"So, Ms. Carmichael, where is your family from?"
Abbie glanced up from her now empty plate, catching the eye of the patriarch of the family, Alex�s father Cavanaugh Cabot. It was, according to Alex, a family name, and Abbie could only be grateful that she hadn�t been saddled with anything quite so pompous sounding herself. The man seemed nice enough, with light brown hair graying at the temples, sharp blue eyes and a healthy tan that indicated that he enjoyed just as much time out of doors as he did inside them. While they hadn�t gotten a chance to speak much, having only made it downstairs with just a few minutes to spare after Alex�s upstairs surprise and their subsequent attempts to erase all physical hints of the tryst, she had immediately regarded him as infinitely preferable to his wife. Of course, the position wasn�t necessarily a difficult one to attain.
Clearing her throat, aware of not only his curious gaze but also Alex�s, she replied politely, "From Dallas, Sir."
The clink and rattle of silverware was all that could be heard for a few seconds after her rather spare response. So, apparently deciding that more extensive questioning was called for, he continued. "Alex tells me you went to the University of Texas at Austin."
Abbie barely repressed a curious glance at that. If Alex had told him that, then she�d done so before they�d come up because the few words that father and daughter exchanged before dinner had consisted more of polite greetings than anything of substance. For some reason, the knowledge that Alex had mentioned her before caused a rush of heat to flow through her, some of which undoubtedly evidenced itself through the pink of her cheeks.
"I did, Sir. Undergraduate and law school," she replied, a small smile curving the corners of her mouth.
Cavanaugh made a slight noise of approval before taking a sip of wine, his discerning gaze still leveled her way. "And you ran track," he continued, and Abbie took a moment to sneak a glance at a blushing Alex.
"I did, Sir. Primarily cross-country, though I did some short track work as well."
"I do a bit of distance running myself," Cavanaugh said, chest puffed out only slightly, and Abbie nearly bit her lip to keep from smiling, knowing exactly what was going to come next. Like father, like daughter. "Maybe we could get together sometime and I could match my skills with yours."
There was a choked laugh from Alex�s side of the table, drawing the attention of everyone in the room. With a rueful grin, she said, "I don�t think you want to do that, Dad."
"And why not?" he asked imperiously. Abbie got the impression that he wasn�t used to having his abilities questioned, yet another trait that Alex seemed to have acquired.
After a moment of silence during which Alex tried and failed to come up with a judicious way of saying what she wanted to say, she sighed. "Because every time you �match skills� with me, you lose. Abbie exhausted me and barely broke a sweat."
Watching the exchange with amusement, glad to see that Alex at least had one parent with whom she seemed to have a loving relationship, Abbie pushed back the memories of Thanksgivings at her own house. Things with the Cabots were much more formal that she�d remembered. They�d never dined promptly at 7:00, nor had they worn their best to the table. Usually the house was a bevy of activity, with family constantly streaming in and out, children playing in the yard and a crowd in the living room shouting each time whatever team they�d picked to pull for did something good. Her mother and her grandmother and her aunts would take domain over the kitchen, each with a task that seemed to be pre-ordained because everyone automatically moved to their place, and before long heavenly smells would drift through every room, drawing children and adults alike who snitched whatever they could before being chased away.
With the Cabots, the food had been immaculate, of course, as had the linen on the table and the silverware polished so that its shine was almost blinding. They�d each eaten their fill, not hampered by much conversation, and though Abbie could say that she�d managed her traditional turkey and cranberry dressing for the first time in several years, it just wasn�t anything like the holidays that she remembered. But, to each his own, she mused.
"Ms. Carmichael, what do your parents do for a living?" The icy tones of Alex�s mother broke into her thoughts, bringing a momentary scowl to her face.
"Well," she started slowly, hesitantly, "my father works in a factory and my mother is a school teacher."
A small sniff greeted this reply, and Abbie immediately felt a rankle of irritation. Since she�d first encountered the breed in bulk in law school, she�d hated them. Hated the people who thought they were better than everyone else because they were wealthy, or because their father was a partner with this prestigious firm or because their mother was a judge. Victoria Helsing-Cabot had that same kind of innate arrogance distilled down to its purest form, and she had to remind herself that the woman was Alex�s mother.
"I see," the other woman said coolly, and despite her resolve, Abbie felt her temper rise.
"Mother, don�t be crass," Alex said sharply, drawing the startled attention of her lover. Abbie looked at the blonde first with confusion and then with a hint of admiration, surprised that the other woman had spoken up in her defense.
Plastering an innocent look on her face, Victoria asked, "What? I merely wanted to find out a little bit more about your friend."
"She�s more than just my friend and you know that, Mother," Alex almost growled, wondering why it felt so important to clarify that. She knew that her Mother was well aware of, and disapproved heartily of, her relationship with Abbie. Not because of who Abbie was, really, but because Abbie wasn�t going to be turning Alex into the prototype of the American dream anytime soon, with a matching mansion down the street and two children to spoil and coddle, set up trust funds for and forget about. And, of course, because lesbian chic hadn�t really hit the country club circles yet, and Victoria Helsing-Cabot was nothing if not image conscious.
"I don�t see why you insist upon�" Victoria started heatedly, only to be cut off mid-stream by the authoritative voice of her husband.
"Not tonight, ladies," he said sharply, drawing immediate silence from Victoria, a sigh of frustration from Alex, and a look of gratitude from Abbie. "Now if you�ll excuse me, I have an important call to make. Ms. Carmichael, it was a pleasure to meet you. Alex, it was good to see you. Try to make it up more often. Victoria, you did a wonderful job arranging dinner. Everything was perfect. Good night ladies."
Abbie watched with amazement as Alex�s father took his leave, wondering just what kind of important phone call had to be made that would draw him away from his visiting daughter. Not that she was particularly perturbed, because she was quite sure that his absence would provide the perfect excuse for their departure.
And, indeed, it did. "Mother, everything was lovely. Abbie and I have to be getting back to the city, though."
As if nothing had happened, as if she hadn�t been sniping at her daughter only moments earlier, Victoria smiled warmly. "I understand, darling. It is rather a long drive. You�ll stay, won�t you, when you come up for Christmas?"
"I�ll have to see how things work out," Alex said coolly, pushing back from the table. She was standing moments later, a barely perceptible head movement propelling Abbie into motion as well.
