're starting out fresh. Sixty grand'll go a long way towards decorating our new place. We'll figure out what we want from here, from your flat, but then we can buy new, whatever's lacking." She smiled at Helen suggesting, "You fetch us some paper and I'll open the bubbles!"

The women took their flutes of champagne and wandered through the house. Unfortunately they began upstairs and lost a little time in the master bedroom. Catching her breath, Nikki finally said, "He can have the bedroom suite, but I imagine he'll want to change up the mattress."

"Hmm, if he knew what you were capable of on it, he'd be too intimidated to want to keep it," Helen, fully sated, added lasciviously. Reluctantly, they climbed out of bed and pulled on their dressing gowns before venturing through the rest of the house list in hand.

If Nikki and Helen considered Tony's interest in the terraced house fortuitous, they soon came to realise that it was simply a precursor of things to come. In direct contrast to their less than stellar first effort with Deb on the Sunday afternoon, Tuesday evening found them looking at houses much more in keeping with their own vision of their future home and by half past seven they had discovered the house they knew must be theirs. It was a bright, end of terrace house with two double bedrooms and a loft – which, they decided, would serve nicely as an office – in Camden Town. Likely because of its garish colour scheme and incredible clutter, it had been on the market over three months. The owners were getting desperate and had dropped their price by fifteen percent that very day. Nikki, recognising the drawbacks of the house to be strictly cosmetic, ranked the house among the top three that they had viewed, but, once she had paid a visit to the back garden, knew that there would be no other she would accept. Though overgrown and neglected, the garden was spacious, featuring a seating area and planted borders, and it was remarkably private for a house in the city. Other selling points of the house for her included the stone fireplace, the sun room off the kitchen and upstairs lounge with built-in bookcases. Helen, for her part, was delighted by the location, a four minute drive or twenty-five minute walk to HMP Holloway. She found herself placing her furniture in her mind's eye, and considering which pieces of Nikki's might fit in the space as well. Both women were pleased with the updated windows and roof which was new three years previously. Endeavouring not to appear too keen in front of the owners, who were selling privately, Nikki and Helen asked the right questions: age of the plumbing and wiring, annual cost of property taxes, monthly utilities. They even asked about the neighbours. And liked the responses they got to their enquiries. Thanking the owners they stepped outside and into Deb's car, which had cooled significantly during the forty minutes or so they had spent in the house, owing to the near freezing temperature.

"Well?" Deb asked.

"Well?" Nikki repeated incredulous. She looked at Helen.

"I think it's perfect. It's much bigger than it looks, once you strip away all the crap. And the ghastly paint, well, we can take care of that ourselves. Even if we hire a professional, it'll be a couple grand at most," Helen enthused. "I was already placing furniture as we did the walk through," she admitted.

"So was I. I think we'll need to keep the gate leg table-"

"For the foyer!" Helen finished for her. "And your corner cabinet'll be brilliant in the dining room."

Deb let the women prattle on for a few minutes longer before eventually suggesting, "So, we should make an offer, then?" They decided on a price, deducting yet another five percent off the asking price, and Deb drew up the offer, conditional upon the sale of Nikki's and an inspection of the house. The three women decided to wait until the following morning to present it so as to not appear overly keen.

Nikki found the gamesmanship to be ridiculous but knew how important it was to Helen to feel she had done everything she could to secure the best price. Their strategy paid off and their offer was accepted without a counter, likely owing to a very timely possession date, scarcely more than a month later, on March first. Tony's financing came through and he, Nikki and Helen very easily established what was deemed an equitable split of the furnishings. What was more, he asked for her dishes, which Nikki had decided were somewhat dated and of no great loss to her. But she refused to part with her cookware, having bought all new, high quality pots and pans when she began cooking more. His possession date was March fifteenth, which would leave the women plenty of time to get the new house painted.


Part Fifteen

After a whirlwind week Helen and Nikki would have much preferred to spend a quiet couple of days at home, but they had a weekend at Helen's father's estate to get through. They opted to take Helen's Peugeot - owing to its better fuel economy – and, with the lead-footed Scot behind the wheel, predicted they would make fantastic time into Morningside. They waited to fuel up in Preston, which was the mid-point in their trip and where Helen knew the cheapest diesel could be found. She was also aware that her small car could make it to Morningside and back to Preston without refuelling. As an added advantage the least expensive station, Helen knew from experience, also had the cleanest toilets. The women took advantage of that information, bought themselves a packet of crisps and were back on the M6 in the blink of an eye, anticipating an arrival at Helen's childhood home near a quarter to six. And at that they were still erring on the side of caution; it was likely to be closer to twenty-five to.

Helen's trepidation at what the weekend would bring shone through, however, and was reflected in her speedometer. The closer they got to Morningside, the more slowly she drove, consequently delaying their arrival until almost five to six. Before they alighted from the car Nikki reached for Helen's hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze. She looked at her partner squarely, promising, "We'll get through this."

Helen snorted, "Yeah, but what'll it look like on the other side."

"Can't answer that, Babes." Hating the thought of Helen living a lie in front of her father, Nikki nonetheless hated to see the fear and suffering etched on her partner's face even more and offered her an out. "We don't have to do this today."

"Och, don't be daft. I'm not hiding from him any longer. You're my partner. I won't downplay you, us." Nikki was moved by Helen's vehemence, that she would not endeavour to deny the importance of their relationship. The tall woman reached into the back seat for their overnight case as Helen stepped out into the frigid January air. Gusting winds whipped her chestnut hair as she pulled her jacket more tightly around herself. Helen was thankful, at least, that the torrents of rain which had been falling on London had been left behind near Staffordshire. Nikki followed her to the imposing front door which was opened by the Reverend Stewart himself. Helen could not remember that ever happening before and was rendered speechless. "Dad!" she exclaimed once she had recovered her voice. "Has something happened to Margaret?"

"Wha'? A faither cannae welcome his bairn tae the hoose?" Reverend Stewart asked in a manner which suggested he did it as a matter of course.

"Not historically, no," countered Helen dryly, prepared to go on until she realised that her father's attention had been captured elsewhere.

"Ach, Nikki, and how's yersel'? Lovely tae see ye again." He shook her hand warmly. It was in watching that exchange that Helen cottoned on to the impetus which had led her father to greet them at the door; it was patently obvious that he was rather taken with her partner. Tamping down a twinge of hurt, she ultimately saw her father's affinity for Nikki as a positive, something that might perhaps work in their favour towards his acceptance of their relationship. This train of thought derailed in a hurry, however, and she scoffed, rolling her eyes at her own naive optimism. He went on, "Come in, come in. 'Tsa fair beezer out there the day." The women hurried into the foyer, out of the elements.

"Nice to see you, sir," responded Nikki. Surreptitiously proffering a parcel which was unmistakeably another box of Cuban cigars, she added in a stage whisper, "For you. Don't tell Helen." He gave her an exaggerated wink.

Unquestionably aware of the pantomime playing out in front of her, Helen nevertheless could not help thinking, "What? Are they flirting?" She recognised what Nikki was doing, endeavouring to ingratiate herself with her would-be father-in-law, but shook her head anyway at the display, unwilling to watch further. "We'll just go have a quick change, yeah?" she finally submitted. "Meet you in your study for a nip?" Rev Stewart nodded, turning on his heel. Helen faced her partner, a frown furrowing her brow, demanding, "Seriously?" An impish smile and a shrug were Nikki's only defence.

Thankfully Margaret chose that minute to emerge from the corridor where she had been patiently awaiting the Reverend Stewart's departure. "Helen! Nikki!" she cried, embracing them both tightly. Looking them over critically, she admonished, "Ye're baith too skinny by half!" She paused, adding, "But ye look happy. Are ye sure 'bout doin' this?" Margaret was acutely aware of the motivation behind the other women's visit.

