Zen and the Art of Horseriding
She looked at the array of bottles glittering in the bright electric lights of the bar. What she really fancied was a line of coke, if she was honest with herself. The buzz was phenomenal, and she could do with that sort of high right now.
She sighed to herself as she tried to decide what she was in the mood for, and what she thought she could probably get away with, as well. That knocked out rum, gin and any sort of whiskey out of the equation for a start. She was banned from beer because of the effects it had on her waistline, and red wine would leave its tell-tale signs in her mouth. That left white spirits or wine.
Maybe vodka? Or a nice glass of perfectly chilled pouilly-fume? She was in the mood to punish Nikki. Punish her for ignoring her today; for not understanding her reluctance to have their relationship broadcast; hell even for her behaviour when they had first met.
"What can I get you madam?" The bartender tucked his cloth into his apron as he approached her.
"I'm not sure yet. You can serve this gentleman first." She indicated the man who had just seated himself to her left.
"Why, thank you ma'am," he said in a Southern accent, tipping an imaginary hat to her. His dark blond hair caught the light, giving it highlights as he bent his head. Or were they real? She stifled a smile as she caught a slight hint of thinning in his hair. Anyone who went to that much trouble so young really had to have a sensitivity about it.
She smiled back tightly, not really wanting to be drawn into any sort of conversation. She focused her eyes on the rows of bottles. Maybe she should have a cocktail. Something suitably film star-ish, like a Beverly Hills Iced Tea. That had enough different kinds of liquor to knock out a horse.
Bloody horses. Nikki and a bloody-minded horse. Couldn't she think of anything else? Did everything always have to lead back to Nikki, for God's sake?
"You look kinda like you're not having the best day, ma'am." The American was back, sticking his nose in to her business. He flexed his shoulders, displaying muscles under his tight t-shirt.
"I've had better."
"There's always better somewhere. Y'know, I just look around at all the crap in the world, and I think to myself, y'know, Dwight, it's pretty good where you're sittin' right now." He smiled, showing off even, perfectly-bleached white teeth. "Especially when I'm sittin' right next to the prettiest girl in the room."
Inwardly she sighed; this was all she needed right now; to be hit on by a man at least ten years younger than her. It was flattering in a way, and did make her feel a little better.
"Why thank you, kind sir." She fluttered her eyelashes. A little distraction right now wouldn't go amiss at all.
"Where are you from then, lady? Are you a local?"
"Here and there." She'd forgotten that some Americans couldn't seem to spot an accent from two paces. "I'm from the UK."
"I was gonna say, you sure don't look home-grown. Far too good lookin' for this place." He leaned forward, blasting her with Jack Daniels as he spoke again. She felt her mouth start watering. Goddammit, all she had come down her for was a drink, and this hick had to start bothering her.
"I rather think the women here are quite good-looking. And the Kiwi men are rather gorgeous. I really love dark men." She sighed dramatically at a man in a business suit who had just entered the bar. He took one look at her, looked behind him and came and sat on her other side, much to the American's disgust.
"Can I buy you a drink?" The new arrival looked her up and down appreciatively and suggestively, leaving Helen wondering if he thought she was a prostitute.
"Actually, I was just buying the lady a drink." The outrage was quite clear and Helen smirked.
"Gentleman, gentleman. I hate for anyone to fight over me. I'll let you both buy me a drink, but only if you leave soon. I don't think my husband would appreciate men fighting for my attentions. Oh, there he is."
A huge man had just walked into the bar, and each of her would-be suitors took one look and melted away from her instantly. Helen didn't bother to hide her amusement. It had been fun, but she had enough problems without these guys.
"Barman? I know what I'd like to drink now."
"Antoine." She didn't turn in her seat to acknowledge him, just upended her glass and signalled the bartender for another. "What would you like?"
"After today, I need a large cognac, then a glass of red would do nicely." He sat himself down next to her at the bar. "Is it that bad?" He asked, looking pointedly at her glass.
"Worse. She hasn't spoken to me for" she looked at her watch. "Two hours."
"And 'ow long 'ave you been 'ere?" He asked gently, a smile playing across his mouth.
"About an hour and a quarter," she smiled back at him.
"She is worried about you. She come out of the bath and poof, you are gone."
"She didn't seem all that concerned when she was ignoring me." She drank deeply from her tall glass, ice clinking gently against the glass.
"It was a 'ard day for 'er. She struggle to come to terms with 'er demons and she fight 'ard, but still lose. Is ver' 'ard to be nice after." He shrugged. "You lucky. Me, I 'ave been kicked out before. She let you stay."
"In a different room." She reminded him.
"Maybe she thought you would come to 'er?" He suggested.
"Maybe she didn't want me," Helen countered, surprised when he tipped back his head and laughed.
"She no want you? That is ver' good. I 'ave to tell 'er that."
Helen grew uncomfortable as he continued to laugh; great big belly laughs that attracted attention from all in the bar. Abruptly the laughter ceased and he leaned into her.
"Listen to me, belle 'elen. She want you ver' much. She is sitting there alone, wondering why you leave. You should go to 'er, now." He took her drink and finished it in one gulp, then his face creased up in disgust.
"You drink plain tonic water? Pah, is disgusting. Go, go now."
She left him, laughing at the memory of his face when he had discovered that there was no alcohol in her glass. He had obviously been concerned that she had reverted to her bad old ways and allowed her own demons to drag her back down again. However angry she was, and however much she had tried to kid herself that she was going to get leathered, she had never had any intention of having a drink when she was at the bar. It had been very hard, but so had getting sober, and now she knew the consequences and what life was like without seeing life through the bottom of a glass, she was happy to stay sober.
She stood outside the door of the suite for a few moments, unable to decide whether to let herself in, or knock. It felt wrong, somehow, to just barge in, even though she had a key.
The wait was agonising. Just as she lifted her hand to knock again, the door opened a crack and she caught a brief glimpse of Nikki staring at her.
"Oh. It's you." She walked away from the door, leaving it half open, and Helen almost undecided as to enter. "Well, come in if you're coming. Don't make the place look untidy."
Helen almost turned around right there and then. Nikki's voice was testy and impatient. Nothing that ever happened seemed to affect her other than to frustrate her, or make her angry. Until she turned to look at Helen and she could see immediately that she had been crying. Her eyes were red and puffy, looking almost bruised underneath. Nevertheless, she held herself cockily, almost arrogantly.
