Sterling woke early on Saturday morning, no longer able to keep her mind at rest. Today was the day that she would have her suspicions confirmed…at least she hoped they would be confirmed. Despite her best efforts to get confirmation over the past few days, she had always found obstacles in her way. On Tuesday, by the time she had been able to turn to the back of the room where April’s assigned seat was this year in Spanish, the girl had gone and had remined elusive for the rest of the day. On Wednesday and Thursday, every time she had attempted to approach the other girl, the other members of the Holy Trinity had somehow managed to block her path until the shorter girl had left sight. By Friday, she was getting frustrated with her inability to make any form of contact with the other girl to just ask the question that plagued her mind. She had planned to intercept April once she had concluded their Fellowship meeting. However as soon as she approached her, Ellen had called April into her office to discuss some Fellowship business. Sterling had been torn between screaming in frustration or storming into Ellen’s office and demanding answers. Luckily Blair had stepped in to drag her to her first class and so she had avoided any kind of scene. That was the point that Sterling had given up on being able to get any face-to-face time to ask her question. So, on Friday she had sent an e-mail to her secret Santa.
To: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Would you tell me…
If I was to guess your name, would you confirm it?
Sterling had endured what felt like the longest gym class ever before she had been able to retrieve her phone to check for a reply. To her relief, she didn’t have to wait any longer.
From: Santa’s Elf
Subject: Re: Would you tell me…
There is only one more day to wait to get that confirmation in person. What if you guess the wrong name?
Sterling had spent some time thinking about that after the message came in. She thought she knew that the person on the other end of the e-mail was April but what if it wasn’t? If she asked if the person was April and it was someone else, there would then be questions about why Sterling thought that it may be the other girl. She clearly remembered how much keeping that part of herself hidden from the general population had meant to the other girl. Enough that she had called off what had been developing between them previously, the memory of that night still seared into her memory. It was that thought alone that had kept her from replying with her guess. On the chance that it wasn’t April, she would still keep her secret.
Getting frustrated with tossing and turning, she rose from her bed and headed across the shared bathroom to Blair’s room. “Blair?” Getting no response, she nudged the form under the covers. “Wake up. I need to talk to you.”
A groan emanated from somewhere buried under the cover. “It’s early.”
Sterling glanced to the clock before replying. “It’s 8.30am and we have to get to work for 9.30.”
Blair threw the covers off to fix her sister with an unimpressed glare. “That means I could have another 30 minutes before getting up. This had better be important.”
Sterling sat on the edge of her sister’s bed. “What if I’m wrong? What if I turn up to the dance tonight and it isn’t April standing there?”
Blair pushed herself up to sit against her headboard. “You’ve gone back over your clues and you seemed pretty sure the other day. What changed?”
Sterling bit her lip as she stared down at the floor. “What if it’s just what I want the clues to be? I might be reading into them what I want.”
“Sterl…look at me.” Blair waited until her sister turned to face her. “I get you are scared about raising your hopes to just get hurt again but you explained the flower notes and as much as I hate to admit it…The level of thought in this, it’s right up Steven’s street. I don’t think any of the others on our list could have pulled it off.”
“So, I’m not being stupid?”
Blair shrugged. “Only as far as you wanting to hook up with April again.”
“You know I will support you in whatever you choose and if it is going down the path of a clandestine relationship with your ex-nemesis, I’ll be there. If she hurts you again though…” Blair shook her head at the thought.
“It feels different this time. She said to meet her at the dance. That doesn’t sound very secretive.” Sterling reasoned, voicing the thoughts that had been running through her head since getting the ticket along with the potential identity of her secret Santa.
“She also said she would sleep next to you at the lock-in.” Blair muttered. “Just…be careful. I’m not her greatest fan after what she did but if she treats you right, I can be civil.”
Sterling leant over to hug her sister. “What am I going to wear?”
Blair rolled her eyes. “No way! You are going to wear the same thing you were planning to wear tonight. We didn’t spend an entire day at the mall visiting every dress shop just for you to drag me back there for a last-minute change!” Sliding back down in her bed, Blair pulled the covers over her head. “I’m getting my remaining few minutes of sleep.” She waved a hand out from under the covers. “You can leave.”
As they walked in the door of Yogurtopia, they were greeted by the sight of Bowser.
“Bowser! You’re back early!”
