Chapter One

What a night.

It was the start of the new millennium, and in a small, dark bar in the centre of Manchester, a small blonde woman was leaning on a barstool. She didn't think she'd ever have the strength to get up. Her limbs felt like jelly - far too tired to support even her own slight weight. However, despite the fatigue, a deep sense of satisfaction was fighting its way through the fog of the "morning after".

She smiled a little weakly.

Not bad for a night's work, Nia...even though you're saying it yourself.

She was right. Last night's New Year celebrations had gone exceptionally well - regulars and newcomers appreciating the easy ambience that marked the place apart from Manchester's trendier offerings. Their enthusiasm - and alcohol consumption - had brought in takings that were more than enough to appease the ever-looming Powers That Be. But festivities over, the dirty work was beginning in earnest. The January rain was falling in buckets, drenching the streets outside and running into the gutters as the clean-up operation got underway within.

Damn place looks like a bomb's hit it.

The manager glanced about her, and baulked as she surveyed the filth saturating her small territory.

It was in quite a state. Broken glasses and bottles littered the whole vicinity, along with a liberal scattering of cigarette ends. The chairs and tables looked as though they'd been dug out of a coal mine. And to top it all, the entire area was slick with spilled beer and champagne, sticking feet to the floor and snatching tacky footprints that would be horrendous to get off.

Still, if we all pull together it shouldn't take too long to return to some semblance of normality...she thought, as she breathed in the buzz that permeated the air. Ten of the bar staff had dragged themselves out of bed before noon on New Year's Day to come and clear up - and Nia reflected that they were doing a pretty decent job of it, despite the seemingly impenetrable mess.

These were a good lot. The financial rewards for giving up your New Year's Eve to work were considerable, especially since this was the start of the new millennium - but the staff had given more than their money's worth and worked the shift with patience and good humour, dealing efficiently with the casualties that were a side-effect of cheap champagne and free shots of vodka.

The bar manager tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, and grinned to herself as she remembered one of the evening's more amusing incidents.

The place was filling up fast, and although it was only ten o'clock, many of the customers were dancing. Some of them were criminally drunk, Nia realised, as a besuited young man almost fell into a table in his efforts to cut a move. While observing his antics, she spotted one of her staff elbowing her way in and out of the crowd, collecting glasses cavalier fashion - thin-lipped and methodical, fixated on her task.

The manager smiled in appreciation. Lizzie was a petite, attractive young woman, and her appearance belied a feisty little tiger that could definitely take care of herself. The only clue to the fire that lay within was a certain something in the cut of the profile, a determined nose and angular jaw that jutted defiantly regardless of what mood the barmaid was in. Nia had often wondered what it would be like to take the brunette to bed, imagining Liz to be as much of a handful in the sack as she was in the workplace...and routinely had to shake herself for thinking about one of her employees in such a manner.

She shook herself again, and deep green eyes focused on the figure approaching the bar, with arms full of glasses and an ill -concealed look of annoyance on her face.

Liz set the pile down and gave her boss a tense grin.

"Everything OK, Liz?" Nia enquired, stifling a smirk in case it prompted an outburst from her quick-tempered employee.

"Fine."

Replied the brunette abruptly, before turning to face the man who was dancing behind her, and pinning him to the nearest wall with an icy glare that carried a notable amount of menace, despite her size.

"Listen, mate. The next time you grope me while I'm collecting glasses, you're heading for a broken arm. And if you don't believe I can do it I'd be happy to demonstrate."

Nia choked back a bark of laughter. Stunned, the customer attempted to speak - failed, and sloped off into the crowd, sheepish and visibly embarrassed by the fact that this diminutive barmaid had thwarted his advances so effectively...and publicly.

Meanwhile, Liz turned back to her manager, triumph and apology mingling in her face as she met the blonde's eyes.

"Was it acceptable to do that? I mean, you always say that sexual harassment's not part of the job, but..."

Her voice trailed off, betraying a little uncertainty. Nia was a fabulous boss, normally granting her staff a considerable amount of freedom, but everyone knew there was a line that was not to be crossed with the gentle blonde or there would be hell to pay. Liz wasn't sure whether she'd just crossed it.

But the golden-haired manager just chuckled and patted her on the arm.