"We are, but I am sorry to do this to you." Helen hated to think that she would be leaving Margaret behind to sort out her mess.

"Ach away with ye. I ken how tae handle your paw. Been doin' it for nigh on forty year. Now go on. Off with ye, up tae your rooms. Nikki's got the bed closet," the old housekeeper added referencing the small bedroom adjoining Helen's, the room which had been Margaret's herself when she was Helen's nanny. Recognising the likelihood that, following the delivery of their bombshell, they would not be permitted to spend the night, the nervous couple received this news regretfully before making their way upstairs.

Having changed out of their travel clothes and into something more appropriate for tea, Nikki pulled a very tense Helen to her, offering words of comfort which amounted to no more than meaningless platitudes. "No, Nikki. How can you of all people promise that this'll turn out all right?"

"Just what people say, innit?" Nikki answered glibly in her effort to dispel her partner's trepidation. She held Helen a little tighter. "But you're right; my own coming out did not end very well." Still working at keeping the atmosphere light she added, "'Course I was half naked at the time, which, in hindsight, was perhaps not the way to go about it. But look at us… All dressed up. Ready to face the beast." She pulled back slightly asking, "Are you going to be able to manage to get through the next few hours without bursting?"

Helen smiled crookedly at Nikki's efforts. "I'll have to. I'm not ruining whatever beautiful meal Margaret's made. I've a feeling it's mince and tatties with neeps. She knows that's my favourite comfort food." She leant up for a quick kiss. "C'mon, mustn't keep himself waiting." Helen halted them at the door. "I was worried… that if you knew where I came from, once you'd met him, that you'd want nothing more to do with me."

"And that's where you're a dozy mare. I see where you came from - and where you are now - and it makes me proud, makes me love you more," Nikki replied in earnest. She kissed Helen deeply before opening her bedroom door. "Dozy mare," she repeated playfully as they stepped out of the room.

The women made their way downstairs to Rev Stewart's study just as the grandfather clock struck half six.

"I've poured ye a wee dram, Nikki, a new single malt I've just discovered. Weren't sure what ye were havin', Helen," Rev Stewart admitted.

Helen did not respond with sarcasm, did not even roll her eyes. She walked the three paces over to the sideboard and poured herself a stiff vodka with a splash of tonic. She heard Nikki thank her father for the drink and touched her glass to theirs as she made her way to the sitting area. "Here's t'us and what's like us," Nikki began, driving home to Helen exactly why her father was so charmed by her. In unison the two generations of Stewarts finished the toast before all three took long draughts from their cocktails.


Part Sixteen

After tea – mince and champit tatties with neeps, which Nikki had recently learnt were mashed potatoes and turnips – Rev Stewart, Nikki and Helen ventured back to the study for a postprandial digestif. "Smoke, Nikki," Rev Stewart offered up a cigarette box.

Though she would have been grateful for the prop, the tall woman confessed, "No, thank you. Only, I've quit, actually. First of the month."

Rev Stewart considered that news. "Well, good for ye! Been off the fags near on twenty year mesel'. Nothin' to it, was easy as fallin' off a dyke."

Nikki quickly brought her glass up to her lips to hide the smile that was threatening. "Likely more difficult for me, then," she muttered quietly though loudly enough to elicit a glare from her partner; that was not quite the segue Helen was after.

The three settled into their seats, Helen alone on the Victorian loveseat, her father in his rather well-worn club chair and Nikki into a wingback chair by the fireplace. "So wha're ye daein' the morn?" Rev Stewart asked.

"Thought I'd give Nikki the cook's tour of Auld Reekie, maybe a stop for lunch at Albert's," answered Helen.

"Have ye not paid a visit our way afore, Nikki," he asked.

"No, no I haven't. I'm looking forward to it," she told him.

A pregnant pause hung over the group. "Now or never," Helen thought. Looking at Nikki for a spot of moral support, she took a long swallow of Dutch courage before forging on, "Nikki and I have bought a house. In Camden."

Rev Stewart puzzled over this. "Wha'? Like a hoose to let?" he guessed.

Taking a deep breath Helen corrected him, "No, a house to live in. Together."

Helen's father grew angry. He turned on Nikki, "I thought ye telt me your business were daein' all right?"

"That's right; it is," Nikki assured him.

He turned back to Helen. "Then wha're ye rattlin' on about? Is it thon prison? It's nae payin' ye your worth?"

"It's not a question of money, Dad," Helen snapped. Taking a cleansing breath she explained, "Nikki is my partner. We're... we're in love." She had trouble meeting his eye.

"Are ye tryin' tae knock a rise out o' me?" He looked from Helen to Nikki and back again before shaking his head, denying what he had just heard, "Ye're talkin' a right load o' yad."

Finding the courage to face him directly Helen argued, "No, I'm not. You said it yourself, that I've only been happy since Nikki came into my life. She makes me happy, Dad."

"No, I cannae hear this. Ma heid is birling." Rev Stewart sat in stunned silence for a moment. A short moment. "That isnae how I raised ye! Ye don't half turn ma stomach."

Feeling he had crossed a line, Nikki, who had held her tongue impressively while allowing Helen to take the lead, was compelled to speak up. "Oi, sir, you can't speak to her like that!"

"And ye! Come into my hoose – twice – eat at my table, and all the time ye're corruptin' my daughter!"

"What? By loving her unconditionally? By standing behind her, giving her my support and doing whatever I can to make her happy? We should all be so corrupted!" Nikki fought back. "But you waggle your love and approval out in front of her like a carrot on a stick, always just out of her reach..."

"Nikki, please," Helen admonished. The women had decided that no good would come from attacking Helen's father.

Nikki would not be stopped. "It's just… you've spent thirty-three years doing everything you could to gain his approval, making yourself miserable. And for what?" She turned to Rev Stewart. "She's finished, done jumping through hoops looking for something she'll never get. You don't have to approve, but if you don't want to lose your daughter forever, you have to find a way to accept her for who she is."

"Nikki! That's enough." Helen shot daggers at her partner. Turning to her father she said, "Dad, I tried to make a go with a man, you know I did, but there was always something missing; it was never a fit. And now I know why: I wasn't being honest with myself."

Rev Stewart scoffed, "Have ye learnt nothing? The Bible is clear-"

His daughter interrupted, "I think the Ten Commandments trump anything that that sexually repressed misogynist Paul had to say. 'You shall not bear false witness'. So I'm not going to hide from the truth. Didn't Jesus say, 'Above all to thine own self be true'?"

Quietly Nikki corrected, "That was Shakespeare."

"Shakespeare? Yeah?" questioned Helen sotto voce.

"Polonius in Hamlet," her well-read partner confirmed, nodding.

"So overwritten," critiqued Helen, still keeping her voice down. Nikki simply shrugged non-committally.

Off in his own world the Rev Stewart had missed this entire exchange. Any hope the women had harboured that he would be swayed by their arguments was dashed when they heard him insist, "I want ye out my hoose. Now. Go and collect yer claes and get out. I'm goin' for a dander. Ye'd best dae a nash afore I'm back." Muttering, "Better an empty hoose than bad tenants," he turned on his heel and exited the study, leaving Helen to collapse into Nikki's arms, unsure if he would ever speak to her again. Nikki, having already lived that scene twenty years earlier, could not find it within herself to offer assurances. She knew it could go either way. Time would tell.