The man nodded. “Miss Cathy mentioned that the pair of you had eaten more yogurt than you had served. So I figured it was time to come on back and check up on things. Make sure I still had a business to return to.”
Blair gasped. “We have eaten a normal amount of yogurt to ensure we are fully versed in the range of flavour combinations available.” She pointed to the badge on her apron. “What if someone asked and we didn’t know? This badge would be a lie!”
“I’m too old for this.” Bowser muttered. “Would either of you care to explain why my office board is covered in some kind of weird dating chart?”
Hopping up on the counter, Blair grabbed a handful of gummies. “Sterling has a secret admirer.”
“We have been plotting the clues to work out who it is.”
Bowser scratched his ear. “Did you?”
“Sterling thinks so.”
“Ok, great. That means you have plenty of time to clean the fudge pump today.” Bowser commented, pointing towards the device in question as he made his way into the back office.
By the time their shift at Yogurtopia had ended, Sterling could feel her nerves increasing by the minute. On the one hand, in mere hours she would have the answer she had been seeking for the past two weeks. Yet on the other hand, she may turn up and be disappointed either by the person not being April or by April changing her mind and not showing up full stop. She was pretty sure that if she voiced a concern once more Blair was going to make her walk home and then go to the dance alone if the look the brunette had shot her way the last time she mentioned the name April was anything to go by. So Sterling just kept repeating the line from her last note, the one that instantly reminded her of April, like a mantra.
Sterling sat in front of her mirror putting the finishing touches to her look for the evening. She was vaguely aware of Blair talking to her from the other room but the words were failing to register in her mind. Her thoughts were occupied with running through the clues she had been given to try to build her confidence that she was going to meet who she expected tonight. There were still some that she couldn’t piece together, no matter how many times she revisited them with the thought of the shorter teen in her mind.
“Sterl? Did you hear what I said?” Turning to face her sister, the blank look on her face clearly answered the question. Blair rolled her eyes as she shook her head at the blonde. “If this is a sign of your ability to focus before you even get up close and personal, then I think maybe you need to adjust your expectations for college.”
“I do not. It’s just…”
“Nope.” Blair cut her sister off before she could descend down the infinite loop of what ifs that she had been subjected to for the whole day. “We are not going over it again. Up.” She gestured to get her sister to stand from her seat in front of the mirror. Blair took a moment to check the blonde’s appearance. “You look great Sterl. The elf would be a fool not to be there tonight. Even if it ends up as just us…looking like this we are going to have our pick of the school tonight.”
Sterling couldn’t suppress the smile at her sister’s statement. No matter what happened, no matter who was waiting for her (or not) at the doors tonight, she was going to have a great time and her sister would be by her side every step of the way. “Let’s do this.”
“That’s my girl!” Blair linked her arm with her sister to make their way out to the car.
As they pulled up at the venue, they could see the other students exiting the array of vehicles that had brought them to the event. There were groups who had opted to go the limo route, others arriving in fancy sports cars and some just in their usual vehicles. As they got to the front of the queue, they both got out of the car, Blair making way for the valet to slide into the car to park it for them.
The sound of the music could be heard from where they stood. The front of the building had been illuminated with moving green, purple and blue lights giving the effect of the aurora borealis. Sterling spared a moment to thank the dance committee for settling on the theme of the aurora rather than the earlier idea of the White Walker Waltz. Even the name sounded terrible, let alone the idea of having to attend in costumes from Game of Thrones. The Aurora Borealis Ball sounded far more sophisticated and also avoided the whole need for costumes entirely.
Blair turned to her sister as they approached the doors. “I’ll be right through there if you need me. I may not have my lacrosse stick or a gun, but I’m more than happy to Wesley check anyone who messes with you tonight.”
Sterling leant over to give her sister one more hug. “Go. Based on the fact Brett McNease just walked into the door because he was too busy looking at you, I think your drought may have ended.”
