Phoebe Grant had to laugh as she looked at herself in the small bathroom mirror as she finished getting dressed. The reflection that greeted her was one that had become quite familiar over the last few weeks, but still filled her with a certain amusement all the same. What would her co-workers at the bank think if they could see her now? She was an Elf, right down to the pointed ears and the equally pointed bright green shoes.
"Well it's not the worst job I've ever had," the twenty-two year old blonde thought. She pinned up her long hair to better hide it beneath the floppy red cap, remembering the varied assortment of things she had done to make ends meet back in her school days. "Still, I don't think this is going to be a high point on my resume."
Phoebe didn't need to remind herself just how lucky she'd been to even get this part time job as she stepped out of the make-shift dressing room and headed out to the front of the store to begin her shift. As holiday jobs went, the pay wasn't bad, the hours were flexible, and the people fun to work with. A lot more than most of the employees at First National Trust where she had been employed for the last two years. Yes, it certainly was her lucky day when she happened to be passing by in front of the bakery shop just as they'd put the "Help Wanted" sign in the window.
For most of the year, the C & B Bakery was no different than a hundred other similar shops around the city. A place to buy both traditional and trendy desserts. But, for the short span between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it stood out as a little piece of the North Pole transplanted to midtown Manhattan. The home of Mrs. Claus's Cookies, it had, over the last ten years, become as much of a holiday tradition as the tree in Rockefeller Center or the Christmas show at Radio City. A winter wonderland with decorations that rivaled the best Fifth Avenue stores, it truly was a marvel to behold.
Despite the fact that it was Christmas Eve, or perhaps because of it, Phoebe found the public area of the small store even more crowded than usual. Working her way behind the counter, she took note that all three of her fellow Elves were also in today. Normally, only two of them worked at a time since they all also had other jobs. She flashed a quick smile to Sandra Kingston, the short redhead that looked like she was born to wear the costume they all shared. Sandra took a moment to acknowledge her, then went right back to wrapping the box of two dozen cookies she had just filled.
The other two Elves, Mary Pitt and Kendra Brown, were even busier and didn't even notice the new arrival until she squeezed in between them. Her fellow blonde Elf and her taller, dark skinned counterpart, looked more than relieved to have help dealing with the crush of last minute shoppers. As Phoebe took her first order of the afternoon, she noticed that Mrs. Claus herself, known the other eleven months of the year as Emma Burke had been pressed into service behind the counter as well. Normally, the owner and chief baker liked to work the crowds on the other side of the long tabletop, spreading her infectious brand of Christmas cheer.
A decade before, the idea to specialize only in Christmas cookies for one month of the year had been a risky venture for the then struggling shop. But it was one that quickly turned into a veritable gold mine for the two owners. The bakery did almost a third of its yearly business during that short span, and the good will they spread during the holiday season continued across the rest of the year. It wasn't just the cookies, good as they were, that kept bringing the crowds back year after year, it was the entire Yuletide experience. Right down to the helpful Elves and of course Mrs. Claus herself.
The next few hours passed in a pleasant blur of smiling faces, Christmas Carols echoing from the wall mounted speakers and an assortment of wondrous smells wafting from the kitchen. Still, by the time eight o'clock rolled around and the last customer had been served, Phoebe was glad the long day was finally over.
"In a way, I'm almost sorry to see the season end," Mrs. Claus said as she locked the door behind the last customer and put up the "Closed For Business" sign. "I wish it could go on another month."
The comment brought a friendly groan from Sandra and Mary, who had each put in more hours in the last week than the other two girls combined. Mrs. Claus laughed and assured them she was only kidding.
"I said almost," she broadly smiled. "Seriously, I don't know what I'd do without you girls."
