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 lumar12[at]telus.net

The Potting Shed
By Christie


Part Twenty-One

Thursday morning dawned dark and wet with the threat of severe thunderstorms and a potential for hail. Nikki went up to her rooftop garden, the class's summer project, to cover the plants, to protect them from the worst of the weather. She had not been up there more than five minutes when Helen arrived in her wellies bearing tarps, stakes and twine. Nikki could only shake her head and smile in surprise. With barely more than a good morning spoken between them, the two women set about creating makeshift tents to defend their garden against the forecast precipitation. After close to an hour, they were satisfied that the plants would not be lost and made their way inside. "It was really good of you to show up, Helen; looks like we just made it with the two of us mucking in. If I'da been on my own..." Nikki said looking at the rapidly approaching storm clouds.

"In case you'd forgotten, that's my design up there. I saw it was threatenin' so I had to come. Everything that's been going on, if I'd've lost it on top o' everything else, that would've taken the biscuit," Helen admitted softly.

"Can I get you a coffee?" Nikki offered, unwilling to see Helen off so soon.

"No, thanks; I've got to get to Larkhall. Och, it's fair plooting now," Helen observed gazing through the window at the pouring rain. "I'll see you at the weekend though."

"Don't forget Saturday's class is topside," she reminded Helen, pointing up with her thumb to indicate the roof. "Drive carefully, yeah?" And with that Helen was away to face the most recent crises which had erupted at the prison during her brief hiatus.

That night Helen was at home in her flat contemplating her employment on G-Wing when, at nine o'clock, her doorbell rang. "Nikki, wha're you doing here?" she asked, startled, knowing the other woman had to be home within a half hour.

"I thought you were absolutely fantastic up on that roof today and, I'm sorry, Helen, but I've gotta tell ya: You're gorgeous." Looking into Nikki's smouldering eyes Helen let out a little gasp as a pulse of heat pervaded her depths. Nikki continued matter-of-factly, "I'm totally in love with you."

"Nikki-" Helen could not believe she still had the strength to try to protest.

"There's nothing I can do about it." Nikki smiled, glad to have it out in the open at last.

"Well, I can," Helen countered before adding, somewhat callously, "Don't you have to get home?" And with that she closed her front door and walked back into her flat as Nikki watched her go, enjoying the view even through the frosted glass, but puzzling over the implications of the fiery Scot's cryptic statement.

Things finally came to a head for Helen at Larkhall the following day; allegations that Jim Fenner was involved in a relationship of a sexual nature with Shell Dockley were brought forth. What's more, he was also accused of physically assaulting that same lifer. Governing Governor Simon Stubberfield, in classic Prison Service style, was prepared to cover for Fenner, that is until Helen pointed out that Standard Procedure dictated that Fenner be suspended whilst a formal enquiry was held. She further insisted that if Fenner did not go, she would. Stubberfield reluctantly acquiesced but let it be known to Helen that the enquiry would just be a formality, that Fenner would be back at his post within a week.

"Typical whitewash job, then?" Helen submitted disrespectfully.

"Can I remind you that I am in charge in Larkhall, whether you like it or not," Stubberfield said smugly.

"Well I don't like it. I don't like it one bit!" she spat venomously before resigning her position.

That evening Helen was sitting at home considering her future career plans when she looked at the clock and remembered that she had to ring her father to wish him a happy birthday. She was amazed to discover that she was not looking to this call with her habitual trepidation at facing her father. The previous month when they spoke, he was decidedly more animated and, "Perhaps supportive is too strong a word, but certainly less disapproving than usual," Helen thought.

"Hi, Dad, many happy returns," Helen offered with forced enthusiasm.

"Helen, lass, thank you. I've just opened yer gift. Wha' exactly...?" Confusion was evident in the elder Stewart's voice.

"It's a new flat screen monitor, for your computer. It'll take up a lot less room on your desk, give you extra space when you're writing your sermons," she explained. When he still sounded confused, without thinking she offered, "Maybe I could drive up next weekend and hook it up for you."

"D'ye mind?" Helen was startled to find that she did not. Not overly anyway. Father and daughter spoke awkwardly for a little while longer about mundane things. After a brief lull, the senior Stewart asked, "How's yersel'? Yer soundin' down in the dumps, hen."

"How would you even know?" Helen said under her breath, though louder than she thought.

"Because ye've never been happy," he sighed. "No' in nineteen years." Helen was shocked by this statement coming from her father. "D'ye ken why I aye pushed ye? Why I gie ye a difficult time?"

"'Cause you're a fundamentalist tight arse who wants to suck all the joy out of life?" she answered silently, slipping back into time-honoured resentments. "No," she admitted aloud.

"It's on account o' yer mum; she loved ye more than anythin' an' all she ever wanted was for ye tae be happy, so when I'd see ye daein' what would cause ye to be unhappy – like signin' on wi' the Prison Service or with that big Jessie, Sean Parr – I tried to step in. I was keepin' ma promise tae her. Tryin', anyway." He paused, "I ken I weren't the best Da' but I did ma best tae look out for ye like she'd've wished."

"Oh, Dad..." Helen was overcome. She had never heard her father speak so openly and could not fathom where this had suddenly come from.

"When we spoke last month, for the first time since we lost yer mum, it seemed like you were truly happy; yer work was gaein' well, ye decided no' to wed tha' Sean, ye told me about yer new friend, the one wi' the lad's name, and ye sounded happier than I'd heard ye in a fair time. It took near twenty year but I got to tell yer mum we'd finally got ye there, so I cannae now tell her I were wrong! Is there owt we can do tae make ye happy again?" Reverend Stewart asked sincerely.

"I feel a prize idiot, Dad. I - I never knew..." Helen's emotions were in overdrive. She needed some time to think. "Listen, can we talk more next week?" Helen desperately needed to ring off. "Go on, off with you. Your tea'll be gettin' cold. I'll call you about next weekend." She cradled the receiver and cried like she had not done in years.

Helen slowly recovered, feeling freer than she ever had. She had also made some huge decisions. Life altering decisions, she hoped. She reached for the phone.


Part Twenty-Two

Nikki had opted not to go into the shop Saturday before her class. The previous night she had spoken to Helen who had asked if she could clear her afternoon for her. As a matter of course, Nikki acquiesced without hesitation. She found herself this Saturday morning, growing anxious, wondering if she was soon to discover the significance behind Helen's enigmatic response to Nikki's proclamation of love. As Nikki was cleaning her main bathroom for the third time, her class began to arrive. They headed directly for the roof, thankful that the rain showers which had been prevalent earlier in the week had given way to clear, blue skies. Nikki delivered her worst talk to date, stumbling over words and generally not seeming as prepared as she normally was. She was grateful that she only had to speak for ten or twelve minutes - the class was mostly to be hands-on. She fared much better when asked specific questions, though it was evident, at least to Helen, that she was distracted. The former G-Wing Governor felt guilty for what she was putting the gorgeous, intelligent, pithy, passionate woman through. Helen smiled to herself, relishing the fact that she no longer felt she had to restrain herself when thinking of Nikki in those terms. It would not be much longer. Class ended with the usual stragglers hanging about to ask questions. Nikki and Helen finally found themselves alone just after half twelve.

"Come on downstairs. I've made us up a cold plate," Nikki ventured, allowing Helen to lead the way. When they arrived in the kitchen, Nikki started pulling things out of the fridge: cold meats and cheeses, devilled eggs, pickles and fruit. She sliced up a baguette and threw it in a basket. "Wha' d'ya fancy? Beer? Or I picked up a Spanish rosé?" she offered. "I thought we could eat in the garden."

"The rosé sounds perfect," Helen replied, grateful for these few extra minutes to consider what she had to say to Nikki. The women sat down to lunch, neither eating very much owing to the butterflies which had taken up residence in their respective stomachs. When lunch was done and the dishes brought inside, they withdrew to Nikki's sitting room, taking their customary seats on the couch and looking apprehensive. Helen opened with, "Now, Nikki, I've a fair amount to say, so could you do me a favour and just not say anything, wait 'til I've said it?" doing nothing to ease Nikki's apprehensiveness.

Helen started out slowly, taking Nikki back to that chat show she had watched with her mother, through an overview of her past relationships, the emotional distance she always maintained within them, and lastly she spoke of the conversation she'd had the previous night with her father. Helen admitted that she felt that an enormous burden had been lifted from her, that her head no longer had to exert control over her affections. She finally looked up at Nikki, the emotions of two decades etched across her face. Nikki slid over and wrapped Helen in her arms, thinking she'd never seen the other woman looking so small. They held each other like that for a while until Nikki eventually pulled back, looked searchingly into Helen's gorgeous hazel eyes and gently asked, "So, what now?"