When Helen's father returned from his walk, he was chilled to the bone. A light drizzle was falling and the wind had picked up considerably, but he had felt none of it. Helen's revelation had left him nonplussed. He made his way into the kitchen where he found Margaret pouring out two cups of tea. Without saying a word they took their seats, facing each other across the table. The ageing housekeeper commented softly, "I've never seen Helen so happy. Not since Mrs. Stewart passed." Rev Stewart said nothing. Margaret picked up her tea cup, blowing gently across the top of the steaming liquid before taking a sip, gazing absently across the room, not wanting to pin her employer with her eyes. "That Nikki's a lovely lass."

"Laddie-girl, you mean," he spat, "perverting Helen like that."

The old housekeeper laughed, "Ye cannae fool me. I know ye're taken with her. She's the same person ye met six weeks ago. Intelligent, charming, strong enough tae stand up tae ye."

"But I didnae have all the facts, did I? I didnae ken she were leadin' Helen into sin." He paused. "And what's the congregation to say? I'll no' have them crackin' on about us."

If this were the crux of the reverend's concern, that he could not bear being looked down upon by his flock, Margaret concluded that his relationship with his daughter – and her partner – would likely be salvageable. She argued, "The world's changin'. Even the Kirk's evolving. Maybe your numbers wouldnae be declinin' if ye chose tae embrace the changes." Margaret paused before adding, "I've the name of a minister in the city, on London Road, who's, well, more progressive. Ye should have a wee natter with him, help ye come to terms..."

Deciding tha Margaret was overstepping her bounds, Rev Stewart lashed out, "Ye can mind yer own interference. This disnae concern ye; it's family."

Undaunted Margaret chose to exhibit more rather than less familiarity. She placed her hand over his wrist. "Jamie," she began, taking a deep breath, "if ye drive Helen away, ye have no family." She pushed the Portrait of a Lady DVD which Nikki had brought towards him before standing and exiting the kitchen, leaving the reverend to ruminate over her comments.


Part Seventeen

After quickly collecting their things from Helen's childhood bedroom – they had not unpacked, realistically anticipating such a reaction from her father – the two women escaped out into the cold night. Seeing that her partner was in no state to drive, Nikki opened the passenger door for her before folding herself into the driver's seat of the cramped red Peugeot. Nikki drove them the eight minutes up the road to the hotel which they had chosen as their Plan B on the likely chance that they would not be welcome to stay the night at the Stewart estate. Nikki had rung the previous day, learning that the hotel's occupancy was low – it was the end of January, after all – so they expected to have no trouble getting a room as a walk-in. Leaving Helen to soothe her body, if not her spirit, in front of the lounge fire, Nikki spoke to the woman at reception and proudly secured a room for less than half the hotel's rack rate. Not wanting to lose a potential guest who has ventured inside the front door, many hotels have a 'No Walk' rate in place. The amount Nikki had offered came in just above it.

Nikki and Helen took the lift up to the second floor, speaking little, Helen feeling strangely like an orphan. "Can I draw you a bath?" Nikki suggested, hoping the soothing warmth of a tub would ease some of Helen's burden and, at the very least, allow her to sleep. A still silent Helen offered a wan smile and a nod as she sat forlornly on the room's comfy chair, feet propped up on the matching ottoman. She closed her eyes and relived the events of their evening, pain clouding her comely features. Not five minutes later Nikki drew her out of her reverie and led her to the bathroom where the aroma of lavender and vanilla bath salts filled the air. The tub was surrounded by a half dozen candles and a glass of red wine was perched securely on its edge. Unbeknownst to Helen, Nikki had hidden a solace packet of sorts in their overnight case.

Helen looked at her partner tenderly. "I need him to see what good care you take of me." Having removed her clothes, the fragile Scot stepped into the water gingerly, slowly allowing her limbs to get accustomed to the heat. "Are you joining me?" she asked almost shyly.

"Only one wine glass," replied Nikki forthrightly, gesturing her head towards it. She would not have been surprised to learn that Helen needed some alone time.

A small smile playing on her lips, Helen assured her, "I can share... Just bring the bottle with you." Soon divested of her own clothes, Nikki climbed into the bath, lying back to allow Helen to recline against her. She had not accounted for the extra body when filling the tub and they lost a fair amount of bathwater over the side.

"Housekeeping's not going to be pleased," Nikki cringed as she saw how much water the bathmat was absorbing. The women lay quietly for several minutes before Nikki spoke up, "I don't think it went all that badly."

Tensing at the broaching of the inevitable topic, Helen countered, "Were we at the same meeting? What was the highlight? When he kicked us out? Or was it when he told me I turned his stomach? Yeah, went brilliantly." Pain and bitterness etched Helen's words.

Choosing not to take Helen's scathing tones personally, Nikki explained, "But at least he was listening, maybe even hearing what we said." They went quiet again. "It seemed different than with my parents. Your dad loves you and I really think he's just trying to protect you."

"But I'm safe with you."

"Damned right!" Nikki smiled, planting a kiss on the back of Helen's neck. "But what about our very judgemental society? And, of course, he thinks you're going to hell." Lightening the mood she lamented, "Couldn't fall hopelessly in love with the daughter of a musician, could I? Or a university professor? Someone a bit more open-minded than a fundamentalist minister?" Nikki mused further, "Ooh, or a vineyard owner..."

"Now you're talkin'! I'd chuck you over for one of those m'self..." Helen relaxed further into Nikki's strong, supportive arms, revelling in just how safe she felt there. She was actually beginning to believe that her father would come around, but she had made up her mind to give him some time, to stick to her plan to play tourist, show Nikki the sights of Edinburgh the following day.

Emotionally spent, the women climbed out of the cooling bath water and poured themselves into bed, relishing the cool feel of the crisp linens and firm mattress. They clung to each other briefly, both drawing strength from the other, a synergistic effect which left each woman feeling renewed and optimistic, before settling into a surprisingly deep, uninterrupted slumber.

True to her intent, Helen did not ring or attempt to visit her father on the Saturday. She and Nikki spent an enjoyable - if subdued – day touring the city of Edinburgh. Despite the frigid temperature which precluded them from spending too much time walking outdoors, they managed to keep themselves distracted from thoughts of Helen's future relationship with her father. Not feeling she had given her partner a very positive view of the city where she grew up, Helen promised Nikki she would bring her back in the summer for the Fringe Festival and some proper touring. Overwhelmed by the urge to treat Helen to a special evening, Nikki insisted they dine at Number One in the Balmoral Hotel before taking in Glimpse at the Traverse Theatre a mile or so away. After what they described as a rather depressing evening at the theatre, they jaywalked across the Princes Street Gardens to Frenchies, Edinburgh's oldest gay hangout, for a quick drink. The bar was hopping at a quarter to eleven, but Nikki and Helen succeeded in securing a table, assuming the roles of vultures over a couple women in their mid-forties who had to get home to let the dogs out. Helen pointed out that the room was filled with mostly women, so Nikki, having vast experience with the gay scene – in London, anyway, and how much different could Edinburgh be? - explained that the women would start filtering out between half past eleven and half past twelve, just in time for the boys to hit the clubs. Though she and Trisha had opened Chix as a women's club, they were boy-friendly and appreciated the money that young men were willing to spend in a club with the right atmosphere and the right music.

Nikki would have been content to leave after one drink, but Helen convinced her to stay for a second. And a third. That is, Helen had a third. And a fourth, one she would later swear up and down she had never had. Nikki, for her part, happily switched to water owing to having to drive. They danced and chatted up some of the regulars, finally making their way back to the hotel near one o'clock. They had to be prepared for a big morning next day.

