DISCLAIMER: Bad Girls and its characters are the property of Shed Productions. No infringement intended.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: I would like to thank my intrepid beta readers Kate and Kathy, without whom this story would have been of far lower quality. Any remaining mistakes are the responsibility of the author. All original characters and situations are the product of this author's fevered imagination and the beta readers have no responsibility for them.
SPOILERS: This story refers to some events in seasons 1-3 of Bad Girls.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
SEQUEL: To Road Trip
As they drew up outside the bed and breakfast, Nikki put the brakes on, killed the engine, and stared at the sight around her.
"Now that is spectacular," she said softly.
They had been driving through beautiful scenery since they crossed the border, the deep, vibrant greens and rugged contours of the countryside compensating for its increasing bleakness.
Nikki had sometimes had to physically drag her attention back to the road, aware that she was becoming dangerously distracted. At the same time, she didn't have the heart to ask Helen to take over the driving, realising that her partner was traveling in time as well as space, revisiting the backdrop of her childhood in a totally new context. The Scot had been increasingly silent as they progressed further north, but she would pause now and then in her contemplation of the landscape to put her hand on Nikki's leg or make eye contact with her, wordlessly reassuring the other woman that she was well and content.
They had stopped for fuel and to stretch their legs a couple of times on the trip, and Helen had invariably wandered off, as though following some call that Nikki couldn't hear, always ending up in the spot where she could see the best view of the surrounding countryside. Nikki had joined her and waited her out both times, not wanting to spoil it for her contained, independent partner by making her self-conscious about her behaviour.
She had been glad of her decision on their last halt when she had caught Helen brushing away tears, seemingly aware for the first time that her emotions had been coming closer and closer to the surface since they had woken up in drowsy peace that morning in York, wrapped around each other. Nikki had taken her hand and gently kissed the smaller woman's eyelids and forehead, lending her the silent support she thought she needed. Helen's only response had been a fierce hug that told Nikki she had guessed right and made her grateful that she knew her partner well enough to take proper care of her.
Now, with Helen still and attentive in the seat beside her, drinking in the view and presumably comparing it to her memories, Nikki took stock.
The hotel in front of her was a low, whitewashed, multi-winged building, set in well-manicured lawns and surrounded by mature stands of trees with a forest behind it. A small lake to one side was alive with bird life and insects. As Nikki watched, a rabbit darted out of the shrubbery beside the lawn and came down to the edge of the water to drink before startling at their presence, turning tail and vanishing. Overhead, crows flew and spoke in the fathomless blue vault of the sky, their harsh voices ringing across the landscape as they flapped their ragged wings to stay aloft.
There was a stone terrace with metal tables and chairs in front of the sash windows overlooking the lawn, their neatly painted frames emphasizing the depth of the stone walls they had been placed into. Nikki could see through the nearest set of French windows into a comfortable room filled with overstuffed sofas and armchairs scattered around low tables. The wrought iron fireplaces at each end were filled with dried flower arrangements at this time of year, but Nikki could tell from the blackening on their brick chimneys that they saw sustained use in winter. The thick carpets were covered with colourful rugs, and the paneled, wooden walls gleamed with coats of varnish and polish, their shine setting off the paintings of local landscapes and historical scenes that were hung there. Heavy Victorian furniture sat against the walls, its solid bulk complementing the high ceilings and wide spaces of the rooms.
Nikki could see a scatter of guests in the room she was looking into, most turning to see who had arrived. Her chest tightened as a man in a clerical collar with a familiar jaw line and colouring, which contrasted with his grey hair and stormy blue eyes, stood to get a better view. Quickly, she restarted the engine and pulled the car smoothly into the side of the hotel, where the tarmac car park led directly into the reception area.
Someone seemed to have heard them coming - a young, dark-haired man with wide, Slavic cheekbones was waiting for them by the main entrance. As the car drew up, he came to the driver's door and waited politely for Nikki to wind down the window. She glanced at his name badge, prominently displayed on his smart black waistcoat, and greeted him.
"That's right, Ms Wade," he said, the Polish accent hardly noticeable. "If you would like to park over there, I will take your bags to the Landseer suite. It's all ready for you."
"Great," Nikki said, smiling at him.
He bobbed his head and unloaded their luggage from the boot, folding the dresses in their protective plastic carriers carefully over one arm before taking everything into reception in stages. Nikki watched him for a second and then turned into the indicated parking space, maneuvering carefully and leaving plenty of room between the white lines. Satisfied, she turned the engine off and pulled out the keys before feeling a hand on her arm. She turned, finding herself caught in the gaze of steady hazel eyes.
"A suite?" Helen asked softly.
"You said you wanted a double bed." Nikki reached out and drew a careful finger across Helen's brow, smoothing away the frown. "Everything else was booked up."
"You're worth it. We're worth it. OK?"
Helen looked at her and then shook her head slightly, giving in. Nikki smiled at her.
"Let's get unpacked. I think it's time I meet your family."
