Chapter Seven

OK...It's a date. Thought Nia.

So far, so good.

But what on earth am I going to wear?

A few hours after the conversation during which the most baffling woman she'd ever met had asked her out, Nia sat cross-legged on her bed, chin resting on her hands, contemplating her wardrobe.

I don't think anything in here is at all suitable...considering the fact that I'm always at work, and all I ever go to work in are baggy combats and T-shirts.

Not particularly appropriate for a first date, Nia.

Shuffling over to the small rail, she leafed through the collection of hangers, perusing each item and mentally wearing it for Jake's intent gaze. Her eye was swiftly drawn to the little black dress she'd worn for her graduation ceremony - but this idea was thwarted by a well-practised sense of occasion and the start of a shrewd understanding of the dark woman's wild spirit.

Nah...the black dress is out. That would be a tad too much. She thought.

Something tells me that if I look as though I've made an undue amount of effort in a bid to "catch" her, she's going to head for the door.

A shake of the pretty golden head punctuated this thought.

Butches are so predictable. I swear most of them think it's charming to be a lady-killer who runs scared at any sniff of commitment. And it's our idea of romance that's to blame - Heathcliff, Rhett Butler and Mills & Boom have a lot to answer for.

Nia chuckled and chided herself as she admitted how many times she'd sat through old black and white films, lapping up the drama and loving every moment.

But this is real life. She mused. Everyone likes the bad boys, but there is a difference between being sexy and a little dangerous, and and out-and-out bastard.

They didn't tell you that in Gone With the Wind, did they?

The bounders and cads may be able to get the girls but they're highly unlikely to be able to keep them.

But while she continued to examine her wardrobe, the feisty bar manager climbed down from her favourite soapbox, admitting to herself that her new acquaintance might be able to break the usual cycle.

She did a pretty good job of dropping the tough guy routine when it really mattered. She was far more open than I'd ever have expected. And when she apologised I thought I must have been dreaming.

She didn't look as though she was used to letting the barriers down.

Feeling encouraged by the memory, Nia continued to flip through the contents of her closet, until her gaze alighted on a long khaki skirt with deep pockets that clung to her small waist and slender, shapely legs.

Bingo.

Following the breakthrough, it didn't take the small bar manager long to team this with a fitted vest in fawn-coloured cotton, and her favourite piece of clothing, an indigo denim jacket.

The garment that goes with everything...she thought triumphantly, as she slipped it over the back of a chair so she could grab it when it was time to depart.

A chunky silver necklace fastened around her slender throat completed Nia's look. This had been a gift during a relationship that turned out to be one of the briefest and most hurtful of her short life. After Paula, when she realised it was time to acquaint herself with the desires that she'd spent most of her adulthood trying to understand, her journey of self-discovery paved the way for her first, and so far only, experience of the butch-femme dynamic. The dance had been beautiful but the ending had been explosive and it had taken her a long time to recover. But these days her dogged determination to forgive and forget meant that the trinket evoked only the pleasant, if bittersweet, memories - of strong arms around her, ready laughter and a passionate if translucent love.

She slid in front of her full-length mirror to survey the total effect of her outfit.

Not bad at all. She thought.

Nia was a tomboy at heart. Although the small blonde had proven on more than one occasion that she could be a knockout in standard feminine gear, she preferred to garb herself primarily with comfort in mind. She worked and played in the same scruffy old pair of combat pants. And although for a couple of years she'd been happy to embrace the combination of her lesbianism and her femininity, she had quickly tired of the short skirts and spike heels that seemed to be standard uniform for the lesbian femme. Not only were they uncomfortable, but they often tended to attract the wrong sort of butch. Generally what she termed superficial "jock" butches, who proclaimed the desire to be with a femme but who actually meant "wife", which loosely translated as someone who would accompany them to sporting events and bars as a trophy who was seen and not heard.

And the prospect of being a silent ornament was not especially palatable to Nia. Though she was normally a gracious and dignified contributor rather than the life of the party, she was nevertheless someone who seemed to command attention when she did open her mouth to speak. Because what came out of that pretty mouth was the product of an insightful, sensitive intellect and was generally worth listening to.

