Disclaimers - See Part 1.
PENDRAGON COVE - PART 4
Claudia wandered disconsolately from room to room, picking up and putting down figurines, greeting students, exchanging small talk that she was hard pressed to remember only moments later. Her mind was whirring until she felt almost dizzy.
Can I do this? she wondered, as she fingered a small bust of Beethoven. Can I start a relationship with Bethany and in a few days just walk away?
She had done it before, God knows. It got lonely on the road, and sometimes, when groupies threw themselves at her - being openly gay had brought her many admiring female fans - she didn't even try to get out of the way. But those relationships had been uncomplicatedly physical - a quick fuck to relieve tension, nothing more. She suspected, no she knew, it would not be like that with Bethany.
There was the additional complication that she would be Bethany's 'first'.
"Hey, Claudia." A woman's voice pulled her out of her reverie.
She replaced Beethoven on the shelf and turned. "Allegra." She smiled at the French cello maestro whose lesson had been so inspirational.
"We're going to play some chamber music after dinner - show these young pups how it's done." The gleam in the amber eyes showed she was joking. "Bartalan's agreed. Karel too. Want to join us?"
For a moment Claudia hesitated. She had yet to join in the after dinner music, and it might be a bit daunting playing with musicians of Allegra's and Karel's calibre Ö. Then she took a deep breath and made her decision totally on impulse.
"I'd love to," she said.
Bethany watched Claudia and the other maestros play until midnight. The sitting room was so packed with eager and excited students, she suspected they'd used a shoehorn to squeeze everyone in.
The violinist was clearly enjoying herself, blue eyes flashing, even white teeth gleaming whenever she smiled - which was often. Sir Benjamin would have been proud to hear the wonderful sounds being coaxed from his Guarnerius without apparent effort. The Italian master's instrument was in masterly hands, thought Bethany, then she shivered as she wondered what those same hands might expertly coax from her.
She backtracked rapidly. Maybe I shouldnít get in any deeper than I already am. Maybe it's better not to risk getting hurt .Ö After all, how can I let her go in three days? The mere thought of Claudia leaving made her feel panicky.
Then Claudia's eyes met hers, and once more she felt the lightning bolt go through her, leaving her breathless. She realized suddenly that she had no choice in the matter - not to take the risk with Claudia would mean her parents had won. The decision made, her panic eased slightly.
Bethany glanced at her watch, sighed regretfully, then when there was an interval in the music stood up and clapped to draw attention to herself. Mock boos and hisses greeted her actions.
"I know, I know." She smiled apologetically. "But we've got a full teaching day tomorrow and your maestros need their beauty sleep." She avoided looking at Claudia, knowing that meeting her gaze would make her blush.
The musicians began to pack away their instruments and sheet music, and, grumbling good-naturedly, the students began to disperse. Soon the room was almost empty.
Bethany became aware that someone was standing next to her. The scent of heated skin, fresh sweat, and sandalwood, was instantly familiar.
"So," came a low murmur in her ear. "Have you decided?"
Bethany found it impossible to speak round the dry lump in her throat. Then a gentle finger was raising her chin, and she was looking directly into bottomless blue eyes.
"Tonight?" Claudia's voice was soft.
Bethany's heart raced uncontrollably, as Claudia smiled at her. "Yes," she managed.
Claudia could almost taste Bethany's nervousness as they walked up the stairs together and wondered what to do about it. It didnít help that she herself felt edgy - suppose Bethany discovered she didn't like making love with a woman after all?
Unobtrusively, she took a calming breath, and glanced at Bethany. The blonde's pupils were visibly dilated, her cheeks flushed, and the pulse in her neck was beating rapidly. Fear or arousal? wondered Claudia. Maybe a little of both.
She opened the door to her room and ushered the blonde woman inside, before busying herself with mundane matters like closing the window and drawing the curtain against the night. As she turned back the sheets on the bed, she was aware of Bethany's gaze burning into her shoulderblades. The tension between them was almost palpable.
We're going to have heart attacks before we even get undressed! thought Claudia wryly. Then a flash of inspiration hit her. She sat on the bed and deliberately rotated her head first one way then the other.
Bethany stepped forward eagerly. "Sore neck?"
"Mmmm." Claudia was relieved Bethany had taken the bait. She was slightly stiff from all that playing, but really she hoped that the process of relaxing her muscles would help Bethany to relax her own.
Obligingly, Bethany crawled up onto the bed and, kneeling, positioned herself behind Claudia. Strong thumbs dug into the knots of muscle, and Claudia let her head drop forward and allowed the sensuous groan Bethany's touch evoked to emerge.
"Oh God! You sound so - " Bethany's voice trailed off.
"So what?" Claudia twisted round enquiringly.
"Sexy." Bethany's voice had dropped an octave.
Claudia grinned, then turned and sprawled full length on the bed. If Bethany wanted to continue the massage, she would have to straddle her. After a moment's hesitation, the blonde woman did so.
