Jake was leaning against the bar, the serene set of her long limbs belying the trepidation she felt, when Nia appeared five minutes later. But the nervous twitch of her fingers, wrapped around a triple espresso that would make an Albanian coffee drinker proud, might have given the game away - if the Bar Manager had bothered to look.
Came a tight, cold voice, telling Jake before she turned around that this was not going to be a pleasant encounter. She nervously reflected that it was pretty easy, when a person was usually so warm and open, to tell they were feeling the chill.
She has every right to be. Considering the fact that I legged it with no explanation, following the appearance of an underground drug lord.
I just didn't expect it to make me feel so...small.
The dark woman replied quietly, swivelling slowly to face her Waterloo, and swallowing her nerves along with the dregs of her hot drink.
She'd been rehearsing several explanations at breakneck speed for the short time she'd been waiting, stopping only when the reactions she was attributing to Nia became so ridiculously cruel and dismissive she knew she was assuming the worst. But the altercations seething inside her head were squashed by the vision that was her nemesis. And for the second time that day, Manchester's Charmer of Maidens found herself lost for words.
She's adorable...she thought.
Nia was wearing a pair of faded workman's jeans that threatened to swallow her whole from the waist down, juxtaposed against the most petite red T-shirt Jake had ever been lucky enough to clap eyes on. Over this ensemble was thrown a huge black apron, splattered from top to bottom with some kind of tomato sauce. The fine, strawberry blonde hair had been twisted into an absent-minded knot at the back of her head, held in place with a ballpoint pen - and an intrepid blob of flour had taken up residence on her right cheek, just below the freckles that were darkening angrily with her blush. Jake's self-control reached phenomenal proportions as she valiantly fought the desire to reach over, tilt Nia's chin, and dust away the flour with her fingertips.
Sadly, the big, beautiful green eyes that were the crowning glory of the whole image were not such an agreeable sight. Jake baulked as she saw a storm brewing in their depths. There was surprise written all over Nia's features, her appearance fluctuating between the most implacable of the Furies, and a startled deer caught in the headlights of a car. However, the obstinate set of the pretty lips and determined jaw hinted that the young doe was not to be quietened by her assailant.
Don't you dare bolt, Jake. The butch told herself.
Disappearing is what got you into trouble in the first place, remember? You're better off staying put and trying to explain.
Unaware of the internal battle that preoccupied the dark, mysterious woman facing her, Nia decided to break the silence.
"I really didn't expect to see you." She said.
Her voice, pitched a little higher than usual, was betraying remnants of her shock. Jake was the last person in the world she'd expected to ever darken the doors of Fire and Ice again. But there was something else fighting its way through the cadences, something that allowed the dark woman a small hope that this situation might not end with a door closed in her face and a barring order.
It was relief - as much as she wanted to play the injured maiden, Nia couldn't deceive herself about the fact that she was glad to see the tall brunette. She found herself hoping against all hope that the explanation she was about to be offered would be acceptable, wouldn't connect Jake to Matt and his gang - because she desperately wanted to see the dark woman again. And again. And finish what they'd started. And then maybe start something else.
However, the ever-vigilant sense of honour and justice that informed the small blonde's understanding of the world, as well as the sleepless nights spent worrying over Jake's sudden departure, were not going to let her push the events of Friday night to one side just yet. With a resolute inward breath, the diminutive Bar Manager decided that she was going to assert herself.
Or at least to start with, until her burning desire to know this strange woman liquefied her resolve.
Green eyes met blue as the air began to sharpen around them. They were quite a tableau - to outsiders, the tiny blonde bravely facing off against the dangerously magnificent figure of the brunette must have looked like a madwoman. Whispers were coming from all quarters, but Nia was too consumed by the interaction between herself and the dark butch opposite her to care.
I must be mad...was her first coherent thought.
What if she's working for Matt?
From the sheer size of her, she'd be able to kill me with her bare hands if she wanted to. I must be crazy to even think about standing up to her. She's unreliable, volatile and probably an extremely hazardous proposition.
But Nia was not crazy, and she certainly wasn't stupid. She knew that a public confrontation would be relatively safe. And she also had an instinct that her new acquaintance was not going to hurt her. It was a strange certainty, but it went bone deep and felt as old as the hills.
Also, being an infinitely sensible girl, she knew that if her relationship with Jake was going to progress, she was going to have to kick off on the right foot with the intimidating brunette. Nia already had a definite impression that the tall, dark and handsome object of her desire was used to having her own way, and a sly suspicion that most of her sexual conquests had let her get away with it.
Well, not me. She thought.
Not on her nelly.
I don't care how big, bad and bossy she is.
Silence continued to hang in the air, as both women deliberated over what to say next. Inner conversations grew even more heated as they refused to break eye contact even for a second. Customers in close proximity began to comment on the restless fizz emanating from the bubble that seemed to envelop the two.
And still, the small blonde and the large brunette stared at each other in silence, straddling the fault line between emotional combat and something infinitely sweeter.
It was Jake who broke the deadlock.
"Um...can we talk?" She asked.
