The sun is just setting below the trees that crest the hills around the valley when Emily returns from inspecting their olive groves. Stephanie has heard her coming for some time, since she’s using an offroad four-wheeler, and the roar of its engine travels far. Or at least far enough to reach from the olive groves up to the terrace where Stephanie sits with her laptop. In theory, she’s working on their little plantation’s books.
The roar of the four-wheeler stops, and a little while later Emily comes climbing up the stone stair to the terrace, two steps at a time. Stephanie smiles at her. She can’t help it. Emily manages to make even khaki pants, heavy boots, white linen shirt and work gloves look insanely sexy.
“Hi, sweetie,” she says. “Everything OK out there?”
“Pretty much,” Emily says. “Should be ready for harvest in a couple of weeks. Where are the boys?”
She sits down on the armrest of Stephanie’s chair. Bends down in an invitation to kiss that Stephanie eagerly responds to. Almost two years they’ve been together, and she’s still crazy in love.
“Down in the barn with Marco and Angelo,” she says once they’ve broken the kiss. “The little gray cat finally had her kittens.”
Marco and Angelo are brothers and roughly the same age as Miles and Nicky. Their parents work for Emily and Stephanie, providing the olive- and wine-growing expertise that the two women don’t yet have.
“They better not bring any kittens into the house,” Emily says. “I detest the things.”
“No, you don’t,” Stephanie says. “You just say you do.”
“How are the numbers looking?” Emily changes the subject. “And I note that Excel has started looking a whole lot like Youtube.”
“The numbers look as expected,” Stephanie says. “A lot depends on the harvest, of course, so we don’t know yet if the place will break even or not.”
“It will,” Emily says. “I have a feeling. What is it you’re watching?”
Stephanie squirms a little.
“A documentary,” she says.
Emily guffaws and leans closer to the screen.
“Get out of here!” she says. “Someone made a movie about you?!”
Stephanie feels herself blush.
“Not just about me,” she says. “It’s a series about people who vanished mysteriously. One episode is about me.”
“Have they figured anything out?” Emily asks.
She sounds playful, but there is a tiny tone of worry at the bottom of it. Stephanie shakes her head.
“No,” she says. “Nothing we didn’t want them to think.”
“Good,” Emily says. “It’d be embarrassing if people started showing up asking questions.”
She gets up from her seat on the armrest.
“I’ll make dinner,” she says. “Half an hour or so. Don’t be late without a fun reason.”
“I won’t,” Stephanie says.
She taps the space bar, making the video resume playing. She wants to make sure there’s nothing worrying there. Not that she’s really worried, but... ‘Embarrassing’ isn’t exactly the word she’d use for what’ll happen if someone finds them out.
Seeing Emily in her white suit with no blouse under the jacket made Emily feel weak all over, as inappropriate as that was in a graveyard. It took quite the effort of will not to let it show. She slowly sipped her martini to hide any involuntary trembling while she listened to Emily tell the story of her life. Tell about her impromptu plan to get four million dollars, and how Stephanie had messed it up.
“What happens now?” Stephanie finally asked.
“I just want my kid,” Emily said. “You fucked up my insurance plan, the authorities won’t back down on that. You can have Sean, he’s a bit shit, I don’t want him.”
“I don’t want Sean,” Stephanie said.
“I guess there’s another way,” Emily said. “But, I mean, it’s like, one mother to another.”
Stephanie let her explain her plan. She was pretty sure it would be a bad one, but it didn’t cost anything to let Emily spell it out.
“That’s a shit plan,” she said once Emily was done. “We’re not doing that.”
“Excuse me?!” Emily said. “Since when do you have a say in this?”
Stephanie ignored the question.
“So, your original plan would leave you with Nicky, Sean and four million dollars, right?” she said.
“Something like that,” Emily said. “Not sure about Sean.”
“Tell me one thing,” Stephanie said. “That night, did it mean anything to you other than another sexual conquest? Was it just a bit of fun with your naive friend?”
Emily looked genuinely offended at the question.
“Fuck you,” she said. “You know it wasn’t just casual. It was something. I don’t what it was, and it’s all kind of gone to shit now, but I wasn’t just playing with you.”