The smiles now on all her helper's faces were just as warm and genuine. Their gratitude and affection toward their employer was the result of far more than the salary they received, which was worth noting, was higher than the minimum wage Phoebe had originally expected. Mrs. Claus was a lot more than just the person signing the checks. She was a friend who took a deep interest in the people who worked for her, even if just part time. All three of the other girls had worked for her the previous season, with Kendra having even worked the one before that. Kelly George, whom Phoebe had replaced when she had to quit two days into the season to take advantage of an opportunity on her regular job, had been there for three years.
Since she'd been there only a few weeks, and her short hours left her limited time for socializing, Phoebe understandably hadn't had that many chances to get to know the woman behind the "Mrs. Claus" persona. Still, in those moments when she did have the chance to talk to her, she found the white haired woman to be a kindred spirit. Some of the blanks were also filled in by her chats with the other girls. Sandra told her that she'd heard that Emma had been a widow for about five years, and Kendra confided that she'd been told by Kelly that it was because she couldn't have kids of her own that Emma loved the holidays so. Since it was all second-hand, Phoebe didn't know how accurate it all was, but it made her a little sad to think that this nice woman who gave so much of herself to others had no one to share her life with.
Having someone to share with, or even just someone to talk to, was something Phoebe really missed these days. Unfortunately, as nice as Mrs. Claus and the other girls were, she doubted they'd really understand her situation. Well, maybe they'd understand the situation, since it wasn't all that unique, but it was the particulars that might give them pause.
A little over a year before, soon after she'd gone to work at the bank, Phoebe had met the love of her life. Or at least the person she thought would be. Barbara Ann Phillips had been twenty-three, pretty and intelligent, and worked at the pharmacy down the street from the bank. More importantly, the short haired brunette had, like Phoebe, realized at an early age that her interest in her own sex far outweighed any interest in the opposite one.
A casual friendship, started awkwardly, had turned to romance soon enough. Six months after they began dating, they found a small apartment in Brooklyn and set up house together. For the slightly younger blonde, it was like a dream come true. Each day seemed better than the last, each tomorrow full of promise. That was, Phoebe sadly remembered, until the phone call eight weeks ago.
The call had been from Barbara's mother, whom Phoebe couldn't remember her lover ever even mentioning before, except to acknowledge that she was still alive and living with the rest of her family back in Connecticut. The news had been bad, one of Barbara's closest friends had died in an auto accident and her mother wanted to know if she planned to come home for the funeral.
Of course Barbara would go, Phoebe had no doubt of that. Just as certainly, she offered to go as well, to offer moral support in what she knew was a time of personal anguish for her love. They were still of an age where death was a distant concern, and even more devastating when it visited one of their contemporaries.
To her surprise, Barbara declined the offer, saying that it would be better if she went alone. Phoebe knew the woman who shared her bed well enough to note a look of concern at the prospect of her coming along. Not wanting to pry at such a painful time, she instead used her own experience to fathom a reason.
Ever since the day she had informed her own parents that they could stop trying to fix her up with what they considered suitable young men, and the reason why, Phoebe's relationship with her family had been strained to say the least. It was possible, she considered, that Barbara's parents had a similar reaction, and she didn't want to flaunt a lover in their face. Or, it also suddenly occurred to her, Barbara's parents might not even know of their daughter's sexual preference. It wasn't something that had ever come up before, and Phoebe certainly wasn't going to bring up the subject now.
So she'd settled for helping Barbara pack, and going with her to Grand Central Station to see her on her way. It was hard to see her go off alone, but she had made it clear that she would go with her if asked, even up to the point they were standing on the platform. The request had never come.
The four days that Barbara said she would be gone seemed longer than any Phoebe could remember. Sitting in the empty apartment, waiting for her lover to return, she felt even emptier than when she had been alone before meeting Barbara. How could she not be, when before, she didn't know what she'd been missing. She wasn't a virgin when they'd met, neither of them had been, but it was the first time she had ever been in love.
Finally, on the night that Barbara was supposed to come home, there came instead a phone call saying that she'd be staying at her parent's house until the end of the week. Phoebe was disappointed of course, but said she understood. If her lover was mending broken fences with her family, what was her temporary loneliness compared to that?