The church was scarcely one third full when Nikki and Helen arrived for the half ten service. They settled into a pew seven or eight rows back from the front, sitting just off the far left aisle. Bright sunshine shone through the stained glass, dappling the faithful in a prism of colour. Polished wood gleamed reverently through the hall as Rev Stewart took his place in the pulpit. For several long minutes neither Nikki nor Helen paid much mind to the service as it was unfolding, their nerves having got the better of them. They sang the appropriate hymns, offered the right responses strictly by rote, but when Rev Stewart launched into his sermon, however, he finally got their full attention.

He spoke out clearly, "The best families, like the best relationships, are the ones that bend and move and adapt and compensate. They are the ones that still love when all love has gone, still hold on to those everyone else wants to let go, still listen when the world has turned its back and gone deaf." Helen's breath caught in her throat. It was impossible to believe that he was reaching out to her for he had no way of knowing she would be attending the service.

"In most of our reading of the Bible we tend not to focus much on the fact that Jesus had a family. Joseph disappears early on, there are only a few references to Mary, and even fewer to Jesus' brothers and sisters. Jesus was trouble, as far as they were concerned. In a country under Roman occupation, with fairly strong religious rules too, the last thing that anyone wanted to do was to draw attention to themselves. And that is exactly what Jesus was doing. Speaking out, gathering a group of followers, attracting crowds, saying things. The family wanted to gather 'round, take Him away, hide Him away from the public view, and keep Him, and them, out of trouble. He was family, and for them in their time family looked out for each other, to help and support, correct sometimes, and keep under control.

"Our world is very different from the world of Jesus' day; not all families are at ease with themselves and their members. It is not only families in the so-called underclass that suffer from this malaise – it is to be found right the way across the land. The fragmentation of society is not just to be found in the underclass. It is to be found at every level where people think of themselves first, and not of others.

"Which brings me back to Jesus and His family; they heard He was in trouble, they came to help. They didn't understand what He was doing, but over the years, they learnt. His mother followed Him, all the way to the cross. What Jesus taught them, and His disciples, and any who would listen, was this: in the new community that He came to create – in a disparate and maybe broken world, ties of blood may help, but not exclusively so; what really matters is having in the community men and women and children of all sorts and conditions, looking out for their family, their neighbours, their friends, and the stranger, and show that they care. What we pass on to children and young people, and what we pass about to people of our own generation, and those who are older, are these words, is this attitude, and this response to all of God's people. In the new community, and the new family, as far as Jesus is concerned, the only test of admission is, "do you hear, and do you follow?" We are all God's children and we must accept, embrace and look out for each other; that is the duty of our community, our family.

The congregation joined in, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."

(A/N: parts of the sermon extracted from Morningside Parish Church sermon Trouble in the family, 2011-08-21)

Unable to keep her emotions in check, Helen bolted from her seat with Nikki fast on her heels. Rev Stewart was only then alerted to their presence, seated as they had been just outside his peripheral vision. He quickly wrapped up the service and made his way back to his office where he was unsurprised to find his daughter waiting for him. They stood awkwardly for a moment before he had the good grace to invite her in. He offered Helen a chair and poured them each a cup of tea.

"Good sermon," was all Helen could think to say.

He scoffed, "Wrote it last week. Officiated at a funeral and a wedding yesterday. Did nae have a chance tae work a new one." His manner of speech had reverted to its more colloquial phrasing.

Helen held his gaze. "But did you listen to it? Did you hear?"

He sighed resignedly, "Aye, lass. But I'm only a man. I still dinnae like it. I'm tryin' to protect ye and keep ye out of trouble."

Helen assured him, "I'm not in trouble, Dad."

"And I'm tryin' tae learn that, Hen." He looked around. "Where's yer Nikki, then?"

"She's across the road, gone to the cafe."

Nikki had not wanted the Rev Stewart to feel outnumbered and left Helen alone to speak to him. As she sat nervously nursing her coffee, her eyes were drawn to the front door of the church. She fervently wished she could know how things were going inside. Sooner than she could have anticipated Helen and her father pushed past the heavy wooden door. Unsure whether she would be welcome, Nikki held her position within the coffee shop and watched as the pair of Stewarts made their approach. She stood as they arrived at her table.

"Helen. Reverend Stewart," she said cautiously. "Will you have a coffee? Or a tea?" She gestured towards the red vinyl bench seat.

Rev Stewart took a seat, leaving Helen in the awkward position of having to choose whom to sit beside, her partner or her father. Feeling that her father was still in need of her support, she chose his side, but surreptitiously touched her foot to Nikki's under the table. In a show of understanding, Nikki held Helen's gaze for an extended moment. The waitress took their order – a coffee for Helen and an Earl Grey for Rev Stewart – and left the trio alone.

"Good sermon," Nikki offered, shocked at how well the reverend seemed to be handling his newfound knowledge.

"Aye, so I've been told," he responded coolly. As much as he wanted to try to accept Nikki and her relationship with his daughter, he still found it all unnatural and contrary to God's law. He would not make it easy on Nikki. "Are ye a Christian, Nikki?" At her hesitation he pushed, "'Tis not a difficult question, lass."

Taking a moment to ponder her response, Nikki finally countered, "Actually, sir, it sort of is." She explained, "If you're asking if I go to church regularly, then, no. But if you want to know if I live a Christian life, believe in what Christ taught, then, yes: not standing in judgement of people, turning the other cheek, doing unto others..." She hesitated again before going on, "But especially living a life of love, not hate, which, according to scholars, is a tenet of the lost gospels, the ones deliberately left out of the Bible." Feeling she had perhaps gone on a little long, she summed up, "So, short answer: yes, I consider myself a Christian." Helen stared at her partner open-mouthed. Though she recognised Nikki as a woman of high moral fibre and integrity, the two of them had never had a theological discussion. She was tremendously proud of the way Nikki had handled her father's probing.

Margaret was right, Rev Stewart thought. He was taken with this woman, his daughter's... partner. He nonetheless struggled over the word. A tension continued to hang in the air as they finished their beverages. Nikki and Helen ordered a takeaway for their road trip. The three stood to leave when it arrived, Helen suddenly realising that a quick trip to the toilet was necessary. She reluctantly left Nikki, who, after ordering their sandwiches, had already paid it a visit, alone with her father. "If ye hurt her in any way, I'll gie ye what for!" he threatened.

Indulging in a wry but almost playful smile, Nikki assured him, "Likewise." Their narrowed eyes met and held, both feeling a grudging respect for the other as they silently acknowledged their mutual love for Helen whose arrival back at the table signalled their migration from the cafe. Rev Stewart headed back inside the church and the women back on the road to London. The burden which had been lifted from their shoulders that weekend was now firmly settled upon his. They hoped he would be able to cope.


Part Eighteen

Nikki and Helen were very busy through the month of February preparing to move into their new house. Though they did not have a tremendous amount of packing to be done at Nikki's, they began the task of streamlining Helen's flat as well, removing all personal touches in their efforts to make it more appealing to potential buyers. Deb had thrown herself into her commitment to the selling of it, showing it at least a dozen times over the course of the first two weeks. She managed to get it sold to a young newlywed couple, securing a possession date of April thirteenth. That was when the packing in earnest began. And the cleaning. And the painting. Nikki and Helen were both extremely busy at work as well. Longer days and warming temperatures meant it was time for optimistic Potting Shed customers to begin thinking about preparations for their gardens; mulches and fertilisers, seeds and seedlings were suddenly in high demand. In addition Nikki was comparing the benefits involved with hiring a hard landscape specialist who would be able to install garden water features - which had suddenly become very popular – rather than subcontracting the work out as she had done the previous year. Many of the water features came as kits, but, Nikki learnt, most people were overwhelmed at the prospect of installing them themselves, preferring to engage a professional. Further, a Potting Shed landscape designer would ensure the aesthetics of a piece while potentially generating a bit more revenue for the shop by making suggestions as to how to create a continuity within the garden. Of course, if she did engage someone, she would also need a crew help with the labour, likely students on their summer holidays looking to make some money for school. Additionally, she would have to hire the necessary equipment that summer. If demand for the service could be demonstrated, she would consider investing in its purchase the following year.