"Well, it means I can do this." Helen reached for Nikki, taking the other woman's face in both hands and pulling her down to her, lips meeting welcoming lips, a tentative kiss growing more wanton as mouths opened to allow tongues free rein to taste and explore each other. Helen reached for the back of Nikki's head, threading her hand through the taller woman's short, dark hair and drawing her closer to intensify the kiss still further. Nikki's initial surprise gave way to ecstasy as she delighted in Helen's ministrations. For the first time Helen had taken the lead in their physical relationship, arousing Nikki's most primal needs. The fire which had been raging in Nikki's heart these many months shifted lower, evidenced by the dampness she sensed infusing her pants, as Helen's fervent attentions continued.

As though by unspoken mutual agreement the two participants drew apart. "I can't believe we can really be together," Nikki beamed.

"Wait, Sweetheart, there's more I need to tell you."

"Okay," Nikki said tentatively, feeling all the air was about to go out of the room.

"Last week I decided I needed to put some distance between us, as you might've guessed, so I approached the Home Office with an initiative I'd been working on. They told me to pursue it and to get them a written proposal when I was ready to go ahead with it." Helen took a breath. "I resigned my position at Larkhall yesterday following an altercation with the Number One. I'd been working on my proposal for the Home Office all week and, before I'd even left the prison, I submitted it to them, letting them know I would be able to start it a week from now."

"I don't understand, what does this have to do with us? What's the initiative?" Nikki questioned.

"It's a dedicated Lifers' Unit, designed to meet the needs of female lifers – education, preparation for parole hearings and that ilk. The thing is Her Majesty's Prisons are spread across not only England and Wales, though there's no women's prison in Wales," she added absently, "but the Northern Ireland Prison Service and the Scottish Prison Service are interested in my program as well. The initiative is set to be implemented across England first before eventually expanding but, even so, that's ten closed women's facilities across the country which accommodate lifers. It's gonna mean a lot of travel and a lot of time outside of London," Helen explained.

"Look, Darling, it sounds like a fantastic project and I'm really proud of you, but we can still make this work when you're at home, yeah? Better than nothing," Nikki was still optimistic.

"No, there's one other thing: convicted offenders out on an electronic tag are under the purview of the Home Office." Helen said this very slowly, letting Nikki seize upon the implications of that revelation. "There would be an ethical conflict," Helen stated plainly.

"You could lose your job..." Nikki sneered.

Helen tried to illuminate the entire dilemma. "It's more than my arse on the line, Nikki. They could accuse you of trying to corrupt an agent of the Home Office, of perverting the course of justice. Further, if they suspect that we were together before you were sentenced, they could find cause not only to re-examine your sentence but your whole case!"

Nikki refused to accept separation as a solution to their conundrum. "No, Helen, you can't leave me, not now!" Nikki grew emphatic, "Say you'll see me... God, please, say you'll still see me!"

"Nikki, it's too difficult," Helen's heart was breaking.

"You can't just leave me like this; this is shit." Nikki was openly weeping.

Helen gently stroked Nikki's face, professing softly, "Shit happens," before walking out the door.


Part Twenty-Three

Helen spoke to her father when she returned home, eyes bloodshot from crying. "Probably shouldn't have been driving," she said to herself. She had decided that spending almost a week in Morningside trying to repair twenty years' worth of hard feelings would be an effective use of her time off. She harboured no illusions that she and her father would become the best of friends, "He's still a fundamentalist tight arse, after all," she laughed to herself, but she hoped they could finally find some common ground. Helen missed Nikki every minute and was loath to think what her erstwhile potential partner was going through. The week with her father went quickly with fewer cross words than usual but with each stubborn Stewart having the occasional go. Reverend Stewart sensed a new, even deeper sadness within his daughter and called her out, but she could not bring herself to explain it to him. For a change he accepted that, but made her promise that she would sort it out. "If ye cannae tell yer faither, at least, talk tae yer friend, that Nikki," he insisted, drawing a bitter, ironic laugh from Helen. She realised one thing, however, during five days with her father: she was not willing to give up on what she and Nikki could have.

Nikki was thankful that her life was so busy. She had begun courses at the London Business School, which had taken some adjustment. She had decided on the transfer to do her executive MBA, a very intensive twenty month programme which can be completed whilst working full-time. She was kicking herself for having chosen a business ethics course, unsure she wanted to hear that word ever again. Her other core courses were Decision and Risk Analysis, Financial Accounting and Leadership Skills. She was also bogged down with fall sales and stocking up on Christmas inventory at the shop. Late blooming annuals and spring bulbs were flying off the shelves. She had to hand over her Saturday morning Pottering Around classes to Alex because the EMBA courses were offered Fridays and Saturdays, effectively overhauling her 'floating' curfew; she now had to be home by 7:30 every evening except Thursdays, her volunteering shifts. It also meant she only had to tear her own heart out on Tuesday evenings when she looked around at the class and remembered that Helen had left her, not that that was ever far from her mind.

Two weeks after that fateful day when Helen had walked away from her, Nikki received a card in the post. It had been mailed from Cheshire, in northern England, where, Nikki knew, Styal prison was. Recognising the handwriting, her hands shook as she opened it. She tore open the envelope and discovered a card – with a picture of George Eliot, she smiled – and a letter from Helen. Nikki radiated bliss as she sat down to read. Inside the card Helen had simply written, "Nikki, I've been so stupid. 14 months. Hxx." The letter went on to elucidate: Helen had left out of a sense of professional ethics - there's that word again, Nikki thought - but hated being apart from Nikki, "now we've just found each other. The barriers we face will only exist for another fourteen months, until you're released from your electronic shackle. Until then, we need to be cautious, so you'll have to get rid of this letter; if we're found out, it'll be your freedom and my career, so I won't chance phoning you, but know that I'm thinking of you. I'll let you know when I'm coming home. Until then, Sweetheart. Hxx." The letter continued on from there, the reverse side of the page chronicling Helen's adventures in prison bureaucracy, but it was another ten minutes before Nikki delved into that; she read and reread the front page several times, her eyes clouded with joyful, thankful tears.

The irony of the situation, Helen knew, was that she had conceived this new initiative of the Lifers' Unit exactly as a way to distance herself from Nikki. Now that the concept had progressed into development, all Helen wanted to do was get back home to her; the original objective was too well met. She knew it would be easier if they could ring each other up, but the wary side of her realised that should a relationship between herself and Nikki ever be suspected, any phone calls would be viewed as proof. Helen, therefore, threw herself into her new project with vigour, working as quickly and as efficiently as the Prison Service would allow.

One very rainy October day Nikki received another card from Helen, posted from Derbyshire home of Foston Hall Prison. "She's getting closer," Nikki thought gleefully as she opened the card. George Eliot again – it was a boxed set, Helen would later explain – upon which Helen had inscribed, "13 months. C U on the 15th! Hxx."

Nikki thought, "About time and all!" She was beside herself; they had been apart for so long after, well, after not really being together... She also could not fathom what form this illicit union might take: clandestine meetings by dark of night perhaps. Nikki had a feeling it was not going to be easy to nurture a relationship under these conditions. Of course, beyond its unethical character, there were other obstacles facing their fledgling relationship. "Well, one that springs readily to mind: it's Helen's first lesbian affair. And she's just left her partner of three years. Hmm, I suppose that's two." Nikki amended, worried. "Throw in a third: she's already split up with me once and we weren't even together." The tall woman was beginning to experience the first stirrings of insecurity. This sensation was a new one for Nikki because it was usually she who held sway in a relationship, but things were different now; Nikki was hopelessly in love.


Part Twenty-Four

Friday, October fifteenth did not arrive soon enough for either woman. Nikki wished she could have spoken to Helen to explain to her that she had to be in class all day but would be at the shop by four o'clock. She left word with her staff that, should anyone phone looking for her, the call was to be handled by Alex who would pass Nikki's message on to Helen. "Oh, yeah, MI5 will be seeking you out for your skills in covert actions," Nikki thought wryly.

Helen had to drive in from Drake Hall in Staffordshire and make an appearance at Larkhall for a meeting with Stubberfield before seeking Nikki out. She assumed Nikki would be at the shop and decided to head directly there, knowing that their evenings at Nikki's were not going to be possible for a while – thirteen months and counting! She greeted Alex warmly when she arrived. The younger girl seemed exceedingly pleased to see her – "What had Nikki told her?" Helen wondered – before directing her to Nikki's office. Helen found herself quite nervous about facing Nikki as she knocked and entered; after all, they had not spoken in well over a month and Helen still did not know how her letters – and apology – had been received. There was a chance that she was too late, that Nikki would reject her.

