A/N: This story is dedicated to "Anonymous" who left a review for "Secrets Like Acid" on Aug. 1, 2009. I don't know your backstory nor the challenges you face (since you didn't leave an email), but your ambition to make a life with someone who is fourteen years older touched me. You wrote: "Your story [Secrets Like Acid] gave me hope that maybe we can work things out for the better." I hope you can, darlin'! I really hope you can. Anyway, this story is for you and for anyone whose ambition is to love and to merely be loved. (That's all of us, right?) I hope you enjoy the story. ~Take care, Isobel.

Wedding Surprise

By Isobel Rowan

"Oh, no, Chris! You are not wearing that to the rehearsal!" Sheryl gripped her own hips, her shiny red nails digging into her slender frame.

Chris looked down at her red blouse, black jeans and low chunk Ostrich skinned cowboy boots. She kicked one out on its heel. "I'll have you know these are my Rhinestone bling boots. Tres fancy."

"Fancy and boots do not belong in the same universe!"

Chris held her smile and then flicked a blonde curly lock from Sheryl's padded shoulder. She remembered frying pancakes for dinner because her baby sister would pitch a fit against green beans. Chris always gave in. After all, Chris wasn't much older and preferred sweet to healthy anytime. But she wasn't going to relent on the Rhinestones. She'd already made other concessions for the nuptials. "Did you notice my shirt has sequins?"

Sheryl hid her face with both hands. "Why? Why do you have to do this to me? It's a Wedding Rehearsal Dinner, Chris. We aren't going to a ho down—Don't say it! I don't want to hear about what you would do at a dyke ho down!"

Sheryl grew up learning about alternative lifestyles and reading "Heather Has Two Mommies" in school. She cut her teeth on respecting differences. She could whip out the lingo and sound progressive and cosmopolitan. But it was all noise. Her sister had never been seen dating in Plano, Texas. She'd never taken a woman she was interested in home and she certainly never talked about her proclivities. All Sheryl really knew was that Chris was like a mother, a very young mother, to her, despite only a seven-year age difference. When their mother had died in a tragic traffic accident, Chris just stepped into the role. Sheryl needed her to keep that role now more than ever, at least for one more day.

Sheryl walked to her bedroom closet and pulled out a black sheath dress, with sheer pantyhose draped over the shoulder. "Don't you think this will look nice on you?"

Chris gave her sister a shake of her head, disturbing not one strand of her short blonde hair. "I am not wearing that, Sheryl." To her only sister's pleading look, she crossed her arms. "No. There's the matter of dignity."

"It's simple but elegant, Chris." She laid the dress gingerly on the bed. "Here I'll help you." When she moved to unbutton her sister's blouse, Chris smacked Sheryl's hands away. "Why do you have to be such a pain in the ass?"

"Look," she said, re-fastening the buttons. "I have agreed to wear the pink dress for the ceremony tomorrow."

"I know, I know!" she said, turning around to hang the dress back up. "You don't do frills."

"That's right. But I am draping my body in that for you. Besides, it's practice night right?"

Sheryl turned to look at her sister, a hand on her hip. "Rehearsal is practice, yes."

"Well, you don't wear nice stuff to practice. I'm fine."

"This isn't softball, darlin'. Berk's entire family will be there." When Chris' face didn't soften, Sheryl took her hand. "I want them to like you, sweetie. And, well, cowboy boots will kinda..." She crinkled her nose. "You know. They are not a statement you want to make."

Chris studied her sister's chiseled cheeks, long eyelashes and finally her hazel eyes. Their Dad had thrown himself into work at the church after their mother passed and then he met Marcy. Chris was relieved to help Sheryl along. Her body was growing bigger parts and those parts seemed to be telling her confusing things. Dealing with a kid sister seemed easier at the time. But Sheryl wasn't a kid anymore. "I think, Sheryl," she said with a sad glint in her eye. "That's it's the kind of statement you don't want me to say about myself."

She watched her younger sister, looking for signs that what she said wasn't true. God, she didn't want to think Sheryl was ashamed of her. The younger woman let go of Chris' hand and returned to watch herself in the mirror, as she rubbed her pink lips with a ring finger. "Why does anyone have to know you're gay?" She looked up at her sister. "You'll never see these people again. So why do you have to proclaim to whole world that you kiss girls?"

Chris understood it now. Their dad, the Reverend Henry Brandonburg, said he loved her, every part of her, and yet, there was always a wall there. He never asked if she was seeing anyone. He never asked why she was home alone on a Friday night. He never wondered why she went in on Sunday evenings to work. "Did Daddy put you up to this?"

"We talked about it, sure. He has the same concerns. We don't want them judging you."

"Or judging you because of me?"

Sheryl frowned. "Don't be silly."

Chris lifted a brow. "I don't think my ensemble says anything other than I like to dress comfortably."

"Get real, Chris. You know how people are."

Chris felt suddenly lonely, a feeling that had hampered her since her mother passed. She didn't know she was a lesbian while her mother was alive, but somehow, thinking backward, she believed her mother knew and loved her anyway. She tried to love Sheryl like their mother would, without limits. Since the wedding announcement it got harder to do. "Yeah, I do know how cruel people are. I'm homosexual." Then Chris saw it. Sheryl's eyes were somewhere else. She'd already moved on to other matters. Her body was just lagging behind a few minutes. "I'm sorry, Sheryl. I'll wear the taffeta dress tomorrow. But tonight, I'm going to be me. I hope I don't cause you, Dad and Marcy too much grief."

Sheryl seemed not to notice the ding of sadness in her sister's voice. "Okay, fine. But remember you promised me. No dyke drama."

"Have I ever let you down?"

Chris had always been the odd woman out. Dad had Marcy. Sheryl had Berk. They never asked her to bring someone special along on their evenings out or during the holidays. It was like an unspoken rule. She played along, for the most part, because the pain of losing them was more than she could bear. Sometimes it was the little waves that rocked their boat, like if she butched up a little too much like today. But it had been a helluva week. And she really didn't care what Berk's family thought. If they were anything like Berk, they'd hate her instantly for no other reason than for something she couldn't change. Some people were like that. Though, for the life of her, she didn't know why Sheryl wanted to marry into a family like that.

Berk Wolfram wore pompous and snide, like some men wore cologne. The scent preceded him by five minutes and lingered long after he'd left. In fact, Chris could not think of a single positive trait that Berk had. She and her future brother-in-law were like milk and lemon juice. But it was always Chris that had to give the extra inch. "For Sheryl, honey," their Dad always said. Now she was afraid that Berk was the paragon of the Wolfram clan. God help her.

X X X X

Chris was not disappointed. She was surprised that Berk's father, Howard Wolfram, looked like he was close to retirement. The man's sunspots and wrinkles screamed too much golfing. His tailored suit said he had expensive taste and liked to flaunt it. Chris remembered Sheryl talking about how many times Howard had commented on the wedding costs.

Mr. Wolfram was a salesman, accustomed to sizing people up in two seconds. Chris remembered his fleeting glance her way when he stepped into the church foyer. Then he hadn't noticed her since. His instincts told him Chris Brandonburg preferred sexual congress with women. He had no use for those types of women. None at all.