Great opener, Jake. That's original.
And after what you did on Friday I wouldn't blame her for telling you to get lost.
However, Nia's reply was not so dismissive as the miscreant had suspected.
"All right." She said.
"But this is my lunch break and I'm hungry. Have you eaten yet?"
Jake shook her head.
"Fine." Replied the bar manager.
"Take a seat. I won't be long."
Left to her own devices, Jake scanned the bar for appropriate seating. Fire and Ice didn't have an atmosphere conducive to peace and privacy, she realised ruefully.
I don't want her to feel too isolated...she thought, remembering the stricken look in Nia's eyes when she'd first come in.
But somewhere relatively secluded would be nice in case she decides to bite my head off.
Attracting all eyes and not a few murmurs as she stalked the territory, the tall, dark visitor had eventually settled on a corner table that wasn't too solitary by the time Nia returned, hair brushed, apron removed, face clean - carrying two plates.
The bar manager gave Jake a tight smile, setting half her burden down in front of the other woman before she sat down. Crossing her legs under the table, she motioned with a flick of the wrist that was both imperious and endearing, for her guest to commence her lunch.
Looks as though it's food first, argument after. Thought the butch.
Well, I suppose I can live with that...
Shrugging and unfurling the large, red napkin that housed her knife and fork, Jake looked down at the concoction she'd been presented with.
"This looks great." She said, with genuine enthusiam.
A shy smile and a grateful flush began to jostle each other for purchase on Nia's face. And for the second time since she'd entered the bar, Jake became sharply cognisant of the fact that the small woman was wreaking more havoc on her senses with every moment. That her need to be exonerated and to compensate for the events of Friday night was really tied to her own awakening feelings, rather than any outmoded loyalties she may have owed to the head of Manchester's most formidable gang.
"We're trying a new menu today." The blonde told her guest. " Let me know what you think."
The plates were piled high with large chicken pieces, tender and slipping off the bone, drizzled over with a simple tomato and honey sauce. Fragrant wild rice framed the dish, which was sprinkled liberally with toasted almonds and sesame seeds, caramelised onions and sultanas, and roughly chopped coriander.
Jake intoned, as the first forkful melted in her mouth.
"This is wonderful."
"I'm not just trying to butter you up - I mean it!" She protested, in response to Nia's raised eyebrow.
"I dated a chef a long time ago, but her inventions had nothing on this."
To Jake's surprise Nia failed to respond to the compliment, merely conferring another little smile as she continued with her lunch. Alone in the silence, the raven-haired caller wondered if she'd said the wrong thing.
Careful, Jake...flattery won't get you anywhere. Even if you mean it, you'll only end up looking insincere.
And talking about your personal history may be a little inappropriate, considering you almost bedded her and she's mad at you.
Curbing an unusual impulse for chatter, inspired by the delicious food and the even more delectable blonde sitting opposite her, Jake concentrated on clearing her plate before she cleared her throat. Ten minutes later and feeling a good deal calmer, she resumed the conversation.
"So what's this creation called? Chicken, honey and almonds is such an original combination...it must have an exotic name."
"Yeah." Replied Nia, dryly. "Chicken with honey and almonds."
The chuckles that erupted at this gentle irony were a tonic for two wary souls. Nia's anger seemed momentarily forgotten, as she favoured Jake with a beaming smile that started at the corners of her eyes and didn't stop until she'd revealed two rows of small white teeth. The front incisors were slightly uneven, Jake noticed - which only served to enhance the charm.
"I'm glad you like it."
Nia's radiant countenance was infectious, and Jake found herself grinning in reply, reasoning with premature satisfaction that perhaps the confrontation she'd been dreading was not going to occur.
"Where did you learn to cook like this?" She asked.
"At home." Replied the blonde.
"My parents were very busy people, and I was the eldest child - cooking was one of my chores."
Filing away this microscopic insight into the curious blend of innocence and responsibility that Nia embodied, Jake nodded as she polished off the last piece of chicken on her plate.
"Dishes like this one were easy because they're so quick - you can prepare the sauce in advance. I became pretty good at convenience cookery when I was a teenager." Nia said, stacking the plates in front of her.
"I'll say you did if this is anything to go by." The agreement resounded, from the beneficiary of her latest culinary labour.
The bar manager favoured her guinea-pig with another wide smile.
"I invent the menu here, and hire a couple of chefs who learn my recipes. It's arrogant, I know - but I'm a control freak in the kitchen."
"You have every right to be. You have many skills." The brunette bantered.
"More than you think." Was the manager's good-natured response.
"I'd love to attend one of your cookery classes. What's the reward for good behaviour, teacher?" Countered Jake, with a wink.
"Or do I get the feeling that you like the bad boys best?"
As the last, teasing words dropped from her lips the brunette realised that she'd made a mistake. Her outrageous attempt at flirting had rekindled the tension the meal had dispersed. The shuttered look returned to the green eyes that had previously been dancing with light.
"I believe you had something to say." Nia stated, quietly.
