“Why are you fighting this?”
Cassie looked at her best friend coolly over the rim of her coffee cup, then slowly lowered her lashes, dismissing the comment with an ease that surprised her.
“Why must we always have this discussion?” she asked.
“Because I can’t stand to see you wasting away like this,” Kim said.
“I’m hardly wasting away,” Cassie replied, slowly pulling her eyes from Kim and glancing out the window at the approaching evening.
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I know,” Cassie said, letting out a long sigh. “I just don’t know why it’s so important to you. The whole world’s not gay, Kim. I happen to like David.”
“Oh shit! You can’t be serious!” Kim jumped from her usual chair to stand in front of Cassie, blocking her view of the window. “He’s a farmer, for God’s sake! Not even organic. He probably votes Republican.”
Cassie laughed, and tucked her legs more securely under her. “I’m sure he does,” she said calmly. “I still like him.”
“At least Paul was an artist. At least you had something in common with him,” Kim continued.
“Yes, we had something in common. We both preferred men,” Cassie said dryly.
“At least Paul was sincere enough to finally admit that. You’re still living in denial regarding your own sexuality.”
“Kim, I’m so tired of having this discussion with you. I’m perfectly capable of having lesbian friends without being a lesbian. I know you find this hard to believe,” she added, “but not everyone is gay.” She smiled at her friend gently. “I accept you like you are. Why can’t you just accept me?”
“Because I know you, that’s why. You’re thirty-three years old and one of these days you’ll stop trying to find Mr. Right.” Kim looked at her for a moment. “Have you ever really looked in a mirror, Cass?”
Cassie put her coffee cup down, long weary of this discussion. “Shouldn’t you be getting home? Lisa’s probably worried about you,” Cassie said, referring to Kim’s partner.
“Lisa won’t be back from the city until late,” Kim said. “And don’t change the subject. I’ve been there myself, Cass. God, when I found myself attracted to another woman, I nearly went crazy. I dated a dozen men, slept with half of them and convinced myself that I was in love with one of them.”
“Yes. I went to your wedding, remember?”
“Yes. And why didn’t you stop me?”
“I tried, if you recall,” Cassie said, remembering how Kim had cried when she confessed that she had slept with a woman and how Kim had cried again when she told her that she was getting married. And Cassie was hardly the one to try to talk her out of it. What did she know about it? She just remembered how totally unhappy Kim was, and she told her to wait a few months before she decided anything. But Kim had been too scared to wait.
Now Cassie wished she had never told Kim about David. She knew Kim would only bring up this old argument. As sure as Cassie was that she would never enter into a lesbian relationship, she would never tell Kim that she found little attraction in men. Perhaps she was destined to live her life alone, without a husband, a partner, a companion. She was thirty-three years old and had never been in love. Had not even been close, she admitted. And Kim was right about David, they had nothing in common. He was just an attractive man who had asked her out, and she found his company acceptable. That was all. She would not sleep with him. She had not shared her bed with anyone in a very long time. That was something else she found unsettling. She had no desire for sex. She suffered through the few kisses she would allow her dates, but she always ended things when she felt the next step would lead to bed. This was something else she would not admit to Kim.
“It’s all because of your father, isn’t it?”
“Oh, Kim, please. We’ve already been down that road. A hundred times,” she added.
“Just because he’s condemned me, I hardly think he would disown his own daughter.”
Cassie stared at her, picturing herself telling her father, the Reverend Parker, that she was a lesbian. It would send him to his death. Or hers. But that hardly mattered anymore. It wasn’t like they were close. It wasn’t like she relied on him for anything. He was just the only family she had.
“He’s already condemned me just for living here. That and my profession.”
Kim sighed and lifted her arms in defeat. “How long have we been friends?”
Cassie smiled. “Twelve years.”
“Thirteen. We weren’t even twenty.”
“Both starving,” Cassie added.
“Like we’re famous artists now,” Kim said sarcastically.
“We’re hardly starving.”
“No. We’ve done pretty well.”
Cassie relaxed again, thankful the conversation was moving away from her personal life.
“How many pieces will you bring to the show next week?” Kim asked.
“I have seven or eight large pieces that are ready. At least that many more that I’m still working on, but I’ll save them for the fair in October,” Cassie said. “I didn’t have nearly enough last year.”
“Well, if you would quit doing the small trinkets and concentrate on the sculptures, you could have quite a showing.”
“Yeah, but it’s the small stuff that pays the bills,” Cassie reminded her.
Cassie stood for a long moment, staring back at her reflection in the mirror. She brushed the hair from her eyes and let out a deep sigh. As a child, she’d always wished for blonde hair, but she was still cursed with that in-between color. Too dark to be blonde but not nearly dark enough to be brown. She took both hands and ran it through the sides of her hair, tucking the short strands behind her ears. She kept it too short. Perhaps that was why she had a tendency to attract more women than men. And she had to admit, she fit the perfect stereotype—short hair, little or no makeup, casual, natural. But it wasn’t a sexual statement she was making. She had always worn her hair short, and she had never been one for makeup, even during her college days when she actually thought about dating men.
Now, she simply didn’t want the bother. Besides, she liked things natural. That was why she left most of her woodcarvings in their natural state. That was why she was a vegetarian.
But still, Kim’s words haunted her. She should just come right out and tell her. Kim was her closest friend. If she couldn’t confide in Kim, then who? But she had avoided the subject for so long, it had just become second nature to her. And it hadn’t been that many years ago that she had finally admitted it to herself. Gay. A lesbian. She lifted humorless eyes and stared at her reflection in the mirror. Yes, she could admit it now. Why not? It wasn’t like she was going to act on it.
It had been at least five years ago before she had actually been able to consider the possibility. She was always more comfortable around women, yes, but that didn’t mean she was attracted to them. But she wasn’t attracted to men, either. And she had several lesbian friends, it was true. Did she have any straight friends? But in this small community filled with artists, wineries, organic farms, and vegetarians, the lesbian and gay population was hardly closeted. And she knew a lot of them. Most of them. Despite her father’s warnings.