"It was a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Cabot," she rasped, the lie slipping effortlessly off her tongue.
A calculating glance told her that Victoria Helsing-Cabot was more than aware of the falsity of the statement, though that did nothing to deter her from returning the sentiment. "Indeed. The pleasure was all mine, Ms. Carmichael. I do hope to see you over Christmas as well, though I imagine you will undoubtedly return to Dallas to see your family."
Forcing a smile, even as the unknowing barb hit home, Abbie merely nodded.
"My mother used to cook two turkeys."
Alex held her breath at the words. They were the first to be spoken since she�d apologized profusely for her mother�s behavior, apologies that Abbie had shrugged off. Alex had felt bad about the little exchange her lover had engaged in with her mother before they left. While her mother might not have known about the bad blood between Abbie and her parents, she had managed to do with that one sentence what she hadn�t managed to do with all of her rude behavior of earlier� hurt Abbie.
So, now that Abbie was talking, Alex certainly wasn�t going to stop her.
"We�d get up at the crack of dawn, and I�d help her set everything out. People would start getting there sometime around mid-morning, and the men would automatically branch off to the living room to watch whatever sporting event they could find. They�d sit around all morning talking about the Cowboys and the oil industry and the state of farming with some random football game playing in the background. The women would head to the kitchen. Momma would already have half of the stuff cooked by then with mine and Marnie�s help, but they�d settle in and start finished up whatever needed to be finished up, gossiping all the while. You�d learn the secrets of about everybody we knew before lunch would even hit the table."
The words echoed in the dark interior of the cabin, Abbie�s obvious melancholy threaded through every syllable.
"Marnie is your sister?" Alex questioned softly, not wanting to push too hard.
"She is," Abbie rasped, head turned so that she was looking out of the window. Alex could see her reflection against the darkness of the night, dark eyes empty in the midst of the other woman�s introspection, and she waited anxiously to see if any more was forthcoming. "The kids would spend all morning playing out in the backyard, football usually, and by the time we�d call them in to eat, every single one of them would be dirty and exhausted and sweaty, but Momma wouldn�t care. She�d point them all in the direction of the kitchen, and they�d go ahead and get their plates ready so that they�d be out of the way when everyone else came through. Marnie had two kids and Mike had just the one then, but almost all of my cousins had kids, so there would usually wind up being about 8 in all. Or maybe there were more. I forget sometimes, get it all confused in my head. It seems like it was forever ago that I was actually there, but it couldn�t be more than ten years, I don�t think. Anyway, they�d come in and we�d all line up because all that food wouldn�t fit on the table so Momma would just lay it out along the kitchen counters. We�d go through like it was a buffet, everybody getting more than enough food for three people. Daddy would say the prayer, and then we�d all dig in like we�d been starving for weeks even though most of us had already managed to steal enough from the kitchen to nearly be full already. Everybody would start talking at once, and you�d have to try and pay attention to three conversations at the same time just to find out what all had been going on. When we finished, we�d all sit around and gossip while Daddy led the others back into the living room to catch up on the game until it was time to eat again, even though none of us were really hungry. Didn�t seem to matter though."
Trailing off into silence once again, Abbie fought the instinctive desire to cry that always seemed to be hovering over her around the holidays.
"It sounds like you had a wonderful time," Alex said quietly, her voice a bit wistful, the melancholy in Abbie�s suddenly very Texas-laden voice pulling at her. She would have liked something like that, she thought. A loud, boisterous family and a bit of chaos instead of the orderly, dry routine that characterized holidays with her parents.
For a long moment, Abbie didn�t say anything. When she did speak, her words were slow, her tone sad. "It was. This time of the year is when I miss them the most. Miss having a family. Momma called earlier today, but its just not the same. I could hear everyone in the background and for a little while I could almost pretend that I was back there, but then she hung up and I couldn�t pretend any more."
Laughing wryly, Alex murmured, "Well, after that I�m even sorrier about subjecting you to the horrors of my traditional Thanksgiving dinner."
"Don�t be," Abbie snorted, reaching over to tangle her finger�s with Alex�s. "Hell, this is the first time since I�ve been in New York that I haven�t had take-out for dinner. And besides, I had a great time. Well, except for that little part in the beginning and that one there at the very end. I don�t think your mother was overly impressed by my greatness."
Alex would have rolled her eyes if she hadn�t been focusing so intently on the highway. Instead, she merely murmured, "My mother isn�t too overly impressed with anyone�s greatness. Unless, of course, you have enough money to buy her regard."
Silence reigned again, the conversation left hanging at an awkward point, and for a moment Alex was afraid that she�d somehow offended Abbie. How she�d done that, exactly, she wasn�t sure, but she imagined that she had nonetheless.
"You two don�t seem to get along," Abbie said finally, her voice quiet, and Alex sighed.
"I suppose that�s because we don�t get along," she allowed, then said swiftly, "Actually no, that�s not really it. Its not that we don�t get along so much as its just that I don�t really think of her as my mother. I mean, of course I know she�s my mother, and she will always be my mother, but she never did any of the things that I thought mothers were supposed to do. I�m sure I had nannies who loved me more than she did."
When Abbie spoke again, Alex could almost imagine the little half-smile she had no doubt was gracing the other woman�s features. "You had nannies?"
"Oh, I had a procession of nannies. I can remember at least three, and I�m sure there were more. Before I was old enough to send away, I had a nanny who would pick me up from school and watch over me in the afternoon. Sometimes I�d join my parents for dinner, but my father was usually away on business and my mother was usually out enjoying the advantages of an active social life, so it would just be me and whoever they were paying to watch me at the moment. There weren�t any children my age who lived near and I didn�t really make friends well at school, especially when I was younger, so I spent most of my childhood alone, usually reading," she said ruefully, unsure what had prompted the extended discussion of her childhood.
"When did your parents send you off to boarding school?" Abbie asked softly, the voice almost seeming to drift out of the darkness of the night, and Alex flicked her car lights on bright, an instinctive response to quell the rising tide of emotions she felt approaching.
She took a minute to think back, well aware of exactly when she�d been sent off, but unsure if she wanted to wade through the memories. There was some part of her that did, that wanted to deepen the connection she was feeling with Abbie at the moment, and since it appeared to be momentarily stronger than the part of her calling for self-preservation, she said, "When I was ten. First here, then several years abroad, and finally the last two years of my high school career back in the States. I�d spend summers with my parents, of course, but as I grew older, they apparently felt it was less and less important to �supervise� me. We have what I refer to as a distant yet casual relationship."