Nikki had been glancing at her door every thirty seconds since she had arrived at the Potting Shed twenty-four minutes before, so it came as a shock when Helen managed to sneak in almost without her knowledge. "Helen!" she sighed with all the emotion of her six week long absence infused into those two syllables. Nikki rushed over and pulled her would-be lover into her arms vowing silently to never let her go again. The two pulled back slightly to look into each other's eyes and the affection that was reflected there. Almost as one they leant into each other for a kiss which was almost shy in its initial gentleness but which soon became charged with their pent-up passion. Helen had never been so profoundly moved by a simple kiss, but then, nothing about the alluring woman in her arms was simple. She felt herself wanting to melt into Nikki's lean body and never withdraw. Of course, that may have had as much to do with the weakness in her knees as anything.

The women finally broke away at Helen's admonishing reminder that they had to exercise caution. Nikki pulled her chair around her desk and offered it to Helen as it was marginally more comfortable than the guest chair. The women sat taking in the sight of each other until Nikki finally spoke. "I wasn't sure you'd come."

"I said I would," came the honest reply.

Nikki, unused to women who go with the direct approach seemed to consider this. "Yeah, but it wasn't so long ago I thought I'd never see you again."

"I missed you, Nikki," Helen offered simply.

"Missed you," the darker woman answered almost timidly. "Since you left I've..."

"Well, I'm here now," Helen interrupted.

Nikki's insecurities resurfaced, "Until the strain's too much, hardly being able to see each other. Or you meet someone else, like Trish did." She knew she was fishing for reassurances. She was disappointed.

"Listen, you never know wha's gonna happen."

"Yeah, right." Nikki decided she was not enjoying these vacillations, opting for a shift in the subject matter. "You've changed your hair. Highlights. Very nice," she complimented reaching out to run a hand through Helen's lustrous locks. "And you're parting it down the middle. It's a softer look. Gorgeous," she went on, losing herself in Helen's exquisite features: her bright, hazel eyes, shallow dimples, full, upturned mouth.

Helen leant her face into Nikki's hand, reaching up with her own smaller one to press Nikki's more firmly to her cheek, closing her eyes and marvelling at the tenderness of Nikki's, a hand which had, Helen could scarcely believe, taken a human life. She finally lifted her eyes to take in Nikki's face and was overwhelmed by the open display of love etched there. She could not recollect ever having known anyone with as emotionally expressive a look as the stunning woman before her. As much love as she saw there, Helen also discerned something more, something carnal darkening Nikki's heavy-lidded eyes, something which elicited a deep-down flicker within Helen. Nikki's lips came crushing down onto Helen's, hungry and desperate, tongue probing, met with equal fervour by Helen's as her previous stirrings became an all-encompassing need. "I love you," Nikki breathed into Helen's open mouth before delving in for more, tongue diving, alternately running itself along Helen's lower lip and dipping in, dauntlessly seeking out Helen's. Nikki's left hand was snaked through the hair at Helen's nape, pulling her in to intensify their embrace yet leaving her right available to carry out its own mission. She ran it along Helen's shapely hip, up her narrow waist, at long last settling on a full breast, revelling in the weight and feel of it, running her thumb across a distended nipple. Helen's moan of pleasure was enough to spur Nikki further into tweaking the sensitive bud and making a move to replace her hand with an eager mouth.

Helen's body was aflame, a flush extending from her head to her thighs - with a few very intense, very specific areas absolutely scorching. She was lost in a sea of sensation and knew she had to pull back before she was completely immersed. As considerable as her desire was, Helen was fully aware that cooler heads had to prevail; if they were to give in to their libidinous instincts, there would be no going back, they would never be able to content themselves with less and their relationship would undoubtedly be found out. What's more, if ever it were discovered that they knew each other, Helen needed to be able to honestly say, "I did not have sex with that woman," despite how non-credible that phrase had recently become. Helen would not risk Nikki's freedom. "Nikki, stop. We can't..." Helen implored regretfully, pulling back, eliciting a groan from the other woman. As Helen explained her concerns, a very worked up Nikki assured her that prison would be well worth continuing their activities. "Don't even joke about it, Swee'heart. You have no idea what it's like, how it changes you," the former Wing Governor insisted.

Still breathing hard, Nikki recognised the inherent good-sense of what Helen was saying. "But, God, I want this, want you, so much!" she pledged, running a hand down Helen's soft cheek, tracing her thumb across the sensuous Scot's full lips. The other issues Nikki had previously contemplated ran through her head again as she speculated whether there was more to Helen's reticence than a concern for Nikki. Much as the very worked up Potting Shed owner wanted Helen, she did not begrudge her if she wanted to wade slowly into these new waters. Over the preceding year Nikki had also come to understand Helen's stubbornness, that pushing the fiery Scot would only cause her to push back more forcibly. Helen throwing Nikki a crumb, letting her see that this exercise in restraint was equally agonising for her as it was for Nikki, would certainly have been welcomed, however. But Nikki had patience. And time. A whole lot of time.

"I should probably get back to my flat; it's been over a month. I imagine you'd be appalled at the state of my garden," Helen laughed. The only drawback to her ground floor flat, Helen had often thought, was that the responsibility for the garden fell to her. Her attitude had improved somewhat since the Pottering Around classes.

"When do you go back on the road, Darling?" Nikki asked, pointedly, "It's just that, well, I've a notion."

"Do ya, now?" Helen arched her eyebrows and offered up her most endearing smile, melting Nikki's heart.

"Tomorrow we tear down the garden, rather, the class does. I have my finance course in the morning and my Decision and Risk Analysis course in the afternoon, so Alex'll take over the class at mine, on the roof. I thought, if you wanted, you could join them there – it's your garden design, after all – and, erm, maybe stay and, I dunno, wait for me. I could be home as early as half three. Maybe we could make dinner, not too much wine; I know you'll have to drive home... You could park your car down the road, y'know, if you didn't want to have it look like you're there..." Nikki was finding it difficult to believe that her stammer was back.

"I don't have to leave until Monday morning. So, yeah, tomorrow I'll stop at Tesco's on my way to yours. Will we need veg or are there still some on the roof?" Helen wasn't sure this was a wise idea but could not bring herself to refuse.

"Peppers, courgettes, onions, snow peas. How 'bout a stir fry?" Nikki suggested, relieved that Helen would not be abandoning her out of hand. She promised herself that she would let Helen set the pace as she came to terms with being in a lesbian relationship. As for the other, well, Nikki would have been shocked if someone were scrutinising their activities as closely as Helen despaired they might be, but... The two women stood and shared another deep, if brief, kiss before Nikki opened the door for Helen, sending her out into the darkening evening.


Part Twenty-Five

Less than thirty minutes later, Helen parked her well-travelled Peugeot in its usual space in front of her flat. She knew something was not as it should be as she looked at the home she had not seen in over a month but had trouble putting her finger on it. It was not until she got inside and reflected upon the time she had just spent with Nikki that it dawned on her: the garden was not overrun with weeds and her grass was perfectly mown. A warmth - born not of lust this time but of love - spread through her middle as she realised that Nikki had tended to the garden while Helen had been on the road. The weary traveller felt compelled to ring Nikki, damn the consequences.

"Hello?" Nikki's husky tones spoke down the phone.

"Hiya. I'm just in the door," Helen started.

"Well, thanks for letting me know you made it home safely. I reckon that means your driving's improved." Helen could picture the gleam in the other woman's eye.

"Enough of your cheek! I just wanted to say thank you; the garden looks fantastic," Helen remarked sincerely. "It was so thoughtful."

Softly Nikki responded, "Well, I think about you." Deflecting she demanded, "Should you be ringing me?"

"Sure, if anyone asks I'll tell them you're my house girl," Helen quipped.

"House girl!" Nikki feigned insult. "Hmm... How about French maid? Ooh, there could be cozzies? I must reconsider. But what'll you be? How about a stable hand? Jodhpurs and a riding crop," she went on.

"Och, dinnae be an arse, Wade!" Helen said intentionally strengthening her accent. "Jodhpurs make me look hippy," she stated matter-of-factly before adding, "I'd prefer naughty nurse. And I shall leave you with that. I've got to get the laundry on."

"Yeah, I've got big plans myself: a little hot coffee, a little cold shower... See you tomorrow."