Sheryl had told Chris to expect it and she'd pleaded with her only sister to be the bigger person. So Chris offered him her hand. Without hesitation, Mr. Wolfram smiled and gripped it firmly. But he didn't meet her eyes.

"Hey, hon," Howard said to his wife, as his gaze shifted to just behind Chris. "What do you think? Put the gift table here or there?"

His wife, Helene, completely ignored Chris. She reminded Chris of Miranda Priestly with the white hair and the elegant attire. Only Helene was chubby and snootier. "Hmm, I think over here, darling," she said, moving from where she was standing. She turned to face a wall where a large silk banner hung. "This will be lovely."

Chris watched Berk as he and his father moved the gift table to a different location, knowing full well the bride had already ruled on its location. Berk carefully avoided Chris' gaze. But the worried look in his eye told her the man understood that his parents were treading on thin ice where his bride was concerned and she would raise hell for it. But he said nothing, even after they gathered in the center of the foyer to consider the next victim of their random decisions. Helene was eyeing the vases where the flowers were going tomorrow.

Chris called Berk over three times before he realized she wasn't going to let it go. "Yeah?"

Chris wasn't going to let these people spoil Sheryl's day. "Sheryl is going to kill you if she finds out you moved that table."

He was trying to act nonchalant but his fisting hands gave him away. He looked down as he listened and he looked passed her as he spoke. "She'll be too busy with more important matters."

Chris couldn't decide if Berk was a pantywaist or if he really, really believed his wife would settle for "almost-right" on her wedding day. She decided the answer was A, so she strode to the convocation that Mr. and Mrs. Wolfram were holding in the middle of the foyer. "You know, Howard, I think my sister had already arranged to put the gift table from where you moved it."

Howard turned slowly, his thin lips tight and his eyes narrowed. Helene glanced over in complete indifference. "And who are you, dear?"

Chris softened her expression and offered her hand. "Chris Brandonburg. I'm Sheryl's sister."

Helene offered a polite smile, shaking the proffered hand with just her fingers and thumbs. "Sheryl's told me all about you, Christine. How very nice to meet you."

Chris grimaced slightly, since no one ever called her that except her Dad and sister. "The pleasure is mine."

Chris clasped her hands behind her back. "I also think that the table will impede flow right there."

The regular three by eight folding table was sitting just a few feet from one of the church exits. With her fingertips touching her chest, Helene glanced between the door to the sanctuary and the church's main exit. "Hmm. It looks as if Christine is correct."

Howard pushed his jacket back with one hand, shaking his head. "It's only a few hours and—"

"A fire can fully engulf a building in a matter of minutes, Mr. Wolfram," Chris said, adopting her official voice. "It may seem trivial now, but those precious minutes could be the difference between life and death for someone."

"My," Helene said. "How dramatic."

Chris scratched her ear and just as she was about to explain the ghastly horrors of burning alive, when her future brother-in-law did the unexpected. "Look, mother and Dad," he said. "Chris is an inspector with the Plano Fire Department. She knows her stuff. Let's just put it all back. We wouldn't want her to call the Fire Chief, now would we?"

Chris felt the cinders on her back as she exited. Howard was pissed that Helene was pissed. Evidently, the woman ruled the roost. She was glad she wouldn't have in-laws to deal with. Ever, since gay marriage was not legal in Texas and likely never would be.

After she'd left the foyer, Howard pulled his son to one side. "Gee-iminy, Berkley! Sheryl's sister is a muff diver?"

"Dad, keep it down please."

"How many sisters does she have?"

"Just the one."

"Is her lover, spouse or whatever the hell you call them nowadays...is she coming?"

"She's single."

"Thank goodness for small favors," Helene said, slipping an arm around her son's waist.

"Speaking of," Howard said, lowering his voice finally. "I hope you took my advice and didn't call...." He jerked his head and glanced at Helene. "You know...."

"My mom?" Berk asked with an indignant lilt.

Helene straightened herself. "I am your mother, Berkley. I raised you. That woman was off—"

"Mother, please. You don't have to pitch a fit. I know who raised me. You are at the head table, aren't you?"

When Helene nodded reluctantly, Berk grabbed her hand, tugging her closer where he pecked her cheek. "That's my best girl."

She patted his cheek. "I think I'll find my seat. I suddenly am completely uninterested in this conversation."

As they watched her leave, Howard pointed to her. "She's a good woman. She loves you and she was the one who put up with your antics. Remember that?" He ended with a raise of the brow.

"I know that, too, Dad." He stuffed his hands into his tailored slacks. "But Nicole is my mom, too. I invited her and she's coming."

Howard covered his mouth. "Well, maybe she'll be smart tomorrow and stay the hell away from me."

"She'll be here tonight, too."

"Gee-zuz, Berkley. Can you add any more stress to this for me? Christ on a stick!"

"Look, this is my day too and I think—"

Howard's face became stony and his left eye started to twitch.

"Sheryl wanted to meet her, okay? She wanted to get medical information since well...for the future. Besides...." Berk looked around the sanctuary through the door. "She's already here."

Howard rolled his eyes because his son knew the weakness he had for Sheryl. They had all instantly loved her. "Well, just keep those two in the back of the church, will ya?"

X X X X

Chris shoved the restroom door open. "Sheryl, you in here?"

"Yes" came the sing-song reply.

Chris walked in and put her butt to the counter and folded her arms as she watched her sister fixing her makeup for the tenth time tonight. "I pity you."

Sheryl stopped her hand midway to her mouth. "What?"

"Your mother-in-law has the biggest stick up her ass I have ever seen and—"

"Will you shut up?" She smacked her sister's arm as she looked down to see two shapely legs under a stall door.

But Chris ignored her. "And Howard is a stupid some-bitch—"

"Will you stop?"

"I will not!" Sheryl whipped out her puppy dog eyes and Chris frowned. "Sometimes, I hate you."

The woman raised her hand. "You're wearing high heels tomorrow with pantyhose. You love me." She bared her teeth in an exaggerated smile.

"Does Berk really understand how spoilt you are?"

"It dudn't matter. He's addicted to me."

Chris knuckled Sheryl's arm. Her sister screamed and rubbed her arm. "That hurt, Christine."

"Good."

Just then the door opened and a stylishly dressed brunette beauty with big brown eyes and plump lips sashayed in. As soon as her citrusy scent hit her, Chris froze. Sheryl turned to the woman. "Hi, Nicole. Here's someone I'd like you to meet. My sister, Christine Brandonburg. Chris, this is Berk's mother, Nicole Foster."

Nicole finally turned her attention to Chris. The younger woman's look of petrified disbelief and a small bronze gear swinging in the hollow of her neck told her all she needed to know. Nicole had watched the unique pendant sway just as it was doing now, but for a very different reason. Nicole's hand was inside the woman and her mouth was suckling her breast.

