~ Just Rewards ~
by Anne Reagin


Disclaimers: This is a story about strong women. It includes love, challenge, danger, and learning to trust, as do all of our real lives in some part. We only need to identify those ingredients effectively.

It would be hard to say exactly how many hours went into the writing of this story, which I undertook for my own enjoyment. I can't let the chance pass, however to thank a very kind Beta Reader who spent many, many hours editing it. The suggestions, encouragement and all the rest were and are greatly appreciated. Thanks Barb!

Please be warned that a physical relationship between two women is a large part of the story line. If this offends you, please read no further.

j.dragoness@mindspring.com


Part 1

The Georgia sun was scorching the red clay of the construction site on highway 212. A tall, lean figure had been bending to the task of pushing a broom for over an hour. Standing and stretching aching shoulder muscles Kate saw spots of light moving through her field of vision. The warning should have sent her straight to the water cooler that sat atop the concrete wall nearby, but she didn't have much more floor to sweep. She could wait a bit longer for a drink.

Kate might have slept late since it was Sunday. She could have gone fishing or taken a boat ride on Jackson Lake where she lived. Most people made a point of relaxing on Sunday, but this woman honestly didn't know how. The sound of slow hoof beats got her attention. She stood up and looked around her, seeing nothing out of the ordinary. Considering that she was now seeing AND hearing things, Kate thought she must be hallucinating and it alarmed her.

Dropping the broom handle, she walked to her cooler and pushed the tap to fill her cup. Drinking as slowly as her thirst would permit, Kate drained it without pausing. The second cup went more slowly. She pulled a red bandana from her hip pocket and wiped her face while she drank. Then she tied it around her head to keep the sweat from running into her eyes.

The excitement of finally getting to build her dream house kept her from goofing off on this beautiful day in early summer. It was a shame she was building it for someone else, but she didn't think about that. During these quiet hours, Kate worked out architectural problems that plagued her. When she got stuck, she would simply pick up a broom or start organizing the scrap lumber that the carpenters left lying around the site on a regular basis. Her mind returned to the problem of supporting the massive entry door.

Lost in deep thought, the now distinct 'clip-clop' sound of slow hoof-beats went unnoticed. Consequently, when a voice from above her asked a question, she was startled. She turned quickly to face the source of the inquiry, but didn't respond. She had to look up into the glare of the late-day sun and could not see her visitor at all. Shielding her eyes, she focused hard and realized that a rider on horseback was addressing her.

"Sorry, I didn't hear you.". Kate moved first left, then right in an effort to lose some of the bright light that haloed the rider's head.

"I was just wondering if the builder was here. I saw the pick-up parked in the drive and wanted to talk to him."

By now, Kate was moving to the end of the wall so that she could walk up the embankment toward the rider. The soft feminine voice seemed vaguely familiar. The assumption that "the builder" was a man amused her today, whereas once upon a time it would have ticked her off.

The attractive, young rider was wearing jeans, well-worn western boots and a sage green bandana that matched the color of her eyes. She sat astride a beautiful horse whose wax-like coat shone in the sun. However, the animal's appearance paled when compared to the appearance of the cargo it carried. Short blonde hair blew about the woman's face. She smiled when Kate stopped and extended a hand up to her in greeting. Kate was momentarily lost in that smile, but managed to break her gaze away as she gripped the smaller, gloved hand offered to her.

"I guess I'm him," Kate answered automatically.

The blonde rider flushed deeply and let go of Kate's hand as if burned. "Gosh, I'm sorry. I guess I shouldn't have assumed?."

"Please don't apologize, it happens quite often. I'm Kate Ryan." The penetrating gaze of her crystal blue eyes met that of her visitor, causing the young rider to blush again. While she was collecting herself, Kate took in the picture, noticing the slim, well-developed shoulders and lightly muscled arms above the trim waist of the rider. As she continued to take in the vision before her, she suddenly wondered if she was in fact hallucinating in the heat.

"I?.well I live over there," the rider pointed over her shoulder to the adjoining acreage. "I thought I might be able to find out something about my new neighbors." She ran out of words and waited.

This sounded logical and Kate accepted it as solid evidence that the woman before her was real and not fantasy. She fashioned her response. "That's certainly understandable. The Mitchells are quite nice really. Mark and Ada Mitchell are their names. They are in their middle forties I would guess. They have their own business; some type of computer stuff. They work from home most of the time." She paused and grasped the back of her neck.

"Would you mind coming down from there?" Kate's request sounded a little strange, even to herself, so she explained it. "It may take a little bit to fill you in on the rest of the scoop and I'm straining my neck looking up at you."

The rider swung her leg over the saddle horn and slid off onto the ground as she apologized for not thinking of it herself. "I work at home sometimes, too."

"What did you say your name was?" They both knew full well she hadn't said but Kate's visitor had been terribly embarrassed once already and Kate was making an effort not to point out any additional social errors.

"I'm Amy Ingram and this is Scotch." She patted her horse's side absently.

"Beautiful animal." Only Kate realized that she was referring to Amy and not to the horse. "I know zero about horses of course, but if they're rated by looks this one is a perfect ten." They both laughed easily.

"Sit down?" The question was accompanied by a sweep of Kate's arm, indicating the top of the wall.

Amy looked around and offered a suggestion. "Could we sit over there near the trees?"

"Sure, come on." Kate noticed that Amy was nowhere near her height and tried to shorten her stride. "Isn't Scotch an unusual name for a horse?" At that moment, Scotch nickered and looked toward Kate as if in answer. "Nevermind. I think I have insulted him.".

"Her." Amy corrected and chuckled when the builder offered an apology to the horse.

They settled on the grassy terrace a short distance from where Amy tethered Scotch. While the builder unfolded a dog-eared piece of paper that she pulled from her pocket Amy managed to study Kate's dark good looks for a moment without being noticed. With her olive complexion and thick braid of shining, dark hair hanging down the back of her sweat-stained tee shirt, she could have passed for a member of some Indian tribe. Her smile was brilliant against her tan face. Ice blue eyes unnerved Amy each time she looked into them. They were startling.

Amy re-joined the conversation in mid-sentence and realized she missed quite a bit of the explanation Kate was giving her.

"This is from a crude CAD program, it doesn't show all the details that are on the blueprints, but I think you get the idea. This is what your neighbors are up to."

"I'm sorry, I'm afraid I don't understand."

Kate didn't even realize that she hadn't been heard the first time. She simply launched into a repeat in layman's terms and became more and more animated as she got deeper into explanations of the structure lined off on the paper. Amy tried to remain attentive, but found herself absorbed by the intense looks on the builder's face as she described room after finished room of the dwelling she was planning to build for the Mitchells.

"You designed this house didn't you?" Amy got a nod in response. "I thought so. You seem so reverent when you talk about it. I'm sure a lot of thought went into this plan."

Kate smiled and dropped her head a little. "I have been building this house in my head for almost eight years. This is the first chance I have had to actually see at least a portion of it standing on the ground. I am really lucky the Mitchells trust me." She looked up and met Amy's gaze before continuing. "They believe in me for some reason." Amy started to respond to the remark, but Kate held up her hand to stop the comment. "That may have sounded self-effacing but you have to understand that I have spent nine years in this business and up until now it's been basic four/three patio homes."

"What on earth is a four/three?" Amy screwed up her face as if dreading the answer.

"Four bedrooms, three baths with a wrap-around deck. You know, standard subdivision dwellings. I have built rows and rows of them and believe me, it is a yawn." Kate ran her hand over the ground by her crossed legs and picked up a pebble. She lobbed it toward the poured foundation, seemingly lost in thought.

Amy decided to change the subject. "Hey, I have never known any lady builders."

"Yeah, well you still don't." Kate got a laugh out of her visitor.

"Seriously, I think it's great that you can do something like this. I also think that maybe this is the ice cream sundae. My dad always said you have to eat a lot of Brussels sprouts before you get the ice cream sundae." The rider's smile was so earnest and sincere that Kate was pulled from her dark reflections by thoughts of earning her just rewards. Fleeting interpretations aligned and realigned in her mind until the silence between them became awkward. Kate broke it first.

"So you live right next door, huh? Is that your only horse or do y'all have spares?"

"It's just me and yes, I do have three horses altogether. I hope to have more one-day. I want to board them for other people and somehow make a living at it."

"We both seem to be working toward our dreams then I guess." Kate dropped her head, lost in thought once again.

The two women talked companionably for the next hour. Kate found out that Amy worked as a graphic designer for an ad agency and public relations firm in downtown Atlanta, was sole owner of the seventy-five acre farm next door and that she was in her early thirties. When the sun began to get low over the pines, Scotch whinnied and reminded Amy that she wanted to go home to her dinner.

Amy rose, dusting off the seat of her jeans. "I hope I'll be seeing you again soon. I'd like to check on the progress of the house occasionally if you don't mind. It's really going to be gorgeous if it turns out the way you described it to me."

Kate was warmed by the remarks. "That's the plan, but plans don't always work out." She laughed, but obviously Amy didn't understand what was funny about her remark.

*******

Amy was pulling her riding gloves off as she walked through her kitchen door. The house was dark, as she had not planned on being out so late with Scotch. She was lost in thoughts of the interesting woman she spent the last two hours with as she walked through the great room and down the hall to her bedroom. Kate Ryan had presence, confidence and intensity, a combination which was uncommon. By the time she refocused on the present, Amy stripped her riding clothes off and was stepping into a steaming tub.

This, her favorite luxury, was often Amy's comfort, and sometimes her reward. However, a leisurely bath was welcome under any circumstances. The ancient claw-footed tub swallowed her up as she rested her head against the edge. The aromatic salts that she added by rote during her distraction had been a gift on her recent birthday.

She'd had mixed feelings about accepting something so personal from Jack, a salesman at the agency. Amy was fairly certain that although she had been clear again this time about not being interested in Jack romantically, he hadn't given up on the idea. He had given her the gift and insisted that she accept it from one 'friend' to another. Jack Harris was attentive to the point of being annoying.

Amy had been a graphic designer for Walton & Hanley Advertising for six years. Her degree and the fact that she graduated with the highest honors in her class got her foot in the door. For the first two years, she slogged through other people's design files, opening discs and repairing or correcting them. The day came when she was given her first chance. Her first solo assignment surprisingly won the firm a prestigious award from the Georgia Advertising and Printing Association. She played that card to allow her to begin making noises about more artistic freedom on the projects she was handed.

Jack had been with the firm for five years when Amy joined it. He was forty-two but had been born a generation too late. He belonged to the "old school" of southern men, who believed many mythical generalizations about women. Amy tried hard to understand his motivations. Finally, she realized that he believed "the man" was expected to "push" and push he did. He insinuated a closeness between them that did not exist. Jack also insisted on voicing sexual innuendoes that Amy considered inappropriate between colleagues. The first time it happened, she was sure she misunderstood his comment. When it happened a second time, she confronted him. Jack said that he thought it was an expected behavior in any office environment and that women were insulted if he didn't pursue them.