"You're a little warrior at heart, aren't you?" She quipped, a smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.

"I like it, Liz. I'd have done exactly the same thing in that situation. Next time, let's tackle him together. I don't think he'd survive if we pooled our resources. That might be fun."

With a wink, Nia moved off to put change in the tills, leaving an admiring Liz gazing after her.

"She's something else, isn't she?" She muttered, to no-one in particular.

A few seconds later, she gave vent to a snort.

"Who's she calling a warrior?"

***

"Boss?"

A disgruntled male voice dragged Nia back to the grime and chaos of January 1st.

"What's the matter, Tom?"

She craned her neck to reply to the hefty lad towering over her. Nia didn't have many men on her staff, finding that communication was much easier with an all-female team - but as she'd reflected when she'd hired Tom and Pete...you have to keep some boys on the premises to do the heavy lifting and the muck-work.

Tom wrinkled his nose in disdain.

"Some customer got pissed as a newt last night - barfed all over the men's toilets - where do we keep the bleach?"

Nia swallowed a laugh at his description.

"I think it's in the cupboard next to the cellar, Tom." She said, solemnly.

"But you'd best check with Max just in case. Here, take my keys."

She threw the large bunch to the boy, who caught them deftly and sloped out, scowling and grumbling to himself. Nia grimaced and decided to leave her assistant to deal with the fall-out from that one.

Although to say that Maxine was Nia's assistant manager would be to grossly understate the case - within the bar's insular community she was more akin to right hand, henchman and familiar. By now Nia had lost count of the times Max had given far more than her job was worth - and perhaps her reasons were less than straightforward, but it was appreciated all the same.

Maxine was definitely the most obvious dyke on the staff at Fire and Ice - a short, stocky character with a neatly shaved head and several tastefully designed tattoos. She rode to work on a Harley, which was about the only thing that would ever have convinced Nia to sleep with her - since the blonde had a well-hidden fetish for girls in leather. And Max had almost pulled off the desired romantic encounter through dint of sheer persistence. Things had become pretty intense, and fearing the loss of a trusted friend and her most valuable employee, Nia had eventually been forced to tell her to back off. The hurt in those big brown eyes had almost torn her apart. Max looked like a stricken animal - shocked, dismayed and unsure of how to handle the twisting in her guts that was almost tangible, it was so vehement.

But much to Nia's relief, the butch had gathered herself up, turned on her heel, and left the office, returning to work the next day with a slightly set look on her face and a pleasant but distant demeanour that lasted a couple of weeks.

Things seem pretty much back to normal now...Nia mused as she reached over and pulled out the Z-read, studying it with a frown puckering her normally placid countenance.

Damn.

"Hey!" She shouted over the din of the glasswasher.

"Did anyone ring in 40 bottles of champagne by mistake? I've got a transaction record here that says so, and I'm positive we didn't even sell that many in total last night."

She nestled the cash drawer against one hip, one finely arched eyebrow lifting as she waited for a response.

"Oh...sorry."

One of the newer staff members put down her broom and looked a little apprehensive.

"I couldn't really see what I was doing...I meant to tell you...sorry," she repeated, staring at her feet.

Nia waited patiently until the shamefaced girl made eye contact, and then quirked a reassuring smile.

It's always the way. They never take responsibility for their mistakes, because they think they're the only ones who ever make them. If only they'd realise that a mistake can be fixed, as long as I know about it.

"Sarah, it's no big deal. But next time, please remember to put a note in the till straight away. It saves a lot of bother."

She continued to smile at the girl until the hangdog look vanished, and returned to the cashing up.

***

Tom was making noise enough for an army of foot soldiers as he mounted the stairs with a bucket full of bleach and water, spilling the mixture all over his shoes as he went. And as he re-entered the bar he paused for a second, confronted by the sight of his young employer behind the cash register.

I still can't decide whether she's pretty or not...he ruminated.

So he looked more closely, coaxing himself to regard his manager with the dispassionate glance of a tomcat on the prowl. But frustrated, he found that he could not - and the longer he stared, the more stubbornly his perceptions resisted all attempts at impartiality.