The woman's name, Nicole, reverberated in Chris' ears. She'd screamed her name every time she'd come that night, that one solitary night four years ago. She was at UT and some friends had dragged her to a dyke bar. Chris had been with other women, beginning with a girl named Cherry, who was aptly named, since she'd taken Chris' virginity. But hot sex—and even just plain-jane sex—were like proverbial comets for Chris, lighting up the sky with color and majesty only once every four years. Dates weren't much better either. Until one surprise-filled evening, a stranger seemed to help Chris cut loose from some earthly tether holding her back. In the end, she'd been free only that one night. With Nic.

The mutual attraction was instant. They were forced together when their respective friends found each other that night, and then wandered off. Chris seemed to shrink inside of herself, when she was left alone with Nicole.

X X X X

"So what's a cute lollipop like you doing alone in the candy store all alone?"

Chris seemed to blush to the tips of her blonde hair and she sputtered for a reply. Nicole was sitting next to her at a round table, both having been abandoned by their friends. When Chris struggled with even keeping eye contact, Nicole was starting to think the blonde preferred younger women.

Nicole reached into her back pocket and threw a twenty on the table. "I can see I'm making you uncomfortable," she finally said. "I'm so not into power. Since it's a school night I think I'm going to call it a—"

"Please. Don't go." Chris' eyes were large indigo pools of longing.

Nicole studied the handsome face. She had a good twenty years on the woman. Hell, she thought her son was older than Chris. If it had been any other woman, Nicole would have flitted off. She was attractive in her own right and since her lesbian debut, Nicole didn't have to worry about finding a lovely and willing companion. But there was something about Chris that stopped her. She wasn't sure if it was her serenity or her stark honesty, but she stayed.

"So are you going to talk to me?"

Chris rested her chin on her forearm and smiled, revealing the whitest, straightest teeth that Nicole had ever seen. "Do you teach?"

Nicole was taken back by the question. "Yes, actually, I do. How did you know? Do I look like a school marm?"

Nicole's trim figure, her tight jeans and blouse were casual elegance. Chris found her provocative and it was the very reason she was afraid. "Hardly," she finally said, her eyes darting away and then back. "You mentioned it being a school night is all."

Nicole's lips curled into a smile. "That's the most you've said to me all evening." She leaned forward, placing her face a breath away from Chris'.

The younger woman had to fight the urge to pull away. But she closed her eye instead. "I'm shy," she whispered. When she felt Nicole sit back, she opened her eyes. She wasn't sure if it was Nicole's bold personality or the woman's ability to be comfortable in her own skin... whatever it was, Chris felt a powerful allure and she worried that Nicole could feel it pulsing.

"To answer your question, yes, I teach kindergarten."

It was an answer Chris never expected and she laughed.

"What's so funny?"

"I thought you were going to say you taught Women's Studies or something."

Nicole studied the woman for a moment before answering. "Why would you think that?"

"Because I think you're a free spirit and I never imagined free spirits shackled to a desk for most of the day, wiping the noses of twelve five-year-olds."

Nicole nodded slowly. "Hmm, and here I thought you could see my hemp panties."

Chris closed her eyes, her face engulfed in red heat. She pulled back, scratching her eyebrow with the hand nearest Nicole.

Nicole flicked a hand for the waitress. "Do you want a beer?"

Chris' eye snapped open. "Well, I don't drink."

"Why not?"

The blonde shrugged. "I just never tried it."

Nicole's half grin almost made Chris shudder in desire. "A beer virgin! A gift from the goddess of malt! Let's see if we can find a brew you like."

After ninety minutes and four beers, all of which Nicole had to finish, the perfect beverage still eluded the 21-year-old.

"Okay, darlin'," Nicole said. "You're lucky I'm not a light weight."

Chris covered half her face. "I'm sorry. I told you I'm not good at bars. I just don't mix well with alcohol."

Chris was so trusting and yet so incredibly hot, Nicole wondered if she were dreaming her up. The older woman reached over and tenderly took her hand, drawing it to her lips. "Oh, baby," she whispered. "That's something to be proud of."

For the first time, Chris didn't withdraw with Nicole so close. Testing the waters, Nic draped her arm on Chris' shoulders and leaned in. "You know, if beer's not your thing...." She pulled in closer, her sweet breath brushing Chris' mouth as she spoke. "I can make you some Kool-aid back at my place."

Nicole hummed with surprise when Chris covered the woman's mouth in an open kiss. The sliding together of hot tongues sparked a fire in them both. Nicole felt Chris pull closer and then a hand on the side of her breast. Nicole pulled back, studying the smoldering expression of the woman practically seated in her lap. "I should have offered you Kool-aid thirty minutes ago."

"Forget the Kool-aid, Nic. Just take me home."

Nicole hadn't made love to a woman in more than three years, since she'd broken up with her live-in lover. Actually, Ashley was also her first lesbian affair and for whom she'd dissolved her marriage. She thought about telling Chris she wasn't ready for a relationship, and that was true. But her body was telling her to keep her confessions to herself. Sex didn't have to be about a relationship.

Sensing her hesitation, Chris nipped Nicole's ear. "I won't hurt you. I just want to be loved tonight by something besides machinery."

They'd climaxed in each other's arms so many times. They'd laughed and they'd cried together. And at dawn, Chris had snuck out of Nic's apartment before she'd awakened, without a note or anyway to keep in touch.

X X X X

Back in a church restroom in Plano, Texas, Chris and Nicole stared at each other, both reliving that one, solitary night so long ago. It was the night neither had ever forgotten.

Sheryl looked between both women, surprised at her sister's reaction. She read Chris' large eyes, the parted lips and the pale skin correctly. "You know each other?"

Nicole had lived for forty-five years, some of it with the biggest ass on the planet. You didn't reach those milestones without learning how to get through these types of bumps without a great deal of grace and a little laugh. "Chris," Nicole said in her smooth silky tones, as she offered a hand. "What a surprise! I never thought I'd see you again."

Chris stared down at Nicole's tanned hand. The veins were corded and it looked just as strong as it had then when she'd strummed her to the most intense releases she'd ever had, five of them that night. "I, ah...."

Sheryl's smile fell, as she watched her sister sputter. "What's wrong with you?"

Chris' eyes darted to her sister, who sensed the fear. "Oh, my God!" Sheryl said, realization dawning. "You dated her!"

Nicole's warm laughter tickled Chris in places that she wanted to forget just now. She was in a church, for crying out loud.

When her sister didn't answer, Sheryl sent an imploring look to Nicole. "Why are you laughing?"

"Because, Sheryl...." Nicole put a comforting hand on Sheryl's shoulder. "Chris and I didn't date. We—"

"You didn't date?" Now Sheryl was confused. She looked back at her sister, still looking like she was in a Halloween play, frozen with a horror mask.

Sometimes her sister was so naïve. Chris grabbed her sister's arm and dragged her into a bathroom stall without even a glance at Nicole. The older woman leaned against the wall, her gaze following the contours of a brown water stain on a few ceiling tiles. The deep whispers of her one-time lover were rushed and apologetic. After a second of silence, Sheryl spoke through her teeth. "You fucked my mother-in-law?!"

Nicole smiled, shaking her head. It was all she could do. Over the last few years she'd forged a grand relationship with her son again. She'd even managed to smooth out some of his rough edges, just in time for him to meet Sheryl. If he found out about Chris, he'd be pissed at first, but he'd get over it. But Howard—that alcoholic wreck—would be mortified. She laughed again, but more because maybe there were possibilities here that they'd both denied themselves four years earlier. Nicole listened as Chris offered more hushed comments.