Helen had made a decision to look into Nikki's case, wanting to see if it would be possible to formulate a petition to appeal her conviction. She knew that the endeavour would likely take longer than the thirteen months left in Nikki's sentence, but she hoped that she could aid in expunging that blight from Nikki's PNC record. She knew she would have to let Nikki know eventually, to garner as much information as possible, but had hoped to delay that for a time. Working for the Home Office gave Helen access to Nikki's file, which made for some difficult but necessary reading:

I stuck what was left of the broken bottle in his neck. He fell to his knees. He was trying to hold the blood in with his hands. I could tell straightaway he didn't have a chance. There was a hell of a lot of blood. I didn't regret a single drop of it. He tried asking me to help him, stupid bastard. I phoned the police then. While we waited, I told him why I stabbed him. He knew, 'course he did, but I told him anyway: he tried to rape Trisha and you lot were never gonna do anything about it, were ya? He was one of yours, a copper, and I'm glad the bastard's dead.

"Oh, shit," Helen said simply, knowing that an appeal would only be granted if Nikki were deemed 'morally innocent' of her crime. Her confession seemed to preclude that determination. Still, there was no way Helen would back down but, even so, she had hoped to have something better to work with. She toiled late into the night, looking for anything she could use.


Part Twenty-Six

The final Pottering Around class was held in the middle of a beautiful autumn day, yet only half the class showed up, so there was more work for everyone. Still they managed to get it done in just over an hour with brimming baskets of vegetables for all and bags of organic material for the Potting Shed's compost heap. Once everyone had gone, Helen busied herself barbecuing vegetables for a salad. She had decided against a stir fry, tossing onions, red peppers, courgettes, aubergines and Portobello mushrooms – these last two from Tesco's – in olive oil and garlic and cooked them in veggie baskets on the barbecue. By happy chance Helen had cut too many vegetables; somehow she managed to burn half of them as she came to discover that cooking, especially at high heat on an open barbecue, was, in fact, very hands-on work, that one should not allow oneself to be distracted. She had been halving some new potatoes to put on the hob to parboil when she became aware of smoke billowing from under the barbecue lid. If colourful Scottish expletives could make someone a better chef, she would have been granted admission into the Cordon Bleu. Once the veg she could salvage had cooled, Helen did her best to peel the red peppers, finished chopping the vegetables into manageable, bite-sized pieces and drizzled the lot with balsamic vinaigrette, relieved to get it into the fridge at long last. She then brushed a tenderloin of pork with a tarragon Dijon and put it in alongside the salad to marinate.

Her tasks complete Helen was feeling rather pleased with herself. She checked the time and found that she had a good hour before she could likely expect Nikki home. Resisting the urge to go poking around in the other woman's house – and her privacy – Helen prepared herself a coffee and made a move to look through one of the bookcases instead. She picked out A Quiver Full of Arrows, a book of short stories by Jeffrey Archer, and settled in on the couch for a read. Not three pages into The Perfect Gentleman she was fast asleep, not stirring until Nikki's key was in the lock.

"A little bog eyed, yeah?" Nikki asked, hanging her jacket on the coat tree at the front door.

Helen rubbed her eyes, "I expect all that travel's catching up with me. How was your class?"

"Well, I've Analysed the Risk and reached a Decision..." Nikki punned as she joined Helen on the couch, pulling the smaller woman in for a spine-tingling kiss which left them both breathless. Helen was fairly confident that they were discreetly ensconced in Nikki's house; she had taken Nikki's suggestion to heart and parked her little red Peugeot a block and a half down the road and knew that even with the curtains open reflected daylight would obscure the windows from outside eyes. She was quite decided that her paranoia was disproportionate to the actual likelihood of someone shadowing her, but she would never forgive herself if her hormones jeopardised Nikki's freedom.

Though disinclined to do so, Helen pulled back deciding it was time to tell Nikki about her efforts to have her conviction appealed, especially in light of the heavy reading she had done the previous evening. "Nikki, Sweetheart, I need to talk to you."

Cautiously the darker woman muttered, "Okay."

"I had an ulterior motive when I opted to work for the Home Office," she began.

"Aside from getting away from me, you mean?" Helen had found that Nikki always seemed to lash out when she was nervous.

"Don't," she admonished simply. "Working for the Home Office gives me access to your file; I'm looking into your case, trying to see if you have grounds for appeal."

To say Nikki was stunned was an understatement; it was several moments before she could even find her voice. "Helen, that's brilliant, and don't think I'm not grateful, but won't that take a long time? I mean, I'm due to be finished my sentence in just over a year," she reasoned.

"I know, but even once it's done, according to the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, a non-custodial sentence like yours still has a rehabilitation period of at least five years. Now, I know that you're self-employed, that you won't be looking for work, but I still wanted that blot off your PNC record. If nothing else it'll make it easier to get insurance for the Potting Shed. It'll also make it easier to get a US Entry Waiver so we can visit San Francisco like you're so keen on," Helen explained.

Nikki's amazement was complete. With everything that she had on her plate with beginning her new initiative, Helen was still finding the time, no, taking the time to wage a battle on Nikki's behalf. Tears pricked behind the grateful woman's amber eyes. She reached out to Helen, drawing her in to a tight embrace. "How did I ever get so lucky?" she mused aloud.

"It's not going to be a cake walk, Sweetheart. I told you I read your file, your statement to the police; you didn't do yourself any favours." Helen paused. "The Crown Prosecutor argued that it was cold-blooded murder. You've already told me you would do the same thing all over again, so... was he right? Is that what you are, Nikki, a cold-blooded killer?" Helen knew she had to ask because the review board assuredly would and Nikki needed to be able to provide an answer. To assuage Nikki's predictable indignation, Helen quickly explained her motivations.

With a sigh Nikki denied vehemently, "Of course I'm not! They'd been questioning me for hours. They refused to believe that he really was trying to rape her! Look, I'm not sorry that he can't hurt any other women, but I do wish that I hadn't killed him." She seemed surprised by her own admission. "Hmm, I guess I have come a long way," she declared with the hint of a sheepish grin.

"Yeah, you have. Listen, I'm sorry to've had to do that, but if we're gonna pursue this, it could get a lot worse. Are you prepared for that?" Helen asked directly eliciting a quick nod from the prisoner. "An application for appeal is supposed to have been done within twenty-eight days of conviction, so your petition may go nowhere this late in the game. Your solicitor will have to file for an extension of time. Also, Nikki, you killed a police officer; there's a chance they'll dismiss your application out of hand."

"I knew I was a hopeless case." Nikki sounded self-pitying.

"It's not hopeless; it just means it might be difficult. I've enlisted Claire's help. She's gonna be looking into anything she may have missed in the first trial or any new facts which may have come to light. It's moving forwards, I promise you." Helen was adamant. The two shared a tender, wistful look before Helen took over the onus of lightening the atmosphere, "Who d'you have to know to get a cocktail around here?"

"Whom," Nikki corrected before dodging a well-aimed toss cushion. "Nice throw. You could bowl for Yorkshire." Nikki set about preparing vodka tonics for the both of them. "Tell me all about your Lifers' Unit. How're you going about setting it up?"

"Well, I've spent the past month in meetings with the Governing Governors of each prison. Damn the Prison Service and its bloody meetings..." she lamented. "So basically I've set the groundwork, let them know what I'm proposing and asked them to talk to their officers to see if there's anyone interested in learning about and eventually running each unit. Next I need to meet and interview the lifers who'll be most affected, try to figure out what their needs and concerns are and to formulate strategies for achieving them." Nikki nodded for her to go on. "Then I'll need to build a team of officers to implement these strategies. And all this within the bureaucratic constraints of the Prison Service. Should be a piece o' piss," Helen laughed derisively. "I thought I was away for a long while this last time, but I think this next round'll be worse. I may be away until almost Christmas," she bemoaned. "I don't know how I can go that long without talking to you."

Nikki had an idea. "What if I actually were your house girl?" she proposed. "Think about it: you could ring your flat once a week, check your messages, make sure there's nothing urgent. We could at least talk weekly, catch up, maybe Fridays after class?"

"That's brilliant! I'll leave you a key under the mat or a flowerpot. I'll call you tomorrow once I've hidden it. You could pick it up sometime this week when you've got a mo. It won't be as good as this, but it's something." Helen's voice was brimming with excitement. "What time are you in class 'til on Fridays?"

"I could be there by half five, even quarter past on a good day, but let's make a plan for you to ring me at half past. You won't have meetings later than that, will you?"

"I shouldn't, but listen to the answerphone just in case. I'll leave you a message if I'm running late, let you know when to expect my call." Helen was delighted at the prospect of at least being able to speak to her, her "what?" she wondered. "Is she my girlfriend? My sweetheart? My paramour? Who the hell says paramour? Wow, no more voddy for me before tea." She thought. "I think we should eat!" she exclaimed.