"You apparently speak to your father," Abbie said, a hint of smugness in her tone, and Alex could feel herself blush.
Glad for the dark confines of the interior of the cabin, she said blithely, "I may have mentioned you to him. Of course, now that we have law to talk about, our relationship is a little closer. He doesn�t like the way I�ve chosen to practice, necessarily, but he�s not completely opposed to the potential of a Cabot in office."
"And you�re completely open with them," Abbie said, her tone now a bit darker. "I mean, neither your mother or father seemed at all surprised to meet me. Well, didn�t seemed surprised that I wasn�t some six foot four former college football star turned litigator named Thad."
"Thad?" Alex questioned humorously, chuckling. Then, growing more serious, she continued, "Yes, they know about me, and they know about the kind of lifestyle that I lead. I can�t say that they�re happy about it, though my father really doesn�t care one way or the other as long as it doesn�t interfere with his plans. My mother is undoubtedly plagued by nightmares of social ruin, and as you might have noticed has no qualms over letting her displeasure with my choices be known, but she knows she really doesn�t have enough influence with me to do anything about it. For the most part, her opinion of me is less than unimportant, and its not as if they could cut me off financially. Some of my money does come through the Cabot trust designated by my father and my parents are officially the executors of that trust, but most of it is mine without strings attached. When I turned twenty-one, the money from the Helsing trust transferred directly to me, as did the large Cabot trust set up for me by my grandfather. As far as that goes, I�m free to disgrace my family with impunity."
The last was said with a droll nonchalance, but Abbie could hear the tinge of hurt underneath. No one really liked being disapproved of, and as much as Alex might have tried to play off her parent�s virtual non-involvement in her life, it was clear that she would have wished for it to be otherwise. To Abbie, who at least had a vault full of happy childhood memories, the entire situation seemed horribly sad.
"How�d you know?" the brunette questioned, suddenly full of a voracious need to know everything she could about the woman sitting beside her.
"Know what?" Alex asked with a little confusion. "Know the set-up of my trust funds?"
Barely resisting the urge to snort, Abbie said slowly, "No� How�d you know that you liked girls more than you liked boys."
"Oh," Alex echoed weakly, a bit taken aback. She was feeling a bit vulnerable, having only just realized how much about herself she was giving away. "Well, I�m not exactly sure. I tried to go through the same phases as my classmates did, looked at the same magazines and wished that I could feel the same interest in the movie star hunk of the moment that they did, but I just didn�t. At first it didn�t really seem to register with me. I rationalized it away. Looks alone had never had much appeal to me. To think like that was shallow and vain, and I was looking for something more than that. Or, that�s what I told myself. But then I spent the holidays in Berlin with my friend Rikka and met her older sister Berit."
Alex trailed off there, momentarily caught up in the memories, and it wasn�t until Abbie said, with no little irritation, "And?" that she pulled free of her trance.
"And Berit was beautiful, with white-blonde hair and these intense gray eyes that I felt could see through me and discover my every thought. She was incredibly smart and much older than me, in her first year at the University. I was immediately enthralled, hung on her every word like she was a prophet, and followed her around like a little lost puppy dog. I�m sure she figured out my crush immediately. It wasn�t as if I knew how to be discreet back then," Alex grumbled, blushing as she recalled some of the more blatant things she had done. How utterly transparent she had been.
"Did it turn out well?" Abbie prompted, spurred by a flash of irrational jealousy. Not that there was anything she could do about it, really. What had happened in the past was set in stone, and she doubted that going to Berlin, finding this Berit and spending a few hours giving her evil looks would do anything to help quash her unfounded anger.
Alex chuckled ruefully, shaking her head slightly. "Well, I went back to school no longer a virgin and with the newfound knowledge that I had even less in common with the majority of my schoolmates than I had originally assumed."
"She seduced you?" Abbie questioned, pushing down the sharpness in her voice.
"I wouldn�t say seduced," Alex drawled, scoffing at the memories of her younger self. "It wasn�t as if I took much persuasion. And then she went back to school a week before I had to go back, and I was heartbroken for a month afterward but managed to overcome. A dreadfully inept romance and a year later my parents brought be back to a school in the States, and I never heard from either Rikka or Berit again."
"Huh," Abbie grunted. "What was that about the dreadfully inept romance?"
"Aiko," Alex sighed, giving a little laugh. "Neither one of us knew what we were doing, and we tried so hard to keep things between us a secret that there wasn�t really room for an us at all. Just stolen kisses, awkward fumblings in the gardener�s shed behind the school and the two of trying our hardest not to be seen together in public. It was doomed, but not quite tragic."
"Jesus Alex," Abbie said, her voice a tad too loud, "your love life is like a game of �Around the World�. Berit� Aiko� I feel downright pedestrian, just plain old Abbie."
"Abbie," Alex said humorously, more amused by the outburst than she imagined she should be, "I went to an international boarding school."
A bit embarrassed, Abbie huffed, "Yeah, well, still�"
"Aww," Alex teased, "not feeling insecure, are you? I thought those Texas egos, yours in particular, were huge. What�s wrong? Can�t handle competition from people who haven�t been in my life for a decade?"
"Its not that," Abbie sulked, not sure whether or not to be comforted or affronted by the mention of her ego.
After waiting for what seemed like a minute for a continuation of Abbie�s denial, Alex finally gave in and asked, "Its not what?"
"What�s not what?" Abbie replied airily. "What were we talking about again?"
"Your irrational jealousy," Alex shot back smugly, ignoring the faux innocent act she was getting.
Sighing deeply, Abbie decided to continue on with the defensive. "Its not irrational," she pouted. "Its perfectly rational, even though I stipulate that such a disclosure does not indicate a willingness to admit to the questionable existence of this so-called jealousy."
At that Alex did roll her eyes. Even if she was driving, a lie such as that deserved no less. "And I�d like to stress for the record that this jealousy has no rational basis."
"Of course it does," Abbie groaned. "I�m perfectly within the bounds of reasonable behavior here. Its well within my rights as your lover to be jealous of the first person you slept with."