"I think maybe it is."
They walked into reception hand in hand and signed themselves in on the wide pages of the register. Nikki noticed, with an involuntary spasm of pride, that Helen didn't bother to write her address out in full. She duplicated the postcode and left the rest blank. Nikki knew that her partner was being practical, but she couldn't help but feel a small glow of satisfaction at the gesture.
They rode the antique lift up to the second floor where Marek was waiting with their bags. He led them up the corridor before stopping at an oak-paneled door, which he opened with a flourish before waving them through.
Helen followed Nikki into the suite, stopping short as she took it in. A large, elegant living room was dominated by views of the lawn through the high windows. A couple of plush sofas stood on the thick carpet next to an antique coffee table, its walnut veneer polished to a high shine. A state of the art entertainment console dominated one wall. Doors off the main area led to a well-appointed bathroom with marble and teak fittings and a welcoming, cosy bedroom, dominated by the king-sized bed, its opulent coverings promising warmth and comfort. There were fresh flowers and a fruit bowl on the occasional table by the entrance. Helen could smell the subtle fragrance of the bowls of potpourri that had been placed here and there. She could see the range of expensive toiletries on display by the sink in the bathroom and could imagine the matching facilities elsewhere.
"Nikki, this is too much!"
Nikki turned back from tipping Marek and frowned. "You've stayed here before."
"We were always in the smaller rooms on the other side of the building."
"So how much is this costing?"
"My careful Scot," Nikki said fondly.
"Don't patronise me," Helen told her.
"I wouldn't dare."
Marek cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. Lunch is finished, but there is, of course, room service."
"Do they still do high tea in the parlour at four?" Helen asked.
"We can wait till then."
Marek nodded and left quietly, probably to go and spread a few stories among the staff. Nikki waited. As she'd expected, Helen spoke about thirty seconds after the door had closed.
She stepped in close to her lover and grasped her round the waist. "No, Helen. Not this time."
"This time, you get what you deserve."
"But the cost ..."
"I could have got access to money in Larkhall. And you know what that taught me? Money isn't worth shit."
"My bank balance didn't buy me a single second of freedom. Not one extra book in my cell. No decent food. No privacy. The screws didn't give a moment's thought to what I'd been outside. I was a con to them. Basic issue stroppy lifer, beat her down till she understands the system and gives in."
"I know all this."
"Yeah, but you don't know what it felt like to have access to money again and finally understand what it was for. It's to get you the things they can't take away from you. Like the chance to share a bed with the woman you love."
Helen looked at her, speechless. Nikki waited her out. When Helen nodded slowly, Nikki pressed a tender kiss onto her forehead, expressing her gratitude at the other woman's agreement. Helen smiled lazily up at her.
"Tell you what ...."
"Why don't I show you around?"
"I'd like that."
"Good. This is the special tour, you understand."
Helen grinned broadly, her tongue appearing briefly behind her teeth. "I was a teenager in this hotel. I know all of the ways in and out, official and unofficial."
Nikki chuckled, understanding dawning. "I bet you know all the places to have a sneaky fag without anyone realising."
Helen nodded. "And where to get my hands on some dodgy booze."
"Well, at least we won't have to do that."
"No. We've got a bottle of champagne in your case."
"I meant, we're adults. But, point taken," Nikki said.
They smiled at each other. Nikki released her grip on Helen's waist. "Lay on, Macduff."
Helen was as good as her word, leading Nikki out of the hotel by a circuitous route that magically avoided all of the areas with large numbers of her family gathered in them. They ducked out of an unobtrusive door that seemed to be there to give access to the bins and walked through a little-used yard, coming out on the side of the lawn away from the main entrance. Nikki paused and looked back at the building.
"Has this place always been a hotel?"
"No. It was a drover's inn, a convalescent home, then an academy for the sons of the gentry and finally a hotel again."
"There's a leaflet on the table in our room. The story hasn't changed, just the typeface," Helen said wryly.
She slipped her hand into Nikki's and led her into the small wood that bordered the lawn. As they passed from the sunlight into the dappled shadows of the trees, Nikki took the opportunity to raise Helen's hand and press a kiss onto the back of it. Helen smiled up at her and tightened her grip in response.
They wandered along the path, pine needles compressing silently under their feet, until they came to a small clearing at the edge of the trees. A bench overlooked a breathtaking view of the valley beyond, blue and purple hills rising gently at the other side of the clear, silver stream than ran shallowly over a wide, rocky bed below them. On the opposite slope, sheep placidly cropped the grass, their thick woolen coats stained brown along the belly, the vivid splash of dye on their coats standing out against the whiteness of their fleece. They picked their way delicately on spindly legs, undisturbed by the humans nearby. Helen drew Nikki down onto the seat and they sat and watched the flock in the late afternoon sunlight.
After a while, Nikki heard Helen draw a deep breath, almost a sign. Concerned, she put her arm round her shoulder.
"What?" Nikki probed.
"Want to talk about it?"