The few more days turned into a second week, and Phoebe began to become more concerned. A concern that also held the emerging elements of fear. Fear that something was wrong.
Finally, three weeks after Barbara had gone home for the funeral, Phoebe decided that enough was enough. Phone calls to her parents' house brought only vague promises from her love that she would be home soon. Taking a half-day on Friday, Phoebe headed home with the intention of just grabbing her overnight bag and then heading for Grand Central Station to catch an early evening train. If there wasn't anything wrong, then let Barbara tell her to her face.
To her surprise and relief, she opened the door to their small three-room apartment to find Barbara standing there. She started to rush into her arms but was stopped by the sudden awareness that Barbara wasn't alone. That, and the realization that the look on her lover's face was that of shock and not happiness to see her.
A look that was reflected on Phoebe's face as she expanded her view of the room and saw a sight that sent a devastating chill through her. If she'd discovered the two women flagrante delicto, it wouldn't have hurt half as much as the sight of four suitcases lined up next to the front door. The same four that she had helped Barbara carry when they had first moved in together.
"I wanted to be gone before you got home," Barbara said, her voice cracking as a tear ran down her face.
Phoebe had listened, totally stunned, as her once true love explained how, at the funeral, she had been reunited with Diane, the first love of her life. Phoebe remembered Barbara casually mentioning Diane as the girl in high school who had taken her virginity. At the time, that was all the information she had cared to share, but now the blonde haired woman learned that the relationship between the two had gone much further than she might have imagined. In fact, up until a month before she and Barbara had met, the two of them had still been lovers. They had broken up for reasons that the brunette didn't care to elaborate, but she did confess that when they'd seen each other at the funeral, the reasons no longer seemed important.
"I never wanted to hurt you," Barbara concluded, "but as much as I love you, I realize now that I love Diane more."
Phoebe didn't know what to say. Her eyes turned from Barbara to the woman standing across from her that she now knew was Diane. Taller then the two of them, with jet-black hair tied back in a bun, the slightly older woman had an almost masculine quality about her. Not the type that she ever imagined Barbara going for, it was obvious that her lover had spent the last three weeks in her company, if not her bed. Diane returned her stare with equal intensity. Additionally, she had no trouble finding her own voice.
"It's best we just go, Babe," Diane said, her tone almost a slap in Phoebe's face as she moved forward and picked up two of the suitcases, "especially if we want to catch the 3:40 home."
"Home," Phoebe couldn't help but think. "Until an hour ago, this was home for the two of us."
"I'm sorry," Barbara repeated as she stepped past Phoebe and picked up the remaining bags.
With that, they were gone and Phoebe's perfect little life was destroyed.
"I already let the kitchen help take off," Mrs. Claus said, having shut down the kitchen early so they could clean up, "so I just wanted to take the time to wish you all a Merry Christmas and to give you a little something for all your extra effort."
With that, the portly woman produced four small, wrapped packages from beneath the counter and handed them out to each of her helpers. For a moment, Phoebe was worried that she might've been expected to get a gift for Mrs. Claus as well, but Kendra saw her concern and quickly whispered that wasn't the case. They'd tried in previous years but she always insisted that she could easily afford to spend the money, they couldn't. If they really wanted to give her something, she always said, then just spread a little more Christmas cheer in her name.
One by one the girls opened their gifts, to discover that each was something that they really loved. When Phoebe ripped the paper off hers, she found the latest model Walkman, one that would even play MP3 files. Her own unit, had been on its last legs for months.
"Thank you," she said to the older woman and joined the rest of the Elves in giving her a Christmas kiss on the cheek.
"Now off to your families with the lot of you," Mrs. Claus laughed, sounding like one of the characters from 'A Christmas Carol.'
One by one, the other three girls headed into the back room to quickly change clothes. In no time at all, they were back and reaching for their coats on the row of wall hooks. With a final Merry Christmas, they passed through the door onto the now dark streets.