The two 'paramours' fixed dinner. Nikki was impressed and, knowing Helen's self-proclaimed ineptitude in the kitchen, touched by all her preparations, though she did wonder where the rest of the vegetables had got to. Nikki barbecued the pork and the par-cooked potatoes while Helen set the table. They enjoyed the fine meal and chatted companionably, catching up on all that had transpired in their time apart. When they were done they were astounded to realise that two hours had passed. They quickly washed up the few dishes and put the kettle on for coffee.

Helen ran off to the loo while Nikki prepared their coffee. Once it had brewed, she poured them each a cup and made her way into the living room where she found Helen drawing the curtains. Nikki deposited their drinks on the coffee table and went to Helen, pulling the smaller woman into her as she leant against the doorjamb. She dipped her head, capturing Helen's full lips in a hungry kiss, tongue probing as her hands moved to undo the buttons of Helen's shirt, but she was stopped short. "It's all right; you've drawn the curtains. We're safe here," she insisted.

A serious look clouding her face, Helen assured her, "No, it's not that."

"What is it? You gone off me, then?"Nikki suggested playfully.

"Nikki, sit down. I need to talk to you." Helen's tone was serious.

A sexually ramped up Nikki sighed, "Talking's what you do afterwards." She leant in for a kiss.

Avoiding Nikki's advances, Helen beseeched, "Please." She led the pouting woman to the couch.

"Shit. What now?" Nikki thought, feeling increasingly unsettled. Guardedly she asked, "All right, what do you want to talk about?"

Helen began, "Us. What we're doing."

"What we're not doing you mean." Nikki muttered petulantly, rolling her eyes.

Helen tried to not let her exasperation show. "Nikki, you've turned my whole life inside out. I thought I knew which way I was going but there's no signposts anymore. I don't know what to expect... Except I know it won't be normal." Worry tainted her words.

Nikki tried to reassure her, gently reaching out to take Helen's face in both hands, long fingers curling around the back of her head and stroking her hair, "Normal? I know this is all new for you, I do, but I'll be right there with you. We'll find our way. Just trust what we feel." She looked deeply into those hazel eyes, compelling Helen.

The fair Scot was still trying to find her footing. "I wanna make sure we're doing what's best for both of us."

Nikki was adamant, "And this is!" Terrified of what she was about to say, she nevertheless continued, "But, Helen, sometimes I feel like I'm on my own. I need to know that you're invested in this as well. Relationships need to have both people involved." As much as Nikki loved Helen, she would not allow herself to be strung along. She needed some assurances.

A wistful look creased Helen's face as she vowed, "Don't worry, Nikki; I'm right here with you!" She gazed intensely into those gorgeous amber eyes stating as strongly as she could, "If I weren't, if I didn't feel the way I feel, I... I wouldn't bother talking like this." She had to hope that was enough because she had no more to offer her at that moment. She was trying to work through it, but these emotional scenes were still too much for Helen.

"And that's pretty much all we do is talk," Nikki thought sourly before her frustration started to abate. She took a cleansing breath. "I know she wants to come to terms with us as a couple before we, well, couple," Nikki smirked sardonically to herself, "and so I wait. No pressure," she told herself desperately trying to settle her hormones. "I believe that, Helen," she finally answered her, capturing her eyes in a penetrating gaze.

Unfortunately, regret darkened Helen's face as she prepared to say those three little words, "I've gotta go." Not the words Nikki was hoping for, but the ones she had come to expect. Helen probed, "What is it? What're you thinking?"

"About you, trying to get me my appeal," she was still so moved by the gesture, "you can't make it your job description."

Eyes sparkling and flashing her sexiest smile, the fiery Scot countered, "Can't I? Watch me!"

A concerned Nikki pronounced, "I don't want you ruining your career over me."

Helen remained playful. "So, what're you gonna do? Tell the Home Secretary that I'm helping you formulate an appeal? That's a new one!"

"You just don't give up, do you?" Nikki finally smiled. Knowing Helen was about to leave, Nikki decided to take the opportunity to rev her engine back up – not that it took much when she was in Helen's presence – and leant in for a kiss. Helen met her halfway, taking Nikki's face in her hands, loving the feel of her perfect skin under her fingertips. Helen found herself being the aggressor, snaking her tongue into Nikki's mouth, gently manoeuvring Nikki back onto the couch. Her right hand found itself woven through the back of Nikki's short hair while her left slipped down to her lean waist, pulling the taller woman closer. Sensing it was a bad idea, she nonetheless boldly inched her left hand upward, seeking contact with a firm breast. She was aware of Nikki's breath catching at the unanticipated, sensual touch, feeling her own insides constrict as the heat between the two women intensified. Helen had to wrench herself away before things went any further or she knew she would never be able to.

Nikki cast down her eyes as she tried to regulate her breathing. "Can't you stay?" she pleaded, bringing her head up to face Helen.

"Not yet, Nikki. But I want to," Helen breathed sincerely then made her way from the Crouch End house. The darker woman could only watch her go, desire still burning in her eyes – and in some lower regions as well – having faith that, while Helen might not have been ready to be with her tonight, for this was how Nikki perceived it, she had offered a delicious preview of things to come.

Thankful for the libido-calming effects of cold night air, Helen made her way to her car. She had always had a healthy sexual appetite and was finding it increasingly difficult to deny her wanton hunger for the other woman. More so than Nikki, however, Helen apprehended the intensity of emotion between the two of them, the need to slow things down before they got out of control. She still firmly believed if they gave in to the physical wants within their relationship, they would be found out, that Nikki would finish out her sentence in prison. Nikki followed her heart; it was left to Helen to follow her head.

Both women, home alone, reflected upon their evening, driven to seek a practical, if less fulfilling, means of relieving their pent-up sexual energies. Separated by a physical distance of almost seven miles, the true closeness between the two was much more appreciable, evidenced by the fact that the spasms which wracked their bodies occurred almost simultaneously, each reaching her peak with the other woman's name on her lips.


Part Twenty-Seven

It was a long but productive seven weeks for both women. Nikki was busy preparing for the Christmas rush, buying and displaying product and developing an online catalogue for their new website while Helen continued with the development of her Lifers' Unit initiative. The Home Office employee spent a lot of time travelling, formulating a programme for her new unit and determining what qualities to look for in the officers she would like to run it. Eventually Helen's job would be the overseeing and fine-tuning of the methods as well as interpreting feedback from the lifers in their charge. Her ultimate goal was to have one wing per prison set aside for lifers in order to effectively manage their needs. She often found herself wondering if she would have had as much enthusiasm for that population if it had not been for Nikki's circumstance. "There but for the grace of God..." she thought. Regardless of her motivations, it was the population she had chosen to serve and she was committed to do that to the best of her ability.

The two women did manage to keep in touch through weekly telephone conversations which would last up to an hour and a half. It was decided that Helen would phone and leave the number at which she could be reached on her answerphone for Nikki to collect. It was significantly less expensive to ring from Helen's flat than from a hotel telephone. It was not the ideal way to foster a new relationship, but neither was theirs a typical relationship, so it was actually a good fit. It was with some trepidation that Helen told Nikki that she was going to spend Christmas with her father in Morningside, trying to rebuild her relationship with him. Surprisingly, the raven haired woman was very understanding and even envied Helen her courage to patch things up with her father. Not that she herself would not be lonely. Nikki was under no illusion that holiday sales and tax preparation would be as fulfilling as spending Christmas with the woman she loved, but she was confident that this was the last Christmas she would be spending alone and, from that, she gained strength.

Helen arrived home late Friday, December third. Unfortunately, Nikki had to be in class on the Saturday, though they did manage to get together Saturday night, briefly, for dinner. It always seemed that they spent their first hour together getting reacquainted before settling into a comfortable reunion. Much of this had to do with the clandestine nature of their relationship, which was becoming more and more difficult for both of them. Helen had been working day and night on the road trying to advance her program as quickly as possible. She was convinced that, if she played her cards right, she would be working out of her central office at Larkhall sometime in February. They knew that being in the same city would not change much; they would almost have to be more careful as their proximity could lead to an even greater urge to be together. Helen was only home for a few days before having to go off again. She was set to return to London on the fifteenth for an extended weekend before driving north again, planning on stopping at Cornton Vale, Scotland's only women's prison, in Stirling before making her way to Morningside.

Nikki had expected to only be able to see Helen, surreptitiously, of course, after her Decision and Risk Analysis final on Saturday, the eighteenth but, despite her busy agenda, the former Wing Governor decided to surprise her at the Potting Shed on Friday evening. "Helen," Nikki exclaimed upon seeing her. "When'd you come in?"