When Amy quit laughing and realized he was serious, she was disturbed.

"Jack, simply stated, I am not interested in getting involved with anyone right now, nor do I believe in mixing business with personal matters. I'm sure you understand." The last remark she made without caring if he understood or not.

"Hey, whatever you say Amy. I have never had to force myself on any woman." This last he said with a lurid grin on his face. On the surface, he presented it as bragging, but she distinctly heard the underlying invitation as well.

Her southern upbringing would not allow her to be blatant about her distaste for the whole situation. She would have liked to tell him that his attitude disgusted her altogether or that he was a disgrace to men who really knew how to be men. Instead, her tactful confrontation only worked for a while. Lately Jack seemed to be veering back toward the same path of pursuing her. She was angry with herself for not handling the situation differently and realized now that she never should have sugarcoated her message to him.

In Amy's opinion, "sugar-coating" was a way of life in the south as well as being what she did for a living. She could take a boring stainless steel machine with wires hanging out of it and place it on a cloudbank with angels hovering overhead. By adding just the right light sourcing, she could turn that same dull product into a shining beacon for all mankind. Someone in another department would add a clever phrase or two and the clients would eat it up with a spoon. More importantly, the public would clean the shelves in their rush to buy it.

A sigh escaped her lips as she leaned forward for the soap. Amy picked up the sponge and washed away the last remnants of her day's riding along with all thoughts of her work. 'It's the weekend. In fact, it's only Saturday. Time enough to think about? No, to dread work on Monday.' She rose and allowed the bath water to run off of her before reaching for a thick towel and drying herself. As she stood at the vanity pulling a brush through her thick blonde hair she realized that something seemed to be gnawing at her, but she could not think what. After several minutes of self-interrogation, she gave up with a sigh and moved on to the next order of business. 'A cup of tea I think. Yes, a nice cup of tea would really hit the spot. Maybe something to eat. It is past dinnertime after all.' A quick study of the refrigerator contents while the kettle heated revealed many choices.

*********

Kate enjoyed the short drive to her cabin by the water. The sunset had been beautiful. Watching it with Amy Ingram had been an unexpected pleasure. Her questions had been intelligent enough to convince Kate that she was genuinely interested in the plan of the house. Her smile and enthusiasm had been infectious, something Kate had not encountered in anyone that she considered a peer in a long time. Although Amy was obviously younger than she was, Kate did think of her as a potential friend. The young woman intrigued her and she hoped to have an opportunity to get to know her better. Amy offered her riding lessons, but Kate was not sure she wanted to get to know her THAT badly. A horseback ride was not something she considered a good time. Then again, Kate Ryan was not one to turn down anything offered her by a beautiful woman.

She smiled as she turned down the gravel road that wound around the slow incline to her cabin. When the house came into sight she thought as she always did that the structure needed more curb appeal. It figured that a residential builder would never have time to do cosmetic work on her own residence.

Pulling her truck into the boathouse, she got out and closed the tall double doors as she exited. The crunch of pebbles under her work boots was a welcoming sound after a day's work. She stopped at the door and sat on the covered stoop to remove them. Dirty or clean Kate never wore shoes in the house.

The cabin had been a summer place for the previous occupants but had not been used in several years. It had taken hours and several dumptruck loads to remove the useless, broken furniture and appliances from the residence. Then the real work had begun.

Kate had painstakingly torn off the rotting siding, pried up the termite eaten floorboards and gutted the kitchen. The bathroom had been a monumental undertaking all by itself. When she saw it for the first time the tub was a foot shorter than the enclosure that had been built for it. There was also a squirrel's nest protruding from a broken place in the paneling under the ancient wall-hung sink.

The front door was secured by a two by four nailed at an angle between the door and the floor. There was a certain irony in the previous owner's concern for security since years of water running off the un-guttered roof had rotted off the door's lower third. A small bear could have easily walked through it.

In the months that Kate toiled to make the shack livable she stayed in a sleazy apartment complex in Covington. Many nights she was so tired from her labor that she woke the next morning and could not even remember driving herself home. Things were easier in March when she was able to throw a sleeping bag on the floor without fear of falling through it and rest a few hours before waking to start again. Not many of those chilly evenings went by before she had the local Gas Company come out and install a propane tank and space heaters for her. The luxury of heat allowed the logical addition of a new shower unit and running water in the antique enameled sink.

Tonight as she sat in the only chair on her screened porch, gazing out at the reflection of lights on the lake's surface, she thought about how, from where she started, she had come to this place in her life.

*****

"What do you mean it's the wrong PMS color?! How could that happen? Never mind. That was not a question. We both know that it couldn't happen. I'll be right out!" As he hung up the phone, he noticed for the first time that his daughter was standing in front of his desk. She apparently slipped in while his attention was focused on the phone conversation.

"Oh?" He blinked several times before continuing. "How are you honey? How was school?"

A small smile played at the corners of her mouth.

"I'm out of school for Easter dad. Go on and see what Jerry wants. I'll be around here when you get back."

A sheepish look helped her understand that he really did care and that he was sorry he momentarily lost track of his real life and hers.

It still happened to Jeff Ryan, which was unfortunate he thought. Even after twenty-two years in the printing business, he took every crisis to heart, every error personally. Somehow, after all of those years he maintained his integrity but little else. His nerves were shot. His blood pressure was through the roof. He often could not wind down enough to rest at night.

'He needs a vacation in the worst way. I wonder how I could convince him to take one? It would have to be a ploy that benefited me, otherwise he couldn't consider taking the time off. I'll have to work on that.' Older than her years in many ways, twelve year old Kate had been dropped at Southern Press by the family housekeeper, Rita. Saturdays she worked a half day for the Ryans but she wasn't sure why. Kate did almost as good a job keeping the house clean as she did.

Rita had been with the family all of Kate's life. She served as nanny, cook and surrogate mother after Chance Ryan died within months of childbirth. Kate in turn felt a deep bond with the diminutive Cuban spitfire. As a result, she followed Rita around the house as soon as she could walk. By the time she was ten, she was expert at many household chores. Cooking proved to be the only exception to the acquiring of Rita's skills. Kate never seemed to catch on, or care to, and Rita never pushed it. The housekeeper felt a tremendous affection for the Ryans and she felt less necessary as young Kate grew and took on more of Rita's responsibilities. Consequently, she reveled in feeding them, which was still wholly her job, and she was a marvel at it.

Kate, bored with the furnishings of her father's office and overly familiar with the framed photos on the walls of various award acceptances, decided to see what all of the fireworks were about. She had been allowed to move freely about the printing company offices since the age of six. In the last three years, she had expanded that territory to include the pressroom and finishing areas.

Since the call had come from Jerry, she knew to look for her dad in the front offices where the book keeping, billing and customer contact took place.

Jerry had an impressive office by any corporate standard. Jeff Ryan had never understood the need for extravagances like leather furniture, professional decorators or pricey artwork. As he rarely had to deal with clients anymore he tried to understand Jerry's position on these things. Jeff overlooked the fact that his new, young partner spent money lavishly on what he considered 'window dressing'.

"How in the hell could this have been written wrong? This is a four thousand-dollar mistake! That idiot pet salesman of yours misinformed the press room. His paperwork on this job is an atrocity and I can't believe you booted it into production without going over it. We can't eat these next month you know!"

Jeff had purple cheeks resulting from the rage he felt as he flung a handful of folded brochures across his partners' desktop. He visibly tried to calm himself and neither man spoke while he struggled. Finally in lower tones Kate's father continued.

"This is the third time in five weeks Rob has made a mistake that cost ME money. This one bites his wallet just like I told him the last time. He pays for the materials to redo it Jerry and no hedging. When he sees an eight hundred dollar reduction in his paycheck next month maybe he will learn to be more careful."

Jeff's business partner was not happy with this mandate but as he opened his mouth to speak the older man held up his hand and silenced him. "Rob needs to sell printing and stop with the six martini client lunches at strip clubs. We're printers, not pimps, and he sure as hell can't get anything done coming in here with a hangover at least three times every week."

Kate who had been standing just outside the door sensed the conversation was ending. She hadn't meant to eavesdrop but she didn't want to interfere either. She understood that there had been almost constant problems since her father had taken on a partner, which totally defeated the purpose of his having done so. His effort to relieve pressure on himself so that he could have more of a family life had backfired. Jerry Ross turned out to be quite a disappointment.

The twelve-year-old stepped into view and cleared her throat. Jeff straightened, recognizing his daughter's voice behind him even without words. He turned and the sight of her standing in the doorway with her piercing blue eyes made his breath catch. Those were her mother's eyes as was the dark hair hanging to her shoulders. His spirit momentarily visited another place, another life and then he responded to his daughter's presence.

"We were just finishing up 'Punkin'." Kate's dad spoke in even tones that no longer seemed strained at all. In fact, he had a smile on his face when he started towards his daughter and merely gave instructions to Jerry over his shoulder. "I want copies of his payroll sheets and I expect them to be accurate or the funds can come out of your pocket."

As his young partner's face colored in embarrassment at being so predictable, Jeff Ryan exited. Taking Kate's hand in his and they walked amicably back to his office to retrieve his coat. He let the confrontation go, as he had no desire to expose his daughter to his anger or frustration with his company. She had enough problems just looking after him.

**********

The muffled sound of a boat motor starting across the lake woke her from her nearly unconscious state. Kate suddenly realized that she was cold in the night chill and her clothing felt damp from it as well. 'A nice hot shower and bedtime for Bonzo' she instructed herself. She was half out of her flannel shirt when the phone rang. Much as she hated the damned things, this one was a necessity until this building project was complete. She sighed deeply and lifted the portable from its cradle as she sat down at the beautiful old roll top desk that was her father's legacy to her.

She recognized the voice on the other end of the telephone line to be that of her head carpenter and resigned herself to the fact that it would be a long wait before that hot shower happened. In fact, it promised to be a long evening.

*******

The ground floor of the Mitchell's house was rising up out of a red clay incline. The immediate building site looked like a great bleeding wound surrounded as it was by dense stands of trees behind and beside it, not to mention the pastures, turned rolling lawns in front of the structure.

Summer was fast approaching and the framing crew seemed to be working in slow motion for the third day in a row. "How about it Gary? We need to start on the upstairs floor by Friday. The whole schedule breaks down if we don't make that deadline and do you know how hard it was to get a promise out of the electrician?" He nodded but looked less than sympathetic from his perch in the opening he had just completed. It would hold the third of five fixed windows on the front of the house. "Trust me. I promised him my first born just to get him to put his name on a contract."

The carpenter's eyebrow raising in question was visible even from where she stood on the ground below him. "Yes, I made him sign a contract. He's a damned crook and everybody in three counties knows it, but he is the best and I have some special features here that will be tough to work out. I figure that with a contract I have a fighting chance when he tries to charge me triple."