“Thank you, it’s good to hear that” Stephanie said. “I don’t want Sean. I want you. And my suggestion is that instead of Sean, Nicky and four million dollars, you get Nicky, me, Miles and eight million dollars.”
Emily laughed and shook her head.
“I don’t think the authorities will investigate any less if Sean suddenly dies,” she said. “Particularly since, you know, they know that I’m alive and all that.”
“No they don’t,” Stephanie said. “Unless you talked to the police?”
“Of course I didn’t talk to the police! And of course they know, you and Sean talked to that insurance investigator.”
Stephanie drained the last of her martini and held out her glass to Emily, who started making another two of them.
“Right, about that,” Stephanie said. “That investigator may have actually been a member of an amateur theater company I’ve helped set up the web site for, so they kind of owe me, and she may have been thinking that she was helping me with an elaborate live roleplaying game.”
Emily stared at her for a long while, one martini in each hand.
“Say what?” she finally said.
They eat together, like a family. Which, of course, they are. Something deep in Stephanie’s mind never seems to entirely accept that. They’re mommy and mom and Miles and Nicky. They’re living on their farm in Tuscany, in houses that were already old when the country they’ve fled was born. They got to buy it really cheap, against a legally binding promise to restore and maintain. Actually running it as a farm that produces and sells thing is kind of extra, but they both wanted to do it. At the start, Stephanie was attracted by the prospect of making food, and Emily of building her own company up from the ground. As time went by, their roles reversed. Stephanie loves keeping track of the numbers, making plans, drawing up budgets, all that stuff. Emily, it turns out, loves that hands-on stuff. With the assistance of a handful of local employees, of course.
“I’m going down to the village tomorrow,” Emily says. “May be staying the night at the inn.”
“Oh?” Stephanie says. “What’s up?”
“The local coop is building a storage barn,” Emily says. “Thought I’d help. You know, contribute. Show the locals that we want to be part of the community.”
“Good idea,” Stephanie says. “Although I’ll miss you if you stay the night.”
“You’ll get by,” Emily says.
“I don’t know,” Stephanie says. “All alone in our huge bed, who knows what kind of naughtiness I’ll get up to?”
“If it’s anything naughtier than we usually get up to,” Emily says, “I want pictures.”
The boys ignore them. They’re busy eating as fast as they can, so they can go back out again. Maybe to the kittens, maybe somewhere else. They’ve taken to farm life like fire to tinder. They’ve also learned italian much, much faster than either of their mothers. Stephanie knew that children learn languages very easily, of course, but it was different to see it happen to her own son. And it goes both ways, of course. Their friends Marco and Angelo speak English with a distinct American accent. When the four of them are together, they end up speaking something like italglish.
“Was there anything interesting in that documentary?” Emily asks a moment after they boys have left.
“No,” Stephanie says. “Only the stuff we wanted people to think. I adopted Nicky, moved to a rented house in Florida and when the landlord came to ask why the rent hadn’t been paid he found the house empty, apparently not even lived in. Not a trace of me or the boys, then or ever since.”
“What’d I tell you,” Emily says. “After ten years on the run, I know what works.”
“There was speculation,” Stephanie says. “Apparently I was actually a spy, and I went home to Russia.”
“Really! I didn’t know that! How exciting.”
“Or I was kidnapped by aliens, and some day soon I’ll return to spread their message of peace through my vlog.”
“Can it be a message of peace through vigorous lesbian sex?” Emily says. “We could start a cult. Makes loads of money from our brainwashed followers.”
“Excellent idea, except for the part where the authorities find out you’re alive and start asking questions we really don’t want them to ask.”
“Yeah, there is that,” she says. “Better stay here, then.”
The conference center was huge. But then, given that it was about to house a convention with close to fifteen thousand visitors, it needed to be. A good portion of those fifteen thousand were currently queueing to get in, or at least it looked like close to that many to Stephanie. It felt like all of them stared at her as she walked past the long, long queue up to the special registration desk for staff and guests.
“Hi,” she said to the girl behind the counter, giving her a friendly wave at the same time. “I’m...”
“Stephanie Smothers!” the girl burst out. “I love your vlog! Oh my God! It’s you!”
“A fan!” Stephanie said, more than a bit nervously. “How nice.”
She didn’t really know what to say. Although she was here to be recognized, so this was a good thing.