Jake refused to meet the blonde woman's eyes. She'd never been one to apologise, especially not in the context of a relationship that promised to be more than just a friendly one - it tore at the gossamer strands of power that always had to be woven in her favour. Not unevenly enough for her partners to notice - Jake was not a cruel woman, so she liked to grant her conquests a certain degree of independence - but the subtle disparities still had to exist, if only in the shadows. If she was honest with herself, this was motivated solely and simply by fear. Fear that if her intimates were not bound and beholden more to her than she was to them, they would leave her, betray her, and break her heart as it had been broken many years before.
Even after devouring the healing gifts of time, a few stubborn, battered remnants of the dark woman's heart continued to call out to the architect of her destruction.
In the bleak aftermath of the devastation that Tara had wrought, an apology had become something that was highly unlikely to cross Jake's mind, let alone transmute itself into speech. Even if she'd done something terrible, she learned to be extremely clever about admitting responsibility - avoidance, denial and half-baked admissions became her stock-in-trade. And the women she picked up and discarded were left frustrated, denied any valid reason for their distress.
Jake had seriously wounded some of her paramours. She wasn't a philanderer by any means, but she habitually managed to convey the impression that she was looking for something...and that this prize had so far managed to elude her. Her attention was as fleeting as it was intense, and when the honeymoon was over and she'd reached the threshold of boredom, she invariably managed to find someone else, usually an even more beautiful blonde, to gift with her legendary charm. And she never, never let anyone close.
She winced as she remembered one particularly well aimed parting shot.
"If you'd only pluck up the courage to let me in, we might have a chance! But that would perforate the armour, wouldn't it?"
Momentarily unconscious of her surroundings, the dark butch allowed a sigh to escape her.
It certainly would.
I let Tara in, and she took the damn lot - busted my heart into smithereens and left me with nothing.
I can't risk that again.
The voice of the bar manager, clear as a bell, pierced through the Babel of bewildered, abandoned sweethearts that were grasping desperately at her visitor's heart and mind and almost winning the struggle for suffocation.
With one foot still in the desolate battlegrounds of the past, Nia's dark guest stepped into the immediacy of a charged situation - and not without an inward moan at her own weakness, decided to try again with the charm.
After all, it normally worked a treat in the first stages of an acquaintance.
"Listen, babe...I had to take off on Friday night - something came up - you know how it is. I hope it didn't screw up your evening too much. Maybe we could try again - I've been thinking about you ever since."
Watching carefully for a sign of relaxation on the blonde's face, but finding none.
In fact, the charm seemed to be having exactly the opposite effect to the one Jake had intended. Nia's mouth was hardening into a thin line, and suppressed anger made her eyes sparkle like emerald chips.
Fuck. Thought the butch.
I seem to be making things worse.
What am I going to do?
And as she searched for an answer, the words of Nia's young employee began to drift around her head.
"for all her sweet, harmless appearance, she's got one hell of a temper when she thinks someone's trying to pull a fast one, you know? Anyone who thinks they can control her has another think coming."
The dark woman blew out a breath.
I'm treating her like a fool...and she knows.
And frustrating as this was, she couldn't resist a smile.
Well, Jake - someone has your number at long last.
Now do you think you can bring yourself to cut the crap?
She really didn't know.
But looking at the beautiful blonde who sat across the table waiting for an explanation, a hint of trust and acceptance still visible, although her eyes were now brittle with anger, Jake felt that perhaps honesty might not hurt her pride after all. The words "I'm sorry" seemed to lose their power to humiliate when confronted with Nia's sensitivity and lack of guile, and became a way of reaching out, rather than an admission of defeat.
So Jake took her courage in both hands and decided to try a brand new endeavour - speaking from the heart.
"I'm sorry, Nia." She said.
To her relief, a slight warming in the depths of the resentful green eyes facing her told her that she might be on the right track, emboldening her to continue.
"I didn't want to leave on Friday night. I was having a wonderful time."
A slow nod from the blonde.
"I know you must have been worried sick for the past few days over why I left."
The words were beginning to come naturally now, as she who was normally berated for being as cold as ice confessed to a complete stranger,
"I like you. I think you're beautiful, and warm, and interesting."
"But there are parts of my life that I just can't talk about, even though at the moment I feel like I could tell you everything."
A statement which she realised with some shock was true.
"It's not only in my interests, it's in your interests, too. I think you're smart enough to know that."
Nia was by now both judge and jury, so earnest was Jake's intent - and the explicant saw warmth start to spread, suffusing the beautiful eyes she was by now ready to drown in, as flecks of gold punctuated the green.
"I'll never hurt you or get you into trouble. I promise."
Relaxation was dawning on the Bar Manager's face, as a hint of a smile began to tug at the corners of her mouth and softened the lines of her jaw. Jake took a deep breath and voiced the question she'd been longing to ask.
"So do you think you can risk going out with me tomorrow night?"
The manager of Fire and Ice was universally known for her ability to listen with generosity and grace. However, during the past few minutes she'd been uncharacteristically inanimate, digesting Jake's offering with a far away look muting her pretty features. Now the smile finally broke through in all its glory.
"It's a date."
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