"Don't you have someone waiting for you too?" Mrs. Claus asked when she noticed that Phoebe hadn't even changed yet but was straightening a few last minute things on the counter.
"Not really, I..." she started to reply, pausing for a second. "I broke up with someone just before Thanksgiving."
"No family?" the older woman inquired further.
"We really don't see eye to eye on some things," Phoebe answered, thinking that was an understatement if ever there was one. "It would only ruin their Christmas if I was there."
"Parents and kids," Mrs. Claus said as she undid her apron and laid it across the counter, "some things never change."
"I guess not," Phoebe smiled, then realized that she might be keeping her now former boss, since this was her last day, from heading out to meet her own family.
"Actually," the white haired woman replied when Phoebe apologized for not considering the idea, "my own plans for the evening sort of fell through. My younger brother was supposed to come to dinner tonight with his family, but his youngest came down with chicken pox yesterday. So it looks like I'm on my own too."
Phoebe wondered how much younger her brother must've been to have a kid with chicken pox. Maybe, she concluded, he married someone a lot younger. Her own cousin married a man twenty-five years her senior.
"Phoebe," Mrs. Claus interrupted the younger woman's musings, "I know we haven't had the chance to get to know each other like I do some of the other girls, but I was wondering if you'd like to have a late Christmas Eve dinner with me. I mean I already have most of the food prepared, it just needs to be heated up, and it would be a shame to let it all go to waste. Besides, no one should be alone on Christmas Eve."
It was obvious that the offer took Phoebe by surprise.
"But please don't feel obligated to say yes if you'd rather not," the bakery owner quickly added. "I just wanted to make the offer in case you might enjoy some company."
Thinking that all she had waiting for her back at the empty apartment were some leftovers in the fridge and a place in front of the television, Phoebe decided why not. After all, only a few hours ago she was saying she wished she had someone she could just sit and talk to. Even if she had to confine herself to non-controversial topics.
"Excellent," Mrs. Claus smiled as Phoebe said yes. "Why don't you change clothes while I finish up a few last minute things in my office. I'll be with you in say, ten minutes?"
It took Phoebe only eight of those minutes to change into her street clothes, which consisted of a pair of jeans, a simple white blouse and a pull over sweater. Laying out her costume and the slip on ears next to the others, she suddenly wished she had gotten a picture taken of her in the outfit. All in all, it had been a lot of fun, even if she had taken the job in the first place to help cover the loss in rent that Barbara's sudden departure had caused.
"Maybe I'll get hired again next year," she thought as she turned off the light. After all, the girl she replaced wouldn't be coming back.
The light was still on behind the closed office door, so Phoebe retrieved her coat and just waited in the now empty store. A minute later, the door swung open.
"I hope I didn't keep you waiting too long," the familiar voice said as a figure emerged from inside.
Phoebe did a double take. The voice was indeed familiar, but the person behind it wasn't - at least not totally. Only now did it occur to the daytime bank clerk that in all the weeks she had worked in the bakery, she had never seen the owner out of costume. Naturally, she just assumed that aside from the traditional accouterments, that was what she looked like. Boy was she ever wrong.
First of all, Mrs. Claus might've had snow-white hair, but Emma Burke had short, curly dark brown locks. Any trace of gray had long been banished. Her face was also free of both the wire frame glasses and what Phoebe now realized was stage makeup designed to make the wearer look older. The woman standing before her was twenty years younger than she might've guessed. In fact, Emma was two years younger than Phoebe's mother, who had celebrated her forty-seventh birthday two months before. It was also obvious that the Mrs. Clause outfit had been padded to give a more traditional appearance. The bright blue dress, cut just low enough to accent an ample bust, was about as far as the Mrs. Claus costume as you could get and still appear to be a respectable businesswoman.
"You didn't really think I looked like that, did you?" Emma asked when she saw the look on the younger woman's face.