He sighed. Nia was like that - nobody granted the privilege of the small woman's company could deny that she was complex. And this complexity was the key to her charm. To reduce the whole to a single part was impossible. There was nothing obviously outstanding about her - but in combination, the qualities and characteristics the small bar manager possessed produced something absolutely extraordinary. There was an open artlessness about her, and a quiet wisdom that created beauty - without it, there would have been allure, but the whole package was truly breathtaking. Nia's physicality was truly the least of her merits.

She wasn't a tall woman - her chin was about level with Tom's chest - but her lean, elegant build made her appear taller than she actually was. And she moved with the poise of a dancer, making it a standing joke among most of the long-standing members of staff that watching Nia make a cocktail was like being at the theatre. The lad chuckled, remembering the transfixed expressions at the last team meeting, as male and female, straight and gay, they all glued their eyes to Nia's graceful body while they were supposed to be learning how to make a Martini.

Tom squinted as he considered Nia's face, framed by a couple of locks of the strawberry blonde hair that was always falling into her eyes.

Not attractive in the classical sense of the word...he thought. Definitely not.

But there was something about it that was undeniably bewitching.

He decided it was the eyes...large, oval shaped pools of a colour he'd never seen before. A little bit of green, a sprinkling of hazel, the hues of murky dishwater, really - but in Nia's face they sparkled like precious stones, and she unconsciously used them to draw people in. He'd seen customers mesmerised by those orbs from the other side of the bar, and he didn't blame them. When Nia smiled, which was frequently, her whole face was illuminated and those remarkable eyes seemed to twinkle just for you.

The lad released a heavy sigh.

She's so feminine...I don't understand it. Max definitely looks the part, but how can Nia be...?

"No point in standing there gawping, Tom."

Liz briskly finished his train of thought.

"When will you boys get it through your thick skulls that she bats for the other team?"

She slapped Tom on the back of the thighs with her broom, and departed to tackle the tables next to the DJ box. After a moment, Tom pulled a face at her and shuffled off to clean up the vomit in the toilets.

***

By noon, they were finally ready to open. The last of the New Year streamers and champagne corks had been swept away, glasses had been polished, pipes had been cleaned and barrels had been changed. Nia reflected with contentment that her normally pristine bar was almost in its usual state.

"Are we ready?" She enquired of her small team.

On receipt of a unanimous thumbs up and a nod from her manager, Liz threw open the doors to the sound of the daily downpour, along with the rumble of the buses crawling up and down the main road and chugging out carbon monoxide as they went. And a healthy number of customers immediately surged through the opening, seeking respite from the wind and rain in the warmth and comfort of Nia's small venue.

All ordering Bloody Marys, I'll bet. She snickered to herself as she descended the stairs into her office. Hair of the dog never fails to cure a hangover.

"I'll be downstairs if you need me." She shouted in Maxine's direction, waiting for the answering grunt before removing herself from the public eye.

Ignoring the mess on her desk, the manager settled into her swivel chair, surveyed the takings and prepared for some serious number crunching. This was the only element of the job she really disliked - although she wasn't a stupid woman, something about accounting drove her almost to distraction. Nia survived more than adequately using a delicate blend of willing empathy and shrewd instinct, and the hard logic of mathematics often jarred her senses, making her feel as though she must be insane.

She flinched as she remembered that it hadn't always been like this. Once, there had been someone by her side who could commute between her sensibilities and the cold rationality that seemed so foreign to them.

"Well, sweetie - if you just take the numbers in that column from the next one, then you've got your stocks remaining, and you can check that off against the other sheet using the lookup table. Remember the lookup table I made for you?"

Nia gazed up at the woman who was leaning over the back of her chair, chin resting on her shoulder, patiently giving her the advice she needed.

"I do. Thanks. You know, I'd be really stuck if you weren't here to help me with all this stuff."

She smiled at her partner, enjoying the pleasant warmth that was always evoked by the sight of the woman she loved. She and Paula had been friends for years before deciding that it might be more than agreeable to take their relationship to the next level, and the groundwork they'd already put in made their love affair relatively trouble-free, which was a new experience for both of them. "Friends before lovers" had become their motto and their code, and it seemed to work remarkably well.

Paula was a charming-looking girl. Small yet perfectly formed, her auburn hair fell just below her shoulders in a cascade of riotous curls. And the face behind the mane was the sweetest thing Nia had ever seen...big brown eyes poking out through a thick fringe of dark lashes, a rosy flush on her cheeks that was echoed by the darker shade highlighting her lips. She bent down to give Nia a quick kiss before returning to the monitor, wrinkling up her pretty nose in what looked like frustration.