"Where the hell have you been? I've been worried about you."
"I thought you needed some time to yourself, so I went down to the bar." Nikki looked like she was about to accuse Helen of drinking. "I drank tonic water, if that's what you're worried about," she added sarcastically.
The dichotomy of Nikki's strength and vulnerability undid Helen's cool exterior. She wasn't entirely sure whether she wanted to sooth and calm Nikki, or to shout at her for jumping to conclusions.
"Darling, I'm sorry."
She could see Nikki fighting back a sarcastic retort as she looked Helen up and down, as if measuring her, weighing or quantifying her feelings for her. Then her posture changed, and Helen could see that the fight had gone out of her.
"Me too. I don't mean to be a bitch. Sometimes I just can't help it."
"You always let your feelings rule your head." Helen said without thinking.
"That's a bit bloody rich coming from you!" Nikki faced up to Helen, her shoulders up once more, dominating the room, trying to dominate Helen.
She refused to back down.
"And I do the same, sometimes, Nikki. We're not all perfect, much as we'd like to be, and you're no exception to that. I love you, but I'm damned if I'm going to let you treat me like this every time something doesn't go your way."
"And you treat me like I'm the love of your life? Sure, in private, that's fine. But outside? It's like I'm a leper. I can't touch you, can barely acknowledge you. It's like there is no 'us'. And you think I like being treated like that? You know your trouble, Helen Stewart? It's that you like the world arranged your way, and anything that upsets that can just be brushed aside. Well, I'll tell you now, people aren't toys and you can't make them into what you want all the time. If you want a part-time lover, then fuck off and find yourself one, because I resign." She stood there breathless, an almost surprised look on her face at her own words.
"You're impossible, Nicola Wade. You'd better be bloody sure that that's what you want, because if you do, you can have it; but once you've made your decision, that's it. No going back." She crossed her arms, having delivered her ultimatum. Nikki moved to mirror her position.
They stood for a few moments, facing off, neither moving.
"OK, if that's the way you want it Nikki. I guess that's the way it will be." Helen reluctantly made the first move, suddenly resigned to the end of the affair. There was no way she wanted this, but it seemed to be what Nikki wanted.
She turned away, blinking back the tears that pricked at her eyes, and went into the bedroom, yanking out her suitcase and shoving clothes into it anyoldhow.
Once she had collected her belongings, she reached into the pocket of her small case and took out some papers, staring at them for a few moments. They represented dreams destroyed as surely as Nikki's Olympic dream. She wrenched out the long handles of her wheeled cases and dragged them back to the lounge, not caring what they knocked into. Nikki was draped over a chair, a scowl plastered across her face, watching her, her eyes black and unreadable.
"Here. These are for you." Helen flung the papers at her lover. Ex-lover.
"What?" Nikki looked confused by this attack.
"Let's see; the ticket to Australia for a holiday after this, tickets for the premiere of Zorro 2 in LA," she counted off on her fingers. "And this is my diary for the next 12 months." She threw the slim book at Nikki, who was too surprised to react properly, clutching at the book too late as it fell to the floor. "If you bothered to ask, or read, you might note a small window next month blocked off for us to go and visit my parents. But I guess you're not interested."
Nikki gawped at her.
"Oh, and I forgot;" she held up a small piece of metal by a ribbon. "This is the key to my London flat that I had cut for you yesterday. But I s'pose you don't want that now?"
She spun the ribbon so that she caught the key neatly, the actress in her applauding the dramatic gesture.
Nikki was somehow in front of her, barring her way out.
"Please don't go. Can't we try and sort this out?" She reached out to touch Helen's face, but Helen jerked her head away.
"Nikki, you can't just assume things."
"And you can't just give an ultimatum every time things aren't going right, Helen. I love you, and I don't want to lose you, but we have to sort some things out once and for all." Her voice was soft, her tone persuasive. Helen felt her resolve slipping.
"Shh." The finger against her lips silenced her and she watched, mesmerised as Nikki's face followed her finger, her body getting closer to Helen's.
"Nikki, you can't use sex to get out of this!" She snapped her attention back to the matter at hand.
"Who said I was going to use sex? You assume things just as much as me, Helen." Nikki reached behind her to take her bags from her hands. "We need to talk. And the best place to do that isn't with you about to walk out of the room." She took Helen's hand and led her to a sofa.
"I'm sorry that I assumed that nothing was going to change. I've been kind of busy today. I really want to be with you, Helen, but properly. I don't want to be excluded from one part of your life."
"I know you hate it Nikki, and I want to change that, but I need to do it in my own time. I want to tell my parents first, and I want them to meet you."
"Meeting the parents? Are you sure that's a good idea?" Nikki looked taken aback.
"I thought you wanted to be included in my life. Are you saying now that you don't?"
"No, of course I do. That's just a big step. And what's it going to do to your career?"
"I'll worry about that when it happens, Nikki. I've got work lined up for a while, if I want it."
"That's something else we have to talk about." Nikki had a set expression on her face now. "Your work."
"No, we have to stop listening to rumours about each other."
"Hardly a rumour it's all over the press!"
"It's a rumour. I haven't even been officially offered the part yet, and I certainly haven't taken it. I might not get it."
"And if you do?"
"We'll discuss it together, as we will discuss all things that affect us both in future," Helen said firmly. "Like your career, for instance."
"I'd rather not discuss it tonight."
"Maybe we should discuss the decision you apparently made about the future of your career?"
"Helen, my career has a finite life. If I can't do it, there's no point. I don't want to make up the numbers, I want to win."
"Why couldn't you talk to me about it, though? I don't mind you making such a decision, but it hurt that you couldn't talk to me." She turned away from Nikki, the remembered hurt slicing through her again.
"Because oh, I don't know. I talked to people who know about it, who've been with me for years. They know if I can do it. You don't know what an Olympics is like the pressure's phenomenal." Nikki lowered and shook her head. "It's like me trying to give you notes about your acting. I can help you learn the lines, but I can't help you in any other practical way."
"Did you talk to Trish about it?" She had to know.
"No, of course not!" The denial rang true. "We discussed it years ago, the point at which it would all be over, but not recently." She pulled Helen back around to face her. "Helen, Trish and I have parted ways. It's over. I don't talk to her, but I will keep running into her if I continue on the circuit. I don't have a choice there. I love you, and I want to be with you, whatever it takes. If you get that job in the US, I can quit and come with you."