Helen, for her part, was busy garnering information from officers already working with Young Offenders, determining what was lacking, where officer training was falling short, and performing statistical analyses of how YO's fare after release, introducing a variety of variables including education classes, the types of prison jobs they were performing, ratio of officers to inmates and the like. Working out of HMP Holloway had given her a false sense of the direction which Her Majesty's Prisons were taking. Holloway was one of the most progressive prisons in the country and Helen knew that, once she had her Young Offenders Officers' Training Hall (YOOTH she was calling it, all the while looking for a better name) up and running, she would be able to make a career of getting other prisons up to its standard. For the moment, though, she was forced to go out on the road two days a week conducting interviews. Logically, she decided to begin with several of the eighteen dedicated Juvenile and Young Offender institutions, expecting them to be of a higher standard than prisons which primarily housed adults. She was mistaken. Three institutions in specific gave a black eye to the whole system: HMP Brinsford was only ten years old but had just been branded a disgrace; its regime was considered negligent and lacking and there was a high prevalence of bullying and self-harm. It was like a day camp, however, in comparison to HMP Stoke Heath which had gained a reputation for abusing human rights of prisoners. Lastly, there was Castington which had just won the dubious honour of being the most violent detention centre in England. Nikki was starting to rethink her endorsement of Helen's hands on approach to this new initiative; she was beginning to speculate that her partner would be much safer looking into Young Offenders from a distance, from the security of her Holloway office.

Because Fridays and Saturdays were so busy at the Potting Shed, Helen chose those as her travel days. Not wanting to miss her self-defence class Thursday evenings, she would leave early Friday and return Saturday, usually getting home around nine o'clock at night. She and Nikki would then have a weekend together. The shop would not be opening Sundays until April and Nikki opted to take Mondays off, needing only to do an hour's worth of administrative work from home. Rarely would she need to go into the shop, but her staff always knew she could be reached on her mobile. The two women developed a pattern of sorts and both were astonished at how soon it was that they took possession of their new home. Laurier, the painter they had engaged, did a brilliant job covering up the dark raspberry and plum colours in which the house had been done up and replacing it with a more neutral light taupe - with occasional, slightly darker accents - throughout the house, except for the kitchen, which Helen insisted they do up in a sunny yellow. Less than a week later, the women were able to begin their move from Nikki's, a move which they could easily manage themselves because most of Nikki's larger pieces were being left for Tony. Over the weekend the women made use of their Christmas gift from Martin and his family and the six of them packed up and moved smaller items from Helen's Maida Vale flat. Then on the Monday, March 12th, movers cleared out the rest. The women took Tuesday and Wednesday off to organise their new home, waiting on some new furniture from one of the shops on Upper Street. Helen chose not to go out of town that Friday and by the time Sunday rolled around, the Camden house felt like home. Save the guest bathroom, Nikki and Helen had managed to christen every room in the house, the kitchen twice. Nikki considered ringing Laurier and asking him to repaint the entire house sunshine yellow.

By mid-March Nikki had finally taken a good look at the numbers and decided that she could, in fact, double her profits on the sale of outdoor water features if she engaged someone in-house who could install them. Even with the headaches that the additional staffing would create, those numbers were difficult to ignore. Hoping there would be a qualified person left still looking for a job at the eleventh hour, she posted the position in all the major newspapers – even The Sun – as well as on the internet. By the end of the month she was growing discouraged. "What the applicants lack in training they make up for with inexperience," she laughed with Helen one evening. Thursday afternoon, March 29th Alex led a woman of about twenty-eight or thirty to Nikki's office.

"Oi, Nik, your three o'clock's here," she announced unnecessarily.

Getting up from her desk Nikki dismissed Alex with a simple, "Thanks." Turning to the other woman she extended her hand. "Nikki Wade." She looked into a face which she knew she ought to recognise but could not place.

"Althea Kemp. Thea. And I seen you before. You wouldn't remember." The potential hire paused wondering how to say what she needed to. She decided that forthright was the only way and pressed on, "I was at some of your seminars at Larkhall." A narrowing of her eyes and a stiffening of her spine gave fair evidence of the chip on her shoulder; it was obvious she expected Nikki to dismiss her out of hand as an ex-con. She was pleasantly surprised.

Giving a quick nod Nikki smiled, "I knew you looked familiar. Which wing?"


Nikki nodded, thankful Thea had not been an inmate on Helen's wing. "C'mon in. Have a seat." Seemingly unfazed by her interviewee's background, Nikki led Thea to a chair, taking the one opposite, ensuring they were both on the same side of the desk. Though convinced that this meeting would be just one other in a long string of disappointments, both women tried to keep an open mind. "Would you like anything? Tea? Water?" Pleased to at least have made it past the front door, Thea was caught off guard and was slow to answer. When she did at last find her voice, she declined the offer graciously. "Well, let's do this then." Nikki pressed forward, asking the most obvious question, the one which had given so much trouble to everyone she had interviewed previously, "Have you any experience or training in installing outdoor water features, ponds and the like?"

Continuing to see their meeting as an exercise in futility, Thea nonetheless answered honestly, "I just finished up at the English Gardening School. In Chelsea? We spent almost a fortnight learnin' about water features. Not my speciality," she admitted openly, "but they're actually a piece o' piss." Thea had the presence of mind to cringe at her phrasing.

Nikki laughed at the other woman's candour, letting her off the hook. "Could take it on myself, then, could I?" she joked. "Be like the North Sea flood all over again, I got my hands on it." She shook her head and gave Thea a kind smile, "What is your speciality, then?"

Modestly, Thea responded, "I like garden design. Wanted to make a go of it, but's tough to find work. I got the schooling, but no experience. Then there's the other..."

Heaving a big sigh, Nikki acknowledged the elephant in the room. "All right," she began, "let's talk about the other. What'd they do you for?"

Knowing that her conviction was a matter of public record, the ex-con confessed, "GBH. Five years. Out in two and a half. That was beginning of May, almost a year now."

"You know I'll need more than that," Nikki prompted. "'Cause if you tell me you bludgeoned your last employer for cutting your tea break short..." She offered Thea an encouraging smile.

Despite Nikki's efforts, Thea simply looked ahead vacantly. Though she was well pleased that Nikki thought enough of her potential to press forward with the interview, she was loath to talk about the circumstances which led up to her incarceration. "I grew up an only child. Mum's a drug addict, gave me up to my grandparents when I was five. Never knew my dad. My grandfather died when I was eight. My gran had a mild stroke five years ago and we hired a carer for her." Thea went on bitterly, "Conned 'er out of 'er entire life savings, didn't 'e? She's too embarrassed to press charges and I couldn't do it for 'er unless I had 'er declared incompetent. Can you imagine what kind of place she can afford on just 'er pension? Room barely bigger than a cupboard? 'Aving to wear a nappy 'cause there's not enough staff t'help 'er to the toilet!" Tears had come into Thea's eyes. "Anyway, I ran into 'im on the road, made a bit of a scene, begged 'im to give 'er 'er dosh back. 'E just laughed. Followed 'im into a sporting goods shop. 'E was so cocky, taunting. I lost it, ended up stickin' 'im with a hunting knife."