The thumbs dug in again, and Claudia gasped. She let the massage continue for a moment, then pushed herself up on her elbows and began to undo her blouse. "Skin on skin is better," she explained. But in her haste, she hadn't undone all of the buttons, and the blouse stuck over her head.
"Here, let me help you." She felt hands pulling the offending garment free, then fingers were scrabbling at the fastener on her bra.
Hmmm, thought Claudia approvingly. She's a quick study.
Cool air swept over her bare skin, followed by warm breath as Bethany leaned closer. Claudia eased the bra straps over her arms, flung the garment to one side, then lay down again.
Strong fingers resumed the massage, and she let herself enjoy it for a while before rolling onto her back, almost catapulting a startled Bethany onto the floor in the process.
"Oops!" She grabbed Bethany's thighs and pulled her back into position, only now Bethany was straddling Claudia's stomach, and the blonde's gaze, Claudia noticed at once, was fixed on her naked breasts.
"Do you like what you see?"
The blonde nodded, and swallowed.
She tugged at the unresisting Bethany, pulling and positioning the smaller woman until Bethany was lying full length on top of her, still fully clothed.
Claudia gave her a long and very thorough kiss that made her moan in the back of her throat.
After that, Bethany's fully-clothed state didn't last for long Ö.
Bethany woke to sunlight and birdsong and the feel of a warm body wrapped around hers. I'm dreaming, she thought placidly. I really like this dream.
The arm circling her waist tightened abruptly and someone nibbled her earlobe and whispered, "How are you feeling?" Warm breath tickled her ear, and sent her heart racing, then memory returned with a rush.
Bethany's heart slowed as she adjusted to her new reality and decided that it was just fine with her. She did a quick roll call. Bruised lips, sore nipples, some tenderness between her legs, but these minor irritations were more than compensated for by an overwhelming sense of wellbeing.
Gleefully, she rolled over, and presented herself for a good morning kiss. Claudia smiled at her, then ducked her head and obliged.
Claudia paused. "That's good, right?" she teased. She resumed the kiss.
"Mmmm," agreed Bethany.
They broke apart at last, "I thought I was dreaming. It was a wonderful dream." she told her dark haired lover. 'Lover'! Just thinking of the word sent a tingle down her spine.
"So, how do you feel?"
Bethany sensed that Claudia was genuinely anxious but trying to hide it. "Great," she said, puzzled. "A little tender in places, but otherwise-"
The violinist looked dismayed. "Sorry. I got a bit carried away -"
"Hey, donít apologize." Bethany placed a finger to the other woman's lips. "I wanted you to get carried away. Heck, I got a bit carried away myself." Guiltily, she eyed the lovebite on Claudia's neck.
"You're sure you're okay?"
"Very sure." She captured Claudia's mouth again and kissed her until they were both breathless. "What about you?"
"I'm great," said the violinist. "Haven't slept that well in ages."
Bethany decided that on balance that was probably a compliment and didn't protest. Claudia glanced at her, smirked, then leaned back into the pillows.
"So," said Claudia. "I guess last night confirms it then."
"You're definitely gay." She arched an eyebrow significantly.
Bethany gurgled with laughter. "What would you do if I told you I wasn't."
Claudia pretended to consider. "Nominate you for an Oscar?"
Bethany slapped Claudia lightly on the arm. "That's not nice." Then she caught sight of the travel alarm clock on the cabinet next to the bed. "Oh, no! I'm late. Alice will be wondering where I've got to."
"Donít go." Claudia wrapped her arms around Bethany, and began nibbling the nape of her neck in a way that sent shivers down her spine.
"Stoppit!" she said, unconvincingly. "I have to." She squirmed until Claudia released her and then wasn't sure whether to be pleased or sorry that she'd got her way so easily.
Reluctantly she crawled out of their warm bed and began looking for her clothes. Her bra, she noticed wryly, had somehow ended up draped over the doorknob, and her knickers were under the bed. Other items, hers and Claudia's, were lying higgledy-piggledy in various parts of the room. When they had last shared this room, they had neatly folded their clothes before going to bed. They hadn't slept naked either, she mused.
She crawled around on all fours, retrieving items, then realized that Claudia was watching her.
"Oh, yes." Claudia licked her lips. "Pert little bum, jiggling bosoms -"
Bethany felt herself reddening.
"- and of course, there's the black eye (it's turning yellow, by the way) which adds that touch of 'Je ne sais quoi' to the whole effect." Claudia leered.
"Thanks very much!" said Bethany indignantly.
"My pleasure." Claudia grinned. "Bathroom's down the hall," she added helpfully, making no effort to get up.
Bethany dressed hastily, ending up with her bra strap twisted, her top inside out, but most items of clothing where they should be. What could you expect with that distracting blue gaze fixed on her?