"Whatever you say boss." His tone was condescending and it irritated her, but Gary and his crew, again, were the best available and she needed him. As long as he didn't get out of line she could tolerate his attitude. In fact, she had thrown him a little attitude of her own on numerous occasions.

She was in the process of doing just that one day. The exchange between the dark haired builder and the leathery carpenter was escalating.

"We had an agreement Gary. Doesn't that mean anything to you?"

"Sure it does boss lady, but this is only my job, not my life and he's a good friend of mine."

Kate's hands went to her hips in a look of total defiance. Gary had seen this look on Kate's face before and knew very well what to expect. "Ordinarily I wouldn't ask you to give up the wedding of a good friend Gary, but let's review the facts. You were two days behind schedule at the beginning of the week. Rain cost us another day. Now you want to take tomorrow off, a perfectly good, sunny Saturday to go to an eighteen-hole wedding? Whatever in the hell that is!"

Gary explained that his close friend was getting married on a local golf course. The guests would tee off first in foursomes, with the wedding party starting next. The final foursome would be made up of the maid of honor, the best man, which happened to be Kate's carpenter, plus the bride and groom. On the eighteenth green, the minister would be waiting to perform the ceremony and the reception would then take place in the clubhouse.

Kate would have found the concept amusing under different circumstances, but they were running behind on the building schedule she had so carefully devised and it was making her nervous. "This framing should have taken five weeks and the way we're going it will be at least seven before it's done. The Mitchell's have sold and closed on their house, Gary and are living and trying to run their business from temporary digs. Am I supposed to tell them, that you're taking the day off to play golf?" Kate made promises to her clients that she intended to keep somehow. The irritation in her expression changed slowly to deep thought and finally Kate spoke.

"Look, we'll compromise." She gave that a minute to sink in before continuing her offer. "You go to your wedding and have a great time."

Gary was suspicious. He never for a moment anticipated this reaction.

"But, I expect you on the job Sunday morning bright and early. You better not be totally hungover either. I don't want any accidents and you'll be working a long way up from terra firma."

The carpenter was none too thrilled about the offer she was making. It was an unwritten law among the men in his profession that Sundays were sacred and nobody worked even if it rained every day for two weeks. He wanted to argue, but he was reasonable too and he had to admit that they had only worked three days during the past week. He would never have admitted it but Gary had begun to have a grudging respect for the woman before him and that played into his decision, too. Kate was fair and honest in her dealings with him. She tried to be accommodating, but would not take any crap. The carpenter would know, as he tried dishing it out on several occasions. He scuffed his boot in the dust before looking up at her and extending his hand for her to shake.

They gave each other a cautious smile, just as he motioned with his head at the sleek white Camaro coming down the gravel drive. She turned to see where he was gesturing.

"Looks like somebody is looking for you boss lady." As she turned to greet her visitor he threw in something more. "It's kinda' early to knock off, but I'll tell my crew to wrap up. It might soften the blow of working on Sunday." He walked away whistling softly to himself.

Kate was irritated that he had to get in that last dig. When she turned again to investigate who the visitor was she recognized the sports car immediately.

*************

Just as her head cleared the opening at the top of the stairs, Amy spotted her friend's tall figure in the loft above. As she started to announce her presence, she heard another woman's voice. 'That must be who the Camaro belongs to. I wonder if it's my new neighbor, Ada.'

"If anybody asks, I was just in the area, picking up a check for the slug." It was the plumber's wife, using her favorite term of endearment for her husband.

"You can protest all you want, but you care about Tony and we both know it. I really don't understand why you're doing this in fact." This was Kate, who was blocked from Amy's vision by the squirming torso of a shapely blonde in extremely tight white jeans. She was running her hands repeatedly over Kate's collarbones and shoulders. Amy froze. Her options were limited and all involved embarrassment for at least one of them.

"Of course you understand why I'm doing this tall, dark and gorgeous." It was true. Kate had been on the receiving end of several housewives' secret fantasies. She was an outlet for their frustrations with inattentive husbands and an exciting experiment in something forbidden. Regardless of motivation, Kate Ryan was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

"I thought you'd be tired of this by now. Besides, you're not supposed to come on the job site Joan. There would be hell to pay and you know it?" Kate broke away and began to pace. She was preoccupied with the special order fixture in the upstairs bath. It was still leaking after three attempts to tighten the seal. The tall figure moved closer to the temporary railing directly above Amy's head.

As much as she would like to have continued eavesdropping, Amy knew she would absolutely die if she were discovered. She cleared her throat loudly.

'Joan' took two quick steps backward, losing her balance and almost falling. Kate's casual grace in reaching out to steady her did not go unnoticed. It was obvious to Amy that Kate wasn't the least bit shaken by the surprise presence of someone else in the house.

"Kate, it's me! Are you here?" Amy loudly tromped up the remaining step treads from the basement to the main floor and scanned the room as if she'd just arrived. She knew her deception was complete when she heard Kate's voice from above her.

"Up here, Ams. Hang on, we'll be right down." Within moments, an attractive 'high maintenance' woman glided down the temporary steps, followed by Kate. Dusting off her hands, Kate realized that she was having trouble meeting Amy's gaze.

"Uh, this is Joan Anderson. Her husband is my plumber." She waved a hand in the direction of the attractive woman who was involved in a visual stand-off with Amy. Joan looked as if she had come straight from a day spa, with her flawless hairstyle, makeup and manicure. Her glittering jewelry was just shy of tasteless in its abundance and warred for attention with the be-jeweled blouse and belt that she wore with the tight jeans. The strong odor of perfume and powder was evident even over the 'construction smells' of lumber and paint.

Joan held out a limp hand for Amy to shake, which she did with no enthusiasm. Kate stood back and watched the exchange between the two women and was particularly amused by Amy's reaction. "I better get going, Tony will be wondering why I didn't answer his page. See you next week, Kate?" Joan didn't want to be obvious, but she couldn't help herself. She gave the tall builder a hopeful look that included a seductive smile. Noting the astonished look on Amy's face, the plumber's wife was satisfied and went on her way.

The sound of laughter brought the young blonde back into the here and now. Her gaze had been following the exaggerated, swaying walk of the exiting woman. "She's a trip. Where do you find these women?"

"As an unbroken and unbreakable rule, they find me, Amy. That one is over the top, however." She gestured with a jerk of her head. Kate closed the distance between them and crossed her arms in front of her.

Amy screwed up her face and sniffed the air between them. "Whatever that perfume is, it must be cheap. It smells like she left at least a pint of it on you."

"The whole situation is a long story, which I'll be glad to tell you if you're really interested." Kate watched closely for her friend's reaction. They both shook their heads in unison as Kate anticipated Amy's response and mimicked it.

"Maybe some other time." Green eyes glanced through the wall of windows at the low slung, expensive sports car that now rolled out the driveway. Five crimson fingernails waved at Kate through the open sunroof. The builder shook her head slowly and tried to hide her grinning face. She sobered her expression and turned her full attention to the young woman regarding her.

Kate silently berated herself for her appearance. She rubbed her dirty hands on the thighs of her well-worn jeans. Looking down past the torn knees, she drew a shocked breath and shook her head at herself. It had been a long day and one that required, among other things, getting an air compressor unstuck from a mud-filled trench. It had taken every able body on the job site to manage the task and all of them had been slathered with red clay. Amy took in her appearance at a glance and laughed in reaction. Kate who was caught up in her assessment of the blonde before her as well as the one who had just left, looked intense.

"Kate? Are you alright?" Amy's smile disappeared. "I didn't mean to make you angry, it's just that you look like a little kid after a day of playing on the sand lot. I didn't mean to insult you or anything."

"No. That's OK. In fact that is just about a fair assessment of today." She pulled a red bandana from her pocket and made a feeble attempt to wipe her face. Amy pointed at several places on her own face by way of directing the builder to the locations with the most dirt. Kate couldn't help but like this woman and the familiarity that flavored Amy's responses to her.

As Amy stood looking over the skeletal second floor of Kate's 'dream house' she had a request. "I was just wondering if you could recommend a good electrician. I'm having a horrible time with the security light down at the barn. It comes on at-will all of a sudden except, of course, after dark when I need it to."

Kate shook her head. "I don't know anybody that isn't swamped right now, but I would be glad to take a look at it?"

Amy interrupted her in mid-sentence. "I couldn't expect you to do that. I know how busy you must be. You already have all of this to deal with." She spread her arms out indicating the job site.

Kate laughed and continued to wipe the dirt from her face. "It's not a problem, really. I've had some experience with that kind of thing. If you have an extension ladder just let me know when it would be convenient."

Amy crossed her arms in front of her and concentrated on Kate's face for a minute. "I hate to impose on you but I tell you what. My cooking has never won any awards, but if you'll stop by on your way home to look at it for me, I'll bribe you with a hot meal." She waited expectantly for a response.

Kate held her arms out and looked down at her clothing. "I couldn't possibly go into anybody's house like this Amy. I'd have to stand up the entire time." Her face mirrored the regret she was feeling. Something hot for dinner would be fantastic, not to mention a little company for a change.

"Well, I'm not worried about you hurting anything in my house but if you are I could lend you something," the blonde offered.

Kate smiled and surveyed the petite woman standing in front of her at length. She was glad to have a legitimate opportunity to do so. Amy had to be at least six inches shorter than she and although she had a well-developed physique she weighed a good deal less, too. "I don't think you have anything that would fit me, although I appreciate the offer."

Amy was embarrassed that she had somehow overlooked the obvious. She also looked disappointed. Kate offered a suggestion. "I only live about fifteen minutes from here, down on Jackson Lake. If you wouldn't mind giving me a little time I could get cleaned up and be back in no time."

The petite blonde suddenly felt guilty. "Hey, it's not a big deal, really. I know you're tired after a long week. I just thought?."

"No, really, it would be great. I don't have the greatest eating habits. In fact, I often forget to eat altogether." Kate waited hopefully.

"That's not smart, but I'll save the lecture for later." Amy smiled warmly her acceptance of the plan. "Scoot on home and I'll set the table. See you in a bit." She turned on her heel and headed back the way she had come. Kate watched her go and wondered why it seemed like too important an invitation for her to turn it down. Amy suddenly stopped and turned giving Kate a start.

"It's the red mailbox. The house is way off the road, so be patient." She was gone.

Kate found herself anxious to get going so that she could get back. She put her foot on the running board of her step side and swung her body up into the cab. Sore muscles screamed as she settled onto the seat. 'I am definitely getting too old for this line of work.' She rolled her stiffening shoulders as she turned out onto the pavement of the highway.

*********

Amy met Kate on the front drive. "I wanted to be sure you could tell you were in the right place," she explained.