And while she might be lacking in confidence on occasion, the small blonde possessed a healthy amount of self-respect that made her balk at the idea of being anybody's appendage. Being dominant was not her scene, either - having realised thanks to several adoring men during her period of "playing it straight" that an inordinate amount of power made her uncomfortable - but she passionately believed in equality. A commitment that encompassed more than the boundaries of her own life, and one her friends admired, even if sometimes they didn't understand the fervour with which she pursued it.

Having provisionally approved her own reflection, the prettiest bar manager ran her fingers through her hair and fought the urge to cover her face in makeup.

The awareness of this urge was a gift she'd forever be thankful to Paula for. She smiled gratefully as she remembered the day the redhead had exclaimed,

"Why do you wear so much makeup, Nia? You're perfect without it. In fact, you probably don't need to wear any."

The blonde had been shocked and a little offended by the blunt statement, her sensitive power boundaries screaming at what she thought was an attempt to tell her what to do.

And she'd spent years hiding behind her painted face.

Nia was only just beginning to grow into her looks, having spent years at school being bullied for being a "Plain Jane". This had been compounded by the fact that she was a rather anti-social child, preferring to spend her free time living in her head, making up stories about a life which was far removed from her own. Nia was an escapist by nature - even as an adult her stark reality often paled in comparison to the fantasy life she sustained in her imagination. She spent a great deal of her free time devouring books, films and the theatre, living vicariously through characters she was convinced were more beautiful, more exciting...and happier...than her.

Although she had to admit that the prospect of tonight's date with a tall, dark, mysterious stranger came close to rivalling even her most exciting daydreams.

Nia had known throughout school that the other kids thought she was strange. And when she'd discovered makeup it was welcomed as a mask, a fake smile behind which she could hide the hurt and insecurity caused by the teenage boys whose favourite amusement was to rag her for her physical imperfections.

So when Paula suggested she reveal the reality under the disguise, she'd been terribly afraid. In truth, she didn't even know if she would be able to wean herself off her security blanket.

But the trust and genuine love she'd felt for the redhead had at last lead her to take the well-meant advice, and she had felt the benefits immediately. It wasn't that she laboured under the delusion that "natural" was better - it was a look like any other, and probably no more genuine in terms of trying to project a representation to the outside world - but she had to concede that Paula was right, and she'd been wearing piles of makeup for the wrong reason, not to enhance, but to hide her face. And not only did it take her at least half an hour less than usual to get ready to face the day, but people even began to comment on how healthy she was looking. It was bizarre. At twenty-six, she was just beginning to realise that she was an attractive woman - that indeed, some people even thought she was beautiful.

Thanks, sweetheart...she thought, mentally giving Paula a hug as she applied a little blusher and a slick of mascara to her otherwise bare face. A squirt of perfume on her wrists and behind her knees - and she was ready.

But it's only five-thirty.

And she's not picking me up until half-past seven - what am I going to do until then?

***

A few miles away, Jake was undergoing a slightly less pleasant preparation for the evening's entertainment - a tongue-lashing from Kim. Her slender friend could be as trenchant as she was beautiful, and although she was more than aware that the rebukes sprang only from affection, Jake was beginning to buckle a little under the verbal assault of home truths.

The quarrel had resulted from the dark woman's painful realisation that as well as being the setting for her first date with Nia, tonight was to witness the staging of a mammoth birthday party for Kim's housemate Al. Jake knew that the event would be packed to the rafters with Al's colleagues - loud, obnoxious television wannabes - but she also knew, with a sinking heart, that absolutely nothing could get her out of attending.

So, rumpling her thick raven crop and bemoaning the fact that of all the nights for a media "happening", this had to be the one, Nia's incumbent escort turned to Kim's famed negotiating skills to salvage the situation.

"So you have a date with the girl you met in the bar on New Year's Day - that's great!" Kim twisted a long strand of chestnut hair around her index finger as she and Jake sipped herbal tea in her cosy kitchen.

Jake shrugged her broad shoulders, a little abashed by her friend's effusion.

"It's just a bit of fun, Kim." She said, gruffly.

The knowing look that came from her old friend caused both her hubris and her hackles to rise.

"It IS. It's nothing serious - I asked her out, and she couldn't resist my charm."

Ignoring Kim's playful swat and the flagrancy of her own untruth, Jake continued with growing irritation and unusual petulance. "Don't make a big deal out of it. We're only going for drinks."

For God's sake. She thought, bitterly.

Why is it that every time I show an interest in a woman she - and everyone else - thinks it's love at first sight?