Taking this information in stride Nikki asked knowingly, "Where're you doing your anger management?"

Surprised by Nikki's casual response to her status as an ex-con, Thea informed her, "Harley Street."

"Hmm. They've got that new programme just for women, don't they?"

Thea nodded, "Yeah. They recognise that women got 'impulses' too. I been cuttin' back, though, twice a month now. Come May it'll be monthly seminars." Nikki understood; she still took in the occasional seminar herself when life seemed to be getting out of her control and her emotions needed to be reeled in.

Changing tacks the Potting Shed owner asked, "So've you got any examples of your work? Photos and whatnot?"

Choosing not to get defensive about the fact that she had no examples because no one would give her any work, Thea answered in the form of a question, "I can show you some of the gardens I designed at school?" She pulled a CD out of her bag and handed it to Nikki to insert into her computer's disc drive. Nikki was impressed with what she saw, but the cynic in her suggested that the work was not necessarily Thea's. Having spent thirty long months in prison, Thea was used to not being trusted and did not take the scepticism she saw written on Nikki's face to heart. "They're mine," she insisted, handing over a business card, "but 'ere's my instructor's card, if you want to ring 'er."

Feeling a kinship with the younger woman, Nikki was chagrined; she was all too aware of the limitations that a criminal conviction can impose. She assured Thea, "Won't be necessary. But we're only moving on to the second part of your interview." Nikki smiled at her own ingenuity. "I want you to come and look at a garden, take some measurements, whatever you need to do, and completely redesign it. It's entirely overrun. If I like your design, which obviously has to include one of our water feature kits, I will hire you – at fair market value - to actually create it, the structure of it, anyway, y'know, not planting or laying sod, but like the framework for it," she explained. "Think you can handle that?" Relishing the challenge and the opportunity Nikki had presented her, Thea agreed readily. They made a plan to meet the following evening after Nikki finished up at work.


Part Nineteen

Thursday night Nikki was a little disappointed with Helen's cynical reaction at the thought of Nikki engaging an ex-con. "Jesus, Helen, isn't that what you've been doing in the Prison Service? Working with inmates so they can effectively integrate into society once they get out? And, what, that's fine as long as they work for someone else?"

Abashed, Helen was forced to concede Nikki's point; she was being hypocritical. "But I'm just trying to protect you."

An exasperated Nikki pointed out, "If it weren't for my appeal being successful, that would have been me, the ex-con people need to be protected from!" Having successfully made her point, Nikki calmed down and, not wanting to row with Helen before seeing her off on a road trip, brought the conversation around to more neutral topics.

When Friday evening rolled around Nikki found herself pleased that the days were lengthening. She was able to meet with Thea at half six, a full hour before sunset, leaving the former Larkhall inmate time to take her measurements and get a feel for the garden she would be charged with designing. Following her evaluation the two women stood outside wondering if the thunderstorms which had been threatening all day might finally hit. "So, did you get a fair feel for the lot?" Nikki asked.

Taking in the overgrown garden one last time, Thea conceded, "I think so, but I'd feel better if I could talk to the owners, find out what they're lookin' for."

"I think that can be arranged. Let's go on in," Nikki suggested. The two women entered through the back door into a very spacious kitchen with a sunshine yellow paint job. "Actually, this is my house," Nikki admitted.

Showing no restraint Thea laughed, "And you let your garden get into that state? Not sure I want to work for you then, mate."

Taking the ribbing in the good-natured way in which it was intended, Nikki defended herself nonetheless, "I've just bought it." She paused before teasing, "And I've been trying to figure out a way to get some sad git to redesign it for me on the cheap. Up for the challenge, are you?"

"I've got some ideas, yeah," Thea became professional. Nikki could tell that her mind was already on the task at hand. "When d'you wanna see a draught?"

Nikki shrugged, "Well, that's up to you, innit?" Unbeknownst to Thea, this was part of the interview process. Nikki wanted to see how she would do without a deadline, forced to drive her own timeline. "So, what the owners are looking for is somewhere they can sit out comfortably, perhaps take their tea while still enjoying a bit of privacy even here in the heart of the city. Any questions?" Thea had none but reserved the right to contact 'the owners' at a later date should the need arise. "All right, get out of here and let me know once you've designed it. But don't hesitate to ask some questions." Excited about the task at hand, Thea practically ran out of Nikki and Helen's and into her pumpkin orange Fiat Seicento to make her way northeast to her Stroud Green flat. It was an optimistic Potting Shed owner who watched her go.

Nikki loved going to the gym Saturday mornings. She would typically arrive by seven o'clock, long before the late rising weekend crowd, and be done, showered and out the door driving to the Potting Shed by half past eight. With her recent hectic schedule the gym was one of the only bits of quiet time that she had. That and the half hour she spent over lunch finally catching up with Holden Caulfield as she reread Catcher in the Rye. She had almost forgotten to bring the book that morning having left it in the lounge the previous night where, overcome with exhaustion, she had fallen asleep having only read two pages. Had Nikki not also left some paperwork she needed in the cosy room, the book would have got left behind. As it was she grabbed her briefcase and the novel and placed them safely in the backseat of her Shogun before squealing off to her workout.

She had a busy morning at the shop, spending equal time on the floor and in her office. She was impressed when, at half past nine, Thea came in to have a look at the Potting Shed water feature kits, asking Nikki if she thought 'the owners' might like the small pond with the waterfall. Nikki was pleased with Thea's choice, that particular model being one of Helen's favourites, and commended Thea for her keen eye.

The next few hours flew by in a flurry of activity. In spite of the cool greyness of the day, hearty gardening enthusiasts were busy with preparations for the season ahead. At a quarter to one, Nikki decided she was ready to have some lunch. She pulled the dill pickle laced tuna salad sandwich she had thrown together that morning from the fridge and shut herself in her office. Looking around she realised that she did not have her book and ventured out to her four-by-four to retrieve it, expecting to see it on the backseat. When she did not find it there, she began digging around under the seats, assuming that it had slipped off the seat during her commute from the gym. Twenty-five minutes later Alex came out looking for her, wondering what could possibly be taking so long. The young shop manager had some things she needed to discuss with Nikki, but, familiar with her employer's moods, did not want to do so until Nikki's blood sugars were back up.

It appeared for all intents and purposes that Nikki was performing a spring cleaning of her car, despite the thermometer registering a scant five degrees. Everything which could reasonably be removed from the vehicle had been and was strewn across the car park. Her roadside kit, maps, all the typical vehicle detritus had been turned out, though she drew the line at removing the rear mounted spare tyre. "Where the sodding hell is it?" she wailed.

Cautiously approaching Alex asked, "Nik, man, wha'd you lose?"

"My novel," she barked. "Catcher in the Rye. It was here this morning."

Looking at the debris all around the lot, Alex wondered aloud, "All this over a book?"

Nikki took a deep, exasperated breath. "Helen gave it to me for Christmas. Printed in 1951, look, it doesn't matter. It's not here!" she bemoaned.

Calmly Alex asked, "And you're sure you had it this morning?"


"Your doors were locked?"


"Here and at the gym as well?"

Through gritted teeth Nikki, fed up with Alex's inane questions, cried, "YES!"

Alex began examining the Shogun. "Oi, Nik, look 'ere, mate. Scratches. And 'ere: the rubber's cut." She pointed to the passenger door window. "Car lock's been jimmied. So, someone musta nicked it." She shook her head. "Dunno what all the fuss is over a bleedin' book..."

Not wishing to get into a philosophical debate with Alex over the inherent value of the written word, Nikki repeated simply, "It was a gift from Helen."