"This morning." Helen groaned, "I've been in meetings all day!" After a quick kiss she told Nikki, "I've been setting up the lifer's group. It's official: my office is going to be based out of Larkhall; we're going to be seeing a lot more of each other," she beamed.

"In private, I hope..." Nikki raised her eyebrows salaciously.

"You're gonna have to keep those hormones under control, Nikki," Helen teased before getting serious. "Listen, I've some good news: I've sent a copy of your file to Claire. She thinks we have a good chance of getting your appeal."

The tall brunette was stunned, "I can't believe it!"

"Now, don't shout it around. I kinda broke the rules when I photocopied your file. Listen, we've still got a long way to go, so don't get your hopes too high," Helen cautioned.

"Yeah, but even to have a hope..."

"I've gotta go; I've a dinner meeting. I'm trying to lure an officer away from Holloway, but I had to pop in for a quick snog," she leered, leaning in for a lingering kiss, reluctant to tear herself away. "I'll see you tomorrow. Just let yourself in after your exam. D'you fancy a curry for tea? I can pick one up on my way home?" They had developed a bit of a system: Nikki would stop by Helen's flat after class, leaving her car on a side street out of view. Nikki's curfew assured that they would not get carried away but also made for some early dinners, being as how she had to leave Maida Vale by seven o'clock.

The thing about the Prison Service is you can easily find someone to talk to seven days a week. Higher ranking prison officials would only be found in their offices Monday through Friday, of course, but Helen was scouting out talented officers as well and wanted a chance to interview some of the lifers in her charge while they, in turn, were more than happy for a break in their routines. She worked a short day that Saturday, arriving home at half past three. Nikki was sat waiting for her at the kitchen table with her laptop computer open as she had been working on the Potting Shed's books. "Och, it's another wet one!" Helen complained mostly to herself, dropping her umbrella into the stand at the door. "Been here long?" Helen called out to Nikki.

"Bit over an hour. Thank God you're here! I hate bloody tax time!" the Potting Shed owner moaned slamming the lid on her computer. "How was your day?"

"Never mind me; how was your exam? You were certainly done early."

"Piece o' piss! I couldn't believe people were still writing when I left. I reread mine twice, thought perhaps I'd missed a section," she joked. "Come here!" she demanded pulling the smaller woman to her, her mouth and hands taking liberties. "Oh, I've missed you."

"You saw me yesterday," Helen pointed out dryly.

"Longest twenty-two hours of my life..." Nikki pulled Helen onto her lap and proceeded to show her just how much she had missed her. Entwining her hands through Helen's silken hair, she guided the smaller woman to her, bringing their eager lips together fervently. At Helen's flat they could give in to their passions in a way they could not at the Potting Shed where the risk of discovery was obviously too great. Helen was keeping up her vigilance, fooling around over clothes only and not allowing themselves to get too carried away, ever mindful of the potential risks if they were to. It was easier to let Nikki continue to believe that she was still not ready for physical intimacy. If she knew just how ready Helen actually was, Nikki would not give up until they were together and, Helen was sure, it would cost her her freedom.

Helen was not thinking about any of this, however; she was getting caught up in the sensations of the moment. She could not help but allow a small moan to escape her as Nikki's tongue found its way inside her parted lips, then retreated, Nikki taking the opportunity to nibble gently on Helen's lower lip before running a soothing tongue along it. Nikki was no longer content to have Helen on her lap and reached around behind her, lifting the smaller woman slightly, shifting her so she was lying back on the couch with Nikki stretched out alongside - and slightly on top of – her. Nikki's tongue continued its good work while her right hand found its way to Helen's left breast, eliciting another moan from the sensuous Scot, causing her breath to hitch. Helen was by no means lying by idly whilst Nikki rendered her services. Indeed, her hands were all over the raven-haired beauty, revelling in the feel of Nikki's perfect skin and the firmness of her shapely breasts and backside. It was only when Nikki's thigh found its way between Helens', pressing into her hot, tingling centre that Helen came to her senses. She sat up abruptly, breathing hard. "Shall we have a cuppa," she asked after taking a couple minutes to collect herself.

"Strangely, I hadn't been giving it a thought," a very worked up Nikki answered honestly. It was going to take more than Helen's cold feet – for that's what Nikki still understood this hesitancy to be - to cool her inflamed passion, but she took her cue from Helen and sat up, adjusting her clothes and running a hand through her unruly hair. Taking another deep breath, Nikki finally managed, "Earl Grey all right?" and got up to set the kettle to boil. As they pottered around the kitchen preparing tea and bemoaning their situation, it was decided that they should exchange Christmas gifts before having their curry, which they had put into the oven to keep warm.

They sat on the couch which had only moments before seen its fair share of action – who knew that faux suede could be so erotic? – and presented their gifts. In a turnaround from the previous year, Helen made Nikki open her gift first. It was a box roughly the size of a large hardcover book wrapped in garish Christmas paper and tied with a messy ribbon. Nikki ripped the paper off and discovered a mobile telephone. When Nikki failed to grasp the relevant nuances, Helen explained, "It's a prepaid phone." Nikki, who made a decent living at the Potting Shed and with her passive revenue from Chix, still did not catch on.

"Maybe I'm being a bit thick..." She shook her head.

"It's untraceable. We can whisper sweet nothings down the phone as much as we'd like and not be found out," Helen enthused smiling seductively. "I got myself one as well. And at least enough minutes to get us through the next six weeks. Nikki, I miss you so much when I'm on the road. I find myself wanting to talk to you, share my day with you and I can't, so this is the next best thing. Top of the range. They even have voicemail." Helen looked at Nikki expectantly, knowing that the waiting between phone calls was the worst part of their separation.

Once Helen had explained it, Nikki was overjoyed. The limited communication between the two of them often did her head in. She would not admit it to Helen, not wanting to pressure her, but she would have been feeling much less insecure if Helen would go to bed with her or if she could just tell Nikki that she loved her, but it was almost beginning to seem that those things were never going to happen. The mobiles were a fantastic way to keep them in touch. Nikki thought she would worry less about what Helen might be getting up to, whom she might be meeting. As she thought about the phones as a way to bring them closer together, Helen's way to alleviate her insecurities, tears threatened. Nikki justified, "Touch of PMT," blinking furiously. "The phones are perfect, just perfect."

"There's something else," Helen said. "I had already picked up the mobiles, so they're like a gift to us, but this is something I wanted to get just for you." She handed Nikki another ill-wrapped parcel which looked dramatically like the first.

"I hope it's a mobile phone!" Nikki grinned. This gift was, in fact, a book, a travel guide to San Francisco. Inside the front cover Helen had placed a facsimile of an airplane ticket.

"I'm sorry but British Airways won't sell tickets more than six months out, but this is my promise to you that when your sentence is done, I will be taking you to San Francisco."

Nikki knew that this would only be possible if she got cleared to travel to America. The unstated part of this gift was Helen's ongoing commitment to get Nikki her appeal. Tears were flowing freely from amber eyes as Nikki reached out for Helen. After taking a few moments, she finally leant in for a deep kiss. "Thank you so much, Darling. God, you're incredible." It was with some trepidation, then, that she gave Helen her gift. "Now you," she said almost shyly, handing Helen a small navy jewellery box.

"Nikki..." Helen started.

"Just open it," and Helen did, finding an intricate gold band inside. Raised Gaelic lettering read 'Dìlseachd Spèis' with a claddagh between the two words and a Celtic interlace design on the reverse side. "Sweetheart, it's beautiful, but it's too much," Helen protested quietly.

Misunderstanding, Nikki thought she meant too much too soon, that Helen saw it as a commitment she was not ready to make. "It signifies love, loyalty and friendship. And I've sized it for your right hand," she explained quickly, endeavouring to allay Helen's fears.

Recognising Nikki's confusion – and discomfort – Helen assured her, "No, I know what it means and it's perfect, really. I meant it's too much money," she clarified.

All Nikki could do is shake her head and let out a relieved snort, "Damned Scots! I shouldn't have to tell you this, but I will, if only so you stop thinking about the cost." She went on to explain, "I didn't pay full whack for it; I've a friend who's a goldsmith. She gave me a good deal. So're you gonna put it on or what?"

"You bought me a cut-price ring?" Helen feigned indignation. Looking at Nikki tenderly as she slipped it onto the ring finger of her right hand, she solemnly declared, "I love it," and gathered Nikki into her arms, drawing her in for an ardent kiss.