Why can't women understand that a little flirtation doesn't necessarily lead to a big commitment?

Especially not with someone like me.

I don't want to be tied down, and I never will.

The tall, dark butch looked accusingly at her friend - but the only satisfaction she got was a dramatic roll of large grey eyes. Kim was well acquainted with Jake's predilection for either sulking or posturing when she felt ill at ease, and normally chose to ignore it, knowing that this was the best way to make her incorrigible friend "get real" and cut the crap. This was a lesson that few of the people close to Jake ever learned, and the tall, dark butch had more than once cursed Kim for doing her homework, following her perceptions, and working out how to handle her.

"Well, you know Al's going to be upset if you don't show, so whether she's the love of your life or not, you're going to have to bring her down to the bar for an hour or so at least."

The dark woman sighed, her fretful mood worsening as she anticipated the difficulties of the situation she faced.

"Yeah, you're right." She said, ruefully. "If I don't go I'll never hear the end of it. But when Al gets together with her friends they can be so embarrassing."

"I know. I think they all have ADHD." Kim laughed, sympathetically.

"They've got what?" Jake asked.

"ADHD. Attention Deficiency Hyperactive Disorder." Replied the femme. "Don't you read the papers? It's what some kids get - makes them misbehave - it used to be called bad parenting."

"Oh."

"Perhaps we ought to spike the champagne with Ritalin to keep them happy for a few hours." Snorted Kim.

Jake chuckled in agreement. "If it'll keep them quiet, let's do it."

"Well, I can't guarantee that would work." Said her friend. "But that's the media for you. No matter what they say - and they will deny it, mark my words - every single one of those researchers and techies working behind the camera secretly longs to be in front of it."

Although she'd been chuckling at Kim's shrewd wit, Jake continued to look downcast, and was actually starting to dread the moment when she'd have to introduce Nia to Al and her friends. For some reason, what the small blonde thought of her, her acquaintances and their social activity was beginning to become disproportionately significant.

Staring at her boots, the dark woman failed to detect the signs of comprehension on Kim's face.

"Hang on a minute, Jake. If you're not really bothered about this girl, then why are you so worried Al might embarrass you?"

The astute brunette received no reply but a glare, and what she could have sworn was the beginning of a pout gracing Jake's full lips.

Kim let out a hearty laugh. "You're impossible. If you weren't so damn sweet underneath it all I swear I'd give up on you."

The butch made no answer, although the corners of her mouth twitched in response to the backhanded compliment.

"Here's the plan." Kim told her, briskly. "And make sure you follow it, or you're going to upset her. Remember - I know how women think - I am one."

"And I'm...what?" Asked Jake, outraged.

"A clueless but absolutely darling boy." The femme replied, laughing infectiously.

"Listen to me. Bring her down to the bar for a little while. Make it early - because then I'll be there to greet you. I don't plan on staying long, either. But make sure you tell Nia that this party's a commitment you can't break. Don't let her think you're using an excuse to get out of being alone with her."

"Kim." Said Jake, her exasperation returning.

"It's only a flippin" date. I'm sure she won't be mortally wounded by the fact that we have to drop in on a friend of mine."

"You really don't have a clue, do you?" Kim asked, amused.

"What?"

"Of course she'll be upset."

"God, why are women so difficult? Why do they read so bloody much into everything?" The butch said, frustrated.

"What is wrong with you, Jake? Why are you being so heartless about this? There's nothing wrong with exercising a bit of sensitivity, you know."

"But women expect so much."

"Honey, it's relatively easy to please a woman when you know how."

***

Kim appraised her friend with eyes that betrayed a wisdom belying her twenty-eight years, before letting out a sigh.

"You know what? I think you've got butch block." She pronounced.

"Butch what?" Jake looked at her friend as though she'd lost her marbles.

"What I mean is that your reluctance to show any kind of enthusiasm, even though I know you've been thinking about this woman ever since you met her, has a logical, and psychological, explanation."

"Alright, smart Alec." The butch was beginning to feel a little vulnerable - but she was damned if she was going to show it.

"Hit me with it. Tell me all about the insecurities lurking in my unconscious. I've no doubt got thousands of them. Should I get horizontal on the couch?"

"Very funny. Jake, you have defences." As she stated the obvious, Kim felt her irritation rise.