"Yeah, that I get, but why would some wanker go to all this bother, to bust into your car? Don't make sense," Alex opined.

Shrugging Nikki suggested, "Perhaps they thought it was a first edition. Shit! Then I was the wanker, leaving sitting just there." She paused. "But why didn't they take the four quid or so parking money I had in the glove box?"

"Be worth a few bob, then, the book?"

"A first edition? In the condition that one was in? Probably a few thousand," Nikki informed her.

Stunned, Alex had to brace herself against the Mitsubishi. "Wha'? For a book? But yours wa'n't worth that?"

Nikki agreed in part, "Not that much money, but..."

Understanding, Alex probed, "Wha're you gonna tell your lady?"

Nikki began repacking her car, only just beginning to feel the cold which had seeped into her bones. "The truth," she stated simply. Once finished getting her Shogun in order, Nikki headed back into her office. Emotionally distraught, she could not face the prospect of eating and considered binning her tuna sandwich, but opted instead to return it to the fridge lest she find her appetite later. She picked up the phone and rang Helen's mobile.

Upon hearing the news Helen was disappointed for Nikki rather than in her; leaving a book on the seat of one's car should not be an invitation to have it stolen. It was a mistake anyone could make. "And at the end of the day, it's just a book, Sweetheart... Do you want me to tell you how it ends or will that ruin it for you?" she teased playfully. "I am sorry that your car got broken into. That's like a personal attack, but you weren't hurt, so the rest doesn't matter. Look, I've got to run now, but I'll see you later, okay?"

Nikki's afternoon dragged by with thoughts of someone breaking into her car never far from her. Helen was right: it was personal and Nikki felt almost violated by it. She tried to quash those feelings, knowing what a minor abuse she had suffered compared to what Helen herself had gone through with Fenner and what the victims at the support group where she continued to volunteer had lived through. She felt guilty even using the same word 'violation' in relation to her car having been broken into, but she could not help the way she felt about the invasion.

Sitting alone in her office Nikki heard the door open and assumed it was Alex finally come to tell her that she needed a pay rise. The younger woman had been walking on eggshells for over a week trying to get up the courage. Nikki was familiar enough with the signs and had already made plans to effect a bonus scheme for her young shop manager, a means to keep Alex fresh and enthused about the job she was doing. Nikki had planned on discussing it with her the following week. It was with great surprise – and delight – then that Nikki looked up to see the gorgeous hazel eyes of her partner looking back at her. She stood and came around her desk. "Helen! I didn't expect you until nine, half past."

Helen moved to draw Nikki in for a protracted kiss. "Couldn't stay away," she breathed. At the dubious look on Nikki's face she admitted, "It's a good news, bad news situation: Glen Parva was on lock down, some sort of stomach thing making its way through them – so to speak," she smiled regretfully. "I was already at Aylesbury when you called. Thought I'd stop by here and drag you out for a bite before we head home."

Her sandwich forgotten all afternoon in the fridge, Nikki's stomach rejoiced at the notion of food. "You wanna leave one car here? Pick it up tomorrow or Monday?" She was grabbing her jacket.

"Sure. My car's still warm. Took a peep at yours on the way in. Not too obvious unless you're looking," the small Scot offered.

Nodding, Nikki agreed, "Yeah, it took Alex to look for it. I'll just give her a quick shout and we can be off." She proceeded to do exactly that, inviting her to help herself to the tuna sandwich, and the women made their way out to Helen's car, Nikki opening the driver's side door for Helen before taking her seat on the passenger side. They chatted non-stop during the short drive, Nikki paying no mind to her surroundings. When they alighted from the car, she was shocked to discover that they had arrived at the Catcher in the Rye pub. A shadow of a pained look clouded her features.

"Now don't pull a face, Sweetheart," Helen cautioned. "We've lost a book not our memories of our first night out; we'll always have those. That's why I wanted to bring you here," she explained to Nikki. "Besides, I could really go for that Moroccan chicken."


Part Twenty

Nikki and Helen spent their weekend focusing on what they had rather than what they had lost. After dinner Saturday night they popped around to Chix in Soho. It was a very busy night – spring was in the air – leaving very little opportunity for Trisha to be sociable, though they did manage a couple quick chats, the last of which saw Helen insisting that Trisha and Alex come around to the new house for dinner. Nikki decided there and then that Helen was cut off and, with a wicked grin, dragged her onto the dance floor.

A short while later they noticed Alex's arrival. Nikki's employee seemed very comfortable in the club and appeared willing to do whatever was necessary to help Trisha keep the night going smoothly. She emptied ashtrays and cleaned glasses off tables, bringing them to the kitchen for washing up, she ran beer up from the basement's walk-in fridge, she even pre-empted an altercation between two women who had overindulged a bit. Nikki felt like a proud parent and, for the first time, recognised the relationship between Alex and Trisha as more than a fling; the two seemed to genuinely care for each other. When Nikki approached Alex, however, and spontaneously reiterated the suggestion that she and Trisha come for dinner one night, the dark beauty came to the conclusion that it was long past time for she and Helen to head home. She could not find a way to turn down Trisha's invitation to dinner the following evening, however.

Sunday Nikki and Helen had a leisurely morning before venturing to The Royal Theatre in South Bank to take in some of the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival, including a two o'clock screening of Gang Girls 2000. Following the presentation of an interactive narrative piece called Cocktails & Appetizers they walked the short distance to Trisha's flat. Alex joined them for an early - some might have pronounced it awkward – dinner, taking on some of the hosting duties, obviously comfortable in her surroundings. "Wee, baby steps, Babes," Helen whispered, giving Nikki's hand a squeeze, all the while determined to make the most of their evening.

Monday morning dawned cool and threatening but minimal rain was expected. Nikki fielded a telephone call from the Potting Shed at half past nine. It was Alex informing her that a woman called Thea had arrived at the shop looking for her. "Is she there with you now?" Nikki asked her.

"Right here, yeah. You wanna talk to 'er, Nik?"

"Sure, ta." Alex passed the phone to Thea.

"Hiya, Nikki, it's nothin' urgent. I can come back tomorrow when you're workin'." Thea had done her best to prevent Alex from phoning.

Nikki insisted, "No, it's not a problem. Did you have a question for 'the owners'?"

"Well, no, actually. I've got it done, thought I could run it past you," the would-be Potting Shed worker explained.

Nikki was shocked; Thea had only taken the weekend. "You wha'? You've got it finished?"

"First draught: ready for your approval, Miss," Thea slipped easily into her prison-speak. "I reckon I oughta've set up a meeting with you, not just shown up like this, but I can pop 'round again tomorrow. When's good?"

Nikki considered it and decided she did not want to wait; it made much more sense to look at the draught while standing in the garden in question. "Have you got your car?" she began.

Less than thirty minutes later Nikki was introducing Thea to Helen – first names only so as to not invite too many questions. "Can I get you a coffee? Tea? Water?" Helen offered.

"Thanks, no. I'm just dead chuffed about this design and can't wait to show it to you." Nikki and Helen grabbed their jackets and the three women ventured out to the garden. Thea spread a printed plot of her design out on the small table. Nikki was pleased with what she saw. Thea had managed to maximise the available space while designing a contemporary take on a classic English garden. There were three raised flower beds and a vegetable patch. On the fence between their property and the neighbours, she had planned for an ironwork extension over the fencing where climbing plants could increase their privacy. There was even a good sized seating area flanking the waterfall pond where Thea wished to create an outdoor living room. "There's all sorts of all-weather furniture 'round, couches and coffee tables. You should look into carryin' 'em at your shop," she recommended. Finally Thea pulled her laptop computer from her hold-all and fired it up on the same small table. "It can be 'ard to translate from the printout to your mind's eye, so I made a colour 3D representation. Look."