Blair pulled back giving Sterling an encouraging smile and nod before she vanished through the doors. Sterling took a deep breath before making her way inside. Once she entered, the main hallway had been illuminated with arches of lights slowly shifting between the colours of the aurora, giving the illusion of walking through them. With each step, she could feel her heartbeat pick up in pace. She kept her attention on the area ahead, trying to see past the group of students a little way in front of her. As the group passed the final arch, Sterling spotted a lone figure standing beside the door to the ballroom. She felt her heart jump at the sight. Standing just to one side wearing a dark blue dress, almost dark enough to be look black in certain lighting was April. Sterling felt her breath catch in her throat as she looked at the other girl, her heart beating erratically in her chest. Despite having thought that her mystery Santa had been the shorter girl, there was always that lingering doubt. That part of her that didn’t believe the person she would see was the one who had been a constant resident in her mind since that day so long ago at the forensics tournament. Somehow, despite the fact her mind appeared to have imploded at the sight, her legs had continued to carry her towards the other girl. She saw the moment that April clocked her presence. The shorter girl’s eyes meeting her own across the last few metres of space, the half-smile pulling up the side of her mouth. Sterling continued to walk towards her, feeling her own lips pull up into an answering smile the closer she got. When she was within touching distance, she came to a stop. “It is you.” The words were spoken on a breath, a combination of awe and disbelief that the person behind all those gifts was the one girl she hadn’t been able to shake free of her mind in all this time.
April ducked her head slightly before looking up at the taller girl through her eyelashes. “It is.” The two girls just looked at each other for a moment before April snapped herself back to the present. “I got this for you.” Sterling looked down and saw a corsage of a red flower. “It’s a gardenia.”
Sterling held her wrist out to accept the corsage from the shorter girl. “What does it mean?”
April’s eyes flitted up to meet her own for a brief moment before turning back to focus on the task in hand. She watched as April stretched the band to make it large enough to slip over her hand. “Gardenias have many meanings. They are often given as a symbol of trust, showing love and respect for another person.” As she placed it on her wrist, April’s fingers brushed the sensitive skin on the inside of Sterling’s wrist, sending electrical impulses shooting up her arm from the points of contact. “They also symbolise the idea of starting something new and hope.” The feeling intensified as April gently took her hand to turn her arm over. “The red gardenia had another meaning in Victorian times.” Her eyes followed the motion as the other girl twisted the flower to the right position. “Back then so much was frowned upon and so they would give red gardenias as a sign of a secret love. It was a way for them to express those feelings without the need for words.”
Sterling let her eyes trail over the red petals now set against the pale skin of her wrist, the dark green of the leaves that finished the design catching the lights behind them. “So, this would be a secret?” The blonde couldn’t bring her eyes up to meet the blue of the other girl, the disappointment was evident in her tone.
It was only when she felt the brush of a fingertip under her chin, gently applying pressure to tilt her face up that she met those eyes. The finger brushing across the underside of her jaw with the lightest of touches before she felt the other girl’s thumb brush across her cheek. The action catapulting her back to a similar time that felt so long ago. She saw the way April shook her head gently. “No more lies. No more secrets.” April dropped her hand. “If you let me, I will explain everything.” All Sterling could do was nod, not trusting her words at that moment. Her mind split between just wanting to dive right back in, to take everything at face value and worry about any consequences later while also trying to tamp down the fears that there was a catch coming.
“Let’s go inside and I will explain.” Sterling turned to the door and walked beside April, hyper aware of every time their hands would brush as they stepped closer to the door. As they set foot through the entrance, they were met with a room that had been transformed into the most beautiful venue. The large chandeliers that hung down from the ceiling were gently illuminated in a purple hue. At the far end of the large hall the wall had been transformed into a shimmering green curtain of light that danced and merged with the purples creating an ethereal effect. The tables that were arranged around the edge had been adorned with a black material that would catch the lights and created the effect of them being reflected on dark water. Sterling felt a touch on her arm as April gained her attention to lead them to a table set to one side where Hannah B and Ezekiel were sitting. She watched as they both saw the girls’ approach before Ezekiel leant over to Hannah B to say something before they both rose and moved away to the bar. April gestured for Sterling to take a seat as she made her way to her own chair.
“Where do you want to start?”
Sterling regarded the other girl for a moment before asking the one question she desperately needed the answer to. “Why now?”
April smiled at the familiar question. “I have had a lot of time to think. To decide what is important to me and to work out what I am willing to give up. I thought I knew where my priorities lay but…I was wrong.” She paused for a moment. “After my dad came back the day of the lock-in, I made a lot of mistakes. The biggest one being the way I acted that night. It is the main reason I know I need to ask for your forgiveness before anything else.”
The words of that conversation on the bench were still so fresh in her mind. Every word, every action ingrained into her memory. Sterling also knew there was the whole issue of the bounty hunting and John Stevens hanging over them as much now as it was then. “You aren’t the only one who needs to ask forgiveness.”
