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Excerpt for A Fighting Chance by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

A Fighting Chance

By T. L. Hayes

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 T. L. Hayes

This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

A Fighting Chance

Lou Silver is a stage combat instructor by day, and teaches Kung Fu on the weekends. When Lou meets Staff Sergeant Stephanie "Steve" Adams through one of her Kung Fu students, Lou can’t resist her instant attraction, even though Steve’s military background stirs old resentments. As Steve battles to break down the walls around Lou’s heart, Lou must come to terms with her past to give love a fighting chance.

Praise for T.L. Hayes

Sweet Boy and Wild One

 

“I love novels that make you think and consider issues outside of your normal personal stratosphere. Trans issues are of deep concern all over the world, so I commend T.L. Hayes for tackling an issue and making it into a beautiful and positive romance that I will remember for a long time…I highly recommend this to all of the LGBTQI community and hope that reading the book not only gives you the heart flutter but that you also learn a bit more about how important Trans issues are. I’ll be watching what comes next from T.L. Hayes and hope she continues the story into a sequel because this lesbian may have a little boy crush on Bobby, he melts hearts!”—Les Reveur

 

 

A Class Act

 

“What a beautiful, romantic and heart-warming love story! I really enjoyed being an onlooker in this well written and totally engrossing new relationship between Maggie and Rory.”—Inked Rainbow Reads

A Fighting Chance

© 2018 By T. L. Hayes. All Rights Reserved.

 

ISBN 13:978-1-63555-258-4

 

This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185

 

First Edition: September 2018

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

Credits

Editor: Ruth Sternglantz

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design By Jeanine Henning

By the Author

A Class Act

Sweet Boy and Wild One

A Fighting Chance

Acknowledgments

As always, the Bold Strokes team has my sincere thanks for continuing to publish my work. I’m glad they continue to take a chance with me and my story ideas, and I have plenty, so I hope to be working with them for a long time ahead. As always, Ruth Sternglantz does a great job making sure my words flow smoothly and that I am telling the best story possible. Thank you, Ruth, for your diligence on my behalf. Also, much thanks go to Jeanine Henning for the beautiful cover. She was able to take what was in my head and make it real, and it shines so well, Cassiopeia herself would be jealous.

As always seems to be the case, my main source of information for this novel, particularly in matters of kung fu, as well as the stray French translation, was my dear friend April Duncan. She just seems to know a lot about a lot, and I’m glad she does. She keeps me honest, she makes me laugh, and she is forever patient with my multitude of questions that usually start with the phrase “Current need: etc.” Thank you, April, for your knowledge, and your willingness to share it with me.

There were delicate matters in this novel concerning C-PTSD and childhood trauma as well as suicide and other related issues to these topics. Some of them have touched my life on a personal level, but I am not an expert in any of these areas. I wanted my characters’ experiences to be as realistic as possible, so I sought guidance from my friend, Maka Hansen, a sexual assault advocate with the Oklahoma City YWCA. Any truth I was able to represent for these matters is due to the information they provided; any inaccuracies are wholly my own doing. It should be noted that the reactions my characters have to their respective traumas and the treatments they seek are not meant to be representative of the whole. Meaning, I am not trying to speak for everyone who has suffered through these events, nor am I recommending any specific brand of treatment for all, only what was best for the characters I created and the outcome I foresaw for them.

I am not military, nor was I a military brat. Several times, I came upon questions that could not be answered simply by using government websites, though they were no great slouch in helping me with some of the rules and specific dates of things. For more obscure questions, I was able to get help from former military brat, and two-time military spouse, Suzanne Baker. She was right on the money with the things I put to her and she was quick with it, too.

A very brief part of this novel mentions Lawton, Oklahoma, home of Ft. Sill, a location I have my character Steve stationed at one point. I had questions about the local gay scene in Lawton in the mid-nineties, and Vicki Dilliard was quick to answer them for me. The information she was happy to provide me with was so rich in detail, I think she should write her own book. I would buy it.

I have several friends who work in academia, but one I go to more often than the others for questions about professorial life. Not only is she my token lesbian parent (which might come in handy later for future projects), but she is also my token professor friend. There’s a moment in the text where I mention lizards. Lara LaDage is that reason. I appreciate all the insights she gives me about academia, a profession I respect and admire, and should probably stay away from. I don’t know if I could sit through that many meetings without falling asleep or throwing things.

I have been fortunate to not suffer panic attacks, so I had to talk to others who have. I will not name them here, but I truly thank them for their candor and willingness to share. Again, how my character handles her panic attacks and the consequences thereto, are not meant to represent all those who deal with this issue on a regular basis or have in the past.

When it came to how to dress Steve for her first date with Lou, I consulted the two most fashionable humans I know, Stefanie Heinrich and Lena Tenney. They are dapper beyond compare and know how to wear a suit better than anyone I know.

As I mentioned earlier, there are several delicate topics that are mentioned in this novel. I tried my best to handle them with care, and I hope I did my characters justice. If you or someone you know is under the age of eighteen and a victim of child abuse, one of the many available resources, besides local state hotlines and help centers, is the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide and just needs someone to talk to, there are several options available. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24 / 7 hotline which is part of a network of 161 crisis centers across the country, and they are always there to help. They can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Also, there is the Crisis Text Line, which provides 24 / 7 crisis intervention for those contemplating suicide. They can be reached by texting 741741. For better understanding of C-PTSD, what it is, and how to live with it, Complex PTSD: From Surviving To Thriving by Pete Walker, as well as other articles by Walker, were invaluable tools.