"I don't quite know what you've managed to do here...how did you get that figure as a total?"

Nia sighed, ready to throw the spreadsheet in the bin and set fire to the whole bloody thing without remorse.

"I don't know. I really don't. Do you want to give up for a few minutes, and make a pot of tea?"

The bar manager jerked herself out of reminiscence and turned to the matter at hand...the year-end report. But she couldn't concentrate - her rebellious thoughts continually lapsed to the emptiness that had been sitting in her gut for as long as she could remember.

God, where did it go wrong with her? We were perfect together. Most people would kill for a lover like that...and we were the best of friends, too. So why did I feel something was missing? Why did I send her out of my life?

What was it that she just couldn't give me?

She remembered nights spent in Paula's embrace, the tiny redhead giving all she had and more - and Nia finding it increasingly difficult to take it. A shadowy figure lurked just on the edge of her consciousness - dark, powerful and proud, making her heart skip a beat and cruelly stealing her attention from the sweet, loving woman she was with. The image had begun to dominate her thoughts, and the shout had grown louder and louder, reaching a crescendo that told Nia it was time to be honest.

Paula's parting shot had hurt, born of the redhead's anguish but baleful all the same.

"Whatever it is you're looking for, Nia, I damn well hope you find it. Because I don't believe it really exists."

Nia released a long breath, tossing her head vigorously to dislodge the painful memories, and turned back to the numbers, screwing up her face in concentration.

***

An hour later, she was rescued by the sound of her direct line.

Sighing once more, the blonde wondered whether to answer the ring, knowing full well who would be calling her private line at this time on a Bank Holiday. But she knew she had to pick up. She really had no other option.

"Hello?"

"Nia." Came a muffled growl.

"Hello." She repeated, wearily.

"We need to make a drop-off, tonight, around 6-ish."

"Fine."

"Make sure everything's in the right place, will you? Thanks." The line went dead.

The bar manager rested her head in her hands for a long moment, fighting the tears that threatened to get the better of her.

Surely this isn't part of my job description? It's more than my job's worth, that's for sure.

But making a stand is pretty much impossible.

***

All was quiet until 6pm when Nia's phone rang again - but this time it was her line in to the bar. She wondered how on earth something could have gone wrong this early in the evening, but remembering her responsibilities, she set her jaw and answered the call of duty.

"Yes?"

"Nia..."

Lizzie's voice sounded unusually flustered as it drifted down the line into her ear.

"There's...a customer here who was in last night. Did we pick up a phone?"

Nia wedged the handset between her ear and her shoulder, and rifled through her drawers for the lost property box. Tugging it out by the corners, she discovered a watch, a handful of earrings and a rather scuffed-looking shoe...as well as a mobile phone.

"Yep - It's here in the office, Liz." She confirmed.

"Well, she's just on her way back from the bathroom now - can you pop it up? I'm a bit scared to keep her waiting - she looks as though she might turn out to be difficult."

"Hang on a second - I'll come straight out." The bar manager told her employee.

Just what I need...she reflected a little bitterly. Another problem to deal with.

At the top of the stairs, she paused and pushed open the bar doors with caution, speculating on what kind of trouble this customer must be causing in order to make Lizzie lose her cool.

And was stopped dead in her tracks, by a face she recognised as the one that had haunted her dreams the previous night. Piercing blue eyes shone in the centre of ridiculously chiselled features, framed by a thick crop of raven hair.

"Eh..."

Nia wavered on the last step uncertainly, feeling as though she was going to tumble all the way back down, but unable to tear herself away from those eyes that seemed to see into the depths of her soul.

Oh, I remember you...she thought.

In fact, this woman had been the only thing to pique her interest on New Year's Eve. If Nia was anything, she was fair, and she always took her turn behind the bar on busy nights so that the staff could rotate their breaks. She didn't mind this kind of work, being a congenial, friendly sort - but talking to most of the customers in Fire and Ice left her cold and more often than not with a distinct taste of sleaze in her mouth. So she tended to do the job on autopilot, not meeting anyone's gaze directly and certainly not bothering to engage any of the punters in conversation.