"Nothing to say, really."
Nikki nodded and waited her out. Helen nestled more closely into her side.
"The first time we came here, my mother had only been dead for three months. I used to come here and cry. Cry myself out."
Nikki tightened her grip.
"My father ... I look back now, as an adult, and I understand, he was grieving as well. But, that didn't help me then." She paused. "One day, I cried myself to sleep. I don't remember much about it. Just being woken up and taken back to my room. They must have sent out a search party."
"Didn't anyone talk to you about your mother?" Nikki asked, appalled.
"Not my father. He used to get this expression on his face.... My aunt Jane was the best. She'd sit with me for hours, telling stories about her, listening to me. She was so patient that first summer .... It really helped."
"Was she your mother's sister?"
"No," Helen said, puzzled, then relaxed as she explained. "She's actually my great aunt. My mother's aunt. But she hates being called great aunt. Makes her feel old."
"You'll understand when you meet her."
"I expect so," Nikki said, pressing a kiss into Helen's hair. "Should we go?"
"Why?" Helen asked.
"If this is bringing back bad memories for you...."
"No," Helen said, "they have no power over me anymore. I'm a different woman now. 'There will be a new heaven and a new earth. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'"
"Where's that from?" Nikki asked.
"The Bible. Revelation. You're a heathen, Nikki Wade."
"I'm just not really into religion."
"It came with the territory where I grew up," Helen said ruefully.
"So long as you don't go fundamentalist on me."
"Not very likely, is it?"
"No," Nikki said affectionately. She wrapped her arms around the Scot. They watched the view a while longer and then Helen glanced at her watch.
"It's nearly time for tea. Come on. All this fresh air's given me an appetite."
As they came back to the hotel across the lawn, hand in hand, someone on the terrace called out to them. Nikki looked across to the metal tables, where an old woman in an elegant tweed skirt and matching jacket was sitting, a cigarette held between the fingers of one hand. She started to loose her grip on her partner, but Helen shook her head.
"No. No more hiding."
Nikki watched as Helen gave a wave of recognition, her face creasing with a delighted smile, and walked quickly across to the tiny, imposing figure, pulling her close for a long hug. The ex-con approached more slowly, feeling awkward. As she got onto the terrace, Helen disengaged from the stranger and reached out to her.
"Aunt Jane, this is Nikki. My partner."
Nikki looked down into clear blue eyes, set in an immaculately made up face. She shook hands, careful not to bear down too hard on the ring-encrusted, bony fingers in her grasp. She knew that she should treat this woman gently, out of respect for Helen's feelings.
She felt herself being assessed and endured it. She already knew how important her relative's opinion was to Helen. Finally, Jane tilted her face to one side.
"You always did like tall and dark. That hasn't changed."
"No," Helen said, ducking her head and blushing.
"Is she the choice of your heart?"
"Then you have my blessing. Not that you ever needed it." She glanced into the parlour. "The family's waiting. Why don't you go and re-introduce yourself? Nikki can help me inside."
Helen smiled at her. Jane put a hand on her arm. "We'll have chance to talk later, my dear. I promise."
Helen went, shooting a quick, reassuring glance towards her partner. Nikki watched her go, conscious of a sinking feeling in her chest. While she had no doubt that Great Aunt Jane was entirely on her niece's side and had her best interests at heart, she doubted that her benevolence would extend to her niece's lesbian, ex-con lover. Mentally, she prepared herself for a tricky conversation.
Aunt Jane watched until Helen was out of earshot and then turned to Nikki. "Do you smoke?"
"Course I do. I was inside, wasn't I?" Nikki said, aware that she was showing off the worst side of herself and finding herself unable to control it.
"You started in prison?" the older woman asked, seemingly genuinely interested.
Nikki took control of her emotions, deciding that she wasn't going to be rude. "I smoked socially before. I'm giving up, now. In there? Not much else to do."
Nikki blinked as Aunt Jane drew out a metal case and offered her a cigarette. She smiled, a knowing, carefree expression. "When I was growing up, everybody smoked. I'm one of the last holdouts."
"Too old to stop now," Jane said lightly.
She gestured at the chair opposite her, and Nikki took heed of the implied instruction, taking the fag and sitting down. She accepted a light and took a deep drag, pulling the smoke into her lungs. Across the table from her, Helen's aunt drew on her own cigarette, apparently quite happy to sit in silence. When she spoke, it startled Nikki.
"Helen looks happier than I've ever seen her. You must be good for her."
"I try," Nikki said, embarrassed.
"I looked into your case. When I heard the news."
"What about it?"
"No need to be defensive. Gossard sounds like a man who was better under the ground than above it."
Nikki shot a startled look at the older woman and was met with a calm, thoughtful expression. "I've lived a long time, Nikki. I've seen a certain amount of the world, enough to understand that things aren't always straightforward. Black and white."
"Is that why you're OK with me and Helen?"
"I suppose. I know that I trust my niece's judgment about people."