And for the readers who continue to read me, as well as the new ones who have just found me with this book, thank you for your interest in my stories. And if you’ve found me in your local library, that makes me happy, as some of the topics I write about are underrepresented in public libraries, and I’m glad if they count me among their LGBT collections.

Feel free to reach out to me on Facebook at T.L. Hayes, or via my website at TLHayesweb.com. Watch the website for deleted scenes, song links, and short stories, and Facebook for new book release information, as well as event announcements.

For my favorite warrior—her armor may be scarred, but she keeps fighting. She gives me strength and she is my hero.

 

You didn’t expect this, but it’s yours.

Even though I take a step back, it is only to touch the ground and lay palimpsest at your feet

Chapter One

Lou Silver thought burnt orange was such an odd color choice for the walls of her favorite coffee shop. Granted, it gave the place warmth, but it also seemed almost too warm and maybe just a bit pretentious. She sat alone in the back at a table for two near a power strip with her laptop open and a cup of coffee beside her. She knew she was going to be there for hours, so she had ordered what she always ordered—a bottomless cup of Seattle dark roast, not because she was particularly fond of Seattle coffee, but because that was the darkest coffee they currently had on tap.

The conversation level in the café was never intrusive regardless of the size of the crowd, and it all blended into white noise for her. She was happy to be away from her office and the knocks on her door that were a constant distraction, office hours or not. She loved her job and was happy with the progress of her career. She was on tenure track at a big university in a good-sized town, just two hundred miles from Chicago, her favorite city and a place she escaped to as often as she could. But sometimes, the demands from the students became too much and she had to get away. She was sure there were students in the café—it was a college town, after all—but none of them were her students, so they left her alone.

She had brought her laptop with the sole purpose of writing her novel, the same one no one knew she was working on. Growing up, she had been a fan of Tolkien and fantasy novels in general and had always wanted to create her own world inhabited by the strange creatures of her imagination. In the world she was creating, people walked into each other’s dreams and changed things for the dreamer, sometimes for the better, other times not—it depended on the dream walker and whether they were good or if they had been manipulated by an as-yet-unnamed force who was using them to do their bidding. The book was a special passion of hers that she had been writing and rewriting for years. She hadn’t completed it yet, between life intruding on her writing time or just not being satisfied with the revisions. The book had been such a constant in her life that it had lasted longer than her previous two relationships and had even, barely, survived a flood. It was constant and invincible, it seemed to her, and she knew the book really wanted to be written, as odd as that might sound to some. Now her novel was reaching chapter twelve and her coffee cup had been refilled three times in the last two hours. She was thoroughly caffeinated but figured she would end up drinking at least two more cups before she left.

She looked up from her writing and noticed a man in uniform had taken the table in front of her. He was wearing army fatigues and khaki-colored boots and his sandy blond hair was cut in a high and tight that made his ears stick out. There wasn’t a military base around for miles, so she figured he must be a student in the ROTC program on campus. When she realized she was staring at the back of his head she shifted her gaze back to her laptop and her mostly empty cup, thinking that if she was going to be this easily distracted, she should probably call it a day.

Just as she was packing everything in her satchel and was standing to leave, the young man in uniform stood too and smiled at her when he noticed she was looking. When Lou smiled back, she realized her mistake: the soldier wasn’t a young man at all but a young woman. Over the girl’s left breast pocket was emblazoned US Army and over the right was Bolen. She actually had the audacity to blatantly look Lou over and nodded and grinned. Lou tried not to roll her eyes at the girl’s boldness. She had no desire to flirt with, much less date, someone who didn’t even look old enough to drink. Lou just gave her a weak smile, then quickly left, lest she give the girl a chance to ask her out, which she would have to politely refuse, for many reasons. Just the same, it was nice to know she could still get such looks from girls half her age. It definitely did a lot for her ego, if not her libido.

Lou threw her satchel into the back seat of her Jeep Wrangler and climbed in behind the wheel. Her car was pushing twenty years old but she was reluctant to get a new one, even if she could now afford it. The blue Jeep was holding up well, despite how much she abused it. When she turned the key the Check Engine light came on and her mileage readout reminded her that she was desperately in need of an oil change. But her tank was full, and considering how much gas the Jeep ate, that was saying something. The satchel sat on the back seat amongst empty paper coffee cups from a fast food place near her little house and her gym bag. Seeing it reminded her that she needed to take it inside and wash the contents—she’d be teaching at the Wushuguan that weekend, and it wouldn’t do to show up smelling like used sweat socks.

 

* * *

 

With her gear slung over her shoulder, Lou was about to leave the Wushuguan after the class she taught on Saturdays when she heard one of her students call her name—a retired librarian in her sixties who wanted to learn kung fu for kicks, she had said, before laughing at her own joke. Lou had laughed with her, liking the older woman instantly. Now, at the sound of her name, Lou turned around with a smile. “Yes, Mrs. Adams?”

The tiny gray-haired woman was pulling a taller, younger woman along beside her. “Louise, I wanted to introduce you to my daughter. She just retired from the service, so I’ll actually get to see her more often.” Mrs. Adams smiled and then said, “This is Stephanie.”

Stephanie looked Lou over. “Nice to meet you. Mom talks about you a lot. I mean, how much she likes your class.”

Stephanie smiled, somewhat shyly, Lou thought. Lou checked her out as she was shaking her hand. She was about her height, so that would make her about five seven. She was slender and athletic looking with good definition. There was a lot of power in her handshake. Lou liked that show of strength. Her hair was cropped short, not a high and tight exactly, but close. Lou knew the military only required that enlisted women keep their hair neat and trim and pulled back, so the short style was all Stephanie’s choice. Lou immediately pegged Stephanie as gay—not just because of her hairstyle, although some lesbian clichés were true, but for the way she had cruised Lou a few seconds ago. Stephanie apparently liked what she saw, which was flattering, but Lou couldn’t say the same.