She remembered that day so clearly, the day Kim had told her she was leaving her husband, that she wasn’t going to live a lie any longer. Her father had been home. He had overheard. Poor Kim. Her father had whipped out his worn bible and proceeded to quote from it with ease, his booming voice still able to send chills down her spine. He had sent Kim away, warning her to stay away from his daughter. Cassie stood up to him that day, one of only a few times that she could remember. Kim was her friend, she had told him, and he didn’t pick her friends anymore. Guilt by association, he had boomed at her. They were all damned to hell and she best not be too close to them when the time came for God to clean up!
She lifted one corner of her mouth in amusement. She could smile now. The fear that her father instilled in her during her childhood was all but gone. She rarely saw him more than once a year. All they did was argue anyway. “An artist! By God, I raised you better. And living out here with them, thick as thieves, don’t think I can’t see it!”
She had bought her house in Sonoma County six years ago when prices were still somewhat reasonable, and he had come exactly twice to see her. To preach to her, she corrected. But she didn’t want to go there. Not tonight.
She reached up to turn out the light, but not before she caught the sad reflection in her blue eyes. She loved him, but only because he was her father and she was supposed to love him. But she knew without a doubt that she did not like him.
She lay in bed that night, her thoughts going to her mother, but she stopped them, as she usually did. Instead, she thought about the carving she started that morning. When she found the piece of wood on the beach, she very nearly passed it by. It was small and she was looking for something much larger. But when she rolled it over, she saw that it was well weathered and very heavy. She had positioned it several different ways, trying to find something, an image that she could transform it into. Then she had looked out over the rocks and saw the seal, sunning itself, its wide eyes never leaving her, and she stood the piece of wood up, its sleek curves mirroring that of the seal. She knew instantly what the driftwood would become.
She still thought it amazing that she could see things in ordinary pieces of wood. She had perfected her craft by doing hundreds of small carvings and selling them to the shops in San Francisco, but her real love was creating the giant wood carvings that sometimes took a month to finish. She had been lucky, selling enough of them to get by, gradually able to command the prices that she felt her work was worth. She sold all eleven pieces at last year’s county fair and was finally able to slow down and work mainly on the giant carvings that would each bring several thousand dollars.
She was finally satisfied with her professional life. Maybe that was why she could find little contentment in her personal life anymore. But she was used to being alone, and this period of self-pity would pass, as it always did.
“Listen to this,” Lisa said, pointing to the morning paper. “Says here that they are expecting the Labor Day Festival to draw nearly as many people as the County Fair this year.”
“That’s good news for us,” Kim said. “Did I tell you Steve bought three more of my paintings for his store?” she asked Cassie.
“No. Good for you.” Cassie put her coffee cup down and motioned for a refill. “I guess he’s not having any trouble selling them.”
“The seascapes always do well, although I’m getting bored with them,” she said.
“Honey, take what you can get,” Lisa said, reaching out a hand from behind the paper to rub her partner’s knee. Cassie smiled at the unconscious affection Lisa displayed. Lisa was the only one with a normal job, but she knew full well the struggles of trying to make a living as an artist.
“I know, I just want to do something a little more exciting,” Kim said.
“Then try it,” Cassie encouraged. “The last thing you want is to get stagnant.”
“Like you said, it’s the small stuff that pays the bills. I am working on something that is a little abstract, though not without form,” she said. “Very different from what I normally do.”
“I can’t wait to see it,” Cassie said sincerely. She knew Kim had wanted to try different styles for years now but had been afraid. She had made a name for herself in natural seascapes and didn’t want to damage that.
“She hasn’t even let me see it,” Lisa complained.
“That’s because . . . good Lord, will you look at those legs,” Kim whispered, staring down the sidewalk past the outdoor cafe.
“My, my,” Lisa echoed quietly.
Cassie followed their gaze, her eyes locking on the back of tanned, muscled thighs. Khaki shorts prevented any other exploration, and she only glanced at the thin, white shirt tucked neatly inside. Dark, neatly layered hair reached to the collar of her shirt, and Cassie watched as the stranger stopped and casually shoved both hands into her pockets as she looked around. Cassie turned back to the table and picked up her empty coffee cup, embarrassed for having stared.
“I don’t recognize her. Must be a tourist,” Kim said.
“With legs like that, she should be a model,” Lisa added.
“She’s probably a dog,” Kim said. “Wait until she turns around.”
“Will you two stop,” Cassie hissed under her breath. “Really, you’d think you’re never around women.”
“Come on, turn around,” Lisa said softly, ignoring Cassie.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Kim whispered.
Cassie looked up and again followed their gaze. The woman had turned and was facing them. She was beautiful, staggeringly beautiful, and Cassie felt her breath catch in her throat as the woman walked toward them.
“You know, if we worked out, we could have legs like that,” Kim said quietly.
“Yes, but that would mean we’d have to exercise,” Lisa said.
Cassie tried to pull her eyes away, she wanted to pull her eyes away, but they refused to obey. Smooth, tan skin, full lips—Cassie stared. Then her eyes moved past the beautiful face and lingered briefly on small breasts, wondering crazily if she wore a bra, then locked again on legs before making the return trip. She gasped when her blue eyes were captured by dark brown ones, and she found she could not take a breath until the woman mercifully released her and looked away.
Hadn’t she always known, and secretly feared, that this day would come? That she would see some woman and feel that attraction, that pull that she couldn’t resist. She could lie to Kim all she wanted, but she couldn’t lie to herself. She shuddered inwardly, acknowledging the fire that had started inside of her. For years, she had been able to keep these feelings away. She never allowed herself to think of any woman in a romantic way. She could control whatever impulses she may have. But one look at this woman and her carefully constructed wall had crumbled. Thank goodness she was a tourist, a stranger. At least it was a woman she would never see again. Walls could be rebuilt.
“Hey, earth to Cassie,” Kim said, poking her arm playfully. “You still with us?”
“Hmmm?” Cassie blinked several times, embarrassed that her hand still trembled when she set her coffee cup on the table. “Sorry. What?”
Kim smiled and glanced after the woman who had now passed their table. “Nice, huh?”