Claudia clasped her hands behind her head and leaned back against the pillows, patently aware that the position displayed her breasts to advantage.
Bethany gulped and headed for the door. "See you later," she said, or would have, if her voice hadn't given out.
"Later," chortled Claudia.
The first person Claudia saw when she entered the dining room in search of breakfast was a middle-aged man in a dishevelled looking suit.
"Stephen! When did you get back?" She strode towards the Seminar director, uncertain whether to hug or hit him. "And how could you leave me in the lurch like that?" She settled for kissing him on the cheek, his bristles rough against her lips, then took the empty seat next to him.
"I didnít leave you in the lurch," he protested. "I told Bethany to look after you." He craned his neck, clearly looking for the woman who had taken charge in his absence. "She has been looking after you, hasn't she?"
"She certainly has!" The exclamation earned her a curious glance and she remembered ruefully just how well Stephen knew her.
He chewed a mouthful of toast and marmalade. "So, I hear you're a great teacher, my dear."
"Been talking to people about me?" Claudia helped herself to orange juice and cereal.
"My favourite occupation." He grinned at her.
She grimaced and poured the milk. How he would react, she wondered, when he became aware of her involvement with Bethany?
She looked up and saw Bethany heading towards their table, a pot of tea in her hands, a huge beam on her face. Uh oh! It looked like she was going to find out any minute now.
Bethany placed a hand on Claudia's shoulder, supposedly for balance but they both knew that was unnecessary, and began to fill Claudia's tea cup. There was, unmistakably, an air of ownership about the young blonde that made Claudia both glow and cringe at the same time. She glanced at Stephen. His eyes, she noticed were twinkling, and he seemed to be suppressing a grin.
"Something funny?" she growled. Bethany glanced at the two of them curiously.
"Uh Ö no Ö not a thing." His shoulders shook.
Claudia sighed and turned to Bethany. "Sit with us for a while, will you?"
"Oh, okay." The blonde woman sat down opposite them and waited expectantly.
Claudia cleared her suddenly dry throat. "Er, Stephen Ö Bethany and I have something to tell you, before you hear it from anyone else." She turned to the other woman, whose cheeks had flushed a becoming shade of pink. "Isn't that right?"
Bethany nodded silently, and Claudia blew out a breath in relief. "While you were away, well, let's just say that she and I Ö." She stopped, uncertain how to phrase it.
"Are lovers," finished Bethany quietly.
Claudia cast her a grateful glance. "That's right." She turned to Stephen. "Now if you have a problem with that - "
"Well, itís about time," said Stephen. "I knew you two would get along." He glanced slyly at Claudia. "And I must admit I was wondering who gave you that."
She followed the direction of his gaze and realized the lovebite was showing. "Oh!" She flushed and adjusted her Hermes scarf.
"And of course, I donít have a problem." His voice was reproachful. "You should know that by now, Claudia." He turned to look at Bethany and smiled. "You have very good taste, my dear."
He wiped his mouth on a napkin and abruptly was all business. "Now, Bethany. I understand quite a lot has been happening since I've been away. That black eye you're wearing so dashingly, for example. And I hear you paid Sir Benjamin a visit?"
"Uh, yes." Bethany seemed disconcerted by the sudden change of subject. Claudia reached across the table and gave her hand a reassuring squeeze. It earned her a grateful glance.
"Perhaps youíd like to bring me up to date?" continued Stephan.
"Uh, sure. Well, it was like this .Ö"
While Bethany filled the director in on the details, Claudia contented herself in gazing at her lover and revelling at the touch of soft skin beneath her fingers Ö.
With Stephen back in the driving seat, the load on Bethany was much lighter. Which wasn't necessarily a good thing, she decided. The spare time allowed her thoughts to return to Claudia, to feel the almost physical ache that came from not being near her. Who'd have thought it? Good old dull old Bethany, who had practically resigned herself to old maidhood. One night with Claudia had turned her into a raving sex maniac!
She chopped the carrots a little more forcefully than was necessary and tried not to think about what would happen when the course ended and Claudia went back to London.
"Hey." Claudia's voice surprised her - she hadn't heard the violinist enter the kitchen. "Why donít we do something different tonight?"
The rumour mill had been working overtime - Bethany's overnight absence from her own room had not gone unnoticed - and the kitchen's other occupants (currently Mungo and Charlotte) were eyeing the two of them keenly. Bethany restrained herself from a sudden and rather disconcerting urge to show off, to ravish Claudia there and then on the melamine worktop simply because she could. Instead she kissed the violinist demurely on the cheek, and slipped an arm around her waist.
"Different? Like what?"
"Like getting away from here. We could go to the cinema or something."
There was no film Bethany particularly wanted to see. A thought struck her. "We could go tenpin bowling. It's ages since I've been. Youíd love it."
"Bowling." Claudia looked slightly taken aback but recovered quickly. "Oh Ö er Ö okay."