"Sorry it took so long. That mud didn't want to come out of some places." Kate was embarrassed when she realized what she'd said. "Why don't I go ahead and take a look at that light?" Kate left her step-side on the driveway and the two women walked to the barn. The light in question was centered above the doors that provided access to the hayloft. "It's really up there isn't it?" With Amy's help Kate positioned the ladder against the barn.

A quick inspection was all that was needed to determine that the daylight sensor was in the process of burning out. The builder explained the problem to Amy and promised to bring a new one by the following day. Once the business end of the evening was behind her, Kate was at a loss for conversational topics. Stumbling over her thoughts, she spoke without meaning to. "It's been a long time since I've been in polite company. I may be under-qualified for this."

"Come on in." Amy smiled and held the door open for her guest. She noted that Kate's dark hair was wet from being washed. It had been put back in a braid down her back and was wetting the fabric of her white linen shirt where the two touched. The faded jeans she wore had been neatly pressed.

Kate moved with tremendous fluidity, especially for someone her height. Her strength and physicality were so evident that it was hard to believe her shyness. In a continuing effort to put her guest at ease Amy started up the typical range of small talk strangers usually share.

"Hungry, or would you like something to drink first?" Amy waited for Kate to decide.

"Actually something to drink would be nice. I kind of felt the need to rush home and back and I could use a few minutes to kind of wind down if you know what I mean."

"Good plan. Why don't we sit for a bit? Standing at the stove, she was stirring something that emitted delicious smells. "Grab us something out of the fridge will you?"

Kate opened the door and was assaulted by the variety of things she found inside. "What did you have in mind? It looks like you have some of everything there is."

"I'm in advertising, remember? Sometimes I buy something just to study the graphics on the packaging. Don't tell anyone, OK?" She smiled meekly.

"Coke, beer, three kinds of wine, pitcher of tea I think?" Kate absently named off all of the drinkable things she found as each was located.

"Surprise me," was all that Amy offered.

Taking two bottles of light beer from the lower shelf, Kate held it up for approval and her choice got the thumbs up.

They sat in mismatched ladder back chairs at the table, which was covered with a cheerful, checked tablecloth. The first swallow of beer usually tasted bitter to Amy, but she didn't even notice it tonight. "Had a hard day, did you?"

Kate nodded and drank slowly. "Sometimes it's me, but mostly it's these subcontractors. They're kind of shortsighted and it hurts their egos to hear that from a woman. I knew going in that this would be even tougher because of my design." She shrugged her shoulders to indicate that she was resigned to that fact and involuntarily grimaced.

"You look like you're in pain Kate. Are you hurt?"

Kate waved off the inquiry. "No really, I'm fine." She smiled as if that might help to convince her dinner partner. "I am sick of construction at the moment. Why don't you tell me what projects you are working on right now?"

Amy talked at length about the wooden toys that one of the agency's eccentric clients wanted to market. A millionaire through the sale of his successful boat-manufacturing firm, this businessman designed an old fashioned toy line. The 'Idea People' at the ad agency had come up with a campaign that smacked of mail-order catalog marketing at the turn of the century. It was Amy's task to present the concept graphically. She had already decided on sepia tones for the printing and wanted a background that showed a lot of fiber.

"Photographs are out of the question. I'm trying to decide now on how much detail I want to include in the sketches of the actual toys. All of my research shows that in the old days artist's etchings were used to show the product in print. The illustrations are beautiful, but extremely time consuming to hand draw, and impossible to computer generate. They just don't look the same." The designer glanced up at her guest and studied her face to see if she was boring her with the details of her work. Kate seemed to be hanging on every word. "Did I mention that we are on an impossible deadline?"

Kate explained her laughter. The reference to deadlines took her back some years to the frantic pace at the printing company and all the hours she spent there waiting while her father battled to meet them. Her recall of that began an idea formulating in her mind. "Maybe you could compromise between the two," Kate offered. "I used to hang around my dad's printing company when I was little. My favorite pastime was to pull photographs off dad's wall and trace them on the light tables they used for layout. My drawings were crude but they showed line and definition in minutes which fit right in with my attention span."

Amy was lost in thought. "If I could scan the tracing and enhance it slightly without making them look too sophisticated." She had the beginnings of a smile on her face. "This idea just might work."

Kate was obviously pleased at having possibly contributed to solving Amy's design problems. She only wished her own 'design problems' on the house she was building were as simple to eliminate.

"I bet you're starving," Amy apologized. "I didn't realize it was getting so late. Let's stuff our faces, then I'd love to hear more about your father's company." When Kate withdrew into herself, it was obvious that Amy had hit on a painful subject. Amy backed off by offering "Maybe another time then," and dropped it. They both ate in silence attesting to their hunger and the comfort of each other's company.

*******

After Jeff Ryan's first heart attack, Kate jumped into management at Southern Printing with both feet. Although she was young, she was determined to take some of the pressure off of him. In order to be taken seriously she would have to prove her capability to all of the doubting members on his staff. She was only a woman in the male-dominated printing industry after all.

Gaining the reputation for decisiveness and brutal honesty, Kate was focused and intense, producing at a rate twice as high as anyone else at her management level. She worked diligently solving problems that she wasn't even responsible for addressing. Consequently, people began looking to her on a regular basis to slay dragons in their respective departments. Before she knew it, Kate was working the same seventy-hour weeks that had stolen her father's health.

It took a long while for her to make the sad realization that instead of being lauded once she established the precedent; the volumes of work she produced were simply expected. By creating the yardstick that everyone in management would come to be measured by, including herself, she precluded the possibility of improvement. Thus, there was not much possibility for a personal life or a place in her world for her softer side.

Kate became suspicious of people in the workplace and it carried over into her private life. She learned a tool of survival that caused her to harden her heart against feeling much of anything where people were concerned. This was her only defense against being hurt by users trying to suck her dry of her ideas, energy and determination. There were always at least two people standing close by, ready and willing to take the credit for her accomplishments. This damaged her at first. Southern Printing stole her naivete, trust and forgiveness. Kate began to harbor bitterness.

It turned out that there never was a time when romance came easy to Kate Ryan. She found, as she grew older that she fell into the same trap every time. She dismissed her lack of love life with one simple phrase. "I'm too busy and too tired." Instead she settled for short-term relationships with faceless strangers that filled primal needs for both parties but nothing more.

For these and other reasons it had been a real shock to find herself approached by a beautiful young woman from the accounting department at Southern. She seemed to always have questions that only Kate could answer. It didn't take too long for Kate to realize that the questions could and should be answered by any number of other people but she began to look forward to these inquiries. Even so, it was a total surprise when she found herself agreeing to meet Connie Walker for a drink after work one Friday evening.

The idea of table conversation had become obsolete some years ago for Kate. If she ate at all, it was usually at her desk and didn't involve talking at all unless she was returning calls at the time. She contemplated what on earth she could talk to an intelligent, vibrant young woman about all evening. She also considered briefly Connie's silky blonde hair and hazel eyes. She was undeniably an attractive woman, but she worked for Southern Printing and was therefore by Kate's own standard of ethics, off limits. 'God, I can't believe I am so arrogant! I sound as if this beautiful young creature is going to fling herself at me. She probably only asked me to meet her on a dare. Half of the people in the company are convinced that I am part machine and part demon. Why should it be any different with her? Hell, maybe they elected her as a committee of one to see if I bleed.' She was smiling wryly at her own chain of thought when she pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant.

The animated stories that Connie told over dinner, accompanied by soft words of praise and intense gazes were overwhelming to the emotionally self-exiled twenty-eight year old Kate. By evening's end the two women found that they had many interests in common and agreed to spend some time together the following Sunday for a "movie marathon". In fact, they spent time together with increasing frequency for several weeks before Connie felt comfortable enough to bring up the subject of her lifestyle. It would be a gamble, but she knew it was necessary to admit to her friend that she was gay.

Connie stumbled over the words at first, but looking into the trusting eyes of her new friend seated across from her in the booth, she took courage and continued. "Kate, I don't know how you feel about such things because it never really came up, but I need to tell you something."

Kate smiled warmly and reached out to where Connie's hands rested on the tabletop then covered them with her own. "Don't trouble yourself, I already know." She squeezed the soft hands she held. " I, myself, learned the hard way that friends don't always approve of or accept other people's lifestyle choices. That is what you're worried about, isn't it?"

Connie swallowed, obviously affected by the show of affection. "Yes, actually it is. I kind of thought you knew, but it was still scary to tell you." Connie avoided Kate's eyes until the end of her remark.

The affirmative nod came quickly. Kate reiterated her agreement. "Oh yes, I know and I applaud your courage." The relief was now evident on the faces of both young women.

Kate Ryan was a beautiful woman who was completely unaware of her beauty. She had grown up isolated by her involvement in her father's business and in caring for him. She turned a lot of heads and might have enjoyed all of the social life she could stand but for the warning signals she put out to prospective suitors. Most of the time, both men and women found her to be unapproachable. Her focus on the task at hand had become legendary after Jeff Ryan died. She re-dedicated herself to saving the company that cost him his life. Her disdain for slack job performance and failure also became well known. Naturally, the friendly demeanor that suddenly blossomed in the workplace between her and the young female accounting executive caused some eyebrows to raise.

The relationship grew quickly from friendship to something more. Kate finally was finding out what it was like to love somebody. The loss of her father to a second heart attack left a huge hole in her soul. She felt totally alone for a long time until Connie came along.

The breakneck pace of Kate's job faded into unimportance in no time. The two lovers had romantic dinners at home. They spent Sunday's at the Chattahoochee River, riding down it in a raft with Connie's friends and drinking beer. They went to movies and softball games. Eventually there were so many social activities to attend that Kate had to give up Saturday as a workday. Normalcy, a new concept for Kate became a way of life.

At Christmas, they drove hundreds of miles just to look at Christmas light displays that they heard about. The lights were the only part of Christmas that Kate really enjoyed. On Christmas Eve they exchanged gifts. They had only been together for five months but Kate felt that 'serious jewelry' was appropriate. It made a statement about the depth of her feelings that she could not express in words.

At that point in time, Kate was still trying to unscramble the mess of her father's estate. Their family home where she was raised had been used to secure loans her dad made to capitalize the printing company. Shortly before his death, he also borrowed heavily from his life insurance. She was in limbo about whether she would keep the house or not. Lawyers for her father's estate and those representing his business partner Jerry were negotiating back and forth when Kate and Connie made the decision to move in together.

The apartment Connie leased with a roommate wasn't large enough for another person or the house full of furniture that Kate now owned. The only solution seemed to be for Connie to move in with her, at least until the smoke settled and Kate figured out what her long term living arrangements would be.

For Kate, the worst day of her life had been the one on which she buried her father. The second worst had been the day she had to part with their housekeeper, Rita. "I can't say goodbye to you Rita."

"I know honey, you're like my own child, only better behaved." Rita laughed through her tears at her own lame humor. She knew that Kate needed stability in her life, but Kate's financial situation was precarious at best. The money wasn't an issue at all for Rita, but Kate insisted that she could not allow her to stay without payment. They fought to a standstill and finally agreed to stay in touch. If the situation changed, Rita would be back, but in any event, they would not lose track of each other.

