BLACKTHORN NEVER DID find out the woman’s name that afternoon—where she shared a couple of hours eating bread and honey—nor over the next few days. Somehow the woman always managed to skilfully change the subject, divert her attention elsewhere or just plain ignore her entreaties altogether, all with that same soft smile.
Infuriating, disarming, persuasive. She had come up with a number of adjectives with which to describe her enigmatic bee charmer, and some she wouldn’t even repeat in polite company.
My bee charmer?
With an audible sigh, Helena checked not only her wayward thoughts, but also her pace. This afternoon the heat was intense, the air heavy, ominous and irritatingly thick with insect life. Full of unreadable scents and tension.
She had been at the hearings all morning, and now her jaw ached. There was a twitch in her cheek from where she had clenched her teeth, added to which, the left side of her temple throbbed. She rubbed at it with out much hope of easing the pain building behind her own physical tension.
What she hoped for was that a few hours with the mysterious woman would help ease some of the pressure, as being in her company had done over the last few days. It was strange to think how easily she had opened up to this woman, and how at ease she made her feel.
Walking close to the edge of the fountains in an attempt to gain any benefit from the cool spray, Helena proceeded up the avenue toward her rendezvous. Not that either of them, at any time, had made any arrangement regarding these afternoon trysts. It just seemed to have been something implied and accepted.
Now, as she neared the gap in the shrubbery, Helena pulled at the collar of her dress uniform jacket in annoyance. The weight and thickness of the damn thing was making her perspire in this heat. She could feel the tiny beads of sweat forming in the small of her back. And, as she stepped through into the enclosure, she tore at the fastenings with an uttered curse, intent on the jacket’s removal.
“God damn it!”
“Hello Starfleet.” The familiar honeyed tones brought Helena up short. The woman stood by the blanket dressed in lightweight, white cotton one-piece sleeveless shift that just reached her knees. And, as always, she was barefoot.
Helena blinked in the glare of the sun’s light, which made the woman’s cotton dress seem transparent. She was left in no doubt as to the shape, curve and contour of the woman’s slight but perfectly formed body. Blackthorn found her throat dry as she tried to frame a smile and a reply but nothing quite made it to her lips, which she carefully licked. Her hands still clutched at her now open jacket, as she stood quietly transfixed, caught in an intense blue gaze. The smile came toward her.
“You look like shit!” The quiet voice brought her back from the strange place Helena had retreated to inside.
“Thanks for the ego boost.” She sighed, back in the here and now.
“Here,” the woman tugged at her jacket. “You must be boiling inside that.”
Blackthorn didn’t argue. Char broiled, she thought dourly. Thinking of how well done Cairns wanted her. Her face must have betrayed her thoughts, as the woman’s face before her showed concern. Those soft blue eyes, questioning.
Helena felt herself shrug. What could she say? Nothing, in truth, but in a tone that belied how she really felt, and which barely masked her suppressed emotion, she talked. She also paced, doing the rounds of the tiny enclosure, all the while trying not to look directly at the woman she now found herself opening up to once again. It was difficult to form coherent sentences in her mind when she looked at the woman.
“Look,” a small hand stayed her progress from yet another circuit around the bee’s tree. “If you are intent on wearing out the grass, at least do it so it’s beneficial to both you and the poor grass!”
Helena stopped dead in her tracks and looked down at the crown of honey-gold hair, as the woman grabbed her hand.
“Sit.” It was a command Helena found herself obeying without question, but with a frown. The grass was soft and still full of moisture as her hand brushed lightly over it. She noted the burning heat of the sun never quite invaded this small oasis.
The woman dropped to her knees in front of her, and bent to the task of removing her knee-high leather boots.
“What in God’s name are you doing?” Blackthorn made to stop the woman who, in turn, gave her an exasperated look.
“If you get anymore uptight—” The words were left hanging between them as the woman slapped her hand aside.
With a sigh of resolution Helena gave herself over to having her boots tugged off. However, before the woman could get to her socks, she removed them herself. She stood and looked down at another smile turning the corner of the woman’s mouth.
“You’ll do.” The woman offered up to her in a matter of fact tone.
Helena wasn’t so sure. She felt naked. Moreover, she felt stupid. She brushed a hand down the now damp patch of her fitted trousers, which ended just above the knee. And then, with resolution, shrugged.
“Now we scrunch.” The woman smiled as she stood.
Scrunch? Helena wondered what the hell she meant. The woman tapped her arm and made her look at their feet. The woman curled her toes and, yes, scrunched.
For fifteen minutes she gave herself over to scrunching the grass between her toes, and feeling the unmistakable joy of walking barefoot on the grass. This was as novel and as insane as it got, she decided. Though she promised herself a trip to the ship’s atrium at least once a day, at shift-end, to do just this. Scrunch.
Hands folded neatly behind her back, Helena forgot where she was and with whom, till a single word brought her back to the present.
“Hungry?” She stopped at the foot of the blanket and wondered how long she’d been in a world of her own. The woman, it seemed, had been patiently cutting bread and had set it out on a white cloth with some cheese and of course, a jar of golden honey. Cirocco felt her mouth stretch all of its own accord, into a broad smile.
“Thirsty too.” She replied and then sat on one corner of the blanket. All without so much as a trace of wonder that anything was out of place, and that she was, once again, sharing a meal with a stranger under such circumstances.
With a smile to match the one offered, Helena accepted a plastic bottle of water. It dripped wet and was cold.