"Nikki, love's not enough. We think it is, but then practical stuff gets in the way. You are not quitting if it's not time to. Besides, we'd brain each other if we lived in each other's pockets."
"I haven't decided what I'm going to do yet. I need to do some thinking." She yawned, stretching her good arm as far as she could, causing Helen to yawn with her.
"Cow. Yawns are catching, didn't you know. You must be starving. How about we talk some more tomorrow?"
"You'll still be here tomorrow?" Nikki looked hopeful, but unassuming.
"I will. Now, how about dinner, and then bed?"
"Is the order negotiable?" Nikki grinned at her.
"No. Not that you'll be doing much with your arm in a sling."
"A few painkillers and it'll be as good as new."
"I don't think you'll be doing more than snoring tonight," Helen said as Nikki yawned again. I'll get food, you get Sarah and Antoine."
Nikki woke slowly and painfully, her muscles protesting at the treatment they had suffered. The sun was bright in the room, blinding her. She rolled over slowly, burrowing deeply under the covers and reaching out for Helen. They had all eaten together last night, then Nikki had barely had time to undress before Helen had shooed her into bed, and that was the last thing she remembered.
There was no one there. Shocked out of her torpor, she lifted her head and looked around the room. It was empty. The whole suite seemed unnaturally silent.
"Helen?" Her voice was swallowed by the silence in the room.
She shifted herself, swearing under her breath as her shoulder screamed at her to leave it alone.
"Such language. You sound like a stevedore."
"Helen, where were you? I called you." She was aware that she sounded like a petulant child and tried to redeem herself. "I didn't get a 'good morning' kiss."
"You weren't awake long enough last night to get a 'good night' kiss either." Helen remarked dryly, leaning into her to share a kiss.
"That's it? A peck? Don't I get a huge smacker to make up?" Nikki mock-frowned.
"It was you who fell asleep in between you getting into bed and me joining you sixty seconds later. I think you need to make it up to me."
She yelped as Nikki grabbed her to swing her onto the bed, followed immediately by a yelp from Nikki as her shoulder took the brunt of her actions.
"Are you OK? Have you had any painkillers yet?"
"No, I've just woken up."
"I'll get you some fruit and then you can take them." She held up her hand as Nikki started to protest. "You heard what the doctor said food first, then pills. It stops you rattling as you walk."
"I ain't walking nowhere today. I did enough yesterday. I intend to spend the day in bed, recuperating." She licked her lips lasciviously.
"Recuperating? Oh well then, I'll go shopping."
"You could give me some TLC instead."
"Oh, it's TLC you want, is it?"
"It might make me feel better."
"Aw, poor little Nikki."
"That's right, and what is Nurse Helen going to do about it?"
"Feed you so she can pump you full of pills." She put a bowl of fruit on the bed before lying down herself. She laughed as Nikki pulled a face.
"What would you prefer?"
"A bed bath?" She raised her eyebrows suggestively.
"I meant in the food line. No, don't even answer that. You need real food, Nikki."
"That is real food, but if that's the way you're going to be, how about something from room service?
"OK. Helen perused the menu, moving it away every time Nikki tried to grab it from her. "Eggs Benedict?"
"What's that?" Nikki scrunched up her face. "Will I like it?" She asked hopefully as Helen laughed and declined to answer.
"Will that be with bacon or smoked salmon, madam?"
"Oh, smoked salmon, I think. Whatever it is."
"Don't be such a big kid. Just try it. It's my favourite." Helen ordered their breakfast from room service. "Seriously, how are you feeling today?"
"Sore. I need a bath and a massage. And some TLC."
"And an x-ray?"
"I'll go when I get home."
"No, you'll go today."
"Helen, I'll go when I get home. I've just yanked the ligaments a bit, nothing serious."
"This is non-negotiable, Nikki. You'll get it looked at today, before you do any more damage to it."
"Ok, ok. I will get it looked at today, I promise. Do I get a reward?"
"Yes breakfast." There was a knock at the door. "Perfect timing."
She put up with the cosseting and fussing from Helen as they ate, then as she showered and dressed, fighting the urge to snap at Helen to leave her alone.
"I told you, bruised and strained, nothing more serious then that." Nikki lay herself gingerly on the bed several hours later after returning from the hospital, mindful of her sore muscles.
"I know, honey, but best be safe than sorry." Helen lay beside her and brushed Nikki's fringe from her face. She leaned in to kiss her. "Shame that you're going to be restricted for a while though."
"Restricted? I still have one arm."
"But you are right handed?"
"Haven't you ever heard of ambidextrous, Helen?" She moved her good arm slowly up Helen's leg. "No? Let me show you."
"Why do you do this to yourself, Helen? You're more strung up then a balloon. Relax." Helen felt Nikki take her arm and shake it gently. "It's not the end of the world."
"I know. I just want them to like you as much as I do." She stared at the front door again, hoping to send waves of goodwill through it to her parents.
"I'd rather they didn't like me quite as much as you do. I know I'm irresistible, but it would be embarrassing fending your family off."
"Ha bloody ha. You slay me. Can't you be serious for a minute?"
"Helen, look at me." She gently pulled Helen's face to hers and kissed her. "I love you. I will be charming. I will be on my best behaviour, and I will not tell your parents about us before you do."
"Thanks. I needed that." Then, as Nikki leaned in for another kiss, pulled away. "But I think it might be better if I still had some lippie on when I see my parents."
"Your wish is my command. Come on." She knocked on the door before Helen could protest.
"Mum, hi. How are you?"
"Helen, darling, how nice to see you. And you must be Nikki? Please, come in, both of you."
Helen watched Nikki meet her family, handing over wine and chocolates and being as charming as she could be. Her family were polite, although she could sense their puzzlement that she had wanted to bring a female friend back. She was dreading her mother's usual comment.
"So, have you met anyone special yet?"
Fortunately Helen was in the kitchen, helping her mother load the dishwasher after lunch as the inevitable question was asked.
"Yes, actually, I have."
She watched her mother straighten up, mouth open in astonishment.
"So when will your Dad and I get to meet him?"
"It's not quite that simple, Mum."
"Is he an American actor?"
"Not American and not an actor, no."
"So what's the problem?"
Helen took a deep breath. This was going to be the moment of truth.