She took a last drag of her tobacco and stubbed it out. "Welcome to the family, Nikki Wade. Mind me, though. As soon as the law allows, I expect you to make an honest woman of my Helen."
Nikki grinned. "That's a promise I'll have no trouble keeping."
"Good. Will you lend me your arm? I'm not as steady as I used to be."
She stood as the older woman got to her feet and put out a forearm. Helen's aunt took it and smiled up at her. "Try not to be too intimidated by the tribe. We're all harmless, really."
Nikki grinned, feeling surprisingly confident, considering. "Faint heart never won fair lady."
"That's the spirit."
There was a perceptible hush as Nikki helped Jane into the parlour and led her to a chair, but the conversation resumed afterwards and Nikki found herself being almost aggressively included in things. There were so many demands from different family groups to meet 'Helen's new partner' that Nikki found it hard to keep track of all the names and relationships and had to resort to her professional persona from the club to cope with the unrelenting attention. She'd lost a bit of her edge in Larkhall and was no longer as comfortable with crowds as she had been, but she appreciated the effort everyone was making to deal with something that was presumably outside their experience, even though they were trying slightly too hard.
Whenever her resolve faltered, she glanced across at Helen, seeing how she was being received back into the clan. It warmed her heart to see her naturally reserved partner lose the battle to restrain herself as she was introduced to innumerable nieces and nephews, encountered people she remembered from her teenage years and exclaimed about how they'd changed and reacquainted herself with older relatives, all of whom seemed to have fond memories of the teenager she'd been and to respect the woman she'd become. It was good to see her laugh, at ease with herself and the people who surrounded her, at home and comfortable.
After a while, Nikki began to feel a bit superfluous and dodged outside for another cigarette. She rarely indulged these days - she had been tapering off for months, but the feeling of being on display took her right back to Larkhall and reawakened old cravings as well as her desire for a bit of privacy. She half hoped she would find Helen's great aunt Jane and be able to have another chat with the feisty old woman, but the terrace was deserted.
Nikki was just stubbing out her fag when she sensed that someone was watching her. It didn't take much to guess who it would be, and she didn't even try and pretend she didn't know as she turned around.
He was standing, hands folded on his leather-bound Bible, staring at her. He looked her deliberately up and down and Nikki met his stony gaze, refusing to lower her eyes. The older man's jaw tightened at the implied challenge. When he spoke, his voice was low and measured, but Nikki could hear the undertone of rage in it.
"So you're the woman who corrupted my daughter."
Nikki clamped down on her temper, hard. She hadn't expected James Stewart to be this confrontational, not at a family celebration.
"I fell in love with your daughter," she corrected. "What she did about it was up to her."
"As if I can believe that," he spat.
"If you're not going to listen to me, why are we having this conversation?"
"I wanted to get your measure."
Nikki smiled coldly. "Know your enemy, is that it?"
"Something like that."
Okay, my name is Nikki Wade, I'm 36 years old, I run a club in London and we're very happy together. That's all you get from me. Anything else, you can talk to Helen about."
"You're a deviant. A criminal."
"No. I broke the law, but I've served my sentence. That means I'm free to go. The court said so." Nikki shrugged. "As to being a deviant - depends what you mean by that term. I am what I am. I don't think it's wrong and I'm not ashamed of it."
"Not even when you seduce normal women into your disgusting lifestyle?" Reverend Stewart demanded. His voice had started to rise.
Nikki glanced along the terrace, to the open French windows, and moved closer to him. "My 'lifestyle' is my business. I'm not hurting anybody or anything, apart from your pride. Well, news flash, Helen is an adult woman and free to make her own choices. One thing I'm not going to do is let you pick a fight with me about them."
"Are you afraid to debate with me?"
"No, just your prejudices. Score one for the forces of righteousness, I suppose." Nikki shouldered past the minister, feeling her anger burning in her chest.
In the parlour, Helen was sitting with a group of other women who Nikki vaguely remembered being introduced to earlier, laughing as someone told her a story. She looked up as Nikki came into the room and her face changed. Nikki shook her head slightly and went over to the bookcase, selecting one of the leather-bound volumes there. She chose an armchair and sat down. Opening the book on her lap, she realised suddenly that she didn't know what she had picked; she had no idea of the title.
She turned her choice to look at the spine and discovered that she was reading Ivanhoe. Nikki grimaced - she wasn't that keen on Sir Walter Scott. As she stood to put the novel back, Helen excused herself from the group across the room and came to join her. She took Nikki's arm just above the elbow and tugged, indicating that she wanted Nikki to come with her. Nikki did as she was told, used to Helen's nonverbal cues.
Helen led her into a side room and shut the door firmly.
"What did he say to you?"
"Nothing I haven't heard before," Nikki said. "How did you know it was your father?"
"I saw him follow you out. I just couldn't get away."
"Besides which, I'm old enough to fight my own battles," Nikki pointed out.
"You shouldn't have to!" Helen said angrily.