"I can�t say that I�m jealous of the first person you slept with," Alex murmured, flashing Abbie a quick look of interest. "Of course, that could be because I don�t know anything about this person, though I do reserve the equal right to such jealousy as previously defined by you, contingent upon my examination of the validity of said jealousy. So, fess up Councilor. I�m requesting full disclosure."
"There�s absolutely nothing for you to be jealous about," Abbie said slowly, and Alex shook her head.
Teasingly, she asked, "Oh, so I was your first?"
"Not hardly," Abbie muttered.
"Then, like you noted before, there exists the potential for jealousy. So, please, tell me. I�m curious," Alex drawled, wishing that she could watch the play of emotions on the other woman�s face. She enjoyed doing that, seeing the shift from unease to comfort, from introspection to humor to anger. As inexpressive of a mask as Abbie usually wore, when she was on a one-on-one basis, unguarded and comfortable, her eyes and the set of her jaw and the line of her lips told a story that her words alone could not.
Dryly, Abbie muttered, "Like I said before, there�s nothing for you to be jealous of. Other than that, I really don�t want to talk about this anymore."
"Oh, I see," Alex said quickly, the barely repressed anger of earlier slights sparking immediately at the words. "Its okay for me to share, to tell you about my past, but when it comes to you, the discussion is over? When are you going to be honest with me, Abbie? When are you going to stop hiding? When are you going to trust me?"
"I do trust you," Abbie protested, and Alex heard the creak of leather as the other woman turned in her seat. She could almost feel the regard of those dark eyes burning into her, and fought against the instinctive reaction to flinch under such intense perusal. "I do trust you, Alex. So why won�t you trust me? Trust me enough to know that I�ll tell you when I�m ready to tell you."
For a moment, Alex thought about letting the conversation die there, feeling angry words poised on the tip of her tongue, ready to explode and turn what had been an exchange into a confrontation. But, she couldn�t let it go, couldn�t keep caving in to Abbie�s dictates. "Because I don�t think you�ll ever be ready, Abbie. I think you take some sort of perverse joy in keeping me outside, left alone with your insinuations and evasions. And when you do that, I always assume the worst. I don�t think you trust me at all."
"So tell me what you want, Alex," Abbie exploded, the words startling her companion. "You want me to tell you that I was a freshman and he was a third year in law school? You want me to tell you that when I told him to stop, he didn�t. To tell you that he slapped me and pushed me down onto the bed and held me there like an animal so that I couldn�t move, and he� he�"
"Jesus, Abbie, stop," Alex said harshly, her voice raw. Pulling quickly over to the side of the road, she threw the car into park and turned in her seat, blue eyes shimmering in the dark interior of the cabin. "You don�t have to�
"No," Abbie said coldly, interrupting, "you wanted to know."
"Abbie, wait," Alex protested weakly, her words ineffective. Now she didn�t want to hear� didn�t want that at all.
"He held me down and kicked my legs apart, and I begged him to stop. Begged him, Alex. But he just pushed my face into the mattress and ripped my skirt off and fucked me. And it hurt," she spat, "and I felt like a whore, and every time I saw him on campus after that, he�d just stare at me and smile. And for a long, long time, I thought it was my fault, thought that if only I�d fought back harder or if I�d just done something, then he wouldn�t have been able to do that to me."
Tears streaming down her face, Alex reached across the darkness, her hand hovering inches away from Abbie�s cheek, held back by shame and fear. "But Abbie, you know it wasn�t your fault, don�t you?"
"Yeah, now," the other woman snorted, the sound devoid of humor, "but I was eighteen years old then, Alex, and so fucking na�ve. Easy pickings, I guess."
"I�m so sorry," Alex whispered, heart breaking as she took in the stoic blankness of her companion�s expression. She�d encountered rape before. It was her job, and something she saw every day, but to hear those words come from the lips of someone she lo� someone she� knew� filled her with a mixture of rage and abject sadness, and suddenly she felt very, very ashamed. Ashamed because she�d pushed Abbie into sharing that with her, into reliving it. Ashamed because she�d suspected it might be the case but had poked and prodded nonetheless. Ashamed because some part of her was relieved, was better off for knowing that some of the problems in their relationship that she couldn�t seem to overcome weren�t at all her fault.
Turning away so that she was once more facing the window, Alex�s hand left hovering inches from the back of her head, Abbie said softly, "Just take me home."
For perhaps the fifteenth time since the abrupt end of their earlier conversation, Alex opened her mouth to say something only to find herself remarkably absent any words. Well, any words of consequence, since she actually did have something to say this time.
"Abbie, we�re here," she muttered, cursing herself for her own ineptitude. Apparently she did well in the causing emotional trauma department, but she wasn�t quiet as skilled at repairs.
For a long moment, Abbie sat in silence, looking blindly out at the buildings across the road. She�d spent the rest of the drive in quiet contemplation, wrapped up in an internal argument that had basically resolved itself, and as if to reinforce her decision, she decided to review a few of the more salient points.
She was in a relationship with Alex, a relationship that made her happy. She�d been letting events of the past interfere with her life of the present for far too long. These events had thusfar managed to wreck the majority of her adult relationships, something that hadn�t bothered her up until this point. The thought that they might also ruin her relationship with Alex was highly upsetting to her. To move past this, she was going to have to work at changing some things about herself, an endeavor that up until now had seemed useless. And, most importantly, she shouldn�t be ashamed of what had happened. Alex certainly didn�t blame her or find her at fault, and even in spite of what she�d said earlier, there was still that lingering guilt that she was just simply going to have to let go of.
So, with all that in mind, she turned in her seat, startled to find Alex�s pensive gaze trained on her. "Do you want to spend the night?" she rasped, eyes darting off to the side in a last minute protective gesture.
"Spend the night?" Alex echoed slowly, her voice uncertain.
Growing frustrated, primarily at herself, Abbie snarled, "Yeah, spend the night. With me."
Taken a bit aback by the tone, Alex nonetheless nodded hesitantly, hand already reaching for the door handle. "I think I�d like that," she said softly, watching with curiously as relief flooded Abbie�s features.
"Come on, then," Abbie said, and this time her voice was much lighter. "We can watch a movie or something, if you want."
Feeling almost as if the world had tilted under her feet and no one had had the foresight to provide her with any balance, Alex merely nodded her head. If Abbie wanted to watch a movie, then she�d watch a movie. If Abbie wanted her to spend the night, then she�d spend the night. Even if it meant waking up sometime in the early morning to find the other side of the bed empty, she�d stay.