Phoebe reluctantly admitted that she had, quickly pointing out however that she had never seen Emma out of character before.
"I guess I should take that as a compliment to the costumers over at Dave's World of Make Believe," Emma smiled, showing that she hadn't taken any offense at Phoebe's mistake. "Although I think some of my padding is all too real these days."
With an objective eye, Phoebe followed Emma's hand as it patted her backside and hips. True, they might be fuller than they probably had been when Emma was Phoebe's age, but they were still nothing to be ashamed of. Not when you took in the whole package. By any standard, Emma Burke was still an attractive woman.
"Shall we go?" Emma asked as she put on her own coat.
Phoebe exited first as Emma stayed behind just long enough to set the alarm and turn off the lights. Before running her hand across the switches, she paused for a moment to take a long last look at her winter wonderland. By the time she returned to work on Monday, since she had already planned to close for the rest of the week, the workers would've restored the shop to its normal decor. Then, with a sigh, she closed the door and joined Phoebe out on the sidewalk.
The temperature had dropped considerably since they had started work hours before and they found themselves huddling together for warmth. Arm in arm, they walked two blocks to a main street, taking in some of the window displays along the way. Flagging down a cab, she gave the driver the address of her West Village apartment. During the ride, Emma assured her guest that a feast of culinary delights waited. If the deserts she had sampled over the last month were any indication, Phoebe had no doubt of that.
With most people having taken off early for the holiday, the main streets were mostly empty and it was a quick ride downtown to the apartment house Emma called home. A six story pre-war building, Emma had lived on the second floor for the last thirteen years.
"Make yourself at home," Emma said as she closed the apartment door behind Phoebe. "It'll only take me a minute to put everything in the oven."
Phoebe thanked her as she took off her coat, hanging it on a wooden rack near the door. The first thing you noticed when you walked into the apartment was the tall, six foot Christmas tree sitting in the corner. The lights were already on, having been set on a timer.
"Beautiful tree," Phoebe called out as she admired the varied collection of ornaments. No two were alike and many of them had dates on them, a collection that stretched back to before the young blonde had even been born.
"Thank you," Emma said with a smile as she came out of the kitchen, a tray with two cups of hot cider in her hands. "A couple of those ornaments belong to my parents and grandparents, the rest are things I've picked up over the years. I'm especially proud of the one I found for this year."
It only took Phoebe a moment to locate the one Emma was referring to, as it was right in the center of the tree. The younger woman had to smile when she saw that it was a miniature Mrs. Claus. One that bore an amazing likeness to her hostess. At least when she was in costume.
"I hope you don't think it's too egotistical or anything like that," Emma said as she put down the tray on a nearby table and lifted the two glasses in her hands, handing one to Phoebe. "I saw it in this little shop when I was down in the Poconos this summer and just couldn't resist it."
"Not at all," Phoebe smiled as she took the warm glass, "I love it."
"To Happy Holidays and new friends," Emma toasted as she raised her mug.
"To new friends," Phoebe echoed as she took a tentative taste of the warm beverage.
Emma followed suit, watching carefully for her guest's reaction to the cider.
"Oh that is really good," the young blonde said, both in appreciation and surprise. "I don't think I've ever tasted anything quite like it. What's in it?"
"That's a family secret, I'm afraid," Emma laughed, "one which I'm sworn to keep lest I suffer a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, or at least my late Aunt Edna."
"Well if Aunt Edna shows up, give her my compliments," Phoebe grinned as she took a second, larger taste of the drink.
"I'll remember to do that," Emma said as she also took a second drink. "Hopefully it'll absolve me of the blasphemy of heating it up in a microwave instead of over an open hearth.
"Either way, that really warmed me up," Phoebe said after draining the last of her mug.
"Would you like another?"
"Yes, I would, Thank you."
Emma took both cups back to the kitchen, leaving her guest with second chance to take in the various items that filled the living room. A small collection of framed photographs on the mantle over the fireplace caught her attention and she walked over to get a better look at them.