Cassie nodded. “Yes. Attractive.” She tried to convince herself that she had been looking at the woman with envy and not desire. It was a start to rebuilding that wall, anyway. She cleared her throat. “Perhaps we should take up jogging,” she said lightly. “We could all stand to lose a few pounds.”
“Perhaps we should take up something else,” Kim said with a wink.
“Please don’t start,” Cassie said. “I’m not in the mood.”
“Kim, leave her alone,” Lisa warned.
“Thank you,” Cassie said quietly. She rested her elbows on the table and stared at Kim. “Do I need to bring up David again?”
“Please don’t,” Kim said with a laugh. “I don’t want to spoil breakfast.”
But it was already spoiled for Cassie. She drove home with the windows open, wishing for a cigarette, something she had not done in years. The rolling hills sped by without notice as she stared straight ahead, her mind on only one thing.
How could one tiny, innocent glance at that woman bring such fear to her? Perhaps she wasn’t as immune to her father’s words of eternal damnation as she thought.
“I wasn’t attracted to her . . . I was simply looking at a beautiful person,” she said out loud. She shoved her sunglasses on to avoid seeing the truth reflected back at her from the mirror and drove on in silence, convinced she would be over this by evening.
But when she got home, she called David. They had not made plans this weekend. She had told him she would be too busy preparing for the upcoming art show, but now she wanted his company. She would invite him over to dinner, and she would let him kiss her and hopefully, she would feel something, anything to make her forget the way her pulse had raced earlier today.
“I don’t really miss the meat in here,” David said, taking another piece of the lasagna.
“What’s to miss?”
“Oh, come on,” David said with a smile. “Don’t you ever just want to plop a nice, juicy steak on the grill?”
Cassie eyed him coolly over her wineglass, then raised her chin. “I don’t particularly care for dead cows bleeding on my grill,” she said. “I prefer the smell of roasting vegetables.”
David shook his head but smiled. “I don’t think I could go without meat for too many meals, but once in awhile is fine,” he said.
Cassie had told herself she would try with David, so she let that comment go unanswered. Instead, she filled both of their wineglasses and pretended to enjoy his company.
“How long have you been this way?” he asked as he swirled the Merlot.
She raised her eyes slowly. “What way is that?”
She shrugged. “Since I was old enough to start cooking for myself.”
“My father said I was going through a phase, and it would pass,” she said. “Actually, one of my high school teachers described what a slaughterhouse was like, and that pretty much did it for me.”
“Well, you just don’t think about it.”
“Well, we should think about it.” She set her wineglass on the table, preparing to launch into a speech. “And not only for the cruelty to the animals, but what about all the agricultural land and water that is devoted solely to raising and feeding cattle when we should be growing food for human consumption.”
“Whoa, now,” David said, raising his hands. “I don’t want to get into an argument with you. We have different opinions on this one, I’m afraid.”
She leaned back and tried to relax. “Yes, I guess we do. I don’t suppose you want to discuss organic farming?” she asked with a smile.
“Let’s don’t,” he said. “In fact, I wanted to ask you about your work. You don’t know how many times I’ve been to Potter’s and have never thought to ask about the squirrel they have sitting on the counter. Then today, there was this woman asking who had done it, and I was surprised to hear your name. You said you did wood sculptures, and I guess I had no idea what you really did.”
“I gave Carl that squirrel four years ago,” she said. “I generally do larger pieces now.”
She didn’t want to talk about her work. She didn’t want to share this with him, she realized. He would not understand how each piece became so very personal to her, even the small trinkets, as Kim called them.
“How is it that you’ve lived here six years and we’ve just now met?” he asked.
Just lucky, I guess. But she stifled her grin and answered tactfully.
“I doubt we have any of the same friends.” They had literally run into each other at the grocery store, him knocking her flat on her backside as he had hurried into her aisle. His way of apology was to offer her lunch. Cassie was too embarrassed to decline.
“You hang out with artists, I guess?”
She shrugged. “I’m an artist. I do know some of the local farmers, though.” She raised her eyebrows and forced a grin. “I hang out at farmer’s markets, too.”
“Buying only organic vegetables, no doubt,” he said sarcastically.
She stared at him for a moment. “No doubt,” she said dryly, realizing that she didn’t like this man in the least. Why had it taken three dates for her to figure it out?
After dinner, she offered to make coffee, but he declined. He wasn’t too fond of French vanilla, he said. She was thankful.
“We can sit and visit, if you like,” he offered.
“Actually, I have some work to do, David. I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to call it a night.”
“Oh, of course,” he said immediately. “I’m glad we got to spend some time together. I know how busy you are.”
He walked over and took her hands, and she steeled herself for the kiss she knew was about to come.
“Thanks for dinner. I enjoyed it.” He lowered his head to hers, but she stepped back.
“Listen, David . . . I’m sorry,” she said, pulling her hands away. “This isn’t going to work.”
“What do you mean?”
“Us. This,” she said, motioning between them. “We’re just . . . too different. And I’d like to be able to meet you on the street someday and consider you a friend and not an ex-boyfriend, you know what I mean?”
He sighed and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I guess. I feel kinda lost out there anyway. I mean, I’m nearly forty. I picked a hell of a time to start dating again. Half the women in this town are newly divorced and hate men, or they’re gay, or they’re into saving the earth and picket my farm because I won’t go organic, or they’re vegetarian and despise me because I keep a few cattle . . . oh, I didn’t mean you, Cassie.”
She smiled. “It’s OK. No offense. I haven’t taken to picketing farms yet.”
“Well, let me get out of here. I’ve enjoyed meeting you, if nothing else,” he said.
“Thank you. I’m sure I’ll see you around town.” She waited politely beside the door until he had started his car and driven off.
She leaned against the closed door and shut her eyes. The only good thing to come of the evening was that she had not thought about the woman she had seen earlier that morning. She shoved away from the door. Not much, anyway.
Cassie sat down and placed the piece of wood between her knees. She selected a palm chisel and began carving the wood, shaving off small pieces with each stroke. She found that people liked to watch her while she worked, and it helped sell the smaller carvings that she now had lined up on the table.