Butch women, no matter how much she appreciated them for their strength of character, their physical prowess, and their ability to fix things that she herself could not…well, she had never been attracted to them.

“Nice to meet you too, Stephanie. And”—she turned to Mrs. Adams—“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.”

“Oh, I am. You are such a good teacher. You have a lot of patience for clumsy old ladies like me.” Mrs. Adams lightly touched Lou’s arm in emphasis. Stephanie just looked indulgently at her mother.

“Mrs. Adams, you’re not clumsy. We all learn at our own pace and you’re doing very well. You’ll be kung fu fighting in no time.” Lou smiled at them both. Mrs. Adams was one of her favorite students.

“That’s what I tell her, but she won’t listen to me.” Stephanie directed her words at her mother while glancing at Lou. “Mom, you just have to be more confident in your own abilities. You’ll get it in time.”

Lou laughed. “And that’s what I tell her but it hasn’t sunk in yet.”

“With you two in my corner, maybe I can take on Rocky.” Mrs. Adams did a fake fighting hand gesture and a kick, making Lou and Stephanie laugh.

“And you would probably win. He didn’t know kung fu.”

“Quite true. Well, it was good talking with you, but we need to get. I just wanted to brag about my firstborn.”

“As you should.” Lou bowed to Mrs. Adams, who returned the gesture, then turned to Stephanie. “And sorry I forgot to mention it earlier, but thank you for your service.” She offered her hand.

Stephanie shook her hand and gave her another smile, this one with more confidence. “That’s okay. It’s almost hard to hear sometimes, as it isn’t always meant sincerely, just something people say. But I think you actually mean it.”

“I do mean it. My father was a veteran of two wars, and I’ve always had a deep respect for our troops, whether I believed in the war they were sent to fight or not.”

Stephanie rolled her eyes. “Don’t get me started. I agree with you. I love my country and was proud to serve it, and would die for it if I had to, but I wanted it to be for a good reason. I’m not the only person in uniform who feels that way. Listen to me—I said don’t get me started.”

“It’s okay. I understand.”

“If you two want to discuss politics,” Mrs. Adams interjected, “do it some other time. We still have to stop by the store. See you tomorrow, Louise.” Mrs. Adams smiled and waved, then grabbed her daughter’s sleeve and made to walk toward the door, but Stephanie stayed where she was.

Stephanie looked at Lou and quickly said, “I would like that, actually. To do this again. Can I buy you a cup of coffee sometime? And you can call me Steve.”

Lou hesitated. Stephanie seemed nice and she had been a bit lonely in the past year since starting the job at Prairieland State. She wasn’t in the market for a girlfriend, but someone to have coffee and talk politics with might be a welcome find. Why not? Sometimes coffee was just coffee, right? “Sure, I’m free Tuesday afternoons, if that works for you. And call me Lou.”

Steve’s grin got bigger. “Okay, Lou, that sounds good. How do I reach you?”

“Your mother has my number.”

“Okay.”

Mrs. Adams shook her head. “I can’t take you anywhere. Are you done flirting with pretty girls now? I have things to do.” Her pronouncement broke the sudden tension and made them all laugh.

“You say that like I do this all the time.” Steve looked at Lou and declared, “I don’t—do this all the time, I mean.”

Lou just laughed. “I believe you. I think you should do as your mother says now. We’ll talk later.”

“Good-bye, Louise. Come along.”

Mother and daughter left, but not before Steve got in one final smile at Lou. Lou shook her head and smiled back. Well, this was an interesting development.

 

* * *

 

Steve was lost in thought as she drove her mother home. Her mother was perfectly capable of driving herself, but Steve knew she enjoyed this time they shared together. She stole a glance at her mother, who was looking out the window.

Her mother pointed to an empty storefront. “Did you see they closed the old Myer’s Pharmacy? Ever since those chains came in, we’ve been losing them left and right.”

“We didn’t have that many family-owned drugstores to begin with.” Just the same, Steve afforded the building in question a glance as they passed by. Sure enough, the windows were now dark and there was an abandoned look about the place.

Her mother turned to her with a look of mild reproof. “I mean mom-and-pop stores in general, not drugstores specifically. It’s just a shame, is all. It’s been there since before I was born. Hell, since my grandmother was born. I hate that I have to use the new place. It feels wrong somehow.”

“I’m sure it does, but things change. Whether you’re ready for them to or not.” Steve reached up and touched the Capricorn pendant on the necklace she wore. She fingered it a moment, then realized what she was doing and stopped. She forced a note of levity into her voice. “Well, at least the ice cream shop’s still here. We could always stop in. I’ll buy you a waffle cone.” Steve smiled over at her mother.

“Stop trying to make me fat! I’ve lost twelve pounds since I started working with Lou, and I mean to keep it off.”

“Really? Good job. Thank you for introducing me to her, by the way.”

“Well, obviously your way wasn’t working.”

Steve said nothing, just grinned at her mother’s words. After all, she couldn’t deny the truth of them.

Her mother pointed a finger at her and declared, “You be nice to her. She’s a great girl and you make sure you treat her with the utmost respect. ’Course, if you don’t, I’m sure she could handle it. But I mean it, Stephanie.”

“Jeez, simmer down. You know I always treat women with respect. You and dad taught me well. And yes, I agree, if I didn’t, I’m quite sure she could put me on my back in no time at all.” Steve’s mind started to drift at the possibilities and she almost missed the turn onto her mother’s street.