Nearly half an hour later, Alex was wearing a borrowed pair of pajama pants and a tee shirt, reclining in the vee of Abbie�s thighs as the other woman laid back against the couch, "The Big Easy" playing softly on the television. They hadn�t spoken about the conversation in the car, though whether that was a good thing or a bad thing, Alex wasn�t certain. For the moment she was content to follow Abbie�s lead, quite sure she�d caused enough trauma for the time being. Serious thoughts aside, though, she was happy, more than content to be laying with her back against Abbie�s chest, her head turned so that the other woman�s heartbeat thumped loudly in her ear, long arms draped around her midsection to rest lightly over her belly.
It wasn�t until she felt the slight shake of her shoulder that Alex realized she�d drifted off to sleep, and as she pushed up and looked around her surroundings in confusion, she blushed. She had, quite literally, fallen asleep on Abbie, though the other woman didn�t seem to mind. A quick glance at the television showed rolling credits, and Alex shook her head, trying to clear away the lingering cobwebs of sleep.
"Come on," Abbie rasped, extending a hand. Unable to think of anything else to do, Alex took it, following along behind the brunette docilely.
The bedroom was as it always was, with messy bedsheets, and Alex crawled wearily into bed, watching Abbie expectantly. But, the other woman didn�t move away, just reached over to flip off the lights, and then was in bed alongside Alex, fitting her body against the blonde�s so that she was curled up against her.
"Is this okay?" Abbie asked softly.
Alex nodded, acutely aware of the tension pulling through her companion�s form. But, she wasn�t going to say anything, wasn�t going to open her mouth anymore. Well, at least not anymore than night.
"Good then," Abbie murmured, then fell silent herself.
With a sense of amazement, Alex lay as still as possible, her body hyperaware of the systematic relaxation of the form beside her. After what seemed like close to half an hour, she realized that Abbie was asleep, her breaths long and deep, her body slack. It would be several hours before Alex could follow her example.
Abbie looked up from the papers on her desk at the knock on her door, not at all surprised to see Jack McCoy standing there.
"So, are we on for our traditional Christmas Eve take-out feast?" he joked, lounging against the doorframe. It was a habit with the two of them, working until late in the night on Christmas Eve. Abbie was fairly certain that Jack had kids, and wasn�t sure why he didn�t take off to spend time with them, but then figured that the topic was one that she�d rather remain ignorant about. At the very least, Jack was company for her, because she surely didn�t have anywhere to go. Or, at least, she hadn�t before�
"Sorry, Jack," she rasped, genuinely sorry. "I�ve got plans this year."
"Plans?" Jack echoed, brows shooting up his forehead in surprise. "Since when do you have plans?"
Blushing slightly, Abbie lowered her eyes to her desk. Things with Alex were going far better than she could have ever hoped. It was a bit awkward that first morning, actually waking up beside someone, but she hadn�t had the nightmares and she�d slept just fine and Alex had seemed so happy. So, they�d made it more of a regular occurrence, a few times during the week and usually the entire weekend, and Abbie was riding high on life.
"Yeah, plans. Big shock, I know," she said ruefully. She was respecting Alex�s wishes and keeping their relationship a secret, even though a large part of her wanted to be able to tell someone, even if it was just Jack. But, she wasn�t going to betray that trust.
Shooting her a sly look, Jack wriggled his brows. "I see. Is there something you want to tell me maybe? Like who this mystery guy is? The one you have plans with?"
Fighting the urge to snort in amusement at Jack�s assumption, Abbie managed to say, with as little humor as possible, "No, I can�t say that there is."
"Keeping secrets from me?" he teased, though a part of him was a bit miffed. Now did he not only not have his usual Christmas Eve dinner with Carmichael to keep him from dwelling on how lonely he was at times, but now it appeared that she�d found someone. Someone she wasn�t going to tell him about.
Abbie hesitated for a moment, seeing something genuine sadness flicker through Jack�s eyes. While their relationship might not always been smooth, she did like him and did feel badly about leaving him alone. Not badly enough to cancel out on Alex, which was an idiotic idea in and of itself. No, Jack was just going to have to find something else to do.
"Not a secret, really," she said blithely, trying to lighten the mood. "But, the information is need to know, and right now, you really don�t need to know."
A mock frown tugging at his features, Jack took a step back. "I see how its going to be then. I guess I�ll just have to go it alone this year."
Abbie paused again, taking a deep breath before speaking. She wasn�t sure if her words were even valid, much less so that they even needed to be said in the first place. "Why don�t you cut out, Jack. I�m sure your family would be happy to see you, and they�d be far better company than me any day, I�m sure."
There was a barely imperceptible flinch, and then, "We�ll see. Have a Merry Christmas, if I don�t see you again before you leave."
Abbie watched him go, took note of the slight hunch of his shoulders, and sighed.
"Are you sure you�re still up for going to my parent�s tomorrow?" Alex asked, her lolling to the side so that blue eyes were focused on Abbie.
They�d eaten far more than was advisable, but Abbie had been possessed by the Christmas spirit almost as much as she�d been possessed by the sheer joy of having someone to spend the holiday season with, and the meal she�d prepared had reflected that fact. Now, stuffed and sated, she and Alex were lounging on the couch, wine glasses in hand, staring at the miniature tree that Abbie had erected.
Alex had laughed at it at first. It stood barely three feet tall, was decorated in a motley collection of ornaments and laden with brightly colored twinkling lights to the point that some limbs were actually draping under the weight. But, when Abbie had almost shyly revealed that it was the first tree that she�d had in over five years, Alex had stopped laughed and melted just a little bit inside. It was something that seemed to happen often around the other woman, when she�d get a glimpse of the incredibly tender person hiding under the tough, prickly exterior that Abbie presented to the world. Not that she wasn�t tough, wasn�t set in her ways and stubborn to a fault, but that certainly wasn�t all there was to her, as Alex had originally thought. Now she could see the little hurts and insecurities that plagued the other woman. The longing for her family, the hidden sense of nostalgia, the childlike love of any number of things, gaudy, ugly Christmas trees included. She sensed a profound loneliness in Abbie, one that she had a feeling she was beginning to eradicate. At the very least, she was sure that they were making progress toward beginning to heal long held wounds, and Alex felt almost insufferably proud at the thought.