"Explain to me the odds of you actually cutting loose with a woman who just so happens to be Berk's mother!"

Sheryl shoved the stall door open. It hit the tiled wall, as she gracefully glided through. In front of the mirror, Sheryl narrowed her red-rimmed eyes. She gripped the counter's edge with both hands, as Chris finally joined them. She held her gaze down, carefully avoiding Nicole.

Sheryl blew out some air, her cheeks getting puffy. "I'm sorry, Nicole."

Nicole waved a dismissive hand.

"What about me?" Chris asked.

Sheryl whirled, pointing a finger at her sister. "You promised me no dyke drama, dammit."

Chris opened her mouth, finally realizing she wasn't going to win this battle. She'd seen the TV show "Bridezilla" enough to know that her sister's pre-marital body was producing a hormone that would block out the logic and reason.

Sheryl pinched the bridge of her nose. "Okay, I have to tell Berk." She gave Nicole an apologetic look. "I just don't want him to be surprised. I hope you understand. It's nothing personal."

"He knows I'm attracted to women, Sheryl," Nicole said casually. "I seriously doubt he'll be fazed by this."

"Still," she said, opening her cell phone and dialing. "Baby, where are you? Okay, well, I need you to come to the bathroom. I know it's seven! But there is one thing we need to talk about...." After a moment of hearing bass garbled words come through her cell phone, Sheryl slammed it shut. "He doesn't get it. I'll have to explain it to him."

As she turned the corner for the restroom door, Sheryl leaned back to peer around the privacy wall. She pointed a finger at Chris. "Don't move. If you leave this restroom, I'll harpoon you, Chris, and it won't be pretty." Then she plastered on a smile for Nicole. "Be right back, 'kay?"

When Chris heard the door click closed, she lifted her eyes to finally see Nicole. Now she realized why she found Berk so disturbing. His full lips and eye color was identical to this woman's. But Nicole, what a woman!

Chris ran a hand through her short blonde hair and looked away. Her loud exhale made Nicole shiver. "So, Chris, did you pass calculus?" Nicole asked, remembering their last and only conversation.

Chris nodded. "Yeah, I got an A."

"That doesn't sound like you were ever in danger of failing."

Chris shrugged, looking down at a slip of paper she was toying with between her fingertips. "What about you? Ever buy that house?"

Nicole drew a little closer. "Actually, I brought a house but not that one. I close next Thursday on a house at Independence near the Tollway."

"Here in Plano?"

Nicole nodded. "Yes, I decided I wanted to be closer to the baby when it comes."

Chris narrowed her eyes. "Baby?"

"Yes, of course," Nicole said, more aware of the fire raging inside of her than the confusion in Chris' eyes. "I figure I can be there to offer help to Sheryl and Berk when it comes. Parenthood is never an easy transition."

Chris nodded, trying to absorb that. She didn't know that Sheryl was expecting, but it certainly explained the rush of a wedding. But maybe only the grandparents knew.

"Do you think you'd like to visit me?" Nicole said, dipping her head to catch Chris' gaze. She stepped closer, taking one of Chris' strong hands. She leaned in and was encouraged to feel Chris match her movements. When she offered her lips, Nicole was greeted with a hungry kiss. She pressed herself against Chris' fit body, her hands roaming her back and ass. "You feel so good."

"So do you," Chris whispered as she kissed the tender spot under the woman's ear. The backlash of her enforced celibacy was whipping hard, making it difficult to pull back. So she didn't try. All that could be heard was squeaking moans and heavy breathing.

When they heard the bathroom door swish open, they jumped back. Nicole tried to warn Chris about the lipstick, but it was too late.

Sheryl stopped in front of them. "Berk won't—"

Sheryl's hot pink makeup bag slammed into Chris' chest, falling to the ground as her sister stared at her with an open mouth.

"What did you do that for, Sh—?"

"You were Frenching my mother-in-law! While I'm trying to get ready for the biggest day of my life?"

"I think you're paranoid," Chris said, trying to fight the urge to wipe her lips with her sleeve.

The exchange seemed to fuel Sheryl further and she uncocked her projectile purse, pulling it back its spaghetti string straps. Nicole jumped between the two sisters. With a sweet smelling handkerchief in hand, she began to wipe Chris' mouth. "I'm sorry, Chris," she whispered. "The evidence is smeared on your lovely face."

Chris finally looked into the mirror, seeing the sparkling beige color smeared unevenly across her lips and around her mouth. She couldn't help but smile when she caught Nicole's amused expression. The woman mouthed that she was sorry, but the gleam said she was only apologizing because she got caught.

"It's not even your damn color, Chris!" Sheryl said, her rage renewed when she couldn't unleash her feminine weapon.

"Cinnamon bliss," Nicole said calmly to Chris. "That's the color."

"I like it," Chris whispered before she could censor herself.

Sheryl's face turned a blood red and her lips thinned. "I can see I'm the only one in this bathroom with any decorum."

Nicole cast a glance at Sheryl over the shoulder. Nicole raised her eyebrows at the last word, but refused to be baited. She'd met the girl a year ago after Berk had grown serious about the relationship. Sheryl had seemed down-to-earth and would be a grounding influence on her son. She wondered if Howard and Helene hadn't had an unfortunate influence, as well.

"So I'm asking you both to cool...whatever it is you have, at least until my wedding day is done. Do it for Daddy and for me."

Holding onto Nicole's waist and feeling heat multiple under her attention, Chris finally looked at her sister. Sheryl had never seen Chris with a woman. She'd only been a lesbian "in theory." And until that moment, Sheryl realized that's just the way she liked it.

Chris frowned at her younger sister. "We didn't plan to have an affair—"

"Is that what you call a...a...a lesbo booty call? An affair?"

Chris grimaced at her sister's attitude. She'd never seen this side of her and was embarrassed that her mother-in-law was hearing it. She didn't know what to say so she just tried to continue her thought. "I didn't hook up with Nicole to inconvenience you, Sheryl, or to complicate your 'big day.' It just happened."

"Well, whatever," she finally said, returning from her molten state. "This is a private matter between the two of you, after all. Is that not so?"

Nicole conceded the point with a gracious nod.

"Good," she replied again. "Let's keep it that way. Or so help me, God...."

Sheryl slipped her purse strap from her shoulder, tucked her makeup bag under her arm and walked out.

Nicole drew back, stuffing her handkerchief in her purse. "All done."

"I'm sorry, Nic," Chris finally said.

"So you two are really related, huh?"

Chris gave a sheepish grin. "Yeah, afraid so."

"Promise me one thing, Chris."

"Anything."

"Don't let your family keep you from happiness."

Chris studied Nic, wondering what exactly the woman was saying. Was Nicole suggesting she was the path to that place Chris had never been?

"I'll try."

X X X X

The promises Chris made to both women were instantly difficult to keep. She walked into the sanctuary to find a flushed Berk explaining to the woman who bore him that she wouldn't be sitting with the rest of the family in the first pew.