Both women were well pleased with their gifts, neither ceasing to be amazed by how thoughtful the other was, how well the other understood her. Reflecting on her ring, curiosity got the better of Helen and she asked, "Nikki, how'd you know my ring size?"

Caught, Nikki was forced to admit, "You know how you keep your jewellery hidden in the chandelier in your bedroom?" Helen nodded. "Well, one day when you were out of town, I tried on that small sapphire ring you sometimes wear on that finger. It fit perfectly on my left ring finger, so I knew. Out of order, I know, going through your things. Sorry." Her contrition was genuine.

"Well, for the greater good..." Helen let her off the hook, admiring the ring. Taking a moment to further consider Nikki's actions, she added, "Just stay out of my bedside table." This warning elicited a dramatic contraction through Nikki's core.

"Well, if you were to show me, then it wouldn't be snooping," she offered, leering, ever hopeful.

Choosing to ignore her, Helen announced, "Curry should be warmed up."

"If we're going to keep sublimating with food, I'll be the size of a house by the time my sentence is done," Nikki grouched following Helen into the kitchen and opening a bottle of German Riesling. "Or, I suppose, I could turn to drink."

"Well, you've always got your studies..." Helen gibed hoping Nikki realised it was equally miserable for her. The women settled in to their dinner, conspicuously careful to leave the pattern on the plate, Helen thought. When they were done and the dishes washed up, they dolefully looked at the time, discerning its implications as always. Walking into Nikki's open arms, Helen revealed, "I bloody hate this part."

"Come for breakfast Monday," Nikki proposed, looking down at the woman she loved, "on your way up north. Stop in for breakfast: strong coffee, eggs, bacon, a quick snog... Fortify you for your drive." Nikki refused to let Helen go without knowing when she'd see her again.

"I'd have to be out of here by half eight," she informed Nikki.

"So, come for seven, quarter past even..."

Helen succumbed easily. Lifting her chin she moved in to kiss Nikki, trying to imbue that gesture with all of her unexpressed love for the other woman. "You are a long drink of water, aren't you?" Helen sighed wistfully, hands clasped at the back of Nikki's neck, looking up at her gorgeous face. At five foot ten Nikki towered over Helen by a good half a foot. The two kissed tenderly again, not tearing themselves apart until the last possible moment when a heavy-hearted Nikki pulled on her charcoal and black pea coat and headed out the door.

Thirty minutes later Helen's new mobile rang. The very familiar rich-timbred voice down the phone simply said, "So good to hear your voice. I love this gift. 'Night, Helen."

"Goodnight, Nikki. I'll see you Monday."


Part Twenty-Eight

The two women spoke a couple times Sunday, both pleased with the newfound freedom their mobiles afforded them. Despite Nikki's 'Our hours are our hours' speech from the year before, she decided to open the Potting Shed that day, six days before Christmas, to entice last minute shoppers. The month had been so wet and quite cold that her numbers were down. Consequently, Nikki executed a media marketing blitz which included an 'Open This Sunday!' banner and an announcement that the first twenty customers through the cash register would pay no VAT. "Some conditions apply. See in shop for details," she laughed. "Typical retail bollocks!" The offensive was successful, however, with the Potting Shed posting record sales. Nikki was run off her feet and thrilled when the day was over and she could curl up with her book at home.

Helen's Sunday was equally, if less physically, busy. She had been allocated an office at Larkhall and was moving into it. She just had a few books, copies of files from the other prisons and a realistic silk tiger lily she had picked up at the Potting Shed. She also took advantage of Fenner and Sylvia's absence from G-Wing to go down there and speak to some of the lifers with whom she already had a relationship and to meet new arrival, Shaz Wylie, a very young pixie of a girl who was sentenced to life for poisoning three people with noxious oysters. Helen also had meetings with potential Lifer's Unit liaison officers from among the Larkhall staff. She did not arrive home until after seven. The evening was typical of all of her 'night before another road trip' enterprises: laundry. She normally would also have spent some time throwing out any perishables from the fridge, but since she was seeing Nikki next morning, she decided to bring them to her. She made up a small box in her fridge for ease of transport early the next day. "Well, I'd best call her and let her know," she thought, all the while knowing she did not really need to make excuses to ring. They spoke for three quarters of an hour – while Helen's dark load was in the dryer – before ringing off, looking forward to breakfasting together.

"Goodnight, Helen. I love you," Nikki said diffidently.

"'Night, Sweetheart," Helen responded, spinning her new ring, wishing she could repeat Nikki's words back to her.

Dawn was still an hour away when Helen arrived in Crouch End, welcomed into Nikki's home by the enticing aroma of bacon tempered with an earthy coffee. "Why are breakfast foods always the best smells? Throw in a cinnamon sticky bun and, if you could bottle it, you'd make a fortune!" Helen leant in to give Nikki an unhurried kiss. "Mmm, you smell good and all."

Returning the kiss gladly, Nikki then looked deeply into Helen's eyes. "I'm going to show you a good time when I get this thing off." Nikki did not need to gesture for Helen to know what 'this thing' was.

Helen's gaze was equally affectionate. "I hope so..."

They pulled apart and Nikki started taking things from the box Helen had brought, putting them in the fridge. "When you said you had perishables, I naturally assumed you meant orange juice, milk, maybe a bit of leftover wine-"

"Don't be ridiculous, Nikki; there's never leftover wine in my flat!" Helen laughed.

"But look at this: vegetables, fruit... It's like I don't know you at all!"

"That's enough, Wade!" Helen feigned a sharp tone. "Now, that container - there," she said, pointing, "has fresh pineapple. I thought we could have some this morning. At almost five quid we are not throwing it out."

"Fantastic. Put it on the table while I get everything from the oven."

"Wha'? Yer no' servin' me in bed?" Helen deliberately emphasised her Scottish inflection.

"That is a courtesy reserved for overnight guests, my way of saying thank you." Nikki threw out glibly, unaware of the instantaneous jealousy which that statement engendered within Helen. This emotion was one Helen had never previously experienced, at least, not with such intensity. She did not much care for it and chose to say nothing; what was there to say? Nikki knew she had stepped in it and shook her head, kicking herself for opening her gob before thinking as usual.

"It's okay, Nikki; you're allowed to have a past," Helen absolved seeing after Nikki's reaction. "C'mon, let's tuck in."

"No, Helen, listen to me," Nikki began, cutting herself short when she realised she had no refuge. "I'm sorry," she said simply. "I shouldn't have said... But I want you to be the last person I'll ever serve breakfast in bed to, if that helps," she finished genuinely. "I'll need to Scotchgard the linens, though. I mean, seriously, I'm still trying to get strawberry stains out of the guest sheets." Nikki succeeded in lightening things up. The two women ate their breakfast chatting companionably without further incident.

Unwilling to waste precious time, Nikki insisted that she would have time to do the washing up once Helen was on the road. She did not need to be at the Potting Shed –a four-minute drive - until nine. They decided to finish their coffees in the comfort of Nikki's sitting room which was east facing, affording them an unobstructed view of a breathtaking sunrise. They sat lengthwise along the couch with Helen settled into the crook of Nikki's arm, loving their perfect fit until twenty after eight when Helen questioned quietly, "I thought a snog came with the breakfast special..." She turned into Nikki, securing the taller woman's lips with her own. Nikki's mouth opened instinctively, allowing Helen's bold tongue entry. The two women kissed hungrily, hands roaming, desperate to capture this moment in their memories, knowing it would have to hold them for another month at the very least. They drew apart, breathless, eyes brimming with lust and regret in equal measure. Hand in hand they made their way to the front door, breaking apart to allow Helen to don her red woollen car coat. Nikki picked up an envelope from the table at the front door and handed it to Helen who asked, "What's this?"

Abashed, Nikki dropped her eyes and told her, "I'm not usually the soppy sort, but it says a lot of the things I have trouble saying face to face."

"I'll wait 'til I'm in bed and read it then." The two gazed at each other, smitten, before coming together for a quick kiss and a lingering hug, Helen wrapped tightly in Nikki's arms. "I've got to go."

They drew apart. "I know. Drive carefully and ring me when you get in, yeah?" Helen nodded, leaning in for a last kiss, and was off, setting out on her seven hour drive to Stirling where she would just have time to check into her hotel for a hasty shower and a change of clothes before her meeting with the Governing Governor of Cornton Vale. Following that she had a dinner meeting with one of his officers. She took the time to ring Nikki when she got settled into her hotel room but was forced to leave a voicemail, remembering that the tagged prisoner was in a meeting with Claire and praying it was going well.