"Hmm," Abbie hummed, pulling Alex out of her mental fog, "as long as your Dad doesn�t actually expect me to tromp him on a five mile run tomorrow morning, then we�ll be fine. I even think I�ll be okay with your Mom calling me �that person� just so long as the food is good."
Alex took in the teasing tone, the shallow hint of dimples, and barely held back instinctive laughter. "We could always take another tour," she said seductively. "I don�t think I ever got around to showing you the garage."
"The garage?" Abbie said incredulously, one raven brow arching in surprise. "The bedroom I can understand, but harboring long-held secret fantasies of getting it on the garage? You pull me in with the innocent face, and then spring the hidden kinkiness on me," she finished ruefully, kiddingly.
Leaning forward to rest her now empty glass on the coffee table, Alex turned on the couch, spooning around Abbie�s long, outstretched form. "I think we still have my first car," she said in a sing-song voice, earning a snort of laughter.
"I don�t fit well in backseats," Abbie said drolly, reaching over to place a light kiss on Alex�s temple.
Startled by the gesture, warmed by the familiarity and intimacy of it, Alex cuddled even closer. "I want to open the gifts tonight," she murmured, eyeing the arrangement of colorful boxes situated under Abbie�s eyesore of a tree. "I want this to be our day, one we don�t have to share with my parents. Our mini-Christmas."
"So go ahead," Abbie gestured languidly, internally pleased with the idea. She never had been one to enjoy close physical proximity to another person, but she found that she liked the sensation of having Alex lay in her arms, or vice versa. The comforting weight of another person, one that didn�t bring up bad memories or seem to stifle her under an oppressive weight of too much feeling� it was something she found she�d quickly become addicted to.
Looking up at Abbie with bright blue eyes, Alex said breathlessly, "But you�re going to too, right? Not just me."
Snorting, Abbie said, "Of course I am. You opening presents and me not? Not going to happen, darlin�."
Twenty minutes later, sitting in a pile of shredded brightly colored paper, torn ribbons, open boxes and scattered gifts, Alex reached behind her, pulling out an envelope that she�d snagged earlier.
"I hope you like this one," Alex said shyly, and Abbie thought she looked absolutely adorable, especially with her new University of Texas ballcap perched precariously on her head.
Looking at the little rectangle, Abbie jumped to her feet. Alex watched in confusion as she fled the room, only to return moments later with a matching envelope. Grinning even as they swapped, Abbie said, "Don�t get mad at me. Your Dad helped me out, so everything is already all taken care of�"
Brow wrinkling in confusion, not at all sure what her father could have done to help Abbie, Alex tore into the envelope, eyes narrowing as she withdrew the folded pocket of papers inside.
"New Orleans?" she asked softly moments later, still caught on the destination she could see printed on the airline ticket.
Blushing, Abbie said, "You said you�d never been, and well� I thought that maybe you�d want to go with me. Over New Years, and your Dad called your boss at work for me and told her he was planning a surprise trip for the family, so you�re already off. I know it was presumptuous, but I wanted to surprise you and I wanted it to be spontaneous and�"
Reaching over to place a finger over Abbie�s lips, stopping the uncharacteristic spate of babbling, Alex grinned. "I can�t believe you remembered," she said in wonderment. "Of course I want to go."
"Oh," Abbie said, taking in a deep breath. After letting it out, she looked almost deflated, all of the energy she�d been storing up for explanations apparently no longer necessary.
"Of course," Alex said drolly, "now I�m going to look like a copycat." "Copycat?" Abbie echoed in confusion.
This time, it was Alex�s turn to blush. "Just open it," she said, gesturing to the envelope.
A look of extreme curiosity on her face, Abbie tore into the envelope, pulling free the contents only to stare at them in wonder. She was silent for a long time, so long that Alex was afraid that she�d been horribly wrong, but then suddenly she found herself knocked flat on her back, a nearly deliriously happy Abbie hovering over her, smiling so broadly that her dimples extended almost the length of her cheeks.
"Alex, I think I love you," she said happily before bending slightly, pressing her lips to the blonde�s in a scorching kiss.
Alex let herself dwell on the teasingly spoken words for a few moments before giving herself over to the body above hers. Nimble fingers had made their way under her sweater, had unbuttoned the clasp of her jeans, had managed to be everywhere and do everything before she could even react, and it wasn�t until much later that rational thought returned.
Rolling over onto her side, ignoring the crinkle of now crushed wrapping paper, she reached over to push Abbie�s hair back off of her forehead, baring dark eyes. "I take it you like them?" she asked lightly.
In reply, Abbie stretched an arm out, snagging her gift from where she�d only barely taken the time to put it for safe-keeping before devoting all of her energies to thanking Alex. She looked at them again, just to make sure that she hadn�t been wrong the first time. "Tickets to the UT/A&M game? On the fifty yard line? And you have to ask me if I like them? You�re going with me, of course. Aren�t you?"
Alex paused for a moment. That was a long time away, nearly a year. But, she�d obviously purchased the gift with the notion of the two of them going together in the back of her head. So what did that mean, really? That she saw herself with Abbie for the long-term? At least long enough to make it until the next November?
"Well, I have the right kind of hat now, so I don�t see why not," she said, smiling.
"It�ll be so much fun," Abbie said blissfully, grinning at the ceiling. "I can take you down to Dallas and show you around. We can eat at my favorite restaurant. And, we�ll go on a tour of the school. I�ll show you my dorms and the law school. Its perfect, Alex. Perfect."
Alex took in the look of childlike glee lighting her companion�s face, softening usually stark lines into something much more approachable, much more innocent, and all of the hours she�d spent wrangling with the University of Texas Athletics Department were suddenly beyond worth it. It was a look she liked, and one she wanted to see more often. For a moment, she imagined that she was looking at who Abbie would have been had her life not been made exponentially more difficult by the numerous obstacles she�d faced. There was something in the crinkle of skin at the corners of her eyes that let Alex know that Abbie�s face was far more suited to smiling than to the intense frown she often wore, and the light-hearted exuberance seemed so incredibly natural, giving a fluidity to lanky limbs that often seemed rigid with tension.
Alex realized, in that moment, that she was in danger of being gone, without hope of recovery. She was in love, deeply in love, and terrified. Terrified that the feeling wasn�t returned, that she�d just opened herself up to the potential for near-debilitating pain. Held immobile by the fear of what that would mean for her, to be left vulnerable, exposed and raw.