“Stop daydreaming about my kung fu instructor—you almost missed my turn. Child, I swear.” She shook her head in exasperation, but there was a smile on her face.

“Oh, sorry.” Steve made the turn just before they passed it and she admonished herself to focus. When they pulled into her mother’s driveway, she didn’t move to get out of the car. “Well, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow morning. What’s on the menu for tomorrow night, anyway?”

“Weren’t you paying attention in the store? We weren’t there but five minutes ago. I swear, when you’ve got a woman on your mind, that’s all you can think about.”

Steve chuckled at her mother’s assessment. “What can I say? Lou’s more interesting than pot roast.”

“I would go with that, if you’re looking for things to say to impress her. All women like to know they’re more interesting than a cut of beef.” Her mother winked at her.

Amused, Steve asked, “Is that how Dad captured your heart?” She knew the real story but liked to get her mother going.

Her mother put her head back on the seat and looked wistful. “I’ll never forget the time he looked at me and said, Lorraine, you are like the perfect filet mignon. Small and juicy and you always leave me wanting more.” She signed at the memory. “That man had a way with words.”

Steve gave in to the laughter, then pointed toward her mother’s door and said, “Go, get out of my car!”

“What a way to talk to your mother.” She tsked but that didn’t stop her from leaning over and kissing Steve on the cheek. “See you tomorrow, sweets. Love you.”

As her mom was climbing out of the car, Steve replied, “Love you too, crazy lady.” Steve shook her head as her mother curtsied at her remark, then walked up to her front door. Steve stayed where she was until she saw that her mother was safely inside, then pulled out of the driveway and headed home.

Chapter Two

Lou sat at Bill and Dix’s dining room table, enjoying the pasta Dix had prepared, somewhat lost in thought. Bill was the first friend she had made in the theater department. When Charles, their dean, had introduced her as the new instructor at a department meeting, Bill had come up to her afterward to introduce himself and had invited her to dinner to meet his husband. She’d liked him immediately, and he and Dix had quickly become her favorite people in her new town. It wasn’t long before they made her feel like family.

It was Tuesday and she had thought she would have heard from Steve by now, not that she was waiting by the phone or anything. She had just thought…Well, she didn’t know what she thought. That Steve liked her, she guessed, and immediately felt like she was back in high school again, wondering if the cute girl in class liked her back, and wondering if, even as adults, we ever really grew out of the awkward phase. She had often thought that being an adult just meant learning how to cover up just how shy and awkward you were.

“Earth to Lou. Come in, Lou.” Bill held a basket of rolls in front of Lou’s face and was passing them back and forth.

Lou smiled back sheepishly and grabbed a roll from the basket. “Thanks.”

“So what’s got you so distracted, anyway? You’ve barely said a word since you got here, and you haven’t even insulted my cooking once. I’m starting to think you don’t love me anymore.” Dix did his best to look offended and it made Lou laugh. “There’s our girl. So what’s going on?”

Lou sighed. “I’m sorry. You’re right—I have been terribly remiss. Dix, your pasta is gummier than my ninety-two-year-old grandmother, and the sauce is one step above ketchup. Happy now?”

“I would be if you meant it. Why are you so distracted, anyway?”

“It’s nothing. Really.” The men exchanged an all-knowing look. “What? What does that look mean?”

Bill imitated her nonchalant cadence when he replied, “It’s nothing, really.” Then he grinned. “Teasing!”

“Don’t make me throw this roll at you. I wouldn’t want to hurt you.”

Dix laughed. “Now there’s an insult I can believe.”

“Well, sugar, we couldn’t help but notice your absence since you got here. We know when something’s up. The last time someone was in this house looking like that…” Bill paused, looking almost horrified. “Oh, please tell me you haven’t fallen for a student too? I love Rory to death, but I don’t think I could go through that again.”

“What? No, I have not fallen for a student. They’re all like my kids—I can’t think of them that way.”

Dix said to Bill, while giving Lou side-eye, “No, but I think you’re on to something. I think she has a new love interest. Or something. Maybe just a little afternoon distraction, perhaps?”

“No, I don’t think so. Does she really seem like the type for casual sex to you? No, if Lou likes someone, it’s not casual.” Bill shook his head, studying her as if she was a problem to be solved.

Lou couldn’t help it. She grinned at them, amused by them trying to figure her out as if she was complicated math. “Would you two like me to leave so you can discuss me in private?”

“No, no, that won’t be necessary. We’ll figure it out in time.” Dix waved a dismissive hand, then took a bite of his food.

“Far be it from me to ruin your fun, but I’m not having an affair, nor on the verge of one, as far as I know. I’ll keep you posted. Why are you so interested in what passes for my love life, anyway?”

“Because we love you, sweetie, and we want you to be happy,” Bill said.

“Uh-huh.”

“And we find the mating habits of the North American lesbian quite fascinating. We haven’t had one to study since Maggie left,” Dix replied, trying and failing to keep a straight face.

“So is that the reason you’ve invited me over in the first place for the past year? You needed a new lesbian to observe?”

“You have to admit, it was rather nice of Charles to fill Maggie’s seat with another lesbian,” Bill said. “I appreciate his willingness to keep the queer status quo among the faculty. I shouldn’t have to carry that burden on my own.”

“Wait…are you implying I didn’t get the job on the merits?” Lou teased.

“Depends. Are we talking your merits in your field or your merits in…”

“Bill, don’t you dare finish that sentence!” Lou laughed. “Or I will show you how to kill a man with a dinner fork.”