Part Twenty-Nine

Nikki had an extremely busy day and felt rather guilty even taking the time to meet with Claire who, thankfully, was able to come by the shop so Nikki did not lose too much valuable retail time, although the prisoner knew it would have been worth it regardless. It was somewhat strange for Nikki to see Claire at that stage realising how well the solicitor knew Helen. Nikki could not help but want to turn the tables on Claire, to interrogate her in an attempt to learn more about the gorgeous Scot. She restrained herself, however, knowing the best thing she could do for Helen would be to be granted her appeal, especially given how hard Helen had been working towards it. The meeting went well with Claire being very encouraging as well as encouraged by all Nikki was doing to prove herself a productive member of society, someone the neighbours would want in their community. She was also impressed that Nikki seemed to have grown more restrained, less likely, as the prisoner worded it, "to gob off at the pricks in wigs" who would control her fate. After the meeting Nikki noticed that she had missed a call from Helen. Her message confirmed that she had arrived safely in Stirling and would ring Nikki back that evening. Nikki sat home patiently awaiting that phone call which came in at about twenty past nine.

Helen's dinner meeting went well and she arrived back in her hotel room shortly before nine. Much as she longed to ring Nikki up directly, she decided to read her letter first. Twice. And she knew it would undoubtedly be read for a third time before she retired for the evening. It was a beautifully written love letter, spelling out how much Nikki loved her - and why - and the many different ways in which she would like to go about demonstrating that love. It was rather intense - and very specific - and required a considerable cooling-off period before Helen could ring its author.

"There you are!" Nikki answered the phone. "Good drive?"

"Pretty busy on the roads but dry. I made good time," Helen recounted.

"So I noticed when I saw what time you rang. You must've done a ton up the M6; no points on your driving record?" Nikki teased.

She could envision the smile which then touched Helen's hazel eyes. "Nikki, have you forgotten the eleventh commandment? Thou shalt not get caught." She paused to enjoy Nikki's deep laugh. "I'm sorry I missed you earlier. You were meeting with Claire?"

"Yeah, she's really good, your friend." Nikki had got some vibes off Claire earlier, not gay but certainly open-minded, like perhaps she'd once had an affair with a woman. "Known her long?" Nikki probed.


Nikki could not help herself, "That all she is then? A friend?" She raised her eyebrows questioningly.

At Nikki's obvious – and completely unfounded – jealousy Helen assured her, "Nikki, I've told you before: I've never been into women."

Nikki did not find this reassuring at all. "Just men," she scoffed.

The diminutive Scot wanted to quash all of Nikki's insecurities, taking her to task, "Oh, stop being jealous!" She took a minute to mellow her tone. "Look, I read your letter. It was beautiful and, Sweetheart, I feel exactly the same way."

Though Helen had been working towards a calming effect with those words, they produced the opposite result within Nikki. "Ditto," the dark-haired woman thought. "I pour my heart and soul into that letter and I get a 'ditto' in return," she bemoaned silently, nodding sadly into the telephone. "Good to hear, Darling," she overstated trying to mask her disappointment.

Nikki had many tremendous qualities which Helen admired but a strong poker face was not among them. Helen knew what Nikki needed to hear yet, as much love as she felt for her, she could not offer it to the statuesque brunette. "I hope you kept a copy for yourself. I'm planning on reading it a least once more tonight and, well, if I thought you were reading it at the same time..." Helen let the innuendo lie there.

Graciously Nikki picked it up. "Sure I've a copy. I had to rewrite it; only, I'd already read it so often it was getting all creased," she stretched the truth, though she could probably recite it to Helen verbatim, such was the effort she had put into the writing of it. Taking it a step further she suggested, "Why don't we both plan on giving it a good read," recognising these words for the euphemism they were, "at, say, ten o'clock?" Nikki's libidinous instincts escalated almost beyond bearing at the thought of Helen pleasuring herself. "I wish I were there to read it to you," she breathed, her already deep voice having grown even huskier with lust.

"I know. So do I, Sweetheart... Ten o'clock, then; it's a date." Looking at the time she added, "Well, I should go. I want to slip into something more comfortable." She had adopted her most sultry voice. "I'll ring you tomorrow from Morningside. Sweet dreams, Nikki."

"'Night, Helen." They rang off. "I love you," she said to the dead line.


Part Thirty

The two women were delighted that they could speak at least daily though both would have been much happier with more intimate contact. Helen hated that Nikki was all alone for yet another Christmas and made a vow to herself then and there that this would be the last year for that. "This time next year her sentence'll have been served and we can be together. I won't be so cruel as to bring her up here to spend it with Dad, mind..." she laughed to herself. While father and daughter had made great strides in their relationship, they still had very little in common; Helen found that while she did, in fact, still love her father, it was a struggle to either like or have great respect for him. She continued to wonder how his fundamentalist conservatism would respond to her relationship with Nikki, whether that would completely rend the fabric of their newfound rapport.

Another New Year's Eve found Nikki home alone, this year doing her best to stay awake to wait for the midnight phone call from Helen. Her Christmas holidays had been anything but restful. She was spending her days driving sales at the shop and her nights poring over its books. She did find some time to read - Virginia Wolfe's To the Lighthouse - a pastime she desperately missed during the school term. Her upcoming course load focused on small business: Managing the Growing Business, Paths to Power, Advanced Marketing Strategy, and Family Business: A Guide for Owners, Managers and Advisors. Those would take her into the middle of March. As busy as Nikki made herself over the Christmas season, she could not slow her brain down, could not quell her insecurities where Helen was concerned no matter how often they spoke over the phone. Her imagination was vivid – and working overtime.

By the time Helen got back to London, it was the beginning of February and she was not as far along in her initiative as she had expected; her start date for the Lifers' Unit had been pushed back by a month thanks to the typical Prison Service red tape. She was grateful that she could have a few days in London and spent as much of them as she safely could with Nikki before going back on the road on the eleventh. She was inordinately frustrated by all the time spent on the road. The inefficiencies within Her Majesty's Prisons had never been so blatant to her.

January and February were torture for Nikki; sales at the shop had drifted into a post-holiday slump, she had done her spring ordering in November and her paperwork was all up to date. Her Business School courses did not offer nearly the stimulation for which she had hoped. Too many hours were spent contemplating the seeming unbridgeable distance between Helen and her. The few days Helen was able to spend in London in early February only served to reinforce Nikki's loneliness and insecurity. Nikki was self aware enough to recognise where her battles with insecurity began – the conditional love shown by her parents, obviously, but Trisha splitting up their eight-year partnership was also a contributing factor. Interestingly, that awareness was not enough to eliminate the resultant emotional impact.

Not a moment too soon Helen announced to Nikki that her ducks were all in a row, her i's were dotted and her t's crossed and she was coming home, to London, to her. The date was set: Wednesday, March fifteenth. She would also be in town for a few hours on Saturday, March eleventh, but, disappointingly, would not have time to see Nikki nor even, for that matter, get to her own flat. She wanted to go into Larkhall to pay her respects to Zandra's friends; the feisty young inmate had succumbed to a brain tumour a week previously. Helen was crestfallen that she had been unable to attend her memorial service, yet another forfeit to these long weeks on the road. A couple quick meetings and then she had to be in Swansea on the Welsh coast for breakfast to woo a potential officer Sunday morning.

On March eleventh she was leaving Larkhall with Dominic McAllister who had asked to meet with her to discuss his career path. He was a reluctant Helen's dinner meeting. She would have preferred a quiet dinner in Crouch End with a certain tall garden centre owner she knew but supposed next week would have to be soon enough. "Bet you're not missing G-Wing now, eh?" the young prison officer opined once he had caught Helen up on the recent goings-on.

"What, managing you whinging, backstabbing bastards? I think not." Helen was only half-kidding.

Feeling positive about the evening's tête-à-tête with Helen, Dominic bantered, "Well, if that's how you feel, I won't tell you I was missin' you, then."

To her chagrin Helen correctly perceived that Dominic had more than his future with the Prison Service on his agenda. "Oh, go on," she managed, nonetheless giving him a flirtatious slap on the arm. They made their way to Pimlico Tandoori where they dined on delicious curries and naan. Helen only had half a lager with her meal knowing she still had a three hour drive in front of her. She made her excuses soon after dinner, hoping Dominic had got more from their consultation than she had, and headed back on the road, delaying her departure twenty minutes to ring Nikki to wish her good night. "I'll be home for good Wednesday, then things can settle down. After that I won't need to be out of town more than two or three days at a time, I shouldn't think."

"I can hardly wait, Helen; I can't tell you. Phone me tomorrow," Nikki insisted.

"I will. Good night."

"Good night, Darling."

Part 31

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