Nikki smiled. "Look, he was trying to pick a fight, that's all. And ... honestly? If your family had been funny with me, I'd probably have let him. But everyone's been really nice. Doing their best. It's a happy occasion. I'm not going to be the one to spoil it."
Helen studied her face, obviously trying to work out if she meant what she said, then moved purposefully forward, backing Nikki up until she nudged the edge of a table and was forced to stop. Helen pressed closer, put her hands on the taller woman's shoulders and pushed her gently down before coming to stand between her thighs. Nikki breathed in, losing herself in the depths of familiar hazel eyes and smelling Helen's perfume and, under that, the scent of her skin. She felt her pulse stutter, arousal triggered by Helen's proximity and the look of promise on her face. Helen ran her hands over Nikki's shoulders and leaned in close.
"That bed is going to get such a workout tonight," she promised huskily. Nikki swallowed. Helen leant in to kiss her, never breaking eye contact and Nikki cooperated willingly, wrapping her arms around the other woman.
"Get your hands off my daughter!" a harsh voice barked.
Nikki turned her head quickly and felt Helen stiffen. The smaller woman did not move immediately and Nikki waited, letting her set the terms of the encounter. She felt the grip on her tense slightly. Helen turned then, but did not step away from her or let go of her.
"Have you never heard of knocking?" Helen enquired icily. "I seem to remember you being quite firm about it when I was growing up."
"I came to speak to you. One of your cousins said you were in here. I certainly didn't expect to find you doing that."
The Reverend's body was stiff with distaste, his colour alarmingly florid. The knuckles of his hands were white with the force with which he was clutching his Bible. He radiated outrage and disapproval.
"For God's sake, Helen, what if one of the children had seen you?"
"They'd have learned that there's more than one kind of love in the world. Though I like to think that they'd have had the manners not to barge in," Helen told him coolly.
"Don't be insolent!"
"No, Dad. You walked in on me, not the other way around. I don't need to be doing any sort of apologising here."
"Of course you do! You're ... prostituting yourself. With another woman. It's a mortal sin!"
"Don't be stupid," Helen said dismissively, but Nikki could see how the conversation was telling on her. She put her hand reassuringly on the other woman's back.
"I'm not being stupid. I'm telling you the word of God. You know I am and you know I'm right, even if you don't want to admit it."
"So God made me a certain way and then condemns me for it? That's very logical, isn't it."
"Don't blaspheme! You're mistaken, that's all. This woman has seduced you somehow, lured you into sin. You can stop. You can be healed. Be normal again. Turn away from your error."
"Return to the path of righteousness," Helen said softly. Her father smiled hopefully. Nikki clenched her fists, willing herself not to interfere. Helen caught the movement. She turned and smiled at her. "It's okay."
The gesture seemed to enrage her father. "No, it isn't! Not so long as you're in this ... sick parody of a relationship. It's unnatural and wrong."
"I know it is, in your eyes."
"And in God's."
"Because, of course, you know exactly what he thinks. About everything."
"I know better than you. As your behaviour demonstrates."
Helen stepped away from Nikki and ran her hands through her hair. She turned to face her father. "One question, Dad. Do you still love me?"
"It's simple enough. The Bible instructs us to hate the sin but not the sinner. Do you?"
"I can't answer that," the Reverend Stewart blustered, "not with this between us."
"So unless I do what you say, you will withdraw your approval."
"I cannot condone your behaviour. It was bad enough when you were living in sin before, but at least that was with a man. It wasn't unnatural!"
"You keep using that term," Helen said thoughtfully. "The strange thing is, my relationship with Nikki feels like the most natural thing in the world."
"It's against God's law."
"How do you know that?"
"The Bible says so."
"The Bible? The same book that says that he that is without sin should cast the first stone and that women are naturally inferior to men and should shut up in church?"
"I don't understand you."
Helen's lips tightened and Nikki was irresistibly reminded of their first sustained encounter, when the then wing governor had reacted to her threats with fierce anger, bypassing conciliation as she had acted to stamp her authority on the situation. Helen spoke forcefully, biting off her words, anger bleeding into every sentence.
"So far, your authority for telling me that I am wrong and sick is a book that was written thousands of years ago and your understanding of God's thought processes. Well, I'm sorry, Dad, that's not good enough."
"If you do this, you will no longer be my daughter."
"Emotional blackmail? That's really desperate. Besides, you've forgotten something. You've never approved of a single thing I've done. I'm used to it."
"I have. I've thought and considered until I'm certain. I'm gay, Dad. That's not going to change. So you'd better learn to live with the idea. Because actually, it's not up to you. It never really was."
James Stewart stood looking at his daughter, helplessly groping for words. Nikki could almost find it in her to feel sorry for him. She probably would have done if she hadn't remembered how his first reaction had hurt Helen, all those months ago. She knew that he could hear the finality in Helen's voice and, like her, recognized the tone that meant she wouldn't change her mind, whatever was said to her.