One was a nice picture of a couple with three children that Phoebe took to be the younger brother that Emma had originally been expecting tonight. A second photo held only the two boys and their sister.
A second pair of photographs occupied the center of the mantle. In the first was an obviously younger Emma standing outside the bakery. A sign on the window read "Grand Opening". Standing next to her, her arm resting over Emma's shoulder, was a quite attractive blonde haired woman. She looked to be a few years older than her hostess, and Phoebe wondered who she was. Especially since the second picture showed the same two women, both older, sitting in front of a Christmas tree in this very room.
The mystery answered itself when Phoebe looked just up from the mantle and realized that the 8x10 on the wall wasn't a photograph, but a laminated copy of a newspaper article. The stamp on the side of the page identified it as having come from a local neighborhood weekly that the twenty-two year old had seen on the table at the bakery. The date put its age at twelve years.
It was a brief article, heralding the opening of a new bakery in the area, run by Emma Burke and her partner, Cassandra Caine. A typical fluff piece, it was the sort of thing that would only be remembered by the people who had appeared in it.
"Dinner should be ready in about fifteen minutes," Emma said as she appeared with refilled mugs.
"I was just reading about when you opened the bakery," Phoebe said as Emma walked over and handed her the mug.
"A silly little piece of sentimental rubbish," Emma said in reference to the article. "Still, I don't think there's anything else I own that I value so much."
"It said you used to have a partner?" Phoebe asked out of curiosity as she took another sip of the wonderful cider.
"Yes, C.C. and I started it all together," Emma replied, her eyes seeming to look away for a brief moment. "It seems like a lifetime ago, and in a way I guess it was. God, we were so young then."
"Well only I really called her that," Emma went on. "Everyone else just called her Candy because she really hated the name her parents stuck her with. It was her great-grandmother's name and they thought it would flatter the old lady into leaving them some of her money in her will. It didn't and C.C. was stuck with it."
"I don't think it's such a bad name," Phoebe commented, "I've heard wor..." She paused for a second as a funny realization came to her. "Wait a moment, her name was Candy Caine?"
"Funny isn't it?" Emma smiled. "Still, if it wasn't for that name we might've closed up the shop after the first year or so. Things were that bad. But C.C. really loved Christmas, partly she used to say, because her name gave her a sort of connection with it. It was her idea to totally concentrate on Christmas cookies our second year in business. I figured we had nothing to lose so I went along with it. I can't describe how silly I felt that first day as Mrs. Claus, or how C.C. managed to talk me into the costume. The rest as they say is history and we didn't close up shop."
"Did she leave for some reason after that?" Phoebe asked, thinking that was why no one had ever mentioned a partner.
"I'm afraid C.C. passed away five years ago," Emma replied, a touch of sadness in her words. "That picture there on the mantle was the last one of us together. She died two days after it was taken."
"Oh God, I'm sorry," Phoebe quickly apologized, fearful she had committed a faux pas.
"It's all right," Emma assured her. "You had no way of knowing. Besides, you have to remember the bad as well as the good that comes with a person's life, and I gladly suffer the sadness if it lets me remember the happier times as well."
Phoebe wanted to apologize further nevertheless, but held her words when she saw that same far away look return to the older woman's eyes for a moment.
"That's one of the reasons why Christmas is so special to me," Emma added as that look faded away. "There are times when I can almost feel C.C.'s spirit standing next to me. My imagination probably, but even so it makes me feel very happy."
With that, Emma excused herself to check on dinner. Looking again at that last photograph, Phoebe considered the emotion in Emma's voice when she said her business partner's name. Of course they had to have been the best of friends, that much was obvious. Could they have been in love as well?
The blonde's speculation, based she was sure on her own desire to know that true love could indeed exist between two women, was interrupted a moment later by an announcement from the kitchen that dinner was ready. Leaving behind her musings, Phoebe headed to the kitchen to offer her help in setting the table.