Her plucky smile made Bethany's heart overflow with affection.
The worst thing about tenpin bowling, decided Claudia, was the shoes. Was it her imagination, or were hers still warm? She suppressed a shudder and tried not to think about who had worn them last or what state their feet were in. Instead, she focussed on a much more pleasant sight - Bethany's rear.
The blonde woman had started her approach, and was jogging along the strip of wood the rubber soled bowling shoes were designed to protect. As she neared the foul line, she swung back her right arm, which now sported a huge blue bowling ball where a hand should be.
Bethany's movements were fluid and finely judged, she crossed one leg behind the other, halted, and swung her arm forward, releasing the ball and letting it fly. Unlike Claudia's first two efforts, which had thudded to earth with a crash that made her wince, the ball touched down smoothly, almost silently, then rumbled down the lane.
"Nice shot," called Claudia, watching the blue ball head straight towards the ten pins at the far end of the lane. Sure enough, it hit them dead centre, spraying the inner pins hard against the outer ones, knocking them all flying into the pit.
"Yeah!" Bethany pumped her arm, and Claudia found her gaze irresistibly drawn to that shapely rear again.
"You're supposed to be keeping score," said Bethany.
"Huh?" Claudia started then hastily scribbled Bethany's 'strike' on the scorecard. When she looked up again, it was to find Bethany grinning knowingly at her.
"Nothing," said Bethany. "Your turn."
She frowned suspiciously up at the blonde, then shrugged and relinquished her seat. As she selected a red ball from the ball rack - choosing a heavier one than that Bethany had used - the blonde took over as scorer.
Claudia's technique wasn't as calculated as Bethany's; she was a creature of instinct. She was rapidly getting the hang of this unfamiliar game, though. Bowling ball firmly gripped with the thumb and two fingers of her right hand, she jogged along the approach towards the foul line, swung, and released. This time the ball kissed the lane's surface smoothly and was only slightly askew.
As she watched the red ball travel towards the ten pins, she became aware that Bethany was staring at her backside, and wiggled it provocatively.
"Hey, I was only getting my own back," called Bethany.
Claudia's laugh was drowned by the clatter of pins falling. The Pindicator lights above the lane showed only two remained upright. Maybe she could manage a 'spare' with her second ball. Feeling pleased with herself, she turned, expecting to hear Bethany's congratulations, then she froze. Two big men were standing next to her lover, towering over her, and the look on Bethany's face was anything but welcoming.
Two strides brought Claudia to the blonde's side. "Are these men bothering you?"
"Um, not really. These are my brothers - Martin and Jamie."
Now that she knew they were related to Bethany, the likeness was unmistakable. Blonde hair, green eyes - but the expression in the eyes of the taller brother - Martin, was it? - was very different from his sister's. He eyed Claudia disdainfully then dismissed her.
"'Bout time you came home, Bethie," he continued the conversation Claudia had interrupted. "Mum's rushed off her feet." His tone was accusatory.
"Why donít you help your mother," asked Claudia, reasonably she thought, though the frown Martin threw her told her he disagreed.
"Who's your tall friend?" asked Jamie, who had a bad case of acne, Claudia noticed.
Bethany glanced apologetically up at Claudia. "Uh Ö this is Claudia Holbrook. She's staying at Pendragon House."
Martin eyed Claudia up and down. "You look a bit old to be taking music lessons."
Claudia merely raised an eyebrow - these were Bethany's brothers, after all - but Bethany inhaled sharply.
"Donít be rude, Martin. She's one of the teachers."
Jamie leered. "I wonder what she'd be prepared to teach me!"
Claudia frowned and held onto her temper. "Look, guys, we're trying to enjoy ourselves. It's been nice meeting you two, but I'm sure you have other things to do, other places to be."
She waited for them to take the hint, then realized that they were too thick, or too aggressive, or - belatedly she noticed the reek of beer and sighed - too drunk.
"Um, maybe we'd better go, Claudia," mumbled Bethany, apparently realizing her brothers' condition too.
"Aw. Donít spoil the fun." Bethany had been rising from her seat when Martin's hand pressed her back down with an audible thump.
Claudia's hackles were fully erect by now, but a beseeching glance from Bethany held her in check. She watched mutely as Jamie ambled to the ball rack and helped himself to a bowling ball.
His delivery was appalling. The mistimed and badly aimed ball landed with a crash and headed straight for the gutter. The ten pins remained standing, and the ball disappeared into the pit. Moments later, it came rumbling back into the ball return area.
"Must've been something wrong with the lousy ball," protested Jamie loudly.
Claudia watched him select a different ball, and tried not to grind her teeth. "Let me take care of this," she murmured so only Bethany could hear.
"No, Claudia! You could get hurt. You donít know what my brothers are like when they've had few .Ö"
"I'll be fine. Trust me."