Nicole patted her son's cheek. "It's okay," she cooed. "For you, I will sit anywhere."

Chris wondered at the strength of the woman who sat another row back, while all eyes watched her. But Nicole seemed oblivious. Because she had wrapped herself in armor, velvet armor of dignity and self-worth, Chris thought. Nicole sat straight, her eyes taking in the sanctuary stain glass. But what caught Chris' fury was her father's tacit approval.

He was standing at the altar, in white and golden clerical robes. He watched the entire scene unfold, this man who preached about the children giving respect to their parents. And he was silent. He must have felt Chris' angry glare, because he looked up to see her down the aisle.

"Christine," he said, breaking the tense silence. "It's about time you got here. We need you over here."

He walked over the bride's side, where Sheryl would be standing tomorrow. Beside her stood Justine, her best friend. "Maid of honor goes..." Her father walked sideways down the row of women. "Right...here." He stopped just to the right of Justine.

Chris walked slowly down. Suddenly she became self conscious of her outfit and the usual butch swagger that accompanied it. "Dad, I'm the Maid of Honor, I should go next to Sheryl."

Her dad pushed his glasses up. "Uh—"

"Change of plans," Sheryl said with an annoyed smirk. "I need the Matron of Honor there, since she knows how to spread my dress train. I hope you don't mind."

Chris looked around uncomfortably, carefully avoiding Nicole's eyes. "No," she whispered. "Whatever you say. It's your day."

"I'm glad you agree," she said, turning back to her father. "Okay, Daddy."

X X X X

After another run through of the procession, they all got ready to head out to the restaurant. Justine had sidled up to Sheryl, whispering together about God knows what.

Chris watched her baby sister for a minute. She'd stood up to a seventh-grade teacher who'd accused Sheryl of cheating. She'd explained the menstruation cycle to Sheryl the way she'd wished her father had explained it to her. She'd consoled Sheryl after her first break-up and she'd cheered her on at the track meets every Saturday without fail. She'd done everything a mother would have done.

"Hey Justine," Chris said amiably. "Have you gotten the baby anything yet?" It was a loaded question for Justine, the shopaholic.

Sheryl opened her mouth to respond, when Justine beat her to it. "Are you kidding me? When Campbell makes his debut, he'll be dressed better than Calvin Klein himself!"

"Yeah, Campbell's a lucky boy." Only today did Chris realize that there were places she couldn't follow Sheryl. Not because she wouldn't try, but because Sheryl would not allow it.

Her sister was pregnant and she hadn't told Chris. She was having a boy and hadn't shared the joy with her only sister. Without glancing at her sister, Chris walked to her car alone, always alone.

As she was about to step into the car, Chris was glad to see Berk helping his mother into the his backseat. Maybe Berk wasn't the asshole she'd always thought he was. He was just caught in two worlds, kind of like Chris.

X X X X

When they arrived at Portfino's Fine Italian Restaurant, Howard Wolfram took charge of seating, as if Sheryl had overlooked even that detail. Chris realized something after he'd seated everyone else. The man was afraid to be near his ex-wife and what was more mind-boggling, Sheryl allowed the man to do it, even after she'd agonized for weeks about the seating charts.

But Chris didn't complain one bit because she was seated with Nicole against a quiet wall, away from the rest of the party.

Nicole downed her wine in one shot, as Chris took her seat. "Where's my Kool-aid?" she asked good-naturedly.

The response drew a throaty laugh from Nicole. "It's back at my place," she said with a wink.

Chris' smile actually hurt her face because she hadn't used those muscles in so long. She felt so light she was afraid she'd float up. She laid the cloth napkin across her lap. "Lucky," she said.

"You could get lucky, too." Nicole didn't bother to hide her desire, but she expected Chris to need lots of coaxing, as it had been four years ago.

"Then I better load up on carbs," she replied evenly, laughing faintly at the eyebrows that disappeared under Nicole's bangs.

X X X X

"So you move in Thursday?"

"Yes," Nicole said, around a bite of lasagna. "Know anyone I can hire to help me unload a big truckload of stuff?"

"Are you kidding? I work for the Fire Department. I'm surrounded by brawn."

"Not interested in brawn, are we?" Nicole took a sip of wine, feeling a small buzz come on.

"I haven't even been looking. What about you?"

"I had this incident four years ago and it's...." She studied Chris' face intently. "It's kinda spoiled me for anyone else."

"You like that, don't you?"

"What?"

"Just laying all your cards on the table. No preliminaries, no repercussions. Just bloop, here it is!"

Nicole shrugged. "I've lived my life in fear and I've lived in freedom," she said. "And I gotta tell you, freedom is...." Nicole leaned forward and Chris half expected her to say something provocative and sexual. "Hopeful."

Chris pulled back, astonished. Nicole was pleased with herself. "You like to shock," Chris said.

"But should speaking the truth be so shocking?"

Chris pushed her finished plate away. "Please tell me, Nic, why you think freedom is hopeful."

"Because, baby," she said, taking the woman's hand. "You're finally letting your aspirations inhabit the living room where your fears have been all along. Keeping your dreams in the basement makes you unhappy. But you need courage to face the mayhem they both bring."

"You're saying that my fear of losing my family and my need for a woman can live side by side."

"No, baby. They must live side by side."

"When I embrace both the fear and the need, only then is there a real chance that my family will accept me."

"Yes, Chris, yes!" Nicole fell back, both fists raised in triumph. "Because only then will your family realize that they must."

"But what if they..." Chris' eyes became misty. "What if they...you know. Turn their back on me."

"Then your fear has died."

"Along with my heart," she whispered.

Nicole wanted to tell her more, so much more of her own journey, but the waiter appeared with tiramisu. And tiramisu was subordinate to no ideal.

X X X X

They were laughing softly when Berk came up to them, the first time since they'd arrived where anyone in the Wedding Party had remembered them. "Mom, are you ready?"

Nicole took her son's hand, a simple act that Chris found profoundly moving. Her eyes glided up her future brother-in-law to catch a glimpse of love in his eyes for his mom. "I'm ready, darling. The question is, are you?"

"Yeah, I really am, mom."

Nicole stood and glanced down at Chris, her hand still gripping Berk's. "Good night, Chris. It was nice sharing a meal with you."

Chris was too shy in front of Berk to say much other than a few memorized words. When she saw Nicole exit with Sheryl and Berk, she felt a pang of loss so terrible that she sobbed.

Her Dad and Marcy walked to the table. Marcy was a few years younger than her own mother had been. She was reserved, giving her husband the space to live large, as most pastors tended to do. That only meant that Chris had never found a comfortable place in which to confide in Marcy as Sheryl had.

"You okay, kiddo?" Her Dad asked, giggling his keys.

"Yes, of course," she said, finally coming to herself.

"We'll see you bright and early. It's going to be a gorgeous day!" Chris knew he was excited, not only to have a daughter of his marry what he considered to be a good man, but for him to perform the ceremony in his own church. Pure bliss. But with his unshared happiness, a little bit died off in Chris.

As he took Marcy's hard, Chris called to him. "It's great about Campbell, isn't it?"