"You've already met."
She looked at the confusion on her mother's face and decided to put her out of her misery.
"Mum, I don't know how to tell you this "
"Oh my God. It's Nikki, isn't it?" She slumped down into a chair at the kitchen table, staring at her daughter. "Are you sure?"
"I am." She nodded.
"Really? This isn't just some flash in the pan?"
"I'm very serious about Nikki, Mum. It's been going on for a while now."
"You never told me." It was a gentle reprimand and Helen fought not to become defensive.
"I didn't know how to tell you, and I wanted to tell you face to face. She's very special to me."
"I know, my darling. I think she thinks you're pretty special too. She's barely taken her eyes off you all lunchtime."
"So you don't have a problem with her?"
"Not with her. She's very nice, and I like her, and if she takes care of you, then of course I approve. But it's going to be difficult for you. Is it going to be a problem, work-wise?"
"I don't know as yet. I have signed up for a few parts at least if they decide they don't want me after all, they'll have to pay me to do nothing."
"That sounds very sensible, my dear."
"I try my best, Mum. Now can we go and rescue Nikki?"
"She does sport, doesn't she? She can talk to your father about football or cricket for a bit. Tell me about Nikki. Now, how did you meet?" She pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and sat down.
Knowing when not to oppose her mother, Helen sent a mental prayer to Nikki to forgive her for leaving her to the possibly not-so-tender mercies of spending time with her father, sat down, and started to talk.
"You know I had to go for riding lessons? Well, the first day, when I arrived "
Nikki sighed and tried to think of something else she could say about football, about which she knew absolutely nothing. She had more of an interest in rugby, which she wanted to shift the conversation on, but when it turned to fly-fishing after football, she was stumped. She was also starting to get worried about the amount of time that Helen was taking to tell her mother about them. Although, on the plus side, she hadn't heard any smashing or shouting yet; although that could just mean that Helen was prevaricating.
"So what do you reckon to the Six Nations then?" She desperately asked Helen's father, trying to return the subject to something she knew a little bit about.
"I think I should be asking you about your intentions towards my daughter, actually," he responded. "I know a little bit about athletics, and I know about you. So what are you doing here?" He stood up and lit up a cigar.
"I'm not quite sure what you mean." Nikki also stood up, refusing to be intimidated, and having a pretty good idea where this conversation was going.
"Don't play coy with me, young lady. You know exactly what I mean. Does she know about you?"
"About my 'deviant tendencies' you mean?" Nikki questioned bitterly.
"Don't put words in my mouth. Does Helen know that you like women?"
"Yes." She crossed her arms defensively, realised what she was doing and stuck her hands in her pockets.
"Does Helen know you like her?"
"Yes. But it goes a bit further than that."
"Yes, I love her." She wanted him to know exactly what she had in mind for Helen.
"Does she like you?"
"I think so."
"You only think so?"
"She hasn't told me she loves me."
"Have you told her you love her?"
"Yes. Very much. Often."
"So what makes you think she wants you?"
"Look, I don't know exactly what you're getting at, but she's chased me halfway around the world. I think she wants me."
"What makes you think you're more than a phase?"
"I don't." She shrugged. "It's a chance I'm willing to take."
"Is my daughter a lesbian?"
"How the hell would I know? I don't know if she likes women, or she just likes me. I suggest you ask her yourself," she replied truculently.
"She's never settled down with anyone before." He ignored Nikki's replies. "Do you think she can do it?"
"I don't know. Why don't you let us find out, together?"
"Did Helen tell you what I do for a living?"
"No." She sighed. How long was this going to go on for?
"I'm a minister."
"Minister of what?" She had no idea what this madman was going on about.
"Minister of religion. Now how do you think I am going to take the news that my only daughter has taken up with a lesbian?"
"Um, not terribly well?"
"Don't be facetious, Nicola."
"I'd rather you didn't call me that." She felt it was time to try and impose herself on this conversation.
"Very well." He paused. "I want the best for Helen. Any father wants the best for his daughter. You're in no position to provide for her, and there's no guarantee that this isn't a phase for her, or that you won't get bored and leave her."
"I appreciate that you want the best for her, and so do I. Very few people are going to be in a position to provide for her, male or female she earns a lot of money, but it's a notoriously fickle profession I know that. As for the rest, nothing's set in stone. She might change her mind, or I might in the future, but it will be our decision, not yours."
"I am aware of that. Why do you think you are right for her?"
"I don't know. We seem to fit. How did you and your wife know that you were right for each other?"
"Have you slept with Helen?"
"I beg your pardon? How dare you ask that? Have you ever asked any of Helen's boyfriends that?"
"Then why ask me? Afraid I've sullied your precious bloody daughter?" Nikki was almost shouting now, indignant at the personal questions and afraid that she had driven a huge rift between Helen and her father, but still conscious that Helen shouldn't overhear them.
"I haven't asked any of her boyfriends because she hasn't brought one home in over ten years," he said quietly, sitting down again.
Nikki was at a loss at how to reply and also sat down.
"Look, I don't agree with your lifestyle, nor even approve of it, if you want my honest opinion, but I love Helen, and I want her to be happy. I'll give you a chance to do that."
"If you stay here though, you'll abide by my rules, understand?"
"Understood." Nikki sighed. It hadn't been all bad, but she could do with rescuing right now. "Maybe I should go and help "
"As I think that Helen is telling my wife about you, I think that your presence in the kitchen would be redundant now. Don't you? Oh, and don't even think about telling Helen about this conversation, or I may be forced to commit the sixth commandment."
"Thou shalt not commit adultery?" Nikki hazarded a guess.
"No," he sighed. "Thou shalt not kill. I hope Helen has a better grasp of the commandments than you."
Nikki made vague assenting noises and was relieved when he turned on the television, giving her time to think about the surreal conversation she had just had.
"Well, that didn't go too badly, did it?" Helen said as she planted herself on the bed beside Nikki. She was in high spirits. Her talk with her mother had gone very well, and her mother had promised to talk to her father about the situation although she had made no promises. At least her parents wouldn't find out from a newspaper, and her mother had definitely approved of Nikki.
Nikki, lying slumped on the bed with her arm over her face, didn't reply.
"Well? It went well, I thought. Didn't it?" She tried to provoke some sort of response.
"Mmm, I s'pose."