“Before you ask,” the eyes danced, “the fountain.” A head jerked sideways. Helena blinked, she hadn’t even noticed that the woman had ever left the enclosure, let alone returned, so occupied had she been going over personal statements in her mind. Skipping the analysis, she stretched her rangy frame the length of the blanket and, laying on her side, took a piece of bread that dripped with honey and bit into it. She stared straight into a blue-eyed gaze devoid of any guile.
“Has anyone ever told you how infuriating you are?” Helena chided mildly round another bite. While wondering, not for the first time, what the hell she thought she was doing.
“Every day.” The woman sat, back straight, cross-legged, her shoulders square, daintily picking at crumbs of cheese from her upturned palm.
“Really?” Helena looked from the woman’s grass stained knees to feet slightly less dirty than her own, then back to a face that held a smile so easily. The woman seemed to have a total lack of concern for her appearance, and more to the point, the effect it had on her.
“So, you do have a life, an existence, outside this <i>‘Alice in Wonderland’</i> place we find ourselves in?” She tried once more to find out who Alice was, while licking the fingers of her left hand clean of crumbs. The woman’s eyes flashed brightly with some hidden mischief.
“Maybe, maybe not.” The smile challenged.
Typical. Nothing but evasion, Helena thought to herself as, bread finished, she rolled onto her stomach to rest her chin on the back of her hands. With a sideways glance she watched as the woman flick at either real or imagined crumbs from the front of the dress she wore. Dress? It defied description.
She had noted from day one, that the woman wore no adornment or jewellery of any description. No distractions. Nothing. Except today she wore a small leather belt that snaked about her slim waist, which only served to emphasise what Helena was only too aware of already. With some sense of dignity still intact, she managed to drag her gaze away from the woman to stare at a point just in front of her, and tried to turn her attention to that afternoon’s coming storm. She eyed her com-link then tongue-flicked a tiny button. The time flashed brightly on a digital read-out: a quarter to one. She had at least another hour in which to enjoy the relative calm of this oasis.
“Hey, nice party trick, Starfleet!”
With disdain, Hel saw what she had just done and turned to look up at a face dancing with merriment, only ten or so inches from her own. The woman had come to kneel by her side. She levered herself up onto her elbows and opened her mouth to say something but was beaten to it.
“What other uses does it have?” The quiet voice teased.
“Verbal lashings.” She said and, much to her own surprise, laughed. The woman smiled and put out a hand to touch an errant strand of hair. At which point Helena had to remember to breathe.
“I’ll have to remember not to be on the receiving end of that then, won’t I,” the voice was soft.
“It has been known to get pretty messy.” Helena said in all seriousness. The silence stretched for a heartbeat as she looked into a face suddenly full of concern. Why, all of a sudden, did she have this nagging feeling in the back of her mind that she should know this woman for who she was?
The smile returned to dazzle her so that Helena momentarily forgot what she was about to say. A hand came to rest on her shoulder.
Now what? She thought.
“Lie down and cradle your head on your arms.” The hand motioned her, while the woman who owned it moved. In one graceful movement the woman straddled her at the hips. Firm thighs placed a discernible amount of pressure against her waist as she tried to twist her head a full hundred and eighty degrees to say something. Though what, she hadn’t the slightest idea, having been caught totally by surprise. Hands clasped lightly at her head and placed it where it had been requested, on her arms.
“Back rub time.” Was whispered in her ear by way of explanation.
This was more than she knew how to handle, as she felt the full weight of the woman come to rest in the small of her back. The hands that had so tactfully repositioned her head now rested lightly on the knot of muscle that sat across to the top of her shoulders. They began to ply their trade.
“Empty your mind. And for God’s sake, Starfleet, for once in your life, just try to relax will you!”
For the first time in her life, Captain Helena Blackthorn was at a loss for words. Not only that, she was sincerely glad her face now lay buried from sight. It burned. No one had managed to wrong foot her in a long, long time, let alone embarrass her. Well, not since her academy days at least.
“What was that? I didn’t quite hear you, Starfleet?” A head bent toward her ear. She felt the warmth of honeyed breath on the back of her neck. Tiny hairs prickled in response. All the while hands continued to move in repeated rhythmic movements, across muscles long since abused to the point of pain.
“I didn’t say a word.” Which was almost the truth. She had, in fact, moaned. A sound that hung somewhere between delight and some other emotion she didn’t want to think about, as her body once again betrayed her control. What she felt was not safe to voice in thought, let alone struggle to put into words. She tried to empty her mind and surrender to the moment. A task not made easy by the movement to the woman’s body across the small of her back, nor the hands that moved, first up, then down, then across…then…
There was an insistent beep sounding in Helena’s ear. It took a moment to focus her thoughts before she forced open her eyes with the realisation that somewhere along the line, she had fallen asleep. The alarm on her com-link chimed. Except, she hadn’t set one.
Switching it off, Helena rolled over and sat bolt upright, checking the time. It was just after one thirty. With a sigh, a curse and then a snort of disgust at her own stupidity, she looked around the small clearing. Not that she expected to see Alice still there. She had a natural trick for disappearing and appearing at will. Or so it seemed.
Helena carefully ran a hand through her hair and with a shake of her head, had to smile at the absurdity of her situation. Her boots were laid neatly to one side on the blanket, atop which lay her jacket and a small white hand towel. A thoughtful gesture that told her she couldn’t fault the woman for being the model of propriety.
When she began to move in haste in order to make it in time for that afternoon’s opening address, Helena saw that despite her body feeling as if it had been pummelled into submission, she no longer had a headache. Her jaw no longer twitched, and the knots she had supported for the last couple of days across her back, had also miraculously disappeared.
Tomorrow she needed to have a very serious talk with this woman. There were questions she wanted answered.
Tomorrow, however, seemed a long way off.
TO BE CONTINUED …