An hour later, after an unforgettable meal, Phoebe concluded that Emma's promise in the cab on the way home had been more than redeemed. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had such a delicious holiday dinner, and that included those at her own family functions where up to four generations of Grant's lent their culinary skills.
"I can't remember the last time I ate so much," she told Emma as they cleared the dishes. "But it all tasted so good."
"I'm glad I had someone to share it with," Emma smiled as she transferred some of the leftovers from a serving disk into a plastic container. "Just pile the dishes in the washer, I'll run it later."
Between the two of them, it look no time at all to clear away their little feast. All except the glasses of wine that Emma suggested they take back to the living room with them.
"There's nothing better after a nice dinner than sitting back on the couch and relaxing in front of the fire," Emma said as she picked up her glass and the still half filled bottle.
"That sounds nice."
Since the fireplace was gas fired, it only took a minute for Emma to get it going. Then, refilling both of their glasses to the brim, she sat opposite Phoebe on the couch.
"You mentioned earlier that you had just broken up with someone," Emma said, changing the subject from the more conventional conversation they had shared over their meal. "What happened with that?"
Phoebe wasn't sure she wanted to really answer that question. An uncertainty that must've appeared on her face because Emma immediately picked up on it.
"Maybe we should pick another topic," Emma offered.
"No, it's okay, I'm just not sure how to explain it."
"Just take your time," Emma said as she sipped her wine and looked into the bright flames. "I've nowhere to go at the moment."
"Well," Phoebe said after a deep breath, "you remember I also said that I took the job at the bakery because my roommate took off unexpectedly and I was left with her half of the rent to make up?"
Emma nodded her head in acknowledgment.
"Barbara was the one that I broke up with."
There, she had said it, Phoebe told herself. Before Emma could comment on what the younger woman hoped wasn't a shocking revelation, the blonde took a quick gulp of wine and then proceeded to tell her entire tale. From the day she had first realized she was attracted to girls, to telling her parents about it after high school, to meeting Barbara and finally coming home that day to find she and Diane in the apartment.
As Phoebe paused to catch her breath, silence filled the room, broken only by the crackle of the fire. Emma seemed to have some trouble taking it all in, or at least that was what it seemed like to the woman on the other side of the couch. In actuality, the older woman was now wondering how best to explain a quandary of her own.
A long heartbeat passed, then a second and a third. Phoebe was certain she had make a mistake in making her admission, a conviction made more certain as Emma abruptly burst out laughing.
"Please," she managed to get out as she motioned with her hands for Phoebe to not react until she could explain her unseemly laughter, "I'm not laughing at you, just the situation."
Now Phoebe was confused.
"So much for that silly idea that we're all supposed to have some sort of gaydar that we can recognize each other," Emma said as she managed to get her laughter under control.
"You mean you're..."
"Since I was thirteen," Emma quickly confirmed.
"And you and C.C.?" Phoebe asked, realizing now that her speculation had been more on the money than she realized.
That was a question that didn't need words to answer. The look on Emma's face said it all.
Another long pause ensued as each woman found herself unsure what to say next. Finally it was Emma who broke the silence.
"I hope you realize that I had no idea that you were a lesbian when I invited you to dinner," Emma said, leaving Phoebe wondering why that made a difference.
Seeing that her dinner guest didn't understand what she was getting at, Emma put down her wine glass and explained it for her.
"What I'm trying to say is that I hope you don't think that I asked you up here with the idea that something might happen between the two of us?"
"You don't find me attractive?" Phoebe asked in an almost automatic defensive response.
"Of course I find you attractive," Emma responded without thinking, then realized that what she had just said only weakened the point she was trying to make. "But what I mean is that I'd hate to have you think that I'm the type of woman, twice your age I might add, who would invite you to her home in hopes that she might be able to seduce you?"
"You wouldn't want to seduce me?" Phoebe asked, this time her response more deliberately thought out.