“Oh, don’t kill him. The holidays are coming up. It would make celebrating so tacky,” Dix playfully lamented.

Lou smiled at Dix and lowered her fork but not before Bill held up his hands and said, “I surrender.”

“I notice how we have somehow gotten away from the fact that something or someone is on your mind. Enough to distract you,” Dix noted.

Lou gave another sigh, this one in defeat. “Fine. You win. But there really isn’t much to tell.”

“Oh, let us be the judge of that.” Bill grinned delightedly.

“Do I have a choice?”

“Not really, no.” Dix smiled at her. “Go ahead, spill.”

“Fine. I did meet someone over the weekend. She’s the daughter of one of my kung fu students. Ex-military. Kinda cute and seemed to like me. I just don’t know…”

“Nothing bad so far. What’s the problem?”

Lou turned to Bill and shrugged. “I don’t know. She’s really butch, for one thing, and I’ve never been attracted to butch women. But also, the military thing is a turnoff. I mean, she’s ex-military, but still. It’s the attitude. I can’t deal with the ultra-disciplined nature of people in the military.”

“I’ve never heard you be so judgmental before. This is new.” There was no teasing manner to Bill’s words this time. Instead, he looked troubled.

Lou looked at him sharply. “It’s just, it’s a thing I have, okay? Can’t I have one thing? I mean, I’m not normally a judgmental person, no, but I have hang-ups the same as anyone. Nothing wrong with that.” Lou picked up her fork and looked down at her plate as she caught Bill and Dix exchanging worried expressions. The air in the room seemed to change, the joviality of earlier set aside.

Finally, Bill said, “Sure, honey, you’re allowed to have hang-ups. You’re right, we all do. But I don’t think it was your hang-ups that made you so distant tonight.” His voice was gentle. “Is it possible you like her, but something else is tripping you up?”

“I don’t know, maybe. Plus, she said she would call. If nothing else, I hate that feeling of unrequited anticipation. You know what I mean?”

“If that’s a fancy way of saying waiting by a phone that doesn’t ring, yes, I do. It’s a universal problem that we’ve all experienced at one time or another. And it sucks, but don’t get so worked up about it. If she calls you, then great, see what happens. If she doesn’t, then she obviously wasn’t worth you stressing over it too much.” Bill gave her a kind smile.

“You’re right. You’re absolutely right. Why should I be this upset over someone I’m not even sure if I would even go out with?”

“That’s right.” Dix smiled indulgently at her.

“Sorry, guys. I promise to be here with you for the rest of the evening. You will have my undivided attention.” She waved her hands in front of her, as if making a declaration. “Besides, I would be totally remiss if I failed to mention the sorry state of this chicken.” She grinned as she fell into the familiar routine of insulting Dix’s cooking, a banter that they had been engaging in since she had first come to dinner, and something they both enjoyed.

“That’s my girl.” Dix raised his glass of wine and Lou her beer bottle, which she knew they only kept stocked for her, and they toasted. Lou held her bottle aloft to Bill and did the same.

 

* * *

 

Just as Lou was getting into her Jeep after leaving Bill and Dix’s place, her phone buzzed in her pocket. It wasn’t the quick buzz of a message, but a continuous vibrating rhythm that indicated she was getting a call. She pulled the phone out of her pocket once she was settled and saw that the display read Mrs. Adams. She sighed as she pushed the talk button. With false cheer, she said, “Hello, Mrs. Adams, how can I help you?”

“First, you can call me Steve, as I asked you to the other day.” There was humor in the voice and it made Lou smile in spite of herself.

“I should have realized you would use your mother’s phone to call me.”

“Wanted to make sure you would answer.”

“What makes you think I wouldn’t have answered?”

“Well, unknown number and all. And you seem like you might be the cautious type. I just figured…” Steve faltered.

Lou interpreted it as shyness and chose to find it endearing. “Well, whatever you figured, you were wrong,” she said with humor. “So now that I have already done what I could to exceed your expectations, what else can I do for you?”

Steve chuckled. “I’m told you like a good cup of strong coffee, and I’ve heard buying someone a cup of coffee is a good way to get to know them.”

Amused in spite of herself, Lou asked, “Do I even want to know what else your mother told you about me?”

“Only that you’re some kind of professor at the college, a black belt, and the best teacher she’s ever had for anything. And that I would be disinherited if I was a jerk to you. Not that I wasn’t going to be on my best behavior anyway.”

Lou put her fist to her mouth to stifle her smile, even though there was no one around to see it. “Tell her that if you are a jerk, she’ll be the first to know.”

“I’ll let her know, she’ll be so pleased.” Then Steve said, “So, about that coffee…what’s your favorite place?”

“It’s a place near campus, Raphael’s.”

“I’ve seen it. Tell me, is it named after the artist or the Ninja Turtle?”

“Considering the amount of pretentiousness, I’m guessing the painter.”

“Pity.”

A part of Lou felt a little silly for having this conversation on Bill and Dix’s driveway and hoped they wouldn’t look out the window and see her still sitting there, but she wasn’t going to drive away while on the phone. Leaving could wait. “Fan of the Turtles, are you?”

“The Turtles, not so much, but April O’Neil, very much. You know, you remind me a little of her.”

There was an unmistakably flirtatious quality to Steve’s voice that hadn’t been there before, and Lou wasn’t sure how to react to it. Again, she chose to be amused by it. “April O’Neil was a redhead in a horrendous yellow jumpsuit. I have neither red hair nor a horrendous yellow jumpsuit.”

Steve laughed. “Well, my mother thinks you’re a badass. Maybe Lara Croft would be a better comparison then.”