Her booth was roped off, a large ten-by-twelve area, with tables lining three sides. The fourth side was reserved for the giant carvings she had positioned there. She sat under the shade of an umbrella and looked around at the milling crowd, still small at this early hour but growing. She recognized a familiar figure walking towards her, and she lifted a hand in greeting.
Paul ducked gracefully under the rope after dodging a family of five.
“Quite a crowd already,” he said after placing a friendly kiss on Cassie’s cheek. “Jeff’s worried he didn’t bring enough.”
Jeff did beautiful pencil sketches of wildlife and framed them using salvaged wood from old barns in the area. Jeff was the man that Paul had fallen in love with.
“So, things are still working out for you two?” she asked.
“Yes. Things are wonderful, Cass. I’ve never been so happy.”
“Well, I was hoping that was the reason I hadn’t seen you in awhile,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” he apologized. His face showed genuine dismay, and Cassie smiled and took his hand.
“Oh, I’m teasing, Paul. I know how happy you are. It’s written all over your face.”
“And how are you doing? The last time we talked, you seemed so down.”
“Down? Did I? No, just preoccupied with my work, most likely,” she said, trying to convince him as well as herself.
“Well, I better get back. I just wanted to say hello. Good luck today,” he called.
She watched him go, smiling as he hurried back to Jeff. Now there was a man she had something in common with. He was an artist, a vegetarian, and he didn’t get on with his parents, either. And so she had tried with him. There just hadn’t been any passion between them. They were always the best of friends and could talk for hours, but whenever they tried to move their relationship to another level, it stalled. Their kisses were nothing more than affectionate. They were never in any danger of losing control. Actually, it was almost as if they had to remind themselves that they were supposed to be dating. Then he met Jeff. He finally confessed to Cassie that he had been suppressing his attraction to men for fear of alienating his parents even more. But Jeff had literally swept him off his feet, and Cassie had wished Paul nothing but the best.
When she thought about it now, it was almost a relief that Paul had met Jeff. If there was ever a man she thought she could be with, it had been Paul. He was a gentle, soft-spoken, kind man. But it was nearly exhausting trying to invent feelings where there were none. And they had maintained their friendship, although they didn’t see each other nearly as often.
“These are beautiful.”
Cassie raised her head, pushing her thoughts away and smiled at the young couple who had stopped to admire her carvings.
“Thanks. You’re welcome to pick them up,” she offered.
The woman touched a fawn, one of Cassie’s favorites, and she saw her eyes light up, knowing instantly that they would buy it.
“How do you do it?” she asked Cassie.
Cassie stood and carried the piece she had been working on. “It starts like this,” she said, holding up the wood she had just begun carving. “This is going to be a squirrel. At least, if I have enough wood left for the tail.” She picked another piece out of the box under the table and showed it to them as well. “This was supposed to be a squirrel, too, but as you can see, no tail.”
“How did you learn how to do this?” the man asked.
She shrugged. “Some people can paint . . . I carve.” How did she tell someone that it just came naturally?
Out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed a woman admiring the large golden eagle standing nearly three feet tall from its base. She turned to watch the woman, to see her reaction to her work, and she actually felt her breath catch in her chest. It’s her.
“I really like the deer. How much is it?” the woman asked.
Cassie swallowed with difficulty and made herself turn back to the couple, smiling. “Seventy-five. All of these smaller ones start at seventy-five and go up to one twenty-five.” Then she pointed to the end where an assortment of larger squirrels sat. “Except them. The larger squirrels there are all two hundred.”
“Is seventy-five too much, Mark?”
“No. If you like it, we’ll get it,” he said.
Cassie turned again to watch the woman squatting beside the eagle, unmindful of the sign that warned her not to touch. Her sunglasses were shoved casually on top of her dark head, and her sleeveless shirt showed off well-muscled arms. Cassie’s eyes traveled from her thick, dark hair to smooth cheeks tanned a golden brown, on down to small waist and . . . perfect legs. Cassie had the same reaction to her the second time around. Heat assailed her body, and she was afraid. “You do take checks?” the man asked.
“Oh, yes.” Cassie forced herself to wait patiently while the man wrote out a check. “I’ll wrap that for you, if you like.” She wrapped the fawn gently in newspaper and taped one of her cards on the side.
As they left, she turned and was startled to find the woman watching her.
“Your work is exquisite.”
The voice was not what Cassie would have expected. It was softer, gentler than the imposing woman standing before her with only a hint of the huskiness Cassie imagined. Words refused to form, so Cassie kept quiet.
“You are Cassandra Parker, right?” the woman prompted.
“Cassie, yes.” Cassie paused only briefly before taking the woman’s offered hand, daring to meet her dark eyes for only a moment.
“Luke Winston.” The woman released Cassie’s hand much too slowly.
Cassie frowned slightly, and the woman paused, as if waiting for Cassie to question the unusual name. She pressed her lips together, refusing to ask the obligatory question. It wasn’t any of her concern, she told herself.
“I’m looking for a couple of pieces for a client,” Luke explained. “One outdoors, one in.”
Cassie motioned to the remaining six that she had. “Only the two largest eagles have been finished for the outdoors, I’m afraid. And the totem. I can put a finish on one of the others, though, if there’s one you like.”
“No,” the woman said, moving away from Cassie, again circling the smaller eagle. “This one belongs inside, anyway.”
“I’m working on another eagle,” Cassie said unexpectedly. “In flight, six foot wing span,” she explained. At the woman’s expression, Cassie smiled. “It just sort of happened, and I have no idea how I’ll transport it, if I even want to sell it.”
“That may be more of what they’re looking for,” she said, again turning towards the golden. “This one is beautiful, really.” She looked up and caught Cassie’s eyes and her voice softened. “I want it. I have the perfect spot for it.”
“For you? Or your client?” The thought of this woman having one of her pieces was causing all sorts of emotions to sift through her body.
“I feel drawn to this one. Like it was meant for me,” she said quietly. “Do you ever get that feeling?”