"So," said Martin, his hand still resting heavily on his sister's shoulder. "How come you two girls arenít with anyone?" He leered at Claudia. "Waiting for the right guy to come along?"
Claudia grimaced. "I have to go to the loo," she told him. Bethany blinked forlornly at her. "Hey. I'll be right back," she reassured her.
Once she was satisfied Martin and Jamie were no longer watching her, Claudia changed direction and headed for the manager's office.
"I think you should know," she told the uniformed man with his feet up on the desk, "there are two guys in Lane 7 who aren't wearing regulation bowling shoes."
"What?" The manager got to his feet at once, summoned a burly minder, and set off for Lane 7. Claudia smiled at his departing back and ambled after him to watch events unfold.
The manager and his assistant approached the offenders politely at first, gesturing at their feet. As Claudia had surmised, though, Martin and Jamie weren't open to persuasion, and soon a shouting match was underway. A stunned Bethany gaped at the unfolding drama, then turned, clearly searching for something or someone.
Her gaze stopped when it found Claudia. Her expression spoke more eloquently than words: Did you have something to do with this? Claudia nodded.
Then Martin threw a punch, and moments later, he and Jamie were being hauled out of the Bowling Alley by the scruff of their necks.
The other bowlers, who had stopped to watch the fun, went back to their games, and Claudia came up beside Bethany and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. "You okay?" she asked softly.
"I think so." The blonde sighed and covered Claudia's hand with her own. "Trust my brothers to ruin the evening."
"They haven't ruined it." Claudia squeezed the shoulder gently. "It's only just begun .Ö Now. Whose turn is it to bowl?"
It was after eleven when Bethany and Claudia finally left the Bowling Alley and set off across the rapidly emptying carpark towards the minibus. They had barely gone half way when two figures emerged from the shadows.
Bethany's heart sank as the moon chose that moment to come out from behind a cloud and illuminated the men barring their way.
"Martin Ö Jamie! What are you doing here?" She became aware that Claudia's arm was around her waist and shrugged it away, hoping neither of her brothers had noticed.
Claudia glanced at her and sighed softly.
"It was you who sicked the manager on us, wasn't it?" Martin was glaring at Claudia. And Jamie - well, Jamie, thought Bethany uneasily, looked as though he'd been poleaxed.
"What if it was?" asked Claudia.
"She's a dyke!" blurted Jamie.
"What are you on about?" Martin looked at his younger brother as if he'd lost his mind. "Our Bethie's no lezzie."
"I meant the grockle, you idiot. She had her arm round Bethie - didnít you see?"
Martin's eyes narrowed as he turned his attention back to Claudia.
"She's a bloody dyke," continued Jamie, his voice becoming shriller by the minute. "God knows what she's being doing to our Bethie!"
Martin frowned at Bethany. "It's not true, is it? You're not really -" his face twisted with disgust and he gestured at Claudia, "- with that?"
Bethany realized sadly that the moment had come, as she had always known it would, when she must choose between her family and being true to herself. She glanced at Claudia and found the choice was easy.
"It's really none of your business, Martin," she said evenly, "but yes, Claudia and I are lovers." She was aware of Claudia smiling encouragingly at her and took comfort from it.
"Told you," said Jamie.
"Hang on a moment." Martin's face was blotchy, a sign Bethany recognized all too well. He was about to lose his temper. "I donít understand."
He stared directly at her and she thought wistfully of childhood days when she had admired the older brother who always stood up for her. When had he changed, become such a bully?
"What about Pete?" persisted Martin. Pete had been Martin's best friend, before his family moved away. "He said you and he were always at it like rabbits."
"He lied," said Bethany.
She felt an arm creeping round her waist and this time didn't shrug it away.
"Get your hands off my sister, you filthy pervert," shouted Martin. "You touch her and I'll break your fucking arm."
"Too late, sunshine." Claudia's tone was provocative, "I've already done far more than just touch her. And she loved every minute of it."
"Claudia, no!" said Bethany. But it was too late.
With a cry of rage, Martin flung himself at the violinist, who released Bethany and seemed almost to dance out of Martin's way.
Itís all my fault, thought Bethany, her heart pounding so loudly she could almost hear it. He'll break her fingers, ruin her career, and itís all because of me.
"Martin," she screamed. "Donít hurt her."
Helplessly, she watched her brother swing wildly at Claudia Ö and miss. There was a loud crunch as his fist hit Jamie, who had been creeping up behind Claudia. Blood poured down Jamie's shirtfront and he clapped one hand to his nose.
"Having fun, boys?" Claudia's eyes were sparkling, and Bethany stared at her in amazement. Not only was the violinist defending herself easily, she seemed to be enjoying it. Energy fairly crackled off her.
"Get in the minibus, Bethany," ordered Claudia. "I'll be with you in a minute."
The dark haired woman's words from earlier came back to her. 'Trust me,' she'd pleaded. And suddenly, Bethany did.