"But I don't think you realise that having those elaborately built barriers doesn't turn you into you a mysterious, romantic hero - it makes you downright frustrating. So whatever you do, please don't try and cultivate them. You can stride about with your elbows out and your nose in the air and say you're independent. I don't agree."

The femme paused for breath and added, a little more mildly, "Now let me finish what I was about to say. Someone hurt you terribly, didn't they?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"I've never seen anyone so gun-shy in my life. And as a femme lesbian who's been dating butches for many years, that's worthy of note. Someone broke your heart so completely you're afraid to try again, I'm sure of it."

"Kim...you know I'm not scared of anything."

"Oh, I beg to differ." The femme looked as stern as her exquisite features would let her, in her eagerness to make her point.

"I know you're tough physically, Jake, and your job requires a great deal of emotional detachment and resilience that I can't help but admire in you. But put your heart at the mercy of a beautiful woman and you're absolutely petrified."

"I am not."

"Oh, spare me the argument and just admit it. You like this woman - you've told me as much, and even if you hadn't I'd be able to tell - it's obvious from the way you talk about her."

Jake scowled.

"But you're scared, because you know that you might not be able to leave and shut the door after the one night stand like you usually do. You'll probably want to see her again. And maybe again after that. And after that, who knows what might happen?"

"Kim, you're hallucinating."

"I don't think so. And what happens when you've known each other for a few months, a year, even? She might acquire the power to affect you, to get past the shields you have on alert. And the thought of letting those barriers down is frightening, isn't it? That, my friend, is what they call butch block. It's not that you're a cold, heartless womaniser - in fact, It's the opposite - you treat women badly because you're scared to unlock your feelings in case you turn into a great big ball of mush. And then the control that you cherish, sometimes over other people but mostly over yourself, might be threatened. And then when your girl leaves you, as you believe she always will, she'll take far too much of you along with her. You know I'm right."

There was a long pause, as the ethereal force in Kim's delicate grey eyes challenged her friend to defy her.

But she couldn't.

She's right. Jake thought.

I'm so scared to let anyone in that I can't even admit an interest half the time. Which is why all my relationships since Tara have been dead in the water before they even started.

Why can't I let go of the past? I was such an idiot then...

"Then" was while the dark woman was at college in London. She'd been studying for a qualification in Social Work, while at the same time getting heavily involved in all the social activities - and trouble - that university had to offer. Eventually she'd become entangled with a local drug gang - small timers, really - who would visit her small apartment most evenings and spend their time inhaling marijuana by heating a small lump clasped between a couple of knives on the stove. This procedure was imaginatively termed "hot knives", and they swore it got them stoned much quicker than usual - so by the time Jake left her student accommodation all the knives in her cutlery drawer were ruined. After enough of the substance had been consumed, the lads would retire to the sitting room to chat with Jake and her long-suffering flatmate, perhaps winding up a couple of deals on their mobile phones at the same time. Jake would never allow them to deal from her terrestrial line - she knew the risks well enough, having seen plenty of university dealers carted off to prison for Possession with Intent to Supply.

She didn't really experiment with the stuff herself - not after the first year, when she tried just about anything she could get her hands on that wasn't administered via a needle. Looking back now, she couldn't really explain why she'd done it - but at any rate, it was true that a social worker who was going to be dealing with kids who were using would be better able to empathise if she had a little understanding of what they did and the culture they were engrossed in. She hated it when people made proclamations about how drugs ruined lives, repeating what they'd heard in the right-wing press, without really knowing what they were talking about. It wasn't that she thought all illegal substances should be legalised - she knew both sides of the debate and honestly didn't have strong leanings one way or the other, mostly because she didn't really think the law could make much difference. But she hated self-righteous opposition that was only based in ignorance. Like the old argument that smoking pot automatically lead to injecting heroin.

Jake's friends were thankfully not involved in heroin - dope being their main business, with a bit of ecstasy, cocaine and speed on the side. They were criminals, yes, and could also be idiots, but all in all, she had fun.

Not too much fun, though.

The leader of the pack, Greg, was a rough but perceptive man who soon cottoned on to the fact that Jake was completely immune to any kind of masculine charm. Probably because she had plenty enough of her own. After confronting her about her proclivities, he made it his task to see that none of his cohorts overstepped the mark. More for their own safety than Jake's, he would readily admit - even at 19, the young butch was showing signs of the physical power that would for a brief period make her notorious across Northwest England, and would even earn her the nickname of "The Crow", because she regularly brought decimation in her wake. But whatever the reason, Greg's mantra became "nobody touches Jake."