“You’re talking about the fact that you and Blair were the ones who turned him in?” Sterling felt her jaw drop slightly at the nonchalant way April referenced what she believed would be a deal breaker. The reason she had believed for all this time that the shorter girl had refused to acknowledge her entire existence since that night. “He told me not long after he came home. Wanted me to get close to you.” She smiled. “I don’t think he was thinking of being close to you the way I was.” The smile slipped from her lips. “I wanted to be angry at you for that but all I could think was because of that action, I had the courage to lock that door. As long as he was around, I couldn’t risk being near you. I didn’t want him to think he could use me to get to you.”
“So, what’s changed?” Sterling finally found her voice to ask.
“He’s gone. Did you not notice he hasn’t been to church with us in weeks?” Sterling thought back. She can remember seeing April and her mom there but no John Stevens. Not last week, or the week before…in fact not for the past month. She had just assumed he had been away on a business trip but now the length of time he had been absent for seemed too long. The recognition must have shown on her face as April continued. “My parents are getting a divorce.”
“Why? Sorry, you probably don’t want to talk about it.”
April placed her hand on Sterling’s for a moment. “I said I would explain everything.” Sterling felt the loss of the touch as soon as the other girl’s hand slipped away. “As much as I couldn’t be near you, I needed to know that he wasn’t going to hurt you. I may have set up recording devices in his office and his car.” Sterling couldn’t suppress the grin that appeared at that. “Turns out he wasn’t just breaking the law through his abuse of sex workers.” A frown settled on the shorter girl’s face as she spoke. “After my nana died, it seems she didn’t think much of her son and so left the majority of her estate to me in a trust fund. I had no idea it even existed until recently when I heard John trying to access the funds. Turns out he had also been involved in some less than legal financial dealings. One of these had not gone to plan and he needed some cash to bail himself out of the hole he was in and figured he would try to siphon it from my trust. Unfortunately for him, I had recorded enough to prove his shady dealings. When he threatened Abigail about not releasing funds…that was it.”
Sterling frowned slightly. Abigail. That name sounded familiar to her. “The lady at the restaurant?”
April smiled affectionately at the statement and nodded. “Her mom was one of my nana’s best friends. They went to Willingham together when they were teenagers and were best friends ever since. Abigail lost her mom when she was a teenager and so nana always looked out for her. When nana died, she made sure Abigail was made trustee to avoid my parents having any type of control over the trust.”
“What did you do?” Sterling had shifted forward in her seat as April continued to explain the events of the past few months.
“I spent a lot of time talking to Abigail and Ellen. They both told me the same thing. I took a copy of the recordings to the police.”
Sterling was shocked by what she was hearing. It struck her that over all these months that she thought April hated her, she had actually been protecting her. That when it came down to a choice over whose side she would stand on, her father had been left on his own. “What if he gets out again? There was a recording of everything last time too.” Sterling reluctantly pointed out.
“The problem he has now is that his crimes were not limited to the state of Georgia. It was a federal crime so he can’t use his influence to buy his way out of this one.”
“For good.” April confirmed with a decisive nod.
Sterling let that sink in for a moment before remembering what April had said to her during their impromptu debate on having a relationship previously. “And your mom?”
April sighed. “Still a hateful bigot.” Sterling felt her shoulders slump at the confirmation that even though John
Stevens was out of the picture, their path was far from clear. “However, with my trust I know now that I have enough money to my name to cover college. So that power they had is gone.”
They both sat quietly letting that information settle between them. Sterling had never imagined that a time would come when John Stevens was off the scene and April had no reason to keep herself hidden from her family. There was still the question of the other aspects of their lives. “What about the Willingham student body?”
“You were right about Ellen.”
“I was?” The confusion was evident in her tone.
April smiled. “I spoke to her. Came out to her actually.” A smile graced her lips at the memory. “She may be our biggest shipper.” The shorter girl nodded her head over towards the other side of the room. Sterling turned to look where she had gestured and saw Ellen standing there, a big grin on her face. When the older woman saw her looking, she shot Sterling a double thumbs up which made the blonde laugh. “I also decided to trust my friends. They all helped make sure everything went to plan once we were back in school.”
Sterling gasped. “Is that why Ezekiel was glaring at anyone near my locker on Tuesday?”