Leaving Claudia adopting what was presumably a kickboxing stance, keeping her precious hands clear of any danger and using her legs and feet to deflect Martin's increasingly wild blows, Bethany ran towards the minibus. She had barely opened the door when she heard a loud 'ooof', followed by the sound of fleeing footsteps.
By the time she had put the key in the ignition and got the engine going, the carpark contained only a solitary figure, standing with arms folded and eyes squinted against the glare of the headlights.
Bethany pulled up beside Claudia, reached over and opened the minibus door. "Fancy a lift?"
Claudia laughed and climbed into the passenger seat. "I fancy you. Will that do?"
Bethany drove out of town and turned the minibus onto the coast road. "The perfect end to the perfect evening," she said dryly.
"Oh it isnít over yet. I have something in mind for when we get back."
Claudia's hooded gaze sent a rush of heat straight to Bethany's groin Ö.
That night Claudia made love to Bethany slowly and very tenderly, knowing that the confrontation with her brothers must have stirred up deep emotions. On the trip back, they hadn't talked much about what had happened, they talked about Claudia's skill at kickboxing and traded salacious banter instead, but she suspected, knowing Bethany, the hurt would surface soon.
Claudia had been lucky, she knew - her parents, supportive as always, had accepted her sexuality as they did everything else about her. What must it be like to come from a family, a community, that hated who you were, insisted you deny an essential part of yourself?
When Bethany climaxed at last, her ecstatic cry soon gave way to deep wrenching sobs that tore at Claudia's heart. She pulled the small woman into her embrace and held her close.
"Let it out, Bethany," she told her. "You'll feel much better once it's out."
"Oh God, Claudia," sobbed the young woman. "Once they know I'm gay, my parents won't ever want to see me again .Ö I can never go home."
Claudia rubbed Bethany's back, hoping the gentle rhythm would soothe her. "If that's true, then it wasn't your home. It's where you lived, that's all."
The sobs turned to hiccups while Bethany considered this. For a while it seemed to help, then her sobs started up again.
"It hurts." Bethany whimpered and curled up, as though trying to relieve a physical pain.
Claudia held her tightly." I know, sweetheart," she said. "Believe me, I know."
She had just finished playing Bartok's Second Violin Concerto and the applause was still ringing in her ears. It had gone brilliantly, she thought, as she retreated to the haven of her dressing room, went behind the screen, and began peeling off her drenched evening dress. What a shame Ben hadn't been there to witness it, though - his front row seat had been conspicuously empty. She sighed and wondered what had delayed his flight.
She sponged herself down at the tiny sink, then slipped into a blouse and chinos. On the dressing table, beside her Guarnerius, was the obligatory flamboyant bouquet. She picked it up and immersed her nose in it. Typical. It had no scent whatsoever.
A familiar knock came at the door. "Come in, Oscar."
Her young PA peered round it. "Claudia." His mouth was working, his expression bleak. She took one look at him and her heart went into freefall.
"Claudia Ö terrible news Ö plane crash Ö Atlantic."
His words seemed strangely fragmented and to come from a great distance Ö.
When she became aware of her surroundings again, it was to find herself huddled in the corner of a dressing room which looked like a hurricane had trashed it. Her throat was so hoarse, she could barely speak - they told her she had been keening for several hours - and her left hand stung. The cut on the back of her hand was so deep it required several stitches; the battered Guarnerius could not be so easily repaired.
Her world had ended then Ö or so she believed. She and Ben had helped each other through the grief after their parents' death - it had brought them even closer together. Now, there was no one she could turn to so she simply shut down, took to wandering through the long days and sleepless nights like a zombie. At first, reactions had been patient, sympathetic even. Another plane crash? What a terrible tragedy. Later had come irritation; finally, people simply grew tired of waiting for her to 'get over it' and moved on. Rather apologetically, Oscar applied for, and got, a PA job elsewhere. And Claudia found herself alone, a gaping hole where her heart used to be.
All that had changed, she realized suddenly. And the cause wasn't hard to find. She gazed down at the tearful woman in her arms with something like awe and tightened her grip. A whimper of protest made her relax her hold. "Sorry," she murmured, stroking the blonde hair.
"S'okay," came the snuffled reply.
Eventually, somewhere around 4 am, Bethany drifted into exhausted sleep. Claudia, however, lay awake thinking until it was time to get up. For the first time in a very long time she was making plans for the future.
"You've missed one, my bird." Alice dropped a dirty coffee cup into the sudsy water.
Bethany acknowledged it with a grimace. "Thanks."
Washing up was about all she was capable of this morning. Last night's crying jag had left her feeling exhausted and slightly numb. At one stroke, all her roots had been severed. Her past was irrelevant, her future a blank. She was a piece of flotsam bobbing wherever the tide took her. She sighed, aware of the cook's concerned glance, but reluctant to tell her what was wrong.