"They like you. Cheer up." She reached across to take Nikki's hand, only to have it jerked away as Nikki sat bolt upright, staring wildly at the open bedroom door.
"Are you nuts? What if your father comes up here?"
"Good point." She withdrew her own hand, a little warm feeling inside that Nikki was so considerate. "But he likes you, you know."
"How do you know?" Nikki lay back, shifting slightly away from Helen.
"He didn't set the dogs on you."
"I didn't even know you had dogs."
"I'm joking, Nikki. They talked to you, listened, asked you about your life."
"How did you get on with Dad? Did you find anything to talk about?"
"This and that," Nikki replied evasively.
"Did you find you had anything in common?" Helen was pleased that Nikki and her father had got on so well. "Do you know what this means now?"
"We can get married!" She teased.
"Hang on a sec, Helen. I know I love you, but isn't that moving just a bit quickly?" Nikki sat up again, fear all over her face.
"Don't you want to marry me?" Helen was hurt. She would have thought that this would have been the next logical step. After all, they were practically living together.
"Yes. No. I suppose so. I hadn't thought about it. Isn't it traditional for one of us to ask first?" Helen thought she could detect the incipient signs of panic, and whilst she was a little hurt that Nikki didn't seem too keen, she thought she ought to put Nikki out of her misery.
"Calm down, Nikki. Honestly, anyone would have thought I'd just confessed to murder rather than suggested we just get married." She was surprised at the start Nikki gave. "What I meant was that now we can be more open with each other."
"I think what you mean is that now you can be more open about me, actually."
"Nikki " She knew it had always been a problem for Nikki, her lack of affection when they were in public, but the bitterness was still a surprise.
"No, you're right Helen," Nikki capitulated immediately. "It's great that your parents know, and that we can show our love in public."
"Well, not parents, not quite yet. Mum will tell Dad and no doubt we'll hear later on how that went. I don't expect him to approve, but I hope he's happy I finally found someone."
"Later on? She's going to tell him while we're here? Please, no!"
"Well, I don't think it will be while we're here. I don't really want to have to talk to him about it. He's kind of old-fashioned."
"What does he do, Helen? You never told me." Nikki asked her, looking directly into her eyes.
"Didn't I? I'm sure I did." She fudged around the issue, uncomfortable with telling Nikki the truth. "Shall we go along to my room and unpack my stuff?"
"No, you never did tell me what your father does. And why aren't they called Stewart?"
"Stewart is my mother's maiden name. Helen Stewart is a stage name, silly. You don't really think I wanted to go around being called Fitzherbert, did you? It doesn't quite roll off the tongue as easily as Stewart."
"As well as having a dodgy meaning." Nikki grinned at her, obviously trying not to laugh.
"What's dodgy about Fitzherbert? It's a great name!"
"You do know what it means, don't you?" Nikki asked her curiously.
"No. What?" At least she still wasn't harping on about her father's profession, thought Helen gratefully.
"It probably means 'bastard son of Herbert', as that's what 'Fitz' means. It's Irish."
"Irish? My family are pure-blooded Scots, or isn't the accent a giveaway?"
"It's a beautiful accent, and it suits you darling." She grabbed Helen's hand and kissed it, releasing it quickly. "So what does your father do?"
Helen sighed inwardly. She had forgotten Nikki's single-mindedness.
"Are we going to unpack?" She changed the subject after a pause that was too long.
"How about we go to a hotel for the night? It's going to be murder knowing you're just a few feet away and I can't touch you." Nikki whispered in her ear, giving her goosebumps.
"I am not going to be a few feet away. You're going to come to my room when they've gone to bed, aren't you?"
"I'm not bloody coming near your room. What if we get caught? Your father will go ballistic!"
"I'll come to your room then." Helen said, as if everything was solved.
"Not bloody likely. Helen, your father " Her voice faded.
"My father what?"
"He doesn't know, remember?" Nikki paused this time, long enough for Helen to think she had been going to say something else.
"What he doesn't know won't hurt him."
"Helen, we're in separate beds for a reason!"
"It's not because they know, though, is it? If we stay up late in one bedroom, they'll just think we're being girly." She couldn't understand why Nikki was being so cautious.
"Your mother will know."
"She's cool with it."
"She's OK about you being with a woman because she doesn't realise what that means. She probably isn't imagining that we'll jump straight into bed together."
"Now that sounds like a good idea." Helen reached over and ran her fingers laviciously over her lover's face. Nikki loved this normally, reacting like a cat, rubbing her face over
"What is your problem Nikki? I've brought you to meet my parents; I'm trying to make you part of my life, show you how much I love you. Now I'm available you don't want me, is that it?"
"Keep your voice down," Nikki hushed her up, getting up to shut the bedroom door. "Do you want your family to hear us?"
"I don't give a flying fuck who hears us. Ever since lunch, you've been backing away from me. I've got so much space from you, I might as well be on the moon." She stood too, hands on hips, silhouetted in front of the window, blocking out the wan spring sunshine.
"What's going on?"
They both jumped as Helen's father's voice sounded from behind the closed door. Nikki even went pale, despite the fact that when he opened the door a second later, they were standing on opposite sides of the room.
"Are you two alright in here?" He surveyed them, and Helen was surprised to see Nikki blush. They had been fighting for God's sake, not doing anything they shouldn't be. The thought gave her a delicious frisson of excitement. "I thought I heard raised voices."
"Sorry Dad. We were just arguing over who get which bedroom. Mine's got an en suite, and I thought that would be nice for Nikki."
"As long as ye sort it out, it'll not be a problem. Once you've got unpacked, it'll be time for tea." He stared at each of them briefly, then nodded and walked out, leaving the door open.
Nikki slumped back on the bed and Helen moved to join her.
"What are you doing," Nikki squeaked, leaping back up.
"Sitting down. Why, what would you like me to do?" She ran her fingernails gently across Nikki's scalp and down her neck. "You are so tense, Nicola Wade. I think I should give you a massage right now."
"I think we'd better do what your father says, although I don't think I'll be able to eat anything else until tomorrow. Your mum is a great cook. How come you never cook like that for me?"
"I didn't think you wanted a wife. I thought you wanted a partner."
"That doesn't mean you can't cook for me." Nikki leaned forward. "Can you cook?"
"Of course. If you like old-fashioned gooey, heavy food."
"Sounds good to me. I might hang onto you a bit longer, then." She grinned widely.