“OK, tell you what,” she said. “If you give me my badge and all that, I’ll give you an autograph. If you want one, that is.”
The girl did want one. She kept chattering as she got Stephanie registered and summoned Stephanie’s personal minder. Which was apparently a thing that official guests got. Also a thing that was absolutely perfect for hers and Emily’s needs. Not only would there be thousands of people who could testify that Stephanie had been at the convention, far from home, but one of them would have had it as her job to keep track of Stephanie all the time. As alibis went, it was hard to imagine a better one.
“Do we have a moment?” she asked her minder in between two panels. “I’d like to call my boyfriend. He wasn’t in a very good way when I left, and I worry that he’ll stop taking his meds.”
Another part of the reason she was at the convention. To reinforce the idea that Sean is unbalanced. That she’s worried that he’ll hurt himself. It doesn’t take much, since she and Emily have worked for some time to give people around Stephanie and Sean the impression that he’s off his rocker. He’s been talking about his dead wife really being alive, about insurance investigations that don’t exist and things like that. He’s been swearing up and down that he’s actually seen Emily alive, even to the people who were at her funeral. Some of whom even saw her dead body.
He’s been seeing a psychiatrist. She made it a condition of staying with him, and he’s self-aware enough to know that it’d be bad for Nicky if Stephanie left.
The psychiatrist has prescribed him medication, to help him sleep. Stephanie has made very sure never to touch his actual pill bottles. She doesn’t want her fingerprints there. No, the extra pills that she’s dissolved in his favorite whiskey comes from somewhere else. Emily got them, and it’s better if Stephanie doesn’t know where. It’s enough that they’re there, in the bottle. She’s quite sure that he’ll drink quite a bit of it while she’s gone. More than enough to send him to sleep. Perhaps even enough to suppress his breathing reflex for real, which would be a nice bonus.
If not, Emily will sneak into the house in the middle of the night and finish the job with a pillow. Her DNA is already all over the house, it won’t draw attention if it’s found. She’s dead, after all. The traces must be old. She’ll switch the whiskey bottle for a half-drunk one with no drugs in it, but with Sean’s and Stephanie’s fingerprints on it. She’ll remove most of the pills from his bottles, and leave the bottles and a few pills strewn around him. If they do it right, the police will spend their time figuring out if it was accident or suicide, not if it was suicide or murder.
As Stephanie walked onto the stage to start recording a special, live, episode of her vlog, she was wondering if her wonderful Emily was suffocating Sean at that very moment. The thought gave an extra little perk to her introductory greeting.
“Hello, moms! I’m so happy to be here, and I feel that tonight will truly be a very special night for all of us!”
Stephanie wakes up to a sudden noise from just outside their bedroom. It’s pitch black, and she can’t quite remember what the noise was. She stays stock still, hardly even breathing. An intruder? When they first came to the valley, they asked around among the other farmers for what alarm systems they used. They were looked at like they were crazy. Nobody had any. This is a safe place, they said. Not like America, where people shoot each other at the drop of a hat. And they may well be right (uncomfortably so about America, even), but she and Emily are still two rich foreign women. They make a more tempting target than most.
There is a another noise. It sounds a lot like someone stumbling into the hallway table, and it’s followed by a semi-whispered “Fuck!”. Stephanie’s nervousness dies away, and she can’t help smiling. She knows that voice.
“You can turn the light on,” she shouts. “You already woke me up!”
There is complete silence for a few moments, then a light comes on out in the hallway and shines in under the door. A few rustling sounds later, the door swings open. Emily steps into the opening. She’s lit from behind, so all Stephanie sees is a black silhouette. It’s pretty clear the Emily’s naked.
“Hi there, baby,” she says.
“I thought you were staying over in the village,” Stephanie says.
“Missed you too much,” Emily says. “Couldn’t stay away. Do you mind?”
“Of course not,” Stephanie says. “Are you going to stand over there, or come over here so I can ravish you?”
Emily starts walking slowly into the room.
“Ravish me?” she says. “What makes you think I’d let you do that?”
“Two years of living with you,” Stephanie says.
“Maybe I want to ravish you, for once.”
“Works for me.”
She can see Emily better as she comes closer. See her smooth naked skin. Her slim hips. Generous breasts. Brilliant eyes and teasing smile. Her general sexy, sexy gorgeousness. Stephanie can’t look away.