Cassie nodded, her eyes locked with this stranger. She opened her mouth, hoping her voice would follow. “Most of my work is from driftwood, small and large. I see a piece and it pulls me, tells me exactly what it needs to be.” Cassie’s voice was equally as quiet.
The woman was staring at her, as if she wanted to say something, and Cassie raised her eyebrows.
The woman looked away and shook her head. “Nothing,” she said, almost to herself. Then she looked back and their eyes held, and Cassie was powerless to look away as they stared at each other.
“Hey, girl,” Kim called, breaking the spell. “Oh, I didn’t know . . . oh,” she said again, seeing the woman. “Well . . . I’ll let you finish with . . . whatever you’re doing,” she said and grinned wickedly at Cassie.
Cassie glared at Kim, although she was thankful for the interruption, and she moved away from the stranger. She watched as Kim shoved her hand towards the woman.
“I’m Kim Monroe. Just a friend,” she said pointedly and Cassie winced.
“Luke? Parents wanted a boy?” Kim asked the question that Cassie had not.
Luke smiled at Cassie before answering. “My mother wanted a Lucinda.” She opened her waist pack and pulled out her checkbook. “You do take out-of-town checks?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” Cassie said.
“With all proper identification,” Kim added.
“Don’t you have your own booth to run?” Cassie asked under her breath.
“Lisa’s got it under control.”
“I guess I should ask how much it is,” Luke said.
“Two thousand,” Cassie said confidently.
Luke smiled and met her eyes again. “I would have paid at least four.”
Cassie gave a smile that didn’t reach her eyes. Four?
After boxing it up carefully, Cassie offered to get help to carry it, thinking of Paul.
“No, not necessary,” Luke said. “I think two of us can manage. I’m parked fairly close,” she said.
Cassie looked at Kim with pleading eyes, but Kim smiled and rubbed her lower back before sitting down.
“I’ll hold down the fort. You run along,” she said to Cassie.
“Thanks a lot,” Cassie murmured, then bent to take one end of the box.
“I hope you put one of your cards in there,” Luke said as they made their way through the crowd. “I think I can get you a sale on that eagle. Money is no problem, by the way.”
“That’s nice to know. Maybe I should let you price it then,” Cassie said lightly. “I have no idea what to ask for it.”
“They’ve just built a home over on Russian River. Logs, totally natural. They have this enormous deck that reaches nearly to the water’s edge. They’ll love your stuff,” she said. “There’s a perfect spot for one of your large eagles.”
Luke was watching Cassie, so she tried not to labor as she helped carry the cumbersome box. Finally Luke grinned.
“Do you need to take a break?”
“Please,” Cassie panted.
“Sorry about that.”
They sat the box down, and Cassie rested her hands on her hips, trying to catch her breath, noticing Luke didn’t seem winded in the least.
“You work out,” Cassie stated unnecessarily. Her eyes moved over Luke’s upper body, resting on her biceps. Luke shifted her weight and casually crossed her arms, watching Cassie watch her. “The most exercise I get is carrying driftwood back to the house,” Cassie admitted to this stranger.
“It started out as a relief to . . . my life, I guess. It became addicting,” she said. “But then, it beat the alternative.”
Cassie waited for her to explain but Luke didn’t and Cassie was polite enough not to ask.
“You’re really very talented,” Luke said unexpectedly. “I’m sure you hear that all the time.”
“Mostly from people who can’t afford to buy my work.” Cassie shifted from one foot to the other nervously, making a pretense of scanning the crowd. “But I do OK here.”
“Surely you’ve tried the city,” Luke said, casually resting her hands on her hips, her shirt straining across her chest.
“Yes,” Cassie said, pulling her eyes away from Luke’s shirt. Her breasts. “I started out in San Francisco. I still have several shops that carry my carvings and they do quite well there but I find I work much better out here,” Cassie managed. “It’s peaceful. I don’t feel like I’m always in a hurry anymore.”
“Yes, I know what you mean. It’s nice out here. Hard to believe we’re only an hour or so from the city.”
Cassie nodded, again looking into the crowd to avoid having to look at Luke Winston. It wasn’t fair, she thought. No one, especially a woman, should have the power to affect her so. She took a step back, suddenly feeling crowded by this woman’s nearness.
“I’m ready if you are,” Cassie said, wanting nothing but for this encounter to be over and done with.
“OK. On three.” Luke bent easily and grasped her corner, waiting for Cassie to do the same.
Cassie watched as Luke bent. Against her will, her eyes were drawn to those tan legs and she completely forgot their task as her eyes ventured higher.
Cassie jerked her head away and met dark eyes that held just a hint of amusement. She blushed crimson.
“Sorry,” she murmured and hurried to pick up her end, silently cursing herself.
Luke smiled, flashing even, white teeth. “It’s OK,” she said lightly.
Cassie kept her eyes averted as they made their way to the parking lot, and Luke was true to her word. She paused beside what appeared to be a new Lexus SUV, as black as the woman’s hair. With a push of the remote, the back opened while they waited.
“I appreciate you helping me.” Luke slid the box carefully inside, then slammed the door shut.
“No problem. It was worked into the price,” Cassie said as lightly as she could manage.
Luke flashed her a grin. “Well, I’ll let you get back. Your friend is probably waiting.”
Again she placed her hands casually on her hips and again Cassie had to drag her eyes away. She raised them to meet Luke’s and forced a smile, which faltered only slightly when Luke extended her hand.
“It was nice meeting you, Cassie. I feel like we’ve met somewhere before though. You look so familiar.”
“No. I don’t think so.” Cassie took her hand briefly, then pulled away. “I would have remembered. And thank you. I hope you enjoy the eagle.”
“Oh, I will. It’s very beautiful.” Luke’s voice softened to nearly a purr, her eyes never leaving Cassie’s. “I hope we run into each other again.”
Suddenly Cassie didn’t want to leave, and she hesitated as the woman’s voice enveloped her. She swallowed, willing her feet to move, willing her eyes to pull away. Do something!
“Well . . . good-bye, then.” She turned and made herself walk, not run, her back positively burning where she assumed dark eyes were looking.