"You do love me, don't you?" Helen asked, suddenly unsure of herself and standing up again.
"Of course I do. What brought this on?" Nikki looked up at her, frowning.
"You know," she said vaguely, unable to express the gnawing doubts that constantly accompanied her.
"Because I didn't say I'd marry you?"
"Yes." She moved to sit next to Nikki. "Sometimes you are so remote, I don't know where I stand with you."
"Helen, there's still a lot going on. I am glad that you've told your parents, though." She reached for Helen and pulled her into a hug. "I love you more than anything, I promise you."
She pulled back and looked Helen in the eyes.
"Did your mum say anything to you?"
"The usual. Am I sure? Is it just a phase?"
"Are you sure? Is it just a phase?"
"Nikki, how can you even ask that? Of course not. I love you."
"What did I say? I'll remember to say it again, often, if you kiss me like that," Helen asked after Nikki had kissed her, long and deep, full of passion.
"You've never told me you've loved me before; at least, not stone cold sober and in the light of day."
"Haven't I?" Helen was not entirely surprised she knew that she had been quiet on the subject, believing in part that Nikki didn't need as much reassurance from her as she needed from Nikki.
"No. I was wondering if you were ever going to tell me."
"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I love you. I love you. I love you. How's that?"
"Better, missy, and don't you forget to keep telling me now you've started." She threw a shoe at the back of the door so it semi-closed. "I love you Helen."
"I love you too, Nikki."
"And whilst we're into revelations, I've got something to tell you too." She released Helen and sat up.
"We need to talk." Helen leant back. She didn't quite like the sound of this. Nikki's tone was serious, and she wasn't looking her in the eye. Even now was she going to be shot down? Had she made a mistake in bringing Nikki to meet her parents? She'd never brought anyone home before.
"I beg your pardon?" This was definitely not good. She'd used the 'we need to talk' phrase many times before, usually as a precursor to the end of a 'relationship', if any of her hitherto short-lived affairs could be dignified with such a label.
"We've got stuff we need to discuss." Nikki put her elbows on her knees, and her face in hands, effectively blinkering herself so that she was looking towards the window rather than at Helen.
"Nikki, I thought everything was going well. You've just met my parents and " she trailed off, unsure what to say next. She had been so happy. Was Nikki going to tell her that it was all over? What the hell had she been talking to Helen's father about? Maybe it was because she had found out what he did. That would explain why she kept trying to ask about it. Helen had been reluctant to tell Nikki about that little complication, given that she knew Nikki hated pretty much anything to do with organised religion. She certainly would never have believed that Nikki would be swayed by it to such an extent, though.
"It is going well. I mean, meeting the parents is a big step, and "
"So am I going to meet yours, then?" Helen interrupted, having just thought of something.
"No? Just like that? No?" She felt her voice rising, mirroring the panic in her chest. This really was it.
"You are not meeting my parents, Helen." Nikki said slowly and evenly.
"Why?" She almost felt like she was hyperventilating. Everything in her life was suddenly going horribly wrong.
"I have no idea where they are, and neither do I particularly care."
"Why? What's the problem?"
"They didn't care for each other, only stayed together for the sake of the children and then, when I told them I was gay, they didn't want to know. My father's religious beliefs precluded him from even contemplating the thought of me without being physically sick. He thinks I'm the spawn of Satan, and my mother isn't much better. Why should I dignify them with taking the woman of my dreams to meet them?"
"Sorry, children? I thought you were an only child?" Helen was so confused, she barely registered Nikki's last comment. This was the most forthcoming Nikki had ever been about her own family, and Helen wasn't about to break the spell now.
"Did you?" Was Nikki's only and very frustrating reply.
"Yes. Does this mean you have a family tucked away somewhere?"
"Somewhere, I guess. I don't know anymore." Nikki shrugged.
"Why on Earth not?"
"Look, Helen, can we just drop this, please? I don't give a monkey's about my family, and they don't give a toss about me. End of story."
"Nikki, don't be like this."
"Helen, we don't all have lovey-dovey relationships with our families, you know. Some of us don't get on with ours, and don't feel the loss either. Please, just leave it."
"No. You never tell me anything about you. How many brothers and sisters do you have?"
When Nikki threw her an exasperated look, she just blanked her back, until Nikki capitulated.
"I have one brother, older than me. He's a banker, and also in the Cockney sense of the word, if you know what I mean. We don't get on." She shrugged again.
"Are you not in contact at all? Couldn't he help you out, getting sponsorship or something?"
"Helen, I haven't spoken to him for about 10 years. I don't know who he works for, or where he lives, and, you know, I really don't care. I make my own way in the world." She grinned her slow, lazy grin. "Besides, now I have a filthy rich, film star girlfriend, I don't need him." She frowned again. "Not that I ever did in the first place."
"Are you alright?" Helen rubbed Nikki's shoulder.
"Ish. Look, my family didn't want me, much, and I don't want or need them."
"You're really rather independent, aren't you?"
"I've never known it any other way, Helen. It's been hard, but I know I can compete and win on my own terms. They gave me a start, for which I'm grateful, but hey, when they didn't want to know me, I had to make my own way. I'm lucky, I've got good friends. I don't come from the same world as you, and I don't care what people think as much as you do, but then again, I've never lived in the public eye. Let's face it, pentathalon isn't exactly a mainstream sport. I have all I want out of life, especially now I've got you." She leaned over and hugged Helen to her.
"I thought you were going to say something terrible," Helen murmured into Nikki's shoulder.
"Helen," Nikki leaned back and looked into her eyes. "I love you, and I wouldn't be without you for the world."
"When you said we've got to talk, I thought well."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to worry you." She kissed Helen's forehead.
"I thought you and Dad hadn't got on, or something."
"No, I think we kind of see eye to eye on some things."
"So what do we need to talk about?"
"I thought I might have a crack at the Olympics."
"Really? That's fantastic! I'm so proud of you." She kissed Nikki, who responded eagerly, before pulling back, wide-eyed.
"Are you?" It was odd to see Nikki doubt her feelings. She felt all the doubts were usually the other way around.
"Of course I am. Why ever would you think I'm not?"
"You don't show much, Helen. Maybe it's because you're an actress, and you spend your life being someone else, but you don't let the real you out to play all that often. When you do, I like it."