When Rita heard that someone else was in her kitchen she was thrilled because it meant that Kate would be fed regularly again. It was important for her to stay healthy and strong, especially now as it was beginning to look like the division of Southern Printing would involve lawsuits and lengthy court hearings. Kate stubbornly refused to hand over the keys to Jerry and his stooges, the very men who almost put them out of business so many times in recent years.

Kate realized that she might not be able to keep the company going forever, but she refused to go out with it in the hands of people who would tarnish the reputation that her father had given his life protecting. She had chosen to stand and fight and now that Connie was in her life, the fight seemed more bearable.

************

"Hey, the flowers are beautiful!". Amy looked up from her desk, telephone in one hand, the other on the keyboard of her computer. She held up one finger to indicate that she'd only be a minute.

Meanwhile Carol took the opportunity to investigate the floral offering at closer range. Both of them knew she was looking for a card to identify the sender. "I'll give you a call back this afternoon. Hopefully, I'll have some files that I can transmit then." She hung up and prepared for the questions that were imminent.

"You must have done something special to deserve these roses, Amy. Care to tell me about it?" The red head lifted an eyebrow suggestively. It was always fun for Carol when she could embarrass her friend. Amy wasn't na´ve, just very demure in contrast to Carol's brash and outspoken personality.

Determined not to let a flush creep up her neck, Amy countered the attack. "I didn't do anything you've never done to deserve them. I just did it better." Carol's eyes flew open and she turned to get a better look at the young designer. Amy had a pretty good poker face and the red head couldn't decide if she was bragging, or bluffing. She let a smile spread across her face as she flopped unceremoniously into the chair opposite Amy's desk.

"As long as you do me proud little one." Amy laughed at Carol, relieved that the first round was over. "I have a very busy morning, but I'm not leaving here until you give with some information. You haven't kept me up to date on your love life."

Carol Barton was a long-married mother of three who succeeded in re-entering the working world once her children were grown. Her years as a housewife taught her many useful skills and an appreciation of being appreciated. She often worked with Amy pulling together the details required to complete a successful client presentation. In fact, Carol's organizational skills were unsurpassed at Walton & Hanley. She always claimed that she could accomplish anything with enough tenacity and intimidation. The theory proved itself so often that now, her co-workers generally yielded to her requests without putting up any fight at all.

"I should think that my love life would be the last thing on earth that would interest you." Amy tried to blow it off.

"How long have you been delusional, Miss Amy? Your love life is the only sniff of romance I ever get. That sofa cushion I'm married to hasn't sent me flowers since I presented him with his first child." Carol examined her fingernail polish.

Amy knew that if she wanted Carol to vacate her office, she would have to 'throw her a bone'. "Andy sent these. He wasted his money, I can assure you."

"I thought you said he was good looking and rich?" Carol was eager to find out why this one had been disqualified, like all of the others.

"He's also a self-absorbed, preening, country-clubber who is more interested in me as an arm piece than a person. I'm not sure he even likes women, to tell you the truth." Carol was frowning at her now, so Amy decided to try to justify her rejection. "He's a member of the Atlanta Athletic Club. They announce us when we go in to dinner for God's sake. I feel like Ingrid Bergman in Anastasia or something, a total impostor."

Carol looked into her friend's eyes before responding. "He knows how to impress a woman at least. The flowers are killer. I know you're a good judge of character, after all, I'm your best friend. If you say he's a pig, he's most likely all pork. I just don't understand why you can't find somebody nice, Amy." The red head was so sincere in her concern for her friend that Amy had to forgive Carol the prying and prodding into her personal life.

"I'm not really interviewing at the moment you know. In fact, I get so tired of the whole routine. First the phone call and the obligatory dinner at some trendy, expensive place that serves inedible food. A sporting event, or evening of music, probably bad jazz usually comes next, because that way he doesn't have to make much conversation. By now, I'm expected to spend an evening at his abode, either cooking for him or eating take-out. I, of course, am the designated dessert."

Carol laughed and gave her friend a sympathetic pat on the hand. "Trust me when I tell you, it could be a lot worse. In my day, sex was expected as payment for the first dinner."

"Yeah, well in your day, you didn't have to produce test results for sexually transmitted diseases on the first date either. It's just me, I guess." Her sigh filled the room. "I'm just not interested in all of that crap anymore. I want somebody I can curl up with on the sofa, take walks with?"

"Have sex in a moving car with," Carol finished her statement for her. Amy swatted at her and the red head rose to make her exit. "Hang in there. There's someone for everybody. I firmly believe that. We just haven't located your someone yet. By the way, that someone you're talking to about the print ad over at Solomon's called this morning. Where are you on that?"

A work conversation requiring three minutes handled the business that brought Carol into Amy's office to begin with. The young blonde leaned back dreamily in her chair and considered the qualifications she had spoken of to her friend. There was a longer list for sure, and one that she had tried to whittle down. Amy wanted to be realistic, but she had suffered the hurt of committing to someone who met everyone else's qualifications instead of her own. She was determined not to let that happen again.

************

Amy's design work on the Old Timey Toy account had been a tremendous success. In fact, it earned her a bonus with a few days off thrown in as well. Determined to make the most of her time off, Amy rose early and pulled on the oldest riding boots she owned. She got to the barn and took care of the feeding and watering chores just as the sun rose above the trees. 'Eight-thirty already. I better get a move on.' Selecting a bridle from the tack room, she headed to Molly's stall. Scotch seemed to give her a dirty look as she walked by.

"There will be plenty of riding for the next five days in a row. We all have to take turns, children." She smiled brightly at her own vacation summary as she slid the latch on the stall door. Molly, a beautiful chestnut mare, was by far the gentlest of Amy's charges and a good two hands shorter than Scotch. These qualities made her a solid choice for riding on the days when Amy just wanted to relax and mindlessly enjoy the farm.

Without planning to, Amy headed to the pond on the rear corner of her pastures. It was a beautiful spot with a trio of hundred-year-old sweet gum trees standing guard around the two-acre pond. Once upon a time, it watered cattle, but it had been twenty years or more now since there had been cows on the farm. It was a quiet, remote spot where she liked to go and think sometimes. A lot of her good design ideas had been born under the spreading limbs of the sweet gums.

Molly seemed to know instinctively where they were headed and didn't require much instruction. She moved purposefully through the pasture behind the barn and headed for the tree line. 'I couldn't have custom ordered better weather. It is so beautiful out here. I forget sometimes just how lucky I am.' Of course luck really had nothing to do with why she was there.

The Ingram name had been known around Covington for over a hundred years. Most of Amy's ancestors had hailed from the region. As a young boy, Amy's father had played in the very fields that she rode in now. The land had been farmed by previous generations then converted to pasture land for grazing. She currently leased the ''corn field'' that acted as a buffer between her property and that of her soon-to-be-neighbors, the Mitchells. The money wasn't much but it did help pay the taxes each year, which was no small feat.

Woodrow Ingram, Amy's grandfather, had been born into a dirt-poor farming family. One of his teachers in high school saw tremendous academic potential in him and went to his folks. There was little money for schooling, but his family made sacrifices and sent him to Atlanta Law School. With his day job as a field hand, it took three years of night classes before he graduated. A law practice in Covington was not a glamorous undertaking, but people did need wills, property transfers, and the like. He gave away more legal advice than he charged for, but built a reputation as a fair and honorable barrister.

'Woody', as he came to be known, experienced a turning point in his career and in his life in his twenty-ninth summer. A neighbor of his sister's, a young man of seventeen was accused of raping the daughter of a wealthy Mill owner. Woody knew the young man and worked side by side with him on many occasions cleaning up the church cemetery and painting the clapboard schoolhouse. His instincts told him that an act of violence such as the one he stood accused of was simply outside the boundaries of this boy's character. Although he knew it would be an unpopular decision among the local gentry, he asked to defend the young man who could not afford a fancy criminal defense team.

Woody squeezed the truth out of the evidence in the August heat of the Newton County courthouse. His passion for justice was made public before an audience that included the entire community. During the two-week trial, he managed to sway two key witnesses into coming forward with their testimony. The charges ultimately turned out to be unsubstantiated and his client was acquitted.

Now a minor celebrity in his hometown, Woodrow Ingram was a champion of the working class forever after. Often they paid him in fresh eggs, homegrown tomatoes, or homemade quilts, which was all right. He lived an unpretentious life and tried to instill the value of just that in his three children. Amy's father came closest and held on to the farmland that his father left to him.

It passed in turn to Amy, who had been thrilled at the prospect of residing on the land she visited so often in her youth. She went on over the protests of her mother to give her landlord notice and vacate the condominium she rented in Decatur.

Had it only been two years? She was so lost in thought that she didn't realize she had reached her destination. She swung her leg over the saddle horn and slid to the ground. Tying Molly's reins loosely to a huge fallen branch, Amy sank into the soft grass under the center Sweetgum tree. The scenery was always breathtaking to her. It gave her a tremendous sense of peace to sit and soak it in.

"Help! Somebody please help me!" She was so far off the ground that the sound of the generator and the bursts of air through the nail gun drowned out her pleas for help. Somehow, Amy lost her footing and hung precariously by one arm, which she'd managed to loop through a window opening. She told Kate repeatedly that she was afraid of heights and yet she'd been assigned to the topmost level of the house, some thirty-eight feet off the ground. She looked down to determine where the rest of the crewmembers were, but the dizzying height caused the world to spin. Unable to support her weight any longer Amy felt her fingers slip from the sill as she began to fall.

"Don't worry I've got you!" Someone was calling to her in a loud voice, but she faded from consciousness.

Amy expected to wake up dead, but when she opened her eyes, there was a figure kneeling in the grass beside her. An arm around her shoulder supported her torso in a half-sitting position. Looking up, she was swallowed by an azure gaze that registered deep concern. "I've got you, I've got you. Are you all right? Do you hurt anywhere?" She realized that arms were around her and that her head rested on Kate's strong shoulder. Fumbling for speech, which evaded her, Amy closed her eyes and relished the extraordinary comfort of those arms.

Molly's nickering startled Amy and woke her from her dream. She panicked at first, remembering the fall and the sick feeling of the earth rising up rapidly to meet her. Then she recalled the safety of lying in the grass in Kate's warm embrace.

Looking around her at the familiar scenery Amy convinced herself finally that it had only been a dream. She noticed Molly in her periphery, munching on the new grass and everything started coming back to her. She checked her watch and calculated that she had only been dozing for a few minutes, but the absurdity of the dream worried her. The too-true-to-life sensation of standing that high off the ground made Amy's stomach a little queasy. The feel of Kate Riley's arms around her provided quite a shock as well. She secretly hoped the memory of it would not fade quickly.