“Your seeming obsession with female cartoon characters is starting to become troublesome and makes me worry that I will not be able to live up to your expectations of badassery.” Lou was definitely enjoying herself. She hadn’t had a date she could joke around with in this manner in quite some time.

Steve laughed again. “Hey, Lara Croft was a video game character, so animated but not really a cartoon. And I think you’re going to live up to all my expectations. You may even exceed them.”

Lou took a breath. The flirting was getting to be a bit much for her and she immediately wanted to back away from the conversation. She sobered and asked, “So when did you want to meet for coffee?”

Steve said, “How about Thursday afternoon?” The flirtation was now gone from her voice, for which Lou was glad.

“Okay. I’m free after four.”

“Four thirty then?”

“Okay. Sounds good. I’ll see you there.” Just as they hung up and before Lou could collect herself and drive away, she received a text from Bill.

Not that I’m trying to get rid of you, but why are you still in my driveway?

Smiling, Lou responded, I had a phone call. Didn’t want to talk and drive. Will be leaving now—that is, unless you wish to keep detaining me.

Oooh, did Sgt. Hottie finally call?

LOL I never said she was hot, but yes she did. Can I go now?

She would have to be hot to be worthy of you, love. But yes, I suppose you can. Drive safe and keep me posted. Look up.

Lou did as instructed and saw Bill and Dix waving to her from their kitchen window. Laughing, she waved back, then replied, Aw, thanks, you big softie. Then, after throwing the phone into her center console and with one final wave at the boys in the window, she drove off, replaying the phone call in her head and trying to decide how she felt about the whole thing.

Chapter Three

Steve checked herself out in the mirror before she left for the café. She loved how her black Levi’s fit her. She’d had them for years and they hugged her frame well, and their cut, along with her boots, gave her the appearance of being taller than she was. She had hesitated about wearing the black shirt, but it went well with the jeans and it was an old favorite. She buttoned the top button, then looked at herself, her eyes focusing on that top button. She thought about unbuttoning it, but after years of being in the military and adhering to dress code, leaving it unbuttoned felt sloppy, so she left it.

She turned her head left then right, checking out the work of the barber she had gone to that morning. It had taken her a while to find a barber who would cut women’s hair. She had thought it was just a matter of preference, until the barber that morning informed her that most barbers just didn’t have the proper license and could only cut men’s hair. She was happy with the guy she found, even if the place was a new retro hipster place that did well to bring back the old-school barber motif, complete with old barber chairs, a tricolored pole, and old signage from a time when her grandfather had been a young man. No matter that her barber had a boy band flip on his own head, he seemed to know what he was doing and had given her a great buzz, leaving a little style to it so she didn’t look as if she had just entered basic training.

She reached for her cologne, thinking she would dab a little something on her neck at the very least, then thought better of it. It was just coffee, not a night on the town. Maybe, if she was lucky enough to get Lou to agree to a night out, she would splash a little something on, but for the time being she stilled her hand and instead went back to fussing at the button. She put her hand up to it, thinking it still looked wrong somehow. It took her a moment to realize why, and she pulled the pendant out from under her shirt and kissed it, then let it fall to her chest on the outside of her shirt. She gave a relaxed sigh and finally smiled at her reflection.

“You got this.”

 

* * *

 

Lou walked into the café at four twenty, thinking she would beat Steve there and have time to order her coffee and find a table, but she wasn’t two steps in the door when she heard her name and looked to the right and saw Steve sitting on an overstuffed leather couch. Great. She wouldn’t have the protection of a table between them. She gave Steve a small smile and a wave and walked over to her. Steve stood when Lou reached the couch and extended her hand, which Lou shook.

“Hi, Lou. I’m glad you’re here. I was going to order you a cup of dark roast, but I didn’t know how you take it and I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about me ordering for you, so…” She suddenly looked unsure of herself as she fumbled for her words.

Lou bit back an amused grin and said, “No, that’s fine. I’ll be right back.” She started to walk away, then stopped and turned, this time letting the smile come. “Oh, and for future reference, my preference is Colombian with skim milk and maple syrup, but failing that, I’ll take whatever dark’s on tap.” Then she turned and went up to the counter, not watching to see Steve’s reaction. When she returned a few minutes later, Steve rose again and didn’t sit back down until Lou did. Well, that was kind of endearing. Nothing wrong with good manners.

“So, you must tell me, Professor Silver, just what are you a professor of, anyway?” Steve shifted on the couch so she was facing Lou, and she propped her right foot on her left knee.

Lou tried to keep focused on her face, but she’d be lying if she said Steve wasn’t attractive. Steve was taller than Lou and lithe looking, with long legs. When Lou had told the boys that Steve was butch, she wasn’t joking. Buzz-cut blond hair, black men’s Levi’s, combat boots, and a black button-up men’s shirt completed her ensemble for today. The only color she wore was a simple silver chain with a silver Capricorn pendant, not the goat symbol but the one that Lou always thought looked like 7 and 6 put together. Lou held her coffee with both hands and blew across the mug. “Well, my main focus is stage combat, but I teach other classes in the department. Most of which are cross-listed between several majors.”

“So your reputation as a badass is not unfounded, then.” Steve said it as a statement that brokered no argument.

“Mm-hmm, but one I did not get easily.”

“Being a badass usually doesn’t come easily.”

“What about you? What was your specialty in the military? Where did you earn your stripes?”

“Interesting way of putting that. I was a PT instructor. Maybe we should spar sometime.”

Lou narrowed her eyes at Steve. “You have an interesting way of flirting.”

Steve laughed out loud. “What can I say? I guess I’m not that far removed from playground days.”