"You say the sweetest things. Thank you." They leaned in to kiss again, only pulling apart when Nikki's stomach grumbled. "I thought Mum had filled you up?"
"She tried, but she's never taken on the Wade stomach before. It's a battle she could lose."
"I'm sure she's equal to the challenge." They heard a step on the stairs. "We should go, before Dad comes looking for us again."
Nikki felt uncomfortable throughout tea, as Helen's father kept shooting her questioning looks. Helen tried to touch her every opportunity she got, earning her more than one reproachful look from her mother. She failed to notice though, and Nikki finally had to move away from her.
After tea, Helen's father had retreated to his study to work, leaving Nikki with Helen and her mother. For once Nikki wasn't confident, and felt insecure. She was slightly jealous of Helen's easy relationship with her mother as well. It was something she wanted for herself, but had never had. It seemed effortless.
"So what are your plans for the next year, Nicola?" Helen's mother broke into her reverie and she inwardly winced at the use of her full name. Sensing Helen about to jump in and correct her mother, she trod heavily on Helen's foot. There was no point making their relationship that obvious. She also pushed aside Helen's hand as it slowly crept onto her lap. There were some things you just didn't do in front of parents, surely?
"I don't really know at this stage. I'm getting to the point where the future's countable on the fingers of one hand."
"Really? You don't look that old to me, dear." She smiled, and Nikki recognised Helen's smile with an odd shock. This is what Helen would look like in about twenty years. Salt and pepper hair, but pretty much the same as now.
"In sport 5 years is a long time. Even one or two make all the difference. Especially when most of the competition's only teenagers."
"It sounds a lot like tennis."
"I guess it is, in a way. One thing's for sure, falling off horses and running through mud is a young woman's game, and I'm not sure I'm cut out for it much longer."
"What will you do then, dear? Commentating, like that nice Trish what's her name, Helen? That blonde your father likes?"
Nikki froze for a second, then stifled her laugh. The poor woman had no idea she had opened a can of worms. Helen's mouth was still open in shock.
"Are you alright, Helen dear? You face will set like that if the wind changes." Her mother carried on with her knitting, oblivious to the rocket she had just set light to, as Nikki spluttered, turning it into a cough.
"I'm fine Mum. I just felt a bit odd for a moment."
"Go and get Nikki a glass of water, she looks like she's choking." She looked up as Nikki coughed an excuse and she and Helen both stood up and they could hear her talking to herself as they both rushed out of the room. "Now, what is her name?"
"Your father fancies Trish? Does he know about her?" Nikki started giggling, almost hysterically.
"I doubt it. He doesn't really like gays."
"I think he's in for a bit of a rough time, then." Nikki coughed again, before draining half a pint of water in one gulp. "I thought your mother must have known something was up."
"She doesn't really notice much when she's knitting. Usually she just listens to the radio." Helen said, smiling. "I remember watching some film with her once, and this couple were going at it hammer and tongs. I was so embarrassed, I nearly died."
"What did she say?"
"Nothing. I doubt she even knew what was going on. She just said 'She's a good actress' and carried on knitting."
"I'd have died. Not that my parents would have let it get that far. The telly was usually turned off unless it was cricket or the news." Nikki's voice was blank, and Helen couldn't work out how she was feeling.
"Didn't you watch Saturday morning telly? That was my favourite."
"Why do you think I can ride? I wasn't allowed to watch telly during the day. Out and about, doing something, that was the motto in our house."
"That explains why you watch so much crap now, I expect." Helen ruffled Nikki's hair as she tried to lighten the mood.
"What are we doing tonight?" Nikki changed the subject abruptly, moving away from Helen, watching the kitchen door as if she was afraid that they would be surprised.
"Taking mum and dad out for dinner. There's a really good restaurant at the hotel down the road."
"Oh yummy. Happy Families. I'm going to go and read for a bit. You go and talk to your mum." She was up the stairs, two at a time, and left Helen unable to work out just what was wrong. She just hoped Nikki would behave tonight. The last thing she needed was for her father to be antagonised if Nikki was in a bolshie mood.
"Is your dad OK? He doesn't seem to be in a very good mood." Nikki whispered to Helen as they followed Helen's parents into the hotel. Nikki had driven and had tried to be slow and cautious for once. Helen's father hadn't said a word to them all evening so far, although Nikki had thought he looked approving when he had knocked on her door and found her alone.
"I'm sure he will be. Don't worry about it." She grabbed Nikki's hand as they walked through the foyer, finding it gripped back with some pressure. Nikki obviously intended not to let her change her mind, even though they were in public. She looked up at the woman walking beside her, and realised just how comfortable she was with her, although it felt very strange holding another woman's hand in public, and she felt herself blushing and looking around self-consciously.
She felt her hand being squeezed and glanced at Nikki, who was also looking a little self-conscious, but with a smug smile on her face. Grateful for the support, they made it through the foyer without incident, although Helen felt that the entire world had been watching them. It wasn't that she wasn't used to public scrutiny; God alone knew how many times she'd had photographers staking out her house, gym, and even the local AA meeting; but this would be a completely different type of invasion of her privacy, and she dreaded to think what would crawl out from under a stone once the tabloids had her in their sights, as no doubt they surely would. Still, at least her mother knew now, and soon her father would too. It wouldn't be a complete disaster once news of her relationship with Nikki leaked out.
"So, how did the sermon-writing go today, dear?" Helen's mother tried to break an awkward hiatus in the conversation.
"It wasn't too bad dear. What did you all do after tea?"
"Helen and I chatted and Nikki went and read a book. That reminds me, what is that girl's name? You know, the sports commentator you like so much?"
Nikki and Helen gaped at each other in horror, at least, until Nikki started laughing, again turning it into a cough.
"Oh dear, Nikki. I hope you haven't caught a chill. Maybe you should put some Vick's on your chest tonight." Helen's mother turned to her daughter. "Have you still got that jar I left in your room? Maybe you could help Nikki put it on? I know how hard it is to rub your back properly."
Helen watched helplessly as Nikki burst into further paroxysms, her father staring at her with a stern eye all the time.
"What's up with her?" He asked Helen as Nikki left the table red-faced and still coughing.
"I think she's just got a sore throat."
"Nothing to do with your mother mentioning her ex-girlfriend, then?"
Helen felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights; damned if she replied either way.
"Well? That's what all this is about, isn't it?"