"If I was twenty years younger, of course I would," Emma admitted. "But I'm realistic enough to know that I'm not twenty years younger and ... damn I'm making a fool of myself, aren't I? It's a good thing I didn't hang mistletoe over the archway or I might've made an even bigger ass of myself."
"You wouldn't need the mistletoe," Phoebe said with a smile, leading Emma to think that she had already made more of a fool out of herself than she'd realized.
So it was a shock a heartbeat later to realize that was hardly the point that Phoebe was trying to make. A point she expressed much more articulately as she leaned over and closed the distance between them on the couch, stopping only when her lips made contact with Emma's, The kiss they shared could never have been mistaken for a mere expression of Christmas cheer. Not after Phoebe slipped her tongue into Emma's mouth and, after a moment's hesitation, Emma returned the passion of the kiss, their tongues intertwining.
"Oh my goodness!" Emma gasped as Phoebe finally withdrew her tongue and allowed the older woman to catch her breath.
"I don't think goodness had very much to do with it," Phoebe grinned. "I hope you enjoyed it."
"I'm not sure enjoyed it is really the right phrase," Emma replied, her mouth still tingling from the press of Phoebe's lips. "It certainly was unexpected."
Unexpected was a word that Phoebe would certainly have agreed with. Up until two seconds before she had done it, kissing Emma never entered her mind. She was still trying to sort out exactly why she'd done it. No, that wasn't exactly true, she did know why she'd done it. The question she was really asking herself was, did she want more than just a kiss?
A question that occurred to Emma as well. While she had hardly been celibate the last five years since C.C.'s death, all of her intimacies had been with women near her own age. She wouldn't have been human, she admitted to herself, if she hadn't had fantasies from time to time about younger women, including some of those who had worked for her over the years. But that was all they'd been, fantasies. The prospect of it being real was daunting to say the least.
"Phoebe ... I," Emma started to say, then hesitated.
"I think we have what most people would say is an awkward situation," Phoebe remarked.
"We could definitely call it that," Emma agreed.
"So do we go forward or back off?" Phoebe asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.
"I'm not sure," Emma confessed, part of her cried yes, but another urged caution. "What do you want to do?"
"Well... ," Phoebe said, her course suddenly becoming quite clear to her, "you did say that no one should really be alone on Christmas Eve."
True, she had said that, the bakery owner reminded herself. But sleeping with a girl half her age wasn't exactly what she had meant when she'd voiced that thought. Then again, wasn't sharing what Christmas was all about?
Emma glanced past Phoebe to the mantle and C.C.'s photograph, asking herself what would her love tell her to do. The answer came in a moment of crystal clarity. A decision reflected on the broad smile that filled her face.
This time, it was Emma who leaned forward and took Phoebe in her arms, their mouths coming together in a joining of mutual desire. Their lips met softly at first, then with more passion as the bakery owner's tongue pressed past her dinner guest's lips and deep into her mouth, exploring the sweet riches within. A warm flush ran through the two of them as Phoebe accepted the offering, pulling it deeper as she caressed it with her own.
As they kissed, Phoebe brought her hands up and placed them on the exposed portions of Emma's ample breasts. The radiant warmth of her flesh added to her excitement. Spreading her fingers, she sought out the cloth covered nipples, feeling them grow hard at her touch. The gentle massage brought a soft moan from Emma's lips, one that was quickly swallowed in the passion of yet another kiss.
"Take off your sweater," Emma whispered as her hands rubbed up and down Phoebe's back.
Almost reluctantly, Phoebe broke their embrace and took hold of the heavy top, pulling it up and over her head, dropping it to the floor beside the couch. As Emma watched appreciatively, the younger woman's fingers closed around the uppermost button of her blouse, slowly undoing it with careful deliberation. The one below it followed in turn, and then the one below that. As each exposed just a little more of the soft flesh beneath, Emma could feel her heart skip a beat. As the last one came loose and the white blouse hung open, Phoebe arched her back just enough to let the shirt fall to the floor of its own accord.