He seemed to shrink into himself as he spoke, his words so quiet that they both had to strain to hear them. "I'll pray for you, Helen."
"You do that," Helen said implacably. She watched as her father walked out of the room, his footsteps slow and uncertain, closing the door behind him.
There was a brief silence.
"Okay?" Nikki asked.
"I guess. The strange thing is, I'm not even sad. In most of the ways that matter, I haven't been his daughter for years now. He just never realised."
"I'm sorry it had to come to this."
"Me, too. But we can't live our life for other people. It doesn't work that way." Helen wrapped her arms around herself. "In the end, he's just like Sean. I was fine so long as I did what I was told."
"Whereas in our relationship, it works the other way around," Nikki joked cautiously, uncertain if Helen was ready for a lighter mood. She was reassured when Helen raised her eyebrows, pretending to be outraged.
"Stroppy cow like you? I don't think so. You're always answering me back."
"Yes, but who gets the final say?"
"Depends," Helen temporised, refusing to concede the point.
"Maybe I'll start keeping score, like Heathcliff, just to prove I'm right."
"Oh, yes, because he was such a balanced character."
"At least I take it on the chin. Not one burnt suit so far."
"Don't," Helen said, shivering slightly.
Nikki hugged her. "We can avoid him for the rest of our stay."
"I think that might be a good idea." She looked up at Nikki. "Come on. Let's go back to the party."
They stayed with the family for another hour or so and then left when people started to drift off to their rooms to get changed for the formal dinner. Walking up the stairs, they passed one of Helen's teenage cousins. Nikki had noticed her before because of her dress - she was a Goth, her hair dyed and wearing a T-shirt with the name of a band Nikki'd never heard of, heavy boots and a hoody. She was pretty, in a sullen, withdrawn kind of way and had hung around the edge of the family group, not quite fitting in with either the adults or the children. Nikki had felt slightly sorry for her. It was an awkward age for all sorts of reasons. Now, she stopped dead as they came towards her, her eyes on their casually linked hands. She seemed unable to tear her gaze away. Helen frowned.
"Mary, are you all right?"
The girl shrugged and mumbled something before moving quickly past them, almost running. Helen looked after her.
"Wouldn't expect somebody that age to have a problem with us."
Something tugged at the back of Nikki's brain. She decided to hold her silence, in case she was wrong. "Probably just hasn't seen two women together before. Where does she live?"
"A medium-sized town near here."
"I didn't see two women kissing till I got to London."
"And now, all you have to do is stand somewhere with a reflection nearby. How times have changed."
They'd got to the room, and Helen smiled as she swiped the key card and let them in, taking the opportunity to show Nikki what she meant as soon as she'd closed the door. Half an hour later, they got back to dressing for dinner.
Coming into the main dining area, they discovered that everyone had already been assigned seats and made their way to their designated table. As they got closer, a tall, solid man with unruly, dark hair and vivid blue eyes stood and smiled at them. Helen gave a small cry of delight.
"Iain! I didn't know you were coming to the wedding."
"Got some unexpected leave. I got here an hour ago. How's my old partner in crime?"
She hugged the man and then turned to Nikki. "This is Iain, my ...."
"I think we worked out second cousins, didn't we?" the stranger said. He grinned at Nikki and extended a calloused, weather-beaten hand. "Me and Helen used to get dragged here by our parents for two weeks every summer. We had to make our own entertainment."
"Oh, we managed OK," Helen said chidingly. "I don't think they'd have kept bringing us if they'd known about some of the things we got up to."
"They certainly wouldn't have done," Iain said ruefully, "though there was a certain amount of nature appreciation and healthy living. In-between the underage smoking and the drinking and the nude bathing."
"That's the trouble with leaving witnesses alive. I've got blackmail material on you for life."
"Well, you just remember that I know what you got up to as well," Helen said challengingly.
"OK, I'll keep quiet. If you let me have the first dance."
"Is there dancing later?"
"There is. Formal and then country."
"Country?" Nikki asked dubiously.
"It's fun. I'll show you the steps," Helen assured her.
"It's less likely to give her father a heart attack than the other kind," Iain said pragmatically. "Less body contact."
"Where is my father?"
"He decided not to come down to dinner. I've got his seat."
"Which is probably for the best," Nikki said. "That could have been an awkward conversation."
"True enough," Iain agreed easily.
They sat down and chatted as they waited for the starters to arrive. It turned out that Iain was an engineer on the oil rigs, spending most of his time away at sea. He was a lively conversationalist and kept them amused for most of the meal with his fund of stories. He excused himself at one point and Helen looked after him as he left the table.
"I had such a crush on him when I was fourteen," she said quietly.
"Oh?" Nikki said, leaning in to listen and, quite coincidentally, putting her arm around the back of Helen's chair.
"Yes, he was three years older, doing his Highers, handsome, funny ... all that." Helen stopped abruptly, her lips quirking. "Nikki."
"Stop marking your territory. My tastes have changed since then. As you well know."