She stood, untethered Molly and mounted up for the ride back to the barn. On the way there, she turned over possibilities of what might have happened next in her dream if she hadn't awakened.

*******

Opening one eye, Kate glanced out the uncurtained window. She was surprised to see the day already in progress and almost bolted out of bed, as was her habit. On an average day she would do just that and start building 'in her head' right away to sustain her until she arrived on the building site. Then her thought process would shift into high gear. She started to throw the covers off then remembered it was Saturday and her carpenters were on the golf course.

Her only real obligation today was to make good on her promise to take care of the 'sick' security light sensor for Amy. She was confident that her diagnosis the previous evening was accurate. Rolling over she buried her face in the only pillow she owned and thought about their visit.

The two women talked until midnight when Kate saw her hostess stifle a yawn. The quick passage of time proved how much she enjoyed the company and conversation. She apologized for the hour and said her good-byes reluctantly. Usually a solitary woman, Kate found herself enthralled in the stories Amy told. In the span of a few hours, Kate learned a great deal about Amy's history, her family, education, and career. Oddly enough, the younger woman had been candid about almost everything except her personal life.

'I shouldn't translate that into any cause for hope, but I do. She's probably engaged or something.' Kate was shocked at her own admission of interest. Until that moment she had been unaware that it existed within her. She looked across the window sill at the sunlight reflecting off the lake. She let this new discovery sink in. Something, whether the thought or the image she didn't know, caused a sharp intake of breath. She allowed her mind to toy with the matter of Amy Ingram and her considerable appeal.

A picture of the beautiful blonde came into soft focus. Gesturing with her hands and telling a comical story that Kate remembered nothing about, Amy's eyes shone and sparkled just like the view of the water. Then, like now, the reflection of warm and beautiful light drew Kate.

Their conversation the previous evening had been a bonus for Kate. Easy companionship had been the real event. It was something she'd had little of in many, many months. It awakened in the builder the realization that she missed contact with people, at least a little bit.

In her mind Kate returned again and again to Amy's hands and how beautiful they were. She remembered easy laughter and was surprised that in doing so, she heard some laughter of her own mixed in.

There were lots of mental pictures for her to ponder, like Amy brushing blonde bangs out of her eyes. Amy absently rubbing the pendant that normally hung unseen on a chain around her neck. Kate had finally been curious enough to ask what kind of pendant it was and Amy held it out for Kate's inspection. The builder leaned in and studied the carved relief of a gold dragon on a rectangular plaque. It was wonderfully detailed and very unusual. During her praise of the workmanship, Kate looked up in mid-sentence to find Amy staring at her intensely across the mere inches that separated them. Neither of them spoke, but both were acutely aware of their closeness and some kind of exchange taking place.

Kate backed away first and laughed nervously. Amy dropped the pendant into the open collar of her shirt and suddenly felt the necessity to get more beers from the kitchen. Whether the exchange was real or imagined, Kate did not know and it would have been forgotten had it only occurred once. However, when the dark haired builder was about to leave Amy reached around her to open the door. They found themselves in close proximity once again and this time Amy's penetrating gaze moved from Kate's eyes to her mouth and back again.

This seemed to Kate like an unanswered question. She wondered if Amy even realized that she asked it.

Kate wrapped strong arms around the pillow beneath her face and squeezed hard. She let out a wistful sigh as the distinct sound of a slamming car door interrupted her game of 'what if.'

'SHIT! I haven't even had my coffee yet!' she thought as she grabbed some of the crumpled clothing strewn across the foot of her bed. 'I am in no mood for company.' She headed for the door ready to 'go off' on whatever villain she might find there. Jerking the door open, her anger was immediately deflated by the greeting that awaited her.

"I was just bringing your motor back, Kate. Didn't expect to find you at home this morning." Charlie Wilson was on his way to the boathouse with his cargo. "Since you are, how about we hook this thing up and see how she works for you?"

Charlie had grown up on Jackson Lake. People considered him to be 'slow' and avoided conversation with him as a result. While others seemed embarrassed by his handicap, Kate had taken an immediate liking to him. They met at Pop's Marina where he pumped gas for minimum wage. He also did first rate mechanical work there until Kate convinced him that he could do better on his own. Charlie had a tremendous flair for fixing things. His logic and mechanical ability overshadowed whatever else his mind lacked.

Kate helped him replace some of the worn out plumbing in his mother's clapboard house out of friendship. In exchange he insisted on overhauling the gas outboard that she inherited with her cabin. It had been in the same kind of shape as the structure and Kate seriously doubted that it was salvageable. The antique Johnson had one fin remaining of the original three on the propeller. The rope pull hung two feet out of the pulley housing and the entire motor was covered in a thick covering of dirt, oil and of all things, pine straw. It had been unused, she estimated, for ten years at least.

Charlie told her how much he hated to 'owe' anybody and she could empathize with this sentiment. He said he liked to pay his debts, so at his continued insistence, she let him take the outboard with him to see what he could do. That had taken place three weeks ago and she had never in her wildest dreams expected to see the thing fixed at all.

"Sounds great Charlie, but I'll tell you what. I was just making coffee, so why don't you come in for a minute and I'll get us both a cup."

He nodded eagerly, always happy to spend time with his friend Kate. Although she didn't have much time to spare, when they did get together she taught him things about structure and building. She used great patience in slowly going over every aspect of a topic before moving on to the next. Occasionally they both enjoyed the rare treat of fishing together on her weather-beaten dock. During those times they spoke a punctuated, secret language and Charlie liked sharing something special like that with the solitary woman.

As she moved efficiently around her small kitchen Kate teased Charlie. It was her long-standing habit to do so. "You been behaving kiddo?" This got her a huge grin. "Uh hum. I guess the girls are still chasing you then?" She winked at him as she sat two mugs on the counter top.

"Actually Kate?" he hesitated before continuing "I did go out with somebody last week." He looked up at her to gauge her reaction.

"That's great! Did you have a good time?" His face colored, but he gave her an affirmative nod. "Do you want to tell me about it?" She didn't push Charlie as a rule, but wanted him to know that she was interested in this new development and happy for him. She knew from talking with his mother that at eighteen he had no friends except Kate and he had never been out with a girl. This concerned both women because Charlie's mother was elderly and in poor health. He had no living relatives and would be alone if anything happened to his mother. Kate understood being alone only too well.

"Her name is Gail. She works in Porterdale at the grocery store." He had obviously been rehearsing this for a while. He looked at her for permission to continue and she encouraged him with a warm smile.

"She must be nice if you like her Charlie." She stirred the contents of both cups and handed one to him. "You do like her, don't you?"

He hung his head for a minute but finally looked her in the eye and admitted that "yes' he did like her very much."

"Way to go Charlie boy! Maybe you could give me some lessons."

He asked what kind of lessons she needed and she mumbled that she was just kidding before following him out to the yard.

Kate was astonished at the transformation of the beat up outboard. It looked brand new, including prop and paint. She burst out laughing.

"You think it looks funny, Kate." He made the statement in all seriousness and she rushed to explain.

"No, I'm amazed at what you've done, that's all. It's beautiful, like a piece of art!"

"It's a boat motor Miss Kate." He was still deadly serious and lost at her reaction.

She pulled him into a quick hug and squeezed him tight. "It sure is, Charlie. It sure is."

They spent the remainder of the morning running Kate's aluminum johnboat around in the cove beside her cabin. She praised him repeatedly for the terrific job he had done and Charlie basked in it.

By the time Kate had showered, dressed and driven into Jackson to the building supply for Amy's new sensor, it was mid-afternoon. As she pulled down the long gravel drive in front of the farmhouse, she decided that this was a probably a good thing. She didn't want to appear as anxious to return as she in fact was.

Kate could not hide her disappointment when she realized that Amy's Explorer was absent meaning that she would not get to see her new friend after all. The morning's ebullient mood began to fade as she ascended the extension ladder to deal with the sensor.

*****

The sunset had been spectacular. It was the only time of day when the boat traffic was bearable, as far as Kate was concerned. By that time of day, most of the skiers and fishermen had left for home and she sometimes felt like she had the place to herself. The phone was ringing for the second time before she realized what the disturbing noise was and reacted.

"Hello." She was slightly winded.

"Kate?" The familiar voice brought an immediate smile. "I'm so sorry I missed you today, I met someone for lunch."

Kate waited, hoping her new friend would elaborate, giving her a chance to catch her breath, but instead she heard a distinctly masculine voice in the background. "The movie's rewound Amy." His voice was cut off, possibly by Amy's hand over the receiver, because Kate could no longer hear him.

"Sorry. Anyway, I just wish I had known what time you were coming. I should have been here to at least hold the ladder. You might have fallen or something."

"You worry too much." Amy started to say something and Kate heard a 'beep'. "Is that your phone or mine?" She asked.

"Yours, I'm sure. I don't have call holding. You go ahead and answer it; I just wanted to thank you. I'll talk to you later." Amy hung up.

"Well, OK. See you soon." Kate said with a distinct sarcastic spin. She was aggravated at whoever had ended the call prematurely by beeping in. Her face was a mask of total irritation as she clicked the receiver over to the other caller. It only took the opening salutation for her to realize that it was the plumber's wife again. She could only laugh at the situation and herself for being in it.

*****

Threatening skies had driven the stucco crew to knock off early. Kate was pleased with the progress they made and said nothing about the early departure. The wind picked up noticeably and the plastic sheet covering the front door opening started to lift up and fall back down rhythmically. Lightening split the dark sky as a flatbed truck pulled out the drive.

Huge raindrops started to fall in answer as she ducked into the house. Alone in the quiet, she walked slowly from room to room appraising. She noticed a couple of things that she made mental notes about, but overall she liked what she saw. When she could hear the rain hitting the metal roof, she knew it was a tempest outside. The insulation underneath the roof would have muffled all but the heaviest downpours. She made a quick check of all the windows to insure that they were closed and not admitting rain.

With everything checked out on the lower level, she climbed the temporary ladder into the loft that would serve as a home office for Mark and Ada Mitchell. There were only two movable windows, both of which were secure. The remaining glass expanses were all fixed and provided a terrific vantage point from which to witness the raging storm outside. Standing with arms crossed over her chest Kate marveled at the beauty of it. A chill ran up her spine and she rubbed her upper arms as if to warm them even though it was not cold she was feeling. The ineffectual gesture helped to convince her that the storm would be better if observed from the warm comfort of her own den. She started down the ladder.

*******

There was no let up in sight. Kate studied the contents of her coffee cup without seeing and listened to the torrential rains coming down for the second day in a row. Spring rains were not uncommon, but it was the first of July and something did not bode well about this particular storm.

Kate's life had been reduced down to the common denominator of problem solving. On the job, it was the same grind everyday trying to wring a credible job from overpaid, independent, middle-aged adolescents. The Mitchells had even been absent from the site for three weeks due to their workload. Before long the house would be ready for trim and the work would be more interesting, the results more dramatic. In the meantime, Kate reminded herself that every job has a down side.