But during her hour on the bar on New Year's Eve, she felt those bright blues focusing on her, sending shivers down her spine before she even turned around. And when she did, she found herself staring into a face almost familiar, which was so striking it took her breath away. Her heart threatened to leave her body via her mouth when the tall, dark and handsome stranger eventually approached the bar.

"What can I get you?"

Nia didn't even dare look up for fear that this fascinating woman would see she was already blushing.

"Vodka and tonic, please." Came a deep, husky growl.

Nia managed to prepare the drink without spilling or dropping anything, which was quite a feat considering every limb she owned was shaking. The woman tipped her generously, lightly brushing Nia's fingers with her own as she did so, before disappearing into the crowd just as suddenly as she had come, leaving Nia gasping and searching the room for another glance.

But she didn't see the dark, mysterious beauty again...until the very end of the night. The evening was almost over, the bar was shut, but customers and staff continued to soak up the party spirit, and Nia decided to let her kids have their fun as the reward for a long evening's hard work. She doled out a welcome round of staff drinks, and joined forces with Maxine to accomplish the majority of the cleaning up around various members of her team, who were now dancing on the bar.

The blonde manager was weary, and it was all she could do to engross herself in the task of swilling out glasses under the hot tap, stacking them neatly in the dishwashing tray ready for the next load. And although she was almost ready to drop, she couldn't help dancing as she did it - her lower body swaying gently to a bassy hip hop number that was one of her favourites. She was completely oblivious to the fact that she had an audience. In fact, Nia continued her dance uninterrupted for about ten minutes until she became aware of candid eyes boring into the top of her head. A little embarrassed, she looked up - into the same chips of electric blue that had captivated her earlier.

The woman looked at her for a long time. Nia froze, wondering whether it was right for her to speak, desperate to know more about this stranger who made every nerve in her body feel alive. Then she received the ghost of a grin, and what she could have sworn was a wink - and the charismatic visitor did an about-turn and strode off purposefully into the early morning sounds of the city.

Leaving Nia standing there with a pint glass in both hands, heedless of her surroundings, completely spellbound.

The woman was staring at her again now, barely hiding a look of mild amusement as Lizzie noticed her boss's lack of composure and timidly touched her arm.

"Nia?"

The femme pulled herself together and made a feeble attempt to look like a manager instead of a fifteen year-old schoolgirl in the throes of her first crush.

"You...you came to collect your phone?"

***

The dark stranger looked at Nia for a long time.

Her gaze was keen and intense, but also conveyed an arrogant disinterest - it blistered and chilled in equal measure. Torn between needing to run and wanting to be devoured, Nia shifted awkwardly from one foot to the other. She felt like a rabbit caught in a trap - by the sexiest huntswoman she'd ever clapped eyes on. And although her intellect rebelled against the imminent surrender, she sensed that she was already ensnared.

The enigmatic visitor gave the blonde a nod that was curt, yet not unfriendly.

"I came for my phone, yes. Left it here last night."

A woman of few words, I see.

Nia looked down at the phone in her hand.

Nice.

It was one of the latest models, a petrol coloured pocket-sized thing, with a flip-top.

I wonder what she does for a living? Must be well paid, whatever it is.

She took in the woman's expensively casual attire with a swift, knowing glance.

She certainly seems to have the image well worked out.

"So, can I have it back?"

The woman's deep, husky voice broke through Nia's speculations. Her face was deadpan, but there was a twinkle hiding in those bright blue eyes that caused the blonde to flush as she handed the piece of equipment over.

"Thanks."

Nia found herself blushing even harder as their fingers disengaged, and mentally slapped herself in an effort to keep her cool. The mystery caller was making her more flustered with every second that passed. Trying to ignore her nerves, she lifted her chin, cleared her throat, and forced herself to appear professional.

"I need you to sign this item out for our lost property records. The forms are in my office - would you like a coffee while I get somebody to find one?"

"Fine."

The guest settled herself on a stool, with one booted foot propped up on a nearby chair and the other long leg dangling.

"Black, one sugar." She grunted, in the direction of her host.

Nia tried not to take offence at the terse instruction - it was given in the tone of one used to being in command, which was guaranteed to get her back up. Biting down on the tart remark that rose to her lips, she nudged open the swing door to the bar and grabbed two cups.