April nodded. “He was there to make sure nobody messed with the roses. Ellen was in charge of getting you to the tulips. Then they all helped me to avoid those times you tried to talk to me before tonight. You were…persistent in your attempts to get an answer before tonight.”
“They all know about us?”
April felt the tips of her ears start to burn as she realised she had outed Sterling to those people without her permission. “Oh Sterling. I’m so sorry…I didn’t think when I spoke to them that you may not want them to know about you.”
The words died in April’s throat as Sterling’s hand came to rest on her own. “I told you before…I don’t want to hide who I am.”
April’s eyes searched the blonde’s face before she shifted the position of her hand to interlace her fingers with Sterling’s. “Would you dance with me?”
Sterling could feel the smile that grew in response to those words. “I would love to.”
The two girls stood from their seats, their hands adjusting to the new position but neither one of them released the grip they had. They slowly made their way through the tables and around the various other students to a space on the dance floor. As they came to a stop, Sterling watched as April turned to face her just as familiar chords played out over the speakers, her half smile playing on her lips. Sterling stepped closer, entering April’s space as she slipped her hands around her waist. She felt the shorter girl’s arms come up to rest behind her neck. “I would question what the chance of this song playing as you ask me to dance are but I don’t think chance has anything to do with it.” The smile she got in response was enough to know that it was far from chance. The two moved together as they listened to the words of the song, their song.
As the song drew closer to the end, Sterling spoke. “April?” April pulled back slightly to be able to see the face of the taller girl. “What are your views on kissing in public?”
Rather than giving a verbal response, April raised herself up slightly, leaning closer to the blonde. She paused when mere centimetres from her. They could each feel the others warm breath against their lips. April searched the eyes in front of her for any doubt and then closed the final distance. Sterling’s eyes drifted closed at the first touch as she let herself get lost in the feeling of the familiar lips. Her arms wrapped tighter around the shorter girl’s waist, drawing her closer. As soon as she felt the warm touch of the other girl’s tongue tracing gently against her lips, silently asking for entry, Sterling granted it. Their tongues sliding against one another as the kiss deepened. The sound of a wolf whistle broke the moment and caused both girls to separate. By the time they looked around to see where it came from, all they saw was a member of the swim team on the floor, rolling around in pain while cradling their privates. Beside them they saw Blair give Hannah B a sly high 5 as they both walked away from the area. There were a couple of other members of the swim team who tried to tell Ellen what had happened but she just waved them off.
“Hannah B?” Sterling asked as she turned back to her date.
“She is quite protective.”
The two continued to dance together as the next song came on. “What now?”
“I would like to take you on a date. A proper date, not the fun zone or the backseat of your car.”
“They weren’t so bad.” Sterling shrugged, her mind drifting to those memories.
April laughed lightly before placing a quick kiss on the blonde’s lips. “True. I still want to take you on a date that doesn’t involve cramped spaces or small children running around.”
“I’d love that.”
After a couple of songs had passed, April stepped back. “Drink?” Getting a nod from her partner, she took Sterling’s hand and led her towards the bar. While they waited for their drinks, April turned to face the blonde. “When did you guess it was me?”
Sterling reached up to play with her necklace. April’s eyes followed the motion, a slow smile appearing as she recognised the familiar shape. “Well, it was the flowers.”
April’s attention snapped back up. “Not before then?”
“No? Initially I wasn’t sure who it could be. There were so many possibilities and it seemed that each time I got a clue, it just added more people to the list. Then there was the whole potential of Franklin when his mom cancelled on my mom but we discounted him pretty quick. Then I thought maybe Luke because…”
“Hold on…Luke? Luke Creswell?”
“Yes?” Sterling admitted reluctantly.
April shook her head. “You thought he made you the wooden puzzle box?”
“You made that?” Sterling asked in awe of the girl before her. Seeing the nod she received, Sterling leant forward to capture the lips of the shorter girl once more. Pulling back slightly, she murmured against her lips, “You need to tell me all about each gift one day.”
“I’m not sure I want to if you think Luke could create them.” Rather than responding, Sterling just pulled the other girl closer and kissed her again. “But I guess I could be persuaded.” Sterling smiled against the lips pressed to her own. The only thought in her mind was how much she was looking forward to finding ways to persuade the other girl to share more of herself. How after all this time, they had finally got that someday.