Her mind seemed to be over the place - one moment she was imagining her parents' appalled faces as her brothers told them the news, the next she was remembering making love with Claudia Ö.
With a sinking feeling, Bethany wondered whether the violinist had tired of her already, of the complications their relationship had brought with it. When Bethany finally surfaced from sleep, the violinist had been thoughtful, her good morning kiss affectionate rather than passionate. They hadn't spoken much over breakfast, and since then Claudia had been tied up teaching Ö.
Charlotte barrelled into the kitchen and screeched to a halt, startling Bethany out of her reverie.
"The police are here!" The teenager's voice was excited. "They're talking to Ms Holbrook."
"Claudia?" With a mumbled apology to Alice, Bethany peeled off her rubber gloves and hurried out of the kitchen.
She glanced at the grandfather clock in the hall as she passed it, and noted that the violinist's morning masterclass should have finished ten minutes ago. Sure enough, when she peered round the classroom door, it was to find Claudia alone with two men, the younger one wearing police uniform.
Bethany's heart skipped a beat, and she cleared her throat. Instantly, three heads turned towards her. Claudia's blue gaze was warm, and she held out a hand. Before anyone could object, Bethany took it and let the violinist pull her close.
It can't be too bad, then, thought Bethany, gauging her lover's reaction.
"This is Bethany Tredinnick," said Claudia.
"Ah," said the older man in plain clothes. "Their sister."
Bethany's heart rate shot up, and she found herself unable to do more than stutter. What trouble were her brothers making for Claudia now?
"It's okay," soothed Claudia. "Jamie and Martin pressed an assault charge against me, but D.I. Breage here," - she indicated the man in plain clothes, "- says he's decided not to proceed."
"It wasn't an assault, it was self-defence," said Bethany indignantly. "I witnessed the whole thing. If anyone were to press charges, it should be Claudia."
"We realize that now," said Breage. "To be honest, I suspected it was just a malicious charge when your brothers came in to the station this morning. They were," - his expression was distasteful - "in a bit of a state."
"I'll bet," muttered Claudia under her breath.
Bethany knew all too well that once her brothers got hold of something they were reluctant to let it go. Once Claudia left Cornwall, left her - her heart seemed to clench in her chest at the thought, and she pushed it away - they might leave the violinist alone, but there was no guarantee. She turned to the Detective Inspector.
"I'm worried my brothers might try to hurt Claudia. She's a famous violinist, you know and Martin threatened to break her hands. Is there anything you can do?"
Breage looked thoughtful then turned to the uniformed policeman. "What do you think, PC Sithney? A little word in their shell-likes? A warning that should anything happen to Ms Holbrook in the future, they'll be the first on our list?"
The PC nodded sagely. "That ought to do it, sir."
Breage smiled at both women. "Consider it done." He turned to go, then paused and looked back at Claudia. "Ms Holbrook, may I just say that I sincerely hope you donít think the Tredinnik brothers are representative of Cornwall as a whole. I apologize if you got that impression. Most of us have managed to drag ourselves into the twentieth century."
"Thank you," said Claudia. "I appreciate that."
Breage paused at the door, his hand on the doorknob. "Oh, by the way. I caught a recital you gave four years ago in the Wigmore Hall. The Brahms Concerto in D. It was brilliant. Simply brilliant." He beamed at her and disappeared out the door, PC Sithney hard on his heels.
Bethany stared after the two policemen, her eyes wide. "Will wonders never cease?"
"You mean the fact I gave a brilliant recital?"
"No, silly!" Bethany rolled her eyes. "A Cornish copper with a broad mind and great taste in music."
Claudia hugged her. "You're too hard on your own countrymen, you know."
"Perhaps," said Bethany, leaning into the hug and feeling more anchored than she had all morning.
A quiet throat clearing made both women turn. "Er hum. Am I interrupting something?" The Seminar Director was standing in the doorway.
"Stephen," said the violinist. "No. Come in." Bethany was pleased to note that, rather than releasing her, Claudia pulled her closer.
The Director looked concerned. "Is everything all right, Claudia? Alice said the police wanted to talk to you .Ö I got here as soon as I could."
"Everything's fine," said Claudia. "We're both fine."
His frown cleared and he nodded. "Just thought Iíd check."
"Thanks. I appreciate it, Stephen."
When he'd left them alone again, Claudia turned to Bethany. "It's like Piccadilly Circus in here." Her breath was warm against Bethany's cheek. "Let's go somewhere we wonít be disturbed. There's something important I want to say to you."
Bethany felt her new found feeling of security drop away. "Oh, okay, "she said reluctantly.
The walk to the cliffs and down to the cove had been a fraught one, with Bethany badgering Claudia every step of the way.
"Why can't you just tell me now?"
"Because I can't." Claudia wanted the setting to be just right. She had pictured the romantic scene, she and Bethany standing on the narrow margin of golden sand that fringed the cove, the blue sea as their backdrop. When she got there the image abruptly disappeared. The tide was in. Oh well, she thought. At least there was no one else around.