"Liz, could you do me a favour?"

She motioned to the small barmaid, who'd been hanging back during the brief exchange and inspecting them both with more than a hint of curiosity creeping on to her pert, pretty features.

"The red box file in the office has the lost property sheets in it. I'd be very grateful if you could fish one out and bring it up here."

Although Nia was always impeccably civil when asking anything of her small team, this request sounded almost affected in its politeness - and she knew she was secretly hoping to remind the dark woman of her own manners. A spark of challenge had been ignited between them, and it did not go unnoticed by either. Blue eyes held green for a split second, until the bar manager looked away.

Handing her keys to her employee, she set the espresso machine running. She turned her back to the tall woman as she did so, and heaved a silent sigh of relief at the few seconds' respite from the interaction. Her insides were churning in response to the charismatic guest, and she wondered how the woman managed to be so uncomfortably close and coldly distant at the same time.

It felt like the only sound in the small bar was the steady drip of boiling water through steel filters.

Nia knew that the potent cerulean gaze was still riveted on her, even though her back was turned. Her hands were shaking. She swivelled slowly as the cups began to fill, and faced the vivid stare once more.

"I'm Nia, by the way. And you are?"

"Jake."

The answer was brief but not brusque. And those eyes seemed to be reading her thoughts even better in the cold light of day than they'd done in the dark.

"Jake. That's an interesting name. What's it short for?"

The bright blue began to mellow.

"The cups are overflowing, Nia."

Oh, shit.

Well done, Nia. You're really managing to keep your cool with this one.

Why does this always happen to me?

The blonde dove for the "off" switch, and watched in slow motion as coffee dripped towards the edge of the bar, sliding down the door of the fridge and collecting in a pool on the floor. She refilled the filters silently and mechanically and made two more cups, managing to put Jake's down in front of her without spilling the dark liquid again.

The woman gave her a nod of thanks but said nothing. She'd barely strung a full sentence together since she arrived, and the hush was becoming almost unbearable for the bar manager, whose life was usually propelled by the chat and laughter of her sociable profession. Nia felt vulnerable and exposed in the face of Jake's silence. But she also intuited depths in the stillness that she knew she craved - promises that were drawing her in with inexorable force.

"We were really pleased with the way last night went. Did you enjoy yourself?"

Clamping down on her tumultuous emotions, she attempted to make small talk.

"Well, there were a couple of interesting moments."

Jake met Nia's gaze directly and finally granted her a smile, revealing teeth that were unusually white for a coffee-drinker, and leaving the blonde in no doubt about which moments she was referring to.

The small woman's guts turned themselves inside out - and she gulped a couple of times, unable to reply. Thankfully, the prolonged period of eye contact that resulted from the dark stranger's bold statement was interrupted by the return of Liz, waving a form and a biro at their guest.

"Here you go." She said, brightly.

Jake's eyes wandered briefly across Lizzie's body before she held her hand out for the paper and pen, and Nia felt an irrational pique, watching this new acquaintance appraise a member of her staff in such a casual manner.

She was immediately irritated with herself for it.

Why on earth does that bother me? She thought.

It's not like I know her. She only just told me her name. And Lizzie's an attractive girl - I've looked at her like that more than a few times myself.

She sighed.

Oh, sod it.

"Liz, I don't think we've stock-checked this week. Can you go down to the cellar and write a list of what we need?"

And with that, she sent the diminutive barmaid packing.

Trying to curb her satisfaction at this neat dismissal of the competition, the bar manager turned once more to her guest - just catching the remnants of the brunette's raised eyebrow. There was comprehension showing, and what she could have sworn was a glimmer of respect - so she grinned slightly and raised her own in response, before returning to the matter at hand with a tinge of triumph colouring her clear voice.

"I just need your address details...here. Phone number is optional. I can complete the rest."

Nia watched as the dark visitor filled the boxes with bold, angular strokes of the pen. She found herself fascinated by the woman's fingers - they were as large as a man's, but graceful rather than ungainly. A sovereign ring sat on the fourth finger of her right hand, and there was a plain silver band on the middle - not the wedding - finger of her left.