All in all, it was quite sobering.
Alex clicked off the hair dryer, unsure if the ringing she was hearing was strictly confined to her imagination or was actually the telephone. Another long jangle convinced her that the sound was for real, and she put the hair dryer down, ears attuned to the sound.
"Abbie," she called out, unsure. She�d never really had the occasion to answer the phone at Abbie�s house and wasn�t at all certain that it was a good idea. But, she could hear the fall of water against tile in the bathroom, a sure sign that her companion was still in the shower, and so with a sigh Alex scooped up the cordless phone, flicking it on and bringing it to her ear.
"Hello," she said coolly, slipping into the overly formal phone voice that seemed to haunt her.
There was a long silence on the other end, and then a softly spoken, "I�m sorry. I must have the wrong number."
There was a hint of slow honeyed drawl in the words, so similar to what she heard when her lover was at her most unguarded, and Alex realized with a jolt just whom she was speaking with. "Mrs. Carmichael?" she questioned, moving over to sit on the couch.
Another pause, and the stalling tactic of a throat clearing. If she listened hard enough, Alex could hear the shrieks of children in the background, could hear the rumble of adult voices raised in enjoyment, and the knowledge that Abbie sat through one of these stark reminders of just what wasn�t hers anymore every year tore at her.
"I�m sorry, I don�t believe I know your name," the voice stressed, snapping Alex back into awareness, "which seems to leave me at a disadvantage."
"Alex Cabot," Alex said crisply, wishing more than anything that Abbie would hurry up and finish her shower so that she could pass over the phone. "Abbie�s in the shower at the moment. Would you like to call back in a few minutes? I can tell her you called."
A slight sigh, and then, "No, that�s okay. Just tell her I called, and that I�ll speak to her on her birthday."
At that, Alex felt her anger grow. "I�ve never met you, Mrs. Carmichael, and I probably never will, which is the only reason why I�m going to say what I�m going to say now. The thought that you can�t wait a few minutes and call back is abhorrent to me. She�s your daughter, and you may disagree with her lifestyle, but that�s no reason to shut her out like you have. She misses you, and the rest of her family, and nothing else is really ever going to be a sufficient substitute for you, most certainly not a phone call on major holidays only. You�re depriving her of an important part of herself, but more importantly, you�re depriving yourselves. Abbie is a beautiful, brilliant� I don�t even have to list her many attributes, do I, Mrs. Carmichael? You know them, and you should know what you�re giving up isn�t worth it."
A soft tap on her shoulder sent Alex nearly a foot straight up in the air in surprise, and as she whirled around, one hand instinctively clutching her chest, she found Abbie, broad smile on her face. "Here," Alex said breathlessly, not even telling the woman on the other end of the line she was leaving. "Its for you."
"Well, I imagine so, since it is my phone," Abbie drawled lightly, bringing the phone to the cradle of her ear. "Mama, is that you?"
Alex backed away slowly, blush suffusing her face, wondering just how much of her exchange Abbie had overheard. Not that berating her mother over the phone was probably a good way to get into the collective Carmichael good graces, but the thought of all the years that Abbie had spent this day alone nearly broke her heart. Alone except for a phone call to remind her of just what she didn�t have.
"That�s Alex, yes ma�am�. For a few months now�. No, we�re going up to her parent�s place today�. I�ll try to do that�. Yes ma�am�. Love you too, Mama. Talk to you later�. Bye."
Listening with half an ear to her lover�s side of the conversation, Alex finally managed to calm her rapidly beating heart. As Abbie hung up the phone, regarding her with a slight smirk, she let her eyes fall to the floor, chagrined.
"Mama says you�re quite the feisty one," she drawled slowly, making her way over to where Alex was standing. Peering up through thick eyelashes, taking in the long form still glistening with water, torso barely covered by a thick white towel, long strands of dark, wet hair clinging to caramel brushed skin, she sighed.
"I�m sorry about that. It was out of line," Alex murmured apologetically. "Presumptuous."
A long finger tugged her chin up, bringing blue eyes even with dark brown, and Alex lost herself there for a moment. "Thank you, Alex. I heard what you said, and well� thanks," Abbie rasped, blushing lightly.
With a sigh of relief, Alex smiled. "Good then. Though what your poor mother must think now," she said ruefully, shaking her head slightly.
"Mama told me to try and hold onto you," Abbie said chuckling. "I told her I�d try. What do you think, Alex? Think I can manage to keep you?"
"You can try," Alex returned cheekily, leaning forward for a soft kiss. "But, if you make us any later for my parents, its going to be much more difficult."
"Me?" Abbie squawked, giving Alex and incredulous look. "I�m not the one who turned off the alarm clock."
Barely repressing a smile, Alex said breezily, "No, but you were the one who kept me up until almost 3 o�clock this morning."
"Indeed I did," Abbie said contemplatively. "Guess I need to work on that."
Shooting Abbie a baleful glare, Alex muttered, "Don�t you dare."
"I still can�t believe that you managed to arrange all of this without me finding out," Alex murmured, leaning back against the warm body pressed firmly against her.
The air was cool, perhaps not as much so as it would have been in New York, but with the Mississippi River only a few blocks away, it was enough to have Alex shivering. Or, at least she would have been if not for the heat of the body behind her and the thick sweater she�d donned earlier in deference to the Louisiana winter. The throngs of people moving gaily about below them, half having started their New Year�s parties a few days early, seemed to not notice the cold, streaming by in a ribbon of muted happy noises and raucous shouts. Of course, up a few floors, taking in the spectacle from the balcony of their hotel room, it was almost like watching a movie, and Alex felt the almost irresistible impulse to laugh from the sheer joy of it all.
Leaning forward so that her lips were almost brushing the delicate shell of her companion�s ear, silky blonde hair teasing her skin, Abbie whispered, "I was afraid you�d be angry with me� for presuming that you�d want to come, for making all the arrangements without okaying it with you first."
Turning slowly so that she was facing Abbie, the hard line of the balcony railing cutting across her mid-back in a firm yet not uncomfortable manner, Alex reached up, pushing a few stray strands of sable hair behind Abbie�s ear. "Surprisingly, no. Maybe because it turned out to be such a pleasant presumption," she said lightly, thoroughly enjoying the way Abbie�s arms immediately drifted down to rest in the hollow of the small of her back, drawing them closer together.