“Or,” Emily says, “maybe I’ll just take it slow. Kiss my way down from your lips to ...your other lips.”
“Sounds good,” Stephanie breathes.
The bed moves as Emily climbs onto it. She moves up on all fours, straddling Stephanie. When she reaches high enough, she bends down and gives Stephanie a long, passionate kiss. Stephane melts into. She also puts her hands on Emily’s breasts. Her amazing, fantastic, wonderful breasts. That she gets to caress. Play with. Love.
“I love you,” she whispers when Emily leaves her mouth and starts kissing her way down Stephanie’s body. “I love you so much.”
Emily doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t need to. Stephanie knows very well that Emily loves her.
Loves her enough to kill for her.
Stephanie smiled into the camera and waved. The kitchen around her was uncommonly bare. All her usual tools and implements were, again, packed up in boxes. She had no ingredients picked out or prepared. She’d also dressed more somberly than usual.
“I have some good news, and some news that is, well, not bad exactly, but some that you amazing people out there may not like very much.”
She picked up a piece of paper and held it out to the camera.
“This arrived today,” she said. “If you’re one of my more long-time viewers, you may already have guessed what it is. If you’re new, you may need a bit of backstory.”
Stephanie put on her most somber expression.
“I used to have a best friend called Emily,” she said. “One day, after asking me to look after her son Nicky, she vanished. She was found again, with the help of you, my lovely viewers, but unfortunately not alive. Her husband took it very hard. I did my best to support him, but he spun ever more out of control, and eventually, one day...”
She put the back of her hand to her mouth and looked away from the camera, pretending to hold back tears.
“One day, when I was away, he took too many pills in combination with too much whiskey. We don’t know if it was an accident or on purpose, and, well, he’s not around to ask any more.”
She looked away and swallowed hard.
“In either case, that left little Nicky orphaned and alone. I took him in, of course. This--“
She waved the paper again.
“--is his adoption certificate. From now on, I am his mom legally as well as in practice.”
A wide, inviting smile.
“Which is good! Really good!”
Back to somber.
“But,” she said. “Our little town holds some very traumatic memories for little Nicky. For example, he’ll never be able to go school here without somewhere inside expecting Emily to come pick him up at the end of the day. So we’re moving.”
She let that sink in for a couple of moments.
“I’m not saying where we’re moving, but it is to a state in the south. I am planning to get back to my vlog and to you, dear viewers, I just don’t know how long it may be.”
She put her hands solidly down on the table.
“So this is my last vlog for some time, I’m afraid. But the kids must come first, right? And it’s not just Nicky, really, Miles and I haven’t had the easiest time either. Not as bad as him, of course, but we were there for all of it, and, well, Emily was my...”
Her voice choked up for real for a moment.
“...my best friend,” she said.
God, she couldn’t even imagine losing Emily for real!
Ever so slightly forced wide smile.
“Anyway! I hope you’ll be there watching when I return. Until then, have a great life, everyone!”
She reached out and turned the camera off. As soon as the little red light went out, she felt herself slump a little. A part of her life had just ended. Unless something went really wrong with their plans, this would be her last ever vlog. With well practiced movements, she unscrewed the camera from its tripod and ejected the memory card. Then, less practiced, she turned the camera back on and started resetting its clock back to the correct time and date. The video on the card was timestamped a few days into the future, and she was going to set it up to be automatically posted a suitable time after the alleged filming time. In case someone came looking for her, that’d force them to work harder to get a correct timeline of her movements. She’d rented a house in Florida, and made a bit of a show of going down there to get the keys, but she had no intention of ever going there again.
“Boys!” she shouted, putting the camera into its carefully planned box. “Are you ready? Time to go!”
Mixed yells come from further inside the house as a response.
“Get your bags and take them to the car, OK?” she yelled back. “We’re leaving in five minutes!”
Amazingly, they did as they were told without further argument. Stephanie fitted their suitcases into the car and, helped them put their safety belts on. Then she locked the door to the house for the last time. She’d drop the keys off at the realtors’ on their way out of town.
“Are you excited about the trip?” she said as she slid in behind the wheel and put her own safety belt on.
“I don’t want to go to Florida!” Nicky said. “It’s hot and wet and bad!”