Lou wasn’t as amused by the conversation as Steve appeared to be. “I’ve never really found violence much of a turn-on, to be honest.” Her words were spoken softly but with a lot of power. She cleared her throat and looked away.

Steve seemed to pick up on Lou’s shift in mood and looked at Lou worriedly. “Did I say something wrong?”

Lou exhaled and forced a smile. “Not really, sorry. I know you probably didn’t mean it the way I took it. I just meant that usually when people invoke playground flirting, they’re referring to the little boy’s habit of hitting the girl he likes and then running away. Never cared much for that scenario.”

Steve looked stricken. “Oh, I see. I’m sorry. I’m really not violent—I mean, I like to spar in the ring, that’s all. I promise.” They didn’t say a word for a moment, just shared a look. Finally, Lou broke it by looking down at her mug.

After a moment she looked back up and said, “So, you’re a Capricorn.”

Visibly startled, Steve said, “What?”

Lou pointed to Steve’s necklace.

Steve reached up and touched the symbol and suddenly looked sad. “No…um, no. I wear it for someone else.”

Not sure about the shift in mood, Lou said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to trouble you.”

“No, it’s not your fault.” Steve paused a moment, then she said quietly, “My first love was a Capricorn. I wear it in her memory.”

“Her memory?”

“She died a couple years ago. We were going to get married.” Steve looked down at her hands and swallowed.

Lou reached out and put a hand on Steve’s knee. “I’m so sorry. You can talk about it if you want.”

Steve put her hand over Lou’s, then looked her in the eye and gave her a brave smile. “Nah, not today. Not exactly good first date material. Maybe another day, though.”

Trying to tease, Lou asked, “Wait, this is a date? I thought we were just meeting for coffee. If I’d have known, I would have made more of an effort in my clothing choices.” She had come straight from campus and she had had a combat class today. She had changed out of her workout clothes to her street clothes, olive-green cargo pants, a black blouse with three-quarter sleeves, and loafers. She hadn’t had the time to shower, which she regretted. But she was the one who had set the time, knowing full well that would be an issue. She had only herself to blame.

“Well, if this isn’t a date, I got a haircut this morning for nothing.”

Feeling devilish, Lou asked, “May I?” and raised her hand partway.

Steve looked confused for a moment, then understanding dawned and she laughed. “Sure, go ahead.” She leaned forward a bit and inclined her head.

Lou put her hand on the side of Steve’s head and rubbed the short blond prickles of hair. They looked like they would be sharp but they were as soft as down. Lou’s fingers lingered a moment too long and Steve raised her eyes but not her head and smiled. Lou broke contact and leaned her arm on the back of the couch but drew one leg up under the other, so they were still close enough to touch. Lou rested her cup on her foot. She didn’t know what was happening, but she thought she was okay with it.

They talked for a few more hours, from the mundane to their views on a variety of topics, laughing together several times. After she figured she had drunk a pot of coffee, Lou realized it was time to go. “I should go—it is a school night, after all.”

“Aw, okay. I understand. Walk you out?”

“Sure.” They set their cups on the coffee table in front of them and stood to leave.

Steve walked Lou to her car and stood there awkwardly with her hands in her pockets. “I would like to see you again. The conversation was wonderful, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like being petted.” She raised her eyebrows comically and Lou laughed.

She was doing that a lot, Lou realized, and was glad of it. “Okay. You can take me to dinner on Saturday if you’re free.” Lou had no plans on Friday but she thought she needed a break before she saw her again.

“My old line used to be The only thing that could keep me from having dinner with you would be a declaration of war, but that line won’t work anymore.”

“A simple I’m free works for me.”

Steve gave a small bow, but it was a courtly bow and not a martial arts one.

Lou hid a smile.

“As you like. I’m free. Pick you up at seven?”

Lou bowed in the way she was used to with a big smile and mimicked Steve’s words. “As you like.” Then they were both giggling. “Good-bye, Steve.”

“Good-bye, Lou.” Steve stood there until Lou got in her car and was buckled in, then waved as she pulled away. In her rearview mirror Lou saw Steve stay on the sidewalk for a minute more before walking away.

Chapter Four

On Fridays Lou was lucky enough not to have any classes, so she used that day to catch up on her grading and class prep to—at least in theory—free up her weekends, when she taught her kung fu classes, relaxed some, or met up with friends. And now, maybe date again. She mentally chastised herself not to get ahead of herself and think there was going to be anything more beyond one date. A lot could happen on a date and not all of it good. Just relax, Lou, and take it as it comes.

She was pulled out of her reverie by her office phone ringing and she answered automatically. “Dr. Silver speaking.”

“Hey, Lou, how’s it going?” It was Rachel, a former student, now a friend, who had graduated the past May. She and Bobby, her boyfriend, had moved out of state as soon as they’d been able, hoping to find a community more open to trans people. As much as Lou was sad to see them go, she understood why they’d felt the need to leave.

“Rachel, it’s good to hear from you. I’m wonderful. How’s life in the Land of 10,000 Lakes?”

“Like buttah.”

Lou groaned. “I see it’s done nothing for your sense of humor.”

“Yeah, Bobby said he thinks my humor froze to death.”

Lou smiled at the mention of the young trans man. “How is the sweet boy?” Before they left, Bobby had been the target of anti-trans violence. He had been hospitalized for a while but thankfully his injuries healed.

“He’s good. Complains about the cold. I told him to suck it up and deal—it’s not even winter yet. He says he’s practicing for when it is. Oh, he told me to tell you he’s started classes again. Says he wants to teach music composition, of all things.” Lou could hear the pride in Rachel’s voice, despite her flip words.