Nikki looked down at her own arm, which had somehow come to rest on Helen's shoulders and moved it away. "Sorry."
"You can have the first slow dance, OK?"
After the meal, the entire family moved into the ballroom and Helen led Nikki out for the slow number. As they swayed together to the music, talking quietly, Nikki realised something. They had become unremarkable. Whereas for the first few hours, people had been shooting them surreptitious glances, watching them to see what they would do next, now, familiarity seemed to have taken hold. All around them, Helen's family danced and talked and drank, and nobody particularly paid attention to the sight of two women moving together, holding each other close. She realised that she quite liked the sensation of being anonymous, of not having to be on guard against whispered comments or disapproving looks. Smiling, she relaxed into the music and the feeling of having Helen in her arms.
Later, as promised, Helen showed her the steps to a number of insanely fast and energetic country dances that had everyone flushed and breathless. Nikki kicked off her shoes and joined in with a will, enjoying herself immensely as she stepped through the complicated patterns to the sounds of the ceilidh band, the high, fast fiddling seeming to energise her limbs. Finally, however, she had to admit defeat, collapsing onto a chair in a laughing heap. Helen came over to join her and, without thinking, Nikki pulled her partner onto her lap and kissed her soundly. Helen reciprocated. Nobody was paying particular attention, so the roar of outrage from the other side of the room startled them. The music came to a stuttering halt as the Reverend Stewart stalked across the room. He seemed to have come in when no one was looking. Nikki realised with a sinking heart that he was drunk. She stood up quickly as he came closer, stepping in front of Helen.
"You are an abomination before the Lord," he said in a high, unsteady voice. He gathered himself and spat in her face.
Nikki was vaguely aware of a babble of voices as she reeled back, fists clenching. She restrained her first impulse to punch the man and looked round for something to wipe her face with. Helen grabbed a napkin from a nearby table and handed it to her. Nikki cleaned the moisture from her cheek.
"It's all right," Nikki said. "It's all right."
"No, it is not," Helen said furiously. She started after the group of men who had intervened to grab her father and march him off. Nikki reached out and stopped her.
"Forget it, Helen. He's not worth it."
Helen shook her head disgustedly. "No, he isn't. Come on, sweetheart, let's find a basin so you can wash your face."
Nikki let Helen fuss over her, more to give the other woman something to do than anything else, then went to sit at the edge of the gathering as she vanished, presumably to give her father a piece of her mind. Iain appeared silently from the direction of the bar and handed her a glass of whisky. Nikki took it gratefully.
"Are you OK?"
"That was a pretty vicious thing to do."
"He's an idiot. He's lost Helen for good now."
"I suppose so."
"No suppose about it. I know that expression."
"You seem to know Helen pretty well."
Iain shrugged and looked into the depths of his whisky. "You never forget the first one," he said meditatively. Nikki saw his eyes widen as he realised what he'd said.
"First .... what?"
"First love. Sorry, that was insensitive. There's no alcohol out on the rigs. I always forget to go steady when I get back."
"Right," Nikki said, unsure how to react. Iain took a long swallow of the spirits and raised the glass slightly towards Nikki. "It's OK. I've got eyes in my head. I know I wouldn't stand a chance. Just take it as read that if you hurt her, I will not be pleased."
"What, you'll hunt me down and kill me?"
"Yes, but slow," Iain said in a bad Mexican accent, drawling the last word.
"That's a deal," Nikki said, clinking her glass against his.
A little later, Helen came to find her and they called it a night. Back in their room, Nikki stripped off and dropped her clothes carelessly on the floor. "I'm going to take a shower. I feel like I've had a work out with all that dancing."
She wasn't surprised when Helen joined her or when the shower turned into fierce, passionate lovemaking, the smaller woman marking her claim on her body with determined skill. As her second orgasm ebbed, Nikki looked down at Helen and pulled her to her feet.
"Come on, let's take this to the bed," she said, wiping the tears from the Scot's face with gentle fingers. "We're both tired. I want to spend the night with you."
"Despite my father?"
"He doesn't matter," Nikki said. "Listen, your family are fine with us. Don't let one bigot spoil it. I know this is hard for you, because of who he is, but it really doesn't affect what's between us."
"I know. It's just ...."
Nikki reached over her shoulder and turned off the spray. "I'm starting to wrinkle," she said firmly.
Later, as they lay together, Helen stirred. "Do you know Ruth and Naomi?"
"More Bible stuff?"
"Yes. 'And Ruth said, entreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God. Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me,'" she quoted.
"That's beautiful," Nikki said.
"It's how I feel."
"What a coincidence. That makes two of us."
Helen looked deep into her eyes. "I guess that's all right, then."
She sighed and wrapped her arms around Nikki. The taller woman felt the easing of tension in her and realised that whatever demons her father's actions had raised had just been laid to rest. She smiled and kissed her before settling down to sleep.