She stopped on a slab of rock just above the tideline, and turned to face the anxious green gaze. Surreptitiously she wiped her sweaty palms on her skirt. God. She was even more nervous than before a performance!
"Bethany. In two days, when the course ends, I have to go back to London -"
"You dragged me all the way out here to tell me something I already know?" Bethany bit her lip and studied the waves lapping the slab.
Disconcerted by the blonde's reaction, Claudia took a breath and started again. "While Stephen was away, you took on a great deal of responsibility Ö for the Seminar Ö for us."
"The maestros and students."
"I see." Bethany's voice was stilted.
She's as nervous as I am, thought Claudia, and decided just to cut to the chase. "So Ö I've been thinking about this a lot and I want you to be my PA." She grinned expectantly.
Emotions flashed across Bethany's face too fast for Claudia to follow. Then a blank mask replaced them.
"I appreciate the sentiment, Claudia, but you donít have to worry about me. I'll be fine," said Bethany stiffly.
Claudia blinked in confusion. "Oh, okay. Maybe there's some other job on my staff you'd prefer. But as my PA there'd be no problem with you coming on tour -"
A raised hand - it was trembling slightly, she noticed - stopped her.
"You want me to come on tour with you?"
Claudia felt a headache coming on and rubbed her forehead. "Of course." The hiss of the waves and the crying of the gulls seemed abnormally loud.
"So, let me get this straight," said Bethany, carefully, "when this course ends, you expect me to come with you?"
Claudia felt suddenly unsure. "Um Ö that was the idea." Her heart sank. What arrogance! She had just assumed Bethany would want to come. Her carefully laid plans, her freshly made dreams began to shrivel.
"As - what, precisely?" The green eyes were intent.
"Well, I thought primarily as Ö as my lover?" Claudia's voice cracked.
At the word 'lover', Bethany's hand went to her mouth. Her small but audible gasp raised Claudia's hopes again and her headache eased.
"Surely you knew that?" She closed the distance between them and wrapped the smaller woman in a hug. Bethany burrowed into her chest as if she intended never to come out again. Muffled sobs shook her frame.
"Oh, sweetheart. I've made a mess of this, haven't I?" Claudia flushed with embarrassment.
"Ö anything Ö pity Ö," came a mumble.
Bethany raised her head from its safe harbour against Claudia's shoulder. Her eyes were red, the eyelashes damp, and her nose was running. "I want to be with you more than anything," she sniffled. "But I thought -" her eyes filled with tears again and she gulped, "- thought you were only asking me to be your PA out of pity."
Claudia sighed and dug in her pocket for a handkerchief. The blonde took it gratefully and blew her nose.
"Pity! Where did that come from?"
"Well, you must admit, we're hardly a matched pair. An experienced and talented violinist, who's travelled all over the world. And a naïve little waitress who's lived in the same stupid Cornish village all her life and now has to leave because her bigoted family can't stand queers."
"Even if I agreed with your description, which I don't," said Claudia, "it's not about that."
"No?" Bethany gazed up at her. "What is it about then?"
Claudia stroked a finger down one soft cheek. "Do you think I'd have got through this last fortnight without you?"
"You'd have managed somehow."
"No." Claudia shook her head vehemently. "I was on the verge of drowning. Stephen threw me a lifeline, but I didnít know how to take it. You showed me the way."
Bethany looked doubtful.
"It's true. When my brother died Ö coming so soon after losing my parents Ö something inside me broke. By the time I arrived at Pendragon House, I'd given up, Bethany. I hadn't performed in public in over a year."
Bethany tried to speak but stopped when Claudia pressed a finger to her lips. "Shhh. Let me say this. I need to say this." She took a breath and composed herself. "Thanks to you, I've discovered I can teach. And in teaching, I've rediscovered my own love of playing and performing. Do you know what a precious gift that is? You've given me that, Bethany."
A rosy flush covered the blonde woman's face. "I have?"
Claudia nodded. "That would be reason enough, but it's not why I want you to come with me. Neither is the fact you believe you can't go home again." She moved the finger under Bethany's chin and gently raised it until their mouths were almost touching, their breaths mingling.
"I know we haven't known each other long, but - " she gathered her courage, "- I think I'm falling in love with you."
She stared deep into Bethany's eyes, and let her own barriers drop, trying to convey her love, her vulnerability, her need Ö hoping the other woman would see and understand.
The green eyes misted, and Bethany breathed a single word. "Claudia."
It was enough. There in Pendragon Cove, with the tide lapping at their feet, Claudia pressed her lips to Bethany's, and sealed the promise of their future with a kiss.
A big thank you to my beta readers Tragedy88 and Midgit.
Special thanks also to Ketty for her generous help with information about playing the violin. All accuracies are due entirely to her; any inaccuracies are due entirely to me.