"Hmm, that�s good then. We have reservations at Antoine�s tonight, but we can do something else if you want," Abbie said absently, watching the waning sunlight highlight the gold in Alex�s hair.
Tilting her head to the side, Alex asked, "Antione�s?"
"Well," Abbie said teasingly, "the webpage said that two British princesses have dined there, so I figured that might make it good enough for Alex Cabot. Just barely, though�"
"The webpage?" Alex asked, intrigued all the more by the prospect when her words drew forth a blush.
Clearing her throat, Abbie looked off to the side, vividly aware of the heat coursing up her cheeks. "I looked a few things up, you know. Wanted to find some things for us to do, wanted to make sure that we didn�t miss anything," she mumbled, something that Alex found adorable. Not that she ever would have mentioned that to Abbie, who she was sure would find being adorable tantamount to one of the worst insults she�d ever received.
"You did research," Alex said dryly, dissecting Abbie�s evasion. "Instead of the spontaneous, fly by the seat of your pants trips you took in college, you planned this one out, didn�t you. You looked things up, you found the best hotel, the best restaurant�"
"Alex," Abbie said, chagrined to hear a hint of whine in her tone, "I just wanted to make sure that you had a good time, that�s all. It�s the first time we�ve gone somewhere together, and I�"
Stopping the other woman�s words with a quick kiss, Alex pulled back, smiling. "You�re such a closet romantic," she teased, her low voice sending shivers up Abbie�s spine.
"I am not," the brunette shot back petulantly, lower lip poking out in a pout.
One brow raised in contradiction, Alex nodded. "Don�t try to deny it. You�re a romantic, an incredibly romantic romantic. You can�t help it."
Scoffing, rolling her eyes at the prospect, Abbie murmured, "Whatever. Do you want to go to dinner or not?"
Dinner was wonderful, as was everything. The room, the days spent wandering around the French Quarter or driving through the Garden District, steaming caf� au lait and warm, chewy powdered sugar covered beignets at Caf� du Monde� it was, to sum up in one word, idyllic. So idyllic that Alex didn�t want it to end. For the first time, she felt free to hold Abbie�s hand as they walked along the street, to lean over and kiss her when the mood struck. Alex had even pushed Abbie up against the rough brick of some historic building, crisp air burning against her cheeks as she kissed the brunette leisurely, thrilled by the knowledge that no one they knew would see them, and those passersby who did wouldn�t care.
They were due to fly back the first of January since Abbie hadn�t been able to get any more days off than that, which meant that they had one more night. One more night to revel in freedom, to join in the festival atmosphere hanging over the city, but Alex had decidedly different plans in mind.
After sending Abbie off on an afternoon errand, she�d put the initial stages of her plan to work. Hotel staff were coordinated, orders were placed, and by the time Abbie returned, Alex was lounging on the bed, content that everything would turn out the way she intended. The brunette had taken in her self-satisfied smirk with humor, quickly shedding her coat and hat and kicking off her shoes to join Alex on the bed.
Crawling up the expanse, she�d studied the blonde�s face, looking for a hint, a clue that would let her know what Alex had up her sleeve. There was none, of course, so Abbie settled for merely kissing the other woman senseless, a satisfied shriek of surprise seconding that course of action.
When the kissing started to intensify, to turn into something far more involved than the simple press of lips and sweep of tongues, Alex pushed back against Abbie�s shoulders, the move catching the brunette off-guard and instantly putting a few inches of space between them.
"What�s wrong?" Abbie burred, brows drawn together in confusion. She�d been quite happy with the activity in which they�d been engaged and was at a loss to explain why it�d stopped.
Licking her lips playfully, Alex murmured, "Nothing. I just want you to save your energy for later."
A dark brow arched in speculation. "Later? Why is that?"
An enigmatic smile was her only reply, and after a second Abbie huffed in mock annoyance and rolled off of her lover�s form to settle into the bedding beside her, arms crossed forlornly over her chest. "I don�t want to have to wait until later," she whined, eliciting a snort from Alex.
"Patience is a virtue," the blonde replied airily, one finger inching over to tickle lightly against Abbie�s side. "Besides, I have plans for you."
This drew an interested sniff and the cut of intrigued dark eyes. "Plans for me? Feel free to outline them in great detail."
"Hmm, I was thinking champagne, strawberries, chocolate, grapes maybe� a little bit of nudity and ringing in the New Year right," Alex drawled seductively, rolling up on her side so that she was looming over Abbie, blonde hair spilling over her shoulders. "I was thinking about throwing in a massage and a bubble bath, but I don�t know if we�d have enough time."
Instantly rolling out of the bed, Abbie extended a hand, looking at Alex expectantly. "Well, come on� no need to waste time talking. We�ve got things to do," she teased, dark eyes alight.
For a moment, Alex was held transfixed. She was well aware of the dichotomy that was Abbie Carmichael, but the playful mirth in her expression seemed to highlight it fully. The tough, seasoned lawyer that almost everyone else saw, no nonsense in her approach to her job and her humorless take on life, was not the woman standing beside the bed, looking down on Alex with warm eyes. This Abbie was her Abbie, and hers alone, and at that second, Alex knew with a certainty that there was no turning back. She had already known she was in love, the full-blown kind that would never see recovery, and suddenly it didn�t matter any more that she could potentially be hurt by it.
So, with a smile, she took the hand offered her, rolling easily to her feet. Once there, she leaned forward to give Abbie a soft, sweet kiss, the kind that was more emotion than anything else.
"What was that for?" Abbie asked, a hint of suspicion in her tone.
Throwing all caution to the wind, giddy with the heady rush of it all, Alex said softly, "Because I love you, and I wanted to do it."
For a moment Abbie merely looked at her quizzically, an inscrutable veil falling over her features. Then, without warning, a wide grin broke out over her features, transforming her already astonishing beauty into something even more breathtaking, if it were possible.
"I guess that�s a good thing," she said gravely, though there was a twinkle in her eyes. "I�d hate to think I was the only one who felt that way."
Pulling back slightly, studying the angular features in front of her, Alex felt the beginnings of a grin tickle across her face. "Is that so?" she said, her voice retaining a modicum of calm though her heart was racing out of control. "Well then, all the more reason to celebrate."
And celebrate they did.
THE END� for a little while, probably