That is, until Tara came on the scene.

Tara was employed as a podium dancer at one of Manchester's premier nightspots, and would often visit Greg or one of his cronies for a little cocaine to keep her energy - and her confidence - going. This should have been a warning signal to anyone on the alert: however, once the two women met all rational thought was burned out of their heads by a chemistry that was incendiary.

And unusually, the initial physical attraction lead to an equally ardent love. It lasted a few months - but Tara's residence in the UK was subject to the operation of her short-term Visa, which was nearing the end of its duration by the time she met the young Jake. In fact, the toast of Capetown's socialites winded up overstaying her welcome, loath to leave her new-found love and return to a home and country that continued to be beset with complications, even after Mandela had claimed both his freedom and the government. However, the Immigration and Nationalities Directorate caught up with her, and the love of Jake's life was unceremoniously given a week to pack her bags and leave. It was too bad that marriage between two women remained illegal, and that Tara was too proud and Jake too possessive for her ever to marry a man.

A devastated young Jake decided to quit university and follow her fugitive African consort. However, the funds and travel documents required took some time to amass, so during the year-long wait the two women kept up a lively correspondence via post and E-mail. Their love remained strong - or so Jake thought. But when she reached Capetown's International Airport, Tara turned up to meet her with a new partner.

A husband, no less.

One of South Africa's new generation of entrepreneurs, he was successful, moneyed, and male. Three things Jake couldn't compete with. She never realised that such a man was just an easy option, in terms of the wishes of Tara's family and the traditions of her ancestry, she'd never forget Jake. The cruel, exquisite African woman never told her that. She couldn't. She did what she thought was her duty while laughing at Jake for her "outmoded" loyalties and reminding her that open relationships were actually coming back into fashion. In short, she ripped out the vulnerable heart of the young butch and ground it up beneath her spike-heeled shoes.

Her hopes and plans shattered, Jake continued in South Africa, wandering the cities and old Bantu homelands with a heart cleft in two, and jobbing as a driver for tourist trucks full of camera-flashers. While on a restless drift through Johannesburg, she had a chance encounter with a couple of men who were associates of her old ally Greg. By this time too well known to the police in London, they'd made the trip over to the 'Burg in search of cheap LSD, which apparently was coming back into fashion among Britain's student populations. So Jake took the plunge back into the shadows, and when her new cohorts decided that the North Country was the safest setting for their return, she accompanied them to their next base - Manchester.

On her return to England, the bleeding heart of the wounded warrior breathed a sigh of relief, and she made a vow to never again to let Tara's name cross her lips. She'd never broken it. To start with the silence helped keep her together, and eventually the episode merged with the armoury of defences that made up the dark woman's personality - the most prominent hurt but by no means the sole source of pain.

***

"Jake." Kim's voice, a little gentled, dispersed the dark woman's melancholic recollections.

"You look so far away. Come back, please."

Blinking away the past and willing, as she always did, the remaining bruises to fade, Jake turned to her now repentant friend.

"Look, Jake...I'm sorry." Said Kim.

"I didn't mean to be so belligerent about it. You're entitled to be cautious. I just want you to be happy, that's all."

Jake took her friend's small hand in her own large one, still duly chastised, but a little mollified by the apology.

"I know you do. And you were right."

She sighed.

"I do block people out, I always have - because I'm afraid. And I'm attracted to Nia, so the once-bitten-twice-shy defence is on extra alert. Do you know what I mean?"

A sympathetic glistening in soft slate-grey eyes showed that Kim did.

"I wish you'd talk to me more, Jake - but I know I can't force you. You can't wallow in old resentments forever - one day it'll become an effort to keep them alive, and it really won't be worth it."

She patted her friend's hand.

"Do you think Nia is different to the woman you were involved with before?"

"Yes, I do." Jake replied without hesitation. "She makes me feel...safe." She admitted.

"Well, there's your answer." Replied her friend. "She's different - so don't treat her as though she's the same. Let yourself go, big brother. Don't hold back - or you'll regret it later."

"I'll try." Muttered the butch, as she headed for the door.

Kim didn't hear her whisper, "I just hope it isn't too late."


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