The morning dawned bright and crystalline. Nikki woke up before Helen and dressed quickly, strolling out for a pre-breakfast walk and cigarette. She was watching the play of sunlight on the water when Mary came and sat down beside her. Nikki waited as the girl glanced sideways at her, chewing her lip. Finally, she spoke.
"When did you know?"
Nikki didn't pretend she didn't understand the question. "I was certain by the time I was fifteen."
"But how could you be sure?"
"Never felt anything for boys. Fancied the pants off a couple of my schoolmates. That was the big giveaway."
"Oh." Mary hesitated and developed a sudden interest in the knees of her jeans. "How did your parents react?"
"Badly. I left home soon afterwards. But a lot of parents are OK with it, especially nowadays."
"There are resources. Places you can go."
"Well, there are switchboards, advice lines. The Samaritans if you don't want to talk to anyone who's too 'gay'. Your local library'll have books. There are other people your age going through exactly the same thing. You're not on your own."
"Yeah, I get that," Mary said. She hesitated. "Seeing you and Helen together, though...."
"Bit of an eye opener?" Nikki said. Mary nodded.
Nikki smiled. "We were very lucky to find each other." She glanced at her watch. "Speaking of which, I'd better go and wake her. We've got a wedding to prepare for."
"I know," Mary said gloomily. "I'm a bridesmaid." She scowled. "Green dresses."
"I'm sure you'll look great," Nikki told her. She watched as the teenager slouched off and noticed that her shoulders seemed to be a little bit straighter. Thoughtfully, she headed back to the hotel.
Back in their room, she crossed quietly to the bed and sat down on the edge of the mattress, reaching out to gently stroke Helen's shoulder. Her partner stirred sleepily and cracked an eye open before reaching to sling an arm around Nikki's waist. Nikki felt the warmth of her skin and smiled.
"You seem comfortable."
"You want breakfast in bed?"
"As opposed to what?"
"Going to eat downstairs."
Reluctantly, Helen rolled over, stretching and then sitting up. She leant sleepily against the headboard. Nikki waited for her decision, taking the opportunity to admire the view. Helen tilted her head to one side, then threw back the covers.
"We'd better go down. If I opt for breakfast in bed, we might not make it to the church in time."
Nikki smiled, acknowledging the accuracy of the observation, and went to enjoy the vista out of the window while Helen showered and got dressed.
They did make it to the church in time after breakfast and sat, holding hands, during the ceremony. They were on the same table at the reception. Helen's father was across the room. He seemed subdued, barely raising his eyes from his plate. Nikki suspected that he was still suffering from the effects of the alcohol he had drunk the night before. She put him out of her mind and concentrated on chatting to the people near her, taking the opportunity to get to know a few more members of Helen's family. They were due to set off that afternoon, and though they had plenty of invitations to events later in the year, it would be a while before they could accept some of them, because of their work commitments and the distance. Nikki promised herself that they would make the effort, though. She didn't want Helen to lose out on what was obviously a close and supportive group of relatives because of geography.
After a cup of tea and a chat with Helen's Aunt Jane after lunch, they reluctantly changed out of their dresses and loaded up the car. As Nikki stood looking back at the hotel, Helen came up to her and put her hand on her arm.
"Fine. I just didn't expect to be wanting to stay. I thought I'd be looking at my watch by now."
"Well, I'm glad you enjoyed yourself," Helen said. She didn't mention that she was relieved that Nikki had coped so well. Although her partner was good with people, Helen had wondered if her earlier negative experiences with her parents would influence her reaction to the Stewart clan, leading to friction. Luckily, it hadn't worked out that way.
"I suppose we'd better set off. We've got to make it to York by this evening," Nikki said.
"Means we can go for another walk round the town...."
"Helen," a voice said, interrupting them. Nikki turned quickly, putting herself between Helen and her father. The Reverend Stewart flinched at the gesture.
"Nikki, it's OK."
"It's OK so long as he doesn't try anything."
"What would you do if I did?" the Reverend Stewart asked. His voice was carefully non-confrontational.
"Probably put you on the ground. I am a dangerous criminal, after all."
"I'd like to speak to my daughter, please."
"I'm not stopping you."
"Anything you have to tell me, you can say in front of Nikki," Helen said firmly.
"Very well. I thought about what you said last night. You were right. I hope that when we meet again, we can be more ... I hope we can talk."
"Let's see when the time comes."
Helen's father waited, but she didn't elaborate. He ducked his head and turned away.
Nikki watched him go, then turned to Helen. "What did you say to him?"
"I told him that what he did was disgusting, that I was ashamed of him. I said if he ever raised his hand to you again, he'd have me to deal with."
"Remind me who's supposed to be the scary, dangerous one in this relationship."
Helen snorted. "I know you, Nikki Wade. You're nothing but front. Which is good. I wouldn't find living with a version of Shell Dockley nearly such an attractive proposition."
"I aim to please."
"Oh, you manage that, all right."
Nikki smiled. "Sweet talker. Come on. Let's go home."
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