Paula's hands were nothing like that...she mused, her thoughts drifting towards her distant ex-lover while she appreciated the long, supple digits of the woman lounging on the stool before her.

They were small, and delicate, and white...and she had such perfectly manicured nails. Her touch was so incredibly relaxing.

Nia looked once more at Jake's powerful hands, imagining their strength covering her body, pinning her against the wall as the tall woman bore down to demand a kiss. This picture was definitely not a relaxing one - and she squirmed in her seat, involuntarily catching her breath as her visitor looked up.

"You've got my address. Is that it?"

The hands went back in the pockets of the biker jacket, giving Nia no time for another glance.

"Yes...I suppose so."

Feeling hot and extremely bothered, she fought an uncharacteristic urge to ask the woman to stay for another coffee. And if she was aware of the bar manager's internal battle, Jake didn't show it. Instead, she drew herself up to her full height and gave the blonde a measured and neutral nod.

"Well then, I'll be off. Thanks again for picking up the phone."

And she strode away, disappearing rapidly in the smog and drizzle of the main road, the grey clouds gathering her to themselves as though she belonged amongst them.

Alone with her thoughts, Nia gave vent to a sigh.

I suppose you win some and you lose some.

But a feeling of melancholy that she couldn't quite account for washed over her, like the January rain, as she watched the retreating figure.

And it was only after a few more cups of coffee, as she tripped back down the stairs to the realm of the dreaded accounting, that she looked at the lost property form in her hand.

There it was, right beneath the postcode - a Manchester telephone number. Scrawled underneath it, in inordinately tiny lettering, were five little words.

Squinting, she managed to make them out -

"Call me - if you want."

Well, well, well.

***

"So, have you called her yet?"

Rachel asked her best friend, noting the fear in Nia's eyes with some amusement.

She just doesn't realise what a catch she is.

"I dunno, Rach..."

Nia curled her feet beneath her and settled back into the armchair.

"I'd be too nervous...I mean, I told you what happened with the coffee. I can't even begin to imagine what a blithering idiot I'd turn into on a date."

"Nia, come on." Rachel laughed.

"You're just a little clumsy - It's not a crime. And anyway, didn't you spill the coffee BEFORE she gave you her number?"

"Yeah..."

"Well, then!"

Rachel levered herself off the sofa and ambled into the kitchen, point made.

"More wine, dear?" She grinned.

Rachel was the blonde's closest friend, and had been since both girls were about 7 years old and Nia's parents had moved into Rachel's street. They'd grown up together, albeit in very dissimilar ways, and had come through a few rough patches and periods of no contact relatively unscathed. By now they knew each other inside out - and although Nia had plenty of other friends, Rachel was the only person she felt she could really trust. Mostly because Rachel was able to match her strength.

Many of Nia's friends stuck around because she was counsellor and Mum rolled into one, carrying them through their worries with her empathy and wisdom and asking little in return - and at the age of twenty-six, her bond with Rachel was the only one that was truly reciprocal. They were as different as chalk and cheese - Rachel was heterosexual and a computer programmer, for a start - but the connection they shared was deepened by the disparity between their characters. Rachel's strict rationality was the perfect foil during Nia's most emotional moments, and the passionate nature of the bar manager encouraged her friend to enrich her experiences by letting go when it was appropriate.

Nia watched Rachel pour the wine and smiled inwardly as she remembered the day she "came out" to her best friend.

She'd been absolutely terrified about what Rachel would think - her friend was straight and had experienced little or nothing of the gay community during her short life.

"What if she can't handle it? What will I do then? What if she thinks I have a crush on her? What if she tells my parents?"

As was her habit, Nia drove herself mad with the "what if's" until she decided she just couldn't stand it any more - she was going to tell Rachel the truth and deal with the consequences, no matter how devastating they were. And she received the biggest shock of her life. Nia could have sworn that Rachel actually looked AMUSED when she turned around and said,

"Christ, Nia...I thought you were going to tell me something really interesting! I've known you were gay since we were kids...I've probably known longer than you, you dope."

Nia felt both gratitude and affection whenever she remembered the episode, and she smiled quietly as she regarded her best friend, now standing in front of her with a glass of red wine.

"Penny for your thoughts, Nia?"

The blonde tipped her a wink, and conceded.

"I think I'm gonna call her."


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