“That’s great. Tell him I think that’s wonderful and I wish him well. What about you? Found a job in the theater yet?”

“Yeah, sorta. Not my dream job, but I have a steady gig. Doing a little stage-managing, a little casting, whatever they need. Hell, I’m even learning lighting, just in case.”

“You can never learn enough in the theater. You should know how all of it works.”

“Yeah, Dr. Baskin used to say something similar. I’m trying. What about you? Torturing any more kung fu students?”

Lou smiled. “Only on the weekends.”

“Aw, that’s too bad. Others need to know the joy of your wrath.” Rachel laughed.

Amused, Lou asked, “When was I wrathful?”

“Okay, not wrathful as such, but how about displeased?”

“You may find this hard to believe, but I was never displeased with you. You were one of my best students, in both fields. How could I be displeased with you? That doesn’t mean you weren’t trying at times.” Lou smiled at the memory of all the times Rachel had challenged her in the classroom. She had been a smart-ass but Lou saw through that facade and saw the student who really wanted to learn and do well. The fact that she had cared enough to challenge Lou’s authority was proof of that, Lou felt.

Rachel was silent a moment. Then, “Wow, thanks, Lou.”

“You are very much welcome. Are you planning a visit anytime soon?”

“Ah, yeah, at Thanksgiving. His mother invited me to their house for the holidays.”

“Wow.” Up until the attack, Bobby and his mother had been on the outs because she had had trouble accepting his transition, but once she’d almost lost her youngest child, she reexamined her priorities. “She must be really coming around, then.”

“She’s trying. She still slips on his gender sometimes but Bobby’s patient. She’s no longer doing it on purpose, and, as he says, as far as she knew, she had a daughter for twenty-five years, so it’s going to take some getting used to. The fact that she’s willing to try is enough for him.”

“That’s a good attitude to have. I’m happy for you both. I know I’m no longer your teacher, but you must come and see me while you’re here.”

“You’re not going out of town?”

“No, my parents are both gone and I don’t have any siblings, so I’m going to be staying in town, celebrating with friends.” Bill and Dix threw what they called an orphans’ Thanksgiving for their friends who either no longer had living parents to go home to or who had been rejected by them. She had been happy to be included last year and was looking forward to going again.

“Oh, okay, good. And yes, I don’t think the sweet boy will allow me to be in the same town with you and not see you. You know he has the biggest crush on you, right?”

Lou laughed. “I’m sure that’s not true. That boy loves you.”

“Oh, I know, but that doesn’t mean anything. He has a great respect for strong women, as should be obvious.”

“You have a point there.”

They talked for some minutes more, and before hanging up they made plans to get together over the coming holidays, which would be upon them in less than a month. When they finally disconnected, Lou couldn’t stop smiling. Rachel hadn’t just been one of her favorite students—she was one of her favorite people. Teachers weren’t supposed to have favorites, the same as parents, but of course, they did. The trick was not to let the other students know who the favorites were, while still encouraging the favorites, who were usually the favorites because they were the ones who worked the hardest. Rachel had been no exception.

 

* * *

 

Lou walked into her session with Mrs. Adams with a smile on her face. She couldn’t help it; she was seeing Steve later and she had been in good spirits all day. She set her water bottle and towel down on a table off to the side of the mat, well away from the activity they were about to engage in. She took a sip of her water as she waited for Mrs. Adams and brushed back a curl that had escaped her hair clip. She loved her curls but they had a mind of their own, especially on humid days, and today had been one of those days.

When Mrs. Adams came in she smiled big and waved at Lou. She had her own towel and bottle of water she sat next to Lou’s. She elbowed Lou lightly on the arm and winked. “So, if you and Stephanie work out, will I get a family discount?”

Surprised, Lou laughed. “Mrs. Adams, you should know I don’t play favorites.”

“Not even for your future mother-in-law?”

Lou grinned. “I had no idea you were a meddling yenta.”

“I’m not, actually. Maybe a touch of a matchmaker, but a gossipy old woman? Nah.”

“So you’re not denying that you are trying to matchmake?” Lou raised an eyebrow.

Mrs. Adams laughed. “Well, I think Steve’s doing just fine on her own, but anything I can do to help. You would be a fine addition to the family.”

Lou felt her cheeks going warm as she said, “Thank you. But let’s see how the first date goes before we start setting a date, shall we?”

“Too true. Besides, isn’t it the second date when lesbians get serious? Hear tell anyway.” Mrs. Adams was wearing a mischievous smile.

“Not this lesbian.” Lou nodded to the mat. “Come on, time to go kick some butt.”

Mrs. Adams bowed to Lou even though they weren’t on the mat and it wasn’t required. “Yes, Sifu.” Then she waited for Lou to take her position before she followed.

As Lou began to put Mrs. Adams through her warm-up, it became harder and harder not to think of Steve, since Mrs. Adams had brought her up. Lou had been doing a great job of not thinking about her up until then, trying to focus on the session ahead, as Mrs. Adams deserved her full attention.

She thought about the text Steve had sent on Friday. It was sweet and she hadn’t been prepared for that. Looking forward to tomorrow. And hopefully many tomorrows. The feel of your fingers in my hair was lovely.

Lou had been sitting in her office when it had come through, sometime after the call from Rachel, and she sat and stared at her phone for several minutes, alternating between smiling, and looking at it in wonder, not sure how to respond. Finally, after having given it some thought, she responded with, Yes, to tomorrow. And if you play your cards right, I might pet you again. We shall see. She had thrown her phone on the corner of her desk with a smirk.


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