She ran both hands through her hair in frustration as she faded into the crowd. Why was Luke Winston able to make a mockery out of her life without even trying?
Luke Winston. Such an odd name for a woman so beautiful. She closed her eyes tightly. Not beautiful. Just an attractive woman. Just a stranger that she would never see again. With any luck.
“Hey, about time,” Kim called. “I’ll need commission, I think.” She pointed to the empty spot where the small totem had been.
“You sold the totem?” Cassie asked, her eyes wide. She had been trying to get rid of it for three years. “How did you know what to ask?”
Kim bit her lower lip. “How much did you want for it?”
“A thousand,” Cassie said.
Kim broke into a smile. “Good. I got fifteen hundred.”
“Jesus Christ! How?”
“Well, I knew to ask less than the eagle.”
“The eagle took me twice as long to make,” Cassie explained. “I dropped the price to eight hundred last year, just in hope of getting rid of it. It takes up space in my shop.”
“Hey, so post signs next time,” Kim said. “It was an older gentleman with four teenagers in tow. He wanted it for a lodge or something. Now, the details.” She lowered her voice and grinned. “That woman is gorgeous, with a body to go with it. God! Her check says she’s from the city. What’s she doing here two weekends in a row?”
“How should I know,” Cassie said crossly, looking away from Kim.
“She didn’t offer and knowing you, you didn’t ask.”
“Why would I ask? It doesn’t concern me,” Cassie said.
Kim tilted her head and grinned. “In all the years I’ve been doing this with you, that was the first time you’ve ever offered to help carry one of those out of here,” she stated, waving at the remaining pieces.
“I’m sure you’re mistaken. I’ve done it . . . several times.” Damn!
But Kim only smiled. “Sure you have. Did she make a pass at you?”
“Of course not! Why would she?”
“Oh, come on. Surely you could see the way she was looking at you,” Kim teased.
Cassie turned cool blue eyes to Kim. “Don’t,” she said quietly. “I will not have this discussion with you here.”
“I’m just teasing.”
“Yes, well don’t.”
Kim placed her hands on her hips and stared at Cassie. “Can’t you just let go for once? Must you always have this shield around you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Cassie said, searching for her piece of wood, something, anything to appear busy.
Kim handed her the wood silently.
“You’re never going to enjoy life,” she said, raising her hands around her, “if you’re so goddamned afraid of having feelings.”
Cassie faced her squarely. “I don’t know how to have feelings,” she said quietly.
Kim shook her head. “Just let go for once, Cass. What are you afraid of?”
“I’m afraid of life. It comes from years of living with my father,” she said.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Kim said. “I didn’t mean . . .”
“No, I know I have a problem. I can’t seem to feel anything for anyone,” Cassie said. Her expression softened. “I don’t mean you. You’re my best friend. I feel that,” she said, touching her chest. “I just can’t seem to find anyone . . . for me. And yes, maybe I am afraid. I’m afraid of men because my father warned me about them my whole life, how they’re only after one thing. And I’m certainly afraid of women, because I’ll rot in hell from that kind of love for sure,” she finished, tears now brimming in her eyes.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Kim said gently, giving her a quick hug. “I’m sorry.”
Cassie brushed an errant tear from her cheek and smiled slightly. “I need a good therapist, I know.”
“Maybe you just need a good lay,” Kim said, and Cassie laughed with her.
Cassie studied the two bottles of wine in her basket, then reached for one more. Another advantage of living in Sonoma County was the wine selection. And after spending two weeks of forced solitude in her workshop, she was ready to break loose a bit. She felt like cooking, too. She had barely taken time to eat, much less cook, and cooking was her one means of escape.
She had spent nearly every waking hour working on the eagle in flight. As she had told Luke Winston, it just happened. She and Kim had struggled with the huge chunk of driftwood for hours, finally getting their friend Carl to assist them. His truck had barely held the wood and the three of them had managed to carry it into her workshop where it laid for months. She knew it would be an eagle, it could have been nothing else. The eagle was her favorite subject. But it had grown and grown, until its magnificent wings stretched out six feet. Now, after two months of lovingly chiseling and carving, it was finished. And she hated to part with it. But she had worked painstakingly the past two weeks on the off chance that Luke Winston would call, or at least the clients she had spoken of, and offer her an outrageous amount of money for it.
Now, she just wanted to relax. And the weather forecast seemed perfect. A storm was coming. Heavy rain was due by this evening, and it would linger through tomorrow. She planned to cook and curl up with a good book and read, something she had not taken the time to do in months.
But she was surprised at the dark clouds overhead as she loaded her groceries. The rain was not supposed to hit until later but already the first fat drops were wetting her face as she hurried inside her van. She rubbed her hands together quickly to warm them before pulling away, a smile breaking her face. The rain was as good an excuse as any to stay inside and avoid company. Mainly Kim. She had spoken to her only a few times in the last two weeks. Their conversation on the day of the festival still hung between them, and Cassie knew that Kim wanted to talk about it. But Cassie, however, did not. She had grown accustomed to hiding her feelings. A trait that caused many to call her cool and aloof. In reality, she was anything but that. But it was a facade that grew on her, and she had perfected it over the years. So much so, that she rarely shared her true feelings with anyone. In fact, she wasn’t sure she even knew what her true feelings were anymore.
She headed down the rural road which would take her to the acre lot she had purchased nearly six years ago. The house hadn’t been in the best of shape, but the large work shed had been in nearly perfect condition. That and the eight mature apple trees had sold her on the place. Over the years, she had remodeled the tiny house more to her liking, redoing most of the kitchen, her favorite room, and knocking out a wall and making the two small bedrooms into one large room for herself. She rarely had company, and on the two occasions that her father had come to visit, he had made do with the sofa.
She had moved to Sebastopol for two reasons. One, because Kim had moved in with Lisa and had left a terrible void in her life. She found herself making the trip nearly every weekend to stay with them, and she had fallen in love with the area. And two, because it was filled with artists. And art shows. So, she had saved every penny and bought the farm nearly a year after Kim had moved. She never regretted her decision. If nothing else, it had enabled her to escape her father. At least physically. Mentally, his words and preaching still haunted her.