"Darling, don't embarrass the poor girl. No wonder she's never brought anyone home to meet you before if this is the way you behave." Helen had never felt so grateful for anyone sticking up for her in her life. She felt the flush suffuse her cheeks.
"What do you mean by bringing a woman like that into my house, Helen? Do you know what she is? And if you do, have you no respect?" He wasn't even looking at her as he carried on buttering his roll as if they were talking about runner beans.
"Don't you 'Dad' me like that. I asked you a question, and I would like an answer. I'm not blind, you know."
"This is hardly the time or place, though, is it?" She couldn't believe this; that he knew about Nikki.
"Do you know what she is?" He persisted, looking straight at her. She heard her mother sigh, her usual response when her father was in one of his 'moods'. His voice was level and completely unemotional. She had no idea what was going on behind the shining glasses that completely obscured his eyes as they caught the light. She felt like she was being interrogated.
"A lesbian, you mean. Yes, I know that."
"Do you know how she looks at you?"
"Do I know that she cares for me? Yes. I do know."
"And how do you feel about her?"
"How am I supposed to feel about her? Revolted? Repulsed? Disgusted, like you?" She spoke bitterly, the shock of the unexpected attack having ensured she had no defences in this conversation.
"Don't put words into my mouth. Answer me!"
"And what? She's a friend, Dad. A very good one. You could even say that we are 'special friends' if you like." She replied defiantly, uncaring for once of his reaction. All her life she had tried to please him, and she felt guiltily defensive of her choice, even whilst knowing that she wouldn't give up Nikki for his favour.
"'Special friends'? That means it must be serious." He leaned back in her chair and looked at her speculatively. "Why didn't you come to me earlier? We could have prayed about it together." He shot her a particularly piercing look. "You do still pray, don't you?"
"Yes Dad, I do. I pray every night that I find Nikki there in the morning, that she still cares about me and that she loves me." She lifted her chin combatively.
"I see." There was a silence. Helen could see Nikki making her way back towards them and wanted to get the conversation back onto safer territory. If Nikki was subjected to this, and her father's third degree, she'd probably turn tail and run. "You still don't have enough confidence in yourself, little one. Or me."
To Helen's complete and utter horror, he chucked her under the chin, as if she was a child again and she felt herself blushing as Nikki sat down beside her. She reached for her knee under the table, needing the support of just touching unable to believe her father's sudden attack, or equally sudden about-face.
Conversation moved onto a different topic, although Helen and her father kept exchanging glances. What was going on in his mind? He was being very charming towards Nikki. Was he going to warn her off? The dynamics of the table were strange, except for her mother, stoically carrying on as if her husband wasn't out of his mind. Some things really never did change.
A thought struck her. What if he had said something to Nikki when they had been left alone after lunch? No, that was ridiculous Nikki was still here. But she had been very jumpy, and every time Helen had come near her, she had jumped like a scalded cat. What the hell was going on?
Once they were back at the house, she felt her arm being taken and she was steered into her father's study.
"What is your problem? Do you want us out of the house? It can be arranged you know." She set out her position clearly, defending by attacking. "If that's what you want, you can have it. But I won't be back."
"Darling, I just wanted to tell you that it will be all right."
Helen whirled to face her mother.
"What you haven't left Nikki alone with him, have you? He'll drive her away." She stepped forward just as her mother moved to block her path to the door.
"They'll be fine. He likes her. Very much. We both do."
"Mum, you saw what he was like at dinner. He'll tell her exactly what he thinks of her and that'll be that."
"Would it be such a pity if she did go?" He mother asked gently.
"Of course. I love her."
"Yes, darling. I rather think you do." Her mother stepped forward and stroked Helen's hair off her forehead. "It will be alright. He's already spoken to Nikki, anyway."
"What?" The shock of knowing that Nikki had already been subject to her father's old-fashioned, bigoted opinions undid the soothing feel of her mother's hand. "When?"
"He told me that he'd had a word with her after lunch." She chuckled. "He said she was a feisty one, and you'd have trouble with her. But he couldn't fault how she felt about you."
"So what was tonight all about?" Helen demanded angrily. "A little to test to see if it was serious on my part?"
"He wants to know, Helen. You are in the public eye, and something like this, well, it could drive you apart. How much does she know about you? Or you her? If she wasn't going to be driven away by this, it's unlikely she'd run away at a few silly newspaper stories, is it?"
"Mum, he could have scared her off for good. Then what would I have done?"
"Helen, if she'd run away form that, she wouldn't have been the right woman for you."
"You can't go around doing this to people, Mum. We're not some weird experiment for him to test his theories about relationships on. We're human beings, with feelings."
"And now you know how strong those feelings are. But you father is right."
"Oh? And how's that then? Two women can't have a loving long-term relationship?"
"No, silly. One day, there's going to be trouble if you are both that stubborn. And that's when you will both need to learn to compromise. How does she feel about children? How do you feel about not being able to have children? Have you discussed that?"
"No. It's not that serious yet."
"You just said that you'd give us up for Nikki, but it's not serious enough for you two to know how each of you feels about children? I rather think it's time you accepted that it is that serious, don't you?"
They stared at each other for a moment, Helen feeling like a weight was both being lifted off her shoulders, and then resettled on them. A moment's respite happiness that her parents were accepting of her choice, and then the total realisation that her mother was right. This was that serious, and she and Nikki did need to talk, before either of them got involved any deeper than they already were.
"Come on. Let's join Nikki and your dad, shall we? You father said something about champagne to celebrate the start of Nikki's Olympic campaign."
"He's going to open champagne? For us?"
"No, dear. For Nikki. To wish her well."
"Wow, he must really like her."
"I think you can safely say that anyone who can hold their end up against your father in a debate deserves something. Although he did say that she needs to read her Bible a little more. She wasn't very good about the 10 Commandments."
"He catechised her? Mum, that's terrible."
"No, apparently it came up in conversation."
"How do the Ten Commandments just 'come up' in conversation?" Helen wondered. "Oh, Hell, I do hope Nikki wasn't telling him the joke about the vicar and his bike." Nikki seemed to have an inexhaustible stock of jokes, most of them blue and at least 99.9% unsuitable for her father's ears.
"What joke is that?"
"Never you mind, Mum. I think we need to go and separate them right now, before Nikki does something that'll get her banned from here for all eternity." She grabbed her mother's hand and led her from the room.
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