His face softened, his arm tightening around March to draw her close. "Oh, yes! It's more than everything I've hoped for."

Chris nodded, feeling a spark try to consume the joy. "It's awesome," she whispered.

"I'm glad she finally told you," he said. "And I'm so very glad she's marrying that baby's daddy."

"Yeah, it's, um, wonderful."

X X X X

Chris looked down at the elegant handwriting on a slip of a paper she was holding. Just as she'd pretty low when leaving the restaurant, the waiter slipped her the note. It smelled of citrus.

"My Darling Chris, I wasn't kidding about the Kool-aid. I think you could use a shot or two. But the best part is I have some good lovin' to offer, if you're even remotely interested. How's that for subtle? Yours, N"

Then it listed her hotel and room number. Chris glanced back up at the door number and knocked.

Nicole answered the door in fluffy white hotel robe. She grabbed Chris' hand and yanked her in the room. She backed her up against the closed door, pressing into her. Her hand was palming her breast. "You feel good," Nicole whispered into Chris' ear. Her response was to shudder.

Their kiss felt right and they both melted into each other.

Chris reached down, tugging Nicole's robe open. She'd seen firmer breasts on younger women, but these were real and they were generous. "Oh so beautiful," she whispered as a finger grazed a nipple.

Nicole threw off her robe, leaving Chris to peruse her form. But she wasn't idle. Nicole was pulling her shirt out of her pants, after unbuckling them. "You've been indecently clothed all night, missy," Nicole said, as she released the first button. She stuffed her hands down the back of Chris' panties, feeling the soft skin. She grazed her nails along the smooth skin of Chris' buttocks. "Does that feel good?"

Chris leaned into the woman, her eyes closed, her head back and her lips parted. "Uh huh," she murmured. "But I'd feel better against you."

Nicole shoved the panties and pants down. "I wanted you the second I recognized you, Chris." Nicole held Chris' hand as the younger woman stepped out of the swell of clothes. She slowly led her to the bed, where she turned down the covers for the younger woman.

She twirled Chris around toward her, guiding her back against the bed. Chris flattened her palms on Nicole's shoulder blades, pulling her close. She inhaled deeply. Every time she'd smelled the same citrus scent on another woman, it drove her mad. "I've wanted you since that first night," she admitted.

Before Nicole could answer, Chris pulled down as she fell back to the bed. Chris rolled her over, slipping a thigh between her legs. Bracing against her arms, Chris looked down at the woman, her wavy dark hair spread across the sheets. "And now you're mine."

Their kiss was ravenous after four years of drought. Nicole slipped her hands over the blonde bristles, moaning as Chris made her way down to capture a nipple. "Oh, Chris, yes!"

She blew on the swollen nipple, chuckling. "You still love that, huh?"

Nicole's answer was a warm flow of moisture that soaked Chris' thigh. "There's been...." Nicole was going to say "no one but you," but she stopped herself. Maybe this was Part Deux of a one-night stand.

Chris let her hand snake to play in the downy softness between the woman's legs. But Nicole was impatient and tried to buck a few times. "Now, Chris, I need you now. Right...." She tried to push Chris' hand lower. "Please, baby."

She knew once she touched Nicole there, she'd explode in glorious rays of joy almost instantly. But Nicole's thrusts became insistent. "Okay," she whispered against the nipple. "Okay."

Chris tried to keep her touch light, but when she lightly brushed the engorged clit, Nicole nearly catapulted off the bed.

"Don't stop, Chris. Please." The cry was too much and so Chris slipped two fingers in, gliding them in and out. As she began to kiss her way down, Nicole tried to tug her upward. "Please, baby. Kiss me and make me come."

Chris' open mouth found Nicole's, her tongue darting in and out to the rhythm of her fingers. Soft mews gurgled in Nicole's throat. Nicole's hands pressed down on Chris' back, trying to fuse them together. "Come for me, Nic," she whispered.

Right on cue, Nicole felt the rush and then wave after exquisite wave of white, searing bliss. Only on her descent, did Nicole realize Chris had cried out, too. When the younger woman collapsed on top of her, she rubbed her back. "Oh, that was so good, Chris. So fuckin' good."

Chris chuckled and then rolled off, her hand falling next to her face. Nicole laid her head on her shoulder. "Did you come?"

"Couldn't you tell?"

"You had me too worked up," she said, brushing her finger along Chris' finely arched brow. "I'm sorry."

Chris grabbed her hand. "Don't be, sweetie. I couldn't help myself. My hand did double duty."

Nicole nipped her jaw. "I'm glad," she whispered, closing her eyes. "I like it when we come together."

Chris covered them with a sheet. "Me, too."

After another round of lovemaking, Nicole began to play with the gear pendant on Chris' necklace.

"Is that how you recognized me?"

Nicole kissed the hollow of Chris' neck. "One doesn't forget a small, toothy gear on a beautiful woman. Especially when it's hand stamped with 'invictus anima'. You are definitely an animal."

Chris chuckled, squeezing Nicole. "It means 'unconquered soul.'"

"Is that what you are? Unconquered?"

Chris turned on her side, propping her head up on an elbow. She let her other hand slowly caress Nicole's bare hip. "Would you think I'm crazy if I told you not anymore?"

Nicole curled an arm under her cheek, letting her eyes glide over Chris' chiseled features. "Not if you're saying what I think you're saying."

"Let me spell it out, Nic." She scooted in, bringing her body against the length of Nicole's. "I'm really crazy about you, Nicole. I let you go once and I regretted every day for the last four years. So I was wondering...would you be interested in seeing where we can go together."

Nicole smiled sweetly, pulling Chris close for a slow, passionate kiss. "I feel the same way, baby," she said. "When I found myself in the same room with you, I thought I'd won the lottery. Though I must admit, you scared me the way you were acting with your sister around."

Chris pressed their lips together quickly. "I'm glad you looked past it all."

"But I have a question for you."

Chris' stomach tightened at Nicole's sudden seriousness. "Anything."

"Will you keep hiding who you are? And will you be ashamed of us?"

Chris sat up and stared down at a serene Nicole. "What are you asking me?"

Nicole sat up and took both of Chris' hands in her own. "I want you so much, Chris. But I'm free, baby, and I can't give myself to another woman who isn't."

"I'm out, Nicole. My family knows I'm gay."

Nicole gave a sad smile, swung her legs off the bed and found her robe. She brought Chris a drink of water, while she sipped hers from the edge of the bed. "Then why are you afraid of losing them, Chris?"

Chris watched Nicole's posture change and it was like a brilliant light in her eyes went out. "What are you saying?"

"Until you can answer that question, my love, I think there is...." Nicole stopped, lowered her gaze and pressed a finger to her mouth. Chris heard the sob anyway. Nicole's brown eyes were shining and so very dark. "I think there is no place for us to go."

X X X X

Chris walked into the church dressing room in shorts and a T-shirt. Sheryl's long pearl-studded ivory gown swayed when she turned. Justine was putting the finishing touches on her makeup.

"You're late!"

Chris hung the dress up and began to kick off her shoes. "I overslept." She heard the rustling of petticoats and looked up in time to see Sheryl glide across the room, tapping an ivory fan in the palm of her hand.