“Those boys only want one thing, Cassandra. I will not have a daughter of mine seen out dancing, of all things. It will only lead to trouble, girl. You mind my words. Don’t you ever let one of them touch you!”
She was lost in thought when the rain hit with dizzying speed. Her wipers could not keep pace with the downpour, and she strained to see the road, leaning closer to the windshield and rubbing the now foggy glass with her hand.
The sudden jolting of the van made her grip the steering wheel tightly to keep it on the road, and then she heard the unmistakable sound of a flat tire.
“Oh shit,” she hissed. Cassie slowed, her eyes wide, trying in vain to find the side of the road, hoping she didn’t drive off too far and land in the ditch, but far enough so that she wouldn’t be hit by another car. It was impossible to see through the pounding rain, and she eased off the road just a little farther.
Turning in her seat, she searched the back for the umbrella, cursing when she remembered leaving it beside the kitchen door the last time it had rained.
“Shit . . . shit, shit,” she muttered. She then looked for something, anything to shield her, wondering why she still believed the so-called experts. The storm wasn’t supposed to hit for hours yet. She was totally unprepared.
She shook her head, then on a silent count of three, threw open the door against the wind, and went out into the downpour. Shielding her eyes from the rain, she surveyed the very flat tire on the passenger side, now sinking lower into the muddy earth as water ran off the road at an alarming pace.
“Well, shit,” she said again under her breath, her soaked clothes clinging to her chilled body. How was she to attempt to change the tire in this weather? Providing she even knew how to change a tire. She had just passed one of the many dairy farms in the area. She supposed she would have to attempt to walk there. She shook her head, wondering why she did not have a cell phone like most normal people. Probably the same reason she didn’t have a computer, she mused.
The blast of a horn startled her and she looked up, shocked to find a black Lexus easing to a stop. The passenger door swung open and Cassie stared inside.
“Get in before you drown,” Luke Winston yelled as the storm raged around them.
Cassie hurried to the door, then hesitated, glancing at the leather seats.
“I’m soaking wet,” she said unnecessarily.
“No kidding. Get in.”
Cassie hopped in and slammed the door as water ran from her wet hair into her eyes and down her face. The sound of the storm subsided somewhat as Luke pulled in front of her van and stopped.
“Are you OK? What happened?” she demanded.
“Just a flat,” Cassie said. “Do you have a phone? Can you call someone?”
“Yes, I’ve got a phone, but I doubt you’ll get anyone to come out in this storm,” Luke said. “Where do you live?”
“About another five miles,” Cassie said, finally wiping at her rain soaked hair and daring to look at her rescuer. “But this storm . . . I hate for you to have to drive in it.”
Luke bent her head and looked out at the weather, frowning. “I live just ahead,” she said. “You can come home with me until this lets up some. Then we can see about getting your tire changed.”
“You live . . . here?” Cassie asked, the surprise evident in her voice.
“I have a house here, yes,” Luke said, starting to pull away.
“Wait,” Cassie said, her hand reaching out lightly to grab Luke’s forearm. “I mean . . . I hate to impose,” she said lamely. She most definitely did not want to go to this woman’s house.
“You’re not imposing.”
“I’ve got food . . . I’ve been shopping,” she stammered.
Luke gave her an amused smile. “I wasn’t expecting payment.”
Cassie gave a short laugh. “No. I mean, I’ve got things in the van that need to be refrigerated.”
Luke cocked her head and raised an eyebrow. “Well, lucky for you, I have a refrigerator.”
She leaned between the seats, and Cassie pressed herself against the door, her nerves on edge, this woman’s nearness immediately causing her senses to reel.
Luke turned back around with an umbrella in her hands and offered it to Cassie.
Cassie stared at it silently for a moment, then looked up into dark eyes. “I don’t really see the point,” Cassie murmured, lifting one corner of her mouth in a smile as a raindrop ran down her nose. She hurried back into the storm, putting into one bag the things that would spoil and rushed back to Luke.
“I’m so sorry . . . your seats,” she said, trying to wipe the rain off of the leather.
Luke took the canvas bag from her and put it in the back. “Don’t worry about the seats. Now, strap in,” she said, motioning to the seatbelt.
Luke turned down a dirt road only a few hundred yards past Cassie’s stranded van, a road Cassie had passed hundreds of times before. Luke wiped at the windshield with her hand as they splashed through the mud, jarring them in their seats.
“Hell of a storm,” Luke said, almost to herself.
Cassie nodded silently, wondering what in the world she was doing riding with Luke Winston, going to her house, no less! She kept quiet, hoping that Luke could see the road because she could not. The wipers tried frantically to keep pace with the rain, and Cassie glanced at the woman beside her, noting how strong her hands seemed as they gripped the steering wheel. Her fingers were long and smooth with neatly kept nails, and Cassie’s eyes were glued to them. She felt a strange sensation travel through her body as she watched those hands. She pulled her eyes away, closing them briefly as she listened to the rain pound the vehicle.
She was surprised when the sound subsided, and found that they were under what appeared to be a carport of sorts. Luke cut the engine, and they sat for a moment, staring at each other.
“I didn’t know you lived out here,” Cassie said carefully. “I’ve never seen you around town.”
“I’ve been building,” Luke explained. “I just recently started staying here.”
It wasn’t actually a carport, Cassie noted when they got out. It was more of a covered shelter built into the side of the building. She looked around as Luke reached in the back for her bag. It looked more like a barn than a house.
Cassie followed her inside, pausing to remove her muddy shoes by the mat before entering the most unusual house she had ever seen. She stood there, arms wrapped around her chilled body, and glanced at the large expanse of the building.
“You need to get out of those wet clothes,” Luke was saying and Cassie brought her eyes back to the woman standing before her.
“In there,” she said, gently pushing Cassie toward a door. “Take a hot shower. I’ll bring you some clothes. Afterwards, I’ll give you the nickel tour if you want.”
Cassie nodded silently and opened the door to the bathroom, much larger than her own. She slowly turned a circle, looking at the impeccably clean room, wondering if it had ever been used before. Then she faced the mirror and groaned. Her hair was plastered to her head and her wet shirt and shorts clung to her body. She looked frightful.