Nikki and Helen took in Thea's vision for their garden and were amazed. The woman showed tremendous artistic flair with an eye for detail. It was beautiful. "Hadn't planned on doing it so soon, but I reckon we better get to work clearing out this mess," Nikki gestured with her arm to encompass the overrun garden, "and let you get to work on your masterpiece." She smiled at Thea. "Can you come by the shop tomorrow to iron out the details? Y'know your payment for this project and then your wage, how much labour you're gonna need in terms of bodies... Say eleven?" It was agreed. "And could you forward me a copy of that," she asked referencing the 3D computer illustration. "It's brilliant."

Tuesday morning Nikki arrived at the Potting Shed late, nearing quarter to ten, because she needed to stop at the Post Office branch at Golders Green to collect a passport application and have her passport photos taken down the road at Snappy Snaps. She and Helen were having dinner with Claire the following night and Nikki was going to ask the solicitor to countersign her passport application and certify her photos.

In her desire to put Alex out of her misery, Nikki called her into the office right away, offering the younger woman a cup of tea. "Had a good time Sunday night at the Trisha's; you seem pretty much at home there," Nikki remarked.

Unfortunately, Nikki's opening gambit served to put her young manager on the defensive. "Shit, Nik, I don't wanna be rude, mate-"

She was interrupted quickly. "No, no, I didn't mean anything like that. I know I was at sixes and sevens at first, but... Look, I was just making conversation, wasn't why I called you in." So much for Nikki's ham fisted attempt at small talk. "For the record, though, I think you two are good together, but not my business. My business is the Potting Shed and that's what I wanted to talk to you about."

Somewhat fuddled by her reaction to Nikki's innocent comments, now Alex worried that her boss had been trying to soften her up in an effort to take the sting out of criticising her work performance. She tried to pre-empt the critique by admitting her recent shortcomings. "I know I've been late a couple times this month and maybe I'm a bit knackered-"

"Would you just shut up and listen, you dozy cow. I'm trying to offer you a pay rise, but if you keep on I may consider docking you instead!" Nikki teased. The Potting Shed proprietor discussed her ideas for profit sharing with her stunned shop manager, offering Alex five percent of the shop's profits, to be paid out quarterly. "Now, I'm not just doing this for nothing, y'understand? I will expect more from you. Part of it, as well, will include a new work schedule. Now we're opening Sundays your work week will be Saturday to Wednesday. You'll still open the shop Monday through Wednesday but at the weekends you'll be expected to close." Nikki looked at Alex kindly. "I thought that would give you a chance for a bit of a lie in after late nights at the club."

"Yeah, cheers. Plus Monday and Tuesday nights Trisha doesn't go into the club, does paperwork and admin through the day," Alex reminded Nikki unnecessarily. That information did play a small part in Nikki's decision to revamp the younger woman's schedule. "On top of that, I want you to learn all about the operations side of the business: staffing, ordering, budgets, even payroll - I'll start teaching you soon as – reason being, I've decided to open a satellite shop in Fulham, should be ready to go before Christmas next year. I'll be looking to you to run one of the shops, not just floor manager, operations manager." Nikki let that information sink in for a moment. "So, what d'you reckon? Up for it?"

"You wha'? Are you serious, mate?" Alex could not believe what was being handed to her.

Nikki smiled, "Dead serious, but no more showing up late and I won't have you slaggin' off. Up to you to set an example for the rest: if there's time to lean, there's time to clean." She looked to Alex for understanding. "You keep a fire lit under them and there's more profits, more dosh in your pocket."

Alex nodded, "I get it."

"'Cause this offer is conditional; I'm not going to leave my shop in the hands of a skiver, right? You've gotta step up like I know you can." Nikki tried to take the edge off, teasing, "Wouldn't be offering this position to a twelve year old if I didn't think she could handle it."

Smiling, Alex countered, "Almost thirteen. I won't let you down, Nik. When do we get started?" The two women ironed out a few more details before Nikki sent an elated Alex back out onto the floor with a renewed spring in her step.

Nikki had originally engaged Alex with the intention of grooming her for a management position. Having first met the younger woman when she interviewed for a job at Chix at the age of scarcely eighteen, Nikki had seen something in Alex, a drive and determination which reminded Nikki of her own, younger self. She also saw a refreshing idealism in the tall blonde which Nikki herself had not known for many years but which she envied. Even had there been a position open at Chix at that time, Nikki would not have hired Alex; bar work can age a person very quickly, too quickly, a fact that Nikki had learnt even before Gossard. When she decided to open a garden centre, however, Alex's was the first CV she sought in the Chix filing cabinet. What was more, Nikki knew that she was Alex's first real boss and anticipated the younger woman's managing style would mimic Nikki's own: firm but fair and respectful. She also hoped that she had taught Alex to lead by example. Time would tell.

Following directly on the heels of her meeting with Alex was her appointment with Thea to set up the parameters for her new position. Nikki had big plans for her most recent hire going forward with her vision for the Potting Shed. After about a half hour they had it sorted and Nikki remembered, "So, I reckon I'll have to talk to your PO, let him know you're gainfully employed, see if there're any conditions or hoops to jump through."

"Kinnell, Nikki... I didn't even think. I can't hang about with any other ex-cons, not 'til my parole's done. Dunno if they'll let me work for you." Thea was distraught.

Nikki shook her head – did no one watch the news? – and assured her, "It's all right. I appealed my conviction. It was upheld in November." She asked, "So, who's your PO? I'll need his telephone number."

"Here, I've got his card so you can ring him. He's called Tony Russo."

"Small world," Nikki muttered.

Back on the floor near half past twelve, Nikki looked up automatically at the sound of the front door opening. "Very small world..." she thought.

The new arrival made his way over to her, a broad smile etched on his face. "Hiya, Nik!" he began.

Surprised at seeing him in the middle of a work day, Nikki responded, "Tony, what're you doing way the hell up here?"

He smiled, "Moved me up to the Hendon office, didn't they? I was trying for Wood Green – closer to home – but apparently it couldn't be done. Nice to not have to fight traffic though, eh? How're you, then? All right? Settled into the new house?"

"Feels like home already," Nikki admitted. "Glad you popped 'round, actually: I wanted to let you know that I've just hired Thea Kemp. Is there anything you need from me? Something I need to sign?"

"No, I'll just make a note of it in her file. Let me know if it don't work out though, eh?"

"Yeah, 'course," Nikki assured him. A protracted silence engulfed them. "So, what brings you up here?"

"Oh, I've a lunch date, but I wanted to pop in and invite you – and Helen, 'course – to come 'round the house for a drink, maybe tomorrow night? Kinda punctuate the sale, let you see wha' I've done with your house..."

"It's your house now, Tony. And, sure, we'd love to," Nikki reluctantly answered for Helen. "What time would you like us?"

"Say six? Give you both enough time to get there after work?"

With a nod Nikki said, "Perfect, we'll see you then." She was already contemplating a housewarming gift. They said their goodbyes, Tony turning away from the shop owner and making his way over to Kate, whom he had espied in the gardening tools section. Nikki watched him go, surprised when he leaned in to give Kate a quick peck on the cheek and led her from the shop, ostensibly on her lunch break. Engrossed by the tableau playing out in front of her, Nikki did not even hear Alex's stealthy approach.

"Can you believe he bought the 'Nikki gnome'?" she asked, incredulous.

Though surprised at that revelation, Nikki still deigned to insist, "It does not look like me!"

Part 21

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