Sheryl stood imperiously watching Chris as she undressed.

"What's the problem, Sheryl? We've got plenty of time."

Sheryl dipped her head to look at the dark circles under Chris' usually bright eyes. "Please tell me!...Please tell me you were not out all night doing unspeakable things with Nicole Foster."

Chris glanced over in time to see Justine crinkle her nose. She stood straight up and blinked back the tears. "You don't really want to know about me, do you?"

Sheryl worked her jaw, the folded fan tapping her palm. "You're right, I don't. Just get dressed. Today is my big day, remember?"

"How could I forget?"

The wedding was beautiful. The bride was beautiful and the groom was deliriously happy. Chris' dad was out of his mind with fatherly pride. Howard and Helene seemed very glad for Berk and his new wife. Despite the hostility of her ex-husband, Nicole fluttered around the reception meeting Berk's friends and co-workers. Nicole was free, Chris thought, as she sat by herself at the head table, watching the woman. Chris wanted to be irrepressible like that, but more than that, she wanted to be loved. But the fear chained her to the chair.

X X X X

Chris arrived alone to Covino's Restaurant, just as she had done at every family function for the past year. Her Dad and Sheryl stopped asking her if she was going to bring someone. Maybe they realized that they didn't want to bring someone. But, in any case, Chris was here and she was nervous.

It was a celebration for Sheryl and Berk's one year wedding anniversary and Campbell's six-month birthday. All of the grandparents were going to be there, including Nicole, whom Chris hadn't seen for the past year. But Chris decided that tonight was the just the dynamite she needed to detonate her old life and rock her into the new one, hopefully with Nicole by her side.

In the private dining room, she was the last to arrive. She stepped in, nervous when everyone looked up at her. "Sorry, I'm late. I was working with a builder on his new apartment complex."

"You work too much," Marcy declared in expected stepmother tones.

"Protestant Work Ethic," her father declared proudly.

"It's about time," Sheryl said. "My son—the birthday boy—is hungry."

Chris skimmed everyone, most of them hardly listening to her, especially the older Wolframs. At the far end, blond, blue-eyed Campbell was sitting in a high chair banging someone's keys on the table. On his left was Sheryl to whom Chris mumbled that she was sorry. Across from Sheryl was Nicole, where Chris' eyes settled. She was wearing a stunning green silk scarf about her neck and a beautiful jacquard cream and green sheath dress with embroidered scrolls highlighting the top and a floral-motif border embellished with pearls and beads. Her dark hair was pinned up and wisps fell down in spirals framing her lovely face. "I'm glad to see everyone," Chris said, but her eyes were pinned on Nicole. The woman lit up from the curl of her lips to the crinkles of her eyes.

Chris was disappointed to find the only spot available was on the opposite side of the table next to her father and opposite Helene. But she took her seat, draping her napkin across her lap. "So what's good?" she asked of anyone listening. No one was. Helene was busy whispering to Howard and her Dad was making small talk with Berk and Marcy.

She abruptly put her hands in her lap after she noticed them shaking. Then she startled to find the waitress hovering over her. She watched the waitress place an iced tea in front of her. "I didn't order this," Chris said as nicely as she could.

"Um, I think the gentleman next to you ordered on your behalf." The waitress, dressed in black with a white towel around her waist, rubbed her hands together. "Can I get anyone anything else? Your entrees should be out momentarily."

"What did I get?" Chris asked the waitress, who chuckled at her predicament.

"I believe, ma'am, you ordered the shrimp scampi di'avolo."

Chris frowned, looking to see if her Dad was listening and leaned toward the waitress. "I really hate seafood. Could you, uh, just get me the penne with vodka sauce and...." she looked back again. Satisfied that her Dad was still speaking with Marcy, she hastily added: "Ditch the tea and bring me a beer."

The waitress' smile was forced. "The shrimp is almost done. We will have to charge you for both dishes. It's quite..." she leaned in closer herself. "Expensive, ma'am. I can have the shrimp removed—"

"No, no. I even hate the smell. I'll pay for both."

The waitress fell back on her heels, relieved. "I will have to see your driver's license, ma'am."

"You're joking?" The phrase caught everyone's attention because they all turned back to look at her, something Chris didn't notice until she retrieved her ID from her wallet.

"We card everyone under thirty. This will just take a minute."

Her Dad turned toward her. "Why did she need your ID card? Did you write a hot check?"

"No, I ordered a beer." Chris had acquired a taste for the brew because she'd acquired a taste for the woman who'd introduced it.

Her Dad looked down at the tea glass, with its melting ice cubes. "I got you iced tea."

"I know and thanks, but I don't want tea."

"We can freshen it up."

She studied her father, wondering if he had a hearing problem. "No, I don't need that, Daddy. I always let it sit there while I drink the water. I'm done with that." She turned away from his fierce gaze. "Besides, I don't want tea. I want a beer."

"A beer?" Sheryl said, her glass frozen midway to her mouth. "Since when do you drink beer?"

"Since always."

Sheryl set her glass down. "You do realize that Howard—" Then Sheryl pointed to the man sitting beside Helene. "—Berk's daddy—is...." She glanced at the man, suddenly stricken with embarrassment at not knowing how to phrase it.

"He's a recovering alcoholic," her Dad supplied. "And I'm a senior pastor of a church. I think it would be wise to send the beer back, Christine."

Chris inhaled, realizing this was going to happen sooner rather than later. She was hoping to get a good meal before facing the firing squad, but maybe she could pick up something on the way home. Chris sat straight and looked at each of them in turn, softening her gaze only for Nicole. "I'm sorry that Howard has had alcohol issues. But I don't and I want a beer."

She heard Howard grumble something to Helene, who clucked her teeth. To her surprise, Berk's expression was open to her. "And Daddy, I know you're a pastor and Sheryl, I know Howard is Berk's Daddy." As she spoke, her voice began to rise in volume, too. She stood up and threw her napkin on her chair. "I know more about this family then I think you know about me. I'd like to say that I'm awful proud of Campbell. He's the cutest boy in the world and I love him dearly. I'm tickled that Sheryl and Berk seem to be so happy for their first anniversary, and I hope they have a million more. My congratulations—"

"Chris," her father said through tightened lips. "If you'd like to make a toast, we can do that when our food arrives, so please—"

"No, Daddy, this isn't a toast and I don't think I can wait until my food comes." She looked back, finding Nicole's surprised and curious expression giving her strength. With the other angry glares, Chris decided to focus on her. "I've been taking stock of my life this past year after someone who is beautiful and sexy...."

The last word brought murmurs from her father and Howard, but she ignored them.

"Asked me why I was hiding myself."

Her Dad threw his napkin on the table. "That's ridiculous. You aren't hiding."

Only one corner of her mouth curled in response to her dad. "I've been living my life to please you, Daddy."

"Is that wrong?"

She shook her head. "But I haven't.... I haven't pleased you. I see that Sheryl brings you so much joy...." A sob escaped her lips. "And I don't begrudge her that. I love you, Sheryl, even if you are a spoiled priss...."

"Are you going to ruin my first anniversary, too?"