She turned from the mirror and stripped off her wet clothing, putting them all in a neat pile on the floor. The walk-in shower had no door and she stood at the back of the tiled enclosure, looking at the three shower heads with a slight frown. There was only one knob. She turned it, surprised that water fell from all three shower heads. Neat. She stepped into the hot spray, thinking that Kim would find all of this very amusing. She smiled. Actually, she found it quite amusing herself. Here she was, calmly showering at the house of a woman that she had secretly prayed she would never see again. A woman whose mere presence sent her pulse racing.
When she stepped out of the shower, she was surprised to find her wet clothes gone, replaced by a pair of gray sweats and an Oakland Raider’s jersey. She had not heard Luke enter the bathroom. A thick towel hung beside the shower and Cassie reached for it, quickly drying herself. As she pulled the sweats over her naked body, she groaned with embarrassment. Luke had not only taken her wet clothes, she had taken her bra and panties as well.
She found a comb in one of the drawers and brushed her wet hair back. It would dry soon enough and she stood there, in clothes one size too big, delaying her departure from the sanctuary of the bathroom. She met her eyes in the mirror and tried to smile. She would have to go out eventually. She could get through this, she told herself. Right?
“Of course you can,” she murmured quietly. “She’s just a woman.”
Cassie’s stomach rumbled as soon as she stepped out. Luke was apparently cooking. She found her at the opposite end, the kitchen separated from the rest of the house by a ten-foot long bar. As she walked toward Luke, she looked around, astounded by the unusual house. It was simply one very large room, the ceiling reaching up some twenty feet or more. Floor-to-ceiling windows covered the entire back wall, and Cassie watched the rain splatter against them, wondering at the view on a clear day. Opposite from the kitchen on the far side of the building were stairs going up into a loft. The bedroom, Cassie assumed. It, too, was full of windows facing west. Tucked neatly under the loft was a large stone fireplace. Two leather sofas formed a semi-circle, encompassing both the fireplace and the patio. Beside the fireplace, looking out towards the patio, was her eagle.
“Feel better?” Luke called.
“Much. Thanks for the clothes.”
“I put yours in the dryer,” she said. “Feel free to look around.”
The only area of the room that was not impeccably neat was a desk, complete with a computer, printer and fax. Blueprints were strewn about and Cassie looked back to Luke.
“You’re an architect,” she stated.
Cassie looked back at the room. “And this . . .”
“I like space,” Luke said. “I can’t stand being crowded by walls and low ceilings.” She stirred the pot one more time and put on the lid, then joined Cassie. “I finished it about six months ago, but I was too busy to move in. Actually, I’m not all the way moved in yet. I still have a house in the city that hasn’t sold so I haven’t had to clean it out. I’ll probably do that within the next few weeks, though. My realtor says she thinks she’ll have a contract on it by the end of the week.”
“This is beautiful,” Cassie said. “It’s most unusual.”
“I like it. I’ve been working on it for nearly two years. I was more than ready to have it finished.” Luke pointed to the loft. “I’d take you up and show you the bedroom. The view is incredible, but we wouldn’t see much today.” She walked back into the kitchen. “Something to drink?”
“Yes,” Cassie said, walking into the spacious kitchen for the first time.
“Nonalcoholic, I’m afraid.” She opened the refrigerator and peered inside. “I have juice—apple-strawberry. Club soda, a nice sparkling apple cider made right here in Sebastopol, and plain old Coke,” she said, looking at Cassie expectantly.
“How about the nice sparkling apple cider?” Cassie pulled out one of the barstools and sat down, watching Luke as she reached for two wineglasses, her eyes drawn to Luke’s flat stomach as her shirt pulled up. Luke had changed her clothes, too. Gray cotton shorts replacing her jeans. Cassie swallowed and pulled her eyes away, feeling a hot blush on her cheeks as Luke handed her a glass. She took it quickly and shrank back away from her.
“Wineglasses but no wine?” Cassie asked. “You’ll be run out of Sonoma County if anyone finds out,” she said with a smile.
“Yes. A bit like moving to Santa Fe and not liking Mexican food.” Luke paused, as if deciding whether to continue or not. “Not liking it wasn’t my problem,” she said. “Beer, whiskey, wine . . . I liked it all. Too much. So, I quit.”
“Totally, yeah. That’s when I started working out. I ended up trading one addiction for another.” Luke’s face broke into a smile. “And it’s become that. I’ve got a small gym out back. Just the basics, but enough to keep me satisfied.”
“How long now?”
“Since I’ve had a drink?”
“I was thirty-two. Six years now, I guess,” she said. She pulled out a stool at the opposite end of the bar, and Cassie’s eyes followed her. They studied each other for a moment, silently.
“You have the most incredible eyes,” Luke said softly. “Bluest I’ve ever seen.”
Cassie felt her heart catch, then race, sending fire through her body. Her eyes widened as Luke watched her.
“I’m not a . . . I’m not gay,” she finally stammered.
Luke laughed and snapped her fingers. “Damn! I keep forgetting that rule not to compliment straight women.”
Cassie blushed crimson. “I’m sorry. I just thought I should . . .”
“Warn me? In case I had designs on you?” Luke laughed again, a deep, husky laugh that Cassie found enjoyable, despite her embarrassment. “You’re perfectly safe. Trust me,” Luke said.
“I’m sorry,” Cassie said again, now totally humiliated. “You probably have a . . . someone . . . in the city.”
“Actually, no. I’m just not looking.” She got up to stir the pot again and Cassie forced her eyes to remain on her empty wineglass. “Usually it just screws up a good friendship,” Luke said. She turned back around to Cassie. “But I thought you were . . . you know, gay.”
“No, I’m not,” Cassie heard herself say, surprised at the ease that statement came to her.
Luke shrugged and put the lid back on. “A good day for chili,” she said. “Vegetarian, though. I hope you don’t mind.”
Cassie’s lips parted in surprise. She was a vegetarian, too? She shook her head. “No, I don’t mind at all.”