Her lawyers from Southern Printing, whom she had thought she was finally done with, requested her presence at a conference at the end of the week. The secretary that called was vague about the reasons, but mumbled something about paperwork. Kate sighed deeply wondering when all of that mess would ever be finished.

The work on her cabin had been completed at least. Her confinement the last couple of days induced her to finish up some minor tasks out of boredom. All that remained was to add a little warmth with some curtains or something. She was at a loss really as to what might be required to change her cabin from a dwelling into a home. Kate had been debating with herself all afternoon, wondering if she might impose upon Amy to give her some help. It would be a good excuse to call her, too, since she hadn't talked to the young beauty in a few days.

'That sheet of polyurethane that has served me well as a shower curtain months needs to be replaced for sure.' This started her recording a list of things that she needed. Looking at the list now, she realized that it had grown to proportions that were beyond her. Towels, bed junk (don't forget pillows), dishes, lamp, and curtains it read. 'I have got to do something with this place. What if I decided to have somebody besides Charlie over here? I'd be mortified, that's what.'

The idea of letting Amy in to see what she was up against was the real stumbling block. Her home was clean, but Kate wasn't sure she wanted the petite blonde to see her Spartan lifestyle fearing that she might be appalled. After all, it hadn't always been like this.

*****

Kate and Connie, the happy couple, shared a plateau of domestic bliss. Their home was cozy and comfortable. They hosted back yard barbecues and Super Bowl parties. The pool table in the game room downstairs was a popular place for friendly competition among their friends. As their first anniversary approached Kate tried to think back to what her life had been like before Connie came into it. She took it as a good sign that she had no recollection of such a time.

The struggles at Southern Printing continued as they always had, but that was only work now. The bitter battle over ownership was winding down it seemed and the negotiations were almost through. Kate conceded certain points to speed things up, realizing that otherwise the whole mess could drag on for years to come.

Basically, she was giving Jerry the building and its furnishings. She would take the equipment from the pre-press and press rooms to a new location that she signed a lease on and retain the Southern Printing name. She still had most of the long-standing accounts that had been won in her father's day and the production people were loyal to her. The only problem would be operating capital. This last stumbling block was being worked out between the accounting and legal departments. Connie had been instrumental in developing the company's financial statements for the last two years. She was privy to information that even Kate was unaware of. Consequently, Kate counted on her to represent her interest for her.

They talked about long-term plans for Southern. No longer obsessed with her job, Kate thought she might get the company re-established on a smaller scale and sell it to someone who would uphold its reputation. The production manager had already expressed an interest, if financing could be arranged. Architecture was still Kate's first love and she realized that if she didn't get back to it soon, she never would.

When the day of reckoning finally came, all of the parties gathered around the conference table in the front offices of Southern. Connie begged off at the last minute saying that she wasn't feeling well. Concerned, Kate considered postponing the meeting until a later date, but she had waited so long to be done with all of this business that she decided to dispense with it quickly. She could tend to Connie immediately afterwards.

Jerry's attorney stood and closed the door to the conference room to insure their privacy. Seated at the head of the table, which was traditionally her father's chair, Kate opened the proposal that had been placed on the table before her. The reading of the terms and conditions began.

When the meeting ended and the conference room door re-opened Kate was the first one through it. Her face was pale and drawn as if in pain. The hallway with its line of doors spun past her, dreamlike. She mechanically collected her briefcase and well-worn leather jacket from her office and left the building in search of breathable air.

There was no way for Kate to know how long she had been driving. She was clueless as to her whereabouts as well. All she knew for certain was that she couldn't go home, yet. She was afraid that she would do physical harm to the previous 'love of her life'.

Connie had been a part of the conspiracy she was sure. The only thing she didn't know was at what point in time her participation started. She could have been in it the entire time she and Kate had been together. That possibility was the one that made Kate physically ill. Some of the others invoked anger and shame at her own stupidity and blind trust. Her emotions were all over the place and suddenly her life seemed valueless.

Jerry had conceived a complicated plan to drain all of Southern's assets. He borrowed money on the equipment to pay off the mortgage on the building, which he now owned. Further, the fancy artwork and furnishings in the front offices that Jeff Ryan had shaken his head over proved to represent the accumulated equity of the entire company. The paintings and sculptures turned out to be originals, purchased from museums all over the country.

In essence, Jerry walked away from the conference table with several million dollars in assets. Kate on the other hand walked away with debt. She foolishly trusted Jerry and his stooges to have the interest of the company at heart. Even worse, she had not questioned the information that Connie shared with her on quiet evenings at home.

Kate thought back now to casual conversations over dinner in their kitchen. She remembered holding Connie for long hours before the fire as they talked about the business. At these times, Kate revealed her plans and dreams, wanting her lover to be her sounding board. They swapped ideas and theories and Kate had gladly allowed her decisions to be influenced. It would never have occurred to her that she was being manipulated, especially by someone who shared her life and her bed. It seemed like a scene taken from a bad movie.

It was hours after that meeting before Kate could call upon reason and consider her choices. How and why it happened wasn't an issue, really. That personal pain would have to take a back seat for now. She was about to lose her house and her job, not to mention her father's dream. She had to tell the people in production what had transpired, knowing that most of them would quit rather than work for Jerry. Then she had to confront Connie and ask some hard questions.

*****

"I'm sorry to bother you but Charlie hasn't come home and I'm worried. The water is coming up in the yard and I don't know what to do." Charlie Wilson's mother was on the phone. She had legitimate cause for concern. The relentless rains were beginning to cause flooding all around the lake. Nonresident owners would ultimately arrive back at their weekend places to find that their boat dock was now underwater with their boat still tied to it.

Some of the low-lying communities were already experiencing flooding in homes and the Power Company that owned the lake insisted that they could not pull the water levels any faster. By opening the floodgates too much at their hydroelectric dam, they would guarantee disastrous flooding for property down river. Their concern for those property owners did not impress people like Mrs. Wilson. Her house and its contents were all that she and Charlie had.

"I'll try the marina Mrs. Wilson. He's probably there or already on his way home. In any event, one of us will be there with you shortly." She hung up and went directly to the coat hooks by the back door for her rain slicker. Just as she was closing the door to leave, the phone rang again. Thinking it might mean a message that Charlie had made it home she went back inside and answered it.

"Kate, I was wondering if everything is alright at your house." It was Amy's voice.

An automatic smile played across Kate's face. "Yes, Amy so far so good. I'm lucky to live on this point. My house is high enough that it would take a lot more than this to hurt me."

"I just heard on the news about all of the flooding. I wondered if you needed any help," Amy offered.

"To tell you the truth I was just on my way out the door. A friend of mine is in trouble. Mrs. Wilson called and said the water is coming up in the yard. I can't stop it, but if I can find her son Charlie, we might be able to put the furniture up on blocks and save it. I'm pretty sure their furnace is under the house, too." This started Kate to thinking about what, if anything could be done to save the unit. She doubted that Mrs. Wilson had flood insurance and Kate knew it would be costly to replace it.

"Give me some directions and I'll meet you there." Amy was cradling the phone on her shoulder as she pulled on her old boots and reached for a raincoat.

"I appreciate the offer, but you may not even be able to get through." Kate didn't see any point in risking having Amy stranded too.

"Might as well tell me, Kate. I've got my keys in my hand and it will be a lot quicker finding you with directions than without."

'That little woman is as stubborn as I am.' It was not an unpleasant realization. In fact, Kate found Amy's attitude to be quite endearing. Kate briefly explained the route to the marina, which was the easiest rendezvous. Promising to be on the lookout for Amy's green Explorer, she hung up and dashed out the door.

When she arrived at the marina a few minutes later, she was unprepared for what she saw. She could tell that the floating slips had been let out to accommodate the rising floodwaters. She didn't even recognize the marina's central building at the boat launch. The dock was invisible in the coffee colored water. A coke machine that stood outside the screened door at the shack's entrance was half under water. The lit panel on the front showed an eerie, out-of-focus advertisement for Coca-Cola underneath the water's surface. The gas pumps were almost entirely underwater as well.

Surveying the scene for signs of life, Kate ran quickly to the shed where Charlie frequently did minor tune-ups. It proved to be empty and most of the tools that were customarily hanging neatly on the pegboard above the worktable were missing. Charlie's old beater pick-up was not around anywhere and Kate had to assume that he was headed home. As she started back across the parking lot, Amy turned into the main entrance and spotted Kate's truck. Coming over to it, she rolled the window down and yelled a greeting through the pouring rain.

Kate acknowledged it and responded. "He's not here. I'm going to his house. Why don't you follow me?" Amy nodded and backed her vehicle up so that Kate could lead the way.

Charlie and his mother only lived a few miles away. Under normal conditions, Kate could have driven it in fifteen minutes, tops. Today did not provide normal conditions by any stretch of the imagination. As the two-car caravan turned down the un-paved road toward the Wilson's home, Kate's truck skidded in the mud. She stopped and adjusted the lever that engaged her four-wheel drive. Then she jumped down and went back to Amy's car.

Amy rolled the window all the way down even though it allowed the rain to soak the interior of her car. "Maybe you better turn back Amy. This road has to be worse once it gets down close to the lake." Green eyes confronted her and accepted Kate's remarks as a challenge.

"Hmmmph! You act like I don't know how to drive in mud and muck. Don't forget I AM a farm girl." A softer disclaimer followed Amy's bold remark. "Part time, anyway." Looking up into her defiant expression from such short range, Kate swallowed nervously before remembering to smile in agreement.

"Follow me!" was all she said before jogging back to her truck.

The road was indeed treacherous. Fortunately, they only met one car on its way out. Kate pulled along side it carefully and rolled her window down. The stranger behind the wheel told her that he had decided to seek higher ground, as things were looking bad at his home, which was a mile behind him. Kate thanked him for the information and wasted no time in beginning her precarious journey again.

After a half-hour of picking their way around craters washed in the road, the two vehicles pulled up in the yard behind the Wilson's house. Her first glance told Kate that these people were indeed in trouble. She was relieved to see Charlie's truck in the yard. At least she didn't have to worry any longer as to his whereabouts. He and his mother met the two women at the door. After briefly introducing Amy, Kate started asking Charlie questions about the heating and electrical services in the house. As he answered, the whole group went through the small house to the lakeside to see what they were up against.

As Mrs. Wilson reported on the phone, the water was well over the crumbling sea wall and into the back yard of the house. The lot that it sat on had only a slight slope to the water, which could prove disastrous in this instance. Kate thought quickly and conferred with the group, formulating a plan. She sent Amy to her truck for the tools she would need to disconnect the floor furnace. Meanwhile Charlie was dispatched to bring terra cotta blocks from the pile that sat abandoned on the side property line, just inside the fence.