Her sister's face was red. Her tongue was licking off all the lipstick from them and if Sheryl knew, she'd be horrified, a fact which almost made Chris laugh. Until her Dad aimed his nuclear fury at her. "What do you mean, too?" He was always ready to defend his baby.

"I'm not done," Chris said mildly. "I don't mind that Dad thinks the sun rises and sets on you, Sheryl. Because I feel the same way. I think you both remind us of mom." She turned to find her Dad's intense gaze. "But what hurts me, Daddy, is that you don't have enough of your love to go around."

"What are you talking—?"

"Like I said, I don't please you. There is nothing I can do to make you love me more. But by trying to please you, I've abandoned myself. I work too much because I'm lonely and I'm lonely because I'm afraid you'll hate me."

Her Dad scratched his head, as the waitress began to move in with the food. He looked up at her. "Miss, can you we have a few minutes?"

She looked around bewildered. "Sure thing."

After she'd left, her Dad studied Chris a few minutes without saying anything. Then he nodded, as if he was ready to speak. "If your speech is all about this gay business, I thought we'd resolved all that. And I'd prefer not to air our issues in front of Mr. and Mrs. Wolfram."

Helene graciously nodded and whispered a "thank you."

But Chris recognized this as a ploy to avoid the topic. "I'm sorry, Howard and Helene," she said. "But this can't wait." She turned to face Nicole across the room. "I've already wasted a year."

Nicole sat up straighter, her guess about where Chris was going was confirmed with the wink she got from the blonde.

"I am gay, Dad," she said. "I'm thankful you haven't disconnected me from our family, like so many other parents I've heard about. I didn't choose to be this way. But I am and I can't hide it anymore—"

"I don't expect you to hide it but I don't want to see you hanging all over a woman, just as I would not want to see Sheryl hanging all over a man. It's not dignified."

Chris reached up and unclasped her necklace, letting the rings fall to her palm. "Okay, how is this for dignified." She walked over to Nicole, offering her a hand to rise. Nicole could feel Chris' hand trembling. "Nicole, I loved you the moment I first met you—"

"Oh, Christ on a stick!" Howard griped, earning him a glare from Chris' Dad for taking the Lord's name in vain.

"Christine Brandonburg!" Sheryl said through clenched teeth. "What in the name of heck fire do you think you're doing here?"

But Chris kept focus on Nic. "I would be so proud if you'd allow me to date you—"

Helene gasped and whispered, "This spectacle is obscene!"

"And love you...."

Nicole nearly melted to hear the words and hear the tremble in Chris voice. Her heart had ached since she'd had to take a stand for freedom, but now, seeing Chris' courage, she was so very thankful she did. She put a hand on the woman's cheek, stroking her with the thumb. "You are so beautifully courageous, you know?"

Chris smiled. "For the rest of my life."

Nicole's breath hitched. "Oh, baby!"

Howard finally stood, pulling his wife's chair as he rose. "That's it. I've had enough of this." He turned to look at his son. "Berkley, call me when this disgusting affront is—"

"Sit down, Dad," Berk said, rising to meet his father's harsh gaze. "You, too, mother."

Helene gasped again, grabbing her husband's arm for protection.

Sheryl read the urging to intervene on her father's face, so she arose as well. "Berk, honey, I think your Dad is right—"

Berk exploded around. "He's wrong, Sheryl! He's so damn wrong that I can't stand it!" Sheryl took a step back, stunned by her husband. "I'm sorry, honey," he added hastily, reaching out to clasp her hand. "But I am not going to let anyone in this room hurt my mom...." He looked over at Nicole and smiled. "I think she's found what she's been looking for. Thank you, Chris. She's been miserable without you."

Chris looked to Nicole. "You have?"

"Oh, yes, baby—"

A chorus of deep groans erupted with the last word, but it only made Nicole saucy. She pushed suggestively into Chris, planting a quick kiss on her lips.

Chris frowned over her shoulder at her father, while Nicole blew a kiss to Howard, who rolled his eyes. "I've been the pit of doom, Chris," she said turning back. Only then did she see a small golden ring between Chris' thumb and index finger.

"You're going to think I'm crazy, but would you wear my ring?"

Tears slid down her face, as Chris slipped the ring on her finger. "You are crazy, Chris," she said, wiping the drops away. "But I love it. And you."

"Me, too."

Chris pulled Nicole close, kissing her with so much passion she almost forgot she had an audience. Helene began to wheeze while Howard started to kick the chairs away from the wall to allow them to leave. Henry, Chris' dad, heard Marcy actually sigh.

"Dad and Mother, don't you move," Berk said with a threatening tone. Then he turned to Chris, who was holding Nic's hand and gazing into her face. "I haven't been the nicest person to you, Chris, and I hope you can forgive me."

He and his sister-in-law shared a meaningful look. Then Berk flashed pleading eyes to his wife. "Chris has done a lot for my mom, you, me and now Campbell. I don't want to lose my mom, Sheryl. I hope you feel the same way about Chris and I think you do."

Sheryl looked over Berk's shoulder to her Dad who was watching her intently. She could hear his voice in her head telling her to denounce the sin but love the sinner. Then she looked at Chris, smiling wide with those beautiful pearlies gleaming. She realized her sister looked finally her age and all it took was a genuine smile. She was startled to see that Berk seemed afraid of what she'd say and that realization made her heart break. She kissed Berk, whispering a quiet thank you in his ear for him alone.

With both hands on her hips, Sheryl studied the dining room. "Well, I think if Dad can skooch down one chair, we can squeeze Chris between Nic and Marcy." She looked up at her Dad, registering his disapproval there. But her eyes hardened. "Or, I can talk to the manager and see if Berk, the baby and I can find a table somewhere else with Chris and Nic. What do you think, Daddy?"

Her Dad looked over at Howard, who was still standing and clinging to his wife. "Is that the way it's going to be?" Even though he didn't look at Sheryl, everyone knew he was speaking to her.

Sheryl looked around and held Chris' gaze. "Yep, I do believe we're a toofer, Daddy," she winked at Chris, who's parted lips proclaimed her surprise. "So would you like your dear daughters—flesh of your flesh—behind door number one or your precious—and empty—reputation behind door number two?"

Henry noticed an expectant Marcy, whose raised her eyebrows were just as bad as saying "I told you so." "Okay, you win," he said to Sheryl.

"No," Nicole said, leaning down to capture his eyes. "We all win, Mr. Brandonburg." Then she took Chris' hand and kissed her knuckles. "Especially me."

The waitress came in with the entrees as they shuffled their seats. As Chris sat down in front of her two main dinners, she chuckled. "I'm free," Chris whispered to Nicole, who squeezed her thigh.

Berk handed Campbell a sippy cup. "What I don't understand is why you didn't kiss me that way in the church, Sheryl."

Sheryl's eyes were as big as baseballs as she watched Chris and Nicole chuckle. Her parents and the Wolframs chose to ignore the comment, to her relief. She placed a hand on the middle of her chest. "Berkley," she whispered. "I can't believe you said that to me!"

"Believe it," he said.

Chris put an elbow on the table. "You've got to be free, Sheryl. I can tell you, it's magnificent."

The End