“Then it’s good we’re not going there,” Stephanie said.
She started the car and backed out of her -- well, formerly hers -- driveway, carefully looking every way for obstacles.
“We’re not?” Miles said.
“No,” she said. “There’s been a change of plans. We’re going to Canada.”
“Canada?” Nicky said. “Why are we going there?”
“They have ice hockey,” Miles said.
“They do!” Stephanie said. “And we will watch it, when we get there.”
They were not going to Canada. But they’d be driving for long enough that they’d have to stop for food, and maybe stay over at a motel somewhere if the traffic was extra bad, and there was a real chance that the boys would talk to someone and tell them where they thought they were going. And Canada was in the right general direction. There was as container ship leaving Portland for Italy, which had a little-known side business of taking passengers who wanted to travel really cheap and were not in a hurry. Stephanie didn’t really care about cheap any more, but other than that it suited her perfectly.
She drove onto the highway, speeding up towards Portland, then Italy and her waiting beloved.
It’s a gorgeous, warm morning and Stephanie decides that they’ll have breakfast outdoors, on the east-facing terrace. It’s kind of meant for that, with the kitchen just inside and wide slatted doors leading out to it. She makes scrambled eggs, with eggs from hens she’s personally met. She slices up spicy sausages made at a farm nearby, puts out cheeses, fries bacon, slices up fruits -- all of it made in places she can see if she walks up to the top of the valley side. She could add wine and grappa to that, but, well, not for breakfast.
“God, what did I do to deserve you?”
Emily is standing in the doorway leading to the hallway and their bedroom. She’s wearing a silk dressing gown, which doesn’t really hide her curves all that much.
“Murder and insurance fraud,” Stephanie says.
“Ah, no,” Emily says. “That was so I can be with you. Totally different.”
“Right,” Stephanie says. “Then I suppose I’m just lucky you want me.”
Instead of an answer, she gets a kiss. A long, passionate one. Long enough that she starts worrying the bacon will burn.
“Get the boys, will you?” she breathes after Emily lets her go.
“Sure,” Emily says.
It’s not long before the four of them are sitting out on the terrace, eating and talking and laughing in the clear country air and morning sunshine. In spite of Stephanie’s and Emily’s joint efforts to make them slow down, Miles and Nicky wolf down their food and run off to whatever adventures they’re having. Soon they’ll know Italian well enough to start going to school, but for now they can have their fun.
“So did you get that barn built yesterday?” Stephanie asks.
“Enough of it that Giotto can manage the rest of it himself,” Emily says.
“Did you make friends?”
“I think so,” Emily says. “I particularly talked to Angelina.”
Stephanie frowns questioningly.
“About our age, lives at the south end of the valley, keeps bees?” Emily says.
“Oh, right, I remember her,” Stephanie says. “She’s nice.”
Also quite pretty. They’ve flirted a bit with her, but she seems to have no interest in women.
“Her husband beats her,” Emily says.
Stephanie frowns again.
“That’s no good,” she says.
“No, it’s not.”
They eat in silence for a bit.
“Life on a farm is relatively dangerous, isn’t it?” Stephanie eventually says.
“It is,” Emily agrees.
Stephanie holds out a piece of melon. Emily takes it with her mouth, sucking a little on Stephanie’s fingers in the process.
“I think I’ll go over there,” Stephanie says. “Ask about the bees. Have a look. See what the husband does all day. Keep an eye out for risks.”
“It’s your turn to do the practical work, I think,” she says.
Stephanie gently pulls Emily down so she can kiss her. She loves that her beloved cares for others so much that she wants to go to great lengths to help, even if they can never tell those they’re helping. Ridding the world of abusive men shouldn’t even be a crime, but it’s an imperfect world. She and Emily, they do what they can to make it better.
“I think so too,” she says. “But we’ll see how the opportunities fall. If I can’t do it now, there’s always next time.”
Emily puts her arm around Stephanie’s shoulder’s and pulls her close. The sun warms them. It’s nice now, but in a couple of hours it’ll be too much. In the distance, they can hear the boys laugh. Soon they’ll get up and start they day’s work, but for a little while more they can just sit there and enjoy their nearly perfect life. They truly got their happily ever after.
“Always a next time,” Emily agrees.