Mrs. Wilson had already piled rugs and chairs on top of the worn sofa in the living room. A cedar chest sat in the middle of the single bed that occupied one bedroom. Kate started emptying the base cabinets in the kitchen, deciding that some of the bleaches and cleansers there could do a lot of damage if they mixed with the impending floodwaters. She tossed bottles and boxes into the kitchen sink and was heading for the bathroom to do the same when Amy returned. Pulling her hood up, she turned the task over to the blonde and went out into the storm.

By the time the gas line and electricity were disconnected from the old floor furnace, it was a minimal effort for Kate and Charlie to unbolt it from the brackets that held it in place. Next, they hurried into the house and started sitting all the furniture on top of the upended blocks. 'Surely this will be enough to keep this stuff out of the water,' Kate thought to herself. She held up one end of the army issue twin bed in Charlie's room so that Amy could put a block underneath the legs. The bed itself was iron and naturally waterproof, but all of the things piled on top of it needed to stay dry.

Satisfied that they had done all that they could, Kate told Charlie to take his mother to her house and make her comfortable there. She spoke briefly with Amy and they decided that they, too, would regroup at Kate's. The trip back up the slippery road turned out to be too much for Charlie's old pick up. In the end, they abandoned it on the side of the road, pulling it onto the wooded shoulder as far as possible. Kate had him transfer his mother to her truck. The Wilsons drove it while she rode with Amy the rest of the way.

Only when she was seated in the plush interior of Amy's Explorer did she look down and see the water draining off her slicker onto the floorboard to mix with the red mud deposited there by her boots. "Oh my gosh Amy. I am so sorry, look at that."

"Don't sweat the small stuff Kate. It's only a floor mat, which really seems insignificant when you consider that those people may lose everything they own." She indicated the young man and his mother riding in front of them.

Amy was squinting, trying her best to make out where the road was. They came to a place where county engineers had tunneled under it to install a corrugated drainpipe. Its purpose was to carry water run off from the lake and keep the road from flooding. Amy was trying not to follow too closely, which was a good thing because the drain was not getting the job done. She barely had time to stop when she saw brake lights halted in front of her.

"Uh oh. Where did that thing come from?" Kate was asking about the red Hyundai that was stopped in the center of the mini-pond covering the road. Charlie, driving Kate's truck cleared the other side and was headed up the road.

"He must have pulled in between us somewhere. Why is he stopped?" Amy was beginning to get a bad feeling about the little car. The grind of the ignition refusing to turn over the engine was short-lived as water rushed up into the engine and drowned the electrical system.

The water level outside the car was almost up to the bottom of the window. Kate figured by now water had to be covering the floorboards of the vehicle. The driver seemed to be trying to open the car door, but the rush of the water over the road held it shut. That was when Amy saw movement in the passenger seat and realized that there was a child in the car.

"Kate! There's?"

"Yeah. I see. We're going to have to help out here, I think." She stepped out of the Explorer and started for the Hyundai. By the time she waded to it, the driver reached across the passenger seat and rolled the window down. Amy came up behind her and was submerged up to her waist in the swirling brown lake water.

Kate tried to pull open the car door, but the water level inside had still not equaled the one outside. She looked inside and saw a panic-stricken elderly woman behind the wheel. She guestimated the little girl seat-belted into the passenger seat to be about four years old.

"If you can release her seat belt, I'll pull her out through the window." She yelled to be heard above the rush of water and the damnable rain that continued to fall in sheets. The white-haired driver nodded and got the belt to release with little trouble even though her hands were visibly shaking. Kate leaned in and put her arms around the child, who immediately started to cry.

"I won't hurt you. Please don't cry, my name is Kate." She handed the little girl to Amy and returned her attention to the rapidly filling interior of the Hyundai. The driver's window showed a water line. That side of the car sat lower on the road.

"You'll have to scoot over here and climb out. By the time we're able to open this door, you would have to practically swim out. Can you manage, do you think?" She hoped that she didn't sound as worried as she was. Getting out from under a steering wheel and over a gearshift wouldn't be easy for her. She wasn't sure the elderly driver could manage.

Amy left the door of her Explorer ajar so that she could hear Kate if she called for her help. The builder caught snatches of the little song Amy was singing to her young charge and smiled to herself.

"Your granddaughter is fine but she is afraid and needs you. We've got to get you out of here so you can calm her down." This seemed to trigger a reaction in the old woman.

"This is my daughter's car, mine is an '88 Buick. I don't know what I was thinking. I might have drowned us both." She was speaking to no one in particular and seemed to still be unaware of Kate's torso leaning in through the passenger window.

'Great time to be claustrophobic' Her automatic response was a result of the rising water and the closeness of the car's roof against her back. "Tell me your name," Kate requested.

"Harriet." She said it as if she was hearing it herself for the first time.

"And your granddaughter's name. What is her name Harriet?"

Kate was trying to help lift the woman across the console as she spoke but she couldn't budge her. Reaching her hands into the freezing water that covered the old woman to her waist, she decided that the cotton dress that Harriet wore had become snagged on the gearshift. Not wasting any time, Kate ripped the fabric.

"Harriet, my name is Kate Ryan. I live near Pope Point. Do you know where that is?"

She didn't wait for a response, but continued to speak in even tones as she turned Harriet and locked her arms around her from behind. When she was ready, she prepared the trembling woman. "If you'll relax and watch your head, I'll pull you out. OK?" Harriet stopped talking and Kate thought she might have fainted. She stretched around to get a look at her face and knew immediately that the woman was going into shock.

"Here we go now. This is a cinch after climbing over that gearshift. You hold on to my arms." She retreated enough to half straighten her back and lifted the old lady with her. Harriet was a smallish woman, which was good because the added weight of her and Kate's soaked clothes combined with the awkward position and strained Kate's considerable strength to its limits.

Once Kate had her through the window, she tried to stand her on her feet, but Harriet was too unsteady to support her own weight. Kate swept her up into her arms and started wading towards Amy's car. She had almost reached it when flashing lights appeared through the downpour. A wrecker was pulling up behind the Explorer. "Where did he come from?" Kate inquired. Amy pulled a cell phone from her pocket and held it up in explanation.

Kate staggered when she slipped in the mud but Amy was there to take some of the weight off of her. When they arrived at the car, Amy held a blanket out and together she and Kate wrapped Harriet in it. Depositing her on the front seat, Kate exhaled and turned to Amy. "I think introductions are in order. Meet Harriet. Harriet, meet my friend Amy." Kate went immediately to speak to the wrecker driver. He handed her a blanket from the store he kept behind the seat for crash victims.

They discussed the situation and Kate waved Amy over to confer. "Can you find out where she lives for me and get a phone number? He'll need that to get in touch with her later and let her know where the car is." She smiled, amused by the intense desire to be of help that was spelled out in the expression on her friend's face.

As soon as the information had been rendered to the wrecker driver, Kate and Amy retreated to the car. The heater was going full blast and it felt wonderful to the shivering occupants. Harriet nestled Alice in her lap, rocking her gently. "You OK back there?" Amy watched Kate in her rear view mirror. She got only a nod at first, then Kate spoke to her through chattering teeth.

"It gets kind of cold once the adrenaline wears off, doesn't it?" Amy, knowing first hand what she was talking, about blew between her clasped hands and then rubbed them together trying to generate some warmth. The wrecker driver was feeling around under the front bumper of the Hyundai. He was trying to find something to hook the metal towing cable to which was proving to be difficult since the entire car was now submerged with the exception of the roof and windshields. When he succeeded in hooking up and pulling the drowned car out of the way, Amy pulled across the flooded roadway. Her four-wheel-drive made the crossing a cinch and she steered them towards home.

Kate sunk back into the upholstery and let Amy be in charge. The mental and physical stress that she had undergone suddenly wearied her. The next thing she remembered was Amy gently shaking her shoulder to wake her.

"Come up front with me, will you? I got them settled and called Harriet's daughter to come home. The problem now is that I have no idea where you live." She was sure Amy was speaking because she could see her lips moving. She concentrated harder, trying to ignore the warm hand on her knee. The words finally penetrated and Kate sat forward. Her back was aching and her ankle seemed to be throbbing, too so she took a couple of deep breaths before exiting the vehicle. Amy closed the door behind her and waited for her to go around to the passenger seat.

"Can you give me a hint as to where we are and how we got here?" Kate had to orient herself before directing her friend.

It was nearing dark when they pulled into the parking area behind Kate's cabin. Her white truck stood in the yard and Charlie came out the door to greet them right away.

"I was on my way out the door to see what happened to y'all when the phone rang." Charlie was animated. Kate wore a questioning expression.

"I called them on my cell phone Kate. I figured they would be worried" Amy explained.

"She said to give you a half hour and if you didn't get here by then to come running." Charlie opened the door for the two women and stepped back to let them enter the house. The smell of coffee brewing welcomed them.

Helen Wilson asked a lot of questions about the "rescue" as she called it while she took their wet clothes. When she had given them both towels to wrap up in and collected sufficient information to sate her curiosity she left them in the bedroom to dress. Kate found something suitably sized for Amy after holding half her wardrobe up to gauge the fit. They turned their backs to each other in a ritual of mutual modesty and exchanged their soaking clothes for something dry.

Charlie was already on the sofa in front of the gas heater. Amy and Kate filled coffee cups and joined him.

"I don't know if I'll ever defrost." Kate held her hands around the steaming mug trying to warm them. As if on cue, Mrs. Wilson came up from behind and put a blanket around her shoulders. Kate looked up and smiled at her benefactress, her appreciation obvious.

"It's going to be dark in less than an hour. We won't be able to do anything more at our house until daylight, Mama." Charlie hoped his mother would accept the obvious and try to rest until then. She looked pale and he knew she was worried even though she was trying to hide it from him.

"I know you're right son, but it sure will make for a long night, what with the wondering and all." She sighed deeply.

"Well, the bedroom is yours Miss Helen and Charlie can move the television in there if it will help you get to sleep." Kate waited to see if she wanted it moved or not.

"I can't put you out of your own room like that Kate. You have already done too much for us, not to mention those other folks today. You're the one that needs resting, you and Amy there."

The mention of Amy's name swung Kate's attention around to her petite friend. She realized that Amy was studying her surroundings and she wished she had straightened the place up that morning.

As she opened her mouth to apologize for the condition of her home, Amy spoke up. "It really makes more sense for us to go to my house Kate, unless you think you would be uncomfortable. That way Mrs. Wilson can have the bedroom, Charlie can use the couch and you can sleep in my guestroom. Everybody gets a good night's rest that way. What do you say?" She didn't know if she could sell Kate on the idea or not, even though it was the most logical arrangement. Kate's one bedroom cabin would be awfully crowded with four adults in it.

She started to object, but Charlie spoke up. "It would make me feel better about imposin' on you." Kate looked into his soulful eyes and knew she couldn't argue with him.

"I don't blame you for not wanting me around. My snoring is legendary." She laughed and everyone else joined in.

*******

Continued in Part 2.



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